Sunday, March 30, 2008

Daring Baker's Challenge: Dorie's Perfect Party Cake

Dorie Greenspan is one of those people who is so lucky to have found her true calling in life. From what I gather about her, she is a former writer who found her love for pastry and became a pastry chef. Put these two talents together and what do you get? One heck of a great cookbook writer, whether it be her own books or writing those of others (Pierre Hermé comes to mind). But I had never actually made one of her personal recipes until this month, thanks to Morven at the Daring Bakers.

This month's challenge? Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake. I looooove to bake cakes, I'm not much of a decorator but I can make a good cake, so I was very excited to try a new one. Plus, this was a white cake which I've never made before. The first thing I did was to go to the bookstore to see what the cake should look like in the end (and I decided that this is a book I must buy, it's huge and has a zillion great recipes in it). The photos of the cake were gorgeous, all white and fluffy with some beautiful pink filling inside. To me, the cake screamed Easter, so I decided it would be our Easter dessert.

Making the cake was really quite simple. One thing I've learned about Dorie Greenspan's recipe writing, you don't mess with it. What she says goes, and if you follow it precisely you will have excellent results. So I just followed her recipe to the "t" and it all came together great. Many DBs had trouble with the cake not rising, but mine rose just fine so I'm not quite sure what the problem was. The buttercream whipped up so smoothly and easily and it spread like a dream. I heated my raspberry jam so it would be a bit more liquid, and then brushed it on the cake rounds, which worked nicely and kept it from being too gloppy. I was very careful in spreading the buttercream over the jam, trying not to mix them, I just rocked my wrist back and forth over the buttercream until it came to the edges of the cake. For the most part that did the trick.

As for the decorating, I wanted the cake to say "Easter" but not be too crazy. I toyed with making pink and green macarons for the outside, but ran out of time. So I found these really nice pastel colored mints at the Fresh Market and applied them to the sides of the cake. They looked really Spring-like and pretty. Plus, they are delicious.

The cake was "refreshing" everyone said. It had an excellent. tight crumb and the lemon flavor was light and made the cake really fresh for Springtime. The buttercream, while good, was a bit heavy and I would probably use a white chocolate whipped cream next time, but it was still very yummy. Would I make this again? Certainly, especially for a birthday, Easter or a shower. This is a keeper.
To see other beautiful Daring Baker cakes, check them out here.

For the Cake
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt1
¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing
2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean

Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners.Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

To Make the Buttercream
Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream.Remove the bowl from the heat.Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.

Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth.Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes.

During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake
Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half. Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper.Spread it with one third of the preserves.Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream.Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream leftover).Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.ServingThe cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but I think it’s best to let it sit and set for a couple of hours in a cool room – not the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; it loses all its subtlety when it’s cold. Depending on your audience you can serve the cake with just about anything from milk to sweet or bubbly wine.

The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Playing Around
Since lemon is such a friendly flavour, feel free to make changes in the preserves: other red preserves – cherry or strawberry – look especially nice, but you can even use plum or blueberry jam.Fresh Berry CakeIf you will be serving the cake the day it is made, cover each layer of buttercream with fresh berries – use whole raspberries, sliced or halved strawberries or whole blackberries, and match the preserves to the fruit. You can replace the coconut on top of the cake with a crown of berries, or use both coconut and berries. You can also replace the buttercream between the layers with fairly firmly whipped sweetened cream and then either frost the cake with buttercream (the contrast between the lighter whipped cream and the firmer buttercream is nice) or finish it with more whipped cream. If you use whipped cream, you’ll have to store the cake the in the refrigerator – let it sit for about 20 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jean-Robert's Lavomatic Restaurant

One of the best things about living in Cincinnati is that Jean-Robert de Cavel lives here too. That sounds like I'm some sort of stalker-like freak, but this man is a reknown French chef who is giving Cincinnati what it has been desperate for for years: excellent restaurants in all price ranges. And they are French restaurants to boot, so I can get a regular French cuisine fix. His are not chains restaurants, nor are they all haute cuisine, but unique neighborhood spots. His Jean-Robert at Pigall's was recently named one of the top 11 restaurants in the country, and it is the only 4 Mobil star restaurant in the state of Ohio. I'm sure the 5th star is coming soon. Bravo Jean-Ro!!

His restaurants include: Pigall's for high end French fare, Jean-Ro bistro for typical Parisian bistro food, Greenup Café for French café fare including great breakfast pastries, Chalk (which I still have to go to, it is new) and the newest of the bunch: Lavomatic.

My husband and I went to Lavomatic (the French word for "laundromat", which the restaurant used to be) over the weekend, not knowing what to expect. We had heard the menu included "hearty French fare" and we knew that it was one of the new establishments in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood (which doesn't have a warm and fuzzy reputation) which is being renovated as the Gateway Quarter. Other than that, we went in blind.

Lavomatic, which only opened a few weeks ago, takes reservations from 5 - 6:30 p.m., after that seating is first-come first-served. Since we have to line up babysitting (and the moon and the stars) to get out of the house, we reserved at 6:30. A bit "early bird special", but it worked for us. When we arrived at the restaurant, the downstairs was already full, so they brought us upstairs. Much to our surprise, we the only diners upstairs, so it seemed a bit cold and lonely up there. I guess someone has to arrive first, though! The décor in the entire restaurant was clean yet rather stark: celery colored walls, white chandeliers, bamboo floors and tables, it was very light which was nice but we agreed the place could probably use a splash of color here and there for visual warmth. Another "ambiance" problem: we couldn't hear the music upstairs, and our waiter said they were working that kink out, but we felt a bit like we were placed in the "naughty chair" by Supernanny herself, all alone upstairs with no music.

Our waiter was good, he could explain the menu fairly well. We started with the charcuterie plate, which included saucisson, mousse de foie and country paté as well as a proscuitto-type ham. It was served with toasted baguette slices, country mustard and some pickled vegetables. It was excellent, not at all unlike something I would have at a restaurant in France.

The service became spotty once the dishes started coming out. We had multiple people bringing things up to us, and it seemed as though none were really sure who was supposed to do what. Our appetizer dishes remained on the table while they were trying to give us our first course, which led to a lot of dish-passing between us and them. They left a few dirty appetizer dishes on the table after serving the main course, which wasn't very appetizing. I'm confident this is a kink that will be worked out, because it's oh-so-very not "Jean -Robert".

For our main courses, my husband had the shellfish medley for $17. It was very much like a French bouillabaisse (calamari, shrimp and mussels in a very nicely flavored broth), but on the menu it said it came with "rouille". Rouille, from what I know, is usually a mayonnaise based sauce that they serve in France with bouillabaisse, along with some croutons. Think aioli. But there was no rouille with this medley, so I'm not sure what the rouille was supposed to be. The medley was good, my husband's only problem was getting a good flavor of the broth. The dish wasn't served with a spoon and the seafood wasn't soaking in the broth, so he tried to do it with bread. Next time, we'll ask for a spoon if they don't offer it themselves.

I ordered the Roasted Salmon for $18. It was served over Israeli couscous and covered with preserved lemon and a very light beurre blanc sauce. The mixture of the tart lemon (which also tasted salty) with the sauce was excellent and the salmon was done just perfectly. It literally melted in my mouth. I would definitely order that again. I finished my meal before my husband, and as the waiter was reaching to take my plate away he immediately asked if we wanted dessert. This is one of my restaurant pet peeves, when everyone is not yet finished with their main course and the waiter is already asking for dessert orders. Again, not very Jean-Robert.

Lo and behold, the best part of our meal was in fact the dessert. I truly think that my dessert was the best restaurant dessert I've ever had in Cincinnati, and that includes in the famed Pigall's. I ordered the chocolate torte with laurel creme anglaise for $7. This torte was like none I've ever had: melty and smooth in the middle yet not served warm, and clearly made with a high quality chocolate. There was a dash of fleur de sel on top which was genius, the pastry chef should be paraded about the restaurant for that idea! I devoured it, it was so delicious. My husband had the creme brulée infused with mint and chocolate madeleines on the side. Again, a home run. We kept going between each other's desserts in awe. High-five to the pastry chef at Lavomatic, every restauranteur should wish she was on their team. The only dowside to dessert, the waiter left with our dessert orders without asking if we'd like coffee or tea. And he never did ask, so we never brought it up. There's something about the power of suggestion that really works, especially when it comes to coffee with dessert.

In the end, the bill was moderate. We each had two glasses of wine (wine list is VERY impressive, especially by the glass), we shared a first course, had two main courses and two desserts, and our bill came to $98. We thought that was a very fair price for the wonderful meal we had just had. Hopefully the music will come on upstairs and the service will get a bit more on top of things, but since this is a very new restaurant I can cut them some slack.

I'll definitely be back!

Address: 1211 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine
Phone: 513-621-1999
Hours: Opens at 11:30 a.m. for lunch Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday; kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. Sunday though Thursday, 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The kitchen will also serve a limited late-night menu.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns, One a penny Two a penny Hot Cross Buns!!

Easter just isn't Easter without Hot Cross Buns. I've had some wonderful ones and some really tough and chewy ones, some filled with all sorts of dried fruits and some rather plain. But they are so easy to make that I tend to make them myself for an Easter treat.

Traditionally, Hot Cross Buns are served in Great Britian for breakfast on Good Friday, the cross representing the cross that Jesus died on. But in the US they are served throughout the period of Lent, and many families have them on Easter.

I've tried multiple recipes, but I like this one that I base on the Sweet Dough recipe in the America's Test Kitchen cookbook. The dough includes butter and has a brioche-like texture to it, it's very good. My 4 year old daughter won't have dried fruits of any kind in her baked goods, so I leave them out, but I add some spices and lemon zest for more depth of flavor.

Sweet Dough:
3/4 cup buttermilk, warm
6 Tb. unsalted butter, melted and cooled until warm
3 large eggs, lighty beaten
4 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 envelope instant or rapid rise yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
2 Tb. grated lemon peel
2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/4 tsp salt
(1 cup currants or raisins, optional)

1 large egg beaten (for the top of the buns)
1 Tb water
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 Tb milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk together the buttermilk, butter and eggs in a medium bowl.

Mix 4 cups of the flour, the sugar, yeast and salt, lemon peel, nutmeg and cinnamon in a mixer fitted with dough hook. Slowly add the buttermilk mixture (and dried fruit if you are using it) and mix until it all comes together, one minute or so.

Increase the speed to medium-low and mix for about 10 minutes, adding flour if needed.

Turn the dough out on a clean surface and knead by hand for about 1 minute. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and wrap tightly. Let dough rise until doubled in size, about 2 - 2 1/2 hours

Turn the dough onto a floured counter and divide into 12 equal pieces. Rollthe dough into tight balls and arrange on a greased 9 x 13 baking dish, wrapping tightly in greased plastic wrap. Let buns rise again until doubled in size, about 1 - 1 1/2 hours

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Using a sharp or serrated knife, mark an "x" in the top of each bun. Whisk the egg and water together, and brush it over the tops of the buns and bake until golden brown, about 25 - 30 minutes.

Let cool in pan for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the sugar, milk and vanilla and with a spoon or small knife fill in the "x" on each bun with this glaze.

Serve warm or cool completely.

* To make these ahead of time, do everything up to the shaping and place the shaped buns in the refrigerator overnight. The following morning, let the rolls rise for 1 - 1.5 hours, mark the x and bake as instructed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cheesecake Thumbprints for Springtime

So, tomorrow is the first day of Spring, or so they tell us. I don't know how the weather has been where you live, but here in Cincinnati it's been a little wacky. Two weeks ago we had a snowstorm, last week we had the 60s and today we are building an arc because we are certain there will soon be a flood and most of mankind will be washed to sea. Must pack my Kitchenaid Mixer. Anyway, the rain started mixing with snow tonight, so now we have slushies all over the streets.

If pending doom is not a reason to bake something colorful and Spring-like, I don't know what is. Since tomorrow is my little girl's last day of preschool before her Spring Break (no, we are going nowhere exotic, unless you count the public library...must find activities...), I decided to make some yummy thumbprint cookies filled with cheesecake filling to give to her teachers as Easter gifts. Nothing like bribing the teachers with baked goods! Not that I need to bribe the teachers or anything...but it's a skill that will come in handy in the next 20 years of my life...

These cookies are yummy. They are light, in spite of the cheesecake filling. The cookie base is delicious, not too sugary (only 1/4 cup) and with a delicious crispness that pairs perfectly with the cheesecake filling. The filling is very easy to make, but the cookies can be hard to fill. Don't over-fill them or you will have filling spilling over onto your cookie sheet. Trust me it's ugly.

The only problem with these cookies, which I didn't think of before I made them, is that they don't package well. The filling cools to a soft and tacky texture, so they stick to each other and to anything they come in contact with. So putting them in boxes was, well, interesting to say the least. Hopefully they won't be too ugly when the teachers open them up!

Cheesecake filling:
8 oz cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 large egg yolks
3 tsp. sour cream
1/4 tsp vanilla

Beat cream cheese until light and add the 1/2 cup sugar and pinch of salt. Beat again until smooth.
Add the egg yolks, sour cream and vanilla. Beat until smooth and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Thumbprint Cookies:
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg yolk
2 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 350.
Beat butter and 1/4 cup sugar on medium, add salt and egg yolk. Beat on low speed, adding flour gradually.

Shape level teaspoons into balls and place on cookie sheet lined with silpat or parchment paper. Space cookies one inch apart. Indent each ball with your thumb.

Bake 10 minutes, remove and make the indents again (be careful not to burn yourself, rotate fingers if you must). Rotate the pans in the oven.

Bake 8 minutes longer.

Fill each cookie with the cream cheese mixture (you will have some left over), bake another 8 minutes.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day: Irish Soda Bread with Currants

For as much as I love France and all things French, I have to admit that I'm an Irish gal, and my beloved dad never let me forget it growing up. On an almost daily basis, I would hear "Don't forget, you're an Irish girl." just before he would go on to sing the praises of the Irish (the best looking, the brightest, the best voices, the best food, etc.). My grandparents had immigrated from Ireland in the early 1920s, and there was immense pride in their homeland which transferred to my dad. Growing up, I would hear story after story of my Irish grandparents, from my grandfather's great humor to my grandmother's and great aunts' cooking (Irish stew, Corned beef and cabbage and of course Irish Soda Bread). My poor mother, who has never been much of a cook herself, couldn't compete. I recall one corned beef episode that was scarring...for everyone involved...but I won't get into those details here.

I must say that I enjoy an Irish pub, where I dive into all the fish and chips and shepherds pies I can. But I'm not one to tackle Irish cuisine at home. It's heavy and it makes enough to feed a typical Irish family, and we're only 4 here...which means too many leftovers. One exception to this rule is Irish Soda Bread because it is both easy (takes 5 minutes to mix up) and relatively good for you (just two tablespoons of butter).
What I love about this soda bread is that it has a slight sweetness without being too sweet, it is not floury or too heavy in the least and it has some moisture to it. It's the perfect soda bread recipe if you ask me, and anyone can try it, you don't have to be a culinary genius! I sprinkle pearl sugar on top of mine, which is probably a huge Irish taboo, but it looks and tastes very good. Almost like a light crust. This bread is excellent with some honey butter and you can toast it days after you make it, it still tastes great.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Irish Soda Bread with Currants:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2.5 Tb sugar (plus one tablespoon for sprinkling on top, optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 Tb. unsalted butter softened
1.5 c. buttermilk

2 Tb. pearl sugar for top

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment or a silpat.

Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. One tablespoon at a time, work in two tablespoons of the butter with your fingers, you will end up with a coarse meal-like dough. Stir in the buttermilk and the currants and mix with a fork until it comes together. Transfer to a floured countertop and knead just until the dough holds itself together, it will be bumpy, not smooth. This will take less than one minute.

Pat the dough into a 6 inch round, 2 inches thick and place on the baking sheet. If desired, sprinkle with one tablespoon of sugar or two tablespoons of pearl sugar. Mark an "x" on top with a very sharp or serrated knife. Bake until golden brown, around 40 - 45 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Melt the remaining one tablespoon of butter and brush over the top of the loaf.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mama mia, la pizza!

As much as I love a fancy meal out, I have to admit that I'm a pizza junkie, I love the stuff. Too much. I could seriously eat pizza every day if my rear would allow it. Pizza- not beer - is the main reason for my college weight gain that I have thankfully lost due to my realization that pizza is both angel and devil. But now I have kids who love pizza. Damn. Why couldn't they love brocoli? So now I've started making my own pizzas at home, which is making my habit much worse... But this time I'm watching the old arse.

I've experimented with probably 10 different pizza dough recipes. Everything from supermarket bobolis (not so great) to Martha Stewart's and Mario Batali's (the redhead chef that makes pizza crust with white wine while sporting his Crocks). While they did their jobs as base of the pizza, none of them ever really made me happy. They were all rather flat and didn't have much flavor. I wanted a "poof".

And then I met....Peter Reinhart. Well I didn't meet him, I received his bread baking book (The Bread Baker's Apprentice) as a gift. He has a trick to a good pizza dough, it's a two day process. Not a busy two day process, not like Julia Child baguettes or anything! He says "The single biggest flaw in most pizza dough recipes is the failure to instruct the maker to allow the dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator (or at least for a long time). This gives the enzymes time to go to work, pulling out subtle flavor trapped in the starch. The long rest also relaxes the gluten, allowing you to shape the dough easily, minimizing the elastic springiness that so often forces you to squeeze out all the gas." (p. 209) In other words, you mix the dough on one day, refrigerate it overnight, and 2 hours before you want your pizza you let the dough rise on the countertop at room temperature. The result? A pizzeria syle pizza crust, easy to "toss" (if I could only figure it out, I could toss it....right now I "pretend toss" for my kids), it puffs up perfectly and tastes good enough to eat all the way down to the crust!

This recipe makes 6 mini pizzas, but I usually get two big pizzas out of it. Peter would probably frown at that, but I like a thicker crust. I make one huge pizza for the family and freeze the rest of the dough for the following weekend. I have to admit that people are rather surprised that this is homemade dough. It's not necessarily the very best pizza I've ever had, but it's definitely the best homemade pizza I've ever had. And there's nothing like doing it yourself!

For the homemade sauce, I simply simmer a can of pureed tomatoes with two tablespoons of olive oil for about one hour. That's it! It tastes fabulous! And for the cheese just be sure to use an Italian blend, you can find it pre-grated in packs in the supermarket. Just using mozzerella will create a very oozy, melted and not very flavorful cheese. Toppings are up to you!

Buon appetito!

4.5 cups unbleached bread or all-purpose flour, chilled
1 3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp instant yeast
1/4 cup olive oil
1 3/4 cups ice water

Sift together the flour, salt and yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer. With the paddle attachment, stir in the oil and the cold water until the flour is absorbed.

Using the dough hook, mix on medium for about 5-7 minutes, creating a smooth, sticky dough. The perfect consistency will stick to the bottom of the bowl but clear the sides. Add water or flour as necessary. Your dough will end up elastic and sticky.

Sprinkle flour on the counter, transfer to dough to the counter. Using a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, mist the parchment with oil. Cut the dough into the amount of pieces you will need (2 for two large pizzas, 4 for medium pizzas, 6 for individual pizzas). Sprinkle flour over the dough, and gently round each piece into a ball. Place the dough balls on the sheet pan, mist the dough with spray oil and cover with plastic wrap.

Refrigerate overnight, or up to 3 days. (This is where you can freeze some in food grade ziplock bags and use in the next 3 months).

On the day you make the pizza, remove the number of dough balls from the refrigerator 2 hours before making the pizza. Dust the countertop with flour, mist with oil and place the dough balls on top of the counter, sprinkling them with flour. Gently press the dough into 1/2 inch thick discs and sprinkle again with flour and spray oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 2 hours.

45 minutes before you make the pizza place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Make the pizzas by gently lifting up the dough disc and laying the dough across your fists, stretch carefully with a bounce, stretching to desired diameter. Lay the dough on a piece of parchment paper that is on a flat baking sheet, so you can slide it right onto your pizza stone. Top pizza with desired sauce and ingredients (less is more, here) and slide into the oven for about 7 minutes.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Beignets à la Tartelette

If I could be the fly on the wall of someone's kitchen (not that she has flies on her wall), it would be that of Hélène, aka Tartelette. First because she's French and I love all things French. Second because she has a gorgeous blog that I love to read and I admire greatly, everything is perfection. Third because she can really bake like a pro and she always has something deeeelishhhh to serve up to lucky neighbors and guests. Frankly, I wonder how she doesn't weigh 500 pounds, I sure would if I baked like with such frequency. Helene's trick is that she's generous and gives to her lucky neighbors! For all these reasons, I'd love to see her in action. Not to sound like a stalker or anything...

So this morning, with 12 inches of snow on the ground and noplace to go, I decided it was time to make some of Tartelette's beignets. I had read about them last month and thought "this must be made when the time is right". Nothing like a foot of snow on the ground to make the time seem simply perfect!

I have made beignets before, but only from the Cafe du Monde box 'o beignets that I picked up at the grocery store one day. They weren't bad, but they were definitely "from a box" and didn't rise nicely, didn't puff nicely, were kind of tough. They were not like at the actual beignets of the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans. Anyway, I don't know why I've never tried them by scratch, I never make anything from a box, so why the beignets? Well, after seeing how easy they are to whip up I will never buy a boxed beignet again!

I followed Hélène's recipe and changed just a few things: I don't have orange flower water so I omitted that completely, and I added a teaspoon of sugar for some sweetness. Next time I will probably add a little bit more sugar, I like my beignet dough a touch sweeter (but not too sweet or it's overwhelming). But these beignets were so simple! Mix up a few ingredients, let the dough rise for around 45 minutes, roll out the easy to roll dough, cut the beignets (I made 12 rectangular beignets from this recipe) and deep fry in canola oil until golden. Start to finish the beignets took just over one hour, and during the rising time I emptied the dishwasher from last night, took a shower, made some coffee, it was multi-tasking extraordinaire! I fried up 6 of my 12 beignets and put the remaining dough rectangles in the freezer for another weekend. That's what I love about baking with dough, it freezes well and then bakes up perfectly!

There is one beignet left, it's for my husband....but he doesn't know it's there, so maybe it will mysteriously disappear before he returns from work...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Snow Day Baking: Ghirardelli's Chocolate Chip Cookies

There's just something about a snow day that makes me want to bake. It's not that this happened in my youth, there wasn't a lot of baking going on in my house growing up. A bag of Chips Ahoy was a treat for me back then. These days, being stuck inside on a cold, snowy day gives me the urge to fill the house with two things: warmth from the oven and the wonderful smells of goodies fresh from the oven. Plus, it gives me something to do on a day where I'm a prisoner in my home, my kids are going haywire and I need the psychotherapy that baking delivers!

This winter has been particularly harsh, and we have had a number of snow days, so I've been doing a lot of snow day baking. Granted, my daughter is only in preschool now, so snow days are not what they will be in a few years, but I take full advantage of the snow day joy I used to feel as a student and teacher! Yipeeee, a snow day!

Last week, we had not only a snow day but an ice was falling from the sky leaving us in a cocoon of ice. It was cold and grey, and I needed to bake something...the urge hit me. Looking in my cupborads I found that I had some Ghirardelli chips and all the fixings for chocolate chip cookies, and I was elated to know that I would soon have some chocolate chip cookies. But which recipe to follow? Such a conundrum.
I'm always looking for the Holy Grail of chocolate chip cookie recipes. I've tried so many. Martha Stewart has a few, the chocolate chunk recipe I've done on this site is good, but still doesn't wow me. I tried her daughter's (Alexis) "favorite chocolate chip cookies" and was kind of disgusted by the results...very flat, very chewy and oily as can be. I don't like that kind of cookie. I tried giving them away and was given a look of confusion by the recipient.

So the search goes on. This day, I decided to flip the Ghirardellis over and use their recipe since it was new to me. (I have since discarded the package, but you can find the recipe on the back of any Ghirardelli chip package).

What I liked about these cookies was that the end result had a perfect chocolate chip cookie shape (they didn't spread out too much) and a ton of flavor. Of course, I toyed with the recipe and used three kinds of chips: milk, dark and white, plus added some toasted walnuts. So good. Eaten straight from the oven, they were a dream. I liked them better than most chocolate chip cookies I've made.

The only down side I found was that once they cooled they got rather hard. Not "too" hard, but they totally lost their softness and chew. They were still excellent and looked and tasted just as good as anything I've ever seen for sale, but they were too hard for my taste.

So, I'll keep looking for the perfect CCC recipe. I think I'll try America's Test Kitchen next, those look good, they promise their secret methods will produce a chewy cookie, and to top it all off tomorrow might be another snow day!
In the meantime, don't be shy.... go grab a bag of Ghirardelli (whose chips are excellent by the way) and try out their recipe, it's a good one especially if you enjoy a crunch.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

It's Restaurant Week in Cincinnati!

Here we are, a mere 6 months-post the last Restaurant Week and another is upon us. During September's Restaurant Week, I ate a phenomenal meal at Pigall's for pennies (well, for $25.07 or somewhere around there). Pigall's has recently been named one of the top 11 restaurants in the country by Zagat's, so let's just say that meal was a STEAL.

This time, Pigall's is not participating, sadly. They probably realized they lost a lot of money during the week (they did not skimp on ingredients, presentation or service). Or perhaps they are tired, or over-booked, or realizing they are fabulous and don't need Restaurant Week, who knows. A close second to Pigall's is Daveeds in Mt. Adams, who is happily participating. That's where I would choose to spend my $25.

What's the deal? Reserve between March 3 and March 9, and you get a three course meal for a set price of $25.08. The proceeds go to the Independent Restaurant Association.

You can see the whole list of participating restaurants here.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Rustic Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Two things are happening to me right now: one, I'm trying to eat better and two, I'm getting way into baking bread. These two things don't always go hand-in-hand. I want to bake yummy sticky buns and monkey bread, but that is nottttt eating better. So I am always in search of the holy grail of healthy bread recipes. At least until I get the urge to make homemade croissants and eat 1/2 of them before anyone in the family knows they exist.... Not that I would do that....That would be mean....
So anyway, I found a good recipe for "Rustic White Bread" ever-so-useful America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (a book I really like because of its photos, its explanations and its easy and foolproof recipes). Using it as a base, I decided that a way to make it a touch healthier ( i.e. get rid of some heinous carbs) would be to exchange 2 cups of whole wheat flour for 2 cups of all-purpose flour and it worked like a charm. I kept the honey in, because honey is great in whole wheat bread.

What I liked about this recipe was that it was not as time consuming as many bread recipes I've used. After baking for daaaaaaays on end with Peter Reinhart, Julia Child and Nancy Silverton's recipes, all of which are time consuming to say the least, it was a pleasure to finish my bread in a total of 4 hours (rather than two days!). The two rising times are 1.5 hours each, which is very do-able, and we were able to enjoy the bread for an afternoon snack and then with our dinner.

This bread bakes up wonderfully with a great chewiness and crisp crust. I have found that having a steam pan in the oven is essential for the best results, as is spraying the bread during the first few minutes of baking. If you want a bread that is excellent and rather easy, this is the one for you.


2 cups bread flour
2 cups plus 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 envelope instant yeast
2 tsp. salt
1 3/4 cups warm water
2 Tb honey

Mix the dry ingredients (minus the 1/4 cup whole wheat flour) in the bowl of a standing mixer using the dough hook. At low speed, add the water and honey and mix for about one minute, until the dough comes together. Turn the mixer off and cover the bowl right on the mixing stand with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.

Increase the speed to medium-low and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, 10 minutes. If you need more flour, add the remaining 1/4 cup flour. Your dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick a bit to the bottom).

Turn the dough out to a lightly floured counter and knead for one minute. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a draft-free area for 1 - 1.5 hours.

When the dough is doubled in size, turn it out to a clean counter and dimple it with your fingertips. This will release some of the air. Once the dough is flattened a bit, pull up the sides to form a tight ball. Place the shaped dough on a sheet of parchment and cover loosely with greased plastic wrap. Let it rise again for about 1.5 hours.

Place baking stone in oven and preheat to 500 degrees F. Place a cast iron pan on the bottom of the oven (or very bottom shelf) and preheat it as well.

Let the baking stone heat up for about 30 minutes and no longer than one hour.

Once the dough has risen again, slice an "x" in the top with a very sharp knife or razor blade. Slide the parchment paper with the bread onto the baking stone. Pour 1.5 cups of water in the cast iron pan to form steam. Using a mister, mist water on the bread and on the walls of the oven. Bake for 30 seconds, remist the bread and walls. Bake for 30 seconds, re-mist again. Bake for 30 seconds and mist for a final time.

Bake for an additional 12 minutes (or less if it is getting too brown) at 500, and then lower the oven temperature to 400F and bake for another 20 minutes. When the bread is done, it will sound hollow when thumped.

Transfer to a wire rack and cool.