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!

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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

Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake 1

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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Joy Heart 2

SMS: Caramelized Onion, Sage, Cheddar & Roasted Garlic Muffins

Savory Muffins with Caramelized Onions, Sage, Cheddar & Roasted Garlic

I had no idea when I began “Hot Oven, Warm Heart,” that I would be welcomed with open arms into the baking and blogging community. I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet some truly amazing people, who have blown me away with their kind hearts, passionate souls, and generous spirits. I am so thankful that I have made some dear friends through this process, and I’m looking forward to nurturing these new relationships with each upcoming week and tasty recipe. Who knew a shared fervor for creating muffins, cookies, and cakes had the power to bring people together? Though I was planning on opting out of SMS this week because of some current craziness, I changed my mind immediately when I realized that this week’s host was the absolutely extraordinary Hanaâ – one of the most thoughtful, caring, and talented people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over these last few months. No matter how busy my schedule, I knew I had to make time to try her bold and daring recipe selection, Caramelized Onion, Sage, and Cheddar Muffins. This marked the first savory baked good chosen for the group, and provided the chance to attempt something novel and exciting in the kitchen- a challenge I’m always eager to embrace. And boy, am I glad I did. The muffins provided the inspiration for a special fall meal, complete with Roasted Acorn and Butternut Squash Soup, and evoked overwhelming accolades from my family of tasters. But with Hanaâ’s stamp of approval on the recipe, I’d expect nothing less.

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Whether savory or sweet, ‘American-style’ muffins (those made from a batter with a chemical leavener- baking powder or baking soda- rather than a yeast dough like with English muffins) can be divided into two main categories: bread-like and cake-like. The distinguishing factors lie in the technique for mixing the batter as well as the sugar and fat content of the muffins. The bread-like variety typically utilize the “muffin method” of mixing, where the dry and wet ingredients are first blended separately, and then combined and stirred together just until incorporated. In addition, these muffins tend to have less sugar and fat (either melted butter or oil) in the recipe than their cake-like counterparts. The key to producing tender muffins made with this technique is to avoid over mixing. Mixing too much overdevelops the gluten in the flour, resulting in a tough muffin with tunnels and a compact texture. Resist the urge to continue stirring the batter, even if it’s still lumpy- only 10 to 15 strokes are necessary to moisten the dry ingredients, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have a few traces of flour remaining. The lumps in the batter will continue to blend as the muffins bake, and they will disappear after a short trip through the oven. Handling the batter as little as possible (even when scooping and distributing it in the pan), will yield muffins with ideal texture and a soft crumb. I kept this trick in mind while assembling my SMS savory muffins, and was very pleased with the overall consistency of the soft and springy interior.

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And now to the mix-ins. The harmoniously flavorful, out-of-this-world delicious combination of mix-ins. Honestly, Hanaâ had me at “caramelized.” I don’t think there is any cooking method that more perfectly extracts the essence and inner sweetness of an ingredient than caramelization. Technically speaking, caramelization refers to the oxidation of sugar, and is a complex chemical process that is utilized in cooking to produce the characteristic nutty flavor and brown color of caramel. But practically speaking, it is the gateway to scrumptiousness! Whether it’s caramelized apples in my favorite banana bread or caramelized onions in these exceptional savory muffins, the star ingredient shines center stage after being transformed with some butter and a hot sauté pan. Because the Sweet Melissa Baking Book did not offer instructions on how to prepare the onions, I decided to follow the basic procedure I’ve used in past recipes. I sliced a mountain of Vidalia onions into thin half moons, preheated a large skillet on medium-low heat, and added two tablespoons of melted butter with just a bit of olive oil. After piling up the onions in the pan, I seasoned them with a generous pinch of salt and a little sugar. I prefer to go “low and slow” when caramelizing onions- with a little patience, the onions soften and gradually take on a deep golden brown color. It does take about an hour, but believe me, it is worth every minute.

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I assembled the remaining ingredients in between occasional stirring, and by the time the onions were completed and cooled, I was all prepped and ready to go. The sage, fresh from my summer herb garden, was chopped, the sharp cheddar was shredded, and my extra special touch ingredient, roasted garlic, was minced to a paste, and whisked into the wet ingredients. (While the onions were cooking, I sliced the top off a head of garlic, drizzled on some olive oil, placed it in a foil packet and roasted it in a 400°F oven for an hour, until the cloves were slightly browned and softened). The idea for this bonus ingredient also came from the brilliant Hanaâ– the girl knows her flavors and it sounded too good to leave out! Since roasting really mellows the bite of fresh garlic, I ended up using about 4-6 cloves, and it complimented the other mix-ins flawlessly. No one flavor outshined another, and while you could certainly distinguish each individual ingredient, they all came together beautifully to produce a knock-your-socks off, one-of-a-kind batch of muffins. The only other change I made with the recipe was to check and toothpick test the muffins a few minutes earlier than the designated bake time. Mine were done at 27 minutes, so take care to keep an eye out towards the end of baking- the last thing you want after all that hard work is dry, heavy muffins because of over baking.

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After brainstorming some ideas to design a dinner menu featuring the savory muffins, I settled on making a Roasted Acorn and Butternut Squash soup. It was reminiscent of my very favorite fall recipe, a Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette (I’ll definitely be making this in the upcoming weeks, and will be sure to share it with you!) I discovered the soup recipe on one of the best cooking blogs on the web, Smitten Kitchen, and subsequently found it on Epicurious. I made a few slight adaptations, including roasting the squash before adding it to the soup. Instead of struggling with a rock hard unpeeled acorn squash and a sharp knife, I simplified the process by cutting it in half (or should I say, calling on my dad’s brute strength to divide it in two), drizzled it with some olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Though I was lucky to find my butternut squash already peeled, I figured I might as well roast that too at the same time. After about 45 minutes in a 400°F oven (tossing halfway through) the butternut squash was tender and slightly browned around the edges. The acorn squash needed a few minutes more, so I turned it over cut side down, and let it go a while longer. By the time it emerged from the oven, I was able to remove the peel and chop it into cubes very easily. I also used the remaining half head of roasted garlic left over from the muffins to replace the raw chopped garlic called for in the recipe. But no matter how you play with the recipe, it is a FABULOUS fall soup, and was a match made in heaven with the savory muffins.

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In the end, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the results, and this dreamy fall dinner was the perfect panacea for a blustery, windy, rainy Sunday night here in Boston. My parents raved over both components, remarking that the meal was restaurant worthy and one of my best ever. While I appreciate the positive feedback, the real compliment belongs to Hanaâ– I probably never would have attempted this recipe without a little push… I guess it’s just one more thing I have to thank her for. She is a constant source of inspiration and creative ideas- even dressing up her muffins with the crumb topping from her tuna casserole- super clever, right? This week I implore you- take a minute and check out her fantastic site, Hanaâ’s Kitchen, get your hands on this must-try recipe, break out the mixing bowls, and bake a batch of your own! You won’t be disappointed!

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Thank you Hanaâ, for doing a great job as SMS host this week. You are an incredible baker, but more importantly, an even better friend. I appreciate your support and encouragement more than you’ll ever know.

Joy Heart 2

SMS: Orange Scented Scones *with Grand Marnier Honey Butter Glaze*

Orange Scented Scones

My second favorite way to relax and unwind (after baking, of course) is curling up in a cozy spot, wrapped in a fluffy blanket, sipping on a piping hot mug of French vanilla tea. When the kettle whistle blows, the tension in my body immediately begins to ease, as I eagerly await the curative brew with which I start and end each day. While I don’t have an ounce of British heritage, I swear I belong in the UK, where “tea breaks” are practically a national pastime. There is something magically restorative about enjoying a good cup of tea, and I highly recommend incorporating the soothing beverage in your repertoire, especially as an accompaniment to any indulgent sweet treat starring as your breakfast, snack, or dessert. There is no culinary couple that can quell an anytime craving quite like tea and scones- the ultimate European gastronomic duo. Like peanut butter and jelly or milk and cookies, tea and scones simply belong together, flawlessly complimenting each other’s best attributes. Both tea and scones have quite a bit of ground to cover to surpass coffee and muffins in regard here in the US, but thanks to recipes like this week’s SMS selection, tasters are being converted with just one bite.

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A small quickbread (or cake if the recipe includes sugar) of possible Scottish origin, the scone is a popular treat in many countries around the world, but especially in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and of course, the US. They are usually made of wheat, barley or oatmeal, with baking powder acting as the leavening agent. The name is said to derive from the Middle Dutch schoonbrood, schoon meaning “pure and clean” and brood meaning bread. The original scone was a round and flat cake (now commonly referred to as a bannock), that was usually the size of a small plate, made with unleavened oats, and baked on a griddle. It was then cut into triangle-like quadrants, or scones, for serving. The scone evolved into the oven-baked, well-leavened pastry we know today when baking powder was introduced to the market and became widely available to the masses. While the British scone is often lightly sweetened, it can also be savory, and popular mix-ins include raisins, currants, cheese or dates. In contrast, scones in the US are typically drier, larger and sweeter, and are standard coffee shop fare, featuring fillings such as cranberries, blueberries, nuts, or even chocolate chips.

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There are a few keys to producing an excellent scone, and ways to avoid the dreaded “hockey puck” consistency that gives scones a bad name. Both temperature of ingredients and mixing method are crucial components to consider. It is best if all the ingredients are cold, to add the liquid to the dry ingredients all at once, and then to mix everything together quickly and lightly. Because the butter is “cut-in” to the dry ingredients (just like in making pie dough), it is crucial that it’s cold, so it becomes small, flour-coated crumbs rather than melting and forming a smooth mass- this step is what ultimately gives scones their characteristic delicate, flakey texture. After the liquids are added, it is imperative to mix the ingredients as little as possible (only until everything comes together)- an overworked scone is usually hard and doughy, so a light hand is essential. When the dough is turned out and formed into a disc, it can either be cut into triangles, or rounds by using a cookie cutter. If you opt for the latter method, it is recommended to twist the cutter through the dough instead of pushing straight down, which yields higher rising scones during baking. Brushing the scones with an egg wash or some additional milk/cream imparts a gorgeous golden color and helps encourage browning. When they’re removed from the oven, you can either allow them to cool uncovered for a crusty exterior or wrap them (still hot) in a clean towel for a softer outer layer. Scones are best served warm and eaten the same day they’re made. Classic accompaniments include butter, jam or preserves, clotted cream, and/or lemon curd, however, a well-made scone is delicious even when plain. If you keep these tips in mind, scone baking is relatively easy, and you’re guaranteed to produce a winning treat.

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This is especially true when you have a sure-fire recipe to fall back on, like the Orange Scented Scones from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book. When I first read the recipe, chosen by Robin of Lady Craddock’s Bakery, it seemed like a very basic cream scone dressed up with a bit of grated orange zest. I wanted my scones to deliver a punch of orange flavor, so I pumped up the citrus volume in a few places. I added the zest of one whole orange (which was a bit more than the specified two teaspoons) and then turned to my pantry, which is stocked with a variety of flavored extracts, including orange. I mixed a teaspoon of orange extract into the wet ingredients for that extra hint of citrus essence all throughout the dough. But I didn’t stop there! I knew I wanted to accent my scones with some sort of glaze, and while my first thought was to go the confectioners sugar/orange juice route, I stopped short in my tracks when I discovered a honey butter scone glaze recipe featured in one of my favorite cookbooks, A Passion for Baking, by Marcy Goldman. In an “A-ha!-in-the-kitchen” moment, I thought, why not add a splash of that Grand Marnier (or orange liquor) I have leftover from the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake? Perfect! With triple the orange zip, the scones were tangy, bright, and super refreshing. The sticky sweet glaze kept them ultra moist on days 2 and 3 (I can’t report on any longer since they didn’t last more than that!) I’m confident the classic scone recipe would be a great canvas for any flavor profile you’re craving, and by changing up the mix-ins with different fruits, spices, nuts, and zests, you never have to make the same scone twice! I highly recommend giving the glaze recipe a try as well (either spiked with your favorite liquor or booze free)- dry, chalky stones… I mean, scones, be gone!

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Thank you to Robin of Lady Craddock’s Bakery for this excellent tea-time pick! Head on over to her site for the recipe, and have fun playing with it and making it your own. Get some other great ideas by checking out all the delicious scones baked up by the other lovely ladies of SMS!

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Just in case you’d like to test my version, here’s the fabulous (and truly simple) glaze recipe I used:

Scone Glaze
from A Passion For Baking by Marcy Goldman

Ingredients:

1/3 cup honey
¼ cup or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon flavored liquor such as Grand Marnier (optional)
1-2 tablespoons sparkling or sanding sugar to coat

Directions:

While the scones are baking, heat honey and butter in a liquid measuring cup in the microwave until mixture is just simmering, about 1 minute, stirring halfway through. Let cool slightly, and then stir in the liquor if using.

Brush the scones lightly with honey-butter glaze as they come out of the oven. Let stand on baking sheets. Repeat with more honey-butter glaze, more generously, about 15 minutes later. Sprinkle with the sanding sugar and let set.

Joy Heart 2

SMS: Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake

Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake

I have a bit of a confession to make. I am a highly neurotic cook. My perfectionist tendencies follow me into the kitchen, and although my passion for baking brings me a sense of inner peace and tranquility, I can’t help but get worked up some times when I make a mistake or things don’t turn out right. The rational side of my brain tries to reason with me, “It’s okay, Joy, not everything you make can be a smashing success, and even though you’re disappointed now, try not to get discouraged! You’ve learned from the experience and will do better next time, that’s what’s important.” Note: this voice is often the repeating of my mom’s words of encouragement in my head. But usually, I’m too overcome with melancholy and consternation to listen. Bearing all this in mind, I never, never, imagined myself standing over a perfectly risen, evenly domed cake saying, “C’mon, fall. FALL! I want you to look like a pathetic deflated tire. Will you fall already?”

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Yesterday morning, this curious kitchen occurrence came true as I stared at this week’s SMS selection, the cover recipe of The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake. Thankfully, this time my cake listened to my pleading, and sunk ever so slightly in the middle, creating cracks and crevices along the surface. Un-molding the cake only enhanced its homely appearance, revealing un-even sides that looked sadly smushed together. While it wouldn’t be winning any beauty contests, it did resemble the book’s photograph, and I was hoping that the cake’s flavor far exceeded its appearance in impressiveness and overall appeal. But before I could serve and find out, I had to wait patiently for the cake to cool completely, giving me the perfect opportunity to discover how this cake came to be.

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In the mid-1970s, famous restaurateur, Narsai David, set off an absolute sensation with his over-the-top dessert aptly titled the Chocolate Decadence Torte. Ever since, pastry chefs round the world have been crafting devastatingly rich chocolate desserts hoping to achieve ultimate chocolate nirvana on a plate. The intensely flavored French-style desserts unite the seemingly paradoxical qualities of a dense truffle and airy mousse. A palate and preference for these chocolate treats spread quickly throughout the American public, and variations like the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake began popping up on high-end dessert menus everywhere.

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Another such adaptation is the fallen soufflé cake, a hybrid of sorts between a chocolate mousse/soufflé and a flourless cake. Fortunately for the baker, the nerve-wracking anxiety of soufflé baking is eliminated, as a fallen dessert is the desired result. While the batter is constructed and baked just like a soufflé, it is allowed to cool thoroughly, during which time it falls, compacting the texture. It’s best served slightly re-warmed, so the consistency remains more like a mousse than a dense fudge. Traditionally, fallen soufflé cakes are served accompanied by a custard, caramel sauce, ice cream, or sweetened whipped cream.

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I’m sad to say the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake in The Sweet Melissa Baking Book didn’t quite live up to expectation. The reaction my tasters had at first bite can be described in one word: surprise. My dad remarked, “I taste something, but it’s not chocolate… it’s not orange, is it?” Apparently the single teaspoon of orange zest and splash of Grand Marnier was enough to overpower the central ingredient. Even with over 10 ounces of Ghirardelli, it just didn’t deliver that punch of chocolate flavor I was after. My mom chimed in commenting on the lack of sweetness, and asked if I had used all bittersweet chocolate. Nope. All semisweet here. Both had no problem polishing off their slices, and complimented the cake’s surprisingly light texture, but then came the kiss of death: “It’s just not my favorite,” my mom said gently. When my number one fan, who loves EVERYTHING I make, utters those five telling words, I know that there won’t be a second showing of the dessert in my home.

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I still have to thank Sarah of The Blue Ridge Baker for pushing me to try something I’ve never tackled before. I’m now inspired to find the fallen chocolate cake of my dreams, and don’t you worry, when I do, I’ll be sharing. Please still check out Sarah’s fantastic site, where you’ll find the recipe along with a bonus chocolate cake that she deemed “heavenly.” I’m certainly adding that one to my must-try list! And remember to check out how all the other lovely ladies’ cakes came out too!

Joy Heart 2

SMS: Fresh Peach Muffins

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*Just wanted to apologize that this post is a little late- as some of you know, I’ve been under the weather for the past few weeks, and unfortunately, I really wasn’t feeling well yesterday. I hope you understand!*

You may have guessed from my SMS selection last week, that I have a fondness for quick breads. My only criticism is that while they may be “quick” to prepare, the long bake time of an hour or more often means waiting (rather impatiently, I must admit) to sit down with a slice of delicious loaf. But the option to make individual serving sizes in the form of muffins can save the day when you’re craving a sweet breakfast treat that can be on the table in less than half the time! Whether you’re a self proclaimed muffin top lover like myself, preferring to indulge in the soft textured, yet slightly crispy and caramelized exterior of the mushroomed muffin dome, or you favor the rougher, tight crumb of the bottom portion, often dubbed the “muffin stump,” most would agree that a muffin is the ideal breakfast pastry. With endless combinations of possible mix-ins and featured ingredients, the modern American muffin has a variation to please every palate, from blueberry to chocolate chip, pumpkin to date nut, lemon poppyseed to banana crumb, and bran to corn- there are plenty of styles to choose from and it can be difficult narrowing down a favorite. As summer comes to a close, I’m tempted to incorporate the bounty of readily-available ripe, juicy fruits in my baked goods as often as possible while they are still in season. Thanks to JoVonn of The Givens Chronicles, this week’s SMS recipe, Fresh Peach Muffins, offered the perfect opportunity to try a muffin flavor I’ve never made before, and highlight the bright luscious stone-fruit one last time before Fall sets in.

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The word “muffin” was possibly derived from the Old French moufflet, which referred to “soft bread,” or the German muffen, meaning “small cake.” The earliest versions tended to be less sweet and much less varied in ingredients than their contemporary form. Pulled together quickly and easily, muffins were usually served as a breakfast food, but because they also grew stale rapidly, they were not a highly marketable baked good and remained mostly in home kitchens until the mid-20th century. Fannie Merritt Farmer included 15 recipes for muffins in her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1896, however most were limited to a few different grains and some readily available additives like raisins, apples, berries, and nuts. So how did the modestly simple mini cake transform into the elaborate super-sized version we’re accustomed to today?

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The 1950’s saw the introduction of muffin mixes to the market, but it was a combination of circumstances in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s that resulted in major changes to the breakfast baked good. The decline in home-baking, the health food movement, the rise of the specialty food shop, and the gourmet coffee trend all contributed to the evolution of the modern day muffin. “Healthful” muffin recipes using whole grains, yogurt and various vegetables became prolific, but in order for these muffins to maintain any shelf-life without artificial preservatives, both the sugar and fat content needed to be increased, making these treats more comparable to their cupcake counterparts. (The higher sugar and fat content act as tenderizers, and minimize gluten development, producing a richer cake-like muffin with a softer crumb.) With the emergence of gourmet coffee houses, there was a need for gourmet snacks to serve as accompaniments, and fancier recipes were created which departed from the humble originals. Thanks to the marketing trend toward larger portion sizes, muffins ballooned to the soft-ball size jumbos now abundantly available, and new pans were created for the home cook to replicate the extra large versions lining every coffee shop pastry case.

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What makes Melissa Murphy’s basic sweet muffin recipe special is its flexibility- it can be dressed up with the addition of different citrus zests, spices, and fruits to suit your taste or accommodate ingredients on hand. In this variation, peaches play a starring role with accents of orange zest and cinnamon. While the flavors are subtle and mellow, they coordinate and complement each other nicely. These muffins are nicely moist, with a large open crumb. While hefty and substantial, they are surprisingly fluffy, though they lack a certain softness and delicacy I prefer in my quick breads. My only modifications to the recipe were to add a teaspoon of vanilla and a heaping cup of peaches to the batter- I think they could use even more fruit, as the peach to muffin ratio needs improvement. I also added sanding sugar to the tops, giving the muffins a certain sparkle and sweet crunch to every bite. Though this will not replace my favorite muffin recipe, it is a solid addition to my baking repertoire because of its adaptability.

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I have to send out a double thank you to JoVonn of The Givens Chronicles– first, for this week’s SMS pick- please visit her lovely site to find the recipe, and check out the multitudes of muffins whipped up by the other bakers on our blogroll! Second, I’m so excited to have JoVonn join me for this round of Operation Baking GALS as a member of Team Oven Loving for the Recovering. It is so kind of her to dedicate time and energy as a volunteer baker, and I know the soldiers will truly appreciate her contribution. If you’re interested in getting involved, there’s still time to sign up- please don’t hesitate to get in touch for more information! 🙂

Joy Heart 2

SMS: Mom’s Banana Apple Bread

Mom's Banana Apple Bread

In the dedication of The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, Melissa Murphy candidly writes, “To my mom, who has been with me to hold my hand every step of the way.” With a phenomenal mom, who has dedicated her life to nurturing, loving, and supporting her daughters, I am blessed to say that I share Melissa’s sentiment wholeheartedly. As my best friend, guardian angel, constant companion, and number one fan, she is so much more than just my mom. An exceptional role model for leading a beautiful life, her generosity and deeply compassionate spirit shine through in everything she does, especially taking care of me. When I’ve faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, my mom has stood by my side and inspired me to keep pushing forward, even when I was ready to surrender. She can brighten my darkest days with her smile, and dedicates her boundless energy to always being there for me, no matter what. Her unconditional love and constant support give me strength, and because she believes in me, I know that I can achieve my dreams. My mom seizes every opportunity to show how much she cares, and in return, it is a true pleasure to present her with some of her favorite homemade treats from the kitchen. While she raves over just about everything I make, one of her all time favorites is this outstanding and unique banana bread. Delectably tender and exceedingly moist, this banana bread, studded with caramelized chunks of apple and delicately spiced with the perfect combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, is an elevated adaptation of a classic and a bona fide showstopper. It is definitely deserving of its recipe title: Mom’s Banana Apple Bread.

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Banana bread is a sweet cake-like quick bread, whose main ingredient is mashed bananas. Utilizing a chemical leavener such as baking soda and/or powder, quick breads are so named because they are “quick” acting and begin rising the moment the wet ingredients are added to the dry. Quick breads were developed at the end of the 18th century in America after pearlash, a preceding leavening agent that produced carbon dioxide gas in dough to produce rise, was discovered and popularized. Evidently, banana bread first originated from 18th century housewives experimenting in the kitchen with the new ingredient. When baking soda and baking powder grew to be widely used in the 1930’s, banana bread became a standard feature in American cookbooks, and was first included in the 1933 edition of the Pillsbury’s Balanced Recipes cookbook. But it was the home baking revival of the 1960s, combined with the simplicity and ease of its recipe that resulted in the spread of banana bread’s fame. Multiple variations of the quick bread were developed at that time, featuring a variety of mix-ins including additional fruits and nuts.

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Banana bread recipes typically call for one of two possible mixing methods: the two-bowl or muffin method, and the creaming method. With the muffin method, all the dry and wet ingredients are stirred together separately, and then they are quickly and gingerly mixed together, leaving a slightly lumpy batter, sometimes with some streaks of flour remaining. This method results in a texture with larger and more irregular air holes throughout. Alternatively, the creaming method calls for creaming the fat with the sugar until light and fluffy, followed by the addition of the remaining ingredients, which gives a different, cake-like texture. Mom’s Apple Banana Bread utilizes the latter method, and certainly has a characteristically delicate, tight crumb.

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Baking a loaf and enjoying a slice of this bread is the perfect way to celebrate National Banana Lover’s Day, which just happens to be this week, on August 27th! The banana doesn’t get much attention or respect as a fruit, but as a baker, I appreciate many of its qualities. Available year round, reasonably priced, easy to peel, and generally of consistent quality, the banana is a highly underrated ingredient. Most importantly, the color of its skin and the firmness of the flesh reveal its inner sweetness- an attribute not shared by many other fruits. Did you know that bananas are picked green when they’re hard and relatively flavorless? As time passes, the peel transforms from bright yellow to spotted brown, to nearly completely brown, and the flesh continues to become softer and sweeter. So don’t throw away those overripe bananas- they are ideal and arguably essential for delicious banana bread!

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Not in the mood to whip up a loaf right now? No problem. Just slip them into a plastic bag and place them into the freezer for later use. You can also peel and mash them, (optionally stir in 1 teaspoon lemon juice for each banana to prevent them from turning color), and freeze in an airtight container or bag. Your ripe-and-ready-to-go bananas will keep about six months in the freezer. Have the opposite problem- a craving for banana bread but green bananas on your counter? Check out this website recommended by my dear friend Hanaâ of the fabulous blog, Hanaâ’s Kitchen, which details a number of ways to hasten the ripening process.

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It is my pleasure, as host, to present this week’s Sweet Melissa Sundays’ recipe, and I hope it becomes a family favorite for you as well! Thank you to all the amazing “SMS bakettes” who baked along with me- please check out our blogroll to explore all of their incredible sites and find out what they did with the recipe. The kind words and support they offer each week means the world to me, especially as a newbie blogger, and I’m so lucky to be a part of such an outstanding group! But most importantly, thanks to my mom, for never letting go of my hand.

Mom’s Banana Apple Bread– makes one 1 1/2-quart loaf pan
from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Murphy

For the apples:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the banana bread:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
¼ cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups very ripe mashed bananas (2 to 3)

Before you start:
Position a rack in the center of your oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter and flour a 1 1/2-quart loaf pan.

To make the apples:
Preheat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter and brown sugar and heat until bubbling. Add the apples and cinnamon and sauté until golden and tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the vanilla. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

To make the banana bread:
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
3. In a small bowl, combine the orange juice and vanilla.
4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three batches, alternating with the orange juice mixture, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each flour addition. Stir in the mashed bananas until combined. Then stir in the reserved apples.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes before unmolding onto the rack to cool further.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The banana bread keeps well wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 3 days. For longer storage, freeze well wrapped in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil for up to 3 weeks. Defrost (still wrapped) at room temperature.

Pro Tip: If your bananas are black before you are ready to bake, peel them, puree them, and store them in an airtight plastic container in your freezer. You can add more to the container whenever you like; the bananas keep a very long time. When you are ready to bake, just defrost them and get on with it.

Pretty Slick: If after a few days, the banana bread starts to get dry, toast a slice and spread some soft butter on top. It’s great this way with your morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Joy’s Tips:
*For the apples: Instead of chopping both, I chop one (in very small chunks) and shred the other on a box grater. The chopped apple still gives you the interesting texture and bites of tender caramelized appley goodness, while the shredded apple sort of melts into the bread and adds to its incredible moisture. I still saute both in the butter and brown sugar, and add any accumulated juices from the shredded apple. Beware of stirring in apple chunks that are too large- their weight causes them to sink to the bottom of the batter, and you end up with an apple layer of sorts at the base of the loaf. Still delicious, but not ideal- to have it well distributed, make sure your apple chunks stay pretty dainty!

*For the bananas: I recommend using the measured amount rather than just 2 or 3. I always seem to need more bananas to make the required measurement than are recommended (and I don’t think my bananas are particularly small). You definitely don’t want to skimp on this central ingredient for the overall flavor of your finished loaf!

*My loaf usually requires an additional 3-5 minutes for a toothpick to come out clean. I test at the 1 hour mark, and if it’s not done, I cover with foil to prevent over-browning and return it to the oven. Just be aware that your time may vary depending on your oven.

I hope you enjoy!

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