Friday, November 25, 2011

Chocolate cake.

David Lebovitz writes in The Sweet Life in Paris that every baker should have in his or her repertoire a tested chocolate cake recipe to call upon if caught in a bind.  We don't need to live in Paris, as David does, to know that chocolate is universally loved.  I know few who don't at least enjoy (if not love) chocolate--though I have one friend who says she doesn't like chocolate (imagine that, a woman who doesn't like chocolate), but when encountered with some pretty fabulous chocolate on a trip to Italy, even she returned to the shop for more.  I think good chocolate can make a fan out of any of us.

I started trying a few different chocolate dessert recipes to find one that was quick, forgiving, and delivered praise-worthy results--the point of keeping such a chocolate cake recipe in your back pocket.  But I also didn't want to rely on lava chocolate cakes, which, if I think about it too much, can sometimes feel like an underbaked chocolate cake (think undercooked eggs), and which doesn't share well once a knife is run through it because the batter oozes out into a puddle.  

I found the recipe below on, where most of my recipes come from.  David Lebovitz also has one in his book that requires a little more work (though not much), so I wanted to try this one first.  Given the few ingredients in the recipe, the chocolate is certainly the centerpiece and makes it imperative that quality chocolate is used.  Any chocolate dessert is going to be only as good as the quality of chocolate itself.  For this, I used 65% cocoa content semisweet chocolate chips (to bypass the chopping step), which produced a rich, flavorful cake.  There are some good quality chocolate chips available.  And now that we are in the holiday season in full force, with Thanksgiving dinner just behind us and Christmas a month away, this chocolate cake recipe could be a life-saver.

Bittersweet Chocolate and Almond Cake
Adapted from
Serves about 10

Preheat oven to 325F degrees, and butter and flour (or use a baking non-stick spray) a 9" spring form pan.

1.  Slowly melt in a heavy saucepan over low heat the following ingredients, and set aside:
- 12 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (most chocolate chip bags come in this size)
- 1 cup of unsalted butter (2 sticks)

2.  Combine in a mixing bowl using a wire whisk:
- 1/2 cup almond flour
- 3 T. cake flour
- 1/4 t. salt

3.  Mix together in a separate bowl:
- 5 large eggs
- 1-1/3 cups sugar
- 1/2 t. vanilla extract
- 1/2 t. almond extract

4.  Fold the flour mixture in #2 into the eggs mixture in #3, then fold in the chocolate.

5.  Pour batter into the spring form pan, and bake for about 55 minutes.  The cake is done when the cake tester comes out with moist crumbs.  Cool cake in pan, then remove and refrigerate.

6.  Serve in slices, topped with whipped cream and toasted almond slices (I like to add berries, too).

Friday, October 14, 2011

London (and Paris) calling.

I first set foot in London and Paris a number of years ago, as part of a celebratory trip (on a tour bus no less) to commemorate the conclusion of my schooling and my entry into "real" adulthood (making my own living and learning the true cost of mundane items like toilet paper).  It was a rapid-fire tour, rushed from town to town, capped off on each end with London and Paris; but being fresh out of school, I was eager to see what was beyond university walls, even if it was from the seat of a tour bus mostly full of strangers.  I could barely believe I was seeing it all up close and personal, and London and Paris lived up to all I had imagined it would be.  I hadn't been back since, for various reasons, though I had always hoped to return some day, especially to Paris.  

A few months ago, my sister called me to convince me to go on a trip with her since she had caught the travel bug.  I was wary of taking a trip with her, given our travel philosophy differences (I like to plan and research, she's a bit of a "free spirit"; my idea of appreciating fine art includes the museum, she frequents the LV boutique).  But an idea occurred to me that this might be a good opportunity to take Mom on a trip.  I couldn't remember the last time we took a vacation together, so I told my sister I would go as long as Mom came.  And with that, my sister booked a trip for the three of us to London and Paris, two cities Mom had never seen but had spent much of her life wishing to visit.  London for the royalty (more recently inspired by the wedding of Will and Kate), and Paris for the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame and all they represented.

I met up with Mom and my sister at London's Heathrow airport, and my first image walking out of baggage claim was Mom slumped in a cold, hard airport chair, having fallen asleep while waiting for my flight to arrive.  It was a long flight for her, and I had wondered how she would fare during the trip.  We had seven days, and adjusting to the time difference might take a few nights for her.  But she proved to be a trooper, and one of my favorite memories of her in London was when I took her on the Underground during rush hour to get to Buckingham Palace, her small steps barely keeping pace with mine and that of the rest of the masses.  An outsider might feel pity for an aging (it's almost hard for me to say elderly) woman contending with the crowds on the subway, but I found it endearing in some strange way, as though it represented her struggle to do all she could as a mother to keep up with me and love me the way she knew how throughout her life.

I had my own ideas as to what I wanted to see and do during this trip, having visited London and Paris already--especially discovering patisseries (and eating loads of pastries) and indulging in a Parisian shopping experience.  That didn't quite happen, and we spent our time (and Mom's limited amount of energy) going to well-traveled tourist spots, because I had to acknowledge that it was probably likely Mom would never return here again and I wanted her to see and experience in person those landmarks and sites she had only seen on TV or heard about from her friends.  Tour guides and travel shows often turn their noses at the touristy things, but on this trip, I had a deep appreciation for staying on the beaten path, even if I'd been on it already.  So we did our Big Bus tour of London, visited the Queen's apartments, followed our Beefeater tour guide around the Tower of London, posed in front of the Arc de Triomphe for pictures, relived court life at the Palace of Versailles, cruised the River Seine on the famed Bateaux Parisiens, and topped it all off with dinner on the Eiffel Tower.  And all of it was wonderful.

It's been over a month now since our trip, and I'm putting the finishing touches on a photo book to give Mom when I see her next for Christmas.  To any other person, my photos probably look like your average tourist shots, a little like postcards--nice enough but kind of uninspired.  But as I look through them, they recall for me all of Mom's enthusiasm and excitement as she ogled Kate's wedding gown at Buckingham Palace, had the opportunity to say a prayer inside Notre Dame, and watched the Eiffel Tower light up and literally sparkle.  One thing I was reminded of on this trip: there is no feeling like being able to make someone else happy.  Years ago, Mom gave me the gift of taking my first trip abroad to a place I had only dreamed about.  This year, I finally returned the favor--and got back more in return.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hands on.

Today I'd like to talk about pies.  I've been thinking about them for a while now--maybe on and off for a few months.  I was flipping through a cookbook, and I came across a recipe for these, and they immediately brought me back to my childhood, when I would go to the grocery store with my mom and linger in the baked goods section, begging and pleading for a sweet treat.  Sometimes the market would have sales on the Hostess fruit pies (or the supermarket brand equivalent, which was often cheaper--I couldn't taste the difference), and my mom would give in, and the moment we got home I would search through the grocery bags to find the pies and savor every bite.  I may even like these hand-held versions better than the traditional large round pies, if only for the nostalgia.  The crust wasn't flakey and buttery, but firmer with a sugary glaze on top.  "Real fruit filling" meant pieces of fruit suspended in gelatinous, brightly colored, sickly sweet goo.  But for the non-discriminating sweet tooth that I was, what did I care.  

I saw them recently at Whole Foods.  These perfectly shaped crescents, crimped at the edges, with cherry filling and a slight sheen.  They looked delicious.  I was inspired.  I could recreate the childhood experience--and make them just slightly more wholesome and...refined.  I bought the ingredients, but forgot the yeast for the pastry dough.  Not feeling like going back to the store, I searched on-line for an alternative recipe and found one on that didn't require a yeast-based crust.  Perfect--or so I thought.  

The dough turned out sticky and unwieldy, but I was determined to make it work by tweaking the flour proportions.  Eventually I was able to get it to a consistency I could roll out to cut out circles, though it would stick to the fork when I used it to seal the edges.  I had enough patience at that point to make only 9 small pies, and during the baking process, the juice from the blueberry filling oozed out of many of them.  I felt defeated.

But biting into one did not disappoint.  The crust was like a sugar cookie, and I liked it even better a day later, when it softened up so that it didn't break apart as I bit into it, holding the pie in my hungry hands.  Some call them empanadas, buns, hand pies...  Whatever they're called, and despite the little bit of extra labor (e.g. if working with defiant pastry dough), these pies are fun to eat, and even more fun to give out. 

Blueberry Hand Pies

Crust recipe adapted from, filling recipe adapted from Marcy Goldman's A Passion for Baking.

Makes approximately 18 pies

Line baking sheets with parchment paper, and preheat oven to 375F degrees.

1.  Using a wire whisk, mix together in a bowl:
- 2-1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 t. baking powder
- 1/2 t. salt

2.  Using a pastry hand-held mixer, blend in:
- 1/2 cup of butter, cut into cubes

3.  Continue mixing in the following, using your hands to blend completely until the dough comes together:
- 2 T. yogurt (or sour cream)
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 t. vanilla
- 1 egg
- 3/4 cup sugar

4.  Form the dough into a round mass, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate the pastry dough for at least one hour.

5.  While the dough is being chilled, cook over medium heat in a small saucepan:
- 2 cups of blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- 3/4 cup of sugar
- 1 t. cinnamon
- 1 T. water or lemon juice

6.  Once the mixture in #5 begins to bubble, add the following, and cook for another 4 or 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens; allow filling to cool, then cover and refrigerate:
- 1 T. corn starch dissolved in 2 T. water

7.  When ready to make the pies, break of pieces of dough to roll out at a time, keeping the rest of the pastry dough refrigerated.  Roll out the dough using a rolling pin to 1/4 inch thickness, and cut out 5" circles.  Spoon out about 1-1/2 T. of filling in the center of the circle, and fold the circle in half, sealing the edge with the tip of a fork.  Poke the top of the crust with fork a few times to allow steam to escape.

8.  Bake the pies for approximately 20 minutes, or until slightly golden brown.  Sprinkle powdered sugar on top when ready to serve.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting for sunshine.

It's the first day of June, and I'm beginning to wonder if summer will ever come at all.  Usually this time of year, I'm getting ready to bare my pasty legs and slather on the sunscreen and attend barbeques.  Instead, today's high hit the mid-60s, and the forecast for the next couple of days include rain.  I feel like a broken record each day as I lament the weather, hoping for sunshine and warmth.  But they never come.  Funny how I remember anticipating colder weather some months back, and that wish has certainly been fulfilled.  

But what this enduring chilly weather also makes me think of is how we look for change as benchmarks in life.  A change in season not only refers to the weather, but it can signify progress or growth, or maybe even putting things behind us in hopes of something new or better another day.  The Byrds (I always thought it was the Beatles!) sing of it, taken literally from Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, referring to different times for different phases in life, but, ultimately, the verses speak to God's goodness and gift of fulfillment to us as human beings, as every time has its purpose.  As with some life seasons, I continue to wait for change, a break in the weather, but I know that there will likely be a day--probably some blazing hot summer day in the future--when I will long for a day like today. 

I recently baked gougères as appetizers for a potluck gathering.  I've wanted to try something from Julia Child, but many of her recipes require much preparation and time (and skill), though her directions are thorough and clear.  These, however, were surprisingly easy and quick to make, since they are essentially savory pâte à choux, and her recipe yielded compliment-inducing results.  Warm, cheesy, and flaky, they were like a little bit of sunshine in the midst of some drab weather.        

Adapted from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1

Makes approximately 30 1-1/2 inch puffs

Preheat oven to 425F degrees.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

1.  Boil together in saucepan:
- 1 c. water
- 3/4 stick of unsalted butter (or 6 T.), cut in cubes
- 1 t. salt
- 1/8 t. pepper
- dash of ground nutmeg

2.  Remove the saucepan from heat, and beat in the following with a wooden spoon:
- 3/4 c. unbleached all purpose flour

3.  After flour has been incorporated, continue to beat the mixture over medium high heat for 1 or 2 minutes until the mixture becomes a mass and you see a film on the bottom of the saucepan.

4.  Remove the saucepan from heat again, and hollow out the center of the mass.  Add the following, one at a time, into the center and beat dough until the egg is incorporated.  Repeat process for each egg.
- 4 large eggs

5.  Add the following into the paste:
- 1 cup grated Swiss and/or gruyere cheese
- 1 T. finely chopped chives (optional)

6.  Spoon 1 inch mounds, about 1-1/2 inches apart, on the baking sheet.  

7.  Brush each mound with a mixture of:
- 1 egg
- 1/2 t. water

8.  Bake in oven for about 20 min.  If baking two sheets at a time, rotate sheets halfway through the baking time.  The gougeres should puff up, with a golden brown firm crust, when done.  Can be served warm or at room temperature.


Monday, March 28, 2011


Since March 11, not a day has gone by that I don't think of the people of Japan and the tragedy they're facing.  I can probably safely say that goes the same for many of us.  It is unfathomable and heartbreaking, and there are no words to describe this order of hardship.  But what amazes me is how survivors are pulling through, that in the midst of having their homes and towns leveled and losing loved ones, their mentality remains "ganbarimasu"--"I'll do my best".  They do not loot but instead pour their energy into rebuilding again.  Adversity may bring about destruction, but it also has the power to unite, reconcile and strengthen.

Some years back right after college, I spent a summer in Japan, teaching English to earnest Japanese students and adults, and helping at a small Christian church in a suburb of Tokyo.  More than a country that brought us anime, cute product packaging, and superior cars and electronics, what I found was an orderly, precise, and almost overly polite society that highly valued hospitality and the expression of respect.  Deeply rooted in their own traditions, Japan has also adapted some of the best parts of Western culture, such as food and fashion, and made them its own.  

In my spare moments, my host family or some students whisked me away to see the sites, introduced me to sushi, ramen stands, fine French cuisine and patisseries, dressed me up in their traditional yukata (a summer kimono), and bestowed me with gifts--tokens to remember Japan by.  It was an illustration of their overwhelming affability to an otherwise complete stranger.  And since then, Japan--especially the people--has occupied a place in my heart, which over time has perhaps collected a little dust but has not been entirely forgotten.

In the midst of current events, I pray for recovery, both physically and spiritually, for a stricken nation.  People sometimes say everything happens for a reason.  Having the advantage (or is it?) to have never suffered greatly in this way, I can easily nod my head and agree.  Who can truly discern God's plans in all of this, but I also believe that God is a redeeming God and can create light in the midst of darkness.

I attempted making brioche a few weeks ago for a good friend's birthday.  Oddly, brioche was a regular breakfast item while I was in Japan, sometimes served by my host families with tea jelly and, of all things, a green salad.  Their brioche was light, buttery and smooth.  Mine was dense, greasy and coarse.  I will not offer my own adaptation of the recipe--you can find it at the King Arthur Flour website.  After this unsuccessful attempt, I will resign myself to enjoying brioche made by professionals instead.