Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chocolate Chocolate Bourbon Cake... with Chocolate

A friend of mine convinced me to sign up for a cake decorating class with her. There were only going to be 4 classes, the cost was minimal and since I'm self-taught, I thought a little formal training would be good for me. Unfortunately, the last class was the Tuesday just before Christmas and I would have to miss it because I was going to be in Utah visiting my family. To make up for it, I decided to test my new skills and create a wonderful cake for our Christmas Eve party. The question was...what would I make?

A couple weeks before Christmas, the New York Times published a recipe for a Chocolate Bourbon bundt cake. One of my favorite food blogs Simply Recipes tested it out for me with rave reviews. Being that my mom is from Switzerland, she is an avid chocolate lover and we grew up with it all around. Now that we are all adults, throw a little bourbon into the mix and it's a sure winner. To incorporate my new cake decorating skills, I changed it from a bundt cake to a layered cake and decided on a chocolate ganache covering.

Chocolate Bourbon Cake

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour

5 oz bittersweet dark chocolate
1/4 cup instant (or liquid) espresso, or instant coffee
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon whiskey
1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbs vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda
1 tub of store-bought dark chocolate frosting (or about 2 cups homemade)

Chocolate Ganache

9 oz bittersweet dark chocolate
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 325° and grease/flour two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans. Put the chocolate in a bowl and microwave until about halfway melted (about 2 minutes). Swirl the bowl until the chocolate is completely melted. (In one of my preliminary trials, I found that the chocolate burned on the bottom if I tried to melt the chocolate completely in the microwave. This method works a lot better). Set the bowl aside to let it cool.

Put instant espresso and cocoa powder in a 2 cup measuring cup. Add boiling water up to the 1 cup line and stir until all the powders are completely dissolved. Add the whiskey and the kosher salt and set aside to let it cool.

In your mixing bowl, beat the butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Add eggs one at a time and beat between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract and baking soda. By this time, the chocolate should be fairly cooled, add it to the mix and make sure to get the majority of the chocolate into your mixing bowl by using a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl. Add 1/3 of the coffee/whiskey mixture and mix thoroughly into your cake batter. Now add 1 cup of the flour and mix thoroughly. Add the next 1/3 of coffee/whiskey mixture and mix. Follow with another cup of flour and mix. And finally add the remaining coffee/whiskey mixture and mix.

Pour batter into your cake pans and put in the oven for about 45-55 minutes. I made this cake in both Philadelphia (humid climate, elevation 39 ft) and in Utah (dry climate, elevation 5100 ft) and the baking time was shorter in Utah (as might be expected). So, check your cake around 40 minutes for a Utah-like climate and more around 50 minutes for a Philly climate. The easiest way to check if a cake is done is to put a toothpick in the center. If it comes out clean (no batter-like residue), then it's done. Let your cake pans cool for 15 minutes, then invert the cake pans onto wire racks and carefully remove the cake from the pans.

When the cakes have cooled completely, assemble your cake onto your decorating surface (I just used a flipped over 10" cake pan). If you have a lot of doming on your cakes, you may want to trim the domed part off. My cakes didn't dome that much, so I used a clean dish towel to gently compress the top of the cake immediately after I took it out of the oven. Place one cake layer on your surface with the domed side up. Add about a 1/4" thick layer of frosting to the top of the cake
and then gently place the second layer on the cake with the domed side down. Use the rest of your frosting to add a crumb coat to the cake. A crumb coat is a THIN coat of frosting that just adheres all the crumbs to the cake. It helps achieve a smoothed look when you add the ganache. This layer of frosting should be thin enough that you can actually see the cake through the layer. The only place where you may want to add more than just a thin amount is at the frosted middle layer between the two cakes. You want to fill (spackle if you will) all the holes in the middle region so in the end you have a flat surface for the entire height of your cake. Place cake in fridge for 30 minutes until the crumbcoat hardens. You can leave it in the fridge overnight if you'd prefer.

When the crumbcoat is hardened, start on your ganache. Place the chocolate into a bowl. In a sauce pan bring the 1 cup of heavy cream to just below a boil. You need to stir
constantly to prevent the cream from sticking (and burning) to the bottom of the pan. The goal here is to get the cream extremely hot so that it melts the chocolate. When the cream is just about to start boiling, take it off the heat and pour it directly into the bowl of chocolate. Using a spatula, stir and fold the cream into the chocolate until you have a nice, smooth thick chocolate syrup. In the end, if you have small bits of unmelted chocolate, just pop the bowl into the microwave for about 30 seconds and stir again. Let the ganache cool before applying to the cake.

Place a wire rack onto a baking sheet. Take your cake out of the fridge and place on the wire rack. Pour the ganache onto the top of the cake and allow it to drizzle down the sides. W
hen I've used about 1/2 of my ganache, I get a spatula and start working on the sides of the cake first. You want a nice even coat of ganache on the side. There is likely an excess of chocolate on the top of the cake, so if I need more chocolate on one side of the cake I use my spatula to push the chocolate off the top and onto the side I'm working on. I continue to take chocolate from the bowl and the top of the cake until the sides are nice and flat and smooth. Don't worry about the very bottom of the cake where the chocolate is dripping off onto the baking sheet. We can fix that later. Once you are happy with the sides, clean up the top of the cake to your liking. Place in the fridge until you are ready to decorate.

To decorate the cake, move your cake to it's final resting place. For me that was a glass cake pedestal. To transfer the cake I use two wide metal spatulas. The cake will be very heavy, so you need to support it underneath as you transfer it. Once placed on the cake pedestal/plate, use a s
harp flat edge knife to trim the bottom of the excess chocolate from the bottom of the cake. For my decorations, I made 3 gumpaste carnations and dipped them in an edible gold pearl dust. I learned how to make these flowers in my cake decorating class and perhaps that's a post for another time. In fact, that's the only part of my class that I'm using for this cake. Initially, I wanted to add a satin ribbon to the bottom, but was convinced that an all edible cake was better. So, I created a pink fondant ribbon for the bottom that I shimmered with the gold pearl dust.

All in all this cake tasted and looked just like I wanted it to. It was very rich and chocolatey, but the addition of the bourbon and the espresso added a hint of uniqueness to the cake. Don't hesitate about the amount of bourbon used, it's perfect and
melds nicely into the cake. I think this cake is a great crowd pleaser for parties. Because of it's richness, partygoers will likely only have one slice, but that's perfect when there is a lot of people.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Home-made Mac n' Cheese

Anyone ever hear the Bare Naked Ladies song "If I Had a Million Dollars?" There is a line in that song that reads "If I had a million dollars we wouldn't have to eat Kraft dinner... but we would." I always loved that line because if I was ever a millionaire I know that I would still have the occasional bowl of cereal or Kraft box mac n' cheese for dinner. I've never tried to make my own mac n' cheese, so when I saw a recipe on the Dishing up Delights food blog I had to give it a go.

Now, this posed a little bit of a problem because when I don't feel like cooking (which is usually about once a week), I tell Jon to throw on some mac n' cheese. So, if I'm planning mac n' cheese for one of my meals, what in the world do we make on the night I don't feel like cooking?

Despite this small dilemma, I still forged ahead. I was not sorry. This was very, very good. It has a bechamel base which gives it a creamy consistency. (I didn't even know what bechamel was or how to pronounce it until 2 days ago). As a first time effort, my bechamel wasn't bad, but it wasn't perfectly smooth and creamy. I know there are some bechamel experts out there, so if you have any insight into perfecting the consistency please put it in the comments section. Even with this small imperfection, the recipe still tasted fabulous.

Home-made Mac n' Cheese

(modified from Dishing up Delights)

6-8 slices canadian bacon (cubed)
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 lb elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup Fontina ch
eese, shredded
1 1/2 cups extra-sharp chedder cheese, shredded
Cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper to taste

Get the elbow macaroni started in some salted water. While the macaroni are boiling, saute the cubed canadian bacon in a pan. I didn't use any oil and just cooked the bacon until it started to brown a little. The original recipe used regular bacon, but I wanted something a little lighter to go with the cheesiness of this dish. Once cooked, remove the canadian bacon to a bowl and reserve for later. Add a little oil to the pan and saute the shallot. (Shallots and scallions are my favorite onions. They each have such a unique flavor that really add another level to a dish). After about 3 minutes add the garlic and continue to saute until onions are translucent. Add the canadian bacon back into the pan and mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat and set aside.

By this time your pasta should be cooked. Drain in a colander and set aside. Add the butter to the pot and set on medium-high heat. When half-way melted add the flour and stir until mixed. When the butter has completely melted add the milk. Continue to stir and cook on medium high heat until your "bechamel" has reached it's desired thickness. Add all of the Fontina cheese and about 1/2 cup of the chedder to your bechamel. Stir until completely melted. Add about 1 tsp cayenne and some salt and pepper. The original recipe didn't have amounts for the cheeses or the cayenne, so I did everything to taste. If sauce has no real flavor add some more chedder. If it needs a little kick, add some salt, pepper, or cayenne. I just kept adding chedder until I was satisfied. The fontina is a creamier cheese, but it has a very mild flavor. Add the fontina for texture, but the chedder for taste.

Once your satisfied with the taste, stir in the onion, garlic, and canadian bacon mixture. Once mixed, add the pasta and mix. Voila! It's yummy home-made mac n' cheese. I had leftovers the next day for lunch and it was great. Jon told me how his mom bakes homemade mac n' cheese and I can definitely see how having a crunchy top would be yummy. In fact, baking it in an oven reminds me a lot of my mom's macaroni casserole, which will have to be a post for another day.

What I would change about this recipe:
Nothing. I loved it. I just need to work on the texture of my bechamel sauce, but the flavor was great. I really liked the canadian bacon touch. Homemade mac n'cheese also makes you feel a little healthier than eating the box mac n' cheese, but I'll still always have a couple boxes on hand.

Paper-Wrapped Chicken

When I was in my first year of college I worked as a receptionist/secretary/errand girl at the same company that my dad worked. It was a small enough company that you knew everyone who worked there and everyone knew you. Working in the same company as my dad meant that I got to see him in his highest state of stress and was occasionally caught in the line of fire. However, one of the benefits of working with my dad was lunch time. He frequently took me out to lunch and I could pick where we went. One of my favorite places to go was a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall called Sampan. Not only did they have the best tasting Chinese food (my favorite was mongolian beef), but they gave you a lot for your money. With every lunch special you got soup and your choice of either an egg roll or paper-wrapped chicken. Paper-wrapped chicken are little chunks of chicken wrapped in rice or cellophane paper and deep fried. However, at Sampan, they are wrapped in little triangles of aluminum foil and baked. They were delicious and I got them every time I went.

When I originally came across this recipe, I thought it was going to be a method for cooking chicken over a campfire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was for my precious paper-wrapped chicken!! Funny, how the author of the blog posted the recipe as a memory of her father and I also associate them with my dad. While this recipe was not identical to those at Sampan, they were still very, very good.

Paper/Foil Wrapped Chicken
(from the Food Gal)

3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp ginger paste or fresh ginger pressed through a garlic press
5 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
pinch of sugar

dash of sesame oil
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 1" cubes

Preheat oven to 350degrees. Combine all ingredients into a bowl. The original recipe says to marinate for 2-3 hours, but I just let it sit for about 30 minutes and it was fine. While the chicken is marinating prepare the tin foil squares. 6"x6" squares work fairly well, so if your tin foil box is 12" long, then pull out 6" of foil and tear. Then just fold in half and tear so that you are left with 2 equal squares. I personally just eye-balled it (and didn't do a very good job oat it), but the more even they are the better your squares will look. Fold each square along its diagonal to create a diagonal crease. This will help you later when you are wrapping the chicken.

Open each foil square and put a heaping teaspoon of the chicken into the center. Fold up the square along the crease so that you have a triangle. Fold the open edges of the triangle 2-3 time to create a tight seal. Place all foil triangles onto a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes.

At the restaurant, part of the fun was having your own set of triangles and opening them yourself. Serve with a big bowl of rice, the plate of triangles, and your veggie of choice (mmmm...asparagus).