Can you think of anything better than baking on a Sunday when the rain and wind beat so hard against the windows that the
makes you pull your old sweater around you tighter? I didn’t think so. If I had gotten through the day without turning the oven on, I am certain some kind of culinary police would have come pounding at my door. If not for that, then because of the sweet, cakey air drifting from my kitchen that could have drawn in the entire city.
Some rainy days make you want to putter for hours in the kitchen, but others call for something with a quick preparation that allows you to get back to your big, cozy chair and your copy of The Tenth Muse as soon as humanly possible. In her memoir, Judith Jones (in addition to regaling me with stories of her years as a legendary cookbook editor) creates such vivid pictures of the French countryside that I have been choking back tears for not yet having traveled there. So I figured the best I could do was to crank up some Josephine Baker and throw together a cake well-loved by the French that is incredibly, deliciously simple. So simple, in fact, that the batter comes together in just one bowl, is mixed by hand, and traditional recipes for it call for the ingredients to be measured in “jars” rather than “cups”–meaning the jars that many wonderful French yogurts come packaged in, like the one in this blurry photo:
Although I opted to use my boring old American 1/2 cup measure, I added extra interest to the basic French yogurt cake recipe by adding vanilla extract and a scraped vanilla bean. And now would be an opportune time to admit to something in the kitchen at which I am completely inept–scraping vanilla beans. No matter how I do it, no matter how sharp my knife or how carefully I scrape out the seeds, the pods end up in gnarled shards, the fragrant pulp shmeared into my board, and I end up having to pick woody bits of pod out of my batters or frostings and trying to furiously flick seeds from my fingertips into the bowl. Witness the carnage:
Vanilla bean snafus aside, this cake is a winner. And so versatile–great with ice cream, flavored whipped cream, any kind of fruit or dessert sauce. Or eaten out of hand with a paper towel as a plate while standing at the counter, watching the rain through your rattling kitchen window.
Gateau au Yaourt a la Vanille
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
Makes one single layer, 9-inch cake
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and the seeds of the vanilla bean until well-blended. Stir in the flour and baking soda until the batter just starts to come together–there will be some small lumps and that’s okay. Pour in the oil and whisk the batter until it is smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 32-35 minutes, until the cake is an even, deep golden brown, springy to the touch, and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 30 minutes before turning it out onto the cooling rack to cool completely.
This dish is originally from the cookbook that I’ve practically been keeping under my pillow at night, How To Eat Supper. I don’t need to go into my near-restraining-order-sized love for Lynne Rossetto Kasper again on Piece of Cake, but hey, why not? I love this woman. Love her, love her show, love everything about her. She gets me. I am the type of cook who loves a challenge when I have extra time, but when it comes to everyday cooking, I want to head into the kitchen with an arsenal of Not Dessert recipes that can be made quickly but still feel like a fun project, and are soul-warming and satisfying in their simplicity but are always interesting and bright spots in a long week. I also love the fact that this book is full of recipes that one can easily riff on, and you can practically hear LRK cheering you on as you swap out an ingredient or two and really make a dish your own.
With this recipe, I sometimes use dried herbes de provence rather than fresh rosemary because I always have that on hand. I also recently swapped out the asiago cheese in the bread crumb topping for lemon zest and an extra pinch of salt since my completely adorable vegan sister was visiting, and it was still so delicious the two of us ate the whole dang thing in one sitting, half of it straight from the pan. The beans stay whole and firm, yielding to their creamy, sweet interiors, tasting even richer with a light coating of warm, garlicky herb-infused oil and a salty, crumbly topping. Adding extra greens that maintain some structure while barely wilting at their edges takes it beyond the side dish. And putting some toasty bread covered in ripe avocado with a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt alongside makes you never want to think about eating anything else again. Except maybe some cookies, which are especially necessary after eating something so full of savory health.
Warm Herb-Scented White Bean Salad with Greens
Adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift’s How To Eat Supper
Serves 2 (or one hungry vegetarian)
1 generous tablespoon dry bread crumbs (or about two tablespoons fresh)
1 tablespoon grated asiago cheese (or the zest of 1/2 a large lemon)
2 large garlic cloves
Good extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon herbes de provence
1 can organic white beans, drained and rinsed
2 big handfuls mixed sweet baby salad greens (such as romaine, butter and red leaf)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large, dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast the bread crumbs until they are golden and fragrant. Stir in the cheese (or lemon zest and a pinch of salt). Pour the crumbs into a dish and set aside. Wipe the skillet clean and set it back on medium heat.
As the pan gets back up to heat, mince the garlic and add a generous pinch of salt to it. Working with the heel of your hand against the flat blade of a chef’s knife, massage the garlic into a nubby paste in a circular motion, using the salt as an abrasive. After a few firm rubs, scrape the flattened garlic back into a little pile, run the knife through it to mince it even finer and repeat the massaging and mincing process until the individual bits of garlic are nearly undetectable.
Film the pan with olive oil and add the garlic. Using a spatula, keep the garlic moving in the pan for about one minute and don’t let it brown. Add the herbs. Saute for about 30 seconds more and lower the heat to medium low. Add the beans and turn them gently in the pan, coating with the garlic and herb infused oil and being careful to keep the beans whole and as unbroken as possible. When the beans are just warmed through, toss in the greens and keep folding gently until the greens just begin to wilt. Turn the salad into a serving dish and cover with the bread crumb topping. Nudge the salad around in the bowl just enough to send some bread crumbs tumbling down deeper into the bowl, but not tossing completely. Serve immediately.
I may be in the minority here, but I was not a huge fan of being pregnant. At any point. Okay, as far as pregnancies go, I had it easy in the nausea department and there was about a week at the beginning of the third trimester where I felt like a million bucks all day long. But other than that, I am glad to have that behind me for now and be enjoying my beautiful outside baby. And my wine. Lord, how I missed my wine. There are few things sadder than being eight months’ pregnant and wanting nothing more in the world than some crazy stinky (and unpasteurized) cheese, water crackers and a luscious Côtes du Rhône and sobbing because all you can really have is the crackers.
So I am glad to have wine back in my life, especially when the San Francisco winters make for long, rainy nights. And wine drinking is even more delightful when you get to share a few glasses with a dear visiting friend and a plate of golden gougères, heady with Gruyère.
Gougères are one of those incredibly delicious bites that are so complex in their texture (crisp, light, airy and yet toothsome when the orb begins to melt in your mouth) that you never really believe how simply and quickly they come together, no matter how many times you make them. It all starts with a pâte à choux, that fabulous French invention that can be taken from sweet to savory in a matter of minutes. When the dough is shaped and baked plain, you can have yourself some eclairs, cream puffs, profiteroles and more. When loaded with savory ingredients like cheeses (traditionally Gruyère), diced meats and herbs, you’ve made gougères, quite possibly one of the most delightful matches ever to pair with drinks.
The dough initially comes together on the stovetop in just minutes–butter, water, milk, salt and flour–and finishes in your stand mixer with eggs added one at a time until the golden, silky dough comes together with the consistency of a pound cake batter. The cheeses (and/or other seasonings) are stirred in last and the dough is shaped and dropped immediately onto prepared sheet pans. Shape the dough into any size you want, from teaspoonfuls for a dainty one-bite morsel with cocktails in fancy glasses to ice cream scoop-sized mounds that make for a ham sandwich unlike any other you’ve had in your life. I like using my one ounce cookie scoop for a three bite gougere (or two unabashed bites if you’re among friends) that sits well in one hand with a big glass of wine in the other.
If the method isn’t simple enough, when you make yourself a batch of gougère dough, you can scoop out mounds, freeze them on a sheet pan and then store the portions in zip-top bags and bake them off as needed. So you can actually be one of those people that has something intoxicatingly fragrant and freshly baked to offer guests who just happen to “drop by”. Can you stand it?! Actually, I think just dropping by is kind of rude. I don’t know if I would share my gougères with such etiquette rogues. But if you call first, well then my gougères are your gougères.
Makes about 30 golf ball-sized puffs
Gruyere is the standard here, but I’ve also made great ones with extra sharp cheddar. Whatever cheese you choose, bold ones taste best with the eggy, buttery richness of the dough. Blue cheeses are also wonderful. If you want to freeze any unused portions, there’s no need to thaw them before baking–just bake them a couple minutes longer.
1/2 cup whole milk 1/2 cup water 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup all-purpose flour 5 large eggs, at room temperature 1 1/2 cups of a coarsely grated, flavorful cheese, such as Gruyere or Cheddar Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan over high heat, bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a boil. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium and immediately begin stirring at a good clip with a wooden spoon–don’t let up until the dough starts to come off the sides of the pan. It will also form a loose ball and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. At this point, keep stirring quickly to dry the dough, about 2 minutes more. The dough should now be very smooth and have lost most of its moist appearance. Turn the dough into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand if you have forearms of steel). With the mixer running at medium speed, beat in the eggs one by one. You’ll think the dough is breaking apart and all is lost, but it will come together again as all the eggs are added. Stir in the grated cheese. Immediately scoop the dough onto the prepared sheet pans, leaving about 2 inches of space between each portion. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back. Continue baking until the puffs are deeply golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot.
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups of a coarsely grated, flavorful cheese, such as Gruyere or Cheddar
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan over high heat, bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a boil. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium and immediately begin stirring at a good clip with a wooden spoon–don’t let up until the dough starts to come off the sides of the pan. It will also form a loose ball and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. At this point, keep stirring quickly to dry the dough, about 2 minutes more. The dough should now be very smooth and have lost most of its moist appearance.
Turn the dough into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or you can continue by hand if you have forearms of steel). With the mixer running at medium speed, beat in the eggs one by one. You’ll think the dough is breaking apart and all is lost, but it will come together again as all the eggs are added. Stir in the grated cheese. Immediately scoop the dough onto the prepared sheet pans, leaving about 2 inches of space between each portion.
Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the sheets from top to bottom and front to back. Continue baking until the puffs are deeply golden and firm, another 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Anyway, I have botched many a recipe since Baby C came along by adding whole eggs instead of just yolks (my punishment for forgoing mise) or setting the oven to ‘broil’ instead of ‘bake’ (because everyone loves a crunchy brown crust with a raw shortbread center!) orrrrr using the wrong measuring spoon (my sleek stainless steel spoons with their nearly invisible engraved measurements were so handsome until exhaustion started making my vision go wonky on occasion). My point is that I feel you now, baking phobics. And I would like to embrace you all with my trembling arms, caked with tears and flour, and say that there is hope. And her name is Dorie Greenspan and she offers you her protection in the form of her absolutely lovely Baking: From My Home to Yours.
Now, everyone in the food world loves Dorie Greenspan, and I’ve written about some of her recipes on this blog before and have a few in the pipeline here at Piece of Cake. Her book has been out forever at this point, but I’ve always loved it so much that it’s high time I raved about it on this site and urged you to pick it up if you don’t have a dog-eared, butter-shmeared copy of it already. I’ve always loved her conversational writing style, her can-do attitude and approach to baking. Dorie reminds me of the whip-smart, artsy woman who worked in my high school’s library who always had a twinkle in her eye and managed to be warm and delighted to help even the most clueless teenager, making you feel like you were part of a special club just for asking for her help and earning extra points when you asked for a title she found particularly interesting.
Dorie’s Baking: From My Home to Yours evokes the same feeling–even the most fantastical of her confections is doable and you feel empowered by her recipes. Of course, you have to measure your ingredients properly and know how to set your oven, there’s no getting around that (too bad for me), but once that’s done, you sail through her recipes with her voice in your ear, and the whole process a real pleasure. Plus, she is completely adorable, with the kind of Peter Pan haircut that I’ve always wished I could pull off but know I never could because I’ve always felt my head is a wee bit too small for my body. In fact, just the other day I saw a woman at a bus stop sporting a Dorie Greenspan with her black turtleneck and chunky colored glass necklace and coveted the whole look. But that’s not the point.
Follow Dorie’s recipes to the letter and you, too, will think you’re a baking phenom. Try some of her “Playing Around” tips in the sidebar and feel liberated. Come up with one of your own variations, and well, you can practically feel the glow of Dorie cheering on your genius and giving you that afterforementioned “special club” feeling. Except it’s not for checking out A Separate Peace, it’s for scoring PEANUT BUTTER WHOPPERS to add to Dorie’s Chocolate Malted Whopper Drops. But that’s another post. There are a lot of great baking books out there, but start your collection around this cookbook, and you’ll always have a go-to source for fool-proof recipes. Even if you suddenly find yourself highly distractible and have a hard time protecting yourself from yourself when it comes to baking. Promise.
Okay, guys, I swear this place won’t become a mommy blog, but let’s just resign ourselves to the fact that I will be using the baby as an excuse for all kinds of things, like being the last person in the food blogging universe to write about David Leite’s Consummate Chocolate Chip Cookie, published in the The New York Times way back in July. I wish I could be one of those incredibly smart-like people who reads the NYT from front to back even though they live in California (at least on Sundays), but I’m just not there yet. And by “yet” I mean “ever”. But I will check in with the food section online from time to time, especially when my beloved LRK makes mention of something that appeared in its pages on her delicious NPR show The Splendid Table.
It’s like heaven kissed the Toll House cookie–all crisp edges and tender, chewy interior, rich with butter and brown sugar and generous amounts of chocolate. Speaking of the Toll House recipe, bakers have been tooling with this gold standard chocolate chip cookie ever since its introduction in 1934, all chasing consistently delicious results. Because c’mon, even though the recipe hasn’t changed over the years, we’ve all baked underwhelming batches of these iconic cookies. Too crunchy, too brown, oddly puffy, not enough chew, too crumbly, what have you. It’s as though the formula has always been good and really, there’s no such a thing as a “bad” or inedible cookie if you follow it correctly, but I’ve always thought there’s a really mysterious X factor involved in getting the Toll House cookie to turn out just right. And as I see it, the genius of what Leite has done is create a recipe that can give really great, consistent results. After a few tweaks. It’s always something, isn’t it?
There a couple things that stand out about this recipe when you put it up next to the Toll House recipe, the first being an interesting ratio of cake flour (a low protein flour) to bread flour (a high protein flour) instead of all-purpose flour (a nice, middle ground protein content). The more protein in a flour, the more gluten that can develop during mixing and that effects how tender and/or fine-textured the final product will be. The interesting ratio of cake to bread flours is a great way to precisely control this. So there’s that. And another fancy trick here is a long rest in the refrigerator after the dough comes together–24 to 36 hours (!) during which the flour can get fully hydrated by the wet ingredients. So it would seem that the big secret to great chocolate chip cookies is in dealing with the flour, but there’s also the mention of big disks of bittersweet chocolate rather than semi-sweet chips to jazz it all up and a good amount of salt to balance the sweet and highlight the use of that great chocolate.
All in all, this cookie is really something. But I gotta say, as much as I love David Leite, there were a few things that had to happen to get it there for my tastes when I dug into this recipe. First, the 18-20 minute baking time yielded a sheet of dry, overly browned cookies that were of decent texture while still warm, but turned rock-hard when completely cooled. So in a word, overbaked. And we all know how Type A I am with checking and rechecking my oven temperature before baking so that wasn’t the problem. Reducing the baking time to 16 minutes produced a second sheet of cookies with a wonderful crisp-chewy-tender bullseye effect, even at room temperature the next day.
Another sheet was better still, and you know what was different about it? They were the cookies that had been portioned and frozen two days earlier after the first sheet was baked. It could’ve been the additional resting time that did the trick here, I’ll never know for sure. So there’s the resurgence of that chocolate chip cookie X factor again, I guess. But it does bode well for bakers like myself who like to freeze doughs and bake off a few cookies at a time when the urge strikes rather than have a whole container of cookies taunting me for days from a countertop. Hooray!
So now that I’ve told you about how these cookies indeed lived up to the hype with a few adjustments, can I be a little passive-aggressive? Okay, well, first of all, the chocolate disks I picked up (73% bittersweet D’Agoba) were obviously lovely and of high quality, but I actually found myself wishing my cookie had some semi-sweet morsels to complete the all-American flavor and perfection of the baked dough–the cookie part was just so spot on. Another thing was Leite’s instruction to sprinkle the cookies with sea salt before baking. Meh. Kind of unneccesary from a flavor standpoint and it just seemed like a bit of pretentious foodie flair that I could take or leave, so in a third batch, I left it.
And in all honesty, I was a little taken aback by the cost of this cookie. I’m all for decadence and seeking out a few spendy ingredients to try a recipe on occasion, but it just seems kind of wrong somehow to spend $15 just for the chocolate part of a chocolate chip cookie, a dessert that exemplifies the greatness of simplicity. Especially when the recipe only yields a little under two dozen cookies. Anyone with me here? Tack on to that the cost of cake flour and bread flour and flaky sea salt (I had these things on hand because I’m a culinary dork, but I’m betting most people would have to make a special trip to the store for these not-so-everyday items) and it all gets kind of fabulously out of hand for the humble chocolate chip cookie.
I have heard of people using this same recipe with just all-purpose flour and different kinds of chocolate and having fine results, so I may be sticking the method in my back pocket and taking the fancy-pants off of this recipe to create the perfect lunchbox cookie, and reserving the bells and whistles for special occasions, like this year’s Christmas cookie tins. At any rate, the first time you try this recipe, go for the big guns, be a Leite purist, and see for yourself. Unless you’re more on top of things than I am these days and have done so already.
Consummate Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Jacques Torres and David Leite
Makes about 2 dozen
After the initial long rest in the refrigerator, you can bake off a few cookies at a time, refrigerating the dough for up to 72 hours. After that, scoop out portions of the remaining dough, freeze them until firm on a sheet pan, and store the frozen dough balls for later use.
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks, at least 60% cacao content
Whisk together the dry ingredients in medium bowl–flours, baking soda, baking powder and set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment on medium speed, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix just until the dough comes together, 5 to 10 seconds. Carefully stir in the chocolate disks (by hand is best as to not break up the chocolate). Press plastic wrap against dough (or transfer to an airtight container) and let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 24 to 36 hours.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat.
Scoop 6-8 mounds of dough (about the size of generous golf balls) onto the baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Bake until the cookies are golden brown but still soft, about 16 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more.
It may be totally impossible to say that phrase and not positively sing it whilst clapping your hands and maybe bouncing a little on your heels. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been doing a lot of all three of those actions lately for reasons other than holiday confections. I know it’s been quite a while since my last post, but I have a really good reason this time…
Baby C was born late August, a full two weeks early, and the surprises have not stopped since. She just turned three months the other day, and we are just hitting the sweet spot now (like all the books predicted, my baby is quite punctual and definitely didn’t get that from me) where she greets mommy and daddy with big silly smiles and is falling into an excellent eating, playing and sleeping routine. Of course, these are all recent developments–the first two months were mainly a crash course in parental survival that no book or message board could ever have prepared me for. I wondered if I would ever be able to have any sort of hobby again that didn’t involve a Baby Bjorn.
With the exception of a carrot cake deliriously baked at two weeks post-partum (and it was delicious), there hasn’t been much activity on the baking front around here. And even if I’d had the brain power to blog, I couldn’t bear to attempt to justify to you why the husband and I have eaten our way through no less than three boxes of Betty Crocker’s Triple Chunk Brownie Mix since Baby C’s arrival. I thought my KitchenAid mixer might need therapy, its sobs were so heavy. We don’t believe in crying it out, so you can understand how heartbreaking it was to leave its gears so cold for so long.
Anyway, my point is that after a couple months of stumbling through the days with a newborn, things are getting back to normal around here. Well, it’s our new normal, actually, and it’s really pretty great. We’re getting ready for Baby C’s first Christmas, and she’s even showing interest in what goes on the kitchen, kicking and chirping from her bouncer seat while I tell her about what’s going into the pot or the mixing bowl. It’s sort of like doing a live cooking show for an audience of one and I love it. She’s entertained and I’m feeling more like myself again by working on some new recipes that just might become part of this year’s Christmas treat tins.
Excuses to bake and candymake are plentiful right now, people–I hope you’re taking advantage of that. If I can churn out some perfectly buttery, salty-sweet toffee (embellished with chocolate and almonds, no less) between changes and feedings and lollygagging on a Gymini play mat that plays Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Major” overandoverandoverandover, then anyone can. Except for babies, they really should be kept away from cooking candy.
This toffee is a mashup of a few different recipes, and after a few tries (one that ended up splattered in a burnt, smoking mess all over my kitchen counter; do pay attention to your heat settings and try to minimize distractions, i.e. babies that wake up suddenly and very cranky from an afternoon nap) I arrived at this recipe that delivers the kind of toffee I love. It has a high butter to sugar ratio, and a good amount of salt that cuts through the sweetness of the candy and the chocolate coating. The snowy layer of almost-ground almonds dusted over the chocolate rather than in the toffee layer offer extra interest in terms of flavor, texture and an elegant appearance (although you can totally stir in chopped nuts later if you prefer). And it also saves you the embarrassment of having to lick your fingers clean of melty candy, since it will be bad enough that you’ll be eating a quarter of the batch all by yourself as soon as it’s cooled.
Makes about 2 pounds
This recipe makes enough for two nice-sized gift tins of toffee. If you don’t have fleur del sel, kosher salt can be used, but avoid using plain table salt as it can give a bitter, tinny flavor to the salty-sweet candy. The impressive amount of butter in this recipe makes refrigeration or even freezing a good idea if it will be stored for longer than a few days. This recipe can easily be doubled with great results, but try working with these smaller amounts, or maybe even halving this recipe as a practice run before making a bigger batch.
1 cup whole raw almonds
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 generous teaspoon fleur de sel (a level teaspoon of kosher salt also works, see note)
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
6 ounces high quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)
Before you begin cooking the toffee, have at the ready a large cookie sheet (or two if you are doubling the recipe). I like to line mine with silicone liners, as it makes flipping the toffee while coating it much easier. Place half the almonds in a blender, food processor or clean coffee grinder and take them for a spin until they are chopped so fine they are almost like a powder with the occasional hunk of almond in the mix and set aside. Roughly chop the other half of the almonds by hand (for stirring into the candy later) and set aside.
In a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan, begin melting the butter over medium-high heat with the salt. Once the butter is about three-quarters melted, add the sugar all at once, followed by the corn syrup, and begin stirring immediately. Continue stirring, gently in a figure-eight motion, until the butter is completely melted and the sugar has begun to dissolve, about 5-7 minutes–the mixture will turn from looking like a separated mess into something much more smooth and homogenous. It will also just begin to bubble at this point and take on a lovely blond shade. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir the candy occasionally. Think low and slow–the bubbling will be sort of groovy and dreamy-looking, not a full, rapid boil.
Once you notice a change in the color of the candy–about 10-15 minutes later–clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan. Continue stirring occasionally. You are looking for the candy to take on a beautiful, creamy toffee color and have the slightest scent of burnt sugar. The candy should ultimately reach a temperature of 290 degrees (soft crack stage), but once it hits about 280, take it off the heat, as it will continue cooking further and it can burn quickly. As soon as you remove it from the heat, stir in the almonds you’ve chopped by hand. Immediately (and very carefully) pour the toffee onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a heatproof spatula to pop any bubbles that rise to the surface of the candy while it’s still hot. Set the toffee aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
When the toffee is cooled, melt half of the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring after each one. Spread the chocolate in a thin, even layer over the toffee and sprinkle generously with the ground almonds. Pop the sheet pan in the freezer for about five minutes, or until the chocolate is completely set underneath the almonds. While the candy sets, melt the second half of the chocolate chips. Carefully flip the candy slab over and repeat the chocolate and ground almond embellishment process, putting the sheet back into the freezer for a final set. When the chocolate is completely hardened, break the toffee into charmingly irregular pieces and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Recipe edited 12/14/09
The further along I get in my pregnancy, the more my sweet tooth seems to change. Or, rather, the more the part of my brain that knows I should be eating more nutrient-dense foods wins out over the part of me that really just wants frosting out of a can. I mean, let’s not get crazy, I still indulge in a good frothy-looking cupcake or a shiny glazed donut here and there, and some days only a hunk of chocolate will cut it (though those days are pretty much long gone since I realized that for this pregnant lady, chocolate is a one-way ticket to all-night heartburn agony,
). But when it comes to my own baking projects, I’ve been pulled towards “earthier” items that have at least a modicum of nutrition (think whole grains, fruits, etc.). I know! I can’t believe it either. It’s really something crazy.
Take what happened the other day–I wanted the aforementioned frothy-looking cupcake something fierce, piled high with buttercream, which unfortunately they make no mention of in “The Pregnancy Diet” section of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. But after a few minutes of hemming and hawing, I decided I really should bake something slightly more virtuous, and I settled on a banana cupcake with a glazey, lightened up cream cheese icing. And so it began, using the brilliant Rose Levy Beranbaum‘s Banana Cake recipe as my starting point, and doctoring up a classic cream cheese frosting to cut the fat and the amount of icing that could be dolloped on each cupcake.
The finished cakes taste of a bold, flavorful banana bread, peppered with those mysterious black speckles that always appear inside after baking (can someone enlighten me as to what these speckles are? Seeds, random fiber, what?), and have a wonderfully springy, toothsome quality that contrasts in the most interesting way with the tender, delicate, cake-like crumb. And technically, this cake is a quick bread given its mixing method (wet ingredients all combined at once and mixed into the dries, no creaming of butter or sugar involved) but the use of cake flour instead of all-purpose changes the texture entirely.
The use of light cream cheese instead of full-fat yielded a topping with a thinner consistency (“light” versions of dairy products almost always contain more water than their full-fat counterparts), but retained all the flavor. A glorious, fluffy buttercream it is not, but that was kind of my point–I wanted a little to go a long way, making the whole thing less sugary while still getting that suggestion of a tangy-sweet cream cheese frosting. So now would be a good time to mention that if you want something fluffier, make the frosting recipe with full-fat cream cheese and sour cream. But give the lighter version a try if you happen to be going through a more virtuous baking phase like myself–you won’t be disappointed.
Banana Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing
Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum and Baking Illustrated
Makes about 18 cupcakes
As is the case with banana bread, use your sad, brown, way overripe bananas that you bought in too large of a bunch to eat before they all went bad here. I keep a stash of these in my freezer–they thaw quickly on the countertop, but make sure they are room temperature (a quick zap in the microwave will warm them quickly) before incorporating them into batters.
For the cakes:
2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large ripe bananas, peeled
2 tablespoons light sour cream
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
10 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into cubes
For the icing:
4 ounces light cream cheese, softened but still cool
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1/2 tablespoon light sour cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 12-cup muffin tins or line them with paper liners.
In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
In a separate bowl using an electric hand mixer (or in a food processor or blender if you don’t mind the extra dirty dishes) combine the bananas and sour cream, blending until smooth (a few tiny banana chunks may remain). Add the eggs and vanilla and blend again until well combined. Add half the banana mixture to the dry ingredients along with the butter and beat on low speed until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Scrape down the bowl and increase the speed to medium, beating for about 1-2 minutes. Add the rest of the banana mixture in two batches, beating after each addition until well blended. Portion the batter into the prepared muffin tins and bake until the tops spring back when touched and a toothpick comes out clean, about 15-17 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks before icing.
To make the icing, beat together the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, vanilla and salt until smooth. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar until well-combined. When the cupcakes are completely cooled, top them generously with the cream cheese icing. Refrigerate any leftover icing.
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