Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge: Eclairs


My first Daring Bakers challenge! I just couldn't get them to look pretty, but let me tell you, they were tasty! Since we're a household of two, I brought most of the eclairs in to work earlier this month, and the reactions were funny. "You can make eclairs?" Some people thought they were made only in factories. They disappeared quickly, in any case. I had troubles in the beginning with eclairs that fell flat, since the instructions on sticking the spoon in the oven were confusing, but I got them to puff up all right.
I initially made both vanilla and chocolate pastry creams, since I thought that with the glaze it would be chocolate overload. But I wound up stirring melted chocolate into the vanilla cream after I tasted how divine the chocolate was. I also made the labor-intensive glaze on the first try, but swapped it out on Take 2 for a simple ganache (equal parts hot cream and bittersweet chocolate with a couple pats of butter). Now I just have to jog a million miles to work all those calories off!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Strawberry Scoops

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I made this earlier last week, when my college friend came to visit with her husband and kids. The looks on the girls' faces when I said I made them ice cream was adorable, and I let the older one turn on the machine and attach the paddle. Now my friend is all psyched to buy her own ice cream machine!

Strawberry Ice Cream from The Ultimate Ice Cream Book
3 cups strawberries (I used frozen strawberries without syrup, thawed)
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half-and half
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

Puree the strawberries with the salt in a food processor. There should be about 2 cups of puree. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the sugar into the eggs until thickened and pale yellow.
Bring the half-and-half to a simmer in a heavy medium saucepan. Slowly beat the hot half-and-half into the eggs and sugar. Pour the entire mixture back into the pan and place over low heat. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the custard thickens slightly. Be careful not to let the mixture boil or the eggs will scramble. Remove from heat and pour through a strainer into a large, clean bowl. Cool slightly, then stir in the puree, cream, and vanilla. Refrigerate overnight.
Freeze in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

I made these for our summer intern's goodbye party, as a tribute to her southern roots. Paula Deen's recipe looked popular online, but I took note of comments about the recipe being too oily and the funny undertaste of food coloring and made adjustments. Actually, the latter adjustment was involuntary -- I had only a half-bottle of red food coloring, about half a tablespoon (a quarter of what the recipe called for), and the batter still came out scarlet, like a pretty nail polish, as you can see here.

It effectively tastes like yellow cake, and I used my own cream cheese frosting recipe, which goes on all my carrot cakes and pumpkin squares. They made a great first impression on my coworkers, but some of them asked, "What's in them?" Doesn't everyone know what red velvet cake is? A couple even wrinkled their faces and walked off when I joked, "red food coloring," but they generally got great reviews.

RED VELVET CUPCAKES (Adapted from Paula Deen's)
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cocoa powder
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk, well-shaken
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 tbs red food coloring
1 tsp white distilled vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. In a large bowl, lightly beat together the oil, buttermilk, eggs, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla extract with an electric mixer. Stir in the dry ingredients.
Fill the cupcake tins about 2/3 full, and bake 20 to 22 minutes. Turn the pans around halfway through baking. Remove from oven and cool completely before frosting. Makes 24 cupcakes.

Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter together on high, and then mix in the confectioners sugar and vanilla extract on low. Frost cupcakes with an offset spatula or piping bag fitted with a star tip. Or snip the corner off a Ziploc bag to make a makeshift piping bag.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Favorite Use for Garden Tomatoes: Crostini

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I once told a friend who says she can't cook how easy these are to make, and she replied, "But it requires a heating element." Come on, anyone can toast bread, right? That's all the cooking required!

My tomatoes only started ripening around the second week of August, probably due to the lack of sunshine with the nonstop storms we've had. My basil plant, on the other hand, is about 2 feet tall! And both are required for one of my favorite summertime snacks. The other must is fresh mozzarella -- the soft, creamy kind that's packed or stored in water. Don't buy the cheaper, rubbery variety at the store. That stuff is fine for melting and disguising behind other ingredients, but with something this fresh you need the good cheese.

Some people will want to toss it back in the oven to cook the tomatoes a bit and melt the cheese, but I like the summery freshness of it my way.

1 baguette
3-4 plum tomatoes, sliced
1 ball fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
5-7 fresh basil leaves
Olive oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Slice the baguette into thin pieces and rub a bit of olive oil on them. Toast the bread on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes, until the bread is golden brown. You can also just throw them in your toaster oven, but that tends to brown just the outside instead of toasting the bread thoroughly for a nicer crunch.
After that, it's easy assembly. Top each piece of bread with a slice of mozzarella (the cheese acts as a nice barrier for the bread against the wetness of the tomato). Then top them each with a slice of tomato (and plum tomatoes are better because they have less water, leading to less sogginess). Slice your basil leaves into thin strips and scatter them over the tomatoes. Follow with dashes of salt and pepper. That's it!

These work great as party appetizers. You can also lay the ingredients out like I did above, but in larger quantities, and let guests assemble the finger food themselves.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tea in Boston & NYC

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I had afternoon tea with a few friends today, but I stopped at Whittard of Chelsea at Faneuil Hall first, and look what I got! They were 50% off, and so pretty! My heart also stopped at a set that featured cats, but the fine bone china looked too delicate for me to be comfortable using.

So we went to the Boston Langham hotel, and I snapped a pic of my plate with my cellphone like a tourist. My friends thought it would be funny to include an "after" shot, after I demolished my little finger sandwiches and pastries. Doesn't it look like a work of art (that is, the "before" shot)? I had smoked salmon (from top left down), ham mousse (better than it sounds), and cucumber sandwiches; scones, banana bread, and some walnut-y tea bread; and Boston cream pie (which, if you don't know, is actually a cake), a chocolate-covered strawberry, a macaroon, and a tasty madeleine. I washed it all down with cups of Assam. My favorite place is still the Taj, but they have the nerve not to serve on weekdays anymore! Still, this was, as my friend Bill put it, "pretty damn good."
I went to New York later that week to throw a bridal shower and visit my folks, and I had tea with my mom (she wanted to try it, too) at Lady Mendl's in Manhattan. Sorry, but no pictures! It looked like too much of a classy place (the type where waiters invade your personal space by putting your napkin on your lap for you... hate that) to be clicking pictures with my cell, so I chickened out. But I can describe!
It's located in an inn where an actress used to live, and the interior decor is beautiful 1920s New York style, with lots of beautiful wood paneling and candles. Tea there isn't served on a three-tier stand or square plate, but in five courses (and you can ask for seconds!). First course is a salad, followed by a second course of finger sandwiches. Those included cucumber; turkey with cranberry; smoked salmon; and sundried tomato and goat cheese. Third course consisted of scrumptious scones with Devonshire cream. For fourth course, you get a choice of a slice of chocolate mousse cake or a layered crepes with vanilla cream cake, both served with fresh berries. My mom picked the chocolate mousse cake and devoured it, and I thought the layered crepes cake was a bit squidgy and only OK. We couldn't really eat anymore, but there was a fifth course of chocolate-covered strawberries with petit fours and some poppyseed cookie I wasn't crazy about. Much was left on our plates. My darjeeling was tasty, and my mom chose a great oolong with mild floral notes. The whole experience was pretty good, and cost $35 per person. Worth checking out!