Monday, July 31, 2017

Garlic Aoili with Crudités

 "You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist." Friedrich Nietzsche After experiencing a moment of culinary angst last week, those words, combined with taking a deep breath, and reframing the moment with a yoga inspired intention enabled me to get a grip on myself. So what caused me to have an irrational, temporary moment of emotional regression? Well, it all had to do with making aoili. I had taken it a bit too seriously. Not only was my reaction to a failed attempt a bit out of character (it's not the first time something didn't exactly go as planned), so was the way I had usually approached making a new recipe. Instead of doing a fair amount of research and triangulating multiple recipes/sources of information, I made a new recipe without doing either or both of these things. This is not to say we shouldn't allow ourselves to have those blind faith moments. Because we should. Just not all of the time. Or at least for me, not in making aoili. As it turned out, throwing out the unsalvageable olive oil and (farm fresh) eggs turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While I didn't go into full doctoral dissertation research mode, I took a step back and spent some time learning a a bit more about making aoili and mayonnaise. Without going too far down into the aoili rabbit hole, I learned fairly quickly was there are a fair number of variations in both ingredient proportions and technique. Discovering some respected chefs have shared multiple recipes for their take on a good quality aoili and/or mayonnaise was reassuring. It seemed on any given day, one's choice of aoili recipe might depend on prior success, personal preference, and/or allegiance to a particular culinary belief. In an odd sort of way, this was proof there was no one right aioli making way.

If I could, please indulge my need to share some of what I learned during this aoili and mayonnaise learning quest. Feel free to skip ahead. Using the highly regarded Larousse Gastronomique as a reference, a Bon Appetit article helped to explain some of similarities and differences between these two sauces. "Mayonnaise is a 'cold emulsified sauce consisting of yolks and oil blended together', while an aoili is an emulsified sauce that must contain garlic and olive oil." So technically, a mayonnaise could be considered an aoili, if it's made with garlic and oil, and an aoili could be considered a mayonnaise as long as it is made with a yolk. However, don't expect everyone to agree on this interchangeability viewpoint. 

How the oil is incorporated into the yolk mixture can be achieved in a variety of ways, some more foolproof than others. Food processors, immersion blenders, whisks, and a mortar/pestle are some of the tools used. Some recipes provide directions specify the use of only one of these tools, while others offer directions for multiple options. Owning an immersion blender, food processor, or a mortar/pestle will not prevent anyone from making it. A larger sized, balloon shaped whisk and strong arm muscles will work. However, success will in large part be due to the amount and rate the oil is added to the yolk mixture.

The inherent oppositional qualities of oil and water (two common mayonnaise/aoili ingredients) can make achieving a thick, velvety, smooth texture somewhat challenging (there are reasons for this, scientific ones actually!). The classic aoili/mayonnaise technique (as summarized by Kenji Lopez-Alt) begins with whisking the egg yolks, a bit of mustard, a small amount of water, and either lemon juice or vinegar. Once combined, the oil is ever so slowly trickled in while simultaneously being rapidly whisked. Adding the oil too quickly will prevent the emulsification necessary to create the rich, lush, creamy sauce some of us love. 

All of this was good information, but I wanted, or rather still needed, to know if there was a best or definitive egg yolk to oil ratio?  After looking at significant number aoili/mayonnaise recipes from some highly respected food sources, I discovered there was a fair degree of variability. Even in recipes claiming to be classic versions. The ratios ranged from one egg yolk to a half-cup of oil; to one egg yolk to 3/4 cup (or 12 Tablespoons) of oil; to one egg yolk to 10 ounces of oil; to one egg yolk to 1 1/2 cups of oil. Michael Ruhlman, the food science guru and author of the Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, cited the one egg yolk to 1 cup of oil as the perfect ratio while my favorite cooking goddess, Ina Garten, used a one (extra-large) egg yolk to 3/4 cup olive oil ratio. Discovering all of these different egg/oil ratios could have caused an aoili head spinning moment if I hadn't kept repeating the mantra 'in cooking as in life, there is no one right way to do anything'. There might be best ways, favorite ways, better ways, or for no good reason ways. On the remote chance was there only one right way, I doubt the egg yolk to oil ratio would qualify for entry into such an exclusive category.

Then there was the nagging question: Was there one best oil to use? Some recipes called for olive only; some for a combination of a neutral oil (vegetable, canola or grapeseed) and an olive oil; and still others called for the use of peanut oil. Olive oil appeared to be prevailing choice, but best appeared to be a matter of taste.  Adding another layer to the oil decision making process was learning the powerful blades of blenders and food processors could actually be responsible for creating a bitter-tasting sauce. It seems olive oil is actually made up of tiny fragments. If sheared apart from one another, they can go from being delicious tasting droplets to bitter-tasting fragments in the blink of an eye. 

As I was finally nearing the end of semi-exhaustive research endeavor I began to wonder if I should put aoili in the category of things I shouldn't make. Wouldn't mixing some finely chopped garlic into some already pre-made mayonnaise might be easier? Couldn't I use a semi-homemade or homemade version of aoili to serve with the gorgeous vegetables I had picked up at the Farmer's Market? Would anyone really care? Maybe, maybe not. Could anyone tell the difference between the two? I am pretty certain they would. But would they prefer one over the other? Well, I'd like to think given the choice between eating a semi-homemade aoili and homemade aoili, the flavor and texture of the homemade one would be the hands down favorite. On the chance this assumption is incorrect, I felt a comelling need to experience the triumph of, with or without any adulation, making a really, really good garlic aoili. The farm raised, freshly picked vegetables deserved to be served with nothing less. 

As I embarked on the second, non-melt down garlic aoili making attempt I felt certain there would be a successful outcome. But I had several decisions to make first. Beginning with which tool to use. The food processor method didn't work the first time (for a number of reasons I now realize), I don't have an immersion blender, and I may not have the patience required for using a mortar/pestle. Which left me with one choice: the whisk. Next I to decide which oil or oils to use. Being partial to the flavor of olive oil helped make that decision. And lastly was settling on an egg yolk to olive oil ratio. I had done enough reading to realize any number of the yolk to oil ratios would work as long as I was patient with adding the oil. After a bit of deliberation, I decided on Plan A (aka the 1 egg yolk to 1/2 cup oil ratio). And if, by some chance the aoili was too thick and/or it didn't meet the taste test, I would go to Plan B and add more oil. Either way I didn't think I could go wrong this time, nor lose my sanity.

When selecting vegetables for a crudité platter, there are no hard and fast rules. Choose what you like, what you think everyone would enjoy. All steamed, all raw, or grilled vegetables or a combination of any of these would work. Choose a wide assortment of or several different kinds of vegetables. Create a platter with vegetables all having the same color or make it colorful. Add hard boiled eggs, olives, and/or bread. Or not. Garnish with fresh herbs and/or flowers. Or not. Make it as an appetizer or transform it into a meal. The Garlic Aoili with Crudités  possibilities are endlless.

But definitely have a bowl of homemade garlic aoili on the platter. Like the Plan A recipe below. The one having a rich, creamy, and almost perfect consistency. Not only did it exceed all of my expectations, it restored my culinary confidence. Let the happy dancing commence!

Key to its' success the second time around was adding the olive oil ever so slowly. Starting with only drips of olive oil, gradually increased to half-teaspoonfuls while rigorously whisking well during and after each addition contributed to its' emulsification.  If I could have figured out how to add the the oil in a slow, think steady stream at a certain point, I would have. But I only had two hands. You might think the aioli making process is little time consuming. Maybe slightly. But surprisingly it didn't feel that way. 

While I am more informed about aoili/mayonnaise than I was only a week ago, I am by no means an expert. It's quite possible the next time I make an aoili, I rush the process and fail to experience aoili nirvana. It is also not outside the realm of possibility I will try and fall deeply, madly in love with another aoili recipe I was somehow lulled into making. For the moment, I am over the moon smitten with this version. 

As far as most of my blog posts go, this one may have rambled on a bit more than usual. So let me thank you for taking the time to hang in there. The day cooking and/or baking stops becoming or feeling like an adventure is the day I should probably put away my measuring cups and spoons, the large assortment of kitchen gadgets, and collection of copper pots. The hundreds of cookbooks and stacks of magazines would also have to find a new home. And most importantly, the day I stop learning from and appreciating the culinary perspectives of others is the day I should....well, let's just say I hope that day never comes because I am not certain what the best thing to do would be. Here's hoping we all continue to be kind and encouraging toward one another while experiencing the trials, tribulations, risks, and rewards awaiting us all in the gray world of cooking, baking, and making a homemade garlic aoili.

Garlic Aoili with Crudités (inspired by Bon Appetit's Real Deal Aoili recipe)

2 large egg yolks, room temperature
3 -5 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped (Note: The more garlic, the more intense the flavor. I love garlic and used only 4 medium garlic cloves.)
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup good quality olive oil
Assortment of raw and/or steamed vegetables (e.g., cherry tomatoes, carrots, string beans, baby red potatoes, artichokes, radishes, sugar snap peans, asparagus, cucumber slices, kalamata olives, etc.)
Hard-boiled eggs
Grilled Bread

1. Whisk egg yolks, salt, garlic, lemon juice and dijon mustard in a medium sized bowl to combine. The mixture should be creamy.
2. Using a large balloon whisk, add olive oil in drops whisking to ensure the mixture remains emulsified after each addition. After using about a 1/4 cup of the oil, begin to add oil in slightly larger amounts (think half teaspoons) or a very, very thin stream, whisking during and well after each addition. Note: If oil is added too quickly the aoili will break down and the oil will separate.
3. Continue whisking until all of the oil is incorporated and the aoili is thick enough to hold its' shape when spooned. Season with additional salt if necessary.
4. Serve immediately or cover and chill. Can be made a day ahead. Will last for at least a week in the refrigerator. 
5. Choose an assortment of steamed and/or raw vegetables; hard-boiled eggs; and/or grilled bread. Arrange on a platter. Serve with bowl of the garlic aoili. 

Notes: (1) Use a good quality olive oil and dijon mustard. It is not necessary to use extra-virgin olive oil, just a really good olive oil. In fact you can use a combination of olive oil and a neutral oil (like canola or vegetable oil. Maille is my favorite go-to dijon mustard. (2) The flavor of the garlic will intensify the longer the aoili chills in the refrigerator, so you might to use only 3-4 cloves of garlic the first time you make it. (3) This garlic aoili would also be a great condiment for grilled meats, burgers, chicken and/or seafood. It would even elevate any number of sandwiches. And oh, french fries dipped in this garlic aoili would be insane! (4) I didn't provide directions using immersion blender or any other tool as I have only made it using a whisk. If you have had aioli success with any other tool, feel free to use it. 

Farmer's Market bounty. (July, 2017)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Pasta with Marinara, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, and Burrata

Making decisions on what to eat or not to eat on the mornings as well as the night before a long run or race has been a bit of an ongoing challenge for me. There are no shortage of recommendations or schools of thought about what one's body needs or what the protein to carbohydrate ratio should be in order to sustain intense and/or extended periods of exercise. I have read about and tinkered with most of them. Learning all too well that what works for some doesn't always work for others. Especially for those like me with overly sensitive stomachs. No matter what the most accomplished athletes or coaches prescribe as 'optimal performance foods', it turns out following the most prevailing wisdom, aka 'listen to your body,' may be the best pre- and post-run/workout advice out there. My food choices go through phases depending on a number of variables. Eating pasta the night before a long run seems to be working best at the moment. I couldn't be happier. 

For the past ten weeks I have been just one of cadre of committed runners helping to support a group of amazing women training for either a 5k or 10k race. Everyone who joined this running group came with at least one personal goal. They ranged from improving their running performance and/or endurance; to supporting their return to running after an extended period of absence; to getting physically and mentally ready to run a race. The newest members to the group learned more than good running form; the importance of speed/hill work and cross training; and/or why nutrition matters. They discovered the running group was more than a venue to become a better runner or to experience the benefits of being supported during a run. It was a place where great friendships are formed and where both small and big successes are celebrated. The intangible outcomes of being part of this running group almost outweigh its' tangible benefits. 

This past weekend we all ran either the 5k or 10k culminating race. It just happened the race was on one of the hottest, most humid days of the summer thus far. And while there had been some hot/humid training days, nothing came close to this runner's worst race days fears. Full sun, little to no wind, and temperatures/humidity soaring to incredibly high, warning levels. In spite of the running conditions and a series of unexpected hills on the course, everyone successfully finished their race. The best part of the day for me was being with the women I had been running with for the past ten weeks. Unbeknownst to them, they made me, the hot weather wimptress, want to keep my 'running head' in the game. For my part, I made certain I ate what I thought my body needed the night before the race. The Pasta with Marinara, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, and Burrata may have been the best pre-race meal I have ever eaten. But I won't even tell you what my post-race food and beverage intake was as it violated almost all of the post-race food advice out there or how much fun sitting in a kiddie pool filled with ice cold water with four of my running friends was. But I couldn't have been happier.

There are so many rave worthy things about this pasta dish. One of them had to do with the choice of pasta. I absolutely love long, on the wider side pasta noodles. Tagliatelle, a long, flat pasta ribbon, was the perfect choice. They are slightly wider than fettuccine and much thinner than pappardelle. Instead of water, tagliatelle noodles are made with eggs. As a result they have a slightly higher absorbency quality, making them one that stands well to a variety of sauces (e.g., bolognese, carbonara). And they were the perfect choice for this pasta dish. 

Adding roasted cherry tomatoes to this pasta dish not only adds an amazing flavor and texture dimension, they make for even more visually appealing one as well. Drizzled with some olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt and pepper, the tomatoes are roasted in a 400 degrees (F) for approximately 20 minutes (or until they begin to blister). Roasting the tomatoes at a high temperature for a relatively short amount of time turns them into incredible bursts of flavor.

The recipe for this slightly chunky, deeply flavored marinara sauce was inspired by one of Lidia Bastianich's recipes. Unlike a more complex tomato sauce, a marinara comes together relatively quickly relying on very few ingredients to give it a deep, rich flavor.  Instead of using cans of plum tomatoes and crushing them by hand, this marinara uses cans of crushed tomatoes.You might think the use of 16-18 cloves of garlic would overpower this marinara sauce. But it doesn't. Sautéing the chopped garlic in extra-virgin olive oil until they are pale golden in color tames their bitterness and transforms them into sweet bites of goodness. After the sauce simmers for 20-30 minutes, remove a generous cup from the pan as this recipe yields more sauce than you need to coat the tagliatelle. The extra sauce can be heated and served on the side for those who love a heavily dressed plate of pasta, used to lightly coat meatballs (if you are also making them) or reserved for another use. 

When the tagliatelle reaches al dente, it's drained and added to the simmering marinara sauce. Remember to reserve at least a cup of the pasta water. It will ever so slightly smooth the sauce as well as help to continue to cook the pasta after it's mixed into the sauce. Be sparring with the use of the pasta water as you still want this marinara to retain its' slightly chunky texture. Note: I added less than 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sauce.

After the tagliatelle is completely coated with the marinara sauce, add half of the roasted tomatoes and all of the roasting juices from the pan. Gently stir and then pour the pasta into your serving dish. Top with chards of the burrata cheese and some additional chopped basil. To finish, drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil over the top. This Pasta with Marinara, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, and Burrata is now ready to wow your family and friends. 

The addition of the roasted cherry tomatoes and burrata along with use of the tagliatelle pasta creates a most beautiful, most flavorful bowl of pasta. One certain to make a lasting impression on everyone's eyes and palates. Paired with a salad and some great bread, the Pasta with Marinara, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, and Burrata is hearty enough to be an incredibly satisfying meal. Bring a great bottle of wine (or two, depending on your friends) to the table and it's possible no one will leave your dinner table until every last morsel of the pasta has been devoured. No one will be happier.

Pasta with Marinara, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, and Burrata (marinara recipe influenced by Lidia Bastianich)
Serves: 6 hungry or 8 not so hungry people

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (plus additional for finishing)
14-16 cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
2 cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (28 ounce size)
2 to 3 Tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons Kosher salt (or more to your liking)
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo red pepper
12-16 fresh basil leaves, sliced into slivers (plus additional leaves for garnishing)

16-18 ounces cherry tomatoes
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper

1 pound tagliatelle pasta 
12 ounces burrata 

Marinara Sauce
1. Heat extra virgin olive oil in a heavy deep saucepan.  Add garlic and cook until lightly browned.
2. Add crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat, add salt, Aleppo pepper flakes and sugar. Simmer until slightly thickened. Approximately 20-30 minutes.
4. Add slivered basil to sauce about 5 minutes before the sauce is finished.
5. Remove a generous cup of the marinara sauce and set aside.

Roasted Tomatoes
1. While marinara sauce is simmering, heat oven to 400 degrees (F). 
2. Place tomatoes in a roasting dish or pan. Drizzle with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper.
3. Roast tomatoes for approximately 20 minutes or until tomatoes begin to blister. Reserve drippings.

Pasta and Assembly.
1. Cook pasta in salted water until al dente (the cooking time for the tagliatelle was approximately 5-6 minutes). Reserve at least one cup of the pasta water after draining. 
2. Add drained pasta to the marinara sauce, add a ladle of the reserved pasta water (or enough until it reaches a desired consistency), toss until the pasta is coated and simmer for additional 1-2 minutes. This additional cooking time will bring the pasta to the perfect consistency.
3. Transfer pasta to serving bowl. Toss in half of the roasted tomatoes and all of the tomato juice drippings from the roasting pan. 
4. Arrange remaining half of the roasted tomatoes over the pasta.
5. Cut burrata into pieces and place on top of pasta.
6. Lightly drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Garnish with additional chopped basil. Serve immediately.

Notes: (1) Marinara sauce can be made a day ahead. Reheat before adding the cooked, drained pasta. Can use some of the pasta water to thin the sauce. (2) Can serve the generous reserved cup of marinara sauce on the side, use to coat meatballs if making, or save for another use. (3) If you can't find tagliatelle pasta, consider using linguine, fettuccine or pappardelle pasta for this dish.

One view of Chicago's skyline, an iconic building, the L-train, and the Buckingham Fountain, taken while an architectural boat tour (June, 2017)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Raspberry Crumb Bars

"I am beginning to recognize that real happiness isn't' something large and looming on the horizon ahead, but something small, numerous and already here." (Beau Taplin) It doesn't seem to take much to make me happy lately. Season seven of the Game of Thrones returned this past week, I bought a small 'kiddie' pool for running and exercise recovery reasons (partly true), having coffee with friends after running and/or working out, I absolutely loved a book (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) I came across unexpectedly, and the driveway went from looking like blight to brand new thanks to a long over due coat of sealer were some of the sources of happiness this week. It's true what they say. There is much to be said for finding joy in the small things. If you look back at your week, what would be those things that made your heart race or brought a smile to your face?

I thought these Raspberry Crumb Bars were really, really, really good, but having friends say they loved them was yet another of the week's highlights. Validation never ever gets old. I could say 'at least for me' but I don't think I am the only one who thrives on hearing kind words. One of the simplest gifts we can give to others, especially to those we love or value. Generosity comes in many forms, but gifting with words may be the most powerful of them all.

But let's not underestimate the power of a platter of home baked treats to let others know they matter to you. In the absence of words, the gift of anything homemade speaks volumes. Like these buttery, sumptuous Raspberry Crumb Bars for example. Amazon reminded me I bought the cookbook "Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery and Cafe" almost seven years ago. But it took seeing the luscious, ripe raspberries at this week's farmer's market to get me to make them.

I have made a number of fruit bar recipes before, but these may now be my favorite for so many reasons. All-purpose and cake flours help to create the tenderest of shortbread crusts. The butter adds the kind of melt in your mouth richness you come to expect from a really great shortbread. Granulated and confectionary sugars bring just the right amount of sweetness. The addition of fresh raspberries to the layer of raspberry preserves took these crumb bars to yet another level. 

Like the old adage 'don't judge a book by its' cover', don't judge these Raspberry Crumb Bars by their directions. At first look, they will appear to be a little on the cumbersome side. If anything, they are more on the time intensive than on the labor intensive side. 

The dough for the shortbread base is beautifully soft and supple. It all begins with beating the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy (approximately five minutes). This first step is key so don't rush through it. With the addition of the egg yolks and vanilla there is another 2-3 minutes of beating time. The sifted dry ingredients are added slowly and mixed only until fully incorporated. The consistency of the dough requires it to be chilled. At a minimum the chilling time is 30 minutes, at a maximum it is 2 hours. After following the original recipe as written, I am not convinced a quarter of the dough needs to be put in the freezer for two hours. I think the dough for the base and dough for the top could both be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes, although 60 minutes may be better. But more on the top layer of these Raspberry Crumb Bars later.

Instead of making free form bars, these were baked in a 9"x12" baking pan. After the lightly floured dough was rolled between two sheets of parchment paper, it was lifted and placed into the pan (top piece of parchment paper removed before baking). The base layer is baked in a preheated 350 degree (F) oven for approximately 20 minutes or until a very light brown. Before the raspberry jam/preserves and if using, fresh raspberries are evenly spread over the base crust, the baked base needs to cool for 10-15 minutes. 

A large hole box or hand held grater is used to turn the block of frozen dough into chards of dough. Honestly, this was a bit messy. Which made me think it might be easier to break off bits of dough and spread evenly over the top of the jam/fruit before returning the baking pan to the oven. Eliminating the step of freezing some of the dough for 2 hours and replacing it with a chill time of approximately 60 minutes would save considerable time in the making of these Raspberry Crumb Bars.

The baking pan returns to the oven and continues to bake for 20-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown. As it turned out my baking time was 30 minutes, but would recommend you begin checking yours for doneness at the 20 minute mark. Before they are lightly dusted with confectionary sugar, the bars need to cool to room temperature. Yes, I know, this seems like a day long project. Maybe its' a half day one, but the investment of time has an incredible pay off.

The ratio of jam/preserves to shortbread is crumb bar perfection. All of the expectations I had for these Raspberry Crumb Bars were exceeded. They redefine melt in your mouth deliciousness. After cutting them into 18 smaller bars, I understood why the original recipe called for cutting them into 9 larger bars. As one small bar turned out to be a bit of tease. 

These Raspberry Crumb Bars are what you would expect to find at a high quality bakery. When you serve these to your friends and family, I wouldn't at all be surprised if they asked you where you got them. I can tell you these bars will be good for several days if stored in a covered container. But it's highly unlikely they will last that long. When you travel to the grocery store to pick up some raspberry jam or preserves, you should probably buy two jars. I have a strong feeling you will be making these more than once. 

Raspberry Crumb Bars (a slight adaptation to Joanne Chang's recipe in her cookbook "Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery and Cafe")
Makes 9 large bars or 18 medium sized ones

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks/342 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons confectionary or caster sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups (175 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (180 grams) cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups (510 grams) raspberry jam or preserves, with seeds. See Note.
1/4 cup (35 grams) confectionary sugar
Optional: 1/4 pint fresh raspberries

1. In a medium sized bowl, sift together the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and kosher salt. Set aside.
2. In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter, granulated sugar, and confectionary sugar on medium speed for approximately 5 minutes or until mixture is very light and fluffy. Stop the mixer intermittently to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
3 Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla at medium speed for 2-3 minutes or until yolks are fully incorporated. Scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.
4. On low speed gradually add in sifted flour mixture. Mix until flour is totally incorporated. Again stop the mixer as needed to scrape the bowl to make certain all of the flour is fully incorporated.
5. Scrape the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap. Remove 1/4 of the dough and transfer to a separate sheet of plastic wrap. 
6. Form large piece of dough into a rectangle, at least 1 inch thick. Form the smaller piece of dough into a small brick shape. 
7. Place the large piece of the dough into the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Note: If freezing small piece of dough for 2 hours, chilling time on the dough will be approximately 90 minutes.
8. Place the small piece of dough into the freezer for 2 hours. Note: Alternately, place small piece of dough in the refrigerator as well.
9. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Position a rack in the center of the oven.
10. On a large sheet of parchment paper, trace the outline of a 9"x13" or 9"x12" baking pan. Turn paper over so ink or pencil is facing down. Lightly sprinkle the top of the dough with all-purpose flour. Top with another piece of parchment paper. Roll out large piece of dough to the size of the baking pan selected (see above).
11. Transfer parchment paper to baking pan. Remove top piece of parchment paper.
12. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the shortbread is very light brown. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes. Keep oven on.
13. Spread the raspberry jam/preserves evenly over the slightly cooled crust. Optional: Sprinkle with 1/4 pint of raspberries if using.
14. Remove small piece of dough from the freezer. Using the large holes of a handheld or box grater, grate dough into large flakes over the jam/preserves. Make sure dough is evenly distributed. Note: If the small piece of dough was refrigerated but not frozen, break up into small pieces and evenly distribute over the jam/preserves.
15. Return baking sheet to the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until top is lightly browned. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire rack to allow the bars to cool completely.
16. When cooled, sift confectionary sugar evenly over the top. Cut into bars. Note: For large sized bars, cut into 9 pieces. for medium sized bars, cut into 18 pieces.
17. Serve immediately or store bars in an airtight container for up to 3-4 days. Note: Can also wrap bars individually and store in the refrigerator.

Notes: (1) A 13 ounce jar of Bonne Maman Raspberry Preserves yielded exactly what the recipe called for. (2) Instead of the free form method of rolling out the dough into a 9"x12" or 9"x13" inch rectangle and transferring to a baking sheet, recommend rolling out dough to fit into a baking pan so all of the edges are even and there is no waste. (3) The use of fresh raspberries is optional, but they took these bars to an even higher level of deliciousness. (4) It may have been my oven, but the bars on the second bake didn't get to a golden brown color. But their taste/texture were perfect after 30 minutes of baking. However, recommend checking for doneness at 20 minutes. (5) These bars were made with Raspberry Preserves, but these would be equally delicious with Mixed Berry Preserves or Blackberry Preserves.

Summer's bounty at the local Farmer's Market (July 2017)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake

Sometimes one needs a reason to make a cake. Or rather I need a reason to make a cake. Mine range from simply having a craving for cake, to wondering what a cake I had never made before tastes like, to honoring a special occasion with cake. If I acted on the craving cake reason as often as I had a yearning for one, a significant amount of my time would be spent in the kitchen making them. Fortunately there are other things competing for time in my life, so cake baking doesn't usually make it to the top of the daily list of things I need or want to do. If I baked a cake every time I came across a new recipe peeking my taste interests, there would be at least one new cake made weekly. In spite of a strong desire to master 'on the first try' a new recipe, I am pretty certain my family and friends would either soon lose their appetites for cake or start avoiding me. Which leaves baking for special occasions or rather I should say special people having a special occasion as my favorite reason for baking a cake. Especially when those special occasions are birthdays. 

Store bought cakes may work for some occasions, but birthdays call for homemade ones. And a friend's birthday this past week was the inspiration behind the making of this Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake. For as often as I have made chocolate cakes, I have never made one with Peanut Butter Icing. Seriously. Even I wondered how it was possible I had never combined two of my most favorite flavors together in a cake before.This hard to believe oversight may have actually been a blessing in disguise as this cake is one I could easily find a way to justify making for no good reason at all. It's absolutely wickedly delicious.

Deciding which chocolate cake and which peanut butter icing recipes to combine was an easy decision. Julia Turshen's Everyday Chocolate Cake now ranks high on my list of the best chocolate cakes ever.  Not only does it have a deep chocolate flavor and moist texture, it is surprisingly easy to make. I immediately knew the peanut butter icing used to top the Banana Cupcakes would elevate this chocolate cake to an even higher level of celebratory decadence. 

The peanut butter icing has an ethereal quality to it. Butter, cream cheese, peanut butter and confectionary sugar are whipped together to create the creamiest of icings. The taste of peanut butter is discernible without being either overwhelming or overpowering. 

When I first decided to make this Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake as a birthday cake for a friend, I toyed with the idea of making it a four layer cake. But after it was iced and decorated with some peanut butter cups, the two layer cake turned out to be perfect.

There are any number of ways you could ice and decorate this cake. Use of a pastry bag is optional. Adorning it with or without peanut butter cups, sprinkles and/or nuts/peanuts is purely dependent on the occasion and/or your imagination. 

Celebrating a birthday with a cake, especially one homemade, can often transport us back in time. Just having a single slice of cake can enable us to reconnect with our inner youthful selves. A birthday cake not only helps to mark the day, it can also be a powerful reminder of how much there is to celebrate in our lives. There are so many reasons why we need to have a cake on our birthday. Feeling like a kid again and being reminded of what friends have brought to our lives may be only two of them. 

Whatever it is that you wish for your next birthday, may it always include a homemade cake shared with friends. It is more than possible you will decide every one of your birthdays should include this two layer homemade with love cake, particularly after you take a bite of it. 

Having a homemade cake that combines chocolate and peanut butter may be the proverbial 'icing on the cake' reason for making this one. Because honestly, you don't need or shouldn't wait for a special occasion to make this cake. Really, you shouldn't. 

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake (minor changes to Julia Turshen's Happy Wife, Happy Life Chocolate Cake recipe as shared in her cookbook "Small Victories: Recipes, Advice, and Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs" and  s slight adaptation to the Matt Lewis/Renato Poliafito recipe for icing created for Bon Appetit)

Serves 8-12 people, depending on how you slice it

1 1/4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour 
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
3/4 cup (75 g) Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted if lumpy
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 Tablespoons (113 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
1 cup strong black coffee cooled or 1 rounded teaspoon espresso powder mixed into 1 cup boiling water then cooled
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla

3 cups confectionary sugar, sifted
16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup smooth, creamy peanut butter, recommend JIF (do not use old-fashioned, freshly ground or natural)
generous pinch of sea salt
Optional: Garnish with Peanut Butter Cups, sprinkles, chopped peanuts, etc.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F). Butter and parchment paper line two 8" baking pans. Lightly butter top of parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
3. Add melted butter, eggs, coffee, buttermilk, and vanilla. Whisk until batter is thick and smooth.
4. Divide batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans. Lightly tap the cake pans to remove any air bubbles. Note: Using a digital scale helps to ensure each pan has equal amounts of batter.
5. Bake until tops of cake spring back when lightly pressed and edges begin to come away from the pan. Approximately 30 minutes of baking time.
6. Transfer cakes to a wire rack and allow to cool completely. 

Icing and Assembly
1. In a medium sized bowl, beat cream cheese, butter and peanut butter until smooth and creamy.
2. Add in sifted confectionary sugar, beat until well blended.
3. Using a pastry bag, pipe frosting onto cupcakes. Or spread frosting using an offset spatula.
4. Place one of the cakes upside-down on your serving platter or cake stand. Spoon slightly more than 1/3 of the frosting on the cake. Spread evenly over cake.
5. Place the second cake layer (again upside-down) on the frosted layer. Top cake with a light coat of the icing. Use a pastry bag to decorate top of cake. Will be using a little more than 1/3 of the icing.
6. Use the remaining frosting to frost the sides of the cake. If using, add cake garnishes.
7. Serve immediately or cover cake and chill in the refrigerator before serving. Take cake out at least 30 minutes before serving to soften the icing. The cake itself will remain sightly chilled.

Notes: (1) I used two different sizes of the milk chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe's to garnish the cake. (2) Cake can be made a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Hiking trail on Whidbey Island; forest fairy chair along a path in Snoqualmie (WA); and lupines at the base of Mount Si (Western Cascade Range in Washington).