October 28, 2015

Pumpkin Gingerbread Cheesecake Bars

Based on a spike in posts like gingerbread sconespumpkin oatmeal cookies, and maple apple spice cake, I'd say you guys are in the mood to bake stuff, which is why I'm kicking off The Great Fall Baking Marathon of 2015. Get ready for pumpkin, gingerbread, cranberries, apples, and spiced everything. You can lick the bowl, put on a few pounds to keep you warm through the winter, and win over a ton of new friends (or at least that's my plan).

I'm starting with these pumpkin cheesecake bars because it's all the flavors of fall packed into a portable cheesecake, which, let's face it, is the perfect vessel for just about anything. It has three layers: a gingerbread shortbread, pumpkin cheesecake filling, and a gingerbread streusel topping. Bonus: it's even easier than it sounds since the shortbread and streusel are basically the same dough.

The gingerbread shortbread is essentially just a spiced shortbread with some molasses. It starts with flour, baking soda, salt, and my special blend of fall spices. If you have pumpkin pie spice on hand and would prefer to use that, go ahead. Next, I beat some butter and plenty of sugar together until fluffy, then I add some molasses. The molasses adds color and keeps the shortbread moist throughout the long baking process, since cheesecake takes a while to cook. The flour is added to the butter mixture until just combined. You don't want to overwork it or it will get tough.

I take out about a cup of the dough, which should be somewhat sticky. That portion of dough gets combined with some extra flour to make it crumbly and streusel-y so you can actually sprinkle it onto the cheesecake. The rest of the dough is pressed into your baking dish and chilled until firm. This refrigeration step also helps avoid overbaking while the cheesecake cooks and keeps the shortbread flaky (the same process applies to pie crust).

Now for everyone's favorite part: the cheesecake. There aren't any surprising ingredients here--just cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and what makes this recipe special: pumpkin and even more fall spices. I've found that a can of pumpkin is the perfect amount; you get plenty of pumpkin flavor and color without ruining the texture or having random containers of pumpkin left over. If you want to pull an Ina Garten and make your own pumpkin puree, I totally respect that (as long as you aren't all condescending because I'm not using the *good* pumpkin puree). Just be careful that you're using pie pumpkins for this and not your standard Halloween pumpkin. I tried to cook with a regular pumpkin once and it was a terrible, terrible idea.

To assemble the bars, gently spread the cheesecake batter onto the chilled shortbread dough and crumble the streusel on top. Bake it for about 35-40 minutes or until just set. For cheesecake novices, please be warned that the toothpick test definitely does not work on cheesecake. I once baked mini cheesecakes for two hours (until they were practically burnt) because the centers just wouldn't give clean toothpicks. After you bake the bars, it's time to test your willpower. These bars will only be pretty and have the right texture if you let them chill overnight. Technically, overnight refers to approximately 8 hours, so if you wake up in the middle of the night and start eating these with a spoon straight out of the pan I promise I won't judge.

2 3/4 Cups Flour
1 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
3/4 tsp Salt
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Ginger
1/2 tsp Allspice
1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1/2 tsp Cloves
2 Sticks Butter, Softened
2 Cups Sugar
1/4 Cup Molasses
8 oz Cream Cheese, Softened
1 15 oz Can Pumpkin
2 tsp Vanilla
2 Eggs

Whisk 2 1/4 cups flour, baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp ginger, 1/4 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, and 1/4 tsp cloves together. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar together until creamy. Stir in the molasses, then gradually add the flour mixture until just combined.

Remove 1 cup of the dough and combine that with the remaining flour until crumbly. Refrigerate until cold. Press the remaining dough into a deep 9x13" pan lined with parchment and refrigerate until cold.

Heat oven to 350F.

Beat the cream cheese and remaining sugar together until fluffy. Stir in the eggs one at a time, then add the pumpkin, vanilla, and remaining salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Spread the cheesecake filling onto the chilled dough and crumble the streusel on top. Bake until browned and just set, 30-40 minutes.

Makes 24
Recipe Adapted from Culinary Concoctions by Peabody

October 18, 2015

Roasted Carrot & Bacon Soup

We finally had our first truly chilly day up here in Wisconsin, and I may or may not have broken out my favorite boots, scarf, jacket, sweater, etc. Spoiler alert: I was completely overdressed and started sweating after my first class. However, I still take it as a sign that it's time to publish a recipe for the perfect fall soup. How is it perfect? Well, it's full of vegetables, which means it must be healthy, and there's tons and tons of bacon (unless you end up eating half of it before you throw it in the soup, but I speak from experience when I say it will still taste fine).

This soup only has 8 ingredients, and I'd be willing to bet that you already have them. It's also ready in under an hour, which makes it a plausible weeknight meal, especially since most of that is just waiting for the carrots to roast or the soup to simmer. Depending on how much you blend it, this soup can be smooth or chunky, though I prefer it smooth and velvety with only the flecks of bacon for texture.

I start by roasting the carrots (obviously since it's roasted carrot and bacon soup). This brings out the natural sweetness and shortens the soup's cooking time because it's faster to cook carrots in a 400 degree oven than gently simmering them for hours. I cook them until they are almost tender so that they aren't overcooked when I eventually add them to the soup. Although the oven temperature is pretty high, the goal isn't to char them. Any burnt flavors on the carrots will migrate into the soup and ruin the whole thing, though a little bit of color on the carrots is a good thing.

While the carrots are roasting, it's time for the other main flavor component (and my personal favorite): the bacon. I cook a half pound of bacon until it is very crispy and the fat renders out. It doesn't really matter what kind of bacon you use; regular, thin, hickory-smoked, and basically any other variety should work just fine. However, this is probably not the time to use lean bacon since you want a lot of bacon fat to cook the rest of the vegetables in.

You've probably noticed by now that whenever I cook with bacon, I use the bacon fat to cook the other ingredients in, especially the onions. Surprise! This recipe is no different. I cook diced onions, garlic, and jalapeno (totally optional) in the bacon fat until tender and fragrant. They pick up that amazing bacon flavor and allow it to permeate all of the soup. Once they are cooked, I throw in the roasted carrots plus some vegetable broth and thyme. That all simmers together for just under half an hour before I puree it until smooth. Again, you don't have to make it completely smooth, but I love that velvety texture. After that, I throw in the bacon since I don't really want pureed bacon in the soup and let it all simmer together for another 15 minutes or so.

This is truly the perfect fall soup, and the color is absolutely gorgeous. I highly recommend making a double batch so you can eat leftovers all week, especially since the bacon flavor only gets stronger. It's light enough to be served as a first course but would also be a great meal by itself; just serve it with some crusty bread and you're all set.

2 lbs Carrots
2 T Olive Oil
8 oz Bacon
1 Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2-1 Jalapeño, Minced (Optional)
2 Sprigs Thyme
6 Cups Vegetable Broth

Heat oven to 400F.

Peel the carrots and cut into 2" segments. Toss with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread the carrots onto a baking sheet and roast for 16 minutes or until almost tender.

Cook the bacon in a large pot until crispy, about 6 minutes. Remove and dice when cool.

Cook the onion in the bacon fat for 4 minutes or until almost tender and translucent. Add the garlic and jalapeño and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add the thyme, roasted carrots, and vegetable broth. Cover and cook for 25 minutes.

Remove the thyme and blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in the bacon and simmer for 15 minutes.

Serves 6

October 7, 2015

CinnaBabka Streusel Muffins

Midterm season is upon us here in Madison, but I just survived my first round (plus a few interviews, club meetings, and apartment hunting escapades thrown in for good measure). That means it's time for something completely and utterly decadent. This recipe came about when I couldn't decide which breakfast food I wanted to drown my sorrows in. I love the smell of cinnamon buns in the morning, but I'm addicted to coffee cake, too. I also love the idea of wrapping chocolate in bread dough Babka-style.

The solution? Take all three dishes, combine them using about a pound of butter (yes, you read that right), and you've got something that will get you through just about any crisis. These things got me through accelerated summer organic chemistry, people. Don't underestimate them.

The backbone of these rolls/muffins is some old-fashioned, vanilla-scented, butter-loaded brioche dough. Brioche is currently taking over the bakery scene, and for good reason. It's incredibly light and fluffy but simultaneously rich and substantial. Unlike most breads, it contains butter and eggs, which add flavor, color, and tenderness. I also add some sugar since it's a sweet breakfast bun, but keep in mind that the filling is pretty sweet, too, and you don't want to go into a sugar coma until you're on at least your third one. The brioche also gets a hearty splash of vanilla because I grew up in a family where you can't bake anything without it.

You may notice something a little odd about my brioche "bread" recipe. Hint: it doesn't use bread flour. Before you call me out on that, just know that just last week in my super advanced high-tech ahead-of-the-crowd introduction to food science class, we had a lab dedicated to baking breads with different types of flour to see what effect the gluten content has on the texture, color, height, etc. of bread.

Turns out that the all-purpose flour made decent bread, and I don't want a strong network of gluten anyway. That's great for hearty, crusty loaves to dip in olive oil as an appetizer or snack (or an entire meal... I won't judge), but I want my brioche to be tender and short (mouthfeel, not height; these will still rise nicely). All-purpose flour has just enough gluten to rise and brown but not too much that it's hard and chewy.

The finished bread dough has to rise for about 90 minutes, but there's still plenty to do. I like to make the filling during the first rise so that it's ready to go when the dough is finished. Traditional cinnamon buns get smeared with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, but I want something more. Coffee cake-inspired streusel and chunks of rich dark chocolate are poured onto the dough and rolled up so that every bite is infused with fragrant cinnamon and oozing delicious chocolate.

The streusel is my standard recipe, the one I use in my peach crumb cakeraspberry chocolate almond coffee cake, and pretty much any other breakfast treat that could be improved by cinnamony, buttery goodness. It's a simple combination of sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, butter, and flour. I use enough sugar to make it sweet enough for my taste, a full stick of butter since all streusel needs butter, and enough flour to hold it together. I go pretty easy on the cinnamon since I'm all about the chocolate, but if you're feeling particularly excited about fall baking (perfectly understandable), throw in as much as you want.

The last component of these insane bites of heaven is the chocolate. This is my favorite part, and I always have to buy more chocolate than I intend to use because of course I need to check the quality before I use it (read: eat 50% of it because I'm denying my chocoholism). You can use chocolate chips, chocolate chunks, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, or whatever else you can find that I didn't name.

The important thing is that there's a lot of it; my favorite thing about these buns is biting into them and getting perfectly melted chocolate absolutely everywhere. My personal preference is to use bittersweet baking bars and chop them into chunks of various sizes for a rustic look. You end up getting chocolate in every bite, but each bite tastes different because you get different proportions of brioche, streusel, and chocolate.

Once your dough has risen, your streusel has been mixed, and your chocolate has been prepared/partially consumed, it's time to start assembling. Unless you're a professional who can somehow wrangle 2' long dough logs that spill streusel and chocolate all over your kitchen, I recommend splitting the dough in half. Roll each half into a large, thin rectangle (the thinner the rectangle the bigger the spiral/more filling you can stuff in there) and cover with half the streusel and the chocolate.

Starting from the side closest to you, gently but firmly roll the dough away from you into a tight cylinder. Cut the cylinder into about 14 rounds and place each into a greased muffin cup. You could bake these in a big pyrex pan all together like some people make cinnamon rolls, but I prefer the muffin tins so that there's more crust and they bake more evenly.

Repeat this process with the other half of the dough, streusel, and chocolate, and don't worry if your second batch comes out nicer than the first. I try to serve my friends only the pretty ones, so if some of them are ugly it just means I get to eat more of them. I should point out, though, that I don't think anyone will care how attractive they are. To quote one of my esteemed lab-mates who has been in the industry for years, has traveled around the world (literally), and knows pretty much everything about confections, "These things are like crack." I hope you enjoy these as much as my friends, labmates, and I do, and just try not to think about the massive amounts of butter in them.

1 Cup Warm Milk
1/2 Cup + 1 T Sugar
1 T Yeast
2 Eggs
1 Egg Yolk
2 tsp Vanilla
1/2 tsp Salt
4 Cups Flour
12 T Butter, Softened & Cubed

1/3 Cup Sugar
1/3 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 tsp Cinnamon
1/4 tsp Salt
1 1/2 Cups Flour
1 Stick Butter, Melted
8 oz Chocolate, Chopped

Whisk the milk, 1 T sugar, and the yeast together. Let sit until the yeast is activated and foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, yolk, and vanilla. Stir in the salt. Gradually beat in three cups of flour, then add the butter a few cubes at a time. Add the remaining flour as necessary to form a soft but not too sticky dough.

Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise for 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the filling, whisk the sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt together. Stir in the butter, then add the flour.

Split the dough in half and roll each portion into a large, thin rectangle, about 12x18". Sprinkle half of the streusel filling and half the chopped chocolate evenly onto the dough, pressing lightly to adhere. Cut into 14 cylinders and place each in a greased muffin tin. Repeat with the remaining dough, filling, and chocolate.

Cover the muffins and let rise for another hour.

Heat oven to 350F.

Bake the muffins until golden and cooked through, about 25 minutes.

Makes 28
Inspired by How Sweet Eats