Hazelnut cake with praline and milk chocolate buttercream - 100th Post!

I'm not in the way of wanting to wish time away but I'm secretly glad January is coming to an end.  I felt that if I baked anything this month, it should be light and I felt guilty about the thought of displaying any decadent desserts so early in the New Year.  I've missed talking and writing about chocolate and all that good stuff.  So I'm chucking any sentiment of guilt or protocol out the window!  Here's to cake and to my 100th post on this little blog spot here!
It's awesome to consider that this is my 100th post.  I started this blog last April and while I had a small list of things I loved to bake and share with anyone who happened to land here, it became a fun hobby and a learning experience for me.  I started actually making many of the things I've always said I wanted to try.  The rewards were mainly delicious.  So here I am 100 posts later, with the overwhelming majority of them featuring a recipe I've cooked, and I'm still learning and having fun in the kitchen.  It feels great to discover a delicious recipe and be able to share it with family and friends.
I think it's fitting I made a cake for this little milestone.  This is a special cake - definitely out of my comfort zone and probably something I'd never actually go ahead and make if not for the blog and the experience from it.  It's a hazelnut sponge cake filled with not one, but two types of frosting: hazelnut praline and milk chocolate buttercream.  It's filled with the praline buttercream and frosted on the outside with milk chocolate buttercream.  I thought about switching it up and using semi-sweet chocolate  but I think milk chocolate works particularly well with hazelnuts (like those Cadbury bars I love).
Hazelnut sponge cake with hazelnut praline buttercream in the center and milk chocolate buttercream frosting
I wasn't planning on baking a cake specifically for my hundredth post.  This cake came about because of a can of hazelnut praline I bought during the holidays.  You see, I love almond paste and, specifically, the one made by Love 'n Bake.  I've been eyeing their hazelnut praline for some time (since I also love hazelnuts and the combination of hazelnuts and chocolate) and I finally went ahead and bought one with no particular idea of what I'd do with it.  After a lot of searching, I zeroed in on this recipe from John Barricelli, and here we are. 

Talk about a special occasion cake - this is one of those.  It is "Double-D" = "definitely decadent".  I adapted the recipe a bit by slimming down the amount of frosting but we're still talking 3 sticks of butter, as opposed to 4 in the original recipe (I didn't need to use all of what I made either).  I made a two layer cake instead of three to make things easier and, again, to use a little less frosting.
This cake was fun and, as with other layer cakes, a little exhausting, to make.  It was a great change of pace for me to make a cake that isn't completely chocolate inside.  I liked cutting my fork down into a piece and having a bite of milk chocolate, hazelnut cake, and praline filling altogether.  I have to admit that I'm generally not a huge fan of buttercream - I always feel guilty about it and I'm just more of a pure chocolate person - but maybe I'm starting to convert.  This is no ordinary, everyday cake (and I love those too) but a rich, decadent cake that you should by all means slice modestly and share.  I'm all for indulgence and moderation together. 
And this cake brought a lot of firsts for me as far as baking.  This was the first time I made swiss meringue buttercream and worked with hazelnut paste.  Despite having a collecting of piping tips for ages now, this was also the first time I used one to pipe something onto a cake!  It is so much fun - I could pipe cakes for a living (not really, but it was a lot of fun and I found it hard to exercise restraint but I managed).   


Sweet potato dessert soup

Happy Chinese New Year!

With the holiday in mind, I thought this was an opportune time to post another entry under Chinese dessert "soups."  There are many varieties of Asian dessert soups (called "tong shui") and this is probably the easiest one I know how to make. 
I'll tell you something.  As a kid, I always associated Chinese New Year with obligatory visits to distant, far-flung relatives.  It was like we had a hit-list that needed to be checked off before we could breath a sigh of relief, slump back on the couch, and say, "we're done!"  It's not really like that for me now.  It's been simplified; we focus on our near and dear, and have yet another excuse to get together and...eat!  There are family meals (I should say, feasts) with tons of savory foods and sweets lying around to usher in a sweet New Year.  My mother has this covered flower-shaped candy holder with compartments in it that she'd take out during the New Year to fill with candies and edible seeds (yes, like red melon seeds to symbolize good things like growth and life).  Along with boxes of chocolates we'd give and receive as gifts during the New Year, that candy holder was the part I looked forward to most as a child and I always lobbied (successfully) for more chocolates in the box.

But back to dessert soups.  There are so many, including the kind with little round glutinous rice balls swimming in their sweet soup for Chinese New Year.  I wish I knew how to make more of them since I can think of a dozen right off the top of my head that I've enjoyed.  My sister used to take us to Chinese dessert houses to have them.  I have her to thank for teaching me how to make the taro tapioca dessert soup that I love and my husband is forever grateful I learned to make his favorite, mango sago dessert, this past summer (we'll be making plenty of that cold treat throughout the summer).  But this sweet potato dessert soup is seriously easy to put together; I don't even remember being taught how to make it.  It takes just four ingredients (including the water!) and cooks up in less than half an hour.  It's sweet but balanced by some spice from fresh ginger. 
In the wintertime, this hot soup takes part in my comfort food lineup, without the need for a special holiday to enjoy them.  My favorite part is the soup itself and I like plenty of ginger to give it some pep.  I wish I could get the little one more interested in these Asian desserts but thus far, he is far more into things with frosting.  I convinced him to have a bit of this since he likes sweet potatoes.  He complied and ate some but wasn't exactly chomping for more.  I'm hoping he'll come around to appreciate these types of things when he's older. 


Pistachio-orange biscotti

There's something about biscotti that I really like.  Maybe it's the very satisfying crunch, the way it's usually studded with nuts (one of my favorite ingredients), or the fact that they're a fairly light yet hearty snack that goes so well with a cup of hot coffee or tea.
Last Spring when I first started this blog, I made biscotti for the very first time in the form of almond biscotti.  I realized they were fun to make, not difficult, and seriously delicious.  I've made that recipe a few times now and I've been wanting to try another variation.  So this time, I took that same recipe and tweaked it to make pistachio-orange biscotti instead.  These are traditional biscotti - no butter and super crisp, the way I like them.  They're studded with pistachios and flavored with orange zest.  The orange zest is amazing - I think of it as this magical ingredient that adds a ton of flavor and aroma to the food. 
It's hard to pick a favorite between the two varieties of biscotti I've made now.  I generally love all things almond but the orange zest really makes these biscotti here and adds so much flavor.  I might never make biscotti without some sort of citrus zest thrown in ever again.
It's time for a coffee break.


Mocha meringues with cocoa nibs

In my quest to present lighter treats this January, I have another merginue recipe today.  These are mocha meringues, flavored with cocoa powder and a bit of espresso powder.  Instead of chocolate chips, which you could certainly use, I mixed in bits of roasted cocoa nibs.
I've been wanting to experiment with cocoa nibs for a while now.  They are essentially bits of roasted cacao bean, or "raw chocolate" where sugar and other flavorings have not yet been added.  The nibs are crunchy and have a rich chocolate and coffee aroma and flavor to them.  I recently got my hands on some Valhrona roasted cocoa nibs and I'm using them for the first time in these meringues.  I think the cocoa nibs compliment the mocha flavor and give an extra bit of crunch and flavor without adding a lot of extra fat and calories.  As an added bonus, they're also supposed to be quite good for you and very high in antioxidants.
The bit of cocoa and espresso powder really give these meringues quite a lot of flavor while the cocoa nibs add a richness to them.  They are crisp, almost hard on the outside, but nice and chewy on the inside.  I think the trick to making meringue is to really whip the egg whites enough so that you get true stiff peaks.  I don't think I've quite mastered this yet since my meringues spread more than I expected and I suspect I could've whipped those whites a bit further.  Meringues are certainly a low calorie option as far as cookies go since we're basically dealing with just egg whites and sugar, with flavorings (in this case, cocoa and espresso powder) added on.  Supposing you're not concerned about calorie count or fat grams, you could enjoy these meringues with some ice cream.  This bowl here was just for my little guy - honest.
I'm tempted to pretend I've been sitting here this January constantly eating things with wheat germ and only baking low-fat, low-cal treats like meringues but I won't lie.  Not only have I been enjoying my Christmas chocolates (slowly but surely), I've made a couple of chocolate desserts I'll be showing you soon.  Let's just say chocolate and butter will be making a reappearance in the near future. 



Honey-wheat cookies

I'd never used wheat germ before until last week when I bought a bag to make those tasty (and healthy) blueberry-banana muffins.  I still have quite a bit left and as luck would have it, I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes - reading a cookbook - when I found another recipe to deploy the wheat germ for.  I was reading through Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan and making a growing list of things I might like to make when I saw this recipe for honey-wheat cookies, which calls for lemon zest, honey, and wheat germ.  It sounded like something worth trying during this post-holiday January when you (by that, I mean me or I) still want a sweet treat but prefer to stay on the lighter, healthier side.
Like its name suggests, the flavor and texture of these cookies come from the combination of lemon zest, honey, and wheat germ.  To up the health factor a bit further, I substituted some of the all-purpose flour used in this recipe with white whole wheat flour.  There's wheat germ in the cookies themselves and they also get a coating of it on the outside before baking.  I really liked that, as it gave the cookies a bit more texture on the outside, similar to what you'd get if you rolled them in sugar and this is certainly a far healthier option.  These cookies just cry out for a cup of tea to go alongside.
When the cookies first came out of the oven, they were pretty nondescript and I worried about what the combination of wheat germ, honey, and lemon zest would taste like.  It was better than I thought it would be.  It's like biting into a soft cake - sweet, moist, and with a nice lemon perfume and flavor to it.
This cookie might lend more towards adult palates though.  Our six-year old was not into it.  Obviously, this is no chocolate cookie but it is a nice change up in the cookie rotation right now.


Not bagels or donuts

When I was making these, I thought they looked so much like bagels.  Of course, I'm thinking of things we're probably trying to ease up on right now. 
Then they made me think of donuts.  Boy, I love a donut from you-know-where.  My childhood and still current favorite (the only kind I eat, actually) is a regular donut with chocolate frosting and sprinkles.  Another food we're probably avoiding post-holiday.  Honestly, I rarely indulge in a donut nowadays since I'm taste-testing so much at home but I have fond memories of buying them by the half-dozen as a kid (buying that many was a much better deal than buying a few separately - that's how I rationalized it).  When I was pregnant with the little guy, I wanted donuts but along with ice-cream, it seemed to stick with me right on my tummy and hips.  I remember my husband and I would go to the donut shop and I'd eat a small half to satisfy that craving.
Doesn't it look like a bagel?
But I'm veering off-track again.  Let me tell you these are actually cookies.  Specifically, they are amaretti crisps, courtesy of Martha Stewart.  You and I may have had plenty of cookies during Christmas but if you're like me, you still want them in your life.  So along the lines of January and eating lighter, I'm thinking of meringues.  These amaretti crisps are basically meringues - toasted almonds pulverized with confectioners' sugar and folded together with stiffly beaten egg whites and a touch of almond extract.  That's it.
My family and I really enjoyed these.  I've been munching on them the last couple of nights and loving that toasted almond flavor and scent.  Like the classic Italian amaretti cookies, they are crisp and crunchy but these are also chewy in the center, which I love.  And as much as I adore rich chocolaty treats, something like this is delicious and just a great change of pace.  I followed instructions and piped these cookies into rings but also experimented with other simple shapes.
The little one in our family doesn't like to eat almonds whole but loves all these almond treats that come out of the kitchen.  He says they taste like macarons.  I can see the connection because they both have ground almonds and a chewy texture but these are far less fragile and practically hearty despite the lack of flour or butter.

So this is what I wanted to share with you today.  It's a 4-ingredient cookie that comes together quickly.  It does, however, require a bit of effort in the form of toasting the nuts, using a food processor, and piping.  I piped the batter out but I think just spooning them out into thick rounds would also work.  For me, these were worth a little extra effort - just call it exercise and reward yourself with a couple of these cookies.  And if you want to be naughty, spread a little something (like nutella) between two cookies or have it with a scoop of ice-cream.  I like it just the way it is though.


Blueberry-banana muffins

So here we are in the early days of January.  The merry-making of the holiday season is over.  I'm bummed about that; I just love Christmastime with all the lights, decorations, parties and, of course, all the delicious food and treats.  Now in January, it appears we're left with the aftermath and it just doesn't feel right to sit here and write about rich desserts.  Everyone's cutting back and as much as I dislike the idea of dieting and excessive restraint, I, too, can tell that I might have enjoyed the holidays a teeny bit too thoroughly.
I'm not taking sweets or desserts out of my life - oh no.  I'm just taking it slow and practicing a little more restraint for a few weeks.  But I still have a strong urge to bake something all the time so I'm trying to focus on some lighter, more healthful choices.  So today, I'm making blueberry-banana muffins.  Two fruits in the title means it has to be good for you, right?  Yes!
This muffin not only has blueberries and bananas in it, it has other good stuff we can boast about too.  Wheat germ, for one.  And instead of just all-purpose flour, these muffins are made with a combination of whole wheat and all-purpose flour.  I use white whole wheat flour, which I think has a more subtle texture and flavor but still all the benefits of plain whole wheat.  Yes, there's still butter and sugar in this recipe.  Specifically, there's roughly 2/3 tablespoon of butter and less than one tablespoon of sugar per muffin.  And don't forget all the good stuff in there: blueberries, banana, wheat germ, whole wheat flour - and  we even use 2% low-fat milk!  So I think we can all have one of these on a January morning without any guilt.
The best part?  Other than they're better for you than the typical muffin, they taste really good!  The muffins are soft and moist, not heavy at all, and I love the little bit of grainy texture from the whole wheat flour and wheat germ.  I have to tell you I was tempted to sprinkle some sanding sugar on top of these just before they went into the oven but I restrained myself...and I think they are just sweet enough without it.  Now if you want to go ahead and do that though, I think it would be a good idea.


Fast egg drop corn soup

Soup is a great option during the cold winter days, particularly when you're looking to lighten things up a bit after all the holiday treats.  This is a very quick and simple egg drop corn soup that I make once in a while. 
You can literally put the soup together in minutes and play around with it by adding other vegetables like mushrooms, or beef it up with some protein (say leftover cooked chicken or even tofu) to turn it into meal on its own.


Rambling...

I didn't always love to bake and eat dessert.  It's hard to believe because a little something sweet has practically become a part of my daily life (in moderation, of course).  I really can hardly believe how much baking I do these days, particularly during the holiday season just past.  I've not only come to savor the desserts and pastries that come out of the kitchen but I've also found the process of making them relaxing and rewarding.  So I'm really grateful to have discovered this little hobby and to have started this blog in the past year.

While I didn't always bake or indulge in sweets regularly, I've always been a lover of food.  I mean, I seriously love to eat.  I'm definitely one of those people who live to eat rather than eat to live.  I think this passion for food runs on the female side of my family the strongest. 

Forgive my rambling today.  It's January and I want to say that I've been taking a break from baking and lightening things up but I really haven't.  Since Christmas, I've been baking cakes, more batches of banana bread and those amazing tri-color cookies, among other things.  There have been several pancake breakfasts and lots of chocolate tastings in between. 

But in the spirit of "taking a break", I thought I'd talk about something on the savory side today.   
I've showcased my love of pasta in the past but honestly, I love carbs in general.  Talking about a love of carbs so soon in the New Year is terrible timing, I know, but there's no denying that pasta, noodles, rice, and bread are some of my favorite things.  It has been really hard cutting down as I get older and bypassing that bread and butter on the restaurant table.  Now aside from pasta, I also love to make and eat risotto.  I remember starting with mushroom risotto years ago and my husband loved it so I started making other versions.  You can really start with a simple base risotto and add anything you wanted from meat to vegetables. 

And guess what?  My risotto are, in fact, lighter since I generally forgo the butter and cheese when I cook it at home.  I know this is sacrilege to Italians but we find that the flavor is satisfying enough without it and it's just one way to cut back a little at home. 

And in the general spirit of savory cooking where precise recipes are not as necessary as in baking, the risotto above has shrimp and asparagus.  Start by browning some shallots in olive oil before adding Arborio or Carnaroli rice.  Add a splash of white wine and then stir ladle fulls of chicken stock until the rice is cooked to al dente.  Stir in the shrimp and some blanched asparagus in the last few minutes.  You can basically add anything you like to a basic risotto.  I like it with lemon zest and shrimp, or other vegetables like peas.  You could add bacon or make it a mushroom risotto by adding different kinds of mushrooms that you like.  Risotto is a great base or side dish to go along with a protein.
This risotto above is my husband's favorite and one I love as well.  It's a shellfish risotto with saffron, which helps give it that rich golden color, not to mention a wonderful savory flavor.  You can get the recipe here; I omit the butter and parmesan cheese altogether and it is still really delicious.  It involves a little more work because you need to make a little seafood broth using some clams and shrimp shells but it is very rewarding.

So try lightening up your risotto a bit and save a little room for dessert!  Happy eating in 2012!


Happy New Year!

Wishing you a New Year filled with good tidings.  May it be happy, healthful, peaceful, and prosperous!
We welcomed the New Year with a relaxing yet lively breakfast party.  For us, it was the perfect way to welcome 2012.

See you soon!


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