25 April 2011

Bun Love

Lightly spiced Hot Cross Buns with orange juice-infused icing. Good morning to me.

Wow. This post is late. Really late. Easter was yesterday. I made these buns Saturday afternoon, with all good intentions of posting that night. But, as it often does, life got in the way. Specifically, a malfunctioning computer keyboard got in the way.

But here we are at last. All systems are go. Save this recipe for next Easter, if you must, or make any old time. There's no good reason Hot Cross Buns can't be enjoyed year-round.

I've always thought of Hot Cross Buns as old-fashioned, and rightfully so. An Easter tradition, bakers have been making them for centuries. In my mother's house, when I was a child, the buns were store-bought. My mom was busy making a gigantic coconut cake in the shape of a rabbit, hiding eggs and baskets, and preparing an elaborate Easter dinner with lamb (or ham). Who had time to bake buns?

Well, I have time now. My Easter doings are minimal. There are no children about. No egg hunts. No elaborate dinners to prepare. No church. 

Over Easter weekend, I cleaned the house, walked with a friend, helped set up the badminton net, and thought about my mom. She died six years ago, a few days after Easter. I thought about the last meal she and I shared, Easter dinner (not knowing it would be our last). As it turned out, my mom didn't want lamb. Or ham. Or fancy brunch. She was craving eggplant parmesan, so we had that.

But that's another post, for another day. Back to the bun-age: lightly spiced and spotted with currants or raisins, Hot Cross Buns are a perfect brunch bun, coffee-talk bun, random walk-by-the-kitchen-and-feel-like-a-nosh bun. Really, they are good anytime.

I prefer my buns warm, though. If you're faced with day-old buns, wrap them in aluminum foil and pop them in a warm oven for a few minutes.


Hot Cross Buns
(for Easter, for anytime)

1 package (1 ounce) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup lukewarm water
3/4 cup lukewarm whole milk
3-3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon clove
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon orange zest, optional
1 cup currants or raisins
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon orange juice

In large bowl, thoroughly mix yeast with milk, water, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 cup of the flour. Set bowl in a warm place for a few minutes to get the yeast working. (I placed mine in a warm oven.) Mixture will become frothy.

Once the mixture is sponge-like, mix in 1/4 cup sugar, melted butter, salt and spices. Beat in eggs and vanilla.

Stir in currants (or raisins) and orange zest.

Add remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon until a soft dough is formed.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny, about 10 minutes (or knead using a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook on low speed for about 4-5 minutes).

Place dough in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough (my favorite part) and knead for a minute or two.

Roll or shape/pat dough into a rectangle. Cut dough into 18 squares.

Place dough squares on greased baking sheet, evenly spaced, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When dough buns have doubled in size (after about 45 minutes), slash each bun with a cross using a sharp knife.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat egg yolk with water to make a wash.

Remove buns from oven. Brush with egg wash. Return to oven and bake another 10-12 minutes until golden brown.

Transfer buns to wire rack to cool. 

Mix confectioners' sugar with OJ to make icing. Ice buns, following the lines of the cross.

Eat 'em up.

17 April 2011

Forget perfection. We want cake.

Old-fashioned Milk Chocolate Layer Cake liberally and imperfectly frosted 
with rich-yet-mellow Chocolate Buttercream.

This cake, in all its humble glory, is my gift to someone I love on his birthday. 

This cake is not about being a show-stopper.

This cake looks — and more importantly, tastes — like a cake. It does not look like a truck. Or a plane. Or a skyscraper. Or a stadium.

And therefore, this cake is not filled with or supported by non-cake-like elements popular on cake-decorating TV programs: PVC pipe, wooden dowels, rice-krispie-treat mounds and edible clay worked into any number of shapes in the sweaty palms of the competitors.

No, this cake is honest-to-goodness cake — made with butter, sugar, milk, chocolate, eggs and flour. And more chocolate. And more butter. Its layers are slightly uneven and the frost job is generous and imperfect.

In other words, this is how cake should be. In my book, anyway.

Milk Chocolate Layer Cake with Chocolate Buttercream
for the cake:
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 tablespoons water
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs, separated
1 cup whole milk
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
cocoa powder for dusting pans
for the buttercream:
7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted (I used a combination of bittersweet and semisweet.)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks butter, softened)
3 cups confectioners' sugar
splash of vanilla
3-5 tablespoons whole milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease two 8-inch layer cake pans; dust pans with cocoa powder. Set pans aside.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Set aside.

Combine 3 tablespoons water with unsweetened chocolate and microwave until melted. Be careful not to burn. (I microwave for about 15 seconds a clip and give chocolate a good stir every time I check the bowl.) Once melted, set chocolate aside.

Cream butter and granulated sugar in bowl of stand mixer for 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat 4 egg WHITES in separate bowl until fluffy white clouds. Set whites aside.

Add vanilla and 4 egg yolks to bowl with butter/sugar, mixing to combine. Stir in melted chocolate.

Add flour mixture to the party alternately with milk, mixing to combine.

Fold beaten egg whites into batter until thoroughly combined.

Pour batter into prepared layer cake pans and bake in preheated oven for 45-50 minutes. Cakes are done when sides pull away from edge of pans and cake tester (or toothpick) comes out clean after inserted into center of cake.

Place cakes (still in their pans) on wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Then invert cakes onto rack and let cool completely before frosting.

For the Chocolate Buttercream:
Beat softened butter with confectioners' sugar for at least 5 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl every so often.

Add vanilla, melted chocolate and milk (a tablespoon or two at a time — honestly, I didn't measure) and continue beating (like you mean it) — and continuously scraping down sides of bowl to catch any globular goodness — until you have a fluffy, spreadable, super-delicious buttercream.

Frosting the layers:
Lay 4 strips of parchment paper or aluminum foil on cake plate, where the edges of the first cake layer will rest. (You will remove these strips post-frosting.)

Place one cake layer atop strips.

Dollop a modest scoop of buttercream onto the layer, frosting in broad strokes to seal up any wayward crumb-age, then dollop a a generous scoop and liberally frost layer.

Place second cake layer atop first. Frost the top generously before frosting the sides of the cake. Don't be stingy. Use all the buttercream to adorn the cake, swirling in carefree strokes as you go. (Again, this cake is not about perfection. The layers are not perfectly even, and the frosting shouldn't be, either.)

Remove the strips of parchment.

Gobble up a slice of moist perfection with a tall, icy glass of milk.

11 April 2011

Doin' the Doodle

Cookie of the Week: Installment 4 
Cinnamon-sugary Snickerdoodles with a hint of nutmeg.

I hesitated before embarking on my Cookie of the Week series, mostly because I rightly suspected that I would screw up the rotation. This Cookie of the Week post is evidence of that — it is about five days late — but I hope you find it worth the wait.

For its name alone, the Snickerdoodle is one of my favorite cookies. But there is more to this cookie than a cool, goofy name. Snickerdoodles have history. They are a cookie jar classic. Some say their roots can be traced back to Germany (to the "schneckennudeln," or snail dumpling). Hmmmm. I prefer Snickerdoodle to snail dumpling. ... Anyway, they are the first cookies I learned to bake in my mother's kitchen, and they quickly became my go-to cookies (the ingredient list is short and simple, and the goods are always on hand).

Snickerdoodles are basically sugar cookies that take a tumble in cinnamon sugar before hitting the oven. I add nutmeg to the dough to further add to that homey, big-hug, old-fashioned sugar cookie taste.

Snickerdoodle dough balls: post-cinnamon sugar tumble.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt
cinnamon sugar mixture (for rolling dough balls — I used a couple of tablespoons of sugar and a couple of teaspoons of ground cinnamon)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In small bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. 

Mix in eggs and vanilla.

Add flour combo and mix until thoroughly combined.

Scoop dough by tablespoonfuls (or use a handy 1 1/4-inch scoop, like I did), form into balls and roll in cinnamon sugar mixture. 

Place balls on ungreased, cool-to-the-touch cookie sheets.

Bake in preheated oven for 10-12 minutes.

Leave cookies on sheets to cool for about a minute before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

(Note: I ended up with about 2 1/2 dozen cookies, but my scoops tend to lean toward the fat and full. Feel free to make them a bit smaller if you're looking for greater yield.)