Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ahhh, A Diversion!

I return with distractions! Disclaimer: I have not yet baked in my new apartment. It's just been crazy looking for a house and getting used to my job and basically adjusting to life. However, I have been doing a couple of crafts including a fit of Pinterest-related insanity last night. So I thought I'd share this with you to give you something to read to procrastinate with. And maybe to inspire you to do something crafty! Also, this post title comes to you from one of my favorite Lord of the Rings quotes of all time. It occurs in Return of the King when Aragorn explains his entire complicated plan for drawing the troops out of Mordor and it's said as a dramatic speech and then the response from our exposition device, Legolas, is "Ahhh. A diversion." Because the audience was too stupid to understand that without Legolas telling us. It cracks me up every time I see it. In fact, let me crack up about it right now. You can join me:

Ok, LotR sidebar over. Let's get to crafting!

This craft is brought to you by Pinterest. I saw this cool pin for a piece of artwork that was nails hammered into wood to create the shape of New Jersey with a heart in the middle and then string going from the borders of NJ to the heart. That makes it sound lame. Anyway, after a little searching, I found someone who had some step by step instructions for building this. The link to the blog is here. Although, I have an intense dislike of Ohio and I barely followed these instructions, I feel the need to credit it. At the very least, it made me feel like it was possible for me to do myself. So, after work, I went over to Walmart to acquire the tools I would need.

Easier said than done. Picture me wandering aimlessly around Walmart trying to figure out how to make this craft. I was supposed to be getting a 12x12 inch wooden board that I was apparently going to sand and paint. False. I also needed small nails, string, painter's tape, and small nail hammer assistants. Lies. First thing I found in the store was the string. I was all like, "cool, red string!" and felt like things were going pretty well so far. Next stop was the nails. I didn't find small ones but I found white ones! So that worked for me. Now, I wanted to find some wood. I didn't want to have to sand and paint wood so I wanted something that was like a wooden plaque that was already finished and ready for me to craft on. How ridiculous of me. That doesn't exist. I toyed with getting a picture frame and taking out the glass and hammering into that but it seemed like a fantastically bad idea. I went though all the aisles of Walmart twice. It's a pretty big store. Sighing and giving up and heading outside, I walked past a random aisle that had a canvas drawer organizer. It seemed pretty thick and of good quality so I figured, what's the worst that could happen?

So I went home, printed an outline of New Jersey and set about my task. Step 1 was cutting out my New Jersey template. This would have been SO much easier if I was from Colorado. Stupid intricately complicated state lines. I did my best but let's just say the barrier islands didn't make it. Next I had to tape down the template on my wood canvas drawer organizer. I oddly enough found some old painter's tape that was barely sticky but it worked. Then I just had to hammer in the nails around the outline. This took a long time and I had some OCD issues with the heights of all the nails being even but I managed. My wrist was a little tired by the end. Then I had to hammer the nails in for the heart. I wanted to put the heart over Nutley but it would have made the entire thing look weird so it's a little more west than it should be. I also had a lot of trouble because the heart isn't that big and it was hard to get the nails in the right shape to get it to look right. Eventually I just called it good enough and moved on.

Then I just had to string all of the nails. I quite enjoyed this task. It's good for people with tiny fingers and a lot of patience and a joy of monotonous activities. So basically, me. I had some struggles because the shape of NJ is really not conducive to this task but I think it turned out pretty nicely. There was an issue with the heart wherein by the time I was done stringing, it looked nothing like a heart. After trying to adjust the nails a bit and failing, I realized that if I just removed the nail that was the top point of the heart, it would look much closer to correct. Tell me what you think:

The pictures don't make it look great, but trust me, in person, it looks fantastic. I really love it. It was pretty easy, it only took about 2 hours and 10 bucks, and my quick fix for having no wood actually really worked. I stood it up on my bedroom dresser and it makes me smile and think of good ol' New Jersey.

So that's your entertaining diversion for the day! Hope you enjoyed! Hopefully I'll bake soon but otherwise I have one other craft I may blog about. We shall see. Maybe this weekend I'll make some brownies....Mmmmm brownies....

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's the Final Countdown!

I’m moving! I’m in shock and can’t believe that in a couple days, my house will no longer be mine. I've been feeling extremely nostalgic, particularly regarding my kitchen because that’s where I started this whole journey! Remember back when I was just a poor grad student with one baking pan and a couple of bowls? I've come such a long way since then. But never fear! I can’t live without my baking supplies so they’re coming with me to my temporary apartment! So you may look forward to future adventures in a kitchen that will be very new to me. I really hope it has an oven with correct cooking temperatures. Now to business: I had to bake one last time before moving. Obviously my last baking experience was great because I was making truffles with my friend but that doesn't have quite the solitary and fumbling tone that mark many of my baking experiences in this particular kitchen. So grab a cup of tea while I tell you about my experience with Martha Stewart’s Earl Grey Tea cookies.

I’ve actually been wanting to make these since before I was a tea addict. Back in the day, I went to London and Ireland to visit friends who were studying abroad. While I was there, my friends served me tea and tea biscuits/cookies. I don’t really remember because it was a while ago but I was really struck by how yummy the cookies were with tea. So, what could be better than Earl Grey Tea cookies? Gotta love my rationale for how I pick what to bake. Plus there was a picture.  Martha Stewart Cookies book is the best.

I’ve been putting off this recipe for a while. One reason was because I didn’t want to buy Earl Grey tea for the recipe and I was formerly a much bigger fan of English Breakfast. I have since seen the light. The second reason was because the recipe calls for orange zest and I never have oranges in my house and rarely think to buy them for a recipe. Yes, I know, I’m weird, I don’t eat oranges. The third reason for postponing the recipe was that I need to grind up the tea leaves very finely with a food processor or a mortar and pestle. I have neither of those things. I kept waiting, thinking that I might spring for a tiny food processor but I haven’t so you get another lovely instance of the baker trying to make do and be creative! Which, I’m sure, is why anyone is reading this

Anyway, this is a fairly simple recipe but is filled with all of the quirks that makes Martha, well, Martha. Step 1: combine flour, salt, and ground up tea in a bowl. Yeah, I never do that combining dry ingredients beforehand part. That just dirties another bowl and I have no time for that. However, I did have to crush the tea leaves somehow. First I should mention that I didn’t use pure Earl Grey tea. I only have really nice Earl Grey and if you thought I was using that for cookies, you were sorely mistaken. Instead, I used one of the teas from my tea blending phase that I believe I mentioned on this blog before. I decided to go with the Statler and Waldorf blend because that’s the most Earl Grey-like (and is quite delicious). It’s a blend of mostly Earl Grey spice and a bit of Earl Grey vanilla. So already I’m tweaking Martha’s recipe. Oh well. Next, I mentioned my lack of any grinding device. I decided to try to make a makeshift mortar and pestle with a bowl and a spoon. This actually worked a little but the tea kept jumping out of the bowl when I crushed it and when a piece hit me in the eye, I decided that we were done with that particular approach. Then I went and got clever though. I put the tea leaves in a plastic bag and just crushed them by rolling the back of a spoon over them through the bag. It worked so well! The tea leaves would make a crunchy noise until they were very finely ground so I had a built-in indication of when I was done crushing! I still can’t believe this worked. You really don’t understand how excited I am.

Step 2 was to cream butter, confectioner’s sugar, and orange zest. Ugh, zesting. I don’t enjoy zesting. It’s not fun. I actually do have a small zester (I have no idea if that’s what it’s called) but my hands are a bit too small to hold an orange securely and I felt like it was so much effort for so little yield. I needed a full tablespoon of zest so once I got annoyed enough, I asked my fiancĂ© to do it. He did a fine job and then I cut up the orange for him to eat. At this point, I was getting a bit flustered by the overwhelming smell of orange in my kitchen. Did I mention I really hate oranges? I mean, I really hate all citrus but orange is the worst. So I creamed the ingredients and started thinking that I probably wouldn’t like these cookies because, even with only a tablespoon of zest, the dough smelled awfully orange-y.

Next was to chuck in the dry ingredients. Now, I was being a bit of a lazy baker. I know baking is an exact science and all that but I was eyeballing the measurements a little bit. For instance, I wasn’t really sweeping the top of the cups of flour with a knife. I absolutely eyeballed how much two tablespoons of tea would be. And I may have just poured in some salt without measuring at all. Now I know what you’re going to say: bad idea. But I only needed half a teaspoon and I’m pretty sure I erred on the side of under-salting so I think I should be safe!

After that (and between scenes in Grey’s Anatomy), I had to divide the dough in half, put on parchment paper and roll into logs that were 1.25 inches in diameter. That’s small, right? Like, really tiny cookies? I didn’t measure so whatever. Martha also advised using a ruler to smooth out the edge as I rolled and to force out all of the air. Perfectionist. I did not do that. Then the dough had to freeze for an hour. Martha recommended putting the dough logs inside paper towel tubes. Do people save those? Should I have had those lying around for just this occasion? Seriously? I just chucked them in the freezer wrapped in the parchment paper.

After freezing the dough, I had to slice the cookies up and throw them on the pans. Martha specified a quarter of an inch thick. That’s a really really tiny cookie! But, I followed her directions. After all, I was supposed to get about 8 dozen out of the recipe. I got maybe 7-7.5 dozen so that’s close enough for me. I was a bit worried about the cooking time and I was right to be because they started to burn a little bit in the first batch. However, I just whipped them out of the oven real quick and they were all salvageable. Look at the tiny delicate cookies!

Now let’s assess what exactly these are. Remember how orange-y the dough smelled? The first thing I noticed once they were baking was that the orange smell had really mellowed quite a bit. They smelled quite tasty. As for the taste, they’re…complex is the only word I can think of. They’re a bit like shortbread cookies so they’re kinda crumbly. But not so crumbly that they fall apart in your hand. But the flavors actually unfold in an interesting way. First you’re hit with the dryness of the cookie. Then you get that hint of orange coming in. Then it actually finishes with a salty kick. Note: I don’t think this is because I put in too much salt! The flavors really just present themselves one at a time. That’s pretty damn complex for a recipe with six ingredients. So I think next time, I’ll make these with just a bit less salt but otherwise they’re a pretty perfect cookie. Martha, you’re a genius. Oh! I almost forgot! I had two of these with a cup of Earl Grey tea this morning and they were a perfect match.

So that’s it for the baking in this particular kitchen! It’s been fantastic and I am going to seriously miss this kitchen, even with its lack of counter space. Thanks to all of those who came to visit to bake with me in the black hole of that part of Connecticut. Onwards and upwards to the next stage of the baking adventure!

A Disney Moment: Tarzan

My sister is afraid of Tarzan. She is super terrified by the jungle cat thing at the beginning. She thinks it is more sinister than Scar or Sher Khan and is afraid of it eating her. This will never cease to amuse me. I saw Tarzan when it came out ages ago. I remember watching Disney Channel and previews on Disney VHS for Tarzan about how they used COMPUTERS! and how they went to skate parks to watch dudes on skateboards and rollerblades doing tricks and stuff so they could simulate how Tarzan surfs on the branches. This is my memory of Tarzan. Other than that, (being somewhat unfamiliar with Tarzan lore) I knew it was about a jungle man and there’s a girl named Jane and she and a dude with a gun try to edumacate and civilize him. I watched this movie several months ago and that’s still all I remember.

Ok, not entirely. But pretty close. So the movie starts out and I’m all like “Dude, there’s a shipwreck?” Meanwhile, my sister is legitimately cowering under a blanket. I have no idea what she’s afraid of. Then there’s craziness like a big jungle cat and parents getting pretty violently murdered and fire and it’s just insane. Just another example of Disney tugging on our heartstrings by shamelessly murdering parents.

I remember things like trashing the camp and the neurotic elephant and the really obnoxious Rosie O’Donnell monkey but other than that, ugh. Something about the movie just doesn’t work for me. It’s sort of a movie where things are happening but it doesn’t feel like anything happens. I do like the song “You’ll Be in My Heart” quite a bit but the things I enjoy about the movie end there. Oh, I also respected the pretty graphic hanging of the villain. This is a super violent movie. I really dislike the angular animation style, particularly on Tarzan. I know it’s supposed to be all revolutionary but his feet are totally deformed! I mean, seriously. I can’t get behind this movie. I know some people think it’s one of the most beautiful movies but it’s just not my style. I prefer the good ol’ hand drawn stuff. All that and it is not even the worst of the batch! So it ranks a 4/5 and sinks happily back into obscurity in my memory. Tarzan lovers: bring it on, I can take it. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Team Truffle

Welcome back friends! I was a little slow on this blog post since I’ve already started my brand new, shiny, awesome job that currently comes with a 1.5 hour commute each way. In case you were wondering, that commute makes you very tired when you get home and you just don’t want to blog. But here I am because this was a super fun one. Before my grand departure from UConn, I decided that I wanted to make a treat to give my advisor. So, I decided that truffles would be perfect (mostly because I’ve been wanting to make truffles again) and I invited my friend over to help me with the truffles. Because it’s fun. Now, I could have just made one type of truffle and called it a day. But that’s not fun, nor is it insane. Instead we decided to make four types of truffles: Ebony and Ivory (which you may recall from the last time I made them), Oreo, Caramel, and Cookie Dough (which was my very first baking adventure that I blogged about!). Two repeats, two newbies, and a whole lot of chocolate! 

We started bright and early and spent a fair amount of time trying to decide on a good strategy. Then we gave up and just dove right in. Now it’s been a while so I may get the timeline wrong but I’ll give it a shot. I believe we started with the cookie dough ones so we could eat some cookie dough. Always a good plan. Plus they had to refrigerate for a while before being dipped in chocolate. I love how easy those cookie dough ones are. The only downside, of course, being the process of can opening. The recipe calls for condensed milk and I always forget how thick that is and try to use the poke-a-hole type of can opener instead of a legit one because I’m lazy. So yeah, it made a bit of a mess. But otherwise, it was super duper easy. We got our hands nice and dirty rolling them into balls but it was delicious so who cares? We threw them in the fridge and were amazed that with two people, the process only took about half an hour.

Oh! Now I remember how this actually went down! Ok, you see how I painted this lovely picture of us doing one thing at a time? That’s TOTALLY not how that happened. Before we started anything, we attacked the caramels. We had to unwrap about 26 of them and caramels (in case you didn’t already know) are kinda sticky. So that took a while. But the reason we did this first was because for the caramel truffles, we had to melt the caramels together with the chocolate, pour into a pan, refrigerate, then slice and roll into balls, and refrigerate again. Once all those suckers were unwrapped, I got to melting them on the stove while my friend started the cookie dough truffles. It sort of feels like we were both doing everything though because she needed help finding things in my kitchen (which is not organized logically at all) and I needed help with things like noticing that the caramels were practically boiling. Whoops. I get easily distracted. So the cookie dough and caramel ones wrapped at almost the same time. I have to compliment the author of the caramel recipe for the cool trick of lining a pan with plastic wrap, pouring the caramel mixture in and then just flipping them out after they cool for cutting and rolling. It was actually easy. Oh, I should mention that this recipe comes from my very first baking book, the Taste of Home Best Recipes 2010 cookbook. I missed using that book. It’s got such cute ideas.

For round two, we decided to divide and conquer. My friend was in charge of the Oreo truffles so I can’t really comment on those besides saying that they’re super delicious. I was in charge of the Ebony and Ivory truffles from the Death By Chocolate cookbook. If you recall, the last time I tried that one, my kitchen ended up covered in chocolate, I used the wrong chocolate, and I broke a whisk. I was endeavoring to avoid that this time. I was moderately successful. The first thing was that I actually used the correct type of chocolate. Then I did the whole boiling cream and using it to melt chocolate thing. This time I actually had metal bowls and didn’t have to use Pyrex bowls (which kinda don’t conduct heat). The cream melted the chocolate much better than last time but still needed a little help so I just put the bowls on top of the still-hot burners. I have an electric stove so the residual heat was just enough to finish the melting. I won’t get into the details of the timing of stirring, sitting, refrigerating, and all that because I already discussed that last time but suffice it to say that I set timers and was very careful to not screw it up. It went much better than last time but there was still the issue that on the last stir, the ebony part of the chocolate truffle got pretty hard and tried to break my whisk. I think the timing is just slightly off and maybe the last refrigeration period should be eliminated.
Anyway, at this point, my friend was done with her Oreo things for a bit so she helped me with rolling the truffles. Alas, same problem as last time. The white chocolate is still super oily and sticky and it made our hands a mess and made slightly deformed truffles. But we got it done pretty quickly and once they were rolled, we chucked them in cocoa so that hid the ugliness. Voila! Complete.

After this, there was more chocolate melting but it was all a bit of a blur. I was in charge of cutting the caramel truffles and rolling them into balls. However, I noticed that if I was moving too slowly, the balls started to flatten out. So I rushed through rolling them and tossed them in the fridge thinking that the coldness would slow the process. A few minutes later, I checked on them and they were all pretty flattened. My friend and I tried to reroll and fix them but we were just not quite fast enough and they ended up as disc-like truffles. Bad physics. Very bad physics.

The final step was dipping the cookie dough balls in chocolate. I was tired of melting chocolate so I pulled some ultimate ganache out of the freezer and melted that and dipped the cookie dough balls in that. And by “I”, I totally mean my friend who got really good at using spoons to dip the balls so that they looked neat and tidy and didn’t make a big mess.

So there we were, looking at four pans of truffles. They looked depressingly ugly to be honest. But we were proud that we made four types of truffles within about 3 hours.  The truffles still had some more refrigerating to go and my friend had to leave so I was in charge of packing them up and delivering the next day.

 Never underestimate the power of a good candy tin.

As ugly as these looked on the pans, they looked downright professional once they were put into candy tins in an assorted fashion. We could probably sell these for at least ten bucks a tin. So I put together a bunch of tins of truffles and they look lovely:

As far as the taste, shame on the baker because I still haven’t tried them all. I ate several of the Oreo ones (which are fantastic) and a few of the cookie dough ones (which are also pretty darn good but too sweet to eat more than one at a time). I just tonight tried one of the Ebony and Ivory ones. They're super delicious on the inside but I think that the cocoa on the outside is just a little bit too bitter. It'd be better with a thin milk chocolate coating I think. The inside is just top notch though. I haven’t touched the caramel ones. They’re still in my fridge. My fiancĂ© tried them and informed me that the caramel ones are good but very hard because, duh, caramel. Shrug. I just haven’t been craving chocolate lately. I’ve been pawning them off to anyone I can think of including my chiropractor and friends that invited us over to dinner. Oh well. The moral of the story is this: Baking with friends is much easier and much more fun and you don’t have to be a professional to make some pretty professional-looking treats.

No Disney Moment this week. My sister and I are still trying to summon the will to watch Brother Bear. Once we do, I’ll have enough material for rankings I think. By the way, be on the lookout for another post really soon. It’ll be my last time baking in my kitchen before I move! Madness!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Just Like Riding a Unicycle

I have returned! I'd apologize to my readers but life has just been insane this summer so you get no such apologies. Since you last left your hero, she has baked exactly once. And the only reason for that was the necessary baking of crumb cake to bribe dissertation committee members to let me get my doctorate. Fun fact: it worked! Another fun fact: you can totally write a dissertation in one summer. It just requires a lot of support and a lot of coffee. So anyway, between the getting a doctorate, getting engaged, and trying to sell my house (which means that my KitchenAid mixer is neatly hidden in a closet instead of out on my counter begging me to bake) it's been hard to find the time to bake. Good thing that the one instance of baking was an adventure and a half!

My grandmother makes delicious crumb cake. I mean, it's just out of this world. So I decided that for my dissertation defense at 10:30 am, I would provide this delicious crumb cake for my committee. I got the recipe from my grandmother on an adorable recipe card and embarked on a journey in which I realize that I've forgotten how to bake. Also that I can't really do math. So here's the problem: the recipe calls for a 15x10x1 inch pan. However, I wanted to use a disposable tin pan so that I wouldn't have to worry about cleaning up after my defense and that size isn't made in the disposable pans. Now picture me standing in the supermarket trying to figure out what size pans I could use to get the appropriate area if I doubled or tripled the recipe. I kid you not, it took about 8 minutes of me standing there. Eventually I figured out that if I doubled the recipe and made 3 crumb cakes with a particular size (I forget which) then I would be pretty close. No problem, right?

Problem. I always forget that doubling affects things like the size bowls that I need. The key to this recipe is that you actually use boxed cake mix but you modify what is added a bit. Actually, you really just substitute sour cream for the water that's called for in the recipe. It makes the cake extra moist and unhealthy. Things actually went fine with the cake part because I used my biggest bowl so there were no issues. Meanwhile, once the cakes were in the oven, I had to go about making the crumb topping. Naturally, I chose a bowl that was too small so that led to some very very careful stirring. But more importantly, I forgot how to do some very basic things.

First of all, I ran out of flour. Now, I know I've said before "Who runs out of flour?!?" but it happened to me again. I guess I underestimated how much 7 cups of flour is. So I sent my (at the time, not quite) fiance to the store to get flour with the direction "just get regular, unbleached flour." I figured I could trust that. While he was out, I set to the task of melting the butter for the crumb. I don't know what sort of stroke I was having at the time but when I tell you that I chose my smallest Pyrex bowl to melt 6 sticks of butter in, I can only wish I were kidding. My logic here was "when it melts, it takes up less space!" Yup. Flawless logic. I should also point out that melting 6 sticks of butter in the microwave takes a long time to do. And no, I don't know why I didn't just melt it over the stove. That would have been smart. So after a lot of time and a lot of mess, I ended up with a bowl of butter that was just barely under the rim of the bowl. Also, it made me realize just how unhealthy this cake is.

As I'm pouring the butter into the crumb mixture, the boy returns triumphantly saying "I asked at the store which flour is best for baking and the person said to get this one!" It's whole wheat flour. I know enough about baking to know that whole wheat flour is not a 1-1 substitution for regular flour because of the gluten content. Basically it behaves differently. And makes cookies really crunchy if you substitute which I've never EVER done before. Of course. Anyway, since I only needed a cup and a half of the whole wheat flour, I decided to go ahead with it because it was only for the crumb.

When you're making the crumb topping, pretty much you mix the melted butter with the dry ingredients until crumbs form. The only way to make this happen is to get your hands dirty. But that's ok because it was sort of fun! I mashed the ingredients and rolled them between my fingers and made a big mess but eventually, I got crumbs. Then I stuck them on top of the three cakes (of course making another mess in the process) and made sure I had a somewhat thick crumb layer. It could do with being a little thicker though. I think my conversions were a little off somehow. Anyway, I baked them up and since there were three cakes, got to keep one for myself to taste. The pictures sadly don't have the powdered sugar on them but since I was making these in advance, I was actually very professional and brought bagged powdered sugar and a sieve to sprinkle the final touch on right before consumption.

This cake is so delicious. I just love it. The cake part of it came out a little crumbly and fall apart-y and I'm not entirely sure why that happened but I'll take that over an awful dense cake. And carefully wrapped and stored in the fridge, the cakes were still very moist and delicious when I brought them to my defense three days later. So I sort of forgot how to bake efficiently but I had a lot of fun doing it. It's been so long and I was just that much happier when I was finally baking.

One final anecdote: Here's why you always bring baked goods to a dissertation defense. During the private grilling portion of the defense, Professor A said, "You're doing great, I just have five more questions to ask you." Professor B jumped in with, "Five more?! There won't be any crumb cake left!" To which Professor A responded, "You're right! I have two more questions to ask you." Statisticians really love their sweets.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

And That's Why You Always Bake Before Finals

Hey guys, you know what's better than taking classes? NOT taking classes! It's currently finals week in the most baking-free semester known to mankind. But now the semester is ending and that means there's time to bake again! Even though I wasn't taking any classes (and thus have no finals to take to stress out about), I did spend this semester teaching a course for the first time ever. That's right, I'm mad with power. Therefore, the only thing about finals week for me to worry about is giving my students an exam.

Now, let me give you some background on why I'm baking before giving a final exam. UConn has switched its course evaluation system to an online system. Two friends and I postulated that this would mean a lower response rate than the in-class paper evaluations (which is the opposite of what UConn seemed to hope to achieve besides the whole saving trees thing). We subsequently made a bet that whoever got the lowest response rate pre-bribery would have to buy lunch. Pre-bribery, I didn't lose. Then we decided to add bribery to the mix. I told my students that I'd bring cookies to the final if I won the bet. Well, I didn't actually win, but I didn't lose either. So I'm bringing cookies anyway. Because I'm nice. And frankly, I'm happy to be done with teaching and this is as good an excuse as any to bake!

I have no time nor energy to actually challenge myself tonight so I went with the old standby: Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies. No nuts, no fuss, just good ol' chocolate chip. Because who doesn't need a nice chocolate chip cookie after a really challenging exam an exam that fairly tests all of the material covered. I decided to make a double batch because I have 40 students and people who have been craving my baking for a while now. So according to the chocolate chip package, that would be 10 dozen cookies! Sounds about right.

There's something so calming about baking. I can't quite describe it. But even when I'm gabbing on the phone with my sister and adding the ingredients, it just starts to put me at ease. Anyway, it's been so long since I made these, I initially couldn't remember how many sticks of butter went in. Other than that though, things went smoothly aside from one really stubborn egg that didn't seem to want to crack. The shell cracked but the membrane wouldn't break! So weird. Also, I was reminded of the time when I was shopping with my mom Santa for my KitchenAid mixer and was discussing what size to get. And I remember saying, "I'll never need that bigger one, that's ludicrous! When would I ever be making that many cookies?" Yup, now is when I could've used that bigger one. The dough was practically spilling out of the mixing bowl. Whoops.

This is a short blog post because there's really nothing to say about chocolate chip cookies. But it is good to be back in the kitchen. Here's a small sampling of the huge number of cookies I'm baking:

They're delicious and they came out perfectly (seriously, I didn't burn a single cookie. They are ALL perfectly baked!) and I can't wait to share them with my students and friends. It's good to be back. And if any of my students are reading this right now, GO STUDY!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I Just Want to Bake!

I have not baked anything since the last time I posted. How sad is that? Life has been completely crazy with travel and interviews and dissertation and teaching and getting addicted to drinking tea and I haven't had time to make a single chocolate chip cookie. I have, however, had time to blend my own teas on I made them all Muppet themed. Because it's fun. And I'm a child. (If you're interested, here's the link: I haven't tried them all but Animal and Miss Piggy are delicious. And yes, that's a weird sentence to type.

But never fear, loyal readers! I will return soon (possibly as soon as Sunday!) and I will bake something. Even if it is just a chocolate chip cookie. Although there is this green tea cheesecake recipe that I'm dying to try... Hmm...

Don't you just wish sometimes that life had a "pause" button?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Valentine's Surprise and a Book Review

Hello all! And a happy belated Valentine's day! Let me preface this by saying that I am not a huge fan of Valentine's Day as a holiday at all. But in the spirit of doing something nice (and cheap) I decided to make the Amish Friendship Bread that my boyfriend loves so much. Followers of this blog will remember that I have talked about this recipe before. However, I didn't just think of baking this bread out of the blue. There's a backstory!

Recently, I read a novel called "Friendship Bread" by Darren Gee. It's your pretty standard chick lit but I needed something light to read to refocus my brain a bit. In the book, the characters receive bags of the Amish Friendship Bread and talk about how baking brings them together and changes lives and whatnot. It actually took some turns that I wasn't expecting so I was fairly impressed considering the genre. Overall, I would recommend the book as a light read and it was on the better side of mediocre. More importantly, when I was reading the book, I was overcome with the desire to bake this bread again. They kept talking about using the starter dough for variations on the original recipe and freezing the dough so you're not baking every 10 days (I didn't know you could do that!) and then, as an added bonus, included actual recipes at the end of the book! So that's all I needed for motivation.

Tidbits: Apparently the Amish Friendship Bread isn't actually Amish. It's an evil ploy by the Girl Scouts or something like that. Also, the novel has a website where people can contribute recipes and tips all about the friendship bread. So, that's where I got my recipe for the starter ( and some tips about freezing the dough for later use.

So, in planning my Valentine's surprise, I had to subtract 10 days from Valentine's to allow the starter dough to do its whole starter dough-y thing. This was almost a problem because my yeast was actually dead (because it was super old) and I really didn't want to go out to the store in the snow to buy some. But I did because I am a good person. The other issue here was that since it was a surprise, I had to find places to hide my starter dough so my boyfriend wouldn't see what was going on. In hindsight, I probably could've left it on the kitchen table and he wouldn't have noticed. So for 10 days, I was hiding a bag of dough in a variety of places including (but not limited to) a big pot with a lid and the oven itself. The oven was a bit of a risk but he never turns it on anyway so I wasn't too concerned.

Things worked out perfectly because on Valentine's eve, my boyfriend had a hockey game that he left for at 9 pm so that gave me a solid three hours to bake the bread, make the house smell like cinnamon sugar, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Let the baking commence! The last time I made this, I think I really screwed up the ratio of starter to ingredients. This time, I was very careful and did the good math and have 3 bags of starter now chilling in my freezer for future use. From there, it was a simple ingredient adding with no real problems. The dough was a little lumpy and hard to mix but otherwise, I'm practically a professional baker when it comes to this bread.

Observe where my confidence gets me. The bake time and temperature are wrong. After an hour of baking, the bottom was starting to burn but the center of the bread was not fully cooked. Keep in mind, it's nearly midnight at this point and I'm exhausted. Sadly, it took another 15-20 minutes of checking and rotating and generally trying to will my bread to bake properly and I still ended up with a slightly burned bottom. Sad. Also, one of the loaves got stuck to the pan (which has never, ever happened before!) so I lost the bottom of one of the pieces. On the bright side, this meant I got to taste it! So delicious. I used the variation that included French Vanilla pudding mix and chocolate chips and it was glorious. Moist and yummy and mmmmm.... I can't wait to try more variations with the starter dough. In a nutshell, my boyfriend was surprised and delighted and good bread was had by all. Here's some pictures of the final outcome for you to drool over:

Any tips on modifying cook times and temperatures to avoid my problem here would be much appreciated. Sadly, there will be no Disney moment this post because I want a chance to watch a few more before I post more. Don't worry though! Disney is still in my heart. I gave Disney stickers to my students who did well on a worksheet this week.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I'll Give You a Viennese Finger...

The blogger is back! I haven't blogged since September and that's very sad. Stupid life getting in the way. I actually have done a lot of baking lately, including 6 types of Christmas cookies, 2 pies, those damn eclairs, and a few breads. I was just a lazy blogger. I even missed my one year bakerversary! Oh well. Nevertheless, new semester, new year, new baking books, new levels of ineptitude. Hold on to your hats because this one's a doozy!

So, on this frigid Connecticut afternoon, I decided to ring in a new semester of colloquium by bringing in some cookies. I didn't want anything too challenging or with too many steps so I consulted a new book that I got for Christmas called "Cookie Heaven" and found a recipe for Butter Viennese Fingers. There are pictures and these ones are cute. They look like fingers dipped in chocolate at both ends. And there's only 4 ingredients! Perfect!

Not perfect. I like to believe that I didn't magically lose all of my cooking skills but I must have. This was an epic disaster. Step 1: cream softened butter and confectioners' sugar. Easy. Step 2: Add flour. Easy! Step 3: Use a piping bag to pipe 3 inch finger shapes on the pan. Fail. I really should have known better here. As I was scooping the dough into the pastry bag, I knew it was going to be too cold and too thick to ever be able to squeeze through the tube. Did that stop me? Not a chance. I huffed and I puffed and I got a blister on my hand. But not even one iota of dough came out of that pastry bag. Fine. I can be creative. I decided to run the pastry bag under hot water. It seemed like it was starting to work a little so I went through several rounds of this. Finally, I managed to get one teensy tiny dot of dough on the pan. Ridiculous.

I needed a better plan. I couldn't think of one. I tried leaving the bag on top of the hot oven while I went to answer some emails. I tried mixing the dough some more. I tried using a larger tip on the pastry bag (which, by the way, made a complete mess because I had to take all the dough out and then put it back in) but none of these techniques were doing a thing other than frustrating me. And so, with a great roar of frustration and anger, I threw all the dough back in the mixer, took out my cookie scoop and just started scooping round cookies instead of precious finger shaped cookies. Take that, Cookie Heaven!

Of course, this warped the bake time a bit. I took them out when I was supposed to and the bottoms were only slightly browned and the middles were definitely not cooked. So I tossed them in for another 10 minutes or so. At this point, I was beyond caring about the potential for overbaking these cookies. Pretty much massively frustrated. So after baking, there was one step left: Melting chocolate to dip the cookies in.

I apparently forgot how to melt chocolate. This appears to be a running theme in my baking because no matter how many times I melt chocolate (which is really, really often!) I seem to screw it up. So, stupidly, I followed the directions in the book that said I could microwave the chocolate. How many times have I told myself not to microwave chocolate? I could probably look back and find out but it will just make me feel dumb. Nevertheless, I microwaved. Things were looking good. The chocolate was getting nice and smooth and then BAM! It all just congealed. I don't know what happened. Possibly I burned the chocolate but it didn't smell burned. It just had no interest in melting. Yes, I have sentient chocolate.

So I went back to the old double boiler. Except I just got a small pot and stuck the bowl I had been using in the microwave on top of it. Normally this works. Normally it doesn't take 20 minutes for 2 oz of chocolate to melt. But it just wasn't working. Then I thought that maybe I shouldn't use that bowl. So I grabbed a metal mixing bowl from my new 6 bowl mixing bowl set that I got for Christmas from the restaurant supply store that is absolutely magical (sidebar: seriously, that store is AMAZING) and I put the chocolate in the small metal bowl. No luck.

Now I say to myself, "It must be a chocolate problem, not a tool problem. You must have screwed the chocolate up when you microwaved it." So in the garbage went my partially melted, partially congealed chocolate. I grabbed some new chocolate, stuck it in the metal bowl and waited. And waited. And added some more water in my pot because all of the water had evaporated. And waited. By this point, there was cursing and anger. Finally, I just gave up. I seriously contemplated throwing all the cookies in the trash (a notion I had been developing when I couldn't get the dough through the pastry bag) but I decided I'd just make do with what I had. I dipped the cookies in the (somewhat) melted chocolate and noticed that the cookies were practically crumbling in my hands. So, with cookie and chocolate under my fingernails, I finally set them out to dry. They look like this:

I waited about half an hour and then went to check on them and the chocolate was still completely wet. Well then. As if these cookies hadn't put me through enough. So I left them out on the stove and left my house. I have no idea how they taste. I have no cookies for colloquium. I am so massively annoyed by these cookies that it's not even funny anymore. And it's cold out. So much for my first adventure out of the gate. Maybe the next one will be better. Who would have thought that just four ingredients could have treated me so badly? To pick up my mood, I'm going to include a couple pictures of successes from the last few months:

FYI, that pecan pie was fantastic. Until next time, loyal readers!

A Disney Moment: Mulan
Ok, so one of the [many] reasons I slowed down blogging was because we're entering another Disney movie slump. It's hard to summon the desire to watch some of the movies coming up. As a result, I watched Mulan probably 4 months ago and finished Emperor's New Groove (the last in this group of 5) maybe a month ago.  This from the people who would marathon 3 movies in one day. Plus it's a hard sell getting my grandparents (who are now living with my mom and sister thanks to Hurricane Sandy) to watch an animated film. Anywho, on with Mulan!

I love Mulan. I love the notion of a female character breaking out of a stereotype box a bit (much like Belle does with her READING) and that Mulan is not romance obsessed. I am not saying that there is perfect execution here but I respect the attempt. My sister and I have started doing this fun thing where we re-edit the movies we watch to make them better. For instance, we would say that we don't need the pet dog character at all or they should cut the scene with the ancestors. Again, all in the noble name of pacing and flow. But we still really like Mulan, despite its flaws. The song "Reflection" probably should have been left on the cutting room floor but we get such gems as "I'll Make a Man Out of You" and that matchmaker song right at the beginning. And the sheer devastation and destruction when they come across the town that had been burned to the ground packed a heavy punch.

Overall, we like it and it's the best of this group of five movies. Of course, that's not saying much.