experiments in cooking

Posts tagged ‘baking’

From Cabinet to Chocolate Cake in 40 Minutes

A couple of Saturdays back, I decided to make this simple chocolate cake for two reasons: First, it’s small, and I needed to serve only our family of four. Second, I really, really wanted cake—doesn’t that happen to you, sometimes?—but I had less than an hour to start and finish a cake before I needed to leave the house to run an errand.

This has to be the world’s fastest chocolate cake. Make this cake, and you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed a boxed cake mix. It was just 10 minutes from the time I started pulling ingredients out of the cabinet to the time I put the cake in the oven.

As it takes only 30 minutes to bake, I had a finished cake in just 40 minutes. And it’s doggone good.

If this recipe looks familiar to you, but not the name, I think it’s the same as what my high school best friend’s family used to call “hot water chocolate cake,” although this recipe uses cold water.

Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake from Joy of Cooking

One 8-inch square cake. Prep time: 10 minutes. Total time: 40 minutes.
This is a delightfully simple chocolate cake, whether or not you observe dietary restrictions.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease and flour an 8-inch square baking pan or line the bottom with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together in a large bowl until well blended:
  1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  1⁄3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  1 tsp baking soda
  1⁄2 tsp salt

Add:
  1 cup cold water
  1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
  1 tbsp distilled white vinegar
  2 tsp vanilla

Whisk until smooth. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly.

Bake about 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Slide a thin knife around the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake and peel off the paper liner, if using. Let cool right side up on the rack.

Serve plain, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, or frost with a bittersweet chocolate glaze.

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Cocoa Devil’s Food Cake

A few weeks ago I started making chocolate cakes on the weekends to practice making a cake for my birthday. I started with a devil’s food cake made with cocoa, from my Joy of Cooking cookbook.

This was the first chocolate cake I’ve had any trouble making. It was easy to prepare, but I agonized over which size pan to use. I didn’t have two 9-inch round layer pans, but I did have a 10-inch fluted tube pan. However, I didn’t have a cake keeper to store a round cake in—so I had to use a 9×11-inch rectangular pan.

The finished cake sank in the middle. But I iced it with my favorite homemade chocolate glaze and it tasted good.

The funny thing was, it tasted even better the second day—and the third. I mean, on the first day, I thought it tasted okay, and on the third, I thought it was awesome. I wasn’t expecting that.

So this might be a good cake to make ahead of an event, letting it sit for a day. I just wish I’d baked it in a different pan. My mother-in-law gave me an old cake keeper and two round pans, so I’m set for next time.

Cocoa Devil’s Food Cake from Joy of Cooking

One 9-inch plain tube cake, 10-inch tube cake, or two 9-inch round layers

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70 degrees. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch plain tube pan, a 10-inch fluted tube pan, or two 9×2-inch round cake pans, or line the bottoms of the round pans with wax or parchment paper.

Whisk together in a medium bowl:

2 cups sifted cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

Whisk together in a separate bowl:

1 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
½ cup nonalkalized cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla

Beat in a large bowl until creamy, about 30 seconds:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Gradually add and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes:

1 cup sugar

Beat in one at a time:

2 large eggs

On low speed, add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in 2 parts, beating until smooth and scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Scrape the batter into the pan(s) and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes in round pans, 45 to 55 minutes in a tube pan. Cool and remove from the pan. Fill and spread with white or chocolate icing.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese in My New Dutch Oven

For Christmas, Chris gave me a Dutch oven made by Lodge. A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid that can be used both on the range top and in the oven. I’d never had any cooking dish that could be used both on the range and in the oven. How cool is that?

I asked for a Dutch oven because so many recipes I’ve seen called for one, including a couple of recipes for some personal favorites: chicken fricassee and macaroni and cheese. In the past few weeks, I’ve made both dishes with my new Dutch oven and got to make use of the range-to-oven versatility for both meals. Boy, is it fun to use!

It is not, however, fun to clean any dish in which you have made macaroni and cheese. That said, this baked macaroni and cheese recipe, which my mother emailed to me, is absolutely delicious and worth the time it took to clean the pot—my lovely, cast-iron, pre-seasoned Dutch oven.

Macaroni and Cheese (from New World Pasta

8 oz dried elbow macaroni (2 cups)

2 tbsp butter or margarine

2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups fat-free milk

12 oz of Velveeta (or processed cheese product), broken up

Directions:

Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain.  Meanwhile, for cheese sauce, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in flour and pepper.  Add milk all at once.  Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Stir macaroni into cheese sauce in sauce pan, stirring to coat.  Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Makes 4 servings.

Oven Macaroni and Cheese:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare as above, except increase milk to 2 cups.  (If mixture is not in a Dutch oven, transfer mixture to a 2 quart casserole.)  Bake, uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

The People Who Eat Peppernuts

When Chris and I were first married nine years ago, and we approached our first Christmas as a married couple, he kept talking about something called “peppernuts” that his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother used to make for Christmas. He described them basically as tiny red and green cookies flavored with peppermint.

The name confused me.

“Do they have nuts in them?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.

“Or pepper?”

“Don’t think so,” he said.

Seemed a little odd to me.

Every year he raved about peppernuts, and one year he made some himself. It took him hours to do it, and he was really proud of what he’d done, but I wouldn’t touch the cookies.

“Peppermint-flavored cookies don’t appeal to me,” I said.

“Come on,” Chris said, “just try them.”

“No thanks,” I said. “Why don’t you have one of my family’s traditional iced Christmas cookies?”

“Can’t. I’m having peppernuts.”

“And I’m eating an iced Christmas cookie,” I said.

For the next several years, Chris kept his Christmas traditions, and I kept mine. He ate peppernuts. He reminisced about cherry moos and zwiebach. I ate iced Christmas cookies and talked wistfully about pecan fudge and date balls and spiced tea.

And then, this year, I decided to cross the great divide. It was time for me to connect with my husband’s German Mennonite roots, as they are my sons’ roots too. I want my sons to grow up in a home with traditions from both families.

So, in the fall, I learned about zwiebach and learned to make Chris’s family’s favorite buns. For Christmas, I planned to make cherry moos and toyed with the idea of making peppernuts. But I still thought the idea of peppermint-flavored cookies sounded a little odd.

Then two things happened that changed my mind: Chris tried to make his own peppernuts, and Chris’s mother sent home a peppernuts cookbook (yes, an entire cookbook full of nothing but peppernuts recipes).

This is what happened. After several years of not making peppernuts because I wouldn’t eat them or help him make them—and they are a lot of work—Chris decided to make up a batch for a bake sale at church. But he forgot to add the sugar. I found him in the kitchen late that evening, trying to fold sugar into the finished dough.

“That’s not going to work,” I said.

“Sure it will,” he said. “I’ve done it before.”

But it didn’t work. The test batch of peppernuts he pulled out of the oven looked awful. We both stared at the baking sheet full of discolored, flat lumps of baked dough, and Chris sighed. I threw away the botched cookies and the dough as he left the kitchen, dejected.

Then the next week, Chris’s mom told me she’d found a small cookbook about peppernuts and was sending it home in Jonah’s school bag for Chris to look at.

But it was me, not Chris, who opened the cookbook that evening and began to read.

I learned that peppernuts, the beloved little German spice cookie, come in many different versions, with and without food coloring, with and without pepper (usually white pepper), with different flavorings—many with anise, or molasses or cinnamon—in different shapes (round or like little pillows), even with and without yeast. And apparently there is much debate over whether the best peppernuts are hard and crispy, chewy, or soft.

I also read that Mennonite women used to make the dough several weeks before Christmas and let it chill for up to a week in a cold cellar to let the flavors mellow. I read about day-long gatherings of Mennonite women, mixing, rolling, cutting, baking, and packaging peppernuts. I read about church ladies baking peppernuts to supply an entire town, children waiting all year to eat peppernuts, mothers making peppernuts for Christmas guests. I read about women grinding their own spices to flavor their family’s special peppernuts recipe. I read about star anise, cloves, and nutmeg. I read debates about the origin and meaning of the name “peppernuts.” I read grandmothers’ recipes, best friends’ recipes, recipes from Mennonites in South America, recipes from Kansas, recipes from Canada.

Then I put down the cookbook. And I got out the recipe that Oma, Chris’s great-grandmother, had passed down to her granddaughter, my mother-in-law. And then I mixed up a batch up peppernuts.

With eyes that were now a little familiar with the peppernuts tradition, I looked over the recipe. I saw that its unique features included the use of sour cream and the addition of food coloring to provide Christmas coloring. The recipe also called for wintergreen to flavor the green peppernuts, and I realized I could use anise instead, as in several of the recipes I’d read. And, of course, the recipe called for peppermint extract to flavor the red dough.

With determination, I set to work. And Saturday evening, after the dough was chilled and dinner was over, I called in Chris for help. We spent a couple of hours rolling and cutting and baking and pouring finished peppernuts into jars.

When we were done, we called in the boys for a treat. Jonah reached for a red peppernut, bit into it, and smiled.

“Can I have a green one too?” he said.

So now I get it. I understand where Chris got this passion for peppernuts. And now, although it’s my kids and my husbands who have German ancestry, not me, I am as proud as any German Mennonite woman’s daughter when I look at the glass jars of peppernuts sitting on my kitchen counter, right next to a tin of my family’s favorite “five-minute fudge.” And you can hear me talking about pfefferneusse at work just about any day this month, with the ladies who grew up making these cookies with their church youth group or dunking it in coffee or learning from their mother how to make it the way their family makes it.

Yes, now I understand.

 

Oma’s Peppernuts

2 2/3 cup sugar

1 1/3 cup butter (at room temperature)

4 eggs (at room temperature)

2 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cream of tartar

¼ cup sour cream

6 cups flour

1/8 tsp salt

Red and green food coloring

Flavoring: peppermint extract, anise extract, wintergreen extract, etc.

Cream butter and sugar on medium until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Beat in baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar, and sour cream. Stir in flour and salt until well blended. Refrigerate dough (for up to one week).

Divide dough into halves. Add red food coloring and 1 tsp peppermint extract. To the other half, add green coloring and 1 tsp anise extract. Roll into pencil-like rolls and cut into small pieces. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes for soft peppernuts or 1–2 minutes longer for crisper peppernuts.

Angel Sugar Crisps to Lift Your Spirits

The week after my first son was born was a difficult time for me. I had expected to be blissfully happy and expertly maternal. Instead, I was recovering from an emergency C-section and struggling with feeding issues, thrush, and fatigue.

On top of that, we had a litter of puppies living in the family room because our longhaired dachshund Layla had delivered a litter a few weeks before my son was born, and it was weaning week, a tough week for both puppies and their mother—who, out of desperation at being kept from feeding her babies, kept liberating them from their cage in the middle of the night or in the middle of my shower or a diaper change or whenever I was busy. She also kept presenting her belly in an offer to feed my baby since I seemed to be having so much trouble with that.

And in the midst of all this chaos, there were the cookies my friend Lisa had dropped off with a casserole. She called them sugar cookies, but her mother calls them “Angel Sugar Crisps,” and those cookies did the work of an angel for me that week. Every time I ate one of those cookies, I felt the fog of post-partum depression and new-mom fear and hysteria roll back just a little.

When I think back to that week, I remember the panic I felt at being so out of control, and the sleepless nights, and how shocked I was that now matter how prepared I thought I was to care for a baby, the real thing was more momentous and demanding than I’d imagined. I also remember the cookies. Those cookies were heaven-sent.

But Lisa didn’t give me the recipe, so they stayed only a memory.

Recently, though, I found myself thinking about those cookies, so I asked Lisa for the recipe. She sent it just before Thanksgiving—just in time for some angel sugar crisps to play guardian angel again in the current trials of my life.

They were every bit as delicious as I remembered. Four and a half years after the first time I had one of these cookies, they were still the perfect antidote to a rough day.

 

Angel Sugar Crisps from Lisa Cansler Noah

½ cup shortening

½ cup (1 stick) margarine or butter

½ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

Sugar to top cookies (try demerara sugar or sugar in the raw)

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cream of tartar

½ tsp salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cream shortening, sugars, margarine, egg, and vanilla in a medium-sized mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to the creamed mixture; mix until blended. Shape into small balls and dip the top of each ball into sugar. Place sugared side up and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for approximately 8 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Cool 1–2 minutes before removing from pan.

Ciabatta for Thanksgiving

The week before Thanksgiving, I froze a dozen homemade rolls and an apple pandowdy, planning to take them to Missouri to share with my family for the big holiday dinner. I happily anticipated my sisters and my brother-in-law and my mom and dad admiring my delicious, homemade food.

Then, the day before Thanksgiving, an hour outside of Lincoln on our way to Missouri, I realized I had left all of my homemade food at home in the freezer.

No matter how carefully I plan, I always leave something behind. Last time, it was my toothbrush. This time: rolls and dessert. It was heartbreaking. Don’t laugh—it was.

I had my heart set on serving homemade rolls to my family. And I have trouble letting go of things I’ve set my heart on doing. But, there were two bright spots: I had remembered to bring some cookies I’d made a few days before, and I’d also brought along the binder where I keep recipes from friends and the internet.

“You could make something while we’re down there,” Chris suggested.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” I said, feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t feel like I could make anything to take the place of the food I’d left behind.

I got even grumpier when our battery died when we arrived at my grandparents’ house for a lunch stop on the way to my sister’s house. We got the car started after letting it sit while we ate lunch, but I was in gloomy spirits.

“Boy, this is some trip!” I complained. “First I forget my food, and then our battery dies!”

Chris got that look he gets on his face when I go a little crazy—the look that says, “My wife is crazy.”

“What’re you looking at?” I said. As if I didn’t know.

We made it to my sister’s house okay, where my brother-in-law could help us change the battery. That should have cheered me up—the fact that my brother-in-law was around to fix the car, when, had we been anywhere else, Chris and I would have been up a creek. It wouldn’t have been much fun finding a mechanic the night before Thanksgiving. But I kept feeling grumpy, because, like I said, I have trouble letting go.

We ate a big family Thanksgiving meal that night, since our other sister wouldn’t be able to join us on Thursday. We had a good time. We ate good food, which my sister and mother had worked on through the whole day. The meal included a 24-pound turkey that my sister had to bake at her neighbor’s house because it wouldn’t fit in her oven. A turkey like that should get any fan of the traditional Thanksgiving meal excited. But, I’m ashamed to admit, I still felt pretty sad. I mean, my niece and nephew had made a little buffet card that read “apple dessert” for the pandowdy that never came and was sitting at home in my freezer. I felt sorry for the poor little buffet card that didn’t get to do its job while all the other buffet cards stood proudly in front of overflowing, fragrant Thankgiving dishes.

And when I had to drive us 100 miles to my parents’ house from my sister’s house that night, through a thunderstorm that had little Neeley screaming in fear and me praying for survival and using the lightning to see by, on two-lane historic Route 66 across southwest Missouri, I was really out of sorts. It even irked me that the radio station we found to follow the tornado warnings was a country station, and I wasn’t in the mood for country music.

“And on top of everything, it’s country!” I exploded.

Chris probably gave me The Look again at this point, but I didn’t see it because there wasn’t any lightning to see by.

We did make it to my parents’ house, although I think was a close call. I’m pretty sure we hydroplaned at least once, and maybe I should have pulled over in decrepit, historic Halltown, Mo., when we heard the tornado sirens, but the deserted look of the place freaked me out—especially the massive ruined barn I looked up at when I pulled off the road once to seek shelter—so I kept driving.

When we finally arrived, I sat a couple of hours on Mom and Dad’s couch, not saying much, staring into space and trying to calm down. It wasn’t easy. I’m not exactly the calm type.

On Thursday, I was exhausted. The events of Wednesday had shaken me up a bit. But then my mother announced we would have turkey sandwiches for supper. A couple of years back Chris suggested my dad try a turkey sandwich with stuffing and gravy on the sandwich, and my parents think it’s a lot of fun to make those sandwiches.

“Can someone go to the store and buy some sandwich rolls?’” Mom asked.

Suddenly I started feeling less sorry for myself.

“I can make some ciabatta!” I said.

“Is that one of your new favorite recipes?” Mom asked.

“Never made ’em before,” I said, “But I’ve eaten them, and I have my friend’s recipe with me.”

Mom gave me the okay. I appreciate the woman’s faith in me. Anyway, here I was, once again making a new recipe for guests, but I felt confident I could do it. My holiday mood came surging back. I spent the next couple of hours happily mixing and kneading dough, letting it rise, forming rolls, and baking. I also cooked up a batch of cranberry compote to spread on the sandwiches.

When, in mid-afternoon, I pulled a baking sheet with five golden-brown ciabatta loaves out of Mom’s oven, I felt pretty good. I felt even better when people actually ate the rolls, and when my dad asked for a second helping of the cranberry compote.

Yeah, I felt good—and thankful. My grumpiness had been smothering some feelings of gratitude that I wasn’t going to bury any longer.

I was thankful I’d thought to bring some recipes along, thankful my mom trusted my ability to make bread, thankful we’d made it through the storm, thankful my battery died while we were visiting my mechanically inclined brother-in-law.

And thankful that when I got home, I’d have homemade rolls and an apple pandowdy to thaw and enjoy during the Christmas holiday season.

Ciabatta (from Iris Goodding’s French bread recipe)

Ingredients:
1 package yeast (equal to 2 ¼ tsp yeast)
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup warm water (baby bath water warm — if your kitchen is a little
colder your water can be a little warmer)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
2 ½ cups to 3 cups flour

Place yeast in a bowl. Cover with the sugar. Add the water. Stir and let sit for 5-10 minutes to dissolve (it should look frothy by the end of the time). Stir in salt, oil and 2 cups of the flour. Stir with a spoon until fairly smooth. Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Knead for 3-5 minutes (avoid over-kneading). Let rise in greased (or oiled), covered bowl for 1 to 2 hours. Divide 4–5 parts lumps of dough about the size of your fist. Take each fist-size lump of dough and pat it back and forth between your hands until it is uniformly round and smooth. Grease a baking sheet and place the balls onto the sheet. Press the ball down so that it is fairly flat while still round (1 to 2 inches think). Let dough rise for another hour while covered.

To bake: Preheat oven to 375F. Bake for 17-25 minutes. (Sometimes they cook fast and sometimes slow.) They should have a nice golden brown glow to them when they are done.

Cool loaves on a rack. When loaves are cool, slice each loaf in half and then slice again for use as a sandwich bread.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

The classic chocolate chip cookie is one of the best tasting cookies you can make with little effort. But for whatever reason—possibly because of the easily accessible readymade dough at the grocery store, or maybe because someone else is always making them—I haven’t made plain chocolate chip cookies myself in years. But recently, with our church bake sale coming up, I decided it was time to make my own. The recipe I went with was one from Joy of Cooking, because I liked the name: “Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies.” Classic sounds a lot more interesting than plain.

And man, were these cookies yummy. They spread a fair bit and taste both chewy and soft. This is the only cookie I’ve made this year that everyone in the house wanted to eat—adults and kids alike.

 

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies from Joy of Cooking

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease cookie sheets. Whisk together thoroughly:

1 cup plus 2 tbsp all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking soda

Beat on medium speed until very fluffy and well blended:

8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

½ cup sugar

½ cup packed light brown sugar

Add and beat until well combined:

1 large egg

¼ tsp salt

1 ½ tsp vanilla

Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended and smooth. Stir in:

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are just slightly colored on top and rimmed with brown at the edges, 8 to 10 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly, about 2 minutes. Transfer the cookies to racks [or a tea towel or wax paper] to cool.

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