Simple chocolate party cake

It's been a busy couple of weeks, filled with celebrations and a vacation. I recently celebrated a big birthday and we just got back from a wonderful trip to Charleston, South Carolina.  
Before all that, I happened to be looking at some beautiful bakes from Style Sweet CA on Instagram and then spotted a simple chocolate cake on the site that I thought would be fun to make with my son.  It reminded me of the Texas sheet cake we made together last summer and it, in fact, is that with a different type of chocolate frosting on top.  
Instead of making a sheet cake, we divided the cake recipe in half and made a single-layer 8-inch cake (I made just 1/3 the recipe for the frosting and it was more than enough).  I decided to tag this as a "simple chocolate party cake" instead of "easy chocolate sheet cake" as the original is called since I baked it in the round, which I think is a bit more formal looking.  If you bake it in sheet cake form, it's great to slice into small squares or rectangle servings for a crowd. 

The chocolate icing - given the high ratio of confectioners' sugar in it - is the kind that forms a bit of a dry crust on the surface.  It's not what I'd call "fudgy" (which I think of as a smoother, more creamy, chewy texture like this) so instead of calling it a fudge frosting recipe as I found it, I'd say it's more a classic American-style chocolate frosting/icing on this cake.
My son and I had fun in the kitchen preparing this cake.  It's nice to sneak a few moments together doing something simple like baking or cooking.  And the final reward of having a homemade cake can't be beat.  As with all things homemade with care, it seems to taste all the better.
His shirt says "Never Skip Cake" (not true, but would be a good line)
Incidentally, I realized that we made this cake just a couple of days before my birthday (okay...not so coincidental...I may have planned it that way!) so I can say my son helped make me a birthday cake this year!  If I sound desperate, sometimes I am.  

Walnut sticky buns (small-batch)

There's been a pattern developing...what with cinnamon rolls, babka, yeasted coffee cakes, and the like, coming out of my kitchen lately.  Making sweet rolls may not be the best habit to get into but I have to admit I find myself doing just that lately. Maybe I just need to get it out of my system?  That's the rationale I'm going with for now.
Since becoming smitten with homemade cinnamon rolls, I've been thinking about trying my hand at sticky buns.  It's the "logical" next step because while cinnamon rolls are decadent, you up the ante with sticky buns, which are like cinnamon rolls with an added sticky sweet caramel topping.  Once in a while, you just have to go for it.  Like I said, I think I need to get it out of my system. 

My lone defense in all this sweet roll-making is that at least I've (mostly) been sticking with small-batch recipes.  Here, I adapted the pecan sticky buns recipe from Dessert for Two, which makes 4 buns.
I made a few tweaks to the recipe, including using walnuts instead of pecans because pecans are not a family favorite.  Instead of baking the 4 sticky buns using a jumbo muffin pan (which I don't have but sometimes wish I did), I baked them in an 8-inch cake pan.  Lastly, I reduced the amount of butter in the filling by half in an ongoing attempt to enjoy decadent treat in the least decadent way.  Maybe it's silly and futile when we're making sweet treats like this but I can't help but try.
Baked sticky buns before they're flipped over to reveal the caramel tops
Things were not looking good for my first attempt at stick buns.  The dough, which didn't require kneading but I felt could have used some, was wetter than I expected so the buns were fragile to handle (that sounds funny, doesn't it).  I was also concerned that I didn't have enough of the sugar mixture at the bottom of the pan (though that turned out not to be a major issue).  But the worse offense I committed might have been not running a knife around the pan to loosen the buns around the edges before attempting the all-important flip.  Because of that, I have no presentable photos of all 4 buns flipped over together showing off their sticky caramel tops. Suffice it to say a bit of each bun stuck to the pan.
I thought we would just eat these sticky buns in all the messy stickiness and I'd forget about it for a while...but I took a bite, then some more, and realized I had to post it so I can sing their praises.  They are so tasty! Why was I surprised?  As with most things filled with butter and sugar, these sticky buns did not disappoint.  And I might add that any leftovers are mighty tasty the next morning, with just a few seconds in the microwave to warm them up.  All that sticky sweetness preserve them quite well!
From the slightly hardened, almost-crunchy, caramelized edges to the moist chewy soft centers, these sweet rolls filled and topped with toasted walnuts are rather addictive!  The way I look at it, instead of buying them outside, make them occasionally at home so you can indulge responsibly.  They are a worthy occasional splurge!  I find myself craving sweet comfort foods like these lately even in the midst of summer...not sure why it is but I'm getting it out of my system by enjoying my cravings in moderation.  A small-batch recipe is the answer.

Crepes for two (or maybe three)

I think I've realized something: crepes are actually really forgiving to make.  When you start to think about it, you tend to worry about everything from getting the batter right to how you have to twirl the pan just so, and, most importantly, how you'll flip these delicate, thin pancakes without breaking them.  All fair considerations but from my experience, it's never as hard as you feared.  So don't think too much about it and just go ahead and make some crepes!
You don't need special equipment.  If you have a blender, great!  You can whiz the batter up in seconds.  But if you don't have one, a large bowl and whisk will do just fine. There's also no need for a crepe pan; a trusty non-stick skillet works perfectly well.  And even when it comes to recipes, there may be some variations - some calling for a bit more liquid ingredients than others - but they tend to work.  I may not be an expert but I've made crepes with low-fat milk and water, chocolate ones, and now this fairly classic small-batch recipe, all with ease.

There are tips for higher crepe-making success that I've read and followed, including...
  • Straining the batter through a fine mesh sieve
  • Letting the batter rest overnight (or at least a few hours) before cooking
...but even if you don't have time to do those things, many people will attest that you don't need to and your crepes will turn out just fine.
And the neat thing is that crepes are also a good make-ahead.  For example, I made my small batch of crepes on Friday afternoon.  I stacked them on a plate (I didn't even put wax paper in between; they don't stick together) and refrigerated them. Next morning, I simply warmed each briefly in a hot, dry skillet, then filled them and served them up for breakfast on Saturday.  Making and enjoying crepes at home seems "fancy" but it's really quite easy. 

And if you're looking for a recipe that makes a few crepes - 5, to be precise - this is what we have here.  It can feed two people nicely or three if you need to stretch it.  
I made sweet crepes, filling a couple with chestnut cream and with Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread.  Somehow, having crepes for breakfast made a foggy, dark morning a little more cheerful.

Brown butter chocolate chip (hazelnut) cookies

I took a break from making ice cream and brownies, and decided to make...cookies! What can I say...I'm a creature of habit.
When it comes to comfort-baking and eating, you can't beat chocolate chip cookies. Even with temps in the 90's like it was here last week, I can't stop myself from turning on the oven to bake and cook (luckily, these cookies are done in 11 minutes). And I still crave a gooey chocolate chip cookie in the summer as much as I do in the winter.
I have a few recipes I make often but it's always fun to find something new to try. This time, I made brown butter chocolate chip cookies - a recipe I adapted slightly from Displaced Housewife.  Since I associate brown butter with hazelnuts, and because I personally like nuts in most baked goods, I added toasted chopped hazelnuts to about half my batch of cookies (my fellas usually prefer their cookies without nuts). 
If you remember, I made Displaced Housewife's olive oil chocolate chip cookie recipe not long ago and they were sensational.  I had high hopes for these cookies - which is made with a combination of brown butter and a flavorless oil (I used canola), and a mix of bread and all-purpose flour.  They didn't turn out as chewy as the olive oil cookies but these were solid cookies - sturdy and moist, happily devoured by all.  I think it's hard to make a "bad" batch of chocolate chip cookies if you make sure to stuff it with enough good chocolate.  You pretty much can't go wrong!

Coffee chocolate chip ice cream

Summer is all about ice cream!  Even if you're not making it yourself at home, you're thinking about it, buying it, going to your favorite ice cream parlor for some, and seeing plenty of reminders to eat more ice cream just about everywhere!  It was National Ice Cream Day a few days ago and while I'm not sure how these national food "holidays" get conjured up and though I'm pretty sure none of us needs an excuse to eat more ice cream in the summer, I'm totally game for the fun of it all.
For our part, I feel like we've been swimming in ice cream in the past month! I must buy more cream in the 3 summer months than I do the rest of the year combined. Each batch seems to disappear faster than the last, and I'm still buying and taking the kiddo out for ice cream on top of it.  Honestly, I might need to give my ice cream maker a break and take a short ice cream-making hiatus.  But before I do that, I made this batch of coffee chocolate chip ice cream.  I had to try something new and this is what I picked.
The coffee ice cream base is from David Lebovitz (so you know it's good).  Unlike his Vietnamese coffee ice cream, which uses brewed coffee and condensed milk, this coffee ice cream gets its flavor from whole coffee beans, as milk and cream are steeped in it for about an hour.  It yields a clear, strong coffee flavor that's bound to satisfy the coffee lover.  And with an equal ratio of cream to milk, and a good 5 egg yolks in the custard, the texture is nice and creamy.
Of course, I added chocolate chips because to me, coffee chocolate chip ice cream is better than plain coffee ice cream in most circumstances.  If you feel the same, add 4 ounces of warm melted chocolate right at the last minute of churning like I did.  Pour the chocolate in a thin steady stream into the ice cream at the last moment of churning and it will turn into little lacy wisps of chocolate flakes (though I sure don't mind when I end up with a few chunks here and there) running throughout the ice cream.  
Some people love their ice cream plain and smooth while I'm all for texture and extra add-ins, particularly when it involves chocolate and/or nuts!  Whatever you prefer, hope you are cooling down with a sweet scoop every now and then this summer!  

Cinnamon rolls, 2.0

I've been in a yeast-dough making mood lately and one of the most rewarding yeast-doughs to make has to be cinnamon rolls!  It's hard to believe but we hardly ever ate them until I made my first batch about 3 years ago.  Since then, it's become a family favorite. My husband requests it all the time and I'm happy to oblige when I have the time.  A fresh batch of cinnamon rolls straight from the oven on a weekend morning is one of the ultimate treats, and we should treat ourselves!
For the last 3 years, I've been making the small-batch recipe I originally adapted from Oh Ladycake's vegan version.  They produce the softest, most squishy, delicate little cinnamon rolls!  I've taken that base dough recipe and made versions from peanut butter to Nutellachestnut cream to almond paste (mainly with chocolate thrown in). They're all heavenly but there's just been one problem...the recipe makes 4 small rolls and each time we have them, they seem to vanish more and more quickly, and we sit there wishing I'd doubled the recipe somehow.  Sometimes, you're just not in the mood for portion control!

So I toyed with the idea of making a larger batch - finding a recipe that would make slightly bigger, heartier rolls but would still be soft and pillowy like the small-batch version.  I've been reluctant to mess with a great thing but I finally tried it.  So now we have my cinnamon rolls, version 2.0!  It makes 9, more-substantially sized, cinnamon rolls that are soft and tender.
I think the key is nailing down the dough itself.  Once you have that, you can customize the filling beyond the basic cinnamon-sugar combination.  So I went back to Oh Ladycakes and found her coconut oil cinnamon rolls, which appeared to be the larger batch version I was looking for.  Again, I "de-veganized" it.  With no disrespect to coconut oil lovers, I swapped over to butter as well as regular milk over the coconut oil and almond milk in the original recipe.  
And the dough...well, it has a far heftier amount of yeast and the proportions make for taller, sturdier individual rolls.  Not over doing it with the flour, the rolls are soft and tender, with a nice chew.  They are slightly less fragile and squishy than the small-batch version but quite comparable.  I was very happy with the process of making them and the result.  It was so good to see all these gloriously puffed up cinnamon rolls come out of the oven and stand tall on their plates!
Playing around with this inaugural batch of my cinnamon rolls, 2.0, I realized I was a little too stingy with the filling.  More on that later...but I filled them with a mix of granulated and brown sugar, finely chopped chocolate, and cinnamon.  My family and I love a little chocolate in our cinnamon roll filling!  It was delicious and would be even better with just a bit more of the good stuff inside.  We made up for it with a generous coating of vanilla glaze.  Next time, I'll correct the filling situation and have fun with our other favorite fillings.  There's always an excuse to make another batch of cinnamon rolls!  

Chocolate and almond paste babka

Is it odd to try to make something that you've never actually eaten before?  I know I find myself doing that sometimes, as in the case of this babka.

I'd say I barely knew what a babka was (my husband is the Seinfeld fan in the family so I didn't even have that reference) until a year or so ago when it seemed to pop up everywhere.  Serious Eats called it a "babka renaissance" and rightly so because you started seeing these loaves of twisted bread, often swirled generously with chocolate, seemingly everywhere.  
That was all well and good but I can't say I was much drawn to making or eating babka until very recently when I saw a recipe for a marzipan & chocolate babka from Sweet Paul.  Right away, I thought about my almond buns - a spin off of another recipe from Sweet Paul where I add grated almond paste and chocolate as a filling to the small-batch cinnamon roll dough I use (it's delicious!).  So my brain immediately went to a babka filled with grated almond paste and chocolate.  I prefer swapping almond paste for the sweeter marzipan.  There is just something about a recipe using almond paste that gets me running into the kitchen!  Even in July, approaching a busy holiday weekend...
So I experimented and thought I'd give this babka idea a try.  I started by learning a bit more about what a babka was and how it was supposed to taste and be.  Babka translates into "little grandmother" and is an Eastern European yeast bread-cake that's similar to brioche.  The bread is somewhat dense, itself slightly dry, that's often paired with a moist chocolate spread filling (though there are ones with other fillings like cinnamon, nuts, and now we have almond paste!).  The mix of sweet eggy bread with a chocolate filling is its very appeal.

My imprecise/untraditional loaf is a blend and adaptation of two recipes: Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe for making babka dough via Smitten Kitchen and the filling inspiration from Sweet PaulThe Sweet Paul recipe was almost too simple and I felt I needed to follow more precise instructions. What resulted was a sweet bread that was dense yet light, slightly dry yet moist. The almond paste adds extra chew and a great almond flavor and fragrance, which I love; my only regret was maybe not using a bit more of it!  

I think 3 oz. of dark chocolate is a fairly modest amount for the filling, and you could use more if you want to be more indulgent.  You often see far more intense chocolate swirls in a babka loaf.  They are also often brushed with a sugar syrup or topped with streusel.  I like that, at home, I can practice some relative restraint, and this was flavorful and moist enough for us.  When it comes to the chocolate, using a deep, flavorful one you enjoy (Scharffen Berger 62% in my case) will give you more mileage. 
It was fun making this babka!  Aside from needing to plan ahead and set time aside for an overnight rest, the yeast dough was surprisingly easy to handle and the steps were not difficult to tackle at all.  My family and I enjoyed having "babka for breakfast" and I still have a few slices tucked away in the freezer to enjoy another day.  All in all, it was a very rewarding baking experience.

Spicy black beans for taco nights

How is your summer going so far?  It's busy around here but at the same time, things have certainly quieted down a bit.  The days are longer and we can go about it at a more leisurely pace without the usual school-year obligations.  We've been taking advantage of the good weather (before the mosquitos come out in force) to grill and eat outdoors, and to take day trips (we recently took a drive out to Brooklyn just for ice cream sundaes).  Everything takes on a more energetic vibe in the summer. 
While my son's at camp in the mornings, I have time to tinker in the kitchen - making muffins, churning ice cream, baking cookies, and prepping easy dinners.  On the weekends, we're still enjoying things like cinnamon rolls and Dutch baby pancakes for breakfast.  It's a time for easy favorites and I find myself a little less focused on experiments when it comes to baking during the summer.  But it's always lovely to pop in here and I thought I'd say hello and drop off this little recipe for spicy black beans for the next time you're having taco night.

A few years ago, we started having occasional taco nights (it's never on a Tuesday though) and they are always fun!  It must be the combination of hands-on eating, the colorful food, and the variety or customization, that make it a great family meal. There may be a bit of prep to get all the fixings on the table but I like to take advantage of some store-bought ingredients like rotisserie chicken and pre-shredded cabbage to make an easier time of it.  We vary the main protein - in the instance pictured here, we were having chicken and I also seared some fish (because fish tacos may be the favorite for my husband and me) - and we usually have the basic lineup of toppings like avocado, salsa, and cheese.  Incidentally, I love hummus as a base for soft tacos.
I often just pop open a can of black beans for taco night but sometimes I take an extra step and make this easy dish of spicy black beans.  Onions, garlic, jalapeƱo pepper, and some spices are cooked down with canned black beans and a little water. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to make and you have a great dish of spicy black beans for your next taco night or the next time you're having Mexican food at home. I like how the beans soften after cooking and you have all the added flavor with a little spice.  It's something I also like to eat all on its own or to dish into my grain bowls for weeknight meals.
This post reminds me it's time for a taco night soon.  It's a great casual and fun meal for the summer when you're not out there grilling and chilling.  

Berry crisp for one...and other happenings

I'd intended to call this post weekend recap but time flies and here we are nearing the start of a new weekend.  It's been a busy and exciting week or so here and being the introvert that I am, I needed to take a few days to recuperate.  
Vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting I recently auditioned made their birthday reappearance
To recap just a little bit...last weekend was a big one - first, we celebrated the little guy's 12th birthday!  A birthday is always special but this year, the excitement was heightened by the fact that I had planned a little surprise birthday party for him!  It's nerve-wracking trying to pull off a surprise party even on a small scale - in this case, a small group of kids gathered at the house to spring the surprise, digging into some pizza and cake, followed by a trip to the bowling alley for a couple of games.  
I was a nervous wreck by Saturday morning, as we tried to figure out all the last minute details from the weather to timing, to all the little things in between - all the while hoping our secret was still safe!  Happily, the planning and effort was worth it because wonder of wonders...we actually pulled off the surprise!!  The birthday boy was shocked!  It helps that my son is pretty laid back and undemanding.  It's hard to believe but he literally did not ask about birthday plans and made little mention of his birthday beforehand.  That made it easier to pull off the little surprise.  All in all, I'm glad we did it and I hope he'll think back on it with a smile as he gets older... 

On the heels of the birthday festivities, we celebrated Father's Day.  These two events always converge and make for a busy weekend (not to mention plenty of prepping beforehand).  Here's a little snapshot of our Sunday.
It involved strolling around a car show in our town early in the morning.  Then, we came home for brunch.  I made one of my husband's favorites, a Dutch baby pancake.  Even though we have it very often, he always requests it!  For dinner, I made crab cakes, served over some cappellini with lemon and caper sauce.

In between meals, I whipped up a little sweet treat for my husband (who has a major sweet tooth to match his personality), a simple berry crisp for one.  It was thoroughly appreciated.  I'm very lucky that my husband is a great person to cook and bake for!
June is full of celebrations.  It's both exhilarating and a little exhausting at the same time!  My son just wrapped up 6th grade - another milestone we happily toasted.  And by "toasted", I mean we had more cake!
A 6-inch version of our favorite chocolate cake
Now, things are quieting down and I'm ready to savor the slow days of summer!

Berry compote with Belgian waffles

On my last brunch post, I talked about inspiration from eating out.  I love it when we enjoy something at a restaurant that I can easily recreate at home.  This time, it's a simple berry compote, served warm with Belgian waffles, inspired by a menu item from the restaurant, Balthazar, in NYC.
Ever since I got my waffle maker, we have waffles pretty often for weekend breakfast. I mix it up between several recipes and these Belgian waffles, adapted from The Pioneer Woman, is one of those on our rotation.  Folding whipped egg whites into the batter helps make the waffles crisp and we really like their simple sweet, vanilla flavor. Usually, we reach for maple syrup but I thought I'd change it up and make a berry compote, much like what we had at Balthazar a few months ago.  
It's often the little things, small touches, that make something special and so, sometimes it's nice to take an extra step like making a berry compote to go with your waffles.  While fresh berries are a great option right now, I used frozen mixed berries so that I could have a mix of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, as well as blackberries in this little compote.  It's so convenient and literally takes just minutes to make.  
Into a pot, I simply added frozen mixed berries that I thawed the night before (you can use fresh berries, of course), along with some orange zest, sugar, and if you like, a splash of Grand Marnier.  I love the hint of orange flavor in the background.  It just takes a few minutes to heat up the mixture and melt the sugar.  In the last minute of cooking, stir in a little cornstarch slurry to thicken the liquid...and your berry compote is ready for breakfast!

It's easy to scale how much compote you want to make and aside from serving it with waffles, you could certainly use it to go alongside pancakes or French toast.  You could layer it with yogurt to make a parfait, or serve it as an accompaniment to a slice of pound cake or something similar. 
We enjoyed it with the waffles and I made it particularly with my husband in mind. His sweet tooth starts early in the day with a preference for sweet breakfasts. Frankly, he also prefers his fruit with extra sugar.  This is right up his alley and a nice treat to enjoy on an occasional weekend morning.  

Chocolate cake for the weekend

I'm calling this a "chocolate cake for the weekend" because that's just what it was.  I made it last Friday going into the weekend.  It's always nice to kick off the weekend with a cake!  On a practical level, it was partly an effort to clean out the fridge and use up some extra ingredients.  On another level, it was just part of the ongoing effort to satisfy my insatiable chocolate cravings.
After making a few loaves of banana bread and churning a batch of ice cream, I had extra whole milk yogurt and heavy cream on hand so I decided to use those things to make this cake.  I'm actually revisiting a recipe I've made before, in a different form. In fact, my very first post featured this in cupcake form.  I've also made it as a single-layer cake years ago.  This time, it comes in the form of a double-layer 6-inch cake.
When we had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London back in April, I tasted a delicious slice of chocolate ganache cake...maybe that put the idea in my head.  But to be honest, I think about chocolate and things like chocolate cake and ganache all the time.  It's amazing how much I love chocolate, and it's a love that goes way back for as long as I can remember.
But back to this little cake...make it for the chocolate lover in your life because it is all about the deep flavor of chocolate (a recurring theme here).  Thanks to yogurt and oil rather than butter in the batter, the cake is wonderfully moist and tender.  It gets a deep chocolate flavor from not only cocoa and chocolate but also freshly brewed coffee.  The chocolate ganache frosting and filling is rich and creamy, basically a chocolate-lover's delight.  This cake made this chocoholic very happy and I can say that I definitely put my leftover yogurt and heavy cream to very good use!
It's strawberry season and I've been diligently stocking up on strawberries and raspberries as much as possible.  While my fridge is overflowing with it and I'm perfectly happy snacking on it and having it with some yogurt for breakfast, I'm always still craving a little chocolate!  And in my humble opinion, the best way to eat berries just might be...with a slice of chocolate cake!  Who's with me?

Sweet potato pancakes

Is it too late to talk about this past Memorial Day weekend?  Where does the time go! It's shaping up to be a busy week of catch-up following the nice, leisurely 3 days of family time. Three-day weekends are so right - you get so much done and that constant sense of rushing, of not having enough time, fades away.  It made me really appreciate how lucky we are, and thankful to all the service personnel who protect our precious freedoms so we can enjoy such great lives.  
Weather-wise, the Memorial weekend was a mixed bag but we did manage to fire up the grill on Sunday for the first time this year, which was great fun.  I churned my first batch of ice cream of the season, a mint Oreo flavor requested by the little man; it was a big hit and vanished quickly as ice cream usually does.  I also went to the farmer's market again on Sunday and scored some sashimi-grade tuna to make my first poke bowl!

In between that, we savored 3 consecutive leisurely weekend breakfasts and I got to try a new pancake recipe during one of those.  These are sweet potato pancakes, a recipe I spotted in a new cookbook, American Girl in London.  It caught my eye given my love of sweet potatoes and my constant interest in finding new breakfast foods to put on the table.
I'm constantly roasting sweet potatoes for lunch or dinner so it was no sweat to set one aside to mash up for these pancakes.  They're also made with some whole milk yogurt, which I also happened to have on hand after baking a couple batches of banana bread.  

At their core, these sweet potato pancakes turned out fluffy (I used the trick I learned recently of stirring the egg white into the batter at the end of mixing) and super moist, almost custardy, in texture.  The original recipe does not call for any additional sugar, relying on just the natural sweetness from the sweet potatoes.  I tried it that way but in retrospect, I would add a tablespoon or so of sugar to the batter to better offset the tang from the yogurt.  That said, a generous douse of maple syrup does the trick of adding sweetness.
Do you like sweet potato or pumpkin pie?  Or those warm Thanksgiving flavors and spices? This will likely remind you of that because of a touch of both cinnamon and nutmeg in the pancakes.  Some, like my son, may not be a big fan so it's good to know what to expect going in.  For my husband and I, these soft pancakes were a fun thing to try and we had no problems cleaning our plates.  I particularly liked taking a bite with some toasted walnut because they add so much welcome flavor and a crunch.
It's always good to try new things, even if they're not home runs for everyone at the table each time.  Hopefully, we learn it's important to simply welcome different things and to widen our palate a little bit.


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