Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grandma's 92nd Birthday: Applesauce Cake with Pecan Filling and Cinnamon Frosting

January 26, 2012 marks the third year when I've tried extra-hard to make a super-duper spectacular, unique, and special cake to celebrate my grandmother's birthday... in case it is her last one. She's actually the one that says this, every time she plans a small party at her favorite restaurant, "It's expensive, but I may as well, it might be my last one" she says. I not only have to make a cake that matches her stature, but one that the restaurant won't balk at serving to us over their own pastry-chef's.

When I asked her what type of cake she wanted, she said she wanted an applesauce cake. A little down-homey for what I had in mind as a very sophisticated soiree, but she said she had her favorite recipe in her file, so we sat down together to look for it. In an unfathomable twist of events for the most organized person I know, we were unable to locate the correct version of the recipe so she said, "make whatever you want, honey." The wistfulness in her voice was unmistakeable so I knew whatever I made had to be at least some version of an applesauce cake.

I started combing through recipes, first just trying to determine what even is and applesauce cake, exactly? How is an applesauce cake different from an apple cake? Is it just that's made with applesauce instead of whole apples? Is it supposed to have nuts and raisins in it like a carrot cake, or is it more of a spice cake? Does it get glazed or frosted? I didn't want to ask my grandmother, partly because I wanted to be creative on my own, but also because I knew that while she would answer my questions, she wouldn't be able to give me the secret to what made her want this specific cake now for this particular occasion.

After reviewing stacks of recipes (including the excellent version I made for my mom's birthday back in October), I decided to try Warren Brown's Apple Butter Cake from United Cakes of America. This in itself necessitated additional research, on the topic of the differences between applesauce and apple butter. From what I could tell, apple butter is simply concentrated applesauce - cooking down the liquid so it is a thicker, spreadable consistency with more apple flavor.

In part because it sounded delicious and reminded me of the outstanding pear cake I made for my 30th birthday, but also because I only had two apples, I decided to add a pear to my apple butter ingredients. I love the graininess of pears, and the herbal sweetness they bring.

My grandmother loves nuts in everything - cookies, cakes, ice cream. I adore nuts too, but I like to eat them plain as snacks, and always feel disappointed to find their soft crunch in the tender dough of a cookie, cake, or bread. As a compromise, I chose to use nuts in the custard filling between the cake layers, and as decoration on the frosting, but not to stir them directly into the cake batter. That way, nuts would be incorporated, but could be found in discreet and predictable locations of each bite.

Finally, the frosting. The cinnamon buttercream from the snickerdoodle cupcakes last fall was the perfect accompaniment. It's very sweet, but pairs delightfully with the moist apple cake, and is especially appreciated for it's excellent piping consistency. It's so easy to work with, and holds it's shape precisely, whether it's piped decorations or a satin-smooth finish. Decorate with whole pecans on top, and chopped pecans around the sides.

Apple-Pear Butter
makes 3 cups
2 large sweet apples (such as gala)
1 large pear
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 allspice berries
Peel, core and chop fruit into 1/2 pieces or smaller. Mix with remaining ingredients in heavy saucepan, cover, and simmer until fruit is very soft, 20-25 minutes. Remove spices and puree fruit with an immersion blender until very smooth. Continue to heat uncovered at a simmer, stirring regularly to prevent burning, until consistency is thick. 

Apple Butter Cake - adapted from Warren Brown
5 ounces unsalted butter, softened
15 ounces sugar
3 eggs
12 ounces all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup milk
1 cup apple-pear butter (see recipe above, or use purchased apple butter)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans, preferably with removable bottoms (or line pans with parchment).

Combine butter and sugar in stand mixer and beat until well creamed. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Mix together milk, vanilla, and apple butter in one small bowl, and dry ingredients separately in another bowl. Add to butter mixture alternately in 3 additions. Divide evenly between prepared pans and bake 30-35 minutes, until tops are golden and start to pull away from sides of pan. Cool in pan 15 minutes, then invert to racks and cool completely.

I wish I could write edible script like this, but alas, the restaurant plated my
grandmother's slice and added this charming touch all on their own.
Apple Custard Filling
This isn't a great all-purpose recipe, but it worked perfectly with this cake. I wanted a way to use the apple-pear sauce in between the cake layers, but so that it was a little thicker and creamier than just a spread of jam. I couldn't find any recipes for a custard with apple in it, so I made my own. Because I mixed-in the fruit sauce, the texture is not perfectly smooth like a custard, but in a cake, it is unnoticeably. It was also not at all sweet, but that made it just the right balance against the cake and the very sweet frosting.

1/4 cup cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons apple-pear sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped

Mix the cream and cornstarch together until smooth. Whisk in eggs and sugar and cook over medium heat until 160 degrees and thickened, whisking constantly. Stir in applesauce and continue to whisk another minute or two. Allow to cool, and chill before using.

Spread a thin layer on the cake, then sprinkle evenly with pecans, and dollop more custard on top of pecans, spreading gently. Top with second cake layer and frost.

Cinnamon Frosting
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4-5 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup cream

Beat together the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until fluffy and smooth. Add 2 cups of powdered sugar and beat until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and cream, scraping down the bowl, then add an additional 2-3 cups of powdered sugar, until desired consistency is reached. (I used a little more than 2 cups, then thinned down ever-so-slightly with just a bit more cream.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Duck Soup

This isn't going to be worth making unless you've roasted a whole duck and gone to the trouble of making duck stock, picking all the little shreds of meat off the bone that are left after slicing the breasts and legs, and rendering the fat that comes off during roasting. BUT! If you do happen to do all of the above, this is an exceptional soup to cook up a month later when you're hungry for some of the same flavors but with a whole new twist.

My Christmas Eve dinner was a roasted duck, posted here. The next day I covered the carcass with water, including the apple and onion that had been stuffed inside the cavity, and simmered it down to a rich stock. I don't recall adding any herbs.

I had also saved the fat that came out of the duck during roasting. The recipe I used called for a pan sauce to be made from the drippings, but only after skimming the fat. I prudently saved the fat that seperated at the top of the drippings in a jar in the freezer, which I pulled out to start this soup. I'm not going to write this up as an actual recipe, because even if I make it again, it won't be following exact proportions, it will just be using whatever I have around, so that's how you should do it too.

I heated some of the reserved duck fat in the stock pot and used it to saute some chopped onion. Then I stirred in some dried lentils and added my duck stock. Cover the pan and simmer about 30 minutes, then add reserved duck meat shreds along with vegetables and 2-3 tablespoons tomato paste. I purchased two medium parsnips just for this purpose, because I think they taste a lot like carrots but are a little different, with a sweetness that I thought would complement the duck well. They were sensational! So dice them and don't skip them. I also had a leftover half a russet potato and half a sweet potato (moderately successful french-fry attempt) which I diced. Cover and continue to simmer until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Taste broth and season with salt and pepper if needed. I stirred in a huge handful of fresh parsley leaves, left mostly whole, and a teaspoon of chile-garlic sauce. Sprinkle on a little more parsley for color, but otherwise it doesn't need any garnish.

The sweet potatoes and parsnips are a great way to play off the traditional sweet combinations that you often find with duck (plum, cherry, etc.) and using duck in the soup is reminiscent of a turkey soup but rich and flavorful and different enough that it will really seem a special treat.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

First Frying

My parents went out of town for the weekend. This is only the second time they've been gone since my mom's cat passed away, and it still feels odd to not go check on her when they're gone. I always used to stop by their house when they were on vacation to spend some time with Marble.

Now that I don't need to be the responsible daughter taking care of the cat, their empty house and their forays north of the Canadian border brought out my wild side. I snuck in using the secret key and foraged around in the depths of the kitchen cabinets to find... no, not dad's expensive, not mom's fancy Godiva chocolates that she tucks away where only she knows about, and leaves the Hershey's for the rest of us... no, not even a bottle of hootch... but the fry baby! Way in the very back, wrapped neatly and discreetly and scentlessly in two tidy layers of plastic bags just like a teenager would do with a contraband package of cigarettes or condoms. This is what Will and I get up to when mom and dad take a weekend out of the country.

I've never deep-fried anything. The closest I've come was 5 years ago for Will's birthday, my mom and I co-hosted a Cuban-themed dinner party and she made fried plantains. I was there while it was happening, but she was in charge. I'm pretty sure that's the most recent time Fry Baby was out of his plastic bag. It hard seems fair for him to go so long without fresh grease, no? Enter Will & Allie, friends to all those artery-clogging and blood-pressure raising fats and salts.

It was snowing out. It was Saturday evening of a 3-day weekend. We'd had a nice lunch with friends, but no plans for the rest of the weekened except to check in with grandma. What better way to snuggle-down in our snowy winter wonderland than to fry up a smorgesbord of starches and gnash in?

We started out with wedges of whole-wheat flour tortilla (above). Oh yum!! Next I tried fingers of russet potato, and sweet potato. Even with a twice-fried method, I couldn't really get them very crispy, even though they were cooked all the way through. I read a couple different articles and watched some online videos for French fries to no avail, but the best was yet to come, so I moved on. I even tried some cubes of rich sweet potato bread I'd made last week before the crowning glory.... tempura onion rings.

It was utterly beyond our comprehension how amazing these were. In fact, the tempura batter was so delicious that I started skipping onion and just drizzling a stream of batter straight into the oil to fry up into crispy little puffs of salty, peppery clouds that literally dissolve in the mouth. The batter was so easy, and coated the sliced onions evenly. It would be perfect for coating any number of ingredients.

Tempura Batterfrom Joy of Cooking
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 egg
1 cup carbonated water

Mix together the dry ingredients. Mix together the egg and water. Blend the wet and dry ingredients together quickly and without overmixing. Use immediately.

Joy of Cooking also says to make onion rings, you soak the sliced onions in a 1:1 water/milk mixture for an hour before draining and coating. I'm not sure what this step does for the process, but mine were incredibly delicious without that extra hassle. I'm also not sure why you need to use the batter right away. I saved half over night in the fridge, and it separated, but I remixed it and fried the dough on its own (not as a coating) and it tasted just as good to me. Using carbonated water was my own idea - I'd heard it sometime ages ago, and it just seemed like a fun way to make the coating extra light and crispy. I didn't do a control recipe, so I'm not sure if it made any difference, but it couldn't have hurt, because it was amazing.

I'm not ashamed to say that we also dipped slices of smoked mozzarella in the tempura and were rewarded with the most exalted melty salty crispy pillow of heaven imaginable.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Peerless Pecan Pie Bars

Do you like pecan pie but find yourself only able to eat a few bites because it's just "too sweet" or "so rich" or "pretty gooey"? These dessert bars are all the delicious caramel nuttiness of pecan pie without the super-sugary ooo-too-butteriness. The thinner layer of pecan pie filling against a crunchy but delicate shortbread crust takes the delicious combination of pecan pie to new heights... it's the golden ratio of top and bottom layers that is sorta off-balance in a deep dish pie.

This recipe is my own adaptation from Gourment magazine's cookie bars and my grandmother's pecan pie. This recipe is for a 9x13 pan, but it can easily be halved and baked in an 8x8 pan, baking times are pretty much the same. The bars freeze well, if you can stand to put them in there without eating them! Or they make great gifts because they are pretty sturdy and last well. Usually, if I make a half recipe, I still make all the crust and put half in the freezer for another time.

Shortbread Crust
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350.

Cut butter into chunks and add to food processor with flour, sugar, and salt. Process until mixture forms pea-sized shaped clumps.

Press mixture into bottom of a 9x13 in pan lined with foil. (Turn the pan upside down and press the foil over the bottom to make a mold, then invert the pan and lay the molded foil into the bottom and smooth.) I like to press the shortbread down firmly using a rubber spatula, but the flat bottom of a glass or a stainless measuring cup also works well. Bake until golden about 20 minutes. While baking, make topping.

8 ounces (2 cups) pecans
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons heavy cream (or milk, if necessary)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
3 tablespoons bourbon

Coarsely chop pecans. In a saucepan, melt butter, sugar, and corn syrup until smooth. Stir in cream and simmer one minute. Stir in egg, vanilla, and bourbon until smooth and well-blended. Stir in pecans and pour immediately over hot shortbread. Return to 350 oven and bake 20-22 minutes until bubbling.

Allow pan to cool until firm. Lift foil from pan and cut into square, triangle, or diamond-shaped bars.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pea Pizza

The weak link on this pizza was the Trader Joe's refrigerated dough. I have used all three versions - plain, whole wheat, and herb - before, and always have a bit of a hard time getting it baked properly - the outside dries out before the inside cooks fully. That happened this time as well, along with the fact that the whole wheat was just a little too natural and textured to go well with the rest of the ingredients. I'll do this again, with some freshly made thin-crust pizza dough instead.

I made a delicious green pizza sauce by blending frozen green peas, olive oil, herbs, crushed red pepper, and fresh garlic with my immersion blender. It needs salt, but be careful how much you use because the toppings are pretty salty too. Spread this on the rolled-out unbaked dough. Layer sliced mushrooms, a bmall bit of thinly-sliced red onion, and capers, then top with shredded smoked mozzerella cheese. It all needs to be salty to taste good, but it's a careful balance with capers and cheese to not over-salt.

Bake for about 12 minutes at 425 until cheese is bubbling and golden. Slice and serve!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Holiday Bundt

Once the holidays are over, they're over. The tree and the stockings need to come down. The lights outside can stay lit because the days are still short and dark, but no more eggnog and no more peppermint bark. A few candy canes might hang around until June or July, but that aside, Santa just isn't so jolly once December 26 rolls around.

The cake I made for Christmas Day dessert is called Holiday Bundt and it's a recipe from Dorie Greenspan, who never fails to offer classic, successful recipes. The holiday bundt is so named because it rolls together all the best flavors from pretty much every American holiday - apples, cranberries, pumpkin, and nuts in a spiced batter with a maple glaze. So even though it's pictured here on my shiny-red Christmas ornament platter and my winter berry tablecloth, this cake would be equally at home for a Fourth of July potluck, a Thanksgiving feast, or a memorial day barbeque.

I gave mine an extra holiday spin with a brandy glaze. This is definitely a cake that is made for dessert, but the type that you can't help but want to eat for breakfast as well. Dorie suggests toasting it and drizzling with maple syrup. Others who've made it have made a cream cheese glaze or dusted with powdered sugar. It's truly an all-purpose recipe that works with whatever your occasion - holiday or just hanging with friends. It's the little black dress of baking because you can dress it up or dress it down and accessorize it to fit any party.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year's Eve Celebration

Finally feeling recovered enough from my late night on New Year's Eve to write about the great meal we shared with friends that day! Our guests brought all the beverages, so I was able to concentrate on the menu, which included spinach salad with mushrooms, mandarins, and herb vinaigrette, roasted pork tenderloin with a date-shallot sauce, rice pilaf, broccoli in hazelnut butter, coffee-brandy creme brulee, and chocolate-peppermint cheesecake.

The shallot-date sauce was amazing and would be great on any roasted meat. I made it the day before and simply reheated it just before serving. I used Bobby Flay's recipe from the Food Network, but didn't bother with what I considered to be the unnecessary stuffing with romesco. I also used only about 3 cups of stock in the sauce, and roasted the tenderloins at 375 for about 25-30 minutes (until 160 degrees).

For the pilaf, I had some butternut bisque in the freezer which I mistook for vegetable broth. I used a wild rice blend and black-eyed peas (which are a Southern New Year's tradition) cooked in the soup. My guests all enjoyed it, and one mentioned it tasted more like a risotto. The soup gave it a creamy consistency without being sticky.

Brussels spouts should be in season right now, but for some reason they were very expensive at the store. So I bought 2 pounds of broccoli instead, and substituted it with great results in this recipe with mouth-watering hazelnut-butter. It HAS to be the first time when every guest requested seconds on broccoli!

For dessert, I wanted to give my borrowed blow-torch another run before I had to return it, so I chose a similar creme brulee recipe from what I made Christmas Eve. Will preferred the slightly more subtle coffee flavor in this version, though I found both to be exceptionally smooth, rich, and creamy. And for a less-than-perfect match-up, but to squeeze one last seasonal flair from a candy cane, I made some chocolate-peppermint cheesecake bars. I'm not going to post the recipe, because I mixed it together on the fly using different proportions of cookies and flavorings that I had on hand, and because I found them a little too dry (always a risk with chocolate cheesecake). But I will share the links I used for inspiration if you want to concoct or copy your own version:

Monday, January 2, 2012


This is the first recipe I've made from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Although I've turned to it many times over the past couple years as a reference and a curiosity, I have never actually followed one of her recipes. But each time I open it, I remark to myself that "those babas are something I'd like to make sometime..."

I first learned about baba au rhum from Martha Stewart's 1989 Christmas Entertaining. My mom bought it for me at the height of my adolescent domesticity. My grandmother made a rum cake that I was quite fond of, and that is what initially drew me in to the idea of a baba au rhum.

From Julia I learned that a savarin and baba use the same dough, but are baked in different shaped molds and soaked in different flavors of syrup. I'm not certain how specific those criteria still are - I suspect they may be more loosely defined these days, but she says a baba is baked in a crown type of mold and soaked in rum, while a savarin is baked in a doughnut-shaped mold and soaked in kirsch (cherry-flavored) liqueur.

My great-grandmother had these individual round molds and I have no idea what she used them for. I always assumed they were for jello because they are the smooth aluminum that isn't really for cakes. But they looked just like the sketch in the cookbook, so I decided to give them a try. They actually worked perfectly, after greasing them well with melted butter.

The dough has a delicious yeasty-ness that is made completely dessert-like from the sweet, boozy soaking syrup. I made these just for Will and I, as I already had desserts planned for all our entertaining events. I did a half-recipe which made six individual-sized molds. Because I had so many other sweets around the house, I didn't finish the last one until five days later and it was still just as good as the first day. The liqueur would probably have helped it last even longer, if I could keep my fork out them! I was worried that the liquid would cause the baked dough to dissolve and fall apart, but they kept their shape perfectly even for multiple days.

I didn't have any kirsch, so I used grand marnier. Julia says savarins are to be filled with whipped cream, and fruit marinated in the same liqueur syrup. We filled ours with creme and just gave them a dusting of orange zest and a bit of fresh nutmeg. The combinations are really limitless, and are totally unnecessary because they are so good on their own.

Savarin/Baba Doughserves 12
4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Combine the yeast, sugar, salt, and eggs. Mix in the flour and the butter and combine well with the dough hook of the stand mixer. Knead until it is smooth and elastic - when it can be stretched to twice it's length and twisted once without tearing.
Roll dough into a ball and sprinkle with a teaspoon flour. Cut an X across the top of the ball and place in a bowl covered with a damp towel to rise. Leave in a warm place (80-100 degrees) 1 1/2 - 2 hours until doubled in bulk.

Butter baking molds. Deflate risen dough and divide evenly among molds. Allow to rise uncovered 1-2 hours in a warm place. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes until browned and shrunk from the sides of the cups. Unmold onto a cake rack.

2 cups water
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup liqueur (rum, kirsch, grand marnier)

Bring water and sugar to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Stir in liqueur and cool to lukewarm.

Place room-temperature baked babas in a single layer in a dish and pour lukewarm syrup over them. Turn them over or baste them with the syrup until it is almost all dissolved. (Julia says 1/2 hour, I left mine for 3 hours while I ran errands and they had completely absorbed the syrup when I returned. They were puffed and swollen and delicious and that is my recommended method - don't leave a drop of syrup to waste! Or, you can leave them for just 30 minutes, and use the leftover/drained syrup to soak fruit in for topping.)

To serve ring-shaped cakes, fill the center with whipped cream and garnish.