Thursday, November 22, 2007

TheNotChocolate Birthday Cake

I didn't make a dessert for Thanksgiving dinner. But I have been baking, and yes, it is Thanksgiving today.

It also happens to be my great-aunt and great-uncle's birthday. And it is one of those years that ends with a zero. How can that not be commemorated with a cake?

Daunting may have been the word to describe making a birthday cake for Thanksgiving, especially from scratch. Actually, foolish, because I've never made one before. I guess layer cakes aren't hard, but they require some patience (something I lack when under time pressures, hence the reason I bake muffins to go in the freezer: nobody's impatiently waiting for breakfast). So even with Thanksgiving, and not having the day before off, I decided to bake this cake, and it was well worth it. All it meant was that nothing was prepped at all for Thanksgiving until today because I took over the kitchen from 4:30 until 9:30 Wednesday night.
The determination and slow pace paid of. This is the first layer cake that I've made from scratch, beginning to end, on my own. It even tasted good enough to allow my aunt to forgive me for breaking the "birthday cakes are chocolate cakes" requirement. But mostly, I'm just glad that despite one of my layers falling apart, I was able to stay calm and nobody knows. Well, except you and my dad who I accused of eating it because a chunk was missing, but really it had just collapsed.

I also didn't have the cake picked out until yesterday morning, even though I did all the shopping for it over the weekend (except the brown sugar because that wasn't in the first recipe I'd picked out.)
But when I went to print out the recipe, I stumbled upon another one, and decided to go with it instead. It was similar, but looked like it was more foolproof and would taste better. But it required three layers, and I only have two pans. I ended up borrowing four pans from my neighbor and making a four layer cake that was slightly smaller in diameter.

And I now have a new favorite cake for this time of year. But I'm only allowed to make non-chocolate cakes for my aunt if her birthday is on Thanksgiving. And I have tendencies to try something new when it comes to making special things because they really need a crowd to feed.

Some notes about the recipe: The original recipe on epicurious called for making applesauce in the cake, and I omitted that step, and used one large jonagold apple and one large granny smith. My frosting also didn't have a pronounced maple flavor because I am still looking for maple extract that isn't artificial imitation maple flavoring. I also noticed my walnuts had a funny taste when I was chopping them (I think if I'd rinsed them they would have been fine, because it wasn't evident in the cake or when dad put them in a fritatta earlier this week), so I just didn't press them into the sides of the cake. Instead I used some extra currants and decorated the border, but the top instead of the bottom of the side because I was tired and didn't realize that would have been the most attractive place until the morning. Oh, and the cake is similar to a carrot cake.

Apple Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

adapted from Bon Appetit October 1998
Makes a 3 layer 9" cake or a 4 layer 8" cake, easily serves 12

1 cup (140 g) plus 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (200 g) whole-wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 lb apples (such as Pippin, Granny Smith, or Jonagold, about two), cored and shredded
1/4 cup water
1 cup dried currants (about 5 ounces), plus about 1/4 cup more to decorate cake (optional)
1 cup walnuts(about 4 ounces), toasted, chopped

2 cups sugar (I used slightly less because our sugar is weird right now and looks powdery)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 Tablespoon brandy
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup pure maple syrup

To make cake:
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour four 8-inch diameter pans.

Sift 1 cup all-purpose flour and next 6 ingredients (through cloves) into a medium bowl. Toss currants with remaining 1 tablespoons flour.

Using electric mixer, beat sugar, butter, brandy, and vanilla in a large bowl until blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in half of flour mixture and 1/4 cup water. Beat in remaining flour and shredded apples with any liquid that drained from apples. Stir in currants and walnuts.

Divide batter among prepared pans. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cut around sides to loosen and turn out onto racks to cool.

To make frosting:
Using electric mixer, beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Beat in cream cheese; then maple syrup. Chill until beginning to firm, about 20 minutes.

To assemble cakes:
Place 1 cake layer on platter. Spread with 1/2 cup frosting. Top with second layer, spread with 1/2 cup frosting. Top with third layer; spread 1/2 cup frosting. Top with fourth layer and spread 1 cup frosting in thin layer over entire cake. Chill 15 minutes and then spread remaining frosting over cake. Press currants, if desired, around base of cake. Chill until frosting is set, at least 30 minutes.
Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before serving.

(Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep chilled.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tart Simple Green and Red Salad

When I made butternut squash risotto earlier this month, I wanted something easy and simple to go along with it since I am not known for my efficiency in the kitchen. If a recipe comes with a prep time, I usually have to double or triple it to get a good estimate of how long it is going to take me to make it. So I wanted my salad to be something that I could make so I wouldn't have to rely on the rest of the family to make half of dinner for me like I normally do, and so that it would be different from our everyday salads that my aunt makes. That isn't to say that those aren't spectacular, but they consist of whatever vegetables we have on hand and usually oil, herbs, and vinegar or lemon juice in the dressing. I just wanted to mix things up a bit. And do no chopping.

I will admit though that the only reason this was super simple for me was because my aunt did end up helping me. I'm really mean and when someone offers to help, I usually give them the hardest job. (My grandfather grated the ginger and squash for a cake when he offered to help, and my aunt got to peel and remove the seeds from the pomegranate when she offered to help me. See what I mean. But they're also tasks that I need to get done and easily become frustrated by.)

But I digress. So, if you aren't the one to deal with the pomegranate this salad is really easy, really simple, and, despite the toasted pecans, takes no time at all and can be made and then just tossed right before serving. Though the pomegranate juice wasa bit of a splurge at the grocery store. I guess I've never bought Pom juice before.

Mixed Greens and Double-Pomegranate Salad
adapted from Cooking Light November 2007
serves 6 as a small salad

1/4 cup pomegranate juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons minced shallots
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 5-ounce bag mixed greens*
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
a hanful of toasted pecans, finely chopped

Whisk together pomegranate juice, vinegar, shallots, oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add greens and pomegranate seeds and toss to coat. If plating, sprinkle each serving with about 1/2 teaspoon chopped pecans. (I prefer topping with pecans because it keeps them from getting soggy.)

*I was going to use two, but my dad stopped me. I couldn't find any of the large 16 ounce clamshells. It would have been fine with more greens, there was enough dressing. the original recipe calls for 6 cups

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nice Spice Granola

When flipping through the November Bon Appetit last month, one of the pages I dog-eared (okay, put a torn part of a receipt in) was one with two delicious looking and simple recipes. I would love to say that I've made both of them, but the night I was going to make the squash, mushroom, and spinach one I ended up having too much homework and not buying the mushrooms. The squash though was eventually used in the risotto and the cake. And then a few other uses since that one squash sure stretched far bread pudding and a side dish weeks later).

But the granola recipe on the left side of the page, that I managed to make. I've only made granola a few times before, and while it was good, I was disappointed with my greasy results and lack of clumps. Store-bought granola seems to suffer the same dilemma sometimes too, and it always seems so expensive or not full of oats or ruined with chocolate. (Yes, I said chocolate. Please don't hurt me.)

I have a feeling that everyone in the house would have preferred that I didn't make the granola the first time around. It isn't that it wasn't good, but it involved some poor planning on my part that led to a nasty mood. I made it in the morning. Before school. And it isn't that granola is difficult, it just requires quite a bit of time in the oven. I woke up before six, so I figured I was all set. I was in the kitchen around 6:05 and had everything on the counter by 6:10. With 15 minutes to get it onto a baking sheet and 35 minutes in the oven, I was fine. It would be ready by seven o'clock. Except that it didn't need just 35 minutes in the oven. And it took my twenty minutes to get it into the oven. I somehow misread a time in the recipe and it really needed closer to an hour. I'll leave it to you to decide whether you want to know how the course of events and my disposition played out.

I will say this: it was tasty granola the next day. I just knew it could be better.

This time it was better. I made it at night, and though it kept me up until 9:30, it was better than running late for school.

Spiced Maple-Walnut Granola with Dried Cranberries
makes about 6 cups
(based on a recipe in November 2007 Bon Appetit, it resembles the original recipe, but I'm too lazy to find the link since I'm offline)

2/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons brown sugar, divided
1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup egg whites (about 2 large)
3 cups old-fashioned or quick oats (my dad prefers quick because it isn't as hard, but I use old-fashioned since that is what I keep on hand)
1 cup walnut halves, halved
1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350F and grease a large rimmed baking sheet.

In a small saucepan stir in 1/4 cup brown sugar into maple syrup over medium heat to dissolve. Remove from heat and pour into a medium bowl to cool.

(If you get out all your ingredients before you start, I measure them while the syrup cools. That's also when I turn on the oven and grease the baking sheet)

Whisk cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and egg whites into syrup. Stir in oats, remaining 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar, and walnuts to coat.

Spread the oat mixture onto the baking sheet into an even layer and bake in oven for 35 minutes. Remove from oven and flip over with a large metal spatula. The bottoms should be browned. Bake for an additional ten minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with dried cranberries. Return to oven for another 5 to 10 minutes or until dry.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Unattractive Warming Tasty (Better Known as Bread Pudding)

A few weeks ago, there was a pumpkin bread pudding that was the recipe of the day on epicurious (or of some status as to make it into the epicurious feeds.) It looked good, simple, and I'd been wanting to make apple bread pudding with caramel sauce since May, but I was waiting for autumn to come. It's here, and so are winter squash, which I seem to be very taken to lately.

Somehow all that nonsensical stuff related to pumpkin bread pudding.

A few days later, on Smitten Kitchen I saw that Deb had made bread pudding, and from the very same recipe I had been looking at, but made the prep even easier.

So then of course, on Wednesday, there was a recipe for pumpkin bread pudding in the Tribune. I took that to be a sign that I have to make bread pudding. It is unavoidable. But I couldn't choose which one to make. The one in the paper was so complicated sounding, it sent me running back to the one in Gourmet. But then I read through the recipe, and it sounded like it had the same amount of liquid as the one in the paper but with less eggs. The complicated sounding custard drew me back to paper. I guess I've been making too much ice cream.

I didn't stop there though. I found brioche this morning, but chose to go with the bread I'd walked into the shop to buy: the harvest apple bread. It's a streusel-topped round filled with chunks of apples. I figured the streusel would dissolve into the pudding and the apples would carry the sweetness evenly through.

But I was wrong. Once cooked, the apples were masked by the pumpkin so any bread would have worked just as well. And I wouldn't have minded it being a little less sweet. But it was still tasty, and despite having no ice cream in the house, and having to toss out the whipping cream, the pudding was tasty and rich unadorned, even if it was downright ugly.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

serves 6
adapted from various sources, including some of Deb's ideas, Gourmet, and the Wolfgang Puck article in the Tribune

12 ounces apple bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 cup milk
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a 3 qt casserole dish toss together bread cubes and melted butter. (Alternatively, do this in a bowl and transfer to six individual size ramekins before baking. It'll probably look more appetizing, and it is always fun to have your own little dessert. We just don't own any.)

Stir milk and 1 T. sugar together in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Combing the eggs, egg yolks, and remaining 2 Tablespoons sugar in a heatproof bowl. Beat with a mixer on medium speed for about 4 minutes. (I'll be honest, I'm not sure why. It said until smooth, but that never happened for me. It just got foamy and looked like the consistency was a bit more even than when I just whisked it. Maybe that was because of the amount of sugar, or the egg whites.)
Whisk in a spoonful of pumpkin puree and a small amount of hot milk, whisking well. Gradually whisk in remaining puree and milk. Whisk in cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Pour over the bread cubes and toss to coat. Let stand 20 to 30 minutes to absorb custard, making sure bread on top is coated. The oven will need to be 350F, so preheat it sometime between now and the next step.

Place dish in a large baking dish and pour water into the pan to come 1/2 inch up the sides of the custard dish. (I'm not sure that step is necessary, I know it helps the custards cook more evenly, but I forgot to cover them to keep them from over browning and to steam them, and it was fine.) Bake until puffy and cooked through, about 1 hour 30 minutes for the large one of 40 minutes for the smaller ones.

Remove from oven and serve in a manner that won't hurt anyone.

Friday, November 02, 2007

"The Best Cake I've Ever Had"

This is the story of a cake. It had great aspirations and always knew it could do better. Each time it failed, it saw it as a chance to rise up and do better...

Okay, I'll stop with the crazy story that isn't anywhere close to true. This cake came straight out of October's Bon Appetit, and came out fine on the first try. And only took two hours start to finish. And I move slowly, though my grandfather did help me with the hard parts. (He offered to help, so I gave him what I knew my fussiness couldn't have a problem with: Grating the ginger, and then when he finished that, he finished grating the squash for me.)

I was supposed to be over at my aunt and uncle's around 6:30, but ran late because of the cake. I don't think anyone minded. The cake was a shining star at the end of the meal, and due to my poor cutting skills and trimming of the gigantic pieces, my uncle was left with three small pieces to enjoy the rest of the weekend. He is the one who said it was the best cake he's had. And I had low expectations for this cake.

Even though it's a ginger-squash cake, the squash hides in the background while the ginger is mellowed by the other spices and, while dominant, not overly pushy or dominant. I was a bit hesitant, because I once put too much candied ginger into bulgur pudding, and I couldn't handle it. But the ginger was just right in this cake.

Ginger-Squash Cake with White Chocolate Frosting
from Bon Appetit October 2007
Serves 8 (unless you cut poorly like me and get 9 squares and three little strips)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (I used 1/2 teaspoon, but my allspice is just about dead)
1 cup packed finely shredded butternut squash
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
1 1/2 Tablespoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger root
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
3/4 cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts (about 4 ounces), divided

3 Tablespoons whipping cream
3 ounces high-quality white chocolate

Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9x9x2 inch metal baking pan with nonstick spray, or otherwise prepare for baking. Whisk flours and next 5 ingredients (through allspice) in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat squash, brown sugar, butter, egg, ginger, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in large bowl to blend. Fold in flour mixture and 1/2 cup hazelnuts. Transfer to pan, spreading to edges (layer will be thin). Bake cake until tester comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool.

Bring cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat. Add white chocolate and remaining 1/4 teaspoon vanilla; whisk until smooth. (Alternately, do all of this in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water.) Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to spread, about 20 (I only needed to let it stand about 10.) Spread over cake (layer will be thin.) Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup nuts over cake. Let stand at room temperature.

Cut into squares and serve. (The recipe says 16 squares and serves 8, so I just went to cut it into 9 at my aunt's suggestion. She thought the 16 square would be too small.)