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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Cookie Quest, Part 1 plus a New Cookbook Adventure

It’s only been a couple of months since the end of our annual cookie fundraiser, but I am already thinking about the cookie list for this year’s event. There are a few cookies we will be dropping from the list since they did not receive many orders and at least two, probably three, that I need to change because I just was not happy with them.

Oatmeal Raisin is the first one that is getting some attention. Well, actually, during the most recent drive, it manifested itself as an oatmeal cranberry white chocolate cookie. But, even though those who ordered them seemed happy with them, I was not. In fact, I have yet to meet an oatmeal cookie that pleased me.

What is it about the oatmeal cookie? I love the idea of them. I feel happy feeding them to my children as a snack because they have oats and dried fruit, sorta like granola in disguise. But, most of the recipes I have tried in the past are disappointing. They tend to bake up brick-like, without much spread, and they tend to be hard and dry, not moist and chewy. At least, every recipe I have tried in recent memory have turned out like this, except for the ones I made last week.


Last week, I decided to start baking through my newest baking cookbook: Bouchon Bakery by the infamous Thomas Keller and his sidekick, Sebastien Rouxel. This book came into my possession a couple of months ago and I have been itching to get started with it for awhile. The first recipe of the book (well, actually, it’s the second, but the first was in the introduction, and I’ll get to that another day) just happens to be Oatmeal Raisin, so it was fate or destiny or something like that.


I made the recipe mostly exactly as written, even though I was sorely tempted to double or even triple it, but I resisted. The only change I made was to sub in some rum-soaked fruit that I had leftover from the holidays. I didn’t think that was a big deal since he said you could soak the raisins if they seemed dry, so I figured a little added rum in the fruit would be ok.


I also made the cookies a little smaller than he suggests. I got 21 small cookies out of a recipe that was supposed to make 6 giant ones. Those giant cookies must be the size of lunch plates because I thought mine were a pretty good size, about 3 inches in diameter. In fact, the recipe instructs the baker to bake only three cookies to a pan! I wouldn’t call those giant; they’d have to be colossal!

Anyway, I don’t know if it was the rum soaked fruit or the recipe itself, but it was a good cookie. They spread nicely and remained soft, but moist, with a little crispness around the edges. This recipe will have to be tried again with the usual raisins to see if it will make the cut for me. I thought they looked a little uneven, but that could be from the extra moisture from the rum.

This is a very good beginning, I hope, to a very good and long relationship with this book. I may just bake through the whole book, one recipe at a time. Wouldn’t that be fun? Guess what the next recipe is? Oatmeal cookies without fruit! I am sensing a change in my oatmeal cookie fortunes.

Fruit Studded Not Flatbread

We are near mid winter. It is cold. Produce at the store is looking sadder and sadder and spoils more easily when you get it home. Last week, the husband went to the store and brought home some beautiful looking apricots. They were a nice warm orange with blushes of red. They were also from South America and kinda firm. Oh, how bad can they be if they look so good? It turns out, they can be pretty bad. Not bad as in spoiled. No, they were just so sour and hard that it was impossible not to spit them out. So, I was left with almost a dozen apricots that no one wanted to eat. What to do?

Well, make bread, of course. My original inspiration for this recipe is the recipe for blueberry schiacciata from Rustic Italian Food, but, in the end, the bread I made probably does not resemble the one in the book at all. Still, it provided the inspiration for me that I needed.


I wanted something like a fruity foccacia bread that we could eat for breakfast; not too sweet like a sticky bun, but nice and substantial, you know, to start the day off right. The recipe starts wih a sponge, in which I used my sourdough discard from feeding my monsters. You could easily make this bread without it (directions below).

The great thing about this recipe is that from start to eating, it only took 3.5 hours, which is pretty quick for a yeast bread. The rising times are short, each less than an hour, but the oven spring of this dough is really and truly impressive.


The dough looked like this when I put it in the oven. It barely comes over the top of the rim of the pan, so it’s maybe an inch thick.


When the bread came out of the oven it looked like this. Whoa! What happened in that oven? I don’t know. What I do know is that this bread was fabulous. The juices from the berries bake into a nice slightly sticky glaze. The sugar that was generously sprinkled on top before baking was caramelized and slightly crunchy. The apricots remain a little firm, but tender enough to bite through easily and their sourness has turned into a pleasing tartness that is balanced by the sweet, crunchy sugar. It can only be called a flatbread in the sense that its width and length are greater than the thickness, but since we all had a tough time getting our mouths open big enough to take a bite, I think that other flatbreads might be a little offended if we called it that. That’s why we’ve named it Fruit Studded Not Flatbread.


Fruit Studded Not Flatbread

This makes a huge loaf of bread: 12 by 18 by 2.5-3 inches high. You can make a smaller one by cutting the recipe in half and using a smaller pan. Be warned that the syrup may run over the sides of the pan and into your oven. For me, it just joins countless other little spots on the floor of the oven, but if you don’t want this, put a piece of foil under the pan to catch the drips.

Depending on the size of your portions, this could yield 12 humongous portions, 20 average sized portions, or 30 snack-type portions.

475g 100% hydration sourdough starter OR 250g water and 225g bread flour
25g water
195g eggs or 4 large
10g or 1 tablespoon osmotolerant instant yeast
80g sugar
200g bread flour
500g all purpose flour
12g or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
120g or 1stick unsalted butter, softened
Grated zest of one medium orange
Extra water, if needed
8-12 small apricots or other stone fruit, halved and pitted
1-2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries or other berries
Extra sugar for sprinking on top- I used about one half cup, but you’ll want to adjust according to the sweetness of your fruit

Equipment: spatula, stand mixer, rolling pin, 12 by 18 inch rimmed baking sheet

With a spatula, mix your sourdough starter (or the alternate ingredients) in a large mixing bowl with the water, eggs, yeast, 80g of sugar, and the 200g bread flour. It should be the consistency of pancake batter (see photo below). Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place for 30 minutes or until nice and bubbly.


Add the all-purpose flour, salt, soft butter, and orange zest to the sponge and mix on low-medium until the dough is nice and smooth. It should be a soft dough. If the mixer sounds strained, it is too stiff. Add extra water, one tablespoon at a time and mix until the dough is soft and smooth, but not sticky. It might be tacky, but it should not stick to your hands when you touch it. The dough should have cleaned the sides of the bowl really well.


Leave the dough in the bowl and place in your warm spot for 30-60 minutes. It should be well-expanded, but perhaps not quite doubled.


Roll out your dough on a sheet of parchment paper that is about the same size as your half sheet pan. Place the dough, with its parchment onto your pan. Press the apricots into the dough firmly. Scatter the blueberries over the dough and, using your fingers, press those firmly into the dough as well. You want to get the fruit as close to the bottom of the pan as possible to discourage them from rolling off during the rising and baking process.


Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rise in your warm place for 45-60 minutes. Meanwhile, place a baking stone, if you have one, in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Before baking, sprinkle the fruit and dough generously with granulated sugar. Slide the pan into the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Check on the bread after 15 minutes. Turn the pan around to encourage even baking. If there is a lot of liquid pooling on the top of the dough and you happen to have a convection oven, lower the heat to 325 and turn on the convection fan for the last 15 minutes of baking. If not, try moving the pan to a higher rack in the oven to encourage the liquid to bake away.


When you take the pan out of the oven, transfer the bread out of the pan and onto a cooling rack. Eat some immediately.

In a Jam

One of my favorite things to do with fruit when it is in season is to preserve it. If I can freeze it, I will. Frozen fruit is really handy for smoothies, pies, and even cakes. But if I had to choose only one thing that I could do with fruit that is in season, I would make jam. I love jam and I find jam making to be a magical process. Whenever I make a batch of jam, I line them up on the counter and admire the glistening jars as if they were jewels. Really. It’s weird, I know.
But look how nice they look.

Peachy Cherry Vanilla Jam with Kirsch

Lately, I’ve been sort of making up my own jam recipes and having more fun with it than you want to know.

But, here’s the problem. I think I have too much jam. Now, that’s quite a feat because we eat a lot of jam in this house. Jam goes on toast, in pancakes, on top of pancakes, swirled in cake, rolled up in buns…you get the picture.

This is where I need your help.

Would you like some jam?  I will give you an opportunity for one of you to win a jar of jam from my jam cupboard. All you have to do is leave a comment with your answer to this question:

How many jars of jam do I have in my cupboard right now? (we’re not counting the ones that are open in the fridge).

You have until noon, Eastern time on Monday, August 15, to submit an answer. Only one per person please and, sorry, but I can’t ship outside the United States.

The closest answer to the actual number wins, so take a guess!