Monday, May 9, 2011

Project Birthday Cake

I had come across this cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen's blog months ago, and decided that it would be the perfect way to celebrate my 25th birthday. The cake itself is a pink lady cake - it is basically a white cake batter with pureed strawberries added to make the batter slightly pink.

The recipe noted that you could add pink food coloring to give the cake more of a pink hue, but I kept it au naturale - I figure if I'm going to add food coloring, I could add it to any cake batter, so I would let the pink lady cake batter shine on its own.

The batter was used to make three individual cakes to be assembled into one massive cake. I realized in the course of this extravaganza that this was slightly too much batter to fit comfortably in my stand mixer, and had more than my fair share of batter overflowing onto the counter. After some trial and error though, everything got mixed in the mixer together and then into the pans and into the oven. Once the cakes were ready, they could be assembled into the three-tiered behemoth they were destined to be. In hindsight, it seems obvious that this would be an overwhelming amount of cake, but really, when else would justify making something so beautiful?

One thing to note is that in the original recipe, it instructs you to just layer the cooled cakes on top of each other - I did that this time around, but next time, I would probably take a serrated knife to level out the tops of the cakes so they would sit better, and maybe even to remove the slightly crispier sides if I was feeling ambitious. In between the layers of cake went Martha Stewart's Swiss meringue buttercream. I followed the recipe which made a full 9 cups, and I was left with quite a bit extra. Next time I would make only 2/3 of the recipe. Also, I followed Smitten Kitchen's instructions to use 2/3 of a cup of frosting between each layer and I even added some extra, but I still felt like it could have benefited from extra in-between frosting. In any case, I tinted a bit of frosting pink and decided to try my hand as piping for the first time. I was really excited at how it turned out.

Finally, I added some lovely sugar flowers in various colors that I had picked up from my favorite cake decorating store.

All in all, I was very proud of my first real celebration cake - I served it at a birthday tea party co-hosted with the IF, with so many yummy foods, I came home completely sated and then some. I enjoyed the subtle strawberry flavor of the cake, and I thought it paired well with the buttercream frosting. Between the dense cake and the rich frosting though, I was definitely feeling weighed down after eating my hefty slice, but I guess that is what birthdays are for. I have to say that after many years of bad birthday experiences, this was one of the best birthdays I have had in quite some time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Challah - A New Recipe

Ever since college I had my used my tried and true challah recipe that had served me well - it produced a nicely flavored dough with a medium crumb that I enjoyed very much. It happened this year that I committed to making challah for a Rosh Hashanah dinner, but wasn't sure that I would have time to bake it that day. In anticipating this conundrum, I came across a recipe for Stress-Free Challah, which intrigued me. Like the popular recipes for no-knead dough, this recipe involved mixing together a wet dough, letting it rise for 2 hours, then shaping and baking with no proofing required. It turned out that I would have time to make my usual recipe for the dinner, but the recipe lingered in my bookmarks list, especially since it had the potential for being so much easier. Finally, months later, I decided to make a test batch for some friends coming over for shabbat dinner. As it happened, by this time I had come across a recipe for no-knead challah on the King Arthur flour website that was slightly different, and I was conflicted about which to try. Fortunately, Couldn't Be Parve had already encountered this recipe herself and based on her comments, I decided to go with her recipe. I decided to mix the dough and let it rise on Thursday night and then set it in the refrigerator overnight until I was ready to bake it on Friday. Everything went smoothly, and I found the whole process indeed much less stressful than some of my prior challah baking experiences. The challah came out looking beautiful - with certainly less of a crumb than my usual recipe, but more of the rich egg-y texture that people enjoy. Being that it sat in the refrigerator overnight, it did have a bit of a fermented flavor, but I don't feel that that detracted in any way from its flavor.

The following week I made the challah for a large shabbat dinner, this time going through all of the steps of the recipe on Friday. Again, I ended up with beautiful challot. While I might still stick with my first recipe for some special occasions, I think this will be my new go-to challah recipe.

Daring Cooks April 2011 Challenge: Edible Containers

Renata of Testado, Provado & Aprovado! was our Daring Cooks’ April 2011 hostess. Renata challenged us to think “outside the plate” and create our own edible containers! Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote on your favorite from April 17th to May 16th at!

I did not submit my creations to the contest, but you're still welcome to vote if you so desire.

I was at first a little daunted by the idea of constructing an edible container, but couldn't help but be inspired by all of the creations other Daring Cooks came up with and posted. I ultimately decided to make pierogies, which then led to the making of blintzes, and one could say that both of these may or may not technically count as edible containers, but I understand each of them to be sufficient for the challenge. After all, the pierogies do consist of a potato and cheese filling encased in a pasta-type wrapper and the blintzes a cheese filling in a crepe wrapper. So, that settles that.

The story goes that I had been wanting to make the pierogies for a while after coming across a recipe in the Daring Kitchen archive. I was taking some time off from working for spring break, and I made it a goal for the week to make the pierogies. After setting out on a mission to find farmer's cheese, I readied for the cooking action. As it happened, I ended up having a guest chef keeping me company in the kitchen for the evening (his idea), which is a whole other story.

In short, the pierogies took A LOT of time. Kneading the dough could have been a good first date bonding experience, but rolling the dough to 1/8 inch thick, which I took charge of, was not so much. I was definitely breaking a sweat in my 50 degree kitchen. After we got them cut and stuffed, there was still boiling and then frying to do. While I had the dough ingredients ready to go in a bowl and the filling almost mixed, it still took a solid 3 hours before we made it to the dinner table. By that time I was exhausted and my guest was probably a little worn out too.

In the end, the pierogies looked good, but only tasted OK. I felt like they needed a more flavorful filling, and I didn't really see the benefit of making them from scratch over buying some of the frozen. So I guess you could say it was a disappointing evening in many ways.

At this point, I was left with half a container of farmer's cheese, and I certainly wasn't whipping up another batch of pierogies. After some searching, it seemed like cheese blintzes would be the appropriate use for the cheese, which conveniently also fit with the edible container theme. This time I cooked solo, and it was a much more enjoyable experience. Of course, the blintzes take much less time and are much less labor intensive - I mixed up the batter in the blender and made the crepes (who knew I could do make crepes?!?), wrapped them (my technique could use a little work, but I'll get the hang of it eventually), fried them, and topped them with blueberry sauce, and a satisfying dinner was had by all (me).

Not having been much of a cheese blintz eater over the years, I can't say how these would compare with frozen blintzes or other recipes, but I thought the whole package was pretty fantastic. The flavor of the filling was mild, but it was complemented nicely by the blueberry sauce.

So in conclusion: I don't plan on making pierogies again, I would like to make blintzes again, and I don't plan on cooking with or otherwise seeing the guest chef again. But I guess that's what trying out recipes, and men, for that matter, is for.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake: Daring Bakers March 2011 Challenge

The March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake.

When I first saw the challenge, I couldn't help but think to myself how this recipe bore a striking resemblance to the December Daring Bakers challenge of Stollen, at least in appearance, anyway. Fortunately for me, it was a lot more up my alley. The recipe itself reminded me of a babka - a yeasted rich dough filled will chocolate and cinnamon sugar - except that this recipe yielded a wreath-shaped cake and was also filled with a layer of meringue.

The IF and I gathered early on a Sunday morning to take on this recipe. We began by mixing up the dough and letting it rise, which was a fairly painless process. The recipe aptly instructed that we were to, "...knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, sexy and elastic." While I have heard dough described as elastic, and maybe even soft and smooth, sexy is not how I usually think of dough. The thing was, that our dough really did seem sexy - we couldn't keep our hands off it! We watched as our dough went through all the phases of maturity - unformed childhood, awkward adolescence with bulges and bumps all over the place, the shaggy frat boy stage, and finally, sexy and smooth. Once we set up the dough to rise, we began prepared the fillings: meringue, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate chips.

When the sexy dough had risen, we separated it into two, one for the IF - Hugo, and one for me - Bill (or Javier, depending on who you ask). The IF and I rolled out Hugo and Bill, respectively, and filled them with a layer of meringue, then the cinnamon sugar, and then the chocolate chips.

Rolling them up proved to be the biggest challenge of the day - first into a log and then into a wreath - as the meringue was bursting through the rolled dough. Fortunately, everything came together after baking. After another rise and an egg wash, it was into the oven for Hugo and Bill and what came out were two beautiful browned coffee cakes. Below, first Hugo and then Bill.

We couldn't wait to taste, and cut some slices of Hugo while he was still warm. In short, the coffee cake was very tasty. On the pieces we tried, no meringue remained after baking, but instead left a pleasant moistness throughout the cake where it had been.

Overall, I thought the recipe made a very nice dough that was fairly easy to prepare. The IF and I spent a lot of time entertaining ourselves while the dough was rising, but this could be a very nice cake to make while also preparing other foods or taking care of tasks around the house. While we stuck to the traditional fillings provided as part of the recipe, I could definitely see trying out different fillings and making this again for a tea party. Yum! I'm off to eat some more cake!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ceviche: Daring Cooks March 2011 Challenge

Kathlyn of Bake Like a Ninja was our Daring Cooks’ March 2011 hostess. Kathlyn challenges us to make two classic Peruvian dishes: Ceviche de Pescado from “Peruvian Cooking – Basic Recipes” by Annik Franco Barreau. And Papas Rellenas adapted from a home recipe by Kathlyn’s Spanish teacher, Mayra.

While the Papas Rellenas looked very tasty, I just wasn't able to find the drive to make it this past month. Hopefully, I will find an occasion to make it sometime soon. As it was, since only one of the two recipes was required, I went with the ceviche.

I had made ceviche before, and in fact, after having some amazing ceviche at Oyamel in Washington, DC, went on a ceviche recipe search several months ago. Not finding much online, I discovered two cookbooks: Ceviche! and The Great Ceviche Book. For this challenge, I decided to go with the recipe provided. I visited my fish monger to pick an appropriate fish and went with the mahi mahi, since that was what he recommended based on the criteria that it be boneless and fresh. I am torn about the use of the raw fish in the ceviche with regard to parasites - I am very averse to using defrosted fish, but I'm at a loss as to where to find sushi-grade fish that would be suitable for ceviche. As it is, I took my chances, and I still seem to be doing OK.

I liked how in this recipe all the marinade ingredients were combined and then tossed with the fish and the sliced red onions were placed on top only for the marinading process - I find they give the ceviche too harsh of a flavor when diced and added to the marinade. Since the recipe made enough for two pounds of fish, and I am only one person, I cut down the recipe by quite a bit and saved some extra marinade to make another serving another day with fresh fish. In hindsight, I should have set the extra marinade aside before added the cilantro, since it didn't hold up very well already mixed with the other ingredients.

All in all, I thought it was a tasty ceviche recipe, and I look forward to having ceviche again in the near future.


This post has been a long time coming, but better late than never. I had come across a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for "baklasagna," a lasagna made with fresh pasta rolled so thin that you would end up with thousands of layers (or at least seven, anyway) of lasagna goodness (like layered baklava). Excited about the recipe, I invited over my friend Rebecca (responsible for the beautiful pictures - a much better photographer than I am), and her roommate Jeanna to assist in the baklasagna preparation and to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Being up for only so much manual labor, we used prepared fresh pasta sheets, and rolled them through the pasta machine to get them as thin as possible. For our lasagna fillings, we made a tomato sauce with fresh basil, sliced up some fresh mozzarella, and since I had chard from my summer CSA, we sauteed it up with some garlic and olive oil and combined it with some ricotta and parmesan.

Then the assembly began. Following Smitten Kitchen's example, we didn't boil the pasta first, and it came out fine. I think we ended up with 11 layers or so of sauce, fresh pasta, chard-ricotta, and mozzarella.

Once the lasagna was ready to go, into the oven it went...

...And out it came! In all its cheesy, saucy, chard-y glory.

I really enjoyed the silky texture of the baklasagna as compared to a typical lasagna, although I'll admit that it also sat a lot heavier than a typical vegetable lasagna. And the chard was wonderful in place of my usual spinach - I will definitely seek it out for my next lasagna endeavor. All in all, it was a scrumptious dinner and a great time with friends. And a big thank you goes to Rebecca for the great photos - hopefully she'll join me again sometime soon and I'll have more enticing picture to share :)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Florentines & Panna Cotta: Daring Bakers February 2011 Challenge

The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.

After the prior month's outrageous baking challenge, I was happy to have some recipes that were a little bit more fool proof and low stress. At least, so I thought.

I had been wanting to make panna cotta for a while - for the prior month's challenge I had made a yogurt mousse using a vegetable-based gelatin, and I was excited to try this newly-discovered product in other recipes. As it happened, I was already planning on making a panna cotta for a friend's dinner get-together later in the week the challenge was posted. I had found a recipe for a buttermilk panna cotta, which I thought would have a nice tangy flavor.

Already being versed in the peculiarities of the veggie gelatin, I re-wrote the recipe in a way that I thought would work with its particular needs. I began by heating cream, lemon peel, and sugar in a small saucepan - sure, the recipe called for a medium saucepan, but I didn't think that would be necessary. The procedure said to bring it to a boil, so I let it do its thing on the stove while preparing the gelatin with my back turned. Next thing I knew, gushing sounds were coming from the stove top, and a billowing mess of frothy cream was everywhere. Fortunately, it provided a good reason for cleaning the stove and an even better educational experience of learning how to open the stove top for cleaning. Also, fortunately, I had some extra cream, so I could still proceed on my panna cotta mission.

To that end, I softened the gelatin and added it to the cream mixture and brought everything to a boil. It was at this point that the mixture should normally be cooled before the buttermilk and vanilla are added so that the buttermilk doesn't curdle. However, since the veggie gelatin is quick-setting, I had to act fast. I decided standing outside whisking it for a few minutes would be good enough. And then instead of adding the buttermilk and vanilla to my cream mixture, I added it to them (remember the small saucepan instead of the large one?). In any case, I mixed it all up and found that I had a quite a mess on my hands. It appears that the cream-gelatin mixture had already started to set so that once I added it to the buttermilk, I had chunks of gelatinous cream floating in a sea of purple buttermilk (due to the addition of the vanilla). I hoped that this would remedy itself as it set, and so I set the mixture in the refrigerator and crossed my fingers. There may have been someone I was trying to impress at the dinner I was attending, so I was going for a crazy amazing dessert, not a lumpy, watery, purple, mess.

I meticulously checked on the panna cotta and wiggled its pan throughout the following hours, and only got more and more worried as no signs of cohesion could be detected. I headed out for the afternoon and came back to an unchanged unfortunate panna cotta disaster. There is no evidence of this first attempt - consider yourself spared.

Fortunately for me, I had prepared for this and picked up the ingredients for the florentines on the way home. I decided to cut my losses on the panna cotta, and go for my attempt at dessert number two of the day. The florentines were easy enough to mix up, though the actual baking of the cookies took quite a bit of time. However, being in a frustrated baking state and nervous about how things at the dinner would go, maybe it was best I had something to focus on. I packed up the baked cookies and chocolate chips and headed to my friend's place for dinner to assemble them.

The cookies turned out wonderful, and everyone at the party enjoyed them, including the guy I was trying to impress. I had tried florentines before from Whole Foods and gave up before I finished the box, but these were way better.

I finished the panna cotta saga this past evening with the IF. We fashioned a panna cotta smackdown. In one corner, a panna cotta with agar agar, coconult milk, and yogurt...

...and in the other corner, Giada's recipe using the veggie gelatin.

The winner? I vote for Giada's recipe, but I'd add some vanilla, lemon, peel, and use less gelatin next time. The first panna cotta tasted mostly like thick yogurt to me - we added some berry sauce to make it more tasty. Overall, I found the veggie gelatin panna cotta to be quite smooth, while the IF reported small bits of agar agar that remained in its panna cotta - otherwise, I think both would work well, although the agar agar might be better to use in another attempt at a buttermilk panna cotta. Also, good to know, both panna cottas set much faster than traditional varieties - in only about an hour or so.

On a more personal note, in case anyone was wondering, I'll report that cookies can't buy you love. But then, would I really want to date someone who'd only want me for my cookies? No, no I would not.