Chocolate chunk muffins (and a blueberry version, too)

I know that none of us who like to bake need a reason to try a muffin recipe.  Muffins and cookies are just fun to make, and too easy to eat!  So this is the latest muffin recipe I tried: chocolate chunk muffins from the Huckleberry cookbook.
I've never been to Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica but I sure would love to.  I was captivated by the beauty of their cookbook, and the food described in the pages. As expected, I gravitate towards simple recipes and chocolate chunk muffins...well, I can make and eat that any day, any time.  

Here's the thing: my chocolate chunk muffins looked nothing like the ones in the cookbook.  They didn't puff, dome, or crack open like I expected from looking at the photo in the book.  I know there are many possibilities for this - from differences in oven types to technique - but while I was disappointed at first, the taste more than made up for it.
These muffins/cupcakes have a wonderfully moist and tender texture - the kind that stays that way for days.  I'll give credit to yogurt and a bit of ground almonds for that. Baked goods made with yogurt don't ever seem to disappoint; it makes for a hefty muffin in the best way.  Because they are so moist and tender, you need to be a little careful to gently lift them out of the muffin tins after baking, especially since, in my case, the muffins spread and turn out with wide, flat tops (which make for very nice crusty, browned edges).

A hefty dose of chocolate chunks certainly doesn't hurt either.  But if chocolate muffins aren't your thing (I suppose that's a possibility), this muffin recipe is a good basis for other types of mix-in's - fruit instead of chocolate [see blueberry version near the end of the post].  But of course, chocolate is totally my thing so I happily went with it during my first go-round, mixing in a combination of 60 to 70% dark chocolate for a little bit of nuance. I added a touch of almond extract to my batch of muffins because of the ground almonds in the batter and because I was thinking about chocolate yogurt snack cakes, which I typically make for my little guy whenever I have extra whole milk yogurt around.
Eating a chocolate chunk muffin with a side of strawberries makes for a balanced breakfast, right?
Once you start, it's hard to stop eating these.  I found myself trying to get at every bite of chocolate encased within the bouncy moist cake.  Looks like I found another way to put my whole milk yogurt to good use!


Soba noodles and roasted eggplant in miso dressing

When it starts to warm up, I find myself craving some soba noodles.  Alright...who am I kidding?  I crave all kinds of foods that I like to eat in one big constant loop!  I'm not the only one who's always thinking about food and, therefore, craving something all the time, right?
In the old days, it was rice noodles for me.  Nowadays, I enjoy more variety and there's usually a pack of dry soba noodles hanging out in the pantry.  I always feel the need to have my favorite things on hand, like there might be some worldwide shortage the minute I need it, and I just won't be able to find it anywhere!

Anyway...when I think soba noodles, I automatically think asian flavors - soy, rice vinegar, sesame oil and seeds.  To satisfy this particular round of soba noodle craving, I decided to make use of the miso I had in the fridge.
When I saw some good-looking eggplant at the market, I thought of that great America's Test Kitchen technique I learned and have been relying on to roast eggplant with soy sauce.  The idea came together.  I'd roast some eggplant with soy sauce, cook some soba noodles, and toss it altogether with a simple miso-based dressing.

And that's just what I did to satisfy my soba noodle craving.  The eggplant makes the dish satisfying, with its meatiness and that umami flavor.  I'd thought about adding some shiitake mushrooms but skipped it since I didn't feel like dirtying another pan and having to cook the mushrooms separately.  I thought I'd miss it but I really didn't; the eggplant alone adds plenty of flavor and substance.  The miso dressing/sauce is just one where I whisked some miso with a little warm water.  I added some soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil and it's just a simple, light, and a relatively mild coating of sauce for the soba.

Chestnut ice cream

Chestnuts are one of my favorite things.  I've loved it since I was a child so desserts involving chestnuts always have my attention.  I guess it was just luck that I was looking through A Kitchen in France by Mimi Thorisson and spied her recipe for chestnut ice cream.  
Creamy chestnut ice cream, garnished with a few chopped roasted chestnuts
Looks like Ms. Thorisson and I share a mutual love of chestnut cream and chestnut desserts.  I am thankful for that because now I have this wonderful ice cream to add to my repertoire - especially since chestnut ice cream isn't exactly easy to find.  In fact, I can only remember scoring chestnut gelato once while traveling.

This chestnut ice cream is chock full of chestnut flavor and really easy to make - the "secret" or express route to all the chestnut flavor is using chestnut cream (or crème de marrons), which is a sweetened chestnut spread.
Chestnut cream and vanilla bean to flavor the custard base
Adding a generous amount of the chestnut cream to the custard base makes for deep sweet chestnut flavor and a beautiful creaminess to the ice cream.  Its texture and full-flavor does makes me think gelato and I suppose the lines are blurred when making ice cream at home.  I think I can just assure you that this will be a hit with any chestnut lovers. 
The great thing about this ice cream is it's obviously great for the warm, summer months but it'd also be good for the Fall (maybe even as an unexpected dessert after Thanksgiving) when we tend to think of and see chestnuts here in the States. 

I garnished the ice cream with a few chopped chestnuts - just the packaged kind I buy and snack on all the time.  It's not absolutely necessary since you'll clearly taste the chestnut flavor in the ice cream itself.  It's like eating marron glace, or candied chestnut, in ice cream form.  
I once had a very memorable gelato combination of chocolate, chestnut, and gianduja while vacationing in Quebec, Canada.  That's just about my ideal pairing. Now, I just need to work on the gianduja, or chocolate-hazelnut, flavor and I'd actually be able to recreate that trifecta at home. Although admittedly, making 3 ice cream flavors at once is an aggressive (unrealistic) project, it's good to know I could make it happen...


Matcha-almond sponge (multi) layer cake

This is not a green tea crepe cake.  It kind of looks like it, though, doesn't it, with all those thin layers of cake?
When things don't go according to plan: Fifteen layers of super thin matcha-almond sponge cake and cocoa whipped cream
It is, in reality, what happened when I tried to make a matcha/green tea almond sponge layer cake but the cake turned out so thin I ended up doubling the stacks and making a 15-layer concoction instead!  It still only measured maybe a little over 3-inches tall with all those layers, by the way.

If you'd like a good laugh, I was aiming for this.  Sprinkle Bakes had a post on matcha cakes recently and at the end of it, she listed a few other matcha dessert recipes. The one for matcha-almond sponge layers really appealed to me and I thought I could tackle it (ha!).  But let me step back for a minute...do you visit Sprinkle Bakes? Heather is (literally) an artist, and a very nice person to boot.  When I first started this blog 4 years ago, she was one of the original baking blogs I started reading and I was so impressed by her work that I emailed her to tell her so (I'd never done anything like that before).  She replied with a very sweet and encouraging email, and I have continued to admire her creations.  To be honest, her desserts are totally out of my league and I essentially just gawk at her work.  It looks like I need to revert back to gawking...
There was a moment when I was making this cake...when I realized how thin my cake was and when bits of it were sticking to the parchment paper...that I considered just scrapping the whole thing.  I only considered it for a second though because my general motto in the kitchen is to keep going and make the most of it when things go wrong.  I hate to waste - both effort and ingredients - so I try to avoid it and frankly, I find that most missteps still turn out rather tasty, as it did in this case.

So I kept at it and decided to double-stack my layers.  I only ended up with the 3 slices of cake you see here.  Had I trimmed my cake a little better, I might have been able to squeeze 4 slices out of it.  Maybe...
And you know that general advice about never trying out a new recipe if you're having someone over?  Well, it's a very good thing I had only invited my sister (and brother in law) over!  I think of her when I think of green tea desserts.  When things were looking rough, I warned her before her arrival that my project had turned out a lot more challenging than I imagined.  But luckily, I can say that these slices of cake disappeared from the table very quickly.  Everyone enjoyed it!  The matcha-almond cake itself is super moist; the matcha powder gives the cake a great hue but the flavor of green tea is mild.  The cocoa whipped cream I slathered between the layers adds creaminess and of course, a chocolate flavor, which I love.

All in all, this was an interesting experience!  I'm glad I still got to serve something and it was actually quite tasty.  I honestly don't think my sister would have been the wiser had I served this and told her it was supposed to be this way, a torte of sorts. My husband wished we had more of it and I did too but I'm just glad it worked out in its own way and nothing was wasted.  I can only laugh and say that I'm glad I just do this for fun!



Hummus sesame noodles

Hummus is one of those things I've come to be a big fan of.  For the time being, I continue to buy rather than make my own hummus (though recent recalls encourage me to give it a try!).  Aside from using it as a dip for vegetables, I love using it as a spread for tacos.  It's fun to have taco night and when we do, my husband and I like to spread some hummus on top of our warm corn tortillas and then layer the fillings on top.  I usually end up with some leftover hummus.  Now, with this simple noodle/pasta dish, I've found another way to use it.

I saw this very simple idea from a recent issue of Rachael Ray magazine.  It's as simple as turning your hummus into a sauce for pasta or noodles by loosening it up with a little stock (or even water) and soy sauce.  It was definitely worth a try and it was quite tasty, especially for so little effort.

I used thin spaghetti instead of angel hair pasta, and added some shredded carrots to the dish (since more color and nutrients is always a good thing).  My husband has a thing against angel hair pasta though I keep insisting it's perfectly fine as long as it's not over-cooked.  Since he doesn't seem totally convinced, I went with some thin spaghetti. A thinner type of noodle is definitely the way to go here since this is a simple, light sauce.  And as it cools, the pasta will clump up so a thiner pasta works better.
I found that you do need to use a good amount of pasta water to loosen it up. Since there's all that liquid to be added, I tried to bump up the flavor of the dish a bit more by adding some red pepper flakes and a little sesame oil.  For more spice, try adding some chili oil.  And depending on how much lemon is in your hummus, you could also add a dash of rice wine vinegar as well.  That said, the hummus really does provide a lot of flavor on its own.
This hummus noodle dish is a great base for add-ins.  We had some leftover chicken in the fridge so I shredded some up and added it in.  You could other protein you like and make a really satisfying, filling meal out of it.



Hazelnut balls (mini hazelnut cakes with mocha buttercream)

Does anyone in the New York area remember Black Hound Bakery?  For years, there was a small shop in the mall near my house in New Jersey.  Even before we moved to the suburbs from Brooklyn, we would go to this mall and stop by this bakery.  I'd look at all the beautiful little cakes and chocolates on display.  It was a gem of a shop and after looking around, I'd inevitably go for one of their hazelnut balls and a fizzy lemonade.  I was pretty hooked on both those things.
My version of Black Hound Bakery's hazelnut balls: a hazelnut cake, filled and covered with mocha buttercream and coated with toasted hazelnuts
After a while, Black Hound moved from their little shop at the mall to a bigger store in the same mall.  It was nice for a while...but then it closed down!  I was too busy with a young child to think too much about it but I have to tell you, I could never forget those hazelnut balls, or the fizzy lemonades either for that matter.

When that shop at the mall closed, there was still a Black Hound in New York City; my sister and brother-in-law were likewise fans of the bakery and their hazelnut balls, and I knew my brother-in-law visited the shop sometimes to bring treats home.  But sadly, it looks like Black Hound is gone now, closing its NYC bakery about a year ago. 
The actual hazelnut balls these are modeled after were probably slightly taller and a little less wide
Now, the good news is we can have hazelnut balls again because I'm thrilled to say the ones I made at home tasted so very similar!  [If interested, there are some photos of Black Hound's cakes, including the hazelnut balls, on google image.]

It all started when I made that pistachio-orange-chocolate cake recently.  It turned out so delicious and I kept saying to myself (as well as to my husband, and anybody else willing to listen...) that its texture - a sponge cake packed with nuts - reminded me of Black Hound's hazelnut balls. I thought I could substitute the pistachios with hazelnuts and play around with it a bit. 
Black Hound used to display their hazelnut balls (as well as snow balls, mud balls, and checker ball) on a glass cake stand on their counter
So that's just what I did!  I used that pistachio cake recipe and turned it into a hazelnut cake.  To mimic the snowball size of the cakes, I baked them in small paper muffin molds (I ordered these via amazon).  I was so sure that the cakes were filled and coated with coffee buttercream but looking at images online, I read that it was actually a mocha buttercream!  So I added a little cocoa powder to a coffee buttercream.  A small amount of Dutch-processed cocoa turned my buttercream a darker color than the original, which was more beige/light-coffee colored.  Slathered with plenty of toasted ground hazelnuts, it is all about the hazelnut flavor but you can taste the note of coffee in the background from the frosting.
My taste-testers - hazelnut ball "experts" including my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law - and I were so happy to relive our Black Hound days.  I got thumbs-up by all (even the little guy, who is coming around again to nuts) and was even told by my very biased crew that they preferred my version because the buttercream was "less buttery".  That may be a questionable compliment, I know, but what they meant was the home version had a balanced amount of buttercream, not too much.  If I had to guess, I'd think Black Hound used a swiss meringue buttercream, making it creamier than the simple American one I used.  I'm sure many people would prefer more buttercream and a more buttery one at that so it's all subjective.  All I can say is this totally worked for us and it was so nice to relive an old favorite and a lovely taste memory.

We had coffee with our hazelnut balls...all I was missing was the fizzy lemonade!



Peanut butter-filled chocolate cupcakes

I know we're all enjoying color right now and craving fresh berries and fruit.  That's true for me as well but that said, chocolate and peanut butter are always in season. They are staples that get me through the year, no matter the weather.
I was browsing through my copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes the other day.  How often do you look over your collection of cookbooks?  Sometimes I'll take a look at some of mine and it's amazing by how many good-looking recipes are in there - recipes I'll likely never get to because there's just so much out there and so little time!

Well...when I was looking through the cupcake book, I spotted a recipe for peanut butter-filled chocolate cupcakes and I wondered how I'd missed it and hadn't tagged it in some way.  It's a very easy stir-together kind of recipe and I had everything on hand so I made half batch for no reason other than to celebrate the combination of chocolate and peanut butter.
You don't need frosting for these cupcakes.  There's a good tablespoon of peanut butter filling in the center, with a brownie-like cake surrounding it.  Layering the brownie-cake batter with the peanut butter filling and giving the batter a little swirl on top makes the marble pattern that lets everyone know what to expect when they take a bite.

I really like eating these cupcakes warm so I pop them in the microwave for 10-12 seconds before eating.  That way, the filling is warm and there's just a greater intensity of flavor.  
I'm glad I revisited one of my cookbooks and it resulted in these little treats.  The classic flavor works for me and I'd almost make them just for the aroma-therapy alone.  The smell of melted chocolate and peanut butter in the air is a heady thing.



Toasted almond French toast

This place of mine feels a bit like the chocolate-almond-breakfast channel because those things have got to cover at least three-quarters of what I do here!  Well, I've got two of those beloved themes going on today.  No chocolate but plenty of almond goodness for a breakfast.  Since I do love anything almond-flavored, toasted almond French toast is something I'd definitely be interested in ordering if I saw it on a breakfast menu.  Since I haven't seen it on any restaurant menus recently, it's a good thing I can just whip it up at home.  
This is simply French toast with an almond twist.  I spotted a recipe for it from Gale Gand's Brunch but in the book, it was more of a decadent recipe, calling for cream, whole milk, and more sugar than I'd typically use.  So I took the basic idea and just applied it to my usual French toast framework.  No cream, I stick with low-fat milk, and dialed down the amount of sugar (since we know we'll be dousing our French toasts with a good amount of maple syrup, after all).

Rather than using ciabatta bread per that recipe (great idea but I didn't have it), I used standard white bread (I grabbed what I had on hand but if possible, a thick bakery-style white bread is what I like).  I know you don't need me to tell you to go with that challah or brioche, or whatever you like for your French toasts.  A touch of almond extract in the custard and the flakes of sliced almonds on top will get you to this simple toasted almond French toast for breakfast. 
If you're like me and at all wondering if those almonds are really going to stick to the French toast slices, I can tell you they do.  



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