Really, what’s better than putting a carb-y, breakfast-y baked good in your face first thing in the morning? I mean, never mind that you might feel like you’re walking in mud for the rest of the day if you start things out with jelly doughnut–I’m talking more about instant gratification here. Because a croissant and coffee for breakfast? Glorious. But one morning pastry I tend to pass over, never even pausing to consider it, is the humble scone. I’ve always sort of thought scones were just a big snore.
Anyway, the topic of my conversation with my agent was moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and in short order she told me that I might want to “lose some pounds”. As I took in that advice, I continued to snack on the horrible scone. A few beats later the well-meaning agent said, “That’s a huge scone.” And that was the end of my relationship with scones.
Until now. Now I know what to look for in scones. Also, how to interpret advice. So there’s that.
So is it just me, or is there way more pressure involved with Valentine’s Day when it falls on a weekend? Something about it being on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday creates high drama and expectations–wine, roses, fancy dinner reservations. Also, feeling compelled to take a lengthy shower, exfoliate and wear something spectacular. In other words, STRESS. Right?! Gah.
Thankfully, this year Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday, so we can all rest easy. I’m thinking something homemade, insanely delicious and crazy clever for breakfast along with a sweet card will fit the bill just fine. If you go with these Nutella Pop-Tarts, for instance, it will totally make up for couching it–wholly ungroomed and in stretchy black pants–by 7:30 p.m. on February 14th. Because hey, it’s a Monday. I’m sticking with that theory.
Nutella is clearly one of the best inventions ever, and it holds fine sense memories of all sorts for me. In fact, one of my top reasons to move to Europe is eating Nutella for breakfast without reservation. But with World Nutella Day fast approaching, people all over this wonderful Earth can bond over scarfing down bread and chocolate with abandon first thing in the morning. I can’t think of anything more world peace-encouraging than that, except for maybe joining forces of the most questionable breakfast foods of both Europe and America, and creating the Nutella Pop-Tart. And just in time for World Nutella Day? I’m feeling a Nobel Peace Prize nomination coming on here, people. Just saying.
The resulting pastries are so positively divine, you’ll feel all kinds of love this Valentine’s Day. Including the priceless joy that comes from eating chocolate for breakfast and the knowledge that exfoliation is totally optional.
For the tarts:
1 batch of My Favorite Pie Crust, well-chilled (see note)
1 (13-ounce) jar Nutella
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons strong brewed coffee
1 tablespoon dark unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Divide the chilled pie dough in half. Working with one half at a time (refrigerate the half you’re not working with), roll the dough out to a rectangle, about 9 1/2 x 13 inches. To make for a more even rectangle, use a thin, sharp knife to trim the edges. Patch any shaggy edges together using the dough scraps. The more evenly shaped your rectangle, the easier it will be to form neat-looking tarts. Cut the dough rectangle into 12 equal squares on a grid, 4 down and 3 across. Place the squares on the baking sheets, 6 squares per sheet.
Using spoons or a small ice cream scoop, dollop 1 generous tablespoon of Nutella in the center of each dough square, spreading slightly as you go, leaving a 1/2 inch border of dough around the filling.
Repeat the dough rolling and cutting process with the second half of the dough.
In a small bowl, beat together the egg with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt, whisking until the egg wash is liquified and well-blended. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the exposed border of dough around each mound of filling (set the remaining egg wash aside to brush the assembled tarts if baking them the same day). Place a second dough square on top of each tart, using your fingers to gently press the seams together. Use a fork to crimp together the two layers of dough. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes (at this point, you can cover the baking sheets with plastic wrap and chill overnight).
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush the top and edges of each tart with the remaining egg wash. Bake until the tarts are golden brown on the top and bottom, about 35-40 minutes. Cool for 1 minute on the baking sheets, and then transfer the tarts to cooling racks.
To prepare the glaze, whisk together all the ingredients until smooth.
When the tarts are just slightly warm, spoon the glaze over them. Let the glaze dry for 15 minutes before serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 days.
Born of the Midwest, I have a penchant for kitschy recipes. Give me a casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and topped with potato chips, and I could pass out from the hilarious joy of it all. There’s just something so great about recipes that are simple and sinfully delicious and contain ingredients that can never be found in nature. Take Haystacks, for example. Melted butterscotch chips, peanut butter and chow mein noodles, for Pete’s sake. Wad the mixture up in little mounds, put it in your face, AMAZING.
Now say you take something already perfect like Haystacks, up the fabulous by adding butter and a nice hit of salt, and then dip it in bittersweet chocolate. Hubba, hubba. Not that you need any help (did I tell you that you look terrific today?), but I’d say we’re gonna get you a whole bunch of pining Valentines with this one.
And the best part? These are so insanely easy, guys. You’ll have instant Valentine’s Day gifts that will make you an absolute hero. And plenty of leftovers so you can be your own Valentine and savor them slowly while watching trashy reality programming. Perfection!
Oh, friends. I’ve missed you guys! Sorry to go MIA there for a while, but I have a good reason. And that reason would be that I just finished catering a dessert bar for 200 people. Which meant creating nearly 600 wee pieces of various desserts and confections from scratch, as well as styling the table in such a way that it would be inviting and festive, but still support my personal crusade against the crazymaking TABLESCAPE. It also meant neglecting my child and challenging my husband’s wedding vows. And I will tell you all about it soon because it was a major, Oprah-esque, Life! Chaaaang-iiiiing! experience. But for now I extend to you a peace offering for disappearing on you during high baking season. It involves beer, chocolate and cake. I’m trying real hard to make it up to you, see?
This cake is really something special. The original recipe comes from Sky High, a Bible of celebration cakes that I’ve had on my nightstand more often than not, for pre-bedtime reading. It constantly inspires me, and its recipe for Gingerbread Beer Cake popped out at me like an eager toddler suddenly appearing at mattress level at 6:30 in the morning.
“Hi!” this cake said. “Bake me, bake me, bake meeeee! It’s November and I am just so totally perfect right this minute, see?! I’m telling you–I! Am! Awesome! Do you hear me?!” And really, who can argue with that sort of relentless insistence? This recipe was the squeaky wheel of my week, even when I was elbow-deep in filling for 200 teeny-tiny whoopie pies.
Reading the epic ingredient list for this cake–with its dark beer, mounds of chocolate and ground mustard in addition to what might amount to the entire contents of your spice rack–may seem a bit crazy and all too much at first. But believe me when I say that the balance of all the bold flavors here is one of the more magical combinations I’ve baked up all year. For real. And if you’ve got any non-pumpkin pie people coming to your holiday gatherings (towards whom I cast no judgement–ahem, Communists–what?), this cake would absolutely be the perfect counterpoint for the dessert table.
This cake is a very versatile little number. The original recipe makes a three layer, 8-inch round cake, but I halved the recipe and made a smaller sheet cake of sorts in an 8×8-inch square pan and it was terrific (the baking time was increased by about 15 minutes because a sheet cake will be thicker than the rounds–just keep checking it). I’m betting the original amounts would work as a sheet cake in a 9×13-inch pan, too, for a larger crowd–check out my favorite pan size conversion chart for help. For cupcakes, I’d recommend doing a half cake flour/half all-purpose flour mix to make the cake a little sturdier, because it is a rather light, tender cake.
I used Guinness for my cake and loved the flavor, even though the author said a stout would be too heavy (rebel!). The author recommends a porter. I also used barley malt syrup instead of molasses because it’s what I had on hand, and thought it was perfection–I would make it the same way again. For the spices, don’t be afraid to play with the amouns a tiny bit to suit your tastes, but don’t leave out the ground mustard–the extra bit of crazy really makes for a gentle heat that’s just spectacular.
Makes 1 3-layer, 8-inch round cake
For the cake:
2 1/4 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mustard
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup dark beer or porter (see note)
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses (or barley malt syrup–see note)
6 tablespoons buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the frosting:
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Scharffen Berger 70%–go for at least 60% cacao)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 3 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper. Butter the parchment, too.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, mustard, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the beer, molasses (or malt syrup), buttermilk and vanilla.
Set the bowl of dry ingredients on the mixer. On low speed, stir in about two-thirds of the beer mixture and the softened butter. Once all the ingredients are incorporated, crank the speed up to medium and beat until the batter is lightened in color and aerated, about 3 minutes.
With the mixer running, beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in the remaining beer mixture. Fold the batter by hand a few times to ensure everything is well-mixed.
Pour the batter evenly among the prepared pans. Bake the cake layers for 25-30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the layers in their pans for 10 minutes, then invert cakes onto a cooling rack and remove the parchment paper liners. Allow the cakes to cool completely, at least 1 hour.
To make the frosting, melt together the chocolate and cream (you can do this over a double boiler or in the microwave with 45-seconds bursts of high power). Whisk the chocolate and cream together until smooth. Let the chocolate cool considerably, until it thickens to the consistency of mayonnaise. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until it is creamy. Scrape in the chocolate and beat again until the frosting is smooth and light, just about 3 minutes. Avoid overbeating, as the frosting may separate.
Place on cake layer flat side up on a serving platter, and tuck strips of parchment just under the edges of the cake to keep the plate clean. Dollop 2/3 cup of frosting on the first cake layer and spread evenly, right up to the edges. Repeat with the second layer. Place the third layer on top, and frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting. Let the cake sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cutting and serving to allow the frosting to set up a bit. Keep leftovers in a cake keeper at cool room temperature or refrigerate them, letting the cake come to room temperature again before serving.
As anyone who has ever been charged with feeding a small child can attest, some days it can feel a whole lot like you’re a spinning top with 20 hands, each one offering a different food, chirpily introducing each one in the hopes that you can get anything, anything at all into the body of said child. “Pasta? Tomatoes? Toast? String cheese? Chicken? Peanut Butter? Mac and Cheese? I don’t care if it’s partially hydrogenated, crumb-coated “chik’n”, for the love of God, child, eat something!”–sometimes up to three very trying times per day. I think even those blessed with the most adventurous of eaters can feel me here.
And yet, so often, even in the heat of my crazed-waitress moments, I can take a deep breath and remind myself that at least I have endless options to offer Little C. If I was one of those moms with a kid who has a serious food allergy, particularly something as ubiquitous as gluten or dairy, I don’t know how I’d deal–something like 90% of the very short list of foods that Little C will willingly eat as a last resort just wouldn’t be safe to feed her. I salute the Supermoms who rework their lives, grocery shopping and cooking everyday to make sure that the foods that are going into the little bodies of their allergic and/or ingredient-sensitive kids are safe. I’m not sure I could hack it. Especially in the baking and sweets department.
But recently I was sent a book that really opened my eyes to foods and recipes that are not only safe for gluten and dairy-sensitive people, but totally kid-friendly, even for the pickiest of little eaters. Every single recipe is one that I would gladly enter into my short-order cook rotation.
Cooking for Isaiah is written by magazine editor Silvana Nardone, inspired by her gluten and dairy-intolerant (and completely gorgeous!) son. Most interestingly for a baking fiend like me, she is an accomplished baker who worked for years with the pastry standards (and my personal cornerstones) of gluten-packed flours and the dairy bomb of butter. And even though it’s a gluten-free book, I love that it acknowledges the importance of an all-purpose flour in the kitchen by offering a brilliant gluten-free all-purpose flour blend within the first few pages. Knowing that the recipes in the book pass muster of a woman who would never have had to create them had her son not needed them is a sign that, regardless of your dietary needs, you’re in for some serious yum with this book.
Besides being packed with insanely delicious recipes, every page positively sings with love. This is a book with true purpose. I instantly fell in love with its story and creative, crave-worthy recipes, any of which I would happily cook and gobble down without feeling like a dish was lacking in flavor or integrity because of its gluten and dairy-free design. Take, for example, these come-hither Rocky Road Rice Crispy Treats. With a mouthful of chocolate and marshmallow, would you be thinking about flippin’ gluten? Yeah, me neither.
The drizzles of semi-sweet chocolate and marshmallow sauce are absolutely a gilding of the lily here, but I thought the addition of them was decadent and sensational. If you don’t want to buy a jar of marshmallow fluff for only 1/4 cup of it, which I didn’t, then you can make your own marshmallow: melt 1 cup of mini marshmallows in a double boiler with 2 teaspoons of heavy cream (my choice), milk or water (if you’re keeping these dairy-free). If you start with a full 10.5 ounce bag of mini marshmallows, then you should have just enough left over after mixing the bars together to make the marshmallow drizzle.
Also, read the labels of crisp rice cereal carefully–not all of them are actually gluten-free.
4 cups mini marshmallows
1/2 cup well-stirred almond butter
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 cups crispy rice cereal
1/4 cup marshmallow creme, such as Fluff (or not–see note)
1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted, for drizzling
Grease an 8×8-inch square pan with nonstick cooking spray and line it with a 14-inch long strip of parchment paper for easy removal of the bars.
In a large saucepan, combine 2 cups marshmallows, the almond butter, cocoa powder, corn syrup and salt. Melt together over low heat, stirring often.
Place the cereal in a large bowl. Pour the warm chocolate mixture over the cereal and stir to coat. When the cereal is nearly coated, stir in the remaining 2 cups of marshmallows. Press into the prepared pan in an even layer and set aside.
For the marshmallow sauce, either stir together the 1/4 cup marshmallow fluff with 2 teaspoons of boiling water, or melt 1 cup of mini-marshmallows with 2 teaspoons heavy cream, milk or water in a double boiler and stir until smooth. Let cool slightly before drizzling over the bars, along with the melted semi-sweet chocolate.
Chill the bars for 10 minutes in the refrigerator before cutting into 16 bars.
I know this confession is a risky one, but I think our relationship can withstand such brutal honesty: Despite the chocolate-on-chocolate celebration of my latest posts, I can sort of take or leave chocolate. True story. I mean, I like chocolate, really I do–love working with it and putting it in my face on occasion. Because really, when a chocolate craving hits at certain, ahem, personal times, nothing but chocolate will do (holler if you hear me, ladies). However, I’d never be called a “chocoholic” or be gifted a mug that says something like “Ack! Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my morning chocolate!”, or whatever.
But even so, this here chocolate cupcake was so smack-the-counter good that they’ve become a Real Problem. Which is to say that my typical day of three meals and one dessert has basically inverted for the lifespan of these cupcakes. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’ve shared the recipe for the chocolate cake with you before–it truly is my go-to recipe that I’ve tweaked and amped up a bit from Martha’s original recipe over the years. Love, love, love it. But the frosting is a new thing entirely, a result of my newfound love and fascination with flour frostings. I needed a chocolate version of this frosting, and I needed it to be a very specific frosting situation. For this part-time chocolate lover, it basically needed to blow my mind with chocolaty perfection, but not be cloyingly rich or overtly decadent like so many other chocolate frostings.
I wanted a cloud of chocolate atop the rich cake and some deranged combination between the flavor of melted chocolate ice cream, chocolate mousse and the center of a 3 Musketeers bar. It took a few attempts to get there. But judging by the ferocity and stealth with which I hid the leftovers of this frosting in the depths of my refrigerator, I’d say it was a total success. And the marriage of the cake and the frosting–mmm, mmm! I’d consider converting to Chocoholism for a cupcake like this.
Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes
I get about 18 cupcakes out of this recipe, but you can stretch it to a full 2 dozen if need be. It also makes two great 9-inch cake layers. Using brewed coffee instead of just water makes the chocolate taste more…chocolatey. You can dissolve 1 teaspoon instant espresso in 3/4 cup hot water instead. Mini chocolate chips melt into the cake to make it extra rich and decadent.
Makes 18-24 cupcakes
For the cake:
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I love Ghiradelli or Valhrona)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup strong brewed coffee (see note)
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 miniature semi-sweet chocolate chips (or regular chips, chopped fine)
For the chocolate flour frosting:
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons premium cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Spray the top of the muffin tin with cooking spray for extra non-stick insurance, as these cupcakes can have a serious rise and can puff over the edges of the tin’s wells.
Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add the eggs, coffee, buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat until smooth with an electric mixer, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well-mixed. Fold in the mini chocolate chips.
Divide batter evenly among muffin cups (an ice cream scoop works well here), filling each cup no more than 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely before frosting.
For the frosting: In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, whisk together the flour, milk, cocoa powder and salt until the mixture comes together to form a thick paste. Press the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl, and press a sheet of plastic wrap right on the surface of the mixture to prevent a skin from forming. Cool in the refrigerator it for about 15 minutes, or until it’s cool to the touch.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and confectioners’ sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the chocolate mixture until the frosting begins to lighten in color and texture, almost mousse-like. Beat in the melted unsweetened chocolate until the frosting is fluffy, smooth and well-blended. Frost cupcakes, and store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Whether or not this is actually true, I tend to fancy myself a Kitchen MacGyver. (All the television executives reading this blog, you can have that title for free. You’re welcome.) As much as I like to follow recipes to the letter, sometimes I get all Wild! And! Crazy! and just fling open the cupboards, with nary a clue of what I want to put together, and wait for inspiration to smack me in the face. Do I know how to live on the edge or WHAT.
Anyway, on this particular day, the item that called to me from the depths of my pantry was a never-opened jar of Le Pain Quotidien‘s glorious Brunette praline spread–sweet, nutty and caramelly, almost like Nutella without the chocolate, if you can imagine such a thing. Have you ever been to a LPQ? If not, think Euro Lady Lunch perfection–moderate portions of open faced-sandwiches on country bread, fresh cheeses, wee lettuces, paper-thin radishes on everything. Lovely bakery items. It is a delight. On every table there is a selection of amazing jams and spreads, including the sinful Brunette. LPQ is the sort of lady-lunching place that makes you feign restraint when all you really want to do is buy a loaf of their chewy, crusty bread and a jar of their praline spread, and then proceed to rip off sizeable chunks, drag them through the jar and put it all in your face, every last bit.
Well, on my last trip to LPQ, I did indeed feign restraint while dining, but bought a jar of Brunette on my way out of the restaurant, fully intending to binge on it in the privacy of my own home. I don’t know how I forgot about such grand plans, but I did, and that little jar of heaven got pushed back on the shelves, behind the noodles and canned tomatoes and sacks of Goldfish crackers. How could I let this happen? The only thing to do that could right such a wrong was to swirl it into a brownie batter. Naturally.
Like sunset and cocktails, coffee and cookies, Sunday afternoons and Food Network marathons, this would be a case of the awesome getting awesomer, guys. The brownie recipe here is the famed formula from Baked bakery, so there’s that. And then it’s cut through with swirls of sweet praline spread, which I salted just a touch for balance. This is a match that’s so meant to be, I barely had to tap into my mad Kitchen Macgyver skills to make the magic happen.
If you don’t have access to Le Pain Quotidien’s amazing products (though I highly recommend looking up their locations and getting a friend nearby one of them to send you some, as they don’t have an online store), you can try a similar praline spread like this one. Peanut butter will work just fine here, too, and though I prefer the commercial kind of peanut butter in baking, I bet the creamy natural variety would work as well. These brownies get even better the second or third day after baking.
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dark unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Valrhona)
5 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup praline spread (like Le Pain Quotidien’s Brunette) or peanut butter (see note)
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of an 8×8 inch baking pan (glass or light-colored metal).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and cocoa powder.
In a heatproof medium bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt together the chocolate, butter and espresso powder, stirring until completely melted and smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk in the sugars. Let cool to room temperature.
Whisk the eggs into the chocolate and butter mixture until smooth, then whisk in the vanilla. Switch to a spatula and gently fold in the dry ingredients until just a few streaks of flour remain–do not overmix. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top evenly.
Place the praline spread or peanut butter in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high just to soften it a bit, about 15 seconds. If using praline spread, add a pinch of salt to taste and stir well. Dollop the praline spread or peanut butter in five equal blobs over the batter and swirl it into the brownie batter with a knife.
Bake until a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs, about 35 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting and serving.
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