Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fudge Factor

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about fudge.  On one hand, I grew up with lots and lots of fudge.  I appreciate it's classic simplicity.  On another hand, it's absurdly sweet and sort of like half-hearted chocolate.  Yet, when done well (read: done with lots of marshmallow), it's creamy and smooth and practically screams "holidays!"

I reconcile all of these conflicting feelings by making it only once a year and eating it like I'll never see it again.  It seems to work.  I also cling mightily to the "fantasy fudge" recipe of my youth.  You know the one; it calls for a whole jar of marshmallow creme.  Oh, yeah.

Here's the classic recipe from Kraft Foods.
3 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 small can (5 oz.) evaporated milk
1-1/2 pkg. (12 squares) BAKER'S Semi-Sweet Chocolate, chopped
1 jar (7 oz.) JET-PUFFED Marshmallow Creme
1 cup  chopped PLANTERS Walnuts
1 tsp. vanilla
LINE 9-inch square pan with foil, with ends of foil extending over sides of pan; set aside. Place sugar, butter and evaporated milk in large heavy saucepan. Bring to full rolling boil on medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil 4 min. or until candy thermometer reaches 234°F, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.

ADD chocolate and marshmallow creme; stir until completely melted. Add walnuts and vanilla; mix well.
POUR immediately into prepared pan; spread to form even layer in pan. Let stand at room temperature 4 hours or until completely cooled; cut into 1-inch squares. Store in tightly covered container at room temperature.

Literate Baker notes: I used a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips.  I also used toasted pecans in place of the walnuts.

I've always used this recipe, growing up in the South where Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme reigns supreme.  Now that I live in New York, I've had no choice but to begin buying Marshmallow Fluff.  Honestly, I can't tell the difference.  That said, it wasn't until I came north that I learned of the existence of the Fluffer-nutter sandwich.  I've still never had one of those.  I think I'll go rectify that right now.

Keep it sweet.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Truth About Truffles

There's a dirty little secret about truffles.  A secret Lindt and Godiva don't want you to know.  Truffles, for all their rich decadence, are ridiculously easy to make.  There.  I said it.  I hope the chocolate mafia isn't reading.  (I do, however, hope there is a chocolate mafia somewhere out there.)

Anyway.  Truffles.  Chocolate, cream, flavored love.  That's it.  More specifically...

1 pound chocolate, chopped (bittersweet, semi-sweet, or milk)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons flavored love, including a splash of vanilla extract and any of the following: coffee, flavored syrups for coffee, booze (I am especially fond of amaretto or coffee liqueur)

Bring the cream to just below a boil over medium heat.  Remove from heat and add chocolate.  Stir until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth.  Add liquid love and stir to combine. 

Refrigerate until firm, at least two hours.  Using teaspoons or a very small ice cream scoop, drop onto waxed or parchment paper.  Roll each truffle into a rough ball and return to refrigerator.

Although perfectly tasty as is, truffles in this state can be rather messy to eat.  This can be rectified in a number of ways.  The easiest is to roll each ball in cocoa powder or confectioner's sugar.  While not especially glamorous, this method will give you the closest approximation to the truffle's fungal namesake.  Other low-maintenance options include rolling in finely chopped nuts, flaked coconut, or cookie/graham cracker crumbs. 

If you're looking for an extended shelf life or are feeling fancy, you can dip your truffles in melted chocolate.  Chop up eight ounces of the chocolate of your choice.  Melt about two-thirds of it in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water.  Remove from heat, add remaining chocolate and stir until melted and smooth.  Dip truffles one at a time, using a teaspoon and a small fork.  Place on waxed or parchment paper to set.

So, there you have it.  Truffles are not rocket science.  Heck, they're not even perfectly-flaky-pie-crust science.  They are a thoughtful-gift-or-party-item-sure-to-leave-some-unsightly-rejects-that-you-get-to-keep-for-yourself way to...

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A New Orleans State of Mind

If the post about beignets didn't do it, then this surely will.  I write today of the sweet and nutty confection sold in every New Orleans gift shop and the majority of truck stop convenience stores.  I speak of the praline.  And, in case you were wondering, you really should say prah-leen, not pray-leen.  Really.  You don't want to scream "tourist," do you?

Pralines have been around in Louisiana for over two hundred years.  They were born of French and Belgian candy-making techniques and the prevalence of pecans in New Orleans and the surrounding area.  (You can read a more thorough history of the praline here.)

As far as candy making goes, pralines are pretty simple, both in technique and ingredients.  My recipe of choice hails from the River Road cookbook, a publication of the Baton Rouge Junior League back in the day (1950s, perhaps?) that has gained massive popularity through the years.  I think my copy, a gift from a neighbor when I was in high school, was one of the first printings. 

One of my favorite parts of this particular book is that I know which recipes were my friend's favorites based on the pages that show the most battle scars.

Since you aren't blessed with such a treasure, I'll share the recipe with you...

2 cups brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
1 cup cream
3 cups pecans

Combine sugars, water, and cream in a heavy saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer reads 238 degrees. 

Remove from heat, add pecans.   

Stir vigorously until mixture begins to thicken and lighten in color.  Drop by teaspoon or tablespooonfuls onto waxed or parchment paper and allow to set.

Literate Baker notes:  I toast the pecans for about 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven ahead of time.  I add 1-2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and a good pinch of salt when I add the pecans.

These babies make a great gift, a wonderful addition to a cookie tray, and will easily keep in a sealed container for a couple of months.  The sweetness is truly balanced by the massive amount of pecans in them and the heavy cream gives them a wonderful texture.

I'd recommend a French Quarter vacation to just about anyone.  If you can't make that happen, bring a little of the French Quarter to you.  Pralines are a whole lot easier than crawfish etoufee and will most definitely...

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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Holiday Baker

I spent the weekend baking.  I also wrote holiday cards, blared Christmas music, and drank a fair amount of wine.  And I didn't have to shovel any snow.  It was fabulous.

This year, I took a practical-slash-strategic approach to my holiday baking.  I went for all things that would stay fresh for at least a couple of weeks.  This allows me to distribute things over a few days without fretting over stale cookies or crusty cupcakes.  I also went for all things bite-sized, so that one can easily enjoy one of everything without feeling like a hippopotamus. 

(Random aside:  Why do the radio stations what have played nothing but Christmas music since November 1 never ever play "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas?")

So, you ask, what's the lineup?  Well, in the cookie department, I went for Italian tri-colored bars and shortbread.  I also made truffles, chocolate fudge, and pralines.  The final palette is a little nut heavy, but I'm okay with that. 

I'll spend the rest of the week posting pics and recipes for each item.  In the meantime, I'll pay homage to the ultimate holiday baking tradition: the cutout cookie.  My friend Lindsay (author of the addictive Tales and Sales of a Shopaholic) made up a batch this weekend with her daughter, Lily. 

Although Lindsay likes to think of Lily as a shopaholic in the making, I think she's showing real promise as a baker.  Looks like she'll be a girl of many talents and excellent taste.

Hope you're all having a jolly good time with whatever celebrations and traditions you have this time of year.  Deck the halls and...

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ask the Literate Baker: Playing with Cookie Cutters

I've had three cake orders in the last few days, so I haven't had much time for baking for fun.  As a result, I don't have any fun culinary adventures to share with all of you.  Boo-hoo. So I shuffled into my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth's office and whined, "I don't have anything to write about.  Ask me a question."  Being a good friend and sometimes baker, she very nicely obliged...

At a recent party, she got a set of ABC cookie cutters.  If you aren't familiar with the Already Been Chewed cookie cutters, you should definitely check them carries them--they're sure to give you  a chuckle.  She wants to try them out, but she isn't a big fan of gingerbread.  What to do?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a good cut-out sugar cookie.  Anytime I do cut-outs, I use the No Fail Sugar Cookie recipe from Cake Central

6 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
2 cups unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract or desired flavoring
1 tsp. salt


  1. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. 
  2. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well. 
  3. Mix dry ingredients and add a little at a time to butter mixture. Mix until flour is completely incorporated and the dough comes together.
  4. Chill for 1 to 2 hours.
  5. Roll to desired thickness and cut into desired shapes. Bake on ungreased baking sheet at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes or until just beginning to turn brown around the edges. 
  6. This recipe can make up to 5-dozen 3” cookies.
Literate Baker notes:  I use a full tablespoon of vanilla and a teaspoon of almond extract.  Also, the baking time depends greatly on the size and shape of the cutter used.  Mine take up to 14 minutes to bake.
Although the traditional decorating medium is royal icing, you can just as easily use buttercream or even frosting from a can.  Sprinkles, chocolate chips, and  colored sugars work even if you have no decorating experience. The key is to have fun!  I have to confess, I'm one of those no-such-thing-as-too-much types.  I like my sugar cookies slathered with frosting and piled high and crunchy with this, that, and the other;  so much flotsam and jetsam you have to hold it from underneath or it will break under its own weight.  Ahem.  Anyway.

Of course, if you're feeling especially indulgent, there's no reason not to go for shortbread.  You all know how I feel about shortbread.  It rolls out just as nicely and keeps its shape when baked. 

If you go this route, I'd suggest no more decoration that some melted chocolate.  Place 1/4 to 1/2 cup chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl.  Heat for 20 seconds, stir; repeat this process until the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Spoon into a zip-top bag and seal.  Snip off one corner, then gently squeeze the chocolate out to make faces, clothing details, or squiggles.  Super easy and very sophisticated.

Put the baggie in a glass for easy filling.
I hope this has put you in the mood for some cookie love.  Feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, and adventures in cut-outs.  The messier, the better!

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cafe du Monde's Got Nothing on Me

Well, except being in the middle of the French Quarter of New Orleans.  Oh, and the fact that you can get powdered sugar all over the floor without getting in trouble.  But still.  I make really good beignets.

For anyone not in the know, beingets (pronounced bin-yays), a.k.a. French Market Doughnuts, are the signature item at Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that has been open since 1862.  Beignets have also been a signature item in my family, so much so that this hand-written 3x5 card is one of my most cherished possessions:

French Market Doughnuts
Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1/4 cup shortening.  Add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 cup powdered milk.  When lukewarm, add 1 pack yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup lukewarm water.  Add 2 beaten eggs and 2 cups all purpose flour and beat well.  Then add 2 1/2-3 cups more flour.  Knead a few times and put in a greased bowl.  Grease top and put in refrigerator for at least one hour.

Literate Baker notes:  I've started substituting butter for the shortening.  I remained a purist for a very long time, but butter makes everything better.  Beignets are no exception.

To make the beignets, roll the dough on a floured surface to approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Cut into 2-ish inch squares.  Slightly irregular shapes are okay.

Place about an inch of vegetable oil in a pot over medium-high heat.  I've never used a thermometer, but I'm guessing it's between 350 and 375 degrees.  To test the oil, drop in a very small bit of dough.  It should bubble immediately and float within five seconds.  Carefully drop the beignets into the hot oil.  Flip after 1-2 minutes; they'll be puffed in the middle and golden brown.

Remove the beignets and drop immediately into a paper bag containing 1-2 cups of powdered sugar.  Close the bag and shake vigorously.  This is a lot of fun and offers superior coverage to the (albeit generous) sprinkling of sugar espoused by Cafe du Monde and most beignet shops.

 For the record, they don't reheat very well, so you should plan to eat them all.  If you're feeling an odd sense of restraint (or only have a couple of guests), the recipe can be halved and/or the dough will keep in the fridge for a few days.  Of course, they're mostly air, so eating ten should never be frowned upon.

  When I was younger, the lore was that my great-great aunt invented this recipe during the Great Depression (or was it World War II?), when it was nearly impossible to get whole milk.  I've decided there's more to it than that, though.  The ratio of ingredients is more like a hybrid of heavy cream and evaporated milk; the resulting dough is very enriched, something you notice in both the taste and texture of the final product.  These things will literally melt in your mouth.  With a hot cafe au lait?  Heaven.

I feel suddenly homesick.  Perhaps I just miss my Mamaw.  Funny how a food can do that to you.  I think I enjoy the memories as much as the beignets--a double dose of...

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful!

I live in upstate New York.  We get a lot of snow.  We get so much snow that there is an entire vocabulary dedicated to snow--phrases like "lake effect" and "persistent bands" and "graupel."  We get so much snow that the cities of upstate New York have an annual competition called The Golden Snowball, which is awarded to the city with the most snowfall that season.  (Yes, Syracuse has won the last eight years in a row.)

Syracuse is currently in the throes of its first big snow storm.  I think we're pushing twenty inches at this point, with more expected before the week is through.  This moves us into first place, I believe, and is a healthy start toward our season average of ten feet.

It is not enough to close the city; it's really just enough to slow it down a bit.  It took me an hour to get home from work last night, for example.  Of course, my commute did include an unsuccessful errand in search of a new traction drive cable for our snow thrower.  By the time I made it through the door, I'd had just about enough.  Unfortunately, it turns out you really need the traction drive cable and there was much shoveling to be done.

My solution?  Really good, really indulgent, really easy baked goods.  Here's how:

1) Make a batch of box-mix brownie batter.  Spread in pan.
2) Add huge blobs of peanut butter directly from the jar.  Swirl slightly.

3) Bake according to package directions, minus about 10 minutes.

Yes, that's a frozen pizza next to my brownies.
4) Eat as much of the pan as you can without getting sick.

Note the snow drift in the window.

Between the pizza and the brownies, I felt strong enough to pile on the layers and pick up the shovel.  Thanks to a valiant effort by my husband earlier in the day, I was able to clear the driveway and sidewalk in about an hour and a half.  Of course, by the time I finished, a couple more inches had fallen where I'd began.  Oh, well.  Another day, another few inches, another pan of brownies.  Stay warm, dear readers, and...

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Pumpkin Gets Swirled

Thus far on The Literate Baker, pumpkin has gone puff, been rolled, and been Bundted (yes, that's a word; I say so).  For a mere four months in bloggy existence, that's a lot of pumpkin.  One more, and then I promise to give it a rest.  Really.

In addition to Ritz cracker pie, my Thanksgiving spread featured my first attempt at pumpkin cheesecake.  It seemed like a match made in heaven.  Of course, I consider most anything combined with cream cheese to be a match made in heaven, but still.  Silky pumpkin laden with spices, dense rich cheesecake--yum.

So, I scoured the internet, my cookbooks, magazines.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of variations.  Ultimately, I settled on a swirled application.  I figured it would offer both the marriage I was looking for and the spirit of the individuals involved.  For the crust, I went gingersnap, using the recipe right on the back of the box.  For the filling, I used the Spiced Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake from the Cooking Club of America:

3 (8-oz.) pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar, divided
3/4 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1. Heat oven to 325°F. Wrap outside of 9-inch springform pan with heavy-duty foil.
2. Beat cream cheese and 3/4 cup of the brown sugar in large bowl at medium speed just until blended. Beat in sour cream and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating at low speed just until combined.
3. Whisk pumpkin, remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg in medium bowl. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups of the cheesecake mixture.
4. Spoon half of the remaining plain cheesecake mixture into crust. Top with half of the pumpkin filling. Repeat (do not spread evenly for best swirls). With knife or metal spatula, gently swirl through batter to achieve a marbled effect. Place springform pan in large shallow roasting or broiler pan; add enough hot tap water to come halfway up sides of springform pan.
5. Bake 60 to 70 minutes or until edges are puffed and top is dry to the touch. Center should move slightly when pan is tapped but should not ripple as if liquid.
6. Remove springform pan from roasting pan; remove foil. Cool on wire rack to room temperature. Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. Store in refrigerator.

The water bath.
The flavors of this cheesecake were great.  The texture, for me, was almost too creamy.  I suppose I may have under-baked it.  It may also be the presence of the sour cream.  I prefer that almost counter-intuitive dense/fluffy thing that is the hallmark of a good cheesecake.  I'll try a couple more before settling on my standard.  Of course, I think I ate at least six of the sixteen slices, so, clearly, it was good enough to...

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Great 50th Post Giveaway!

Update: The winner is Shooting Stars Mag!  Thank you all for becoming followers of The Literate Baker!  We'll be doing another giveaway in January, so stay tuned.

I interrupt the regularly-scheduled Thanksgiving-dessert redux with this special announcement:  this is my 50th post!  I'm having so much fun indulging both my sweet tooth and my propensity for loquaciousness.  It's even better knowing that it brings joy and carb comas to others.

To celebrate, I think a giveaway is in order.  Since the holiday season is upon us, party paraphernalia seems appropriate.  I've got just the thing...

This cute little guy is from Home & Garden Party.  He's about 12 inches high and 9 inches wide, sure to brighten any table.

And what's a party platter without something on it?  Not a party, that's for sure.  The winner will also receive a dozen Much Ado About Cake cake shots or truffles

How do you win this holiday cheer?  Easy-peasy.  Become a fan of The Literate Baker on Facebook or become a follower on Google.  If you already are one of those things, just post a comment that says, "Hey, me too!" below.  Do this by Friday, December 10, 2010 at 11 p.m. EST.  One winner will be chosen at random.  US entrants only. Winners will be notified by December 13th.

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