Friday, February 19, 2010

The Doldrums

I believe that we have entered that period known to many as the Winter Doldrums. I don't know about you, but I am bored. This boredom has sapped my energy and creativity, leaving me a dull and somewhat crabby person who is no fun to be around. I try to think of ways to help with the boredom, but one look at the piles and piles of snow sends me back to the couch. I'm trying not to complain, since I gave it up for Lent, but it's hard when it snows nearly every day and you haven't seen the sun in weeks. See, I told you I was crabby!

Anyway, enough whining. Sean and I had a lovely day last Friday, when we went to look at the Orchids at Phipps Conservatory. It was lovely and refreshing. And, since we went at night, you couldn't tell that the sun wasn't shining!

And today, many of our nearest and dearest will be joining us at Sean's friends house for an engagement party! I am so looking forward to that.

On Tuesday, my office had a Mardi Gras party. I had planned to make Pralines, but there was an ice storm on Monday night (or maybe it was snowing. I no longer differentiate between days of the week--I may even have worn the same clothes twice this week, but I'm not sure). Anyway, I decided not to go to the store for brown sugar and pecans, and instead relied on my personal stash of baking ingredients to make something. I find that it is good policy to have enough ingredients to make brownies or cake at any given time. Especially brownies. I've tried many brownie recipies over the years, most of them delicious, but I think I've found the holy grail of brownie recipes this time. They're nothing wild or unexpected, but that's the beauty of them. You could add whatever you wanted to these, and they'd be fabulous. Or, you could just follow the recipe, and they'd be fabulous. You could slightly over or undercook them and then drop them on the floor, and they'd still be fabulous (I normally hate it when people use the word fabulous, but the chocolately, crisp-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside qualities of these brownies are enough to make me say anything)!

This recipe came from Martha Stewart, who, I must say, usually has the best classic, no frills version of many old standbys. These are no exception. The texture is neither cakey nor chewy, both of which I despise in a brownie. Since they call for real chocolate, the flavor is perfect, chocolately without being overwhelming. And they use real butter, not oil or shortening. Plus, they are nearly as easy to make as brownies from a mix, and so much better. No icing, peanut butter, or nuts needed.

Perfect Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Martha Stewart at

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan (or use Pam with Flour cooking spray)

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used Ghiraradelli bittersweet chocolate chips with no problem, but most chocolate chips contain stabilizers and won't melt properly)

1 1/2 cups white sugar

4 large eggs, room temperature. To get the eggs to room temperature quickly, I fill a bowl with lukewarm water and place the uncracked eggs in it for at least ten minutes. I find that room temperature eggs really improve a recipe, especially brownies.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an inch square baking pan or oven proof glass dish, then line with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Do not use wax paper. Grease the liner, and set aside.

If your butter is colder than room temperature, place the stick in a microwave safe bowl or large glass measuring cup and soften it a little in the microwave. It's ok if it starts to melt. Place the chocolate in the bowl with the softened butter and microwave for about 20 seconds at a time, stirring carefully in between. Make sure the chocolate is not scorching. When the butter and chocolate are mostly melted, remove from the microwave and stir until the mixture is smooth. Alternately, use a double boiler over the stove. Allow the chocolate mixture to cool for about 10 to 15 minutes. If the bowl you used to melt your chocolate and butter is not big enough to hold all of the other ingredients too, move your chocolate mixture to a larger bowl.

Stir sugar into the cooled chocolate mixture until combined. At this point, the mixture will be grainy. Whisk in the eggs one at a time, until smooth after each addition. Whisk in vanilla. Gently fold in flour and salt with a wooden spoon.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and smooth top with a spatula. Bake until a cake tester placed in the center of the brownies comes clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

When cool, run a knife around the sides of the pan. Using the parchment or foil, carefully lift the brownies out of the pan and onto the rack. Brownies can be stored in an air tight container for 3 days.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow, Ice, Flour and Yeast

I've been more or less stuck in the house since Friday night. This is probably something that many of you can sympathize with. Is anyone else starting to worry that once they do get out and back to real life, they will have become agoraphobic, like a house cat? On Tuesday, I did get to the pet store (for cat food), liquor store (wine is almost a necessity when snow-bound, I find), and Target for groceries, since the Giant Eagle was unbelievably crowded. While perusing the shelves at Target, I was at a bit of a loss, since our Target store doesn't carry fresh vegetables, etc. I'd been planning on stewing some eggplant and making Chicken Masala, but clearly that wasn't going to happen.

When being snow bound, one has nothing if not time and then some more time, so it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to make Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza Dough. It requires hardly any work, but you do need 12 to 24 hours of rising time. I'd tried the bread on Friday/Saturday, and it was really good, especially for something that I mixed together and plunked in my laundry room to forget about for 18 hours!

I used 1 1/2 cups of all purpose white flour and 1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour for the pizza dough, partially because a lot of people mentioned that the pizza dough was extremely floppy and hard to work with. I allowed my dough to rise for the full 24 hours, in my toasty laundry room, which seems to make a huge difference for rising dough. I had no trouble working with the dough, even when tossing it to make the crust. However, I wasn't too crazy about the strong wheat flavor with the tomato sauce, so next time I think I will use 2 cups of AP flour and 1 cup of wheat flour, or maybe even 2 1/2 cups AP and 1/2 cup wheat.

And there will definitely be a next time. I'd like to use more sophisticated and creative ingredients than a Kraft Italian cheese mix and some Hormel turkey pepperoni. I did, however, make a really good pizza sauce, which can be found in the comments section of my blog here. It's the first comment, and it was added by my sister, Rachel. It was a very easy, delicious sauce, and I'd definitely recommend using it.

Jim Lahey's No-Knead Pizza with a Simple Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Jim Lahey, Co.
Makes four 12-inch pizza crusts, with each crust serving one or two people

3 cups all purpose flour or bread flour, or a combination of all purpose flour and whole wheat flour, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (it is important to use instant)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water

In a large bowl, mix the flour with the yeast and salt. Add the water and stir until blended (the dough will be very sticky). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 12 to 24 hours in a warm spot, about 70°.

Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and lightly sprinkle the top with flour. Fold the dough over on itself once or twice, cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Generously sprinkle a clean cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour and cover the dough balls with it. Let the dough rise for 2 hours.

Stretch or toss the dough into the desired shape, cover with toppings and bake (the pizzas will probably not be a perfect circle, but rather oblong in shape. I baked my pizzas in a 450 degree oven for about 12 minutes each).