Valentine's Day interlude

Happy Valentine's Day!
It's been a long week here at our house and Valentine's Day is a bright pink light I'm focusing on and hanging dearly to!  So I'm having a little Valentine's Day interlude here and savoring the excuse to celebrate love (of all kinds) and eat lots of chocolate today!

We'll be starting the day with some heart-shape buttermilk pancakes (recipe here).  I formed the rough heart-shapes by placing the pancake batter into a piping bag and piping out the shapes onto the griddle.  In all likelihood, these will hit the table with a heart-shaped dollop of chocolate hazelnut spread in the middle.
I plan to make pasta with lobster and shrimp for dinner at home with my fellas tonight.  For dessert, I made chocolate covered ice cream hearts (recipe and idea inspired by the Food Network).  A small word of with most ice cream projects, it's never quite as easy as it sounds or looks.  It's a reminder that ice cream melts, and melts very quickly.  In other words, it gets messy fast.

Chocolate snack cake

Sometimes, all you need is chocolate.  At least, all you want is chocolate!  Once again, it's time to celebrate chocolate - one of my greatest loves - in this month of February and ahead of Valentine's day in a few days.  
So for no more necessary reason beyond my love of chocolate and for making, eating, and sharing chocolate cake, I'd like to present this simple chocolate snack cake that's good for any occasion or for just any ordinary day.
I have certainly baked many a chocolate cake and generally enjoy them all.  For an excuse to keep making chocolate cake throughout the year(s), I'm always happy to try a new twist.  In this case, I was captivated (and immediately motivated) by Now, Forager's chocolate sprinkle snack cake; her photographer is stunning and one look at her gorgeous cake had me itching to make one of my own!  It's simple, classic and just a happy cake to bake - and eat - any time of year. 
This cake is familiar in its lineup of ingredients - cocoa powder and coffee for chocolate flavor, sour cream and oil for moisture.  An interesting note on the frosting - this dark chocolate frosting has a relatively small amount of powdered sugar in it relative to most buttercream frosting recipes.  I actually worried it might be a bit too little but it works, which opened my eyes to new possibilities.  The smaller amount of powdered sugar makes for a creamier, silkier frosting where you can really taste the chocolate.  That is definitely a good thing. 
Sprinkles are optional, or maybe not.  I know that colorful sprinkles always makes me smile - the hard part is deciding which sprinkles to use!  My family and I are also partial to chocolate sprinkles on our chocolate cake.  But whether you like it plain or bespeckled with sprinkle confetti, you won't regret this chocolate interlude!

Brioche Veneziana

For those of us who like to cook and bake, trying new dishes and recipes keep it fun and interesting even if we rely on family favorites most of the time. Recently, I tried my hand at making Brioche Venezianaan Italian brioche that's usually filled with custard cream and covered with coarse sugar grains.  These buns are usually enjoyed at breakfast with coffee, like you would do with croissant (or a cornetto if we're staying on the Italian pastry theme).
Brioche Veneziana filled with chestnut cream (left) and Nutella (right)
My fascination with these buns, or brioche Veneziana, started a few months ago on a breakfast outing with my husband.  The mall near our home opened up an Italian food hall not long ago.  I like the coffee there and we stopped by for coffee and a pastry before starting our day one morning.  Somehow the puffy round brioche bun coated in coarse sugar (shown below) - which I'd come to find out are known as brioche Veneziana -  captivated me.
Not only did they look good, they tasted good...sweet and buttery but not overly so, with a tasty vanilla custard middle.  They were light and airy - perfect with a cappuccino in the morning.  
The buns kept swirling in my mind and I found myself looking up information on them online.  I found a seemingly simple recipe in English that I just had to try.  Since it wasn't particularly demanding (mainly wait/proof time), I didn't think I had a lot to lose.
Brioche Veneziana filled with Nutella after baking
Based on family preference and also since I was not confident how they would turn out, I took another shortcut by filling the baked brioche with chestnut cream (which I have left over from holiday baking) and Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread, rather than custard.  I think they're both Italian pastry-appropriate fillings and delicious alternatives to custard
Filled with Chestnut Cream
The homemade brioche I've made thus far were not nearly as light and airy as the ones we can pick up at the Italian market.  I've attempted these buns twice.  After they turned out on the dense side during the first go, I did a little more research and thought maybe a longer knead time would help.  My family and I all agree that the second batch did turn out better (a bit lighter) but, in fairness, still not as puffed and lofty as the model I had in mind.  

Despite not being "perfect", both batches of these brioches were quickly polished off.  They freeze quite well.  I froze leftovers (unfilled) and when I was ready to serve them again, I left them out on the counter overnight, then warmed them up in the oven.  I cut a small hole in the middle of these buns and fill them with their filling right before serving.  While they're certainly not the best brioche Veneziana you can get, I like them so much that I just might keep on trying to get them better and better...wish me luck!

Fortnum & Mason's scone recipe

After the holidays, it's nice to have a lighter schedule.  I'm enjoying the slower pace and having time to do things, like read, again.  That said, I'm happily staying busy in the kitchen in the new year.  In fact, I've been paying attention to satisfying all my random food cravings!
These cravings run the gamut, from steel cut oatmeal to veggie stews, to, of course, chocolate.  One recent craving I've been having was for scones.  I think it may have something to do with my vague idea for a Christmas afternoon tea of sorts during the holidays that I couldn't manage to make happen.  So with more time to cook more random things, it was time to make another batch of scones!

I have developed a preference for British-style scones (which are lighter, more cake-like than the American counterpart), particularly after having an amazing afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London a couple of years ago.  I came home from that trip to London and wrote about making Battenberg cake and jammy dodgers and I realized I never posted about Fortnum's scones, which I've made a few times as well.  
I started making them after Fortnum published their scone recipe in their cookbook published in 2017.  I had to get my hands on some '00' flour first.  This superfine flour is common in Italian cooking, for making things like pasta; I'm happy to note that it's a lot easier to find this flour now and I can pick up a bag at my local Whole Foods.

I am admittedly quite shaky (i.e., bad) at making things like scones, biscuits, and pie dough.  But, somehow, I keep trying.  So my Fortnum scones don't come out quite as lofty, or uniform, or nearly as beautiful as the real deal.  However, they still taste wonderful!  These scones are delicate in a way - light and soft in texture, and sweet.  They are less buttery and heavy than American scones and more cake-like; they almost melt in your mouth.  After eating the latest batch this past weekend, I realize why I've been craving them! 
When I make British scones, I always get the urge to make a small batch of lemon curd to go with it.  I did just that this past weekend.  It felt so nice to sit down, split open a freshly-baked scone, and slather it with a little homemade lemon curd.  As much as I was enjoying the combination, I couldn't help but think how much I like these scones all by themselves, just enjoying the taste and texture of them.  Needless to say, I was really happy I paid attention to this particular craving and wanted to put down the recipe here.

Holiday baking, 2019 (part 2)

It's almost time to hang up the oven mitts and get down to the business of properly relaxing (at least for a couple of days)!  I hope it's been a sweet holiday season despite the inevitable stress and time crunch that comes along with it.    
I've had a lot of fun cocooning myself up in the kitchen and baking up a storm this holiday season.  I think we'll be finding sparkling sugar and bits of nuts and chocolates around the kitchen for a while yet.  So while I continue the cleanup, I'd love to share the final (part 2) recap of my recent holiday baking whirlwind.  
First up - I finally gave "the" cookies a try.  If you're on social media and into baking, you'll likely have heard of Allison Roman's "Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookies", which were so popular, they essentially went viral and became dubbed "the" cookies.  I saw these cookies on my Instagram feed repeatedly for ever so long and have kept them in the back of my mind.  Since Christmastime is a great time to make shortbread cookies, it was time I gave them a try.

I can tell you the salted chocolate shortbread cookies are mighty tasty and they were not as tricky to make as I feared.  In my mind, you can't go wrong with adding chocolate to most things and inserting them into salty, buttery shortbread certainly works.  The salt stands out here; don't forget to add the flaky sea salt on top before baking...the extra bite of salt intensifies the flavor.  The edge of crunchy turbinado sugar not only brings a touch of glamor, they add a lovely sweet crunch.  It's a great holiday shortbread to bring to the party.
In addition to Allison Roman's salted chocolate shortbread, I made the vanilla sablé cookies that I made last holiday season.  This is going to become a holiday tradition because my family and I really, really adore these simple vanilla recipe by Dorie Greenspan.  They are a beautiful balance of sweet and slightly-salty, crisp and sandy yet tender, with that extra skirt of crunchy, sparkly sugar that adds to their elegance (and deliciousness). 

Holiday baking, 2019 (part 1)

The holiday season is my favorite excuse to amp up on baking.  It's a year-round sport for me but come late November through the month of December, baking takes on a whole extra level of sweetness.  I'm savoring this time in the kitchen, and I thought it'd be fun to once again cobble together pics of some of the baking that's been going on in my kitchen.  We're baking plenty of family-favorites, with some new recipes mixed in.
Let's start with the peppermint-chocolate macarons shown above.  I'm no stranger to trying macaron recipes and even though it's always a high-wire act with uncertain results, I can't help myself.  Since it's the holidays, it's all about the peppermint - my son's favorite flavor this time of year - so I went with the chocolate and peppermint combo using Martha Stewart's recipe in her latest book, Cookie Perfection.  I wish I could say my macarons were perfection but I did have some cracked shells.  Overall, though, we ended up with a solid batch of macarons.  It was the first time I flavored the macaron shells with peppermint (as opposed to adding it in the chocolate ganache filing) and we really liked the result.
Did I mention it's all about the chocolate-peppermint right now?  I snuck in an early batch of my son's favorite peppermint brownies a few weeks ago.  By request, I'm actually making another batch today as I type this.  
For me, it's time to stock up on almond paste during the holidays.  A batch of pignoli cookies hit the table this season and I also made the cherry-almond macaroons just yesterday.  
They bake up, and disappear, very quickly.  I love having almond paste around and making some version of these chewy almond macaroons whenever I have extra egg whites on hand.
During this season of warm drinks, it's also nice to have simple cookies like hazelnut biscotti around for dipping.  I love a dry, crunchy biscotti filled with nuts!  It's also a great option when you want something a little less rich - that way, you have space for all the other chocolates and treats around us this time of year.  

Chestnut fondant

Holiday time is all about sugar, spice, and everything nice.  It  conjures up all sorts of cozy images and makes me crave many kinds of foods, like chestnuts.  It's one of my favorite things and this is the time of year when fresh chestnuts pop up at the grocery stores.  I love eating good fresh chestnuts, and I also adore chestnut flavored desserts.  My love of chestnut desserts has been pretty well documented here but I'm always on the lookout for more.
So I'm back with yet another chestnut dessert, a little treat I shared with my husband recently.  It was a very simple chestnut fondant - the French style of cake that is nearly flourless, usually quite rich and moist.  The recipe comes from Paris Chez Sharon; I have seen her post the chestnut fondants from the Parisian market, Marché Maubert, on her Instagram account and drooled over them for a long time so I was thrilled when she shared her recipe for it over at her blog.  
And chestnut cream (or chestnut spread) is again our direct path to a simple chestnut dessert.  Think of this mini fondant loaf cake as mostly chestnut cream, enhanced with a smidgen of dark chocolate, a dab of butter, some egg yolks, and held together with just a spoonful of flour.  This fondant is similar to a flourless chocolate-chestnut cream cake I've made before; I'd say this fondant really lets the chestnut dominate, and I love it all the more for it. 
Because there are lots of Christmas cookies and treats to be devoured this month, I made a "baby" loaf (half the original recipe) in a paper loaf pan about 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 inch in size.  The mini loaf is perfect for my husband and I to tuck into and share as an after-dinner treat for a couple of nights.  This way, I also have leftover chestnut cream to use for a host of other delicious purposes (like in financiers slated this weekend).  

With so much deep chestnut flavor, a small wedge (or two) is really satisfying.  I love the depth of sweet, nutty, chestnut flavor.  The fondant is super moist, a little chewy, and every little compact bite is a wonderful seasonal gift to the chestnut lover.  I am so happy to discover this recipe!

Chocolate mint crunch bars

Baking is a year-round "sport" for me but there's an added layer of purpose and excitement around it when we start talking about holiday baking!  I must start thinking about Christmas cookies, and holiday baking in general, the minute the temps start dropping.  Peppermint things start popping up in the kitchen, and it's been happening already.  It's also no coincidence that chocolate and mint is one of my son's favorite combos.
A new and simple chocolate-mint idea popped up into our kitchen last week, and it was inspired by my teen.  We keep a candy dish near our door, with a mixture of small chocolates.  The other day, my son took a small Nestle Crunch, then followed it with an Andes Mint; he then started raving about how delicious the combination was!  It gave us all a good laugh but it got me thinking...
...I could easily make that combination happen for him!  So I went out shopping for some puffed cereal and this 3-ingredient chocolate mint crunch bar came to life.  
I literally chopped up a mix of semi-sweet chocolate and Andes Mint candies, melted it down, and stirred in puff cereal before setting it into a pan to set.  Using Andes Mint packs a strong minty punch and eliminates the possible issue of the melted chocolate seizing if you were to add peppermint extract to it instead.
This fun little happenstance project was a hit with the teen, who was tempted to write to Nestle requesting a mint version of their Crunch bar!  He was very pleasantly surprised when I presented him with his inspiration.  We can all vouch that a chocolate-mint crunch bar is a very delicious thing, and we're happy to make and eat our own homespun version of it for now.


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