Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Soft, Chewy Oatmeal Cookies with Toffee and Coconut

On Sunday, I had the urge to make cookies. It felt like I hadn't had any homemade dessert in my life for a while, so I dug through all the recipes I've saved online and decided on these. Spoiler alert: they're so yummy!

Although I love oatmeal cookies, this isn't what I usually go for. Believe it or not, I've never baked anything with toffee bits before (is that weird?). These cookies are chewy around the edges thanks to the addition of shortening and a bit of cornstarch. The cornstarch is a great trick (I've used it before with chocolate chip cookies) for creating a soft texture--it has the same effect as using instant pudding mix in your cookie recipe (like these, for example). The centers are soft because of not baking them too long (we need a better term than "underbaking"). The cinnamon and dark brown sugar add tons of flavor.

Finally, I'll end with a warning: if you love eating cookie dough, you'll be powerless against these. Oatmeal cookie dough is the finest kind, and these are just the cream of the crop.

Soft, Chewy Oatmeal Cookies with Toffee and Coconut
Adapted from Hershey's and Taste and Tell
I replaced 1 tablespoon of the flour with cornstarch, which helps create that soft chewy texture. The shortening and coconut also keep the cookies soft, so you can't lose with this lineup of ingredients. 

Makes 55 cookies

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, minus 1 tablespoon
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup shortening, at room temperature
2 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups quick cooking rolled oats
1 cup (packed) shredded sweetened coconut
1 (8 ounce) bag toffee baking bits (like Heath brand) with milk chocolate (1 1/3 cups)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; set aside. Beat the butter, shortening and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined. Add flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until combined. Add oats and beat until combined, then repeat with coconut and toffee bits. Refrigerate at least 45 minutes and up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop slightly rounded tablespoon-sized balls of dough and place on baking sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart (I used insulated baking sheets and did 16 per batch). Bake in the center of the oven until edges are set (centers will still look moist), 8 to 10 minutes (bake 9 to 11 minutes if you want the centers set). Cool on baking sheets for 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough. I recommend freezing any cookies you don't eat on the day of baking. Defrost at room temperature.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Healthy Monte Cristo Sandwiches

Here's something I didn't really "get" until recently: The classic Monte Cristo is a double decker sandwich made with layers of ham, turkey, swiss cheese and usually jam. It's battered and deep fried and served with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. Oh my goodness. That's really the way it's supposed to be. Of course, you don't need to go the killer sandwich route to get a very similar delicious experience.

There are just as many "less-elaborate" recipe versions of this sandwich hanging around the internet. Some actually don't resemble a traditional Monte Cristo at all, but plenty are great, calling for pan-frying (so much easier than attempting to submerge a double layer sandwich in batter and hot oil). The recipe I put together treats the bread like French toast to create a crisp exterior and soft interior.

You could fry it butter, more like a grilled cheese sandwich, but I keep it pretty healthy. I also don't bother with two types of meat because I absolutely love the ham and gruyere combination. The addition of some slightly chunky, high-quality jam takes that combo to another level, where sweet and savory are joined in harmony. So simple, so good and I don't even need powdered sugar.

Monte Cristo
This is perfect with leftover holiday ham, if you're the type to buy a half or whole spiral cut ham just so you can cook with the leftovers. Of course, it doesn't have to be the holidays to do this. Avoid basic deli ham unless you know it's really good. 

Makes 2 sandwiches

Dijon mustard
Fruit jam, such as blackberry or raspberry
4 slices Aunt Annie’s Potato Sandwich Bread
4 to 6 oz baked ham
2 oz (approx.) Gruyere cheese, thinly sliced

2 large eggs
3 tbsp milk or half and half
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Cooking spray

1) To make each sandwich, spread one slice bread with Dijon and another slice with jam. Top Dijon side with ham and Gruyere; cover with jam side.

2) In a wide, shallow bowl, whisk the eggs, milk and black pepper until combined.

3) Preheat one or two heavy skillets on medium heat and coat with cooking spray. Dip each sandwich one side at a time (try not to coat inside of the sandwiches) in the egg mixture, allowing bread to absorb to absorb egg for a brief moment. Transfer to skillet and cook until bread is toasted and golden brown and cheese is melted, turning once. Cover the skillet with a lid to help the cheese melt and adjust heat as necessary to prevent over browning; the second side will cook more quickly. Cut sandwiches in half on the diagonal and serve immediately.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bourbon Pecan Pie

This is the pecan pie I made for my husband's birthday. First time ever making pecan pie, and I will never try it any other way. I used the famous Cook's Illustrated vodka crust, which is even more wonderful than I remember (I first used it in this blueberry pie). Just the perfect crisp-tender texture with enough salt to counteract the problem I usually have with pie crust: blandness.

The filling is adapted from both Cookie Madness and The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Two authoritative sources if there ever were. The filling contains 2 tablespoons of bourbon. I didn't think this was much of anything, but you can taste, and it is good. I also made sure to include a higher than usual amount of sea salt. No one will call this pie "overly sweet" or "cloying," the two criticisms most often throw at this dessert. It is adult. It is addictive.

Of course, I just said I'd never change, but tell me about your ultimate pecan pie. What key ingredients make the difference for you? I LOVE comparing recipes!

Bourbon Pecan Pie
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, Cookie Madness and The Gift of Southern Cooking.
With a hit of bourbon and delicious sea salt, this pie is far from too-sweet and cloying. You can taste the bourbon, which is a good thing. I called for fleur de sel because a dessert this special (and high-calorie) deserves the absolute best. Use any salt you like enough to taste on its own.

Vodka Pie Crust:

1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (6 ¼ oz)
¼ plus 1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4” slices
¼ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 2 pieces
2 tbsp cold vodka
1 to 2 tbsp cold water

Process ¾ cup of the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor until cobined, about 2 1-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until dough starts to come together in uneven clumps (should look like cottage cheese curds with some very small pieces of butter remaining, but all flour should be coated), about 10 seconds. Scrape down bowl. Add remaining flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pules. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and 1 tbsp of the water over flour mixture. With a rubber spatula, mix with a folding motion, pressing down on dough until dough comes together and feels slightly tacky. If dough seems dry, add as much of the remaining water as needed to achieve desired consistency (I used a scant 1 ½ tbsp). Flatten into a 4” disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

On a generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface, roll dough into a 12” circle, about 1/8” thick. Roll loosely around rolling pin and unroll into pie plate. Press dough into the bottom and side of plate to fit. Trim overhanging dough to about 1/2” beyond lip of plate. Fold overhand under itself so edge is flush with plate. Flute the dough with your fingers (don't worry if it's not perfect!). Refrigerate while you make the filling.

Pecan Pie Filling:

1 ½ cups chopped raw pecans
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
Scant ¼ tsp fleur de sel or sea salt, plus ¼ tsp
3 large eggs
¾ cup plus 3 tbsp light Karo syrup
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tbsp bourbon (I used Jim Beam)
2 tbsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Heat a large skillet on medium high heat. Add pecans and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add butter and scant ¼ tsp of the salt and “stir-fry” pecans until butter melts and barely starts to brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Crack eggs into a large bowl and whisk to break up. Add Karo syrup, brown sugar, bourbon, vanilla and remaining ¼ tsp fleur de sel and whisk until combined. Stir in pecan/butter mixture and pour into chilled, unbaked crust. Bake in the center of the oven until top is golden brown and puffed, but still slightly jiggly in the center, 45 to 54 minutes (mine took 52 minutes). Cool completely on a rack at room temperature, about 4 hours. Pie is perfect on the day it is baked and very, very good after being refrigerated overnight; serve at room temperature.