Rolling in Dough

Over the weekend, I was bit by the baking bug. It happens quite rarely, but when it does…oh boy.

And of course I didn’t start off with something easy. On Sunday morning, I drank a cup of coffee for a burst of energy and then stepped right into my bread-makin’ shoes. (Note: I didn’t actually have any shoes on while I made bread. I did, however, bust out my trusty pink floral apron.)

Right off the bat, my husband had little faith in me. I can’t say I blame him. He’s more familiar than anyone with my work in the kitchen. But he had good reason to be weary of my bread’s success; I was making a mixed-grain bread that called for quite a bit of whole-wheat flour, which is notoriously more difficult to bake with than your standard all-purpose flour.

The husband went out for a mountain bike ride and I got to work mixing and kneading…and kneading…and kneading. Honestly, longest six minutes of my life.

And when my husband returned home, look at what I got to gloat about:

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He was quite impressed. Truthfully, it was too early to be genuinely impressed, as I hadn’t yet tasted it. Luckily, the first bite validated my ability as a baker; I baked one seriously delicious loaf of bread! I was telling my coworker about it, and in a surprised tone she asked, “You made your own bread? Like, with a bread machine?” Let me tell you how good it felt to tell her that I did all the dirty work by hand: it felt goooooooooooood.

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That same afternoon, I made these Oreo Cheesecake Cookies:

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I’m pretty sure this was the simplest cookie recipe I’ve ever used, and the cookies were to die for. I took them to a family get-together that evening, and within five minutes, they were gone. Every last one of them.

I recently posted a rant about my food looking nothing like the pictures in the recipes I find online, and what made me happiest about these cookies is that mine looked exactly like the pictures in the original recipe. FINALLY.

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Have you baked anything good lately?

Ninjas and Gingahs

Christmas was quite good to me this year. My parents’ gifts to me and my husband were a Ninja Mega Complete Kitchen System and a set of embarrassingly nice steak knives. I’m not lying to you when I say I almost cried when my husband unwrapped the Ninja set. As soon as we returned home, we packed our old blender and its components into a box and threw it in the big trash can in the garage.   Good riddance.

I haven’t yet cooked anything that requires the use of the new steak knives, but my Ninja is almost the coolest thing I’ve ever owned. All of this is to say, you might expect it to make some appearances on the blog in the near future. I mean, the things that system can do!

For Christmas, I was tasked with preparing dessert. My father is a diabetic and a dialysis patient, so his diet is extremely limited. Since gingersnaps are among his favorite cookies, I chose a recipe from the DaVita dialysis website for some soft ginger cookies. Remember my recent post about my peppermint cheesecake cookies that tasted delicious but fell horribly flat? Well, I’m happy to report that I actually learned something from the experience. Here’s what I did differently with the ginger cookies:

  • Used butter softened at room temperature—not butter melted in the microwave.
  • Was ridiculously careful not to overmix the dough.
  • Chilled the dough in the fridge for several hours before baking it.

The cookies were so, so soft and didn’t fall flat at all! YAY!

Fresh out of the oven...

Fresh out of the oven…

Cooled, but not flat!

Cooled, but not flat!

Once they cooled, I transferred 28 cookies into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. After Christmas dinner, the five of us—my husband, my stepson, my parents, and myself—busted into the cookies as we played Aggravation. By the time the game was over, only four cookies remained. Five people, 24 cookies…you do the math.

Now, I will leave you with the Barf of the Week, courtesy of the above cookies:  Diarrhea Dough!

If only real diarrhea smelled this good.

If only real diarrhea smelled this good.

Amateur Candy Cane Pounder: or, Peppermint Cheesecake Cookies

Although I love to bake, I don’t do it very often. One reason is that it’s usually time consuming, and the other is that it would soil my plan of maintaining a healthy body weight. I typically channel my inner baker only for birthdays and holidays. And—oh my—Christmas is just around the corner!

I hadn’t thought much about baking any Christmas goodies yet this year. But I’ve been watching the Holiday Baking Championship on Food Network, and…well, try watching that show without getting a deadly craving for baked goods. Yesterday I finally made a date with Google to find a yummy recipe.

In an ideal world, I would have baked a cake. I LOVE CAKE. But the husband doesn’t care for cake, and for some reason I decided to be a nice wife and bake something we’d both enjoy. (Santa, are you taking notes?)

I settled on some Peppermint Cheesecake Cookies. My husband has been buying enough candy canes to warrant purchasing stock in Ferrara Candy Company, and everyone in my house just loves cheesecake. Win!

After a trip to the store to pick up some missing ingredients, my stepson asked if he could help bake the cookies. Ten years old and still wants to help me bake cookies—heart, please don’t melt! Of course I took him up on the offer.

The recipe calls for peppermint baking chips, which—of course—I couldn’t find at the grocery store. Why is there always ONE stupid ingredient you can’t find? Well, I’m an improviser if nothing else, so I purchased a ginormous peppermint candy cane for making my own peppermint chips.

The kiddo and I prepped the ingredients and while he mixed the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and pudding mix, I readied the candy cane for smashing.

Shit just got real.

Shit just got real.

I’m here to tell you, the way to a ten-year-old boy’s heart is to give him a candy cane and a mallet.

Before I tasked my stepson with the smashing of the candy cane, I took the first whack to make sure it would work. I hit it far too hard and sent shards of peppermint flying in every direction. Oops.

I think I broke it.

I think I broke it.

I gave the mallet to my stepson and instructed him not to hit too hard, and he gladly went to work breaking up the candy cane into little shards. While he created our impromptu peppermint chips, I mixed the flour into the batter until it made a nice, buttery cookie dough.

Boys and their tools...even in the kitchen.

Boys and their tools…even in the kitchen.

After several minutes, the candy cane was completely smashed but most of the shards were still pretty large. When we tried to smash them into tinier bits, they flew outward and landed on the floor, which excited my puppy to no end. Finally, I told my stepson to stop because I was tired of intercepting the dog’s consumption of the peppermint. Only then did the little light bulb come on. AHA!

I scooped up the peppermint shards and tossed them into my mini food processor. Within seconds, we had perfectly tiny peppermint bits to fold into the dough. What did I ever do without my food processors?

Eat my dust.  No really, it's delicious.

Eat my dust. No really, it’s delicious.

The dough made 24 beautiful cookies. After an agonizingly long cool-down, I split one cookie into thirds and we all taste-tested it. Delicious!

Yum times infinity.

Yum times infinity.

The only thing that disappoints me is that in the pictures in the recipe, the cookies are nice and puffy and look perfect—yet my cookies fell very, VERY flat. They still taste glorious, but damn it, I want my cookies to stay puffy!

I found this thread on Chow about preventing cookies from falling flat and it looks like there are several reasons mine turned into pancakes. For instance, I softened my butter a bit in the microwave and the bottom of it (but not the whole stick) straight-up melted. Since I had the kiddo do most of the mixing while I was measuring ingredients, the batter might have been over-mixed. Lastly, in hindsight I realize I probably should have chilled the dough a bit longer before sticking it in the oven.

Still, the cookies taste amazing. I guess I’ll just have to make another batch next weekend and see if I can make them stay puffy.  😀

 

 

Steaming, take three: pears and honey

When I plan out my Two Week Techniques, “dinner” is always the guinea pig. My mind simply defaults to dinner because I tend to stick to simpler breakfasts and lunches. But when I compiled my steaming recipes for the past couple of weeks, I found a collection of dessert recipes for food steamers. In this collection is a recipe for Steamed Pears and Honey. Pears? Honey? Applies to my Two Week Technique? A healthy dessert option? Count me in!

It all started with a pear.

Pears don’t scare me. I eat them all the time. I might even be as bold as to say I could eat one with my eyes closed. Seriously, I have never looked at a pear I’m about to eat and thought, “Crap, I don’t know if I can do this.”

But that was before I had to cut off the top of a pear and remove its core without destroying it. It took a paring knife, a butter knife, and several lucky moments during which I didn’t cut off my fingers, but somehow I managed to remove the core from the fruit.

Once I had created a substantial well in the center of the pear, it was time to add the honey.  Mmmmmmmmhoney.

Now all that was left to do was replace the pear’s hat—er, top—and start the steaming!

After 15 minutes in the steamer, I transferred the pear to a dish and removed its top (does that sound dirty?).  My kitchen was instantly filled with the warm, spicy scent of fall.  It was dessert with a built-in air freshener.  But what else can you expect from boiling honey?

When I sliced into the pear, honey oozed out in every direction.  It looked scrumptious and it tasted even scrumptiousier (it’s my blog, I’ll invent new words if I want to).  I was really pleased!

My two weeks of steaming had its ups and downs, but I did discover that I haven’t been utilizing my steamer nearly enough.  Just no meatballs.  Ever.

So what’s the next Two Week Technique going to be?  Well, I’ve already started and I’ll be posting about it tomorrow…so stay tuned!  Oooooh, the suspense…

PB&J Cake; or, giving my cake pan the middle finger

As it turns out, the third time really is a charm.

I have nearly ruined one cake and completely ruined another because for some stupid reason I couldn’t get the cakes to not stick to the inside of the pan.  I’ve always loved baking and have never been too particularly bad at it–except for when it comes to turning a cake out of a pan.

After ruining my last cake, which had been intended for a friend who is battling cancer, I was instructed by this particular friend to practice a new cake and to bring her one once I had broken the curse.  The cake I was ordered to make is a Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake, which can be found in the latest issue of Food Network Magazine.

Instead of covering the cake pan in greased parchment paper, as the recipe instructed, I followed my mom’s advice and bought a can of cooking spray made specifically for baking.  I doused the ever-living crap out of the pan; I mean, I’m surprised there was any cooking spray left in the can by the time I was finished.  Not this time, cake pan.  Not this time.

While the cake baked, I made the peanut butter frosting out of peanut butter, regular butter, powdered sugar, and milk.  I would almost forfeit an entire year’s salary in exchange for eating a bowlful of this frosting daily without becoming obese.

When the cake came out of the oven,  I waited anxiously while it cooled enough that I could try turning it out of the pan.  It was a defining moment in my culinary self-teachings.

Awwwwwww yeah!  IT WORKED!  With the hurdle of uncertainty behind me, I continued onto the fun part:  the transformation from cake to PB&J.  First, I cut off a thin layer on the top and bottom of the cake with a serrated knife so that the cake looked like a big slice of bread.

Next, I cut the cake into two equal slabs and piled the bottom layer with peanut butter frosting and some of my grandma’s homemade raspberry jelly.

Finally, I replaced the top layer of the cake and cut it in half diagonally.  It’s hard to tell it’s not just a boring PB&J sandwich!  (Disclaimer:  I don’t think PB&J is boring at all.)

Last night we had dinner with my parents and I brought this over for dessert.  It was a hit!

Trash can cake

Today I’m driving to a nearby town to visit one of my good friends, who is currently battling cancer.  She loves my blog and she’s always cheering me on, giving me pointers, and sharing her recipes and cookbooks.  One might say she’s my biggest fan.  🙂

I wanted to bake her something special, so I turned to my new BHG Bridal Cookbook and picked out a recipe for a Cream-Filled Cake Roll.

[Photo source: Better Homes and Gardens]

I want to preface what you are about to read by saying I really did have confidence that I could pull this off.  I really, really did.  As it turns out, my confidence is no match for my terrible cake-making skills.

The Cream-Filled Cake Roll was a series of new firsts for me, starting with the concept of beating eggs until they form soft or stiff peaks.  My stepson assisted me with much of last night’s cake-making, so we took turns operating the hand mixer, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as the eggs turned creamy and foamy.

The process of beating the egg yolks and the egg whites (separately) took about half an hour (come on, eggs, I don’t even spend that much time on you in the morning!).  We were finally able to fold the yolk mixture into the egg white mixture, followed by folding the flour mixture into the egg mixture.  Mmmmm, cake goop.

So far so good, right?  I poured the batter into my parchment paper-covered, well-greased pan, and let the oven do its thing.  At this moment in time, confidence was still high.  No way my 60 minutes of prep time wouldn’t pay off!  In the meantime, I made the cream filling by beating together whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla.  My stepson and I sliced up fresh raspberries (sampling along the way) and I folded them into the mixture while he washed all of the red juice off of his hands and face.

With the filling done, the next hurdle was to get the cake out of the oven and onto the towel coated with powdered sugar.  When the cake came out, I diligently followed the recipe’s instructions to immediately loosen the edges of the cake from the pan.  I turned the pan upside down over the towel; at this point, a big slab of cake should have slipped out of the pan’s grasp and landed cleanly on the towel.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words:

The “big slab” of cake on the towel was missing chunks, all of which had stuck to the parchment paper.  All of its holes made it the Swiss cheese of cakes.  Stifling a scream, I pulled myself together:  it’s still salvageable, I told myself.  I continued to do as the recipe indicated, rolling the towel and the cake into a spiral.  Once cooled, then maybe, just maybe, I could still turn this into an edible (albeit ugly) cake.

Again, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

When the time came to unroll the cake and the towel, the cake had stuck to the towel so badly I couldn’t even remove it.  Furthermore, it had cracked into a million little pieces while cooling, so it was no longer a holey cake–it was simply a collage of cake scraps.  After several unsuccessful attempts to remove chunks of cake from the towel, I dumped everything in the trash can–towel included– and said good riddance.

My stepson asked if I was going to try again, but at 11 o’clock at night, my sanity depended on my surrender.  When I told him that I would not be attempting it a second time, he responded:  “Well, you could always just bring her some flowers.”

It’s apparent that my cooking has improved ten-fold since I started my blog in March.  But when it comes to fancy cakes, I am a LONG…long…longlonglong way from improvement.  To the friend for whom this cake was intended, I’m sure you’ll be reading this at some point, and I’m sure you’ll understand that it’s the thought that counts.  Going forward, I’ve heard Costco sells some nice desserts…

Dad’s Day

Yesterday I succeeded in helping my fiance’s son make some Father’s Day cheesecake brownies.  Today, I once again wore my baker’s hat so I could make my dad some of his own yummy treats.  My dad loves Heath candy bars and as luck would have it, my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (damn it, there I am plugging it again!) contains a recipe for chocolate toffee bars.

I’d like to say things went off without a hitch, but I did have a knock-down, drag-out fight with the crust.  I had originally lined the pan with aluminum foil, but when I scraped the batter dough into the pan, the foil slid and turned every time I tried to spread any of the dough.  I ended up taking out the foil and chiseling away the dough that was clinging on for dear life.  Once I had all of the dough in the unlined pan, things went a little more smoothly.  I let it bake for 15 minutes and then sprinkled it with chocolate chips.

The recipe advised leaving the chocolate chips for two minutes and then spreading the chocolate over the entirety of the crust.  At two minutes, they looked like they’d hardly softened at all.  But as soon as the spatula touched the chips, they magically transformed into chocolate frosting that spread beautifully over the crust.

All that was left was the pièce de résistance:  the chocolate-covered toffee pieces.  My dad’s lucky these survived the 20-minute drive to his house!

When we cut into them for dessert after the AMAZING ribs my mom cooked, something miraculous happened:  they didn’t stick to the pan…AT ALL!  For me, this is huge.  Also, slightly off topic, but–tonight I learned how to turn on a grill!  (Making fun of me is not allowed.)  I also learned why and how wood chips are used in grilling.  Now I just need to actually cook something on a grill.  That will be a squealing moment for sure.

To wrap up this post, I’ll share with you my other feat of the day.  I made some spicy red bean and corn soup that calls for a cup of chopped carrots.  Following the advice of the video I watched after my last carrot-chopping attempt, I managed to chop a carrot somewhat decently.  I still need practice, as chopping three small carrots took me at least a good five minutes–but things are looking up!

Pinterest-free week, day seven: To the moon and back

Well, it’s the final day of my “Pinterest-free week” and I have to say, though not all of my cooking was “successful,” per se, I feel like I learned a lot more this week than I have in the past months of my fumbling through recipes I’d found on Pinterest.

I spent a preposterous amount of time in my kitchen today.  It started around noon, when my fiance’s 8-year-old son and I teamed up to make some Father’s Day cheesecake brownies.  Last time (which was the first time) he helped me cook, I was a nervous wreck.  I thought:  I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m going to screw this up, and he’ll never again want a thing to do with cooking.  But this time, I was comfortable.  I did know what I was doing, I felt like there was only a slim chance I’d screw up, and I was relaxed enough that I knew I was making it enjoyable for him.  I taught him how to use a hand mixer and I learned that he’s better than I am at cracking eggs (okay, let’s be honest; this was a blow to my ego).

Now, before you see the picture, you need a bit of an explanation.  My fiance has a strange obsession with the moon.  Ask him anything:

Q:  Where do you want to go to dinner?
A:  The moon.

Q:  What do you want for your birthday?
A:  The moon.

Q:  What do you want to do this weekend?
A:  Go to the moon.

Q:  Where have you been?
A:  The moon.

So, while we prepared the batter, I laughed out loud when my fiance’s son said, “We should write ‘MOON’ on the top of this when it’s done!”  Good plan, little man.  Good plan.

And of course, when an 8-year-old is involved, there must be sprinkles.  I’m proud to report that these puppies were pretty darn delectable.

After an afternoon break that entailed purchasing wedding rings (yay!), I was right back in the kitchen making whole grain corn muffins and baked buffalo-style chicken nuggets.  The corn muffins had me a little nervous because the recipe involved a couple of things I haven’t dealt with much in my cooking adventures thus far.  First, I needed to make a “well” in the dry ingredients in which I would pour the wet ingredients.  Now, to me, a “well” is a vague term.  Are we talking a pot-hole sized well or a crater-sized well?  Or a well-sized well?  But it turned out the size of the well didn’t matter much.  I could only dig so much of a hole inside the dry ingredients before they all began to landslide back into the center of the bowl.  Here’s the kicker:  I’m still not sure why I had to go to all that trouble in the first place.  Once you pour the wet ingredients into the well you’ve made, you simply stir everything together until the dry stuff is moist.  Honestly, did the well play that big of a role?

However, I have no right to question anything.  I followed the directions like a good girl, and the corn muffins were so STINKING perfect.

I paired these babies with some baked buffalo-style chicken nuggets, which were also divine–even if they did make all three of us guzzle water and juice like it was going out of style.

(Random note to self:  you eat too many peas.)

It feels good to end Pinterest-free week on a good note.  My mom made the comment the other night that I no longer qualify for Worst Cooks in America, and I’m starting to think she’s right.  I’ve stumbled through some idiotic moments in the past four months, and while I’m sure I haven’t seen the end of them, I know I’m capable of doing this!  Bring it on, kitchen!

First broil and 20-calorie cookies

In 26 years, I have never turned on the broiler in the oven.  Until now.

That first statement makes me feel silly–especially because I recently purchased a brand spanking new range–so I found a recipe for some broiled Dijon chicken.  The finished product had nice flavor, and it was edible, but it wasn’t everything I’d hoped it would be.  The chicken came out, as Anne Burrell would say, “Duh-rye!”  Any dryer and I may as well have made chicken jerky for dinner.  All in all, this is what I learned about broiling chicken:  it’s just like baking chicken, but requires more work and poses a bigger risk of dryness.  When I discussed this with my mom, she suggested I use the broiler to make cheesy garlic bread or steak.  Lesson learned.

I also whipped up some mashed potatoes as a side dish.  With a wedding on the horizon, I’m choosing healthy alternatives whenever possible–so in this case, I mashed them with some low-sodium chicken broth, minced garlic, low fat sour cream, and pepper.  They were good, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t longing for some country gravy to spill all over them.

Speaking of healthy, I stumbled upon a recipe for 20-calorie cookies.  I typically pass on “healthy” dessert recipes because more often than not, they use Splenda (which I refuse to consume) or Stevia (which I’m too nervous to use).  But this one contained neither Splenda nor Stevia, so I gave it a try!  These banana-oatmeal cookies are flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg, with the option of adding butterscotch chips.  I didn’t have butterscotch chips on hand, but I did have some semisweet baking chocolate, so I shaved about 1/4 ounce into the batter.

I absolutely LOVE these cookies!  They’re no chocolate chip cookies, but they’ll do the trick for a dessert-craving lady who needs to fit into her wedding dress this summer.  Bonus:  they were so easy, I don’t think I could have screwed them up even if I tried.

Pie inside of a cake

A couple of months ago, my fiance found a picture on the Internet of a cake with a pie baked inside of it.  Though the sight of it made me sick to my stomach (sugar overdose, anyone?), he’s been drooling over the idea ever since.  So, tomorrow is his birthday.  And guess what I decided to make in place of the traditional boring birthday cake?

I enlisted the help of my mother–obviously, I wasn’t going to go it alone on this one.  After a week or so of mulling it over, we had a plan.  The grocery list:  two boxes of cake mix, frosting, and a pre-baked pie from the bakery.

Seems simple enough, eh? But wait…

I chose a cherry pie, cherry chip cake mix, and chocolate frosting.  But I’m sure the possibilities are endless.  Next, we baked two cakes (one with each mix).  I prepared one and my mom prepared the other.

Twinsies!

So, they look exactly alike, right?  They were even baked in identical pans.  But when the time came to remove the cakes from the pans, it was clear which one was mine.

*Sob*

Let’s back up for a second:  prior to pouring the batter in the pan, my mom made sure I understood that the pan needed to be sprayed with cooking spray and then dusted WELL with flour to prevent the cake from sticking.  After getting flour everywhere, I managed to get what I thought was enough flour on the bottom and the sides of the pan.  Lesson learned:  less is NOT more.  Flour is my friend.

So, we were in a predicament.  It came down to:  1) Try to glue the cake back together, or 2) Drive to the grocery store, buy another cake mix, and bake a new cake.  We settled on the idea of gluing the cake back together with cherry pie filling.

Had this been better planned, we would have acquired round cake pans and baked the cakes that way.  However, we decided on short notice to cut the cakes into a round shape to match the shape of the pie.  Luckily, this made it so that we didn’t have to glue my ruined cake back together–we just mashed in the missing corner and crossed our fingers it would stay.  Then, we carved out a bowl shape in the bottom layer and carefully set the pie inside.

United at last.

Next, we laid the second cake on top of the pie.  Then came……..the frosting.  (Cue suspenseful music:  dun-dun-duuuuuuuuun!)

This is where it would have been a THOUSAND times better had we planned ahead and baked round cakes.  But we weren’t about to start over, so we went with it.  Since the outside of our creation was all the crumbly interior of the cake, trying to frost it was like trying to paint sand.  I ended up scooping out frosting with my fingers and smashing it on to most of the exterior of the cake.

What a mess!

Seventy-nine cuss words later, we had the final product:

“Pike.”

I’d had my doubts, but this was DELICIOUS!  My fiance absolutely loves it.  It may not have looked like a cake in a bakery, but it did work–and it was worth every cuss word and every bit of chocolate that got permanently wedged under my fingernails.

Piece of cake! I mean pie. I mean…ah, forget it.