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Friday, April 26, 2013

Sooooooo Many PB Cookies

I made so many PB cookies last week.

Soooo many.

I think the final count was around 72... so like 6 dozen.  

In hindsight, it was way too many.

But, hindsight was something not really available when I was smack in the middle of rolling out ever so much dough for these bad boys.

I did, however, learn a neat trick.

Partly why I mention it actually.

I mean, it isn't genius or anything, and I am wholly certain others have been doing this forever, but for whatever reason I only alighted upon this now.


When dealing with any sort of 'butter-based' dough, keeping it chilled helps keep it firm and manageable.

And this peanut butter cookie dough is especially crumbly when warm, and part of preparing them for baking is literally rolling them between two hands, so it can warm pretty easily.

Anyway... I used to just keep 'unused' portions in the fridge, as my mother and her mother before her used to do.  Which works just fine... but as I mentioned above, this particular batch was monstrous.  A very large amount of dough.

Plus I got tired of going in and out of the fridge.

Anyway... I decided to put my dough bowl inside of a larger bowl filled with ice water.

It not only kept the dough SUPER cool and very firm, but it meant that I could just keep it out on the counter right next to my work space.

Not a terribly big deal to be sure, but it can definitely make a difference when you're reaching for your 72nd ball of dough.

Anyway, like I said, I'm sure others have been doing this trick, but I've never seen it or read about it myself, so this was my first time doing it.

It was nice!

It sure made baking 6 dozen cookies a little more bearable!

(oh, and the cookies, you ask?  They turned out delicious... We ended up having to give some away they were too delicious.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Peugeot Chateauneuf Pepper Mill

Well, I finally got my Peugeot Pepper mill.


It's been a long, long, time, but I've finally replaced my old shitty pepper mill with a worthy upgrade.

I did a fair bit of research and experimenting (and actual testing), and came up with the Peugeot Chateauneuf as the best mill I could find.  

The 23cm version (they make a few sizes).  Anything smaller seemed a waste, and the larger one just seemed cumbersome.  23 cm felt just right.

I found that there are truly a myriad of styles, shapes, themes, mechanisms, and functionalities to grinding peppercorns.  Many (the vast majority) are cheap wooden or plastic mills, with plastic mechanisms (the gears and such inside).  Definitely representing much of the 'low' end of the market, these cheap grinders also bled into the mid, and even high end a bit!  I was surprised.

Anyway, in my testing, and in my own experience using herb mills and grinders, the tantamount concern is of course the grinding mechanism.  So, this absolutely has to be solid metal in my opinion.  Surprisingly few grinders have this.  

The Peugeot Chateauneuf has absolutely no plastic in the working parts.  Anything which needs to twist, grind, or rotate is all solid metal.  This was a big deal.  

Secondly, the grade selector (to select variable levels of coarseness) is a very nice, solid metal piece which - unlike many other varieties - moved fluidly and sturdily.  This was also important.

This model offers six (yup!) coarseness selections.  

From ultra fine - such as you'd find in a pepper shaker, and my least-favoured coarseness - all the way to ultra coarse - barely cracked at all, like you'd expect on a Steak au Poivre or Brandy Cream sauce or something like that.  

Anyway, I was used to having to manually grind whole peppercorns in my mortar and pestle to get that level of coarseness.  Yup.  I'm movin' on up.

And, lastly, and of lesser concern to me, was the aesthetics.  The 'look and feel' of the Chateauneuf was pleasant and far superior to the majority of mid- to high-end pepper mills.  It has the traditional fluted design, but is very weighty and solid, and has the nice metal rings for the working parts.  Pretty.

Anyway... you have to pick it up and use it to get the FULL sense of any pepper mill's worth, but in my own search for the best, this one placed first.

And I am very pleased with it.


I had thought of getting rid of my old grinder, but now I think I'll just fill it with something else.  Maybe some coriander.  Or maybe I'll do a peppercorn medley of green and white and red?  We'll see!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Orange Bundt Cake

I'll never be able to think of Bundt cakes anymore without being reminded of that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
"Bundt!  BUNDT!!!!"
 "Ohhh!  It's a cake!"
 "There's a hole in this cake."

heh heh heh heh.  Funny stuff from a funny movie.


Is it really that WASPish of a thing?  I guess I wouldn't know, with my upbringing.  My family did make lots of bundt cakes; I'd say most cakes were bundt cakes, actually, now that I think of it...  And if my parents happen to bear striking resemblances to Ian MIller's parents, well, I'm sure that's just a coincidence.


But, anyway, I don't really make a lot of cakes myself, but the wife had a really rough week of work this week, and she happens to really love cakes.  Like competing for a spouse's affection kind of love.  But, anyway... 

So, I made a bundt cake.

But not just any kind.


An ORANGE bundt cake.



You see, I had a big bag of organic oranges in the fridge, and I didn't feel like just making the traditional yellow bundt cake.  

I was lucky enough to find a variant actually listed in one of my favourite resources, the ATK Family Baking Book.  Although, making an orange zest variant of anything is pretty straightforward.

Here is the recipe... which, to be fair, I followed only loosely.  Some of my many deviations include more orange juice and zest, and about 3 times as much vanilla, and a bit more flour.

I apologize... my scanner broke this week...  :(

So, to start, we're going to zest and juice a couple of fresh oranges.  

I need to juice a lemon too, because I'm going to use the 'sour milk' substitution for my lack of authentic buttermilk. (In case you've never heard of this, you can let a tablespoon or so of lemon juice sit in about a cup of milk for about 15 minutes, to 'sour' it, which can be a cheap and easy baking substitution for buttermilk.)

 Two medium oranges later, and I was left with enough orange juice and zest for three things: 1) To add to my cake mix; 2) To add to my orange frosting; and, 3) To drink the leftovers in a ridiculously small gulp.

Freshly squeezed OJ is a luxury I never get, so when I didn't quite need all of the juice from two oranges, it was no problem at all for me to 'deal' with the leftovers.  Even in such pitiable quantity.


So, the juice and zest got split into what was to be added to the cake mix, and what was to be saved for the frosting.

  The former I added to my souring milk, 

while the latter I let sit aside in a small mixing bowl along with some butter for the 'butter cream frosting'.

By this time, my butter has reached room temperature, and is ready to be creamed.  It can not be overstated, the importance of creaming the butter.



About 5 minutes of mixing on lowish speed, and the butter is ready to accept some other ingredients.  Must notably the sugar.

So, after mixing the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs, one at a time.

After having mixed together all wet in one mixing bowl, and all dry in a separate bowl, add each to the butter mixture gradually, alternating one and then the other as you go, mixing on low all the while.


That's it.  Time consuming but easy.

If you'll notice that recipe I included had a 'tip' (ATK often has these) on how to prepare the bundt pan.  So I tried that.  Normally I did used to lightly oil, and then lightly flour the pan and never really had any complaints, but I decided to give this 'combined' method a try.

It worked out OK.  Can't say I really noticed much of a difference, really.  I guess the look of the cake, upon baking, was a little more uniform, but what difference does it make when I'm about to frost the crap out of the thing anyway?  I suppose if you were to have an unadorned bundt cake, this would be helpful...

Anyway, that got baked.

And came out looking gorgeous!

YUM!  So moist!  Look at that glistening sheen!

At this point you could postively smell the orange.

Anyway, I let it sit just on the stove for a few minutes at first, but then I upended it on a wire cooling rack, where it sat for a good while still in the pan.

Periodically I would try to lift the pan off, but until it cooled substantially (I'd say it was about 20 minutes) the pan did not come off easily.

But when it did... 


My single best-looking cake ever.

I let that cool for a few hours on the counter before frosting.

Which I suppose I should talk about now.

Remember that butter, orange juice, and orange zest I had set aside?  Well, here it is again, in case you forgot:

The butter was getting nice and soft, but not melted, and when I was finished putting the cake in the oven, I got started making some orange butter cream icing.

So, to this mix I add a large amount of vanilla.  I can't remember exactly but it was several tablespoons.  With just a regular wire whisk, I beat that all together, and then added a couple cups of confectioner's (icing) sugar.  What we were left with was a delicious-tasting, relatively plain-looking, frosting.  So, I decided to try and make it look orange.  Normally some simple orange food colouring would suffice, but I hardly ever use food dye.  Like ever.  I had one bottle of colouring (yellow, as you'll see in a sec) which was probably close to ten years old.  I never use the stuff.  But, you'll remember this was meant to be a treat for the wife... <sigh>... so I wanted it to be pretty.

Enter nuclear yellow chemical.  To be fair to the nuclear yellow chemical, I'll be the first to admit ignorance to what it actually entails.  For all I know it could be a wholly organic, naturally-derived, plant or vegetable extract... 

although... something tells me it's not.  ;)

Heh heh heh.

Anyway, after a few drops of that, my butter cream frosting starts looking, unsurprisingly, yellow.

So, I remember that I have, saved in the freezer, some RASPBERRY frosting from my Raspberry Cupcakes of a few months ago.  It's elementary art class all over again children! 

Yellow plus red equals?


Well... to be fair, this was more like yellow plus pink equals some sort of pale orange colour...  But it was close enough!


So, after the cake had cooled a bit, I 'glazed' the whole thing with a large amount of this goop.  

It is an extravagance after all, is it not?

Mmmmmmmm... Orangey.

Anyway, this Orange Bundt Cake turned out to be incredibly well-received.

Both by my wife and by my stomach.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Homemade Rich Butter (Ritz) Crackers


Ritz crackers.

Sort of...


I loved ritz crackers for a very long time.  Then I grew up and started to pay attention to things like ingredients and nutrition labels.  Well... that was that.

I guess the really high amounts of fat and sodium are what make these famous crackers so delicious, but still... they're really, really, really bad for you.

I've seen DIY recipes for these before, but never really gotten around to trying them out until now.

The last couple weeks has seen our larders particularly flush with cheese and such.  We made a few trips to specialty stores and delis recently, and so have stocked a fair few delectable cheese varieties.

So, I wanted some crackers.  I mean... cheese is good on many things, and I do really enjoy cheese by itself, or with a good wine, but there's something awesome about cheese with crackers.  It's like having a uniformly flavoured, relatively bland, medium of cheese transmission.  And it's fun.

So, rather than run out to the store for the express purpose of buying crackers, I thought I'd give this a try.


So, I began - as always when never having attempted something before - by doing some research.  

There are quite a few people out there who've emulated Ritz, from industrious housewives to professional test kitchens, but for the most part the recipes were very similar.

In fact, the recipe is not at all unlike my mom's recipe for Swedish Jam Cookies.  Minus the sugar of course.  And with a bit more salt.

But when I was making this dough, I was surprised by how similar in look and feel it was to the above-mentioned cookie dough.  This similarity even allowed me to add a few tweaks of my own which were not in any of the recipes I researched.

So, here is what I used, posted - as usual - as a downloadable/printable recipe card.

Remember you can click on it to enlarge it and right-click on it to save it or print it.

So, I won't go into too much detail if you know your standard baking rules... like mix all dry and then add mixed wet... things like that... but I will talk about the things which absolutely should happen.

First, the butter.

There's quite a lot of butter in these (surprise, surprise) BUTTER crackers, so you might be tempted to cut some corners, but it is absolutely integral that the butter be cold, and cut-in to the flour.  Believe me, it makes a difference.

So, the large amount of butter  - roughly 1/3 cup - needs to be really cold and yet also in small enough pieces to be able to be easily cut in.  I use a large chef's knife to cut these, and if the pieces have warmed too much in the interim, then I pop them back into the fridge.  The above pictured plate o' butta was just fresh out of the fridge.

Now, for some stupid reason that I can't even explain, I still haven't ever picked up a pastry cutter.  I think I picked up a super cheap one when I first moved away from my parent's place, but that has long been absent and never been replaced.

Anyway, of course use a pastry cutter or blender if you have one.  Don't be stupid.  But, on the off chance you're like me and just don't have one, you can do what I do and use your fingers.

So, once all the dry ingredients have been whisked together nicely, 

cut that butter in slowly and a little bit at a time.

The trick is to really squish them into the flour.  You'll know it's all done when the dough looks a lot more... crumby.  It also feels softer and velvety.

That's successfully mixed butter dough.

Once it's been moistened with a bit of water (and in this recipe, a bit more oil), the dough will form a nice, yet crumbly, ball.

At this point, I divided the dough up into manageable bits, in this case quarters, and put whatever I'm not using in the fridge.  This is important.

So, working with only one quarter of the dough, I first rolled it out with a rolling pin.

However, every recipe I looked at before making these, said that making them thin enough was an issue, and that you should just make them as thin as possible.

This will actually cause some problems in a bit, but we'll get to that later.  For right now, I'm still thinking this should be as thin as possible, so I pull out the pasta machine.


I roll some dough out as thinly as it can be made, and then use just a simple dry spice jar lid as a 'cutter'.  

These would of course look more authentic if you had an undulating wavy kind of cutter like ritz crackers...  but I didn't... so I used a spice jar lid.  OK?

Anyway, once those are cut, I place them gingerly on a parchment-lined baking sheet, stab them unceremoniously and repeatedly with a fork, and bake them at 400°F.

The holes are there for baking purposes, not aesthetic, so no need to worry overly much about them.  

The recipes all said about 10 minutes, but I found they were done by 5 already.  Possibly because mine were so thin?  I mean look at how thin my first batch was:

Too thin if you ask me.  But there was a whole lot of dough left so I just made the next batches thicker.

The other consistency among all the recipes I looked at, was to brush the crackers with a salt and (melted) butter topping as soon as they're out of the oven.

I used unsalted butter and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and found this was still WAY too salty.
If I ever do this again, I'll likely only use a 1/4 or even an 1/8 instead.

So, after coming out of the oven after about 5 minutes of baking only, a generous layer of salted butter gets brushed over them all.

At first, my baking experience told me to carefully set these all to cooling on a wire rack for a few minutes; however, I must say these little dainties are quite durable, and easily stood up to just dumping them all in a bin after baking.  In fact, even after shaking them around and mixing them about in my container, I yet managed to not have a single broken cracker!  Go figure!  

Even your average Ritz box has a sizable cracker moratorium at the bottom of the bag.


Anyway, after learning from this overly thin and overly salty first batch, the next three were easy, and it was just a matter of going through the rote actions.

Making sure to keep in the fridge whatever was not being immediately rolled and cut, I whipped through the remaining batches in less than 20 minutes.  I found that I could also up the batch count to 40 (5 rows of 8)!  They don't really expand much when they cook, so this was safe.

It helped cut down on baking time.

Anyway, after baking, and then brushing over a hundred of these little guys, I was happy to have a relatively large bucket o' ritz on hand.

I wasn't totally sure of how best to store them, as not one of the recipes I read deigns to be concerned with that.  However, I was worried about them getting "soggy" - after having just slathered them with butter.

So, what I did was I intentionally left them uncovered for a couple of days before sealing them up with a lid.  That worked well, and the crackers were astonishingly similar to Ritz crackers.  In texture, consistency, and (most importantly) flavour, they were bang-on.  You couldn't tell the difference.  In fact, given these were un-processed and healthier alternatives, I'd say they were BETTER.  The only issue was appearance.  Obviously these did not have the gorgeous, uniformly golden, baked appearance that do authentic Ritz.

I can live with that though.

And although these are super fatty and kinda salty, they are an excellent treat that I'll be sure to make once in a while!

Don't tell Mr. Christie!