July 28, 2016

My happy place...(involves hot fudge sauce)

If you think about it, we all have a happy place...someplace that makes us smile and where we feel relaxed and comfortable.  You probably have more than one happy place.  I know I do, and funny enough, one of my happy places is an ice cream shop...Ghirardelli's, to be exact (it might seem that way but this is not an advertisement), though I generally feel pretty contented in most ice cream parlors.
My homemade version of Ghirardelli's Treasure Island sundae: ice cream, hot fudge, and a brownie
I love the warm feel of Ghirardelli's ice cream shops when I step in the door - the aroma of hot fudge mingled with warm waffle cones in the air, not to mention brightly wrapped chocolates everywhere I turn.  It's my idea of heaven!  Maybe another part of the appeal is I associate them with vacation.  I tend to seek them out beforehand and if there's a Ghirardelli ice cream parlor somewhere we're vacationing (from San Francisco to Hawaii, Chicago to Florida, or Boston), I make a point to visit.

My favorite thing to get at Ghirardelli's is their Treasure Island sundae, a classic brownie sundae with ice cream and hot fudge sauce.  Ice cream and hot fudge sauce are my kryptonite...it's probably more about the hot fudge than even the ice cream but the two need each other, and what a perfect couple they make!  If I take one bite, I will not be able to stop.  Before I know it, I've eaten way more than I intended to, but I'm so happy.    
Homemade vanilla bean ice cream; Ghirardelli's hot fudge sauce recipe
So I thought it would be fun to re-create my favorite sundae at home (especially since there isn't a Ghirardelli ice cream shop near where I live).  I started with homemade vanilla bean ice cream, then I made Ghirardelli's hot fudge sauce (with my son), and finished it off with a batch of our favorite homemade cocoa brownies.

I was excited to try the Ghirardelli hot fudge sauce, wondering how it would compare with the miraculous concoction we get at the ice cream shop.  It isn't exactly the same as what you get fresh on site but I really like the discernible taste of the Ghirardelli 60% chocolate used in the sauce (it's one of my favorite chocolates to use for baking). I think it's much better than the jarred sauce you can buy from Ghirardelli.  In comparison, I think the homemade sauce is thicker, somewhat grittier, sweeter than the free-flowing sauce you get from the shop.  At a guess, I think that one involves cream whereas this recipe doesn't.
Though the hot fudge sauce may not the stuff of dreams on its own per se, the combination of the ice cream, the hot fudge, and the brownie made for a swoon-worthy combination.  My homespun version tasted so much like what we get at the Ghirardelli shop!  I did feel transported to one of those tables at Ghirardelli and I was definitely in a happy place...my husband and son, eating with me, were in the same happy place right alongside me!
A squirt of whipped cream, a sprinkle of nuts, and a cherry on top makes a brownie sundae all that much more appealing!
As we all know, so many of our memories involve food in some way.  One of mine goes back a couple of years ago, when we were in San Francisco during my birthday. I wanted to go to the Ghirardelli ice cream shop for a birthday treat.  We had visited the Ferry building and then walked...and walked...to the ice cream shop.  By the time we got there, we were exhausted and ravenous.  We ordered our treats and when they arrived at our table, my son and I threw ourselves on top of our Treasure Island sundae (not to mention the ice cream floats) with such ridiculous abandon and speed that I think we scared my husband.  My hubby took pictures of us chowing down on our sundae and it makes me laugh just thinking about it.  A small thing, a little moment, but something I think I'll remember years and years from now, with a smile on my face...

July 23, 2016

Pistachio, orange and chocolate muffins

Call me crazy but I'm still turning on the oven and baking away in the midst of this sizzling hot summer.  Thank goodness for air conditioning!  
When it comes to routine or relaxing through baking, I think of cookies and muffins. They're easy, low-maintenance bakes that are always appreciated around the house. It is undeniable how convenient it is to grab and plate a muffin or two for breakfast on a busy weekday morning, whatever the season!
This time, I made muffins and I zoomed in on one of my favorite flavor combos: pistachio and orange, with a little chocolate thrown in to make it even better. I'm quite fond of this combination in cake and cookie form and I've been itching to make a muffin version, so here we are.
This is a tender muffin, not too sweet, nor too rich.  I didn't feel like I was eating a cupcake in disguise and that could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.  You could easily make and top these muffins with a spoonful of glaze (confectioners' sugar mixed with a bit of orange juice or milk) to add extra sweetness on top.  I didn't since I figured the chocolate provided enough richness.
While the recipe I started with called for yogurt, I substituted with buttermilk, which was what I had on hand.  A little fresh orange juice and zest adds bright fruitiness and I tossed in a little vanilla extract to complement it.  Chopped pistachios are stirred into the mix (I reserved some to sprinkle on top).  Finally, I added some finely chopped dark chocolate.  I really liked the chocolate (no surprise there, I suppose) and, in retrospect, I actually wish I had added more because, inevitably, you keep looking for that chocolate bite!

July 19, 2016

Texas sheet cake

It's summer and that means making time to hang out in the kitchen and work on a cooking project or two with my son.  Most recently, we made a Texas sheet cake together, and it was such fun!
I'm calling it "Texas sheet cake" rather loosely because although there doesn't seem to be a definitive explanation for the term, "Texas sheet cake", our version omits a lot of what makes it what it is.  Specifically, we didn't bake the cake in a sheet pan; rather, I divided the recipe in half and baked it in a 9-inch square brownie pan (hence, the cake isn't Texas-style "big", either).  We also omitted two things - ground cinnamon and pecans - that you often find in a classic Texas sheet cake.  I decided to forego them because my son isn't a big fan of those ingredients and frankly, I wanted to make sure he'd enjoy what we baked. 
Even with the modifications we made, I'm still keeping the "Texas sheet cake" moniker because ultimately, the way the cake is prepared is so unique. Even my 11-year old could tell that the method of making this cake - cooking wet ingredients over the stove and pouring the hot mixture over the dry components to combine - was unusual!  But that's what made it fun and part of the reason why I picked this for a baking project.  It provided a lot of hands-on cooking for the little guy and he did an admirable job!  For a boy who isn't too interested in cooking, quite frankly, he seems to be pretty comfortable in the kitchen.  Maybe these little cooking sessions, even if relatively infrequent, do more and have a bigger impact than I realized...
There was another reason I thought of making this cake with my main man (aside from the somewhat obvious consideration that this super sweet treat would go down well).  We recently took a road trip to Virginia.  After many hours on the road (traffic on I-95 is no joke and we also had to contend with a flat tire midway there), we stopped into a Cracker Barrel to eat and I ordered a slice of Coca Cola cake for us to try for dessert.  Not surprisingly, the little one was a big fan of that and I thought this cake would be very similar (it is) and a fun thing to make now right after the trip.
To make a long story shorter, my little guy gave our cooking collaboration two-thumbs up!  I tell you - this is a sweet cake, with a moist, fluffy texture.  The icing is poured on the top of the warm cake and it seeps slightly into the cake, making it all the more moist.  It goes down very easy and has a nostalgic flavor to it somehow.  

It's certainly true when people say that kids will enjoy things they helped to make (though maybe I should make something vegetarian with him next time to test that theory); I just think it's doubly true when what they made was cake - and Texas sheet cake, at that!  He gobbled up his fair share of this cake and his dad was certainly another very happy beneficiary of this kitchen session of ours.  For my part, the best thing was spending the time in the kitchen together, watching my son do so much now, and sharing an enthusiasm for something together.  That's even better than eating cake!

July 15, 2016

Chocolate bouchons

Chocolate therapy can come in many forms.  Aside from unwrapping a bar and taking a bite, I find that baking with chocolate is a form of therapy in itself.  When things are a little crazy, I find all is right with the world when I fall back on making chocolate desserts.  Thank goodness for chocolate!
With the kitchen mishaps I'd been having, I reached for one of my trusted sources for good recipes and dug into David Lebovitz's The Great Book of Chocolate for inspiration.  I decided to make bouchons, or what I think are best described as small brownie-like cakes.  
When I think of bouchons, I think of Bouchon Bakery; I've had their signature chocolate bouchons and they are little cakes, shaped like a "bouchon", which means "cork" in French.  I've always wanted to make bouchons because any chocolate lover welcomes the chance to make/eat a chocolaty, fudgy, brownie-like cake.  I always figured I had to get the little bouchon mold for the job but I finally realized I could just bake them in a regular or mini muffin tin - or better yet...make somewhat larger - yet still mini - cakes using individual paper molds.
So I made the chocolate bouchon batter and baked a few in individual freestanding paper molds.  These molds make great single-serve portions.  They un-mold perfectly and you have a lovely little chocolate cake to serve each person.
Much like brownies, it's important not to overbake these cakes.  They should be soft inside, revealing a moist middle when you dig into it.  These cakes are solid - hearty and rich chocolate cakes that are a little crumbly and a whole lot chocolaty.  We're talking chocolate cake batter made with dark as well as unsweetened chocolate and some mini chocolate chips thrown in to drive the point home.

I think this will satisfy any chocolate lover's craving.  And I can tell you that if there's anything better than baking with chocolate, it is eating chocolate (or chocolate cake). I think we should all work this into our summer schedule.

July 12, 2016

Chocolate crème caramel

I can now say with confidence that if offered a choice between "regular" crème caramel or chocolate, I would wholeheartedly recommend the chocolate!
Crème caramel (or flan) is a custard dessert with a signature layer of soft caramel on top.  You coat the bottom of your ramekins with a little caramel, then fill it with custard.  They're baked in a water bath, then chilled in the fridge until nice and cold. It's a great make-ahead that you can prepare a day in advance.  To serve, turn the custards out onto a rimmed plate.  As you flip it, the soft liquid caramel oozes out and puddles on the dish, making a little sauce.
It's like crème brûlée but with a soft caramel sauce instead of a hard topping.  It also reminds me of panna cotta but where panna cotta is made with cream and set with gelatin, crème caramel is custard based and made with eggs and in this case, milk instead of cream.  And clearly, this version deploys chocolate (I used 62% dark), which makes it even better.

I'm a big fan of any and all-things chocolate and my husband enjoys the occasional panna cotta when the opportunity comes up.  We both love a good egg custard.  In other words, I thought this would be a great dessert for us to try...and we both loved it! The bittersweet chocolate flavor is front and center here, the flavor is not-too-sweet, and the texture is smooth and creamy.  It's also actually quite light on the palate given the use of milk rather than cream in this case.
You do have to turn on the oven to bake the crème caramel but you'll be rewarded with a cool, smooth, chocolaty dessert that's both satisfying yet relatively light.  I thought it was well worth the effort.

July 8, 2016

Mini roll cake with Nutella filling

Hello there!  I hope you're enjoying the summer so far and staying cool.  We're in the midst of a heat wave and I feel like I'm in the middle of a summer haze myself, trying to get used to the summer schedule and all the activities that come with it.
Shall we sit a spell and virtually share a slice of this mini roll cake I attempted? It was not a very successful endeavor, to be honest, but at the rate I've been going...I was happy to have something to show for at the end!  It's a mini roll cake from the Dessert for Two cookbook - essentially a sponge cake that I decided to fill with Nutella instead of jam.  All's well taste-wise but rolling the cake was a harrowing experience as it cracked pretty significantly.
Maybe I should have known that simply rolling the cake in foil (as per instructions; and instead of the usual powdered sugar with towel method) was too good to be true. I really wanted to believe and gave it a try...so I watched the cake stick and stick to that foil.  Lesson learned!  With shaky hands, I persevered best I could and in the end, though cracked, we had a roll cake!
The petite cake is baked in an 8" square brownie pan, a good small size for our little family for a mid-afternoon treat.  To be honest, it can be hard to find time to sit down to a mid-afternoon treat in the summer but we managed to gobble this down.  
So...I hinted at not being exactly "on a roll" (haha) lately in the kitchen.  Aside from forgetting the baking powder in a batch of pancakes the other day, I also had a total dud trying to make Dominique Ansel's flourless chocolate cookies.  We went out to brunch in Manhattan last weekend and happened to stop by Dominique Ansel Kitchen (Cronut creator, Dominique Ansel's bakery/restaurant).  We were full but took home a flourless chocolate cookie, which turned out to be amazing!  Aside from being perfectly chocolaty, I couldn't believe how it could be flourless because the cookie was so thick and dense - yet moist.  I found the recipe online and was so excited.  But suffice it to say, the making of that cookie is still a mystery to be because mine were a delicious gooey puddle.   I ended up using some of the warm cookies as a chocolate "sauce" with vanilla ice cream and I froze the rest so we could handle/eat them - they were very tasty but nothing like the ones at the shop.  So maybe you can see why I'm grateful I had some cake to show for this latest kitchen endeavor, cracks or not!  


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