November 26, 2011

Extra Gingery Gingerbread

Eating at my parents house is an art. Meals are thoughtful--balanced and flavorful. Afternoon snacks are serious productions. For the few days surrounding Thanksgiving, the kitchen is the center of all activity. All morning is a rolling breakfast, accommodating those who wake up early and those who straggle in toward noon as the early risers are starting to think about lunch (or second breakfast).

Although the focus is, of course, on preparing the Thanksgiving dinner itself, no other meal is neglected, and this year our Thanksgiving eve dinner was a feast all in itself. My sister made a barley, white bean, kale risotto that was other-worldly. I will share the recipe with you just as soon as I learn how to make it. I was in charge of dessert, and, at my mother's request, made an old family favorite--Maida Heatter's Moosehead Gingerbread, which I have raved about before.

Gingerbread, which, if it has a season, is probably a winter dessert, is always cozy and hearty. It tastes like being home tucked in during a snow storm. With extra spice, it tastes like being home tucked in during a snow storm with all your closest friends having a dance party. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I LOVE gingerbread. I love it made into a cupcake with chocolate ganache frosting. I love it plain with a cup of coffee for breakfast. Gingersnaps are good too. I guess the common denominator is the combination of ginger and molasses. When my mother mentioned she had a bottle of ginger liqueur to flavor some whipped cream, it occurred to me the combination might make a good cocktail too. Ginger liqueur, plus molasses, plus bourbon? If you've tried out something like this and have a good recipe, please tell me about it!

Over the years, I have enjoyed a number of different gingerbread recipes, but this one is my go to. First, it is incredibly easy. Second, the powdered mustard and the coffee give the flavor a rich complexity that is unrivaled in most other recipes I have tried. The texture is cakey but not too dense. It isn't particularly sweet. It is great on its own or with ice cream. In fact, I bought an ice cream panoply to accompany this dessert: a pint of ginger ice cream, a pint of hazelnut gelato, a pint of raspberry sorbet, and a pint of spicy chocolate ice cream. Between the eight people at the dinner table, we tested out a number of combinations, and everyone was satisfied. Personally, I went for the spicy chocolate, ginger, gingerbread trio, and yum.

Usually, I follow this recipe exactly, but, as I was preparing the batter, I found a box of crystallized ginger on the counter. I thought it might be tasty to chop some up throw it in the batter, and let it sink to the bottom (it is a pretty runny batter). I decided to use my parents' old coffee grinder (turned spice grinder) and quickly learned that the grinder doesn't chop crystallized ginger into small pieces; instead, it turns the ginger into a paste. Oh well! I threw it on in to the batter. The ginger flavor in this version is stronger, but, I would argue better! If you want a milder version, you can leave out the extra ginger.

- Franklin

Moosehead Gingerbread
Adapted from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts
Total Time: 1 hour
Sweetness Factor: 5; Indulgence Factor: 5; Difficulty Factor: 3; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.

2.5 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1.5 teaspoons powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon (or more) finely ground black pepper
1 stick (1/4 pound) butter
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 eggs
1 cup molasses
1 heaping tablespoon instant coffee
1 cup boiling water
1 tablespoon (or more) puree crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 375 and butter and flour a 9*9 baking pan. In a small mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk thoroughly together.

In a stand mixer (or with hand mixer), cream the butter. Add the sugar, and beat for a few minutes. Add the eggs one a time. I find that because there is so little sugar in this recipe (and because sometimes I don't start with room temperature butter) that sometimes the batter looks funny at this stage (globby), but don't worry, just keep adding ingredients, scraping down the sides, and beating. It comes together in the end!

Add molasses. Beat until smooth. Add the coffee to the boiling water and stir to dissolve. On low speed, alternate additions of the coffee and the dry ingredients, starting with the dry ingredients. Beat until smooth. As I said above, this is a pretty runny batter. Don't worry!

Puree the crystallized ginger (you could also just chop it finely, for a different effect). Add to the batter and beat until just combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake about 35 minutes, until a tester comes out nearly clean and the top springs back when lightly touched. Cool in pan about ten minutes. You can remove from pan, or, for a less formal presentation, serve directly from the pan.

November 12, 2011

Birthday Cake (Yellow Cake with Lemon Curd)

In yet another example of my getting carried away, I recently volunteered to make a sixtieth birthday cake for forty. Ok, I admit, I really just wanted an excuse to break out my twelve inch cake round. Yellow cake with lemon curd was requested. I know, an unchocolate birthday cake. Don't worry, I snuck in some chocolate in the decoration.

I went back and forth but ultimately decided that three layers was the way to go. I had settled on a buttermilk yellow cake recipe, and every other time I've made a buttermilk yellow cake, the cakes barely rose. Of course, this time, they rose like gangbusters. Madison has had the same problem. It's still a mystery.

The recipes below are all for a nine inch, two layer cake. Each twelve incher is one 9 inch layer cake recipe. If you're counting, that means there were 12 eggs in the cake itself, let alone the curd.

I love curd as a filling for cake. Especially on a three layer cake, it seems important to me to fill with something different than what you frost with; otherwise, each piece just has way too much frosting. Lemon curd is especially nice. This one is a very basic recipe from the New York Times Dessert Cookbook. I made it about two thirds of the way through following the recipe exactly, before I started to panic that the curd wouldn't set thick enough to hold up the weight of so much cake. I decided to fall back on some trusty cornstarch. I dissolved about two teaspoons in water and threw it in. I don't think this was at all necessary, but it gave me piece of mind. My curd would not collapse under the weight of two towering twelve inch rounds!! Note: It is a good idea to make the curd a day in advance of cake assembly, to make sure it has plenty of time to chill and set up in the fridge.

Assembling this cake is definitely the fun part. With such large layers, stacking is exhilarating. It always involves just a few seconds of this might not happen, this might be a disaster, and then it happens, and it is not a disaster, and I feel extremely accomplished. Decorating, on the other hand, does not leave me feeling extremely accomplished. It leaves me feeling, well, inept. Usually, I cover for this by avoiding anything to do with pastry bags, decorating tips, and sugar flowers, and make my cakes look pretty by sprinkling on gobs of store bought sprinkles. This time I turned to my roommate, who we'll call Burke (A British American revolution sympathizer, in case you were wondering), who happens to have had a former career at an illustrious bakery in Boston. And check out that chocolate writing! Perfect!

My original plan was to frost with a lemon glaze, but when I realized how big the cake would be, I decided to go for something a little more showy. This was my chance to final master the seven-minute icing. Well, I think I made progress. The first time (and before this, the only time) that I tried to make a seven-minute icing, it never properly transformed from whipped egg whites into marshmallowy goodness. It didn't taste particularly good, and it looked even more disgusting. This time, I was determined. I whipped those eggs for way longer than seven minutes, and transform they did! Into gooey, sweet goodness. I made one fatal miscalculation, however. Following the advice of Martha Stewart, I had (while making the lemon curd the day before) put the egg whites into an ice cube tray to freeze separately for future use (not realizing future use would be the next day). The problem is that it turns out that my ice cube trays hold slightly less than a full egg white per container. My seven minute icing didn't have quite enough egg white in it, and it never properly set. Over the course of the evening, more and more of the frosting slid slowly down the sides of the cake. No one seemed to notice. But the next day, when I went to eat my cake leftovers that I had been sent home with, the frosting had fallen off completely.

But before the slow frosting slide, the cake survived the five mile ride in the trunk of my car. I don't think I've ever been honked at for slow driving so many times in my life! It survived the trip from the car to the kitchen counter. It survived being removed from the box my roommate had carefully fit around it. And none of these moments was quite so scary as the one in which I realized that it would be my responsibility to cut the cake. I've made wedding cake before, but at the critical juncture of eating time, have always gratefully passed it off the caterer, always a seasoned cake-cutting expert. So, in case you can't tell from the picture below, this is an area in which I need practice. I cut pieces that looked more like tall cake towers than slices of cake. I guess I need another occasion, so I can make another cake this big, and get another chance to get it right.

- Franklin

Delicious No-Fail Yellow Cake
Total Time (for one batch, triple for cake described above): 1.5 hours
Sweetness Factor: 7; Indulgence Factor: 7; Difficulty Factor: 4; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.
Recipe over here at Smitten Kitchen.

Seven Minute Icing
Total time: 30 minutes.
Sweetness Factor: 10; Indulgence Factor: 8; Difficulty Factor: 8; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10
Again, recipe at Smitten Kitchen. Thanks Deb!

Lemon Curd
Total time: 5 - 24 hours (1 hour active).
Sweetness Factor: 3; Indulgence Factor: 7; Difficulty Factor: 7; Chance I'll Make it Again: 9
Adapted from the New York Times Dessert Cookbook

8 large eggs yolks
1/2 cup lemon juice
grated zest of two lemons
1/4 cup sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter

In a double boiler (or if you're me, last week, before your roommates got you an AWESOME for real double boiler, in a ceramic bowl perched on top of a saucepan), combine egg yolks, lemon juice, and zest. Whisk in the sugar. Whisk, over simmering water, until it starts to thicken.

At this point, and you're a "it won't thicken" panicker like me, add some cornstarch dissolved in water. If you have a bit more faith, skip this step. Once it starts to thicken, remove from heat, add the butter, cut into tablespoon or so size tabs, one piece at a time. Once butter has completed melt and is thoroughly whisked in, place the bowl in an ice bath and let cool. Once it is room temperature, cover, and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. At least five hours.

11/11/11 11:11

I'm a day late, and a few prep pictures short, but I need to share this one anyway. Yesterday, for anyone out there who didn't notice, was the one-eist day most of us will experience during our lifetimes. I celebrated twice, at 11:11 AM, and at 11:11 PM. And I made these chocolate gingerbread cookies in honor of the occasion. I followed this Martha Stewart recipe exactly, so I won't repeat it here. I will say though, that I never fully appreciated how great cookie cutters are until I tried to make shaped cookies free form. As you can tell from the pictures, I got lazy after making quite a few proper ones and started making thin lines, which, conveniently, doubled as slashes for writing out the date.

The cookies themselves were delicious, achieving a delicate balance of chocolate and ginger that didn't drown out either flavor. They might make an appearance at this year's holiday cookie decorating fiesta.

Here they are: 11/11/11, 11:11 cookies!
Sweetness Factor: 7; Indulgence Factor: 6; Difficulty Factor: 9 (without a cookie cutter, 5 with); Chance I'll Make them Again: 9 (with a cookie cutter, 4 without).

November 5, 2011

Ginger Apple Muffins (and cake)

I got my apple picking in just under the wire this year. By the last weekend in October, most of the Orchards within a reasonable drive of the city are close to picked out. Any apples left worth eating are well out of reach. At the Orchard I went to (Stribling, in Virginia), they were passing out apple picking poles, which I unfortunately didn't get any pictures of. They are about ten foot long wood poles with a wire basket at the end. And let me tell you, they are not so easy to use. In the end, my friend and I resorted to climbing the trees, and, as a result, came away with ten pounds of apples each!

I planned to make an enormous apple crumble, but came to find my roommate had just made one with the apples I foolishly bought at the store the day before. I decided instead to try to recreate the apple cake that Stribling sells in its bakery. A small loaf cake, it was crusty on the outside and light on the inside. It had subtle hints of cinnamon, but nothing overpowering. I asked for the recipe, but they don't give it out.

I scoured all my recipe books looking for something that seemed like it would approximate the same result. The closest I found was an apple cardamom muffin from the Metropolitan Bakery Cookbook. Reading this recipe reminded me why that bakery is so delicious: it called for three sticks of butter, four eggs, two cups of heavy cream, and a cup of sour cream. Now, I'm definitely not adverse to following that recipe exactly, but the last two ingredients I just didn't have in the house (I don't even have milk, since my roommates decided to experiment with substituting almond milk for the real thing, mostly a success so far), and I was stocking up on butter for a serious cake project (stay tuned on that), so I set to work at revision. Heavy cream = almond milk. Sour cream = plain yogurt. Three sticks of butter = two sticks of butter. Four eggs = three eggs. Lastly, cardamom = ginger. No offense to cardamom, I just don't love it.

Not quite following the instructions on the proper apple to batter ratio, I ended up with muffins that nearly fell apart because of their heavy apple content. And they were perfect--with a nice crust on top, a substantial mouthful of apple in every bite, and a moist but not too heavy and not too sweet muffin base. Where I went wrong was what I decided to do after putting the first dozen in the oven. I didn't want to wait and make a second batch (I only have one muffin tin, so I can only do twelve at a time), so I through the rest of the dough and batter into an 8*8 and then accidentally underbaked it. The dough to apple recipe was way too high. Next time, I will either cut the recipe in half or I will make it when I have enough time to go through too rounds of baking.

- Franklin

Ginger Apple Muffins
Adapted from The Metropolitan Bakery Cookbook
Makes 2 dozen
Total Time: 1.25 hours
Sweetness Factor: 5; Indulgence Factor: 5; Difficulty Factor: 4; Chance I'll Make it Again: 8.

For the Apple Filling:
6 Apples (recipe calls for Granny Smith, I used Staymans)
3 tablespoons water
1 cinnamon stick
Juice of 1 lemon

For the Batter:
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 and 1/4 cups sugar (divided)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
2 cups unsweetened plain almond milk
1 cup plain yogurt
3 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare muffin tins (either with paper inserts or with a thorough buttering). Peel, core, and chop the apples. Combine about the apples in a saucepan with the other filling ingredients. Remove about 1/3 the apples and set aside. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the apples are soft. Finely dice the remaining apples (I went for more of a rough chop -- depends on how chunky you prefer the ovens). Once the cooking apples are soft, mash them a bit and add the remaining apples to the mix.

While the apples are cooking down, combine the flour, 1 1/2 cups sugar, baking powder, ginger, salt, and brown sugar in a stand mixer. Cut the butter in small cubes and toss with flour/sugar mixture. On low speed with paddle attachment, mix until the butter is nearly combined (should resemble a course meal).

In a separate bowl, whisk together the almond milk, yogurt, and eggs. Add to the flour mixture (on low speed) and blend until just smooth.

Fill the prepared muffin tins 1/3 - 1/2 full with batter. Put a healthy scoop of apples onto each muffin and cover with another dollop of batter. Sprinkle with the remaining granulated sugar. Bake 20 minutes until a wooden skewer comes out clean (when stuck into a batter part of the muffin). Allow muffins to cool in the pan for about five minutes, then remove and eat while still warm (although they're also pretty good the next day)!