This post is a tough one to write. I must have begun typing it at least a dozen times. I’m used to feeling a surge of energy when I start a post, thrilled and wholly alive to be indulging my passions and recording them for all the world to see. Lately, life has taken quite a turn for my family and me, making those kinds of feelings seem a world away. As I try to shake the muffled sensation of just wading through the days, I am beginning to understand that it is a great personal triumph in hard times to do the small things that bring us joy in our everyday lives. These are gentle reminders of who we are, especially when it feels like we just aren’t sure anymore. It is tempting to dismiss things like keeping this blog and buzzing busily in the kitchen as being too small to count for anything, but I am trying to remember that keeping on with these simple activities is a celebration of the time I’ve been given. Tiny delights like these are crucial in a complex life.
Most of my cooking and baking is quite inspired–by articles, photos, after-dinner cravings–but this time the goal was to just do something that felt, well, normal. Without much of an appetite and very few items on hand, this attempt was about creating something simple, familiar and soothing. Something that could be done by hand, with minimal equipment and few dirty dishes. Brownies sounded like just the thing.
Most would agree that the best brownie is thick and chewy, big on chocolate flavor without being cloyingly sweet (salt is a brownie’s best friend). A thin, crackled, papery crust covering about an inch and a half of dense, rich fudginess. Corner pieces edged with crispy integrity and mellow, luscious squares in the center of the pan. Nothing cakey, please. And I’m a purist, so that means no nuts, flavored chips, marshmallows or other nonsense. A cold glass of milk is the only company a serious brownie will ever need.
I used a recipe from one of my favorite books, and got to work. My advice? Take the thousands you might spend on therapy, buy eggs, butter, sugar and flour in bulk, and get into the kitchen. It does small wonders for the soul.
Chewy, Fudgy Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghiradelli bittersweet chips)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons cocoa powder (I used Valrhona)
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8 inch baking pan with foil or parchment and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a medium bowl, melt the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring ocassionally until smooth. Whisk in the cocoa powder and set aside to cool.
3. In another medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt until combined, about 15 seconds. Whisk the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, then stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until just combined.
4. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a rubber spatula to push the batter into the corners evenly (the batter will be rather thick, yum). Bake until slightly puffed and a toothpick comes out with clingy, fudgy crumbs, about 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours. If you can wait overnight (yeah, right), they will taste even better the next day.
I mean, really, that statement requires an exclamation point. Any good cake suddenly becomes even better when it’s made and eaten to celebrate someone’s birthday. And to me, the classic birthday cake will always be a buttery, fine-textured yellow cake layered and covered with rich, fudgy frosting. It’s the kind of cake that my Gramma is known for making for a birthday (you do have to get your request in early, however), and one that I grew up loving. It’s the best of both worlds, vanilla and chocolate, light cake and rich frosting, simple enough flavors to pair well with whatever kind of ice cream the birthday girl or boy requests.
In this case the birthday boy was my husband’s best friend from college, the best man in our wedding, and the person who indirectly introduced my husband and I to each other (in the way you can indirectly meet someone while dating someone else–it was college, people!). So this person obviously deserves a seriously good birthday cake, and nothing is better than a classic that never gets old, no matter how many times you have it. Kind of like celebrating birthdays themselves.
Before I get to the recipe, cross over with me into the land of culinary geekdom for a moment, won’t you? I love experimenting with different mixing methods of cake-making. It never ceases to amaze me just how different textures and flavors can turn out just by mixing the same ingredients in a different order. I’m sure there’s an ancient proverb in there somewhere. Anyway, in this case, the mixing method is the two-stage method, wherein softened butter is blended directly into the dry ingredients, and then the wet ingredients are streamed in at the end. This batter isn’t quite as glamourous-looking coming together as cakes made via the creaming method, but oh, the texture of the finished cake. A fine and tender crumb, light and velvety, the perfect stage for a rich, dense fudgy frosting.
Classic Birthday Cake
(aka Yellow Layer Cake with Rich Fudge Frosting)
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
For the Cake:
1 3/4 cups plain cake flour, sifted, plus more for dusting the pans
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons great vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 16 pieces
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter two 9-inch cake rounds, line the bottoms with parchment, and butter the parchment. Dust the pans with flour, tapping out the excess.
2. Beat the eggs, milk and vanilla with a fork in a small bowl. Measure out one cup of this mixture and set aside.
3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Stir the ingredients on low to combine, about 30 seconds.
4. With the mixture still running at the lowest speed, add the softened butter one piece at a time, mixing until the butter and flour begin the clump together, until it looks pebbly with pieces about the size of peas, 30 to 40 seconds after all the butter is added.
5. Add the reserved one cup of egg mixture and mix at low speed until incorporated, 5 to 10 seconds. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the remaining egg mixture in a steady stream with the mixer running, taking about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl and beater. Beat at medium-high speed again until the batter is thoroughly combined and just starts to look curdled, about 15 seconds.
6. Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans, smoothing out the surface. Bake until the cakes are light gold in color and a toothpick comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes then run a knife along the edges to loosen them from the pans. Release cakes from the pans and let cool completely before icing them.
For the Frosting:
16 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to just a simmer over medium-high heat in a small saucepan, then pour the cream over the chocolate. Add the corn syrup, and let the mixture stand for 3 minutes.
2. Whisk the mixture until smooth, and add the vanilla. Refrigerate for 1 to 1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes, until the mixture reaches a spreadable consistency. You can use this frosting as is, or for a lighter texture like I prefer, place the frosting in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whip attachment and whip the frosting until it is fluffy with medium peaks, about 2 minutes.
To assemble the cake, remove the parchment from the cake layers, and place one layer upside down on a cake stand or serving platter. I like to put strips of parchment or wax paper just under the edges of the cake to protect the serving platter from frosting smudges. Put about half a cup of frosting on this layer, and spread it out, leaving about 1/2 inch frosting-free around the edges of the cake–the filling will spread when you add the second layer. Place the second layer on top, and cover the cake with the remaining frosting. This frosting is so smooth and spreadable that you don’t need a crumb coat, especially if you decide to whip the frosting. Serve at room temperature with ice cream of the birthday girl or boy’s choice.
In my last post celebrating the joy of the sponge cake, I alluded to a doused dessert that I am pretty thrilled to share with you. And by “pretty thrilled” I mean kind of not wanting to share it with the entire Internet because how can I impress you with it if we happen to meet and then I bring it to one of your parties and you already have the recipe?
The first time I had Tres Leches Cake was with one of my nearest and dearest, Erin. She lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles, and well, we’re like soul-connected sisters, you see. We finish each other’s sentences while just living parallel lives on opposite coasts. And that’s when we’re not talking on the phone. So you can only imagine what last New Year’s Eve was like when I spent the holiday at her house. I mean, our husbands were both there, I’m pretty sure, but it was the most fantastic example of husbands being accessory in the presence of best girlfriends that you’ve ever heard of. And a recipe for this amazing cake that Erin was given by someone who I am sure is not as significant of a friend as I am (but still has good taste in desserts nonetheless) became our joie de vivre over our three-day visit.
Tres Leches Cake is a traditional Latin dessert that starts with a classic sponge cake and then takes it up Uno! Dos! Tres! levels by soaking it in a mixture of three milks–evaporated, sweetened condensed and a bit of heavy cream. Then the whole thing is covered in a sexy mess of freshly whipped cream. No para la lactosa intolerante, indeed:
The final result is absolutely otherworldly–the sturdy sponge cake maintains it’s shape beautifully but becomes almost bread pudding-like in texture after soaking up the creamy sweetened milk, with hints of vanilla and caramel throughout, and performs a brilliant balancing act with it’s fluffy coat of soft, unsweetened whipped cream. You can even play with this recipe a bit by adding different extracts to the milk mixture and whipped cream–lemon, orange, coconut, etc.–but you really must try the traditional recipe first.
Tres Leches Cake
You can embellish this cake a bunch of ways, edible flowers, candied fruit or maraschino cherries for the holidays or summer berries would be great. However, I feel that a big bowl, a big spoon and the couch is the best serving suggestion of all.
1 Classic Sponge Cake, baked and cooled completely
1 14-ounce can evaporated milk
1 12-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 pint whipping cream, well-chilled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Combine the can of evaporated milk, the sweetened condensed milk and two ounces of the whipping cream in a bowl. Remove one cup of the mixture and put it away in another container, you won’t be needing it for the cake (the original recipe doesn’t suggest what to do with it, but I found it was very nice in my morning coffee). Set aside the remaining milk mixture.
Whip the remaining 14 ounces of cream with the vanilla in a metal bowl, with a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment or with an electric hand mixer. Chilling the bowl and the beaters in the freezer first will make quick work of this task. Do not sweeten the whipped cream!
Place the cooled sponge cake in a deep serving platter or a wide, shallow bowl. Pierce the cake all over the top and sides with a few bamboo skewers.
Slowly pour the sweetened milk mixture over the cake, swirling the bowl as needed and lifting the cake’s edges the ensure the milk is fully absorbed.
Once all the milk has been soaked into the cake, cover it with gorgeous swirls of the whipped cream. Refrigerate until serving, and serve the cake with a big serving spoon.
Okay, so maybe the sponge cake isn’t literally an American invention (most food historians agree that the sponge cake as we now know it was probably a European recipe created in the early 19th century), but it feels American to me: sturdy, dependable, versatile, basic. An egg-and-sugar canvas for a multitude of flavorings and cultural influences. I also hear that sponge cake opposes the war. But that’s another post.
Sponge cake is basically an angel food cake made with whole eggs instead of egg whites. There are a few variations, but sponge cake recipes are always low on ingredients and high on technique. When done right it tastes of fresh, pillowy, just-eggy-enough French toast, and the interior looks delightfully like its namesake.
When done wrong, it looks like flat, day-old French toast and tastes like its namesake. You see what I’m saying here.
Remember that sponge cake batter does best when it’s like Santa Monica summer: warm and breezy. With a sponge cake, it’s really all about the eggs. They provide the sturdy structure, effervescent interior, and most of the lift in this cake. In general, all baking goes much smoother with room temperature eggs, but in a cake like this, air will find it’s way much more swiftly and certainly into both the whites and the yolks when they have had a chance to warm up out of the fridge. Since my baking urges hit suddenly and strongly, and are rarely premeditated, I’ve discovered that bathing the eggs in warm water while I set everything else up does a nice job of bringing them up to a more batter-friendly temperature quickly.
I also opted to turn the following recipe into a hot-milk sponge cake, which was recommended in several recipes I found, and heated the milk in the microwave for one minute (opting to add some good vanilla to it) to keep the Santa Monica summer thing happening in the batter (I haven’t been to culinary school, but I’m sure this isn’t a technical term).
This recipe calls for baking all of the batter in one glorious, thick layer in a 9-inch springform pan, which I also think makes it so versatile. Among other things, you can tear the finished sponge cake into chunks for a berry trifle, douse it with something delicious to celebrate its literal sponginess (more on that in the coming days), or slice it into two or three layers to fill it (Boston Cream Pie, anyone?). However, you can easily divide the batter into two cake pans–just reduce the cooking time to 16-20 minutes. This cake also freezes beautifully for future endeavors, like when you unexpectedly find yourself with some really good ice cream…or something.
You can avoid the depressing, sinking center that sponge cakes tend to have by working quickly when it comes out of the oven, loosening the edges with a thin knife and immediately turning it out of the hot pan and cooling it right side up on a rack. This one cooled as tall and as proud as it first looked coming out of the oven.
For this sponge cake go around, I opted to simply slice it across, fill it with homemade strawberry jam, and have a hunk out on the porch with a glass of ice-cold milk. I am, of course, an American girl.
Classic Sponge Cake
Enjoy plain or with various fruits, glazed, soaked, filled with ice cream, mousse, jam…you have the right to freedom of sponge cake. And that’s just straight up American.
1 cup granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment then lock it into place, and butter the pan and the parchment.
Heat 1/3 cup milk in the microwave for one minute, stir in vanilla, set aside.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt, set aside.
In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or with an electric hand mixer, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar until light in color and doubled in volume. They will be a beautiful, creamy pale yellow color, like the walls of my apartment.
Set the mixer on low and stir in the milk mixture first and then the flour mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary, and then set aside.
In a small, grease-free bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric hand mixer or in a clean stand mixer bowl with a whisk attachment. When soft peaks form, gradually rain in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat until firm but not dry.
Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the yolk mixture first, to lighten it up. When mostly combined, add the remaining 2/3 of the whites and continue to fold carefully, through the center of the batter, under it and back over to keep as much air in the mixture as possible. When the egg mixtures are fully incorporated, pour batter into the prepared pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. It will be a gorgeous, light brown color. Immediately place the cake on a rack, remove the springform ring and remove the cake from the pan bottom by lifting off the parchment paper. Cool the cake completely on a rack, then remove the paper before placing on a serving platter.
Oh, no. You heard right.
I first found this recipe in the June/July 2007 issue of Everyday with Rachael Ray while on a flight to Denver. I know I can’t be the only one who is suddenly starving as soon as an airplane reaches cruising altitude, trapped at 30,000 feet with nothing but microscopic bags of generic “snack mix” and mushy, ten-dollar Chicken Caesar Somethings to choose from; it kind of reminds me of the intense hunger that would immediately follow childhood fluoride treatments at the dentist when one couldn’t eat for what was undoubtedly the longest 30 minutes in history. Anyway, I saw this recipe during one of those kind of starving moments, and wondered if I would still be as interested in it once I touched the ground.
Well, nearly two months later I still have the magazine, and I think I must have thought of making these about 200 times in that time period. And I finally made it happen. And, oh my, did it happen. These were really great, and one of my first forays into the world of fritter/doughnut making. Unless you count my graduating from Hush Puppies University for Yankees.
I was really pleased this recipe. I opted to halve it and the results were still great. They were light, fluffy, and full of earthy peanut flavor, with a tender, deep golden exterior. I may add a bit more brown sugar next time, as I usually only have all-natural peanut butter on hand and used it in these–I would have liked them a bit sweeter on their own. But a dusting of powdered sugar and some of my homemade strawberry jam made up for it. Also, the peanut butter I had around was chunky, and it didn’t effect the finished product one bit. The additional crunchy texture was welcome. And not like these need any more embellishment, but I may try dipping them in some melted dark chocolate next time.
Oh yes, I went there.
Peanut Butter Fritters
From Everyday with Rachael Ray
Makes 20 to 25
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Peanut oil, for frying
Whipped cream and raspberry jam, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 200°. Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, peanut butter, egg and vanilla. Lightly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients; the batter will be fairly thick.
2. Pour enough oil into a small, deep saucepan to reach a depth of 1 1/2 inches and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 310° on a deep-fry or candy thermometer.
3. Working in 3 or 4 batches, drop the batter by rounded teaspoons into the hot oil and cook, turning once, until lightly browned, about 1 1/2 minutes per side.
4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. Keep the fritters in the oven as you continue frying. Serve hot with the whipped cream and jam.
Sometimes it’s hard to be away from my mom. I’ve gotten used to the distance over the past four-plus years I’ve been in LA and she’s been back home in Chicagoland, and we talk on the phone all the time, but every once in a while I will experience something so great that I know she would love, but there’s no way I can possibly communicate such splendor over the phone. The following cake is one of those things. My mom is known for the dramatic quote, “If it’s not chocolate, it’s just not worth it!”. And I just know she would deem this dessert So Worth It.
Adapted from a recipe from the ever-inspiring Molly Wizenberg from Orangette, this cake really isn’t like a cake at all, it’s some kind of glorious, otherworldy thing teetering on the edge of awesomely underdone brownie and baked pudding. I opted to add half a teaspoon of fleur de sel to the batter for a few reasons: first, I just got a new canister of it and am looking for excuses to scatter it into/onto anything in my path; second, I am really on a “sweet and salty” kick lately; and third, there is nothing like a good salt to take a good chocolate to the next level.
When you’re dealing with a recipe that has so few ingredients like this one, really go for it. Buy a complex dark or bittersweet chocolate you’re really passionate about. If you don’t know what kind of chocolate you’re passionate about, buy a dozen different bars, have a few friends over and take notes. And invite me and we’ll all learn together, an open exchange over chocolate. Life is too short to not know such things about oneself.
Great butter is also key in this recipe. Go for the European-style butter, which is higher in butterfat than our chintzy American butter. And it’s not really more expensive than the brand you usually buy, I promise. This was my first experience with Plugra and honestly, people, I don’t think I can spend my pennies on Land O’ Lakes again. Round out the whole thing with some granulated sugar, five fresh eggs and a nearly-forgettable-but-crucial tablespoon of flour and you’ve got yourself something that only be described as So Worth It.
Chocolate Fondant Cake
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
7 ounces of your favorite dark or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
7 ounces unsalted European-style butter (such as Plugra), melted and cooled
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or other salt
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a springform pan for easier releasing and serving, or use an 8-inch cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment.
Whisk together the melted chocolate and butter in a medium bowl. Add the sugar and fleur de sel to the chocolate mixture, stirring well to combine. Add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. Mix until perfectly smooth.
Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for approximately 25-30 minutes, or until the edges just begin to pull away from the pan and the center of the cake looks only slightly jiggly, if at all. Start checking the cake for doneness after about 22 minutes. Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully remove the springform ring or turn the cake out of the pan and turn it right side up to cool the rest of the way. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools, it is very unassuming that way.
Serve this room temperature with whipped cream and it will be the absolute living end. It actually tastes even better as it sits–I added some fresh raspberries the second day and, oh, well, you can just imagine.
About three years ago, I was in Pensacola, Florida with my husband visiting his beloved Granddaddy. Although my description of him could never be sufficient, it’s safe to say that Granddaddy is a rural Southern man through and through, charming and storied, a soft accent but always strong words. The kind that can, even at 93 years old, discipline small children just by looking at them and fry a chicken in a single bound. And that’s just the beginning. Anyway, Granddaddy is a fantastic cook. And everyone, I mean EVERYONE in the family (and other people’s families) go bonkers for his hush puppies.
These are not to be confused with the leaden, medium-brown fried hunks of corn bread that so many of us think of when the dish is mentioned. No, these are the anti-hush pups, a light, pillowy, slightly onion-y center encased in a crisp golden shell, more flour than corn meal, no seasoning required. You can eat a dozen in a sitting, easy. They melt in your mouth, giving the illusion that you haven’t eaten that many. Southern fried crack. Magic.
I went there with a mission–I was going to learn how to make his famous hush puppies. I had heard the stories of other family members that had tried to learn how to make them and failed, and it remained a mystery as to whether they just didn’t “get it”, or if Granddaddy had maybe “accidentally” left out a tip or two so that their hush puppies would never turn out quite like his. For my attempt, I fully intended to just stand by the stove and take mental notes while he made a batch, never expecting that he would actually teach me, a Midwestern girl who had rarely traveled south of Atlanta and a relative by marriage, no less, how to make the golden fried orbs that had become a thing of legend. You see, my own grandfather was Memphis-raised and a phenomenal home cook himself, so I respect a Southern cook’s secrets in regards to their specialties.
Now, it may have been because I was like a puppy, practically jumping up on the counter, asking questions, questions, questions. Maybe he was flattered to have some youthful energy in the place treating his secret recipe like a treasure map. Or maybe he was bored and just wanted something to do after watching his morning television programs. But Granddaddy actually agreed to teach me, step-by-step, in great detail, how to make his famous hush puppies. Or in as great of detail as he could given the fact that he has made them so many times over the years that there is no measuring, he just knows when it’s right–when the proportion of flour to corn meal is just so, how much buttermilk to add, when the oil is ready, etc. I learned to stop asking “how” and “why” as we hovered over the stove–the answer to these questions from a cook with a legendary recipe is always “you just know”.
It became clear very early on that I was going to need serious practice to master the intangibles of this process. It became a joint mission of sorts, for me to get it right. Loosely measuring, chopping, eyeballing the mixture, the oil, the perfect moment to flip the pups. We must have made at least half a dozen batches of hush puppies over three days. I was nervous at first, the significance of these lessons not lost on me for a second. The secrets to an edible family heirloom could very well be in my hands. The more comfortable I got with the process, say, three batches in, I began to relax, needing less and less coaching as he watched over my shoulder, and Granddaddy’s insistent “Don’t mess with ‘em too much, now” gave way to “You’ve got it, that’s right”.
After several batches he was proudly proclaiming that I “had the eye” and that no one before me had really listened to how to get them just right. For someone like me who takes pride in really nailing recipes, I could have died happy right then. But oh, the story gets better.
On the night before my husband and I were set to leave Pensacola, there was a big family dinner. An uncle was added, some aunts and cousins. There was fried chicken, shrimp ready to be peeled and eaten, salad and a pile of hush puppies made by yours truly. We all sat around the table, filling our plates and talking. My husband’s uncle Kevin took a bite of a hot, crispy hush puppy and immediately gave a narrow-eyed nod and a smile of approval as he chewed, nudging Granddaddy as if to say, “you’ve done it once again.”
Granddaddy immediately shook his head and pointed across the table at me.
There was a pause as everyone turned to look at me, then back at Kevin before he shouted in his deep Florida Panhandle accent,“The YANKEE?!”
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