Monday, May 31, 2010

Brown Butter Shortbread Cookies

David, being the terrible person that he is, did a little bit of cleaning around the apartment yesterday afternoon while I napped, exhausted from our strenuous day of hotdog-eating, kite-flying, and sun-bathing at Pacific Beach.  Do you feel sorry for me yet?

I tell you this because he put a long-lost six-month-old issue of Real Simple on top of the toilet, the spine of which caught my eye as I was getting ready for bed that night.  Alongside the name of the magazine and month of distribution, there was a quote by Charles W. Chesnutt (whoever he is): "We sometimes underestimate the influence of little things."

It made me think of my friend Julia, who is in Atlanta right now as part of a program called Mission Year.  She and her teammates live in an inner-city neighborhood, and basically spend their time volunteering and trying to be good neighbors.  The ways in which they help, like tutoring and giving neighbors rides to the grocery store, may seem small to some, but I know that they make a real and tangible difference in their community.  Julia and her teammates have a limited food budget, so Julia asked me if I could send some cookies for her and her roommates/teammates.  Of course, I was happy to oblige.

So, in celebration of "the little things", I am sending them these Brown Butter Shortbread Cookies.  I took a basic shortbread cookie recipe, but browned the butter before making the dough.  This was a small change that resulted in a shortbread cookie with lots of oomph, so to speak.  I hope Julia and her teammates enjoy them.

Brown Butter Shortbread Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

Cut the butter into cubes and melt in a small saucepan.  Cook the butter, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a golden, amber color.  For more detailed instructions on how to brown butter, see my previous post.  When the butter has been browned, pour into a dish and chill in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours or until just firm.

Cream the butter with the powdered sugar and salt until fluffy.  Add the vanilla extract and mix until combined.  Beat in the flour.  At first, the dough may seem crumbly, and it may seem like it will never come together, but keep working at it until the dough is combined. 

Roll the dough into a cylinder with a diameter of 1 1/2 inches.  Chill in the fridge for three hours.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Take the dough out of the fridge and let soften for a minute or two, so that you can slice it without it crumbling.  Slice the dough into 3/4 inch thick cookies.  Place on cookie sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until slightly golden at the edges.  Cool on wire racks until it reaches room temperature.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

How to Brown Butter

Until about six months ago, I thought that butter was the most amazing thing in the world.  It takes popcorn from something that threatens to impale your throat on the way down to something that is perfectly salty and delicious.  When spread on toast, it melts into all the nooks and crannies, and when spread on bread before toasting, it forms a crispy layer of golden goodness on the surface of the bread.  It's what makes cakes and muffins and cookies so rich and yummy and melt-in-your-mouth good.  In a lot of cases, all it takes is a drizzle of butter to get kids to eat brocolli (they may not find it delicious, but they will find it entirely tolerable).  There is nothing that can't be improved by butter.

There is, however, a way to improve butter itself: brown it.

Brown butter is made by cooking butter until the milk solids turn brown and the water cooks out.  The melted butter goes from yellow to a golden-amber color, and smells nutty and toasty and caramel-y and all sorts of delicious.

It's best to brown butter over medium heat.  It may take a long time, and you may be tempted to step away from the stove a bit, but browning butter requires constant monitoring.  The change from yellow to toasty brown to burnt black happens very quickly, and it's important to get your butter off the stove as soon as you notice that it has become brown.  Keep a heat-proof bowl or dish next to the stove so you can remove the butter from the heat right away.

How to Brown Butter:

Cut butter into cubes and place in a saucepan.  Heat until melted, stirring occasionally.  It won't take long for the milk solids to separate from the fats and form a white layer of foam on the top of the butter.

This made me a little nervous at first, because I couldn't tell what color the butter was underneath, but I just kept kind of pushing the foam to the side.

After a while, the white milk solids will cook off, leaving an unobstructed view of the butter.

This lasts for about a minute.  Then, a foam will cover the top layer again - it will be harder to push to the side than the initial layer - and the butter will be brown underneath.  I unfortunately didn't get a picture of this stage because I didn't want the butter to burn.  Transfer the brown butter to another bowl or dish.  Don't forget the brown bits - they're the best part!

Once you have brown butter, you can do all sorts of great things with it.  You can toss it with pasta with a little bit of parmesan.  You can substitute it in recipes that call for melted butter to give the dish a greater depth of flavor.  What I did was put it in the fridge to firm up and used it in place of regular butter to make a basic shortbread cookie...but you'll have to wait until tomorrow to get the recipe!

See you then!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Giddy with Glee: Strawberry Lemonade Bars

Every Tuesday night, David and I host a Glee party, when our friends come over to our apartment to watch Glee and eat dessert.  Glee is far from our favorite show, but it's definitely a show that's better when you watch it with friends.  Even at it's most tonally inconsistent, the show is a lot of fun to watch, and last night was no exception.  The theme last night was "theatricality", which, in the eyes of the show, is synonymous with Lady Gaga. Even though I dislike the show's weekly themes (they usually lead to after-school-special moments, and the characters say the title of the episode every five seconds), I love Lady Gaga songs, even though I sometimes have a hard time admitting it to my friends.  Don't judge me - they're really catchy!

I try to test out a new dessert every Glee night, mostly so I can get honest feedback. My friends aren't afraid to tell me when a dessert is "just okay", or if a cookie is too cakey or too sweet.  Yesterday afternoon, I was having trouble deciding what I should make for Glee night.  Luckily, the first thing I spotted when I walked into the grocery store was a display of strawberries for 99 cents a carton (apparently, they were super cheap all over. It's officially strawberry season, guys). As soon as I saw them, I knew exactly what I wanted to make: Strawberry Lemonade Bars.  I had seen the recipe on Baking Bites last fall and had been itching to make them ever since, but wanted to wait until strawberries were in season.

These strawberry lemonade bars are essentially lemon bars with strawberry puree added. They are the perfect blend of sweet and tart, and trust me when I say that they are addictive. They remind me a lot of the strawberry lemonade at Souplantation (or Sweet Tomatoes, depending on where you live).  These bars are super fast and simple to make if you have a blender or food processor - but even if you don't, they're well worth the extra effort.  You can eat them cold or at room temperature, but I prefer to eat them after they've been in the fridge overnight.  Next time, I might double up on the crust - not because I think the ratio was off, but just because I really, really liked the crust.  And really, what more of a reason do you need?

Strawberry-Lemonade Bars
Adapted from Baking Bites

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt

1 cup fresh lemon juice
2-3 tsp lemon zest (I zested two small lemons and got about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup pureed strawberries
1 1/4 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9 x 13 pan.

Make your crust first.  Cream butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy.  Mix in flour and salt until crumbly.  Press into pan in an even layer.  Bake for 17 minutes.

While your crust is baking, make the filling.  Combine lemon  juice, zest, strawberries, sugar, and eggs in a blender.  Blend until combined.  Add flour, baking powder, and salt, and blend until combined.  Pour filling into baked crust.  Bake for 23 - 26 minutes until filling is set.

Cool completely before cutting.  Store in the refrigerator.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Zucchini Bread with Pistachios and Chocolate Chips

When I was little, I heard a story in church about how Jesus walked on water, and because Peter had faith, he was able to walk on water as well. Inspired by that story, the next time my dad took me to the community pool, I walked straight over to the deep end of the pool, focused intently on believing both in God and my possession of the ability to walk on water, and stepped off the edge. Needless to say, I sank like a boulder.

Sometimes my aspirations are a little unrealistic. I don't mean unrealistic in that my aspirations defy the odds, as in, "I'm definitely going to be one of the twelve out of 300 applicants who get accepted into this particular graduate program", but unrealistic in that they defy the laws of physics, chemistry, gravity, time, and everything that defines how the world as we know it operates.

Case in point: David thought it might be nice if I made a cake for his grandpa's 94th birthday, as his grandpa doesn't get to eat many treats and subsists mostly on frozen tv dinners. I excitedly began planning the cake - I was going to make him an almond 1-2-3-4 cake, because my father-in-law told me that Grandpa-Great used to make it all the time for Grandpa P. I was going to coat and fill it with chocolate ganache, and decorate it with swoops and swirls of blue and yellow buttercream frosting.

Unfortunately, I hit a few roadblocks. We were leaving early Saturday morning. "That's fine," I told myself. "I'll just make it Friday night."

But then I remembered how the last 1-2-3-4 cake I made got dry and stale the next day. "I'll wake up really early Saturday morning," said the girl who pressed her snooze button eight times the Saturday morning she had wanted to go to the Farmer's Market right when it opened.

"I guess I'll use a different recipe," I persisted. But then I thought that a frosted cake might not last the 3-hour trip to Grandpa P's house.

"Well, I'll just stop by Michael's on the way home tonight, and buy a cake carrier, and I'll put the cake in the cake carrier and put the cake carrier in a large cooler that I'll buy at Rite-Aid later tonight and surround it gallon-sized ziploc bags filled with will last."

And when did I land on this "solution"? Friday afternoon, the day before we were going to leave, two hours before dinner with my friend who was visiting from L.A. Needless to say, I did not end up making a two-layer cake for Grandpa P. There are not enough hours in the day, people.

All this to say, I made zucchini bread instead. It's tasty, easily transportable, and contains enough veggies to convince anyone that it's actually very healthy. I adapted a Martha Stewart recipe, which I have done before to great results. I made a few changes - I replaced the dark brown sugar with light brown sugar and the walnuts with pistachios and chocolate chips to accomodate what was in my pantry. I also didn't line the loaf pans with parchment paper, choosing to simply grease it instead.

I know the story made it sound like I settled (or that I made Grandpa P. settle) - how could zucchini bread possibly compare to a two-layer almond cake smothered in chocolate ganache? But as humble as zucchini bread is, it really is very delicious. The zucchini helps the bread to stay moist and tender for days, and the dark green flecks in the bread makes it pretty even when unadorned. The pistachios and chocolate chips add complexity in taste, texture, and visual appeal. Personally, I thought the saltiness of the pistachios and the sweetness of the chocolate complimented each other perfectly without overwhelming the cinnamony goodness of the zucchini bread.

This recipe yields two loaves. I left Grandpa P.'s loaf plain because I wasn't sure whether or not he was allergic to nuts. If you want to put pistachios and chocolate chips in both loaves, use the amount listed in the recipe; if you only want it in one loaf, half it. You could also leave them out altogether.

The pictures do not accurately display the amount of nuts and chocolate chips called for in the recipe. I put in a little less because I was worried that David wouldn't like the nuts. That being said, I really wish that I had added the amount called for, so do it, okay?

Zucchini Bread with Pistachios and Chocolate Chips

Adapted from Martha Stewart

2 zucchinis, grated
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup roasted and salted pistachios, roughly chopped
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 4 1/2 by 8 1/2 inch loaf pans.

Combine zucchini, sugars, oil, and eggs. Add dry ingredients. Mix well. Stir in almond extract. Fold in pistachios and chocolate chips. Split the batter between the two loaf pans. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Raspberry-Drop Lemon Muffins

Hi friends,
Well, this is my very first blog post...and I want to talk about muffins.

When my friend Lauren Carmen San Diego, adventurer and world-traveler, lover of all things raspberry and lemon, said that she was coming to visit me and David in San Diego for one night only, I knew exactly what I wanted to make for her: tiny lemon muffins with a single raspberry plopped into the middle. Not that she wanted or asked for muffins - it's just that when I saw the recipe, I immediately thought of Lauren and how much I wanted to shove five or six of them into her mouth. (Side note: In the past five months, I've accumulated five or six more recipes involving lemons and raspberries in my mental Rolodex for the next time she visits.)

What I love about these muffins is that it's so easy to change up the flavors. The lemon zest can be replaced with the zest of just about any other citrus, and the raspberries can be replaced with any other berry (though if you want to use strawberries, you should probably quarter them). The muffins are pretty darn tasty as-written, but I'm still looking forward to playing around with the seemingly infinite number of possible flavor variations. Blood orange and blackberries. Lime and strawberries. Meyer lemon and blueberries (though I'm not really a fan of blueberries, so you're going to have to try that one out for me). I might even go crazy and try some grapefruit zest.

I'm not sure how long the muffins last, as ours were gone by the next night, but I think they could probably keep for a few days in the fridge.

Raspberry-Drop Lemon Muffins
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 14 large or 56 mini muffins

1 1/8 cup sugar, divided
4 teaspoons lemon zest (I used 2 large lemons)
2 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (at room temperature)*
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk**
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
56 fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease or line muffin tins.

Mash 1/8 cup sugar and the lemon zest until it forms a sort of lemon-sugar paste.

Whisk flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl until combined. In a large bowl, beat butter and remaining 1 cup sugar until smooth. Beat in egg, then buttermilk, then vanilla and lemon-sugar paste. Beat in flour mixture until combined and no traces of flour remain.

Divide batter among muffin cups. Top each large muffin with four raspberries or each mini muffin with one raspberry. Bake large muffins for about 35 minutes or mini muffins for 17-20 minutes.

* If you only have salted butter, omit 1/4 teaspoon salt.

** If you don't have buttermilk, it's simple to make your own. Put 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a measuring cup, and fill up to the one cup line with whole milk. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes, and you have buttermilk!