During this time of year, the air is brisk, and I’m even geekier than usual. While the former change is due to the oddities of the Earth’s orbit, the latter change is mostly due to my yearly experiments in thermodynamics, chemistry, and biology. Yes, this is when I endeavor to follow in the footsteps of the illustrious Doctor Jekyll, by mixing ingredients and consuming the results myself. That’s right — I get to do some of the holiday baking!
One of my favorite parts of the process is after the baking when I look into a little thing called quality control. If you’re unfamiliar with the geek definition of quality control, it is the act of tasting the result of your experiments in such a way as to “taste” as much as humanly possible without having to bake another batch. It’s a fine line, which, unfortunately, I have repeatedly crossed. (I’ve learned the hard way that lies such as “The recipe really only makes six cookies!” never hold up under scrutiny.)
I am sharing the recipes for my three favorite desserts to make during the holidays. All of these recipes are posted with permission from King Arthur Flour and are also available on the company’s Web site. Many of the ingredients (including the strange ones) are available for sale on the King Arthur Flour site or from their catalog.
These Lemon Squares are a perfect example of how baking is more chemistry than art. And, this recipe is a wonderful example of an algorithm; each and every time I use this recipe, I get the same results — as long as I remember to always eat the same number of cookies as quality control.
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) butter
1 cup (4 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) confectioners’ sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup (4 ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) lemon juice
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
a pinch of salt
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Cut the butter into the flour and confectioners’ sugar and press into a 9-inch square pan. Bake 20 minutes or until light brown.
Combine the topping ingredients. When the bottom is done, and still hot, pour the topping over it and continue baking for about 25 minutes.
Sprinkle top with confectioners’ sugar.
Ah, there’s nothing like the smell of baking cookies is there? That especially true in the case of Princess Melt-Aways, but not in a good way. In this cookie, the leavening is baker’s ammonia, which is also known as ammonium carbonate, or by it’s archaic name, salt of hart’s horn. Yeah, hart’s horn, as in deer antler. Regardless of what you call it, baker’s ammonia makes for not only a crisp cookie, but it also reeks of ammonia while baking. However, the finished cookie retains none of the smell and tastes like a delicious cookie.
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) margarine or butter
1 cup (6 1/2 ounces) shortening
2 teaspoons baker’s ammonia
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
2 1/2 cups (10 5/8 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 cup (3 ounces) shredded sweetened coconut
Mix all of the ingredients in the order given; the dough will be stiff and crumbly. Roll into 1-inch balls, and bake on ungreased cookie sheets in a preheated 325°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven, cool them completely on a wire rack, and sift powdered sugar over them. Yield: about 65 cookies.
My tip: I suggest making bite-sized cookies because these goodies loose all structural integrity when you take the first bite — unless you or your guests want to wear these cookies (which depending on the guest might not be a bad idea).
I’ve heard it said that food is life; well, in the case of one of the ingredients of this cake, food is alive in the form of sourdough. Now don’t expect a pseudopod rising from the bowl, blindly grasping for ingredients, although it would make baking easier and far more entertaining, and you’d hear comments like, “The cake practically bakes itself” and “Has anyone seen the cat?” Sigh. Anyway, it’s an easy formula, though somewhat time consuming.
1 cup “fed” sourdough starter
1 cup milk (whole milk or 2% preferred) or evaporated milk
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 cup natural cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional
2 large eggs
6 cups confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup butter
1/2 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 tablespoon + 1 1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 tablespoon hot water
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon corn syrup
Combine the “fed” starter, milk, and flour in a large mixing bowl. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours. It won’t necessarily bubble, but it may have expanded a bit.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9″ x 13″ pan.
In a separate bowl, beat together the sugar, oil, vanilla, salt, baking soda, cocoa. and espresso powder. The mixture will be grainy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Gently combine the chocolate mixture with the starter-flour-milk mixture, stirring till smooth. This will be a gloppy process at first, but the batter will smooth out as you continue to beat gently.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake the cake for 30 to 40 minutes, until it springs back when lightly pressed in the center, and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
Remove the cake from the oven, and set it on a rack to cool while you make the icing.
Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a large mixing bowl, and set it aside.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter and add the buttermilk or yogurt. Dissolve the espresso powder in the hot water, add to the pan, and bring the mixture just to a boil.
Immediately pour the simmering liquid over the confectioners’ sugar in the bowl, and beat till smooth.
Pour the warm frosting over the cake. If you wait too long and the frosting stiffens up, spread it over the cake.
Combine the chocolate chips, milk, and corn syrup in a microwave-safe cup. Microwave till the chips soften, then stir till smooth.
Drizzle/drip the chocolate over the icing. You can do this while the icing is still warm, or wait till it’s cooled.
The joys of holiday baking
While these aren’t the normal types of algorithms that I follow in my geeky life, I find baking relaxing; it’s also a complete departure from my childhood because, while other families baked for the holidays, my family ate prehistoric cookies from a tin. Now, whenever someone says that the holidays aren’t what they used to be, I just smile and look forward to dessert.
What are your favorite desserts to bake during the holidays? Or are you strictly on the quality control committee?