Archive | December, 2010

The Fudgiest Fudgey Chocolate Cake You’ve Ever Tasted

27 Dec

So I’ll just come right out and say it…  I don’t have a single picture of this cake.  My husband and parents got together to get me a brand spanking new camera for Christmas, but a) this cake was served on Christmas Eve, and b) the actual camera still hasn’t arrived – my husband is an obsessive researcher and sort of waited until Wednesday to order it.

But I had to write a quick post about it anyway because it was the best chocolate cake ever.

You see, Christmas is a very special day for my family.  My mom was born on Christmas Day, so not only do we celebrate with Santa Claus and Baby Jesus, we also celebrate with her.  We specifically give her separate Christmas and birthday gifts (at separate times), wrap her gifts in the birthday-est birthday paper imagineable (okay, I do…  My dad doesn’t always FIND the birthday paper, but that’s because he’s got a Y chromosome), and make a big deal of having a birthday cake.

I’m usually in charge of the birthday cake.

But for some reason, no matter how many beautiful cakes I make over the course of the previous year, something strange happens to her cake.  Four years ago, I baked her a beautiful vanilla bean masterpiece.  I’d baked it twice before for other occasions.  It came out of the oven perfectly spongey and crumbly, puffed up supremely, and tasted great.  But somehow in the intervening several hours, it transformed into a tasteless, heavy block.  I still can’t figure it out.

Two years ago, I used a chocolate cake recipe from Better Homes and Gardens.  I have to admit, this is still my standby recipe source – my mom uses it, both my grandmas use(d) it, and overall it’s got some well-tested recipes.  Sadly, though, this one tasted more like dishwater than chocolate.  I’m not entirely sure what the problem was – perhaps I mis-measured, or the cocoa was old…  But it was truly a disappointment.

Last year, we were all sick up until the day before Christmas, so we bought a cake from the grocery store, which of course had no real problems (except for cloyingly sweet frosting).

Enter this year.  My mom and I were talking on Wednesday morning about what I should bring to my grandmother’s Christmas Eve dinner.  I did almost all the cooking for Thanksgiving, and my grandma wanted me to have the evening off.  But I could, my mom suggested, bring the cake.

I have to admit, I had a moment of panic.  But I fought it down and asked her what kind she wanted.

But I knew.  Chocolate of course.

I toyed with the idea of using my Nutella cupcake recipe, and I actually did use a half batch of the frosting as filling between the cake layers.  But I needed something so spectacularly chocolate it would never come close to being dishwater.

All I can say is that Smitten Kitchen never lets me down.

I made this Double Chocolate Layer Cake.  And it was divine.  Truly, transportingly, amazing.  My uncle – who is very picky about his food, in a “I like gourmet” sort of way (not in a “I don’t like food” sort of way), had seconds.  SECONDS!  My cousin – who doesn’t cook – asked for the recipe.  My mom was in heaven.  And my birthday cake curse was broken!

Now, I have to add a few of my own notes.  First of all, I like alcohol in cake.  I think it really helps the cake retain moisture.  Plus it tastes yummy.  So I substituted 1/2 cup of kahlua for 1/2 cup of the coffee in the recipe.  You can’t taste kahlua in the cake, or even coffee, but it’s gorgeously moist, even several days after baking.

Secondly, this cake doesn’t puff much in the oven.  I don’t know if it was something I did (like adding the kahlua) or the recipe itself (it seemed like a decent amount of baking soda to me, and I wonder if a higher proportion of baking powder, or even just cutting out some of the leavener all together, would help), but I did end up with cake craters.  It doesn’t really matter once you get the final cake stacked and filled and frosted, and it’s still light and fluffy, but for some reason it’s definitely not a cake that rises in the middle.

Third, because this cake is so rich and the flavor is so deeply chocolate, I was a little weary of adding more chocolate in the form of icing.  So I made a basic cream cheese frosting (this one was from Better Homes and Gardens – 1 stick each of butter and cream cheese, with 2 cups of powdered sugar and some flavoring, beaten until very smooth) to go on the outside.  The result was a perfect balance of sweet and rich and chocolatey.  Sort of like the flavor profile of a super high-end Oreo cookie.  Yeah, like that.

I think this will probably become my mom’s yearly birthday cake tradition.  She was in heaven!



20 Dec

It’s during the holidays that you miss the most the people you love who have passed away.

Christmas always makes me think of my grandma Noni, who was probably the best cook I’ve ever known.  She would make mountains of cookies and keep them in tins in the basement.  She’d hand roll and shape hundreds of tortellini and spinach-filled tortellachi by herself, keeping them in big freezer bags until they were ready to be turned into soup or topped with creamy tomato sauce.  She taught me to make bread (and pizza and pasta fritta, which is basically just bread dough that’s been stretched and rolled out and fried)  and never, ever said no when it came to cooking with me.

When I was very little and my mom went back to work as a teacher, my grandmother would watch me during the day.  We’d watch Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, and then Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet, on PBS.  We’d walk to my grandfather’s accounting office a few blocks away and I’d play with the typewriter and the copier while she helped him with tax-season paperwork.

During Christmas she always had two trees – a giant one, by the front window, impeccably decorated with angels and flowers, and a smaller one, in the corner next to the piano, with ice cream cones and wooden trains, especially for us girls.  We were the only grandchildren, but we had so many relatives nearby – cousins from both sides of the family, and aunts and uncles – that we were never lonely.  In fact, the house (where we’d go every year at Christmas, even after we moved back to California) had an open-door policy and was always busy.  My grandmother always had incredible food to share with whoever decided to stop by.

She’s been gone for 17 years, now, and I still wish she was here.  She would have loved my husband.  She would have loved to be around to see my future kids.  She would have been proud to watch us grow up.  I would love to be able to call her up right now and ask her for all of her recipes (they’re somewhere in my grandfather’s house, but I couldn’t find them this past summer, so my sister and I are recreating most of them for a gift for my mother – don’t tell!).  She’d be able to tell me all about family history too, and dig out photos.  She kept everything – this summer when we were looking for the recipes we found every birthday and Christmas card that had ever been given to her).  She had a beautiful singing voice and would be preparing right now for her Christmas Eve solo at church.

I dug these photos out this morning, of her reading to me.  I miss you Noni!


Banoffee Pie, and Pies With Friends

5 Dec

My family and I traveled to Ireland in 2005, and the tiny town of Ennis, in Shannon, had the most incredible meal at an Italian – yes, Italian in Ireland – restaurant.  After the meal our host (my 5th grade teacher and my mom’s friend, Ms. Sutherlin) suggested we order Banoffee Pie.

Banoffee Pie (or Banoffi pie) was created in the late 1960s by Ian Dowding, a British chef.  I’ve linked to his website below,  but it seems everyone in Britain has their own variation on the dessert.  Whatever recipe you use, one thing is clear: it’s a mixture of bananas, toffee (or, as we’d say in San Diego, dulce de leche), and whipped cream flavored with a little coffee.  It sounds seriously weird but it works.  It’s creamy and sweet but surprisingly not cloying or heavy.  It’s INCREDIBLY easy to make.  And while it may not be the most beautiful pie in the contest, it’s darn tasty!

Today I had the occasion to try out a recipe for Banoffee pie.  You see, my friend Carrie has a tradition, for the last several years, of hosting a Pie-Off at her home.  Like a Bake Off, competitors’ creations are judged for taste, creativity, and looks, with awards handed out according to a very scientific voting system!  🙂  It’s kind of competitive, but mostly, it’s about friends getting together and sharing food.  We were invited this year for the first time, and I knew I had to bring it.  Hubby and I had actually each planned on making a pie, but ran completely out of time to do a ton of baking, so it was lucky that this recipe had very little baking time!  I’d never made this recipe before, and of course I made a tweak or two to the original, but it turned out quite nicely for a first attempt!

The only thing that gets tricky, time-wise, is making the toffee – it’s not like you can just whip it up in two minutes – but you can probably purchase a tin of ready-made dulce de leche and cut out the toffee making entirely if you’re in a real hurry.  Either way, prep is minimal, taste is awesome, and it’s a keeper of a recipe!

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I “won” 2nd in the Taste category, behind a nut-and-raisin pie passed down from another guest’s grandma, so I consider that a victory!

Banoffee Pie (adapted from Ian Dowding)

  • 1 pie crust.  I used a Pillsbury crust because my own luck with pastry making is terrible, but Chef Dowding has “the” recipe on his site.  Most of the recipes I’ve seen – and the first pie I ate – had crusts made from British digestive biscuits (which are like graham crackers without the brown sugar).  I’d actually intended to make mine from digestives too but didn’t have a chance to get to a store that carries them.  You can find them at Cost Plus and subsitute them in your favorite graham cracker crust recipe.
  • 1 can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 3-4 large ripe (not overripe!) bananas.  They should have almost no brown spots, so that they don’t look brown and gross when you cut into the pie.
  • 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp instant coffee (I used Starbucks VIA Columbian, and it lent the perfect hint of coffee without being overpowering or bitter, but you can use whatever you have or can find inexpensively, as long as it’s not flavored)

The day before: This is the EASIEST way to make the toffee; there are several very effective ones but this is a no-brainer for me: Remove the label from the can of condensed milk.  Place it in the bottom of a crock pot and fill the crock pot with enough water to cover the can entirely, with a 1/4 to 1/2 inch of water above the top of the can.  Turn the crockpot on low and walk away.  Let the crockpot cook for 6-8 hours and then turn it off and leave it for another 3+ hours or until cool to the touch.  You want to make sure that the can isn’t hot enough to explode when it hits cool air, so just leave it until you’re sure.

Assembly of the pie: Bake and cool your crust completely.  Open the can of toffee and smooth it over the bottom of the crust.

Crust, meet toffee.

I told you this was easy!

Now place your bananas in a single layer on the toffee.  Sort of push them in so the carmely goodness oozes around them.  You will get messy, and the top of the bananas won’t look too pretty.  Oh well.

Sort of like a bananas foster pie, minus the pyrotechnics

I should note here that the original recipe called for 5-6 bananas.  I don’t know if they just have smaller bananas in the UK, or if the chef squashed them together differently or had multiple layers of fruit, but I only really needed 3.  As you can see, it’s not an exact science.

With a stand or hand mixer, whip together the cream, powdered sugar, coffee crystals, and vanilla until the cream is thick.  I make whipped cream on a relatively regular basis (several times a year) so I know the texture I like is somewhere not quite to the stiff peaks stage.  But if you don’t, you’ll need to experiment.  Just be careful not to whip too much, or you’ll get sweetened curds and whey.  Which might be a treat for Miss Muffett but won’t be very tasty on your pie.  Smooth your cream onto your bananas and make the top as pretty as you can.

The finished product

And just because, here’s a photo of the Pie-Off table.  All NINE pies (and no repeats!).  Mmmmm…  That was some good eating!

Clockwise, from top left: Raspberry Velvet Tart, No-Bake Chocolate Chip Cream Cheese Pie, Coconut Cream Pie, Lemon Cream Pie, Chocolate Orange Mousse Pie, Apple Pie, Banoffee Pie, French Nut Pie, Bourbon Carmel Truffle Tart!

I think the best part of tonight – I mean, aside from the utter decadent deliciousness – was the company.  We’d never met any of the other guests, and most of them were strangers to each other too.  But when you get together a good group of people, eating and talking and being just slightly competitive, it works.  At least with good hosts!  Thanks Carrie for the invite – can’t wait for next year!

%d bloggers like this: