Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Amaretto Cream Cheese Frosting

This cream cheese frosting was originally flavored with vanilla, but it works pretty well with amaretto liqueur.  When I used to make this I'd just pour the amaretto in and flavor it to taste.  Today I thought it was time to nail down a quantity of liqueur for an actual recipe.

There is nothing worse than the frosting on a supermarket cake.  It's way too sweet with a crunchy texture, usually gross.  I much prefer cream cheese frosting.  The texture is much smoother and I just like the taste better.

I first made this frosting for some cupcakes I made for a friend's birthday, and I'm not sure where the inspiration came from to use amaretto liqueur as flavor.  It could just be that I find amaretto delicious, but I'm sure I've had some dessert somewhere that used it for flavor.  So a year or two ago I found a recipe for cream cheese frosting, and instead of using vanilla I used amaretto.  I've never measured the amount of amaretto; I always just poured a little at a time and tasted as I went.  Amaretto is made from almonds or apricot pits, and is a good after dinner drink.  The name comes from "amaro," meaning "bitter" in Italian.  The liqueur isn't bitter, however, it is sweet and delicious.

My ingredients

Amaretto Cream Cheese Frosting

1 stick (8 tablespoons) of butter
8oz cream cheese
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup amaretto liqueur (approximately)

After all that talk about measuring I still say approximately 1/4 cup of amaretto.  I did 1/4 cup and a little splash.  Just a quick little extra pour for good luck.

Leave the butter and the cream cheese out for an hour or so to get to room temperature.  I used the trusty ol' KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer KSM150PS - Contour Silver - KitchenAid (Google Affiliate Ad) with the whisk attachment to beat them together at medium speed.  I had to stop the mixer a few times to scrape the butter and cream cheese out of the whisk to ensure they mixed together completely.

Mixing the butter and cream cheese
When the butter and cream cheese are mixed and creamy, I add the powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time.  I do this in part so that I don't have to wash the 1 cup measure as well as the 1/2 cup (to achieve 2 1/2 cups), and also because last time I used the cup measure I accidentally dropped it into the mixing bowl while the mixer was running.  The mixer smashed it.  I was able to suppress the urge to try to grab it out  before it was destroyed and turned the machine off instead.  The mixer is a powerful tool; even if you're going to destroy the food don't put your hands or any utensils in while it's running!  When my cousin was young he was scraping down the sides while the machine was running and it pulled his fingers in.  Fortunately my aunt turned the machine off as soon as she saw what was happening so he wasn't seriously injured.

The frosting stays creamy after the sugar is added, and at this point I took a few spoonfuls of icing and set them aside.  I will color this frosting and use it to write a message on the cake for our baby, although of course he can't read yet.  I have a Betty Crocker Decorating Kit that has several squeeze tubes for decorating cakes, cookies, or whatever else you'd want to decorate with frosting.

Lucas wanted to know what I was making
I added about 1/4 cup of amaretto liqueur to the mixing bowl and mixed at low speed until the alcohol was blended in.  The frosting never gets cooked, so the alcohol never cooks off as it does in some recipes.  You might be asking, why would I give a 6 month old child frosting that contains alcohol?  Well, I'm not planning on giving any cake to the baby.  6 month old babies shouldn't eat cake.

The problem with decorating a cake is that you want to add a design or message using bright colors, but food coloring is nasty, nasty stuff.  There are lots of types of candy out there that contain Red 40, and I can taste it when I eat those candies.  Red 40 is delicious.  The problem is, it and many other artificial food colorings can lead to all sorts of health problems.  The additive is approved by the FDA, so it probably hasn't been proven to directly cause any of these ailments, but proving something like that is a complicated and expensive proposition.  There is, however, a correlation between artificial colors and cancer and chromosomal damage and asthma and an endless list of health problems.  This website, Food Dyes: Some Health Effects, lists some of them.  It's worth reading, but to cut all artificial colors out of your diet requires some serious commitment on your part.  While it may take large quantities of these chemicals or prolonged exposure to cause the sicknesses listed on the website, things can add up quickly.  A little in your food, a little in your drinking water, a little absorbed through the skin, a little in the air we breathe, and pretty soon we have a whole cocktail of chemicals swimming in our bodies.  Ingesting these chemicals can have serious repercussions for children which may not manifest themselves later in life, but I've done enough preaching for one recipe, you get the idea.

The best way to get the colors you want is, imagine this, from food!  You may not get the unnaturally bright reds and greens and blues you're looking for, but with a little experimentation you can come close.  I've read about a few different options like beet juice, carrot juice, kale juice, spinach juice, and a few others that I'll explore more later.  Here's a fun website called Our Homemade Happiness that's all about doing things naturally (and at home).  It's worth checking out, lots of great ideas.  For now I'm using some blackberry syrup my mother-in-law made.  It was supposed to be jam but it didn't solidify really, so we use it as syrup.  It works well for purple, and gives a little blackberry flavor to the frosting.

Adding blackberry syrup

The frosting mixed with blackberry syrup
I added a little bit of the blackberry syrup at a time until the extra frosting had a dark enough purple, then poured the purple frosting into the decorating tool.  I put it into the refrigerator because if you try to decorate with frosting that's close to room temperature it won't stay where you want it; it'll run all over the place.  By the time the cake is frosted the colored frosting will probably be cold enough that you can write a message or add flowers or trim or whatever you like.  And don't worry if you make mistakes, they add character to the cake and of course a homemade cake always scores a few points over a store-bought cake because of the love and care that goes into making it.

All it needs are candles that spell "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" and it's ready to eat!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies!  Oats are a whole grain and are very good for you, so why not make them into something bad for you by adding butter and sugar?  They are delicious, and probably not as bad for you as most other varieties of cookie.

I've made chocolate chip cookies countless times, but to the best of my recollection I've never made oatmeal raisin cookies.  There are lots of recipes available online, but I chose this Quaker Oats recipe for a few reasons.  First, it uses twice as much oats as flour.  The point of making oatmeal cookies is to make them out of oats, and many of the recipes I found used more flour than oats.  Second, the recipe only uses 1 1/4 cups of sugar overall.  Some recipes used a cup each of white and brown sugar.  Finally, because when one thinks of a brand of oats, one normally thinks of Quaker Oats, and chances are the recipe they've come up with is a good one.  That last reason is a bit lame; I probably chose their recipe because over the years I've been brainwashed by their advertisements.  But the cookies are delicious, and I know Wilford Brimley would want me to use this recipe (see the bottom of this post for Wilford Brimley).

The thing is, I used the Quaker Oats recipe but I used Country Choice brand old fashioned organic oats.  They're the ones sold at Trader Joe's.  Apart from the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and baking soda, all the ingredients came from Trader Joe's, and almost all are organic.  

I always give this advice when using a recipe from the internet: download a copy of the recipe as a PDF immediately.  It's happened to me several times that I've found a recipe I really like and it comes out great, then when I try to make it again I'm not sure where I got the recipe.  Or the website no longer exists.  For a little while now I've been saving all my recipe PDFs to a folder on my computer so I'll have them no matter what, even when I don't have an internet connection.  Each browser has a different way of doing this, so I can't tell you exactly how to do this on your computer, but I'm sure google can tell you how.  

This is another recipe that lent itself well to our KitchenAid stand mixer.  I used the beater attachment because it does well with chunky ingredients like oats and raisins.  I followed the recipe almost exactly as it's stated on the Quaker website.  I combined the softened butter and sugars in the mixer, then added the eggs and vanilla.  

After mixing the sugar and butter

Sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla

The recipe says to beat the sugar and butter together until creamy, but after a couple of minutes at medium speed it didn't seem very creamy.  I wasn't worried; a good oatmeal cookie isn't completely homogenous.  The batter got much creamier after adding the eggs and vanilla.  

I put the flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon in a small bowl and gave it a quick stir before adding to the mixing bowl.  It was hard to get one teaspoon of cinnamon exactly, because I had to remove the shaker top from the jar of cinnamon.  I could have used a knife to level the teaspoon, but I decided to just wing it and err on the side of slightly more cinnamon than the recipe called for.  It wasn't a heaping teaspoon, but it was more than one teaspoon of cinnamon.

I added the bowl of dry ingredients slowly with the mixer on a low speed, then added the oats.  I didn't want to over mix, because I didn't want the oats to break down and blend too much with the batter.  Finally, I added the raisins and mixed until they were evenly distributed.  Occasionally I had to stop the mixer to scrape the ingredients off the beater attachment to ensure they all made it into the batter.  

Before the raisins

As with the chocolate chip cookies, I didn't preheat the oven to 350° until the dough was ready and then began to form the dough on the cookie sheets.  The recipe on the website always begins with preheating the oven, and it usually finishes preheating well before I'm ready to put the food in the oven.  We have three cookie sheets, and I formed exactly three dozen cookies from the batter.

Ready to go in the oven
The recipe says to bake for 8-10 minutes, but after 8 minutes the cookies weren't ready yet.  After 10 minutes they still weren't ready.  I gave the cookies another minute or two and they didn't seem ready, but I pulled them out.  They were only slightly browned around the edges and on top, but I removed the cookies from the oven.  It turned out for the best, because they came out perfect.  The cookies were all done to different levels, but each was in the oven around 11-12 minutes and none were burned.  The cookies came out great!  Good flavor, nice and soft, this recipe was a winner.

Only slightly browned
Browned slightly more than the other batches

In parting, here's a Quaker Oats commercial with Wilford Brimley:

Monday, September 3, 2012

Seeded White and Whole Wheat Bread

My latest attempt to make delicious whole wheat seedy bread was a success.  I used a mix of white and white whole wheat flour, and added oats and more seeds to make it airier and give it more flavor.  I'm still refining the recipe, but my wife and I think it's a winner.

I'm still chasing that delicious bread we had on vacation in July, and while the White Whole Wheat Sunflower Seed Bread came out pretty good I'm trying to get a fluffier, airier bread with a crunchy, flavorful crust.  I'm going to do three things differently; I'm using white flour along with the white whole wheat flour, adding more seeds to the dough, and using water to better stick the seeds to the crust.

In two years I've hardly touched the sesame
seeds; today I used half the bottle

I've decided to add whole golden roasted flax seeds, old fashioned oats, and sesame seeds to the sunflower seeds the recipe calls for.  I added 1/4 cup of each of the flax seeds and oats, and about 1/8 of a cup of sesame seeds.  I was going to use 1/4 of a cup of sesame seeds but it seemed like too much, so I just estimated half of the 1/4 cup measure and added them all to the dough when the recipe instructs you to add 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds.

After 30 minutes the sponge
has puffed up quite a bit
The recipe calls for making a sponge, or a starter to activate the yeast.  The sponge is made with all the ingredients but only 1 1/2 cups of flour, then left to rise for 30 minutes.  I decided to use white flour for this portion of the recipe, and use the white whole wheat flour for the remaining 2 cups of flour in the recipe.

When I tried this recipe the first time (found here), I had a hard time keeping the seeds on the crust of the bread.  There were several different methods I found online for sticking the seeds to the bread, but this discussion on thefreshloaf.com was most useful to me.  One person suggested using an egg wash, which would definitely stick the seeds on there but somehow doesn't seem right to me.  It gives the crust a shine that is perfect for a sweet bread like challah or zopf, but I don't think the bread I'm trying to duplicate had a shiny crust.  Some recommended using egg whites, a little water, and a pinch of salt, but this would give the bread the same shiny crust.  I decided in the end just to spray the bread with water then sprinkle it with seeds right before baking in the oven.

Pouring the seeds for the crust
For the seeded coating I mixed sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and sesame seeds in a 1/2 cup measure.  I meant to add some of the oats to the outside as well but when the time came, I forgot.  Then when I started pouring the seed I realized I had prepared too much, but it was too late to anything about it really, and I decided to go for broke and pour it all.  For the sides I put my hand next to the bread to keep the seeds from bouncing off and going everywhere; some were lost but a lot stayed on.  This is going to be some seedy bread.

Just before going into the oven
I tried to touch the loaf as little as possible before putting it into the oven, so I didn't push the seeds into the outside of the bread.  I didn't want to compress it at all for fear of losing the airiness given off by the yeast.  When I picked it up from the above cutting board to put in the oven my fingers left indentations in the bread, but in the course of baking they disappeared.  I followed the adjusted cooking time and temperature and steamed the bread to create a crunchy crust like I did with the Sunflower Seed Bread and on the Forno Bravo website.

Fresh out of the oven
Letting the butter melt a bit
before rubbing it into the crust

The bread came out good, better I think than the Sunflower Seed Bread, but still not as airy as the bread I'm trying to make.  I wonder if I should give it even more than the close to three hours it had to rise, like overnight perhaps.  But I did enjoy it more than the Sunflower Seed Bread; the extra seeds gave it a nuttier flavor and it was great with just butter or with honey.  My wife thinks it's the best one yet and that it would be really good for sandwiches, but next time I won't use any white flour.  It didn't seem to make the bread fluffier at all, so there was no real benefit but a loss of fiber and nutrients.  I think the most important thing for next time is to let the bread rise overnight, but at least it does keep improving.

Ready to eat