Friday, December 23, 2011

Fun & Festive Cake Pops

Hello readers! As many of you know, while this week has ended with cozy family holiday time, it began with a move from Philadelphia to my new home in western Massachusetts and a bit of chaos in between. All went smoothly, though, and now I am happy to be on Cape Cod with my loved ones for the holidays.

... But lets get back to the reason we are all here. Food.

Every year for the last 7 Christmases or so, my sister Allie and I have baked, dipped, or otherwise assembled a seasonal treat for our extended family members as low-cost, high-cheer-impact Christmas gifts. We've made many types of treats, from ginger lemon cookies the first year to pretzel rods dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped pistachios, but we always have a riot of a time working together in the kitchen. In pretty festive packaging, even the simplest sweets make very welcome gifts. This year we thought we would try something new and adventurous, the cake pop. Also known as cake balls or cakesicles, they happen to be very trendy at the moment, stealing some thunder from the fading cupcake craze.

We began with the very clever and simple technique described on The Kitchn (not a typo). But, rather than making our cake from scratch, we turned to the good people at Trader Joe's. Basically, this method involves baking a cake, crumbling it up, making a simple cream cheese frosting, and combining the two into tasty little morsels on sticks. We baked two batches each of TJ's Truffle Brownie Mix (dipped in milk chocolate) and Vanilla Cake & Baking Mix (dipped in white chocolate), decorated with festive silver and gold dragees and crushed candy canes. You could decorate your pops with sprinkles, coconut, colored sugar, mini marshmallows, or even mini M&Ms. These are so much fun to make, gift and eat.

Since most of us are baking for a crowd this time of year, this recipe is for two boxes of mix and enough frosting to glue it all together.

Ingredients & Supplies:
2 boxes Trader Joe's Truffle Brownie Mix or Vanilla Cake & Baking Mix (these each call for butter, eggs, and milk, so read the package before you finalize your shopping list)
2 cups confectioner's sugar
4 tablespoons butter
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
About 1 tablespoon milk (or more, as needed)
12 oz. dark, milk or white chocolate for dipping (you can use meltable chocolate, found at craft stores, or regular bar chocolate with a small square of edible wax optional for a more melt-resistant shell)
Cardboard or plastic lollipop sticks (get these at Michael's, A.C. Moore or other craft stores; may need to be cut to size)
Cookie sheets or trays
Wax or parchment paper
Cookie and/or cake decorations of your choice

1. Bake your cake according to the package directions. (In a large baking dish, you can bake both boxes at once). Let cake cool completely, ideally overnight.
2. Using two forks or your hands, break the cake up into fine crumbs. (We did forks then hands).
3. In a separate bowl, whip together the butter, sugar, milk and cream cheese until smooth. Pour into the cake crumbs and mix with a spoon. [Note: If using the brownie mix, add about 2/3 of the icing, mix, and check texture. The full frosting recipe may not be needed.] Continue mixing with your fingers, until frosting is fully incorporated into the cake.
4. Try rolling the dough into a ball. If it is malleable and holds its shape (as it should be), it's ready to go. If it is too dry, add milk a teaspoon at a time until the dough is easy to mold. When the dough is ready, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. Dough can be refrigerated for up to three days.
5. To make your pops, first line 3 or 4 baking sheets with wax paper or parchment. Take about a tablespoon of dough, roll it into a smooth ball. Insert the stick and place ball on paper-lined baking sheet. As you fill up the sheets, stick them in the freezer to harden the balls.
6. To decorate your pops, melt the chocolate (and wax, if you're using it) in a double-boiler on the stove, or in the microwave, taking care not to over-heat it. Dip the ball in, and place back on the papered baking sheet. Dip in sugar, chopped nuts, or coconut, or sprinkle with your decoration of choice.
Gold and silver dragees and smashed candy canes for decorating.
So pretty!
[A Note about Decorating: Since you want your sprinkles or what-have-yous to stick well to the chocolate before it hardens, we found that the best assembly method was for one person to do the dipping and the other to do the decorating, trading jobs occasionally.]

Please enjoy this fantastic video of the cake-pop making process, made by my future brother in law Sebastian Ebarb of Sebastian Ebarb Design. It features overly dramatic Trans-Siberian Orchestra music chosen by yours truly, and hand-modeling appearances by both Allie and myself. (Photos in this post are also his handiwork).

Cake Pop from Sebastian Ebarb on Vimeo.

We way underestimated the total number of sticks we would need, so we ended up with some cake "bites" that can't really be called pops. Still, they are just as delicious as they are adorable. You will probably need about 50 sticks, to be on the safe side.

Pops in process. The naked vanilla ones look a lot like plain donut holes!
After the slight snap of biting through the chocolate shell, you reach the super moist, rich center. These can be frozen, but don't refrigerate them or the chocolate shell will get weepy and strange. Of course, these are meant as an occasional treat, so indulge in moderation, but "tis the season," so whatever.

Happy Holidays, everybody! With love from my kitchen to yours,

UPDATE: It was unfair of me to talk of festive packaging and not show you what ours looked like all ready to be gifted, so here is a glimpse:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

White Bean & Andouille Sausage Stew from the Crock Pot

So, to get it out of the way (and, okay, because I'm really happy about it) I would like to share with you all that I've finished my master's degree! I am a Master of Science! What a world. And, since the next big steps for me are moving back to MA to be with Brady in two weeks and starting the hunt for my first real job in the New Year, for the sake of my short-term sanity I've chosen to focus on the Holidays with my family and on all the delicious things I can cook before that "What next?" moment comes. 

When I was a kid, I didn't like a lot of food. I know how unlikely that now seems, but for a while there around ages 8-10, one of the only things my Mom could make that I would always eat happily was her soup made with kale, sausage (maybe kielbasa?), and other delicious things that I have since forgotten. In a sense, I think the details of the recipe are less important than how gleeful I felt when I ate it, and how she enjoyed making something that I loved so much.

This recipe is a variation on a theme: I added white beans and tomatoes and swapped the kale for other veggies, but the substantial texture and subtle spiciness of the sausage remains. Of course, you could easily add chopped kale or collard greens in the last 30 minutes or so of cooking, but I am myself just coming off a bit of a kale binge (is that even a thing?) so I decided to go a slightly different route.

It is SUPER HARD to photograph steamy food.
About 1/4 lb. Andouille (or other smoked) sausage links, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise
1/4 cup dry white beans, sorted, rinsed and soaked overnight, or 1 15 oz. can prepared white beans
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes, with or without green chiles
1 (above) can of water (if you are using dry beans, add another 1/2 can)
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon mixed dry Italian herbs
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 dried chili pepper (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste

[Written for a 2 qt. crock pot]

1. Combine all ingredients in crock pot and cook on "low" for about 4-6 hours if you used prepared beans (more like 8-10 if you're using dry-soaked beans), or on "high" for about 4 (or more like 6 if, you guessed it, you're using dry beans), or some combination of high and low until beans and veggies are tender. The exact time will depend on your machine.
2. If necessary, remove the lid for the final hour or so of cooking to reduce liquids.
3. Remove bay leaf and serve with butter and a good crusty bread. (If you're looking for a super no-knead, healthy, rustic bread recipe to make with your soup, check this out).

The great thing about smoked sausage (besides the fact that it is sausage, and that it is smoked) is that since its fully cooked, you just need to be sure it is well-heated and it's ready to go. But better still, when you slow cook smoked sausage like this, it lends such great flavor to your soup without a ton of different seasonings. Win-win. As a different twist, you could use chorizo, the "with green chiles" tomato option, serve topped with fresh cilantro and some shredded cheese, and if you happen to have some corn chips on hand, you've made grown-up taco soup.

Maybe it is my imagination, but it seems to me that while I've been living alone (and especially now that it is winter) my posts have been mainly about easy, comforting food. In so doing, I hope I haven't strayed too far from the other part of my mission, of cooking and writing about healthy food. But, GK is also about my life, which heaven knows is a moving target. It's sort of crazy to me that I've been sharing my kitchen exploits with you all for the majority of my life as a graduate student. I guess the moral of the story is, life is short. Way too short not to eat well.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Super Easy Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread from Two Peas & Their Pod

Hey everybody! I know I haven't been the most attentive of bloggers lately, but if its an acceptable excuse... I've finished my master's thesis! And in two days, my graduate school experience will be over and I'll be packing up to move to MA. So life is good, and I feel like writing about delicious treats.

I made this pumpkin and chocolate chip bread for the first time this Thanksgiving, and I have to say, it's kind of the perfect Holiday bread. It's great with coffee for a breakfast treat, or with dessert. Did I mention it's super easy, and this recipe makes three super-moist 9"x5" loaves? If you're looking for something new to make this Christmas, this is a good egg. So to speak. Though there are actual eggs in it, too. And if you bring a loaf to a friend or relative's house, you will be very popular. This is experience speaking.
Thanksgiving baking workshop! Photo credit to the fantastic Kathy Koplik.
This recipe came from a really fun blog, Two Peas & Their Pod. I made mine according to the recipe (unbelievable, right?) and I wouldn't change a thing:

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups granulated sugar
1 15 oz. can pure pumpkin puree
1 cup canola oil
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray three 9x5 inch loaf pans with cooking spray and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine sugar, pumpkin, canola oil, water, vanilla, and eggs. Mix until smooth.
4. Slowly blend in flour mixture. Fold in chocolate chips. Evenly divide batter between the three loaf pans.
5. Bake for 60 minutes, or until browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove loaves from oven and cool in pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. With a knife, go around the bread and loosen the loaves. Remove from pan and cool completely before slicing.
*Note-this recipe makes a lot of bread, so be prepared to share or put a loaf in the freezer for later.

Photo credit to Two Peas & Their Pod

The recipe kind of speaks for itself. I'm pretty sure this will become a regular Thanksgiving thing for me, but it would also be perfect for any winter celebration.

Quote of the Day: There's nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate. ~ Linda Grayson, the Pickwick Papers

EDIT: I suspect this would also be delicious using raisins instead of the chocolate chips, if you're not the chocolate type.