Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chocolate Toffee Cookies and a Bake Sale

Aren't they beautiful? Can you tell how very chocolate dense these are? How very rich and addictive? Now can I feed you? Open wide... I've made at least half a dozen batches of these cookies in less than a month. They are soooooo goooood. I don't normally eat a lot of my own baked goods - I enjoy giving them to others. But I really couldn't help myself with these. I just kept breaking off pieces, promising  myself it was the last one.... and before I knew it, half a dozen were in mah belleh before I was even done photographing. I'm a nibbler. Isn't that weird how we do that? (I know you do it too) For example, it's like with ice cream. You decide to go in for just a spoon full. But then the ice cream container looks uneven, and you just can't leave it like that. So just one more spoonful to even it out...

Anyway, the first time I made these I had to triple check the recipe. It called for a pound of chocolate and only half a cup of flour. For reals? But yes, the recipe was correct. And really, who complains about too much chocolate? And then there's the salt. It's mystifying how a little sprinkling of course sea salt can make such a difference. I forgot the salt with one of the trays going into the oven - good but not memorable. So my conclusion is, these cookies are ah-mazing. I want you to try them. In fact, I will make them for you if you ask me to. I even made these for the Share Our Strength bake sale in Los Angeles last Saturday.

The 2011 National Food Bloggers Bake Sale was held on Saturday throughout the nation to benefit Share Our Strength and ending childhood hunger in America. Our LA edition was organized by Gaby of What's Gaby Cooking and raised over $2300 which will stay in the LA area to benefit our community. I am so impressed and moved that the collective efforts of people in the community, whether they baked a little, bought a little or contributed a little time, have raised money and awareness. You wouldn't think that in this country, childhood hunger would be a problem. But it is. There are many underserved and vulnerable groups of people in our very own communities who lack access to healthy and affordable nutrition. The bake sale was such a success thanks to everyone involved and especially thanks to Gaby for making it happen.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies
Recipe from Smitten Kitchen
Makes about 45

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb bittersweet/semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups (packed) brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
7 oz chocolate-covered English toffee bars (such as Heath), coarsely chopped*
1 cup walnuts, toasted, chopped
Flaky sea salt (or kosher salt) for sprinkling

Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in small bowl. Stir chocolate and butter on a double boiler over simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool to luke warm. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and eggs in bowl until thick, about 5 minutes. Beat in chocolate mixture and vanilla. Stir in flour mixture (don't over mix), then toffee and nuts. The batter will be very thin - chill batter about 45 minutes to firm up.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment or silpat. I like to use a cookie scooper to drop batter onto baking sheets. Allow about two inches in between because they will spread out. Don't forget to sprinkle with a little salt. Bake about 12-14 minutes until tops are cracked. Pick off pieces to eat right from the pan before they've set up. Cool completely before trying to remove cookies from the baking sheet.

Since these have turned out to be such a favorite of mine, I freeze the cookie dough into logs about 1.5" in diameter. When I need a hit of chocolate, I just slice right out of the freezer using a sharp knife and bake immediately.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hydrangea Cake for Mom

I love hydrangeas. I just get so happy when I see them in full bloom. They are elegant yet unpretentious. So it is no wonder to me that I couldn't wait to do try a hydrangea cake inspired by Amanda of I Am Baker. Her cake is gorgeous. Mine passable though, right? It sort of reminds me of some sea creature or maybe something from a coral reef - but if you squint just right, you could see an arrangement of hydrangea flowers. Hopefully. My mom saw me making this cake and at first guess thought it was some sort of hat. Hmph, well it's the thought that counts! And I also happen to think my sea creature creation is pretty.

My idea for this cake was for a chic contemporary arrangement of tightly placed hydrangeas in a cube shaped flower vase - so en vogue these days. I was having issues with the buttercream modifications I made, the weather, and overall, it was just one of them days that a girl goes through... (Monica, anyone?). First, the colors came out a bit more intense than I intended. I love pale green and blushing pink hydrangeas, but I was a little heavy handed in coloring the frosting. Secondly, although I gave this cake a crumb coat, this frosting did not harden enough even when placed overnight in the fridge. This also lead to petal shapes that were not as sharp as I would have liked. The original frosting suggested for this cake, also used in my cake of roses, was perfect. If it ain't broke, well then, that's a challenge to tinker it to make the recipe better? Maybe not. I subbed an organic, non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening I picked up at a health food store, because I was trying to avoid Crisco (which grosses me out). I guess fully-hydrogenated fats are essentiall to piping perfection.

I used on of my favorite chocolate cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. I made half the recipe and baked up one 12" x 12" sheet  and divided into four quarters. I stacked the quarters with a chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream filling and carved the top two layers into a dome. Once the whole thing was crumb coated and chilled, I frosted the bottom half to mimic a vase and then went wild on the top for the hydrangeas. The flower was made with a Wilton #104 tip into four petals. Amanda from I Am Baker has a tutorial on how to do this!

These are my hydrangeas just starting to bloom. Isn't spring exciting?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Let every day be Earth day

I think we should respect Mother Earth and our environment everyday (so I'm not really late at all on the Earth day posting). In my little world, everyone does whatever they can to be "green". But every now and then, I get the sense that the universe does not revolve around me and that there are still people out there driving Hummers and burning through plastic water bottles. Just a nagging feeling (did I ever mention that this is Los Angeles?). I suppose I've always been a romantic type, believing that we could change the world and make it a better place when we grew up. The environment is actually something that can be saved seeing as those who are causing harm to it, have both the wealth and ability to try to undo some of the damage. And as individuals, it wouldn't hurt to be more conscientious about daily choices we make. But what do I know, I am just a humble baker.

One thing I did know was that I wanted to mark the occasion of Earth day with a treat: chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and royal icing Earth decorations. With all the wonderful exotic flavors that I love to try, chocolate never fails to make me happy. This was a chocolate cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen I used for my chocolate peanut butter banana birthday cake last year with enough intensity to satisfy the true chocolate lover. I adjusted the recipe to yield about 20 cupcakes. I am not one for basic buttercreams, but I think a cream cheese frosting cuts the richness of the chocolate cake nicely. I used Annie's cream cheese frosting, which tasted and piped gorgeously for me in the past. I did, however, make the mistake of using a neufchatel cheese I had on hand instead of a full-fat cream cheese, which resulted in a less stiff and slightly stickier consistency (more appropriate for sticky buns I would say). Listen kids, I know your cringing that I just said full-fat. Say it with me: Full. Fat. If you skimp, it will not be as good. If I'm going to eat a chocolate cupcake, it should be an experience of chocolate insanity in my mouth. Got that? Good. Now that we've learned a lesson here, I got pretty positive feedback from these. I took these beauties to a birthday party the same night where they were promptly consumed - royal icing decorations and all. (happy bellies make me a happy baker)

As usual, I was too wrapped up in my project to take pictures. The fun of royal icing is that you can pipe up whatever your imagination designs. To make these decorations, I referenced some images of Earth I had googled. I then drew sketches to the size I thought would work. I prepared my piping bags with royal icing tinted to bright aqua and green, with couplers and #1 Wilton icing tips. I placed transparency film (the type you get at Office Depot for overhead projectors) over the sketch and outlined and immediately flooded in the continents with green - the way you would pipe on sugar cookies. I repeated that a million times, filling up about four transparency sheets. I allowed the continents to dry enough to touch and then proceeded with outlining the globe shape and flooding with the blue color icing. Once done with the blue icing, make sure to allow a couple days sitting out to dry completely. I made the mistake of trying to peel the decorations off the transparency a day after and broke quite a few of these because they didn't come off cleanly.