Chocolate Ricotta Cookies

The New York Times’ Italian Ricotta Cookies are a favorite in my household. Light and fluffy, the cookies are more cupcake top than cookie. The cookies themselves have a touch of lemon zest, but fresh lemon juice in the icing brings a fresh brightness while taming the sweetness. The kids enjoyed a lemon-free version, but it lost some of the character of the original. Replacing the icing with a chocolate ganache, however, worked remarkably well (even if I left out the lemon zest from the cookie). The result was reminiscent of a birthday cake.

A chocolate version was only natural. I replaced 1/6th of the flour from the original recipe with Dutch processed cocoa powder (Cocoa Barry Extra Brute) and created a simple icing from powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and cream (about 50 g, 3 g, and 20 g respectively).Once the cookies had cooled, I dipped the flat part of the cookie in the icing and let it dry.

I also made a batch of the frosting in which I added 1/8 tsp of peppermint extract and some green food coloring. Both were a hit with the kids.

Chocolate Ricotta Cookies

  • Servings: about 40 small cookies
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

A soft, cake-like chocolate cookie.

These soft cake-like cookies are reminiscent of a cupcake, but a bit firmer. Try either of the icings here, a chocolate ganache, or even eat them plain. I prefer Cocoa Barry Extra Brute cocoa powder, but any will do.

Credit: bhan.me Modified from the New York Times’ Italian Ricotta Cookies

Ingredients


Cookies

  • 112 g (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 212 g sugar
  • 210 g ricotta cheese
  • 10 g vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 200 g all purpose flour
  • 40 g cocoa powder
  • 5 g baking soda
  • 2 g salt

Vanilla icing

  • 100 g powdered sugar
  • 40 g heavy cream
  • 5 g vanilla extract
  • optional: add 1/8 tsp peppermint extract for mint icing

Directions

  1. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down with a rubber spatula needed.
  2. Combine the ricotta, vanilla, and egg and add to the bowl. Beat until well combined and homogenous, scraping down once or twice to ensure an even mixture.
  3. Combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and whisk to break up clumps and ensure an even mixture.
  4. Add flour mixture to batter and mix until combined. Fold a few times with a rubber spatula to ensure an even mixture
  5. Transfer the mixture to the fridge (covered) for a few hours to several days.
  6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 °F.
  7. Scoop dough into small cookies (I use a #40 scoop) and place mounds evenly spaced on a baking sheet with parchment. I get 3 rows of 4 with a #40 scoop.
  8. With wet hands, roll each mound into a smooth ball and return to cookie sheet.
  9. Bake until the dough has no visible moisture, about 14 minutes.
  10. Transfer cookies to a cooling rack.
  11. When completely cool, dip the cookies in the glaze. You may need additional glaze to dip all cookies. You can use more powdered sugar for a thicker glaze, or more cream for a thinner glaze.
  12. Let glaze dry for a few hours for the least mess when eating.

Making Swiss Meringue Buttercream with the Breville Control Freak

The Breville Control Freak is an arguably over-engineered induction cooktop that excels at precise regulation of temperature with a surface sensor (used to measure the pan) as well as a probe-style sensor. You can easily switch between the two, and the probe has both oil and non-oil setttings. Since receiving one as a gift a year and a half ago, I have gradually explored its potential. I regularly use it for making a yukone (cooked flour/water paste) for Japanese-style breads and bagels. It’s a joy to use for deep frying, as it automatically maintains the correct temperature as you add and remove foods from the pot.

I typically use an American-style buttercream for cakes and cupcakes. Essentially a mixture of butter and powdered sugar with a small amount of milk or cream to reach the desired consistency, American buttercream is quick, easy, and generally well-loved, particularly by children. Since so much of the structure is supplied by powdered sugar, it tends to be on the sweet side, sometimes cloyingly so. Swiss meringue buttercream is a popular alternative. It’s decidedly less sweet, as it adds egg whites in place of some fo the sugar. It has a butter-forward taste with a smooth texture that is also more visually appealing. However, it can also be a bit of a pain to make, as it requires low-temperature cooking of the egg whites to avoid potential infection risks (e.g. salmonella). Egg whites and granular sugar (with a bit of salt and cream of tartar) are heated to 185 °C, then whipped off heat into a glossy meringue. Afterwards, cool butter is mixed in to yield the final, stable product. 

Heating the egg whites to the right temperature can be finicky, and trying to coordinate adjusting a gas stovetop while stirring constantly and holding a probe thermometer can feel like a circuit act. The Control Freak greatly simplifies this. I clip the probe thermometer onto the side of my pot, set the target temperature, and stir the egg whites and sugar until the temperature is hit. I then transfer the mixture to a stand mixer and proceed with the recipe as normal. The Freak-enhanced frosting came out better than any of my previous attempts, and the whole experience was easier and less stressful.

Strawberry Sponge Cake

Ripe summer strawberries are a great way to add character and a subtle sweetness to desserts. Strawberry shortcake is a perennial favorite, but the heaviness of the biscuit can be a bit much when warm weather may be better paired with a lighter treat. Fat-free angel food cake is the opposite extreme, remaining light, but still quite sweet. Sponge cake has a similar texture, but the inclusion of egg yolks along with egg whites (and sometimes a bit of oil or butter) proves to be a nice balance. Here, I took cues from a New York Times recipe, which pairs a sponge cane with a whipped topping made from a combination of cream and mascarpone and, of course, plenty of strawberries. The original recipe is a two-layer affair and includes the addition of a strawberry syrup, but my one layer version with only fresh strawberries fit my goal of a lighter summer dessert. While one might expect mascarpone and heavy cream mixture would be weighty, it’s whipped to a cloud-like texture and applied sparingly. A springform pan is unnecessary as well – the recipe did fine in an ungreased cake pan with circle of parchment on the bottom to prevent sticking.

Convection or not for cookies

When shopping for kitchen appliances before an old renovation, the saleswoman touted the benefit of convection in an electric oven. To ensure even cooking when cooking two sheet pans of cookies, recipes recommend swapping the upper and lower racks and rotating the pans midway through cooking. Not necessary with this oven, the saleswoman noted; just switch on convection and all the cookies reach equal perfection.

Using my M&M Cookies recipe, I decided to test put the theory to the test. Though I normally cook only one tray at a time, I still rotate it 180° midway through. I cooked one batch the usual way at 375 °F for 10 minutes. For the next batch, I decreased the temperature to 350 °F (a 25° F decrease is typically recommended when switching to convection). I typically rest my cookies on the sheet pan for about 3 minutes after they come out of the oven, to finish baking without drying out.

The non-convection version came out exactly as expected, with a slightly crispy crust, but a soft interior, just like the family demands.

The convection batch was a different story. The cookies spread considerably less and had an over-toasted crust. Even at the lower temperature, the hot air caused the outside to set and excessively brown before the insides had properly cooked.

It’s possible that an even lower temperature would have helped, but my experience is that convection is best reserved for foods where the interior would overcook before the outside reached it’s appropriate level of crustiness, and where a drying effect is particularly desirable. This is great for some meat dishes or for oven fries. For cookies, however, I have yet to see an improvement.

Revisiting English Muffins

Although most people don’t place English muffins in a category of haute cuisine, they are a workhorse that can meet a number of breakfast tastes. They were a rare sight at our breakfast table, but since my family enjoys various bread and egg combinations with increasing regularity, their absence became increasingly striking. I hoped I could find a recipe that exceeded the occasional store-bought option.

I tried Stella Parks’ No-Kneed English Muffins, use whole wheat for 1/3 of the flour and a healthy dose of honey. Aside from the milk, it’s a lean dough that avoids the weight of butter that I find unpleasant in the morning. I preferred this version to the richer, all-white version from Bravetart. Both recipes are create a similar bread dough that is loosely shaped into relative-round blobs that are griddled after an overnight rest. The texture was a contrast to the loftier texture of Peter Reinhart’s version from Artisan Breads Every Day which create a batter that is cooked in metal rings. Reinhart’s version is undoubtedly cleaner looking, but missed the rustic appeal of Parks’ whole wheat version.

After a long hiatus, I recently returned to Parks’ recipe, this time using home-ground whole wheat flour and a 80 grams of a sourdough starter in place of 40 g each of the white flour and milk. I typically gave the muffins an overnight rest prior to griddling, but Parks’ allows for up to 42 hours, so I waited an extra day. For a less-greasy profile, I skipped the butter she called for on the griddle, and just lightly oiled the griddle so the muffins wouldn’t risk sticking (this also reduced the near-burning I had occasionally experienced from the added honey). The results were a hit with the whole family when served as egg sandwiches. The muffins are slightly sweet, but not overly so, and have a great texture.

Violet Bakery’s Egg-Yolk Chocolate Chip Cookies

One of the annoyances with recipes that use either egg yolks or whites instead of whole eggs is that I have to figure out a use for the leftover parts or feel guilty about throwing perfectly usable egg. Since I don’t mind eating egg white omelettes, it’s easier if it’s an yolk-heavy recipe. If a recipe deviates from a traditional whole-egg path to use an egg part, it had better deliver something worthwhile in exchange.

I have a tried-and-true chocolate chip cookie recipe (linked version uses M&Ms, but chips can be swapped in) that appears to be universally well-liked (at least by my cookie eating relatives), but I was intrigued by the egg-yolk version from Violet Bakery. I scaled the recipe down by a third since I was experimenting, but otherwise kept to the original. The dough came together easily and quickly, and was easy to scoop without first being chilled. As instructed, I froze the dough balls before putting them to use. Since my family prefers smaller cookies, I used a 2-teaspoon scoop (#60) instead of a more standard 1.5 tablespoon (#40). To compensate for this, I cooked them at 375° F instead of the prescribed 355 °F.

I also knew I needed to cook them less. The instructions state to underbake them and let them finish cooking on the hot cookie sheet, which is fairly standard as far as these cookies go. I baked the first batch for about 13 minutes, which left them with a golden crust after resting (as pictured above), but the family felt they were a bit too crispy. For subsequent batches, I went down to 11, then 10 minutes. This left the cookies pale, but with a superior texture. Despite the richness of the yolks, they surprisingly tasted drier than my traditional whole-egg cookies. An interesting variation, but ultimately the family and I preferred our standard recipe.

Sugar Cookie Bars

There’s a simplicity to sugar cookies that is undeniably appealing. They are, by design, not a fancy dessert, but a clean-tasting, universally acceptable snack. Once you accept their limitations, you can enjoy them for what they are. They are also a perfect vehicle for decorating. The traditional cookie form can run the risk of becoming dry, so the idea of a bar form intrigued me. Cookie bars blur the line between cookies and brownies, avoiding the overt fudginess of the latter while adding sufficient thickness to avoid desiccation.

I was intrigued by the 5-star rating of the New York Times’ recipe, despite the fact that many of the actual comments were critical. The biggest frustration readers seemed to face was underbaking, despite the dire warning of the recipe not to overbake. I was curious about the non-traditional use of cream cheese in place of some of the butter. I find use of other sources of fats (such as yogurt, sour cream, or cream cheese) keep desserts moist without becoming too buttery.

I made half the recipe, which was plenty for us, but the use of half an egg can be challenging for some, so feel free to double and use a 13” x 9” pan instead of an 8” x 8”. As long as the butter and cream cheese are close to room temperature, thehe recipe comes together quickly and easily. Some find the thick batter to be hard to spread, but with some patience and either an offset or a silicone spatula, it’s not too difficult. Be sure to let the bars cool completely before frosting, just as you would with a cake. Don’t be fooled by the appearance: it’s decidedly a cookie bar and not a cake. It lives up to the sugar cookie name: a simple sweetness, a touch of butteriness, and a slight tang from the cream cheese in the dough and lemon in the frosting. A touch of almond extract, used by some of the commenters, could add a bit of sophistication for adults, but is not strictly needed. I cooked the bars for 32 minutes instead of the recommended 20-25. This ended up being perfect – the edges were browned and the top had just a hint of gold.

Sugar Cookie Bars

  • Servings: 16 bars
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A classic sugar cookie flavor converted to a bar, adapted from the New York Times

Ingredients

Bars:
112 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
112 g cream cheese, at room temperature
175 g all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
150 g sugar
1/2 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Frosting:
42 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
120 g powdered sugar, sifted
10 g heavy cream (or milk)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
food coloring

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spray an 8×8″ pan with cooking spray and line with parchment.
  3. Using a stand mixer with a paddle or a hand mixer, beat the butter and cream cheese together.
  4. Add the salt and sugar and beat until smooth a bit fluffy.
  5. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until fully incorporated.
  6. Slowly mix in the flour until no dry flour remains.
  7. Spread the thick batter evenly into the pan (e.g. with a silicone spatula), being sure to reach the edges.
  8. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the cookies start to pull away from the pan, the edges are brown, and the top is a pale gold.
  9. Cool the cookies in the pan until room temperature, then move to a wire rack if you used a parchment sling (or leave in the pan).
  10. In a stand mixer or a bowl with a handheld mixer, beat the butter and slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until fully incorporated, then add in the milk or cream, lemon juice, and vanilla and beat until smooth. Add the food coloring and beat until evenly distributed.
  11. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the frosting to the top of the bars spread evenly. Decorate with sprinkles or sparkling sugar, then cut into bars.


Chocolate Mint Brownies

Just like the half-moon cookies I pursued in an attempt to recreate childhood favorites, chocolate mint brownies were an obvious addition. I’m not sure why the combination of rich chocolate and the sharp taste of peppermint go so well together, but it’s an undeniably appealing combination. Surprisingly, good recipes can be somewhat tricky to find. I eventually settled on the Classic Mint Chocolate Brownies from Sally’s Baking Addiction. They looked like the real deal: a burst of mint green frosting sandwiched between a rich brownie below and a smooth ganache above.

As with most dessert recipes in my home, particularly those that are unproven, I look to half the recipe. Brownie recipes can range from simple to finicky, and these are on the easier end the spectrum. Chocolate and butter are melted together (I used my go-to Ghiradelli 60% for the chocolate) and cooled slightly. Sugars are added in, followed by eggs, vanilla, and a mixture of salt, flour, and cocoa. The instructions said to bake for about 35 minutes, but mine were done a bit earlier. The brownies had started to pull away from the edges, and the middle offered some resistance when pressed with a finger (Stella Parks likes to remark it should feel like pressing on your forearm). Some reviewers complained of a thick crust on top, which I suspect was due to overbaking.

After cooling the brownies, the mint frosting is made from a mixture of butter, powdered sugar, and milk, with a peppermint extract and food coloring added at the end. After applying the frosting, the whole brownie block is refrigerated for 1-4 hours.

The ganache is then made from a mixture of butter and chocolate heated together, poured and smoothed over the mint later, then refrigerated again for several hours.

While the repeat refrigeration steps made for a long prep time, the actual creation of the brownies was not particularly laborious. The flavors seemed on point – the brownie layer was densely fudgy, and the mint frosting added the appropriate amount of brightness. However, the texture of the brownie was a bit too fudgy for my tastes. Sally recommends keeping the brownies in the refrigerator, and I can see why. These come across more like mint-frosted fudge rather than the more substantial brownie than I was expecting. Perhaps adding more flour would help the consistency and avoid the need for constant refrigeration. This didn’t stop the kids from making quick work of them, and it will certainly satisfy the desire to recreate a favorite treat.

Chocolate Mint Brownies

  • Servings: 12 brownies
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

A fudgy chocolate brownie topped with mint frosting and chocolate ganache, adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

Ingredients

Cookies: 112 g unsalted butter 112 g bittersweet chocolate (chopped) 150 g sugar 50 g light brown sugar 2 large eggs at room temperature 5 g vanilla extract 1/4 tsp salt 50 g all-purpose flour (increased from original) 10 g cocoa powder (I used Dutch-processed)

Mint frosting: 56 g unsalted butter, at room temperature 120 g powdered sugar, sifted 15 g milk 1/2 tsp peppermint extract green food coloring

Chocolate ganache: 56 g unsalted butter 112 g bittersweet chocolate (e.g. Ghiradelli 60%)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spray an 8×8″ pan with cooking spray and line with parchment.
  3. Whisk together flour, salt, and cocoa powder (sifting the cocoa powder if needed).
  4. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter then add in the chopped chocolate and whisk until smooth. Pour into a bowl to cool for a few minutes.
  5. Add in the sugars and whisk until smooth.
  6. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking in each until fully incorporated.
  7. Whisk in the vanilla, then the flour mixture.
  8. Pour batter into the pan and bake for 30-35 minutes until the brownies start to pull away from the edges and the center feels a little firm.
  9. Cool the brownies in the pan until room temperature, then move to a wire rack.
  10. In a stand mixer or a large bowl with a handheld mixer, beat the butter and slowly add in sifted powdered sugar until fully incorporated, then add in the milk and beat until smooth. Add in the peppermint extract and food coloring.
  11. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the frosting to the top of the brownies and smooth. Refrigerate for at least an hour to set the frosting.
  12. Melt the butter for the chocolate ganache, then add in the chopped chocolate and whisk until smooth. Pour over the chilled brownies, smooth with a spatula, then return to the fridge for at least an hour prior to cutting into individual brownies.


Bolted wheat sourdough

Most people are familiar with whole wheat bread. Many have strong opinions. But few are familiar with a middle path between white flour and wheat: bolted wheat.

White flour is ground wheat with the bran and germ filtered out. May family generally prefers the clean, slightly sweet taste of white bread to the heartier, slightly bitter taste of whole wheat. Even when I dial back the whole wheat content to 20%, some family members have been known to turn up their nose. Adding sufficient sugar can help, but defeats the theoretical health benefits.

Bolted wheat is whole wheat where some bran is filtered out, but the germ remains. When ground with home mill like the Mockmill, a quick sift with a fine sifter (e.g. 40 mesh) will trap some of the coarse bran. This tempers some of the potential bitterness and also helps the bread rise. Bolted wheat flour can also be purchased online.

I have been using a 20% bolted wheat recipe (with bread flour for the remaining 80%) several times with no disparaging glances from family members. It adds a slightly browner hue and a more complex taste without challenging less adventurous palates. I grind my wheat right into the sifter resting on a sheet of parchment paper. I tap the sides of the sifter until all but the large bran particles remain, and use the parchment to add the sifted flour to the white flour.

I don’t waste the bran, but rather use it to line the banneton cloth to prevent sticking and sprinkle the remainder on top (which will become the bottom when it goes into the clay baker) to enhance the crust.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bagels

After giving up on pure sourdough-leavened bagels, I resumed my making usual bagels using a hybrid of commercial yeast and sourdough starter. Driven to expand my bagel repertoire, I recalled my son’s fondness for chocolate chip bagels, but thought I could take it to the next level. After my chocolate chocolate chip sourdough bread had been well received, it seemed natural to give my bagels the same treatment.

My standard bagel recipe already included some sourdough starter, so I started by replacing 20 g of the flour with cocoa powder, and bumping up the sugar from 15 to 90 g. I also thought regular bread flour, instead of high-gluten flour, would be fine for this recipe. I made the yukone, combined the dry ingredients, then processed everything together in the food processor. Once the dough was formed, I worked in the chocolate chips with a brief kneed, then shaped the bagels into balls.

I let the dough balls rest for 15 minutes, then shaped into bagels, and refrigerated for 36 hours.

Despite the prolonged rest time, when I went to boil the bagels I found that they didn’t float. I decided to do an experiment – I boiled half the bagels and left half unboiled. The boiled bagels were obviously darker than the unboiled, but otherwise didn’t look all that different.

Just-boiled bagels on the left, unboiled on the right. The boiled bagels were slightly darker and shinier, but otherwise similar.

I baked the bagels, sure that the boiling would have some lasting effect. To my surprise, the baked bagels looked almost identical regardless of whether they had been boiled first or not. If I looked closely, the unboiled bagels had a slightly more matte finish, but otherwise there was not much difference. The crust felt pretty similar as well. There was a slight difference in the shape however – the boiled bagels rose a little more vertically, while the unboiled were slightly wider.

The bagels on the left were boiled, then baked. The bagels on the right were only baked. The differences were minor aside from slight differences in shape and a slightly more matte finish on the only baked bagels.

I wondered if my bagels were underproofed because I had use less than my customary amount of yeast, so I repeated the experiment with a full 4 g of yeast and this time the bagels had no problem floating. However, the poaching water darkened from chocolate chips melting on the surface and I realized that, given the lack of difference I had noticed earlier, it may not be worth boiling these bagels. Unlike regular bagels where the classic chew and crust are key components, this is a totally different beast (and certainly not adherent to any sort of historical precedent.


Credit: bhan.me

Ingredients

    Yukone:
  • 170 g cold water
  • 100 g bread flour
  • Dough:

  • 280 g bread flour
  • 20 g cocoa powder
  • 90 g sugar
  • 9 g salt
  • 4 g instant yeast
  • 60 g water
  • 100 g 100% hydration sourdough starter
  • 90 g chocolate chips

Directions

  1. In a skillet or saucepan, mix the ingredients for the yukone until no dry flour remains and stir with a rubber spatula over medium heat until the mixture takes on a mashed-potato like appearance. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to cool.
  2. Add the water and starter to the yukone. If you’re not using a starter, increase the water and flour in the main recipe by 50 g each.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to combine.
  4. Add the contents of the yukone bowl into the food processor.
  5. Process for 90 seconds.
  6. Turn the dough onto the counter (it will be slightly sticky), and kneed in the chocolate chips. It may take a little work to get them evenly distributed. If the dough is warm, allow it to cool slightly in a covered bowl before adding the chocolate chips, or they may melt.
  7. Divide the dough into 8-10 equally sized dough balls and roll them in circles on the counter using an inverted, cupped hand until they are smooth and have no creases.
  8. Transfer the balls to a baking sheet lined with parchment coated lightly with spray oil and cover with plastic wrap for 15 minutes.
  9. Poke a hole in the middle of each ball with your thumb and gently stretch each ball into a bagel-like shake.
  10. Cover the bagels with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24-36 hours.
  11. After the bagels have rested in the fridge, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and bake the bagels for 15-20 minutes, depending on desired crustiness. Depending on your oven, you may need to bake longer if you like a really crusty bagel.
  12. Allow the bagels to cool completely before slicing (particularly important given the chocolate chips.