Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Toffee Bars

If you read my blog, then you’ve seen this picture before. 

This is the old school Better Homes and Gardens cookbook with the Cookies section (tab 9 in case you are wondering), open to the page that displays photos of some of the wonderful cookies you can make (and then eat). This book is older than me. My brother and I spent many hours looking at these pages and imagining what each cookie would taste like. My Mom never made all of them, but we were lucky enough to get to sample many.

My Mom was kind enough to let me have this book several years ago and the memories that go along with it are priceless. The book is so well-worn that both the front and back covers are no longer attached (but I have them), and neither are many of the pages. This time when I opened it up to tab 9, I found a page about roast beef just hanging around in there. I didn't even bother to try to find where it belonged but rather left it there for the next time.

This is what the book looks like:

This post is about the two bars you see up in the top right hand corner of the page in the first photo. They are called Toffee Bars. The recipe is simple with five ingredients (actually six, but we don’t put the nuts in due to allergies in the school). The hardest part about this recipe is finding a cookie sheet that is 15 ½ x 10 ½ x 1 inches, since most companies make them much larger these days.

Note: If you cannot find a cookie sheet this size, use a larger sheet and only use the real estate provided to fill the space of 15 ½ x 10 ½ x 1 inches with the dough. You can do this easily by making a little wall out of tin foil and pressing it up against the edge of the dough. Use a ruler to help you.

Although from the photo you might think these Toffee Bars look like chocolate chip cookies cut into bars, they are not. Because of the butter to brown sugar ratio, along with the lack of eggs, they are firmer than regular chocolate chip cookies. There is also no leavening agent so they stay flat and crunchy.

I think you will love them. This year, they played a large role in my cookie tin gifts for neighbours and friends.

Since the recipe is so simple, and I have made no adjustments (aside from leaving out the nuts), I am not even going to retype this recipe. Instead, here is a photo of it, with photos of the process as well.

Start by putting the butter into your mixer. Then add the brown sugar.

Cream the butter and sugar together with the vanilla.

Then add the flour and the chocolate chips.

You will end up with a dough that looks like this:

Take a 15 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 1 inch cookie sheet and line it with parchment. You can try doing this with no parchment but I find that sometimes the dough sticks and it's hard to get it out of the pan. It depends on the quality and age of the pan you are using.

Press the dough into the pan ensuring that it is the same thickness throughout.

Pop the tray into the oven and bake at 350 degrees F for 20 - 25 minutes (depends on your oven). You want to take them out when they are golden but still a bit soft.

Cut them into bars while they are still warm. 

The recipe says that the yield is 5 dozen, but I never get that many. 

It will depend on how big you cut the bars!

I decided these looked too big so I cut them again.

And then I packed them into cookie tins and promptly gave them away so I wouldn't eat them all.

And then I sneaked one out of the tin and ate it.

And then I went to the gym.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

David's Robert's Absolute Best Brownies EVER

Brownies. The bane of my existence. I never met a brownie I didn’t like – well, that’s not really true as there are some pretty crappy brownies out there. And since I like to try most of the brownies I meet, I have tasted some duds in my day.

I’ve made:
Joy of Cooking brownies (cakey and classic), 
Jenifer Soper’s (my Uncle’s girlfriend) brownies (best icing ever on a good cakey brownie),
Better Homes and Gardens brownies (not bad),
Alice Medrich’s brownies (awesome, with a beautiful cracked top),
brownies with applesauce instead of butter (don’t bother), 
brownies with cream cheese (a mistake and confounding), 
Nigella Lawson brownies (of course they’re good because they have a pound of butter in them), 
Martha Stewart brownie cookies (pretty good)
and many, many more.

I’ve also tried many brownies made by other people. 
Starbucks’ brownies, 
crappy cafeteria brownies at work, 
Tim Horton’s brownies, 
fancy brownies from quaint little bakeries in small Ontario towns near the cottages we rent,
brownies from Rocket Bakery in St. John’s, 
brownies from Auntie Crae’s bakery in St John’s (back in the day), 
two-bite brownies from the supermarket (gross), 
Weight Watchers brownies (why not?), 
and Sara Lee brownies.

I remember a special time with one of my best friends, I think it was grade 7 or 8. We told my Dad we were going to the store. We headed to some nearby shop and bought a foil pan of Sara Lee brownies. We walked home and talked about the brownies pretty much the whole way. Once we arrived, we went into the family room (why were we eating in the family room?), lifted the cardboard top off the tin, then the wax paper. Then we did the only sensible thing to do in a situation like this – broke the entire slab of brownie in half and shared it. I don’t think we managed to eat the whole thing in that one sitting, but maybe we did. Susan? You’ll have to remind me.

Based on all of this information, I am sure you can tell that I am always interested in finding the ‘perfect’ brownie. Two years ago I put out the call on Facebook for my friends to send me their perfect brownie recipe. Several people responded – Marni’s brownies were indeed pretty unbelievable (I may blog those someday soon). One friend (Karen) wrote back to me and reminded me that my own recipe that I had recently shared with her was amazing (in this particular recipe, I used Lindt chocolate balls as a portion of the chocolate in the brownie). But my quest continued.

Until I found these. This is it. The ultimate brownie. You may never need to consult another recipe again once you have tried these. Off. The. Hook. For realz.

As you know if you read my blog, I am a huge fan of blogger David Lebovitz. David posted a recipe for the ultimate brownie and he gave credit to Robert Steinberg (co-founder of Scharffen Berger chocolate) who had adapted his recipe from cookbook author Maida Heatter. David referred to them as “Absolute Best Brownies”, and I have to agree.

There is a key step in this brownie process that you cannot skip, you cannot shorten, you cannot change. This step is what makes these brownies the “absolute best” brownies you will ever eat. The step is simple – beat the ingredients for one full minute. You won’t regret it. These brownies are sort of cakey on the outside, and if you follow these instructions, fudgey on the inside. There’s something for everyone here.

Here is the recipe (with my edits/notes in brackets).

6 tbsp butter, unsalted or salted, cut into pieces, plus more for the pan (I use salted)
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (I have used chocolate chips when in a pinch, but for this recipe I used a combination of Ghirardhelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight 72% cacao (an entire bar of 100g), Lindt 70% chocolate (3/4 of a 100g bar), Lindt Fleur de Sel dark chocolate (1/4 of a 100g bar), and Schmerling’s of Switzerland Rosemarie bittersweet praline filled chocolate (4 squares).
¾ cup sugar (I use ½ cup)
1 tsp vanilla (always use real vanilla)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 cup walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped (this time I didn’t use nuts, but my preference is pecans)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and line an 8 inch square baking pan with parchment. To do this, don’t try to jam one piece of parchment into the brownie pan because the corners of the paper will be crumpled and messy. Cut two strips of paper the width of the pan but longer. Place them perpendicular to each other then lightly butter the parchment. The original recipe calls for a 9 inch pan, but 8 inches is better. Yes, size does matter.

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a pan on low heat. Start with the butter 

... and then add the chocolate once it starts to melt. 

Stir by hand until the chocolate has melted completely and the mixture is smooth and glossy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and the vanilla until combined. 

Pour the mixture into an electric mixer. You can do the rest by hand but I have had better success with the one minute of mixing if it’s in my Kitchen Aid!

Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Then add the flour and beat for 1 full minute. If you are beating by hand, this one minute of beating must be “energetic”!

You will know it’s right when the mix is glossy and smooth, with no more graininess, and pulls away slightly from the sides of the bowl you are using. If you don’t follow the directions for the one minute of energetic beating, your brownies will not be the absolute best and will be dry and crumbly. It has happened to me and I am telling the truth.

Pour into the pan 

... and bake until the centre feels almost set. The instructions say 30 minutes but I only bake for 25. Do not overbake.

Let the brownies cool in the pan completely, then use the parchment to lift the block of brownie out of the pan. Cut into squares (I do 4 x 4). 

The brownies will keep well for up to 4 days (haha! They won’t make it past 2!). You can also freeze them – it says for up to one month but I don’t know why you could not freeze them for longer.

They taste spectacular with vanilla ice cream. Below you see our poodle, Kugel, wishing I would share with her. Not a chance.

Jeanie Torrence's Molasses Cookies

One of the great things about Facebook is reconnecting with old friends. Granted, you don’t always want to connect with old friends – sometimes there is a clear reason you aren’t friends anymore (and that’s what the “ignore” button is for). But most times it’s a good thing, and you can look forward to getting up to speed on all the news, flipping through that person’s photos, and catching a glimpse of their lives now.

Facebook connected me with an old friend from university, Kelly Torrence. We went to school in Montreal and she was a friend of my boyfriend’s roommate (my boyfriend is now my husband, The King of Soup). Neither of us lives in Montreal anymore and we also don’t live in the same city, so it’s nice to be able to keep in touch through this channel.

A few weeks ago I saw that she had posted a cookie recipe on her page (eyes immediately light up when recipes are posted). This recipe was pinned to her page with comments like “something to look forward to” and “top 5 favourite things to eat” and “makes me feel like I am in grade 7 again”. Well, now my interest was piqued even more – after all, who doesn’t want to feel like they’re in grade 7 again? Grade 7 was awesome! 

So I asked Kelly if I could test the recipe for the blog, and to whom credit should be given for said recipe. It turns out it's three generations old and comes from a family farm in the Gaspe. I am giving credit today to Kelly’s Mom, Jeanie Torrence, and I thank her for letting me print this online!

When I think of molasses the very first thing that comes to mind is Sunday afternoons at home on Waterford Bridge Road in St. John’s when Mary Hunt, our housekeeper, would bake six loaves of the most delicious white bread you’ve ever had. As soon as the bread would come out of the oven, Mary would take wax paper with a mound of butter on it and pass it over the tops of the loaves to give them a butter crust. Immediately following this exercise, my Mom would tear into one of the loaves and rip out a chunk for each of us to eat. Fingers and mouths burning, my brother and I would munch away on the heels of bread. My Mom would take her piece and dip it into a bowl containing milk mixed with molasses. This was a family tradition from her relatives in La Tuque, Quebec. My brother and I could never quite wrap our heads around dipping fresh, gorgeous bread into dark and oily-looking molasses, so we left that to Mom.

In Newfoundland, there is a traditional dish called toutens, which is basically fried bread dough. Most people serve toutens doused in molasses (instead of maple syrup). I don’t quite understand this either – maple syrup is so much sweeter and more delicious than molasses. And to this day, when I order toutens in a restaurant in Newfoundland I ask them to hold the molasses and bring on the maple syrup.

The way I am writing might make you think that I don’t see a role for molasses in my life. But that is not the case at all. In my opinion, molasses is here on this planet to help us make moist, delicious cookies. Period.

So that brings me back to the beginning of this blog entry, the recipe posting on Kelly’s Facebook page. When I looked closer to see what the recipe was that would make me feel like I was in grade 7 again, I was excited to see it was for molasses cookies!

Without further delay, here’s the recipe for Jeanie Torrence’s Molasses Cookies. My edits/notes are in brackets.

1 c shortening- Crisco or hard margarine (I used butter)
1 c sugar (I did not cut this back – but the next time I make them I think I could take off ¼ cup or so)
1 c molasses
1 egg
2 heaping tbsp. sour cream
1 large tsp baking soda
1 dash salt (a dash is more than a pinch, but less than 1/4 tsp)
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp ginger (I would definitely up this the next time to 1 ½ tsp to make it more gingery, but it all depends on your taste buds)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
4 c all purpose flour, or more (I needed MUCH more – the dough was too sticky to roll out so I ended up using a lot of flour when rolling it out)

Start by creaming together the butter and sugar in your electric mixer. 

Once it is light and fluffy, add the molasses, egg and sour cream. In case you don’t know this awesome trick for molasses, take note: spray the inside of the measuring cup with cooking spray, or put a bit of cooking oil on a paper towel and wipe the inside of the cup. This way the molasses won’t stick in the cup.

When my kids saw me pouring the molasses into the measuring cup, they became quite concerned. Why are you pouring black and goopy stuff into a perfectly good batch of cookies, they wondered. I explained to them that this was molasses. That was my second mistake (the first mistake being that I poured the stuff into the bowl in the first place). Once they heard the word molasses they shut down and went into the fetal position - just kidding but they might as well have. 

Thinking on my feet, I explained to them that there was molasses in gingerbread (they had just constructed a gingerbread house and had been enjoying munching away on the walls of the house). When I pointed this out, they realized that any ingredient that was part of gingerbread couldn't be half bad, so they stopped complaining and started to help.

Continue to beat and then add the dry ingredients. Mix well.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board (as I mentioned above, my board was not lightly floured but rather heavily floured).

Roll to about ¼” thick and cut into shapes using cookie cutters.

Note: I am not too smart when it comes to non-metric measurements so the first time I rolled the dough too thin. The cookies were delicious but came out more like ginger snap texture (The King of Soup gobbled them up because he is a big fan of the snap). For the second roll out of the dough, I kept it much thicker and the cookies were moist and chewy (more my speed).

Bake on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat or other silicone baking cover. Don't worry about the flour that's on some of the cookies - this disappears when they are baking.

Bake at 425 degrees for 10 – 15 minutes. The original recipe says 425 – 450 for 10 – 15 minutes. I baked them at 425 for 8 – 10 minutes and they were perfect. Watch these guys when they’re in the oven because depending on the thickness of the dough, the edges can burn easily.

The tops of the cookies will crack slightly (see photo below).

These freeze very well - and in case you are wondering, they taste amazing when eaten frozen. Out of the freezer they will keep for 4 or 5 days in a tightly-sealed container.

Update: I made a second batch of these last night. This time I used brown sugar, and upped the ginger to 1 1/2 tsp, and the cloves to 1 1/4 tsp. 

Instead of rolling out the dough and cutting shapes, I simply rolled balls of dough and then rolled those balls in white sugar. 

Place the balls on the cookie sheet and use the bottom of a drinking glass to press the dough ball flat. 

This makes a more traditional round, chewy molasses cookie. 

Any way you form these cookies, they're dynamite. ENJOY!! And Merry Christmas Jeanie and Kelly!