Financiers (French tea cakes)

Have you ever had a financier?  These little tea cakes are very common in Paris and were one of the memorable things we snacked on during our trip there last Spring.  Made with browned butter, there is something very special about them.
Maybe part of their appeal is you don't expect them to taste so good.  They're rather simple and unassuming looking.  Traditional financiers are shaped in a small rectangular mold or loaf and when baked, their golden color makes them look like a bar of gold.  I found that in Paris, you see financiers in boat or basic muffin shapes (and they're usually next to the madeleines).  They look like a simple little snack cake but when you take a bite, it will very likely make you stop and take a second look at what you're eating because it's that good.  At least, that has been my experience...
An array of financiers on display at Angelina in Paris (sadly, I didn't sample these and wish I had...the "marron", or chestnut, ones look so good!)
Financiers from my kitchen - bake them in standard or mini muffin pans, or use small loaf pans or boat molds if you have it
These little cakes (sometimes referred to as cookies though I find it hard to think of them that way) pack a delicious moist flavor that's really unique.  The secret is the browned butter.  They're somewhat surprisingly made with egg whites, as well as ground almonds, which add nice texture and flavor.  Financiers come in an array of flavors from pistachio to chocolate or chestnut (as shown in the photo above) so you can get creative with the type of ground nuts you use.  You could even experiment with fillings like I did.  I hid some chestnut cream (that I "imported" back from Paris) into a couple of mine.
Financier with some chestnut cream stuffed inside.  This one was still warm from the oven and could've used a bit more time to set.
Now, back to the reality of making these in my own kitchen.  I wanted to recreate that memory of being surprised by how good they were when we tasted some from LadurĂ©e and Le Bon Marche's Grande Epicerie (a mall with its own separate food hall) in Paris.  I used the recipe in Paris Sweets to make these.  They are easy to make and done right on the stovetop.  The only "trick" is to brown the butter and make sure it doesn't go over to black.

These homemade financiers did not disappoint!  They may just look like a bland corn muffin at a glance but they taste way better than they look.  The edges and tops are addicting crisp and sweet, while there is an interesting texture to them because of the ground almonds.  The best part - the cake is moist and flavorful; there is this almost mysterious caramel flavor to them (thanks to that brown butter).  I couldn't stop eating mine and I had devoured one before I knew what hit me.  Maybe it would've been better to make mini cakes, in mini muffin cups, in order to practice more self control.
The bad news is these are best eaten fresh, the day they're baked.  We had one leftover that we ate the next morning; it was still good but fresh is definitely better.  Now, the good news is you can keep the batter refrigerated for up to 3 days and bake them in installments.  I didn't have this problem (or luxury) because I made half the recipe, which turned out only 4 standard size muffin-shaped financiers when I was expecting 6.  So no leftover batter this time but I'll correct that error next time around.


Brownie cupcakes with peppermint filling

Chocolate and mint.  I'm not sure how it all began but it is one of my favorite combinations.  And brownies are among my favorite things on earth.  I pretty much love all things chocolate!
I know it's been out for years but I only recently bought a copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.  While I love a chocolate cupcake with ganache frosting, I'm not a huge cupcake fan, mainly because I'm not a frosting - particularly, buttercream - lover (again, unless there's an overwhelming amount of chocolate involved).  But when I last flipped through the book, I couldn't help but notice many recipes I'd love to try eventually.  Plus, I can't go wrong with one of Martha's books.  It's always well organized, reliable, and I love that there's a photo for each recipe.  Ever since Cupcakes came out, I've been waiting for a "Martha Stewart's Cakes" book that has still yet to materialize; I would buy that in a heartbeat!
So from my copy of the Cupcakes book, I made a few brownie cupcakes with peppermint filling.  I love the promise of brownie cupcakes and there's no need for frosting here.  The surprise center is an embedded peppermint patty, which infuses the brownie/cupcake with a strong peppermint flavor. 

It's not quite a surprise filling, I find, since the peppermint patty "leaked" out of most of my cupcakes even though I was pretty careful to follow the instructions on hiding them.  I kind of like the volcanic look to them and really don't mind a little peppermint lava flowing out.  If you make these and get a particularly "runny" batch, maybe we could just rename them "mint lava brownie cupcakes".  You could tidy them up a bit or hide any filling poking out by dusting some cocoa powder over the top.  I think they're fine either way.
I really enjoyed these.  I love the crisp, shiny, crackly, almost hard tops on these brownie cupcakes.  Be careful not to overbake them so that the center is not only minty, thanks to a York peppermint patty, but also fudgy and chocolaty.  The brownie-cupcake batter was so good, I'd even make these plain, without the peppermint patty inside.  Or instead, I'd just add a touch of peppermint extract or almond extract to the batter.  And the thing that really makes this recipe a keeper is that these cupcakes retained their texture, staying moist and fudgy with a crisp top even on its third day!  They're also very easy to make.
The craggy, sunken tops seemed to call out for a scoop of ice cream.  That's probably over the top but I did it anyway. 


Homemade cheese crackers

With September and  the start of a new school year, I took a crack at making cheese crackers.  With any luck, I thought maybe I'd have a little homemade snack for the little guy to take to school...
In a perfect world (if you're a mom who enjoys cooking/baking), these cheese crackers - like everything else you make - would be gratefully and enthusiastically received by your little one.  In reality, your little one might take his first bite, make a funny face, and say they don't taste a bit like the Cheez-Its that you tried to imitate!
In retrospect, maybe it would've been wiser to cut these crackers into another shape so as not to set up expectations and comparisons.  But while the initial critique was harsh, I noticed these homemade cheese crackers quickly grew on the 7-year old food critic and he ate every single one I'd put into his bowl.  And for the following three nights at dinner, he managed to down quite a number of them (in fact, asking for more!) with both enjoyment and eagerness.  So, all in all, I actually think this venture was a success despite the rough start!
From an adult point of view, I thought these homemade crackers had amazing flavor - real cheese flavor that far surpassed the boxed/bagged variety.  I used a "Mammoth" sharp cheddar cheese from Wisconsin and since cheese is the predominant ingredient, the flavor of the one you choose really comes through.  They're more like cheese crackers or cheese straws you'd serve at a cocktail party than Cheez-Its, which is certainly not a bad thing!  My husband says they're addicting and I don't think he was just saying that to soothe my feelings after the aforementioned critique. 

Texturally, my cheese crackers were crunchy but they could've been crisper, thinner (which is entirely "my bad").  I think that's where these came up short in my 7-year old's initial comparison of them against those Cheez-Its (which he likes but is not a particularly big fan of so maybe I was setting myself up).  Inevitably, I could've rolled the dough out thinner.  I say "inevitably" because I was mindful of this starting out (since I believe thinner=crisper in the case of crackers) but since I seldom take out my rolling pin, it's a challenge for me to get it just right.  I also think I lack patience for the art of dough rolling.

The bottoms of the crackers were quite crisp.  The crackers puff up in the oven and I found the tops of mine a bit denser and chewier than the bottom, but still very tasty.  Cheesy, salty flavor with crunch is an addicting combination.
I really couldn't resist mimicking the Cheez-It shapes since it gave me a chance to use my fluted pastry cutter, which I bought over a year ago knowing I'd eventually find a use for it! 

I also used some small flower shaped cookie cutters I have on hand.  The little ones would make excellent croutons on top of a bowl of tomato soup (and if you live in New York, Bouchon Bakery makes an excellent one)!  For whatever reason, I liked the look of the little triangle shapes best, and I did notice the thinner crackers from the edges of my dough were crisper.
So these crackers didn't end up as a school snack for the little guy as I initially envisioned but the effort wasn't for naught.  We really did enjoy eating these at home for a few nights, and I am glad I gave this project a try.



Peanut butter + milk chocolate cookies

There is definitely something wonderful and therapeutic about making up a batch of homemade cookies.  I think it's the very fact that it can be so simple and satisfying.  In short time and with minimal effort, you (hopefully) end up with something tasty and comforting to share with your family.  Plus, the aroma of freshly baked cookies from your oven is an added bonus.
So for my latest cookie experiment, I decided to make peanut butter milk chocolate chunk cookies, a recipe from Baked.  Generally, I prefer my peanut butter spread between two slices of soft bread.  I didn't grow up eating a lot of peanut butter (Nutella was more my speed) and I haven't been a big fan of peanut butter desserts.  But a batch of monster cookies changed my perspective a lot, and for some reason - probably with back-to-school, I've been thinking about peanut butter cookies. 
My son called these "Reese's Pieces Cookies" when he saw and smelled them, and I think that just about sums them up.  There's not a lot of textural complexity going on here (no oats or nuts) but if you like peanut butter and enjoy a soft cookie, take your chocolate chip cookies for a spin and consider these.  I do wonder how these cookies would fare using chunky peanut butter instead of creamy.  I'm always looking for a little chunk and crunch in my food.
Peanut butter and chocolate is a classic American combination for a good reason.  And cookies are a very good thing.  I know it's still technically summer so call me crazy but I'm already looking forward to the Christmas season and all those cookies I'll have an excuse to make, sample, and share.


Experimenting with yellow cake

It's time for what I'm starting to think of as my "September", or "back-to-school", cake.  I figure there's no better way to start things off on a positive note than to celebrate with a cake (and a little pizza party at home)!  Last year, I made a Brooklyn Blackout Cake to celebrate the start of first grade.  This year, I went with a yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting.
Can it be I've never actually made an authentic yellow or vanilla cake before?  Well, maybe this one doesn't qualify either because it's more of a hybrid yellow/vanilla/chiffon/sponge cake.  I think the whole thing is pretty confusing anyway given the similarities between cakes like sponge, genoise, and chiffon.
I originally planned to make the yellow cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen (and maybe I should've) but due to (most likely unfounded) fears of that cake being denser and dryer than I'd like, I decided on a recipe I found and read about on Food52.  The recipe had rave reviews and caught my attention because it's made with oil as opposed to butter.  I generally love cakes (like this one, this one, and even these muffins) made with oil - the benefit being the cake is typically quite moist and usually stays that way for a few days.  Additionally, the eggs in this recipe are separated and whipped whites are folded into the base, which again suggests a lighter texture.
So instead of going full-out chocolate like I typically would, I layered chocolate buttercream frosting on to this "hybrid" yellow cake.  At one point during the making of this cake, I thought I must've done something terribly wrong, like accidentally doubled the flour because it was mixing up like dough!  As it turns out, that's how it's supposed to be until you add the rest of the wet ingredients and I did end up with two moist and tender cake layers.  The texture is firmer than the delicious chiffon cake that I'm used to, making it ready to support fillings and frosting; and it is reminiscent of a sponge but with the addition of oil.

This cake provides a blank canvas for a flavorful, rich frosting.  But to be honest, I was disappointed by the lack of flavor in the cake itself.  Maybe I just prefer cakes like this one that have a little more going on.  I am certainly no expert on yellow cakes so I mean no offense to the author of this recipe! 

I assume using butter instead of oil would improve the flavor and I think the cake could use a few more egg yolks for added richness and flavor.  Maybe I'll eventually give that recipe from Smitten Kitchen a try.  Cook's Illustrated also has a relatively similar yellow cake recipe that sounds interesting; it uses butter, buttermilk, a little bit of vegetable oil, and also involves folding whipped egg whites into the batter.  Could that be the best of both worlds in terms of flavor and texture?
I think it's good to try something different once in a while, even if it's just a little different from what you're used to and even if you end up going back to what you know best.  My family, including the guest of honor (the newly minted 2nd grader), enjoyed a slice of this cake after our pizza dinner but given the option, we'd all grab this one or this one instead.

So far, the new school year is off to a good start.  I'm hoping for a far smoother transition this year than last.  Here's to a happy, calm, and successful school year for all school kids out there!


Lentil soup

September is upon us once again.  The summer went by fast, as it tends to do.  While I welcome the change in season and the chance to get back to a regular schedule, I'll surely miss the more carefree, relaxed, no-need-to-worry about homework/school/bedtime attitude of the summer. 

Before too long, I know I'll start craving hot comfort foods and plenty of it.  And since we cannot live by dessert alone (I certainly don't though it might seem that way from this blog!), I'm adding this lentil soup to my archives today because I know it's something I'll be looking to make again and again.
I grew up eating plenty of white rice but in the last few years, I've started experimenting with other grains and beans in the quest to eat a little healthier, with more variety (and to balance out the dessert course we're clearly having more of).  I've been exploring the worlds of brown rice, quinoa, barley, and lentils.  This particular lentil soup came about, admittedly, when I saw and bought a vacuum-packed package of precooked lentils at the market.  I know that lentils are not terribly difficult to cook - and are undoubtedly better cooked fresh at home - but I just could not stare convenience in the face and reject it. 

So with my pre-cooked lentils in hand, I scoured the web for an appealing (translation: sounds tasty and easy to make) lentil soup recipe and ended up adapting one I found on 101 Cookbooks.  I was a bit hesitant about the tomato base for a lentil soup but it turned out to be my favorite part, giving the soup plenty of zest.  Carrots, onions, plenty of kale, and, of course, the lentils, created a hearty and delicious pot of steaming soup.  Make a big pot because if you're like me, you'll have no problems polishing it off in no time.  Leftovers make for a quick lunch or dinner starter.


Baking with my "original" nephew - Chocolate Orbit Cake

It seems like yesterday when there were no children in our extended family.  Then, everyone started getting married and we had kids!  I had my son 7 years ago and now I count eight nephews and nieces all under the age of ten.  My brother has 3 boys  and a few days ago, I had my "original" nephew, the 9-year old and oldest, over to do a little baking (with a teeny bit of help from my own little one).
A miniature, 6-inch, version of the "Chocolate Orbit Cake" (the holes on the surface reminiscent of craters on the moon)
We made David Lebovitz's Chocolate Orbit Cake, also known as Chocolate Idiot Cake because he thinks just about anyone can make it without fail.  It's a recipe I've wanted to try given my love of chocolate - and this cake is all about the chocolate.
The cake batter couldn't be easier to whisk together but I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I almost fell into the category of "idiot" when I baked the batter in two 6-inch cake pans rather than one 9-inch springform pan and things went a bit off from there.

There's nothing wrong with the recipe itself and, in fact, the finished cake is delicious...as in deliciously chocolaty and smooth like rich ganache.  However, I followed the instructions from my copy of Ready for Dessert which said you could make the cake in either a springform or cake pan and while that might be true, do not try to flip the cake back right-side up (like I did with one) if you invert it from a cake pan like the recipe tells you to do.  Maybe it would work for you but the risk is disaster in the form of broken/stuck-to-the-plate cake.  So my advice is stick with a springform pan and you'll have no problems whatsoever.  Ironically, I actually used the slightly different quantities (a little less chocolate and butter) in the recipe posted online and assumed the instructions would be the same as the version in the book.  I now notice after the fact that the online recipe makes no mention of using a cake pan and simply tells you to go with a springform.  What can I say?  You live, you learn...
Like I mentioned, we made two small cakes, which took longer than I expected to set.  The cake bakes in a water bath, which the boys had nothing to do with.  Since I have burn marks on my arms from the handles of the roasting pan (checking on the cakes, not knowing when my minis would be done), I'm glad I kept them out of the way (the boys were busy playing a videogame at this point anyway).  So, when all was said and done, I kept the broken but still delicious cake (the one I attempted to turn right side up) while the other made its way to my nephew's house for his dad's (my brother's) upcoming birthday.  My brother's birthday seems to make me think of fudgy flourless chocolate cakes. 

This cake is very much like eating chocolate ganache.  With only chocolate, butter, eggs, and sugar as its ingredients, you can understand why.  It is rich, dense, moist, and full of dark chocolate flavor - all characteristics I like but consider yourselves forewarned if you are not looking for something decadent like this.  I used a combination of semisweet and bittersweet Callebaut chocolate; make sure you use a chocolate you enjoy eating because the chocolate flavor really comes through.  Because of its richness, a thin slice will suffice.  I find it really scrumptious all by itself but a scoop of vanilla ice cream (proudly homemade, in this case) is always very nice and I find that most people find it a necessity to balance out all that chocolate. 


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