Friday, December 28, 2012

Foodie Gifts 2012

Foodie Gifts 2012
"Santa" always brings me foodie things for the holidays, and this year was no exception. I thought I'd go down the list.

1. Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
"Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty fierce, hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life...."
Yeah, despite not staying in the restaurant world, I'm a sucker for a good chef narrative.  Past favorites include Heat by Bill Buford, and the classic Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.  I've been wanting to read this one for a while.

2. What's a Cook to Do? by James Peterson

Basic reference book for frequent kitchen problems.  It seems to have a lot in it addressing infrequently used ingredients and techniques, so I'm going to try using it instead of the internet for a while.  I did look up persimmons in it already!

3. Short and Simple Family Recipes by Amy Roloff

While most people will recognize her from TLC's Little People, Big World, the Roloffs went to school with my sister, so my Mom gave Amy's cookbook to all three of us.  It seems to have lots of family recipes.  I'm hoping for something that seems Oregon related since the Roloffs live close to where I grew up.  There are a lot of pictures of the family in it as well.

4. Bean By Bean by Crescent Dragonwagon

I know this cookbook author best from her vegetarian cookbooks like Passionate Vegetarian.  This cookbook isn't entirely vegetarian, but when she includes a recipe that isn't, she always has a vegetarian option.  She also clearly marks each recipe and variation if it is vegan or gluten-free.  There are lots of good sounding things in here!  I already have a bunch marked to try.

5. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

I've followed Deb's blog for years, and made many of her recipes.  They are always well-tested, delicious, and I couldn't wait to get her cookbook.  This was a gift from my sister.  I haven't cracked it yet because I'm delaying gratification.  The cover is gorgeous, and her photography always has been, so this just can't be bad.  

6. The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking by Reinhart/Wallace

Not technically a holiday gift, but Nathaniel brought this home from some discount store around the holidays.  I was skeptical as I have read some really terrible sugar-free and gluten-free cookbooks.  Some aren't diabetic-friendly and simply substitute honey, maple syrup, or agave for sugar; some gluten-free cookbooks create their own flour substitute and just use that for everything, rather than varying flavor and texture with flour.  This is co-written by one of the bakers I trust the most - Peter Reinhardt, author of the Bread Baker's Apprentice and American Pie, among others.  To see the results of his superb baking ability applied to sugar-free and gluten-free baking made me tear up (not joking) because I have a feeling that this will revolutionize my own attempts that I've been making for the last year.  THANK YOU, Peter.  

7. Cookbook bone (not pictured) - I had to Google this one to figure out what it is.  Now you can. Ha!
8. Apron, black-white-green, says "Queen of Everything." (not pictured) 

What did Santa bring for you foodie-wise this year?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

JennyBakes Reflects on 2012

International Baking
Thousand Layers Cake

2012 started out with a bang, and huge aspirations.  I participated in the Around the World in 2012 Books challenge in GoodReads, and I thought maybe I'd bake something from each country I read a book from.  Great idea, but I only ended up making twelve recipes.  These were some of the most inspired baking moments from my year, so let's relive the lot:
I ended up reading books from 47 countries in 2012, and seem to have acquired at least that many more books.  I'll keep exploring the world of books unread and baked goods/desserts unmade.  I'll be focusing more of my energy on a similar Around the USA reading challenge in 2013, and you guessed it - I will be attempting to do more regional American baking.  Please let me know if you have any favorite regional recipes, because I do not yet have something for each location.

I have a good start on my Around the USA Baking board in Pinterest, so check it out and tell me what you think I'm missing.

Bakery Visits

The highlight this year has to be having a croissant from Sarafina's on St. Martin.  That is as close as I have come to France so far!  I visited a cupcake truck in Dallas and a German bakery in Alabama, but wasn't out seeing a lot of places selling baked goods this year.  The next section will explain.

Cutting Out Sugar (Wait, What?)

This year saw some major changes to my baking habits.  My husband and I went super low-sugar mid-January, eliminating many of the ingredients I took for granted in baking.  It could have been depressing, but I decided to use my powers for good.  I mean, I'm a baker, so this could open up a world of new ingredients and flavors.  Many of my experiments did not even make it into the blog, especially several misunderstandings with coconut flour (not an easy one!), but I found a few recipes that made our new way of eating more bearable.  If you are diabetic, limiting carbs, or just looking for lighter options, I'd highly recommend trying one of the following:
The Best of 2012

I still managed to do quite a bit of "real" baking, despite the limitations.  My favorite recipes of the year (you won't believe how many have caramel as a component):

1. Slice

I resisted salted caramel.  Everyone kept raving about this cake, so I made it for my birthday and it is AMAZING.  A must try.  Martha, I take back anything bad I ever said about your recipes.

2. Salted Caramel Apple Crumb Bars

Sensing a theme?  These made my co-workers very, very happy.

3.Two candies I made during the holidays - Gingerbread Caramels and Microwave Toffee.  One was a lot of work, one was super easy.  I might repeat both next year.

So I end 2012 a convert to caramel, even salted caramel, and lighter on my feet.  I'll think for a few days on what I want 2013 to hold in the baking arena, and post again.  Happiest of new years to you all!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Easy Candy for the Holidays

Easy Candy
After telling my caramel making woes to enough people, I was told a secret - the Secret of Microwave Toffee.  I had no idea you could make toffee in the microwave, and approached the idea with great skepticism.  I finally had time to try it tonight, and it is a must-make for the holidays.  Super easy, and super delicious.  (Thanks, Jane!)  I am going to make a few more batches with different nut combinations.  I used the recipe from Lesley at, but almost all the recipes I found on the internet were variations of the same formula.  I had chopped hazelnuts left over from the big batch we roasted a few weeks ago, so I used those instead of pecans this time around.

The other candy displayed on the plate is so simple to make you don't even need a recipe, you just need good ingredients. We had picked up a few of the single-origin bars from Black Mountain Chocolate when they were at the Asheville Tailgate Market.  I melted the Peruvian bar in a double boiler, dipped dried apricots in it, and rolled them in chopped pistachios.  They have the marvelous combination of sweet/salty/bitter and haven't lasted as long as they should have in our house!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies
These were my favorites of the cookie baking madness of early December, so much that I made them twice!  The first time happened because I picked up a bag of Trader Joe's Peppermint Bark Baking Bits, which is my preferred ingredient.  Trader Joe's tends to get seasonal food in one time and then not have it again for a year, so when I went back for more, they were cleaned out.  I chopped up a bag of Andes Peppermint Crunch but it wasn't quite the same.  Still good.  The photo pictures the Andes, with the red and white stripe.  I suppose you could make these with crushed up candy canes, but the bark has sweeter white chocolate that adds a lovely texture to the cookies.

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
12 oz semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped (Baker's chocolate is fine)
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp peppermint extract (optional, may use vanilla instead)
1 bag Trader Joe's Peppermint Bark Baking Bits or Andes Peppermint Crunch, chopped

  1. In the microwave or in a saucepan, melt the butter and chopped chocolate, stirring frequently, over medium heat. Let cool for 15 minutes.
  2. Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.
  3. Beat the sugar, eggs and vanilla at low speed until smooth, 2 minutes. Mix in the cooled chocolate mixture just until blended. Add the flour mixture gradually. Stir in peppermint bark bits or peppermint crunch pieces.
  4. Divide the dough and scrape onto plastic wrap, shaping roughly into logs. Refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour. 
  5. Preheat oven to 350 F.  Slice 1/4" pieces from log and place 2" apart on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.  Bake 10-12 minutes or until set. 
 Full disclosure: The framework for the original chocolate cookie recipe comes from the Rachel Ray recipe for "Hot Cocoa Cookies," but I abandoned that idea and took it in this direction. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lemon Gingerbread Wonderland Cake

The Cake Wears Pearls
Every year we have a work holiday party the Friday of final exam week. I usually bring one of the desserts, but never have I been as nervous about what I brought as this year!  I wasn't sure the filling was sweet enough.  I wasn't sure the balance was right.  I almost didn't bring it in at all.

Slice of lemon gingerbread wonderland cake
In the end, I think it turned out okay. Not overly sweet, but I was hoping for a more sophisticated flavor profile anyway. 

So what is in a Lemon Gingerbread Wonderland Cake?  First, I started with Dorie Greenspan's perfect party cake from Baking from My Home to Yours.  I made her butter cream recipe as well, which is lightly lemon flavored/scented, and REAL, not powdered sugar sickly sweet.  I had run across a recipe for gingerbread latte filling in the Southern Living Pinterest, and couldn't get it out of my head.  I'm not sure the recipe is complete.  The only sugar in it is 1/3 cup molasses, and it is what had me worried!  It makes a custardy pudding type mixture that has to chill overnight (or six hours, which is all I had.)  The pictures they use are much darker, and I really do wonder if they left out the sugar ingredient.  In the end, it had enough flavor without the sweetness to balance the lemon of the outside.

Would I make this again?  Probably not.  I like ginger and lemon together but would prefer stronger flavors.  But I'm just relieved it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be, and sometimes that is all you can ask for.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Gingerbread Caramels

Gingerbread Caramels
Well, hello, caramel, my old nemesis.  You may have defeated me multiple times in the past, from caramel cake to destroying my oven to failed attempts at caramelized sugar,  but  as I planned my holiday baking, I came across this recipe for gingerbread caramels.  I wanted them.  I wanted to bring them to a cookie exchange and feel like I had something to offer.  I pledged I would not be defeated.

I bought the ingredients over Thanksgiving break, and it took me two weeks to get up the nerve to try the recipe.  Once it is poured into the pan, it has to sit untouched for 24 hours, so it has to be timed right.  I whipped it up Saturday evening so I could wrap the caramels Sunday evening.  Assuming the recipe worked.  Assuming I didn't just throw away 2 pints of heavy cream and 2 cups of corn syrup and 4 cups of sugar in the process.

After the fudge I made for my students ended up overcooked and dry, I treated my candy thermometer with great skepticism.  I went with instinct over the number on the gauge, and the minute the boiling mixture changed to a somewhat stretchy bubbling texture, I pulled it off the heat.  This was about 8 degrees less than what Martha told me to look for, but I think I did it at just the right time.  I was supposed to mix in the vanilla and spices before pouring the mixture into the pan, and I did, but it didn't mix in very well.  In the end, they aren't clumping up enough to make a dusty taste, so I let it go.

Wrapped caramels
After 24 hours came the wrapping.  And the wrapping.  This recipe makes a ton, but it should be enough to bring some to the cookie exchange and give some as gifts.  I'll be making this recipe again.  I won't be afraid.  You should try it too!

Cookie Treats

Student Worker Treats 2012
Although I have several bakery review type posts that I have no reason not to have posted, time is just getting away from me this year.  I don't want to neglect to post about holiday treats before the holidays.

Every year, I make goodie bags for my student workers in the music library and try to give them out on Study Day, that one day of supposed study time between classes and final exams.  Of course, most of my student workers are music majors, so they use that time doing juries, auditions, and interviews for Italy.  Busy brains need fuel!

This year because we changed how staffing works in the libraries, I have roughly 22 students working shifts in my library instead of the usual 10-11.  I should have made slightly less complicated recipes, but I did spread it out over a few days.  I will post the recipe to the chocolate peppermint cookies soon, I hope, once I've made them again, but for now I'll just describe and link to the recipes I used.
  • Ninja Gingerbread Men - cookie recipe from Simply Recipes; cookie cutters from Walgreens
  • Stained Glass Cookies - cookie recipe from WGBH
  • Chocolate Peppermint Cookies - I'll post what I did for these soon, it is a modification
  • Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies - cookie recipe from Martha Stewart, and I'm making these again for a cookie exchange!
  • Chocolate Fudge - fudge recipe from Alton Brown. Didn't turn out great, wish I'd used a recipe I'd known.
Still to come for this holiday season - gingerbread trees, cookie exchange, movie night, end of the world chocolate something (idea not fully formed), husband birthday, and Christmas tea.  Lots of baking still to do!  And wait until you see my gingerbread caramels.....