Carpet bombing, cake-style

It’s kid birthday season again in our household.

With both kids’ birthdays in the last ten days of October plus Halloween, our family is currently lost in the October vortex. The decorations will remain hanging in our house for a week and a half, much cake and ice cream will be consumed and presents opened, and then massive doses of sugar devoured on Halloween itself.

A true recipe for temporary insanity.

Ever since each of my kids turned one year old, every year, I’ve baked a mini birthday layer cake for them, using six inch cake pans. But not just once – there is always a family party where we celebrate my kids’ birthdays plus my niece’s birthday; then, a kids party; not to mention the two kids’ actual birthdays themselves.

We eat a lot of cake in October.

This year, I came to my senses and decided not to bake the birthday cakes for the kids’ party with their friends.

But I still lacked some sense in that I decided to not just bake three mini-cakes from scratch for our family birthday party, but select unique flavors for each, so our party guests would have a choice – one cake would be a white cake with chocolate frosting; another cake would be a spice cake with orange cream cheese frosting; and the third one would be a German chocolate cake with coconut-pecan frosting.

Why not? I’d figured out last year that all it takes to adapt a regular layer cake recipe for the mini pans was to halve it. Simple, but true. I was itching to put the theory into practice and adapt some regular recipes for mini-cakes.

So, once again, I chose to ignore the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid).

The day before the party, in addition to cleaning the house and running errands to four stores, I made a double-batch of soup, mixed ingredients for several loaves of bread, and baked the cake layers for three different cakes.

My day passed by in 10, 15, 30 minute increments, measured by the kitchen timer. As always happens when I’m tackling multiple cooking projects in one day, by late afternoon I got to the point where I was muttering to myself, “What was I thinking???”

But I took a deep breath and finished the job. Then collapsed onto the sofa.

On Saturday, it was time to face the frostings.

The fluffy chocolate frosting that was nearly my undoing last year turned out okay this time, a little soft due to the warm kitchen, but fluffy enough to do the trick.

Ignoring the dastardly villain brandishing a sharp spear behind him, Iron Man faced his toughest challenge yet trying to retain his footing on a slippery chocolate slope.

The orange cream cheese frosting was easier to keep at the right consistency. Behold the spice cake for my spice girl, a six year old verging on tween…

Then it was time to tackle the coconut pecan frosting for the German chocolate cake. This cake was the wild card. I had prior experience making the other two cake recipes, but this one was a new recipe which I then customized to the small cake pan size.

Baking this chocolate cake recipe the day before was a bit of a pain, as it required melting chocolate, separating the eggs and beating the egg whites, extra steps I don’t normally have to do when I make cakes.

Plus, there were two components to frosting the cake – the coconut pecan frosting, plus a chocolate frosting for the sides of the cake. I just chose to make a full batch of the fluffy chocolate frosting I was using for the first cake, and then used the 2nd half of it for frosting the sides of the German chocolate cake.

The coconut pecan frosting was so delicious I couldn’t resist eating some with a spoon; the negative was that it was still a bit runny at the time I frosted the cake. But it would have to do.

Turns out twelve-year-olds don’t need toppers.

The guests arrived for the party later that day – presents opened; soup, bread and salad consumed; and then it was time for the cake and ice cream. My family was intrigued by the various flavors I’d made and wanted to try some of each cake.

Trouble was, it’s difficult to cut up these tiny cakes into small pieces to begin with, let alone do it quickly while 15 guests wait to be served.

The first two cakes were easy enough to divvy up but the German chocolate cake totally collapsed once we cut into it. After the fussiness of the recipe itself, it was disappointing to see the cake flame out like it did. It was a train wreck.

Whatever. No points for presentation but hopefully it would taste good.

My sister and I were slicing up the cakes as quickly as we could, and soon had most of the cakes plated. Then I had to stop and snap a photo because, honestly, this cake panorama was so completely ridiculous. We were serving enormous portions of cake to everyone; nobody would possibly be able to finish what was on their plate.

I was carpet-bombing my guests with cake.

Most of the guests gamely tried to plow through the cakes. But, as one family member commented, the flavors of these cakes were each so very different; eaten side by side, they didn’t necessarily go together well.

Only my dad had the good sense to request only one tiny little slice of the white cake. Then he followed up with a request for a sampling of that mysterious apple butter that he’d read so much about.

***

I really do enjoy cake but don’t make it much the rest of the year, primarily because the four of us can’t eat a whole regular-sized cake before it goes stale. But a mini-cake? Yes we can!

The mini-size cake yields at least 8 generously sized portions, perfect to serve for a small dinner party or even just for the family, whenever you feel like having some cake.

My favorite of the three mini-cakes I made for the birthday party was the spice cake. Spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are synonymous with autumn in my mind. The addition of ginger and cardamom in this Epicurious recipe lends an additional exotic touch, plus the orange cream cheese frosting is truly decadent.

Here’s photo of this cake’s interior from when I baked this cake another time earlier in the month.

Links to the three recipes:
1. Vanilla Baby Cake with Fluffy Chocolate Frostingcake recipe & frosting recipe

2. Spice Cake with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting – the Epicurious recipe is for a full-size cake; if you wish to make a mini cake like this one, just halve all of the ingredients for the cake and the frosting

3. German Chocolate Cake with Coconut Pecan Frosting – a Food Network recipe. Again, this is a recipe for a full-size cake – halve the ingredients if you’d like a mini-cake. I loved the frosting recipe but didn’t care for how the cake itself fell apart. So I probably wouldn’t recommend this recipe.

My guess is that the cake collapse was either due to too much runny frosting between the layers, the tenderness of the cake from using cake flour, or something to do with folding in the egg whites.

If I make this type of mini-cake again, I’ll try a different recipe, and use a dark chocolate frosting on the sides, since the fluffy chocolate frosting was a bit too sweet in combination with the coconut pecan frosting.

***

This time of year always kills me. After all that’s gone on this month – birthdays, family events, Halloween, fascination with chocolate plus massive deadlines at my daytime job and haphazard meals on the run, my eating habits have taken a dive. Once Halloween is over, it’s time to get back on track.

So, I’m going to take a little break from blogging and social media for a bit to cool off my brain circuits and get some rest. But never fear, I’ll be back.

Playing the mandoline

I’m typing this blog post with all ten fingers intact to tell you that I survived my first mandoline use.

When I bought the mandoline back at the beginning of September, I was hopeful + leery. Hopeful because I loved the promise of being able to quickly slice vegetables; leery because all of the salespeople in the two kitchen stores I visited to check out mandolines told tales of cutting themselves while using this tool. Every single one of them.

So even though I tried out the apple torturer (aka, peeler / corer), the VeggieChop, and the pressure cooker, and they all performed safely with no major accidents or trips to the ER, the mandoline sat on my basement shelf waiting for the moment I had a recipe in hand that called for thinly slicing ingredients. It’s not like I was afraid or anything…

That time finally came when I was preparing a 30-minute weeknight recipe that suggested a radish-cucumber salad as a side dish. I took a deep breath, ran down to the basement to liberate the mandoline from its box and forced myself to give it a whirl.

Fortunately I didn’t have to assemble anything – the main blade for slicing was already in place, and there’s a handy knob on the side that you turn to the setting for how thick you’d like the slices to be – 1/16″, 1/8″, 3/16″, 1/4″.

The OXO v-blade model that I bought had a safety piece that you could use to grip the vegetable so your hand doesn’t even come near the blade itself. You just stick the vegetable on the four prongs and away you go.

Behold, within seconds, an entire cucumber beautifully, evenly sliced:

Then it was onto the radishes.

Again, beautiful radish slices in a flash.

Granted, I haven’t tried to switch out the blade yet – there are three other blades for julienne strips, crinkle cut, french fry, etc. I’ll report on those when I get up the nerve to take it to the next level.

For now, I’d just like to take a few moments to savor my first victory in this Fear Factor challenge. And enjoy having all of my fingertips still intact.

Ground cherries, fruit or foe?

From the local/seasonal file…ground cherries.

The distinctive paper lantern-wrapped ground cherries first caught my eye at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market last year. Always intrigued by the more unusual offerings at the market, I wanted to check them out but didn’t have the time or energy to figure out what to do with them that fall.

I must have mentioned this to Susan Berkson when I was on the Fresh and Local show last year, because she emailed me last month asking if I’d tried them yet. She probably knew it would be like catnip, dangling a little-known fruit in front of me.

But I’ve had difficulty getting to the farmer’s market since August and knew it was unlikely that I’d end up making it to the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. So I tried the next best thing – I asked Mississippi Market’s produce manager, Nick, about it. The co-op had had them briefly in stock, but when I stopped in, Nick said he thought they were done for the season.

Then, a couple of weeks later, an email arrived in my in-box from Nick saying that ground cherries were in stock at the co-op again. Of course, I had to try them, just for the sake of it.

But what exactly were these things? Were they fruit or foe?

From Wikipedia:
Physalis is a genus of plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), native to warm temperate and subtropical regions throughout the world. The genus is characterised by the small orange fruit similar in size, shape and structure to a small tomato, but partly or fully enclosed in a large papery husk derived from the calyx.

Many Physalis species are called groundcherries. One name for Physalis peruviana is Cape Gooseberry, not to be confused with the vast majority of gooseberries, which are of the genus Ribes.

The typical Physalis fruit is similar to a firm tomato (in texture), and like strawberries or other fruit in flavor; they have a mild, refreshing acidity. The flavor of the Cape gooseberry (P. peruviana) is a unique tomato/pineapple-like blend. Its uses are similar to the common tomato or to fruits with a refreshing taste.

Once extracted from its husk, it may be eaten raw or used in salads, desserts, as a flavoring, and in jams and jellies. They can also be dried and eaten much like raisins or other small dried fruit.

The Cape gooseberry is native to the Americas, but is commonly grown and feral in many subtropical areas, including South Africa (the “Cape” in the common name). Another important commercial type is the tomatillo (P. philadelphica).

So these are related to tomatillos, huh?

From Botany.com:

P. peruviana – Cape Gooseberry, Husk Tomato, or Ground Cherry. The Cape Gooseberry is hardly seen in the U.S. except in Pennsylvania Dutch country and parts of the Midwest. The sprawling vine grows up to 2 feet high and spreads 3 to 4 feet wide. The fruits are ½- to ¾-inch in diameter and are encased in a loose, papery husk shaded with purple.

When they are ripe, they resemble yellow Cherry Tomatoes. They are smaller and sweeter than Tomatillos and can be eaten raw or used in preserves.

I was definitely done with canning for this year, and I’d only bought one pint basket of the ground cherries (labeled “Cape gooseberries”) but I still felt compelled to cook something with them, so I decided to make the Ground Cherry Pie recipe that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Edible Twin Cities, a free publication available at area co-ops.

Once peeled, the ground cherries in my container varied in color from green to deep gold. I found out later that the green ones were not fully ripened, but at the time I didn’t have enough ground cherries for the recipe to begin with, so I had to use all the ones I had on hand, including the green ones.

My three-year-old loved peeling off the papery husks – it was a good 15-minute activity for him. For that reason alone, I could recommend the ground cherries.

As for the flavor? Meh, these ground cherries didn’t taste like much to me – kind of like a pear tomato crossed with a grape. Mildly sweet with a little acidity, this didn’t seem as exotic as the Wikipedia article described. This is not something that I’d chase down again.

The Edible Twin Cities pie recipe didn’t work out so well – I prepared it according to the directions and compensated for the shortage of ground cherries with an equivalent amount of sliced apples. Still, there was not enough fruit to fill out the pie, and the pie crust was undercooked, something I’ve never had happen before.

Oh well, now I can cross ground cherries off the list of unusual foods to try.

How about you? Have you ever tasted ground cherries or prepared them in a recipe? Should I give them another go next year?

Chocoholic

Chocolate on the brain, chocolate on the brain, I’ve had chocolate on the brain lately. Over the course of a week, I went on a baking spree largely fueled by a zeal for chocolate.

1. As a warm-up, the kids and I baked chocolate chip cookies on Friday. Just basic ones, from the recipe on the Ghirardelli package. This recipe’s OK but I don’t like how much these cookies spread. (Do any of you have a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe you’d like to share or direct me to – I’m holding auditions. Bonus points if it calls for a whole grain flour, and double bonus points if it has this plus tastes good.)

My kids love these basic chocolate chip cookies, though.

***
2. Next up was the chocolate brioche recipe from the fabulous local cookbook, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

If you don’t already have this book, I’d suggest getting it. Based on a very simple, no-knead technique, you’ll be baking bread in no time flat. Suddenly you’ll discover, yes, I can bake bread!

The book has several master bread recipes that are used to make all sorts of variations. One of my favorite recipes is the brioche since it’s a rich and decadent bread yet so darn simple to make; I’ve had the most consistent results with this recipe.

Add a bittersweet chocolate ganache filling, and I’ll guarantee that the fine chocolate lovers in your life will swoon.

My husband and kids are more milk-chocolate lovers than bittersweet fans, so that left the bulk of the loaf for myself (lucky me, but heavy me – I ended up giving away half of it to a friend).

The recipe called for Valrhona chocolate or a similar brand of ultra-premium bittersweet chocolate. I got my bittersweet chocolate from Cook’s of Crocus Hill, who carries a full line of premium baking chocolates from Valrhona, a French chocolate producer, and Callebaut, a Belgian/Swiss company.

You can find Callebaut in large hunks at gourmet shops like Surdyk’s but they’re a pain to chop up for recipes. What’s nice about the chocolate sold at Cook’s is that it’s sold in two other forms – chips (Callebaut) and slim oval disks (Valrhona). (Cook’s buys them in bulk and re-packages them).

***

3. Then it was on to making the chocolate bread recipe from this cookbook, finally. I’ve been meaning to make it for over a year, ever since I made Door County Sour Cherry Preserves [recipe is also in the Artisan Bread book], but didn’t do it till now.

This chocolate bread recipe, along with photos of the preparation, can be found on the Artisan Bread website. There is a massive amount of chocolate in this recipe, including chocolate ganache, cocoa powder and finely chopped bittersweet chocolate. It’s not for the chocolate faint of heart.

The resulting dough was dense and hefty, a chocolate monolith.

It was a little difficult to tell when it was done, so I just took it out when the suggested bake time was up.
I baked this bread in the morning right before meeting a friend to go shopping and didn’t have time to taste it before leaving. Crossing my fingers that it would taste okay, I grabbed the loaf hot out of the oven and cooled it on a rack in the car on the way to 50th and France, so that I could give it to my friend along with a jar of my homemade cherry preserves ( I felt very Martha Stewart.)

Luckily, the chocolate bread was edible. In fact, my friends and work colleagues loved it, though I was a bit up in the air about the taste myself – to me, it seemed pretty blunt. I guess I was expecting something more chocolate cake-like; by that point I think my taste buds were blown out by all of the sugar I’d been recently eating.

I have to say, though, that the addition of the cherry preserves made this a stellar treat.


***

4. Finally, another chocolate bread recipe that was dead easy to make – Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread from a Cooking Light recipe on MyRecipes.com.

I was in the mood to bake zucchini bread from my farmer’s market purchases and stumbled across this Cooking Light recipe. It seemed healthier than the Paula Deen recipe that I was also eyeing, with much less vegetable oil than is typically called for in zucchini bread recipes.

The kids helped prepare the recipe after school one day. Since we usually eat both loaves in short order when we bake banana bread, I chose to double the recipe to make two loaves.

As the bread baked in the oven, it released a heavenly aroma of chocolate and cinnamon.

This is actually more like a cake, very moist and rich. Studded with semi-sweet chocolate chips and permeated with toasty cinnamon, it was hard to believe this was a Cooking Light recipe.

Maybe the applesauce and zucchini in the recipe confers a halo effect on this bread, so you can get away with eating it? That’s what I told myself at least.

Now you can see why I feel a deep need to go to the gym.

Elixir of the gods

Hot chocolate, the drink that launched a thousand ships, and probably kicked off a Mayan ballgame or two back in the day.

I’d guess that the early Mayan hot chocolate was quite different from the sweet beverage we quaff today, or that which the Europeans drank in their chocolate cafes during the 1600-1700s.

My daughter and I had the chance to decorate our own special mugs for ceremonial hot chocolate drinking when we visited the Chocolate exhibition opening at the Minnesota History Center.

It was pretty amazing to see the throngs of adults and kids painting their own creations at multiple color stations.

Even more amazing was that none of the paint got smeared on the floors or walls of the Minnesota History Center, as far as I could see. There was the occasional sound of a mug shattering on the hard marble floor, though.

Me, I waited until getting home before accidentally shattering one of the mugs on our hardwood floor. The gods of IKEA were most certainly not happy.

***

The photocopied Mexican Hot Chocolate recipe given away at the event was from Rachel Ray’s website; it’s a fairly spicy creation, so spicy in fact that it was too hot for my kids to drink.

The original recipe called for “chile powder” – so, did this mean “chili powder” or “cayenne”? There’s a difference between these two, you know.

I didn’t think the flavors of cumin, oregano, garlic and salt, items common in chili powder, made sense in this chocolate drink, so I guessed cayenne, and the results left a burning impression in my throat. The drinking sensation brought to mind a recent New York Times article about the pleasurable pain factor in consuming chili peppers.

My favorite quote from the piece:

“Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.”

I’d recommend omitting the cayenne pepper if you’re making this hot chocolate recipe for kids, or gradually adding the cayenne according to your taste preferences, up to 1/2 teaspoon for the four servings that this recipe makes.

I picture the Mayans sitting out on the terrace of their pyramids, chugging this stuff down in the glare of the hot morning sun, the pungent chili pepper bite causing hair to grow on their chests, before heading to play in one of their ferocious ballgames.


Mexican Hot Chocolate
(from a Rachel Ray recipe distributed at the Chocolate exhibition opening; makes 4 servings)

Ingredients:
4 cups whole milk
1 cup water
1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) chocolate chips
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Cayenne powder to taste, up to 1/2 tsp.
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Dash of salt

Instructions:
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat, whisking regularly, until the chocolate chips have melted and the liquid is hot, but not boiling (this should take about 8 minutes). Pour into four mugs. Drink fiercely.

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