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Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

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This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

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I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

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Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

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For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

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But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

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That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

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I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

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It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

Special Dork Tower Recipe Entry: Igor Bars

Igor Bars

BarsCutOutDork Tower is a wonderful comic strip by John Kovalic. Its characters make their way through the world with the help of gaming, geekdom, puns, and one another. One of the central characters is Igor, whose role in the strip is to represent reckless abandon. To Igor, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He’s the kind of gamer who will stay firmly ensconced at the table for the DoughMixedlongest, most complicated, most exhausting RPG at the con. If it’s excessive, it’s right up Igor’s alley.

And nothing is more excessive than Igor Bars.

John is contributing to the book “Geek Dad II” from the Geek Dad blog folks, and because recipes should be tested before they are printed in books, he CookiesBaked3asked for volunteers to test the recipe for Igor Bars. I’ve been curious about them for ages, so decided to go for it, with a degree of trepidation more appropriate to skydiving. That’s a silly comparison, I guess, though if I did go skydiving I’d be more likely to admit it to my doctor at my next checkup.

As John explains in the recipe, CaramelsPanMilkSaltCloseupmaking Igor Bars is a great family activity because kids of different ages can all help, and because there is endless opportunity for improvisation. Little fingers can unwrap the caramels; older children can cook the sauce or melt the chocolate. Everyone can suggest improvisations and additions: more nuts! Reese’s Cups! Milk Duds! There is no wrong variation on an Igor Bar. CaramelSauceMostlyMeltedHow can there be? When something is nutritionally wrong, all the rules fly out the window.

I decided to follow the classic structure for Igor Bars and add just one variation. So I began by lining a baking sheet with parchment and preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough to bake as a slab. John spells out the recipe in the version for the CaramelAndPeanutsbook, but I already know it by heart: cream butter with white and brown sugars, add vanilla, add eggs, add flour that’s been stirred with salt and baking soda, add chocolate chips, bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes. (Slightly underdone is better than overdone here.)

While the cookie layer baked I began the next part: the caramel StirringMarshmallows2sauce. I unwrapped two bags’ worth of Kraft Caramels. This is a tedious task, but soon enough I had a heavy saucepan full of little golden nuggets. I added three tablespoons of milk and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and heated the mixture slowly until it melted into a smooth sauce, stirring constantly. I spread the caramel sauce over the slightly cooled pan of cookies, then MarshmallowSaucesprinkled on a cup and a half of salted, roasted peanuts.

AddingRiceKrispies3Now it was time for the third layer: Rice Krispie treats. I melted three tablespoons of butter in the same heavy saucepan (washed out), then added a 10-ounce bag of mini marshmallows. (Sure, now that it doesn’t matter which kind of marshmallow I use, I can find mini marshmallows.) AddingRiceKrispiesToCookiesI stirred until the marshmallows were melted, then added six cups of Rice Krispies; when I’d fully incorporated the cereal into the marshmallowy mess I scooped it out onto the top of the caramel and peanut layer and used wax paper to press and spread it more evenly across the surface.

Now it was time for the variation I’d chosen: I spread a bag of peanut butter M&Ms across the top, pressing them lightly into the Rice Krispie treat layer to keep them from rolling off. They made a cheery and colorful addition.

And finally, the top layer: I melted a bag of semisweet BarsToppedWithKrispieschocolate chips and drizzled the melted chocolate over the top of the bars. I was hoping for a kind of artistic line-drawing effect, but there’s quite a bit of chocolate in a bag of chips, and my final artistic effect was more Pollock than pointillist.

I let the structure cool for a while, then cut it into more-or-less even squares (a messy business); I AddingPeanutButterMMs3just cut to a size that seemed reasonable to me and yielded 28 pieces. I put one each on plates for me and Scott, and we dug in.

Wow. Igor Bars are overwhelming. The juxtaposition of the caramel and the Rice Krispie layer is brilliant, and the contrasts are numerous: sweet and salty, chocolate and cookie, nut and sugar, marshmallow and MeltedChocolate3butter. I felt slightly dizzy after finishing my square. I began to think that John’s recipe estimate of “serves 20” was conservative; 40 might be more like it. Of course, I thought, I might see it differently if I were 13 instead of 43. When I was 13 I could drink Mountain Dew without feeling queasy, which is not true today. So serving count may vary by average age of the party.

ToppedWithChocolateA friend who has been staying with us was out on Saturday night when I made the bars, but she sampled the concoction last night. I didn’t realize that’s what she was doing in the kitchen until I heard a shout of “Oh, my god!” that had me afraid she’d managed to cut off an arm with a kitchen knife. But no, she was just swooning at the excess of Igor Bars.

BarsCutOut2Ken’s reaction in the Dork Tower strip turns out to be remarkably accurate.

I brought most of them in to work today. The dieters took one glance and determined not to come anywhere near them; others were drawn to them a moths to a flame. Nobody’s head exploded during the course of the day, so that’s good.

Verdict: Success, of the “What hath God wrought?” variety.

The Twinkies Cookbook: Twinkiehenge

Twinkiehenge

TwinkieHengeTwinkies are the epitome of processed food: spongy, resilient, wrapped in plastic, with only slightly more flavor than the wrapping, they are globally recognizable and endlessly the same. They couldn’t not be Recipes of the Damned. So when I saw The Twinkies Cookbook in the discount section at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, I had to buy it. What could one possibly cook with Twinkies?

PuddingIngreds2So many things, though “cook” is not always the operative word. An astounding 49 recipes, ranging from Twinkie Kebabs to Twinkie Ice Cream to Twinkie Tunnel Bundt Cake (yes, cake with a tunnel of Twinkies) to Pigs in a Twinkie. (In the upsettingly named chapter “Twinkies and Meat,” which only contains three recipes, thank heavens.) You can blend Twinkies into a milkshake. You can deep-fry them and serve them with chocolate sauce. (We tried that at Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; meh, unable to hold a candle to the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg.)

Oreos2But of course for the party I had to try Twinkiehenge.

It’s very simple. You start by mixing up some instant chocolate pudding, according to the package instructions. The recipe called for a 5.9-ounce package, but all I could find was two 3.9-ounce packages. This didn’t bother me; have you ever noticed that you never hear the phrase “too much pudding”? I mixed up the pudding and put it into a serving bowl, and topped it with crushed Oreos, about 16 cookies’ worth.

CrushingOreosNow it was time to add the Twinkies. The recipe says to cut Twinkies in half crosswise and stand them up on end, with the rounded edges up and the cut ends pushed into the pudding. But this seemed to me to be only halfway there. Stonehenge isn’t just standing vertical stones; it’s the crossbars that make it truly distinctive. Without them I’d have Twinkie Rapa Nui. So I halved a few Twinkies lengthwise as well and laid them atop the posts, and voila: Twinkiehenge.

CrushedOreosSome of you may have found the combination of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos familiar. When I was in my teens, back in the last century, our Y-Teens gatherings often featured a dessert known by a number of names: Better than Sex, Better than Robert Redford, God in a Pan. (Yes, we were in our mid-teens and Robert Redford was in his late 40s at that point. What can I say? The man can still bring it.) BTS was made of chocolate pudding, crushed Oreos (often still a bit chunky), and whipped cream or Cool Whip. We did not bother with Twinkies, or henges.

PuddingAndOreosOf course on Saturday it took us a while to get around to eating Twinkiehenge. It’s one of those dishes that looks too pretty, or at least too goofy, to eat. But we cast aside our fears of little Twinkie Druids casting little Twinkie curses on us, and dug in. Unsurprisingly, the combination of pudding and Oreos was tasty. The Twinkies didn’t really add anything to that. They didn’t detract; they were just kind of there.

TwinkieHenge3Verdict: Success, albeit silly. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Twinkie part again, but we’re working on transforming too much pudding into no more pudding.

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.

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.