Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Story of Sunset's Winning Coconut-Cranberry Chews

If you're looking for a new holiday cookie to make, consider these addictive delights. Flavored by butter, coconut, cranberry, and orange zest, this recipe makes a chewy, citrusy cookie that smells irresistible right out of the oven, with a delectable taste to match.

I first discovered this recipe at a Sunset celebration weekend held at company headquarters in my hometown of Menlo Park. Every attendee at the annual event received a little cookbook with recipes from their readers. This one was contributed by Nancy Jamison from nearby Woodside, the grand prize winner in a cookie recipe contest held ten years ago. 

These buttery beauties make a winning holiday dessert because of the unexpected combination of flavors, crimson cranberries, and pretty white color. It's the kind of cookie that always generates recipe requests. They make an elegant homemade gift packaged up in clear cellophane with a colorful ribbon. Even people who don't like coconut may swoon over these cookies, because it adds more in texture than flavor.

With the wonders of Google, I easily tracked down Nancy in nearby Woodside. She replied just as quickly, and from there I learned the story behind the cookies. Nancy created this recipe over about a month's time, continually refining and testing before submitting it to Sunset's contest. Sunset awarded Nancy the grand prize winner, but she was surprised that Sunset adjusted the original recipe when they printed it in their December 2001 issue. 

Nancy strongly feels her original recipe is better, supported by blind taste test results with friends. The differences? She originally included twice as much salt (1/2 t), the additions of baking soda (1 t) and orange oil (3/4 t), less orange zest (2 t), and additional fat in the form of Crisco shortening (1/2 cup).

The Sunset printed recipe batter does have a somewhat dry consistency at first, but as the recipe states, "Don't worry: The mixture looks too dry, but it will come together as a dough." I found that it does, especially if the butter is halfway melted in the microwave instead of just room temperature. The cookies don't taste dry in my opinion. But if you prefer an even richer cookie, try Nancy's original version and see what you think. Either way, you can't lose with this winner.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Red Velvet Cake Taste Test

There's something so intriguing about red velvet cake: the name, color, and hard-to-pin-down flavor. It's got secret ingredients (buttermilk and vinegar), the familiar hint of cocoa, a history, and that luscious and unusual color. Oh that color, visually striking and dramatic, it makes a special dessert for Christmas, New Year's, or birthdays.

My husband Brad is an engineer, which means he likes to make things and experiment. When he first tasted red velvet after I made Sprinkles cupcakes from their mix, he became enamored of the flavor and decided to find the best red velvet cake recipe. This was hitting the motherlode for me, so I've encouraged him at every step.

In our experiments we've tried:

Sprinkles cupcakes from the store and made from their cupcake mix
Duncan Hines moist deluxe mix
America's Test Kitchen Recipe
Cook's Country recipe
ad hoc cake mix from Williams-Sonoma (from award-winning Chef Thomas Keller's Napa Valley restaurant)

Some learnings:
- butter-based recipes taste than better than the ones with vegetable oil
- refrigerating and even freezing improves the cake, with a firmer, yes even velvety, bite and a nice cool temperature
- not surprisingly, the recipes made from scratch taste better, although the Sprinkles mix is great

Brad loves America's Test Kitchen cookbooks and their scientific approach. He insists that they're the only cookbooks we should use. Sometimes I think this biases his culinary experimentation, but I can't complain with the grand winner, an adapted version of a recipe from Cook's Country.

If you want the original recipe, you'll need to register for a 14-day free trial membership. However, below is an adapted recipe that Brad's fine-tuned through his experimentation, with changes made to the amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk, cocoa, and butter. He also changed the cream cheese frosting recipe since the original makes more than you really need.

Try it out and enjoy. The picture above says a thousand words why it's so velvety good.

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups confectioners' sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into four pieces, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch salt
Chopped pecans (optional)

1. For the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl.
2. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs in large measuring cup.
3. Mix cocoa with food coloring in small bowl.
4. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half of buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down bowl and repeat with half of remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and then the last of the flour mixture.
5. Scrape down bowl, add cocoa mixture, and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated. Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 10 minutes then turn out onto rack to cool completely, at least 30 minutes.
6. For the frosting: With electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.
7. When cakes are cooled, spread about 1 cup frosting on one cake layer. Top with second cake layer and spread top and sides of cake with remaining frosting. If you love pecans, you can sprinkle some chopped pecans on top. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 3 days.