Vanilla Cake with Sour Cream Yogurt Frosting and Fresh Fruit

September is a celebration month at our house. No, I don’t celebrate the boys going back to school… 🙂 Truth to be told, I’ve gotten used to the extra chatter, extra pairs of hands, not to mention the extra sleep I’ve been getting in the mornings. I’m always a little nostalgic at the end of August – I’m a summer girl at heart, and even though I enjoy the fall here in the Pacific Northwest and love the beautiful color show the turning leaves put out every year, I know we won’t be able to escape the rain that’s coming after. But as fate would have it, all my men were born in September (two within days of each other!), and so we can’t really be too sad about summer being over around here, because we’re too busy counting down until someone’s birthday.

Birthday is always a highlight of a person’s year, I suppose, regardless of the day it falls on. Having said that, growing up I always felt a little sorry for the kids whose Christmas and birthday were rolled into one… I couldn’t help but feel they were a bit cheated. But early September Birthday? Awesome! It’s not so hot anymore that you have to worry about the buttercream frosting melting and the cake you spent hours on falling apart before your guests even finish singing Happy Birthday, but you can still celebrate outside and won’t get drenched or freeze to death. Oh, and if you were born in September, you can have your cake and eat it too! Just think about it – the bikini season is over, no need to fret over some fat around your waistline. Any potential muffin top can be easily and comfortably hidden under those wonderfully loose fall sweaters.

Not that it would ever occur to my men (or any man, really!) to worry about something like that. Mr. Photographer asked for a light fruity cake, and I’m sure he didn’t go for it just because the contrasting berries and grapes would look good in pictures. If he sees cake (or cheese! or wine!), you bet he’s going to have some, even if it’s five minutes before midnight. He truly is a carpe diem person, and I love that about him. The cake I made for him (and my other man-son that almost shares birthday with his father) is rather simple: Lemon scented vanilla cake with yogurt – sour cream filling, filled with summer fruit galore. This kind of cake is quite often baked back home during summer, and for a very good reason – it’s simple and quick to make, a little sweet, a little tart, and a whole lot creamy. Go bake some, and then cut yourself a slice, put your feet up, and enjoy life: every day of it it’s delicious, and on your birthday it holds true twice as much!

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Vanilla Cake with Sour Cream Yogurt Frosting and Fresh Fruit

Cake:
  • 4 eggs, room temp, separated
  • 120 g (4 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 100 ml (3.3 oz.) mild tasting oil (melted & cooled butter)
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) all-purpose gluten-free flour
  • 1 teaspoon xanthan/guar gum (omit if your mix contains it already)
  • 1 pkg. Dr.Oetker Vanilla Pudding (37 g), or other powdered gluten-free pudding by weight
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 10 g (0.35 oz.) baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
Filling:
  •  500 ml (about 2 cups) full-fat sour cream
  • 250 ml (8 oz., about 1 cup) full-fat Greek yogurt (yogurt and sour cream can be used interchangeably)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 60 g (over 2 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 300 ml (10 oz.) heavy whipping cream
  • 20 g (almost 3 pkg.) Knox powdered gelatin
  • 100 ml (3.3 oz.) cold water
Lemon Syrup:
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
Gelatin Glaze:
  • 1 pkg. Knox unflavored gelatin
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • ¼ cup very hot water
  • 1 tablespoon liquid honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

+ ¼ cup apricot preserves, to spread on the cake before fruit and filling
mixed fruit of your choice for filling the cake and for decoration (I used 2 sliced bananas and 2 cups sliced strawberries inside the cake, and decorated with peaches, blueberries, grapes, and strawberries

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Method:
  1. For the cake, line a 26 cm (10-inch) round springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the sides of the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (176 °C).
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pudding powder, and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. In a bowl of your stand mixer, whisk the egg yolks with sugar until very thick and light yellow in color, about 10 minutes. Gradually start adding the oil (liquid butter), whisking constantly. Mix in the lemon peel and vanilla. Set aside.
  4. Whip the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until firm peaks form.
  5. In three additions, fold the flour mixture into the egg yolk mixture alternatively with the whipped egg whites. (Take care not to deflate the egg whites.) Pour the mixture into your prepared pan, smooth out the top, and bake for about 20 – 25 minutes until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, and the toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then transfer it onto a cooling rack and let it cool completely. Wash the springform pan and set it aside.
  6. While the cake is cooling, cook a simple lemon syrup: Bring the water with sugar to a boil, and mix in the lemon juice. Let cool. (The syrup can be made in advance and refrigerated; I used about half and reserved the rest for later).
  7. When the cake is cool, remove the dome from the top if any, and return the cake into the springform pan lined with clean sheet of parchment. Spoon the syrup over the cake to moisten it, and spread the cake with apricot preserves. Cover the cake with sliced bananas.
  8. Prepare the filing: Combine gelatin powder and water in a small bowl; let stand for 10 minutes to bloom. Mix yogurt and sour cream together until well combined and no lumps remain; add in sugar and vanilla, and combine. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until firm peaks form; carefully fold the whipped cream into the yogurt-sour cream mixture.
  9. Heat the gelatin mixture in a water bath until very hot and the gelatin dissolves, stirring constantly. Do not boil, or the filling won’t set. Add 3 tablespoons of the filling into the hot gelatin to temper it, and pour it back into the remaining filling. Mix well. Pour about half of the filling onto the cake in the pan, covering the bananas. Put into the refrigerator for couple of minutes to partially set the filling. Leave the remaining filling on the counter so it remains pourable.
  10. Cover the partially set filling with sliced strawberries, and pour the rest of the filling on top. (I had some filling left over.) Refrigerate for couple of hours (up to overnight) to set the filling completely.
  11. Decorate the cake with fresh fruit. Make the gelatin glaze: Combine gelatin with cold water, and set it aside to bloom. Add in the hot water, honey, and lemon juice, and whisk until the gelatin is completely dissolved and the mixture looks clear. Put the mixture into the fridge for couple of minutes, stirring occasionally. When the gelatin mixture has a consistency of raw egg whites, spoon it carefully over the fruit on the cake (I used a paintbrush). Let the gelatin set.
  12. Remove the cake from the springform pan, and place it onto a serving plate. Decorate the cake with additional whipped cream if desired and serve.

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Spring Pavlova with Mascarpone and Cream Filling

Winter blues are over; the spring has sprung! The beautiful sunny weather we’ve been waiting for so long is finally here, and what it has brought with itself? Allergies, of course! Mother Nature sure is a teaser: I swear the very moment you start to feel good inside seeing all the flowering beauty around, here comes the first sneeze, and pretty soon you’re doing twenty minutes long sneezing marathons back to back. Your nose is this lovely shade of purple, all you can do is to squint at the world through your narrow bloodshot eyes, and just trying to breathe sucks up all your energy. You can’t sleep, because you’re all stuffed up, and when you leave the house in the morning, suddenly the Niagara falls start gushing from your nostrils. Yup, classic case of spring for many of us.

It just so happens that my birthday falls into the spring season, and this year I was very appropriately gifted a thing that looks just like one of the million want-to-be funny mugs, but it’s actually much more than that. Mr. Red nose egg separator! I run across its picture in some culinary catalogue many moons ago and couldn’t stop giggling. The boys tell me that the older I get the more teenage moments I have, and this was without a doubt one of them. Yes, it’s gross, when you think about it… but it’s also funny, at least it was to me! I then promptly forgot about it, but Mr. Photographer didn’t, and a couple days before my birthday a small box arrived at my doorstep 🙂

And what was inside proved to be really useful this weekend. I’ve never made Pavlova, the egg-white based dessert named after the Russian dancer… but it seems a great thing to have in a gluten-free baking repertoire, so I’ve decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did: The outside baked up nice and crisp, while the inside literally melts in your mouth. The top of the cake sank in a little as it cooled, which proved to be very useful when I went to fill it up. The filling is just mascarpone cheese, heavy cream, and some sugar whipped up together with a healthy dose of Bacardi rum (if you have to walk around with red nose thanks to your allergies anyway, you may just as well enjoy some rum… 🙂

Happy spring everyone! Let’s hope the pollen counts will go down some so we can enjoy the sun!

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Spring Pavlova with Mascarpone and Cream Filling

(adapted from http://www.bonvivani.sk)

Cake:
  • 6 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 40 g (1.5 oz.) cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Filling:
  • 225 g (8 oz.) mascarpone cheese
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 50 ml (1.5 oz.) Bacardi rum
  • 400 ml (13.5 oz.) heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

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Method:
  1. To make the Pavlova, trace the bottom round of a 8 inch (22 cm) springform pan on a sheet of parchment paper. Turn the paper over as not to get the markings on your cake. Place the paper onto a baking sheet and butter it lightly (I used a cooking spray.) Preheat the oven to 300 °F (150 °C).
  2. Place the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar into the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment. With the mixer on a medium speed, start whipping the mixture. After a couple of minutes start very slowly adding the powdered sugar. Turn the speed up and continue whipping until the mixture is very thick.
  3. With a spatula, gently fold in the cornstarch, vanilla, and lemon juice.
  4. Mound the egg white mixture in the center of your pre-traced circle. Carefully spread it to the edges, while also pulling the mixture up to give it height. (I used the outer ring from the springform pan to help me here – I placed it onto the paper and slowly removed it when I had a nice high circle of egg white mixture made. The cake will fall a little and also spread some, so you want to get it as high as possible.)
  5. Bake the cake for about 1 hour, then turn the temp down to 200 °F (100 °C) and bake for additional 30 minutes. (If the cake is getting dark, cover it with tin foil.) After the 30 minutes turn the oven off and let the cake cool in the oven for about 1 hour.
  6. (The cake can be made the night before and kept at room temp.)
  7. To make the filling, whip the mascarpone, sugar, and rum until light. Separately, whip the cream with the vanilla until firm peaks form. With a spatula, fold the cream into the mascarpone filling and combine.
  8. Assembling the cake: Place the cake onto a serving plate. Carefully spread the filling on top, decorate with fresh fruit and chocolate if desired, and serve.

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.

Coeur a la Crème with Raspberry Coulis

With the Valentine’s Day just around the corner we’re bombarded left and right with links and articles about love, relationships and marriage. Seven keys to finding the love you want. How to find your perfect mate. Secrets of happy couples. 15 ways to improve your marriage. Everybody is an expert and offers you a surefire way to a satisfying relationship we all long for, and most of the psychologists and therapists base a successful relationship on a mix of love, respect, common goals, communication, and willingness to work as a team.

We’ve got the teamwork down pretty early on – I guess there is no way around it when it’s just the two of you plus a kid (or two) in a world of strangers. When you are an expat that left all family behind, there is no mom to call when you’re sick as a dog and would appreciate a bowl of good old chicken soup, or if you just dream of an hour of non-mommy time. (I remember that even the time in a dentist’s chair getting my teeth cleaned used to feel like a vacation!) You learn quickly to pull your fair share and do what you can so that your life would run as smoothly as possible.

The thing is, life is busy, and in trying to meet all the responsibilities it keeps throwing at you it can easily start to feel like you are just two people leading separate lives next to each other. And when that happens, it all starts going south: The warm and fuzzy feelings all but disappear, and all you see around are problems. Yet you don’t have time nor energy to deal with them, and you don’t have anyone who’d figure them out with you, either, because your plus one is running in his own hamster wheel.

Heck, I tried. I made Mr. Photographer stay up till the ungodly hours, talking about anything and everything I perceived at that moment as a road block in our relationship. In reality it meant that I was talking and he was talked at and quiet. The more I talked, the more worked up and loud I was getting, and the more clammed up he was in return. Which put another extra problem on top of the first one, because what all the experts say is one of the keys of a good relationship? Communication, right?! 🙂

It took me a good long while to figure out that in moments like this I didn’t need to try to solve the problem(s) I suddenly saw booming in front of me. They were there and probably always will be on this side of the ground. What I really needed was to get off the squeaky wheel (even if I felt I couldn’t afford to!) and take a break from all the busyness – find time to just be together. Life is serious enough as it is, and regular doses of fun do more for a relationship than heated “problem solving” till three in the morning.

So that’s what we’ll be doing as this post is going up! I can’t wait to leave behind the everyday – report cards, laundry, and sticky kitchen floor, and going away for just a bit to recharge. But before I go, here is my last Valentine’s day recipe: Coeur a la Crème – creamy heart in a pool of tart raspberry coulis. You’ll still have time to make it on Saturday night, and surprise your sweetie with it on Sunday morning. Coeur a la Crème is made in a special heart mold, which is perforated, so that the creamy mixture can drain and firm up overnight. You should be able to find it in a specialty kitchen stores at this time of year, but if you don’t care for the heart shape all that much, you can make this dessert also in a colander lined with cheesecloth. The taste will be the same of course – it’ll be sweet and creamy with hints of citrus and vanilla, and the tart raspberry sauce pooled around it complements it so well. (I actually doubled the sauce, and I don’t think it harmed anything!) I love how it turned out, and I especially like the texture that the cheesecloth imprinted on the heart. Please give it a try, whether you’re celebrating the V-day or you’re just planning to enjoy a nice relaxing Sunday with those you love.

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Coeur a la Crème with Raspberry Coulis

(Barefoot Contessa’s recipe, adapted from http://www.foodnetwork.com)

For the heart:
  • 12 oz (340 g) full-fat cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup (125 g) powdered sugar
  • 2 ½ cups (750 ml) heavy whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
Raspberry Coulis:
  • 6 oz. (170 g) fresh raspberries
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cup seedless raspberry jam
  • 2 tablespoons orange liqueur (I used Grand Marnier)

+ extra raspberries/strawberries/pomegranate seeds for decoration

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Method:
  1. To make the Coeur a la Crème: Line a 7-inch (18 cm) Coeur de la Crème mold (or a sieve) with cheesecloth or paper towels, so that the ends drape over the sides of the mold. It helps to moisten the cheesecloth or paper towels with water so that they adapt better to the form of the mold. Suspend the mold over a bowl, making sure there is space between the bottom of the mold and the bowl for the liquid to drain.
  2. Place the cream cheese and powdered sugar in a bowl of a electric mixer fitted with a paddle; mix on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and the paddle with a spatula, and change the paddle for a whisk.
  3. With the mixer on low speed, pour in the heavy cream, vanilla, and add the lemon zest. Whisk on high until the mixture is very thick and resembles whipped cream.
  4. Transfer the mixture into the lined mold, fold the cheesecloth over and let it drain in the refrigerator overnight.
  5. To make the Raspberry Coulis: Place raspberries, sugar, and water in a small saucepan, and cook for about 4 – 5 minutes until the mixture thickens slightly. Transfer the raspberry mixture together with all the remaining ingredients into a bowl of your food processor fitted with an S – blade, and process until smooth. Take out the seeds if desired, and chill the sauce until needed.
  6. When ready to serve, unmold the dessert on a serving plate and carefully pour raspberry sauce around the base.

 

 

 

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.

Flourless Chocolate Almond Cake with Bi-Colored Chocolate Mousse

When you first learn you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, it can be a shock. (What? No bread and cookies? For the rest of my life?!) You’ll most likely go through mourning and an adjustment period. Your pantry and kitchen will need a makeover, but I found that was actually the easy part. The bigger problem was the need to change my thinking. At first I thought I’d just have to swap the old white wheat flour for a gluten-free one, and that’s it – the process of baking as well as the results would be the same. Except… they weren’t. The breads and cakes were anything but the goods I remembered from our pre-gluten-free days. It took me a long time to understand that I shouldn’t expect gluten-free goods to mirror their gluten-filled counterparts, that I needed to embrace the change and see the gluten free baking as a completely new world and give it a fair chance to show me what it has to offer. And from that point things began to change and my success rate started slowly climbing up.

Authors of gluten-free cookbooks will tell you that their flour blend is the best in the world, and when you make bread according to their recipe you won’t be able to tell the difference and it will taste just like the wheat bread you remember. I’m no cookbook author (yet :-), but after five years of baking gluten-free for Mr. Photographer, I have to say I haven’t found such bread recipe yet. The gluten-free bread is simply different – usually it will be more dense, and it definitely doesn’t have the open crumb structure of an artisanal wheat bread.

The cakes, cookies, and quick breads on the other hand are not only comparable, but can be even better than the wheat varieties, precisely because they don’t contain gluten. Remember what your recipes almost always tell you? Mix the dry ingredients into the wet; stir just until combined, do not over mix. Over mixing activates the gluten, which in turn can make your baking creations tough. But with gluten-free flour you can mix all you want, because there is no gluten to activate, and your cakes will stay light and airy.

A big part of baking experience is sharing, though, and many gluten-ingesting folks won’t believe you when you tell them what I just said. In their mind, gluten-free is a synonym for “dry, crumbly, and tasteless”. When you’ll try this cake, you’ll see for yourself just how wrong they are. All the three men at my house were fighting over the last piece, regardless of their gluten-eating or gluten-avoiding status. The cake uses a combination of chocolate and almond flour, is somewhat dense, and the  bi-colored light mousse provides a nice contrast. I wouldn’t think twice about serving it to a company, and I love that I wouldn’t even need to use the disclaimer “gluten-free”. I can just say I made a chocolate almond cake and then watch my guests devour it. I can guarantee they won’t have a clue they might have just eaten their first gluten-free dessert. Good baking doesn’t need disclaimers. Gluten-free or gluten-full, if it’s tasty, it just is.

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Flourless Chocolate Almond Cake with Bi-Colored Chocolate Mousse

Cake:
(recipe from onceuponachef.com)
  • 1 ½ cups slivered almonds
  • 170 g (6 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • ¾ cup sugar, divided
  • 1½ sticks (170 g, 6 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Dark Chocolate Mousse:
  • 150 g (5 oz.) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons baking cocoa
  • 8 tablespoons water, divided
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 – 4 g powdered gelatin (1 envelope Knox gelatin equals about ¼ oz./7 g)
  • 375 ml (12 oz., 1½ cups) heavy whipping cream
White Chocolate Mousse:
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white chocolate, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 5 – 6 g powdered gelatin
  • 375 ml (12 oz.., 1½ cups) heavy whipping cream

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Method:
  1. For the cake, preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Butter and flour 9-inch (22 cm) round springform pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. (If baking gluten-free, be sure to use gluten-free flour or breadcrumbs for the pan.)
  2. Melt the chocolate by placing it in a pan over a pan with boiling water and stirring it constantly. Let cool to room temperature.
  3. Process the almonds with ¼ cup sugar until ground (Do not over mix, or you will end up with almond butter.) Set aside.
  4. Cream the butter with ¼ cup sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition. Beat in the chocolate and almonds and mix until combined.
  5. Beat the egg whites with salt and lemon juice. When soft peaks form, gradually add remaining sugar and continue beating until stiff.
  6. Fold about 3 tablespoons of egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, and then very gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Do not over mix.
  7. Transfer the batter into your baking pan. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the temp down to 325 °F (165 °C) and continue baking for additional 50 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes and then remove the sides of the pan and let cool completely. (The cake will probably crack during baking – that’s ok. It will also sink in quite a bit while it cools; just level it off when cooled completely.)
  8. Carefully invert the cake and remove the bottom part with the parchment paper. Wash and reassemble the cake pan, place the cooled cake in and set aside.
  9. To make the dark chocolate mousse, melt the chocolate over a water bath. Combine the cocoa with 6 tablespoons water until smooth and add the mixture to the melted chocolate. Let cool.
  10. Bloom the gelatin in 2 tablespoons water for about 15 minutes. Liquefy it over a pot of hot water; do not cook, or the gelatin won’t set. Combine the gelatin with the warm chocolate mixture, stir until smooth.
  11. Whip the cream with sugar until firm. Add couple of tablespoons to the cooled chocolate – gelatin mixture, fold it in gently, and then add the remaining whipped cream to create a light mousse. Spread the mousse onto the cake a and place the cake in the fridge so that the mousse will have a chance to firm up a bit while you make the white chocolate mousse.
  12. For the white chocolate mousse, melt the white chocolate over a water bath. Bloom the gelatin in 3 tablespoons water and liquefy it over a pot of hot water. Do not cook. Combine the gelatin with the warm white chocolate; stir until smooth.
  13. Whip the cream with sugar until stiff peaks form. Add couple of tablespoons of whipped cream to the white chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit, and then gently fold in the remaining whipped cream.
  14. Spread the white mousse over the dark chocolate mousse, which should be at least somewhat firm at this point. Place the cake in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
  15. Decorate with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings if desired.