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.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

by Caroline

Whenever members of my family get together, we eat, and if we’re going to be visiting each other for a few days, we count up the meals in advance and start planning what we’ll cook and eat together (we have already, despite having more important things to do, begun emailing a little bit about Thanksgiving).

My Dad doesn’t do too much cooking, but when we gather at my parents’ home, he plays an important role in our food conversation by telling us what’s coming from the garden or what he’s got stocked in the freezer, also letting us know when some food is producing at oppressive levels (at the moment, ripening peaches cover every flat surface in the kitchen, the wood stove, and one spare bed) or whether we need to clear out last year’s frozen whatever-vegetable to make room for this year’s crop. It’s kind of like walking into an episode of Iron Chef, the one-ingredient cooking challenge, except I get lots of ingredients, and no stop clock. It’s great.

At my parents’ last week, one of the products to use was rhubarb, and my Mom had already emailed me a recipe from the New York Times in anticipation of my visit. I am a big fan of upside-down cakes, as you might have noticed; I’ve posted recipes for ones with cherries and pears (with a terrible picture), though I think my favorite is still this apricot upside-down cake, which I picture here. They are usually pretty easy, always moist, and have that great caramelized sugar-crust edge. I have to admit, this one is a bit fussier than what I would make just for my own family, but for my Mom — who taught me how to bake — anything. And besides, it’s completely delicious.

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, more to grease pans
1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, rinsed and sliced into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar 1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1/3 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice.

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and sides of the pan. Wrap two layers of foil under the pan, and place it on a buttered baking sheet.
2. In a medium bowl, mix rhubarb, cornstarch and 1/2 cup granulated sugar.
3. Mix the brown sugar and 1/2 stick butter in a pan over medium heat. Whisk until smooth and bubbling, about 2 minutes. Sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt.
4. Whip 2 sticks butter in a mixer with a paddle attachment for 2 minutes. With your fingers, blend the remaining 1 cup sugar with lemon zest until the mixture is uniform in color. Cream together with the butter at medium-high speed until it is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl halfway through. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the sour cream, then the lemon juice. (It’s O.K. if the mixture looks curdled.) With the mixer set to low speed, add the flour mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, until well combined. Scrape down the mixer bowl in between the additions.
5. Pour the brown-sugar mixture into the cake pan, then spoon in the rhubarb and its juices. Spoon in the batter so it covers all of the rhubarb. Smooth out the top.
6. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the top of the cake is firm to touch and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out without any large, moist crumbs.
7. Place the pan on a wire rack, and cool for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the cake, place a plate on top of the pan and turn it upside-down. Release the cake from the pan while still warm or else it will stick.
Yield: 8 servings.

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

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.

Saying Yes

by Caroline

This past year, my 6 year-old got out of school an hour earlier than my 9 year-old, and we spent that hour in the school library or, on sunny days, in the park across the street. Once spring came, an ice cream truck parked at the entrance and as we crossed the street into the park every day, Eli would ask, automatically, “Can I have an ice cream?” And I’d say, just as automatically, “Nope,” and list the snacks I’d brought in my purse. It was a routine that caused no particular stress or bother; we didn’t need any legislation to ban the ice cream trucks, we just went on our way.

I don’t have a single good reason for my school year, week day ice cream ban (which is really too strong a word for this routine), and probably if Eli had lobbied harder I would have caved. But he didn’t, so I didn’t. We would play in the park for an hour, he would munch on an apple and a muffin and maybe some peanut butter crackers or a MoJo bar, and then we would pick up Ben and snack some more. I don’t think either of them feels at all deprived of sweets, and if you have read this blog any length of time, you also know they are not — it’s just that most of the time, I like to make them at home.

But when summer vacation comes, I feel like celebrating. Even though the weather in San Francisco isn’t so summery, I embrace the season with sandals and bright pink nail polish and home made ice cream and field trips with the kids to the latest ice cream and donut shops:

the menu at Dynamo Donuts

My friends tease me about my summer food enthusiasms, but my family is certainly not complaining. And when we travel, as we have been this last week (and as Lisa has written along the same lines) I am just a little sweeter, and even more inclined to say yes to treats. They are morale and energy boosters, they are a way to sample the local food culture, they are a break in a busy day of walking from one science museum to the next. On the ferry to San Juan Island last week, which seemed in some ways so foreign, the boys were delighted to find their favorite ballpark treat:

And after a surprisingly good lunch from the snack bar at one of Vancouver’s amazing public pools today, Eli chose from the standard ice cream menu:

While Ben bypassed that for a less typical post-swim snack:

This afternoon, flagging after a long walk from the planetarium to the Granville Public Market, we stopped for donuts, and we’re already looking forward to fudge tomorrow at the Capilano Suspension bridge, because apparently fudge is one of the things one buys to survive a walk across a sky-high suspension bridge, and because we are on vacation, and because it is fun to say yes.