Friday, December 30, 2011

sachertorte, a new york christmas, and a 2012

Two days to 2012. Unbelievable how fast this year's flown by.

More importantly, two days to Sherlock season 2. As fast as the year has passed, I've been waiting 6 damn months for this damn season to get here, and the level of excitement and hysteria I have been fruitlessly trying to contain is inordinately high.

[Though, to be quite honest, it's not nearly as bad as it would have been had I watched it when it first aired in the US last October, but if that were the case, the BBC would have received quite a lot of strongly-worded emails at this point.]

Still, being home the past two weeks has done well for my impatience. Meaning, catching up with family and taking a trip up north with Yusra and the cousins has kept me busy.

New York is always a pleasure to visit, particularly this time of year. Understandably so, of course, since it's just lovely nowadays, bustling with shoppers lined up on every corner, bright and towering Christmas displays around Rockefeller Center, cafes and bakeries full to the brim with pumpkin pies and spicy lattes wafting through open doors and windows, sax and cello players circling Central Park and bringing melodies of Christmas carols against the breezy chill of winter weather. 

And even after Christmas, the excitement of a New Year and bright lights keeps the city in full swing.

We took our leave the day after Christmas, and after four full days down the street from Times Square, I figured it was enough for one trip. 

We visited my favorites, of course, which was a non-issue, but also discovered some new ones. Magnolia Bakery and Momofuku Milk Bar, in particular, were two that I was most excited about finally visiting in person. 

I've had Magnolia's recipe book in my Amazon wish list for months now, but have been holding off on purchasing it. After seeing the bakery and ordering a pumpkin spice cake with caramel cream cheese frosting, though, I'm thinking it's about time I dish out the money and get it shipped to my place. It's an absolutely darling bakery, stuffed to capacity full of people shoulder-to-shoulder ordering cupcakes and cookies, glass cases stacked with colorful lemon bars and mini cheesecakes, and cake stands holding some of the tallest and most beautiful cakes I've ever seen. And it was, quite predictably, unmatched in deliciousness. Yusra ordered a mini pumpkin spice cheesecake with one of the most satisfyingly creamy textures I've ever tasted, and the cake I ordered was unbelievably good, hitting a perfect balance of sweet and spicy. 

Such perfection in such adorableness. Unfair. 

Momofuku was another story entirely. Not in a negative way or anything; on the contrary, it was one of the most unique culinary experiences of my life, and if I could have it my way, I'd make a pitstop there every morning on my way to class from now until the day I die. It's not quite as diverse in its selection of treats as an ordinary bakery would be, but it's also not an ordinary bakery. We visited the Milk Bar on 56th (conveniently located two blocks from our hotel), and they had perhaps 3 types of beverage options and a small handful of bakery treats for sale. The treats themselves were nothing special; delicious, yes, but not anything extraordinary.

No, the real gem is their trademarked Cereal Milk, which I had in milkshake form, on about three occasions in two days. And it would have been more had we come upon it earlier in our trip.

You know when you pour yourself a bowl of utterly unhealthy and exceptionally sugary cereal? And the milk absorbs all the sugary goodness, so that once you've eaten everything out of the bowl, all you have left to do is very classily bring the bowl to your lips and drink up that leftover, liquid heaven? 

You know what I'm talking about. Those last few seconds of perfection before the bowl is empty. The cereal milk.

Well, Momofuku has totally taken that flavor and run with it. And it is absolutely brilliant.

I cannot even describe this milkshake to you. I mean, I am so in love. It has this buttery quality about it, which I assume comes from the cornflakes, with which they steep the milk before whisking in a bit of brown sugar for just the perfect flavor imaginable. 

I just. Ugh. I can't. I'll just shut up. 

In any case, that was the bulk of my trip: eating good foods. Finally visited Junior's Cheesecake bakery, which was kind of a surreal experience since I've been baking out of their cookbook for three years now. Surreal, and delicious. Also watched The Book of Mormon, which is quite possibly the funniest musical I have ever seen before in my life [and made me rather happy that the parental units did not come on this particular trip], and have had the soundtrack playing on loop in my head for the past three days.

Did all the tourist-y things that I've never done in the past, even when I still lived in Queens: Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and peering out at the city lights from the 86th floor of the Empire State building on Christmas night. It was, in some ways, kind of surreal: being in a city I've lived in, visited with frequency since moving, and yet, I saw it from a place I've never been before, and what I saw was something I'd never seen before. I'd walked those streets, but I never really looked at them until then. It was like a reminder that even the most ordinary things can be extraordinary, if you see them just a bit differently.

I don't know. It was a strange moment, but a nice one. Maybe something to keep in mind for 2012.

Other than that, just strolling through Times Square, doing a bit of shopping, and enjoying another trip to one of my favorite cities. 

We spent all of Monday on the road, quite literally, as all of the post-Christmas traffic was backed up for hours and hours. For a lot of the drive back I alternated between reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and thinking about what I would bake Hannah, whose 21st birthday was, incidentally, that same day. I knew it would have to be chocolate, of course, but didn't know what. Something different from last year's cheesecake, but nothing too extravagant.

And then I realized that  during our visit to Max Brenner, I picked up their dessert recipe book. And as soon as I got home, I flipped through it and decided on his Sachertorte. 

Max Brenner is, after al, the god of all things chocolate.

I'm not actually going to divulge the recipe for the cake, since I followed it straight from his cookbook, but I can assure you that it is delicious. Paradoxically airy and dense, bittersweet chocolate offset by a layer of black raspberry jam, encased in a layer of fluffy, bittersweet chocolate frosting. 

I suppose that doesn't actually make you feel better about not having a recipe, but perhaps will inspire you to look him up. He really is fantastic, and his recipe book is a delight.

Happy [belated] 21st birthday, Hannah-banana! I do hope Max Brenner's recipe was up to your standards of chocolate heaven. Love always.

So I suppose it's time I bid adieu to 2011. It's been an incredible year, upon reflection. Lots of traveling and spending time with good friends. Attending some fantastic concerts and watching some of the most quality television ever created. Reading some beautiful books and eating some incredible foods. Memorable experiences and exceptional memories. And a lot of smiles and laughter. 

Still uncertain about quite a lot of things, but a new year means a year of opportunities to figure them out. I anticipate more quality television, coffee dates, memorable experiences, and laughs in the future.

And I hope the same goes for you. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

apple pie cheesecake bars [and holiday nights with old friends]

Cranberry-cinnamon tea. 

I arrived home yesterday evening to an empty house, parents both out and about and Yusra off with friends. I didn't expect anything different, really, and so took my suitcase and backpack upstairs to a room that's been vacant for weeks, freshly cleaned for my arrival. After gracelessly dropping my things haphazardly in the space next to my bedside table, I put my hands on my hips and looked around, letting the breeze wafting in through the half-open window chill my bare arms, still adjusting to the new house. A deep sigh, closing my eyes for just a moment to let everything sink in, breathing out the stresses from a semester of constant work, and then back downstairs for a glass of water and, perhaps, a piece of fruit.

And it was then that I noticed that almost every inch of counter space was covered in gift baskets and fruit bowls, obligatory gifts from drug reps and secretaries at my father's office. [It's Christmas season, after all.]

And then I grinned.

As mundane and predictable as most of them are, full to the brim with boxes of stale pretzels and commercially-cloned milk chocolate truffles, the odd basket or two is full of delightful surprises. A small bottle of olive oil, caramels wrapped in colorful foil [the ones that only seem to make an appearance this time of year and virtually disappear from existence for the remaining eleven months], a wheel of chevre, a tin of cranberry-cinnamon tea.

I horde all of these for myself, naturally, as the rest of my family is content with the chocolate and crackers [which, admittedly, I enjoy quite a lot as well] and have little interest in odd teas and cheeses. It's bizarre, but it's the little things from gift baskets that really solidify this time of year. The end of a semester. A break from academics. A time to spend the day away in pajamas and a sweatshirt, lounged upon the sofa with a book, iPod plugged into Aine Minogue and Dean Martin, perhaps a mug of cranberry-cinnamon tea at hand.

And occasionally, a Christmas party or two.

Matt's parents graciously invited me to their home this evening for a small party, which was in and of itself one of the most delicious events I have ever attended. There is never a shortage of incredible food whenever Matt's family is involved, particularly when smoked brisket, turkey and cranberry, and the most diverse selection of homemade cookies are at one's fingertips.

When I was first told of the party, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to bake something as a thank-you, to which Matt's parents happily accepted. And so, for days I pondered about what would be worthy enough for individuals which such impeccable taste, and eventually decided on these: apple pie cheesecake bars, which I dedicate utterly and unconditionally to Matt's incredible family.

Apple Pie Cheesecake Bars
Adapted from The Girl Who Ate Everything.
Makes 24-32 bars.

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 sticks butter, softened and cut into cubes
For the cheesecake layer, you'll need:
  • 3 8-oz packages cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
For the apple layer, you'll need:
  • 3 large apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes [Grannysmith, Gala, and Golden Delicious are ideal, or any combination of the three]
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg, or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg
For the streusel topping, you'll need:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 stick butter, softened
For the caramel, you'll need:
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

To prepare the bars:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a 9x13-inch pan with aluminum foil. Grease the bottom and sides of the foil. In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour and brown sugar. Add in butter and pulse until dough has the consistency of bread crumbs. Pour dough onto bottom of the pan and press evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown. Do not turn off the oven.

While the crust is baking, prepare the cheesecake layer by beating cream cheese and 1 cup sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, until incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add vanilla. Pour the cheesecake filling onto the baked crust, spreading evenly with a spatula.

Toss the apples, 2 tbsp sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a bowl. Spoon the apples evenly over top of the cheesecake filling.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, and oats and mix until well-blended. Using a pastry cutter or your hand, mix the butter into the flour mixture until crumbly. Sprinkle the streusel evenly on top of the apples. Bake the bars for 40-45 minutes, until cheesecake is set. Let bars cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To prepare the caramel: 
In a medium saucepan over medium flame, whisk together sugar and water. Allow syrup to come to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer until the syrup reaches an amber color, 7-12 minutes. Watch the syrup closely as it will quickly burn after it has started to color. Once syrup reaches the correct color, slowly pour in the heavy cream, whisking constantly while doing so. The syrup will sizzle and foam up spectacularly, but will calm down soon after. Remove saucepan from the heat and continue whisking until mixture has reached the consistency of smooth caramel. Let caramel cool 15-20 minutes before using on the bars.

Once dessert has refrigerated for at least 2 hours, slice them into bars and arrange on a serving tray. Right before serving, drizzle a generous amount of caramel on top of the bars.

There's really nothing pie-like about these, save that I made them with apples and it's currently autumn, but the name has a rather nice ring to it. Plus, with his face muffled in my shoulder in an enormous, snuggly hug, Matt mumbled that they tasted like apple pie wrapped in a cheesecake. The contented grin on his face when he pulled away and dove into his second bite was inspiration enough for the title.

Matt's mother was thrilled, Matt's father thought they were delicious, the other guests loved them, and my heart soared. More than anything, I wanted to give back a small bit of the kindness Matt and his family have shown me for over a decade.

Hopefully this was a little victory, but above all, a big thank you.

"Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal"
Julia Child

Sunday, December 11, 2011

6 [layers] x 4 [hungry people] - 3 [feet tall] = 21 [years old]

Ah, birthday season.

It has begun.

Naturally, the start of birthday season always coincides splendidly with finals, which is both hideously inconvenient and a wonderful break from studying.

But since it's Noosh's birthday, the break is always, always welcome.

Though, I suppose that after spending the vast majority of our Saturday night writing and editing term papers along with Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother breaks every thirty or so minutes, but it's okay since I started and finished a rather decently executed 8-page political theory essay in a grand total of 6 hours, I think today's lunch and subsequent sugar coma were well-deserved.

Noosh's rents came up today and took us out for a fantastic lunch at Outback, which was quite literally the first time in weeks that she and I had a meal that didn't involve items of questionable edibleness haphazardly thrown together in an attempt to fashion what few would call any semblance of a plate of food, so I was pretty damn pleased. I mean, salmon on rice pilaf with broccoli? It was like a holiday miracle, I kid you not. 

I feel unbelievably rejuvenated now and have this delusion that I possess the strength necessary to stare down my metaphysics term paper with the utmost confidence. By that I mean I may not actually pass out from sheer terror anymore.

Anyway, lunch was great [the whole 'real food' thing], and then we came back to the apartment for merriment and cake.

And so we ate. And ate. And ate some more.

And I'm still reeling from all the sugar. [What else is new.]

Fall Hummingbird Cake
Adapted from Sweetapolita and For the Love of Food.
Makes one three-layer 9-inch cake.

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup pumpkin
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 8-oz can crushed pineapple, with juice
For the maple cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 2 8-oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature and cut into cubes
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 5 cups powdered sugar

To prepare the hummingbird cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat eggs and oil on medium speed until frothy, about a minute. Add in pumpkin, bananas, and pineapple and mix until well-blended, 3-4 minutes. Remove the bowl from the stand. In a separate bowl, sift flour, sugar, spices, salt, and baking soda. Dump flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until barely incorporated. Stir in pecans and mix until just combined.

Divide batter among the three pans. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.

To prepare the maple cream cheese frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter, maple syrup, and vanilla on medium speed until well-mixed. Reduce speed to low and gradually add in powdered sugar. Beat until the frosting fluffs up a bit, about 3 minutes. Add in the cream cheese all at once, increase speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Refrigerate frosting until using.

To assemble the cake:
Place one of the three layers on the serving plate. Frost top of the layer with a generous amount of frosting. Repeat with the second and third layers, and use remaining frosting to frost the sides of the cake. Refrigerate cake until serving. Garnish with chopped pecans, if desired.

Alright, so my cake was the approximate size of a small child. And was also 6 layers tall. And it could probably feed a small country. With leftovers remaining.

What I did was bake the cake twice over - used the same three pans for the second round of batter, and I was left with six, rather sizable, layers of hummingbird cake. I let them cool completely, and then got to frosting, the recipe for which I increased by 50% [I'll let you do the math on this one].

Now, a word of caution: if you're going to make a 6-layer cake, you can not assemble the entire thing all at once. I initially did all 6 layers, and the mess was teetering over worse than the tower of Pisa. I almost had a mental breakdown, and then decided to just remove two layers. Instead of throwing them away, I stuck them on a plate and figured I'd just have two cakes [of two awkwardly-different heights]. The cake with four layers was pretty stable, so I went ahead and frosted it completely. Then I decided that, no, I am not going to sit here and allow physics to destroy all of my dreams and happiness, so I stuck the four-layered cake in the freezer for about an hour and a half [stuck the other two in the fridge during this time], then placed the two refrigerated layers on top, refrosted the top two layers, and stuck it back into the freezer to firm up completely.

So, if you, dear reader, hope to make a 6-layered cake, I would do the following:
  1. assemble and frost four layers, sides and all 
  2. wrap remaining two layers in clingwrap and allow them to mellow out on the counter
  3. place frosted cake in freezer for 1.5 hours
  4. frost and add final two layers to frozen cake [note that frosting blends seamlessly with what has been done prior]
  5. place 6-layer, frosted cake in freezer for another 2 hours
  6. transfer frozen cake to the fridge for at least 4 hours before serving, so that it has a chance to thaw and isn't an unpleasant experience to eat
Yes, it is a time-consuming process, as all layer cakes are loathe to be, so make sure to keep in mind the time you'll need to set aside to make it happen.

You could also always just go with the three-layer, but the six-layer is far more enjoyable to slice.

As for decoration, I just purchased some fake flowers from Michaels, trimmed them off of the stalk, and arranged them on top. Chopped up some walnuts for some sort of aesthetic flair - rocks maybe? I'm really not quite sure - and it ended up looking more like a wedding cake than a birthday cake. But the addition of candles toned down the exuberant amounts of class radiating off of the cake, so it was all good.


Anyway, Noosh and her famfam loved it, so I figured it was a success in the end.

And finally, my darling Farnoosh, most amazing roommate and best friend one could wish for in the most epic bromance that ever was, I hope you had an absolutely wonderful 21st birthday [despite the fact that you are sitting next to me working on an ethics term paper], and I'm warning you now that once you turn it in, we are in for a night of a How I Met Your Mother marathon. Prepare yourself.

As for later this week, I'll be at the apartment until Friday when I'm finally off for break. I have this vague notion that the cousins and I are heading to NYC next week, but I'm fuzzy on some all of the details. But at least I have a few weeks to spend with the family before I'm back here for intercession.

And sometime in between there are about 3 more birthdays needing to be celebrated, so at least there's weight-gain to look forward to.

Friday, December 2, 2011

pumpkin bars with maple cream cheese frosting

Thanksgiving feels like it was ages ago, though it was just last week that I was huddled around our dining table, 14 unnervingly-cheerful family members by my side, reaching for my second [or was it third?] helping of turkey and Butterbeer.

What I wouldn't do to have some leftover turkey here at the apartment so as to stop chewing on my own hand whenever I get hungry. The lack of quality food and utter depression that accompanies it can only mean one thing: we've approached finals season.

Presumably, I spend most of my days holed up in my room or at a coffee shop, frantically reading hundreds of pages of Spanish literature and philosophy that I shirked during the semester, writing the best-quality term paper[s] I can a week before the due date, and waking up every morning praying that I'm back in my fluffy bed at home, having left all final exams and papers behind me.

Okay, admittedly, it's not that tragic. Mostly it's been painful not being able to play PS3 when AC:R sits next to my television remote forlornly, abandoned and neglected, wondering how it got stuck with a good-for-nothing college student who really should have read that 200-page Spanish novel 2 weeks ago when it was assigned rather than spending hours doing so yesterday in order to write a paper due next week.

...not that I'm, you know, bitter or anything.

Pumpkin Bars with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
A bakedbeen original
Makes 18-24 bars

For the pumpkin bars, you'll need:
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 15-oz can pumpkin [not pumpkin pie filling]
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 heaping tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • a few shakes of cloves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup crushed pecans
  • 1/4 cup raisins
For the maple cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 4 tbsp butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla

To prepare the pumpkin bars:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease a 9x13-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, beat eggs, oil, brown sugar, and pumpkin until fluffy, 4-5 minutes. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt.  Using a wooden spoon, hand-mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Be careful not to over-mix. Once mixed, toss in the pecans and raisins and give the batter another turn. Pour the batter into the prepared pan for 25-30 minutes, until set. Let cool completely before frosting.

To prepare the maple cream cheese frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat butter and cream cheese on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Lower mixer speed to low and slowly add in powdered sugar. Mix until combined. Add maple syrup and vanilla. Increase mixer speed to medium-high and beat for another 3-5 minutes, until fluffy. Refrigerate until frosting reaches spreading consistency, about 30 minutes. 

Once bars are cool, spread the cream cheese frosting evenly over top. Garnish with whole or crushed pecans, if desired. Refrigerate at least 45 minutes before slicing.

Luckily, after a week of unprecedented amounts of catch-up and studying, Noosh and I got to spend the afternoon and evening out, shopping in pleasantly nippy, chilly weather and meeting up with good friends for an extraordinarily entertaining little dinner party.

For the occasion, I decided to bake. I felt as though I hadn't baked in years, although I made about 4 desserts for our Thanksgiving dinner last week. I'll blame it on finals-prep having drained the life and joy out of me.

But I digress: baking. Pumpkin bars with maple cream cheese frosting, to be precise. For some reason I have this delusion that baking with pumpkin after Christmas is just blasphemous, since pumpkin is the epitome of fall deliciousness and happiness, and the only thing I want to do when winter rolls around is stuff a pillow over my head and hibernate for 3 months. So I figured: I only have two more weeks at the apartment, I have a can of pumpkin in my pantry, and it would be going against nature for me to use it after I'm back for intercession; might as well put it to delicious use.

I always view pumpkin in the same light I do carrots, when it comes to baking. They both have a sort of mild, dense, earthy quality about them which pairs wonderfully with spices, nuts, and dried fruits. Pumpkin bars I've had in the past are typically made with just pumpkin and spices, and have a really pleasant cake-y quality to them. But I like my pumpkin bars heartier, so always add ground nuts [what's more fitting than pecans?] and raisins to give them some body and a sort of rustic, cold-weather touch. Maple added to the frosting to tie it all together, and you're left with a beautiful fall dessert.

Simple, but comforting. As is spending an evening after a stressful week with good friends and good food.

And with a happy belly and residual smile from a wonderful night, the next two weeks don't seem quite so daunting.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

{DBC} sans rival

I feel like it's been months since I've done a DBC. Which is, well, true, since I've missed the last two. I just did not have the copious amounts of time necessary to spend baking croissants and breads.

Not that November has been any less busy, but now that papers, end-of-term assignments, and thesis proposals are established and underway, a large part of my mind has been freed up for things totally unrelated to academics.

[Things aside from BBC television, anyway, which, as it were, I've finished all of save for Merlin, and even then weekly airings keep me from spending hours upon hours in front of the TV.  I've even had time to read actual literature and finally got around to finishing The Things They Carried (a four-year long endeavor, not because my capabilities of reading a 200-page novel are deficient, but because I've never just sat down and read it all the way through), which is a feat in and of itself and quite possibly my biggest intellectual accomplishment of the semester. Some might say I lead a sad existence. They would probably be right.]

But I saw this month's challenge and knew I had to participate. Not only was it something that didn't have yeast or gelatin in it, but was something I could finish up in one afternoon and looked gorgeous to boot.

Filipino Sans Rival, originally a French dessert comprised of layers of dacquoise and a rich buttercream frosting. Admittedly, Tommy and my version is pretty much the farthest thing from the traditional as you can get while still cheating your way by calling it a "Sans Rival," but it made for a really delicious dessert.

I'll give you the recipe for ours, but if you want to go the traditional route, omit the cocoa in the cake and chocolate in the buttercream, and use cashews instead of almonds.

Baking and Super Smash Bros seems to be the established norm whenever Tommy comes over for DBC. It makes we wish DBCs were a weekly occurrence, if it wouldn't mean that I would probably end up having to drop out of university.

Filipino "Sans Rival"
Adapted from the November Daring Baker's Challenge

For the dacquoise, you'll need:
  • 10 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups almonds, finely ground
For the French buttercream, you'll need:
  • 5 egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 1/2 sticks [20 tbsp] butter, softened and cut into cubes
  • 2 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted

To prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour four 9-inch pans (or two 9-inch pans, keeping in mind that you'll have to bake an additional two batches). Make sure you grease and flour them very well, as the dacquoise becomes quite sticky. Set aside.

In a clean and dry stainless steel bowl, whisk the egg whites on high speed until frothy, about two minutes. Sprinkle with cream of tartar. Gradually add sugar and cocoa powder, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until stiff peaks form, 7-10 minutes. Fold in 1 3/4 cups of the ground almonds, reserving about 1/4 cup to garnish. Divide the batter equally among the four pans (or divide half of the batter equally among the two pans, reserving the other half of the batter for when the first two cakes are done). Bake for 25-30 minutes, until set. Now is a good time to make the buttercream. Once cakes are down, allow the them to cool for a couple of minutes in the pan, but then overturn quite soon onto cooling racks.

To prepare the frosting:
Whisk the egg yolks on high speed in a large bowl until they've turned a pale yellow and have doubled in volume. In a medium saucepan, whisk the water and sugar over medium flame until a syrup has formed. The sugar should be a very pale amber color, but make sure to remove from the heat before it caramelizes. With the whisk still running on high speed, very carefully pour the syrup down the sides of the bowl. Continue beating on high until the mixture comes to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Still on high speed, add butter, one tablespoon at a time, until fully incorporated. Add in melted chocolate and whisk for another 30-60 minutes, until uniform. Refrigerate the buttercream for at least one hour before using, and whip it smooth before frosting.

To assemble the cake:
Place one layer of dacquoise on a serving plate. Frost the top with about 2 heaping tablespoons of the buttercream. Place a second layer on top and frost. Repeat with the remaining two layers. Using the remaining buttercream, frost the top and sides of the cake. Press the reserved ground almonds along the sides or top of the cake. Garnish with whole almonds, if desired.

I very much loved the look of this cake. Images flashed before my eyes bringing back memories, visions of small patisseries in Italy, with layers of homemade cakes piled high with thick, creamy frostings, imperfect in their presentation but beautiful in their simplicity, rustic in a very comforting, understated way.

Those are always the cakes that taste the best, after all.

I myself am not partial to meringue, for the most part, and really detest buttercream frostings, so I didn't have very high expectations for this cake. Not that I doubted it would be tasty; rather, I didn't expect to like it as much as Tommy or Noosh might. I was gravely [fortunately?] mistaken, and really just had to drive the thing over to Shea to give to Matt for fear that I would spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with my head in the fridge, cutting slices and eating them with a fork straight off of the serving plate.

It was tantalizingly good.

In fact, I so loved the soft, chewiness of the dacqouise that it was the inspiration for one of my Thanksgiving desserts [and a huge hit with the fam, so clearly dacquoise is the ticket].

And now, another month is gone, and there's only December standing between me and 2012. It's the point in the semester where I'm so, dangerously close to being done that making myself study for finals and finish up term papers is actually physically painful.

I just want to be home, snuggled up under covers, finishing up Assassins Creed: Revelations, and eating enough home-cooked meals to rival a bear preparing for hibernation. Is that too much to ask?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

[churros and orange juice] cinnamon cake with dulce de leche frosting and salted caramel shards

I am just realizing that 11/11/11 is happening tomorrow. I am also realizing that this was a Facebook group I joined at least two years ago, thinking "oh, that's so far away, I have forever to think up the most epic wish I can conceive."

Yet, an odd-two years later, I don't know what to wish for. Two years ago I thought I'd be more mature, with a concrete path laid out for my life, knowing exactly what I'd want to do and how long it'd take me to do it. Two years ago I thought that being in my 20s meant I'd be an independent adult, fully-functioning social paradigm of grace and poise, with a repertoire of meritorious experiences under my belt.


All I've learned since then is that I'm likely not at all capable of surviving even a week in the real world without parental guidance, financial support, or an academic counselor telling me what I should do with my life. Perhaps I should wish for some direction. Or coming up with an adequate thesis topic before Thanksgiving break. Or being proposed to by a handsome prince with loads of cash.

I kid, of course. Okay, perhaps not so much about the rich prince, but as for the rest, I'm not concerned. Still growing up, after all. And learning, and experiencing, and all that important stuff.

All that's more useful than wishing, anyway. Where will wishing get you, save for crushing disappointment when laziness trumps pro-activity? Not that I'll stop being lazy, of course, but best not to put all your eggs in one basket. Particularly when that basket is just a socially constructed label of "epicness" for one of the [admittedly] coolest numerical dates in existence.

But I digress. This post isn't about wishes. It is about a date, though, and an important one, at that. Specifically, my dear friend Zach's birthday. Which was yesterday, but whatever.

[Also my father's, incidentally, but that celebration is for another day when I'm actually at home. Nevertheless, all my love and best wishes, dad!]

Zach loves dessert. I know this because he and Jerm often serve as my human garbage disposals for leftover baked goods. But when I bake for Zach, it has always been with peanut butter. It's a safe bet, since the only thing Zach loves more than dessert is peanut butter. But I'm tired of peanut butter and predictability. I wanted to do something unique, and different, and special, and totally and utterly for Zach.

So I decided on churros.

...okay, so, not really churros. But a cake totally and utterly churro-inspired. I had been pondering for a while earlier in the week about what I could do outside of the realm of legume butters, and suddenly it struck me. And I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it earlier.

Cinnamon Cake with Dulce de Leche Frosting and Salted Caramel Shards
A bakedbeen original.
Yields one 9-inch cake.

For the cinnamon cake, you'll need:
  • 4 eggs
  • scant 1 cup sugar
  • 5 tbsp whole milk
  • 2 tsps vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp baking powder

For the dulce de leche frosting, you'll need:
  • 11 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 3 tbsp butter, softened 
  • 1 14-oz can dulce de leche
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

For the salted caramel shards, you'll need:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel

To prepare the cinnamon cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. In a large mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, mix eggs and sugar on medium speed until blended. Add in milk and vanilla and incorporate. Lower speed and add flour, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder. Mix until just blended. Divide batter equally among both pans and smooth with a spatula. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean when poked in the center. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert cakes onto wire racks and let cool completely.

To prepare the dulce de leche frosting: 
In a large mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Add dulce de leche and mix on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until fully blended.  Lower speed to low and slowly add in powdered sugar. Gradually raise speed to medium-high and beat for 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat another 30 seconds. Frosting can be prepared up to a day ahead and kept refrigerated until using.

To prepare the salted caramel shards:
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside. In a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high flame, whisk sugar and water until sugar dissolves. Once the syrup starts to bubble, stop whisking. Allow syrup to heat, undisturbed, until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Quickly remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour the syrup onto the aluminum foil, allowing it to spread out into a thin layer. Sprinkle fleur de sel evenly over the sugar. Let sugar harden, about 30 minutes. Peel sugar off of the aluminum foil and, with your hands, break it apart into shards. Set aside and cover loosely with cling-wrap until using.

To assemble the cake:
Place one of the cake layers on a serving plate. Spread a generous layer of the frosting on top of the cake. Sprinkle some of the shards on top of the frosting. If the shards are large, break them into small pieces [but be sure to reserve a few large shards to decorate]. Place the second layer on top. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Refrigerate until serving.

Right before serving the cake, pierce the remaining large shards around the center of the cake.

Zach and I spent 4.5 weeks in Spain earlier this summer, which, if you know me at all, are familiar with in excruciating detail. We had a marvelous time, of course, from exploring Valencia to trying new foods to visiting Granada to actually being able to converse with the locals. One of my fondest memories, though, is on one of our walks back from university.

It was a nice walk, about 2.5 miles, strolling past familiar old bookshops, banks, and boutiques, chatting about anything and everything. Zach had been telling me, since day one, that he wanted nothing more than to eat some good, Spanish churros, but we had yet to have done so. So we decided, probably about halfway into our trip, after having come to that startling realization, to stop at one of the unassuming cafes by our apartments to eat some flipping churros.

And they were delicious. Fresh and crispy, still hot and leaving traces of cinnamon sugar on our fingers, a mug full of warm chocolate sauce for dipping, and a tall glass of Valencian orange juice for patriotism. A perfect 15 minutes of sitting in the center of the plaza with nothing on our minds save for realization that we were actually in Spain, sitting in the center of the plaza, eating churros.

And so it was a no-brainer that I wanted to give some of that perfection back to Zach for his 21st birthday. Not exactly churros, but a cake unequivocally inspired by that afternoon. Perhaps not the answer to his epic wish for Friday, but intended to remind him of something meaningful.

Unparalleled deliciousness was only a bonus, really.

[But seriously. One of the best cakes I've ever made. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but seriously.]

Though I think I'm settling with the rich prince wish for 11/11/11. No harm in trying, right?

Only crushing disappointment can come out of this, after all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

fish custard [and a wibbly-wobbly halloween]

Friday morning began with a much-needed lie-in until 10am, and still I didn't feel like getting up. Buried under comforters on a bed of pillows on an overcast, autumn morning... all I really wanted was a steaming mug of tea and a cookbook to read.

But, you know, on the day of a wibbly-wobbly Halloween get-together, you force yourself out of bed, do a bit of cleaning and laundering, turn some Madeleine Peyroux on the stereo, and simmer up some salted caramel.

Chelsea and Liz have had a few dinner parties already this semester, so Noosh and I decided it was our turn to host...something.

[Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.]

But really, Halloween weekend called for one thing and one thing only: a Doctor-Who themed party.

Not that, you know, all of my friends are fans. In fact, the vast majority haven't watched. So really, it was more of an excuse for me to wear a bow-tie and cook up some fish custard.

"Fish Fingers" and Custard
Adapted from The Comfort of Cooking and Bakingdom
Yields 4-6 servings custard, about 2 dozen fish fingers

For the salted caramel custard, you'll need:
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 6 tbsp cornstarch 
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 tsp salt
For the fish fingers, you'll need:
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup [1 stick] butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp confectioner's sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 5 graham cracker sheets
  • 2 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp sugar

To prepare the custard:
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk 1/2 cup of the milk, the cornstarch, and vanilla until blended. In a large saucepan, heat water and sugar on medium-high heat until boiling. Don't stir, but swirl the pan around to mix. Once boiling, lower the heat so that the syrup is at  a simmer. Simmer until the caramel turns an amber color, add in salt, and swirl until incorporated, 8-10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour in the remaining 3 1/2 cups milk, whisking constantly, until combined. The sugar may clump up spectacularly, but that is okay. Return the pan to the flame and heat on medium-high heat until just boiling, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Whisk the mixture until the caramel dissolves and the mixture thickens a bit, about 10 minutes. Add in the cornstarch mixture and whisk on medium flame until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Pour the custard into a large glass dish or other heat proof dish. Allow the custard to cool, at least 30 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours, until the custard has thickened fully and set.

To prepare the fish fingers: 
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on low speed, then increase to medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add in egg and vanilla and mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary. Lower the speed and gradually add in flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Cover the top of the bowl in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a food processor, pulse the graham crackers, butter, and sugar until the mixture is crumbly and sticks together. Once cookie dough is chilled, roll into "fish fingers," about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. The smaller the better, as they will expand quite a bit while baking. Roll the "fish finger" in the graham cracker mixture to "coat" and place on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, allowing about an inch space between cookies on the sheet. Bake for 14-16 minutes until golden brown. Allow cookies to cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Serve "fish fingers" with custard. They taste splendid when eaten together, or either can be enjoyed separately. Allons-y!

Noosh and I first stumbled upon this recipe a few months ago, and immediately I fell in love. The graham cracker "coating" is absolutely brilliant, and give the cookies the appearance of honest-to-God fish fingers. Words cannot describe how enamored I am with these things. They taste fantastic as well, which is only a plus, really.

So after about 9 hours of cooking custard, baking fish fingers and jammie dodgers, listening to everything from Louis Armstrong to Don Omar with Noosh preparing the TARDIS door, our apartment was full of the sounds of laughter, chatter, music, The Green Lantern, Hello Kitty, and Freida Kalho, a rather disturbing-looking cockroach, unnamed doctors and Sabeen's-apartment-occupiers, hilarious and somewhat horrifying Bollywood dancing, and happy mouths munching on good food. A success in all senses of the word, over all.

And by the time we were done cleaning up by around 1:30, I promptly passed out and slept for about 9 hours straight.

And I've spent the vast majority of the hour and a half I've been up uploading photographs and listening to Cabin Pressure on Youtube [quite the brilliant radio show, sent to me by a sweet friend who knows of my utter obsession with Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant theatrical timing and jaguar-hiding-in-a-cello voice], not really wanting to get out of my comfortable bed.

Having discarded the suit-jacket, the bow-tie, and the formal button-down, though, I must say it's nice not to have a career that requires me to dress up like a flamboyant British gentleman on a daily basis. Fun as it was, I'll leave it to the professionals.

I much prefer watching them from the comfort of my living room sofa.

Preferably with a bowl of fish custard in hand.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

caramel apple pie

I’m quite sure that pretty soon, my iPod will only have the ability to play the same 20-odd songs, as I’ve been listening to nothing but Cole Porter, Margaret Whiting, and Radical Face on loop for the past few weeks. Not that I would complain if this were to become reality soon, since the three are perfect to listen to while strolling outside under falling leaves and welcomed sunshine.

Yesterday was spent primarily with MattMatt, as the two of us rarely get to see each other one-on-one, and it was hugely pleasant. Pumpkin pancakes and peach cake for brunch at Tommy’s, as well seeing an old friend from high school who came down for the weekend. A spontaneous drive out to the downtown mall soon followed, which made for a lovely afternoon sipping coffees, browsing dusty bookshelves in used bookshops, and searching for the perfect menswear blazer at Urban Outfitters. Though I came home empty-handed in the department of androgynous outerwear, a purse heavy with new (used) books and some quality conversation in the living room with David Tennant staring us down with a raised eyebrow was more than enough.

Now my only wish is that I had enough time to just sit on piles of pillows and blankets and read the day away. And also that my apartment had a fireplace crackling with warm flames, filling the living room with the smells of earthy cocoa and roasted walnuts.

Perhaps my next investment will be a bigger bookshelf.

I love strolling downtown at this time of year; early fall, before the leaves have had the chance to wither away and it’s still just warm enough to eat lunch outside wearing a wool scarf and sweater.

Nevertheless, today was a day to spend inside, curled up on the couch in an oversized sweatshirt catching up on work and oodles and oodles of Merlin.

And, of course, at the end of a perfect weekend, it’s only appropriate to put a basket of mountain-fresh apples to good use. 

Caramel Apple Pie
Adapted from If You Give a Girl a Cookie and Tartine

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 3 cups plus 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 sticks butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup cold water
For the filling, you'll need:
  • 5 cups of baking apples [about 6 medium or 5 large; Golden Delicious, Jonagold, or Winesaps work splendidly, or any combination thereof], cored and sliced
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • a few shakes of nutmeg

To prepare the filling:
In a large saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar over medium-low flame. Add in sliced apples, increase heat to medium-high, and cook the apples in the sauce until softened, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, sprinkle flour and spices over the apples, and turn them over to coat until the flour dissolves. Let cool while preparing the pie crust.

To prepare the crust:
In a food processor, pulse the flour, butter, and salt the consistency is that of peas. Slowly pour in the water until the dough comes together [you may not need to use all of the water]. Divide the dough in half, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble the pie:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch pie pan. Roll each ball of dough out wide enough to cover the base of pan. Place one on the base. Using a fork, poke holes into the bottom and sides of the crust. Gently scoop the apples and caramel sauce into the pan and spread evenly. Lay the second sheet of dough on top of the apples, pinching the top and bottom crusts to seal. Make a slit or two on the top crust.

Bake pie for about 25 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25-30 minutes. Allow pie to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve with sweetened cream or vanilla ice cream.

I’d like to make a confession: I’m really not that keen on apple pie. At all, really. I know, I know, as if it’s bad enough I’ve forgone all non-BBC television, I’ve now basically rejected all of the basic tenets of our great country.

But this one is pretty good. I mean, it’s no cherry Bakewell tart, but Noosh and Tommy loved it, and the flaky crust is to die for. The apples really benefit from bathing in brown sugar and butter, as obviously expected, and cooking them beforehand prevents the crust from becoming soggy. The end result is a beautifully golden, crunchy, autumn-y pie.

Would have been divine with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but good company and quality television will make do just as well.

Then I'll pretend it is my bed
I'll jump in very quick
And pile their leaves up over me
For covers soft and thick

Friday, October 21, 2011

lemon, blackberry, and ginger cake [and a happy 21st]

Wednesday evening was spent attempting to familiarize myself with absolutist and utilitarian philosophy, emailing professors about tentative spring courses [oh yes, I'm a dork, and unbelievably excited about class offerings], rubbing my eyes and consequently smudging all the eyeliner around to give me the appearance of a lopsided raccoon, and putting away clean dishes without having realized the smudgy state of my fingers and consequently getting black stains all over the bowls and having to rewash them.

[As a side note, I've discovered that all of my current obsessions are manifested in some of the cookbooks that I own. King Arthur Flour Cookbook (purchased 2009), The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook (purchased approximately January 2011), Dining with Sherlock Holmes: A Baker Street Cookbook (purchased approximately 1 week ago [not a problem]). The amount that I was ecstatic when I made the realization was unprecedented and startling.]

And yet, it was a rather perfect evening, as soon after rewashing dishes, the house was filled with the smells of ginger and lemon zest, and the sounds of unbelievably irritating whistles at a conference meeting during an episode of Arrested Development.

As a note of self-preservation, all shots taken for this particular dessert were done in the absolute worst lighting imaginable. It seems that cloudy mornings and artificial, dinner-table lighting made for oddly colored images. Blast lamplight and clouded sun rays.

It was nice, though, to be baking a cake. I haven't done so in ages, as I haven't had the need, but yesterday happened to be the 21st birthday of one of my dearest, closest, sweetest friends: Matt (and, incidentally, Rhea's as well!). I knew I would be baking something, but I wanted it to be something spectacular. Something new. Something exotic.

And so I asked him what he'd want.

And all he said was "lemon curd."

And that was all I needed.

[Admittedly, he also said "blackberries, preferably," but I'll keep that little tidbit to myself as not to diminish the above drama.]

I have quite some experience with lemon curd, as it's a foolproof way of making a fantastic cake, but for the most part it's always accompanied either a basic vanilla or angel food cake. Seeing as how it's fall and it's Matt, I wanted to try something unexpected.

So, clearly, the fates were calling on me to bake a lemon-ginger cake, layered with blackberry preserves and lemon curd, covered with a lemon-cream cheese frosting.

And you know what, the fates did good this week.

Lemon, Blackberry, and Ginger Cake
Adapted from epicurious and my own tastes.

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
For the lemon cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • blackberry or other fruit preserves, to layer
  • lemon curd, to layer

To prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease three 9-inch cake pans. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat sugar and butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, followed by lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add flour mixture into the wet ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk, in three batches, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly among the three pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until set. Turn cakes out onto cooling racks and cool to room temperature before assembling.

To prepare the frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth, 3-4 minutes. Add in lemon juice, zest, and vanilla. Lower speed and gradually add in powdered sugar. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Refrigerate frosting until using.

[Note: frosting can be prepared  a day in advance.]

To assemble the cake:
Place on of the cake layers on a serving plate. Spread a thin layer of the cream cheese frosting over the top as a crumb coating. Spread about 3 tbsp of fruit preserves over the crumb coating, about 1/2 inch from the edges of the cake. Spread about 4 tbsp of lemon curd over the preserves, about 1/2 inch from the edges of the cake. Repeat with the second and third layers. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the cream cheese frosting. Refrigerate cake until serving, but allow cake to sit for 15-20 minutes before cutting.

Delicious is the only word that comes to mind. I also have a limited vocabulary. But really. The ginger is very understated, but enough to make you realize that there's something more to the cake than what you'd get from a simple vanilla. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

And then, you can never go wrong with lemon curd.

Like, ever.

So, happy 21st birthday, MattMatt and Rhea! I do hope it was all to your liking :)

In other news, today I find myself settled quite cozily in a little corner of Panera, laptop on the table, empty cappuccino mug to my right, and a stack of Greek mythology and philosophy texts on my lap. All of this is hugely unsurprising, as this is seems to be my default state of existence, but I'm somewhat unnerved at how much colder it is inside this place than it is outside. Unnerved and also slightly uncomfortable. Particularly since it's pretty chilly outside as it is.

But I finally managed to find an empty socket for my laptop cord, so there's no way in hell that I am leaving.

Besides, I like the padded booths.

Even if it means having my scarf wrapped twice around my neck and my sleeves pulled down to my fingertips.

Maybe it's time for a second [third] cup of coffee...

I love autumn.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

classic [but better] pumpkin pie

Aside from the odd bout of 80-degree weather this weekend, fall is in full swing. Obviously, in such fashion, long weekends spent at home mean Downton Abbey marathons with your mother, modeling men's suit-jackets in front of your male relatives, reading quality detective fiction novels, putting off all semblances of academic work, and ordering mountains upon mountains of chai lattes and pumpkin-spiced coffees.

At least, that's primarily how I spent my long weekend.

Fall break always seems to line up perfectly with Yusra's birthday, and this year was no different. My baby sister turned 17 yesterday, and for the occasion had me bake her a birthday pie. Yes, pie. Of the pumpkin variety, too, to be precise. Last year, I baked a rather delicious pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and Yusra told me then and there that for her 17th birthday, she wanted another one. Of course, I promised, thinking at the time that she'd forget about it and I'd end up baking a carrot cake or something of the sort [leaving my 16-layer-cake days behind me for now].

And yet, eleven months later, she hadn't forgotten, and on Saturday I found myself waking up to a countertop covered in allspice, cinnamon, and ginger powders, fresh nutmeg, a box of flour, cold sticks of butter, and a stand-mixer waiting to be put to use.

This year's pumpkin pie is a variation on last year's epic success, combined with a tantalizing recipe for pumpkin-streusel pie found at Go Lightly Gourmet. The end result is a tall, creamy, subtly-spiced pumpkin filling in a flaky crust, topped with a pecan and brown sugar streusel topping.

Yusra was pretty satisfied.

Pumpkin Pie with Streusel
Adapted from Go Lightly Gourmet, old pumpkin pie recipes, and Tartine.

For the crust, you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 stick cold butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 tbsp cold water, more or less depending
For the filling, you'll need:
  • 1 15-oz can of pumpkin 
  • 1 8-oz package of cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 heaping tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
 For the streusel topping, you'll need:
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 stick cold butter, cut into cubes

To prepare the pie crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a 9-inch pie plate. Using a food processor, pulse flour, ginger, sugar, salt, and butter until the mixture has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Slowly add in enough cold water for the mixture to come together and form a dough. Press the pie dough on the bottom and sides of the pie plate, crimping the edges. Stick the plate in the freezer for 15-20 minutes, until dough is sufficiently cold. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork and bake for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown. Let the pie cool while you prepare the filling, but keep the oven on.

To prepare the filling:
Cream the pumpkin and cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Pour in the remaining filling ingredients and beat until thoroughly blended. Pour the filling on top of the pie crust and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the edges of the pie are set but the center is still jiggly. Prepare the streusel while the pie is in the oven.

To prepare the streusel:
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, and spices until blended. Using a pastry cutter or your hands, cut the butter into the flour mixture until incorporated and crumbly. Add in the chopped pecans and mix until blended. Your hands can be used for all of this.

Once the pie has baked for 50 minutes, remove it from the oven and sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top. Place pie back into the oven and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until set. Let pie cool to room temperature before slicing. Serve with sweetened cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

I always very much love baking pies, though I'm not quite as keen on pumpkin pies as Yusra is. Of course, I enjoy them for their seasonal perfection and spiciness, but I'm not in love with them or anything. Nevertheless, I found myself reaching for a second slice even before I was done with the one on my plate when it came to this one. The cream cheese in the filling gives it a beautiful texture, and the streusel on top is a perfect addition. Strange that it doesn't make an appearance on many pumpkin pies...

As for me, I'm back at the apartment for my lat day of break. Four days at home was lovely after a week of midterms and paper-writing, but alas, back into the fray. So, naturally, I've spent my day reading more fiction novels, cooking stew, and thinking about working on a looming philosophy paper.

I mean, it's the thought that counts, right? Right. I'm going to go with it. Academic productivity at its finest.

In other news, I hear that MattMatt has baked me a belated pumpkin and cream cheese birthday cake. I have to say, though pumpkin pie isn't high on my list of saliva-inducing desserts, Matt's cake certainly is. I anticipate a rather delicious evening.

Who ever said twentieth birthdays couldn't stretch on for two weeks? ...and involve four separate cakes?

I confidently stand by the sentiment that birthday calories do not count.

...I mean, I have to maintain the integrity of my voracity.

Monday, October 3, 2011

salted dulce de leche brownies

It's that time of year again. The time of year when I wake up not wanting to get out of bed; to stay bundled up in layers of blankets against the chill of the morning. When kitchens smell like pie crust and nutmeg. When I can wrap myself up in a thick pashmina and tuck my jeans into sturdy boots. When I want nothing more than to curl up on the sofa in an oversized sweatshirt with a mug of tea. Pea coats and wool hats. Apple-picking and pumpkin patches. Cinnamon latte mornings and lentil stew evenings.

It's also the start of birthday season. My own was last week, and just four days later my dear friend Beth turned 20 as well. She has a rather large sweet tooth and appreciation for delicious things, so we get along swimmingly. Though we don't have a chance to chat very often [we live far apart and have hugely different schedules, despite attending the same school], a lunch-date of iced coffee and Thai curry is always enough to catch-up.

And, of course, I knew I'd be baking her something for the occasion.

I also haven't baked anything in quite a while [all the Middle-Eastern desserts lean more toward the stove-top cooking end of the spectrum], so I wanted to make sure it would be quite good. I settled on two of the greatest things in the world: dulce de leche and brownies. Salted, of course.

[Autumn just sings salted caramel, don't you think?]

I think I can confidently say that I own more cookbooks than any college student in history. Possibly also most housewives. Also, nothing makes me happier than Pashminas. Also, yes, that is a Sherlock mug.

Salted Dulce-de-Leche Brownies
Adapted from Apt. 2B Baking Co. 

For the brownies, you'll need:
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 11 oz bittersweet chocolate
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp vanilla
For the filling, you'll need
  • 1 14-oz can dulce de leche
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp fleur de sel, to top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line and grease a 9x13-inch pan.

Put the chocolate and butter in the bowl of a double boiler set over simmering water and stir occasionally until chocolate and butter are melted. Pour the melted chocolate into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add in the eggs and whisk on medium speed until incorporated. Add in both sugars and vanilla. Gradually add in flour and salt and mix until just combined.

In a separate bowl, mix dulce de leche and 1 tsp salt until thoroughly combined.

Pour about 2/3 of the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly with a spatula. Gently spread the salted dulce de leche on top of the batter. Pour the remaining batter on top of the dulce de leche and spread evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until set. Sprinkle fleur de sel on top of the baked brownies. Let brownies cool completely before cutting.

These are fan-flipping-tastic. I love the cake-y texture, which is odd since I typically prefer the fudgier variety. The salted dulce de leche offsets the sweetness of the brownies perfectly. A good, chocolate-y, fall dessert, and a nice source of comfort after the anti-climactic resolution that was the series 6 finale of Doctor Who.

Though I think pumpkin will need to make an appearance in my kitchen quite soon.

Yes. Definitely pumpkin. Pumpkin and ginger. I think that's a rather comforting combination. It'll be a nice addition to a week spent watching Merlin on Netflix studying for midterms.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

4. afghanistan: shir berenj [and turning twenty]

Time never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes unending, never enough, and so many names. Seconds, minutes, hours. Days, weeks, months. Years. Decades. Centuries. Millennium. Clocks, wristwatches, pocket watches, timers. Calendars, planners, schedules. Deadlines.

Wibbly-wobbly, really.

It's been, what, two weeks since my last post? A while, comparatively speaking. A lot can happen in two weeks. Attending a concert [Mat Kearney], writing a few papers [political theory and Spanish], reading a few books [class assignments], finishing another season of television [Torchwood], a trip out of town to attend another concert [Fleet Foxes in DC], starting a new job [tutoring], volunteering [soup kitchen], screaming with joy when a favorite screenwriter gets nominated for an Emmy [Steve Moffat for Sherlock, obviously], turning twenty.

Twenty years old. It's a strange feeling. I mean, I started school early so I'm the last among friends and peers to turn twenty. Many of them are already twenty-one, if not much older as is [taking a course with grad students makes one feel rather little, particularly when one is invited to go out for drinks with course professor and said students]. But still. One-fifth of a century. Two decades. Twenty years. 1,040 weeks. 7,280 days. 175,316 hours.10,518,975 minutes. 10,483,200 minutes. 631,138,519 seconds.

A lot can happen in twenty years.

But this isn't the time to reminisce about it.

I am, though, fortunate. Extremely so. For knowing the people that I've met, having the friends that I do, and a family that is always there. I sometimes forget it, but I'm always reminded. Particularly when I'm confronted with three different birthday cakes in the span of two days, an all-expenses paid dinner [parents are indispensable when you're in college], some meaningful gifts, and a load of well-wishes.

Cake from mother? Check. Cake from friends? Check. Life-size cardboard cut-out of the Tenth Doctor? Check.

You know, I'm pretty damn happy.

Birthday weekend started out like all great weekends should: a phenomenal dinner cooked by Mr. Sparta [I still dream about those mascarpone-stuffed dates...] and spectacular birthday carrot cake by Mrs. Sparta [orange-zested cream cheese frosting is such a revelation!]. I spent the beginning of the weekend in DC with Chelsea's family, Matt, Rudhdi, and Liz for a Fleet Foxes concert, and Chelsea's family graciously offered to prepare a birthday meal beforehand. The dinner was absolutely amazing, the concert was incredible, and there was tons of hilarious conversation on top of it all.

What did I say before about being blessed to have the friends that I do?

Came home Saturday afternoon, during which Farnoosh refused to let me open the fridge, as she and Tommy spent Friday afternoon baking a birthday cake for me. So I was forced to keep to the couch, having all fridge-items brought to me by Noosh, until going out for a delicious Thai dinner with Zack and Jerm in tow. Once we got home, Tommy came over and I finally got to see the dessert: an absolutely gorgeous chai cake with honey-ginger cream cheese frosting. It was beautifully constructed and tasted phenomenal in its complexity and similarity to a chai tea latte. And thus day two of the birthday weekend ended, yet again, in tummies full of sugar.

As for today, the 'rents drove in for the afternoon [as they always do] to take us out for a lunch of kebabs [as they always do]. I love the familiarity, especially since it means that mom has prepared a rich, dark chocolate torte to celebrate [as she always does]. They stayed for a while, we caught up since I hadn't seen them in over a month, enjoyed some of the cake from yesterday, and then cut into another one. And now, lying on the couch with a knit blanket, best friend by my side, flicking through channels on the new television [present courtesy of my father], and plates of cakes just eaten skewed across the coffee table, I can safely say that I am in a good place.

Twenty years old, and in a good place. A surreal feeling, but one that I think I will enjoy getting used to.

As for this dessert [because God knows that after three cakes I really just need another pound of sugar to throw me into a coma], I cooked it up earlier today before my parents arrived, and after a breakfast of leftover chai cake with milk. In the style of Middle Eastern puddings, which I love dearly, shir berenj is a Persian rice pudding. This one I've made in honor of Afghanistan, with a quite a bit of help from Noosh as well.

Shir Berenj
Adapted from Turmeric and Saffron, alongside some of Noosh's expertise.

You'll need:
  • 1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in 2 cups water
  • 1 cup water
  • 5 cups milk [whole milk preferred, though 2% will do as well]
  • cinnamon, to garnish
  • honey, if desired
  • fruit preserves, if desired

Rinse and soak the rice in cool water for at least two hours (preferably overnight). Then, rinse water and pour the rice into a deep, nonstick pot. Add the water and heat over medium flame until the water comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, and stir occasionally until the rice absorbs all of the water, 10-15 minutes. Slowly pour in the milk and continue stirring over low flame until the rice has soaked up the milk, 30-40 minutes. Be sure to stir occasionally as to prevent the milk from burning.

Once pudding has cooked [the rice will be soft, but shouldn't break apart], remove the pan from the heat and let the pudding cool for 10-15 minutes. Pour the pudding into serving dishes and flatten the tops using a spoon. Sprinkle cinnamon over top of the pudding. Serve immediately with honey or fruit preserves to sweeten, or cover the tops with clingwrap and refrigerate until serving.

It's an easy dessert, really. Cooks for a while over stovetop, similar to seviyan, and the end result is a thick and creamy custard. Milk-based puddings are, for the most part, all made in this way: slow-cooked over a low flame for the milk to thicken to sweet, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. In other words, delicious.

You know, turning twenty has made me think about how quickly time goes by, and how much can happen in just a few years [if not two weeks]. But perhaps it's time to stop thinking about time. Time means that these cakes won't last forever. And that means that I'll have to stuff my face now and savor each moment.