Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sabbatical



There are times in life when sabbaticals are necessary. This fall I took a baking sabbatical. Baking had ceased to be fun and my butt had ceased to be human size, so I thought it best to ease off the baking for a while.

During the few months I didn’t bake, I found myself not really missing it. This surprised me, as I thought I’d be continually fighting with myself as I rolled my grocery cart down the baking aisle. It was actually nice not to think about baking for a while. I knew when I was ready, I’d return to it with vigor and excitement.

My baking sabbatical coincided with another sabbatical: one from my marriage. Dan and I decided to separate for a bit, so I went east to spend time with my sister, Wendy, and her family. As soon as my plane left the ground, I began to panic. The words of a good friend of mine, Charles, who is divorced, rang in my ears. Charles told me that the way to mend a marriage is not to separate. As I settled into a marathon of Law and Order: Criminal Intent for the five-hour flight, I wondered if I had just made a very big mistake.

It turns out that what didn’t work for Charles worked quite well for me. Spending time in Rhinebeck, New York, with Wendy, my wonderful brother-in-law, Seth, and my favorite niece and nephew, Sammi and Seth Robert; walking in the country; getting hooked on Dancing with the Stars; laughing a lot and breathing truly fresh air was incredibly therapeutic. I can’t say it saved the marriage, but I know it saved me.

A few days after I came back to Los Angeles, I was rummaging around in the kitchen and I got the sudden urge to bake. There wasn’t much in the way of ingredients, as I had been gone and on sabbatical, but I managed to put together a decent batch of mocha chip cookies. I had never made these before, and they were totally improvisational and totally delicious.

I’ve really learned to loosen my control on just about everything. Going through life trying to control everything is a prescription for profound heartbreak. For the first time in my life I’m not planning my every move and my every minute. And I have to say, it feels pretty good. Who knows? Some really extraordinary cookies could come out of it.

Mocha Chip Cookies
Makes about 20 3½-inch cookies

Feel free to add more espresso if you want more intense flavor here. You can also get a bigger yield if you go with a smaller cookie.

1¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons instant espresso
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1¾ sticks (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup sugar
⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (my favorite is Whole Foods’ 365 vegan semisweet chips)

1. Preheat oven to 375° F. Line baking sheet with parchment. If you don’t want to use parchment, that’s fine. Just don’t grease the baking sheet.
2. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, espresso, baking soda and salt. In large bowl, whisk together butter, sugars, applesauce and almond extract. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.
3. Drop tablespoons of dough onto baking sheet, leaving room between each. I do 9 cookies per batch. Bake 11 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to rack. When completely cooled, store in airtight container for up to 3 days.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Real Hot Chocolate



It’s raining and coldish in Los Angeles again. (I say coldish so my East Coast friends and family don’t tease me mercilessly: It’s 50 here, as opposed to in the teens there.) Winter is knocking at the door and that means one thing: hot chocolate.

For the past two months I’ve been on a hot chocolate quest. I’ve had the powered stuff, the real stuff and I’ve made several different iterations myself. This is probably a never-ending quest, but so far my favorite restaurant versions have been Joan’s on Third  (it was the day before Halloween and the barista made a little ghost out of the steamed milk!) and Aroma Café (the whipped cream is streaked with chocolate syrup!). Which brings me to my hot chocolate revelation: The perfect cup of chocolate must have the perfect balance of sweetness and chocolatiness. You know what I mean if you’ve ever had a cup that was overwhelming in either department.

Real hot chocolate has spoiled me for good, and I can safely say I will probably not go back to any kind of powdered stuff made with water. It’s gotta be the real thing made with some kinda milk. One has to have standards, don’t you agree?

Real Hot Chocolate
Vegan
Serves 1

Feel free to use regular milk here if you want. There is, however, a great variety of dairy-free milks to choose from: hazelnut, oat, rice, coconut as well as almond and soy. A lot of dairy-free milks have added sugar, and I find they make the hot chocolate a bit too sweet. I’ve made this with chocolate chips, and it’s hard to get those suckers to dissolve completely. I heard Ina Garten say that chocolate chips are made with stabilizers so they retain their form in cookies. I think Ina’s right. (Again.) If you’re rolling vegan with this, make sure whatever chocolate you use is free of dairy.

8 ounces unsweetened vanilla almond milk
2 ounces finely chopped dark chocolate (I like Scharffen Berger 62% cacao)
1 or 2 tablespoons coconut milk (optional)

1. Combine the almond milk and chocolate in a small saucepan and heat, whisking constantly, until almond milk and chocolate become one. Simmer gently until the milk is steaming but not boiling.
2. Pour hot chocolate into your favorite mug. Stir in a tablespoon or two of coconut milk if you roll that way. Drink and enjoy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is Funny, Hates Cake


Max spent his junior year of high school at boarding school in Texas. This would not have been my choice, but Max said he wanted to go to away because he wanted to “get serious about school.”

Max has never been very keen on school, so his wanting to “get serious about school” was a big deal. Each morning since he was in preschool, I’d practically have to wrestle him out of bed to get him to school on time. For a few months when he was 6, he would pretend to be dead when I came in to wake him. He was extremely convincing. One morning I began reading the definition of fart from the dictionary in a really nerdy voice. It’s hard to pretend to be dead when you’re laughing. And, if you’re not dead, you must get up and go to school.

This worked well for a few weeks, then I had to do it in a French accent, then as various cartoon characters, then as my mother-in-law. All good shows eventually close, though, and after he no longer found his grandmother’s worldview on flatulence entertaining, he went back to pretending he was dead. I found this funny and I admired his commitment, so it was impossible to be angry with him.

Whenever I get angry at Max he completely disarms me with humor. He knows what makes me laugh and he wields it like a sword whenever I try to discipline him. Since he’s now looking down the barrel of 19, this doesn’t happen anymore. Lucky for me.

When I was pregnant, I wanted a healthy child, of course, but I also wished for a funny child. The thought of a child with no sense of humor was just unbearable. I got what I wished for.

The one thing I didn’t consider when I was making a wish list for the kind of child I’d get is the eating factor. Max is the only child I’ve ever met who doesn’t like cake. This has to be a genetic anomaly. There is no one in my family or Dan’s who refuses cake. After almost 19 years, I’ve finally made my peace with this. Max can mimic perfectly just about anyone he hears and quip with the best of them, but he will not abide a birthday cake.

Max brings me the gift of laughter every day, something I consider more valuable than straight A’s, excellence in sports or any of the other myriad things by which we gauge our children’s contribution. So, he won’t eat cake. That I can live with.

Blueberry Breakfast Cake with Sweet Almond Crunch
Vegan
Makes 9 servings

Entenmann’s Louisiana Crunch Cake was my inspiration for this cake, and, nope, Max won’t eat that, either. In case you’ve never eaten the Louisiana Crunch Cake, it’s a moist yellow cake that’s sort of Bundt shaped, and it’s covered with this crunchy-sweet glaze. It’s delicious and filled with so much crap I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how much I love it. I know blueberries aren’t in season now, so if you want to leave them out, go right ahead. Since Entenmann’s doesn’t use real fruit in its cakes, feel free to follow suit.

Topping
1 tablespoon toasted almonds, finely chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Cake
Canola oil spray
2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for the blueberries
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
⅓ cup canola oil
¾ cup sugar
⅓ cup unsweetened applesauce
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup blueberries

1. In a small bowl, mix together almonds and sugar and set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 8x8 baking pan with canola oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, applesauce, almond milk and vanilla and almond extracts. Stir dry ingredients into wet until combined. Combine blueberries with a pinch or two of flour so they don’t settle at the bottom of the cake. Gently fold blueberries in to batter.
3. Spoon batter into pan and make sure it’s evenly distributed. Sprinkle topping onto cake. Bake 28-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cake cool completely in pan on rack before cutting and serving. You can store leftover cake, covered, in the baking pan for up to 2 days.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Equal-opportunity Baking


I like to think of myself as an equal-opportunity baker. If someone wants a gluten-free cookie, I’ll make it. If someone asks for a vegan cupcake, I’m there. If someone (my niece and nephew, especially) wants a cookie with eggs and butter, I’m happy to oblige. The only baking feat I don’t seem to be able to accomplish is a gluten-free, vegan cake. Well, let me rephrase: The only baking feat I don’t seem to be able to accomplish is a gluten-free, vegan cake that I would be willing to eat.

Some of the gf, vegan stuff made by professionals that I’ve actually paid money for has been, shall I say, less than satisfactory. I can’t believe people are actually shelling out dough to eat stuff that tastes like it’s spent its more flavorful days in a box buried in the Mojave.

Baking is always an adventure, whether you’re making something straight up or you’re improvising to meet dietary needs. Chocolate cupcakes are just about one of my favorite things. I make killer vegan ones, and I developed killer gluten-free ones. But, alas, I cannot make killer gluten-free, vegan chocolate cupcakes. While I figure that one out, please enjoy my offering here.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate-Mascarpone Frosting
Gluten-free
Makes 12 cupcakes

Mascarpone is less tangy than cream cheese, and I much prefer it to the latter. If you think these cupcakes need a bit more excitement, you can top them with chopped roasted hazelnuts, chocolate chips or toasted coconut.

Cupcakes
Canola oil spray (if you’re not using baking cups)
1 cup blanched almond flour
⅔ cup GF Classical Blend flour, or your favorite gluten-free flour, sifted
⅓ cup coconut flour
1 scant cup sugar
½ cup good unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon xanthan gum
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs, room temperature
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
½ cup light coconut milk
⅓ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract

Frosting
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup mascarpone, softened
Pinch salt
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled
2 tablespoons light coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking pan with muffin cups or spray with canola oil.
2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking powder, xanthan gum and sea salt. In another large mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, almond and coconut milks, canola oil and vanilla and almond extracts. Stir dry ingredients into wet until well combined.
3. Spoon batter into muffin cups to ¾ full and bake 20-22 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Transfer cupcakes to rack to cool completely, about an hour.
4. For the frosting: Using an electric mixer, beat together butter and mascarpone. Add salt and ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, and then add a tablespoon of light coconut milk. Add the chocolate and beat until combined. Add remaining ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, followed by second tablespoon of coconut milk, beating well to incorporate. Taste and make sure frosting is sweet enough. If you need more confectioners’ sugar, feel free to add it. You’ll also need to add a bit more coconut milk. Add vanilla and beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes.
5. Frost the cupcakes only after they have cooled completely. If you want to add toppings, now’s the time. Serve and refrigerate the leftovers for up to 3 days.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scones


The mid-90s are a bit of a blur for me. I was working full-time, Max was a baby prone to frequent ear infections alternating with the croup and Dan was working extremely long hours and was home basically to sleep. There was one thing I looked forward to each day: my afternoon scone. My afternoon scone was made by the Grand Marnier Café on Broadway between 55th and 56th streets. It was the size of a softball, and it’s soft, eggy center was filled with sweet, juicy blueberries. The top had a delightful sugar crunch, the shards of which would either fall into my lap or onto whatever manuscript I was working on.

The afternoon scone and the accompanying café au lait would sometimes have to tide me over until lunch the next day. The working-mom thing had me so busy there were many nights that after I finally got Max to sleep, I would then choose sleep over food. I was kinda goofy during that time, but I was thin. Sigh.

The Grand Marnier Café closed sometime after I moved to Los Angeles. Every time I go back home I pass by that block, hoping maybe it’s been revived. Since I’ve yet to find a decent gluten-free scone, I’ve taken it upon myself to re-create those amazing treats. Since blueberries aren’t in season now and I don’t like raisins, I went with apples. California-grown Fujis are in season now, and they are mouth-watering. They also don’t stain clothing or papers when they manage to elude your mouth. Biting into a sweet, juicy apple-y bit is almost as thrilling as biting into a sweet, juicy blueberry-y bit. When blueberries are in season, you can bet that blueberry scones will be on the menu.

Apple Scones
Gluten-free
Makes about 12 scones
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

I tried to duplicate these as best as I could. They don’t taste exactly like the works of art from the Grand Marnier Café, probably because these are gluten-free. I used a sweet Fuji apple here, but feel free to use whichever kind of apple you like best. With regard to the shapes, I’m a complete spaz and cannot be counted on to cut triangles deftly. So I used a biscuit cutter. If you have a natural talent for triangle cutting, chuck the biscuit cutter and do your worst.

1½ cup GF Classical Blend flour, or your favorite gf flour
1 cup blanched almond flour
2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon xanthan gum
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup half-and-half
4 large eggs
1 medium apple, peeled, cored and chopped (about ¾ cup)

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line baking sheet with parchment.
2. In a food processor, add flours, 1 tablespoon sugar, baking powder, xanthan gum and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the butter resembles small peas and the ingredients are well combined. If you don’t own a food processor (or you just don’t feel like washing the blade and bowl), pour everything into a mixing bowl and work the butter into the dry ingredients using your hands.
3. In a large mixing bowl, vigorously whisk together 3 eggs and the half-and-half.  Stir in the dry ingredients. Stir in the chopped apple. Turn the dough out onto a clean, well-floured surface and knead it 10 times, no more.  If it’s sticky, add a bit more flour, but not too much. It should be a bit sticky.
4. Shape the dough into a ¾-inch-thick rectangle and either cut shapes with a biscuit cutter or cut triangles with a knife. If you’re using a biscuit cutter, you can shape the dough into a circle, which is what I did. Reshape leftover dough and cut more scones. Repeat until you are out of dough.
5. Beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water and brush the top of each scone with a pastry brush. Sprinkle each scone with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar.
6. Bake until the scones are golden brown, about 14 minutes. They will last about 2 days, so get eating!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meyer Lemons


There’s no place I’d rather be as winter closes in than right here in Los Angeles. Walking around my neighborhood and breathing in the scent of the budding orange blossoms is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. When I lived in New York, I would always find comfort in the smell of lemon and basil cooking away in some olive oil or butter. It would remind me that spring was imminent, and I would mark days off the calendar until the snow cleared for good and the temperature was consistently warm.

I first discovered Meyer lemons when my friend Kathy gifted me a bagful from the extremely productive tree in her Pasadena backyard. Kathy was overrun with lemons and was almost to the point of building a stand on the sidewalk in front of her house to give them away to passersby. I would hit her up several times during the winter for Meyers and I used every last one of them.

Meyer lemons are a lemon-orange hybrid. That makes them a bit sweeter than a regular lemon, but nowhere near as sweet as an orange. They’re in season from November to May, and I use them liberally in both baking and cooking.

In June 2006 Dan and I planted a Meyer lemon tree in our backyard. We got a few lemons the first year and more than a dozen last year. This winter our little tree is taking a rest, and Kathy’s has finally retired after almost a century of service, so this winter I’ll have to rely on the farmers’ markets for my Meyer fix.

 
Meyer Lemon-Ginger Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes a dozen cupcakes

I use what I call vegan half-and-half in these cupcakes: half light coconut milk, half unsweetened almond milk. If you want to use dairy half-and-half, go ahead. If the spice is too tame for you, add more ginger.

Cupcakes
Canola oil spray (if not using baking cups)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 scant cup sugar
1 heaping teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup canola oil
½ cup light coconut milk
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
Juice and grated peel of 1 medium Meyer lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons light coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare muffin pan by lining with baking cups or spraying with canola oil.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, ginger, baking powder and salt.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, canola oil, coconut milk, almond milk, lemon juice, grated lemon peel, and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients into wet. Spoon batter into muffin cups to ¾ full and bake 18-20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Transfer cupcakes to rack to cool completely, about an hour.
4. For the frosting: In a medium mixing bowl, using a hand mixer, beat together cream cheese, butter, lemon juice and salt. Beat in ½ cup confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon coconut milk until combined. Beat in second ½ cup of confectioners’ sugar and the second teaspoon of coconut milk until combined, followed by the last ½ cup of confectioners’ sugar. Taste it. Do you think it’s sweet enough? If you want to add more sugar, go ahead. You’ll probably need to add a bit more coconut milk as well. When all ingredients have been combined, add vanilla and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
5. Make sure cupcakes have cooled completely before attempting to frost. Trust me on this. When cupcakes have cooled completely, frost and serve. The butter in the frosting will melt, so refrigerate if you’re not serving these right away; same with the leftovers. They’ll keep in the fridge for about 3 days and are quite delicious cold. And for breakfast.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Not a Foodie


Webster’s Eleventh defines foodie as: a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.  I’m not a foodie. I’m way too picky and disinterested in most fads, whether you consume them or wear them.

When anyone calls me a foodie, I smile and accept what that person intends as a compliment.  I don’t refer the person to the dictionary or launch into a diatribe of how wrong he or she is. I don’t tell the usually well-intended person that foodies eat all kinds of stuff I would never even consider, and that there is a whole world of cuisine that I probably will not ever attempt to cook (sweetbreads, haggis, tripe, insert your favorite cooked animal organ here). Many foodies wear as a badge of honor the wait times they’ve withstood to get into the newest restaurants. If someone tells me I have to wait longer than 15 minutes to eat, I will bail.

Though I rail against the foodie convention, I think I may have inadvertently hopped on the bandwagon with my love for breakfast cakes. What makes a breakfast cake different from a regular cake? Frosting is really the only difference I can come up with.  (Full disclosure: I’ve eaten cake with frosting for breakfast.) Probably a little less sugar, too. When I know there’s cake, breakfast or otherwise, I wake up happier and more eager to start the day. I think most people wouldn’t be so quick to start arguments or even wars if they knew a breakfast cake was waiting for them in the kitchen.

Coconut–Dark Chocolate Breakfast Cake
Makes 9 servings

My justification for chocolate in a breakfast cake: Dark chocolate is less sweet so it’s okay. I like to chop chocolate for this rather than use chocolate chips because the shavings from the chocolate add a lot of flavor that you just don’t get with chocolate chips. But, if you want to use chocolate chips, have at it, brothers and sisters.

Canola oil spray
2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
¾ cup light coconut milk
⅓ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup shredded unsweetened coconut plus 1½ tablespoons
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or ½ cup bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Spray 8x8 baking pan with canola oil.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate large bowl, whisk together eggs, coconut milk, canola oil and vanilla extract. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet until combined. Stir in ⅓ cup coconut and chocolate.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle remaining 1½ tablespoons coconut over the batter and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.
4. Cool in pan and serve warm or at room temperature. Store, covered, in the pan for a couple of days.