Monday, September 3, 2012

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

Ever so slightly adapted from epicurious.com, this is my go-to buttercream recipe.  The little bit of extra time it takes to make the meringue is worth every second.

4 large egg whites, room temperature
Generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
1 1/4 cups plus 1 Tablespoon sugar, divided
2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla
candy thermometer

Place water and 1 1/4 cups sugar in medium saucepan and bring to boil, making sure all sugar is dissolved.  Let boil until the syrup reaches 240 degrees F on candy thermometer.
Meanwhile beat egg whites until frothy, then slowly add the remaining 1 Tablespoon of sugar.  Beat until soft peaks form.
Slowly pour the hot syrup along the side of the bowl and into the egg whites mixture.  Beat on high, scraping sides of bowl until meringue is cool to the touch.  This takes me about 10-15 minutes with this plastic bowl.  A metal bowl may hold the heat longer.
Once the meringue is cool, and it is very important that you are patient enough for it to cool, thoroughly incorporate the butter a piece at a time.
Continue beating until all the butter is added and buttercream is smooth and fluffy.  Add vanilla and beat another minute or two.  Frost your favorite cake and prepare yourself for rave reviews.

This recipe will frost 48 Guinness Cupcakes like this:
Enjoy!

For a printer friendly version without the photos, click here.

Guinness Cupcakes


~Divine Intervention~
I enjoy running.  It offsets my weakness for carbs and calibrates my mental compass.  When I run, my mind freely wanders from long stretches of nothing to the occasional tangible thought.  Mostly my mind pecks around like a free-range chicken - light, easy, happy - and this is when I get very thankful for the good things in my life.  These thoughts always includes my ankles.  Yeah, I said it.  My ankles.

Now, let's pause a minute and give some honest thought to the relatively unglamorous life of the ankles.  I mean, other than a brief mention in that skeleton song, they get no notoriety.  They receive no ego boosts of positive encouragement.  No one says, "Oh, what svelte ankles you have!"  There's no Anklepolitan Magazine for ankle models, no sexy articles with tips for attracting the ideal ankle partner, no exercise secrets for how to live a life free from cankles.  Face it, they only get periodic careful attention when the stubble can no longer be ignored, and that is only because a razor nick to the ankle is a real pain in the you-know-what.  Ankles, if given any thought at all, are regarded more in a Mr. Rogers' I Like You Just Because You're You kinda way.  Poor things.

Let me give you a glimpse into why I get thankful for my ankles each time I run.  We got a terrific deal on a commercial grade treadmill; however, Giant Clue #1 should have been the fact that four young strapping dudes loaded it on our truck.  These things are heavy beyond belief.  Little did we know.  We lost control of the beast as we eased it off the truck and toward our basement doorway.  It slid, knocking me backwards onto the floor.  Somehow, miraculously, the treadmill got hung up on the door frame as it came to rest across the tops of my ankles.  Holy close call, right?  Thank goodness, we have terrific neighbors who helped us out of this pickle.

When I reflect on that night, I feel stupid.  Astoundingly STUPID.  I can't imagine how or if I would be able to run today if that single event had taken a different turn, if old houses didn't have narrow doorways, if the good Lord didn't watch over me.  I shudder to think it took a near-crushing for me to acknowledge these gorgeous little body parts that gloriously connect the leg bone to the foot bone.  This is why I savor every run as wonderful and delicious and good.  REALLY, REALLY GOOD.

Almost as good as these cupcakes.  They, too, have some divine intervention of sorts.  It's called Guinness.  They will help YOU have good neighbors, too.  I can't make any promises about cankles, though.

Guinness Cupcakes
14.9 oz. can Guinness or other stout beer
2 cups unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups cocoa powder
4 cups flour
4 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
2 - 5.3 oz. containers vanilla Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat the beer and butter in a saucepan over medium heat; bring to a simmer then add cocoa powder.  Whisk until smooth.  Remove from heat and let cool a bit.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt; set aside.  Using a mixer, beat eggs and yogurt.
Add chocolate stout mixture until just combined.  Add flour mixture and beat on low speed until well combined.
Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full.
Bake 18-22 minutes or until cake springs back when touched lightly.  Makes approximately 48 cupcakes.
Top with loads of Vanilla Buttercream Frosting.
Enjoy!

For a printer friendly version without the pictures, click here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Salted Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake


~ The Break Up ~ 
My old friend, The Kitchen Aid Mixer, had started leaking after nearly 18 years together. That alone was not enough to say good-bye, as it's an easy fix to replace the grease (at least the online instructions and videos say so).  She also started complaining every time I suggested we bake some bread; she actually became quite childish, bogging down and dragging her feet like an unwilling toddler as I pleaded with her to mix the dough.  This scene always ended with me saying, "Fine.  I'll do it myself," as I finished the mixing and kneading by hand.  Our tastes in culinary adventures were clearly moving in two different directions.  The Kitchen Aid Mixer and I had a good run of it together, but it was time to move on. 
During one of our arguments over dough, I said a hurtful thing right in front of her.  With much resolve I looked at HotDog and asked, "You know how you wanted to buy me a new stereo for Ruby Redbug for my birthday...?"  He, who clearly doesn't know me well (ha!), replied with, "You want a new mixer."  It was much more statement than question, to which I beamed and said, "Yes, please."
And that was the official break-up.  She immediately started looking for a new place to live, while I delved deeply into the wiles of cyber matchmaking (aka research) to find my forever mixer.  As I waited for my new love, the old one promptly found a new home with a friend who loves her for who she is.  It ended as best it could have.
I hear you.  "Soooo, what did you get?  What did you get?"  I was going to save that part for a future blog, but here you go:  an Electrolux Verona Assistent.  I'll gush about all the wonderful reasons why we belong together later.  Feel free to Google in the meantime.
It was two long months before the new mixer arrived on my doorstep.  While I waited and obsessively checked the order status every couple days, a couple memorable moments made me feel like a genius.  The first came when I set out to bake cupcakes for HotDog and his son, the ManBoy.  I perused my small kitchen appliances and noticed my blender has a batter function.  I put the water, oil, and eggs in the pitcher and gave them a few pulses.  Then slowly added the box cake mix with the blender on low.  After a couple cycles of the batter program, I poured the perfectly blended batter right from the pitcher into 24 waiting cupcake liners.  Also, a food processor works wonders with frosting.  Those cupcakes were delish, and I self-elevated to baking savant!  HotDog tasted these and declared I didn't need a mixer.  I shot him a look.
Then there was the potluck at work.  I settled on an old Keeper from my childhood, because it can easily be made without a mixer.  The second stroke of sans-mixer creative genius struck when, while putting the cake together, I caught a glimpse of the finishing salts starter kit that my awesome sister-in-law, Tama, gifted to me.  Check out how cool!

The cake alone is fantastic.  However, Chocolate + Sea Salt = Sheer Tastebud Ecstasy.  When HotDog took a bite, he demanded to know why I have been keeping this from him all these years.  Do it:  buy some sea salt and make this cake.  Throw in a dash of cardio for each piece you eat, and I promise the trade-off is well worth it.

Salted Texas Chocolate Sheet Cake
cake
2 sups sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon regular ol' salt
1 cup water
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup butter
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk -or- sour milk (1 Tablespoon vinegar and enough milk to make 1/2 cup; let sit several minutes)
1 teaspoon vanilla
frosting
1/2 cup butter
3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
6 Tablespoons milk
1 lb box powdered sugar (~3 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional
1-3 teaspoons sea salt, optional and to taste  (I used Maldon sea salt flakes.)

For the cake:
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, baking soda, and salt.  In a saucepan, melt the butter and combine with the water and cocoa powder; bring to a rolling boil.  Set aside.
In a small bowl, beat together the eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla.  Beat or whisk into the flour mixture; add cocoa mixture.
As I tried to show here, it is a very thin batter.
Pour into greased and floured 15 1/2" x 10" jelly roll pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 15-20 min, or until cake starts to pull away from sides and middle springs back when lightly touched.  Frost while warm.

For the icing:
Whisk the butter, cocoa powder, and milk over low heat until combined.  Do not boil.
Remove from heat and beat or whisk in the vanilla, then the powdered sugar.
Spread on cake.  Sprinkle with sea salt.  This picture should give you a good idea of the amount of salt I used.
Add nuts (the 1/2 cup for the cake and a bunch of lovable ones to help you eat it).
Enjoy!

For a printer-friendly version without the pictures, click here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

One Heck of a Mac 'n Cheese


~Subliminal Craving~
Crazy Pittsburgh weather!  Monday I jogged with my dogs wearing shorts and a T-shirt.  This, a 12-hour heatwave, after I was bundled up in sweats under a blanket with a fire in the fireplace all weekend.  HotDog taunted me with gems like, "Are you cold?  Do you need another shawl, Grandma?"  I periodically checked the LLBean Doppler 11 Viper Radar meteorological center for the outside temperature, and I craved comfort food while the thermometer never budged above 25 degrees F.

Specifically, I had a hankerin' for macaroni and cheese, and I was determined to find a Keeper from scratch.  Now comes the humbling part where I confess that I made a passably tasty macaroni and cheese for years, but I shortcutted the bechamel with cream-of-whatever-floats-your-boat canned soup.  Yes (hangs head), I did it.  Over and over and over again (hangs head lower and curses Campbell's for being so daggone convenient).

The Saturday afternoon creation yielded a lovely casserole, but it lacked clarity and depth.  I made the roux as one should, whisking and heating the flour and butter until smooth and nutty-brown, then adding milk and Cheddar and Colby Jack cheeses.  I baked it, we ate it, we had seconds, we went as far to say it was good, yet no one declared it a Keeper.  It missed the mark - no question.  Somehow and despite this, the now-17-year old manboy saw to it that only a small container of the dish saw the refrigerator.

Sunday morning brought a renewed zeal for mac 'n cheese.  I wanted REALLY GOOD mac 'n cheese, which I knew in my heart of hearts did not contain flour.  Come to think of it, my mom always made a beautiful clear gravy with cornstarch.  Yes!  THIS is the ticket to letting the glorious cheese flavors shine through to every tastebud!  Thanks, Mom!

My light bulb moment and a second cup of coffee energized me.  I scoured the Internet, scrutinizing, picking and choosing what sounded good from several recipes and reviews.  And ya know what?  I discovered that I can crave something that I've never-ever cooked before:  Swiss chard.  Wow, have I even eaten it before?  (Pauses to stare at blank wall and ponder... nope, I got nothing.)  Something about the thought of Swiss chard and pasta and a blend of more complex cheeses - and oh, let's invite sauteed mushroom bits to this fantasy - made those little glands behind my lower molars get all juicy-juice.

And I gotta say, I was so right on target with the whole Swiss chard thing.
1) It adds confetti-like interest to an otherwise aesthetically monochrome dish.
2) Those self-titled Swiss chard haters can step off, because it truly can't be tasted here.  For reals.
And 3) Every little teeny bit of fiber should be welcomed with open arms when you're talking this much cheese in one serving.  Think of it as little cowboys in the bloodstream, hollerin' "Come on, little LDL doggies, move along!  YAAAW!"

Ah, yes.  Move along to your permanent place in the recipe binder of Keepers.  YAAAW!

One Heck of a Mac 'n Cheese
Sauteed Mushrooms recipe, 1/4" dice and omit salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons corn starch
3 cups 2% milk
12 oz block Gruyere cheese, grated, divided
8 oz block smoked Gouda cheese, grated
4 oz block Cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (1/8 tsp if ground)
1 teaspoon of prepared mustard (I love Ingelhoffer stone ground mustard)
1 bunch Swiss chard, center ribs removed
2 lbs elbow macaroni
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.  Bring 6-8 cups of water to a boil over high heat.

Prepare Sauteed Mushrooms recipe while you wait for the water to boil; transfer from pan to small bowl or prep cup.  It's kinda sad, really, that the trade-off for tremendous flavor is shrinking up so...  Maybe two batches next go-round?  Hmmm.

When the water boils, add the Swiss Chard leaves.  Stir gently, then cook for one minute.
Remove from water with tongs and place in strainer to drain.  Keep the water boiling and add some salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the elbow macaroni and cook as directed; drain.

Combine cold milk and cornstarch; set aside.  Melt the butter in a large pan.  (In retrospect I suggest rinsing and using the macaroni pot since you'll have to stir the pasta into the cheese sauce pretty soon.)  Add the onions until they begin to brown.  Quickly stir in the garlic, then gradually whisk in the milk/cornstarch mixture.  Stirring constantly, let mixture begin to boil.
Continue stirring for about 5 minutes until mixture is nicely thickened.  Whisk in the mushroom bits and grated Gruyere, reserving 3/4 cup Gruyere for later.  Whisk in the Gouda, then the Cheddar, then the black pepper, red pepper, nutmeg, and mustard.
Add macaroni and stir to coat evenly.  As you can guess, it did not happen in this fry pan; everything ended up convening in the pasta pot at this point.

Spread Swiss chard leaves on paper towels and press leaves with more paper towels to remove excess water.  Give 'em a fine chop.
Lightly butter a 13x9 casserole dish (I used my seasoned stoneware casserole and had success without buttering), and press half the macaroni mixture into it.  Sprinkle the Swiss chard on it.
Add the the other half of mac 'n cheese and top with remaining shredded Gruyere.
Sprinkle with additional grated nutmeg and ground red pepper, if desired.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until cheese lightly browns.
Serve hot. 
Enjoy!

For a printer-friendly version without the photos, click here.