A Decadent Chocolate Pudding Cake

March 31, 2012 § 4 Comments

It’s hard to focus on this post. 8 feet ahead of me are floor to ceiling windows revealing a classic winter wonderland: gusting snow settling in large clumps on the edges of tall pine trees clustered around wooden cabins, identical to the 60s-throwback one in which I sit and write. I’ve always found snow mesmerising. Growing up it mostly meant a day off school, and almost always a snowman with a carrot for a nose, pebbles for eyes and mouth, and an old scarf foraged from a parent’s drawer to keep him warm. The closest we got to skiing was hurtling down a hill on a tea-tray – not really that dissimilar in skill or grace from my snowboarding attempts these past years in California. Anyway, as I am with child I am not currently advised to continue my wobbly progress on the slopes for a little while at least. So I find myself with a blissfully quiet cabin by a roaring log fire, with two snoaring dogs for company. There’s a loaf rising for tomorrow morning’s bacon sandwiches, no-knead pizza dough finishing its slow, bubbly ferment. In the oven tomatoes slow-roast along with beets for a salad, and earlier I caramelized leeks with butter, onions with balsamic, and fried off some spicy Italian sausage. For now at least, I’m quite happy to potter at leisure, and get ready to feed the hungry masses when they return damp and flushed from the slopes.

If your normal routine is cooking for two, cooking for 6 or 8 or 10 for a weekend is actually a treat. You can make things that you just wouldn’t consider within your normal couple’s routine, either because of effort or through fear of eating leftovers of the same dish for a whole week. This is true on a whole other level when it comes to cake. Knowing well our lack of self-restraint, I rarely dare knock out, say, a cheesecake or chocolate roulade just for fun unless we are guaranteed to have company. We will eat the whole thing and then never want to eat it ever again, and that’s just too tragic an ending to any story involving cake.

So when a friend recently asked me to bring a dessert to a dinner party, I wanted to make something truly decadent, worthy of a spring gathering on a Saturday night. I did think about cheesecake, since it comes with the added benefit of requiring an overnight rest, reducing chances of total ruin or last minute panic. But, as it so often does, chocolate called to me. And when I came upon this recipe, serving 10-12, that basically combined a cheesecake base with a sinfully rich chocolate mousse style topping, and that came with a note suggesting it was better made the day before, I was sold.

You begin this cake as many good things in life should begin: the melting together of butter and chocolate. While they meld into dark glossy ribbons, you blitz or bash biscuits (of the English rather than American breakfast variety) into fine crumbs. The original recipe specifies digestive biscuits, a British ingredient if ever there was one, and I had intended to switch out graham crackers instead. But when I saw the bag of gingernuts on the shelf I was sold. I love ginger in all forms, not least combined with chocolate. The slight spice in the base gave the cake a subtle warmth as well as the characteristic gingernut chew. And then, as the base readies itself for the glorious next steps with a short rest in the fridge, you melt more butter and chocolate together, whip eggs, muscovado sugar and cream into a frothy delight, and then combine the two gently into an airy mousse-like batter which tops the base. With the coaxing of gentle heat from the oven, the batter rises proudly into a soft souffle, then cracks and sinks in perfect encouragement of a topping of mixed berries and cream. Call up your 8 best friends and get baking, stat.

Chocolate Pudding Pie
Adapted from The Green & Black’s Organic Ultimate Chocolate Recipes: The New Collection

Serves 10-12, with berries and cream

for the base:

80g/3oz/6 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
60g/2oz dark chocolate (70-80% cocoa solids)
225g/8oz gingernut biscuits

for the filling:

180g/6oz chocolate (Green and Black’s recommend 70%; I used mostly 63% as that was what I had in the house)
180g/6oz unsalted butter
4 large eggs
180g/6oz muscovado sugar (you can use soft dark brown sugar if you can’t get hold of muscovado – or don’t want the added expense)
180ml double cream

Preheat the oven to 180*C/350*F. Butter and line the base of a 9 inch round springform tin.

Begin by preparing the base. Set a small bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, being sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water (or use a double boiler if you have one). Place the chocolate and butter in the bowl and stir occasionally until just melted. While the chocolate is melting, blitz the gingernut biscuits in a food processor or with a blender. Alternatively you can put them in a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin, which can be satisfying on a bad day. Tip the crushed biscuits into the melted chocolate/butter and mix to combine well. Pour into the prepared tin, press down gently and evenly, and then place in the fridge to rest while you make the topping.

Melt the butter and chocolate for the topping in the same way as for the base, in a bowl over a simmering pan. Set to one side to cool. Combine the eggs, cream and sugar in a food processor or blender and mix together (or use a whisk). The next step is to combine the chocolate with the egg mix but you have to be very careful as the warm chocolate can curdle the eggs and cream. You can either wait until the chocolate is at room temperature or you can carefully temper the two together by mixing a spoonful of the egg mix into the chocolate and combining, then another spoonful and so on, until both mixes are roughly the same temperature. When the two are mixed together, return to the processor/blender/whisk and blend well.

Remove the base from the fridge and pour the chocolate batter over. Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, until firm. My cake took a lot longer – maybe 15 minutes longer – for the centre to bake through. It might be worth considering using a water bath to keep the cooking gentle and even – I will try that myself next time.

Remove the cake from the oven and cool for about 15-20 minutes in the tin. Remove to a wire rack for the cake to cool completely. At this point you can wrap it well in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge overnight, bringing it back to room temperature for eating. Top with mixed berries and serve with cream or creme fraiche.


Eating Weetabix Muffins for Two

March 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

I know there has been a run of cake posts on Cakesnail of late. I’m not apologizing – the clue is sort of there in the name already – but I will explain. I am pregnant. Knocked up, with child, preggers, up the duff, expecting. However you put it, my belly is swelling, along with my heart, and new life is forming, in the kind of way that completely blows your mind, however long you’ve had to process the idea of the birds and the bees, however many friends you’ve seen go through the same process. And I am hungry: not only for cake (the meat craving is a whole other story) but the cake and the baking thereof is sweeter than ever and I’ve been making the most.

Having a baby fits so smoothly into our life trajectories that it must be hard to from the outside to imagine that it wasn’t planned. 32, married for four years, in the middle of buying an apartment with an oh-so-perfect nursery-shaped third bedroom. But no-one was more surprised than me to see the little plus sign form instantly – decisively – on the plastic stick, even if in garishly clear hindsight all the signs were there to be seen, and not just the voracious baking. As the first week and all the testing passed, disbelief bumped up against relief, which met exhilaration and joy on the way out the door. And then, I thought, I am not ready for this.

When Ollie and I started going out (sorry, our child will be American and we must prepare: dating), we were on the cusp of graduating university (oops, there we go again: college), and in that sweet, surreal spot between the end of exams and the soon to dawn realization that the rest of life wasn’t quite so easy. Almost a full decade ago to the day, we spent our time much like babies: sleeping, making mischief, drinking, only the latter involved less nutritious imbibing than that of milk. Food wasn’t important to us, unless it was in some way an enabler of said drinking, whether by form of social excuse, or stomach-lining. I had discovered that Weetabix, made with hot milk and stirred into a mushy brown goop, was an excellent pre-partying food and my cupboards normally yielded not much more than the yellow box of those wheat biscuits. Thus it happened that one early evening we had over-napped and left ourselves with no time to procure food before the next party commenced. I waved the box at Ollie and asked if he wanted two or three biscuits. “Four!” was the bold response. We ate them, straight from a pan for minimal washing up, and went out on our merry way.

This, reader, is pretty much how I think of us still, underneath all the pretenses of adulthood. How can such people be trusted to sustain a new life? You can read the New Yorker and go to the symphony all you like (not that we’ll doing those things again for a while) but it’s all still one big piece of theatre in which we just happen to have been convincing enough actors that people have given us jobs, and mortgages, and invited us round for dinner parties. Yes, these are the neuroses that whir around in the 3 seconds between being excited and then being excited again, like the little subliminal flashes on a screen. Which is why these Weetabix muffins came into my life at just the right time. I found them in Dan Lepard’s wonderful book, while looking for something to bake that was also at least pretending to be nutritious enough for breakfast. I hadn’t thought of this story or of Weetabix for a long time but the recipe gave me a jolt of nostalgia and I picked up a box of the biscuits at the next possible opportunity. At the first opportunity I ate a couple just like I used to, albeit from a bowl this time, and the hot, malty mush was just as comforting as I remembered. And then came the muffins: a nice simple recipe which you could easily prepare the night before, mixing the dry ingredients into a large bowl and then combining the wet ingredients in a smaller bowl and refrigerating overnight. In the morning, you simply pour the wet mix over the dry, mix sleepily and pour into muffin cases, and stick in the oven before your last dream has even faded. They’re not too sweet, and the slight orange note from the zest and mild tang from the rye flour if you go down that route, makes them a good pairing with a strong, hot, milky cup of English breakfast tea for some reason. For such a playful recipe, they’re a pretty delicate, complex bun. And this is how I knew that something had changed after all. I bake muffins, for chrissake, and think about what kind of advance preparation might enable them to be easier in the morning. I take my Weetabix with tea, or juice, not washed down at 7pm with cartons of Don Simon sangria. And more than anything I’m excited about the idea of baking for three: of messy brunches and birthday cakes in the shape of numbers, and seeing someone else learn how to mix butter into sugar. I guess it’s going to be ok.

Weetabix Muffins
Adapted from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet

The original recipe yields 9 muffins. I made a half portion of the recipe and came out with 6 buns, probably a touch smaller than a regular muffin and with a less domed top as a result. It’s your call whether you want to make them on the larger or smaller side: if the former, make sure you fill your cases right up to the top.

75g Weetabix (4 biscuits)
100g/3.5oz raisins
100g/3.5oz plain/all purpose flour
100g/3/5oz wholemeal or rye flour (I used rye)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
100g/3.5oz soft light brown sugar
1 large egg
225g/8oz low fat plain yoghurt (I think I used full fat as that tends to be what I have around)
75ml milk
50ml sunflower oil
50g/2oz golden syrup (I subbed corn syrup here although Lyle’s Golden Syrup would be better if you did have it on hand)
zest of one orange

Heat the oven to 200*C/390*F and line a muffin tray with paper cases (see note above about yield). If you don’t have muffin cases in the house you can improvise by using parchment paper: cut into squares, crumple into a ball so they are more pliable, and then use to line the cases. They won’t quite hold their shape until you add the batter, but otherwise they are a very pretty alternative.

Crumble the Weetabix into a medium to large bowl (enough to hold the full total batter) and add the raisins. Sift or whisk together the flours, baking soda and powder, cinnamon and sugar. Add this to the Weetabix and raisins and mix together.

Beat the egg, yoghurt, milk, oil, syrup and orange zest together. At this point you could leave the wet mix in the fridge, well covered, overnight, and add to the dry mix in the morning for fast breakfast muffins. Otherwise pour the wet mix over the dry ingredients and stir them quickly and evenly together. Pour the batter immediately into the muffin cases, filling to the top if you want a domed muffin.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes until they are well risen and golden, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with an odd crumb sticking to it. Cool on a wire rack. The muffins are great warm or at room temperature; once cooled you can also freeze them and keep for 1-2 months.

A Simple Chocolate Chip Cookie

March 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

These cookies nearly didn’t make it to you. No-one needs another recipe for chocolate chip cookies, I pondered, without it having some kind of jazz to offer: giant in shape and skillet-baked, dough being left to rest for 36 hours, with bacon added. And then I reasoned that if I wanted a chocolate chip cookie that was plain, unadulterated, and ready to eat within half an hour, there was a decent chance that someone else out there might want that too. So here they are.

When it comes to all things food related, I often have a tendency for over-complication. I’ll opt to walk the extra five blocks to pick up the meat I want, or eschew three local pizza joints then stand in a long line elsewhere to satisfy a specific pie craving. Lots of my baking requires specific ingredients, which over time does lead to a very well-stocked baking pantry, but can be infuriating if all you desire is a sweet hit, right now.

The very joy of these cookies, then, is precisely that there’s nothing complicated or unusual about them. The chances are (if you bake semi-regularly) you’ll have all the ingredients on hand to knock these together. You can make them in a single bowl (washing up is one area of my life where I am very happy to keep things uncomplicated) and if you aren’t faffing around with a tripod and macro lens in between things, I reckon you could be eating them 30 minutes after walking into your kitchen and pulling out the mixer. That is, if you like your cookies fresh from the oven (if you don’t, you might as well stop reading now: this blog is not for you). The addition of the oats gives a nice chew to the cookie and a mild pretense of them being healthful (aside: where did this word “healthful” come from and why is it suddenly everywhere? What’s wrong with “healthy”? ). But as with any good chocolate chip cookie the raison d’etre is the chocolate itself so be sure to go ahead and choose whatever kind you personally like. Super dark, milk, somewhere in between, even white. These are your cookies: make them so. All that remains is to pour a glass of milk, put your feet up, and keep it simple, if only for once.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from The Green & Black’s Organic Ultimate Chocolate Recipes: The New Collection

Yields around 16 cookies

125g/1 stick unsalted butter (ideally at room temperature – I gave mine a cautious few blitzes in the microwave to soften it)
100g/1/2 cup caster/cane sugar
50g/1/4 cup muscovado or light brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
140g/1 1/4 cup plain/all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
75g/1 cup rolled oats
200g/1 1/4 cups chocolate chips (anything from 70% dark to milk, as per your preference. I used 63% Guittard chips)

The way I like to make these cookies is by putting the bowl of my stand mixer on a digital scale, taring it to 0, and then weighing ingredients directly into it. You start out weighing in the butter and sugars before beating, then beat in the egg and vanilla, then return the bowl to the scale, tare back to zero, add the flour, baking powder and salt right in there, tare again to zero, add the oats, return to the mixer and combine, then back to the scale and tare again before adding the chips. A recipe like this is one place where US style cups can be helpful as you don’t have to use this method (and having super precise ingredient measurements doesn’t really matter for cookie dough), but if you are using weights this method keeps things really simple and washing up at a minimum too. In a pedantic, over-complicated world you would sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl before adding, but honestly with cookies it doesn’t matter if you just add the dry ingredients straight to the bowl.

Preheat the oven to 180C/370F. Have a baking sheet to hand and lined with parchment paper.

Using a stand mixer or hand held electric mix (or wooden spoon), cream the butter and sugars together until light and creamy. Add the egg and beat to combine then add the vanilla and mix. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and oats and mix together. Add the chocolate chips and mix one final time to combine it all into a dough. Place the dough in the bowl in the fridge to firm up for 10 minutes. At this point you could also freeze the dough (or half of it) for another day, or wrap in plastic and keep in the fridge for 24-36 hours until ready to use.

Form balls of dough about the size of a small plum, roll them in your hands and then place on the baking sheet, pressing them lightly to flatten. This is quite a stiff dough so the cookies won’t spread a huge amount, but nonetheless leave an inch or so between each cookie to allow for some spreading. Place in the oven and cook for 15 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through for even baking if you like.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling. Eat warm or cold, with milk.

The Croissant Hunt

March 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was, the other week, in a cafe in the Mission that recently closed and re-opened under new ownership. We looked at the selection of baked goods in the cabinet and I casually remarked that their supplier must be the Devil’s Teeth bakery, since I recognized the carrot cake. Silence followed. Apparently it isn’t ‘normal’ to have an encyclopedic knowledge of your city’s pastry providers. So as I am not planning on being on Mastermind any time soon (“My specialist subject is the Baked Goods of San Francisco, Magnus”), I need some kind of outlet for this fanaticism, and I thought I might do a little series of posts on my favourite cakes and pastries as an adjunct to my (neglected) SF cafe listings.

First of all, I apologize to those not in San Francisco, for whom I imagine this array of delights could well be torturous (on the other hand, when you plan a visit to our lovely city, you’ll be all set!). I did try and siphon off these posts to a separate page, but it’s beyond my very limited technical capabilities right now. So enjoy the eye candy, and get your cake on, wherever you might be.

I’ve long harbored dreams about taking Viennoiserie classes and having croissants on demand at home, but my fantasies were quashed when I realized the class I was planning to take would teach me how to knock out a hundred or so pastries at a time. Even Ollie and I on a good day would not do justice to such a quantity. Not one to waste energy, or the opportunity to eat breakfast, I’ve since turned my attention in the direction of seeking out good croissants from the professionals. I like my pastries light, airy and flaky: not anemic but neither past the deep golden part of the colour spectrum. Since such treats are calorifically ‘rich’, I want to be sure that the croissant in question is worthy of the indulgence. I’ve mistakenly eaten dry, pale, lumpy specimens from hotel breakfast buffets that have left me feeling sullied and dirty: the ‘walk of shame’ of the pastry world. No more of that.

I had heard really good things about the croissant at Thorough Bread and Pastry, and decided to make the small trek there this past weekend to bring back samples. The bakery, which is by far the closest thing I’ve seen in California to a French boulangerie, was founded by the people running the San Francisco Baking Institute, the very home of the Viennoiserie course I have ogled in the past. Their French roots show through as soon as you cross the threshold from Church Street into the cafe. Counters gleam with fruit tarts, petite gougeres, decadent creamy eclairs. Baguettes line up in rows like soldiers behind the counter, begging to be united with a hefty dollop of brie. And the cafe itself has the kind of European charm that the trend for artisan interior design, usually featuring taxidermy or hunting paraphernalia, seems to have eschewed of late. There are small tables for two, slightly too close together, rather than the communal piece of hand-sanded wood. There are chairs with backs, of the kind your grandma might still have in her dining room, rather than metal high stools or benches. And although I didn’t head out back, there’s a cute little patio area, which looks perfect for discretely sweeping away all the crumbs you are going to create when you rip into your croissant.

I will keep you hanging no longer: this is, to the best of my knowledge and experience this far, the best croissant in San Francisco right now. You tear it open (croissants should always, for my money, be pulled apart by hand, never bitten into) and flakes drift down onto your plate as the perfectly soft interior reveals itself. A good croissant structure means that the dough breaks imperfectly as it stretches – this means that you should end up with a piece that hollows out a bit and a piece where the spongy interior has attempted to hold together. It’s a sign that the dough has the kind of springy structure which you desire. At the same time, the middle should be highly aerated, showing how the butter has puffed apart the layers. And the exterior should be a deep golden but not so much that is has become overly brown. The Thorough croissant ticks all these boxes perfectly. Douze Points to the French.

Thorough Bread and Pastry
248 Church Street San Francisco

A Marmalade Cake for Times of Change

March 6, 2012 § 2 Comments

There is change in the air this week. Each day brings a new tug-of-war. On one side the skin-warming sun, promising longer, lighter days ahead, teasing out the abandon of bare legs and sandals. On the other, the bracing breezes that keep us anchored to the reality of living in this part of the world, always lingering just behind one hill or another, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists and optimistic locals. I lug around layers to be donned or shedded depending on the victor of this battle between sun and wind, which changes by the hour. These are days in which we must be ready for the unexpected.

Change moves in on the domestic front too. A new apartment, a new neighborhood, a new stove; all beckon. Already we are preparing for the work of divesting ourselves of the piles of clutter that come to symbolize the three years in this one place, guiltily recycling dusty stacks of the New Yorker, shredding dated paperwork, avoiding the inevitable tackling of the boxes of nostalgic ephemera hiding under the stairs. I clip recipes from my food magazine stash as I go through them and the months ahead start to take the shape of fava bean and ricotta crostini, and Easter lamb pie, and thick slices of ruby-red tomatoes. We will need cakes and roasts to calibrate the oven, and hungry friends to warm the new spaces. An evening of decluttering becomes anticipation of sunny flavors, and colours, and gatherings to come.

Yet as much as I think ahead, the seas of change want to toss me to houses and kitchens past, with their indelible associations with specific recipes. The memory of the kitchenette of our first apartment still smells to me of jacket potatoes in the oven, waiting to be stuffed with tuna salad and eaten on breaks from a much-loathed evening job, each mouthful taking me precious seconds closer to having to return for hours of boredom. The brick-red kitchen of our first house is filled with the bustle of friends and scenes of bbqs with vodka jellies, first attempts at sponge cakes, and cozy evenings of sausages from the local butcher with roasted squash mash and cider gravy. And then there was the sunny yellow hub of the house we bought while tipsy on local ale and from which we emigrated, the place where I really learned to cook. It was where I devoured Nigel and Nigella, baking sticky butterscotch birthday cakes, honing the brownie obsession, turning out pastry from scratch, and discovering the orange marmalade loaf. Those days, those firsts, are long gone, but the recipes soldier on with us.

While change and nostalgia swim around us, the markets remain stubbornly citrus-hued, yielding piles upon piles of puckered fruits. I hadn’t thought of this delicate orange-scented cake for a while, nor of that kitchen, but the tussle between old and new and the ubiquitous piles of oranges conjures both up vividly and I rush to bake it. The sponge is a simple, light, pound-cake inspired recipe, enhanced by a generous dollop of thick-cut marmalade, and the zest and juice of an orange. But what makes this cake unforgettable is the thin crackle of orange icing that drizzles over the top, into the crevice in the middle, and down the sides in rivers. While certain occasions call for inch-high buttery frosting, declaring fun and frills ahoy, this is not a time for such extroversion. This cake, and these times, beg for the quiet reflection of icing from another time and place, from a small and dark Victorian house in England. When all around whirls with change, there is much comfort in looking back and eating a slice of such a cake.

Orange Marmalade Loaf Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries

175g/6 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
175g/6oz golden caster sugar/golden cane sugar
one large orange
3 large eggs, at room temperature
75g/2.5oz orange marmalade (I prefer thick-cut for this recipe but you can use either)
175g/6oz self-raising flour (*see conversion note from all purpose below)
100g/3.5oz icing/confectioners sugar
2 tbsp orange juice

*to convert all-purpose or cake flour into self-raising for this recipe, simply take 175g/6oz all purpose flour and add 2 1/4 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. Sift or whisk together well, and proceed to use this mixture in place of the self-raising flour. If you want to be pedantic about the measurements you can remove a tablespoon of the flour before you add the baking powder and salt to allow for the additional volume, but this recipe is forgiving enough for you just to add the extra ingredients.

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Line a 9×5 inch (25x11cm) loaf tin with parchment paper and set to one side.

Cream the butter and sugar together, using a stand mixer or hand-held electric whisk (back in the day I used to make this recipe with a wooden spoon, so don’t worry if you don’t have either of these – you will just get good arm tone!). It should become pale and fluffy. Grate the zest from the orange. Beat together the three eggs in a small bowl and then add gradually to the batter, keeping the mixer at a moderate speed, or adding gradually and beating well between each addition. If your ingredients were cooler than room temperature the mixture may well curdle – don’t worry if this happens. Beat in the marmalade and orange zest.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the flour with a large metal spoon or plastic spatula. Work firmly but gently and do not overmix: stop when the last trace of the flour has just disappeared. Finally, gently stir in the juice of half the orange. Spoon the mixture into the lined loaf tin and smooth the top. Place in the middle of the oven and bake for around 40-45 minutes, checking after about 35 by inserting a metal skewer into the centre of the loaf. The cake is ready when the skewer comes out clean, with perhaps a crumb or two sticking to it. Leave the cake to cool in the tin – the middle will sink slightly – and then remove to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

Sift the icing/confectioners sugar and add the orange juice gradually, mixing until it becomes a smooth, slightly runny consistency. Normally I am able to achieve this with the juice from the remaining half of orange from the main cake. If you make the icing too runny, just add a tiny bit more sugar until it is the right consistency. Drizzle the icing over the cake, letting it run over the sides, and leave to set.

The cake will keep wrapped in parchment paper and tin foil for 2-3 days. Once it becomes on the staler side, it is extremely good toasted and smeared with marmalade and served with a dollop of yoghurt.

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