July 29, 2009

The citrus zing that freshens your breath all day

The fact that I have a lemon tartlette in my blog header should be a good indication that I enjoy lemon desserts. If lemon is part of the description when it comes to any tart, pie, bar, cupcake, or pudding, chances are I will eat it.

The main reason I love lemon desserts is that a lemon tart was what I would consider the first fancy-ish dessert I ever successfully made. Up until the lemon tart, I was pretty much sticking to basic recipes like fudge and brownies. However, the day I whipped up a lemon tart for the time, I felt accomplished, like I found something I was actually quite good at. Since that fateful day in my kitchen, lemons represent my love for baking and pastry. I guess the old saying of "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade" applies here. If I hadn't been laid off from my job, I never would have started this blog which eventually led me to the bounty that are lemon desserts.

There are two other reasons I love lemon desserts. The first reason is obviously taste. I find that with lemon dishes, especially bars and tarts, the pop of citrus flavor stays in your mouth all day. I find that to be the sign of a good dessert - if hours later, you can still taste the main flavor. I find nothing more satisfying than hours after eating a lemon bar, I can still taste it on the roof of my mouth. The only problem with this is that it leaves me wanting more. I've been known to eat entire lemon tarts in less than two days. But hey - I'm a dessert blogger. The way I see it, I'm supposed to eat loads of dessert as it's part of the job description.

The second reason I love lemony desserts is the aesthetic appeal. In my almost 28 years, I've never seen an ugly lemon dessert. The taste might be horrible and intestine twisting at times, but damn if lemon goodies don't present themselves well.

This year, I've become a devote user of the Baking Unplugged cookbook. I won't go into my usual speech of how it's probably one of the greatest baking cookbooks ever written as I typically do when the book comes up in this blog. But trust me - it's one of the greatest baking cookbooks ever written. So, after trying out the recipe for cream scones and having a successful result, I ventured further into the book. What did I find? Lemon squares. Delicious, yummy, easy-to-make lemon squares.

Prior to this baking endeavor, I had never made my own lemon squares, and my experience with this particular baked good has been a mixed bag. I've eaten some decent lemon squares at bakeries and coffee shops in my time. Last Christmas time, my sister received some Barefoot Contessa lemon square mix in her stocking, and although the results were kind of mushy (by no fault of my sister), the taste was pretty good. However, I feel that every lemon square I've eaten up until this point has lacked the zing of flavor I described earlier. The lemon squares of my past simply supplied me with enough lemon zestiness that could easily be found in most sub-par lemonade.

To my readers that have hung out with me in real life and not just on this blog, you know what one problem I have with baking is that after I try a recipe, I always say it's easy. Now I'm not a trained pastry chef, but I know I've pissed off quite a few people by referring to a recipe as easy, only to have a friend find themselves contemplating sticking their head in the oven instead of the prepared dough after spending an hour with a recipe I recommended. However, I promise you these lemon squares are simple. If you can mix ingredients together in a bowl, you can make these lemon bars.

As someone obsessed with her Scottish heritage (when I say "obsessed," I mean that i get really excited about the idea of visiting Edinburgh and I can tell the difference between Scottish, Irish, and English accents), I knew I was going to love the Baking Unplugged lemon bars when I saw the recipe called for a shortbread crust. The simple, buttery flavor of the crust provides a nice subtle background to showcase the lemon flavors. Plus, who can deny a crust with such a high butter content? It just tastes really good.

Also, as someone who loves the simplicity of a "pat in the pan" dough, the shortbread crust was ideal. After mixing the ingredients to form the dough, all one has to do is dump the dough into a 13 x 9 baking dish and mush the dough evenly along the bottom. If you have hands, you can mush. Easy peasy.

The lemon curd is second part of the recipe. After reading about my love affair with lemons earlier in this blog post, let me be clear on one thing: Although I love lemons and the desserts they produce, I absolutely loathe zesting any sort of fruit. Similar to my fear of tripping on subway stairs and knocking out my front teeth (something that has not happened to this day), I have an innate fear of accidentally zesting my hand or finger while tackling a lemon. Not only would the act of tearing flesh hurt, you get the added one-two punch of having acidic citrus juice in your wound. But, this recipe calls for zesting, so I zested. Unwillingly, mind you!

And is it just me, or is the word "curd" kind of gross? I don't know why I always envision some of grotesque nature when I hear "curd," but I'm willing to bet it's because it rhymes so easily with...well, you get the picture.

Anyway, back to the dessert. After baking, the lemon squares must sit for 1 to 2 hours. I hated this part of the recipe because after I pulled these bad boys out of the oven, I wanted to dig in. However, I witnessed the benefits of waiting. The puffiness of the baked curd subsided and I was left with beautifully yellow-hued lemon squares. Since I'm a lemon purist, I didn't bother with the suggested dusting of powdered sugar, but that's an option you might like to employ. Powdered sugar is also a great way to hide any blemishes on the squares' surface.

One last thing: Nicole Rees, author of Baking Unplugged, suggests using hazelnuts or almonds in the crust, I've eliminated them in the recipe below as I didn't use them in my final product.

Recipe for Lemon Squares (from Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees)

13 x 9 Baking pan
Wooden spoon
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Cooling rack

Crust Ingredients:
14 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 C. all-purpose flour

Lemon Curd Ingredients:
4 large eggs
1 1/4 C. sugar
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. salt
3/4 C. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbs. grated lemon zest
Powdered sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 13 x 9 baking pan with foil, leaving an overhanging edge for easy removal. Lightly butter the sides of foil (not the bottom) to prevent the lemon curd from sticking. In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, sugar, and salt until just combined. Add the flour and stir until dough just come together. Press the mixture evenly into the pan. Prick the dough with a fork. Refrigerate for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes), until the dough is firm.

Bake for 25-minute, until the crust begins to set but has not bun to brown at the edges (the center will not be firm yet).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, flour, and salt until smooth, about 1 minute. Whisk in the lemon juice and zest. Pour the filling over the hot crust. Return the pan to oven and increase the heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 20 minutes or until the center is set and the edges are golden. The topping will no longer wiggle when the pan is moved. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 1 to 2 hours. When the bottom of the pan is cool, carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil overhang and transfer them to a cutting board. Cut into 2" squares. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.

This recipe yields 2 dozen lemon squares.

July 20, 2009

Second attempt at scones = SUCCESS

Last week, I attempted to bake scones for the first time, which I reported about on this blog. Well, my results were a big, fat failure. I guess the word "failure" is relative - the scones were edible and the flavor was actually pretty good, but they were too moist. My virgin scones were more like muffins masquerading as another breakfast treat.

So, I decided to throw the Martha Stewart recipe to the wayside and consult one of my favorite cookbooks - Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees. I've made both cookie recipes from Nicole's book, and based on the rave reviews I received from eaters, I was confident that I'd have a better shot at achieving optimal scone results if I followed her recipe for cream scones.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - Nicole Rees is a baking genius. I was a little worried that the dough looked too dry and thought maybe that I should increase the amount of heavy whipping cream the recipe calls for, but I decided to trudge ahead and hope for the best. I knew I was on the right track when the dough actually formed into a round instead of a soggy clump as was the case with the Martha Stewart recipe. I actually got to cut the round into wedges, instead of taking handfuls of wet dough and slapping them on a baking sheet, as I did in my first attempt.

I had to increase the baking time by about 8 minutes, but that's just my crappy oven. I really need to invest in an oven thermometer. In the end, I ended up with eight golden cream scones. I tasted one just to make sure they tasted as good as they looked, and I'm proud to report that if I was grading this baking result, I'd give myself a 95%. I need to work on my presentation a little - some of the scones were a little cracked on top - but all in all, they are a complete success.

The only variations I made to Nicole's recipe concerned the vanilla and the sugar used for sprinkling. I received some wonderful homemade vanilla and bourbon extract from Katie at Salt and Chocolate, whom I follow on Twitter, and instead of regular sugar, I used demerara sugar, but only because I had bought it for use with the Martha Stewart scones from last week.

If you don't already own Nicole's book, you need to buy it. The lady is a food scientist when she's not writing fantastic cookbooks, so she really knows what she's talking about. I'm now 3 for 3 when it comes to successful baking results because of Baking Unplugged.

And for those of you that are interested, here is the recipe (but go buy the cookbook - it's full of more awesome recipes!):

Cream Scones (from Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees)

Mixing bowl
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Pastry blender
2 baking sheets
Sheet of parchment paper
Pastry brush
Cooling rack

2 C. all-purpose flour
1/4 C. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. heavy whipping cream plus 2 Tbs. for brushing
1/3 C. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
Sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stack two baking sheets together and line the top one with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir the vanilla extract into the heavy cream. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until a few pea-sized lumps remain. With a fork, gradually stir in enough of the 3/4 cup heavy cream until the mixture just starts to come together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently pat into an 8" round about 1 1/2" high. Using a chef's knife or bench scraper, cut the dough round into 8 wedges. Transfer the wedges to the baking sheet, spacing the scones at least 1" apart. Brush the tops with the remaining heavy cream and sprinkle liberally with sugar. Bake in the top third of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes or until the tops are golden. Transfer the scones to a wire rack to co0l slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve warm with jam.

July 19, 2009

Free pastry day at Starbucks on July 21st

Say what you will about Starbucks ("Their coffee sucks," "Their coffee is overpriced," "I hate Starbucks," etc.), but the brand knows how to pull me into a store, and I'm not talking about Pumpkin Spice Lattes (So sue me - they're delicious, and if you can't accept this, you've obviously never had a Pumpkin Spice Latte). And in regard to me being a sucker and loving everything that's free, even if it's from an evil corporation, Starbucks has done it again. They are offering up free pastry on July 21st. All the details are below.

I have a history of cashing in on Starbucks' freebies. The last time I traded my soul to Starbucks was on Election Day 2008. After voting at St. Anthony's Church, I walked on over to the Starbucks on Houston and West Broadway for a free cup of plain black coffee. Granted, the coffee was disgusting and there is not enough skim milk and Splenda in the world to hide that fact, free is free. So, I drank as much as that coffee as I could (five sips worth) and threw the rest in the trash. Sometimes good things come in small packages i.e. five sips.

I'm confident that the free pastry day will be a bit more successful. Love 'em or hate 'em, Starbucks' Rainbow Cookie and Blueberry Scone kick ASS. Their Cranberry Bliss Bar isn't anything to stick your nose up at either.

Event Info:

Starbucks is inviting you to bring this invitation to a participating U.S. Starbucks store to enjoy a FREE pastry* from opening** until 10:30am on July 21st, 2009 (while supplies last) with the purchase of any beverage*.

Click to print your invitation:

Or open this page in a mobile device and show your barista:

* Pastries included in offer are: Muffins, Scones, Bagels, Croissants, Rolls, Breads, Pound Cakes, Morning Bun, Coffeecakes, Cheese Danish, Apple Fritter, Doughnuts, Tarts, Pies, Gluten Free Orange Valencia Cake, Tropical Paradise Bar.

Offer available at participating U.S. stores with the purchase of any handcrafted beverage (handcrafted, brewed, iced). Limit one free pastry per customer. Offer good between opening and 10:30 a.m. or until pastries are gone, whichever comes first. Opening hours and pastry selection vary. Supplies are limited. Offer not valid in Hawaii, airports and travel plazas or at Barnes & Noble cafes. Starbucks reserves the right to cancel, amend or revoke the offer at any time due to business considerations or circumstances beyond its control. Starbucks is not responsible for errors, omissions, malfunctions, interruptions, deletions, delays or failures of operations. Void where prohibited, taxed or restricted. Cannot be combined with other offers or discounts. Cash value 1/20 cent. Not valid if photocopied, altered or reproduced. Barista, please ring discount code 563. Our new food is not yet available everywhere; ask your barista for details. **For 24 hours stores – opening is 4 a.m.

July 14, 2009

My first attempt at blueberry scones

* This is not a photo of one of my scones. I didn't take any photographic evidence as I had just moved into my new apartment and misplaced my camera.

I've been a fan of scones for several years, but when I say this I mean a fan of eating them, not baking them myself. But about two months ago, I started mentally cataloging every scone recipe I came across. Martha Stewart included a blueberry scone recipe in Martha Stewart Living in the June issue, and Molly Wizenberg focused on a blueberry oat scone recipe in her Bon Appetit column this year. Nicole Rees has several scone recipes in her terrific cookbook Baking Unplugged, and obviously, The Joy of Cooking gives its opinion on the subject.

However, I've always made excuses not to try my hand at scone making. Typically, when I see a recipe that calls for some sort of fancy gadgetry, such as a food processor, I have a built in excuse - I don't have the money for that kind of new fangled kitchen technology (i.e. I'm currently unemployed and scrimp by each month on unemployment checks). Luckily, almost every scone recipe I've seen calls for a food processor, so I've been let off the hook. I conveniently ignored Nicole's recipes in Baking Unplugged, which is probably my favorite cookbook at the moment because the whole premise of the book is that you don't need expensive kitchen machinery. But Martha Stewart cornered me - her blueberry scone recipe was old-fashioned. I didn't need an electrical outlet for these scones. I was trapped. The scones were getting made.

It should be noted that I like baking because of its devotion to preciseness. The measuring of ingredients is not optional - it's essential. So, I will say right now that I followed the Martha Stewart Living recipe exactly. I double-checked the quantities of every single ingredient, so I was confident that my first go at scones was going to be successful...until I saw the dough.

Once you start baking or cooking for a while, you start to develop a sense of when something has gone wrong. I could tell the second I got to the step that called for turning the dough out onto a smooth surface to gently kneed and then form into a round to then cut into wedges. This dough was gooey. This dough wasn't going to form into a nice round. This looked almost like cookie dough, but wet.

My first inclination was to add flour. I thought this would soak up some of the moisture, but I became concerned it would dry out the final product. So, I gave up the idea of making perfect scone wedges and instead lumped wads of the dough onto a baking sheet and topped with sugar. Before putting in the oven, I took a quick taste of some leftover batter - it tasted scone-y. Maybe I was still on track.

I baked for about 10 minutes longer than instructed my Martha. The scones were definitely not finished when the original baking time expired. And even when I took the baked goods out of the oven, I was still confident that they were going to be great.

But, my perfect first try at blueberry scones was not to be. I don't like crumbly, dry scones, but my finished product was too moist. They tasted like scones - actually, the flavor was quite good, but the moist texture reminded me of a muffin. A muffin with a moist scone texture. As much as I like both scones and muffins, I do not condone an incestuous relationship of the two. A few days later, after being stored under a cake dome, the scones were still moist. I'm a big enough fan of scones to know this isn't the desired effect.

I'm not quite sure where things went wrong, but my guess is the amount of buttermilk the recipe calls for. I believe it was too much. Secondly, I don't think I let the scones cool long enough on the cooling rack before I put them in the cake dome. I think this caused moisture to sink in when it at least some of it should have evaporated. But I blame the buttermilk for the root of the problem. I will not take the fall for buttermilk, my least favorite of any milk-related products.

My next plan of attack is to try out the cream scone recipe in Nicole's cookbook. I've tried out two of Nicole's recipes so far, and they have both turned out wonderful - and that isn't just praise from me, but from the people that enjoyed the fruits of her book. I'll be sure to post a recap of Scones: Round 2 soon.

July 2, 2009

The perfect tart for your summer soiree

When it comes to desserts, my philosophy is that if done properly, they become a work of art. I think the tart is a prime example of this. Even with the simplest decoration, the tart can be the most eye catching dish on one's table, the glazed sheen of the fruit acting almost like an organic chandelier.

On the same token, tarts can be intimidating as hell to make. I learned a few years ago that the biggest hurdle people must get over in their creative pursuits is fear of failure. This lesson was made clear to me while attending a floristry class in Sydney, Australia. While working on my first flower arrangement, I couldn't help but here the women surrounding me uttering "I can't do this" and "Why doesn't mine look like hers" while pointing at another student's work. It struck me as odd that these women seemed on the verge of an emotional melt down because in their minds, their interpretive flower designs weren't "right." However, I can identify. I've been in positions in the past where I've actually had bosses say "You suck at writing." Despite the lack of professionalism, my main issue was that I didn't see their name published alongside any noted pieces of literature or newspaper bylines. What made them the authority on what constituted good writing? The worst part was that my confidence in my writing abilities was greatly diminished. I'm still working on my fears of not writing well. Harsh words stick with you, but I've found the more you stick at something, the better you get. Whether you apply this motto to flower design or writing, and everything in between, I think this mantra applies.

Assembling a delicious tart is something anyone can do. My advice is start out small, which is the exact course I'm taking. And luckily for me, I found a great recipe in Martha Stewart Living to start me on my way of constructing beautiful, eye catching tarts.

In the July edition of Martha's magazine, French chef Tony Esnault is featured along with a terrific menu he put together for a family meal. Obviously, I skipped right to the end where Chef Esnault chose a strawberry tart with cream as the dessert of choice. At first, the words "glaze" threw me for a loop. How do you make a glaze? I can't do this! I give up!

The idea of this dessert stuck with me for a few days. I prefer to make "pat-in-the-pan" crusts because I find them easier to manage (The Joy of Cooking has a great recipe) or I'm sure a store bought crust would work just as well. If I could make the crust, which is something most people find to be the most difficult part of baking, why couldn't I make the filling? I reminded myself that baking is not rocket science and picked up the magazine again.

In the end, it was the photo of the dessert that brought me back to the recipe. It was simple - an arrangement of shiny strawberries. Why would I be afraid of that? Strawberries won't keep me down!

Then I learned Chef Esnault's tip to making a delicious tart filling AND glaze. All you need are two jars of strawberry preserves. You simply heat up the preserves on the stove and when the preserves have loosened, you strain them through a fine sieve. Whatever is left in the sieve (the solids) goes into the tart crust. After you arrange the strawberries in the tart filling, you take the glaze that was strained through the sieve (the liquids) and brush it onto the strawberries. VoilĂ ! The perfect summer time dessert!

For the recipe below, I've used the crust that Chef Esnault recommends, but as mentioned, feel free to get creative with this aspect of the dish.

Strawberry Tart with Cream by Chef Tony Esnault

Makes 2 tarts
Serves 8

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting (optional)
2 large egg yolks, plus 1 large egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 pints (6 cups) strawberries, hulled
3 cups strawberry preserves (two 12-ounce jars)
1 cup heavy cream

Cream butter and 1 cup sugar until pale and fluffy. Add yolks, and beat until just incorporated. Add flour and salt, and beat until just incorporated. Shape dough into 2 disks, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or up to 3 days).
Roll out each disk into an 11-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Fit each round into the bottoms and up the sides of a 9-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Prick the bottoms of dough with a fork, and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush crusts with egg wash. Bake, pressing down crusts if they start to bubble, until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool completely, and remove from pans.

Trim strawberries to about the same height. Heat preserves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until loose. Strain through a fine sieve. You will have about 1 cup of solids. Spread 1/2 cup solids over bottom of each tart. Arrange strawberries in a single layer over the top, placing cut sides down. Brush strawberries with just enough warm glaze to make berries shiny. Dust with confectioners' sugar if desired.

Beat cream with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar just until thickened. Cut each tart into quarters, and serve slices topped with whipped cream.

Helpful Hint:
If you prefer to make one tart, this recipe can be halved.
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