Monday, June 25, 2012

Finally Some Brownies

Hello all! Welcome to this week's edition of "I never have any of the stuff I need for baking!" Allow me to explain. I was invited to a friend's house for dinner last week so, of course, it is only polite and proper to arrive with a dessert. Unfortunately, I didn't have any good reference points for what the family might enjoy so I was flying blind a bit. I seriously considered my first attempt at pie but then decided that there was too much room for error there. I didn't know the situation with nut allergies or dislikes so finally I just threw up my hands and found a recipe for Ultimate Fudgy Brownies in the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. Everybody likes brownies.

Brownies. No problem, right? Wrong. First, I checked the ingredient list. It called for bittersweet chocolate, which naturally, I didn't have. But that's ok! They say you can substitute semisweet for the bittersweet. Perfect except...I'm out of chocolate. I don't even know how it happened but it did. I considered using a different recipe but then I decided to suck it up and go to the store. Before I left, I remembered to check the rest of the list. Ingredients: check. Baking implements: not so much. This recipe called for an 8 inch square baking pan. Searching for a baking pan, searching for a baking pan...nope, nothing. I briefly started doing the volume math to utilize my 13x9 inch baking pan and then decided that I'd probably need the pan eventually so I chose to buy an 8 inch square pan. Plus, my brain didn't really want to do the math.

So, last Wednesday, when it was about a hundred degrees in CT, I headed out to go to the store and to go to the gym. I got all the way to the supermarket before realizing that leaving chocolate in my car in 100 degree heat was a terrible idea. So I went to the gym first like a good girl. (Go me!) Then I picked up the pan and the chocolate (bittersweet and semisweet so I'm prepared for next time) and I was ready to go.

The first step I took was melting the butter, chocolate, and cocoa in the double boiler. That took a little while but I knew it would so that's why I did it first. See how smart I'm getting? While that was going, I combined the other ingredients (namely, sugar, eggs, vanilla and salt) and whisked them up real good. As the chocolate still wasn't completely melted, I set about preparing the pan for baking.

Here, America's Test Kitchen does something interesting. They reference the fact that brownies are a pain to cut and get out of the pan without getting them all messed up. Good point! That is usually a pain! I've heard tricks about putting the brownies in the freezer or trying to flip them upside down but nothing has been truly foolproof yet. This method is. ATK recommends a tin foil sling. That's right. Picture one piece of tin foil crossing the pan in one direction and a second piece of foil crossing the pan rotated 90 degrees from the first piece. This way, when you're done baking, you just pick up the bottom piece of foil and lift the whole thing out of the pan and onto the cutting board. I can't even tell you how well this worked. It was like magic. I highly recommend this method and hope I was clear in explaining it. Here's a picture of the nicely cut brownies in their tin foil sling:

As far as taste, these really are fudgy brownies. I think I may have overcooked them a bit because the sides were a little too crispy but the middles were all fudgy and delightful. Wouldn't do a thing differently with these brownies and they were easy and yummy so I'd definitely recommend these and would probably make them again. Success! And next time, I promise something more challenging! Really!

A Disney Moment: Beauty and the Beast

Ah, another classic. I've briefly discussed Beauty and the Beast already but now you get the in depth review. As I've mentioned, this movie ranks 2/5 right behind Little Mermaid. Little Mermaid just has a better villain. That was pretty much the tipping point for me. I still love Belle best and the music is still superb. But for some reason I was just more drawn to Little Mermaid than Beauty and the Beast. I'm not sure why. Oh wait, here's a theory...

I went to see Beauty and the Beast in 3D on the big screen when it came out. (Yes, that's how far behind I am with writing about these movies.) My sister and I timed it perfectly. We got up to this film just as it was being released and went on a weekday morning to the movies. A quick note on the 3D. I loved Lion King in 3D and I think Finding Nemo and Little Mermaid will all be great on 3D releases but I just didn't think Beauty and the Beast lent itself to the 3D conversion well. Not enough sweeping landscapes. It was fine but I didn't think the 3D added anything. Also, there was the matter of the creeper at the theater.

That's right, creeper. Middle aged guy came to the theater alone wearing a trenchcoat. Not strange yet. I see movies by myself all the time and I'd hate for someone to judge me for it. And the trenchcoat is an irrelevant point without the following information. Throughout the movie he was fidgeting constantly and a few times got up to presumably (?) use the restroom. Any one of these things: not creepy. All of them together: totally creepy. So, perhaps I was too distracted by the man "enjoying" the movie to truly enjoy it myself and maybe that contributed to my lower ranking on Beauty and the Beast than I might have expected. Also, eww.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ready in a Jiffy

If I handed you a cookbook filled with everything from breads to cookies to cakes to pastries and said "Pick anything you like for me to bake today," what would you choose? I'm talking sky's the limit here. You name it, it's in this book. So, given those options, would you choose Corn Muffins? I didn't think so. But my boyfriend did so that's what I made.

I dove into the corn muffin recipe in the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. The very first thing I did was defy the recipe because why wouldn't that be my way of doing things? The recipe specifies to grease the muffin tin rather than use the muffin papers. They argue that muffins baked in paper liners are shorter and paler and that half the muffin comes off in the paper when you peel it. I argue that it's easier to clean up if they're baked in the papers. So there. I defy thee, America's Test Kitchen!

Ok, meanwhile with the actual baking, I had to whisk the dry ingredients together. Easy, easy. In a different bowl, I had to mix together the wet ingredients. Also easy. By the way, did you know that there's sour cream in corn muffins? I didn't either! The last step was to fold the wet ingredients into the dry ones, being careful not to overmix. I am awesome at this. So it was no problem. Last step: portion into the muffin tin and bake. The whole process took me maybe 20 minutes before baking time. Hmm. That wasn't terribly interesting, was it? 

So let's discuss the taste. I happen to love corn muffins. I had never made them from scratch before though. I usually go with the good ol' Jiffy boxed stuff because, well, it's just so easy and yummy. So the true test was this: are homemade corn muffins any better than Jiffy corn muffins? On my tasting, I leaned towards them tasting basically the same as the Jiffy corn muffins. But what's the use of one woman's opinion? Oh, by the way, they tasted really yummy. Did I mention that yet? Anyway, I needed more opinions. 

I asked my boyfriend to taste them (since he requested them and all) and he said they were good but offered up no opinion on their comparison to Jiffy. Super helpful. So I brought in my corn muffin expert: my sister. She makes Jiffy a lot more often than I do and is more of a corn muffin fiend than I am. She was stuck with tasting day old muffins but as she put it, "I obviously know what a day old Jiffy tastes like." So in the end, with confidence, my sister concluded that they taste exactly the same as Jiffy. So, friends, given the option of Jiffy and homemade, this baker concludes that you should save yourself the time and effort and just go with the Jiffy. I guess this adventure was more of an academic success than anything else. At least the muffins tasted and looked delicious. Take a look: 

Next time, I'm picking the dish and it's going to be more complicated. I'm sick of it being easy! Which no doubt means that there's entertainment to come. 

A Disney Moment: Rescuers Down Under

Well, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that this movie ranked a 5/5 in this grouping. However, that's not because it was bad. It was just against some formidable opponents. In fact, I enjoyed Rescuers Down Under a great deal more than I enjoyed the Rescuers. It was prettier, it was smoother, the story made more sense. For once, we had a main character who is not completely and utterly stupid. Nice change of pace there. I felt that a bit too much time was spent focusing on John Candy as the bird. He just didn't read as a character in the movie, he read as John Candy. Amusing as that was, too much of the film got devoted to that notion. My only real critique was how screwed up it was for the evil dude to tell the mother that her son was eaten by alligators. I mean, that really sucks. That's it though. A fine film but not really much to write home about. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy

Welcome to the start of the summer edition of A Statistician Bakes! Ok, so maybe the summer edition is no different from the usual baking adventures but it's my way of saying that I'm back! After a super long hiatus that included finals, a trip to Disney World, my sister graduating college, a conference, and a two week long cold, I am finally back to baking. There were a couple of things that I baked that I forgot to blog about so I'll briefly touch on those in this entry as well. Meanwhile, this week begins my summer of unemployment baking! My summer will consist of baking, working on my dissertation, and studying for my general exam. I plan to get a bit more elaborate than just cookies. Time to take the next step into the wild blue yonder, as they say.

But first, a recap. While I was MIA from this blog, I baked 7 layer cookies from the Cake Boss cookbook and Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread from the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. The 7 layer cookies were actually pretty easy and involved making 5 small cakes (two white, 1 red, 1 green, 1 brown) and layering them with layers of Nutella in between and then coating them with chocolate. I didn't have many issues with this but the parchment paper that was on the bottom of the pans made one side of each of the cakes kind of greasy and I'm not sure why. A note for the future. Also, coating these with melted chocolate makes them ridiculously hard to cut without cracking the chocolate off. Lame. They tasted pretty good but they weren't exactly my cup of tea so I sent them all away to a friend who liked them and wasn't entirely sure if I had made them since they were all professional and complicated-looking. Yay! Starting to pass as a professional! Anywho, here they are:

Also, yes, they are pretty big cookies. I don't know how you're supposed to bite all those layers at once unless you have a really really huge mouth.

Moving on...

The other thing I made was Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread. This was pretty fun because I had to do some actual hand kneading and allow for rising time and all that nonsense. There was also some drama because I totally almost forgot the raisins. Whoopsie. The only eventful thing about this was the actual baking process. When I baked the bread, it looked like this:

Yeah, it freakin' grew. It was like the tiny loaf pan couldn't contain the monstrous bread. The end result of this was that I got my very first baking burn. Trying to remove this from the oven in this state was chaos and my hand managed to hit the rack and I got a tiny, tiny burn on my hand. It's gone now but it felt like a momentous occasion. Also, a raisin managed to escape into the bottom of my oven and totally burnt there. No, I don't know how and no, I haven't successfully cleaned it off completely yet. (It really burned on there!) I have another picture here to show you my swirling technique (recall the icebox pinwheel cookies of yore. It was like that.)

Yeah, my swirling still needs some work. I think tighter rolling is the key.

And now, on to the main event! I have spent the past two hours baking in almost complete silence. That's right, silence. Why would I do that? Well, because today is my boyfriend's 25th birthday and I decided this morning that I'm insane and I wanted to surprise him with a cake. So, I consult my books and find a nice, somewhat easy chocolate cake recipe. Then I look at my kitchen tools and realize that I completely left my cake pans back in New Jersey. Good job, right? But that's ok, plan easily amended: Cupcakes! Perfect, so I go about making the cupcake batter (without using a mixer, mind you because I am being SILENT) and the recipe I chose was for Dark Chocolate Cupcakes from the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. Have I mentioned yet that I love this cookbook? If I haven't, I should because it's totally awesome and has a billion great tips and pictures. Good good book.

Anyway, I mixed up the batter just fine and baked them no problem. Now, here's where you get to judge me a bit: I didn't make my own frosting. I know, I know, shame on me. But frankly, frosting out of the can is just as good as anything I would make if it's just a standard chocolate fudge frosting (which is what I used) and it wasn't worth the effort and I was trying to do this quickly and QUIETLY. So judge me if you like but that's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it.

What I did make was my own writing icing. I found a simple recipe for writing icing in the cookbook and it worked perfectly. I've never had an icing recipe work out quite so well for me. It was just the perfect consistency though and sweet but not too sweet and I had absolutely no problems with the piping bag which may in fact be a first for me. So, I used my mad piping bag skillz to create this masterpiece:

Work of art, right? Anyway, two hours and several unwashed bowls later (I didn't want to make any noise!) and now all I have to do is wait for him to wake up. Mission: accomplished. The only downside: It's noon and I'm staring at these cupcakes that I totally can't eat yet. Torture. I bet they're good though.

A Disney Moment: The Little Mermaid

A classic. Like most little girls, I love Little Mermaid. I was excited for a rewatch. And, in fact, Little Mermaid was only recently surpassed by Beauty and the Beast as my favorite Disney movie. After all, Belle is the best "princess" and Ariel is kinda stupid. But now, I have to say, Little Mermaid trumps Beauty and the Beast. Belle is still better than Ariel but as an entire film, I am forced to rank Little Mermaid with a 1/5 in this grouping.

And the reason is this: Ursula. She's freaking terrifying. She's the scariest Disney villain of all time. Ever. Those who are about to argue "But Frollo is the most evil!" are wrong. There are few children in the world who don't want to crap their pants when Ursula grows 60 or so feet. Her villain song is one of my favorites because so much happens during it. It's not just a song break; it moves the plot along while still being a catchy, intelligently-written song. Ursula is what makes this movie truly great.

Of course, the other songs are terrific as well. I'll happily say that all those songs make me smile. The pacing of the film is good. The animation is lovely. I actually think that it's a movie that will do well with a 3D re-release, mostly because of all of the sweeping oceanic landscapes and bright colors.

Anyway, I don't want to continue gushing but I loved watching this movie. It made me happy. Oh, and the hidden Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Kermit in the audience at the concert at the beginning of the film absolutely made my day. If you didn't know they existed, go watch again (or just look on youtube) because it's totally awesome.