Monday, April 23, 2012

Cookies and Cream Cupcakes

Cookies and cream is a flavor combination that I've loved since I was a little kid. Other preferences have come and gone, but there's still something about cookies and cream that I just find very, very appealing. Naturally, applying that to a cupcake seems like the greatest idea in the world.

Cookies & Cream Cupcakes

Although I loved the look of the lightly speckled frosting, if I had to do it again I'd definitely add even more Oreo to flavor the frosting. I wasn't particularly enthused with using shortening in the frosting, either. A local cupcake bakery, New York Cupcakes (the cupcakes are New York themed, not from New York), makes the most amazing Oreo buttercream frosting -- far superior to the one used in this recipe, taste wise. If you're more concerned with aesthetics, use the recipe -- it makes beautiful snow-white frosting with specks of Oreo cookie. Otherwise, making your favorite buttercream recipe and use lots of crushed-up Oreos.

The original recipe calls for either breaking the Oreo cookies up into pieces or placing them whole into the cupcake wrappers. Surprisingly (because I didn't expect to), I preferred the latter method. It created an unexpected crunch in the middle of the cupcake, but rather than detracting from the overall experience, it added to it. Then again, I am the sort of person who likes a bit of crunch in everything I eat (I love lining my sandwiches with potato chips, for instance), so your mileage may vary. :-)

Cookies and Cream Cupcakes (adapted from Bakerella)


For the cupcakes:
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup hot water
  • 24 Oreos, plus more for crumbs
For the frosting:
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1 lb. powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3-6 tbsp milk
  • 2 or more tsp Oreo cookie crumbs

For the cupcakes:
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a muffin tin with cupcake wrappers.
  2. Place a whole cookie into each cup or break them apart and place the broken pieces into each cup.
  3. Mix the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl using a wire whisk.
  4. Add the eggs, oil, vanilla and milk and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the hot water and mix until combined.
  5. Transfer the very liquid batter to a large measuring cup and pour batter into each baking cup so that it's about 3/4 full.
  6. Bake cupcakes for 16-18 minutes.
For the frosting:
  1. Beat the shortening in a mixer until smooth.
  2. Add vanilla and mix until combined.
  3. Add the powdered sugar in three additions, scraping down the sides after each addition.
  4. Add a tbsp of milk at a time and mix together until you achieve the consistency you like.
  5. Add the cookie crumbs and mix until completely combined.
  6. Place the frosting in a decorator bag and pipe onto each cupcake as desired. Another option is to mound the frosting just over the cupcake, then dip the top into a bowl of Oreo crumbs to coat.
  7. Insert a cookie (or part of one) on top of each cupcake for decoration.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Bread

This is a great bread to serve to guests. It's beautiful and fairly non-threatening in every way (unless the guest dislikes lemon). I'm not going to lie; it takes a bit of effort to prepare, as is the case with most yeast breads, and this one has the added complication of dough layering. But also like most yeast breads, it's incredibly satisfying to bask in the fruit of your labors.

lemon-scented pull-apart coffee bread

Pull-apart bread seems to be the rage these days, and this is my third attempt at one, though I think it's the first one I've posted about. I've also made cinnamon-sugar and cheese pull-apart bread, both of which were delish... but only after I picked off the top burned bits. The problem I had with all three pull-apart breads -- and this is probably particular to my oven -- is that the tops tended to brown very quickly, which meant that by the end of the required cooking time, the tops were way overdone. Because I'd had the experience with the first two breads, I managed to (mostly) avoid that fate for this lemon one. Still, do check on your bread about halfway through, in case you have an oven like mine. If it already looks nice and golden brown, cover it with foil and let it finish baking.

lemon-scented pull-apart coffee bread

So as I mentioned above, you have to cut squares of dough and stack them in your bread pan, which is what makes the bread "pull apart." It's not difficult to do; it just takes a little bit of extra time.

lemon-scented pull-apart coffee bread

The dough is a fairly sticky dough. As long as you keep your board and hands floured, it should be fine; I did add a bit more flour to the dough itself but kept it pretty sticky. Also, I used all lemon zest rather than lemon and orange. (As you can see from this photo, I still checked on the bread a little too late and the ends came out a lot darker than I might have wanted.)

lemon-scented pull-apart coffee bread

What I wasn't too crazy about though? The cream cheese glaze. It gave the whole thing a nicer, more finished look, but flavor wise didn't add much. Next time I'll either find a different cream cheese glaze recipe to try or just leave it out altogether.

Finally, the recipe source calls this "lemon-scented pull-apart coffee cake." I'm not sure why. It's definitely not a cake. I've opted to call it by a less confusing and more accurate name!

Lemon-Scented Pull-Apart Bread (adapted from Flo Braker)


For the sweet yeast dough
  • About 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp (1 envelope) instant yeast
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 2oz unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the lemon paste pie filling
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 tbsp finely grated lemon zest (3 lemons)
  • 1 tbsp finely grated orange zest
  • 2oz unsalted butter, melted

For the tangy cream cheese icing
  • 3oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp whole milk
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice


Make the sweet yeast dough

  1. Stir together 2 cups of the flour, the sugar, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter over low heat just until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, add the water, and set aside until warm (120 to 130°F), about 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract.
  2. Pour the milk mixture over the flour-yeast mixture. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Attach the bowl to the mixer and fit the mixer with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition just until incorporated. Stop the mixer, add 1/2 cup of the remaining flour, and resume mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth, 30 to 45 seconds. Add 2 more tablespoons flour and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth, soft, and slightly sticky, about 45 seconds.
  3. Sprinkle a work surface with 1 tbsp flour and center the dough on the flour. Knead gently until smooth and no longer sticky, about 1 minute, adding an additional 1 to 2 tbsp flour only if necessary to lessen the stickiness. Place the dough in a large bowl, cover the bowl securely with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place (about 70°F) until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for the next step. While the dough is rising, make the filling.
Make the lemon paste filling
  1. In a small bowl, mix together the sugar and the lemon and orange zests. Set the sandy-wet mixture nearby (the sugar draws out moisture from the zests to create the consistency).
Make the coffee cake
  1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.
  2. Gently deflate the dough. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 20-by-12-inch rectangle. Using a pastry brush, spread the melted butter generously over the dough. Cut the dough crosswise into 5 strips, each about 12 by 4 inches. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tbsp of the zest-sugar mixture over one of the buttered rectangles. Top with a second rectangle and sprinkle it with 1 1/2 tbsp of the zest-sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining dough rectangles and zest-sugar mixture, ending with a stack of 5 rectangles. Work carefully when adding the crumbly zest filling, or it will fall off when you have to lift the stacked pastry later.
  3. Slice the stack crosswise through the 5 layers to create 6 equal strips, each about 4x2 inches. Fit these layered strips into the prepared loaf pan, cut edges up and side by side. (There should be plenty of space on either side of the 6 strips widthwise in the pan, while lengthwise it will be tight. When the dough rises it will fill in that space.) Loosely cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place (70°F) until puffy and almost doubled in size, 30 to 50 minutes. Press the dough gently with a fingertip. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready for baking.
  4. Bake the coffee cake until the top is golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.
Make the tangy cream cheese icing
  1. In a medium bowl, using a rubber spatula, vigorously mix the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Beat in the milk and lemon juice until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
  2. To remove the coffee cake from the pan, tilt and rotate the pan while gently tapping it on a counter to release the cake sides. Invert onto a wire rack, then turn it so that it's right-side up.
  3. Slip a sheet of waxed paper under the rack to catch any drips from the icing. Using a pastry brush, coat the top of the warm cake with the icing to glaze it.
Serve the coffee cake warm or at room temperature. To serve, you can pull apart the layers, or you can cut the cake into 1-inch-thick slices on a slight diagonal with a long, serrated knife. If you decide to cut the cake, don't attempt to cut it until it is almost completely cool.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Homemade Bacon

There has been a lot of experimentation going on in my kitchen, primarily having to do with the new stovetop smoker that I got. It's been a blast. I love smoked food, but am not much of an outdoor griller. I was skeptical that you could produce great results with a stovetop smoker, but I was happily wrong. If you're a smoking purist, then sure, it might not work for you... but for me, it's fantastic!

I made some truly delicious baby back ribs -- twice -- before getting to use the smoker for the purpose for which it'd originally been intended... making homemade bacon. That's right, my friends, that most wonderful of pork products can be made very simply at home. It's a relatively easy process, and you can make it exactly how you like it.

If you like bacon (and really, who doesn't -- I know vegetarians who miss bacon most of all the meat products they've given up), you will LOVE what you make at home. Homemade bacon is insanely good. Not only does it taste better than store-bought bacon, it's also healthier for you because you can cure it without using sodium nitrates. I said healthier, ok. Not healthy. :P

It does require some investment (in a smoker and a meat slicer), but in the end it'll be worth it, if you love bacon and/or consume a lot of it in your house (like many things, it's cheaper to make yourself). In fact, some would say that it doesn't require any investment in special equipment. My personal opinion is that to get bacon that tastes the way I like, a smoker's pretty much required. Smoking is what gives bacon that distinctive flavor. Still, you could just cure the bacon and not smoke it -- that's still bacon (pancetta). As for the meat slicer, the first time I made bacon, I didn't have one. I figured it would be fine -- after all, anyone with a knife can slice a slab of bacon. But as I quickly found out, only a meat slicer can get the bacon into thin, uniform slices that make it, well, bacon.

First you start with these beauties: pork bellies. If you're going to make homemade bacon you might as well make the effort worthwhile! You want about 5 pounds of pork belly.

stacked pork bellies

Make a wet cure, which consists of a 1/4 cup each of packed brown sugar, honey (or maple syrup), and kosher salt. This slightly sweeter cure is good for breakfast bacon. If you want to use sodium nitrate (aka pink salt) for extra protection against botulism, go for it, I won't judge you much. Mix the cure ingredients together until well blended.

cure for homemade bacon

Put the pork bellies into heavy duty freezer Ziploc bags so that they're not stacked on top of each other. (I used 2 bags.) Rub the cure all over the bellies. The cure might seize at first, but as you keep rubbing it will soften and stick to the bellies. Release as much air out of the bags as possible, then seal them. Every other day, flip the bags over so that the curing liquid gets evenly distributed. And yes, there will be liquid. The curing process is basically drawing as much liquid out of the meat as possible so that it will keep. As the days pass, you can check the bellies' firmness... as the water draws out they'll get firmer and firmer. Do this for about 7 days, give or take. They're ready when the bellies feel very firm at the thickest point.

At the end of the 7 days, rinse off all the cure and pat the pork bellies dry with a paper towel. They'll look something like this:

pork bellies after they've been cured

Some would say that at this point, you have bacon. You can slice it and fry it, and I'm sure it would taste pretty dang good. But for me, true bacon requires another step.

Put the cured bellies on a tray and store them in the refrigerator for another half day or so, uncovered. This will help dry off any remaining surface moisture, and the meat will feel tacky when you touch it. This will help the smoke stick.

Prepare your smoker. Smoke the bellies (unstacked, so it might require doing it twice, as mine did) at 200°F for about 2 hours, until a thermometer inserted at the thickest part reads 150°F. Once it's smoked, it might look like this:

slab of smoked bacon

Slice off the skin while it's hot, leaving as much fat on the bacon as possible. (You can make the skin into delicious pork crackling.) Next time I may just leave the skin on. NOW it's bacon. Taste some of it off the side -- it's OK, you've earned it, and it's fully cooked now. You can hand slice it at this point or bust out your meat slicer and make those thin slices. Here was my final haul:

sliced homemade bacon

My bacon wasn't red/pink like supermarket bacon. It looked like cooked pork. That's because in addition to its preservative function, sodium nitrate also gives the meat a nice, attractive red color. And of course, I didn't use that. Once you fry it up, though, it just looks like regular bacon. I like my bacon on the slightly burnt side. :D

strips of homemade bacon

Commercial bacon is pumped full of water, so when you cook it, the bacon shrinks. Homemade bacon shrinks very little, if at all. I froze most of what I made in 'packs' of 8 slices. Although the curing process should make the bacon last a long time, because this bacon doesn't have the preservative power of sodium nitrate it's safer to keep the unused portion frozen. No nitrates... just deliciousness!