Nov 10, 2007

A Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake

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Of all the great benefits of marriage, I think one of my favorites is creating a brand new set of traditions based on a newly formed family. Even though the husband and I have yet to produce offspring, it’s nice to know we’ve already created a few of our own little family traditions that are just waiting to include little ones when they come. The husband’s Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake is a much-anticipated event that we look forward to all year.

The first year I made this cake in Los Angeles more than four years ago, it was HOT. The summer heat had extended into a healthy portion of what should have easily been sweater weather (or long-sleeved t-shirt weather by L.A. standards). In fact, it was so hot in our non-air conditioned apartment that the stacked cake layers split into fourths soon after the buttercream was applied. I tried in vain to pin the cake together with toothpicks and solder the droopy layers in the freezer, but to no avail. The birthday “cake” was really more of a birthday “pile” that year, with candles lamely and haphazardly stuck in it. We laughed. After I cried. But it was still insanely delicious. And that is a testament to how extraordinary this cake really is.


With half a pound of chocolate between the cake and frosting, you might worry that it would all just be too much. But the genius of this recipe is the amazing balance that is struck between the tender, delicate crumb of the cake and the smooth, rich buttercream. With every bite, you will alternate marveling at the flavors and mouthfeel of both, and both components win in the end. The cake is extraordinarily moist (it keeps for days in perfect condition in a cake dome), and the frosting champions the chocolate, not the butter. The added touch of chipped chocolate folded into the buttercream lends a great, unexpected crunch.


Making this cake is so much fun when you’re a mise en place kind of person like me, carefully pre-measuring and setting out all of the ingredients before you begin. With this recipe, it really helps the process along. Take the time to sift your cake flour well, even more than once if you’ve got the patience–it’s worth it in the end. And the butter seriously needs to be at room temperature (since I always know the date I’ll be making this cake, I even set out the butter the night before). You really will never find a more beautiful batter than with this recipe, like luscious chocolate clouds being scooped into the cake pans. Drool.

Since I only make this cake for one occasion, I really like to go for it and use fantastic chocolate, such as Valrhona 56% Dark. For both the cake and the frosting, be sure your chocolate is cool to the touch before adding it to the mixtures. I rarely mess with double boilers–I find that quickly microwaving it until it’s about half melted (about 30 seconds) and then stirring, letting the residual gentle heat of the bowl melt the rest is a good way to get the job done without heating the chocolate so hot that it takes forever to cool down. And take special care when greasing the cake pans and lining them with parchment to make them truly non-stick; this is a delicate cake that can tear easily if you have to struggle too much getting it out of the pan.

Even though it’s so fabulous it deserves to be paraded out for every dinner party, picnic, bake sale and other random people’s birthdays, I save the creation of this chocolate behemoth for just once a year, in honor of my favorite husband. It’s tradition, after all.

A Big, Messy Chocolate Birthday Cake
Adapted from Tyler Florence

Makes one awesome, 9-inch, two-layer cake

For the Cake:

2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups cold water

For the Chocolate Chip Buttercream:

3 cups powdered sugar
7 tablespoons hot water
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup semisweet or dark chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack in the middle position. Coat two 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray, line the bottoms of the pans with circles of parchment paper, and then spray again for extra non-stick insurance.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt and together and aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cooled chocolate and beat for three minutes to incorporate. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and beat for three more minutes.

Gradually mix in the dry ingredients in three batches, alternating with the cold water. Beat for one minute after each addition to incorporate. When all of the flour mixture and water has been added, scrape the bowl once more and then mix until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans until about 2/3 full, and smooth the surfaces with a spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the cakes spring back when touched and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack in the pans for at least 40 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the buttercream.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the whip attachment, dissolve the sugar and water at low speed. Beat in the chocolate and the vanilla. Add the butter in small bits, mixing until everything is incorporated. Fold in the chocolate chips with a spatula, giving the frosting a nice final mix.

Turn out one of the cooled cake layers upside down onto a cake stand or serving platter, remove the parchment circle and then place strips of clean parchment just under the cake’s edges to protect the serving dish from frosting smudges. Spread about half the frosting on this layer, starting in the center and working your way out. Place the second layer on top, remove the parchment, and frost top and sides of the cake with the remaining buttercream. Sprinkle with additional chocolate shavings if desired.

Nov 1, 2007

Apple Butter

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So as promised, this will be the last of the apple recipes for now and then the month of all things apple is coming to a close here at Piece of Cake. And although I have loved sharing some new recipes with you and celebrating the humble fruit, I’ve literally reached the bottom of the bushel and it’s time to move on. I wish all things could be so obviously finite.

We’ve talked about modest crisps and big showy pancakes, reinvented the apple muffin and seen me be proven seriously wrong by a wonderfully unique cake. But despite those recipes and then some, I was still left with four pounds of a fragrant mixture of Fujis, Romes, Red Delicious and Winesaps. Since it’s been a while since I’ve used my amateur preserving know-how, I thought it was high time to pull out the jars that once held July’s strawberry jam, and fill them with thick, spicy-sweet apple butter. What could be more autumnal than that?


Like most jams, the recipe for and process of making apple butter is really simple. Although I will say that apple butter is decidedly messier than most jams. Have your trusty pot-screen-cover-thing very close by, as well as a candy thermometer for insuring the apple butter reaches and stays at the right temperature for setting properly. If you choose not to preserve your apple butter, it will keep for 2-3 weeks in the fridge, maybe longer. If you want to preserve the jars for enjoying in the dead of winter when you want to taste the best part of fall, or give them as cheery little gifts, canning is easy once you get the hang of it. Remember my first preserving adventure? See, even I figured it out.

Apple Butter

Makes 4-5 8-oz. jars

4 pounds of apples (I used a mixture of Fuji, Rome, Red Delicious and Winesap)
2 cups of sugar (I used one cup regular granulated and one cup vanilla sugar)
1/2 gallon apple cider
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

Peel, core and cut the apples into large chunks. You should have about 2 1/2 pounds of fruit after preparing the apples. Put the fruit into a wide, deep, heavy bottomed pot and pour the apple cider over the apples to cover. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer, cooking for 20-30 minutes until the apples are very tender.

In batches in a blender (or using an immersion blender–I have got to get one of these. Maybe if I say it to myself 1,000 more times, it will appear in my cabinet?), puree the hot apples and cider to make a thin applesauce. Pour all the puree back into the pot and bring to a slow simmer over medium-high heat, until the puree reaches 220 degrees, stirring occasionally. Once the temperature is reached (you may have to crank the heat a bit higher to make that happen), stir in the sugar, spices and lemon juice. Cook the apple butter for anywhere from 1-2 hours, until it has thickened significantly and turn dark in color (you know, like the color of apple butter). Try and keep the temperature at 220 degrees as best as your can during that time, and stir often to prevent a crust forming on the bottom of the pot. When you think the color and consistency is right, test the apple butter on a freezing cold plate and let it cool for a moment. It should set up thick and smooth and not move on the plate when its ready.

Ladle the hot apple butter into hot, sterilized jars, and screw on the lids. Store in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, or for preserves, process the jars for 10 minutes in boiling water.

Oct 18, 2007

Apple Cider Pudding Cake

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Every girl has a dear old friend whom she treasures like a sister. Maybe the first meeting was back in grammar school, high school or college, during years that brought awkward growth and tremendous shared experiences. A chainsaw can’t break this kind of bond between old girlfriends. Then one day, after say, a few cocktails, someone decides to play the “what did you think of me when we first met?” card. And then you hear the needle squealing off a record somewhere in the distance as a response tries to form itself. In this pause I will say that I’m not using men in this example because no man would be crazy enough to ask such a question of an old friend. Inevitably, liquid courage will help someone say something rather unexpected, yet honest, like, “I thought you were obnoxious/mute/bitchy/weird.” And then there will either be lots of pouting and shunning in the following minutes OR there will be much laughter and celebration of the fact that your love and friendship grew to far outweigh first impressions. The latter, thankfully, is my experience with Apple Cider Pudding Cake.


During my first meeting with this recipe, I thought this cake was a liar. An insane, highly suspicious liar. I mean, I get bread pudding, but hot liquid poured onto a batter before baking? Whazzat? This cake had to be just showing off and telling tall tales to cover insecurities. Don’t ask me why I guessed that. But as you know, I’ve been making a solid effort to try some new recipes to dig into fall’s bounty. And as the husband so wittily pointed out, with its usage of apples in multiple forms, it was kind of like the Tres Leches Cake of fruit–Tres Manzanas Cake, if you will. So I soldiered on, with doubts in mind and peeler in hand. And you what? I ended up having to apologize and everything, by making this cake twice in one week and giving some to all my neighbors.


Despite its very questionable appearance before it enters the oven (is the boiling liquid actually cooking the batter on contact?), it emerges as a fragrant, rustic pillow, covered in pebbly streusel. With so little butter in this recipe, it’s the liberal use of brown sugar and cider that save the day here: when sliced and served warm, you can admire how the sticky cider has waded its way to the bottom of the pan during baking, with a perfectly moist, apple-packed cake above. It’s like this recipe uses the concept of making an apple cider reduction on the stove–there are concentrated notes of heady molasses, autumn spices and vanilla left behind–but the moisture has been trapped inside the cake rather than just evaporating altogether. Add to all that crispy edges and the buttery crunch of streusel (which the original recipe stated was optional, but it is so not), and you have yourself a dynamic new friend of a recipe that you’ll want to have around all the time, first impressions aside.

Apple Cider Pudding Cake

For the Cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 large egg
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups chopped apple (about 2 large, I chose a Fuji and a Winesap)

For the Cider:

1 cup apple cider
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar

Streusel:

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Grease an 8×8 inch baking dish.

To make the cake batter, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice (or ginger) and nutmeg. In another, larger bowl, whisk together the egg, 1 cup brown sugar, milk, melted butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture until just incorporated and then fold in the apples until the batter is well-blended. Spread the batter into the prepared pan.

To make the cider, in a small saucepan, combine the cider, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 cup brown sugar and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, and pour the cider carefully over the batter. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. To add the streusel, mix the flour, sugar and knob of unsalted butter together with a fork until well- combined and pebbly, but not homogeneous, and sprinkle it over the cake during the last 10 minutes of baking. If necessary, give the streusel a boost under the broiler during the last minute or so. Cool the cake on a wire rack, and serve while the cake is still warm.

Oct 13, 2007

Apple Coffeecake Muffins

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October has, inadvertently, officially become Apple Month here on “Piece of Cake”. There’s a couple more apple recipes coming your way, and then I will start to scale back, I promise. But when you’re working your way through a pile of gorgeous autumnal orbs, it’s impossible to not get inspired, okay? It’s just been too perfect–peeling, coring and quartering in my favorite new dove gray sweater, cinnamon and nutmeg flying everywhere. Sipping on an enormous mug of something warm while the goods are baking. And that toasty mug is what inspired me to tinker with this next recipe. I wanted THE apple muffin go along with it. Big, soft, fragrant, lightly spiced. And, of course, the pleasant surprise of a brightly flavored, al dente apple chunk here and there. Sturdy enough to be eaten with one hand, with an inspirational teacup in the other.


All too often, apple muffin recipes create lumpy, rubbery or dry results. So I decided to start with a recipe that is a phenomenal muffin all on its own, and then add my own fruit to the recipe. This Coffeecake Muffin is usually intended to be relatively subtle in flavor, with just brown sugar and cinnamon for interest. The genius of the recipe is in the space where the delicious pebbly streusel meets the just-right density of the finished muffin. But spiced apple chunks tucked into the center take it to the next level, keeping the interior delightfully moist and playing beautifully with the tender chew of the muffin and the salty-sweet crunch of the streusel.

This recipe may seem a bit confusing at first, because one moment you’re making the streusel, then it’s on to what seems to be the batter, but no! Take some of that mixture out and add it to what you thought was the finished streusel, then get back to the batter, adding some of the streusel...oh, man. But don’t worry. Just read the recipe carefully before you begin to wrap your brain around the process, and then it will come together in a snap.

Apple Coffeecake Muffins

Makes 12

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt plus an extra pinch
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and softened
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin or use paper liners.

In a medium bowl, mix together the dark brown sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon of the butter with a fork until the mixture resembles wet sand. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of salt on low speed until combined. Drop the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter pieces evenly over the flour mixture and mix again until the butter is about the size of oats. Remove 1/2 cup of the of the flour-butter mixture and mix it into the reserved brown sugar mixture to make the streusel. Now divide the streusel: 3/4 cup of streusel for the muffin batter, and the remaining will be for topping the muffins. Add the baking powder and baking soda to the remaining flour mixture in the mixer bowl and stir to combine.

Whisk together the sour cream, egg and vanilla. Turn the mixer on medium speed and pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture until just moistened. Fold in the 3/4 cup of streusel until distributed evenly throughout the batter.

Divide the batter into the muffin cups, filling about 2/3 full. Toss the apples with an additional sprinkle of cinnamon and press several pieces into the center of each muffin cup. Top the muffins equally with the streusel mixture. Bake for about 18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs. Let the muffins cool in the tin for 2 minutes, and then carefully transfer them to a wire rack to cool for five more minutes. Serve warm and watch them disappear.

Oct 4, 2007

Apfelpfannkuchen

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Still blissful and dreamy after our day spent apple picking in the country, it was only right to start the next day with a breakfast celebrating the literal fruits of our labor. And I was not about to do something all diet-y and stir a chopped Fuji into some cottage cheese with cinnamon (although that breakfast will be coming in handy in about a week when all the glorious apple desserts I’ve been making start to catch up with me). It was a lazy Sunday, after all, and before the morning gave way to an NFL marathon, I thought it would be nice to enjoy a special apple-inspired breakfast with the husband. But what to make?

The problem with a lot of fruit-centered breakfast dishes is that they are cloyingly sweet and punch you in the gut about 20 minutes after eating–thick and starchy pancakes or heavy french toast with syrupy compotes as a crutch and mounds of whipped cream or even ice cream (!) as a topping. Now, we all know I’m not afraid of dessert, but first thing in the morning? Meh. I wanted something lighter, that really championed the fruit.


Enter the German Apple Pancake, otherwise known as a Dutch Baby. It’s a big baked pancake that needs little babysitting and leaves few dirty dishes, key for sleepyheads on a Sunday. It all starts by sauteing some fresh apples with a little butter and sprinkling on a bit of brown sugar to get some caramelization going. Meanwhile, a quick, light egg batter is blended and poured around the golden fruit. Then it’s into a hot oven for a short bake where it transforms into a beautiful, puffed round that when inverted is reminiscent of a gleaming tarte tatin.

A pretty dusting of confectioners’ sugar and a good cup of coffee is all this pancake really needs. But then again, who would argue with the addition of warm maple syrup and crispy strips of applewood smoked bacon? Communists.

German Apple Pancake
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

Serves 2-4

2 large eggs
3/4 cup half and half (you can use 1/2 milk, 1/2 half and half, if you prefer)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 medium Granny Smith apples (peeled, cored and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, about 1 1/4 pounds total)
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 500 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position.

Combine the eggs, half and half, vanilla, salt and granulated sugar in a blender and process until well-combined, about 15 seconds. Add the flour and process until well-mixed and free of lumps, about 30 seconds. Set the batter aside.

Add the butter to a 10-inch nonstick skillet with a heatproof handle over medium-high heat until the butter foams. Add the apple slices and sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon over them. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and quickly pour the batter around the edge of the skillet over the apples. Put the skillet into the oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 425 degrees. Cook until brown and puffed, about 16 to 17 minutes.

Loosen the edges of the pancake with a spatula and invert the pancake onto a serving platter (apples-side up). Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve immediately with warmed maple syrup.

Oct 2, 2007

Apple Crisp with Sweet Cream Cheese Glaze

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Los Angeles is notorious for having a complete lack of seasons. A sudden drop in temperature to about 60 degrees and a blustery rainstorm a couple of weeks ago quickly lead to thick sweaters and Ugg boots as far as the eye could see. And I include myself in that group, much to the chagrin of my Midwestern roots. But what can I do? I long for a true autumn in this beachy town–leaves falling and swirling in the wind, temperatures dropping, chilly evening mist every night. But no snow. I don’t miss snow at all, sorry.

Here in L.A., I’ve realized, one needs to make her own seasons as best as she can. And so, this past weekend, the husband and I took a drive to an orchard village so different from where we live our everyday lives that the mere 90 minute drive felt like a real road trip, and we commenced to apple pickin’. Since I keep a blog strictly about baking, it’s difficult to participate in all the farmer’s market hubbub with other, more general food bloggers, as it’s tough to make dessert out of, say, heirloom potatoes. Apple picking at the height of the harvest is one of my few opportunties to bake seasonally. Locally. Sustainably. Whatever.


The Oak Glen area of Yucaipa, California is only 94 miles due east from our beach apartment, but the winding roads and sprawling mountainous countryside suggest a New England lifestyle that only J. Crew could bring us. Except in the desert. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear and just enough of a fall nip in the air to call for a light sweater when in the shade of the apple trees. Oak Glen reminded us of touring Santa Ynez wine country outside Santa Barbara, but not drunk. You can drive down Oak Glen Road for miles, stopping at different orchards and kitschy shops along the way. And that’s exactly what we did.



Our first stop was the Parrish Ranch, where the goal was lunch. They had dramatic red signage leading up to the entrance, like the one touting “Yodeling Merle!”, and another one with hanging planks naming all the varieties that were good for the picking. But it was the sign advertising the Apple Dumplin’s Restaurant that sold us. Anything with an apostrophe in lieu of a “g” was sure to serve the kind of food we were in the mood for. Like a grilled cheddar, smoked bacon and Granny Smith apple sandwich. Oh, my.

After that lunch, how could we not be in the apple picking spirit? Before heading onto the next orchard, we quickly ducked into the Parris Ranch shop to browse, passing an alluring Kettle Corn stand on the way. Someone’s been reading my blog! I kid.

Our next stop was Riley’s Log Cabin and Farm just a short drive down the road. We walked up a dirt path to find a sweet teenage girl standing at her post, doling out advice on how to best pick the apples (use your thumb to separate the fruit’s stem from the branch, making it easier for blossoms to grown in its place next year) and paper bags for loading up our loot.


Visiting Riley’s is kind of like traveling back in time, and not just because it makes you feel like you’re on a school field trip or at camp, what with all the archery, pressing your own cider and corn husk doll and rope making classes. No, farther back in time than that. Riley’s has been a real working farm since 1877, and many of the huge seedling trees have been around since the beginning. It was really charming.

We scored some beautiful Rome, Fuji and Red Delicious for eating out of hand, and plenty of Winesaps and Northern Spy apples for baking. We figured that the last time we went apple picking was before we were married, at least six years ago. It’s nice to know that the exhilarating feeling of searching for buried treasure on a tree never goes away. When we first started picking, we laughed at some of the little munchkins running around screaming, “I found a a really pretty one, Mom!!!”. Half an hour later, WE were the nerds jogging between the trees when we spotted a winner from several feet away and saying, “Check it out!” to each other after pulling a beauty from the branches. We decided that our $33 tab was a charge for half apples, half good times.


After piling into the car with our finds, we made one more stop in Oak Glen. I was NOT leaving without a chilly jug of cider and a proper cider donut. And really, how could we resist Snow-Line Orchard, with its cheery sign bragging about their mini-cider donuts “As Seen on TV”?! We were at a Southern California orchard, after all. And you know what? If I was a TV producer, I would definitely be insanely proud to say I “discovered” these doughnuts. Especially after putting in our order and then waiting in a crowd of dozens for nearly 20 minutes of torture as the smell of spicy, sweet fried dough filled the air. Good thing we also bought a slice of pie at the counter when we put in our order. There will be no photo of said pie because, well, we scarfed it while waiting for the donuts. But I will tell you that it was amazing, especially when the bites were chased with sips of hot cider, and the filling was unlike any other apple pie filling I’d seen before: a rich maple color (Generous cinnamon? Dark brown sugar?) rather than the blondish golden filling we’re used to seeing. And then our name was called, and the donuts came forth:


I really don’t know quite how to describe this mini-cider donut experience, other than to say that there was a lot of eye-closing and deep exhaling while chewing. Not that these remarkably light fried wonders, exemplifying the perfect balance of crisp exterior meeting fluffy interior, required much chewing at all. They nearly dissolved on the tongue along with their cinnamon sugar coating, the chewing was just to sort of make the whole experience last longer. And when followed by a long drink of cold, freshly pressed cider, well, it really doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?


With our bellies full of donuts and cider and our Midwestern spirits satiated by a day spent in a sleepy town, walking in the dirt and the shade of apple trees and plucking their fruit, we fell into the car for a two-hour drive back home in very L.A.-style traffic.


After dinner that night, despite the happy exhaustion and consumption of many, many calories already that day, I just had to eek out a quick apple crisp. With a lack of vanilla ice cream in the house, there was nothing to do but whip up a wacky original recipe for a sweet, spicy cream cheese glaze to help celebrate the gorgeous Winesaps we picked up. And you know this won’t be the only post with an apple recipe, right?

Apple Crisp with Sweet Cream Cheese Glaze

Serves 4-6

For the Topping:

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup coarsely chopped almonds (pecans work well too)

For the Filling:

6 medium apples (choose good, firm baking apples, I used a combination of Winesaps and McIntosh, about 2 1/2 pounds total)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (apple pie spice is nice, too)
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup granulated sugar

For the Cream Cheese Glaze:

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons half and half

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set an oven rack to the lower-middle position.

For the crisp topping, place the flour, sugars, spices and salt in a blender or food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add in the cold butter and pulse about 10 times, until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the chopped nuts and process again, for about five seconds, until the topping looks like slightly clumpy, wet sand. Don’t overmix. Refrigerate the topping for 15 minutes while you prepare the fruit.

For the filling, peel, core and cut the apples into one-inch chunks. In a medium bowl, toss the fruit with the lemon juice, sugar and spices. Dump the filling into a 8×8-inch square baking dish or a similarly-sized casserole and evenly distribute the topping over the apples. Tap the dish on the countertop to get some of the topping to drop into the spaces between the fruit. Bake for 40 minutes, and then increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees and bake 5 minutes more, until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling along the edges. Let cool briefly while you prepare the Cream Cheese Glaze.

For the glaze, beat together the cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar, sweetening to taste. Add the cinnamon and vanilla, and then begin adding the half and half until a drizzling consistency is reached, about two tablespoons. Spoon over big bowls of warm apple crisp and serve. Think autumnal thoughts.

Sep 28, 2007

Vanilla Bean Loaf

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I’ve talked about my love of vanilla so many times on this blog, I should really start a foundation. I’m constantly craving and searching for great vanilla recipes. So when I came across a recipe for Vanilla Bean Loaves (Vanilla cake! Vanilla bean syrup! Extract! Beans! Glamour!), I pretty much needed to get to work immediately.


I made a special trip toSurfas, which always excites this food nerd, just to purchase whole vanilla beans. Sure, I’d been showing all of my baking projects plenty of vanilla love with my favorite extract, but whole beans are really where it’s at for serious vanilla needs. And since I’d already made up my mind that this latest recipe was to provide the apex of my vanilla experiences, I didn’t even mind forking over $12 for six potent, mahogany Tahitian beauties (this is actually an excellent price for the quality of beans that I purchased…some are so expensive it makes you wonder if you’ve traveled back in time, like before modern currency).

The original recipe makes two full-sized loaves this cake, but I opted to halve the recipe after looking at the list of ingredients and considering the cost as well as my waist size. I do consider both of those things on occasion, you know. Anyway, even in its halved state, this recipe calls for–brace yourself–one and a half sticks of butter, nearly three cups of sugar and four eggs. And then there’s the vanilla. Oh, the vanilla! One loaf has half a tablespoon of pure extract and two whole beans between the batter and the glaze, plus another bean sacrificed to make vanilla sugar, which is used in place of boring old granulated sugar. So this cake is RICH–both in texture and expense.

The scent of the baking cake was really lovely, of course, and the applications of vanilla sugar syrup during cooling accumulated to create a sweet, laquered glaze that added nice visual and textural elements to the finished cake.


But unfortunately, for all the vanilla on vanilla on vanilla hype involved with this recipe, the flavor was not all that stellar. I’m keeping my insanely high expectations in mind here, so I don’t want to call it boring, per se–the cake is a fine one, to be sure–a rich, tender pound cake with a beautiful velvety interior. But somehow it’s not the breath of vanilla in every bite that I was hoping for. I decided to serve the slices with generous dollops of some sweetened vanilla bean cream that I whipped up, and that definitely added some interest. I suppose you could always serve some berries alongside or, even better, add some bourbon or rum to the batter and glaze, but then why go through all the vanilla effort? I feel like a recipe with this much vanilla grandstanding should deliver, or at least taste strongly like its name, and not torture poor vanilla with its very false stereotype for being, well….plain old vanilla. That’s just how I feel. This cake freezes really well, so my leftover cake is being saved for a fondue party or something like that.

So if you want a good pound cake recipe, try this one. If you want to feed your vanilla addiction, umm…maybe try something else.

Vanilla Bean Loaf
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte

Makes 1 Cake

For the Cake:

1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups vanilla sugar*
1/2 whole vanilla bean
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the Syrup:

3/4 cup plus two tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 whole vanilla beans
1/2 cup water

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Generously grease an 8x4x3-inch loaf pan, or one that is similarly sized.

For the cake, begin by creaming the butter and vanilla sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, or use an electric mixer, until the mixture is pale and fluffy, like frosting.

Prepare both vanilla beans at once, by splitting them in half lengthwise. Set three of the halves aside for the syrup, and scrape the seeds of the remaining half, saving the scraped pod for the syrup as well.

Mix the seeds from the one vanilla bean half into the butter and sugar mixture for the cake, along with the vanilla extract and four eggs. Mix until thoroughly combined.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and fold carefully into the butter mixture until well-blended, but do not overmix. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester comes out clean, about 55 to 60 minutes.

While the cake is baking, prepare the vanilla syrup. Dissolve the granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat and then stir in the 1 1/2 beans and the reserved, scraped pod as well. Bring the syrup to a boil, then remove it from the heat and let it steep as it cools.

When the cake is done, let it cool in the pan for ten minutes on a wire rack, then turn the cake out onto the rack to cool completely. Every so often, while it’s cooling, brush coats of the syrup onto the entire surface of the cake–top, bottom and sides–with a pastry brush until all of the syrup has been absorbed into and brushed onto the cake. Wait until completely cooled, and then slice. Serve with sweetened vanilla whipped cream.


*To make the vanilla sugar, simply bury a split vanilla bean in a pound of granulated sugar in an airtight container and let it sit for a few days, shaking every so often. This is a great way to use leftover vanilla pods from other recipes. Vanilla sugar is awesome in place of plain sugar in just about any baking recipe, sprinkled in oatmeal, your morning coffee, etc.

 

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