(The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.)

Another fun challenge!  Panna Cotta has been on my list of things to try for a while, so I was excited about making it.  I decided on the vanilla option, with peach gelée on top.

The panna cotta comes together easily – it’s not as complicated and finicky as a custard or pudding.  You start by adding some unflavored gelatin to a cup of milk.  Let it bloom for a few minutes, then warm it up on the stove.  The goal is to get it hot but not boiling – you’re effectively scalding it to break down the proteins a bit and make it thicken up better.  Once it’s hot, add heavy cream, honey, and a bit of sugar.  I also added in some vanilla bean paste, but the vanilla bean particles didn’t stay suspended very well – I’d skip this next time.

After it all warms up again, let it cool, pour into dishes, and let it cool overnight.  Mine came out a bit puckered on top, but set up nicely:

IMG_5655 I wanted something to put on top, and I had some frozen peaches sitting around.  I went looking for a gelée recipe, and didn’t find anything I liked.  I started with an idea from myRecipes and used it as a springboard.  I tossed the (thawed) peaches in the blender to puree them while I bloomed another package of unflavored gelatin in a cup of club soda.  I added half a cup of the peach puree and a box of peach jello, then a cup of boiling water to dissolve it all.  I tried pouring the hot jello on top, but it broke up the panna cotta.  Spooning it carefully on top worked much better.

Next came the cookies.  This was a really quick and easy cookie recipe – add oats, flout, sugar, dark corn syrup (I didn’t have any, so I used half molasses and half light corn syrup), milk, and vanilla to a mixing bowl, melt some butter, and mix it all.  The result is a rather wet and sticky dough, which flattens out very thin when you bake it.

When I went to put the milk back in the fridge after making the cookies, I tipped over one of my panna cotta bowls, and it fell out of the fridge:

IMG_5656 Luckily, the mess took less time to clean up then the cookies took to bake.  The recipe said to let the cookies cool completely, then stick pairs of them together with melted dark chocolate.  I did that, but the cookies were far better warm, just as they were, right out of the oven.  The insides were gooey, the outside was crunchy, and they were rich and oat-y. 

IMG_5663

In the end, it all came together well.  The peach gelée worked well to add some fruitiness. The panna cotta was rich and creamy, and the cookies were crunchy.  I’m looking forward to making it again, with some different flavors – chocolate panna cotta, maybe, with cherry gelée on top?

( see the recipe )

I like sandwich cookies, and I make quite a few of them.  Somehow, they seem a step up from “regular” cookies, but they don’t require painstaking decorations like fancy iced cookies.

I’ve done chocolate sandwich cookies before (using this recipe) but they don’t usually survive long enough to get pictures. 

This recipe is from the Martha Stewart’s Cookiesbook.  Why that one?  Because I was flipping through the book looking for something inspiring, and I hadn’t tried this recipe before.

It’s another standard cookie recipe – beat the butter and sugar, add an egg, add the dry ingredients.  There’s nothing unusual or difficult about it.

The dough gets scooped out onto a baking sheet.  I have a set of cookie scoops, and I used the smallest one here.  It’s easy to end up with monstrously big sandwich cookies, so I start small.  If you don’t have a cookie scoop, you can use a spoon, but make sure you get them close to the same size, or you’ll have to sort them out after they bake.

Cookies!

Once they’re all scooped out, dip the bottom of a glass in sugar, then press them down flat.  If you have a fancy glass with ridges on the bottom, you can use that and transfer the pattern.  I don’t, so I just used a plastic tumbler.  Some of the sugar will transfer, so re-dip the glass for every cookie. 

Cookies!

Bake.  Keep a close eye on them – with chocolate cookies, you can’t see the color change when they’re getting close to done, so it’s easy to burn them. 

Cookies!

Let them cool.  They need to be room temperature before you fill them – if they’re even a little warm, the heat from the cookies will melt the filling and you’ll have a mess.

While they’re cooling, mix up the filling.  The recipe calls for half butter and half shortening.  You can play with that proportion as long as you keep the total to one cup – more butter and it’ll be richer, but less butter and more shortening will make it more authentic.  Same thing with the vanilla – if you used a double-strength vanilla extract or vanilla paste it will be better, if you use less then a teaspoon it will taste more like Oreo filling.

Put the filling in a piping bag, and pipe less then you think it needs onto one cookie.  Press another on top.  It’s easy to over-fill them, so I always err on the side of less filling and add more if I think they need it.  If you don’t want to get out the piping bag, you can use a spoon, but I think piping is actually easier.

Cookies!

You can do all sorts of variations – some people roll them in sprinkles to decorate them, or you can play with different flavors in the filling. 

Personally, I just enjoy them with a cold glass of milk. They don’t need anything else.

( see the recipe )

A couple weeks ago one of my coworkers gifted me with a very large bag of grapefruits off her tree.  I also happened to have nearly a dozen egg yolks in the fridge after my sponge-cake adventures that needed to be used up.

It was time for some googling.  The most interesting recipe I found was a grapefruit meringue pie.  The only problem was that it required "complete” eggs, since the whites were needed for the meringue.  I thought maybe the filling would work just fine without the meringue, as long as I didn’t try to make it into a pie.

So what do you do with a pie filling without a pie?  You put it in cream puffs. 

I’ll make cream puffs at the drop of a hat.  I’ve filled them with chicken salad for parties, countless versions of pastry cream, even plain vanilla pudding. 

People are intimidated by the dough, but it’s really not difficult. 

You start by boiling water and butter in a saucepan, then adding flour.  When you stir this together, you get a thick, somewhat sticky, dough.  Once it all comes together, it goes into the bowl of a stand mixer to cool until it’s just barely warm. 

Once the dough is cool, you slowly add the eggs with the mixer running.  I poured in something that was as close to “one egg” as possible (the recipe says “add them one at a time” which doesn’t really make sense – if you’ve combined them all into a cup to measure, you can’t really split them back out into individual eggs).  As soon as one egg is incorporated, add more egg.  Repeat until you run out of eggs.

The next challenge is to pipe them into the right shape.  The hard part here is getting the sticky dough into the piping bag.  I use a tall tumbler – the bag goes inside, then gets folded over the rim.  This holds it upright and open while you fill it:

Piping Bag

Don’t fill it this full, or it will end up all over your hands when you try to use it:

Piping Bag

Stopping a half-inch or so below the top is best. 

Once it’s in the bag, use your biggest plain tip to pipe it into the shape you want.  I made them vaguely cream-puff shaped, but you can also do long éclair shapes if you prefer:

Cream Puffs

They go in the oven for 20 minutes – the first 10 of that at 425F, to make them “puff”, and then another 10 at 350F to finish them off.  I was slow to turn the oven down, so mine got a bit over-browned on top:

Cream Puffs

People say you should poke holes in them with a knife while they cool to let the steam out and keep them from getting soggy inside. I think that you should instead assume that they have a shelf life of about 4 hours, and plan to eat them sometime in that window.  I’ve never successfully baked them one day and had them still be edible the next day.

While they were cooling, I made up the filling.  I called it a curd, but it’s thickened with cornstarch, so I believe technically it’s a pudding.  It’s simple – just mix it all up and cook until it thickens.  If you’re very obsessive about lumps, you could run it through a fine strainer when it’s done. 

I filled another piping bag (the disposable ones are so nice for this), poked the tip into the center of the cream puffs, and filled them.  You want to do this just before serving, or they will get soggy.

Grapefruit Cream Puff

They came out great, with just the right amount of tartness.  They were a nice change from the ordinarily over-sweet filling that you find in cream puffs.  I’d make them again!

( see the puff recipe )

( see the filling recipe )