attempt at vegan caramels

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I knew I would be making regular caramels, hit as I have been with this urge to make candy (rather than bake). But again, this experimental bent made me decide to make vegan caramels as well.

First of all, I needed to get a new candy thermometer. I lost mine somewhere in my many moves. I bought two. One is vastly superior to the other, I have now learned.

Vegan caramels use coconut milk instead of cream. They were also made in an entirely different way from regular caramels (which are generally made all in one pan).

Things came together rather the way I would expect.

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Here we go…

Vegan caramels
2 or so tablespoons of melted coconut oil, melted, plus more for cutting caramels
1 (16 ounce) can (about 2 cups) coconut milk
3⁄4 cup golden syrup or light corn syrup (I used golden syrup)
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
1 3⁄4 cups sugar
3⁄4 cup water

Line the bottom and sides of an 8″x8″ square baking dish with parchment and brush with coconut oil; set aside.

Combine the coconut milk, syrup and sea salt in a 4-quart (2L) saucepan. Heat over medium low, stirring constantly for 3 to 5 minutes until mixture is warm and any coconut milk clumps are dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside.

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In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and the water and stir until sugar is wet. On medium-high heat, let cook without stirring until the sugar is light amber in color and a candy thermometer reads 310°F/155°C. Immediately remove from heat and pour melted sugar into the coconut milk mixture. Do this with care: the mixture will bubble and splash rather violently.

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Return saucepan to medium-low heat, stirring continuously until all the caramel is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, stir continuously, and cook until caramel becomes quite thick and a candy thermometer reads 240°F.

Immediately remove from heat and pour into the prepared pan.

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Let cool completely and cut into 1″ squares. Brush your knife with melted coconut oil between cutting to avoid sticking. Wrap individually in wax paper squares. Store at room temperature.

Verdict…

Well, I think this needed to be cooked a bit longer (beyond the 240F mark). I tasted it, and it tastes quite the way you’d expect – like caramel but not quite (i.e., it’s still made from coconut milk not butter and cream). But it was just too ‘runny’ in trying to cut it up, making it stringy and impossible to cut or wrap in pieces. It was just shy of being where it needed to be in terms of its solidity and texture, so this is kind of a sad and unsuccessful attempt, even if I can see that it would work if left to cook a little bit longer… better luck next time.

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Caramel-filled cappuccino cupcakes with Kahlua frosting

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cappuccino cupcakes with Kahlua frosting

cappuccino cupcakes with Kahlua frosting

Another cupcake experiment. I basically used a brown sugar cupcake recipe, which I normally use for brown sugar cupcakes with maple frosting and candied bacon, and dumped in some Starbucks Italian roast VIA instant espresso powder (some stuff I had on hand and needed to use up). I might have added too much but no one bothered to tell me after taste-testing.

Once baked and cooled, I used a handy-dandy “cupcake holer” tool to make uniform holes, which I filled with dulce de leche/caramel (made by mixing a can of prepared dulce de leche with about a half tablespoon of milk, just to make the filling slightly less thick).

Then I made some Swiss meringue buttercream and flavored it with vanilla bean powder and two tablespoons of Kahlua.

Decorated with sprinkles I had had for too long (don’t like to keep stuff like that just sitting around).

filled cupcakes

Filling process for filled cupcakes

Cappuccino cupcakes
1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon vanilla
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder (two or three packets of Starbucks VIA instant espresso powder)

Preheat oven to 175C. Mix all ingredients together. Put into cupcake papers in a cupcake pan. Bake 16 to 19 minutes until toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn the pan around once in the middle of baking for a more even bake.

When done, remove from oven, place on a rack and cool for a few minutes before removing the cupcakes from the pan onto their own cooling rack to cool completely.

Caramel/dulce de leche filling
Use a prepared can of dulce de leche and put it in a bowl, mix together with a half tablespoon of milk to achieve a slightly less thick consistency.

When cupcakes are fully cooled, use a knife or a cupcake holer tool to remove the middle of the cupcake and fill each hole with caramel. Reserve the very top of the cupcake when you cut the middle out. Place the tops back onto the filled cupcakes.

Kahlua Swiss meringue frosting
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter
3 to 4 tablespoons Kahlua
(vanilla bean powder, if desired)

Over a double boiler, whisk egg whites and sugar. When sugar is dissolved, transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer – beat with the whip attachment until soft to medium peaks form. Switch to paddle attachment, start beating and adding in the butter a few tablespoons at a time. Once you have a frosting-like texture (which can take a long while – the mixture will possibly look curdled, like it cannot possibly come together, at some point, but it will come together – just keep beating), add the vanilla powder. When nearly ready, add the Kahlua and mix until well-combined.

Frost the cupcakes with the prepared frosting.

Coconut caramel macchiato bars

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Gone in a flash! Coconut caramel macchiato bars

Gone in a flash! Coconut caramel macchiato bars

I found a very simple recipe for coconut caramel macchiato bar cookies a few months ago – and the recipe, seriously, was so dead simple that I thought I would try it out immediately to thrust upon my hungry co-workers. But weeks, even months passed, and I never tried it. Never mind that the “recipe”, if you could even call it that, is an easily whipped-up concoction of pre-made ingredients, so it’s barely even what I would call baking.

Grab a packet of Oreo cookies or some other chocolate cookie you can pulverize into dust and make that into your crust. Get your hands on some dulce de leche – you can make this yourself from a can of sweetened condensed milk, but most brands are available pre-made as dulce de leche caramel. Get some espresso powder (I used Starbucks Via Italian roast). Get some coconut. And you are more or less ready to make these.

I finally got around to making these recently when Mr Firewall visited – a kind of late birthday “cake-like” thing along with thousands of dollars worth (in Oslo or Reykjavik cafe prices anyway) of cranberry pistachio biscotti. He ate one rich little square and took them back to Glasgow with him (and promptly put them in the freezer – supposedly, these bars will freeze well if need be – if you manage to keep them on hand long enough). I did not have nearly enough Oreos to make a thick crust like the original recipe calls for, but it turns out fine because these are very rich.

When I made these again this past weekend, I had more than enough Oreos – but the crust really did not work out very well. I think the thin-crust variant is actually preferable in terms of how they handled/turned out.

Either way, this is an easy and quick coffee-tinged caramel cookie that probably goes well with a coffee. If the rate at which these disappeared from my office this morning is any indication, they are luscious. I am only guessing – this is not a scientific fact. It could be that people took them because they were small – and then chucked them in the bin!

Coconut Caramel Macchiato Bars
2½ cups (or more) chocolate cookie crumbs
½ cup melted butter (maybe even a bit less)
1 can dulce de leche (or sweetened condensed milk made into dulce de leche)
2 tablespoons espresso powder (I used
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I did this the first time I baked these, and then not the second. Easier to deal with without the chips – and I don’t think the chocolate chips really added anything)

Pre-heat oven to 350 F/175C. Line a rectangular 9”x13” pan with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick spray (such as Pam http://www.pamcookingspray.com/non-stick-spray-products/original-spray-oil/ or the Norwegian equivalent whose name escapes me now)

On low heat on the stovetop, melt the butter. Stir in the chocolate cookie crumbs until moistened. Press gently into the bottom of the prepared pan.

In a bowl, mix dulce de leche and the espresso powder until completely combined. Spread over the cookie-crumb crust.

Sprinkle with the coconut. Bake for 25 minutes until lightly browned.

Allow to cool completely (at least two hours). Cut, store in an airtight container – freeze if you want to.

Thanksgiving – starring The Third Reich – apple caramel pecan cheesecake

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Mini apple caramel pecan cheesecakes - fini

Mini apple caramel pecan cheesecakes – fini

Wouldn’t you know that you’d be talking loudly about the Third Reich, of all things, at the exact moment when you open your front door to greet your one Jewish Thanksgiving dinner guest? Especially when Thanksgiving happens to coincide with the first night of Hanukkah!

Happy Hanukkah! - a cat menorah

Happy Hanukkah! – a cat menorah*

The hostess exclaims, “OF COURSE I WAS – A JEW COMES TO THE DOOR AND I’M TALKING ABOUT THE THIRD REICH.”

Luckily everyone in attendance got the innocuous context and laughed heartily. (Not that I am sharing the context. I wasn’t, after all, there.)

It’s strange not to have cooked the majority of the stuff I normally make for Thanksgiving – but also liberating. As much as I love having guests and hosting loads of people, this year is very low-key and relaxing (much needed for me). One friend is here with me, and it is easy to cater to her wishes and, as she says, “spoil” her. It used to be that when we spent time together, she “needed” to have a lemon cake (something I used to bake all the time). Now it seems it’s an either/or – lemon cake or mini cheesecakes. Although I just told her that if we were spending enough time together at once, she would get both. But this is sort of a lazy week – I have prepared a number of things, but ultimately have not gone overboard, had time to do other things (and she is relaxed and knitting, as one does).

I did observe today that I love celebrating Thanksgiving outside the United States. It is as though it is a holiday for only my friends and me. Nothing is closed down on the actual day of Thanksgiving, we don’t have to put up with much of the “Black Friday madness” that grips America the day after. It’s like having a secret, special holiday all to ourselves – getting the best of all worlds at once.

Mini apple caramel pecan cheesecakes (recipe)

cheesecake crust crying out to be filled!

cheesecake crust crying out to be filled!

filling up with caramel and pecan

filling up with caramel and pecan

apple filling for cheesecake

apple filling for cheesecake

* Menorah image from http://www.menorah.com/catalog2/shopexd.asp?id=4427)

Political debate analysis, losing sight of the big picture, frustration, transportation difficulties and dulce de leche bundt cake

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Sometimes I can be so forgetful. When “staging” the baked-good offerings in my office (which involves a considerable amount of labor that goes well above and beyond the mere baking of these things), the process involves packaging, packing, transporting and then somehow getting everything from the car into the office, which is on several floors with varying levels of available space and quality for “preparing”, and then hopefully feeling motivated enough to take pictures of the final products. Sometimes I do this during the baking process, but sometimes I cannot be bothered, leaving me to at least photograph things just before they are eaten, but sometimes, while I manage to take a few pics, I don’t get to the point where I cut a cake or cupcake open to get a good view of what the inside looks like. I wish I had pictures of, for example, the inside of the dulce de leche cake, in order to display the ribbon of dulce de leche that is baked into the subtly dulce de leche-flavored cake.

But, as I wrote, I can be so forgetful. Or maybe even just lazy. This week I took the baked bounty to the office the night before serving and spent most of the night carrying the baked stuff from parking garage to the various floors of the building (I distribute the baked stuff to several floors so people can more easily access it) and setting everything up on plates as well as frosting the cupcakes (which I don’t do until I get to the office, making them far easier to transport). I wanted to make sure I would get to see the entire US presidential debate. My debate viewing was a leisurely affair, alone in the office in the middle of the night spreading blobs of frosting onto cupcakes while listening to Mitt Romney go on an aggressive attack – which strikes me as both uncivilized and unbecoming behavior in a potential president, particularly when lying, bluffing and playing fast and loose with the facts. (But we already know how little facts matter.) When it was not the facts, it was just disingenuous bullshit – him stating with false concern in his voice that he is running for president to help the middle class and because people are suffering. Suffering? What would Romney understand of suffering – either in reality or conceptually? After his “47% of people are freeloaders who do not care about their own well-being (and who believe they are somehow entitled to food!?)” comments (which sounded very real and sincere, particularly since he did not know he was being watched or filmed), I do not see how anyone can trust him or regard anything else he says as honest.

While I fully understand that Obama did not roll out his best debate performance, I think most pundits and commentators, and indeed people, lose sight of the fact that these debates are merely that – performances. A 90-minute event, hitting an imaginary ball back and forth. What does the behavior of each candidate in the debate tell us about how he might govern? Maybe nothing. Maybe it will tell us that Romney will continue to flip-flop and change his mind and pander to whomever he is speaking to at any given time. (The “Etch-a-Sketch” presidency to which various media outlets are constantly referring.) Beyond which, we never heard a single specific thing Romney might do other than throw Jim Lehrer (as well as Big Bird) out on his ass by cutting funding to PBS (as if that would contribute so much to deficit reduction).

I feel that the incumbent president, despite needing to fight for his job, has an obligation to be a bit less aggressive and more sober. After all, he is the sitting president. He is still doing the job of the president. He needs to be a bit less defensive and more reflective. That said, Obama may have done well to refer to some of Romney’s gaffes, tying the extensive talk about Medicare and health care to Romney’s careless and heartless comments on the “freeloading” half of the population for whom Romney supposedly felt such compassion on debate night. (And maybe only on debate night. And even if we give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume that he does actually care about people and their suffering, the idea that he talks about them in disparaging terms in certain company but paints a totally different picture in other company, illustrates clearly how he will say whatever he needs to say but never just stands his ground and, more broadly, lacks character and conviction.)

In another broad sense, I am constantly amazed – but somehow not remotely surprised – by how basic political conversations (like the debates, including all the debates in the last few election seasons) are surface level and not at all substantive things. Worst of all, the commentators and media idiots follow the debates with opinions that claim the debate/discussion was “heavy on policy” and “wonky” … are people so lowest common denominator that just mentioning the word “policy” or “plan” in a debate somehow makes people edgy and bored and makes them think they are hearing something complex and in-depth? It pains me, and perhaps it always has, to think that the media feed this kind of opinion to consumers, in part because American consumers ARE fast-food and surface-level in their approach and in part because they have been conditioned to be this way by a crumbling, uneven education system and a media that focuses on entertainment, sound bites and the short-term game over real analysis and long-term views (and yes, facts). The debate was disappointing to me not because Romney, in media review, “kicked Obama’s ass” but because the American media and American public actually view the debate process this way at all – a win-lose competition as opposed to an exchange and debate of ideas and differences between two candidates (and parties). What we saw was one desperate man who would have said anything he had to to “win” and another man who just did not seem to want to be there at all.

-End of rant!-

By the end of the debate, the baked goods had been redistributed (what a socialist I am!) to three floors of the building, and freely available (even to those who share the building with us but do not work in our company). One day perhaps I will identify an easier, more streamlined way to bring the baked goods to work, but for now, it remains a challenge.

Dulce de leche bundt cake
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche (for an easy dulce de leche recipe, click here)
1 cup softened butter
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (if you used unsalted butter)
3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350F/175C.

Butter and flour a 12-cup bundt cake pan.

Whisk dry ingredients together and set aside.

Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy. Add one cup of dulce de leche. Mix well, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix in the vanilla.

Turn mixer to low speed and alternately add in the dry ingredient mixture with the buttermilk.

Mix until just combined. Put about half the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Using the other 1/2 cup of dulce de leche, add the dulce de leche to the cake, making a ring of the dulce de leche in the center of the cake batter in the pan. Once this is done, carefully add the rest of the batter evenly on top of the ring of dulce de leche. Smooth it out.

Bake about 50 to 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the center comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 20 minutes before inverting the cake onto a wire rack to remove from the pan. Allow the cake to cool completely.

You could create a caramel sauce for the cake before serving, or do as I did – simply sift vanilla sugar on top of the cake.

Ambition above reality

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In much the same way as people’s eyes are often bigger than their stomachs, my baking ambitions often far outstrip my capacity to deliver.

That said, my current ambitions for the big intro bake of autumn include (potentially):

Shortbread
Carrot-sandwich cookies
Anzac biscuits
Dark chocolate hazelnut mini tarts
Cranberry-pistachio biscotti
Tart cherry, blueberry and toasted pine nut biscotti
Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies
Smil-filled chocolate cookies
Samoa cookies
Nanaimo bars
Mini cheesecakes with Oreo crust
Oatmeal lemon cream bars*
Caramel apple crumble bars*
Kahlua coffee cupcakes*
Malt chocolate cupcakes*
Brown sugar cupcakes with maple frosting and candied bacon*
Carrot pineapple spice cupcakes*

* means this will be a new/experimental recipe for me
I might also make the tired “normal” cookies, such as M&M cookies and white chocolate macadamia cookies. Perhaps something with peanut butter because I seem to have a lot of peanut butter on hand right now … but want to do something different than just standard peanut butter cookies. I will think about it.