Saturday, March 27, 2010

Homely Decadence

Chocolate Truffle Cake

I don't know if it's laziness or an attempt to get at the basics, but I've been enamored with simple recipes lately. Gone are the days of four page recipes requiring a minimum of six separate components or twenty page recipes requiring a "team of people". I've come to love the idea of a few quality ingredients coddled in a bowl to make an unforgettable, if somewhat homely, treat. This cake is another example of that. There are 5 ingredients. That's it. That and less then an hour of your time is all that's needed to indulge in this truly decadent cake. I'm sure you have most of them in your pantry right now, too.

I made it a few days ago to go along with the mussels, because rich chocolate cake stands up beautifully to two bottles of wine and girl talk. It did not disappoint.

Chocolate Truffle Cake

Kate's Winning-Hearts-and-Minds Cake
from Orangette

7 ounces (200 grams) best-quality dark chocolate
7 ounces (200 grams) unsalted European-style butter (I used regular and it still came out great), cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/3 cup (250 grams) granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Line the base of the pan with parchment, and butter the parchment too. Make sure everything is well covered. You do NOT want to try and pry this jiggly cake out by force.

Finely chop the chocolate (a serrated bread knife does an outstanding job of this) and melt it gently with the butter in a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring regularly to combine. Add the sugar to the chocolate-butter mixture, stirring well, and set aside to cool for a few moments. Then add the eggs one by one, stirring well after each addition, and then add the flour. The batter should be smooth, dark, and utterly gorgeous.

Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the center of the cake looks set and the top is shiny and a bit crackly-looking. Check it at 20 minutes and every two minutes after. It’s usually quite jiggly in the center and you’ll know it’s done when it jiggles only slightly, if at all. Let the cake cool in its pan on a rack for 10 minutes; then carefully turn the cake out of the pan and revert it, so that the crackly side is facing upward. Allow to cool completely, cover with saran wrap and leave in the fridge overnight. The cake will deflate slightly as it cools. You can also wrap it tightly in saran wrap and freeze it for an impromptu dessert when the mood strikes, but that's up to you.

Serve in wedges at room temperature with a loose dollop of ever-so-slightly sweetened whipped cream.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wine + Mussels = Yum!

I've been wanting to make a large pot of mussels ever since the first time I had them in some restaurant many years ago. I couldn't tell you what the restaurant was or who I was with, but you can be sure each and every shell was emptied and the drippy juices were soaked up with crusty bread. It would have been heresy not to. Every time I see them on the menu I strong arm my dining companions to get it. Who would have guessed it was so incredibly easy to make this?

Steamed Mussels

I had a friend coming over for dinner tonight and I wanted the meal to be quick, easy and interactive, and after a tiny hesitation, I settled on a simple recipe by the infamous Ina Garten. Before catching my train home I stopped by the French Market and cleaned out the seafood counter of all of their beautiful looking mussels. I grabbed a bunch of parsley from the produce section and a bottle of white wine and a French baguette from an artisan cheese corner. I felt very Parisian as I ran to catch my train, hopping aboard just as the doors were closing. Once home, the recipe fell together in just a few minutes. The house smelled fantastic and dinner was ready to serve just as my friend rang the doorbell. Fantastic timing!

I am much more confident when it comes to baking, but this seemed almost foolproof. If you're ever in need to impress someone or if you just want to share a great meal with a friend or two this makes a great entree for two to four people or an appetizer for a crowd. Give it a try, I promise it will become a favorite regular on your dinner table.

Mussel Shells
look at all these empty shells

Mussels in White Wine
adapted from Ina Garten

3 pounds cultivated mussels
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 cup chopped onion or shallots (5 to 7 shallots)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic (5 to 6 cloves)
1/2 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes, drained (4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon good saffron threads
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 tbsp dried thyme)
1 cup good white wine
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To clean the mussels, put them in a large bowl with 2 quarts of cold water and the flour and soak for 30 minutes, or until the mussels disgorge any sand. Drain the mussels, then remove the "beard" from each with your fingers. If they're dirty, scrub the mussels with a brush under running water. Discard any mussels whose shells aren't tightly shut. Mine were clean, but a few did open up early and I was very sad to see them go.

In a large non-aluminum stockpot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion or shallots and cook for 5 minutes; then add the garlic and cook for 3 more minutes, or until the shallots are translucent. Add the tomatoes, saffron, parsley, thyme, wine, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil.

Add the mussels, stir well, then cover the pot, and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until all the mussels are opened (discard any that do not open). With the lid on, shake the pot once or twice to be sure the mussels don't burn on the bottom. Pour the mussels and the sauce into a large bowl and serve hot with a sliced baguette for sopping up the yummy juices.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Scones to Build a Brunch Around


You're probably really sick of me talking about breakfast, so I'll move on. Who wants to talk about brunch? I know, I know, I didn't get far from the breakfast topic, but brunch is my favorite time to have people over. Well, brunch and just because. The day is just starting, the food can be comforting and no one is falling asleep at the table. You can pour out cups and cups of coffee, play games, or just chat, and if you happen to have gone a bit overboard with the menu, that just means your guests will stay longer. It's hard to leave when you can't even stand up.


One more recipe has recently entered my "must make for brunch" repertoire, and that is this one for the best scones ever. If you only know scones from those hard lumps they sell at Starbucks, you will be pleasantly surprised. These are tender, crumbly, and just a little sweet, so they go great with a bit of butter or a slick of your favorite jam.


They're enormously easy to make, and you can probably try them with any kind of fruit or even mini chocolate chips, which gives me an idea for what to try next. But the first time you make these, I'd recommend using the original recipe. It's wonderful and will make a great addition to your breakfast, brunch or any time table.


Dreamy Cream Scones
America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook via Smitten Kitchen

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup currants (I used dried cranberries, and chopped them into smaller bits)
1 cup heavy cream

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425°F.

2. Place flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in large bowl or work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Whisk together or pulse six times.

3. If making by hand, use two knives, a pastry blender or your fingertips and quickly cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few slightly larger butter lumps. Stir in currants. If using food processor, remove cover and distribute butter evenly over dry ingredients. Cover and pulse 12 times, each pulse lasting 1 second. Add currants and pulse one more time. Transfer dough to large bowl.

4. Stir in heavy cream with a rubber spatula or fork until dough begins to form, about 30 seconds.

5. Transfer dough and all dry, floury bits to countertop and knead dough by hand just until it comes together into a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Form scones by either a) pressing the dough into an 8-inch cake pan, then turning the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, cutting the dough into 8 wedges with either a knife or bench scraper (the book’s suggestion and what I did) or b) patting the dough onto a lightly floured work surface into a 3/4-inch thick circle, cutting pieces with a biscuit cutter, and pressing remaining scraps back into another piece and cutting until dough has been used up. (Be warned if you use this latter method, the scones that are made from the remaining scraps will be much lumpier and less pretty, but taste fine.)

6. Place rounds or wedges on ungreased baking sheet and bake until scone tops are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Meringue Roses: Better Late Then Ever

I can officially cross one more "To Do" item off my list. This might not be a huge achievement, all things considered, but it's been over a decade since I started down the on-and-off cake decorating road and I can finally say that I can make my own butter cream roses (or cabbages, as my friend insisted on calling them). I know that they usually teach you how to make them by the 2nd or 3rd course of any decorating class, but I have never taken any such classes, learning on my own from books or the internet. I've gotten pretty good with an offset spatula, and I can pipe some pretty decent rosettes, but something about roses has always just intimidated me, so I never tried. Until yesterday, that is.

My friend Joy has recently been taking some cake decorating classes and I thought that I might offer her a little help practicing. I'm not a professional, but I figured I could share my buttercream recipe and share the little tricks I've learned over the years, plus practice a bit on my own too. It's always more fun to try new stuff with company. I pulled out some decorating books, and after we caught up a bit over breakfast, I whipped up a batch of my favorite butter cream, and we got to work.

buttercream roses 1

There are ton of good tutorials out there on the web on how to make your own roses, but I must admit, none of them compare to grabbing the tools and getting your hands dirty. As my friend sat across the table from me smoothing down the sides of her cake, we talked and laughed and I practiced. I even got her to pipe some roses while her crumb coat was setting. Apparently she's been watching her mom make them for years and knew exactly what to do, which is why hers look like roses:

Joy's Rose

and mine look like cabbages:

My Rose

But I am still excited. With a bit more work, a stiffer icing, and maybe a different piping tip, I'm sure I'll be able to get the hand of it, but for now, if you're in need of a vegetable garden themed cake, I'm totally the right person to help you out.

This recipe makes a great tasting frosting that's light and fluffy at room temperature, not tooth-achingly sweet, and can stand up to almost any flavoring and any application. I got it from The Wedding Cake Book
and while it might not be the best thing for roses, it's my go-to recipe and it has served me well.

Italian Meringue Buttercream
from The Wedding Cake Book by Dede Wilson

1/2 cup water
1 1/4 cups plus 1/3 cup sugar
8 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon cream of tatar
1 1/2 pounds (6 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Place the water and 1 1/4 cups sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir quickly to moisten all the sugar, but do not stir again during boiling because this encourages the formation of sugar crystals. As the mixture becomes hot, use a pastry brush dipped in cold water to brush any sugar crystals down from the sides of the pan. You may also cover the pan briefly at this point. Steam will develop and wash down the sides of the pans automatically. Bring to a boil and set up your candy thermometer, preferably a digital one with an alarm that you can set.

Meanwhile, place the egg whites in a clean, grease-free mixing bowl, and with the balloon whip attachment beat the whites on low until frothy. Add the cream of tatar and turn the speed to medium-high. When soft peaks form, add the remaining 1/3 cup sugar gradually. Continue beating until stiff, but not dry peaks form.

Depending on how long it took you to deal with the eggs, your sugar might be ready, but if not, raise the heat under it to speed up the process. It must cook for about 5 minutes to reach the desired temperature, between 248 and 250 F. Try to have the syrup ready at the same time as the meringue. If the meringue is ready first, reduce the speed so that the whites move continuously, but slowly. If the syrup is done first, add a small quantity of hot water, not cold water, to lower the temperature and continue cooking until the meringue catches up.

The instructions will now tell you to stop the mixer, pour in the sugar and quickly turn the mixer back up again, but this will most likely result in a bunch of hardened sugar stuck to the bowl of your mixer, and that just won't do. The way I do this is I crank up the mixer to high and slowly pour the sugar syrup right in in a thin stream into the space between the bowl's side and the beaters. A bit of it might still stick to the side, but it will be minimal, and it should all go well from here.

Whip the meringue until it cools, about 15 minutes, depending on the room temperature. When the bowl is no longer warm, stop the mixer and touch the surface of the meringue to be sure it is cool. Do not add the butter which the meringue is warm, or the butter will melt and ruin the texture and decrease the volume. If after about 15 min your meringue is still warm (and so is your mixer), just pop the bowl with the whip attachment into the fridge for a few minutes to cool down. Just whip it again for a minute once you take it out and you should be all set to continue with the butter. It should look something like this at this point:

Italian Meringue Frosting

Turn the mixer down to medium speed and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time. The butter immediately becomes incorporated and the mixture becomes creamy. Continue to whip the buttercream and add the remaining butter. Keep mixing until the mixture is evenly blended and smooth. If at any time the mixture looks lumpy or separated, continue to beat until it smooths out. If your meringue was too warm and you see that things are getting soupy, just stop, pop the bowl into the fridge for a few minutes and continue. Once all the butter is in and the butter cream is smooth, you can add any flavorings you like. I've added fruit purees, all kinds of extracts, Nutella and lemon curd. Just keep an eye on the consistency to make sure you don't end up with soup again and you should be fine.

Use right away or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. If you do store it for later, just let it come to room temperature and whip it back into shape with a few minutes in your mixer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Granola and Tie Dyes and More Things Breakfast

I think I might still be on the breakfast track of thought because this obsession is starting to take over dinner plans as of late. And the whole "everything homemade" thing is starting to make me feel a bit hippyish. No, I haven't started wearing tie dyed shirts and skirts and socks, I left all those behind sometime after junior high, but I have dipped my toes in granola making. Actually, considering the quantity of granola that I made, it wasn't just a toe, I'm in knee deep, and I love it. Who knew it was so easy? Not to mention that the process turned my house all warm and cozy with the smells of a bakery without the calories. It might call for an odd ingredient or two, but it makes a ton, is infinitely flexible and delicious and quite a bit cheaper then the store bought kind.

Homemade Granola

I stumbled onto this recipe here and seeing as how it was the first gorgeously warm day, I jotted down the ingredients, pulled on my shoes, left my coat hanging on the chair and took a long walk down to Whole Foods. Nothing feels better then the first coat-less warm day. It's like breathing through your skin. Like running around the house opening all the windows and finally letting all the stale winter air out and letting the spring in. But I digress, back to the granola. Once back home, I spread out the loot and got to work. I have to tell you, the process couldn't be simpler. You mix in all the dry stuff, mix all the wet stuff, combine, and bake. You do have to stir the mixture up every 10 minutes so that it dries evenly and doesn't clump up, so I stayed in the kitchen and made a large pot of iced tea. What better way to welcome spring? I highly recommend it.

Granola Pre-Baked

Homemade Granola
adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast via Orangette

Dry ingredients
5 cups rolled oats
3 cups raw almonds or pecan halves, or a mixture of any nut you like
1 cup hulled raw sunflower seeds
3/4 cup sesame seeds (I added this, but I'm not sure if I will didn't add much)
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon (I might add a bit more next time)
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. salt

Wet ingredients
3/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce
1/3 cup brown rice syrup (I found it by the honey in Whole Foods)
1/4 cup honey
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, such as canola or safflower

1 cup raisins, chopped apricots, dried cherries, cranberries, or anything else you like

Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300°F.

In a large bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients. Stir to mix well. In a small bowl, combine all of the wet ingredients. Stir to mix well. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ones, and stir well. See? I told you this was easy.

Spread the mixture evenly on two rimmed baking sheets. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Set a timer to go off every ten minutes while the granola bakes, so you can rotate the pans and give the granola a good stir; this helps it to cook evenly. When it’s ready, remove the pans from the oven, stir well – this will keep it from cooling into a hard, solid sheet – and set aside to cool. The finished granola may still feel slightly soft when it comes out of the oven, but it will crisp as it cools.

Add about a cup of any dried fruit you like, I added raisins, and scoop into to a large zipper-lock plastic bag or other airtight container. Store in the refrigerator indefinitely, but trust me, it won't last that long.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All About Breakfast


I love breakfast. It's by far my favorite meal of the day. It's so friendly and it even plays nice with lunch and hosts fabulous brunches on the weekends. It shares with you smoky bacon, luscious omelets, gooey eggs benedict, saccharine french toast, and heaping bowls of fresh fruit. How can you not love it? Right now though, my favorite player is a humble waffle.

I'm a bit late in telling you this, okay, very late, but last month a group of food bloggers got together and created a small cookbook to raise money for Haiti. I'm pretty sure it's no longer up for sale, but I was able to nab one at the last minute. For one, I can tell you that I'll definitely be ordering from Blurb. The quality of the book was phenomenal. But even better, the book was chock full of fabulous recipes, including this one for yeast based banana waffles. I made them for my dad's birthday brunch this past weekend along with some other goodies I'll be making again to share with you later, but the waffle maker called to me from the shelf, asking to be used again.

The nice thing about making your own waffles is that you can always freeze the ones you don't eat, so don't halve the recipe, even if you're making them just for yourself. You'll be able to pull them out and pop them into the toaster, the same way some people pop in Eggos. It's cheaper, just as convenient, and I promise you, these dimpled takes on Banana Bread in a waffle form are a whole heck of a lot yummier.

Banana Waffles

Banana Bread Yeasted Waffles
From Seven Spoons via BlogAid for Haiti cookbook

4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 cup plus 2 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp dark brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground ginger
Pinch of ground clove
2 eggs, beaten lightly
1 cup mashed ripe bananas, about 3 whole
2 tbsp sour cream or greek yogurt

Warm up the milk a little bit and in a small bowl, whisk together the butter, milk and vanilla. Set aside, the mixture should be warm but not hot. If you don't warm the milk, the melted butter will solidify as soon as it's mixed...and that will sort of defeat the purpose.

In a large mixing bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, brown sugar, yeast, salt and spices. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, whisking until smooth. Stir in the beaten eggs. Cover the bowl loosely with saran wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, but up to 24.

About 30 minutes before you want to make waffles, take the batter out of the refrigerator to come up to room temperature slightly. It should be doubled in size and the surface will be covered in bubbles. I forgot to do this the 2nd time I made them and I just needed to cook them a little longer, so if you're as absentminded as I am, all is not least where these waffles are concerned.

When ready to begin, stir the sour cream into the mashed bananas and then mix the fruit into the batter. It will deflate a bit, but don't worry, just use a light, quick hand to thoroughly combine.

Heat your waffle iron and bake the waffles as per the manufacturer's instruction.

I was able to get about a dozen waffles out of it...I ate one or two right off the iron, so I'm not counting them.