Personalized Biscoff Sandwich Cookies for Jessica’s Virtual Bridal Shower

“Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”

One of my favorite quotes, from James Matthew Barrie, truly epitomizes my simply delightful friend Jessica, creator of the scrumptious blog, My Baking Heart. Years back when I first began Hot Oven, Warm Heart and joined the Sweet Melissa Sundays baking group, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Jessica through our weekly correspondence. To this day, I remember how special she made me feel by leaving such thoughtful, kind, elevating comments which I always looked forward to receiving. Upon my return following an extended hiatus from blogging, Jessica reached out to me almost immediately with open arms and it absolutely meant the world. But that’s just Jessica. She’s warm and caring, good-natured and supportive. I’m so lucky to call her my friend, and am overwhelmed with excitement to celebrate her upcoming nuptials! That’s right, Jessica is getting married, and I was granted the opportunity to honor her in a very unique way- a virtual bridal shower.

Organized by the lovely Nikki of Pennies on a Platter, Jessica’s virtual bridal shower is a like an online party, where the guests are a select group of her blogging friends. On October 3rd, each of us will feature a post highlighting a dish that we would bring if everyone could actually get together in person. How neat, right? I was blown away that I was invited to contribute, so I RSVP’d right away, ready to join in on the fun and send best wishes to the bride-to-be!

When it came to selecting my dish, I knew I wanted to bake something sweet, and I decided it was the perfect time to break out two items I was saving for just the right occasion: my Williams Sonoma “Message In A Cookie Cutter” set (a must have for any crazy cookie cutter collector like myself!) and a much coveted jar of Speculoos Cookie Butter Spread (aka Biscoff), which I actually had to go out of state to a Trader Joe’s in CT to get my hands on! I know I’m the last known blogger to gush over the dangerously delectable spread, but I just couldn’t resist jumping on the Biscoff bandwagon. Arguably the Nutella of the new decade, Biscoff can best be described as the ideal amalgamation of peanut butter (in consistency) and cinnamon sugar graham crackers (in flavor). Derived from the much-loved Belgian delicacy, the speculoos cookie, the spread actually has a very interesting back-story. Speculoos cookies are decorative caramelized biscuits traditionally used to celebrate weddings and births (how apropos), commemorate the name day of Saint Nicholas, teach history, and chronicle war in Europe, and they actually make up 20% of all the cookies eaten in Belgium. Already famous overseas, the cookies gained further acclaim when introduced as Biscoff (as in biscuits and coffee) by Lotus Bakeries to North American airline travelers and consumers. So how’d we get from the much-loved spicy crisp cookies to the renowned spread? That’s thanks to the brilliant idea of Els Scheppers, a culinary enthusiast and finalist on the Belgian prime time TV show “De Bedenkers” (The Inventors), who developed a recipe for a creamy spread with the unique taste of the Lotus Speculoos cookies. While she didn’t officially win, she did team up with Lotus to manufacture her creation, and the rest is history. Now Europeans and Americans alike can savor their cookies by the spoonful!

I found a great recipe for homemade Biscoff cookie sandwiches that featured the spread in a luscious, sweet and spicy cream cheese filling. The results were a smashing success: two tender, melt in your mouth, crisp on the outside yet slightly chewy on the inside cookies encasing a light and fluffy, flavor packed buttercream that highlights the best attributes of the silky smooth spread. If you happen to get your hands on a jar, these are a must try!

Homemade Biscoff Sandwich Cookies with Biscoff Cream Cheese Frosting

recipe slightly adapted from Creative Culinary

Ingredients

For the Cookies:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • *I also added 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract (*I subbed an equal amount of vanilla bean paste- with which I am officially obsessed!)
For the Frosting: (*I found a half batch more than adequate for my cookies, but it’s so delicious, I highly advise making the recipe in full. Oh, the endless possibilities for the leftovers!)

  • 10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 5 cups confectioners’ sugar, whisked to lighten
  • 2/3 cup Biscoff spread

Preparation

To Make the Cookies:
  1. In a medium bowl add the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking soda together. Whisk together thoroughly to combine and aerate. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter together with the sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and mix again.
  3. With the mixer on slow, add the flour mixture a little bit at a time until the dough is fully combined. Make sure to scrape the sides of the bowl often.
  4. Refrigerate the dough for at least half an hour.
  5. When the dough is thoroughly chilled, preheat the oven to 350F.
  6. Lightly flour a large surface and roll out the dough to 1/4″ thick as best you can. Using a small biscuit or cookie cutter of your preference, cut as many cookies as you can out of the rolled out dough.
  7. Combine the leftover dough into a ball again, and roll out again. Only do this once, as reworking the dough too many times will result in tough cookies.
  8. Bake cookies for roughly 9-10 minutes. Watch the oven very closely after the 7 minute mark. Because of the thinness and high sugar content, the cookies are a lot like caramel and can go from perfect to burnt in a flash.
  9. Allow to cool. Enjoy as is or make this Biscoff sandwich cookie using the following icing recipe.
To Make the Frosting:
  1. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy.
  2. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Add the Biscoff spread and beat until thoroughly blended.

A big thank you to both Nikki and Jessica for including me in this special event. Don’t forget to stop by Pennies on a Platter to see the round-up of all the guests’ dishes, and of course, check out My Baking Heart, where you’re always in for a real treat! Congratulations Jessica, I’m wishing you and Chris an extraordinary wedding day and a beautiful future together.

SMS: Orange Blueberry Muffins with Pecan Crumble

I hope that Chaya of Sweet & Savory will forgive me, but I bent the rules this week and strayed a bit from the selected recipe. I still made Orange Blueberry Muffins topped with Pecan Crumble, but my muffin base is not exactly from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book. Even though I made them over 9 months ago, the “sister” muffins to this week’s recipe, which featured peaches instead of blueberries, were markedly dense, heavy, and overall unimpressive. Though many of our highly creative and supremely talented bakers offered valuable suggestions to address the muffins’ textural inadequacies, I felt they were sadly beyond saving. 😦 And, it just so happens that I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to try my beloved Cook’s Illustrated’s new version of Blueberry Muffins, which utilizes a unique method of injecting major fruity flavor. I figured if I honored the required orange-blueberry combination, and still topped my muffins with Sweet Melissa’s Pecan Crumble, I could keep my recently renewed participation in SMS going, and maybe offer an alternative to those who remained unsatisfied with the recipe as written.

Berry baked goods are typically banned from my household, with my MVT (Most Valuable Taster), my Mom, severely allergic. But, as it happens, my Dad LOVES a good berry studded muffin- and what kind of daughter would I be to deprive him of such an indulgence every once in a blue moon (no pun intended!)? While I hated the thought of making something my mom couldn’t also enjoy, in this particular instance, I decided it was for the greater good of SMS (and my Daddy’s belly). Not to worry though, coming up soon is a Coconut Custard Pie that has my Mom’s name written all over it!

But first, on to the muffins! I think I may have hit the blueberry muffin mother-load with this one. Break into one of these little gems, and you’ll quickly discover they are not only jam packed and bursting with bright berry goodness, but also have an incredibly moist interior, and a soft, delicate, tender crumb. Beautifully balanced with the subtle citrus undertones of orange zest (a fun, unexpected spin on the classic blueberry-lemon combo), and crowned with a sweet, crunchy, nut-filled streusel topping, the ideal textural foil for what awaits inside; they are a truly a muffin lover’s dream. While my Dad is not nearly as prolific or expressive with his reviews as my Mom, he was surely not at a loss for compliments when it came to these breakfast beauties. If they pass the Daddy deliciousness test, they will definitely have a permanent home in my recipe files.

One of my favorite features of a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, is the inclusion of a detailed history describing how it was conceived. In the process of constructing the “Best” blueberry muffin, CI tested a variety of ways to achieve maximum intensity of sweet-tart fruity flavor. Ulimately, they landed on a technique that I think is absolutely brilliant: to pump up the volume, why not take some of the berries, cook them down on the stovetop to evaporate excess juices, thus concentrating their flavor, and swirl the resulting mixture right into the muffin batter? As it turns out, this thick, potent, deep-indigo jam, swirled in along with a substantial amount of fresh fruit, gave the muffins a distinctive one-two berry punch- exactly what they needed to put them over-the-top.

But what about the muffin base- after all, that was the problem I was dealing with in the first place… what did Cook’s do to ensure I didn’t fall into the same trap I had with Melissa’s? Well, those clever folks at CI had a few tricks up their sleeves (and some interesting science to back them up)! First off, they examined the mixing method: the creaming method was out after producing muffins that were too cake-like, and unable to support the hefty amount of fruit added to the batter. A more suitable choice, was the quick-bread or “muffin method” (haha! big surprise there!) that calls for mixing the wet and the dry ingredients separately, and then gently folding them together. They stressed the importance of not over-mixing (as with pancake batter), because “overly strenuous mixing encourages the proteins in flour to cross-link and form gluten, toughening the final product.” This method proved superior, and made for muffins with a hearty crumb, substantial enough to support the generous addition of berries. Next, to achieve ultimate moisture, they considered the fat used in the recipe. The balance of butter (which contributes great flavor) and oil (more effective at making baked goods moist and tender) was the key. Apparently, “unlike butter, oil contains no water, and is able to completely coat flour proteins and prevent them from absorbing liquid to develop gluten.” Equal amounts of both fats ended up producing just the right combo of buttery flavor, and moist, tender texture. Finally, to make the muffins as rich as possible, they sought a substitute for whole milk. Buttermilk offered a slight tang (complementing the berries) and appealing richness, while still being light enough “to keep the muffins from turning into heavyweights.” And do we want heavyweights, my friends? I think not! In my eyes, they successfully deduced a winning recipe for not only blueberry muffins, but “fill-in-the-blank” muffins, that would be delicious with any selection of mix-ins. No more futzing with Melissa’s metzah-metzah muffins (that means so-so for all you non Yiddush speakers out there). These babies are where it’s at!

Thank you Chaya for hosting this week- and again, please let me apologize for taking such extreme creative liberties with the recipe. I also wanted to extend a very warm welcome your way- SMS is lucky to have you and I’m looking forward to baking together each week! To check out all the other SMSter’s muffins, swing by our blogroll– can’t wait to hear from all you lovely ladies!

Before I forget, I was hoping to pick all your baker’s brains and get some feedback/suggestions regarding a recipe that’s coming up in 2 weeks: the Coconut Custard Pie. I’d really love to use the mini (4″) tart pans I just got my hands on (they’ve been on my wish list forever), instead of a single 9″ pie plate. I get all worked up and nervous about adjusting baking times and determining when things are done, and I wasn’t sure if they’d take significantly less time in the oven for the crust to brown/custard to set (the baking time as written is 50-55 min). Are there any tell tale signs a custard pie is done? Do you want a little jiggle in the middle or no movement at all? Any advice or ideas? I’d really appreciate your help, as I (of course) want the sweet treat I make special for my Mom to be delicious (and perfectly baked)! If I can’t figure it out, I’ll just make the full pie. Has anyone tried this recipe yet? Thanks in advance for your assistance! 🙂

BEST BLUEBERRY MUFFINS
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated (May/June 2009)

MAKES 12 MUFFINS

Ingredients:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) fresh blueberries, picked over
1 1/8 cups (8 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups (12½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk (see note)
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
**2 teaspoons grated orange zest

Note: If buttermilk is unavailable, substitute 3/4 cup plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt thinned with 1/4 cup milk. (*You can also use 1 cup of milk mixed with 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar- let it sit for 10 minutes, and then it’s ready to use!)

Directions:

1. FOR THE MUFFINS: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to ¼ cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk remaining 11/8 cups sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk, vanilla, **and orange zest until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with a few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

3. Use an ice cream scoop or large spoon to divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups (CI suggests that the “batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly,” however, that left me with a little overflow problem, i.e. merging muffin tops. I was worried that my muffins would be unattractive, but once split apart, they really looked fine. Next time though, I’ll only fill the cups 3/4 of the way, and make a few extra!). Spoon a teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter (I stuck my spoon down in a ways just to be sure the blueberry mixture went through and through). Using a chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using a figure-eight motion. (If using: Sprinkle pecan crumble- recipe below- generously and evenly over muffins).

4. Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. (My gigantic muffins took significantly longer to pass the toothpick test, at least an additional 3-4 minutes, but if they were normal size, the baking time given would probably be accurate). Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.

BEST BLUEBERRY MUFFINS WITH FROZEN BLUEBERRIES

Note: Our preferred brands of frozen blueberries are Wyman’s and Cascadian Farm.
Follow recipe for Best Blueberry Muffins, substituting 2 cups frozen berries for fresh. Cook 1 cup berries as directed in step 1. Rinse remaining cup berries under cold water and dry well. In step 2, toss dried berries in flour mixture before adding egg mixture. Proceed with recipe from step 3 as directed.

STEP-BY-STEP MAKING MUFFINS WITH BLUEBERRY FLAVOR THROUGH AND THROUGH

1. MAKE BERRY JAM

Cook half of fresh blueberries into thick jam to concentrate their flavor and eliminate excess moisture.

2. ADD FRESH BERRIES

Stir 1 cup of fresh blueberries into batter to provide juicy bursts in every bite.

3. PORTION BATTER

Scoop batter into muffin pans, completely filling cups. (Or almost filling cups!)

4. ADD JAM TO BATTER

Place 1 teaspoon of cooled berry jam in center of each batter-filled cup, pushing it below surface.

5. SWIRL INTO BATTER

Using chopstick or skewer, swirl jam to spread berry flavor throughout.

Pecan Crumble
slightly adapted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Clark

Makes enough for two batches of muffins (Either cut the recipe in half or use the extra in a baked fruit crumble!) I wonder if you can freeze the leftover- thoughts anyone?

I’d advise you prepare this first, and have it ready to go when your muffins are portioned.

Ingredients:

• 3/4 Cup pecan pieces
• 3/4 Cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 3/4 Cup firmly packed light brown sugar
• 3/4 Teaspoon salt
• Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/8 Teaspoon ground allspice
*I also added 1/8 Teaspoon cinnamon (just because I love it so!)
• 8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, stir together the pecans, flour, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg, allspice, *and cinnamon. Stir in the melted butter.

SMS: Peanut Butter Truffles

If you happened to read last week’s post chronicling my recent banana cupcake debacle, you can imagine how incredibly stressed I became when forced to shift gears under a time crunch, and come up with a quick and easy (yet still enticing, delicious, and somewhat impressive) substitute to bake for the very meaningful fund raising event I was contributing to. Thankfully, I could look no further than this week’s yummy SMS recipe, Peanut Butter Truffles, selected by one of our newer members, the highly talented and super creative Mara of Love Your Mother. Judging from the Hazelnut Truffles we made from the Sweet Melissa Baking Book last summer, I had a feeling that they would be similarly simple to assemble, but also rich, flavorful and unique enough for the bake sale. I am pleased to report that the truffles saved the day, and exceeded all expectations. Of course, I couldn’t help but complicate matters by adding extra steps to the project- but really, who could turn down a truffle dressed up with a caramelized candied peanut exterior? I called on David Lebovitz’s recipe (used to top my Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with Pralined Peanuts), which never disappoints, and the added sweetness of his chopped nuts was the perfect counter-balance to the slightly bitter dark chocolate and salty peanut butter. That little bit of additional effort resulted in a combination that truly danced on the tongue! A few special touches with the packaging- some cellophane goody bags, colorful labels, and orange ribbon (more on the significance of that detail later)- and viola!, my truffles were ready for their debut at the 1st annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale!

Isn’t it wonderful when you accidentally and totally unexpectedly stumble upon an exciting opportunity through your everyday blog surfing? That’s actually how I first got involved in SMS, and what a serendipitous discovery that turned out to be :)! Well a few weeks back, a digital banner caught my eye, advertising an upcoming event connected to the Great American Bake Sale. Sound familiar?- if you’re a food TV junkie like myself, you may have seen spokeswoman Sandra Lee discussing it on a Food Network commercial. Part of the phenomenal organization, Share our Strength, it’s a national campaign that mobilizes volunteers to host bake sales in their communities in an effort to help end childhood hunger in America. Although I’ve been interested in getting involved for quite a while, that banner convinced me the ideal time had arrived: on April 17th, food bloggers from across the country would unite to support the cause by holding bake sales in their states. I was filled with glee when I got in touch with the fabulous and super sweet Kathy-Ann of Mother May Have, who was coordinating for Massachusetts, and realized I could be a part of this extraordinary day, utilizing my baking to assist those in need. (I love on the Share our Strength website, they proclaim, “Together we can bake a difference!”)

Did you know that nearly 1 in 4 children in America struggle with hunger? That’s almost 17 million kids! With the weakened economy, poverty rates are on the rise, and every day, more and more children wonder where their next meal will come from.

Here’s a look at how Share our Strength is addressing this growing problem:

“Through No Kid Hungry, Share Our Strength funds the most effective anti-hunger organizations across the country, connects needy children and their families with nutritious food, teaches families how to cook healthy on a budget, and provides leadership that brings together public and private decision-makers to end childhood hunger, state by state. These funds help accomplish the following:

* Enroll more eligible kids in school breakfast, after-school snacks and meals, and their families in SNAP (food stamps).
* Bring community gardens and farmers markets to low-income neighborhoods.
* Bring affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables to urban corner stores.
* Teach at-risk families how to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy, low-cost meals at home.
* Help local food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens meet the pressing demand for more nutritious food.
* Increase awareness and understanding of childhood hunger and solutions to it.

Through all these means, [Share Our Strength is] working to ensure that all of America’s children have nutritious food where they live, learn and play.”

Since 2003, more than 1.7 million people have participated in Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale, raising $6 million to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. But the big news? The first annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale alone raised a grand total of over $16,500! Wow! Go baking bloggers! I felt truly honored to be a part of it, and am already looking forward to next year. I want to say a big thank you to Gaby of What’s Gaby Cooking for coordinating the entire event, and Kathy-Ann for leading us here in Massachusetts. Also- shout out to my new friend Carmen of Baking is my Zen, who just so happens to be a fellow SMSter! Her sale in NJ did amazing, raising more than $600- fabulous job Carmen! To see pictures from our sale in MA (including some of my goodies- the Peanut Butter Truffles and a selection of Coconut Jam Thumbprints made with 5 different types of homemade jams/preserves) check out this slide show.

For more information about Share our Strength and to find out ways you can help, visit their website, http://www.strength.org/. And don’t forget to check out the myriad of truffles whipped up by the other lovely ladies of SMS by exploring the blogroll!

Oh, by the way, the orange ribbon stands for hunger awareness… fitting right?

SMS: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels

So we’re off and running with a brand New Year of Sweet Melissa Sundays, and I’m so pleased to start with a recipe chosen by my adorable and hilarious friend Jeannette of The Whimsical Cupcake: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels. Though I didn’t realize SMS was back in action until the last minute, I was able to whip up a batch of these gooey-chewy candies with ingredients I luckily had on hand. And bonus!- I got to use my new handy-dandy digital thermometer.

After I nearly scolded myself trying to take the temperature of boiling-hot, bubbling red raspberry jam (the probe on my old-school thermometer wasn’t long enough to reach when attached to the side of the pot), I decided that with plans to pursue future jam and candy making ventures, I needed to outfit my kitchen with the proper hardware. Of course, I did some online research, reading a slew of reviews, and finally settled on this model, which I found, no problem, at the local Le Gourmet Chef. Does anyone else feel dangerous walking into one of those stores? I feel like I’m rendered powerless when faced with aisles chock full of tempting cooking and baking gadgets, shiny pans of every shape and size, and cutesie kitchen gear that I certainly don’t need, but just can’t live without. Maybe it’s just me. This time I made it out alive with just the thermometer. And a cookie scoop. C’mon, I didn’t have that size! All in all I’d say I was pretty good. Thankfully, I was on a mission. I had to go home and get caramel-izing.

Since my past experience with caramel has been touch-and-go, my heart began beating faster when I read that we’d be exploring it again. But I trust Jeannette, so I was off to the stove! One thing I thought was very interesting, was that nearly all the ingredients were combined at the beginning, and you basically just stir and wait for the mixture to come up to temperature (which, by the way, took between 20-25 minutes!). This recipe called for the syrup to reach the “firm-ball stage,” specifically 248 degrees F. I discovered a wealth of information on baking911.com about the different temperature stages used in candy making- there’s a very helpful chart that demystifies the terminology- and learned that “firm-ball” indicates a final product that is malleable and will flatten when squeezed. With that in mind, I was happy to find my block of set-up caramel exhibited the characteristic description.

After completing the sticky business of cutting into 64 bite-size squares, I offered my Mom a taste, and she hummed her usual “Mmmm!” Always a good sign. She loved the balance of rich chocolate and sweet honey, and thought the taste was exceptional, rivaling gourmet quality. While I didn’t win over my caramel-hating Dad- he too liked the taste, but couldn’t overlook the texture he typically dislikes- I considered these sweets a success, and I’m definitely looking forward to sharing… boy, once these little guys are all nice and cozy in their twisted wax paper wrappers and piled high, there’s really a mountain of ’em. A quarter or half batch probably would have been plenty for us, (I knew I should have followed Hanaâ’s lead!) But, I have a feeling they’ll still somehow end up disappearing!

A BIG shout-out (and thank you) to my dear Jeannette– please head on over to her fabulous blog, The Whimsical Cupcake, for the recipe… not only will you see some mouth watering creations, but I guarantee she’ll put a smile on your face! If you’re like me, and the thought of caramel making evokes your inner cowardly lion, give these relatively simple Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels a shot, and let me know if you need a personal candy making cheerleader- I’ll absolutely be right there. That’s what virtual baking buddies are all about!

I want to wish all of you a FANTASTIC New Year filled with much love, great happiness, and good health. I am so looking forward to sharing many more of my kitchen adventures with you on Hot Oven, Warm Heart, and baking together with all you incredibly talented bloggers throughout 2010! Let’s have lots of fun creating a wide array of delicious delicacies, and chatting about our experiences. The very best recipes may be yet to come 🙂

The Cake Slice Bakers: White Chocolate Cake + a bonus cupcake!

When I woke up this morning, I peered out my window to discover a world swathed in a blanket of pristine, glistening, pure white snow. Few seasonal panoramas can compare to the beauty of fluffy flakes falling delicately upon unadorned tree branches and layers of freshly collected, bright winter ground cover. It seems only appropriate that the treat I bring you today is in keeping with mother nature’s color palette- a decadent, luscious yet light White Chocolate Layer Cake, this month’s assignment for The Cake Slice Bakers. I’m so glad to be back in action, baking with my fellow blogging buddies, who I’ve missed dearly during my recent absence from Hot Oven, Warm Heart. I can’t wait to catch up and see how everyone dolled up their latest cake. For my own creative spin, I decided to utilize some leftover whipped white chocolate mousse as a filling, and according to my tasters, that element was the perfect addition to an already delicious confection. (You’ll find the recipe below.) Unique and refined with a subtle flavor profile, this elegant cake would be a lovely dessert to grace your holiday table. I guarantee it will disappear well before the snow!

Made of cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, vanilla, and lecithin, white chocolate is technically not considered chocolate at all, due to its lack of chocolate liquor. It first appeared in Switzerland in the 1930’s, invented by the Nestle Corporation as a way to use up excess cocoa butter, and was later popularized in America with the distribution of Nestle’s Alpine White Chocolate Bar. To select a good quality white chocolate, make sure it contains cocoa butter rather than the substandard brands made with hydrogenated vegetable fat. The inferior preparations might be less expensive, but they also lack the cocoa butter’s characteristic rich, creamy flavor. The tell tale difference between the two is in the color- true white chocolate has a deeper ivory hue, in contrast to the bright white shade of the imitation variety. When working with white chocolate, a good tip is to treat it with care and always melt it over low heat, which will help prevent the common problems of scorching and seizing.

This month’s Cake Slice Baker’s selection features white chocolate in each of the cake’s components: a healthy dose in the batter, more mixed into the cream cheese frosting, and in my case, a little extra in the improvised mousse filling. Instead of baking in the recommended 9” pans, I decided it was the ideal opportunity to break out my adorable new 6” rounds and give a miniature sized version a go. Of course, I called upon my super knowledgeable friend Steph of the famed A Whisk and A Spoon, who has graciously acted as my personal source for any and all baking 911 needs, and she shared her always reliable tips and tricks. I learned that you can pretty much take any standard 9” cake recipe, and successfully cut it in half to produce an irresistible 6-incher, perfect for a small gathering or in my case, just two grateful tasters. Steph pointed out that the key with such recipe modifications is in the baking time. It can vary greatly from the larger version (she recommends checking about 10 minutes early) OR be nearly identical. That was the case with my mini white chocolate cakes, which were ready to come out of the oven at 27 minutes (right in line with the 25-30 minutes suggested in the recipe instructions.) To test for doneness- I recommend adhering to the instructions- the cakes are ready when golden brown, spring back when touched gently in the center, and are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pans. I guess I should have headed the warning mentioned in the book’s Baking 101 section that said checking a cake too soon with a toothpick can cause it to collapse. Whoops! That’ll teach me to be overzealous! But the slight imperfection of a thin concave marking was easily hidden with mousse and frosting, and the cake was none the worse for ware. As with every baking experience, I learned for next time.

And I can’t forget about the bonus cupcake I promised you- it is most definitely a keeper! When my aunt requested something chocolate for her 60th birthday celebration, I knew immediately I had just the thing. By revamping my most-well received cake (of all time!) into cupcake form, I created a batch of knock-your-socks off Super Fluffy Chocolate Cupcakes with White Chocolate Mousse Filling and Fudgy Milk Chocolate Frosting. If the name is any indication- they were a hit! I feel privileged to share this very thoughtful and incredibly kind comment my dear cousin Sheila left on Hot Oven, Warm Heart after the party (It ended up on the “About” page, since I hadn’t posted yet about these yummy morsels. I’m glad to put it in it’s rightful home! Thanks so much Sheil, your words mean the world to me- I love you!)

“Wow is all we can say about the wonderful chocolate cupcake filled with delicious white chocolate mousse! A work of art, but more than that, an explosion of flavors in our mouths. You are truely an artist. Would love to have Gourmet Magazine taste these. Hmmmmm yes indeed. If we still had our restaurant, you would be our baker. Thank you and keep baking, and of course we will be your tasters.
Sheila & Rip
the former Amontea’s Restaurant
YUM”

Here are the recipes I used, which I highly recommend you try!

Ina Garten’s “Beatty’s Chocolate Cake” recipe
*This recipe makes exactly 2 dozen cupcakes- I’ve baked them this way twice, and both times they took 22 minutes (a toothpick should come out with no crumbs attached- don’t worry, they shouldn’t collapse!). It’s most definitely my go-to chocolate cake recipe, and has never let me down!

White Chocolate Mousse
from Sky High: Irresistible Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne

Ingredients:
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 egg white
1 tbsp sugar

Directions:
Melt the white chocolate with ¼ cup cream in a double boiler. Whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat and let the white chocolate cream cool to room temperature.

When it has cooled, beat the remaining ¾ cup cream until soft peaks form. In a clean bowl whip the egg white with the sugar until fairly stiff peaks form.

Fold the beaten egg white into the white chocolate cream, then fold in the whipped cream until blended. Be sure not to over mix.

*I only used half of this recipe to fill the cupcakes, but if you have any left over, don’t let it go to waste! Before I had my light bulb moment when I thought to put the rest in my White Chocolate Cake, I planned on making these Whoopie Pies– which will still be on my list!

Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Chocolate Frosting
as seen on America’s Test Kitchen

Note: This frosting may be made with milk, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate. (*For these cupcakes, I prefer a frosting made with milk chocolate.) Cool the chocolate to between 85 and 100 degrees before adding it to the butter mixture. The frosting can be made 3 hours in advance. For longer storage, refrigerate the frosting, covered, and let it stand at room temperature for 1 hour before using.

Makes 3 cups to frost one 9-inch 2-layer cake (or about 2 dozen cupcakes)

Ingredients:
20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter , softened (60 to 65 degrees)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar (4 ounces)
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
Pinch table salt
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces milk chocolate , melted and cooled slightly (see note)

Directions:
In food processor, process butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Add corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl, then add chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds. Frosting can be used immediately or held (see note).

If those cupcakes don’t put a smile on your face, take a look at my baby in her holiday best! Much love to you all and warmest wishes for a glorious holiday season!

SMS *recipe remix*: Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee

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Do you ever wish life had a pause button? I might be overly influenced by my DVR, but I keep thinking how utterly advantageous a short intermission would be right now so I could have a chance to stop and catch my breath. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of sickness, stress, and strain, and unfortunately the preoccupation precluded my participation in quite a few weeks of baking and blogging. Some of the baking did take place- it is probably the only thing that has kept me sane throughout- and I even snapped a few photos, but I just couldn’t seem to pull together an accompanying post in time. I can’t wait to share the results in an SMS recipe rewind of sorts- most notably featuring my first ever bread pudding made from Julia Child’s homemade brioche. I even made both the recommended raspberry sauce and a bonus decadent caramel sauce for my mom (the berry-allergic). Coming soon to “Hot Oven, Warm Heart.” But for now, I’m so pleased to get back into the swing of things with today’s assignment, Melissa Murphy’s Butter Toffee Crunch. Sort of.

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Now maybe it was my faulty cheapo thermometer that sprung a leak, or the remnants of dear old Ida, who came barreling into town full force yesterday (I read that humidity/ moisture level in the air can negatively effect the candy making process), or maybe I made a irreparable error along the way (I am a novice at this after all), but the Butter Toffee Crunch was a colossal disaster. The one thing you want to avoid when making candy is the sugar crystallizing, and despite my careful adherence to the directions, that is precisely what happened. I knew as I was pouring the gloppy, bubbling caramel on the baking sheet that something went horribly awry, so I wasn’t too surprised to find a crumbly mess upon attempting the final step of breaking into pieces. The taste sadly solidified my fear that I now had 3 lbs of chocolate and nut covered brown sugar- cloyingly sweet and downright gritty. Now while I can’t pin point exactly which culprit was responsible, I’m a bit doubtful that the recipe would have been successful even if the stars were aligned. To me, the ratios seemed a bit off- especially when it came to the sugar- all 4¼ cups of it. Regardless of the toffee’s texture, the caramel layer was very thick (and I did use the largest rimmed sheet pan in my kitchen)- it was just way too much and made even a small piece overwhelming. The semisweet chocolate didn’t help matters, and without that bitter tang of dark chocolate, there was no contrast to balance the saccharine mixture underneath.

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By the time I realized that my afternoon of candy making was a flop, the sun had set, and I left my kitchen disappointed and demoralized (I know… I take these setbacks too personally… I’m working on it). As I laid in bed running through the steps over and over again in my head, and contemplating the overflowing container of no-good toffee on my counter that I didn’t have the heart to throw away, I hatched a plan for the next morning. I would not end my candy making career on a bad note- instead I would forge forward with a new recipe in hand, and give it another go. Luckily, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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For toffee #2 I turned to a very reliable source when it comes to the sweets department: David Lebovitz. It just so happened he posted a remarkably similar recipe (same idea, but very different proportions) that I thought might just do the trick. Following his instructions to the T produced a batch of the most delightful homemade toffee I could ever imagine. I had a much better feeling pouring the gorgeous dark amber colored caramel over my toasted almonds, and knew almost immediately it was okay when I watched it set up in a hard, almost translucent layer mere seconds later. As I sprinkled my Ghiradelli bittersweet chips on top, spread them into a shining melty sheet of chocolatey goodness, and distributed the remaining toasted chopped almonds across the surface, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. I didn’t say anything to my mom in fear of giving myself a kena-horah (Yiddish for jinxing), but I was hopeful that first bite would confirm my suspicion- this candy would not only be edible, it would be delicious.

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Both my parents proclaimed it far and away the winning candy, much improved from my initial attempt. A nice crunch yielded to a chewy treat with just the right amount sweetness and pronounced chocolate and almond flavors. The simple list of ingredients came together in perfect harmony, producing an indulgent delicacy with addictive properties. After offering pieces to both my mom and dad, I watch them each sneak another taste off the tray a few minutes later- always a good sign. Though reminiscent of the caramel matzoh crunch I make every year at Passover (I will surely be sharing that this Spring), the Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee is definitely a stand-out recipe in my repertoire that I will be calling upon for gift-giving this holiday season. Great to have on hand to serve surprise guests who pop up this time of year (you probably have everything you need to make it in your pantry), it is a wholesome, quality sweet that is sure to impress. If you’re looking for a dependable recipe to use as an introduction to candy making, take my advice, and give David’s a try. You won’t be sorry!

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Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee
from David Lebovitz

Ingredients:
2 cups (8 ounces) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between ‘fine’ and ‘coarse’
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
a nice, big pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips

optional: Ground cocoa nibs and fleur de sel

Directions:
1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with an unflavored vegetable oil.
2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ on the baking sheet.
3. In a medium heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300° F degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.
4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.
5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently but quickly spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)
6. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.
7. If using, sprinkle with a small handful of cocoa nibs and a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.
8. Cool completely (you can pop it in the fridge if you’re impatient, like me!) and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.

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To offer a boost of confidence, here are a few tips and tricks I picked up through some research that should make the process a bit more foolproof and less intimidating:
• Before you begin, make sure to read the recipe thoroughly and gather all your ingredients so that they are ready to use- I measured mine out in advance (especially the baking soda and vanilla) so I could grab them at a moments notice when the syrup came up to temperature. I learned that the baking soda is what aids browning and gives the toffee a lighter texture, while the vanilla adds depth of flavor.
• Make sure your candy thermometer is accurate. If you’re unsure, a good trick is to bring a pot of water to a boil- it should read 212° F if you live at sea level. If you find it’s off a degree or two, simply adjust your recipe taking this into account. Also, the tip or bulb of the thermometer should rest above the bottom of the pan for a proper reading.
• Use a heavy bottomed saucepan so the candy will not scorch under high temperatures. In addition, it’s recommended to use a long handled wooden spoon (as opposed to metal), because the sugar crystals are less likely to stick to the wood.
• Take extra precaution when handling hot syrups- just to be safe, it’s handy to keep a bowl of ice water on the counter which you can plunge your hand into immediately to stop a burn if an accident occurs.
• Avoid overstirring- it can overwork the caramel and result in the dreaded crystallization.
• For easy clean up- after the pan cools, fill it with water and bring to a boil. Let stand until the syrup melts away.
• Buttercrunch Toffee will keep for about 7-10 days- store it in an airtight container to prevent softening.
• Most importantly, please keep in mind that every once in a while, candy doesn’t work. It may be too humid, or the sugar decides to crystallize (as in my case), or it’s just not your day. Try your best not to get discouraged; according to David, it happens even to seasoned professionals.
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I can’t wait to visit all my fellow SMSers’ sites to find out if they had better luck with Melissa’s Butter Toffee Crunch (the recipe’s over at “Kait’s Plate”), and catch up with everyone through our comments- I’ve really missed all my lovely baking ladies! Check out the blogroll to see how each fared. Thanks Kait for your fun selection, and for pushing me into uncharted culinary territory!

Joy Heart 2

The Cake Slice: Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake

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When I began working on “Hot Oven, Warm Heart” a few months back, I was absolutely blown away by the warm welcome and positive feedback I received from the baking and blogging community. As I embarked upon this new endeavor, I was hoping to pursue my passion, expand my skills, and chronicle my culinary adventures, but more importantly, I wanted to form meaningful connections with other people along the way. After joining the Sweet Melissa Sundays group, and getting to know many of the amazing members- all talented bakers with shining spirits, open minds, and kind hearts, I realized I had stumbled upon a rare opportunity to become a part of something truly special. United through a shared experience, the many miles that separate us seem to fade away as we all sit down at one huge virtual kitchen table to enjoy the same slice of freshly baked cake, bite of warm, gooey cookie, or forkful of rich, crusty pie. With each supportive comment, piece of advice, or word of encouragement, new friendships are fostered and the close-knit online family that has formed grows stronger. I am no longer alone when tackling my latest recipe- rather, I have a team of lovely ladies, scattered all over the world, who are always cheering me on, whisking, beating, stirring, kneading, and mixing right alongside.

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I am delighted that today marks the start to a new chapter in my blogging career, as one of the most recent additions to another fabulous online baking group called The Cake Slice Bakers. For the last year, they baked their way through arguably the most innovative book on the market featuring layer cakes, Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman. It was through reading many of their posts that I was persuaded to purchase a copy of my own, and I have since utilized it time and again with phenomenal results for all my celebration cake baking needs. When I read that the group would be moving on to a second cookbook, and temporarily accepting more members, I jumped at the chance to join, eager to take the next step on this inspiring journey, and meet a whole new batch of baking bloggers. Each month we will be trying a different recipe from Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations by Nancie McDermott, featuring 65 charming, down-home, sinfully delicious recipes that reflect a region steeped in rich culinary tradition. As a Boston girl born-and-raised, I’m anxious to discover some exceptionally unique cakes that reflect this Southern heritage, and have been passed down from generation to generation. The recipes cover a wide range of cake styles, everything from Bourbon Pound Cake, Lady Baltimore Cake, Lemon-Filled Coconut Cake, and Tomato Soup Cake to Charleston Huguenot Torte, Red Velvet Cake, Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Glaze, Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake with Divinity Icing, and Mississippi Mud Cake. We’re kicking things off with a winner, an out-of-this-world Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake, and if this choice is any indication, The Cake Slice Bakers have succeeded yet again in their book selection, unearthing an impressive literary gem that just might have found a permanent home on my cookbook shelves.

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Coffee cakes first appeared on the table in seventeenth century Europe, where the earliest versions consumed alongside a cup of coffee were more akin to the sweet yeast breads popular at that time. Recipes for the tasty pastry came to America along with German, Scandinavian, and Dutch immigrants, and during colonial times, the German and Holland communities in New York, Delaware, and New Jersey were famed for their delicious variations. By the late 1800’s, coffee cake recipes evolved, and those being published in cookbooks for everyday American homemakers more closely resembled the cake-like sort we’re used to today. Coffee cakes are instantly recognizable and distinguished by the inclusion of streusel, (a German word meaning “something scattered or sprinkled”). This classic filling and/or topping is a deliciously simple mixture of sugar, flour, butter, spices, and oftentimes nuts, that is usually layered between a sour-cream cake batter and baked into a superb treat- the perfect accompaniment to a cup o’ joe.

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The Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake from Southern Cakes is a fabulous representation of the old-timey dessert. Supremely moist with a delicate, tender crumb, it is bursting with flavor and contrasting textures thanks to the crunchy nuts and juicy raisins in the generous streusel. While assembling the cake, I was worried that the proportion of batter to cinnamon sugar mixture was off, fearing filling domination. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong, and found the finished product was well balanced, even with a substantial center swirl, and plenty of sweet crusty topping. Exceeding my expectations, it’s a real crowd-pleaser that would be appropriate not only to serve as a casual complement to morning coffee, but also as an impressive and elegant dessert for a more formal occasion.

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Although I’m confident I will be baking it again in the future, my only grievance with this yummy cake is due to the extensive preparation. I dirtied many a bowl while assembling the different elements, and temporarily turned my kitchen counter into a (well-organized) mess. With a few other coffee cakes under my belt, I felt that this one was a bit fussy by comparison, especially when it came to distributing the rather thick batter on top of the filling. It was not feasible to simply spoon on a mound of batter and spread it evenly with a spatula without pulling up the carefully scattered mixture, and eliminating the possibility of maintaining defined layers. To circumvent this issue, I used a teaspoon to place small dollops of batter close together all over the filling, and then carefully smoothed them out with the back of my spoon, taking care to bring batter all the way to the edge of the pan. It took some extra time and patience, but in the end it paid off, and I was quite pleased with the finished cake’s visual appeal. I also utilized two of my favorite tricks when prepping ingredients- plumping the raisins in boiling water (with a touch of vanilla for flavor) so that they would remain moist during baking, and toasting the pecans. Even if it’s not indicated in the recipe I always toast my nuts, which does wonders to bring out their intense, robust flavor. Of course, these are small touches, but sometimes it’s the little things that elevate a baked good from ordinary to extraordinary, and allow it to realize its full potential.

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If you’d like to give this memorable coffee cake a try, here’s a link to a printable recipe. I can’t wait to experiment with more of the delectable delicacies found in Southern Cakes, and I’m so happy to be exploring this book with The Cake Slice Bakers. A big thank you goes out to the other members who permitted my admission into the group- I’m really looking forward to getting to know all of you! Isn’t it wonderful that cake has the power to bring people together?

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Joy Heart 2

SMS: Spiced Pumpkin Cookie Cakes

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As a special treat, my Mom used to take my big sister Jessica and I to our local bakery, where we were each allowed to make our own selection. While I always hemmed and hawed, usually allured and distracted by the cupcakes topped with a huge pile of frosting meant to resemble Sesame Street characters (to this day I’m baffled by their appeal), I ultimately chose one of two pastries: a half moon cookie (also known as a black-and-white cookie) or a classic whoopie pie. Both featured two contrasting elements, had a soft, tender texture, and were utterly delicious. I have fond memories of savoring every bite of my preferred snack, knowing that I had done something my Mom recognized and appreciated worthy of a sweet reward. To this day, whoopie pies bring back encouraging childhood memories, and yet this recipe marked their inaugural appearance in my kitchen. After completing Melissa Murphy’s Spiced Pumpkin Cookie Cakes, and receiving nothing but glowing reviews from both my family as well as the hospital nursing staff currently caring for Jess (I figured that sharing these pies with her medical providers would be a wonderful way to express my sincere gratitude for all their help), I knew it would not be their final showing in my home this season.

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A whoopie pie, also referred to as a gob, bob, or black-and-white is a type of cookie sandwich composed of two round, mound-shaped pieces of cake, usually chocolate or pumpkin flavored, that are filled with a sweet, creamy frosting. According to Pennsylvania Amish tradition, generations of Amish women would utilize leftover batter to prepare these baked treats, and pack them in their farmers’ lunchboxes. Legend says that upon discovering the cookie cakes in their lunches, farmers would shout with excitement, “Whoopie!”, giving the sweets their unique name. While most renowned in New England, and adopted as a state tradition in Maine, whoopie pies are gaining popularity across the United States.

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Melissa must have missed the memo about the animated farmers’ exclamation, because she titled her recipe “Cookie Cakes”- although it may be a more descriptive name, it’s nowhere near as entertaining to say. Regardless of designation, these delectable little morsels are the ideal antidote to blustery New England weather. Puffy pumpkin cakes accented by warming fall spices and thoughtfully paired with a citrus spiked cream cheese frosting make for an exceptional flavor combination which dances on the tongue. As a New England native, I’m accustomed to the colossal sized saucers sold in bakeries up here that are challenge for one taster to finish without sharing a bite or two. But Melissa’s cakes are of a daintier nature- I made mine a bit bigger than stated in the directions, and my cookies were still only 2½ to 3″ in diameter. The pumpkin imparted a deep burnt orange hue to the cake portion, which contrasted beautifully with the bright white creamy filling. Speckled with finely grated orange zest, the cream cheese, butter, confectioner sugar frosting had that extra punch of bright flavor, a nice twist on the original straight-up vanilla cream. I’ve come to the conclusion that Melissa considers citrus zest one of her secret weapons in the kitchen- elevating the level of sophistication many of her baked goods embody and offering a surprise twist to the classics. In certain applications, I’ve felt it was misplaced and detracted from the overall appeal, however, I feel it gives just the right amount of pep these pies need. I’m even thinking about adding it to my favorite pumpkin loaf recipe- a killer quick bread I will definitely be sharing with you soon!

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I highly recommend you hop over to the kitchen and bake a batch of your own, or bookmark this yummy recipe to serve at your next soiree this season- they’d be the perfect hand held single serve dessert for your Halloween party or even Thanksgiving. If you do whip up some of Melissa’s cookie cakes, I have a few recommendations to expedite the process. Melissa advocates using a pastry bag to pip the batter onto prepared cookie sheets- I found this step unnecessary, and really, if you can avoid the hassle of cleaning out a bag and tip, I say take advantage of the opportunity. I found that my handy dandy small-sized ice cream/cookie scoop worked perfectly, and bonus!- it ensured that all my cookies came out nice and round and exactly the same size, which made for even sandwiches. My scoop distributed about 1 tablespoon of batter per cookie (much more than Melissa’s suggested rounded teaspoon, which seemed kind of measly to me), but the baking time remained the same- mine passed the toothpick test in about 13 minutes. I also ditched the pastry bag for dispersing the frosting- my small offset spatula, which I can’t live without, by the way, worked just fine. I didn’t bother measuring out a specific amount of filling per pie, I simply spread on an even layer that was enough to support the top and leave space between the two halves. A little squish, and you’ll be in business.

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Sending out a big “WHOOPIE!” to Debbie for her fabulous SMS selection. You’ll find the recipe over at Every Day Blessings of The Five Dee’s, in The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, as well as catalogued in my keeper files. And don’t forget to take a peak at the plethora of pies produced by all the other ladies on our blogroll.

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Joy Heart 2

SMS: Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds and a bonus bun throwdown!

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Dear my beloved yeast breads,
I must offer my sincerest apologies that your first appearance on Hot Oven, Warm Heart is devastatingly belated. I simply cannot believe that you have not yet been featured in all your glory- but you have not been forgotten, and can no longer be ignored. Let me assure you, however, you are now, and always will be my very favorite baked good to create in the kitchen. The feel of your soft, supple dough giving way as my hands lovingly knead you into submission, the smell of fermentation wafting through the air, the sight of your magic in action as you climb up the sides of my Grandma’s big yellow bowl, reaching the top and peaking over to say “hello Joy, I’m ready, let’s go!”- these are just a few of the reasons I am captivated by your enchanting disposition. Ever since that first loaf of cinnamon raisin swirl bread, I knew you were special and would forever hold a place in my heart, along with top honors in my baking repertoire. Please forgive me for my indiscretion, and allow me to introduce you in one of your most irresistible forms, the sticky bun.
Love,
Joy

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The origin of the sticky sweet, large-size caramelized cinnamon roll popularized in North America and aptly called the sticky bun, was clearly influenced by British, Dutch, and Germanic cookery and baking. Before the sticky bun came two central predecessors, the Brit’s Chelsea bun and the German’s Schnecken. First created in an eighteenth century Bun House in Chelsea, Great Britain, the Chelsea bun is made of a rich yeast dough flavored with citrus zest and cinnamon or a spice mixture. The dough is spread with brown sugar, butter, and currants, rolled into a spiral shape, sliced into individual buns, given a sweet glaze covering, and baked. On the other hand, Schnecken, which means “snail” in German, are also yeast-raised sweet rolls, whose dough is spread with sugar, nuts, spices, and raisins, rolled, sliced, and baked in muffin tins with either honey or sugar and butter in the bottom, creating a glaze. The appearance of Schnecken in America can be traced back as early as the 1680’s, when they became popular among bakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. As more German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the 18th Century, Schnecken became a signature pastry of the area, which it remains today. The sticky bun combines the size and make-up of the Chelsea bun with the fillings and coatings of Schnecken, taking the best elements of both pastries and transforming them into a truly irresistible treat, steeped in cultural history.

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As one of my favorite yeast breads to make, sticky buns make a regular appearance in my kitchen. Though the multi-step process sometimes seems daunting and time consuming, they are a great do-ahead recipe, and a fantastic crowd-pleasing sweet that you can assemble the day before serving. Just recently, I baked a batch to serve with morning coffee when entertaining one of my closest friends (who shall remain nameless)- by the end of our get-together, she managed to devour three, and I realized that a tray of hot, fresh buns just out of the oven and still oozing cinnamon-y goodness was potentially dangerous to leave in the center of the table! A great sticky bun can be a real show-stopper- if they’re too yummy to stop at one, then I know I have a winner on my hands.

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Coincidentally, not two days after breaking out my go-to recipe, I checked the SMS site only to find that my next assignment, as chosen by Jen of Not Microwave Safe, was Melissa Murphy’s Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds. At first glance, I considered passing, but then I recognized the opportunity I had on my hands. What a perfect chance for a sticky bun throwdown! By tasting the two recipes side-by-side, it would be much easier to discern the subtle nuances differentiating the buns, and hopefully, with the help of my tasting panel (a.k.a family), I could select the preeminent favorite. Would the new bun on the block surpass my old standby in taste, texture, appearance, and originality? I simply had to find out. Needless to say I’ve had quite a few buns in my oven this past week, but after much kneading, proofing, punching, rolling, sprinkling, slicing, baking, and glazing, I’m happy to report a winner has been determined. Before I announce the award for my #1 bun, let’s take a closer look at the competitors.

In this corner, Melissa Murphy’s Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds.

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In fairness to the competition, I decided to follow the recipe to the letter, making no changes or substitutions. While the dough itself came together quickly and was easy to handle, I felt it was a little stingy for a batch of twelve buns. By the time it was rolled out to the size rectangle indicated in the directions, it was quite thin, and I almost had problems with tearing and leaking (luckily I solved the issue with some crafty bun cutting). But it was the filling itself that I found flawed. Divergent from the melted butter/brown sugar combination that I’m used to, Melissa’s recipe calls for an egg wash and granulated sugar. After applying the wash, my dough was, well, wet, making it difficult and messy to roll up. I was displeased with the visual appeal of my buns when first shaped and placed in the pan, but I remained hopeful that after they rose, baked, were doused in sticky glaze and covered with lots of toasted almonds, the final product would not reveal the many imperfections. (Thankfully this theory proved accurate). My finished buns were lovely- lofty, delicate, moist, and well coated in a deep, dark, viscous glaze. Most striking, however, was the lack of flavor cohesion. Instead of coming together harmoniously, the ingredients were highly discernable- the strong tastes of orange zest (in the dough) and maple syrup (in the glaze) almost overpowered the bun itself, detracting from the overall eating experience. But truthfully, all criticisms aside, the buns received high praise from all who tasted them, and if there were no competition or comparison, they would certainly be considered a delicious treat, and just plain finger-lickin’ good.

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And in this corner, may I present to you the Cook’s Illustrated Overnight Sticky Buns.

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Now I must admit, I may have been a bit biased because this recipe has never failed me- consistently producing some “knock-your-socks-off,” crave-worthy, can’t-leave-the-table-without-eating-three-of-‘em sticky buns.

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The dough is more substantial than Melissa’s, and is also much richer with added eggs and butter, imparting tremendous tenderness and a soft, supple texture. It is an absolute dream to handle and roll out, slices beautifully (with the help of a serrated knife and a spray or two of Pam) and rises into perfectly spiraled, nice and neat puffy little clouds of dough.

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Though you must wait patiently during the buns’ short stay in the oven, you’re rewarded with the tantalizing and intoxicating aroma of warming spices that permeates the entire home. A dozen buns emerge in less than half an hour, beautifully golden brown and somehow utterly inviting.

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The cinnamon brown sugar filling adds great depth of flavor, really driving home the taste of caramel. But what truly sets these special buns apart and makes them unforgettable is the double ooey gooey glaze. Yes, these outstanding buns not only receive the traditional bottom of the pan glazing treatment, they are also topped with yet another glaze that is mixed with the toasted pecans and generously spooned over each individual turned out bun as it cools. I am convinced it is this brilliant double-glazing technique that delivers the ultimate sticky bun experience in each and every bite, and as far as I can tell, no other bun in the land holds a candle to this champion.

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So, I’m sure many of you are currently suffering from sticky bun overload (if there is such a thing), but I highly recommend that you bookmark this particular version, and place it in your must-try files, maybe to make an appearance on National Sticky Bun Day- February 21st. Now, I’m confident that I represent the dissenting opinion on Melissa’s buns since they were truly quite tasty, but in the end, they just did not have enough of a “wow factor” to de-thrown my longstanding favorite. They still receive two thumbs up from this bun baker, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give them my seal of approval.

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A big thanks goes out to Jen of Not Microwave Safe for her terrific selection, and affording me the opportunity to orchestrate my very own throwdown. It was so much fun baking back-to-back batches of buns, and evaluating the pros and cons of each. I can’t wait to explore the other SMS bakettes’ blogs to check out all the creative ways everyone played with the recipe. I just have to note that although I tried to prepare my buns exactly as directed, I couldn’t help but make a few very minor alterations. Instead of topping my buns with chopped whole almonds, I elected to toast up some sliced almonds, simply for aesthetic appeal. More importantly, in order to avoid dry, hard, over-browned buns, I had to pull mine out of the oven much earlier than the instructed 45 minutes- they were fully baked between 25-30 minutes, so if you decide to give the recipe a go, please start checking early! My other recipe offered a great tip to test the buns for doneness- insert an instant read thermometer into the center of a bun, and if it’s reached 180°, they are finished baking. Finally, instead of removing each bun from the pan individually with tongs (which I feared would squish them), I turned them all out at once by flipping the pan over directly onto my serving platter. Just a few notes that I hope help you along the way!

I encourage you to head into the kitchen to whip up your own batch of sticky buns- you will not be disappointed! And if you’re a nervous yeast bread virgin with any questions or concerns, I’d be happy to offer my assistance- just leave a comment and ask away!

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