Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.

Small Batch Lemon Lavender Sugar Cookies

This is a story about two of my friends. They are very different, and our friendships are very different, but they both have a connection to these sugar cookies.

In high school, M. was my best friend. We met at the beginning of our 8th grade year, and as a newcomer to the area, I was on the lookout for a companion. Within about three weeks, our friendship was cemented. We were in many of the same classes, we played the same instrument, we lived within a mile of one another, and we had many of the same interests. That’s a pales-in-comparison way of saying we spent at least a chunk of almost every weekend together from eighth grade through our senior year.

We had a number of misadventures in our years together, and though we grew apart a bit during college and fell out of touch for a while in graduate school, these movements punctuated by increasing geographical distance as she went to the East Coast and then to Great Britain, we made little sparkling moments of contact, particularly around food – I sent her a box of Triscuits because she missed American crackers (she was horrified by their saltiness, far more than she remembered), she sent back a box of Maldon sea salt, astounded by its U.S. prices. We weren’t able to attend one another’s weddings, but thanks to the coziness of the internet we can keep an occasional eye on one another, and that feels nice.

The most crucial of our adventures for this post was one chilly afternoon in high school. We were at my house, as was typical, and decided we wanted to bake some cookies. Not chocolate chip this time, though. Plain old sugar cookies. We dug out my Complete Guide to Country Cooking book my nana had sent me when she first learned I was interested in cooking, and went to work.

The problem with sugar cookies is that they have to be rolled out and cut, and that requires workable dough. Our instructions, the same instructions I’m following here, called for the dough to be chilled for at least an hour. But we wanted cookies! We decided it probably wouldn’t require a full hour of chilling. We’d check on it earlier. We may have waited ten minutes. We tried rolling and made a squelchy, horrible mess. Back into the fridge went the dough for maybe another ten minutes. Ad infinitum.

It turns out that when you lug a bowl of dough out of the fridge every few minutes, try and fail to roll it out, and then do the same thing ten minutes later, the butter doesn’t have enough time to harden back up and come to a rollable consistency. I don’t remember exactly what we did with the mess we finally abandoned; it probably went into the trash and we headed up to the computer to entertain ourselves with SimCity or King’s Quest or something. But our handiwork remains both in my mind and on the page bearing that recipe, and it was indelible enough for M. that she coerced a group of her college pals into recreating the cookie-baking episode on VHS (!!) for me as a birthday gift one year.

In graduate school, VV was one of my friends. We weren’t tremendously close, as she entered the program a few years after me and thus circumstances put us at different places in our studies and in our lives, but we always got along, and I remember a lovely afternoon teaching-evaluation-disguised-as-coffee-session during which we chatted about the classroom experience. VV and I, too, stay connected via that simultaneous glory and trash fire that is the internet – her Facebook page gives me a little window into her life and, most importantly to this particular story, another kind of baking: her current adventures in ceramics. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, VV showed off some hearts with inspirational messages she was preparing for the kiln, and being her generous self, offered them up to friends who admired them. A few weeks later, I received a beautiful heart, dark rose in color, with spiraled floral patterns surrounding the encouraging words “Be Brave.”

VV, then, needed a thank you. And inspired in part by another ceramics project in which she pressed lavender stems into clay to create lovely little garden signs (“Welcome Spring!” “Welcome bees!”) I realized it was time to dig out the old sugar cookie recipe and shake it up a bit with the addition of some culinary lavender and a little lemon zest.

I’m calling this a “small batch” recipe because it only makes about 18-20 cookies, if you use my size suggestion of 2×3 inch rectangles. But I really think, unless you are having a party, that’s enough. Almost two dozen cookies is enough to last a few days: it’s not so much piping that your hand cramps up, the cookies don’t get stale, and you don’t get tired of them. Though if we’re honest, with the sharp lemon and the hint of perfume from the lavender, there’s really no danger of that.

A few notes: the cookies taste a touch on the salty side by themselves, because I wanted to account for the sweetness of the frosting – with 4 cups of powdered sugar at minimum, it has the potential to quickly become overwhelming. If you aren’t frosting these, go ahead and halve the quantity of salt I’ve called for.

I’ve also gone a bit overboard on the decorations – I wanted them to reflect their inspiration, so I crafted little portrait frames and piped my best attempt at lavender onto them. I include an approximation of my method below, but you could opt for flowers of any kind, or birds, bees, butterflies, or whatever you’d like. For filling but also delicate detail piping, the best option for cookies is royal icing. It is reasonably easy to make, you can mix it with different thicknesses – firm enough to hold its shape in detail work, or thin and flowing in what’s called “flood” icing – and it dries rock hard. Since I was sending these through the mail and since I didn’t know how VV would feel about a traditional royal icing’s requirement of raw egg whites, I opted for meringue powder instead, which works near miraculously.

 

Small Batch Lavender Lemon Sugar Cookies
Makes 18-20 2×3 inch cookies
2-3 hours, including time to chill, cool, and ice finished cookies
For cookies:
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon culinary lavender
3/8 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 3/8 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
For royal icing:
¼ cup meringue powder
¼-½ cup water
¼-½ cup lemon juice
4-5 cups powdered sugar
optional: gel or liquid food coloring

 

  • To make the cookies, first add the sugar, lemon zest, and lavender to your mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the zest and lavender into the sugar, releasing their oils and breaking up the blossoms a bit. Add the butter and use an electric mixer or the stand mixer paddle attachment to cream the butter and flavored sugar together until they are light and fluffy.
  • Add the egg and the lemon juice and cream together again. It may look slightly curdled thanks to the acid in the lemon juice, but don’t worry. It will be okay.
  • Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gradually add it to the creamed mixture. It will seem a bit dry at first; mix it a few seconds more and you’ll almost see it start to moisten and come together.
  • Pat the combined mixture into a ball and then chill the dough for one hour, until it is easy to handle.
  • When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, or, my preference, place it between two large pieces of parchment paper. Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a rough rectangle of ¼ inch thickness. It may take a few minutes for the dough to warm up before it becomes rollable.
  • Cut the dough into 2×3 inch rectangles (or use a flour-dipped cookie cutter of your choice) and place on the parchment lined cookie sheets. Reroll remaining dough and cut again, and so on until you have used all of the dough.
  • Bake the cookies at 375F for 8-10 minutes, until they are just barely golden around the edges. If you’ve cut different sized cookies, you may have to adjust this baking time. Remove to wire racks to cool completely before icing.
  • To make the royal icing, mix ¼ cup meringue powder with ¼ cup water and ¼ cup lemon juice. Beat until peaks form and the mixture is glossy.
  • Working about 1 cup at a time, add 3½ cups sifted powdered sugar and beat until fairly stiff. This will be approximately the right texture for the “flood” icing, which is useful to fill areas, as I did with the white surface on my cookies. Scoop out about half of this into a separate bowl.
  • To the remaining mixture, add another ½-1 cup powered sugar and beat until very stiff – you are looking for something pipeable that will hold its shape.
  • Load about a cup of the firmer icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can cut off a small piece of the corner from a ziptop plastic bag and fit the tip into that. I haven’t tried doing this without a metal piping tip, but if the hole in the bag was small enough you might be able to make it work.
  • Starting from one corner, pipe a thin rectangular border around the top surface of each cookie, as in my photo above. Don’t go quite to the edge – a very thin visible edge of cookie looks nice.
  • Using a spoon, a small spatula, or another piping bag loaded with a tip that has a wider opening, fill the space inside your piped borders with the thinner “flood” icing. If this icing isn’t thin enough to spread quite easily, you can add more water and/or lemon juice 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the consistently you want. It should still be thick, but almost flow when you tip the cookie back and forth. Use the spoon, spatula, or piping tip to coax the icing into all crevices until you have a thin but opaque layer of icing totally filling your piped border.
  • When you’ve finished filling in the tops of the cookies, it’s time for intricate decorations. If you’re using color, divide up your remaining firm icing. You’ll need as many separate bowls as you want separate colors. If you are using gel coloring, add just a small smear to begin with, as it’s very strong. I used just a fractional bit of green, and a few drips each of red and blue to make my “lavender” purple. When you have the colors you want, load up a piping bag fitted with a small round tip and get started.
  • To pipe lavender stems, start with the green. Draw a straight or curved line about 2/3 of the way up the cookie from the bottom edge of the frosted portion. Add a few leaves on either side by piping just a small straight line of icing attached to the main stem.
  • To pipe the lavender flowers, using pale purple icing in a piping bag fitted with the small round tip, squeeze small dots starting from the top edge of your green stem up until your flower head seems tall enough. Right next to that column of dots, do another one. Squeeze a final column of dots right in the center, on top of and between the other two, as you can see in my photos above. Lavender sometimes has small, less developed flowerheads sprouting out from just above its leaves, so you can also pipe a dot or two above the leaves here and there, as you can see I’ve done in some of mine.
  • When everything is piped to your satisfaction, set the cookies aside. The icing will take several hours to dry, but once it has, it will be incredibly solid – hard enough, in fact, to make it in one piece through the mail from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon, yet not so hard that it hurts your teeth.

 

Tarte au Citron au David Lebovitz

Now with photos!

As I mentioned way back in August, while in France this summer N. fell head-over-heels-silly in love with tarte au citron. This is far from shocking; as far as I’ve been able to determine – and I’ve been feeding him for some time now – his two favorite flavoring agents are lemon and plain old black pepper.

Of course I intended to make him one – well, us; I can’t say I don’t also love what is essentially lemon curd in pie form – but somehow months passed and I never got around to it. And this weekend, facing down the disappointment of a wonderful green salsa I intended to share with you until it almost caused an electrical fire and may have destroyed my blender, at which point I stopped paying attention to quantities and photography, I had to square off against the equally important truths that it’s been almost a month since I last published anything here, and that I just didn’t feel like engaging in recipe development to try and make something innovative when the existing reality is basically perfection already.

So I’m trying something new. I’m allowing myself an option I shouldn’t think of as “lazy,” but as informative. I’m reporting on a recipe I used. Here, I’ve made David Lebovitz’s tarte au citron, employing an unusual method for tart dough he learned from a friend, and a filling that was exactly what I needed to make loving use of two lemon-filled bags I received recently from friends (thanks, M. and A!). Those contributions not used here went into a big pitcher of pisco sours I, regrettably, didn’t think to photograph until they were half gone. What kind of blogger even am I?

The method for the dough reminded me of the base for pate a choux, which you’d use for cream puffs, eclairs, or churros: the butter is melted and the flour gets stirred into it; no obsession with cold fat here. I found the quantity of dough just a touch less than I comfortably wanted to press into my tart pan, and in fact a few cracks did develop as it baked, but the genius idea of saving a piece of raw dough “about the size of a raspberry” to patch cracks prevented any filling leakage.

I do think I cooked the filling a little longer than I should have, as it took a while to strain and there were some suspiciously eggy looking bits left in my sieve. But hey, less time in the oven?

N. made “mmm” noises a lot while he ate his slice, so I think it passed muster, though the edges of the crust were uneven and we weren’t sitting at a table outside a restaurant in a cobbled alley in the south of France. The tart shell here is buttery and crisp, though I wonder if cooking the butter a touch longer would offer the extra luxury of brown butter flavor. Many of Lebovitz’s commenters said it was flaky; I found it more like shortbread, but was pleased with the texture. The curd inside is rich and silky and not overly sweet; tasting it made me salivate a little in a way I appreciate from tart desserts.

My “original” addition here is limited to adding some blackberries before serving. While it’s certainly not particularly innovative to add fruit to a dessert, they were a nice textural change and flavor pairing for the lemon. And they were on sale. If you’re going to do the same, you might even toss them lightly in some sugar before placing and serving (though if you’re going to try this, you’ll need to slice and eat fast, because sugaring the berries will make them bleed juice into the pristine sunshiny surface of your tart).

Tart Dough recipe here

Lemon filling and assembly recipe here

 

Mocha Ganache Shortbread

In thinking about baking lately, I’ve been attracted to layers. This could have been inspired by an outrageously good bar style dessert I had at, of all places, a training workshop on my campus. We changed catering companies in the last year or so, and the new service is unexpectedly good. The last day of this workshop, they brought in not only lemon bars, but a three layer concoction that, if memory serves, involved a thick chocolate layer on the bottom, a cream cheese layer reminiscent of cheesecake in the middle, and then a thin topper that might have been red velvet cake on top. All this with cherries dotted through. Immediately upon getting home that day, I emailed the catering service asking for more info. I have yet to hear an answer…

But anyway, layers: of course I instantly think of cake, but because I’m now back in school and am thinking about what treats I can leave in the mailroom, I need something smaller and more portable. Cake can be messy. As I was trawling my way around Pinterest I saw something that reminded me of that old classic the peanut butter blossom: Hershey’s kisses pressed into a soft cookie. Instead of the traditional peanut butter, I thought about shortbread: crisp, tender, crumbly, enhanced by browning the butter. The milk chocolate drop became a rich ganache layer spread over the top, not just chocolate but espresso too, for a mocha-like kick-in-the-pants to perk us up for a morning – or an afternoon, for that matter – in the classroom.

For shortbread, I borrowed from both Ruhlman’s bare bones ratio in, well, Ratio, and from Martha Stewart’s version, formulated for brown butter. A little milk gets added in to compensate for the water lost from the butter during the melting and browning process. I wanted some salt and some vanilla too, and then had to stop myself from adding all kinds of other ingredients: roughly chopped almonds, orange zest, a spritz of garam masala – because I wanted to focus on the buttery shortbread and its rich, caffeine-infused topping. But do feel free to experiment if you want; any of these would, I suspect, be delicious. I’ve used weight here to measure my ingredients, following Ruhlman’s formula: shortbread requires 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat (butter, in this case), 3 parts flour. This is more precise and, in a lot of ways, easier: you can pour directly into your mixing bowl, which means no one has to wash a stack of measuring cups.

A note on the ganache: this combination of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream can vary in thickness anywhere from a drizzling glaze to the dense squelch of a truffle. This one is fudge-like straight from the refrigerator, but it softens slightly as it warms and becomes more like a very thick frosting. It’s rich, but not overwhelmingly so because it is not overly sweet. The coffee flavor and the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate keep it away from toothache territory.

It took a while before we got to taste this; between the need to re-solidify the butter after browning, a friend in town, cooling the shortbread after baking, and time for the ganache to harden, 48 hours passed before N. and I finally stood anxiously over these little squares as I sliced. Yours needn’t take that long, obviously, but do be aware of the cooling time it requires.

Nevertheless, the wait was worth it. At first bite you taste sweetness, but it quickly develops into that deep, almost fruity taste coffee lends to chocolate. Then, as you crunch through the shortbread layer, you start to pick up on the buttery richness there. And then, while you are savoring all that goodness, you are somewhat surprised to see another piece already in your hand, ready for a repeat.

I’m delivering a tray of these to the mailroom at work tomorrow. N. and I are taking bets about how long they will last. He says 10 minutes. I’m thinking, given how early I get to work, that they may last an hour or two, but I’m certain none will make it into the afternoon.

Mocha ganache shortbread
Makes one 9×9 inch tray
About 3 hours including cooling time
For the shortbread:
4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
8 ounces butter (2 sticks or 16 tablespoons)
12 ounces flour (2-2½ cups)
2 TB milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ – 1 teaspoon salt, depending on your preference
For the mocha ganache:
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped into small pieces
5-6 ounces heavy cream
3 tablespoons instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
  • First, brown the butter: in a small pot, melt the butter swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
  • Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the shortbread.  I used my stand mixer bowl.  Stow it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes, just until the butter solidifies – you don’t want it to be liquid anymore, but don’t let it harden or freeze.
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line a 9×9-inch baking dish with parchment paper, letting the paper extend over the edges of the dish to make a sling for easy removal later on.
  • Add the sugar, milk, and vanilla to the cooled brown butter and beat with an electric mixer or the paddle attachment of your stand mixer until well combined.
  • Add in the flour and mix again to incorporate. First the dough will be very crumbly, but then as the flour begins to hydrate it will take on the texture of damp sand. At that point, stop mixing. Yes, it is a crumbly mess rather than a proper dough. That’s okay. The more you mix it, the more the gluten develops and the tougher the end result will be. For maximum tenderness, be brave: dump the crumbs into your lined baking dish and use your hands or a rubber spatula to firmly press it into the baking dish like you would do with a graham cracker crust.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, until the top of the shortbread is golden and has only a very slight give when gently pressed. Allow it to cool completely.
  • To make the ganache, you have two options: you can use a double boiler, or you can use the microwave.
  • For the double boiler, heat water in a small pot to a simmer. Place a glass bowl over the pot but don’t let it touch the water below. Add the chocolate, the instant espresso powder, and the cream to the bowl and stir gently until it melts together smoothly. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • To use the microwave, pour the cream into a glass bowl and heat until it is barely simmering; depending on your microwave this may take 1-1½ minutes. When it is just forming tiny bubbles (you don’t want it to boil), stir in the instant espresso and let it dissolve, then add the chocolate and stir gently to combine. Be patient: the heat of the cream will melt the chocolate.
  • If the cream cools down too much and the chocolate doesn’t seem to be melting at all, return the bowl to the microwave and heat for 15-20 seconds, then remove and continue stirring. Repeat if necessary. When the chocolate has completely melted, add the vanilla and stir to combine.
  • Pour the ganache over the cooled shortbread, using a spatula to spread it evenly across the top. Let sit until cool, then refrigerate until the ganache hardens to the texture of cool butter: if pressed hard it will give, but it you gently touch it your fingertip won’t leave a mark.
  • When the ganache has hardened, you can use the parchment paper sling to remove the whole confection from the baking dish, slice into squares of your desired size using a very sharp knife, and try to resist eating them all in one go.

 

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars

I’ve tried to start this post three times. Each time I deleted what I’d written, and ultimately it took me a week in between actually making the thing and knowing what to write (hence the Halloween plate) because as usual, it’s hard to know how much from “out there” belongs here in my little virtual kitchen. I feel like I want to talk about it, even though it is hard, because to separate and live only in an idealized, happy little blog space feels disingenuous. Yet to try to write about a massacre in the same breath as a dessert feels just as bad. And it is happening more and more often.

So I’m going to try to write this post by talking about my friend M. instead. M. is an amazing woman who, in my last two years of graduate school became a firm friend, and in the years since has risen in my esteem to be one of my favorite people. She is smart. She is complex. She is opinionated and feisty and loud and dedicated and… just a really cool human being. She is also vexed with a complicated set of food allergies. And she happens to be Jewish. She deserves, as do all people, to live safely, have the freedom to practice their faith or lack thereof, and to pursue happiness in their own way. And so because I’m having trouble writing out my thoughts about Pittsburgh and what has happened there in a way that makes sense, I made a dessert for M.

It’s not enough. It’s not even a related action. But I saw a post on Facebook the day I made these from a woman named Kim Weild that told me “The Talmud says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We have so, so much work to do. And on this day I could not complete the work, but baking was a tiny way of doing something I felt capable of doing. And I voted while it was baking, so there. Are you going to? Tomorrow’s the day…

One of the challenges of feeding M. is that she cannot have dairy or eggs. Rice is out of the question, as is beef. So is avocado, of all things. Gluten isn’t a no-no, but it should be a rarity. So M. has spent several years investigating alternatives, and though I don’t see her very often, I occasionally concoct something she can eat, in the off chance I’ll get a chance to feed her. There’s an allergy-free coconut cream pie recipe deep in my mind that I want to get to someday.

This one, though, is inspired by a now-lost-to-the-ages conversation she and another food-interested friend had on Facebook once that I eavesdropped all over. It involved pumpkin, turmeric, and other various spices. It may have included oatmeal. What it did for me, however, was to get me thinking of what would happen if you combined a lot of warm spices with Indian flair in a pumpkin pie, subbed out the eggs for silken tofu, and instead of a traditional crust, pressed together a combination of nuts and coconut oil graham cracker style. And then I scrapped the whole pie idea entirely and went with bars instead.

These are rich, taking a long time to bake and an insistence on cooling completely before they can be dealt with. Ideally they should be refrigerated overnight to let the coconut oil and the oils the nuts release chill and reconstitute, while the pumpkin and tofu mixture solidifies into something creamy and almost smooth. But in addition to a baking dish, they do require only one food processor and a small bowl to mix up, so that’s easy. They fit right into a long, slow afternoon when you need something sweet and tender and spiced to comfort you.

M., here’s a humble plate of comfort I made thinking of you. Happy belated Hallow-birthday-ween.

Indian Spiced Pumpkin Custard Bars
Makes 9×9 inch square pan
About 1½ hours plus cooling time
Crust:
1 cup raw, unsalted pistachios
1 cup raw walnuts (halves or pieces)
¼ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
scant ⅓ cup coconut oil
Filling:
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
16 ounce block silken tofu, drained and patted dry
½ cup soy, almond, or coconut milk – your preference
¾ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and line your baking dish with a “sling” of parchment paper: one piece that covers the bottom and extends past the top of opposite sides, and a second piece positioned perpendicularly, so it adds a second layer to the bottom and extends past the top of the other two sides.
  • To make the crust, add the walnuts, pistachios, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse function, pulverize into fairly even bits about the size of lentils, though some will be smaller. Reserve ¾ cup of this mixture for later.
  • Add the coconut oil and buzz on high until very well combined but not quite buttery. You want the coconut oil to be fully integrated, but you still want to be able to manipulate the mixture.
  • Once well combined, dump the crust mixture into the prepared pan and use your hands or a spatula to press it into an even layer across the bottom. Stow this in the fridge while you make the filling.
  • In the same food processor (you can wash it out if you want to, but I didn’t bother), combine the pumpkin puree, the silken tofu, the milk, the ¾ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, all the spices, and the vanilla. Process on high until the mixture is very smooth, then stop the machine and scrape down the sides to be sure – sometimes little clumps of tofu remain.
  • Remove the crust from the refrigerator and pour the velvet-smooth filling in, then carefully transfer to the oven and bake for about 60 minutes. The edges of the filling will be firm and the center will be extremely wobbly but set on top.
  • Remove from the oven, gently sprinkle the reserved nut mixture over the top in an even layer, being sure to get it into the corners. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven but leave the dish inside for about 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before refrigerating, ideally overnight, but at least for a few hours.
  • Carefully remove from the pan and the sling, then slice while still cold and serve. Alternatively, serve by scooping big spoonfuls into bowls or pretty glasses and adding a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies

This is the story of a batch of cookies that almost didn’t happen. I’ve had them in the back of my mind for the better part of a week, now – a rehash of these brownie chunk cookies I’ve been playing with for a few years – and Sunday morning, as N. headed off to run a 10k in Santa Monica, I was ready to bake.

Until.

The previous night, I’d decided to make some little pesto swirled buns to use up a bit of fed sourdough starter, and plopped the kneaded dough right back into the bowl of my stand mixer to rise slowly in the refrigerator overnight. So of course when I got ready to make the cookies Sunday morning, I walked straight over to the mixer and only remembered after a few seconds of confused staring why the bowl wasn’t there: it was full of raw dough.

No matter. I’d just use my old handheld electric mixer ad my biggest glass mixing bowl… which, it transpired, was full of potato salad. A big old metal bowl it would be, then. Not as photogenic, but that’s a bit of a tiniest violin complaint.

So I creamed up the butter, added the sugar, lifted the electric mixer to clear out some of the collected mixture from inside the beaters, and the whisk part of one of the beaters – just the little bulb bit at the end that does all the work – fell off its metal post right into the butter.

I just stood there for a few seconds, considering the wisdom of options that included washing my stand mixer bowl and just throwing the butter and sugar blend I’d started right into the garbage, and decided on perhaps the laziest, least responsible option, which was to jam the beater back onto its post and mix the rest of the batch with that side smashed up against the bowl so it wouldn’t come off.

So I did. And everything was great. Until I went to add the flour, and realized I didn’t have any. Well, that’s not quite true. I had bread flour, and I had whole wheat flour. But who wants that in a cookie? (Actually, there is a bit of bread flour in these, but using such a high protein flour for the whole allotment was untested and might be less than pleasant.)

It turns out the Ralph’s down the street from my house is pretty uncrowded just before nine in the morning on a Sunday, which meant I got back from my unexpected errand quickly enough that I couldn’t be too annoyed, but still. How many setbacks is one batch of cookies worth?

The answer is at least this many. Many even one more. These cookies are triumphant. There are toasted walnuts. There are shards of bittersweet chocolate. There are hunks of brownie that somehow don’t get dried out and overbaked. And there are cherries.

I’ve never been a big fan of chocolate and cherries. Chocolate and strawberries are, of course, a worthy classic, and though I would go for one or two Mayfairs, those See’s candy creations with chopped cherry and walnuts inside, other incarnations didn’t thrill me, I think because most of the chocolate and cherry combinations I was tasting involved maraschino or other sweet cherries. These cookies, though, rely on the opposite: you need tart or sour dried cherries for this one. I used Montmorencies, which are still sweet but carry the same slight pucker as a dried cranberry – enough to make your mouth water just a little – and this hit of contrast is perfect in these chocolate-drenched cookies.

These are a project. Before actually baking the cookies, each tray of which require almost twenty minutes in the oven, you have to make the brownies and toast the walnuts, and the whole mission sets you back a full pound of butter. But when you are faced with trays of perfectly golden, chocolate studded cookies that are just crisp at the edges and softly chewy in the center, and when you crunch into the first flake of sea salt scattered decadently across the top, all of that extra preparation, even an emergency grocery store quest, feels justified.

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
adapted from the Sweet Pea Bakery and Catering, via Bon Appetit magazine
Old Fashioned Brownies
Makes a ½ inch slab of about about 10×15 inches
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (unless you’re lazy like me)
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), cubed (see parentheses above)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, or parchment paper leaving at least an inch overhang on all sides to lift with.
  • Create a double boiler by filling a medium pot about half full of water and setting a glass or metal bowl over the pot, being sure the bottom of the pot doesn’t touch the water. Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl, and bring the water in the pot to a bare simmer over medium heat. Stir frequently until chocolate and butter are smooth, glossy, and completely melted. Set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes.
  • When chocolate is barely warm to the touch, whisk in the sugar and vanilla. The mixture will become clumpy. Add the eggs and salt; whisk firmly until fully combined. Switch to a spatula and stir in the flour until no white streaks remain.
  • Dump and spread the batter over the prepared pan to create a thin, even layer. You may have to manipulate it quite a bit to get it to spread that far.
  • Bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs; about 20 minutes. Cool in pan, then cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.
  • To remove from the pan, lift using the foil overhang and reserve about ½ of the slab (or maybe a bit more) for the cookies. Use the remainder for your own devious purposes.

 

Cherry Chocolate Brownie Chunk Cookies
Makes 2½ – 3 dozen
1½ cups room temperature butter (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, + more for sprinkling
1 cup walnuts, toasted, then chopped (I like to pop them in while I’m preheating the oven – by the time it reaches 325F, the walnuts are usually ready)
1 cup dried tart or sour cherries, such as Montmorency
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped in chunks
½ – ⅔ old-fashioned brownie slab, cut into ½-inch chunks

 

  • Preheat oven to 325F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper (toasting the walnuts while it’s preheating is a good way to multitask)
  • Cream the butter in a large bowl until it is light and fluffy. Add the sugar and the brown sugar and cream again until well integrated – be sure there are no errant chunks of butter.
  • Add the vanilla and eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and mix well to combine, scraping down the sides to create a homogeneous mixture.
  • Stir in the flours, baking soda, and salt to form a soft dough. Add the walnuts cherries, and chopped chocolate, stirring well to combine. Finally, gently fold in the brownie chunks – we don’t want to break them up too much.
  • Spray a ⅓ – ½ cup ice cream scoop or measuring cup with non-stick spray and use it to scoop the batter into rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart (this allowed me to fit six balls of dough on each sheet). Once spaced, press down with two fingers to flatten each ball slightly.
  • Sprinkle the top of each cookie sparingly with coarse or flaky sea salt and bake in the preheated 325F oven for 18-20 minutes, until edges of cookies are starting to turn golden and the middle is set but still very soft.
  • Cool on cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.