Tuesday, April 29, 2008

TWD: Polenta & Ricotta Fig Cake

This is the cake that almost didn't happen. In fact, if it required multiple bake - cool - bake - roll steps, It probably would NOT have have happened.

Between the nephews birthday this weekend, The cheesecake pops, and life in general, I've been pretty busy this last week. But I picked up the ingredients Saturday with the goal of cooking this on Monday (nothing like the last minute). Then of course, I find out that an acquaintance's mother passed away, and we made plans to go to the wake. My Monday was quickly slipping away.

Coming home from the funeral parlor around 9pm, I pick up the cookbook to read through it, in hopes that its an easy one. It is. And aside from the 45 minutes to bake, it didn't even look too time consuming. Plus, I'd specifically bought figs for this recipe, and it'd be a shame for them to go unused.

Assembly was pretty easy, though in hindsight I should have chopped the figs even smaller. While they were tasty, the big pieces could be a little overwhelming. With 3/4 a cup of honey to measure out, I was glad to put my 'trick' to use, which was to liberally spray the measuring cup with non-stick spray BEFORE measuring the honey. It glides out no problemo.

The cake took closer to 50 minutes to get to the 'golden brown' stage, though I was watching it carefully since my pan was 11 inches instead of the 10 1/2, and I figured it'd have finished quicker.

Whipping up some cream and honey, the husband and I sat down to nibble on some before calling it a night. While the cake is tasty, its not for the cavity prone. All the honey plus the figs made for quite a sweet cake. The recipe says it serves appx 8 pieces, but its so sweet I'd probably limit myself to 1/2 a serving and make it for 16.

In the end, a pretty successful cake. Not quite sure if I'll make it again too soon, but a nice addition to the repertoire.

(PS: in advance of any condolences, it was the mother of my husband's coworker, and a woman I'd never actually met. So well wishes to the deity/ether of your choice are fine, but the loss wasn't particularly tolling to me personally, thank you.)

Fluted Polenta and Ricotta Cake

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours

About 16 moist, plump dried Mission or Kadota figs, stemmed
1 cup medium-grain polenta or yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup ricotta
1/3 cup tepid water
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup honey
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs

Storing: Wrapped in plastic, the cake will keep for about 5 days at room temperature. The cake can be frozen for up to 2 months; defrost in its wrapper.
Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 10 1/2-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, and put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat.
If your figs aren’t moist and plump, toss them into a small pan of boiling water, steep for a minute, drain, and pat dry.
Whisk the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt together.
Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the ricotta and water together on low speed until very smooth. With the mixer at medium speed, add the sugar, honey and lemon zest and beat until light. Beat in the melted butter, then add the eggs one at a time, beating until the mixture is smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low, and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they are fully incorporated.
Pour about one-third of the batter into the pan, and scatter over the figs. Pour in the rest of the batter, smooth the top with a rubber spatula, and dot the batter evenly with the chilled bits of butter.
Bake for 35 to 45, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. The cake should be honey brown and pulling away just a little from the sides of the pan, and the butter will have left light-colored circles in the top. Transfer the cake to a rack, and remove the sides of the pan after about 5 minutes. Cool to warm, or cool completely.
Serving: Serve the cake warm, or at room temperature, with a little honey-sweetened whipped cream.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cheesecake Lollipops: Daring Bakers

Joining the cooking blog community can be intimidating, at times. With so many creative people out there, it makes your lowly baked goods look downright ugly at times, be it for their scads of creativity, or skilled photography. I worked for a few years as a press photographer... so I thought myself decently accomplished at it, but apparently photographing people is a whole different art than food, and I've been working against the learning curve for the last couple months.

In an attempt to push myself both on a cooking front but on an artistic photography one, I signed up for the NY Marathon of food blogging, The daring bakers. I was excited to get my first assignment, Cheesecake lollipops. One of my nephew turns 2 this month, and I knew these would be perfect fare to bring along to the party, lest they sit around our house going straight to my waist.

I knew with all the cooling/freezing times, this would be a several day endeavor. So I set about baking the cheesecake Sunday. I think the grocery store must think me a nutter when I show up to the till with 7 packages of cream cheese... But between this challenge and the carrot cake last week, I put a run on their supplies. Even with them tallying at nearly 2$ a box, I still had an awed gentleman in line behind me ask the cashier if I'd used any coupons since I managed to fill an entire cart for $130. No coupons that trip, but its nice to know that my OCD-like list making and sale spotting pays off.

One of my money savers is my vanilla extract. I haven't had to buy this baking staple in a few years. My office used to have a local vodka company situated on the floor above us. They went out of business a couple years ago, and as a gift of goodwill, they dropped off a case of potato vodka. I excitedly grabbed a bottle and took it home, dropping in a couple vanilla beans. Other than topping it off every couple months with some new vodka, this bottle has been one of my prized ingredients ever since.

After mixing everything up, I set it in the roasting pan/water bath and slipped it in the oven. As the reviews suggested, I left it in nearly 75 minutes before it was browned on top and not 'jiggly' in the middle. I'm glad I'd picked up the 10 inch pan, since in that time, it'd also risen nearly 1/2 an inch above the lip of the pan. As it cooled, it shrank back down, but if it had been a smaller pan, it might have overflowed.

The next day, I set about rolling the balls. I got a digital scale for Christmas, though at times I think I would rather throw it out the window than use it. The maker seems to think it is such a useful tool that I will want to leave it out on my counter 24-7 and use it as a clock, as well as a scale. Because there is no way to turn the darn thing off. All it does, after a period of inactivity, is turn off the scale feature and go to the clock. Which is lovely, considering sometimes I want to chop and measure as I go... but then it looses the tare of the bowl... and I have to start over again.

Anyhow, I managed to get the scale function to work long enough to measure out 2 oz of cheesecake, which was pretty darn big. I decided that these would look super-cute shaped, and figured my ice cream sandwich presses might be the easiest tool to shape them. Sadly, Cheesecake is stickier than I'd figured on. And there was no way to get them shaped without crumbly edges. So I gave up and went for some rustic (theres that word again...) balls, and popped them into the freezer.

The next day, I set about adding the chocolate and toppings. I knew I wanted to use dark chocolate since I'm a big fan... And I decided to use a bit of whatever was in the pantry for toppings. I made some peppermint bark for Christmas gifts this year, and so had a jar of crushed candy cane in there. Making sure to leave out the big pieces, I figured they would look more like crushed peppermints. I also set out some chopped pecans, and red and white sprinkles. I also decided to leave a good lot of them unadorned aside from the chocolate.

I dipped them in sets of around 6, and almost like that magic shell stuff, the frozen cheesecake helped to quickly set the chocolate. My only other problem was that I ended up needing nearly twice the amount of chocolate, so halfway through I had to melt up some more. After coating them all, I had a small amount left, so I put it in a ziplock and played Jackson Pollock drizzling them all with the leftover chocolate.

Overall, this recipe was a success. I'm glad my first DB challenge went with little incident. The husband and I each tried a pop the next day, and aside from falling off the stick after a few bites, they were a big hit. Hopefully they go over as well with the party goers!

To view the other Daring Bakers' pops, visit the Daring Bakers Blogroll. For the Cheesecake Pops recipe, please visit Deborah’s site or Elle’s site.

Cheesecake Lollipops

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

TWD- Billy's Not so Big Carrot Cake

If the lack of updates didn't allude to it, I was on a bit of a break the last 2 weeks. The first weekend was the big local sci-fi convention here, so I was there most of the weekend as well as a friend's Bridal Shower. I was home to sleep all 3 days, and that was about it.

After the convention, I launched right into vacation-prep mode as we then flew down to Florida for 5 days of fun in the sun. We were lent the use of a fabulous house with a pool on the intra coastal waterway, so we did a lot of lounging around, drinking pina coladas, and napping. Not much in the way of cooking, though I did sample some tasty food down there. To say we ate a LOT of food would be an understatement. So, when I looked at this week's TWD challenge of an entire carrot cake, my waistline gave a mild protest. The thought of having an entire 3-layer cake in the house with just the two of us was a bit daunting... even with the healthy allusions of 'carrot cake'. So I sat down with pen and paper and quickly transcribed it into a 1/2 recipe.

The recipe estimated we would need up to 9 carrots grated. Usually when I'm doing a carrot cake, I pull out the Cuisinart. But for 1/2 a cake, I figured I could manage by hand, saving the cleaning time on all those parts. Of course, to grate carrots by hand, I would have to find my grater. When it comes to gadgets and gizmos, my kitchen is pretty well stocked. Fluted pastry rollers, hamburger press, ice cream sandwich maker press, ice cream machine, you name it, its tucked in there somewhere.

The problem, however, is that while everything has very specific homes in my mind, they rarely end up there. We have a cleaning service that comes every other week to tidy up. Before anyone tsks me, honestly, this is one of the best investments I've ever made. I would gladly give up my latte addiction if it meant I wouldn't have to scrub a toilet. So don't knock it unless you try it, and I recommend EVERYONE try it. They are a godsend.

Anyhow, the cleaning people seem to think that every gadget I own belongs in one drawer. So what was originally designated for a small amount of gadgets turns into a black hole. Ah well, there are worse problems to have in life. Hidden under the ricer, helpfully labeled 'turner', and pancake spatula, I found my grater and set to work. I only needed 3 carrots to get the 1 1/2 cups.

From there, the recipe was pretty similar to most carrot cakes I've made, mix the wet, mix the dry, add the dry to the wet... add the nuts/carrots/etc. While I've never made a carrot cake with coconut, I decided to give it a shot since the toasted coconut topping sounded like a nice reminder of our tropical vacation.

After mixing everything up, I decided to make a 'mini' layer cake from 2 heart shaped pans I have. A closer look reminded me they were more triangular than heart shaped, but they were about the size I was looking for. I had some extra batter and divvy'd it up into a cupcake tin.

Apparently I was a little too generous with the divvying, since the cupcakes rose a bit higher than I expected and overflowed into a carrot 'mass'... But I managed to rescue the layer cake without major issue. Since I only had the layer cake, I decided to 1/2 the frosting as well, and made quick work of assembling it.

The odd shaped pans and slightly generous portioning made for a cake not as 'neat' as I'd like, but at that point I figured I'd call it 'rustic' and press on.

I've never tried to 'toast' coconut before, but I figured the name was simple enough, and popped a pan of it into the toaster oven to brown. At first I thought maybe I was missing the concept as nothing appeared to be happening, but soon, color quickly bloomed. I guess I just had a very moist bath of coconut that had to dry out before browning.

In the end, while the pans weren't too large, they were fairly deep. So they made a pretty tall cake that divvied up into ~5 servings. The toasted coconut added a perfectly nutty tropical taste to the moist cake.

This recipe ended up pretty good, though next time I would probably try the full recipe. I might also opt to substitute at least 1/2 the oil with applesauce like I usually do to keep the fat down. Either way, it was a hit!

Bill's Big Carrot Cake (I halved this recipe to make the Billy version)

Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

Yields 10 servings


For the cake:

2 cups all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

¾ teaspoon salt

3 cups grated carrots (about 9 carrots, you can grate them in food processor fitted w/ a shredding a blade or use a box grater)

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

1 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)

½ cup moist, plump raisins (dark or golden) or dried cranberries

2 cups sugar

1 cup canola oil

4 large eggs

For the frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 stick ( 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 pound or 3 and ¾ cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

½ cup shredded coconut (optional)

Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)

Getting ready:

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. Put the two pans on one baking sheet and one on another.

To make the cake:

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.

The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.

To make the frosting:

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the lemon juice or extract.

If you'd like coconut in the filling, scoop about half of the frosting and stir the coconut into this position.

To assemble the cake:

Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. If you added the coconut to the frosting, use half of the coconut frosting to generously cover the first layer (or generously cover with plain frosting). Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft.

Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.


This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature and while it's good plain, it's even better with vanilla ice cream or some lemon curd.


The cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it's firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

TWD: Gooey Chocolate Cake

Monday nights in our house are usually devoted to catching up on whats on the DVR... This week, it involved some good old fashioned middle ages 'relations' as The Tudors returned to Showtime. I'm a new fan of the series, but used the reruns to get up to date, and so far find it enjoyable, especially in comparison to the "Other Boleyn Girl" and "The Boleyn Inheritance" books I recently read, as well as of course the Natalie Portman/Scar Jo movie.

Anyhow, I figured nothing would go better with some medieval 'relations' than some decadent chocolate cake... and this week's challenge fit the bill.

After the multi-step recipes of past weeks, I was almost relieved at the simplicity of this week's recipe. So easy, in fact, that I came home from work, cleaned the leftover dishes from the weekend, put together that night's dinner (Broiled portobello mushrooms with a spinach salad), and then set about getting the ingredients ready for the chocolate cake. I knew with the chopping and melting of chocolate, I didn't want to put the cake into the oven until after dinner, so I simply sliced, diced, and measured out each component before sitting down to eat.

After dinner, I quickly melted up the chocolate and butter, and went to work mixing everything together. I was a little puzzled as to why Dorie recommends disposable muffin cups, but after the sticking issue with the mini brownies I made, I made sure to thoroughly grease and flour my muffin tin before divvying out the batter. The 6 servings seemed ideal for us being a family of 2... too many baked goods lead to waistlines that closer resemble that of the REAL Henry VIII in his later years than the lithe hunk that is Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Setting the cakes in the oven and dutifully setting the timer, I always fret about baking things that have no way of telling that they are "done" such as a a toothpick coming out clean. But I followed the instructions to a T, letting them bake and rest. Then came the task of removing them from the pan. The finely chopped chocolate had melted making a chocolaty top to each one, which made me wonder about the wiseness of 'turning them out' onto their tops. But the Gooey center worried me if they were to puncture if I tried to lift them out of the pan. In the end I turned them out onto the parchment paper, deciding a little lost chocolate off the top was better than lost chocolate from the middle.

I served up two cakes with some Breyers coffee ice cream, and we set down to enjoy them and start up the DVR. I think there were more moans of ecstasy from us than the TV as we devoured them.

While the middle was soft and moist, It isn't as 'gooey' as past chocolate cakes I've had. This recipe is sinfully delicious and easy, next time I might only cook them for 10-11 minutes rather than the 13 to get more of a gooey center.

Gooey Chocolate Cake
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate,
4 ounces coarsely chopped,
1 ounce very finely chopped
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
6 tablespoons of sugar

Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. butter (or spray – it’s easier) 6 cups of a regular-size muffin pan, preferably a disposable aluminum foil pan, dust the insides with flour and tap out the excess. Put the muffin pan on a baking sheet.
Sift the flour, cocoa and salt together.
Set a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water, put the coarsely chopped chocolate and the butter in the bowl and stir occasionally over the simmering water just until they are melted – you don’t want them to get so hot that the butter separates. Remove the bowl from the pan of water.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk until homogeneous. Add the sugar and whisk until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add the dry ingredients and, still using the whisk, stir (don’t beat) them into the eggs. Little by little, and using a light hand, stir in the melted chocolate and butter. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups and sprinkle the finely chopped chocolate over the batter.
Bake the cakes for 13 minutes. Transfer them, still on the baking sheet, to a rack to cool for 3 minutes. (There is no way to test that these cakes are properly baked, because the inside remains liquid.)
Line a cutting board with a silicone baking mat or parchment or wax paper, and, after the 3-minute rest, unmold the cakes onto the board. Use a wide metal spatula to lift the cakes onto dessert plates.