Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Cookie Twofer

I don't think I have ever met anyone who doesn't like cookies. I know we all have our favorites and there are some of us who have specific dislikes but on the whole I think everyone can agree that there is nothing wrong with cookies. Cookie trays are an awesome addition to any dessert table (like the one above at the Grad BBQ*) and can even be turned into a dessert table of their own. They are easy to make, affordable and invoke happy memories of childhood and holidays past.

I chose to make three kinds of cookies for the Graduation BBQ, Pinwheels (which need their own post in the near future), Oatmeal Raisin (because one of the Grads the BBQ was for requested them) and Toll House (because almost everyone likes them.) The Toll House cookies really don't deserve their own post but I do want to talk about them a bit because any time I make them they quickly disappear and in the midst of all the "yums" and "ahhs" I do get the occasional question as to why mine turn out so different than everyone else's.

In the 1930s Ruth Wakefield accidentally invented the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie when she decided to add bits of chocolate to some Butter Cookies she was making for guests at the inn she ran with her husband. No matter what modern Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe you look at, they can all be traced back to this happy mistake. I love Toll House Cookies, especially when you cook them to the point of being "well done" and they are all brown and crispy on the outside and all melty and gooey on the inside. And in most cases I would tell you not to mess with perfection but tweaking my friends in a horse of another color altogether and it's the tweaks that takes these cookies from awesome to amazing!

Toll House Cookie Tweaks

1. Use real, good quality, unsalted butter and let it get really soft but NOT melted before you cream it with the sugars.
2. Use real, good quality vanilla extract. I like Madagascar Bourbon vanilla.
3. Make sure your dry ingredients are fresh.
4. I only use King Arthur AP flour in my cookies. Trust me, it makes a difference in flavor.
5. And this is the most important tweak... after you make the cookie dough, let it sit in the fridge overnight. To make my life easier I dump the dough onto a large (about a foot and a half long) piece of wax paper and roll the dough into a log. I wrap the log in plastic and let it chill until I am ready, then I slice and bake. It's the letting the dough rest that makes all the difference in the world with these cookies!

I guess we're now at the portion of this post where I have to make a confession. I really don't like raisins in baked goods and try to never add them. I find them dry, chewy and just plain old yucky. So when I knew I couldn't say no to the request (how could I ever say no to that face?), I set out to scour my cookbooks for the most awesome Oatmeal Raisin Cookies ever! And guess what? With a little tweaking and patience, I found hit on just the right combination of ingredients and technique!

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

This recipe is a little different than I usually give in that there are instructions before the ingredients list. These first directions make a HUGE difference in the cookie and should not be skipped.

1.) Two hours BEFORE you are going to make the cookie dough beat 2 eggs with 1 Tablespoon (yes you read that right) of good quality vanilla, add 1 cup of raisins or dried cranberries, cover and set aside. You can stir them occasionally if you would like but you don't have to.

2.) One hour BEFORE you are going to make the cookie dough set 1 cup of butter on the counter. Since I like to make my life easier and spoilage is not an issue, I took mine out when I did the raisins.

1 C unsalted butter -softened
1 C light brown sugar
3/4 C sugar
2 C flour
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
2 t cinnamon
1/4 t freshly rasped ginger
1/4 t freshly rasped nutmeg
2 1/2 C old fashioned oatmeal

Pre-heat oven to 350*, prep your cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Sift all the dry ingredients except oatmeal in a bowl. I usually just dump all of my dry ingredients into a bowl and give it a few turns with a balloon whip.

Cream the butter and sugars. Mix egg/raisin mixture followed the sifted, dry ingredients and then by the oats. I do all of this on my Kitchen Aid but you can do it by hand too.

Now cover the dough and let it chill for 3 or 4 hours. When you're ready to bake, scoop out about a tablespoon of dough, roll it into a ball and space them about an inch apart on a prepared pan. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cool for one minute and set on rack to finish cooling.

These are without question THE BEST Oatmeal Cookies Evah!

*I did not make the "photo cake" and I don't know where it was purchased. I do know however that almost any place that sells cakes can produce a "photo cake" and in most cases they will make and sell you the edible image(s) to put on your own homemade cake/cupcakes. All of the other goodies on the table came out of my kitchen or "Kitchen North" where I was aided by my best friend and the light of my life.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chicken Fried

I swear I have Southern blood running through my veins or must have been Southern in a previous life because their food calls to me at every turn. Buttermilk biscuits, Coke A Cola cake, butterbeans, peaches, pecans... I am drooling all over my keyboard! I have never been better fed outside my Grandma's kitchen than when I was down South. Maybe it's the food, which always seems to be prepared by loving hands or maybe it's the people, some of the kindest on Earth but the South has called to me since I was in my early twenties. It's no wonder then that I am crazy-go-nuts for things like pulled pork, Chicken-n-Dumplings and of course, fried chicken.

Poor fried chicken. So well loved, so misunderstood. Too often (and needlessly) greasy, flavorless and soggy. IMHO, there's almost nothing that screams "It's Summertime!" as much as plate of fried chicken, really good potato salad and a tall glass of frosty cold iced tea with a big hunk of lemon! And no, I'm not talking KFC or any of the other (sadly misguided) restaurants that claim to offer "real" or "authentic" Southern Fried Chicken. I'm talking straight from your own kitchen yummy goodness and all you really need is a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (or a turkey fryer setup if you've got a crowd) and if you're really lucky someone to do the actual frying like I have. A testament to the excellence of my particular version of Fried Chicken is that there was none left to photograph at the BBQ so you'll just have to trust me that it looks as awesome as it sounds and tastes!

Good fried chicken takes time but is in no way time consuming! I start the day before (or in the case of the BBQ my dear friend started the day before) by cutting up and washing all the chicken pieces. For regular fried chicken the pieces go into plain old buttermilk, for the spicy version they went into buttermilk that had a few tablespoons of this really cool chicken seasoning we found in its own grinder at BJ's. If you don't have really cool seasoning in its own grinder you can pretty much put anything your would like in the buttermilk; salt and pepper, garlic powder, a few shots of hot sauce... you get the idea. But remember that whatever you use is going to actually permeate the flesh of the chicken so once it's in there, it's in there. Now put the chicken in the fridge and walk away. Just walk away and leave it alone for 24-36 hours. If you are marinating the chicken in bags you can flip them over to make sure the buttermilk is hitting all parts of the chicken but that's it.

No less than one hour before you're going to fry it's time to put the coating on the chicken. I fill up my largest bowl with a few cups of flour seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, celery salt or whatever I have around (if I've made spicy chicken I'll put the same spice in the four) and setup a sheet pan with waxed paper. Going one or two pieces at a time I dredge the buttermilk soaked chicken in the flour until it is well coated and then set the pieces on the sheet pan. Once the last piece is done clean yourself up and set up for frying. Leave the pan on the counter, nothing is going to happen to it, the chicken is not going to spoil. Just leave it alone and in about an hour your dry four coating will have turned into a yummy wet batter!

I like to fry in peanut oil or a peanut oil blend. If I'm only doing a bit of chicken I will cook three or four pieces at a time (don't crowd the pan) in my cast iron skillet over medium heat for about 10 minutes per side. If we're lucky enough to be deep frying, heat the oil to 350* and depending on how many pieces you put in it takes about 12 minutes a batch. I put a cooling rack over a sheet pan to drain the chicken a bit before serving. And that's it. No fuss, little muss and really, really good fried chicken!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Graduation Cake Pops

I first saw these on Bakerella's blog and thought "how cute are these!?!" By the time we were done making and bagging them I was thinking "what a giant PITA!!!" I'm sure I was thinking that only because of all the things that went wrong this being the first time making them and the fact that we ended up with 76 finished pops! What went wrong? We didn't have enough white chocolate coating, I didn't like the cake, it was a humid night and it took about seven hours to make these from start to finish. The process is relatively simple and Bakerella does a great job explaining the steps on her blog. Bake cake, crumble cake, mix with frosting, form, stick, chill, dip/pour and decorate. And while the process itself may be relatively simple getting these to look and taste the way you want them to is not and they are super time consuming if you are going to make more than a dozen.

Here is the exact list of what we used to make the pop and display:

1 9x13 cake -flavor of your choice
1 can of cake frosting in a complimentary flavor
your largest mixing bowl
medium peanut butter cup mold
square thin mint style candy mold
3.25 lbs of white melting chocolate

measuring spoons in 1/2 and 1 teaspoon
lollipop sticks
wax paper
2 standard cookie sheets
2 blocks of Styrofoam
2 cup liquid measuring cup -microwave safe
2 Wilton squeeze bottles
Wilton purple sugar sprinkles

Wilton Heart Drops
grape licorice rope
Airheads bars in White Mystery
pair of scissors
curling ribbon
cello bags
xacto knife
large, painted terracotta pot
shiny, opalized basket filler

Don't bother using anything other than "candy melts", "melting chocolate" or "candy coating" (these are the different names I have seen it go by) for these unless you are schooled in the ways of tempering chocolate. We ran out of "candy melts" and given the hour the only thing we could get our hands on was Lindt white chocolate. I made the mistake of not re-tempering it and not only did it lose its snap and shine but it just did not hold up as well as the "candy melts" the day of the event. Truth be told, I actually preferred the taste of the Merkens than the Lindt for this project but then again I have never been a huge Lindt fan. Also, do yourself a favor and clear out enough space in your freezer to hold the cookie sheet(s) and candy molds. Using the freezer speeds up the set up time and when you're doing this in warmer weather makes it a lot less frustrating.

Let's talk about cake because without the cake, these are just regular old white chocolate lollies. Due to budgetary and time concerns we used a Pillsbury Strawberry cake mix. BIG MISTAKE! First of all, while it may have smelled (to some people, people with stuffy noses) like strawberry it in no way tasted like it. Also, the color was not the bright pink I would associate with strawberry cake. While I did my thing to dress it up (butter instead of oil, hot pink food tint) I just didn't like it. Plus and this is a big plus, the texture was all wrong for this project. You don't want a light, fluffy cake for this you want a dense, moist, heavy cake. I would suggest baking the cake in a loaf pan (or two) ( even if you need as much cake as we did) and baking it at least a day ahead. I think traditional Pound Cake would work awesome for these.

The freezer was so our friend the night we made these! I made the call to deviate from Bakerella's directions and stick these BEFORE we placed them in the peanut butter cup mold and I'm glad we did. Having these little cuties all sticked up made it easier for the person pouring the molds to just plop them right in and move on to the next instead of having to fiddle with getting them just right. Each one used about 1/2 teaspoon of the cake/frosting mixture and even then some of them pushed through the top of the mold (which was okay since it was covered with a square of chocolate.) Here they are all lined up and ready for the freezer where they sat for about two hours in our process (since we ran out of chocolate.) For the plain round ones I would suggest using no more than 2 teaspoons of cake/frosting. The larger ones we made, about a tablespoon of cake, were just too big/heavy to hold up especially once they got warm!

I am really grateful I wasn't making these alone! Those freaking tassels (made from licorice rope and air heads cut and twisted together) would have been the death of me! The Styrofoam blocks were well used both while making the pops and then again when it came time to create the displays. We were able to stage the pops (I think) eight at a time and having a place to stick them upright was helpful for packaging them too! As long as you shoved the stick in deep enough it was stable enough to move them around in case they needed to get popped back in the fridge, which they did. In the end I think these are TOTALLY worth all the hard work that went into them and they seemed to big hit at the BBQ!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cupcakes Are The New Black

It's no secret that cupcakes are hot right now, in fact they have been elevated from a tasty bakery treat to fashion icon. I can't turn my head these days without seeing them on t-shirts, purses, jewelry and even sneakers (man I gotta get me some of those!) But the things I like best about cupcakes are their simplicity and infinite adaptability from afternoon treat to elegant dessert. These are Tye Dye cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream frosting made or a high school graduation BBQ. I wish I could take the credit for inventing such a clever idea but it was Saucy over at bloggedy blog blog who posted about them and where I got the idea.

While I make a ton of stuff from scratch there are times when I need to cut corners and when it's okay to cut corners and cake is one of those things it's okay to use a mix for AS LONG as you use a good cake mix. I only use Duncan Hines. I've tried other brands available at the grocery store and almost every single time I consider the end product to be nothing short of a disaster. Duncan Hines has perfected the cake mix and while I only use their basic flavors* (Chocolate, Devil's Food, Yellow, Marble and White) they make an excellent jumping off point. No matter what kind of pan I bake the batter in I always mix it the same way (except for the white cake mix) box of mix, regular size box of instant pudding in the corresponding flavor, 4 large eggs, 1 C water and 1/3 C melted butter. I put everything in my Kitchen Aid bowl with the paddle attachment, start on "Stir" until blended and then let it go for 2 full minutes on 5 or 6. The batter will increase in volume, thicken and lighten in color if mixed properly. It's important that you follow the mixing directions as it directly contributes to your finished product.

For these particular cupcakes I mixed the White cake mix exactly as the directions said to. I removed 2 cups of the batter and tinted it using Wilton Icing Color (gel formula) in Violet. As you can see it looks pretty dark but when I pulled the cupcakes from the oven they looked pale. If this happens to you DON'T PANIC, they darken up just fine when they cool! I used an ice cream scoop (the same one I always use for cupcakes it holds a little over 2T of batter) and two tablespoons to layer the batter into the silver cupcake liners. I'm not even gonna try to fib here, it was a giant, messy pain to do this! Next time I will simply plop the colored batter on top and use a knife to swirl the same way I do when making a marble cake.

Aren't they cute? They smelled awesome too! IMHO, a cupcake is only as good as its frosting and canned frosting, while it has its uses (DH Cream Cheese Frosting is what I use on my cinnamon rolls because at that hour of the morning there is no way I'm making homemade frosting), just doesn't cut it for me anymore. I am not a cake decorator by any means and I used to get really frustrated because I couldn't make my cupcakes look as awesome as others seemed to be able to do so easily. I learned that they key to the beautiful swirls was the consistency of the frosting. The softer the frosting, the more luscious looking the swirl! In fact, the frosting should be so soft that you fear it melting right off the cupcake.

Vanilla Buttercream

2 sticks unsalted, room temperature butter (really soft but not melted is the key)
2t vanilla
1 t lemon juice
4 C 10x sugar
1/4 t salt
milk to thin

I throw everything in my Kitchen Aid at one time, start on "Stir" so I don't get covered in powdered sugar and then kick it up to 8 and let it go for 5 minutes. If it's too thick I add about a tablespoon of milk. I used a Wilton 1M tip for the frosting swirls and Wilton Pearlized Sugar Sprinkles and Wilton Heart Drops to finish them up. There are a few tips I can give you that I find help me immensely. Before I start frosting I divide the cupcakes into 2 pans that are sturdy enough to be able to carry over to the fridge. When using the 1M tip I found that in addition to the soft consistency of the frosting, holding the tip directly over the cupcake and NOT at any kind of angle gave me the best look. I frosted 4 at a time, sprinkling the sugar and adding the Heart Drops as I went. When one pan was done it immediately went into the fridge to firm up. Firming up the frosting BEFORE transporting is the key to your cupcakes arriving as beautiful as they were freshly frosted in your kitchen.

*I do not use and will never use a mix for things like Carrot Cake, Strawberry Cake, etc. If I am going to make a fruit or vegetable cake I want to use fresh fruit and veggies.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Welcome To "Our House"

Hey there cats and kittens! I'm so happy you've found my brandy spankin' new space on the web where I plan to share all my best recipes and crafty ideas! I hadn't really planned on doing this but over the weekend I helped pull together a rather large BBQ celebration for one of my very favorite people in the entire world and received so much (very kind) interest in the desserts, foods and crafts I made for the event that I thought it was about time to start doing something more public and well, here I am. For the record, no, I am not a professional baker or chef and I presently do not do any kind of commercial party planning. That being said I have rarely, if ever, said no when a friend comes calling for some help or baked goods! Before I roll forward I wanted to cover a few small details.

1.) I am not a photographer and my camera is pretty basic but it's what I have and I do the best I can when it comes to photographing my food and crafts. I am hereby preemptively and in perpetuity apologizing for my less than wonderful photo skills.

2.) Whether you know me IRL or from other places on the interwebs I ask that you please do your best to respect the boundaries of privacy I have set up here at Eat, Craft, Enjoy and not disclose or discuss any of my personal information unless I have already disclosed the same previously.

3.) Please keep your comments family friendly. Don't make me get all delete happy on your behinds!

4.) If I mention a brand by name it's because I either have or am currently using it and NOT a paid plug or advertisement. That being said if I have mentioned your product or website by name I am not adverse to receiving a little love for it. Ahem. ::cough:: King Arthur your flour rocks and I can't buy your European-Style Artisan Bread flour at any of my local grocery stores! ::cough:: Ahem. In the event I am ever preemptively compensated for a product review of any kind the keyword "subsidized review" will appear in the keyword section at the bottom of the post.

I think it's time to call it a day and go find my favorite jammies and a cup of lemon tea. Over the next few weeks I will be republishing recipes and ideas I have shared other places on the Net for the sake of having them all in one place that is my very own and adding tons of new ones. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you stick around. After all it's June and that means my infamous Captain's Blueberry Pie can't be very far away.

Peace, Love and Butter,