World’s easiest apple tart

When you get home from vacation you are pretty much always guaranteed at least two things: you will have 800 emails and nothing in the fridge. But I was craving something fall-ish last night, and we did have one sheet of puff pastry in the freezer and half a bag of apples. Sounds like a tart to me!

I googled a bit until I found this recipe, which was the closest I could find to what I wanted to make. But really you don’t even need a recipe. Just do this:

Thaw out your puff pastry sheet and then unfold it on a non-stick cookie sheet. Peel, core, and thinly slice two apples. Arrange them tightly in the center of the pastry.

Then tuck in the corners. It doesn’t have to be fancy — you’re going for rustic here.

Sprinkle some cinnamon and sugar all over the top.

Then bake for 40 minutes at 400 degrees. When the tart comes out of the oven, drizzle on some agave nectar or honey, or brush it with some jam. And that’s it!

Wedding cake test: success

I meant to check “test cake” off my list a little earlier last week, but I didn’t get time to do it until about 10 p.m. the night before we were about to leave for Chicago. Crazy, I know, but it was one of those times when you just decide you need to do something, and you don’t stress about it, you just do it.

I started with Deb’s recipe for vanilla buttermilk cake (found here, scroll down). I decided to test one 3-layer cake, the same size as the middle layer would be, a 10-inch circle.

I had to run out and buy eggs (another reason for the delay) because you need 7 just for this part. Yikes! But the recipe came together flawlessly in the end. It makes 9 cups of batter, a lot more than I’m used to working with at once, but the perfect amount for 3 layers. The batter is soft and smooth and easy to work with. I decided that I wanted to make it just a little more special, so I added in the goop from one vanilla bean pod that I had.

You can see the little flecks in the batter and in the finished cake. Nice!

It took a little longer to bake than the 26-28 minutes it called for, maybe 32 minutes or so? Once I took it out of the oven, the domed top immediately sank, giving the top a perfectly flat appearance, which makes it easier to stack and frost.

I did notice, though, that the rack in the oven is a little bit on an angle, so with smaller cakes there will be some adjusting to do.

The thing I notice with from-scratch cakes (especially buttery ones) is that they end up a lot crumblier and more finicky than cakes from boxed mixes. But in the end they make a dense, rich cake that is worth the extra effort.

This cake tasted great with a little buttercream frosting I whipped up, and after a day in the fridge it tasted even better. Since the cakes will be frozen and thawed during transport, I feel good about how they are going to taste after a couple of days.

I think just to be on the safe side I am going to have to quadruple this recipe to have enough batter for all nine layers. That equals 10 sticks of butter and 28 eggs, if you’re counting. That will be a fun trip to the store.

My biggest concern is the frosting, which we decided we are going to make there. Keeping it at the right temperature could be a little tricky. But strangely I don’t feel that stressed about the whole process. I’m actually really excited for it!

I also ordered the cake topper kit from Etsy, so that’s two more things I can cross off my list. Whew.

Rhubarb muffins

I bought an obscene amount of rhubarb at the farmers market this weekend, so I wanted to start using it right away.

I tried to buy bunches that were especially red, and these were just beautiful (from a local berry farm). Last weekend I couldn’t find rhubarb at the store, but I think it was a blessing in disguise. It’s much cheaper and better quality at the market.

First up, muffins. I have written about these before, but didn’t provide the recipe, so here it is.

Mike and I were so happy with how these turned out. They are muffin perfection, if I do say so myself. Even though rhubarb is a little tart, I think I prefer it to berries in a muffin just because it doesn’t overpower the rest of the taste. And with a little crunchy cinnamon-sugar on top, you feel like you’re getting a bit of a treat (though they’re made with some whole wheat flour, too).

Rhubarb muffins
adapted from Simply in Season, my fave

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups rhubarb, diced
1/2 cups chopped nuts (your choice, I used pecans)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon flour

Maybe I have said this before, but I find it funny that baking powder has a shaker option on the lid. What do you shake baking powder on? Is it a cleaner, too?

Also, I had never tried the trick of using a slice of bread to bring back your brown sugar from a hardened state, but it totally works!

Aaaand, I should mention that I didn’t have any buttermilk, so I added a squirt of lemon juice to a cup of 1% milk that we had in the fridge and it seemed to work just fine.

OK, back to the recipe.

Combine the flours, baking powder, soda and salt in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl whisk the buttermilk, brown sugar, oil, egg and vanilla. Dump in the dry ingredients and stir just enough to combine. Then add the chopped rhubarb and nuts and stir those up.

Divide the batter evenly into your muffin pan. It will make 12 pretty huge muffins, or maybe 18 medium-sized ones.

Melt the butter in a little dish in the microwave, then stir in the cinnamon, sugar and flour. Sprinkle that over the tops of the muffins.

Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 20-24 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

I still have this much rhubarb leftover.

Mike is thinking about making his famous rhubarb lemonade…

Strawberry pie fail, sort of

Strawberries were super cheap at the store last weekend, so I bought two pounds. With half a recipe of pie crust leftover from my quiche, I knew exactly what to do with those berries: make pie!

I adapted this recipe from Smitten Kitchen to work with strawberries only, and it looked beautiful going into the oven. But when it came out … strawberry soup.

Despite a quarter cup of cornstarch, those berries put out enough water to render it useless. I will say, though, that after draining off some of the juice, that pie was darn tasty.

Next time I think I will use the technique that I use in rhubarb crisp, which is to heat the berries on the stovetop first, then add the cornstarch and make sure it thickens before I put it in the crust. I don’t think the filling would get overcooked with the extra cooking time, but if I needed to dial back the baking time, I think the crust would still get done. That was no problem.

Do you have a good strawberry pie recipe?

The BEST oatmeal cookies

Found this recipe on Joy the Baker and thought I would try it. Wow, was it a good one.

There’s something about the way these cookies look that just seems perfect to me. Like a designer cookie. But they are very simple to make.

Plus, don’t you always feel a little less guilty when it’s an oatmeal cookie?

Asparagus and cheddar quiche

Quiche and springtime just seem to go hand in hand, so I decided to add it to the menu this week. And since we have those local farm eggs, I thought it would be a good use for them.

I scoured the Internet for the perfect recipe, and after a lot of not-quite-right ones I found Pioneer Woman’s recipe. I knew I’d have to change a few things (especially since one big ingredient in hers is bacon), but overall it was a really good place to start.

I also used the Perfect Pie Crust recipe from her site, which you can find here. I didn’t change a thing, but I think next time I might substitute butter for some of the shortening for more flavor. When I took a pie baking class last fall the teacher actually used equal parts butter, shortening and cream cheese in her crust, and it was amazing.

This crust recipe was so easy to work with. Probably because it had so much fat in it, it just came together in a couple of minutes and held together nicely. After about 15 minutes in the fridge and then 15 in the freezer I rolled it out (well half of it), no problem. I wrapped up the other half to save for another time. Or perhaps a dessert pie?

For the filling, I decided to go with roasted asparagus, caramelized onions and cheddar cheese. Then I dropped a few green onions on the top before baking. I really think it’s important to cook the veggies before you add them in, both for flavor and texture. The only thing I would change would be to cut the asparagus a little smaller next time. Some of my pieces were like 2 inches long and a little chewy.

Oh, and the pan I used was much too shallow. Some of the egg overflowed, so I was glad I placed a cookie sheet underneath. Next time I’ll either use a bigger pan, fewer eggs and cream, or divide it into two quiches.

So here’s how my recipe came out:

Asparagus and cheddar quiche
adapted from the Pioneer Woman

1 bundle fresh asparagus, ends snapped off
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
7 eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
4 green onions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Start by roasting the asparagus in the oven with a little salt, pepper and olive oil at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, turning it halfway through cooking.

Meanwhile saute the onions with the butter until they just start to get caramelized.

Roll out the crust until it’s about 1/4 inch thick and gently place it over your pie or tart pan.

Press it into the corners, trim the edges, and then fill in any holes with leftover dough and press the edges with your fingertips to make it look pretty.

In a big bowl, whisk the eggs with the cream and a little salt and pepper. Chop the asparagus into 1-inch pieces and add that, plus the caramelized onions and cheese.

Carefully pour the filling into the pie shell and use a spoon to make sure the veggies are evenly distributed. Sprinkle the green onions on top.

Set the pan on top of a cookie sheet and bake at 400 degrees for about an hour. You’re supposed to cover it lightly with foil, but I forgot that part, and it it came out just fine, so I’ll leave it up to you.

Carrot cookies

These soft cookies are so easy to make, and I suppose a little less guilt-inducing than most cookie recipes.

Carrot Cookies
adapted from Simply in Season

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups raw carrot, shredded
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Optional frosting: Mix 1 cup powdered sugar with 1 teaspoon vanilla and about a tablespoon of milk, or enough to make it spreadable. You can also use orange juice, but I find that a little overpowering.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stir the butter and sugar together in a big mixing bowl. Add the carrot, egg and vanilla.

Sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl. Slowly add them to the wet ingredients and stir to combine.

Drop the cookies (about a tablespoon of the dough at a time) onto a greased cookie sheet and bake for 10-14 minutes, or until the edges are just starting to get brown.

Let the cookies cool for a few minutes before you dab on the frosting.

Green cupcakes!

I loved Bakerella’s post the other day about the idea of making a red velvet cake recipe into green cupcakes so much that I had to try it myself. Except I realized I couldn’t make red velvet because I didn’t have any buttermilk. So I went looking for a simple vanilla cake recipe with buttercream frosting, and landed on one from Martha Stewart.

I’m also shopping for a recipe that I can use for vanilla wedding cake (since Mike’s making chocolate), so I counted this as an experiment.

It actually worked really well. The cake by itself doesn’t have a ton of flavor, but when you add the buttercream frosting, which is incredibly flavorful (hello, butter!), it’s the perfect combination. Next I want to try Smitten Kitchen’s wedding cake recipe. I’m still wavering over whether or not I should use regular buttercream or one with cream cheese for the wedding. I think the cream cheese, in addition to tasting good, will help with stability at room temperature. But I would welcome your thoughts.

Anyway, back to the green cupcakes. I worried that my cheapo food coloring would produce something really pastel, but it came out a pretty bright green color. The photos don’t do it justice…

The only thing I changed was the baking time. Martha was way off on this one. Maybe her fancy test kitchen ovens bake faster, but I had to add 5-7 minutes to the baking time to get them all done in the center. I came out with about 20 cupcakes. I also halved the frosting recipe, and had just enough.

Here’s what I used:

Vanilla cupcakes

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (1 1/2 sticks)
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups milk

Directions
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pan with paper liners; set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. In another mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until incorporated and scraping down sides of bowl, beat in vanilla.

2. Add flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with flour. Scrape the sides and bottom of bowl to assure the batter is thoroughly mixed. Divide batter evenly among liners, filling papers about 2/3 full. Bake on the center rack of the oven until tops spring back to touch, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Simple buttercream
Makes 2 3/4 cups

2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

(Or for half, 2 sticks of butter, about a cup of powdered sugar – or weigh a half pound, a splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt)

Directions
1. In a mixer bowl fitted with a paddle attachment, combine butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt. Beat on high speed 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally.

No-knead bread, take 2

So the first time I tried making bread, I was pretty happy with it. But it came out a little flat and a little too crunchy on the bottom. So when my friend Jen recommended a different recipe (her husband baked a phenomenal loaf for my last birthday), I had to try it.

It turns out the recipe had also run in Mother Earth News. The story, recipe, and lots of good tips can all be found here.

Even though you can make this in one day, and you don’t have to knead/punch down the dough, it’s still a pretty big operation to make one tiny loaf. The good news is that you’re actually making enough dough for four loaves, and you can refrigerate or freeze the extra loaves to bake another time.

Basically you mix the yeast with warm water and then slowly add in the flour. I used the Kitchen Aid mixer instead of elbow grease and it worked great.

Then you let it rise for two hours, at which point it becomes gigantic!

Then you move the dough to the fridge, which makes it less sticky and easier to handle in a few hours.

At that point you divide it into four loaves, and shape one of them into a ball. As long as you flour your board and your hands you shouldn’t have any trouble handling it, which is nice.

You let it rise again for 40 minutes while you preheat your oven to 450. When you actually put the loaf in (use a pizza peel to slide it onto a baking stone – much easier than I thought it would be), you also put in a broiler pan or just a regular baking pan with some water in it, so that your oven becomes a steamy environment.

When your cute little loaf comes out, you can hear it crackling inside. The article calls this ‘singing.’ Love it.

Anyway, I was much happier with this recipe. The top was crunchy and blistered just like the loaves you see at bakeries and the bottom was solid but not too hard to cut through. Mike ate a warm slice with just a little butter smeared on top, and I turned my into dessert bread with a little Nutella.

I think if you’re ready to try baking artisan bread from scratch, this is the method to go with.

Million dollar cookie, take 2

I got the urge to bake something last night, and I thought it might be a good time to see if I could improve on the peanut butter ball cookies I was not quite happy with last time I made them.

So, apart from the fact that they are a peanut butter cookie stuffed with a sweetened ball of peanut butter, I pretty much changed everything.

This time I used my own recipe for peanut blossom dough instead of the pre-packaged stuff. I skipped the cinnamon and the peanuts in the recipe, and substituted raw sugar for the regular sugar that you roll the cookies in. And finally, I made them bigger. Because life is too short for tiny cookies.

The result was fantastic! So much better than the first time I made them. And I still got 24 cookies out of the recipe so it didn’t take me very long to bake them all, and my kitchen isn’t overrun with cookies this morning.

So here is my adjusted recipe. Give it a try.

Peanut butter ball cookies, my way

1 3/4 cup sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the peanut butter balls:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 cup raw sugar for rolling
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Blend up your dry ingredients in one bowl (I like to use a whisk for this). In a separate bowl cream the peanut butter and butter, then add both sugars, the egg and vanilla. Slowly blend the dry ingredients into the wet, until your dough forms a ball. Stick this in the fridge while you roll the peanut butter balls.

Combine the peanut butter and confectioners sugar in a bowl until it forms a ball. Divide this ball in half, then half again. You will need to get 6 balls out of each of these pieces. Roll all 24 balls and set them out on a plate or cookie sheet.

Now divide your cookie dough into 24 parts the same way. Flatten each ball into a disk and place a peanut butter ball on top. Fold the excess dough around the ball and roll the whole thing into a neat ball. Roll this in raw sugar and place on a lined cookie sheet. When you have 6 balls on a sheet, flatten each one out with the bottom of a glass that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 12 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the cookies.