Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Perfect Blueberry Muffins

It may sound strange and a little extreme, but I really do think that a good muffin is hard to find. Shops and coffee houses are full of massive muffins in their bags, all 'freshly baked' and ready to munch on the go. However, I generally don't like them. I don't consider myself a muffin snob but they tend to be heavy and stodgy and will sit in your stomach for at least a week after you've eaten one, and whats with the super-sizing? A muffin is supposed to be a little bit of cakey-goodness encased in its own little cup, not a week's worth of calories in a monster sized mug. Am I going on a bit here? Sorry. Maybe I am a muffin snob after all.

So when I come across a recipe that claims to be not just a good, or even a great muffin, but a perfect muffin, I just have to take up that challenge. What makes a perfect muffin? Thats all down to the opinion of the eater isn't it (hence the claim of the 'perfect' muffin being such a bold statement) but in my humble 2 cents worth - and as this is my blog I have the power to bestow it on whosoever is reading - a perfect muffin is light, tasty, non-greasy, punctuated by a few fruity surprises, and not mammoth-sized.

I am pleased to report that I was not disappointed. The recipe was blissfully simple, and yet so effective it makes whipping up a batch of these babies almost effortless. I daresay that I could do it in my sleep, or at least while sleep-walking/sleep-baking in the middle of the night while looking for a warm, comforting midnight snack. Just the smell of these little beauties baking in the oven is worth the trip out for stock of the last blueberries of the season. Oh, its the end of summer, shoot! I thought I'd managed to avoid facing that fact so well. Turning away from the sight of the leaves floating down from the trees and unconsciously adding another clothing layer so that I don't notice that bite in the air when I leave the house for work in the morning. Stop. Rewind. Go back to summer please... I'm not ready to say goodbye to light evenings and summer berries.

Luckily I have these little beauties to soothe me and remind me that autumn is the season for a host of new, fresh ingredients and an extra layer won't kill me. I'll just have to run in the dark with a silly headtorch and then cuddle up on the sofa with a blanket, a glass of red and a warm body next to me and enjoy having an excuse to do all that. I guess I am jumping the gun. Hey, it was 18 degrees today for a couple of hours, almost tropical, hahaha. If my South African friends heard that they'd laugh their heads off for the whole 5 minutes of their measly winter. Miss some things about Africa. However, I digress, this is supposed to be a food blog. 

So if anyone is reading this and likes a good muffin, give these babies a go. you won't regret it. Thank you Deb at Smitten Kitchen for your inspiration, my life would be a whole other level of dull without you and your bright pictures and happy words.

Perfect Blueberry Muffins
Smitten Kitchen

Makes 10-12 standard muffins

5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces or 71 grams) unsalted butter , softened
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams) sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces or 191 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon (7 grams or 1/4 ounce) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) baking soda
1/4 teaspoon (2 grams) salt
3/4 cup (3 3/4 ounces or 105 grams) blueberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, don’t bother defrosting)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a muffin tin with 10-12 muffin cases or spray each cup with a nonstick spray. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat well, then sour cream and zest. Put flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a sieve and sift half of dry ingredients over batter. Mix until combined. Sift remaining dry ingredients into batter and mix just until the flour disappears. Gently fold in your blueberries. The dough will be quite lovely and thick, more a cookie dough than a batter. Fill the muffin cases/tin. You’re looking for them to be about 3/4 full, nothing more, or you'll have an overflowing mess. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of muffins comes out clean. Let cool on rack (ha), or munch 1 (or more) while decadently warm.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Ice Cream Take 2 & Browned Butter Beauty

The August 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Elissa of 17 and Baking. For the first time, The Daring Bakers partnered with Sugar High Fridays for a co-event and Elissa was the gracious hostess of both. Using the theme of beurre noisette, or browned butter, Elissa chose to challenge Daring Bakers to make a pound cake to be used in either a Baked Alaska or in Ice Cream Petit Fours. The sources for Elissa’s challenge were Gourmet magazine and David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop”.
I have to confess that I prepared for this months challenge with a certain amount of trepidation due to the ice cream element. My attempt at ice cream last month was not particularly successful (I try to blame the lack of ice-cream maker in an effort to minimise my incompetence) so I was not overly confident that this month and take 2 would be any different. But I do hate being beaten by such a simple thing as a little frozen custardy cream so I took a deep breath and prepared to churn. I decided to go with vanilla. I do love a good vanilla ice cream and I thought it would be a good foundation to try to get right, and if I managed that I could then take on the task of diversifying my flavour portfolio.
There is something incredibly sexy about the combination of milk, sugar and vanilla. The velvety rich, sweetness adorned with an infinite number of tiny beads of pure vanilla indulgence. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Anyway, back to the topic. The custard for the ice cream went perfectly and melded with the cream in its ice bath very happily and it tasted, at this stage, quite delicious. The only change I would have made is to dial back on the sugar a tiny bit to let the cream and vanilla come through a little more. Then into the freezer once cooled and churned with my trusty old hand mixer every half hour for about 3 hours. The result, I have to say, was beautiful. Smooth, velvety, melt in the mouth creamy, (I get carried away on the topic of ice cream so I'll stop myself here). And I have to thank the wisdom of Mr Lebovitz for my final triumph over the ice cream gods. Thank you sir.

Next came the browning of the butter for the browned butter pound cake. I have heard of browned butter as a concept but I have never had the guts or even a good enough reason to take the plunge into that hot pan. But armed with a good reason and another skill to learn, into the pan the butter went. As I have never browned butter before I was somewhat paranoid about burning it, and I took it off the heat countless times trying to decide whether it smelled nutty enough or whether the milk solids looked dark chocolate brown. "Is that chocolate brown, or golden brown? Is chocolate brown darker than golden brown? What if mine go fron golden to burned and I miss the chocolate stage completely?" It was a slightly stressful 10 minutes, but I think I successfully estimated a good end point for my butter and as it went into its container to be chilled it looked browned and smelled rich and nutty - good enough for me!
The rest of the cake was a piece of cake to make (sorry, I couldn't resist that bit if cheese!) and went into the oven looking rather speckled and tasty and smelled amazing when it came out again. I did have a little bit of a challenge cutting it in half but with my 2 handy dowel rods guiding my hand it was not the catastrophe that it could have been if left to my rather unreliable eye. The ice cream layer and cake came together like they were meant to be and as I cut them into adorable little cubes I though all was well with the world and nothing could possibly go wrong. The kiss of death. I then ran into my inevitable little hiccup in the unlikely guise of a simple chocolate glaze. Something I have done many times before without incident, something that is an oh so simple concept, but yet still managed to tip me off my high horse of premature jubilation into the bog of chocolate puddingey sludge that no petit four would dip into or be bathed in.

They are not beautiful but they do taste great, and how boring would it be if everything turned out perfectly. Perfect representation of my life really - hahaha. Thank you for the challenge Elissa. It was a good giggle, and a chocolatey, finger-licking mess. But in baking, whats the fun in it if you cant lick your fingers afterwards while surveying your own perfect version of imperfection.


Vanilla Ice Cream
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup (165g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise OR 2 teaspoons (10ml) pure vanilla extract
2 cups (500ml) heavy (approx 35% butterfat) cream
5 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon (5ml) pure vanilla extract
1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan until the liquid steams. Scrape out the seeds of the vanilla bean with a paring knife and add to the milk, along with the bean pod. Cover, remove from heat, and let infuse for an hour. (If you do not have a vanilla bean, simply heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan until the liquid steams, then let cool to room temperature.)
2. Set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2 litre) bowl inside a large bowl partially filled with water and ice. Put a strainer on top of the smaller bowl and pour in the cream.
3. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks together. Reheat the milk in the medium saucepan until warmed, and then gradually pour ¼ cup warmed milk into the yolks, constantly whisking to keep the eggs from scrambling. Once the yolks are warmed, scrape the yolk and milk mixture back into the saucepan of warmed milk and cook over low heat. Stir constantly and scrape the bottom with a spatula until the mixture thickens into a custard which thinly coats the back of the spatula.
4. Strain the custard into the heavy cream and stir the mixture until cooled. Add the vanilla extract (1 teaspoon [5ml] if you are using a vanilla bean; 3 teaspoons [15ml] if you are not using a vanilla bean) and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, preferably overnight.
5. Remove the vanilla bean and freeze in an ice cream maker. If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can make it without a machine. See instructions from David Lebovitz:

Brown Butter Pound Cake

19 tablespoons (9.5 oz) (275g) unsalted (sweet) butter
2 cups (200g) sifted cake flour (not self-rising; sift before measuring) (See “Note” section for cake flour substitution)
1 teaspoon (5g) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (3g) salt
1/2 cup (110g) packed light brown sugar
1/3 (75g) cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F/160°C and put a rack in the center. Butter and flour a 9”x9” (23cmx23cm) square pan.
2. Place the butter in a 10” (25cm) skillet over medium heat. Brown the butter until the milk solids are a dark chocolate brown and the butter smells nutty. (Don’t take your eyes off the butter in case it burns.) Pour into a shallow bowl and chill in the freezer until just congealed, 15-30 minutes.
3. Whisk together cake flour, baking powder, and salt.
4. Beat the brown butter, light brown sugar, and granulated sugar in an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well, and then the vanilla extract.
5. Stir in the flour mixture at low speed until just combined.
6. Scrape the batter into the greased and floured 9”x9” (23cmx23cm) square pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula and rap the pan on the counter. Bake until golden brown on top and when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes.
7. Cool in the pan 10 minutes. Run a knife along the edge and invert right-side-up onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

Chocolate Glaze (For the Ice Cream Petit Fours)
9 ounces (250g) dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) heavy (approx 35% butterfat) cream
1 1/2 tablespoons (32g) light corn syrup, Golden syrup, or agave nectar
2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
Stir the heavy cream and light corn syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Remove from heat and add the dark chocolate. Let sit 30 seconds, then stir to completely melt the chocolate. Stir in the vanilla and let cool until tepid before glazing the petit fours.

Assembly Instructions – Ice Cream Petit Fours
1. Line a 9”x9” (23cmx23cm) pan with plastic wrap, so that no sides of the pan are exposed and so there is some extra plastic wrap hanging off the sides. Spread 1 ¾ to 2 cups (450ml to 500ml) ice cream into the pan. Cover with more plastic wrap and freeze several hours.
2. Once the brown butter pound cake has completely cooled, level the top with a cake leveler or a serrated knife. Then split the cake in half horizontally to form two thin layers.
3. Unwrap the frozen ice cream. Flip out onto one of the layers of cake and top with the second layer of cake. Wrap well in plastic wrap and return to the freezer overnight.
4. Make the chocolate glaze (see above.)
5. While the glaze cools, trim ¾” (2cm) off each side of the ice cream cake to leave a perfectly square 7.5” (19cm) ice cream cake. Cut the cake into twenty five petit fours, each 1.5”x1.5” (4cmx4cm).

Monday, 16 August 2010

The interesting world of pierogi

The August 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by LizG of Bits n’ Bites and Anula of Anula’s Kitchen. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make pierogi from scratch and an optional challenge to provide one filling that best represents their locale.

This was an interesting challenge. I had never heard of pierogi before and the concept was new to me. But after doing a lot of reading up on the subject and reading of various recipes, I came to the conclusion that pierogi are almost like a type of filled pasta, reminiscent of ravioli or any other filled pasta. The dough is essentially the same ingredients, and they are filled and boiled in a very filled-pasta like way. 

Part of the challenge was an option to make a filling that included our local/native ingredients. I currently live in Manchester, England but I am not originally from Manchester, or from the UK at all, and although there is a lot of local food that I enjoy, I could not think of a filling that would be considered 'Manchesterian' (not a real word I know but this is my blog and I am allowed to make words up). I am South African and had I been home I am sure that I could have concocted a biltong/boerewors/bobotie filled pierogi, but not being home I don't exactly have any good local ingredients to hand. So, in the interest of trying original pierogi i thought I'd try Anula's family recipe for the Russian style pierogi.  

The process of making the pierogi was fun. I love cooking that is an experience, a project, and this was certainly that. The dough was a good kneading effort, and a lot of muscle power went into the rolling out. If I had to make them again I would make use of my dear pasta machine to save my arms the fight with the dough and the what felt like hours of rolling out. 

Then the cutting out and filling and cooking was fairly straightforward and although I couldn't stop myself from adding 'a bit of this and a bit of that' to the filling as I am prone to do, I tried to stick to the recipe. 

The end result was fairly successful, and quite enjoyable with my roast lamb and salad on the side, but I think I would do a few things differently if I made them again. The pasta machine for one, to get thinner, smaller parcels. And fill the parcels a bit more as my filling seemed to shrink while the pasta grew in the cooking process, leaving the end result a bit out of proportion. But it was certainly a learning experience, and one that I hope to build on in future experiments. 

Russian style pierogi (makes 4 generous servings, around 30 dumplings)

(Traditional Polish recipe, although each family will have their own version, this is Anula's family recipe)
2 to 2 1/2 cups (300 to 375 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 large egg
1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
About 1 cup (250 ml) lukewarm water
3 big potatoes, cooked & mashed (1 1/2 cup instant or leftover mashed potatoes is fine too)   
1 cup (225 g) cottage cheese, drained       
1 onion, diced & sauteed in butter until clear
3 slices of streaky bacon, diced and fried till crispy (you can add more bacon if you like or omit that part completely if you’re vegetarian)
1 egg yolk (from medium egg)
1 tablespoon (15 g) butter, melted       
1/4 (1.25 ml) teaspoon salt       
pinch of pepper to taste    
1. Combine all the ingredients for the filling (it’s best to use one’s hands to do that) put into the bowl, cover and set aside in the fridge until you have to use it.
2. Place 2 cups flour in a large bowl or on a work surface and make a well in the center. Break the egg into it, add the salt and a little lukewarm at a time (in my situation 1/2 cup was enough). Bring the dough together, kneading well and adding more flour or water as necessary. Cover the dough with a bowl or towel. You’re aiming for soft dough. Let it rest 20 minutes.
3. On a floured work surface, roll the dough out thinly (1/8” or about 3 millimeters) cut with a 2-inch (5 cm) round or glass (personally I used 4-inch/10 cm cutter as it makes nice size pierogi - this way I got around 30 of them and 1 full, heaped teaspoon of filling is perfect for that size). Spoon a portion (teaspoon will be the best) of the filling into the middle of each circle. Fold dough in half and pinch edges together. Gather scraps, re-roll and fill. Repeat with remaining dough.
4. Bring a large, low saucepan of salted water to boil. Drop in the pierogi, not too many, only single layer in the pan! Return to the boil and reduce heat. When the pierogi rise to the surface, continue to simmer a few minutes more ( usually about 5 minutes). Remove one dumpling with a slotted spoon and taste if ready. When satisfied, remove remaining pierogi from the water.
5. Serve immediately preferably with creme fraiche or fry. Cold pierogi can be fried.  Boiled Russian pierogi can be easily frozen and boiled taken out straight from the freezer.