Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ray-Ray's Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies

What can I say about my chocolate chip cookies? For the longest time I never wanted to share this recipe because I wanted to be the girl who made the best chocolate chip cookies. But then I started to fear that that was all that I was known for, heck all that I was liked for, and realized that I was being silly hording the recipe. Besides, half the magic of baking is in the baker him/herself.

Many people claim to have the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, but I find that hard to believe. Part of the problem is that there seem to be three camps of chocolate chip cookie lovers (kind of like different camps of brownie lovers, which I'll have to cover later): crunchy/crispy, cakey, and chewy. I'm very much a chewy girl. I've never been into much of anything crunchy, and if I want cakey I''l have cake. Chewy, however, can only be found in the perfect cookie. It is the perfect combination of salty, buttery smoothness and sweet chocolate.

I have made this recipe for at least 7 years now (wow, I've known these cookies for 7 years?!), and have shared them with friends and family. Everyone who has tasted one of these cookies has raved about how awesome they are. I've even made them for friends' birthdays, because what better gift than a home-baked batch of goodness?

I must say that this recipe requires a keen attention to detail. The slightest change to the recipe will make an entirely different cookie. Even the temperature in the kitchen has an effect on the outcome. If you want to make the cookies just as I make them, you will have to follow this recipe to a T. Trust me, it's worth it.

The Chewy
from Alton Brown

Ingredients:
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp whole milk (must be whole- the fat is needed)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Hardware:
Ice cream scooper (#20 disher- mine is an Oxo)
Parchment paper
Baking sheets
Stand Mixer with paddle attachment

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom saucepan over low heat. On a piece of parchment paper, sift together flour, slat, and baking soda and set aside (the piece of parchment can be used for one of the baking pans and will save you from having to clean another bowl).

Pour the melted butter in the mixer's work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tbsp milk, and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes (at least- maybe longer if your kitchen is warm).

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Using the medium (size 20) ice cream scoop, scoop the dough onto the parchment lined baking pan (I recommend baking one sheet at the time and putting the dough back in the fridge while one batch is baking), 6 cookies per sheet. The cookies will be big, so give them room to spread. Bake until golden brown along the edges, but still a little raw in the center (my oven takes 7 or 8 minutes, depending on the humidity in the kitchen). The key is to not overcook them. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks. Store in an airtight container.

Special note: There is one ingredient, a special ingredient, that is not listed but should always be included when baking: love. That's what my friends tell me makes these cookies so good.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Healthy Banana Bread

Well, I always thought banana bread was healthy- it has bananas in it, doesn't it? Apparently, a standard banana recipe isn't quite as good for you as you think, what with all the butter and sugar. But I have found a recipe that really is healthy. Low in fat, low(er) in sugar, and it has ground flax seeds (you know how I feel about flax seeds) in it!

Anyway, with the weather being as sad as it has been lately, banana bread just seemed like the right thing to make. It has that homey quality, like you could just curl up in a cozy chair with a blanket, some tea, and some banana bread. Banana bread also reminds me of this older lady who lived across from me when I lived in New York- she lived in the basement, I think, but I only knew her as Nana. She made good banana bread. She may have even given us banana bread in little paper baggies at Halloween. But since then, I've always told myself I want to be like that when I'm old. I want to be that little old lady who makes the best banana bread. I also want to be the little old lady that scares the crap out of little kids because they think I'm a witch who will put some voodoo spell on them if they come near my house. Banana bread seems friendlier...

So this week when my mom's new issue of Cooking Light came, I read it cover to cover, and lo and behold, there were four different recipes for banana bread. Say what?! I decided to start with the first recipe- Basic Banana Bread. I hope to try the others soon (Bananas Foster Banana Bread and Peanut Butter Banana Bread- I'll pass on the chocolate walnut one). The recipe looked simple enough and I had a bunch of speckled bananas sitting on the counter, crying out to be used in something delicious.

Delicious indeed. The recipe was very easy to put together and the end result was great. The bread is super-moist and full of fall flavors. It was so yummy, I decided to keep it mostly to myself and not take any in to work (a rarity indeed)...

Basic Banana Bread
from Cooking Light October 2010

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas
1/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt
5 tbsp butter, melted
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
6.75 oz all purpose flour (about 1.5 cups)
1/4 cup ground flax seed (I use Bob's Red Mill and keep it in the fridge)
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp allspice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed. Add granulated and brown sugars; beat until combined.

3. Combine flour and next 5 ingredients. Add flour mixture to banana mixture; beat until blended. Pour batter into a greased 9x5-inch loaf. Bake at 350 degrees F for 55 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven; cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack. Remove bread from pan; cool completely. Enjoy!

Note: The recipe includes a glaze, but the bread is moist and sticky as is, so I thought a glaze would be too much.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Leisurely Breakfast

"All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."
-John Gunther

Never have truer words been spoken. You see, I am not a morning person, and I am certainly not to be messed with before breakfast. I cannot face the day before I've had my breakfast and the better the breakfast the better my day. So it goes without saying that having the house to myself on a Saturday morning can make for one great breakfast.

My Saturday breakfast of choice typically consists of oatmeal and coffee. But it's not just any old oatmeal, it's oatmeal my way. I can be somewhat experimental with oatmeal because I feel that the possibilities are endless. Oatmeal is like the rice of breakfast- it's all about what you add to it.

Coffee, on the other hand, I tend to do one of three ways: drip, French press, or Italian coffee (I love my Italian coffee maker). Saturday are usually French press day, but today I was really hankering for some Italian coffee with whipped cream. I filled the bottom with water, put the grounds in, and set it on the stove while I prepared the oatmeal...

I generally use quick oats because I'm always famished in the morning and the quicker I can get the breakfast in my mouth, the better. I always cook the oats in nonfat organic milk- water is so Depression-era (I say this sarcastically, but seriously, no water). While I was heating the milk on the stove top, my Italian coffeemaker began to bubble over. In a bad way. Turns out I had put too much coffee grounds in the pot so that it couldn't close all of the way, so the pressure caused the liquid to seep out of the sides as opposed to being pushed up into the upper chamber. I wound up with a very small amount of thick coffee, so I had to start up my drip coffee-maker.

Meanwhile, my milk started to bubble over on the stove, so it was time to throw in the oats. This was turning out to be a very chaotic breakfast indeed. No problem though, I set the timer and turned my attention to a peach I had in the fridge- time to slice it for the oatmeal!

Once the oatmeal finished cookie, I threw the chunks of a small peach in the pot, added a spoonful of brown sugar, a dash of cinnamon and some vanilla. I always add vanilla to my oatmeal, unless I use coconut extract. I put a lid on and returned it to the flame to warm up the peaches. When it was warm enough, I poured it into my bowl and sprinkled ground flax seed on top for some extra nutrition (another ingredient I always add to oatmeal).

Next, my coffee was finished brewing so I poured what little Italian coffee I had in a mug and poured the drip-brew over top of it. I left a little room in the mug to put some real whipped cream on top. The end result, though not what I intended, was delicious.

Peach Oatmeal a la Ray-Ray
1 recipe oatmeal cooked in milk (quick or old-fashioned according to your tastes)
1 small peach, cut into small chunks
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp ground flax seeds

Once the oatmeal is prepared, throw in the peach, vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon. Stir over heat until peaches are soft. Pour oatmeal into bowl and add the flax seed. Enjoy.

Wellesley Fudge Cake

Ah, at last I have made Wellesley Fudge Cake. It all began last year when I was perusing my mom's new issue of Cook's Country and I saw a picture of an absolutely delicious-looking chocolate cake. I read the accompanying story and recipe- it was a Wellesley Fudge Cake. Apparently back in the early 1900's fudge was contraband at Wellesley, and therefore students would have secret fudge-making parties. I think that if college kids of my generation were sneaking off to make fudge, I may have fit in a little better with my peers... Anyway, this cake came about because tea parlors in the area started making fudge cake et voila! Wellesley Fudge Cake.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, I was discussing potential birthday cake with Frakah (my birthday is at the end of October), and remembered Wellesley Fudge Cake, but could not remember where I had seen the recipe. I knew it was in a Cook's Country or Cook's Illustrated, but I had quite a stack to sort through in order to find it. When I did find it you can believe I was very, very happy.

Fast forward once more to this weekend when I had extra time on my hands to bake a cake. I was soooooo excited to finally bake it and (most of all) to try it. The cake itself was easy to make, though when I turned the pans out on to the racks to cool, some of the cake stayed in the pan (next time I will use parchment paper at the bottom) and I accidentally broke one of the cakes (though it was warm enough I  could kind of push it together).

The frosting proved rather tricky- the sort of caramelization process was a bit prolonged for me. The butter, evaporated milk and sugar just did not seem to thicken as quickly as the recipe said it should. It's also a bit more strenuous to whisk the powdered sugar into the thick fudge, and then the frosting had to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally (which meant more tiring whisking). Frosting the cake was slightly easier than most cake, though I think I broke another piece of cake in the process (we'll never know for sure because the frosting covered, but let's just say my cake looked like it had a tumor on one side).

The end result was delicious and worth the work. It was chocolaty, fudgy and sweet. Very sweet, actually. It definitely pairs well with vanilla ice cream. My younger brother and his wife heated their slices of cake in the microwave (cake is stored in the fridge), and they said it was awesome that way. All I can say is, I'm quite happy with my chocolate cake.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Legends of the Fall: Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

As I mentioned in my previous post, the seasons are a'changin' here in the good ole Pacific Northwest. Do you know what that means? It means I need to watch Legends of the Fall, that cinematic masterpiece featuring Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, and sweeping shots of Montana (really though, they filmed in Canada, which I find a little disappointing- kinda kills my dream of living on a ranch in Montana if Montana is really Canada...). It also features a lot of death and a few random sexy scenes. It's a good movie and you should watch it, unless you don't want to see some random lady with her hand on Brad Pitt's bottom (I wonder if the actress ever put that on her resume).

Fall time also means oatmeal raisin cookies. Actually, always equals oatmeal raisin cookies because I always like oatmeal raisin cookies. I also don't feel terrible about eating oatmeal raisin cookies because they're sort of a healthy treat- they have oats (fiber) and raisins (fruit). It's a win-win situation as far as I'm concerned. Throw in a Legends of the Fall DVD and it's a win-win-win situation. And now you know how I spent my evening.

I actually recruited my baker-sister, Frakah, to help me make said cookies. Not that I needed help, per se, I just wanted the company. Legends of the Fall and cookies is a nice kind of girls' night if you ask me (though dad crashed on the couch to watch the movie, so it wasn't entirely a girls' night). I chose the oatmeal raisin cookie recipe from The Grand Central Baking Book. I made their Jammers several months back and those were delicious, so I had high hopes for these cookies.

It's a pretty basic recipe with no frills. Sometimes oatmeal needs the spotlight, and in this recipe it shines. I had the task of creaming the butter and sugars (probably the funnest part of baking is seeing something kinda thick and slimy and grainy become something so wonderfully light and fluffy, like Carebear made it) while Frakah measured out the dry ingredients and prepared the pans. Add wet ingredients to butter, then dry to that mixture, and in the end stir in the oats and raisins. The messy part came when we scooped the dough  and rolled them into balls, then flattened them between our palms before placing them on the baking sheets. They baked in the oven until golden on the edges, still wet in the middle. We were a bit confused about how done they were, so the first batch seemed under-cooked, the second was over-cooked, and the third was just right (like the three bears!- speaking of which, Tristan thinks he's a bear in Legends of the Fall!).

We were baking during the first part of the movie and I guess it's been awhile since I've seen it, because I always seem to forget about Samuel, the third brother. And then the part came (SPOILER ALERT) where he dies and I'm like, oh yeah, I forgot about his brutal death. And that's when Tristan goes crazy. Seriously, he holes up in a tent with human organs (from the men he killed who killed his brother). He's never the same after that, though he still manages to have a love affair with Susannah (played by Julia Ormond), but he's still not over his brother's death so he goes on some sort of soul-searching adventure around the world (thus the random lady caressing his bottom). Naturally, Alfred (played by 90s heartthrob Aidan Quinn) can't help but marry Susannah after a fight with his father over absentee Tristan. It's all so dramatic! And every time Tristan returns from somewhere (rounding up horses, war, his travels) there is the most dramatic music ever. I don't see how anyone could not fall for someone with his own score (the movie is kind of about how everyone loves Tristan the most even though he's the freest spirit). And the second half of the movie has surprising death after surprising death- I'm even surprised even though I've seen it a few times before.

So there I was, munching on cookies, watching a big dramatic movie, and generally enjoying my Friday evening in. I realize that I often confuse this movie with A River Runs Through It, so my next task is to watch that one soon. I know it also involves Brad Pitt in jail, brother issues, and a beautiful landscape. Turns out that movie really was filmed in Montana (and Wyoming, to be fair), so now I shall have to watch it. I wonder what cookie goes with that? Anyway, the oatmeal raisin cookie. It is good. Really good. Like, "who needs cinnamon?" good. I think the fact that they're simple makes them easier to eat one right after the other. They would taste really good with some vanilla bean ice cream, but alas, I have none. They also happen to go very well with Legends of the Fall.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
from The Grand Central Baking Book by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson

8.75 oz all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
7 oz granulated sugar
7 oz light brown sugar
2 eggs, room temp
11.5 oz rolled oats
4.25 oz raisins (recipe calls for golden, we used plain)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line multiple cookie sheets with parchment paper (at least 4).

Measure the flour, baking soda, and salt into a bowl and whisk to combine.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture is lighter in color and fluffy. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl several times during the process.

While the mixer is running, crack the eggs into a liquid measuring cup and add the vanilla. Reduce the speed to low, then slowly pour in the eggs, allowing them to fall in one at a time and incorporating the first egg completely before adding the next. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl several times during the process.

Gradually add the dry ingredients (in 2 or 3 additions) with the mixer on low speed. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl once, to fully incorporate the butter and sugar. Combine the oats and raisins in the same bowl used for the dry ingredients, then add them to the bowl and mix together using a stiff rubber spatula.

Scoop the dough out with a scooper that is roughly the size of a ping pong ball, and roll the dough into a ball. Flatten the dough between the moistened palms of your hand and place on the cookie sheet (6 per sheet).

Bake for 8 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time. The cookies should be golden brown around the edges and appear slightly underdone and blond in the centers. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets.