Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lemon Squares

Just as I start to get into the swing of baking and photographing and blogging, I have to go back to school. The place where blogging (and motivation) go to die. It's not that I can't bake in my miniscule kitchen, it's just that I don't have all the ingredients. So I'll have to make a list, then go to the store, then lament over all the things that I need to buy because my house always seems to have flour/butter/sugar/vanilla/eggs and my apartment is oddly lacking all those things at any every given moment. Hence, I am easily deterred from baking. Which is OK (for now) because (hopefully) someday in the future I'll own my own bakery where baking will be a daily necessity.

Yes, I'm aware that's just a picture of (nicely stacked) lemons. But there aren't many things to photograph whilst making lemon squares (only the shortbread crust and the lemon mixture - which is just all the ingredients whisked together - and neither of those are wildly visually appealing). Anyway, these are the quintessential summer dessert. Except that my family clamors for them in every other season, too.

Be warned though, that while it is almost difficult to have two of these in one sitting because they have such a strong flavor (though I have managed to push through), these little squares will soon become smaller and smaller as the people in your household will very sneakily slice off the edges so that it doesn't actually look like they've had 5 whole squares in a single day.

Not that anyone in my family does that.. I'm just saying.

Lemon Squares
(makes one 9 x 13 inch pan)
6 large eggs
2 1/2 c. sugar
2 tbsp lemon zest
1 c. lemon juice (about 5 lemons)
1 c. flour

For shortbread crust:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 stick plus 1 tbsp (9 tbsp) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg yolk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Generously butter a 9 x 13 inch pan. Set aside.

In a food processor (or in a bowl, my food processor is temporarily broken so I've been making this without one - works just fine the old fashioned way), combine flour, confectioners' sugar and salt and pulse to mix.

Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely combined. The pieces of butter should be different sizes, some smaller and some larger.

Stir the egg yolk and add it to the mixture a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is completely in, pulse for about 10 seconds at a time until the dough starts to come together and form clumps.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and lightly knead just to incorporate any dry ingredients that didn't get mixed in. Gently press the dough evenly over the surface of the pan and slightly up the sides. (The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick). Freeze for at least 30 minutes before baking.

To partially bake the crust, butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil and press it, buttered side down, against the frozen crust. Put the pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes. (If you want to fully bake the crust for another recipe, bake an extra 8 minutes).

Set the pan aside and lower the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine all the ingredients for the lemon squares. Whisk together and pour over fully-cooled crust. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until about 5 minutes after the bars are set. Let cool to room temperature, dust with confectioners' sugar and cut.

*A trick for getting the most juice out of citrus fruits: roll the fruit against a hard surface, applying pressure with your hand. Then, microwave the fruit for 20 seconds before slicing and squeezing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cherry Chocolate Chip Biscotti

I guess you could call these biscotti. Except they're not rock hard and dry like biscotti usually are. These are more like a cookie in the shape of a biscotti. A biscookie, one might say. They're chewy and slightly sweet, perfect with a cup of coffee (or tea, or water, or just by themselves). So if break-your-teeth biscotti are your kind of thing, then these are not for you.

I was sent this recipe after I interviewed and wrote a story about a chef for my internship last semester (he's one of the executive chefs for Safeway!). My dad loves anything with cherries so I figured I'd try them out. The night before Thanksgiving I made a batch and left them on the cooling rack while I went out to dinner (my mistake; one should never leave hot-from-the-oven sweets unguarded). My father called me while I was out, asking how many biscotti he was allowed to eat. When I came home, there were three left.

(Sorry dad, but you seriously ate the whole batch.)

I made a double batch the next day for Thanksgiving dessert and they flew off the table. They're now my go-to for gifts, impromptu gatherings, afternoon snacks and anything in between.

Cherry Chocolate Chip Biscotti
(makes around 15 pieces)
6 tbsp butter, softened
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. dried cherries (sweet or sour)
1 c. chocolate chips (I used white for these)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a large baking sheet.

In a stand mixer (or a medium sized bowl), beat the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and baking powder until smooth. Add eggs and mix until just combined.

Lower the mixer speed and add the flour. Mix until smooth (but be careful not to over mix).

Add in cherries and chocolate chips. Mix until just combined, then turn out the dough onto the baking sheet and shape into a log (around 13 inches long, 3 inches wide and 3/4 inch thick).

Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

Slice the biscotti into 3/4 inch thick pieces. Do not lay each slice down on its side like traditional biscotti recipes, keep the whole log intact (this is what allows them to maintain their delicious chewy centers and not dry out).

Re-bake the biscotti another 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are just turning golden brown. Transfer individual slices to a rack to cool.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Grandma's (revised) Baklava

If you don't know what baklava is, here's a little history lesson for ya. It's a middle eastern/mediterranean dessert (popular in Greek restaurants, though my Turkish grandmother prepared it as part of her culture) that combines layers of fillo dough and chopped nuts that are smothered in a simple syrup that absorbs into the pastry, making it sticky and super-sweet. And if that doesn't entice you enough, here's a picture.

Not only is it one of the easiest desserts to make, but it's impossible to mess up. I'll post the recipe but it doesn't even really matter if you follow it. The first time I tried to make it I used way less fillo dough and more sugar, and it was great. The second time (that I photographed) I used more fillo and less sugar (as per my father's request), and it was still great.

I used walnuts and breadcrumbs for the filling (minimal breadcrumbs, supposedly my grandma used to use like 7 slices of bread but I thought that was a bit excessive, so I used a half a cup). But some recipes call for almonds or pistachios. I just like walnuts best (and sometimes have a slight allergy to almonds, best to stay away from them).

So basically you just layer the ingredients to your liking. Mine goes like this: 2 slices fillo, brush with melted butter, two slices fillo, brush with butter, one slice fillo, top with half the nut mixture, two slices fillo, butter, two slices fillo, butter, two slices fillo, butter, two slices fillo, rest of the nut mixture, two slices fillo, butter, one slice fillo.

But I swear it's easy.

Now, sorry to backtrack but it's important, while you're layering and brushing and all that, get a small pot on the stove with two cups of sugar and two cups of water. Let this come to a boil (until the sugar is entirely dissolved) and then simmer for around 15 minutes, or until the mixture starts to thicken. Then when you're done layering, cut the baklava into pieces (it's way too messy to try and cut it after it's baked) and spoon about 1/4 cup of the sugar syrup over the baklava. This helps to keep the top layer of fillo in place (I didn't do this the first time and while it doesn't change the taste at all, it prevents the fillo from drying and curling; it's all about looking pretty).

Traditional Baklava
16 oz walnuts (amounts to around 3 cups when crushed)
1/2 c. breadcrumbs (I used a slice of stale white bread)
1/2 stick butter, melted
package frozen fillo dough
2 1/3 c. sugar, divided
2 c. water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Crush or food process the walnuts to a grainy mixture (should be partially powder but still have small chunks of walnuts). In a medium bowl, combine walnuts, breadcrumbs and 1/3 cup sugar. Set aside.

To make the simple syrup, combine water and 2 cups sugar in a small pot and bring to a boil. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, simmer for around 15 minutes (or until the liquid thickens slightly). Remove from heat.

Generously butter a 9 x 13 inch pan and layer two pieces of fillo dough (if the dough doesn't fit the pan, feel free to trim the edges). Using a basting brush, brush the top of the second sheet with the melted butter. Add two more layers of fillo, brush with butter. Add one more layer and then top with half the nut mixture. Top that with two layers of fillo, brush with butter, and repeat this process until there's eight layers of fillo on top of the nut mixture. Top with the rest of the nuts, then two layers of fillo, brush with butter, and one final layer of fillo.

Score the top of the baklava with a very sharp knife (cut into as many squares as you want) and drizzle 1/4 cup simple syrup over the top.

Bake for 50 minutes, or until the top of the baklava is golden brown. If it seems to be browning too fast, feel free to cover with a piece of tin foil.

Once the baklava is out of the oven, pour the rest of the simple syrup over the top. It might seem like a lot, but it absorbs into the fillo dough. Let the baklava rest out on counter (uncovered) for AT LEAST four hours. This is the hardest part, but try to resist the temptation to cut a square as soon as it's out of the oven. The syrup is the most important part and if it's not entirely absorbed the baklava will be dry.

**Fillo dough dries out really quickly, so make sure to cover the sheets with plastic wrap and a damp cloth while you're working.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year, New Start

Something huge has happened since I last posted. So huge that I'm even making all the pictures bigger, just to emphasize the importance.

Can you tell I'm excited?

I've never wanted anything so much as I've wanted a KitchenAid stand mixer. And my saint of a boyfriend got it for me for Hanukkah. He even got it in the sweetest ice blue color to match my ice cream machine (see here). And so now there's a whole new world of delicious recipes I can make, like cinnamon rolls, breads, pretzels, homemade pizza dough, and challah.

Mmm, challah.

I had never made challah before. Well, that's sort of a lie, I made it in preschool once and ate the entire loaf before I got home. I meant to share it with everyone. Whoops. So 18 long years later, I was ready to tackle the recipe (with the help of my new mixer, of course).

It was a process. From letting the yeast bubble to making the dough, then letting that rise and then making the loaves and then letting those rise and then baking to the perfect golden brown... it might have been more than I bargained for. Except that when the two glossy braided loaves came out of the oven and the whole house smelled like fresh bread, it was worth it.

For my first attempt, I followed this recipe from The Challah Blog to a tee. Next time I might try playing around with how many eggs I use because my family's used to a lighter challah. This recipe yields a thicker, more dense loaf. It's perfect for french toast or bread pudding, or just for toasting up with some butter.

Oh and on a complete side note, my picture quality will be drastically improving because I just purchased a Nikon D5100. No more blurry/grainy/overall bad photos for me!