tips for making homemade ding dongs

I’ve been meaning to bake my Mom homemade Ding Dongs for a while now since she loves the wrapped-in-tin-foil version. Since her birthday is fast-approaching, I decided to give A Cozy Kitchen’s recipe a whirl (which is adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s recipe). I’m very grateful I tried this out a couple days before as a test-run, because these cakes were way more temperamental than I ever imagined.  So here are my tips, tricks and observations in the event that you try out this recipe yourself.

1. Get a a high-quality chocolate for both the cake AND the ganache. This does not mean Nestle-brand quality folks. I made the error of using a random baker’s chocolate form Ralph’s, and next time I will totally splurge on the pricier, high-end chocolate because I can taste a difference.

2. Second, if you decide to make these in the shape of smaller cakes (as opposed to Smitten Kitchen’s regular-sized layer cake), then skip the part where you flip out the cooled cake entirely. Instead, use the pastry cutter and cut each mini-cake while still in the pan. Then, carefully pull out the outer bits of cake and set aside ( I fully intend to use these scraps for rum balls by the way). Use a spatula to slide the cake out of the pan and thus, avoid dealing with it sticking or having to use parchment paper. I used this method with half of the cakes with success (except for one little guy on the left that was accidentally diced in the wrong spot). This method will yield pretty little complete cakes.

3. Contrary to both blogs that insist on 10″ pans, this recipe worked great with two 9″ pans AND baked at 300 degrees for 45 minutes.

4. Use a larger-sized, round pastry cutter, especially if you want to stuff these with a decent amount of frosting. I experimented with both and definitely prefer the larger cake (but I’m also a glutton, so don’t necessarily listen to me…)

5. I did not have success with Smitten Kitchen’s directions for 7-minute frosting. I’ve made several 7-minute frostings before throughout my life with great success. Smitten’s failed on me three times and was too “liquidy” (I think the fault could be with a too-hot temperature over the double-boiler). I ended up beating some heavy cream and then adding a tad of runny 7-minute frosting to make a thicker filling because after my third attempt I was about to have a kitchen meltdown.

Even though these turned out good with 1/2 heavy cream and 1/2 marshmallow frosting, I wouldn’t recommend heavy cream as a filler for these.

6. Take time cutting out the holes in the cake in a calm and rationale way, and don’t forget which top pairs to the cake… seems simple enough, but the last thing you want to do is spend an extra ten minutes trying to match cake tops!

7. When you put the tops back on, be sure to cut off part of the bottom of the tops! I ended up pushing a lot of the frosting out from my too-big tops.

8. Be sure everything is cool… I was impatient and worked with hot cake, which is a major no-no. Impetuous people don’t make great bakers…

In the end these tasted great and didn’t leave a typical aftertaste in my mouth like normal ding-dongs. Next week I’ll post a follow-up to let you guys know how the REAL batch came out for Mom. In the meantime, my freezer is full of ding dongs. Any takers?

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Ricotta & Wheat Pies [start of a new Easter tradition]

Ricotta & wheat pies are not an Easter tradition in my own family, but I have declared it a new tradition from here on out. They are crusted with a pasta frolla (a kind of shortbread), and then filled with a sweet ricotta filling, either adding chocolate or wheat berries at the end. My grandmother always made Sicilian Easter Rings growing up, and next year I’ll tackle those as a new project.

I made a total of 8 pies for Easter to give away as gifts and bring to the various households (both my boyfriend and I come from split families, so there’s always double to dish out) It was not a small feat considering my sad excuse for a kitchen and erratic stove. They turned out fabulous to my surprise. I used two different ricotta bases, and the version with the wheat was the general favorite. The wheat pies turned out lighter and creamier, whereas the ricotta pies were thicker and denser.

SO, I’ve adapted the recipe so that the base is the same, and you can simply add the wheat or chocolate chips at the end.

This recipe makes two pies. Go ahead and make the dough 1 full day in advance. It softens very, very quickly once you begin handling it. Make the wheat berries in advance too (takes about 1 hour or so).

Pasta Frolla- The Dough

  • 4 sticks of butter, room temp.
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup water, room temp.
  • 4 cups flour

1. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy.

2. Add the zests, the honey, the baking soda and baking powder. Mix for about 1 minute until everything is really incorporated.

3. Add the water, beating at medium speed until you’ve created a liquid batter.

4. Add the flour and mix until you’ve created a nice little ball of dough. Do not over-mix or knead it like you would if you were making pizza dough.

5. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or for a full day.

6. Prepare your pie pan with a cooking spray or grease. Set aside 1/4 of the dough for the lattice strips on top. Roll out the bulk of the dough so it can cover the pie tin/ plate (about 13-14″). Gently lift and drop the pie tin/plate so the dough settles, and then trim off the edges.

Tips:

  • Work quickly with the dough, because it begins to soften immediately.
  • Use plastic wrap above and below the dough while rolling it out, so it won’t stick to anything. Pull off half of the plastic wrap when you’re ready to place the dough, and then after you’ve folded it over the pie tin, peel off the remaining wrap.
  • If you’re going to use metal, disposable tins, either bake the pie with three of them stacked up OR place the tin on a pre-heated baking sheet. This will help it cook more evenly.

The Filling

  • 2 pounds ricotta
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 6 tablespoons of orange blossom water (optional) 
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 orange
  • 5 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 6 extra large eggs
  • 1 pound wheat berries (prepared) or 2 cups mini chocolate chips (both optional, depending on the kind of pie you want)
1. Prepare the wheat berries (if you’re making a wheat pie) by soaking them for 10 minutes in warm water. Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the berries (as if you are making rice) and bring to a simmer. Add the drained wheat berries, along with the zest, juice and rind of an orange and some honey, brown sugar and a pinch of salt. Cook for about an hour, until the berries are still chewy but soft. Stir often so the bottom doesn’t burn and then drain, and set aside to cool.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
3.  Incorporate the ricotta, the two zests, the sugar and the orange blossom water.
4. Add the eggs one at a time until everything is thoroughly mixed and fluffy.
5. Fold in either the wheat berries OR the chocolate chips OR leave it plain!

6. Pour the mixture into the pie shell until it is about 3/4 full. Top it with a thin layer of pasta frolla or a lattice design. Use an egg wash and brush egg over the pie. Bake until it is golden brown, set but not too hard (it will continue cooking for a while). It took mine about 45 minutes to an hour.
7. Chill it and serve!
Tips:
  • It was a PAIN to find wheat berries. I went to Target (obviously futile), Sprouts/ Henry’s, Albertson’s and finally Mother’s Market, which of course has every random nut and flake you could ever dream up.
  • Be sure the wheat berries are cooked and ready to go before starting the mixture, because the actually filling takes minutes to stir together.
  • Wheat berries are cooked like rice, and make a fabulous breakfast. Swap out oatmeal for wheat berries!
  • If the pie is beginning to brown too much on the crust, cover it with foil.

Maple Syrup & Brown Sugar Parfait

Label this under “fast, simple & decadent.”

Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup nonfat, plain yogurt
  • 1 1/2 tbsp maple syrup (pure)
  • 1/4 cup cereal (I used raisin bran)
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • strawberries
  • blueberries

Take a clear glass and fill the bottom layer with 1/3 cup of organic, nonfat yogurt. Then top it with 2 tsp of pure, maple syrup. Crush 1/4 cup of cereal, or granola and sprinkle on top. Then add a layer of blueberries, followed by more yogurt, maple syrup, strawberries and then the brown sugar. Brûlée the brown sugar with a torch (I know… I’m obsessed with the torch. It makes everything 100 times more amazing though, I swear…)

This has 6 Weight Watchers points, and is a delicious snack or dessert.

Anyhow, life took over last month with grad auditions, lots of practicing and working on my eating habits. Met my 5% weight loss goal two weeks ago, which was no small feat since I have a lot of weight to lose. I neglected this blog all last month, but no more. Next up is a spinach quiche I made earlier in January that turned out amazing, as well as my first multi-tiered layered cake (and fondant!!) Excited to get back on the boat and dedicate more time to this.

Sweet Crepes with Sautéed Cinnamon Bananas

This will be my last post until the weekend. I’ve been posting daily because I’m trying to catch-up on my long list of ideas and recipes that are standing by. I’m finding that blogging is taking up too much of my very limited time though. I have two auditions for grad school in t-minus three weeks, and so I need to be channeling all my creative efforts into that. I will be posting on weekends and scheduling posts to publish during weekdays, but I am banning myself from logging onto this blog or on Facebook on weekdays until February 18th.

Yesterday I woke up and thought that crepes with bananas sounded like a great idea. Crepes are easy to make, lighter than normal pancakes, and they make you feel oh-so-fancy. While in Paris in November we ate some amazing crepes, and some… not-so-amazing ones. The best one we tried was at the Sunday Market by the Bastille. It was delicious and stuffed with bananas and caramel sauce. I totally regret not buying a tub of $15 caramel from that stand. I also regret losing my camera which held pictures of it. 😦 (I still get sick thinking about how we left that camera on the plane…)

This was our favorite street performance we saw that day:

http://www.facebook.com/v/10100719818509791

I’ve tried lots of crepe recipes. Some require a blender, an hour of waiting time, etc. But then there are times when you’re in an “instant gratification” mood and in that case, this recipe works extremely well! I’ve been following Weight Watchers since September and so I’ve modified this a little to make it healthier (albeit, not as tasty). If you don’t care about caloric content, use butter and regular flour. Otherwise, you can stick with this recipe.

Ingredients for crepes (makes about five large crepes):

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour (or all-purpose), sifted
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk (I used 1%, but whole milk will make it tastier)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 TBSP sugar
  • 2 TBSP light margarine, melted (or butter)

Whisk the eggs until frothy in a medium bowl. Add the milk, water and butter and whisk until combined. In a separate bowl combine salt, sugar and flour with a spoon. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and fold in until just incorperated. Add the vanilla but take care not to over-mix.

Heat up a large skillet on medium-high heat, and when ready toss in a pat of margarine or butter.

This is the fun part. Working quickly, pour about 1/3 cup of batter onto the hot skillet and quickly pick up the pan and rotate it in a circular motion so that all of the batter spreads out to fill the width of the pan.

Roll them, and keep them wrapped in foil.

Ingredients for Sautéed Bananas:

  • Two bananas
  • White sugar (about 1/4 c.)
  • Butter or margarine (about 2 TBSP)
  • Cinnamon (about 1 tsp)

Melt butter in a skillet set on high. Toss in the bananas, sugar and cinnamon and let them fry for about 2 minutes, constantly scraping down the sides and bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula.

Arrange bananas inside the crepes, sprinkle with sugar, maple syrup, caramel sauce or nutella and enjoy!

 

Many thanks to Dhiren for helping me take photos on this post. Up next: Vegetarian Fiesta Burrito, Bread Pudding, Angelini Osteria Review & Homemade Ravioli & Pesto.

Pumpkin Pie Brûlée

This Thanksgiving I made 20 crème brûlées for my mom’s side of the family for our get-together. I normally just use the broiler to melt the sugar, but this time I decided to simplify it, give in and get the torch. I started going a little crazy that week with torching things and this recipe is one of those consequences.

I know it’s January and we should be putting the pie and pumpkin behind us, but I couldn’t help sharing this (very tasty) dessert. I hate to admit, but this was just a recipe on the back of an extra large vat of Libby’s pumpkin pie mix, neatly written out HERE. I won’t bore you with an exact replica of it on this blog. It’s a great recipe and a delicious pie.

BUT, now comes the fun part! Once you make the pie and are ready to serve, take out your brûlée torch, sprinkle your pie with a thick layer of sugar and let your inner pyro out!

Let the pie cool for a bit and then you have a crunchy, sugary crunch! Enjoy!

Italian Fig Cookie Day & A Very Happy New Year

Let me start by saying: 2011 was a fabulous year! It was full of family, food, travels, love and happiness. We got to go to New York, Connecticut, San Diego, Northern California on two occasions, Venice, Florence, Verona, Tuscany and Paris.  I acquired my first crock pot, pasta and ice cream maker in 2011, along with a wide range of smaller, nifty appliances. We moved into a bigger apartment with a bigger kitchen!  And there was generally a lot of cooking, new experiences, traveling, restaurants and fun. I hope 2012 treats us even half as well.

I hope you all had a wonderful and tasty December. I ate so many rich and delicious things. I’m definitely ready to shift to the obligatory post-New Year’s healthy eating and Weight Watchers counting. But for now, let’s reminisce:

 

Last month I did a lot of cooking for the end of the year celebrations: I made a nifty beef stew, my first calzone, lots of cookies, lemon bars, crepes among other things. In the middle of the month I went to my Aunt Marie’s in Huntington Beach, to join her, my Nana, Papa, Uncle Ron and cousin Keith in making our families’  annual fig cookies, also known as cuccidati. Growing up I remember my Nana making these every year! I didn’t like them as a kid (how many kids truly love dried figs?) but now I love them and the nostalgia they conjure up. The fig filling, which consists of nuts, spices and dried figs (or apricots in some cases), is made well in advance- I remember my Nana making it in November long before Christmas. This is not a “I-feel-like-a-cookie-in-30-minutes” kind of cookie.

My Aunt Marie gave me the recipe but insisted that I keep it secret. Normally I would go ahead and share any recipe I stumble upon on here, but I’m going to honor her wish and keep it in the family.

A simple google search led me to quite a few good recipes that are pretty similar though, just in case one of you wants to try them:

Food Network’s Recipe

Anna Maria Volpi’s Recipe

My Nana and Aunt Marie both made their own dough and filling, and in the spirit of friendly competition they kept their ingredients and tools segregated. Aunt Marie’s filling was denser, less sweet and chunkier, but her dough was a little easier to work with. Nana’s filling was sweeter (and thus, as a sugar addict I liked it more), but the dough was a little heartier and tougher to roll.

Both of their cookies turned out fabulous though and nearly indistinguishable.

Me, Papa and my mom’s cousin, Keith, joined in and helped roll, fill and sprinkle  (and of course, we ate a few cookies in the process). Aunt Marie also made a big spread for us, consisting of a pomegranate and persimmon salad, some pizzas and an eggplant and zucchini caponata. You gotta be well fed before working a cookie assembly line.

They blasted Frank Sinatra for a while and we had a great time. This will definitely be a tradition I pass down to my kids and grandchildren someday, and these photos and memories will be cherished for a long time! Next year I am going to start ahead of time and make my own batch to bring to the party!

What I personally love about assembling these is the creativity you can employ! You can make them bite-sized, larger, and roll them into different shapes and styles. Some people also drizzle icing on theirs, which I plan to do next year with mine. 

Aunt Marie & Nana

Hope you all had a very happy December, a Merry Christmas and a beautiful New Year!

Mochaccino for a cloudy day

I love moody weather and am so thrilled that Fall is here (kinda). In California we are devoid of real seasons, so cooling weather, overcast skies and occasional drizzles are good enough for me. Especially here in California, I rely on the Starbucks advertising (pictures of pumpkin lattes and caramel milks), to put me in the mood. I know it’s fall when the pumpkins and weird inedible squash pop up in the stores. It’s the cue to begin making warm drinks, whipped cream, baked goods, squash, stew and gooey warm things.

Granted, I’ve gained about 5 pounds annually during fall and winter, so I’m carefully logging all the gooeyness, but in no way am I sacrificing my enjoyment.

This morning I felt like making a Mocha Latte, on account of the sleep-in weather. When Dhiren took his first sip and moaned “This is SO good” from the other room, I thought I’d share the recipe before heading out to work.

Recipe (approximated amounts- sorry!)

-milk (appx. 2 1/2 cups?)
-hot chocolate mixture. I used Ghiradelli’s since that’s what I had on hand, apprx. 4 tbsp
-espresso beans
-heavy whipping cream, apprx. 1 cup
-sugar, apprx. 1/2 cup total

1. You need a Bialetti espresso maker. You won’t regret buying one, and while it’s not authentic espresso, it’s still good enough. “Can I just use American drip coffee– I make it strong???” The answer is no. It’ll taste like junk. The Bialetti was a gift for my birthday and we’ve used it about seven times this month, saving us 7 trips to Starbucks. Best drink appliance ever.

2. Grind your espresso beans, and fill up the Bialetti.  Brew your espresso.

3. At the same time, fill a heavy-bottomed pot with milk and the chocolate powder and heat until scalding. It shouldn’t boil. If you stir it consistently as well, it won’t burn.

4. Make homemade whipping cream. I use a hand-held beater, which is small-apartment friendly, as opposed to a huge mixer. Pour in about 1/4 c. of sugar (or to your liking) when it is almost finished.

5. When everything is ready, fill-up the mug halfway with the chocolate milk. Then, pour in the espresso to fill-up the rest of the mug. I needed to add a couple teaspoons of sugar, because it wasn’t sweet enough for my liking. Top with whipped cream and sprinkle some cocoa power, et voilà! Sit on your coach, listen to something moody and stare out your window at the clouds.