chocolate

The Cupcake Super Bowl

by Caroline

The other day when I picked Eli up from school, he grabbed my hand and started to pull me back inside to the lunchroom.

“C’mon, Mama! We need to get a recipe from Chef Ric!”
“What recipe?”
“Wacky cake!”
“Wacky cake? Is that like our crazy cake?”
“I don’t know. I just know it’s a good chocolate cake.”

So we found Chef Ric and we compared notes. Indeed, his wacky cake is just like our crazy cake (or your cockeyed cake, or 6-minute cake), except he uses apple cider vinegar and I use raspberry. I’ve always imagined that the raspberry vinegar gives the cake a little fruit note in the background, perhaps deepens the chocolate flavor a bit, but suddenly talking to our school chef I wasn’t so sure. Does it really make a difference, or is it all in my head? Tonight, with no particular investment in football’s Super Bowl, Eli and I decided to test the theory by making three different crazy cake batters: one with plain white vinegar, one with apple cider vinegar, and the last with raspberry vinegar.

we labelled the batters according to each type of vinegar

I gave Tony and the boys coded servings of each cake

they took careful tasting notes

we tallied the results; the sheet with the red dots is the key to my code

Tony then served me my own coded cupcakes and the results from our limited sample are pretty decisive: the vinegar doesn’t matter. The kids and I each identified only one vinegar correctly and Tony didn’t even get one. The vinegar Eli and I got right (apple cider) was also our least favorite, so we won’t use that again. But given that white vinegar is less than a quarter of the price of raspberry vinegar, from now on, I’ll save it for salad dressings and other places I can really taste it.

Now, I’m really not a Cooks Illustrated, recipe-testing kind of cook. I am fairly imprecise in my baking, I measure casually, and I am always tinkering with recipes. But I do love a cooking project inspired by my children, and I love it when the cooking includes a bit of science. It was a nice change to be more careful baking these cakes so that each one would differ only in its vinegar, and fun to think about how best to keep track of which was which. But Eli definitely summed up the experiment best: “The thing I like about it is you get three cupcakes.” No argument here.

Edited to add: we shared some sample cupcakes with Chef Ric and his kitchen staff and (drumroll) we are impressed — but not surprised — to report he identified the three vinegars correctly!

Chocolate Almond Apricot Biscotti

by Caroline

You never know what will draw you into a recipe. A picture? An ingredient? Sometimes it’s a word; any recipe with the word “caramelized” in it gets me. Or it can be a phrase, as in the line that grabbed me several years ago when I spotted this recipe in Sunset magazine and made it part of our regular cookie repertoire: “These biscotti are crumbly delivery systems for chewy apricot bits, hunks of dark chocolate, and crunchy almonds.”

I got out a bowl and got to work.

Ingredients:
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 cup diced dried apricots
2/3 cup slivered almonds
4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350° and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt 5 to 6 times to blend.

In a small bowl, whisk together melted butter, vanilla, and eggs; add to flour mixture and pulse 10 to 12 times to form a dough.

Turn dough out into a large mixing bowl. Add apricots, almonds, and chocolate, and stir to mix thoroughly.

Put dough on baking sheet and form into two 12-in.-long loaves. Flatten tops slightly and bake until loaves are golden but give slightly when pressed, 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove loaves from oven and reduce temperature to 325°. Let loaves cool 5 minutes, then cut on the diagonal into 1/2- to 3/4-in.-thick slices. Arrange slices flat on baking sheet and bake until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool completely on racks.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

by Caroline


A friend of mine reviews reviews for websites; you read that right: if you write a product review of an item you buy online, chances are she or one of her colleagues will vet your review before it is published, checking for inappropriate language, slander, and other no-no’s. But even acceptable reviews are often riddled with punctuation and grammar errors, and I often think of my friend, waging a lonely, one-woman battle against misplaced modifiers and comma splices. The excerpts she posts on Facebook every day — especially the ones with grammatical errors that introduce unintentionally hilarious meanings (think, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”) — make my day.

But it’s got me thinking about recipe-writing and reviewing. I use recipe websites all the time, and often use the reviews to guide my choices, but I’m always amazed (and kind of amused) at the reviews that say something like “This cake was terrible!! I cut the sugar by 50%, replaced the butter with pureed prunes, and used wheat germ and ground flax instead of white flour; it was so dry! it wasn’t nearly sweet enough! I won’t ever make this again!!” (Online reviewers always use multiple exclamation points). Yes, well, serves you right, I think.

I adapt recipes, and I do often cut sugar or replace shortening with ground flaxseed meal, but usually not until the second time around. It doesn’t seem right to tinker until I really understand what the recipe’s doing. And when I tinker, I’ll let you know so that you can make your own decisions about the changes.

The chocolate zucchini cake recipe I made this week from Epicurious has a raft of reviews and for some reason this time they really drew me in. As usual, a number of reviewers simply praised the recipe; others (helpfully) explained changes they made and their result; others criticized the recipe after make unsuccessful changes; and then — my favorite — others told off the critics who had made ill-advised substitutions:

“Yep, if you start making substitutions, don’t blame the recipe.”

And even better:
“Did anybody actually make THIS cake???? By the time you make all the substitutions and revisions, it’s not the same cake. Who gives a rat’s behind about what everyone did to alter the cake, just RATE THE DAMN THING! Whooo, now that i got that off my chest, yes, I do feel better. Incidentally, the cake I made using THIS recipe, was fabulous.”

I have to agree. I made this cake and it is good.

Three Chocolate Cakes

by Caroline

We’ve been feeling pretty celebratory around here since learning the terrific news that Shambhala Publications/Roost Books will publish our anthology, The Dish: Making the Meals that Make Your Family. It seems an appropriate time to give you a big cake bonanza: three recipes! all for chocolate cake! I hesitated briefly because I don’t have pictures of any of the cakes in question, they all went so fast. But you won’t need pictures if you make them yourself, will you?

Chocolate Carrot Cake is dense and moist, my favorite layer cake. It improves after a day or two, so it’s great to make ahead, and you can glaze it with chocolate or (my preference) make a triple batch of cream cheese frosting and use that as filling and frosting. The cake is not too sweet and it’s perfectly chocolately. Plus, the carrots make it healthy (or so I tell myself). My friend Liz (who has contributed an essay about frosting and farmer’s markets to this collection) gave me the recipe, which originally comes from a Martha’s Vineyard cafe. It is my go-to celebration cake and is also, in fact, the one Tony baked last week to celebrate my birthday.

Crazy Cake, also known as cockeyed cake or 6-minute cake, is lighter, but just as moist and chocolatey (especially if you make it with coffee, which brings out the chocolate flavor). It comes together in five minutes and happens to be vegan, which is occasionally useful. Kids like to stir it together because the vinegar and baking soda make a satisfying chemistry lab reaction, so we make this batter into cupcakes for all the kids’ birthday parties.

And finally, Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Chocolate Cake is this summer’s happy new cake discovery. It is a perfect one-bowl, dark and satisfying chocolate cake. Making it in a loaf pan gives it a simple and sturdy everyday look, though I suppose there’s nothing stopping you from doubling the recipe, putting it in round cake pans, and frosting it. But try it as written, because who doesn’t need chocolate cake every day?

If you have these recipes in your repertoire, you will need no others.

Super-decadent No-Bake Fudge Brownies

by Caroline

I may never bake another brownie again. Oh, I will certainly make brownies, but now I’ve found a recipe that rivals even the one I discovered in Kate Moses’ gorgeous memoir-with-recipes, Cakewalk, the brownie recipe I said — oh, less than two months ago — was the last brownie recipe you would ever need.

Well. If you want brownies without turning the oven on (which is useful in the summer) keep this recipe handy.

The irony here is that I did have to turn the oven on. Lacking the chocolate wafer cookies that are a key ingredient, and with my local market out of stock, I baked them myself rather than drive around to other markets looking for them. My recipe comes from Alice Medrich’s glorious Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies but you can find a very similar version of the recipe at Smitten Kitchen.

And yes, I did put up with a fair amount of teasing for baking cookies to grind up to put in my no-bake brownies. Those folks would be eating their words if their mouths weren’t so full of brownies right now.

Here’s what you need:

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 cups evaporated milk (from one 12-ounce can)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups finely ground chocolate wafer cookies (from two 9-ounce packages; if you bake these yourself from the recipe linked above, you’ll have plenty for the brownies plus a dozen or so leftover. Do not share them with anyone who teases you about baking cookies to put into no-bake brownies.)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons salted cocktail peanuts
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Salt

Here’s what you do:

Line a 9-inch square baking pan with plastic wrap, leaving a 1-inch overhang on all sides.

Heat chocolate and evaporated milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring, until chocolate melts and is smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Set aside 1/3 cup.*

Combine cookies, 2 cups coconut, 1 cup peanuts, the sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Pour in chocolate mixture; stir until combined.

Spread mixture evenly into prepared pan. Spread reserved 1/3 cup chocolate over top. Finely chop remaining 2 tablespoons coconut and 2 tablespoons peanuts; sprinkle evenly over chocolate.* Refrigerate until set, about 2 hours. Remove brownies from pan by lifting plastic wrap. Remove plastic, and cut into 24 brownies.

Keep refrigerated (or even frozen). These would be excellent broken up and stirred into ice cream.

* I didn’t read the recipe very carefully (typical) and forgot to reserve chocolate/peanuts/coconut for the topping, but of course the brownies taste just as good with all those ingredients inside rather than on top.