Birthday Cake Season

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Last month, I made a scrumptious birthday cake for myself. Unfortunately it was gone before I thought to take a photograph of it. But no worries! This month’s family birthday cake is exactly the same! Right down to the decorating. Actually, this month’s decorating may be a little less of a mess, so it’s a win-win to have forgotten to post the earlier cake.

This is my new favorite chocolate cake recipe. I think we’re exclusively a chocolate cake crowd here (although the icings vary) so I’ve tried a lot of different recipes over time. I’ve had this one for a long time (and made it a couple times many years ago), but somehow it didn’t stand out to us earlier. Maybe I’ve gotten better at baking, or maybe my substitution of hot coffee for the boiling water that’s called for makes that substantial a difference; I can’t say.

Hershey (who created the cake) has changed the recipe’s name over the years. My original print-out calls it “Hershey’s Deep Dark Chocolate Cake” but it’s currently called “Hershey’s Especially Dark Chocolate Cake” (follow link for the recipe) on the Hershey’s site. (There is a similar recipe that is otherwise identical, except that it uses natural cocoa powder rather than Special Dark.) My only change to the ingredients in the printed recipe is substituting an equal amount of freshly brewed hot (decaf) coffee for the boiling water. I also advise checking the cakes 3 – 5 minutes early and pulling them out of the oven when the cake tester still comes out with some crumbs; any longer and the cake layers won’t be as gloriously moist as they should be.

I iced the cake with a simple whipped cream… just 12 ounces of COLD heavy cream, 3 ounces of confectioner’s sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of meringue powder (my trick to stabilize whipped cream that I’m using to top cakes or pies that I expect to have on hand for a few days). I put it all in a mixing bowl and whip with my stand mixer until I’ve reached the stiff peak stage. For more on whipping cream, King Arthur Flour wrote this great post with tips and pictures.

And finally, I’d like to wish my adorable husband PJ a happy, happy birthday!! 😘🎂🎉 Let’s eat cake!!

 

 

Friday Night Is Pizza Night

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Way back in the day, my boys took karate on Wednesday and Friday evenings, and every Friday their Shihan would ask if everyone was having pizza for dinner that night. In the beginning, we usually weren’t, but over time, more and more families began adopting the tradition, in part because it was easy and made sense, but also to avoid discussions as to why we weren’t when Shihan clearly felt we should.

It’s been many years since my guys have spent their Friday evenings in the dojo but I still think of Friday night as Pizza Night. The other night, I made my new favorite pizza dough recipe: King Arthur Flour’s The Easiest Pizza You’ll Ever Make (recipe at link). In about 3 hours, you end up with lovely to handle, chewy, elastic dough. The photo below is the dough after rising for 2 hours.

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The instructions say to roll out the dough, but I find it’s much easier to stretch the dough using the backs of my knuckles, letting its weight and gravity do the work. My longtime bread mentor Peter Reinhart demonstrates the technique here. This dough is elastic enough to stretch without tearing, a quality I’ve never really experienced with any other recipe. It almost makes me believe I can do the hand toss like a professional pizza maker!

I made three varieties of pizza. The first was a classic cheese pizza with mozzarella and a touch of parmesan – romano. I made another (pictured at the top of the post) which was inspired by an ingredient combo we’ve had at a number of local places. First the pizza was topped with tomato sauce,  mozzarella and parmesan – romano cheeses, and prosciutto. When the pizza was almost done I threw on a couple handfuls of baby arugula and put it back in the oven for a minute to wilt. I finished the pie off with a drizzle of Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze. I love the flavor of the balsamic glaze but I haven’t been able to come up with very many applications for it aside from pizzas and wraps.

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Finally I made one last experimental pie. Instead of tomato sauce, the base was a mixture of French dressing and Sriracha Sauce. I wanted the flavor of Sriracha without all the edge, and French dressing, in addition to being something I already had on hand in the fridge, seemed like it would be pretty compatible and not compete with the strong chile and garlic flavors. My sous chef, AKA my lovely husband, shredded some leftover Thai-style grilled chicken which had been marinated in cilantro pesto (called Gai Yang in Thai) to go on top of the bed of mozzarella (no parmesan – romano cheese on this one), along with chopped fresh cilantro and chopped peanuts. We were pretty pleased with the results but initially I thought it was lacking something I couldn’t quite identify. Maybe some sweetness? It was a fun experiment nevertheless and was awesome as cold leftovers.

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Oatmeal – Dark Chocolate – Cherry Cookies

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This is one of my two favorite discoveries from pastry school. The original formula, as it is called in the industry, is for Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and makes a little over 13 pounds of cookie dough — professional yields, yo. I typically make just an 1/8th of that amount — about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

I treat this cookie formula as a starting point and seldom just use raisins, as written. Usually I play with the ingredients and do some combination any or all of the following: chocolate (white, milk, dark), fruit (often dried cranberries but occasionally dried blueberries or cherries or raisins), and/or nuts (walnuts, pecans, pistachios, etc.). Dark chocolate and cherries is a combination I’ve never done before but seems pretty obvious (and classic) in hindsight!

I originally bought dried bing cherries from Trader Joe’s to incorporate into my morning oatmeal — the appeal was that it was one of the few dried fruits I could find that did not contain any added sugar. But I found the flavor when eaten straight to be a little too Robitussin-like (perhaps cough medicine more naturally flavored than I had originally thought!) so I started looking for other ways to use them. The bittersweet chocolate chips are my go-to, Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips. I like how they are flatter than the traditional NestlĂŠ semi-sweet morsels, thus ensuring that every little bite is likely to end up with maximum chocolate flavor. The marriage of the bitter dark chocolate and brightly flavored cherries is wonderful. And thankfully, I no longer think of cough medicine when I taste the dried cherries.

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Muffins

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I was toying with making Carrot Cake a few weeks ago for Easter but ultimately shied away from it because I have been cutting down on refined sugar. But it got me thinking about carroty baked goods, like these Morning Glory Muffins from the King Arthur Flour site (the recipe can be found here). The author presents quite a few possible adaptations — for mine, I opted for golden raisins, white whole wheat flour, unsweetened shredded coconut, and wheat germ. Side note: I only soaked the raisins very briefly, for about 3 minutes.

Here are changes I made to the printed recipe after reading reviewers’ comments: I reduced the brown sugar to 1/3 cup and substituted 1/3 cup of unsweetened apple sauce for 1/3 cup of the oil. I checked the baked muffins at 22 minutes (3 minutes early) and they were done. And finally, I got an additional 4 muffins out of the batter for a total yield of 16.

I love these muffins! The overall flavor is only lightly sweet but the little bursts of potent sweetness from the golden raisins really pack a punch. They are not light but are not doorstop-like either. And I can taste all the layers of flavor and the different textures– carrots, apple, raisins, walnuts, coconut, cinnamon, ginger. And I am especially gratified to not be eating something that’s cloyingly sweet or excessively oily.

Lastly, credit goes to my lovely husband (who’s perpetually mad fer it) for rechristening these (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Muffins. 😍

Pear-Ginger Muffins

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Minis

I’ve been recovering from surgery the past several weeks so I haven’t been doing a lot of baking, but had a hankering for something home baked today so I made Pear-Ginger Muffins (recipe on the Williams Sonoma site here). I underestimated how much prep work it would take to make the batter but powered through thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s brilliance in the form of the cast album of Hamilton. It magically helped quell my weariness with all the peeling, grating and dicing (cutting up the hard and sticky crystallized ginger has to be the absolute worst kitchen task evah).

I used white whole wheat flour in lieu of the all-purpose flour, and went a little light on the brown sugar (used 5 oz. rather than 5.3 oz.) and a little heavy on the fresh grated ginger (approximately double the 1 tablespoon asked for). I didn’t end up using all the chopped crystallized ginger that I had reserved for the tops of the muffins as it just looked a little excessive.

The recipe yield was supposed to be 12 standard sized muffins but I ended up with a bit of extra batter, so I was able to make 8 mini muffins as well. I baked the minis for 10 minutes which was perfect, but I think baking the full sized muffins for the suggested 15 minutes was a minute or two too long; I really should’ve checked them sooner. The muffins were browner than I would’ve liked and the tester was absolutely crumbless… I suspect they are a little overbaked.

The minis are nicely moist and not too, too sweet. I have to confess I was worried as it seemed like a lot of brown sugar for the amount of flour in the batter, plus there was all that sugar on the crystallized ginger and the sweetness from the pear (I used a red Anjou pear from the much appreciated get well fruit and snack basket that my SIL sent me a couple weeks ago.) Surprisingly, they aren’t crazy gingery even with the three forms (fresh, powdered and crystallized)… ginger zealot that I am, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more!

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Standard sized

(Pain Ă  l’Ancienne) Focaccia Friday

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This was made by request for my lovely son Cormac when he was home for spring break a few weeks ago. I started off his break with my go-to, Classic French Bread from Peter Reinhart’s excellent Artisan Breads Every Day; this Pain Ă  l’Ancienne Focaccia from the same book was the follow-up later in the week. Lea of Lea & Jay wrote an excellent post about their experience making (and eating) this focaccia,  and included the recipe, here. As with all recipes in this book, you do have to mix the dough the night before and leave it to retard overnight in the refrigerator, so as long as you allow time for that, you’re golden.

I’ll mention that I did not alter the recipe from the original (as I so often do). I chose not to make the suggested herb oil to top the bread, but instead opted for the quick and easy way out. Right before putting the dough in the oven to bake, I topped it with Trader Joe’s Himalayan Pink Salt (applied with some restraint), as well as garlic powder and freshly ground dried mixed Italian herbs (both somewhat liberally). My rationale behind selecting the dried flavorings over fresh was that they’d be less likely to scorch during baking than if I were to simply sprinkle fresh garlic and herbs on top. It was not at all because I was feeling lazy.

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I found that the focaccia didn’t rise as much as I would’ve expected, especially given that I gave it plenty of time for a final proof and in a warm environment at that, which is sometimes a struggle during cooler months. But there were no complaints from the peanut gallery. All three of my guys loved it — especially Cormac, who ate it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack time until it was gone.

Nor’easter Sweet Corn Muffins

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In honor of today’s Nor’easter, Winter Storm Stella, we’re having a hearty vegetable chili for dinner. My go-to recipe for the past 27 years has been from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. It’s always been popular with my meat-loving and veggie friends alike, and contains zucchini, red peppers, onions, garlic, chick peas and fennel seeds. A Family Feast posted their experience making the dish, as well as the recipe, here.

I baked my favorite Sweet Cornbread recipe as muffins to serve alongside. I’m not sure how authentic this cornbread is, or where it might be considered authentic. Ratio-wise, it has a fair amount of white flour compared to cornmeal and a generous amount of sugar (as well as a tablespoon of honey) — this is a sweet cornbread! Regardless it’s always a hit with my peeps.

I usually make this bread in an 8 by 8-inch pan, but opted to make muffins today because I thought they’d freeze more easily as muffins and we currently have an abundance of baked goodies in the house. My hubby also pointed out that muffins are easier than hunks of cornbread to take and enjoy on the road.

I scooped the batter with my trusty Vollrath #16 scoop with the blue handle. I use it for all my muffin and cupcake recipes, as it measures out about a 1/2 cup of batter. The recipe makes about 13 muffins (a baker’s dozen) with a wee bit of batter leftover. I baked them for 17 minutes at 350 degrees F and they were perfectly done (no crumbs on the tester), but didn’t turn out as golden as they do when I make it in bread form. I’ll take pale and moist over golden and dry though.

Seems like the snow has now turned to sleet and rain here in our corner of Massachusetts… I’m dreading the rain-soaked snow that awaits shoveling outside. The chili and corn muffins will be a nice reward when we’re done. 🍴

 

Maple Walnut Muffins

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This week, I baked Yankee Magazine’s Maple Walnut Muffins (recipe at link).

As always, I adapted the recipe to suit my taste and pantry. I replaced the (white) all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour. I reduced the amount of maple syrup, from 3/4 cup down to 1/2 cup. Instead of 1 cup sour cream, I used 1/3 cup nonfat Greek yogurt and 2/3 cup sour cream. I did not do the optional dip of the finished muffins in maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar.

I love how the texture turned out with white whole wheat flour. I think this maybe the first time I’ve done a straight 1 to 1 substitution in a recipe. The muffins didn’t seem overly “wheaty” or heavy. I also found them nicely (lightly) sweet with just the 1/2 cup of maple syrup; I think the full 3/4 cup amount would’ve been cloying.

My one note is that I didn’t find them particularly maple-y though. I don’t believe increasingly the maple syrup to the full amount would’ve made a substantial difference. Maybe the addition of maple extract would help?

I would also like to experiment with reducing the fat a bit. I’ve had good luck substituting unsweetened apple sauce for a portion of the butter in other muffin recipes, and might also try doing a full 1 to 1 substitution of nonfat Greek yogurt for the (full fat) sour cream.

Lastly, I felt the recipe may employ a tad too much baking soda. A tablespoon of leavening (total) for a 12-muffin recipe seems a little bit excessive to me. The muffins did have a touch of that distinctive bitter, slightly metallic baking soda flavor to them. It’s hard to describe but if you’ve ever tasted it, it’s easily detectable forever after.

Not a disappointment by any stretch of the imagination — they just need a little more tweaking!

Peanut Butter Banana Oat Muffins

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This week’s muffin is The Lean Green Bean’s Peanut Butter Banana Oat Muffins (recipe at link). I could once again point out my out of season use of Halloween paper liners, but I think that’s becoming tiresome. So I’m just going to say I’m going through a goth phase. Which will last until I run out of these black and white liners. And no longer.

Lately I’ve been pushing the envelope, trying to see how little sugar, or more specifically how little refined sugar, I can get away with when baking. I was really attracted to this recipe because its creator has the same curiosity. I also liked that there was added fiber in this recipe, in the form of whole wheat flour (white whole wheat in the original recipe) and oats. And I’m not going to lie; I found the fact that it would use up my two very ripe bananas and used other ingredients that I already had in my pantry very appealing.

Here are the specifics of what I did differently. I used unsalted butter (not specified in the recipe) and nonfat Chobani plain Greek yogurt (it’s what I had) rather than full fat or 2%. I used Teddie natural peanut butter rather than the more typical Jif or Skippy. This is really my first time baking with a natural peanut butter so I wasn’t sure whether using a peanut butter that didn’t contain all those emulsifiers would have an effect on the finished product (update: it seems fine). I didn’t have white whole wheat flour, but I did have a little bit of whole wheat flour that I was trying to use up so I ended up using about 25% whole wheat flour and 75% unbleached all-purpose flour instead of the white whole wheat. I added a pinch of salt because I noticed there was no salt listed among the ingredients (not sure if this might have been because the recipe creator used salted butter or perhaps felt there was ample sodium in the peanut butter). For chocolate chips, I used our “house” chips: Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips.

Now here was my biggest change: originally I intended to substitute an equal amount of maple syrup for the brown sugar. I like avoiding refined sugar when practical and based on my very brief research on the interwebs, it appears that maple syrup has about the same amount of sweetness as brown sugar.  However, when I mashed my two medium bananas it seemed like I had a little over a cup instead of the half-cup that was specified in the recipe. The combined factors of the banana overage and the very, very ripe quality of the bananas made me think that the muffins might be overly sweet with the addition of even just a couple tablespoons of sweetening that the recipe suggests. So… I omitted the maple syrup altogether.

The result is a faintly sweet (almost flirting with savoriness) muffin. You can taste all the high points — banana, peanut butter, cinnamon, dark chocolate chips. It’s really lovely. The only criticism I might have is that my oats (old-fashioned whole oats, store brand) are a bit coarse and chewy. This doesn’t ordinarily bother me at all in other baked goods, but I found myself wondering what was so chewy in there; it took me awhile to pinpoint the oats. I’m sure it has something to do with where my head is at today.  At any rate, I love these muffins. Next time I’ll give them a whirl with the omitted sweetening (although I will be using maple syrup instead of brown sugar). I don’t miss the sugar in my little experiment here but I’m not sure my family will agree. I’ll be happy to eat all of them myself should anyone complain!

Butternut Squash Oat Muffins with Candied Ginger

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This week’s muffin is Melissa Clark’s Butternut Squash Oat Muffins with Candied Ginger (recipe at link). Please excuse the Halloween-themed muffin liners as I’m currently on a quest to use up all surplus seasonal baking supplies. Several years ago, I had a standing annual Halloween baking order and would snatch up every themed cupcake pan liner I could get my hands on at clearance sales. The Halloween bakes ended so even after years of diligently whittling away at them, I still have about 100 liners in various spooky patterns. Anyway…about the muffins.

Here are my changes: I used about half the maple syrup called for because (a) I’ve been trying to cut down on my sugar consumption and I used the full amount of brown sugar listed (plus the ginger is candied and coated in white sugar), and more importantly, (b) I only had about 2 tablespoons of syrup left in the bottle. I compensated for the resulting deficit in wet ingredients by using a little more (plain) Greek nonfat yogurt — 5.3 ounces instead of 4 — this specific amount was because that was the size of the yogurt container I had and I didn’t really want to discard the little bit that was left. I omitted the lemon zest because I didn’t have any lemons.

I was faithful to the weight measurements (the volumetric measurements didn’t seem to jibe with the listed weights). I used my food processor to grate the butternut squash as I wasn’t into grating my fingertips this morning.

The muffins are perfect, with just a touch of sweetness… exactly what I was looking for. I’m not super fond of sweet muffins that resemble frosting-free cupcakes. I’m really looking forward to enjoying these with a hot cup of coffee tomorrow morning. ☕️