Friday, November 27, 2009

DB - Nov 2009 - Cannoli

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

I’ve never had much luck with fried deserts, and this month’s cannoli challenge was no different. I wouldn’t saw it was a total failure, but neither was it a success. Look for yourself:

A little too brown and a little too thick, and I didn’t care for the taste at all. I couldn’t see spending more money and time on something I knew I wouldn’t eat, so I skipped the filling. I know, I know, I’m a bad Daring Baker.

Here is the dough just out of the frig and waiting to be rolled and cut.

I didn't have any cannoli forms so as suggested, I used pasta shells.

Here are a few cannoli waiting to go into the grease.

Again, the final product. I guess my grease was too hot, because the cannoli browned much too quickly (after about 1 minute). I lowered the temperature of the grease, but I still had trouble. A few cannoli popped apart and a few wouldn't slide off the pasta shell. I fried a few "cannolipoleons". The flat disks looked better than my rolled attempts, but they all tasted kinds doughy and bland. I guess the "pizazz" of a cannoli comes from the filling and not from the dough itself.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Taste-Off: 8 Cakes, 25 Testers, 1 Winner

I've always been a big fan of Red Velvet Cake, and my absolute favorite RVC comes from Piccadilly's Cafeteria. Their version is very dense and moist and full of tangy, buttermilk flavor. They used to put pecans in the icing, but they stopped doing that because of nut allergies and law suit threats. What a sad, sad day that was when the waitress handed me that piece of cake sans pecans.

But I digress; the point of this blog post is to share the results of my Ultimate Red Velvet Taste Test. Here are the contenders all stacked up.

I started the experiment by scouring the internet for Red Velvet Cake recipes. There were a LOT! But most of the recipes fell into three categories: those containing Oil, those containing Shortening, and those containing Butter. There were also a few that used combinations of the three different fats, and some that deviated drastically from the norm.

My first step was to build a spreadsheet to help compare and contrast the different recipes and help decide which cakes to test (click HERE to download the spreadsheet). A lot of the recipes I looked at were exactly the same, so the spreadsheet only has recipes that are different in some way. The recipes fall into specific categories of: butter, oil, shortening, combination, and other. In the butter, oil and shortening categories I selected one recipe as the base, and noted how the other recipes in that category deviate from the “base”.

The largest percentage of recipes I found used BUTTER as the fat. The butter recipes I included on the spreadsheet are:
  • Sylvia’s Red Velvet - from Emeril’s site
  • Joy of Baking’s Red Velvet (same as Epicurious’ Red Velvet)
  • Grandmother Paula’s Red Velvet – from Paula Deen at the Food Network
  • Montclair Martha’s Red Velvet – from Martha Stewart
  • Hummingbird’s Red Velvet
  • Magnolia Bakery’s Red Velvet
  • Brown Derby Red Velvet
  • Cooks Country Red Velvet
  • Christmas Red Velvet - from The Pastry Queen, Rebecca Rather

The recipes are very similar with just minor changes in sugar, cocoa, and vinegar content. In the end I selected Paula Deen’s version as the "typical butter” RVC . I also selected Rebecca Rather’s version because it added sour cream in addition to the butter.

In the OIL category of RVC are:
  • Cake Man Raven’s Southern Red Velvet (same as Apple a Day and Saveur)
  • Rachel’s Red Velvet – from Martha Stewart
  • Sara Moulton’s Southern Red Velvet
  • Smitten Kitchen's Red Velvet Cake from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” by Elisa Stauss
  • Bobby Flay’s Red Velvet Cake
Because it is so famous, I selected the Cake Man Raven version. I also selected Bobby Flay’s version which uses a combination of oil and butter.

Next were the SHORTENING RVCs. This category had the smallest number of recipe variations but it includes the most famous of them all: Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake. I also found a variation of the Waldorf recipe that included Cane Syrup. The syrup recipe looked interesting (could Cane Syrup possibly be the secret to Piccadilly's unique RVC?) so I included it in the baking lineup.

Last but not least is the OTHER category of RVC recipes. I recently received a copy of Melissa Gray’s book All Cakes Considered which includes a RVC recipe that contains no buttermilk. Hummm. I was curious enough to add her version to the experiment.

So in the end I settled on 8 different RVC recipes to use in my taste test:
  1. Grandmother Paula’s Red Velvet Cake – Paula Deen (butter)
  2. Cake Man Raven’s Southern Red Velvet (oil)
  3. Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake (shortening)
  4. Bobby Flay’s Red Velvet Cake (butter & oil)
  5. Louisiana Red Velvet (shortening & cane syrup)
  6. The Pastry Queen, Rebecca Rather’s Christmas Red Velvet Cake (butter & sour cream)
  7. Melissa Gray’s Dark-Chocolate Red Velvet Cake (no buttermilk, sour cream)
  8. Duncan Hines Red Velvet Box Mix – YES a box mix. I wanted to see how a box mix compared to the scratch recipes.

On the morning of November 16, 2009 the baking began. I set up an assembly line, preheated the oven, and began to mix, whisk and bake. Seven hours later I was finished. Whew, what a marathon. The next morning I hauled everything to work: eight cakes, a huge tub of cream cheese icing, plates, forks, and a stack of scoring sheets.

Once at work (I got there an hour early), I unwrapped and iced all the cakes and added sprinkles to each so the taste tester could identify them. Blue sprinkles, green sugar, yellow balls, each cake had its own unique topping.

Each cake was sliced into thin wedges and a wedge of each was placed on a plate.

The tasters themselves were carefully selected because of their love of cake and their familiarity with Red Velvet Cake in particular. There are over 200 people in the office and only 25 of them got cake. Some people where kinda pissed that they weren’t “selected”, but hey, you can only get so many slices from a cake. It is also worth noting that the cakes were frosted but the testers were asked to base their cake critique on just the cake and not the cake and icing combination.

The result sheets trickled in during the day (some people didn’t want to eat their cakes until lunch), and I was amazed at the variety of responses. What really gave me pause were the critiques of the icing (remember I told them that the icing wasn't part of the test). One person, in addition to the cake ratings, rated the icing. She loved some of the icings and hated others. She said one had a “flour” taste and another she said didn’t have enough sugar. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that all the cakes had the exact same cream cheese icing. The only thing I can figure is that the icing took on different flavors and nuances when eaten with the cake. Strange how the mind and taste buds work.

But on to the results. I know you are dying to know which cake WON.

Drum roll please.

The winner of the first Ultimate Red Velvet Taste-Off is...


Cake Man Raven’s Red Velvet Cake
The oil based cake beat out the butter. Are you surprised? Shocked?

Here is a detail ranking of cakes.

Note that “1” is the best possible score, and “8” is the worst possible score. The cakes were ranked 1-8 with the taster's favorite cake given a score of "1" (first place), their second favorite given a score of "2" (second place), and so on. Their least favorite cake was given the rank of "8" (eighth place). Also, 5 people didn’t give me back my sheets (yet).

In FIRST place: Cake Man Raven’s Red Velvet Cake – score 2.85

  • 11 people gave it a “best cake” scores of 1 or 2, 8 people gave it an “average” score of 3, 4, 5, or 6, and 1 person gave it a “worst cake” score of 7 or 8.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Moist, light and fluffy, melts in your mouth. Although one person said it was dry, another said it had no flavor, and a third said that it tasted like a “box” mix. Ironically the person who said this cake tasted like a box mix gave the Duncan Hines cake very high marks.

In SECOND place: The Pastry Queen, Rebecca Rather’s RVC – score 3.8

  • 6 rated it the “best”, 13 rated it “average”, 1 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Moist, too dense, a little sticky, packs in the mouth, mushy, less sweet. One person said it had a soapy taste.

  • I found the the Pastry Queen's cake looked the best. It was light and fluffy and had a bright red color. I did have trouble applying the icing though, the surface of the cake crumbled and the fine crumbs bled/mixed into the icing.

In THIRD place: Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake – score 3.85

  • 5 rated it the “best”, 12 rated it “average”, 3 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Dry, good flavor, chocolaty, traditional.

In FOURTH place: Duncan Hines Red Velvet Box Mix – score 3.9

  • 6 rated it the “best”, 11 rated it “average”, 3 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Chocolate taste, light and airy, good texture, light flavor, a little dry and bland.

In FIFTH Place: Louisiana Red Velvet – score 4.05

  • 7 rated it the “best”, 7 rated it “average”, 6 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Dense, a little sticky, not sweet enough, don’t like the flavor, strange taste, rum-like flavor, traditional red velvet, fruity flavor.

  • The Cane Syrup in this cake caused a love-it or hate-it reaction in the taste-testers. This cake definitely had a “different” taste and people either devoured it or tossed it in the trash.

In SIXTH Place: Grandmother Paula's Red Velvet Cake - Paula Deen – score 4.7

  • 4 rated it the “best”, 11 rated it “average”, 5 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Buttery, pleasant taste, light & moist, moist but crumbly in the mouth, too gooey, sticks to the roof of mouth, too soft, needs to be denser, needs more texture, okay taste but weird texture.

  • I was surprised that the “butter” cake rated so low because in my mind everything is better with butter.

In SEVENTH Place: Bobby Flay's Red Velvet Cake – score 5.75

  • 1 rated it the “best”, 12 rated it “average”, 7 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Chocolate taste, a little drier than others, don’t like, fluffy, bland, no flavor, good taste but more like devil’s food than red velvet.

  • It really surprised me that Bobby Flay’s recipe ranked so low. I thought the combination of butter and oil would produce a winning cake.

In EIGHTH Place: Melissa Gray's Dark-Chocolate Red Velvet Cake– score 7.1

  • 0 rated it the “best”, 6 rated it “average”, 14 rated it “worst”.

  • Common Tasters Comments: Does not taste like Red Velvet, dry, bland, slightly bitter, more like devil’s food cake, too dense and firm.

  • This cake was universally disliked in RVC taste test. In my opinion the cake itself had a good taste, if slightly on the dry side, but it just didn’t taste like Red Velvet. It was more like a yellow pound cake with red food color and cocoa added.
Click HERE to see all the results.

So what do you think of my results? Do you agree or disagree. I was really surprised at the diversity of opinions on each the cakes and I’ve come to realize that one cake will never satisfy all the people all the time. Next time I bake a three layer Red Velvet Cake I’m going to make each layer a different recipe: Cake Man Raven, The Pastry Queen, and Waldorf Astoria. Hopefully my Threesome Red Velvet Cake will satisfy everyone.

PS: I’m also thinking about doing another round of RVC testing. I still can’t believe that Bobby Flay’s recipe came in so low (did I do something wrong?), and I found another recipe by Rose Levy that uses butter and oil (like Bobby’s) but only uses egg whites instead of whole eggs. I still have some buttermilk and red food color left over from the first round, so I’m going to preheat my oven and start RVC baking again.

Update December 3, 2009:
To see the results of the Red Velvet Taste-Off - Round 2 click here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

TWD - Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk Muffins

I know these Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk Muffins were not on the Tuesday with Dorie baking schedule, but I was baby-sitting this weekend and I wanted to bake some the kids would enjoy.

But alas, they weren’t the hit I thought they would be. The kids devoured the leftover batter, but they didn’t care for the finished muffin at all. The biggest complaints were not enough chocolate chunks, not sweet enough, and TOO DRY. Way, way too dry.

The first step in the muffin mixing was melting the bittersweet chocolate and butter in a small bowl. Amanda, my niece, said it smelled divine.

Here are all the pieces-parts waiting to be mixed together: the dry, the wet, the melted, and the chunks (chocolate chunks that is).

Here is everything all mixed up. I didn't think it had enough chocolate chunks, so I threw in an extra handful. In hindsight I should have thrown in three handfuls, some oil, and a little extra vanilla.

Into the oven they go, twelve lovely little muffins to be.

Amanda really liked the taste of the batter. She licked the bowl clean.

Just out of the oven, 375° for 18 minutes (2 minutes less than Dorie suggested). They sure do look good.

But looks can be deceiving. They were a big dissapointment in the taste department. In attempt to mask the dryness, I whipped up some ganache and slathered the top in chocolate stripes. It helped a little, but not much.

I felt they just needed something more. If I ever make them again, I'll add more chocolate, more sugar, more vanilla, and maybe some oil (for extra moistness).

Dorie Greenspan's Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk Muffins

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chunks, divided
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line your muffin pan with paper muffin cups or butter it well.

Melt the butter and 1/2 of the bittersweet chocolate.

In another bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Combine the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in a bowl.

Pour the buttermilk mixture and the chocolate/melted butter mixture into the bowl with all the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, gently and quickly stir to blend. Stir in the remaining bittersweet chocolate.

Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups and bake for about 20 minutes or until a thin knife inserted into a muffin comes out clean. Let the pan cool on a rack for 5 minutes then remove the muffins.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TWD - Cran-Apple Crisps

For this week's Tuesdays with Dorie I tried the Cran-Apple Crisps (minus the cranberries). They were not the prettiest things to look at, but they sure were tasty.

Per Dorie Greenspan's instruction, the topping is made first which is a mixture of butter, brown sugar, oats, flour, coconut, cinnamon and ginger.

Dorie said to put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles "big curds". What the heck is a "big curd"??? I just mixed until the butter chunks were pea size. Close enough I guess. I also hate dirtying more dishes than absolutely necessary so I used my fingers instead of a food processor. A little messy, but one less appliance I have to clean.

Next toss all the "filling" ingredients together: apples, cranberries (I used pecan instead), raisins, sugar and little bit of flour.

Into the bowls the filling goes...

And then sprinkle the "crisp" on top of the filling.

Just out of the oven.

Like I said before, not the prettiest desert, but it taste like heaven. Sweet, spicy and oh so appley (sp). The perfect fall dessert.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pecan Pie Cookies

Awesome, that is the one word that came to mind when I bit into this cookie the first time. Totally awesome. The cookie part is tender and buttery and the filling is a cross between pecan pralines and pecan pie filling. Delicious.

Here is the pecan pie filling ready to be spooned into the cookie "pie shell".

And the cookie dough ready to receive said filling. I used the round end of a lemon zester to make the cavity in the cookie dough, but the hole didn't look big enough so I used my fingers to widen and deepen the depression.

Then I heaped the cavities with the pecan mixture. Don't be scared to overfill. The filling is well behaved and didn't over flow the cookie shells (too much).

Yummm.... What a flavor combination. But as a true connoisseur of all things pecan, I think the filling taste more like pecan pralines than pecan pie. But regardless of the name you use, they are fantastic.

The original recipe came from Land O’ Lakes, and I made just a few tweaks.

Cookie Ingredients:

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup unsalted Butter, softened
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt

Filling Ingredients:

1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 350°F.
In a medium bowl whisk flour, baking power and salt.
In another blow combine butter and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
Add egg and vanilla to butter/sugar mixture and mix until combined.
Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture. Beat until well mixed.

Shape dough into 1 1/4-inch balls (approximately 1 generous Tablespoon of dough). Place 2 inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheets. Make indentation in each cookie, and then hollow and widen the indentation with your thumb.

Combine all filling ingredients in small bowl.
Fill each cookie with 1 rounded teaspoon of filling.
Bake for 8 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned (I baked mine for 12 minutes and they were perfect.)
Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheets.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Heart Faces - Week 43 - Balloons

This week’s theme at I Heart Faces is "Balloons". This is a picture I took of my niece at her 16th birthday. Go to I Heart Faces to see more "balloon" inspired photos.