Sunday, January 17, 2010

For no reason at all

Yesterday I made myself a chocolate layer cake for no reason at all.

I hardly ever make a cake for myself; I wait until a special occasion, then make a cake for someone else. Which is ridiculous, if you think about it. Do I not deserve a delicious cake? Even when it's not my birthday? So yesterday, when I was drooling over a photo of a chocolate layer cake in one of my favorite cookbooks, waxing poetic about how badly I wanted a slice, Husband said, "You know, you do know how to bake. Why don't you make yourself one?"

Well, duh. It was a revelation. The cold winter sky opened; angels began to sing. And I started chopping chocolate.

Donna Hay's layered chocolate fudge cake is nothing if not rich, and nothing if not rustic. The luscious photograph that accompanies the recipe shows a four-layer cake spread with frosting between the layers and on top -- but not around the cake's chocolatey sides. They are left unfrosted, naked, for all the salivating eaters to see. Beguiling, really.

The cake itself is deeply flavored with chocolate, with a texture that veers into genoise/sponge-cake territory. It achieves its modest lift from vigorously beaten eggs and a modest amount of flour. The recipe does not call for salt, though as I think of it the recipe calls for "butter" -- not "unsalted butter" -- and I'm thinking it might be possible that Australians would use salted butter in the cake. (My edition of the cookbook was published in Australia.) My knee-jerk reaction is always to use unsalted butter in baked goods, so I might have missed the salt boat here (though I certainly made up for it with a sprinkling of fleur de sel atop the finished cake). But no matter, the cake was marvelous and maybe next time -- just for comparison's sake, you know -- I'll go the salted butter route.

As far as the fudge filling goes, I used it as an opportunity to cobble together 12 oz. of random bits and pieces of chocolate left over from previous baking adventures -- orphaned chunks of chocolate that were just hanging out in the pantry, waiting for their chance to play a starring dessert role. It was quite satisfying, chucking butter and cream together with semi-sweet Nestle chips and a hunk of semi-sweet Valrhona and several squares of bittersweet Ghirardelli and a few rectangles of Hershey's dark chocolate to make the filling. It was a scene, man.

And even though I had made the cake for myself, I did end up sharing it with family. Sister's 142nd birthday is this week, and we went out last night to celebrate. I will be baking a proper chocolate-hazelnut cake for her birthday tomorrow. But last night, after her birthday dinner, it seemed silly not to use this rustic layer cake as a sort of precursor to her formal birthday. Which is how Younger Nephew ended up sitting in my kitchen, covered in frosting, fork in hand, stating that the chocolate -- like everything else sweet in my kitchen -- was "HIS" and his alone.

Not exactly what I envisioned when I set out greedily and piggishly to make a cake for myself. But as with everything else in life, chocolate cake is always sweeter when you can share it with someone you love. Even if that person doesn't really want to share.


Adapted from Flavours, by Donna Hay

For the cake:
2 1/2 oz. unsalted butter
1 t. vanilla extract
8 eggs
1 1/3 c. sugar
2/3 c. cocoa powder
1 c. all-purpose flour

For the fudge filling:
12 oz. semi-sweet or dark chocolate, chopped
3/4 c. heavy cream
5 oz. unsalted butter
Pinch kosher salt

Optional but totally delicious topping:
A hearty pinch of fleur de sel

First, make the fudge filling. Place the chocolate, heavy cream, butter and salt in a medium heat-proof bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water and allow everything to melt, stirring occasionally to combine the ingredients. Remove from the heat and refrigerate until cool.

While the filling is cooling, make the cakes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line the bottom of 2 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper.

Melt the 2 1/2 oz. butter and vanilla in a small saucepan over low heat, then set aside to cool slightly.

Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 8 minutes, or until the mixture is light and creamy and tripled in bulk.

Sift the cocoa powder and the flour twice, then sift it into the egg mixture.

(Those cocoa chunks up there just go to show that sifting once is not enough.)

(Double-sifted and lovely.)

Add the butter mixture to the batter and fold gently with a spatula until the batter just comes together. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 25 minutes, until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans. Cool in the pans. Cut each cake horizontally into 2 layers.

When the filling is cool and somewhat stiff, remove it from the refrigerator and transfer into the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the filling until it is light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times.

To assemble the cake, place one layer of the cake on a serving plate and spread with the filling. Repeat with the remaining cake layers and the remaining fudge filling. If using, sprinkle the top of the cake with fleur de sel.

Serves 10-12.


A little taste of what's come before:

One year ago: cheddar-Pecorino biscotti
Two years ago: Ma Chris salad

Thursday, January 14, 2010


A few days ago, friends, A Stove With A House Around It turned two.


It is hard to believe that two whole years have elapsed since that dull evening in January 2008 when I decided that I was too creatively and culinarily pent-up to continue without some sort of outlet. And so I wrote on that day,
"Always a fan of metaphor (and hyperbole), this blog represents the overwhelming importance of food in my life -- to the exclusion of shelter itself. Kidding. Maybe."

Well, considering we do have several roof issues that cause troubling leaks every winter -- and I am instead dreaming of how exactly I wish to use our limited resources to remodel our perfectly serviceable kitchen -- it looks like my manifesto was right on the money. And though I originally envisioned this space as dedicated mostly to the recipes and memories of my youth, it has happily evolved into a record of the food, people, places and experiences that make up the day-to-day
fabric of my life. It has been my pleasure sharing it all with you, and I hope you've enjoyed yourself here. After all, without you, there is just a lot of echoing in this space as my lonely words bounce off the heading and the sidebar.

So. How to acknowledge this second birthday? I could bake a cake. But I have a feeling I'll be doing that this weekend, as Sister turns, like, 90 or something. No. I think I'll make some pretzels. As I did last year at this time to celebrate birthday #1. Yes. I believe I shall make birthday pretzels a yearly tradition: each year this blog grows a little older, I'll share another pretzel recipe I've found. Because I do believe a full life is one lived in the presence of many pretzel recipes.

For your second birthday, little blog, I've made you some of Alton Brown's hot pretzels. Just about everything Alton makes is a win and you, my HTML progeny, deserve the best. (And, yes, these beat last year's Martha Stewart recipe by leaps and bounds, in terms of crusty browned flavor and soft yeasty interior). So sidle up to the kitchen counter and help yourself to some yeasty, salty goodness.

And happy birthday.


Adapted from Alton Brown

1 1/2 c. warm water (110-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1 T. sugar
2 t. kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling over the pretzels
2 1/2 t. instant yeast
22 oz. all-purpose flour (about 4 1/2 c.)
2 oz. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
Olive oil, for bowl
Non-stick spray, for pan
10 c. water
2/3 c. baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 T. water

Combine the water, sugar and 2 t. kosher salt in the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Whisk together to dissolve the sugar and then let stand until the mixture bubbles and foams, about 5 minutes.

Add the flour and butter to the yeast mixture. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and mix on low speed until the dough comes together. Then switch to medium speed and knead until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl and forms a ball, approximately 4-5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, then coat the bowl with a few teaspoons of olive oil. Return the dough to the bowl, rolling to coat it in oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm spot in the kitchen until the dough doubles in size, 50-55 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, then spray with non-stick spray (or brush with olive or vegetable oil). Set aside.

Bring the 10 c. of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in a large pot.

While the water comes to a boil, turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope then, holding the ends of the rope, cross the ends over each other and press into the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place the formed pretzels onto the parchment-lined baking sheets.

(Even Husband makes pretzels.)

Place the pretzels in the boiling water, one at a time, for 30 seconds each. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula, letting as much of the water drain away as possible.

Return the boiled pretzels to the parchment-lined baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the egg yolk and water mixture, then sprinkle with kosher salt.

Bake until the pretzels are a deep golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 large, gorgeous hot pretzels.


Gee Dianne, what were you cooking in years past?

One year ago: pan-fried tofu with spicy lemongrass sauce
Two years ago: chocolate chip cake

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It is January 10, and I am going to make some caramel corn

Ah, the new year.


Ah, the first few weeks of January. When everyone is eating light, kicking off weight-loss resolutions, trying to be healthy. Martha Stewart is trying to get us to eat kombu in a clay pot; Alton Brown is pushing sardines and avocado on toast. (To be fair, Alton looks amazing. And his "lists" of how much of which types of food to eat per week really are quite sensible. And his smoothies are tasty.) Hell, even Rachael Ray is slinging low-cal halibut in parchment ("FISH IN A SACK!"). Beware, however. All this good health has a definite shelf-life, and it starts to go bad right around the end of the NFL playoffs.

Now, I am no fan of resolutions. But even if I was, the way I see it, we all have until roughly Super Bowl Sunday to follow through with our new good habits. Because the minute The Food Network switches from its "healthy eating" promos to its "GET READY FOR THE BIG GAME HERE ARE SOME JALAPENO POPPERS!" ads, you can kiss those resolutions goodbye. The new year's good intentions are replaced by football party snack food: a gridiron of guacamole, spread on a platter and striped with sour cream yard lines...chicken wings...spinach dip...Tostitos. Super Bowl Sunday is the end of a short-lived resolution season, followed as it is by luscious baked goods for Valentine's Day, then green beer and corned beef in March, then dozens of chocolate Easter eggs in April. You get my point.

So I say, to hell with it all. It is January 10, and I am going to make some caramel corn.

This is the caramel corn of my youth, which I don't think I've had since my youth. But a romp through Mom's recipe box on New Year's Eve (I really know how to party) unearthed this gem and awakened in me a long-suffering hankering for caramel corn that I didn't even know I had. The recipe comes from my childhood neighbors, the Chases. They were awesome, and so was their corn. It's sweet and a little bit salty, laced with a deep brown-sugary flavor and spiked with big pecan shards. It's a perfect snack on a lazy, frigid Sunday afternoon in January, when the television ads say "Weight Watchers" but your growling stomach says "no thanks."

Never let it be said that my priorities aren't in line.



8 c. popped popcorn (feel free to use microwave popcorn, just choose a "lite" variety without a lot of added flavorings)
1 1/2 c. raw pecans, very coarsely chopped
3/4 c. light brown sugar
6 T. unsalted butter
3 T. light corn syrup
1/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. baking soda
1/4 t. pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the popped popcorn and pecans on an 11" x 17" rimmed baking sheet lined with a Silpat.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to combine the ingredients. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes without stirring.

Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla. Pour the mixture over the popcorn and pecans and stir well with a spatula, covering as much of the popcorn with the brown sugar mixture as possible.

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir. Bake for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and stir one last time with a spatula, coating the popcorn as evenly as possible. Cool, and happily consume.

Makes 8 cups of caramel corn.