Saturday, November 14, 2009

Triple Layer White Cake With Raspberry Filling

My sister recently had a birthday, so we spent last weekend celebrating. I was lucky enough to be invited to join her and her friends at a tapas-style fusion restaurant, Mosaic. One word: yum. Our group tried nearly everything on the hot tapas menu, plus a few items from the cold tapas menu. Just about everything was outstanding. (If you’re in St. Louis and enjoy tapas-style food, give them a try. Go for the quail, potato gnocchi, tuna tartare, scallops, or the mussles…those were my favorites.)

For dessert, her boyfriend surprised her with a plate of beautiful cupcakes from The Cupcakery. Their cupcakes are simply delicious – tender cake with perfectly-sweetened frosting. (“Yum” works here too!) We had a great time celebrating together - thanks for inviting me along, sis!

The next evening we had a birthday celebration with just our family. I knew I wanted to make my sister a white cake since that’s her favorite flavor, but the cupcakes from the previous night were also white cake, and I didn’t want to have Round Two of exactly the same basic flavors. So, to mix things up a bit, I decided I’d layer the cake with raspberry filling and frost the outside with a totally different kind of frosting than what was on the cupcakes – I used a billowy marshmallow-flavored frosting.

Only problem was, I’ve never made a raspberry filling for a cake. (Well, I have used raspberry jam in certain applications before, but I needed something that would hold up to the weight of a three-layer cake.) I found a recipe for blackberry mousse filling on a cooking forum online, and it looked like several people tried it and thought it was decent enough, and people even indicated they had made it with raspberries instead of blackberries, and I was kind of short on time, so I gave it a shot. It was pretty good, but not exactly what I was looking for. Actually, it was almost too dense – at least, it was too dense when paired with the light-textured billowy frosting I used on the rest of the cake. That said, I think it’d be great when paired with a regular American-style buttercream or any other densely-textured frosting. It did make for a pretty presentation, though, and it was not too bad, so I’ll include it here. And more likely than not I’ll make it again, but next time I will probably omit the whipped egg white – that should make the texture less dense.

The cake and frosting I used came from one of my favorite cookbooks – one you’ve seen on this blog before – Diner Desserts, by Tish Boyle. I keep turning to this cookbook for great made-from-scratch desserts. I’m not sure how much I paid for the cookbook, but it was worth every penny. I haven’t changed the recipe much – it is really good exactly as it is. Some of the text I rewrote here to make it easier to understand (I hope!). And I added the raspberry filling.

As I was debating on how to transport the cake (its at least a 40-minute drive, even with decent traffic), I decided I’d bring the cake unassembled to my sister’s house. I finished the last steps of the filling and frosting there. I was afraid the cake would slide apart and be ruined if I tried to bring it already assembled (the frosting is really very light textured, and I was not sure exactly how the raspberry filling would hold up since I had never made it before). So I left the cooled cakes on their wire racks, covered each loosely with freezer paper (it has a coating of some kind of plasticy material that helps keep food from sticking), and stacked it all up in a cardboard tray left over from a case of bottled water. It worked out pretty well. The cakes did not stick to the freezer paper and everything arrived intact.

Triple Layer White Cake
Makes one three-layer cake 8 inches in diameter

2 cups cake flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp salt
9 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk

To make the white cake, position two baking racks near the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom and sides of three 8-inch round cake pans. Cut out three rounds of parchment paper slightly smaller than the internal diameter of the bottom of the pans (test then to be sure they fit).

Grease the empty cake pans, then place a round of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan. Grease the paper. Dust the sides of the pan with flour and tap out the excess. (I’ll admit, I forgot this step…it all still worked out in the end, but it would have been easier to get the cake to come out of the pan if I had remembered…)

In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour and baking powder. Stir them together with a whisk. Set them aside.

In an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, in a large clean bowl, beat the butter on medium-high speed until smooth, about one minute. On medium speed, gradually beat in 1 1/4 cups of the granulated sugar. Increase the speed to high and beat until well combined, about two minutes. Add the lemon zest, vanilla, salt, and three of the egg whites. Scarpe down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat the mixture on medium high speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions alternately with the milk in three additions. (Three? Ok, at least split it into two (there’s hardly enough volume to easily split it into thirds), and I believe the best results are obtained if you work it out so an addition of dry ingredients goes in the bowl last. Not sure if there’s any logical reason as to why that’s better, but that’s how I’ve always done it.) Scrape down the bowl and beat until smooth, about 1 minute.

You’ll need to beat egg whites next. If you’re using a stand mixer and have no secondary hand-mixer or extra stand mixer bowl, transfer the batter to another large bowl, set it aside, and thoroughly wash the empty stand mixer bowl. (Any residual butter in the bowl will prevent the egg whites from properly whipping.) Or you can do what I did and just whip the egg whites in a new bowl with my electric hand-mixer.

In a large, clean bowl, beat the remaining six egg whites on medium-low speed until foamy. Increase the speed to medium-high and gradually beat in the remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. Continue to beat until the whites are stiff, but not dry. Using a large rubber spatula, fold about 1/3 of the egg whites into the reserved batter. Then gently fold the remaining egg whites into the batter.  Avoid overmixing and deflating the batter - Fold only until the whites are incorporated.  It will look sort of foamy like this:

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake the cakes for 15-20 minutes (mine took more like 25-30, but you might want to check them earlier…). The cakes are done when the tops spring back when they are touched, and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean. (Note From First-Hand Experience: do not use a knife point…the toothpick makes a much smaller, less-noticable hole!)

While the cakes are baking, start the raspberry filling. (If you elect to skip the berry filling, the white frosting as written will likely yield enough to frost and fill the cakes, as long as you don’t go overboard in piling on the filling.)

Once the cakes are done baking, cool them in their pans on wire racks for 30 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the racks, peel off the paper, and cool completely.

Raspberry Filling
Makes enough to frost the tops of two 8” cake layers

2 tsp unflavored gelatin
6 Tbsp cold water
2 cups frozen raspberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 egg whites (probably optional...)
1-1/2 cups heavy cream

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons of the water. Let it stand until the gelatin has softened, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree the raspberries with the remaining 4 tablespoons of water.

Use the back of a spoon to press the raspberry puree through a fine-mesh sieve. Collect the strained puree in a small saucepan – there should be about 1 1/2 cups. Add the sugar and stir over medium heat until the berry puree is warm and the sugar is dissolved.

Stir in the softened gelatin until it has dissolved. Let the mixture cool.

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the egg white until firm peaks form. (By the way, this is the step I’d probably omit in the future…but I haven’t actually tried it myself, so I’m not quite sure how it’d turn out!  Try it at your own risk...) Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg white into the cooled berry puree until no streaks of white remain.

In another medium bowl, beat the heavy cream until it holds soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the berry mixture and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. Once the filling has chilled, it is ready to use.

While the berry puree and the cakes are cooling, you can make the fluffy white frosting.

Fluffy White Frosting
Makes enough to frost the exterior of a three-layer 8” cake (and then some)

5 large egg whites
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp vanilla extract

To make the fluffy white frosting, you’ll need to fashion a double boiler out of a pan of simmering water and a large mixing bowl. You’ll need to use an electric hand-mixer, so the stand mixer is out. Note that you’ll need to select an electric hand-mixer that is up to the task: you’ll need to use it for nearly 15 minutes straight. I burnt out the motor of my first hand-mixer while making this frosting, but the upside was that I had a great excuse to buy a great heavy-duty one which has successfully whipped the frosting on several occasions since then.

Fill a medium saucepan with several inches of water. Take a large, deep bowl and place it over the saucepan to see if the water touches the bottom of the bowl. It shouldn’t – and if it does, dump out some of the water. Turn the heat onto medium-high. You may need to adjust the heat as you work – you’re looking to maintain a simmer in the water, but not a boil, and again, the water level shouldn't touch the bottom of the bowl.

In the large bowl, combine the egg whites, sugar, water, and cream of tartar. With the handheld mixer, beat the mixture until foamy, about one minute.

With the bowl set in the saucepan of simmering water, beat constantly on medium speed until the mixture reaches 160 degrees. This will take approximately seven minutes. Use caution – don’t let the mixer cord melt or catch on fire or cause some other terrible situation!

Once the mixture has reached 160 degrees, remove the bowl from the heat. Add the vanilla and beat the frosting on high speed until it holds stiff peaks. This will take approximately seven more minutes. The frosting is now ready to use.

To prepare to assemble the cake, I start by placing two-inch wide strips of waxed paper on the edges of the serving plate. Place a cake round on the plate. Adjust the strips as necessary: the waxed paper should be placed in such a way that it catches any drips or smears of frosting, protecting the plate and keeping it clean while the cake is being frosted.

Top the bottom layer of the cake with half of the raspberry filling. Stack another layer of cake on top of the cake, then frost it with the remaining raspberry filling.

Finish by stacking the third layer on top. If necessary, insert skewers vertically into the stacked cake to help stabilize the layers (cut the skewers to the height of the cake). Using a large offset metal spatula, spread the fluffy white frosting around the sides and top of the cake, piling it up in dramatic swirls. Pull out the waxed paper strips and serve the cake immediately or refrigerate and bring it to room temperature before serving.

If you decide to add the egg to the raspberry filling, be mindful of its presence: the cake should be eaten shortly after the filling is prepared. I don’t think I’d eat it after the first day, but that’s just me. The fluffy white filling keeps slightly better, but not well enough to make the cake too far in advance. I’d recommend assembling the cake the same day you plan to eat it. (If you must do something in advance, bake the cake in advance and freeze the layers. Thaw them in their wrappers before you use them!)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Brown Butter Blondies

I seem to gravitate towards baking bar cookies in the Fall. For some reason I tend to make more comfort food during the Fall season, and the rough-edged, rustic look and flavor of a bar cookie is the perfect sweet ending to a savory home-cooked meal like a pot roast and mashed potatoes.

To me, the ultimate bar cookie is definitely a brownie – fudgy or otherwise. I enjoy them so much that I definitely make those year around. But at certain times of the year – Fall especially – I start craving blondies: brownies without the chocolate.

Yes, it may seem wrong to remove the chocolate from a brownie, but believe me, one taste of these slightly-savory-yet-sweet blondies, and you’ll be hooked. I have a batch in the oven right now, and the smell is simply heavenly. I browned the butter and toasted the walnuts before mixing the batter, and the butter and nuts baking up with the salted brown sugar batter smells amazing.

Speaking of nuts – I think the amount of nuts in this recipe is perfect. I’m not a huge nuts-in-my-brownies fan, though. (In a regular brownie recipe, I usually just omit them altogether.) But the quarter cup of nuts in this recipe is just enough to provide a great walnutty flavor, plus a little crunch and texture, without being overly chunky. If you’re not a big fan of nuts, I encourage you to leave them in anyway – just chop them on the smaller side. (By the way, any extra nuts from a partially-used bag will stay fresh much longer if you freeze them!)

The browned butter and dark brown sugar makes a beautiful dark golden-colored blondie. In fact, its so deeply colored for a blondie, it almost looks like a light-colored brownie. Don’t be confused by the pictures shown here – I promise there’s no chocolate present in that pan!

Brown Butter Blondies
Makes 16 two-inch bar cookies

4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease an 8” square baking pan.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, stirring often, until the butter is foamy and the solids are beginning to brown. Use caution during this step – it takes awhile for the butter to begin to brown, but once it starts changing color, it goes from beautifully browned to burnt in what seems like point-six seconds. As soon as the butter solids have started to brown (the foam will stay light colored), remove it from the heat and pour it into a medium mixing bowl.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium-high heat, toast the nuts until they become lightly browned, shaking or stirring the pan frequently to prevent burnt spots. Turn the nuts out onto a small cutting board and chop the biggest pieces to create uniform pea-sized nuts. Set the nuts aside.

Add the brown sugar to the browned butter; mix to combine. Add the egg and vanilla and mix it until it is incorporated. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and mix it until it is nearly combined – white streaks of flour should remain. The dough will seem overly dry. Add the chopped toasted nuts and mix them in until the remaining flour streaks are incorporated and the nuts are evenly distributed. The batter is very crumbly – much more like cookie dough than like a liquidy batter.

Scrape the batter into the greased pan and use your fingers to pat it into the corners of the pan, distributing the batter as evenly as possible.

Bake at 375 degrees F. for 20-22 minutes or until the blondies are golden brown. Let them cool on a rack, then cut them into two-inch squares.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies

I know it’s still a little early to talk Christmas (I don’t like seeing the Santa Claus and Christmas tree decorations in stores while I'm shopping for a Halloween costume either), but today is November 1, and if you are the type who likes to hand-make your Christmas cards, you’ve got to start thinking about them kind of early. If you’re hand-making cards this year, if you haven’t already started on them, you’ll need to start soon.

I love to make handmade greeting cards. If I had all the time in the world, I’d hand make all my Christmas cards, and I’d write personalized notes inside each one. In recent years, I haven’t had time to do all of has just been too crazy busy lately.

Several years ago I felt particularly ambitious. I decided it would be cute to make little Christmas cards with an original recipe included. Fortunately I decided this early enough in the year that I had time to pull it all together.

I chose to feature a cookie recipe primarily because of space limitations. Cookie recipes are usually pretty straightforward: cream the fat and sugar, add the wet ingredients, then stir in the dry ingredients, followed by anything chunky like chocolate chips or nuts. There are usually not a lot of complex instructions to write out (no primer on whipping egg whites, for example), so the recipe is short enough in length that it doesn’t take up much physical space on a small index card.

Another reason I chose a cookie recipe: baking cookies is a classic Christmas activity for my family. My sister and I make batches upon batches every year. A cookie recipe enclosed in a Christmas card just seemed to “fit.”

So, I needed a good recipe – chocolate, of course. I came up with this triple-chocolate cookie recipe. I tested and retested it several times in my kitchen because I have several great cooks spread throughout my family, and I didn’t want to give them something that would end up flopping in their kitchen. (I think I even asked my mom to test the recipe in her kitchen, too.) After a little bit of adjustment here and there, the recipe was ready to go. Now I just needed a way to present the recipe, and a greeting card to go along with it.

I thought long and hard about exactly what the Christmas card should look like. I have always liked the retro look of polka dots, and since the cookies were chocolate, a chocolate-colored card with some kind of polka-dotted paper seemed to fit the bill. But I couldn’t find any polka dotted paper that was just right (all the dots were either too large or too small for what I envisioned).

Rather than settle for something less satisfactory, I ended up designing my own polka-dotted paper in Photoshop. I printed it out on my color laser printer, deckled the edges, and wrapped it around chocolate brown cardstock I got for free from Archiver’s (if you shop there often, you’ll know they have those great Free Cardstock! coupons). Bonus, the Christmas cards didn’t cost too much to make!

I baked up one last batch of cookies and shot a few pictures, one of which I Photoshopped alongside an as-abbreviated-as-possible version of the recipe. I used brown papercrafting rivets to attach the printouts to the front and back sides of recipe card-sized cardstock. Voila, my recipe card insert to my Christmas greeting card.

Unfortunately it’s been several years since I did this project, so I don’t have any of the finished cards left. (Silly me, I mailed them all.) If you were one of the recipients of those cards, and still have it floating around somewhere, let me know so I can borrow it and take a picture of it! Therefore, as of right now, I have no pictures, so you’ll just have to imagine the card in your brain. Aside from what I’ve already described, it was cute, but pretty basic: just a fold-over card with a place to write a Christmas greeting. The thickness of the cardstock protected the enclosed recipe card from the mail sorting machines at the Post Office.

For your viewing pleasure, I do have the file of the polka dot paper saved (I made two color variations).

I also still have the Photoshop files I used to do the card layout.


If you’re not into making a zillion Christmas cards but want a nice hostess gift for someone, you could make up a batch of the cookies, type up or handwrite a cute recipe card, and package it all in a cute Christmas tin.

Or just forget the crafty stuff and make the cookies anyway! Yum!

Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies

4 ounces 70% cacao dark chocolate (In my most recent batch, I used Lindt, but I have made it with both Scharffen-Berger 70% and with Baker's brand chocolate.)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp unsulphured molasses
1 Tbsp vanilla
1 egg
1/2 cup cocoa
1/8 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
12 ounces semi-sweet mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roughly chop the chocolate.

In the top half of a double boiler, melt the chocolate, stirring frequently. Do not heat the chocolate excessively. Set it aside and allow it to cool slightly.

In a clean large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Add the melted and cooled chocolate, molasses, vanilla and egg, and beat until combined.

Add the cocoa, salt, flour, baking soda, and baking powder.  Stir to thoroughly combine all ingredients. The dough will be stiff and might seem overly dry, but will hold shape when pressed together. Add the chocolate chips; stir to distribute evenly throughout the dough.

Press dough together into ping pong ball-sized spheres on a cookie sheet lined with foil or parchment paper, spacing them several inches apart. Each ball of dough should weigh approximately 1.5 ounces.

Bake 10-12 minutes. Whatever you do, DON’T overbake the cookies! They will still be soft – almost too soft - when they are done.

Cool the cookies five minutes on the cookie sheet before transferring the foil/parchment to a wire rack. As the cookies firm up, they can be transferred directly to the rack to complete the cooling process. Store them in an airtight container.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Creamy Homemade Stovetop Macaroni & Cheese

One of my favorite comfort foods of all time is macaroni and cheese. When I was younger, still in high school or college, and didn't yet have any culinary skill to speak of, I only made generic “imitation blue box” macaroni (“generic” due to funding limitations and a general distaste for the Kraft company, and “blue box” due to a lack of culinary skill). Now-a-days, I usually make my mac & cheese homemade, but occasionally I’ll bust out a blue box (I like Annie's brand) if I’m having a particularly bad day and just need a quick, inexpensive, and fast meal. I like it served alongside barbecued sausage. I know Mom, it’s not exactly a healthy meal, so I don’t eat it very often!

I do love macaroni and cheese. I get excited when I see it on the menu at sandwich shops, but most of the time it’s a let-down once I’ve tasted it:  it’s usually not all that great. It always seems to be too runny, too gritty, or the cheese sauce tastes too much like the flour used to thicken it. I want a silky, smooth textured sauce over perfectly al dente macaroni – pasta that hasn’t been cooking all afternoon in a giant sheet pan. The sauce shouldn’t be too thick, and nor should the pasta be swimming in it – there should be just enough sauce to coat the pasta.

So, like I said, I’m often disappointed.

I found this recipe in “The Best American Classics,” which is a Cooks Illustrated cookbook. I have a couple of their cookbooks, and while I don’t always agree with what their opinion of “best” may be (“best” is so subjective!), I do agree with them in this case…well, mostly. I’ve written my changes into the version you’ll find here.

This recipe is made on the stovetop. It’s almost as simple as blue-box macaroni (it does require a bit more stirring), yet it tastes so much better. There’s no long baking time involved, so like the boxed variety, you can make it on the spur of the moment. It makes more than a family-sized blue box, so I always have leftovers to take to work.

Speaking of leftovers, the best way to reheat any kind of macaroni and cheese is in a saucepan over medium-low heat, with a splash of milk or other dairy added to help recreate the sauce. I usually don’t put that much effort into reheating lunch at work, so I just stick it in the microwave and eat it even though the texture of the sauce has changed slightly. (It still has great flavor, though!)

The original recipe is written to include a toasted bread crumb topping, but I never bother with it. I like mine topped with chopped tomatoes instead.  Not only is it better for you, but the sweet juicy tomatoes are a nice counterpart to the salty, cheesy pasta.

Creamy Homemade Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6-8, unless you are a big macaroni eater, in which case it might yield closer to 4 servings.

1 can evaporated milk
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce (like Tabasco sauce)
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/2 pound macaroni
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
12 ounces sharp cheddar (I used Tilamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar)
1 cup chopped tomato (either 1 cup of sliced "baby" tomatoes, or 1 chopped "regular" tomato should be about the right amount)

In a two-cup liquid measure, use a fork to whisk together 1 cup of evaporated milk, the eggs, hot pepper sauce, 1 tsp of salt, and the dry mustard. Set it aside.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions. Use a large pot, and if you have a nonstick one, use it. (Tip: select a pot that’s slightly larger than what I used in these pictures, because I thought the pot was too small once I got to the last few steps. Oops!). Cook the macaroni only until barely al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, grate the cheese. For this much cheese, I use the shredding (grating) disc in my food processor.

Once the pasta has cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. Add the butter and stir over medium heat until it has melted.

Pour the egg mixture over the buttered noodles. Sprinkle about half of the cheese over the pasta. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until the sauce thickens and the mixture is hot and creamy, about five minutes. Yes, it’s a lot of stirring, but you’ve got to do it in order to properly cook the eggs.  Don’t let the mixture boil; if the pan starts sizzling when you’re stirring, it’s too hot.  (Remember, medium-low heat!)  In general, if it seems runny, you haven’t cooked/stirred it long enough. Keep the heat on medium-low and keep stirring, and it should end up just fine.

As you near the end of the five-minute stirring time, add the rest of the cheese and the remaining evaporated milk. Stir it just long enough to incorporate everything and melt the cheese. Taste it, and sprinkle the remaining teaspoon of salt over the pasta (or salt to taste, because cheeses vary in saltiness).  Stir to incorporate the salt, then taste it again just to be sure things aren't too salty.

Serve immediately, topped with a handful of chopped tomatoes.

I mentioned earlier that I liked mine served with sausage… I love bratwurst, but it’s sooo unhealthy that I rarely serve them. I have found an alternative that I’ve been enjoying lately: chicken sausage!

Costco carries an andouille chicken sausage (sorry, the exact brand is not listed online, but it probably doesn’t matter because the available brands and flavors vary by location anyway. Over the years, I’ve tried several different brands of chicken sausage from both Midwestern American and Western Canadian Costcos, and I liked both of the varieties available from both regions, so maybe your nearest Costco has a brand you’d like).

I also found a different chicken sausage at my local grocery store: Al Fresco brand Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage (it has Maple Syrup in it – yum!). They have several other interesting-sounding flavors, which I haven’t yet tried. It’s more expensive than buying in bulk at Costco, but truthfully, I think it tastes better. (Maybe I just liked it because of the maple syrup. Me?!?!)

By the way, the sausage in the picture at the beginning of this post is the Costco andouille sausage.

Oh, and if you want to slightly lower the carbs in the dish (it is pasta, after all!), you could omit the bun, slice up the grilled sausage, and serve it mixed into the macaroni.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mini Dobos Tortes - the August Daring Baker's Challenge

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.

I know, I know, it’s not August anymore. It’s actually past time to do the September challenge already. Obviously I am really late this month! Between school, work, life, family, and the million-and-two other activities that seem to take up my week…you know how it is.

One thing about this torte: it’s not incredibly difficult to make, but it takes a fair amount of time to complete the entire process. (Don’t start this on a Sunday night if you’ve got to get up early for work on Monday morning!) Fortunately, the recipe can be broken down into several individual components, which makes things easier to manage. I made the individual cake layers one day and finished the rest of the cake components and assembly the next day.

The torte recipe was originally written to make one five-layer 9” cake. I like making individually-sized desserts, so I scaled the cake down and made several mini Dobos Tortes. And, I felt the layers would be more visually appealing if they were thinner, so I made twice as many layers that were half as thick. (Those decisions were a large part of what made the cakes so labor-intensive…it would have gone a lot faster if I would have only had to frost and stack five layers instead of 30.)

Before you get started, you’ll need a few specific pieces of equipment. You’ll need some cookie sheets that are decent enough quality that they won’t warp when they heat up – mine are the thicker insulated type, and they worked perfectly. Also, I’d highly recommend that you use two offset spatulas: one large one for spreading the cake batter, and one small one for frosting the miniature cakes. (I don’t own a small offset spatula, so I used a small butter knife serving utensil from my silverware…it worked, but a small offset spatula would have worked even better.) Also, stock up on parchment paper…you’ll need quite a bit of it…and you might want to have some less expensive waxed paper on hand for some of the steps that don’t involve baking. You will also need a circular cookie cutter. I used a 3-1/16” cutter; whatever size you select will be the size of the diameter of the finished cakes. And, while we’re on the topic of equipment, if you have a double boiler, get it out. If not, don’t run out and buy one just for this purpose - you can improvise with a bowl set over a pan of simmering water.

Mini Dobos Tortes
Makes 3 or 4 cakes, depending on how tall you want to stack them

Make the sponge cake layers first, as they need to be cooled prior to assembly. If necessary, they can also be stored the longest out of any of the components – just stack the cakes up between sheets of waxed paper and store them in an airtight container.

6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1-1/3 cups (162g) confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (112g) sifted cake flour
A pinch of salt

Position a rack at the top of your oven; preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, using clean beaters, (use your stand mixer and the wire whip if you have one) beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in 2/3 cup (81g) of confectioner's sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks.

While the egg whites are whipping, begin the next step: In a separate large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 2/3 cup (81g) of the confectioner's sugar, and the vanilla. Whisk until the mixture is thick and pale yellow.

Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then, gently fold in the remainder of the beaten egg whites, leaving a few wisps of white visible.

Scatter the pinch of salt evenly over the surface of the egg mixture. Then, sift half the flour over the egg mixture. Gently fold it in; repeat with the remaining flour. (The only sifter I own qualifies as a decorative antique, so I just use my fine mesh sieve to shake the flour over the cake batter.)

Line a cookie sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Using an offset spatula, spread about 200g of batter over the surface of the parchment paper into a big rectangle. (If you don’t have a scale to weigh the batter, don’t worry, just start with about 1 cup of batter and work up. Actually, I didn’t bother weighing the batter every time; I only weighed it so I could give you an idea of the approximate amount of batter you should use.) Spread the batter out into a large rectangle, approximately 12x15 inches. The length and width of the rectangle is not as important as the thickness of the batter: the batter should be spread out to somewhere between 1/8” and 3/16” thick (1/4” is thicker than I wanted my cakes to be). Try to make it as uniform in thickness and as smooth as possible. But, caution: if you can see the parchment paper through the batter, it’s too thin.

Bake the cake on the top rack until the top of the cake is lightly browned and the cake springs back when you touch it, 4 to 6 minutes. I found the baking time really varied depending on whether or not my gas oven happened to be actively working to heat the oven during the time the cake was inside…there’s a pretty good variation in temperature there that’s not normally noticeable over a 20 or 30 minute bake time. In short, keep an eye on the cakes – they’re so thin that they can overbake in a matter of a minute.

Once the cake has baked, slide the parchment and cake together off the cookie sheet. Let it sit flat on a heatproof countertop for a minute until the cake has cooled slightly: it should still be warm, but it should have cooled enough that you can handle it. (Don’t let it cool too long, or the cake will become too crisp and will break during the next step.) Rest a piece of parchment paper on top of the cake and flip the entire cake over, upside down. Peel the parchment paper off of the underside of the cake. Replace the same parchment paper back on the cake, then flip it all back over. Remove and save the top parchment paper – if it’s not too dirty you can reuse it. (These steps of flipping and peeling paper off will greatly aid in removing the cake during the next step.)

Use a round 3” cookie cutter to cut circles out of the baked cake. I pushed the cutter into the cake, pulled the cake circle and cutter away from the cake as one unit (with the cake still stuck inside the cutter, I mean).

Then I pushed the blade of a flat spatula against the outside of the circular cookie cutter, which trimmed the ragged edges off of the cake.

Once I pushed the circle out of the cookie cutter, I had perfect little cake circles. The cake would gum up the cookie cutter after 3 or 4 cuts, so I just used my fingernail to scrape the cake residue off of the blade.

I got 35 circles out of the entire recipe. While I was cutting out cake circles, I stacked up some of the scraps to gauge their thickness, and decided I wanted my cakes to be 10 layers thick. So my yield is three 10-layer cakes, with a few extra circles to account for breakage during assembly. You could also make four 8-layer cakes.

Set the cut circles out on a cooling rack. Don’t let the edges touch or they’ll stick together. You’ll notice that the one side of the cake is stickier than the other side – don’t let the cakes rest on their sticky side.

The cakes can be made ahead up to this point. Once the cakes have cooled completely, you can stack the cakes between layers of parchment paper. Store in an airtight container or wrap the stacks well. If you’re only storing the cakes overnight, they can be left at room temperature. If you refrigerate the cakes, let them come to room temperature before you attempt to unwrap them.

The next step is the chocolate buttercream. Although it can be stored at room temperature overnight, I made mine the same day I served it.

Chocolate Buttercream

4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar
4oz (110g) 70% cacao dark chocolate, finely chopped
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250g) unsalted butter, at room temperature.

First, prepare a double-boiler: fill the bottom half of a double boiler about 1/3 of the way with water and bring it to a boil. Once it begins to boil, back the heat down so it is at a simmer.

Meanwhile, off the heat, in the top half of the double boiler, whisk together the eggs and sugar until they pale and thicken. Once the water is at a simmer, fit the top half of the pan onto the bottom half and continue whisking the egg mixture over the heat another 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk constantly. The mixture will continue to thicken and will become somewhat foamy. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for another 2 to 3 minutes more.

Scrape the chocolate mixture into a mixing bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. (If you have a stand mixer, use its bowl!)

Once the chocolate mixture has completely cooled to room temperature, beat in the softened butter on high speed, one a small piece (about 2 tablespoons/30g) at a time. For best results, use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer. Once the butter has been completely added, continue beating the mixture until you end up with a thick, velvety chocolate buttercream. (There is a period in the mixing process where it looks very soupy and nothing like buttercream. Keep beating, it will come together eventually. Don’t give up.)

The next step is to begin assembling the Dobos tortes.

If you haven’t already done so, count your cake layers and decide how many cakes you’ll make. Choose several of the least wrinkled, most evenly baked, best-looking cake layers from the selection of mini cakes you baked earlier. These layers will be the topmost layer on your finished tortes, so you’ll need one layer per finished cake. You might want to grab an extra one or two to account for potential breakage. Set the good cake layers aside from the others; save them for later.

I assembled my cakes directly on their serving plates. To keep the plates clean, I cut up little strips of waxed paper and put them under the edges of the cake. Once they were entirely iced, I pulled the strips out. Voila, clean plates. I recommend you do that.

Place a small dab of frosting on the center of your serving plate. Top with one cake layer – press it flat to create a good foundation for your cake. Thinly ice the top of the layer, then top with another layer and repeat the icing/stacking process until all of the layers are iced and stacked except for the top cake layers you set aside earlier (leave those off for now, they will be added later). As you’re working, take care to build the cake up as evenly as possible to avoid a “leaning tower of Dobos.” If your tortes start to lean, toothpicks inserted vertically might help. Keep your icing thin and your “tower” will probably be just fine.

Once the layers are stacked (except for those reserved layers), frost the top and sides of the torte. Set the frosted tortes aside.

The last step is the decorative sugar toppings. It is best to make sugar topping and any other decorations as close as possible to serving time. They should be made the same day they will be served and should be kept in a cool, DRY place (not a refrigerator – it’s too moist). If you absolutely must store the sugar decorations, store them in an airtight container with a packet of desiccant enclosed. Don’t place sugar decorations directly on top of the cake until immediately prior to serving, or moisture from the cake and frosting will harm the sugar.

If you’ve never worked with sugar, you might be surprised to learn that working with sugar is actually very easy. It is kind of messy, so use waxed paper or newspaper to keep it from getting all over your countertop. I encourage you to try it out…the candied hazelnuts are much easier than you might think, and are very impressive-looking. They taste pretty good too.

Candied Hazelnuts and Cake Tops

The reserved unfrosted, unstacked mini Dobos torte cake layers
6-8 whole hazelnuts (or, whatever the quantity you need to top your cakes, plus a few extras to account for breakage), for the candied hazelnuts
6-8 additional hazelnuts, to be chopped for the side of the cakes
1 cup sugar
12 tablespoons (180 ml) water

First, the setup for the candied cake tops: Use newspaper or waxed paper to cover your countertops. Over a piece of waxed paper, place a wire cooling rack. Place the unfrosted, unstacked cake layers on the cooling rack. Set them out so they don’t touch each other, and leave a decently sized gap between them. For best results, use a cooling rack with larger gaps.

Toast all of the hazelnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until they barely begin to change color. Don’t let them burn. Turn them out onto a paper towel; let them cool slightly until you can handle them. Divide them back into two portions: those to be candied and those to be chopped.

We’ll get set up to candy the hazelnuts next. You’ll need to devise a way to suspend the hazelnuts. I suggest you come up with something similar to what I did: I used an open cabinet which hangs overtop my countertop. I stuck a skewer into each hazelnut and weighed the skewer down with small but heavy plates. I covered my countertop with waxed paper. Get everything ready to go.

Gently insert a skewer partway into each hazelnut. Don’t insert it too far, or you’ll break the hazelnut into pieces. (That’s why you have a few extra to account for breakage. If you break one, swap it out with one from the reserved pile of nuts to be chopped for the sides of the cakes.)

Next, make the candy syrup. Once your syrup has cooked, you’ll need to move quickly so go ahead and read ahead in the recipe before you begin…so you know what’s coming…

Stir the sugar and water together in a small saucepan – nonstick will give you the easiest cleanup later. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved into a smooth syrup, turn the heat up to high and boil without stirring, swirling the pan by the handle occasionally and washing down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with a wet brush until the syrup has turned into an amber-colored caramel. (We’re boiling until we reach approximately 340 degrees F. Caution: Your thermometer must be clean and dry every time you insert it in the sugar syrup. Another caution: Although it takes awhile to cook from the first step to the perfect stage of golden, it will change from a beautiful caramel color to burnt in a matter of seconds, so don’t let your guard down - stay on top of it!)

Once the syrup has turned to caramel, immediately pour a thin layer over the top of each cake. Work quickly – the longer the syrup is in the pan, the more it will continue to cook due to residual heat. Also, try to conserve the syrup as you pour – you will still need to use part of it to dip the hazelnuts. Depending on how good you are at metering out the syrup, it might just be easiest to plan on making two batches of syrup. Another tip: try to avoid overpouring because an excessive amount of syrup will “glue” the cakes to the cooling rack (that’s why you have extra cakes – in case some break as you attempt to remove them from the rack.) Don’t try to remove the cakes just yet because you need to dip the hazelnuts while the syrup is still hot...

After you’ve poured the syrup over the cakes, immediately begin dipping the skewered hazelnuts. Gently dip each one into the pan, then suspend it so the excess syrup drips off of it in a long string.

Some of it will break off and collect on the waxed paper. You can gather this excess up into a loose “birds nest” and save it to use as a cake decoration, too.

Note: Avoid getting any moisture in the syrup or it will seize up into a gritty unattractive mess. If that happens, or if you run out of syrup, you’ll need to caramelize more sugar…

The candied nuts and cake pieces need time to cool to firm up. Meanwhile, chop the reserved, uncandied hazelnuts. Gently press the chopped nuts onto the sides of the frosted cakes.

The sugar syrup on both the cake tops and the hazelnuts should harden up fairly quickly. (If they don’t firm up into brittle sugar pieces, you didn’t cook the sugar syrup long enough.) Once they are completely firm, you can gently handle them. Try to avoid touching them any more than necessary because you could leave fingerprints or moisture marks on the sugar. Use scissors to trim the hazelnut “drips” to your preferred length – you can leave them long and dramatic or you can trim them to several inches if you prefer. Gently twist the skewers out of the hazelnuts. Remove the candied cake pieces from the cooling rack – you might need to turn the rack upside down and pop the pieces off from the underside if the sugar was poured on too thickly.

Immediately prior to serving, top the Dobos tortes with a piece of candied cake. Garnish with the candied hazelnuts. Serve immediately.

Cornmeal and Jelly Muffins

I love Saturday mornings. I don’t usually sleep in – I have learned that keeping a consistent daily schedule makes it easier to get up on weekday mornings. Not everyone else in my house has the same theory though, so I usually have a few hours to myself before anyone else wakes up. I occupy my time in the early morning by going for a nice long bike ride, or by making something special for breakfast, or sometimes both!

Depending on what I have in my kitchen, I’ll often make pancakes, waffles, French toast, or something similar, especially if I have weekend house guests. If it’s just me eating breakfast, I’ll often make a quick veggie omelet or chop up some fresh fruit. Sometimes I’ll make up some biscuits and jam, and recently I made some boysenberry jam-filled cornmeal muffins.

These muffins can be made with any color of cornmeal. I used blue cornmeal, but if you don’t have blue cornmeal, just use the more common yellow variety. They taste the same. You can fill the muffins with your favorite kind of jam. I used storebought jam because it’s what I had in my fridge, but it would be delicious with a homemade pan jam (let it cool before you use it!).

Cornmeal Jelly Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

1 1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal (I used a blue variety)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten
Approximately 3/4 cup jelly or jam, your choice of flavor

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Grease 12 muffin cups, or line the tins with paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a 2-cup liquid measure, add the milk and vegetable oil. Drop in the egg, and whisk it together with a fork to combine the ingredients. Pour the mixture into the dry ingredients and mix only until the dry ingredients are all moistened. Fill the muffin tins 2/3 of the way full.

Spoon approximately 1 Tbsp of jelly or jam on top of each unbaked muffin. (The jelly will sink in during the baking process.)

Bake 15-20 minutes, or until they are golden brown. They may take a few minutes longer than you are used to due to the jelly centers. You can use a toothpick to test the muffin – no raw batter should cling to the toothpick when they are done. The jelly will be soft and liquidy.

When the muffins are done, turn them out to cool. Caution, the jelly is very hot. Don’t attempt to eat the muffins until they have cooled, or you risk burning your mouth.

If you want the muffins to be less messy than what’s shown in the pictures here, bake them inside muffin papers or use slightly less jam.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thank you Kris!

99% Cacao Dark Chocolate has recently received its first-ever blog award – the One Lovely Blog Award – from Kris at Bake In Paris! I am so excited and honored to receive my first award! Thank you for passing it along to me, Kris! You made my day!

Now it is my turn to choose the next recipients of the award. Because I am relatively new to blogging and I have a minimum amount of free time to surf the internet, the list of blogs I regularly follow is kind of short. I wish I had more time to read through a longer list of blogs, but such is life... Meanwhile, here’s some of my favorites - I am now declaring them the next winners:

The first blog I ever added to my feed reader was Definitely Not Martha...The Daily Struggles of the Domestic Un-Goddess. Leslie doesn’t post as often as she used to (she has a relatively new addition to her family), but whenever she does post, it’s always worth a read. Make her parsnip soup – oh it is GOOD! I served it in bread bowls last Thanksgiving. It is now in the rotation and will be on the Thanksgiving menu this year. Yum!

Then there’s Fairy Mi's blog. I believe the blog is called The Cookie Fairy, but because her blog is entirely written in Hebrew, I can’t understand a word of it without using Google Translate. Don't let that stop you from visiting, because her photos and ideas are mouthwatering. She’s a fellow member of the Daring Kitchen, and her pretty version of our Bakewell Tart challenge is what drew me to her blog.

For more inspiration in the cookie department, I read Bridget's blog, Bake at 350. She makes the cutest cookies ever. She also gives step-by-step decorating instructions so you can recreate the frosting designs at home. Well, for me, it would be an attempt to recreate the designs – I’m not that great with a pastry bag. I want to be better at cake and cookie decorating, though, so her blog is inspiring to me.

And speaking of inspiration, check out 17 and Baking. Elissa is only seventeen years old. Yes, seventeen. Her style of writing is so engaging and her photos are gorgeous – her blog makes me want to drop what I’m doing, run into the kitchen, and bake one of her cakes. I wish I had a friend like her when I was in high school. Elissa’s won this award before…but I couldn’t help but recognize her again.

I always enjoy reading Amanda’s blog Is This Thing On?. Some of her posts are food-related, and some are about her daily life. (I love her sense of humor.) I originally found her blog because she’s another Daring Kitchen member, and because she likes to bake cupcakes. I’m hooked.

Another blog I always enjoy reading is E. Lee’s blog, Bacon Concentrate. I thought I loved bacon, but then I saw that she once made a bacon cheesecake...'nuf said. She’s got some great recipes that don't contain bacon, too. In fact, she’s given me permission to post my version of her Sesame Noodle Salad on my blog...its delicious! Besides that particular recipe, she recently threw a Hawaiian Luau-themed birthday party, and pretty much everything she made for that event is now on my To Make list.

Thanks again, Kris, for passing the One Lovely Blog Award on to me!