A mom's journal of the sweet things in her life...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Homemade Twix-Like Cookie Bars or Thousand Dollar Bars

Oh. My. God. I've discovered the most amazing treat. The best part is they're easy to make.


In my search for some new 'confection-type' treats to include in my Christmas baking, I found these amazing bars on the King Arthur Flour website and adapted them. You start with a rich, buttery shortbread base, then spread with a chewy caramel filling, cut them into thin finger-style strips, and dip them in milk chocolate.

THEN...I took it one step further. I sprinkled them with some Fleur de Sel. You could use any coarse salt - but I had the good stuff and these bars were worthy of it.

I'm so happy with myself right now I can't even talk about it. There are no words. Just make them, you'll see for yourself. These have officially been adopted into my Christmas baking repertoire. I love them. I'm hooked. Send help.

Start by combining a cup of butter with a cup of icing sugar and 2 tsp. of vanilla in your stand mixer. Once it's smooth and creamy, add 2 cups of flour and mix until it comes together. Press into a foil-lined 13x9 inch pan that's been greased.
 Poke several times with a fork to prevent puffing when baked.
Bake at 300 degrees F. for 30 to 40 minutes (I baked mine for 32 minutes), until the edges begin to turn a golden brown color. Let cool.
 To make the caramel filling, I used a 340 gram package of Kraft caramels. (There are approximately 40 individually wrapped caramels inside.
 Unwrap the caramels and put in a medium microwave safe bowl.
Add 2 Tablespoons of cream.
 Microwave on High for 2 to 3 minutes - checking frequently. It's important to not to overcook the caramel or it will become very hard.
 Stir the caramel until it is smooth
 and then pour onto your cooled crust.
 Spread evenly over crust with an off-set spatula. I spray my spatula with Pam which makes it easier to move the caramel around without sticking too much .
 Put the crust with the caramel into the fridge to cool and set. I pulled mine out when the caramel was 'set' but not so cold it was 'hard'. It was slightly pliable still so the knife could easily cut through it. Pull the bars out of the pan before you begin cutting, this makes it easier to get nice clean slices.

Melt 6 ounces of milk chocolate with 1 Tablespoon of vegetable shortening.
 Place one cookie into the chocolate to coat the bottom, then spoon the chocolate over the entire cookie. 
 Remove the cookie from the chocolate with a fork - shaking it gently to allow excess chocolate to drip off the cookie and back into the bowl.
 Place onto a cooling rack to allow chocolate to set. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt if desired.

Once the chocolate has set for about 30 minutes, move cookies to a parchment lined sheet and put in the fridge until completely set.

Recipe for Homemade Twix-Like Cookie Bars
(Source: Adapted from King Arthur Flour website)

Cookie Layer:
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, at room temp.
1 cup icing sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Combine the butter, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer until creamy. Add the flour and mix until dough comes together. Press the dough into a 13x9 inch baking pan that has been greased, lined with foil and then greased again. Prick the dough in several places with a fork to allow the steam to escape and prevent the dough from forming bubbles. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the edges begin to turn a golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Caramel Layer:
1 x 340 gram package of Kraft caramels (approximately 40 individually wrapped caramels)
2 Tbsp.  cream

Put the unwrapped caramels and cream in a medium microwave safe bowl. Microwave for 2 to 3 minutes, checking and stirring frequently, until the mixture is completely melted and smooth. (Do not over cook - or the caramel will harden and become brittle.) Spread the caramel mixture over the cooled cookie crust using a off-set metal spatula. (I spray mine with non-stick cooking spray to prevent the caramel from sticking.) Refrigerate the bars until the caramel sets. (I waited about 20 minutes.)

Remove the bars from the pan by pulling on the foil lining, being careful not to break the bars. Using a sharp knife, cut the bars into thin fingers or cookies, whatever size or shape you prefer.

Chocolate Coating:
6 ounces of milk chocolate
1 Tbsp. vegetable shortening

Melt the chocolate with the shortening in the microwave at 50% power, checking and stirring frequently, until completely smooth. Drop one cookie at a time into the bowl of melted chocolate, spooning chocolate over the tops and using a fork to remove the cookie. Give a gentle shake over the bowl of chocolate to remove excess. Allow to set on a cooling rack for about 30 to 45 minutes, then sprinkle with coarse salt and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Put them in the fridge until the chocolate is completely set.


P.S. - In a couple weeks my aunt will be giving me, my mom and my sister a cooking tutorial on homemade chocolate turtles. The good ones...with homemade caramel. Stay tuned!

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    THE Baked Brownie

    I've never been above jumping on a bandwagon, whether it's misguided fashion trends, reading a book that's generated a lot of "buzz" or trying out the latest recipe that's got everyone talking. 

    For those of you who don't waste copious amounts of time reading food blogs, I'm talking about the new cook book out there: "Baked New Frontiers in Baking". Their brownies have gotten a lot of attention, they were featured in Oprah's magazine "O" as a 'favorite thing' and awarded 'best brownie' by America's Test Kitchen. 

    Being a very loyal fan of "America's Test Kitchen", I ran out and bought the book. There are a lot of recipes in there I'm dying to try, but I knew the first one had to be the "Baked Brownies". This recipe is killer. It calls for 11 ounces of chocolate, a whole cup of butter, 5 eggs. Yikes. These better be good.

    I broke out the good stuff - threw 11 ounces of my highest quality chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a bowl over simmering water and waited...
    Once everything is melted and smooth, you add your sugars and stir, leaving the bowl over the simmering water with the heat turned off.
    Then you remove the bowl from the water and add the eggs. First 3 then the remaining 2, being careful not to over-mix.
    Sprinkle your dry ingredients over the mixture, and gently 'fold' with a large rubber spatula.
    Again, you want to be careful not to over-mix it - in fact, the recipe says to stop when you still have streaks of flour remaining in your batter otherwise your brownies will be cakey. 
    Pour into a greased 13x9 inch pan (I foiled mine to make it easier to remove them),
    and bake for approximately 30 minutes, checking frequently. If your toothpick comes out clean, you've over-baked them. You want there to be a few moist crumbs sticking to it. (I started checking mine at 25 minutes, and then every 2 minutes thereafter...)
    Then you allow to cool before cutting. *Note: If you have a large dog who loves brownies and does not hesitate to sample anything and everything left on your counters, block your dog's access with a large cutting board. It works.
    Nice glossy crust on top of the brownies? Check. Fudgey, moist and dense texture? Check.
    I like to take pictures from 'above' standing on my dining room chair with the brownies on the table. Here's the view from up there. Damn, she's relentless.

    The verdict? These brownies are a-m-a-z-i-n-g! Worth every ounce of chocolate and every fat gram. Their chocolate flavor is intense, but not overly-so, they are delicious. Dress them up and serve them for dessert with ice cream at your next dinner party. They're decadent enough.

    Recipe for The Baked Brownie
    (Source: Baked New Frontiers in Baking)
    1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    1 tsp. salt
    2 Tbsp. dark unsweetened cocoa powder
    11 ounces dark chocolate (60% to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
    1 cup butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
    1 tsp. instant espresso powder
    1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
    1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
    5 large eggs, at room temperature
    2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9x13 inch glass or light colored metal baking pan.

    In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa and salt together.

    Put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Burn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

    Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining 2 eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat at this stage or the brownies will be cakey.

    Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a large rubber spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour into the chocolate until just a bit of flour mixture is visible.

    Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking time, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out with a few moist crumbs. Let brownies cool completely, then cut into squares. 

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    Red Velvet Cake

    If you know the difference between 'natural cocoa' and 'dutch processed cocoa', then you're smarter than me. At least I know enough to know that there is a difference. And I know that somewhere within the scientific explanation the word "alkaline" would be used but I'm not really all that interested. If you tried to explain it to me, I would smile politely and nod a lot but I'd really be thinking about something else. And wondering when you were going to stop talking.

    I buy Fry's cocoa cause that's what's available in my grocery store. I dump it into a tupperware container to keep it fresh and I've never read the label so I don't even know what category my cocoa falls into.  I use it for everything and it works, except when I try to make Red Velvet Cake. In the past 4 years or so, I've tried 3 different recipes for Red Velvet and all three went straight into the garbage. Flat, dry and a weird browny pink color - they all sucked. But I never knew why. I gave up trying. The only thing my search for the perfect Red Velvet Cake accomplished was undermining my confidence as a baker.

    Then I bought the Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking magazine and saw their recipe for Red Velvet Cake. The recipe specifies that natural cocoa must be used and that if Dutch processed cocoa is used, the cake will not rise, nor will it be the right color. Well, that changed everything. So, I'm guessing that the mystery cocoa in my cupboard is Dutch processed.

    As luck would have it, a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped off 2 containers of Hershey's cocoa in my mailbox. She had been down to the States and knew that I was coveting the Hershey's cocoa, because it's not available here. How sweet is that? Only a fellow baker can understand the delight one would experience to open their mail box and find an ingredient that they've always wanted to try but couldn't find. Thank you Dominika!!

    After reading the recipe for the Red Velvet cake, I checked the label of the Hershey's cocoa and  wouldn't you know it...it's 'natural cocoa'. Exactly what I needed for the recipe, a sign that my search for the perfect Red Velvet cake was not over after all.
    So I made the cake and redeemed myself. It was perfect. A delicious, beautifully red-hued cake with a tender and moist crumb. If only I'd known about this cocoa earlier. So much pain could  have been avoided. Better late than never.

    Red Velvet Cake Recipe
    (Source: Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking 2010)
    2 1/4 cups (11 1/4 ounces) unbleached all purpose flour
    1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
    pinch of table salt
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 Tbsp. vinegar
    1 tsp. vanilla
    2 large eggs
    2 Tbsp. natural cocoa powder
    2 Tbsp. (one 1 ounce bottle) red food coloring
    12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
    1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar

    Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 nine-inch cake pans. (Or, I used a 13x9 inch metal cake pan).

    Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and eggs in a large measuring cup. Mix cocoa with food coloring in a small bowl until smooth paste forms.

    With stand mixer on medium high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping bowl as necessary. Add one-third of the flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated (about 30 seconds). Add half of the buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined (about 30 seconds). Scrape bowl as necessary and repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and finally the remaining flour. Scrape down bowl, add the cocoa mixture and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated (30 seconds). Using rubber spatula, give batter a final stir. Scrape into prepared pan(s) until toothpick comes out clean, about 25 minutes. (I baked mine 28 minutes in the 13x9 pan). Cool in pans 10 minutes, then turn onto wire rack to cool completely before frosting it. (I kept mine in the pan since I wasn't layering it.)

    *Note - I made different cream cheese frosting. It was good but it was very soft, which was fine because I had a single layer cake. The recipe that was in Cook's Illustrated appears sturdier and therefore better for a layer cake. Here's their version:

    16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
    4 cups (16 ounces) confectioner's sugar
    16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened
    1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
    pinch of table salt

    With stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium high speech until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, 1 piece at a time, and beat until incorporate, about 30 seconds. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    Lost Smile

    This is my daughter. I love her to bits and then some. 
    It seems, however, that she's completely lost her ability to smile whenever a camera is pointed at her. 
    Well, she's lost her ability to smile like a normal person, that is. 
    Sometimes I get lucky and I capture a moment before she has a chance to process the fact that a picture is being taken.
    But as soon as she's aware that the camera is out, it all just goes down hill fast. 
    I have to trick her and casually take pictures of everything around her, pretending not to notice her. Then I surprise her by quickly pointing the camera in her direction and shooting. This process is a bit tedious but it works because it deprives her of the opportunity to "pose".
    But as soon as she becomes aware of the camera being pointed at her something strange happens to her face.
    It's problematic. 
    She used to be able to deliver her crazy beautiful smile on command. At any given time, if I needed to fill a frame, I had my pick of dozens upon dozens of beautiful pictures of her amazing smile.
    But those days are clearly over.
    I guess it's candid pictures or photography trickery from here on out.
    God help me.
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