Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

This has been the kind of week that demands comfort food and one of my favorite comfort foods is an oatmeal cookie. (Or rather, 2-3 oatmeal cookies.) It’s never a popular choice, but I actually love the classic oatmeal raisin cookie with it’s chewy texture and cinnamon flavor and it’s little bursts of fruity sweetness. But my all-time favorite cookie, hands down, is an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

I know I’ve said it before, but I think people really undervalue the wonder that is an oatmeal cookie because, I suspect, the assume that oatmeal cookies only come with raisins. But the power of the baker is the fact that you can put anything you damn well please in your cookie batter. And the wonder of oatmeal as a cookie ingredient is that it gives the prized crispy-at-the-edges-chewy-in-the-center texture with very little effort.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

There are all kinds of recipes for the “perfect” chocolate chip cookie that can involve extra steps or unconventional ingredients. I really like Alton Brown’s “Chewy” recipe, which relies on the use of bread flour, a higher ratio of brown-to-white sugar, and the use of an egg yolk rather than a whole egg. It’s a great recipe that yields fantastic cookies, but it takes a bit more work and a bit more brain power than I always want to put in. If you’re looking at all these “perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipes and you’re thinking “who has the time?” I say: try oatmeal. Not only do you get that coveted chewy texture with less futzing, but if you use rolled oats, you’re baking with whole grains. Feel free to eat those cookies for breakfast. You’re welcome.

I think I’m going to need to make a batch of these this weekend. Here’s to a better week!

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from BettyCrocker.com)

Note: This recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies.

  • 1 1/2 c packed brown sugar
  • 1 c (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 2 c quick-cooking or rolled oats (I used rolled)
  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 12 oz chocolate chips (I like to use semi-sweet)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. With an electric mixer, cream together the brown sugar and butter. Add in the vanilla and the egg and beat until fluffy. Add in the oats, flour, baking soda, and salt, mixing until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  3. Using a cookie scoop or tablespoon, drop dough onto an un-greased cookie sheet, leaving about 2” of space between each cookie. Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown.  Let the cookies sit on the pan for a minute or two before transferring them to a wire cooling rack.
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Salted Caramel Brownies

I try to make it a rule not to buy specialty ingredients for a single recipe, especially if it’s a rather expensive ingredient. But sometimes you stumble across a recipe that makes you forget your guiding baking principles. For this recipe, that ingredient was a $9 jar of flaked sea salt. It was worth it given that these brownies fall squarely in the “to die for” category of baked goods, and I think the salt makes a difference—it has just the right flavor and just the right balance of bitterness that having salt on your brownies tastes wonderfully intentional rather than a terrible baking error. I’ve made these brownies twice now: once for a department potluck and once for a small dinner with friends. They were a hit both times—in fact, the second time, our party of four managed to kill half the pan in a single sitting.

Salted Caramel Brownies via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

These are a grown-up brownie. By that, I don’t mean that kids won’t like them, but I do mean that they hit a very different note than your typical brownie. These are a rich, fudgy brownie with a dark, deep chocolate flavor that is brought out by the coffee called for in the recipe. (Okay, I admit it. I also bought instant coffee just to make these brownies. I regret nothing.) The addition of both the caramel and the salt help to really bring out the bitter flavor in the chocolate, which means that if you are a fan of dark chocolate, you’ll probably also be a fan of these brownies. This a dessert for people who really love chocolate and for people who shy-away from overly sweet things. The basic brownie recipe from the back of the King Arthur flour bag is still my go-to, but these brownies are running a very close second.

Flaked Sea Salt

Now that I have a 9$ jar of specialty salt sitting in the cupboard, every time I think about baking now I wonder: should I make the brownies? I will, of course, keep making these brownies because they are fantastic. But if you’ve got any other recipes or recommended uses for flaked sea salt, I’m eager to hear them!

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Salted Caramel Brownies (Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa)

Note: This recipe makes a 9×13″ pan of brownies, which can be cut into 12 generous slices or 24 smaller servings, making this a good recipe to make when baking for a crowd. My flaked sea salt had some very big flakes in it, so I crushed it between my fingers a bit while I was sprinkling it on the brownies.

  • 2 sticks (1/2 lb) unsalted butter
  • 8 oz plus 6 oz Hershey’s semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tbsp instant coffee granules
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 1 c plus 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 c plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5-6 oz of caramel sauce
  • 2-3 tsp flaked sea salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease and 9×13” baking pan.
  2. Melt the butter, 8 oz of chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate together in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning. When the mixture is completely melted and smooth, remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
  3. While the chocolate cools, stir together the eggs, coffee, vanilla, and sugar in a large mixing bowl using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. In a separate bowl, whisk together the 1/2 c of flour, baking powder, and salt.
  4. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. Then stir in the flour mixture. With both steps, stir just long enough to fully combine the ingredients. Coat the remaining chocolate chips with the reserved 2 tbsp of flour and then add them to the batter. Spread the batter evenly in the pan.
  5. Bake for 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
  6. As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, warm the caramel sauce until it’s a consistency that will allow for drizzling. Drizzle the caramel over the brownies (be generous!) and then sprinkle with sea salt, crushing the salt between your fingers a bit if there are very large flakes. Allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting.

Peanut Butter Pie

It took me a year to get around to posting about the Lemon Angel Food Cake that I made Aidan for his last birthday. This year, I’m really upping my game and posting about his birthday treat from this year a mere 10 days after the fact. I am on the ball.

This year, Aidan requested a peanut butter pie, which is significantly easier to make than last year’s angel food cake. Peanut butter pie is the kind of thing that is very accessible even for the non-baker. If you use a pre-made crust, then the only thing you need to do is mix together the ingredients for the filling and let the pie set—no baking required at all. The only important thing to remember when it comes to peanut butter pie is that you can’t use natural peanut butter. You have to use the super creamy, sweetened stuff that you’d spread on super soft white bread. We’re making dessert here.

Peanut Butter Pie via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

The trickiest thing about making this particular recipe is that you make your own whipped cream to fold into the filling at the very end (just to make it a bit lighter in texture). But making whipped cream isn’t difficult—it just takes some time. You can make your life a little easier by chilling your bowl and beaters ahead of time and by making sure that your cream is nice and cold. Really, I highly recommend making your own whipped cream whenever you can, not because I am a whipped cream snob, but because it is a fantastic party trick. Based on my own carefully collected scientific data, pulling out homemade whipped cream to top whatever pie/cake/dessert-ish thing you’ve made for your friends will increase positive reactions and praise by a minimum of 83%. People will act like you are Julia Child come back to bless the people with the gift of good food. And all the while you (and your more whipped-cream savvy friends) will know that you just threw that shit in the mixer and let it go for a few minutes while you sipped a cup of coffee.

Peanut Butter Pie via sweetalchemy.wordpress.com

For the filling, I used a recipe from the most recent issue of Food Network Magazine because it was close by and seemed very similar to recipes I’ve used in the past. The original recipe calls for a graham cracker crust and for melting chocolate chips and spreading the melted chocolate on the bottom of the pie crust. At Aidan’s request, I substituted an Oreo crust and then decided to spread some fudge sauce on the bottom of the crust. Before serving the pie, I topped it with some chopped cocktail peanuts and drizzled some more fudge sauce over the top. The end result was excellent and very rich—a great way to celebrate the birth of my favorite person.

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Peanut Butter Pie (adapted from Nov. 2013 issue of Food Network Magazine)

  • 24 Oreos
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 jar of fudge sauce (not chocolate syrup)
  • 1/4 c heavy cream
  • 1 c creamy peanut butter (not natural peanut butter)
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 c whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3/4 c confectioners’ sugar
  • Optional: Chopped cocktail peanuts for topping

Directions:

  1. To make the crust, preheat oven to 350F. Place Oreos in food processor and pulse until you have fine crumbs and the cream filling has completely disappeared into the cookie crumbs. Melt the butter and drizzle over the cookie crumbs. Mix until the crumbs are evenly coated with butter. Dump the crumb mixture into a pie plate and use your fingers or the back of a spoon to evenly press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Bake  for 6-7 minutes. Allow pie crust to cool on a wire rack.
  2. Warm the fudge sauce up enough so that it has a spreadable consistency. Spread a thin layer of fudge sauce on the bottom of pie crust. Allow the pie crust to continue to cool as you make the filling.
  3. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the heavy cream until soft peaks form. (This will be easier if the cream is very cold and the bowl and beaters are chilled ahead of time.) Place whipped cream in the refrigerator until you are ready to add it to the filling.
  4. Beat the cream cheese, peanut butter, milk, and vanilla together until smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar 1/4 c at a time and mix on low until incorporated after every addition.
  5. Fold half of the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture until incorporated. Repeat with the second half of the whipped cream. Spoon the filling into the cooled pie crust, smooth the top of the pie, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set (at least 3 hours). Optional: Top pie with chopped peanuts and drizzle additional fudge sauce over the top of the pie before serving.

Really Good Chocolate Cupcakes

I am pretty much a baking traditionalist. I like classic flavor combinations, and I like classic desserts. And what’s more, I was raised in the Midwest and so my definition of what constitutes “classic” is largely determined by my Midwestern sensibilities. I’m wary of baking fads (I’m giving you the side-eye, cake pops), and I don’t like dessert hybrids. I love cheesecake, and I love a good red velvet cake, but red velvet cheesecake seems like the kind of thing that would make me wish I was eating my standard cheesecake recipe. I don’t like overly complicated recipes that call for ingredients I wouldn’t normally keep on hand. And I just can’t get behind recipes that involve baking mixes. I mean, if you’re already going beyond simply adding oil and eggs to the mix, then why not just make the whole thing from scratch?

I am guided by two primary goals as a baker: 1) to build up a library of recipes for really great, classic baked goods like chocolate chip cookies and bagels; and 2) to continually focus on improving my technique so that I can do things like make a really good loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread (my current project) or consistently whip up a really good all-butter pie crust. These goals mean that I am content to make the same things over and over and over again without feeling compelled to try something new or raise the bar. That’s kind of boring. These goals also make me a mite snobbish (see comment above about baking mixes). So it goes. The point is that when I acknowledge and stay true to these goals rather than worrying that I should try making marshmallows like all the other cool kids, I enjoy my time in the kitchen more and am generally more pleased with the results of my work.

Of course, all this is a long-winded way of saying: Baker, know thyself. Think about what you like to make and why, and let that guide your baking projects. And also, maybe try weaning yourself off of baking mixes if you haven’t already. Or at least don’t do that weird thing where people mix them with things like black beans or Diet Coke. Because, ew. There’s just no reason for that.

Chocolate Cupcakes

 

This chocolate (cup)cake recipe is one of my go-to recipes, and it gets rave reviews from everyone who tries it. When I eat these cupcakes, I think of the scene in Matilda where the evil headmistress punishes a kid by making him eat a gigantic, insanely rich chocolate cake. I am almost certain this was the recipe used to make that cake. These cupcakes have a wonderfully tender, sticky crumb and the chocolate ganache frosting spread on top makes them out of this world. My theory is that what makes this cake really excellent is the coffee incorporated into the batter. Much like the chocolate stout cake I’ve made before, I think the presence of a bitter agent in the batter helps bring out some of the deeper notes in the chocolate flavor, which balances the sweetness of the cake nicely.

I decorated these particular cupcakes to look vaguely record-ish because they were for a birthday party where our friend was showing off his new turntable and tube amp, letting people share their favorite records all night. Since the chocolate ganache frosting is naturally a dark brown, it was relatively easy to turn it black with some black food dye. Using my signature low-tech decorating techniques, I spread the frosting on, ran the tines of a fork around the cupcake to create the record grooves and then slapped one of those candy melt wafers flat-side up for a record label. I piped a dab of the ganache in the middle of the candy melt and Bam!: vaguely record-ish cupcakes.

Double Chocolate Cupcakes (Adapted from Gourmet, March 1999)

Notes: My major adaptation to this recipe is, obviously, to use it to make cupcakes. If you want to make a layer cake, double the frosting recipe and refer to the original recipe (linked above) for baking times. I’ve tried filling these cupcakes in the past, but wouldn’t recommend it since the cake isn’t firm enough to stand up well to the filling process. I would also highly recommend making these a day in advance since the texture and flavor of chocolate cake significantly improves with an overnight rest.

For the cake:

  • 3 oz semi-sweet chocolate (I used Ghirardelli)
  • 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 c vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 c buttermilk
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla

For Ganache Frosting (simply spread onto the top of the cupcakes, this will make enough to frost the entire batch. However, if you’re the kind of person who likes to pipe on a generous little mound of frosting, you’ll want to double the recipe)

  • 8 oz semi-sweet chocolate (I’d recommend using something a little on the nicer side)
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp light corn syrup
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter

Make the cupcakes:

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and line a muffin tin with baking cups.
  2. Finely chop the chocolate and then combine in a bowl with the coffee. Let the mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  4. In another large bowl, beat the eggs until they are slightly thickened and lemon-colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer, and a bit longer with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla and melted chocolate/coffee mixture to the eggs, beating until combined after every addition.
  5. Add the sugar mixture and beat on medium until just combined.
  6. Fill the baking cups 2/3 full with batter and bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Allow the cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Make the frosting:

  1. Finely chop the chocolate.
  2. In a small saucepan, bring the cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate, whisking the mixture until the chocolate is completely melted.
  4. Cut the butter into pieces and add to the frosting, whisking until smooth.
  5. Transfer the frosting to a bowl and allow it to cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable. You can speed the process up by putting the bowl in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, although you’ll want to check on it every once in awhile, stirring to make sure its cooling evenly and making sure that it doesn’t become too firm.

Chocolate Stout Cake

Somehow, I’ve already finished two weeks of the new semester and even collected the first assignment from my students. I have a calendar full of meetings and reminders and plenty to keep me busy. Being on an academic calendar is weird because it means adjusting your schedule every few months, but I think I’ve finally made it through this adjustment period. The biggest change this semester is that I’m no longer taking classes. After 20+ years of class after class after class, I’m done (unless I have a temporary lapse in sanity and decide to take another).

Not being in class anymore is incredible. Incredible. I’ve suddenly gained a lot more control over my schedule and routine and I’m not generating to-do lists from cross-listing several syllabi. My work is more focused since I’ve now just got a couple of big projects on the horizon. I’m getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night. I’m not too tired to make dinner. My stress-related jaw pain has disappeared. I get to look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas time because I’m not haunted by the terror of finals week. I feel more even and balanced. I feel like a real person.

The most exciting part is that I get the chance to break a lot of the bad work habits that I developed while taking classes. Like pulling all nighters. Or writing papers in one exhausting slog 2-3 day slog. Or expecting myself to be working all the time, feeling demoralized by the thought, and then getting little to nothing done as a result. Also, drinking too much caffeine and not eating often enough and then developing massive headaches. I made a fancy little work schedule for myself where I’ve blocked out spaces of time for discreet tasks like writing, reading, and teaching prep. I’ve tried to realistically appraise my life and made my schedule keeping in mind that I am unlikely to continue doing the same thing for more than two hours at a time, that I won’t get anything done past 8:00 (which sounds late, but is more like my version of 5:00p since I am a night owl), and that I won’t get up any earlier than 9:00a. So far, the schedule seems to be working. I’m writing in the mornings five days a week–I started with 30 minute sessions and am slowly working myself up to 2 hours. I haven’t had the stress of trying to whip up last-minute class plans. I’m continually surprising myself with how much I can get done when I set a finite work time. I’m actually enjoying work.

And the best part is that I have plenty of time for baking and knitting and Netflix watching and novel reading and blog writing. Not that I wasn’t doing those things before, but now I’m not weighed down by the guilt of feeling like I should be doing something else. I much prefer it this way.

I made this cake for a beginning-of-the-semester department potluck. At one point in it’s life, it was an entire bundt cake but this is the only piece that made it back home with me. I take that as a sign that it was well-received. Oh, and someone told me it may have been the best chocolate cake they’d had. So I’m definitely marking this recipe a success.Chocolate Stout Cake

As the name of the recipe suggests, this cake is made with a stout–I used Guinness–and I figured any cake made with beer would be a big hit with academics. The cake isn’t overly sweet but instead has a rich and nutty chocolately flavor. It’s also has a ridiculously moist crumb and the ganache on top is flavored with instant espresso, sending the whole thing over the top on deliciousness. The only tricky part is getting the cake out of the bundt pan. Grease that pan like you’ve never greased a pan before. And if the top of the cake still gets stuck to the bottom of the pan, scoop out the stuck cake bits, mound them up on the top of the cake, and then artfully drizzle your ganache to cover the imperfection. That’s what I did.

Chocolate Stout Cake (from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 1 c stout (I used Guinness)
  • 1 c unsalted butter
  • 3/4 c Dutch-process cocoa powder (I’ve been using Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder in place of Dutch-process)
  • 2 c all purpose flour
  • 2 c sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 c sour cream
  • 6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 6 tbsp heavy cream
  • 3/4 tsp instant coffee (I substituted 1/2 tsp instant espresso because it was what I had on hand)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease a bundt pan really, really well.
  2. Bring the stout and butter to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the cocoa powder and whisk until smooth. Allow the mixture to cool while you prepare the rest of the cake batter.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
  4. Beat the eggs and sour cream together in another bowl. Slowly beat in the stout/butter/chocolate mixture and beat until just combined. Add the flour mixture and beat briefly on low speed, using a spatula to fold in the rest of the flour mixture if necessary.
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes or until a tooth pick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely on a wire rack before inverting the cake onto a plate to remove it from the pan.
  6. For the ganache, melt the chocolate chips, heavy cream, and instant coffee or espresso granules together over low heat, whisking until smooth. Drizzle over the top of the cake.

 

 

Two Realizations and a Recipe

I had a realization this week that has totally thrown me for a loop: I am not a goal-oriented person.

God help me if I am ever driven to find a job in corporate America. I am also disorganized, an anti-people person, and do not own a skirt suit. I totally would not make the cut.

The eagerness with which I set goals for myself is a testament to how deeply I’ve internalized the idea that being goal-oriented is a key part of being a good, hard-working person. This was my to-do list for Saturday. I make lists like this all the freaking time. The text in the picture is backwards, but all that matters is that there are nine items on said list and only two of them are crossed off. One of those two items was to rid my inbox of this semester’s email clutter, and that task took all of ten minutes to complete, which is really the only reason it got done. At the beginning of this year, I wrote a post about my distaste for New Year’s resolutions and set five year-long goals for myself instead. Of the five, I’ve actually started on one–I’m half way through book two of ten in the Vampire Chronicles and pretty damn sure they won’t all get read before the year ends. And before that, I set a goal ten things I wanted to bake over winter break. I finished three.

These are just a couple of examples of years and years of setting and then failing to achieve goals. And every time I recycle one of those unfinished to-do lists, I feel a slight pang of guilt. But mostly I feel like it doesn’t matter. And then I feel a little guilty because I worry I should feel like it matters. But then I come back around to feeling like it really, truly doesn’t matter. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I recently recognized that external motivators–deadlines, rewards, expectations, etc.–simply don’t motivate me. External motivators make me feel like a cartoon dog chasing after a sausage dangling from a stick. I am ornery. I do not need to be given sausage, and I would rather just walk when and if I feel like it. For me, goals are a kind of external motivation. The point is to set milestones that mark some kind of progress or to establish an endpoint where you can feel like you’ve accomplished something. There is supposed to be satisfaction that comes from reaching the end, from achieving the goal. Except that I could give a shit about milestones and endpoints. (Case in point: I have a high school diploma and two higher ed degrees and I have never walked in a graduation ceremony. Sounds boring.) When I think about it, it’s really not surprising that the things I like to do–knitting, baking, writing–all involve an intense focus on the process of actually bringing something into form. There is never joy in the end product unless there was also joy in the process.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because the semester is over, and the summer is now laid out before me and waiting to be planned. But more than that, I’ve finished coursework–the most structured part of my degree program–and am now moving on to tasks that require that I work more independently. On the one hand, I am excited about the way that my time is becoming more my own since structure does not seem to suit me. But at the same time, I’m finding myself a little anxious about continuing to make progress and not just falling into the habit of waking up every morning and facebooking until my eyes bleed. Intellectually, I feel confident in my ability to the work that I need to do. But that nagging anxiety persists, and my first instinct is to try to quell it with goal-setting.

In the past week, I’ve set about a bazillion goals for myself: bake bread every weekend, knit a cardigan every month, teach myself to sew and then make 5 (or maybe 7? 10?) garments before the end of summer, practice yoga four times a week, figure out how to make the best possible iced tea yesterday. It all makes a girl feel a bit manic, you know? And the kicker is that none of these goals actually address the root of my anxiety.

Luckily, my second realization offered some calm. Writing, especially for school, stresses me out, and I’ve said over and over that I wish I could approach writing like I approach baking–with a general sense of fearlessness and appreciation for the process, no matter how tedious. I’m still working on getting there, but I’m also realizing that there may be a two-way relationship in which the way I approach writing might help me reign in the manic goal-making my crafting and baking efforts seem to spur on. When I write, I go through a drawn-out period of trying to think through things–you can call it invention, you can call it pre-writing, you can call it fucking around. Whatever. In this process I do some reading and some research. But more importantly, I find myself jotting down ideas and making lists of concepts or points on little slips of paper that I squirrel away and usually never dig up again. (See earlier comment about being disorganized.) Losing those little slips of paper doesn’t matter so much because I’m not actually capturing things that must go into whatever it is that I am working on. I’m not making a to-do list of writing tasks to accomplish and ideas to cover. What I’m doing is blowing the whole project up like a balloon, expanding it’s dimensions until it seems damn near impossible. The impossible, bloated version of the project is never meant to be the final vision–it’s really just an opportunity to recognize and capture the various dimensions and the various possibilities that a given project could take on. And that’s why just before it all explodes (and usually just as a deadline is whizzing by) I figure out what it is that I really want to talk about, what I really want to explore, what I really want to do. And then it’s on. So all of that list making I’ve been doing–the twelve cardigans I want to make, the bread recipes I want to give a run–aren’t meant to be a project in their own right, but rather a moment of trying to recognize the possibilities and figure out where I want to go from here.

I’m frankly not sure what these realizations amount to, although my sense is that they might be helpful in my ongoing struggle to cobble together a way of working that works (for lack of a better word) for me. Oh, and I should really stop setting goals and find some other way to use up those post-its.

In lieu of more definitive conclusions, I offer you this peanut butter fudge recipe, which was one of the three winter break recipes I managed to make and which has still not been blogged five months later. This recipe is ridiculously easy to make (no candy thermometer required!) and So. Damn. Good. You could make it without the ganache, but it’s hard to imagine turning down the peanut butter chocolate combo. Either way, it’s delicious and simple, unlike my relationship with goals.

Chocolate Glazed Peanut Butter Fudge (Adapted from Sweet Anna at Tasty Kitchen)

  • 1 c granulated sugar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 5 large marshmallows
  • 1 1/2 c creamy peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 c heavy cream
  • 1 c chocolate chips
  1. Line an 8×8 pan with tin foil and grease the foil.
  2. In a saucepan, stir together the sugars, milk, and marshmallows. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and stir until sugars are dissolved and marshmallows are completely melted.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut butter and vanilla. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared pan, and allow it to cool completely.
  4. For ganache, heat the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over the chocolate chips in a small bowl and allow it to sit for a minute or two. Stir the mixture until smooth. Spread ganache evenly over cooled fudge.
  5. Refrigerate fudge for at least two hours. Using the edges of the foil, pull the fudge out of the pan and onto a cutting board and cut into 1″ pieces. Store fudge in an airtight container for up to a week (if it lasts that long).

The Chewy

I’m currently in the process of remixing this song. I will call my version “Fell in Love with a Cookie.” The Chewy, more specifically. I fell in love with the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie.

We don’t have cable, but a while back I had the good fortune of stumbling on an internet conversation about an episode of Good Eats where, true to his food science nerdery, Alton Brown broke down the secret to achieving the perfectly textured chocolate chip cookie for your preferences–either thin, puffy, or chewy. Brilliant. I’ve talked about my preference for chewy cookies before, so you know I had to try his chewy recipe out. And I’m so glad I did.

I used to make cookies all the time–for a long time, they were pretty much the beginning and end of my baking repertoire. While I was in college, I would watch my youngest sister Sarah (who was 2 or 3 at the time) every Friday, and we would almost always make cookies together. (We would also do other things like wash the dishes together where she would inevitably dump water all over herself so she could wear one of my shirts and use the coin-operated dryer at the end of the building. Or play make-believe games where Sarah insisted on being ‘the mom’ or ‘the teacher’ so she could boss me around. I tell you, this kid was born with attitude in spades.) Sarah was an active kitchen helper and always got frustrated when I wouldn’t let her crack the eggs into the bowl. She’d put one hand on her hip, try to grab at the eggs with the other and yell, “I can do it by my own!” The one time she did manage to grab the eggs from me, she dropped them on the floor and then immediately looked at me and said, “It’s your fault.”

Anyway, when I started grad school, I had some kind of cookie amnesia where I seemed to lose track of all my good cookie recipes. I lost the cookie touch. And then when I started baking more seriously, the cookies I made just seemed to pale in comparison to other more delicious items I was making. Cookie recipes are a dime a dozen, and it seems like a lot of them yield good, not great, cookies. Good is not really good enough for me. I had just resolved to start a hunt for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe when Alton Brown’s recipe appeared before my eyes and the search ended before it had even begun. I’ve made this recipe three times in the past month and even Aidan has jumped in to help with the cookie making–this is how serious we are in our love for these cookies.

The Chewy

There are a couple of things that make this recipe distinct from your run-of-the-mill, back-of-the-chips-bag cookie recipe. First, the call for bread flour, which has a higher gluten content to increase the “chewy” factor. (Incidentally, Brown also did a show focused on substitutions where he featured a gluten-free version of The Chewy.) Rather than the 1-1 ratio of brown sugar to granulated sugar that appears in most chocolate cookie recipes, this recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups of brown sugar to only a 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, which results in a richer flavor. The first step of the recipe also calls for melting the butter rather merely softening it and then directs you to chill the dough before baking. And besides yielding truly delicious cookies, it’s the butter content that makes me love this recipe even more–the fact that you can get truly chewy cookie with an all-butter cookie recipe is heartening. Keep your shortening! I don’t want it.

Have any GREAT, not good, cookie recipes to share?

The Chewy (Adapted from Alton Brown)

The original recipe says it yields 2 1/2 dozen cookies, but Aidan and I have been using an ice cream scoop to make really big cookies. With an ice cream scoop, we get more like 16-18 huge cookies. The original recipe also lists the bake time as 14 minutes, which I’ve found too long. 11-12 minutes is more like it in my experience.

  • 2 sticks (1 c) unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 c bread flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 1 1/4 c brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 bag chocolate chips
  1. Melt the butter in the microwave or in a small saucepan over low heat.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. Using an electric mixer, cream together the melted butter and the sugars. (It takes a bit longer than you might expect to incorporate all the liquid from the melted butter. It will look a lot like caramel when you’re done.) Add in the egg and egg yolk, the milk, and the vanilla, beating until well incorporated.
  4. Gradually add in the dry ingredients, mixing until blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.
  5. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough for about an hour.
  6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and scoop 6 cookies onto the pan. Bake the cookies for 11-12 minutes (see the note above). Allow them to cool on the pan for a minute before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Chocolate Peanut Butter (Birthday!) Cake

It got so busy around here, I lost my head. Frankly, I’m still not sure that I’ve been able to get the damn thing back on straight. The good news is that amidst all the crazy, I managed to find time to have a little get-together to celebrate my birthday a few weeks back. As a gift to myself, I made dinner and cake for my grad school cohort. They are a fantastic group and all pitched in to buy me this gift:

yarn

So much gorgeous yarn!

As part of my hella-broke lifestyle, I have only been buying yarn on the cheap for about two years now, which means basic discounted wool that is always purchased for a very specific purpose. All of these super-soft, beautiful skeins are things that I would not allow myself to buy at the moment. But now I have the luxury of getting to try them all out. It’s badass. And after spending nearly four months without picking up my knitting, this is just the kind of thing that I needed to get me inspired again. Thanks, friends!

As part of my birthday get-together, I made my own cake. This, of course, flies in the face of conventional birthday wisdom which says that someone should make (or buy) a cake for you. I have no place in my life for conventional wisdom. Why wouldn’t I seize the opportunity to make myself the World’s Most Decadent Cake on a day that demands decadent cakes, especially if, you know, I really like to make cakes? Aidan suggested that it makes it seem as though other people (like him) could not make a cake that was good enough for my tastes. For the record, I would like to say that this is absolutely not true. I have never met a cake I didn’t like. I do not discriminate against cakes of box-mix or bakery origin. I believe that all cakes are meant to be enjoyed. And if you bring me a cake and I already have one made? Then we will rejoice together in the sheer deliciousness of our double-cake bounty.

That said, this recipe is getting filed away under “EPIC.” Dense chocolate cake + peanut butter cream cheese frosting + chocolate peanut butter ganache = divine. Aidan described it first as evil because “it’s so good you just keep eating it until it makes you sick” and then later as chocolate cake sandwiched between layers of peanut butter chocolate fudge. I call it the best birthday gift I have ever given myself.

chocolate peanut butter cake

It is admittedly a little homely, what with it’s gloppy chocolate glaze. But this cake does not need the pretense of decorations or fance. This cake is a scrappy boxer waiting to deliver a knock out blow. This cake is contending for a starring role in The Cake in the House.

Jokes.com
Janeane Garofalo – The Cake in the House
comedians.comedycentral.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:198755
Jokes Joke of the Day Funny Jokes

I followed the recipe as is, with the small exception of making a double layer, rather than triple layer, cake. The cake batter is actually a one-bowl recipe that does not call for the use of an electric mixer. Relying on a whisk alone can make the actual mixing of the batter a bit hairy. You can think of it more optimistically as a fantastic upper arm workout. Or whip out the mixer. Whatever. Deb at Smitten Kitchen recommended freezing the cake layers for easier construction and frosting of the cake. I wrapped my cake layers in plastic wrap, put them in freezer bags, and let them freeze overnight before putting the cake together. It came together in a breeze. Per her recommendations, I also froze the frosted cake for about an hour before making and pouring on the peanut butter chocolate glaze. The cake was still a little cold when we cut into a few hours later, but that certainly didn’t affect its deliciousness.

So, in conclusion, I emphatically encourage you to make this cake. And then promptly invite me over.

cake slice

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake (Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, where it was adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple -Layer Cakes)

  • 2 c all purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 c sugar
  • 3/4 c unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 c sour cream
  • 1 1/2 c water
  • 2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of 3 8″ round cake pans (I used 2 9″ pans instead). Cut circles of parchment paper to lay on the bottom of each pan. Butter the parchment.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk until blended. Gradually beat in the water. Beat in the vinegar and vanilla. Beat in the eggs until well blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Divide the batter among the prepared cake pans.
  3. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then invert onto wire racks and remove the parchment paper. Let the cakes cool completely.
  4. To make assembling and frosting the cake easier, freeze the cake layers for at least 30 minutes.

Peanut Butter Frosting:

  • 10 oz cream cheese
  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temp
  • 5 c powdered sugar
  • 2/3 c creamy peanut butter
  1. With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar a cup at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add the peanut butter and beat until well blended.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Glaze:

  • 8 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tbsp creamy peanut butter
  • 2 tbsp light corn syrup
  • 1/2 c half-and-half
  1. In a double boiler, combine the chocolate, peanut butter, and corn syrup. Whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
  2. Remove from the heat and whisk in the half-and-half, beating until smooth. Use while still warm.

Dark Chocolate Mint Chip Brownies

We had friends stop by and stay the night on their way home from spending Thanksgiving in New York City, so I did the two things you do when you have company coming: clean the toilet and make brownies. Actually, that’s a lie since it was really Aidan who cleaned the toilet, but I’m sure I did other kinds of cleaning. The point is that regardless of what Oprah and Miss Manners have to say about playing hostess, I say you should try to get things reasonably clean, throw a little somethin’ in the oven, and call it a day. The rest will sort itself out.

While I was wandering through Target this morning on the lookout for a new air mattress (only the finest of sleeping accommodations will do here at Chez Arnsley), I swung by the newly arranged aisles of Christmas candies and baking supplies to see if they had the Toll House Limited Edition Dark Chocolate and Mint chips that I read about recently. They did. In fact, they only had one bag so of course I had to buy it.

Really, the plan for these brownies has been in the works since I found out these dark chocolate and mint chips even existed. I basically followed the recipe for King Arthur Flour’s Best Fudge Brownies Ever (the recipe that comes on the back of the KA all-purpose flour bag), except that I used Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder in the place of the dutch-processed cocoa and substituted the dark chocolate and mint chips for regular chocolate chips. Thus the dark chocolate mint chip brownies were born and proved to be as amazing as I had imagined.

I made a different brownie recipe earlier this year that I enjoyed a lot, but this recipe is definitely my new favorite. Like the other recipe I made, this is an easy, one-bowl deal. But this recipe yields something a lot like a brownie from a box mix, what with it’s shiny top crust and it’s rich chocolate-y texture that falls somewhere between a super dense fudge brownie and a more cake-like brownie. Really, it’s all the best of boxed brownies without the greasiness or the fall-apart crumble factor.

Plus, the combination of dark chocolate and mint? Insanely good.

Dark Chocolate Mint Chip Brownies

  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 c sugar
  • 1 1/4 cup Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla (I just now noticed that the recipe calls for a tablespoon of vanilla. I only had a teaspoon on hand, but I think the brownies turned out well anyway.)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 1 bag Toll House dark chocolate and mint chips
  1. Using the microwave, melt the butter in a large mixing bowl. I did this by putting the bowl in the microwave for about 45 seconds, stirring the butter, and then repeating the process until the butter is completely melted. When the butter is melted, stir in the sugar. Put the sugar mixture back in the microwave for another minute and then stir the mixture again. According to the people at King Arthur, this process helps you get a nice, shiny top on your brownies.
  2. Add cocoa, salt, baking powder, and vanilla and stir until well combined.
  3. Add eggs and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Add flour and chips and stir until well combined.
  4. Spread batter evenly into a greased 9×13 pan. Bake brownies in a 350 degree oven for 28-30 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry. Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the edges of the brownies and allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting.

Brownies Done Right

Immediately after I finished yesterday’s post, I resolved to make brownies. What I wanted were regular, fudgy brownies that would compensate for the lack of deliciosuness that was the brownie pudding. I briefly considered the fudge brownie recipe on the back of my King Arthur flour bag (also available here), but it calls for Dutch process cocoa and chocolate chips, neither of which I had. Also, after reading about the difference between Dutch process cocoa and natural cocoa (which is what I have in my cupboard), I felt a little wary of recipes that only called for Dutch processed. I feel like there are situations in which they could be easily subbed for one another, despite what the article I linked above claims, and people have made the King Arthur recipe with natural cocoa without any problems. But it was the kind of day where I needed a sure brownie thing.

Step One

Butter, cocoa, sugar and salt, ready for some melting action

Enter the recipe for the best cocoa brownies, originally published (or so I’m told) in Alice Mendrich’s book Bittersweet, and featured (where I first encountered it) on Smitten Kitchen. This recipe was the perfect because it specifically calls for either Dutch process or natural cocao and required nothing more than what was already in my kitchen. I whipped these up pretty quickly while Aidan was watching a baseball game, and they had baked and almost entirely cooled by the time the game ended.

Post Melting

... out of the microwave and ready for the eggs ...

I followed the recipe exactly as its written on SK, except that I decided to opt out of any nuts and I melted the butter in with the cocoa, sugar and salt using the microwave. I just cut the butter up into individual tablespoons and stirred it together as best I could with the other dry ingredients. Then I popped it in the microwave for about 30 seconds, pulled it out, stirred it and then repeated the whole process until the butter was completely melted and I had a soft, grainy, well-combined mixture on my hands. From there, I just followed the instructions as written.

oven ready

Shiny brownie batter

All in all, these brownies are a definite WIN. They are seriously chocolately and seriously delicious. Deb from SK wrote that these brownies would appeal to fans of box mix brownies because they share a similar texture, which Aidan and I can both testify to. But, as Aidan said last night, they are a lot richer than your basic Duncan Hines mix. They are about as far from a cake-like brownie as a brownie can be, but they aren’t gooey at all. In fact, they almost have a kind of creamy fudge-like texture to them. Also, for the first time in my life, I finally understand what people mean when they talk about coveting the chewy outer edge of brownies. Because the edges of these brownies are, indeed, delightfully chewy–miles away from the crispy, over-baked edge of brownies that always has me reaching for a piece from the center of the pan.

Brownies

Warning: brownies in photo are darker (and richer) than they appear

I put a lot of pressure on Aidan when I make him try the things I make. I have to force myself to look away while he’s eating because otherwise I will watch his face waiting for a reaction, which is high on his list of “Really Annoying Things Anna Does.” Last night, as we were sampling these together, I asked him if he thought they were good enough to make again and again. To which he replied, “Yeah . . . but I don’t think you should give up the pursuit of the perfect brownie yet.” Which made me stubbornly think, if I feel like never making another brownie recipe again that is exactly what I’ll do and you will like it. But I’m apparently already over being obstinate, because as I was looking at the aforementioned King Arthur recipe, I thought to myself, I seriously need to try these. And so I will heed Aidan’s advice and not give up the search for the best brownie just yet. But until a worthy challenger steps up, this recipe will continue to wear the crown.