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I started thinking about a Valentine’s Day blog post as soon as I pulled these heart-shaped silicone baking cups out of my Christmas stocking. And if you’re making heart-shaped cupcakes, they should be bright red. And if you’re making heart-shaped bright red cupcakes, they should be covered in heart-shaped pink and red sprinkles. My philosophy toward Valentine’s Day is, if you’re going to do it, overdo it.

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What’s weird is that the closest I can remember to eating red velvet cake is these whoopie pies that I made a couple months ago. In fact, I didn’t even know that red velvet cake existed until college, when one of my professors told me a story about someone throwing it up on her carpet and the stain never coming out.

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My lack of red velvet cake experience is even stranger considering that my mom was recently telling me about a great recipe that my grandmother has for it. My sister made that recipe recently and said it was a little dry, but she’s baking at high altitude, which makes cakes prone to problems. I wanted to give the recipe a try myself.

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But Deb has a recipe she recommends as well, and I’ve had very good experiences with almost everything I’ve made from her site. And Kelsey describes herself as a red velvet cake enthusiast, and she recently found a recipe she loves. And Cooks Illustrated (via Cooks Country, their slightly less OCD magazine) has a recipe, and in general their stuff is worth trying.

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Four recipes, all highly recommended from trusted sources. There was no good way for me to choose just one, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to spend an entire evening baking something as simple as cupcakes do a recipe comparison.

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Before I discuss detailed comparisons between each, let me cut to the chase and tell you that every single cake was really good, both in taste and texture. There were differences, but they were subtle. Dave and I had a hard time choosing favorites. That being said, once I ate enough cupcakes, preferences started to emerge.

In the discussion below, I will use the following abbreviations: SK for Smitten Kitchen; G for my grandmother’s recipe; AD for Apple a Day, and CC for Cooks Country.

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Effort: None of the cakes were exceptionally difficult. AD was the simplest – the dry and wet ingredients were mixed separately, then combined in the mixer. SK and G called for the vinegar and baking soda to be mixed together before being added to the already-mixed remaining ingredients, which I’d never seen before. And G and CC call for the cocoa and food coloring to be stirred into a paste initially, which Cooks Country explains is to distribute the cocoa more evenly.

copy-of-img_1907from left to right: SK, AD, G, CC

Color: While the shades of red vary, all of the cakes are definitely red. I have no preference. I should note that I used a little less food coloring in G and SK than the recipes called for, because I thought I was going to run out. Even so, I think their color is fine.

copy-of-img_1911from left to right: SK, AD, G, CC

Texture: While I wouldn’t call any of the cakes dry, G did seem less moist than the others. This isn’t surprising considering that it uses the least fat of these recipes and only a third of the fat of one of them (AD). AD and SK, both of which used oil as the fat, were perhaps a little moister than CC and G, which call for butter. None of the cakes were too dense, but SK and CC seemed especially fluffy. I was expecting a different texture in CC compared to the rest, because it was the only recipe that called for all-purpose instead of cake flour, but it wasn’t noticeable.

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Taste: One thing that I think it important to note about Red Velvet cake, that Cooks Country clarifies in their article, is that it not meant to be a chocolate cake. The small amount of cocoa is just there to provide the red color. Unfortunately, CC’s cake was my least favorite. I think it’s because of one very small difference between their recipe and the others – the rest call for a teaspoon of salt, CC has just a pinch in it. The flavor of this cake was definitely muted compared to the others. The rest were all really good. SK calls for over twice as much cocoa as the others, which was enough so that I could actually taste a little chocolatiness. I like chocolate of course, but in this case, it masked that classic Red Velvet tanginess. AD and G tasted somewhat similar, but I think G had a little bit of a metallic taste to it (which I have no explanation for).

So, in the end, I choose AD (found through Kelsey’s Apple a Day and originally from Saveur) as my favorite, for its moistness, its bright, pinky red color, the ease with which it comes together, and especially its sweet but tangy flavor.

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Update 2/15/09: When BMK pointed me in the direction of another oft-recommended Red Velvet cake recipe, I used amazing restraint in waiting a whole 6 hours before I tried it. The Pastry Queen’s recipe uses butter instead of oil as the fat, and it includes sour cream. Other than the sour cream and calling for both all-purpose and cake flour, the ingredient list was similar to the other recipes I tried.

copy-of-img_2003top – Pastry Queen; bottom – Apple a Day

I generally prefer butter over oil in desserts, and I think sour cream makes cakes really tender, so I was pre-disposed toward liking the Pastry Queen’s cake. And it really was great – fluffy, moist, tangy, even-textured (although it doesn’t look like that here – the recipe specifically warns not to overbake the cupcakes, so of course I underbaked them). However, in the end, I still preferred the recipe from Kelsey’s Apple A Day, originally from Saveur, which also has great texture, and I like the flavor a little more. But this is definitely a personal preference – you can’t go wrong with either recipe. Next time I might experiment with using the ingredients from AD, substituting butter for the oil, and using the mixing method from the Pastry Queen’s recipe.

copy-of-img_2005left – Pastry Queen; right – Apple a Day

One year ago: A comparison of four vanilla frostings

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (from Apple a Day, who adapted it from www.saveur.com)

Makes 1 8-inch 3-layer cake

For the cake:
2½ cups cake flour
1½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1½ cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons (1 oz.) red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar

For the frosting:
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
12 ounces butter, softened
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1½ cups chopped pecans (optional)

1. For the cake: Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa, and salt into a medium bowl.

3. Beat eggs, oil, buttermilk, food coloring, vanilla, and vinegar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until well combined. Add dry ingredients and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.

4. Divide batter evenly between 3 greased and floured 8″ round cake pans.

5. Bake cakes, rotating halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. Let cakes cool 5 minutes, then invert each onto a plate, then invert again onto a cooling rack. Let cakes cool completely.

6. For the frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until combined. Add sugar and beat until frosting is light and fluffy, 5-7 minutes.

4. Put 1 cake layer on a cake plate, level off with a serrated knife, and spread one-quarter of the frosting on top. Set another layer on top, level, and repeat frosting. Set remaining layer on top, level, and frost top and sides with the remaining frosting. Press pecans into the sides of the cake, if desired. **Tip: after leveling cake, turn it upside down to reduce numbers of crumbs. I also did a crumb coat on the outside, let it set for ten minutes, then finished with remaining frosting.

5. Chill for 2 hours to set frosting.

Red Velvet Cake (from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” by Elisa Strauss via the New York Times 2/14/07)

Bridget note: This is the frosting that I used. It was great. (I’ve never met a homemade cream cheese frosting that I didn’t like.) Also, note that this recipe makes 50% more than the others.

Makes 1 9-inch 3-layer cake

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 tablespoons of water
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2½ teaspoons white vinegar.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place teaspoon of butter in each of 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and place pans in oven for a few minutes until butter melts. Remove pans from oven, brush interior bottom and sides of each with butter and line bottoms with parchment.

2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.

Red Cake (from my grandmother)

Makes 1 9-inch 2-layer cake

My grandmother isn’t known for adding a lot of detail to her recipes. I’ve added some.

Also, the frosting here isn’t the cream cheese frosting you usually see associated with red velvet cakes these days. Instead, it’s based on a cooked flour mixture similar to this.

2 ounces red food coloring
2 tablespoon cocoa
2¼ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening (I used butter of course), softened
1½ cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 350C. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Make a paste out of the food coloring and the cocoa. Mix together the flour and salt.

2. Cream shortening and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one a time, then the vanilla. Mix in food coloring paste. Add a third of the flour mixture, then half the buttermilk, a third of the flour, half the buttermilk, and ending with the rest of the flour. Holding a small dish over the mixing bowl, add vinegar to baking soda, pouring it into the mixing bowl as it foams. (The original recipe now says “Beat as you would any cake.” That’s helpful!) Beat at medium speed for 30 seconds.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool slightly in pans, then invert the cakes onto a cooling rack. When cool, split each later in two and frost.

Frosting:

3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter

Cook flour and milk until thick. Cool. Cream butter and sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Blend the creamed mixture into cooked mixture. Beat. The longer you beat it, the better it gets.

Red Velvet Cake (from Cooks Country Dec 2006/Jan 2007)

Serves 12

CC note: The recipe must be prepared with natural cocoa powder. Dutch-processed cocoa will not yield the proper color or rise.

Cake
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
Pinch salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups granulated sugar

Frosting
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch salt

1. For the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs in large measuring cup. Mix cocoa with food coloring in small bowl until a smooth paste forms.

2. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half of buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl as necessary and repeat with half of remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and finally remaining flour mixture. Scrape down bowl, add cocoa mixture, and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool completely, at least 30 minutes.

3. For the frosting: With electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.

4. When cakes are cooled, spread about 2 cups frosting on one cake layer. Top with second cake layer and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 3 days.

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You know how at the end of every month, you think to yourself some variation of “December already?! What happened to November?!” I have a trick for making the days of the month crawl by: make a commitment to write a blog entry every day for a month. Instead, you’ll be thinking “only a third of the way done? There’s still 20 more blog entries to write!” and “yes, only four more days!”

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In all honesty though, this was a valuable experience. My primary goal of cleaning out my “To Blog” folder was achieved. But, not because everything got put into the blog. On the contrary, a lot of recipes were moved into the “Probably Not” folder. If I couldn’t find anything to say about a recipe after considering it every day for a month, it’s time to admit that it isn’t worth writing about.

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I started the month with a recipe that’s languished on my hard drive for several months before I finally blogged about it, and I’ll end it the same way. I first made Robert Linxe’s truffles in February. They were good, but what really caught my eye about the recipe was his insistence that it be made with Valrhona chocolate. I’m all about using the best ingredients that are available and affordable, but generally I think the choice of ingredients should be left up to the baker. Insisting on a certain expensive hard-to-find brand of chocolate seems unnecessarily snobby.

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So I set out to determine how big a factor chocolate quality really is. My plan was to get four chocolates of widely different quality and compare truffles made with each. I was thinking of using Baker’s Chocolate, Ghirardelli, Scharffen Berger, and Valrhona, or possibly using Hershey’s or Nestlé instead of the Sharffenberger. That plan did not work out. I needed to keep the bitterness of each chocolate approximately the same to make sure we were comparing chocolate brand instead of level of sweetness. That limited my options, and I ended up with the following brands – El Rey, Ghirardelli, Nestlé, Scharffen Berger. I was too lazy to make the extra trip to Williams-Sonoma for Valrhona.

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What I found was that the favorite brand was largely a matter of personal preference. I had seven people tasting the truffles, and we discussed the differences between each as we tasted. I also found that it’s much easier to detect small differences in flavor when you’re focused completely on the food. As soon as my family decided we were done tasting and ready to just eat, I stopped paying attention to the subtle flavors of the chocolates.

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Scharffen Berger had a fruity taste and was the favorite of my mom and brother. Ghirardelli was a little metallic at first and was more bitter than Scharffen Berger. The Nestle was similar to Ghirardelli but with a hint of fruit and a little waxiness. It was the favorite of my dad and sister. El Rey was a bit grainy and was more bitter than the others. It was Dave’s favorite, but my brother didn’t like it much. (I didn’t record my favorite or my brother-in-law’s, and this was months ago so I don’t remember. D’oh!)

Really, I think you could use any chocolate that you like. If Valrhona is your favorite, go for it, but you’ll make some delicious truffles with good ol’ Ghirardelli, or even a fancy bar of Nestlé.

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Robert Linxe’s Chocolate Truffles (from Gourmet via Smitten Kitchen)

Makes about 60 truffles (Linxe says not to double the recipe)

I have not found that this makes anywhere near 60 truffles. I tend to make the truffles small, about ¾-inch diameter, and I only get about 30 with this recipe. I noticed some of the reviewers on epicurious had a similar result.

I skipped the 3 ounces of chocolate for the pre-cocoa coating, because I didn’t want to mix the chocolates, and I was only making ¼ of each recipe, and that would have meant I needed melt ¾ ounces of chocolate, and that sounded like a hassle.

11 ounces Valrhona chocolate (56% cacao)
⅔ cup heavy cream
Valrhona cocoa powder for dusting

Finely chop 8 ounces of the chocolate and put in a bowl.

Bring heavy cream to a boil in a small heavy saucepan. Make sure your pan is small, so you’ll lose the least amount of cream to evaporation, and heavy, which will keep the cream from scorching. Linxe boils his cream three times – he believes that makes the ganache last longer. If you do this, compensate for the extra evaporation by starting with a little more cream.

Pour the cream over the chocolate, mashing any big pieces with a wooden spoon.

Then stir with a whisk in concentric circles (don’t beat or you’ll incorporate air), starting in the center and working your way to the edge, until the ganache is smooth.

Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to hold a shape, about 1 hour, then, using a pastry bag with a 3/8-inch opening or tip, pipe into mounds (about ¾ inch high and 1 inch wide) on parchment-lined baking sheets. When piping, finish off each mound with a flick of the wrist to soften and angle the point tip. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt 3 more ounces of the same Valrhona and smear some on a gloved hand. Gently rub each chilled truffle to coat lightly with chocolate. The secret to a delicate coating of chocolate is to roll each truffle in a smear of melted chocolate in your hand. Linxe always uses gloves.

Toss the truffles in unsweetened Valrhona cocoa powder so they look like their namesakes, freshly dug from the earth. A fork is the best tool for tossing truffles in cacao. Shake truffles in a sieve to eliminate excess cacao.

Store truffles in the refrigerator.

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It’s my blog’s first birthday. A year ago, I don’t think I knew how much having a food blog would improve my cooking. By reading other blogs, I’m constantly hearing about new methods, ingredients, and ideas. I also find that I’m forced to choose a variety of recipes from a variety of sources to keep my blog balanced. Taking photos of my food has encouraged me to think more about presentation. And being a member of Tuesdays with Dorie and the Daring Bakers has greatly increased my confidence in baking – not only because I’m baking so often, but I’m always making something new. There are far fewer tasks in the kitchen that intimidate me now compared to a year ago.

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And I hear about other popular recipes. People often recommend Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake when someone asks for a great chocolate cake recipe. I already have a favorite chocolate cake, and I had my doubts that the Hershey’s one could live up to it, especially because it uses cocoa as the only source of chocolate, plus it calls for oil instead of butter. Of course the only way to really figure out which is best is to eat them side by side.

copy-of-img_9466left – Hershey’s; right – Cooks Illustrated

Hershey’s Cake is certainly easier to make. The dry ingredients are mixed, some wet ingredients are added, the batter is beaten for a couple of minutes, and then boiling water is stirred in. The result was a very liquidy batter. It was weird. The Cooks Illustrated recipe is a little more complicated, but isn’t by any means difficult.

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The cakes tasted surprisingly similar. Hershey’s is a little sweeter, but CI’s has a subtly stronger chocolate flavor. The textural differences were more noticeable. The Hershey’s cake had a crust on the top (and I pretty much guarantee that I didn’t overbake it), which I didn’t care for. Cooks Illustrated’s cake had a more even texture, and it was lighter and fluffy. You can see in the picture above that the Hershey’s cake is much denser, especially on the bottom. Both cakes were moist, but I think the Hershey’s cake was more so.

The difference between the two cakes wasn’t as dramatic as I was expecting. Both were good, although I’ll stick to the Cooks Illustrated recipe. Both make for a good blog birthday cake!

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I’m adding a “One Year Ago” feature, copied straight from Smitten Kitchen. It seems like a great reminder for old recipes that are too good to be forgotten.

One year ago: Cream Cheese Chocolate Chip Cookies

For Cooks Illustrated’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake, click here.

Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake (from Hershey’s Chocolate)

2 cups sugar
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup Hershey’s cocoa
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

1. Heat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans.

2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.

3. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely.

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Everyone is always talking about what the best chocolate chip cookie recipe is. Last year, it seemed like everyone was making the Best Big Fat Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie. A few months ago, Cooks Illustrated’s Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie was all the rage. These days, people are testing out the New York Times recommendation to chill the dough for 36 hours before baking.

Until recently, I stayed out of this discussion. I knew that my favorite was unpopular among food bloggers – good ol’ Tollhouse, with just a bit more flour. I’ve made it so often that I don’t bother getting out the recipe anymore. When I lived alone, I made it nearly once a week. I would eat two cookies each night with tea, and then give the rest to Dave when I saw him over the weekend. He’d eat the rest of the batch in one day.

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But eventually, curiosity got the best of me. It was the New York Times recipe that did it. I can never seem to resist making things more complicated – a required 36 hour rest was just up my alley, right? And then once I tried one new recipe, it was like a dam opened, and suddenly I wanted to be part of this quest to find the perfect recipe.

Because, let’s face it, just about all chocolate chip cookies are good (and certainly the ones I was making would be), Dave and I decided we would need to do side-by-side comparisons to discern differences between the recipes. I decided to try four of the most popular recipes – Tollhouse, NY Times, Cooks Illustrated, and Alton Brown’s The Chewy.

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I wanted to publish this entry with conclusive results. I wanted to come to you and say “This recipe is the one you should make. It is the best. The most butterscotchy, the most tender, the best dough, the most fun to bake.” I wanted to let you know unequivocally that the overnight rest was or was not important.

But I just don’t think it’s going to happen. The more cookies I eat, the more indecisive I get. I even made each recipe again, hoping to try again with fresh cookies. (Thank god for BakingGALS.) I had bags and bags of carefully labeled cookies in my freezer. It’s out of control. It’s time to stop the insanity and tell you what I did learn from this.

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Regarding the overnight rest – it certainly doesn’t hurt, and I find it pretty convenient actually. You can bake one cookie sheet of cookies at a time, and you have fresh cookies every night. (You also have dough in the fridge available at all times, and I have no self-control.) Does it make a difference? Maybe. I think it gives cookies a more pronounced butterscotch flavor, and sometimes I think it helps even out the texture. But it’s pretty subtle.

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Of the four recipes, Dave and I had two favorites, and the bake-off between those two was inconclusive.

My favorite was Alton Brown’s The Chewy. I am, sadly, not kidding when I say that I ate ten of these the first time I made them. <blush> Self-control-wise, I’m usually pretty good with cookies once they’re baked. This must have been a bad morning. It had a great butterscotch flavor, and a nice soft texture – tender without being too chewy or crisp. However, Dave had a few complaints about them being greasy, and I see his point, although I’m not bothered by this as much.

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We were also very fond of the New York Times recipe. It was soft, with just a bit of crispness to the edges, which I like. However, they were a little dry and bready, and didn’t have as much flavor as Alton’s. They definitely weren’t greasy though.

I definitely wanted to like Cook Illustrated’s Thick and Chewy recipe. Over and over, I hear people say that it’s their absolute favorite, and usually I love CI. But not this time. These took chewy to the extreme. It was like cookie flavored bubble gum, although the cookie flavor was weak. I made them again, convinced that I must have done something wrong the first time, but I still couldn’t get excited about these cookies.

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Dave wasn’t a fan of the Tollhouse cookies at all – too greasy, he says. I still like their flavor, which is intensely buttery. I also like the crispy edges and tender middles. But they could definitely benefit from some extra flour (which is how I made them for years, but I followed the recipe exactly this time).

This shouldn’t be, but is, an issue to consider as well – the doughs made from melted butter (Alton’s and CI’s) were not nearly as good as those made from softened butter. That’s sad. Tollhouse’s dough is the best, but NY Time’s is nothing to scoff at. The NY Times recipe is the most fun to make – lots of mixer use with that one.

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I wish I could provide a solid answer to the “which is best” chocolate chip cookie question, but I’m not sure it’s that easy. For one thing, every one has their own preferences – I only had two testers and we couldn’t agree! However, keep in mind that chocolate chip cookies are pretty much always good. Any of these recipes will give you something delicious. But if I have to recommend one, it would be Alton Brown’s The Chewy.

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The Chewy (from Alton Brown)

2 sticks unsalted butter
2¼ cups bread flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

Hardware:
Ice cream scooper (#20 disher, to be exact)
Parchment paper
Baking sheets
Mixer

Heat oven to 375F.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.

Pour the melted butter in the mixer’s work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tablespoons milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Chill the dough, then scoop onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown, checking the cookies after 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Chocolate Chip Cookies (from the New York Times)

1½ dozen 5-inch cookies.

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8½ ounces) cake flour
1⅔ cups (8½ ounces) bread flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons coarse salt
2½ sticks (1¼ cups) unsalted butter
1¼ cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content
Sea salt

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.

3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.

4. Scoop 6 3½-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (from Cooks Illustrated)

Makes 1½ dozen 3-inch cookies

CI note: These truly chewy chocolate chip cookies are delicious served warm from the oven or cooled. To ensure a chewy texture, leave the cookies on the cookie sheet to cool. You can substitute white, milk chocolate, or peanut butter chips for the semi- or bittersweet chips called for in the recipe. In addition to chips, you can flavor the dough with one cup of nuts, raisins, or shredded coconut.

2⅛ cups bleached all-purpose flour (about 10½ ounces)
½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), melted and cooled slightly
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark), 7 ounces
½ cup granulated sugar (3½ ounces)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 cups chocolate chips or chunks (semi or bittersweet)

1. Heat oven to 325F. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions. Mix flour, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Either by hand or with electric mixer, mix butter and sugars until thoroughly blended. Mix in egg, yolk, and vanilla. Add dry ingredients; mix until just combined. Stir in chips.

3. Form scant ¼ cup dough into ball. Holding dough ball using fingertips of both hands, pull into two equal halves. Rotate halves ninety degrees and, with jagged surfaces exposed, join halves together at their base, again forming a single cookie, being careful not to smooth dough’s uneven surface. Place formed dough onto one of two parchment paper-lined 20-by-14-inch lipless cookie sheets, about nine dough balls per sheet. Smaller cookie sheets can be used, but fewer cookies can be baked at one time and baking time may need to be adjusted. (Dough can be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen up to 1 month – shaped or not.)

4. Bake, reversing cookie sheets’ positions halfway through baking, until cookies are light golden brown and outer edges start to harden yet centers are still soft and puffy, 15 to 18 minutes (start checking at 13 minutes). (Frozen dough requires an extra 1 to 2 minutes baking time.) Cool cookies on cookie sheets. Serve or store in airtight container.

Original Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (slightly adapted)

Makes 60 cookies

2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (12-ounces) chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 8 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

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I love Dorie’s creative recipes, but I tend to turn to Cooks Illustrated for classics. So when I saw that Mari had chosen crème brulee for TWD, my first thought was to compare the two. But I’ve already compared Dorie and CI’s recipes a couple times, so instead, I decided I would play with some of the different flavors Dorie recommends.

I made vanilla, Earl Grey, and ginger variations. I thought I could combine some of the steps for the variations, but that didn’t work out, so it was really like making the recipe three separate times. I didn’t have enough of the right sized ramekins, so I put the custard mixes in mini-tart pans instead. I was worried that the custard would leak because the tart pans have removable bottoms, but it worked out okay. Until I dropped the baking pan with the six full tartelette pans on it and everything spilled. Being clumsy is a pain in the ass.

Frustrated with that, I went back to my original plan to compare Dorie’s recipe to CI’s. (My freezer is full of egg whites now.) I was curious about this comparison anyway, because the recipes were significantly different. Dorie uses almost half the number of egg yolks compared to the amount of dairy, and she also uses a combination of heavy cream and milk instead of just heavy cream. That makes CI’s recipe much richer.

Whoa. Dorie’s also makes tiny servings. I wouldn’t expect that from her.

I assumed we’d like the richer crème brulee better, but Dave and I both preferred Dorie’s softer custard. However, Dave liked the flavor of CI’s better, which may be the pinch of salt added, or the lower amount of sugar used in CI’s, which could bring out the flavor of the other ingredients more. I used vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract in both recipes.

This is my most successful brulee job. (That goes for Dave too – this is the only kitchen task he’s excited about helping with.) I used a mixture of brown sugar and granulated, and in the past I used pure granulated. Apparently the mixture is more forgiving, because I used to end up with a combination of charcoaly burned areas and raw areas.

It’s crème brulee, so you really can’t go wrong. Unless you spill it all over the oven. Check Mari’s blog for Dorie’s recipe.

Classic Creme Brulee (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 8

CI note: Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks after the cream has finished steeping; if left to sit, the surface of the yolks will dry and form a film. A vanilla bean gives custard the deepest flavor, but 2 teaspoons of extract, whisked into the yolks in step 4, can be used instead. The best way to judge doneness is with a digital instant-read thermometer. The custards, especially if baked in shallow fluted dishes, will not be deep enough to provide an accurate reading with a dial-face thermometer. For the caramelized sugar crust, we recommend turbinado or Demerara sugar. Regular granulated sugar will work, too, but use only 1 scant teaspoon on each ramekin or 1 teaspoon on each shallow fluted dish.

4 cups heavy cream, chilled
⅔ cup granulated sugar
pinch table salt
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
12 large egg yolks
8 – 12 teaspoons turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees.

2. Combine 2 cups cream, sugar, and salt in medium saucepan; with paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into pan, submerge pod in cream, and bring mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that sugar dissolves. Take pan off heat and let steep 15 minutes to infuse flavors.

3. Meanwhile, place kitchen towel in bottom of large baking dish or roasting pan and arrange eight 4- to 5-ounce ramekins (or shallow fluted dishes) on towel. Bring kettle or large saucepan of water to boil over high heat.

4. After cream has steeped, stir in remaining 2 cups cream to cool down mixture. Whisk yolks in large bowl until broken up and combined. Whisk about 1 cup cream mixture into yolks until loosened and combined; repeat with another 1 cup cream. Add remaining cream and whisk until evenly colored and thoroughly combined. Strain through fine-mesh strainer into 2-quart measuring cup or pitcher (or clean medium bowl); discard solids in strainer. Pour or ladle mixture into ramekins, dividing it evenly among them.

5. Carefully place baking dish with ramekins on oven rack; pour boiling water into dish, taking care not to splash water into ramekins, until water reaches two-thirds height of ramekins. Bake until centers of custards are just barely set and are no longer sloshy and digital instant-read thermometer inserted in centers registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 35 minutes (25 to 30 minutes for shallow fluted dishes). Begin checking temperature about 5 minutes before recommended time.

6. Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.

7. Uncover ramekins; if condensation has collected on custards, place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1½ teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. Refrigerate ramekins, uncovered, to re-chill, 30 to 45 minutes (but no longer); serve.

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Several months ago for the Daring Bakers, I made Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake. Most of the group members, including myself, had very positive things to say about this cake. However, many of us, again including myself, found that the cake didn’t rise much. Granted, the copy of the recipe I used had a typo in it regarding the amount of flour, but that wasn’t the case with everyone who had problems.

So a few weeks ago when I made white cupcakes, I used a different recipe, by Nick Malgieri. The recipe calls for 2 cups all-purpose flour, but I was pretty sure I’d like it better with cake flour, so I used 2¼ cups cake flour instead. The cupcakes were definitely good, but just the slightest bit dry.

Now I was on a mission. Is it just a characteristic of white cake that it’s dry? Would Dorie’s recipe be perfect if I used the correct amount of flour, or would Nick’s be better if I followed it exactly? And why not throw a third recipe into the mix, and try one from my old favorite, Cooks Illustrated?

I pared the recipes down so that they each used 2 eggs, and I made cupcakes. I made them all in one afternoon, leaving the oven on between batches and not adjusting the dial, to make sure oven temperature wasn’t a factor in any differences. I left out any flavorings besides vanilla, used the same amount of vanilla in each, and used whole milk in all three recipes.

You can see that the three look very different. Left to right, the photos show Dorie’s, Nick’s, and CI’s. Nick’s looks drastically different, which I can attest is due to the all-purpose flour. The photo below shows the result of Nick’s recipe when made with cake flour. It more closely resembles the other two.

The difference in taste and texture mirrors the difference in looks. Nick’s cupcakes are far drier than Dorie’s and CI’s. You can see that their texture looks more muffin-like with a coarser crumb. Dorie and CI’s are more similar. They’re both fluffy and light with a nice resiliency. Dorie’s cupcakes rose nicely, in contrast to when I made the layer cake in March.

At first, Dave and I agreed that CI’s beat out Dorie’s by a hair. They seemed moister and more flavorful. But later on, I did a comparison of just those two, unfrosted, and I was able to spot some subtle differences. CI’s cupcakes are undeniably moister. They are also sweeter. Dorie’s cupcakes aren’t as sweet, but I do like their flavor. Without the sweetness, some of the other flavors in the cupcake are noticeable.

The question then arises – what causes these differences? I’ve laid out the points of the recipe that I think would have the most significant impact on the outcome. I’ve entered Malgieri’s recipe as using 9 ounces (2¼ cups) cake flour instead of 10 ounces (2 cups) flour, since it seems pretty clear that all-purpose flour in a cake as light as white cake is a bad idea. I’m guessing Malgieri’s cupcakes are drier because they use less milk. Obviously CI’s are sweeter because they have more sugar. Dorie’s and CI’s recipes, which produced similar results, are actually pretty different. Dorie’s uses less butter and sugar, which I’m assuming is balanced by more milk and less egg whites so the cupcakes aren’t dry. I think the coarser, more muffin-like texture of Malgieri’s cupcakes might arise from the lack of a final beating step after all the ingredients are added.

I wonder if I can tweak the recipes to get my favorite aspects of each. It’s not as simple as just reducing the sugar in CI’s recipe, because sugar contributes moistness. But maybe I should reduce the sugar by 2 tablespoons and increase the milk by 2 tablespoons. It’s worth trying, but to be honest, after this experiment, I think it’s going to be a while before I feel the urge to make white cake again!

Classic White Layer Cake (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 12

CI note: If you have forgotten to bring the milk and egg white mixture to room temperature, set the bottom of the glass measure containing it in a sink of hot water and stir until the mixture feels cool rather than cold, around 65 degrees. Cake layers can be wrapped and stored for one day.

Nonstick cooking spray
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces), plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (¾ cup), at room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¾ cups granulated sugar (12¼ ounces)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), softened but still cool

1. For the Cake: Set oven rack in middle position. (If oven is too small to cook both layers on a single rack, set racks in upper-middle and lower-middle positions.) Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray; line the bottoms with parchment or waxed paper rounds. Spray the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and invert pans and rap sharply to remove excess flour.

2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into 2-cup glass measure, and mix with fork until blended.

3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed. Add butter; continue beating at slow speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.

4. Add all but ½ cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for 1½ minutes. Add remaining ½ cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.

5. Divide batter evenly between two prepared cake pans; using rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops. Arrange pans at least 3 inches from the oven walls and 3 inches apart. (If oven is small, place pans on separate racks in staggered fashion to allow for air circulation.) Bake until thin skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes.

6. Let cakes rest in pans for 3 minutes. Loosen from sides of pans with a knife, if necessary, and invert onto wire racks. Reinvert onto additional wire racks. Let cool completely, about 1½ hours.

Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake recipe can be found here.

Classic White Cake (from Nick Malgieri)

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 large egg whites (¾ cup)
¾ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 (9-inch) diameter by 1 ½ -inch deep layer pans or 1 (13 by 9 by 2-inch) pan, buttered and bottoms lined with parchment or waxed paper

Set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Combine egg whites, milk and vanilla extract. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to butter mixture then add half the milk mixture. Continue to alternate beginning and ending with flour mixture. Scrape bowl and beater often. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and smooth top with a metal spatula. Bake cake(s) about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack, remove paper and let cool completely.

*To make cupcakes from any of these recipes, line a standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners. Fill cups just over ½ full with batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-21 minutes.

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Melissa’s TWD pick of chocolate pudding really hit the spot for me this week. I hadn’t made anything chocolately in a while, and something smooth and cool like pudding is perfect for the hot summer weather right now. Also, as much as I like to cook, it’s nice to have something simple every once in a while.

Oh, except that I’m incapable of keeping things simple in the kitchen. I’ve had my eye on the chocolate pudding recipe that Deb posted a few months ago. Deb was looking for an easy pudding recipe after making her way through a disappointing one that sounds suspiciously familiar now that I’ve made Dorie’s pudding recipe. Deb’s pudding looks dark and chocolately and delicious, and as an added bonus, there’s no egg yolks to mess with. I decided to make both recipes and compare them. (I made a third recipe as well, but it didn’t set properly, so I’m not going to review it on the assumption that I screwed something up.)

Both puddings had their strong points. The eggless pudding had a much darker chocolate flavor, which I like but Dave isn’t crazy about. It was also really firm. Overall, it reminded me more of chocolate pots de crème than good ol’ pudding. In contrast, the chocolate flavor of Dorie’s pudding seemed weak, at least to me. However, the texture was that of a perfectly smooth and refreshing pudding.

Clearly, Dorie’s recipe requires more effort, what with moving the pudding back and forth between the food processor and the stove. I haven’t decided if it was worth it. I’d like to take Deb’s recipe (or maybe the third recipe I tried, which was similar), and tweak it. I think if I just add a little more milk, it won’t be so overpoweringly chocolately and the texture will soften to be more like a pudding. But we’ll see.

Dorie’s pudding recipe can be found on her blog.

Silky Chocolate Pudding (adapted from Smitten Kitchen; originally from John Sharffenberger)

Serves 6

Bridget note: There was no coating the back of a spoon after 20 minutes on a double boiler over gently simmering water. I’m assuming this is because I used a glass bowl instead of a metal bowl. I cranked the heat up and cooked it for another 10 minutes or so over a very lively simmer, and that did the trick.

¼ cup cornstarch
½ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces 62% semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Combine the cornstarch, sugar and salt in the top of a double boiler. Slowly whisk in the milk, scraping the bottom and sides with a heatproof spatula to incorporate the dry ingredients. Place over gently simmering water and stir occasionally, scraping the bottom and sides. Use a whisk as necessary should lumps begin to form. After 15 to 20 minutes, when the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of the spoon, add the chocolate. Continue stirring for about 2 to 4 minutes, or until the pudding is smooth and thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a serving bowl or into a large measuring cup with a spout and pour into individual serving dishes.

3. If you like pudding skin, pull plastic wrap over the top of the serving dish(es) before refrigerating. If you dislike pudding skin, place plastic wrap on top of the pudding and smooth it gently against the surface before refrigerating. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.

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