October 31, 2013

Banana walnut cake

Halloween has arrived!  The weather is calm and for that, I am very grateful. I'm off to start a busy day but I leave you with this...have a fun day!

This cake is pretty much a no-brainer.  By that, I mean if you like baked goods with bananas and the flavors of toasted walnuts and a hint of spice, there's a very good chance you'll like this.  It's a great everyday kind of cake to make with that extra ripe banana you may have around the house.
I substituted walnuts for the pecans in the original recipe.  I'm not a huge fan of pecans but I love toasted walnuts in banana muffins and in baked goods, in general.  And for once, I didn't have to divide the recipe in half to make a smaller, 6-inch, cake because the recipe was actually written this way!  
The texture of this banana cake is lighter than typical banana bread but maybe slightly firmer than a muffin.  It has a hint of cinnamon and cloves, along with dark brown sugar to create a nice warm mix of flavors that go really well with some toasted nuts.  Tasting this cake and the way the flavor of the toasted walnuts pop, I'm reminded of the magic of toasting nuts.  I can't believe I ever used raw nuts for baking in the past because the extra flavor you get from toasting them is amazing and well worth the effort.

October 27, 2013

Halloween is coming (I think...)

Needless to say, Halloween is just a few days away.  It's been relatively quiet around here in my neck of the woods...I think we're managing our expectations about Halloween.  You see...for those of us in the New Jersey and surrounding areas, Halloween's been "canceled" by Mother Nature for the last two years.  I'm talking major storms, extended power outages, and gas shortages so missing out on Halloween was the least of our concerns.  But with that in mind, I think many of us are taking a "let's see..." and "we'll believe it when it happens..." kind of a stance on it.
It's looking good though.  I'm hopeful the kids will finally get to trick-or-treat on the actual day of Halloween and have a chance to enjoy their parade, assemblies and parties at school this year. Personally, I'm not a big fan of Halloween (sorry!) but as a mom, I feel an obligation to mark the occasion and work up some enthusiasm.  So my little ninja and I will be trick-or-treating and enjoying all the celebrations this coming Thursday.
On the home base, I whipped up these spiderweb cookies.  I'm not into anything ghoulish so I stick with cute treats when I make any for Halloween.  This year, I saw spiderweb florentines in Martha Stewart Living (yes, I said Martha - and no, we won't go there...) that seemed like a fun thing to whip up.  Instead of using the florentine recipe from the magazine, I went with my favorite tuile recipe - these almond-butterscotch ones - and added the simple dark chocolate spiderweb design on top. It's not all that different from when I drizzled them rather haphazardly with chocolate for the holidays
These simple spiderweb cookies are just my type of Halloween treat. And whenever I think of these types of thin, crispy, lace cookies (or tuiles/florentines), I always think ice cream.  Their crispiness goes so well as a contrast to smooth, creamy ice cream so naturally, I had to serve them together!

Have a fun and safe Halloween, everyone!

October 24, 2013

Rustic hazelnut cake

I've never been to Italy but in my daydreams, I could picture myself out in the countryside, eating a piece of cake like this one on a perfect sunny afternoon...  
Of course, if I was in Italy, there'd be lots of pasta, seafood, pizza, as well as coffee and gelato involved, too.  But focusing on cake, I generally think of low-fuss, rustic cakes when I think of Italy. This particular one is a hazelnut cake, heavy on rich, fragrant, toasted hazelnuts.

It's natural to associate hazelnuts with Italy when the Piedmont region produces what's arguably the best hazelnuts in the world.  And that reminds me that Italy is also the birthplace of gianduja - the magical, irresistible combination of chocolate and hazelnut paste for which I am eternally grateful for!
Since this rustic Italian-style hazelnut cake is so chock full of toasted hazelnuts, my mini 6-inch cake went a long way because the hazelnuts make for a very filling cake.  I made use of some semolina flour since there's some of that, along with cake flour, in this cake.  I actually find that I personally prefer having some gluten to bind cakes like this one together; it makes it just a bit less heavy.  But for the most part, the ground hazelnuts (a full cup in my small cake) are the workhorse providing both the texture and flavor.
Texture-wise, it's gritty, crumbly, and somewhat drier than what we typically think of when we hear "cake".  It's intended to be that way.  I think it just goes naturally with a cup of coffee or espresso on the side.  If you need a bit more moisture or something to balance out the distinct hazelnut flavor (which I personally love), whipped cream or a fruit compote or sauce would be nice.

Do you remember when I mentioned that my son loved that almond semolina cake I made recently?  I made this one right after and that almond cake set expectations high.  In the interest of diversity, disclosure, and maybe some comic relief, I thought I'd tell you that my son hated this cake.  Yes, I said that (he is 8 years old, bare in mind)!  So perhaps this cake isn't a great choice for a child.  From an adult's point of view and as a hazelnut-lover, I enjoyed it, with one problem...the one technical complaint I do have about it is that it turned out too salty! I'm fairly confident I followed the recipe accurately and assuming that, I have to tell you that the salt needs to be dialed down significantly.  I've adjusted the recipe attached accordingly.  Now, if this were still my daydream...the cake would have turned out perfectly and I wouldn't have this problem with the salt, of course...

October 20, 2013

Easy, speedy molten fudge cakes for two

I think I've mentioned before that, being the extreme chocolate lover that I am, molten chocolate cake is quite possibly my favorite dessert if I had to choose one.  I don't care if it's no longer "in", I just love it for that intense chocolate experience.  For me, the warm, liquidy chocolate sensation just can't be beat.  So when I saw an easy recipe from one of America's Test Kitchen's cookbooks for something very similar - individual fudge cakes with a molten center - I wanted to try it out.
This recipe makes two portions, perfect for date night.  The main draw here is the ease of preparation.  It's genuinely quick and easy - you start by melting chocolate and milk right in the microwave.  Then, you whisk the rest of the ingredients in before scraping the batter into ramekins to bake for a quick dessert.  The trick to the molten center in this recipe is a square of dark chocolate tucked into the batter before baking.  That ensures the molten center and was definitely my favorite part of this dessert!
These molten fudge cakes have a bit more flour, and so were a tad more on the cakey side (around the edges anyway since the center is nice and soft with the melted chocolate piece) than standard molten chocolate cakes that we tend to think of when we see these chocolate ramekins. I'm definitely on the side of the less flour, the better, when it comes to any type of molten cakes so I want to make sure to point that out.  And since this recipe uses vegetable oil instead of butter, the flavor of the cake (again, the sides as opposed to the chocolaty center) is milder.

When it comes to classic molten chocolate cake, I've been using this recipe for many years and it has served me well.  My family and I are big fans of it and I make it when the craving comes on, which is fairly often!  That recipe requires a little more work so if you're pressed for time and want to whip something up that's quite similar, these easy, speedy molten fudge cakes are a great option.  Served with some vanilla ice-cream, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone complaining about having this for dessert!

October 17, 2013

The forgotten pear...mini pear clafoutis

This may sound strange but a couple of weeks ago, I ate a pear and it hit me that I hadn't had one in ages!  It'd probably only been a year but it felt like a whole lot longer - almost as though I'd forgotten about them and eating one triggered all these taste memories...

I was reminded of the unique flavor and texture of pears.  I don't know if I can say that I love them but they are certainly unique and different.  Now that we're firmly in the short, narrow window of pear season, I'm making up for lost time by stocking up and snacking on them.
I also thought I'd do a little baking with pears.  I've been meaning to try my hand at making clafoutis for months now and when I saw this post, I was inspired into action!
Bosc and Bartlett pear (from left to right); I went with the Bartlett for my clafoutis
I played it safe for my first clafoutis and stuck with a simple formula that produced a classic creamy-eggy-sweet custard for my pears.  Clafoutis, with that custard base, reminds me of a combination of egg custard (one of my favorite comfort foods), pancake (like a Dutch baby), and flan (which makes me understand the idea of a brown sugar, caramelized version).  All of that appeals to me.
To be honest, I can't say that I've ever even had clafoutis before now so I'm no expert on the subject.  If anyone would care to enlighten me, I'm all ears!  This is how mine turned out.  I baked it until the custard was just set but still soft, which is how I like custards like this.  We dug into ours for breakfast, while it was still ever so slightly warm.  The lightly sweetened custard was a great base for the sweet pear (which was ripe but not mushy), and each mouthful just felt like comfort food for a chilly Fall morning.

I love making scaled down, half-recipes, and I baked this pear clafoutis in a 6-inch glass pie dish I picked up from Crate & Barrel recently.  It made a nice mini clafoutis for two but I hear that clafoutis is also good eaten cold so maybe leftovers wouldn't be a bad thing.

October 12, 2013

Chestnut bouchons

Do you like chestnuts?  It's one of my very favorite things to eat. Unfortunately, they're not readily available or very popular here in the States. I won't go into all the reasons for that but I will tell you that I get excited when chestnuts start appearing in the supermarkets in late Fall.  It's almost that time and I've got chestnuts on the brain!  I munch on packaged chestnuts throughout the year but it's just not the same as getting a really good batch of fresh chestnuts.  I don't get fancy with it - I simply boil them and enjoy their delicious aroma and flavor while they're piping hot.  I am very greedy about my chestnuts!
When we went to Paris last year, one of my favorite things to eat were crepes filled with chestnut cream.  I think I had one everyday and choose it over Nutella despite how much I adore Nutella.  I loved how prevalent chestnut desserts were and I was amazed by how common and inexpensive chestnut cream was there!  I stocked up on a handful of jars, came home and used them to make my own crepes and to fill them in financiers.  Now, I'm taking my precious chestnut cream to make a few of these little cakes, or bouchons. 
I had to translate this recipe from French.  That's difficult for someone who knows about five words in the language!  Luckily, it is a miraculously short and simple recipe.  It comes from a little book I picked up at LenĂ´tre in Paris. The shop/quasi-restaurant I visited didn't sell pastries but I comforted myself by buying some chocolates, biscuits, and a couple of mini books. One book contained recipes using chestnut cream while the other was all about another of my favorites - Nutella!  They are adorable little books and I'm glad to be trying one of the recipes from the chestnut book here today.
Prepping these bouchons literally takes 5 minutes and 3 ingredients!  That said, getting your hands on some chestnut cream to begin with is half the battle because with that basis, all you do is whisk in some egg and melted butter - maybe throw in a pinch of salt if you don't mind going to the trouble. No flour necessary.  

Bake these little bouchons in miniature paper condiment cups - they give you that "bouchon" or cork-like shape without needing a special mold.  Plus, they're just cute that way!  In about 25 minutes, you have moist little cakelets that taste pretty much like a mont blanc filling. They were very tasty, obviously full of chestnut flavor, and a worthy use of my precious (and sadly, now dwindling...) stash of chestnut cream. 
I made these last Sunday - popping them in and out of the oven right before making a quick run out to the farmer's market - to have with our breakfast.  When I came back and we all sat down to breakfast, we ripped apart the little paper cups and gobbled up these tiny cakes, scrapping up every bite, in no time.  They're great for breakfast or as little tea cakes on an afternoon.  I think we can all use a little treat during our day and these mini chestnut cakes are my kind of Fall afternoon snack.  

Chestnuts are my Fall (and winter) craving and I'm sitting here daydreaming about getting my hands on a fresh batch real soon.  In the meantime, I have my chestnut cream and these mini chestnut bouchons...

October 8, 2013

Almond semolina cake

Here I go with another almond recipe.  I can never try too many because I just love almonds!  I particularly love pastries with nuts.  This is one of those cakes that I can enjoy any day (and any time) and never get sick of; it's not too sweet and just totally delicious. That's why you see me lingering on this theme, making many renditions of this cake.  This one is special with a bit of semolina flour and a slightly jazzed-up topping.
It was worth running around a few supermarkets to find the semolina flour I needed for this cake. I've never baked with semolina before though we used it once in a cooking class to make pasta. There's regular all-purpose flour in this cake but the addition of semolina gives it a unique little twist that I liked.  I think I expected a gritter texture, like cornmeal or even almond meal, but finely-ground semolina blended right in yet added a very subtle bit of texture and a hint of nuttiness that works really well with almonds (and other nuts, I'd imagine).

Like any surefire great almond cake, this one has some almond paste (another one of my favorite things) tucked inside.  It's moist and so fragrant and flavorful.  The topping is fun and delicious at the same time.  Instead of just scattering sliced almond on top before baking (though nothing wrong with that!), you kick it up a notch by stirring it with a little bit of frothy egg whites and brown sugar. That produces an extra crunchy, sweet topping that's pretty addictive!
This cake is also light and fluffy thanks to folding separately whipped egg whites into the batter.  It reminded me of one of our all-time favorite treats on earth - tri-color cookies, which is made the same way with whipped whites folded into the batter.  When we had this cake for dessert one night, my 8-year old said "mmm...it tastes just like tri-color cookies!"  I couldn't help but beam with pride...maybe he does take after his mama just a little!

I'm really happy I bought that 6-inch round cake pan with the removable bottom.  I used it to scale down the original recipe and make a small version.  It's just right for my small family and gives me the chance to try out more recipes and play more often in the kitchen.  That said, my little guy honestly said he loves this cake and wish there was more!  (Though in all fairness, there are obviously plenty of times when he tells me he doesn't like something - he can be quite blunt.)

October 5, 2013

When two favorites become one...banana-chocolate chiffon cake

As much as I love chocolate, it might come as a surprise that a simple, plain chiffon cake is quite possibly my favorite cake of all the ones I've made via this blog.  Okay, maybe I'm not quite ready to commit that it's my absolute favorite but it's right up there.  It is delicious, so ethereally soft and moist, and easy to make too.  It's the kind of everyday cake I like to enjoy often.
Banana chiffon cake with grated chocolate - the marriage of chiffon cake and banana bread with chocolate
So when I received my long awaited copy of Martha Stewart's Cakes, I was naturally drawn to a relatively simple chiffon cake recipe.  Martha's version is a banana chiffon and as my husband pointed out, "anything baked with banana is going to be good", so I decided to take it for a spin.  I've often thought about making an orange or lemon version of the chiffon cake but have been really reluctant to mess with a good great thing.  But I trust Martha.  I've been watching her shows and learning from her since I was a teenager. Before I discovered David Lebovitz and the world of food blogs, it was just Martha.

Seeing the banana chiffon cake also got me thinking about banana bread and our favorite one which has chocolate chips in it.  So instead of just a banana chiffon cake, I decided to add chocolate! Maybe I am too predictable after all.  I grated about 2 1/2 ounces of semisweet chocolate on a box grater and folded it into the batter, creating lovely little specks of chocolate throughout the cake.  In essence, this banana-chocolate chiffon cake I ultimately ended up with is a terrific combination of two of my favorite recipes:
 This chiffon cake...
A recipe from an episode of America's Test Kitchen that grabbed my attention. I've made it at least a dozen times and it has never failed me.  It is infinitely moist, soft, tender, with the pure flavors of eggs and vanilla.  I simply adore it (and many of my friends and family do, too)!

This recipe, slightly modified, came from A Homemade Life by Molly of Orangette.  She is such a great writer and a source of great recipes. This banana bread knocked our socks off the very first time I made it; my husband is a huge fan.  I often buy yogurt just to make this bread and I try to bake extra to freeze because it holds up so well.  After this recipe, whenever I think banana bread, I think chocolate as well.

But back to today's cake...imagine the same fluffy texture and tenderness of a chiffon cake, infused with a gentle banana flavor, and a lingering taste of chocolate in every bite.  The free aromatherapy that comes from baking this banana-chocolate chiffon cake is pure bonus.  Taste-wise, everything is soft and harmonious.  
I really liked how this cake came out.  When I say "soft", I mean that the essence of a chiffon cake is intact in this version.  It's light and simple and while the taste of both the banana and chocolate are clearly present, it's more of a mild presence and not overwhelming.
I will most definitely be making this cake again.  It was well worth shaking things up a little and trying something new.  Discovering little pleasures like this cake reminds me of why I love doing this little blog.  It's made my life a lot more delicious and homemade than it would have been otherwise.  

* And speaking of this blog, I've moved over to my own domain!  I finally ditched the "blogspot" part of my address and moved to my own little home. I actually managed to do it myself, which is quite a feat, believe me.  I patted myself on the back with a slice of this cake.  And as always, thank you for stopping by! * 

October 1, 2013

Project (Scallion) Pancake

When my son was a baby starting on solid foods, I fed him plenty of good stuff like vegetables and fruit.  We bought our fair share of jarred baby food but as he got older, I also steamed fresh vegetables like carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes for him and fed him fruit like kiwi in hopes that he'd grow into an adventurous, healthy eater if he started off with a diverse diet.

You know...it didn't really work.  Once he realized there were other foods, he wasn't too keen on the kiwi and green beans anymore. My son is a fairly picky eater.  There are plenty of foods he loves to eat (like meat, for instance; and he loves salmon) but when it comes to fruits and vegetables, there's just a cozy group of those that he'll eat (some more willingly than others) as of now.  Because of that, we're constantly having a rotation of sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, potatoes, corn, avocados, apples, watermelon, and bananas.  Leafy vegetables, he is not a fan of.  Green might be his favorite color but that favorable opinion doesn't seem to apply to vegetables for some reason.
Somewhat surprisingly, he's always loved scallion pancakes.  I suppose these crispy pan-fried pancakes, dunked into a salty-sweet dipping sauce, pretty much renders the often itty-bitty amount of scallions hidden in them barely noticeable but I was nonetheless surprised when he first had them years ago at a restaurant and didn't insist on picking out every speck of green.  We used to call them "Chinese pizza" but whatever you call it, it's an appetizer that's hard to resist.

When I realized that scallion pancakes aren't nearly as difficult to make as I assumed, I thought it would be fun to make them with my now 8-year old.  If you'll indulge me, let's consider this the final trilogy in the "P" Projects - Project Pancake after Project Pizza and Project Pretzel.  I think I have a permanent little helper in the kitchen now so that these kitchen "projects" will hopefully becoming more everyday fun for us.
This project gave us another opportunity to play with dough.  No yeast this time - you need little more than all-purpose flour, water, and those scallions. We got a nice little workout kneading the dough.  After kneading and a little rest time (during which time we made a simple dipping sauce - a must), the dough changes from a stiff ball into a soft mound that was surprisingly pliable and easy-to-roll out.  
One recipe makes 8 small scallion pancakes, and you can freeze any you don't cook right away.  You make each by rolling a piece of dough into a small circle, topping it with scallions, and then rolling it up into a cylinder.  Then you curl the cylinder into a round, snail-like shape, flatten it, and roll it out again so that the scallions are embedded into the dough (see photos after the jump). It is time-consuming and I have to tell you that the rolling pin and I are not exactly close friends (we only see each other occasionally).  My little guy was a great helper but I took over the trickier part of the second roll with the scallions.  The Giants were playing the Broncos that afternoon so I let him loose after making the first few to enjoy the game while I continued to roll and roll these babies out...

For a few of the pancakes, I took some of the toasted sesame seeds I was using in the dipping sauce and added them into the pancakes themselves. The sesame seeds didn't make a big impact on the finished pancakes but it goes to show that you can add some other spices and ingredients to your scallion pancakes if you want to be adventurous.
I pan fried the scallion pancakes on a lightly oiled cast iron pan.  Rather than deep frying, this makes these pancakes a lot lighter - one of the reasons I love re-creating restaurant food at home.  Taste-wise, maybe deep frying makes for a more satisfying or "robust" scallion pancake but my fellas and I really enjoyed devouring this lighter version.  We stored extra pancakes in the freezer and took them over to impress grandma and the rest of the extended family about a week later during one of our family dinners!  


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