February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I started writing this post poolside at Palm Springs, sneaking in a quiet 5 minutes between energetic splashing, leisurely outdoor lunches, and a tiny bit of naptime yoga-time. I’m not sure I ever needed a vacation as much, and it delivered the goods. Even while time was slower and life easier, I knew I had a duty to record the pancakes we ate the day we set out on our holiday.
It was a particularly hectic morning, with clothes strewn around the house, and Henry unpacking just as quickly as we got things into the suitcase. Pre-holiday, it seemed completely reasonable to add a relatively complicated breakfast to the mix: that was the pace on which I was stuck. As with many great things, the pancakes were born of necessity and frugality: simply to clear out what was left in our fridge and fill us up good and ready for a day of travel. A half tub of ricotta was the main target, and it found its purpose finishing off the lightest pancake batter I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of late: Henry and I often have pancakes or waffles to start our day, since he adores perching on a ladder and being official taste tester of the first off the pan. Our favorites of late have been an earthy pear-buckwheat batter and a yoghurt-banana combo. But neither of them come close to the majesty of these lemon zest-flecked ricotta pancakes. This is one of those recipes that requires a painful number of bowls: I do not apologize. They are worth it.
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
Adapted from Chow
5 tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for coating the frying pan and serving
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
1 1/4 cups (145g) plain/all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. packed finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 to 3 medium lemons)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
Combine butter and milk in a small saucepan and stir over medium-low heat until the butter has just melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Place the egg yolks, 1 tbsp. sugar, lemon zest and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Whisk in the milk/butter mixture very gradually to temper the eggs – you want to prevent the warm milk mixture from curdling the eggs. Add a couple of tablespoons to begin, and as you go you can begin to increase the speed at which you add the milk mixture as the two combine.
Add the flour mixture to this and stir with a rubber spatula until just combined. Be careful not to overmix. Set aside.
In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (the bowl and whisk need to be clean for the egg whites to whip properly). Halfway through whisking, add the remaining 1 tbsp. sugar and 1/2 tsp salt.
Using the rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the reserved batter until just combined.
Gently fold the ricotta into the batter, again being careful not to overmix.
Heat a large non-stick frying pan, or seasoned case iron skilled over medium heat until hot. Lightly coat the pan’s surface with butter then use a 1/4 cup measure to scoop the batter into the pan (if you don’t have a 1/4 cup measure that’s fine – it just helps with sizing and consistency of the pancakes).
Cook until bubbles form on top of the pancakes, about 4-5 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden brown, about another 1-2 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve immediately with fruit and syrup.
January 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
The baked custard came out of the oven with a perfect golden wobble, but still I was anxious. And this wasn’t the usual new recipe anxiety either. My audience: one 13.5 month old boy, who was about to get custard instead of boob for his mid afternoon snack. You will understand my trepidation.
So as not to keep you on the edges of your seats: he gobbled it down, tapping his fingertips together for “more” between each spoonful, mouth expectantly tipped up and open like a little bird. I imagine some of you are shrugging: no biggie. Little more than a year ago, I would have been thinking the same. But here I found myself, breath slightly held, proud of my little guy for his burgeoning independence, and slightly sad for it all the same.
I didn’t see myself as writing much about breastfeeding. But as I started weaning Henry I was infused with a renewed sense of how important this relationship had been. Endings so often bring clarity of that kind. Besides, nursing is about food, about comfort, about nurture, which means it belongs here just as much as any old cake recipe.
Breastfeeding is caught in a tricky cultural space. It’s alternately revered and politely ignored. It’s explained and validated in cool scientific terms, yet often remains a mystery even to those of us in the middle of it. It, sadly, comes with the kind of judgments and prejudices that so often inhabit any space touched by a woman’s body – thrown from all sides of the debate, from advocates and skeptics alike. So I chronicle these thoughts merely as a reminder that this is a deeply personal, yet entirely universal journey, and one which cannot be easily simplified into language of good and bad, shoulds and should nots. (While this is a personal reflection, not a manifesto, I can’t help but go on the record: I believe that all women should be generously supported in their desires to breastfeed, not least through proper maternity leave, which is nothing short of appalling in the US, and supported just as generously both emotionally and practically should they choose or be unable to feed their baby this way.)
There were points – at three days, three weeks, three months and more – when I thought I couldn’t do it, despite our relatively easy situation: good milk supply, textbook latch. The books, with their little pictures of cradle holds and nipple shields, can’t convey the immensity of emotion you will likely feel as your child lies and sleepily nurses, utterly dependent. You may vacillate between terror and existential validation: no minor feelings, heightened by the hormone spikes and dips of the early weeks, not to mention the lack of sleep. Some days felt as though every morsel of my being – every drop of energy and each bite of food – were going solely into those mammoth nursing sessions. Days revolved around the rhythms and demands of breastfeeding which in my case included no dairy, lots of oatmeal and fenugreek, underwear with fiddly release clips, tops with easy access, as I spurred my exhausted body into producing more triple cream goodness.
A man accosted me in the street one day, a half block from home, with a screaming 8ish week old Henry in the stroller, on our way home from grocery shopping. He yelled at me that the baby should be on my breast. I was furious, and full of guilt, and without the words in that heated moment to tell him that of course I knew my baby was hungry, that he had woken up two blocks sooner than I had hoped, that how was I supposed to get groceries, and some air, and stay at home nursing without a break? And how dare he tell me what to do with my baby, with my body? In the fact I just told him to fuck off, whisked Henry upstairs and nursed, my tears falling as his wailing abated. My body, and yet so much not my body any more.
There was that crazy awkward period, around 7 or 8 months, when Henry was so busy learning about himself and the world around that he could barely sit still for long enough to eat. His head would spin with curiosity, either yanking me with him which is exactly as much fun as you might imagine, or sending an arc of milk across the room. We stopped nursing in public quite as much at that point. But we got through it otherwise, both intact.
There’s something purely magical about breastfeeding too. In the earlier days, it’s the panacea for all ills, the way to turn a red-faced, confused and angry infant into a sleeping cherub almost instantly. There’s the wonder of seeing a whole being growing and gaining pudgy little rolls of fat from nothing but your milk. And even later on it was nursing that got us through nights of teeth bursting through gums, of 11 hour flights and 3am jet lag. It was the kind of magical power that almost felt addictive.
The move towards weaning came from both sides, gradually and naturally. Still, it was bittersweet. Right in the thick of that transition, I wrote this:
Of course I will miss those hours together. The little games we play – peekaboo with my t-shirt, Henry making this weird squawking noise with twinkling eyes until we both stop and lose ourselves in a belly laugh. The twilight morning feed nestled side by side that somehow takes us both from asleep to awake. But I’m proud that I’ve done my job and that my little guy is ready to go it a bit more alone. It’s part of this crazy journey of motherhood that I am but a gateway, a facilitator, a stable reference point. By relinquishing a role that I and only I can fulfil, I open up his world to sharing those moments with others, and to seeing more of his own powers and capacities. My boy is growing up and I’m ok with it.
I’m glad I took the time to record my feelings during that time: already it’s impossible to imagine Henry nursing. The weaning went very smoothly and on the other side we’re both very happy. We enjoy different games and plenty of cuddles these days, and I had a fun time underwear shopping. We eat baked custard and rice pudding, go out for steamed milk in the late afternoons, stir waffle and pancake batter together in the mornings. I highly recommend stopping whatever you’re doing and enjoying a baked custard one January afternoon. It’s classic nursery food with its silky smooth texture, but there’s an adult elegance to it as well, especially if you bake individual puds in ramekins and infuse whole vanilla beans into the custard. It’s all still about love.
Adapted from the Leiths Cookery Bible
1 egg yolk
3 drops vanilla extract
425ml very creamy milk, or milk plus cream (or, in the US, half and half)
freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 150C/300F. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolk, vanilla extract and sugar together with a wooden spoon – you’re looking to combine them without making them too frothy.
Heat the milk/cream in a small pan just to the point of simmering. Pour the milk very gradually onto the eggs, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon (not a whisk, to avoid creating bubbles). You have to add the milk extremely slowly to ensure that it doesn’t scramble the eggs.
Strain the mixture to remove any egg threads. You can either strain directly into an ovenproof dish if you plan to make one large custard, or into a bowl if you are going to make the custard in individual ramekins. For the latter, pour the strained custard into ramekins (I use 4 of about a 3 inch diameter). Grate nutmeg on top of either the individual or single custards.
Stand the custard dish or ramekins in a roasting pan and pour boiling water around the sides of the dishes until the water comes about 2/3rds of the way up the sides of the dish(es) (this is called a bain-marie). Bake for 40 minutes for a single custard and about 30 for the individual ones (begin checking around 25 mins). The custard is set when there is a definite skin on the top and the centre is no longer liquid (it will still wobble).
Serve hot, warm or chilled.
November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
Well, hello. Since I was last here, I started my day job again, spent 9 hours on a plane with an almost one year old, spent 11 hours on a plane with a newly one year old, hosted two birthday parties for said child, romped around the New Forest a bit, and got not nearly enough sleep. Because my readers are of course the kind who don’t miss a trick, you’ll already have worked out that two birthday parties meant two birthday cakes. (Actually, it meant three, but we’ll focus on the sweet and gooey ones for now, and I will write up the being-a-virtuous-mom child-friendly banana cake another time.)
The tale proper begins in England, in a beautiful country house, stuffed full of friends and family. Our days were spent taking out the kids to see the horses and sheep, picking blackberries from the hawthorns along the way. A ten minute walk yielded one of the best pubs in the area, where dinner was local crab, or a bubbling-hot fish pie, or pork topped with a horn of crackling, and dessert was everything on the menu. The bucolic setting got to us viscerally: the perfect scene of real or imagined childhood walks, where the Famous Five might be building a tree house around the corner at any moment. As Ollie and I took ourselves for a long run one bright morning, it was hard to discuss anything other than that clearly we were crazy for not figuring out how we could instantly transplant ourselves to this rural idyll for good.
Even though we were far from our actual home, there was no way I was outsourcing Henry’s first birthday cake. So to fete our little guy turning the grand old milestone of a year of age (and our survival thereof), I figured out what was going to be feasible without reliable equipment, tasked my wonderful sister-in-law with bringing a few essentials, and settled on Deb’s Monkey Cake. Can we take a quick aside to shout out loud how brilliant Deb is? I would make any single dish from her site without feeling the need to test in advance, because you know she has done that testing for you, and that her standards are basically much more persnickety than yours in any case. Deb, we salute you. You can find the full recipe and instructions for the cake over on her site. No need for my embellishments other than to say that I beat that cake batter from scratch, with a wooden spoon, and have the calluses to prove it. It still came out light and fluffy, and was gobbled by kids and adults alike. Word.
First cake down, back to our existential crisis. We landed back in San Francisco with a huge poof of relief at being back in our own beds, going out for our coffee ritual, ambling down to the amazing playgrounds on our doorstep. Torn, as ever, by where we are from, and where we make our home. By Henry’s joy at being around family, and joy at being back in his own little kingdom. I was grateful for the birthday party that we had very sensibly arranged only a few days after getting back to pull us out of the paralysis of introspection and into the reality of friends, ballponds, and cake number two.
What I knew about the second first birthday cake was that it needed to be big, and I wanted it to be a bit of a chocolate overload. I recently acquired Flo Braker’s classic baking book, and couldn’t resist having a go at the devil’s food cake – twice over. I admit that there are more steps than the mother of a one year should have to tackle, and that making the cake uses every damned bowl in your kitchen. But, honestly, the end results live up to the fiddlier aspects of the method, yielding a rich and light cake that withstands a good slather of frosting – not an easy combination to pull off. Going for broke, instead of a single 9×13 cake that you halve and stack as per the original recipe, I made two 9×13 cakes, froze them while we went on our trip in a moment of fore-planning genius, then used the same icing from the monkey cake to help stack them together (before they had defrosted as it’s a pretty delicate cake at that size) and to frost the whole creation.
In the meantime, my incredibly patient husband had begun to sift bags of M&Ms by colour, ready for us to cover the cake in what I had ambitiously thought of as a pointillistic homage, but really was bit more like the colour-blindness tests they give you at school. Either way, the painstaking process of dotting the candy all over the frosting was weirdly satisfying and the end result was suitably show-stopping for the event at hand. The final result is super-charged with chocolate sweetness, although not at all cloying. It’s the cake I want Henry to beg me to make when he turns 5, and 8, and (with teenage reticence) 14. Whether we’ll be in the city or in the country by then, who knows.
The recipe here will yield one 9×13 sheet cake. You could halve this and stack into layers for a smaller cake, or do as I did and double it to serve a party-load.
2 cups (200g) cake flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup (50g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup (115ml) lukewarm water
1/2 cup (115ml) buttermilk, room temperature
1/2 cup (115ml) water
2 tsp vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 stick/115g unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 cup (200g) light brown sugar, packed
NOTE: stages 1-5 of this recipe are largely prep. There are odd places you could save on washing up if you really wanted, but my advice is just to embrace your inner pastry chef and surrender to the mise-en-place. Just have a nice clear workspace ready with plenty of bowls to hand.
1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Grease and flour a 9×13 pan and line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper. Set aside.
2. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl; set aside.
3. Place the cocoa in a small bowl. Add the 1/2 cup lukewarm water, whisk to combine and set aside to cool.
4. Pour the buttermilk, 1/2 cup water, and the vanilla into a measuring cup; set aside.
5. Crack the eggs into a small bowl, and whisk together to combine the yolks and whites; set aside.
6. Place the butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, preferably fitted with a flat beater (you can use an electric hand whisk too – just be careful to beat well at the next step). Cream the butter on medium speed until the butter is smooth and lighter in color, about 30 to 45 seconds.
7. Reduce the speed to low; add the sugars in a steady stream. Then stop the machine and scrape down the sides. The mixture will appear sandy. Increase the speed to medium again, and cream until the mixture is light in color, fluffy in texture, and appears as one mass, about 5 to 7 minutes.
8. With the mixer still on medium speed, pour the eggs in very slowly. Continue to cream, scraping the sides of the bowl at least once, until the mixture appears fluffy and velvety.
9. Stop the machine and spoon in the cooled cocoa mixture (which will have turned almost to mousse consistency). Turn the mixer back up to medium speed and mix just until incorporated.
10. Using a rubber spatula stir in 1/4 of the flour mixture. And then 1/3 of the buttermilk mixture stirring to blend together. Repeat this procedure, alternating dry and liquid. With each addition, scrape the sides of the bowl, and continue mixing until smooth, never adding liquid if any flour is visible.
11. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it level. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until the center springs back slightly when touched lightly and the sides contract from the pan.
12. Place the cake pan on a rack to cool completely. Use the parchment paper to help lift the cake from the pan to a rack (an extra pair of hands wouldn’t go amiss for this step). If the cake starts to break up, you might consider placing it in the freezer for 15 minutes first to firm up and trying again. It will be delicate – don’t worry too much as the frosting stage will cover a lot of cracks if they do appear.
At this point, I did this whole process all over again, then froze my two layer cakes until I was ready for the decorating stage:
Chocolate Fudge Frosting
4 1/2 cups (540g) confectioners’ sugar/icing sugar
1 1/2 cups/3 sticks/340g unsalted butter, at room temperature
90 ml whole milk
1 tbsp (15 ml) vanilla extract
140g dark chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids, melted and cooled
Blend all of the frosting ingredients except the melted chocolate in a food processor until smooth. Add the cooled chocolate and blend until the frosting is light and smooth.
You can make the frosting in advance of decorating the cake and keep it well covered in the refrigerator. Remove and allow to soften almost to room temperature before using. If your kitchen is especially hot, you may need to place the frosting periodically in the fridge to keep it from becoming too soft and oily to spread well.
When you are ready to decorate the cake:
M&Ms or similar candy (approx. 2x 12oz/350g bags although you may need more to give you enough in one single colour depending on your design)
Sort the candy by colour into small bowls ready for decorating as soon as the cake is frosted. Set to one side.
Place the first layer onto a serving platter or cake board, ideally cold from the fridge or freezer. Cover the edges with strips of foil or wax paper that will catch any frosting drips and that you can pull out to once frosted to keep the decorative plate clean. Cover the whole top surface of the layer with frosting. Carefully position the second layer on top.
Proceed to cover the top and sides of the whole two layer cake with frosting, ideally using an offset spatula. If the room is very warm you may want to place the cake in the fridge for 5-10 minutes before the next steps.
Use a selection of candy to create your desired pattern on top – a number, letter, possibly a name. I chose red as the colour for my number, and outlined with white, before filling in the rest with mixed colours. Once decorated, put the cake in the fridge to firm up before wrapping in foil. Remove from the fridge about 1-2 hours before serving to allow to come back to room temperature.
September 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I was musing earlier about how much/little I have written about Henry on this blog over the past year. In the late months of pregnancy and even into the delusional early months of parenthood, I envisioned I would write reams about the emotional life and daily minutiae of raising a baby. I had a whole separate blog planned for it in fact. But the little stories and narratives in my head stayed there, writing time trumped by the barer facts of survival. So, in no particular order, some things about Henry.
He has the best, dirtiest, laugh you’ve ever heard. Actually he has a range of laughs. He laugh-growls, belly laughs, titters to himself. He laughs a lot.
He adores people and provokes smiles all over the place. Most mornings we go out for coffee, one or the other of us wearing Henry in the carrier so he can watch the world go by from adult-height. Of course we make friends with the usual suspects – people with other babies, dogs etc – but the unlikeliest of folks smile as he goes past, grinning or pointing or just chattering away. It makes my morning, every single day.
He has a ceaseless appetite for details. Buttons, zippers, tags, cables: all undergo systematic prodding, scratching, pulling, biting. Many ladies in our lives now have teeth marks in their necklaces.
His favourite things in the world are, in this order: doggies, trees, his book of kitten pictures, and cheese. That kid can eat a lot of cheese.
He’s fiercely independent. Won’t be helped to walk, stand, eat. This leads to bumps and oh-so-much mess, but it’s worth it. His independent spirit means he can also entertain himself with a power cable (unplugged!), or a remote control, or a piece of paper, for a really long time.
But yes, going back to the won’t be helped to eat thing. I’m always on the hunt for recipes that make something that he can just go to town on, all by himself, but that also involve some form of veg, since broccoli florets or carrot sticks don’t really do it for him and his 7 teeth. Ravioli have become a firm favorite, as have pancakes and fritters of all kinds. These green pancakes hail from Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which is just about the first place I go to when I want vegetable inspiration. They’re packed with spinach and scallions, but have a soft and spongy quality that makes them perfect both for little hands, and for classy family brunches. I’ve been having mine with smoked trout or salmon on top, and a dollop of Greek yoghurt with a squeeze of lime (inspired by the original lime butter that accompanies the recipe). Henry can often be found with a handful of pancake and an opposite handful of trout, smiling face smeared in yoghurt. They’re the times when I believe with every inch of myself that we’re doing ok.
Green Pancakes with Lime Butter
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
250g spinach (preferably baby spinach)
110g self raising flour (or 110g/1 cup all purpose flour, plus an extra 1 1/2 tsp baking powder)
1 tbsp. baking powder (in addition to the baking powder you are adding if you are using APF)
50g/4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1/2 tsp salt (I omit the salt when cooking for Henry and add some celery seed instead)
1 tsp ground cumin
6 spring onions/scallions
2 green chillies (I omit these when cooking for Henry)
olive oil or ghee for frying
100g/1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
grated zest of a lime
1 1/2 tbsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro (coriander)
1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
Start by making the lime butter, if you choose it as an accompaniment. Put the butter in a medium bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until soft and creamy. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. Tip onto a sheet of plastic wrap/cling film, and roll into a sausage shape. Twist the ends of the plastic to seal the butter. Chill until firm.
For the pancakes:
Finely chop the spinach and set aside in a medium bowl. Chop the scallions, and chiles if using, and add to the spinach. Note – the original recipe called for wilting the spinach in a splash of water first and if you can’t find smaller, more tender spinach leaves you may wish to include this step.
Next, make the batter. Put the flour, baking powder, eggs, melted butter, salt, cumin and milk in a large mixing bowl and whisk until well combined and smooth. Add the scallions, chiles and spinach and mix with a fork.
Pour a small amount of olive oil or ghee into a heavy frying pan and place on a medium high heat. For each pancake, spoon about two tablespoons of batter into the pan – you should get quite small pancakes, about 7cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Cook for 2-3 minutes each side, or until they turn a good golden-green colour. Transfer to kitchen paper and keep warm until serving. Continue making pancakes, adding more oil as needed, until the batter is used up (note – you can also keep leftover batter well covered in the fridge overnight and use the next day).
To serve: pile up 3 pancakes per person and serve with the lime butter and any other desired accompaniments like smoked fish or salad.
August 14, 2013 § 2 Comments
So I was all ready to tell you about these amazing green pancakes, that are so magical that even an almost-eleven-month old chomps down a half bunch of spinach for his lunch without a bit of fuss. And I will tell you about them soon, but I treated you to a savory recipe last time, and the title of this blog does have CAKE in it after all. Besides, one or the other of you might have an Occasion on the horizon, and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on a good excuse to make this cake. Tiramisu cake people. For reals.
If you are an avid Cakesnail reader, you’ll note that I rarely post iced or glazed cakes. My genre of choice is the rustic tea or coffee cake. I like cake that is self-contained, can often be eaten on the go, and at any time of day. I personally prefer my cake mid-morning, by myself, with a mug of some warm, milky beverage or other. Don’t get me wrong, I do also love a towering slice of celebratory layer cake, slathered in buttercream, shared with friends. It’s just not a part of my everyday baking repertoire. (Also, I suck at decorating.)
That said, this take on the classic Italian coffee-and-cream dessert in cake form might just be enough to flip me over to the iced side. The method and assembly is so much easier than the end result suggests. You start out by making a couple of sponge cakes, moistened by buttermilk. They come out of the oven golden and so fragrant with vanilla that you will question the process and wonder if you should just dig into them there and then. I promise the end result is worth this initial self-restraint. When you are ready to assemble the whole cake – I made my sponges the night before for time and convenience’s sake – you level off the sponges, and prepare an espresso syrup, nicely spiked with brandy, or Kahlua, or some other booze that usually lingers in the back of the cupboard until Christmas. Lightly sweetened mascarpone is also given a brandy kick, then folded with whipped cream to billowing mounds. The sponges thirstily soak up the espresso syrup as you drizzle it over, and are sandwiched with some of that brandied mascarpone cream.
And then comes the decorating part. If you’re one of the what feels like 99% percent of people who have a Pinterest account and regularly turn out multi-layered party cakes with quirky scapes from classic books (not that I’ve been researching first birthday cakes recently and feeling like the world may have gone mad, not at all), then you will already be scoffing at the task ahead. If, like the rest of us 1%, decorating fills you with mild terror, you’ve found your cake. First up, you mix a bit of the remaining espresso syrup into the remaining cream, turning it a nice caramel latte colour. So long as you have a good amount of this cream, slathering it all over the top and sides of the cake shouldn’t be too onerous a task. It helps if you have an offset spatula: I used a regular table knife and it was fine albeit a bit more fiddly. The cake is accepting of a few bumps and swirls – it doesn’t have to be ice-rink flat. Next, decide if you want to include some kind of decoration on top. You could very easily just give the cake a light dusting of cocoa, and perhaps add a small mound of chocolate covered espresso beans in the middle, or around the perimeter. I was taking this particular cake along to an evening celebrating our friends’ emergent textile business, and the collection featured a lot of arrows, hence my decoration. I cut out two arrows from parchment paper, pressed them lightly against the top of the cake, then dusted with cocoa powder. The parchment paper was peeled away to reveal the arrow pattern. I promise – if I can do this, you can too. Maybe I’ll even stick it up on Pinterest while I’m thinking about that pesky birthday cake….
Adapted from: Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
For the cake layers:
2 cups (220g) cake flour (or all purpose/plain flour is fine)
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 sticks (140g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200g) sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup (175 ml) buttermilk
For the espresso extract:
2 tbsp. instant espresso powder
2 tbsp. boiling water
For the espresso syrup:
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
1/3 cup (65g) sugar
1 tbsp. amaretto, Kahlua, or brandy
For the filling and frosting:
8oz (225g) mascarpone
1/2 cup (60g) confectioners’/icing sugar, sifted
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp. amaretto, Kahlua, or brandy
1 cup (235 ml) cold heavy cream/double cream
2 1/2oz (70g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (55-60%), finely chopped, or about 1/2 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips
Chocolate-covered espresso beans, for decoration (optional)
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350F/170C. Butter two 9×2 inch round cake pans, and line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or wax paper.
Start by making the sponges. In a medium bowl, sift or whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
Working with a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes, until well integrated and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, and then the yolk, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. The mixture may appear curdled at this point – don’t worry as it will come back together. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk, adding the dry ingredients in 3 additions and the milk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients); scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed and mix only until the ingredients disappear into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans, smoothing the tops as far as possible.
Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans at the midway point. When fully baked, the cakes will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the centers will come out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them, and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right-side up. You can at this point continue to the next stage of the cake assembly, or wrap the cakes well and refrigerate them overnight.
When you are ready to assemble and frost the cake, begin by making the espresso extract and syrup. For the extract, stir the espresso powder and boiling water together in a small cup until blended. Set aside.
For the espresso syrup, stir the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil. Pour the water/sugar syrup into a small heatproof bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of the espresso extract and the liqueur or brandy; set aside.
Next, make the cream. Put the mascarpone, sugar, vanilla, and liqueur in a large bowl and whisk just until blended and smooth. Working with the stand mixer with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream until it holds firm peaks. Switch to a rubber spatula and stir about one quarter of the whipped cream into the mascarpone. Fold in the rest of the whipped cream with a light touch. Set aside.
You are then ready to assemble the cake. If the tops of the cake layers have crowned, use a long serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even them. Place one layer right-side up on a cardboard round or a cake plate protected with strips of wax or parchment paper. Using a pastry brush or a small spoon, soak the layer with about one third of the espresso syrup. Smooth some of the mascarpone cream over the layer – use about 1 1/4 cups – and gently press the chopped chocolate into the filling. Put the second cake layer on the counter and soak the top of it with half the remaining espresso syrup, then turn the layer over and position it, soaked side down, over the filling. Soak the top of the cake with the remaining syrup.
For the frosting, whisk 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining espresso extract into the remaining mascarpone filling. Taste the frosting as you go to decide how much extract you want to add. Ideally with an offset icing spatula, smooth the frosting around the sides of the cake and over the top. You can add chocolate covered espresso beans, in concentric circles, or in the center of the cake if you want to decorate it that way. If you are going to dust with cocoa or make a stencil, wait to do that until just before serving. At this point, refrigerate the cake for at least 3 hours (or for up to 1 day) before serving – this gives all the elements time to meld.
Just before serving, dust the top of the cake with cocoa. You can cut a shape out of parchment paper, press lightly against the top of the cake, and then dust with cocoa powder if you want a similar effect to the one pictured at the top of this post. Gently peel the parchment paper away to reveal the pattern and serve.
July 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
Hello strangers. It’s been a curious few weeks. My moods have been climbing up and down faster than the San Francisco summer thermometer. For the first time in months, my focus had to slip from the all-consuming minutiae of raising an infant to bigger picture stuff. Going back to work, searching for a nanny, piles of house-related admin. I found myself in the reality check of a slick downtown lawyer’s office, cycle helmet in hand, some kind of baby-food smear on my top, like a cliché of a mom in a movie. The edges were sharper than my woolly existence of maternity leave. It’s all fine – I quite like sharp edges – but I haven’t had much brain space for writing, or even cooking.
Since I was last here, I had Ollie at home for 3 long, staycation weeks of paternity leave. I thought those weeks would see me in the kitchen a lot, and writing even more. It didn’t really happen that way; in fact, I cooked much less than I do on a normal daily basis. Partly as a consequence of the above, but also because we enjoyed lunching out as a threesome most days, and I was granted the luxury of being cooked for on many evenings. I also imagined that we’d use the three weeks to get super healthy. Ollie and I are brilliant at getting each other obsessed by random cleanses, or health kicks. We’re also pretty good at making each other cocktails, and, well, we went down the latter route this time. But I have been craving salad a lot, perhaps as a corrective, and especially those dotted with the drool-worthy stone fruits we’re wolfing down at the moment (none less than Henry, whose enthusiasm should strike fear into the stony hearts of peaches everywhere).
Salads are pretty low on fuss as far as dinners go: no hours of oven, reasonably few timing problems, accepting of stops and starts. These are all the qualities that drew me to Jeanne Kelley’s cookbook Salad for Dinner. You may well wonder why you would need recipes for salads, let alone an entire cookbook on the subject. I felt the same – isn’t the whole charm of the salad its accommodating nature, the fact you can toss this and that into a bowl and come up with a meal? This book proves that wrong on two scores. First: there are some really quite inventive dishes here, things you might not have thought to make into a form you would later characterize as a “salad”. That’s partly what really makes them dinner worthy and the book so much fun to read. Second: the dressings make all the difference. A drizzle of this oil, and dash of that herb: the dressings complement their ingredients just so, to heights that my regular oil-vinegar-seasoning combos don’t quite reach. The notion of salad isn’t typically, instinctively comforting but it got me back in the kitchen and, as always, the kitchen is where I find my ground again. Dinner by dinner.
Summer Chicken Salad with Peaches and Blackberries
Adapted from Salad for Dinner by Jeanne Kelley
For the marinade/chicken:
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 tbsp. hazelnut oil, or extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. honey
1 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1lb/500g boneless chicken breasts, ideally with skin (about 2 large or 3 small breasts)
For the salad:
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. minced shallot
12 cups mixed greens (see note below)
2 peaches, pitted and sliced
1 cup/1 punnet fresh blackberries
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts (I didn’t toast mine as I was rushing. Nobody died)
2 oz/50g blue cheese, crumbled
* I have thought about how to quantify 12 cups of salad for a non-US market and have decided that all you need to know is that you need enough salad greens for 4 people to make this recipe. Use your eye/judgment.
Start by marinading the chicken. Combine 2 tbsp. vinegar, 2 tbsp. oil, 1 tbsp. honey, the chopped thyme and 1/2 tsp salt in a small bowl or dish and stir to blend. Add the chicken breasts and coat in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
When you are ready to start the salad, preheat a stovetop grill pan or cast iron sauté pan to medium heat. Grill the chicken until browned and cooked through – this was about 6 minutes per side for my chicken breasts. Transfer to a cutting board to rest while you prepare the rest of the salad.
In a large bowl, combine 2 tbsp. vinegar, 1 tbsp. honey and 1/2 tsp salt. Slowly whisk in the 1/4 cup/60ml oil until well combined. Stir in the shallot. Add the greens, peaches, and blackberries to the dressing in the bowl and toss to combine. Divide among 4 plates.
Thinly slice the chicken and arrange atop the salad plates. Sprinkle the salads with the hazelnuts and cheese and serve.