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It’s hard to believe that a year ago today I started my little blog. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read it; after all, there are so many food blogs out there. I wasn’t looking for thousands of readers. What I was hoping for was a loyal following that would enjoy reading what I had to say and be inspired to cook something new. I was also developing as a food and travel writer and thought a blog would be a good forum for me to find my voice as one. Most of all, I wanted to really learn how to cook. To some end, I think I have accomplished these things. I’ve also made some wonderful friends who love food as passionately as I do. This was an unexpected benefit–icing on the cake, if you will.
Lately, I haven’t blogged as much as I would like to. Work, friends, family and the mundane details of daily life sometimes keep me away. Plus, there’s the book.
I have started a new novel. The last time I started a novel was ten years ago, in graduate school, when I was working on my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. I had been working on this novel on and off since then when a few months ago I met a man, an accomplished artist, who gave me this piece of advice: start something new.
At first, I balked. I had already started over again once before and was almost three hundred pages into the manuscript. How could I just start something new? It would feel like quitting. But after I thought about what he’d said, I realized he was right. The novel wasn’t working. Starting something new didn’t mean I would never finish it. Maybe one day I would be able to go back and look at it and figure out why it wasn’t working and fix it.
In the meantime, the new novel feels right. It’s still early days but it’s going well. Being my own worst critic and a perfectionist, I’m usually unhappy with whatever I write until I have revised it over and over again. But this is different. It’s only the first draft, but I like what’s on the page. The characters are alive, the story has layers. When it’s done, I think it will have guts. It’s already shaping into kind of story I like to read.
So I’m celebrating today–with chocolate cake. After all, what can be more celebratory than that? It seems to me that once you start baking, you’re always searching for the perfect chocolate cake. For me, a chocolate pudding cake is such a cake. Rich with deep chocolate taste and a center so moist it borders on gooey, it’s dessert nirvana.
This recipe is from Canadian Living. It’s one of those magazines where everything is tested a bazillion times, so the recipes are reliable. It’s simple yet delicious. I wanted something festive today, so I made a layer cake and frosted it with caramel icing, but you don’t have to do anything like that if you don’t want to. It’s delicious just as it is, or with a dusting of cocoa or icing sugar.
Chocolate Pudding Cake
3/4 cup (175 ml) packed brown sugar
1/4 cup (50 ml) cocoa powder
1 cup (250 ml) boiling water or hot coffee
3/4 cup (175 ml) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (75 ml) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
1/3 cup (75 ml) milk
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons (25 ml) butter
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
1/2 cup (125 ml) chocolate chips
1) Preheat oven to 350F. In a bowl, whisk brown sugar with 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. Whisk in boiling water or coffee until smooth.
2) In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and the baking powder. Add the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla. Whisk until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
3) Spread flour mixture in greased 9-inch cake pan. Pour liquid mixture evenly over top.
4) Bake in center of oven for 30 minutes or until the cake is firm when gently touched.
Besides gorging on all the delectable baked goods at holiday time, I also love stuffing myself silly with the fruits of the season–mainly mandarin oranges and pomegranates. In fact, if I had to choose between the former or the latter, I would have a hard time deciding. As much as I love a good linzer cookie, I think life would seem very dull without the rich tang of pomegranate.
Pomegranates have been on my mind since POM Wonderful in California sent me several coupons for their pomegranate juice. If you haven’t tried it, run, run, run to the nearest store and get yourself some. The company grows, harvests and ships their own pomegranates, using practices that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. The juice is one hundred percent natural pomegranate, which is chock full of vitamins and antioxidants.
I picked up a few bottles at my local market and promptly made myself a pomegranate martini–probably not what POM Wonderful had in mind when offering me to try their healthy drink. Now if you’re anything like me, the more you have something you love the more you want it, and pomegranates are no exception. Soon I was looking for recipes to feed my pomegranate cravings. With a bit of sleuthing, I unearthed this recipe for Pomegranate Pound Cake, which is just as lovely as it sounds. Who would have thought of putting pomegranate seeds in cake? Not I. The addition of buttermilk to this recipe creates a moist cake that is surprisingly light–a perfect foil to tantalizing crunch of the pomegranate seeds.
Pomegranate Pound Cake
Adapted from Cooking light, November 1999
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter
2 large eggs
1 large egg white
3/4 cup buttermilk
grated zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds (about 1 large)
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Spray pan with cooking spray and set aside.
2) Beat sugar and butter at medium-high speed with a mixer until well-blended. Add eggs and egg white, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
3) Combine buttermilk, lemon rind, vanilla and baking soda. Mix flour and salt, stirring well with a whisk.
4) Add flour mixture to sugar and butter mixture alternately. Fold in pomegranate seeds.
5) Spoon batter evenly into the pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on the wire rack.
* yogurt may be substituted for the buttermilk in the same amount
* you can use a 9 or 10-inch bundt pan or an 8×4-inch loaf pan for this cake
Baking, I’m starting to realize, is a lot like good looks. Either you have it or you don’t. In fact, when it comes to baking, it’s all about the pretty. Who amongst us hasn’t whipped up a cake that tasted scrumptious but was a little lopsided? Or made a tart that shrank coyly away from its shell, leaving an uneven, unfillable mess. If you haven’t, then you are a talent, indeed. But if I struggle with anything in the kitchen, it’s baking.
Some people are naturals, others need a little extra help. There’s a reason most French women would never dream of doing their own baking, besides the fact that in France the accessibility of excellent bakeries can make it seem pointless. The fact is, baking is hard.
Most of the time, my creations fall short of my vision for them. Yet sometimes a recipe comes along that is simple, requires no complicated techniques or ingredients, yet turns out beautifully enough to make you look like a baking rock star. I feel like that about these little chocolate cakes. Served up individually, there are no worries about lopsidedness. Topped with a rich chocolate glaze, there’s no chance of crumbs marring the icing. If you have some little brioche tins kicking around to bake them in, even better–for they will look unbearably elegant just topped with a sprinkling of icing sugar and and a few raspberries on the side.
Does the applesauce in this seem strange? The fruit taste in this is so subtle; what the applesauce really does is give the cakes an easy slicing texture and a moisture that keeps them fresh for days. Adding applesauce can also be a great way to reduce sugar or fat in baked goods, if that’s your thing.
This recipe is adapted from two recipes: Anna Olson’s “Applesauce Coffee Cake” and “Chocolate Applesauce Cakes”, both from her wonderful book Another Cup of Sugar.
Chocolate Applesauce Cakes
1/2 cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
1/3 cup (75 ml) light brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 cup (250 ml) unsweetened applesauce
1 2/3 cup (400 ml) pastry flour
1/2 cup (125 ml) Dutch process cocoa
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
3/4 teaspoon (4 ml) baking soda
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground ginger
1) Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Grease 6 brioche tins or large muffin cups.
2) Whisk vegetable oil, both sugars, whole egg, egg yolk and vanilla until smooth. Stir in applesauce.
3) In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg and ginger. Incorporate cocoa and stir gently into applesauce mixture.
4) Spoon batter into prepared tins and bake for 18-20 minutes, until cakes spring back when pressed. Allow cakes to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
5) Just before serving, drizzle with chocolate glaze. Se
1/2 cup (125 ml) whipping cream
6 ounces (175 g) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (60 ml) unsalted butter, room temperature
1) Heat cream to just below a simmer and pour over chopped chocolate. Let sit for 1 minute, then stir to smooth out. Stir in butter to melt and thicken glaze. Pour over top of cakes and allow to drip down the sides.
We are at battle, cake and I. Although I’ve tried a variety of cake recipes over the years, I can’t say that most of them have turned out the way I’ve wanted them to. I’m not talking about carrot cake, pound cake or other types of cakes that require a bowl, a pan, and a few simple ingredients. I’m talking about layer cakes, filled with delights such as cherries, custard, or cream. I’m talking about cakes decorated with edible flowers, marzipan, swirls of rich, buttery icing. Cakes that are feast for the eyes and make your knees buckle with the rapture in each heavenly bite.
I have always wanted to make one of those cakes.
My attempts have been less than satisfactory. Something always goes amiss; the cakes comes out lopsided, I run out of icing, the layers puff out so much while they’re baking that they look like hats. The cakes themselves usually taste okay, they just look nothing most people would want to eat. I’ve mastered pies and tarts, can make the most delicate crepes, but the beautiful layer cake eludes me.
I am convinced that there is a perfect-cake-making gene. Either you have it or you don’t. My friend Elissa at 17 & Baking is a prime example. This girl makes the most wonderful cakes and she’s only seventeen! Every time I read one of Elissa’s blog posts I want to run to the kitchen and reproduce her creations. They’re that divine. The fact that her writing is also exquisite shows what a talented soul she is.
I’m not one to back away from a challenge, though. I’ve been reading up on the science of baking and I’m in the middle of Michael Ruhlman’s new book Ratio. My reading brings to light a lot of things I hadn’t really considered before; for example, how the amount of protein in the flour you use can drastically affect how your cakes turn out. Michael’s book is all about the basics ratios used in cooking as well as in baking. Once you know one ratio, it’s like knowing a thousand recipes. It can also help you spot a recipe that just won’t work–which often seems to be my problem. See! It’s not me. It’s the recipe!
I’m going to keep working on the perfect layer cake. In the meantime, Donna Hay’s Easy Chocolate Cake is going to stay front and center of my repertoire. I love Donna’s books. Her recipes are always simple, producing beautiful results, and the pictures are exactly the type of photography I aspire to–clean and minimalist, with the food taking center stage.
Donna Hay’s Easy Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Off the Shelf: Cooking from the Pantry
8 ounces (250g) butter
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup sour cream
8 ounces (250g) milk or dark chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup cream
edible flowers for garnish, if desired
1) Preheat the oven to 325F (160C). Grease a 9-inch round cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and creamy. Add the eggs and beat well.
2) Sift the flour, baking powder, and cocoa over the butter mixture. Add the sour cream and chocolate. Mix until just combined.
3) Pour the mixture into the cake pan and bake for about 1 hour or until set. Cool in the pan.
4) To make the chocolate glaze, combine the chocolate and cream in a saucepan over and cook over low heat, stirring until smooth. Allow the glaze to cool for 5-10 minutes before spreading on the cake.
I was in desperate need of a chocolate fix when I stumbled upon this recipe for Molten Lava Cakes by Paula Deen. For some reason anything with the word ‘lava’ in it makes me think of the seventies. Because of lava lamp, maybe? Anyhow, because of this association, this dessert first struck me as very retro, liked baked Alaska or those jello molds. But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. It seemed incredibly easy and who can resist cutting their fork into a piece of cake to have their plate flood with a thick, oozing stream of warm chocolate heaven? Not me!
With a bit of poking on the Internet, I discovered that this is basically a French dessert, otherwise known as Moelleux au Chocolat. We call them lava cakes because the batter is not completely cooked, causing that liquid center to run out, like lava from a volcano.
The cakes are baked in custard cups, but ramekins or even a muffin tin can be used. The trick is to serve them fresh from the oven. Cool them slightly and then run a knife around the edges to loosen; invert each cake onto serving plates. The cooking time may be as little as 10 minutes but up to 14 minutes. The edges should be firm but the center wobbly.
I like to dust mine with a little icing sugar and serve them with strawberries or raspberries, if they’re in season. They’re also wonderful with creme anglaise or a raspberry coulis, if you want to bother.
Molten Lava Cakes
Adpated from Paula Deen courtesy of The Food Network
6 (1 ounce) squares bittersweet chocolate
2 (1 ounce) squares semisweet chocolate
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 stick) butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Grease 6 (6 ounce) custard cups. Melt the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler.
2) Add the flour and sugar to the chocolate mixture. Stir in the eggs and yolks until smooth. Stir in the vanilla and liqueur.
3) Divide the batter evenly among the custard cups; it should come up about three-quarters of the way.
4) Place in the oven and bake for 10-14 minutes, until edges are set and have shrunk slightly away from the custard cups.
5) Invert each cake onto a dessert place and serve immediately.