In the scone zone

I have a couple go-to recipes that I, uh, go to when it comes to baked goods. Through a long process of trial and error, I am proud to say I have pretty much perfected three treats – chocolate chip cookies, mini-cupcakes and scones.

My secret to great chocolate chip cookies is the use of brown sugar instead of white and the addition of a box of instant pudding mix to the batter. That and not overbaking them. I like my cookies soft, not crunchy, and these three things seem to do the trick. Plus, you can experiment with different pudding flavors for interesting combinations. Banana flavored pudding with the chocolate chips and some pecans thrown in makes for an especially tasty cookie.

For the cupcakes, I rely on Ina Garten. Any recipe of hers that I’ve made has been fabulous, primarily because she is not at all shy about butter. I was introduced to her delicious coconut cupcake recipe four or five years ago, the first time I assisted my chef friend Jennifer. She made them as part of a dessert buffet for a wedding dinner she was catering, and they were a relevation. The mini-versions were adorable, tasty and looked perfectly bridal with their little white caps of shredded coconut. I’ve been using the basic buttermilk-batter cake recipe ever since and tweaked it with all different kinds of additions – vanilla bean and coffee, crushed oreo cookies, peanut butter and mini chocolate chips to name just a few. It’s never let me down. I always make the mini versions because at parties and on buffets, a full-size cupcake can be something of a commitment. Plus, you can eat three or four of the mini-cupcakes without feeling guilty.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when I first became acquainted with scones. They’re still not always an immediately recognizable item here in Indiana, I find. Many people have only come across them in the glass counter at Starbucks. Having had real-deal scones in England, I can tell you that the versions you get here in America aren’t quite the same, as is usually the case. (My husband would argue that the European version is better, of course, but that’s a whole other blog…)

Basically, scones are like a triangular sweet biscuit. My default scone recipe comes courtesy of Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee. Not one of my favorite Food Network shows or personalities, but I happened to spot her making these years ago, downloaded the recipe and have been using it to great success ever since. I don’t think I can post the recipe here due to copyright reasons, but you can find it under “Mocha Chip Scones” on the Food Network web site if you’re so inclined to look it up.

Sandra’s scones are pretty easy to make, as you’d imagine according to the name of the show. You use Bisquick baking mix to simplify things for yourself. Not that it’s exactly strenuous to measure out flour, baking soda and salt, but whatever. You simple create the dough, pat it out by hand into a large disk on a floured board, cut it into wedges and bake. You can brush the scones with egg wash and sprinkle them with sanding sugar to make them really pretty, if you’re so inclined. If you’re feeling lazy, you could probably just drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Either way, they turn out yummy and are perfect for dunking into a cup of coffee.

Again, once you get the basic recipe down pat, it’s super easy to tweak it according to your own tastes and preferences. Sometimes, I’ll leave out the coffee and throw in orange zest instead. Or drizzle them with sugar glaze or ganache. I once tasted a chocolate chip and rosemary scone at Tulip Noir that was fabulous. You can also make savory versions with cheese, herbs and spices for a great alternative to boring old garlic bread.

Here’s my latest scone effort – chocolate chunk and cranberry. Ever the purist, hubby turned up his nose at the cranberries and picked them out, but I thought they were great and very Christmasy.

Chocolate chip cranberry scones

Speaking of Christmas, still trying to decide what to make for dinner tomorrow… guess I’d better get to work scouring the cookbooks. Ta!

A labor of love

My good friend Michelle is expecting not one but TWO babies (both girls) in January. Clearly, this occasion could not go uncelebrated! Since Michelle already has a five-year-old daughter, she’s pretty set with girly pink schwack and supplies, but I figured she could never have enough diapers. Therefore, I swiped an idea from another baby shower I attended last summer and decided to throw her a “Pamper Michelle” party, asking everyone to bring a pack of diapers in lieu of gifts.

I wanted the food to be reflective of babies and twins, so opted for mini versions of standard party fare. Several recipes were previously untested dishes I’d been wanting to try, and this seemed a perfect excuse. Two of them – sweet potato biscuit sandwiches with ham and honey mustard, and pickled shrimp — came courtesy of last month’s Bon Appetit. Thanks, BA editors!

My first batch of biscuits turned out a little too flat and a little too brown. Fortunately, I had enough ingredients to bang out a second batch lickety split. This time, I didn’t roll them out quite as thin and I didn’t bake them quite as long. The result – yummy, although next time, I’ll use a saltier ham and a spicier Dijon to really up the flavor punch.

Sweet potato biscuit sandwiches with ham and honey mustard

The shrimp, too, turned out to be an interesting experiment. I had quite a prep list going, so to simplify things, I bought frozen cooked cocktail shrimp instead of boiling my own. The thing was, they didn’t thaw as quickly as I’d hoped in the fridge, so when the time came to throw them into the pickling liquid, they were still slightly frozen.

The pickling liquid itself was tricky. The recipe called for equal parts vinegar and olive oil, but when I tasted it, it was ALL oil. You couldn’t make out any of the other flavors – lemon, garlic, bay leaves, etc. I siphoned off a bunch of the oil and added more vinegar, salt and sugar. As the shrimp finished thawing in the pickling juice and released water, I worried that the flavors would end up being even more diluted.

In a happy stroke of luck, by the time I drained off the pickling liquid and plated up the shrimp, I found they’d taken on a ton of flavor after all! In fact, they were quite addictive, if I say so myself. The crowd seemed to agree – there wasn’t much left at the end of the night!

Pickled shrimp

Elsewhere on the menu – I took a basic cheeseball recipe, used a mini-ice cream scooper to form one-inch balls and rolled them in parsley, paprika and chopped almonds. The intention was to make them look like little truffles. See what you think…

Individual cheeseballs and crackers

Instead of the boring old sectioned veggies-and-dip platter, I decided it would be pretty and Christmasy to do all red and green vegetables and mix them together. I thought it looked lovely, and would definitely use this idea again with color-coordinated noshes.

"Christmas" crudite

For dessert, I made mini-cupcakes and frosted them to look like little roses. Also, in honor of the twins, I made two kinds of fudge – chocolate marshmallow and cookies ‘n creme.

Fudge two ways - on top, cookies 'n creme; on bottom, chocolate marshmallow

To wash it all down, I bought wine and beer, but also wanted to have something fancy and non-alcoholic for the mom-to-be. I made a quick punch of cranberry juice and ginger ale, coated the rims of the glasses with crystallized ginger sugar, and made a gorgeous ice mold to float in the punch bowl.

Cranberry ginger punch

All in all, a good time was had by all, and I think Michelle appreciated the chance to enjoy some quality time with the gals, which was the main goal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my catering biz lately, and in 2010, I would like to focus on baby and bridal showers. I feel they’re what I do best, and what I enjoy most. I like the food, I like the theme. So if you know of anyone who’s tying the knot or getting pregnant in 2010, please pass along my name and direct them to my blog for pics and details!