Flourless Triple Chocolate Torte

In Yiddish, the word simcha is defined as joy or happiness, but it more commonly refers to a festive occasion, as a celebration marks life’s happiest special events. While I love to bake for my family and friends any day of the week, it is a true honor for me to contribute a baked good that will help commemorate a significant moment in their lives. So when my sister called and asked for a dessert to be served at her friend Lindsay’s baby shower, I jumped at the chance to help. I think I may have jumped too soon, though, as her next sentence included the phrase gluten-free. More specifically, gluten-free cupcakes- I’ve got another Yiddish phrase you may have heard that was befitting this situation- Oy Vey! Okay… a minor hiccup as I’ve never attempted any gluten-free baking before. But I was confident I could make it work. I’d simply do my research, as per usual, land on a reliable recipe, and do the best I could. Oh, wait, there was one other little detail I failed to consider… I was without a kitchen. We had just started a gut renovation, and I no longer had a sink, stove-top, oven, etc. to accommodate any baking at all. Luckily, what I did have is an extremely generous Aunt living nearby, who graciously opened her home and lent me her fabulous kitchen for this project. (Thank you so very much, Aunt Maggie!) With more solutions than problems on the horizon, I felt ready to tackle the challenge.

After reading lots of reviews, I discovered a very informative book dedicated solely to gluten-free cupcakes with plenty of recipes to choose from: Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes by Kelli and Peter Bronski. I settled on the classic chocolate cupcakes, which I figured I could dress up with a white chocolate mousse filling and fudge frosting like my traditional Triple Chocolate Cupcakes. Yet as bake day drew closer, my self-assurance waned, and I convinced myself I’d never pull it off successfully. Usually in this situation I would do a trial run beforehand, but I certainly wasn’t going to inconvenience my Aunt any further just for taste testing purposes and to put my mind at ease. Then, a light bulb moment- why futz with a slew of unfamiliar ingredients and drive myself crazy worrying about sub par cupcakes, when I could simply select a naturally gluten-free recipe more likely to produce delicious results? I was scared of disappointing my sister, but when I threw the idea of a flourless chocolate cake her way, she gave me the green light without hesitation, and thus I was off in an entirely different direction.

This recipe from King Arthur sort of fell in my lap, and offered both ease of preparation and simplicity of ingredients. The best part? It didn’t require xantham gum. Dense and extremely rich, flourless chocolate cakes (or tortes) pack a punch of chocolate flavor in every bite and have a soft, almost mousse-like texture. Most contain ingredients found in every baker’s pantry: unsalted butter for richness, eggs for lift (as there is no other leavening), chocolate and sugar. My recipe also included cocoa powder; depending on the brand, cocoa is about 60% starch, which provides body, structure, and chewiness that would otherwise be missing in the absence of flour. It also called for two chocolate flavor boosters, coffee (in the form of espresso powder) and vanilla (I used my latest obsession, vanilla bean paste). Instead of having to whip the egg whites and yolks separately, my recipe added them whole, eliminating extra steps. And even better, it offered an actual internal temperature to test the cake’s doneness. I must admit, I always hate that part- deciphering if something is done baking or needs another few minutes. I love when my instant read thermometer eliminates the guessing game. While I’m not sure why the magical temperature was 200 degrees, I did learn that the proteins in the eggs coagulate at 165, creating added structure for the cake. After pulling the cake out and letting it cool, I was able to refrigerate it overnight before adding the finishing touches.

Another bonus- baking the day before the event was actually desirable as the texture became even more smooth and fudgy. The “icing on the cake” was the chocolate ganache poured over the entire torte, hiding any and all imperfections, and providing a final glossy coat of pure chocolatey goodness. While still wet, I attached the baby themed, hand painted chocolate decorations I made in advance, and at the last minute, piped the lightly sweetened whipped cream rosettes. (I was worried that the whipped cream wouldn’t hold up through the trip, but my friend Steph offered highly useful advice to ensure it would; add some powdered sugar, which contains cornstarch, to stabilize the cream. Worked like a charm!) It was then ready to make its debut at the celebration.

My sister returned home with glowing reviews to report, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Most importantly, the guest of honor was extremely moved by her friends’ thoughtfulness (I found out right before that the shower was a surprise), and I hope my cake made it all the more special. Congratulations Lindsay, and best of luck with the arrival of your new bundle of joy!

Note: Because there are so few ingredients in this cake, their quality is of the utmost importance. Obviously, the chocolate is the star here: I used a mixture of Guittard and Ghriadelli baking chips along with Valrhona cocoa (swoon), and even though I never tasted this beauty, I can honestly say the intoxicating aroma emanating from the oven while it was baking was the embodiment of pure, unadulterated chocolate. Everyone in the room had to restrain themselves from grabbing a fork and digging in, and my Mom was eagerly gathering the fallen crumbs.

Flourless Triple Chocolate Torte

Recipe by http://www.kingarthurflour.com

Yield: 8″ cake, 8 to 12 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup/6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons)/4 ounces unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup/5 1/4 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons espresso powder, optional
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup/1 1/2 ounces unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch-process preferred
  • 1 cup/6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup/2 ounces heavy cream

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8″ round cake pan; cut a piece of parchment or waxed paper to fit, grease it, and lay it in the bottom of the pan.
  2. To make the cake: Put the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat until the butter is melted and the chips are soft. Stir until the chips melt, reheating briefly if necessary. You can also do this over a burner set at very low heat. Transfer the melted chocolate/butter to a mixing bowl.
  3. Stir in the sugar, salt, espresso powder, and vanilla. Espresso enhances chocolate’s flavor much as vanilla does; using 1 teaspoon will simply enhance the flavor, while 2 teaspoons will lend a hint of mocha to the cake.
  4. Add the eggs, beating briefly until smooth. Add the cocoa powder, and mix just to combine. (Next time, I’ll sift the cocoa powder into the mixture to avoid having lumps in the batter).
  5. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
  6. Bake the cake for 25 minutes; the top will have formed a thin crust, and it should register at least 200 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer inserted into its center. (Start checking a few minutes early, mine was done at 23 minutes).
  7. Remove it from the oven, and cool it in the pan for 5 minutes.
  8. Loosen the edges of the pan with a table knife or nylon spreader, and turn it out onto a serving plate. The top will now be on the bottom; that’s fine. Also, the edges will crumble a bit, which is also fine. Allow the cake to cool completely before glazing.
  9. To make the glaze: Combine the chocolate and cream in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat until the cream is very hot, but not simmering. Remove from the microwave, and stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is completely smooth.
  10. Spoon the glaze over the cake, spreading it to drip over the sides a bit. Allow the glaze to set for several hours before serving the cake.
  11. Note: I used a combination of 2/3 cup/4 ounces bittersweet and 1/3 cup/2 ounces semisweet chocolate in the cake and the opposite proportions in the glaze.

SMS: Peanut Butter Truffles

If you happened to read last week’s post chronicling my recent banana cupcake debacle, you can imagine how incredibly stressed I became when forced to shift gears under a time crunch, and come up with a quick and easy (yet still enticing, delicious, and somewhat impressive) substitute to bake for the very meaningful fund raising event I was contributing to. Thankfully, I could look no further than this week’s yummy SMS recipe, Peanut Butter Truffles, selected by one of our newer members, the highly talented and super creative Mara of Love Your Mother. Judging from the Hazelnut Truffles we made from the Sweet Melissa Baking Book last summer, I had a feeling that they would be similarly simple to assemble, but also rich, flavorful and unique enough for the bake sale. I am pleased to report that the truffles saved the day, and exceeded all expectations. Of course, I couldn’t help but complicate matters by adding extra steps to the project- but really, who could turn down a truffle dressed up with a caramelized candied peanut exterior? I called on David Lebovitz’s recipe (used to top my Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with Pralined Peanuts), which never disappoints, and the added sweetness of his chopped nuts was the perfect counter-balance to the slightly bitter dark chocolate and salty peanut butter. That little bit of additional effort resulted in a combination that truly danced on the tongue! A few special touches with the packaging- some cellophane goody bags, colorful labels, and orange ribbon (more on the significance of that detail later)- and viola!, my truffles were ready for their debut at the 1st annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale!

Isn’t it wonderful when you accidentally and totally unexpectedly stumble upon an exciting opportunity through your everyday blog surfing? That’s actually how I first got involved in SMS, and what a serendipitous discovery that turned out to be :)! Well a few weeks back, a digital banner caught my eye, advertising an upcoming event connected to the Great American Bake Sale. Sound familiar?- if you’re a food TV junkie like myself, you may have seen spokeswoman Sandra Lee discussing it on a Food Network commercial. Part of the phenomenal organization, Share our Strength, it’s a national campaign that mobilizes volunteers to host bake sales in their communities in an effort to help end childhood hunger in America. Although I’ve been interested in getting involved for quite a while, that banner convinced me the ideal time had arrived: on April 17th, food bloggers from across the country would unite to support the cause by holding bake sales in their states. I was filled with glee when I got in touch with the fabulous and super sweet Kathy-Ann of Mother May Have, who was coordinating for Massachusetts, and realized I could be a part of this extraordinary day, utilizing my baking to assist those in need. (I love on the Share our Strength website, they proclaim, “Together we can bake a difference!”)

Did you know that nearly 1 in 4 children in America struggle with hunger? That’s almost 17 million kids! With the weakened economy, poverty rates are on the rise, and every day, more and more children wonder where their next meal will come from.

Here’s a look at how Share our Strength is addressing this growing problem:

“Through No Kid Hungry, Share Our Strength funds the most effective anti-hunger organizations across the country, connects needy children and their families with nutritious food, teaches families how to cook healthy on a budget, and provides leadership that brings together public and private decision-makers to end childhood hunger, state by state. These funds help accomplish the following:

* Enroll more eligible kids in school breakfast, after-school snacks and meals, and their families in SNAP (food stamps).
* Bring community gardens and farmers markets to low-income neighborhoods.
* Bring affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables to urban corner stores.
* Teach at-risk families how to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy, low-cost meals at home.
* Help local food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens meet the pressing demand for more nutritious food.
* Increase awareness and understanding of childhood hunger and solutions to it.

Through all these means, [Share Our Strength is] working to ensure that all of America’s children have nutritious food where they live, learn and play.”

Since 2003, more than 1.7 million people have participated in Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale, raising $6 million to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. But the big news? The first annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale alone raised a grand total of over $16,500! Wow! Go baking bloggers! I felt truly honored to be a part of it, and am already looking forward to next year. I want to say a big thank you to Gaby of What’s Gaby Cooking for coordinating the entire event, and Kathy-Ann for leading us here in Massachusetts. Also- shout out to my new friend Carmen of Baking is my Zen, who just so happens to be a fellow SMSter! Her sale in NJ did amazing, raising more than $600- fabulous job Carmen! To see pictures from our sale in MA (including some of my goodies- the Peanut Butter Truffles and a selection of Coconut Jam Thumbprints made with 5 different types of homemade jams/preserves) check out this slide show.

For more information about Share our Strength and to find out ways you can help, visit their website, http://www.strength.org/. And don’t forget to check out the myriad of truffles whipped up by the other lovely ladies of SMS by exploring the blogroll!

Oh, by the way, the orange ribbon stands for hunger awareness… fitting right?

SMS: Chocolate Pie Crust – Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with Pralined Peanuts

To my fellow SMS bakers: Please allow me to apologize profusely that I am presenting this post late. Unfortunately, I have been struggling with my health, and while I’ve been trying very hard to keep up with this fabulous group, it has been difficult for me to complete all the assignments by the specified deadlines. This is absolutely not a reflection of my commitment or desire to continue, as I am honored to be a part of Sweet Melissa Sundays and you all mean so much to me. Baking and blogging with you fabulous ladies has been an invaluable refuge for me, and pushing myself to get back in the kitchen has truly been therapeutic and in a way, very healing. I hope you all understand, and will bare with me a bit- I will do the best I can to participate, and share my results as soon as possible! And now, on to the latest assignment… Chocolate Pie Crust with the filling of your choice!

Julia Child said, “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” I think part of the reason I am so passionate about baking, is because it is such a tremendous outlet for artistic expression. Whether you’re developing a harmony of flavors by playing with the combination of ingredients, adapting a recipe to make it your own, or executing your vision for a beautiful presentation, baking provides limitless opportunities to evoke inner creativity. Once the basic techniques are mastered and the kitchen becomes a comfortable domain, the imagination is free to run wild, and the plate transforms into a canvas for works of stunning originality. I attribute much of my culinary creativity to the constant inspiration I receive from my bountiful batch of blogging buddies, whose talent shines through in all the beautiful, mouth-watering treats featured on their sites. So imagine my excitement to discover we’d be tackling the very first SMS selection that encouraged each baker to utilize an additional recipe of their choice from a source outside our common cookbook. We were all to bake the same Chocolate Pie Crust, but as for the filling, we were given carte blanch. As much as I was looking forward to some extra brainstorming and recipe research (one of my favorite pass times), I was even more delighted by the prospect of making the internet rounds to explore the mélange of magnificent pies, each one filled to the brim with passion and creativity.

In most cases, I probably would have spent hours pouring over my collection of cookbooks, browsing my favorite websites, and flipping through my binder of “must-tries,” but this time around, I immediately knew exactly what direction I wanted to go in. I’ve had a certain pie waiting patiently in my mind’s recipe queue, just calling for the perfect occasion to be made. And it was time for this pie’s debut. May I present to you, Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with a Chocolate Pie Crust and Pralined Peanuts. I know, it’s a (delectable) mouth full. I’ll admit, there are multiple components, which require various steps and a wee bit of time, but the overall process is really manageable and relatively simplistic. And I promise- this one is SO worth the effort.

I started from the ground (or pie plate) up, first making the pie dough. Reminiscent of Pate Brisee- a French short crust pastry dough made from a mixture of flour, a little sugar, salt, fat (butter and/or shortening), and ice water- this dough also contained a good amount of dutch-processed cocoa powder, lending it a distinct chocolatey flavor. Thankfully, I’ve made a few pie crusts in my day and am familiar with the process, so I was confident enough to alter the mixing method called for in the book. I opted to use my handy dandy food processor rather than a pastry blender and brute strength (…it’s in short supply around here!), and it came together beautifully. I’ve found that the two keys to a tender, flakey pie crust are: 1. Keep it COLD and 2. Don’t overmix. Starting with super cold ingredients and ensuring the dough remains thoroughly chilled until the moment it hits the heat of the oven will produce consistently scrumptious results. It is important not to break down the butter too much- when those little flecks of butter in the dough are introduced to heat, they melt, creating tiny pockets in the flour that surround it- the steam that escapes from the butter’s water content lifts these pockets, producing the flakiness we’re all after. Remember, if you can see those flecks, you will have flakes! I like my butter to be frozen when I mix it into my flour, and I try to make quick work of rolling/handling- both help to retain the bits of butter of in the dough. And of course, mix just until the ingredients come together to avoid the pitfalls of a tough, chewy dough (over-developed gluten is never a good thing!) Some say that the food processor makes it easier to accidentally overwork the dough- to prove them wrong, only use it to mix the dry ingredients and cut in the fat. Then, fold the water in by hand and stop as soon as it holds together. An extra tip for this particular dough- instead of rolling it out on a lightly floured surface, why not dust the counter (covered with parchment paper for easy clean-up) with cocoa powder? Works like a charm!

Next came the filling, a succulent contrast of silky smooth dark chocolate ganache and fluffy peanut butter mousse. The ganache is an extra punch of chocolate, playing off the cocoa in the crust, and deepening the flavor. I used a combination of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate- in retrospect (keeping in mind my tasters’ preferences) I would have gone heavier on the semisweet, simply to please my Mom’s delicate palate. But even the dark chocolate hater could not deny the luscious texture this rich layer provides. As for the peanut butter mousse, it is moist and light, yet offers a strong, prominent nutty flavor. When preparing the mousse, take care when folding in the whipped cream and you’ll be rewarded with a nice and airy layer. The first third of your cream can be mixed in a little more vigorously to lighten the peanut butter mixture, but the majority should be folded as gently as possible. It might take a few turns around the bowl before those white streaks disappear, but unless you want dense mousse, stick with it!

To push the presentation over the top, I went a little “nuts” with the garnishes. I thought I needed to add another textural element to my pie- a crunch was definitely in order. I remembered a recipe in David Lebovitz’s outstanding compendium of all things ice cream, The Perfect Scoop, for Pralined Almonds (which I, of course, adapted to peanuts). Having conquered my fear of caramel, these glossy candied nuts were a cinch to pull together, and were made and cooled in the time it took for my pie to chill. Surprisingly, these little gems seemed to steal the show, and were arguably my Dad’s favorite part of the whole shebang. (I caught him making extra trips into the kitchen, sneaking nuts off the baking sheet, and later out of the bag, for the rest of the day.) On his day-two slice, he even sprinkled a few extra on top. On David Lebovitz’s blog, he suggests serving these addictive nuts as an appetizer, and I’m sure they’d be the hit of the party.

With a few finishing touches of a chocolate drizzle and some sweetened whipped cream rosettes, the presentation of this pie is certainly impressive, and I had so much fun dressing it up. When all the elements came together, I was really proud of the finished dessert, and was very pleased by the positive reaction I received from my tasters. I’d definitely place this pie in the “decadent” category, but for a special occasion (especially if you have a chocolate-peanut butter lover in your life), it is fantastic choice that I highly recommend. Keep this one in mind, and before you know it, the ideal opportunity will arise to give it a try. I only wish I had made it sooner!

A big thank you to Donna of L’Amour de Tarte for her bold choice- head over to her website for the Chocolate Pie Crust recipe. Also, check out the SMS blogroll to see what everyone else came up with- I know I’ll be inspired by the plethora of creative ideas! You’ll find all the yummy recipes I went with below:

Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie
Bon Appétit | August 2006 via Epicurious.com

Ingredients:

* 1 1/3 cups bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (about 8 ounces)
* 2/3 cup plus 1 3/4 cups chilled whipping cream, divided
* 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
* 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

* 6 ounces (1 cup) peanut butter chips
* 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (do not use old-fashioned style or freshly ground)

Directions:

Combine chocolate chips, 2/3 cup cream, corn syrup, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium heat until chocolate softens, about 3 minutes. Whisk until melted and smooth. Spread chocolate mixture over bottom of crust. Freeze 10 minutes.

Microwave peanut butter chips and 3/4 cup cream in large microwave-safe bowl on medium heat at 15-second intervals just until chips soften, stirring often. Whisk in peanut butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool to barely lukewarm. Beat remaining 1 cup cream and 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl until very thick but not yet holding peaks; fold into peanut butter mixture in 3 additions. Spoon mousse over chocolate layer. Chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Pralined Peanuts
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

Ingredients:

1/4 cup (60 ml) water
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
1 cup (135 g) whole raw peanuts, unsalted
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt, preferably fleur de sel

Directions:

Mix the water, sugar, and peanuts in a large, heavy-duty skillet. Put the pan over medium high heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid boils.

Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring for just a few minutes, until the liquid crystallizes and becomes sandy. Very soon the crystals of sugar on the bottom of the pan will begin to liquefy. Stir the dark syrup at the bottom of the pan over the nuts to coat them. Continue to stir the nuts and scrape the syrup over them until the peanuts are glazed and become a bit glossy and shiny. (Sometimes I remove the pan from the heat while they’re cooking to better control the glazing, so they don’t get burned.) Remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle the peanuts with the salt. Tip them onto an ungreased baking sheet (I lined with parchment paper) and allow them to cool completely. As they cool, break up any clusters that are stuck together.

Storage: Pralined peanuts can be stored for up to 1 week in an airtight container at room temperature.

SMS: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels

So we’re off and running with a brand New Year of Sweet Melissa Sundays, and I’m so pleased to start with a recipe chosen by my adorable and hilarious friend Jeannette of The Whimsical Cupcake: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels. Though I didn’t realize SMS was back in action until the last minute, I was able to whip up a batch of these gooey-chewy candies with ingredients I luckily had on hand. And bonus!- I got to use my new handy-dandy digital thermometer.

After I nearly scolded myself trying to take the temperature of boiling-hot, bubbling red raspberry jam (the probe on my old-school thermometer wasn’t long enough to reach when attached to the side of the pot), I decided that with plans to pursue future jam and candy making ventures, I needed to outfit my kitchen with the proper hardware. Of course, I did some online research, reading a slew of reviews, and finally settled on this model, which I found, no problem, at the local Le Gourmet Chef. Does anyone else feel dangerous walking into one of those stores? I feel like I’m rendered powerless when faced with aisles chock full of tempting cooking and baking gadgets, shiny pans of every shape and size, and cutesie kitchen gear that I certainly don’t need, but just can’t live without. Maybe it’s just me. This time I made it out alive with just the thermometer. And a cookie scoop. C’mon, I didn’t have that size! All in all I’d say I was pretty good. Thankfully, I was on a mission. I had to go home and get caramel-izing.

Since my past experience with caramel has been touch-and-go, my heart began beating faster when I read that we’d be exploring it again. But I trust Jeannette, so I was off to the stove! One thing I thought was very interesting, was that nearly all the ingredients were combined at the beginning, and you basically just stir and wait for the mixture to come up to temperature (which, by the way, took between 20-25 minutes!). This recipe called for the syrup to reach the “firm-ball stage,” specifically 248 degrees F. I discovered a wealth of information on baking911.com about the different temperature stages used in candy making- there’s a very helpful chart that demystifies the terminology- and learned that “firm-ball” indicates a final product that is malleable and will flatten when squeezed. With that in mind, I was happy to find my block of set-up caramel exhibited the characteristic description.

After completing the sticky business of cutting into 64 bite-size squares, I offered my Mom a taste, and she hummed her usual “Mmmm!” Always a good sign. She loved the balance of rich chocolate and sweet honey, and thought the taste was exceptional, rivaling gourmet quality. While I didn’t win over my caramel-hating Dad- he too liked the taste, but couldn’t overlook the texture he typically dislikes- I considered these sweets a success, and I’m definitely looking forward to sharing… boy, once these little guys are all nice and cozy in their twisted wax paper wrappers and piled high, there’s really a mountain of ’em. A quarter or half batch probably would have been plenty for us, (I knew I should have followed Hanaâ’s lead!) But, I have a feeling they’ll still somehow end up disappearing!

A BIG shout-out (and thank you) to my dear Jeannette– please head on over to her fabulous blog, The Whimsical Cupcake, for the recipe… not only will you see some mouth watering creations, but I guarantee she’ll put a smile on your face! If you’re like me, and the thought of caramel making evokes your inner cowardly lion, give these relatively simple Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels a shot, and let me know if you need a personal candy making cheerleader- I’ll absolutely be right there. That’s what virtual baking buddies are all about!

I want to wish all of you a FANTASTIC New Year filled with much love, great happiness, and good health. I am so looking forward to sharing many more of my kitchen adventures with you on Hot Oven, Warm Heart, and baking together with all you incredibly talented bloggers throughout 2010! Let’s have lots of fun creating a wide array of delicious delicacies, and chatting about our experiences. The very best recipes may be yet to come 🙂

The Cake Slice Bakers: White Chocolate Cake + a bonus cupcake!

When I woke up this morning, I peered out my window to discover a world swathed in a blanket of pristine, glistening, pure white snow. Few seasonal panoramas can compare to the beauty of fluffy flakes falling delicately upon unadorned tree branches and layers of freshly collected, bright winter ground cover. It seems only appropriate that the treat I bring you today is in keeping with mother nature’s color palette- a decadent, luscious yet light White Chocolate Layer Cake, this month’s assignment for The Cake Slice Bakers. I’m so glad to be back in action, baking with my fellow blogging buddies, who I’ve missed dearly during my recent absence from Hot Oven, Warm Heart. I can’t wait to catch up and see how everyone dolled up their latest cake. For my own creative spin, I decided to utilize some leftover whipped white chocolate mousse as a filling, and according to my tasters, that element was the perfect addition to an already delicious confection. (You’ll find the recipe below.) Unique and refined with a subtle flavor profile, this elegant cake would be a lovely dessert to grace your holiday table. I guarantee it will disappear well before the snow!

Made of cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, vanilla, and lecithin, white chocolate is technically not considered chocolate at all, due to its lack of chocolate liquor. It first appeared in Switzerland in the 1930’s, invented by the Nestle Corporation as a way to use up excess cocoa butter, and was later popularized in America with the distribution of Nestle’s Alpine White Chocolate Bar. To select a good quality white chocolate, make sure it contains cocoa butter rather than the substandard brands made with hydrogenated vegetable fat. The inferior preparations might be less expensive, but they also lack the cocoa butter’s characteristic rich, creamy flavor. The tell tale difference between the two is in the color- true white chocolate has a deeper ivory hue, in contrast to the bright white shade of the imitation variety. When working with white chocolate, a good tip is to treat it with care and always melt it over low heat, which will help prevent the common problems of scorching and seizing.

This month’s Cake Slice Baker’s selection features white chocolate in each of the cake’s components: a healthy dose in the batter, more mixed into the cream cheese frosting, and in my case, a little extra in the improvised mousse filling. Instead of baking in the recommended 9” pans, I decided it was the ideal opportunity to break out my adorable new 6” rounds and give a miniature sized version a go. Of course, I called upon my super knowledgeable friend Steph of the famed A Whisk and A Spoon, who has graciously acted as my personal source for any and all baking 911 needs, and she shared her always reliable tips and tricks. I learned that you can pretty much take any standard 9” cake recipe, and successfully cut it in half to produce an irresistible 6-incher, perfect for a small gathering or in my case, just two grateful tasters. Steph pointed out that the key with such recipe modifications is in the baking time. It can vary greatly from the larger version (she recommends checking about 10 minutes early) OR be nearly identical. That was the case with my mini white chocolate cakes, which were ready to come out of the oven at 27 minutes (right in line with the 25-30 minutes suggested in the recipe instructions.) To test for doneness- I recommend adhering to the instructions- the cakes are ready when golden brown, spring back when touched gently in the center, and are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pans. I guess I should have headed the warning mentioned in the book’s Baking 101 section that said checking a cake too soon with a toothpick can cause it to collapse. Whoops! That’ll teach me to be overzealous! But the slight imperfection of a thin concave marking was easily hidden with mousse and frosting, and the cake was none the worse for ware. As with every baking experience, I learned for next time.

And I can’t forget about the bonus cupcake I promised you- it is most definitely a keeper! When my aunt requested something chocolate for her 60th birthday celebration, I knew immediately I had just the thing. By revamping my most-well received cake (of all time!) into cupcake form, I created a batch of knock-your-socks off Super Fluffy Chocolate Cupcakes with White Chocolate Mousse Filling and Fudgy Milk Chocolate Frosting. If the name is any indication- they were a hit! I feel privileged to share this very thoughtful and incredibly kind comment my dear cousin Sheila left on Hot Oven, Warm Heart after the party (It ended up on the “About” page, since I hadn’t posted yet about these yummy morsels. I’m glad to put it in it’s rightful home! Thanks so much Sheil, your words mean the world to me- I love you!)

“Wow is all we can say about the wonderful chocolate cupcake filled with delicious white chocolate mousse! A work of art, but more than that, an explosion of flavors in our mouths. You are truely an artist. Would love to have Gourmet Magazine taste these. Hmmmmm yes indeed. If we still had our restaurant, you would be our baker. Thank you and keep baking, and of course we will be your tasters.
Sheila & Rip
the former Amontea’s Restaurant
YUM”

Here are the recipes I used, which I highly recommend you try!

Ina Garten’s “Beatty’s Chocolate Cake” recipe
*This recipe makes exactly 2 dozen cupcakes- I’ve baked them this way twice, and both times they took 22 minutes (a toothpick should come out with no crumbs attached- don’t worry, they shouldn’t collapse!). It’s most definitely my go-to chocolate cake recipe, and has never let me down!

White Chocolate Mousse
from Sky High: Irresistible Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne

Ingredients:
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 egg white
1 tbsp sugar

Directions:
Melt the white chocolate with ¼ cup cream in a double boiler. Whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat and let the white chocolate cream cool to room temperature.

When it has cooled, beat the remaining ¾ cup cream until soft peaks form. In a clean bowl whip the egg white with the sugar until fairly stiff peaks form.

Fold the beaten egg white into the white chocolate cream, then fold in the whipped cream until blended. Be sure not to over mix.

*I only used half of this recipe to fill the cupcakes, but if you have any left over, don’t let it go to waste! Before I had my light bulb moment when I thought to put the rest in my White Chocolate Cake, I planned on making these Whoopie Pies– which will still be on my list!

Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Chocolate Frosting
as seen on America’s Test Kitchen

Note: This frosting may be made with milk, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate. (*For these cupcakes, I prefer a frosting made with milk chocolate.) Cool the chocolate to between 85 and 100 degrees before adding it to the butter mixture. The frosting can be made 3 hours in advance. For longer storage, refrigerate the frosting, covered, and let it stand at room temperature for 1 hour before using.

Makes 3 cups to frost one 9-inch 2-layer cake (or about 2 dozen cupcakes)

Ingredients:
20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter , softened (60 to 65 degrees)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar (4 ounces)
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
Pinch table salt
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces milk chocolate , melted and cooled slightly (see note)

Directions:
In food processor, process butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Add corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl, then add chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds. Frosting can be used immediately or held (see note).

If those cupcakes don’t put a smile on your face, take a look at my baby in her holiday best! Much love to you all and warmest wishes for a glorious holiday season!

SMS *recipe remix*: Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee

Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee 1

Do you ever wish life had a pause button? I might be overly influenced by my DVR, but I keep thinking how utterly advantageous a short intermission would be right now so I could have a chance to stop and catch my breath. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of sickness, stress, and strain, and unfortunately the preoccupation precluded my participation in quite a few weeks of baking and blogging. Some of the baking did take place- it is probably the only thing that has kept me sane throughout- and I even snapped a few photos, but I just couldn’t seem to pull together an accompanying post in time. I can’t wait to share the results in an SMS recipe rewind of sorts- most notably featuring my first ever bread pudding made from Julia Child’s homemade brioche. I even made both the recommended raspberry sauce and a bonus decadent caramel sauce for my mom (the berry-allergic). Coming soon to “Hot Oven, Warm Heart.” But for now, I’m so pleased to get back into the swing of things with today’s assignment, Melissa Murphy’s Butter Toffee Crunch. Sort of.

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Now maybe it was my faulty cheapo thermometer that sprung a leak, or the remnants of dear old Ida, who came barreling into town full force yesterday (I read that humidity/ moisture level in the air can negatively effect the candy making process), or maybe I made a irreparable error along the way (I am a novice at this after all), but the Butter Toffee Crunch was a colossal disaster. The one thing you want to avoid when making candy is the sugar crystallizing, and despite my careful adherence to the directions, that is precisely what happened. I knew as I was pouring the gloppy, bubbling caramel on the baking sheet that something went horribly awry, so I wasn’t too surprised to find a crumbly mess upon attempting the final step of breaking into pieces. The taste sadly solidified my fear that I now had 3 lbs of chocolate and nut covered brown sugar- cloyingly sweet and downright gritty. Now while I can’t pin point exactly which culprit was responsible, I’m a bit doubtful that the recipe would have been successful even if the stars were aligned. To me, the ratios seemed a bit off- especially when it came to the sugar- all 4¼ cups of it. Regardless of the toffee’s texture, the caramel layer was very thick (and I did use the largest rimmed sheet pan in my kitchen)- it was just way too much and made even a small piece overwhelming. The semisweet chocolate didn’t help matters, and without that bitter tang of dark chocolate, there was no contrast to balance the saccharine mixture underneath.

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By the time I realized that my afternoon of candy making was a flop, the sun had set, and I left my kitchen disappointed and demoralized (I know… I take these setbacks too personally… I’m working on it). As I laid in bed running through the steps over and over again in my head, and contemplating the overflowing container of no-good toffee on my counter that I didn’t have the heart to throw away, I hatched a plan for the next morning. I would not end my candy making career on a bad note- instead I would forge forward with a new recipe in hand, and give it another go. Luckily, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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For toffee #2 I turned to a very reliable source when it comes to the sweets department: David Lebovitz. It just so happened he posted a remarkably similar recipe (same idea, but very different proportions) that I thought might just do the trick. Following his instructions to the T produced a batch of the most delightful homemade toffee I could ever imagine. I had a much better feeling pouring the gorgeous dark amber colored caramel over my toasted almonds, and knew almost immediately it was okay when I watched it set up in a hard, almost translucent layer mere seconds later. As I sprinkled my Ghiradelli bittersweet chips on top, spread them into a shining melty sheet of chocolatey goodness, and distributed the remaining toasted chopped almonds across the surface, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. I didn’t say anything to my mom in fear of giving myself a kena-horah (Yiddish for jinxing), but I was hopeful that first bite would confirm my suspicion- this candy would not only be edible, it would be delicious.

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Both my parents proclaimed it far and away the winning candy, much improved from my initial attempt. A nice crunch yielded to a chewy treat with just the right amount sweetness and pronounced chocolate and almond flavors. The simple list of ingredients came together in perfect harmony, producing an indulgent delicacy with addictive properties. After offering pieces to both my mom and dad, I watch them each sneak another taste off the tray a few minutes later- always a good sign. Though reminiscent of the caramel matzoh crunch I make every year at Passover (I will surely be sharing that this Spring), the Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee is definitely a stand-out recipe in my repertoire that I will be calling upon for gift-giving this holiday season. Great to have on hand to serve surprise guests who pop up this time of year (you probably have everything you need to make it in your pantry), it is a wholesome, quality sweet that is sure to impress. If you’re looking for a dependable recipe to use as an introduction to candy making, take my advice, and give David’s a try. You won’t be sorry!

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Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee
from David Lebovitz

Ingredients:
2 cups (8 ounces) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between ‘fine’ and ‘coarse’
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
a nice, big pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips

optional: Ground cocoa nibs and fleur de sel

Directions:
1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with an unflavored vegetable oil.
2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ on the baking sheet.
3. In a medium heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300° F degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.
4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.
5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently but quickly spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)
6. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.
7. If using, sprinkle with a small handful of cocoa nibs and a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.
8. Cool completely (you can pop it in the fridge if you’re impatient, like me!) and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.

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To offer a boost of confidence, here are a few tips and tricks I picked up through some research that should make the process a bit more foolproof and less intimidating:
• Before you begin, make sure to read the recipe thoroughly and gather all your ingredients so that they are ready to use- I measured mine out in advance (especially the baking soda and vanilla) so I could grab them at a moments notice when the syrup came up to temperature. I learned that the baking soda is what aids browning and gives the toffee a lighter texture, while the vanilla adds depth of flavor.
• Make sure your candy thermometer is accurate. If you’re unsure, a good trick is to bring a pot of water to a boil- it should read 212° F if you live at sea level. If you find it’s off a degree or two, simply adjust your recipe taking this into account. Also, the tip or bulb of the thermometer should rest above the bottom of the pan for a proper reading.
• Use a heavy bottomed saucepan so the candy will not scorch under high temperatures. In addition, it’s recommended to use a long handled wooden spoon (as opposed to metal), because the sugar crystals are less likely to stick to the wood.
• Take extra precaution when handling hot syrups- just to be safe, it’s handy to keep a bowl of ice water on the counter which you can plunge your hand into immediately to stop a burn if an accident occurs.
• Avoid overstirring- it can overwork the caramel and result in the dreaded crystallization.
• For easy clean up- after the pan cools, fill it with water and bring to a boil. Let stand until the syrup melts away.
• Buttercrunch Toffee will keep for about 7-10 days- store it in an airtight container to prevent softening.
• Most importantly, please keep in mind that every once in a while, candy doesn’t work. It may be too humid, or the sugar decides to crystallize (as in my case), or it’s just not your day. Try your best not to get discouraged; according to David, it happens even to seasoned professionals.
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I can’t wait to visit all my fellow SMSers’ sites to find out if they had better luck with Melissa’s Butter Toffee Crunch (the recipe’s over at “Kait’s Plate”), and catch up with everyone through our comments- I’ve really missed all my lovely baking ladies! Check out the blogroll to see how each fared. Thanks Kait for your fun selection, and for pushing me into uncharted culinary territory!

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SMS: Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake

Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake

I have a bit of a confession to make. I am a highly neurotic cook. My perfectionist tendencies follow me into the kitchen, and although my passion for baking brings me a sense of inner peace and tranquility, I can’t help but get worked up some times when I make a mistake or things don’t turn out right. The rational side of my brain tries to reason with me, “It’s okay, Joy, not everything you make can be a smashing success, and even though you’re disappointed now, try not to get discouraged! You’ve learned from the experience and will do better next time, that’s what’s important.” Note: this voice is often the repeating of my mom’s words of encouragement in my head. But usually, I’m too overcome with melancholy and consternation to listen. Bearing all this in mind, I never, never, imagined myself standing over a perfectly risen, evenly domed cake saying, “C’mon, fall. FALL! I want you to look like a pathetic deflated tire. Will you fall already?”

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Yesterday morning, this curious kitchen occurrence came true as I stared at this week’s SMS selection, the cover recipe of The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake. Thankfully, this time my cake listened to my pleading, and sunk ever so slightly in the middle, creating cracks and crevices along the surface. Un-molding the cake only enhanced its homely appearance, revealing un-even sides that looked sadly smushed together. While it wouldn’t be winning any beauty contests, it did resemble the book’s photograph, and I was hoping that the cake’s flavor far exceeded its appearance in impressiveness and overall appeal. But before I could serve and find out, I had to wait patiently for the cake to cool completely, giving me the perfect opportunity to discover how this cake came to be.

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In the mid-1970s, famous restaurateur, Narsai David, set off an absolute sensation with his over-the-top dessert aptly titled the Chocolate Decadence Torte. Ever since, pastry chefs round the world have been crafting devastatingly rich chocolate desserts hoping to achieve ultimate chocolate nirvana on a plate. The intensely flavored French-style desserts unite the seemingly paradoxical qualities of a dense truffle and airy mousse. A palate and preference for these chocolate treats spread quickly throughout the American public, and variations like the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake began popping up on high-end dessert menus everywhere.

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Another such adaptation is the fallen soufflé cake, a hybrid of sorts between a chocolate mousse/soufflé and a flourless cake. Fortunately for the baker, the nerve-wracking anxiety of soufflé baking is eliminated, as a fallen dessert is the desired result. While the batter is constructed and baked just like a soufflé, it is allowed to cool thoroughly, during which time it falls, compacting the texture. It’s best served slightly re-warmed, so the consistency remains more like a mousse than a dense fudge. Traditionally, fallen soufflé cakes are served accompanied by a custard, caramel sauce, ice cream, or sweetened whipped cream.

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I’m sad to say the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake in The Sweet Melissa Baking Book didn’t quite live up to expectation. The reaction my tasters had at first bite can be described in one word: surprise. My dad remarked, “I taste something, but it’s not chocolate… it’s not orange, is it?” Apparently the single teaspoon of orange zest and splash of Grand Marnier was enough to overpower the central ingredient. Even with over 10 ounces of Ghirardelli, it just didn’t deliver that punch of chocolate flavor I was after. My mom chimed in commenting on the lack of sweetness, and asked if I had used all bittersweet chocolate. Nope. All semisweet here. Both had no problem polishing off their slices, and complimented the cake’s surprisingly light texture, but then came the kiss of death: “It’s just not my favorite,” my mom said gently. When my number one fan, who loves EVERYTHING I make, utters those five telling words, I know that there won’t be a second showing of the dessert in my home.

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I still have to thank Sarah of The Blue Ridge Baker for pushing me to try something I’ve never tackled before. I’m now inspired to find the fallen chocolate cake of my dreams, and don’t you worry, when I do, I’ll be sharing. Please still check out Sarah’s fantastic site, where you’ll find the recipe along with a bonus chocolate cake that she deemed “heavenly.” I’m certainly adding that one to my must-try list! And remember to check out how all the other lovely ladies’ cakes came out too!

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SMS: Hazelnut Truffles

Hazelnut Truffles

My first introduction to the world of gourmet candy was the classic Lindt milk-chocolate truffle and it was love at first bite. I pulled both ends of the glossy red wrapping to reveal a humble chocolate sphere, unadorned, unexceptional, and vaguely reminiscent of the ubiquitous Hershey’s kiss. But with one taste, I realized that this sophisticated treat was in a class of its own. When the hard outer shell (also known as couverture) gave way to a silky smooth, melt-in-your-mouth, luscious center- I was pleasantly surprised to discover a novel chocolate eating experience. This heavenly confection remains one of my all time favorite sweets, but with a lack of homemade candy making knowledge and familiarity, I’ve never attempted to produce a batch of my own. So I was very pleased to discover that Annie of Living Life Foodcariously selected Hazelnut Truffles for this week’s Sweet Melissa Sundays recipe. Transforming from baker to chocolatier for a day was a delightful change of pace, and I was amazed by the ease and simplicity of the candy making process.

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A French creation, the original chocolate truffle was merely a ball of ganache, made of chocolate and cream, and often flavored and rolled in cocoa. According to legend, it was invented in the kitchen of French culinary legend Auguste Escoffier during the 1920s. One day, his stagiaire, or apprentice, attempted to make pastry cream, but he accidentally poured hot cream into a bowl of chocolate chunks rather than the intended bowl of sugared egg. As the chocolate and cream mixture emulsified and hardened, he found he could work the chocolate paste with his hands to form a bumpy, lopsided ball. After rolling the new creation in cocoa powder, he was struck by its resemblance to the luxurious mushroom truffles found in the forests of the Périgord region of France and the Piedmont area of Italy. This resemblance gave the chocolate truffle its name. Because the actual truffle was very expensive and eaten only by the royals and extremely wealthy, the shared name gave the new chocolate creation elevated status.

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Today, French chocolate truffles epitomize the finest and most luxurious candies in the world. What’s more, truffles are taken so seriously in France that an annual contest is held to judge the best from each individual region of the country. In many French chocolate production factories, the finest and freshest ingredients are reserved exclusively for making truffles. By making my own truffles, I can understand the importance of quality ingredients- especially when there are only four components to speak of.

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Chocolate. Cream. Liquor. Nuts. That’s it! And if you can chop up the chocolate, heat up the cream, combine the two, and then stir in the liquor and nuts, you can make delicious truffles too! All you need now is a little patience- 2 hours for the mixture to firm up in the fridge- but then you’re all set and ready to roll. Literally. Form that decadent ganache into balls and roll around to coat in whatever you fancy (hazelnuts were called for in this recipe, but any other nut could easily be substituted, not to mention the traditional cocoa powder, less conventional coconut, or even trendy spices) and you’re ready to open up your very own chocolate shop. Generally, the ganache used for truffle filling is made with a 2:1 ratio, two parts chocolate to one part cream, but by switching up the liquor or extract, and outer coating, the same basic recipe can be adapted to produce countless flavors and variations.

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The hazelnut truffles from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book exemplify the ultimate chocolate sweet. The textural contrast of the rich, creamy, almost velvety core and the crunchy bite of the toasty hazelnut exterior allow these truffles to dance on the tongue. They are luscious little nibbles that are sure to impress your family and friends… that is, if you decide to share! And bonus! If something happens to go awry in the kitchen, just remember, it may be the next remarkable culinary discovery of the century 🙂

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Head on over to Living Life Foodcariously for the recipe, and see what all the other SMSers did with their truffles by exploring the blogroll. Thanks Annie– what a great pick!

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