I often joke that my friends no longer allow me to attend their parties without baked goods in tow. Cupcakes – to be more specific. Cupcakes topped with frosting generously slathered on, or piped in tiny dots, or with semi-Impressionist-looking flowers. But cupcakes in their most shining glory – a tiny, single-portion cake made just for you. It’s cake – personalized and it doesn’t get better than this. Somehow, in its miniature form is just that much cuter than its bigger cousin, but then again, baby anything is much cuter than its adult version.
Let me clear here – I have never, not for a minute, in my life, planned any aspect of my future wedding, should I find that perfect guy and tie the knot. I know there are women who’ve been planning that day from the time when they were five and I think that’s lovely and wonderful. It’s just that I never did that. What I did do, as a child, was draw elaborate and to-scale plans of my dream kitchen. But then again, I was always hanging around kitchens, watching my mother and my grandmother cook – trying to get some small job, however, minuscule it was. There was this one time, my mother gave me scraps of dough and I tried to mold a little person out of it with raisins for eyes and a cinnamon mouth. I was doing well, until I decided to put a peppercorn for the nose, and was so insistent upon it that nothing my mother said made a difference. Eating it, of course, was a different matter altogether – and while certainly a curious flavor combination, six year olds rarely appreciate peppercorns in their baked goods.
In any case, I was never the girl who thought of the dress I’d wear to the wedding, and what the first dance song would be, or whom I’d have in my bridal party. As a child, I simply didn’t care. As an adult, I figured I’ll get to it when I really had to. But what I did think about (ok, so I guess I did think about it, I lied) was what I was going to feed people. And whenI did think about feeding my guests, I thought the most about cake. What kind of cake, what flavor and look. For awhile I wanted a pyramid of Krispy Kreme doughnuts – an idea my mother showed little enthusiasm for. Then there was the obsession with wedding cupcakes. Which I still think is cute. But ultimately, I wanted to feed people cake. Good cake at that.
People, I must say that I love cake. Cake is one of those things I just don’t turn down. Ever. I don’t care that refined sugar is bad for me, I’m going to eat cake if it’s put in front of me. And if you give me a cold glass of milk to chase it down, I’m your friend forever. But despite my deep cake love, I sure am picky – I eat most cake and I’m left, well, not totally fulfilled. Either I find there is too much frosting (yes, there is such a thing), or it’s overly sweet, or the cake feels too dense, or that pesky baking soda taste dominates (by far my biggest gripe!). But sometimes, you find a cake that is just right, perfect in fact, and you wind up making it not once but twice in one week.
It’s the kind of cake you make to take with you as a hostess gift for your hosts in the North Fork, or the kind of cake you make for a friend who comes over to dinner. The kind of cake, that after you send said friend home to bring a piece to her sister, makes her sister proclaim each time friend returns from my place back, “Well, do you have some cake for me?” The kind of cake that wins, hearts, minds and stomachs.
And the kind of cake that makes you decide upon tasting it, that this is the cake you want to serve your guests at your future wedding, the way the original cake creator, Molly, did. All you’ve got to do now, is find the lucky guy – but clearly your biggest dilemmas are already solved. This guy part is just a technicality.
There is a reason that this post is devoid of any great shots of stacks of brownies or brownies on a plate with a glass of milk. I had a bit of a photography snafu with these at I’m entirely at fault here. You see, when you cook in a small, counter-deficient kitchen and you lack grace (my friends know I do), things sometimes fall, often making a mess, often changing their intended shape from the impact of the fall. Sometimes, I have to make a new batch of that something it winds up in a pile of crumbs all over my kitchen floor. A freshly washed kitchen floor, mind you.
And so with such fabulous coordination such as mine, I was about to take pictures of these brownies perfectly cut in carefully measured (with a ruler!) squares, when I turned to grab my camera and heard a loud crash. And as luck would have it, I had no time to make a second batch of these, and was dashing out to cook more food at a Super Bowl party Paul and Sharon (my newly engaged, cake-decorating-kit-giving friends) were hosting. I looked down to where the baking dish had fallen and was both relieved and aghast – the brownies, magically fallen in such a way that nothing, but a few loose crumbs fell out onto the floor. Everything was still inside the baking dish. But. Oh, but of course there’s a “but”. The perfect squares were no more. Instead, they were erratic shapes of brownies looking like random displaced countries cut out from a map.
At this point, I had to make do with what I had. I packed them as best as I could and took them with me to Brooklyn. They were dubbed as the world’s best tasting ugliest brownies. And you know what? We loved them just fine.
Now, a word about these brownies. These are from the Baked cookbook I’ve made the peanut butter chocolate bars from and the Sweet and Salty Cake, and no, the Baked folks aren’t asking me to sing their cookbook praises, but I can’t help myself. First, the cookbook is excellent and features recipes I’m itching to make. And secondly, I don’t have that many dessert cookbooks, or cook books to begin with, at this point in time. And finally, I’ve had such luck with recipes in this book, I’m itching to try a dozen others!
But these brownies are serious business – deep, dark, bitter chocolate is a fantastic thing in and of itself. But if you add a little heat to it, I think the chocolate flavor becomes more complex and lingers on your palate longer. It elevates the brownie to a very sophisticated treat and while I’m always an advocate for presentation – you’ll love them no matter what they look like!
Sometimes a cake is just a cake. You bake it, frost it and then serve it forth to your friends. Everyone loves the cake, of course, and within half an hour you have an empty serving platter with a few loose crumbs; everyone content and grateful for your homemade creation. Sometimes however, a cake turns into a test of your will and persistence and creativity and sheer reluctance to quit. This is such a cake. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In this particular case, I had promised to bake a cake for a friend. But I also promised to wow and impress. I’ve long been waxing poetic about salted caramel and so I knew exactly the cake I wanted to make. To me, salted caramel is one of the most seductive foods. I am certain I can be wooed with very modest offerings of salted caramel, herring and cilantro – some things just make a girl weak in the knees. I’m convinced there’s not a soul out there who doesn’t love salted caramel. And if loving salted caramel is wrong, I don’t ever wanna be right.
As some of you know, I’m fairly new to this cake-making business. My first foray was earlier this year with the peanut butter chocolate cake, soon after followed by the chocolate dulce de leche cake. And both were fairly straightforward and simple. I had few issues and little to complain about and the end product, in both cases, was a stunner. So I had few concerns going into this recipe. Hoo boy! Was I in for an experience. My quiet humming (something I often do when I am cooking) was soon switched out for the kind of language that typically graces Tarantino films. Let’s just say I’m pleased no children were present in the vicinity to hear my unladylike language.
And as irony would have it, for someone who was asked in her chemistry class to skip lab in order to pass (let’s just say I was a bit of a hazard with beakers and Bunsen burners), I marvel at my fascination with baking and being exacting and thorough. Sometimes it’s a breeze and everything comes together beautifully. And sometimes, when you think you’ve done everything right, something doesn’t quite work and you try to figure out what specifically went wrong (this is the part I’m particularly bad at). This cake was a kind of experience when many a thing didn’t quite go according to plan, but I am better and wiser now for it, but there was a moment when I was tempted to dump the whole thing in the trash can and call up my friend and say, “Screw cake. I’m bringing pizza”
I am tempted to rename this cake as “I’m Going to Tear Hair Out of My Head and Curse Like a Sailor Cake”, but I think that would be too long a title. I’ll keep the original and instead include a few notes that might help you have a less stressful experience than the one I had. Isn’t that nice now, you get a recipe AND some pointers in how to avoid the insanity? I will add my notes to the recipe in italics – so when you see that you will know this is my commentary.
To say this cake was delicious, would be inaccurate. It was quite possibly the most heart-stoppingly amazing cake I’ve had in awhile. And if your heart doesn’t skip a beat because the cake is decadent and rich, it might do so simply because the chocolate caramel whipped ganache contains four (4!) sticks of butter. I cannot tell you enough how fussy and time-consuming this was and how much, in the middle of this project I didn’t regret it. But looking back if I was asked to make this cake all over again, I absolutely would, hopefully this time with less anxiety and curveballs if only because I’m going to use a few of my own learned pointers, which I hope will help you as well, in case you are feeling particularly self-punishing and want to recreate the magic in your own kitchens.
Serve this cake in the tiniest of slivers as it is quite intense and filling. A glass of milk will not only enhance the cake, but for a moment, make you forget about all the pain and suffering you’ve endured at the hands of this towering confection – which will be exactly what you need to enjoy the rest of your night.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that something was decidedly in the air when I was making this cake. The only pictures I had on my photo card were the ones of the already-made cake – the others have mysteriously vanished. Gone. As if they never existed in the first place. So all I have for you are these mediocre finished product shots. You get none of the in-process pictures, which were not half bad. And because I quickly sensed this cake was tricky, I took very detailed step-by-step photographs to walk you though this recipe carefully. But somehow the gods of cake-making must have decided against to play a practical joke on me because I should be really presenting you with “I made this cake, but all I have to show you are these pictures.” T-shirt. Yes, I know, I’d feel cheated too. I owe you one.
How did this happen again? A full week has gone by since I posted last and it’s been almost two weeks that this recipe has been sitting comfortably in my MT system waiting for me to click publish. And publish it, I did not. A whirlwind of a long weekend in Boston, and then a crazy week left me no time to string two words together, never mind sentences. And boy, was I excited to tell you about this cake! Does the phrase “dulce de leche” grab your attention? See, even now, I just stared a good five minutes at the last sentence thinking, “Now where was I?”
This cake was made for a surprise engagement brunch for two of my best friends, Paul and Sharon who have recently returned from their trip to South Africa, where Paul proposed and Sharon accepted, making them officially engaged (yay!). I was in on the whole thing and kept it so well from Sharon that she totally bought my let’s-celebrate-the -New- Year-belatedly-since-you-were-in- South-Africa-and-we-didn’t-celebrate-together excuse. In reality, Paul, who is very sneaky in the most delightful ways, was planning a surprise brunch for Sharon with the nearest and dearest friends. And the surprise worked – she had no idea.
Of course, as soon as Paul let me in on this devious plan, I offered to bake a cake for the occasion. Paul’s only requirement was that the cake would have chocolate – never a poor request. But chocolate cake still left me with so many options. Do I go for the triple threat and make a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, and some more chocolate tucked somewhere in the middle? Do I maybe opt to have a raspberry filling to accent the dark chocolate batter?
Since I had just made a chocolate peanut butter cake and there was an FDA warning on peanut butter, I thought carefully about my options and decided to go with a chocolate cola cake with a dulce de leche frosting. The recipe, from my new favorite cake book, taunted me for weeks with whispers of decadent things to come and since I leaf through this book practically every night before I turn the lights off and go to bed, it takes Herculean strength not get out of bed and have a piece of toast with Nutella. With will power like this, state secrets will never leave my lips!
Well, for those of you who like a good nostalgic, Southern-themed dessert, this cake is for you! Flavored with cherry cola, frosted with a dulce du leche frosting with pecans and coconut, this is a rich, chocolatey, powerful cake. It’s intense and decadent and were it not for the fiercely cold temperatures outside, it would make me feel like I’m lounging in Charleston somewhere sipping on sweet tea and fanning myself.
And though this cake is not difficult at all, a couple of notes I learned along the way to steer you along. First, I know the recipe says “sweetened coconut”, but seriously, rich chocolate cake, dulce de leche and sweetened coconut? I opted for unsweetened and it was lovely. Two, the dulce de leche takes 2 hours to make. And then some time to cool. While not a difficult cake, it’ll take a few hours to make and put together, so give yourself enough time. Three, I flash froze the cakes once they cooled off and then frosted them frozen – and gave the cake enough time to come to room temperature to be eaten. Frosting while the cakes are frozen is a lot easier than fumbling about with sticky frosting such as this and delicate, crumbly textures.
And honestly, this cake is so worth the time and trouble because it is just painfully good. Painfully, because as you are eating it and you realize you are full, you’re all-too-well aware that you simply cannot put your fork down and might even have to force yourself to have a second piece, as one of our friends did. If the rest of Paul and Sharon’s life together is as decadent and lush and sweet, then my work here is done.
I blame the red wine entirely. A few friends stopped by and two bottles of wine later I realized – dessert doesn’t make itself! But sipping wine with friends is way more fun, no matter how much I love to cook. Luckily, just as a few drinks seem to improve my pool game, a few glasses of wine seem to improve my cooking or, at the very least, make me more efficient. So starting these bars late in the evening worked out just fine.
I would think that I should omit even thinking about New Year’s resolutions seeing as I start the first post of the year by mentioning wine. And I know, I’m throwing more sugar your way, but, tasked with dessert, I had to make these, along with other New-Year’s-resolution-unfriendly treats for the New Year’s Eve party at friends’ place in Brooklyn. And really, it’s sort of the last hurrah (almost), isn’t it, because when the clock struck midnight I kind of wanted to put the sugar overload on the back burner and think thoughts of brown rice, spinach, maybe tofu. And I’ve a great recipe on that coming your way, but first, a few thoughts on these incredibly decadent things that contain my two favorite ingredients: peanut butter and chocolate.
Thought one: I’m glad they’re not in my fridge any longer, but in Brooklyn somewhere because as hard as I am trying to decrease my cookie and candy diet, I wouldn’t stand a chance with these mere yards away. Like Nutella, these can never be made just for home – they’ll have to be brought to others to share because otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble.
I will also make them again, but tweak a few things. Perhaps add a little cream to the sugar mixture to create a caramel of sorts and give the rice a bit more dimension. I would decrease the amount of the peanut layer – because I found it a bit too overpowering, but tasty nonetheless. I would also cut them into more pieces than the suggested 9 – as I could only eat a small square at a time.
But all in all, these are so good and are incredibly easy to make – and they’re bound to be a hit at any party. This is the first recipe from the Baked: New Frontiers in Baking cookbook that I tried – a book that’s been recommended to me over and over by quite a few people. And after seeing several drool-enducing recipes from it on Deb’s blog, I finally cracked and bought it for myself. Certainly not the last recipe from it, you can expect to see other in the future. And now, if you excuse me, I have to think about what to make for with my wilting carrots (I think I know!) – and I do it a lot better over a glass of cold, red wine.
For the last two weeks I have been playing Christmas music without a pause. I know that Hannukah is right around the corner, but it’s really Christmas that gets me all excited for winter. I think Jews and Christmas are destined to forever share their forbidden love. I, for one, have come clean about it. I’m no longer ashamed.
And since I’ve committed to celebrating Christmas with food, what better way to do so than with a traditional Christmas cake – bûche de noël! I searched a variety of cook books for the recipe, and yet, no recipe was to be found. And surprisingly, the internet offered precious little in the ways of a good recipe. But I did find one that caught my eye – not only was it a a bûche de noël, but it was one that evoked flavors of the South – with pecans and bourbon. And how can I say no to bourbon?
Furthermore, the cake came with a bourbon-spiked caramel sauce and I was on a caramel making kick. And since I failed at my first caramel making exercise, I was determined not to let it bog me down. Seriously, how hard is it to boil sugar and water, watch it get to a deep amber color and then stir some cream and butter into it? I learned my lesson in that making caramel requires a pot without a non-stick coating, otherwise the proper caramelization doesn’t occur and you wind up creating thicker syrup that doesn’t much change in color. The result – a failed confection.
Growing up, for many of our wintry family gatherings in Russia, my great-aunt, who was a cook and baker par-excellence, made this incredible rolled cake with butter cream, nuts and chocolate shavings. In retrospect, it was a bûche de noël, but somewhere along the line, my secularized family adopted this tradition as a festive holiday treat. The word for this in Russian is poleno, which literally translates as a “log”. Somehow, bûche de noel sounds sexier than log, don’t you think?
I was really intimidated by this recipe – what with the rolling of the cake to make a log-shaped form. Please note that the cake in this recipe is not a genoise (what?) but a sponge cake with eggs and whites whipped separately and then folded togeter, not mixed (important note on that later) together. A genoise (as I have just learned, being new to cake baking myself) is a sponge cake that doesn’t use any of the leavening agents for the cake to rise, but rather the air bubbles created by whipping the whole eggs (and sometimes adding the extra yolks) together. Having completed this lengthy, though not terribly difficult exercise, I am now curious to experiment with different cake structures and icings.
A few notes:
1. This is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. Prepare to spend ½ day on this but you can do other stuff in between, but it does take time.
2. The directions tells you to keep the made cake at room temperature. I cannot tell you how much better it tastes cold and how much better it will keep and set.
3. Should you forget to do a step, don’t despair, try to think of a way around it. I failed to butter the parchment paper on which the cake was baking and was too lazy to remake the cake portion of it. I instead took a long frosting spatula and gently went around the edge-to-middle part of the cake, thus loosening it from the paper. And since you are covering that side with frosting all over, no-one will see the “ugly” side so to speak.
4. When you are rolling the cake, you will see the cake crack a little bit. Do not worry, it happened to me and I covered it with frosting just fine. Also, the ridges from the cracks make the cake look more log-like – which is kind of the effect you’re looking for.
5. Use good bourbon.
6. I ran out of pecans and subbed about 1/3 of the nuts with walnuts. The result – delicious. If you don’t have enough of a certain nut, just plug along a different nut – and you should be fine.
7. When you are folding your ingredients together (as the instructions below tell you), make your you fold and not mix. Use a rubber spatula and gently lifting the outer part of the batter, pull it into the center. If you are too aggressive and mix instead, you risk of collapsing your cake and not getting the right sponginess to it.
If you’re looking for a delicious and stunning way to impress your guests, this is the way to go – it really isn’t difficult and even though it takes time, it is very much manageable and doable. It sure does look impressive. Your reward – sitting back and enjoying a slice of this divine, rich cake with a cup of coffee while your guests oooh and aaah and are generally impressed with your culinary prowess, which, of course, you have no doubt – just don’t tell them it wasn’t that hard. They won’t believe you anyway.
I don’t know about you, but as disciplined and balanced an eater as I am, I can’t stay away from Nutella. It is my one weakness, my kryptonite. I could, in all honesty, much have a pretty awesome evening with a book, a jar of Nutella and a spoon. Forget bread, as it just gets in the way. And if you think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, here’s a small confession, I’ve been known to go through a complete jar of Nutella from start to finish in one sitting. Yes, I have that little will-power. Hazelnut chocolate – I just can’t quit you!
So you would think I’d be wise enough not to make chocolate hazelnut crinkle cookies; cookies that bring hazelnuts and chocolate together. You’d think I would have enough common sense to know early on this was a very bad idea indeed. You’d think I would see the impending doom coming. Instead, I ignored every scrap of common sense and made the cookies anyway.
Sigh. I’ve been delaying writing about these muffins because it’s almost unfair to write about them without having these at your side with a tall, cold glass of milk – it kind of makes me wistful and hungry. Do I have your attention yet?
I don’t know how you like your chocolate, (and yes, I’m assuming that you actually like chocolate, because the alternative would just be crazy,) but I like mine dark, rich, with just a touch of bitter (and yes, we are still talking about chocolate). Well, if you are looking for a muffin to make that’s more like a cake and less like a muffin that packs an intense chocolate flavor with a surprising bite of cherries – this is for you. Because – and don’t say I didn’t warn you – this is one serious chocolate muffin.
And while this is a recipe that takes minutes to pull together, we ran into some technical difficulties when my friend and I discovered that our brown sugar turned into brown sugar rock and her husband had to come to the rescue and hammer the block into pieces then proceeding to pulverize it in the food processor. We are nothing if not dedicated.
The dried cherries, I think, work better than fresh ones because they offer a slightly more concentrated tartness, but if you want to go the fresh route, those should work well also.
And while the batter was baking in the oven, we decorated my friends’ Christmas tree, which smelled so amazing, I want one now. The reward for our hard work (because bedazzling a tree with ornaments is serious manual labor) was these muffins and I treated myself to a glass of milk. If only all hard work had such decadent pay-off.
To be honest, this cookie making experience seems so far away, I have a hard time recalling the vividness of the excitement. I’ve been meaning to write about it for days now, or maybe over a week, but with work and a 4-day bar mitzvah event, I’ve been otherwise detained. I do know that when we first tasted the cookies, I did a little dance around our kitchen with a victorious “Take that, Tate’s!!” feeling pretty successful, particularly given my recent cooking flops.
Not only did I manage to produce a cookie that was delicious beyond words, it tasted far better than my favorite cookies made by Tate’s! And it wasn’t even their recipe, which by the way, is seriously flawed – as I came across a few blogs that bemoaned the fact that the cookies came out tasting like anything but Tate’s packaged ones you can get in the store. It also didn’t help that KS’s younger sister mentioned the very same problem she had with the recipe, proclaiming those cookies mushy and gross. Now, I may not want to partake in any Chips Ahoy, but let me tell you, a cookie has to be seriously disgusting for me to complain about it!
So, back to the cookie that made it all better – thank you, Martha Stewart, yet again. Really, it was like a miracle, as if the skies parted, the clouds lifted and I heard angels sing and trumpets play. It was the first time I tried a cookie I made and thought to myself, “There’s a living that can be made in this!” Unfortunately for you, I got so carried away with making, baking and tasting the cookies, that the pictures for this recipe are seriously lacking. For which I am sorry. A bit.
Having said all this, there’s the expected regular disclaimer. I mean, how do you like your cookies? Do you prefer them to be chewy or crispy? On the thicker side, or thin and lacy like? My cookie tastes have shifted over the years and with chocolate chip cookies, I now strongly prefer a thin, lacy, buttery cookie to a thicker, chewier one. If you are also one of those people, this cookie is for you. If, however, you’re in the thicker, chewier cookie camp, do not despair, for there is a way for you to use the same recipe and get the cookie you prefer. Read on!
This discovery was made by pure accident, as most discoveries are. For one reason or another, and frankly I can’t remember why, I baked a portion of the cookies using a Silpat cookie sheet and a portion using parchment paper. The Silpat batch was thicker and chewier – tasty, but we preferred the parchment paper batch, which was the thin, lacy, buttery cookie that melted in our mouths. This is the cookie I was after, and KS proclaimed that these were my best cookies yet – a high praise from a guy who tells me straight if I’ve over-salted the soup yet again. Unfortunately, unlike the last time, he couldn’t come up with a sexy name for the cookie, and so it’ll remain the good ol’ chocolate chip cookie.