Sep 13, 2007

Watermelon-Lime Granita

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It seems like every food blogger I read regularly is writing a post reluctantly celebrating the last edible remnants of summer–one last fat, juicy heirloom tomato here, a tragic ode to lobster over there. We’re gobbling up the last of these goodies with careful relish just because we know we won’t enjoy them at their succulent best again, until next year. Insert pouty cry here. Me? Well, I had an enormous watermelon in the fridge, that I just knew was ruby red inside and seeping with juice, but was saving it for something special.

It’s just not appropriate to say goodbye to our summer loves by preparing them the same old way we’ve been doing all season. It took a while to think of how to use this mammoth of a melon occupying most of the bottom of my refrigerator. How to celebrate this last bit of summer? And then it came to me.

Watermelon granita just looks like a party. When piled in a chilled glass with an elegant stem, the glittering flakes of sweet, ambrosial ice are immediately ready for their close-up. Light, fruity granitas like this one are delicious as dessert, alone or with delicate crispy cookies, and are lovely as a palate cleanser between courses, if that’s how you like to roll.

As far as granita flavors go, you are only limited by your imagination. There are recipes out there made from the sweet and traditional, like fruit and espresso flavors, and the just plain nose-wrinkling wacky, like vegetables and herbs. Whatever the flavor, all granitas contain some sugar, and I find that I like the texture of granitas made with simple syrup (a two to one ratio of sugar to water, boiled until clear) better than just stirring granulated sugar straight into the mix. For fruit flavors that are naturally sweet, like a perfect late summer watermelon, depending on the sweetness of the melon you’ve got your hands on (now, that sounds fantastically naughty in a summer love kind of way, doesn’t it?), the amount of simple syrup may vary. I usually find that 1/2 cup of prepared simple syrup works well in most cases.

I also like to add some alcohol to the granita liquid for two reasons. First, candy is dandy but liquor is quicker, and second, it slows the freezing of the liquid so you get nice, fluffy flakes, not sharp, flat shards. I love to use infused vodkas for this, like a lovely herb-infused vodka I’d been saving for special things, much like the watermelon that inspired this post. As for the amount of alcohol to add, well, you can’t get all college with granita. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to alcohol in a granita recipe–it won’t freeze well if there’s too much in the mix. Sorry.

Watermelon-Lime Granita
Makes about 1 Gallon

6 cups of watermelon juice (made from about 4 pounds of ripe, seedless watermelon)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1/4 cup of your favorite vodka

Start by making the watermelon juice: Remove the rind from a ripe watermelon and cut the fruit into chunks. In batches, puree the watermelon in a blender until smooth and pour the resulting puree through a fine-mesh sieve over a large mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to stir the puree in the sieve and encourage the juice to flow into the bowl. Discard any pulp and seeds and repeat the process until you have about 6 cups of watermelon juice in the bowl. Set aside.

Next, make a simple syrup by placing the sugar and water in a small saucepan and boiling it over medium-high heat until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear and just beginning to take on a golden cast. Pour the syrup into another container and set aside to cool.

Pour the lime juice and vodka into the watermelon juice and stir to combine. Begin adding the simple syrup, sweetening to taste. Pour the granita mixture equally into two 9×13 baking pans and put in the freezer (or use one big roasting pan if you are lucky enough to have the freezer space). After about an hour, begin breaking up any ice crystals that are forming with a fork, and return the pans to the freezer. Repeat this process of scraping and fluffing the granita every hour until the mixture is completely crystallized, but not frozen solid, about 4-5 hours.

Serve in chilled glasses. Frozen granita keeps well covered in an airtight container in the freezer for at least a month, but I really don’t think you’ll have any leftovers. Everyone wants just one more taste of summer.

Sep 10, 2007

No Knead to Freak Out–Part Two

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As promised, I have pulled out the gloves (oven mitts, in this case) for a second round of No Knead Bread. When we last talked about my adventures with this bread, I left you with the thoughts that I had fallen in love with the overall appearance, crust, interior and crumb of this bread, but that the flavor left much to be desired. So I played a bit with the original recipe (which I have moved to a permanent position in this post) and was really pleased with the results. A single bare bite of this second attempt, with not even the slightest drizzle of olive oil pooling in its crevices, confirmed that this bread is definitely worth the hype. The added salt (an extra 1/2 teaspoon) this time around clearly gave the bread a new life and dimension and made for an even tastier crust.

More importantly, while the first loaf tasted of not much at all, this loaf was full of flavor, almost a Sourdough Lite, if you will–certainly the result of an extra eight hours tacked onto the first rise (for a total of 24 hours as opposed to 16 in the first attempt). I knew there would be some improvement this time around when I lifted the plastic wrap from the bowl after the first long rise and the vigorous bouquet of yeasty alcohol smacked me on the nose. Hooray!

After catching onto the smell wafting through the apartment during the baking of this loaf, my No Knead confidence was restored, and I quickly devised a dinner menu that would rely on what would surely be great bread to make it complete, lest you think I never eat anything other than baked goods. And so it had to be: a mountain of fresh, tender black Pacific mussels, steamed in a luscious broth of sauvignon blanc, butter, shallots and garlic, with a spritely green salad on the side. There really was just no other way around it.

So for me and my palate (and the husband’s too, though he seemed to like the first loaf just fine as well…he is steadfast and true that way) this is the recipe for No Knead Bread that I will be using again and again.

No Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery, NYC and Chocolate and Zucchini

470 grams of all-purpose or bread flour (I used King Arthur Bread Flour)
2 1/2 teaspoons of salt (I used my favorite fleur de sel)
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
350 grams water at room temperature
Extra flour or cornmeal for dusting

Whisk the flour, salt and yeast together in a large bowl. Stir in the water with a wooden spoon or your hands, until fully incorporated. The dough will feel stickier and wetter than other bread doughs and will come together in a shaggy-looking ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest for 24 hours at room temperature (ideally about 70 degrees).

After this first rise, the dough will be doubled in volume and covered in little bubbles. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface (it will still seem wetter and looser than other bread doughs). For this step, I like to take my favorite huge cutting board, cover it in parchment, securing it with tape, and then flour the parchment like mad. Gently pull at the sides of the dough for a rectangle shape, and then fold it into the thirds, with the two sides pulled towards the center. Give the dough a quarter turn and then fold into thirds again. Turn the dough over and shape into a ball. Cover the ball with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes. In the meantime, clean the bowl and lightly grease it. Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with plastic and let it rise a second time, for 2 hours.

30 minutes before the second rise is complete, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with the dutch oven inside of it. When the second rise is complete, CAREFULLY remove the screaming hot pot from the oven and remove the lid. Sprinkle the inside of the pot generously with flour or cornmeal. Place the dough inside the hot pot, sprinkle with more flour or cornmeal, and replace the cover.

Bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes with the lid, then remove the lid and bake for 15 minutes more, until the crust is so beautiful you almost begin to weep. Carefully remove the hot pot and turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. Let the bread cool for AT LEAST 45 minutes before slicing. The water needs to redistribute itself throughout the bread, so if you don’t wait to cut it, the crumb will be rubbery, and after all that work, you don’t want to risk that, do you?

Read “No Knead to Freak Out–Part One”

Sep 7, 2007

Meringue Cookies

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After being in the grip of an intense Southern California heatwave for the better part of a week, the hellish beast has released us from his gnarly fists into the kind of weather that Santa Monicans usually take for granted: a high of 71 degrees, 65% humidity, ultramarine skies that kiss the horizon of a glittering navy ocean with the mountains of Malibu in the distance. Sound dramatic? It is. That’s how bad the heat was, people. It makes it tragically hard to bake, for one thing. Not that it stopped me. Anyway, with this recent return to the lovely weather that makes life worth living out here, I decided to celebrate by making meringue.

Meringue in all its forms has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a family of chocoholics, but occasionally, usually during the holidays, these delicious and unusual treats would appear among the goodies on my Gramma’s kitchen table. Small and light in color, crisp sweet domes of I didn’t know what, sometimes with tiny chocolate chips mixed in, sometimes flavored with peppermint. They were a sweet mystery, and I gobbled them up. I also remember begging for a towering slice of a lofty lemon meringue pie from a rotating case at a Greek restaurant, neglecting the shimmying yellow curd altogether and devouring only the sugary pillow on top. I had no idea that what I was in love with was called meringue, and would probably have abandoned it forever if I had been told what it was made of (my lifelong egg phobia is a thing of legend in my family–now it’s mostly the yolks that freak me out, and just in certain circumstances. I’m all growed up!).

Meringue, in short, is egg whites whipped with sugar. How the whites and sugar are whipped together determines the kind of meringue it is and how it can be used. There’s Swiss meringue, a “cooked” meringue, made by dissolving sugar in egg whites in a double boiler, then whipping them. Italian meringue is made by streaming hot sugar syrup into the whites while they are being whipped, and is also considered to be a cooked meringue. French (aka “classic”) meringue, which I make most often, is uncooked, just egg whites and sugar whipped together (I take granulated sugar for a spin in my clean coffee grinder first for a smoother texture). The more sugar added to any meringue, the stiffer the end result will be. These meringues are the base for thousands of recipes, everything from buttercream frostings to the aforementioned lofty pie toppings, dessert shells, macaroons, macarons, and more. And let’s not forget meringue cookies.

Because they are so neutral in flavor, meringue cookies can be flavored with just about any extract or powdered flavoring imaginable, and little jaunty bits of chocolate or nuts or somesuch can be nice too. But I like them in traditional vanilla (with the best extract, please), maybe with a bit of cocoa, with tea on a nice, breezy, sunny day like today. When I mentioned that it’s perfect meringue cookie-making weather here in Santa Monica, that mainly has to do with the relatively low humidity. Making baked meringue in humid or wet weather is a guaranteed failure–the meringue will flatten and burn and generally just be very sad.

But not today! Today we make meringues.

Meringue Cookies
Makes about 20, depending on size

4 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup superfine sugar

Preheat oven to 225 degrees and set the rack to the lower-middle position. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In an immaculately clean metal or glass bowl (any trace of grease will ruin your efforts), begin whipping the egg whites in standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or with an electric mixer, on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and the salt, and whip at high speed until the whites are voluminous, glossy and sexy-looking, with the look and consistency of shaving cream.

With the mixer running, begin raining in the sugar, taking a short break about halfway to insure the sugar is well incorporated. When all the sugar has been added, add the vanilla.

At this point, you can add other flavorings or accoutrements (like finely chopped nuts or chips) as well. I opted to make half the meringue cookies vanilla, and gently folded in a tablespoon of Valrhona cocoa to the remaining batter to make chocolate meringues. These added elements will make the whites deflate ever-so-slightly, but they will still be delicious.

Shape the batter into cookies by using two spoons, dropping them onto the parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 225 for 1 1/2 hours, until the exteriors are firm and dry. If they begin to brown, turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Turn off the oven and let the meringues dry out overnight. These can be stored in an airtight container, but are best eaten ASAP, as they will start to become soft and tackier over time. But that’s not all bad either, really.

Sep 4, 2007

No Knead to Freak Out–Part One

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I have a confession that may put my baking prowess in question: Bread Scares Me. Not in the carb-phobic L.A. kind of way (Sister, please! I blog about baking!), but in a “I-am-just-so-very-frightened-that-I’ll-never-
get-it-to-turn-out-right” kind of way. All the kneading, the rising, the importance of gluten–it’s all just been too much. Up until this point, I was so happy to leave the art of bread making to the pros and purchase crusty artisanal loaves from my favorite boulangeries. And then my latest kitchen purchase came along:
After barely justifying the hefty (literally and financially) purchase to myself and the husband, I had no other choice but to work my new Le Creuset 5 1/2 quart dutch oven. And going off of the sales pitch from my friendly Williams-Sonoma clerk (“You can roast in it, braise in it! Soups! Stews! It slices, it dices!”) I decided to research what kinds of recipes I could bake in my new buddy. A simple Google search later, and I was met with roughly one bazillion websites and blogs discussing a phenomenon known as No Knead Bread, which, as legend would have it, gets the best results when baked in a Le Creuset dutch oven. Hooray!

“Wait, what do you mean Southern California has been in the grip of a treacherous heat wave? I’m baking BREAD, everyone!” I cried.

Nothing was going to hold me back. Not even the fact that I am nearly a year late on the No Knead trend. I’ve been called many lovely things in my lifetime–avantgarde is not one of them.

The pioneer in this case is Jim Leahy, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. He developed this recipe and has lost a bit of the credit for it, because it was a New York Times article by Mark Bittman that really threw the recipe into the mainstream. Bittman, I salute you, you are a fine writer. But Jim Leahy, you sir deserve the Noble Prize for Carb Support for coming up with this one, and helping even yeast-skeered little old me make a loaf of gorgeous crusty bread that I believe made my husband forget the $200 Williams-Sonoma charge on the credit card. Well done, Mr. Leahy.

Since this recipe has been all the rage with foodies for quite some time, I was able to do a lot of research before beginning my No Knead adventure. Given the insanely warm weather, how temperamental this recipe can be and and what I already know about measuring ingredients in baking, I decided to seek out a recipe that gave measurements in weight (grams) not volume (cups). A cup of flour can contain up to 20 grams more or less than you think it does, depending on humidity, how you measure it, and how it was stored. Measuring by weight seemed to be the most foolproof method.

I was also careful to seek out photos of what the dough should look like when properly risen after the first rise (doubled in volume and covered in bubbles, indicating prime yeast action) and how long that should take (a broad window of 12-24 hours, depending on who you listen to). As I mentioned before, we were having quite the heat wave here in Southern California, even at the beach, so “room temperature” in my non-air-conditioned apartment was about 80 degrees, more than the recommended room temperature of 70 degrees. For this attempt, I decided to let the first rise go 16 hours, since the recipe I followed suggested 12-18 hours and it would be rising in a slightly warmer space. I also decided to forgo what would surely be a messy second rise in a kitchen towel in exchange for a lightly greased bowl, with no ill effect on the final result.

As for the ingredients, I used King Arthur Bread Flour, to which my current baking Bible, Baking Illustrated, gave rave reviews. I used Brita-filtered water, my favorite fleur de sel, and Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise Yeast in the foil packets. and then later saw some No Kneaders warning against using this kind of yeast, and that it’s better to use the kind for bread machines that comes in a jar. Well, my first loaf of this bread made with foil-packet instant yeast rose well and had a phenomenal crust, so next time I will try the kind in the jar which I’m assuming will take this bread to some new level none of us can comprehend. Probably.

This loaf of bread was, in short, almost really good. The texture is what was most impressive here: a crackly, thick, substantial crust, an interior littered with delightful holes, and a crumb that is chubby and chewy and simply divine.

So we have a great foundation here. But as for its flavor, ehhhh…well, given its beautiful appearance and the way shards of crisp crust spat about the kitchen upon slicing, I was longing for a more sourdough flavor, and just didn’t get it this time. The husband was impressed though. At any rate, it was perfectly lovely with our dinner that night when it accompanied foods with big, bold flavors: a buttery brie, a sharp aged cheddar and a dippably juicy and garlicky tomato, white bean and basil salad over mixed greens.

I am going to play with this recipe a bit more and report back. I am very confident that a few adjustments will really make this bread live up to its grand reputation. Stay tuned…

No Knead to Freak Out–Part Two

Sep 2, 2007

Dainties Cupcakes…Field Trip!

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When you set out to keep a food blog, it can be quite consuming. Suddenly everywhere you look, recipes are beckoning, and everything from bubble gum to beer inspires you to seek out new recipes and places, take photos and make them blog-worthy. Field trips to great bakeries and food-related shops become serious business. I mean, it’s for the blog! Sometimes a new treat is so inspiring, you might forget to take photos altogether. When your fingers and teeth are coated in chocolate ganache, obtaining original photographic evidence can be difficult. So I did some right-clicking, and I bring you Dainties:

Recently named 2007’s Best Cupcake in Los Angeles Magazine (no small feat, seeing as we’re tripping over cupcakeries out here), Dainties has done for the cupcake what no other bakery has accomplished to date–they’ve made it all their own. I mean, sure, there’s cake, in a cup, with something on top. But the comparisons end there.

First, there is no buttercream to be found with a Dainties–they use boldly-flavored fresh whipped cream to fill and top all of their cupcakes. The vanilla bean whipped cream is especially impressive, proving that vanilla is not a synonym for “plain”–this vanilla cream is rich and heady with a bourbon essence. It’s a lovely matchup with the cakes’ textures–if buttercream and cake are good friends, then Dainties’ cream and cake are soul mates, seamlessly paired.

Speaking of the cake: I experienced a dense, almost chewy texture (think a great banana bread) that is moist even though my samples were slightly chilled (they will remind you many times during your visit that the cupcakes you take home must be refrigerated, on account of the whipped cream). Topping all of the cupcakes is Dainties other trademark, a glossy, gooey coating of dark chocolate ganache.

This visit had me first sampling the Stupid Chocolate cupcake (I did indeed muse aloud, stooooopid“, with my first bite), a deep, dense chocolate-chocolate-chip cake, coated in ganache, and filled and topped with vanilla bean cream. Later that night at a dinner party, it was the Vanilla Bean for me, still with that glorious ganache, but this time it was providing shelter for a surprisingly dense vanilla cake (an oxymoron of sorts that works in this instance) generously flecked with vanilla seeds and surrounding more vanilla whipped cream.

Though a proper Dainties is chocolate cake, chocolate ganache and vanilla whipped cream, they do have other flavors, too, including peanut butter, espresso, raspberry and cheesecake. I must remember to visit Dainties mainly on Saturdays, as I am an adamant vanilla lover, and the owner (friendly, and obviously very passionate about her business–hooray!) informed me that they only make cupcake varieties with vanilla cake on Saturdays. If you go any other day, you’ll just have to limp along with the aforementioned decadent chocolate cake. Poor you.

Dainties charges around $3.00 per cupcake, which seems to be the going rate in Los Angeles. You can buy them individually or in packs of 4, 6 or one dozen. The owners run their catering company from the retail space (the office, bakery case and industrial kitchen all crammed in one tiny area make for one very nontraditional bakery–don’t plan on eating in), so cupcakes can be ordered for events as well.

If you’re in the L.A. area, it’s definitely worth a visit just to have a departure from the kind of cakes from the likes of Sprinkles and Yummy Cupcakes. Just past the 405, heading east on Santa Monica Boulevard, hang a right onto the tiny side street just past the strip mall with the big, tacky Winchell’s Donuts sign and it’s just past the corner. If it sounds like you’re looking for a speakeasy, that’s because Dainties is tucked away like one. And their cupcakes are delicious and unique enough that they might be illegal. Two ganache-covered thumbs up!

Aug 31, 2007

Chewy, Fudgy Chocolate Brownies

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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.

Aug 18, 2007

Yellow Cake with Quick Fudge Frosting

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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.

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