Sunday, February 10, 2013

Easy Does It


The set up. (In the board room, no less.)
There are a lot of reasons I love my job. The fact that every day I encounter a new challenge. The fact that there's never a boring moment. The fact that I can see and feel how my work makes a difference in the organization. The fact that I work with a super supportive group of people who have seen me through the best and worst of times. But most of all, I'm thankful for a boss who, after a string of really grueling weeks, will bring in her daughter's Easy Bake Oven and allow me to cook to my heart's content.

No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I have a real job.

I know you're probably wondering how Easy Bake Day at the office came about. See, there are a few of us ladies (and the office is currently made up of only ladies) whose Easy Bake Oven wish never came true as children. And those few of us still have easy baking on our "bucket lists," so to speak. Since we've been working so hard lately, and since we have the best boss on Earth, we were lucky enough to take a bit of a baking break on Friday afternoon.

Now you're probably wondering why I chose to compromise my blogging integrity (or just my general integrity) by writing about my Easy Bake escapades. Well it turns out that if we hadn't had a baking professional (me) in the office, Easy Bake Day may have been quite the blunder. So here I am to share the knowledge and experience I've gained from non-easy baking (hard baking?) applied to the infamous Easy Bake Oven.

You can always add, but you can't take away

A sticky situation.
I found this cooking adage has never been more true than when applied to Easy Bake kits ... while it's near miraculous that a combination of powder and water can produce an edible cookie, the ratio of powder to water that you find in the directions isn't always on the money.

This was first evident as we ventured down the path of pretzel sticks. It's understandably tricky to produce a viable dough from a mix, but you'd think that following the instructions carefully would yield the right results. Not so. Turns out these pretzels require about half the water the instructions call for, which we learned on the second batch after the first batch ended up mostly stuck to Laura's hands. On round two, I (took over and) started slow, adding just a teaspoon of water at a time and pressing the mixture into a dough instead of stirring it into the sticky situation we created the first time. Viola! Chewy pretzel sticks came out of the oven and were promptly dunked in the mysterious, neon orange cheese sauce (also created from powder and water).

Patience is a virtue

I tried to follow instructions, but it turns out mine are better.
Bear in mind: you're cooking with a light bulb here. You can't be surprised when the oven takes 20 minutes to heat up and your cake, albeit mini, takes two 16-minute passes to bake. You also can't be surprised at the lack of a temperature gauge and timer on the oven itself (both present in decorative sticker form on the device, but clearly inoperable!).

What's curious, though, is that the instructions claim to bake that mini cake in just 16 minutes. Well my cake (and the pretzels, and the whoopie pies, and the cookies) came out half-done, so I borrowed from a pretty standard baking rule and rotated the pan. It may not be rocket science, but you'd be surprised how many people would have given up in defeat when those goodies came out gooey. And with a little patience, the delectables were perfectly done with dual passes.

Easy does it

At this point, we've learned there are (more than) a few tricks to breaking off an edible easy bake batch. And this includes working with the accessories that come with the oven. Now, if you had an Easy Bake Oven as a child, you might be familiar with the "pusher." (I can't imagine that it's a newfangled contraption, because it's not exactly high tech.) The "pusher" serves the dual purposes of pushing things into and pulling them out of the oven. It takes on the form of a spatula, just a lot less intuitive.

Truffles! Next time I'll supply extra sprinkles.
The instructions allude to this, but you have to be very careful with the pusher to make sure your pan ends up in just the right spot in the oven so the doors on either end are completely closed. Then, when your time is up, you use your pusher again to make sure the pan ends up in just the right spot in the cooling chamber. Now, if you don't take it easy with the pusher, and you haphazardly shove everything in the oven, guess what's going to happen? You're going to get the cupcake pan stuck and you're going to have to shake the oven upside down to get it out. And in the process, you're going to panic for fear that you've just broken your boss's daughter's favorite toy and wonder if you're going to get fired. I speak from experience

You're probably wondering, after all this trial and error, how did the finished products actually taste? You know, that whole powder and water thing made me nervous. I don't even use boxed cake mixes, so I was understandably skeptical. But surprisingly enough, most of our baked goods weren't half bad! We produced some pretty tasty truffles, some scrumptious sugar cookies with lemon icing, and some marvelous mini cupcakes. They weren't exactly enough to feed a crowd, but they're just right for a taste. We'll keep that in mind next week, when we bring our teddy bears in for the afternoon tea party. J/K!

Enlarged to show detail. Just like the photos on the packaging.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Crumb to My Coffee Cake

There's no better time than brunch time for a post about coffee cake. Especially since every Sunday morning has me craving a hearty breakfast from Maxim's (on Capital Drive in Brookfield - go there!), which always comes complete with a hefty slice of their cinnamon coffee cake on the side. It doesn't matter if you order an omelet, a stack of pancakes, a dish of fruit-filled crepes, or good old fashioned eggs and bacon ... the coffee cake is ever-present! It's an act of extreme willpower to abstain from eating it. And I didn't think it was possible for anyone to compete with it ... until yesterday.

I didn't set out on a mission to reproduce Maxim's coffee cake or a batch of cake that could rival it. I set out on a mission to use a few overripe bananas that had been hanging out on the kitchen counter. Normally, I would have reverted to my standby Betty Crocker banana bread, but yesterday I encountered a dilemma: I had only one egg and my bread calls for two. Oh, and dilemma number two: our milk was expired.

Faced with these challenges, I rifled through my stacks and stacks of cookbooks, determined to come up with something. Then I pulled the Taste of Home cookbook off the shelf (for the first time in years, probably) and turned to the index. Banana coffee cake ... that seemed intriguing.

It calls for no milk. Good.

It calls for two eggs. Bad.

But it also calls for a 9x13-inch pan.

So genius struck. Let's use one egg and make it in an 8x8-inch pan! Thus, I halved the recipe and Bill and I and our coffee cake lived happily ever after.

I'm warning you now. It is addicting. You will stand over the pan, armed with a knife, obsessively saying, "Just one more sliver .. .one more sliver" until you find half of the cake gone. It's moist. It's crumbly. It's banana-y and cinnamon-y. It's everything the ideal coffee cake (which I thought had been perfected by Maxim's) is destined to be.

Next time I'll just double this version and make the full recipe. Let's go stock up on eggs.

Banana Coffee Cake
For the Cake
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 banana, mashed
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/8 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

For the Topping
1/4 cup chopped or slivered almonds
1/4 cup toasted coconut
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Liberally coat an 8x8-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.

Beat cream cheese, butter, and sugar until well-combined. Add the banana, egg, and vanilla and mix well. Add flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir until just combined.

In a small bowl, combine all 4 topping ingredients. Toss to mix. Sprinkle half of the topping in the batter and give it a couple quick stirs to combine. Spread batter in prepared dish. (The batter will be thick so, if necessary, use a rubber spatula sprayed with cooking spray to spread the batter all the way to the edges of the dish.) Sprinkle remaining topping evenly over the batter. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack, then slice and serve. Or just eat it standing over the dish, like we have!

By the way, the topping ingredients listed here represent my own (slightly tropical) concoction. The original recipe calls for chopped pecans, cinnamon, and sugar, but I was out of pecans and running low on almonds. I decided to bulk it up with a little coconut and it was an excellent choice!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy Second Anniversary, LovBites!

Today marks the second anniversary of the day I said, "You know what? I think it would be fun to catalogue all of my recipes in a food blog. Let's do that." A crazy idea, maybe. And maybe it's had it's ups and downs. But I haven't regretted it for a minute along the way.

Admittedly, LoVBites' second year wasn't quite as eventful as its first. I wrote only about 25% of the posts I did last year (ouch), I didn't achieve any recognition from America's Test Kitchen (or otherwise), and I didn't make waves in the Milwaukee food scene. But rather than lamenting or making excuses for all of the things I didn't accomplish this past year, I thought our time would be better spent celebrating what I did do.

I did make three trips to my beloved city by the Bay. Though they weren't quite "vacations" in the true sense of the word, I was able to squeeze in visits to many of my favorite foodie spots (Boudin, Original Joe's, Stanford's) and try a few new ones. We ate at Guy Fieri's Johnny Garlic's restaurant in Dublin which didn't quite live up to the hype Guy would surely create, but wasn't even remotely as bad as the New York Times would lead you to believe his restaurant is in Times Square. We also made our first trip to Tyler Florence's Wayware Tavern in the city which surpassed Guy in terms of quality, but certainly not in terms of service. We've had fantastic experiences at celebrity chefs' restaurants before (Mario Batali, Bobby Flay), and I'm glad we added Guy and Tyler to the list, but these two don't quite rank at the top.

I did complete a full round of P90x. That's certainly one of the things that prevented me from blogging as often as I have in the past, and it interfered with my habit of cooking all out, full blown feasts on the weeknights. But all that time and energy and sweat and tears resulted in dropping ten pounds and two pant sizes, which is peanuts compared to the overwhelming sense of accomplishment when you finish that final workout. It was worth it even if it did eat up my blogging time. So worth it that today is day two of round two!

I did keep cooking. This whole thing wasn't a fad and it wasn't a phase. While I may not have cooked as often or as extravagantly last year, I didn't lose my passion for conjuring up deliciousness in the kitchen. There were dozens of recipes I didn't write about, and maybe someday I'll whip them up again and share them with the world. I have a backlog of photos of meals I can barely remember, but if they were good enough to photograph they must have been good enough to eat. I added at least a dozen cookbooks to my collection and most of them were put to good use. I had quite a few Sunday cooking marathons where I filled the freezer in the garage to feed us through the winter. And, most importantly, when I did hunker down in the kitchen, I made it count. The feasts may have been fewer and further between, not they were certainly no less delicious.

So I'm not going to promise more consistent posts in 2013 and I'm not going to commit to taking LoVBites viral. But I will promise that you can still find me in the kitchen, still embarking on a variety of culinary adventures, and still sharing them when I find some spare time. (And I swear I won't keep any of the best ones from you!)