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Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasagna with Homemade Spinach Pasta

First, let’s dispense with the obligatory statement:

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

This month’s challenge was lasagna -- and not just any lasagna, lasagna with home-made noodles. And not just any noodles – spinach noodles! I was very excited by this challenge. Normally, when I make lasagna, I use the no-bake noodles, which I know purists cringe at, but actually taste perfectly fine. Plus, I am always on a tight schedule, so the time-saving aspect is indispensible. But, despite this, deep down in the recesses of my mind, I have always wanted to try home-made pasta. The closest I have ever come was some nice gorgonzola and walnut tortellini from the refrigerated section at Shop Rite.

For this challenge, our hosts provided 3 different recipes: Spinach Pasta, Ragu, and Bechamel. The spinach pasta was the true challenge, and we were told that we could use our favorite sauces in lieu of the provided recipes if we so wished. I chose to do this, because I was planning on making this lasagna for dinner with my parents, and my mom refuses to touch anything that contains a cream sauce. So, since the b├ęchamel sauce was out, I decided to just go ahead and make my normal lasagna meat sauce, which is really my friend Lauren’s meat sauce, she was good enough to share her techniques with me years ago.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Legend of Drunken Cupcake (aka Guinness Cupcakes)

In honor of St. Patty's Day (again), I decided to make another Irish-themed dessert -- Guinness Cupcakes! The best part is, they only called for 1 bottle of beer, which means there were 5 bottles left over!
I pulled this recipe off of the Food Network. It got great reviews, and I was intrigued by the idea of using Guinness as a cupcake additive. Don't get me wrong, I've used strange mix-in's before -- tomato soup cake springs to mind -- but I would have thought Guinness was a tad too bitter to use in a dessert. And yet, with its (slight) chocolate notes, I was curious to see how a Guinness chocolate cupcake would shape up. So without further ado:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Irish Soda Bread

I have wanted to try and make Irish soda bread for a long time now, and in honor of St. Patrick's Day coming up, I finally decided to give it a shot. I don't know what it is about Irish Soda Bread, but around this time of year, I crave it. Maybe it makes me feel more Irish. Of course, I'm not Irish at all...but everyone always thinks I am. So I routinely pass myself off as such during every mid-March.

I prefer my soda bread with just a hint of sweetness (especially in the yummy crusty outer part), so I hunted for a recipe that seemed like it would fit the bill. I came across Marilyn O'Reilly's Irish Soda Bread on the Food Network website. Not only was it the highest rated out of all the soda bread recipes, but it also called for more sugar than the others. So I decided that this recipe was definitely the one for me.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Peanut Butter Cookie Perfection

Peanut butter is basically my favorite thing. Don't get me wrong, I love other desserts too, and I won't always go for the peanut butter option depending on my mood, but peanut butter is pretty much a sure thing for me in terms of enjoyment. And, PB cookies are my fiance's absolute favorite (much to my chagrin, he is not a sweet tooth, and rarely eats what I bake, so the opportunity to make something he'll eat is also a huge motivating factor). So, needless to say, I have been looking around forever for a peanut butter cookie recipe. A great recipe. A recipe that is a bold, yet traditional PB cookie. All of the cookies I've tried are not peanut buttery enough, or the consistency is wrong, or they don't have the right color/look. Up until now, my efforts have been in vain. But then I spied, on Bakerella's blog (where else?), a peanut butter cookie recipe. And the thing that caught my eye was the ingredients list -- there were only 3 primary ingredients, and none of them was flour!

Could it be true? Could the answer to the perfect peanut butter cookie really be so simple? I couldn't wait to find out, so I tried the recipe, detemined to make a Valentine's Day gift to Charlie out of them if they turned out well. And...they did...oh, they did.

Brownie-Cookie Bliss

This is another tardy post, of something I made about a month ago. I came across a recipe posted on Bakerella's blog, that looked so simple and yet so tempting, that I couldn't resist: Brownie-chocolate chip cookie hybrids, covered in chocolate ganache! And, you can cut a few corners and use mixes, and they still come out fabulous.

(As an aside, if you haven't yet checked out Bakerella's blog, check it out! She is amazingly creative, amazingly talented, and amazingly inspirational. You're going to see me reference her blog a lot because she has a knack for making everything she does look outstanding.)

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled baking!

-- 1 bag of Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie mix

-- 1 box of brownie mix (any brand) for a 9x13 pan

I told you this would be easy

Mini Lemon Meringue Pies (the so-called Pie-lets)

This is a bit of a tardy post, I actually made these mini lemon meringue pies as a Christmas present for my godfather (lemon meringue is his favorite, but my godmother doesn't make it anymore).

This is a time-saving recipe, not completely from scratch, but you can't tell by taste. And the best part is, you can adapt this for other pies. But more about that later...


-- ~12 mini pie crusts. I found mine pre-made at my local orchard's store, your local supoermarket might have them as well. If not, there are 2 options: 1) get some refrigerated pie crust and mini aluminum plates and make your own by cutting the refrigerated dough in about 4-inch circles; or 2) use the mini Keebler graham cracker shells.Using the graham cracker shells with cooked pudding is supposedly a no-no because the crumbs get soggy, but honestly it'll still taste great.
-- a box of cooked lemon pudding (not instant) plus the specified ingredients on the box (sorry, I don't remember off the top of my head). Royal is a good brand. OR, if you have time, a good recipe for from-scratch cooked lemon pudding plus necessary ingredients (Alton has a great one here). Honestly, though, from-the-box pudding is very tasty, I'm not sure it is worth the effort to make it from scratch...
-- 4 egg whites
-- 2 tbls sugar
-- cream of tartar


1. The first step is to blind-bake the crusts (if you have dough crusts). If you want to put graham cracker crusts in the oven, that is up to you. It will make them taste good, but be sure to watch them carefully.
  • Prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork.
  • Normally you would cover it with aluminum or a second pie plate and weight it with dry beans or ceramic pie weights, but I didn't bother with weighing them down because the crusts were so small.
  • Bake at 425F until golden in color. This will depend on the size of your crusts, so keep watch. My little guys took about 6 minutes.
  • Cool completely before filling.
2. Cook the pudding according to the box or recipe instructions.

3. When the pudding is done, take it off the heat and put it on a trivet while you whip the eggs. This won't take more than a few minutes, so don't worry about a film forming over the pudding

4. Combine the egg whites, sugar and a pinch of cream-of-tartar, and whip in a stand mixer with a whisk attachment until stiff peaks form, probably less than 2 minutes.

5. At this point, put pudding into each crust, but leave a little room at the top, because the meringue will displace some pudding.

6. Cover the pudding with meringue, making sure that the meringue contacts the crust all the way around, and that there is a good seal. Meringue shrinks when baking, so this is very important so that your meringue doesn't shrink smaller than the circumference of your pies! I normally use a butter knife to get the characteristic meringue peaks -- just touch the flat side of the knife to the meringue and pull straight away.

7. Put the pies in the oven at 375F, and watch for the meringue to turn golden (keep an eye on the peaks so they don't burn).

I adapted this technique from a regular lemon meringue pie, so it goes without saying that you can do everything in a single 9-inch crust, and have a normal sized pie.

I haven't done it yet, but this little pie-let technique would work well for any single-crust pie (you could do a double crust pie too, but it would not be quite as easy because you would have to cut and fit a top crust). Pumpkin, pecan, and dutch apple pies leap to mind as potential future pie-lets. Oh, and of course the cream pies: chocolate, coconut, banana, etc.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

For the Love of Chocolate (Daring Baker’s Challenge, Feb. ’09)

February’s challenge is a Flourless Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Valentino, inspired by Malaysia’s “most flamboyant food ambassador”, Chef Wan. The recipe itself comes from Sweet Treats by Chef Wan.

For those who don’t know, flourless chocolate cakes, in addition to obviously being gluten-free, typically are based on chocolate custard (which is nothing more than dairy, eggs and in this case, chocolate). The custard is aerated with an egg foam, and the heat of the melted chocolate actually stabilizes the protein matrix of the cake so that it can hold its shape (since the cake has virtually no starch). The original cake is served with whipping cream, but the Challenge was changed slightly to include making home-made ice cream of any flavor (although two recipes were provided, which I will post below).

I was very excited to be working with chocolate because…what the heck can really go wrong when chocolate is your chosen medium?! Factor in the ice cream, and it’s a win-win no matter what happens.

The Equipment:

A pan – this cake is traditionally made in a heart-shaped pan, but we were told that any pan with a surface area of 50 inches would work well, including 6x8, 7x7, an 8 inch springform pan, as well as smaller pans and ramakins. I decided to go with a normal-sized muffin pan.

An instant read thermometer (recommended) – this is not required, but it is very helpful because it is hard to look at the cake and know that it is done but not over-done. The recipe gives you a temperature to shoot for, which is much easier and eliminates a lot of guesswork if you are using a pan other than the ones described in the recipe.

The Ingredients:

16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of chocolate, roughly chopped (I used a mixture of semi-sweet and bittersweet, but you can use whatever variety is your favorite. This cake is only as good as the chocolate you put into it, so use good quality chocolate!)
½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter (I used salted because it was all I had and I didn’t want to go shopping. It was no biggie)
5 large eggs separated

This recipe only has 3 ingredients, exceedingly simple, but such lush rewards!

1. Melt the chocolate with the butter. If you are a cautious fellow, that means following the bracketed instructions provided by the original recipe and doing the whole 9 yards with the double boiler. If you are like me, with one eye always on the clock, you’ve probably never fooled with a double boiler in your life. Here’s an easier way and it worked just dandy: put the butter and chocolate into a microwave safe bowl, and heat on high for no longer than 30 second increments at a time, keeping careful watch.

Here it is during and after, and it came together beautifully. [Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.]
2. While the chocolate butter mixture cooled, I greased my muffin pan with some of the remaining stick of butter. I did not fool with the parchment because it was a muffin pan, but I would recommend it for anything larger [butter your pan and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.]

3. Then I separated the egg yolks from the egg whites and put them into two bowls. I put the egg whites directly into my mixer’s bowl because I knew they had to be whipped. The rest of the cake I mixed by hand because everything was melted and liquid, and the cake turned out none the worse for wear.

4. I whipped the egg whites until stiff peaks formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).

6. Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate, a little at a time. Make sure the chocolate isn’t too hot, or the eggs will cook. I tempered my eggs with a little melted chocolate first, and then added them.

7. Then I folded in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds until there was no white, but not so much that the batter deflated.

8. Next, I poured batter into my muffin pan, about 3/4 of the way full (fill this much for any pan you use), and baked at 375F/190C

9. I ended up baking for about 17 minutes, until an instant thermometer read 140F/60C.
Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie. But try to use a thermometer because any cake tester will appear wet.

10. I then cooled for 10 minutes on a rack and depanned.

I decided that I didn’t want just plain cakes, so I whipped up a quick chocolate ganache to spread over them. I just eyeballed it, but this is roughly the proportions I used:

15 oz bittersweet chocolate

1 tsp butter

½ C light cream

I heated the butter and cream to just before boiling, and then took it off the heat and poured it over the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl, stirring until all the lumps were gone.

Then, I spread the ganache over the cakes.

The ice cream recipes provided to us are posted below, but I didn’t want plain old vanilla. I decided that a pistachio ice cream would go wonderfully with the chocolate, and look sharp next to the dark brown. So I gathered pistachios, eggs, cream, sugar…just kidding!! I gathered Breyers out of my freezer.

I barely had time to make the cake, much less homemade ice cream. But my feeling is that sometimes you have to pick your battles. If you can’t do everything, you pick the most important thing. For me, for this recipe, it was the cake. I doubted a from-scratch, pure chocolate cake would suffer much from being paired with store-bought ice cream, and I was right. Not only were the flavors delectable, but I don’t think anyone eating it would think there was anything lacking with the omission of homemade ice cream. I would like to try to make homemade ice cream eventually, but it’ll have to wait for a time and recipe where ice cream is the focus, not just garnish.

I’d give this recipe an 8 out of ten. Outstanding flavor. Mine was a little dry however, I either overwhipped the eggs or wasn’t vigilant enough in watching it bake. But honestly, covered in ganache and paired with ice cream, I’d still rate it higher than a lot of recipes I’ve tried. My Grand Marnier cake, which I believe was one of my very first blog posts, is very similar, although not entirely gluten-free if that is a necessity for anyone. I think this cake would benefit from a little booze in the ganache and or cake, in about the same amounts as the Grand Marnier cake (about 3 tbls for the cake, and 2-4 for the ganache depending on taste). I think a lot of liquors would work well with this type of cake and ganache. As anyone who sampled my cake knows, Grand Marnier goes fabulously. I have a sneaking suspicion that Frangelico will too, so that is next on my list. I also think Amaretto, Kahlua and Bailey’s are good bets as well.

Here are the two ice cream recipes as promised:

Dharm's Ice Cream Recipe
Classic Vanilla Ice Cream
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Recipe comes from the Ice Cream Book by Joanna Farrow and Sara Lewis (tested modifications and notes in parentheses by Dharm)

1 Vanilla Pod (or substitute with vanilla extract)
300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Semi Skimmed Milk – in the U.S. this is 2% fat (or use fresh full fat milk that is pasteurised and homogenised {as opposed to canned or powdered}). Dharm used whole milk.
4 large egg yolks
75g / 3oz / 6 tbsp caster sugar {superfine sugar can be achieved in a food processor or use regular granulated sugar}
5ml / 1 tsp corn flour {cornstarch}
300ml / ½ pint / 1 ¼ cups Double Cream (48% butter fat) {in the U.S. heavy cream is 37% fat)
{you can easily increase your cream's fat content by heating 1/4 cup of heavy cream with 3 Tbs of butter until melted - cool to room temperature and add to the heavy cream as soon as whisk marks appear in the cream, in a slow steady stream, with the mixer on low speed. Raise speed and continue whipping the cream) or use heavy cream the difference will be in the creaminess of the ice cream.

1. Using a small knife slit the vanilla pod lengthways. Pour the milk into a heavy based saucepan, add the vanilla pod and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and leave for 15 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse
Lift the vanilla pod up. Holding it over the pan, scrape the black seeds out of the pod with a small knife so that they fall back into the milk. SET the vanilla pod aside and bring the milk back to the boil.
2. Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and corn-flour in a bowl until the mixture is thick and foamy. 3. Gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over a gentle hear, stirring all the time
4. When the custard thickens and is smooth, pour it back into the bowl. Cool it then chill.
5. By Hand: Whip the cream until it has thickened but still falls from a spoon. Fold it into the custard and pour into a plastic tub or similar freeze-proof container. Freeze for 6 hours or until firm enough to scoop, beating it twice (during the freezing process – to get smoother ice cream or else the ice cream will be icy and coarse)
By Using and Ice Cream Maker: Stir the cream into the custard and churn the mixture until thick (follow instructions on your ice cream maker)

Wendy's Ice Cream Recipe
Vanilla Philadelphia Style Recipe
Preparation Time: 5 minutes

2 cups (473 ml) of half and half (1 cup of heavy cream and 1 cup of whole, full fat milk)
1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream
2/3 (128 grams) cup sugar
Dash of salt
1 (12 grams) tablespoon of vanilla

Mix all ingredients together (we do this in a plastic pitcher and mix with an emulsifier hand blender-whisking works too).
Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer
Mix in your ice cream maker as directed.

The fine print: The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.