Independence Cake

For family occasions, I am the designated dessert maker. Our traditional Fourth of July dessert is chocolate cupcakes with American flags stuck in them (which I did do last year), but I didn’t have the flags or the chocolate and I wasn’t sure what to do. After turning over and rejecting various ideas (including éclairs), I settled on making a cake.

Surprise, surprise, the recipe I chose is from King Arthur flour (I do love them). It’s a classic, standard American cake, the kind that gets made for birthdays: golden vanilla cake.

It’s pretty much a one bowl cake, but it was more work than I anticipated. Each egg needs to be beaten in individually and the whole bowl scraped down in between each one, to ensure that the cake has enough air, presumably. And my cake had a lot of air: each of the layers domed hugely, making it necessary to cut off the tops. And as the pictures clearly show, there were holes throughout the cake.

To fill and cover the cake, I whipped about 2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream with about 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 or 2 teaspoons vanilla. I didn’t use quite all of the cream: 2 1/4 cups probably would have sufficed. I also layered the cake with raspberries freshly picked (by me) from my parents’ garden, and blueberries (store-bought). Then I slathered more cream on the bottom layer so there wouldn’t be any gaps.

To make sure the cake dish would be neat after I finished frosting the cake, I put four strips of parchment paper in a square underneath the cake and when I was done, I pulled them away: voilà! Clean cake stand. That’s a trick I got from Cook’s Illustrated. My husband helped me by slowing spinning the cake stand while I frosted, and by helping me with garnish (again, raspberries and blueberries for a red, white, and blue cake!). I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the top of the cake until the last minute, when I decided a star was appropriate to the occasion, and I think it turned out really well.

The cake was moist and kept well. In fact, I think it was perhaps even better the second day. All in all, a satisfying endeavour.

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Crème Brûlée

This Christmas I received a very exciting present: a chef’s torch, which neatly combines my love of making fancy desserts with my love of setting things on fire. I have wanted one since I was about 15 years old, and this year my husband obliged me. It was easy to fuel and use, not to mention being a (literal) blast!

The recipe I used was from King Arthur Flour’s website: Crème Brûlée. Straining the custard is very important for achieving the incredibly smooth and creamy texture. I used turbinado sugar instead of demerara, but it worked fine and caramelizing it was really fun. The instructions are simple, but so is the dish! Aside from all the equipment required . . .

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Happ(iness) Halloween

It is late October, almost time to set out a jack-o’-lantern and welcome Spiderman and Queen Elsa to help themselves to one’s candy. The leaves on the maple tree which shades our western window have all fallen*, or more likely, been forcibly parted from it by the wind.

The sky is overcast, but it doesn’t feel gloomy to me. For some reason, I am almost happy this morning, easily able to feel the good in the season and in the world. Forgive the possible descent into pomposity, but I’ve been thinking about happiness (there, I warned you. Proceed at your own risk). Happiness is often spoken of as if it existed outside ourselves, and most of us just can’t remember where we set it down last; perhaps we left it in the car? But when we go to check, it isn’t there.

But perhaps instead of thinking of happiness as being lost, or even found, we should think of it as being made. This idea is both frightening and exhilarating. Frightening, because that implies it’s something we have to do for ourselves, possibly involving hard work and even pain. And for some of us, there is a deep, abiding fear that there is not, cannot be, happiness inside, so it must be outside, if it exists at all.

The exhilaration comes from feeling happiness to be within the scope of our efforts, no longer to be denied us because  of our life’s circumstances or our personalities. When one stops thinking of emotion as being contingent on external circumstances, a new world opens up–not an endlessly blissful landscape, but still one which we have a part in shaping, in whatever way we decide. I’m far from being a Stoic, but I do like this quote from Marcus Aurelius**:

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.

I feel there is much truth in this. So I encourage you to make your own happiness. You can do it.

* Hence the seasonal name, fall. This has fallen out of use in British English, but remains current, alongside the more formal “autumn”, in American English.
** A Roman emperor who wrote a whole book on Stoicism.

Almond Toffee with Dark Chocolate

I made a foray into the world of candy making last December, having purchased a cookbook dedicated solely to candy earlier in the year. This recipe closely resembles almond roca, which is one of my favorite candies. I made it as a surprise stocking stuffer for my family, and they loved it! The response was very gratifying. If you like giving candy as a gift, this is a great choice.

I bought raw almonds for the toffee, and toasted them, which smelled incredibly delicious. For the coating, I used 12 ounces of dark chocolate (as well as some chopped up almonds).

Making the toffee requires a very close eye and constant stirring, and before I wised up and put on an oven-mitt, I nearly steamed my hand off. (I don’t have a dedicated candy thermometer which clips on to the pan, so I had to hold a thermometer while stirring–awkward!). The temperatures required for the toffee seemed unreachable, but it turns out that was just because I am a candy novice and didn’t know how long it would take.

I got the recipe from The Sweet Book of Candy Making, which I recommend! It has a plenty of variety in its recipes, beautiful pictures, informative sections on equipment and ingredients, and troubleshooting tips. I look forward to trying more recipes.

 

April and its Fools

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An unemployed jester is nobody’s fool

I hope all the jokes the day brings you are benevolent. I’m never a one for pranks, myself. Though I did once make a batch of cookies, for a friend recovering from surgery, with salt instead of sugar. Luckily, I tasted the dough before baking it, and thus narrowly avoided accidentally pranking her!

Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars

These delicious treats can be eaten fresh or frozen, and keep well, though they probably won’t last long!

Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus 2 tbs melted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 package (11.5-12 oz) semisweet chocolate (2 cups)
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Line the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with aluminum foil. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat one stick room-temperature butter, brown sugar, flour, and salt until coarse crumbs form. Pour mixture into prepared pan; press firmly into bottom.
  3. Bake until lightly browned, 25-30 minutes. Let cool for ten minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, in the same large bowl, mix eggs, corn syrup, granulated sugar, and melted butter until well combined. Add chocolate chips and pecans; spread over crust. Bake until set, 25-30 minutes. Cool completely in pan before lifting out (using foil to lift).
  5. Cut into 32 bars (8 rows by 4 rows).

This recipe comes from Monica Svatek, writing for tastebook.com, and I was introduced to it by way of my sister Isabella. I looked for a link, but the page has been taken down.

My suggestions:

When putting the crust in the pan, use a plastic drinking glass with smooth sides to roll out the mixture smoothly. If you don’t want to freeze the bars, keep them in a cool, dry place.

This is a straightforward recipe that can be made well ahead of time, and I made it last Christmas, where it proved a popular treat.

Bûche de Noël (the Yule Log)

 

Ah, the pièce de résistance of the Christmas table. Ever since I found about this magnificent dessert, I longed to make one.

A bûche de noël is a chocolate roulade (a sponge cake, such as that used to make a Swiss/jelly roll). I used a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, of the November/December 2000 issue. It has many steps, but if you’re willing to take the time, it is a beautiful dessert, which can be used as a centerpiece on your Christmas table.

Don’t worry if the cake cracks a little while you’re rolling it up–it will be covered by the ganache, which can be made to resemble tree bark by running a fork through it. Cut off the ends of the sponge cake to add stumps to your log, and sprinkle with powdered sugar for snow!

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Dusted with “snow” (powdered sugar)
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The Yule Log
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Cutting into the cake: it sliced like a dream!
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It was delicious! The texture of the cake was particularly appealing

A dessert that requires such a significant investment of time and energy should be as delicious as it is visually impressive, and this recipe fits the bill. This dessert proved very popular with my family, and disappeared quickly. I hope to make it a tradition.