In Season: Apples

Sometimes in life it’s better to be uninformed. The lack of knowledge allows us the freedom to make decisions differently than we might make otherwise. Sometimes these decisions have disastrous results, sometimes they have serendipitous results. Such was the case when I decided to make this recipe for apple pie bars. I only glanced at the recipe as I was wooed by the title and the picture, but I assumed it would be a simpler version of apple pie…in a bar form. Generally, bar recipes are easier and less time consuming (think brownies and blondies). I was also drawn to this recipe because bars are portable and bite-sized. I could have apple pie without the fuss and this sounded like the perfect recipe for that, I thought. Well, not so fast, sister.

The bad news. My biggest gripe about the recipe is that the alleged preparation time is one hour. Unless you are an octopus or have a flying monkey for an assistant, I have no idea how you can prepare the recipe in one hour. In fact, as the clock was ticking by, I became rattled and turned into a crazy person. I was racing around my kitchen, trying to beat the clock, just so I could reassure myself that I do know what I’m doing in the kitchen. It looked like a baking crime scene when it was all said and done. I would say allow a good hour and a half or more to get the recipe together.

Now, the good news. If you are looking for a different take on apple pie and you have the time, inclination and low enough cholesterol level, and decide to make these apple pie bars, you will be rewarded. Imagine your house smelling like heaven. Because, as you know, if there is a heaven, it smells like still warm, baked apple pie.

But that’s not all. Despite the fact that there are close to seven sticks of butter in the recipe (but just don’t think about that, okay?), the apple pie bars aren’t particularly rich or heavy, yet a little goes a long way. The serving size is two-inch squares, which is the perfect size for a snack or dessert, especially with a tiny scoop of, say, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams salty caramel flavor. I used a pan smaller than the one called for in the recipe, but I still got 40 bars from the pan. From that I gave nice little gifts to three neighbors, two small gifts to friends and Todd and I enjoyed them for dessert on two separate nights (and one of those nights we had a guest over to have dinner). Pretty good haul if you think about it. I think the bars are also a genius idea for a get together. I like the fact, too, that they will last for four days at room temperature in an air tight container or they can be frozen for up to a month. Give some away, enjoy some for a few days and save some to munch on over the month. A win-win situation, really.

The recipe calls for using boring Granny Smith apples. I used a mix of four varieties: Eastern, Gala, Granny Smith and Stayman. The three varieties other than the Granny Smith are fairly sweet. I think using all Granny Smith apples would have made the apple mixture lean toward the tart side, especially since the recipe does not include much sugar to sweeten the apples.

By the way, do you know how many varieties of apples there are in the United States or the world? Me either, until now. According to my always-accurate Google research, there are approximately 2,500 varieties grown in the U.S. and approximately 7,500 varieties of apples grown world-wide. 2,500 and 7,500, respectively, people. That is a lot of damn apple varieties. However, sadly, only 100 varieties are grown commercially and one of the “best” that is grown is Granny Smiths? What the heck? If, purportedly, 100 varieties are grown commercially, why, then, do we rarely ever see more than about five or so varieties at the grocery store and maybe only 10-15 at the orchards? Where are all of these apples? Seriously, where are they? I want to know. I’m talking to you, Mr. Commercial Apple Grower.

Sorry about that. Back to cooking notes. The shortbread dough for the crust was stickier than other shortbread doughs I’ve made, so I put it in the refrigerator for about fifteen minutes prior to baking. I baked the crust in a 375 degree convection oven. Oops. Evidently the crazy person who happened to look like me and who was doing the baking forgot that when using convection the temperature should be adjusted down, usually about 25 degrees. Thankfully, sanity returned and I cooked the crust for only 17 minutes, instead of the full 20 minutes. Everything was alright, although maybe slightly overbaked. The fact that the dough was a bit thicker due to the smaller pan size probably worked in my favor here, too. For the topping, I substituted pecans for the walnuts. There was about a cup or so of leftover topping, which was due in part to the smaller pan size, but other reviewers commented on having leftover topping as well. I’m figuring out a use for it, though, don’t you worry. I’m not letting butter, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts go to waste. No way.

So, despite my whining about the time investment, and my momentary lapse in sanity at times while making these, I think the recipe is worth the effort. Of course, now you’re fully informed, so who knows what might happen when you make them. Let me know…and let me know if you know where all those apples are.

Sticky Buns

April 25, 2012.

I think I’m not going out on a limb here when I say I’m not the only person who finds it nearly impossible to resist an ooey-gooey-straight-from-the-oven sticky bun, right? Okay, yes, if you have a wheat or nut allergy, it is probably extremely easy to resist a sticky bun, and I feel badly for those folks. But, for the rest of us, what is there not to like? So, when the April issue of Bon Appétit arrived in the mail, there was no doubt that I would soon be making the cover recipe.

Seriously, who could resist that (other than the aforementioned subset of the population)?

But sticky buns aren’t just something I whip up, say, like a batch of cookies. Although rustic at heart, sticky buns, in my mind, require an occasion – a rainy, lazy Sunday morning, a loved one’s breakfast in bed, Mother’s Day brunch, friends coming over mid-morning for coffee, a weekend at a beach house. Of course, they could be made often, but then they don’t seem like such a special treat. Finally, a few weeks after receiving the April issue (and averting my eyes each time I walked past it and saw the cover), the perfect occasion presented itself: my pals Megan and Rebecca were coming over mid-morning for coffee before we headed out to do a little exploring of some new foodie places in Old Town Alexandria. I wanted to make something special for them, and because they’re my cooking class buddies, I was pretty certain they wouldn’t mind being my recipe testers.

The recipe is based on a master sweet dough recipe, which can also be used for five other recipes. While the dough recipe is straightforward, the instructions for how to use it for the sticky buns confused me. To wit: (If making Sticky Buns, page 94, chill dough for 2 hours, then proceed with recipe.). Does this mean chill the dough and then proceed with the rest of the master dough recipe, or chill the dough and then proceed with the sticky buns recipe? (I could dedicate an entire separate post to my disdain of poorly written recipes – or poorly written anything for that matter.) After ruminating on it for awhile (read: too long) and re-reading it about ten times, I opted to follow the rest of the dough recipe and then move on to the sticky buns recipe. Meaning, I chilled the dough for two hours, then let it rise on my stove top (warm, draft-free area) for about two and a half hours and then proceeded to the sticky buns recipe. The dough didn’t double in size as specified by the recipe, but if I waited much longer the dough wouldn’t have been workable.

As it was, the dough was pretty sticky when I rolled it out for the sticky buns which had me questioning whether I should have just proceeded directly from the chilling part of the dough recipe to the sticky buns recipe, as my gut instinct had told me. Sigh. Always go with your gut, as you’ll find out later in this post.

However, other than the confusion around deciphering the intended instructions, the sticky buns came together without a hitch. If you are inclined to “whip” these up (although you’d need to wait a few hours before actually getting to enjoy them due to proofing and assembly times), chances are, right now, or with a quick visit to a neighbor’s, you have what you need in your pantry. They aren’t labor intensive, per se, but they are time intensive given the chilling, proofing and assembly times, but that’s the case with any yeasted dough, I think.

Sticky buns mis en place: Honey, heavy cream, butter, pecans, orange zest, salt, dark brown sugar. And the dough, which is made from milk, yeast, sugar, flour, salt and butter.

The filling. Why the tape measure, you ask? Because the recipe calls for rolling the dough into a 12″ x 16″ rectangle, and I’m a perfectionist.

First thing into the pan is the ooey-gooey glaze and chopped pecans.

Once assembled, I cut the rolled dough into twelve slices versus the nine called for by the recipe. This resulted in generous-sized buns, so I think having only nine dough pieces would make the final buns too big. And I used a nine-inch round cake pan; the recipe calls for an eight-inch square pan. Regardless of which pan size you use, I recommend putting a sheet tray on a rack beneath the buns’ pan for any drips from the glaze bubbling over. I had some, but not a lot. You can assemble the buns a day ahead, which I did, then let them sit at room temperature for about an hour and a half to two hours before baking them (it took closer to an hour or so for them to bake, the recipe indicates 50 minutes).

Sticky buns ready for the oven.

And there they are.

The final sticky buns were scrumptious, especially as they were eaten and enjoyed straight from the oven. Despite the dough confusion, the buns had a good texture and seemed to rise appropriately. This recipe will go into permanent rotation for weekend visitors and certain special occasions, or also for when I feel like just having a good ‘ol homemade sticky bun.

Sticky buns are even better when friends are involved. Thanks for being my guinea pigs, Rebecca and Megan.

(Editor’s Note: I used the recipe as it appeared in the print edition. On the Bon Appétit website, the recipe has been amended as follows: Let dough rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, 1–1 1/2 hours (or 2–2 1/2 hours if dough has been refrigerated). Chill dough for 2 hours. And then it goes directly into the sticky bun recipe. So, make the dough, let it rise, chill it for two hours and THEN proceed with the sticky bun recipe. I had done it in reverse (made the dough, chilled it, let it rise, on to sticky buns recipe), but it still worked. The Bon Appétit online editors also note: The online version of this recipe has been updated with more information than the version that appeared in print. A good reminder to doublecheck recipes and sources, if possible and when time allows. Or, always follow your gut…in cooking and life!)

Miami Spice

April 17, 2012.

Last Saturday, it was my friend Cathy’s turn to host dinner club and she decided on a Latin American theme. Originally billed as “Noche Latina” (Latin night in Spanish), it was later revised to “Miami Spice.” Per Cathy, ” I am renaming our dinner club event from Noche Latina to Miami Spice after one of my cookbooks that highlights the many cultures that make up the city.” So as not to be boxed in to one Latin culture, we had free reign over the foods that make up approximately 20 countries. Aye yi yi. I had signed up for dessert duty, and fortunately, I knew immediately what I wanted to make: tres leches cake.

Tres leches cake, or three milks cake, is a quintessential Latin American dessert. It is either a sponge or butter cake that has been soaked in a mixture of three types of milk: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream. It is often served with a Crestor pill, a statin medication that lowers cholesterol. The few times I’ve had tres leches cake, I’ve adored it and have wanted to make it. It would be perfect for Miami Spice night. But, as I was looking for tres leches recipes, I kept coming across recipes for flan, another quintessential Latin American dessert and one which I also adore and one which would also be perfect for Miami Spice night. On top of this, I stumbled across a recipe for alfajores, cookies that are usually sandwiched together with a dulce de leche filling (another quintessential Latin American sweet). I was intrigued. Adding to all of this, I also wanted to somehow incorporate coconut, which I happen to love and which comes to mind when I think of certain Latin American countries.

So, what’s a girl to do? I won’t bore you (or scare you) with the details of the several days worth of analysis and back and forth through which I went to reach my decision. In the end, I decided to make coconut flan and the alfajores, as well as homemade dulce de leche for the alfajores’ filling. Now that I think about it, why didn’t I just make the tres leches cake, too, and avoid the whole decision-making process to begin with?

First up was the dulce de leche, of which the literal translation from Spanish to English is “candy of milk.” I was always under the impression that dulce de leche is made simply from heating up in simmering water unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk. Searching for heating times for such, I came across recipes that didn’t call for condensed milk, and instead called for heating together milk and sugar until the sugar caramelizes and creates the heavy sauce (it can also have a spread-like texture). It seemed like six of one, half a dozen of another, to be honest. I was determined to try it the old-school way, knowing there was a risk of the can exploding, but I was feeling brave. That didn’t last long. My inner scaredy-cat came out as soon as I removed the can’s label (I used Carnation brand) and noticed the very top line in bold letters: We do not recommend heating milk in the can. I guess this is why I found only one “recipe” for making it the old-school way. So, instead, I followed the directions on the label which were to simply heat the milk over a double boiler for approximately fifty minutes. It took closer to ninety minutes on the double boiler and ten minutes on direct low heat to reach the texture I desired. The final product was a very light caramel color, unlike the darker-colored dulce de leche I’ve seen in store-bought jars. It also didn’t quite taste like dulce de leche I’ve had before. In theory, the ingredients are the same (sweetened condensed milk is simply milk and sugar – as the recipes called for), so I don’t know why it turned out a lighter color and had a slightly different taste. There’s a reason some things are better off not made at home. Next time, I’ll save myself the time and just buy a jar at Whole Foods.

The dulce de leche in progress over the homemade “double boiler.”

The dulce de leche’s consistency and texture.

My homemade (once and only once) dulce de leche.

Moving on. Undeterred, I next made the alfajores. I’ll be honest, I came across this recipe after getting a bit lost in the interwebs, so I can’t say I put a whole lot of effort into finding the best alfajores recipe. But, I found it on theKitchn website, which is a wonderful site, and it was also featured on Martha Stewart’s website, so it had some decent street cred. Prior to this, I’d never had an alfajor (singular of alfajores), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Various recipes described the cookie as having a shortbread texture, biscuit-like, tender and or crumbly. I assumed the ones I made would result in at least one of those descriptions.

Well, that wasn’t the case. The ones I made had a dense cake-like texture. Admittedly, in the video on the Martha Stewart site, the recipe contributor, Matt Armendariz, said his alfajor recipe is based on his favorite cookie recipe. In retrospect, after watching the video for a second time, I’m not sure he meant his favorite alfajor recipe. That fact and the fact that his recipe does not contain cornstarch, as every other alfajor recipe seems to call for, should have been a big sledgehammer over my head that I probably wasn’t going to have a traditional alfajor cookie when it was all said and done.

The actual making of the batter was simple and requires few ingredients, but assembling the cookies with the dulce de leche was messy. After storing overnight the alfajores on parchment paper-separated layers in an airtight container (as approved by the recipe), the alfajores were really sticky. Not sure what that was about, but it made them difficult to handle. Additionally, the dulce de leche had a tendency to run out some from the cookie sandwich and get all over my fingers in the process, causing additional stickiness. I teetered on the edge of being annoyed. In fairness, it may have been that my dulce de leche was more of a very thick sauce rather than a spread, and it was a tad warm in my kitchen at the time. Ultimately, the toasted coconut around the edges helped keep the dulce de leche in place and the powdered sugar dusting right before serving helped with the overall stickiness.

Mis en place. On the plus side, few ingredients, probably all of which are in your pantry right now.

Ready for the oven.

Would you care for one?

Textural disappointment and effort aside, my assessment is that this recipe produces cookies that are just okay (although Todd and everyone else at Miami Spice night said they were delicious, but what else could they say?). Perhaps had I just opened a jar of store-bought dulce de leche, thereby saving a step and possibly having tastier filling, maybe I’d give the final cookie a higher rating (although I firmly believe the alfajor itself was too dense). I’m still intrigued by alfajores and imagine they are probably pretty tasty cookies. I’m willing to give them another try. My recommendation if you’re interested in making alfajores? Look around for and compare several different recipes before deciding on which one to use. And don’t get sucked in by beautiful pictures and slick videos.

Still undeterred, but feeling not as cheerful about my dessert decisions for Miami Spice night, I moved on to coconut flan. If you’re familiar with flan, you’ll know that it is a rich custard with a delightfully soft, somewhat runny (in a good way) caramel topping. If you were in France, it would be called crème caramel. In and of itself, in my opinion, flan is perfect. Adding coconut could only make it sublime.

After more effort searching for the ideal coconut flan recipe than I put in looking for the alfajores recipe, I finally settled on one from Epicurious. Well, two recipes, actually. The coconut flan recipe I used received great reviews and a four-fork (the highest) user rating. For some reason, however, it didn’t include the caramel part, so I found a second recipe (for comparison) and used its recipe for caramel. I could have used the second recipe in its entirety, but it had only nine reviews and only 78 percent of users indicated they would make it again. At this point, I needed to go for a sure thing.

While this may be a poor reflection on me and my abilities, I’m quite certain a trained Capuchin monkey could put together this dessert. It was that simple. There are six ingredients, all of which get dumped onto one bowl and whisked together. If you were following only the coconut flan recipe, the next step would be pouring the mixture into the ramekins, putting them in a hot water bath, baking them, letting them cool and then serving them.

However, I wasn’t following only the flan recipe, so I had the added step of first making the caramel. I don’t know why this is, but me and caramel do not get along. I try to get along with it, but it just won’t cooperate with me. It’s rare if I can make caramel in one try and this time was no different. It took two attempts, but finally, I got it. I’ve concluded that caramel should always, always, always be made in a non-stick saute pan, not a sauce pan as many recipes call for.

Caramel Attempt Number 1 

Caramel Attempt Number 2

Once I had made the caramel, the other trick was getting it swirled around the bottom of each ramekin before it hardened. I had to put a few of the ramekins in the microwave for about twenty seconds to get the caramel softened again for swirling. Without Todd’s extra set of hands for a couple of them, I would have needed that trained monkey or would have needed a few extra shots of espresso to move much more quickly. So, keep that in mind if you decide to make this.

Caramel in the ramekins. The one in the upper-right corner shows how pesky the caramel can be as it starts to harden.

At this point the flan mixture is poured on top of the caramel and baked in a hot water bath. The recipe calls for baking the flan until just set in the center, about thirty minutes. I found that it took closer to fifty minutes to set.

A few notes about the flan mixture. I wanted to go for a strong coconut flavor, so I followed the suggestion of some reviewers to reduce the whole milk quantity in half and substitute (light) coconut milk for the remaining half. Other reviewers suggested toasting the flaked coconut, which I did as well. The recipe calls for mixing the (toasted) coconut flakes into the flan mixture, but I didn’t do that per yet another review that indicated doing such disrupted the flan’s traditionally smooth texture. Instead, I used the toasted coconut, along with diced mango, as garnish.

All told, I’m glad I attempted some new recipes (and will again try to make the alfajores). While the dulce de leche and the alfajores recipes I tried weren’t glowing successes, in my opinion, I am happy to report that the coconut flan was a winner.