Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies. They are just so delicious. They are my standby dessert, and they are really my favorite cookie. You might like a little variety, say maybe a peanut butter cookie, or an oatmeal raisin, but the one I always come back to is dear old chocolate chip.

I always keep the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies in my pantry, so that I can whip them up at a moments notice. No dessert in the house? Make chocolate chip cookies. Cousins coming to visit tonight? Make chocolate chip cookies. Everyone's grumpy at work? Make chocolate chip cookies. They can say a lot of hellos, thank yous, welcomes, and even sorrys for you.

There are some tricks to making chocolate chip cookies, though. I am sure you've noticed that even though most people use the classic Tollhouse recipe (keep reading), they always come out differently, depending on who makes them, right? Sometimes they don't spread out, and practically remain in the balls they were put onto the cookie sheet as. Sometimes they spread out way too much. Sometimes they are too chewy, sometimes very crunchy, sometimes even taste more like cake than cookie.

Well let's start with the recipe.

* 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
* 3/4 cup granulated sugar
* 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 2 large eggs
* 2 cups (12-oz. pkg.) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels

PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto baking sheets.

BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Seems pretty easy right?

Well here's some things you might want to know about how to make your chocolate chip cookies so good that people will ask you to make them even when you've already made a different dessert.

The first thing is creaming the butter, sugars, and vanilla before the eggs. This step is crucial. Why? If you don't incorporate the butter into the sugar before it gets in with the eggs, the consistency will never be right, and your cookies will spread. (see photo).

This picture is an example of what will occur if you cream the butter, and then throw all the sugars and the eggs in there, and then mix. Or even if you just mix the sugars with the butter for 10 seconds, and then do the eggs.

I think that this is the most important thing that they don't really accentuate in the recipe. So you get past that spot. What else can make your cookies taste a little better?

My trick? Add just a bit more salt than you think. Maybe a quarter tsp more than it says, but I just eyeball it. Salt is very important in chocolate chip cookies, because it really brings out the contrasting flavors. Some people like to half it in the recipe, and then sprinkle some on top, but I feel it is a little unpredictable when you bite into the cookie; you never know how much salt you're going to get.

How about the chocolate chips? I would suggest that you don't use milk chocolate chips. Not only does this make the cookies taste bad (in my opinion they don't give enough contrast of flavor) but more often than not, they won't melt before the cookies are ready to take out of the oven, and thus, it is not a very appetizing cookie. Everyone likes those melty chips in there.

Now, let me get back to the "taking them out of the oven." I feel like this is the part where a lot of people make their mistakes. One thing to know is that the cookies continue to bake on the sheet after they are taken out of the oven. Therefore, you must take them out of the oven at the slightest browning on the top of the cookie. It might not look cooked through, but I promise you that by the time they are ready to be taken off of the cookie sheet, they will be perfect.

This is a picture of the cookies right when they get out of the oven, so you can get an idea of what to look for.

And here is a picture of a cookie that is cooled. Looks much better, right?

They really don't take long to cook; I would certainly check your cookies at 8 minutes and see how they look, especially if you have a convection oven.

So, to wrap up
1. Make sure to cream the butter, then add the sugar, brown sugar and vanilla and beat well before adding any eggs to ensure a good texture.
2. Add a little extra salt into the recipe.
3. Use semi-sweet chips.
4. Watch your cookies closely, and take them out at the first sign of browning at the tops (the edges will brown first, so don't concentrate on them).

Now you can make the perfect cookie, and enjoy them with just 20 minutes notice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pizza at home, from home

I love pizza. I could eat it several times a week and I'd be a very happy woman. But it's bad for you, right? And it can get pretty expensive to order delivery, especially if you want more than one topping--around here it can go for $15 for a large!

I hardly ever order pizza anymore. Now I make quick, delicious, and relatively healthy pizza in my kitchen, for cheap!

I stock up on pre-made refrigerated pizza dough (Trader Joe's has it for $0.99) and keep the bags in the freezer for whenever I want a quick, non-involved meal. A small jar of pizza sauce kept in the fridge will last you for 4-5 pizzas, and just keep a bag of shredded mozzarella in there too (if kept dry this also lasts for months).

Home-made pizza is more flavorful, less greasy than take out, and has a fresher taste, because you can control what you put on it. At one time in my life I had to be on a very strict low-fat diet, and I actually made pizza all the time. A half a cup of mozzarella is 12 grams of fat--if you do light cheese, even better-- and if you choose veggies for toppings, that is virtually all of the fat in the whole pie, less than 2 grams a slice. How can you beat that?

I have made a few mistakes making these pizzas, but I think I've now perfected the art. Here's all you do (including the tidbits I've learned from my mistakes).

1. Take the pizza dough out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you want to start making it. [If you had it in the freezer, put it in the fridge in the morning, and it will be ready by dinner time]. It will soften the dough enough to stretch it into a full sized pizza, but it won't get too gooey, as it would if you left it until it reached room temperature.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. You want to cook pizza at a high temperature and fast. If you keep it at 350 or 375, it will be chewy, cook unevenly, and probably take 45 minutes to make.

3. Slice your toppings and prepare them for the pizza. If using mushrooms (my favorite) don't be afraid to layer them a little bit. They will shrink when cooking. If you are using peppers (or another high-water-content veggie) be sure to space them out and put fewer in the center so when the water leeches out it will not collect and create a pool on your pizza (if you see this happening, just sop it with a paper towel quickly).

4. Stretch dough. I found the keys to doing this are first, to put some flour on your hands so you don't stick to the dough, and second, to keep rotating it so that its own weight pulls it into a round shape. Don't worry if it's not perfectly round. It will taste great all the same. If holes keep getting poked in, use your knuckles, not your fingers, to stretch it.

5. Add sauce, then cheese, then toppings. Or no sauce if you roll that way.

6. Cook about 20 minutes, till crust is brown and cheese has become golden and bubbly.

I like to use a non-stick pizza pan with these neat little venting holes (see photo). They make the crust really nice and crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. It is also super easy to clean.

If you don't have a pizza pan of any kind, don't worry. You can use a cookie sheet. I used one for a whole year when I had an oven that couldn't even fit a pizza pan into it. (I recommend a cookie sheet with sides, just in case anything decides to roll off the side of the pie). Make sure you grease it first, or that beautiful pizza will never make it into your mouth!


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Fish in the Freezer

When my husband goes to the grocery store, I am never quite sure what he'll come back with. He knows that fish is healthy, so one day about six months ago, he bought some frozen orange roughy fillets. I don't know about you, but I have never heard of this fish. I didn't know how to cook it, so there it sat in the back of the freezer. A few days ago, I got up the courage to use it up, mostly because I didn't want it cluttering my already tiny freezer anymore.

I had seen one of Giada's shows on the Food Network for a salmon dish that looked great, and pretty quick to make. I also have an Italian cookbook by Giada, and I think she has a real knack for teaching simple dishes that have a lot of flavor, and making the steps clear. I would recommend her if you'd like to get a little fanicer with your dishes, but you don't want to have to spend hours making them. I adapted her Salmon in Lemon Brodetto with Pea Puree for my orange roughy. The recipe can be found here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/salmon-in-lemon-brodetto-with-pea-puree-recipe/index.html.

It came out wonderfully, and I think that any substantial fish could be used in this dish. After a survey of the Internet for basic information on orange roughy, I decided to marinate it ahead of time in lemon, garlic and a little bit of oil. This really complimented the broth part of the dish, and made the orange roughy less "fishy." I adjusted the cooking time because the orange roughy was much thinner than the average salmon filet, and substituted thinly sliced onions for shallots in the broth.

Typically any time I have to cook fish I throw it in some lemon and dill, and put it in the oven. If you are looking for a new simple fish dish, I highly recommend this. Here are the pitfalls to be aware of before you start.
1. Don't overcook the fish. A few minutes on each side will do (check for light browning).
2. Only flip the fish once if at all possible. This will prevent dryness and prevent the fillet from falling apart.
3. Chop the garlic into four pieces before adding to the food processor to make the puree. If you don't, you'll have large chunks of garlic, and you will have to run it too long, which will make the rest of the puree like soup.
4. Be sure to add the Parmesan to the pea puree after taking it out of the food processor. Do not mix the cheese into the puree in the food processor because the heat of the blade can change the taste of the cheese, which will in turn alter the taste of your whole dish.

Now go and wow them (and yourself)!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The New Pork Chop

Aside from reading the CNN headlines on my homepage, I don't read many news articles. But I do try to read the New York Times dining section whenever I can. This past week, the NYT ran a short article about quickly braising a pair of pork chops for a quick but satisfying meal. (See article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/dining/11appe.html)
It just so happened that I had taken pork out for dinner. I am always looking for new pork chop recipes because I just think they are, on the whole, pretty boring. They are usually tough, and even when brined in salt water, still don't absorb much of the flavor of whatever you cook them with. But they're a change from chicken, and so I keep them in stock.

I read this article and thought it seemed simple enough, though I had never braised a thing before. And after doing this, I will definitely be braising many a pork chop in the future. Now, my braise didn't come out as brilliant looking as the perfectly crafted chop in the article. I made my own version of the sauce, and used boneless pork chops, which worked just fine (though on-the-bone would create impart a deeper pork flavor in the meat). I eliminated the anchovies because, honestly, who has anchovies just sitting on hand? To make this an everyday meal, I used garlic, canned tomatoes, chicken broth, and dried rosemary along with some salt and pepper.

Once braising the chops was finished, I skimmed the fat off the remaining sauce, and reserved a little of that fat, mixing it with cornstarch to make a roux. Then I heated the leftover braising liquid, added the roux, and let it reduce for another 2 minutes more. It was delicious. And I had even partially made up my own recipe.

I did make a few mistakes though. Here are the things to be aware of when preparing this dish (or any quick braise really):
1. Make sure the pan for browning the meat is nice and hot and that the meat is dry on the outside. This will create that sweet caramelization on the outside that looks and tastes great.
2. Put enough braising liquid that reaches about half way up the meat. If you go too much further, the liquid won't reduce enough. It will still taste good, but just won't look as good.
3. Don't let the liquid run out either! Check it every so often so the pan does not scortch.

Bring on those pork chops.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Cake

I confess: I make box cakes. They are easy, and I have to say, they taste really good, don't they? They are nice and light, and take about 5 minutes to put everything together and get in the oven. I once made a carrot cake from scratch, which turned out quite nice, but other than that, Friday night was my first try at a scratch cake.

I am enrolled in a cake decorating class, and for the second session, we had to come to class with a frosted cake, and three extra batches of buttercream frosting in different consistencies. "No problem," I thought, figuring I would whip up those icings while the cake was baking, and it would take me about an hour and a half tops.

Think again.

I finally selected a cake recipe from Bon Appetit online for simple white cake layers. Reviewers rated it positively, and so I set to work. It called for 6 egg whites. I didn't want to use six real egg whites because, well, what the heck am I going to do with 6 egg yolks except give myself a heart attack? Thankfully, for this class we had to buy meringue powder, which can be substituted, with water, for egg whites in recipes.

I make the recipe, following the directions. I finish, and the batter is thick; when the recipe says pour into the pan, I have to scrape it in there. I knew it wasn't right, but where did I go wrong? The recipe had like 6 ingredients.

I had committed cardinal baking sin number one: not reading the directions carefully.

On the meringue powder it had said 1 egg white = 2 tsp powder + 2 Tbsp water. Wait, TBSP of water?! I had put teaspoons.

Well that batch was a waste. I am the type of person that is always in a rush, and when baking, that is not a good mix. I will remember this next time. Before you make something. Read the recipe; twice. (I might even say three times).

The buttercream icings were fairly simple. 1 stick of butter, 1/2 c of shortening, 1 tsp vanilla and 4 c confectionary sugar. Mix this together, and add milk to get to your desired consistency.

When I tried to ice my cake, I saw that it had tons of lines and lumps in it, even though I used a cake icing tip (supposedly this will produce smooth lines every time). But the problem was that my icing was too thick. I should have thinned it down with more milk or water, but half the cake was frosted by then.

My teacher did give a fix for this in the next class. If your cake looks like mine after you frost it, and you wish it was smooth like fondant, wait 20 minutes, put some water on your spatula, and smooth it.

I have posted my first and second cakes. You can see how much improvement there is--this is just one week! Learning from your mistakes is crucial. Here are some of mine that you can learn from.

1. Read the directions, twice. I cannot stress this enough. In baking, the amounts and the order the ingredients go in is crucial. This is what caused me to have to throw out an entire recipe of cake, and all the money I spent on ingredients.
2. When you are putting the powdered sugar in the mixer for the icing, make sure it is as level as you can get it, because if it is a mountain on one side, it will shoot out over the edge, making a big mess in your kitchen. If you have one of those covers that fits over your bowl, even better.
3. Make sure your frosting is thin, meaning very easily spreadable (the peaks in the icing should be droopy). This will prevent the lines. If you can't get rid of them, wait 20 minutes, wet your spatula, and smooth them out. [This cannot be done after a few hours, the icing will be too hard].
4. Do not touch the cake with the spatula when frosting. This is what causes crumb spreading. Spatula touches icing, icing touches cake. You will probably need to use more icing than you think.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Everyone makes mistakes

I am not a food connoisseur. Don't get me wrong; I like food too much for my own good. My mother is an excellent cook. She can make anything well, and my fondest memories of my childhood are sitting across from her at the kitchen counter watching her make incredible pies and pastas out of what seemed like nothing. I taste-tested everything--two or three times.

When I got older, I thought I'd try my hand at it. But no matter what I did I could not make anything like hers. I made rice crispy treats that were so stiff my brothers could stand on them. I put so much "Montreal Chicken Seasoning" on the swordfish (don't even ask me why I thought that was a good idea) that best friend choked on it. My cookies spread, my ravioli ripped open, and even my sandwiches were soggy.

This blog catologs the chronicles of how I finally figured out how to make edible things, and my current journey making some quite tasty things (and plenty of problems that I still encounter)!

The rule I try to follow is that when food gets wrecked there is a reason for it; find out what that reason was so you don't do it again. If you don't know how it got like that, then you can't make it better next time. I'll post my mistakes (so you can learn from them without wasting all those ingredients), my advice, and successes, however small!