love & butter

Archive for the 'baking' Category

Oh my God, she lives

Thursday, February 21st, 2008


I’m alive!

I know, it’s been rather… a while. But there have been oh so many reasons for it. And I mean many.

I’ve semi-permanently-for-the-time-being-at-least-the-next-year-maybe-more relocated to Northern California for my dissertation research. I’m staying at my parents’ house for the foreseeable future, as a broke grad student sometimes must, since I still have my apartment in Southern California. I’m away from my own kitchen, with its familiar appliances, equipment, accoutrement, and the perfect light in which to take photographs. I’m not cooking and baking only for myself nearly as much, or for me and one other person, but instead for me and my parents (as a token of my undying gratitude for their endless generosity) or for me and a very large group of friends. My routine and my own “way” have been totally thrown off. My stomach has been… well, you can guess how my stomach has been. And there have been some other, bigger, more personal changes that have kept me quieter and sadder than I might normally be.

But I’m still around, and I think it’s time to call it a comeback.

I don’t have too many photos of food for you at the moment, but I do have a few tales to tell. Of the 300+ cookies I baked for a reception for a friend’s new chamber music recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Of the collard greens in bacon recipe I made up for my parents. Of the eating out I’ve been doing now and again, here in the land of endless restaurants (but sadly, no sushi that compares to the sushi of Orange County). Of the “family” meals my friends and I have here, on a fairly regular basis, when we come together to cook, eat, drink, and laugh.

The other tales, the more personal and less food-related ones? I’m telling some (but not all) of those too, over at Oh Hey Great.

So let’s not waste any more time. Last night I went for dinner with my folks at a restaurant in West Berkeley my mom’s been dying to try. It’s called Maritime East and is the East Bay sister restaurant to Café Maritime in San Francisco. Like a total boob, I left my camera at home, which was a huge mistake because it was one of the better meals I’ve had in recent weeks. Not as good as, say, Riva Cucina but faultless and delectable just the same.

We shared most everything. This included what may be the single best burger I’ve ever had in my life, a cheeseburger with Neuske’s bacon and avocado and shoestring onion rings, loaded onto the ideal bun–soft but substantial enough to withstand the burger and all its juices without disintegrating, perfectly toasted, and just the right flavor to complement the burger. Which, did I mention, was cooked perfectly medium rare. The burger also came with fries (onion rings AND fries!). The onion rings were meant to be eaten as part of the burger, but my dad took them off and we shared them with the fries. By shared I mean inhaled.

We also had the “deviled” Dungeness crab linguini with a poached egg and Meyer lemon confit. The sauce was both rich and delicate, tomato-y and zesty, and had a kick of spice to it that came in at the end. It was creamy without being heavy, not coating the tongue but bewitching it with a complex layering of flavors.

Finally, we shared one of the small pizzas from the wood burning oven–a disc of chewy, blistered dough topped with artichokes, goat cheese, tomatoes, and za’atar. There may have been a few golden raisins nestled amidst the white puffs of cheese. Unfortunately, it was hard to slow down and examine it at length: TOO GOOD MUST EAT NOW. (I admit, we took half the pizza home and I had it for lunch today. It was just as good cold. Any remaining raisins had sunken in and once again, I was too entranced with the pizza to pull it apart.)

Oh. Did I mention? The side dish? That we should have gotten two or three orders of? Brussels and pea sprout hash. Please read those words again one more time: Brussels. And. Pea. Sprout. Hash. Let me explain that for you: Pea sprouts! (Or pea tips, if you prefer.) With Brussels sprouts! That have been all chopped up! And then sautéed together with maybe some garlic and I don’t know what else except maybe magic.

So in conclusion, friends and readers and anyone else here, if you live near Maritime East, you should go.

Meanwhile, I’ll be here, reading the comments you’ve left (they totally make my day, by the way, and make me wish I could go out for coffee with some of you), forcing myself back into a healthier dietary regimen (regime!), writing again, and most likely baking up some treats for my friends and neighbors along the way. If you happen to be one of those, drop me a line. Hell, drop me a line anyway.


Momentum, loss of

Saturday, December 8th, 2007


Is this thing still on? Are you guys still there?

I know. A whole month! I was so good, for a whole month! Beyond good even – every day, two blogs, doing in my thing. And then it ended and I gave myself a day or two to catch my breath. I let myself relax and whammo, back to my bad old habits. Well, that and I had an awful lot to do, what with a million and one things to bake (handmade for the holidays, you know) and taking care of everything before I came back up to the East Bay for another ten days.

Oh, whatever, I suck, and there’s no use making excuses. BUT. I did bake an amazing amount of great stuff. I mean, wow. I made those Meyer lemon sablés, my favorite brownies, California fruit and nut bars with cocoa nibs, and marshmallows.

And pumpkin waffles.

And swiss chard with roasted poblano chiles and hominy, served atop white rice, alongside pan fried chicken.

Clearly, I have some catching up to do. And I will, I promise! First I have to finish giving a certain someone special a whirlwind tour of the East Bay, and then I’ll be back. I’ll even show you the cards I made to go with my goody bags of tastee-treets. OH THE EXCITEMENT. Can you handle it?

Assuming you’re all still here, of course!


Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Tomorrow is the final day of NaBloPoMo. I can’t believe I made it. I can’t believe I posted every single day this month – on TWO blogs no less – all while managing to advance to candidacy, spend time with a certain someone, candy a metric ton of orange peel, scour the stove, go up north, see a few friends, and adore the cat and both dogs in my life. I can do it all, people. I CAN DO IT ALL.

Except, apparently, get back into the healthy regimen (regime!) that was so amazing over the summer. The one where I was eating the magical Leah is happy and healthy and glowing and has perfect skin, no headaches, and no digestive trouble diet. The one where I was riding my bike and swimming and walking and jogging and going to pilates and yoga. The one where someone else was watching over me, which means apparently I have no self-discipline or will-power. I planned to start going without sugar starting today and I couldn’t make it one day. 10:00 p.m. rolls around and I gave in. I would make myself go to bed without dessert as punishment but, um.

Anyhoodle, there’s a lot to say on all of this, and I swear sometime soon (maybe even tomorrow! so exciting!) I am going to say more than “golly gee gosh, I sure am bad at sticking to being healthy, even though I have known digestive problems, oopth!” But for now, I would like to celebrate this whole posting every single day thing. Tomorrow is the last day, but I won’t end up posting until later, and you guys might not see it until later on in the weekend or even Monday, and that’s sort of anti-climactic. So, in celebration of actually doing what I set out to do – and in celebration of accepting that structure and deadlines and having someone to answer to besides myself are all good things and should be applied in other areas besides blog writing, HINT HINT LEAH – I would like to show you a cake I made a few months ago for another celebration. Because it is so friggin’ celebratory that it can do double duty. Oh I am so excited to finally post this here! I’ve been waiting for just the right time and this is so it, I can feel it. My nerd sense is tingling.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Giant Hostess Cupcake Cake.

Giant Hostess cupcake!

I made this for my darling friend Sooz’s birthday. Yes, that’s right. A giant Hostess cupcake. I found this recipe on Baking Bites and knew immediately: THIS IS IT. It is the cake I have to make. So I did. It took me the better part of the day (I had to make six layers instead of four because the first two turned out a little funny, but that was my own dumb fault*), but I was so glad I did. Not only was the cake a visual delight to everyone who saw it, it was delicious. Chocolatey and rich and moist, a light crumb but sturdy enough to stand up to the vanilla cream center. A certain someone ate a whole slice without even pausing, which is in itself a miracle, since cake doesn’t usually thrill him.

The next time someone has a thing worth celebrating, like a birthday or an advancement to candidacy or a month’s worth of high quality blog posting, make this cake. The layers seem to meld together, making it look like it really is a giant cupcake! Everyone will ask how you got the cream center** in there (and will be slightly disappointed by the layering technique – apparently they want billows filled with vanilla cream) (well, that sort of makes sense – who doesn’t want billows filled with vanilla cream?). This cake will blow everyone’s minds and make them happy.

Just like me posting every day!

*The dumb fault thing was that my cocoa was lumpy. Make sure your cocoa is not lumpy at all – sift it if you must – and that your batter is very, very smooth when you pour it into your pans.

**Nicole of Baking Bites suggests cutting a 5″ diameter hole in the layers, but I found that to be a little too big. I’d start with 4″ and work from there.

***I wish I had made the white squiggle on the top better, with fewer, bigger loops. Can someone have a birthday or something so I can make this again?

Up Your Arsenal!

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Build it up, I mean. Oh, puns, how you delight me!

About arsenals, though: Do you have one? Because I’ve been thinking lately about arsenals, and whether I even have one. Or many. You know: Recipe arsenals, style arsenals, entertaining arsenals, joke arsenals, foreign affairs knowledge arsenals, karaoke song arsenals, and so on.

This is not an excuse to say “arsenal” over and over again, and I don’t find the word “arsenal” funny, because I am not juvenile.

But so anyway, like I was saying, do you have an arsenal or two? A quiver of surefire hit makers, or at least a few little numbers that will get the job done? Say, recipes. I was thinking to myself whether I have what I consider to be tried & true recipes, or things I know will delight everyone, or stuff I can make with one eye closed. And the answer is: Kind of?

sea of sables

For instance, today I got to visit with two of my favorite people in the universe, in town from New York. We went over to another old friend’s house for a very impromptu lunch – we’re talking no more than 15 minute prep time. By the time we got there, she had a gorgeous spread almost entirely prepared for us. An elegantly arranged cheese platter with four types of cheese and her husband’s homemade tapenade; an arrangement of tomatoes with vinegar, parsley, and shallots, plus avocado and cucumber; edamame, olives, and chopped tomato relish; crostini with smoked salmon salad; and a big plate of ribs she just happened to have. All of this was artfully displayed on lovely serving platters and was accompanied by red wine.

Did I mention she has two small children and relatives in town?

sables in the sun

Sure, she’s always been the consummate hostess, very fabulous and together. Plus, she and her husband own a lovely cafe, and they cater, so they do have some experience with this. But this goes beyond experience and to the heart of an ability to throw things together, to rely on what you know, to make it happen. So of course I was thinking about whether I could pull something like that off with what I had lying around and make it look good.

Probably not. But I’ll keep trying.

So I’m working on beefing up my entertaining arsenal. Not just having the makings of an insta-feast neatly stockpiled in tins and jars in the cabinet, but working with recipes that are quick and easy, that I can throw together in a pinch, that don’t need to be fancy and intricate but make everyone happy and satisfied, that are simple but look pretty (’cos sometimes looking pretty is half the battle).

As far as other arsenals, I’m also building up the baking quiver – rather than flit around from recipe to recipe like I usually do, I’m working more on making favorites over and over, so they become second nature. Like, for instance, those sublime little Meyer lemon sablés that Molly wrote about just around this time last year. I made them once, after she posted them, and was entranced. So unassuming, so perfectly lemony, so crumbly-buttery-hint of salt-just sweet enough, these shortbread like cookies flecked with lemon zest won me over in a single bite. They they bowled over a wide swath of taste testers in the Southern California area – many of whom preferred them to classic chocolate chip and “is there a pound of chocolate in EACH cookie?” chocolate rads. They were greatly enjoyed by a certain someone’s father, who received a large bag of them for the holidays last year.

meyer lemon sables

This year? The little darling conquered Northern California. But the final vote into the Hall of Fame came from, of all people, my father – the man who mostly likes plain milk chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and that’s about it, no other sweets thanks. He turned to me at a stoplight on the way to the house from the airport and said, “Can I have another cookie?”

Folks, we have a winner. Put it in your arsenal.

Hee hee, arsenal.

Meyer Lemon Sablés
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte and Orangette

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs finely grated Meyer lemon zest (from about 2 good-size fruits)
¾ tsp coarse sea salt or Kosher salt
4 large egg yolks
¼ cup coarse Turbinado sugar, for rolling logs of dough

1. In a small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder, and whisk to mix thoroughly. Set aside.

2. Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl). Beat (with the paddle attachment, if you’re using a stand mixer) on medium-low speed until the butter is creamy; then add the confectioner’s sugar and beat for a minute. Add the granulated sugar, and beat for a minute more. Sprinkle the lemon zest and salt into the bowl, and mix briefly to just combine. Add the egg yolks one at a time, mixing briefly to incorporate after each addition. With the mixer on low, add the flour in three doses, mixing just until the flour is absorbed. Use a rubber spatula to do any last scraping and stirring; do not overmix. The dough will be quite thick and dense and sticky.

3. Divide the dough between two large sheets of wax paper. Using the paper as an aid, smoosh and roll and shape one blob of dough into a rough log about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Roll up the log in the paper, and twist the ends to seal it closed. Repeat with the remaining blob of dough. Chill the two logs until the dough is cold and firm, at least two hours and up to a couple of days.

4. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Put a large sheet of parchment paper on the counter, and pour the Turbinado sugar onto it, making a ridge of sugar approximately the length of the dough logs. Remove a log from the fridge, unwrap it, and roll it lightly in the sugar to press the crystals into its sides. Coat the log as thoroughly as you can; then slice it into ¼-inch-thick slices. [I found that a thin paring knife works well.] Lay the slices on the baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between each cookie. Refrigerate the remaining dough.

5. Bake the cookies for about 10-12 minutes or until just golden around the edges, rotating the sheet 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. [Keep in mind that the cookies will continue to brown a bit after you have removed them from the oven, so it’s best to err on the pale side.] Cool them on the silicone mat or parchment paper on a wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough.

6. Store the cookies in an airtight tin at room temperature for up to three days, or freeze them in a Tupperware, with a sheet of wax paper between each layer.

Yield: about 80 silver-dollar-size cookies

Today in Oh Hey Great: Assorted Items


Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

It’s so quiet over here. My neighborhood is never this silent. And I don’t just mean all the blogs and sites I usually read, I mean my actual neighbors. Everyone’s eating or napping or digesting or out of town or hiding out and ignoring the holiday altogether.

Me? I’m suffering as gracefully as I can manage, having put away a pile of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and prime rib and rolls and and and… that was a bad, bad idea, but tasted good, good, good going down. I’m thankful I got to eat it, and I’ll be thankful when I’m no longer questioning just how many more times I’m going to torment myself by going off the IBS diet.

But hey. It’s Thanksgiving. And I for one love this holiday, more than any other holiday out there. That’s probably no surprise to you – after all, what other holiday revolves more around food and spending time with people you (hopefully) like? So I’ll only complain this little tiny bit, and then it’ll be back to mostly healthy eating, along with a lot of baking for others.

meyer lemon sables

Yes, I baked more today. But do you mind terribly if I wait to tell you about it until tomorrow? All the blood has rushed from my brain to my stomach….

Happy Thanksgiving!

Candied Orange Peel, part 2

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Chocolate-covered candied orange peel

I have a new goal. Sometime in the next year, I am going to learn – and by learn I mean stop ignoring what I already know full well – that whatever I think will take two hours will take four. Or possibly six. Maybe even eight.

So, as you read yesterday (or probably this morning, since I posted it late late last night), I decided to make candied orange peel. Should you ever decide to make candied orange peel, know this: It is a far more significant undertaking than you realize. Especially if you, like me, think it will be very clever to make 1 1/2 times the recipe. About a third of the way through removing the pulp from the thrice-boiled slices of peel, you’ll be thinking things like “Why did I start this so late when I could have started it hours and hours earlier” and “If I lived here I’d be home by now, but no, I’ll be doing this all night” and “Why am I even doing this in the first place.”

Candied orange peel

But, like I mentioned, you’ll keep inhaling that incredible scent. Which will get even better when you put those peels back on the stove, this time with orange liqueur and sugar. It’ll be like an orange explosion in your house, a smell so bright and cheerful and sunshiney that you can’t really stay too annoyed at yourself. My roommate came home in the middle of my orange peel madness and said the whole house smelled “friendly,” like a happy memory from his grandmother’s house. Trust me, that’s big comfort at 1:30 a.m.

So why was I even doing this in the first place, you ask? I got it into my head that this year, I was going to only give handmade gifts. You know, stop buying so much, make delightful treats, try new recipes, and save money. (The saving money and buying parts are questionable, what with all the ingredients and occasional tools, but other parts are certainly coming to pass.) One of the recipes that caught my eye was in Carole Bloom’s Truffles, Candies, & Confections, which I bought last year based on David Lebovitz’s recommendation, while trying to make some caramels and truffles. It was a recipe for California Fruit and Nut Chocolate Bars, which were sort of similar to the Chocolate Blocks with Fruit and Nuts Molly made last year around Christmas. This one has all sorts of variations, but one option was candied orange peel.Candied orange peel Candied orange peel

Which, for reasons partly unknown, I decided to try and make.

Now, I practically live on fresh fruit. I like dried fruit a lot. Yet I’ve never been much for candied peel or fruit chews or any of those types of sweets. I could have just made the bars with any dried fruit available at the market – raisins, cranberries, cherries, apricots, peaches. But something about the idea of candied orange peel suddenly appealed (oh yes I did) to me. I don’t think it’s because I’ve been reading Orangette for so long now. No, there was something in the idea of these being “California” fruit and nut bars, and oranges being very much a California fruit. I mean, I live in Orange County. But more than that, something about the oranges said “holidays” to me. Maybe it was from reading Little House on the Prairie too many times, and the girls being excited when Pa would bring them each an orange for Christmas. Or maybe I have some Fanny & Alexander-type image stuck in my head, a little girl with long hair and a bow, with a candied orange, in a house with gilded boughs.

Whatever the reason, I was hell-bent on making candied orange peel. So I did. Many, many, many (many) hours later, my house is covered in a fine layer of granulated sugar, I don’t want to go anywhere near the kitchen for at least 12 hours, and I am so glad I went for it.

Really? Absolutely. The candied peel is so good it’s hard to know where to begin. Tender and chewy, like softer gummy candies, sweet and so full of a pure orange flavor. There’s not even a hint of bitterness in the peel, but a tiny titch of sour remains, to add an edge of complexity to the luxurious sugar coating. And when I dipped them in quick-tempered dark chocolate? Oh boy. I always liked Molly’s site, but consider me an official orangette convert.

Next time, I’ll just plan to convert a little earlier in the day.

Chocolate-covered candied orange peel

Candied Orange Peel
From Carole Bloom’s Truffles, Candies, & Confections

Yield: 6 cups**

6 to 8 large, thick-skinned oranges
6 cups sugar
1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur [Leah says: I used Patrón Citrónge, which is not cognac-based but is less expensive]

1. Slice the ends off the oranges and discard. Cut the oranges into quarters, then cut off all but 1/2 inch of the pulp, which keeps the peel from becoming bitter as it cooks. Cut the quarters into thin slices.

2. Place the orange slices in a 6-quart saucepan and cover with cold water. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Drain off the water and repeat this process with fresh cold water two more times.

3. After the third boil, drain the orange slices, rinse them in cold water, and remove any pulp that is still attached. In the saucepan, combine the orange slices, 3 cups of the sugar, and the orange liqueur, and cook over low heat until the sugar is dissolved (about 5 minutes), stirring constantly. Continue to cook over low heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring frequently. Most of the sugar will be absorbed by the peel as it cooks. Remove the saucepan from the heat and immediately begin the next step.

4. Place the remaining 3 cups sugar on a sheet of waxed paper. Roll spoonfuls of the orange slices in the sugar, separating the slices to coat them completely. Transfer the slices onto another sheet of waxed paper and let them air-dry (20-30 minutes).

5. In a tightly covered container, the peel will keep for 2 to 3 months in the refrigerator. *

*Dipped in tempered bittersweet chocolate, it will keep (in an air-tight container, wrapped tightly in foil) for 1 month in the refrigerator or 2 months in the freezer. If you’d like directions for tempering the chocolate and dipping the peel, please let me know!

**Please tell me why I did not read this before deciding to do 1 1/2 times the recipe.

Candied Orange Peel, part 1

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

cutting oranges

Does anyone else have this problem? I always get this great idea- you know, clean out the closet or bake cookies or reorganize my bathroom – at about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. By about 9:30 that great idea becomes something I absolutely must do. I mean, it just has to happen, and I know I’ll be so happy I did it! And it won’t take any time at all, I can finish it lickety split! By the time I’ve finally gotten around to getting that great idea going, it’s about 10:00. Then, at 10:30, I’m staring at a big mess of a project that I can’t simply put away, it’s got to either be abandoned or finished because that’s the kind of project it is and that’s how far I’ve gotten, and I’m all irritated at myself and thinking how dumb it is that I’m going to have an even messier closet than before or will be up until 2:00 a.m. waiting for the cookies to cool so I can put them away properly.

This gives you perhaps an inkling why I’m posting about candied orange peel at 11:00. Candied orange peel, part 1, I mean.

I know, I know. I should have started much earlier. Or I should have waited until tomorrow night. But this evening I was too busy being pleased with my new haircut, and tomorrow I wanted to bake cookies and maybe some more brownies. And I convinced myself, as usual, that what will very clearly take at least three hours will only take an hour and a half. Maybe two! Because I am magical!

Speaking of magical, the powerful scent of orange is filling my entire house. I’m boiling sliced orange peel, with a little of the pulp left on, in a big pot of water. As silly as it is to be doing this right now (and believe me, I’d like to be in bed now, rather than in another two hours), it’s hard to be too annoyed when the house smells like this. The scent is so… orange. Essence of.

I’m going to go stir and drain and stir again and mix with sugar and orange liqueur and cook again. It’s going to be a long night, and I sure hope it turns out. I’ll let you know what happens – and why it’s happening – tomorrow. Come on, little oranges, make me proud.

oranges in the pot

Palm Beach Brownies, AKA Seriously Rich Brownies

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Palm Beach Brownies

Last night a very wonderful, sweet, and generous certain someone treated me to a tremendous celebratory meal at Ikko, one of my favorite restaurants in Orange County. Not only is Ikko one of best sushi restaurants I’ve ever been to in my life, it’s one of my favorite restaurants period. Interestingly, some of the best sushi I’ve ever had has been here in Orange County, better than anything I’ve eaten in the Bay Area, New York, L.A., or DC. Granted, I’ve never been to Nobu, but the quality of the fish I’ve eaten in the past four years and the creativity and presentation have been phenomenal.

For instance, it was here in O.C. that I discovered my love for uni, or sea urchin. A lot of people, even dedicated sushi eaters, are not fans of uni, with its vaguely gelatinous, blobby yellow appearance, perched precariously atop its wee bed of rice. But when I finally tried a piece of uni – and I mean fresh and high quality uni – it was a transcendent experience. It was as if someone had taken the ocean and turned it into the creamiest, sweet-saltiest custard. I placed sushi in my mouth and the uni literally melted away, the sea seeming to explode over my taste buds. The rice was more than a platform: Each individual grain also became coated in rich flavor as the urchin dissolved on my tongue, creating a progressively more textured uni experience. I was hooked.

At Ikko last night we had uni in a different presentation: laid on beds of thinly sliced, tender scallops, topped with black truffle and salt. It was captivating. Among our other appetizers were sea cucumber in a briny, faintly juniper nectar; a roasted onion topped with freshly-herbed cream cheese and large salmon roe; a ricotta-tofu mixture drizzled with oil and toasted soba seeds. We found ourselves entranced by raw wild salmon topped with thin slices of ginger, wild baby Amberjack, and wild small baby Yellowtail. Every time we looked up, a new dish was dazzling us.

And guess who forgot her camera.

So to make it up to you, I baked brownies.

Palm Beach Brownies

No, they’re not IBS-friendly. No, they’re not gluten-free. No, they’re not in anyway as gorgeous and mind-blowing and creative as the dishes we had last night. But they are made using my favorite brownie recipe of all time. They are the richest of the rich, the fudgiest, crackliest, most decadent brownies I know of. They will make your friends and family fall silent in awe when you present them at parties, dinners, and as gifts this holiday season. And they are from the 1980 version of Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, which I stole from my mom (thanks mom!). I mean, I am trying to make it up to you the best I can here.

I love me some Maida Heatter. She’s part of the reason I bake, I think. Two of her cookbooks have been in my consciousness for most of my life, so I’ve always connected baking desserts with Maida Heatter. And really, what better person to guide you as you learn to bake? Her books feature recipes both indulgent and useful (sometimes both at the same time); her writing, while not as exacting as some authors, is simultaneously informative, helpful, conversational, and comforting; and she’s a baking legend. I don’t even know what her updated cookbooks are like. I’ve been reading the ones my mom has (or, um, had) for as long as I can remember, and they’ve never failed. Which is why I’m eying Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, the other book still on my mom’s shelf. Did I just say that in my out loud voice?

Palm Beach Brownies

But you want to know more about these brownies. And who can blame you. How’s about I let Maida tell you herself?

These are the biggest, thickest, gooiest, chewiest, darkest, sweetest, mostest-of-the most chocolate bars with an almost wet middle and a crisp-crunchy top. It is best to bake them a day before–they can not be cut into bars when they are too fresh.

Palm Beach Brownies

Does the woman exaggerate? No, sirree, she does NOT. I am telling you straight, these brownies will knock you silly. We are talking serious chocolate here, my lovelies. Chocolate for days. Even real chocoholics will have to take a break midway through a brownie and revel in the presence of a true chocola-teer. If there is someone you need to hear positivity from, cram one of these babies in his or her mouth, and you won’t hear a negative peep for at least 10 minutes. They’ll be gobsmacked.

This is a recipe that has vanilla and almond and espresso, meaning those of us who like to tinker don’t have to do a darn thing. I recommend cutting these into smaller brownies, because they are so, so rich. Oh, and see how she says you can’t cut them when they are too fresh? She repeats that warning again in the recipe. Please do as she says and not as I did. Remember: She is the expert. I am the impatient blogger. It is much easier to cut them the next day, after they’ve had a night to rest in the fridge.

Of course, that assumes you can wait that long, what with your house smelling like Willy Wonka’s factory. Do what you can and listen to the nice lady. Maybe go out for some sushi?

Palm Beach Brownies

Palm Beach Brownies
From Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts (1980)

16 huge or 24 more extra-large brownies

8 ounces (8 squares) unsweetened chocolate [Leah says: I have used both Baker's and Ghirardelli, with excellent results]
8 ounces (2 sticks) sweet butter
5 eggs (graded large or extra-large) [Leah says: I use large]
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons dry instant espresso or other powdered (not granular) instant coffee
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 2/3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
8 ounces (2 generous cups) walnuts halves or large pieces [Leah says: Optional. I don't usually like nuts in brownies, so I have never added these. Although I bet they would be good here, because these are so damn rich]

1. Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a 9 x 13 x 2-inch pan as follows: Invert the pan, cover it with a long piece of aluminum foil, and with your hands press down on the foil around the sides and the corners to shape it like the pan. Remove the foil. Turn the pan right side up, and place the foil in the pan. Very carefully (without tearing it) press the foil into place in the pan. Now butter the foil with soft or melted butter. The easiest way is to place a piece of butter in the pan, place the pan in the oven while it is warming up, and when the butter is melted use a pastry brush to spread it all over the sides and bottom of the foil. Set the prepared pan aside.

2. Place the chocolate and the butter in the top of a large double boiler over hot water on moderate heat, or in a 4 to 6 cup heavy saucepan over very low heat. Stir occasionally until the chocolate and the butter are melted. Stir to mix. Remove from the heat and set aside.

3. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the vanilla, almond extract, salt, dry instant coffee, and sugar at high speed for 10 minutes. On low speed add the chocolate mixture and beat only until mixed. Then add the flour and again beat only until mixed. Remove from the mixer and stir in the nuts.

4. Turn into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 35 minutes, reversing the pan front to back as necessary during baking to insure even baking. Cover loosely with foil for about the last half of the baking time to prevent over browning. At the end of 35 minutes the cake will have a thick, crisp crust on the top, but if you insert a toothpick into the middle it will come out wet and covered with chocolate. Nevertheless, it is done. Do not bake it anymore.

5. Remove the cake from the oven and let stand at room temperature until cool. Then cover with a rack or a cookie sheet and invert. Remove the pan and the foil lining. Cover with a cookie sheet and invert again, leaving the cake right side up.

6. It is best to refrigerate the cake overnight before cutting (at room temperature it is too sticky to cut). Use a serrated French bread knife. It will be necessary to wash and dry the blade several times while cutting. First cut the cake in half, cutting through the long sides. If the cake was baked correctly, the edges will be too dark and dry; trim about 1/4 inch or so as necessary from the edges.

7. The cake will be 1 1/4 inches thick. Cut into 24 huge Brownies, or 32 large ones. (See Note.)

8. Either wrap the Brownies individually in clear cellophane, aluminum foil, or wax paper, or package them in an airtight container. Refrigerate and serve cold.

NOTE: I cut the Brownies into 24 bars, and then often, just before serving, I cut each bar in half the long way.

[See? How can you not love her? She capitalizes Brownie.]

oh chocolate

One Step Closer

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Well, friends. I did it.

apple cake!

I advanced to candidacy! I am officially a PhD candidate – also known as ABD, or “all but dissertation.” Sure, I still have years of research and work ahead of me, but this is a major milestone. It means my committee liked my proposal enough to approve my project (with some alterations, of course) and send me on my way to do my own research. It’s the real deal, now.

To be honest though, I don’t think it was me or my proposal that won them over. I think it was Luisa’s version of Teddie’s apple cake, which I made last night with apples from a certain someone’s mom’s yard. Not only did the cake make the room we were in smell wonderful, it drew raves from everyone who tried it. Which means you should try it too.

inside the apple cake

I wish I had more to write about, but I’m exhausted, so instead I’ll give you a pretty picture or two of some apples. And tomorrow I’ll be up in Los Angeles all day, so who knows how much I’ll be able to write then (although you never know). I promise though – we’ll be back on track with recipes I’m not swiping from other blogs soon enough. Thanks for all your positive thoughts and for sticking with me.

just one apple

But now, I’m going to go celebrate. And sleep.

so many apples

Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers with Agave Nectar

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Everyone! Tonight I experienced a minor triumph in the kitchen. To be quite frank, I’m more than a little giddy about it.

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

I’m not, as they say, the most orderly and organized of people. I don’t always read instruction manuals and if there’s a guided tour, forget it. Snooze city. Chances are I’ve ducked out after the second sentence and am off admiring some piece of art in a room that’s – oops! – not part of the admission you purchased, miss.

But when it comes to baking, and to a lesser degree cooking, I have always been by-the-book. To a fault. Scouring stores to find exact ingredients, worrying over whether the tester had a single crumb, begging friends to help me buy a KitchenAid standing mixer so I could get my egg whites whipped just right, pining over scales I still can’t afford so I could get more precise measurements. So right, a total joy in the kitchen. We all know baking is precise and exact, but come on.

I’ve been cooking and baking for most of my life. When I was 11 I got sick of not being able to buy char siu bao in our little mountain town and decided to try and make them, an endeavor that took me two days because I insisted on making not only the dough and the buns, but also the barbecue sauce and thus the pork. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At some point, it was time for me to let go of the proverbial apron strings and start baking outside the recipe box for once.

Lately, you may have noticed me tossing ingredients and measurements in and out almost willy-nilly. I mean, how nonchalantly did I mention fussing around with that tuna salad recipe? OK, fine, tuna salad is sort of different from, you know, a cake, but work with me here. An uptight girl’s gotta start somewhere!

Changing things around in a recipe for a baked good though? Hold up there, turbo. Are you sure you’re ready for that?

No. But guess what. It worked!

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

The other week, during Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl’s virtual book tour, I discovered her recipe for gluten-free chocolate financiers on Smitten Kitchen. I got so excited at the idea of those little almondy chocolatey nuggets of joy that I ran out and used the last of my Sur La Table gift card to get mini muffin tins. I had almond meal in my freezer already, since my mom taught me how to use it sometimes for a cheesecake crust (I’d give that entire recipe to you, but I think that would be the last post I’d ever make, if you get my drift). One-two-three, those financiers came together, easy as anything. And oh boy.

Suffice to say I made them again within a week. Even better? A certain someone who rarely eats sweets stole extra ones when he stopped by to say hello – leaving me wondering as to his real motive for stopping by – and then indirectly requested more. You know, one of those, “Oh, um, hey, any more of those chocolate financiers around?”

As amazing as they are – and don’t take my word for it, make them – I got to thinking about how I felt after I ate sugar. Which was not in the “great” category. One little financier (or two, because they’re little right? so you kind of have to eat two? or three?) wasn’t so bad, what with the powdered sugar being balanced out by the almond meal – the fat slowing the absorption of sugar and keeping things relatively mellow. But I still wondered how I’d feel if I reduced the sugar, or replaced it with something like agave nectar.

For those who are new to agave nectar (and I’d never even bought it before today), it is just what you think – the nectar of the agave plant, which also gives us tequila. It’s a natural sweetener that has a lower glycemic index than most other sweeteners out there. Sure, a sweetener is a sweetener, and if you’re trying to stay away from sugar altogether, it’s not going to do you any good. But if you’re trying to stay away from sugar completely, then what are you doing reading about chocolate financiers in the first place? You’ll drive yourself insane, honey.

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

I decided to try remaking Shauna’s recipe using agave nectar, to see what would happen. I hope she doesn’t mind – her recipe is wonderful, I just wanted to find a way to enjoy it even more given my fussy tummy. So I substituted. And lo, a miracle occurred. I changed a baked goods recipe, and it turned out great. The little financiers baked up just right, maybe cracking a bit more on the top than before but still staying moist and like a slightly fudgy cake on the inside. The crumb was tender but retained plenty of body. The chocolate richness came through loud and clear, the sweetness balanced the cocoa and the espresso, and that familiar almond undertone was rounded out nicely by the agave.

I confess: I can’t take all the credit. When I was on my solo date on Saturday, I talked to my friend Jenny, the chef and owner of 118 Degrees. She cooks and bakes with agave nectar a lot, so I took advantage of her expertise and asked for her advice. Brilliant woman, that one.

So now I’m excited to try using agave in all sorts of recipes. I don’t think I’ll replace the sugar in every recipe – I know I’m branching out here, but let’s not go too crazy. I don’t know that the old-fashioned baking stickler in me could handle changing certain standards. Others I’d like to make first the original way, to get familiar with the consistency of the batter, so I know how to accommodate for the extra liquid of the agave. And with other recipes, like those for larger cakes, I’ll have to test how the agave changes the overall consistency and appearance. For instance, I have two different recipes that create what are technically larger versions (with icing!) of these financiers, in an old Maida Heatter cookbook and in a recent Splendid Table e-mail. The agave worked well with these itty bitty bite-sized chocolate wonders, but I’m not sure how it would work on a larger scale with only almond meal. I’m dying to try those recipes as is, anyway, and then report back (see how willing I am to suffer for you guys?).

Nevertheless, I highly recommend you try these financiers, either in their original incarnation or with the agave nectar. Just so you know, I drove them over for quick quality assurance to that certain someone, who pronounced them as good as the last batch, even though he had to keep sampling them before he was able to say that with certainty. I don’t blame him. One must be precise, musn’t one?

gluten-free chocolate financiers with agave nectar

Gluten-Free Chocolate Financiers
Adapted from Gluten-Free Girl

Notes from Leah on baking with agave:
1) Agave nectar is liquid, so the amount of almond meal is increased slightly from the original version to compensate for this. The batter will be slightly looser than the original, and you will end up with more cookies (darn).
2) The oven temperature has been lowered by 25 degrees F to compensate for the fact that agave nectar tends to evaporate and burn a little more quickly than sugar.
3) If you use agave nectar, definitely make sure to use Dutch-process cocoa.
4) I add espresso powder or instant coffee to nearly every chocolate recipe; I highly recommend it but feel free to make this optional.
5) If possible, use a wider and more shallow mold or mini muffin tin. I used the taller one (the more “mini cupcake” one) I have, because of the number of financiers this recipe produces, and I think this recipe would do better with the other.
6) Do not overfill your tins (like I did) and do not overbake! You may have a slight crust on the top of your financiers due to the evaporative quality (see #2) if you bake a minute or two too long, but it will be basically unnoticeable (and some people like a little crust).

Makes 20-22 one-inch cookies

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup almond flour (or almond meal)*
4 tablespoons Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon light agave nectar
1 tablespoon lukewarm water
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
1/3 cup egg whites (approx. two large)
¼ teaspoon almond extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease financier molds or mini-muffin tins. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set it aside until it reaches room temperature.

2. Mix the almond flour with the cocoa powder, salt, espresso powder, agave nectar, and water. Stir the egg whites and almond extract into the almond mixture, then gradually stir in the melted butter until incorporated and smooth. Spoon the batter into the molds, filling them three-quarters full. Do not overfill.

3. Bake the financiers for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cookies are slightly puffed and springy to the touch. Do not overbake. Remove them from the oven and let cool completely before removing the financiers from the molds.

4. Once cooled, financiers can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

*(Available at health food stores and at Trader Joe’s. If you can’t find it, you can grind blanched almonds in your food processor.)

**Thank you to that certain someone for lending me his camera! More financiers coming his way…

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