Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What's in the Oven? Three Layers of Chocolate Perfection

I've been making this cake for over 30 years (since mid-high school) and I never get tired of it. It's a beautiful, rich three-layer chocolate cake, with a vanilla cream filling between the layers, all covered in chocolate buttercream. It takes a little time to make and assemble, but I promise you, it's worth the effort.

The cake pictured below was made for my son's friend who turns 15 on March 28th.

Be sure to check out the "Tip of the Week" and learn how to bake cakes that NEVER need to be leveled!

The Perfect Chocolate Cake!

For the cake:

1 cup cocoa powder

2 cups boiling water

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 cup butter, softened to room temperature

2 1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs, room temperature

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease the bottoms of 3 - 9 inch round cake pans and line with parchment or waxed paper (cut to fit) and then grease over the paper and on the sides of the pans. Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the cocoa with the boiling water. Using a whisk, mix well until smooth. Cool completely.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder. Stir several times with a whisk (this is very similar to sifting the ingredients) and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy; about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one-at-a-time, mix well and then add the vanilla. At low speed, mix in the flour mixture in fourths with the cocoa mixture in thirds (begin with the flour and alternate with the cocoa mixture, ending with the flour mixture). Do not overbeat.

Divide the batter evenly between the 3 prepared cake pans. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back when touched and the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool in the cake pans for 10 minutes; remove from the pans and cool completely on racks.

For the frosting:

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup cream

1 cup butter

2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the chocolate chips, cream, and butter and cook over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and let cool for 15 - 30 minutes. Stir ocassionally.

In a large bowl, combine the powdered sugar and the chocolate mixture. Stir well with a whisk until all the powdered sugar has been incorporated. Using a mixer, beat the frosting until it holds its shape, about 10 - 15 minutes. Set aside.

For the filling:

1 cup cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

In a medium-sized bowl, whip the cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla until stiff peaks form.

To assemble:

Place several small sheets of waxed paper around the outside edge of your serving plate and center the first layer over these sheets. This helps to keep any spilled frosting off your serving plate.

Place the first cake layer (top side-down) on a cake or serving plate. Fill a piping bag fitted with a round tip with about 1/4 - 1/2 cup buttercream frosting and pipe a wall (dam) around the outside edge of the cake. Put half of the cream filling on the inside of the wall.

Place the second later (right side-up) on the first layer, taking care to center. Follow the same procedure as above for piping a wall of buttercream and adding the rest of the cream filling.

Place the third layer (top side-down) on the second layer. I like to start with the top of the cake when frosting and then do the sides, but you can use whatever method works best for you. Carefully remove the waxed paper sheets from around the edge of the cake, if you used them.

Refrigerate the cake for at least one hour before serving and store it in the refrigerator.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Teach your child(ren) to make . . . French Toast!

Adam enjoying his french toast topped with cinnamon-sugar!

One day I was searching the internet (most likely "browsing" - I only call it searching to justify the amount of time I spend online). I can't remember what I was looking for when I came across the link to Chef John's video on how to make restaurant-quality french toast. Intrigued, I clicked and in a very short amount of time (it's a relatively short video) I learned three things:

  • In all the years of making french toast, I have been doing it WRONG,
  • I now know what makes french toast "french toast" and
  • The difference wasn't in the recipe, but in the technique or method.

I was using basically the same recipe as Chef John, but my way of making french toast didn't product the wonderfully puffed and beautifully carmelized french toast his did. For years, I just gave my bread slices a quick dip in the egg (custard) mixture and cooked it completely on the stovetop. My bread slices didn't puff up and they certainly weren't carmelized. A few were burned, though. I was a little bit nervous about the amount of time the bread spends in the custard when using Chef John's technique for the first time. I kept thinking "what if this is soggy on the inside?", but the pictures of his finished french toast and knowing the slices finished in the oven kept me going. What a difference! For the first time ever, my french toast was not only puffy and carmelized, it was light (and done!) on the inside and crispy on the outside. My first bite was plain - no syrup or any other topping. The flavor was outstanding. Thanks to Chef John at Food Wishes, I no longer make french toast the way I used to. I've included Chef John's video below:

The link above will take you to the recipe at foodwishes.com. My 14 year old son, Adam joined me in the kitchen this morning to learn how to properly make french toast. After watching Chef John's video, he went to work and quickly discovered it's not as easy as it looks! Overall, he did pretty well and his french toast came out of the oven just as it should. He commented on how the tongs and other kitchen tools were easier to work with the more he used them and he's looking forward to more cooking!

Here's the recipe Adam used to make his french toast: 

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

pinch of salt

1/4 - 1/2 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. allspice

3 slice of bread (we used french bread sliced about 1 inch thick; day old bread works best for this)

2 tbsp. butter

Preheat oven to 400 F. In a medium to large bowl, add the egg, milk, salt, vanilla, cinnamon, and allspice. Whisk all the ingredients until mixed well.

Add the bread and move it around the bowl so that each piece of bread is well-coated and all the egg custard mixture has been absorbed by the bread. The bread will feel spongy at this point.

Next, melt the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the bread slices and fry until lightly browned on each side. Move the bread to a baking sheet and place it in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes (turn the slices over halfway through the baking process). We have cookware that can go right into the oven at high temperatures, so we skipped putting the bread on a cookie sheet.

Enjoy with your favorite syrup or other toppings!

Be sure to check out "What's in the Oven?" a little later this week. I'll be making the Perfect Chocolate Cake!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Welcome Spring!

In honor of spring's arrival, we took advantage of our unseasonably great weather and brought the grill out. We live in Sioux Falls, SD and I think this is the very first time (that I can remember, anyway) I've brought the grill out of winter hibernation before May. Wow!

My son and I settled on steaks for our first grilling event of the season, along with one of our favorite pasta salads. The salad is super simple, comes together quickly and - like most salads - tastes even better on the second day.

Poppyseed Garden Pasta Salad

Serves:  4 (or 2 really big servings)

2 cups uncooked tri-color (garden) rotini pasta

kosher salt

1 medium - large tomato, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 small - medium cucumber, sliced and then cut into quarters

1 small red onion, sliced and then cut in half

poppyseed dressing (Brianna's is awesome on this salad!)

Fill a large saucepan with cold water, add a fair amount of salt (think salt water like the ocean), and bring the water to a boil. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions. When the pasta has finished cooking, drain it well, and place the pasta in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. I learned this tip from Aaron McCargo, Jr. of Food Network's Big Daddy's House. Chilling the pasta keeps it from absorbing the rest of the ingredients which can make for a dry salad.

While the pasta chills, cut up the tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Add to the pasta and pour poppyseed dressing over the pasta and vegetables. Everyone has different tastes, so I'll let you decide how much dressing to put on your salad. Mix well. I don't usually add salt or pepper because the dressing is so good, but you certainly can. Just give the salad a taste before serving and adjust accordingly.


Happy Spring!

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bain taitneamh as do bhéile! (Enjoy your meal!)

Let me being this post by saying "Happy St. Patrick's Day"! I'm only Irish on this day and I'm hoping the Gaelic Irish translation I found online for "enjoy your meal" is correct. My sincere apologies if it's not (and please send me the correct translation if you have it!).

I was considering an Irish Shepherd's Pie for our St. Patrick's Day dinner until I realized the traditional dish has lamb in it. Lamb and veal are two meats I cannot bring myself to try. I've been assured by many that they are delicious and I don't know what I'm missing. I'll take their word for it. In the spirit of Irish Shepherd's Pie, I decided to try the beef version - Cottage Pie. I did a little browsing online and found a recipe for a Proper English Cottage Pie. Again, my apologies for not making traditional Irish fare on St. Patrick's Day. If it's any consolation, my version is not "proper" according to the recipe I used. I made a couple of changes to the recipe - one intentional, the other one accidental.

First, the intentional change. Whenever I make a recipe that calls for a potato topping, I always make garlic mashed potatoes with cheese. I would like to tell you I added the cauliflower because I'm a good mom who wants to make sure her child(ren) get the recommended amount of vegetables each day so I sneak them in, but that wouldn't be true (in this case). I added the cauliflower because I had some in the refrigerator that had only a few days left before it spoiled, so I threw it in with the potatoes to avoid throwing it away a few days later. Cauliflower if very mild and no one even noticed it was in there. If you don't want to add cauliflower to your potato topping, just omit the cauliflower and double the amount of potatoes. Instead of sprinkling the cheese on top of the potato topping, I like to blend the cheese in to the mashed potatoes. You can do it either way.

Next, the accidental change. I wasn't paying attention to the amount of tomato paste called for in the original recipe and added an entire 6 oz. can of tomato paste. I'm writing the recipe just as I made it to explain why my filling is much more "red" than the picture included with the original recipe.

I added the green bean "shamrock" for fun, but you don't need to add it, if you don't want to.

What surprised me most about this recipe was the cinnamon. It's an ingredient I would never have thought to add. It was an unexpected ingredient that I debated whether or not to add. In the end, I decided to try it and I was pleasantly surprised. The cinnamon was very subtle, but my dinner guests noticed it and commented on how much they liked it in this dish.

Cottage Pie

1 lb. lean ground beef

1 medium onion, diced

3 carrots, peeled & diced

2 tbsp. flour

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1 tbsp. Italian seasoning

2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley (or 2 tsp. dried parsley)

1 1/2 cups beef broth

1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste

salt & pepper

2 potatoes, peeled & diced

1 -2 cups cauliflower, cut into pieces about the same size as the potatoes

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup butter

2 tbsp. sour cream

1 cup shredded cheddar (or colby-jack) cheese

milk, as needed

green beans, mashed (optional)

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Make the potato topping:  in a large saucepan filled with cold water, add a generous amount of salt (think salt water). Add the potatoes, cauliflower, and garlic. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook until the potatoes and cauliflower are fork-tender (they'll float at this point). Drain and return the vegetables to the saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and heat until much of the water has been removed. The potatoes will develop a "dry" look - you'll know it when you see it. I shake the pan a few times during this step to keep the vegetables from sticking. Mash the vegetables and add the 1/4 cup butter and 2 tbsp. sour cream. Mash the vegetables until they are smooth. If you really want them to be smooth, whip them with a hand mixer. Add the shredded cheese and stir to mix well. Add milk, as needed, until desired consistency is reached. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

While the vegetables are cooking, make the meat filling:  in a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef, onion, and carrots until the beef is no longer pink and the onion begins to brown. Mix in the flour, cinnamon, Italian seasoning, and parsley. Stir in the beef broth and tomato paste. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, to your taste. Lower heat and simmer for about 15 minutes or until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, stirring occasionally. Spoon the meat mixture into a 9-inch deep dish pie plate or 2 quart casserole dish. Top with the potato-cauliflower-cheese mixture.

If you like, mash up about 1/2 (14.5 oz) can of green beans and, using a cookie cutter (I used a shamrock shape for St. Patrick's Day) fill with the mashed beans. Be sure to place the cookie cutter in the meat mixture before adding the potato mixture around the cookie cutter.

Place the pie pan or casserole dish on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 - 25 minutes or until the top is browned and bubbly.

Check out "What's in the Oven?" for a fun (and easy) iced shamrock cutout sugar cookie recipe!

Enjoy and Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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What's in the oven? A Little Bit O' the Green

In the past, I rarely made cutout sugar cookies because I was unbelievably bad at frosting and decorating them. The Christmas cookies my children grew up with tasted good, but really lacked for frosting and decoration. Thank to Pinterest that's all changed! I found a fantastic icing recipe and the greatest icing technique - EVER! The icing is more of a glaze and, unlike Royal Icing, it doesn't harden as quickly, making it quite a bit more forgiving. And the technique? So genius. So simple. So fast. In under a half-hour (yes, less than 30 minutes), I mixed up the glaze and iced 2 dozen cookies. Amazing! I'll be making more cutout sugar cookies in the future! I didn't add many embellishments to my cookies (this time), but I've been inspired to learn more decorating techniques for cookies.

I think everyone has their own favorite sugar cookie recipe and I would encourage you to use whatever you like. I found my new "go-to" recipe for sugar cutout cookies while I was browsing the internet this week. Chefmama's recipe calls for shortening only, but I prefer a little butter in my cookies. So, the only change I made to her recipe was to blend half shortening, half butter when mixing the cookies. I love the texture, softness, and taste of these cookies.

Shamrock Sugar Cookies

6 tbsp. butter, room temperature

6 tbsp. shortening

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1 tbsp. milk

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

I mixed my cookie dough in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, but you can use whatever method works best for you.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, shortening, and sugar until well blended and smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Mix in the milk and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in another bowl. I use a whisk to blend the dry ingredients (it's a quick sifting technique!). Add the dry ingredients to the shortening/sugar mixture. Mix just until blended. Cover and chill the dough for at least an hour. I wrap the dough in plastic cling wrap for the chilling step.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to 1/4" thickness. Cut out desired shapes. Place cookies 1 1/2" apart on a lightly greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 6 - 8 minutes - do not wait for them to brown - take them out with a very slight browning underneath or no color at all. Let cookies rest on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes after removing them from the oven and then let them finish cooling on cookie racks before frosting. You can re-roll the dough to make more cookies.

4 cups powdered sugar
1 tbsp. corn syrup
2 tbsp. water (more may be needed)
1 tsp. vanilla (or flavor of your choice)
few drops of food coloring
Mix the powdered sugar, corn syrup, water, and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Add more water, if necessary, in small amounts (1 teaspoon at a time) until desired consistency is reached. The glaze is best when it's not too runny. Draw a line in the glaze with a spatula. The glaze should take about 5 seconds to fill back in where the line was drawn. The glaze should be fluid, not runny, for best results.

At this point, I put 2 - 3 tbsp. of the white glaze in a decorating tube to use for embellishing the frosted cookies. Add a few drops of food coloring to the rest of the glaze, adding more powdered sugar, if necessary.

Now for the brilliant part . . .

Place the colored icing in a shallow dish that's large enough to fit the cookies. Attach a lollipop stick (I used a chopstick) to the top of the dish and secure (if you like) with a rubber band running underneath the dish on each end of the stick. Dip the cookie in the glaze and then holding the cookie about 1/4" from the stick, slide the cookie over the stick to remove the excess glaze. This step may take a cookie or two to get the hang of, so don't despair if the first few don't come out the way you expected. The beauty of this method is you can always re-dip and slide the cookie, if it doesn't come out perfectly the first time! If you need a visual of this step, click on the link to the Created by Diane post and scroll down a little bit. She has a great picture of this step.

Turn the cookies back to upright and place on the cookie rack to dry. If you'd like to add a some embellishments to the cookies, check out Sweetopia for instructions on decorating cookies for St. Patrick's Day.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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