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Cake: Good, Bad, and Chocolate

A few weeks ago, I was afraid that I had lost my cake mojo. I have been baking cakes, but they have not all turned out to be good. Since posting my last cake recipe, I have probably baked a half dozen different cakes. Some were good, others were not. Let me start at the beginning.

Really, my downward slide began with the chiffon roll for twd way back in January. To be honest, no one really liked that one. Next, I made a sourdough chocolate cake. It seemed like a good idea to use some of my sourdough starter to try this. It was a moist cake, but not terribly chocolatey. And, something about the sourdough made the cake seem more like bread. It was odd, but it did look good. The bonus with this one is that I learned that coconut oil is really yummy in frosting, but I will have to revisit that another time.

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Next on the cake roll was a nutty pear cake. This one turned out well, but was one of those recipes that required a crazy number of bowls and different components mixed together. For something that turned out to be a simple looking coffee cake, it was too much trouble.

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Then, I got an idea for a cake into my head. In my head, the cake was moist, gingery and orangey. Most of the time, when I think of something I want, I go looking for a recipe that might fit or be adapted to fit what I want. So I consulted my library of cookbooks and found a recipe for a whole wheat marmalade cake in Nigel Slater’s book, Ripe. It was a yummy cake. But it was dry and dense and more like fruitcake, not the moist fluffy cake I had in mind.

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I thought I had found the right recipe for what I wanted when I found an English ginger cake recipe in Rose Levy Berenbaum’s book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes. It used Lyle’s golden syrup. Actually, it used almost an entire jar of the stuff, and even though I followed the recipe and baked the cake in the right size pan, it did this.

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At this point, I started to seriously doubt my cake baking abilities. I had not had this many disappointing cakes in such a short period of time in the whole of my baking life. I thought I would take a little break from fruity things and revisit the chocolate cake thing. But, this, too proved disastrous. I have no pictures of this cake disaster, but I will tell you that a cake with no vanilla and an oil/sugar/egg mixture that never emulsifies does not turn out well. I had tried a new recipe from a new bakery cookbook. It was another one of those overly complicated recipes. Too many bowls and too many techniques for just a little cake. After this, I made one more cake recipe from the same book that turned out ok, but the streusel topping was a disaster. I have no pictures of these last two cakes because I had sort of lost hope in cakes and I am not disclosing the name of the cookbook here because I think it may have been just me.

I took a little break from cakes (a week, or maybe two?) and when I felt the need to bake a cake last weekend, I made sure to pick one that was simple and with few ingredients. It was a recipe that originally called for rhubarb, but as much as everyone is wishing for spring here, it has not yet arrived, so I subbed in raspberries from South America instead.

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This was a simple pound cakey sort of recipe that I found in Rustic Fruit Desserts and it was perfect. Packed with zingy lemon flavor and polka dotted with raspberries, it was a spring-like cake that cheered us up.

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We ate it up so quickly that it was almost gone before I thought to take a picture of this cake win. I had almost given up on taking pictures of cakes as they all seemed to be turning out badly. But, this one was a winner.

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Now, after all that cake history, you can understand why I was a little wary of this week’s twd recipe for Mocha Brownie Cake. But, after my lemon raspberry success, I was willing to give it a try. The batter was pretty easy to mix up, except for the folding in of the sour cream at the end. It was super thick and I wasn’t sure it was going to fold in thoroughly. In fact, after I split the cake, I saw that there were little pockets of sour cream that had not been mixed into the batter. I hoped that would not affect the texture or taste of the cake and I am happy to say it did not.

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I did follow my cake instincts this time and lined the cake pan with parchment. I am glad for this as the cake looked wonderful after it was turned out of the pan.

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In an attempt to make the cake a little less rich for us, I decided to halve the ganache recipe and just cut the cake into two layers instead of three. Partly, I was worried that it would be difficult to cut one layer into three, but after having done one cut, the cake seems sturdy enough that I would probably try two next time and use the full recipe of ganache.

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It came together easily. I frosted the entire cake all at once and dispensed with the springform pan and cooling times. The cake seemed cool enough after I cut it into layers and I was worried that the ganache would get too thick to spread if I did not use it all at once. After assembly, I put the cake in the fridge overnight.

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Today, I took it out to come to room temperature a couple of hours before dinner. I like my ganache frostings at room temperature because they melt in your mouth a bit more easily.

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The final cake is beautiful, easy to cut, and beyond delicious. It’s intensely chocolatey without being overwhelming. The cake is really soft, but not mushy. The ganache melts in your mouth and some of us wished that there was more, but I liked it fine with just that thin layer. It alleviates a little bit of the guilt associated with eating a cake like this so that you can feel good about having an extra big slice. In short, I think this is the best chocolate cake I have had in recent memory and I hope it means that my streak of bad luck with cake is over. This recipe alone is worth the price of this cookbook. If you don’t have it, I urge you to go buy it now.

Chocolate Mascarpone Cheesecake

Normally, I do not make cheesecakes, mostly because I cannot eat them, being lactose intolerant. However, I was a little curious about this one and I needed something to take to share with some friends, so I thought I would give this week’s TwD recipe a try.

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Cheesecakes don’t have a ton of ingredients and the method to making them is not too difficult, but there are some things that can go wrong. As cheesecake recipes go, this one is pretty easy and straightforward.

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I was thrown off at first because there is no crust that is baked with it. I used a 9 inch springform pan and lined it parchment, even though the recipe did not say to do so. I think that it made it easier to get out of the pan.

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There is a crust that gets sort of added at the end after you take it out of the pan. Personally, I don’t think this was necessary. The cake would have been fine without it.

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The water bath helps to prevent cracks in the final product, which I often get, but happily, my cake was crackless this time.

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The hardest part is making sure your cheese mixture is not lumpy. I was not 100% successful in this endeavor, but only I noticed the little white spots, so that’s not too bad.

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The final cake was really smooth and tangy and creamy. I took the cake to a meeting and I think everyone liked it because I only came home with one piece left.

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I served it with some hazelnut caramel sauce that I had leftover from making chocolate caramel cups last week. It was a good compliment to the cake. I have to say that the cake was not as chocolatey as I was expecting. Even though it was good, it did not seem extraordinary, so I am not sure I will ever make it again, but I am glad I made it. It’s always good to keep your skills up, you know?

Plum and Almond Danish Braid

Ok, I am not going to talk about cookies today because today is Tuesdays with Dorie Day and we are making Danish Braids!

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I am pretty sure I have made this recipe before, though it has been so long that I don’t remember the details. Danish dough is not too hard to make, though. It’s definitely easier than croissant dough, even if you don’t follow the directions exactly, like I did.

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When I made the dough on Friday, I was also making apple pie, apple challah, and apple swirl buns. What can I say? I was multitasking a bit too much. So, while I was cutting up the butter for the pie crust dough, I went ahead and cut up the butter for the danish dough into the same size pieces, not realizing that I actually needed bigger pieces of butter for the danish. Still, I kinda caught my mistake in time before I hit the pulse button on my food processor too many times, so my butter pieces did not all get too small.

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Then, the dough sat in my fridge for the weekend. It’s nice that the dough is patient and will wait until you are ready. Yesterday, I pulled it out, did all the rolling and folding, chilling and filling.

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To save time and energy, I used a jar of mixed red plum jam that I made last year and some leftover almond filling from making croissants awhile back. To make that almond filling more like the recipe for almond danish filling, I just added the two tablespoons of butter and the egg white.

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I made the two danish braids with the same filling. Boring, I know, but my plan was to freeze one, so I was ok with it. In retrospect, I wish I had doubled this recipe and made four braids, especially after I saw what they looked like after they came out of the oven.

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Clearly, my icing could be more drizzly and less gloppy, but I wasn’t hearing any complaints about the appearance when I served it for an afternoon snack. In fact, I didn’t hear any conversation at all, which, for boys, means that one has succeeded.

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The husband and I thought that that filling was a bit too sweet. Next time, I will use less jam and maybe skip the icing. The pastry, however, was delicious: buttery and flaky, and light and soft.

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It’s perfect with coffee or tea and breakfast, snack, or dessert. Originally, I had planned to make an apple version since I still have a lot of apples, but we have had a lot of apple desserts lately. Whatever the flavor, these danish will be more than tasty. I don’t think I will be waiting too long to make this recipe again.

Want to make it yourself? You can find the recipe here. Happy baking!

Finally! Croissants

Croissants are a major project. It is not a difficult process, but it is long. There are multiple steps with rest times in between. You need to be available for a couple of days, not continuously, thankfully. I have made croissants before, but it’s been a couple of years, and I have never made the recipe in Baking with Julia. And, to give you a preview of this entire post, I may never make this recipe again.

Let’s start with the dough. It may just be me, but the amount of liquid called for in the recipe was way too little for the flour. I had to add water several times to get the dough to the right moisture level, and even then, it was a lumpy, ugly mass of a thing.

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I had better luck with the butter. The mixer was brilliant at mashing up the butter with the tiny bit of flour. I used premium European butter and, since it came in 8 ounce blocks, I just used two blocks to total 16 ounces instead of the 18 called for in the recipe.

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Also, I used a trick that I saw on America’s Test Kitchen. I folded a piece of parchment into an 8 inch pouch, placed the butter inside and rolled it out. The folds keep the butter inside and make for a very precise square slab of butter.

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Ok, here’s where things get really get tough. Or, actually, when I found out how untough I am. Rolling out the dough is hard work. I am weak in the upper body muscle department and after two turns I was a little tired and sore, but after three, I was having some little spasms.

This is not an unexpected thing. It happens everytime I make croissants or puff pastry or something that requires the rolling out of a cold piece of dough. Well, all I can say is, the finished product Must be good because I keep doing it, albeit not too often. As I was rolling, I kept thinking of this travel show I saw once that featured a danish bakery making danishes. They had this awesome amazing rolling machine that they called a laminator. I so, so wanted one of those while I was sweating away! But, look at all the layers you get when you are done rolling!

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Anyway, this is where the husband comes to the rescue. On the second day, when it was time to roll out the cold dough, he did a lot of the rolling, and I was a lot less sore and grumpy. This enabled me to concentrate on shaping and filling.

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I made the full recipe of almond filling, thinking I could use it in something else if I froze it. Then, I got out the chocolate batons that have been in the cupboard for a couple of years, waiting for me to get around to croissants.

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I gathered all the leftover scraps, tossed them with some cinnamon sugar, and piled it into a ramekin. No way was I going to waste a single scrap of that dough!

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Anyway, unlike some much more dedicated bakers, I was not up at three o’clock in the morning to prep these to have for breakfast. No, no. We had them for an afternoon snack.

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How were they?

They were delicious. They were flaky, light as air, fluffy, and wonderfully buttery. The boys loved them. The husband loved them. I loved them.

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I don’t love the process of making them, but I do love the final results. Like I said at the beginning, I probably would not make this particular recipe again. Why? Well, Mostly because I just like the other ones I have made better. These have great flavor, but I love the wheaty flavor of the recipe from The Bread Bible more. I also have been eager to try sourdough croissants from Local Breads, and I also have the recipe from The Bouchon Bakery, which uses a poolish, which looks interesting. So, you see, as good as these are, they will probably be left behind for these other recipes, mostly because I am easily bored. If I were to make these again, I would have to do something to tweak the main dough recipe. It worked out well in the end, but it was frustrating to make because the moisture level was way off.

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In the meantime, I put most of the croissants in the freezer to save as “treats” for breakfast. This is not everyday breakfast food, you know. That should tide us over for a bit while I get up the energy to try a different recipe. If you want to try your hand at making croissants, you can find the recipe posted here. Good luck!

Focaccia, Revisited

I love focaccia. The husband and I used to go to an Italian Deli when we were newly married that had these marvelous sandwiches stuffed with an inch of various Italian meats and cheeses and veggies, all served on thick slabs of focaccia. It was then that I fell in love with focaccia. But, strangely, I have never bought or been served a focaccia that has lived up to that first deli’s standard. I’ve been making focaccia off and on for years with various recipes and they have all been pretty good. However, the focaccia recipe from Rustic Italian Food that I made a few weeks ago was the best I have ever had and the best I have ever made. And let me tell you, I have made some good ones.

Unfortunately, this week’s twd recipe for focaccia, to be found in Baking with Julia was much less than stellar. Part of its problem was that it followed the recipe from Rustic Italian Food, which, as I have already mentioned, was the best. Ever since that focaccia, the boys have been begging me to make more. That one was so sublimely delicious, that I knew it would be a tough act to follow.

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Firstly, the dough was too stiff.

All the focaccia recipes that I have made and really liked have been really loose doughs. You could almost pour these doughs, they are that loose. This dough was more like a pizza dough.

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Secondly, I thought the dough was too active. Look at how much it rose in an hour. Now, this could be because I used instant yeast or my water was too warm or some other variable, but I sensed some trouble. It was just too active for a dough that would eventually be retarded in the fridge, which brings me to my third issue with this dough.

I love using the fridge for holding bread dough, but this time, it did not work for me. Because of some oven timing issues, I was not able to give the dough the minimum 24 hours needed in the fridge. It was more like 20 hours and it was tough to shape. I understand that the longer the dough rests, the easier it is to shape. This was really my fault, but it was kind of the last nail in the coffin, so to speak.

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I opted to bake the bread into one giant, flat loaf because we like to cut it into nice rectangles for serving. It looked great before it went into the oven, with its rosemary, sea salt, and olive oil toppings.

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However, there was just not much oven spring to the dough. It was ok. It rose, but it had the texture of a thick pizza dough. It was too dry and tough to be called focaccia, in my opinion. This will not be repeated in my kitchen. The boys were initially excited about the focaccia, but both declared it to be just ok, not nearly as good as the “other one.”

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Now, dear reader, please take this post with a grain of salt. I am not saying that this bread is bad. In fact, it is tasty, and if you go and make it (you can find the recipe here), I am almost sure you will like it. After all, what’s not to love about freshly baked bread? Just don’t make it after making the one from Rustic Italian Food, The Bread Bible, or La Brea Bakery, ok? Then, you won’t be disappointed.