24 October 2011

Breakfast of champions

a nice slice

This is the time of year when all I want to make is dessert. Apple cake; banana bread; pear tart. I've had a dangerous obsession with pudding lately, and cold weather makes me develop an illogical affection for ice cream. Kale is beginning to show up again, and I made my first batch of squash soup this weekend, but I don't think I will get truly excited about fall vegetables until I find my first early Brussels sprout.

not a professionally-frosted cake

Luckily for me, my birthday was last week, so a cake was in order. I don't eat a lot of cake in the summer, as most of my fruit goes into tarts and pies, so I wanted to do something new. I was originally planning on making a rum cake for my birthday—I've been toying for years with the idea of recreating a cake from a bakery up near Mike's hometown, and I was spurred into action when I read that the place had changed hands and gone down in quality since the last time we went.

That rum cake—which, you will notice, is not pictured here—is unlike most that I've seen. Several thin layers of moist, spiced sponge cake are brushed with rum syrup and filled with rum-spiked pastry cream; the whole thing is then frosted with more of the pastry cream and topped off with a liberal amount of shaved chocolate.

Delicious in concept, but not (yet) in reality. The sponge recipe I used was a bit too dry, the pastry cream a bit too loose. I'm not one to be bothered by fiddling with a recipe a dozen times before I'm satisfied with it, but I couldn't accept a substandard birthday cake. After flipping through my cookbooks and browsing dozens of websites, I found myself torn between two recipes from Smitten Kitchen. I wavered for a while, flipping back and forth between the pages on my computer, before I chose the Espresso Cake. The deciding factor? I already had everything I needed.

Never mind the fact that almond paste found its way into the house when shopping the other day ... another cake may be in my future, after all.

espresso chiffon

This cake is a bit time-consuming, but simple. The chiffon cake layers are assertively coffee-flavored; and a hit of espresso-rum syrup keeps them moist and adds another hit of flavor). I did decide to change the frosting—Deb calls for an instant fudge buttercream, and while "instant" and "buttercream" sound lovely together for this Swiss buttercream dévotée, it sounded too sweet and rich for my tastes. I chose instead to go with a whipped ganache—anything with a full pound of Valrhona chocolate can't be very bad—however, ganache sets firmly and takes a long time to soften, making it a bit too difficult to slice and eat a delicate cake (you can see in the picture below where the ganache cracked when I sliced it straight out of the fridge). After all, who wants to wait an hour after slicing a cake to let the frosting soften? I made this the day before I cut into it, but it would be best to make it in the morning or early afternoon and keep it at room temperature until you're ready to serve it.

espresso chiffon cake with ganache

Espresso Chiffon Layer Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen (danger—you will spend far too much time drooling over/making delicious food if you click over there)

Note that because chiffon cakes owe much of their leavening to egg whites, they will collapse somewhat when cooling. This is normal; however, when you are getting ready to put the cake together, I recommend gently squeezing the base of the cake if the top of your cake shrank in very much; this will help avoid having an uneven layer of frosting on the outside of the cake. Also, know that eggs are easier to separate when cold, but whip much more easily at room temperature; I generally separate my eggs before I even start assembling the other ingredients and washing whatever dishes I need that I accidentally dirtied an hour before...

For the cakes:
¼ cup mild vegetable oil (for baking, I use canola)
6 large eggs, separated
6 tablespoons espresso, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 ounces cake flour (about 1⅓ cups)
9 ounces granulated sugar, divided (about 1⅓ cups)
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cream of tartar

For the syrup:
¼ cup hot espresso
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup dark rum

For the ganache:
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I almost always use Valrhona Extra Bitter 61% for things like this)
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature (6 tablespoons)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF; make sure racks are at top and bottom thirds of the oven. Line three ungreased 8-inch round cake pans with parchment rounds and set aside.

Combine the oil, egg yolks, espresso, and vanilla in a medium bowl and whisk to combine; set aside. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, 7 ounces (1 cup) of the sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt—or, if you're like me and hate sifting, whisk the mixture vigorously, which as far as I can tell does the exact same thing unless you have lumpy leavening or sugar. Set aside.

In another large bowl, combine the egg whites with the cream of tartar. Beat on low speed until foamy, then increase speed to medium-high and slowly add the remaining 2 ounces (⅓ cup) sugar. Beat until soft peaks form (if you lift the beater out of the whites, they should form a little mountain in the bowl, but with a soft tip that folds over on itself); do not beat to stiff peaks or you will end up with a dense cake.

Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and fold together until combined. Add about a quarter of the whites and fold together quickly to lighten the mixture, then fold in the remaining whites, just until the color is uniform.

Pour the batter evenly into the prepared cake pans. Bake 17-20 minutes, swapping oven location halfway through, until they are springy to the touch and don't leave any batter on a cake tester. Transfer to cooling racks and let cool completely in the pans (30 minutes minimum).

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Measure the sugar into a small bowl, then pour the hot coffee over and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the rum, stir well, and let cool.

To make the ganache, heat the cream and corn syrup over medium-low heat until quite hot but not boiling. Add the chocolate and let sit 1-2 minutes, then stir until melted and smooth. Let cool until it's about the consistency of yoghurt or mayo. Beat the butter in a large bowl until fluffy, then add the cooled ganache and beat until lightened and stiff, about 3-5 minutes (you don't want to overbeat it; three minutes may not be enough with a hand mixer, but it certainly should be with a stand mixer).

To assemble the cake, run a knife around the edge of each cake and invert onto the racks; remove the parchment paper. Place the first layer, bottom side up, on the cake platter. Brush with one third of the espresso syrup, then carefully spread with just over a cup of the frosting; after being soaked in syrup, the cake will be fragile, so be gentle. Repeat with the remaining layers, frosting the sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.

Serve at room temperature; if keeping for more than a day, store in the refrigerator

Serves at least 12; you could probably feed 16 easily after a big meal (if you want to share)

14 October 2011


I'm taking a well-earned rest today.

The past two weeks of work have been maddening, but the madness ended yesterday! For the next couple months, my life will be unmitigated insanity, but very little of that will be coming from work.

Will that result in this blog getting a bit lively again? Only time will tell. Over the past several months it has been a source of guilt more than joy, as I've made all sorts of food that hasn't made it on here. Some of it will probably appear in future years (it's not exactly the time to share recipes for plum cake or curried corn fritters); some of it will probably trickle to the back of my mind and be lost forever.

In the meantime, though, we have biscuits. Who could complain about that?

biscuits with jam

I've been making biscuits for years. They're simple—flour, salt, butter, buttermilk, and leavening—and fast. You can bake them in a jiffy to go with stews and soups (I particularly like them with split pea or lentil-sausage stew), or eat them for breakfast stuffed with eggs and sausage. A little dry ham and cheese, and you can make great little two-bite sandwiches. Biscuits are also perfect with all manner of sweet accompaniments, from jam & butter to macerated strawberries and whipped cream; it's not necessary, but I usually add a bit of sugar to the dough, as well.

For years, I made the exact same biscuits. It was the basic biscuits that most people have made at some point over the years, almost verbatim from The Joy of Cooking: rub some cold butter into flour, salt, and leavening, moisten with buttermilk, and pop into a hot oven. Eventually, though, I started fiddling with things, looking at the many variations in my different cookbooks. I started playing with flour (all cake flour wasn't sturdy enough; only A-P flour didn't have enough tenderness) and leavening (a combination of baking powder and soda seems to work best with buttermilk). All in all, I thought, I made a pretty darned good biscuit.

with butter and jam

And then. And then. A few weeks ago, sitting on the floor surrounded by a pile of cookbooks and magazines, I noticed the biscuit recipe in Michael Ruhlman's Ratio. After the first basic steps and a rest in the fridge, Ruhlman gives the dough the puff pastry treatment, rolling it and folding it into thirds several times. This results in extreme layers and extra tall biscuits, and it is entirely worth the extra work.

flaky layers

Extra Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman's fascinating and useful book "Ratio".

If you're using these for dessert, I recommend adding a tablespoon of sugar to the dry ingredients, though it's certainly not necessary. And in a strawberry shortcake sort of application, I wouldn't do the extra rolling, as I prefer a less flaky biscuit. I've really started to embrace my kitchen scale for dry ingredients, and I highly recommend you do the same; the volume measurements are estimates in case you don't have a scale.

7 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1¾ cups)
2 ounces cake flour (about ¼ cup)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces very cold butter, cut into pieces (6 tablespoons)
¾ cup cold buttermilk

Measure both flours into a mixing bowl set on your scale. Add the baking powder, soda, and salt and stir well to mix. Add the cold butter, toss to coat, and quickly rub the butter into the flour (if you naturally have very warm hands, you may want to rinse them in very cold water and dry them before starting - or use a pastry cutter or a pair of knives). The biggest pieces of flour should be no bigger than peas, and the mixture as a whole should look rather crumbly, kind of like oats. Pour in the buttermilk and stir quickly just to combine.

Empty the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap; if you have some troublesome flour at the bottom of your bowl, just toss it on top. Use the plastic wrap, if needed, to turn the dough a few times until any dry bits are combined, then press into a 1 inch thick rectangle and wrap tightly. Transfer to the refrigerator for about half an hour or the freezer about 10 minutes.

Unwrap the dough and either dust with flour or top with another piece of plastic wrap. Roll the dough out to approximately an 8- by 10-inch rectangle. Fold it into thirds, roll out again, fold into thirds one more time, and roll out about ½ inch thick. Rewrap and return to the fridge for about 20 minutes. (Note: if your home is very warm, you may wish to refrigerate it for a few minutes between folds, as you don't want the butter, which is very thin at this point, to melt or soften).

While the dough chills, heat the oven to 400ºF.

Remove the dough from the fridge and transfer to a cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, trim the edges from the rectangle, then cut the dough into 6-10 rectangles. Transfer to an ungreased baking sheet and bake until tall and golden brown, 16-18 minutes for very small biscuits, a few minutes longer for larger ones.

Makes 10-12 little biscuits (about 2 ½ by 2 inches)