Friday, December 25, 2009

Gingerbread and Applesauce

One of the many great things about my sister is that when she says she's making something you want to make it too, since you know it's going to be good. Not long ago she posted a Facebook update saying she'd made gingerbread and applesauce, and it was suddenly the only thing I wanted to eat. I never make gingerbread, and while the kids enjoy decorating gingerbread houses this time of year, we don't actually eat them. I was determined, however, to give it a go.

I don't know which recipes my sister used, but here are the two I chose. The gingerbread recipe is adapted from this one on, and the applesauce is from Barbara Kafka's Microwave Gourmet.

Dark & Spicy Gingerbread

Preheat oven to 350ºF; grease and flour a 9x9 or 7x11 inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, cream together
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup white sugar

1 egg
1 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup applesauce or apple butter

In a separate bowl, whisk together
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add flour mixture to wet ingredients and mix to combine. Add
1 cup hot water
and mix well on low speed.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 55-60 minutes, until a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool on a rack before slicing. Serve with warm applesauce.

(makes one pint)

Wash and quarter
1 1/2 pounds apples (about 3 large or 4 medium apples)
and place in 4-quart glass measure.

1 cup white sugar
1/2 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
dash of ground allspice
dash of ground nutmeg

Cover bowl with cling wrap and microwave on full power for 15 minutes, stirring after five minutes to make sure the sugar is mixed in with the juices and doesn't scorch. Remove from microwave and pass through the medium disc of a food mill. Stir well to combine, and let cool slightly before serving.

Hints and buying tips:

Cookbooks are always specifying apple varieties I can't get: Greenings, Macintoshes, and so on. I use what I have on hand, but try to mix them up -- a Gala, a Fuji, a Granny Smith. (I never use Red Delicious.) This is a pretty good approach when making apple pies, too; apples all bring something different to the recipe, so a mix brings out all their strengths.

I have a food mill, and use it just barely enough to justify keeping it around. If you don't have one (or another kind of ricer or sieve that will allow you to push the cooked apples through), then peel and core the apples before cooking them and pulse them in a blender to reduce them to sauce. Without the pectin from the skins you may have more liquid in your applesauce, but give it a try.

Whole cloves and cinnamon sticks are not hard to find: Walason's, Wellcome, Jason's, etc. The nutmeg and ginger are at Walason's for sure, possibly at the others I named. If you're buying all these spices at once, use powdered cinnamon and cloves for the applesauce as well as the cake (a dash or two of each).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Praline Pretzels

I just discovered this recipe last week, the night I made cardamon tea shortbread and was wide awake after eating too much caffeinated dough. I was tempted to make these pretzels on the spot, midnight baking being a great alternative to midnight web surfing, but I willed myself to sleep and made them another day. Good thing -- it took much longer for the sugar to carmelize than I expected (cursed Taiwan course sugar). This recipe has a long lineage: I found it on Bethany Actually, who traced it to Ideas in Food via Brownie Points. I will let you follow your own rabbit trails, but do check out Bethany Actually's post -- she has some adorable photos of her daughter in the rain that made me smile (and miss the rain!).

Praline Pretzels

Butter a large cookie sheet and set aside (seriously, do this first -- you won't have time later).

In a large heavy pan or stockpot, over medium heat, melt
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

Add to melted butter
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir constantly with a wooden spoon and watch closely -- you want this to caramelize to a nice golden color, but you're always courting disaster with caramel (this could be a whole other blog entry, my struggles with melting sugar). The original recipe said to stir for a couple minutes; mine took about ten. The sugar here really doesn't melt fast.

Once the caramel is melted and smooth, quickly stir in
6 cups broken pretzel pieces

Working very fast (because the candy will set), stir so that the pretzel pieces are all covered. Immediately pour out onto the greased cookie sheet, spreading the praline pretzels out in an even layer. Once they have cooled, break them up into smaller chunks. (I used whole small pretzels but found that I had to take a knife to them once they'd cooled because the chunks were too massive to bite into. Mini-pretzel halves would be better.)

Buying info:

Costco has huge bags of mini pretzels for about NT$250. I divide them up into gallon-sized zip-locked bags so they stay fresher. If you have the freezer space, you can keep them even longer that way. Everything else is easily found here.

Candy Cane Meringues

My holiday cooking frenzy continues, with these little gems whipped up very last minute this morning once I remembered that, yes, the staff party was today, and, yes, I really did sign up to bring a treat. I love these meringues -- they go together fast and aren't too fussy, but look festive on the plate. Nothing says Christmas like pink peppermint puffs, and nothing beats holiday stress like whacking a dozen candy canes to smithereens. It's a win-win.

Candy Cane Meringues

Preheat oven to 300ºF.

In a very clean stainless bowl, whip
2 egg whites
with an electric mixer until frothy.

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Continue beating and slowly add
2/3 cup sugar
until egg whites are stiff and glossy.

Gently fold in
3 tablespoons cracker crumbs (like saltines or Hai Tai crackers)
10 - 12 mini candy canes, pounded to small pieces

Spoon teaspoons of meringue mixture onto a greased or silicon mat-lined cookie sheet, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until peaks just begin to brown. If you bake two sheets at once, rotate their position (from top to bottom) once during baking. If you are using a small oven you can bake these in small batches, but the mixture will begin to deflate and the meringues will be a bit flatter. Store baked meringues in an airtight container; if left out they will become sticky in a humid environment, but they tend to disappear before then.

Tips and info:

I have a jar of cream of tartar from the States so I don't know what it's called in Mandarin, but I'm sure you can buy it here. Meringues are pretty common at local bakeries. I'll see what I can find out. You can substitute chocolate chips or other small candy bits for the candy canes; about 1/2 cup should be plenty. For making cracker crumbs, I just crumble the crackers right in their package; five Hai Tais equals about 3 tablespoons. It doesn't have to be precise. For the candy canes, unwrap them and place them in a sturdy ziplock baggy, then whack them with a heavy spoon, butt of a knife, or a wooden rolling pin that you don't care about (it might get dented).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Classic Cream Scones

This is another frequently shared recipe -- it's fast, foolproof, and can go from sweet to savory, depending on what you choose to stir in. Because the cream serves as both the liquid and the fat, you don't need to cut in butter and it uses no eggs. A very good recipe to try if you are new to baking.

Classic Cream Scones

Preheat oven to 425ºF. Have a large un-greased baking sheet ready.

Whisk together in a large bowl:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup dried raisins or cranberries

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

Stir in:

1 1/4 cup heavy cream (NOT non-dairy creamer)

Mix with a spatula or spoon just until the dry ingredients are moistened. Form the dough into a ball and knead it gently in the bowl about 10 times, until loose pieces are worked in.

Transfer to a lightly floured surface and pat the dough into an 8-inch (20 cm) round about 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick. Cut into 8 or 12 wedges and place on baking sheet, not too close together.

Brush tops with:

2 to 3 teaspoons cream or milk

Sprinkle with:

Cinnamon and sugar, if desired

Bake until the tops are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on a rack or serve warm.

Tips and buying info:

Fresh cream is very hard to find here, but there are some decent UHT versions. Check the labels carefully -- cream, milk solids, and maybe one thickener means it will taste fairly cream-like. Too many other stabilisers or enhancers and it will begin to taste odd. (Liquid whipped-topping mix is oil-based and won't work for this recipe at all.) I prefer President over Anchor, and also really like the Breton cream at Costco -- good flavor, good price.

For savory biscuits, reduce the sugar by half and stir in whatever you'd like: grated cheese, bits of cooked ham or bacon, green onions, etc. With half sugar and no stir-ins, these make nice biscuits to serve with soup or stew. For variations on the sweet version, try bits of candied ginger with orange zest, dried blueberries with lemon, or dried cherries and slivered almonds. You really can't go wrong, just keep the proportions about the same.

Cheese Thins

I've been cooking tons lately, and promising people I'd share recipes with them, so perhaps it's time to resurrect this blog, too. Let's give it a try, anyway!

One of my favorite cooking blogs is Chocolate & Zucchini, and I have Clotilde to thank for these lovely cheese crackers. I have never been a huge fan of chips and crackers -- yes, some of us can eat just one -- although I wouldn't pass up a few Triscuits. But these lovely cheesy crisps go far beyond the dry, uniform crackers that come in a box. They're perfect for the holidays, too: you can make the dough ahead of time, and just slice and bake the thins right before you need them. Once baked, they will keep nicely in a sealed container for a couple days, so you can prepare them ahead if you want. The trick is keeping the snackers at bay.

Cheese Thins

(Makes about six dozen, depending on how thick you slice them)

In a medium bowl combine:

170 grams (6 ounces) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated

55 grams (4 tablespoons) butter, diced and softened

100 grams (3 1/2 ounces, or about 3/4 cup) flour

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon ground spicy paprika or ground chili powder

Using a dough blender or two knives, mix these ingredients together until they form a dough. If the mixture seems too dry to form a ball add a dash of milk or cream.

Shape the dough into a log, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until it is firm enough to slice easily, about an hour or up to one day ahead. (You can put it in the freezer for 20 minutes to speed it up.)

Preheat the oven to 180Cº (360Fº) and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicon baking mat. Remove the dough from the fridge, slice it lengthwise and then slice each half into thin half-moons; arrange on the baking sheet (they will expand a little). Return any unused dough to the fridge between batches.

Sprinkle lightly with salt and chili pepper and bake for 10 to 14 minutes, until golden. Let the cheese thins rest on the baking sheet for a minute before transferring them to a cooling rack. Serve immediately, or store tightly covered.

Buying info:

I really like Costco's sharp cheddar for these; an extra-sharp cheddar would also be excellent, but I wouldn't use mild. You can substitute other cheeses, but they are so pricey here that I tend to use the more readily available ones for cooking.

Silicon mats are available at Walason's (aka The Pineapple Store, aka Cook Box), on Benguan Road. You'll find them on the paper products aisle, near the parchment paper and foil. They are tan, rolled up tubes, and each roll can be cut in half to line two full sized baking sheets. They're a real bargain, much better than the Silpat liners.