Monday, September 26, 2011

Chocolate Chip Cookies-My Best Ever.... So Far

Ah Americas favorite cookie? I think so. When it comes to this cookie we all have a vision in mind. Some of us may like crunchy, some may like chewy, some a lot of chocolate and some not so much.

Some like my son love the cookie dough the best. Which brings me to a story. In this world of so much information and daily reports of a new thing that is going to kill us. It is a wonder we are not all nuts. So one day a few years ago I was making cookies. A group of kids wandered into the kitchen. My son was like “cookie dough yum”! One of the boys in the group looked at him eating the cookie dough with horror on his face like you are going to die and proceeded to tell us about salmonella and how you will get sick. Wow I think it is good to have information but that poor kid was missing out on the best part of the cookie making process. Licking the beaters. Scraping the bowl with your fingers until it shined.

It made me sad actually that he had to look at cookie dough as a poison. I have to say in all my years of eating cookie dough and everyone in my family eating cookie dough no one has ever gotten sick. My kids are 11 and 14 and have been eating it as long as they could eat it and they are thriving.

This is not poison

Yes, as with all things there is a risk. But we can't live our life being afraid of everything. Eggs either have salmonella or they don't. The odds are with us that in our lifetime we will not be infected with salmonella from an egg.

As parents we need to look out for our kids and give them information but being alarmists just stresses everyone out. For God’s sake let them eat the cookie dough.

I have tried different recipes over the years and the Toll House  one is a darn good one. I have also tried the Neiman Marcus Recipe. All good but not the best ever. While I hate to use the term "best ever", because my best may not be your best so I will just say the recipe I adapted is “my best chocolate chip cookie, so far” recipe.

What I love about baking versus cooking. Baking is more science. I studied food science in college and loved how there was a reason for everything that happened in baking. When you know the reasoning behind what is happening it makes it easier to understand. 
For instance one of the most important factors is the temperature of the butter and the creaming process. We read our recipe and it calls for soft butter or room temperature butter. Well what does this really mean? How soft
should it be. Nearly melted?

I pulled out some books and internet research and found that the best temperature for creaming butter is 65 degrees F. How to tell if your butter is at 65 degrees? I use an insta read thermometer. Another way is to push your finger in it and it should give slightly and leave a slight indentation.

Butter is basically an emulsion of water in fat, with some dairy solids that help hold them together. Keeping the butter at the right temperature keeps the emulsion intact. One day this summer I left my butter out on the counter and it was melted because the temp in the kitchen was about 80 degrees. The butter was runny meaning the emulsion broke. It would never be able to form a structure if I used it.

In addition to the butter another factor is the flour. I have always used all purpose or ap flour. However when I came across this recipe by Jacques Torres I noticed him using cake and bread flour. Dah that makes sense. The bread flour would give some more structure to the cookie due to the added protein.

Ok so I did some testing and this is my recipe.

Chocolate Chip/Chunk Cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, 65 deg F
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tsps vanilla
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1 cup bread flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
chocolate chips or bittersweet chocolate bars, chopped 
fleur de sel, for sprinkling

Cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. About three minutes in a kitchen aid on number 3 speed. Add eggs one at a time. Beat well. Add vanilla.

Mix dry ingredients together and add to creamed mixture.

Add some of chocolate to batter (see tip below) and scoop with a #40 scoop on cookie sheet, not insulated. Add extra chocolate to top. Sprinkle lightly with fleur de sel. Bake at 350 degrees F until golden brown.

Food Styling Tips: When I make cookies for work or the home studio I always use a food service scoop. This will give you uniform cookies.

When placing pieces in my cookies be it nuts or chocolate I add some to the batter and leave some out to place on the cookie before it goes into the oven. This will insure you have some identifiable pieces on top. You can even add part way through baking if you like!

I find the fleur de sel makes a nice addition and reminded me of the carmels I make of the same name. The little splash of salt with the sweet is a nice touch. So enjoy these cookies and please comment on how they worked for you.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I have a big fan of my blog my friend Anastasia a creative genius in so many ways. Her talents are astounding as an author, artist, musician, salad maker, craftswoman. One of those people that can do anything well.

She is always telling me you should write about this or that. So many things to write about I don’t know where to begin. I don’t want to bore the pants off people with what I had for breakfast and what my kids did funny but talking real truth about daily life is kind of interesting. It helps us connect with other people.

I guess if you come to a blog you want to feel like you are sitting at the kitchen table with the person discussing life.
So this post will be some of this and that and ramblings along those lines so pull up a kitchen chair and let’s chit chat.

The biggest challenge for me as a mom /freelance working mom is to balance it all. I mean work, home, kids, dogs, husband, shopping. Enough to make my head spin. Well I admit I am a bit fascinated by those women who seem so put together and life seems calm for them.  I am NOT one of these woman. I heard Suze Orman speaking the other day, I love her by the way, she has a great philosophy about life, finances whatever. She says “know your truth.” Wow that one is IT in a nutshell. She was referring to spending primarily but it relates to all aspects of life.

Know what your good at, your strengths and weaknesses, and spend time doing it. The stuff you suck at forget about it. Or if you really want to punish yourself keep trying until you get better at it.

Now my husband has often thought I have ADD. Well I don’t think that is the case more like I am not 30 anymore and I stayed at home raising the kids and now they are older and I am on a mission from GOD!
To quote Elwood Blues.

Seriously I have things to do and learn. I love it that my husband was on board with me staying home to raise the kids. To me it was important and something I waited my whole life to do. Yes I was one of those girls. I had no post partum anything just pure bliss with baby/toddlerdom. Pre-teen/teen years not as blissful!! LOL

Now that the kids are teen and pre-teen they don’t need or want me as much and with college looming in the forecast I better get making some dough. Plus getting out of the house and being with adults is a good thing. For me and the kids.

My career has suffered or lets just say I could have been further along if I had not stayed home with the kiddies. It was hard entering the workforce after 10 years and expecting people to hire me again.

The people who were assistant food stylists were now lead stylists and I could not exactly say hey here I am I know you have all been waiting for me to return. Really, the fact is there were plenty of others to take my position. And chomping at the bit to do so. So starting all over again has been hard. That is why the blogging has been so good for me. I can be creative in my home studio/kitchen and use my talents as a food stylist and also perfect my photographic skills.

Anyway back to my ADD. So my friend Anastasia came over last night to deliver a red velvet cake she got from one of her students after having her emergency appendectomy. I had worked out of the house food styling so everything felt chaotic. That is when she said you should blog about this. Oh you mean my crazy life?

I have been freelancing all my career so that is all I know. Here is how it goes. So I get the call to work a job for the next day. Ok it’s a book. So I proceed to put all the ducks in a row like hiring Lynn the dog walker, figuring out who will take Michael to football practice, making sure everyone has food, feeding dogs, cooking and cleaning house, doing laundry, packing lunches, signing school papers and so on.

When I work I come home and literally leave one kitchen and step into another. Yesterday I left the photo studio and walked in the house and went right to our sink to tackle the days dishes as well as a few from the evening.

As in most households the kitchen is the hub. Well mine is no different. Everyone is hungry all the time.

I actually have a big smile on my face as I’m writing this because it is so comical when I am in the kitchen. I have three dogs yes I am crazy and yes it was a mistake but would not give them up for the world. So every time I am in the kitchen I have at least one if not all three waiting for any crumb to drop. I have a black lab that is obsessed with produce and when I even so much as open the fruit or vege drawer she is running from wherever she was prior to sit for a piece of fruit or vegetable. Or sometimes half a cantalope if I turn my back and she gets on the counter.

My son has been begging me for cake. My daughter wants muffins. My husband wants meat of any kind that pulls away from the bone and is fork tender.

So my house is set up like a restaurant kitchen because that is what it feels like to me. I have all my white restaurant dishes on a shelf above the stove. Ready to grab. Frig behind me for easy reach.

A small breakfast bar to the left of the stove where people like to hang while I cook. Above the breakfast bar is an industrial strength pot rack put in by Bob my handman extraordinaire.

So my life is a bit crazy as a freelancer the stopping and starting the wearing of this hat or that but I would not change it for the world. I could never go to a cube all day I am not cut out for it. I need the constant change and stimulation of new things. Even though I do get a bit stressed it all works out and when I am working on new things and get that fix of creativity from my styling it makes it all worth it. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thinking of New York Today

As I was just thinking about writing and what I felt like photographing today. This delicious cake from the Magnolia Bakery in New York sprang to mind. Then I thought about what happened on this day 10 years ago. Oh course we all remember it even those of us that were not in harms way. One of those days you will never forget like your wedding day, the birth of each child, etc.

The Magnolia Bakery is in New York and has been a favorite cupcake hangout since 1996. People line up down the block to get a taste of Allysa Torey’s baking.

My daughter first made this cake a few months ago when she had a hankering for something sweet. She did it all herself just like the book said. In Allysa’s book the cake was two tiered with whip cream and nectarine slices in the middle and top layers.

We absolutely loved the cake it was lightly sweet and tender. The addition of fruit and cream was perfect.

However, for our purposes the two tier was a little much and hard to cut into. So the next time I made it I served it almost like a shortcake I sliced one layer and covered each slice with fresh whipped vanilla cream and berries. So easy and simple. You can freeze the other layer if you'd like.

I have three of Magnolia Bakery’s books but my all time favorite is the one titled “at home with Magnolia”. I want to live inside that book. Her style is exactly what I love. The old chairs at her dining table all mismatched with chips in the paint. Vintage fabrics and dishes adorn her table. Oh and fresh roses in beautiful milk glass vases.

Some of the favorite things I have made from that book are the crostini with goat cheese, beefsteak tomatoes, and red onion, vegetable tacos, chicken with mustard-shallot cream sauce.

So today I will share this delicious recipe with you. Let me know if you make it and if you like it as much as we did. On this day share something with someone. Food is a great way to bring people together on this day and everyday.

Buttermilk Cake with Berries and Vanilla Cream
adapted from "at home with magnolia"

2 cups cake flour (not-self rising)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
4 lg egg whites, room temperature

Vanilla Cream

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsps powdered sugar
2 tsps vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour two 9x2 inch cake pans lined with waxed paper on the bottom.

In a small bowl sift the dry ingredients together. Set aside.

In a large bowl, on medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk and vanilla, always beginning and ending with the flour mixture. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are combined do not over beat.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until soft beaks form. Gently fold into batter. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in the pans for 1 hour. Remove from pans and cool completely on a wire rack.

Vanilla Cream

In a large bowl, whip the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form.
When cake is cooled. Cut into wedges and serve with assorted fresh berries and vanilla cream.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

H2O Melon

I cannot possible top the prose of Shakespeare who spoke of summer in this sonnet. Yes summers lease does seem short however our temperatures were not very temperate in suburbia.

This end of summer however, I am not as melancholy as years gone before. This summer was full of action and plenty of hot summer sun. We got our moneys worth this year. So as we rip off the last page of August in our calendars or swipe our finger across our smart phones we will welcome September with it’s I’m not quiet summer but not fall either kind of attitude.

We must close the chapter of this book on our summer and welcome fall with all its glory.
Each season does have its way to make us feel happy. I love the changing of seasons. It is all I have ever known being a Midwesterner in every sense of the term.

The excitement when things are different.
New clothes to wear. New temperatures to experience and different elements to endure. I welcome change I guess you could say.

While I will miss my summer friend and all those beautiful blue skies, warmth and the bounty of my herb garden among other things, I must get ready for the change and welcome all that is fall.

We can look forward to a different colored farmers market with pumpkins, gourds and loads of apples. No mosquitoes, crunching leaves, Eva gets her braces off we are ecstatic, Michael’s football games, soups, baking bread or baking anything really, cool nights around the backyard fire pit.

Let us all embrace the season we have approaching with an appreciation for our earth and all it’s fall bounty.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

In Dubuque Iowa Fincel's Corn Leaves Families Smiling Ear To Ear

On a recent trip to Iowa I learned a lot about corn.

In my hometown of Dubuque corn is plentiful and fresh. I remember corn as a kid being everywhere in the summer, rows and rows of it.

Corn to Iowans is something many take for granted, but I still have fond memories of the corn that I grew up loving.

In Dubuque and the surrounding communities there was one name that was synonymous with corn and that is Fincel’s. We looked forward to its anticipated arrival in farm stands around the town as well as the farmers market on Saturday mornings. This corn has been a Dubuque tradition since 1885 when Frank Fincel (the first) started farming.

When the farm started out it was in Dubuque on the north end of town. The size of the farm was 5 acres and in the 1920’s it grew to 17 acres. In the mid 1960’s the farm was sold to John Deere and company. At this time the Fincel’s purchased a farm in East Dubuque, IL across the Mississippi river and now have 100 acres on which they farm corn as well as tomatoes, asparagus, strawberries, muskmelons, beans, eggplant, bell peppers, potatoes, watermelon, onions, kohlrabi, cucumbers and zucchini.

Last weekend I was in town and had a great idea to do an article on the corn I grew up loving. Actually a post on my facebook page from a Dubuque resident reminded me of the corn.

My brother happened to work across from the farm and he said he often saw them out working the fields early. I took a chance and stopped by the farm. Two of the farmers, Craig and Frank Fincel (the 5th), greeted me and were very busy getting the corn ready to be driven to the various sites around the community to sell.

I did not want to impose and if I didn’t get a story this time I would return. But as I was taking some pictures of melons I was approached by Sarah, Frank’s wife. She was very gracious and offered to show me around a bit. She was very well schooled on the farm and knew a lot about corn. I was fascinated by her knowledge of the crop and the others they grew as well. You would think that she has known this corn all her life. I learned however, she is new to farming and to the state. She is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She met her husband Frank at the university of Madison. She said he was studying to be a park ranger in college however the family business called and he missed farming and being a part of the farming life. They have two boys one being Frank (the 6th). Will corn growing be in their blood too? We will have to wait and see.

muskmelons just in from the field

melon Sarah gave me as I left the farm now in a suburban kitchen

Sarah says that at the home that she and Frank share with their boys she is in charge of a three quarter acre garden where she grows spring crops such as lettuces, sugar snap peas and heirloom tomatoes. Here she can experiment with new things to see what the public wants. In years past she has tried turnips and she said they were not well received but the okra she brought to market they loved. Who knew Iowans would love their okra. She noted that with the food network and cooking channels people even in rural areas are more sophisticated about food and willing to try new things.

My respect for farmers swelled after my conversation with Sarah. Of course in this country I believe we take our food supply for granted. Farmers do not. When your income for the year relies on 3-4 months of crop growth you better get it right and please your customers and that is exactly what the Fincels do. Although their income is made in a few months of the year, the work is year round to make that income happen.

In January the planning for the crops gets started. Some seeds are started in Frank (the 4th) Fincel’s own kitchen in February. He and his wife Carol live on the farm site. When the kitchen is full of plants it is time to fill the greenhouse (one of the three) on the property. By late April, 2 of the 3 greenhouses are fully planted with the earliest of the tomatoes, in the hopes of getting them harvested by late June early July. They have about 4-5 thousand tomato plants each year. Wow I can’t even get one to grow well!

tomatoes in one of the greenhouses

in the greenhouse

The fieldwork begins when the ground has thawed and is not too wet for the tractors. The ground has to be prepared for the first sweet corn planting in April. This year the corn went in April 23rd, which was later than the past year. With roughly 70 acres dedicated to the sweet corn there are a lot of preparations to have the ground ready for planting. The plantings are spaced so that a new field of sweet corn will be ready every other day beginning in early July through September.

Crop rotation is important to prevent mineral depletion and disease. Especially true with the tomatoes. They are prone to disease so crop relocation is very important for them to thrive. 

One factor that makes this Iowa soil great for growing is the sand. You can see the sand in this picture. Sand loosens up the soil making for better drainage. Sarah says the melons especially like this.

Weather is a big factor as you can imagine when growing anything. I can attest to that just from the small garden I have been tending to. In Iowa this summer the weather has been a little less than ideal. They have had some extremes. The worst was the rain they had in one storm where 14 inches fell in 8 hours causing roads to be flooded and trees uprooted. Sarah talked about how this affected the crops. None of the corn washed away however, she showed me some ears that were affected. Some kernels of corn burst from the excess water. Some peppers rotted out from excess water. In another storm in early July the strong winds blew corn pollen causing a condition known as skip jack where kernels were not formed and rows would be missing. This is caused by heavy rains beating the pollin into the ground. Leading to bad pollination. The excess heat also caused 1-2 fields to go bad. And then there was the drought period in July where they had no rain for days causing the Fincels to rely on their irrigation system. These imperfect vegetables would not be sellable. The Fincels have a reputation and a large customer base that has been eating their corn over the generations. Sarah says the customers are very vocal and will tell them if the corn is not to their liking or if it was not as sweet as years past, etc.

corn affected by bad weather

I think one big factor in its taste is that it is so fresh. Literally the corn that was picked while I was at the farm I ate that night for dinner. All the corn is hand picked by a 16 member, more or less, picking crew. A lot of college students and high schoolers value this as a summer job if they can get out of bed early, because the picking starts when the sun comes up, as early as 4:45 am. They need to have the corn at their market locations when they open. Only the best corn is delivered to these sites. Any corn that is below par is donated to local food pantries or composted.

As a kid in Iowa my mom always told us “knee high by the fourth of July” was a way to tell if a corn was going to be a good crop. I always remembered that and would look at the corn when we were out driving to see what its height was. I mentioned this to Sarah and she said it is really not true that it all depends on the weather and how soon the corn could be planted as to how high it is by the fourth. Much of the corn is harvested then just in time for the fourth holiday.

After I left the farm and was headed back home to Chicago, I reflected on the things I love about my Iowa. Those wide open spaces, big skies, billowy clouds that seem to roll forever, fields of cows, horses and sheep, slower pace, sales clerks that visit with you as they give you your change, lower gas prices, country roads, oh and that corn.