Archive for April, 2011

April 30, 2011

Semifreddo Spin on a Food Truck Treat

If you live or work near a big, metropolitan city, chances are you’re familiar with the growing Food Truck Trend.  And if you’re a food-lover, like me, you’re not only familiar with the term “Food Truck,” but you regularly spend your lunch hour tracking down your favorite trucks, regardless of how close (or how very, very far) they’re parked from your office that day.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, allow me to explain.  The idea behind food trucks is that while they are essentially miniature restaurants on wheels, they allow for all of the downtown employees who’ve grown sick and tired of the same old, overpriced sandwich shop chains that surround their office building to enjoy exciting and delicious gourmet cuisine, made fresh to order, all at a pretty reasonable price.  The reason they’re able to serve their high-quality dishes at such a low price?  Because their kitchen and staff has been immensely scaled down to fit into a tiny truck, also scaling down their menu to only a few of their specialty dishes, and, never having to worry about over-purchasing ingredients or excess food going bad since its guaranteed they’ll sell out by the end of lunch (as all the hungry employees are ecstatic to have a new addition to their lunch selection).  These food trucks are, to food-loving adults, what ice cream trucks are to children.

As enthusiastic as I am about my favorite food trucks, I must admit, I’m still just as overjoyed to see an ice cream truck cross my path.  I caught a glimpse of one earlier in the week… the first one I’ve seen this year.  Hearing the familiar tune of the friendly truck brought me right back to my childhood, during which I would’ve been thrilled to run down the sidewalk, calling after the truck until it stopped, at which point I’d place my order for a strawberry-shortcake popsicle.

This time, instead of chasing after the truck (and potentially frightening the young children surrounding it), I came straight home and formulated my own recipe for a gourmet version of this tasty treat.  After a few tweaks and some unexpected pop-ups, I’m in love with the final product: a creamy and tangy strawberry-vanilla semifreddo (meaning semi-frozen) that can be made and served as either a icy parfait or a handheld popsicle, both complete with an almond-shortbread cookie crumble.  They’re a sure-to-please treat for ice cream lovers of any age, and include all of the delectable elements of the familiar treat from the original “food truck.”

Strawberry Shortcake Semifreddo Pops

Inspired by: Strawberry Shortcake Popsicles

Adapted from Tartelette’s  “Fresh Cheese & Raspberry Semifreddo”

1 ½ cups fresh strawberries                               2 ½ tablespoons water

¼ cup plus 1½ tablespoons honey, divided        3 large egg yolks

½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar                           ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

¾ cup heavy cream                                             200 grams Greek yogurt

-recipe yield: about 8-10 servings                      1 half-batch of shortbread*

Prepare your serving glasses.  For desserts to be eaten with a spoon, simply set out some tall shot glasses or parfait dishes, as no further preparation is necessary.  For popsicles, cut 2 long, thin strips of parchment paper per each tall shot glass and push the centers of each of the strips down into the bottom of the shot glasses, allowing the ends of the strips to fall outside the glass.  The excess parchment paper on the outside of the glasses create little tabs that allow for easy removal of the popsicles once they’ve frozen, without the risk of pulling out the popsicle sticks.  I also like to further line the popsicle glasses with a square cut of parchment paper to further assist in the smooth removal of the treats.

Give the strawberries a thorough rough chop and toss them in a small bowl, along with 1 ½ tablespoons of the honey and the balsamic vinegar.  Toss the mixture together and break up the strawberries with the back side of a fork.  Allow the berries to macerate into the liquid for about 10 minutes, or until the berries have broken down somewhat and the liquid has thickened into a syrup.  Spoon a small amount of the berries and syrup into the bottom of each of the serving dishes, setting aside a small amount to later be swirled into the semifreddo base (if desired).  Set serving glasses and remaining strawberry mixture aside.

In a separate, large bowl, empty the heavy cream.  Beat the cream until they’ve just barely reached soft peaks.  Refrigerate the bowl of cream while preparing the remainder of the semifreddo base.

In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, stir together the ¼ cup honey and the water.  Bring the liquid to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally and allow the syrup to reach 238 degrees (the “soft-ball stage”).  As the syrup heats up, beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl until the yolks have broken up and combined.  Once the syrup has hit 238, turn off the stove heat, remove the saucepan from the stove top, increase the electric mixer speed to high, and beat the egg yolks while pouring in the hot syrup in a slow but steady stream.  Once all of the syrup has been added to the yolks, continue to beat the mixture on a high speed until it’s light and airy and  has completely cooled.  Mix in the vanilla bean paste.

Remove the chilled cream from the refrigerator.  By hand, whisk the yogurt into the cream, followed by about 1/3 of the yolk mixture.  This will loosen up the cream slightly.  Fold the remaining yolk mixture into the cream.  Spoon the creamy semifreddo base into the glasses on top of the macerated berries, leaving a little extra room on the top of those glasses that will be used as frozen parfaits.  If desired, spoon in a very small amount of the strawberry-syrup mixture onto the top of the cream in each (or some) of the glasses.  Using a toothpick or skewer inserted just slightly into each glass, swirl the berry mixture into the cream, creating a marble effect.  For popsicles, place popsicle sticks into the center of each dessert.  Allow desserts to chill on a flat surface in the freezer (I like to put the cups into cupcake or mini-muffin pans to prevent slanting or tipping) for 3-5 hours, or until firm.

When ready to serve, remove glasses from the freezer and allow them to sit at room temperature for 5-8 minutes.  While the desserts rest at room temperature, break up about half of the prepared shortbread cookies into crumbs with your hands.  For semifreddo parfaits, top the rested desserts with enough shortbread crumbs to reach the top of the glass.  For popsicles, remove the desserts from the glasses by pulling gently on the parchment paper “tabs.”  If the popsicles don’t easily pull out of the glasses, submerge only the bottom half of the cold glasses into a cup of warm water for a few seconds to slightly melt the berry portion of the popsicle, and then attempt to remove the dessert again.  As each popsicle is removed, lay it on a cutting board and, using a sharp paring knife, slice off the very tippy-top of the red, rounded tops of the popsicles so that they’re completely flat on top.**  Lay out the shortbread crumbs into a skinny strip on a flat surface, and roll the popsicles through the crumbs so that the center of each popsicle is coated in the crumbs.  Serve the semifreddo parfaits with spoons and simply hand over the popsicles.  Enjoy!

*I split the recipe from my shortbread post in half.  I also altered the halved recipe by substituting the two cups of all-purpose flour for  1 ½ cups of all-purpose flour plus ½ cup of almond four, as I was aiming to replicate the crumbly almond-like topping from the ice cream truck popsicles.  The addition of the almond flour did just that and really turned out amazing.

**I don’t suggest skipping this step… just trust me.

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April 27, 2011

Pineapple Sunshine On Easter Sunday

Even as a little girl, I was always “in charge” of providing the dessert at family gatherings for every birthday or holiday.  And even though the desserts have gotten more and more complex and dramatic over the years, my family was just as proud of and impressed with my box-mix concoctions back then as they are of the more labor-intensive treats I serve now.  One cake I can specifically remember making numerous times, as it was a family favorite and repeatedly requested, was the “Pineapple Sunshine Cake.”  It was a simple recipe involving a box of yellow cake mix and a can of crushed pineapple, and it was my sugary-sweet masterpiece.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was unable to make it out to spend this Easter with my family this past weekend.  However, I was able to spend Easter Sunday with my little local church family.  Every Sunday morning I help run a nursery at a church in Alexandria, Virginia.  The congregation is super warm and friendly, and those with children are a tiny but tight-knit and family-oriented group that I’ve truly grown to love.  I look forward to seeing them and their beautiful children every week and wanted to share with them a little treat that reminds me of holidays with my family.

I decided to revamp the overly-sweet recipe from my childhood and make something a little more special and gourmet.  I  incorporated some vanilla bean and citrus into the sweet pineapple to make a refreshing and tropical-tasting treat.  I started with a pineapple chiffon cake recipe as a base, made it a little less stiff and a lot more moist, filled it with my very own pineapple-lemon curd, and topped it off with a sweet citrus buttercream.  As it was Easter, I decorated some of the cakes with lemon jellybeans and some with buttercream roses for spring.  I was very pleased with how the cakes turned out and was even more pleased to be able to provide an Easter treat to the families that I spend my Sunday mornings with.

Pineapple-Citrus Curd Cupcakes

Inspired by: Pineapple Sunshine Cake

Pineapple & Vanilla Bean Cakes

Adapted from Diana Rattray’s “Pineapple Chiffon Cake,” Southern Food

8 egg whites, room temperature             1 ¼ cup granulated sugar

2 cups all purpose flour                           5 egg yolks

1 tablespoon baking powder                   2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

½ teaspoon salt                                      1 teaspoon orange zest

¼ cup unsalted butter, softened             ½ cup pineapple juice*

¼ cup vegetable oil                                 ¼ cup crushed pineapple*

-recipe yield: about 24 cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line cupcake pans with paper liners.    In a very large bowl, whip all egg whites to stiff peaks, starting on a lower speed at first and increasing mixer speed as the whites start to stiffen.  Set bowl aside.  In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

In another large bowl, cream together the butter, oil, and sugar until the sugar has dissolved into the mixture and is no longer grainy, about 5 minutes.  Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.  While continuing to beat, add in vanilla bean seeds or paste until the vanilla flecks have distributed throughout the mixture.  Mix in the pineapple juice until incorporated.  When mixture is homogeneous, stir in the crushed pineapple and the orange zest.

In small, alternating batches, sift in about 1/3 of the dry ingredients, fold, and then fold in about 1/3 of the stiffened egg whites.  Continue folding in the sifted dry ingredients alternating with the egg whites until all have been gently incorporated.  Distribute the batter into the pans, filling each of the cupcake papers almost completely full (about 5/6 full).  Rotating the pans halfway through the cooking time, bake the cakes for a total of about 20 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean.  Allow cakes to cool in the pans for about 15 minutes, and then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

*To ensure even measuring of crushed pineapple and pineapple juice, I like to first empty the contents of a can of crushed pineapple into a strainer over a small bowl to collect as much juice as possible.  Then, I place only the crushed pineapple into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse the fruit a few times to break it down further.  The finer-ground pineapple helps to infuse the flavor throughout the entire cake and adds a lot of texture, but without weighing down the entire cake.  Next, I put the ground, crushed pineapple through the strainer one more time, extracting even more juice, leaving only the fluffy pulp of the pineapple.

Pineapple-Lemon Curd

Adapted from Marlene Sorosky’s “Lemon Curd,” Easy Entertaining

6 egg yolks

zest of ½ lemon

1 cup pineapple juice

¼ cup lemon juice (2 lemons)

½ cup sugar

2 ¼ tablespoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup unsalted cold butter, cut into small pieces

-recipe yield: about 2 ½ cups

In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, lightly break apart egg yolks with a small whisk.  While whisking, add in the zest, fruit juices, sugar, salt, and cornstarch.  Place saucepan over medium heat and, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, constantly stir mixture for 4-6 minutes, or until it thickens up to the point where it coats the spoon and holds its shape when you run your finger across the spoon.

At this point, immediately remove the saucepan from heat.  Constantly stirring, gradually mix in small pieces of butter, allowing each piece to dissolve into the curd before adding the next piece.  Once all the butter has been added and the mixture is smooth, transfer the curd to a small bowl and continue to stir until it has cooled.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, allowing the plastic wrap to sag into the bowl and cover the entire surface of the curd so that the curd doesn’t develop a skin.  Store cooled, covered pineapple-lemon curd in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Sweet Citrus Buttercream

Adapted from Wilton’s “Lemon Buttercream Frosting”

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature           1 teaspoon lemon zest

½ cup vegetable shortening                                 ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice                                4 cups (about 1 pound) confectioner’s sugar

1 tablespoon pineapple juice                                1 tablespoon heavy cream

In large bowl, cream together butter and shortening until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Drizzle in fruit juices and zest and beat well. Gradually add sugar, ½ cup at a time, beating on medium speed and scraping sides of bowl often. After sugar has been incorporated, continue to beat the mixture while drizzling in heavy cream. Beat at medium speed until homogeneous and fluffy. Keep icing covered with a damp cloth until ready to use and, if needed, re-whip before using.

Optional Ingredients for decorating:

Yellow food coloring, sprinkles, jelly beans, etc.

Assembly:

Once cupcakes are completely cooled, I use an apple corer to remove the inside of each of the cakes and a pastry bag to fill the cakes with the pineapple-lemon curd.  Fill the cakes with as much of the curd as desired, rip off the bottom half of the removed piece of cupcake, and replace the top over the curd.

The sweet citrus buttercream can be gently spread on the cakes with a small spatula or piped on with a pastry or plastic bag.  Decorate as desired.

April 26, 2011

Passover pumperKugel

Having the passion for food that I do, I’m always eager to try new things and learn about the traditional foods from different backgrounds.  I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to an array of exciting and delicious Jewish foods, as well as the history and stories behind each dish, thanks to Evan’s grandmother.  I look forward to each and every holiday with Evan’s wonderful family and I enjoy so much spending time visiting with them and sharing in their family traditions.

My favorite of the many delectable dishes I’ve had with Evan’s family is undoubtedly the kugel.  A kugel is a sweet, noodle pudding that is normally served as a side dish (but can very easily pass as an indulgent dessert) during Passover.  Other versions of kugel start with a potato or sweet potato base, but Evan’s grandma’s luscious concoction of egg noodles, pineapple, and golden raisins has me convinced that noodles are the way to go.  Although I might miss her incredible candied sweet potatoes, I could easily be satisfied with a Passover feast composed of a plate filled with only kugel.

I’ve experimented with a couple different recipes in the past, but the kugel that I created for this year’s Passover was my best effort yet.  I incorporated pineapple and golden raisins as a tribute to Evan’s grandmother’s version, and even threw in a few bites of creamy, baked sweet potato in order to have both of my favorite of her dishes represented in the meal.  I topped it with ground cinnamon, just as she does, along with a salty-sweet matzo crumble, my own little twist.  Evan agreed that the kugel was the best of my previous attempts and described it as being delicious and extra “dessert-y” (Me? Dessert? Big surprise).  It may not be the most glamorous dish but, kugel doesn’t need any fancy frills or even a holiday to be delicious.

Sweet Potato Noodle Kugel

Inspired by: ‘Grandma’ Millie’s “Pineapple-Raisin Kugel”

Adapted from Andrea Marks Carneiro & Roz Marks’ “Apple-Raisin Noodle Kugel,” The Modern Girl’s Guide To Cooking Like A Jewish Grandmother

1 sweet potato

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted, divided

2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon granulated sugar, divided

½ teaspoon salt

12 ounces chunk pineapple (in juice)             ¼ teaspoon black pepper

¼ cup golden raisins                                      3 eggs

6 ounces egg noodles                                    ¼ cup heavy cream

½ cup cream cheese                                      1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup sour cream                                           2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided

½ cup ricotta cheese                                      -recipe yield: about 5-8 servings

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a sheet tray with tin foil.  Peel and dice the sweet potato and place in a medium bowl.  Toss the diced potatoes with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter, ½ teaspoon sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper until potatoes are evenly coated.  Arrange coated potatoes in an even layer onto the lined tray and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.  Set aside to cool and reduce oven heat to 325 degrees.  Butter the bottom and sides a 2 ½-quart souffle dish and set aside.

Pour into a saucepan about ½ cup or so of the extracted pineapple juice.  Heat the juice over low-medium heat for a few minutes until warmed through.  Turn off the heat and pour the hot juice into a small glass bowl or mug.  Add in the golden raisins and allow them to rehydrate and soak in the juice for about 10 minutes, until they have slightly plumped.  Strain the raisins, discarding the juice, and in a small bowl, toss them together with the cooled sweet potatoes.  Slice each of the pineapple chunks in half and toss them with the potato-raisin mixture as well.

Bring to boil a large pot of lightly salted water.  Add egg noodles to the boiling water and cook until just tender for about 6-8 minutes, or according to package instructions.  Drain noodles and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the cream cheese and the remaining granulated sugar until fluffy and creamed.  Beat in ricotta cheese and sour cream until smooth.  Add eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Whisk in heavy cream, vanilla and 1 teaspoon of the ground cinnamon.  Gently stir in the pineapple-potato mixture.  Pour in the cooked, drained noodles and drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Toss the entire mixture together until noodles are well coated.  Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish.

Mazto Crumble Topping

This crisp-like topping is completely optional, as the kugel is divine on it’s own.  The crumble gives it a little extra crunch and salty-sweetness that can help balance out the ultra-richness of the noodle-pudding.

¼ cup whole grain (as this dish is so health concious) matzo meal*

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold and cut into small pieces

Empty all ingredients into food processor and pulse until texture is crumbly, adding a teaspoon of cold water if necessary.  Sprinkle the crumble into an even layer onto the kugel before baking, and top with another teaspoon of ground cinnamon.**  Bake kugel at 325 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, or until it has set and the top is golden.

Allow kugel to cool and set for at least 15-20 minutes.  Kugel can be enjoyed warm or cold (both are delish, but Evan and I prefer it cold) and should be covered and stored in the refrigerator.

*Although the matzo made the dish much more Passover-traditional, I only used it because I had some leftover from the matzo ball soup I’d prepared earlier in the week.  The matzo meal can easily be substituted for flour.

**If choosing to omit the crumble topping, sprinkle the top of the kugel with an extra generous teaspoon of ground cinnamon before baking.

April 22, 2011

Traditional Seven Layer Cake for an Untraditional Passover

It’s been pretty busy in my apartment lately, as celebrations and preparations for Passover as well as Holy Week and Easter Sunday have all taken place this week.  Since Evan and I aren’t able to visit our families in Michigan this holiday season, I wanted to bring as much festivity as I could to our quiet home.  Each day of Passover I tried to prepare a different dish that followed either a family or Jewish tradition, including a matzo ball soup, Evan’s family’s favorite Caprese salad, and a kugel (more to come on this soon!).

Ever since I first heard of them, I’ve been anxious to try to make a Jewish seven layer cake.  Regardless of the fact that customary Passover foods aren’t supposed to contain any chametz (leavening agents), I decided to use the high holiday as an opportunity to bake the cake.  Yes, an entire seven layer cake may be a ridiculous dessert to make for a celebration involving a total of two people, but I justified this by making it at the very beginning of the week in hopes that the cake would be consumed a little at a time throughout the length of Passover.

There are many different versions of  the seven layer cake, including a Hungarian and a German version.  I found a Jewish recipe and adapted it a little to fit Evan’s description of what he remembers.  The cake is made up of six thin layers of a yellow sponge cake stacked in between six thin layers of a rich chocolate buttercream, and then topped with the seventh layer of cake,  which has been sliced and covered in caramel.Evan had described the cake to me as being a little “mocha-y,” so I added a good amount of coffee to the buttercream.  And even though he didn’t recall the caramel layer as being a part of the cake that he’d enjoyed as a kid, I decided to do it as I thought it would add a cool, dramatic look to the cake.  That simple little caramel layer actually ended up being my favorite part of the cake…  I’m certainly glad that I didn’t pass-it-over! : )

Traditional Jewish Seven Layer Cake

Inspired by: “Seven Layer Cake” -Diamond Bakery (West Bloomfield, MI)

Adapted from Gil Marks’ “7-Layer Cake,” The World of Jewish Desserts

Chocolate-Mocha Buttercream

I highly suggest making the buttercream the day before, as baking and assembling the actual cake is a pretty big project that can easily take up an entire day.  Store the buttercream in a covered container in the refrigerator, and let it sit at room temperature for at least an hour before attempting to assemble the cake.

10 ounces semisweet chocolate                     1  pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate                  ½ cup vegetable shortening

3 tablespoons instant coffee granules            1 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 ½ cups sugar                                               ½ teaspoon rum extract

¾ cup water                                                    ¼ teaspoon salt

6 egg yolks

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a medium glass bowl and melt the semisweet and unsweetened chocolate.  When chocolate is melted, stir in the coffee granules and remove from stove top to allow to cool slightly.  In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine water and sugar and place on the stove over low heat.  Stir mixture for about five minutes or until the sugar has dissolved, and increase the heat to medium and, without stirring, bring the syrup to a boil.  Allow boiling syrup to reach 250 degrees on a candy thermometer (also called the “soft-ball stage”), before removing from heat.

While syrup is boiling, beat egg yolks in a large bowl until pale and thick, about 4 minutes.  Once sugar syrup has reached 250 degrees, very slowly drizzle the syrup into the eggs by allowing it to flow in a steady stream down the side of the bowl gradually into the eggs while continuing to beat the mixture.  Once all the hot syrup has been added, continue to beat on high until the mixture has thickened and cooled to room temperature (about 10 minutes).

Once the thick mixture has cooled, continue to beat while adding in, a couple tablespoons at a time, the butter and shortening.  After both have been fully incorporated, gradually beat in the melted, cooled chocolate-coffee mixture, followed by the salt, vanilla, and rum extracts, beating well with the addition of each ingredient.  Once all ingredients have been incorporated, push entire mixture through a strainer and discard any undissolved coffee granules or solid egg parts.  Cover and store the buttercream frosting in the refrigerator until an hour before ready to frost the cake.  Spoon ¼ of the buttercream into a zip-lock or pastry bag and leave the rest in the bowl to be spread onto the cakes with an angled spatula.

Sponge Cake Layers

12 egg whites, room temperature

2 ¼ cups granulated sugar

12 egg yolks

¼ cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt

3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line bottom of 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper and butter and flour paper and sides of pans.  It’s very important that the buttering and flouring be done extremely thoroughly or the baked cakes will be very difficult to remove from the pans, as there is no butter in the batter itself.  Unless you have 7 cake pans, you’ll have to bake the cake layers in batches (which isn’t a big deal since the cakes bake pretty quickly) and re-prepare the pans this way each time.

In a medium bowl, beat room temperature egg whites until they have formed soft peaks, and set aside.  In a separate, large bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar on a high speed for 5-9 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and pale yellow.  Reduce mixing speed to low and add in the buttermilk, a tablespoon at a time, along with the vanilla extract and the salt, and replace mixing speed to high.  Once the mixture has been beaten and has re-thickened, remove electric mixture and gradually and gently fold egg whites into the yolk mixture.  Once all the whites have been incorporated, slowly and in small batches, sift in the flour, folding after each addition of flour.

Measure out 1 cup of the batter for each cake pan and gently spread the batter into a thin, even layer in each pan.  Measuring the batter will ensure that each layer be exactly the same thickness, creating a pretty finished product and also allowing each layer to have the same baking time.  Tap the bottom of the cake pans against the countertop to help some of the larger air-bubbles to release so that the cakes bake evenly.  Bake the layers either one or two at a time (any more than two cake pans in the oven will bring the temperature down) for 6-8 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time.  When cakes are finished baking, the edges will turn light golden and will pull away slightly from the sides of the pan.  Allow cakes to cool in the pans for 1-2 minutes before transferring to cooling racks.

Caramel

Covering the seventh layer of the cake with this caramel is optional, but encouraged!  The caramel shouldn’t be made until ready to cover cake.  Without the caramel, the last cake layer can be stacked between buttercream with the other layers.

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup water

½ tablespoon unsalted butter

In a small skillet, stir together sugar and water on high heat.  Once the sugar has dissolved into a syrup (about 5 minutes), add butter and allow mixture to come to a boil.  Continue to stir the syrup so the caramel browns evenly.  Once the caramel has reached desired color, remove from heat and immediately pour onto prepared cake layer (see specific directions below).

Assembly:

First, I like to slice off the outer edges of each of the cake layers using a perforated knife (or even a pizza cuter) and a round tupperware top or cardboard cutout as a guide.  It’s important to wait to trim the cakes this way until just before ready to frost them, as the exposed edges will dry out if left uncovered for too long.

Smear a dollop of the room temperature buttercream onto the center of cake plate or server to secure the cake and center one cake layer atop the buttercream dollop.  Using a pastry or zip-lock bag, follow the edges of the cake and pipe a ring of buttercream on top of the layer.  Measure out 1/3 cup of the buttercream (from the bowl) and spoon onto the center of the layer.  Using a small, angled spatula,  push the buttercream out towards the ring of piped buttercream until it has been spread into an even layer covering the top of the cake.  Add the second layer of cake on top of the layer of buttercream, pipe another ring of buttercream, and measure and spread 1/3 cup of the frosting into another even layer.  Continue this process until the sixth layer of cake has been stacked and covered in buttercream.  Slip a few small strips of parchment paper under the bottom layer of the cake to catch any drips of buttercream.  Spread the remaining buttercream from the bowl onto the sides of the cake into an  even layer.  Once the entire cake has been evenly covered in buttercream, transfer cake to the refrigerator to cool and slightly harden the buttercream while you prepare the caramel and seventh cake layer.

Using the back edge of a large knife, score the seventh layer of the cake into 8 or 12 portions, making grooves into the cake but not cutting all the way through.  Lay the scored cake onto a layer of parchment paper and prepare the caramel as directed above.  Pour the hot caramel evenly onto the cake layer and spread using a buttered spatula until the layer has been fully covered by the caramel.  Before the warm caramel cools and hardens, use a large, buttered knife to slice the caramel-covered cake into slices along the score marks.  Re-buttering the knife as needed, trim off any excess caramel that has spread outside the cake.  Allow caramel-covered cake slivers to cool completely before topping the frosted, assembled cake.

Once the frosted cake has cooled and hardened slightly, remove it from the fridge.  Using an angled spatula dipped in very hot water, smooth out any imperfections in the buttercream, making a even surface for decorating.  Remove parchment strips from the bottom of the cake.

Transfer any extra buttercream to a pastry or zip-lock bag with a decorative tip and pipe a border on the bottom and/or top edges of the cake, or decorate however you wish.  Depending upon how many slices the caramel-cake layer has been sliced into, I would suggest piping the same number of buttercream dollops or rosettes onto the top of the frosted cake to serve as little pillows for the caramel-cake slivers.  Arrange the slivers on top of the cake, resting them on the rosettes.  Pipe one final rosette in the center of the cake, if desired, and serve.

April 20, 2011

Thank Heaven for Little Girls (& Unruly Frosting)

Two days a week I am lucky enough to be a nanny for the prettiest baby girl in the whole world, Talia.  Yes, that is a pretty strong statement and I may be a little biased, but in all honesty, the kid is beyond adorable.  As you happen to be reading the blog and are probably a friend or family member of mine, chances are I’ve probably already shown you at least 5 pictures and/or videos of Talia or gushed to you about her latest “trick” of the day.  At which point you, more than likely, have gently reminded me that I am not, in fact, her mother, contrary to how I proudly speak of and brag about her.

Whitney (Tali’s actual mother, as well as my mentor and cherished friend) has always been a huge supporter of my baking and of the blog.  So, when I prepared some fancy pink champagne-inspired cupcakes for my great friend Claire’s 23rd birthday, I sent a quick picture of the sparkly, girlish cakes to Whitney for her approval.  Whitney fell in love with the idea and the look of the pink champagne cupcakes and thought they’d be the perfect treat to serve at the luncheon following Talia’s upcoming Christening.  I offered to make the cupcakes (along with a few other treats) as a gift to Talia, Whitney and Kevin… the wonderful family who have come to mean so much to me.

I chose to top the pink champagne cakes with my favorite marshmallow frosting, which might seem like a ridiculous choice for such a fancy-flavored cake, but I thought the marshmallow gave the cakes a fun, whimsical feel that seemed perfect to serve at a party for a little girl.  The marshmallow frosting can be a bit sweet, and with the added pink sanding sugars I used to decorate, it was important that I find a mellowing balance with the other flavors.  I cut back the amount of sugar in the pink champagne cakes a touch, and also chose a delicate and slightly tangy mascarpone filling that helped balance the sweetness of the dessert.

Alongside the pink champagne cupcakes, I decided to also serve a spread of special chocolate cupcakes (which are described in more detail in the post below, or here).  And as Kevin is a big fan of my gluten-free chocolate truffles, I decided to make a big batch of those especially for him.  I threw in a couple other surprise batches of some new truffle recipes I’ve formulated and have been working on, including some of my key lime pie truffles for him to try.

This is the point in which I wish I could include a comment about how well everything fell into place the morning of Tal’s Christening.  I wish so badly that I could say something to the effect of, “Yes, I had taken on quite a large project, but being as confident in the kitchen as I am, I knew I could complete each and every one of my desserts flawlessly and in no way was I being overly-ambitious.”  But, in all actuality, the morning of the Christening turned out to be a bit of a crisis, complete with several batches of inedible frosting and a small meltdown on my part.  Long story short, due to the humidity that day, my marshmallow frosting refused to set up correctly and upon making and remaking the icing, I ended up missing Tali’s Christening ceremony.  I was pretty upset about missing it, but the extra time did allow me to figure out the problem and adjust my recipe accordingly, and of course, share my experience here so that others can learn from it!

After correcting the frosting and finishing up, I was able to make it to Whitney and Kevin’s home before everyone else, giving me lots of quiet time to set up  the dessert table.   The table looked lovely, but the best part of my early arrival had nothing to do with how much I’d fussed over the desserts.  The thing that made my missing the ceremony 100% okay was the extra, quiet time it allowed me to spend with the lady-of-the-hour herself, my Tali.  I was able to lend a hand to the busy hosts, Whitney and Kevin, and get sleepy Tal off to rest before greeting her many guests.  And as much as I loved watching everyone enjoy the desserts, nothing beats some cuddle-time with Talia.

Pink Champagne Cupcakes with White Chocolate Mascarpone Filling & Marshmallow Frosting

Inspired by: Pink Champagne

Pink Champagne Cakes

Adapted from Gail Wagman’s “Champagne Cupcakes,” Cupcakes Galore

3 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

6 egg whites, room temperature

1/3 pound unsalted butter, room temperature

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups pink champagne, separated

-optional: 3-4 drops red food coloring

–recipe yield: about 24 cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line cupcake tins with cupcakes liners and set aside.  Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.  Set aside.  In a separate, medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the whisks of an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy (about 5 minutes).  Add in the vanilla extract, and, if desired, add 3-4 drops of red food coloring.  Keep in mind that the color will be a little lighter after the dry ingredients are added.  Beat well until the color is distributed evenly throughout the butter mixture.

Slowly mix about 1/3 of the sifted flour mixture into the butter mixture until it has combined.  Then, add in about half of the 3/4 cup of champagne and mix until combined.  Add another 1/3 of the flour mixture, mix, and then the remaining half of the 3/4 cup of champagne and mix again until combined.  Add in the last 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat until the mixture is completely combined, being careful not to over-mix.  Over-mixing the batter once the flour has been added can result in dry, dense little cakes.

Gently and in small batches, fold about 1/3 of the whipped egg whites into the batter at a time.  Continue to fold until all of the egg whites have been added and are fully incorporated.  Divide the batter between the cupcake tins, filling each cupcake liner about 2/3 full.  Bake for about 16-18 minutes, or until the center of the cupcakes are  springy and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let the cakes cool in the pans for about 5 minutes, then remove them and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack.

Once the cakes have cooled, use a toothpick to poke a few tiny holes in each cupcake.  If you’re planning on filling the cupcakes, avoid poking the holes near the very center of the cakes, as you’ll be hollowing out the centers anyway.  Soak a pastry brush or a small, clean paintbrush in the remaining 1/2 cup of pink champagne, and use it to lightly brush the top of each cupcake, coating it with the champagne.

White Chocolate Mascarpone Filling

This recipe can be used as a filling or a frosting.  Preparation should start to the day before assembly.  I love the creaminess and delicate flavor of the mascarpone, but the cheese’s softness makes it difficult to use in frostings.  The white chocolate used here helps to keep the mascarpone thick and also adds delicious sweetness,  which the tangy cream cheese helps to balance out.

12 ounces white chocolate chips

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup cream cheese, softened

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a medium glass bowl containing the white chocolate chips.  As the chocolate is melting, pour into a separate,  small, heavy-bottomed saucepan the heavy cream and the 1/2 cup of cream cheese.  Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and, constantly whisking, allow the cream cheese to break apart and melt into the heavy cream, being careful to keep it moving and not allow the milk or cheese to curdle.

Once the cream is smooth and hot, add a small amount into the melted chocolate and stir.  If the chocolate beings to seize, the cream is not hot enough.  Return the cream back to the hot stove top, turn the burner on low and don’t panic!  Use an electric mixer to try and smooth out the seized chocolate mixture.  Once the chocolate is as smooth as you can get it and the temperature of the cream mixture is brought up, slowly add small amounts of cream to the chocolate and continue to beat until it has all been added and is beaten into a homogeneous mixture.  Allow the smooth mixture to cool slightly before covering it and refrigerating it overnight.

Once the chocolate-cream cheese mixture has chilled and hardened somewhat, take it out of the fridge and let it sit out and come to room temperature.  Once it has softened slightly, add in the mascarpone and beat the mixture until combined, homogeneous and fluffy.  When ready to be piped, transfer the filling to a pastry or plastic zip-lock bag.

Marshmallow Frosting

This recipe is comparable to an Italian Meringue or a ‘Seven Minute Icing’ and is whipped up over the stove.  Sugary delicious and beautifully whimsical, it’s my all-time favorite kind of frosting.  It should be prepared and served in the same day, as over time it’s texture can become granular and unpleasant.

2 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water*

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

–recipe yield: about 3 cups

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a large glass bowl.  Combine the egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, water, and cream of tartar in the large bowl.  Beat the mixture on high speed over the simmering water until the mixture is thick, fluffy and marshmallow-y, about 7 minutes.  Beat in the vanilla extract, and transfer to a pastry bag to be piped.

* This frosting is temperamental in humidity and won’t stiffen up if there is a lot of moisture in the air.  As mentioned earlier, I had to make numerous batches before I found out that that’s what the problem was.  In this event, just reduce the amount of water in the sugar syrup.  In my hysterics, I even added a pinch of cornstarch as a precaution.

Optional Ingredients for Decorating:  colored sugars, jimmies, sprinkles, candy pearls, etc.

Assembly:

Using a round apple corer or a small paring knife, hollow out the centers of each cupcake.  Snip off the tip or a corner of the pastry or zip lock bag filled with the mascarpone filling and prepare to fill the cakes.  To do this, insert the tip of the bag into the hollowed cake and squeeze a small amount of the filling into the cake, just until it plumps and the filling barely reaches the top of the cake.  Continue to fill each cake, and when all cakes have been filled, replace the very tops of the inside “guts” that have been taken out of the cakes.  I prefer to tear off the bottom half of the “guts” before plugging each of the cupcake holes with only the top piece.

To frost and decorate the cakes, I used a few different techniques so that they all looked a little different.  I used a spatula to spread a small amount of the marshmallow frosting into a thin, even layer on a few of the cakes, and then dipped the cakes in colored sugar or sprinkles.  I then used a large star tip in a pastry bag filled with the marshmallow frosting to pipe a small rosette into the center of those cakes.  Large rosettes can be used to cover entire cupcakes, and round tips can be used to pipe little ‘blobs’ atop the cakes.  Decorate however you please with sprinkles, pearls, and sugars.

April 20, 2011

Thank Heaven (continued)

I knew that there was going to be a decent amount of children at the luncheon of Talia’s Christening and even though I find the pink champagne cupcakes to be super yummy, they do have a pretty prominent champagne taste… maybe not the most appealing flavor for those under the age of 6.  I decided it would be a good idea to do something a little more kid-friendly, but equally as dressed up and delicious.

In keeping with the cherry blossom theme of the week, and in my excitement and longing to use the delectable Michigan black cherry preserves I’d been so overjoyed to find, I decided on a rich, chocolate cupcake wrapped around a black cherry buttercream… a semi-spin on a chocolate covered cherry.  I hoped that this classic combination of flavors could be appreciated by party attendees of any age, but in order to further entice the younger crowd just a touch, I completed the cakes with colored sprinkles and chocolate candies atop the whipped white chocolate ganache.

The festive chocolate cakes were a huge hit at the luncheon, maybe even more so than the pink champagne cakes!  I especially loved the overall texture and chocolate flavor of the slightly-sweet cakes…  this just may be my new go-to chocolate cake recipe.  And the subtle hint of cherry in the girly-pink buttercream filling was the perfect choice to honor the week of the Cherry Blossom Festival, the arrival of spring, and to celebrate the beautiful little girl who brought us all together that afternoon.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Black Cherry Filling & Whipped White Chocolate Ganache

Inspired by: Chocolate Covered Cherries

Chocolate Cupcakes

Adapted from Magnolia Bakery’s “Chocolate Cupcakes,”  The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate

1/2 tablespoon instant coffee granules

2 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

4 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

–recipe yield: about 24 cupcakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line cupcake tines with cupcake papers.  Prepare a double boiler fitted with a small glass bowl filled with the unsweetened chocolate.  Melt the chocolate over the double boiler and remove from heat.  Stir in the instant coffee granules and set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and baking soda.  Set aside.  In a large bowl, cream together the butter and both sugars, beating until fluffy (about 5 minutes).  Add in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.   Slowly drizzle in a small amount of the cooled chocolate, as to bring the mixture up to temperature without cooking and scrambling any of the egg.  Continue to then add in the remaining chocolate, mixing until well-incorporated.

Slowly and in three equal batches, add the dry ingredients into the chocolate-butter mixture, alternating with two equal additions of the buttermilk and vanilla.  With each addition, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not over-beat.  When the batter is smooth and homogeneous, carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake the cakes for 20-25 minutes, or until a cake-tester or toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean.  Allow the cupcakes to cool in the tins for 15 minutes before removing them from the tins and transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Black Cherry Cream Cheese Buttercream Filling

6 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

3-4 tablespoons Michigan black cherry preserves

about 1 ½ – 2 ½ cups powdered sugar

3/4  tablespoon heavy cream

In a large bowl, beat together cream cheese and butter until creamy and soft (about 3 minutes).  Add in the preserves and continue to beat until well-incorporated. While mixing on a low speed, slowly add in the powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary and continuing to add in the sugar until desired consistency and flavor is achieved.  Drizzle in the heavy cream and increase the mixer speed to medium-high.  Beat buttercream for another minute or so, or until fluffy. Transfer buttercream filling into a pastry or zip-lock bags to prepare to fill cupcakes.

Whipped White Chocolate Ganache

This is a basic whipped ganache recipe that compliments the chocolate cakes very well.  Preparation should begin the day before serving.

24 ounces white chocolate chips

1  1/4 cups heavy cream

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a large glass bowl.  Combine and melt together the white chocolate and 1 cup of the cream in the large bowl.  Once fully melted and smooth, remove the mixture from the heat and allow to cool.  Once the mixture has cooled, cover the bowl and transfer to the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Just before ready to frost cupcakes, remove the slightly hardened ganache from the fridge and allow to sit out and come to room temperature.  Then, beat the softened mixture on medium-high speed, adding about 1/4 cup heavy cream to moisten the mixture, if necessary.  Continue to whip the gananche until desired fluffy or stiffened texture is achieved.  Remember to be careful not to over-whip the mixture, as over-whipping heavy cream can create butter.

When ready to frost cupcakes, transfer ganache into  a pastry or zip-lock bag.

Optional Ingredients for Decorating:

M&M’s, candy coated chocolate covered almonds, jelly beans, colored candies, colored sprinkles, jimmies, etc.

Assembly:

Using a round apple corer or a small paring knife, hollow out the centers of each cupcake.  Snip off the tip or a corner of the pastry or zip lock bag filled with the cherry-cream cheese buttercream and prepare to fill the cakes.  To do this, insert the tip of the bag into the hollowed cake and squeeze a small amount of the filling into the cake, just until it plumps and the filling barely reaches the top of the cake.  Continue to fill each cake, and when all cakes have been filled, replace the very tops of the inside “guts” that have been taken out of the cakes.  I prefer to tear off the bottom half of the “guts” before plugging each of the cupcake holes with only the top piece.

To frost the cakes, I used pastry bags with a round tip and also one with a large star tip to pipe different swirls on the cakes.  I used the M&M’s, almonds, jelly beans and other chocolate candies to create flower patterns, butterflies and dragonflies on the cakes, as well as some more simple decorations with a dusting of jimmies or sprinkles.  Get creative!

April 18, 2011

Red Velvet, Fit For A “Wing”

One of the best things about growing up in Michigan, for me, was being brought up as a passionate fan of the Detroit sports teams.  Similar to the economy in Detroit, it seems that lately the Pistons and the Lions have seen better days.  And don’t even get me started on the tragedy that was the dismissal of the 3-time WNBA championship winning team, the Detroit Shock, now the “Tulsa Shock.”  But, there is one sports organization that we can always count on for consistently impressive wins, guaranteed trips to the playoffs year after year, and more Stanley Cups than you can count on two hands, the Detroit Red Wings.

The start of the NHL Playoffs has brought about mixed emotions for me.  Excitement, of course.  A little nervousness at times.  But most of all, a longing to be near the excitement in Detroit and the team that I love.  A small group of us hockey fans from Michigan get together to watch Red Wings’ games from time to time here in DC, and it seemed only appropriate that we be together to watch the Wings tear Phoenix apart in Game 1 last Wednesday night and celebrate what is sure to be a great playoff season for our team.  I wanted to bring something that was somewhat Red Wing-themed for my friends to munch on while we watched the game, but couldn’t decide which direction I wanted to take.  While considering a few options, another friend of mine came to me in search of a good red velvet cake recipe.  Red velvet! While I was without a ‘go-to’ recipe of the red velvet persuasion, I jumped on the opportunity to do a little recipe testing.  And red velvet cake seemed like a very appropriate treat to serve to those fans of the best team in the whole wide world.

Although I’ve made a few red velvet cakes in my day, I was having a hard time recalling any really great red velvet recipes that I’d tried.  And as I didn’t want to pass along a mediocre recipe to my good friend, I decided to try three different cake recipes (baked into cupcakes) paired with three different frostings and have everyone vote on their favorite of each.  In the red velvet playoffs, the frostings included a traditional cream cheese buttercream, a non-traditional, white chocolate-cream cheese ganache and my favorite marshmallow frosting.  I chose three very different cake recipes that called for three different types of vinegar, amounts of cocoa, amounts of sugar, and different food color mixing/pasting techniques.  The tested recipes were the Magnolia Bakery’s recipe, an adapted version of Martha Stewart’s recipe and, as a wild card, Bobby Flay’s red velvet recipe.  For those of you who don’t tune into the Food Network and don’t know who Bobby is or why his recipe is a wild card, I’ll explain.  Bobby Flay, although a world renowned chef, specializes in Southwest flavors and cooks most famously with different varieties of spicy peppers.  He is, in no way, famous for his pastry skills.  A while back, however, he challenged a New York City pastry chef and baker of an award-winning red velvet cake to a “Red Velvet Throwdown,” during which, a panel of judges deemed Bobby Flay’s red velvet cake the winner.  I was curious as to how his simple recipe beat out that of the famous “Cake Man Raven,” and decided to try it out for myself.  And, to my surprise, Bobby’s Throwdown-winning cake was also winner of my little red velvet recipe battle, overwhelmingly receiving the most votes by far!  I will include two frosting recipes, as votes for the best were split between the buttercream and the ganache, with my yummy marshmallow frosting receiving only one vote… mine.  I think the hockey fans must have just been reluctant to vote for anything resembling “icing.”  (Sorry, I had to.)

The delicious, luxurious texture and flavor of Bobby’s cake is outstanding.  Red velvet, indeed.  And, while the other two recipes had me sifting cake flour, splitting vanilla beans and concocting red-coloring pastes to be mixed into intricate batters, Bobby’s recipe was refreshingly straightforward and simple.  I think you’ll be surprised as to how easy it is.  Almost as easy as sweeping the Coyotes in Round 1 will be for the Red Wings.

The Ultimate Red Velvet Cake

Inspired by: Red Velvet Cake & the Detroit Red Wings

Adapted, just barely, from Bobby Flay’s “Red Velvet Cake,” Throwdown With Bobby Flay

3 ¾ cups all purpose flour

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

2 ¼ cups granulated sugar

¾ cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

3 tablespoons red food coloring

1 ½ cups buttermilk, room temperature

1 ½ teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

recipe yield: 1 three-layer 9-inch cake, or 36 cupcakes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with papers or prepare three 9-inch cake pans by lining them with parchment paper and buttering and flouring the bottom and sides of each pan.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.  In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until creamed, about three minutes.  Add in the oil and continue to cream for another couple minutes until the sugar has dissolved into the mixture.   Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and beating well after each addition.  Add in the vanilla and the food coloring and continue to beat until the mixture is homogeneous and the color is evenly incorporated.

Slowly add in 1/3 of the flour mixture to the batter, mix well, and then add half of the buttermilk, again, mixing well afterward.  Continue to add the other two batches of the flour mixture alternating with the remaining buttermilk, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing well after each addition.  In a small bowl, combine the baking soda and the red wine vinegar, and add the mixture to the batter.  Mix well until the vinegar mixture has been incorporated and the batter is smooth.

Spoon the batter into the cupcake papers or divide it evenly between the three prepared pans.  Bake cupcakes for about 18-20 minutes or until the cakes are just set and are slightly springy to the touch.  Bake 9-inch round cakes for 25-35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out with a few moist crumbs.  Cool cakes in the pans on a cooling rack for 15 minutes before removing from the pans and allowing to cool completely.

White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Ganache

This rich, smooth, slightly whipped ganache is absolutely delicious and was actually slightly favored over the buttercream during the taste tests.  As a ganache, its’ thinner texture is probably better suited for covering cupcakes than for spreading in between layers of a full 9-inch cake.

12 ounces white chocolate chips

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream, divided

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a medium glass bowl containing the white chocolate chips.  As the chocolate is melting, in a seperate,  small, heavy-bottomed saucepan place the softened cream cheese (broken up with a wooden spoon) and the ¼ cup heavy cream.  Put the saucepan over medium-low heat and, constantly whisking, allow the cream cheese to break apart and melt into the heavy cream, being careful to keep it moving and not allow the milk or cheese to curdle.

Once the cream is smooth and hot, add a small amount into the melted chocolate and stir.  If the chocolate beings to seize, the cream is not hot enough.  Return the cream back to the hot stove top, turn the burner on low and don’t panic!  Use an electric mixer to try and smooth out the seized chocolate mixture.  Once the chocolate is as smooth as you can get it and the temperature of the cream mixture is brought up, slowly add small amounts of cream to the chocolate and continue to beat until it has all been added and is beaten into a homogeneous mixture.  Allow the smooth mixture to cool slightly before covering it and refrigerating it overnight.

Once the chocolate-cream cheese mixture has chilled, take it out of the fridge and let it sit out and soften at room temperature.  Once it has become manageable, start to whip the mixture  until desired consistency is achieved,  adding extra heavy cream if necessary.  Slowly add in the confectioners’ sugar and beat until combined.  Depending on the consistency the ganache is whipped to, it can either be piped, spread, or poured onto the cakes or cupcakes, or, the top of the cupcakes can be dunked directly into the bowl of ganache.

Cream Cheese Buttercream

The stiffer texture of this frosting makes it an ideal choice for spreading in between layers of 9-inch layer cakes, or for piping decorative patterns using a pastry bag and tip.

¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature                2 tablespoons heavy cream

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature                                1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 ¼ -4 cups confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, beat together cream cheese and butter until creamy and soft (about 3 minutes).  While mixing on a low speed, slowly add in the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary and continuing to add in the sugar until desired consistency and flavor is achieved.  Drizzle in the heavy cream and vanilla extract and increase the mixer speed to medium-high.  Beat buttercream for another minute or so, or until fluffy.

Transfer to a pastry or plastic zip-lock bag to pipe onto cakes, or, use an angled spatula to spread on cupcakes or on and in between layers of 9-inch cakes.

April 16, 2011

Hometown/New-Town Cherry Celebration

My parents came to DC  for a little visit last week, along with their adorable Japanese exchange student, Yuko, who I fell in love with.  Yuko is staying with my parents in Michigan for a year while she studies English at a nearby University.  When I heard that she’d be accompanying them on their visit, I was thrilled at the opportunity to be able to share with her some of the great beauty and history of America that’s showcased here in DC.  And what better time for a girl from Japan to visit DC than during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the two-week long celebration of the blossoming of the cherry trees galore, a gift given by the Mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC years ago to honor the friendship between the United States and Japan? 

I wanted to bake something special in honor of the Cherry Blossom Festival, and while I was deeply inspired by the exquisite beauty of the cherry trees and their pretty pink blossoms, neither my parents nor Evan care much for cherries.  Now, if we were talking Michigan black cherries, it would be a whole different story.  Found only in Michigan, these dark black cherries are pleasantly sweet-tart and seem to be enjoyed by cherry-lovers and non-cherry-lovers alike.  The only way I knew I could get away with using cherries in a dessert is if I could get my hands on some of these home-grown favorites, which would be nearly impossible seeing as though it is 9+ hour drive from DC to Michigan, where the cherries probably aren’t even in season yet.  I had just about given up on the idea of a cherry dessert for my family, when I randomly stumbled upon a jar of Michigan Black Cherry preserves while shopping one day.  I was overjoyed at the endless possibilities this little jar had to offer, and even more overjoyed when I brought it home, opened it up, tasted, and confirmed that the contents were, in fact, the real deal.

In desserts, cherries are commonly paired with almond flavors.  I chose to challenge myself by making an almond genoise, my first ever attempt at a traditional genoise.  A genoise is a slightly sweet Italian sponge-like cake and is a staple in French pastry.  It uses zero chemical leavening,  only air whipped into the batter to give the cake volume.  It can also be piped into ladyfingers or molded into madelines.  As these cakes can be a little temperamental, I tried two different recipes, just barely altering either (as this was my first attempt), and chose the recipe that yielded the most favorable result.  That is the recipe I will share below.  In between the cake layers, I incorporated a layer of the delicious preserves and a layer of vanilla pastry cream, and topped the whole thing off with a whipped white chocolate and black cherry ganache (as I wouldn’t dare serve my mom any sort of dessert that didn’t include at least some chocolate) the same color as the rosy-pink blooms that grace the District.  The finished product turned out to be a yummy tribute to the city I now call home, paired with the comforting flavors from where I grew up.

Michigan Black Cherry-Blossom Festival Layer Cake

Inspired by: Michigan Black Cherries (and the DC Cherry Blossoms)

Almond Genoise

Barely adapted from Chef De Cuisine’s “Almond Genoise”

-note: this recipe can and should be cut in half and prepared in two batches, as it’s  much easier to incorporate air in the batter when there is less of it.

2/3 cup almond flour (or finely ground almonds)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour

8 large egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons superfine sugar, separated

6 large egg yolks plus 2 whole eggs

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Prepare three 9-inch round cake pans by lining the bottoms with parchment paper, and then buttering and flouring the bottoms and the sides.

Sift together in a medium bowl the cake flour and almond flour.  Set aside.  In a separate, medium bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar to form soft peaks.  Add the 2 tablespoons of sugar while beating.  Set aside.

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a large glass bowl.  Rigorously whisk together egg yolks, whole eggs and sugar in the large bowl over the simmering water.  Beat the mixture continuously until triple in volume, around 8-10 minutes.  Then, turn off the burner and remove bowl from heat.  Fold the egg whites into the egg-sugar mixture.  Slowly and in small batches, sift in the flours fold until incorporated, and then fold in the butter.

Distribute half the batter into one pan, and evenly divide the second half of the batter into each of the other two pans.  You should have one pan with half of the batter in it, and two pans, each with a quarter of the batter in them.  Place them into the preheated oven.  Use only the oven light when checking the cakes, as opening and closing the ovens will reduce the heat and keep the cakes from rising to their full, fluffy volume.  Remove the two pans with the least batter after about 15-20 minutes (or until lightly brown and springy to the touch), and remove the pan with the most batter about 5 or so minutes after.  Really keep an eye on these cakes while they bake so that they don’t overcook and dry out, as a genoise’ tends to be a somewhat dry cake anyway.  Keep the cakes in the pans on wire racks to cool until ready to assemble.

Whipped White Chocolate and Black Cherry Ganache

24 ounces white chocolate chips

1 1/4 cup heavy cream, divided

1/4-1/2 cup Michigan black cherry preserves, or any substitute

-optional: 3-4 drops of red food coloring*

-a mug of very hot water (for decorating)**

Prepare a double boiler fitted with a large glass bowl containing the white chocolate and 1 cup of the heavy cream.  Use a rubber spatula to keep the mixture moving as the chocolate melts.  When bowl is removed from heat and chocolate has melted, allow it to sit at room temperature to cool for a few minutes.  Then, cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

After chocolate ganache has been chilled overnight, remove the bowl from the fridge.  Ganache should be slightly hardened.  Use a wooden spoon or even a knife to break it up a little in the bowl.  Add a couple tablespoons of the heavy cream and the desired amount of cherry preserves to the hardened ganache.  Using an electric mixer, whip the mixture until the chocolate ganache has broken apart by aid of the added liquid and the mixture is homogenous.  If needed or desired, add the remaining two tablespoons of the heavy cream, as well as any more preserves and the red food coloring.  Whip the mixture until soft peaks form, or until desired consistency is achieved.  Do not over-whip the mixtures, as the heavy cream can eventually turn into butter if whipped for too long.

Other Ingredients for Fillings:

1 cup of pastry cream

¾ cup Michigan Black Cherry preserves, or any substitute

Assembly:

First, I like to trim the three cake layers.  I use a cardboard circle or the top of a round Tupperware lid, place it in the center on the top of each cake, and use it as a guide to trim the edges off of the cake with a serrated knife.

Smear a dollop of pastry cream onto the middle of platter or cake plate to secure the cake to the center of the dish.  Place one of the two thinner cake layers upside-down onto the platter, making sure its centered.  Spoon the cherry preserves onto the cake and use an angled spatula to gently spread the preserves into an even layer that reaches all edges of the cake, without cascading down the sides of it.

Next, gently place the thickest layer of cake on top of the layer of preserves, lining it up with the bottom layer as best you can.  Pipe the pastry cream in a circle as close to the outer edge of the cake layer as possible, without allowing it to fall the the sides of the cake.  Spoon the rest of the pastry cream onto the center of the cake, using a spatula to spread the cream into an even layer across the  entire cake.  Place the remaining, thinner cake layer gently atop the pastry cream.

Slide a few strips of parchment paper under the cake, in between the bottom layer of cake  and the cake plate.  This will help to catch any drips without dirtying the plate.  Gently spoon some of the whipped cherry-chocolate ganache onto the assembled cake.  Use a spatula to spread an even layer of the ganache across the cake, covering both the tops and sides.  Smooth out the ganache, pull away and discard the strips of parchment paper from beneath the cake, and serve.

*The whipped ganache is beautiful without the food coloring and can easily be omitted.  In keeping with the theme of the Cherry Blossom Festival, the added color helped me achieve a pink that closely matched the blooms.

**A tip for getting the ganache super smooth after covering the cake:  Dip your metal, angled spatula into a mug of very hot water before spreading every few strokes.  The chocolate in the ganache will soften and smooth out into a pretty, shiny surface.

April 14, 2011

A Short Tale of Shortbread

The economic troubles our country is currently struggling through have been truly devastating to many people.  Many have found themselves being laid off, receiving a pay cut or have had a lot of difficulty finding work at all.  Even those who are fortunate enough to have gotten or held onto a great job may be making the extra effort to spend their money wisely and making a few cutbacks during this difficult time.  It came as no surprise to me when I heard that even the Girl Scouts of America were making some “cookie-cutbacks” in lieu of the economic downturn.  Upon hearing this, being the food lover I am, I immediately had to see which of their cookies were being omitted from the selection this year.  Regardless of the fact that I don’t think I’ve purchased or eaten a girl scout cookie since I was a girl scout myself, over 15 years ago, I was very relieved to see that all of my familiar favorites would still be included in production.

Scanning through the list of the “chosen” cookies that had made it past the cut, my eyes fell upon the ever comforting ‘Trefoil’ cookie.  Yes, Trefoils are good, but compared to something with rich peanut butter cream or something covered in swirls of chocolate and coconut… aren’t they kind of plain?  How had they made the cut?  I’ll tell you why.  Shortbread is a true crowd-pleaser.  Soft or crunchy, cookie or biscuit, salty or sweet, twice baked or raw dough and spoon… everyone likes shortbread.

The reliability and comfort of the Trefoil inspired me to make a sheet of shortbread of my own.  It turned out just as expected, just as always.  It was sweet, salty, buttery, crumbly, and melt in your mouth delicious.  I divided the cookies into a few different packages to pass out to friends, including quite a few for Evan to bring to work the next day.  Needless to say, the dependable shortbread worked its magic again and was a huge hit at his office.  I love the fact that they even acted as a bit of an icebreaker with a couple of his superiors.  And let’s face it.  In this economy, winning a few brownie (shortbread?) points at work can’t hurt.

Reliable Shortbread

Inspired by: “Trefoils” – Girl Scouts of the USA

-adapted from Marie Simmons’ “Cookies,”  Williams-Sonoma Collection Series

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup confectioners’ sugar         -optional: 1 tablespoon coarse salt for sprinkling

½ cup granulated sugar                              -½ cup semisweet or white chocolate

1 teaspoon vanilla extract                           -¼ cup chopped pecans

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

Cover a shallow 9×13 pan with buttered parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter until fluffy and pale yellow.  Add both sugars and continue to beat the mixture until all the sugar is well dissolved.  The mixture should be smooth when rubbed between your thumb and forefinger, not gritty.  Add in the vanilla and continue to beat.

In another large bowl, measure out and sift together the flour and the 2 teaspoons of salt.  Gradually add the sifted mixture into the butter and sugar mixture while mixing on a low speed until crumbly, yet combined.

At this point, I find it helpful to allow the dough to refrigerate for about an hour.  The chilled dough will be much easier to press into your prepared pan then room-temperature dough would be.  Floured fingertips also help to keep the sticky-ness to a minimum.

Once the chilled dough has been pressed into an even layer onto the pan, use a fork to prick holes into the dough wherever you plan to cut the baked cookies.  This scores the dough, making it easier to slice later and helping to ensure that you don’t end up with a crumbly mess.

Sprinkle the pressed, scored dough with the coarse salt, if desired, and place on the middle shelf of  an oven preheated to 300 degrees.  Bake for anywhere from 40-50 minutes, or until desired golden color  has been achieved.  Allow the shortbread to cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before removing them from the pan, peeling away the parchment paper, and returning to the wire rack to cool completely.

Once completely cool, transfer shortbread to counter-top or a large cutting board and slicing along the score lines into desired shapes.  Then, if desired, melt chocolate using a double boiler and drizzle the onto selected cookies.  Sprinkle chopped pecans onto cookies while the chocolate is still warm.  Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

April 8, 2011

Marshmallows & Memories

While students at Michigan State (Go Green!), my roommates, Molly and Ashley, and I developed and embraced a love for everything marshmallow.  Late night marshmallow latte runs were a regular occurrence, bowls of homemade Rice Krispie Treats were shared during movie nights, and birthday cakes were almost always topped with marshmallow frosting.  Molly and I found a bag of marshmallows to be a perfectly suitable substitute for meals, partially because we were broke college students and partially because they are delicious. And it was not uncommon for Ashley and I to cuddle up to a jar of Marshmallow fluff and a couple spoons to start off a Saturday morning.  How the three of us survived four years together without so much as a cavity, I’ll never know.

Now, with Ashley headed to Arizona, Molly in Chicago and me here in DC, celebrations with all three of us sharing birthday cakes with marshmallow frosting will be harder and harder to come by.  Molly and Ashley’s birthdays are a month apart, and I wanted to send them both a little something that they’d love and that would help trigger a few of our fun memories together.  Homemade marshmallows were an obvious choice.  And despite Evan’s comments regarding their appearance, including a comparison to tofu, I think they turned out beautifully.

Homemade Vanilla & Coconut Marshmallows

Inspired by: Marshmallows

-adapted, just a touch, from Dinah Bucholz’s “Marshmallows,”  The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar                    ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ cup cornstarch                                   1 ½ tablespoons pure vanilla extract*

3 envelopes unflavored gelatin             -optional: toasted coconut**

1 cup ice cold water, divided

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

-special tools:  candy thermometer,  a good-quality electric mixer or stand mixer (preferred)***

Line a 9×13 inch pan with parchment paper and coat the parchment with cooking spray.  I used butter-flavored cooking spray, which seemed to really add to the melt-in-your-mouth flavor of the mallows.

In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch.  Sprinkle the mixture onto the lined, greased pan and shake around until bottom and all sides of pan are completely covered with the mixture.  This is important, as the marshmallow will be next to impossible to remove without a well-powdered pan.  Return the remaining cornstarch mixture to the bowl for later use.  If desired, sprinkle the toasted coconut in an even layer on the pan or on a portion of the pan (I did half with and half without).  Set prepared pans aside.

Empty the gelatin into a large mixing bowl along with ½ cup of the water.  Have the whisk attachment of the stand mixer or an electric mixer standing by.  In a small saucepan, whisk together the remaining ½ cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place over medium-high heat, cover and allow to cook for 3 to 4 minutes.  Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees.  For an accurate reading, the thermometer should be well-submerged in the liquid, but not touching the bottom of the saucepan. My mixture hit 240 after about 7 or 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

Turn the mixer on low speed and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and is lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the vanilla during the last minute of whipping and let it incorporate.  

At that point, pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan.  Do your best to pour it evenly onto the pan.  I found that the more I tried to spread it or messed with it, the less smooth and whimsical it looked.  Using a flour sifter, dust the top with enough of the remaining cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later. Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and peel back and discard the parchment paper.  Using a pizza wheel dusted with the cornstarch mixture, cut the marshmallows into squares.  Once cut, lightly dust all sides of each marshmallow with the remaining mixture, using additional if necessary. Marshmallows can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

*I’m not normally a stickler for the fanciest, most expensive ingredients, but I would suggest using a higher quality, pure vanilla extract for this recipe.  Upon researching candy-makers’ experiences with marshmallow, it seemed to be the trend that if poor quality or too little vanilla was used, the marshmallows had a funny gelatin taste.  For this reason, I bumped up the vanilla from the suggested tablespoon, to a tablespoon and a half and was happy with the result.
**To toast coconut, sprinkle desired amount of shredded or flaked sweetened coconut in a thin layer onto a cookie sheet lined with tin foil.  Place in a 300 degree oven for about 13-15 minutes, tossing the coconut and checking on it every 4-5 minutes, as it browns fairly quickly.  When finished, it should be fragrant, lightly crisp and a pale, golden color.
***Another common trend that I found upon researching the horror stories of mallow-making was the misconception that an electric mixer that “has seen better days” would suffice for this project.  It seems that many an aspiring marshmallow-maker were left with a burnt-out electric mixer halfway through whipping and, sadly, never got to complete the process or enjoy the finished product. –Now, I must admit, I have an unjustified attitude problem when it comes to stand mixers (I have this crazy idea that using one takes away from all the fun).  So far, in my years of baking, I’ve refused to touch one.  I know that one day, probably not too far from now, I’ll cave and buy one and probably fall in love with it, but for now, I put my faith in my high-powered handheld mixer.  Long story short, make sure that your mixer is up for the task!  Luckily, mine ended up to be a “Little Mixer That Could.” -Special thanks to Kim Botsford, who supplied me with that electric mixer just over a year ago : )