Sep 10, 2009

Parmesan Thyme Crackers

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So what did you do over your Labor Day weekend?

Because I had a mini-vacation so blissfully divine, so Bucket List-level in greatness, that I now have a new happy place to which I can mentally escape. Let me begin by saying that it kicked off with two best girlfriends toasting with chilly glasses of prosecco and a pile of buttery parmesan thyme crackers. I know, right?!

If you’ve been a Piece of Cake reader for a while, you may remember that this little blog started more than two years ago when the husband and I lived mere blocks from the beach in Santa Monica (and I hadn’t figured out that I should REALLY not be using flash when taking photos). I also lived mere minutes away from my best girl Sara. We really lived it up back in the day–weekly lunches, pedicures, impromptu cocktails–the sort of glorious, childless kinds of activities that girls in their 20s are wont to do. It was, in short, The Life. And so, when the husband and I relocated to San Francisco a year and a half ago, despite our excitement about our new city, it was basically heartbreaking to leave my friend and all our good times.

Not that I’ve had time to sit and pine too much–I found out I was pregnant less than a month after moving to San Francisco and really, it is one of the most beautiful, exciting cities in the world. Still, when I’m elbow deep in oatmeal and mashed banana and limping between countertops with a fussy baby clinging to my jeans, I tend to wistfully mourn those days in Santa Monica, when my life was just My Life.

Well, this past weekend, we took a road trip down to LA and got to stay with Sara and her husband Nick in our old hometown. And for half a glorious day (while the boys hung out with Baby C) Sara and I got to pretend that we were right back in that relatively carefree place in our lives in the lovely city where I used to live.

The perfect prosecco and savory crackers were only the beginning of a fantastic weekend, people. There was Mexican food (the likes of which can only be found in Southern California–get with it, San Francisco!), a long run on my old beach route, salads at one of our favorite haunts, manis and pedis, shopping at Surfas (again, get WITH IT, San Francisco! I will totally help set up a franchise!), sunset bellinis on a beachside deck in a setting so perfect we felt like a Ralph Lauren ad, and cupcakes for the long drive back from a bakery that never ceases to inspire me. I’m pretty sure I had a single tear running down my cheek the entire time. I’m also sure that it all would never have been so awesome if I hadn’t moved away–you just forget the beauty in such small things when you have access to them everyday. But still, sigh…we’ll always have Santa Monica.

Sara and I agreed the weekend was, for us, the perfect Santa Monica experience. Now, I realize that even if you did exactly what we did and had the luck of some quintessentially perfect LA late summer weather, it probably wouldn’t be quite as emotionally fulfilling as it was for us. But I am very sure your soul will sing when you try the crackers that started the whole thing.

Of course this recipe comes from Ina Garten, a woman for whom my love grows more fervent with each recipe of hers that I try. Girlfriend’s recipes just work. I might go so far as to say that my love for Ina is on par with my adoration for/obsession with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, but that would just be crazy talk and I won’t let myself go there.

Back to the crackers: lip-smackingly good, crumbly with crisp edges, these crackers are basically a savory shortbread that scream for a cocktail to keep them company–just a ton of good, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh thyme leaves held together with a lot of butter and a little flour to give them some body. The perfect day with a cherished friend and a Santa Monica beach as a backdrop or not, you really can’t go wrong here.

Parmesan Thyme Crackers
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

Makes 2 to 3 dozen crackers, depending on thickness

This recipe is cocktail party perfection–it can be doubled, tripled (or more) easily. The dough can be made weeks in advance and stored in the freezer, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, until you’re ready to bake. The original recipe makes 2 dozen crackers, but I wanted mine a bit thinner and more crisp, so I sliced the rounds thinner and cut the baking time by a few minutes and watched them carefully. When grating the cheese, you want it really fine, almost ground, not shredded, so use the finest holes on your grater or your food processor.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces freshly finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (no stems)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it’s creamy. Add the cheese, thyme leaves, salt and pepper, and beat on low speed to combine. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough is smooth with no dry pockets. The dough will look crumbly, but should hold together when you squeeze some in your fist. Add a tablespoon of water if the dough seems too dry.

Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured board and shape it into a 9 inch long log. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 days, or freeze it for up to 6 months.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees with an oven rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and using a thin, sharp knife, slice it into rounds approximately 3/8ths of an inch thick to make 24 crackers (or slightly thinner if you prefer). Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the crackers are set and lightly golden, about 20-22 minutes (rotate the pan halfway through baking time). Cool completely on the baking sheet set on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

Sep 4, 2009

Brewers’ Blondies

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Anyone remember Chad Allen? He was one of those late 80’s TV teen heartthrobs on the relatively short-lived Our House. Ring a bell? Well, not that many people remember it. But I do because I was sure that I would marry Chad Allen one day. Back in, oh, say, fourth or fifth grade, I remember writing a letter to him. I’m not sure exactly what I wrote, but I know it was on my best Hello Kitty notebook paper and that right there says a lot about how important this correspondence was to me. I put that letter in my Esprit bag the night before school and stuck it in the mailbox on my way to the bus the next day.

And then I waited. And waited. And finally, after many months and a weeklong stint at summer camp, I arrived home to find that he had indeed written back! Well, not really him, more like his manager or whoever was responsible for assembling his form letters. But there was a really nice 8×10 photo with a fake autograph on it that I thought was rad. Even if it had taken so long to get that response that I’d sort of gotten over him. But that anticipation was delicious, waiting for a response and finally having that envelope show up.

I experienced that feeling all over again a few weeks ago, waiting waiting waiting for my copy of Baked: New Frontiers in Baking (from the charming boys at NYC’s Baked bakery, quite crushworthy themselves, incidentally) to show up on my doorstep. I’d been lovingly stroking this book at different shops for quite some time and finally found an online deal too great to pass up. Too bad that the online retailer I ordered it from took nearly two weeks to deliver the flippin’ thing. I almost passed out from the excitement while waiting. Who do you think you are, pokey online retailer?! Chad Allen? I don’t think so!

Anyway, flipping through the pages, my head was spinning from all the inspiration. I want to eventually get around to baking everything in the whole dang book, but settled on starting with the Brewers’ Blondies. Oh, man. Okay. So…I bake a lot, right? Well, I love the smell of baked goods wafting through the house, but sometimes it seems so much like the norm around here that it’s just sort of a nice backdrop to our lives and nothing too extraordinary. We-he-helllll….with this recipe, the deep, rich scent of pure butterscotch floating through the rooms in our house nearly made me pull my hair out. It was really something.

The finished bars are dense and chewy, all dark brown sugar and brown butter and so stunningly complex in flavor, with bits of chocolate and nuts and malt…malt, people! Ohmahgah.

A few notes: Does it have to be dark brown sugar? Yes, yes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but in this case it really matters–it’s what gives these bars their incredible depth of flavor and phenomenal chew. Also, the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips–I felt like that would be a lot of chocolate and I was really feeling the blondie thing, so I did about half bittersweet chips and half white chocolate chips because I had them, but do what you like.

I also cut the walnuts down from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup–just my preference. Turns out the movie-size box of malted milk balls available in supermarkets is just about the right amount for this recipe, plus a couple extra handfuls (cronch, cronch). Rather than chasing malted milk balls around my countertop with a chef’s knife or dirtying an appliance to chop them, I put them in a ziptop bag and gave each one a little pop with the end of my rolling pin and viola–just the right size pieces.

I sent the husband to work with half the batch (good call, otherwise I’d still be in a complete blondie coma) and when Baby C and I went to visit him at the office just a few hours later, I noticed there was already only one bar left in the container. So there ya go. I don’t see how you could go wrong, giving this recipe a try. They are a keeper, to say the least.

Oh, and P.S: Funnily enough, a few years back I actually got to interview Chad Allen on the red carpet for Brokeback Mountain. He was completely adorable. And of course I had to tell him that I got that letter and it totally made my whole summer, even it it wasn’t really from him. He thought it was hilarious. In other news, turns out boyfriend is totally all Brokeback Mountain himself now. I really know how to pick ‘em.

Brewer’s Blondies
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Makes 24 bars

Malted milk powder can usually be found near in the tea/coffee/cocoa section of your larger supermarket. Toasted walnuts give these bars a great flavor–it’s easy to toast them if you preheat your oven good and early; toss the nuts into a small baking pan and put them in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until they are golden and fragrant (let them cool before adding them to the batter). I like to line the pan with a sleeve of parchment paper across the bottom and draped over the sides of the pan like parchment “handles” to make for easy removal of the blondie slab, which also makes for nice, evenly cut bars.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 3/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup malted milk balls (like Whoppers or Maltesers), coarsely chopped
1/3 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13 inch baking pan. If you like, line the pan with a parchment sleeve to make the removal and cutting of the bars easier.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and malted milk powder.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and dark brown sugar on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl, and beat in the eggs and vanilla until well-blended. Add the dry ingredients in two additions on low speed and beat until just combined. Mix in the malted milk balls, chocolate chips and walnuts. Give the batter a final folding by hand with a spatula to make sure there are no dry pockets and the batter is evenly mixed. It will be very thick. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it evenly.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the bars are deeply golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes before removing the bars to a cutting board and cutting them into 24 squares. Once they cool completely, they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Aug 31, 2009

Peach Melba Cake with Raspberry Cream

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Whipped Cream. Fruit. Flowers. Booze. All makings of one crazy sexy hip hop video. And one very lovely birthday cake for an old friend who breezed through town in recent days.

My girl Heather and I go all the way back to high school. We’ve seen each other through unrequited crushes and bad highlights and an inexplicable addiction to ill-fitting flannel (hey, it was 1995, okay?). She’s lived in Atlanta for more than a decade now, and though we haven’t lived in the same city since our high school graduation, we have one of those friendships that picks right back up where we last left off in the time it takes to give a great big, girly-squealing hug. It was so fabulously fun to have her over for dinner a couple weeks ago, and after a feast of a Greek salad/panzanella hybrid and lemon-roasted pork, we celebrated her just-days-away birthday with a frothy confection of a cake, fit for my favorite Georgia Peach.

This cake recipe instantly grabbed my attention because it contains absolutely no butter. And no oil, either. Who-the-what-now? No, seriously! Whipped cream is the foundation of the cake (and the filling, and the frosting). Genius! I had to try it, simply on the basis that the concept pretty much blew my mind.

After whipping a healthy amount of heavy cream to soft peaks, you beat in some sugar, just like you would cream butter and sugar together in so many other cake recipes. Then the eggs are beaten in, followed by the dry ingredients, sifted over and very gently folded into the batter, and just a touch of buttermilk.

When baked, the exterior of the finished cake looks a whole lot like your standard butter cake, but the crumb is quite a bit coarser, uneven and more open. The texture is also considerably drier than that of a butter cake. It sounds less than delicious, I realize. But! There is meaning behind this. The open structure and slightly parched nature allows for plenty of spiked peach syrup to soak into the layers.

As is the norm around the Piece of Cake kitchen lately when making layer cakes, I opted to bake my cake layers and make the fruit purees for the frosting and filling the night before, and then assemble everything the next day. But if you’ve got a chunk of time to work on this cake, it’s easy to efficiently zip through the steps–make the peach mousse filling while the cake is baking and cooling, then make the raspberry cream frosting while filled and layered cake is chilling and setting up. And although there’s still some lovely fresh peaches and raspberries to be found in the markets, I gladly accepted this recipe’s time-saving suggestion of using frozen specimens.

Not only do you not have to wash, peel and slice the fruit, you just can’t beat the consistently bright flavor and brilliant color of frozen fruits. They make for the most stunningly pretty purees and finished frosting and filling for this cake. I challenge you to not eat half the batch of both elements while making them. They are the ultimate in ambrosial spoonability.

And speaking of the frosting and filling, the flavors are out of this world. Obviously it’s really hard to miss the mark with the combination of fruit and whipped cream, but what really makes them pop here is the addition of a few extra flavorings–peach schnapps for the peach mousse and the very interesting addition of rose water for the raspberry cream. A dash of alcohol is the ultimate flavor booster in cooking and baking, and, as alcohol is wont to do, it always livens up the party when fruit is involved in a recipe.

The rose water in the raspberry cream…well, there’s really no other way to describe it except to say that it makes the finished cream taste so, so beautiful. You don’t feel like you’re eating your Grandmother’s perfume or anything–in fact, you won’t even sense the essence of rose unless you really try and taste for it–but it creates a roundness to what would otherwise be a sort of sharp, tangy raspberry note. In other words, the raspberry cream tastes as soft and as pink as it appears, and I love, love, love that about this cake.

Although it’s billowy and dreamy when it’s first made, the raspberry cream isn’t nearly as stable as a trusty buttercream–it makes for a very thin layer on the cake and can’t really be fancifully swirled and reworked a whole lot on the surface of the cake. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to work quickly and have a set design in mind when you start dolloping on the frosting and all will be beautiful. I mean, c’mon! You really can’t go wrong–look at this color! Who needs Red No. 5?

And so I repeat: whipped cream, fruit, flowers, booze. That’s really all you need to know.

Peach Melba Cake with Raspberry Cream
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Makes 1 8-inch 3-layer cake

The following recipe has the proportions of the original. I halved this recipe to scale it down to a two layer 6-inch cake, which is the perfect amount for serving a smaller group (say four to six people). I then split the layers in half crosswise to make a cake with four layers of cake and three layers of filling. The cakes can be baked the day before assembly, cooled completely, wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated. The peach syrup and fruit purees for the frosting and filling can also be made the day before; when it’s time for assembly, quickly whip up the two batches of cream for the peach mousse and raspberry cream, fold them into the purees and you’re all set.

To find the rosewater that gives the raspberry cream it’s other-worldly flavor, look in the liquor section of larger supermarkets or specialty grocers.

You’ll notice there’s extra puree in the recipe than what is actually needed to make the frosting and filling. The intention is to use it for garnish. I didn’t bother with garnish and instead stirred mine into yogurt the next day.

For the cake:

1 3/4 cups cake flour
3 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons buttermilk

For the peach syrup:

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup peach schnapps or other peach liqueur

For the peach mousse filling:

1 pound peaches, thawed frozen with juices or peeled and pitted fresh
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
2 tablespoons peach schnapps or other peach liqueur
1 cup heavy cream

For the raspberry cream:

12 ounces unsweetened frozen raspberries, thawed with juices
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 8-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment circles and grease the parchment too (butter or cooking spray works fine).

Start by making the cake. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Put the dry ingredients back into the sifter and set aside.

Whip the cream with the vanilla to soft peaks on high speed. Lower the speed to low and gradually beat in the sugar–do not whip until stiff. Beat in the eggs and egg yolks and continue whipping until soft peaks form again.

Sift about a third of the dry ingredients over the batter and fold in by hand with a spatula until well-blended. Repeat twice more. Fold in the buttermilk. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 18-20 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert them onto the cooling racks and peel off the parchment. Cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, first make the peach syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the syrup to about 1/2 a cup. Remove from the heat and stir in the peach liqueur. Set aside to cool.

Next, make the peach mousse filling. Combine the peaches, sugar, lemon juice and water in a medium non-reactive saucepan over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low, cooking until the peaches are soft. Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth (take care as hot liquids like to explode out of blenders). Measure out 1 cup of puree and set aside for garnish. Place the remaining puree in a large bowl.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the 2 tablespoons of liqueuer and let soften for five minutes, then microwave it on high for 10 to 15 seconds, stirring well to make sure it’s completely dissolved. Stir the gelatin into the peach puree in the large bowl.

In a large chilled bowl with chilled beaters, whip the cream for the peach filling until stiff. Fold the cream into the peach puree.

Begin assembling the cake. Place on layer upside down on a cake plate covered with strips of parchment to keep the platter clean. Soak with 1/4 cup of the peach syrup, and spread with half the peach mousse filling. Repeat with the second layer, 1/4 cup more syrup and the second half of the filling. Place the final layer on top and the rest of the peach syrup. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate the cake so it can set, about 1 hour.

While the cake is chilling, make the raspberry cream. Place the raspberries and their juices in a medium saucepan over medium low heat, mashing them with a fork until they’ve given up all their juices, about 15 minutes. Let the fruit cool slightly, then puree it in a food processor or blender. Run the puree through a sieve to remove the seeds. Remove 2/3 cup of the puree to another bowl, and reserve for garnish (sweeten to taste with additional sugar before serving). Into the remaining 1/3 cup, stir in the sugar and rosewater until the sugar dissolves.

In a chilled bowl with chilled beaters, whip the cream until stiff. Fold the raspberry-rose puree into the whipped cream.

When the filled cake has set, frost with the raspberry cream. Refrigerate cake uncovered for two hours before serving (and up to 8 hours for best results–this cake doesn’t keep well). Serve with the garnish, if desired.

Aug 26, 2009

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

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Somewhere in the back of my increasingly feeble, mother-to-an-almost-toddler mind, I seem to remember learning in school about the hierarchy of basic human needs. I’m pretty sure they included food, water, shelter, chocolate and an aunt and uncle set who are significantly cooler than your parents. Baby C scored on that last bit. A prime example being that her awesome Uncle Pat recently rolled through town on a tour with his band, while her totally boring mother baked cookies for said band. But as it turns out, it’s a tall order, baking for rockstars.

Although homemade cookies of all sorts would probably be welcomed by a van full of boys, you certainly don’t want to send them off with a container full of anything too delicate that might shatter into crumbs while getting rattled around among their gear and various gaming platforms. No, surely a lady cookie wouldn’t do. You need something sturdy. Dude Cookies. Road Biscuits. Like chewy nuggets of midnight dark chocolate, nubbly with tart dried cherries, bittersweet chocolate and toasty pecans.

This recipe comes from Alice Medrich’s great Pure Dessert, a book brimming with the kinds of recipes that turn out flavorful, earthy desserts that are never too sweet and always completely satisying. The recipes are familiar enough to create an instant craving, but there’s always a few ingredients that are off my everyday baking radar tossed into the mix that get me all excited to forage aisles in the market that I might not normally visit. And if that kind of spontaneity isn’t rockstar, well then I don’t know what is. How about staying out until midnight on a weeknight to go see a show in a bar AND paying someone to watch our kid for the first time?! THAT’S rock n’ flippin’ ROLL, people! Hard core!

Yeah. So…
This chocolate cookie recipe is going to be bookmarked for the long haul in the Piece of Cake kitchen. Not only can you turn out these rustic cookies that are perfect for gifting or keeping out on the counter for weekday snacking, you can also make a few tweaks during the prep and baking of them to create the kind of perfectly chocolately, thin, crisp, wafer-like cookies that are the ultimate building blocks for creating different desserts altogether and are getting increasingly harder to find in your typical supermarket (more on that in coming weeks). But for some awesomely talented guys several weeks into a non-stop national tour, it had to be a manned-up version of this recipe, the kind of brawny, chunky chocolate cookie that screams for a glass of milk. Or a handle of Jack. Or whatever those crazy kids are into these days.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

Makes about 4 dozen

The original recipe calls for the dough to come together in a food processor. I’ve never acquired one myself, so I used a standing mixer and have rewritten the recipe as such. The beauty of a food processor is that it doesn’t incorporate a lot of air into the dough, making for a decadent, dense cookie, so if you use a mixer like I did, just keep the speed as low as possible.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into 12 chunks
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 ounces (1 cup) bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips
6 ounces (1 cup) dried tart cherries
1 1/3 cups chopped toasted pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.

Combine the flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, and baking soda in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to blend the dry ingredients thoroughly. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter chunks to the bowl until the butter is incorporated and the mixture looks lumpy and sandy. Increase the speed slightly until the dough begins to clump up around the paddle. Combine the milk and vanilla in a small cup. With the mixer running, add the milk mixture and mix until the dough is smooth and creamy in appearance, like a thick frosting. Fold in the chocolate chips, dried cherries and toasted pecans.

Drop by level tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until the cookies look drier and set–the centers won’t be firm at all, but shouldn’t be too squishy. Cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in airtight containers in single layers separated by waxed paper or parchment.

Aug 19, 2009

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet

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It’s 7:00 am. A mother stands with her wiggly baby on her hip, looking out a picture window, still sleepy, willing her cup of coffee to kick in. The ever-present fog of a San Francisco summer is rolling down the street. It’s been a week since they’ve seen the sun, and it’s beginning to get depressing. Suddenly, a bright ball of light begins to burn through the thick cloud cover above. The mother first squints at the almost-unfamiliar light, then incredulously stares, her eyes as big as her baby’s lush, open mouth. The fog burns off before their very eyes, revealing patches of blue that grow together to form an expanse of clear sunny sky. Could it really be? A sunny San Francisco day in the summer? A fire sparks within the weary mother, burning as bright as the sunlight that is now searing through the window. Sweet Georgia Brown! Go, go, go!!

The mother leaps away from the window, quickly drops to her knees and busies her offspring. “Here, baby, take my Blackberry! Your favorite! Ooh, shiny!! Shiny, right?! And look at this pretty TV remote with all the buttons and mommy’s jingly keys and all these other things that transfix you that we never let you have. Super fun, right baby?! Okay, you sit here now. Mama’s makin’ sorbet!!

It may sound all dramatic, but it’s true, people. Though the stretch of cool, dreary days around here certainly made for excellent baking weather, there haven’t been many opportunities to enjoy summery frozen desserts in the manner in which nature intended–in full sun, on a deck, with peak-of-season fruit melting across the tongue. You’ll notice there’s only been two ice creams showcased here this season–tragic! I had to suck the marrow out of that sudden sunny day and get a batch of fresh strawberry sorbet churning first thing. There would surely be a dinner grilled outside later that day, and a sorbet would cap it off fabulously. Luckily, there was a basket of strawberries sitting in the fridge that were just edging past their prime.

I’d had such high hopes for eating those berries for breakfast, but the relentless cloudy weather had been more of the oatmeal variety, and even in their ruby-red glory, I just kept passing over those berries while skimming the refrigerator shelves in the morning. But I am a strong proponent of No Berry Left Behind. So into the blender went that still-promising fruit with a touch of sugar. I added about 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice just to bring the amount of fruit puree to two cups for a full pint of sorbet (and because I love the flavor combination). I’m thinking other fruit nectars, like peach, would also be lovely here.

I had a sorbet recipe bookmarked in my copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook that called for balsamic vinegar, so I glugged some of that into the blending puree. Anyone who’s had a syrupy balsamic reduction drizzled over berries will tell you that the intense fruity, winey taste of balsamic and strawberries is a match from the gods. It’s not that you actually taste vinegar–you use just a touch–rather you taste the strawberries in a much more profound way. Like strawberries on steroids. Much like my recent pairing of strawberries and Lillet, the vinegar just opens up the whole thing and renders it completely delicious. Coincidentally, I found that sunshine has a similar effect on the flavors of this sorbet–it just tastes that much better on a sunny summer day. Especially if you happen to have been the sun-starved type as of late.

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Makes 1 pint

Many sorbet recipes, including the one from the Zuni book, call for straining the puree. I skipped that step altogether–I like the body that the berry pulp gives the finished dessert and strawberry seeds are so tiny that you don’t even know they’re there. Plus you get twice the amount of finished sorbet without straining the puree. If you want a more refined finished product or have a skeevy relationship with seeds, by all means strain away, but double the recipe so you end up with a full pint of sorbet (one pound of berries yields about a cup of strained puree).

1 pound fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh orange juice or other unsweetened, complimentary fruit juice
4-6 tablespoons of sugar, to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon good balsamic vinegar, to taste

Puree the berries in a blender until smooth. Check to see how much puree you have at this point, and add orange juice to bring the amount up to two cups. Blend to combine. Add the sugar, starting with 4 tablespoons, and blend again. Taste the puree, adding more sugar to taste. You want the puree to be almost too sweet–the sweetness will dull considerably when the sorbet is frozen. Finally, add the balsamic vinegar to taste, beginning with 1/2 teaspoon. Stop adding vinegar when the strawberry flavor is noticeably more pronounced, but you can’t taste the vinegar outright. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Scrape into an airtight container and freeze until firm.

Aug 14, 2009

Three Dozen Cookies, One Stick of Butter (!)

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I realize that with my all-desserts-all-the-time blog that I’m not exactly the poster child for low-fat eats. I’ve said before that I’d much rather make my regular meals lean and mean than give up a good dessert made with real ingredients. I just don’t see the point of making a low-fat cake. But let it be known that when I work out a recipe that cranks out three dozen generously-sized, utterly satisfying cookies with just one stick of butter, I am going to make a Big Deal out of it.

These Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger are the love child of one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes and a banana bread recipe that I’ve had bookmarked for months. Those who are slaves to the low-fat baking movement (or those who read the ubiquitous “healthy treats” articles in womens’ magazines that tell you to do ridiculous things like putting only salsa on your baked potatoes and call fruit dipped in a teaspoon of chocolate syrup “dessert”) will tell you that fruit purees can make a decent substitute for fat in baked goods.

In my opinion, in order for the fruit puree technique to produce truly great results, conditions must be perfect. Those conditions include recipes that call for oil and/or melted butter (think quickbreads and muffins) and also include ingredients that naturally work with the flavor of the fruit puree, should any of it sneak out into the baked good. And I don’t know about you, but banana+chocolate+ginger+cookies=pretty great-sounding to me. I pulled out my ever-present bag of frozen-before-they-could-completely-decay bananas from the freezer and got to work.

It just so happens that one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes is made just like a quickbread, via the muffin method with melted butter–there’s that other aforementioned condition for fruit purees successfully acting as a stand-in for fats. But let’s not get ridiculous, okay? I have no interest in going all Susan Powter on my baking projects, so I only swapped out half the weight of the butter for mashed banana. The sweetness of the fruit also allowed for a third of the sugar to be slashed out too–bonus! All that was left to do was to add a little sparkle with minced candied ginger to the dough, and dish it out in delightfully non-dietetic portions.

I’ve decided that there is only one fragrance that can best the smells of banana bread or chocolate chip cookies wafting through the house and that is the smell of a banana bread/chocolate chip cookie hybrid. Oh. Em. Gee. And thankfully, the taste matched the olfactory delight. These cookies came out fabulously moist and chewy with crisp edges and were so flavorful that I really, honestly didn’t miss the extra butter at all. Even better, they were more delicious the next day. That is to say the two that were left over were more delicious.

I was so overjoyed by the results of this recipe, I had to work out the math. And by my calculations, there are about 3 grams of fat per cookie, half the fat of an average chocolate chip cookie. In the Piece of Cake kitchen, that means you can shove them in your mouth two at a time. Hooray!

Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger

Makes about 3 dozen

Keep an eye on the cookies during the last few minutes of baking–you don’t want them overbaked. Cooling the cookies completely on the sheet will make for a chewier cookie. If you want them more crisp, just transfer them to a wire rack to cool after a minute or so. After portioning the cookies, the dough balls can be frozen and stored in a zip-top freezer bag for up to three months.

2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces mashed banana (about 1/2 cup, or 1 medium)
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% cacao, semi-sweet chips work too)
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, minced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with an oven rack set to the center position. Have ungreased baking sheets ready (I like to line mine with parchment or Silpat, but it’s not necessary).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl by hand, mix together the sugars, melted butter, egg yolks and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in the mashed banana. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until nearly incorporated, then fold in the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger.

Portion tablespoons of dough out onto the baking sheets, 12 per sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 14-16 minutes, or just until golden brown. Don’t overbake. Cool completely on the baking sheets on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Aug 9, 2009

Lovely Lemon Layer Cake

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On my favorite running route, there is an old house that has a huge, neglected lemon tree. It is an absolute crime, I tell you. The branches are always heavy with fruit–the kind of bright, fragrant, thin-skinned lemons that bakers covet. One of these days I am going to break my stride, pound on their door and–panting and flailing my arms in the direction of their insane lemon tree–shout, “What the @#*! is wrong with you?!”. I will also threaten to call the Department of Citrus Protection if they don’t step up and take care of their bounty. I will even encourage them by sharing my favorite lemon dessert recipes, like this lovely lemon layer cake.

From the moment I first saw the recipe, I was on this cake. Delicate white cake, a tart lemon filling and a billowy, marshmallow-like topping? Yes, please. It pretty much dominated my thoughts until I could find the time to work on it. Because in all honesty, this cake is a bit of a Project. That’s not to say the steps are difficult–the cake, filling and frosting are all simple standbys–but each element does take some time. But it had been a while since I’d made a real Wondercake, and it’s easy to plan out your prep for this recipe even if you’ve got obstacles. Like, say, a tiny person who really likes to hang on to your legs as you limp from the stove to the sink. Taking your time putting it together also makes for some delicious antici…pation.

First up is the vibrant lemon curd filling. I am completely enamored with lemon curd as a cake filling. It’s always a great surprise for the eater and basically tastes like sunshine–what’s not to love? Instead of just using the lemon juice and sugar that this recipe called for, I added an extra punch of flavor by working the zest of one of the lemons into the sugar with a mortar and pestle. Incidentally, they need to make a scratch-n-sniff sticker that smells like a kitchen in which someone is making lemon sugar.
After the sugar is sufficiently lemon-nized, it’s blended with fresh lemon juice, egg yolks and butter until it gets so gorgeous and thick and glossy, you can trace a path through it with a spatula. Oh, my. Sieve it and chill it for a few hours, a perfect window to bake and cool the cake (it can also be made a couple days ahead).
And then there’s the cake. The white cake that hugs the luscious lemon filling is the ultimate cake dichotomy–a sweet, delicate vanilla flavor and a light, tender crumb, yet incredibly sturdy for layering. This is thanks to a batter with a two-stage mixing method, which I love because once you get the hang of this method, the results are fabulously consistent. Unlike cakes that start with creaming the butter and sugar together, a two-stage cake starts by mixing the butter right into the dry ingredients, until it resembles fine crumbs.

After the butter is so well-incorporated you can hardly discern any bits of it, a whisked-together mixture of the eggs and milk and vanilla gets drizzled into the spinning batter. The batter for this cake is so velvety, it’s hard not to sigh at the beauty of it all. Oh, I do so love a vanilla cake batter. It is the very definition of dreamy.

When the cake layers have baked and cooled completely and the filling has chilled for a few hours, the real fun begins. I always love assembling a layer cake. I like to pretend I’m a Real Live Pastry Chef, with a charming little bake shop decorated in pink and white and bits of damask, with a big copper espresso machine behind the counter and acres of stainless steel workspace in the back room…what, huh? Oh, yeah, no I’m here. Sorry. Um, anyway.Start by slicing each layer in half. Admire the beautiful crumb and snowy white interior of this cake.

Give your lemon filling a good stir. It will be much firmer than a regular lemon curd–the addition of a bit of gelatin gives it excellent structure and helps it sit prettily between the cake layers and not ooze all over and into the frosting.

Now we get to some layering action. Place one cake layer (golden side down) on a serving platter. Tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges to keep the plate nice and clean while you pretend to be a Real Live Pastry Chef. Spread a third of the filling evenly over the layer, leaving the outer edge of the cake bare.

Repeat with another cake layer (again, golden side down), applying just a bit of pressure so the layers adhere, and then spread on another third of the filling.

I’m pretty sure you know what to do next. You are quick!
Now for the final layer, place it golden side UP. Pulled a fast one on ya, didn’t I? I like to use the bottom half of one of the layers for this step, so that the top of the cake is nice and even.

Some might call this next step optional, but I don’t think so. Use your impeccably clean index finger to swipe up any wayward lemon curd. I think you can guess what the next natural step is after that. Slurp.

And now comes my favorite part of cake making–the prettifying via a gorgeous frosting. Those that follow the goings-on of the Piece of Cake kitchen know there was a recent victory that involved a smackdown with Seven-Minute Frosting. And this cake was the impetus for said victory. Let’s revel in that sweet success one more time, shall we? Ahhhh.

I don’t really see any other way to use a heavenly, cloud-like frosting than en masse. So just go on ahead and pile it on, sister.
I am so glad that my relationship with Seven-Minute Frosting has completely turned a corner because a) I hate being belittled by icing b) it is really delicious and c) it is a dream to work with. You can giddily swoop and swirl this frosting for hours and the only thing that will snap you out of your fanciful ways is your husband demanding to know if that crazy cake is ready yet.

“Um, yeah, almost!” Swoop, swirl, giggle, giggle, swirl.

And here she is. A debutante of the cake world. The kind of cake that everyone should have in their repertoire. Light, whimisical, ooh and ahh-inspiring, it is the ultimate cake for celebrations of all kinds. Even if you’re just celebrating something like making it through another week with an 11-month-old. Or successfully stealing armfuls of contraband lemons from your neighbor’s totally neglected lemon tree.

I kid! But I totally should.

Lemon Layer Cake


Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen


Makes 1 9-inch, 4-layer cake


With the cake and lemon filling recipes cut in half, this recipe makes one adorable 6-inch cake, perfect for serving 4 to 6. If you opt to make a smaller version of this cake, still make the full frosting recipe–you’ll have a generously frosted cake with a bit left over, but the frosting just doesn’t whip as well with smaller proportions. Trust me on this. The filling can be prepared two days ahead, and the cake can be made a day ahead of assembly–just cool the layers completely, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Make the frosting just before putting the cake together.


For the filling:
Zest from two lemons
1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 6 lemons)
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (reserve whites for the cake)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and frozen


For the cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened but still cool



Begin by preparing the filling: Measure 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top to soften. With a mortar and pestle or with your fingertips in a small bowl, work the lemon zest into the sugar until the sugar is fragrant and evenly moistened with the oils from the zest.Heat the rest of the lemon juice, the lemon sugar, and salt in a medium non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot but not bubbling. Whisk the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large, non-reactive bowl. Slowly whisk the lemon syrup into the eggs, then return the mixture to the saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the curd, stirring constantly, until it reaches 170 degrees and it’s thick enough to draw a trail through it with a spatula. Stir in the softened gelatin until completely dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the frozen butter until the butter has melted and the curd is smooth. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a non-reactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least four hours or up to two days.

To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the milk, egg whites and vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter pieces one at a time until the mixture resembles fine, even crumbs. Stop the mixer and add all but about 1/2 cup of the wet ingredients. Beat the batter at medium speed until it is pale and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the rest of the wet ingredients, then crank the speed back up to medium and beat for 30 seconds more. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 30 more seconds.

Divide the batter equally among the two cake pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean–do not overbake. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans, peel off the parchment and cool completely, right side up.

When the filling has chilled and the cake layers are cool, begin assembling the cake. Slice the cake layers in half horizontally. Place one layer golden side down on a serving platter, and tuck a few strips of parchment paper under the edges of the cake to protect the platter. Spread a third of the lemon filling on the cake layer, leaving a 1/2 inch border around the edge of the cake. Repeat twice more with cake layers and filling. Place the top layer of the cake golden side up. Frost with Fluffy White Icing. This cake is best served as soon as possible, but the finished cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated up to one day before serving.


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