Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mudslides!

 If only these were the kind of mudslides mother nature sent to wreak havoc on our world! Divine, chewy cookies with not one, not two but THREE types of chocolate. Ooooo la la! The only victims these mudslides may have are your waistline (that is if you eat too many, which is really easy to do)! I got this recipe from one of my favorite websites, http://www.marthastewart.com/.
The three types of chocolate used in these cookies are unsweetened, semi-sweet and milk chocolate. The picture on the right shows all three chocolates together. If you look closely (no drooling please) you can see differences in how dark the different chocolates are. To the left is milk chocolate, the one that is lightest brown in color. In the middle is unsweetened chocolate (dark brown blocks) and to the right is semi-sweet. I like to view chocolate (the types used in baking) as a spectrum. At one end is unsweetened, essentially raw, chocolate and at the other end is milk chocolate. In-between the two is semi-sweet and bittersweet chocolate. I'm sure most of you know that there are distinct flavor differences between these types of chocolate as well. So what accounts for the differences in flavor and color as you progress through the "chocolate spectrum?" Well, in case you didn't know....

Chocolate comes from cacao trees grown in tropical climates around the world. Cocoa beans are the seeds found inside of the fruit of cacao trees. The raw beans have a very bitter and intense flavor to them. After fermentation, the beans go through a variety of processes involving roasting and hulling. The hulling separates the shell from the nib which is the part of the bean used to make chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is the primary component of unsweetened chocolate. It is raw, minimally processed chocolate: grounded nibs from roasted cocoa beans. Thats why if you've ever tasted unsweetened chocolate by itself, you probably didn't like it much. It was probably very bitter and over-powering.

In fact, the word chocolate is derived from a Nahuatl (an ancient Aztec language, I believe it is pronounced nah-waddle) word that meant "bitter water." The other types of chocolate such as semi-sweet and bittersweet are made by combining chocolate liquor with varying amounts of sugar, cocoa butter (a vegetable fat from the cocoa bean and yes its like whats used to help heal those nasty stretch marks), and sometimes vanilla extract. As you might have guessed bittersweet chocolate has less sugar and more chocolate liquor (raw cocoa) in it, thus giving it a more bitter flavor." Milk chocolate, obviously, has milk added to it. This is why it has a lighter color and more mild, sweeter flavor. For more information on the from-tree-to-cookies chocolate process, I recommend the following Hersey's website: http://www.hersheys.com/discover/chocolate.asp

So now we've taken our journey through the chocolate spectrum. Back to our cookies. The unsweetened, semi-sweet and milk chocolate flavors blend together to create a rich chocolatey taste that is "OUT OF THIS WORLD" as friend described them. The first step in making these cookies is to combine the unsweetened and semi-sweet chocolate and melt them over a double boiler.
As usual when melting chocolate be sure not to crank the heat up too high and to stir frequently to avoid scalding the chocolate. You also don't want the heat so high that the water boils and steam starts seeping through the sides of your bowl.  If ANY water comes in contact with the chocolate, it will get lumpy and curdley...yuck!  In the mean time, you are to beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla. It should look light and fluffy. Next you add the melted, COOLED chocolate. Its important to cool the chocolate. If you add it into the eggs when the chocolate is too hot, you could end up with scrambled eggs. I've never had chocolate scrambled eggs but I'm guessing its not very appetizing... Once those are combined you slowly mix in the flour and then finally the milk chocolate. Saving the milk chocolate and adding it last ensures that the cookies have chocolate "chunks" in them. YUMMY! Then you just scoop and bake! Here's a tip: the recipe calls to bake these at 400. I believe that is too high, at least it is for my oven. I recommend 350-375 to prevent burning on the bottom. These make great chocolatey treats for your friends, family and co-workers for Valentine's day! Make them yourself or if you don't have time- don't forget I take orders! Happy baking!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Birthday Cake!

This weekend I had the opportunity to make a birthday cake for a little boy turning one years old!  It was a dinosaur cake!  For this cake I used a Wilton cake mold.  The cake and frosting were made completely from scratch.  The cake recipe was your standard 1-2-3-4 cake recipe and the frosting was butter-cream.  I've posted before about the butter-cream icing recipe I use here.
Cakes like this can be time consuming but careful preparation can drastically reduce the amount of work.  First,  carefully read through the instructions ENTIRELY before you begin.  This will help you plan ahead and decide how much cake and frosting you need as well as which colors and tips you need for decorating.  If you are using a specific cake mold and have the instruction booklet, it usually details this information for you.  I suggest making the frosting ahead of time.  The above butter-cream icing recipe can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator in a sealed container.  If you are doing a cake that uses a lot of colors, be sure to make sure you have all the right colors before hand.  I also suggest purchasing disposable piping bags (you don't want to have to stop and wash out a piping bag when changing colors).  It's also helpful to tint your frosting ahead of time.  Divide out your frosting into the amounts you will need for the different colors (again the instruction booklet should spell this out) and tint them to the desired colors.  I suggest not tinting the frosting until about one day ahead of time.
Its a good idea to make the cake the day before, and allow it to set out over night so it can cool completely.  That way, the morning of "cake day," everything is done except to ice the cake.  This makes the whole process a lot easier.

A few more tips:
  • Always a good idea to have some extra frosting on hand in case you mess up
  • Be sure you thoroughly grease and flour the cake pan, or use a cake release spray
  • Allow the cake to cool completely before attempting to ice
  • If the icing becomes too runny and difficult to work with, stiffen it up by placing it in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes
  • Do the outline of the cake before filling it in.  Also, try to work from the inside out.  Get the parts in the center of the cake before you move to the outside.  The sides should be the very last thing you do.
So these types of cakes be intimidating and seem like tons of work but if you break it out into steps and are methodical in your approach, it makes things a lot easier (especially for us domestically inept people).  If you can't bring yourself to tackle the challenge, pay a friend to do it for you =).

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Hearty Sage

The other day I was throwing some kitchen scraps on the compost pile when I caught a glimpse of something truly shocking!  I looked over and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a fairly large and budding sage plant!  The reason this is so shocking is because of where it was growing.  Our compost pile is in the very back corner of our yard, behind several tall bushes.  It is completely shaded.  And there, in the middle of all that shade and undeveloped terrain...grew a hearty sage.  What is even more amazing is the fact that this sage was a cast off from last year.  I had bought it on clearance (I think I mentioned before I never by plants unless they are on clearance) and did an excellent job killing it in the ensuing months.  By October, I had given up all hopes on my impulse purchase and relegated it to the compost pile.  I now know that my husband (being the sneaky little miser he is) came along a few days later and plopped it into the ground right at the edge of the compost pile.  I never noticed until the other day....what a pleasant surprise!
Sage, like most herbs, typically likes full sun.  Although it has come back rather nicely in its current spot, I don't believe it can truly flourish there.  So I made the decision to move it to one of my vegetable garden beds.  I chose the "cool crop" bed where I grow my parsley, lettuce and cauliflower. I have been reading a lot about companion planting lately and found that sage helps repel cabbage moths, beetles and carrot flies (which can attack parsley).
I also decided to try and grow a few more plants from "cuttings."  Most herbs (with the exception of parsley and thyme) are notoriously hard to grow from seed.  One of the best ways to propagate herbs is to do so via "cuttings."  Last year I posted about growing basil from cuttings.  The process is virtually the same for sage.  You want to take a 4 to 6 inch cutting of the plant.  For sage, be sure not to cut a "woody" part.  Remove the bottom several leaves by snipping them with pruning shears.  These will eventually form the new roots.
You can then root the plant by placing it in a glass of water in a sunny location (takes about a week for roots to form) or placing it in some rooting medium (such as sand, vermiculite or even potting mix).  If you do use potting mix, I recommend a kind that contains high levels of phosphorus for better root development.  Its usually best to keep the cuttings indoors until they are firmly established, then you can try and move them outside.
Sage makes a great addition to your vegetable or herb garden.  It also looks fabulous in your regular flower beds.  It produces a nice, bushy, elegant plant.  Make a bunch of sage cuttings and then give the plants away to friends and family!