Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Black Forest Cookies...

I was very tempted to scrap the treat day baking when I realized just how hot it was going to get outside today. The average temperature is supposed to be around 80 degrees, but we shot right past that and ended up just under 100. I guess that shouldn't be completely awful, especially after our stint in Phoenix, but it is as thick as mud out there with humidity... it felt like I was opening a heated oven when I let the pups out into the backyard! I decided to keep with tradition though and just put the AC to work to crank out these Black Forest Cookies.

The dough for these cookies is decidedly decadent, with a triple threat of chocolate using melted bittersweet, cocoa powder and stocky pieces of semisweet. The recipe didn't call for any, but I did add a splash of vanilla to the dough while mixing - it also didn't specify sweet or tart cherries. We went tart since that's what we have - I'd suggest the same if you make them, although I don't think it would be that big of a deal if you went sweet.

You should note in the recipe that I don't suggest preheating the oven before you begin the process - once the dough is combined, it will need a good half hour or more rest in the refrigerator to firm up, leaving you plenty of time to warm the oven. There's no point in having it blasting away when it won't be working (especially when its already way over 90 degrees outside!).

When you pull the cookies out from the oven, don't try to transfer them off the baking sheet for at least 4 or 5 minutes as they are delicate when they are hot. The directions did state to move them after a minute or two, which I did, only to see the sad cookie fall apart through the cooling rack! After leaving the rest to sit for a good 5 minutes before going near them, they held together as one would expect.

Close to brownie-like, these thick cookies are dense, moist and chewy, with chunky pieces of tart cherries and an abundance of those semisweet chocolate drops in each one. The baking time is important since you won't want to over-bake these for the best texture (moist vs dried out) - if you're not comfortable with the "until the edges are firm" is as far as doneness, let me suggest baking a test cookie or two to nail down the time before loading up a full tray.

If you touch the edge of the cookie it should be firm, but it shouldn't look like it is darkening more than the rest. The tops will be shiny and look set, but if you were to stick a toothpick in the center, it will look damp and underdone - this is what you want! As noted above, the cookies will finish cooking through the residual heat of the pan before moving them to the wire rack to cool.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sticky-Fingers Bars...

Yikes! A week has raced by already since our last post... I miss being able to spend the time writing up the dinners and treats we make each day. Such is life these days, especially with the extra time we're having to pay towards Dora.

She's a great pup, but has become a bit protective of us around strangers and other dogs (to the point of being aggressive sometimes!) - since we have no idea about her history before we rescued her, we figured it would be best to nip this in the bud as quickly as possible. We've been working with an excellent and innovative trainer we found in our area and Dora seems to be taking to the teachings quite well - she is one smart cookie!

Since it is Tuesday after all, you can bet I did get a goodie made for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day we do for Jeff's co-workers. This one is a real doozy that I found while browsing foodgawker looking for inspiration and with a title of Sticky-Fingers Bars, how could I dare say no? Especially since you know of my infatuation with chocolate and peanut butter!

To get these dangerous treats going, the base was concocted by simply smashing together butter, sugar and plenty of sweet vanilla with a couple scoops of flour and chopped salted peanuts. The consistency should be a little tacky, but not sticky - it should also not be dry and crumbly either. I was able to press the dough into the baking pan without it grabbing hold of my fingers or peeling out of the pan - if you do find yourself struggling with this, lay a piece of plastic wrap on top of the dough and let that barrier help you smooth it to an even layer.

To ensure the shortbread crust bakes through, it will need to be pre-baked before topping it - slip it into the oven and let it go just until the top begins to turn golden brown. Once pulled out and left to rest for a few minutes, the crust is littered with a surprise ingredient - thinly sliced Snickers Bars! Not one bar, not two or even three - you'll need four full bars (though if you're anything like me, have a fifth bar around as a few slices may have accidentally ended up in my belly while cutting them!) to cover the top.

Rather than dirty another bowl, I did use the same mixing bowl that we made the crust in to prepare the rich filling that covers the candy bars - less dish washing is always a plus! Consisting of eggs, granulated sugar, caramel-y Golden Syrup, a couple tablespoons of melted butter and a heavy glug of vanilla, the thick mixture is poured over the sliced snickers and baked until completely set. As in, the filling shouldn't have a loose jiggle when you take the pan out of the oven. If you'd rather not purchase the syrup (it can be pricey, but it is spoon-worthy good), swap it out for light corn syrup.

If that already was not enough, there is one more step to take these bars out of the galaxy - a smearing of slick creamy peanut butter, more of those crunchy peanuts and a psycho drizzle of melted bittersweet chocolate to finish them off.

Now, I won't lie - these are diet busters. However, let me assure you they are worth every. single. lick-your-fingers-clean. calories they might have.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

S'mores Cookies...

It's getting to be that time of the year when marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars go on sale as everyone becomes a kid again and sets out to make those gooey layered treats over a campfire, or even over your stove if so inclined! Seeing as that would be fairly hard to replicate at an office (although I guess a microwave could work in a pinch!), we decided to go with that theme in mind for the Weekly Wednesday Treat Day, making these S'mores Cookies.

While there are no actual graham crackers used in the dough, the recipe does do a little magic to try and impart a similar profile, using ground rolled oats (done in the food processor), along with whole-wheat and all-purpose flours. If I had any, I would have probably swapped out the whole-wheat flour for graham flour, but alas our freezer was bare - we used the last of it making yet another batch of those Homemade Graham Crackers a few weeks ago.

Scented with cinnamon and laced with brown sugar and plenty of butter, the cookie dough is scooped out onto lined baking sheets, then each ball is adorned with a solid, chunky block of bittersweet chocolate. Use a good-quality bar of chocolate for this - bittersweet if you can, which will help cut through some of the sweetness. However, if bittersweet is too strong for you, knock it down a notch by using semi-sweet. I wouldn't go with milk chocolate though - that may make the cookies a bit on the cloying side and not as enjoyable. You still want to be able to taste the wheat-y goodness of the cookie without being overwhelmed by sugar.

So how does the classic marshmallow ingredient that goes into S'mores come in? Once the cookies have baked, each is given a hat by laying a halved large mallow right over the dark pool of chocolate in the center. To give the pillowy topping a toasty element, the cookies are lined up like little soldiers and blasted under the heat of the broiler for just a few seconds. I do have one important note - be sure you don't take your peepers off these for a second when they go back in as the marshmallow can go from golden to blackened in the blink of an eye! If you happen to have one of those hand-held kitchen torches, use that instead and go to town!

I do realize that these fun treats probably won't have the same oomph as they did when they came fresh out of the oven, but by the time we got to trying them they were completely at room temperature and we still found them crazy good. I may, however, have Jeff send a suggestion out with his e-mail that if they want the true experience, to nuke them for just a few seconds to remelt their chocolate centers and give the marshmallow a little puff.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Apricot Cheesecake Bars...

With a few packs of cream cheese staring at me every time I open the refrigerator door (hello sale plus coupons!), I've been meaning to dive in and start using them. While they do last for some time unopened, we haven't made a dessert just-for-us in awhile and I figured finding a recipe that used cream cheese would be a good start. Of course cheesecake came to mind, but I wanted one a bit different... like these Apricot Cheesecake Bars!

A traditional graham cracker crust as the base was what the recipe called for, which sounded like a good match as is, but I had to go and put a slight spin on it. Instead of heating the butter only to melt it, we took it a step further, letting it turn golden brown and intensely nutty. Do this on the stove slowly as it can go from nicely toasted to an unpleasant bitterness in short order - I prefer to use a stainless skillet for this as its not as easy to track in a dark nonstick skillet. I wouldn't say that you have to do this, but it did lend a welcomed complexity.

When you add the crumbs into the baking pan to line the bottom for the crust, you could use your fingers to press it together. However, if you use the flat bottom of a smaller measuring cup, it will be less messy, move a little quicker and tend to be more level. The crust does need to be pre-baked at this point, so be sure to plan in enough time for it to set and cool

Before the cheesecake filling is made, there is another step to these bars - a quick homemade apricot jam! Sliced fresh apricots, granulated sugar and a dash of salt are brought to a bubble, then left to simmer until the apricots begin to melt down and the juices turn notably shiny. To give the jam a smooth texture, the mixture is poured into a food processor and pureed with a splash of lemon juice and water. The latter is used not only as an acidic brightness, but the apricots needed a little help to buzz around in the processor.

For a tangier bite to the softened cream cheese, it was whipped together with a generous scoop of sour cream before being blended with the remaining filling ingredients - sugar, vanilla and a couple room-temperature eggs. You will want to be sure that the sides and bottom of the bowl are scraped down once or twice while blending to ensure the filling will be silky smooth. Spread over the crust, small dollops of the apricot jam are dropped over the top, then swirled in for a marbled effect. You will need to use your judgment on the jam - I held back a little as it looked like the amount would be too much, but you could certainly use every last drop.

As far as baking is concerned, let this stay in the oven until the edges have puffed slightly and the center looks set, yet still has a gentle wobble to it when the pan is given a couple taps. It may feel underdone, but by the time it has sat to cool completely, with an additional couple of hours in the refrigerator, it will come out just right. What is "just right"? For me, the bars should be firm enough to slice, yet yield with gentle pressure from a fork - soft and luscious. The colorful smears of jewel-toned jam on top are a bit sweet, but not so much it takes away from the apricot's fresh fruitiness. You could let these hang out in the refrigerator for a couple days or stash them (cut into bars) in the freezer if you need longer storage - we did the latter and thawed two a few days later. They were just as good, though the crust did come out softer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Pork Tenderloin Roulade...

With a few extra minutes this morning before I went out to enjoy the day, I decided to assemble the protein that was going to go with tonight's dinner. Certainly you can prepare this Pork Tenderloin Roulade right before you'd like to make it, but we were going to be home a little later than I had originally intended and I didn't want to feel rushed later this evening.

To allow all the fillings we were going to stuff into the tenderloin to fit, it needed to be reshaped into a big flat canvas. The easiest way to do this is to simply slice the pork in half, lengthwise, but stop short of cutting it in half. Once that's done, open the tenderloin up like a book, then use a mallet (or frankly, a heavy skillet would do the job too) to flatten the meat to an even 1/2" thickness. You could also do another method, called double butterflying, where you partially slice into the top and bottom thirds (opposite sides), then open the meat to flatten, but the first works just as well.

Crumbled goat cheese, toasted walnuts, fresh thyme and a couple chopped shallots, softened first in a splash of olive oil, are the ingredients sprinkled over the flattened piece of pork. If you like, use raw shallots for a more potent bite, but Jeff requested them cooked first - just be sure to cool them completely if using them this way. After rolling and tightly securing the pork with butchers twine (spaced around 1" apart or so), it was wrapped tightly and set in the refrigerator to chill while we were gone.

If you would be doing the same, be sure to take the meat out of the fridge for a good twenty minutes or so to take the chill off before cooking. The original recipe calls for pulling the pork when it registers around 155 degrees - which is ok, if that makes you feel more comfortable. However, for our preference, we're perfectly fine taking it out when it reaches 145 degrees and still retains a juicy and robust pink hue. Whichever temperature you do, my one request is that you please let the meat rest for at least 8 to 10 minutes before taking your blade to it - I'm sure you have heard or read this a million times now, but letting those natural juices redistribute into the meat makes all the difference.

The straightforward filling is definitely adaptable to your tastes - use a different cheese, switch up the fresh herbs or think about a different toasted nut for a revamped meal. We were thoroughly pleased though with this combination though - clean and simple, yet enough complexity to keep our taste buds interested after the first bite.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

A trio of fantastic dishes...

I have three recipes to share with you today that have been sitting here, practically begging me to give them the attention they deserve on the blog. They each do deserve a post on their own, but I figured I better get them up before I forgot! We made a couple of these several weeks ago, but time is still slipping through my fingers faster than I care for. The weather outside is partly to blame - when heat of the sun's rays are shining outside, and I know back in Minnesota they just had snow the other day, I find it hard to keep myself holed up inside and not enjoy the warmth!

The first recipe, A Dozen Simple Bagels, came from one of our most trusted recipe sources. We've made a couple other bagel recipes over the years that were a bit more intricate, but this one was pared down in steps and came out just as good, though perhaps with a hare less developed flavor than one that has a refrigerated resting time.

If you don't have the non-diastatic malt powder for the water dunk step, simply replace it with brown sugar. The brown sugar has more sweetness than the robustness in the malt powder, but don't drive yourself bonkers trying to find it. The bagels were wonderfully golden and crisp on their outer shell, while the inside stayed true with a wicked good chew.

The next recipe is a ridiculous trip on brownies. Anna, whose been under the weather lately (we hope you get well soon!), posted these Killer Kahlua Brownies awhile ago and you can believe I eagerly printed them off as soon as saw them.

Moist and fudgy, without being too gooey, the brownies are decidedly decadent with a subtle coffee-like booziness from the Kahlua. I know subtle is fairly subjective, but we both agreed that it is a good way to describe the essence of each bite - there is just enough so you knew it was there, yet you wouldn't feel guilty sharing with a younger eater. We used white chocolate chips for a sharp visual contrast, but if you like nuts in your brownies, swap out those chips for chopped pecans.

The final dish I have to share, Savory Fig and Goat Cheese Tart with Arugula, was a real knock out.

While the toppings are superb for being so simple, what really made this tart was the rich crust, made from ground Marcona almonds, flour, butter and a generous drizzle of golden honey (and what made this even better was the fact it was all done in a single bowl using our trusty food processor!). If you've never had those almonds before, they are a real treat! The nuts have a more rounded shape to them, are not as crunchy and have a pleasant sweetness you don't normally find in the regular "California" variety of almonds) - they are also roasted in olive oil and then salted.

You don't need to have the fancy rectangular tart pan that we used either - a regular 8" or 9" tart pan would be just fine. Jeff was tempted to cut the Arugula out on top of his portion, but I urged him to just give it a try before tossing the salad off. The lightly dressed peppery greens bring a needed bite to cut through the richness, which we both (Jeff too!) appreciated.