Friday, December 16, 2011

Good Food: Christmas in a Ball

Imagine you could take the essence of Christmas, wrap it up in a little ball, cram it in your mouth and allow that Christmas essence to explode in your face, in a good way.  Well, these little gems may not truly explode, but they do have a certain something that certainly makes people do a double take.

I’ve found myself watching the cake ball/cake pop trend over the past few years.  I must confess I’ve not been exactly chomping at the bit to try my hand at this latest baking fad.  I’ve had an opportunity to try a few cake balls/pops myself and have found myself too often underwhelmed at their flavor and texture.  To be sure, many are quite a delight to look at, much as a fondant draped cake may be a site to behold.  But for me, if you cut past the beautiful exterior only to find a mediocre or even disappointing dessert hiding there, I just can’t help but find myself let down.

Cake balls, however, are somewhat the rage right now, and I felt I really needed to give it a shot, if for no other reason than to be ‘with it’, at least in baking circles.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Desserts: Chocolate Caramel Brownies

The best thing about blogging for yourself is that you can take some time away and not feel like you’re letting your readers down.  I know there is a small number of folks that check out my site, but to be certain, the main reason I blog is because I want to:  A. keep a record of my recipes as well as baking adventures; B. I have opinions about things and want a venue to express them; C. I love photography and want a place to present my work.  I do it because baking, having opinions and shooting photographs always seems a waste if you don’t do something with them.  Even if I never try to make this blog into a big deal, I know my thoughts and work are here for me to review later, or, if she is ever interested, my daughter, little GT.
That being said, it has been awhile since I’ve last posted, and while I’ve been busy cooking and baking during that absence, it just hasn’t been high on the priority list to get those things posted here.  But, I’m feeling an urging that it was time to get things going again, and so, I return.
Today’s post features an amazing recipe.  Since most of what I’m seeing out in the blogosphere right now is centering on pumpkin-based desserts, I wanted to slip in an alternative.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the wide variety of pumpkin goodies out there, in fact I will make my fair share.  But this particular recipe is a star of the show in 2011, so I couldn’t let it go by any longer.
Let me say that I am a huge brownie fan.  Let me also say that I am a bit of a brownie snob.  Side note: according to Mrs. GT, I am becoming a food snob in general.  I resent that remark.  I simply know what I like and how I like it.  Is that truly snobbery?  I think not.  When it comes to brownies, I’ve had the displeasure of putting some pretty lousy representations of the genre into my pie-hole (brownie hole?).   Just as there seems to be distinct sides in the cookie debate – crunchy vs. chewy (I am definitely a chewy), there are at least 2 sides to the brownie debate – cakey vs. dense/fudgy.  As for me, I have to say I enjoy the merits of both, but in the end, I am more of a dense/fudgy guy.  I’m sure Mrs. GT would love to have fun with that last comment, but this is my blog, not hers. J
So it was with great pleasure that I discovered my first ‘favorite’ brownie recipe a few years back.  While I’ve never posted about this recipe, it is my go-to recipe any time I need a standard, knock-em-dead brownie.  It’s not fancy.  It’s not even all that pretty.  But whip up a batch of these and I guarantee they’ll be gone in a heartbeat.  I can honestly say I’ve never had leftovers when I make those brownies.
I am very picky about what I will call a ‘favorite’ recipe.  I’m kind of always on the lookout for a ‘favorite’ of each type of baked good.  Favorite pie crust.  Favorite scone.  Favorite Snickerdoodle (still on the search for this one).  It seems even when I find a ‘favorite’, I just can’t keep my cheatin’ eyes from wandering about the web looking for something even better.
Thus arrived in my life, the following recipe.  It was obviously popular because many bloggers had posted about this same recipe, many originating with one particular site.   We had a gathering of friends coming up and I was looking to do something different than my usual.  This looked like it could work.  I copied the recipe down and got to work.
The first thing I can say about this recipe is that I was a bit uncertain about it.  I am always concerned with multi-layered creations.  It just seems like there is too much that can go wrong.  I am also hesitant about desserts that layer multiple flavors and textures together.  I start to wonder if one part of the dessert will really stand out and the rest is just there for fluff?  Honestly, I thought all those things about this dessert.  Then I made them.  I realized I had nothing to worry about.
Just look at the photos.  I dare you to look at them and, if you have any honesty in your bones about loving chocolate and caramel, deny that you wouldn’t eat those photos if you could.   From a photography standpoint, these babies were made to be in front of the camera.   I think it’s that caramel, slowly dripping down the side.  It’s like every commercial you see for a candy bar featuring caramel.  If it’s running, oozing, you know you want it.  Fortunately, while this caramel does run, it only runs just enough to make you want it, not enough to make a big mess and ruin the dessert.
As for the overall taste, let’s just say that these brownies just work.  The whole combination of a fudgy brownie, creamy caramel and chocolate chips just come together in a great flavor/texture combination.  After having made these twice for various gatherings, I can honestly say this recipe goes into the ‘favorites’ file and will definitely be made again. 
Now please, stop licking the screen…it’s embarrassing.

Chocolate Caramel Brownies
Original recipe from Annie's Eats, slightly modified by me (brownie stacking idea by Annie too!)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsly chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup semi-sweet or bitter-sweet chocolate chips
14 oz caramel candies, unwrapped or 14 oz homemade caramels
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp kosher salt

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a 9x13 cake pan or brownie pan with foil, being sure to leave extra foil over-lapping the edges to help remove the brownies from the pan.  Spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray, set aside.

Combine the butter and chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water.   Heat, stirring occasionally until completely smooth.  Remove from the pan and set aside.  Whisk in sugar, eggs and vanilla until well mixed.  Add the flour and salt and stir just until combined.  Spread about 1/2 the batter in the baking pan, spreading evenly.  Bake this first layer for 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool while you make the caramel. 

Place the caramel, evaporated milk and kosher salt in a small saucepan.  Melt over medium-low heat, stirring frequently.  Once you have a completely smooth mixture, remove from heat and immediately pour over the first brownie layer.  Spread caramel evenly.  Next add the remaining brownie batter over the caramel layer.  It's best to drop spoonfulls of batter evenly over the caramel, then using an offset spatula, spread evenly over the caramel.  If the batter seems too thick, prior to adding to the pan, briefly warm the batter in the microwave for 1 minute at 50% power.  This should make the batter a bit easier to spread.  Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the final brownie layer.  Return the brownies to the oven and bake an additional 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven and place pan on a wire rack to cool completely.

To cut brownies, first lift them from the pan using the foil tabs and place on a cutting board.  Cut into squares and serve or store, covered, for up to 3 days, if they last that long.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Daring Bakers do Candy!!!

The August 2011 Daring Bakers’ Challenge was hosted by Lisa of Parsley, Sage,Desserts and Line Drive and Mandy of What the Fruitcake?!. These two sugar mavens challenged us to make sinfully delicious candies! This was a special challenge for the Daring Bakers because the good folks at offered an amazing prize for the winner of the most creative and delicious candy!

Wow, what a great challenge.  My biggest complaint is that I didn’t have enough time to possibly try all the different recipes they included with the challenge.  That being said, I’m putting them in the file, because I intend to try most, if not all of them.  My second, somewhat smaller complaint is this:  Tempering Chocolate in August???  I thought my chocolate would never cool enough for proper tempering, but more on that in a moment.

I should just say that among the things I most want to accomplish in the kitchen, high-quality candy making has always been high on the list.  I love to bake, but when I see those rows and rows of beautiful candies at places like See’s and Van Duyn, I just can’t help but feel the desire to replicate them myself.
But, candy making is very often an exact science.  Temperatures must be carefully controlled.  Humidity can’t be too high for certain recipes.  Ambient temperature can’t be too high for certain recipes.  August?  High humidity and temperature.  But, the challenge was set forth, so I endured to the end, the bittersweet end.
While I have successfully made different candies in the past, where I have been most challenged is getting that shiny, crisp, perfectly finished chocolate shell that is the hallmark of a good candy maker.  I’ve attempted to temper before with poor results.  I think now those previous failures were caused by using the wrong chocolate for tempering.  Another factor contributing to that failure was likely poor temperature management due to poor quality thermometers.
This time, I chose the best quality chocolate I could get locally (Lindt) and tested 5 different thermometers for accuracy prior to putting them to work.  By the way, two of those thermometers are now part of the local landfill program (don’t worry, no mercury was put in the trash) – they were off so badly that they didn’t even technically qualify as thermometers.  Working with a relatively small amount of chocolate, which I knew might make temperature management more difficult, I was able to attain a near perfect temper.  I wish my photos did more justice to the finished product, but what I got was shiny, didn’t melt easily after setting and snapped when bitten into.  The only flaws were cosmetic flaws such as some minor blooming that appeared likely due to my lack of perfect temper.  But I was very satisfied, nonetheless.
Stepping aside from the chocolate for a moment, I decided to make the Sponge Candy for the non-chocolate portion of the challenge.  Where I’m from, you only get this on the coast and they call it Sea Foam.  It’s usually sold in a variety of jagged shapes and sizes and dipped in milk or dark chocolate.  It’s really good stuff.  Since Mrs. GT has a sweet spot in her heart for Sea Foam, I decided to oblige her.
The Burned Blob
I chose a recipe that I notice some other chose from the Wilde in the Kitchen blog.  I trusted that her testing of the recipe would lead to better results for me.  Well, that is if you remember to take the clear plastic cover off the probe of your thermometer before you cook the candy.  You see, that cover acts as a thermal barrier, which means your temperature is actually higher than what your thermometer says.  Yeah, not good.  By the time my FIRST batch was done, I could tell something was wrong.  It seemed too dark and when I added the additional ingredients, it about exploded out of the pot, followed by a nearly immediate seize that barely allowed me to get it out of the pan.  When cooled, it tasted burnt.  In the trash it went (along with those dang thermometers!).   Prior to batch #2, I finally noticed the now melted plastic cover on the temp probe.  I cut it away from the probe (it had melted to it), and attempted again.  This time, to be extra safe, I pulled it from the stove about 5 degrees shy of the finish temp.  Things looked much different, and much better this time around.  Nothing smelled burnt, the mass didn’t grow exponentially when I added the final ingredients, and I had a longer (though still brief) working time.  Final result?  A little off of the Sea Foam we get here, but very tasty nonetheless.  It was nice to see it work.
A Much Better Result - Proper Temperature Control
Back to the chocolate.  This challenge included a contest for the most creative and delicious candy.  I had several ideas go through my mind, but ultimately , I felt the need to work with bacon.  Not just any bacon mind you, but candied bacon.  Folks, if you are not familiar with candied bacon, well, let me just say you are missing out on one darn fine treat.  Basically you take slices of bacon, coat them in brown sugar, then bake them.  When they’re done and cooled, you get a sweet, crispy, mapley piece of candy/meat heaven.  But candifying bacon wouldn’t be enough.  I wanted to incorporate this into my newly tempered chocolate.  So, I decided to mix the two together, in a bonbon/truffle form. 
Candied Bacon - Give it a Try - You'll be Hooked!
I had 2 ideas for a filling – one for a dark chocolate ganache with finely chopped pieces of candied bacon mixed in, and one for a maple cream with pieces of candied bacon mixed in.  I would line candy molds with tempered chocolate, fill them with the ganache/bacon or maple cream/bacon and close them up for a nice presentation.  In the end, I would say the maple/bacon version was the best, but the chocolate version came in a darn close second.  The pieces of bacon lent an interesting semi-crunchy texture, along with a little saltiness.  As the candies sat, the flavors melded a bit more and were even better a few days later.
Adding the last of the 'seed' chocolate
The tempering process was a bit touchy, but I came up with a decent Williams Sonoma digital thermometer that was sensitive enough and accurate enough to give me good measurments for the small batch of chocolate I tempered.  Due to the heat outside and in the house, it took forever for even the small amount of chocolate to cool from the initial melt down to the 2nd temperature in the tempering phase.  In fact, I was starting to toy with putting in the refrigerator.  But, patience paid off and I finally got the temperature down.  A quick heat to the final working temperature and I was ready to coat my molds.  All in all, the tempering was not the scary unforgiving process I had come to think of it as.  I learned some new skills that gave me the success I wanted.  By the way, one of my books noted that before you coat your candy molds with chocolate, polish them with a dry cotton ball to help assure a very smooth surface for your finished chocolates.
Waiting Patiently to Cool Down
I'm sorry to say I don’t have photos of the maple cream/bacon versions – they honestly didn’t last long enough to photograph since I only made a small number.  I did get photos of the chocolate ganache/bacon version in two different candy molds.  If you look closely, you’ll see those lovely pieces of bacon.
Candied Bacon gets Stirred into the Ganache
I would recommend, by the way, if you ever choose to make candied bacon for an application such as this, take whatever amount of candied bacon you need for your recipe, and at least quadruple it.  I guarantee you’ll need it around to keep from gobbling up the pieces you really need.
Thanks again for a great challenge.  This was one of my favorites so far.  Thanks for getting me back into tempering again.  Now I know I can make it work, so I’ll be certain to use this technique again in the future.

Be sure to check out the recipes, techniques and the other Daring Bakers that have participated in this month's challenge.  You can find it all at The Daring Kitchen website.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Daring Bakers do Fresh Fraisiers

Every once in awhile, someone manages to stump me with a dessert whose name I've not heard of before.  This month, it happened to be the Daring Baker's challenge that presented me with a new name for my baking vocabulary:  Fraisiers

Jana of Cherry Tea Cakes was our July Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to make Fresh Frasiers inspired by recipes written by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson in the beautiful cookbook Tartine.

The dessert combines a chiffon cake, simple syrup, a pastry cream mousse and fresh fruit.  One of the key elements of this dish are the pieces of fresh fruit (typically strawberries) that encircle the outside of the mousse layer.  We were given plenty of leeway to be creative with the dessert as long as we made the base components from scratch.  We could change the flavor, the fruit and the presentation to our liking.

Unfortunately, time being what it is, I could not do what I had hoped to do – wine poached pears with a chocolate chiffon cake and chocolate pastry cream mousse.  I ran out of time though when a few of those unexpected events in life hit during the time I plan to use to do my challenge.  So, once again, I found myself up against the clock.  I had time to do most of it,  but I had to sacrifice the pears.  The compromise would be strawberries, which are in season now and readily available.

I stuck with my idea for the chocolate chiffon cake and the chocolate pastry cream.  The recipe included an option to make the chocolate chiffon cake, but not for the pastry cream.  I decided I would throw a ¼ cup of unsweetened cocoa powder into the pastry cream base, and while it appeared to curdle a bit, it did turn out quite nice in the end.  I also added about a teaspoon of espresso powder to both the cake batter and the pastry cream to help accentuate the chocolate flavor.  I also added a bit of espresso powder and vanilla extract to the simple syrup recipe.

In the end, the construction of the cake was not as difficult as I thought it would be.  Assembly took less than an hour.  The final product looked pretty nice.  I think if I were to make this again, I would now have the experience with this dessert to help clean up the edges a bit more and make it even prettier.  What I can say is that even though it wasn’t as pretty as I would have liked it, it still turned out very nicely.  The bright red strawberries were a nice contrast to the light brown hue of the mousse.  The flavor was very nice.  The chocolate wasn’t overpowering, the mousse was set up nicely and the strawberries and chocolate were a nice combination.

While I’m not certain whether I’ll make this particular dessert again, I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn a few new techniques that I know I’ll be using in the future.  Another great challenge from the Daring Bakers!

If you would like to see more posts from the Daring Bakers, or would like the recipe for yourself, please be sure to visit the Daring Kitchen.  You'll find the list of Daring Bakers in the Blogroll tab.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Good Things: American Bald Eagle

I've always been fascinated by birds of prey.  Of course, at the top of the list has to be the American Bald Eagle.  I had my first ever chance to photograph wild birds in flight on a recent trip to Alaska.  I was thrilled at the chance to get so close to these amazing raptors.  I got a few decent shots and thought I'd share them with you.  Given that today is the 4th of July, it just seems appropriate.  Enjoy and have a great Independence Day!  (Click on any photo to view full screen)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Daring Bakers do Baklava!

Erica of Erica’s Edibles was our host for the Daring Baker’s June challenge. Erica challenged us to be truly DARING by making homemade phyllo dough and then to use that homemade dough to make Baklava.

Repeat after me:  “I will never complain about rolling out pie dough again”. 

This month, I re-join the Daring Bakers after a long absence to focus on work and family life.  Time is once again allowing me to return to blogging (at a slow pace) and with that, returning to the group that helps me to stretch my boundaries in the kitchen.  This month’s challenge was one I’ve been waiting for: Baklava.  The flaky, nutty, uber-sweet dessert that most people associate with Greece, but whose origin is claimed by many different nations.

Our host this month is Erica of Erica’s Edibles.  Erica chose Baklava for the challenge and added the requirement of making and rolling out your own Phyllo dough.   Being that the Daring Bakers are always up for a challenge, this seemed to be right up our alley.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Good Things: Pretty Things

Spring is certainly taking its time arriving in our neck of the woods.  Thankfully we have been given a few glimpses at the sun in the last few weeks.  Here's a peak at some pretty things I've captured.  Enjoy.