Gingerbread Cookies

I am a heavy user of spices in all my cooking, including baking. Gingerbread, with its mixture of warming spices, is a favorite holiday treat. Gingerbread cookies typically come out hard and dry, serving more as vehicles for decoration rather than something you would want to eat. The exception are the soft, cake-like cookies that I’ve occasionally encountered through my childhood: that’s what I wanted to make.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find the recipe from Cooks’ Illustrated. The original version creates a huge batch, but I’ve modified it for a small family.

Ingredients

Cookies

  • 140 g AP flour
  • 50 g dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons (56 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
  • 80 g molasses
  • 10 g milk

Glaze

  • 120 g powdered  sugar
  • 17 g corn syrup
  • 20 g milk

Instructions

  1. In a food processor, combine the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt. Pulse a few times to combine.
  2. Add the pieces of butter and process until sandy, about 15 seconds.
  3. Mix the molasses and milk and then pour in with the machine running. Continue to run until dough is mixed and comes together, about 10 seconds more.
  4. Remove dough from mixer and place between two pieces of parchment paper.
  5. Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick, then place on a baking sheet and transfer to the freezer for 15 mintutes
  6. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  7. Peel off the top layer of parchment, flour lightly, then flip over onto counter. Remove the other piece of parchment.
  8. Use cookie cutters to cut out the cookies and transfer them to a new baking sheet lined with parchment.
  9. You can reassemble remaining dough and reroll as needed. Ideally, you should freeze a bit in between so the cookies come out clean, but it’s up to you.
  10. Bake for about 10 minutes, cool on the pan for two minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
  11. When cookies are cool, mix the glaze ingredients together and glaze cookies.

I personally like the cookies wtihout glaze, but you can be creative using the glaze for decoration.

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Cinnamon Bread

Formaggio, a high end grocery store in Cambridge, has an amazing cinnamon bread. It forgoes the usual raisins and adds cinnamon sugar on all sides instead of restricting it to the “swirl”.

To replicate this at home, I started a dough based on King Arthur Flour’s butterflake bread (buttery, but sub-brioche levels of richness) and added a cinnamon sugar coating inside and out.

Ingredients

  • 450g King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • 21g potato flour
  • 35g sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast or active dry yeast
  • 227g milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 57g melted butter (4 tablespoons)
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 50 g sugar

Instructions

  1. Mix the flours, 35 g sugar, salt, and yeast.
  2. Beat the eggs into the milk, then slowly pour in the melted butter while stirring.
  3. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well.
  4. Kneed by hand or with stand mixer until dough is smooth and elastic.
  5. Let rise until doubled, about 1–2 hours, or overnight in the fridge.
  6. Split dough into three equal portions
  7. Roll each portion into a cylinder about 12 inches long. 
  8. In a large bowl, mix 50 g of sugar with 1 tablespoon cinnamon and whisk until well combined.
  9. Briefly dip each dough cylinder into a bowl of water, then roll in cinnamon sugar mixture until completely coated.image
  10. Braid the three strands together and place in greased loaf pan. Cover loosely with plastic wrap.imageimage
  11. Preheat oven to 350 °F.
  12. When dough rises just above the rim of the loaf plan, place the loaf in the oven.image
  13. Cook until internal temperature reaches 190 °F, about 30 minutes.
  14. Take out the loaf and let cool completely on a rack.image

The bread came out nearly perfect. The key is ensuring that you use enough cinnamon sugar to keep the bread sweet and flavorful.

Going Pro

I used the iPad from its first incarnation, and was an early fan of the form factor. Despite this, I am now the only member of my household without one (even my two year old daughter has inherited her own). I simultaneously handed down my old Mini and upgraded my phone to the iPhone 6 Plus. The iPhone’s screen is nowhere near as expansive as the iPad’s, but it’s big enough to be fairly productive, and eminently more portable. 

I find myself intrigued by the iPad Pro. It’s different enough from the phone’s form factor to serve a different purpose. While it’s tempting to think of the iPad as more limited than a laptop, I can do a surprising amount from my phone, and the iPad is still more capable. 

My inclination is to wait for now. The early reviews seem bullish on the hardware, but my sense is we need another iOS revision before the software catches up to the potential (the keyboard cover also sounds like it could use an upgrade). That said, it’s striking that it’s more powerful than the MacBook, and I could see it become a versitile computer within the next year or two. 

Roasted Cauliflower

I eat a fair amount of broccoli, but I’m also partial to it’s unmodified cousin, cauliflower. I grew up with Indian-style aloo gobi, and still enjoy this, but it’s a bit finicky to prepare at home, particularly during a busy weekday.

To solve this problem, I turned to an approach to vegetables that’s become increasingly popular in my household. It’s dead simple and basically foolproof (and works for broccoli as well). Here are the basic steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Wash one head cauliflower (or broccoli) and cut into bit size pieces, discarding the stems.
  3. In a large bowl, toss florets with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and flavorings of your choice. Some suggestions:
    • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and 1 teaspoon lemon zest
    • 1 teaspoon whole cumin and 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
    • sliced jalepenos and lime zest
  4. Spread the cauliflower on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes, turning cauliflower about halfway through.
  5. Check at 20 minutes if it’s done to your liking and enjoy.

So easy and minimal work. The roasting really brings out the sweetness in the cauliflower.

Shrimp and Grits

With a wife and two kids, all with different tastes, it can be a challenge for me to find a dish that will please the whole family. Sometimes, I luck out and stumble across a crowd-pleaser. I had read about the popularity of the southern favorite shrimp and grits, but had never tried it myself. Though I’m generally a big fan of shrimp, I had never even tried grits before (though we had an unopened box of Quaker 5-minute grits sitting in the pantry, purchased after my wife had some at work).

After scouring the internet, it became apparent that there’s a huge range of recipes out there. Most of the grits recipes are quite rich, with butter, cheese, and/or heavy cream, usually in large quantities.  The shrimp is universally cooked with bacon. I turned to my old standby, Cook’s Illustrated, and found that the companion site Cook’s Country had an interesting recipe. While it made heavy use of butter and included a shirmp-stock based gravy, it was the only recipe I came across that lacked cheese. I’m not a huge fan of overly-rich dishes, but clearly some amount of cheese was de rigueur.

Starting with the Cook’s Country version, I blended in elements from various other recipes online to hit the following goals:

  • use the greater shrimp:grits ratio from the Cook’s Country version
  • create a shrimp stock and gravy using the shrimp shells
  • use bacon
  • use milk in the grits for extra creaminess
  • use cheese in the grits
  • use enough butter and cheese to add richness without making the dish overly heavy

Ingredients

Grits

  • 1 cup grits (I used Quaker 5-minute grits)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2-4 ounces of grated cheddar cheese, to taste (I used 2.5 ounces – 70 g)

Shrimp

  • 1.5 pounds large shrimp with shells
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 strips of bacon (or 2 if using thick-cut bacon), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Instructions

Grits

  • Cook the grits as instructed on the package, using milk/water combination instead of milk alone (I boiled the liquid, added grits, and simmered for 5-7 minutes until thickened. It helps to whisk grits after adding to prevent clumping.
  • Add in cheese and keep warm
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Shrimp

  • Peel and devein shrimp, reserving shells
  • In an nonstick pan, melt one tablespoon butter of medium heat and add shells, cooking for about 7 minutes until shells are toasty and spotted
  • Add tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds, stirring
  • Add about 2.5 cups of water, bring to a boil, and simmer covered for another 5 minutes
  • Strain shrimp shells and liquid, saving resulting stock and discarding shells
  • Wipe down pan and add bacon pieces
  • Cook until crispy, then add in garlic and shrimp
  • Cook for a couple minutes until edges of shrimp have are no longer translucent, but shrimp are not cooked through
  • Empty shrimp and bacon into a bowl and wipe out pan
  • Melt another tablespoon of butter
  • Add in flour, whisking into butter and cook for about a minute until fragrant
  • Whisk in shrimp stock and continue whisking until clumps dissolve
  • Cook for 5-10 minutes until thickened, then add in shirmp/bacon mixture and cook for a few more minutes until shrimp are cooked through
  • Add lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste

Serve the grits and ladle some shrimp and gravy on top and enjoy. I added some red pepper flakes and Tobasco for added flavor to my plate. These went great with some simply braised brussel sprouts, which cut the heaviness of the overall dish.

Note the picture above is just the shrimp and gravy. It was so good, I forgot to take a picture of the combo until I was packing up the (few) leftovers.

Sprouted Whole Wheat Bagels

I continue on my whole wheat kick by trying something that seems like a compromise: 100% whole wheat bagels. The source was the same as the inspiration for my traditional bagels: Peter Reinhart. These bagels can be put together a lot faster than traditional bagels, largely because of the distinct characteristics of sprouted whole wheat. According to Reinhart, the sprouted wheat requires less time to develop flavor compared with traditional wheat.

If you look online, you’ll find a vocal group touting the health advantages of sprouted grains. I’m not sure how much truth there is to these claims, but I’m all for convenience. I ended up needing quite a bit more flour than the 510g called for in Reinhart’s recipe. His book Bread Revolution describes sprouted wheat flour as absorbing water much more readily than its unsprouted relatives, but I did not find this to be the case with my batch from Arrowhead Mills. Despite coming straight off the shelves at Whole Foods, the flour was a couple months past its listed expiration date, so this may have been a factor.

Ingredients

  • 560 g sprouted whole wheat flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons salt
  • 1.25 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 397 g lukewarm water
  • 21 g barley malt syrup

Directions

  • Mix flour, salt, and yeast in a large bowl.
  • Mix water and malt syrup and pour into flour mixture
  • Mix for 30-60 seconds until no dry flour remains and the dough is shaggy
  • Let rest uncovered for 5 minutes, then kneed for two minutes. The dough should be smooth and only slightly tacky. I needed to add quite a bit of flour above the amount recommended by Reinhart.
  • Form the dough into bagels (I used 99 g of dough per bagel), place on oil-misted parchment on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Take the bagels out of the fridge about 1 hour before baking and preheat oven to 425 °F.
  • Boil bagels for 30 seconds per side in a 0.5% lye solution (25g per 5L water).
  • Bake for about 20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through if using two pans.
  • Cool on a rack. Extra bagels can be frozen after they cool. I like to slice my bagels before freezing, so they can be toasted right out of the freezer.

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The bagels were great, though decidedly different from non-whole wheat bagels. They had a nice sweetness to them, and the everything topping  went particularly well with the whole wheat dough.

Chocolate Buttermilk Pancakes

I’ve tried several varieties of pancakes, but the standard buttermilk pancake remains one of my favorites. There’s something about adding chocolate to breakfast which is irresistible. Chocolate chip pancakes are a bit of overkill for me, but chocolate pancakes seem more natural to me. It’s like a chocolate cake for breakfast. The path chosen by most online is simply to add cocoa powder to a typical pancake batter. So that’s what I did. I used a white whole wheat base for this particular recipe.

Ingredients

  • 130 g white whole wheat flour
  • 25 g sugar (2 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 baking soda
  • 10 g cocoa powder (2 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 145 g buttermilk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  • combine all dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly
  • mix liquid ingredients well and add into dry ingredients, taking care not to overmix (less of an issue with a whole wheat base)
  • allow to rest for 5-10 minutes
  • cook pancakes for about 3 minutes per side on a 300 °F griddle

I made a few changes to my whole wheat pancake base for this recipe. I decreased the flour to 130 g to accommodate the cocoa powder, doubled the sugar, and just melted the butter instead of browning it (since I suspected the flavor would be masked by the cocoa).

I have two kinds of cocoa powder at home: regular Hershey’s unsweetened and Droste Dutch-processed. Which one to use? Why not experiment: I split the batter and half with each type. The Hershey box says that 5g is one tablespoon and Droste says that the equivalent is 1 teaspoon. I suspect one is wrong, but I just went with 5 g of each. In the dry state, the Droste (left) yielded a darker mix:

IMG_0719

 

Interestingly, once I added the liquid, the Hershey’s batter (below) ended up darker.

IMG_0720

 

On the griddle, they were almost indistinguishable. The Droste pancakes (left in the image below and at the top of the post) rose a bit higher. I suspect this was because it’s more alkaline and reacted more with the acidic buttermilk.

IMG_0721

 

The pancakes were (of course) quite good, but next time I’ll probably increase the cocoa to boost the chocolate flavor or add some instant espresso. I couldn’t really detect much difference between the two cocoas, so it doesn’t matter which one you use. The Droste yielded slightly fluffier pancakes, but I suspect the same could be achieved by increasing the baking soda.

 

Perfect Whole Wheat Pancakes

I’ve stuck with my perfect pancake recipe for several years, but there’s always room for improvement. I’ve recently been experiment with using white whole wheat flour. It’s easier to adapt to white flour recipe than regular (“red”) whole wheat, but has the same general characteristics and potential health advantages.

When it comes to pancakes, I’m not willing to sacrifice the product for nebulous health benefits, but it turns out that whole wheat actually works extremely well in pancake batter. The ability of whole wheat to interfere with gluten development, a disadvantage in many breads, helps keep pancake tender and fluffy. A little more liquid is needed, and the batter ends up a bit thicker and harder to manage, but the results are great. I also find that using browned butter helps add another dimension to the flavor.

Ingredients

  • 140 g white whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon (12.5 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 245 g buttermilk (about 1 cup)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl an whisk together
  2. Mix buttermilk and egg together
  3. Melt butter in a small pan under medium-low heat until small brown flecks appear, then transfer to a bowl to cool slightly
  4. Add butter into buttermilk-egg mixture. If the butter is still warm, stir the mixture briskly while adding the butter slowly
  5. Add vanilla to the liquid
  6. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir or whisk until combined, taking care not to overmix. The batter will be thick.
  7. Allow the batter to rest for 5-10 minutes, then cook for about 2-3 minutes per side on a 300 °F griddle.

I’ve been preferring this to the white flour version. It feels a bit more substantial. Despite the whole wheat flour, these cook up light and fluffy.

Thai Grilled Chicken

I love to grill, and boneless, skinless chicken thighs are one of the most forgiving meats. They taste great with a range of seasonings, cook quickly yet hold up well to overcooking, and are an easy size to work with. I use them regularly for burritos, but I’ve also started adapting them to Asian flavors. There are various versions of Thai Grilled Chicken out there, but I’ve gravitated toward this easy recipe, which I modified slightly for this batch.

Ingredients:

  • 500 g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/3 cup Thai basil, chopped fine
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1.5 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1.5 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1.5 tablespoons brown sugar
  • one tablespoon (or a few squirts) of fresh lime juice

Directions:

  • Combine all ingredients except the chicken and lime juice in a bowl

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  • Trim the chicken of excess fat, then add to marinade

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  • Mix well to combine then marinate in the refrigerator 1 hour to overnight
  • Heat a grill at high heat until hot (~10 minutes), brushing grate with oil
  • Remove chicken from marinade, allowing excess to drip off, then start grilling, flipping occasionally until well charred and the internal temperature is at least 160 °F.
  • Squirt with fresh lime juice

A few observations from my latest attempt: I could have probably used about 2/3 or half the marinade for this amount of chicken. The chicken initially had a bit of bitterness, which I remedied by adding a bit more sugar. On future attempts, I may increase the brown sugar or use only the cilantro leaves instead of the leaves and the stems. You could also amp it up with some Thai chilis or garlic-chili sauce, but I avoided this because the kids were eating it.

Cake Enhancers in Bread

I usually try to avoid becoming reliant “dough enhancers” on principal, but I’m always up for trying something new. I periodically peruse the offerings from King Arthur and came across their Cake Enahncer, which the King and his followers say is also useful for breads. This mixture of rice starch, polyglycerol ester, and fatty acids are supposed to improve texture and prolong shelf life.

I decided to give them a try in my breakfast buns, since this recipe has become a platform for many of my baking experiments. As per the instructions on the package, I added two tablespoons for about two cups of flour. The buns looked fine when baked, but the bread tasted like a supermaket roll. The texture became soft and lost its gluten-driven chew. It was a Phineas Gage-like transformation: its personality was all wrong. Maybe it’s the name influencing me, but it did make the bread seem more cake-like.

This may be worth a try in a cake batter, but I’m steering clear of using this in bread dough from now on.