Saturday, March 26, 2011

Filbert-Me-Up with a Lot of ChocALot Ridiculous 9-Layer Birthday Cake

The title of this posting is long, silly, and basically over-the-top. Exactly like this cake. Although, the cake wasn't really too silly. It was completely extravagent and totally delicious. For something so outrageous, it was incredibly perfectly balanced both in textures - rich and moist without being heavy or dense, and flavors - sweet and chocolaty but velvet down the throat.

The inspiration for this cake came from a delicious Delaviuda chocolate bar my aunt gave me for Christmas, which she purchased at The Spainish Table - a delighful Spainish imports kitchen, cooking, and grocery store in Seattle. The candy bar was 10.5 ounces of solid (unscored/unsquared) rich and creamy hazelnut-flavored chocolate, white chocolate, and dark chocolate - and I ate the whole thing myself. The individual layers sort of slid apart as I bit off a chunk, but still melted together into the smoothest sweetness imaginable with a touch of richness from the nuts but without that sometimes overpowering hazelnut of some Italian pralines. I was closing in on the last few bites,  I was struck with a vision: build a cake on the same foundations as this chocolate bar: hazelnut, white chocolate, and dark chocolate. I wish I'd thought of that in time to save some for garnish!

Instead, I polished off the little that was left, and made a pilgrimage downtown. Between the special trip to the specialty market, paying for parking and paying for imported chocolate, this was one expensive candy bar. But I can only say four words about it. It worth it.

Now that my muse was in hand, my task was to create a cake that would match the silkiness, glamour, and delight of the original bar. The concept was clear in my head - I would make three cakes: a nut layer, a white layer, and a chocolate layer, and sandwich them with frosting just as the bar is constructed. But which specific recipes will complement each other without conflict, without overpowering each other, and without being simply too extravagent?

I used the Perfect All American Chocolate Butter Cake from The Cake Bible, the Moist Buttery Nut Cake (using hazelnuts) from Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, and a plain vanilla cake made with oil and just egg whites (the yolks will turn the batter yellow.) I filled and frosted it with a whipped ganache made from milk chocolate and flavored with Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur), and glazed with bittersweet chocolate ganache (all the chocolate bars I used were Lindt, creating appropriate mixtures between the milk, 55% bittersweet, and 70% bittersweet bars.) The crowning glory of course were curls of the Delaviuda Tres Chocolates bar, and simple roasted hazelnuts.

Each cake recipe made two 9" layers, and I only needed one each (the rest are in the freezer -whatever will I do with them???) Because it was a birthday cake, I made it all the more dramatic by cutting each layer into three thin layers, and alternating them stacked in the same order as the chocolate bar. The entire cake was frosted with whipped ganache, to create a smooth surface for the ganache glaze.

Needless to say, only thin slices of this cake were required, but even so, and even though it would be unfair to call it anything other than rich, it was surprisingly light, balanced, and entirely delightful. It needs nothing to accompany it other than a toast of good cheer, lots of friends to share it with, and a cup of black coffee.

Moist Buttery Nut Cake
by Nick Malgieri, from "How to Bake", page 275
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 large eggs
2 cups all puropose flour
1 cup (about 4 ounces) ground nuts (I used hazelnuts this time, but I've also made this cake with almonds)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk

Grease and line with parchment two 9" round pans.
Preheat oven to 350.
Beat butter and sguar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Combine flour, nuts, baking powder and soda. Add 1/4 to butter mixture, and alternate with 1/3 of milk. Repeat, ending with flour, until well combined.
Pour batter into prepared pans ande bake 25-30 minutes until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pans 5 minutes, then invert and cool completely.
This cake stays moist for a long time.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Scrumptious Scones

Scones are not on my hit parade. They have never really appealed to me, often being far to dry and crumbly, or sticky and clumpy (you know that pasty glob trapped in your gullet?) for me to find enjoyment in them. But Will loves them, and I had some buttermilk, so I gave these a try. I have tried recipes from Joy of Cooking, and Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, but they still left me cold. This time, I tried the "Bed and Breakfast Scones" (with some of my own modifications) from the Junior League of Seattle's Simply Classic which is much loved for it's Northwest flair, manageable size, and charming illustrations.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter or margarine, well chilled
1/2 cup dried cherries, soaked in liqueur until plumped (I used chamboard, because it's what I had, but kirsch would be better, or use brandy or cassis)
1 large egg, plus buttermilk to equal 3/4 cup

Preheat oven to 425.
In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together until well-blended. Cut in butter with a pastry blender (you can also use a food processor, but go slowly to not over-mix or the dough can get tough.)
Drain cherries, and mix in, distributing evenly.
Mix egg and buttermilk. Pour into flour mixture and blend, but do not overmix.
Place dough in center of a buttered baking sheet, patting into a circle about 1-inch thick and mounded slightly. Score into wedges.
Bake about 20 minutes, until edges are golden.
Cut along score and allow to cool slightly, then serve warm with butter.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Circa 1970 Vegetables (ie: Harvest Gold and Avocado)

This was a fun combination to make broccoli taste a little different. I'm posting it not because it's such an amazing recipe, but because it is a reflection of creativity and experimentation with food. I recommend this, and will make it again, but even if it sounds unappealing, it might still create an inspiration for how to think of food pairings in new and unique ways to keep you interested in preparation and excited to eat them.

Will is a frustrating "taster" from the standpoint that if I need enthusiasm and encouragement, I might not always get it. But he is an excellent taster because I can always count on his first reaction to be his honest opinion! So, in the spirit that his comments will be as enlightening for you as they are for me (albeit not always flattering!), I'll share what he said about this dish:
- When he first saw it come out of the oven, before I served it, he said, "Oh! Hot salad!"
- After he ate a few bites, had some of the main course, and went back for some more, he said, "Yeah, this works. It's a good way to 'get it all down.'"

So there you have it. Granted, I probably wouldn't serve this to company, and the photo might really be more of a turn-off than a selling point. In fact, I didn't have a name for this post until I added in the photo as my last step, and became instantly inspired.  Scroll down to the image to see what I mean, but be sure and stop to read the recipe on the way! I suspect you'll be glad you did (or at least as glad as those interior designers were when they rolled out green shag carpeting and orange formica across residences far and wide...)

1 small head broccoli (about 1/2 pound), cut into florets
1 medium carrot, sliced on the bias into 1/2" thick slices
1 seedless orange, peeled, sectioned, and sections cut in 2 or 3 pieces each
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
salt and pepper to taste
1 scant tablespoon pine nuts

Preheat oven to 400.
Toss vegetables and orange pieces together in 8" casserole dish. Whisk together oil, ginger, salt and pepper, and toss with vegetables until well-coated, adding extra oil if necessary.
Roast for about 20 minutes, until broccoli starts to get crisp and dark on the tips. Sprinkle pine nuts over, and roast an additional 5 minutes until nuts are toasty. Serve hot.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Anise All Over

I purchased fresh anise seeds from World Spice, so in one weekend I made two different kinds of anise cookies.

This first recipe I adapted from a cornmeal cookie using apricots and sage. I like the fruit/herb concept for a sophisticated cookie, but wanted to make the recipe my own while using up some ingredients I already had on hand. The idea to pair dates and anise came from this cookie recipe which I highly recommend, but which is a much different type of cookie than the drop cookie I was in the mood for.

The cornmeal gives these cookies a light, crispy crunch that is rather addictive. The dates add sweetness and a chewy tang, and the anise, while it seems like a lot, adds just the right amount of subtle herbality. I had some packaged chopped dates that were getting on the dry side, so I used that as an excuse to soak them in brandy (you can also use hot water) before mixing into the dough. If you have plumb, fresh dates, you don't need to soak them.

These will spread quite a bit on the cookie sheet, so don't make the balls much large than 1" diameter.  I bake up a sheet or two, and then freeze the rest of the dough for another time. If you want to make it really easy for later, drop teaspoonfuls of dough onto a cookie sheet and freeze the whole sheet for 15-20 minutes, then place the balls in a plastic bag and freeze. That way, it's super-easy to pull out however many cookies you want later and bake just that amount.

Cornmeal Cookies with Dates and Anise
makes ~60 cookies

1 cup chopped dates
2 T brandy plus enough hot water to cover

1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal
2 1/2 teaspoons ground fresh anise seed

Preheat oven to 350. Soak dates in hot brandy & water until soft.
Using a stand mixer with paddle attachment, mix butter and sugar until creamy. Add eggs and mix until incorporated. Mix together flour and soda and stir into butter mixture. Stir together cornmeal, salt, and anise, then mix in to butter mixture. Stir in dates.
Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes until edges are golden and centers are set. Remove to rack to cool.

Above are my take on the Anise and Sesame Cookies from Gourmet. To save time and headache, I chilled the dough in a log rather than a disc, and then simply sliced the log thinly to make rounds. They had a lovely, buttery crispness, but in a first trial batch, I didn't feel the sesame really added much.  So for the remainder, and as shown in the photo, I sprinkled  them with finishing sugar and a bit of kosher salt. I think I would also prefer grinding the anise seeds and mixing the powder into the batter for a more consistent texture.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cypress Black Lava Salt

I finally had a chance to visit World Spice at Seattle's Pike Place Market. I have the owner's reference/cook book which I posted about last week, but I'd never had the opportunity to peruse the store. It was quite a treat, if not slightly overwhelming. While it was fun to browse, I'd really love if I could shop there for my regular supplies, popping in when I was planning a specific recipe and wanted fresh ingredients to prepare it. The whole premise of such a market is that you can't "stock up" because flavors will deteriorate and diminish. So I bought a couple of items that I thought would be most likely to last in my pantry, and be most likely to get used up while still in their prime: cassia cinnamon sticks, cumin seed, tallicherry peppercorns, and an experiment: Cypress black lava salt.

I chose this salt because of it's incredible appearance: tiny square pyramids unlike any other salt crystals or flakes I've seen. The flakes are large as far as salt is concerned, (but small for a pyramid!) - about 5/8". They crush easily into flakes that are more appropriate for garnishing food, but the preserved pyramids are quite fascinating to behold. To further exoticize the look, the color is a dark charcol.

The flavor is salty as you would expect, but with a volcanic acidity and a not-unpleasant but still noticable ash-y taste that makes sense given that it's from lava rock. The ashiness is almost like an underlying smokiness. I haven't yet determined what I want to pair this salt with. While the highlights are obviously "saltiness" it contains enough other subtle flavors that I think it needs to be served with a dish that will really be complemented by this salt's specific profile. Post if you have ideas!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mixed Herbs and Spices Recipes

I don't have much to say about this post but that I came up with the following recipes when I got home later on a Friday night, but still was really wanting to cook and eat fresh and nutritious.  I've been pouring through my spice encyclopedia this week, and so wanted to make sure these dishes were all well- and robustly seasoned.

Lentil Chapeaux
1/2 cup yellow lentils
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup water
1 tsp garam masala
salt to taste
12 wonton wrappers
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Bring liquids to a boil and stir in lentils. Simmer, covered about 25 minutes until tender and liquid is absorbed. Stir in garam masala and salt.
Meanwhile, press wonton wrappers into greased mini or standard cupcake cups. Bake (at 375 if oven isn't already on, I just popped them in at 425 with my parsnips) until golden and crisp about 8-10 minutes.
Fill cups with lentils and garnish with cilantro.


Roasted Parsnips with Fennel
1 large parsnip (about 1 pound - I'm serious, this thing was huge), cut into dice or slices as you prefer
~3/4 tsp fennel seed, freshly ground
~1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil (I would have liked to use part walnut oil, but I forgot - I think it would be really tasty in this)

Mix ingredients together and roast at 425 for about 25 minutes, stirring part way through.

Peas with Garlic, Mint, and Feta
1 T browned butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups frozen peas (or fresh!)
1/2 tsp dried mint (or fresh! use 1 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
1/4 cup crumbled feta

Melt butter in skillet. Add garlic and peas. Saute 2-3 minutes until warmed through. Sprinkle with mint and toss. Remove from heat. Toss with feta and serve.

Lentil Chapeaux (round 2)
A couple weeks after this post, I decided to make the lentil chapeaux appetizers for a potluck party, but because of the ingredients I had on hand, and an aversion to repeating even my very favorite recipes, I created the following recipe.

Also note that I made the following adjustments to the wonton cups, and preferred them: don't grease the tins, use regular muffin cups (instead of mini), and bake 10 minutes at 375.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup minced red onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
about 1 cup diced tomates and juice (I used half of a 14 oz can)
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 whole star anise pod
about 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup brown lentils
chopped cilantro
thick yogurt or sour cream

In medium saucepan, saute onion in oil until tender. Stir in garlic. Add tomatoes, cinnamon, and star anise, stir to coat. Stir in lentils and add enough stock to cover by about 1/2 inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat an simmer uncovered about 45 minutes, until lentils are tender and stock is absorbed. Meanwhile, bake wonton wrappers into cups as described in notes above.
Fill cups with lentil mixture, garnish with yogurt dollop and chopped cilantro. If making ahead, store cups and filling separately, and assemble as close to serving as possible so cups stay crisp. I served them at room temperature and found they stayed quite tasty for about 4 hours without refridgeration.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Faster than Salad Mushroom Pasta

This pasta was so easy to make that it was ready before I even had time to make a side green salad. Put the pasta on to boil while you mix up the sauce, toss the two together and keep warm over low heat while you prepare your green veggies and you're ready for dinner in no time!

Mushroom Pasta
serves two for dinner plus a lunch leftover
5-6 ounces (1/2 package) your pasta - I used large shells, but farfalle and fettucine would also both be good.
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 shallot, minced
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, minced
6 large baby portabella mushrooms, chopped (or sliced if you prefer)
1/2 cup tomato juice (I had this leftover from what I drained off a can of whole tomatoes - otherwise, use unflavored tomato sauce)
1-2 tablespoons marsala wine (or other cooking wine)
1-2 tablespoons cream (optional)
1/2 fresh parsley, chopped

Melt the butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium low heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and saute until just tender (about 2 minutes). Stir in the mushrooms and tomato sauce, plus season with a bit of salt. Cook until tender and sauce starts to thicken (3-4 minutes). Deglaze with a bit of wine, and stir in cream if desired. Toss with pasta and parsley and keep warm until ready to serve.

A note about the cream: My preference would be not to use cream in this recipe, but whenever Will really likes something I make, he says "You finally used enough fat to make it taste good." He has a psychological taste barrier that he can not cross until he's observed a certain threshold of butter and cream being incorporated to a dish. Apparently, olive oil is not a substitute. He watched me pour this in, and gave it a thumb's up. I agree it does give the finished sauce a very thick, appealing texture.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Roasted Cauliflower and Carrots with Fennel and Coriander

I have been buying more spices from the bulk section of the specialty market, instead of jars at the supermarket, so I can try new ones out in small amounts without committing to a whole jar that will simply go stale anyway. (In fact, those supermarket jars are probably already "stale" before they're even open - by comparison anyway to fresh herbs and spices.) I love the flexibility afforded by having so many ingredients on hand. I feel like I am ready to try any recipe when the urge or craving strikes, because I don't need a special trip to the store. Many more ingredients have become staples in my kitchen over the past 3-4 years: coconut milk, fresh ginger, and parsley are things I almost always have around now but that used to represent items purchased for a specific recipe.

But as for the burgeoning collection of tiny plastic baggies of small-quantity bulk spices that literally bound from my cupboard each time I open it is starting to insult my original intention. The purpose of buying them in small quantities is to use them while fresh, so essentially, I'm thwarting my own attempts to experiment more with a broader range of flavors by allowing such a collection to accumulate.

For real inspiration in the spices department, I recommend to anyone to pick-up a copy of The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices, by Tony Hill, owner of World Spice Merchants at the Pike Place Market. It is part reference book, part cookbook, part food memoir and it's great to leaf-through at random, or to scour cover-to-cover. A couple weeks after my most recent adventure thumbing my copy, I was emboldened to simply stare in the spice cabinet and think, "What would be interesting??" This is what I came up with:

1/2 small head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
4 small or 2 large whole carrots, peeled and cut on the bias into 1/2" thick slices
1/2 small shallot, minced
~2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground or crushed
1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds, ground or crushed
salt to taste
1/4 fresh parsley leaves, chopped and reserved

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix vegetables and oil in a 9" square baking dish, or deep dish pie plate until vegetables are well coated with oil. I ended up adding more oil part-way through roasting. Add seasonings and toss well. Roast for about 20-25 minutes, stirring once or twice part-way through, until carrots are tender and cauliflower is browned at edges. Shallots will be frizzled and crispy. Toss with parsley just before serving.

Update 3/5:
I don't know if I should feel like a complete hack, or a prescient genius, but yesterday (after I thought of and posted the above!!) I came across this article in the Seattle Times by a favored writer/blogger Monica Bidhe (often printed in NPR's Kitchen Window). Because I am completely honest and honorable, I will give myself credit for my culinary acumen, because I really was not inspired by her article when I made my recipe above, but for any of you skeptics or beginners out there, have confidence that you will love this combination.