Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's not just about blackberries

In my AP English class this spring, we read Seamus Heaney's poem, "Blackberry Picking" (see the bottom of the post for poem). My students had a difficult time understanding the larger message of the poem. They kept telling me it was just about a guy reflecting on how he used to pick blackberries. I kept asking them to dig a little deeper. "Why would a guy write a poem just about blackberries?," I asked. "What is Heaney really trying to say?" With some coaching and some digging, they were slowly able to see that Heaney was really trying to say that it's the little moments in life that shape us. 

So when I was thinking of a treat to bake for my students on the morning of the three-hour AP exam this May, I remembered pinning a recipe on Pinterest for blackberry pie bars. I baked the bars and gave them to my students with a note reminding them that "it's not just about blackberries" and to dig deeper into the literature on the exam.
The recipe calls for packages of frozen blackberries, but I had some in the freezer I bought from the fruit stand near my apartment (three pints for $3!). 
The bars are filled with a custard that gets mixed with the blackberries on top of a shortbread crust. The recipe makes quite a bit of custard. I'd recommend not using all of it when baking these bars, as mine came out a bit thick.
The shortbread crust is made in the food processor. It's been great having my new toy. She's gotten quite a workout since Christmas! The shortbread dough is then patted down into the bottom of a 9x13 pan and baked for 10-15 minutes.
The blackberries are added to the custard mixture and then poured on top of the shortbread. I would use less custard when making these again. The pan didn't overflow, but it was close. Scoop some of the remaining shortbread mixture on top of the custard and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top crust is golden brown.
Here is the recipe, adapted from Joy the Baker:

Blackberry Pie Bars


Prep Time: 30 minutes | Bake Time: 55 minutes
For the Crust and Topping:
Zest of 2 lemons
1½ cups granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
For the Blackberry Filling:
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 packages of frozen blackberries (or 6 cups fresh)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking pan with butter; set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine the granulated sugar and the lemon zest. Using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until all of the sugar has been moistened. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the lemon sugar, all-purpose flour and salt. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and continue to pulse until the pieces of butter are no larger than the size of peas, about 10 to 12 pulses.
3. Measure out 1½ cups of the crumb mixture to use for the topping and put it in the refrigerator until needed. Press the remaining mixture into the bottom of the pan. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for about 10 minutes while you prepare the filling.
4. To make the filling, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the sugar, sour cream, flour and salt until thoroughly combined. Gently fold in the blackberries. Spoon the mixture evenly over the crust and make sure all of the blackberries are in one layer and not sitting on top of one another.
5. Sprinkle the reserved crust mixture evenly over the filling. Bake until the top is lightly browned, about 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool for at least 1-2 hours before cutting (so the custard can set).
And for those of you who like poetry, here is the poem my AP students wrestled with this spring:

"Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The best biscotti ever

I was at a friend's party a few weeks ago, when another friend, a co-worker of mine, brought his famous biscotti as a snack. Normally I'm not a big fan of biscotti. It's nice when you're drinking coffee or tea, but not something I would seek out to nibble on. After a few drinks, I saw the biscotti on the tray and grabbed one to try. It was seriously the best biscotti I've ever tasted. I mentioned this to a few other co-workers sitting next to me and soon enough we were all eating the cookies as fast as we could get our hands on them. 

So when Peter, the biscotti baker, volunteered to teach me how to make the cookies, I jumped at the opportunity. After school yesterday (Yes, we are still in school. Our last day is the 27th.), Peter came over to my apartment and shared his recipe and secrets to success. Surprisingly, biscotti is relatively easy to bake. For some reason, I kept thinking it would be a long, drawn-out process (like macaroons, but that's a whole other post). Perhaps it was the whole baking it twice thing that had me thinking this.

The ingredients are all mixed together and then shaped into two logs on a cookie sheet to bake. The cookies bake longer than it takes to get all the ingredients together, shape the dough, and cut the cookies.

Once baked (and thoroughly cooled), the logs get sliced in half and then into little pieces. This was much simpler than I thought it would be. The biscotti bites are then placed on a cookie sheet again to bake at a lower temp for 15 minutes.
And that's it! The biscotti bites need to sit out for a bit to harden up and cool down, but that's it. The whole process took us less than two hours and provided ample time to chat about summer plans and school stuff. 
I plan to bring the biscotti to school today to share with our co-workers. I'm sure they'll make everyone's day just a little sweeter. Here is the recipe (courtesy of my fabulous co-worker, Peter!):


Union Square Cafe Biscotti

2 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup of whole almonds (you can used sliced, which is what we used since I didn't have whole almonds)
1/3 cup sliced almonds
2 Tbs cornmeal
1 1/2 Tbs aniseed
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs (at room temperature)
8 Tbs butter (at room temperature)
1 Tbs vanilla
I Tbs Pernod or Anisette
1 egg white and 1 Tbs sugar (for the crust)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  1. Mix dry ingredients together and combine using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer.
  2. Add the butter and mix until sandy looking. (Note: You can soften the butter in the microwave if necessary, but do not let it melt. Use the defrost setting if needed.)
  3. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, vanilla and Pernod (or Anisette).
  4. Add to flour mixture and mix on low speed. A soft dough should form.
  5. Divide the dough in half and form two logs, each 4" x 15" on a sheet pan lined with either parchment paper or a Silpat.
  6. Brush the egg white evenly over the two logs, coating the sides as well. Sprinkle with sugar.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes at 350. Allow to cool completely.
  8. To make smaller, more bite size biscotti, cut each log in half diagonally and then at 1/4" intervals. For longer biscotti, do not cut the log in half.
  9. Reduce oven temperature to 325.
  10. Put the biscotti pieces on a cookie sheet without parchment or a silpat (you can use the same one, just remove paper or mat) and bake again for 15 minutes at 325.
  11. Allow biscotti to cool before packaging.



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The World of Strawberry Shortcake

When I was a kid, I was seriously obsessed with strawberries. They were hands down my favorite food. My mom used to joke that when she came into my room in the morning to wake me up for school that she would find a giant strawberry on the pillow in place of me because I'd eaten so many. But not only was I obsessed with the berries themselves, I loved anything relating to strawberries: smelly stickers, chap stick, gum, and, most importantly (as a child of the 80s), Strawberry Shortcake. She became my new best friend. How could one not want to be friends with someone who lives and works in a cake made of strawberries? 
So when I was browsing Pinterest awhile ago and saw a picture of Strawberry Shortcake Cookies from Martha Stewart, I knew I had to make them. The cookies use fresh strawberries chopped up and added to a shortcake like batter.
The berries (mixed with a little sugar and lime juice) are added to the cookie mixture, which did turn a little pink from the juice. The recipe calls for 12 ounces of strawberries, but I used almost 16 ounces (or a large package from the fruit vendor near my apartment). This could why the batter turned so pink, although the baked cookies don't look pink at all.
Scoop out the cookie mixture (which was quite soft) using an ice cream scoop (or a 1/4 cup measuring cup) onto a cookie sheet lined with either a Silpat or parchment.
Sprinkle some large sugar crystals on top of the cookies before baking at 375 for 20-22 minutes. I'm sure regular sugar would work fine, but use the larger stuff if you have it, as it adds a nice dimension to the cookie. I happen to have a slight obsession with collecting sprinkles and sanding sugars, so I had some in my baking cabinet.
The result is a really soft, strawberry cookie that really tastes like strawberry shortcake. The texture of the cookie is much more like that of a muffin top than a cookie. By using fresh strawberries the cookies can only be kept for about a day before they get too soft from the liquid in the berries. These would be a good breakfast treat or good served with some vanilla ice cream in a dish. 

While baking these cookies, I thought of a few ways to change up the recipe so the texture was more like that of a real cookie. I'll experiment this week and will post my creation.

In the meantime, here's Martha's recipe (Martha Stewart Living, June 2009):


Strawberry Shortcake Cookies

  • 12 ounces strawberries, hulled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (I used lime because that's what I had)
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • Sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine strawberries, lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 7 tablespoons granulated sugar in a large bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter, or rub in with your fingers, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in cream until dough starts to come together, then stir in strawberry mixture.
  2. Using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop or a tablespoon, drop dough onto baking sheets lined with parchment, spacing evenly apart. Sprinkle with sanding sugar, and bake until golden brown, 24 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool. Cookies are best served immediately, but can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dog Cookies for My Favorite Dog

I'll admit it - I'm not really a dog person. I think it might have something to do with being scared after my brother was bit in the butt by a Doberman when we were little. But there is one dog I really like....Dixie.

My grandparents adopted Dixie many years ago and she has since been the most pampered pooch in North Carolina. In addition to being fed gourmet dog food, Dixie gets her own ice cream dish and even the occasional lick of an almost-empty coffee mug. 

My grandfather was Dixie's constant companion and you could usually find them both in the TV room, with Dixie sitting on my grandfather's lap in the old leather chair. My grandfather's passing this April has been hard on all of us, but I'm sure it's also been hard on Dixie, too. My grandmother says the dog has been walking around a little lost, wondering when Grandpa will come home and take her for a walkie. 

So I figured Dixie needed a little treat. I've heard dog cookies were easy to bake, but didn't realize just how simple they really were.

 The recipe I used called for only four ingredients and was a good way to use up a can of pumpkin leftover from Thanksgiving (don't worry, it wasn't expired). 
 The ingredients are all combined in a bowl (I used my Kitchen Aid) and then rolled out in a light dusting of whole wheat flour. I had a large dog bone cookie cutter, but figured since Dixie is a little dog, smaller would be better. The batch made several dozen small cookies.
 These cookies don't spread, so you can place them close together on a cookie sheet. I pricked the middle with a fork to make them look more like the fancy dog treats sold in stores. 
 The cookies bake for at least 45 minutes, longer if they don't seem fully hard. 
 I packed the cookies in two small boxes and had enough left over to put in little cellophane bags to give to my co-workers who have dogs. I happened to have some dog bone ribbon I'd been saving for this project to finish the look.


If you're wondering how the cookies taste, my co-workers said their dogs really enjoyed them. Believe it or not, I even tasted one and didn't find it repulsive. 


The treats are on their way to Dixie... hopefully she likes them!


Here is the recipe (adapted from Allrecipes.com):

  • 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour 
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Directions


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Whisk together the flour, eggs, pumpkin, peanut butter, salt, and cinnamon in a bowl.
  3. Add water if needed to help make the dough workable, but the dough should be dry and stiff (I didn't add any water). 
  4. Roll the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick roll. Use a cookie cutter to cut into pieces.
  5. Bake in preheated oven until hard, about 45-50 minutes.



Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ice Cream Cone Cake Pops

 As a teacher, summer doesn't officially begin until school ends, which for those of us in NYC isn't until June 27. But it's June and it feels like summer, which means it's a good time for ice cream (okay, is there ever a bad time for ice cream?). 

I remembered seeing a recipe for ice cream cone cake pops in Bakerella's Cake Pop Book that my brother got me for Christmas last year and thought they would be fun to make. Bakerella's version has you cutting down a sugar cone to make the cake pop ball fit on top. That seemed like it would create a huge mess, so I was thrilled when I spotted mini ice cream cones at ShopRite while shopping in New Jersey. Perfect!

The cones are really tiny. I can't imagine actually using them for ice cream, but they were perfect for creating ice cream cone cake pops!

The first step to making these is to make your cake pop balls. I used chocolate cake and icing. You can read how to make basic cake pop balls here. Believe it or not, these were actually easier to make than regular cake pops on a stick because the drip factor is actually encouraged to give it the authentic ice cream melting look. I used a stick and dipped the cake pop into pink molding chocolate and plopped it on the cone. I then pulled the stick out and sat the cone pop on a cookie sheet.
While the chocolate was still wet, I added some sprinkles to the sides. The hole on top is okay -- it will be covered with chocolate and an M&M cherry.
 Using dark chocolate, pour a little bit on top of the pink ice cream, making sure the hole from the stick is covered. I used a fork to do this, but probably should have put the chocolate into a squeeze bottle. Make sure to move the cone around a bit so the dripping is even on all sides.
Before the chocolate sets, add a red M&M to serve as the cherry on top. Because the cones had a flat bottom, these were easy to store and let dry on a cookie sheet. 

Enjoy! Happy Summer!

A Literary Bake-Off!



One of my favorite and most challenging classes that I teach is AP English Literature and Composition. I love the depth of the literature and seeing students struggle with -- and later grasp -- difficult literary ideas and concepts. From September through May, the class is geared towards teaching skills and literature needed to hopefully pass the challenging AP test, which gives the students college credit for a passing score. But once mid-May hits and the test is over, things ease up a bit in class. Since my students wrote close to 50 essays this year, I decided to nix the final exam essay and create a project mixing baking and literature: A Literary Bake-Off.


The rules were simple. Students had to bake something (no store bought entries) and relate every detail (from icing colors to fillings) to a work of literature read in high school. They could deal with a theme, a character, or a central idea from a novel or play. There was a short written explanation required and they had to create a title for their baked good.


My classroom smelled like cake and frosting the morning of the Bake-Off, and it was hard to keep students not in my AP class from wanting to come and sample the goodies. Each student in the class had to present their item and briefly explain what they baked and how it relates to a literary text. The results were better than I expected. 


Here are some of the amazing entries:
This cake showed the emancipation (or death) of Ophelia in the play Hamlet. The student was incredibly creative with her use of decorations. I love the Barbie doll in the middle of the cake.
While this cake looks simple, the student chose vanilla and chocolate frosting to show the struggle between the races shown in the novel. The top was decorated with a mockingbird.
This student baked both an Angel Food cake and a Devil's Food cake to show the religious struggle faced by the heroine Jane in Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre.
The gruesome scene in the play Oedipus Rex where Oedipus gorged out his eyes after learning he killed his father and married his mother was the inspiration for this cake.
A common motif in the texts we read this year was the use of the crossroads. This cake was the first thing the student ever baked. I'm really proud of him.
I love the simplicity of this student's entry (despite the apostrophe error in his table card). We talked a lot about the connotations of Jane's name when we read Jane Eyre last fall and I think these cookies really capture the heart of those discussions. The plain sugar cookies are mixed with M&Ms, because Jane develops a backbone later in the novel and becomes a more colorful character. 
Creating the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg from The Great Gatsby was a neat idea. The chocolate frosting symbolized the darkness of the Valley of the Ashes (where the billboard is located). 


Word of the project spread through the school quickly and my juniors asked if they could participate too. Instead of making it their final exam (yes, they had to write an essay), I offered the baking project as extra credit during the last two days of school. I was surprised at the number of students who baked and just how creative they were. 

This red velvet cake with a dagger on top took its inspiration from Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, which we read this spring. 
This cake in the shape of an artist's palate was made to show the character of Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire. The student who made this cake loves baking as much as I do. We had a cupcake contest earlier this year and I swear I thought her cupcakes were better than mine. 


For my own entry, I used the novel The Catcher in the Rye for inspiration. I baked the cupcakes at the top of this entry and used some cute New York City cupcake wrappers and toppers I found to  illustrate the novel's setting. I also baked some duck cookies to go along with one of the novel's major symbols. Throughout the book, Holden repeatedly wonders where the ducks in Central Park go during the winter (they don't go anywhere). The ducks symbolize Holden's own predicament of not knowing where to go in life after being kicked out of his boarding school. I used cake frosting instead of royal icing because I ran out of time. I don't think the students minded, as the cookies quickly disappeared.


I can't wait to do this project again next year. It was a great way to end the year and to see what books, characters, and ideas stuck with my students.