Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yellow Cake and Fudge Frosting

I love birthday cake. I really do. Making it AND eating it (of course). And I love feeding my friends. So if I ever offer to make a cake for you, do not feel obligated to accept my offer, but do know that it is a sincere gesture of friendship.

Having grown up in the home that I grew up in, I can't help but to see food as love, and a birthday is a natural occasion for this expression of affection. Just mention "rainbow jello"* around my mom, and you'll suddenly have this appear on your birthday:

Somehow this jello developed into a birthday tradition in our family, and I can't argue with having another dessert like this in addition to cake on any occasion. Plus it's so pretty! Add this to the fact that I have a brother who at the age of 5 turned down playing games at a birthday party with the remark "I just came for the cake," and you know that birthday desserts are essential in our family.

Anyways, this digression on rainbow jello really is meant to illustrate the relationship of food to affectionate birthday celebrations in my life. A friend's birthday happened this past week, and since she took me up on my offer of a cake and told me what kind she likes, I got to make one!

This yellow cake comes from smitten kitchen, a blog that has given me consistently great recipes. The blogger raved about this as THE yellow cake recipe to have, so I had to give it a try. I'm hard to please when it comes to cakes made from scratch, which means that I only try a cake recipe when I've been convinced that it will turn out well.

I liked this yellow cake; it is fairly firm, but not dry, and has a nice vanilla flavor. I LOVED the frosting, though, so I most definitely would make that again. It's basically a buttercream icing with melted unsweetened chocolate added in, but it has great chocolate flavor and fluffy texture. The perfect match for yellow cake.

Yellow Cake
from smitten kitchen

Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake

4 C plus 2 T cake flour (not self-rising)
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks (1 C) unsalted butter, softened
2 C sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 C buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter or spray with cooking spray cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter or spray and flour parchment.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Fudge Frosting

Makes about 5 C (more than enough to frost a 2-layer 9" cake)

6 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
4 1/2 C confectioners’ sugar (no need to sift)
3 sticks (12 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 T half-and-half or whole milk
1 T vanilla extract

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse to incorporate, then process until the frosting is smooth. Alternatively, cream all ingredients together with a hand or stand mixer until smooth.

Frosting tips: Be careful on hot days to make sure the frosting isn't getting melty; if it's getting soft as you are frosting the cake, you can stick the cake and the bowl of frosting into the fridge to firm up before you continue frosting. It's also a good idea to freeze cakes before frosting them in order to prevent crumbs from coming off the cake as you frost it, and to keep the frosting cool.

If you're planning to write on the cake, you can combine all of the frosting ingredients except the melted chocolate in the food processor or mixer until smooth. Set aside a half-cup of the white frosting for tinting and writing, then add the chocolate to finish making the frosting.

Happy birthday celebrations to all!

* For those who are judgmental about gelatin-based desserts, I must say that:
1. My Scandinavian family has midwestern roots which requires holiday jello consumption, and my Californian Chinese side enjoys some good jello from time to time. It's not my favorite thing, but this rainbow jello and jello with some good fruit in it definitely are nice sometimes.
2. There is a long tradition of using gelatin in desserts in French cuisine (see my posts on gelatin sheets here and here), which many would see as "refined." There are some light and fluffy desserts that are very difficult to stabilize without some kind of gelatin.
3. This layered jello takes more skill than most jello dishes. See how even those layers are? Doesn't happen on its own.
4. Gelatin is necessary to make good marshmallows, and I couldn't live without those!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

S'more Cookie Bars

There are a lot of attempts out there to bring the magic of s'mores to the dessert table, but in my opinion this one makes the most successful bid! A colleague of mine made them at the beginning of the academic year, and they were a hit in the office. She passed me the recipe this week in time for a bake sale, and they are the perfect bake sale item - simple to make, easy to transport, and popular with everyone.

These bars have got buttery graham cracker layers that encase Hershey's chocolate bars and marshmallow fluff, the very essence of the s'more. Once you bake it, all the goodness melts together and gets happy. I only gave these away because they were for a good cause!

These are from the blog The Crepes of Wrath, which has fabulous step-by-step photos. I made 8"x8" pans, but I like the idea she had of a 9"x13" pan with this recipe multiplied by 1.5. This means thinner dough in proportion to the fillings, which I think would be nice. Give it a whirl, why not?

S'more Cookie Bars

1/2 C (one stick) butter, room temperature
1/4 C brown sugar
1/2 C sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/3 C all purpose flour
3/4 C graham cracker crumbs (about 8 graham crackers)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 king-sized milk chocolate bars
1 1/2 C marshmallow creme/fluff (not melted marshmallows) - about one regular jar

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and/or line an 8-inch square baking pan (or 9x13 if you're 1.5-ing the recipe).

2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light. Beat in egg and vanilla.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture and mix at a low speed until combined. Divide dough in half and press half of dough into an even layer on the bottom of the prepared pan.

4. Place chocolate bars over dough (2 king-sized Hershey’s bars should fit perfectly side by side, but break the chocolate if necessary to get it to fit in a single layer no more than 1/4 inch thick).

5. Spread the marshmallow fluff over the chocolate.

6. Place remaining dough in a single layer on top of the fluff (most easily achieved by flattening the dough into small shingles or panels and laying them together).

7. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool completely before cutting into bars.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Basic Muffin Recipe: Almond Apricot, Coffee Chocolate Chip, and Banana Nut Spice

Got up one morning on a rainy holiday, and what did I do? Made muffins. It would have been hard not to do, honestly. Now that I'm back on a baking kick, free time means recipe time, and a rainy day said comfort food to me.

I realized that I don't actually make muffins that often, so the consistency of the batter felt a little foreign to me. This is a really thick, dense batter, which results in dense, moist muffins. The density also meant that the muffins didn't rise that much, but being used to cupcakes that rise a lot, I didn't put quite enough batter in each muffin mold to make muffin tops. I think I would almost want to call these tea cakes rather than muffins given the texture, but muffins come in all manner of varieties - some batters are thick, some are thin, some are almost cake. Still, they turned out well, and were lovely right out of the oven with a cup of tea.

For Christmas I received the relatively new baking cookbook from America's Test Kitchen, an enterprise that produces classic recipes, all well-tested and excellently explained. I decided to make this muffin recipe because it can be a basis for a number of versions, including the two I picked: Almond Apricot, Coffee Chocolate Chip, and Banana Nut Spice. The almond apricots and banana spice were definitely my favorites, since a coffee-flavored muffin seemed a little redundant to me (do you want to eat something coffee-flavored with your coffee?).

So here you go! Sub in your own add-ins (extracts, zest, dried fruits, nuts, etc.) for those given:

Basic Muffin Recipe
from Big Beautiful Muffins in The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

3 C flour
1 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C whole or non-fat plain yogurt (I used Greek)
2 large eggs
8 T (one stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Almond Apricot: add 1/2 tsp almond extract to the yogurt mixture, fold 1 C finely diced apricots into the final batter, and sprinkle a few sliced almonds over the muffins before baking.
Coffee Chocolate Chip: add 3 T instant coffee or espresso to the yogurt mixture, fold 1 C semisweet chocolate chips into the final batter.
Banana Nut Spice: add 1/2 tsp nutmeg and 1 tsp cinnamon to the dry ingredients, fold 1 1/2 C finely diced banana and 1/2 walnut bits into the final batter, and sprinkle cinnamon sugar liberally over the muffins before baking.

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 12-mold muffin tin. Try to not use muffin papers - this causes them to be paler and not rise as much, plus the papers stick to the muffins.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt and eggs together until smooth (plus any add-ins for this stage). Gently fold the yogurt mixture into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula until just combined, then fold in the melted butter (and any add-ins for this stage).

3. Portion the batter into each muffin cup equally (should make 12). Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out with just a few crumbs attached, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through baking. Mini muffins will take more like 15 minutes.

4. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then flip out onto a wire rack, and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Cakes and a Vientisietera: Tres Leches and Strawberry Cakes

There's nothing like a viewing of Julie and Julia to revive my desire to cook! Earlier this week I watched it while sick at home, and as my head cold fades away, I am left suddenly without a voice, but still inspired to create beautiful food. Thankfully I had a birthday party to bake for, so my creative juices have had a place to flow.

This particular birthday party was a wanna-be quinceanera for my 27-year-old friend, who has always wanted to have a quinceanera and decided to just throw one for herself this year. I mention this, #1, because it is funny, and #2, because it puts these cakes in context. I've only been to one real quinceanera, so my experience is limited, but my impression of it was a traditional, family-oriented, and overwhelmingly feminine celebration. The cakes that emerged from the party scheming this week are very appropriate to the occasion: traditional Latin American Tres Leches Cake, and girly-pink strawberry cake. Pretty pink and white, and oh so sweet.

I ended up making the strawberry cake from a mix because I was still somewhat sick (don't worry, I didn't cough on the cakes, and wore food prep gloves while cooking), but I made Alton Brown's Tres Leches recipe, and it came out really well! Despite the fact that it was spelled "Tres Leche" on the Food Network website, which belies its authentic result. I'm not usually a fan of cakes or breads soaked in liquid, but I did like this cake - it was refreshing and moist, as one guest said, and not too sweet. I halved the original amount of sugar in the whipped cream, and added some Vietnamese cinnamon per the comments on the original recipe, and it was just right. Sorry I didn't get any photos of the Tres Leches cake, but I did decorate it with sweet peas just like the cupcakes.

You absolutely MUST make this cake a day ahead, because it takes that long for the cake to absorb the liquid. Don't freak out when the thing is swimming in the liquid at first - it will soak in. I haven't played with using reduced-fat milk products in this, but let me know if you do!

Tres Leches Cake

Vegetable oil to grease the pan
6 3/4 oz. (a little less than 1 1/2 C) cake flour, plus extra for pan
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 oz. (half a cube or 1/4 C) unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. (~ 1 C + 1 T) sugar
5 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the glaze:
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half
optional: 1/4 tsp cinnamon

For the topping:
2 C heavy cream
4 oz. sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil and flour a 13 by 9-inch metal pan and set aside.

Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.

Place the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until fluffy, approximately 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. This will appear to be a very small amount of batter. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F.

Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork, very thoroughly. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half (and cinnamon if desired) in a 1-quart measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake. Refrigerate the cake overnight.

Place the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk together on low until stiff peaks are formed. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Extraordinary Desserts

Before I get back into recipe schemes (which will be soon, I promise!), I have to share this amazing bakery with you. I heard so much about Extraordinary Desserts before visiting San Diego that I KNEW I had to drop by there on my next trip. It did not disappoint! In fact, I believe I can pinpoint my lunch at Extraordinary as the turning point of my weekend - the point at which it turned for the better, that is!

"Lunch" is a term I'm using loosely here to mean "food I ate at some point between my first food of the day and later food of the day," since I spent the weekend staying up until 4 or 5 am each night, getting up at 10 or 11 am each morning, and eating as I got hungry. This is life as a blues dancer! Dancing is the other hobby I do by night, but clearly it is not incompatible with being a food lover.

So lunch last Saturday was a caramelized chocolate bun and a Linzer danish - such a happy lunch. I shared both with my brother, and we couldn't even finish the two between us; lunch leftovers happily became pre-dance dessert that night.

All of the items in the dessert displays at Extraordinary were visually stunning. I've heard them called masterpieces by some of my friends, and I absolutely agree - each one is beautifully composed, with well-placed fresh flowers and gold leaf. Just as importantly, the tastes and textures were pleasing and unique.

The caramelized chocolate bun intrigued me with its name, but I really had no idea what to expect from it. After removing its rose petal hat (which I suppose you could eat) from a head of ganache and chocolate curls, we delved in to discover that the bun of puff pastry encompassed a mass of melted chocolate which was caramelized on its surface. I'm guessing it was touched with a tad of Grand Marnier, since it had a little orange tinge to the flavor. The process of eating it involved attempting to get a taste of each part of the bun in each bite (ganache, chocolate curl, puff pastry, and caramelized chocolate). I do not know HOW they caramelized the inner chocolate, but I loved the results. That chocolate solidified by the time we finished the bun later, but it was still quite tasty.

The Linzer danish was my bro's choice; I wouldn't have picked it myself, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The bottom pastry layer was a little too thick for our plastic forks (nicely provided at the checkout counter), but it had nice consistency, and the altogether effect of pastry with raspberry jam and thick icing ribbons was really great. A simple pastry, but I didn't want to stop eating it!

We also got a taste of this Apple Alscasienne that we got for our hosts for the weekend, and it was good even though it was served cold the following day.

Next time, gotta try the cakes; they're more expensive than our choices this time (about $5 apiece) but are larger and look exquisite. I've also heard that the savory menu is very worthwhile, particularly the paninis, so I need to plan to be more hungry and more ready to take a nap. Thanks to all the friends who tipped me off to this gem!