Saturday, November 29, 2008

November Daring Bakers: Would You Like Some Sugar With Your Sugar?




After dabbling with some savory stuff last month, the Daring Bakers returned to their sweet roots in November, the evidence of which is manifest in the hundreds of caramel cakes currently sweetening the blogosphere.

I'll admit I was pleased to be making something sweet; while I love all kinds of baking, the Daring Bakers is always a good excuse to make some outrageously rich and decadent treat. This month's challenge was Shuna Fish Lydon's recipe for caramel cake with a browned butter caramel frosting. Fittingly, the recipe is not from a book, but from a blog, and can be found here. Thanks to this month's hosts: Dolores, Alex, and Jenny for choosing the recipe!

So, the cake. Well I'll go right ahead and say it: no photos. OK, I have some photos, but they are unappetizingly terrible. As I'm sure many other Daring Bakers did, I served this cake for dessert on turkey day, and between the poor lighting, the sun setting at about 2pm, and the fact that I was more concerned with getting other things on the table than on taking a stellar picture, the resulting images really don't do the cake justice. It was tasty, but you'll have to take my word for it.

Caramel being the star player in this recipe, it goes without saying that this challenge was all about the sugar. Sweet cake, ridiculously sweet frosting, and to top it all off, a good soak of caramel syrup. Although the recipe only called for the cake and the frosting, I couldn't imagine serving it without something to balance out the sweetness, so I covered the whole thing with a thick layer of bittersweet ganache and laced it with a good dose of brandy. More specifically, I cut the cake into two layers, brushed each layer with brandy-caramel syrup, filled them with the frosting, frosted the outside with frosting, and glazed it all with ganache. Brushing cut cake layers with soaking syrup - be it caramel, liqueur, or both, is the best way I know of to make a deliciously moist and flavorful cake.

Everybody raved about the cake - Jonathan even declared it the Best Daring Bakers Cake Yet - but as far as challenges go, it wasn't my favorite. The caramel flavor of the cake comes from a homemade caramel syrup, which is also used to flavor the frosting. As with any caramel, the key is taking it off the heat at just the right time. Too early, and you end up with simple syrup, but too late, and you end up with acrid, burnt sugar.

I tried to take my caramel off the heat just as it was turning amber and beginning to smell a bit burnt. Still, it was hard to detect a true caramel flavor in the cake. The same goes for the frosting. Had I not added a splash of brandy, I think it would have been overwhelmingly sweet, even with the caramel and browned butter.

However, my main gripe wasn't the product (as I mentioned before, the cake really was delicious), but rather the recipe itself. The recipe was very vague at times, and could have benefited from more specific directions. There was no time suggested for cooking the caramel sugar, for example, and the directions for preparing the frosting were rather terse. Although I'm a blogger through and through, I have to admit that I've never seen a recipe that brief or ambiguous in a good cookbook. I love cooking and baking by the seat of my pants, but there were lots of unanswered questions that came up during the making of this cake.

That said, I could see myself making this cake again, particularly for a crowd. It's a classy, elegant cake that has simple enough flavors that everyone can enjoy it. For my next Daring Bakers challenge, though, I'm hoping for something a little more exciting than cake with frosting. Now that we've done this cake, the opera cake, and the gateau, I'm hoping I'm not the only one who thinks it might be time to take a break from buttercream and see what else is out there in the wide world of sweet, baked treats.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Nibble Before the Feast

You would never know by the frequency with which I've been blogging that I have been cooking up a storm. Really, I have been. I've been doing a few test runs for turkey day, I've been brushing up on my bread-baking skills, and I've been doing a fair bit of entertaining-worthy cooking and baking, too. But I've been neglecting my dear little Red Ramekin, and I feel very badly about it.

So, in an effort to appease, I have a shockingly easy and tasty treat for you all. No, it's not a gasp-inducing Thanksgiving stunner, but rather a tasty little bite to complement imminent face-stuffing.

Make them as pre- or post-dinner snacks for the big day, or tuck this recipe away for the next time you have a dinner party or are otherwise in the market for something sexy to go with your brie. These cookie-like crackers toe the line between sweet and savory, and have an intriguing combination of flavors that make them right for just about any occasion.

I modelled these crackers after similar ones that I purchased at Whole Foods several months ago. They are advertised as red wine biscuits that go perfectly with cheese, but I had to show some restraint in order not to gobble them all up solo. They had an assertive winey flavor with the subtle, back-of-the-throat heat that only black pepper can induce.

So why bother attempting them at home? Well, a petite little bag of the crackers set me back about six dollars. They were good, but they weren't stuffed with truffles or anything. I had been meaning to replicate them for a while, but finally got around to it a few weeks ago, and served them, along with some other treats, for dessert.

I make these crackers like refrigerator cookies: roll the dough into a log, chill, slice, and bake. It's a wildly convenient method that allows me to bake a few now and a few later, and the dough logs also freeze pretty well. The dough itself is rich with zesty red wine, olive oil, and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper, and I throw in just a pinch of grated lemon zest for a little extra zip.

The first time I made these, I added about 1/4 c. of sugar, and they were pleasantly sweet and perfect to end a meal. The second time, I reduced the sugar to just a tablespoon, and they seemed better suited for pre-dinner snacking. Next time I make them, I might add two tablespoons of sugar, just to even things out. Sweeten according to your tastes, but do include at least one tablespoon of sugar, as the wine and pepper need just a hint of sweetness to really come out boldly here.

I really love the idea of these crackers, and will now use just about any excuse to make them. The only bad thing about them is their photographing potential: these aren't particularly pretty cookies, and although the colors of red wine, lemon zest, and olive oil really pop in their pure forms, mix them all together and a sort of brownish thing results. No matter, they taste too good for anyone to gripe about their appearance. Just cover them up with some good goat cheese or brie, and nobody will be the wiser.


Red (Wine) and Black (Pepper) Biscuits

1 3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tbs. sugar
1/4 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. red wine

Directions:

Mix flour, salt, pepper, sugar, baking soda, and lemon zest in a medium mixing bowl. Add oil and red wine, and stir to incorporate, kneading with your fingers a bit if necessary. Form dough into two logs, each with a diameter of about an inch or so. Wrap logs in plastic wrap and chill in the freezer for at least 30min., or freeze for later. Once chilled, unwrap the logs and slice into 1/4 in. thick slices. Place on a parchment- or foiled-lined baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees until just barely beginning to turn golden around the edges, about 20min. Serve plain or with a soft cheese.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Bit of Sunshine

It's officially been two weeks since we turned back the clocks for daylight savings time, and I'm still not used to looking up from my desk at 4:00pm to see that the sun has already begun its descent into nighttime. Although I'm glad that my walk to work in the morning is no longer something that occurs in the dark, I can't shake the feeling that I'm sitting down to dinner at 10pm, even though it's only 8 o'clock.

And since the coldness of winter hasn't quite set in yet (yet being the operative word here), I think I'll kick off my winter complaining with some darkness gripes. How, exactly, are we supposed to survive with just a few chilly hours of sunlight per day for the next several months? I know I've done it like 22 times before, but I'm telling you, I still am not "used" to winter. I love Boston, but it seems to be a colder and darker place every year. Ah well, winter will be over soon, I guess. Just six more months or so.


If I can't have real sunshine, though, the next best thing might just be this citrus-y cake, made with the sunny goodness of one of my favorite winter-time fruits: mandarins (or clementines, if you prefer). They started popping up in sacks and crates at our local grocery stores in the past week or so, and so far they've helped to compensate for the lack of actual sunshine that we've been suffering through.

I usually eat mandarins unadorned and in significant quantity - we're talking thousands of percents of Vitamin C here - but I felt like baking something new today, and I sometimes find it difficult to eat the whole bag of fruit before the ones on the bottom start getting moldy.

This cake is incredibly simple to make, and it's surprisingly healthy, too. The flecks of mandarin zest, coupled with the yellow of the cornmeal in the batter, are pleasingly sunshine-y, and the yogurt and olive oil give the cake a light and slightly crumbly texture. The flavor of the mandarins is present, but not overpowering, and I could see this cake dressed up with some ice cream or whipped cream for dessert, or dressed down for breakfast with a slick of almond butter or a dollop of yogurt. In any case, it's sure to brighten your day, especially the snack-time (or breakfast, or dessert) part of it.

A note on the preparation: I have a small, 7-inch round cake pan that is perfect for little snack cakes like this one. You could probably make this recipe in an 8-inch pan, but it would be a little on the short side. Try using the smallest round or square pan that you have, or try a muffin tin for individual servings of sunshine. Craving sunshine? Give this cake a go!


Sunshine Cake

1 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. whole yellow
cornmeal
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tbs. turbinado sugar
1/2 c. plain, non-fat or low-fat yogurt
1 egg
2 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. agave nectar or honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
extract
zest and juice of 3 mandarins or clementines

Directions:

Wash and dry the mandarins. Using a microplane zester or fine grater,zest the mandarins, being careful to use the orange part of the peel only (no white pith!). using a reamer or juicer, extract as much juice as possible (some pulp is OK) from the mandarins, about 1/2 c. In a mixing bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and mandarin zest. In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt, egg, oil, agave, vanilla, and mandarin juice. Pour wet ingredients into dry, and stir just until combined. Pour batter into a greased cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes, until top is golden and tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Simple Pumpkin Soup

I know I won't be winning any awards for originality with today's post, but I still think this pumpkin soup is worth talking about. And at the very least, it's worthwhile to post the recipe (even though it is as simple as could be).

On Sunday, after an exceedingly long stint away from home due to some work-related travel, there was nothing I wanted more than to make a big pot of soup - perfect for slurping right from the wooden spoon and for storing for future meals. I may have gone a bit overboard - I made not one, but two gigantic pots of soup (putting our new large dutch oven to good use, I might add).
Both were delicious, warming, and hearty without being in any way heavy. No meat (except for the light chicken stock), and no cream. When it comes to soup, I like them vegetable-y, and they often replace the salads that I eat when fresh green vegetables are at their prime.

So yes, the wholly unoriginal, but undoubtedly delicious, soup of the day is pumpkin. I've made plenty of squash soups before, but I realized Sunday that I can't remember ever having actually roasted a whole pumpkin. I've made pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, pumpkin biscotti, pumpkin bread pudding...the list goes on...but I've always resorted to the canned stuff. Now I'm not saying that I don't like canned pumpkin - I still love it - but for a savory soup like this one, where pumpkin is the star, it's definitely worth the extra effort to find a little sugar pumpkin and roast it yourself.

I roasted mine using a method I learned last week on Martha Stewart Living, and it involves cutting the pumpkin in half, scooping out the seeds, adding a tablespoon of water to each half, covering with parchment and foil, and then roasting until soft - about an hour. Once the pumpkin is done, the rest of the soup comes together in about 10 minutes: saute the onion and garlic with an apple, add the pumpkin and some stock, and puree until smooth and delicious.

I love the simplicity of this soup and the clarity of the flavors. The deeper sweetness of the pumpkin is just right with the sweet-tartness of the apples, and the onion and garlic deepen all of the flavors in a subtle, savory way. Perfect for kicking off a fall dinner party (which is what I'm planning to do with the soup tonight), but also, I'd imagine, perfect for a low-key comfort dinner served with some hearty bread and leftovers (tomorrow's dinner, if everything goes according to plan).

I've seen and enjoyed a variety of highly-spiced pumpkin soups, laced with curry or chili powder, but this one is very simple, with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg and just the right amount of salt and pepper to tie things together. And although I love spice, this version really hits the spot. Enjoy!



Simple Pumpkin Soup

1 small (3-4lbs.) sugar pumpkin
2 small-medium yellow onions
1 sweet-tart apple (mac, cortland, empire...), peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
~3 c. chicken or vegetable stock
splash of olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
cinnamon and nutmeg, to taste (optional)

Directions:

Roast pumpkin: Cut pumpkin in half and scrape out all of the seeds and gunk. Place on a baking sheet, cut side up, and add a tablespoon of water to each half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, place a sheet of parchment on top, and then cover the whole pan tightly with foil. Roast at 375F for about an hour, or until the flesh is soft and scoopable. Meanwhile, heat a bit of oil in a soup pot, then add the onions and the apple. Saute for about 5 minutes, then add the garlic, salt and pepper, and saute for a few minutes more, being careful not to let the onions and garlic brown. Scoop all of the flesh from the pumpkin and it, along with 2 c. of stock, to the pot. Bring mixture just to a boil, then simmer for a minute or so. Using an immersion blender (or a regular blender, if need be), blend the soup until completely smooth. Add additional stock as necessary to reach desired consistency. Adjust the seasonings, adding a bit of nutmeg or cinnamon, if desired. Serve warm with a thick slice of crusty bread.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Big Launch...

As some of you may already know, I've gone and started a new blog. Don't worry, it won't be replacing Red Ramekin, but rather will serve as a nice complement to it.

The blog is called The Natural Consumer, and you can find it at http://www.thenaturalconsumer.com/. I'm really excited about it, and think that it will be a great way to provide a forum for people, like me, who are consumers of natural, healthy, and organic food products.

The Natural Consumer is dedicated exclusively to product reviews. The basic idea is this: I find/buy/receive an organic, natural, and/or healthy product, give it a whirl, take a photo or two, and then write about it on the blog.

Although I'm generally a homemade-only kind of girl, this blog does feature packaged foods that I would feel good about incorporating into my diet - especially now that I'm working full time and can't really spend my days waiting for bread to rise and cracker dough to rest.

Want to know more? Check it out. The site has plenty of information on my food philosophy and on the nature of the blog itself. I encourage you to read it and let me know what you think. And of course, if you have any suggestions regarding products for me to try (or if you are someone who can provide me with the products themselves), don't hesitate to let me know! The blog is not an advertising service - it's an honest look at what's on the market for ingredient-conscious, food-loving, natural consumers. Hopefully the new blog will be especially tasty mixed with the recipes here on Red Ramekin.