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cacakes

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

chocapplesauce

Serves Six

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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

Chocolate Glaze

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.


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figtart

I have had my fair share of disasters with pastry dough, beginning in adolescence, when my early attempts resulted in rock hard pie crusts and exploding Pyrex dishes. Almost losing an eye while you’re making a quiche certainly can put you off baking, as it did for me–at least for a good couple of decades. That is, until I started this blog.

I had many motivations leading me to the blogosphere, but most notably, it was a way for me to teach myself to cook and bake. I considered myself a pretty good cook, I just wanted to be a better one. I realized I didn’t have a very wide repertoire. Whatever I knew to cook I made often, and although I had shelves full of cookbooks, I never followed their recipes; I simply used them as a springboard for ideas. But I was tired of inconsistent results in the kitchen, and decided to go back to square one. Find a new recipe, try it, post it. Try it again.

And it’s been working. With Ina, Julia, and Martha at my side, I’ve figured out how to make my own hollandaise, the most scrumptious scones, even how to bake my own bread. I’ve even got the pastry dough down.

Now this is not to say that I haven’t had my struggles, particularly when it comes to shrinkage. Oh, that dreaded shrinkage! But with a box of newly acquired pie weights and a good oven thermometer, I’m finally on my way.

I can honestly say that when I made these tarts that they were absolutely dreamy. The crust was light and flaky, not the least bit soggy, and the perfect envelope for all this silky chocolate. Topped with honey balsamic figs and a dollop of cream, they were nothing short of spectacular.

I have been using Donna Hay’s recipe for shortcut pastry for my pies and tarts, but you can use any recipe you prefer, such as Martha Stewart’s pate brisee. Line the tart pans with the dough and bake according to the recipe directions. 

The chocolate filling is adapted from Epicurious, from Bon Appetit’s December 1998 issue. The filling is enough to fill 6 tarts or one nine-inch pie shell. Be sure to use really good quality chocolate for the filling–it’s the key to a truly delicious tart.

 

Chocolate Tart with Honey Balsamic Figs

serves 6

chocolatetart

 

Ingredients:

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

6 pre-baked tart crusts

 

Directions:

1) Combine the chocolates and cream in a heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until melted and smooth. Cool to just lukewarm.

2) Beat next 3 ingredients in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in chocolate mixture. Spoon filling into baked tart crusts. Smooth top with a spoon.

3) Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days. Serve chilled with honey balsamic figs and a dollop of whip cream.

 

Honey Balsamic Figs

balsamicfigs

Honey balsamic figs are delicious not only in baked goods but also with cheese and crackers, in salad, even with pork or chicken. Try them with some pistachio crisps and a good lemon or pear Stilton.

 

Ingredients:

8 figs, quartered

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon white sugar (optional)

Directions:

1) Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and allow to marinate for at least an hour. Add white sugar if you find the figs are not sweet enough for your liking.

lavaI 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

Serves 6

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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.

chocbiscottiThe first time I made biscotti something went terribly wrong. I don’t know what, but something did.  They were …er… soft. That was a long time ago but I still remember my bitter disappointment. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and I pretty much gave up on baking after that. Knowing thyself as I do now, I’m sure it was all my fault, though I doubt I would have admitted it at the time. I must have cut corners, over or under measured the ingredients, improvised on the recipe as I was wont to do. Both my mother and grandmother do their measuring with coffee mugs and their baking comes out perfectly. Needless to say, I have not inherited this ability to eyeball ingredients with laser-like precision. When I use a recipe I have learned to follow it exactly–at least the first time around–and I’m much happier with my results of late, especially when it comes to baking. Not all recipes work. Some of them are just plain wrong, and I’ve ranted about that in a previous post. I find that to be particularly so with books written by professional chefs who have not collaborated with a food writer, because so much of what they do comes out of instinct and years of skill honed in the kitchen. I still improvise, but I know that it’s in the name of fun and experimentation, and that things might not turn out the way I hope. Now when I improvise, I take copious notes as I go along. If a dish comes out really well, I’ll know how to recreate it.

Take these biscotti. Fifteen years later, I attempted another round of making them. I’d been having a biscotti craving lately, particularly for chocolate biscotti, but the only ones I could find were those grainy long sticks of fiber board that you can get at any number of neighborhood cafes. I truly despise those bastardized versions of the venerable Italian biscotto. Now, I happen to live a hop, skip, and a jump from my city’s Little Italy and could have gone into any Italian deli and come out with a box of the genuine biscuit. Most of the time these little crunchy little cookies studded with whole almonds are enough to make me swoon, but this time I knew they wouldn’t cut it. I wanted chocolate. Double chocolate. So I came up with these.

I call these double chocolate because of the cocoa base and the addition of chocolate chips. You can make them triple chocolate by drizzling them with melted chocolate. And in the spirit of keeping things authentic I included the whole almonds, which is–in my opinion–the best part of any biscotto.

The outcome here is not based on any one recipe. I looked through several to get an idea of the base ingredients and then experimented with others. Some of the recipes called for too much butter. Pointless for a cookie that’s supposed to be hard and dry, don’t you think? Others seemed complicated, or that they might turn out too sweet. I like what I came up with, but I confess that the next time around I’ll probably double the almonds. I like my biscotti to have a mouth full of them in every bite. Just like the ones from the Italian deli.

 

Double Chocolate Almond Biscotti

biscotticloseup

Ingredients:

1/2 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar (180 ml)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup cocoa (80 ml)

2 cups flour (500ml)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 scant cup chocolate chips (100g)

1 cup almonds (100g)

 

Directions:

1) Toast the almonds on a baking sheet in the oven at 350F (180C) for about 15 minutes. Shake the pan once to make sure they get evenly browned.

2) Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs and then cocoa. Beat until well combined.

3) Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in another bowl, then gradually incorporate into the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon until a dough has formed.

4) Stir in the chocolate chips and almonds. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for an hour.

biscottibatter

5) Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. Separate into two. Form each half into a flat log about 12 inches long by patting it down and squaring off the edges with your finger tips. Place well apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

biscottilog

6) Bake for thirty mintues. Cool on a cutting board until no longer hot to the touch and then cut crosswise on the diagonal into slices about 1 inch thick. Arrange on the baking sheet and bake for another 15-20 minutes.

7) Transfer biscotti on a wire rack to cool. Keep at room temperature in a cookie tin or other airtight container.

 

choccupCake is not something I eat very often.  It ordinarily finds it’s way to my plate at birthday parties or other celebratory occasions when refusing a piece can make one look like a party pooper or chronic dieter.  In these cases, the cake is usually dry and tasteless, smeared with greasy supermarket bakery frosting that I end up scraping onto the side of my dish. 

Cupcakes, on the other hand, are a different story.  It wasn’t that long ago that these portable sweet treats seemed like a throwback to another era, something you’d find on a buffet table beside a Jell-o mold and  macaroni salad.  But what is old always becomes new again, and suddenly cupcakes were popping up all over the place.  A bakery that only sold cupcakes opened up in my neighborhood.  I went to a wedding and instead of a wedding cake there were beautifully frosted cupcakes served on a tree-tiered platter.  The cupcake had reached the height of sophistication.

When I first discovered food blogs (not that long ago) I noticed that a lot of people blog about cupcakes. There are even blogs solely devoted to them.  I can see why.  The variations are endless, they’re a lot easier to make than a layer cake, and they allow the baker unlimited creativity.  As a single person, I would never bother making a cake for myself, but I make cupcakes for my own enjoyment.  I halve the recipe and put what I won’t eat in the freezer for another time. They freeze well and make a perfect treat for my little niece when she comes for a visit.

This recipe is one of my favorites, adapted from the pages of a little book I found called Perfect Baking, published in the UK by Parragon. Devils’ Food cupcakes are a double whammy of nostalgia.  The addition of sour cream here makes for a really light and fluffy cupcake–which is probably why I like them so much.

 

Devil’s Food Cakes with Chocolate Frosting

devilclose

 Ingredients:

Makes 18

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup (115g) firmly packed brown sugar

2 large eggs

3/4 cup (115g) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/3 cup (25g) unsweetened cocoa

1/2 cup (125ml) sour cream

For the frosting:

4 1/2 ounces (125g) semisweet chocolate

2 tablespoons icing sugar

2/3 cup (150ml) sour cream

3 1/2 ounces (100g) semisweet chocolate for garnish (optional)

Directions:

1) Put 18 double layer paper cases on a cookie sheet or 18 singles divided between 2 muffin tins. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C.

2) Beat the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking soda and cocoa in a large bowl until smooth. Fold in the sour cream. Spoon the batter into the paper cases, 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until risen and firm to the touch.

3) To make the frosting, melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. Whisk in the sugar and sour cream until combined.

4) Spread the frosting over the tops of the cupcakes and let set in the refrigerator before serving.

5) To garnish the cupcakes, shave the semisweet chocolate with a potato peeler or simply chop with a sharp knife.

moussestrawbWhen I started this blog, oh not so long ago, I had only a fuzzy idea of what I wanted it to be.  I was taking a course on Food & Travel Writing at the same university where I completed my master’s.  Our teacher, Don Genova, suggested that blogging was a good way to compile a portfolio to show editors.  I had heard of blogs but had never looked at one.  It wasn’t until I stumbled upon  The Amateur Gourmet while doing a search on Ina Garten did it even occur to me that people blogged about food.  I looked at  the links on Adam’s blog and discovered some other really great blogs.  I also discovered that actually thousands of people blog about food.  I found this both encouraging and disheartening.  Did I dare add my voice to the cacophony?  Did I have anything to say that anyone would want to read?  Not just that, but I also realized that photography is a component of a successful blog–we like the eye candy.  Photography was not something I had much interest in.  I’ve always been drawn to the linguisitic over the visual.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t even have a digital camera today had my brother not bought me one last year, for my birthday.

I have been writing for a long time but I am a fiction writer.  Writing fiction is a completely different animal.  It will always be my first love…yet, there have been clues…that writing about food is also something I should be doing.  Members of my writer’s group complained that there were too many descriptions of food in my prose.  Menus got recited all over the place, characters were irrelevantly concerned about what they were eating.  Food was always present in my stories but it was never connected to anything.

When the downturn in the economy left me with more time on my hands, I decided to do something about this food writing thing.  I signed up for Don’s class and started putting paper to pen.  I didn’t know if I could make a go of it, but I knew I had to try.

I started this blog to put into practice what I learned in the class, albeit in a more casual and personal way.  I didn’t think I could do it.  I know very little about computers, even less about photography, but somehow I’m finding my way.  I’ve learned a lot in a short time, and that really excites me.  Even the photography has been a fun challenge and I find my interest in it blooming. I love learning something new.  Learning and growing as a person are more important to me than most things in life.  I never want to be stagnant.

Some of the blogs out there are so fantastic that it’s intimidating.  I know I can’t compete with them, but I do hope to find a small community to hear my voice.  I think that’s what all bloggers want, but at the end of the day I think blogging is about sharing.  It’s why we’re all here.

So in that spirit I leave you with a recipe for one of my favourite desserts, French Chocolate Mousse, adapted from the pages of America’s cooking Bible, The Joy of Cooking. Before I started this blog I rarely ate dessert. Making sweet at home made no sense; I had no one to make them for and eating them myself seemed was certain to lead to weight gain.  I’ve discovered baking to be the most fun, and when I reach for a recipe for these days it’s often for something sweet.

 

French Chocolate Mousse

moussecream

 Ingredients:

2 cups milk

1/4 cup sugar

3 ounces grated good-quality chocolate

4 egg yolks, beated

3/4 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

mousseglass

Directions:

1) Scald 2 cups milk and 1/4 cup sugar in a saucepan over low heat.  Add a little bit of these ingredients to the egg yolks with a whisk to temper. Stir the egg mixture into the rest of the milk.

2) Stir until the custard thickens slightly. Do not overcook.  Strain into another saucepan. Cool by placing the saucepan in cold water and then into the fridge.

3) In a separate bowl whip the whipping cream until stiff. Add the vanilla.

4) Fold the cold custard into the whipping cream until well blended.  Fill custard cups or champane glasses with the mousse.  Chil thoroughly before serving.

chocmouss

chocspoonI’m no stranger to disasters in the kitchen.  Tart crusts shrink, custards burn, I forget to add eggs to my crepe batter or another essential ingredient to whatever it is that I’m cooking.  Today I cut my finger.  Yesterday I burned my arm taking a gratin dish out of the oven.  But the more I cook, the more I learn.  I understand these accidents are all part of the process, and even the greatest cooks have their share of failures; we know this from dining in restaurants.  Perfectionist that I am, I rarely get anything to come out exactly how I hope.  I want the visual perfection of a Martha Stewart photo spread coupled with the perfect flavours of a dish a la Nigella Lawson.  When things turn out I feel like a million bucks–especially when I didn’t expect them to.

Take tonight.  I was making pots-de-creme and realized at some point that the recipe wasn’t going to work.  The fact that I was able to recognize this beforehand was in itself a triumph; it meant that I’ve come along way since my days of scorched rice and rock-like cupcakes.  I tinkered with the ingredients, cooked the custard in a double-boiler on top of the stove–and saved the day.  Or at least saved my pots-de-creme.  Saving something from being thrown away feels even better than getting it right the first time.

These simple little custards are the perfect antidote to a dreary day, or when you are after the comfort that only a silky, chocolaty dessert can offer you.

 Pots-de-Creme Cafe

Serves 4

 Ingredients:

3/4 cup half & half

3/4 cup milk

1 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons cocoa

1 tablespoon instant coffee

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

pinch salt

2 eggs

 Directions:

1) Heat milk and half & half in the top of a double boiler until scalded.  Temper eggs in a small bowl by whisking in a little bit of the milk. Set aside.

2) Add chocolate and whisk until melted. Add cocoa, coffee, and sugar until well combined. Whisk in pinch of salt.

3) Add the eggs and vanilla.  Stir the mixture constantly over medium low heat until thickened, about ten minutes.  Strain into custard cups or ramekins.

4) Cool for 10 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap. Put the wrap directly onto the custard so a skin doesn’t form.  Set in the refrigerator for 2 hours before serving. Garnish with whip cream or a dusting of icing sugar.

 

bcloseup

I’m baking more than usual these days.  A lot more.  The truth is that in the past I never really baked much at all.  Baking always seems like a perilous undertaking; too much can go wrong.  It requires a precision and attention to detail that doesn’t always bode well with my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality.  Besides, isn’t that what bakeries are for?

But I’ve had such a sweet tooth lately.  Maybe its because it’s been such a long winter.  This awful weather makes me want to curl up with a good book and a gooey brownie fresh from the oven. I like brownies because they’re a no-brainer.  You can mix them up in one bowl and fifteen minutes later be popping one in your mouth, its rich chocolaty goodness melting on your tongue. 

So I leave you today with this recipe for two-bite brownies.  Yes, that’s right, just a recipe.  No deep thoughts today.  I’m going to leave that for my analysis of Interpreter of Maladies, the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri.  She writes simply, yet with such eloquence.  And foodie that I am, I can’t help but notice the prominence of food in some of these stories; cooking gives her characters a sense of identity and community, yet at the same time is deeply personal.

As soon as these little goodies are out of the oven you’ll find me curled up in my window seat, lost in Ms. Lahiri’s poignant world and a stack of two-bite brownies.

cocoa

Two-Bite Brownies

Ingredients:

1/4 cup butter, melted

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

bbatter

 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour 2 mini muffin pans (12 muffins each) or spray with non-stick cooking spray.

In a mixing bowl, combine melted butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.

Add cocoa, flour, salt, and baking powder.  Stir until smooth.

Bake for about 15 minutes.  Do not overbake.  Many recipes recommend baking brownies for 20-25 minutes.  This is way too much!  They will dry out.  You want the brownies to be gooey.  You might want to check them after 12 minutes or so.

browniespan

Press the tops of the brownies and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes.  Pop them out gently with a knife.  You can let them cool further on a rack if you like, but this step is not necessary.

 

If you don’t have a mini-muffin pan, you can also bake these in a square 8-inch pan for 15-18 minutes at the same temperature.  Cut into 12 squares and serve.

This recipe is adapted from All Recipes.

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