Macadamia Shortbreads {ModBak}

I was hopeful that this week’s Modern Baker Challenge cookie would make up for the tuile disaster and the fussy thumbprint cookies. Since it’s a shortbread, I knew it would at least be fairly easy, without a lot of ingredients. And the addition of macadamia nuts seemed like it would elevate the cookies a bit, both in style and flavor.

A classic Scottish shortbread recipe uses three ingredients: butter, sugar, and flour. This recipe adds baking powder and, of course, macadamia nuts to the trinity, but otherwise stays true to its Scottish roots.

After grinding the macadamias with sugar in the food processor, I added the flour, baking powder, and butter and whirred it together until it made a fine, powdery mixture.

When I dumped it into the pan, it was hard to envision how this sandy, silty substance would pull together into a cookie.

Of course, that’s the beauty of shortbreads. Since the only liquid in the recipe is butter, and it starts in its solid state, the dough really comes together once it hits the heat. In the meantime, I pressed the dough into the pan as best I could.

I sprinkled the dough with a little water, then topped it with macadamia nuts ground with sugar.

The shortbreads baked up beautifully. They smelled so rich and buttery, I couldn’t wait to try them.

And the flavor did not disappoint. Macadamia nuts have a buttery richness to them that paired perfectly with the shortbread dough. In fact, it’s such a natural combination, I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it before.

The cookies kept well in a plastic container, and we enjoyed them for several days. In case you’re wondering where the picture of the finished cookies went, you’ll have to ask him…

I realized I hadn’t plated the cookies for a picture, and went to get them, but they weren’t on the counter where I had left them. I looked all over the kitchen and dining room, but to no avail. I never found the cookies, but I did find the container under my daughter’s bed, where Bailey likes to take his purloined treasures.

Stupid dog.

But at least he has good taste.

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Spiced Squash, Fennel, and Pear Soup {FFwD}

When I posted the Twenty-minute Honey-glazed Duck Breasts this morning, I wasn’t planning on writing this week’s French Fridays post until next week. In fact, I hadn’t even made the soup yet, so posting it today seemed out of the question. But with the girls at school, J resting on the couch, Bailey napping wherever he could find a comfortable spot, and me off work for the day, it just seemed like a great time for some cooking. Add to that the fact that we got our first snow overnight, and soup was the perfect choice for the afternoon.

I started out by roasting a pumpkin.

It was only a 3-pounder, so I was surprised by how much meat I got from it.

Next, I did my mise en place. I’m a big proponent of using mise en place for cooking and baking, and I always employ it for soups, which tend to require a lot of measuring, peeling, and chopping but come together quickly once you start cooking. With all your ingredients in front of you, most of the work is behind you.

I sautéed onions in olive oil over low heat, then added fennel, celery, and garlic and cooked until the vegetables softened.

I added spices, the roasted pumpkin, homemade chicken stock, pear, and orange peel to the pot, brought it to a boil, then simmered for about 20 minutes, until the pear was mashably soft.

I pureed the soup with my immersion blender, then adjusted the salt and pepper. Most soups are oversalted for my tastes, so I had used very little salt while preparing the soup. I stirred in a little at a time until the balance was perfect. As I tasted the soup, I thought it might benefit from a little honey to help bolster the sweetness of the pears, so I stirred in about 2 tablespoons of clover honey.

I served the soup with a squeeze of lemon juice and crème fraîche.

The soup was creamy, savory, a little sweet, and spiced just right. The acid from the lemon juice gave it great balance, and the crème fraîche added a nice tang. I could just barely taste the orange peel, and it seemed like the soup would be really good with just a bit more orange flavor, maybe from some zest or a bit of juice.

But it was pretty close to perfect just the way it was.

And the Parent of the Year Award Goes to….

Cookies and Cream Cheesecakes {MSC}

This is my first month baking with the Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes Club, and I was excited to start with this recipe for Cookies and Cream Cheesecakes chosen by Nina. I bought Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes a few months ago with a 50% off coupon at JoAnn’s, but until now I hadn’t baked anything from it. Suffice it to say, I’ll be baking more from this book, and not just once a month with the Club.

My daughter actually saw this recipe before she knew I had joined the Cupcakes Club and asked me if we could make them. Oreos and cheesecake baked in a cupcake, who could resist?

We cut the recipe in half, in part because I don’t have 30 muffin cups, but mostly so we wouldn’t eat that many cupcakes between the four of us.

This was a very easy recipe to make. In the time it took my daughter to line the muffin pans and put an Oreo in each cup, I had mixed the batter, which consisted of cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, eggs, sour cream, salt, and crushed Oreos. I was afraid the cheesecakes would be too rich and sweet, but there wasn’t much sugar in the recipe, and the sour cream cut the richness. All in all, I would call this a perfectly balanced recipe.

After we baked them, I put them on a cooling rack on the table to cool. The recipe said to cool them in the pans, then put the pans in the refrigerator for at least four hours before eating. I wasn’t sure I could wait that long. As it turns out, neither could Bailey, our three-year-old beagle. I heard something in the dining room, and went to check only to find him standing on the table, enjoying his third cheesecake, paper and all. This wasn’t his first foray into the culinary arts. I only wished I had thought to take a picture of him before I shooed him off the table.

I decided the cheesecakes were cool enough, so I put one pan in the refrigerator and the other, smaller pan in the freezer. After about 45 minutes, we sampled the ones from the freezer. They were delicious. Sweet and crunchy, with a nice tang from the cream cheese and sour cream.

We will definitely make these again. And I’m sticking with the Club, my waistline be damned.

Perfect Birthday, Perfect Birthday Cake {ModBak}

I remember when M. was a baby. Everything was so new and exciting. I loved being a father so much that I didn’t even mind the crying, midnight feedings, and smelly diapers. I loved the baby stage. Everything was perfect. And it just kept getting better.

Soon, she was smiling and babbling, learning to sit up, then crawl, and eventually walk. She was speaking in complete sentences by 18 months. And I fell head over heals in love with the toddler stage.

And before I knew it, she was a preschooler, exercising her budding motor skills and imagination. I watched her play and learn and explore her world. And I knew this was my favorite age.

Soon M. was starting school, and I watched with great delight as she made new friends and soaked up everything she was taught. And while I was enjoying this new favorite stage, along came A., and I realized how much I loved the baby stage all over again.

I can honestly say that my favorite stage has always been the one my girls are in at any given time. So right now, my absolute favorite ages are 13 and six. A. is at such a fun age — learning to read, exploring her world with curiosity and imagination. She can create anything with paper, scissors, and tape. I came home the other day to find an elephant swimming in a pond at the base of a mountain in the living room. Six is an awesome age!

And I love seeing the young lady M. is becoming and watching her grow in beauty and confidence. She is a great student and a good friend. And to my great delight, she is starting to really enjoy cooking and baking. So when she said she wanted to make my birthday cake this year, I suggested a recipe from The Modern Baker then got out of the way. It was called “Perfect Birthday Cake”, and the name turned out to be quite fitting.

So here are my girls, baking my cake and making me proud.

M. knows the importance of mise en place

Reading the recipe

Checking the recipe one more time

OK, so I am an unabashedly proud daddy, but I’m also a serious baker. And as such, I can honestly say this was the best birthday cake I’ve ever had.

So, I guess my three favorite ages are six, 13, and 42. Until next year, that is.

Wordless Wednesday — It’s a Dog’s Life

Wordless Wednesday — King of the World

Stolen Stollen

The 36th recipe in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge is Stollen, a German holiday bread. Never was a bread so aptly named. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Stollen is traditionally made at Christmastime. The shape of the bread is meant to resemble a blanket in a manger. And the color (studded with candied fruit) is supposed to remind us of the gifts brought to the baby Jesus by the Magi.

Before I started this bread, I made a quick trip to the store to stock up on ingredients: candied fruit, almonds, candied citrus peel, and golden raisins. I decided to take PR’s recommendation and soak the fruit for several days before making the bread. I measure out the dried fruit, raisins, and peel (I decided to add some citrus peel); added lemon, lime, and orange oils; and then reached for the brandy.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered there was no brandy in the house. And no rum, either. It was a dark and stormy night, and I didn’t feel like running back to the store, so I decided to use something I had on hand. And the something I reached for? Scotch. Single malt scotch. Expensive single malt scotch. It’s not that I mind using expensive ingredients when I bake. I just wasn’t sure how fruit soaked in scotch would taste. But, it was what I had, so I decided to use it. After adding the whisky to the fruit mixture, I stirred it up and covered the bowl. I stirred the mixture several times a day for the next few days.

On baking day, I made the sponge. Since I don’t bake with milk, I mixed the sponge with warm water, flour, and yeast.

After an hour, it looked like this:

I mixed the dough and sponge for a few minutes in the Kitchen Aid (substituting buttermilk powder for the milk), let it rest for about 10 minutes, then added the fruit a little bit at a time. After kneading the dough for another 4 minutes, I put it in an oiled bowl to ferment for 45 minutes.

I patted the dough into a rectangle and sprinkled it with almonds, raisins, and dried fruit.

Then I rolled it into a batard and placed it on a baking sheet, curving the ends slightly.

I let the dough rise for about an hour-and-a-half, then baked it in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. I removed the loaf from the oven, turned it for even baking, then inserted a probe thermometer into the dough and let it bake for about another 25 minutes, until the internal temperature reached 190 degrees.

Then I removed the bread from the oven and immediately brushed it with vegetable oil.

And finally sprinkled it liberally with two layers of powdered sugar.

I went off to do something else for an hour or so while the bread cooled. After about half an hour, I heard my daughters laughing and yelling at the dog (never a good sign), and I walked into the dining room to see Bailey standing on the table, licking all the powdered sugar off the bread. Here’s what it looked like when he was done:

I will say that dog saliva gives the bread a nice shine. Unfortunately, it’s not too appetizing. My mom and I were the only ones brave enough to try it (without the top crust). It had a really good flavor from the spices and nuts. And the fruit in whisky wa s interesting combination. The scotch mellowed a bit with the soaking and baking, but it still had the distinct taste of the bog where it was produced and the peat harvested there.

It really was a beautiful bread, and had it not been a sugar lick for the dog, I think it might have made an excellent bread pudding.

Not Bread, Just Bailey

What Baileys Do Best

There are a few reasons I haven’t posted much lately. We were on vacation for a week, without internet access. We had to get rid of our puppy, Riese. He was a Labradoodle, and was just too active and hard to train (a story for another post). And then came Bailey. Yes, that’s him sleeping in the picture above.

Bailey came to us from a rescue shelter. He was the only beagle, in fact the only small dog, in a house full of mastiffs. After our experience with Riese, who was so rough the kids couldn’t even go out in the backyard with him, we knew we had to take our time, do our research, and find just the right dog. When we read about him on www.petfinder.com, we thought Bailey might just fit the bill.

Playground Monitor Bailey

According to the listing, Bailey was two years old, housebroken, neutered, and great with children and other dogs.  I e-mailed Cindy, the shelter owner, and got a response back almost immediately. It seemed like she was as excited about us meeting Bailey as we were. Cindy runs Canisolida Mastiffs Foster and Retirement Home. Although she generally takes in mastiffs and other large breeds, she ended up bringing Bailey home with her from West Virginia. He was six months old at the time and had been living on the streets with a homeless man. How could she say no?

Sit Boys, Sit

Cindy offered to let us take Bailey for the weekend. She said she’d call on Sunday evening, and would come pick him up if we didn’t think it was going to work out. And even if we did decide to keep him, she said she would give us two weeks to make a final decision. She brought Bailey to our house on Thursday afternoon, and by Thursday evening, we had made our decision.

Movin' Into Our Hearts and Home

I probably took 50 pictures of Bailey in the first two days he was here. He was probably sleeping in 45 of them. It is amazing to me that he literally just moved into this house like he had always belonged here. Cindy told me later that she felt the same thing: when they walked in the door, she could tell Bailey was home.

Peek-a-Boo

Bailey loves to go for walks in the neighborhood, and is so gentle on his lead that my five-year-old can control him. He loves to snuggle (obviously) and is always ready to give a kiss or a wet nose. He is playful but not at all aggressive. The girls are completely taken with him. And the feeling appears to be mutual.

I’m tempted to say he’s the perfect dog, but no dog’s perfect. I have a chewed up pillow to prove it. But we weren’t looking for perfect. Just perfect for us. And that’s just what we found in Bailey.

King of the Slide

Update: August 8, 2009

That last paragraph proved all too prophetic. Here are some photos showing what we came home to the first time we left Bailey home alone for about an hour.

Room with a View

You Needed New Curtains Anyway

Now I See     Who Made This Mess

Who, Me