Un Petit Trésor: Les Macarons

The time has come. What a lovely night: I’m sitting in my little white desk chair, burning my raspberry scented candle, and weaving together a story I’ve been itching to tell you for ages. Why haven’t I told it sooner? It’s about an endeavor that until this month, I simply haven’t had the nerve to attempt. In keeping with their character and mission, however, the Daring Bakers have once again pushed me out of my comfortable nest. For weeks now I’ve been flapping my wings in a frenzy, uncertain as to whether I’d fly through this challenge like a graceful (albeit nonexistent) Willow Bird, or fall to my (melodramatic) doom. Well, here I am telling you the story I’ve longed to tell you, so it must be good news, right? Let me tell you a tale of magnificence, of magic, of madness, of . . . feet?

Of feet.

Don’t be grossed out, podophobics — these aren’t the sort of feet with heels, arches, and toes. These are the sort of feet that bakers across the world have been dreaming of long before this month’s challenge rolled around. You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m referring to the sweet little feet on a lovely French macaron.

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

Macarons are unique, delicate sandwich cookies with a crisp shell, soft innards, and a variety of different fillings. They’ve been called “the new cupcakes” because of their petite portion sizes, their diverse flavorings, and their meteoric increase in popularity in recent years. While I don’t think they’ll be replacing cupcakes anytime soon, macarons are infinitely versatile. The shells can be flavored with cocoa, powdered fruits, and teas; colored with bright powdered food coloring; and filled with any one of myriad ganaches, frostings, creams, nut butters, or jams.

The recipe for macarons is deceptively short and (forgive my beloved puns) sweet. The plethora of nit-picky addendums to said recipe, however, expose the truth: macarons are difficult to perfect. They’re finicky about ingredient ratios, oven temperatures, folding intensity and duration, your kitchen decor . . . you get the idea. I was nervous but determined as I set my first batch of egg whites out on the counter to age. To be honest, the aforementioned nit-picky how-tos probably added to my anxiety more than they aided my technique. My obsessive compulsive nature was on overdrive trying to compile the 847,948 macaron tips I had read, some of which conflicted and some of which were insanely detailed. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find someone prescribing optimal wrist angles for folding batter or proper macaron-making hairstyles.

At some point, you have to stop reading the mountain of macaron manuals and just jump on in. In that spirit, I picked up some cardamom in the bulk spice section of my local grocer and set to work on Cardamom Pumpkin Macarons.

Macaron recipes all typically follow a basic pattern: beat egg whites and sugar to a stiff meringue, process almonds and powdered sugar together until fine, sift to remove lumps, fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients to form the macaronage, pipe out into circles, and bake. I added the cardamom into my macaron shells and whipped up Tartelette’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese Filling to sandwich between them. I sprinkled some roasted, salted pumpkin seeds in the center of some of these macarons for good measure.

When I knelt to peer into my oven window and saw feet on my macarons, I grabbed my phone and my camera. The former was to call Mike and share my elation, while the latter provided a video memento of my victorious achievement. I love knowing that so many fellow bakers (daring or otherwise) have felt the joy of this very moment while sitting in front of their own ovens.

Despite my elation, my first batch of macarons certainly wasn’t perfect. They were delicious, but the shells were a bit flat. After reflecting and reading, I decided the flatness of the shells was probably due to overfolding my macaronage, and that the Daring Bakers recipe was a risk, seeing as it used a different ratio of ingredients than the accomplished Tartelette. Thus I made the following changes: I would count my strokes as I folded in my dry ingredients, ensuring that they were under 50, and I would use Tartelette’s recipe.

Batch #2 was comprised of plain macaron shells with two fillings: Cream Cheese Buttercream with Strawberry Jam, or David Lebovitz’s Chocolate Filling. And finally, using only 45 folding strokes, egg whites aged for 48 hours, and Tartelette’s careful ratio, I achieved a magnificent macaron!

While both fillings were good, we strongly preferred the chocolate filling to the somewhat overly tangy cream cheese buttercream. Y’all know I love cream cheese, but the taste of this recipe struck me as a bit odd (maybe I did something wrong). I do love the idea of cold, fruity jam on top of cream, but next time I’ll use a regular vanilla buttercream.

These gorgeous bites would be perfect with tea or coffee (I have to admit, though, I’m not a coffee drinker. In fact, that’s Coke Zero in the mug up there — go ahead and laugh). Because of their flexible flavoring, macarons are also ideal for any time of day. Eat a light jam macaron on the patio for breakfast, a buttercream macaron for a late morning brunch, or a ganache-filled macaron for a decadent dessert. Don’t be discouraged if your first try doesn’t yield perfection; the eventual success and satisfaction is worth the wait!

Cardamom Pumpkin Macarons

Recipe By:

-Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern (adapted by me)
Tartelette (pumpkin cream cheese filling)

Yields: around 2 dozen macarons (48 shells)

Macaron Ingredients:
2 ¼ cups (225 g, 8 oz.) icing sugar
2 cups (190 g, 6.7 oz.) almond flour
2 tablespoons (25 g , .88 oz.) granulated sugar
1/2 heaping teaspoon ground cardamom
5 (Have at room temperature) egg whites, at room temperature (I followed the popular recommendation and aged my egg whites for 24-48 hours on a counter top, covered with a paper towel)

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Ingredients:
2 oz (60gr) cream cheese, at room temperature
2 oz (60gr) freshly cooked or canned pumpkin
1/8 tsp ground cloves

1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (93°C). Combine the icing sugar and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.
2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.
3. Sift half of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold to combine. Fold quickly at first and then gently. Add cardamom to your batter. Sift in the remaining almond flour and continue to fold, but be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients. Note: Count your strokes and try to stay under 50. The macaronnage should “flow like magma,” whatever that means, when it’s ready.)
4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.
5. Pipe one-inch-sized (2.5 cm) mounds of batter onto baking sheets (double up on baking sheets if they aren’t professional grade) lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper). Note: I piped mine too close together. Be careful.
6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F (190°C). Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored. Note: Don’t get so excited about their feet that you yank them out too soon; if you do, the feet will collapse into a sad ruffle. Don’t ask me how I know this.
7. Cool on a rack before filling.

For filling: In a medium bowl, mix the cream cheese, pumpkin and cloves until completely incorporated. Fill a pastry bag with this mixture and pipe onto half the shells and top with another shell.

Note: If I had this to do over again, I’d use Tartelette’s recipe (below) with cardamom added for the macarons.

Plain Macarons with Two Fillings: Cream Cheese Buttercream with Strawberry Jam and Chocolate Ganache

Recipe By:

Tartelette (macarons, cream cheese buttercream, adapted by me)
David Lebovitz (chocolate filling)

Yields: around 15-17 macarons (30-34 shells)

Macaron Ingredients:
3 egg whites (about 90 gr)
30 gr granulated sugar
200 gr powdered sugar
110 gr almonds

Cream Cheese Buttercream Filling Ingredients: Note: I would have preferred regular buttercream. This filling had an odd flavor.
1 1/2 sticks (170 gr) butter at room temperature
4 oz (120gr) cream cheese, softened
3 egg whites
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2 Tb water
1 tsp vanilla extract or 1/2 vanilla bean split open and seeded.
Strawberry jam (or flavor of your choice)

Chocolate Filling Ingredients:
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
4 ounces (120 gr) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (15 gr) butter, cut into small pieces

For the whites: the day before (24hrs), separate your eggs and store the whites at room temperature in a covered container. If you want to use 48hrs (or more) egg whites, you can store them in the fridge. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites to a foam, gradually add the sugar until you obtain a glossy meringue. Do not overbeat your meringue or it will be too dry and your macarons won’t work. Combine the almonds and powdered sugar in a food processor and give them a good pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Pass through a sieve. Add them to the meringue,with the coloring and give it a quick fold to break some of the air and then fold the mass carefully until you obtain a batter that flows like magma or a thick ribbon. Give quick strokes at first to break the mass and slow down. The whole process should not take more than 50 strokes. Test a small amount on a plate: if the tops flattens on its own you are good to go. If there is a small beak, give the batter a couple of turns. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a plain tip (Ateco #807 or #809) with the batter and pipe small rounds (1.5 inches in diameter) onto parchment paper lined baking sheets (double up on baking sheets if they aren’t professional grade). Preheat the oven to 300F. Let the macarons sit out for 30 minutes to an hour to harden their shells a bit and bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on their size. Note: Don’t get so excited about their feet that you yank them out too soon; if you do, the feet will collapse into a sad ruffle. Don’t ask me how I know this. Let cool. If you have trouble removing the shells, pour a couple of drops of water under the parchment paper while the sheet is still a bit warm and the macarons will lift up more easily do to the moisture. Don’t let them sit there in it too long or they will become soggy. Once baked and if you are not using them right away, store them in an airtight container out of the fridge for a couple of days or in the freezer.

For strawberry cream cheese filling: In the bowl of stand mixer, whip the egg whites until they have soft peaks. In the meantime, combine 2 Tb water with the sugar to a boil in a heavy saucepan and bring the syrup to 250F. Slowly add the sugar syrup to the egg whites. If you use hand beaters, this is even easier and there is less hot syrup splatter on the side of your bowl and in the whisk attachment of the stand mixer. Continue to whip until the meringue is completely cooled. Slowly add the butter, one tablespoon at a time. The mass might curdle but no panic, continue to whip until it all comes together. Add the cream cheese, the same way, a little at a time until everything is smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract, or paste or bean. Keep it to spreadable consistency for the macarons and refrigerate the leftover for cupcakes or mini toast in the fridge up to 3 days or in the freezer.

To assemble macarons, pipe cream cheese buttercream onto one side topped with a dollop of jam. Sandwich the other shell on top. Refrigerate to set.

For chocolate filling: Heat the cream in a small saucepan with the corn syrup. When the cream just begins to boil at the edges, remove from heat and add the chopped chocolate. Let sit one minute, then stir until smooth. Stir in the pieces of butter. Let cool completely before using. When cool, I whipped the chocolate with a handmixer to achieve a good spreading consistency. I then piped a large dollop in the middle of shells and sandwiched other shells on top. Refrigerate.

Piping batter onto a macaron template and then the cookies fresh out of the oven (and a little wonky).

Blurry proof of feet for batches 1 and 2!

I hope you enjoyed this post! Don’t forget to cruise the Daring Bakers blogroll to see all of the creative French macarons.

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Two Terrific Tarts: Chocolate and Raspberry Cream Cheese

You may have realized by now that I’m prone to bouts of exuberance over kitchen achievements. There’s something about tackling a recipe you’re inexperienced with, doing some kitchen acrobatics, and actually succeeding that just brightens the whole week. After crossing puff pastry off my to-bake list, my next goal was a tart. Ohhhh, tarts. They’re so gorgeous — those lovely scalloped edges; dense, golden brown shells; and artfully arranged fillings. I’d never tasted a homemade tart before, so I didn’t even realize that in addition to being beautiful, they’re also heavenly and scrumptious. I definitely found a new favorite dessert, and around this apartment, that’s saying a lot!

I decided on a Chocolate Tart and a Raspberry Cream Cheese Tart for my adventure. Both tarts use the same tart dough, a version of pâte sucrée from Tyler Florence. Pâte sucrée, also called “sweet dough,” is popular for dessert tarts, whereas it’s sibling, pâte brisée (“short dough”) is widely used for both dessert and savory tarts.

Pâte sucrée is apparently notoriously difficult to roll, and after trying once, I decided not to bother. Martha Stewart recommends (and she makes it looks very easy, of course) grating the chilled dough into your tart pan and gently pressing it into place. I found my dough too soft for this (even after freezing). In fact, when I pressed the dough against the grater, it gave way and I sliced my pinky on my tart pan — they’re not kidding when they say those edges are sharp! It’ll come as no surprise that after almost slicing off a finger, I only grated some of my dough. I tore the rest of it into smaller pieces and pressed them into the pan. After this struggle, I found the perfect technique: simply don’t let the dough come together in a ball in the food processor, but stop processing while it’s still in large crumbly pieces. Then pour these pieces into your tart pan and press them out. Perfect, easy, safe. Watch your fingers!

Once in the pan, the tart dough is chilled and blind-baked into a delicious, buttery crust. You end up with a dense but flaky, beautiful edge surrounding whatever sumptuous filling you choose. Want to know which of these two tarts I think you should make? Follow me on a little tangent . . .

I’m addicted to rating things. I’m always creating arbitrary rating scales in my head for movies, outfits, books, restaurants, nail polish colors . . . the list goes on! After eating a meal, I can instantly rank every component on the plate from favorite to least favorite, and am appalled when Mike can’t do the same (this often results in a conversation about my brain being weird).

In fact, you know the little clicky stars for rating things on Goodreads and Netflix? I love those! I wish there were little rating stars floating around in real life; imagine the rating convenience! You could walk around and poke at the stars next to stores, food, people . . . okay, maybe rating people isn’t the best idea. Yikes! At any rate (ha ha), despite the fact that Mike thinks it’s weird, I love to rate. But why am I telling you all this? Here’s why: I want you to know how impressive it is that I cannot decide which one of these amazing tarts I like the best. They’re very different flavors, and both so indulgent and delicious — I just can’t choose! Hopefully this is all the persuading you need to make both of them. You know you want to!

The Chocolate Tart is rich, decadent, and fudgy. The original recipe actually doesn’t include the mounds of fluffy whipped cream, but I knew we’d need more than just the crust to cut the richness of the filling. I have trouble believing even the biggest chocoholic could eat a piece of this tart without a pile of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Then again, maybe other folks don’t eat a gigantic slab o’ tart like I do (I don’t have the restraint to do slivers, y’all). Regardless, the balance here of the chocolate with the whipped cream topping was perfect — and beautiful.

I picked the raspberry tart because I love combining raspberries with mellow cheeses: brie, ricotta, and (obviously) cream cheese. The tart berries in the luxurious, sweet cream cheese were the perfect flavors to pile into my fancy rectangular (!) tart crust once it was cooled from the oven. (Can you tell I’m excited about this tart being a gigantic rectangle? Oh, how I love Williams-Sonoma! I should’ve taken a fan-girl picture with the sales associate that recommended the rectangular pan. Do you think that would’ve seemed creepy? Nah, I’m sure she gets it all the time.) Anyway, once baked, each little raspberry peeks up from its creamy bed just begging to be slathered with whipped cream and devoured. Of course, Mike and I were willing to oblige.

Both of these tarts were so fantastic that I know you’re going to love them. If you don’t own a tart pan, pick one up — mine was only $9 even at fancy Williams-Sonoma, a price well worth the beauty and enjoyment a tart brings. Then roll up your sleeves and create a beautiful dessert.

Chocolate Whipped Cream Tart

Recipe by: Tyler Florence (adapted by me)
Yields: one standard tart, serves about 10

Tart Shell Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and chopped
1 large egg, separated
2 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed

Filling Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
10 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature

Whipped Cream Topping Ingredients:
2 cups heavy cream
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the pastry: combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl (or food processor). Add the butter and mix with a processor or hands until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the middle of the pastry. Combine the egg yolk with the ice water in a small bowl, whisking to blend; pour it into the well and work it in to bind the dough until it holds together without being too wet or sticky. Squeeze a small amount together, if it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. When the dough is coming together but still in crumbs, pour the crumbs into your tart pan and press them out to fill the pan. Press them up the sides evenly and trim off any excess. Dock the dough (prick it slightly) with a fork all over. Put the tart shell in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes to relax.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the tart pan on a sturdy cookie sheet so it will be easy to move in and out of the oven. Line the tart with aluminum foil and add pie weights or dried beans to keep the sides of the tart from buckling. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and weights. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the crust with a beaten egg white. Return to the oven and continue to bake for another 8 minutes until the tart is golden in color, but not brown. Remember the tart will be cooked again with the filling. It should be cooked but light in color so that it will not burn on the second bake. Set aside to cool and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

To make the filling: Heat the heavy cream and milk in a pot over medium-low flame, until it simmers slightly around the edges. Remove from the heat; add the chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smoothed out. Add the sugar and salt and whisk until well incorporated. Beat the eggs in a small bowl until blended and add them to the chocolate mixture, stir until completely blended. Pour the filling into the cooled tart shell and bake at 325 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes until the filling is set (wiggle the pan to test) and the surface is glossy. If you see any bubbles or cracks forming on the surface, take the tart out right away – that means it is beginning to become over baked. Cool completely before topping with whipped cream.

To make the whipped cream, beat all ingredients together until cream thickens to correct consistency. Pile the mound of whipped cream onto your cooled tart and use a spatula to spread it (messy = more rustic). Shave some leftover chocolate over the cream for decoration.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Tart still cooling in its pan.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Tart

Recipe by: Joy of Baking (with crust by Tyler Florence)
Yields: one standard tart, serves about 10

Tart Shell Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and chopped
1 large egg, separated
2 tablespoons ice water, plus more if needed

Filling Ingredients:
4 ounces (125 grams) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup (180 ml) light cream or half-and-half (coffee cream)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
zest of 1 medium lemon or lime (I used just a spritz of lemon juice)
1 – 1 1/2 cups (110 – 165 grams) fresh raspberries

Whipped Cream Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the pastry: combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl (or food processor). Add the butter and mix with a processor or hands until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the middle of the pastry. Combine the egg yolk with the ice water in a small bowl, whisking to blend; pour it into the well and work it in to bind the dough until it holds together without being too wet or sticky. Squeeze a small amount together, if it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Form the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic; refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Roll out the pastry* on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Carefully roll the dough up onto the pin (this may take a little practice) and lay it inside a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough into the pan so it fits tightly; press the edges into the sides of the pan. It is important to press the dough evenly into every nook and corner of the ring, especially the scalloped edges. Shave off the excess hanging dough with a knife. Dock the dough (prick it slightly) with a fork all over. Put the tart in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to relax.

*Note: As mentioned above, I found it very difficult to roll the dough, and instead carefully grated as much chilled dough as possible into the pan, tearing the rest. I then pressed it into all areas of the pan, being absolutely sure it covered every surface.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the tart pan on a sturdy cookie sheet so it will be easy to move in and out of the oven. Line the tart with aluminum foil and add pie weights or dried beans to keep the sides of the tart from buckling. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and weights. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the crust with a beaten egg white. Return to the oven and continue to bake for another 8 minutes until the tart is golden in color, but not brown. Remember the tart will be cooked again with the filling. It should be cooked but light in color so that it will not burn on the second bake. Set aside to cool.

To make the filling: In a food processor or electric mixer place the cream cheese and process until smooth. Add sugar and beat until incorporated. Add eggs, one at a time, and process until thoroughly combined. Add remaining ingredients and beat until well blended and smooth.

Place the tart pan on a larger baking pan. Carefully pour the filling into the pre-baked tart shell. Arrange the raspberries evenly around the tart shell and then bake the tart for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the filling is set (test by gently shaking the pan). Transfer tart to wire rack to cool. Serve warm or cold accompanied by softly whipped cream and fresh raspberries. Refrigerate leftovers.

Off to Williams-Sonoma for some tart pan shopping!

Grating and docking the tart dough (and trying not to lose any digits).

Blind baking the crust with beans as weights.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Tart baking and fresh from the oven.

Chocolate Tart cooling, and then getting the whipped cream treatment.

Want to read more about crusts? My article, “Journey Towards a Perfect Crust,” chronicles my quest for buttery, flaky pies and tarts. Read it at The Daring Kitchen.

Jack-o’-Lantern Whoopie Pies

I love how the vibrant online community of food blogs has erupted into autumnal flavors. A flickering fireplace on a chilly day has nothing on the cinnamon-and-spice glow of recipes flickering across my computer screen. The latter keeps not my toes but my tastebuds warm and cozy. Okay, okay, I’ll admit we haven’t had much need of it lately in Charlotte. The South still can’t make up its mind about the season, so temperatures have been in the 80s the past few days! Sorry to those in New England who are grumbling a bit right now. Soon enough, the chill will settle into North Carolina. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy fall flavors without the appropriate meteorological accoutrement.

My friend Katie and I had a date to bake together last weekend, and I was thrilled to hear that she was craving pumpkin just like I was. You may have heard about the pumpkin shortage, but thankfully I’d stocked up on a few cans of pumpkin before even hearing about it! So Katie and I brainstormed via email and decided to use our scarce squash to bake these gorgeous pumpkin whoopie pies. The recipe is from Matt Lewis of Baked bakery in New York City.

I’m a huge whoopie pie fan. My mom makes traditional whoopie pies each Thanksgiving and the rich, cakey chocolate and cream combination is something I look forward to all year. Imagine that same extremely moist, cakey texture with a beautiful pumpkin spice flavor instead: rich, dark brown sugar; ginger; ground cloves; and cinnamon. The result is a darker than average, plump pie that when slathered with sweet cream cheese spread, is the perfect fall bite.

This is also the perfect recipe for cooking in partners. Katie measured out dry ingredients while I whisked pumpkin and sugars together. We found that she (with previous ice cream shop experience) was an expert cookie scooper — wonderful, especially since I quickly realized I was lousy at it!

Katie showing off her scooping skills.

I went behind her and sculpted batter in the shape of pumpkin stems on each pie in hopes that they’d look like little pumpkins after baking. Sometimes this worked beautifully. Sometimes we ended up with whoopie pies shaped like triangles, snowmen, or the state of Idaho. It was a cute little Idahoan whoopie pie, don’t get me wrong, but the pumpkins were cuter:

After seeing Bakerella’s cute twist on her pumpkin pie bites (Jack-o’-lantern faces drawn on in chocolate), I knew I wanted to try faces on our whoopie pies. Katie piped cream cheese filling into each sandwich while I melted up some Candiquik (any chocolate candy melt will do) and set to work. When finished, the faces were adorable — but a little hard to see against the dark whoopie pies! Perhaps using light brown sugar in the pies would make the faces stand out more, but then you’d lose a bit of that great molasses flavor. Use your personal tastebuds and aesthetic to decide!

Katie doing some fantastic filling.

Jack-o’-lantern face!

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how good chocolate and pumpkin taste together! Y’all already knew this, didn’t you?! Why didn’t anyone tell me?! The richness of the milk chocolate was a perfect partner to the spicy pumpkin flavor, and I’ve even been inspired to search for more recipes that use this combination. Give it a try if you haven’t already!

There are so many satisfying facets of these whoopie pies: the simple recipe, the deep and indulgent fall taste, the cute Jack-o’-lantern grins. The most satisfying part, though, was definitely the time spent baking with a friend. I hope you’ll invite a friend over (or maybe just invite a husband, wife, son, or daughter into the kitchen) to help you make some of these sweet pun’kins!

Jack-o’-Lantern Whoopie Pies
Recipe by: Matt Lewis of Baked Bakery (adapted slightly by me)
Yields: 24 medium whoopie pies or about 34 small-scoop whoopie pies

Pumpkin Whoopie Pie Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cloves
2 cups firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups pumpkin puree, chilled (chilling ensures pies won’t spread too much)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
melted chocolate for piping on Jack-o’-Lantern faces

1. Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat; set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together brown sugar and oil until well combined. Add pumpkin puree and whisk until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Sprinkle flour mixture over pumpkin mixture and whisk until fully incorporated.
3. Using a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism, drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cookie comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on pan.
4. Make the filling: Sift confectioner’ sugar into a medium bowl; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter until smooth. Add cream cheese and beat until well combined. Add confectioners’ sugar and vanilla, beat just until smooth. (Filling can be made up to a day in advance. Cover and refrigerate; let stand at room temperature to soften before using.)
5. Assemble the whoopie pies: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Transfer filling to a disposable pastry bag and snip the end. When cookies have cooled completely, pipe a large dollop of filling on the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies, pressing down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edge of the cookies. Use a ziplock bag with a tiny corner cut off to pipe on melted chocolate in the shape of Jack-o’-Lantern faces. Allow these to harden (stick them in the fridge for a bit to speed it up). Transfer sandwiched and decorated cookies to a prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate cookies at least 30 minutes before serving and up to 3 days.

NOTE: There’s a lovely video of Matt Lewis making these whoopie pies located here (click on “Watch Video.”) Though the recipe above seems to have a lot of spice, it’s really the perfect balance — don’t skimp.

Best Ever Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Easy Caramel Frosting and Spiced Apples

Last Saturday served as a perfect example of why I dread the coming winter. It was a frigid day filled with misty rain and capped by a gloomy, gray sky. The slick streets were inundated with horrible Charlotte traffic. Depressed by the lack of sunlight for taking photos, I was nevertheless trekking to the store and to my parents’ house to gather materials for a cake. If you’d caught a glimpse of me, you might’ve mistaken me for a little black raincloud; in fact, all I needed was to take Winnie’s cue and strap a balloon around myself for the illusion to be complete. I scowled about the drivers who neglected to use their turn signals, griped to myself about the parking situation at the store, stepped in a billion ice-cold puddles, and bought a plate for my cake only to find it was “not for food use.” Humpf harrumpf humpflumpf! Finally, I grumpily turned into my parents’ neighborhood to borrow a tube pan from my mom.


When I finally arrived at my parents’ house, I was thrilled to see the warm, orange glow of the kitchen cut through the side windows into the gray morning light. Finally, some relief and refuge from the weather and from my mood. Indeed, I walked in the door and what should greet me but the smell of freshly made pumpkin pancakes oozing with butter, syrup, sugar-free caramel sauce, and whipped cream. And don’t forget the sizzle of turkey sausages on the side! My mom was standing there channeling June Cleaver (who am I kidding? June has nothing on her) flipping delicious Low-Carb Pumpkin Pancakes while my dad read the paper and anticipated his plateful. Shame on me for wallowing in my mood! My faithful God had arranged such a sweet homecoming for me despite my scowl.

Flipping some delicious Low-Carb Pumpkin Pancakes. If you look closely, you can see my mom’s Mii Cupcakes in the background!

Low-Carb Pumpkin Pancakes served with butter, syrup, sugar-free caramel, and sugar-free whipped cream. Side of turkey sausage.

Dad enjoying his breakfast.

Food plays such a prominent role in my family, and certain dishes in my mind are associated with comforting or joyful memories. The smorgasbord of silly appetizers at our New Year’s Eve game night, the cinnamon rolls and egg casserole on Christmas morning, Dad’s amazing pork butt and slaw, the chicken and dumplings we always clamored for, monkey bread! Milk toast! Sausages, peppers and onions! I could go on and on. It’s no wonder that walking into a comforting kitchen filled with delicious scents and a welcoming plate of breakfast truly felt like coming home — not just coming to borrow a tube pan. My spirits were lifted, and as I drove home, I was prepared for a day of baking another lovely family memory: the richest, most dense and moist pound cake you’ve ever tasted. It’s iced with a simple caramel frosting and served alongside some Southern fried apples.

The best pound cake ever in the history of the universe, hands down. I’m not even worried about overselling it.

Let me see if I can explain how amazing this cake is. The cream cheese imparts a richness to the already buttery batter, and results in a very dense, smooth cake. Cutting into the cake is like slicing into butter, and it’s lovely served slightly chilled. My usual complaint with pound cakes is that they’re dry even with a glaze, but this one stays perfectly moist throughout its entire baking time. The frosting has a sultry caramel flavor without the fuss of normal caramel making, and is the perfect complement to the buttery cake. As for the apples, those were my addition! What with the nice fall days we’ve been having (well, except for the miserable weather from last week), warm Southern spiced apples sounded like a delicious accompaniment to a cool cake. And maybe there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream in there somewhere too!

This is absolutely one of those must-bake recipes. One bite and you’ll be daydreaming all day about slicing yourself off another piece! And what a lovely dessert to share with family. I drove back to my parents’ house on Sunday to drop some off for them, and my dad sent me an email from work the next day saying he was enjoying a slice. I hope once you taste your first forkful, this cake will become part of your family’s own food memories.

Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Easy Caramel Frosting

Recipe By: Southern Living
Yields: 12

Cream Cheese Pound Cake Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Caramel Frosting Ingredients:
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup butter

Make the pound cake: beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed of an electric mixer 2 minutes or until creamy. Gradually add sugar and beat 5-7 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time and beat only until yellow disappears. Stir in vanilla.

Combine flour and salt and add to creamed mixture beating on low speed of electric mixture just until blended after each addition. Pour into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan. Fill a 2-cup ovenproof measuring cup with water and place in oven with cake (keeps it moist!). Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 45 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean (check in several areas of the cake to be sure it’s completely done). Let cool on wire rack for 10 minutes then remove from pan (invert onto a plate and then invert onto another so that it’s upright) and let cool completely. When cool, spread caramel frosting over the sides.

Make the caramel frosting: melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Add brown sugar; cook over low heat, stirring constantly, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes or until sugar dissolves (do not boil). Remove from heat.

Stir in whipping cream. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat at high speed of an electric mixture until spreading consistency (do not overbeat, or your frosting will develop a play-doughy, “crunchy” consistency. It’ll still taste good, but won’t look very nice or be easy to spread). Spread immediately on top and sides of cake.

Care for some Southern Fried Apples with your cake?

Southern Fried Apples

Recipe by: Diana Rattray (slightly adapted and halved)
Yields: about 4 cups of fried apples

4 medium Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled, chopped
1/8 cup butter
1/4 – 1/2 cup brown sugar (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch nutmeg (about half of 1/8 teaspoon)

Melt butter in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add apples, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sauté 15 to 20 minutes, or until apples are tender.

Julie’s Note: I made double this and had way too many apples. Three or four tender spiced apple slices are perfect to accompany a single slice of cake, so you don’t need many. You can keep these refrigerated in an airtight container and just warm them up in the microwave before serving with cold cake (and ice cream or whipped cream, if desired). Finally, plenty of websites told me not to bother peeling my apples, so I didn’t, but I wished I had. Even though the peel got tender, it was still a different texture than the apple flesh and wasn’t “a-peel-ing.” Ha ha!


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Homemade Puff Pastry and Vol-au-vents

Have you ever pulled something out of the oven and felt like a rock star? Felt giddy and awed at the first bite? Been so incredibly proud of a recipe you were inexplicably able to complete that you thought about framing the resulting photos for your desk at work? Okay, okay, maybe that’s a little much. But all silliness aside, there are turning points in my life as a baker where I feel like I “level up,” or gain a skill or technique that previously seemed too daunting for me to contemplate. This past Daring Bakers challenge was one of those turning points.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

New baking supplies for the challenge.

Vol-au vents are simply cups of puff pastry stuffed with delicious savory or sweet fillings. That part sounds easy. But homemade puff pastry? I have to admit, I was very nervous. The recipe looked especially daunting considering my love-hate relationship with my rolling pin. I think we’ve smoothed things out, but every now and then I still feel like giving him a good whomp against the counter to adjust his attitude. And even apart from rolling pin troubles, puff pastry is just a fickle, time consuming creation. It’s made by enveloping an entire pound of butter (Heyyy, Paula Deen!) in the dough (called a détrempe). Once the butter is wrapped up like a present, you make a series of six “turns” (tri-folds) in the dough, rolling it out between each (and refrigerating often to maintain workability). This website has a useful pictorial of the turning process, but I bet you’d love to see Julia Child and Michel Richard making it in real-time, wouldn’t you? Your wish is my command! Here’s the fun part: once you have all those lovely layers of butter and dough in the oven, the water content of the butter turns into steam, inflating your pastry. If all goes well, you end up with a fluffy, buttery bit of heaven.

After watching the video above several times over, I dragged my load of doubts and worries into the kitchen and set to work with a furrowed brow. My dough seemed too sticky, my butter pounding scared little Byrd to death, and my envelope kept threatening to break and expose my butter. Nevertheless, I trudged on, hoping that somehow, my little pastries would puff their hearts out in the oven. And guess what?

It worked! It worked! It worked! It’s unfortunate (or maybe not, since Mike’s eardrums are probably sore) that you couldn’t hear me shouting those two little words as I leapt around my apartment after taking these out of the oven. It was like magic! Little disks of dough turning into lovely, sophisticated pastries via unseen processes within their layers. And not only were the pastries puffy, they were out of this world delicious. I burned each one of my little fingertips to bits (not to mention my tongue) eating them straight out of the oven. Mike liked them too! Byrd was indifferent.

I chose to stuff my vol-au-vents with both savory and sweet fillings. My savory vol-au-vent was filled with smooth goat cheese mousse with a drizzle of fresh, homemade pesto on top. The pesto was gorgeous — made with toasted pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil (including some huge sprigs from the garden beside my classroom — did I mention that I love my school?) The tangy goat cheese and rich pesto were such a delicious combination.

Goat Cheese Mousse and Basil Pesto

Recipe By:

Shirl on RecipeZaar (goat cheese mousse)
Elise on Simply Recipes

Yields: About 1/2 cup mousse and 1/2 cup pesto

Goat Cheese Mousse Ingredients:
8 ounces fresh goat cheese
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream, lightly whipped

Basil Pesto Ingredients:
1 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/6 cup pine nuts, toasted
1.5 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To make the mousse, process the goat cheese in a clean food processor until smooth. Add the whipped cream and blend just until incorporated.

To make the pesto, combine the basil and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add the garlic, pulse a few times more. Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on low (if storing, reserve half the oil — see note below). Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Note: If storing and not using immediately, reserve half the oil. Place pesto in airtight container and drizzle reserved oil over top. Freeze or refrigerate.

My dessert plate was designed as a walk through the seasons. Spring was represented by Smitten Kitchen’s tangy mango curd, a sweet raspberry, and a dollop of homemade whipped cream. Summer was simple: homemade whipped cream and berries.

Finally, autumn was one of my favorites (in fact, you’ve seen it a few times here recently!): baked peach crisp. I baked some peaches, brown sugar, white sugar, oats, and toasted pecans in a dish before spooning the hot mixture into my puff pastry and (you know what’s coming, right?) topped it with a dollop of whipped cream! Next time I think I’ll add the toasted pecans over top of the peach mixture at the end. All of these dessert vol-au-vents were incredible in their buttery pastry cups, but our favorite by far was the Mango Curd Raspberry Vol-au-vent!

Peach Crisp Vol-au-vent

Raspberries and Cream Vol-au-vent

Mango Curd Raspberry Vol-au-vent

Mango Curd

Recipe By: Smitten Kitchen (mango curd)
Yields: About 1 to 1.5 cups

1 15-ounce ripe mango, peeled, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar (might reduce this to 1/3 cup next time, to keep the curd more tart)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Puree mango, sugar, lime juice and salt in processor, scraping down sides of work bowl occasionally. Add yolks; puree 15 seconds longer. Strain through sieve set over large metal bowl, pressing on solids with back of spatula to release as much puree as possible. Discard solids in sieve.

Set metal bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water); whisk puree until thickened and thermometer registers 170°F., about 10 minutes. Remove from over water. Whisk in butter 1 piece at a time. Cover (place plastic wrap on surface of curd to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate overnight. Can freeze for up to 2 months.

I’m grateful for the Daring Bakers for many reasons: the exciting recipes shared, the fantastic friendships made, the gorgeous blogs to visit. For this challenge, though, I especially want to thank Steph and the Daring Bakers for a huge confidence boost! I hope you’ll decide to give puff pastry a try. It’s a manageable beast, and the resulting dough freezes well to use for months to come. Even besides those practicalities, though, it feels like such a satisfying kitchen accomplishment!

Puff Pastry and Vol-au-vents

Recipe By: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan
Yields: Using 1/3 of the dough yields about 9 2-inch vol-au-vents

2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter

plus extra flour for dusting work surface


Mixing the Dough:
Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that’s about 1″ thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:
Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10″ square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with “ears,” or flaps.

Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don’t just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8″ square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

Making the Turns:
Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24″ (don’t worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24″, everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24″ and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

Chilling the Dough:
If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you’ve completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Steph’s extra tips:

  • While this is not included in the original recipe we are using (and I did not do this in my own trials), many puff pastry recipes use a teaspoon or two of white vinegar or lemon juice, added to the ice water, in the détrempe dough. This adds acidity, which relaxes the gluten in the dough by breaking down the proteins, making rolling easier. You are welcome to try this if you wish.
  • Keep things cool by using the refrigerator as your friend! If you see any butter starting to leak through the dough during the turning process, rub a little flour on the exposed dough and chill straight away. Although you should certainly chill the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns, if you feel the dough getting to soft or hard to work with at any point, pop in the fridge for a rest.
  • Not to sound contradictory, but if you chill your paton longer than the recommended time between turns, the butter can firm up too much. If this seems to be the case, I advise letting it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to give it a chance to soften before proceeding to roll. You don’t want the hard butter to separate into chuncks or break through the dough…you want it to roll evenly, in a continuous layer.
  • Roll the puff pastry gently but firmly, and don’t roll your pin over the edges, which will prevent them from rising properly. Don’t roll your puff thinner than about about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick, or you will not get the rise you are looking for.
  • Try to keep “neat” edges and corners during the rolling and turning process, so the layers are properly aligned. Give the edges of the paton a scooch with your rolling pin or a bench scraper to keep straight edges and 90-degree corners.
  • Brush off excess flour before turning dough and after rolling.
  • Make clean cuts. Don’t drag your knife through the puff or twist your cutters too much, which can inhibit rise.
  • When egg washing puff pastry, try not to let extra egg wash drip down the cut edges, which can also inhibit rise.
  • Extra puff pastry dough freezes beautifully. It’s best to roll it into a sheet about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick (similar to store-bought puff) and freeze firm on a lined baking sheet. Then you can easily wrap the sheet in plastic, then foil (and if you have a sealable plastic bag big enough, place the wrapped dough inside) and return to the freezer for up to a few months. Defrost in the refrigerator when ready to use.
  • You can also freeze well-wrapped, unbaked cut and shaped puff pastry (i.e., unbaked vols-au-vent shells). Bake from frozen, without thawing first.
  • Homemade puff pastry is precious stuff, so save any clean scraps. Stack or overlap them, rather than balling them up, to help keep the integrity of the layers. Then give them a singe “turn” and gently re-roll. Scrap puff can be used for applications where a super-high rise is not necessary (such as palmiers, cheese straws, napoleons, or even the bottom bases for your vols-au-vent).

Vol-au-vents ready to go into the oven, and then baking under a silicon mat.

Pesto fixings.

Don’t forget to cruise the Daring Bakers blogroll to see all of the creative vol-au-vents fillings other chefs chose.

Now I want to hear from you: what was your proudest culinary achievement?

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