June 17, 2010

Sweets & Snacks Expo 2010

For the first time in my life, I'm involved in a line of work that has conventions! I loved going to them with my dad as a kid.  He was a surgeon, and so I'd end up wandering around these medical convention expos with him, grabbing free socks and backpacks, emblazoned with some medical research or drug company's name. We always had a bevy of pharmaceutical company pens and Post-It notes in our house, along with our fair share of t-shirts bearing fungal cell structures and other medical oddities you wouldn't even be caught mowing the lawn in!

But now I'm in a field where I get to attend things like the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which was held at McCormick Place in Chicago on May 24-27. This is the candy and snacks industry's chance to justify the purpose of high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, and maltodextrose in your diet. I think I acquired diabetes by just walking in the door! Nonetheless, I had a great time and learned a lot about the snack industry, like how Frito-Lay is becoming one of the greenest snack producers in the world, with compostable packaging and by using recycled water and solar power in its plants. Or that there will now be a line of Fancy Nancy Sweethearts candy and that Pringles has gone multi-grain.

We are not big snackers in our house and tend toward simple tortilla chips and a good homemade salsa or a bowl of cereal to tie us over between meals, but it was fun to see all these vendors in one place and to bring home everything from chocolate-covered Peeps to chewy Lemonheads. As a cupcake baker always looking for the right topper, it was heaven on Earth! I also experienced yet another celebrity sighting, at least in the cupcake-baking world. Authors Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, of Hello Cupcake! fame, were in full cupcake-demo swing, showing conference goers how to make cupcake toppers out of anything from Kraft caramels to Nutter Butters. They are just as jovial in person as they come across in their books, and like the big cookbook nerd that I am, I returned the next day with both my Hello Cupcake books for them to sign. I also saw the mayor, who I've heard is not even really an eater, much less a snacker, but that was good PR for the city for him to show up, even if he doesn't so much as pop a Hershey Kiss in his mouth. More people attended this year's show than any other Sweet & Snacks Expo in history and there are more candies, sweets, and snacks being produced worldwide now than ever before. (So much for healthy eating!) In fact, at one time, Chicago was the biggest candy producer in the world; now it's Denmark. Not sure how that transition happened--maybe Denmark wanted to be known for more than just a breakfast pastry.

Take a look at my photos on the Spoonfoolery Photostream. You'll see some general high-fructose insanity, like the Native American headdress made entirely out of candy and a Mona Lisa mosaic constructed with Jelly Bellys. And then maybe you'll want to go eat a big salad because your blood sugar will have spiked just looking at this stuff!

June 10, 2010

Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Last week, I finished my first full term as a baking and pastry arts instructor. It was a dream job with a textbook start and a photo finish. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience post-corporate America. A year ago, I finally walked away from the cement wall I’d banged my head against for 15 years and plunged head-first into a career as a baker and pastry chef. On June 2, as I met all the parents at the pizza banquet my students had slaved all afternoon to make (totally and completely from scratch, including doughs and sauces!), I was never more thankful for my one-year-old decision.

Teaching is so satisfying. I loved watching their minds swell with baking knowledge over the weeks of our program. To see them, just 3 months ago, unable to wrap their brains around the concepts of yeast and how it activates bread life, to happily kneading pounds and pounds of pizza dough and knowing how to handle a rolling pin—well, it just warms the cockles of my heart! We began in March with the simplicities of blueberry muffins and cornbread. Along the way, they learned how to make cinnamon rolls, frost cupcakes, and bake brownies. They hand-rolled chocolate truffles and assembled caramel pecan turtles. They went from England (scones) to Italy (pizza dough), and on our last day, they planned and executed a banquet welcoming their parents to our kitchen. My pastry queens!

And the pizza banquet was a HUGE hit! We made classic pizza dough with a homemade pizza sauce and plenty of fun toppings, along with a salad trimmed right from the youth center’s rooftop garden. We finished everything off with a dessert pizza, assembled with a cookie dough crust, a vanilla yogurt and cream cheese “sauce,” and lots of fresh fruit, with chocolate sauce drizzled over the top. Parents were satisfied, and the kids were quite proud of their work. Considering so much was made from scratch, it would be hard to share all the complete recipes here, so I will meet you halfway and give you my infamous dessert pizza recipe. I've been making it for years--a great dessert staple, with backyard barbeques, and the celebration of youth and the whole learning process upon us this graduation season.

Dessert Pizza

Cookie Dough Crust

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt 
2 sticks butter, unsalted, softened (8 oz)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1teaspoon vanilla extract
dash of almond extract

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the egg and both extracts.

Slowly add flour mixture (1 cup at a time) and stir until incorporated. Form the dough into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Press the dough out onto a parchment-lined 12-inch pizza pan. Bake the cookies for approximately 12-14 minutes or until the edges begin to turn golden brown in color. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Yogurt-Cream Cheese Sauce

2 8-oz packages light cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups lowfat vanilla yogurt
Powdered sugar to taste

Blend cream cheese and yogurt in the bowl of an electric mixer until smooth. Add sugar by tablespoonfuls until desired sweetness. Chill 30 minutes before spreading.

Hot Fudge Sauce

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a microwave-safe container, heat the chocolate and butter in the microwave on half power in 30 second intervals until melted. Set aside to cool.

Heat cream in medium saucepan over low heat. Add sugar and corn syrup and stir until sugar dissolves completely. Add cream mixture to melted chocolate and return to pot. Continue to heat mixture over low heat, stirring constantly. Add the vanilla and pour into a small pitcher.

To assemble pizza, spread yogurt-cream cheese sauce over cookie crust. Sprinkle with assorted fruit (pineapple chunks, strawberry and banana slices slices, blueberries, mandarin oranges). Drizzle with chocolate sauce. Slice into squares and serve!