Thursday, October 30, 2008

A No Tea Tea Party

Who says you have to have tea at a tea party? Well, it's autumn, and apple cider is showing up at the food markets, and I want mulled cider and hot chocolate! I have a really fabulous fall tea from The Metropolitan Tea Company that I used at a tea party last fall, but I decided to save that for another day. I also usually go way over the top with food, so this time I thought we could just decorate cookies and call that good.
Mostly it was about the mulled cider, though. You can make mulled cider from regular apple juice, but it's much better with cider. Cider is the unpasteurized, unfiltered version of apple juice. It's thicker, has a cloudy coloring, and has a more full bodied flavor than apple juice which tastes flat in comparison. I don't have an exact recipe for the mulling spices, I just let the cider mull until it tastes right. The ingredients are brown sugar, orange juice, whole cloves, and cinnamon sticks. I've found that usually cider is only mulled with the spices, but the brown sugar gives it some needed sweetness, and a hint of seasonally appropriate molasses. The orange juice is the surprising ingredient. But the tart from the apple and the tart from a bit of orange really compliment each other. It's perfect. Even just the smell makes me happy. Mulled cider makes me want to put on a big comfy sweater and read a good book. (Although, honestly, lots of things make me want to put on a sweater and read a book, but that's beside the point!)
My avant-garde Andy Warhol pumpkin.
Annie's abstract expressionist spider and spiderweb.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Not Snickerdoodles

I brought these cookies to work a couple weeks ago, and all day long people were excitedly coming into my office for "Snickerdooles". But I would have to dramatically stop them: "Wait!", I'd say. "They aren't snickerdooles! They're anise cookies! Anise, like black licorice!" And then they'd get this awful, horrible look on their faces. "Black licorice? Seriously? I hate black licorice! Nobody likes black licorice! How could you possibley ruin perfectly good cookies with black licorice!?!?" "It's ok", I soothed. "It's subtle. You probably won't even notice. Come on. Just one bite. I won't hurt..."

Ok, so that's a bit of an over dramatization of what actually happened. But it's more fun to pretend like I'm the wicked queen from Snow White. Anywaaaayys... The cookies were actually quite popular once I convinced people to try them. The cookies are called "Biscochitos". Apparently they are the state cookie of New Mexico. A friend made some last year, and I really liked them, so I thought I'd give them a try. They are a shortening based cookie, which sounds gross, I know. But the shortening gives the cookies a nice, flaky texture. And the anise really is subtle. I ground my anise (by hand, mortar and pestle style, good old timey fun), so it's not like you're taking a bite of anise seeds, it's more smooth than that. Probably not a cookie that I'll make again soon, but it is a different, easy backup.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pane e Tulipane

I admit it. I love white bread. Pure, fluffy, simple white bread. One of my favorite things in the whole world is a fresh, warm loaf of french bread from the super market. It is a life goal of mine to create a loaf of bread like that. I know. I hear it all the time. Why make a loaf of bread like the store? Isn't the point of homemade bread to be homemade bread? Well, I just don't like a heavy crumb. This is one of the few times I give props to the bakeries at the grocery store. Crunchy on the outside, light and pull-apart inside. Fragrant, salty, slightly sweet. Tear off a hunk and dip it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar... oops, sorry, didn't mean to drool.
Buuut, I cannot seem to figure out how to make this kindof bread myself. All my loafs come out heavy heavy heavy. All white bread recipes are pretty much the same. Flour, water, salt, yeast. Maybe some sugar, or an egg, or some powdered milk. It isn't the ingredients that are the problem. It is the rising method. You name it, I've tried that method. Raise once, bake. Raise twice, bake. Raise, kead, sit overnight in the refrigerator, bake. Raise, punch, do a little dance, sprinkle pixie dust, bake. Lather, rinse, repeat. All ineffective. They all come out heavy, sometimes even inedible.
Finally, however, I think I have found a good method. A woman I work with gave me her recipe and I recently fell in love with a fabulous bread book, The Bread Bible. Between my coworkers method, and the Bread Bible's recipe and method, well, you be the judge:
Not to be egotistical, but doesn't that bread look beautiful!? All the little tricks from the Bread Bible were great, but I greatly owe the success of this bread to my coworkers recipe. Wanna know the secret? After you knead the dough, you let it raise for 10 min, then punch it down, then repeat this 5 more times. (One hour total.) The Bread Bible doesn't exactly ever use this method, but it does talk about why this works. I had always been under the impression that punching down your dough is bad, because, well, you're letting the air out! Very scientific reasoning ;) The reason punching is good, though, is because every time your dough rises, the gluten strengthens. Gluten is a protein in flour that traps the air bubble created by yeast in the dough. So stronger glutten actually holds the air in better.
The flavor of this bread was a little dull - I'll add more salt next time. But my quest for the perfect white bread is one large step closer to the goal.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Masala Chai

I learned recently that what I (and most Americans) call Chai tea is not only redundant, but non-descriptive. Chai is the word for "tea" in the Middle East/India/Asia. Pretty much it's just another English misrepresentation. When we say Chai, we really mean Masala Chai, or Spice Tea. What exactly those spices are seems to be defined by location and culture. There is no set "recipe" for Masala Chai. The only spice that I can find common between all the recipes and articles I looked through is cardamom. I don't know that I've ever considered cardamom by itself, so when I opened up the jar of it that I bought at the grocery store, I was amazed. It is the smell of chai! So in my opinion, any masala chai should be based on cardamom. After that, you name a spice, somebody puts it in their masala chai. I gathered all the spices around that could be used for a homemade chai - peppercorn, cardamom, anise, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg, and I used them all! With a roiboos base, it made a very fragrant and lovely mix. (Roiboos is a caffeine free South African plant that has a flavor similar to black tea. It is, therefor, an excellent substitute for any black tea based tea.)

I was doing this late at night, other wise I would have thought about getting a better fabric for the tea bag, but the best I had around was muslin. While the muslin made a very pretty tea bag, it is unfortunately too thick a fabric for a tea bag. I had to steep the tea for a veeeerrryyy long time, and even then it was only a faint flavor. I think next time I'll also use more spices in one tea bag. When I was able to get a cuppa with a stronger flavor I was quite pleased.
It's going to take some more experimenting to find a combination of spices, amounts and ratios, that I'm satisfied with, but overall this was a fun first attempt. I liked mixing the spices, seeing the flavors and scents and colors come together. I'm excited to experiment more with homemade teas - I think I've found my Christmas gifts for this year!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Whoopie Pies

I was looking for a different chocolate cookie recipe for the Turtle cookies on Saturday. I came across a Martha Stewart recipe that looked perfect. But later that day I heard some good news about Philly, and so I decided to stick with what the cookies were supposed to be for: Whoopie Pies!
These amazing cookies are a Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) tradition. I had never thought much about their history - I just loved buying them from the Mennonite bakeries at the markets in and around Philly. On What's Cooking In America, they say Whoopie Pies were originally made from left overs, and when the Amish children found the "pies" in their lunch bags, they would shout, "Whoopie!" This is the only history I could find on the internet, but true or not, these cookies are amazing.
The traditional kind is a cake-y chocolate cookie sandwiched with a marshmallow creme buttercream filling. It's not really like having a slice of cake, but it's also not at all like an Oreo. They are their own fabulous thing. I can't believe I hadn't thought to make them before. The recipe made a lot of them, so I gave a plate of Whoopie pies to a neighbor's family because she's from the north east, and I knew she'd appreciate them. But then I got in trouble with my family for giving the cookies away! I guess I'll be making these again soon.
The other fabulous thing about Whoopie pies is their evolution. Because it's really just a cake-cookie with filling, you don't have to stick with the traditional chocolate/marshmallow combination. The possibilities are endless! A very popular version is pumpkin Whoopies pies - I think I'll try that for Thanksgiving. But they might have to be for Canadian Thanksgiving so that I can make them sooner ;)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Turtle Cookies

I was brainstorming all the things I want to bake yesterday. As you might have noticed from my last post, I love all things autumn. So my list of things to bake was mostly fall themed or flavored foods. Unfortunately, it's hard to feel like eating spiced baked goods when it's 84 F outside. Sigh. So, I had to think of some other creative thing to bake. I'm trying to branch out into recipes that I have invented myself, and to that end, I decided to make Turtle Cookies. Admit it, have you ever seen a cookie that represents all the fabulosity of a turtle candy? If you've never had a "Turtle", you've definitely been missing out. Usually, it is a lump of caramel over a few strategically placed pecans, the whole thing dipped in chocolate. Mmmm...

There is a surprising lack of history on the internets regarding Turtles, but apparently they are originally from Rowntree DeMet’s Inc., a candy company that was bought out by Nestle in 1988. According to this blogger who found a linguist who identified turtles, "DeMet's Turtles was introduced in the early 1920s by Rowntree DeMet's Inc. An employee at the chocolate factory remarked that the new candy, with pecans protruding from its side, looked like a turtle. The name stuck. NestlĂ© acquired Rowntree DeMet's Inc. in 1988. In January 1996 the name changed to NESTLÉ® TURTLES."

But more to the point, they are seriously one of the best candies out there. Unless you don't like nuts - but it's chocolate and caramel together! How much better can it get!? I used a chocolate cookie recipe from my favorite baking website. Alas (I just used the word "alas", how nerdy am I?), the recipe is only so so. Granted, I probably overbaked like I always do, but still, next time I'll write my own chocolate cookie recipe.

The caramel recipe I got from some website somewhere a long time ago, I don't remember where, though. If you've never made your own caramel (or any sugar candy, for that matter), it is not a simple task. I've made so many of batches of caramel rocks over the years, it's awful. Cooked/melted sugar has stages that it goes through. You have to heat the sugar long enough to caramelize it, and the more you cook it, the harder it will be once it is cooled. That's the hard part. You can't tell how hard it will be while you're cooking it. You have to use a candy thermometer and the "ice water teste". So, one hand is stiring, one hand is dripping caramel into a glass of ice water, and one ... wait, there are no more hands. Well, one eye is watching the themometer. Not a casual process. I wanted a caramel that was more sauce, less wraped candy - something that wouldn't just ooze off the top of the cookies, but still soft and gooey. I think this caramel was just about right. Probably the first time I've made caramel that came out the consistency I wanted!

Assemble cookie/caramel/pecan and tada, a pretty good cookie.

Thanks, Dad, for taking the picture! My photography skills are pretty bad, and as you can see from my other posts, this is much better!