Monday, December 27, 2010

Love To Fudge (Peppermint Cookies N' Cream Brownies)

Hey there! Are you all enjoying the holidays? And did you get the gifts you were hoping to? I'm happy to say I got my greatest wish despite some bumps along the way, and Christmas was then wonderful =D. Not only did I receive some awesome kitchenware, cookbooks, and jewelry from P's family; but also thrilling news that my best friend N finally made it home and would be coming to visit on Wednesday. With another tarte tatin and lots of girl talk to look forward to, I couldn't ask for a better transition into the New Year.

Fudgetastic (Happy Holidays =D)

Speaking of New Year's, may I recommend these Peppermint Cookies N' Cream Brownies for your next holiday party? Chopped up cookies are mixed into a fudgy brownie base to add richness and crunch. Meanwhile, the mint flavor is a fun nod to the weather outside. These babies are a bit extravagant, I have to say (especially compared to my go-to chewy cocoa brownies). Yet what better time to indulge a little than while you're joyfully gathered with those you love? Hope you enjoy these, and I'll see you all next year!

Peppermint Cookies N' Cream Brownies [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Baking Bites
Makes 24 to 32 brownies (9 x 13-inch pan)

XIAOLU'S NOTES: While I love the peppermint flavor, these would still be delicious with regular Oreos. You could also play around with other chopped up cookies or even candy bars. For those who'd prefer a smaller batch, simply halve the recipe and bake in an 8-inch square pan. Also, I actually overbaked this batch by a few minutes, so if you follow the recipe your brownies should be even fudgier than my photo shows. If you prefer a sturdier slice, simply bake 5 minutes longer.

1 cup MINUS 1 Tbsp unsalted butter
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups roughly chopped peppermint Oreo-type cookies (about 15)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9 × 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, and grease areas not covered by paper (if any) lightly.

In a medium-large saucepan over low heat, melt together butter and chocolate, stirring occasionally. Whisk in sugar and salt until thoroughly combined. Continue heating and stirring until the entire mixture is hot and smooths out somewhat but is not bubbling.

Remove from heat, and let cool slightly (about 5 minutes) to avoid cooking the eggs when added. Stir in vanilla, then add eggs one at a time, whisking immediately after each addition and mixing until each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next egg. Whisk in flour and cocoa powder thoroughly until mixture is uniform.

Switch to a spatula or large spoon and fold in 2 cups of chopped cookies. Pour batter into prepared pan and spread out evenly with spatula. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of cookie pieces on top of batter.

Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs, but not coated with batter. Cool brownies in pan for about 20 minutes, then lift brownies in the paper out of the pan and place on a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Best Laid Plans (Cranberry Apple Tarte Tatin)

UPDATE: I've made some updates to the blog header and colors. I know a lot of you liked the bold red, but I was ready for a change. I'd love to know what you think of the new design!

Baking with friends is best...
I'll tell you straight up...I'd expected and hoped to be writing a different post today. A post dedicated as much to recounting a fun-filled reunion with my best friend N as to the delicious tarte tatin we'd have baked together. But Mother Nature clearly had other plans. Snowy slick wintry weather plans that crippled London's Heathrow Airport to a surprising extent and are thus keeping N and me just as far apart as we've been for the last 2 years.

While I agree safety should be their top concern, I can't help but feel an intense frustration for not only N and myself but also the thousands of other families and loved ones who're losing the precious time they'd planned to spend together. It boggles the mind a bit that such a major airport would be so ill-prepared for a little snow (at least compared to my area's "Snowpocalypse" last winter 8p).

Apple Cranberry Tarte Tatin
But before you think I've gone Debbie Downer for good, let me assure you that the force the holiday spirit remains strong in this one ^_^. I trust the airport staff and British government are working their hardest to remedy the situation. On top of that, life is simply unpredictable and the essence of the holidays to me is to appreciate what we do have. For me that includes a delicious dinner with Mom tonight, Christmas with my boyfriend and his fun and generous family, then a long weekend visiting Dad and my adorable baby sisters.

Though I'm still desperately hoping to meet up with N for even a few hours, I clearly have a lot to be thankful for and look forward to. So with a warm and cheerful heart, I still made this lovely tarte tatin on the day N had planned to join me. As I took my first taste, I knew she'd have loved its warm spices and little bursts of tartness. I'll definitely be saving this recipe for whenever we do meet up, whether in a week or a year.

Do you also have someone you love but won't be able to see this winter? If so, is there something special you cook or bake to remind you of them?

Cranberry Apple Tarte Tatin [Printable Recipe]

Adapted from Waitrose and Good Housekeeping

Serves 6

XIAOLU'S NOTES: The original recipe called for 1 tsp of British "mixed spice." I don't have access to this, so I used some of its component spices instead. Feel free to use mixed spice if you have it. If you have a 9-inch ovenproof pan, you can use it to cook the fruit then spread the pastry directly on top. Dried cranberries will also work if you don't have fresh.

4 Tbsp unsalted butter

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar, soft

2 to 3 large firm apples, peeled, cored, and quartered (I used Ambrosia and Gala)

1 1/4 cups fresh cranberries

1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground coriander

1/8 tsp ground allspice

Pinch each of ground nutmeg, ginger, and cloves

Pastry Dough (Recipe below)

Melt the butter in a large frying pan until foaming. Add the sugar and apples, and cook gently over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the apples begin to soften and the sugar is dark and syrupy. Stir in the cranberries, pecans and spices and continue cooking for another 5 minutes (some cranberries will break open).

Transfer the buttery apple mixture to a 9-inch round shallow cake pan (not springform) or tarte tatin pan. Allow to cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll the pastry dough into a disk, roughly 10 inches in diameter, to fit the top of the pan. Lay the pastry over the top of the apples, trim away any excess and tuck the pastry in around the sides. Chill for 5 minutes.

Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake in the center of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown.

Remove the pan from the oven and let cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes. To turn out the tart, place a serving plate over the top of the still-hot pan and invert, taking care to protect your hands from the extremely hot liquid caramel. Cut into wedges and serve with scoops of vanilla ice cream or lightly sweetened cream, sour cream, or Greek yogurt.

Pastry Dough

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut up

2 Tbsp trans-fat free vegetable shortening

1 tsp lemon zest

4 to 5 Tbsp ice water

In a food processor, with knife blade attached, blend flour and salt. Add butter and shortening, then pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pulse in lemon peel. Sprinkle in ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until large, moist crumbs just begin to form. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm enough to roll, 1 hour to overnight. (If refrigerated overnight, let dough stand at room temperature 30 minutes before rolling.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Let's Do The Twist! (Spinach Feta Stuffed Soft Pretzels)

I'm proud to make good on my promise to share something yummy by week's end...despite falling prey to a nasty cold the day before my last exams and remaining in its clutches all week. We also just got our first real snow of the year (yay!), and I'm wishing for a white Christmas. Hope you all are as excited for the holidays as we are and keeping yourselves nice n' warm =D.

A bit of a surprise even for me, but today's recipe is inspired by Starbucks! While they've somehow managed to ruin every type of baked sweet I've sampled (even the classic CC cookie), their stuffed pretzels were actually quite good. I use the past tense because I'm not sure they still make these as I can't find any mention on their website.

Stuffed and Twisted
But whether or not they still sold them, I knew I could make my own at home, where they'd be fresher and much cheaper. A quick Google search revealed no shortage of soft pretzel fans out there, and I quickly found a recipe for a slightly sweet pretzel with pillowy soft insides. The dough couldn't be easier to mix up but with the rising and assembly time required, I decided to keep the filling fast and easy. Ready-made creamed spinach with a spicy kick, gooey mozzarella, and flavorful crumbled feta. Before we knew it, P and I had an irresistible snack on our hands. And you might say, half the batch and 2 hours later, that we made no attempt to resist 8p.

I'm sending this over to Susan at Wild Yeast for her weekly Yeastspotting event, where I've noticed the round-ups growing larger recently. Have you guys been baking any yummy yeasted treats? Please do tell me all about them!

Spinach Feta Stuffed Soft Pretzels [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Owl Moon Studio and FoodMayhem
Makes 12 pretzels

XIAOLU'S NOTES: The amounts of filling ingredients given below are approximate. You may use a little more or less depending on personal judgment, how wide you press the dough, etc. Also, I already reduced the sugar greatly from the original dough recipe, but feel free to change the amount to as high as 1/2 cup. If you don't have a stand mixer, just mix the dough ingredients in the same order as below but with a wooden spoon, then knead by hand for 5 to 8 minutes until dough is smooth.

1 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees F)
1 Tbsp PLUS 1 tsp sugar, divided
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp table salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup baking soda
4 cups hot water

1 cup creamed spinach [prepared according to directions if frozen]
Red pepper flakes (optional)
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
3/4 to 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese [or string cheese torn into strips]
2 Tbsp butter, melted
Kosher or other large salt, to garnish

In a small bowl combine warm water, 1 teaspoon sugar, and yeast. Let stand for 10 minutes or until foamy.

Put 3 1/2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon table salt in the bowl of your stand mixer. Mix with the paddle attachment for a few seconds. Add vegetable oil and yeast mixture and just mix until moistened.

Switch to the dough hook and knead on medium speed until the dough is smooth and clears the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Add in the remaining cup of flour while dough is kneading. When dough is done kneading, place in a large oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise till doubled in size, about 1 hour.

30 minutes before you plan to bake, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F . Spray a baking sheet with non-stick spray or line with parchment paper. Dissolve baking soda in hot water.

When dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured surface and divide into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a rope, roughly 1/2-inch diameter. Press the ropes flat, until about 2-inch across.

Mix red pepper flakes, if using and to taste, into the creamed spinach. Spoon a 1/2-inch wide row of spinach mixture down the center. Sprinkle a small amount of mozzarella and feta cheese over the spinach. Roll up dough about the filling and pinch the edges shut. Shape into pretzels, gently pressing ends down to attach. Carefully dip pretzels, one at a time, into the baking soda/water, then place pretzels on baking sheet. Be gentle to avoid the filling breaking through. In fact, these are delicate enough that you might want to lower the pretzels into the water while in your hands instead of dipping. Bake for 8 minutes, or until golden brown.

As soon as the pretzels come out of the oven, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with a little salt. Let cool 5 minutes. Then enjoy right away or reheat leftovers later in a toaster oven, sandwich press, or even waffle iron.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Caution: Nerds At Play

IMG_3410 copy

All this studying is making me loopy, y'all. So I took a sanity break, and here's the result...though you might disagree with the "sanity" bit after I explain this photo ;p (and please pardon the graininess). Since a vintage baking pan I bought was bent, my boyfriend P suggested we try to straighten it with weights on top. When I joked the tower looked like a wedding cake, he brought over his Darth Vader bobblehead and anime figure as the "happy couple." The result was so silly, I just had to share it. We can all benefit from a lil' laughter during stressful times, right?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

(Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: There's Never Enough Thyme


A short blogging break to study for final exams. I hope to have something yummy for you again by the end of next week. See-ya on the other side! =)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cookbook Review: My Sweet Vegan

Self-Frosting Cupcakes!
Self-Frosting Peanut Butter Chocolate Cupcakes

One of the greatest joys of entering the blogging world has been meeting so many talented, large-hearted bakers and cooks who share my passion for good food. One of these amazing individuals is Hannah Kaminsky, vegan baker extraordinaire and mastermind behind the lovely Bittersweet blog. Her credentials are beyond impressive: she'd won baking awards and written a cookbook by college! When her publisher offered me a free review copy of her book, My Sweet Vegan, I naturally jumped at the opportunity.

I was immediately impressed by the variety of offerings in this book. The recipes are divided into 5 sections: Sweet Starts (like Golden Glazed Donuts), Cookies and Bars (like "Cheese" Cake Thumbprint Cookies and Peanut Butter Bombs), Cakes and Cupcakes (like Bananas Foster Cake and Mocha Devastation Cake), Pies and Tarts (like Baklava Tart and Pink Lemonade Tartlets), and Miscellaneous Morsels and Desserts (like Green Tea Tiramisu and Hazelnut Ravioli). Plus each and every recipe comes with a color photograph and inviting introduction from Hannah.

Orange Hazelnut Biscotti
Orange Hazelnut Biscotti

Ultimately I tested the Self-Frosting Peanut Butter Cupcakes, Orange Hazelnut Biscotti, and Green Tea Freezer Pops. All delicious, and even my non-foodie boyfriend raved about the cupcakes and biscotti. The self-frosting cupcakes, made by swirling the chocolate "frosting" into the batter before baking, were a tasty and much faster alternative to my usual. With a cake so moist and flavorful from the peanut butter, butter and eggs weren't missed at all. The popsicles were fast, easy, and refreshing. Featuring almond and green tea flavors paired to great effect. Finally, you can find my detailed review of the biscotti (with recipe) in this past post.

Matcha Green Tea Popsicles (from My Sweet Vegan)
Green Tea Freezer Pops

It's true that recipes are the heart and soul of any cookbook. Yet sometimes it's the little thoughtful touches that win me over. In My Sweet Vegan, these were the Ingredient Guide and Food Allergy Index. While many ingredients in this book are probably already in your kitchen, a few are made especially for vegan cooking (like vegan cream cheese and soy yogurt). Luckily Hannah provides a lot of guidance for finding these. Unlike many cookbooks that just say an item is "available at specialty stores" (as if that's helpful?!), Hannah tells you not only the type of store but often the section where you're likely to find it. She also provides an index of the recipes that are gluten-free, soy-free, nut-free, etc. at the end of the book for those struggling with allergies.

Are you starting to get the impression that I like Hannah and her book 8p? I had so much fun reading and baking from it, I hope you'll give it a chance, too. If you've got holiday shopping left to do, My Sweet Vegan would make a lovely and affordable gift for any adventurous bakers or vegans in your life (yourself included ^_^).

Friday, December 3, 2010

My First Photography Award!

No new photos or recipes today...but I simply could not resist sharing my good news with you all :). It was just announced that the following photo of my s'mores cupcakes won 1st place in the latest Does My Blog Look Good in This? (DMBLGiT?) contest! This is my first award for photography, and it's especially meaningful to me because I'm self-taught.

S'mores Cupcake

I hope this encourages any of you who might be struggling as new food bloggers/photographers. I've had my baby (my Canon DSLR) for almost a year and a half, yet have just recently found my stride. The learning curve can be steep at first. But the satisfaction and, yes, exhilaration of getting the shots you imagine are worth it in the end. Happy clicking!