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.

 

Triple Play Deviled Eggs Crostini

When I planned out this post, I had big dreams: I was on spring break, and I was going to do research and offer you a big history lesson into the tradition of “deviled” foods (short version: in savory items this indicates something heavily spiced, i.e. the mustard or paprika of a deviled egg or the hot sauce of deviled ham). I did a thoroughly scientific examination of which kind of fat – unsalted butter [below, left], mayonnaise {below, right], or olive oil [below, center] – would be best for the crostini (short version: I liked mayonnaise the best. It toasted evenly, it had a mild flavor, and it was easiest since I was going to use it anyway for the egg filling. The butter had a pleasant toasty flavor from the browned solids, and the olive oil not only had the most assertive flavor, which I deemed potentially distracting from the egg, but took the longest to toast). I came up with three filling options to tickle your fancy and your taste buds, and decided I didn’t have to choose – we would talk about them all: how the classic is simple and perfect, but then I thought about tuna salad as inspiration for the vegetable-forward version, and an herby, punchy latke spread for the one with horseradish…

But then I stepped into my “outdoor photo studio” the day of and got so excited about the photography part of this self-imposed assignment that I must confess I ran out of steam a bit. Instead of overloading you with information, I’ll invite you to sink deeply into the Alice in Wonderland garden setting and indulge me my fussy fanciness (though you must admit: these would be lovely as an Easter brunch item, or a bridal or baby shower, or some other spring… thing…).

These made a delicious, extravagant lunch. In addition to being “highly spiced,” I think a good deviled egg needs some acidic component, and these did not disappoint. Despite my love for my “classic” recipe, I found I liked the “Herbaceous” version the best, with its subtle but peppery horseradish tang.

Just a few things before I let you get on to the rest of the exhibit and the recipe itself: one key to making lovely, heaping deviled eggs is to boil one egg more than you want to serve. One of the whites gets discarded, so you wind up with the equivalent of one extra yolk to pile high. Here, I have offered quantities for one crostini of each type, which means you need 4 eggs, but you could easily double or triple the amounts in each individual variety, and you could certainly serve them as traditional deviled eggs, which would entail just halving the whites instead of slicing them. You also certainly don’t have to provide all the intricate little garnishes; I went a touch overboard because I had time and wanted to play. Any of these would be fine without the little toppers. Now on with the show…

Triple Play Deviled Egg Crostini
Makes 4 eggs; enough for 3 crostini (one of each type)
About 30 minutes
For all:
4 eggs
1½ tablespoons mayonnaise
Seeded bread, thinly spread with fat of your choice, broiled until golden
1.) The Classic
½ teaspoon whole grain mustard + additional, to garnish
¼ teaspoon cider vinegar
dash Worcestershire
salt and pepper to taste
2.) Crunchy Vegetable
1 heaping teaspoon finely minced celery
1 heaping teaspoon finely minced radish
6-8 thinly cut radish spears, to garnish (cut a thin slice into thin sticks, as in the photos)
1 scant teaspoon finely minced pickled onion + extra to garnish
salt and pepper to taste
assorted celery leaves to garnish, if desired
3.) Herbaceous
¼ teaspoon horseradish
1 teaspoon finely minced dill + additional sprigs, to garnish
1 teaspoon finely minced chives + additional longer spears, to garnish
¼ teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste

 

  • First, hard boil the eggs: bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, then use a spoon to carefully place each egg into the water one at a time, allowing them to roll off the spoon gently onto the bottom of the pot (that is, don’t just drop them in from the top of the water; they will break). When all eggs are added, start the timer for exactly 12 minutes. As soon as the timer sounds, remove the eggs to a small bowl or plate and set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. You can put them in the refrigerator or freezer to hasten this process.
  • When the eggs are cool enough to handle, tap their shells gently all over on a flat, hard surface, peel and rinse to be sure you’ve removed all shell fragments. With a very sharp knife, cut the hard-boiled eggs into slices; I did 4-5 slices per egg. Remove the yolk pieces carefully and put them into a small bowl. Keep the empty whites.
  • To make the deviled egg base, use a fork to mash up the yolks into a fluffy texture. Add the 1½ tablespoons mayonnaise and mash again with the fork until the mixture is smooth. You don’t want any big remaining pieces of yolk.
  • If you are making only one of these options, multiply ingredient amounts by 3 and proceed, adding them to the yolk and mayonnaise mixture and mixing well. If you are making all three, divide the yolk and mayonnaise mixture evenly between three ramekins or other small bowls, and add the quantities specified above.
  • To make the crostini, spread slices of seeded bread with your choice of butter, mayonnaise, or olive oil, place on a broiler pan or wire rack over a baking sheet, and broil until golden brown and crisp on top. In my broiler on high with mayonnaise, this took about three minutes. When toasted, set the bread aside to cool slightly.
  • To serve, arrange 3-4 slices of egg white atop each crostini. Use either a spoon or a piping bag (the easiest is a zip-top bag with one small corner cut off) to pile the deviled filling into each egg white circle.
  • For fancy garnish, top each “The Classic” yolk filling with a few grains of the whole grain mustard. Top each “Crunchy Vegetable” yolk filling with two crossed radish spears and a small piece of pickled onion – mine are the very central slices. If desired, add a few celery leaves to the bread itself, tucked in and around the whites. Top each “Herbaceous” with a sprig of dill. If desired, add a few longer chives and/or chive blossoms to the bread itself, tucked in and around the whites.
  • Serve at room temperature.

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.

 

Project Cook: Slow Braised Pork Tacos

A few years ago my sister told me it would be nice if, in addition to number of servings, I included in my blog recipes how long the dish took to prepare. I grumbled inwardly about this, since pausing to take photos and make notations on my scribbled plans made any time span I provided an approximation, but decided it was a good idea and put it into practice. A little later, I started buying cookbooks highlighting Middle Eastern food written by an Israeli chef who works in Britain (by now you probably know who I’m talking about by now) who doesn’t typically provide an estimate of total preparation time for his recipes. More than once, I was caught by unexpected directions like “simmer 40 minutes” or even “let sit overnight” that I hadn’t noticed in my initial skim through the recipe, and suddenly dinner was off the rails. My fault for not reading carefully, but still, a little up front estimate would be helpful.

Especially in the food blog world, in which I know some people read for the reading experience, but some people Google a main ingredient they are hoping to cook in the next hour, this time estimate seems particularly important. But again, especially in this forum in which we seem to have decided a story must precede the recipe, as I tell my students, you want to use your time efficiently. Thus if I promise you a perfectly smooth custard and you think “great, that’s dessert, let’s get started” to see only after reading about how well it went over at my latest dinner party that the custard base needs to chill for two hours, well, you’re back to your search engine and starting over again.

All this to say, I think initial warning is needed, so as you can see above I’m instituting a new label: “Project Cook.” This is to designate a dish that is fairly complicated to make, or takes a long time, or uses multiple cooking methods, and thus you’ll know whether to avoid it or to launch in with a full and lazy afternoon to work your way through. As time and memory permit, I’ll go back and apply the label through the archives.

So as you might expect, to launch this label I’m offering something that takes a long time and uses multiple cooking methods. These slow braised pork tacos are a riff on a recipe by Melissa D’Arabian, and though mine take longer, they are actually a bit pared down in terms of equipment and steps, since instead of braising in the oven, I turn to my slow cooker. That means although the pork needs to simmer away in the slow cooker for 7-8 hours, and then ideally it needs to sit in the fridge overnight (unless you’re starting this thing at 8 in the morning the day you want these tacos), after an initial sear and sweating of vegetables this is mostly hands off, which is perfect if, like me, you have a lot of planning to do for a semester that suddenly, now that it’s February, feels a lot closer than it did last week…

Let’s work through what’s happening here: if possible, salt the pork a day or two before cooking. Everything I’m reading (and watching – have you seen Salt Fat Acid Heat yet??) lately about cooking meat suggests the seasoning process begins, and works best, in advance. It doesn’t get salty, but the seasoning takes a while to penetrate past the surface. The pork gets seared in bacon fat for a beautiful crust and some extra flavor. A medley of vegetables sweats down in the pork fat next, before everything tumbles into the slow cooker together with red wine, beef broth, orange juice, and some herbs. Eight hours later, you have a hunk of pork that practically dissolves at the prod of a fork.

But we aren’t done there. The thing is, a lot of fat rendered out of that meat during its slow braise. Shoving it in the fridge overnight (after straining out the spent veg and herbs) means a.) the fat can be easily scraped off once it solidifies on top, and b.) your dinner prep the day of just got about 85% easier. All that remains to be done is to shred the pork, boil off the remaining liquid to reduce, and then crumble in crisp bacon to simulate the crunchy bits a great hunk of barbecued pulled pork has but a braise loses (alternatively, you can spread the pork out on a tray and broil it for a minute or two until some of the edges get crunchy, but I was too hungry to bother with all that).

Of course you can serve this in any way you want, from the taco suggestion in the title to heaped sandwich filling to just a scoop on a plate, but we settled for mounding it into toasted corn tortillas and topping it with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, sliced radishes, and a spoonful of guacamole. Oh, and some strings of pickled onions for that sour tang. Since there’s red wine in the sauce you can enjoy the rest of the bottle with dinner, but we opted for a lovely deep stout with orange and chocolate tones that paired perfectly.

Slow Braised Pork Tacos
Adapted from Melissa D’Arabian
Serves 6
Overnight project; time spans divided in procedure section below
To make:
2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 poblano, stemmed, seeded, and diced
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 TB tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ an orange
optional: guajillo chile, lime juice
To serve:
Corn tortillas, warmed or toasted
Crumbed queso fresco or cotija cheese (I like to add some lime zest to mine)
Thinly sliced cabbage dressed with salt and lime juice
Pickled onions
Thinly sliced radishes
Reserved crumbled bacon

 

Day 0: the day you buy the pork shoulder, salt and pepper it generously, then store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook (no more than 3 days, preferably)

 

Day 1:
Active time: 60-90 minutes
Unattended cooking time: 7-8 hours
Inactive: overnight refrigeration
  • Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium or medium-low heat until it is crisp. For me this took 15-20 minutes. Drain it on a paper towel and set aside until cool before refrigerating; we won’t be using it until Day 2. Turn the heat up to medium-high and carefully place the pork shoulder fat side down in the rendered bacon grease. It will sizzle aggressively; let it sear until it is golden-brown, at least 5 minutes. Repeat for each side, then remove the browned meat to the slow cooker.
  • Lower the heat to medium and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, poblano, and the smashed garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat the vegetables until they are tender but not browned, around 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, being sure it is well integrated.
  • Transfer the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the pork. Add the red wine, the beef broth, the bay leaves and the oregano. Squeeze in the juice from the orange half, then add the spent orange as well. Pop on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. It will cook for 7-8 hours, until the pork is extremely tender.
  • Remove the pork from the slow cooker pot and strain what remains, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Return pork and strained liquid to the slow cooker or to a vessel of your choice and refrigerate overnight.

 

Day 2:
Active time: about an hour
  • About an hour before you are ready to serve, remove your storage vessel from the fridge. While everything is still cold, scrape off and discard the layer of fat that should have collected on top.
  • Remove the pork from the storage vessel and place it on a board. Use two forks to shred it into ribbons (this is easiest once the pork has warmed up a little).
  • Place the liquid from the storage vessel into a medium pot on the stove (or just use your slow cooker on high heat, if it has that function). Taste and consider. Of course the flavor will be stronger when it has reduced, but if you feel like it just.. needs something, drop in a guajillo chile and/or a few squeezes of lime juice. Boil the liquid until it has reduced to a scant 1 cup; for me this took about 35 minutes. While the liquid is reducing, prep your accompaniments.
  •  When reduced, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper, if needed, and more lime juice. Add in the shredded pork and turn the heat down to low, cooking just until the pork is heated through.
  • Just before serving, crumble in the reserved bacon.
  • If you want additional crunch, spread the warmed, sauced pork out on a tray and put it until a preheated broiler for a few minutes, until some of the edges have crisped and a few have charred here and there. Serve with accompaniments listed above, or your own favorites.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini

The last week of summer is a curious avalanche of light melancholy and nervous action. I’m caught between the post-vacation-slump of wanting to curl and laze and bake my mind in nothing, and the deep itch of my protestant work ethic demanding I Get. Things. Done. before school starts.

So I cautiously plan in small doses, and I soothe the anxious itch that rears up when I am “wasting” time by consuming novels in gulps, to make up for reading little during the rest of the summer. I’m struck by Jesmyn Ward and Tommy Orange, and just this morning I fell back down into the entrancing, haunted wonderland that is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, inspired in part by this suggested reading list for white Americans assembled by a group of black writers. When I saw Morrison’s perhaps most famous novel on the list, I was brought back to an interview she did with Stephen Colbert in which she describes looking through her book for the right page to autograph for a reader, telling him “I looked down and there were these sentences.” I needed to read those sentences again. I burrowed through the first fifty pages this morning and now that itch is to open the book again.

But I do have other obligations, and one of them is to the final, late summer push of my miraculous zucchini plant. It flourished in our absence, our friend who was on plant-watering duties taking home several swollen specimens, and offering another few to our neighbors, and then suddenly, with only two large, hidden bats remaining, took a gasping breath and shuddered to a… pause? A stop? I think it will produce a few more, maybe, but its time seems limited.

That being the case, there was little time to waste in sharing my biggest zucchini triumph of the summer with you, in case you, too, have a few dark green baseball bats you aren’t sure how to consume.

Rather than an accompaniment or a burying-ground, this recipe uses the zucchini as a vessel. Ground lamb, seared and spiced and liberally tossed with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, chick peas, preserved lemon, feta crumbles, and as much grassy, bright dill as you can handle, gets piled into the scraped-out cavity of the monstrous squash. A mound of oiled breadcrumbs on top is not a necessity, but what a luxury.

This may seem like a lot of ingredients, but they really play together well. Lamb with dill is obviously a winner, but if you haven’t tried lamb with golden raisins, I insist that you make it a priority – they add a perfect sweetness and here, soak up some of the fat from the meat so they are juicy and plump in the final product. The feta and preserved lemon each contribute a nice brininess – I wouldn’t forgo either, though if you don’t have preserved lemon (and are unwilling to make it yourself), plenty of zest might fill in reasonably well. I initially added chick peas as a way of stretching the lamb, and you certainly don’t need them, but they provide a nice lightness of their own and, I think, eradicate any need for a side of starch. Though we ate ours overflowing segments with garlic-rubbed toast and were quite happy.

I like to think this filling has a life of its own beyond zucchini, which is what makes it so nice. A well-hollowed eggplant would work nicely as well, maybe a cored bell pepper, and as the days shorten and hopefully cool, a carefully carved butternut or kabocha squash. Or you could just ignore the vegetables entirely and use the lamb mixture (maybe minus the chick peas) as a loose filling for a take on stuffed shells, or ravioli, or just tossed gently with rigatoni and a few glugs of sauce.

Lamb Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 6-8 with filling left over
About an hour
1 very large zucchini squash
a maximum of ½ cup olive oil (you probably will not use all of it)
salt and pepper to taste
⅓ cup pine nuts
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and rinsed
½ cup golden raisins
2-3 tablespoons finely diced preserved lemon
3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill (you could sub with an equal amount of mint or about half as much oregano, if you don’t like dill)
4 ounces crumbled feta
¾-1 cup panko bread crumbs

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and line a large baking tray with aluminum foil. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise so you have two long, rounded planks with seeds exposed. Scrape out the seeds and some of the interior flesh with a metal spoon. Discard the scrapings and place the remaining “boats” on the baking tray. Lightly coat them with olive oil before seasoning liberally with salt and pepper. When the oven is preheated, put in the zucchini-laden baking tray and let them roast about 20 minutes while you start the filling. After 20 minutes, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • To make the filling, first heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium pan and add the pine nuts. Toast over medium heat, stirring and checking often, until they are nicely golden. Be careful; they burn quickly. When toasted to your liking, set them aside.
  • In the same pan, still on medium heat, add a little bit more oil and then your ground lamb. Use a flat-sided wooden spoon, if you have one, to break it up, then sprinkle over the allspice, cayenne pepper, and a bit of salt to season. Let it cook, stirring and turning and continuing to break up large chunks, until no longer pink in the center.
  • When the lamb is just cooked through, stir in the chick peas and the golden raisins, turn the heat down to medium-low, and let it go another five minutes. This lets the new additions pick up some flavor. After five minutes, remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.
  • To the now-cooked lamb, add the toasted pine nuts, the preserved lemon, the dill, and the feta, stirring well to combine everything. Taste for seasoning and add salt and more cayenne pepper, if needed. When you are satisfied with the flavor, scoop the filling into the empty, partially-cooked zucchini halves. I like to mound it up a bit. It will be crumbly because there is no binder.
  • In a small bowl, toss the panko bread crumbs with enough olive oil to coat them well. Pack spoonfuls on top of the lamb filling and exposed zucchini flesh.
  • Carefully place the laden tray back into the oven, turn the temperature down to 375F, and roast for 25-35 minutes, until the panko is deeply bronzed and the flesh of the zucchini pierces easily with a fork.
  • Let cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving large segments.