Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pani Popo: Samoan Coconut Buns

I have a love-hate relationship with my KitchenAid Stand Mixer.

On one hand, I love that it does pretty much all the hard work with most of my bread/cake/cookie recipes. Heck, it will knead my dough happily for the required 5-10 minutes while I put the ingredients away, wipe down the counter-tops, and sweep the floor. By the time my kitchen is sparkling clean, all I have to do is form the soft, supple dough into a ball and throw it in a bowl to rise. Bread making was never so easy!

On the other hand, my mixer has a ton of quirks that has led me to curse it on more than one occasion.

For example, I set out to make Pani Popo (pani = bread, popo = coconut), a Samoan bread staple that features a sweet dough formed into rolls and baked in a thick, rich coconut custard. It sounded different and pretty awesome since my crazy pregnant lady hormones have had me craving all things coconut as of late. The recipe is extremely straightforward: dump all your dough ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer and knead away.

Sounds simple, right? And it was...until it came time for me to release the bowl from the base of the mixer.

It would not budge.

I gave it a couple good tugs and ended up pulling a muscle in my back. The bowl remained stuck tight. I unplugged the machine, straddled it on the kitchen floor, and grunted away like a caveman as I tried with all my might to free that dang mixing bowl. At one point, my newly kneaded dough went flying, but luckily I caught it before it fell to the floor for the cat to hurry over and inspect. After another couple minutes of struggling, I finally was able to twist the bowl out of the clutches of the mixer. By that time, I was red in the face from the strain and felt like I had just run a mile. I might as well have just kneaded the dough by hand.

At least these buns turned out to be one of the greatest things I have ever eaten. Baking the buns in the coconut milk enabled the flavor of the coconut to permeate the entire bun and form a wonderful "skin" on the top surface of each roll. A small amount of thick coconut custard (about the consistency of cream cheese frosting) remained at the bottom of the pan under each roll. As we pulled off a roll, one at a time, we would scoop the custard that remained beneath over the top. Heavenly. Paul had three the second they came out of the oven, and he is really not a huge fan of coconut. Matthew freaked out initially at the slight stickiness of the buns, but quickly got over it once he finally took a bite. Between the three of us, all twelve of the buns disappeared within 48 hours. This is definitely a recipe that I will be repeating. And probably soon. With all this nasty snow we have been having, I'll bake anything that might temporarily transport me to a tropical island.

Pani Popo
adapted slightly from King Arthur Flour

For the Sweet Yeast Dough:

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dry milk powder
2 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Coconut Sauce:

1 1/4 cups coconut milk, well shakened/stirred
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
A generous pinch of salt

Mix and knead the dough ingredients together by hand or in a stand mixer. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, it should take 5-7 minutes at second speed, and the dough should barely clean the sides of the bowl, perhaps sticking a bit at the bottom.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise, at room temperature, until it's nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Rising may take longer, especially if you've kneaded by hand. Give it enough time to become quite puffy.

While the dough is rising, grease a 9" x 13" pan.

Once the dough has completely risen, gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly greased work surface. Divide it into 12 pieces.  Shape each piece into a rough ball by pulling the dough into a very small knot at the bottom, then rolling it under the palm of your hand into a smooth ball.  Place the rolls in the pan, spacing them evenly; they won't touch one another. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise, about 45-60 minutes. About halfway though the rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

During the last 20 minutes of rising, prepare the coconut sauce. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened slightly, about 5-7 minutes. Pour the warm, thick sauce over the risen buns and bake in the preheated oven for 18-25 minutes, until the buns are golden brown on top and the internal temperature registers 190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Serve the warm buns from the pan, scooping up the thick sauce with a spoon and spreading it over the top of each individual bun. Store, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator and gently reheat individual buns in the microwave for 30 seconds on 50% power before serving. So delicious.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins

This past week, we had the pleasure of hosting my parents and four of my youngest siblings for a couple days. Matthew was so excited for their arrival that he was gazing out the window for what seemed like 2 days straight. It got a little annoying to constantly answer the question: "Coming, Grandma?" But I understand his excitement. It's always a party when Grandma is in town.

Matthew gets a crazy amount of attention from his little Aunts and Uncles.  The youngest three are all under the age of 10, and thus function as perfect playmates for Matthew. He, Bruce, and Susanna will parade around the house, moving from one mischievous activity to the next with lots of laughter, squealing, and screaming. This visit, the relatives brought presents for Matthew as well. Matthew received a Thomas the Train wall clock for his bedroom and a helicopter that lights up and makes some obnoxious buzzing sounds (the noises have annoyed Paul and I so much that we have both already thought about chucking it out the window). Needless to say, the kid is spoiled rotten.

In preparation for the visit, Matthew and I baked up a batch of muffins. Matthew has become increasingly helpful in the kitchen. He loves donning his little apron and helping measure, sift, and mix together ingredients. He measures flour and sugar very precisely, even carefully using his index finger to level off the measuring cup. He even invented a little high-pitched song (of course!) to sing as he whisks together the ingredients: "Mix...Mix...MIIIIIIXXXX!" I think he really enjoys seeing the process of baking and cooking. I find that he is more eager to eat the items that he helped prepare. Hopefully, he will continue to delight in being my kitchen helper in the future! I really wish I could post a picture of him helping out, but he has been super NOT photogenic as of late. He makes a really awful grimace whenever I ask him to smile for the camera. It looks like he is being forced into kitchen duty rather than enjoying some bonding time with Mommy.

The muffins we made were Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip from the Baked Cookbook that I received for Christmas. Although I was very apprehensive about how the kids would find the instant espresso powder, these muffins appealed to everyone and disappeared quickly. I think they were definitely best after resting for a day to allow the flavors to really mingle. This is definitely my new favorite breakfast muffin (although these babies will always hold a special place in my heart) - simply perfect with a hot mug of coffee!

Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins
Recipe barely adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

1-1/2 cups mashed, very ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup whole milk
1 large egg
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet mini chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray (or line with muffin papers). In a medium bowl, stir together the bananas, sugars, butter, milk, and egg. In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, instant espresso powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the well and stir just until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.

Fill each cup about 3/4 full. Bake in the center of the oven for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the muffin comes out clean. Move the muffin pan to a cooling rack, and let cool  for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the muffins from the pan and let them finish cooling on the cooling rack. Muffins can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Homemade Nutella for Paul

You know you are 9 months pregnant when...

1) You feel tired all the gosh darn time. You wake up in the morning and feel more exhausted than you did when you went to bed the night before only now a delightful cocktail of dizziness and disorientation has been thrown in for good measure. And no amount of coffee will make you snap out of it! When your toddler comes to you asking for something, what you hear is about as intelligible as the adult voices on an episode of The Charlie Brown Show ("Wah wah wa waaaa!"). And you probably took about 15 prenatal vitamins because you can't remember if you already took one and thus end up popping pill after pill just to make sure your nutritional bases are covered.

2) The only thing you can squeeze your massive frame into are yoga pants, your husbands sweaters, and the couple XXL t-shirts that you got for free at a charity bowling event. You are one stylish blimp.

3) Everything makes you cry. Everything. Including discovering that the grocery store is out of Pink Lady apples and you literally made the trip just to pick up a couple.

4) Everything also makes you mad. Your poor hubby stays at work a bit longer just to hide from your Jekyll and Hyde behavior. He's hoping it will all go away in a couple weeks.

5) You fall down the stairs because your bulging belly is so swollen that you are unable to see your feet and you totally miss one of the steps. And you can't get back up after the fall because your abs are pretty much nonexistent. This brings to mind the image of a pill bug that has flipped onto its back and now is helplessly/frantically moving all its legs in a sad attempt to flip upright once more. Husband comes to the rescue. Instead of thanking him, you chastise him for choosing to buy a house with a steep, slippery staircase (see #4 above).

6) You pull on your pants and tie your shoes while laying flat on your back. It's just more comfortable that way.

7) You get stopped by random women at the gym, the mall, or the grocery store who find it necessary to traumatize you with their horrific birth stories.

8) You are baking/cooking/nesting like there is no tomorrow. Every day brings a new opportunity to make another sweet indulgence, fold another tiny onesie, or bake some artisan bread because you have no idea what your schedule will be like once the new baby arrives!


Needless to say, I feel very, very sorry for my poor hubby and the emotional mess for a wife he has had to put up with as of late. He has been doing his best to not get upset when I lash out of him for no reason whatsoever and has been great with helping pull out the baby gear, make meal plans, and clean the house in preparation for the new baby.

To show my appreciation for all that he does, I decided to make a batch of Nutella for Paul. His favorite snack is Nutella straight from the jar, but we have not been buying it recently because it is so pricey. However, we can get hazelnuts in bulk from our grocery store for fairly cheap, so I decided to surprise him with a homemade batch. He likes homemade peanut butter so much better than the store-bought stuff, that I hoped homemade Nutella would be just as well received.

The recipe was a breeze to put together, mainly because the food processor does all the work. First, the nuts are roasted, allowed to cool, and then removed from their skins. Then, the nuts are ground in a food processor until their oils are released. Finally, cocoa powder, sugar, vanilla, oil, and a touch of salt are added to create a perfectly smooth, ethereal chocolate spread. Delicious.

Homemade Nutella
from The America's Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook

2 cups (8 ounces) hazelnuts
1 cup powdered sugar
⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional - but amazing)
1/8-1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts out on a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until dark brown and fragrant, 12-15 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through baking. Keep a close eye on them, as they can go from perfect roasted to burnt in a short amount of time. Transfer the hazelnuts to a medium-sized bowl.

Once the hazelnuts are cool enough to handle, place a second bowl upside-down on top of the bowl with the hazelnuts. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds to remove the skins of the hazelnuts. It may take a few times to get all of the skins off. Each time, remove the hazelnuts that have lost their skin to the bowl of a food processor, then continue shaking.

Process the hazelnuts in a food processor until their oil is released and they form a smooth, loose paste, 2-5 minutes, scraping down the bowl often.

Add the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, oil, vanilla extract and salt and process until fully incorporated, scraping the bowl as needed, about 2 minutes. The mixture will loosen and become glossy. It will continue to thicken as it rests. Transfer the spread to a jar with a tight-fitting lid or an airtight container. You can store it in the refrigerator or at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

TWD: Boca Negra

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe featured a perfect dessert for Valentine's Day: an incredibly rich, decadent, chocolate cake that is reminiscent of fudge. This cake is nearly flour-less (containing a scant 1 1/2 tablespoons of flour in the batter) and is given a flavor boost from the addition of bourbon. Booze and chocolate are a fantastic combination.

The best part about this recipe? It was the easiest cake I have ever made in my life. Paul and I stayed in for Valentine's Day (we were kind of forced to since Mr. Matthew had a stomach bug) and made a simple dinner of curried mussels. Paul handled the mussels while I worked on getting this cake into the oven so we could enjoy a slice for dessert. Mussels normally take less than 15 minutes to make, start to finish, and I had this cake sliding into the oven at the exact same time that Paul took the pot of mussels off the stove-top  The batter is simply given a couple of good pulses in the food processor and then dumped into a greased, parchment lined cake pan and baked for 30 minutes.  Voila! Warm from the oven, the cake develops a crackly, brownie-like crust that, once broken into, reveals a chocolaty interior akin to the molten center of a lava cake. I actually enjoyed the cake best after a 24-hour chill in the fridge, after which time it took on the texture of an excellent, perfectly smooth fudge. So delicious.

The recipe calls for the cake to be served with a white chocolate cream that is simply  made by melting white chocolate in hot cream and then adding a generous dosage of more bourbon before heading to the fridge for a 24 hour rest. Paul and I made the cream and ended up whipping it slightly since we did not care for the texture of the cream right out of the refrigerator. However, the flavor really did complement the cake beautifully although honestly the cake was decadent enough without the extra garnish. Next time, I would probably just eat the cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to cut the richness a bit. Or some plain whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

Overall, I really enjoyed this recipe for its ease and simplicity. It would make an excellent, no-fuss dessert to impress some dinner guests. If you would like to give the recipe a try, head over to Cathy's Blog.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mac and Cheese the Panera Way

After nearly six days of fever, puke, sleepless nights, and obsessive amounts of disinfectant, the plague has left our household and our little 3-year-old is finally back to his normal self. It was a rough couple of days as this virus just did not seem to want to leave his system. I was getting a little worried about Matthew's noticeable weight loss from not eating much for a week but, as of this morning, his normal appetite has returned.

He even requested his weekend latte. He takes his morning pick-me-up very seriously.

He drank it voraciously. I have a feeling that he missed his coffee more than anything during his week of starvation.

"Stop taking pictures and let me drink my coffee in peace, Mom!!!"

In honor of Mr. Matthew feeling well, I would like to share with you one of his favorite dishes in the whole wide world: Macaroni and Cheese. Now, it took me a while to convince him that homemade Mac and Cheese is just as good way better than the orange powdered cheese stuff that you buy in the grocery store (although in a pinch that stuff is awesome). However, once I got the little twerp to actually try a bite of the homemade stuff, he loved it. Of course.

This particular version of Mac and Cheese is the same recipe used by Panera Bread. There is probably only one other person in this world who loves Panera Bread more than I. And that would be my son. He is obsessed with Panera. Whenever he sees the familiar logo while we are driving through town, he points to it and proclaims: "Nera bagels and coffee!" This may or may not be entirely due to my taking him there with my Mom when he was merely a week old for his very first outing as a newborn! He usually requests simply a sliced Asiago bagel and a chance to watch a couple customers fill their coffee mugs (it's an addiction). While I have never ordered their Mac and Cheese in the cafe, I have seen many, many patrons enjoying it and the smell has always been so enticing. When I saw that Panera published the recipe on their website, I gave it a try. Both Paul and Matthew were in melty, cheesy heaven. Paul especially was singing my praises (then again, it really does not take much to impress him). This was one of the last "cheese meals" before our "Lent without Cheese" began last Wednesday.

There are so many different variations of Mac and Cheese out there, but this one is particularly good due to the particular combination of cheese and the addition of a generous amount of Dijon mustard. It really elevates the dish.

Panera Mac and Cheese
adapted from the Panera website

16 oz small shells, macaroni, or nuggets pasta
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
4 oz white American cheese, chopped or torn into pieces
8 oz extra-sharp white Vermont cheddar, shredded
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (more or less to suit your tastes)
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp Frank's hot sauce

In a large stockpot, cook pasta according to package directions.  Drain well.

While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a 4-quart sauce pan over medium heat.  When the butter has melted and has started to bubble, whisk in the flour.  Cook for 1 1/2 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk until no lumps remain.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook milk mixture, whisking frequently, until it thickens and bubbles, about 8 minutes.

Remove saucepan from the heat and by the handful, stir in the cheeses allowing all of the cheese to melt into the sauce before adding more.  Stir in the mustard, salt, and hot sauce.  Return the sauce pan to the heat and stir in the pasta.  Be sure to stir up the sauce from the bottom of the sauce pan and thoroughly coat all of the pasta with sauce.  Cook for 1-2 minutes over medium-low heat until heated through.  Serve hot in bowls with spoons.

Friday, February 15, 2013

White Chocolate Peanut Butter

For years and years, I could not stomach the idea of a peanut butter sandwich. I hated straight peanut butter spread so much that the smell of it would make me gag. I think this reaction stems from memories of long car trips in the back seat of our 12-passenger van, situated uncomfortably between two of my smelly brothers (sorry guys!). I normally was overheating because the air conditioning was completely ineffective to anyone sitting beyond the second row of seats, and the commingling smells of Fig Newtons and Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches rendered me utterly nauseated. Occasionally, Dad would open a bag of Bugles which would bring some relief (I still love Bugles. Do they still make those? Anyway, I digress).

I still cannot face a Fig Newton, but luckily during my pregnancy with Matthew my acceptance of peanut butter returned. When out for a day-long hike, my favorite power sandwich to bring along is Peanut Butter and Banana on Oatmeal Bread. Delicious and very, very satisfying.

With my rekindled love for peanut butter, I began tasting different varieties that are available at our local grocery store. I fell in love with the Peanut Butter & Company variations - including Dark Chocolate Dreams, The Bee's Knees, and White Chocolate Wonderful. Out of all of these, the White Chocolate Wonderful makes me swoon, especially when paired with orange marmalade and sliced toasted almonds on homemade bread.  A delicious sandwich reminiscent of a Creamsicle.

The only problem with my White Chocolate Wonderful? It costs about $4.00 for a fairly small jar. A bit of a splurge even if I end up stashing the jar in the back of the pantry to eat by myself with a spoon when the hubby and child are not watching (Shhhhh...). However, ever since Paul gave me a food processor for Christmas last year, I have been making many different spreads and butters and figured that it could not be too difficult to replicate the sweet, creamy indulgence of White Chocolate Wonderful.

Just a few ingredients, a couple spins in the food processor, and this emerged...

And it was good.

Dangerously good.

Give this a whirl! And if you do...please make a sandwich with orange marmalade and toasted almonds. It's transcendent. And that's from a former hater of all things peanut butter.

White Chocolate Peanut Butter

2 cups roasted, salted peanuts
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3-1/2 cup white chocolate chips, melted (I like the 1/2 cup personally...)
1 teaspoon vanilla

In the bowl of a food processor, process peanuts until completely broken down and slightly creamy. This may take up to 3 minutes. Just let it go while you melt the white chocolate in the microwave (on HIGH for 60-90 seconds, stirring with a spatula every 20 seconds or so). Add the canola oil through the feed tube and continue to process until smooth.  Add the white chocolate and vanilla and continue processing until completely combined and delicious. Taste and add more oil for a smoother texture or more white chocolate if you like it sweeter! Transfer to a Mason Jar and store in the refrigerator.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oatmeal Sandwich Bread

In preparation for the upcoming arrival of our second child, I have been cooking and baking like mad to ensure that we have plenty of sandwich bread and quick meals at our fingertips once the craziness that defines life with a newborn begins again! I far and above prefer homemade sandwich bread to store-bought and have been baking a few loaves of this buttermilk bread in addition to a few others a couple days each week. One of these loaves has been this beautiful, delicious oatmeal bread.

Now, Matthew is a huge carb lover and always begs to have the first slice of bread hot out of the oven (surprisingly, he really does not get that you have to let bread cool to room temperature despite all the lectures I have given him about structural integrity of gluten development!). If I had to choose a single loaf of bread that he liked best, it would be this oatmeal bread. It is mildly chewy, hearty, and slightly sweet and makes the ideal PB&J sandwich for my active little guy. Plus, it is probably one of the easiest homemade breads you can ever make!

The original recipe does call for rolled oats and they do work best. However, I have substitute quick oats before and while they definitely change the texture of the finished bread, the loaf was still delicious and held up well to slicing. You can also switch out the sweetener for whatever type you like - honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, corn syrup, molasses - whatever you have! My personal favorite version is using honey as the sweetener and adding a very finely diced, peeled apple to the dough. Seriously yum!

Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
adapted from Nick Magieri's How to Bake

1 cup oatmeal
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup warm water (about 110ยบ on an instant read thermometer)
2 1/2 teaspoons dry active or instant yeast
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sweetener of choice (brown sugar, honey, etc)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into about 12 pieces, plus more for greasing bowl and pan

Grease a 8 1/2" x 4 1/4" loaf pan with butter and set aside.

Pour boiling water over oats in a bowl. Stir and set aside till cooled to room temperature.  Meanwhile, put warm water in a small bowl and add yeast. Stir and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, brown sugar and salt and stir to combine. Fit mixer with dough hook and add oatmeal, yeast mixture and butter pieces. Knead dough on low for about 5-10 minutes till smooth and elastic, adding more flour as needed so the dough is not too sticky. Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into a ball on a lightly floured countertop. Place dough in greased bowl, flip a couple times to coat all sides with butter, and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise till dough doubles in bulk, about one hour (While making the dough, I like to preheat my oven to 200 degrees, let it warm for 10 minutes, and then shut it off. When the dough is ready to rise, just stick it in the warmed oven and it will rise beautifully and quickly!).

Remove dough from bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface. Deflate dough with the palm of your hand. Form dough into rectangle, slightly longer than pan length. Using the end closest to you, roll tightly into a cylinder, pressing on the seam with your fingertips as you roll it up. Pinch the seam and ends together after rolling and place the cylinder, seam side down, into prepared pan. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise till doubled, about an hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove plastic from risen dough and place pan in oven. Immediately decrease oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the loaf is brown and sounds hollow when tapped and the internal temperature reads 195 degrees. Remove from pan to cooling rack. Slice when cooled to room temperature.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

TWD: Focaccia Pizza with Tomato-Basil Topping

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe challenge was for Focaccia, a traditional flat Italian bread normally topped with a generous serving of olive oil, fresh herbs, and coarse salt. However, the uses for a fresh loaf of focaccia are endless - split a slice in half and fill it with your favorite sandwich ingredients, top it with a generous amount of cheese before baking to make an irresistible appetizer, or make a sweet focaccia topped with grapes, blueberries, or blackberries and some coarse lemon sugar.

I chose to try to turn this project into a meal for my family by making a focaccia pizza. My husband and son are pizza fiends and since we are once again giving up cheese during the fast-approaching Lenten season, I figured it would probably be kind to make them as many cheese filled, topped, stuffed, or sprinkled items as I can before the fasting begins.

I have made focaccia many, many times before and this dough was much more stiff than any recipe I have tried previously (the dough is practically pour-able in most other recipes). It really did remind me of more of a pizza dough than a focaccia. However, after a lot of hand kneading and a couple rises, the dough really did form a lot of the bubbles characteristic of a focaccia. The dough was pleasant to work with, not too sticky, and rose beautifully both inside and out of the fridge.

After a 24-hour rest in the fridge, I carefully spread the dough onto a baking sheet sprinkled with semolina and topped it with a quick tomato-basil topping along with some fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. The bread/pizza monstrosity baked up beautifully in the oven and the aroma that filled the kitchen had my husband coming in from the study to check on the progress of the meal every few minutes (as I have mentioned before, he gets rather restless around feeding time).


The end result? It was delicious! It rose up pretty nicely for the most part. The edge pieces were rather thin, but that was probably my fault with stretching the dough too thin in those areas. However, this made a very tasty sheet pizza. My hubby and son devoured 3/4 of it in less than 20 minutes and were singing my praises. We'll see what they have to say about my cooking when they are eating nothing but lentil soup and quinoa salads during Lent.

I've included the recipe for the pizza topping below just in case anyone would like to try making it. It really does make a fabulous topping for pizza.

If you would like to try the focaccia recipe, head over to Sharmini's Blog.

Quick Tomato-Basil Pizza Topping
adapted from Cook's Country

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon table salt
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (roughly 2 cups)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup basil leaves, chiffonade
Sea Salt for Sprinkling

Place tomatoes in a colander, and drain REALLY well.  In a medium bowl, combine drained tomatoes, oil, garlic, oregano, and salt and set aside. In a second bowl, combine mozzarella and Parmesan. Set aside. Sprinkle cheese mixture over the dough, leaving 1/2-inch border on all sides. Top with tomato mixture, and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Bake until well browned and bubbling. Slide pizza onto a wire rack, sprinkle with basil, and let cool for 5 minutes. Serve.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Sweet and Salty Cake

I have a love for layer cakes. Not particularly for eating them, but rather for making them. They are always such a project, which is why they can only be reserved for the most special of occasions. Every year for Paul's birthday, I ask him to pick out the cake of his dreams and then set out to make it for him. In the past, I have made both Matthew and Paul separate cakes for their birthdays even though they are a mere 24 hours apart. This year, however, I wanted to simplify things a little bit (plus we never eat all the cake...not even close!) and figured that they could share a cake. Poor Matthew would just have to like whatever flavor Paul chose to indulge in this year.

Now, Paul has a history of picking the most outrageous and complicated cake concoctions he can find. It is never something as simple and traditional as "lemon cake," "carrot cake" or even "German Chocolate Cake."

As an example, take last year's request:  "Can you try to recreate that one cake we had in Helena with the Earl Grey mousse and I think it had Earl Grey in the cake too?" So there is a ton of research involved (because heaven forbid that the cake should FAIL by either not tasting good or imploding) before the actual baking/decorating of the cake can be done. But again, it's a fun process that I actually enjoy. For that Earl Grey Cake in particular, I actually ended up talking to the owners of the bakery about the cake in order to extract a few hints about how it was done. Their tips proved very useful and the cake ended up being a success!

This year, Paul spared me the research and instead chose a cake from the book Baked: New Frontiers in Baking that I received as a gift for Christmas: The Sweet and Salty Cake. The cake itself is a triple-layered monstrosity that utilizes a rich Devil's Food cake layered with a salted caramel filling, sprinkled lightly with fleur de sel, and then lathered with a silky whipped chocolate ganache. The finished product is a beautiful, sophisticated cake that is very rich but not in a cloyingly sweet way.

I made the recipe in stages, which always simplifies the composition of layer cakes.  Three days before assembly, I baked, cooled, and froze the cake layers. I made the salted caramel filling the night before decorating and composed the whipped ganache immediately before decorating. Had I chosen to make this cake in one shot, the task would have been a bit overwhelming as a bit of babysitting was required for each component. However, splitting up the tasks this way made the the whole process quite simple and the end result was awesome.

The cake appealed to both the children and adults alike! We did end up packaging up a large portion of the cake for friends otherwise I know Paul and I would have devoured the whole thing. If you would like to make this cake, I will gladly email you the recipe or you can try performing an internet search. It has been published on many, many websites and I am just feeling a bit too lazy to type it up at the moment (it's a bit lengthy and may result in carpal tunnel).

This was definitely a special occasion cake, but I cannot wait for the next opportunity to make and share this cake with others!