Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Granola Bar Weekend

Earlier this week I entered the office pool for a $320 million power ball drawing. This is the only time I ever buy lottery tickets. We do it a couple of times per year when the prize has gotten particularly large. Each time we all start talking about how the office will be empty on Monday morning, except for the few unfortunate souls who decided to save their $2 and not enter the pool. This time I thought to myself, "If I win, I will quit my job and become a full time baking blogger. I will spend my days baking and writing about it." I think this would be quite wonderful, but alas the drawing has come and gone and we did not win. I was discussing this at brunch at a friend's house yesterday and someone said "But couldn't you be a part time baking blogger?" This is of course is what I aspire to do, but can never find the time to do. However, I was inspired to make the time for it this weekend, especially given I had plans to try out two different granola bar recipe experiments this weekend. And so with that, just shy of one year since my last post, I am blogging once again. Now, on to the granola bars.

For quite some time I have been wanting to create the perfect granola bar recipe. While I love to bake and eat decadent things, I am generally a person who eats quite healthy, with the not-so-healthy things eaten in moderation. I also find granola bars to be a pretty good on-the-go snack and while there are a few types of granola bars I will buy, I don't love any of them. Granola bars are often considered to be a healthy snack, but there are many of them (store-bought or homemade) that aren't any better for you than cookies. So, about a year ago I started experimenting with granola bar recipes, on a quest to craft my own recipe. The requirements were that the bars taste delicious, hold together, and not be overly loaded with fat and sugar.

I started off by modifying this recipe for Thicky, Chewy Granola Bars from Smitten Kitchen, which is a modified version of a recipe from King Arthur Flour. In my first attempt, I cut down the butter by 2 tbs, replaced the corn syrup with honey, and reduced the amount of granulated sugar. These granola bars tasted wonderful, but they crumbled into pieces. So in my next attempt, I tried adding an egg white, which I hoped would help the bars hold together without adding more fat or sugar. I also used chopped dates as one of the dried fruits, thinking that their stickiness would add some extra glue. It was a success! I continue to tinker with my recipe because I don't think it's perfect yet. I've mastered the hold together part, and I think they taste pretty good, but I still want to see if the sugar and fat can be reduced further without sacrificing flavor. A few weeks ago I had a thought that I could try adding some mashed banana, which would taste yummy and allow me to cut down on the amount of added sugar. So, this weekend I set out to try the banana version, as well as further tinker with the basic recipe. The result: two tasty batches of granola bars.

Banana Peanut Butter Granola Bars
2 cups old fashioned oats, 1 2/3 cups whole and 1/3 cup ground in food processor
1/2 cup wheat germ*
3/4 cup raisins
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
pinch of salt
1/3 cup peanut butter
2 tbs butter
1 mashed banana
1/2 cup pureed medjool dates
1 tsp vanilla
1 lightly beaten egg white

Preheat oven to 350. Line 9x13 pan with parchment paper. Mix the whole and ground oats, wheat germ, raisins, almonds, and salt in a large bowl. Melt the peanut butter and butter together in a small sauce pan over low heat. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Stir in banana, date puree, vanilla, and egg white. Add peanut butter mixture to oat mixture and stir until fully incorporated. Dump into pan and use spoon to flatten out. Bake for 35 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Place pan on cooling rack and let cool completely. Don't try to cheat on this step and remove the bars before they are completely cool. You risk having them crumble. Lift out of pan using parchment paper and cut into bars. Wrap individually in plastic wrap. Bars can be kept at room temperature for a few days and also freeze well.

*For those who cannot have wheat, the wheat germ is not essential. You could replace it with more ground oats, nuts, or coconut.

Peanut Butter Fruit and Nut Granola Bars
2 cups old fashioned oats, 1 2/3 cups whole and 1/3 cup ground in food processor
1/2 cup wheat germ*
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried apples, chopped
1/2 cup dates, chopped
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup peanut butter
4 tbs butter
1 tbs water
1 tsp vanilla
1 slightly beaten egg white

Preheat oven to 350. Line 9x13 pan with parchment paper. Mix the whole and ground oats, wheat germ, raisins, apples, dates, almonds, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl. Melt the peanut butter, butter, and honey together with the water in a small sauce pan over low heat. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Stir in vanilla and egg white. Add peanut butter mixture to oat mixture and stir until fully incorporated. Dump into pan and use spoon to flatten out. Bake for 35 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Place pan on cooling rack and let cool completely. Don't try to cheat on this step and remove the bars before they are completely cool. You risk having them crumble. Lift out of pan using parchment paper and cut into bars. Wrap individually in plastic wrap. Bars can be kept at room temperature for a few days and also freeze well.

*For those who cannot have wheat, the wheat germ is not essential. You could replace it with more ground oats, nuts, or coconut.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

National Baking Week!

Last week, while icing my cranky SI joint at physical therapy, I read in Better Homes and Gardens that the week of April 2 is National Baking Week. My reaction? "Yes! A reason to bake!" As if I ever need one. I started my celebration of National Baking Week a little early, baking one thing yesterday and two things today. First up, whole wheat cinnamon raisin English muffins.

For Christmas morning breakfast 2010, my sister made homemade English muffins using the recipe from the King Arthur Flour website. The muffins were fantastic and surprisingly easy, so soon after I gave them a try myself, substituting white whole wheat flour for half of the flour. Those came out well, so I eventually started making them with all white whole wheat flour and also substituted honey for the sugar. As I had often been eating Thomas' whole wheat English muffins (with peanut or almond butter) for breakfast, the homemade version soon became my breakfast staple. For a while I was making a batch about every other weekend and keeping them in the freezer. As you might imagine, Thomas no longer gets my business. After a while I tired of eating and making English muffins and started eating something else for breakfast (I'm currently on a trend of eating muesli made with steel cut oats). However, back in the day when I was eating store bought muffins, I would sometimes buy the Trader Joe's whole wheat cinnamon raisin English muffins and throughout the time when I was regularly making muffins, I often wondered if I could replicate those, but never tried it. Yesterday I was browsing recipes and found a recipe for whole wheat raisin English muffins on The Kitchn. I HAD to try it! So, try it I did and even broke my own rule of making a change to a recipe the first time I make it. I wanted my muffins to be whole wheat CINNAMON raisin, so I threw caution to the wind and added 1/2 tsp cinnamon to the dry ingredients. I'm happy to say that the muffins are delicious and I didn't even screw them up by changing the recipe. I now have a whole batch in the freezer ready for me to eat anytime.

My next National Baking Week project: blueberry orange cornmeal muffins. I wanted to make some type of muffin to bring to the office on Monday because I have a 9 am meeting and everyone knows meetings are more fun when there are snacks. I also already had a muffin recipe in mind I wanted to try. For many years I have subscribed to Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazine, and every January there is a "light" issue. This year the light issue included four recipes for low fat baked goods. I generally stay away from low fat baked goods because I never think they taste very good. I hate when people say things like "Oh I used applesauce in these brownies instead of butter and you can't even tell the difference!" I want to say "Really? Here, try my brownies made with butter. See, they are far more delicious." Anyway, despite my normal reaction about low fat baked goods, for some reason  I was intrigued by these particular recipes, and one of them was this muffin recipe. I have previously made two of the other recipes, vanilla cupcakes with fruit glaze (substitutes cannellini beans for some of the butter) and gingerbread mini cakes (substitutes pumpkin for some of the butter). Both of those recipes were really good, so I felt pretty confident the muffins (which use lowfat yogurt in place of some of the butter) would be as well. It turns out the muffins are in fact very yummy (I had to try one today before feeding them to my co-workers tomorrow). I was a little concerned about them because either there is a flaw in the recipe or I screwed up. The recipe calls for a cup of plain lowfat yogurt. I bought Greek yogurt because in the non-Greek yogurts I could only get nonfat or whole milk plain. I was a little worried that the Greek yogurt would be too thick, so I decided to use about 7/8 cup yogurt and 1/8 cup skim milk. When I mixed up the batter, it was really really thick and more like biscuit dough than muffin batter. I added more milk until it seemed like an appropriate consistency. Fortunately the muffins turned out well, but either the recipe doesn't call for enough yogurt or Greek yogurt is really just too thick for this recipe. Next time I'll have to locate some low fat plain non-Greek yogurt.

Last, but not least: molasses cookies! My co-worker recently got engaged and I wanted to make her some celebratory cookies. Last time I brought molasses cookies to the office she declared that they were her favorites of all the cookies I make, so they seemed like the perfect choice for her engagement cookies. I always use the recipe for soft molasses cookies in the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion. The recipe can also be found on the KAF website. The cookies always taste great and have a wonderful soft texture. This time was no exception. Now, I just hope she doesn't read this post before she gets her cookies tomorrow morning!

As National Baking Week will be going on all week, I hope to find the time for some mid-week baking so I can fully celebrate. I don't have anything specific planned yet, but I'm sure I'll think of something!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Double Martha Day: Breakfast Quinoa and my Favorite Brownies

I have a love/hate relationship with Martha Stewart. Sure she is snooty and out of touch with the real world, but she also has some really great recipes. Today I had the pleasure of making two of Martha's recipes in one day: one new one and one old standby.

A few weeks ago my sister pinned Martha's recipe for Breakfast Quinoa on Pinterest. Being a lover of both quinoa and hot hearty breakfast dishes, I put this on my mental list of things to make soon (and also repinned it on Pinterest). Earlier this week my friend Kelsey wrote about another recipe for breakfast quinoa on her blog, reminding me that this was something I really wanted to try. So, this morning I made Martha's recipe, with two slight modifications. The recipe calls for fresh blueberries and as February isn't the best time to be buying blueberries, I opted to use frozen mixed berries I already had in my freezer. I put them in the fridge to defrost overnight so they would be ready to go in the morning. Martha also recommends whole or lowfat milk and I used skim. I am pleased to report that the breakfast quinoa was very yummy and I most definitely will be making it again. Next time I think I would put a little more cinnamon and add a splash of vanilla. I am looking forward to trying it with different toppings - I think raisins, almonds, bananas, and apples would all complement it well.

Brownies are one of those basic desserts for which all bakers should have a go-to recipe. My go-to is the recipe for Fudgy Chocolate Brownies from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. The recipe is also available on Martha's website. These are really the best brownies I have ever had and they consistently come out wonderfully. The only time I ever bake brownies with a different recipe is when I make peppermint brownies around the holidays. Martha wasn't kidding around when she called them fudgy.  The key to these brownies is making sure you do not overcook them. I made a batch today to take to my triathlon team's board meeting. Unfortunately most people were more enticed by another person's cupcakes, so not many of them were eaten. Their loss if you ask me!  That just leaves more to share at the office.

Super Bowl Special: Pepperoni Pizza Puffs and Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes

Being a New Englander, it still hurts to talk about the Super Bowl. But, although I may wish to forget the game, I do have fond memories of the food I ate that day. As my family usually has dinner together on Sunday nights, Super Bowl Sunday is no exception. We all love to eat, so even family members who have no interest in watching the game can get excited about the array of tasty things from which to choose. This year, I decided to contribute one savory and one sweet baked good, pepperoni pizza puffs and chocolate Guinness cupcakes.

The pizza puffs were courtesy of Rachael Ray, with a few minor modifications. I added 1/2 tsp each of dried basil and oregano and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Because I hate wasting food, I did not want to buy an entire quart of whole milk just for the 3/4 cup this recipe calls for, so I used a combination of things I had on hand: 1/2 cup skim milk and 1/4 cup heavy cream. I also did not use the fresh basil and red bell pepper....I despise raw bell peppers. The puffs were were quick and easy to make and I would have to say they were a hit. They disappeared pretty quickly from the spread of Super Bowl goodies. Although Rachael recommends dipping them in tomato sauce, we discovered they are also quite tasty dipped in ranch dressing. These might just make a reappearance at next year's party. Hopefully the Patriots will as well.

What better dessert to serve for the Super Bowl than one that contains beer? Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Guinness Cake has become a family favorite in recent years. A couple of years ago I also tried Smitten Kitchen's recipe for Irish Car Bomb cupcakes. These are chocolate Guinness cupcakes filled with Irish whiskey ganache and topped with Baileys buttercream. While tasty, the car bomb cupcakes were a lot of work and really heavy on the booze. Two of my family members are not big on alcohol, so boozy cupcakes would not have been the best choice. So, I decided on a hybrid. I used the Smitten Kitchen cupcake recipe and Nigella's cream cheese frosting recipe. I doubled the frosting recipe, with the exception of the cream. I know from past experience that this frosting is pretty loose, and as I planned to pipe mine onto cupcakes, I needed it to be a little firmer. As expected, the cupcakes were delicious. They were a hit with my family, and my co-workers also enjoyed the leftovers on Monday. What better to ease the pain of the Patriots loss than a cupcake?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whole Wheat Brioche

This recipe comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. This doctor and pastry chef duo have written a number of cookbooks full of recipes for easy no-knead breads. For most of the recipes, you spend a few minutes mixing up a large batch of dough, let it rise for two hours, and then put it in the fridge. Then, when you're ready to bake a loaf, you take out a portion of the dough, let it rise, and bake it. The batch of dough can stay in the fridge for one to two weeks, depending on the recipe. HBin5, as they call it, is the second in the series, which is focused on whole grain breads. I have made several recipes from this cookbook and enjoyed all of them, but still found it hard to believe that whole wheat brioche could actually be good. I imagined it would be decent, but would likely be too dense or otherwise not brioche-like. Turns out, I was wrong. I whipped up a loaf yesterday and it is DELICIOUS. I won't pretend this is healthy because it's whole wheat. It is still brioche after all and has plenty of eggs, butter, and honey. However, it is certainly healthier than traditional brioche made with all white flour. Now that I know this recipe is good, I can't wait to try Jeff and Zoe's recipe for pumpkin pie brioche. YUM!


About two years ago, I decided I wanted to create a blog about baking. I love to bake and I wanted to share my baking experiences with anyone who wanted to read about them. So, I set up this page, wrote one post, and haven't touched it since. I continued to think about the blog but always convinced myself I shouldn't do it because I wouldn't have time to to keep up with it and because there are plenty of cooking and baking blogs out there, so why would anyone want to read one more? Well, I decided it doesn't matter if I don't have time to post once a week or even once a month, I can post whenever I have time. And yes, there are plenty of other baking blogs out there, but I'm sure somebody wants to read mine, right? Even if it's just my family members. So, with that, I am officially launching (or re-launching?) my blog. Now, on to the good stuff.

As I've already said, I love to bake. Perhaps the only other thing I like to do as much as baking is exercise. This is fortunate, because otherwise I'd probably end up like Paula Deen. For as long I can remember, I've always liked to "make things," and while there are many other ways to make things, some of which I do (e.g. knitting), baking also allows me to fulfill my need for instant gratification. Sure, knitting a scarf is fun, but it takes a while before you have something to show for it. Baking allows you to have a completed product in a lot less time. Besides, scarves don't taste very good.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy baking and have success with it, is because I am a scientific person and therefore approach baking in a scientific manner. To me, recipes are like instructions in a chemistry lab manual and should be followed very carefully. It also helps that I am a rule-follower. I think a lot of the time that baking doesn't turn out well, it's more likely due to failure to follow the recipe rather than lack of skill. My grandmother used to say, "if you can read, you can cook," and I've always thought that to be very true. Sure, things like pie crust and meringue frosting take practice, but following the instructions is always a good start.

And on the topic of rules, that brings me to my list of baking rules that I (almost) always follow:
  1. The first time you make a recipe, always follow it exactly. Don't try to make substitutions, "lighten it," or otherwise mess around with it. If you follow the recipe, and it doesn't come out well, it's a bad recipe. Don't make it again. If it does come out well, then feel free to make your own adjustments the next time. Then if it doesn't come out well, you know it's not the recipe, it's you. There are some exceptions to this rule, but you have to learn when it's ok to make them.
  2. Desserts are not meant to be healthy. That is why they are so delicious. If you want something sweet that is healthy, have some fruit. I generally don't believe in substituting applesauce for oil or any of that nonsense to make desserts healthier. I'd rather have the real deal, and eat them in moderation. That doesn't mean that everything baked has to be unhealthy or that I never bake anything healthy. I make plenty of healthy whole wheat and multigrain breads.
  3. Don't over mix. If a recipe says, mix until just moistened, do just that! Don't feel the need to mix it to death so it's perfectly smooth. This won't make it better, it will make it worse.
  4. Most importantly, DO NOT OVER BAKE. Dried out baked goods are the worst.
So my plan for this blog is write about my experiences with baking, both good and bad. I will try to provide recipes whenever I can, but as I already mentioned I'm a rule follower and I'd also rather not go to jail for copyright violations, so I will not retype recipes from cookbooks. I will provide links for recipes that can be found online and I will type out recipes that I have created myself (or significantly altered from recipes in cookbooks). If you want a recipe that I haven't provided, send me an email and I'd be happy to send it to you.

With that, enjoy!