Monday, June 23, 2008

Lemon Bars

Lemon Bars

My only copy of this recipe says something like: Make crust, press into pan, bake 15 minutes. Make filling, pour onto crust, spread evenly, bake 20 minutes. Make glaze. Drizzle over lemon filling. Cool and cut into bars.

There's little need for directions when you've made a recipe dozens of times. These lemon bars have been my aunt's signature for years, and I learned to make them from her. I've made them for friends, family, coworkers, roommates, customers, and the occasional random stranger.

I've made these lemon bars so many times that I can't remember if I copied the original recipe correctly. Maybe I forgot some salt or vanilla. I can never remember if "brown sugar" means light or dark. I play around with techniques, ingredients, temperatures, and baking times. The bars always turn out well though.

I can give you some tips: make sure the butter is well combined- large pieces can melt and weaken your crust. Keep an eye on the bars after 13-15 minutes, especially if your oven is hot (I rarely need all 20 minutes). Thicker glaze is better than thinner- if it's too thin, it will soak into the bars instead of hardening into a crisp sugar glaze.

That said, these are easy to make. I think they're simple, elegant, and terribly addictive. To clarify, these aren't the butter-yellow treats most people associate with the term "lemon bars." They consist of a shortbread crust, a sugar/nut filling more typical to pecan bars, and a lemon icing.

Lemon Bars

for the crust:
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups all purpose flour
Zest of ½ lemon

for the filling:
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup all purpose flour
Zest of ½ lemon
¼ tsp baking powder
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup walnuts or macadamia nuts, chopped

for the glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp lemon juice, more if needed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the crust. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and lemon zest, then cut in the butter. This can also be done with a food processor. Press the dough into a 9x13 inch pan. Bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, zest, and brown sugar. Mix in the eggs, then add the nuts. Pour filling onto the hot crust. Spread evenly and bake for 15-20 minutes, until evenly browned.

Prepare the glaze. Mix together the sugar, butter, and lemon juice. Add more lemon juice until the glaze is pourable, but still quite thick. Drizzle or pipe the glaze over the hot lemon filling. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, then cut into bars. The bars keep, ship, and freeze quite well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brown Sugar Pound Cake

Brown Sugar Pound Cake

Pound cakes are perfect for certain occasions. They're fancier than muffins and don't require any rolling, frosting, decorating, chilling, or glazing. They are extremely portable and they feed a crowd.

I thought half of this recipe would be enough for my friday class, but it turned out to be more popular than I expected. It was devoured before the class even started. I brought the second half the next morning and it went nearly as quickly, though it had to compete with two boxes of donuts.

This poundcake has a unique texture and pronounced brown sugar flavor. It's moist, dense, and smooth with a very crisp upper crust. I omitted the caramel glaze- the cake was rich enough. It's not my favorite poundcake, but it was refreshingly different. If you love dark brown sugar, you'll really like it.

Because it's so moist, this cake doesn't store well. If you plan to store it for more than a day or two, I suggest freezing it. Also, be careful if you're using a tube pan. The batter was rather thin, and it leaked considerably in my oven!

Brown Sugar Pound Cake
adapted from Nancy McDermott's Southern Cakes

For the cake:
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
One 1-pound box dark brown sugar (about 2 3/4 cups)
1/2 cup white granulated sugar
5 eggs

For the Caramel Glaze:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Make the cake
1. Heat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan or two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and stir with a fork to mix well. Stir the vanilla into the milk and set aside.

3. In a large bowl, beat the butter with a mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Add the brown sugar in 3 batches, and then add all of the white sugar, beating well after each addition. Add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition. Add half the flour and then half the milk, beating at low speed only until the flour or milk disappears into the batter. Add in the rest of the flour and then the remaining milk, in the same way.

4. Quickly scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and bake at 325°F (160°C) for 1 hour and 10 minutes (55 to 60 minutes for loaf pans), or until the cake is nicely browned at the edges, springs back when touched lightly at the center, and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.

5. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel for 20 to 30 minutes. Loosen the cake from the pan with a table knife and turn it out onto a wire rack or a plate to cool completely, top side up.

Make the caramel glaze
1. Combine the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat until the butter melts and blends with the brown sugar to make a smooth sauce, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the milk, and let the icing come to a gentle boil.

2. Stir well, remove from the heat, and add the sifted confectioners' sugar and the vanilla. Beat well with a mixer, whisk, or spoon for 1 or 2 minutes, until the glaze thickens and loses a little of its shine.

3. Use at once. If the glaze hardens, stir in 1 or 2 spoonfuls of evaporated milk to soften it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Strawberries from the Strip District


I spent my morning in the Strip District with a large cup of coffee and a good dose of leisurely wandering. At five minutes to nine there was a line forming for these gorgeous quarts of fresh strawberries. They sold out shortly after the market opened, so I was happy to nab some. They're pleasantly tart!

I much prefer small strawberries to their large under-ripe counterparts in the grocery store. I use them for tarts, ice cream, or this simple, delicious Strawberry Spaghetti.

Some of the produce looked irresistibly good. I bought several bunches of chard, thyme, parsley, and salad greens. I also picked up some lemon soda to make Tinto de Verano. Then I went home and made some roasted garlic hummus (delicious!) and a green lentil ragout (disappointingly awful!)

I really love the Strip District. If there wasn't homework to be done, I would have stayed longer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tall and Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Biscuits

Buttermilk Biscuits

Lately, i've been reflecting on change. Instead of reading my usual fantasy novels, i'm reading medical related non-fiction. Instead of using a treadmill, i'm jogging to the track and walking. Instead of baking excessive sweets, i'm making pickles, biscuits, roasted sweet potatoes, and massive pots of brown rice. I'm changing jobs and apartments, and i'm trying to change my outlook on a few things.

I thought baking less often would be strange, but it feels relaxed and natural. I've enjoyed making simple, less time consuming things. I'm sure there will be time for fancier recipes once the summer is over.

These fluffy, tangy biscuits are a favorite of mine. They're popular at home too; i'm pretty sure my brother ate three or four the first time I made them. They reheat well, and if you're pressed for time you can keep the dry ingredient/butter mixture in the refrigerator for a few days and add the buttermilk when you're ready to bake. You can substitute 1/2 cup whole wheat flour for 1/2 cup all purpose flour too, for a different flavor.

I really love buttermilk in baking, if you haven't noticed. I'd love to eat these with a smear of good butter or sour cream.

Buttermilk Biscuits
from Cook's Illustrated

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (10 ounces)
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (cold), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups buttermilk cold, preferably low-fat

To Form and Finish Biscuits
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces), distributed in rimmed baking sheet
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees. Spray 9-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Generously spray inside and outside of 1/4 cup dry measure with nonstick cooking spray.

2. For the dough: In food processor, pulse flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and baking soda to combine, about six 1-second pulses. Scatter butter cubes evenly over dry ingredients; pulse until mixture resembles pebbly, coarse cornmeal, eight to ten 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Add buttermilk to dry ingredients and stir with rubber spatula until just incorporated (dough will be very wet and slightly lumpy).

3. To form and bake biscuits:Using 1/4 cup dry measure and working quickly, scoop level amount of dough; drop dough from measuring cup into flour on baking sheet (if dough sticks to cup, use small spoon to pull it free). Repeat with remaining dough, forming 12 evenly sized mounds. Dust tops of each piece of dough with flour from baking sheet. With floured hands, gently pick up piece of dough and coat with flour; gently shape dough into rough ball, shake off excess flour, and place in prepared cake pan. Repeat with remaining dough, arranging 9 rounds around perimeter of cake pan and 3 in center. Brush rounds with hot melted butter, taking care not to flatten them. Bake 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 450 degrees; continue to bake until biscuits are deep golden brown, about 15 minutes longer. Cool in pan 2 minutes, then invert biscuits from pan onto clean kitchen towel; turn biscuits right-side up and break apart. Cool 5 minutes longer and serve.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Buttermilk Cookies

Buttermilk Cookies

Buttermilk Cookies

I love breakfast. Most days I eat oatmeal, but lately i've channeled my misplaced culinary energy into different breakfast options: whole wheat buttermilk pancakes, cheese omelets with sriracha, yogurt with white peaches and granola, toasted local breads with coffee, and several crepe recipes with jam.

What do these cookies have to do with breakfast? Very little. At the moment, any baking I do is motivated by the contents of my refrigerator. I had some leftover buttermilk and butter, so I plugged "buttermilk cookies" into epicurious and found this recipe.

I didn't care for the buttermilk cookies from America's Best Lost Recipes. These were better- moist and cakey with slightly crunchy edges. They're somewhat like Italian love knots, but less crumbly. I like them with tea.

I added a few drops of lemon extract in lieu of lemon zest. I would have preferred a more pronounced lemon flavor, so next time I may use zest and a lemon glaze.

Buttermilk Cookies
from Gourmet

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk
For glaze
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
3 tablespoons well-shaken buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Make cookies:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter 2 large baking sheets.
Whisk together flour, zest, baking soda, and salt.
Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy.
Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla.
Mix in flour mixture and buttermilk alternately in batches at low speed, beginning and ending with flour mixture, until smooth.
Drop level tablespoons of dough about 1 1/2 inches apart onto baking sheets. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookies are puffed and edges are golden, 12 to 15 minutes per batch. Cool cookies on sheets 1 minute, then transfer cookies to racks.

Glaze cookies:
Whisk together all glaze ingredients and brush onto tops of warm cookies.
Let stand until cookies are completely cooled and glaze is set.
Cookies are best the day they're made but can be frozen, wrapped well, up to 1 month.