Monday, December 29, 2008

Cakes I Have Known 6

This year my eldest son wanted a hamburger cake for his 12th birthday. Apparently we don't eat nearly enough hamburgers for his liking. I don't know why, but other than salmon burgers I am not a big fan of your average burger. But Max, he loves them with a passion.

Here's what I did first: baked two 9" round vanilla cakes. Then I baked a double chocolate rectangle (I only needed half this as it turned out), out of which I cut another, slightly larger, circle. I wanted the "burger" part to hang out slightly. For this part of the cake I'd advise a solid, dense cake, with very little crumb, because you won't want it shedding while you're icing it.
Then, as you can see from the photo, I cut one vanilla cake horizontally for the "bun" bottom, and one vanilla cake horizontally for the "bun" top. You could use one cake, I suppose, but I wanted the "bun" to be slightly larger than a half of a cake, so for the "bun" bottom I just shaved off the top; ditto for the top portion of the "bun."

Next, cut out a circle of chocolate cake for the hamburger patty. I simply laid the 9" tin on the cake, and cut away a slightly larger circle.

Then I stuck them together with some ganache, made the night before so it would be thick and cool. Need a ganache recipe? Here's mine:

Chop up 13 ounces of chocolate (or use chips), place them in your food processor, then, with the motor running, slowly pour in 1 & 1/4 cups hot whipping cream. Process until smooth. Pour into a bowl and leave it for a few hours to cool.

Then I used a buttercream icing to frost the details. Need an easy buttercream recipe? Here's mine:

1/2 c Crisco (make sure it's all vegetable)
1/2 c butter
1.5 c icing sugar
milk to thin (no more than 1/4 c)
Put everything in your mixmaster or Kitchen-Aid and blend on high for 5 minutes. Makes a lovely silky buttercream.

Initially I used Wilton's Brown gel for the "patty," but either I had an old gel or I was feeling particularly colour-blind, but that brown wasn't what I'd call brown, so I scraped it off and wondered what to do instead. I might even have panicked a little, because the Party was at that point only an hour or so away. Then I decided to thin the left-over ganache with a couple of blobs of butter, in the food processor, and add some icing sugar and milk, to make a sort of icing. This I patted on with a knife, trying to make it knobbly like ground meat.

I also found myself slightly distressed by the tan/skin colour that I'd intended to use for the bun portion, because that had a distinct reddish tinge to it. I added some yellow and brown, and eventually got something more to my liking. I need to find some better colouring gels though, because the red was similarly at odds with my idea of red. I ended up using red gel in those decorator tubes you can get in the grocery stores. Fortunately the green and I got along fine. I used decorator tip #67 for the "lettuce." I was going to use pine nuts or sesame seeds for the seeds on the top of the bun, but I ended up using yellow decorator's sugar because I had no pine nuts and I wondered about having sesame seeds on a cake. Seemed slightly incongruous.

The kids all gasped and said "A hamburger cake? Wow!" when we brought it out, which was really all I wanted to hear. I'd instructed a friend of mine to say "Wow! Is that a hamburger?" just in case it was unrecognizable and no one knew what the heck it was, and she said it, much to our mutual hilarity, but fortunately it wasn't necessary. Max was quite delighted.

Monday, December 22, 2008


1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup molasses
2 eggs
1 tsp pepper
2 tsp ground cloves
6 tsp ground cinnamon
6 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp cardamon
1.5 tsp baking soda
6 cups (more or less) flour (I use white flour, you might get rocks if you use whole wheat)

Mix everything in order, pausing a little with the sugar and butter. When you've got a nice firm ball of dough, flatten it slightly into a disc, then wrap in a bag and chill for at least an hour.

Then you can roll it out (I roll between parchment, so as not to have too much added flour - I find it makes them hard) and go wild with your cutters. 

This is an incredibly flavourful gingerbread. I've increased the spice amounts from what Martha initially set out, so feel free to get wimpy with the spices if you like. I don't mind. I don't think Martha will, either. 

Oops, forgot the baking instructions:

350ºF for about 12 minutes. Be careful with these though - you don't want them overbaked. 

Easy Peppermint Creams

2 cups icing sugar
1/2 egg white (weird, I know, like who has half an egg white lying around?)
few drops peppermint flavouring
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Place everything in a food processor, and let it churn into a smooth ball. Take out, divide in half. (We dyed one half blue, then rolled out strips of white and blue and rolled them together: looked like weird but cool candy canes) If you want to dye them red or green for a more festive look (or if you've hit the eggnog earlier than usual and are feeling a little wild'n'crazy), do it now. Don't use too much food dye or it might look a little too lurid for your guests.

Then you can either roll them out between parchment (careful, they tend to be sticky) and use tiny cutters (finally, a use for all those Playdough shapers!), or roll them into ropes and slice tiny pieces off. Then place them on a cookie sheet and let them dry overnight.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


This is an adaptation of a recipe I saw in Martha Stewart's 2005 Holiday Baking issue. It's pretty easy. If you need advanced instructions beyond what I provide, go to her website and type in "Chocolate Truffles." 

1 cup whipping cream
2 tsp Golden Syrup (you could use corn syrup too)
1/4 cup butter (I like unsalted)

Heat this in a good sized saucepan over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble. Then, working quickly, add 1 lb of chopped chocolate. 

I've used everything from chocolate chips to really good quality chocolate here, and while you can taste the difference between, say Chipits' best and some bittersweet Scharffenburger, don't stress over what you use. If budget is a consideration, save your Valhrona for the coating. 

Once you've added the chocolate, swirl the pan without stirring, until the cream mixture has covered the chocolate. Let it sit for a few minutes, then grab a whisk (or a fork) and mix until smooth.

At this point I figure out how many types of truffles I'm going to make. I usually divide this mixture into 2-3 bowls - even though I might make this recipe 4 times over (inspiration sometimes hits me after the fact, so I revisit my drawing board a few times). This gives me enough to give away a few boxes AND have some left over. 

Once you've divided the mix into bowls, add your flavourings. These can be anything from chopped nuts to liqueurs. Be generous here. None of your 1 measly teaspoons of this or pinches of that. Well, unless you're using some ancho chilies, like I did...

Then, depending on your schedule, let each bowl sit on the counter until thick, or, if you're in a rush, chuck them in the fridge. It doesn't take long, but if you have a cool place you can greatly speed up this step. At this point, get some cookie sheets covered with parchment (or waxed paper) and have them nearby. Once the mixture is hard(ish), get yourself a little spoon (I use the small end of a melon baller) and scoop out little balls. Roll them around if you like a more uniform chocolate, or leave them as blobs on the cookie sheets. If you've added too much scotch or brandy, and you find that the mixture isn't solid enough to shape easily, you can do one of two things: if the mixture is sort of scoopable, spoon out blobs and plop them onto the cookie sheet. Then chuck the cookie sheet in the freezer. Once the blobs have hardened a bit, roll them around on your palms until they hold more of a shape, then refreeze until you are going to dip them (in which case you'll need to work in very small batches). Alternately, you can freeze the bowl of melted cream/chocolate, until it's semi-solid, then scoop your truffles from that. You'll probably need to leave that sheet in the freezer as well. Don't fret about this, though, because it will all work out once you've dipped them in melted chocolate. That coating will hold anything together!

I like to dip these centres in melted chocolate, then roll them in something the echoes their inner flavour: candy canes for mint, toasted coconut for coconut, chocolate sprinkles or unsweetened cocoa for chocolate or scotch or brandy, etc. Use your imagination here. All you have to consider is "Is it edible?" and "Will it be a good taste experience?" 

Remember the Prime Directive of every cook: you want your audience to delight in your food. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mince Pies

I make a mean mince pie. This year was pretty exciting because I grew both the tomatoes AND the apples with my own two hands (figuratively speaking of course). The sugar and the grapes will have to wait until I either get more land or grow more hands...

I use Martha's Pate Brisée* for the tart shells, and this recipe for the mincemeat:

8 lb apples (I like Granny Smith because they melt in the mix)
6 lbs green tomatoes
3 lbs sugar
2 lbs raisins
1 lb currants
1 c vinegar
8 Tbsp butter
$ Tbsp cinnamon
4 Tbsp grated lemon rind
4 Tbsp grated orange rind
2 tsp nutmeg
20 cloves, stuck in one of those tea balls and left in the mixture the entire time (until you can it)

Peel, core, and chop the apples roughly. Chop the tomatoes roughly. Chuck everything in a very large pot and bring to a boil. Once it's boiled, turn down and let it simmer for an hour or two. I usually leave it to sit overnight or even longer, just to let the flavours meld together a bit. Then I can it.

*Martha's (slightly altered) Pate Brisée

2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup butter
6 Tbsp sugar

Martha adds 1 tsp salt but I don't do that, and GASP, I don't use salted butter either. Go for it: the French swear by salt in recipes like these (and I haven't got a good reason why I don't).

Black Bean Soup

This soup started life here as the Black Bean Chili from The Greens Cookbook, but as usual, ingredient availability (and the cook's inclinations) have changed it somewhat.

Sauté an onion (or two, if they're small) and some garlic in a little oil. When they are getting translucent, add a couple of tablespoons of cumin seeds (whole, not ground, but I'll let you off this time if you only have ground), a tablespoon or two of chili powder, same of paprika, and I add something I have called, rather enigmatically Mexican Chili Powder (I think it has oregano and ancho powder added in). Stir everything up thoroughly. Then chuck in about 2 cups of salsa (I use a homemade tomato/pepper salsa but you could even use canned tomatoes in a pinch, just be prepared to add extra flavourings). Stir well, then add 3 cups of cooked black beans. Then, add between 2-5 cups water, depending upon how watery you like your soup.

Then, let it simmer for an hour or three.

The picture above has a few potatoes added to it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Amazing Cookies

There is something wonderful about a cookie. I'm very picky about the cookies I make. I like them soft, or chewy, or sandy - what the French call sablé. I like sablé in pastry too. But I don't like hard and crunchy cookies. My geriatric teeth can't handle crunchy. And you know, they never seem to taste as good, either.


Here is a recipe for a really really really good chocolate chip cookie. I came up with it while looking through Dorie Greenspan's charming Baking: From My Home To Yours. She, like all cookbook writers, has her favourite recipe. I've tried a lot of these favourites, and I don't want to sound supercritical but none of them have become my favourites. I tried Dorie's too. They were okay. But they were not best. 

So, try mine. And let me know what you think.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 - 1 cup butter (you choose how decadent you want to be)
1 cup peanut butter (I'm partial to the organic Virginia PB at Costco)
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups of white flour (you can use whole wheat but I won't be responsible for the consequences)
one 400 gm bar of decent chocolate, chopped up

Mix in that order. Scoop and plop. Bake 350ºF for about 12 minutes.

Now here is where you can turn these into Amazing Cookies: don't bake them until they are browned. Bake them until they look almost done. Almost. Still dangerously soft and crumbly. Leave them to cool on their parchment or silpat or whatever you baked them on. Do not remove them, or you might cry, because they will totally fall apart. When they are cold, you can move them. Or eat them. Whichever you prefer. They will be soft, chewy, chocolatey, and peanutty. Your mouth will thank you for such an experience.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fried Bananas

We decided to try Cami's fried bananas the other day. We used plantains instead of regular bananas because, umm, well, hmm, because they were there. In the bowl. On the table. And we didn't have regular bananas. And you know the rule: improvise when necessary.

The plantains worked well but they were a bit starchier than regular bananas. If I did them over again I would poke them all over with a fork and soak them a bit longer. But they were very crispy - and incredible with vanilla ice cream and a little chocolate syrup...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lemon Poppyseed Muffins

This recipe originated as a recipe from Dorie Greenspan's brilliant Baking: From My Home To Yours, then morphed a bit because a) I'd run out of enough of the necessary butter, and b) I never have sour cream kicking around. They are still memorable enough that I make them all the time, although I have trouble remembering to rub the lemon zest into the sugar.

1 c sugar
grated zest of 3 lemons (add the juice of 2 of the lemons to the yogurt)
2 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch baking soda
3/4 c yogurt
2 eggs
1/2 c butter (I've done this with half oil half butter and it works fine, they are only slightly less cakey)
4 T poppy seeds

Dorie recommends that you rub the zest into the sugar at the very start of this venture, but she also recommends using only one lemon and 2 T of poppy seeds, so I leave you to make your own decisions on this, because I've obviously strayed heavily from The Path.

Whisk the dry ingredients together. Then cream the butter and the sugar, add the eggs, then the yogurt, then the dry ingredients. If you've never made quick breads before, give this mixing a light hand. I use my Kitchen Aid and let it go round just a few times. If you overmix they won't rise well AND they'll be like bricks.

This is the point at which I line the muffin tins with paper muffin liners and plop the batter into the liners. Then I pop them in a 375ºF oven for about 16 minutes. Well, I say 16 minutes but really, all I do is set the timer for 12 minutes, then check, then add a few minutes to that. By the time I've finished messing around with my neurotic timer habits it's usually been 16 minutes.

Important: I am an Underbaker. I mean that with the utmost seriousness. I hate dry baked goods. And I am renowned for my baking (nothing like a modest blogger, is there), so again, I'll leave you to follow your own instincts. But please, don't overbake these babies.

Dorie mixes 1 c. icing sugar with a teenie bit of fresh lemon juice and drizzles them over her muffins. I've never done this but they look enchanting in her cookbook.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lavender Shortbread

No visuals for you, sorry. They were eaten up too fast.

1 cup butter
4 tsp lavender buds
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour

First, if you have one of those little Braun coffee grinders, you whiz the lavender with a tablespoon or two of sugar. You can also use a food processor but the texture might be slightly chunkier. Then transfer that to your mixer, add the butter and the rest of the sugar and whip till the mixture looks really well blended. Then add the flour. (such high-tech instructions)

Now you can either roll it out or shape into little balls (which you might want to flatten slightly before baking). Some people use parchment or plastic wrap for rolling, but I used (gasp!) MORE SUGAR. Not a lot more, about another 1/4 cup. It gave them a nice sablé texture, which was welcome with such a rich biscuit.

After you've got them on the cookie sheets you must chill them for at least 30 minutes. I place mine in the freezer. Then bake, 300ºF, for around 15 minutes. Whatever you do, do NOT let them get brown. You want them in the pre-brown phase, if that makes sense. Let them cool in the pan for a few minutes, then place on racks to fully cool.

Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lemon Verbena Sorbet

Sheila's lemon verbena

I found this recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks - The Herbfarm Cookbook, by Jerry Traunfeld - and have kept a lemon verbena plant ever since, babying it through our wicked winters (well, wicked if you're a tender perennial). Mr Traunfeld pairs it with Lavender Shortbread, which is just fine, but you will never get over your first (or second, or third) taste of this sorbet. I kid you not. It's incredible. It will make you want to break into song, even if you are an old songless grouch. And whatever you do, don't be asking if you can use lemon balm instead (it's a very very very poor cousin in this case).

1 cup lemon verbena leaves, packed
1 cup superfine sugar (I have always used plain old white sugar)
1/4 cup lemon juice (fresh is best)
3 cups cold water

First, put the sugar and lemon verbena in the food processor. Grind grind grind. When the sugar is green, add the lemon juice, then the water, pausing now and then to scrape down the sugar on the sides. Strain well, because this baby is fibrous. Then you have a couple of choices: if you have one of those electric churning ice cream thingies, toss the mixture in and wait til it's ready, if you have nothing vaguely resembling this, toss the mixture into a shallow baking tin and freeze it until it's frozen solid, then toss it back into your food processor. Give it a few whizzes and it should be fine.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bulls Eye Eggs

My kids like this kind of breakfast. It's easy, too, if you have eggs and bread and a cookie cutter.

First, get the slice of bread. Butter one side. Choose a cookie cutter (if you want a shape) or a smallish glass, and push it into the center of the slice. Take the cut-out and put it aside.

Then put a pan on the stove and heat it up. Once it's hot, add the bread slices.

Then crack an egg into each little cavity. This looks easier than it is. Maybe I am more inept than you, but I do find this the only really tricky part. You don't want it sloshing out over the edges, or you'll lose the shape. If my pan is looking a little dry I sometimes add a little coconut oil (doesn't have a taste).

Flip the egg carefully if you like a soft yolk. Look at that heart! Crisp! Clean! Heart-like!

Encourage accolades and tell them you bought the bread that way.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cakes I Have Known 5

Max's birthday cake for number 11 birthday. I spent way more time than I should admit to smoothing that surface, but it sure was slick. (putting finger to mouth and blowing softly)

Cakes I Have Known 4

Anyone for Totoro? My twins love him so much that they insisted we have him on their birthday cake this year. I found him surprisingly hard to get right, colour-wise. Anyhow, here he is, sitting on a chocolate sheet cake.