SECRET RECIPE CLUB REUNION 2018

Talk about a flash back!  Those who follow my blog for a while might remember my favorite group virtual event, The Secret Recipe Club.  Food bloggers were paired in secret, and had a few weeks to stalk the assigned blog, pick a recipe and blog about it on Reveal Day. Every post would go live at the exact same time, midnight of the first Monday of the month, New York time. I was a member for years, and had a lot of fun with it. Not only for the cooking aspect, but for its social component. SRC had it’s last appearance in November 2016, but our beloved organizer, Sarah, had the idea of a special encore that celebrates the 10th year anniversary of its creation. So here we are, one final time! I was assigned pure royalty in food blog shape. I got Sarah’s food blog, Fantastical Sharing of Recipes!  Can you believe it? The queen behind my favorite event!  I was assigned her blog in the past as pretty much every member rotated through every blog in the group.  At that time, I made a fantastical recipe as you can see here.  Now I share another fantastical recipe, a Carrot Cake Roll with Cream Cheese Icing. OMG OMG OMG. Because this is such a special occasion, I felt like dressing it up a little, and tried my hands at adding a pattern on the surface of the cake. One word: THRILL!

CARROT CAKE ROLL
(from Fantastical Sharing of Recipes)

for the decoration (optional):
50g  butter, softened
50g powdered sugar
50g  egg whites
50g  all-purpose flour
orange food coloring (I used gel)

for the cake:
3 eggs
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 cup flour
2 cups shredded carrots (about 2 medium carrots, pat dry)
Powdered sugar

for the filling:
6 oz. cream cheese, at room temp
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temp
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Make the piping decoration by beating the butter with powdered sugar in a small bowl until fully combined. I used a hand-held electric mixer. Add the egg whites and beat for a couple of minutes. Add the flour and mix by hand with a spoon, add a couple of drops of orange food color.  Reserve.

Draw the design you want to have on the surface of the cake with a pencil on parchment paper that fits a half-sheet baking pan. Invert the paper so that the pencil mark is at the bottom. Pipe the icing using a very thin piping tip. Freeze the whole tray with the decoration for at least one hour. When the time is almost up, prepare the cake batter.

Heat the oven to 350F.

Beat eggs on high-speed for 5 minutes until they are dark yellow and frothy. Add sugar and vanilla and beat. In a medium bowl, whisk together salt, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and flour. Stir dry ingredients into wet until just combined. Then stir in carrots.

Remove baking sheet from the freezer, and quickly spread the batter on top of the decorations. Gently bang the pan so that the batter gets well into the design.  Bake for about 15 minutes until done, it should spring back gently when you press your finger at the center of the cake.

You will need to flip the cake twice, first time the pattern will be up, but you will need to flip it again so that it will be down, and once the cake is rolled, it will be on the outside surface. On the second time, flip it over parchment paper sprinkled with sugar. Roll the cake while still warm, and let it cool completely, about one hour.

Make the filling: beat butter and cream cheese together until smooth. Add powdered sugar and vanilla, and beat again until nice and smooth. Unroll cake, spread filling evenly, then roll it back. Chill in fridge for at least one hour to firm it up.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: Public thank you goes for my dear friend Gary, Patissier Extraordinaire, for his advice on the piping technique. I used my new gadget, the silicone bulb with a very fine piping tip (featured here), and was pretty pleased with the way it worked. The amount of piping icing made would be enough to cover three cakes, but particularly on my first time doing it, I decided that having extra icing was better than not enough. And, by the way, this was also my first time making a rolled cake!  I was quite happy with the outcome, although as usual, there is room for improvement. A small crack happened in one side of the cake, but it was not too bad. Considering the types of tragedy I’ve endured during cake baking, this was nothing.

Our departmental colleagues loved the cake! It was very moist, warm due to all spices, and the cream cheese filling takes it over the top. I cannot wait to try another type of rolled cake and a bit more elaborate patterns. The trickiest part of this recipe was flipping the cake twice, I think it would be easier to wait maybe a few more minutes before doing that, the crack actually happened during flipping, not rolling. The cake was a bit too warm and still very moist from the oven. Live and learn.

Sarah, I am so thrilled I got your blog for this special reunion!  
Really felt like closing the Secret Recipe Club chapter with a golden key!

I invite all my readers to browse through the recipes posted by all members of SRC following the link at the end of my post.

ONE YEAR AGO: Parsnip and Tomato Soup

TWO YEARS AGO: A Retro Dessert

THREE YEARS AGO: Cauliflower Tortillas: Going low-carb and loving it!

FOUR YEARS AGO: Clementines in Cinnamon Syrup

FIVE YEARS AGO: In My Kitchen, April 2013 

SIX YEARS AGO: Thrilling Moments

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Maple-Oatmeal Sourdough Bread

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Pork Trinity: coffee, mushrooms, and curry

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TRES LECHES CAKE: THREE TIMES A WINNER!

I baked this cake three times in the same month.
I shall now pause briefly so you can recover from the shock.

Breathe in…. Breathe out….
(image from Wikimedia)

Allow me to explain. I had never paid much attention to this cake, until a scientist from our department who joined another university in Kansas, mentioned that he would travel all the way back to our town if he knew I would be baking a Tres Leches. His all-time favorite cake. I filed that information in my neuronal system, and a few months later guess what happened? He needed to do some experiments with bacterial membranes and joined our group for the duration of the work. I decided to bake that cake for his first day in our lab, which, quite conveniently, fell on a Monday. And that’s when my best laid plans degenerated. He texted me to say he would be driving to the lab in a few minutes, and I assumed he was already in town since the evening before. Nope. He was not. What he was about to start was a 90 minute drive to our lab. When he arrived, not even a crumb of the cake was left.  Can you feel his pain, and my pain when I found out about this harsh outcome?  Undeterred, I made another Tres Leches on Thursday.  And you know what? The second turned out better than the first… Sweet mission finally accomplished!

TRES LECHES CAKE
(slightly modified from The Pioneer Woman)

for the cake and soaking:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 whole eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla (I used Mexican vanilla)
1/3 cup milk
1 can evaporated milk
1 can sweetened, condensed milk
1/4 cup heavy cream

for the icing:
1 pint heavy cream
3 Tablespoons Sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 inch pan liberally until coated. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Separate eggs.

Beat egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar on high-speed until yolks are pale yellow. Stir in milk and vanilla. Pour egg yolk mixture over the flour mixture and stir very gently until combined.

Beat egg whites on high-speed until soft peaks form. With the mixer on, pour in remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until egg whites are stiff but not dry. Fold egg white mixture into the batter very gently until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread to even out the surface.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Turn cake out onto a rimmed platter and allow to cool.

Combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream in a small pitcher. When cake is cool, pierce the surface with a fork several times. Slowly drizzle all but about 1/3 cup of the milk mixture—try to get as much around the edges of the cake as you can.

Allow the cake to absorb the milk mixture for 30 minutes. I actually allowed it to sit in the fridge overnight, lightly covered with aluminum foil. To ice the cake, whip the heavy cream with the sugar until thick and spreadable.

Spread over the surface of the cake, you might not need all the amount made, but a thick layer of icing should be your goal. Decorate cake with maraschino cherries. Cut into squares and serve.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: This is a fantastic cake. Period. It is sweet, it is rich, but it does not feel heavy. It is obviously super moist, with a very delicate crumb, and the icing goes perfectly with it. I’ve been baking cookies, cakes, tarts, pies, brownies on a regular basis to share with our departmental colleagues.  No other bake got even remotely close to this one in terms of praise. The second time around there was a migration of people to the mail room because they heard that “the best cake ever” was there. I know, I know, it sounds as if I’m bragging. I promise you, I’m not. It’s not my recipe, and as I mentioned, I had no idea what this cake was all about until then.

Tres Leches means “three milks” in Spanish. The name reflects the use of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream to soak the cake. Since there is a little regular milk in the cake, I suppose a more accurate description should be “Cuatro Leches“, but let’s not split hairs. We go with the soaking milk component only, as that is what gives the cake so much flavor and sweetness.  My only modification from the original recipe was to increase a little the amount of liquid in the cake (yeah, imagine that!). Ree advises to leave one full cup of the three milks  behind. I did it that way on my first time, but on the second cake I left just 1/3 cup behind. I liked the cake better that way, particularly when soaking it overnight. The extended time in the fridge allows the crumb to retain additional moisture. Consider making the cake the day before you intend to serve it.

You might be wondering why the title “Three times a winner?”  I actually baked it again just a couple of weeks later, as one a graduate student from another lab asked me if I could make one for his Birthday. It turns out he grew up enjoying Tres Leches baked by his family, and professed mine to be “the best one he’d ever had.”  I still carry a permanent internal smile for that. Complete gratitude should be directed to Ree Drummond as I followed her recipe to a T.  “T” for Total Winner!

(photo by Dr. P. Sukthankar)

ONE YEAR AGO: The Joys of Grating Squash

TWO YEARS AGO: Auberge-Pecan Walnut Bread

THREE YEARS AGO: Gluten-free and Vegan Raspberry Bars

FOUR YEARS AGO: Lasserre, a French Classic

FIVE YEARS AGO: Sourdough Bread with Walnuts and Dates

SIX YEARS AGO: Braised Brisket with Bourbon-Apricot Glaze

SEVEN YEARS AGO: The Real Vodka Sauce

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Pork Tenderloin and Blue Cheese

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A VALENTINE’S DAY OPERA

Not everyone is fond of opera. I go as far as saying that it is an acquired taste. But if you switch from music to cake, the polls are reversed: most people will go weak in the knees anticipating a slice. Opera Cake is often described as a dessert in six acts. Layers of thin cake, moist with a delicate coffee syrup, separated by luscious coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. A real French classic. A real beauty. A perfect way to say I love you on February 14th. Or any other day of the year. Because this is a cake that creates its own moment. And thanks to Colette Christian and  Craftsy lessons online, Sally, the cake-o-phobe produced a version that made her very happy…

 

OPERA CAKE – RECIPE OVERVIEW

(based on Colette Christian’s Miniature French Desserts at Craftsy.com)

 

It all starts with the mis-en-place for a Joconde sponge cake. With a name like that, you know it’s going to be special. Joconde is a cake leavened exclusively by beaten eggs, with a nice proportion of ground almonds (or almond meal) in the batter. Colette gives very nice tips to make it homogeneous in thickness, because the Opera Cake is all about precision. Any small mistake in a step, and the outcome might suffer.

You can use any formula you like for the cake, I will give you one example from BBC food, very similar to the one I used from Colette.

JOCONDE SPONGE CAKE

3 whole eggs
15g sugar
100g almond flour
100g icing sugar
3 egg whites
20g granulated sugar
30g cake flour
30g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Almonds and icing sugar are sifted into a large bowl, eggs added and whisked to combine.

A meringue is made with the egg whites, raining the granulated sugar slowly, until soft peaks form. Increase the speed to medium-high, and mix until the whites are at a firm peak. Add 1/3 of the meringue to the almond mixture. Add half the cake flour and half the melted butter.  Add another 1/3 of meringue, the rest of the flour and butter. Finally fold in the remaining third of the meringue.

Spread the batter as homogeneously as possible on a half-sheet pan. Try not to deflate it and bake it right away for about 15 minutes at 375 F. The cake should not get any color, but it should spring back lightly when touched at the center.

 

After baking, the cake is cut in three rectangles. Try to be precise, but don’t worry too much, as the cake will be trimmed at the very end. One layer is painted with melted chocolate and allowed to set. That layer of chocolate will be the very base of the final cake, preventing any soaking syrup from forming a puddle in the bottom.

You will also need to make a coffee buttercream, more specifically a French buttercream, in which a mixture of sugar and water is cooked to 236 to 240 F (soft-ball stage).  You can use this recipe, which is again very similar to the one I got from Craftsy. Just include 1 tablespoon of coffee extract together with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. You need coffee extract to make sure the flavor will come through without diluting the buttercream too much and affecting texture.

Apart from the buttercream, you’ll need chocolate ganache for one of the cake layers.  A regular kind, equal weights of chocolate and heavy cream, allowed to cool to room temperature and placed in a piping bag.  The buttercream also goes in a piping bag, the easiest and less messy way to assemble the cake. No need to use a piping tip, just cut the bag to form a 1/2 inch opening.

To assemble, first start with the cake painted with melted chocolate at the base. A nice soaking of coffee syrup (water, strong coffee extract and sugar, cooked until the sugar fully dissolves). A layer of buttercream. A second layer of cake. More soaking. Ganache lavishly spread on top. Final layer of syrup-soaked cake, final top layer of buttercream. Now, the assembled cake rests in the fridge for a couple of hours, waiting for the final step. Don’t worry about the way the sides look now. It will all be fine in the end…

The pouring ganache, perhaps better described as a chocolate glaze. A good formula would be 227g chocolate (at least 60% cocoa), 170g heavy cream, and 28g light corn syrup. The glaze cannot be too hot, and cannot be too cold. A little colder than body temperature will be perfect. Colette shows a nice technique to pour the glaze, so that it sits as a very smooth layer on top. Once all that is done, the cake is refrigerated for several hours so that all layers are nicely set. Do not dare cutting it before it sets, you will not have defined layers unless you exercise patience. That gave me a bit of a chuckle. Me, advising patience, the virtue I lack the most…

Then what? Then the final fun begins… I decided to cut the cake in 2 inch squares, and for that I used a very cool gadget. I tell you, just getting that tool ready made me feel like some heavy hitter baker… I know, I’m easily amused. But, seriously, just look at how cool that is:

I also used this tool to cut the laminated dough for croissants and pain au chocolat, but failed to get a picture at the time.  All you need to do is measure the precise dimension of what you want to cut (or score the surface, as in the case of the Opera Cake), and lock the rolling blades in place.  Gently roll them over the surface of the fully set cake, and you will have perfect squares, ready to be sliced with a serrated knife. The edges are trimmed off to reveal clean layers on all sides of the cut pieces. The secret is to place the knife in very hot tap water, and clean the blade after every cut you make. If you’d like to order one, here is a link to amazon.com (I do not make any profit from your purchase, by the way).

A little buttercream goes in a small piping bag couple with a star tip. And you are ready to decorate the top. Or, you can do the more authentic decoration, writing Opera on each slice. Since I opted to cut the cake small, I went with the buttercream instead. What do you think?

This cake was so much fun to make!  I started early on a Sunday morning, and tried to work as relaxed as possible. It is cake, after all, and they make me a little nervous. But, less now than in the past.

For those who celebrate…

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!


I know I’ll be repeating myself, but I must give high praise to the online baking classes from Craftsy, particularly those taught by Colette Christian.  Without her guidance, making the Opera Cake would have been a tragedy in six acts… 


ONE YEAR AGO: Incredibly Simple Times Four

TWO YEARS AGO: Raspberry Chocolate Truffles

THREE YEARS AGO: Red Velvet Cupcakes

FOUR YEARS AGO: Valentine’s Day: The Finale

FIVE YEARS AGO: Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

SIX YEARS AGO: Dan Dan Noodles

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Sophie Grigson’s Parmesan Cake

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Antibiotics and Food

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CARAMEL CHOCOLATE TARTLETS


With this post I become a life-time member of The Craftsy Cheerleading Club.  Quite likely the oldest member of the organization, but my enthusiasm matches that of a sophomore. This class in particular Pies and Tarts for Every Season, is taught by  Gesine Bullock-Prado. I’m a bit distant from TV (except for binge watching stuff like Broadchurch, Outlander, Black Mirror) so I had no clue she is such a hot commodity in the media. Deservedly so. Teaching is a bit of a performing act. You need to capture the attention of your students and at the same time convey your message in a clear and efficient way. Lightening up a lecture using jokes and funny analogies is a nice way to make sure your audience stays with you. However, balance is everything. There is a delicate line to negotiate between lightness and solid info, and she really shines at it. I learned a lot about pie crusts, how to manipulate each kind, how to choose which crust to bake depending on the type of filling. All in a fun, relaxed way.  I am always amazed at the quality of online classes offered by Craftsy, and the reviews by users are for the most part spot on. Before buying any class, you can browse through to see exactly what you’ll be getting, and the feedback from other users. A win-win situation. Now, for the bit of bad news. I could not get permission to publish the recipe, so if you are interested in the exact formula Gesine used for crust and filling, you’ll have to get it from the site.

OVERVIEW OF THE RECIPE

It all starts with the crust. You have several options. You can make a single larger tart, or shape about 50g of dough per tartlet, using muffin rings or a tartlet pan like I did. Compared to a muffin ring, my tarts were a tad bit bigger, so I used 60g of dough for each one. Her recipe has some cute twists, like using condensed milk in the dough. It gives not only a more intense sweetness, but it browns nicely in the oven.  Following her detailed instructions, I was happy to get all tarts to bake evenly, no soggy bottoms (who wants to have that? not me!), and basically zero shrinkage (scary thought).

I added my own little twist to the preparation by placing the pie weights (and dried beans) into the shells using food grade plastic wrap instead of parchment paper. It does not melt in the oven, as long as you crumble it on top preventing it from touching the metal of the pan, you’ll be fine.  I love the way it allows the beans and ceramic balls to reach the edge of the tart. As long as you don’t bake the shells in a higher than 400F oven, no problem.  After the initial baking with weights, I removed them, got the shells back in a baking sheet and baked with the bottoms up in the air as shown in the photo. I just wanted to prevent any soggy bottom phenomenon (watching Great British Bake Off made me traumatized about those).

For her caramel recipe, she uses a bit of maple syrup in addition to usual suspects. Any caramel recipe you enjoy will do, make sure to cook it to the correct temperature, 240 F, that will provide the perfect texture. No caramel running out when you slice the tartlet, no biting into a rock either.  It hardens very quickly, but I still allowed the filled tartlets to rest at room temperature for a good 45 minutes before adding the chocolate ganache.  Again, any recipe will do, but you need to have it almost cool to room temperature, so that it pipes nicely using a 1/4 inch piping tip.

You can be creative, do swirls, waves, fill it solid and play with the surface using an off-set spatula. Once it’s set, sprinkle Graham cracker crumbs on top, or anything else you might like. A drizzle of white chocolate? Oreo crumbs? Gold leaf in pieces? Or as Gesine does in the video,  top with toasted mini-marshmallows and call them Caramel Smore’s Tarts.   Brilliant!  You can probably see a picture on Craftsy. Adorable stuff.

I had a blast making these… and the taste? Spectacular, even if I say so myself

That’s what you want… A nice layer of caramel in between the crunchy crust and the luscious chocolate ganache. Next time I will use muffin rings, so that the top of the crust will be leveled with the chocolate. If you have muffin rings, give them a try as tartlet containers.

Did I mention these would be amazing on Valentine’s Day?

Gesine, thank you for your helpful comments,
I have quite a few of your projects on my list of stuff to try soon….  

ONE YEAR AGO: Chicken Korma-ish

TWO YEARS AGO: Sunday Gravy with Braciola

THREE YEAR AGO: In My Kitchen, February 2015

FOUR YEARS AGO: Avocado and Orange Salad with Charred Jalapeno Dressing

FIVE YEARS AGO: Green Olive, Walnuts and Pomegranate Salad

SIX YEARS AGO: Romanian Flatbreads

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Ziti with Artichokes and Meyer Lemon Sauce

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Blasted Broccoli, Stove-top version

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THE OUTCOME OF THE IRON (CHEF) CHALLENGE

(continuation from last post...)

For those curious about which cake our IT expert chose for my challenge,
here we go:

A GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE

All things considered, it could have been worse, but it still represented a big challenge to yours truly. A layered cake?  That is intimidating to say the least. I needed heavy artillery for it, so a trip  to my America’s Test Kitchen source was needed.  As you may know, they are notoriously difficult in allowing bloggers to publish their sacred recipes, but I found a very close adaptation to share with you. It comes from Leite’s Culinaria, a site that I’ve been following for a long time. Definitely worth subscribing to.

GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE
(from Leite’s Culinaria)

For the pecan filling
4 large egg yolks
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/3 cups sweetened shredded coconut
1 1/2 cups finely chopped pecans, toasted

For the chocolate cake
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa, sifted
1/2 cup boiling water
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon table salt
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Make the pecan filling: Whisk the yolks in a medium saucepan off the stove. Gradually whisk in the evaporated milk. Add the sugars, butter, and salt and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is boiling, frothy, and slightly thickened, about 6 minutes. Pour the mixture into a bowl, whisk in the vanilla, then stir in the coconut. Let cool until room temperature.

Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Toast the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet until fragrant and browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Make the chocolate cake:  Keep your oven at 350°F (175°C) and adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position. Combine the chocolate and cocoa in a small bowl and then add the boiling water over. Let stand to melt the chocolate, about 2 minutes. Whisk until smooth and let stand until room temperature.

Spray two 9-inch-round by 2-inch-high straight-sided cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and then line the bottoms with parchment or waxed paper rounds cut to fit. Spray the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and tap out any excess flour. Sift the flour and baking soda into a medium bowl or onto a sheet of parchment or waxed paper.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter, sugars, and salt at medium-low speed until the sugar is moistened, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula halfway through. With the mixer running at medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the bowl halfway through. Beat in the vanilla, then increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 45 seconds.

With the mixer running at low-speed, add the chocolate mixture, then increase the speed to medium and beat until combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down the bowl once.  With the mixer running at low-speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the sour cream in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat in each addition until barely combined. After adding the final flour addition, beat on low until just combined, then stir the batter by hand with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl. The batter will be thick. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans, spreading the batter to the edges of the pans with the rubber spatula and smoothing the surface.

Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool in the pans 10 minutes, then invert the cakes onto a greased wire rack; peel off and discard the paper rounds. Cool the cakes to room temperature before filling, about 1 hour.

Assemble the German chocolate cake: Stir the toasted pecans into the chilled filling. Set one cake layer on a serving platter. Place the second cake on a work surface or leave it on the wire rack. Hold a serrated knife held so the blade is parallel with the work surface and use a sawing motion to cut each cake into 2 equal layers. Carefully lift the top layer off each cake.

Using an icing spatula, distribute about 1 cup filling evenly on the cake layer on the serving platter or cardboard round, spreading the filling to the very edge of the cake and evening the surface. Carefully place the upper cake layer on top of the filling. Repeat using the remaining filling and cake layers. Dust any crumbs from the platter and serve.

(I used only three layers, found that the cake was large enough,
more would be a bit excessive, in my opinion)

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: First things first, let’s clarify for those who do not know, that German Chocolate Cake has nothing to do with Germany. The name refers to Mr. Samuel German, an English-American chocolatier who developed the special formulation of baking chocolate used in the recipe.  Having said that, it is a classic indeed: chocolate, coconut and pecans. There, I gained two pounds just typing the ingredients, but in the name of having My Precioussss repaired, I don’t mind it at all.

As I mentioned, I turned it into a three-layer cake instead of four, and trust me, you won’t miss the fourth one, it is already pretty rich and decadent. The cake is very moist, and the filling is perfect, if you like coconut, that is. Sweet, creamy, with a nice added texture given by the nuts and coconut. A winner, perfect celebration cake.

So there you have it. A challenge proposed, accepted, and conquered. Not sure I want to set myself up for another one, so I hope our gamma-counter will be ok until my retirement…   And yes, our IT man, the Performer of Miracles on All Things Electronic, was very pleased with the cake.

Mission accomplished!

ONE YEAR AGO: Thank you!

TWO YEARS AGO: Salmon Rillettes, a Classy Appetizer

THREE YEARS AGO: Linzer Cookies

FOUR YEARS AGO: Baked Ricotta, Take Two

FIVE YEARS AGO: Pumpkin Uncanned

SIX YEARS AGO: Pork Ragu

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Friendly Kuri Squash

EIGHT YEARS AGO: Celery and Apple Salad

 

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THE IRON (UPTAKE) CHEF CHALLENGE

I wish I could take credit for coming up with Iron Uptake Chef, but one of my readers – you know who you are – coined the term for me. Coolest title ever!  Iron uptake experiments are my “thing” in the lab. You know how a person might love to make pasta from scratch, or bake breads, or bake cookies, and that is their comfort zone in the kitchen? In a lab, we all have our favorite experiments. For me, by far, it is anything related to iron uptake. These experiments require careful timing and I was born with a chronometer inside my head. Anything that requires careful timing, please let me take care of it. I love it, and all modesty aside, do a pretty good job with it. For these experiments we must measure the radioactivity in hundreds of test tubes, one by one, using a machine called gamma-counter, aka My Preciousssss.

If something happens with My Preciousssss, I am in deep, deep trouble. Unfortunately that is exactly what I faced last year. My beloved gamma-counter died. I suspected a mechanical problem, the chains that move the tubes around were stuck. Our counter is old (built in 1990), no one services it anymore, parts are next to impossible to find.  So the Iron Uptake Chef was left with 180 samples inside the machine. Paralyzed. We considered buying a new machine, but the price tag is painful: about 25K.

In despair, we asked our IT guy to take a look at it. He’s been working in our department for 30 years (!!!), and performs all sorts of miracles in anything involving computers and beyond. Gamma-counters go beyond the definition of beyond, but… he said he would take a look at it. Yes, it was a mechanical problem, and he thought that replacing one component that rotates a big handle inside the machine could be the key to solve it. He took the part out, searched for it on ebay, and found something that seemed to be a good replacement. A few more days went by, the radioactivity in my samples decaying at the same rate my hyperventilation was increasing.  When we finally got the part, the dimension of one metal component was too big, it would not fit in the little space available for it. Undeterred, our guru got a special saw and “trimmed” the part to fit. He worked a whole weekend on it, and by Monday morning my Preciousss was in top shape, and my experiment saved!

So how do you even begin to say thank you for someone who went not just the extra mile, but what it amounts to a full marathon for you?  I asked him what was his favorite cake, and promised I would bake him one. As he considered all the possibilities, I started to shake inside, fearing the worst. What have I just done? Have I set myself to calamitous trouble? Could he possibly pick a Gateau Saint-Honore’? A Sacher Torte, perhaps? Well, it was challenge enough for this Iron Woman. Stay tuned for the outcome…

(to be continued….)

 

 

 

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PASTEIS DE NATA


March, 2003. While living in Paris we took a few days break in Lisbon where we met a couple of great friends from the US who were vacationing in Europe (Sally waves hello to M & V). It was also a trip to celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. Portugal, the home country of my maternal grandparents, was a place I had always wanted to visit. The country is charming, people absolutely adorable, and the food? The food does not get the respect and admiration it deserves, in my opinion. As it is mandatory for anyone visiting Lisbon, we stopped by the birth place of Pastéis de Belém, also known as Pastéis de Nata. You can read all about it here.

But first, would you like to say it as a native?  let’s try it…

When  you bite into your first one, the skies open, angels start singing, and you wonder how would you ever leave Portugal and that indescribable pleasure behind. Yes, they are that wonderful. For almost 15 years I’ve been dreaming of making them at home, even though I am fully aware they would not compare to the original ones. Then I watched an episode of the latest season of The Great British Bake Off, and pastéis de nata were requested as one technical challenge. Sally said to herself… if they can do it, perhaps I could too?

PASTÉIS DE NATA
(slightly modified from  Leite’s Culinaria)

for the dough:
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (227 grams)***  (see my notes)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (1 gram)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold water (208 ml)
8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks), room temperature, stirred until smooth

for the custard:
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (23 grams)
1 1/4 cups milk (297 ml), divided
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar (264 grams)
1 cinnamon stick
2/3 cup water (158 ml)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (3 ml)
6 large egg yolks, whisked

for the garnish:
confectioners’ sugar
cinnamon

Make the dough: In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt, and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that pulls away from the side of the bowl, about 30 seconds. I needed to add quite a bit more flour than the recipe called for, at least 1/4 cup more, perhaps more. 

Generously flour a work surface and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes. Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn’t sticking to your work surface.

Brush the excess flour off the top of the dough, trim any uneven edges, and, using a small offset spatula, dot and then spread the left 2/3 portion of the dough with a little less than 1/3 of the butter being careful to leave a 1 inch plain border around the edge of the dough. Neatly fold the unbuttered right 1/3 of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks) over the rest of the dough. Brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left 1/3 of the dough.

Starting from the top, pat down the dough with your hand to release any air bubbles, and then pinch the edges of the dough to seal. Brush off any excess flour. Turn the dough 90° to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the dough and flour the work surface. Once again roll it out to an 18-inch square, then dot the left 2/3 of the dough with 1/3 of the butter and smear it over the dough. Fold the dough as directed in the previous steps.

For the last rolling, turn the dough 90° to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface of the dough. Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge of dough closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or preferably overnight.

Make the custard: In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and 1/4 cup milk until smooth. Bring the sugar, cinnamon, and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F (100°C). Do not stir.

Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture. Remove the cinnamon stick and then pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk-and-flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. The custard will be thin.

Assemble and bake the pastries:  Place an oven rack in the top third position and heat the oven to 500°F.  Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it’s about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant 3/4-inch pieces. Place 1 piece pastry dough, cut side down, in each well of a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan (2-by-5/8-inch size). Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.

Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs in the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about 1/16 inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about 1/8 inch above the pan. The pastry sides should be thinner than the bottom. Fill each cup 3/4 full with the slightly warm custard. Bake the pasteis until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow the pasteis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm. Sprinkle the pasteis generously with confectioners’ sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: I will not lie to you, this is a labor of love. It is time-consuming, and the first time you make it, you’ll feel quite insecure about each step. Did I roll out the pastry thin enough? Is the butter melting too much into the dough? And the insecurities get more intense when it comes time to shape each little shell, because it’s a bit of an unusual process. After rolling the pastry as a long sausage, small bits are cut cross-wise and placed in each mini-muffin tin, like this:

Then, very gently you will push down with the finger right in the center of the cylinder, making the pastry stretch to the sides. Instructions tell you to make the base thicker than the sides. That is easy to understand but not that easy to achieve. Plus, the idea is to work as quickly as possible so the butter won’t melt with the heat of your fingers. If you do it perfectly right, after baking the base of the pastry should show a nice rolling pattern.

Not quite there yet… but I guess not too bad…

The amazing thing is that I did two batches of these Portuguese delicacies, two days in a row. Why? Because I am married to Phil. Puzzled?  Let me explain. A dialogue, that happened as we arrived home from work, went more or less like this:

“What are you going to do with all this leftover custard in the fridge?

I have no clue, maybe pour over some fruit? You can have it, by the way…

(A bit of a pause)

Why don’t you make a second batch of pastéis de nata?

(pause due to sheer shock)

Are you totally out of your mind? Do you realize what it takes to make these?

C’mon, it cannot be that bad…

(my reply was not fit to print)

Ok, ok, OK, I get it.. BUT what if I help you? We make it together, how about that?

And that’s how a second batch of Pastéis de Nata was made after work on a weeknight. He did help me, first sitting by the countertop making small conversation as I prepared the dough, and then shaping a batch of shells.  He even made a little video while I was working hard with dough and butter. I guess he got bored! 😉 Anyway, here is the mercifully short video.

Even though they turned out very delicious, there is room for improvement. I guess baking them closer to the heat source would be better, ideally you want them all to have the very dark spots I showed you in the first photo.  Interestingly enough, those had been baked in my small electric oven, where the tray was placed a lot closer to the top heating element. That’s something to keep in mind if you try them yourself.  I also made a small batch with commercial puff pastry, and must admit home-made from scratch turns out a lot better. Something about the way the custard and the shell join in a more homogeneous way. The store-bought puff pastry had a harsher texture. Still, if that’s the only option for you to bake a batch of Pastéis de Nata, go for it. It will still be amazing, I promise. I must stress again the fact that as written, the recipe from Leite’s Culinaria posed me problems. I find that the amount of flour called for has got to be wrong. Maybe it has to do with the brand he’s used, but keep that in mind. You need a dough that you can work comfortably with.

Hard to believe that my first encounter with Pastéis de Nata was almost 15 years ago!

Getting ready to leave for our anniversary dinner, in a restaurant with great seafood and live “fado”, a music that speaks straight to the human soul. 

I hope you enjoyed my adventure with this delicacy of my past. I am so glad I finally decided to go for it. Now I need to face another dream of mine, éclairs. Stay tuned!

ONE YEAR AGO: New Mexico Pork Chile, Crockpot Version

TWO YEARS AGO: Chocolate on Chocolate

THREE YEARS AGO: Double Chocolate and Mint Cookies

FOUR YEARS AGO: The Story of my first Creme Brulle’

FIVE YEARS AGO: Sourdough Mini-rolls

SIX YEARS AGO: Focaccia with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Gorgonzola

SEVEN YEARS AGO: Mediterranean Skewers

EIGHT YEARS AGO Fettuccine with Shrimp, Swiss Chard, and Tomatoes

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