Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Chocolate Before the Storm

Chocolate is one of those things, for me anyway, that beckons me on a daily- make that hourly basis. Dark, milk, studded with nuts, draped over fruit, and of course, out of a jar (Nutella, of course!), it is forever in the forefront of my thoughts. And since I bake way more than the average person and have goals of one day owning my own bakery, I cannot just rid my pantry, fridge and freezer (yes, I have chocolate in all three of those places) of this creamy confection.
My solution is to keep busy, which is not hard considering the aformentioned goal and having two little cupcakes to run after. So, tirelessly (and sometimes not), this is what I do. Day in, day out, I keep busy to keep myself away from chocolate. There is the rare occasion, however when life tends to slow down. Oddly, it's usually right before an incredibly busy and stressful period. I wonder if I do that subconsciously - give myself a sort of break - a calm before the storm. Case in point: this weekend starts the frenzied planning, baking, cooking, preparing, and decorating for a whole slew of parties. Two school-aged kids means two school Halloween parties, one of them a birthday celebration as well for my sweet son, who turns 4 next week. Taking on a shared role of class mom for my daughter's class means co-piloting their school party on Halloween Day. In between these two parties will be my son's actual birthday, which of course needs to be celebrated with some form of planned hooplah! The following day comes his 4th birthday party, kept small this year with a relatively limited guest list, for the sake of sanity. So four events within five days. Utter mayhem. That's next week. Stay tuned...
So, back to chocolate - a few months ago, I made a cake for a friend of mine who'd just given birth to an adorable little baby girl. This friend is a chef, trained in culinary school so I knew this cake would have to rock. No pressure, right? I decided to go for a simple combination, one that works most always - chocolate on chocolate. End result: she still talks about that very cake, which to me means I did it right.

It is a chocolate cake filled and frosted with a chocolate ganache buttercream - both my own recipes. The end result is a decadent (a word that my hubbie and I decided can only justly be used to define chocolate), lucious chocolate dream. I made a smallish version of it this week. It was two layers and 6" in diameter - the perfect size for my cupcakes and me. It was the second time, however, that my husband was not present to have a piece. Hopefully next time, Honey.

I find it to be the perfect pre-crazed week indulgence. Halloween and birthday parties next week? Bring it on!!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ooh la la, Eclairs!

I have a friend that shares my love of baking so much so that when we get together (which is not too often), we would rather don our aprons and create some fantastic dessert than go out on the town. That's actually not quite true... Wearing my apron is actually a practice I wish I followed. Usually, at the end of a day of baking I am covered head to toe in flour, eggs, and the like. Somehow my friend, a non-apron wearer as well, never manages to get messy.... Go figure. To make matters worse, I wear a lot of black....

This week we were lucky enough to get some time to bake, so we opted to make eclairs. Eclairs are a french pastry made of pate a choux (literally translated to "cabbage pastry" as the pastry resembles cabbage when baked) which is a dough that is cooked over the stove in a quite finicky manner. This dough is piped out and baked at two different temperatures, the first to achieve the puff and the latter to brown the pastry. Once cooled they are injected with a beautiful vanilla custard and then dipped in chocolate ganache. Profiteroles, or cream puffs, can be made with the same pastry, cream, and chocolate, the only difference being the shape. For these adorable little puffs, pipe out little blobs rather than logs of pate a choux. Contrary to what you are probably thinking, making eclairs is not difficult as one might imagine. As long as the steps are followed exactly, it's a fun experience! These eclairs are best fresh. But if you bake too many (and with eclairs, any more than 2 is too many), you may want to freeze them. After baking this batch, I froze a few and voila! Stick one in the microwave for a few seconds and I can have an eclair any time I want.... Not really the best thing, actually. If you plan on freezing them, make sure you do so completely assembled (filled with custard and dipped in chocolate).

I have another friend who absolutely dies for these beauties. I don't know if he just loves eclairs in general or specifically the ones I make, but he's been raving about them for years now. :) I have been using this recipe for all those years. Check it out, make yourself some, and save one for me.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sweet Potato Waffles

This week at the grocery store, I had it in my head to grab some sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are great, healthy vegetables year round, but in the fall they are especially fitting. Upon returning home and putting my groceries away, I realized I already had sweet potatoes waiting to be cooked.. oh well, good thing sweet potatoes are a versatile ingredient that can be used in baking too! Happy accident. The idea of a sweet potato cake was a little too similar to the cakes I've been producing the past few weeks and I wanted something different. Sweet potato waffles were the perfect solution! The kids will think they are eating a sweet and delectable dessert-y breakfast when in fact, they'll be ingesting lots of healthy goodness like vitamin A, dietary fiber (an average sized sweet potato contains about 3 g), and antioxidants such as beta-carotene. Sweet potatoes are also anti-inflammatories and surprisingly, help regulate blood sugar levels.

Have them hot and crispy with sliced bananas and powdered sugar or drizzled with maple syrup and pecans... They're delightful!

Sweet Potato Waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 eggs, large
3 T melted butter, cooled
2 T oil
1 t vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup milk
1 baked sweet potato
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 t pumpkin pie spice

Mash the baked sweet potato together with the light brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice and set aside. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, blend the buttermilk, milk, eggs, oil, vanilla, and cooled butter. Combine the wet ingredients with the sweet potato mixture and then add the dry ingredients. Heat up your waffle iron, make the waffles, and enjoy!

Homemade is better than Storebought...

Always.. isn't it? Homemade cake.. homemade cookies... homemade burgers... homemade pancakes... As long as you've got a good basic recipe and a little creativity, you can make customized, delicious, better-than-storebought food.
One very unusual day, I found myself running out of vanilla extract, an otherwise absolute staple in my pantry! Usually when I am half-way through a bottle, I make sure to grab another one on my next trip to the grocery store just to make sure I never run out... I don't know what happened this time. I guess everything happens for a reason because it led to this experiment which I am so excited about! I decided to finally try my hand at making vanilla extract at home!
Expensive as it can be, vanilla extract, aside from flour, butter, and sugar, is an indispensible  ingredient in baking. It's mellow, floral notes enhance the other flavors of your baked goods. It's kind of like what salt does when you add it to foods. It enhances the flavor of just about anything baked. The bonus - it's incredibly easy to make yourself.

All you need is some alcohol like vodka or light rum and some vanilla beans. There are all different kinds and grades of vanilla beans out there. Vanilla beans come from Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico to name a few. Each, with its own distinct taste can be used in various types of desserts. When buying vanilla beans, the grade is very important. Grade A is the purest quality and Grade C is the least. Grades are predominantly dependent upon the length of the bean. When using vanilla beans, try to get Grade A beans for optimal flavor.
I purchased an assortment of vanilla beans from The service was great and the beans arrived within a few days. They had so many different types of beans too, which was great for my experiment.
I used a 3:1 ratio of beans to cups of alcohol - three beans to one cup of alcohol. Make sure you slice the vanilla bean lengthwise before adding it to the alcohol to release the beans into the extract. I used an airtight container to seal the extract and I periodically shake the bottle to redistribute the vanilla beans. The extract changed color within a couple of days to a beautiful bourbon shade. Just remember the longer you keep it "brewing," the deeper, more complex flavor your extract will have. I plan to keep mine brewing for around two months. After this, strain the liquid and voila! You now have vanilla extract. Homemade, cheaper, and no doubt yummier than the store brands. In two months or so, I'll be blogging the results of this exciting experiment.. Stay tuned...!