Monday, January 31, 2011

Australia - Kuranda

January 31, 2011 - today we took a ride on the Scenic Railway up to Kuranda, a "hippie" village in the mountains.  The train ride was about 1 1/2 hours through 15 tunnels and a number of bridges with 1 horseshoe turn and a stop at Barron Falls which were utterly gorgeous.  It was a nice ride up there and they gave a good voiceover on the train about its history.  I can't wait until I can upload pics to these blog posts.  Everything was beautifully green.  I could easily imagine I was back in the rain forests of Belize, complete with the humidity but sans the man-eating bugs and howler monkeys.

Barron Falls:

When we got to Kuranda, we walked along the town's main strip lined with tourist shops and ended up at the Heritage Market where we went to the Koala Gardens.  For a tour-discounted entrance fee of $12AUD you can get into the gardens which boasted crocodiles, wallabies, lizards, a cage of snakes and, of course, koalas.  For another $16AUD, you can "cuddle" a koala and get your picture taken with it.  I wasn't so hot about the picture (in the humidity, my face was shining like a homing beacon and my hair was flatter than limp noodles) but it was the koala that mattered, right?  The picture taker's assistant positions your arms before plucking the koala from the last tourist and putting it in your arms.  You have to cradle "the bum" with one hand and keep the other hand up so the koala can be draped in your arms.  I've never held a koala before and hadn't realized how sharp their claws are.  Fortunately the one I held didn't scratch me or break skin although it got a pretty good grip on my shirt when it was time to give it to the next tourist.  We could get our picture taken with one of the two koalas they were using for that purpose.  I got the smaller one which I wanted - the big one looked like it could take me on and win.  Both poor things looked a mite cranky but I would be too if I had to put up with a never-ending lineup of tourists.

Within Koala Gardens, they also had a small lake for the crocodiles (don't disturb them and they won't disturb you), some lizards (in a fenced off area but the top half was open which made me wonder what makes them stay there), and wallabies (who I consider kangaroos) including some "joeys" or baby wallabies.  I've never seen them up close before so that was pretty cool to experience.  There was also a snake cage for the snakes but I channeled my inner Indiana Jones and skipped all that.  Some things I don't need to experience and snakes are on that list.

We had a few hours to kill in Kuranda so I did a lot of walking.  The town's main strip isn't very big so I traversed it several times before sitting down and writing postcards.  It was pretty hot and humid so it kind of kills the desire to do much.  I did finally get to try a meat pie - or rather, it was a chicken and potato pie.  Pretty good.  It was deceptively small but actually quite filling.  I also bought a Lamington and a macadamia Anzac but saved them for later.  More on those later in a separate post once I can get the pictures up.  I'm trying to try as much authentic Australian food as possible - that's one of the pleasures of traveling, after all.  Unfortunately the heat and humidity is a bit of an appetite killer and the chicken & potato pie did me in so I saved the desserts for later.  Although I did indulge in ice cream (hey, it was hot) and tried a flavor called violet crumble which was a mocha and chocolate swirled ice cream with a toffee crunch.  It was GOOD.

Violet Crumble gelato

ETA: criminy, I was so focused on the food I can't believe I forgot to mention the gondola ride down.  We took the train up and the Skyrail gondola down.  It's listed as the longest gondola ride in the world and I'll say it lives up to that.  It was an awesome experience.  You're up ridiculously high so if you're afraid of heights, this won't be the best ride for you but I loved it.  I may feel icky on 15-foot waves in the Coral Sea but hanging in a little gondola over the highest trees you can imagine that are so tall you can't see the ground they're growing in is cool. Not to mention the scenery was just top notch.  I am in awe of all the people who built this thing.  Not only is it so high up but it's a long ride and a lot of towers to build and a lot of cable to string up between the towers.  I'll have to look up how they built it and how long it took - it's really quite impressive.  My pictures don't do it justice because you can't really get a sense of how high up you are through pictures.  Only that you're hanging all the way up there in an enclosed "car" hanging on a cable.  Awesome.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Australia - The Great Barrier Reef

Monday, January 31, 4:45 am - so far I'm not adjusting that well to local time.  I went to bed before 8 pm last night, slept a solid 4.5 hours then dozed off and on (again, more awake than asleep) for a few hours and was up by 4 am and showered by 4:30 am.  Nothing's open, not even the fitness center, and it's still too dark to go for a walk outside so might as well go to the open 24/7 Business Center at the hotel and check in.

Yesterday was our excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.  Cairns is about a 90-minute boat ride out to Green Island and the Reef.  We were bussed to the marina where our tour guide, Erica, went to get our tickets for the "Sunlovers Cruise" out to the reef.  It was then that we were told that, because a cyclone was headed to the Queensland Coast, the waters were a bit choppy.  The cyclone was on a path to hit several hundred kilometers south of us so we weren't in any danger but we were going to feel some of the effects from winds and rough waters.  There was a chance the boat wouldn't sail out there today so we were on standby.

Not being able to go when we were so close was disappointing but everyone took it well and were prepared to roll with whatever came up.  Fortunately, it was decided the waters were safe enough but the captain did warn us that the winds were 25-30 knots (whatever that means) and the ride would be a bit bumpy.  He wasn't kidding.  Now, I don't normally get seasick.  I haven't been on a lot of boats or ships but enough that I know I'm not really prone to seasickness.  I went on a cruise several years ago and was queasy the first night but was perfectly fine after that.  The waters were so rough that the trip out to the reef was like being on a rollercoaster ride....for 90 minutes.  I didn't get queasy but I did end up with a headache from having my brain tossed around inside my skull for so long.  You couldn't really walk anywhere on the boat because it was being tossed around so much and even seated, I had to hold the chair rest to keep from being tossed to another seat.

The pontoon at the Great Barrier Reef

When we got to the pontoon on the reef, I was prepared to go snorkeling and had already worn my bathing suit underneath my tank top and shorts.  I decided to take it easy for awhile though and let my head get back to normal.  I hung out on the pontoon which was steadier than the boat, went back to the boat for the buffet lunch and chatted with Pat, a very nice lady on the tour group whose daughter works for Google and was having a great experience there that Pat was happy to share with me.  After lunch, I caught a ride on the semi-submersible boat off the pontoon where you sit in the lower level that's completely below water and you get a ride around part of the reef so you can get a closer look at the coral and some of the fish.  In essence, it's like seeing what the scuba divers were seeing.

It was an interesting trip but it turned out to be my Waterloo.  While I wasn't nauseous on the boat ride that took us out to the reef, being in the enclosed "sub" and still in those choppy waters turned out not to be a good idea.  Yup, I yakked up my lunch.  Fortunately, there were seasick bags right in front of me and I had enough warning to have one open in front of me so I could quietly toss my lunch the hard way up there.  Eww.

After that experience, I actually felt a little better but was glad to get back up on the pontoon when the ride was over.  Okay, no more boat rides in little enclosed spaces for me.  I hung out on the pontoon and watched the snorkelers.  There were a lot of mostly yellow-tailed fish, swimming so close to the surface that I was able to get some good pictures of them.  I saw one large gray fish (I know nothing about marine life) that looked large enough to be a baby shark but apparently it was quite safe.  I talked to some of the other people who had gone snorkeling and it sounded like they were seeing the same things I was from the surface so I talked myself out of donning the snorkeling gear and stayed where I was to enjoy it instead.  Yeah, yeah, it's the Great Barrier Reef and it'd be nice to say I'd snorkeled there but I'm not much of a swimmer or a snorkeler so I was fine skipping it, especially since I didn't want to risk throwing up in the Coral Sea.

The fish were pretty fearless to watch.  They'd swarm around the snorkelers and sometimes the snorkelers were so intent on what they could see through their goggles into the water beneath them that they never looked around to see they were literally surrounded by a school of them.  I took some cool pictures that I can't wait to upload to this post.  I also attended a mini lecture on the pontoon about sea cucumbers and star fish and got to touch both.  The sea cucumber was a bit slimy to the touch and the starfish were spiny.  It was interesting to learn about their habits.  I'd never really gotten a close look at sea cucumbers before so that was interesting.

The ride back wasn't as bad as the ride out but still choppy enough that I had to lie down on one of the couches in the lounge deck to fight off the headache coming back.  It didn't really help that the lady who sat next to me was literally retching half the trip.  Apparently I wasn't the only one having a hard time on the boat.  Quite a few people did get seasick on the trip there and back.

But all in all, it was a good experience and when I'm traveling, I always chalk up everything to an experience.  The day alternated between cloudy and sunny but overall the sights were beautiful and I'm glad I went.  I bought a cute t-shirt in the gift shop at the wharf before the boat ride for one of my nieces as her souvenir present from Australia but when I got back to the hotel and tried it on, I liked it so much I want to keep it (sorry, Laur).  So now I have to hotfoot it back to the gift shop before we leave Cairns and buy another one so I can still be a good aunt, haha.

Today's excursion is a train ride up to Karanda and a gondola ride back down.  It's the only time on the tour we'll get to hold a koala if we choose - more about that tomorrow.

A word about the tour group - there are 33 of us on the tour and it's primarily an older group, filled with retired couples and older people traveling with a friend or sibling.  I'm the youngest person here by a decade...or two.  One of the couples jokingly asked me if I was even old enough to drink.  LOL!  Age is apparently relative.  But everyone seems really nice and I've enjoyed talking with various people.  Most of them are well-traveled with a lot of people having taken trips and cruises to Europe and Asia although it seems to be most people's first time to Australia.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Australia - initial observations and more on Cairns

January 30, 2011 - at least I'm pretty sure it's Jan 30.  I'm still a bit turned around on time. 

After my internet cafe check-in, I wandered around Abbott St and the Esplanade in Cairns which is right near the wharf.  It rained off and on as it tends to do in tropical areas and the heat (when it was sunny) and the humidity (when it was raining) were challenging, especially when you're sleep deprived.  I had my first lunch in Australia by having fish and chips at the food court at the Cairns Night Market (most of the market was closed since it was daytime).  My friend Cheryl, who lived in Australia for several months, said I had to try the fish and chips, especially berrumundi.  Unfortunately the stand only offered mackerel but I thought it was pretty good.  A bit greasy but nowhere near as bad as the one I had in London.  When I get back home I'll have to go back and update these blog entries with pictures as yes, I take pictures of my food.

ETA: fish n chips

We had a welcome dinner at the hotel last night but by then I was so sleepy I really couldn't function very well.  It was a buffet dinner but I was still full from the fish and chips so I didn't eat much.  The offerings seemed like standard Western fare that you'd serve tourists.  It wasn't bad but nothing really stood out.  I left the dinner early as I was on my last legs, was back in my room and crashed by 7 pm.  Slept like the comatosed until just past 11 pm then dozed off and on (mostly off) for the next few hours.  By 4:30 am, I had given up.  I was awake.

I initially planned to hit the fitness center and, tricked out in my running gear and armed with my ipod, I got there by 6 am only to discover they don't open until 9 am on Sundays.  No matter - I went outside instead.  I might've planned to run since there's an awesome path by the waterfront but in reality, I was so intent on absorbing my surroundings that I did more of a gawking walk than anything more cardio-minded.  Which was great.  I saw the sun come up over some hills, the sky spill into blue and, because it still kept raining off and on, a rainbow made itself known halfway through my walk.  I always love looking at bodies of water and there's something beautiful and soothing about walking alongside, just enjoying the ambiance.  As in most places, sometimes the best part of the day is the early morning, especially in the tropics.  The heat and humidity haven't taken hold yet and the morning air is nice and cool.

Other random reflections: had a laughable moment when I first got inside my hotel room.  I kept flipping the light switches but nothing was turning on.  After a few minutes, I finally discovered the slot to insert my room key so that the switches worked.  Smart thinking on the hotel's part - ensures less energy is wasted when people aren't in the room.

Currency: the challenge of going to any country with different currency is becoming familiar enough with it that you're not always fumbling for the right amount to give and knowing how much change you should expect to get back.  The AU dollar and the US dollar are almost at parity.  The best exchange rate I saw without fees was $100USD = $94.50 AUD.  And did I mention how expensive everything is here??  The smallest bill seems to be for $5 AUD and their $2 coin is smaller than their 50-cent piece, something that always throws me off.  But it's all good learning and I'm enjoying the differences.

Oh and the most US-centric thing I'll say - they drive on the "wrong" side of the road!  lol.  I have to swivel my head like an owl as I cross the street as I always seem to forget which side I should be looking at.

More later - heading out to the Great Barrier Reef shortly.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Australia - Cairns

G'day from Australia!  I'm fulfilling one of my dream trips by going on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.  I wasn't sure I'd be able to get internet access or how often and I likely won't be able to upload pictures until I get back home but I thought I'd try snatching some time to blog while I can and wherever I can get cheap internet access.  I'm at an internet cafe at the moment for $3 an hour although my goal is not to spend more than 20 minutes a day online.  I'm here to experience the trip, not just write about it.  I'll be hijacking my baking blog to blog a bit about my trip.  Although knowing me, you know food will feature prominently here.  It'll just be Aussie and NZ food.

I've been in transit for almost 24 hours now and am operating on 3 hours' sleep over a 2-day period so I'm a bit punchy.  We're in Cairns for the first leg of the tour.  Flew to Brisbane first to go through Customs & Immigration.  I finally got an Australian stamp on my passport (although I confess to being disappointed that it doesn't actually SAY Australia on it.  But I'll know what it is).  Then boarded another plane to fly to Cairns.  It's more tropical here, i.e. humid and 90 degrees.  First thing I need to stock up on is water to keep hydrated.  And I thought I had packed the sunblock I had bought especially for the trip only to discover it's nowhere in my suitcase.  So that's the second item on the buy list.  There's a grocery store near our hotel so I'm checking that out as soon as I log off.

Australia is actually quite expensive and our tour guide, Erica, corroborated this.  The store prices so far confirm it.  Fortunately I don't have a lot to buy other than food and souvenirs.  Gotta go - tomorrow is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  Stay tuned....

ETA: aerial view of Cairns as we approach the airport to land

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Triple Layer Chocolate Mousse Cake

Triple Layer Chocolate Mousse Cake - originally made April 25, 2005 from Chocolatier Magazine, June 1997 issue

I can't let National Chocolate Cake Day go by without posting this recipe - it goes down in the baking archives as the most expensive chocolate cake I've ever made.  Normally I don't let the cost of ingredients faze me but when you couple the amount of chocolate this recipe calls for with I-take-my-own-advice about using the best quality ingredients you can afford, well, let's just say, this cake made me realize why fancy bakeries charge as much as they do for some of their cakes.

Don't let the length of the recipe deter you.  I admit I made this cake over the course of two days so it can take a bit of time but the steps themselves aren't hard.  Some recommended tips: this makes a lot of chocolate mousse, probably double what you actually need for the cake itself.  So unless you have other plans for the mousse, you can get away with only making a half recipe for the cake (that'll cut the chocolate cost as well).  I probably didn't use very much since I didn't make the mousse layers between the cake layers very thick.  Oh and another plug for baking with cake strips as you can see where I had to fill in a bit more mousse because the cake layer was domed and shorter on the sides than the middle - this is a cake baked without the cake strips.

I also ended up with too much ganache and too many Oreo cookie crumbs.  Depending on your fondness for chocolate, you can cut the ganache recipe by at least a third.  If I were to make this cake again, I also would use chopped toasted nuts instead of Oreo cookie crumbs for the garnish along the sides of the cake, more to add texture than anything else.  The cake itself is good and the mousse and ganache make it over-the-top chocolate.  This is not for the faint of chocolate heart.

Chocolate Mousse
28 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 1/3 cups milk
½ cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 cups heavy cream

Devil’s food cake
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, such as Land O Lakes, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 1/3 cups buttermilk

Ganache glaze
16 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups heavy cream

25 Oreo Cookies

Make the chocolate mousse
1.     Put the chocolate in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade.  Process for 20 to 30 seconds, until finely ground.
2.     In a small saucepan, combine the milk, sugar and salt.  Cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves and the milk comes to a boil.  Remove the pan from heat.
3.     With the motor of the food processor running, pour the hot milk through the feed tube.  Process for 10 to 20 seconds, until the chocolate is completely melted.  Using a spatula, scrape down the side of the work bowl.  Add the oil and vanilla extract; process for 5 to 10 seconds, until the mixture is creamy.  Scrape the chocolate mixture into a large bowl and cool for about 5 minutes, until tepid.
4.     In a chilled 4 ½-quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the wire whisk attachment, whip the cream until soft mounds barely start to form and the cream is still pourable.  Do not overwhip the cream.
5.     Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold one-third of the whipped cream into the tepid chocolate mixture to lighten it.  Fold in the remaining whipped cream.  Do not overfold the mousse or the texture will be grainy.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 6 to 8 hours or overnight, until firm.
Make the cake
6.     Grease three 10-inch round cake pans.  Cut three 10-inch circles of waxed paper and place in the bottom of each pan.  Grease the pan well and then flour, tapping out the excess.  Set aside.  Place the oven racks two shelves apart.  Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
7.     Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.  Place the coarsely chopped chocolate and the water on top of a double boiler and turn heat to medium high, whisking occasionally until smooth.  Remove from the top of the double boiler and cool slightly.
8.     Meanwhile, in a 4 ½ -quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and the sugars.  Add the vanilla.  Add the eggs one by one, mixing on medium speed until blended.  Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the mixer at its lowest speed, add half of the dry ingredients, and then half of the buttermilk.  When blended, add the remaining buttermilk and the chocolate mixture.  Mix until blended then add the remaining dry ingredients.  Mix on medium speed just until blended and the flour lumps disappear.  Divide evenly among the three prepared pans and smooth the tops with an offset metal spatula.  Bake for 28 to 32 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Remove the pans from the oven and place on wire cooling racks.  Cool for 15 minutes and invert.  Peel off the waxed paper and cool completely.
Begin to assemble the cake
9.     Place a dab of chocolate mousse and then a layer of the cooled cake on a 10-inch cardboard cake circle or the circular insert of a tart pan.  Using a large rubber spatula, place about one-quarter of the chilled chocolate mousse on top of the first cake layer.  Using a metal cake spatula, spread the mousse evenly not quite to the sides of the cake.  There should be slightly less than one-half inch of mousse on top of the cake.  Place the second cake layer on top and repeat the mousse layer.  Place the third cake layer on top, then spread the remaining chocolate mousse over the top and sides of the cake, coating smoothly and evenly.  Place the cake in the freezer for a minimum of four hours.
Make the ganache glaze
10.   Place the coarsely chopped chocolate in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade.  Process for 20 to 30 seconds, until finely ground.  Place in a large bowl.  In a medium pan, scald the heavy cream and pour over the chocolate.  Using a metal whisk, gently stir until smooth and melted.  Continue stirring until the ganache is room temperature or just slightly warmer.
Glaze and garnish the cake
11.   Place the Oreos in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade.  Process for 20 to 30 seconds, until finely ground.
12.   Remove the cake from the freezer and place on a wire rack that has been set over aluminum foil or a sheet pan.  Slowly pour the ganache over the top of the cake, smoothing with a large metal cake spatula.  When the top has been coated, slowly pour the ganache around the sides of the cake so it drips down and coats the sides.  Use the spatula to spread the ganache evenly over the sides of the cake.  When completely coated with the ganache, scoop the Oreo crumbs with your hands and press them onto the sides of the cake, coating its entirety.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mexican Chocolate Fudge Pecan Cake

Mexican Chocolate Fudge Pecan Cake - originally made June 1, 2007 from The Pastry Queen by Rebecca Rather

I haven't had any further time (or eating audience) to bake anymore this week but in honor of National Chocolate Cake Day, a day I can get behind anytime, I thought I'd post this easy and awesome chocolate cake recipe.  It won't count against my baking challenge since I've already tried the recipe but it's well worth making again.  According to the cookbook, Rebecca Rather owns the Rather Sweet Bakery in Fredericksburg and it's billed as "The Best Little From-Scratch Bakery in Texas".  Just based on this cake, I'd have to put this bakery on my foodie places to visit if I'm ever in Texas.

This is one of the few cakes where I'd advocate including the nuts since they're part of the glaze, not the cake itself.  In the glaze, the crunch of toasted pecans adds the perfect flavor and texture complement to the sweet glaze.  The cake batter is easy to make but a bit thin so strain the batter as you pour it into the pan if you have any flour lumps.  Flour lumps do NOT go away in baking.  The cake has excellent flavor and a soft, moist texture.  The glaze makes it rich and chocolaty and the pecans add a nice crunch.  Oh, and if you notice from the picture, I went off recipe and didn't bake in a tube or Bundt pan but used a couple of 8" pans.  No particular reason why but I ended up liking it this way better since it gives more surface area for the glaze :).

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
½ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
¾ cup water
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt

Chocolate-pecan glaze
1 cup pecans
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup whole milk
½ cup high-quality dark cocoa powder, such as Scharffenberger
2 cups sifted powdered sugar (sifted then measured)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt

1.     Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Grease a 9-inch tube pan or a 10- to 12-cup Bundt pan with butter, sprinkle lightly with flour and tap over the sink to remove any excess.
2.     Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat.  Add the cocoa and whisk until smooth.  Add the water and whisk until smooth.  Be careful not to boil the mixture.  Remove the saucepan from the heat.  Add the sugar, eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla to the warm cocoa mixture all at once; whisk until smooth.  Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt all at once; whisk until the dry ingredients are completely incorporated.  If there are lumps, strain the batter as you pour it into the pan. 
3.     Bake for 40 to 45 minutes; the cake is done when it has pulled away slightly from the sides of the pan and feels firm to the touch. 
4.     Let the cake cool in the pan about 20 minutes. 
5.     Meanwhile, make the glaze: Arrange the pecans on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast them in the 350 degree oven for 7 to 9 minutes, until golden brown and aromatic.  Chop the pecans.
6.     Melt the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan.  Add the milk, cocoa, and powdered sugar and whisk until glossy.  Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the vanilla, salt and pecans.
7.     Loosen the cake with a knife or spatula and overturn it onto a serving plate.  Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake, covering it thoroughly.  Don’t worry if some of the glaze pools inside and around the cake.  This cake will keep up to 3 days, covered, at room temperature and glaze just before serving.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chocolate Marble Chunk Cookies

Chocolate Marble Chunk Cookies - made January 23, 2011 from The Good Cookie by Tish Boyle (book #44)

The Good Cookie by Tish Boyle is one of my favorite baking books.  Almost every recipe I've tried from it has come out, including some killer brownies.  People often ask me what my best, most fudgy brownie recipes are and most of them are from this book or from one of Lisa Yockelson's.  Tish Boyle was the editor of the now-defunct Chocolatier magazine.  I always enjoyed the recipes and pictures from Chocolatier and was sorry to see it go out of publication, especially since I was a lifetime subscriber.  Now I'm always on the lookout for anything Tish Boyle publishes as I'm sure it'll have the same excellent standards.

Over the Christmas holidays, my old college roommate, Caroline, brought me a box of cookies from one of her favorite bakeries in Central CA when she came to visit.  One of the types of cookies was a marbled cookie.  It wasn't a black and white in terms of having white chocolate chunks in a fudge cookie like the previous cookie recipe I just made but it was actually vanilla and chocolate cookie doughs marbled together.  It was pretty good and I thought I'd try to make something like it on my own.  Fortunately, The Good Cookie had a recipe that looked like it could be similar.  I left out the nuts - that should almost go without saying now.

I only added chocolate chips to the chocolate batter, for no particular reason other than I wasn't really trying to make chocolate chip cookies but a marbled vanilla/chocolate cookie.  The dough turned out a bit soft so to do the marbling, I dipped a spoon in the non-chocolate batter to scoop up a bit of dough then dipped it in the chocolate batter to get some chocolate dough then rounded the doughs together with another spoon, shaping between the two spoons back and forth.  You don't have to worry about keeping each batter pristine since they're going to be marbled together anyway.  I put the marbled dough balls in the freezer first to firm up then baked them in the convection setting of my oven to prevent too much spreading.

The recipe says this makes 60 cookies - if you make them small, I suppose you could come up with 60.  I only ended up with 28 "regular-size" cookies.  If you do make them a bit larger, adjust the baking time accordingly.  The original directions say to bake just until the lighter-colored dough just begins to brown but I baked mine for longer than that since they were bigger and when the lighter colored dough started to brown, the middles of the cookies were still "wet" and raw.  I had to bake them long enough that the lighter-colored dough actually did turn light brown.  Consequently, they didn't look like white and chocolate doughs marbled together.  More like chocolate chip cookie dough marbled with chocolate dough.  Next time I'll aim to make them smaller and see if they'll look more like vanilla and chocolate marbled cookies.  In any case, these also tasted like chocolate chip cookies marbled with chocolate cookies.  They were pretty good but not quite as special as I had hoped.  I'm glad I tried them but I don't know if they'd make my holiday baking list (that bar is quite high).  Regardless, if you do make these, make them small and be sure not to bake them too long.  I know I say that with almost every cookie recipe but the texture really does change - if you underbake them properly, the chocolate cookie part is fudgy, if you bake them "just right" but not overbaked, the chocolate cookie part is cakey but not dry.  I prefer the fudgy version.  The lighter colored cookie seems like it's just along for the ride.

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 ¾ cups pecan pieces

1.     Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375˚F.
2.     In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.  Set aside.
3.     In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars at medium-high speed until light, about 2 minutes.  Beat in the vanilla extract and eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the sides of  the bowl as necessary.  At low speed, add the flour mixture, mixing just until blended.
4.     Transfer 1 ¾ cups dough to another bowl and set aside.  Add the cocoa powder to the dough remaining in the mixer bowl and mix on low speed until blended.  Add half of the chocolate and half of the pecans and mix until blended.  Stir the remaining chocolate and pecans into the light colored dough.
5.     Fill one side of a 1-tablespoon measuring spoon with the light dough, making it well rounded, not level.  Fill the remaining half with chocolate dough.  Roll the doughs into a ball and place on an ungreased baking sheet.  Moisten your palm to prevent sticking, and flat the dough into a 1 ½-inch disk.  Repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the cookies 2 inches apart.  Bake one sheet at a time, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the lighter dough just begins to color.  Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to a week.  Makes about 60 cookies.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Buttercup Golden Layer Cake

Buttercup Golden Layer Cake - made January 22, 2011 from Buttercup Bakes at Home by Jennifer Appel (book #43)

I finally managed to remember to order the Magi-Cake strips to wrap around round cake pans for even baking.  Except Magi-Cake strips can only be fastened with a pin and I wanted the ones that fastened with velcro (you ever try stabbing those pins into a cake strip while the strip was around the pan and still manage to keep the cake strip snug around said pan?  Total pain - velcro fasteners are better).  Fortunately Regency had "Evenbake Cake Strips" with velcro fasteners so I got those.  Best things ever - soak them in water before using, wipe off excess water, fasten around the cake pan, pour your batter in and bake.  And they worked too - my cake layers rose up evenly instead of baking faster at the edges and having a higher, rounded middle.  The only drawback is they came in a pack of 2 (or at least the ones I bought did) so I only had 2 and my recipe called for making a 3-layer cake.  But no problem, I only baked 2 layers and used the leftover batter to make cupcakes.  I liked the results of the cake layers so much though that I'm probably going to buy another set of 2 cake strips in case I ever do want to make a 3- (or 4-) layer cake.

I've been wanting to try this recipe from the Buttercup Bake Shop for awhile but it called for self-rising flour.  I can only find self-rising flour in the 5-lb bags and I don't have many recipes that call for it so it seemed a little excessive to buy a bag just to use 1 1/2 cups of it.  But I needed a vanilla cake recipe as I was meeting my cousin and her son for dinner and his favorite flavor is vanilla (my cousin: "Jason, do you want vanilla or vanilla?" Jason: "I think I'll have vanilla").  Since I still didn't have any self-rising flour on hand, I decided to just substitute.  The lead-in to the recipe says not to substitute but I was feeling reckless.  Instead of the self-rising flour, I used all-purpose flour for all of the flour except I used a scant 1/4 cup in the last measure and added 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  Turned out pretty well so I'm glad I gambled on it.  The texture of the cupcakes was light, almost spongy but definitely cakey and the flavor was a nice butter/vanilla flavor. 

I think I underbaked the cake layers slightly as they weren't as light as the cupcakes but a bit more dense.  I actually liked their texture a bit better, probably because they were a little more moist.  The frosting turned out a bit too sweet for me but I'm not really a frosting fan and use it sparingly anyway.  This would make a good 3-layer cake as the layers aren't too thick or too thin and stacking all 3 layers would not only look pretty but be manageable enough to eat.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups self-rising flour (or substitute 1 1/2 scant cups of all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt)
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1.     Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.     Grease and lightly flour three 9 x 2-inch round cake pans; then line the bottoms with wax paper.
3.     In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar on the medium speed of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Mix the milk and vanilla together.  Thoroughly combine the flours and add in two parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla mixture and beating well after each addition.
4.     Divide the batter between the prepared pans.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  Remove from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.
5.     If you’re making cupcakes, line two 12-cup muffin tins with cupcake papers.  Spoon the batter into the cups about two-thirds full.  Bake until the tops spring back when lightly touched, about 20 to 22 minutes.  Let the cupcakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  Remove the cupcakes from the pans and cool completely on a rack before icing.
6.     When the cake has cooled, frost between the layers, then the top and sides of the cake.

Vanilla Buttercream
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
7 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Food coloring (optional)

1.     Place the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla.  Beat until smooth and creamy.  Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the icing is a good spreading consistency (you may not use all the sugar).  If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and mix thoroughly.
2.     Use and store the icing at room temperature, as the icing will set if chilled.  It can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.  This yields icing for one 2- or 3-layer 9-inch cake or 2 dozen cupcakes.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

White Chocolate Chip Fudge Cookies

White Chocolate Chip Fudge Cookies - made January 19, 2011 from Chocolate Passion by Tish Boyle & Timothy Moriarty (book #42)

Like many chocoholics, I have a prejudice against white chocolate since it's not really chocolate as it contains no cocoa solids.  But there are two particular types of baked goods I like them in - macadamia white chocolate cookies and in fudge cookies.  In the first, they're more of a complement to the macadamia nuts (and they must be macadamia nuts, other nuts are just not the same) and in the second, they're a sweet contrast against real chocolate.

Note there's a difference between white chocolate and vanilla chips. Don't expect vanilla chips to be white chocolate in chip form. Not only do vanilla chips have more vegetable fat to help keep their chippy shape and melting point but I suspect there's far less cocoa solids (if any) in them.  Which means I don't want to know what actually is in them but it ain't chocolate. If you do like white chocolate (or even if you don't but use them anyway), go for the best quality white chocolate you can find.  Trader Joe's used to sell Ghirardelli white chocolate in blocks but I haven't seen them recently.  For this recipe I used Callebaut white chocolate chunks - bought on sale at Williams Sonoma last week.  I love a bargain, especially on the good stuff.

As a triple fudge cookie, this was pretty good.  The edges were crisp but the middles were moist and chewy.  Flavor-wise, I really liked the richness of the chocolate offset by the sweetness of the white chocolate chunks.  Don't overbake them as nothing tastes worse than a dry cookie and nothing tastes better than a slightly underbaked chocolate cookie that sets once it cools and has a fudgy interior.  Time these carefully - you can also judge when they're done once the middles are set and don't look wet.  If the white chocolate starts to brown, it's time to take the cookies out.

Prep time: 25 minutes plus baking and cooling times

2 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon unsulphured (mild) molasses
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup unsweetened nonalkalized cocoa powder (I used Pernigotti cocoa)
Three 3-ounce Lindt white chocolate bars, cut into ¼” chunks

1.     Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350˚F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2.     Melt the semisweet and unsweetened chocolates together in the top half of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water.
3.     In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
4.     In a 4 ½-quart bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer using the paddle attachment, beat the butter until soft, about 1 minute.  Gradually beat in the brown sugar and granulated sugar and continue to beat for 1 minute, scraping down the side of the bowl as necessary.  Beat in the molasses and vanilla extract.
5.     One at a time, beat in the eggs.  Sift the cocoa powder and add it to the mixer bowl.  Beat until combined.  Add the melted chocolates and mix.  Decrease the speed to low and blend in half of the flour mixture, scraping the bowl as necessary.
6.     Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a wooden spoon, fold in the remaining flour with the white chocolate chunks.  Do not overmix. (Work quickly at this step as once the melted chocolate is added and the first half of the flour is mixed in, the batter cools considerably and it's more difficult to add the remaining flour before the dough stiffens up.)
7.     Drop the dough onto the baking sheets in walnut-sized mounds; flatten each mound slightly.  Bake the cookies until the tops are puffed and cracked, about 12 minutes.  Do not overbake or the cookies will be dry.  Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 3 to 5 minutes, then transfer them to wire racks to cool completely.

Yield: 36 cookies

Lark's Country Heart

Friday, January 21, 2011

Peanut Butter-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

Peanut Butter-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes - made January 19, 2010 from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (book #41)

I have several baking books by Martha Stewart and I'm irresistibly drawn to the pictures of the recipes.  They always look so good.  I've tried a number of her recipes and they've almost always come out.  So then I wonder why I don't use her recipe books more often.  But once I flip through them in their entirety, I realize I'm only up to making maybe half of the recipes.  The other half is too fancy and involved.  Very Martha in looks but few people have that kind of time to make gorgeous concoctions.  And even if I had the time, to be honest, I don't think I'd go to the bother.  I tend to err on the side of simplicity and taste.  One more reason why I'm more of a brownie or cookie baker rather than a wedding cake decorator.

In any case, this recipe couldn't have been simpler to make.  I mixed the chocolate batter by hand and used a hand mixer to blend the peanut butter filling ingredients.  For the filling, make sure your butter is softened to room temperature and mix it well with the peanut butter so they end up well blended and the same creamy texture with no lumps.  I ended up with enough batter to make fill 12 muffin cups and 1 ramekin.  Don't try to force them into 12 muffin cups if you have too much batter or they might overflow.

I discovered the hard way that you need to marbleize or swirl these so that you have more of the chocolate covering the peanut butter on top.  Otherwise the peanut butter batter will puff up and spill over the top of the cupcake liner.  When you take them out of the oven, they deflate and look sloppy, especially when you try taking them out out of the muffin cavity.  Mine don't look close to Martha's version - sigh.  So cover the peanut butter batter with the chocolate and only allow a small part of the peanut butter batter to show through the top.  Once you get past the sloppy appearace, taste-wise, these are like eating a Reese's peanut butter cup in cupcake form.  Judge the baking time on whether the chocolate part is done (with a few moist crumbs clinging to a tester) and not when the peanut butter part is "done" because the peanut butter batter isn't going to bake like the chocolate batter.  It'll stay creamy and it's supposed to.  Don't overbake or the chocolate cupcake part will be dry and not fudgy,

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Peanut Butter Filling
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
¾ cup smooth peanut butter
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1.    Preheat oven to 325⁰F.  Line a muffin tin with paper liners.  Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.  Put butter and chocolate in the top half of a double boiler over hot, simmering water; stir until melted.  Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
2.    Whisk granulated sugar into cooled chocolate mixture.  Add eggs and whisk until mixture is smooth.  Stir in vanilla.  Add flour mixture; stir until well incorporated.
3.    Make the peanut butter filling: stir together all filling ingredients until smooth.
4.    Spoon 2 tablespoons chocolate batter into each lined cup, followed by 1 tablespoon peanut butter filling.  Repeat with additional tablespoon batter and top with 1 teaspoon filling.  Swirl top of cupcake batter and filling with a wooden skewer or toothpick.
5.    Bake, rotating halfway through, until a cake tester inserted in the centers comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached, about 40 minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before removing cupcakes.

Cupcakes can be stored up to 3 days at room temperature in airtight containers.