Friday, May 22, 2015

Apricot Oatmeal Bars

Despite our very gloomy local weather, another thrilling apricot season has arrived. And, as luck would have it, my first purchase of apricots is gorgeous.  They are a good size with a beautiful ripened color, great texture and wonderful flavor.  I am blissed.

My first project of the season is Apricot Oatmeal Bars.  With fruit this good, I like to veer in the direction of keeping things very simple.  These are very easy to prepare and are more like a slice of easy crumbly pie.  I add oatmeal to the pastry because I am an oatmeal freak and wanted to pair off two of my favorite ingredients in a happy marriage of pastry deliciousness.  The apricots are simmered for just a few minutes with sugar and honey to coax out their juices.  The whole batch is baked in no time, a very good beginning to this season of plenty.

People, do not forget that apricot season is hideously, devastatingly brief, so do not waste your time ruminating about it.  Get yourself to the market, STAT!  

Bench notes:
- As they simmer, taste the apricots for sugar.  Baking does bring out their tartness, so add enough to take it right up to your preferred level of sweetness.
- Don't let the fruit boil.  Keep the apricots at a low simmer to preserve their flavor.  Cook them just long enough so they’re softened and pliable, not mushy. They can be made a day or two ahead. Store in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
- For the apricots, I just used a piece of vanilla from my vanilla sugar jar, where I keep all my used pods.  If you don’t have any, you can substitute 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.  Add once you take them off the heat.
- Rinse your vanilla pods and dry.  Add to a jar of sugar to hold for future use.  Both the sugar and the pods can be used again and again.
- This crust and topping is crisp and very crumbly.  If you prefer a chewier version, change up the flour/oatmeal ratios, substitute some brown sugar and add some baking powder as follows: 1 cup (5 oz) of flour + 1 3/4 cups (5 1/4 oz) oatmeal; 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) granulated sugar + 1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) brown sugar; and 1 teaspoon baking powder.
- I used old-fashioned oatmeal rather than quick oats.
- If you’re a fan of cinnamon, add a pinch to the topping and/or the apricots.  It’s a great flavor combination.
- If you have an ice cream maker, save your apricot pits and make the unforgettably sublime Noyau Ice Cream.

Apricot Oatmeal Bars
Makes 16 bars

8 (1 lb, 4 oz) ripe apricots                                      
3 tablespoons (39 grams) sugar, to taste                     
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) honey
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) water                                                                                               
1/4 vanilla bean

1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) flour                         
1 1/4 cups (3 3/4 oz) oatmeal                                          
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 oz) granulated sugar                                     
6 oz (12 tablespoons) cold butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease an 8” square pan and line with a piece of parchment paper large enough to form an overhang along two sides of the pan.

Cut the apricots into 1/2" slices.  Place them in a saucepan along with the sugar, honey and water.  Split and seed a 1/4 portion of a vanilla bean and add the seeds and the pod.  Cook on low heat for about 5 minutes at a slow simmer or until the apricots just begin to become tender.  Take off the heat and cool.  Remove vanilla pod.

Combine the flour, oatmeal, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Process until ingredients are combined and the oats are chopped up a bit but not ground completely.

Cut the cold butter into 1/2” pieces and add to the dry ingredients along with the vanilla. Pulse until the mixture starts to clump. It should remain a bit loose but hold together when pinched.  Pour into a bowl and toss with your hands.

Press about 2/3 of the oatmeal mixture into the prepared pan to form an even bottom layer.  Bake until the surface is puffed up and looks dry and slightly browned, about 15 – 20 minutes.
Pour the simmered apricots on top and spread to within 1/4” of the edges.  Top with the remaining crumb mixture, making sure to distribute to the edges and the corners to form a border.  Press down gently to secure.

Bake until the crumb topping is lightly browned around the edges, about 20 - 25 minutes.  Place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely.  Run a thin knife around the edges and gently lift out of the pan using the parchment overhang to assist.  Cut into bars.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pecan Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies

There are some times when you feel like experimenting and then there are times when you just want to know that a recipe is perfectly reliable and meets all your expectations.  This is one of those recipes.

This is a fabulous cookie from Joanne Chang, owner of Flour bakery cafĂ© in Boston’s South End and author of three cookbooks.  In the last few years, she’s expanded to four bakeries throughout Boston.  Baking with Less Sugar is her latest cookbook.  Needless to say, she's earned quite a reputation.

This is a simple cookie dough infused with the flavor and texture of toasted pecans and brightened with a small dollop of raspberry jam.  The cookie is crisp and light.  The tart jam acts as a delicious foil for the butter and nuts.  I fudged a bit on the preparation by mixing the dough in a food processor rather than using the creaming method in a stand mixer.  If you’d rather follow Joanne’s precise directions, just follow the link below to the original recipe.

These cookies are really wonderful.  I love the combination of nuts and raspberries and this cookie does a great job of promoting both.  They’re delicate and crumbly with just a hint of sweetness.  This is a recipe you’ll definitely want to promote to your favorites list, not only handy for the holidays but available whenever you’re in the mood for a super delicious bite.

Bench notes:
-  Joanne Chang’s weights for flour, pecans and powdered sugar are very different from mine.  I went with all her formulations and those are presented in the recipe below, with the weights first.
- Toast pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.
- I use a measuring 1/2 teaspoon to make the “thumbprint.”  That makes them pretty uniform and perfect for the 1/2 teaspoon of jam.
- This recipe makes a lot of cookies.  I got about a dozen more than the 4 dozen the recipe states.  The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for 3 - 4 days. They will soften over time because of the jam filling.  They are still delicious but if you want crisp cookies, I recommend making a half batch.  

Pecan Thumbprint Jam Cookies
Makes about 60 cookies

14 1/4 oz (3 cups + 2 tablespoons) flour                            
6 oz (1 1/2 cups) pecans, toasted                                               
3 oz (1 cup) powdered sugar                                                       
1/2 teaspoon salt                                                                                                   
12 oz (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter       
2 teaspoons vanilla                                                                                   
1/2 cup - 3/4 cup raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.   Line baking sheets with parchment or silpats. 

Place the flour, pecans, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until the nuts are finely ground.  Cut the butter into 1/2” pieces and add along with the vanilla.  Process until the dough begins to form clumps around the blade.

Roll the dough into 1 1/4” balls and set them about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets.  Press your measuring 1/2 teaspoon or your thumb gently into the middle of each ball to make a well for the jam.  Stir the jam to loosen it and then spoon about 1/2 teaspoon into the wells.

Bake until the cookies are golden brown, about 17 - 20 minutes. Place the pans on a wire rack to cool. 


Friday, May 8, 2015

Banana Maple Pecan Muffins

I seem to be focused on brunch lately and this is another very easy and delicious entry.  If you love Banana Bread, these muffins are a super good mini-version that will definitely more than satisfy your craving.

My recipe combines both all-purpose and whole wheat flour in equal parts, a dash of maple syrup in addition to both granulated and brown sugars and some cinnamon and nutmeg to spice up the mix.  The butter is browned for an extra flavor boost and a small amount of sour cream adds tenderness.  Lastly, the muffins are topped with a few chopped pecans for a bit of nutty texture. 

Once your butter is browned, this is a very quick project that comes together with a bowl and a whisk.   You’ll soon have something to enjoy on a lazy weekend or as a comforting partner for your afternoon refreshment break.  They also pack very well for a picnic.

Bench notes:
- Some tips for browning butter:
1) Use a stainless steel pan to best gauge the color of the butter as it starts to brown.  Have a small heatproof bowl near the stove so you can immediately pour off the butter when it's done. 
2) Cut the butter into small pieces so it melts consistently without spot scorching.
3) Use medium to medium low heat and watch it carefully.  As the butter starts to melt and heat up, you'll notice small bubbles on the surface that get larger.  Lift the pan and swirl the butter for more control if it’s browning too fast or nearly done.  You'll notice the milk solids starting to brown on the bottom of the pan very quickly.  Keep your eyes on this and keep swirling.  It will be done very quickly after you notice the first brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  Stop when you think it's almost there and just as it begins to smoke.  It will continue to brown off the heat, so pour immediately into a heatproof bowl to stop the cooking.   Set aside to cool.
4) If you've gone too far, it will look very dark and taste bitter, so you'll have to start over again.  You’re looking for medium amber brown.
5) When adding the browned butter to the rest of the ingredients, include all the brown bits that have settled to the bottom of the bowl.
- Let the browned butter cool a bit then add the sugars.  And then you'll want it to be cooled down enough before you add the eggs.
- I’ve found that sour cream works best to really tenderize banana pastries. 
- For easy transfer, use an ice cream scoop to portion the batter.

Banana Maple Pecan Muffins
Makes 14 muffins

3/4 cup (3 3/4 oz) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (3 3/4 oz) whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup (2 1/2 oz) maple syrup
2 eggs @ room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup (2 medium; 11 1/2 oz in skins) banana, coarsely mashed
1/3 cup (2 3/4 oz) sour cream
1/3 cup (33 grams) pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line 14 wells of standard muffin pans with paper cups. 

Sift both flours, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Set aside.

Brown the butter until it’s medium amber.  Immediately pour into a heatproof mixing bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients.  Let it cool for a few minutes, then add both sugars and maple syrup.  Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract and mix thoroughly.  

Add half of the flour mixture and stir to combine.  Blend in the bananas and sour cream.  Add the remaining flour mixture and mix just until there are no more flour streaks. 

Portion the batter equally in 14 muffin wells.  Sprinkle chopped pecans on top.  

Bake until a golden brown and the tops spring back when lightly touched, about 20 - 22 minutes.  Place pans on a wire rack to cool. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Brown Sugar Chocolate Crumb Cake

In the universe of coffee cakes, the crumb cake has its own orbit.  There’s just something about those beautifully crisp buttery crumbs that compel us to reach for a slice.  The origins may have come from the streuselkuchens of Germany but make no mistake, crumb cakes are very much a part of American baking culture as a result of the influx of immigrants to New York.

Crumb cakes are by nature very simple.  This one is an incredibly tender cake, thanks to the brown sugar, butter and milk that moisten and tenderize, resulting in really nice soft crumb.  For something a little different, I took a slight detour and added cocoa powder to the crumb mixture.  It’s a delicious change-up if chocolate is your trusty friend. 

This cake is super easy to pull together.  And since I always think of spring and summer as brunch season, you’ll want to add this recipe to your collection alongside all those other kugelhopf, bundt and streusel-laden gems.  Let me assure you, the aroma of this cake baking in your kitchen is the best kind of morning wake-up call, impossible to resist.

Bench notes:
-  I use my hands to mix the crumb topping.  It takes about 3- 4 minutes because the brown sugar, flour and cocoa become a pretty fine powder when combined.  But if you keep working it as directed, it comes together in nice clumps.
- The salt in the crumb mixture is there to enhance the cocoa powder. 
- Room temperature butter is not oily or soft.  It should give just a bit when you press a finger into the surface.
- Cream butter and sugar on medium speed to avoid breaking the fragile air bubbles you’re trying to create.  This is the stage where the texture and crumb are being developed.
- A quick way to bring eggs to room temperature is to place them in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes.  Cold eggs will impact the volume of the cake.
- For cake mixing, always add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding the next.  The batter is ready for the second egg when it no longer has a shiny slick on the surface.  
- Scraping down the bowl of your mixer is crucial to thoroughly emulsifying the butter and egg mixture and then fully integrating all of the remaining ingredients.  It may seem like a bother but it’s what helps to build the structure of your cake.
- Don’t skip the allspice.  Contrary to popular belief, allspice isn’t a blend of a lot of different spices. It’s actually the sun dried unripened berry of the Pimenta dioica plant.  It's sometimes referred to as Jamaica Pepper because early spice explorers striking out to the New World believed they had discovered the black pepper they coveted.  The term "allspice" is likely due to the fact that its aroma and flavor strongly suggest the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and cloves.  Allspice does contain a trace of eugenol, the essential oil that gives cloves their distinctive flavor.  I often use allspice as a backnote to amplify other spices, especially cinnamon.  It’s also a key ingredient in Caribbean jerk dishes.  
- My crumbs didn't dislodge when I turned out the cake.  You can use a 9" springform pan if you prefer.
- More brunch ideas on Pinterest

Brown Sugar Chocolate Crumb Cake
Serves 8

Chocolate Crumb
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup (1 5/8 oz) flour       
3 tablespoons (15 grams) cocoa powder                     
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon                                                                
1/8 teaspoon salt                                                               
2 oz (4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter                                                                     

1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) flour                                                             
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder                                                 
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed             
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) granulated sugar                                
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs @ room temperature
1/2 cup (4 oz) milk @ room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease a 9” x 2 1/2 “ cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.

For the chocolate crumb, place the brown sugar, flour, cocoa, cinnamon and salt in a bowl.  Stir together until it looks like a fine powder.  Cut the cold butter into 1/4” pieces and toss with the cocoa mixture.  Pinch the butter until it flattens into smaller pieces that resemble small peas.  Then grab big handfuls of the mixture and squeeze it together until it begins to adhere into large compressed clumps.  This will take about 3 – 4 minutes.  Then take the large clumps and break them into smaller clumps.  Chill until ready to use.

For the cake, sift flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and allspice together and set aside.

Cream butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  Add vanilla and blend.

Beat in eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the bowl as needed.  Add a third of the flour mixture alternately with half the milk, beginning and ending with the flour.  Scrape down bowl to be sure everything is incorporated.  Pour the batter in the prepared pan and spread evenly.  Cover the top of the cake batter with chocolate crumb mixture and gently press down just a tiny bit.

Bake until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 – 32 minutes.  Place on a wire rack to cool for about 15 minutes.  Run a thin knife along the edges and invert the cake.  Remove the parchment and turn the cake again so it’s right side up.  Cool completely.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Banana Tartes Tatin

Tarte Tatin is an incredible French dessert that traditionally consists of apples simmered in caramel on top of the stove and then baked with a circle of puff pastry dough nestled on top.  It’s then flipped over and plated to reveal a showstopping display of tender fruit bathed in a rich caramel on a bed of buttery pastry.  It’s phenomenal.

This is a much simpler recipe from Bon Appetit that uses the same idea to showcase bananas.  It's prepared as individual servings and instead of making a caramel for the bottom, you simply butter the ramekins and line the bottoms with some brown sugar.  Then you arrange slices of banana and top with a circle of purchased puff pastry.  It’s probably one of the easiest to prepare desserts imaginable.

You can certainly use store-bought puff pastry if you have a brand you like.  I made a simple butter pastry called Rough Puff.  It’s a very streamlined version of puff pastry that isn’t difficult or complicated, it just takes a bit of time for folding and chilling if have the luxury of planning ahead. 

This is a super simple preparation fashioned out of basic ingredients that turns our to be a very satisfying dessert.  If you want to dial it up, you can easily enhance your servings with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Quite a good way to enjoy bananas with pleasure.

Bench notes:
- I added a pinch cinnamon mixed in with the brown sugar.
- Any size ramekin works as long as they are at least 1 1/2” deep.  If you don’t have ramekins, you can use an 8” square baking dish, placing a whole sheet of puff pastry in tact on top.
- The Rough Puff dough comes together very quickly in a food processor.  It will not look like a dough but rather like a slightly moist cottage cheese.  The important thing is to keep visible pieces of butter in tact and avoid blending it all into the flour.  When shaping and folding the dough, do your best to keep the edges straight and aligned.  Lightly dust with flour as you go and then brush off any excess flour before folding.

Banana Tartes Tatin
adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 4

2 oz (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) brown sugar                                        
4 firm ripe bananas
1 package of puff pastry, thawed
Rough Puff Pastry
1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 oz) flour                                          
1/4 teaspoon salt                                                                                  
4 oz (8 tablespoons) very cold butter
6 tablespoons (3 oz) very cold water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Place four 4” x 1 3/4” ramekin dishes on a rimmed baking sheet.  Butter liberally with 1 tablespoon of butter for each dish. 

Evenly distribute 2 tablespoons brown sugar on the bottom of each ramekin.  Peel the bananas and cut on a diagonal into 1/4" slices.  Overlap slices of 1 banana per dish over the sugar, arranging in concentric circles to cover the bottom.

Cut rounds of puff pastry 4 1/2” in diameter.  Top each dish with 1 puff pastry round, tucking in the edges to fit.

Bake until the pastry is golden and puffed and the filling is bubbly, about 20 - 25 minutes.  Remove from oven and carefully invert onto serving plates.

If you’d like to make your own dough, place the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and combine.  Cut the cold butter into 1/2” cubes and add.  Pulse just until the butter is the size of small peas.  Add the cold water and pulse just until the mixture resembles something like a slightly moist cottage cheese.  Gather the dough and place on a piece of plastic wrap.  Form a disc, seal it tightly and chill for 1/2 hour.

Lightly flour a work surface.  Roll the dough out to about an 8” x 4” rectangle, lightly flouring as needed.  Fold the shorter sides of the dough in equal thirds like a letter, keeping the edges as evenly lined up as possible.   With the open edges perpendicular to you and seam side down, roll it again into an 8” x 4” rectangle, lightly dusting with flour as needed and then using a pastry brush to remove any excess flour before folding.  Turn it and fold the shorter sides of the dough again into thirds.  Repeat this process one more time for a total of three times.  If at any point the dough starts becoming too soft or elastic, let it rest in the refrigerator for a while before continuing.  Lastly, roll the dough out into a rectangle about 1/4” thick.  Take both shorter sides and fold toward the center like a book, keeping the edges as straight as possible.  Then fold one side over the other so there are 4 equal layers on top of one another.  Wrap the dough and rest in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour. 

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/8” thick.  Brush off any excess flour.  Cut out circles 4 1/2” in diameter and place on a baking sheet.  Chill until ready to use. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Strawberry Rhubarb Pandowdy

Spring and summer are all about rustic pastries and desserts made with fresh fruit.  Pies, cobblers and crisps are without question something we crave as we head into this amazing seasonal parade of berries, cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and figs.

I’ve picked up some beautiful fresh strawberries and rhubarb and worked these into a pandowdy.  This is an old-fashioned deep-dish spoon dessert that is topped with a thick layer of pie dough rather than a dumpling or biscuit used for cobbler.  The fruit is thickened only slightly to produce lots of juices. The topping is traditionally broken up and pushed down into the fruit once it’s formed a crust during the baking process so it may have gotten its name from the crumpled appearance. 

This pandowdy has a crumbly, nutty, topping and a combination of sweet and tart fruit.  The topping is kind of a cross between pie dough and a biscuit.  It has a perfect balance of flour and brown sugar combined with finely ground almonds and oats, which add a wonderful taste and texture.  I didn’t carry out the traditional breaking up of the top crust because I didn’t want this tasty topping to lose its crisp texture and I wanted to keep the fruit juicy.  The topping comes from a recipe for Raspberry Rhubarb Pandowdy from Williams-Sonoma.  I used strawberries instead of raspberries and almonds instead of pecans. 

This is a really delicious alternative to cobbler.  For an extra note of luxury, add a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Bench notes:
- I like to use sliced almonds because they are easier to process to a fine meal. 
- Toast sliced almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 5 - 8 minutes. Watch them closely as they will burn very, very quickly.
- Taste your strawberries for sweetness and add sugar to your own taste.  
- Add the zest of 1/2 orange and/or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract to the fruit for a variation in flavor.  
- I cut out the dough with 2 1/4" square and 2 1/2" round cutters and got 14 biscuits.  I used 9 to top the fruit.  I baked the remaining 5 on a separate baking sheet for about 22 minutes.  They’re delicious all on their own.  

Strawberry Rhubarb Pandowdy
adapted from Williams-Sonoma
Serves 6 - 8

1/2 cup (1 1/2 oz) sliced almonds, toasted
3/4 cup (2 1/4 oz) oats                               
1 cup (5 oz) flour
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 oz (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2” pieces        
1/2 cup (4 oz) milk

1 1/2 lbs fresh strawberries
12 oz rhubarb (about 5 stalks), cut into 1/2” slices
1/4 cup - 1/3 cup (1 3/4 oz - 2 1/2 oz)) granulated sugar, to taste
2 1/2 teaspoons (6 grams) cornstarch
For the topping, place the toasted almonds, oats, flour, brown sugar, baking power and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until the almonds and oats are finely ground.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse until the mixture forms coarse, uniform crumbs.  Add the milk and pulse just until mixture comes together and forms a soft, sticky dough.  Place on top of a piece of plastic wrap and pat into a flat disc.  Cover with another piece of plastic wrap and roll the dough out to a 9” square about 1/3” thick.  Slide onto a baking sheet and chill until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

To make the filling, hull and halve the strawberries and place in a large bowl.  Cut the rhubarb into 1/2” pieces and add to the bowl.  Whisk together the granulated sugar and cornstarch and toss with the fruit to coat.  Pour into an 8” square baking dish and distribute evenly.

Using a cookie cutter or a sharp knife, cut out shapes from the dough and arrange over fruit.  Place the pan on a baking sheet to catch any drips.

Bake until the topping is golden brown and the fruit juices are bubbling, about 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature.