Smashing expectations with simple scones

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I have never met a scone I liked. Every scone I’ve ever had has been dry, plain and crumbly. They were all like eating a stale biscuit. So, for the majority of my life, I’ve avoided them. Last week I decided I make them at home to see whether I would like them better. I did.scones2

The recipe I used was the Simple Cream Scones recipe from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. I figure it’s always best to start with something simple. I added a vanilla bean to the recipe and the flavor of the scones was great. They didn’t crumble all over the place when I bit into them like ones I’d purchased from coffee shops did. They were soft and a bit moist inside instead of dry through and through. They were enjoyable, instead of being overly sweet. They were perfect for breakfast.

As with most recipes, I made a mistake on the first try. I left the oven rack in the upper third of the oven and didn’t rotate the scones halfway through the cooking process as instructed. I left them in a little longer than I should have, but they were still good. In fact, the next weekend I made them and added about a half cup of chopped strawberries to the mix and I liked them even more than the vanilla bean scones.

I’m glad I decided to make them at home because now I know that not all scones are dry and crumbly. Not all scones are bad biscuits. Not all scones are worth writing off.

scones4Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder (use 3/4 tablespoon if at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces and chilled
1 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream

Adjust oven rock to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on, stir flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until combined. Add butter and stir until mixture resembles coarse meal with some slightly larger pieces of butter.

Cut both ends off the vanilla bean and cut the bean in half lengthwise. Using the back of a knife, scrape the seeds from inside and add them to the mixture. Stir until just combined. Stir in cream until dough begins to form.

Turn dough and any floury bits onto a floured counter and knead until a slightly sticky ball forms. Pat dough into a 9-inch round and use a knife or pizza cutter to cut into eight wedges.

Place wedges on prepared baking sheet and bake until tops of scones are lightly golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes (10 to 12 minutes if at high altitude), rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Taking a classic cookie to new heights

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As I’ve said before, one of the most challenging things about moving to high altitude is that I can no longer make many of my favorite recipes as I used to and have them turn out the same. Cakes collapse and cookies spread out. Unfortunately, it also happens with chocolate chip cookies. Until last week, I still hadn’t figured out the best recipe for those classic cookies. I tried about six different recipes, including one intended for high altitude, all of which spread out or didn’t rise as I’d hoped they would. I’d had enough of that. They’re simple chocolate chip cookies, after all. So, I decided to figure out how to do it myself.

South Lake Tahoe is around 6,230 feet in elevation. A few things I’ve learned about baking at high altitude are that you need to reduce most leaveners (baking powder, baking soda) by about a half teaspoon, the salt needs to be increased, and extracts can also be increased. Cake batters tend to need to be wetter than usual, and things like brownies and cookies need a bit more flour than usual to keep from collapsing or spreading out too much. Sometimes baking at a lower or higher temperature makes a big difference, too, and things don’t brown as well as they do at sea level.

I opened up the Joy of Cooking to see what its guidelines for regular chocolate chip cookies called for, then made a bunch of adjustments based on these lessons. I increased the flour quite a bit, and turned the oven down by 25 degrees F. I kept a close eye on these cookies during the baking process and, voila, I finally came up with a chocolate chip cookie that is functional at high altitude. Believe it or not, finally getting this basic recipe down feels like a big win at this point. This will be the recipe I use going forward.

Ingredients
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugars. Butter should be at room temperature if you’re stirring by hand, but can be cold if using a stand mixer. Add egg, salt and vanilla. Stir until combined. Add flour and baking soda and stir until incorporated. Add 1 cup chocolate chips and stir until evenly distributed.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place 18 on each baking sheet. Bake each sheet individually for 11 minutes, or until edges of cookies are golden brown, for firm cookies; or bake for 8-9 minutes, until puffy, for softer cookies and let cool completely before serving. Makes about 40 small cookies.

Summer stone fruit serves as a sweet topping

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Apricots are in season, and I love to use them in baked goods. I purchased a few ambercots at the farmers market a few weeks ago. Though they were delicious raw, I couldn’t eat them quickly enough, so I needed to find a recipe to use for the three I had left. Lucky for me, a recent edition of Bon Appétit contained a recipe for little apricot cakes.

As with most cakes, these proved to be a challenge at high altitude. Adding a couple tablespoons of flour usually helps keep cakes from sinking but, in this case, it made them more dense and muffin-like instead of being light like cakes. Next time I make these, I’ll stick to the original flour measurement and beat it for a shorter amount of time so the batter isn’t as stiff. Apricotmuffins2

I enjoyed the sweetness and slight tart flavor of the apricots on top. They provided a nice contrast to the lemony cake beneath them. The raw sugar sprinkled on top created a nice, sugary crust once they had cooled. They’re a nice summertime treat.

Ingredients
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 1 teaspoon if at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk
2 apricots, halved, pitted, cut into 1/4-inch wedges
2 tablespoons raw sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in another medium bowl, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg, lemon zest and vanilla and beat until combined.

With mixer on low speed, add dry ingredients in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Divide batter among muffin cups (cups will be only 1/3 full) and smooth tops. Top with apricot slices and sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake until cakes are golden and a tester inserted into the centers comes out clean, 20–25 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; let pan cool 5 minutes. Transfer cakes to rack and let cool completely.

A recipe to ‘wow’ your guests

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Red Pen Recipes turned 1 year old on Friday. This time last year I was nervous about whether I’d have enough time to try new recipes often enough to write a new post each week. I’m happy to say this blog has kept me doing what I hoped it would: writing for pleasure and keeping me trying new things in the kitchen.

Of the 52 recipes I wrote about in the past year, the Rum Raisin Rice Pudding was one of my favorite new discoveries, and homemade applesauce was a close second. They’re both Barefoot Contessa recipes I hadn’t tried before.

To celebrate the one-year mark, I decided to reformat my blog. I chose this format for its cleaner look and to showcase the photos a little more. I hope you enjoy the new look.

While Friday marked the first anniversary of Red Pen Recipes, it also marked the final day for one of my staff members. One of my reporters accepted a new job in Santa Fe, N.M., so I wanted to bake something special for her before she left. I flipped through some of my cookbooks and considered a few different items before I remembered the Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies recipe a friend gave me a few years ago.

This recipe is something I save for special occasions, when I really want to “wow” someone. It combines three desserts a lot of people enjoy, and has yet to disappoint. Cheesecake, red velvet cake and brownies can each require a rather involved process, but this three-in-one treat is pretty simple to make — you just have to use three bowls to combine different ingredients before putting them together.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to bringing you more recipes in the coming year.

Ingredients
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoon red food coloring (or six drops red food gel)
2/3 cup all purpose flour (use 1 cup at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon salt (use 1/2 at high altitude)
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 8-inch square baking pan. Put a long piece of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan, letting the parchment extend up two sides of the pan and overhang slightly on both ends. (This will make it easy to remove the bars from the pan after they have baked.) Butter the parchment.


In a small, heatproof bowl, melt butter and chocolate together in the microwave. Put it in 3 seconds at a time until soft enough to stir. Stir until combined and very smooth. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.


In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and red food coloring. Add chocolate mixture and stir until smooth. Add flour and salt and stir until just combined and no streaks of dry ingredients remain. Pour into prepared pan and spread into an even layer.


To prepare cheesecake mixture, beat cream cheese, sugar, egg and vanilla extract in a medium bowl until smooth. Distribute the cheesecake mixture in eight dollops over batter in the pan. Swirl in with a knife or spatula.


Bake for 35-40 minutes (it could take up between 45 and 50 minutes at high altitude), until brownies and cheesecake are set. A knife inserted into the cheesecake mixture should come out clean and the edges will be lightly browned.


Let cool completely in pan on a cooling rack before lifting out the parchment paper to remove the brownies.

Dreaming of summertime

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When I went home for a visit a couple weeks ago, I was delighted to see the farm stands were already offering strawberries. I bought a box of them — six baskets for $6 — and ate a bowl of them daily for about a week once I returned to Tahoe. Still, I had about three baskets that needed to be baked into something to keep them from going bad. Good strawberries can’t be left to waste. I settled on strawberry shortcake, something I don’t make often, but enjoy quite a bit when it turns out just right.

I have never been crazy about those packaged shortcakes sold near the strawberries at the grocery store — the spongey ones that have somewhat of a dip at the top for the strawberries to sit in. I hadn’t made my own biscuits in a long time, so I turned to the Joy of Cooking to see what it suggested. It had a couple options, but I settled on cream biscuits this time around. They were, by far, the best ones I had ever made for strawberry shortcake. I am not big on rolling out dough; I prefer to shape it with my hands when I can. I divided the dough into eight pieces and formed them into rounds on a baking sheet. You may also roll out the dough and divide it into more pieces if you’d like. The biscuits were easy and the flavor and texture were just how I hoped they would be. Topped with the macerated strawberries (I added some of Penzeys Vanilla Sugar to the mixture for a bit of extra flavor) and whipped cream, this was the dessert I was craving. I was thrilled. Summer will be here soon enough.

Ingredientsstrawberryshortcake3
4 cups strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 2 if at high altitude)
1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon salt (use one teaspoon if at high altitude)
1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream

Rinse and quarter the strawberries. Using a potato masher or other tool, partially crush the strawberries. Put them in a bowl with the sugar. Set in fridge.

strawberryshortcake4Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Add 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream. Mix with a rubber spatula, wooden spoon or fork until most of the dry ingredients are moistened. Knead until smooth. Divide the dough into eight parts. Shape into 3-inch rounds that are about 3/4-inch thick. Place on a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Bake for 12 minutes or until slightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool for 15-20 minutes.

Whip the 1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form.

To assemble, cut the biscuits in half so there’s a top and bottom. Spoon generous spoonfuls of the strawberry mixture onto the bottom half of the biscuit. Top with a large dollop of whipped cream. Top with the other half biscuit.