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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.
When I offered to bring dessert to our family’s Easter dinner, Tiramisu immediately sprang to mind. No Easter is complete without chocolate, and tiramisu has some chocolate. Otherwise, I’m not sure what it is that makes it seem like the perfect dessert for this spring holiday. Maybe because it’s just so elegant and sophisticated. Tiramisu makes you look good. People ooh and aah over its rich and creamy delights, exclaiming “you made this?”. Yet few desserts are as easy to make–actually, assemble–as Tiramisu. You don’t have to bake anything. You start with a package of dry ladyfingers and end up with cake and layers of gooey espresso infused cheese. What could be better than that?
Recipe adapted from Giada De Laurentis
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 pound mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups espresso, cooled
2 teaspoons dark rum
24 packaged ladyfingers
powdered cocoa or chocolate shavings, for garnish
1) Beat egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until thick and creamy. Add cheese and beat until smooth. Add one tablespoon of the coffee and mix thoroughly.
2) In a shallow dish, mix the rest of the coffee and rum. Dip half the ladyfingers, one by one, into the espresso for five seconds and place in the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish. Break the ladyfingers up if necessary, in order to fit the bottom.
3) Spread half of the cheese mixture over the ladyfingers. Arrange another layer of ladyfingers over top. Spread with the remaining cheese mixture.
4) Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with the cocoa or chocolate.
When 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
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
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.
Now it’s official. You may consider me a bona fide foodie. Sure, I’ve been interested in cooking for as long as I can remember. I own my fair share of cookbooks. I spend way too much time watching Food Network and have subscriptions to Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines. But I was always more of a curious bystander in the world of food. I rarely cooked anything from those magazines and cookbooks. I preferred to go to restaurants than cook at home, even though those restaurants somehow always ended up being the same old, same old. Real foodies, I figured, didn’t eat cereal for dinner or go into withdrawal without a weekly fix of Cool Ranch Doritos.
All of this changed a couple of months ago when the downturn in the economy left me with a lot more time on my hands–much of which I’ve been spending in the kitchen. I’ve learned to bake bread, make a souffle and other authentic French dishes, and have perfected my favourite restaurant dessert–creme brulee. Last week I even became the proud owner of a pastry torch.
This is serious business, I know. Who do you know that owns a pastry torch? I don’t know anybody. I thought about making this purchase for two years. Why buy a pastry torch when you can stick the creme brulee under the broiler for a few minutes? Besides, I reasoned, if I actually had a pastry torch I’d be making creme brulee all the time; my waistline would not appreciate it. But no matter how many times I tried, broiling the tops just wasn’t the same. I didn’t get the delightful crunch of caramelized sugar that seems to contrast so perfectly with the silky custard underneath.
Finally, I buckled. I took the torch home with trepidation. I had images of gassing myself or blowing up my apartment trying to fill it with butane. After a struggle with the strange English on the instruction sheet, I managed, and decided to try out my new torch immediately.
I have had company over for dessert several times since then and I can tell you nothing impresses like a homemade creme brulee. It’s so easy to make, and with the flourish of an authentic caramelized sugar topping, I promise you your friends will think you’re a genius.
Vanilla Creme Brulee
Makes 4 servings
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 cups whipping cream (heavy cream)
1 tablespoon good quality vanilla extract
4 teaspoons sugar, for caramelizing tops
Preheat oven to 300F.
Beat egg, egg yolks, 3 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla in a bowl until thick and creamy.
Scald the cream in a saucepan, stirring occasionally. Do not let it boil.
Remove the cream from heat and wisk a very small amount into the egg mixture. Add the rest in a slow, steady stream until well combined. Do not work too quickly or the eggs will scramble.
Scoop off and discard any foam that has risen to the top. Pour the mixture into 3-inch ramekins and place in a pan or ovenproof baking dish. Fill the pan or dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This will ensure slow and even baking
Bake until the brulees jiggle slightly in the middle, about thirty to forty minutes, depending on your oven. Remove the pan from the oven and let the brulees cool off in the water bath for 15 minutes.
Cover with plastic wrap and allow to further set in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
To caramelize the tops before serving, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar evenly over each creme brulee. Heat each with a propane torch until the sugar bubbles and browns. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.
If you don’t have a propane torch put the ramekins under a broiler for a few minutes until the tops brown.