sour cream chocolate cake cookies

chocolate cake cookies 4

Chocolate cake without frosting is just sad; likewise, chocolate cake cookies without frosting are clearly missing something important. Cream cheese frosting is important. Sprinkles are important.

chocolate cake cookies 1

The cookies were soft and tender, as cake should be. Despite a full container of sour cream, they weren’t overly rich, and their chocolate flavor was more than subtle, less than overpowering.  (I like overpowering.)  They might seem plain and homely on their own, but that’s nothing that a dollop of frosting can’t fix.

chocolate cake cookies 2

Spike chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the full recipe posted. I chilled the dough for about an hour before baking to reduce spreading. I also left out the raisins and spices so that the cookies would mimic a classic chocolate cake.

Two years ago: Perfect Party Cake (compared to 2 other white cake recipes)
Three years ago: Apple Cheddar Scones

chocolate cake cookies 3

chocolate hazelnut biscotti

chocolate biscotti 9

I went through a phase a couple years ago, when I was unemployed and had plenty of free time to bake, where I made a lot of biscotti for Dave. He doesn’t usually like to bring treats to work to share with coworkers, but he got in the habit of bringing a couple extra biscotti every day to give to his boss.

chocolate biscotti 2

His boss was impressed with the almond biscotti. Then a week later, I made the same recipe, substituting hazelnuts and dried cherries for the almonds. But I was experimenting with different methods for the second bake, and they didn’t get as crunchy.

chocolate biscotti 4

Dave’s boss said: “Too much egg, I think. Last week’s was better, almost perfect; this week’s needs work.”

Huh? Too much egg? He might be an expert in contaminant migration, but he doesn’t know squat about biscotti.

chocolate biscotti 6

I made these shortly after the batch with “too much egg.” Mindful of recent complaints about biscotti that was too soft in the middle, I erred on the crunchy side and left the biscotti in the oven, with the heat turned off and the door propped open, for half an hour after the recommended baking time.

chocolate biscotti 7

There were no complaints this time, although I did think they were a little crumbly and difficult to roll into logs (maybe they needed more egg?). Not only were the biscotti hard enough to dip into coffee, but the rich chocolate flavors were brought out by the dark espresso overtones. Jacque chose this recipe for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has it posted.

One year ago: Dressy Chocolate Cake
Two years ago: Honey Peach Ice Cream
Three years ago: Cappuccino Cream Puff Rings

chocolate biscotti 8

lemon bar comparison

front to back: Cooks Illustrated, Lebovitz

I don’t make lemon bars often, despite how much I love them. They feel so light and refreshing that I can’t convince my brain that these are, in fact, full of butter. So I end up eating a lot of them.  But if I don’t get to make them often, when I do get a chance to, they need to be perfect. I need the best recipe. And how do I know which is best without a side-by-side comparison?

I started with Cooks Illustrated as a trustworthy source of straightforward results. I chose Tartine’s lemon bars on brown butter shortbread because it was one of the first recipes in the book that caught my eye and is typical of their talent for taking a classic recipe up a notch. I also made David Lebovitz’s lemon bar recipe, which uses the whole lemon, pith and all.

Cooks Illustrated: As promised, this is a typical lemon bar recipe with no tricks up its sleeve. The crust is a combination of flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch, salt, and butter, which is combined in the food processor, pressed into a pan, and chilled before baking. The topping is eggs, sugar, flour, milk, salt, and lemon zest and juice. The topping is poured onto the hot crust and baked until firm.

Tartine: The browned butter shortbread in this recipe’s title is a misnomer, as it turns out that the crust is mixed like any other lemon bar crust, with no browning of the butter beforehand. Instead, the crust just browned in the oven, making it more of a butter crust that is browned instead of a crust that includes browned butter.  The filling is similar to Cooks Illustrated’s, except it contains no milk.

Lebovitz: David Lebovitz’s crust uses granulated instead of powdered sugar and melted butter instead of solid. Like the other recipes, this topping is based on sugar, eggs, and lemon, but instead of a small amount of flour, it incorporates cornstarch, as well as melted butter, which is not present in the other recipes. And most importantly, this recipe includes the entire lemon, pith in addition to juice and zest.

Comparing the lemon bars made me realize how important the crust is. I’d always focused on the filling before, wanting it as lemony and sour as I could stand, and I thought the crust was nothing more than a vehicle to hold up the filling. Now the crust seems like an important contrast to the tart filling. In fact, in many ways, the crust was the deciding factor in choosing preferences. The fillings were similar, but the crusts varied widely.

Cooks Illustrated: The all-important crust factor was the downfall of this recipe. The crust was dry and didn’t brown. I’m blaming this on the cornstarch. It’s probably important for structure, but it didn’t do the flavor any favors. The filling, on the other hand, was creamy and tart and wonderful. The top photo spotlights the CI bars in front, and you can clearly see their pale crust and luscious filling.

Tartine: This crust was substantial enough to hold up the filling and had just a bit of snap to it. It did, indeed, brown well, which gave it a nice flavor. The filling was lemony and smooth, although it  cratered when it was removed from the oven, resulting in a sunken middle.  I surprised myself by wanting a higher ratio of crust to filling.

Lebovitz: The granulated sugar lent this crust a great flavor, but it was crumbly and sometimes broke under the weight of the filling. The filling itself contained far too many chunks of lemon, although this might be a result of using a food processor instead of a blender to puree the lemon.  The topping was pockmarked like the moon (scroll down to see a picture of the tops of the three recipes).

I enjoyed the lemon squares from all three recipes, but I believe the one perfect bar would be made from Tartine’s crust and Cooks Illustrated’s filling.


left to right: Lebovitz, Tartine, Cooks Illustrated

One year ago: Stuffed Butterflied Leg of Lamb
Two years ago: Fresh Strawberry Scones
Three years ago: Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Cannellini Beans and Balsamic Vinegar

Printer Friendly Recipe
Lemon Bars on Brown Butter Shortbread (from Tartine)

For the crust:
½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1½ cups (7.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (2 ounces) pine nuts (optional)

For the filling:
½ cup (2½ ounces) all-purpose flour
2¼ cups (16 ounces) sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice
lemon zest, grated from 1 small lemon
6 large whole eggs
1 large egg yolk
pinch salt
confectioners’ sugar for topping (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

2. To make the crust: Sift the confectioners’ sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir in the flour. Add the butter and pine nuts (if using) and beat on low speed just until a smooth dough forms.

3. Press the dough evenly into the pan and allow it to come up about a ½ inch up the sides of the pan. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. Bake the crust until it is a deep golden brown, about 25-35 minutes.

4. To make the filling: While the crust is baking, sift the flour into a mixing bowl and whisk in the sugar until blended. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir to dissolve the sugar. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the whole eggs and egg yolk with the salt. Add the eggs to the lemon juice mixture and whisk until well mixed.

5. Once the crust is ready, pour the filling directly into the pan. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake just until the center of the custard is set, about 30 to 40 minutes.

6. Let cool completely on a wire rock, then cover and chill well before cutting. Cut into squares and dust the top with confectioners’ sugar, if desired. They will keep in an airtight container or well covered in the baking dish in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Printer Friendly Recipe
Perfect Lemon Bars (from Cooks Illustrated)

For the crust
1¾ cups (8.75 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
⅔ cup confectioners’ sugar, plus extra to decorate finished bars
¼ cup cornstarch
¾ teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 ½ sticks), at very cool room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces

Lemon filling
4 large eggs, beaten lightly
1⅓ cups (9.33 ounces) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest from 2 large lemons
⅔ cup lemon juice from 3 to 4 large lemons, strained
⅓ cup whole milk
⅛ teaspoon table salt

1. For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and line with one sheet parchment or wax paper. Dot the paper with butter, then lay a second sheet crosswise over it.

2. Pulse the flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt in the food processor workbowl fitted with the steel blade. Add the butter and process to blend, 8 to 10 seconds, then pulse until the mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal, about three 1-second bursts. (To do this by hand, mix flour, confectioners’ sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl. Freeze the butter and grate it on the large holes of a box grater into the flour mixture. Toss the butter pieces to coat. Rub pieces between your fingers for a minute, until the flour turns pale yellow and coarse.) Sprinkle the mixture into the lined pan and press firmly with fingers into an even, ¼-inch layer over the entire pan bottom and about ½-inch up the sides. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then bake until the crust is golden brown, about 20 minutes.

3. For the filling: Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, sugar, and flour in a medium bowl, then stir in the lemon zest, juice, milk, and salt to blend well.

4. To finish the bars: Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Stir the filling mixture to reblend; pour into the warm crust. Bake until the filling feels firm when touched lightly, about 20 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; cool to near room temperature, at least 30 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, fold the paper down, and cut into serving-size bars, wiping knife or pizza cutter clean between cuts, as necessary. Sieve confectioners’ sugar over bars, if desired.

Printer Friendly Recipe
Whole Lemon Bars (reformatted slightly but not actually changed from David Lebovitz)

I needed 2 lemons to make 6 ounces of lemon. I trim off the knobby ends when making whole lemon desserts.

Crust:
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) melted unsalted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Lemon topping:
1 lemon (about 6 ounces), organic or unsprayed
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 large eggs, room temperature
4 teaspoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
Optional: powdered sugar, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line an 8-inch square with foil.

2. For the crust: In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt, melted butter, and vanilla, stirring just until smooth. Press the batter into the bottom of the pan, using your hands or a small offset spatula to get it as level as possible. Bake the crust for 25 minutes, or until it’s deep-golden brown.

3. For the topping: While the crust is cooking, cut the lemon in half, remove the seeds, and cut it into chunks. Put the chunks of lemon in a food processor or blender along with the sugar and lemon juice, and let it run until the lemon is completely broken up. Add the eggs, cornstarch, melted butter, and blend until almost smooth. (A few tiny bits of lemon pieces are normal and encouraged.)

4. When the crust comes out of the oven, reduce the oven temperature to 300ºF (150ºC). Pour the lemon filling over the hot crust and bake for 25 minutes or just until the filling stops jiggling and is barely set.

5. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, carefully lift out the bars grasping the foil. Cut the bars into squares or rectangles. Sift powdered sugar over the top just before serving, if desired.

Storage: The bars will keep in an airtight container at room temperature up to three days. You can freeze the lemon bars as well for up to one month, letting them come to room temperature before serving.

left to right: Cooks Illustrated, Tartine, Lebovitz

cornmeal shortbread cookies

I had some major Murphy’s Law action going on in my kitchen last week. The first few days of it were subtle, but when my cupcakes exploded all over the pan and then sunk back into themselves like collapsed calderas, it got me thinking. I remembered the bagels I’d forgotten about and left out overnight to harden around the edges, and the crockpot full of red lentil stew that turned into red lentil soup when I accidentally added an extra cup of water. Then there was the leftover lentil soup that I burned. You know you’re having a bad week in the kitchen when you burn leftover soup.

These cookies, made from dough hastily pulled from the freezer after the cupcake debacle, came out wonderfully. I loved their square edges and straight sides. I enjoyed their crisp sandiness with a touch of grit from the cornmeal.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the cookies were in the oven, I assumed they’d spread too much. When they didn’t, I assumed I’d over or underbake them. When I didn’t, I assumed I’d drop them. It wasn’t until they were safely in the hands of my coworkers that I breathed a sigh of relief.

In the end, I got more comments on these cookies than any treat I’ve brought to work in months. Most people said that were interesting, but everyone said they were good. If you’d like to try these interesting good cookies that I made for Tuesdays with Dorie, Valerie has the recipe posted.

One year ago: Chockablock Cookies
Two years ago: Chocolate Cream Tart
Three years ago: Fluted Polenta and Ricotta Cake

chocolate-chunk oatmeal cookies with dried cherries and pecans

Mise en place while baking is not my favorite. My favorite is to measure out the sugar while the butter is whipping, crack open the eggs while the sugar aerates the butter, mix the dry ingredients while the eggs are incorporated, cut open the bag of chips while pulsing the flour into the mixture. And then I eat a spoonful of dough. That’s my idea of a good time.

Chopping interrupts this perfect process. The cherries stick to the knife and the chocolate shatters onto the floor, and it certainly can’t be finished by the time the eggs are blended into the butter. But for some cookies, it’s worth it a few minutes of chopping before I get to the fun part of adding ingredients to the mixer.

For the first oatmeal cookies I ever loved, I can handle chopping a few ingredients. One thing that makes these more lovable than your average oatmeal cookie is chocolate (much like the second oatmeal cookies I ever loved). The other treat is tart dried cherries instead of boring raisins. The pecans add bitterness and the oats contribute to chewiness. It might take five more minutes than some desserts, but it makes for a much more interesting cookie.

Two years ago: Black Bean Squash Burritos
Three years ago: Scotch Eggs

Printer Friendly Recipe
Chocolate-Chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Pecans (from Cooks Illustrated)

Makes sixteen 4-inch cookies

CI note: We like these cookies made with dried sour cherries, but dried cranberries can be substituted for the cherries. Quick oats used in place of the old-fashioned oats will yield a cookie with slightly less chewiness. If your baking sheets are smaller than the ones described in the recipe, bake the cookies in three batches instead of two. These cookies keep for 4 to 5 days stored in an airtight container or zipper-lock plastic bag, but they will lose their crisp exterior and become uniformly chewy after a day or so.

1¼ cups (6¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
1¼ cups (6⅓ ounces) rolled oats, old-fashioned
1 cup pecans, toasted
1 cup dried tart cherries (5 ounces), chopped coarse
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chunks about size of chocolate chips (about ¾ cup)
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1½ cups (10½ ounces) packed brown sugar, preferably dark
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large (18 by 12-inch) baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. In second medium bowl, stir together oats, pecans, cherries, and chocolate.

3. In standing mixer fitted with flat beater, beat butter and sugar at medium speed until no sugar lumps remain, about 1 minute. Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula; add egg and vanilla and beat on medium-low speed until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl; with mixer running at low speed, add flour mixture; mix until just combined, about 30 seconds. With mixer still running on low, gradually add oat/nut mixture; mix until just incorporated. Give dough final stir with rubber spatula to ensure that no flour pockets remain and ingredients are evenly distributed.

4. Divide dough evenly into 16 portions, each about ¼ cup, then roll between palms into balls about 2 inches in diameter; stagger 8 balls on each baking sheet, spacing them about 2½ inches apart. Using hands, gently press each dough ball to 1 inch thickness. Bake both baking sheets 12 minutes, rotate them front to back and top to bottom, then continue to bake until cookies are medium brown and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft (cookies will seem underdone and will appear raw, wet, and shiny in cracks), 8 to 10 minutes longer. Do not overbake.

5. Cool cookies on baking sheets on wire rack 5 minutes; using wide metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature.

pecan powder puffs

Every Christmas, my mom would take a plate of our colorful sugar cookies, tree-shaped cream cheese spritz, and chocolate-topped peanut butter blossoms over to the neighbors or a friend. She would return with a plate of their Christmas traditions, which seemed oddly shapen, bland, and stale compared to ours. Invariably, those plates would include these suspicious white blobs. I never knew if they were good or not, because I didn’t try one until last year.

Last year, my mom made her own Mexican wedding cookies (Russian tea cakes, pecan powder puffs, whatever you want to call them), and, oddly, they were some of my favorite cookies on the tray – and not just because I make the brown sugar cookies and cream cheese spritz regularly on my own. Crumbly soft, coated in sweet clouds of sugar, spiced and slightly bitter from the nuts, it’s very possible that I was missing out for years as a kid by ignoring those mysterious white balls the neighbors gave us. I’m making up for lost time now.

For the recipe, go to Tianne’s blog, because she chose these for Tuesdays with Dorie. I used walnuts instead of pecans.

One year ago: Coconut Tea Cake
Two years ago: Coconut Butter Thins
Three years ago: Gooey Chocolate Cakes

chocolate oatmeal drops

Chocolate cookies, yay! Oatmeal cookies, boo.

No creaming of butter, boo. Brownie mixing method, yay!

Bit of spreading around the edges, boo. Delicious chewy brownie cookies with bits of oatmeal, yay!

Caroline and Claire chose these cookies for Tuesdays with Dorie, and they have the recipe posted. I increased the salt, replaced the water with vanilla, and left out the cinnamon.

One year ago: Dorie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
Two years ago: Devil’s Food White-Out Cake

Okay, now my next extry will be a chocolate frosting comparison. Pinky swear.

almond biscotti

When faced with three bowls of Bolognese and a spoon, Dave declared them all good. “Different, but good.” Which is better? “I don’t know. They’re all good.” Carne adovada? “They all taste the same.” Sugar cookies? “They need frosting.”

I can’t really complain about having someone to cook for who appreciates everything I make (unless it has olives), but feedback isn’t Dave’s strongpoint. He used to tell me that he could only give a good opinion if he was served similar dishes side-by-side, which started this whole thing, but not even that always works.

Unless it concerns almond biscotti. I have made at least four almond biscotti recipes, over the course of well over a year, and Dave has unequivocally identified his favorite. It was the first I tried, and nothing else has ever lived up. He loves these because they’re just crunchy enough to dip into his coffee without getting soggy, but not so crisp that they’re a challenge to bite into.

I like them because the recipe is simple to mix up and is easily adaptable. Usually I use slivered blanched almonds, but if I need to use up sliced almonds, those work just fine as well. If I’m in the mood for variety, I can add different nuts and dried fruit, although if I do, Dave will be disappointed. Pure, unadulterated almond biscotti is one of Dave’s favorites, up there with banana cream pie and salmon pesto pasta. At least this recipe is.

One year ago: Tartine’s Banana Cream Pie
Two years ago: Crispy Baked Chicken Strips
Three years ago: Mu Shu Pancakes

Printer Friendly Recipe
Almond Biscotti (adapted from Bon Appetit via Smitten Kitchen)

There’s no need to toast the nuts before mixing the dough; they’ll brown in the oven.

You’ll only use a bit of the egg white, plus I dislike using only one part of an egg. Instead, I steal just a bit of egg white from one of the eggs that gets mixed into the dough to use for the egg wash instead of using a separate egg white.

1 large egg white
3¼ cups (15.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 large eggs
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 teaspoon salt
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 cup slivered or sliced almonds

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Whisk the single egg white until frothy. In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, mix the flour and baking powder.

2. In a large pot over medium-low heat, heat the butter just until melted. Remove the pot from the heat; stir in the sugar and salt. Stir in the eggs, one at time; add the extract, liqueur, and zest. Slowly mix in the flour mixture, then the almonds.

3. Divide the dough in half. On the prepared baking sheet, shape each half into a log 2-inches across and ¾-inch high. Brush with the egg white. Bake for 30 minutes, until puffed and golden.

4. Carefully transfer the logs to a cooling rack (I use two large spatulas for this); cool for 30 minutes.

5. Slice each log on the diagonal into ½-inch thick cookies. Lay half of the cookies cut side down on the baking sheet. Bake 11 minutes; remove the pan from the oven and, using tongs, turn each cookie over onto its other cut side. Bake 7 minutes, until the edges are browned. Transfer to a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining cookies.

I have blogged about this recipe before. At the time, I could only tell you that they were good. Now I can tell you that they are the best.

chocolate madeleines

These madeleines made me crave chocolate mousse. If you aren’t a batter eater, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t know how chocolately and fluffy and rich this batter was.  And if you aren’t a batter eater, I’m jealous, truly. I’d be a size smaller if I didn’t love cookie dough.

But I’m glad they were baked, because it gave me a chance to finally use the madeleine pan I got for Christmas – two years ago. I do feel silly having a pan I’ve never used for so long, but at least it’s easy to store and relatively cheap.  And honestly, seeing it in the cabinet every time I reached for my mini-muffin pan has made me happy.

And now I’m using it. For chocolate! You just can’t go wrong with little clam-shaped chocolate cakes, and dipping them in ganache is even better. Probably I should use the pan again a little sooner than two years from now. But first I need to make chocolate mousse.

Margo chose this recipe for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has it posted on her site. I halved the recipe (and ate about 2 madeleines worth of batter).  I “filled” the madeleines with strained cherry jam instead of marshmallow fluff; however, I found that the amount of jam I was able to stuff into each little cake was negligible.

One year ago: Mrs. Vogel’s Sherben
Two years ago: Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins

midnight crackles

My holidays were full of family and gifts and food and fun. Also travel and snow and a bit of a cold at the end. Overall, it was wonderful. And very, very tiring.

I’m glad to be home. I’m looking forward to waking up and going to work, coming home and making dinner. Routine is tedious after too long, but it’s comforting after being away.

I’m extra appreciative of my own bed, with my perfectly squishy huggy pillow; of my favorite spot on the couch next to a pile of new books; of my tea and bagel each morning; of more than one serving of vegetables per day.

These cookies were made last month, during that manic period two weeks before Christmas when cookies seem to explode out of kitchens. One more batch of cookies brought to work right before Christmas blends in and disappears quickly; chocolate cookies the week after New Year’s might not be as welcome. Instead, I’m treating my coworkers to bran muffins today, just in case I’m not the only one craving a break from holiday excess.  We’ll eat cookies again soon enough.

Laurie and Julie chose these cookies for Tuesdays with Dorie’s third anniversary (birthday?), and the recipe is posted on the group’s website. Dorie recommends a long chilling step, but most members of the group found the cold dough was too hard to form into balls. A shorter chill time is probably sufficient.

One year ago: Cocoa-Buttermilk Birthday Cake
Two years ago: French Pear Tart