Tuesday, December 28, 2010

hannah's triple chocolate cheesecake

I have to say, Harry Potter land did not deter me from my everyday routine of (1) playing the piano for hours on end, and (2) baking. It helps that the last of the three December birthdays was on the 26th, and so I knew that the first thing I would have to do as soon as I got home would be to bake Hannah a belated birthday cake.

Cheesecake, this time. Chocolate cheesecake. Really, really rich, triple chocolate cheesecake. Oreo crust, dark, milk, and white chocolate layers, chocolate sauce topping, and crushed walnuts. I feel a sugar headache coming on just thinking about it.

We spent all of yesterday driving home from Orlando. It ended up being a 15-hour car drive [we got delayed for an hour in traffic, and had some minor car issues in the morning that resulted in us needing to replace the rear two tires], and we snacked on fast food, granola bars, and apples. It was very strange ordering 6-piece nuggets from McDonalds, knowing full well that they're made out of more corn product than actual chicken, and my tummy is still suffering the after effects.

In all honesty, though, they were...really good. In that "I'm seriously going to regret this later" kind of way. But I can't lie and tell you that I did not thoroughly enjoy those deep-fried, extremely sketchy, "chicken" nuggets. Our diet starts tomorrow, though, right? Right.

Anyway, we got home by 9:30, regaled our parentals with extensive details of our trip for a good hour, and then crashed. I was woken up far too early for comfort though, and realized that I must have not turned off my cell's alarm for 5 am from the day before.

Not so. It went off at 9, which is when I intentionally set it, so that I'd have enough time to bake. I don't think many people would set an alarm to wake up to bake a friggin cake. 

As much as I wanted to bury myself in my comforters and keep sleeping for an additional 10 hours, I dragged myself out of bed, brushed my teeth, softened some cream cheese, and got to work.

To be fair, I make this all sound as though it was a chore. On the contrary, having to wake up 'early' in order to bake a cake is totally fine by me. Plus, I wasn't even sure this was going to work out well. Cheesecake is typically a two-day affair, because it has to chill so that the filling sets appropriately. But Hannah loves cheesecake, so I knew from the start that this is what I was going to bake. And although I was originally planning on having more than 4 hours to bake it, it turned out fine in the end.

But this isn't something I recommend. In fact, I'd suggest you bake this the day before you plan on serving it, just so you aren't rushing or stressing. Stress is the worst way to go about making a cheesecake. It will just fall apart. [I have a theory that baking is highly responsive to whatever emotional state you're in when you go about it. Don't ask.]

This particular cheesecake has 4 components: (1) an Oreo crust, (2) a dark chocolate layer, (3) a white chocolate layer, and (4) a milk chocolate layer. The chocolate ganache topping I used is totally optional, but a nice touch.

Triple Chocolate Cheesecake

For the Oreo crust, you'll need:
  • about 24 Oreo cookies, fillings discarded [meaning approximately 48 individual wafer discs]
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted

For the filling, you'll need:
  • 3 8-oz packages of cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 3 eggs
  • 8 oz [about 1 cup] sour cream
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 4 oz white chocolat
  • 4 oz dark [60%] chocolate

For the chocolate ganache, you'll need:
  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp light corn syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Use a food processor to grind Oreo cookies into fine crumbs. Pour melted butter into crumbs and mix with a fork. Pour crumbs onto the bottom of the pan. Use your fingers to spread the crust evenly across the pan. Set aside.

To prepare filling, beat cream cheese on medium speed until creamy. Add sugar and cornstarch and blend. Add eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. Add sour cream and vanilla and mix until well-blended. Set aside.

Separately, melt chocolates and pour into three large bowls. Divide filling evenly among the three bowls. Stir filling into the melted chocolate mixture until uniform. Pour dark chocolate filling over the Oreo crust. Use a spatula to even it out. Gently pour the white chocolate filling over the dark chocolate and spread evenly. Repeat with the bittersweet chocolate.

Bake cheesecake for 50-60 minutes, until center has set. Check doneness by poking center with a toothpick. Let cool completely, until cake is at room temperature. Cover the top of the cake [which should still be in the pan] with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight, before removing cake from the pan. Decorate as desired, or serve as is.

If desired, drizzle chocolate sauce over top of the cheesecake. To prepare sauce, melt chocolate with heavy cream and corn syrup. Stir until well combined. Let cool slightly, 4-5 minutes, before using on cheesecake. Drizzle right before serving.  

Okay, so, I have some confessions to make regarding this recipe. First of all, the recipe I used was to make triple chocolate cheesecake bars. Meaning, it was to be baked in an 8-inch square pan. But, I could not locate our square pan, so I went with the 9-inch springform and decided to just make a cake. However, if you prefer, you can absolutely turn this into a bar dessert recipe; just bake it in an 8-inch square pan and cut it into rectangles once it has set.

Secondly, when I poured the bittersweet chocolate batter on top of the white chocolate batter, it basically sank into the white chocolate filling. Did not make for three distinct layers. Initially, I was distraught. Really distraught. Then I realized I had some white chocolate batter left in the bowl, so I just did a white chocolate swirl on top. Perfect. The initial intent was completely masked by the epic fail that was the bittersweet chocolate sinking into the white chocolate, but whatever. It turned out alright.

Thirdly, I did not use a water bath. Now, you should always use a water bath when baking a cheesecake, as this prevents cracks from forming. [The way to go about baking cheesecake in a water bath is using a pan that is large enough for the springform to fit inside, filling it halfway (in regards to halfway up the sides of the springform pan) with warm water, and baking it in that. This makes sure the cheesecake bakes evenly throughout, and greatly decreases the likelihood of cracks forming.] Anyway, the reason I didn't use the waterbath was because I had already decided I was going to do chocolate sauce and crushed walnuts on top. [Also, I'm really lazy.]

Oh man. This was sweet. Like, ridiculously sweet. We cut pretty tiny slices [I'd say about 1/16 of the cake], and upon finishing I was feeling a sugar headache coming on. It was really good, though. But, I'd have to say, I'd only recommend it if you're a big fan of cheesecake and a huge fan of chocolate. It is the chocoholic's dream cheesecake. But for someone without much of a sweet tooth...I foresee it going badly.

Luckily, Hannah is both a cheesecake-lover and a chocoholic. And she really enjoyed it. Cake #3: Success!

Hm. This was the first cheesecake I've made in a long while. As much as I adore cheesecake, I still haven't discovered a recipe that I'm in love with. This one was pretty damn good, not gonna lie, but a bit too rich for me to fully enjoy it. Maybe mascarpone cheese is the answer? Or ricotta? I haven't done much with ricotta or mascarpone in the ways of cheesecake, so that's something to look into...

In other news, apparently Tom Felton [i.e. Draco Malfoy] visited Harry Potter World today.

Really? Today? One day after we leave? 

When I heard, I almost cried. I kid you not. Imagine, I could have been kickin' it with Draco, Ravenclaw scarf and all, drinking Butterbeer and riding roller coasters.

The incredulity and utter irony of the situation blows my mind.

Though, I suppose, I was lucky enough for the opportunity to go at all. And it was magical. And that's more than enough.

[But, I mean, really?]

omnomnoms in orlando

Oh, I just love cheesy alliteration. -facepalm-

Anyway, Sunday was our last day in Orlando. And we didn't go to Universal Studios! [We figured that having spent a collective 30 hours there in three days was enough for one trip, and it was pretty frigid outside.]

inside the Piazza Italia on Park Ave
So we returned to Park Avenue for lunch. Well, that was the plan, anyway. There ended up being some major traffic so we spent more time in the car than actually walking around Park Ave.

But, the main point of this post is to convince you to visit Park Avenue in Downtown Orlando if you're ever in the area, because they have got some serious omnomnoms there.

Like I said in my enormous rant about Hogwarts, we had previously gone to Paris Bistro for lunch, located in the Piazza Italia. I'm not quite sure why there was a Parisian restaurant in the so-called Italian plaza, but nevertheless. It was delicious.

Yusra with the Poulet Roti Sur Pain Toaste at Paris Bistro
When we came back on Sunday, I really wanted to try something new. So we went to a little place called Spice Modern Steakhouse. It's so funky and mod inside, kind of like how I anticipate my future bakery/world-famous cafe (-snort-) will be. They had a really diverse menu, surprisingly. Sandwiches, soups, salads, yadda yadda, but also steak and sushi. Very classy. Not terribly expensive. And the food tastes as good as it sounds.

I'm really glad that at this point none of my family is fazed by me busting out an enormous camera whenever we go out to eat.

The four of us ordered their Baked Brie en Croute as a starter, and it was divine. Basically a puff pastry filled and baked with brie inside, served with fresh fruit, almonds, crackers, and strawberry preserves. And for lunch Yusra and I both ordered the French Dip sandwich, with a side of garlic pesto fries. GARLIC PESTO FRIES. DIPPED IN HOUSE-MADE MARINARA SAUCE. I was blown away by the ingenuity of the idea.

I mean, after this meal, I'm literally planning out a life revolving around moving to Downtown Orlando just so I can come eat here every day.

After walking for a while [and returning to the Tea & Spice Emporium to stock up on some plum caramel tea leaves], we went by Kilwin's Ice Cream, Fudge, and Chocolate shop for some homemade ice cream. Toasted coconut and cappuccino chocolate chunk, to be exact. Even though it was below 40 degrees outside, I had been craving some real ice cream [as opposed to soft-serve, which is the only thing they serve at Universal], and so ordered some. I was basically shivering for a good hour afterward, but it was worth the pain. That toasted coconut was probably the best ice cream I've ever had. I kid you not. [It helps that I'm extremely partial to coconut, but what the hey.]

I really wish we had had more time to browse Park Ave. It's quite a long strip of some of the cutest local shops and restaurants I've ever seen. Definitely pay it a visit if you're ever in the area. We had also gone to a really adorable Thai restaurant, Napasorn Thai, our first night in Orlando; not on Park Ave, but Downtown on Pine Street.

world's largest Hard Rock Cafe
Aside from Downtown, Universal CityWalk has a surprising amount of pretty good restaurants. Apparently, the world's largest Hard Rock Cafe is located in Universal Studios, which I found both surprising and really awesome, since I do love me a good burger every now and again. And Hard Rock is the place for good burgers. So we dropped by for lunch on Saturday. It was a good decision. For dinner we went to Pastamore, an Italian restaurant also located at Universal CityWalk. Great bread and olive oil, chicken marsala, and strawberry cheesecake [yes, that was my meal]. They also had a pizza margherita I was curious to try, though I was in the mood for some meat at the time so I decided against it. Ah, so many tough decisions in life...

I think that's it on the food front. Of course the parks themselves are filled with [overpriced] dining locations, so it was really a non-issue to find food. I was a huge fan of the abnormally large smoked turkey legs. Also, the Lost Continent in Islands of Adventure is home to the supposed #1 theme park restaurant, 6 years in a row, Mythos. We had been planning on eating dinner there during one of our trips to the park, but the wait line was about an hour, and impatience got the best of us [and anyway, Pastamore was a good alternative]. But I took a glance at the menu while we were in the area, and it looked pretty good. Lots of really interesting dishes; blueberry and pistachio crusted pork, imported pasta, Pad Thai, and the view itself of the restaurant [both inside and out] is absolutely beautiful. Almost as if it's located in a cave behind a waterfall. If I go back to Universal, I'm definitely going to try and check it out.

But at this point, I'm quite sure that I've bored you enough with my disturbingly enthusiastic rants about food!

And anyway, I still have Harry Potter on the brain. Ugh. I'm not kidding. As we were leaving the park I'm pretty sure my eyes started tearing up [though whether that was from the wind or overwhelming emotion, I'm not sure. Likely both.]. I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

I could seriously go for some Butterbeer right now. Or maybe a Cornish pastie. Or another ride on the 'Dragon Challenge.' Hell, I'll even wait in line for an hour [again] to go buy a cauldron cake.

...This is truly sad.

Friday, December 24, 2010

♫ merry christmas, ring the hogwarts bell

I've been MIA the past few days, which is understandable, seeing as I've been in Orlando. At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, to be precise.

Yes. Harry Potter World.

I've been waiting for this for about 6 months.

I'm not kidding.

In fact, I almost had a massive panic attack when we stepped foot into Hogsmeade because I was so excited.
I'm still here, actually. We'll be heading back on the 27th, but it's been a really amazing trip as of now. Four-day tickets to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, along with checking out some of downtown Orlando, has made for an exciting two days so far. I'm also falling in love with the city. It's much cleaner and quainter than I thought it would be [and a nice contrast to Richmond].

We checked out a Parisian joint for lunch [not really authentic, but some of the menu items had French titles and it was called 'Paris Bistro', so, what the hey], and it was so cute. Made me want to live downtown forever.

open-face salmon sandwich for lunch today
We strolled down Park Avenue for a while, since the weather was so gorgeous and it was so adorable, and came across the best tea and spice store [aptly called 'The Spice & Tea Exchange'] I've ever been in. Picked up some coconut Oolong for myself, and I can't wait to go home and brew some.

But I won't bore you with tales of the city. I'm here to entertain you with tales of Hogwarts.

left: giant lollipops from honeydukes; right: authentic pumpkin juice

In short, it is epic. They've done a phenomenal job with the place. Hogwarts castle itself is really well done; you can't enter it aside from the 'Forbidden Journey' ride [which is amazing, by the way], but the real focus of the area is Hogsmeade village. And it is, for lack of better words, and pun entirely intended, magical.

We visited it for the fist time yesterday, and, like I said, I almost cried tears of joy. Snow-topped roofs, buildings of all shapes and sizes clustered together cozily, cobblestone streets, Butterbeer stands around every corner, familiar shops, British accents. It is perfection.

Our first stop was, of course, Honeydukes Sweets. Which, upon entering, you find out is combined with Zonko's Joke Shop. It was delightful. And colorful. And delicious.

inside honeydukes sweet shop
It was also packed. There was actually a line to enter. A line to enter a store. Only at Harry Potter World would I spend 45 minutes waiting in line to enter a store. But even so, the wait is entertaining, because each window display [of which there are many] is filled to the top with familiar treats from the books, and I stood there reminiscing, mostly to myself, out loud, about the significance of each and every thing in each and every window.

I felt what I assume 7-year-olds feel when they unwrap Christmas presents. Times a hundred.

Of course, I had to buy something. So I went with a cauldron cake. Which was delicious, might I add. Mustafa bought a pack of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans [and, let me just say, they were all fine up until I got sausage, ear wax, and rotten egg, all of which made me want to spit the crap out right there in the street and cut my tongue off], Murtaza got a chocolate frog, and Yusra picked up some pumpkin juice.
chocolate frog with a helga hufflepuff wizard card
Zonko's was quite cute as well, though I didn't end up purchasing anything from there. The cauldron cake was pricey enough as it was [only at Harry Potter World would I willingly spend obscene amounts of money on overpriced souvenirs and treats]. So we bought our goodies, made our way back outside, picked up some Butterbeer, plopped down along the wall next to the Three Broomsticks, and enjoyed.
Ah, yes, Butterbeer [capitalization necessary]. Where do I begin? It is incredible. I didn't really know what to expect, in terms of quality, especially because I've tried [and epically failed] to make up my own butterbeer [not capitalized] recipe. I'm still not quite sure how they make theirs, but it tastes like carbonated butterscotch with a cream soda foam on top. It is just so good. Not too sweet, either, which I think is very important. Surprisingly filling, though. And it seems to warm you up from the inside, despite it being unheated. We got ours in little souvenir mugs, so I'll spend a good chunk of next semester trying to duplicate this recipe and serve it to myself in my little 'Butterbeer' mug. 
Then, Ollivander's Wand Shop. Boxes, upon boxes, upon boxes of wands. The room that we were in [after waiting in line outside for about 70 minutes] was dark as night, and combined with Ollivander's soft-spoken, whimsical voice, it was a somewhat surreal experience. It would have been more surreal if he had selected me instead of Joey up there to give a wand out to, but still enjoyable. After his little skit, we got to browse his shop, which is combined with Dervish and Banges.

So many souvenirs! And so many wands! You have the option of purchasing a character wand, which are designed to mirror the wands used by specific characters in the movies, or you can give your birth month and date to a wizard who uses a Celtic calendar to select your wand. So, of course, we all opted for our own unique wands.

Needless to say there will be a lot of wizards' duals happening in the near future.
the three broomsticks, where we enjoyed a dinner of fish & chips, rotisserie chicken, and cornish pasties
I also picked up a gold-plated Time Turner necklace. Basically, I saw this thing, my eyes went as wide as saucers, and I knew I had to have it. Like my life depended on it. Ever since reading Prisoner of Azkaban 10 years ago, I've thought that a Time Turner would be the single most useful item ever created. And have longed for one. Think of all the useless classes I could take for the fun of it! [Politics of Food conflicting with Stats? PSHAW.].

Ahem. Sorry about that. There are few things that I am disturbingly passionate about. Harry Potter happens to be one of them.
Throughout the day, a bunch of Hogwarts students will put on performances, and over the course of our visit, once our feet were about ready to fall off, we plopped down at this little pavilion to watch. We ended up watching two: The first was of four Hogwarts students [and two toads] singing a bunch of tunes. Two were actual instrumental soundtrack pieces from the movies, and the other two were lyrical. All four were really good; the students had incredible voices, which meshed well with the toads'. Definitely a different take on acapella from what I've heard in the past.

The second performance was of the Wizarding School Spirits, i.e. the lovely ladies of Beuaxbatons and the proud sons of Durmstrang.
Both groups did a really stellar job, particularly the Durmstrang boys' dance/gymnastics routine. And had they been selling the Beauxbaton's robes anywhere in Hogwarts, I would have bought a pair in a millisecond. It was a really pleasant break, watching both performances in the gentle breeze of the Florida winter. My feet were highly appreciative, as well.

Like I said before, our first day at Hogwarts was really crowded. Like, hardly-enough-room-to-move crowded. Today, though, there was significantly less traffic. Likely because it's Christmas Eve and lots of people are off visiting family, and it was really peaceful at the park. We drove over late in the afternoon and stayed until after dark, which was quite a treat because all the Christmas lights and lampposts brightened the night. And my new Ravenclaw scarf kept me warm enough when the chill set in.
We'll likely be going back to the parks tomorrow and the day after, at least for a while. We haven't actually been to Universal Studios yet, as we've spent all our time at Islands of Adventure [at which 80% of our time has been devoted to Harry Potter World], so we'll check out the other park, eat at Hard Rock, possibly take a hot air balloon ride, and wander about in the warm weather before heading back up north.

As a side note, those enormous turkey legs that I'm sure you've seen showcased on some Food Network holiday special [because I like to think that I'm not the only person who does this] are actually really tasty. And enormous. But really tasty. If you come down to Universal or Disney World at some point, get one. It will not disappoint.

Aaaand now that I've ramble for far too long about my little vacation, I will end this unnervingly lengthy post.
Ugh. A part of me sort of wants to visit Harry Potter World all the time. And by 'a part of me' I mean 'all of me', by 'sort of' I mean 'desperately', by 'to visit' I mean 'live in', and by 'all the time' I mean 'forever'.

Maybe if I wish real hard, the Time Turner can take me back. Right? Right.

Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, ring the Hogwarts bell
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, cast a Christmas spell
How wondrous the ways of Christmas
Have a Merry Christmas Day
Move around the sparkling fire
Have a Merry Christmas Day

Happy holidays, everyone! I hope it's a magical time of year for all of you, too.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

nitya's strawberries and cream birthday cake

It's birthday season. Not kidding. Three of my closest friends [read: girls I've grown up with since the fourth grade] have December birthdays. What does that mean for me?

Lots of baking. Saturday last was Noosh's raspberry chocolate cake with bittersweet raspberry ganache. Definitely a winner. I set a personal goal to make the other two just as good.

Today was Nitya's twentieth. Nitya is...somewhat picky, dessert-wise. Well, maybe picky isn't the right word. She's just not the biggest fan of desserts, in general. I had her give me a list of her likes and dislikes, in terms of what she'd want for a cake. It was quite the list. I do recall that among the 'dislikes' was cilantro, though. [Needless to say, there was no cilantro in your cake, Nitya. Breathe a sigh of relief.] But she does love strawberries. So that served as the theme. [Not unlike her layered angel food cake with lemon curd and strawberry jam two years ago. But no lemon curd this time.]

White cake layered with vanilla cream and strawberry jam, with a whipped cream frosting, topped with chocolate-dipped strawberries and enclosed in a pirouette border. I'm not gonna lie: I have zero creativity whatsoever, and this idea was not mine at all. It comes from The Art of Two Tarts' blog: an absolutely gorgeous cake that you must go check out; mine isn't half as beautiful in comparison. But I really, really, really, wanted to try and recreate it.

Strawberries and Cream Cake
Adapted from The Art of Two Tarts

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 6 large egg whites [save the yolks - they'll be used in the pastry cream]
  • 2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 tsps baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans. Pour the milk, egg whites, and extracts in a 2-cup bowl and whisk with a fork until blended. In a seaparate bowl, blend flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Beat butter into flour mixture until batter has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Pour all but 1/2 cup of the milk into the flour and mix on medium-high speed for 1 1/2 -2 mins. Pour remainder of milk and mix for another 30 or so seconds.

Divide batter evenly among the pans and bake for 23-25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center of the cakes. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 5 minutes before inverting onto a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting.

For vanilla cream, you'll need:
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 tbsp cornstarch
  • 4 tbsp cold butter, cut into squares

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring half and half, half of the sugar, and salt to a simmer. In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks, remaining sugar, vanilla, and cornstarch until blended. Once half and half mixture comes to a full simmer, pour half of it into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Then, pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and continue stirring until cream thickens, 1-2 minutes. Once thickened, remove from the heat and toss in butter. Mix until blended. Pour pastry cream into a bowl. Once it cools to room temperature, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until set.

For the whipped cream frosting, you'll need:
  • 3 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar

In a large bowl, beat whipping cream and vanilla with a standard mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold in sugar. Refrigerate until using.

To assemble the cake:

Put one of the cake layers on a serving plate. Take a standard can of whipped cream and squeeze a ring of cream around the outer edge of the cake. [This is a really nifty trick - it prevents the filling from seeping out of the edges of the cake. It's totally optional, though, so don't worry if you don't have a can of whipped cream on hand.] Spread about 1/3 cup of strawberry jam or preserves out to the whipped cream ring. Spread about 1/3 cup of the pastry cream on top of the jam and spread gently, trying not to mix the two.

Layer with a second layer of cake, flat side up [to make it easier to frost]. Repeat the above. Layer with the final layer of cake, flat side up. Frost top and sides of cake with whipped cream. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate until serving.

As for how I decorated my cake, I basically followed exactly what 'The Art of Two Tarts' did: dipped some strawberries in bittersweet chocolate, drizzled white chocolate 'artfully' on top, and let them cool on a a sheet of wax paper. Meanwhile, I took some pirouettes [French Vanilla and Chocolate Hazlenut, to be exact], broke them into different sized pieces, pressed them to the sides of the cake, and tied some ribbon around them. Once the strawberries had set, I arranged them on top of the cake.

The entire process was somewhat tedious, just because of all the components that went into it, but the end result was so worth it. It just looks beautiful. And it's really not that difficult it all.

Plus, I braved a snowstorm to drive it the entire 5 miles to her house, so I was rather pleased. And she loved it!

Happy twentieth birthday, Nitya! It's hard to believe we've been such good friends for 10 years already! Here's to more amazing times to come.
Love, with all my heart.

Only downside: it was a beast to cut.

But we managed. :)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

noosh's dark chocolate raspberry birthday cake

It's tough to have a birthday in the midst of final exams. Noosh's birthday happens to fall under this criteria. Fortunately, neither of us had any exams scheduled today, so it was all good. And baking/celebrating was a nice break from the seemingly endless, mind-numbing, constant stream of studying that we've been doing for the past week or so. [I may have gotten kicked out of Starbucks yesterday after erratically spending six hours there...]

Plus, when it comes to my friends, the celebrations start well before their actual birthday [evidence by the box of Dunkin Donuts we devoured for dinner last ni- I mean, what?].

Yesterday night I began baking Noosh's birthday cake. Luckily for me, Noosh is the type of person [and we've been biffles long enough for this to be the case] that tells me exactly what she wants, not only for a gift, but also for her cake. Though, at this point, I can pretty much confidently guess her cake of choice: any sort of chocolate and raspberry combination [and, to be honest, who doesn't love chocolate and raspberry together?]. So, naturally, I wanted to go with something rich, decadent, and sugar-coma-inducing.

Triple layered, dark chocolate cake with a bittersweet raspberry chocolate ganache and raspberry preserve filling.


Inspiration for this recipe actually comes from 17 and Baking's blog, though I did make a few slight modifications.

Triple Layer Dark Chocolate Layer Cake with Raspberry Ganache

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/8 cups unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 tsps baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tbsp distilled white vinegar 
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

For the raspberry chocolate ganache and filling, you'll need:
  • 16 oz semisweet chocolate 
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter
  • 2 cups frozen raspberries
  • 3/4 cup raspberry preserves 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour 3 8-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper [make sure to grease and flour the surface of the parchment paper as well].

In a stand mixer bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt until thoroughly combined. Pour in canola oil and sour cream and mix until blended. Slowly pour in water, vinegar, and vanilla and mix. Finally, add in eggs and mix until just combined. Divide batter evenly among the three pans. Bake for 35 minutes, until center of cakes are springy to the touch. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before inverting cakes on a wire rack to cool. Let cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate while preparing ganache.

To make ganache, microwave raspberries for 3 minutes, at increments of 1 minute. Mash raspberries with a spoon in between microwaving to release juices. Once raspberries are mashed, run through a strainer. You should have about 1/3 cup of juice. While raspberry juice is cooling, heat butter and chocolate slowly in a microwave or over a saucepan, whisking for an even sauce. While whisking, slowly pour in cooled raspberry juice. Let ganache cool completely, firming to spreading consistency, before frosting cake.

To assemble cake, spread half the raspberry preserves on top of the bottom layer and spread out, leaving a border around the outside edges of the cake unfrosted [once the layers are stacked, the filling will spread to the edges of the cake]. Spread a thin layer of raspberry ganache on top of the preserves, being careful not to mix the two. Stack the second layer on top and repeat with the preserves and ganache. Place final layer on top, bottom- [i.e. flat-] side up. Scantly frost the top and sides of the cake, so that ganache layer is almost see-through, and refrigerate cake for 10 minutes before frosting fully. [Refrigerating the cake will allow for a more even frost.] Use the remaining ganache to finish frosting the cake.

Decorate as desired and refrigerate until time to serve. Cake can be made up to one day in advance and stored in the fridge. If frosted, cake does not need to be wrapped or covered in the refrigerator.

Noosh's parents came down for the afternoon and we all went out for lunch together to this darling little restaurant called The Boat House. Oh man, I hadn't had real food outside the realm of Chipotle's or the occasional Tara Thai or Boylan burger in what seemed like ages, so this was quiiiiiiite nice. Plus, I always love seeing her parents. I've known them forever too, after all.

mussels steamed in a walnut butter sauce with toasted french bread
Definitely a welcome break, I'd have to say. And who isn't automatically in a fantastic mood when it's a friend's birthday, AND you get to eat mussels and bread? [Especially when the only food in your apartment is half a canister of oatmeal and a bag of all-purpose flour.]

And now, to my darling, immature, not-really-that-old, sister from another mister, best apartment mate ever, Noosh,

Happy 20th birthday! I hope it [and the cake] turned out as amazing as you are! 

Love from me, always 

good thing we saved that 'happy birthday' pop-up from september...
In other news, my love for the piano has increased tenfold over the past week. Mainly because I rediscovered my favorite solo artist [Kyle Landry - check him out, he's absolutely amazing] on youtube and have been listening to his incredible improvised piano arrangements and wishing I had an ounce of his talent. Consequently, my fingers have literally been twitching all week in anticipation of going back home to my beloved upright. Not that I'm particularly good in the least, but I've got about 30 pages of untouched sheet music waiting for me to butcher 'em up sitting on my piano bench. Just two more finals standing in the way of me and my music. Ugh.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

lemon strawberry layer cake with lemon cream cheese frosting

What a mouthful.

I don't bake cakes that often. Mainly because I feel like they're the ultimate 'special occasion' dessert, and I usually only bake them for family events like birthdays or anniversaries. [And one time my Italian cooking teacher paid me to bake him one so he could pass it off as his own at a faculty dinner party, but that's besides the point].

This was for no such occasion [though would have been very nice to be paid for it], but rather, a cake-off. So, of course, I had to enter. I didn't end up placing, but the it was a hugely fun time. And all of the cakes were scrumptious. Well worth the energy.

There are 3 main components to this cake: the 1-2-3-4 cake, lemon curd, and lemon cream cheese frosting. For the strawberry layer, I purchased strawberry preserves from Teeter earlier today [in a perfect world, it would be strawberry season right now and I would have slaved away at making my own, pectin-free strawberry preserves. but alas, I am lazy.] I'll give you the 1-2-3-4 cake and frosting recipe here, and I've written up the lemon curd recipe prior.

Lemon Strawberry Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

For the 1-2-3-4 cake, you'll need:
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole-milk
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder 
  • 1 tbsp vanilla

For the lemon cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 10 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup [1/2 stick] butter, softened
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tbsp lemon zest
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 6 cups confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans, or one 9-inch springform pan. Beat butter until creamy. Add in sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 6-8 minutes. Add in eggs, one at a time, and beat until fully incorporated. In a separate bowl, combine flour and baking powder. Alternately add flour and milk to the wet ingredients, beginning and ending with flour [meaning, add 3/4 cup flour, add 1/4 cup milk, add an additional 3/4 cups flour, 1/4 of the milk, etc., but begin and end with the flour]. Add vanilla last and mix until just incorporated. Spoon batter into the two 8-inch cake pans or the 9-inch springform pan. If using the two pans, bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when poked into the center of the cake. If using the 9-inch springform, bake for 65-75 minutes. If the top of the cake starts to burn, loosely cover it with aluminum foil and continue baking.

Let cake cool for 20-30 minutes before removing from the pan. Let cool an additional 20-30 minutes before slicing [horizontally] into layers. Slice 8-inch cakes in half for 4 total layers, or 9-inch cake twice for 3 total layers. Meanwhile, prepare frosting.

To make the frosting, beat cream cheese, butter, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla until light and creamy. Slowly add confectioner's sugar. Add more confectioners sugar or lemon juice, depending on desired consistency and tangy-ness. Frosting can be refrigerated in an airtight container overnight.

To assemble cake: make sure all cake layers are completely cooled before frosting. Place the bottom layer of the cake [usually I flip the 'top' of the cake and use it as the bottom layer, because it is the most misshapen and least flat, and sitting on the bottom will even it out]. Frost with a generous amount of strawberry preserves, leaving a circumference about 1-centimeter wide around the edge of the cake [because all the layers will spread the filling out to the edges]. Gently spread a thin layer of the cream cheese frosting on top of the strawberries. Spread a generous amount of lemon curd on top of the cream cheese frosting. Place the next layer on top. Continue frosting the cake layers the same way, until cake is fully layered. Frost the sides and top of the cake with the remaining cream cheese frosting. If desired, reserve 1 1/2 cups of frosting to pipe a border around the top and bottom of the cake. Refrigerate until serving, but make sure to serve within 2-3 hours.

1-2-3-4 cake is my go-to, basic cake recipe. And it should be in every baker's repertoire. I never really had a huge problem with boxed cake mixes for layer cakes, because they're fast, cheap, and generally taste okay. But after making a 1-2-3-4 cake for the first time, I have given up boxed cake mixes for good [well, except for in my adaptation of Paula Deen's gooey toffee butter cakes, but that recipe will come another time]. I sometimes use almond extract alongside the vanilla for a more sophisticated-tasting cake [because almond extract is divine with coconut frosting], but the vanilla is just perfect for any layer cake. Or just to eat plain. Heck, sometimes mom has me bake it so she can freeze half and slice the other half up into small pieces to have with tea in the morning. It's really that delicious.

As for the lemon and strawberry combination? It's pretty classic, actually. Though, the first time I used it was in Nitya's 18th birthday cake a few years ago, with an angel food cake in place of the 1-2-3-4. It was so good, and one of her favorite cakes of all time. Though, now that I think about it, I'm sure a lemon-blueberry would be equally as delicious.

Wish I could have snapped a shot of it sliced up, because the layers turned out perfectly. The cake itself was a little bit dry, but that's because I naively cut the layers last night and covered them in plastic wrap. Ideally I would have baked the cake the day of, but nevertheless, the filling helped moisten it some.

In other news, I have one class day until exams start. It's going to be the longest day of my life.

And then I'm going to spend my month off sleeping. I can't wait.

lemon curd

I've been known to take a spoon to lemon curd and just eat it plain.

no shame.
Over the years, I've come to appreciate [read: love with every fiber of my being] lemon curd. It's a love passed down from mom. She's actually more likely than I am to take a spoon to the stuff [in fact, she's the reason my supply seems to keep disappearing...].

Lemon curd is basically egg yolks thickened with sugar, butter, and lemon juice. As it cools, it turns a beautiful, bright yellow color, and can taste anywhere from slightly tart to full-out tangy, depending on how much lemon juice you use. [I, personally, like mine on the tangy side, because in layer cakes, the frosting is sweet enough to combat the zing from the curd].

I made this share of lemon curd for a layer cake, the recipe for which I'll post up separately.

Lemon Curd
Adapted from Alton Brown

You'll need:

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 lemons, zested and juiced
  • 1 stick butter, chilled and cut into cubes

Juice lemons to make 1/3 cup lemon juice. If you don't have quite 1/3 cup, pour in enough water (or lemon juice, for tarter lemon curd) until you do.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk egg yolks and sugar. Pour lemon juice and zest into egg yolks, and continue whisking. Whisk as egg yolk mixture begins to thicken, about 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and add in butter, one cube at a time, until fully incorporated, whisking between additions. Once lemon curd is blended, pour into a container. Allow it to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap or lid. Curd keeps well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Luckily, I've got a little bit leftover from the cake.

It's in the fridge right now.

Can't promise it'll still be there tomorrow.

Monday, November 29, 2010

classic chocolate chip cookies

Okay, okay; I know I said I'd put the baking on hold after Thanksgiving. But these weren't for fun! Promise!

Besides, I won't be baking for a while after this. [Until Saturday. And then next Saturday. But that's besides the point.]

I baked these yesterday for the two kids that Chelsea and I have been tutoring this semester. Elizabeth and Andres. They are two of the sweetest children I've ever met. I actually tutored Elizabeth last fall as well, and was really excited to get to see her again this year. I also remember baking these for her last year, so it was only appropriate that I do the same now. And she seemed to enjoy them, so I was pleased.

Now, I'm not a huge cookie person. I'm more of a brownie/pie/cake type. But I love a good, homemade cookie [store-bought cookies are the worst]. And this happens to be a recipe that I swear by. And I'm sure you guys all have it at home, too, and just never realized it.

Or, at least you would if you had a 7-pound bag of Nestle semisweet chocolate chips stored in your pantry like I do. -cough-

Yes, folks. Nestle Toll House's original, classic chocolate chip cookie. Easy as peas [is this the right expression?] and tastes delicious.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

You'll need:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup chopped nuts [walnuts are best for cookies], optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine flour, baking powder, in salt in a medium bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer [fitted with the paddle attachment] until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Slowly add in flour mixture and mix until just combined. Add in chocolate chips and nuts, if using, and mix until dough is uniform.

Drop dough by the tablespoon onto the parchment paper, about 1.5-inches apart. Bake for 9-12 minutes [less time for gooier cookies and more time for crisper cookies], until tops are golden brown. Cool cookies on a wire rack. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container at room temperature. Cookies store well for up to 4 days.

Oh man. Cookies and milk. What a stellar combination. I want to meet whomever it was that came up with it and give them a big ol' hug. Furrulz.

Also, I love this recipe because it's so adaptable. For this particular batch, I only used chocolate chips [nuts are a bit sophisticated for kids, I think], but in the past I've used walnuts, peanut butter morsels, toffee bits, white chocolate chips, what have you, alongside the traditional semisweet chocolate.

And with milk, while the cookies are hot off the cooling rack? Oh dear, heaven.