Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cookie Dough Cake

This is a great cake. A great cake. Let me tell you why.

First, it's homemade. There's no box involved. That means the cake will have a cake-like texture to it, rather than a pile of crumbs. It will be moist and soft, but it will stay in one piece when you lift a forkful to your anxious mouth. And in case you don't already know, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. You know how box cakes take 5 minutes to put together? Homemade cakes take 10-20 minutes, tops, even the difficult ones, and this one isn't a difficult one. Ask yourself: do you have an extra 10 minutes to spare for a cake that is 10 times better?

Second, it's guiltless. Well, for cake, it's guiltless, since I wouldn't bother with a dessert that is flavorless or falls flat on your tongue. It's quite light, using only one stick (4 oz.) of butter in the cake and another 3 oz. of butter in the frosting. In fact, I had a second piece later on in the evening and had no guilt whatsoever. I did, I admit, have a light dinner.

Most importantly, it is delicious! It's a brown sugar cake (that may be a term I just made up), and tastes more of brown sugar and vanilla than anything else, just like chocolate chip cookie dough (before you add the chips). And there are few things as good as a bite of chocolate chip cookie dough.

So, when I concocted this batter and tasted it, I decided it needed to have a good chocolate chip-type frosting. Chocolate ganache had been on my list, but I'm relieved to say I was out of cream, or it would have been too heavy for the cake. I tweaked a basic ganache recipe to come up with something lighter and voilà! The perfect match.

It's all the goodness of eating a chocolate chip cookie when you're craving cake.

In the recipe, you'll see a couple of options in the brown sugar arena. This is because I have some of the world's most fantastic sugar, Billington's Dark Brown Molasses Sugar. I bought it at our Co-op, but a lot of organic grocery stores carry it. It's not remotely similar to dark brown sugar because there is so much more depth of flavor. Anyhow, if you don't have it, it's nothing to get carried away about, because I've provided you with a suitable alternative.

Also, for the chocolate, I used Guittard bittersweet chunks that I have on hand, and they are 67% cacao, meaning they're quite dark, but not inedible straight from the bin. I'll just assume you need some alternative suggestions. I'd certainly recommend getting some E. Guittard bars in the baking section of the grocery store, something between 60% and 70% cacao, but the Lindt 70% bar would also do nicely as would the Ghirardelli 60% cacao (formerly double chocolate) chips. I would classify this cake as "non-fancy" but "worth your time" and get the Ghirardelli chips myself, had I not had the perfectly-suited Guittard chunks already available. Semisweet chips and bars are also an option, but I'm not a huge fan of semisweet as they're too sugary for me.

Best of luck in your cake-baking. I'm sure you'll love it!

Cookie Dough Cake

2 c. all-purpose flour, fluffed before measuring
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. (4 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 c. brown sugar + 2 T. molasses sugar + 3/4 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar
OR 1 1/2 c. dark brown sugar + 1 1/2 t. molasses
3 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 c. sour cream

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3 oz. (6 T.) unsalted butter
5 oz. (about 2/3 c.) milk

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Spray two 9" or 8" round cake pans (I used 9"), line the bottoms with parchment paper, spray again, and dust with flour.

Next, you're going to need whipped egg whites, so I recommend doing that right off the bat if you've got a stand mixer. Place the egg whites in the bowl and whip on high until medium to stiff peaks form, but do not overmix and end up with dry peaks. Remove the whites to another bowl and keep a whisk handy.

Wipe out your mixing bowl, then add the butter and beat until fluffy and the sugars and beat again until fluffy, scraping down the sides. Mix in the egg yolks and vanilla.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Gently alternate mixing the flour and sour cream into the batter, starting and ending with the flour. Then gently fold in about a third of the egg whites to lighten the batter, then fold in the remaining two-thirds until fully incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until golden and just starting to brown around the edges (like a cookie) and the cake holds its own and springs back when pressed lightly in the center, 30-35 minutes for 9" pans and probably 35-40 minutes for 8" pans.

Cool 5-10 minutes then remove from pans. Cool completely before frosting.

For frosting, melt the butter and chocolate slowly together (microwave is fine if you're careful), stirring every 30 seconds. When completely melted and stirred together, heat the milk to lukewarm and whisk it into the chocolate. Chill until cold, then stir vigorously to lighten the consistency. Divide evenly between the tops of the two layers when frosting. Or double the frosting recipe if you want to cover the entire cake. Serve.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

For Valentine's Day this year, I made chocolate truffles (as gifts for my family) and crème brûlée for dessert (see here for recipe). Mark and Emily are making dinner (hamburgers and cole slaw), and I am so excited. Not only do I love hamburgers and cole slaw, but I love it when someone else makes dinner. I know - that sounds crazy. Of course, since I love to cook, I want to cook every single night for dinner without ever an evening off and be terribly creative and nutritional at the same time. Believe it.

The milk chocolate truffles have a milk chocolate ganache filling in them, some of them nearly runny, others just a bit firmer with a touch of honey. The dark chocolate truffles have a peanut butter chocolate ganache inside. They're no good. Not at all. I haven't sampled more than one, and I'll probably throw them all out. Who likes chocolate anyway?

The crème brûlée (I can now make all those funny marks like ´,`, and ˆ with keyboard shortcuts, since I recently learned them, and I'm so very excited about that!) baked up perfectly and I can't wait to dip my spoon into one. I cooked them just until they were barely set in the middle - not watery-looking when I bumped it, more like firm jell-o. And I prepared them in very shallow dishes, while I usually use deeper ramekins, so I'm excited about that, too, because it means more surface area and more crunchy, caramelized sugar.

Hope you're all having a great Valentine's Day and enjoying a little chocolate or cream!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creamy Corn and Zucchini Soup with Sourdough Bread

Yesterday I made bread again. (I did warn you.) This time, I made Pain de Campagne from Daniel Leader's Local Breads, except I made it with all regular bread flour, rather than adding a bit of rye and whole wheat. It's made from a sourdough starter, a liquid levain, which only took a week to be fully ready to use. Not bad, really.

I was pretty pleased with the turnout this time, but it was interesting along the way. I'd heard that sourdough rises late - meaning it sits around the first half of the rising time and then gets on its way - but it was still unexpected. During the second rise, after my loaves were shaped, I didn't notice much change in height. I'd been careful not to let too much of the gas release when I shaped them into loaves, but I expected something to go on in the next hour and a half. It may be a bit difficult to see from the picture, but these loaves are not very tall...maybe an inch or so. After leaving them for even longer than the suggested 1 to 1 1/2 hours, I decided to go for it and accept my failure if nothing happened in the oven.

During the first 3 minutes of oven time, it's really important to introduce as much steam as possible to the bread. This keeps the top of the bread from forming a crust too early, which allows it to rise longer. Often, I can literally watch the bread rising during this period, which I find absolutely fascinating. I still had some hope that my sourdough would jump up during these first few minutes and I wouldn't have to stick my head in the sand, but after the final introduction of steam, I still hadn't seen more than maybe a quarter inch rise in the oven. So discouraging. I walked away.

Five minutes later, I returned to two lovely, tall loaves. Not Empire State Building tall, of course, but it wasn't that kind of a loaf. They'd somehow risen after I walked away, probably intentionally waiting for me to turn my back. It was a nice surprise.

Like all good sourdoughs, the bread has a very chewy, connected feel. Substantial yet well-risen. Lots more good holes that the last loaf, too, which was a result from long rises as well as making slits in the top. If you don't make slits in the top, the membrane of the upper crust suppresses the leavening inside, while slits will allow it to jump up in certain areas, creating a less uniform rise. Just what I was looking for. I'll have to try that with the Ciabatta again, where I hope to find a more dramatic increase. I can't wait.

Now to the soup.

Since I keep making bread, unless I want to eat myself to death, I need some lighter meals. Soup is the obvious choice, especially being a girl. I found inspiration from Rick Bayless (not really surprising, is it?). He has a lovely recipe in Mexican Kitchen which I didn't follow whatsoever but was a really good inspiration. My sister Michele recommended it to me, and it involves blending corn and milk together and straining them, which is the only part of the recipe I was interested in, based mainly on what was available in my house.

Being a lover of creamy soups, this hit the spot without being too heavy or too starchy. It's slightly thick naturally, sweet, and simple enough. And to top it all off, it's really good made with frozen corn (choose a quality product, please), though I'm sure it's wonderful with fresh corn. So here's the recipe, though I'll admit right off that I didn't measure everything out exactly out, but the measurements should be quite close.

Creamy Corn and Zucchini Soup

1 1/2 T. olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 serrano chiles, chopped
5 cups sweet corn, thawed if frozen
5 cups whole milk (it won't be really creamy unless you use whole milk...at least go for 2%)
1/2 c. chicken broth (if you have it around...you could leave this out or add more milk)
2 medium zucchini, chopped into 1/2" squares
Kosher salt

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the celery, garlic, and chiles. Sauté for about 5 minutes with a pinch of salt, until softened and the garlic is quite fragrant (slightly roasty), but not burnt.

Set the pan off the heat, then scoop the sautéed ingredients out of the saucepan, leaving the oil behind, and place them in the blender along with the corn and 3 cups of milk (you may need to do this in two stages as your blender will be quite full). Blend until smooth.

Set the saucepan over medium heat and set a strainer over the saucepan. Pour the blended corn mixture back into the saucepan, straining it as you go, and stirring the mixture back into the oil to keep it from burning. Bring to a simmer. Simmer for one minute and season with salt. Add the zucchini and continue to cook, just barely simmering, until the zucchini is done to desired consistency.

Serve. Tonight!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Artisan Bread

Aaaagh! I feel like my blogging life, along with my exercise life (save for a day or two of skiing) is slipping away from me! No one warned me that having three kids meant I'd sacrificed all my personal time. Oh, well. At least they're cute.

You may suppose from my lack of posts that I haven't taken the time to explore all the pantry has to offer lately. Au contraire! Actually, I have been investigating one of my favorite mysteries: artisan bread. Let me first explain what I mean by "artisan", since it's such an overused term these days. Artisan bread is typically handmade bread, often old-world style, often taking two days to two weeks to make. When I use the term, I just mean I'm trying to make bread that reminds me of the type I'd buy in Europe if I ever traveled there. (Aaah...someday.) And let me say...I think I'm getting pretty darn close.

I have two major resources that I'm using these days. The first is The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, and it has been a very educational book thus far. (Not surprising, since Reinhart is an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. I've read most of the information in the beginning 100 pages of the book, and it has been an incredible learning experience. While I am continually reading cookbooks and learning all I can about food in general, there is so much technical information on bread out there that I have been completely in the dark until now, and I am only beginning to come into a bit of light. It's very exciting. The second resource, which I'll write more about later, is Bread Alone by Daniel Leader. I haven't read as much of his informative information yet but have already delved into the world of pre-starters in Leader's book and am completely taken in. There is just so much to be learned about yeast, fermentation, carmelization, humidity, temperature, and all kinds of flours, and the books are so well-written that I feel as though I'm learning it in their kitchens. Of course, it helps that I'm working on these recipes as I go along.

Anyhow, pictured at the top of this post is the Ciabatta that I made from Peter Reinhart's formula. It's not really too involved, comparatively speaking: it only takes two days to create an amazing bread. It's wonderfully spongy and springy in texture and the flavor is simple but balanced. My only real complaint about my results is that it didn't have the large, gaping, non-uniform holes throughout the bread, though it rose very well. Still, I'm not too broken-hearted; I already told you I haven't yet finished all the instructional reading, and I'm just really getting into experimenting with my doughs, but I plan on resolving this issue. If anyone knows the answer, feel free to let me know...

In any case, I'll keep you updated on how the bread baking is going. Right now I have two perfectly usable, ready-to-go sourdough starters (one standard, one rye), and I'll let you know the lovely results I get from them as soon as I can take another moment to write. Until then, happy cooking/baking/eating!