Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! (Sweet Paul's Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake)

Same Cake, A Different Take

Happy Thanksgiving, you all! I'm lucky enough to be spending this special day surrounded by a lot of love and family (both mine and P's). Despite no small number of trials and tribulations this past year, I feel so grateful to have the support of amazingly generous friends and kin. And I'm learning to have faith that things are going to get better given time.

Speaking of gratitude and faith, Thank You for joining me on this mostly culinary, sometimes musical, journey I started nearly a year and a half ago. Whether you've been with me since the beginning or have just joined the fun, I'm so glad to have you =).

Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake

I can't send a real treat to each of you. But I wanted to at least share this image of the salted caramel chocolate cake I made with love, for those I love, to indulge in today. Surely you're already familiar with the wonders of caramel, chocolate cake, and buttercream? So I'll keep it sweet and simple with: It's a fantastic cake. Please do give it a try. One last thing...I really hope each and every one of you gets to share lots of food and laughter with your loved ones today!

Salted Caramel Chocolate Layer Cake [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Hershey’s, Sweet Paul, and
Makes a 2-layer cake (about 12 to 16 servings)

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I recommend making the filling before the cake layers so the first has time to cool; it can be made up to 3 days ahead. I actually reheated my filling just a tad too much, making it runny. Keep a careful eye on it, and it should remain firm enough to stay put. The frosting can also be mixed up ahead of time, chilled, and brought to room temperature before using.

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 tsp instant coffee powder plus 1 cup boiling water
1 cup buttermilk OR 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Salted Caramel Filling (Recipe below)
Chocolate Buttercream Frosting (Recipe below)
Extra fleur de sel OR other fine-grained sea salt, to garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and dust with cocoa powder two 9-inch round pans. Optional but helpful: line pans with parchment circles.

In large bowl, sift and then stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the eggs, buttermilk (or milk vinegar mixture), coffee (or reconstituted coffee mixture), oil, and vanilla extract. Beat by hand or with an electric mixer on medium speed until well combined.

Pour the batter, which will be thin, into the prepared pans. Tap the pans firmly against the counter one time to remove any air bubbles. Bake just until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean (about 35-40 minutes). Let cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove to wire racks and let them cool completely there.

Place a small dollop of frosting in the center of a cake plate or stand and top with one cool cake layer. Warm the caramel filling still in the saucepan over low heat for 5 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until of thick spreadable consistency. Spread evenly over the cake. Place the second cake layer over the filling and frost the top with chocolate buttercream. Finish the cake off with a sprinkle of sea salt, if desired.

Serve immediately or refrigerate until needed. Cake will keep for 4 or more days if well covered.

Salted Caramel Filling
1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 tsp fleur de sel OR other fine-grained sea salt

Place the sugar, water, and corn syrup in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat up to medium and allow the mixture to cook without stirring until the sugar turns a dark amber color (about 10 minutes). Remove the pan from heat and pour in the cream (the mixture will bubble up). Stir well, then stir in the butter and salt. Let the filling cool to room temperature. Then cover the pot and chill in the refrigerator until needed.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups powdered sugar, unsifted
Large pinch salt
5 Tbsp milk, half and half, OR heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Sift the cocoa powder, powdered sugar, and salt into a small bowl. Cream the butter with an electric mixer in another bowl. Alternate adding the sifted mixture with adding the cream, mixing well between each addition. Continue beating until the desired texture is achieved. Add more cream or powdered sugar if you want to thin or thicken the frosting.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Savory Pie That's Not Quiche (Winter Greens Ricotta Egg Pie)

Do you remember the first time you tasted kale? I do. It was just 3 years ago. I'd felt "adventurous" at the farmers market, but had no idea what to do with my new bag of strangely sturdy greens once I got home. Flipping through a favorite Italian cookbook, a rustic dish with soft onions and creamy white beans caught my eye...then wooed my taste buds. I've adored kale ever since.

Phyllo Pie with Eggs and Winter Greens

That first dish has been made over and over again (and I promise to share the recipe later). But this nutritional powerhouse deserved to be more than a one-trick pony. For my latest kale-scapade, I settled on an intriguing ricotta, winter greens, and egg phyllo pie. Turned out a bit messy, as you can see 8), but full of lovely, well-balanced flavors. The bitterness of the kale mellowed by the slight sweetness of sauteed leeks and creamy cheeses and eggs. The only change I might make next time is to use puff pastry instead of phyllo to get this on the table faster.

So tell me, dear readers, do you enjoy winter greens? If so, what should I add to my currently limited repertoire?

P.S. - I've gotten behind on stopping by your blogs in the last week due to exams. Sorry 'bout that and I promise to catch up soon!

Savory Phyllo Pie with Winter Greens and Eggs [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Gourmet Traveller
Serves 6 to 8

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I think the extra flakes on top of my pie come from using old and thus drier phyllo pastry, so use a fresh batch for a neat presentation. I adjusted the recipe below to fully cook the eggs. Feel free to substitute swiss chard for half or all of the kale. But you'll need slightly less swiss chard, since it has smaller stems than kale.

6 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 lbs. kale, rough stems removed
2 cups fresh spinach
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, washed and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 scallions, finely chopped
3 black olives, pitted and finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh oregano, finely chopped [I used 2 tsp dried]
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8 sheets phyllo pastry
4 to 5 Tbsp butter, melted

Cook eggs in a pot of boiling water for 7 minutes. Then drain, cool in ice water, then peel and set aside.

Coarsely chop leaves of greens, steam for 6 to 8 minutes or until wilted, transfer to a colander to cool, then squeeze to remove excess water (It's important to squeeze hard!).

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat, add leek and garlic and cook for 5-6 minutes or until very soft. Transfer to a food processor, add greens, and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl, then add cheeses, scallions, olives, and oregano. Mix well and season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place an 8-inch springform or other cake pan on a cookie sheet, brush the inside of the pan with butter, line with a piece of phyllo, allowing excess to overhang, brush with butter and top with phyllo. Repeat with remaining phyllo and butter, finishing with phyllo.

Spoon 2/3 of ricotta mixture into the phyllo-lined pan, smooth surface, then create 6 wells for the eggs around edges, using a spoon. Place eggs in wells, then spoon over remaining ricotta mixture, smoothing top. Fold overhanging pastry inward, brushing with butter between each layer and pleating as you go. Brush top with butter and bake for 40 minutes or until golden.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Boy-Approved Spiked Pasta (Spaghetti with Vodka Cream Sauce)

Tomato Vodka Cream Pasta Ingredients
My boyfriend P has a busy, active job and is often too busy to eat a big lunch, if any lunch at all. It's no surprise then that he comes home hungry at only 5 p.m. For those days especially, I have a list of go-to meals that can be whipped up in no time. And while P's sweet enough to try almost anything I cook, I reserve this list for only the dishes he gets excited about. Chief among them is this fabulous spaghetti alla vodka.

P's not much of a foodie. So it's easy to tell when he loves a dish. The giveaway is usually his request to "never stop making this!" Exactly what he said after his first taste of this creamy tomato pasta made moreish by the addition of a little alcohol. Don't worry if you don't like the taste of vodka (I don't either). Cooking mellows the flavor so you won't even know it's spiked ^_^.

Spaghetti with Tomato Vodka Cream Sauce
I'd actually seen many versions of this dish long before, yet was always scared off by their copious use of heavy cream. I know, I know...nothing provides the same luxurious mouthfeel or coats pasta as well. But why drown out all those vibrant flavors from the tomato sauce? This version from Cooking Light magazine uses the amount needed to provide those textural benefits and no more. Still an indulgence, but a much healthier one.

Do you also have a go-to list of quick, delicious meals for those really hectic days? I can't wait to hear what's on it.

Spaghetti with Vodka Cream Sauce [Printable Recipe]
Slightly adapted from Cooking Light
Serves 3 to 4

XIAOLU'S NOTES: I HIGHLY recommend using fire-roasted canned tomatoes for this recipe -- it adds that much more depth to the flavor! I hesitated to add this detail before when Muir Glen made the only widely available version since they're a bit pricey. Luckily, Hunt's has come out with a version that's even easier to find than Muir Glen's and about as cheap as non-roasted diced tomatoes. Enjoy!

1/2 pound dry thin spaghetti pasta OR any other pasta
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion OR 2 to 3 shallots
1/8 to 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper OR 1 dried red chili, split in half
1 garlic clove, minced
Vegetable bouillon cube OR paste in amount used to flavor 1 cup broth
1/2 cup vodka
1/3 to 1/2 tsp salt
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1/4 cup whipping cream
3 Tbsp thinly sliced fresh basil
Shaved or grated parmesan cheese, to garnish
Additional fresh basil leaves (optional)

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and keep warm.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion to pan; sauté 4 minutes or until tender. Add pepper, garlic, and bouillon; sauté 1 minute. Add vodka (when cooking with alcohol, there is always the chance of it catching on fire, so be very careful); bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about half. Stir in 1/3 teaspoon salt and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and let cool slightly.

IF you have stick blender, you can now puree the sauce right in the pan (easy peasy!). OTHERWISE, place tomato mixture in a conventional blender. Remove center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape); and secure the lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in blender lid (to avoid splatters), and process until smooth. Return tomato mixture to pan.

Mix in cream, then cook the sauce for 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in cooked pasta and basil. Taste the pasta and add more salt if needed. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who's Afraid Of A Crack Or Two? (Blueberry Swirl Mini Cheesecakes)

I adore cheesecakes but don't bake them too often because of (a) the fat content and (b) fear of The Terrible Cracking (sounds like a Halloween tale, doesn't it?). Let's be really honest with each's mostly (b) that's kept me away. But when my friend Yida (check out his kickass Halloween costume) requested blueberry cheesecake cupcakes for his birthday, it was time to get past (or around) the fear and I thought I'd found a great way to do just that.

Several sources told me mini cheesecakes were less prone to cracking, even without a water bath. You can bet I was excited 'bout that! Still, there was some contradicting advice floating about. The Martha Stewart recipe I adapted called for bathing the cupcakes ^_^, but Annie's Eats got gorgeous results skipping that step. Always wanting to see for myself, I baked some with a water bath and some without.

Blueberry Swirl Mini Cheesecakes

When the cakes in the water bath turned out slightly undercooked but the others rose high and sunk oh-so-low, I went in search of middle ground. Google led me to this page very helpfully explaining The Cracking/Sinking Phenomenon. The main culprits: over-beating, over-baking, and contraction as the cake cools. Shortening the mixing time and lowering the oven temperature without a water bath produced the results I was hoping for. Firm, delicious cakes without a tendency to cave in. Sure, there's still an occasional crack along the marbling, but people will be too busy wolfing them down to notice =).

Do you guys enjoy cheesecake as much as I do? I'd love to hear about your favorite variations. Plus any tips would be great, as I'm still very new to making them!

Blueberry Swirl Mini Cheesecake Cupcakes [Printable Recipe]
Adapted from Martha Stewart Cupcakes via Annie's Eats
Makes 14 cupcakes

XIAOLU'S NOTES: For a lovely almond-y twist, replace half the graham cracker crumbs with amaretti biscuit cookie crumbs and omit the extra sugar in the crust. Or use chocolate wafer crumbs and keep the sugar. You could also easily swap out the blueberries for almost any other berry or even other types of fruit. You'll want to adjust the amount of sugar according to the sweetness of the fruit you use. Have fun with it!

3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar

1/2 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1 Tbsp sugar

1 lb. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup PLUS 1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 cupcake pans with 14 paper liners (or use 1 pan plus 2 standalone wrappers).

To make crusts: in a small bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and sugar. Stir together with a fork until well blended and all dry ingredients are moistened. Press 1 tablespoon of the mixture into the bottom of each cupcake liner. (A small glass or another standalone baking cup work well.) Bake until just set, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F.

To make the fruit puree: combine the blueberries and sugar in a regular or food processor or using a stick blender in a measuring cup. Process until smooth, and set aside. If using frozen berries, boil the puree in a small saucepan for about 5 minutes to evaporate some of the water; then cool and set aside.

To make the cheesecake: beat the cream cheese on medium-high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer just until smooth. Blend in the remaining sugar until well incorporated. Mix in the salt and vanilla. Finally, beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

To assemble: spoon 3 to 4 tablespoons of the cheesecake batter over the crust in each cupcake liner. Dot a 1/2 teaspoon of the berry puree in a few dots over the cheesecake filling. Use a toothpick or a skewer, chopstick, or thin knife to lightly swirl and create a marbled effect.

Bake until the filling is just set, about 20 to 30 minutes. (They will look puffed initially but will return to normal with time.) Transfer to a wire cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Transfer to the refrigerator and let chill for at least 4 hours before serving.