Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Archive Recipe: Apricot Almond Cookies

Gosh, I still love these cookies. They come together easily and are super flavorful. They’re a big favorite with my husband, so if I’m not sure if I’ve been doing everything just right lately, I can bake up a couple pans of cookies and all, if needed, will be forgotten.

When I made the most recent batch of Apricot and Almond Cookies with White Chocolate, I tested them using the convection setting on my oven. I’ve been a little hesitant to try baking with convection, because, well, I felt like I didn’t have a clue what would happen. After doing a little research and taking a little advice, I decided I could get cookies onto the cooling rack and subsequently the dessert plate faster using convection.

Convection baking these cookies gave very satisfactory results. The cookies were a little browner than when I baked them conventionally, but they were still soft and chewy. I could bake two pans at a time without stopping to turn the pans or worrying about proper heated air circulation, and it took much less time, only about 8 minutes instead of 12 minutes. I can recommend either baking method for delicious cookies, just pay attention to baking times, since ovens can vary.

I also used quick-cooking oats this time around (I usually use regular rolled oats), and the cookies were a little less chewy and a little smoother in texture. Again, I can recommend both ways of approaching the oat component of these cookies. For me, it will always be whatever is on hand that goes in the dough.

And speaking of whatever is on hand: this basic cookie formula can be customized based on what’s in your pantry, or based on what you happen to like best. Other dried fruits, nuts and chocolates are right at home and you can do what you like. The batch size is relatively small so your experiments can be quick and easy. And if you’ve got access to convection baking, they can be even quicker.

Apricot and Almond Cookies with White Chocolate
adapted from Cooking Light magazine

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (¾ stick), softened to room temperature
1 large egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup regular or quick oats
¾ cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup white chocolate chips (or chopped white chocolate bar)
½ cup chopped almonds

1. In a medium size bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in another large bowl if mixing by hand) combine the brown sugar and butter. Beat at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

3. Beat in the egg. Beat in the almond extract. Add the flour mixture and stir until well combined. Stir in the oats.

4. Add the apricots, white chocolate and almonds. Stir until just combined. Chill the dough for 2 hours or up to 3 days (or freeze for longer if desired).

 5. Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease cookie sheets or spray with cooking spray.  Form the dough into balls about 1-2 tablespoons each. Arrange on cookie sheets and bake at 350 F 12 minutes (or about 8 minutes if using a convection oven) or until lightly browined.

6. Cool the cookies on the pan on a wire rack for 2 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool until at least cool enough to eat. Store in an airtight container.

Makes about 20-30 cookies, depending on the size you make them.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting

As I mentioned not long ago, this little corner of cyberspace turned 5 years old this month. As a celebratory gesture, I thought I’d make the first cupcakes ever to appear on The Messy Apron. I can’t remember ever making cupcakes, even reaching back beyond 5 years, but everybody else seems to be having fun making cupcakes, so why not me?

I’ll answer that question in a moment, but, first, let me tell you that these cupcakes are really, really good. They have a nice chocolaty flavor and are very soft and moist. The peanut butter frosting is divine! It’s super creamy and loaded with delicious, sweet peanut buttery flavor, and it accompanies the soft cake extremely well. Eating these cupcakes is a wonderful experience and I think you should do it with your loved ones and friends as often as you can.

Okay, now, about having fun making cupcakes…I may have discovered why I haven’t done it before. I may not be cut out for such delicacy. I was thinking, hey, I make cakes every once in a while. Good cakes, too. Cupcakes are just little cakes. What’s the big deal?

Somehow, several bowls, utensils, and messes on the floor later, I came to the conclusion that cupcakes are a big deal. The batter for these cupcakes is very wet and needs to be poured rather than scooped like I do with the thicker, stiffer muffin batters I make. This resulted in one of the messes I wasn’t really prepared for. Most of the others involved my own clumsiness and impatience. Don’t blame the cupcakes.

Of course, then I got the bright idea to pipe the frosting onto the cakes so it would be prettier. My decorating equipment, which I think I had never used, required a climb up into a closet to acquire. Then, as it turns out, I’m really bad at getting frosting into a piping bag: another mess. Finally, as I was icing the 6th (out of 16) cupcake, the bag split open and, blub, there was frosting everywhere but on the cupcake. Luckily, the offset spatula was game for a last-minute substitution.

I shared these cupcakes with friends, along with this story, and they were declared “amazing” and, “worth the mess.” I have to agree, so, again, don’t blame the cupcakes. Blame this messy cook. And when you see beautiful cupcakes in internet photos (probably not here!), recognize the skill of those cupcake creators. They certainly have more coordination, patience, and fortitude than me!
But, seriously. Make and eat these cupcakes.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting
Recipes adapted from Bon Appetit

For the cupcakes:
1 cup cake flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup cocoa powder
2 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
½ cup boiling water
½ cup buttermilk
2/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup canola or other neutral-tasting oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 16 cups in muffin/cupcake tins with paper cupcake liners. Set aside.

2. In a medium size bowl, combine the cake flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk or sift to combine well. Set aside.

3. In another medium size bowl, combine the cocoa and chopped chocolate. Pour in the boiling water. Whisk together until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the buttermilk. Set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in another large bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer), combine the dark brown sugar, granulated sugar, and oil. Beat on medium speed until very creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract.

5. Add half the flour mixture and beat on medium speed until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture and beat until smooth. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat until smooth.

6. Evenly distribute the cake batter among the cupcake papers. (The batter will be very wet and probably easier to pour than to scoop.) Bake at 350 F for about 18 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out with just a few moist crumbs.

7. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool completely before frosting.

Makes 16 cupcakes

For the frosting:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chocolate sprinkles for garnish (optional)

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a medium size bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer) combine the peanut butter and butter and beat together at medium speed until smooth. Beat in the powdered sugar and vanilla and continue beating until light in color and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Spread or pipe onto the top of cooled cupcakes. Decorate with chocolate sprinkles if desired.

Generously frosts 16 cupcakes.

Other recipes like this one: Mulled Wine Chocolate Cake, Simple Vanilla Yogurt Cake, Cocoa Chocolate Chip Brownies (try these with the peanut butter frosting above), Peanut Butter and Chocolate Revel Bars

Friday, April 25, 2014

Basics: Banana Bread

Though bananas are easily available and really affordable (even the fairly-traded ones!) all year, I only tend to buy them in the sort of fruit off-season after the winter Citrus Crush and before the spring Berry Boom (and way, way before any locally grown fruits are available). I’ve heard there are some good berries out there, but I haven’t really had time to seek them out. But the bananas are right where I can always find them, and their quality is reasonably easy to judge, and so I’ve been buying bananas.

Since I’ve been buying bananas, I’ve been making banana bread. Of course I “over buy” bananas on purpose, otherwise I would eat them all before they get to that delightfully well-spotted and almost mushy stage that makes for the best baked goods. If they get to that stage before you’re ready for them, you can always toss them into the freezer. I prefer to peel them first, just scooping the fruit into a freezer bag.

There are probably several hundred banana bread recipes, most of which are variations on a simple original. Many of them are favorite family recipes, and if you have one of those that you are happy with (or at least dedicated to), you’ve probably turned away from this page already. The recipe I use isn’t a family recipe, although I know my mom and grandmother made plenty of banana bread. This one comes from the people at Cooking Light, although I un-lightened it a bit. (What the heck is light butter, anyway?)

This recipe is very good, giving me consistent results every time I make it. The addition of whole wheat pastry flour gives it a hint of nutty, grainy flavor without overwhelming the fruitiness of the bananas. The bread is moist but - and I think this is the best part – there isn’t a weird, gooey, unbaked trench running along the top of the loaf as I’ve seen in so many old fashioned recipes. I’m not sure what causes that phenomenon. All I really know is that when I use this recipe in a 9-inch bread pan, it doesn’t appear.

Since I use that larger loaf pan (as opposed to the 8-inch pan I use for sandwich breads like this one), the slices of banana bread resemble narrow rectangles that hold themselves together well without being tough or dry. You could use a smaller pan or even mini loaf pans or muffin tins to bake the batter, but you’ll need to adjust the baking time: I think to about 45 minutes for mini loaves and 20 to 25 minutes for muffins.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for some mix-ins in this recipe. I’m partial to walnuts when I have them or even mini chocolate chips. I’ve heard coconut is good in banana bread, but I usually share baked goods with my husband and he won’t touch the stuff. You could also play around with different flours if you’re so inclined or try stirring in some oats to bump up the Whole Food Quotient even more. That’s the beauty of a basic recipe. And the ubiquitous Banana Quick Bread is a basic even beginning bakers can master.

Banana Quick Bread

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
¼ cup milk
¼ cup sour cream
1 2/3 cup mashed banana (about 3 large bananas)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.

2. In a large bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Whisk or sift together to mix well. Set aside.

3. Whisk the egg and melted butter together until smooth. Whisk in the milk and sour cream. Whisk in the mashed banana.

4. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture. Stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon just until all the dry ingredients are moistened.

5. Spray a 9-inch bread pan with cooking spray or grease it with butter or oil. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in the center of the bread comes out with just a few moist crumbs.

6. Remove the bread from the pan and cool on a wire rack.

Makes 1 9-inch loaf.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lists of Loving

I love lists. I really do. Lists represent ambition, potential, a positive future. They help me remember things. They help me celebrate things. But really, I just like to create them and read them. Over and over. I have a Microsoft Excel workbook that is just lists (and the labeled tabs of the individual worksheets arranged along the bottom of the page is, therefore, a list of lists!) I love to make shopping lists. I just made a list of the types of books I like to read. I keep “to-do” lists that achieve malignant self-awareness and attempt to destroy me.

To mark the beginning of the sixth year of mucking about on these humble pages (Yes, that’s right. Yesterday was this blog’s 5th birthday!) I thought I’d share a bit of what else goes on in my head. I’ve hesitated to do this all these years because I really thought that my day-to-day life was much less interesting than what I had for dinner. I’m hoping, however, that the things I’m loving at any given time might by something you love to. And since I love a list, here is the first Messy Apron List of Loving:

** Books I’m loving right now:

**Dishes I’m loving now:

A macaroni and cheese like this one with sautéed jalapeno peppers
The fried egg sandwich I just ate with Swiss cheese, lettuce, mayonnaise, and red onion on toast

Recipe fantasies: chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting, this Carrot Cake Cheesecake, and these Strawberry Rhubarb Ginger Crumb Bars

**For Easter

Visiting family (you did know I’m coming, right?)
Dressing up (although open-toed shoes are out when there’s still snow on the ground)
Easter candy: pastel-colored peanut butter M&Ms, Cadbury eggs (cream and/or caramel), mini peanut butter cups...

….but under no circumstances: marshmallow Peeps! This food-like substance is an abomination! (I know you love them. Sorry.)

Happy Easter!

Happy Loving!

And thanks for reading for five delicious years!

One year ago: Peanut Butter Granola (another recipe I love!)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Archive Recipe of the Week: Wheat Sandwich Bread

Well, I thought the baking season may be winding down with the increasing spring temperatures. Sandwiches have no season, however, so no matter what month of the year, I’m still making sandwich bread, and am therefore justified in writing about it here any time. Of course, it snowed last night, leaving the ground covered with that familiar white blanket once again. It doesn’t feel much like spring, now, and it doesn’t seem so out-of-season to turn on the oven.

As I was contemplating what else I would say about this recipe, my stand-by, nearly-weekly sandwich bread, I came to the conclusion that there’s not much that can be said about bread that hasn’t been said already. Bread is a cornerstone of civilization (along with, many would argue, beer). It’s been a human food since long before any human thought to write down (let alone blog!) anything about his food. It’s a metaphor for life itself or it’s something on which we cannot live alone or it’s going to kill us because it’s loaded with deadly carbohydrates. Choose your bread philosophy according to your personal needs. Mine is quite simple: Bread is good food and I love to make it.

The basic formula for this sandwich bread is nothing new or revolutionary. You’ve probably seen similar recipes in many places (besides the first time I posted it nearly five years – five years!! – ago). I’ve been making our basic sandwich bread this same way for years. There were times when I kneaded by hand, mostly for the extra exercise, and you could do that, too, but now I let my heavy-duty stand mixer do my kneading for me. You could use milk for the liquid, oil for the fat, honey for the little bit of sweetener. I use water, butter and sugar respectively in those roles. I used to use milk, but found little if any difference in the final product compared to water. I use a bulk active dry yeast because I go through enough of it to make that more economical over buying yeast in the little envelopes. One envelope could be used in place of the measured yeast below, since it holds about 2 ¼ teaspoons.

I really like to let my yeast grow for a while in what I call a mini-starter, no matter what yeast bread I’m making. It seems to improve the consistency and predictability of yeast performance from loaf to loaf and I think it improves the flavor of the bread, too.  First I “bloom” the yeast in warm water with the sugar, then add half to two-thirds of the flour to that, mix it to form a loose batter, cover it with a towel, and let it stand for 15 to 30 minutes. This mini-starter puffs and rises as the yeast grows. I wait until after this to add the salt, which can inhibit yeast growth, and then I knead in the rest of the flour (it doesn’t much matter where the fat is added).

The rest is involves the appropriate amount of kneading, rising, shaping, rising again, and baking. The typical description of a properly kneaded dough is “smooth and elastic,” which frankly, may not have much meaning if you have no experience with bread. The dough should still be soft and easy to stretch, but it should also be easy to form into a ball with a tight, stretchy surface (this is sometimes known as the “gluten cloak”). If you have a good imagination, you would be able to picture that ball of dough being able to maintain that smooth surface as it blows up like a balloon as the yeast releases the gases that make the dough expand.

As far as shaping goes, I usually flatten the dough a little, roll it into a smooth log, and lay it in an 8-inch loaf pan. It then rises again, is baked, scenting the kitchen with its loveliness, and, when it has finally cooled enough to slice, it is eaten, the best step of them all. The best way to get really good at this process is simply to do it a lot, expecting a few things to go wrong now and then, but learning from what you see and smell and taste. This fairly simple bread formula is a good place to start if you’re looking for one and a great-tasting sandwich loaf, a go-to bread for breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks if you’re an experienced bread baker.

Well, that’s all I have to say about bread. Or at least this particular bread recipe. For now.

Wheat Sandwich Bread

1 cup warm (about 100 F) water (or milk)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups bread flour, divided
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon fine salt

1. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer (or in another large bowl if mixing by hand), combine the water, sugar and yeast. Let stand about 5 minutes or until the yeast is foamy.

2. Add the whole wheat flour and 1 cup bread flour and butter. Mix to form a wet batter. Cover and let stand for 15-30 minutes.

3. Add about ½ cup of the remaining bread flour. Using the dough hook for the mixer, knead in the flour on low speed (or knead by hand if desired). Continue kneading, increasing the speed one level, for about 10 minutes, adding as much of the remaining bread flour as the dough can take while still staying smooth, moist and pliable. The final product should be just a bit tacky to the touch and stretchy, but not sticky or gooey.

4. Shape the dough into a ball and place in a large, greased (I use nonstick cooking spray) bowl. Spray or grease the top of the dough ball. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the dough ball. Cover the whole thing with a towel and let stand until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

5. Carefully deflate the dough and rearrange it into a new ball. Let rest, covered, while you grease or spray an 8 x 5 – inch loaf pan. Gently flatten the dough into a rectangle, then roll it into a loaf from the long side of the rectangle. Place the dough in the greased pan. Cover with a towel and let rise until roughly doubled in size.

6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 F. When the dough has fully risen, bake at 375 F for about 35 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. To fully ensure that your bread is done, use a probe thermometer to read the temperature in the center of the loaf. It should be about 200 F.

7. Remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes 1 loaf. This bread, like many, freezes well.

Other recipes like this one: Oatmeal Sandwich Bread, Whole Wheat Pita Bread, Whole Wheat Pizza Crust

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hazelnut Latte Muffins

This recipe is a simple variation on one of my favorites in the archives, these Cappuccino Muffins. Guided once again by The Ultimate Muffin Book, and my love, love, love of hazelnuts and hazelnut flavor in coffee, I made some mighty fine little breakfast cakes.

All that I did was swap out some of the sugar sweetening the original espresso-infused muffins with the hazelnut-flavored syrup I use to sweeten my homemade lattes. I also stirred in some chopped hazelnuts, which I had toasted and skinned ahead of time (and stored in the freezer) using the method outlined in this post.

These muffins are delicious. Delicious! But my absolute, years-long obsession with hazelnut-flavored coffee drinks made this recipe a guaranteed success in my kitchen. Well, I was tempted to see how good the basic formula could still be if I reduced the butter a tad and put in some whole grain flour (probably whole wheat pastry flour), but I’ve had enough training in the realm of experimental science to know that creating too many variables is just asking for trouble. And guaranteed success is something you just don’t mess around with.

Maybe someday I’ll get brave enough to try to make these muffins a little healthier. Until then I’m going to take their yummy hazelnut-espresso-ness in stride, and be pretty content with having cake for breakfast. Muffins are cake. Let’s just get over it.

Hazelnut Latte Muffins
Adapted from The Ultimate Muffin Book by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)
¾ cup milk (2%, whole or skim will do)
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
¼ cup hazelnut flavored syrup (such as Torani brand)
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine salt
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup chopped hazelnuts, toasted and skinned

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Prepare a 12 cup muffin pan by spraying the cups with cooking spray or lining them with paper liners.

2. Melt the butter and set aside to cool.

3. In a small saucepan, heat the milk just until boiling, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching on the bottom of the pan. You just want to go until there are a few bubbles, not a full boil. Whisk in the instant espresso and hazelnut syrup. Set aside to cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

4. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together to mix well.

5. In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the egg and the cooled butter until well combined. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent cooking the egg. Whisk in the vanilla extract.

6. Add the egg and milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just combined and all the dry ingredients are just moistened. Stir in the hazelnuts. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin cups, filling each about ¾ full.

7. Bake at 400 F for about 18 minutes. You can test to make sure the muffins are fully baked by inserting a wooden pick in one. It should come out without any wet batter sticking to it.

8. Remove the muffins from the oven and cool them in the pan on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes. Remove the muffins from the pan and let stand on the wire rack until they are cool enough to eat. Store leftovers in a zip-top plastic bag for a day or two, or freeze, well wrapped, for longer storage.

Makes 12 muffins.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spinach Custard Pie

This recipe was one of those little magazine clippings that tends to float around my “make it now” files for quite a long time. It’s virtually season-less, since it’s based on frozen spinach, so I kept shifting it from one month to the next until I finally decided I’d better try it or get rid of it already.

This dish is fairly simple. It’s mostly spinach and eggs with a little cheese. Okay, so it’s mostly spinach. Really. There’s a lot of spinach in this pie. And I suppose it’s not really a pie, since it doesn’t have a crust of any kind. I did make it in a pie plate, but I think you could make it in just about any small baking dish.

Even though there’s more spinach than anything in this, it holds together very nicely. The pie cut well into wedges and could be served that way without falling apart. I think you could cut it into squares if you use a different dish or cut it into very small squares to serve as appetizers.

I feel like I better tell you one more time that there’s really a lot of spinach in this casserole/pie/whatever. If you don’t like spinach, you probably won’t like this dish. On the other hand, if you do like spinach, this is delicious and satisfying. I liked the addition of a little feta cheese (it wasn’t in the original recipe) along with the Parmesan. I also sprinkled in a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, which somehow enhances spinach dishes. Overall, the rest of the ingredients serve to compliment the spinach rather than overwhelm or hide it.

I wasn’t sure whether Spinach Custard Pie was exciting enough to talk about here, but not everything needs to be a revelation, I thought. A solid, weeknight recipe is a good addition to The Messy Apron archives. Things did get a little more exciting the next day, however, when I learned just how fabulous this is as leftovers. It lost nothing in texture or flavor when I stuck a wedge in my lunch box and heated it up at work. A weeknight/brown bag powerhouse for a family of 2 indeed!!

Spinach Custard Pie
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine

2 (10 ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup chopped onion
½ teaspoon salt, divided
3 large eggs
8 ounces sour cream (I used reduced-fat)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup very finely chopped feta cheese
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray (or grease it using your preferred method.) Set aside.

2. Squeeze as much water from the thawed spinach as you can. Set aside.

3. In a medium-size skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook 5-8 minutes or until the onion is soft and just beginning to brown. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

4. In a medium-size bowl, beat the eggs. Mix in the sour cream. Add the spinach and onions and stir well. Stir in the remaining ingredients, including the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt.

5. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pie pan. Spread evenly. Bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes or until the center of the pie is set. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve.

Makes 4-6 servings. Leftovers reheat nicely.