Seriously vanishing oatmeal cookies

August 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

I tend to hoard a lot of things — I collect little notebooks and spend about a week writing in each one, I have enough dresses to never repeat one on a night out for a year, and I buy all sorts of new ingredients, only to make one dessert with each one and then feel lost as to what to do with the remainders. I buy fresh lavender, rose water, seven different types of dark chocolate (semisweet, orange-scented, 75%, 85%, unsweetened, you get the picture) and all kinds of different nuts and dried fruits without usually a very coherent idea of what to do with them. Thus, I often end up with random quantities of ingredients, so that there is always a handful or two leftover after I have made whatever I fancied making that day.

So this week it came time to start thinking about packing to go home to San Francisco. I encountered piles of clothes I didn’t remember I had, multiple newly-acquired cake and tart pans that I have no idea where to pack, and a very random assortment of dry ingredients in the pantry that I knew none of the boys who usually live in this house will ever use. I had half a bag of large, unsweetened coconut shavings that I used to decorate this cake. I had half a bag of mini chocolate chips, which I had originally bought to replicate the chocolate chip scones Cloister Inn serves at breakfast. This has never happened but somehow the chocolate chips started to disappear on their own anyway. I have a handful of walnuts and a cup or two of sliced almonds, none of which I remember buying. But here all these things are in the kitchen and I’m leaving for good in a week and not taking them with me.

Luckily, the Quaker oatmeal cookie recipe came to rescue of these ingredients and supplied my house with cookies for at least 24 hours. I love oats, any kind of oats. Oatmeal in the morning (and maybe for lunch too), oatmeal on the top of fruit crisps, oats in granola and granola bars (more on this soon) and of course, the obligatory oatmeal cookie. My grandma makes fantastic oatmeal cookies, but until I finally decide to buy margarine, mine never turn out quite like hers.

These cookies were chewy with a crisp outside, packed full of coconut, chocolate and nuts. Yummy.

Vanishing Oatmeal Cookies
From Quaker Oats

½ cup (1 stick) plus 6 tablespoons butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup raisins (or nuts, coconut, chocolate chips etc. I probably doubled or tripled the amount of add-ins).

Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed of electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; mix well. Add oats and coconut, nuts and chocolate chips; mix well.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered.

Another birthday: the classic remixed

June 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

A couple of days ago it was one of my housemate’s birthdays. You should know by now that the second I say “birthday”, you’re in for a really long story about everything that went wrong while making the cake that ends with, it actually turned out to be a beautiful and delicious cake. So if you would like to skip over all my ranting about this cake to the pictures, please feel free.

I’m absolutely positive that this is the best birthday cake ever — standard, vanilla yellow cake with chocolate frosting and colored sprinkles. Why? Because Deb at Smitten Kitchen said so. I’m also absolutely positive that you can do anything to this recipe, even get almost every single step wrong, and it will still come out utterly delicious. Why? Because that is exactly what I did.

It basically all came down to having none of the ingredients that the recipe required. I creamed the butter and the sugar only to find that my vanilla extract had magically disappeared from the kitchen. So this vanilla birthday cake quickly became cinnamon flavored. Then, I couldn’t find any baking powder even though I know, know, know, I had it somewhere. So in went extra baking soda and a cup of plain, non-fat yogurt. Then, as I was stirring in the 4 cups of flour, I started having even more doubts. The cake batter was thick, almost unstirrable. Frustrated I looked back at the recipe and realized I had left out all the buttermilk. And I had no buttermilk. So in went some non-fat milk and even more yogurt. After all this, the mixing bowl was overflowing and I had zero idea whether I would actually end up with a cake in the end.

I cooked the cakes in two batches and was mildly comforted when the first layer started to rise like a normal cake. I went out on a run and left my housemates in charge of taking them out of the oven when it was done. Surprisingly, both cake layers turned out beautifully domed and golden brown.

The icing issue was a whole lot simpler. I was planning on using chocolate buttercream frosting I used for my mother’s birthday cake but before I could start making it I happened upon the ingredient “3 sticks of butter” and I just couldn’t do it when it was written out like that in black and white. So I started with a smaller batch, with just a stick of butter and eyeballed the cocoa powder and icing sugar. Of course that made a miniscule amount of frosting so I ended up having to use about 3 sticks of butter anyway in order to frost the entire cake.

And now for the very predictable end of the story: the cake was great. The cinnamon flavor played well off the rich chocolate frosting and the cake layers were still slightly warm when served, which made it wonderfully homey. There is something very comforting about a standard yellow cake with sprinkles; it’s like celebrating your 5th birthday all over again. Except it was his 21st.

Best Yellow Layer Cake
Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. (I like to drop mine a few times from two inches up, making a great big noisy fuss.) Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Happy Birthday Mom!

June 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. I made a massive cake. I also made a mess of the entire kitchen. I used about three 18-ounce bars of dark chocolate. By the end of the day there was chocolate everywhere, in the cake, in the filling, in the frosting, and then, on the counter, the dining room table, the floor and even the bottom of the cake tray. How did all this happen, you may ask. Well, my mom’s birthday always seems to bring out the disaster in me. Last year it was how to rescue a bland cake. This year, it was one crisis after another. First, the chocolate cake batter was extremely runny, leading me to fear I had left out one of the cups of flour. I added a bit more cocoa and flour and anxiously stuck a test cake in the oven. Fortunately, it came out looking mostly like a cake so I went ahead and cooked the other two layers. They all came out looking very moist and fudgy so I committed to the possibility of having a brownie cake.

Then, the next day, I made the ganache which, surprise, also came out a little runny. When I tried to use it as filling between the layers, it just dripped all over the sides of the cake, the cake platter and the table. Forging ahead, I stuck the cake layers one on top of the other and stuck three large sticks down the center of the cake to ensure that it stayed upright.

A couple hours later, I started on the frosting. I used Joy the Baker’s recipe for chocolate buttercream frosting. It calls for Ovaltine. I had no idea what Ovaltine was. After a quick Google search, I still have no idea what Ovaltine is but I now know I have zero desire to ever use it. So I skipped both the Ovaltine and the heavy cream. Just the entire last step of the recipe. I made the frosting twice. The first time we were out of cocoa, so I used my brother’s cocoa for hot chocolates which is actually a mixture of cocoa and sugar. I should have known from my last time baking with it that that was a bad plan. The sugar in the cocoa mix never dissolved into the frosting, despite a violent turn in the blender and an extended hiatus in the microwave, and remained grainy until I finally decided to dispose of it.

I then walked to the grocery store, which I should have just done in the first place, to buy cocoa and now, butter, because I had just used about a pound of butter for the failed frosting. The second time around, the buttercream worked perfectly, despite my skipping the final step. Finally, the cake was frosted.

Now don’t think the disasters are over. I had the (not-so-brilliant) idea to use an almond paste icing to do the green lettering on the cake. I more or less winged it for the icing, using some almond paste and butter and polishing off the ¼ cup of icing sugar that was left. The resulting icing was so thick it was hard to pipe, which is why the lettering is a little choppy looking.

Nonetheless, an entire day and a couple frustrated people later, we finally had a birthday cake. The chocolate cake comes from Smitten Kitchen, which you can find here. This is a heart-stopper of a chocolate cake. Only my dad managed to finish a slice of it.

Double Chocolate Layer Cake

Adapted from Gourmet, March 1999

3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Special equipment: two 10- by 2-inch round cake pans

Make cake layers: Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.

Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.

Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Joy the Baker

1 1/2 cup (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup milk (or to desired consistency)

Cream together butter, cocoa powder and salt. Butter mixture will be very thick. Turn off the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl and add powdered sugar. Turn mixer on low and mix in powdered sugar while adding milk and vanilla extract. As the sugar incorporates, raise the speed of the mixer to beat the frosting. Beat until smooth. Add milk or sugar until the frosting reaches the desired consistency.

My new favorite chocolate chip cookie

May 24, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’ve always shied away from making chocolate chip cookies. I don’t really know why as they are such a standard in America. But it could be because they are such a landmark cookie, so simply yet so difficult to get absolutely perfect. It starts with people having different ideas of what a perfect chocolate chip cookie is, some like them thick and dense, or chewy with crisp edges and a few even prefer a cakey cookie. Some like dark chocolate and some like milk chocolate. Nuts or no nuts. Chips or chunks. The variations on this standard cookie go on and on, and I’ve never found a recipe I thought was absolutely perfect.

Actually that’s not true. There is one recipe, the Stars Desserts chocolate chip cookie, that I think is absolutely perfect; it produces a light buttery cookie with a slight, soft chew in the middle and caramel note — from a full tablespoon vanilla — to accompany the chocolate chips. When my mom makes them that is. I’ve tried making them a couple times and have never achieved perfection, but my mom never failed to pull beautiful cookies out of the oven right as I was rushing out the door to high school. That is one of the many things I miss about living at home, I mean who wouldn’t kill for freshly baked cookies on your way to your 11 a.m. class?

But I’m not really here to complain about my lack of chocolate chip cookie making skills. In fact, I think I’ve finally found my match. And it comes in the form of whole wheat flour and semi sweet chocolate chunks, all courtesy of Kim of Good to the Grain. These cookies seriously look exactly like the cookies photographed in the book, with lots of melted chocolate and a crackly top. Make them big, like coffee shop sized. I swear they’re better that way.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Kim Boyce, Good to the Grain

Dry mix:
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

Wet mix:
8 ounces (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, sifting and then pouring any bits back into the bowl. Cream the butter and sugars in a bowl until just blended. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is combined. Add the vanilla. Add the flour mixture and blend until the flour is barely combined. Add the chocolate to the batter all at once. Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, leaving about 3 inches between them. Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are evenly dark brown (I took some out when they were golden). Transfer the cookies, still on the parchment, to the counter to cool.

And eat, because whole wheat flour is good for you right?

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