When Life Gives You a Hurricane

Make cookies, I say! Yes, of course, first make all the necessary arrangements, take all the necessary precautions, heed the advice of public safety officials. But after that, while you’re sitting around, tapping your fingers, waiting for Mother Nature to descend, get out your cookie ingredients, people. That’s what I did anyway.

I find that there’s something comforting about having a warm oven, a little jazz music playing and getting my fingers all doughy and sticky and flour-y when inclement weather is imminent. Mother Nature is saying, “slow down, do something soul satisfying.” At least that’s what I heard.

Looking for inspiration, I turned to smitten kitchen, which was a brilliant idea, really, as this site has loads of interesting and unique cookie recipes. I was looking for three or four recipes because I was in a baking mood, but I also wanted to make enough cookies to give to neighbors to munch on while they weather the storm. About 6 hours, 13 and 1/2 dozen (164, to be exact) cookies and five deliveries later, mission accomplished. Oh, I think the plumber who came by this morning to fix the sump pump was happy, too, when I handed him a baggie full of about a dozen as he was leaving.

My favorite of the four I made is this peanut butter cookie. The recipe calls for chocolate chips and peanut butter chips. However, peanut butter chips have always worried me a bit. I’m not sure what they are, really. Really, what are they? But, I adore the combination of peanut butter with milk chocolate, and I happened to have a Trader Joe’s Pound Plus Milk Chocolate bar hanging around, so, instead, I chunked up some of that into the mix. Think Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in a cookie. If only we could still hand out homemade baked goods at Halloween.

Second place ended in a tie between the oatmeal, dark chocolate chunk and pecan cookies (the dark chocolate chunk was my variation. Again TJ’s Pound Plus bar – keep those on hand, my friend) and the toasted coconut shortbread cookies. Very different, yet very delicious. I’ll be honest. I was a bit dubious about the addition of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but somehow the spices all combined delightfully with the dark chocolate, oatmeal and pecans. The spices actually had the effect of giving the dark chocolate a Mexican chocolate-like taste and, of course, those spices always go well with oatmeal and pecans. So, why was I was so skeptical? Maybe I was having some pre-hurricane jitters.

I find that coconut is one of those things about which people feel passionately – they either love it or hate it. I’m suspect, though, of anyone who dislikes coconut. If the person has an allergy, fine. Otherwise, that person is not to be trusted. So, when I came across this recipe, there was no question I would be making it. How often do you see coconut and shortbread together? Never, that’s how often. I rushed the chilling process a bit (put it in the freezer instead of the refrigerator) because I was in a hurry to make my deliveries before the rain started. Trying to speed up the chilling process violates Rule Number One in Shortbread 101. I managed to get the dough rolled out, though. After resting for a day in an air tight container, these cookies were a contender.

Last, but not least, I went a bit wild and crazy with the traditional chocolate chip cookie. Ready for this? Milk chocolate chunk and dark chocolate chunk! Oh yea, I’m kooky. Hey, life’s short. If you like chocolate, this is the cookie for you, my friend.

Truth be told, an epic weather event unlike anything seen in ten years shouldn’t be the reason to slow down and make a few batches of cookies. Life is short, and cookies rock, that’s reason enough.

The Luck of the Irish

March 25, 2012

Wanting to get back in the kitchen to do some baking after a notable absence, I stumbled across this recipe shortly before St. Patrick’s Day: chocolate stout cupcakes with Irish whiskey filling. Huzzah! In other words, an Irish car bomb in cupcake form. For the uninitiated, an Irish car bomb drink is a nearly lethal concoction composed of stout beer, typically Guinness, Irish whiskey and Bailey’s Irish cream. The beer is poured in a glass and then a shot glass full of Bailey’s Irish cream topped with Irish whiskey is then dropped into the beer, after which, one proceeds to drink the entire drink at once. Come to find out, the irony of this drink, according to the always-accurate Wikipedia, is that it is virtually unheard of in Ireland and, if ordered, can be met with confusion or anger (car bombs are a sensitive subject there).

So, why then, would I decide to make cupcakes based on a drink typically unknown in Ireland to celebrate one of that country’s most hallowed holidays? Because the individual ingredients of an Irish car bomb are delightful in drink form and could only be elevated to near perfection as a cupcake, that’s why. And, the party I was attending was going to be mostly full of a bit older people, so I was rationalizing that many wouldn’t have ever heard of an Irish car bomb drink to begin with and wouldn’t know its insignificance in Irish culture, anyway. All they would know is they were eating an awesome homemade cupcake that sounded like it was right out of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration playbook, courtesy of their swell pal Rachel. That was my thinking anyway.

I found the recipe on the Serious Eats website. (Unpaid endorsement: If you enjoy Sugar Talk, baking, cooking and or reading in general, get yourself over to that website and subscribe to its weekly e-newsletter.) I followed the recipe more or less as written with the following exception: I used Murphy’s Stout instead of Guinness. Other notes of interest:

  • The recipe indicates it will make 24 cupcakes, however, I filled the cupcake liners to nearly full and had enough batter only for 20 cupcakes. I made a second, half batch and reduced the fill level to about two-thirds and still only had 10 cupcakes. So, I think you would be hard pressed to get 24 cupcakes out of this recipe.
  • The cooking time was exactly 20 minutes.
  • Fair disclosure (to my readers, not the eaters): I used Scotch whiskey, not Irish whiskey. I think someone would need to have an incredibly sophisticated palate to know the difference. Let’s just put it this way, I didn’t get any complaints.
  • The recipe indicates that you can/should double the frosting recipe if you prefer a lot of frosting on each cupcake. I doubled the frosting recipe and made a batch and a half (30 cupcakes total) and still had leftover frosting. You would need to put an almost unappealing amount of frosting on each cupcake if you were to double the recipe and use it just for 20-24 cupcakes. Don’t double the frosting recipe.

Care to take a look at how it went? Here you go:

The cupcake batter is ready to roll, er, pour. Murphy’s – you’re welcome for the free product placement.

Ready for the oven. You can see how full I filled the first batch. In retrospect, maybe you could eke out 24 cupcakes if you are more judicious with the batter pouring.

And out of the oven. Notice that even though I filled the liners almost to the top, the cupcakes didn’t spill over the top or get grossly domed.

Getting the cupcakes ready for the filling. Notice the perfectly cut out center area? Not the work of my steady hand, but yet another kitchen gadget for the gadget drawer: the cupcake corer, made specifically for the purpose of disemboweling cupcakes. I got mine at Williams-Sonoma for only five bucks so, really, I couldn’t resist.

The chocolate filling. Wait, I mean, the chocolate, Irish whiskey and Bailey’s Irish cream filling. Oh, yeah, the recipe title leaves out that crucial little tidbit.

And in goes the filling. The anticipation is palpable at this point!

There you have it: chocolate stout cupcakes with Irish whiskey filling and Bailey’s Irish cream frosting.



Weeks 17 and 18.

Hello. I am back and a bit red in the face (old timer talk for being embarrassed). I know it’s been a little while since I last posted, but has it really been since November 29? I guess the holiday break and post-holiday funk lasted longer than anticipated. Your waiting hasn’t been for naught, though. Chocolate!

The class covered chocolate over the course of two weeks. Come to find out, there is much to learn and know about chocolate. Two weeks barely peeled back the layers of the cacao bean (spelling correct, by the way, more on that), but provided a great overview of what is involved in working with chocolate and making chocolate truffles and other candies.

First and foremost, what is chocolate? I am glad you asked. Before I get into that, however, I want to address the nomenclature of chocolate. Today, the terms cacao [ka kow] and cocoa are used interchangeably. This was not always the case. Evidently, over the years when cacao was first introduced to the English-speaking world, it somehow morphed into and became known as cocoa. To be accurate, though, anything relating to the cacao tree should be called as such. So, the next time you are having a conversation about the origin of chocolate or about chocolate processing and someone tries to correct you when you mention the cacao tree, just point them in this direction.

Chocolate, as it turns out, is a rather complicated thing. In a nutshell, chocolate is the final result of processing a cacao bean. The cacao tree produces a cacao pod, and within each pod are approximately 30 to 50 seeds, known as cacao beans, or more commonly (and some argue, incorrectly), cocoa beans. Inside the cacao bean is the cacao nib. The nib is ground down into chocolate liquor (although there is no alcohol in it) that contains cocoa mass (solids) and cocoa butter. A further extraction process removes the cocoa solids, which when dried, become cocoa powder. Chocolate is made by combining the remaining cocoa butter with more chocolate liquor and sugar. The type of chocolate – bittersweet, dark, semi-sweet and so on – depends on the amount of sugar added to the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter – or in the case of milk chocolate, the addition of milk as well. Now, I’ve skipped several steps in the process for the sake of brevity, but I think you get the point: it’s complicated. And knowing now how complicated it is, I think you can feel justified in spending $45.00 on that 15 piece box of Godiva chocolate. Right?

If you’ve ever baked with chocolate or enjoyed eating a high quality chocolate bar found in nice grocery stores, you know the chocolate is always labelled as ” 75% cocoa” or “65% cocoa” or whatever. This percentage actually refers to the total amount of cacao bean, solids and cocoa butter, and is inversely proportional to the amount of sugar in the chocolate. 75% cocoa has 25% sugar and so on. And the less sugar, the less sweet (or more bitter, really) the chocolate is.

But we in the pastry world do not care about what percentage of cocoa solids is in the chocolate. We in the pastry world care about what percentage of cocoa butter is in the chocolate. This is because pastry chefs use a type of chocolate known as couverture chocolate which contains a large percentage of cocoa butter, resulting in a richer, higher quality chocolate. In fact, to be considered couverture chocolate, it must contain between a minimum 29 percent and 39 percent cocoa butter (the minimums vary according to my always accurate Google research). Chef said 29 percent, one Wikipedia entry showed a chart indicating the European Union requires at least 31 percent and a second Wikipedia entry indicated it should contain between 32 percent and 39 percent. Whatever the minimum amount of cocoa butter, it’s significantly more than what you’ll find in a Hershey bar and I’m guessing you can taste the difference.

The complicated life of chocolate continues when one uses couverture chocolate (or any chocolate, really), specifically when melting chocolate and using melted chocolate. I don’t want to bore you, so I won’t go into too much detail, (read: Actually, I am confused about this and so I am going to whip through it and hope you don’t notice), but much of working with chocolate comes down to this: tempering. A quick chemistry lesson: the cocoa butter in chocolate is crystalline in nature, meaning it can crystallize into one of six crystal structures, or forms, but only one of those structures produces the desired chocolate product – smooth, shiny and with a firm snap. Tempering is the heating and cooling process that results in the formation of the beta crystal (Form V), which creates the most desirable chocolate. The chocolate we purchase has already gone through the tempering process. If you want to use chocolate in a melted form, you can’t simply melt it as this is breaking the already perfect Form V crystal structure. As a result, if you melt it, you must again temper the chocolate to create the Form V (beta crystal) structure needed to properly use it and create an end product with the desired properties.

So, tempered we did. And it’s complicated. We used semi-sweet chocolate in class (each chocolate type has its own tempering profile, i.e. the specific heat and cool temperatures). The tempering process begins by slowly melting the chopped chocolate in a bowl placed over a warm steam bath. You should always chop the chocolate first, or buy already small-sized chocolate coins and save yourself a step, so the chocolate doesn’t have to work so hard. (Chocolate is sort of lazy and persnickety, if you want my honest opinion.). For semi-sweet chocolate, it needs to melt and then heat to 122 degrees and stay at this temperature for a little while; this is called “residence time.” Once it’s reached 122 degrees, it needs to be cooled down to around 82 – 84 degrees, which involves taking it on and off an ice bath while stirring the bejesus out of it and constantly taking its temperature. Once the melted chocolate is at that temperature, it needs to be brought back up, over a warm steam bath, to around 86-89 degrees for the liquid use level (dipping, filling molds, etc.). As it is warming back up, you should regularly test it by dipping strips of parchment paper into the chocolate to see whether it is acquiring the desired properties of tempered chocolate: sets, hardens and dries some and starts to glaze over.

So, as you can imagine, this requires a great deal of patience and focus: constantly measuring the temperature, stirring, putting it on and taking it off the heat, stirring, measuring the temperature, stirring, putting it on and taking it off the ice bath, testing it on the test strips to see if it is hardening, glazing over some and starting to dry. It’s quite daunting the first few times – too much heat, too long on the ice bath, cooled down too much, need to start over, thinking it’s tempered only to find out the truffle coating isn’t hardening, over-tempered and you end up with chocolate concrete. I hope these pictures help you visualize the involved, frustrating, scary, but hopefully successful and rewarding, process of tempering:          


We tempered chocolate during both week’s classes with varied success. Week 17 I was flying solo as Ally was out of town, so I was next to Renee. You do not want to be next to Renee when you temper chocolate. Here is what happens when you are next to Renee, tempering chocolate:

Renee messed around with one of my nicely setting chocolate balloons (which once dried the balloon is removed and the chocolate cup can be filled, say with ice cream or mousse), at which point the balloon exploded (notice the chocolate mess in the picture on the left) and spewed chocolate all over me. Now, Renee knows she’s my pal and I’m just teasing her when I say don’t temper chocolate next to Renee. (Whispering: But, seriously, don’t temper chocolate near Renee.)

We also learned about making truffles, dipping truffles to coat them and filling chocolate shells. Chocolate truffles are similar in texture to a firm ganache and are made, basically, by mixing together chocolate and heavy cream. There are also truffles known as shell truffles which are harder and are filled with something. In general, truffles and other chocolate candies have a shelf life of about 21 days and prefer to be stored in low humidity conditions at around 65 degrees. A refrigerator is not a good place for storing that box of Godiva chocolates, but a wine cellar (or a garage maybe, if you want to sneak in a candy when you put out the trash) is a good place according to Chef.

While not complicated, dipping truffles or filling them is certainly not easy when first learning how to do it. It takes a steady hand to roll the truffle in the chocolate coating. Too much rolling and the truffle starts to melt (bad). Too little rolling and the truffle isn’t fully covered in chocolate (bad). Here is the technique I employed:

It also takes a steady hand to dip chocolate truffles and other candies. There is a whole line of tools made for the sole purpose of being able to dip things into chocolate. Chef showed us (and let us use!) a (Swiss, I think) set he’s had for forever and a day. I think he said it cost a few hundred dollars for the set. Okay, maybe not that much, but I remember it was expensive. For dipping things. Into chocolate. Here’s Ally in action using one of those expensive, Swiss, specially-designed dipping tools.

(Notice the concentration involved. I told you it takes a steady hand.)

Filling the chocolate shells also takes a steady hand. Using a pastry bag filled with say, caramel, or chocolate ganache, the bag should be placed to almost the bottom of the shell and the filling should be piped just to the top edge. Not so easy considering the chocolate shell is opaque (so you can’t see how close to the bottom you are) and you are putting the equivalent of probably about a quarter teaspoon of filling in the tiny shell. Squeeze the bag a tad too exuberantly and filling comes spilling over. That may seem appetizing in theory, but not in practice:

The chocolate-filled truffles came out better:

Chef claims that the chocolate business is one of the easiest pastry businesses to get into (low overhead, inventory isn’t too perishable) and has one of the highest profit margins. I like the idea of an easy business with high profit margins, but after two weeks of tempering chocolate and not so successfully dipping and filling truffles, I think I’ll leave the chocolate business to Godiva. And La Maison du Chocolat. And Sees. And Russell Stover and Fannie Mae. So, really, does the world need one more chocolate candy maker?

(Editor’s Note: If you made it through the whole post and you’re reading this now, thank you. I know it was a long one, but I told you chocolate is complicated – and I combined two weeks into one post. Again, thank you. Now go treat yourself to a chocolate truffle.)