Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Chocolate Chip Biscotti

Biscotti are always welcomed with a cup of strong coffee or a steaming cappuccino no matter the time of day.  If I’m at a cafe I look to see what the selections are, and if there is a biscotti flavor combination I’ve never tried before, I get it.  You would think that a bad biscotti is hard to come by, but believe me, it does happen.  There have been several biscotti from certain bakeries which have left me wondering what went wrong.  Don’t even get me started on the ones from the supermarket!  


Making these at home is so simple and so worth one’s while.  A number of flavor combinations can be made to satisfy a craving and, of course, there is always the question of whether one should slice baked biscotti on the thin or thick side.  What about the cookie’s depth?  I’ve seen biscotti that are well over one inch high and yet, I’ve seen those which barely reach half an inch.  Ultimately those decisions are up to the baker and I have no preference.  As long as one uses good ingredients to begin with I don’t mind if the cookies are short, long, tall, thin or thick.  Make them good!

Yes, biscotti are twice-baked and rather dry, so if you’re the type that likes to dunk then there is no problem.  However, if you don’t like to dunk, these cookies can be rather problematic if they’re twice-baked just short of hard granite.  Herein lies the question of how long to bake them the second time they go into the oven.


Let me make it easy for you: Chocolate Chip Biscotti.  This recipe is simple and very delicious so I want all of you to make some this week.  You're going to love them.

Enjoy!  

Chocolate Chip Biscotti Ingredients
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup {115 g.} granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup {115 g.} packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon {15 ml.} pure vanilla extract
  • 4 tablespoons {57 g.} unsalted butter, melted & cooled
  • 3-1/2 cups {535 g.} all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup or 6 oz. {170 g.} mini chocolate chips
Yield: approximately 3-1/2 dozen biscotti

Center an oven rack 
Preheat to 350° F (177°C)

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, granulated sugar, light brown sugar and vanilla extract on medium speed until thickened, 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the melted butter and beat until combined.
  3. In a medium-size bowl, whisk to combine, the all-purpose flour, baking powder and fine sea salt.  Add the ingredients to the egg/sugar mixture on low speed.
  4. On low speed, add the chocolate chips and beat just until combined.  Stop the machine.
  5. Divide the dough in half on top of a silpat-lined or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Using a bench scraper, shape each half into a log approximately 10”L x 2-1/2”W.  I use the bench scraper to create a rectangular log.
  6. Pop the baking sheet in the oven & bake for 30-35 minutes.  The logs will feel set and will be golden in color.
  7. Turn your oven off.  Let biscotti logs cool completely on wire racks.  
  8. When ready, preheat oven to 325° F (163°C).  
  9. Slice each log with a serrated knife into 1/2” slices and place cut side down on lined baking sheets.
  10. Bake for approximately 15 minutes to dry out the biscotti.  The cookies should not take on any color.
  11. Let cool completely.
The cookies can be stored in a cookie jar for up to one week.

Delicious with coffee!


Chocolate chip biscotti are a favorite with my mother in law and I love to eat them whenever she bakes any.  If I don’t happen to be at her home near the shore, then I bake my own.  Of course my biscotti will never get anywhere near the caliber of hers, but nevertheless I feel that these are worthy of any cookie jar.  I've been known to have one or two in the morning with my espresso, but invariably, they're nibbled in the afternoon when I have my tea.  

Have fun making them!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Anticipating Spring

As much as I would like to have lush surroundings right now, I have to be a little patient to allow mother nature to come into full bloom.  I've seen hints of buds, flowers, leaves and other activity out in the landscape during my afternoon walks, and I have to say that I'm absolutely ready for some greenery. It's only a matter of time before everything is transformed and I have a dense canopy of trees, lush shrubs, flowering dogwoods, cherry blossoms and the magnolias to enjoy.  Some of our neighbors have magnificent specimens when it comes to trees and I do look for their transition every single year.  On my drives I'm always observing to see if such & such tree on a particular property or street corner is blooming like it did in years past.  Do you do the same?



More often than not I walk around our trails without a camera, but on certain occasions I do take it with me in order to catalog the way our surroundings are at any given moment.  It's time to show you a bit of spring here in eastern Pennsylvania.  Keep in mind that things still seem a little bleak and bare, but nevertheless you can begin to notice where things are budding, where mother nature has decided to awaken from winter's slumber.

I'm just so grateful that our weather has been cool and somewhat mild, because it's allowed me to spend a lot of time outdoors.  I've been enjoying these daily walks.  Even my cat, Lion, has been going out on supervised walks around the house.  In fact he begs at the front door to go out, because he wants to nibble on the blades of grass like our resident groundhog, Henry.  I can't say that I blame him one bit.

Change is on the horizon and I welcome it!

The days are so nice right now that it's such a pleasure to stand on the back porch.  The glade looking out toward the eastern side of the house is always green, yet every single tree has yet to produce one leaf.  Around this area is where I was gathering my Snowdrops just a few weeks ago.

On the western side of the house we have a hill that is bordered with a good amount of forsythia.  These shrubs are just starting to bud; look closely and you'll see hints of yellow.  When the flowers come out it is absolutely stunning because it seems as if the hill is ablaze in yellow.

The trails near the house are great for afternoon walks (weather permitting) and since the terrain varies greatly from spot to spot, one can get quite a work out by walking them.  On the upper right photograph you can see dozens of shoots from daffodils simply ready to burst.  I can't wait to see the area blanketed by color.  

This past winter I wasn't able to walk the trails because we had large amounts of snow, unfavorable icy conditions and a lot of tree damage.  Now that spring is here I am going to profit from the weather and take my walks for a bit of exercise.

Along this trail just behind our house there is a giant maple tree that was uprooted during a storm.  It came crashing down over the creek, knocking down several smaller trees in the process.  You can't really tell from this photograph, but the diameter of that root system has to be at least 10 feet.

Here are a few more photographs of some of the damage I observed during my walk.  The snow and ice storm that crippled our region toward the end of January brought down many trees and branches.  The top left photo shows you that maple I was talking about (the house is visible up the hill from there).  The other photographs show you hemlocks that either snapped in half or came down completely.  

Several years ago I thought these plants were hostas, but I was completely wrong.  The shoots are Eastern skunk cabbage or Symplocarpus foetidus. I've read that this plant loves wetland conditions, so it's no surprise that many can be found along the muddy banks of the creek.  It's fetid scent attracts bees.

Large areas of pachysandra are common here in the woodland.  It seems to thrive wonderfully where nothing else seems to grow.  The spring house is surrounded by it.

Something else I like to keep an eye out for is verdant blankets of moss. These velvety plants grow in clumps along damp areas such as this runoff from the spring house.  I never disturb the moss, because to me, it adds to the age of the woodland and the property.  

The root system of this beautiful beech tree is covered in moss.  I think it's beautiful!

A very narrow part of the trail that runs along the creek always seems like I'm in the middle of nowhere.  

Here is the natural creek that twists, turns and cuts through the bottom of the valley behind our home.  It's so calming to hear the water running when I'm in this area.

Another favorite spot of mine.  During the summer this part of the trail will completely be engulfed by shrubs and leaves.  

Here I am coming out of the small valley and onto the field.  Again, we had a lot of tree damage in this area.  Luckily, the giant walnut tree is still standing along the bend here.  In a matter of weeks I expect it to be full of leaves.

A patch of trail near that walnut was littered (in a good way) with these small pine cones.  A friend of mine said that they were cypress pine cones.  I find them to be so adorable that I plan to make a wreath from them sometime this year.  

Looking back across the field is always breathtaking no matter what time of year it is.  Yes, I'm patiently anticipating spring's glory.

Underneath this old fence is a robin chirping as happily as can be.  When the robins are out you know it's only a matter of time.  

Some of my friends down South have been sharing their photographs of the landscape where they live, and I have to say that I'm rather envious knowing that their cherry blossoms are already blooming and that their crabapple trees & magnolias are full of gorgeous flowers.  

Patiently I await.


The season does promise change and renewal, so I hope you welcome it just as much as I do.  Easter & Passover are right around the corner, then it's Earth Day and Mother's Day!  Without a doubt there is a lot to do.  Keep your eye out for a cookie recipe that I'll be sharing soon; it's been awhile since I've done so and I promise you it will be delicious.

I hope everyone is having a good start to spring!

David 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Martha by Mail ~ Chicken Cake

One of my favorite cake molds from the former Martha by Mail catalog happens to be in the shape of a chicken.  This two-part mold made of heavy cast-aluminum provides great detail with which to decorate & embellish a most charming cake.  Although every cake mold that was offered through the catalog was supplied with a recipe & decorating card, any number of cake batters can easily be used to create a memorable dessert. 

Chickens are a very popular motif for the home and are therefore appropriate all year long.  One doesn't have to wait for spring or the Easter holiday to partake of a chicken cake, at least in my opinion.  Why not delight a few guests for an intimate luncheon with one of these cakes?  You can pipe various-sized feathers tinted in a number of hues using the lightest of buttercreams or you can use a rich ganache made from high quality chocolate to glaze the cake with great success.  Making one of these cakes using a bit of imagination is half the fun.

I've had the pleasure of making this cake a few times since purchasing the mold & I must say I'm always pleased with the results; it was my birthday cake one year.  The finished cake serves between four to five people, which is why it's so perfect for a small party.  If, however, you want to serve more guests simply bake several of them and decorate each one differently.  Whether you choose to place the sweet little chicken on top of a favorite cake stand or perhaps on an antique pie plate surrounded by a nest (use shredded phyllo dough!), make sure everyone gets to admire it because it is such a lovely cake.  Enjoy! 

Martha by Mail 

"The tradition of molded cakes derives from the ancient Middle-Eastern custom of stamping symbolic designs on holy bread.  By the seventeenth century, Western bakers used special molds to create shaped cakes for holidays.  Every year, Martha decorates a lamb, bunny or chicken cake for her Easter centerpiece.  This curable cast-aluminum mold will last for years.  Use it with our recipes and decorating instructions to create your own annual tradition.  Before using the mold, hand wash in warm soapy water and hand dry; clean the same way after using."


Martha by MailOrange Pound Cake (serves 5)
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for mold
  • 1 cup all purpose flour, plus more for mold
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
Batter may leak out during baking; place the batter-filled mold on a parchment-lined baking pan.

1. Heat oven to 350° F. Place rack in center of oven.  Using a pastry brush, coat both sides of the mold with butter, making sure to cover all areas.  Dust mold with flour, tap out excess and place mold in freezer until ready to fill.

2. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-low speed until lightened, 1 to 2 minutes.  Gradually add the sugar and beat until the sugar has been fully incorporated and the color  has lightened further, 3 to 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl twice. 

3. Gradually add the eggs into the bowl, beating after each addition until batter is no longer slick, but smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl twice.  Beat in the vanilla.

4. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the milk; scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add another third of the flour mixture and the rest of the milk.  Mix until combined, scraping down sides.  Add the remaining flour, followed by the orange zest.  Mix until combined. 

5. Pour all batter into handled half of mold; tap it firmly on a counter to remove bubbles.  Set other half on top, and place complete mold on a parchment-lined baking pan.

6. Bake 30 minutes.  Remove mold from oven, and carefully invert it on baking pan.  Continue baking 30 minutes more, until cake has browned nicely (run a paring knife around the edges of mold to separate, then check underneath the top) and a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean.  Gently remove top half of mold, and set bottom half of mold with cake inside a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Carefully turn out cake, supporting it with your hand.  Stand cake right side up, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  When cool, wrap cake in plastic, and chill until ready to use.


Chicken Cake Mold


Martha by MailSwiss Meringue Buttercream
  • 4 egg whites
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
You can make this icing up to four days in advance and store it in an airtight container, refrigerated, until ready to use.  Before using, bring icing to room temperature and beat again until smooth and fluffy.

1.  Using the whisk attachment, beat egg whites in the heat-proof bowl of an electric mixer until frothy.  Place bowl over pan of simmering water (the bowl should not touch the water), and slowly add the sugar.  Whisk continuously until the mixture is frothy and warm and the sugar has dissolved.  Remove bowl from heat.

2.  Beat mixture on high speed until stiff peaks form.  Continue beating on medium speed until cooled to room temperature.  Set aside.

3.  In a small bowl, beat butter until creamy and fluffy.

4. Working in four additions, add butter to egg whites with the mixer on low speed, beating after each addition until smooth.  Add the vanilla and mix until incorporated.  Use immediately. 




Decorating the Chicken Cake

You will need: Orange Pound Cake baked in the chicken mold; a cake round (available at baking supply stores) or a piece of clean cardboard; Swiss Meringue Buttercream; brown and red gel past food coloring; one 8" and two 12" pastry bags with couplers; #2 round, #67 leaf, and two #69 leaf tips; two 11 by 6 inch pieces of waxed paper; a pastry brush; a small offset spatula; and a serrated knife.


1.  With a serrated knife, trim the bottom of the chilled cake, so it stands upright.  Using a small amount of icing, adhere the cake to a cardboard base of the same size.

2.  Place 1/4 cup icing in each of two medium bowls.  Using food color, make one bowl of icing brown and the other bowl red.  Fill a 12" pastry bag, fitted with a #69 tip, with the red icing.  Fill an 8" bag, fitted with a #2 tip, with brown icing.  Last, fill the other 12" bag, also fitted with a #69 tip with white icing.

3.  Set waxed paper on serving platter;  Overlap pieces by 1/2".  Place cake over the intersection.  Using a small offset spatula, cover cake and base with a thin layer of white icing.  Chill cake until icing is firm, about 30 minutes.

4.  Remove cake from the refrigerator.  Using the red icing for the tail and the white for the body, pipe feathers overlapping each other;  work from tail to head and start at the base of the cake and work up.  The feathers should follow the contours of the cake to better define the shape.  Once you reach the neck, switch the tip on the pastry bag with white icing to the #67 tip to make smaller feathers on and around the head.  Use red icing to pipe a comb and wattle.

5.  Using the brown icing, pipe an eye on either side of the head.  Chill cake until icing is firm, about 1 hour.  Carefully remove waxed paper.  Slice cake from tail forward to serve.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Arranging Snowdrops

Arranging snowdrops is one of the first things I like to do at the start of spring. The small flowers are among my favorite harbingers of the season, followed closely by daffodils and crocuses, so I waste not a single moment to bring a few of them into my home as soon as I spot the clusters of low-lying flowers. I'm not sure why it is the case, but we seem to have a copious amount of snowdrops this year, a sort of bumper crop if you will.  I've even noticed them migrating their way onto the lawns, something which hasn't happened in years past.


After this long winter and heavy snowfall here in our area, I was afraid that our snowdrops were never going to come out, but I was proven wrong.  I'm so glad I was.  Since I have an inordinate amount of these gorgeous flowers right now, I've been treating myself to a few arrangements every few days. Nothing grand or ostentatious mind you, because these tiny flowers require the simplest of vessels for display and nothing else.  

As much as I admire their understated beauty and quiet elegance, it's the subtle fragrance from their buds that really draws me in.  It's nice to be in the middle of a task in my kitchen and then all of a sudden catch a trace of their beguiling aroma when I least expect it.  If you have snowdrops in your yard and bring them indoors then you understand exactly what I'm talking about.

Snowdrop aficionados take note, because this is what I've been enjoying the past few weeks here at home.  

The first order of business is to stake out an area where I can cut the flowers for my arrangements.  The woodland that surrounds our home is so prolific this year and I couldn't be happier.  Either with one of my baskets or a simple bowl in tow, I cut the clusters with a pair of sharp shears and gather as many as I need.  This takes a matter of just a few minutes.  I always make sure to cut from different areas so that I don't leave bare patches.

Even before I walk back into the house I begin to think of what I want to use to show them off.  More often than not, I choose something small.  If I am in the mood for jadeite, I open up one of my cabinets filled with this milky glass and pull out what I want.  If I happen to want something white, I opt for porcelain jugs, custard cups or even a bowl.  Pressed glass pieces are also nice.

Working quickly, I fill a bowl up with cool water and drop my clusters of snowdrops.  Then, I cover my working area with white kitchen towels so that I protect the surfaces from water spills, earth, stray leaves, pollen or even the occasional spider.  I make sure to have a waste bowl nearby so that any trimmings or unwanted pieces of rubbish get tossed out.  My vessels are then filled with cool water.  

If you want to prolong the life of the arrangement I suggest adding flower food to each container, otherwise you can expect the flowers to keep their looks for about 2 days at the most.

For my latest arrangement I chose these Japanese porcelain custard cups. They're the perfect size for my snowdrops.  I never know how many little containers I'm going to need so I make sure to have plenty just in case.

You can see that it's helpful to have not only a waste bowl nearby, but also some kitchen towels.  Debris from the outdoors inevitably gets entangled in the shoots.

Don't you just love how delicate these flowers are?

For snowdrops I do one of two things.  I either remove every single leaf (they resemble blades of grass) or I leave them alone.  On this occasion I decided to keep everything.  

With one bunch gathered in my hand, I measured the stems against my containers and then cut with sharp scissors to have them pop over the rims.

Any extra flowers get used as filler for the arrangements.

That beautiful spice rack of mine always has something adorning the steps.  Snowdrops are perfect for each perch.  You can see that through the years I've either used new or old custard cups and even some pressed glass egg cups.  The flowers always liven things up in the kitchen.

If you don't know it by now, I collect bowls.  I love bowls and for my snowdrops, I think the smaller the bowl the better.  A bowl like this usually requires placing a flower frog at the bottom of the bowl to hold the stems in place.  Whether it's a jadeite bowl, an earthenware bowl or some other type, I prefer to make this type arrangement look lush and abundant.  It's always best to keep the leaves intact when using bowls.   

On this particular day I had one of my McKee jadeite bowls from the 1940s with a large amount of snowdrops, set atop an early American pressed glass cake stand.  

As much as I like the clusters gathered into one bowl, I think smaller arrangements look best. 

Here is a closeup of what the flowers look like.  Rather droopy and a bit downcast, but nevertheless they are gorgeous when gathered in a group like this.  

Moving this arrangement over to one of my cabinets in the office brings the space to life.  

Thankfully my kitty cats leave the snowdrops alone whenever I have them out.  Here is Ms. Kitty sitting next to these by a sunny windowsill.  I think she enjoys their fragrance just as much as I do.

Simple



These elegant beauties are always going to be close to my heart.  The moment I see them out and in full bloom I feel like spring is finally here.  Spring is here to stay isn't it?  As you can see, it's so easy to create nice arrangements with these delicate flowers inside one's home.  You don't need to be an expert florist to make a beautiful presentation.  

My first instinct is to form arrangements in small vessels such as my Fenton pots, custard cups or some other container.  I think it shows off their beauty rather nicely and what's more, if you're having a dinner party, the tiny planters can go down the length of the dining table or get placed at each place setting.  I know of some people who grow snowdrops in small pots indoors, so they need not do a thing to show them off.  However, if you want to make a bolder statement, reach for a bowl that is decorative or special to you and fashion a luxuriant display.  

Happy Spring!