Project Cook: Soft-Centered Chocolates

Well. I wasn’t going to write anything today, especially not about this collection of chocolates I experimented my way through last weekend. But then E., a friend from college I had NO IDEA was following along (hi E! I’m so excited you’re here!!), asked on my humble-brag-okay-mostly-just-brag instagram post showing off my creations if I’d be posting the recipe or instructions here. And after I was done blushing, I remembered I had taken a few photos with my big camera along the way, and hey maybe I could put up a little something…

This collection was, as I said above, largely experimental, so I won’t be offering a precise recipe. I’d made three of them before with only a bit of adaptation: the amaretto truffles (top row), a white chocolate ganache spiked with amaretto as well as finely chopped almonds and dried apricots; the cranberry bourbon balls (second from bottom) were part of my Bittman project long ago, though in this iteration I used spiced rum, as one of my intended recipients doesn’t care for bourbon; and the whiskey caramels (bottom row), from the now long abandoned (I assume) blog Cheese and Chocolate, changing up that recipe only by coating the set caramel bars in dark chocolate and adding a sprinkle of sea salt on one corner.

What remains were, by rows, a failure-turned-unexpected-and-monumental-success (second from top); an easy win (third from top); and a disappointment (fourth from top or third from bottom, depending on how you’re counting). Just a little about each, and then a “recipe” and a few suggestions. The failure-turned-success I’m calling “White Russians”: an attempt at fudge that was too soft and poured out too thin, re-melted with more dark chocolate, some kahlua, and a little bit of vodka. This time it did set, so it got a coating of white chocolate and a line of espresso powder, and everyone who has tried it thus far has oohed and ahhed over it.

The “easy win” was a brandy and cherry truffle: a bit of brandy and a bit of luxardo cherry juice in the ganache, along with chopped luxardo cherries, a dark chocolate coating, and a dried cherry on top. I liked them and I wouldn’t say no to another (or two), but they aren’t the ones I keep coming back for. Maybe kirsch instead of brandy to heighten the cherry flavor?

The disappointment was one I made especially for R., who loooooooves the Middle Eastern confection halvah: basically a candy made from sesame and honey or sugar with a unique, sandy texture. I’d read this could be reproduced at home by mixing tahini and hot sugar syrup (I used honey), and tried out a recipe from The New York Times. While the flavor was great, the texture was somewhere between toffee and taffy: at first tooth-breakingly hard, then chewy enough to make me fear for my fillings. And despite halving the recipe, of course I ended up with more of these than of anything else. Nevertheless, I coated them in chocolate, sprinkled on some sesame seeds, and sent them along. None of my recipients has demanded I pay for their dental work yet, so I’m calling that a tentative success…

But enough of that, Chelsea, you’re probably saying. Tell us how to make the good ones. Right. Truffles and their ilk require three basic things: a ganache, which is a mixture of chocolate and (usually) cream, plain old melted chocolate to coat them, and some flavoring and/or decorating agent. Where it gets fun is in the flavoring: though you don’t want to overload the ganache that forms the center of your chocolates, you can probably crowd in as much as 1/4 cup of finely chopped dried fruit, or well-toasted nuts, or even candied citrus peel or crystalized ginger. Maybe even candy cane, if that’s your jam. I like to use a flavorful liqueur as part of the liquid component in mine, but you can replace that with something alcohol-free if you prefer – I’ve also used a ginger syrup as well as juice from luxardo cherries. I haven’t tried it, but a small amount of vanilla or almond extract would probably be great as well, or even one of those flavored syrups used for fancy coffee drinks or Italian sodas. And of course you could also just go pure with 100% cream.

Even though I said I wouldn’t, here’s a “recipe” and procedure. Let me know what you try, and may your holiday, if you celebrate this time of year, be bright.

Basic Ganache for Soft-Centered Chocolates
I’ve never timed myself on these – let’s estimate about 30 minutes to make the ganache, a few hours, or as much as overnight, to let it set, then another 30 minutes to coat the set centers. This is a project.
16 ounces semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white chocolate, divided
6-8 tablespoons heavy cream
Up to 2 tablespoons liqueur or liquid flavoring agent of your choice
Up to 1/4 cup finely chopped additions (see above for ideas)
Toppings of your choice, preferably related to the flavors inside
  • Prep a containment vessel: for 8 ounces of chocolate, I like to line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. You could probably also use parchment or wax paper; just be sure all the corners are covered.
  • Melt 8 ounces of the chocolate and the cream in a double boiler, or (my preferred method) a glass bowl over a pot of hot water. Stir frequently, and don’t let the hot water touch the bottom of the bowl or splash into it. How much cream you use depends on how much liquid flavoring agent you want. With liqueurs and syrups I’d suggest 6 TB cream and 2 TB liqueur. With an extract, which are usually extremely strong, you’ll want more cream and less flavoring.
  • When the chocolate and cream have melted together smoothly, stir in the liquid flavoring agent, if you’re using it, as well as any finely chopped additions you’re using.
  • Carefully pour and scrape the whole puddle into your lined containment vessel and refrigerate until set. I usually leave it overnight, but realistically this doesn’t take more than a few hours. Once it has set completely, remove the block from the pan and slice it into your desired size squares or bars, keeping in mind they will be a little bigger once they are coated in chocolate. If your set ganache seems soft after slicing (this will especially be true if you are using white chocolate), take out some extra insurance by stowing the pieces in the freezer for a bit before coating them.
  • To coat, melt the remaining 8 ounces of chocolate, either semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white, in a double boiler. Place a big sheet of wax paper or parchment paper on your counter. Using a tool of your choice (I like a pair of forks for this), dip in each piece of ganache one at a time until completely coated, lift and wait a few seconds to let the excess drip off (or scrape carefully, if you’re impatient), then remove to the wax or parchment paper. If you are adding a topping of some kind, sprinkle or place it on before the chocolate coating hardens.
  • Let the coated chocolates sit until completely set, then box up as desired (mini cupcake wrappers work nicely to set them in), or just pop straight into your mouth. I won’t tell.

*** Other, less-involved ideas: dip dried apricots, or candy canes, or shortbread cookies in chocolate! If you want to be fancy, you could apply a white chocolate drizzle after letting them dry. You could also coat marshmallows, or pre-made caramels, or pieces of fudge in the melted chocolate of your choice (or, if you’re looking to mellow the sweetness of fudge, in straight cocoa powder). Prefer sprinkles to a chocolate drizzle? Get it. Crushed up candy canes to peppermint powder? Go wild.

Project Cook: Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger

Sometimes dishes emerge from nowhere – no set, traceable inspiration; just an idea baked or simmered into existence. Philosophical. Cartesian cooking. Sometimes they are more geographical, linked to location and experience – blogs are rife with this, aren’t they? “This cake reminds me of my pilgrimage to…” But sometimes they are more narrative: visible evolution, each major ingredient or element its own origin story, entering the room at a moment that changes the direction of the final dish.

No surprise that the narrative method is one I favor. This magnificent stack began life as a carrot cake. That is, I wanted to make a cake, and after seeing (and resisting) a container of crystalized pineapple at the grocery store, carrot cake with crystalized pineapple sounded perfect. And then I thought about adding crystalized ginger too. And then I wondered whether some apple along with the carrot would be good, because fall, and pineapple turned into a third wheel that rolled away from the party. And then, inspired by old episodes I was watching of The Great British Bake Off, I wondered about adding dried apple, and maybe finely chopped, toasted walnuts to the filling instead of just plain cream cheese frosting, and suddenly the carrots – the very namesake of the cake! – started to feel out of place.

Suddenly I was planning an apple walnut cake. I tore through several cookbooks and a recipe site or two looking at various apple cake recipes – most rely on applesauce for both flavor and moisture, which I wasn’t interested in using – and came upon Deb’s roasted apple spice sheet cake, which does have a fair amount of applesauce, but also chunks of pre-cooked apples that, as she puts it, transform into “soft pillows of apple pie-like puddles.” I didn’t read much past that before deciding I, too, must have such puddles in my cake.

But I still wanted the moisture and freshness I knew shreds of raw apple would bring, and so while I dithered over recipes and quantities I remembered the cake’s initial origins and adapted my favorite carrot cake recipe: a triple layer extravagance from The Bon Appetit Cookbook that calls for pre-toasted nuts and a thick, rich, almost too sweet cream cheese frosting. Not much changes in the cake itself, aside from the significant shift from carrot to apple, except that I subbed in brown butter instead of the as-written vegetable oil, and as usual, it was a worthwhile extra effort.

This cake winds up so packed with threads of grated raw apple, toasted and chopped nuts, crystalized ginger, and the soft chunks of roasted apple, that it almost doesn’t feel like enough batter to encase the additions. The layers when you spread them into the pans are thin, but they do puff as they bake, into lovely, spicy, delicate layers you really do have to let cool for at least 15 minutes before taking them out of the pan. What became my middle layer, which emerged from the pan in six or seven moistly crumbling pieces, is proof positive of this. (Worth noting: if that kind of disintegration happens to you, reform the layer to the best of your ability on a sheet of plastic wrap, enclose it tightly, and put it in the freezer for half an hour or so before stacking and frosting. I was amazed by how well the pieces magically re-adhered.) If you’re worried about the fragility, I think you could get away with adding an additional ¼ cup flour to the recipe and still retain adequate moistness, but I haven’t tried this. If you do, let me know how it works out.

There are all sorts of other fun things you could do with the cake itself to change it up. Tart dried cherries would be lovely along with or instead of the golden raisins I’ve called for. Those raisins could easily be re-plumped in rum or brandy, a step I’m sorry I didn’t think of until my layers were already in the oven. The walnuts could be swapped out for pecans. You could play with the variety of apples you use – I almost always tend toward Granny Smiths or another tart green apple for cooking because I like their flavor and sturdiness, but you could mix and match as you please.

What I really want to talk about here, though, is the filling and the frosting. When I frost a cake, with a few notable exceptions, I typically put the same thing between the layers that I do around the outside. Here, though, whether it was thanks to Bake Off (likely) or just lightening strike inspiration, I wanted some texture in the filling, and the finely chopped mixture of dried apples and toasted walnuts woven through the cream cheese frosting was delightful.

As for that cream cheese frosting, it’s serviceable, easily pipe-able, and as rich and delicious as you could ever want. But N. and I noticed that, at least on the first day and despite the tablespoon of lemon juice I added for mitigation purposes, it is very, very sweet. Not surprising, given the number of cups of powdered sugar my recipe called for, but challenging for an insomniac to consider for an afternoon snack. So I have some thoughts, which I’ll admit I’ve tried exactly none of.

  1. You could decrease the quantity of powdered sugar down from 4 to 3 cups (you might end up wanting to add less vanilla as well, if you do this). This will produce a wetter frosting that might be harder to pipe, if that’s what you’re going for, but I think it would probably still spread successfully and stay where you put it.
  2. You could make the frosting a day ahead (would that make a difference? I don’t know…). Or, perhaps more logically, you could plan to make the whole thing a day before you serve it. We thought the whole cake tasted great – maybe even a bit better – after a night in the fridge.
  3. You could add a dried spice or herb to the frosting for an additional, not-so-sweet flavor. I thought first of ginger, which would make sense with the spices in the cake, but then, quite unconventionally, I thought of sage. Good with apples, decidedly savory, and about as stereotypically Fall as you can get, would a teaspoon or so of dried sage, finely crumbled and beaten into the frosting, tamp down that sweetness a bit?
  4. You could go the “naked” or “semi-naked” route, using only a small amount of frosting and spreading it on such that the sides of the cake artfully show through. You’ll have a fair bit of frosting left over if you opt for this route, but cream cheese frosting freezes quite well so I don’t see that as a bad thing. Emergency back-up frosting feels like a good idea.

Since I’m sure you’re limiting your social gatherings at this point and thus you might not be sure you really want a triple layer cake sitting around, you’ll be happy to know that this cake is a good candidate for freezing. We ate, over the course of I’m-ashamed-to-admit-how-few-days-it-was, about half of it, and then I carefully plastered over the cut portions with some extra frosting so no cake was exposed. Leaving the fully frosted cake in the fridge overnight ensures the frosting crusts a little bit, which makes it easy to wrap securely in plastic wrap and deposit in the freezer until you next need a rich, spicy, sweet reminder of fall.

Apple Spice Cake with Walnuts and Ginger
Adapted from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 3 9-inch layers, serves 10-12
About 90 minutes, plus cooling and frosting time
For the cake:
1 cup walnuts, divided (see filling and frosting ingredients, below)
4 large, tart apples, like Granny Smiths, peeled, divided
1½ cups unsalted butter (3 sticks)
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour (as noted above, if you’re worried about very fragile layers, you could probably get away with 2¼ cups flour, but I haven’t tried that yet)
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup golden raisins (optional: soak in warmed rum or brandy for 10-20 minutes to rehydrate, then drain)
¼ cup chopped crystalized ginger
For the filling and frosting:
½ cup dried apples, finely chopped or cut with kitchen scissors
¼ cup finely chopped walnuts, from the 1 cup total listed above
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
16 ounces cream cheese, also at room temperature (I prefer Philadelphia brand)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 cups powdered sugar (see numbered thoughts on frosting sweetness, above recipe)
Optional: extra dried apples, crystalized ginger, and cinnamon, for decoration
  • To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375F and put the walnuts on a baking tray in the oven to toast while it is preheating. When they smell fragrant and have darkened slightly in color, they are ready. Remove and set aside until cool, then chop roughly.
  • Quarter and core 2 of the peeled apples, arrange on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast in the preheated 375F oven until they are browned underneath and dry to the touch, about 20 minutes. When done, set them aside to cool, then chop them roughly into chunks of your desired size.
  • Meanwhile, brown the butter and prepare the remaining apples. For the butter, melt all 3 sticks in a medium saucepan and let cook over medium heat until the solids on the bottom take on a toasty brown color. First it will foam up, then subside, then brown. It’s easiest to use a pot that does not have a dark surface, since you can see color changes in the butter more easily. Once those bits have browned, remove the pot from the heat and let cool.
  • For the remaining two apples, grate on the large holes of a box grater or use the shredding disc of a food processor (be careful to avoid stems and seeds). Gather the shreds into a clean kitchen towel and give them one good squeeze, then set aside. Don’t squeeze them out too much; we want some of that moisture for the cake.
  • Once all your pre-cooked ingredients have cooled down, lower the oven temperature to 325F and make the batter. In a large bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat the sugar and the cooled brown butter together. Be sure to scrape in all of those browned bits from the bottom of the pot – that’s where much of the toasty flavor resides! Add the eggs one at a time, beating well.
  • Add the dry ingredients, sifting if you want to bother. I never do.
  • Stir in the golden raisins, ¾ cup of the toasted, roughly chopped walnuts, the crystalized ginger, and the grated apple. Finally, gently fold in the chunks of roasted apple.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between 3 well-greased 9-inch round baking pans. You can line with parchment paper too, if you want the extra insurance. The layer of batter in each will be thin. If you, like me, only have two 9-inch pans, bake two layers first, then use one of those pans again for the final layer after the first batch has cooled a bit.
  • Bake in the preheated 325F oven until a toothpick inserted comes out with just a few moist crumbs, 30-35 minutes.
  • Cool layers in pans for at least 15 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely. I’m serious about that 15-minute thing, by the way. Trying to take them out before that could result in disintegration!
  • To make the frosting and filling, finely chop the remaining ¼ cup of walnuts and combine with the finely chopped dried apples in a small bowl.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the room temperature butter, cream cheese, vanilla, and lemon juice until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters to ensure full integration.
  • Add the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, to prevent cough-inducing clouds, and beat well after each addition, until the frosting reaches your desired thickness.
  • Scoop out about 1 cup of the frosting and add it to the small bowl with the walnuts and dried apples; use a flexible spatula to mix in. This is your filling.
  • To fill and frost the cake, position one fully cooled cake layer on a plate or cake stand. (If you are messy like me, you might want to arrange strips of wax paper to cover the exposed parts of the cake stand or plate while you frost.) Using a flexible rubber or an off-set icing spatula, spread about ½ of the filling evenly over this first layer of cake, going all the way to the edges. Add the next layer of cake and repeat, then top with the final layer of cake.
  • Use the remaining cream cheese frosting to frost the cake as desired. If you want to do a crumb coat, use a small amount of frosting to coat the entire cake, not worrying about full coverage. When done, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes to let any crumbs that have come unstuck from the cake set into the frosting as it chills. Then remove from the fridge and continue. I usually scoop about two thirds of the frosting right onto the top layer of cake, then use an off-set spatula to gently push it toward the edges of the cake and down the sides, filling in any uneven gaps and creating as smooth a surface as I can. You may end up with extra frosting, which is convenient if you are thinking of freezing part of the cake, as explained above.
  • This looks lovely with just the frosting, but if you want to decorate a little, consider artfully arranging a few dried apple rings and chunks of crystalized ginger in the center of the cake, then dusting the top edge with cinnamon before slicing and serving.

Dalgona Experimentation

I hope you are well and finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones – perhaps not joyful or fulfilled – but safe and satisfied – during this strange time. I have not yet – and the “yet” is important – succumbed to the siren call of quaran-baking, but I have, thanks to a friend and former colleague, been introduced to the fluffy, caffeine-laced clouds that are Dalgona coffee. Basically equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped together until they froth and then fluff into a mound of something like meringue, this confection is then scooped over very cold milk, and your tongue gets a play of temperatures and textures, not to mention an intense hit of sugar and caffeine.

I tried the original first, and, as I mentioned previously, I’m a fan. But immediately I had questions: why settle for instant coffee? Why not a strong brew of something high quality? Why water, when you could get extra creaminess from scalded milk? What about adding cocoa powder or vanilla or almond extract? Where would chai spices fit in? To what other application could this be put, aside from a float atop a glass of milk (or, as my siblings have discovered, iced irish cream liqueur)? With raw materials at hand and plenty of time, this would require experimentation.

My first thought was how this could work as cake frosting or filling. To get everything in there together, I would replace the water with hot milk, and following a suggestion I saw here, I would use twice as much milk “for a creamy texture.” What I can tell you today is that if you use 2 parts very hot milk to one part each instant coffee and sugar, it takes a very long time to whip up. It might become marshmallow-y clouds eventually, but I wasn’t quite patient enough for that.

The lightly thickened, foamy concoction I ended up with wasn’t nearly thick enough to serve as a filling or a frosting for anything – it just wasn’t spreadable. But it was certainly capable of draping itself thickly over a slice of still warm chocolate cake. And when shaken up thoroughly the next morning and stirred into to a glass of milk with a little bit of chocolate syrup, it was an intense – and intensely satisfying – replacement for an iced mocha.

Contrarian Chewy Not-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

As I’ve noted here before, I can be a bit contrarian about food. I like my risotto with anything but rice, somehow I always find myself frying food in the most disgusting heat of summer, and I’m that person who, instead of making something practiced and reliable for a dinner party, always somehow ends up trying something untested.

But perhaps my most blasphemous contrarian food tendency is this: sometimes I don’t want chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. I love the cookie part – the depth of the brown sugar, the butter, the just-crisp edges – and then that chocolate gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong: I do like chocolate. I’m not a total monster. But in a cookie, especially after it cools and the chunks or chips or boulders of chocolate solidify again, I could do without. I sometimes find myself looking forward to the cookie that comes from the very last scrapings of batter from the bowl, since it probably won’t have much chocolate in it.

Last month N. ran a half marathon and I, following what is becoming a tradition, decided to have cookies waiting for him when he came home. Not so contrarian as me, N. loves a good chocolate chip cookie (and a mediocre chocolate chip cookie too – in fact, let’s be honest: he’ll take just about any chocolate chip cookie). Inspired by a recent trip to Le Grande Orange Café in Pasadena, I decided I wanted to do a batch of thin, crisp-but-chewy cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Good for helping my runner rehydrate a little. I started with a Bon Appetit recipe, but played a little: almond meal replaced some of the flour, I was out of chocolate chips, so I chopped up some dark chocolate covered pretzels and, just for fun, couldn’t resist a little instant espresso powder to the dough as well. A little buzz of extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt N. as he unwound from a thirteen mile morning.

We both loved the cookies. But again, I found myself thinking how good they would be if they just… didn’t have chocolate in them. So I did another batch here, retaining the almond meal, but eliminating all hints of chocolate. These are designed to be crisp at the edges and chewy at the middle, and several elements of the recipe contribute to that: the almond meal is always going to add some pleasant texture, as is brown sugar. The powdered sugar allows for a denser final result, which contributes to chew in that not as much air is trapped in the dough. And using egg yolks instead of just whole eggs seems to help too, though opinions seem divided on this.

My contrarian cookies were simple. As I was mixing them up, I found myself thinking, “could I add anything? What about dried cherries? What about lemon zest? Could I put in some cardamom or cinnamon, or maybe chopped nuts?” And of course the answer is yes. I could. You could too. Toss in a teaspoon or so of some warm spice. Toast and chop and fold in about a cup of nuts or dried fruit. If you’re feeling particularly contrary with me, you could even reverse hack all the way into putting the chocolate back in; you’ll want about 8 ounces.

But when I chewed my way through the first, and then the second, of these simple, too-spread-out, just bendable,* still warm offerings, I wanted none of that. The texture was right: crisp around the edge, a chew similar to a good snickerdoodle in the middle, and the occasional delightful crunch from the sea salt. And nothing, nothing at all, disrupting that deep, lovely, buttery brown sugar taste.

 

* because these cookies spread so much while they bake, and because they are so soft when they first come out of the oven, I’d wager you could successfully cool them over the back of a muffin tin or ramekin for little cookie bowls to fill with ice cream or custard or fruit, or maybe even a deep, rich mousse to get the chocolate back in there…

 

Contrarian Chewy Not Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 18 cookies
½ cup (1 stick, or 4 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt + more for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick spray
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer until it is soft and the big pieces have broken down. Add all three varieties of sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, the whole egg, and the vanilla. Beat again, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the whole mixture is pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. This seems like a long time, but it does make a difference. It will look like buttercream frosting when it’s ready, and really, it basically is.
  • If you want to, whisk the dry ingredients (flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt) together in a smaller bowl, then slowly add to the wet mix in three additions, mixing just to blend in between. If you don’t want to bother with the whisking, just add in stages: ½ cup flour, mix to blend, ½ cup almond meal, mix to blend, then remaining ½ cup flour with leavening and salt, mix just to blend.
  • Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. They will spread. I wouldn’t do more than about 6 dough blobs on each sheet. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with kosher salt or flaky sea salt.
  • Bake in the preheated 375F oven, rotating the sheets halfway through, until golden around the edges, 12-13 minutes. The middles will seem very soft, but will firm as they cool. Let sit on baking sheets 3-5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely (unless you want to mold them – see * above).

On Unfrosted Cake

Growing up, we had one cake. This one. I mean, of course we ate other cakes: coffee cake was a breakfast time treat, and Mom made other recipes (plus there was that one boxed coconut cake from Sara Lee that came out of the freezer every so often), but this simple chocolate cake, a variant of the Depression era wacky cake or crazy cake, was the standby for celebrations. And though the original recipe called for a thick, sweet buttercream, we always frosted it with lightly sweetened whipped cream instead, artfully (or sometimes something less than artfully) swirled on with a knife or a rubber spatula or, if someone was feeling really fancy, an offset metal spatula that got just so close to the bakery-smooth finish I, at least, was always after.

So as you might expect, as I “leveled up” in the kitchen I tried some fancier finishes (though for THE cake I always went back to the whipped cream). I found the perfect cream cheese frosting recipe. I flirted with buttercreams of various kinds, and with varying success.

Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating the simple pleasure of unfrosted cakes. I don’t know if this is a result of binge-watching so much Great British Baking Show, on which the Victoria sandwiches are simply dusted with sugar, but there is something satisfying about plonking down a cake that you haven’t spent time fussing over.

I’ve made three unfrosted cakes of note recently. The first is an almond cake recipe from King Arthur Flour. I did this almost exactly as the site required, subbing in some almond meal for some of the almond flour, a move that I think was a good one, and now has me looking for places to add almond meal for flavor and texture (stay tuned on this for cookies…). The recipe also taught me an interesting twist on pan preparation, requiring a dusting of sugar instead of flour atop the butter or non-stick spray layer. This results in a lovely, crunchy sugar coating on the bottom and sides of the cake (though the bottom usually ends up not noticeable) and, if you have the presence of mind to add it 15 minutes or so before the baking time ends, on the top as well.

The second unfrosted cake I’ve made recently was a recipe from Tara Jensen’s cookbook/journal/mini-memoir A Baker’s Year. She calls it “groomsman cake,” celebrating the man she met at a friend’s wedding who entered her life with curiosity and bourbon. I may have overbaked mine a tad, since the resulting bundt was a bit less tender than I was expecting, but it was nothing a tumble of raspberries and a heaping scoop of whipped cream – my current favorite combination for cakes without frosting – couldn’t amend.

Finally, in a major blast from the past, I made a rum cake from deep in my mom’s recipe archives for a viewing party last weekend. “Why rum cake?” Mom asked, and the answer was more about linguistic cleverness than anything else: because if you make the cake using Bacardi, then you can call it “lightly thematic” because the brand name so resembles that of a certain former Starfleet captain now back on screen and invested in returning to the galaxy out there… This was not only nostalgic in the sense that I pulled it forward into the 21st century (or 24th?), but in its composition: boxed yellow cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A boiled sugar glaze. For the second time in recent cakery, a bundt pan. And Rum Cake? This cake means it. A full cup of dark rum, half baked into the tender sponge itself (which emerges a shocking dandelion yellow topped with toasty chopped pecans), and the other half stirred into that boiled glaze and drizzled slowly over the cake until it has all absorbed. When show-and-cake-time arrived, I pulled off the layer of aluminum foil I’d dressed the cake in for travel and was caught off guard by the heady fumes that rushed out. Fortunately we had a full hour of show to enjoy before anyone drove home.

Despite that leftovers of this cake need to be enjoyed more in the 3:30pm hour than in the 10:30 snack slot (and despite my snobby concerns about its less-than-from-scratch ingredient list), it is delicious. Tender. Moist (how could it not be?). Beautiful flavors, and the aggressiveness of the rum somehow mellowed overnight, though the kick lingers. And that makes it even better as a party option: you can – you should – make it the afternoon before, giving you less to fret about on the day of whatever gathering it’s invited to.

Of course, an unfrosted cake requires less dressy fuss in terms of presentation, too. No fancy cake pedestals necessary. A large plate, a simple platter, even a wooden cutting board will do, especially if you can add a stack of plates, forks, and a knife to it, so the moment you bring the cake to the table is the only one needed to get everyone eating.

Tell me. Are you a frosted or unfrosted fan? What’s your current favorite flavor combination, or serving vessel, or cake variety, that makes the buttercream and the fondant and the cream cheese feel unneeded? Leave a comment here and let’s talk cake!

Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.