Monday, December 23, 2013

Mince Pies

In a way, mince pies are what started it all. About a year ago, my mother and I made our usual mince pies. I took a few photos, and proceeded to read my blogroll while munching. That was when the idea for this blog struck! In February, I started A Chef in College, and a picture of mince pies was my initial banner.

Well, a year later, I'm back home for Christmas and had to make the traditional mince pies! Since I've fielded a lot of questions from my friends in the vein of "What are those?" and "Dang those look good, make me some?", I got out the camera to document the family recipe. Though really, it's not so much a recipe as a life still. Mince pies are really easy to make! They barely require instructions.

You'll need:
 -Mincemeat, ideally vegetarian/without beef suet (Grandmother's is our preferred brand)
 -1 sheet of puff pastry
 -3 tbsp shortening
 -3 tbsp margarine
 -1 and 1/4 cups flour
 -pinch of salt
 -approx. 1/3 cup of water

Oven temp: 400˚F

So you'll start with making a basic crust. I won't bore you with details, but if you need a recipe for crust, just use the recipe here, and use the ingredients above! If you have another pie crust recipe, use it by all means. All you need is one crust-worth of dough.

Roll it out until it's about 1/8 of an inch thick. Remember that you want to get 12 little pie bottoms out of this crust, so you will need to re-roll. My first roll was too thick, so err on the side of caution.

Once they're rolled out, use a glass about three inches in diameter to press into the dough to make circles. Push down and twist a few times, but not too much! Do it enough to loosen the dough circles from the sheet.

Put your dough circles into a shallow-cup pan. The depth of the cups is probably not much more than an inch or so, but I'm sure you could use a muffin tin as long as you don't fill them up all the way. Press your pie bottoms into the tin and open your jar of filling.

Using a cookie scooper or a measuring spoon, blob about a tablespoon of the mincemeat in each mini-pie. Easy peasy.

Using a smaller glass, cut 12 pie tops out of the puff pastry sheet. You can't re-roll puff pastry, so be very careful! You should be just about able to get the dozen out of the sheet.

Cut slices/holes/shapes in each pie top so that steam can escape. Then, press each puff pastry top into the pie and onto the bottom.

Then, pop your pies into the preheated oven! Check them at ten minutes, and give them more time if needed. Remove them from the oven when the tops are gently golden.

Let them cool in the pan for fifteen minutes, then let them finish cooling on a wire cooling rack. Then eat! They will last for a few days in a tupperware, in case they aren't all consumed in one day.

They're fruity yet savory, and are a very British way to celebrate Christmas. My dad's face lit up when he came home and saw fresh mince pies, so that was also a bonus!

Mince pies are a great alternative to the heavy, overly sweet cookies and cakes that tend to overwhelm the Christmas dessert table. If you haven't tried them, I highly recommend them! They're extremely easy and taste awesome, so what are you waiting for?

And finally, MERRY CHRISTMAS! I hope you have a wonderful day, wherever you may be. I'll be back on boxing day with a Christmas Dinner write-up!

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Peppermint Bark

I've been having a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. As Colbie Callait says, "It's not Christmas if the snow don't fall", and I have to wholeheartedly agree. While it's awesome wearing a t-shirt in December, I greatly miss everything about a New England winter at the moment. There's something special about the smell of fresh snow, and the beauty of snow-covered trees.

Of course, I'm sure I'll remember how much I hate the cold once I'm home, but that's a different story.

One of my roommates has no trouble getting in the spirit--she's really into the 25 Days of Christmas on ABC Family. I swear I've seen The Grinch about four times and I'm starting to get sick of it. Therefore, I decided that I needed another way to get into the holiday mood.

Enter peppermint bark, stage left. Stupid easy and really, really tasty. Like, I glanced at a recipe to make sure my intuition was correct (it was) and that was that. It took about half an hour to make... that's it. And there are only three ingredients. So what are you waiting for?

You will need:
 -One bag of chocolate chips (milk or dark, your choice)
 -One bag of white chocolate chips
 -A few candy canes

And you don't even need the oven! It's a Christmas Miracle!

Start by lining a baking sheet with tin foil. Parchment paper would probably work just as well! This just makes for easy removal.

Next, get a bain marie going. You can read more about how to do that here, but basically boil water and melt the chocolate in a bowl over the steam.

Stir frequently to ensure even melting. It's ready when it's shiny and smooth.

Pour it onto your prepared pan and spread it around. It will all get broken up eventually, so don't be worried about making it touch the edges or whatever.

Also, you can make it as thick or as thin as you choose! Mine was pretty thin, about an eighth of an inch maybe? Just try and make it one nice even layer. Once it's spread to your satisfaction, pop it in your fridge to solidify.

Now, prepare the candy canes. Pop them in a plastic bag and (gently!) bash with a hammer to crush into little pieces.

Combine them with the white chocolate chips as you melt them in the bain marie! This way, you'll get peppermint throughout the chocolate.

Take the solidified milk chocolate out of the fridge and spread the melted white chocolate and peppermint over it. Your milk chocolate may re-melt a bit, but it's not a big deal. Spread what you can, then sprinkle more crushed candy cane over the top. I would suggest pushing some of the bigger pieces down a little bit, since I didn't and some of mine fell off... womp womp womp.

Set it back into the fridge to solidify.

After it's all solid, take it out of the fridge and slightly lift up the tin foil. Get under the bottom and break it into pieces. It may get a little soft in your hands, so work quickly!

Once it's all into pieces, store it in your fridge and sneak little pieces every time you're in the kitchen. Or, you can do as I did and try and give as much away as possible! There's nothing like making a holiday treat to get yourself out of a Grinch-y mood.

Next time I blog, I will be back at home in the beautiful snow! I can't wait to get back in time for Christmas goodies and the holiday spirit.

Good luck on the rest of your finals, and I'll be back with you soon from a different timezone!

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Birthday Cake

Okay, so I'm a little obsessed with The Lord of the Rings. I'm a big Tolkien nerd to the point where I wrote a research paper in high school about Aragorn. I used to watch all three movies at least once a month. I once got into an argument over whether Barad-dûr was built before Isengard or not. Even now, I will watch at least one of the movies once a month.

I was watching The Fellowship of the Ring on Friday, and not for the first time, was drawn to Bilbo's Eleventy-first birthday cake. Seriously though, how good does that look? I just imagined layers of deliciously light vanilla cake, wrapped in smooth frosting, topped with berries. I resolved to make a cake right then and there.

Of course, I didn't want to stop watching at that moment, and Saturday was my very own birthday, so the cake-making was put on hold until Sunday. The idea morphed slightly, to a basic two-layer vanilla cake with whipped cream frosting, with raspberries in the middle and on top. Not only were raspberries on sale, but I didn't really feel like buying flowers and candles for decorating what is essentially my own birthday cake...

Carrying on. Since I only have one round cake pan, this cake took longer than it should have. Janky kitchen adventures continue. Including photographing, cooling, and frosting time, this cake took about three hours. I'm fairly sure it could be done in about two, if you are prepared.

 For the cake, you will need:
 -3 cups of flour, sifted (see what that means here)
 -2 cups of white sugar
 -1 tbsp and 1 tsp of baking powder
 -3/4 tsp salt
 -12 tsp (1 and 1/2 sticks) of unsalted butter, chilled and in small pieces
 -1 cup of milk (divided into 1/4 cup and 3/4 cup)
 -5 large egg whites
 -1 large egg
 -2 and 1/4 tsp of vanilla extract

Oven temperature: 350˚ F

Ignore the vegetable oil. I changed my recipe halfway through the ingredient assembly. Hur dur!

On separating egg whites: you don't need two little bowls or cups or fancy gizmos. All you need to do is crack the egg, then very carefully and slowly split the shells. Transfer the yolk from one half to the other, letting the white fall into the bowl below. It will take about six transfers to get it all. Try not to break the yolk! Very messy. Once the yolk sits all alone, put it into a separate bowl and brainstorm ways to use it up at a later time.

Combine the egg whites, the one whole egg, 1/4 cup of milk, and the vanilla extract in a bowl. Mix well but don't beat the egg! You just want it to be one nice mixture. Set this to one side.

Mix together your dry ingredients all in one large bowl. That'll be your flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Just use a fork or whatever, not a huge deal. Combine it evenly. Then, taking your chilled butter, mix it in with an electric mixer.

It will look like this when fully mixed in. Note: do NOT freeze your butter. That's what I tried to do and it failed miserably. Like, it wouldn't mix in with the dry ingredients. It was a little butter rock for a few minutes. Just keep it in the fridge, trust me on that.

Next step: add the remaining 3/4 cup of milk. I didn't take a photo, but mix it in until it has the texture of cookie dough. It will be very thick and sticky.

Finally, while mixing, add a third of the egg mixture. Stir it up. Then add a third more. Stir stir stir. Then add the last bit. Stir, then scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Stir some more. It should look like the above. It will be fairly runny.

Grease and flour a round cake pan. Basically, I sprayed some Pam, then sprinkled about half a tablespoon of flour. Shake it all around. You will probably end up slapping the pan, but it's really crucial that you do this. Make sure the bottom and sides are all coated!

Once it's all coated, pour half the mixture into the pan and put it in the oven for about thirty minutes. It will be done when a toothpick inserted into the middle emerges clean (or with only a few crumbs). I checked first at 25 minutes, then gave it three more minutes. Let it cool for a little while (about fifteen or twenty minutes), then flip the cake out. Grease and flour the pan again, pour the remaining batter in, then repeat.

Important! The cakes must be cool before you attempt to frost them. Otherwise the frosting will just melt off. How sad. While your cakes are off to the side cooling down, you can make the whipped cream frosting!

For the frosting, you will need:
 -3 cups of heavy cream
 -5 tbsp of granulated sugar
 -1 and 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract

Homemade whipped cream is stupid easy. All you need to do is beat the heavy cream on a medium-high setting for a few minutes (about five, I'd wager) until it starts to thicken. Add your sugar, and continue to beat until soft peaks form. See above for a "soft peaks" example.

At this point, add your vanilla extract and whisk together by hand until stiff peaks form. See above for stiff peaks! It takes very little time to go from soft peaks to stiff peaks, so do not use an electric mixer.

Boom! That's it! Your frosting is now complete. Once your cakes are cool, you can begin to assemble.

Plonk one cake upside-down onto a plate or stand. Try to make it centered, just for aesthetic purposes. Glob about a third of your frosting onto the cake, and spread it around. All you need is a nice even layer, and cover the sides.

Really, you just need to cover all visible cake. Whipped cream frosting is extremely light, so keep that in mind when you think that your frosting is too thick.

Next, take your raspberries (or any fruit of choice, really) and press them into the frosting. I tore my berries in half so that they would maximize surface area and not take up too much vertical space, but you do you. Use about a third of your berries for this--if you're employing the "tear in half" trick, they'll seem like a lot more!

Now, very carefully, align your other (right side up) cake with the bottom cake... and drop! You want them to be aligned as two aligned things in aligned land... you catch my drift? You've eaten a layer cake, you're smart, I'm sure you know how it works.

Repeat the frosting drill. The picture's dark because I was getting pretty darn into it. Go for broke with the frosting--use as much of it as you'd like! My roommates ate the leftover frosting and were pretty happy about it, so keep that in mind!

Adorn with whole berries. Just look at them glistening away. I put a lot of them on top, and I probably could have put more. Maybe next time?

Now cut yourself a slice, champ! You're done, and you earned it!

It's a pretty light but very flavorful cake, and the frosting is a dream. The berries add a nice punch of flavor, and are definitely the star of the show. I had originally thought of using strawberries, but raspberries were on sale... I would suggest using any strong berry. The tartness lightens up the cake beautifully.

Maybe it's not exactly Bilbo's cake, but this one is my precious... I highly recommend it! Not too difficult and a delicious, impressive result.

I found my recipes and loosely followed the instructions of Sweetapolita for the cake and Fine Cooking for the frosting. All credit where it's deserved!

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Lemon Cupcakes

My gosh, where does the time go? I've intended to bake for close to three weeks now and finally got my first chance today. With my parents visiting, sorority initiation, and my job, I barely had time to do my homework and I definitely haven't had time to do my laundry. Fortunately, things are settling back down. I got some new baking supplies from a dear friend so of course I had to put them to good use!

I made some delicious little lemon cupcakes with my new cupcake molds and cupcake stand, thanks to my friend and the wonderful blog Sally's Baking Addiction. Not only are these cupcakes pretty easy to make, but they don't require that you dirty every dish in your kitchen! Always a plus for me with my janky little kitchen.

I've got a few other new toys as well. Firstly was this bad boy. Just look at his cute little face! He came with the cupcake molds and stand, and I'm low-key obsessing. He watched over my baking... and is on top of our TV watching me type right now. I swear, it's not creepy at all.

This is my second toy--a Hamilton Beach hand mixer bought brand-new on Amazon for like $25. It has been life changing. Honestly how did I use a fork to cream together butter and sugar before this? I'm now worried I'll start losing bicep definition.

The cupcakes are straightforward, everyone! You will need:
 -1 stick unsalted butter, softened
 -1 cup granulated sugar
 -2 eggs
 -2 tsp vanilla extract
 -1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
 -2 tsp baking powder
 -1/2 tsp salt
 -1/2 cup of milk (any sort!)
 -Approx. 6 tablespoons of lemon juice (juice of two lemons)

Oven temp: 350˚F

Start by creaming butter and sugar until light and fluffy. You know the drill. Your electric mixer will make your life a million times easier and better. You may tear up with how much greater your life has become. (Maybe that's just me.)

Now add your eggs and vanilla extract and beat the mixture until combined and smooth, about two minutes. It will be quite runny at this point.

Next, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture in three parts, combining them by hand. Use those muscles! Make sure you're really getting everything evenly mixed. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl frequently to make sure no bits are being left out.

Finally, add the milk and lemon zest. Mix until they're combined--don't overmix! Texture-wise, they'll kind of be in the middle of pancake batter and cake batter. Does that make sense to anyone else but me? Pop those suckers into the oven for 18-20 minutes. They're done once a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean.

Only fill the cups about 2/3 of the way full. They will rise...

See? They rose pretty darn well, if I say so myself.

Once those are out of the oven and cooling down, you can get started on the frosting...

You will need:
 -2 sticks of butter, softened
 -Approximately 4 cups of powdered sugar
 -1/4 cup of heavy cream (I used milk. Something with a higher fat content would be better, je pense)
 -2 tsp vanilla extract
 -1/4 tsp salt

Start by beating the butter until it's light and fluffy. Just the butter! Nothing else!

Then, while the mixer is going, add the rest of the ingredients. Just dump the sugar, cream, vanilla, and salt all in there and beat to combine. I added a bit more salt than the recipe calls for, just because I generally find frostings very sweet. However, I may just be biased towards cream cheese frosting!

Slap some frosting onto each cooled cupcake and then top with whatever you'd like! More lemon zest could be delicious, and I always find it a cute and delicious addition to have a coconut sprinkle atop the cupcake.

I got a fever, and the only prescription is more coconut!

Just look at it. Now that winter is truly coming, this deliciously delicate lemony cupcake is a gentle reminder that spring is coming in just a few months! They're light and wonderful and, in typical "I live with a ton of people" fashion, there are none left.

These could definitely be topped with lemon zest, white chocolate, or even a simple glaze. They're a cute little treat that brightened many days! I'll definitely be making them again, but when I do, I may try an easy cream cheese frosting. This frosting is certainly much lighter than cream cheese frosting, but the latter is just so dang good!

At any rate, I'm so grateful for all my new kitchen toys, and for these delicious cupcakes. However, I've turned my eye to eggplant, and I'm figuring out what seasonally appropriate meals to make with it... stay tuned!

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