2009 favorites

It’s always so hard to choose favorites. I feel bad for all the great stuff I left out. Then I second guess myself, then I tell myself to stick with my gut. In the end, just like last year, I settled on 9 favorites and 6 honorable mentions.

9 favorites:

Chopped salad – I know it’s just salad with a bunch of stuff in it. But it’s exactly the way I like salad – evenly sized ingredients with a high ratio of other stuff compared to the lettuce. Plus it has avocado in it, and that makes everything better.

Red velvet cake comparison – That was a whole lot of red velvet cake. It’s been about 11 months, and I think I’m just about ready to make red velvet cake again. Soon. And now I know exactly which recipe to use.

Pot roast – Pot roast sounds so unassuming, not at all like something that would stand out as a favorite, but the addition of a bit of red wine gives it a richer, more complex flavor than traditional pot roast.

Orange oatmeal currant cookies – One of the first recipes I made from Tartine’s cookbook, and it knocked my socks off. I love how it’s familiar – an oatmeal cookie with dried fruit – but the orange zest and currants provide a more interesting flavor.

Strawberries and cream pie – Um, cream cheese, sugar and heavy cream topped with fresh strawberries and drizzled with chocolate. Duh.

100% whole wheat bread – I haven’t made this exact recipe again, but I have adapted the technique to all sorts of other breads. Soaking whole grains before kneading them into other bread ingredients makes the final dough much easier to work with, and the baked bread is more tender and flavorful than it would be without the soak.

Pizza – Years of making pizza almost every Friday night has helped me refine my recipe until it’s exactly how I like it.

Bourbon pound cake – Pound cake has been my baking nemesis for years, but not anymore.

Brussels sprouts braised in cream – Okay, so not the healthiest way the eat vegetables, but certainly the tastiest.

6 honorable mentions:

Brioche plum tart – Part of one of my favorite days this year.
Farmer’s market salad with goat cheese
– lettuce, potatoes, goat cheese, yum!
Lemon meringue cake
– What a fun birthday cake this was.
Brown rice with black beans
– Finally, I figured out how to cook brown rice!
Slice and bake brown sugar cookies
– They’re sorta like chocolate chip cookies, but a lot prettier (and without chocolate).
Herbed lamb chops
– This amazing meal has started Dave on a big lamb kick.

Last year my goals were 1) more easy, healthy dinner recipes, which I probably didn’t do a great job with; 2) more effort into taking photos, and I’m satisfied with my progress there; and 3) getting up a Basics of Food Photography page, which I managed to do (although I’ve been working on an update to it).

My goals this year are to publish more blog entries – around 4 per week instead of 3 – and redesign my site, hopefully by learning enough about web design to do it myself.

Here’s to another great year! Happy New Year!

pecan pie

Conversations from this Christmas:

  • Me: I was thinking we could all go to the botanical garden’s light show like we did a couple years ago.
  • My sister: Oh yeah, we did that last year too, so it’s a new tradition.

  • 4-year old, after opening a present: A truck! Vroom vroom! Can I open another present now?
  • His mom: No, the tradition is that we all take turns, so you need to wait until Aunt Bridget and Grandma each open a present; then it will be your turn again.

  • My brother: Are we really going to go look at the luminarias across town? It’s already after 10pm, and it’s 15 degrees out.
  • The rest of us: Of course we are! It’s tradition!

We take tradition seriously in my family, and that extends to the holiday meal. It’s turkey and fixings, and variations are not appreciated. Complaints will be lodged if the cranberry sauce has too much orange zest, the stuffing has too much sausage, or, worst of all, pumpkin cheesecake replaces the pie.

So I waffled on what to do with Dorie’s pecan pie recipe – I liked the idea of adding bitter ingredients like chocolate and espresso to cut the sweetness of regular pecan pie, but I didn’t want to make something so different that my mom would have to make her standard pecan pie recipe as soon as I went home to satisfy her craving. I ended up reducing the chocolate from 3 to 2 ounces, skipping the cinnamon because I didn’t really want it, and skipping the espresso because I didn’t have any available.

And it was great! I’ve tried a number of pecan pie recipes, and this is the only one that I’ve really enjoyed. The small amount of chocolate was a nice treat, but mostly it was the brown sugar and the balance of corn syrup to pecans that made this pie so good. In fact, everyone liked it – even those of us who don’t traditionally even eat the pecan pie.

Beth chose this pie for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted.

One year ago: Tall and Creamy Cheesecake

low and lush chocolate cheesecake

Back when my brother was the family cheesecake-maker, we didn’t eat a lot of chocolate cheesecakes. He didn’t like them. I always thought, what is there not to like? It’s chocolate, and it’s cheesecake. Seems like a good match.

But now I see his point. I like both chocolate and cheesecake, but the flavors don’t seem to compliment each other like other pairings do. Chocolate and peanut butter; cheesecake and pumpkin; chocolate and mint; cheesecake with berries – the individual flavors all improve their partners.

But cheesecake mixed with chocolate, somehow, the flavors seem to oppose instead of enhance each other. There’s the bitterness of the chocolate and the tang of the cheesecake, but there isn’t any middle ground where they mesh together to create something new.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. After all, there is still distinctive cheesecake and chocolate flavors, and that’s enough to make me happy.

This was chosen for Tuesdays with Dorie by the Tea Lady, who has posted the recipe.

One year ago: Butterscotch Pudding

twice-baked potatoes

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Trust me, you don’t need a recipe for twice-baked potatoes. You know what makes twice-baked potatoes so good? Fat. The more butter and sour cream you add, the better your potatoes will be. The less you add, the better you’ll feel about eating those potatoes.

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Decide what your goals are – if you want indulgence, you can add all sorts of sour cream, butter, cheese if you want it! If you want to keep it very light, replace the sour cream with buttermilk and reduce the butter to just enough to moisten the potato filling.

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Because I often serve twice-baked potatoes as part of nice meals, my goal tends to be flavor and not nutrition. In this case, I was making them just for myself and Dave, so I tried not to get carried away with the butter and sour cream. If I was serving them for a bigger occasion, I might add a bit more of each.

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Hey, don’t look at me like I’m some sort of fat-adding heathen. My mom pushes a small cube of butter into each potato before its second bake, which melts into an inviting pool of decadence; at least I resisted that!

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One year ago: Candied Orange Peels
Two years ago: Yule Log (Daring Bakers)

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Twice-Baked Potatoes

Serves 4

You can certainly add cheese to these if you like that sort of thing; a couple of ounces (½ cup) of something like cheddar would compliment the other flavors nicely. If you want to make the potatoes lighter, replace all or a portion of the sour cream with buttermilk. If you want to make them even more delicious, increase the sour cream by a couple of tablespoons. The flavor of the filling won’t change significantly after its second bake, so feel free to taste and adjust as you go.

24 ounces (approximately) russet potatoes (4 small or 2 large)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, room temperature
¼ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
2 scallions, finely chopped

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400ºF. Scrub the potatoes and stab each one several times with a fork. Place the potatoes right on the oven rack and bake them until a fork inserted into one meets no resistance, 60-75 minutes. Remove the potatoes from the oven and let them cool slightly. Heat the broiler.

2. In a large bowl, mix the butter, sour cream, salt and pepper. Cut the potatoes in half and use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, leaving behind a thin layer of potato on the skin. Add the potato flesh to the bowl with the sour cream mixture. Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes into the sour cream mixture until it’s combined and there are no large chunks of potato. Fold in the scallions (reserving a few for a garnish, if you’d like).

3. Spoon the filling into the potato shells. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet and broil until the tops are crisp and lightly browned. Serve immediately.

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Suggested menu: Steak au Poivre, Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream, Twice-Baked Potatoes

brussels sprouts braised in cream

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You know what I hate? Those “hide the vegetables in brownies” cookbooks. I admit that I don’t have kids, so maybe I just have no clue and that really is the only way to get them to eat something healthy. But, for now, my theory is that if you prepare vegetables well, there will be no need to hide them.

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By “preparing them well,” I don’t necessarily mean braising them in cream, of course, but if you can afford the caloric expense, these are certainly worth showcasing instead of hiding. Because these are absolutely just so freaking ridiculously good. Is that enough adverbs? Probably not. They’re worth more.

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They’re easy too, and you can clean and trim the sprouts early in the day and put them right in the saucepan with the cream and seasonings. About 15 minutes before dinner, put the pot on a hot burner and give it a quick shake every so often. If you have a few extra minutes to make these even more rich and delicious, remove the cooked sprouts from the pot and continue simmering the cream until it’s luscious and thick, then pour it over the sprouts. It’s just…I don’t even…you just can’t describe something that good.

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Because they’re so easy, so good, and most of the work can be done in advance, these are perfect for guests. And just a piece of advice: your guests will probably enjoy them even more if you don’t mention the whole “braised in cream” part.

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One year ago: Sausage Apple Hash
Two years ago: Risotto with Peas

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Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream (adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 4

1 pound small Brussels sprouts, stem ends trimmed with a knife and discolored leaves removed
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
ground black pepper

1. Bring the sprouts, cream, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer, shaking the pan once of twice to redistribute the sprouts, until a knife tip inserted into the center of a sprout meets no resistance, 10-12 minutes. Season with nutmeg and pepper to taste.

2. (Optional) Heat the oven to 200ºF. With a slotted spoon, remove the sprouts from the saucepan and transfer them in a heatproof serving dish. Place the sprouts in the oven to keep warm. Meanwhile, simmer the remaining cream in the saucepan over medium-high heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Pour the cream sauce over the sprouts and serve immediately.

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Suggested menu: Steak au Poivre, Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream, Twice-Baked Potatoes

steak au poivre

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The importance of the Go-To Thing was hammered into me recently. I was sitting at home doing basically nothing, unshowered and unchanged from my recent workout, when Dave called me from a bar half an hour away. “Everyone wants you to come hang out!” Uh…will they still want to hang out in an hour or so, when I might actually show up?

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I didn’t have time to mull over my clothes, so I just chose the same outfit I’ve worn every time I’ve gone out recently. It’s easy, comfortable, cute, warm, and spans a wide range of situations. (Although my silky teal scarf was a little out of place at the Rob Zombie concert we ended up at.)

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Having a go-to meal for guests has also come in handy.  On December 23rd last year, Dave and I decided to skip the party we’d planned to go to on Christmas Eve so we could hang out with his parents instead. We offered to make them dinner, which meant I needed to come up with something I could make in my mother-in-law’s kitchen that would be quick enough to put together after a 7-hour drive, special enough for a holiday, and accessible enough that my picky father-in-law would enjoy it.

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The answer is steak, of course. Steak that has one side coated in black pepper and is dowsed in brandy cream sauce. Served along with twice-baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts braised in cream. Yes, cream sauce, sour cream, braised in cream – it’s a holiday, okay?

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It’s also delicious. And easy, and most of it can be prepared in advance. The evidence: 1) I finished it at my mother-in-law’s, and her sharpest knife is essentially a butter knife, and 2) my father-in-law not only ate his entire meal, including the Brussels sprouts, but offered something vaguely complimentary. This meal is a success even under the toughest circumstances.

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One year ago: Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

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Steak au Poivre with Brandied Cream Sauce
(from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 4

Sauce:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 cup low-sodium beef broth
¾ cup low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ cup brandy + 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon lemon juice or 1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
table salt

Steaks:
4 strip steaks (8 to 10 ounces each), ¾ to 1 inch thick, trimmed of exterior gristle
table salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed

1. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat; when foaming subsides, add shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add beef and chicken broths, increase heat to high, and boil until reduced to about ½ cup, about 8 minutes. Set reduced broth mixture aside. Rinse and wipe out skillet.

2. Meanwhile, sprinkle both sides of steaks with salt; rub one side of each steak with 1 teaspoon crushed peppercorns, and, using fingers, press peppercorns into steaks to make them adhere.

3. Place now-empty skillet over medium heat until hot, about 4 minutes. Lay steaks unpeppered-side down in hot skillet, increase heat to medium-high, firmly press down on steaks with bottom of cake pan (see illustration below), and cook steaks without moving them until well-browned, about 6 minutes. Using tongs, flip steaks, firmly press down on steaks with bottom of cake pan, and cook on peppered side, about 3 minutes longer for rare, about 4 minutes longer for medium-rare, or about 5 minutes longer for medium. Transfer steaks to large plate and tent loosely with foil to keep warm.

4. Pour reduced broth, cream, and ¼ cup brandy into now-empty skillet; increase heat to high and bring to boil, scraping pan bottom with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Simmer until deep golden brown and thick enough to heavily coat back of metal tablespoon or soup spoon, about 5 minutes. Off heat, whisk in remaining 3 tablespoons butter, remaining 1 tablespoon brandy, lemon juice or vinegar, and any accumulated meat juices. Adjust seasonings with salt.

5. Set steaks on individual dinner plates, spoon portion of sauce over steaks, and serve immediately.

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Suggested menu: Steak au Poivre, Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream, Twice-Baked Potatoes

cafe volcano cookies

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Hey, have you noticed that I haven’t whined about gaining weight in a while? It turns out that I figured out a system that actually works to avoid weight gain. You’ll never believe this, but it involves getting regular exercise and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Revolutionary.

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It doesn’t really involve baking three desserts one after another, but I had to squeeze almost all of December’s Tuesdays with Dorie recipes into one week because of the big cross-country move. So I was pleased to see that at least one of the recipes was sorta kinda a little healthy-ish.

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Also, weird. I bake a lot (you might have noticed?), but this technique was new enough to me that I had to send out a call for reassurance before diving in. Sure enough, the recipe is just toasted nuts mixed with egg whites, sugar and espresso powder, heated in a saucepan just enough to dissolve the sugar and espresso, then spooned onto a baking sheet in something vaguely cookie-shaped.

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They were…good. Not “savor with a mug of tea after dinner” good, but definitely “healthier than a sablé on a weekend morning while waiting for Dave to wake up” good.

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Macduff has the recipe posted.

One year ago: Buttery Jam Cookies

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english muffins

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I always struggle with how to describe yeast bread dough precisely enough so that someone can reproduce the results I got. Almost every dough is elastic and smooth after kneading, so that doesn’t really help. Sticky and not-sticky are good, but each describes a wide spectrum.

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My first inclination is to compare it to a standard sandwich bread. Is it on the more-liquid looser side (like ciabatta), or the more flour-firmer side (like bagels)? That works great for experienced bread bakers, but what about everyone else?

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Apparently I’m not the only one with this problem, because Reinhart’s “soft and pliable, not stiff” description didn’t keep me from keeping this dough a little firmer that I think it was supposed to be. He later says that the rounds of dough should “swell both up and out”, which…well, no, that didn’t happen, although they did swell up nicely.

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Fortunately, bread is a lot more forgiving than people often think, so just because I had to smoosh my muffins down in the skillet to flatten them doesn’t mean any real harm was done. They weren’t cratered with nooks and crannies as dramatically as I had hoped they’d be, but they will be next time. Because now I know: the dough should be just a bit softer than sandwich dough, but not wet enough to be sticky. Which is very helpful, but only if you know what sandwich bread  dough feels like.

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One year ago: Cranberry Orange Muffins
Two years ago: Braised White Beans with Potatoes, Zucchini and Tomatoes

Update 3/16/10: I’ve successfully used this method to make these English muffins whole wheat.  I made the pre-dough out of 5 ounces whole wheat flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ½ cup milk or buttermilk.  After letting that sit overnight, I mixed it with the rest of the ingredients – 5 ounces white bread flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 1¼ teaspoons instant yeast, ½ tablespoon granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon shortening or unsalted butter, and ¼ – ½ cup milk or buttermilk.

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English Muffins (completely rewritten from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, because his recipes are so darn long)

Makes 6

My dough was elastic, supple, and a little soft, but the rolls didn’t expand out so much as just up, so I pressed them down in the pan while they were cooking. This seems to work just fine, although my nooks and crannies were on the small side.

2¼ cups (10 ounces) unbleached bread flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1¼ teaspoons instant yeast
½ tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon shortening or unsalted butter
¾ to 1 cup milk or buttermilk, at room temperature
cornmeal for dusting

1. Stand mixer: Mix the flour, yeast, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the butter and gradually pour in the milk. Continue mixing on medium-low until the dough is elastic and supple, 8-10 minutes. The dough should be soft, but not sticky.

By hand: Mix the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid ingredients. Stir the mixture until the dough comes together. Transfer it to a floured board or countertop and knead, incorporating as little flour as possible, for about 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic and supple. The dough should be soft, but not sticky.

2. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp dishtowel. Set the dough aside to rise until it has doubled in volume, about 1 to 1½ hours.

3. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. Cut it into six equally-sized pieces and shape each into a ball. Transfer the balls of dough to a baking pan that’s been dusted with cornmeal; sprinkle more cornmeal over the top of the balls and cover with plastic wrap or a damp dishtowel. Set the dough aside to rise for 1 to 1½ hours; the balls will nearly double in size and should swell both up and out.

4. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

5. Spray a large nonstick skillet (or a griddle) with spray oil and heat over medium heat (or 350°F). Place the balls of dough in the skillet with a least 1 inch between them. Cook until the bottoms are very dark brown, just short of burning, 5-8 minutes. Flip the rolls and cook the second side another 5-8 minutes, until it is also dark brown. If, after 5 minutes, the rolls are only golden brown, increase the heat slightly.

6. Transfer the rolls to the prepared pan and immediately bake them for 6 minutes to make sure the center is baked through. Repeat the pan-frying and baking with the remaining rolls.

7. Transfer the English muffins to a wire rack and allow them to cool for at least 30 minutes. For maximum nook-and-cranniness, use a fork to split the rolls instead of slicing them.

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bourbon pound cake

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Sometimes it’s the recipes that seem the simplest that can give us the most trouble. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people lamenting about their chocolate chip cookies. We think that because the recipe is ubiquitous that we should all do it well, but truthfully, many cookies are finicky – if your butter is too warm, or your flour measurements are off slightly, or your oven temperature isn’t stable, your cookies can end up flat or greasy or burned.

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Pound cake, with only a few ingredients, is often even more fussy. Those ingredients need to be combined just right to produce a light, moist, buttery cake. In fact, I think pound cake is the perfect recipe to teach yourself the particulars of baking, because every detail counts – the eggs should be room temperature, the butter needs to be soft but not too soft, the sugar and eggs have to be gradually added to the butter mixture, the flour must be sifted and gently folded into the batter. These steps can make or break a traditional pound cake, and following them carefully will also improve your cookies and layer cakes.

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Fortunately, this recipe makes it easy on you by separating the eggs, beating the whites until they’re fluffy and light, and folding the meringue mixture into the dough at the end. The light egg whites provide insurance against a dense cake without making it dry.

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Also, bourbon. Is good.  I suppose you can leave it out if you’re not into alcohol or you just want a great classic pound cake, but the bourbon is great in this because the flavor really stands out. Primarily because the bourbon’s mild smokiness compliments the other flavors, but also because that’s just a heck of a lot of bourbon to add to a cake.

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I used to think this other recipe was my favorite pound cake, but not anymore. This one is not only more dependable, it’s just better. It rises higher, plus? It tastes like bourbon.

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If you’ve been directed here from the Intelligencer and would like to see the cookies also discussed in the article, click here.

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Bourbon Pound Cake

12-16 slices

It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, but they behave better in baking when they’re at room temperature. I suggest separating them when you take the butter out of the fridge to warm, then leaving them at room temperature for about an hour, until you’re ready to bake.

The easiest way to sift ingredients if you don’t have a sifter is to put them in a fine-mesh strainer and shake and tap the pan over the bowl that you’re sifting into.

You can also double this recipe and bake it in a tube pan for about 90 minutes.

4 eggs, separated
1¼ cup (8¾ ounces) sugar, divided
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cup (6 ounces) cake flour

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour (or spray with baking spray) a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a medium-sized mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer), beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and continue beating until they form soft mounds. With the mixer on medium-high speed, gradually add ½ cup (3.5 ounces) of sugar. Increase the speed to high and beat until the mixture is glossy and holds stiff peaks. If you’re using a stand mixer and only have one bowl, transfer the egg white mixture to another bowl and rinse and dry the mixer bowl.

3. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and add the butter to the mixer bowl (or a large mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer). Beat on medium-low speed until the butter is soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the salt, then, with the mixer running, slowly pour in the remaining ¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar. Continue mixing on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with the bourbon and vanilla extract in a small measuring cup. With the mixer running, slowly pour in the egg yolk mixture. Once the eggs are in, stop and scrape the sides of the bowl, then continue beating for another 2-3 minutes.

4. Sift one-third of the flour over the butter/egg mixture. Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour until it’s evenly dispersed but not completely mixed in (as shown in the fourth photo). Add half of the beaten egg whites and continue folding until evenly dispersed. Repeat with another third of the flour, then the rest of the egg whites. Sift the remaining flour into the batter and fold until it’s completely mixed in and there are no pockets of dry flour.

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, 45-60 minutes. If the top of the cake is getting too dark before the center is baked, lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the cake. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then use a thin knife or spatula to loosen the cake from the edges of the pan. Invert the pan onto the wire rack, then turn it right-side up to continue cooling. Serve the cake at room temperature.

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I compared this cake made with cake flour (left) and all-purpose flour (right).  The version made with cake flour rose higher and was lighter and fluffier, but the cake made with all-purpose flour was still very good.

sablés

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I was all excited about these cookies after I mixed up the dough, which tasted amazing. I was looking forward to how pretty they’d look once they were baked, tall and flat with glittery sugar around their edges.

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Then I saw that there was some flavor variations that I could have played with. Because what’s better than regular sablés? Lemon sablés! Ooh, or orange. Or I could have used vanilla sugar instead of regular sugar! Now I was disappointed in my cookies. Stupid boring plain sablés.

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Except, not really. Because without any other flavors getting in the way, these cookies mostly taste like butter. And sugar. And salt. In other words, like everything good.

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Barbara chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie and has the recipe posted. I didn’t follow the directions quite as precisely as I should have, which is why my cookies don’t have straight edges and and a perfectly even texture.

One year ago: Grandma’s All-Occasion Sugar Cookies

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