rustic bread (comparison of 3 recipes)

rustic bread 23
baguette: PR; slices: CI; round loaf: T

I love bread so much. I always have – who doesn’t? – but I’ve been having even more fun with it lately. Besides hot dog and burger buns, my focus has almost exclusively been on rustic breads for the last couple years. If we spend Saturday night at home, I’ll often make a really nice meal, and wine seems like a natural accompaniment (to be honest, often the meal is planned around the wine), and bread and wine are so good together.

rustic bread 1
CI biga

With all these opportunities to experiment, I started working on this comparison years ago. I slowly narrowed down recipes until I had three that were so good that the comparison would undoubtedly be a reflection of personal taste and not quality of the recipe, thus defeating the purpose of doing a tasting at all. But at least I (and my friends) got to eat a lot of good bread along the way.

rustic bread 2
CI dough

The recipes that made the cut were Cook’s Illustrated’s Italian Bread recipe (CI), Peter Reinhart’s Pain a l’Ancienne (PR), and Tartine’s Country Bread (T). I’d previously made all three of these recipes many times and loved them all. I’d need to taste them side-by-side to choose a favorite.

rustic bread 3
CI dough mid-turn

CI – This bread starts with a biga, a mixture of flour, water, and yeast that’s stirred together, left at room temperature for a few hours to ferment, then transferred to the refrigerator overnight. A second mixture of flour, water, and yeast is later mixed and allowed to set for just 20 minutes before the biga and salt is added and the dough is kneaded.

rustic bread 5
CI dough completed turn

The dough goes through a long rise at room temperature with several “turns” in the middle – basically folding the dough over itself a couple times. It’s supposed to lead to the final loaf rising up and not out, and it’s a trick I like enough that I incorporate it in other bread recipes. After shaping, the dough goes through a second rise and is baked on a stone at 500 degrees for 10 minutes and then 400 degrees. The dough is sprayed with water before baking, but no other steam is added.

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CI risen dough

PR – This is the easiest bread in this lineup. Flour, yeast, salt, and ice water are mixed and kneaded, then chilled overnight. The next day, after it warms up and rises a bit, the very sticky dough is cut into smaller portions, which are pulled and pushed into something vaguely baguette-like. These are baked soon after shaping. Reinhart calls for a few shots of water to be sprayed on the sides of the oven, plus a pan of hot water in the oven with the bread to create steam during baking.

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CI ready to bake

T – This dough requires a lot of babysitting and a lot of patience, although not necessarily a lot of work. The flour and water are mixed with sourdough starter and allowed to rest for a bit, then salt is mixed in. The dough isn’t kneaded, it’s just turned, as described above, every half an hour or so for about four hours. After being shaped into rounds, it’s chilled overnight in the refrigerator. It’s kept covered in a heavy Dutch oven for the first part of baking to trap steam, then the lid is removed so the crust can brown.

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CI

In retrospect, the breads are pretty different. The Italian bread (CI) has an even, relatively tight structure, while the pain a l’ancienne (PR) is open and airy. Tartine’s country bread (T) has a slight but unignorable sourdough flavor.

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CI

CI – Described as denser and drier. The chewy crust got compliments. While one friend thought it was sweeter than the other breads, to me, it didn’t have as much flavor. This might be because I eat so many whole grains lately that a bread made with all white flour seems plain.

PR – Tasters thought the bread might be buttery or eggy, despite a lack of both of those ingredients in the recipe. They also thought it was chewy and moist and liked the crust.

T – The sourdough flavor was picked out immediately. It was also described as yeastier and more floury.

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CI

With five people comparing the breads, no clear winner emerged. A friend who grew up eating sourdough pancakes preferred Tartine’s country bread. An Italian friend loved CI’s Italian bread, as did a friend who liked the sweeter flavor. PR’s pain a l’ancienne was Dave’s favorite and no one’s least favorite. Those who favored Tartine country bread said CI’s Italian bread was their least favorite and vice versa, although everyone liked all of the breads. I was just happy because I got to eat — and bake — so much bread.

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clockwise from top: PR, T, CI

Tartine Country Bread

Pain a l’ancienne

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Italian Bread (from Cook’s Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe)

This recipe requires a standing mixer to make the dough, a spray-bottle filled with water for spritzing, a rectangular baking stone, and an instant-read thermometer for gauging doneness. It also requires a bit of patience — the biga, which gives the bread flavor, must be made 11 to 27 hours before the dough is made.

This recipe makes a gigantic loaf of bread.  I always divide the dough into two portions and make smaller loaves.

I really didn’t intend for all of the pictures in this post to be of this recipe.  Fortunately, there are separate entries dedicated to the other two recipes.

Biga:
11 ounces bread flour (2 cups)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
8 ounces water (1 cup), room temperature

Dough:
16½ ounces bread flour (3 cups), plus extra for dusting hands and work surface
1 teaspoon instant yeast
10.7 ounces water (1⅓ cups), room temperature
2 teaspoons table salt

1. For the biga: Combine flour, yeast, and water in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. Knead on lowest speed (stir on KitchenAid) until it forms a shaggy dough, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer biga to medium bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature until beginning to bubble and rise, about 3 hours. Refrigerate biga at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.

2. For the dough: Remove biga from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature while making dough. Combine flour, yeast, and water in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook; knead on lowest speed until rough dough is formed, about 3 minutes. Turn mixer off and, without removing dough hook or bowl from mixer, cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap; let dough rest 20 minutes.

3. Remove plastic wrap, add biga and salt to bowl, and continue to knead on lowest speed until ingredients are incorporated and dough is formed (dough should clear sides of bowl but stick to very bottom), about 4 minutes. Increase mixer speed to low (speed 2 on KitchenAid) and continue to knead until dough forms a more cohesive ball, about 1 minute. Transfer dough to large bowl (at least 3 times dough’s size) and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in cool, draft-free spot away from direct sunlight, until slightly risen and puffy, about 1 hour.

4. Remove plastic wrap and turn the dough by sliding a plastic bench scraper under one side of the dough; gently lift and fold one third of the dough toward the center. Fold the opposite side of the dough toward the center. Finally, fold the dough in half, perpendicular to first folds. Dough shape should be a rough square. Replace plastic wrap; let dough rise 1 hour. Turn dough again, replace plastic wrap, and let dough rise 1 hour longer.

5. To shape the dough: Dust work surface liberally with flour. Gently scrape and invert dough out of bowl onto work surface (side of dough that was against bowl should now be facing up). Dust dough and hands liberally with flour and, using minimal pressure, push dough into rough 8- to 10-inch square. Fold the top left corner diagonally to the middle; repeat step 2 with top right corner. Gently roll dough from top to bottom until it forms a rough log. Roll the dough into its seam, and, sliding hands underneath each end, transfer the dough to parchment paper. Gently shape dough into 16-inch football shape by tucking bottom edges underneath. Dust loaf liberally with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap; let loaf rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, place baking stone on rack, and heat oven to 500 degrees.

6. To bake: Using a lame, single-edged razor blade, or sharp chef’s knife, cut slit ½ inch deep lengthwise along top of loaf, starting and stopping about 1½ inches from ends; spray loaf lightly with water. Slide parchment sheet with loaf onto baker’s peel or upside-down baking sheet, then slide parchment with loaf onto hot baking stone in oven. Bake 10 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees and quickly spin loaf around using edges of parchment; continue to bake until deep golden brown and instant-read thermometer inserted into center of loaf registers 210 degrees, about 35 minutes longer. Transfer to wire rack, discard parchment, and cool loaf to room temperature, about 2 hours.

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triple chocolate cupcake comparison

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left – annie; right – josie

Annie and Josie, two peas in a pod as usual, published chocolate cupcakes with chocolate ganache and chocolate frosting within a week of each other. They differed, however, on the recipes they used. Josie chose the recently published Cook’s Illustrated recipe, while Annie went a different direction with a combination of Martha Stewart’s cake recipe filled with Dorie Greenspan’s ganache recipe and frosted with Martha Stewart’s recipe.

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annie

Clearly, as I said four years ago, a comparison was in order. There were two main differences between the recipes – the cake recipe itself, including the ingredients and the mixing method, and the way the ganache is added to the cake. I did not compare the frosting recipes associated with each cupcake recipe, because I did that in a past comparison it was late and I was tired and I ran out of chocolate.

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annie

Annie – This cupcake starts out in an usual way, in that the butter is melted with the sugar, and then that mixture is beaten together. The rest goes like most cake batters do – an egg is added, then a mixture of cocoa and hot water, and finally the dry ingredients alternating with the wet ingredient, in this case sour cream. The only source of chocolate is cocoa. A hole is carved out of the baked cupcakes and is filled with ganache.

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annie

Josie – The wet ingredients and chocolatey ingredients (cocoa and bittersweet chocolate, plus coffee) are whisked together, then the dry ingredients are added. The batter is divided between the muffin cups, and then, before baking, the ganache is placed on top of the cupcakes (see photo of ganache looking either like poop or intestines; I’m sorry).

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josie

This was the first time I’ve brought a comparison to work and had my coworkers vote, but I loved it – and I suspect they didn’t mind either. The overwhelming favorite was the recipe from Annie’s blog. There were a couple complaints of bitterness in the recipe from Josie’s blog (Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe), which could be due to the coffee.

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left – josie; right – annie; no filling in either

The real key though was adding ganache to the center of the cupcake after it was baked; people loved that chunk of chocolate in the middle of the chocolate cupcake. When the ganache was added before baking, it seemed to meld into the cupcake itself. You can see that there’s no distinct ganache in the finished cupcake, but I assure you that it was added.

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left – annie; right – josie; both with fillings

I’m so glad to have a clear winner in a comparison post for once, although, let’s face it, with this much chocolate in the kitchen, my coworkers were the real winners. As with almost all comparisons I do, both recipes were stars, which is why having the side-by-side is so helpful.  The real lesson seems to be to add ganache to a baked cupcake for the ultimate chocolatey experience.  Josie and Annie, thanks for two great very chocolately recipes.

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Triple Chocolate Cupcakes (rewritten from Annie’s Eats, cake adapted from Martha Stewart, ganache adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

12 to 14 cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons hot water
1½ cups (7.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (7.85 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup sour cream, at room temperature

For the ganache filling:
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature

1. For the cake: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the cocoa and water. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

2. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, then stir in the sugar. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl with a handheld mixer) and beat on medium-low speed until cooled to room temperature, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, then beat in the vanilla and cocoa mixture. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half of the sour cream. Repeat with another third of the dry ingredients, the remaining sour cream, and the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until combined.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared cupcake liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted into a cupcake comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack; after five minutes, remove the cupcakes from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack before filling and frosting.

4. For the ganache: In small saucepan, heat the cream until it just simmers; pour it over the chocolate. Let set about one minute, the whisk to combine. Whisk in the butter. Chill, uncovered, until solid but not hard, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.

5. Use a paring knife to remove a 1½ inch-diameter cone from the center of each cupcake. Cut off the bottom of each cone and discard. Fill the well will ganache, then cover with the top of each cone. Frost as desired.

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josie

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Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes (from Cook’s Illustrated via Pink Parsley)

12 cupcakes

Ganache Filling
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

Chocolate Cupcakes
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
⅓ cup (1 ounce) Dutch-processed cocoa
¾ cup hot coffee
¾ cup (4⅛ ounces) bread flour
¾ cup (5¼ ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For ganache filling: Place chocolate, cream, and confectioners’ sugar in medium microwave-safe bowl. Heat in microwave on high power until mixture is warm to touch, 20 to 30 seconds. Whisk until smooth; transfer bowl to refrigerator and let stand until just chilled, no longer than 30 minutes.

2. For cupcakes: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-size muffin pan (cups have ½-cup capacity) with baking-cup liners. Place chocolate and cocoa in medium bowl. Pour hot coffee over mixture and whisk until smooth. Set in refrigerator to cool completely, about 20 minutes. Whisk flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

3. Whisk oil, eggs, vinegar, and vanilla into cooled chocolate-cocoa mixture until smooth. Add flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

4. Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Place one slightly rounded teaspoon ganache filling on top of each cupcake. Bake until cupcakes are set and just firm to touch, 17 to 19 minutes. Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before frosting, about 1 hour.

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chocolate chip cookie comparison 2

chocolate chip comparison 2
The Chewy

I’ve done all these comparisons and experiments with chocolate chip cookies, and yet, I don’t make any of those recipes. Usually, I make chocolate chip cookies to please myself, because I think it’s fun, so I’m more concerned with which recipe I most enjoy baking instead of which recipe has the best result. But maybe this isn’t so bad – maybe my hacked combination of recipes could stand up to the originals.

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The Chewy dough

It was time to find out. For a comparison of the best of the best, I chose Alton Brown’s The Chewy recipe, winner of my last comparison; Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie, a true standout; Kelsey’s Best Ever Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from Anna Olson’s original recipe), which are the most popular post on her blog; and the one I always make when I’m too lazy to follow an actual recipe.

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The Chewy

What sets Alton’s recipe apart is the use of bread flour instead of regular and the replacement of an egg white with milk. Cook’s Illustrated Perfect recipe is designed to mimic the effects of the overnight rest of the dough recommended by the New York Times, which it does using melted browned butter. Compared to the traditional Tollhouse recipe, Kelsey’s recipe uses a higher ratio of flour (plus a bit of cornstarch). My recipe has some similar traits to those above, like bread flour instead all-purpose and an overnight chill to enhance the butterscotch flavor.

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my recipe dough

Between the four tasters I had, there was no unanimous favorite. Dave’s favorite was CI’s Perfect cookies. My sister and her husband both chose Alton Brown’s The Chewy as their favorite; it was chewier, but, to Dave, it was too greasy. Kelsey’s recipe was drier than the others; compared to the ultra-rich versions it was being compared to, it had less flavor. My hacked together recipe was the most traditional, crispy around the edges and gooey in the middle.

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Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect

As for me, I’ll certainly keep making the version I have been, now that I know that it can hold its own with the big dogs. I love it because I don’t have to look at a recipe and the dough is perfect for snacking. The Chewy tends to come out a little too flat, and I don’t like the dough for CI’s Perfect (which makes it the recipe of choice when self-control is necessary!), plus it simply isn’t as fun to make cookies with a whisk as it is with a mixer. Slight differences aside, these were all standout recipes, but I appreciate the validation to keep being lazy with my hacked together version.

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left to right: The Chewy, my recipe, Kelsey’s Best-Ever, Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect

One year ago: Kofta
Two years ago: Grilled Corn Salad
Three years ago: Espresso Cheesecake Brownies
Four years ago: Chunky Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Chocolate Chipsters

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Accidental Variation of The Chewy (adapted from Alton Brown)

As I was writing up this recipe, I realized I did not actually make The Chewy, which I now see is supposed to use melted butter. I used room temperature solid butter. The recipe below is what I did. This means that the only difference between my recipe and The Chewy is a lower ratio of brown sugar to white and the use of an egg white instead of milk.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2¼ cups (11.25 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup granulated sugar
1¼ cups brown sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.

2. Add the butter to the mixer’s work bowl with the sugars. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tablespoons milk, and vanilla extract, and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Scoop the dough in heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until they are browned around the edges and do not look wet on top, 8-12 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies (from Cook’s Illustrated May/June 2009)

I baked smaller cookies – tablespoon-sized dollops of dough – for about 9 minutes at 375 degrees.

1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (1¾ sticks) unsalted butter
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
¾ cup (5¼ ounces) packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
¾ cup chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted (optional)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

3. Add both sugars, salt and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand for 3 minutes, then whish for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

4. Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use a #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet.

5. Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10-14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.

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Best-Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies (rewritten but not changed from Kelsey’s Apple a Day, who adapted it from Anna Olson)

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) brown sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (6 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking soda.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a stand mixer), beat the butter, salt, and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the egg, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Scoop the dough in heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until they are slightly browned around the edges, 8-10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from nearly every single chocolate chip cookie recipe I’ve ever read)

I haven’t found a dependable measurement for the weight of 1 cup of bread flour.  I used to assume 5 ounces for 1 cup of bread flour, but I think this is on the high side, so I’m changing the volume measurement in this recipe from 2¼ cups to 2⅓ cups.  Unfortunately,  it could be as high as 2½ cups, depending on how you measure your flour.  If you can, definitely measure by weight and not volume (food scales are cheap!)!

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup (7 ounces) brown sugar
½ cup (3.5 ounces) white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2¼ cups (11.25 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking soda.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a stand mixer), beat the butter, salt, and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Scoop the dough in heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until they are browned around the edges and do not look wet on top, 8-12 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

perfection pound cake

(The reason I’m talking about pound cake and not this week’s chosen recipe is because I’m off gallivanting around Italy and have been since before this month’s recipes were chosen.)

(Sorry to brag!)

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I’m under no illusions that pound cake is easy despite its simple ingredients. In fact, it’s just the opposite – without any fancy flavors spicing things up, there’s no disguising an imperfect texture. After struggling with a traditional pound cake recipe that kept baking up too dense, I finally gave up and moved on to one in which the egg whites are whipped separately, which is the only leavener in the recipe. It guarantees a light texture without drying out the cake.

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The majority of blog entries on Dorie’s recipe, which uses baking powder as the leavener, mention that it’s dry. I was tempted to tweak the ingredients to remedy any potential problems, but instead, I made the recipe exactly, following my best baking procedure – butter that’s soft but not too soft, all ingredients at room temperature, gradually adding each new ingredient, sifting the flour and gently folding it in rather than letting the mixer do the work (and potentially overmix the dough). But with ½ to ¾ cup more flour in this compared to my other recipes for the same amount of butter, and ¼ cup less sugar, I was worried that it was hopeless. If nothing else, I figured, pound cake is my absolute favorite thing to bake, so I wouldn’t be sad if it wasn’t perfect in the end.

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And while it may not have been as moist as my favorite pound cake, it wasn’t dry. It was dense, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a cake like this. And it tasted just like pound cake should – like sweet butter with a hint of caramel from the browned edges. In the end, I would call this a success.

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One year ago: Double Apple Bundt
Two years ago: Chocolate-Crunched Caramel Tart
Three years ago: Caramel Peanut-Topped Brownie Cake

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Perfection Pound Cake (from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my Home to Yours)

I used cake flour, and I strongly recommend that you do as well. As I show at the end of this entry, cake flour makes a lighter, more tender pound cake. I did not put the loaf pan on sheet pans during baking, because that trick tends to result in under-risen cakes for me. This could have resulted in a shorter cooking time – I took the cake out of the oven at 60 minutes, when it was golden brown and a toothpick came out dry.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour (or 2¼ cups (9 ounces) cake flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Getting Ready:
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan or an 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan. Put the pan on an insulated baking sheet or on two regular baking sheets stacked one on top of the other.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, a full 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beater and reduce the mixer speed to medium. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 to 2 minutes after each egg goes in. As you’re working, scrape down the bowl and beater often. Mix in the vanilla extract. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, mixing only until it is incorporated – don’t overmix. In fact, you might want to fold in the last of the flour, or even all of it, by hand with a rubber spatula. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan and smooth the top.

Put the cake into the oven to bake, and check on it after about 45 minutes. If it’s browning too quickly, cover it loosely with a foil tent. If you’re using a 9×5-inch pan, you’ll need to bake the cake for 70 to 75 minutes; the smaller pan needs about 90 minutes. The cake is properly baked when a thin knife inserted deep into the center comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven, transfer the pan to a rack and let rest for 30 minutes.

Run a blunt knife between the cake and the sides of the pan and turn the cake out, then turn it right side up on the rack and cool to room temperature.

Storing:
Wrapped well, the cake will keep for 5 to 7 days at room temperature (stale cake is great toasted) or up to 2 months in the freezer.

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croissants (tartine bread)

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My coworker seemed surprised when I told him I was going home at lunch to work on croissants. He wondered if all croissant recipes are so complicated. No. But I chose the most complicated one.

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I seem to have convinced myself that the recipe with the most steps must produce the best result. By no means is this rule always true, but in this case, it was. Spending my lunch break rolling and shaping buttery dough was a small price to pay for croissants this good.

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And that’s just the beginning (well, it’s the end of the recipe, but it’s the beginning of me telling you about the recipe). The process starts a couple days earlier, when you feed your starter. If you don’t have a starter, you should make one! It isn’t hard, and I’m more proud of my all wild-yeast bread than anything else I’ve accomplished in the kitchen this year.

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Once your starter is awake and you’ve mixed up another pre-dough with instant yeast, you’ll make your dough, but instead of kneading it, you’ll spend a minute or so fussing with it every half an hour for a few hours. Once it’s risen and chilled, you can roll it out and start working in the butter, and this process takes a few minutes of fussing over the course of several hours too. Then chill the dough some more. Then roll it out some more. Then, finally, you can shape your croissants! But then you have to let them rise for a couple hours before baking.

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I actually love recipes like this. I love getting to play with dough for just a few minutes at a time, and because the dough is chilled in between, it’s adaptable to my schedule. And in this case, all that fussing paid off with the best croissants I’ve made yet. My coworker grabbed two, and then he didn’t seem to doubt my lunchtime fussing at all.

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More experiments with croissants:
Tartine Bakery (the recipe in their first book is different than the recipe in their bread book)
Martha Stewart (using fresh yeast)
Martha Stewart (using instant yeast)

One year ago: Taco Pasta Salad
Two years ago: Green Chile Huevos Rancheros
Three years ago: Pan-Seared Steak with Red Wine Pan Sauce

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Croissants (adapted from Tartine Bread)

Makes 16 croissants

I’ve shortened the instructions and added volume measurements. Keep in mind though, that the weight measurements are more precise, so if you have a scale, use it (as always).

The original recipe recommends an egg wash made from 2 egg yolks and 1 teaspoon of heavy cream, but I used a whole egg whisked with a pinch of salt (which loosens the protein structure of the egg) because I didn’t want 2 extra egg whites to use up.

I wouldn’t have minded the croissants being just a little bit sweeter. Next time I’ll increase the sugar to ½ cup (100 grams).

You don’t use all of the leaven, because the leftover leaven becomes the starter that you keep and feed and use in the future.

Poolish:
200 grams (1½ cups) all-purpose flour
200 grams (⅔ cup) water, room temperature
3 grams (1 teaspoon) instant yeast

Leaven:
1 tablespoon starter
220 grams (1⅔ cups) all-purpose flour
220 grams (¾ cup) water, room temperature

Dough:
450 grams (1¾ cup) whole milk, room temperature
300 grams leaven
400 grams polish (this is all of the poolish)
1000 grams (7 cups) bread flour
28 grams (4½ teaspoons) salt
85 grams (7 tablespoons) sugar
10 grams (1 tablespoon) instant yeast

400 grams (28 tablespoons, although I used a full pound (32 tablespoons)) unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
Egg wash

1. To make the poolish: In a small bowl, mix the flour, water, and yeast. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 3-4 hours or store overnight in the refrigerator.

2. To make the leaven: In a small bowl, mix the starter, flour, and water. Cover and let rise overnight.

croissants tartine bread 2

3. Add the milk, leaven, and poolish to a large mixing bowl; stir to break up the doughs. Add the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast; mix thoroughly until there are no bits of dry flour. Cover and let rest for 25-40 minutes. Fold the dough a few times by using a dough scraper to scoop up one side of the dough and drape it over the rest of the dough.

croissants tartine bread 3

4. Allow the dough to ferment for 3 to 4 hours and give it another few turns every 30 minutes. This takes the place of kneading. Be more gentle with the turning toward the end of the rising time. The dough is ready when it’s slightly increased in volume and is full of air bubbles. Flatten the dough into a rectangle, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.

croissants tartine bread 5

5. Just before rolling out the dough, cut the cold butter into cubes. Gradually adding the ½ cup flour, pound the butter with a rolling pin until it comes together into a cohesive mass. Alternatively, use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment to mix the cold butter and flour. Mold the butter into a rectangle measuring 8 by 14 inches.

croissants tartine bread 6

6. On a work surface dusted with flour, roll the dough out to a rectangle measuring 12 by 20 inches. Lay the butter block over the dough so that it covers about two-thirds of the dough. Fold the uncovered third of dough toward the center over the butter. Fold the other end of the dough, with the butter, over the center, as if you’re folding a letter. Turn the dough a quarter turn; roll it again into a 12 by 20-inch rectangle, then fold it in thirds. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. (You can chill the dough longer, but you’ll need to let it warm up a few minutes before rolling so the butter isn’t too stiff.)

croissants tartine bread 10

7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll it out to a 12 by 20-inch rectangle, fold it in thirds, rotate it a quarter-turn, and repeat the rolling and folding. Chill for an hour. Repeat the rolling, folding, rotating, rolling and folding once more. Wrap the folded dough in plastic wrap and freeze it for 1-2 hours. If you don’t plant to finish the croissants until the next morning, transfer the dough to the refrigerator after a couple hours in the freezer. (You can store the dough in the freezer for several days at this point, letting it defrost overnight before using.)

croissants tartine bread 14

8. Roll the dough into a rectangle that is 18 by 24 inches and is about ½-inch thick. If the dough becomes very elastic, let it rest (preferably in the refrigerator) for several minutes before continuing the rolling. Cut the dough in half to form two 9 by 24-inch rectangles. Cut each rectangle into 8 triangles. Roll up each triangle, starting at the wide side. Transfer the croissants to a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing them at least an inch apart. Cover them loosely and let rise until they are about 50 percent larger than their original size, about 2 hours. They will be firm, but puffed. (You can also refrigerate them overnight at this point, which is what I did.)

croissants tartine bread 15

9. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the croissants with the egg wash. Bake until they are deep golden brown, crisp, and flaky, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

croissants tartine bread 17

tapioca pudding comparison

tapioca pudding 11

Everyone knows there’s science in cooking – reactions occur when heat is applied to ingredients or even just mixed together, like the bubbles that form when baking powder is stirred into batter. But rarely when I cook do I feel like a scientist. I understand some of what’s happening on a molecular level, but following the steps in a recipe, or even hashing out my own path on the stovetop, does not feel like doing science.

tapioca pudding 2

Recipe comparisons are when I get to be an experimentalist and a cook/baker all at once, and that’s why I love them, despite all the work they entail. I thought a tapioca pudding comparison would be easier, and so I wouldn’t mind sharing it with Jen as part of her Friday Favorites series. And besides, Jen’s an engineer – that’s just a scientist with a purpose. It wasn’t until later that I found out that Jen doesn’t like pudding.

tapioca pudding 9

I would have loved for my first shared comparison to be one of those rarities in which there’s a clear favorite, but there wasn’t even one recipe that we loved. Cooks Illustrated’s had a weird gritty texture, Kraft’s was lacking flavor, and I completely messed up Mark Bittman’s recipe – although that one ended up being Dave’s favorite. Clearly more experimentation is in order, and that is absolutely fine with me. Check out Jen’s blog to get the full analysis, more photos, and the recipes – the very first pudding recipes in her blog, and perhaps the only ones she’ll ever post!

One year ago: Tacos al Pastor
Two years ago: Crockpot Chicken Broth
Three years ago: Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic

tapioca pudding 10

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

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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.

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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.

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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

chocolate mousse comparison

I realized something potentially important with this comparison. When Dave and I and whoever else participate in comparisons, we just dive in and start throwing out adjectives. That’s never been a problem before, but this time, Dave and I had some confusion over what we each wanted in a mousse. Perhaps my tasters and I should clarify beforehand what we’re looking for. I know I wanted an exceptionally chocolately flavor and an exceptionally light texture. I don’t think Dave knew what he wanted…or even what chocolate mousse is supposed to be.

I compared David Lebovitz’s recipe from A Sweet Life in Paris (DL), Cooks Illustrated’s Premium Chocolate Mousse recipe from 2006 (CI Premium), and Cooks Illustrated’s older Chocolate Mousse recipe (found in The New Best Recipe) (CI). It drives me crazy when Cooks Illustrated publishes multiple recipes for the same thing without referencing the previous recipe. I’m always left wondering which is the better version. What better way to find out than to make them both?

DL – This recipe is simple: chocolate melted with water, egg yolks added, beaten egg whites folded in. I haven’t read A Sweet Life and couldn’t find this recipe on David’s blog, but according to Annie, he explains in his book that this is the most traditional version of chocolate mousse.

CI Premium – This recipe is designed specifically for fancy schmancy chocolate. (I was using Valrhona.) The recipe contains the chocolate, water, and eggs called for in Lebovitz’s recipe, but spices things up with cocoa (balanced by the addition of sugar), brandy, and espresso powder. Folding in whipped cream lightens the mixture.

CI – Unlike the other two recipes, this one contains butter and no water. In addition to the requisite chocolate and eggs, it includes coffee (or alcohol), vanilla, sugar and whipped cream.

DL – Lightened by only beaten egg whites and not whipped cream, this was the heaviest mousse of the three. It was thicker, grainy, and more solid, with a cocoa-like flavor (despite containing no cocoa) and a bitter aftertaste. For Dave, it was too much – too rich and too dense.  For me, it just wasn’t as light as I want my mousse.

CI Premium – This was softer and sweeter than the other mousses. Dave thought it was the most balanced.

CI – This was light and airy and chocolately, and for me, perfect in every way. I love its bittersweetness, I love the meringue bubbles that pop in my mouth, I love how it’s firm but light.

The confusion came when Dave said that none of them were as good as my standard recipe – but I hadn’t made chocolate mousse in nearly four years, and CI’s recipe from The New Best Recipe was what I used then. Furthermore, Dave’s favorite of the three was CI’s Premium recipe, because it was “puddinglike”. But a mousse shouldn’t be puddinglike (and I confess it probably hadn’t chilled long enough).

It looks like for this comparison, there is only one opinion that matters, and that is mine, of course. Good thing Cooks Illustrated’s Chocolate Mousse was so clearly the winner. Well, I was the winner too, because I got to eat three delicious chocolate mousses – and one perfect mousse – in one sitting.


left to right: CI Premium, CI, DL

One year ago: Chicken Mushroom Spinach Lasagna
Two years ago: Pecan Sour Cream Biscuits
Three years ago: Spaghetti and Meatballs

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Chocolate Mousse
(from Cooks Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe)

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped coarse
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons strong coffee or 4 teaspoons brandy, orange-flavored liqueur, or light rum
4 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup chilled heavy cream, plus more for serving

1. Melt the chocolate in a medium bowl set over a large saucepan of barely simmering water or in an uncovered Pyrex measuring cup microwaved at 50 percent power for 3 minutes, stirring once at the 2-minute mark. Whisk the butter into the melted chocolate, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in the salt, vanilla, and coffee until completely incorporated. Whisk in the yolks, one at a time, making sure that each is fully incorporated before adding the next; set the mixture aside.

2. Stir the egg whites in a clean mixing bowl set over a saucepan of hot water until slightly warm, 1 to 2 minutes; remove the bowl from the saucepan. Beat with an electric mixer set at medium speed until soft peaks form. Raise the mixer speed to high and slowly add the sugar; beat to soft peaks. Whisk a quarter of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites.

3. Whip the cream to soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the mousse. Spoon portions of the mousse into 6 or 8 individual serving dishes or goblets. Cover and refrigerate to allow the flavors to blend, at least 2 hours. (The mousse may be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.) Serve with additional whipped cream.

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Dark Chocolate Mousse
(from Cooks Illustrated)

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 62 to 70 percent cacao, chopped fine
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
7 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon brandy
3 large eggs, separated
⅛ teaspoon table salt
1 cup heavy cream, plus 2 more tablespoons (chilled)

1. Melt the chocolate, 2 tablespoons sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, water, and brandy in a medium heatproof bowl set over a saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water, stirring frequently until smooth. Remove from the heat.

2. Whisk the egg yolks, 1½ teaspoons sugar, and salt in a medium bowl until the mixture lightens in color and thickens slightly, about 30 seconds. Pour the melted chocolate into the egg mixture and whisk until thoroughly combined. Let cool until slightly warmer than room temperature, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. In the clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1½ teaspoons sugar, increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, about 1 minute. Detach the whisk and bowl from the mixer and whisk the last few strokes by hand, making sure to scrape any unbeaten whites from the bottom of the bowl. Using the whisk, stir about one-quarter of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it; gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a rubber spatula until a few white streaks remain.

4. Whip the heavy cream at medium speed until it begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, about 15 seconds longer. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the mousse until no white streaks remain. Spoon the mousse into 6 to 8 individual serving dishes or goblets. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set and firm, at least 2 hours. (The mousse may be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)

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Chocolate Mousse
(from David Lebovitz via Annie’s Eats)

I just got David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris, which contains this original recipe, in the mail. I’ve copied the recipe in his words. I also noticed that he calls for 2 tablespoons brandy or coffee, which I didn’t use.

7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
3 tablespoons water
4 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
Pinch of coarse salt

1. In a medium-sized bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, begin melting the chocolate with the water, making sure not to let it get too hot. Take the bowl off the heat when the chocolate is almost completely melted, then stir gently until smooth. Set aside.

2. In a clean, dry bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until they form stiff peaks when you lift the whip. They should still be smooth and creamy, not grainy.

3. Stir the egg yolks into the chocolate, then fold one-third of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it up.

4. Fold the remaining egg whites into the chocolate just until there are no visible streaks of whites. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours. (You can also divide the mousse into individual custard cups, ramekins, or goblets before serving.)

 

chocolate frosting comparison

Let me put this right out there: Chocolate frosting isn’t my favorite thing. Chocolate cake, chocolate cookies, chocolate pie, yes. Vanilla frosting, cream cheese frosting, lemon frosting, yes. Chocolate ganache, that richest of chocolate glazes, yes. But frosting, not so much, and so this comparison was by request. And curiosity – is there a chocolate frosting out there for the likes of me?

My theory is that I haven’t found the perfect chocolate frosting because I like chocolate things to be very very chocolately. A hint of chocolately is just a tease. And with frosting, you’re playing a balancing act between squeezing in as much chocolate flavor as possible while maintaining a light, fluffy texture.

I compared Cooks Illustrated’s Creamy Chocolate Frosting (CI), Ina Garten’s Chocolate Frosting associated with her recipe for Beatty’s Chocolate Cake (BC), and Martha Stewart’s Chocolate Frosting (MS). Other than the addition of some sort of chocolate and some sort of sugar, they have little in common. Well, that and butter. Lots and lots of butter.  I used the same bittersweet chocolate for all of the recipes. We tasted the frostings plain.

CI (wider star tip) – This recipe is a swiss meringue buttercream, in which warmed egg whites and sugar are beaten together until fluffy, then soft butter is slowly whipped in. Melted bittersweet chocolate and vanilla extract are added at the end. The ratio of chocolate to sugar and butter in this recipe is 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate to 0.4 ounces granulated sugar and 2.0 tablespoons butter.

MS (round star tip) – This recipe is a mixture of butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar, cocoa, sour cream, and bittersweet chocolate. For every 1 ounce of bittersweet chocolate, there is 0.8 ounces powdered sugar and 1.6 tablespoons of dairy fat (from various sources).  Plus 1.5 teaspoons of cocoa powder.  My ratio system doesn’t work so well for this recipe.

BC (finer star tip) – This frosting includes butter, an egg yolk, vanilla, powdered sugar, coffee and bittersweet chocolate. There is 0.8 ounces powdered sugar and 2.7 tablespoons butter for every 1 ounce of bittersweet chocolate.

CI –This frosting was smooth and light with no graininess.  With the least amount of sugar and a high ratio of chocolate to butter, I was expecting this to deliver the rich chocolate flavor I was hoping for, but it tasted as light as it felt.  Maybe all that air from whipping the egg whites to a meringue diluted the flavor?

MS – This frosting was creamy and mousse-like, although a bit grainy. It was by far Dave’s favorite, and it was mine as well.  (The magic word is mousse-like.)

BC – This frosting was thinner and a little grainy. Similar to Ina Garten’s popular brownie recipe, I thought the coffee flavor was overpowering.  It would make a great mocha icing, but for a classic chocolate frosting, the coffee powder should be eliminated or at least reduced to a pinch.

(Cooks Illustrated, Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa, Martha Stewart)

It comes as no surprise to me that the recipe that includes cream cheese is my favorite. It does surprise me that Dave would feel that way, as he generally isn’t as much of a fan of cream cheese. Perhaps it’s because Martha Stewart’s recipe had the least fat per chocolate in it, although it does have plenty of other goodies in there.  Or perhaps that extra sprinkling of cocoa bumped up the chocolate flavor more than I expected. Whatever the reason, this rich creamy frosting was chocolately enough to overlook the slightly grainy texture.

Already, just hearing about this comparison, new chocolate frosting recipes are being recommended, so this isn’t the end of this story. But at least it’s a beginning.

(Cooks Illustrated, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa)

One year ago: Jalapeno-Baked Fish with Roasted Tomatoes and Potatoes
Two years ago: Pot Roast
Three years ago: Vanilla Frosting comparison

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Chocolate Frosting
(from Martha Stewart via Annie Eats)

14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
9 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups (12 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
6 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sour cream

1. Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Set aside to cool until just barely warm.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Gradually mix in the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder and salt. Beat in the melted and cooled chocolate and then the sour cream. Continue beating until the mixture is smooth and well blended. Frost cupcakes immediately.

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Creamy Chocolate Frosting
(from Cooks Illustrated)

⅓ cup (2⅓ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large egg whites
pinch table salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into tablespoon pieces
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to 85-100 degrees
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine the sugar, egg whites, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set over a small saucepan of simmering water, and, whisking constantly, cook until the mixture is slightly thickened, foamy, and registers 150 degrees on an instant read thermometer, 2-4 minutes.

2. Fit bowl to stand mixer, and with the whisk attachment, beat at medium speed, until mixture is the consistency of shaving cream and slightly cooled, 1-3 minutes. Add butter 1 piece at a time, until smooth and creamy. The frosting may look curdled halfway through, but it will smooth out eventually.

3. Once all the butter has been added, pour in the cooled chocolate and vanilla. Mix until well combined. Increase speed to medium-high and until light and fluffy, another 30 seconds to a minute. Frost cupcakes.

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Chocolate Buttercream
(from Ina Garten)

6 ounces good semisweet chocolate (recommended: Callebaut)
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1¼ cups (5 ounces) sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder

1. Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes. Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Don’t whip! Spread immediately on the cooled cake.

yellow cake comparison

I was going to wait to post this because now I want to do more yellow cake experiments. But this week I have a couple batches of cookies I want to make, and last week it was bread pudding and chocolate mousse, and next week it’ll be something else. By the time I find an opportunity to make more yellow cake, I’ll have forgotten everything about this batch.

The three recipes I chose for this comparison are Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Yellow Cake (CI), Martha Stewart’s Yellow Butter Cake (MS), and Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake (SK). Like all yellow cakes, they all include butter, whole eggs (unlike white cake, which only uses the whites), granulated sugar, vanilla, salt, leavener, flour (cake or all-purpose), and dairy (whole milk or buttermilk). I baked them all as mini cupcakes at the same temperature for the same amount of time.  I used the same size scoop to transfer the batter to the muffin cups.

CI (blue wrappers), which uses cake flour and buttermilk, is unique among these recipes in its inclusion of oil and extra egg yolks. It is also mixed like a chiffon cake, in which the dry ingredients and liquid ingredients (including melted butter) are combined, then beaten egg whites are folded in.

MS (red wrappers) uses a mixture of all-purpose flour and cake flour, as well as whole milk instead of buttermilk (it is therefore missing the baking soda the other two recipes require to balance the acidity of the buttermilk). It is mixed using the creaming method, in which the butter and sugar are combined, the eggs are added, then the milk and dry ingredients.

SK (yellow wrappers) also uses cake flour and buttermilk. There are no tricks up this cake’s sleeves. It is also mixed with the creaming method.

CI (blue) was buttery and moist with a nice sponginess. The top was a little sticky (easily covered up with frosting, but we were testing them plain) and crisp. It was my and Dave’s favorite.

MS (red) was less sticky and fluffier, but it was also less buttery, and, to be honest, a little bland. It has half the salt as the other recipes, so that’s probably the culprit, although it could be the use of whole milk instead of buttermilk.

SK (yellow) had a nice, buttery flavor, but a solid, flat top. For cupcakes, the flat-topped spreading is a deal breaker for me, but I believe it would be fine for a layer cake. And because this cake has over three times more baking soda than CI, I suspect that cutting it in half would solve the spreading problem, which I attribute to overrising.


(sorry I switched the order around in this photo)

So the cake with the best texture (MS) – fluffy, slightly domed, with no stickiness or overly hard tops – had the least impressive flavor. I’m inclined to think that it would be easier to bump up the flavor of that recipe than it would be to adjust the texture of the others. I would also love to try SK as a layer cake and/or with less baking soda. To complicate matters further, a reader recently pointed out another yellow cake comparison with several more recipes I’d like to try.

In the meantime, Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake has the best balance of these three recipes of full, buttery flavor and a light texture. And once the cakes were smothered with chocolate frosting, I couldn’t tell the difference between them anyway.

(Oh, were you wondering what the best chocolate frosting is? It turns out I compared three chocolate frosting recipes in the same (exhausting) night. I’ll discuss those next.)

One year ago: Oatmeal Pancakes
Two years ago: Red Velvet Cake comparison (odd coincidence)
Three years ago: Potstickers

Printer Friendly Recipe
Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake (from Cooks Illustrated)

Makes two 9-inch round cakes

2½ cups (10 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for dusting pans
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon table salt
1¾ cups (12.25 ounces) sugar
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks plus 3 large egg whites, at room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Grease the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and knock out the excess. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar together in a large bowl. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and yolks.

2. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-high speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar; continue to beat until stiff peaks just form, 30 to 60 seconds (whites should hold peak but mixture should appear moist). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

3. Add the flour mixture to the now-empty mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. With the mixer running at low speed, gradually pour in the butter mixture and mix until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), about 15 seconds. Stop mixer and scrape the whisk and sides of the bowl. Return the mixer to medium-low speed and beat until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds.

4. Using rubber spatula, stir ⅓ of the whites into the batter to lighten, then add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Lightly tap the pans against the counter 2 or 3 times to dislodge any large air bubbles.

5. Bake until the cake layers begin to pull away from sides of pans and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 20-22 minutes. Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the cakes from the sides of the pan with a small knife, then invert onto a greased wire rack and peel off the parchment. Invert the cakes again and cool completely on rack, about 1½ hours.

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Yellow Butter Cake (from Martha Stewart via Annie’s Eats)

Makes two 9-inch round cakes

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
1½ cups (7.2 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans
1½ cups (6 ounces) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1¾ cups (12.15) granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups milk, at room temperature

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper. Butter and flour the edges of the pans, tapping out the excess; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder, and salt; whisk together to blend well and set aside.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk. Beat each addition just until incorporated.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared baking pans. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through baking, until the cakes are golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30-35 minutes. Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pans to help remove the cakes. Invert the cakes onto the rack and peel off the parchment. Let the cakes cool completely before frosting. Level the cakes if necessary.

Printer Friendly Recipe
Best Birthday Cake (from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes two 9-inch rounds

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (16.6 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

3. Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.