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You Deserve Dessert! Don’t Mind If I Do

cream cheese brownies

SoloBrownieYesterday afternoon I felt like baking. I’m not sure why; it was close to 80 degrees out and muggy as anything. But I wanted to make goodies to take to work, and I had some cream cheese that I’d meant to use for cupcake frosting but I didn’t get to make the cupcakes because I worked late the night I’d intended to bake. Of course I didn’t want to make cupcakes when it was 80 BrownieIngredsdegrees out — or at least, I didn’t want to make frosting, only to watch it melt — but I thought, surely somewhere in the books yet to be used I can find a recipe for cream cheese brownies.

You Deserve Dessert is another of those cookbooks from a cookbook club. I managed to accumulate several of these before I finally quit. They’re very pretty books, ChocolateButterwhich makes them the more tempting to keep instead of mailing back. This book consists of recipes contributed by members, and as soon as I saw that I knew I was sure to find what I was looking for. Cream cheese brownies seem like a key part of a household baker’s repertoire — though I suppose that doesn’t explain why I’d never made them for myself before.

CreamCheeseMixt2I started by buttering an 8×8-inch baking pan and then melting a stick of butter with two ounces of semisweet chocolate. I suspected this meant the brownies would be rather sweet, but I pressed on. I beat 8 ounces of softened cream cheese with 1/3 cup of sugar, an egg and 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract, and set that aside. In another bowl I beat the chocolate mixture with a MainBattercup of sugar and two eggs, then added a mixture of 3/4 cup of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

I poured about half of the chocolate batter into my pan. Then I added the cream cheese mixture. The recipe says to spread it on top, but of course the mixture was just thick enough that I couldn’t quite spread it AddingFlourevenly. That was fine with me; one of the things I like about cream cheese brownies is the irregular marbling effect. Once I’d made sure that the cream cheese mixture was equitably if not uniformly distributed across the pan, I added the rest of the chocolate batter and poked at it a bit with a spatula to ensure more marbling. Then I put the pan into a 350-degree oven, swore loudly, LayeringInPanpulled the pan out, sprinkled on roughly half a cup of chopped pecans, and put it back into the oven. I let it bake for about 40 minutes and then let it cool for a while before cutting it into squares.

The brownies were good but, as I suspected, rather sweet. I like contrast; I like a strong chocolate flavor tempered by a sweet PanToBakebatter, or a tart cream cheese flavor balanced against sugar. Both the chocolate part and the cream cheese part were distinctly sweet, and the pecans were unsalted, so didn’t offer much tang in contrast. Don’t get me wrong; they tasted good, and the people at work today certainly didn’t complain to me about the sweetness. But if I were to do this again I think I’d substitute one BrowniesCoolingounce of unsweetened chocolate for one of the ounces of semisweet and reduce the sugar in the cream cheese mixture a little. I could also use salted pecans, or perhaps I could sugar-glaze them and use half the sugar in the cream cheese part. Hmm.

But I’m not making them again until it cools down here. I haven’t checked the weather forecast, so I’m not sure if that means next week or next September, but I can wait.

Verdict: Success. Certainly worth trying again, if only to play around with the recipe a little.

Eating Well Dessert Cookbook: Lemon Pudding, Rather Pretty

lemon pudding

DustedWithSugar2I’ve had the Eating Well Dessert Cookbook for years, and I’m not sure if I’ve made anything from it. I’ve consulted it many times and have long admired its design: beautiful photos, clear and easy-to-read pages. Still, there was always an excuse. Oh, that calls for something I don’t have right now. Oh, that calls for coffee, so Scott won’t like it. Oh, ZestingLemonthat needs to chill — too late to make it now.

My original plan was to take care of two recipes yesterday: to make a pasta dish from another cookbook (upcoming) for dinner and a dessert from this book. But we got a late start on the day and found ourselves out and about running errands and too hungry to wait until we got home to eat. PuddingIngredsSo we had a late lunch, which became an early dinner since we were never hungry enough afterward for a real meal. This happens to us sometimes on the weekends and I ought to have been prepared. Anyway, when we got home I decided that whatever the fate of the pasta dish, I would go ahead and make the lemon pudding.

SugarEggButterZestI chose lemon pudding for a few reasons. The chief one is that it was ridiculously warm in New York the past few days — still is as I write, in fact — and I wanted something that would be light and refreshing. It also offered novelty: I’ve never made a lemon pudding before, and have made precious few puddings in general. And it looked simple, and didn’t add much to my shopping list.

AboutToAddEggWhitesI began by lightly buttering four ramekins. (The recipe says to oil them, but since there’s butter in the recipe I thought it wouldn’t do much harm to use it for the pans too and take a light hand.)¬† I also zested a lemon to yield two teaspoons of zest, then juiced it and one more to yield a quarter of a cup of juice. Then I separated three eggs and set aside the yolks. I mixed a fourth PuddingBatterfull egg with half a cup of sugar, one and a half tablespoons of softened butter, and the lemon zest, beating them together for about three minutes. I added three tablespoons of flour and mixed that in well, then added a cup of milk and the lemon juice.

At this point I pulled out the mixer beaters and washed them, and then beat the egg whites PuddingToBakeuntil they were stiff but not dry. I folded them into the lemon mixture and divided the resulting thick and liquidy batter into the ramekins, which I positioned in a baking pan. I carefully poured hot water into the baking pan so that it reached about two-thirds of the way up the ramekins. This is called a bain-marie; it serves the same purpose in the oven as using a double boiler does on the PuddingBaked3stovetop, ensuring that the food in the container is cooked gently. I maneuvered the pan into the oven and baked it for about half an hour. When the pudding had cooled a bit I lifted the ramekins out of the pan and let them finish cooling on a rack.

When we were ready for dessert, I sifted a bit of powdered sugar on top and brought the pudding PuddingCoolingout with spoons. The pudding was delightful, with a rich lemony taste and a smooth consistency. The tartness of lemon was counterbalanced by the sweetness, particularly the powdered sugar.

Verdict: Success. The only downside of this is that it requires you to heat the oven. But I could always make it ahead of time and pull it from the fridge to serve on a warm summer’s night. And if the current weather is any indication, we’re going to get a lot of those this year.

Beard On Bread: The Greatest Thing Since–Um, Wait

sour cream bread

SlicedBreadBeard On Bread, at least my copy, is a slim little mass-market paperback compilation of great bread recipes from the legendary James Beard. The man knew what he was doing. The book starts with information about flours, equipment and techniques, but moves quickly to bread recipes. Offerings range from basic white breads to dark and rye breads, dessert and sweet breads, YeastMixturequick-rise rolls, flat breads and even fried dough offerings.

I had to check the volume carefully to make sure I didn’t try anything I’ve done before. That ruled out at least one oatmeal bread, some biscuit recipes and the cinnamon bread, which is designed as a cinnamon-flavored loaf but which I like to use as a base for a substantial cinnamon AddingFlourToDoughroll, thickly layered with nuts and cinnamon sugar and slathered with cream cheese frosting. (That particular recipe is fun for a weekend breakfast, and you can save time by making it the night before, shaping the rolls and then putting the pans in the fridge overnight for a slow rise — just let them sit at room temperature for about half an hour before they go into the oven.)

DoughToKneadI chose sour cream bread, because I don’t care for rye bread and I wanted something that could go with dinner rather than a sweet breakfast bread. Sour cream bread is also a good choice because it’s fairly easy and takes only two rises.

I started by proofing some yeast with sugar and water. While the mixture began to bubble, I mixed DoughBallToRise3sour cream with some salt and baking powder. Then I added the yeast mixture to the sour cream and stirred in four cups of flour. The recipe said the dough was supposed to be very wet and sticky at this point; mine was sticky but not especially wet, so it was not difficult to turn out onto a floured counter and knead into a springy but not-too-sticky ball. I washed and buttered the mixing RisenDough2bowl, thumped the dough into it and turned it over so the top side was buttered, covered it with plastic wrap, and let it rise. The recipe says to let it rise “until doubled,” without specifying a time; our kitchen was a bit cool, so when I checked it at 75 minutes I didn’t think it had doubled. The two-hour mark showed better results.

RisenLoavesNow I buttered two loaf pans, then turned out and punched down my dough, kneaded it briefly, and shaped it into loaves. I don’t remember where I learned this particular trick, but for a nicely shaped loaf, I shape the dough into a rectangle approximately the size of my pan, press it into the loaf pan so that it’s fully stretched to all sides, and then lift it out and turn it over. BakedLoavesThis ensures that the top is buttered and reasonably level for the second rise. I loosely covered the pans and let them rise for a little more than an hour.

When the timer went off I preheated the oven to 375, and put in the loaves for 35 minutes. At the end of the baking they were nicely browned and made a good sound when thumped. I let BakedLoaves2them cool in the pans for about five minutes, then turned the loaves out onto the rack and let them cool a bit longer. I was in luck: The dinner I was making required a higher baking temperature, so I had to bake the bread ahead of time. This gave the loaves enough time to cool so that I could slice them neatly, instead of hacking them into primitive chunks as I’m prone to BakedLoaves3do with fresh hot bread.

The bread was delicious, with a smooth, light texture and a subtle tang. It’s going to be great for toast, I can see.

Verdict: Success. Easy, delicious, well worth the (minimal) effort.

Cooking With Gourmet Grains: Easy Pudding

double chocolate pudding

PuddingBowlCooking With Gourmet Grains is a Recipes of the Damned book, sent to me by Sallyacious with sticky notes calling out some of the most egregious concoctions. The foremost of those is “wheat germ chicken with peaches,” which Sally tags “the reason I bought this book.” It’s basically oven-fried chicken and oven-fried peaches, breaded with wheat germ. The peaches are canned PuddingIngredientshalves, not fresh peaches, though I’m not sure that would help matters.

The book itself is a plastic coil-bound relic of the early 1970s, all brown illustrations on natural-tone paper and that dated typeface that I’m pretty sure was only really in use between about 1968 and 1979. I’d call it hippy-dippy but that would be DryMixtureunduly insulting to hippies. Its theme is the use of grains, and the category is quite broad, ranging from kasha and wheat germ to all-purpose flour; basically, if the Stone-Buhr company manufactures it, it counts.

I didn’t bother to try to search out Stone-Buhr brand grains, which I’m not sure are PuddingBattereasily available in this part of the country, and I didn’t feel compelled to make anything I found especially hippy-dippy. This left me with a lot of options, though since I knew I’d be working on a weeknight I ruled out yeast breads and breakfast foods. I also decided I should probably try something that wasn’t just a variation of something I’ve made before, BatterWSugarMixturewhich struck off a lot of the baked goods. Eventually I settled on double chocolate pudding, because it looked easy. Suspiciously easy, I thought. Surely this can’t work?

I started by mixing together some whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, sugar, cocoa and salt; in another bowl I combined melted butter, milk and vanilla, then PuddingPlusWatermixed the liquids into the dry ingredients. This resulted in a smooth and thick batter, which I spread in a baking dish. Then I mixed some cocoa and sugar (this second application of cocoa accounts for the “double” chocolate), which I spread evenly over the batter. Then I carefully poured some water over the whole thing, and put the now unlovely-looking mixture into the BakedPuddingoven for about 45 minutes. During the baking it puffed up and formed a crust with a moist interior. I let the pudding cool for a bit, then served it up; the warm concoction had a mixed consistency, dense cake-like structure with lots of soft gooey spots, which worked together nicely. It tasted rich and chocolatey. It would have been good with ice cream or whipped cream, but it was just fine on its own.

You may be saying that doesn’t sound like pudding. Certainly it’s not like stovetop puddings or Jell-O pudding, but it’s more like what one might call “a pudding,” a denser baked dessert. Whatever you call it, it’s tasty, and unbelievably easy.

Verdict: Success. Easy dessert, good flavor, no canned peaches.

McCall’s Cookie Collection: Two New (to Me) Holiday Cookies

coffee-almond lace wafers, glazed fudge drops

RolledWafersThis is the third and last Christmas cookie post. I’ve come back to McCall’s Cookie Collection, which I used in June only to realize I’d made that recipe before, and so this time I was careful to choose things I know I’ve never made. From this book or any other, in fact. As is my wont, I tried to choose cookies that would be a little bit tricky, but both recipes were surprisingly GlazingFudgeDropseasy.

The first one I attempted was coffee-almond lace wafers. The batter itself is simple: Combine ground almonds (I used a coffee grinder to grind my own), butter, sugar, instant coffee, milk and a bit of flour in a saucepan, and stir them together over low heat until the butter is melted.

IngredsForCoffeeAlmondLaceHere I must make an FTC-guidelines-style disclaimer: The instant coffee I used was Starbucks VIA, Colombian, and I got it free from another far more popular blogger, Clutch 22, who is a co-worker; Starbucks had sent her a generous supply of both Colombian and Italian varieties and encouraged her to blog about it, share samples with others, and encourage them to blog about it MeltingButteras well. So Starbucks has indirectly provided me with free samples in hopes that I will endorse it. I drank some in October and enjoyed it, but never wrote about it. But I was very glad to have it on hand for this recipe, because I was not inclined to go out and buy other kinds of instant coffee for the sake of the recipe. Unlike other brands that I’ve tried when stuck in cheap LiquidBatteroffice settings or motels, VIA actually tastes like real coffee. And it imparted a very good coffee flavor to these cookies. Plus, the little single-serve packet was exactly the right amount for the recipe. So, OK, I’m endorsing it.

Once the batter was a smooth liquid, I poured little rounds of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, BatterToBakeabout five rounds per cookie sheet. I baked them one sheet at a time for about 8 minutes, during which time the batter spread in a lacy pattern; then I let the sheet cool for about a minute.

Now came what I thought would be the tricky part: I picked up each round in turn and rolled it around the handle of a wooden BakedFlatWafersspoon, then placed the cylinder on a cooling rack to finish setting. In fact the cookies began to stiffen up as soon as they were lifted from the cookie sheet, and if I didn’t move quickly enough the last cookie would harden too soon and shatter when I tried to roll it. But once I got a feel for the pace at which I needed to lift and roll, this part became very easy. I love it when you can follow some IngredsForFudgeDropssimple steps and produce something that looks complicated and elegant.

The cooled cookies were delicious, with a rich coffee and almond flavor, but quite fragile. I decided not to ship any because I did not think they would survive handling by the Postal Service, so those we didn’t eat at the party went in to the office, where they were very MixingFudgeBatterwell received.

The other recipe I tried was for glazed fudge drops. These were fairly easy as well, and may be the only cookie I’ve made in years that doesn’t call for butter. In one bowl I mixed flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. In another bowl I beat eggs with vegetable oil, vanilla, almond extract and FudgeBatterWithNutssugar; I then stirred in the flour mixture and chopped walnuts, and chilled the resulting stiff dough for 30 minutes, during which time I sifted powdered sugar and beat it with a bit of milk to make a glaze.

I took the dough out of the fridge and scooped spoonfuls of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, and baked them for about 10 minutes. FudgeDropsToBakeI let them cool on the cookie sheets for a minute or two, then transferred the cookies to a cooling rack set over parchment and spooned on glaze, then sprinkled on chocolate jimmies. I made the mistake of glazing too many at first without adding the jimmies right away; the glaze hardens fast, so you really have to glaze and then sprinkle about four at a time to keep the jimmies FudgeDropsBakedfrom just bouncing right off. I was quite pleased to see that the glaze was almost exactly the right amount for the number of cookies the recipe produced, with barely a cookie’s worth left in the bowl when all were coated. The resulting cookies were tasty — nutty and chewy, with a good chocolate flavor — and everyone seemed to enjoy them.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be adding these to my repertoire, and maybe I can even figure out a way to securely pack the coffee-almond lace wafers for shipping.

Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies: The Great Caramel Spill of 2009

golden popcorn squares

CaramelPopcornBarsThe really crazy part of this isn’t that I tried out a caramel sauce recipe that nearly led to disaster. The really crazy part is that I almost made fortune cookies in addition to the other holiday sweets.

PopcornMartha Stewart Holiday Cookies is another of those special-issue magazines, this one from 2001 (several years before we lived above Zupan’s). I’ve used it before; I’m quite fond of the oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, and there’s a chocolate cookie that I make every year (I did this year too, but didn’t take pictures since it’s not new for the blog). Most of these recipes are charming and truly special, and this appealed to me because I don’t want to do PopcornNPeanutsanything dull or unoriginal when it comes to my holiday baking.

So I gave very serious thought to making fortune cookies, for which Martha provides a recipe. I’ve made fortune cookies before, nearly 20 years ago now; the tricky part is folding them quickly before they harden. But when I was doing my last planning for the baking marathon I calculated CookingSyrupforCaramelhow long it would take to make them, and realized that I would have to devote 2 hours just to the fortune cookies; they go slowly because you can only bake two at a time to ensure you have time to fold them.

So I turned instead to golden popcorn squares. Every other cookie in the magazine has a big glorious display photograph. CookingSyrup2Golden popcorn squares appear in a photo that’s really featuring creative ways to pack and wrap the cookies, and I had to dig to find it; the squares are a pretty small part of the scene. I think there’s a reason for this. They’re not an elegantly pretty cookie. They are a somewhat rustic bar. And, oh, they are messy.

Golden popcorn squares have CaramelSaucethree basic ingredients: popcorn, peanuts and caramel sauce. Popcorn was easy: I used our stovetop popper and some Greenmarket popcorn kernels and canola oil, and in short order had exactly 12 cups of beautiful, white, fluffy kernels — and no unpopped kernels. I thought this was auspicious, which just goes to show you that I am not always in tune with my intuition. I added some peanuts, and I took a few moments to prepare the baking pan: oil the pan, line it with parchment, oil the parchment. Then I turned my attention to the caramel sauce, for which Martha provides the recipe.

CaramelCornI wasn’t intimidated at the prospect of making caramel sauce on the stovetop. I’ve made peanut brittle before, so heating sugar syrup is nothing new to me. And I was careful to use a good, heavy saucepan, a nice Calphalon one I received for Christmas a few years ago. The recipe specifies that the saucepan should be at least 3 inches deep, and this one was 4 inches. What I failed to take into account was that I was making one and a half recipes’ worth. So I blithely moved ahead. I combined sugar, PanToBakecream of tartar, salt and water in the pan and cooked it until it reached 300 degrees. This is kind of fun to watch: When it reaches 212 the water boils out vigorously, and it looks like it’s going to bubble out of control but it doesn’t. When the mixture reached 300, I attempted to follow the direction to pour heavy cream slowly down the side of the saucepan. I believe the object of doing it this way is to quickly warm up the cream before it reaches the syrup. Unfortunately, my pan was small enough that I had very little side of pan exposed above the top of the sugar mixture, and could not help but pour some of the still-cool cream directly into the sauce, which caused it to bubble over dramatically.

CleanedStovetopThe first rule in any cooking mishap is not to panic. The second is to remove a boiling-over mixture from the hot burner, which I did immediately, though it was a little tough because the sticky mixture really wanted to adhere the pan to the stovetop. I went ahead and finished incorporating the cream into the sauce, then mixed it with the popcorn and peanuts and PanBakedNTurnedpressed the mixture tightly into the baking pan. With bars safely in the oven, I turned my attention to the stovetop. As you can see, I took a couple of pictures of mess mode, but of course I couldn’t capture the most alarming points of the boiling-over because I needed to focus on dealing with the crisis itself. And I am inordinately proud of the fact that it did not occur to me until hours later to summon my husband out to the kitchen to document the disaster for me. This tells me I haven’t entirely taken leave of my senses. (You cannot blame me for wanting assurance sometimes.)

PanBakedNTurned2Caramel sauce is a sticky substance, and burned caramel sauce really wants to adhere to the stovetop. Fortunately, the thing that makes it so sticky is also the key to its cleanup: The stuff is mostly sugar, and sugar dissolves in hot water. I did a bit of damage to a kitchen sponge, but with some concerted effort I was able to wipe away the stuck-on goo in pretty short order, and I had managed to clear away nearly all traces before the popcorn mixture was ready to come out of the oven. What really saved me was the new flat stovetop; it would have been a lot harder to safely get the caramel out of the pipes and crevice of a gas stove burner.

SlabToCutWe weren’t done with the recipe yet, though. Martha directs you to prepare two pans, but I only have one of that size. Her instructions call for letting the baked bars cool for 5 minutes, then inverting the mixture into the second prepared pan and letting that cool entirely. Perhaps, I thought, I could turn the bars onto a cookie sheet. So I tried it, and CuttingSlabthe caramel quickly began to dribble down and the popcorn slab to sag and spread. It would seem the point of the second pan is to get the baked mixture into cooler surroundings as quickly as possible to allow it to set up. So I hustled to wash, re-oil and re-parchment the pan, then invert the now shaggy-looking mixture back into it. The whole thing was somewhat lopsided and irregular, but I left it to cool overnight anyway.

CuttingSlab2The next day, I turned the now-set bars out of the pan onto a cutting board and hewed it into squares. I expected that part to be more difficult, but my knife is a pretty good one, and it didn’t take me long to make passable bars. They looked great, though the longer they sat at room temperature the more they wanted to adhere to one another. By the time I was ready to bag up treats I’d given up on the concept of “bars,” and of “pretty,” and decided to see it as bags of caramel corn.

CaramelPopcornBars2And it was delicious. Is delicious; I’m nibbling on some right now. (Carefully, so as not to get my keyboard sticky.) I may have to get a second baking pan and a larger Calphalon saucepan, sharpen my knife, and try it again next year.

Verdict: Close enough. I made caramel corn and got the stovetop clean again. That’s good enough for me.

Christmas Cookies: First of Three Holiday Cookie Posts

Christmas sugar wafers

DecoratedShapes2Christmas Cookies is a pretty little volume published by Oxmoor House, which also puts out a lot of Martha Stewart titles. The photography is lovely, and the recipes are very nice. I’ve used this book before; last year I made a pecan-butter cookie that was truly delicious and very easy. I may make some of those this coming weekend, now that I think about it. But this past weekend I SugarWaferIngredientswas determined to take advantage of my holiday baking frenzy to check a few blog titles off the list, and the rules call for new recipes, so the pecan-butter cookies did not make the cut. Instead, I decided to try Christmas sugar wafers, which have earned themselves a place near the head of my sugar cookie list.

BeatenWetMixtureNot that this list is terribly long, mind you. Most sugar cookies are not too exciting. Bakery sugar cookies are usually forgettable, and the ones from the plastic tube are execrable. But they’re fun. If you’re baking cookies for the holidays you need to have some that you can cut into shapes and decorate, and it’s silly to add creamy frosting and colored sprinkles to a cookie BeatenDoughthat’s flavorful enough to stand on its own. Sugar cookies do not need to be strongly flavored, but they should be buttery rather than cardboard-y. For years I’ve made my Christmas cutout cookies from a sour cream cookie recipe, which provides a nice rich undertone to the chocolate jimmies and icing squiggles and red hots.

DividingDoughThe challenge with sugar cookies is that they’re easy to overwork. The dough at its best is delicate and buttery, but rolling it repeatedly on a floury surface can make it tough and dull the flavor. There are two main ways to minimize this risk: chilling the dough so that it is not overly soft and kneadable when it is rolled, and rolling it between sheets of parchment or wax paper to DividingDough2minimize the use of flour. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques quite cleverly: once you have mixed the dough you roll it, between sheets of waxed paper, into four rounds, then put it into the freezer for at least half an hour (overnight turns out to be fine too); when you are ready to cut, you can get right to it without additional rolling, and the RollingSugarCookiesstill-cold cookies will not stretch or tear as you transfer them to the baking sheet.

Making the dough was fairly easy. I started by combining the dry ingredients: flour, some cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I think the cornstarch helped mitigate toughness too, by helping to stiffen the dough without gluten. CookieShapesThen I beat together some butter, white sugar and brown sugar. When it was fluffy, I added vanilla and egg whites (the absence of yolks was another factor in a lighter, airier dough). I beat in the flour mixture, then divided and rolled the dough and chilled it. I took only one circle out of the freezer at a time, and did my best to cut the shapes as close together as possible to ensure the CookieShapes2least possible scrap dough to re-roll.

I baked the cookies until they were lightly browned and let them cool. That evening I hosted a cookie party; I’d invited people only a few days before (I’d sort of overlooked that detail in the midst of a crazed week back at work) and so there were only a few of us, but we had a good time BakedCookies2frosting and adorning the shapes. We also had a good time drinking the delicious Belgian-style beer that one guest brought, with up to 12% alcohol, which is the sort of thing that you don’t notice at the time but are acutely aware of the next morning when you have to get up and go to work. Fortunately, decorated sugar cookies can help restore one’s spirits, though not quite as BakedCookieseffectively as lots of water and a large coffee.

I invited guests to take home cookies, then packed what was left into little bags and sent most of them off to distant friends. Fingers crossed they will arrive in good time, still recognizable as trees and pigs and bells rather than crumbs and clumps. (Yes, pigs. I have a pig cookie cutter DecoratedShapesand I use it. Those of you who are Discworld fans can take this as a¬† nod to Hogswatchnight, the night that the Hogfather travels around the world giving gifts, assuming things haven’t gone awry.)

Verdict: Success. The cookies were light and buttery, and took well to decoration — better than the sour cream cookies, in fact. I may have to make these my holiday decorating standards.

Laurel’s Kitchen Bread: Patience Is a Virtue

oatmeal bread

SlicedLoafSaturday was a nasty day in New York: cold, gloomy and rainy, with snow making a halfhearted attempt to fall closer to sundown. Scott was fighting off a cold. It seemed like a perfect day to make soup, but I didn’t feel like digging out a soup recipe from the blog cookbooks; I wanted to make my usual improvised chicken soup. Still, it seemed to be high time to knock off another CookingOatmeal2blog post, so I looked at my current stack. Bread! This would also be a great day to make bread.

The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book is a compendium of bread recipes from Laurel Robertson, author of the popular Laurel’s Kitchen vegetarian cookbooks. The book was a gift from a friend, and I realized a few things as I was DissolvingYeastflipping through it, the chief thing being that I should have started working on the bread a lot earlier in the day. For oatmeal bread I’d need to cook up some oatmeal and let it cool, though I didn’t have the “several hours” recommended in the recipe. Would something else be faster? Anything with “overnight started” was probably out. I flipped through the pages. “For a 12-hour AddingHoneyNOilrise…” was the quicker version for one bread. It looked like oatmeal was my best bet, but I would need to get cracking.

As I cooked the oatmeal I thought about how similar this recipe was to another favorite oatmeal loaf, from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, another vegetarian classic. In both, you cook and cool the oatmeal, then mix in salt, StiffDoughsweetener (usually but not necessarily honey) and oil, and add it to the proofed yeast and flour. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest doesn’t require quite as many rises, though, and my focus on quantity rather than process — along with my consciousness of the ticking clock — ultimately led me into error.

I cooked and cooled oatmeal. DoughForFirstRiseWhen the oatmeal had cooled enough, I dissolved some yeast in warm water. (May I put in a plug here for bulk packages of yeast? So much better quality, and less expensive per use, than the little sheaf of three servings.) I stirred some honey and vegetable oil into the oatmeal (I had already salted it right after I took it off the burner), then mixed it into the yeast mixture and added five DoughForSecondRisecups of flour. Laurel recommends five cups of finely ground whole wheat flour; I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant so I ended up using two cups of whole wheat pastry flour, two cups of whole wheat flour, and one cup of white flour. The mixture started out thick and stiff, but as I kneaded it, the moisture gradually worked out of the oatmeal into the rest of the dough and the mass became OatPanssoft and pliable. When it felt right to me, after about 10 minutes of kneading, I washed and oiled the original bowl, shaped the dough into a ball, and set it to rise, covered, for not quite an hour and a half.

When the kitchen timer went off I came out to inspect the dough. It looked larger, but the cookbook recommends you test the texture DoughForLoavesrather than relying on volume. So I poked a finger in about half an inch, and the hole did not close up; this meant it was ready to press into a somewhat flat disc and allow to rise for about 40 minutes. During this rise I cut up my soup vegetables. When the timer went off, I followed Laurel’s instructions and shaped the dough into two balls, which I then let rest. “Until they are much LoavesInPanssofter” was the direction, but they seemed quite soft to me; I let them sit for 10 minutes, during which time I set the oven to preheat, then greased two loaf pans and sprinkled them with rolled oats. I shaped the dough balls into loaves and laid them in the pans.

This is where I messed up. I misread the recipe, and I was BakedLoaves2thinking, “two rises, that’s pretty standard.” So I failed to catch that I was supposed to let the dough rise once again in the pans, “until doubled.” In my defense, it was getting rather late already. I suppose that’s no defense. I should have cooked the oatmeal earlier in the day, which means I should have decided earlier in the day to make soup and bread, which means I should SlicingLoafCloseuphave gotten out of bed earlier. Oops. Instead, I blithely slid the pans into the preheated oven, and set about making soup.

I didn’t realize my mistake until about 5 minutes before the bread was due to come out of the oven, which was rather too late to do anything about it. The loaves did puff up a bit while baking, but clearly they are flatter than they would have been if given their last rise. They were also a bit denser than the recipe described, which is not surprising. The taste was good, though I think it would have been a little bit richer and mellower if I had followed instructions. No matter. The bread was still a fine accompaniment to soup.

Verdict: Success, but points off for technical error. I’ll have to try the recipe again some time, starting it earlier in the day.

Miss Leslie’s Secrets: My First Real Failure

sunderlands or jelly puffs

I first learned of Miss Eliza Leslie when I was in graduate school, doing some research on American 19th century etiquette guides. Miss Leslie had written a popular one, full of advice on matters such as dining at table, writing letters, paying visits, and navigating crowded sidewalks. In one section about proper behavior at a party, Miss Leslie went on at great length about the fact that if you are meeting a cookbook author, you should refrain from saying things like “I tried that recipe and it did not work” unless you really did follow the instructions scrupulously. When I read this, I laughed, but after a morning spent wrestling with a Miss Leslie cookbook I am beginning to understand why she found herself in these conversations.

This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for, isn’t it? My first major failure. I searched through Miss Leslie’s Secrets, a facsimile reprint of the 1854 New Receipts for Cooking by Miss Leslie, trying to find something I would be able to make in a 2009 kitchen, and I failed.

To be sure, Miss Leslie didn’t give me a lot to work with. Many of the recipes proved unsuitable because I was unable or unwilling to find the right ingredients; I was stopped cold by lines such as “Having roasted some reed-birds, larks, plovers or any other small birds, such as are usually eaten…” and “Have ready an ounce of the best Russia isinglass boiled to a thick jelly in half a pint of water.” (I will not relate the instructions for killing a turtle.) I had also decided I needed to make food, not home cleaning supplies or physick, so I could not avail myself of offerings such as “cure for prickly heat” (bathing with wheat bran), red lip salve (involving suet, lard and alkanet), or gum-arabic paste.

Techniques were another challenge. I knew that if I baked, determining oven temperature would be tricky since Miss Leslie is rather vague on this head; I knew that vegetables were an unlikely choice because of my principled refusal to boil the life out of them. I knew that measurements would vary among weights, size estimates (“take of the prepared rice a portion about the size of an egg”) and odd volumes (“a wine-glass of strong, fresh yeast”). I knew that all these things might work against me, and yet I pressed on.

After ruling out meat-pies, puddings and blancmange, I settled on “sunderlands, or jelly puffs.” The recipe looked simple: a pint of milk, half a pound of butter, half a pound of flour, and eight eggs. I halved the recipe, having only two mouths to feed rather than a houseful of children and servants, and even so it looked feasible. Until, that is, I attempted to follow Miss Leslie’s first set of instructions:

Cut up the butter in the milk, and if in cold weather, set it in a warm place, on the stove, or on the hearth near the fire, till the butter is quite soft; but do not allow it to melt or oil; it must be merely warmed so as to soften. Then take it off, and with a knife stir the butter well through the milk till thoroughly mixed.

Is this something you have ever tried to do? Let me tell you now, it’s not easy. Even when warmed, soft butter does not want to blend evenly with liquid milk. Soft butter wants to lump back together in a soft buttery mass. I don’t know if the butter would have blended in more readily if the milk had not been homogenized, but it sure didn’t want to blend here. Mixing with a knife in a cutting motion (trying to break up the butter) got me nowhere; trying to use a spoon was no help. Finally I tried to beat with the knife as if it were a beater blade, and this seemed at least to distribute little bits of butter more evenly through the milk. I would not call this thoroughly mixed, but at least we were somewhat advanced from the stage of large isolated lumps of butter in broad expanses of milk by the time my arm felt like it was going to fall off from all the beating.

Then there was the flour. I don’t have a kitchen scale and so had to estimate using our regular scale (step on with the bowl of flour, step on without it, calculate the difference, add or remove flour as appropriate). I probably didn’t have enough flour. Certainly the batter was thin, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of the flour or because of the failure of the butter to mix well with the milk. Miss Leslie doesn’t mention what the batter should look like.

The eggs were relatively easy: beat “with a whisk until they are very thick and light.” It’s possible I could have beaten the eggs longer — did I mention my arm was tired? — but I did get them thick and light. At this point I was to add the flour alternately with the eggs to the milk and butter mixture, then “stir the whole very hard” and put it into buttered muffin tins. OK, Miss Leslie said buttered tea-cups, but I have muffin tins and I know they’re oven-safe.

I was not too sanguine about the mixture, but put it in the oven. Miss Leslie instructs you to bake the puffs in a “brisk oven,” which I decided was probably somewhere around 375 degrees. “Bake them twenty minutes or more, till they are well browned, and puffed up very light,” she says. I began to recover some of my optimism as they baked; when I turned on the oven light about eight minutes along the batter was definitely rising, and by twelve minutes they were really puffing up. I might have puffs after all, I thought. And I did — until I took the puffs from the oven and they fell flat before I could even set the pans down.

Miss Leslie instructs you to cut a slit in the side of the hot puff and fill it with jelly, but there was no longer any space to fill. So I dabbed peach jam on the tops of the no-longer-puffs instead, then sprinkled them with powdered sugar as instructed. I served them freshly made, though Miss Leslie recommends they be eaten cold. “If properly made they will be found delicious,” she concludes. ([Expletive deleted] you too, Miss Leslie!) I can tell you that although not properly made they still tasted all right — rather eggy, but not bad, and well matched with jam and the sugar.

I think it’s possible that if I had added more flour I would have gotten a more robust puff that would not have fallen. I think it highly probable that if I had used an electric mixer I would have gotten well-mixed milk and butter. (Imagine if Miss Leslie had had a KitchenAid! There would have been no stopping her.) I am highly unlikely to try these again, but if I did want to give this another shot I’d get a scale so I could be more confident of the right amount of flour; I’d use a mixer to cream the butter and then gradually add the milk while beating so that it would be slowly worked in; and I’d dig through some of my other comprehensive cookbooks to see if I should change the temperature up or down from 375.

Verdict: Failure. It had to happen some time, I suppose. My husband just walked past and saw me at work. “Miss Leslie Regrets,” he said. “That’s what you’re having right now.” Too true.