Thursday, December 25, 2014

Traditional Hungarian Dobos Torte

This dessert only happens once a year in our house, not necessarily because it is difficult. Making it is only a moderately lengthy process, not particularly tricky, and honestly it's hard to ruin it. The real reason is, having it only once per annum keeps it special.  We all look forward to this dessert as the grand finale of our Mikulas Day Hungarian dinner, a family tradition you can read about here on my other blog (The Only Thing Constant). I have, like my mother, made a few exceptions to this rule and made it for special occasions like cultural heritage days at school or church Christmas parties. But on a normal year, it only makes one very anticipated appearance. I actually gave up chocolate for a full 11 months one year, but December was out because of this cake. I had to have it. And my year is still not complete without a slice. In fact, while we were on tour and living in extended-stay hotels with sadly under-equipped kitchens, I was so determined to have this cake for Mikulas dinner that I bought a whimpy little hand-crank beater (because I was too cheap to buy an electric one) and attempted to beat the egg whites and whip the frosting with it. It took forever, nearly gave me blisters, and I'm pretty sure I broke the confounded contraption before it was over. The frosting had lumps of unmelted chocolate, and the cake may not have been so fluffy, but it made that tiny sour-smelling apartment thousands of miles from home feel like heaven.


There are several versions of this recipe floating around out there. This one was handed down from my Hungarian great-grandmother, who lived in Budapest as a little girl when the cake was first popular. She and her family immigrated to America in 1905, a year before the inventor retired and finally released his original recipe to the public. So whether this version was her mother's improvisational attempt at recreating it, or they picked up the recipe when they returned to Hungary for grandma to attend finishing school as a teenager remains a bit of a family mystery. Either way, the cake is delicious, and to me has the rich taste of both family tradition and my Magyar roots.


One of the things that makes a dobos unique is its multiple layers, traditionally 9. Mom usually made 8, baking 4 at a time, but 3 rounds of 3 would work as well. When I was a kid, mom had 4 old metal swivel pans she used to make the delicate sponge layers. I don't think they served any other purpose, so every year we had to find them (sometimes we forgot where they were stored), buff them clean if they were dusty and turn the arms to make sure they weren't stuck. The swivel arms were nice and tight, and buttering and flouring them heavily so the cakes fell easily out without too much fuss was just part of the routine. Sadly, they don't make 'em like they used to, and when I began my own household and was gifted a set of my own, the swivel arms were pathetically loose and would wobble and mutilate my poor cakes as I tried to wrench them from the pan. Even worse, since you have to use the pans twice in a row, cleaning the gap under the arms became a frustrating race between baking rounds to clean up the mess, dry the pans, rebutter, flour and fill them before the remaining batter fell too flat.


Then my mom found an awesome solution. She bought me four regular-old 8 inch cake pans as well as teflon inserts that fit perfectly in the bottom. It's hard to find the teflon inserts anymore (did someone decide they weren't safe?) but I see similar silicone ones on Amazon which would work just as well, or you can use parchment paper rounds, which you can either buy pre-cut or make your own. With my teflon inserts, all I do is lightly spray with cooking spray, no flour needed. When I turn out the cake, they fall right out, and the teflon peels cleanly off. I don't even bother washing them before baking the next round, just apply a second coat of cooking spray and go.


My sister Rebecca's dobos sans edge frosting
The cake layers cool very quickly, so they are ready to frost pretty much right away. The frosting is by far my favorite part! It is silky smooth thanks to more than a cup of butter and two egg yolks, giving it a very similar taste and texture to a French Silk Pie. In fact, the only difference is the use of powdered sugar instead of granulated and the addition of heavy cream (what food is there that heavy cream can't make even better?). The amount of frosting you make varies depending on your choice of how to frost the cake. According to my sister, the traditional way to frost the cake was only between the layers, leaving the impressive stacks of sponge cake visible. Otherwise, the cake can be frosted between layers and up the sides, leaving the top for a hard candy covering of boiled sugar water. This was the way Mom usually made it. Getting the candy to just the right state was the biggest challenge of all. It had to turn this perfect golden color, and then you had to pour it immediately onto the cake top. Too long on the heat and the candy would be hard to pour and lay on too thick, too short and it would stay semi-soft and ruin the effect of the first cut.

Cutting the cake is the big spectacle of the night,
but these guys are admittedly hamming it up a bit!
This photo is from 2011, when Mom spent Mikulas
with my youngest 2 brothers and their families
and was the honorary cake cutter.
You see, the big moment of serving the dobos is cutting the cake. The hard candy top had to be smacked hard with a knife, cracking the top right along the knife's edge. You had to aim just right to get the slices even. For years, we thought this was the way the cake got it's name. Dobos means drum, and we were told it was called a drum cake because you beat it like a drum when you cut into it. Some of us did a little research, though, and learned that the cake was invented by Mr. J√≥zsef C. Dobos, a confectioner from Budapest in the late 1800's. Finding that out was a little disappointing, but we still call it a drum cake, and we still get excited about that first smack as we cut into it. Last year when I cut the cake I actually broke my chef's knife! The blade snapped clean off. It was less the fault of the candy top as it was the hidden rust on the tang, so don't be afraid to use your good knife. Personally, I never much liked the taste of the candy top anyway. It was always more about the spectacle for me. So this year, I frosted the whole cake, including the top, and made some pretty hard candy lace to decorate the top. It wasn't as exciting to cut into, but the effect was quite beautiful and gave everyone the option of still eating the candy, or easily avoiding it. The best part of all: more frosting!

In the past, I have loved this cake best on the second day, when it was well chilled and the frosting was cold and firm. It tasted like a cold truffle center to me. This year, however, there wasn't room in the fridge or time to bake it the day before, so I made it in the morning and left it in a place on my counter that stays rather cool from the air that pours in through the kitchen vent. Without being refrigerated, the sponge cake seemed a lot more moist to me, and I think I preferred the taste in general. The cake is okay in a cool place for a couple days, but any longer (which is unlikely around here) and it ought to be refrigerated because of the raw eggs in the frosting.



But enough talk, let's bake! Here is the recipe:

Sponge Cake:
10 eggs, separated, (2 yolks reserved for frosting, below)
9 tablespoons sugar
9 tablespoons flour

Frosting (use bold amount for frosting the full cake):
1 1/2 or 1 1/4 cup salted butter, softened
2 reserved egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 or 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled slightly
3 or 2 1/2 cup powdered sugar
About 1 cup heavy whipping cream

Candy Top (optional):
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 400°. Line four round cake pans with silicon or teflon inserts, or parchment paper rounds and spray lightly with cooking spray.

Beat egg whites, adding sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until stiff. Add 8 of the yolks, one at a time, blending very well. Carefully sift in one tablespoon of flour at a time and gently fold in until well blended. Spread about 1 cup of batter in each cake pan, gently smoothing top with spatula. Bake 6 min, until just golden. While cakes bake, spread wax paper on counter top and sprinkle generously with granulated sugar. When cakes are done, flip them out onto the sugared paper and gently peel away the inserts. Return the inserts to the pan, spray again lightly, fill with remaining batter, and bake as before.

For the frosting, beat the butter until fluffy, add yolks, vanilla, and chocolate, beat well, scraping the sides of the bowl often. Add the powdered sugar and start to add the cream until you reach the right consistency. Continue to beat at moderately high speed. The frosting will turn a very light color and look very fluffy and heavenly! Try not to eat it...yet. If you're doing the candy top, choose your prettiest cake layer and save it for the top. Layer the cakes with frosting on a cake plate, frost the sides and if you want, frost the top.

For the hard candy top, boil sugar and water in a small sauce pan without stirring. After boiling for what seems like a long time, it will suddenly turn golden. It should be a good amber gold, and that's your sign that it's done. Pour it immediately on top of the cake, and spread quickly to the edge by gently tipping and rolling the cake, or use the back of a greased spoon. Or, if you want to make candy lace, prepare a sheet of baking parchment with cooking spray. Allow the candy to cool in the pot about 2 minutes, then use a spoon to drizzle it in swirly circular patterns on the greased parchment paper, making 6 or more separate "disks." Cool completely, remove from the paper and stick them upright in the cake top, or arrange them however you like.

To cut into a cake with a hard candy top, use a very sharp sturdy knife, take good aim, and smack the top hard, then slice. Repeat for each slice.

Happy Mikulas!

Sponge cakes laid out to cool on well sugared wax paper.
The sugar prevents the delicate cakes from sticking too the paper.

Teflon inserts fit perfectly into the cake pan and allow a clean release of the baked sponge cake.
Silicon or parchment circles work just as well. Spray lightly with cooking spray. 

The frosting turns a try pale color when whipped properly.
Just wait until AFTER frosting the cake to lick the beaters!
Boil the sugar water until it turns amber gold. Then pour onto the cake immediately, or... 
…cool slightly and drizzle with a spoon onto greased parchment.
Cool and arrange on frosted cake top.

Special thanks to my brother, James Hoffman, and my sister, Rebecca Carlson, for sharing some of their photos for use in this blog post! 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Leftover Rescue: Mac and Cheese

It came from the back of the fridge: the unholy offspring of powdered processed cheese and a poorly calculated estimate of the number of servings required. It lurked behind the day-old meatloaf, waiting, silent and yellow. She knew she could not ignore it forever... 

Pityingly she glanced at her toddler, playing without a care in the next room. For one moment, the girl looked back, her deep brown eyes so expectant and trusting. "You hungry, baby?" Mommy asked, with an immediate twinge of guilt. The excited response of her little innocent barely eased her conscience. But even this was a paltry solution. That was a 5 cup leftover container, and it was full to the accursed brim. Could she really subject her precious girl to day after day of such torture? Sure, she  likely wouldn't complain, wouldn't even fathom how awful it was. That would be too cruel. No, Mommy would have to shoulder most of the burden herself. Taking a deep sustaining breath, she opened the door and reached a trembling hand into the cold, forbidding recesses of the refrigerator...

How many times has this horror story played itself out in your kitchen? As hard as I try to avoid it there are many times I either overestimate my kid's appetite or the number of folks I'll be feeding and end up with way too much of what my brother used to call the "yellow death:" leftover mac and cheese. While my budget-conscience heart can't bear to toss it out, my sensitive taste buds can't bear to endure the torment. Knowing I have leftover mac and cheese reminds me of that scene in Ghostbusters when Dana opens the fridge and confronts a demon, and I start thinking I'd much rather employ an exorcist than the microwave.

Recently, however, I discovered a tasty solution. Yes, I said tasty, and yes, I'm still talking about leftover mac and cheese. It's so tasty, in fact, that my toddler refused her microwaved bowl of mac and cheese and downed so much of my plate that I had to cook up a second batch, and the two of us finished off the whole daunting amount in one lunchtime. 

The secret to success lies not so much in how you reheat it as in how you cook it in the first place. Never cook mac and cheese for the full 7 minutes recommended on the box! I don't know who determined that as the cooking time, but in my opinion, it turns the noodles into a mushy disgusting mess. Perhaps it's good for babies just starting to cut their teeth, but no one older with any taste could love it. I always cook mine for a mere 4 minutes and strain immediately. This leaves the pasta with a pleasant "al dente" texture which on it's own will make your boxed mac and cheese 10 times better, and makes it sturdy enough to reheat as the pasta will soften even more in the process.

It's totally simple: just fry the pasta in a nonstick pan, no oil required (that's already there in spades). Avoid stirring too much, but turn the noodles occasionally in hash brown fashion, allowing them to get nicely crispy. After moving to a plate, I like to garnish mine with a drizzle of barbecue sauce, but if you prefer ketchup, that works, too. That was, after all, my old cover-up solution for leftover mac and cheese. Ketchup covers a great multitude of sins, or at least sort of conceals them.

Alternately, if you'd rather just try to revive your mac and cheese to its original, traditional state, don't bother with the microwave. Return it to a pot, add a few drops of milk and stir gently over low heat until it breaks up. If you need to add a little more milk, just do so sparingly so it doesn't get too runny. The cheese should return to a decently creamy state in a short amount of time. Cook just until warmed through and serve. It will taste almost as good as fresh, although the pasta will be softer than it was.

So next time you find your fridge haunted by the yellow death, give this a try. After that, you may find yourself cooking up a whole extra box just to have leftovers again!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Home Canned Pumpkin Pie Filling


This recipe is one my mom used for years. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, making a pumpkin pie was always a cinch because all we had to do was pull out a jar of Mom's home canned filling, add eggs and evaporated milk, bake and done. My sister, Rebecca, shared this recipe with me a couple years ago, along with her personal notes. She has been known to make arrangements with her neighbors to come around with her wagon on the morning after Halloween and pick up their jack o' lanterns to use in her canning in exchange for a jar of pumpkin filling. You can use any old pumpkin (or even butternut squash, which I like to throw in sometimes at about a 4:1 ratio) but the little sugar pumpkins are the sweetest and least watery. Make sure if you use a carved pumpkin that you either do your canning right away or cut it up and refrigerate so the exposed flesh doesn't rot. Cooked pumpkin can also be frozen for up to 3 months if you would rather cook and store it for canning later. If you are new to canning, I recommend reading up on it before canning, as I don't share all the finer points of the process in this post. A great resource is the Ball website.

Sugar pumpkins are fairly easy to
grow. Save some seeds from your
store bought pumpkin and try
planting them next spring. If space
is tight, you can grow them on a
trellis as long as you use mesh bags
(like those you buy onions in)
to support the fruit as it grows.
Start by cooking your pumpkin. I found that about 20 lbs. pumpkin yields about 19 c pumpkin puree, which will make just over 6 quarts of filling. Cut up your pumpkins (and/or squash) and remove the stem and seeds. Then you can either peel and boil it, or roast at 400° with the peel on for a couple hours then scoop the cooled flesh away from the peel. Baking tends to lend a nice roasted, caramelized flavor, so that's the method I prefer. Once your pumpkin is cooked, puree it in batches in a food processor until smooth and measure it into a large pot, taking note of how many cups you have. 


For every three cups puree, add the following:

1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring to a boil, ladle into hot clean quart jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Put on the lids and process in a hot water bath for 1 hour 20 min (add 10 min for higher elevation). Allow to cool undisturbed on a towel covered counter top for 24 hours. Extra amounts of filling can be used as a spread like pumpkin butter, or used in place of pumpkin puree in any recipe that calls for it (for instance, my chocolate chip pumpkin cookies). Just remember to reduce the sugar and spices in the recipe, as those are already in the filling.

Pumpkin Pie (from Home Canned Filling)

1 quart home canned pumpkin pie filling
4 eggs
1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
1 pie crust

Extra filling can be made into pumpkin custards,
like these topped with whip cream
and drizzled with nuts and chocolate.
Preheat oven to 425°. Pour jar of filling into a mixer bowl, add eggs and evaporated milk and blend well. Line a pie plate with an unbaked pie crust. Pour in the mixed filling up to within 1/4 inch of the top. Cover the crust edges with foil or a pie crust shield. Depending on the size of your pie plate, there will be enough filling left over to pour into as many as 4 ramekins or custard cups to bake as crustless pumpkin custards. Place the filled cups in a deep pan and fill with water up to the level of the filling. Carefully move the pan to the oven so the water doesn't splash into the cups (or you can pour the water in after you move it to the oven, but I find I splash just as much water when I do it this way!). Bake pie and custards for 15 minutes at 425°, then reduce to 350° and bake about 45 min more, until there is hardly any "wiggle" when you move the pie. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pumpkin Cookies

I've been dying to share this recipe with you. It's my favorite autumn treat, and probably the one that got me hooked on pumpkin everything in the first place. To me, it isn't really October until I bake a batch of Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cookies!

This recipe comes originally from my classic "Better Homes and Gardens" cookbook. I've made some minor changes, such as substituting chocolate chips for raisins or topping them with a citrus cream cheese frosting. Sometimes I substitue home canned pumpkin pie filling for the pumpkin puree. I'll share that recipe with you next week, so hang on to your jack o' lanterns! I always double this recipe because they are so fun to share and they tend to disappear pretty quick. I hope these will make your autumn even better!


Rachel's Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cookies (Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 1981)

Makes roughly 3 dozen.  These are great with or without the citrus cream cheese frosting.  Where noted with the asterisk (*), you can optionally substitute a cup of home canned pumpkin pie filling, leaving out the spices and half the brown sugar because those are included in the filling.

2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 c or one stick butter
1 c packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 c canned pumpkin*
1 tsp vanilla
1 c semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli best)

Preheat oven to 375°. Cream the butter for 30 seconds, then add the brown sugar, beating until fluffy.  Add egg, pumpkin, and vanilla, mixing well.  Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, and spoon into the pumpkin mixture while beating until very well blended.  Stir in chocolate chips.  Drop very small spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, or greased with cooking spray.  You will be tempted to make them bigger, but they will not set in the middle if you do, so keep them fairly small. Bake 10 minutes.  I always rotate the cookie sheet half-way through to ensure even baking.  Cool on a wire rack.

Optional (but oh-so-awesome) Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting:

4 oz cream cheese
1 tsp lemon extract (or vanilla is okay, instead)
1 Tbs milk (or as needed)
1/4 salted butter
3 c powdered sugar
A few pinches dried lemon or orange zest (this stuff is expensive in the spice section at the store, but the next time you have a lemon or orange in the house, just wash, dry, and grate the peel with a fine grater and dry completely on a paper towel or parchment, then store in an old spice jar.)

Cream the butter and cream cheese until smooth, add lemon extract or vanilla, zest, and powdered sugar and beat to combine, adding milk until of spreading consistency.  Spread on the cookies, or use a cake decorator with a fluted tip.  Fall colored sprinkles make them even prettier.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pumpkin Season at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's used to be a mysterious place to me. I'd never even seen one until a few years ago, but occasionally my grandma would send care packages and holiday packages with treats from Trader Joe's. It seemed to be a place to buy chocolate covered nuts and dried fruits and unique varieties of cookies that you couldn't find in a "normal" grocery store. I didn't quite get it. And then the pumpkins came…

For some reason of which I will not complain, Mr. Trader Joe seems to have taken upon himself the mission of bringing all things pumpkin to the grocery shopping public, at least for a short couple of months out of the year. My first realization of this came when we received their "Fearless Flier" last year in the mail, detailing all the items I ought to be rushing in for. It even comes with it's own "shopping list" so you can check everything off. In the fall, the flier is overflowing with pumpkin goodness, everything from pancake and bread mixes to cookies and ice cream. I just got this year's flier a week ago, as I went through the ads and circled the things I wanted, I felt a little like I was making my list for Santa, or the Halloween equivalent, I suppose. My boys and I made the trip to Trader Joe's on a breezy autumn afternoon last week and kind went pumpkin crazy, as you can see (and I even forgot to put the pumpkin butter in the picture):


Here's a quick review of the pumpkin things we got:

Pumpkin Bread Mix: I tried this last year, and it was awesome. Normally I like to bake sweetbreads from scratch, but I thought I'd give it a try and was so impressed I have no qualms about suppressing my inner Julia Child and buying more. I like to use it to make muffins and toss in a cup of mini chocolate chips to make them even tastier (if that's possible). The bread is very moist and flavorful.

Pumpkin Ice Cream: My favorite way to eat this is on top of a warm Ghirardelli brownie with butterscotch syrup, whip cream, and some candied nuts! To die for!

Mini Ginger Pumpkin Ice Cream Mouthfuls: Oh. My. Wow. I didn't want to share these ones with the kids at first, but my heart has melted and I just have to share the goodness, even though it means less for me. They took their already awesome pumpkin ice cream and sandwiched it between two soft and spicy gingerbread cookies. Amazingly good.

Pumpkin Butter: A little too sweet for my liking, but still a great spread on homemade bread, or english muffins or an apple cinnamon bagel…Anything really.

Pumpkin O's: Pumpkin flavored puffed O's. Think fruit loops without the dyes, less sugar, and lightly pumpkin flavored. Not bad. I rather liked them.

Pumpkin Granola: My husband has been eating this one a lot, and I've left it to him since it's rare to find a cereal he likes so much. I really liked the bowl I had, too. Only problem is, he's been picking out the raisins like a little kid. So if you are a raisin hater, just be warned, it has 'em.

Iced Pumpkin Scones: When we couldn't find the legendary Pumpkin Joe Joe's, a clerk recommended these instead, and I have to admit, they are incredible. The packaging is not so environmentally friendly (maybe it's just me, but I thought this store leaned towards the tree-hugging conservationist side of retail, but sadly lots of their packages are huge for the small portions they contain. What gives?) There are only a few scones in the box and a lot of plastic between them, but I guess that keeps them really safe from getting squished. They are pretty soft, but oh-so-yummy!

There are a lot more pumpkin items available, but that's the extent of what we got. I haven't tried the Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix we got yet, but I expect it to be pretty good. And then there are the elusive Pumpkin Joe Joe's which I read about in the flier and tried to find at the store. Joe Joe's, if you didn't know, are Trader Joe's version of the Oreo, and to be honest, they are far superior. They don't taste quite so much like Crisco and the cookie part is delightfully crispy. (On a side note, Cookies and Cream is one of my favorite ice cream flavors, and my very favorite brand is Trader Joe's because it has great big chunks of Joe Joe's in it). In December they make a peppermint Joe Joe that is really good. I was intrigued by the thought of a pumpkin flavored one, but sadly when I got to the store, they were gone. They said another shipment was coming in the following Friday. I didn't make it in until Monday and they were gone again, this time permanently for the season! Sigh. Pumpkin season is all too short. So if you want to see any of these other items, don't waste time!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Pumpkin Cheesecake is Back!

Is anyone else excited that it's October?? Or better yet, pumpkin season? Well I will be the very first to admit that I am super excited. In celebration of this wonderful month I'm going to feature a variety of posts about this beloved flavor that conjures up images of flame-colored leaves, cute Halloween decor, warm inviting spices, and cozy holiday feasts. I'll share some of my favorite seasonal items from "pumpkin central" Trader Joe's, share my mom's home canned pumpkin recipe, and finally the recipe for my all-time favorite autumn treat: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with cream cheese frosting! But to kick things off, I'm going to start with a pair of pumpkin cheesecake reviews, because you need fair warning to get in to a Cheesecake Factory before these seasonal favorites disappear!

Pumpkin Pecan

A year ago when we moved within 5 minutes of a Cheesecake Factory, it became one of our favortie date night getaways. We'd grab a slice of cheesecake to go, drive to the nearby movie theater, and eat our dessert covertly before heading in to catch a show. This was kind of where I got the idea to start reviewing cheesecakes because we had so much fun analyzing all the different varieties. Since it was Fall, one of the cakes we sampled was the Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake. This cheesecake is the solution to the age-old post-holiday feast dilemma: which pie to have? There you are, already full from eating way too much at dinner, and then they have the gall to break out the desserts and start asking, "pecan or pumpkin?" Are you kidding me? You want me to choose between the smooth mellow goodness of custardy pumpkin and the caramel sweet nuttiness of pecan? I admit, I am biased towards the pumpkin, but that is still a tough call. After feigning a lack of desire for any dessert, if you're like me you usually end up taking one small slice of each (...and then end up taking another small slice of each). Well, now you can have both together, slapped one atop the other in a medley that seems so natural you'll wonder why you never stacked your pies that way yourself. The bottom layer has pecans in a rich caramel-custard filling, and on top is a smooth delicious layer of pumpkin cheesecake, a little lighter than your typical pumpkin pie, but every bit as flavorful. The whole thing is topped by a gooey pecan studded glaze. Each bite gives you a sample of each of the two holiday pie favorites. A tad on the rich side, I recommend sharing this one if you have it after a meal.

Pumpkin

It wasn't until this year that we tried the straight up, plain ol' Pumpkin Cheesecake. I wasn't disappointed. Pumpkin pie is my absolute favorite part of Thanksgiving, hands down. We could skip the turkey for all I care as long as we have that pie, piled with mounds of sweetened freshly whipped real whip cream (no squeezy-whip allowed). I was afraid the cheesecake version would be really cheesecakey, meaning it would be dense and taste a lot more like cream cheese, but the flavor was delightfully light, like a slightly fluffier version of pumpkin pie. Of course, there is a greater filling to crust ratio, so depending on how much you like the crust that could be a good or bad thing. I thought it was great. It's even garnished with a few pecans which adds a nice texture, but it is still a lot simpler and lighter than the Pecan Pumpkin, and better suited to eating after a big meal.

It was a sad day last year when the holidays ended and these two flavors disappeared. I can't tell you precisely when that happens, so if you want to try either variety, hurry in. They are both available right now and should be at least through November. After Thanksgiving passes though, all is not lost, as we have the Peppermint Bark Cheesecake to look forward to! Watch for that review in a couple months.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The "Royal Treatment" Buttermilk Waffles and Buttermilk Syrup


Last week I sang the praises of my wonderful waffle iron, but of course a waffle iron isn't any good without a great waffle recipe to go with it! When I was a kid, our weekday breakfasts were typically just cold cereal and toast, so having a hot breakfast on anything but a special occasion really was the royal treatment. Mom was a great cook and a loving mother, but she was also good at keeping her sanity, and especially during the years when some of us breakfasted at 5 am and others at 7, hot breakfast for the lot was just out of the question. On our leisurely Saturdays, however, we would often have something nicer, but Sunday dinners were an especially popular night to have a big "breakfast-for-dinner." Waffles were the usual favorite, and are still a big hit with my kids, too. This recipe for Buttermilk Waffles is regularly requested for birthday breakfasts and makes a great holiday morning treat, but that doesn't mean we save them for special occasions only. Every day should be royal! Top them off with Aunt Lynette's luscious Buttermilk Syrup recipe included below and you'll really feel like royalty.

Buttermilk Waffles 
Servings: 6
This recipe has an unusually thick though fluffy batter, making the waffles soft but substantial with a rich buttery flavor. The original recipe came from cooks.com, but it has been through many tweaks since then getting it just the way we love it!

Ingredients
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 tablespoon baking powder 
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups buttermilk
6 eggs, separated
1 cup milk
Directions
Start by melting the butter in a small saucepan over medium low heat. Remove from heat a little before it melts completely and allow to finish melting off the heat and cool slightly. Separate the egg whites into a beater bowl and the yolks into a smaller mixing bowl. Beat the whites until stiff. Meanwhile, sift all dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and whisk together. Add the milk and buttermilk to the egg yolks and whisk until combined. Add milk & yolk mixture to dry ingredients and stir gently to combine. Stir in melted butter. Batter will be quite thick. Very gently fold in beaten egg whites, until only small pockets of egg white are still visible. Spoon batter onto heated waffle iron and bake acording to iron instructions. (For mine, I use a medium-low setting for 4 minutes). Best when served straight off the iron, but you can also keep warm on a cookie sheet in the oven at 200° or less.  Serve with maple syrup, fruit, yogurt, whip cream, peanut butter... and/or this awesome syrup:

Buttermilk Syrup
Makes: about 2 cups
When we were on tour with Les Miserables, we spent a lovely week with my husband's Aunt Lynette and Uncle Matt during our stop near their hometown in Arizona. Lynette served us this amazing syrup with french toast, but we love to have it on anything that you can put syrup on. The recipe seemed simple enough, but it took me a little experimenting to figure out all the tricks behind getting it just right. Here I include my notes so hopefully your first time will be better than mine ;)
Ingredients
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup sugar
6 Tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Directions
Add buttermilk, corn syrup, sugar, and butter to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and allow to boil for no more than one minute (if you over boil, the milk solids will clump). Remove completely from heat and whisk together briskly to break up the milk solids. Whisk in baking soda and vanilla. It will foam up a lot (which is the best part). If you have any leftovers, store them in the fridge. 

The best way to revitalize the leftover syrup for serving again is to rewarm it in a pot, but not to a boil. When heated sufficiently, whisk in about 1/8 tsp baking powder per cup. The baking soda you added the first time you made it reacted with the acid in the buttermilk, so adding soda again won't yield the same results as the chemical reaction is spent. Baking powder, on the other hand, is baking soda with acidic cream of tartar mixed in. Baking soda can react on its own because it carries the acid with it, therefore creating that lovely foam.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Waffle Iron of Power


In the Bayles home, we are serious about our waffles. That means I don't mess around with wimpy waffle irons. We got our first waffle iron (made by Chefmate) as a wedding gift. It got us accustomed to the nice, deep pockets of the Belgian-style waffle, and lasted us for over 12 years of waffley wedded bliss. Sadly, it breathed its last breath half-way through baking the first waffle for my son's birthday breakfast (thank goodness for good neighbors who loaned us theirs for the rest of the morning!) Since we were just a month away from moving, we decided to do without for a while and wait until we got here a year ago. Before rushing out and buying a new waffle iron, I did a lot of research. I was determined my new iron would last us much, much longer than just another decade, and I wanted to be sure it could cook waffles just the way we like them. It didn't take much reading before I realized if I wanted a superior waffle iron I was going to have to splurge a little. On the threshold of grad school, this was a tough budget choice, but one I have not regretted. Thanks to a thorough blog review from a person who had tested out several irons, I was confident in purchasing the "No Peek" Belgian Waffle Maker made by Calphalon. The point the reviewer made that really caught my attention was this: in his hunt for the perfect iron, he had been told that if he wanted even heat and durable construction, he should try to find a really old iron, like from the 50's or 60's. Back then they made appliances to last through regular use in bigger families who cooked more often, not on a whim and as a novelty for two. After owning one such iron and finally running it into the ground, he bought this Calphalon iron and was happy to report it was built like they used to make 'em. Retailing around $100, this was a big commitment, but thanks to a 20% off coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond (you know, the ones you find in the mail every single week?) I got mine for a more reasonable $80. It has been my best friend ever since. We use it at least twice a month and the results are always perfect.

Here are some of the features I love most about this waffle iron:

1. It is solid. According to the manufacturer, the plates are made of bronze. The outer structure has a sturdy brushed metal look. My last waffle iron took a bit of a beating from the kids who sat on it like a folding chair (never when it was hot of course!) or pretended it was a laptop (those little squares do look a lot like a keyboard). Its casing was plastic, and in time the underside cracked down the middle. The Calphalon iron is a lot more precious to me and doesn't get played with, but if it did, I think it would hold up to the abuse pretty well.

2. It is genuinely and perfectly non-stick. The waffles come off gorgeously every time. A note to all non-stick waffle-iron users out there: DO NOT spray your waffle iron! That will actually destroy the non-stickitivity of the plates as the oil accumulates and bakes on. If you have already used spray on it for a while, you will probably have to keep using it forevermore, but a new iron should never see Pam's face, so just keep her in the cupboard.

3. It has a temperature dial, something my last iron did not have. I love having the flexibility to raise or lower the heat level. However, I still use a timer. I had gotten used to ignoring the bell on my last iron because the waffles were never quite done when it sounded. With this one I found that cooking them to the darkness I liked (according to the bell) left the middle less cooked than I wanted (the batter I use is thicker than traditional waffles). So we set it lower and cook it a little longer, and they turn out perfectly. You'll probably want to play with this feature too to get it just where you like it.

4. The cord tucks away neatly and simply. My last iron had no such feature, and it may have been one too many tugs on that cord that did it in.

5. There is a locking slide to hold the iron closed for storage. It's not as stiff as I would like and it's easy to accidentally nudge the lock open, but since I don't carry it around very much I don't mind. It is enough to keep it closed if you store it upright and it's lots better than the floppy plastic "lock" that was little more than a hinge on the handle of my first iron.

6. It heats beautifully evenly. During my research I looked at so many bad reviews of disgruntled waffle makers including their frightening pictures of half-cooked waffles. You could see exactly where the heating element lay beneath the plates because a dark ring would be emblazoned on the waffles whilst the edges were still doughy and sticking pathetically to the iron. I looked at a lot of waffles like that. I really mean a LOT. But never in my kitchen. Nope.

7. It's big enough for our family. I couldn't do a little flip-over Belgian waffle iron. You can't chug out enough waffles for 7 people with one of those. This iron has a nice big four-square plate with nice deep waffle pockets. Just right for us.

So that's all the reasons I love my Calphalon waffle iron. If you're in the market for a new one, I highly recommend it.

Next week I will share my favorite Buttermilk Waffle recipe, along with our favorite thing to pair with it: Aunt Lynette's amazing Buttermilk Syrup!






Monday, September 8, 2014

Even More Cheesecake

A couple weeks ago I enjoyed a great night out with some girlfriends. And where did we go? Well, Cheesecake Factory of course! I was reminded that it has been a long while since I have written a cheesecake review, and we've sampled several since my last one, so I have lots to catch up on! In fact, we also observed National Cheesecake Day on July 30 and thanks to a half-off deal at the Factory two nights in a row, we had a double face-off: Hershey vs. Godiva and the War of the Citrus. I'll tell you about those, then add some previously un-reviewed cheesecakes. (Remember, overall scores are composed of a rating out of 4 stars, and a richness factor of 1-3, 1 being the lightest)





We are long time fans of the Godiva Cheesecake. It has no frills, layers, or culinary accessories, but who needs 'em when you have chocolate perfection? The Godiva Cheesecake is one solid slice of rich chocolate heaven, just the perfect amount of bitter-sweetness and richness through and through. I still don't recommend it as a meal finial unless you can share it because it is a lot of chocolate for one sitting.  


The Hershey's on the other hand had some nice layers to it, a little sample of various forms of chocolate: there was a layer of mousse, cheesecake, chocolate cake, and a frosting like layer, with a nice crust of chocolate chips on the outside edge. The quality of the chocolate was a little better than I expected from a "grocery store brand" of chocolate, but this is Cheesecake Factory after all, and they stepped it up enough to compete with its gourmet sister. 

The victor? Well, I think it more depends on what you like: bite after bite of the same chocolate perfection, or a strata of good chocolate in all its varieties. Still, I'd say the Godiva is the superior dessert. (Score: Godiva still at **** 3, Hershey's *** 3)




On the second night of National Cheesecake observance, I arrived at the Factory to discover a new friend waiting for me in the display case like a puppy at the pet store. I saw what looked like lemon curd beneath a smear of marshmallow creme and just had to ask the server, "Is that one new?" It was indeed just added that day. Lemon Merengue Cheesecake. Dallyn and I had already decided it was time to try the Key Lime, but this couldn't be passed up. Thanks to the half-off deal, we brought home both for the price of one.


This face off was another case of pure flavor vs layers. The Key Lime Cheesecake was exactly the way I like my key lime pie: tart and sweet, a little dense and custardy, and more creamy than fluffy. It had the classic graham crust and whip cream garnish like a regular key lime pie, but the filling was more than twice as thick. It didn't taste much like a cheesecake, but the tartness of the lime easily overpowered any hint of cream cheese sourness. Perfectly luscious. If you are a key lime fan like me, I highly recommend this one.


The new pie on the block was also stupendous, and a happy addition to the menu. The first pie I ever baked was a lemon merengue, and I've been partial to them my whole life. The Lemon Merengue Cheesecake featured a few layers with different textures: a fairly thick one of lemony cheesecake, topped with a nice spread of lemon curd. The layer above that of marshmallow creme was lightly toasted to resemble merengue, but obviously had a more creamy consistency than a true egg-white merengue. Add to that the whip cream and some candied lemon zest and you had a lovely combination. This one was less tart and a little lighter than the key lime with more variety of textures and flavors. 

Our favorite: the lemon merengue, but not by much, just for the lovely assembly of its parts.
(Score: Lemon Merengue **** 1, Key Lime **** 2)

On my girls night out I tried one my husband hadn't shown much interest in, the Fresh Banana Cream. It was really good, especially if you like banana cream pie. It was certainly a lighter cheesecake, and I could have easily finished it off myself, especially since I hadn't just eaten dinner but I wanted to share a couple bites with Dallyn despite his lack of interest. There wasn't much fancy about it, pretty simple flavors, not super sweet. I'm not likely to try it again. If you really like banana cream pie, like it's your favorite pie in the world, I'd say go for it, but there are so many other amazing items on the menu so honestly, this one is more of a toss-out for me. My score: ** 1


Now for some more reviews from cheesecakes past:


(New Review!) Dulce de Leche **** 1
I was surprised how much I loved this one! It is a perfect choice for when you want something a little lighter, not fruity or chocolatey, just creamy and delicious. It has a little more oomph to it than just a plain cheesecake because it has that lovely touch of carmel goodness. With a dusting of chopped nuts to add some texture, this is one of my very top picks.

(New Review!) Wild Blueberry White Chocolate *** 2
I was not a fan of blueberry flavor growing up, and even though I now love good fresh blueberries, I am still a little less enamored of traditional "blueberry" flavor. Nevertheless, I was surprised how much I liked this one. There was just the right amount of sweet blueberries and a lovely creaminess to the white-chocolate enriched cheesecake. It was overall a very light, flavorful dessert.

(New Review!) White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut * 2/3
This one is a rare case of "not so impressive." It sounded pretty good. I like all the parts, but the sum total was disappointing. While the flavors were good, there was a problem with overall distribution of the nut and caramel clusters. It was too much and too clumpy. Some bites were just too heavy with dry, pasty macadamia nuts and sticky sweet caramel, and others had hardly any substance to them. I think they need to work on the assembly of this one to make it a more pleasant experience.

(New Review!) Mango Key Lime *** 2
For some reason we tried the Mango Key Lime long before we ever did the regular Key Lime. I guess we just wanted a little something different. That little something was awesome. The thin juicy mango puree layered over a perfect key lime filling adds the perfect extra kick of flavor! It was a beautiful pairing for the tartness of the lime.

(New Review!) Reese's Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake **** 3
Of the two peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake offerings at the Factory, this is our favorite. It is definitely in the "rich" category. The thick peanut butter flavors mix like old friends with the moist chocolate cake and the creamy cheesecake, complete with chunks of classic Reese's cups. The flavor ratios are nicely balanced, and I have a slight weakness for the dollop of peanut butter ganache frosting on top. Don't forget to have some milk on hand!

(New Review!) Oreo Dream Extreme * 2
I was so excited to try this cake. My love affair with Oreos goes way back. I didn't know this was a well known fact, but apparently it is because I have had unexpected friends gift a package to me on a couple occasions (for future reference, I like the mint ones best). Cookies and Cream continues to be one of my favorite ice cream flavors, and the bigger the chunks of cookie, the better (PS my favorite brand is actually Trader Joe's "Jo Jo's and Cream", which I realize is technically not Oreo, but it is awesome!) So needless to say, this was on my short list of flavors to try. Sadly, I was disappointed. While the big chunks of Oreo hidden in the cheesecake filling looked inviting, we found that the sourness of the cream cheese flavor was not a good compliment. I was a little puzzled by that, and there may be those that would totally disagree with me. But when I eat an Oreo, I expect a sweet filling, and the milk I dip it in has to be cold and fresh. Maybe the sourness made me think of sour milk, which is never cool. So while it looks very pretty (the cross section full of Oreos is fun, and I especially like the oversized Oreo branded cookies they stick in the top) this is not likely one I will order again. It wasn't horrible, it just wasn't the Oreo-like experience I was hoping for.

Chocolate Tuxedo Cream **** 1
This is a lighter more mousse-like cheesecake, perfect for when you don't have room for one of the knock-you-out rich plates, but hey, you're at the Cheesecake Factory, and how can you leave without dessert? Layers of cream and chocolate mousse topped with a super thin ganache.

Chocolate Raspberry Truffle **** 3
Ready for some rich chocolate paired with the perfect complement of tart raspberry? In my opinion, chocolate and raspberries were meant to go together, and this dessert is the perfect marriage. On the richer side, with just the right amount of fruity tartness. Make sure you scoop some of the whip cream to lighten it up.

Godiva Chocolate **** 3
Yes, you can get them mail order,
complete with fun dry ice to play with.
This was my birthday cake in 2008.
Dallyn and I are huge fans of Godiva chocolate. In our less lean years (I mean financially, but I guess I could mean the other thing...), no special occasion was complete without a small box of Godiva, and we would stretch the joy out as long as possible by sharing one piece only per day.  We would tease our children that Hersheys is for kids, Godiva is for grownups and is wasted on the young, and would point them to the stash of kisses in the pantry. (They did challenge us once to a taste test to prove their palates were sophisticated enough to tell the difference, and they sort of passed, so sometimes we are gracious and will share, but mostly we hide it.) Yes, we're obsessed. So it is no surprise that this cheesecake makes our top 3 list. It is rich. It is basic, but basically beautiful in its chocolate perfection. No fancy layers or trappings, it's just the most exquisite pure silky chocolate experience available. Definitely utilize the whip cream.

Toasted Marshmallow S'mores Galore **** 3
Oh, wow. This was a surprise. We tried this one on a recommendation from a friend. Having seen it in the case, it looked like just another chocolatey one, and I wasn't really in the mood for that, but when I saw a picture the way it would be served with a perfectly toasted marshmallow melting all over the top, I knew I had to partake. Toasted marshmallows are my very favorite treat. Ever. We knew we had to have it on a plate at a table rather than the to-go boxes we typically grab (since presentation seemed pretty important), so it was a little while before we actually got to try it, but it was well worth the wait! The marshmallow turned out to be marshmallow creme rather than an actual marshmallow (the photo was a little deceptive), but it was still nicely toasted and tasty. The chocolate cheesecake was delicious and creamy, with little chunks of harder chocolate hidden near the base that added a scrumptious texture. Crunchy bits of graham were scattered over the lot, with a full square of graham cracker balanced attractively on top. The traditional graham crust was a perfect fit. This one is rather rich, so definitely grab a cheesecake buddy to share. I can't recommend saving the leftovers unless you first eat all the graham cracker parts, as those will get soggy in the fridge (as we sadly discovered).

Original ** 2
Several people said I had to try this one. I was skeptical. I'm picky about the consistency of my "plain" cheesecake. It has to be perfectly creamy and moist throughout, no dry cakeyness, and I especially love a sour cream topping. I usually like cherry pie filling on top, but in order to get the pure experience, I had it plain. It was good. Pretty basic. It was creamy enough, but not the to-die-for creamiest I've ever had. The best plain cheesecake I've had was at Junior's in NYC. There are so many other awesome options for cheesecake at The Factory that I'm not likely to have this one again, but if you really want one, go for it.

30th Anniversary Chocolate Cake Cheesecake *** 2
This was my desert of choice for my recent birthday. It seemed a nice compromise between cake (for my husband) and cheesecake (for me), and truly it was delightful! The cake was moist and flavorful, the cheesecake creamy, and the moussey layers in between were luscious. The big ganache swirl on top was a bit much to get through, but a little bit with each bite was a nice addition.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Food is Love: I like to say it with cookies.

I had a friend who entertained me with stories about the Italian Mamma that would feed her while she nannied in New York City. "Food is Love," she would quote in her best Brooklyn accent, "I cook for you because I love you." For some reason it made me laugh, but as I have learned more about cooking, I often find myself returning to that mantra. Sharing good food with my friends and family is definitely a method of mine in expressing how much I love them. Food brings people together. It gives us a reason to gather, and something to share that we all enjoy. Over the years, one of the food traditions that we have enjoyed most is inviting friends over to have chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven with ice cream.

I have a distinct memory from my younger years of a woman who came to visit my mom and brought the most perfect batch of cookies to share with us. I don't even know who she was, but I remember asking her very sincerely how she made such amazing cookies. I think she said she just followed the recipe on the bag of chips, but try as I might, mine never turned out like hers. As a young married, I was determined to find the big secret. Thanks to a jump start from scientific cooking guru Alton Brown, and through extensive trial and error of my own, I feel like I can confidently say, I did it! It's so good, in fact, that my husband never asks for anything else for dessert. If I want to bake something else, I do it at the risk that he will be disappointed, no matter how delicious or fancy it is. That's why these cookies have been dubbed "Dallyn's Favorite Cookies" or "DFC's" by some of our friends. 

There are actually about a dozen secrets to baking the perfect chocolate chip cookie. All points are calculated to increase the moistness, chewiness and flavor. As I've shared this recipe, a frequent response I've gotten is, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. I don't know if I can do all that." Personally, I don't feel like it takes any more effort than the recipe you find on the back of the Nestle chips bag. Most of the secrets are just better ingredients, but there are some method secrets. Anyway, my point is, if you want the perfect cookie, you have to be willing to put in the effort. Every pointer is for a reason. So here's the recipe, along with footnotes that explain some of the why's behind it:
Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (DFC's)

Ingredients:
1/2 cup (1 stick) good quality margarine (Land O'Lakes is my favorite)1
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar2
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 cup bread flour3
1 teaspoon kosher salt4
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 egg yolk5
2 tablespoons milk6
1/2 tablespoon Mexican vanilla (my favorite is Blue Cattle Truck Mexican Vanilla)7
1 bag (about 2 cups) Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips8

Picky about ingredients: I never compromise on the vanilla or the chocolate. These are my 2 faves.
Melt the margarine and butter in a small pot.9 Meanwhile, add both sugars to your mixing bowl, sift dry ingredients into a medium bowl, and measure milk, vanilla, egg and egg yolk into a small bowl. Pour melted butter into your mixing bowl with the sugars and beat until smooth. Add milk mixture and beat well. With beater running, slowly spoon in sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Add chocolate chips and beat or stir until evenly distributed. Put all the cookie dough into plastic containers (I like to use two flat 3 1/8 cup Gladware containers) and put in the freezer. Chill at least 1 hour.10 Preheat the oven to 350° and move the rack fairly close to the upper element (not the closest, but probably the next down from that).11 Shape dough into balls a little larger than a ping pong ball, smaller than a golf ball and place a couple inches apart on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Bake for 6 minutes and rotate the pan, then bake for 6 minutes more. Cookies should be just golden on the outside. Remove the pan, set it down and carefully move the whole sheet of parchment with the cookies onto a counter top or cooling rack.12 Allow to cool a few minutes then serve in a bowl with vanilla ice cream, Hershey's syrup, butterscotch, or whatever you like best. Makes about 4 batches of 9-12 cookies.

I usually only bake one batch at a time, which ends up being about 1/2 a container. I just keep the rest in the freezer and we always have cookie dough on hand for those nights we want a special treat. Any leftover cookies (which are highly rare) can be cooled and put in an airtight container to be fought over for snack the next day. They will stay tremendously moist and chewy for a few days if they last that long.

Again, it sounds complicated, but believe me, every detail is so worth it and makes for one awesome cookie! Bon appetite!

Footnotes:
1. Butter is always better in my book, but there are times margarine is called for. This is one of them. Butter melts more quickly, and crisps up instead of staying soft, so all-butter cookies will flatten and be crispy rather than chewy. Using a stick of each is a happy compromise. Just opt for a good quality margarine which will have creamier flavor and less water content.
2. Brown sugar is more moist than white. Most cookie recipes call for an even amount of each. Increasing the brown sugar results in a moister cookie.
3. Bread flour is higher in gluten, which is what makes bread chewy. This was one of Alton Brown's recommendations.
4. Why Kosher? Not sure. I do know it is recommended for bread making because of the extra texture that helps in kneading the ingredients.
5. The yolk is the moist part of the egg. The whites tend to be drier when cooked. So again, adding a yolk increases moisture.
6. Adding milk, once again, adds moisture.
7. This is perhaps my biggest ingredient secret. Do not skimp of the quality of your vanilla! It makes all the difference. This brand is available in select stores in Utah, online, and if you live near me, I buy it wholesale, so I can set you up.
8. Good chocolate is just about as important as the vanilla. This is my favorite brand, and the chips are bigger, which we also like. You can of course substitute semi-sweet, or try other brands, but this is the one we love the most. Cheaper chocolates are higher in wax and other nasty fillers, so not nearly as tasty.
9. You don't need to soften the butter! Hooray! Melting the butter & margarine will make your freshly made dough runnier, which is why you will need to chill it before baking, but it helps the sugars to dissolve and incorporate better.
10. I guarantee it will be better if you wait several hours or prepare the dough a day ahead. If the dough is thoroughly frozen, you will need to thaw it on the counter about 15-30 minutes before you can cut into it, but you still want it to be colder than fridge temperature.
11. This was actually the crowning discovery in my quest for cookie perfection. It happened by chance on a night I had broiled something for dinner, and when I went to bake the cookies I didn't bother moving the rack down. The result was that the cookies browned more beautifully without overcooking the dough, which meant they kept their domed shape better when removed from the oven.
12. Moving the cookies to the counter top prevents the bottoms from continuing to bake from the heat of the cookie sheet. This is why parchment is essential. My cookie sheets have a 1 inch lip, so sliding them over the lip rattled the soft-set cookies too much and caused them to deflate. I found that carefully using my fingernails to grab the corners (which tend to curl up from the pan anyway) and gently lifting the whole thing up and over had much better results. Of course, if your cookie sheets are flat with no lip, you can slide them off. Just do so gently.