Sticky Buns with Pecans

This recipes comes from one of my favorite cook books, "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science" by Kenji Lopez-Alt. I had never even heard about it until it was given to me by my awesome MIL (thank you!) The mission of Food Lab is similar to that of my beloved America's Test Kitchen but instead of an arsenal of chefs, it's a one-man army. Kenji tinkers with the science of recipes in the quest of not just perfection - but understanding how to achieve such results. Luckily for us, he's done the hard part and we get to reap the benefits! It's an insightful read that will give you the tools to grow as a home cook. 

The first recipe that I ever tried from this book was one of my arch nemesis... the buttermilk pancake. I love a good stack of pancakes! Heck my husband refers to last year as, "the year of the pancake." They are one of the few things I crave and one of the few foods that can frustrate me in the kitchen. A good pancake has to be fluffy, not overly sweet, and can stand its ground without tons of maple syrup.  

Suffice to say, I was impressed by some of the tips in Food Lab. The key lesson that won my approval was how to coat the frying pan. In the past, Mike has donned my apron as a cape and came to the rescue as Captain Pancake - the King of Flipping Pancakes. I hate it when pancakes stick to the pan or the butters starts to burn.  Thanks to Food Lab, I learned that the best approach is put a little oil in the frying pan, spread it around evenly, and then wipe the excess off with a paper towel. It prevents the pancake from being saturated in excess fat while ensuring a smooth flip. Point Food Lab.

After passing this initial test, it was time for the big leagues: Christmas morning. This recipe for Sticky Buns was the perfect way to start a holiday! 

Point #1: these buns can rise overnight in the fridge saving you from getting up at the crack of dawn to impress friends and family. Just make sure you don't start too late because the dough needs to rise for two hours before forming the actual buns. Once you have them rolled and cut, then they can go in the fridge for at least 6 and up 12 hours. To put it into perspective, if you are a late riser on the weekends, you could commence the first dough rise by 8pm so it's done by 10pm. By the time you finish rolling and slicing, it will be about 10:30pm. Shove 'em in the fridge and go to bed. By no later than 10:30am, the buns needs to be out of the fridge and awaiting the oven as it preheats. No problemo!

Point #2: simple dough with almost a brioche flair thanks to the eggs in the mix. I've never made dough that incorporated brown sugar and they still came out marvelously light! If this is your first time making rolls, don't be intimidated.  

Point #3: the pecan caramel sauce is super easy and won't make a huge mess in your kitchen like normal caramel - phew! I hate it when the filling runs from the heat of the oven but that's not a problem with sticky buns. The caramel sauce on the bottom seals everything in.

Point #4: delicious. I was fascinated that the bread didn't get soggy after sitting in a bunch of caramel goo over-night and held its form even while baking. You don't need the cream cheese glaze but if you must, use one with a little orange or lemon zest - always kicks things up a notch! 

These buns are a gold star in our kitchen! The recipe for Kenji's, "The World's Most Awesome Sticky Buns" can be found in his cookbook, Food Lab, as well as online, i.e. check out this post on Eater.

Japanese Cheesecake

I've made a variety of cheesecakes (i.e. Raspberry Swirl, America's Test Kitchen, Bourbon Pumpkin, Pumpkin Spice, No-Bake Nutella, Key-Lime, and Lite-Mixed Berry) in my time but none quite like this: a Japanese Cheesecake. I had no idea what I walking into but the concept sounded fascinating. The best description that I read was it's like a cheesecake and chiffon cake met in bar and had one too many, resulting in this this bundle of joy. I decided to make it for the ultimate cheesecake lover, Brandon

So what's the difference between a Japanese versus a New York style cheesecake? For starters, there's almost a full cup of flour in the batter which accounts for the chiffon feel. Not quite a cake - not quite a cheesecake. It takes away from that trademark texture of being creamy and dreamy. I would almost describe it as slightly dry. So be forewarned: if you are looking for silky smoothness - keep moving.

Another big difference is the amount of sugar. In a New York style cheesecake, there's 1 1/2 cups of sugar while the Japanese version halves the amount! This makes it far less decadent which, depending on your preference, is awesome or a bummer. Personally, I don't like super sweet desserts so this a bonus.  You don't feel the urge to chug a gallon of water after a slice or go to they gym the next day as penance. 

A key element that differentiates these two recipes is the actual baking method. A New York style cheesecake is pretty straightforward - mix all the ingredients, pour into a spring form pan, and bake in the oven in a hot water bath (bain marie). It has a graham cracker crust so there's no need to line the pan. A Japanese cheesecake is a touch more complicated. 

As you can see above - there is no graham cracker crust ergo, the pan needs to be lined with parchment paper so you can safely extract it from the pan. This is one area where I got sloppy! See how my Japanese cheesecake doesn't have perfectly smooth sides? It's all lumpy and bumpy. Well ladies and gentlemen... that's because I did a sloppy job lining the pan, cramming parchment paper against the sides of the spring form. Make sure you cut out a nice smooth sheet and line it against the cake round! : ) 

Also, rather than just mixing everything together, the Japanese version is a two step process. There is the basic mix portion but the second component requires a light meringue. Whip the egg whites with some sugar until it's thick and glossy then gently fold into the cream cheese base. Now it's ready to bake in the oven like any ol' cheesecake! 

I'm not going to lie to you - this variety of cheesecake was not up Brandon's alley and that's okay. B loves the glamor and sin of a full-bodied American cheesecake. He likes the trademark sweetness and creaminess that makes people fall in love with it in the first place. I, however, can only handle cheesecake in small slices for those very same reasons. This is definitely the type of cake you would find in an Asian or European bakery where decadence is not the goal. Top this bad boy with fresh or roasted strawberries (totally vote simple roasted or the fancy kind) - yummy!

The recipe for this Japanese Cheesecake can be found on Baked to the Roots. Again, it's a classy option for those who don't enjoy super sweet desserts.

Cosmopolitan Cake

Right before the New Years Eve shenanigans popped off, I saw this Cosmopolitan Cake from King Arthur Flour and knew it had to be a guest at my girlfriend's NYE party. Carolyn is known for her glamorous, quirky style and throwing some killer soirees. Cake soaked in Triple Sec, lemon-lime curd, and cranberry frosting would fit in perfectly!

Since this was whisked away for the evening, I didn't have the opportunity to take any fancy photos. I didn't use any food coloring so it doesn't have the same vivacious pink as King Arthur's version but it was still just as darling. Plus, a sprinkle of edible stars around the border makes it irresistible!

The cake itself came out a bit dense. I read the reviews and other bakers had similar results; it was implied that it may have been the amount of flour. That being the case, I wish the ingredients were posted with metric measurements rather than "cups." Better safe than sorry! I even baked the cake a second round to troubleshoot with fresh baking powder but alas - same texture. It's not distasteful but it makes halving the two rounds into four impossible. My recommendation: use a fluffy white cake recipe instead and stick with the Triple Sec soak. I love this recipe from America's Test Kitchen! If you're avoiding booze, skip the soak and incorporate orange instead (i.e. orange zest in the batter or orange extract).

As for the frosting and curd, both came out sensational. I never used meringue powder before in frosting but it turned out silky smooth and luscious. If you cannot find undiluted cranberry juice, fret not! Take some regular juice and reduce it on the stove top to at least half to concentrate it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this cake! It's not super sweet - it quite tart and refreshing. Everyone at the party raved about it but when my friend with a wicked sweet tooth had a slice, he said it was too tart for him. That being said, tart is not everyone's cup of tea so know your audience. Happy New Year!

Check out the recipe for this Cosmopolitan Cake at King Arthur Flour!

Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies

The stockings are hung. The tree is up. And my hand is cramping from writing holiday cards. It's that glorious time of year again! It's been a little harder getting in the spirit this go around. Often times my day is calm-  filled with Madison's purrs, Remi's cuddles, and Mike's laughter. Then I turn on the television or catch a fleeting glance on my cell phone of the world outside my own. I cannot help but feel the light in my soul flicker. 

It's important not to dwell. Take a break from watching the news. Give up your Facebook account like my husband. Do what you must to protect your heart and stay in the present. 

But don't give up. Fight back through acts of kindness, i.e. charity, volunteering, or supporting Fair Trade. Heck - just be kind to yourself and others. There's a great line from Faithfully Religionless: "Conflict arises when we want other people to validate our interpretation of the world by seeing it the same way we do. With that mentality, it's easy to see why wars start in the first place, right? The wars outside of us simply reflect the turmoil within. It's therefore inner peace that will lead to world peace, not the other way around." If there is hate in your heart - it will manifest. One by one, let's be the difference!

And so Santa, this year, more than any in the past, I wish for peace on Earth and good will towards all. If you can hook that up old man with the white beard, I will make you these cookies everyday forever. If you cannot, no hard feelings. But I cannot guarantee that you'll get these awesome cookies again!

These cookies are in the top five of my chocolate chip darlings. They're fascinating in that they don't necessarily need time to hang out in the fridge to firm up which means instant cookie goodness. In my paranoia, I still let them chill in the fridge! Old habit. I also added walnuts because they're always a good idea in chocolate chip cookies. For the chocolate chips, I did a mix of bittersweet (because darker is better) and this artisan Guittard semi-sweet chips. Not going to lie - it was like a moth to the flame when I saw the shiny packaging in the baking aisle. 

Note - this recipe uses SALTED BUTTER which I don't use for baking. The first time I made these, I did 3/4 teaspoon salt and the husband said it was too much. Second go was 1/2 a teaspoon and I got the thumbs up.

Also, I would like to throw a quick tip out there for the frustrated cookie bakers. If you want to guarantee that your cookies won't be too thin and spread, try a little (or entirely like this recipe) bread flour. Adding just a tablespoon has an obvious effect in that the dough spreads less thanks to the extra gluten. 

So pour yourself a big cup of almond milk and enjoy some well deserved treats. Try to leave a few for Clause! Whatever you do or do not celebrate - Happy Holidays! Let's celebrate love and life! Sending great big hugs!

For the recipe, check out Pinch of Yum's post for Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies!

Chai Butternut Squash Bundt Cake

Recently, I acquired a smashing little magazine: "Bake From Scratch" (Fall 2016 edition). What lured me in was the cover photo showcasing a lovely chai butternut squash bundt cake. Flipping through the contents, I was delighted by the number of promising recipes. Usually, you get a magazine and there may be one or two items that are appetizing. This edition, however, had pages of tasty ideas. Sold!

The first thing I baked, naturally, was the chai bundt cake. It's a basic bundt mix with the addition of butternut squash for moisture and sweetness. If you cannot find butternut squash, you could use pumpkin puree or sweet potato in a pinch. The real flavor comes from a healthy tablespoon of loose chai tea leaves. I simply took a bag of one of my favorite at-home tea blends from Celestial Seasonings  (thanks Sulava), cut it open, and added the looseleaf mix.

What makes this recipe unique is the swirl of cream cheese in the middle and walnut topping. Personally, I don't think you necessarily NEED these two elements but they do compliment the cake very well. The cream cheese is like a built in cup of milk and creates a latte effect. Personally, I never drink chai tea with straight water - it needs to be made with some form of milk to take the edge of all the spices. 

The topping adds a textural dimension with the crunch of the walnuts. They are coated in a combination of light corn syrup, maple syrup, a little unsalted butter, and vanilla extract. If you don't like walnuts, I would skip this step and simply have some maple syrup on the side.

This is a bundt full of flavors so do not serve to those faint of heart - test it on house guests who love cinnamon, cardamom, and fall fun. We certainly enjoyed it and hope you do as well!

Chai Butternut Squash Bundt Cake
from Bake From Scratch
Makes 1 (10 Cup) Bundt Cake

*Note: I halved the recipe for my 6 cup pan and it worked out perfect

1 Tablespoon (5 grams) loose leaf chai leaves
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2 1/2 cups (525 grams) granulated sugar, DIVIDED
4 large eggs, DIVIDED
2 1/2 cups (350 grams) plus 1 Tablespoon all purpose flour, DIVIDED
1 cup (230 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon (6 grams) baking soda
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
1 cup (260 grams) cooked and mashed butternut squash
1/2 cup whole milk
1 Tablespoon orange zest

Bake the butternut squash until tender (I like to roast in oven for about an hour and a half in the oven); allow it to cool then mash. Can be made up two days in advance and stored in the fridge in an air tight container. 

In a spice grinder, grind the chai leaves until finely ground; optional if your mix is already ground. Set aside. 

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat cream cheese at medium speed until creamy. Add 1/2 cup (105 grams) sugar and beat until combined. Add 1 egg and 1 Tablespoon flour. Beat until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 325. Spray bundt pan with baking spray.

In a large bowl , beat butter, vanilla, and remaining 2 cups of sugar at medium speed until fluffy, 4-5 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl as needed. Add remaining 3 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a medium bowl, whisk together tea, baking soda, salt, and remaining 2 1/2 cups flour.  In another bowl, combine squash, milk, and zest. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with squash mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat until just combined after each addition

Spoon three-fourths of batter into prepared pan. Make a deep will in the center of the batter with the back of a spoon and pour in cream cheese mixture. Gently spoon in remaining batter on top, spreading until smooth.

Bake until a wooden pick inserted near center comes out with a few moist crumbs, about 1 hour. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack and let cool completely. Serve with Walnut Sauce (recipe below).

Walnut Sauce
makes about 2 cups

1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup (96 grams) chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small sauce pan, bring corn syrup and maple syrup to a boil. Remove from heat, stir in butter, vanilla, and walnuts. Let cool.