Anniversary cake

My husband and I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary!  It's hard to believe ten years of marriage have come to pass.  I couldn't pass up such a special occasion and made a small chocolate cake to share with my husband...and our little guy.
I am a very lucky girl to have met my husband many years ago.  We've been together such a long time, we always joke that we can't remember our life before knowing each other.  My husband is my best friend - he props me up, supports me through hard times, encourages me, and always makes me feel good about myself.  He is a steadfast, calming influence. 

But setting aside the seriousness, let's talk cake!  I decided to surprise my husband on anniversary night with a mini (feels more intimate) chocolate cake.  Interestingly, he had a similar idea because he brought home a medley of chocolate desserts that night so I'm not kidding when I say we had a very sweet anniversary celebration.  For my cake, I used our favorite chocolate cake recipe with a dark chocolate buttercream.  A touch of heavy cream in this frosting makes it quite smooth and easy to spread. 
I got a little "fancy" (fancy for me, anyway) and piped some stars and a shell border around the cake.  It is a very special occasion, afterall!  I used some melted white chocolate for the "10" and little heart-shape decoration.  I had our little one take a picture of my husband and I cutting this little cake.  It's good to have the little one share this occasion with us.
So here's to love and having someone kind and supportive in your life.  Tough times are not as tough when you have someone holding your hand and backing you up.  And when you have someone like that to share chocolate cake with, it is a blessed and blissful existence.  I'm very grateful and hopeful for many more anniversary cakes in our future.


Mango pudding

We had quite a mild winter around here this year.  Aside from that unusual snow storm back in late October, it was fairly calm and practically balmy for much of the season.  After the very rough winter we had the prior year, I think we deserved it even if it did feel a bit odd.  And speaking of odd, the robins came back early and plenty of plants are already in bloom.  And I've been seeing spring and summer produce in serious abundance at the supermarket.  Mangoes were one thing that struck me.  Don't we typically come into the height of mango season some time around May/June around here?  But I've been seeing plenty of them since early March - and really good ones to boot.  (I expect to see watermelons soon at this rate.)
So when I was grocery shopping the other day, I stumbled upon some real good looking mangoes.  It made me want to make a big pot of mango sago for my husband as a little surprise that night (it's one of his favorite desserts that I learned how to make last summer).  But since I didn't have any mango juice at home or a place nearby to buy it, I opted for mango pudding.  It's another Asian dessert my husband likes and I've wanted to give it a try.  These mango puddings are made from a puree of fresh mangoes, mixed with some evaporated milk and sugar, and set with plain gelatin.
I think the flavor was on point with this mango pudding, thanks to some very sweet and ripe champagne mangoes (I think they're also called "Ataulfo" and by other names but the label on them says "champagne mango"; they are my favorite since they don't have much fiber).  But we found the texture a bit too dense.  I think I was a little too heavy-handed with the gelatin because I was afraid the pudding wouldn't set.  Next time around, I'd try easing up on it (I've adjusted the amount of gelatin in the recipe down a little).  Overall, I think this pudding is a nice spring or summertime dessert if you're looking to have a fruity treat or want to change up the dessert routine.  Maybe you have a big box of mangoes ripening quickly and need ideas to use them up.  But I have to admit that we much preferred the cold mango sago dessert soup over this pudding and when you have seriously good mangoes, you also can't beat just peeling it and taking a big bite.


Payard's flourless chocolate cookies - 2 ways

On one of our recent excursions into NYC, we stopped by Payard Bakery for some requisite macarons and a few other sweet treats.  Incidentally, we tried one of their savory sandwiches and it was quite tasty.  Anyway...the visit got me looking up some of Francois Payard's recipes and it brought me to these flourless chocolate cookies that have been fairly widely touted.  I thought it would be fun to give them a try for myself.  I think this is a good time to highlight flourless treats with Passover coming up but these are some pretty special flourless cookies to try for no reason at all.
Payard's recipe is flourless chocolate-walnut cookies.  Some people commend them for being low-fat since there's actually no chocolate (just cocoa powder) in them and only egg whites are used to bind them.  What fat you do find in them is the good stuff, coming from the walnuts.  But you won't find me insinuating they're some sort of "health food" because there's plenty of sugar in the mix.  But the amazing thing about these cookies is their texture.  Somehow, they manage to be moist, fudgy, and chewy (yes, chocolaty too) without the actual chocolate, butter, or egg yolks.  They really do taste and look like brownies in cookie form!  The other thing about these cookies is they are very easy to make.  I mixed the batter in a large bowl, by hand, in a matter of minutes. 
When I made these, I wondered if my little guy would like them.  The little one loves a chocolate cookie or brownie but he still insists he doesn't like walnuts (or other chunks of nuts in his desserts - long story, but that's not really true).  So I offhandedly fed him a bite to test the waters and when he almost took my fingers off trying to inhale as big a mouthful as he could, I knew he was into them.  He quickly scarfed one down and requested more, even acknowledging they were good with the walnuts. 

These were so interesting that I decided to make another batch a few days later and play with the mix-in.  I threw the "no actual chocolate in this recipe" mantra out the window and added some mini chocolate chips and a little bit of cocoa nibs in place of the walnuts.  The result?  They were good but in a side by side comparison, we clearly preferred the original toasted walnut version more (not surprisingly, the pros know what they're doing).  The chocolate chips are tasty but made the cookies sweeter than I liked.  The cocoa nibs added a certain level of smokiness to the cookies without the sweetness so perhaps it may be worthwhile to try what Molly at Orangette did and make a walnut-cocoa nibs version.  But I think I'll stick with the original. 


Pistachio macarons

Today, March 20th, 2012, is not only the first day of Spring but also Macaron Day in NYC.  I admit that I am far too lazy to participate in the actual event but I'm celebrating the occasion here with another macaron post.

This time, my French macaron-making continues with some pistachio macarons.  I'm really getting the hang of it.  I'm no longer slightly nervous about the prospect of making these.  Instead, I feel calm and ready, and the process is beginning to have a familiar rhythm to it.  So after successfully tackling the coffee and hazelnut flavors, I made pistachio ones.  I placed a few of them (below) in a gift box that I got from Ladurée, the iconic macaron maker.  I sometimes hold on to boxes as a memento.  It goes without saying that mine are no where near as good as theirs (that's laughable) but a girl can pretend.
The beauty of making macarons is you can essentially use one main recipe that works for you and tweak it for various flavors.  With pistachio, I used an equal mix of ground pistachios and almonds in the batter.  You can't really tell but I did use some food coloring (first time with macarons) to tint them a little green.  That was the intention but if there's one thing that does turn me off about macarons is when they have an artificially intense, almost neon-like, color to them.  So I tried to avoid that at all cost.  You can see the tinge of green in the wet batter but after baking, the color is more golden.  I could've used more of my green gel paste coloring but I'm satisfied with the results.  You really don't need to color them at all. 

In "real life," the macaron shells already have a subtle, natural tinge of green to them from the ground pistachios and you can see little specks of it on the surface.  Sprinkling some chopped pistachios on top of some of the shells is an easy garnish to show what they are.  Plus, it adds a bit of flavor.
I've mentioned before that I've decided to pair macarons I make with chocolate ganache.  That's because I love chocolate and I'm not generally a fan of buttercream.  Plus, I just don't have the skill to pull off a really good buttercream like the professional ones that blend so seamlessly with the shells. 
However, here's the thing about macarons.  Their flavor comes heavily from the filling.  I mean, we're really talking about a meringue cookie here so the overwhelming flavor coming from the macaron shells is sweetness - or sugar.  That's particularly the case if you're using pure almonds, which is rather mild.  The nuts (in this case, pistachios) do impart a distinct flavor but the filling can really go a long way towards underscoring and heightening the flavor or add something special if you want to get really creative.  I used semisweet chocolate for the ganache and added a light layer of filling so as not to completely overwhelm the pistachio shells.  But we love chocolate, period, so this works beautifully for us.
My son devoured that "macaron ice-cream sandwich" I made last time so I did play around again this time.  His had vanilla ice-cream (there is one particular brand of vanilla ice-cream he favors; otherwise, it's chocolate everything).  My husband and I shared the chocolate one you see above.  Since realizing macaron shells freeze well, I'm experimenting with it and have a couple in the freezer that I plan to defrost and use at a later date.  I'll let you know how that works out...



Blueberry muffins with orange zest

I had a hankering to make another batch of muffins.  I really like making muffins because they're so easy to put together and they taste so good warm from the oven.  Your house smells wonderful and then you sit down with your fresh muffin that has a slightly crisp top and warm cake within...
I was looking through the Flour cookbook by Joanne Chang and zeroed in on her "raspberry-rhubard muffins."  I decided to go a more traditional route and make the classic blueberry variation instead since I've got some frozen blueberries in the freezer I'd love to use up.  But one of the reasons I really wanted to try her recipe is because it uses crème fraîche, which is something I've never used before in baking but have heard so many great things about. 
I always thought crème fraîche would have the consistency of sour cream since it's often cited as the alternative if you can't find crème fraiche but at first sight, it's much more like cream cheese in texture.  When you let it sit at room temperature and whisk it a bit, it becomes looser, with a thick and velvety texture.  The crème fraîche, milk, and eggs add richness to the muffins but to give it a fresher flavor, I decided to add some orange zest.  For me, you can rarely go wrong with adding a bit of orange or lemon zest to a basic cake or muffin batter.
I would definitely make these muffins again.  I made the batter for these muffins the night before and baked them first thing in the morning.  They're the type of muffins that puff up on top when baking and then sort of slide off to the sides, leaving some nice crispy edges to munch on once the top is cooled.  The center was super fluffy, with a nice airy texture (which surprised me since I half expected the crème fraîche to add a denseness to them).  I polished one off very quickly.  In general when I'm baking, I'm pretty precise when it comes to measuring the flour but I tend to low-ball the amount of sugar.  I found that I shouldn't skimp on the sugar when it comes to this recipe.  Mine could have used just a tad bit more sweetness so next time, I'll follow the recipe more precisely.


Peanut butter crispy bars

The guys behind Baked are known for their creative and delicious spins on some classic American desserts.  I don't know who grew up eating these peanut butter crispy bars but I was not lucky enough to be one of those people.  I may be more of a Nutella person in general but very often, a peanut butter sandwich just hits the spot.  I think the Baked cookbooks have given me a new appreciation for peanut butter (I'm thinking about their very yummy monster cookies).
These peanut butter crispy bars are another recipe from their cookbook.  The bars are made up of three layers: a crispy, basically candied, rice crispy crust at the bottom, a prominent middle layer of soft peanut butter and milk chocolate, and a thinner coating of dark chocolate on top.  I love the way these bars look, the contrast in colors between the chocolate layers, as well as the textural difference between the crispy bottom and the other two creamy layers.
These bars were easy to make and come together relatively quickly.  There's no baking involved and the two chocolate layers only need about an hour of chilling time apiece.  I think the only technicality is you should have a candy thermometer since you need to boil some sugar for the bottom crust.  Since I had everything on hand, I literally made these on a whim one morning, went out to run an errand, and they were ready to be sliced.  I cut these into small servings and gave the majority away so I could share the calories (I mean, love) among friends. 

You know how you know you made something good?  You keep thinking about it and wanting more, as thought you're not convinced you've got a proper taste and need to make sure.  That's how we feel about these.  I have a feeling I'll be making more of these.  And while I'm tempted to play around with say a Nutella version and sometimes I think maybe, just maybe, the bottom layer would be better if it was just a tad softer and not quite so crunchy, it's hard to mess with a good thing.  And these are good!
Consider trying these out if you know some peanut butter lovers and want to mix up the usual cookie rotation.  I think it's hard to find this kind of distinct, multi-layer bar recipe.  My six-year old tasted these and started placing dibs on what we had left and my husband could've used a few more pieces as well.  You see why I keep thinking I need to mix up another batch?  The writing's on the wall...


Instant (two-ingredient) chocolate mousse

This recipe was one that I just had to try.  It's one of those things that catches your eye and captures your attention (if you're me, that is).  I mean, did they say two-ingredient chocolate mousse?  Does that really say "instant", as in about 5 minutes to prepare?  Really? 
It was during one of my daily visits to thekitchn.com that I saw this post on 2-ingredient chocolate mousse.  It was like their post on 1-ingredient ice cream using bananas.  I had to try that and it really worked, and this was the same kind of thing that I had to try.  It's no secret that I love chocolate and chocolate mousse is probably one of the most direct (and decadent) ways to enjoy chocolate as a dessert.  I love the recipe for French chocolate mousse but here, we're talking no egg whites, no cream, or any other kind of additional dairy.  Plus, no waiting for it to set.  We're talking chocolate and...water!  You could add some sugar to ease up on the bittersweet flavor but essentially, it involves two ingredients and whisking over an ice bath.
But before anyone (that would be myself) gets too excited, I want to cut to the chase.  I made this mousse and as promised, it does work.  The texture is indeed quite smooth in your mouth but there's a lot that I personally did not enjoy about this mousse.  As a serious chocolate lover, this mousse was too intense even for me.  The recipe specifically calls for using chocolate with 70% cacao (maybe it works with another type of chocolate but the recipe is fairly specific) and the overall result is a very strong flavor, almost like eating chocolate liqueur.  Secondly, the mousse comes together quickly (roughly 5 minutes or so if you actually have the arm strength to whisk continuously) but sets even quicker.  Quite literally, you have a flowing mousse one minute and a thick, dense scoop practically seconds later.  You barely have time to pour them into serving glasses before it sets.  So sadly, I won't be making this again based on my personal taste but no doubt there are others out there who would enjoy it.


Orange muffins with bittersweet chocolate chunks

Hello, there!  I'm here with a muffin recipe today.  These are orange chocolate muffins.  They are flavored with fresh orange juice and zest, and studded with bits of bittersweet chocolate chunks.
A few months ago, I noticed that Serious Eats runs a weekly series called, "Share Your Sweets," where they ask home bakers to submit a picture and description of something they've baked.  The topic changes each week and I've sent in a few things; it's neat to see something you cooked and a picture you took on a website other than your own!  A while back, the topic was muffins and I saw these orange and chocolate muffins submitted by Sara at her blog, Cupcake Muffin that appealed to me.  I bookmarked the recipe and I've been meaning to try it for a long time.  I mean, orange and chocolate is one of my all-time favorite classic combinations.
I like this recipe for several reasons.  First, a good amount of orange juice and zest infuse the muffins with flavor but the effect is on the lighter side as opposed to a somewhat heftier, sweeter product you'd get from, say, most banana muffins.  You can keep things light by mixing in fruit like cranberries and some nuts (which is what the origin of this recipe - from Cooking Light - calls for) but I love the bittersweet chocolate Sara used because, frankly, I just love chocolate and that's what drew me to the recipe in the first place.  With the bittersweet chocolate, the overall effect is a little more richness but it's not overly sweet.  It's a great way to consume your daily intake of dark chocolate!  These muffin are made up of a mixture of all-purpose and white whole wheat flour.  And as an added bonus, they're also very easy to put together. 
I think if you're not already a home baker but want to be, muffins are a great place to start.  For most muffin recipes, putting the batter together is a matter of basic mixing with a whisk or spatula, incorporating some dry and wet ingredients together.  The key is to not overmix, which can be hard to resist at first.  Afterall, the mixing and stirring is half the fun!
Believe it or not, I don't often eat sweets for breakfast.  I mean, I'll eat cereal that's sweetened but in general, I prefer something savory for my first meal.  I like to save my sweet treat for later in the day.  I guess I don't trust myself and I'm afraid I'll over-indulge or be "over my limit" too soon if I start early in the morning.  But for my on-the-run husband, a muffin in the morning can be quite convenient so I have an excuse to explore various muffin options.  I was a little naughty and sprinkled some sanding sugar on top of a couple of the muffins right before baking.  I'll just save those for my midday treat.


Hazelnut macarons with gianduja ganache

I think I'm starting to get comfortable with the rhythm of making macarons so I'm systematically tackling a list of my favorite flavors.  Today, it's hazelnut macarons, which I've paired with a gianduja ganache. 
I'm laughing at myself as I type "gianduja ganache" because it sounds like a lame attempt to sound more sophisticated than I am.  Truth be told, I'm probably not even pronouncing "gianduja" correctly (but I love to say it for fun) and I only learned the term a year or two ago.  La Maison du Chocolat makes these amazing almonds coated with a gianduja paste that I love.  Anyway, what I do know is I've always loved the combination of hazelnut and chocolate so whatever you call it, for me, it's simply delicious.  The filling is basically chocolate ganache that I've mixed with some hazelnut paste (leftover from the hazelnut cake I made recently) so I guess we could just call it a chocolate-hazelnut ganache filling.
I'm happy (and relieved) to report this was my second successful batch of macarons.  I would love to figure out how to get my macaron shells a bit denser, less hallow, in the center, but I'm not complaining.  I'm learning a little something and becoming more comfortable with the process each time.  As I get older, I realize things can't and don't need to be perfect, and it's futile to try to impress other people.  That attitude makes life a lot more relaxing.  Afterall, it's about enjoyment and things don't need to be perfect to be enjoyed thoroughly.

I had a lot of fun making and eating these hazelnut macarons.  Hazelnut macarons are sometimes labeled as praline flavor at the bakeries.  Instead of using all almonds in the batter, you substitute half with toasted hazelnuts.  If you're like me, you might wonder why half and not all.  I've seen recipes doing either but I decided to stick with Helene's (from her beautiful blog, Tartelette) advice.  She explained to me that nuts other than almonds have a higher fat content, which is less conducive to making macarons.  Hence, the inclusion of the almonds is a good thing even when you're making other flavors.  I asked her about this on her blog and she answered - how cool is that!
Just for fun, I sprinkled some toasted chopped hazelnuts on top of a few of the macarons.  It's nice to look at them and be able to tell what you're about to bite into.  I was concerned that the hazelnut flavor would not be strong enough using the equal mix of almonds and hazelnuts but the toasted hazelnut flavor was quite prominent.
And I know it's still winter (even though it's been a relatively mild one here) but I thought I'd played around a little more.  If you've visited macaron shops like Ladurée in the summer, you might have seen they sell ice cream with a macaron shell on top.  So I made my own imitation of that. 
Then I thought to myself, why not make an ice-cream sandwich out of it?  And so I did!  Our resident macaron connoisseur (you know, the six-year old) devoured it.  It actually holds up pretty well in the freezer (though I only stored it there a few hours).  Just take it out of the freezer and let it sit out at room temperature for a little bit before eating.  Let me just say that macarons do indeed go very well with ice cream.  It helps that the shells freeze quite well.
Other macaron experiments to be continued...


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