Chocolate Cherry Braided Bread

Meditation it’s the new hip thing to do, the cool buzzword you hear everywhere you go these days. It’s supposed to reduce stress, relieve pain, improve sleep, and have host of other benefits, all of which sound really good. Carving out ten minutes of your time to just sit and breathe and do nothing seems easy enough, right? Well, yes and no. Actually, not at all. You see, I’m not someone whom I’d call a meditative type. More like “OMG, there is so much to do and so little time to do it all” overwhelmed panic type. So even though I could arguably use more of that blessed peace in my life, I’ve never been able to make the meditation a part of my day. The few times I’ve tried, it usually went somewhat like this:

Om.
Keep those eyes shut, ’cause you know you’ll otherwise see a lone sock under the couch or pillows that need to be straightened!
Om.
Am I in the moment? How do I know if I’m *really* in the moment?
Om.
My stomach is growling. It’s a good thing I’m home, otherwise everyone at the yoga class would hear it, and I hate when that happens! I didn’t have breakfast. Speaking of breakfast… what will I make for dinner? Shoot, I forgot to buy broccoli! Will have to stop by at the store when I go pick up offspring # 2.
Om.
My foot is itchy. Am I allowed to scratch it, or should I just notice the itchiness and not try to do anything about it? Will have to look that up when I’m done.
Om.
Breathe in, breathe out. Come on, it’s really not that hard! Om, darn it!!!

I was under a lot of stress trying to meditate properly and fruitfully, which I’m sure kind of defeats the whole purpose of meditation. I felt defeated; I was afraid I was never going to find peace and would be condemned to a life of no sleep, and chock full of anxiety and nervous tics.

But then, baking and specifically bread making came to my rescue. Thankfully I’m old enough to know there isn’t one and only right way to do things in life, and while some folks swear by yoga and are able to meditate an hour a day, I’m probably not one of them. But hand me a sack of flour, some yeast, and pinch of sugar, and I can stand at the kitchen counter for hours. Suddenly, I don’t see the dust bunnies and don’t feel that my back is killing me. The rhythmic humming of the mixer kneading is my om. In that moment, I don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow, and I’m able to give my full attention to the bread and keep my focus on the task on hand. When I’m checking on the dough that’s coming together and listening how it moves around in the bowl, I don’t need to wonder if I’m truly in the moment; I know I am: I’m patiently adding one spoonful of flour or water at a time, and then wait until the yeast wakes up and does its magic. Baking as meditation? It works for me!

And the by-products work for my perpetually starving men, too. Recipe for this bread is similar to my Braided Christmas Bread (Vianočka); the method stays the same, but I kicked it up a bit by adding chocolate and chopped cherries into the dough. I wasn’t sure how it’ll turn out at first; the jarred cherries were rather juicy, and even after soaking up the extra moisture with paper towel they were a bit hard to roll up in the dough. But the end result was well worth the effort – the bread was soft and buttery and there were bits of cherry and chocolate in every bite. Next time, I want to try to roll up some apricot jam into the dough before braiding it, or maybe finely chopped dried fruit with cinnamon… The possibilities are endless 🙂

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Chocolate Cherry Braided Bread

Sponge:
  • 55 g lukewarm water
  • 7 g (2.5 oz.) active dry yeast
  • 50 g (1.75 g) strong bread flour
Bread dough:
  • 400 g (14 oz.) unbleached bread flour
  • pinch salt
  • 50 g (1.75 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 33 g (1.25 oz.) light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • all of the sponge
  • 110 g whole milk, lukewarm or room temperature
Filling:
  • 125 g (4.5 oz) dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 270 g (9.5 oz) jarred cherries in syrup (drained weight)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

+ 1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash
– poppy seeds and pearl sugar for sprinkling, if desired

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Method:
  1. To make the sponge, combine water, yeast and flour in a bowl, and stir with a whisk until no dry flour remains. Cover and set aside in a warm spot for 20 minutes until the sponge has doubled in size.
  2. Place flour, salt, butter, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, lemon zest, and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. Add in all of the activated sponge, turn the machine on a low speed, and gradually pour in the milk. Knead the dough on a low-medium speed for about 8 minutes until the dough is fairly firm, smooth and elastic (If the dough seems to be too wet, add in a couple of tablespoons flour, one tablespoon at a time; if it is too dry, add in some more milk, one  tablespoon at a time). At the end mix in the rum-soaked raisins, making sure they are evenly distributed in the dough. Transfer the dough into a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Chop the chocolate and set it aside. Drain the cherries, chop them roughly and pat them dry with paper towel. Set aside.
  4. Making the bread: When the dough has doubled, transfer it onto a lightly floured surface. Divide it into 5 equal portions (if making a 5-strand braid), or 3 portions (if making a simple 3-strand braid). Form each portion into a ball, and let the balls rest under a dishtowel for 10 minutes. Line a big baking sheet with parchment paper.
  5. Roll each piece of dough into an 35 x 12 cm (14 x 5 inches) oblong. Spread the dough with 1 tablespoon of softened butter, and sprinkle it with 1/5 of the chocolate and 1/5 of prepared cherries. Sprinkle the filling with some cinnamon and roll it up tightly starting from the long side; pinch the edges to seal. Braid the ropes together, tuck the ends under, and transfer the bread onto the prepared baking sheet. Cover and let the bread rise second time until light and puffy, about 30 – 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F ( 175 °C).
  6. Brush the bread with egg wash (I used two coats to achieve dark golden color), and sprinkle with seeds and pearl sugar if desired. Bake the bread for about 45 minutes until golden brown in color. (Check the bread halfway through baking and give it another coat of egg wash in places that have become exposed due to oven spring. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, cover the top with aluminum foil.)
  7. Let the bread cool on the sheet for 10 minutes and then transfer it to a cooling rack to cool completely before slicing. It’s also possible to slice it and freeze it; the slices reheat well in a toaster. This bread also makes a wonderful French toast or bread pudding.

Homemade KIND Cereal Bars

The game of life can be tough. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning till we drop to bed at night we’re constantly on the go. We run out of the door already late, because dear offspring couldn’t find his algebra notebook. Half asleep, we turn to Starbucks to get some shot in the arm, make appointment for a chipped tooth while waiting in the drive-through line, and then burn our tongue with hot pick me up while parking at the office. Breakfast is hasty spoonfuls of yogurt gulped down at a red light. Lunch? Cereal bar and a banana around three pm while answering emails. And pretty soon a dreaded stop-and-go commute from work back home, pondering how to get dinner on the table, take care of homework, laundry, and dishes, and still manage to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Only to do it all over again the next morning.

I don’t work well when I’m hungry. My men could tell you stories about this trait of mine – about the unnecessary arguments, yell fests, and even guilty tears related to those darn sugar drops. It usually happens when I’m too busy, and it starts innocently enough: I just might start to feel a little cranky at first, my answers become tiny bit snappier… but when I don’t recognize I’m overdue for a feed and don’t remedy the situation quickly enough, it all goes downhill pretty fast. I know I’m not the only one suffering from this; after all, there is even this new term “hangry”, labeling that miserable state when hunger and anger intersect… but I could definitely be a model for it.

That was at least partially why I tried my hand at these bars. I try to keep some snack food and water with me at all times to prevent hunger induced relational disasters, but cereal bars carried around in your purse dry out pretty quickly I found, not to mention they’re not exactly easy on the budget! It was my first experiment with homemade cereal bars ever, but it certainly won’t be the last. I like that I can control the amount of sugar, and vary the ingredients according to what I have on hand. They’re extremely easy and fast to make and don’t even require turning your oven on!

Please be kind to yourself and eat when you need to. No matter how busy you are, it’s still much easier to find time to eat, than have to apologize over and over for you’ve said and done when you were hungry 🙂

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Homemade KIND Cereal Bars

(adapted from http://www.eat-yourself-skinny.com)

Ingredients:
  • ½ cup unsalted roasted almonds, whole
  • ½ cup  unsalted roasted peanuts, whole
  • ½ cup roasted walnuts/pecans, chopped
  • 1/3 cup puffed rice cereal
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal
  • ¼ cup brown rice syrup (I used maple syrup instead)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ cup dark chocolate, roughly chopped

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Method:
  1. Line an 8-inch square springform pan with parchment paper; set aside.
  2. To make the bars, mix nuts, flaxseed, an puffed rice in a greased bowl; set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, mix together brown rice syrup (maple syrup), honey, vanilla, and salt. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly.
  4. Pour the hot mixture over the ingredients in your bowl and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture into the pan and press evenly, making sure there are no gaps. (The recipe says there is enough for a 8-inch pan, but I didn’t find this to be true – I was able to only fill about 2/3 of the pan if I wanted the bars to be high enough).
  5. Place a sheet of parchment on top, and press the mixture firmly. Set the pan aside and let the mixture cool for about 20 minutes.
  6. Remove the rim of the pan, transfer the cereal block onto a cutting board, and cut it into uniform pieces with a sharp knife. (Serrated knife worked best for me.) Let the bars cool completely.
  7. For the chocolate drizzle, melt the chocolate over a water bath and drizzle over the bars. Keep the remaining bars in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them fresh.

 

Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake

“Oh, did you know moose are some of the animals most likely to escape from cages or zoos? Their snouts are incredibly flexible and capable – almost as good instruments as an elephant’s trunk, perfectly capable of manipulating doorknobs!” informed me my son, lured into the kitchen by the smell of toasted hazelnuts, when I told him what I was making. I have no clue how he jumped so quickly from the idea of airy sweet pudding to the largest member of the deer family, but now that I know, I’m sure I’ll be peeking over my shoulder fully expecting some runaway moose skewer me onto its antlers whenever I’ll find myself in a zoo. Because I can’t seem to remember that I need to buy toilet paper at the store, nor that I shouldn’t still be stuffing my face after 6 p.m., but a piece of useless information such as this will undoubtedly stick with me forever.

And do you know what else is as good an escapist as moose? Mousse! I can’t keep it in the house. It just seems to disappear, usually in conjunction with two slightly guilty (but satisfied) teenagers. It catches a lift on spoons, cowers in bowls, or sneaks into cakes in lieu of a filling, gradually leaving nothing but a contented silence behind. This, of course is at least partially my fault – while the light whipped crème is a delight all in itself, I cannot resist taking it one step further and merging it with layers of moist rum-scented chocolate cake into something entirely new and delicious. Throw in some toasted hazelnuts, and mousse finds a new contender for kitchen escape artistry!

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Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse Cake

(adapted from Nick Malgieri’s: Chocolate)

Cake:
  • 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar, divided
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 cup ground hazelnuts
  • ½ cup cake flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill 1 for 1 all-purpose gluten-free flour mix)
  • 3 tablespoons dark cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
Rum syrup:
  • 1/3 cup each sugar, water, and rum
Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse:
  • 16 oz. (454 g) good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 ¼ cup (310 ml) heavy cream
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons, 4 oz., 114 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 tablespoons rum
  • 4 egg whites, room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and roughly chopped (see Note)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, butter a 10 inch (25 cm) springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  2. Beat the egg yolks with half of the sugar until thick and light yellow in color. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until opaque, then gradually add in the remaining sugar and continue whipping until stiff peaks form. Fold yolks into whites, and then add in the ground nuts. Combine flour, cocoa, and baking powder, sift the mixture over the batter, and fold it in. Pour batter into the springform pan, and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake springs back, and the cake tester comes out clean. Unmold and let cool.
  3. For the rum syrup, boil water with sugar. Cool and pour in the rum. Set aside.
  4. For the mousse filling, place the chocolate into a glass bowl. Bring the cream to a boil, and pour it over the chocolate. Whisk until smooth. Let the chocolate mixture cool to room temp. Beat the softened butter until fluffy, then add in the cooled chocolate and rum. Heat egg whites and sugar, whisking constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, and then whip the egg whites using an electric mixer until cooled. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate, and add in the chopped hazelnuts.
  5. To assemble, slice cake into three layers. Place one layer back into the washed springform pan and moisten it with the syrup. Spread with 1/3 of the mousse. Continue layering moistened cake layers and filling, ending with the mousse. Place the cake into the fridge to set the mousse.
  6. Unmold the cake onto a serving plate, decorate with hazelnuts and/or shaved chocolate, and serve.
Note:

Best way to skin the hazelnuts is to cook them in some water with baking soda for couple of minutes, until the water turns black from the skins. The skins should then slip off easily (much easier method than rubbing the toasted hazelnuts in a dish towel!)

I made the cake in an 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan, and sliced it just in two layers. I had quite a lot of filling leftover, but I wanted the cake to be higher, and it worked quite well this way.

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(Raw) Chocolate Orange Torte

Chances are you’ve heard about the Buy nothing project, by now a worldwide movement based on a gift economy. Local groups are sprouting up all over, connecting people living in the same area. The project was born out of the idea that one man’s clutter can be another man’s treasure, but it evolved into much more than that. Yes, you receive free stuff in the process (and declutter your home of the things you no longer want or need), but more importantly, it builds a sense of community, and closer relationships between neighbors who otherwise might not get to know each other past the occasional wave hello when they’re pulling out of their driveway rushing to the morning meeting. I love the philosophy behind the Buy nothing – reduce, reuse, rethink – and am grateful it put me in touch with like-minded folks I wouldn’t even know are out there. One of my most treasured buy nothing gems were sourdough bread starter and grains to make kefir from, both of which I have been trying to hunt down forever. As it turned out, a nice lady living just a couple of blocks from me had both, and was nice enough to share not just the products, but also her time in explaining how it all works and what to do and not do to keep the delicate cultures alive and thriving, which I appreciated even more!

And last week I was generously gifted another thing that made me happy – a Blender girl gluten-free vegan cookbook. I am a longtime green smoothie addict and have some kind of green drink for breakfast pretty much every day, but despite its name the cookbook isn’t limited to blended drinkable concoctions. There are soups, spreads, drinks, and even desserts in there. The pictures look amazing – I’d eat anything and everything from that book, and plan to try quite a few recipes from there.

And we started with this chocolate orange torte. Raw desserts seem to be all the rave lately, and for a very good reason: They’re mighty tasty, free from artificial sugars, flour, and butter, and they’re also pretty easy and fast to make. This wonderful torte was no exception: All I had to do was pretty much just to blend, grind, mix, and pour, and after giving the cake the appropriate time to firm up in the freezer I was rewarded with a rich, chocolatey finger-licking awesome goodness. It’s not a treat for the calorie-conscious, that’s for sure, but hey, coconut oil is good for you, and all those nuts supply omega fats… and protein… all the things your body needs. Shall we say dessert with benefits? 🙂 How rawsome is that?!

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Raw Chocolate Orange Torte

(adapted from the Tess Masters’ Blender Girl Cookbook)

 Crust:
  • 1 cup (160 g) whole raw almonds
  • ½ cup (80 g) firmly packed chopped pitted dates
  • ¼ cup (18 g) cacao powder, see Note
Filling:
  • 1 cup (240 ml) liquid coconut oil
  • 1 cup (240 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¾ cup (180 ml) raw agave nectar, see Note
  • ½ cup (35 g) raw cacao powder
  • 3 cups (420 g) raw unsalted cashews, soaked for 2 hours and drained
  • ¼ teaspoon orange extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • pinch sea salt

+ shaved chocolate and orange – for decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the crust, grease a 7-inch (18 cm) springform pan with coconut oil. Process almonds, dates, and cacao powder in a food processor. If the dough doesn’t hold together, add some more dates. Press the dough into the bottom of the pan and refrigerate.
  2. To make the filling, put all the ingredients into your blender in the order listed and blend until smooth. You’ll have to stop the blender from time to time and scrape down the sides. Pour the filling into the crust, cover the pan, and freeze the torte for 8 hours.
  3. To serve, transfer the tote from the freezer to the fridge at least 1 1/2 hours before serving. Let the torte defrost in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, remove the sides of the pan and cut the torte into slices with a sharp knife. Keeping the slices together, return the cake into the refrigerator and continue defrosting for at least an hour before serving. (The remaining cake needs to be stored in the refrigerator due to the high amount of coconut oil. Take out of the fridge when ready to serve.)
Note:

Even though the cake won’t be technically raw anymore, you can sub raw cacao powder for unsweetened cocoa powder, and agave nectar for maple syrup. I also didn’t have orange extract, and used Grand Marnier in its place. As far as I can tell, it didn’t hurt anything 🙂

Chocolate Coconut Cake

Simple things make me happy. I think oftentimes it’s us who unnecessarily complicate our lives. Wherever we turn, we hear and see what we need to have, get, and achieve in order to be happy: Bigger comfortable home. Faster car. A nice vacation somewhere warm. And since we all want to be happy, we set out to do what we need to get those things. We wake up earlier, work harder, get home later… and in the hustle of our rushing world forget to notice the small things, which are the very things that make living wonderful. Life is not complicated; we are.

Maybe we moved so far from what life is all about that we need the clutter and noise to keep us occupied…? We are so used to the constant movement and activity that we feel is pushing us closer to some big goal on the horizon that we either feel guilty when we decide to get off the speeding train just for a little bit… or we’re unable to pull the brakes at all. And so the train keeps on going, forever faster, and we miss the joy that’s right here, right now, even though countless little joys are available to us sprinkled throughout our busy days, if only we took time to realize it!

  • Hot bath. I don’t even need the glass of wine or candles to go with it, just the solitude and warm water is enough.
  • Compliment from a stranger. Works every time 🙂
  • A nap. Works almost every time, except when our pet parrot gets in one of his talkative moods and keeps insistently urging me from the next room to “step up, step up!” In that moment I’m just happy I don’t have more than one feathered creature at home.
  • Hearing a song that brings back memories.
  • A good laugh. You know, the belly laugh that babies laugh with – when you can hardly breathe and it makes your belly hurt? Good times and a workout in one. Score!
  • Freshly baked bread. There is nothing better in a baker’s life than the crackly sounds of hot crusty bread taken out of the oven.
  • A wonderful new cookbook. Yes, I have way too many. And yet when I see an inventive new cookbook, especially on bread baking, I’m not able to walk away. Some people shouldn’t have free access to bookstores. Or maybe I should just move into one.
  • Walking barefoot in the warm sand.
  • Licking the batter off the mixer beaters when baking a cake. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I’ve been happily engaging in this behavior ever since I started baking and it hasn’t killed me yet.
  • Finding money I didn’t know I had. That latte bought for five-dollar bill found crumpled in a pocket of the winter coat I haven’t worn for two years? I feel like I just won a lottery.
  • Seeing food being brought to me in a restaurant. If you ask Mr. Photographer, that’s actually a big one! I usually try to be pleasant in public, but when I’m hungry, all bets are off. I can go from totally fine to extremely hangry in under 30 minutes.
  • Chocolate. Enough said. There aren’t many sorrows that can’t be helped by the dark smooth delicacy.

And chocolate paired with coconut? Heaven on earth that you’re able to create for yourself whenever you want! Remember Bounty bar – the moist coconut filling enclosed in dark chocolate? They were sold two per package, probably to encourage sharing, but it never worked with me 🙂 This is it, except in the cake form. The cake looks and tastes a lot like macaroons, and since a good amount of flour is subbed with coconut, I had no problem converting it to gluten-free. The chocolate frosting is a cooked buttercream enriched with Nutella, and to bump up the chocolate deliciousness content, I poured a rich ganache glaze over the top. Thanks to the generous soaking in Malibu it is definitely a grown-up kind of cake, but you could replace the coconut rum with simple syrup with some coconut extract added, if you insist on sharing the cake with your kids 🙂

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Chocolate Coconut Cake

Cake:
  • 7 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons coconut extract (if you’re making the cake gluten-free, make sure the extract is gluten-free as well)
  • 200 g (7 oz.) unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 140 g (scant 5 oz.) all-purpose flour (for making the cake gluten-free, please see Note)
Chocolate Buttercream:
  • 400 ml (13.5 oz.) milk, divided
  • 150 g (5.3 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 7 egg yolks
  • 30 g (1 oz.) cornstarch
  • 113 g (4 oz.) semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 70 g (2.5 oz.) Nutella
  • 226 g (8 oz., two sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Ganache Glaze:
  • 250 ml (8 oz., 1 cup) heavy cream
  • 56 g (2 oz.) unsalted butter
  • 226 g (8 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 28 g (1 oz., ¼ cup) powdered sugar

+ ¼ cup (approx. 60 ml) Malibu (coconut rum)
– white chocolate, melted – for decoration (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, line a 13 x 9 inch (33 x 22 cm) rectangular pan with parchment paper; preheat the oven to 350 °F (176 °C).
  2. Place the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar in a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Whisk the whites until soft peaks form, gradually add in the powdered sugar and coconut extract, and continue whisking until the mixture forms firm peaks.
  3. Combine shredded coconut, flour, and baking powder. With a spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the egg white mixture. Pour the batter into the lined pan and level off the top.
  4. Bake the cake until the cake looks nice light brown, the top springs back to the touch,  and the tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Invert the cake, peel off the parchment paper, and let the cake cool completely.
  5. To make the frosting: Place 350 ml (scant 12 oz.) of milk together with the powdered sugar into a deeper saucepan, and let it warm up on a medium heat. Mix the remaining milk with the cornstarch until smooth; set aside. When the milk in the saucepan is hot, mix couple of tablespoons into the egg yolks to temper them, and then pour the warmed-up egg yolk mixture along with the cornstarch into the milk, stirring constantly. Cook for about 2 – 3 minutes until the pudding thickens; turn off the heat.
  6. Add the chopped chocolate into the hot pudding; stir to melt the chocolate. Set the pudding aside and let it cool completely, stirring occasionally.
  7. Whip the butter until light and fluffy; add in the Nutella, and mix until thoroughly combined. With the mixer running, gradually start adding the cooled chocolate pudding, one tablespoon at a time, to make a smooth frosting.
  8. Assembling the cake: Sprinkle the cake generously with Malibu (or sugar syrup with coconut extract). Frost the cake with the chocolate buttercream and place it into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes, so that the frosting has time to firm up.
  9. Prepare the glaze: In a small saucepan, bring heavy cream and butter to a boil. Place the chopped chocolate into a glass bowl. Pour the hot butter-cream mixture over the chocolate; let stand for 2 minutes. Add in the powdered sugar and whisk into a smooth glossy glaze. Let the glaze cool to lukewarm before pouring it onto the cake.
  10. Finishing the cake: If decorating the cake with white chocolate, melt the white chocolate in the microwave and transfer it into a small Ziploc bag. Snip off the corner, and while the dark chocolate is still liquid, draw horizontal white lines on top of the chocolate glaze. With a toothpick or tip of a knife, make vertical lines on top of the glaze, and return the cake into the fridge to firm up.
Note:

To make the cake gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free flour mix, adding 1 teaspoon xanthan (guar) gum, if your mix doesn’t contain the gums already. Please make sure the coconut extract and chocolate you’re using is gluten-free as well. My gluten-free cake turned out a bit drier and more crumbly compared to the regular cake, which was to be expected with gluten-free flour. I did my best to counteract the dryness with extra helping of Malibu 🙂

La Bête Noire with Chocolate Ganache and Black Cherry Sauce

I used to wait for happiness, imagining it will just tap on my shoulder like a mysterious visitor one day and then suddenly I’ll be completely happy. I thought that to be happy I first needed to get all my ducks in a row: I’ll be happy when I find my perfect mate. I’ll be happy when I get my degree. I’ll be happy when I get to be a mother. And even though one by one I kept achieving those things, and they made me happy, it never lasted too long, and I promptly found some other thing that was missing from my perfect mosaic. At each given moment there was always something that wasn’t exactly right in my life – my body was giving me grief in one way or the other, my relationships weren’t going the way I wanted them to, people I cared about were facing problems. And so I kept waiting for each of these things to resolve so I could let out a sigh of relief and give myself permission to be happy. I kept waiting for that mysterious visitor to please finally knock on my door…and it never did.

It took me years to stop waiting. It was obvious the waiting game wasn’t working too well, but it still took me forever to *get* that nothing and nobody from outside will ever bring me happiness, and that by waiting there is nothing to gain and everything to lose. The moment I stopped looking far away into the future and shifted my eyes to here and now I was astonished to see I was surrounded by good things, and I felt grateful. And happiness? There it was… It was me who’s been pushing it away waiting for something else…something big… something who-knows-what. It was a revelation, really. I was in charge, I could let it in or keep it out. Just by shifting my focus, or doing things that bring me joy I’m able to make myself happy. Not for long, just in this moment… but if I so choose, then also the next… and the next.

This weekend’s happiness project is simple: La Bête Noire, flourless chocolate torte. Nothing but butter, eggs, and tons and tons of dark chocolate. Bête Noire translates to Black Beast, and the name suits the dessert well – each slice tastes like a delicious giant truffle. You can serve it as it is, and it certainly won’t be missing anything, but I added a chocolate ganache topping and pooled dark cherry sauce around, because we had it served that way at a restaurant. It was delicious – the tart cherry sauce complements the chocolate beautifully, but since the torte itself is very-very rich, it was a bit too much I think. I liked it better with just a dollop of barely sweetened whipped cream and some raspberries on the side. Either way, it’s a wonderful dessert and a great way to sweeten up your weekend and get more chocolate into your life. And as I cut into its creamy smoothness,  I’ll let you on a secret: Happiness is chocolate. And three guys each with a spoon in hand eagerly waiting to devour the edges of a cake. Who knew? 🙂

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La Bête Noire with Chocolate Ganache and Black Cherry Sauce

Torte:
  • 1 cup (250 ml, 8 oz.) water
  • ¾ cup (150 g, 5.25 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 9 tablespoons (126 g, 4.5 oz.) unsalted butter, diced
  • 6 eggs
  • 500 g (18 oz.) good quality bittersweet dark chocolate, grated or chopped
Chocolate Ganache:
  • 1 cup (50 ml, 8 oz.) heavy cream
  • 225 g (8 oz.) good quality bittersweet dark chocolate, grated or chopped
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g, 1 oz.) unsalted butter
Black Cherry Sauce:
  • 2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and halved (I used frozen)
  • ½ cup (125 ml, 4 oz.) water
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons kirsch (cherry brandy)

+ whipped cream/raspberries/strawberries – for serving

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Method:
  1. To make the torte, line a 10-inch (25 cm) round springform pan with parchment paper and butter and sugar the sides. Lightly butter the parchment paper as well. Take three layers of heavy duty aluminum foil and place the springform pan on top. Bring the foil up and around the pan, and crimp and press it into place. The cake will be baked in water bath, and the foil serves as a protective barrier, ensuring the water won’t seep into the batter. Preheat the oven to 350°F (176 °C).
  2. Combine water and sugar in a deep saucepan, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside.
  3. In a large saucepan melt the butter. Add in the chopped chocolate and stir to melt the chocolate. Whisk sugar syrup into the chocolate. Let the mixture cool to lukewarm. One by one add in the eggs, mixing well after each addition. Pour batter into the springform pan and place the springform pan into a large roasting pan. Carefully pour water into the big pan, so that it reaches halfway up the sides of the springform pan.
  4. Bake the cake for about 50 minutes, until the center no longer moves when the pan is gently shaken. The cake will look moist. Remove the springform pan from the bigger pan, and leave the cake in the springform pan to cool completely.
  5. After the cake has cooled, it will pull away from the sides of the pan. Carefully remove the cake from the springform pan, invert it, and take off the parchment paper. Wash the pan and put the cake back in and close the springform mechanism.
  6. Make the ganache: Bring cream and butter to a boil. Remove from heat, add in the chopped chocolate, and whisk the mixture until it’s smooth and shiny. Let the ganache cool a bit before pouring it onto the cake in the pan. Shake the pan gently; the ganache will spread nicely all over the cake and the sides. Place the cake, still in pan, into the refrigerator, and chill for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
  7. To make the Black Cherry Sauce, blend the cherries with water and sugar until smooth. Transfer the fruit mixture into a saucepan, add in the remaining ingredients except the kirsch, and cook, stirring, until the water evaporates and the sauce thickens to your liking – about 10 minutes. Take the sauce off the heat, pour in the kirsch, and let cool. (The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated; warm up a little before serving.)
  8. When ready to serve, run the knife around the edges of the cake, release the springform mechanism, and carefully remove the cake out of the pan. Cut the cake into small portions, and serve with whipped cream, raspberries, or the black cherry sauce.

Bavarian Crème Cake with Chocolate Hearts and Raspberries

Last week’s gluten-free punch cake really punched me out. Mr. Photographer claims it’s his favorite (although apparently he must have several of those, ranging from somewhat favorite through a bit more favorite to the favoritest), and with the Valentine’s Day approaching an outburst of loving kindness towards him swept over me and I set out to make him this overly sweet, overly pink, and overly boozy treat. I didn’t know much about punch cake beyond that, so I spent hours looking for recipes, comparing ingredients and baking methods, and the more I read, the less I knew what to do. The instructions varied widely, so I did what I do quite often when I feel lost in life: I called my Mother. And she, being the kind soul that she is, put me in touch with a professional pastry chef, and saved the day.

Armed with a new knowledge I woke up the next day with a mission: In the name of love let us de-glutenize punch cake. I started with the boozy punch the cake was to be soaked in, and the more I stirred and tasted it, the more awesome it seemed, and the more courageous I felt. How hard can it be? It’s just a simple vanilla cake, really, with some mighty tasty alcohol thrown in. Piece of cake.

Please, never-ever underestimate gluten-free baking. The gluten-free gods are vindictive nasty creatures, and the moment the thought it’s going to be easy just crosses your mind, they start plotting their revenge against you. How? Let me count the ways.

First, the batter I made following Ms. Confectioner’s tried and true recipe and using supposedly the best gluten-free flour on the market ended up so thick I wasn’t even able to get it out of the bowl. We’re talking “stand the spoon in it” thick, and getting thicker by the minute. Obviously it was going to take more than just sub the gluten flour with the outrageously expensive gluten-free mix, even if the package clearly stated to measure “cup-for-cup”! But I was just starting out and my fighting spirit was still going strong. I’m simply going to recalculate and make some adjustments. I can do that. Especially in the name of love.

The second attempt at the batter looked much better – until I transferred it onto the baking sheet, that is. Then it just sat there in the middle of the parchment paper refusing to move, like a stubborn toddler at a toy store. No and no, you can’t make me. Well, I raised two stubborn determined toddlers in my lifetime, so some eggy batter won’t throw me. It might’ve taken a lot of convincing with spatula dipped into water, but eventually I had the batter where I wanted it, spread on the entire sheet. Looking through the oven door it was wildly bubbling up in the pan, and I was slowly starting to lose my patience and getting more and more frustrated. Come on! The cake batter is supposed to rise in an orderly way and not behave this erratically. This is no fun.

Despite everything the cakes emerged out of the oven looking surprisingly normal. OK, so it’s not the best baking experience I’ve had, but we’re halfway there. I’ll let the cakes cool, in the meantime I’ll regain my cool as well, we’ll spread some jam on and pour the oh-so-good punch over, and we’re done. And tomorrow upon taking a bite Mr. Photographer will declare me the best wife ever.

Unfortunately, the gluten free gods were nowhere near finished with me and the worst was yet to come. When I carefully started soaking the cake with punch, the once very sturdy cake started literally falling apart in front of my eyes, and I very nearly followed in its footsteps. In my head I quickly counted how many eggs, flour, time and energy I put into that cake, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or start throwing my dirty bowls and spatulas around. I briefly considered slurping up all the boozy liquid instead of wasting it on the darn cake, leaving the kitchen disaster for Mr. Photographer to deal with and call it quits. But I guess I’m too bull-headed for that 🙂

I admit to shedding some angry tears. I admit not being so gentle with the cake anymore. I splatted the booze in splotches onto the cake, slapped the top layer on, shoved the thing into the fridge, weighed it down, and went to bed. Tired, furious, and disappointed. The next day I sheepishly took it out, and cut away the edges. And to my amazement it was a-OK. It wasn’t the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever made… but the layers melded together, the punch-soaked center firmed up, and the cake smelled heavenly: it had hints of lemon, orange, raspberry… and rum. Don’t forget the rum.

The punch cake lesson the gluten-free gods taught me is three-fold: (1) Gluten-free baking will never be the same as gluten baking. It has its own principles, and it will take time to learn them all. Humility and patience is the name of the game. (2) Things are never as bad as they look at a first glance, and it’s best not to make hasty decisions (like wanting to throw unfinished cake away). (3) Things don’t always work out as we want them to, and we (I!) need to learn to roll with the punches baking and life will throw our way. Wish me luck in all of that!

 *****

To gain back some self-confidence after last week’s “pink nightmare” I’ve decided to make something simpler this weekend: Bavarian crème with coffee and white chocolate coupled with cute chocolate cut-out cookies. I went for hearts to keep with the Valentine’s Day theme, and once again made them gluten-free for my guy. The process is very simple. Unlike crème anglaise, which is custard crème thickened with eggs, Bavarian crème is lightened with cream and firmed up with gelatin. You pour it into a springform pan lined with parchment and let it set. When unmolded, the dark chocolate cookies look beautiful standing out against the beige coffee crème, and provide a nice crunchy contrast to the smooth sweet crème. It’s a simple dessert, but decorated with couple of fresh raspberries/strawberries it offers despite relatively few ingredients a cuteness overload, and is good not only for Valentine’s Day, but any time your heart longs for something sweet!

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 Bavarian Crème Cake with Chocolate Hearts and Raspberries

(cookie recipe adapted from http://www.glutenfreeonashoestring.com; cake recipe adapted from http://www.ricette.donnamoderna.com)

 

Chocolate Heart Cookies:
  • 140 g (1 cup) good quality gluten-free flour mix
  •  1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum (omit if your mix contains gums already)
  • 40 g (½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 56 g (4 tablespoons, 1/4 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg, room temperature, beaten
Bavarian Crème:
  • 20 g Knox powdered gelatin (almost 3 whole packets; 7 g each)
  • ½ cup water
  • 500 ml (2 cups) half-and-half (or whole milk)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons instant coffee granules
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 100 g (5.5 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white chocolate, chopped
  • 500 ml (2 cups) heavy cream
Liqueur syrup for brushing the cookies:
  • 8 tablespoons Crème de Cocoa liqueur
  • 100 ml (3 oz.) water
  • + 1 egg, beaten – for egg wash to brush the cookies (optional)
    – 200 g (7 oz.) fresh raspberries

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Method:
  1. To make the chocolate cookies: Line a cookie sheet with parchment; preheat the oven to 325 °F (162 °C). Mix together all dry ingredients in a bowl, set aside.
  2. Whip butter and sugar together until fluffy, gradually add in vanilla and beaten egg; mix well.
  3. Combine the butter-egg mixture with dry ingredients until the dough comes together in a ball.
  4. Roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper to about 6 mm thickness; freeze the dough until firm, about 5 minutes.
  5. Cut out cookies, arrange them on the parchment lined sheet (they don’t need much room, as they won’t spread much, if at all.) Freeze the cookies until firm, about 5 minutes.
  6. Bake the cookies for about 9 minutes, until the centers are opaque and not shiny anymore. Don’t overbake. Brush the still hot cookies with egg wash, if desired. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for couple of minutes, and then transfer them to a cooling rack to cool completely. (The cookie dough as well as the cookies can be made in advance and frozen. Let the cookies come to room temperature before proceeding.)
  7. Bavarian Crème: Combine gelatin with water; set aside for about 10 minutes to let the gelatin “bloom.” Line the bottom of a 18 cm (7 inch) round springform pan with parchment paper; lightly butter the sides.
  8. Whisk egg yolks with sugar and vanilla for couple of minutes until light yellow and thick. In a deeper saucepan, heat up the half-and-half/milk with coffee until hot.
  9. Prepare water bath by placing the saucepan with milk into a bigger pan filled with water. Pour some of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly, to temper it, and then pour the warm egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan with milk. Cook the crème in the water bath for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly, until the crème thickens somewhat and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  10. Add chopped white chocolate to the hot crème; mix thoroughly to melt the chocolate. Let the crème cool a bit, and then add in the bloomed gelatin while the crème is still hot. Mix well to melt the gelatin into the crème. Strain the crème into a bowl, and let it come to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
  11. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. With a spatula, carefully fold the whipped cream into the crème.
  12. Assembling the cake: Carefully pour some of the crème into the springform pan to cover the bottom, and place the pan into the fridge for 5 minutes to let the filling set a bit. (Leave the remaining crème on the counter; you don’t want it to start setting just yet.) Sprinkle the crème with raspberries. Continue layering crème and fruit, letting each coffee layer set in the fridge for couple of minutes, and ending with the crème on top. Let the cake chill in the refrigerator until the crème is well set, at least 4 hours.
  13. Carefully unmold the cake onto a serving plate. Brush the chocolate hearts with syrup and press them against the sides of the cake. Decorate the cake with grated chocolate and fruit if desired, and serve.

Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

I’m a queen of lists. I’ve been scribbling lists ever since I can remember; nicely organized, in bulleted points, on colored post-it notes that I used to slap on every surface around: on the computer monitor, on the fridge, on the front door. Yellow notes were for the things I planned to get from the store, green ones for the things I needed to do. I was proud of my multi-tasking abilities (Doing five things at once and thinking about five more? Yep, I can! High five!) and I was convinced I was being proactive and effective.

I’m sure I’m not the only one: We live in a chaotic world, overstimulated in an era of an informational overload. Lists are our anchors of sorts – they give us an illusion of being in control and make us feel productive. They help us remember things, and no matter how long they are, they’re usually finite, which means that line by line we are moving forward and when we’re done, we can pat ourselves on the back and put our feet up. They’re helpful helpers, helpfully helping us move through life more smoothly.

Or so I thought.

But oddly over time I actually developed love – hate relationship with my lists. I was still compelled to write them, so every morning I’d sit down and jolt on paper what needed to be done: Mop the floors. Call the dentist. Wash the bedding. Get groceries and stop at the library. And when I looked around, things just kept flowing, from my mind to the pen and onto the paper: this and that – oh wait, I’ve forgotten about this – just one more thing! In the end I’d always put down way too much, piling on myself more than what was possible to accomplish in a day or what I was able to handle. As a result, I was stressed right from the get-go, even before I started with anything. The long list made me feel like a failure: How come there is so much to do? How could I let things slide so much that now I don’t even know where to start? Plus, just because I wrote things down it didn’t necessarily mean they got done. We all know life has a way of getting in the way, and when the evening rolled around and I realized I’ve spent the entire day doing things that had nothing to do with my list, I wasn’t a happy camper. Seeing all those lines I haven’t managed to cross made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, too. But maybe most importantly, even when I succeeded in checking off the mountain of tasks, the stuff that got done were largely things I was doing in response to other people’s wants and needs, and at the end of the day I was left with no time nor energy pursuing what I myself wanted to do.

Somehow, somewhere the helpful list stopped being a helper and became more of a curse. And something needed to be done. And so, albeit reluctantly, I’ve ditched the notes that used to look at me reproachfully like colorful exclamation marks from every corner and I never looked back. I’ve also realized I don’t want to be a slave to a constant beeping flow of incoming e-mails, messages, and Facebook notifications anymore, and decided to outsmart my phone and unplug when the onrush gets to be too much. Instead of making those blasted lists I now go for a walk first thing in the morning before tackling everything that needs to be done. These days I do only what my mind reminds me to do, and if I forget something, I tell myself it probably wasn’t all that important in the first place. And even though I’m still tempted to dust while talking on the phone, I’m learning to focus just on the one thing in front of me. I think it’s called something like living in the moment 🙂 It’s not easy for me, that’s for sure, but I’m slowly getting better. The only list I’m allowing myself to write is a list of ingredients for my weekly baking session, and I think all the people in my household are happier for it.

Coincidentally, the list for this week’s cake is rather extensive. In the spotlight of this elaborate festive cake are chestnuts – the wintery treat of my childhood. We used to buy roasted chestnuts from a street stand, and then walk through the squeaky snow picking out hot, sweet, and tender fragrant chestnuts from a paper cone. Chestnut season is almost over, but thankfully you should be able to find peeled roasted chestnuts in a specialty grocery stores year round. Better yet, get the ready-made sweetened chestnut puree – that way despite the long list of ingredients the cake is quite easy to make. The original recipe calls for a 9-inch square pan, but I didn’t want to bother with cutting the square cake into three layers so I made the cake in a half-sheet pan and then cut it lengthwise into three long strips. The cake layers are generously soaked in Crème de Cocoa and covered in milk-chocolate ganache, and because you can never have too much chocolate in your life, the cake is finished with bittersweet chocolate glaze. I had fun dusting the chestnuts in golden pearl dust; that simple extra touch made the cake look very festive and worthy of any wintertime celebration. I hope you won’t let the long list keep you from giving it a try!

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Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

(adapted from Bon Appétit 1/2005)

Chestnut Cake:
  • 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) cake flour
    (please see Note on how to make cake flour at home)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup (226 g, 8 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cup golden brown sugar, divided
  • 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup sweetened chestnut puree
    (use store-bought puree or see Note on how to make homemade chestnut puree from fresh roasted chestnuts)
  • ¼ cup half-and-half (or whole milk)
Milk Chocolate Ganache:
  • 6 tablespoons white granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 370 g (13 oz.) high-quality milk chocolate, broken up
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup white granulated sugar
  • 225 g (8 oz.) bittersweet dark chocolate, broken up

+ ¼ cup Crème de Cocoa liqueur for brushing the cake layers
– 24 whole roasted chestnuts (or jarred); 12 chopped up and 12 left whole for decoration
– Wilton Pearl Dust in golden color (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, butter and flour the sides of a half baking sheet (46 x 33 cm, 18 x 13 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  2. Sift cake flour and baking powder. Beat butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract, and one by one mix in the egg yolks.
  3. Add in 1 cup of sweetened chestnut spread and milk and combine.
  4. Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add in the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar and whip the mixture until firm peaks form. With a spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the cake batter in three additions.
  5. Spread the batter into the lined pan and bake until the cake is golden in color, springs back to the touch, and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert the cake onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment paper and let the cake cool completely.
  6. To make the Milk Chocolate Ganache Frosting:  Place the milk chocolate into a glass bowl. Combine sugar and water in a deeper non-stick pan. Add in the cinnamon stick. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes. Don’t stir, just gently swirl the pan from time to time, but watch the sugar closely so that it doesn’t burn. When the sugar turns nice golden color, add in the cream and salt. (The mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will crystallize.) Stir the caramel in the hot cream over low heat until it dissolves again. Remove the cinnamon stick.
  7. Pour the hot caramel cream over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature stirring occasionally – about 1 hour.
  8. Using electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy. By tablespoons, add in the cooled chocolate ganache and combine.
  9. Assembling the cake: Cut the cooled cake lengthwise into three equal strips. Place the first strip onto a flat surface and sprinkle it generously with Crème de Cocoa. Spread it with 1/3 of the ganache frosting and sprinkle with half of the chopped chestnuts. Cover with the second cake layer, brush with the liqueur, and spread with 1/3 of the chocolate ganache and the rest of the chestnuts. Place the third cake strip on the chestnuts, brush it with the liqueur and spread it with the rest of the ganache. Press lightly, and place the cake into the refrigerator to firm up, at least 2 hours.
  10. Make the glaze: Place the bittersweet dark chocolate in a bowl. Bring cream, sugar, and water to boil. Pour the mixture over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let the gaze cool until it thickens but is still pourable, about 1 hour. Pour glaze atop cake, covering the sides as well.  Return the cake into the refrigerator to firm up.
  11. Decorate the cake with golden chestnuts if desired: Brush the chestnuts with a little Crème de Cocoa and sprinkle them with Wilton Pearl Dust. (I used a paintbrush.) Let the chestnuts dry before putting them on the cake.
  12. The cake can be made up to 24 hours in advance; store in the refrigerator, covered. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
Note:

To make the cake flour, measure 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and then remove 2 tablespoons and substitute them with cornstarch. (For this recipe, you’ll need 2 cups all-purpose flour with 4 tablespoons removed and subbed with cornstarch.)

To make homemade chestnut puree, combine 170 g (6 oz.) of fresh roasted chestnuts, 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until most of the water evaporates. Strain the chestnuts, reserving the sugar syrup. Process the chestnuts in a food processor, adding the sugar syrup as needed to achieve desired consistency. These quantities should make about 1 cup; let the puree cool before proceeding with the recipe.

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Christmas Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting (Karamelové medové rezy)

This cake is a “must have Christmas cake” for Mr. Photographer. At least that’s what I was told by his Mother shortly before our first Christmas as newlyweds. As a consequence, not even three months after the wedding I found myself standing in the kitchen with Mom, who took it upon herself to teach me how to make it. I was terrified. I was way too young, haven’t had too much baking experience under my belt yet, and I was convinced she was going to watch me like a hawk and would ultimately deem me totally incompetent and unfit to properly care for her only son. What can I say? Insecure and paranoid young daughters-in-law don’t make it for their mothers-in-law any easier 🙂

I had trouble with everything that night: First I couldn’t roll out the dough, then I couldn’t get it onto the baking sheet. When it finished baking, I handled it too hot and it broke in two, and I had more than a few lumps in the frosting. But at the end both me and my new Mom-in-law made it through, she told me I did great, and Mr. Photographer was happy to have his Christmas cake.

Let me make something clear: Mom is great, and I’m not just saying that because there is a slight chance she might read it. There are tons of in-laws jokes built around the idea that the farther they live and the less you have to see them the better, and I suppose such jokes exist because they mirror the experience of many. I don’t have your typical harsh and less than helpful mother-in-law though. From the get-go she took me as her own, which also means that if she thinks I didn’t do something right or plan on doing something less than smart she has no qualms about telling me that. As a young wife I remember wishing she wouldn’t be quite so open in voicing her opinions and wanting her to keep a little more distance in our relationship. But you know how the saying goes – be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. These days the distance between us is many times more than what I’d prefer, and I often find myself wishing she’d be just a little bit closer than twelve hour flight away. Over the years I came to appreciate her openness as well – she doesn’t leave me guessing and I know that what she says to me is (mostly) true 🙂

A lot has changed since that first baking session with Mom. I’ve had two babies on my own, and I’m convinced God must definitely have a sense of humor, because he gave me two sons – so that I could one day experience first-hand that being a mother-in-law to the woman your son chose to marry is not exactly an easy task. We still have our differences, Mom and me, but we’ve learned to live with them for the most part. And after surviving teenage years with my older son and being in the middle of said hell with the younger one I only feel grateful to her today. I’m glad she gave birth to Mr. Photographer and that she didn’t kill him when he was fifteen. And I’m also immensely thankful she taught him how to clean the kitchen 🙂

—–

The honey cake I’m presenting to you today is not the exact recipe Mom makes. After Mr. Photographer found out he needs to avoid gluten, we thought he might never taste his favorite cake again. Mom’s recipe calls for four layers of rolled out honey dough, and since gluten-free dough lacks gluten, the very thing that holds the dough together, it is inherently non-stretchy and very hard to roll out. After much thinking, digging and comparing recipes I came up with honey cake that uses batter instead of sheets of dough. The batter is thinner and doesn’t need to be rolled out, and I’m happy to report this recipe works in both gluten-full and gluten-free version. I’d even dare to say it’s better than the original (sorry, Mom!), because this cake is soft right away and there is no need to wait for the cake layers to soften under the frosting. The gluten-free cake turned out to be just a little softer and more porous than its standard gluten counterpart, but since gluten-free dough can often be somewhat dry and crumbly, I’ll take softer and more porous any day! The Caramel Buttercream requires a little planning, because you need to caramelize sweetened condensed milk the night before, but it is worth it, the frosting is finger-licking good!

Beware: This cake is dangerous. It literally melts in your mouth and I guarantee you won’t be able to eat just one slice. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do around here!

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Christmas Honey Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting

Cake:
  • 600 g (21 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour (for gluten-free version see Note)
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) unsalted butter
  • 200 g (7 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 4 eggs
  • 100 – 150 ml (3.5 – 5 oz.) milk as needed to reach nice spreadable consistency of the batter
Caramel Buttercream Frosting:
  • 1 can (14 oz., 396 g) sweetened condensed milk
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 350 ml (11.5 oz.) milk, divided
  • 1 package KRAFT Jell-O Vanilla cook and serve pudding
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Chocolate Glaze:
  • 4 oz. (113 g) Baker’s semi-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 4 oz. (113 g) unsalted butter
img-2015-12-06-1204
Method:
  1. For the frosting, caramelize the sweetened condensed milk the night before by simply simmering the can in water for two hours in a covered pot. After two hours remove the can from water, let it cool and unopened place it in the fridge till the next day. Do not open the can while it’s hot! The next day proceed with making the recipe.
  2. To make the cake layers, place butter, powdered sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Put the filled saucepan in a large pot and add enough boiling-hot water to reach halfway up the side of the smaller saucepan. Melt the butter/honey/sugar mixture over the water bath and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. Take four sheets of parchment paper, big enough to fit into a big baking sheet, and with pencil, trace 9 x 13 inch (22 x 33 cm) rectangle on each of them. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  4. Place flour and 1 tablespoon baking soda in a bowl of your stand mixe fitted with beater blade. With the mixer on, one by one add the eggs, mixing constantly. Lastly, add the lukewarm butter/honey/sugar mixture. Whisk the batter on a high speed, adding as much milk as to achieve a pancake consistency. Divide the batter into four equal portions.
  5. Turn one sheet of prepared parchment paper over so you’re not putting batter on the pencil markings, and with a spatula, spread one portion of the batter on the paper, covering the entire traced rectangle. Make the remaining cake layers the same way. (I usually bake one while preparing the next one.)
  6. Place the batter on the parchment onto the baking sheet and bake for about 6 minutes only – the layers are thin, so it goes quickly. Watch the cake closely, it’s ready when the edges begin to brown and the top is pale golden. Do not overbake. Let the cake cool on the parchment paper. Bake the rest of the cake layers the same way.
  7. While the cakes are cooling, prepare the Caramel frosting:  Combine 6 tablespoons sugar with 2 tablespoons water in a deep saucepan. Let the sugar mixture cook until the water evaporates and the sugar turns golden brown in color and caramelizes. Do not stir, just gently shake the pan from time to time. Take the saucepan off the flame and add 250 ml milk to the liquid caramel. The caramel will sizzle and will crystallize. Melt it again in the milk over a low heat, stirring.
  8. Mix the Jell-O Vanilla Pudding with remaining 100 ml milk until smooth. Add the mixture to the hot caramel milk and cook, stirring constantly, until very thick. Let cool to room temperature. Take the can of caramelized condensed milk out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temp as well.
  9. When the pudding is cool, whip the butter until fluffy. With the mixer still going, by tablespoons add the pudding and the caramelized sweetened condensed milk, mixing well after each addition as to not curdle the frosting. Divide the frosting into four equal parts.
  10. Assembling the cake: Place one honey cake layer on a big cutting board, and spread it with one part of the frosting. Continue layering cake and frosting, ending with the buttercream on top. Transfer the cake into the fridge to firm up the frosting before putting the chocolate glaze on top. (I chilled for about 1 hour, but you can chill the cake for several hours, up to overnight.)
  11. For the Chocolate Glaze, combine the chocolate with butter over a water bath until smooth and pourable. Let the glaze cool slightly, and then pour the glaze over the cake, spreading it nicely with a spatula. Return the cake to the refrigerator to firm up the chocolate layer.
  12. Cut off the edges of the cake, cut the cake into small squares, and serve. The cake will keep for 1-2 days in the refrigerator and it is also possible to freeze it.
Note:

To make the cake gluten-free, I subbed the all-purpose flour with gluten-free flour mix. I used Namaste Perfect Flour Blend, but I imagine any good quality flour mix would work. Please check if your blend contains either xanthan or guar gum, and if not, add roughly 1 teaspoon of xanthan/guar gum per cup (130 g, 4.5 oz.) of flour. The gluten-free batter was different than the standard gluten cake – surprisingly it was thicker and not as spreadable, but since I knew that gluten-free flour is lighter thanks to the starches I was hesitant to add more milk than the recipe calls for. As a result, spreading the batter onto the paper was a little harder; I ended up dipping the spatula in water to help spreading the batter onto the paper, just like I do when baking pizza dough. The gluten-free cakes also baked a little slower and it took them about a minute – minute and a half longer to reach the nice golden color – I suppose that would depend on the grains/starches used in your mix. And lastly, the gluten-free cake layers were rising  unevenly in the oven, forming big bubbles in the cake :-). I was convinced the cake was doomed, but I pricked the bubbles with a fork when taking the cakes from the oven, and after they cooled they looked pretty good, so all was well in the end :-). The gluten-free baking is always an adventure!

Spiced Pear Chocolate Caramel Cake

This week marked our wedding anniversary – unbelievable twenty years. Mountains and valleys, leavings and comebacks, withdrawals and togetherness. Loving another person is not easy. The man I stand next to today is certainly not the guy I married… the guy I promised to love but in fact had no clue how. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to.

And I still do.

We’re so different from where we started – young and eager to do life together. The journey brought us immense joy… and also challenges I’d never have anticipated on my wedding day; where the only thing one could do was to take the next step. Through clenched teeth, in the dark.  But as for me, all those growing pains have been worth it… because knowing there is this one person you can  come home to every day to is the best.

Thanks to all those years living with a photographer I learned one thing. Everything is always about the light. You might have wrinkles deep as canyons and countless blemishes inside and out, but when a photographer loves you, he makes sure to show you in just the right light. Suddenly, you’re flawless. And beautiful.

And that’s what he does for me.

***

And the cakes are something I do for him. He doesn’t like cakes that are too airy and fluffy, and prefers something more substantial to sink his teeth into. When I came across this recipe, it had Mr. Photographer’s name written all over. First, THE CHOCOLATE – dark and bitter. Then, autumn pears poached in WINE which made them fragrant and delicious. And lastly, WHISKEY! The recipe called for 1 tablespoon, but I am not exactly known for following recipes, and prefer to play in the kitchen… so  I added a good splash 🙂 If that’s not a “manly” cake, I don’t know what is!

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Spiced Pear Chocolate Caramel Cake

(adapted from http://84thand3rd.com)

Cakes:
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup golden brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 100 ml red wine
  • 150 g (5 oz.) butter
  • pinch salt
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, broken up
  • 1 tablespoon whiskey
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 35 g (½ cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 130 g (4.5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour (for gluten-free option see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
Wine poached pears:
  • 4 firm pears, peeled, halved, and cored
  • 1 ½ cups each water and red wine
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves

+ 1 cup heavy whipping cream whipped with 2 teaspoons powdered sugar (for serving, optional)

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Method:
  1. To poach the pears, combine wine, water, sugar, and spices in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Carefully add pear halves to the poaching liquid, and cook over low heat until the pears are just tender. Don’t overcook. Remove the pears from the wine syrup (reserve the liquid), let them cool, and then cut each half in half again, so that you will have 16 quarters. Reduce the poaching liquid by half, and serve as a syrup with the cake, if desired.
  2. For the cake, butter and flour two 9-inch (23 cm) tart pans with removable bottom. (If you’re making the cake for a person that’s gluten – intolerant, make sure to use a gluten-free flour for this.) Line the pans with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C).
  3. Make the caramel: Combine sugar and water in a deep non-stick pan and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat down and let simmer until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden color. Don’t stir, because stirring encourages crystallization – just gently swirl the sugar syrup in the pan from time to time. When the water evaporates, watch the sugar closely, and take it off the heat the moment it starts to caramelize – it will continue to darken even off the heat, and you don’t want it to burn.
  4. When the sugar turns to caramel, immediately pour the wine over it (it will sizzle and the caramel will crystallize). Return the pan to the heat, bring to a boil, remove from the heat again and stir, until the caramel melts.(This took a while.) Add the butter and salt. Lastly, add the chocolate, and stir until the mixture is smooth and glossy. Stir in the whiskey and let the mixture cool slightly.
  5. To make the cakes, combine the flour, cocoa, soda, and salt. Set aside.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs. Slowly and carefully add about a third of the caramel – chocolate mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs, and then combine the tempered eggs with the rest of the caramel – chocolate mixture.
  7. Add in the dry ingredients, alternating with the buttermilk, and ending with the flour mixture. Stir just until combined.
  8. Pour the batter into prepared pans and smooth out the tops. Carefully arrange 8 pear quarters on top of each cake.
  9. Bake for about 25 minutes until just firm in the center. Let the cakes cool in pans before removing. Serve with whipped cream and sweet wine syrup if desired.
Note:

If making the cake gluten-free, swap the all-purpose flour for your favorite gluten-free mix. (Be sure to add 1 teaspoon xanthan gum, if your mix doesn’t contain it already.)