Mar 8, 2010

Best Cocoa Brownies

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Remember in back in, say, early grade school when you first learned about the elusive concept of “Opposite Day”? Like yes meant no and stop meant go and basically it was just a ripe opportunity for little kids to act like they were way smarter than their parents because no matter what kind of discipline parents tried to instill on their children, the child could deflect the power by simply proclaiming it Opposite Day? Yeah. I was really into the concept of Opposite Day. How did my mother not lock me up for life by defying her with nonsense?

Anyway, I’ve since gotten over the idea of Opposite Day in a big way. I like order. Predictability. I like to know that when a brownie recipe contains only cocoa and no solid chocolate that it will probably turn out dull, dry and lifeless and be a complete waste of calories. Well. Let it be known that the ever-inspiring pastry phenom Alice Medrich is a saucy minx who is apparently a huge advocate of Opposite Day.

A few weeks back, I exposed myself as a Team Fudgy brownie lover and shared a recipe that I’d had high hopes for, but had turned out too much on the cakey side to be something I’d call a real brownie. And oh, the irony! It had all sorts of melted chocolate in the batter, an element that nearly every legendary brownie recipe incorporates. This latest brownie recipe I’m bringing to you has 100% cocoa as its backbone, not a speck of bar chocolate to speak of and get this–it’s as moist and fudgy and amazing as all get out.

It’s almost a little like the box mix brownies that even this scratch baking enthusiast can’t resist, and to me, that’s high praise. What? I don’t care if it makes you think I have a dirty, secret Sandra Lee underbelly, I plowed my way through three boxes of brownie mix in as many weeks during the last trimester of my pregnancy, and if you’d scoffed at me then, I would’ve cut you. I love me a box mix brownie. Fact.

But truthfully, after making a batch of Alice Medrich’s Cocoa Brownies, I really don’t see a reason to go down that box mix route again. Well, except for a 10-for-10-bucks sale at Safeway, but c’mon, who can resist THAT? Communists, that’s who. Anyway, this recipe involves barely more steps or dirty dishes than making box mix brownies, and there’s no way my sister Betty Crocker could turn out a batter so midnight dark and deeply chocolaty, courtesy of copious amounts of Valrhona cocoa, because when I go all out, I go big.

And really, if you’re going to make a recipe with an ingredient in the title, I think it’s a good indication that you should pull out the big guns, in this case a rich premium cocoa powder such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger or the like. It’s so worth it, if for no other reason than to have your mind blown by the idea that something can taste more like chocolate than chocolate itself but with no solid chocolate actually in it. No, I meant that. I know I may look crazy with these fudgy brownie crumbs in my teeth, but I know what I’m talking about.

Best Cocoa Brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

I am typically a brownie purist and like them plain, but if you’re a nutty brownie person, Medrich recommends pecans or walnuts. Note that the eggs need to be cold in this recipe, as opposed to the room temperature eggs that are called for in so many other baking recipes.

Makes 16 brownies

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides. Spray the pan and lining with cooking spray.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth, though it will appear somewhat gritty. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not at all hot.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well-blended, add the flour and stir until all the streaks of flour disappear, then beat vigorously for 40 more strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Set the pan in the freezer for 10 minutes (it will make for clean cutting of the brownies).

Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

Mar 3, 2010

Where I Shop for Baking Supplies

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A while back, I got a comment from a sweet POC reader named Ann asking about some of my recommendations for local places to buy great baking ingredients and supplies in the Bay Area and beyond. Well, as I am wont to do on the subject of baking supplies and anything that allows me to make a list of things I like, I wrote a response so verbose that I decided it might be a post-worthy topic. So here are some of my favorite resources, sponsored by no one other than myself and my baking-related shopping compulsion. Thanks for the inspiration, Ann! And if anyone else wants to add onto this list for places you love to shop in your area (great websites for online shopping also welcome!), leave your recs in the comments section!

Spun Sugar, Berkeley. Oh sweet Lord, is this place ever a baker’s paradise. Everything you could possibly want and more, from fancy cupcake liners to decorating supplies, tools and bakeware, flavorings and bakery boxes. Their online store is growing–as of now they offer an insane selection of premium chocolates that can be hard to find. Really fair prices. Very clean and well-organized. The people behind the counter can give you wonderful advice on just about anything baking-related. They also teach classes here that get great reviews and there’s always something amazing-smelling baking in the back room.

Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco. I buy nuts, spices, high-quality chocolate chips and other spendy items here in bulk and stock my freezer. Wonderful quality ingredients here at a fair price. A decent selection of kitchenware in the back corner. On a non-baking note, this place makes eating organic completely doable on a budget. Well worth the trip.

Sur La Table, Ferry Building, San Francisco. Goes without saying. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of bakeware here make me shed a tear–it’s a thing of beauty. You might pay a pretty penny for certain items at Sur La Table, but it’s a dream to shop here. I have a crush on the one in the Ferry Building.

Omnivore Books, San Francisco. Okay, so it’s not baking supplies, per se, but you can’t bake without great recipes, right? At this dreamy cookbook Mecca, you can’t leave without being inspired to head into the kitchen. Their collection of baking-specific cookbooks is so impressive, it makes me feel all tingly and warm inside just thinking about it. Omnivore’s author signings and events are terrific and the staff is wonderfully helpful.

Mollie Stone’s, multiple Bay Area locations. Excellent for high quality baking ingredients, and some stores actually have a nice selection of high-end decorative items as well. Pricey but good if you have one nearby for those last-minute specialty items.

Sugar and Spice, Daly City–Geared towards professional cake decorators so they have all sorts of things here, even pre-made frostings and fillings. Good for decorative items like jimmies, dragees, sugar flowers, etc. and they also sell some high quality chocolates and other ingredients. Not the most organized shopping experience, but they do pack a lot into their space. I visit here when I need something for a project, but don’t have the time to get over the bridge to Spun Sugar.

Surfas, Culver City. So this place is actually in Los Angeles, but go with it. It’s one of the places that tugs at my heartstrings when I think about things I miss about LA, and I have to mention it because I still stock up here like a crazy person when I visit. Aisles and aisles of everything you could possibly want as a home baker and beyond, since Surfas is actually a restaurant supply store. Callebaut and Valrhona in bulk, people! If you’re ever in the Los Angeles area, this place is pilgrimage worthy. The cafe menu is to die for–make a half day trip of it!

What are your favorite local places for baking supplies, great ingredients and inspiration where you live?

Mar 1, 2010

Lemon-White Chocolate Butter Cookies

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I just don’t know how to act, you guys. Because seriously, the good recipe karma that has been flowing through the Piece of Cake kitchen lately is almost getting creepy. We’ve had a lot of hits around here lately, some of which I’ve yet to share with you. At this rate, I’m due for a real kitchen disaster that involves overflowing cake batter or burning the place down, but for now, I’ll take it. These lemon white chocolate chip cookies are now firmly planted in my Top 5 cookie recipes of all time and that’s juuuust fine by me.

This recipe comes from Bakewise, a book that I refer to again and again, not just for recipes, but for insane amounts of information on the science of baking. Are you familiar with Shirley Corriher, food scientist extraordinaire? You might recognize her as the jolly and very Southern woman with cropped silver hair who often appears on Good Eats with Alton Brown. Or as I like to think of her, the person who sits to my right at the table in my favorite daydream, wherein I have a loud, long lunch with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Ina Garten, Christopher Kimball and Nick Malgieri. Come to think of it, these cookies would be the most perfect little button on my imaginary menu for said lunch.

Shirley’s recipes (or Shirlz, as I’d call her if we were real, actual friends) are among some of the most foolproof you’ll ever find in any baking cookbook. She simply will not let you make a mistake–her unique voice is positively all over every single page. It’s fantastic. And oh, that Shirlz, is she ever gabby–some of the recipes do run sort of long, and if you’re a more experienced baker, you may be able to pick out the steps from the paragraphs without actually reading the entire recipe, and what you’ll find with these cookies is that they are really sablés, the slice and bake, buttery French shortbread cookies that are dead simple to make and come together in minutes.

The Shirlz-y magical twist on this classic cookie that take it over the edge into oh em gee territory is a combination of sharp, bright lemon and sweet, dreamy white chocolate chips. It’s an absolutely heavenly, remarkably balanced and ultimately craveworthy cookie. Oh, that Shirley. She’ll getcha, I’m telling you.

This cookie dough is the kind that you’ll want to make an entire batch of, even if you’re not the type to want several dozen cookies in your house at any given time (though if you are one of these people, you are dead to me. I kid!). Once you get the dough together and form it into logs and wrap them tightly, it will keep for several months, and since these are of the slice-and-bake variety, you could even just slice off a few cookies at a time and bake them whenever the urge hits. You know those domestic queens who always talk about just “having things on hand” to serve to guests? Well, this is the way to do it. And if I drop by your place and these little buttery, crisp, lemony gems are what you serve me, well, I hope you don’t mind sleepovers.

Lemon-White Chocolate Butter Cookies
Adapted from Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise

Note the flour here is spooned and leveled–it does make a difference in how much ends up in the cup. Like many slice-and-bake butter cookie recipes, this dough freezes beautifully for several months. Don’t worry about making perfectly circular logs out of the dough–I actually made mine into square-shaped logs because I think it makes them easier to slice and a round log usually ends up getting a little flat on a couple sides anyway. Once you taste these, looks are irrelevant.

Makes 4 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 large egg yolks
2 cups spooned and leveled all-purpose flour
1 cup white chocolate chips

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, corn syrup, lemon extract, and lemon zest until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the yolks, one at a time, and beat with each addition, just to blend in thoroughly. On the lowest speed, beat in the flour, scraping down the sides of the bowl and across the bottom once. Stir in the white chocolate chips.

Pat the dough into a disc and divide it into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap each roll individually in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

When you’re ready to bake, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper sprayed lightly with cooking spray or silicone baking mats. Slice cookies into about 3/8-inch slices (you should get 12 per log) and arrange about 1 inch apart on the sheets (I put about 20 on a sheet). Refrigerate one sheet while you bake the other–you want the dough as cold as possible when it goes into the oven to prevent spreading. Bake one sheet at a time until the edges just begin to brown, about 15 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through baking. Allow to cool on the sheet for 2 minutes, and then remove to a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

Feb 25, 2010

Totally Perfect Vanilla Marshmallows

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In a glorious, orderly manner that is all too unfamiliar in my day-to-day life with a lively toddler, this post involving my favorite marshmallow recipe has organically appeared on my to-do list, right after the most fan-flippin’-tastic hot fudge and some really outstanding homemade graham crackers. If you decide to put them all together and make what would certainly be the world’s most orgasmic s’mores, I simply cannot be held responsible for what might occur.

I sort of can’t believe that I haven’t shared a marshmallow recipe with you before, as I’m pretty much in love with homemade marshmallows of all sorts. They have an ethereal quality, and tasting one gives you that feeling that I’d mentioned in my last post, the sense that maybe you’ve never actually had a real marshmallow in the first place. They’re really something. And always so impressive–people always seem to say something like, “You made marshmallows?! How do you even make marshmallows?!” And I’m torn between feeling bizarrely dorky and completely awesome.




Case in point: A couple years back, I had a project that I was working on, and as a thank-you gift to the team, a made a whole mess of marshmallows. The catch was I had fly to my destination, and didn’t want the marshmallows to get smooshed in my luggage, so carried them on. As I passed through security, naturally I was stopped and questioned about the contents of my Tupperware. As I informed the burly TSA agent that they were homemade marshmallows, I got some odd looks from several agents at once. A nervous flurry of questions filled my mind–Did I miss the news? Are they not allowing food through security this week? Do marshmallows count as gels? Oh, sweet Jesus, please don’t make me toss my lovely sweet pillows from heaven! I was sure I was screwed.


But instead of scolding me for not knowing the rules, one of the agents said, “What? That’s crazy! You can’t make marshmallows!” Relieved, I said, in a very Pollyanna tone, “Oh yes, sir, oh, yes you can!”, and I even offered him a sample. He enthusiastically waved me through the x-ray machine (did you know TSA agents can smile?), and murmured to his coworkers about my culinary prowess. True story.

Now, I’ve tried lots of marshmallow recipes. The most popular ones you’ll find online and on most blogs are most likely Martha’s or Thomas Keller’s (the ones that wowed the TSA were a hybrid of these two recipes). Most recipes are basically just sugar, corn syrup, water and gelatin, but they vary in their proportions of each ingredient. There’s also ones like Dorie Greenspan‘s that involve egg whites, and they are delightfully fluffy and great for eating straight up, but not the best for shelf life or applications where you might want to warm them, like in hot cocoa or s’mores, as they dissolve rather quickly. Needless to say, finding my personal marshmallow nirvana has been a long time coming.


I’d decided a while ago that a key element of my perfect marshmallows would involve gelatin sheets instead of supermarket powdered gelatin. This way, you can use a good amount of gelatin to get the firmer set on the finished candy that makes them sturdy and versatile without the unappetizing “Hi, meet your new friend COLLAGEN!” smell and flavor that can come from using a lot of powdered gelatin. Also, different packets of gelatin can have an unnerving discrepancy of powder in them, even when using the same brand, and sheets are more consistent. You can buy the sheets online cheaply from a number of places, and they’re usually found at kitchen stores and specialty markets, too. Highly recommended.

So I’m happy to say that my search for the perfect homemade marshmallow has ended with the gem of a recipe in the Baked cookbook. Sweetly scented with vanilla, springy but yielding, irresistible. After yet another manna-producing recipe from this book, I’m thinking of rewriting the lyrics to “You Made Me Love You” to include the Baked boys. And then maybe I’ll make a video of me singing it, wearing nothing but a vest made of marshmallows and post it on YouTube in the hopes that it will go viral and then they’ll invite me to visit the bakery and let me sous chef for the day. I’ve got big dreams, people. Big dreams.

Perfect Vanilla Marshmallows
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

This recipe calls for gelatin sheets, and I strongly recommend them for best results, but you can use unflavored powdered gelatin instead. Great resources for converting the gelatin amounts from sheets to powder in recipes can be found here and here.

The original recipe doubles these amounts and spreads the marshmallow into a 9×13-inch pan. But since I don’t have an army in my midst demanding homemade marshmallows, I halved it and it worked out great, so I’m offering that version here. I find a pizza cutter is the best tool for easy marshmallow cutting.

Makes 2-3 dozen marshmallows (depending on how you cut them)

6 sheets gelatin
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting

Grease an 8×8-inch pan with shortening, using a paper towel to rub it lightly and evenly onto the bottom, sides and edges of the pan. Set aside.

Put the gelatin sheets into a medium microwave-safe bowl and fill it with very cold water to cover by several inches, adding a few ice cubes to keep it cold. While they soak for about 10 minutes, move on to the rest of the recipe.

Place the sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan and stir gently. Clip a candy thermometer onto the pan, and place it over medium-high heat. Bring it to a boil, checking it occasionally–you are looking for it to eventually hit a temperature of 235-240 degrees (soft ball stage).

Meanwhile, pour the remaining 1/4 cup corn syrup into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. By this point, the gelatin sheets should be very soft–drain them well and give them a quick wringing out, and place them back in the microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high until the gelatin is completely melted, about 30 seconds. Turn the mixer on low, and very slowly pour the melted gelatin into the corn syrup. Keep the mixer running while you check the sugar syrup.

Once the syrup reaches 235-240 degrees, pull it from the heat. Carefully transfer the syrup to a large, heatproof measuring cup or a similar vessel with a spout for easy pouring. Turn the mixer up to medium speed and slowly pour the sugar syrup into the gelatin mixture. When all the syrup has been added, crank the speed up to medium-high and let it go for about 6 to 7 minutes–the candy will turn white and fluffy during this time. Add the vanilla and salt and increase the speed to its highest setting for 1 more minute.

Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan and use an offset spatula spritzed with a bit of cooking spray to nudge it into the corners and smooth the top. Sift confectioners’ sugar evenly and generously over the top. Let sit for about 6 hours.

Use a knife to loosen the marshmallow from the edges of the pan and invert it onto a confectioners’ sugar-dusted work surface. Dust the marshmallow slab with more confectioner’s sugar and cut into whatever size pieces you wish (a pizza cutter works great here). Dip the sticky edges of the marshmallows in more confectioners’ sugar, patting off the excess. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Feb 22, 2010

Homemade Graham Crackers

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Well. I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided that few things are more frustrating than spending exorbitant amounts of time and dirty dishes making something from scratch and then realizing that, all things considered, you actually prefer the stuff from the can (I’m looking at you, enchilada sauce). But despite the possibility of such a situation, I always get an unnatural charge out of making typically store-bought things from scratch. There’s just something nerdily satisfying about finding a way to take familiar things to some other-worldly level that makes you think that perhaps you’ve never really had the real thing at all (see also: marshmallows, ice cream). Such was the case with these homemade graham crackers.

I started thinking about homemade graham crackers forever ago, and bookmarked it in my mind at a time when my brain was supple and unfettered enough to be trusted to hold long-term thoughts. And then I had a baby, and forgot all about doing something as crazy as making homemade graham crackers. But then toddlerhood came along, and graham crackers became akin to currency, and I suddenly thought to shake the dust off that old idea to try making them from scratch. Also, my latest trip to Miette Patisserie here in San Francisco left me completely unable to shake them.

Have I mentioned how obsessed I am with Miette? Stepping into one of their shops is like being enveloped with design inspiration, everything from the cupcakes to the wallpaper, much in the way that going into an Anthropologie store renders me hypnotized and despising every home furnishing I own, and overcome with the need to replace them exclusively with items from that place. Kitschy lamps! Vintage fabric drapes! Delicate tea cups on display!

And then I remember that I have a tiny bull living in my personal china shop and I’ve found it pointless to even hang drapes at all and that all potentially breakable items in the entire house live crowded on our fireplace mantle at an un-Little C-friendly height and I cry a little. At least when I go to Miette I can come home with something that is still inspiring, but edible, as to not need precious placement in our house. And one of my recent purchases were their utterly addictive graham crackers.

At seven bucks a pop for a short stack, naturally you’d hope Miette’s graham crackers far surpass the store-bought variety that comes in those brown wax-papery sleeves. And lo, they do. The thing is, they’re not really like any graham cracker I’ve ever tried–these are intensely buttery with the most incredible snap, and not at all crumbly or dry. The flavor here is complex with earthy whole wheat flour, dark brown sugar and a touch of honey and cinnamon that reminds you that, oh yes, this is supposed to be a graham cracker.

What’s more, I can’t think of anything more versatile that’s come out of the Piece of Cake kitchen as of late. I wholeheartedly recommend them for ice cream sandwiches and s’mores–they’re even more sturdy than the kind you’d buy at the store and hold up well to freezing and long-term storage, a total workhorse cookie, if you will. Of course, they’re also perfect for just plain eating with a glass of cold milk or some tea from a pretty little mug, like my single Anthropologie-esque teacup that I keep on lockdown when not in use. Just an idea there for you.

Homemade Graham Crackers
Adapted from Miette Patisserie, San Francisco

The key to getting the crispiest cookies with an awesome “snap” is to roll the dough very thin–try for as close to 1/8 of an inch as you can. This is a very buttery, soft dough–be sure to chill it completely before rolling and then again chilling the cut cookies well before baking them, otherwise they will be maddeningly difficult to work with and will spread during baking.

Makes about 4 dozen 2 1/2-inch cookies

2 cups flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I like stone-ground organic flour)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I like the punch of Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat it to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Whisk together flour, wheat flour, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together the butter and brown sugar, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, and beat in the honey. Stir in dry ingredients on low speed. Scrape the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and pat it into a disc, wrap well. Refrigerate until firm but still pliable, about one hour.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out very thin, about an 1/8-inch thick (you can gather the dough scraps and reroll as necessary). Cut out cookies with a 2 to 3-inch cookie cutter and place on the prepared baking sheets, a dozen per sheet. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar if desired. Chill the cut cookies on the sheets for at least 15 minutes before baking. Bake 14 to 16 minutes until golden. Let the cookies set for a minute before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for a week or more.

Feb 18, 2010

Bittersweet Hot Fudge

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Motherhood has smacked me upside the head in so many ways. Some of them involve being surprisingly close to institutionalizing myself. Others, however, are actually really lovely in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t just mean those moments where I’m suddenly so overcome with love for my child that I want to smooch her and squeeze her until she pops. I’m talking about a new appreciation for the little things, the simpler the better. Like how Little C has started patting my back while hugging me. A glass of wine after she goes to bed and the house is straightened. Time to shave and wash my hair in the shower. And a dish of vanilla ice cream drowned in the most flippin’ fantastic bittersweet hot fudge that comes together in mere minutes. Ahhh…it’s the little things.

Although to be fair, this hot fudge sauce is not a small thing. No, it is pretty major. It’s sort of unassuming in the preparation, though the nearly three-quarters of a pound of chocolate that go into making one batch (I first mistyped that as “bath”… hello, subconscience) of the stuff might tip you off that you’re doing something epic.

All that needs to happen to enter into this chocolate sauce nirvana is to melt said chocolate together with a knob of butter while you warm some cream and corn syrup on the stovetop, and then whisk it all together and BAM!

Hot fudge as it is meant to be: Thick and rich, and deeply, darkly chocolatey, becoming almost chewy on contact with cold ice cream. With the one-two punch of phenomenal flavor and hearty texture, it’s almost a misnomer to call this a hot fudge “sauce”–melted chocolate truffles is more like it. And the bittersweet edge makes a pairing with vanilla ice cream so perfectly balanced, you may never want to have another dessert again. As Oprah might say, “Life chaaaaang-iiiing!! Life changing, life changing. Life. Changing.”

Bittersweet Hot Fudge
Adapted from The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

For the bittersweet chocolate, I use 60% Ghiradelli chips rather than bar chocolate because it’s more economical and have been perfectly happy, but whether you go with bars or chips, go for a premium brand–you’ll get a much more moan-inducing final product.

This hot fudge sets up firm when cold, like a refrigerated truffle, so you need to rewarm leftovers to make it pourable or spoonable again after chilling. The original recipe says to rewarm it gently over simmering water, but I’ve thrown the whole jar into the microwave for a 15 second zap and with a quick stir it comes back to life beautifully.

Makes about 2 cups

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use 60% Ghiradelli chips and am perfectly happy with them)
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup heavy cream, plus 2 tablespoons extra if needed
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Combine the chocolates and the butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Melt them in the microwave on medium power for about 3 minutes, stopping to stir the mixture often. When it is fully melted, set it aside.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, whisk together 1/2 cup of cream, the corn syrup and the vanilla. Bring them to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. As soon as it comes to a simmer, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 2 minutes. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until the hot fudge is smooth. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of cream if needed to thin it out a bit.

Serve warm immediately, or pour it into jars for storing in the refrigerator for about 10 days.

Feb 12, 2010

Blood Orange Panna Cotta

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In relation to my number of years on Earth, I have probably worked more jobs than anyone else you know. I’ll provide just a few examples. Upscale stationary shop girl. Nanny. Celebrity interviewer. Envelope stuffer. Makeup artist. Lecturer on random topics. Law office helper girl. Movie and TV extra and stand-in. Newsroom intern. Workout place counter girl. Proofreader of office supply catalogs. The list is insane and endless. Now, to be clear, this does not mean that I am a workaholic–no, far from it. My wacky patchwork of a resume absolutely comes from the sometimes practically negative length of time spent at each place. Apparently, for quite some time I reversed the old adage to say, “Winners always quit”.

In truth, I didn’t quit every single job flippantly. No, each quitting would have me all wound up with ulcer-level angst in the days leading up to it. As much as I may have wanted to leave each job, I never really wanted to let anyone down. Except for the time I left a job in the fashion of asking to be fired. I’d been trying to let them down for months.

They’d even issued me a corporate “Back on Track” plan, a document which encouraged me to stop letting them down by a certain date lest I be fired, which only made me try to let them down harder. And at the expiry date of the “Back on Track” plan, they still didn’t fire me, so I was forced to point out the calendar date to my manager and inform her that it was clearly time to fire me. Which she did, after a very, very long and befuddled pause. True story.

There was also the time I was fired without my knowing. This was in college, a part-time job that had me calling up a recurring list of delightfully chatty old people and asking them to donate their blood for their platelets. I actually really liked that job, so much so that I was there right up until Spring Break. My boss, a no B.S. type named Judy, asked when my school break was, I told her. Done annnnd done, right? Um, not quite.

I left town for a week for vacation, blissfully unaware that she’d scheduled me for extra hours since I wouldn’t have classes that week. Apparently they had a rule that if you didn’t show up for work for three days without calling, you were automatically fired. Which I found out when I showed up all tanned and ready to work the Monday after Spring Break and was informed that I’d been fired three days earlier. Further evidence that college students don’t actually live in the Real World, even if they have a part-time job in it. I was all, “Hel-lo, Judy! It was my Spring Break!” Ha. That one still makes me laugh.

But there was one job that will always hold a special place in my heart and on my demented resume. And no, I’m not talking about motherhood (a job that’s schooled my quitter behind in reality–there’s no way I can get outta this gig). Several months before moving to San Francisco, with my pre-motherhood pluck and a whole lot of emphasis on my food and recipe obsession and writing background, I landed the most amazing opportunity to write recipes for Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California. Had my ambitious, brilliant and almost annoyingly successful husband not gotten a job that moved us up to San Francisco later that year, I’m sure I’d still be there at Joe’s in the late afternoons, all scrappy for hours so I could experience the energy and artistry of the place, learning volumes about food, wine and the amazing dishes they turn out of that tiny, Michelin-starred kitchen.

When I left Joe’s, I made sure to take note of a few recipes that I’d bookmarked among the hundreds of splattered, crinkled pages in the restaurant’s archives. I could prattle on all day about the fabulous savory dishes at Joe’s, but some of the desserts would probably make you cry with joy. I’ve been wanting to tell you about this Blood Orange Panna Cotta recipe for ages, and with my citrus obsession in full swing, it’s the perfect time to finally get to it. That, and the fact that Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and this would be the absolutely perfect button on a romantic meal a deux, or even just pour un, because you’re worth it.

Panna cotta is one of my very favorite desserts, even though it amounts to little more than gelled cream. So simple, so right. The addition of the bright, sweet-tart juice of blood oranges really makes the dish here. And the color, people! The color! So beautiful. I served mine with a little extra dollop of unsweetened whipped cream because, you know, more is more, and could not have felt better about the whole experience. Oh Blood Orange Panna Cotta, I wish I knew how to quit you.

Blood Orange Panna Cotta
Loosely adapted from Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California

Serves 4

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder
3 tablespoons cold water
1 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk

Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl and let soften for five minutes.

Pour the blood orange juice into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce by half, about five minutes. Pour the reduction into a small bowl and set aside to cool slightly.

Give the saucepan a quick rinse and dry and set it back on the stove. In it, place the cream and sugar and warm it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it begins to simmer–do not boil. Meanwhile, heat the softened gelatin in the microwave on high heat until it’s melted, about 15 seconds. When the cream is ready, whisk in the melted gelatin and vanilla until the mixture is smooth. Pour the cream mixture into a metal bowl set over an ice bath. Stir until cool to the touch. Whisk in the buttermilk and the reduced blood orange juice. Pour into four custard cups or ramekins set in a large shallow dish. Chill until set, at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours.

When the panna cotta is set, unmold by dipping each dish in a pan of warm water, nudging the edges of the panna cotta from the dish with a thin knife if necessary, and invert them onto serving plates.


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