Tag Archives: baking

Hip to Be Square

Snap, crackle, pop

On the rare occasion that I do go to a coffee shop for some joe, I’m often tempted to pick up a crispy rice square to go along with it, but two things usually deter me. 1) The fact that shops usually charge as much as $2 per square, which seems way overpriced for something you could make at home for a fraction of that, and 2) the fact that they usually don’t taste very good after sitting in a pastry case for, hell, I don’t know, a half day?

This morning, I was jonesing for some crispy rice squares to go with my morning coffee. I thought about attempting fellow blogger Foodie on the 49th’s insanely delicious-looking bacon, peanut butter and chocolate Rice Krispy treats, but I didn’t have any bacon or chocolate on hand. So, I turned to my trusty copy of Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery, for inspiration, and found a recipe for Brown-Butter Crispy Rice treats. Brown butter? Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Yes, please!

Brown butter, or beurre noisette, is that extraordinary ingredient that lends a certain je ne sais quoi to pastries and sauces. Rich and aromatic, this butter is definitely one to add to your cooking repertoire. I first discovered the wonder that is brown butter in this Epicurious recipe for Spoon Cookies, which are basically shortbread cookies, and was immediately smitten. It’s like magic–one moment, you have an ordinary stick of unsalted butter, and the next, you’ve struck culinary gold.

As the pan heats up over low heat, the butter separates and the milk solids sink to the bottom of the pan and turn a lovely hazelnut color. And the smell! Oh, the smell is to die for. It’s what I would imagine inhaling nutty toffee cocaine would be like, and I think it must put my pituitary gland’s endorphin production into overdrive because I am always in the BEST mood after making a batch of beurre noisette.

Anyway, I digress. On to the good stuff. I’ve adapted this recipe from the Flour recipe book, since I wanted to try a little something extra to go along with it. And yes, I could have just called them “Brown Butter Crispy Rice Squares,” but Frenchifying phrases seems to make everything sound/taste better.

Beurre Noisette Crispy Rice Squares

1 stick unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 tsp. vanilla powder
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 16-ounce bag of large marshmallows
9 cups crispy rice cereal

1) Butter a 9 inch by 13 inch baking pan and set aside.

2) Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over low heat.

3) Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pod** and mix in with the butter.

4) Keep a close eye on the butter. At first, the butter will foam up, and then the foam will disappear. A thicker layer of foam will come up and blanket the surface just as the butter solids start turning brown. You’ll smell a nutty, toffee-ish fragrance, which should signal that the butter is changing. This process takes about 6-8 minutes, depending on your stovetop burner.

5) Once the butter has browned, turn off the heat and take the pot off the burner. Immediately add the vanilla powder, kosher salt and marshmallows, and stir constantly until the marshmallows melt and you’re left with a smooth mixture flecked evenly with vanilla seeds.

6) Add the crispy rice cereal to the mix, and stir until everything is well blended.

7) Dump the contents of the pot into the prepared baking pan, and press the mixture into the pan.

8) Let cool for about an hour, cut into squares and go to town with a cup of coffee, tea or milk.

**Don’t throw away the vanilla pod! Those things are expensive. Try sticking it in an airtight glass jar and cover it with granulated sugar to make vanilla sugar, which lends a lovely flavor to other baked goods. After all, want not, waste not, right?

Stay hungry, my friends.

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What’s the Deal with: Food Allergies?

It’s peanut butter cookie time!

My colleagues and I have a fun little arrangement: Whenever I get the urge to bake up a storm and test out new recipes, I  bring my creations to the office for a taste test–no matter how they turn out. It seems to work out pretty well. I get to indulge my passion for baking without ending up morbidly obese, while my co-workers get something sweet to eat. Everybody wins!

Except, of course, people who have food allergies. Luckily, no one I work with closely has any such allergies, but I’ve heard that some people who work in other parts of the office are sensitive to gluten, wheat and the like.

Which is why I hesitated when I decided to bake up a batch of peanut butter cookies, also from the Flour cookbook. You just never know. One minute you’re serving up delicious pastries, the next minute someone’s getting stabbed in the thigh with an EpiPen.

Mr. Peanut's gonna gitchoo. Via Good.is

Is it just me or does it seem like food allergies are worse now than ever? When I was a kid, I don’t remember not being able to bring peanut butter sandwiches to school, nor did I see any food labels that say “this product has been made in a facility that processes peanuts.”

According to the FDA, two percent of adults and five percent of children and infants have food allergies, and every year,  about 30,000 people go to the emergency room because of those allergies. About 150 actually die. Seems like a small number, but significant nontheless.

And a Mount Sinai School of Medicine study released in 2010 found that the number of children with peanut allergies have tripled since 1997 to 2008. No one seems to have a definitive answer as to why these allergies are on the rise, although one theory is that our germaphobic way of life has sissified our immune systems, making them super sensitive to otherwise harmless proteins floating around in our food and environment.

Another theory blames genetically modified foods as the root cause of food allergies (it’s from an organic consumer organization, so take it with a big grain of  salt), while another points to misdiagnosis as the main reason for the statistical jump.

The most recent study I found says that highly educated people are more likely to have children with peanut allergies, since, you know, we bookish, nerdy types are supposedly addicted to Purell and Wet Ones. (Not true, by the way. I think germs are a good thing and rarely use antibacterial anything unless I’m taking Megabus and can’t wash my hands with water and soap.)

The food allergy thing is getting so out of hand that it became fodder for my new favorite show, Portlandia:

Whatever the reason, our culture is being hyper-vigilant about allergies, which I suppose is a good thing if people can die because they smell peanuts or accidentally eat wheat. Could you imagine biting the dust because of a teeny shrimp? I feel bad for people who can’t eat certain things, especially for people who love food as much as I do.

I don’t know what I’d do if I could eat eat a lobster roll, an omelet, or a nice hunk of Époisses cheese. But until the day comes when a medical professional tells me I can’t eat peanut butter cookies, I’ll keep reaching for more. And even then there’s no guarantee I’ll listen to doctor’s orders.

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Kitchen Adventures: Give Pies a Chance

Two-Apple Pie

This morning, I was thinking about food–as usual–and a question came to mind: What was Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite dish? Apparently, it was pecan pie. Oddly, I’d never thought to ask the question in years past, but other bloggers have, and paid tribute accordingly.

But no one has taken King’s appreciation for the pastry as far as Peace Through Pie, a Texas-based movement that wants to start a pie-sharing tradition on MLK Day to promote, well, peace and understanding. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.

I admit that I didn’t know that Martin Luther King Jr., pie and peace were somehow all connected when I decided to try baking a pie this weekend. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of pie-making, only because whenever I make a crust, it never turns out right–it’s usually mushy, and/or too dense. Whoever came up with the phrase “easy as pie” either lied or didn’t know how to make a proper pie.

Over the holidays, I picked up a copy of Flour: Spectacular Recipes From  Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe by acclaimed pastry chef Joanne Chang, whose bakery has reached legendary status among Bostonians. (Her sticky buns were catapulted into the national spotlight on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Flay ultimately said that Flour’s sticky buns were the best thing he ever ate.)

While flipping through the pages before bed–yes, I read cookbooks in bed before I turn out the light–I saw a recipe for a Two-Apple Pie, and an accompanying photo of a delectable latticed pie, packed to the brim with apple slices. It was irresistible, and it had to be mine.

The recipe called for Granny Smith and Rome apples, thinly sliced and macerated in sugar, flour and cinnamon, as well as a  batch of pâte brisée. I soon discovered that the one thing I’ve been doing wrong in all my years of baking was not making this stuff before. What makes pâte brisée special is the French fraisage technique, which creates layers of flaky, buttery goodness within the dough. To achieve pie crust nirvana,  you have to smear the butter into the dough, like so:

Anyway, I won’t go into great detail about the recipe, as there were many steps involved. The whole process became a whole-day affair, because it required making and refrigerating the pâte brisée,  chilling and blind-baking the crust, macerating the apples, making the lattice, then cooking and cooling the whole pie.

Stick a fork in it--it's done.

But I’m happy to report that Chang didn’t let me down–her Two-Apple Pie recipe was a winner. One bite, and I knew: This was a pie I’m going to share with people for probably the rest of my life. Hands down, the best pie I’ve ever made! (Although, not the prettiest, I must say. Please forgive the slightly toasty crust and apples.)

So there you have it. My inadvertent contribution to the Peace Through Pies movement. Thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. for leading the fight for civil rights–and for inspiring more people to eat and share more pie.

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Mac Madness

My first macarons

Hello. My name is Chow Bella, and I’m a macaron addict.

My obsession with the little Parisian gems first began in September, when, in the throes of post-planning depression after the wedding, I decided to channel some of my pent-up creative energy into making macarons, which are notoriously temperamental and difficult to make.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Parisian macaron, it’s a type of sandwich cookie comprising two meringue disks with filling in between. Think of it as the Oreo’s fancier, cuter and daintier French cousin.

Armed with Jill Colonna’s book “Mad About Macarons” (seriously, I’ve had the best luck with her method), I set off on my culinary adventure, following the instructions to a T. The road from egg white to finished macaron is a long one, fraught with potholes in the form of incorrectly measured ingredients, humidity, and overly low/high oven heat. But the results can be pretty amazing if you get it just right.

My first batch, consisting of a plain almond shell and honey buttercream filling, turned out amazingly well, if I do say so myself. But this first success would open the floodgates to my macaron madness.

I started doing some serious research on different flavor combinations that are out there, starting with the menu from Ladurée, the Tiffany & Co. of the macaron world.

Then I bought “Les Petits Macarons” by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride to get more flavor ideas, and, after days of planning and mixing, matching and adapting recipes, I made a couple of batches for Thanksgiving dinner (five-spice shells and pumpkin-bourbon buttercream filling). After getting the approval of five real Parisians, I knew my macs were legit.

From there, I just went about crazy making macs as Christmas presents.

First, I made a boatload of two flavors for my in-laws in Minnesota: gingerbread and chocolate mint:

Minnesota-bound macarons

Then, emboldened by the success of these batches, I went into overdrive, dreaming up a rainbow of tantalizing flavors for my friends and family back home in Orange County, California. I had grand plans of packing up hundreds of frozen macs into an insulated bag with ice packs for the 10-hour trip home, thawing them out, placing them in pretty boxes, and delivering them lovingly by hand.

The result? Close to three hundred macs in tea-inspired flavors: Earl Grey and salted caramel, cardamom and chai ganache, matcha green tea and rooibos and white chocolate. It ain’t pretty (my geriatric iPhone 3G can only do so much), but this’ll give you an idea of how far my madness had gone:

A freezer full o'macs

Yep. I’d officially gone off the deep end. All in all, I’d made close to 450 macs in five days. I’d even made extra shells for the tons of leftover filling for Dr. J and I to hoard and nibble on over the next few weeks.

(At least my experience hasn’t led me to conduct even crazier mac experiments in the kitchen, as fellow blogger Not So Humble Pie did back in 2010. Now that’s taking culinary geekery to the nth degree. It’s a great resource, though.)

Even though the process nearly killed me, what makes it all worth it is the moment when someone bites into one of these little guys and gets that “omg this is so good” look on his or her face. For someone who expresses affection through food, that’s priceless. And if all this craziness amounts to an addiction, well, I’m not sure if I want to be cured, to be honest.

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