Friday, October 30, 2015

Oatmeal Date Walnut Cake

The fall and winter months always draw me toward cakes that are hearty and rustic.  These are generally pastries that aren’t overly fussy and can be mixed in a bowl using easy to locate basic ingredients and that satisfy just about everyone. 

Dates and walnuts are a well-tested and enduring pairing in the pastry world.  There’s something about the richness and soft chewy sweetness of dates that gets tempered by the slight bitter quality and crisp texture of walnuts.  This cake highlights their union and adds a few extra ingredients to their wonderful chemistry. There’s oatmeal for another level of earthy chewiness, coffee to balance the sweetness, orange zest to brighten the whole mix.  Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and vanilla deliver a big blast of rich flavor for a taste and aroma that take this cake out of the realm of the ordinary.  

This pastry can easily be a luscious brunch or afternoon snack cake or dressed up with a dollop of whipped cream for a very soothing dessert.   Date lovers will no doubt be very pleased with every bite of this delicious little treasure.  

Bench notes:
- Lightly toast the walnuts at 350 degrees F for about 8 - 10 minutes or until they just start to turn golden and give off a light toasty aroma.  Watch them closely so they don’t burn and become very bitter.
- If you’re not enamored of walnuts, try substituting chopped pecans or sliced almonds. 
- The oats and coffee should only be combined for about 5 minutes.  You want them to be moistened but not mushy so there’s still some chew to them.
- I highly recommend using Medjool dates because they are gorgeously plump and have a sort of natural toffee flavor. 
- If you notice a white powdery film on the surface of your dates, this is due to their natural sugar and is not cause for alarm.  It's just sugar crystal formation.  Once the dates are warm, the crystals dissolve.
- If you love dates, you’ll enjoy Roasted Dates with Sherry and Spices.  I like to serve them with a cheese course.  And there's Date Walnut Chocolate Slices and Oatmeal Chocolate Date Bars in The Global Pastry Table.

Oatmeal Date Walnut Cake
Serves 9

3/4 cup (2 1/2 oz) toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup (2 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed                
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of 1 orange
1 oz (2 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter

4 oz (about 9) Medjool dates                    
1 cup (3 oz) old-fashioned oatmeal        
1 cup (8 oz) strong coffee                                                             
1 1/4 (6 1/4 oz) cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon                   
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cloves          
1/2 cup (4 oz) canola oil
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed                            
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) granulated sugar
2 eggs @ room temperature       
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup (4 oz) milk @ room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease a 9” square cake pan and line with parchment, leaving a short overhang on two sides.

Prepare the topping by combining walnuts, brown sugar, cinnamon and orange zest in a bowl.  Cut the cold butter into 1/4” pieces and add.  Toss until the butter pieces are coated with the dry ingredients.  Using your fingers or a fork, press the butter pieces until the mixture is moist and clumps together with large and small chunks. Chill until ready to use.

Pit the dates and remove the stems.  Coarsely chop them and place in a medium bowl.  Place the oats on top.  Pour 1 cup of strong coffee over the top and set aside for about 5 minutes.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices.  Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk the oil, both sugars and eggs until thoroughly blended. Add in the vanilla and date and oat mixture.  Beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, mix in the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with half the milk.  Mix just until there are no dry streaks of flour.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it out in an even layer.  Sprinkle the walnut topping evenly over the top of the batter.  

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 - 32 minutes [Please note: My readers are reporting that the baking time for this cake is closer to 50 - 60 minutes.  Ovens do vary greatly so please take that into consideration as you check for doneness].  Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely.

Run a thin-bladed knife around the edges of the cake.  Gently lift it out of the pan using the parchment overhang to assist.  Using a platter, flip the cake over and peel off the parchment.  Use another plate or platter to flip the cake right side up.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pumpkin Cheesecake Ice Cream

The formula for cheesecake is pretty simple.  Depending on the texture you seek, there are basic ratios of cream cheese, sometimes sour cream, sugar, vanilla or lemon and some eggs to lighten the density and set the cake.  Sometimes just a little bit of flour is added to give it a cakey texture.  The cheese can also be in the form of ricotta, farmer’s cheese, goat cheese or mascarpone, which all lend their own flavor and texture.  If you beat in too much air, the cheesecake will soufflĂ© and sink.  A gentle and even oven temperature is crucial to avoid a dry and cracked cheesecake.

This is a seasonal Pumpkin Cheesecake Ice Cream, a chance to get all the flavor of cheesecake without any of the fuss of making sure it’s not over-whipped or properly baked or cracked.  It's super easy to produce cheesecake in this form.  You just throw everything in a food processor and blend.  There are no eggs to worry about or a crust to shape.  Like most cheesecakes, it isn't overly sweet; just a touch of lemon juice brightens the flavor.  I used restraint when it came to the spices because I didn’t want to overwhelm the flavor of either the pumpkin or the tanginess of the cheese and sour cream, which can become muted after freezing. You can certainly adjust all these flavors to your own liking.  Just taste as you go.

I also folded in some chewy Ginger Molasses Cookies that I chopped into small bite-sized pieces to add some texture and mimic the sensation of a crust.  Use ginger snaps, graham crackers or your favorite cookie.  Or leave them out if you wish.

Here’s to the full flavor enjoyment of the pumpkin season!

Bench notes:
- Plan ahead so you can let the ice cream base chill at least overnight to allow the ingredients to co-mingle and ripen.  I actually sort of forgot about mine and after 3 days, the flavors were much improved and superb.
- Do have the cream cheese at room temperature so you don’t wind up with lots of lumps.
- When your ice cream is finished, put it into an airtight container and pack it down to avoid air pockets where ice crystals can form.  Pressing a piece of plastic into the surface also helps keep ice from forming on the surface.  
- Homemade ice cream doesn’t have any commercial emulsifiers and because there are no eggs and not a lot of sugar in this recipe, the ice cream freezes up fairly hard.  Let it sit at room temperature for several minutes to soften before serving.
- Also try the plain Cheesecake Ice Cream and garnish however you wish.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Ice Cream
Makes about a pint

8 oz cream cheese @ room temperature
1 cup (8 oz) sour cream                                                                
1/2 cup (4 oz) heavy cream
1 1/2 cups (12 oz) solid-pack pumpkin                                                              
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) sugar                                                                
pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch nutmeg
slight pinch cloves
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) lemon juice
ginger cookies

Place the cream cheese, sour cream, heavy cream and pumpkin in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth.  Add the sugar, salt, spices, vanilla and lemon juice and process.  Taste and adjust for salt until you have a bright flavor.  Pour into an airtight container and chill overnight.

Chop or crumble a few ginger cookies into small bite-sized pieces. 

Freeze according to your ice cream machine’s instructions.  Fold in the cookie pieces.  Pour into an airtight container.  Press a piece of plastic wrap into the surface, cover and place in the freezer.

To serve, let the ice cream sit for several minutes to soften before scooping.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ginger Molasses Cookies

With apple and pumpkin pastries in good supply, it’s also absolutely a good time to roll out ginger cookies.  Everybody knows it wouldn’t be fall without them.  Spicy, chewy and crisp, they pack a real burst of flavor to remind us just how pleasing a little sugar and spice can be.  They are impossible to resist.

Ginger is a delicious and powerful ingredient in all its forms.  It comes from a flowering plant indigenous to China and has long been a central ingredient in Asian and Indian food.  We now find it enhancing cuisines all over the world.  In America, it's also a part of the pastry and beverage universe.

Molasses is a by-product of the sugar refining process.  The first syrup produced from boiling the juices of sugar cane is called cane syrup.  Molasses is the product of a second boiling.  Blackstrap molasses is the very strong and slightly bitter result of a third boiling.  

Of course, ginger cookies also appeal to us because they are full of lots of strong spices.  In this batch, I add a heady mix of ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg.  This means your kitchen will be filled with quite an intoxicating aroma as you slide them into the oven and let them do their magic.  

If you have a cookie jar, I suggest you fill it with these cookies ASAP.  After all, it’s October and nothing says autumn like Ginger Molasses Cookies.  I'm definitely feeling it.

Bench notes:
- I always use Grandma's Molasses for baking.
- A #40 ice cream scoop is great for portioning the cookie dough.  This produces 36 2 1/2” cookies.
- I like my ginger cookies soft and chewy in the center and crispy at the edges so I baked mine for 11 minutes.  For crispier cookies, bake them another minute or so. Since all ovens are different, I recommend baking just a couple cookies first to get the timing right for your idea of perfect texture.  Let them cool for about 5 minutes, taste, judge and then carry on.
- If you want to crank up the heat in these cookies, toss in a couple tablespoons of fresh grated ginger when you add the molasses.
- I also recommend the easy and sublime Gingerbread Bars.  If you like chocolate mixed with your ginger, try Ginger Chocolate Cookies.  Ginger Cream with Blueberries is a creamy pop of ginger as is Ginger Ice Cream.

Ginger Molasses Cookies
Makes 36 2 1/2” cookies

2 1/4 cups (11 1/4 oz) flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
scant 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
6 oz (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) dark brown sugar, packed
1 egg @ room temperature
1/4 cup (2 1/4 oz) molasses
2 tablespoons (1 oz) candied ginger, minced

1/3 cup (2 1/2 oz) sugar, for dusting
pinch cinnamon
pinch allspice

Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices.  Set aside.

Cream the butter and both sugars until smooth.  Scrape down the bowl and add the egg.  Beat until fully combined.  Scrape down the bowl and blend in the molasses.  Add the flour mixture and the minced candied ginger and mix just until there are no streaks of flour.  Chill the dough until firm, about an hour. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare baking sheets with parchment or silpats.
Place 1/3 cup of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon and allspice in a shallow bowl.

Scoop or portion the cookie dough into 1 1/4” balls and roll in spiced sugar to coat them evenly.  Place 12 on each prepared baking sheet.

Bake until the cookies are light brown, puffed and cracked on the surface and just set around the edges, about 11 - 12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking. Place the pans on a wire rack to cool.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Chocolate Dipped Almond Horseshoe Cookies

It’s the moment for cookie making.  Right about this time of year is when I start to think about the holiday pastries in my repertoire and what kind of experimenting and developing I want to do to keep things interesting for the season.

This is another very simple nut cookie that has a crisp and light quality along with the added bonus of a little dip in chocolate.  The cookie is flavored with almonds and vanilla and a touch of cinnamon.  I also include a small amount of unhulled sesame seeds for added texture and flavor.  The dough is mixed in a food processor so it’s quick and easy once you assemble all your ingredients. 

Speaking of assembling ingredients, I ran across an article on how to approach recipes and time spent in the kitchen.  It really rang true for me so I thought I’d recommend it to you.  It’s about visualizing your preparation of a dish before you begin.  Anyone who’s ever worked in a professional kitchen knows this rhythm very well.  You imagine in your head and think through the prep first before you even get started.  You read the recipe a couple of times and you can see and almost taste the desired result.  You think about the collection of ingredients and each step you need to take to get to the final product.  Organizing yourself in this way makes it much easier to actually cook or bake and it helps prevent any last minute surprises.  It makes the whole thing that much more pleasurable and builds your confidence about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.  I find this especially true for pastry.  Check it out!

You can shape these cookies any way you’d like.  I went for a horseshoe as a symbol of good luck.  I think finding homemade cookies in your midst does happen to feel quite lucky, especially when it's a simple nut cookie dipped in chocolate.

Bench notes:
- I like to use sliced almonds because they grind to a finer crumb.  To toast them, spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a 350 degree F oven for about 5 – 7 minutes.  Watch them closely as they will burn quickly.
- A #40 ice cream scoop helps to portion the cookie dough.
- When shaping the dough into logs that form the horseshoes, make sure the pieces are the same thickness from middle to ends so they will bake evenly.
- I shape the cookies into horseshoes on the baking sheet so I don’t have to lift and move them.
- I recommend semisweet chocolate for the coating because the cookies aren’t terribly sweet.

Chocolate Dipped Almond Horseshoe Cookies
Makes 30 cookies

2 cups (10 oz) flour
1 cup (3 oz) sliced toasted almonds
1/4 cup (1 oz) sesame seeds
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 oz) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
8 oz (16 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
1 3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Chocolate Coating
4 oz semi-sweet (62%) chocolate                      
2 oz (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter                                                                             

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

Place the flour, almonds, seeds, sugar, salt and cinnamon in the bowl of a food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground.  Cut the cold butter into 1/2” pieces and add to the flour mixture along with the egg yolk, vanilla and almond extracts.  Process until the mixture collects into damp clumps. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it tightly.   Chill for 2 - 4 hours or until the dough has firmed up enough to handle with ease.

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

Portion the cookie dough into 1 1/2” balls.  Then form each one into 3 1/2” logs of uniform thickness.  Place them on the prepared baking sheets and shape each one into a horseshoe.

Bake until only slightly colored on the top and golden brown on the bottom, about 15 - 17 minutes.  Rotate baking sheets halfway through to ensure even baking and browning.  Remove and place on a wire rack until cookies are completely cool.

For the chocolate coating, finely chop the chocolate.  Place in a heatproof bowl with the butter and melt over a pot with an inch or two of barely simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water.  Stir to thoroughly combine.  Remove from heat. 

Dip the ends of each cooled cookie into the bowl.  Scrape the excess from the bottom of the cookie against the edge of the bowl and place on a wire rack or silpat to dry.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Baked Hasselback Apples

Now that we’re clearly heading deep into our autumn of apples, I wanted to make something that would celebrate apples without a lot of the extra embellishments of pastry dough or cake, although those will certainly come later in these pages.

This recipe today takes its cue from a savory potato dish known as Hasselback Potatoes.  I’ve applied the technique of making thin slices to create little grooves of potato to our noble apple.  Each peeled and cored apple half gets scored with thin cuts and then brushed with a mix of melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon.  There’s a nice slow bake in a covered pan to elicit the juices of the apple and coax them to co-mingle with the baste.  Then a second reinforcement topping is applied that consists of more butter, brown sugar and cinnamon along with just a bit of oatmeal and flour and a pinch of salt.  Back they go into the oven for an additional 10 minutes to melt that into a dizzying delicious sauce.

Oh. My. Goodness.  This turned out to be a really fantastic dessert, a perfect balance of flavors and textures.  It’s served warm with a scoop of ice cream and the whole thing just makes me thank the universe for apples.  The brown sugar, cinnamon and butter caramelize into perfection as the apples soften but still have just enough bite to escape the fate of being mushy.  There’s also a very slight chewiness to the topping that enhances all the flavors dancing together in total bliss.  As the ice cream starts to melt and enrobe each luscious bite, you realize you’ve reached apple pastry nirvana.

This is way too easy and way too delicious not to be served at your next opportunity.  Invite your friends and impress them with your genius.  Apple lovers, let’s all swoon in unison!

Bench notes:
- I used Gala apples.  Choose similar apples that are firm and crisp, such as Pink Lady or Honeycrisp.  The recipe indicates that Granny Smith and Fujis didn’t hold up.
- A corer makes the job of coring the apples very easy.
- I don’t recommend using a larger baking dish.  You don’t want the juices to boil down and burn.  If they begin to do so, add just a splash of apple juice or water.
- When you remove the foil, take the pan out of the oven and lift the covering so that the steam escapes away from you.  Steam burns really do hurt.
- The topping includes 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, which is slightly less harsh than table salt.  If you want to use table salt, use a scant 1/4 teaspoon.
- There’s a Cooking Light video of the preparation although there seem to be some slightly different amounts listed for the ingredients for some odd reason.  I followed the recipe at their link below.
- The recipe has as one last step putting the apples under the broiler for an additional 2 minutes.  I didn’t find that necessary at all.  If you decide to do that, make sure your baking pan is safe for broiling.
- I served my apples with Whiskey Ice Cream.  Really incredible.  Of course, Vanilla and Caramel Ice Cream would also certainly be great.
- More simple apple goodness:  Apple Dumplings and Apple Brown Betty.

Baked Hasselback Apples
adapted from Cooking Light
Serves 4

2 large firm apples [I used Galas]
1 tablespoon (13 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 oz (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon                

3 tablespoons (39 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
3/4 oz (1 1/2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons old-fashioned (10 grams) oats
1 teaspoon (3 grams) flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Lightly grease an 8” square baking dish.

Peel and core the apples, then cut them in half vertically.

Starting at the outermost edges, cut most (but not all) of the way through each apple half at about 1/8” intervals. Place apple halves, cored sides down, in the baking dish.

Combine 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 tablespoon melted butter, and ½ teaspoon cinnamon and brush the mixture evenly over each apple half.  Cover the pan with foil.  

Bake 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully lift off the foil.  Return to the oven and bake for 10 additional minutes uncovered.  Remove pan from oven.

Combine remaining 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, oats, flour and salt.  Carefully fan open the cuts in the apple halves.  Spoon the oat mixture evenly over the apples, pressing some of it into the grooves.  

Bake 10 minutes uncovered.  Remove from oven.  Serve warm with ice cream.