Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Goin' Southern with Biscuits and Cornbread

Hello everybody! Time for a quick tale of baking for a huge house party! I hosted a large Christmas party after Christmas where I planned to serve chili because yay, easy, and obviously, I needed biscuits and cornbread to go with the chili. I had planned to make the biscuits and cornbread the night before the party but, due to the unfortunate circumstance of burned fingertips from peeling of 8 pounds of hot tomatoes and browning 16 pounds of meat, that didn't happen. So, looks like a bright and early start to my day!

I decided to go with America's Test Kitchen recipes because I'm always hesitant about serving new recipes to people at parties and I trust that ATK won't lead me astray. I picked a savory drop biscuit (cheddar and chive) that looked like a pretty straightforward recipe. I've never made biscuits before so this was another first for me. Look at me branching out and being adventurous!

I started out by whisking all of the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda AND baking powder, sugar, grated cheddar cheese, chives, and salt) and melting my butter. Then I got to follow the weirdest directions. I had to combine buttermilk and melted (slightly cooled) butter, stirring until the butter formed clumps. Umm, what now? Fortunately, the recipe had the direction "This might look like a mistake but it's one of the secrets to this recipe. The clumps of butter are similar to the bits of cold butter prepared according to the traditional method." So this recipe not only offered me a shortcut but also explained why I was using it. Cool! I'm glad that description existed because that buttermilk sure did get clumpy!

Anyway, once I had clumpy buttermilk, I had to add that to the dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until just combined. Done. And that's it. I had dirtied a bowl, a whisk, and a spatula. Ok, technically the cheese grater too because I was too dumb to buy already grated cheese. But I was done preparing this dough in maybe 10 minutes tops. Oh, I should also mention that I had weighed out all of my ingredients. I basically do this with all test kitchen recipes now.

Batter complete, I scooped out biscuits with my cookie scoop, plopped them on some pans and ta da! About 12 minutes later, they were done. All I had to do was brush the tops with some melted butter for a little extra flavor.

For context for what I'm about to say, I should point out that this was literally the first thing I did in the morning, even before my coffee. So at this point, I let these little beauties cool a bit while I made my coffee and decided to taste one for my breakfast. Yes, I know they're savory and that's not really a breakfast-y thing but I was hungry. I got cozy on my couch with a book to read, my cup of coffee, and a biscuit and OMG, these were so good! I had expected them to be tasty. But I hadn't dreamed that they'd be the best damn biscuit of my life. Crisp on the outside, soft and layered on the inside, amazing flavor from the cheddar and chive. I strongly considered hiding them from people so I could gobble them all myself. As a side note, I didn't warm them up for the party and while they were still delicious, they weren't quite as heavenly. I did warm up the leftovers the next day though. Amazing.

Now that I was done with my biscuit-gasm, it was time to tackle some cornbread!

I had looked over my recipes in advance and was pretty torn about northern style cornbread vs. southern style. I don't particularly know the difference except that the northern style recipe had actual corn and I didn't want that. Plus as an added bonus, I got a chance to bake in my cast iron skillet!

This was actually another super easy recipe. I started by toasting my cornmeal in the oven while I was preheating my cast iron skillet with some vegetable oil. While all of that was happening, I combined my dry ingredients and eggs. I technically wasn't supposed to add the eggs yet but everything was happening so fast. I was barely done with that by the time my cornmeal was toasted and then I had to whisk the cornmeal with sour cream and milk. I even bought whole milk to use for my baking this holiday season!

Then came the real test. Now that the cast iron pan was preheated with oil, I had to take it out of the oven, add butter, swirl it around in the pan to melt it, and then pour all but one tablespoon into my cornmeal mixture. Yikes! I'd like to remind my dear readers that I had burned fingertips from the night before. I was not pleased about these directions. I also really don't know how you're supposed to measure "all but one tablespoon" from a very hot pan so naturally, I eyeballed it. It went better than expected but I suspect I left a little too much butter in the pan.

However, no time to think! Must keep moving quickly! We can't let that skillet cool down or all will be lost! I had to whisk in the butter/oil that I had poured and then add the dry mixture/mistakenly added eggs and whisk that up and then QUICKLY! scrape the batter into the cast iron pan and get that sucker back into the oven. I swear my heart was racing. I've never whisked so fast. I am very sure all of this stress was unnecessary. Oh well, into the oven, and time to clean up the kitchen. Oh look, somehow this recipe only dirtied two bowls. Madness. How did I spend a whole morning baking and not use my KitchenAid once? It's almost like I planned ahead for easy to clean recipes, knowing that I had people coming over in a few hours! (I didn't.)

About 15 minutes later, cornbread was done and it looked gorgeous. I had to let the skillet cool for 15 minutes before trying to remove it (during which time my husband woke up and I had to yell "DON'T TOUCH! HOT!" as he approached the skillet). I was pretty worried about flipping the cornbread out of the skillet but amazingly enough, it came out of the skillet perfectly. I let it cool the rest of the way before slicing it and sadly, I forgot to take a photo of the perfect cornbread before I cut it.

It had a really nice crispy crust and very good flavor but I think it was a little thick and dry for me. Still delicious but could've benefited from some butter or something with it. But considering I was serving it with chili, I thought it was fine. I think next time I'd either use a bigger skillet or be sure to incorporate more of the butter from the pan into the batter.

Overall, a delicious pair of Southern baked goods all ready before 11 am!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On a Christmas Baking Roll

Happy New Year to you all! We're going to have to roll the calendar back a few weeks though so I can tell you all about my holiday baking. So much baking! Let's start with a dessert that I brought to a friend's Christmas party: Red Velvet Snowflake Swiss Roll.

Since I've been watching so much Great British Bake Off, I've been craving a chance to attempt a Swiss roll. For those unfamiliar, it's basically a thin cake that you roll up with a filling to make a pretty spiral log. I decided to try this with a red velvet cake with a white chocolate cream cheese filling. And because I'm crazy, I also decided to try a technique where you bake a pattern into the cake itself. Sound nuts? You betcha!

Let's see if I can explain this baked pattern concept. Essentially, you use different colored cake batter to pipe a pattern onto parchment paper. You chill your pattern for a bit and then pour your main cake batter on top of the pattern. By doing this, your pattern bakes into your cake and when you roll it, you get pretty designs. If you're still having trouble grasping this, Google "deco roll cakes" and you'll see what I mean. In my case, I was planning to pipe snowflakes because ya know, Christmas.

I opted for a simple Taste of Home recipe for the red velvet roll because I wasn't too fussed about using the perfect cake recipe. The recipe didn't include the precious pattern-baking but I figured I could just add the red food coloring last and pull some of the batter aside for the piping. I mixed up my entire batter and then realized the fatal flaw: red velvet cake has cocoa powder. So the batter without the red dye isn't actually white. Dammit.

In my defense, I was baking this at about 8 am so my brain wasn't fully awake yet. It's not much of an excuse but I'll use it anyway. Also, I've never made red velvet cake before so it didn't even occur to me that it had cocoa in it. I'm not entirely sure I understand what red velvet cake is.

What's a baker to do? I guess make more cake batter. I obviously wasn't going to make a whole batch of dough without cocoa because I only needed a small amount to pipe. So (get ready, you're gonna love this...) I logic-ed that if the original recipe required 4 eggs, it would be easy to divide the recipe by 4 to get a reasonable amount of dough! Flawless plan, right? Except that now for other ingredients, I was dealing with minuscule amounts...I'm talking 1/4 and 1/8 teaspoons for some ingredients. I'd like to say I did all of my measuring precisely but I definitely did not. I was able to make all of my batter in a cereal bowl (because why would I use my mixer?) and was trying to hand-whisk the egg to cake batter foaminess. So dumb. I also just guessed a little bit on how much flour to add since I was eliminating the cocoa powder and was trying to get a pipe-able thickness. Silly me.

Now, here's where things get extra tricky. The recipe specified that I grease the baking pan, then put down parchment paper and then grease the parchment paper. I was curious what I should use for the greasing so I actually did a lot of research on this before starting. I couldn't find any reliable information. I also found that many recipes did not recommend greasing the paper so now I was feeling very conflicted about all of this. Eventually, America's Test Kitchen came through and said PAM would be fine. So I did that. Then I started piping snowflakes. Everywhere the batter dropped on the greased parchment paper, it just ROLLED AWAY. Obviously impossible to make a snowflake pattern like that. So I thought that maybe my batter was just too thin (totally possible since my mixing and measuring was a hot mess by then). I dumped the batter out of my piping bag, added some more flour, and refilled the bag. Better, but still ROLLING AWAY. I decided to test out the piping on a scrap of ungreased parchment paper and sure enough, flawless piping. Guess that solves that mystery!

I discarded my greased parchment paper in favor of ungreased and got to piping work. It was still really difficult to pipe. The batter was very thin and came out of the piping tip very quickly. After a couple of mushy looking snowflakes, I switched out my piping tip for the thinnest possible tip and things went a bit better. However, the snowflake template I had printed out ended up being way too small to be reasonable so I needed to freehand all of my piping. Eventually I started to get the hang of it a bit but only ended up piping half the parchment paper. Which was fine because you can't see the pattern on the inside of the roll anyway. I also added a few polka dots between the snowflakes to fill out the pattern. Oof. Already stressful and I haven't even rolled a cake!

I put the design into the fridge to set for a bit while the oven preheated. I was pretty worried about my oven because it's important to not overbake the cake for a Swiss roll or it'll just crack when you try to roll it. I set up my oven thermometer so I could see it easily and I could keep an eye on the temperature and made sure I got it set to the correct temperature before baking. I was determined to not screw this up. I poured my red velvet batter over my pattern on the pan and put it in the oven for 12 minutes. After 13 minutes, it was done. I had to test it by seeing if it springs back when I touch the middle. Success! Now to cool for 5 minutes and then roll the cake up with the parchment paper while it was still warm. Actually, let me amend that statement. The recipe said I should flip the cake and peel off the parchment paper and then roll it in a towel. I've seen a lot of conflicting advice here but since my pattern was on the bottom, I didn't want to be flipping any cakes around. Plus Mary Berry just uses the parchment paper and no towel. So, hot cake in hand (seriously hot cake! Don't let it cool or it'll crack!), I started to carefully roll my tight spiral. I am shocked and pleased to report that it was extremely easy. Then I had to let it cool in its spiraled form.

A few hours and a couple of wrapped Christmas gifts later, I revisited my cake and whipped up the white chocolate cream cheese filling. This was a very simple filling of cream cheese, vanilla, white chocolate, butter, and powdered sugar so not much to report there. The real challenge is the filling and rolling of the cake. I very carefully unrolled my cooled cake and immediately realized that I had a problem. When I rolled the cake, the side of the parchment paper that had been greased to the pan was on the inside of my roll and it made the inside of my cake a bit greasy and a bit inclined to bleed red food dye on my hands. The side that had been ungreased was completely fine though. Well, at least the greasy side would be the side with the filling so I guess it's fine? The other problem was that my first couple rolls were so tight that it didn't want to unroll very nicely without cracking. My solution to this was to just spread the filling up and around the slightly rolled end. Not ideal but not terrible either. I was also careful to not put too much filling at the end of the cake since I knew a bunch of it would squish toward the end as I rolled.

So I took a deep breath and started gently rolling and peeling off the parchment paper as I went. This was a slow process because the parchment paper did stick to the cake just a little bit. I had to be very gentle. Finally, I rolled the whole thing up with only the tiniest of tiny cracks in the top of the cake. Honestly, if you hadn't been looking for it, you wouldn't have noticed. I also had bright red hands and a bright red countertop but whatever! Amazingly enough, the pattern looked great in the cake (apart from the fact that my piped snowflakes are totally janky) and I plated it with some white chocolate snowflakes that I had piped earlier and voila! Christmas cake!

I'm very proud of the way it looks even if the snowflakes don't look great. I got a nice tight swirl in there and cut clean ends so you could see all the layers. I think the white chocolate snowflakes added a nice festive touch (and taste better than royal icing snowflakes). And it tasted good! I would definitely try this again sometime when I have more forethought on the design and cake colors and less time pressure and holiday madness.