Saturday, February 25, 2012

Peace, Love and Cake

Berry - Cherry Chocolate Cake

I am beginning to love the unexpected. This Valentines Day I didn't really want to go out to dinner or have a special date. It was a busy week, and I wanted to spend the evening with my family. Ok, I'll be honest, part of me just decided it was easier to make a nice dinner at home than to have great expectations of a romantic, perfect date night. I'm learning that it's all about expectations (lowering them, perhaps?). It's about time, right?

But instead of dinner, I made cake. I don't think anyone was expecting that, including me. I started out by making a batch of Mexican chocolate mousse. I love mousse, but it is so rich and creamy, that I wanted a bit of texture to go with each cinnamon-cayenne-infused bite. Cake! I found a great yellow cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen, which I altered slightly, and then decided to mix a creamy, not-so-sweet mascarpone-ricotta cherry filling to top the second layer. I was hoping it would be a soft pink color, but, as was the theme of the night, it was an unexpected purple. And of course, it being VD (I remember the endless jokes about that in grade school!), there had to be chocolate. A simple ganache topped it all. It was delicious, which I expected.

Oh, and my husband brought me flowers: hoped for, but not entirely expected. Thanks, Drummer Man!

After licking the last bite of cake off his fork, my son summed up the evening with three words: “Peace, Love and Cake.” I can live with that.

Yellow Cake from Smitten Kitchen (changes in parenthesis)

Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, and, in theory, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (480 grams) cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder (I increased to 4 tsp)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda (I omitted—I hate baking soda)
1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (400 grams) sugar
2 teaspoons (10 ml) pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature (I used 5 egg yolks, and three egg whites, whipped separately)
2 cups buttermilk (475 ml), well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. (Alternately, you can use a cooking spray, either with just butter or butter and flour to speed this process up.)

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. in a separate bowl beat egg whites til stiff. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs yolks 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated. Fold in egg whites.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. (I like to drop mine a few times from two inches up, making a great big noisy fuss.) Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Mexican Chocolate Mousse

1 pt whipping cream
2 tbsp powdered sugar
2 tbsp butter
6.5 oz chocolate (try Mexican chocolate bar with Guajillo, or a mix of Mexican chocolate and bittersweet)

1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne
1 oz Grand Marnier (to taste)
3 egg whites
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp granulated sugar

Whip the cream (soft) with powdered sugar and set aside.
In double boiler or pan set in water, melt the chocolate and butter and thin with
Grand Marnier. Add spices. Let it cool a bit and fold in the whipped cream.
Beat the egg whites to soft peaks and add sugar. Fold into chocolate
mixture. Place in bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Cherry Mascarpone Filling

1 cup frozen cherries

8 oz Crave Brother's Mascarpone Cheese (I love Wisconsin!)

8 oz Belgioioso ricotta cheese

¼ cup powdered sugar

1 tsp vanilla

(I think a couple tbsp of cherry liquor would have been great too)

Simmer cherries with vanilla and liquor (I used more orange liquor here in stead) until juice is released.

Strain cherries and set aside.

Whip all other ingredients in bowl, and add about ½ cup cherry juice. Adjust juice to sugar ratio keeping the consistency of the filling firm, but spreadable.


1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
rum (optional)

Bring cream to a boil

Stir in chocolate and rum until well-blended

Let cool until firm enough to spread (could be 2 hours in fridge).

Raspberry Coulis

8 oz frozen raspberries

2 tbsp lemon juice

½ cup sugar

liquor of your choice

Bring to a boil until juice is released. Mash and strain.

Assemble Cake

If I did this again, I would cut layers in half to make four layers, but alas, we had two.

Anyway, start by topping a layer with mousse and the reserved cherries, then more cake, then the filling, until you are out of cake, or filling, or perhaps even your mind.

Make sure the mousse is firm enough that it won't drip out of the cake, a mistake I have made more times than I care to remember. I actually let this mousse set in the fridge overnight before using.

Finally, spread ganache around and over the whole darn cake.

Spoon raspberry sauce on plate.

Cut generous slice of cake. Eat.

An unexpected dessert awaits!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

NessAlla Kombucha and a Giveaway!

Vanessa Tortolano and Alla Shapiro, the owners of NessAlla Kombucha in Madison, WI, exude warmth and confidence, mixed with a great dose of humor. I wonder, however, if all of the swooning by their adoring customers over their delicious kombucha might just make them blush.
Kombucha, or “booch”, as it is fondly called by Vanessa and Alla, is a drink made from fermented ceylon tea. Fermentation happens as a by-product of the symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast (scoby) in a bath of tea and sugar, and yields a refreshingly effervescent drink. The scoby is sometimes called a mushroom, but is not a true mushroom. Frankly, it looks less like a mushroom, and more like snot. Honestly.

Vanessa and Alla began their business about six years ago, and it's been growing ever since. You can now find their six delicious flavors of kombucha--Raspberry, Blueberry, Lemongrass Ginger, Seasonal, Peach Blush, Traditional Oolong—in various grocers and farmer's markets around Madison, WI and Chicago.

The first time I drank kombucha, I will admit I was not smitten, but by the second bottle, I noticed that I enjoyed the punchy flavor and refreshing zing. And I felt, well, a bit zingy myself! Amino acids, they told me. A good-for-you buzz? Vanessa assured me that there is less alcohol in kombucha than fresh squeezed orange juice, which makes that zesty feeling even better--and nothing to blush about. What makes you blush?

GIVEAWAY: Vanessa and Alla have generously offered a gallon of their newest booch flavor, PEACH BLUSH KOMBUCHA, to the winner of this contest! Just tell me what makes you blush! Keep it PG please!

I'll start:

At a recent cooking class, I was blending a warm milk and cream cheese mixture in the blender. I must not have completely covered the top of the blender because as soon as I pressed the puree button, the milk/cheese mixture went all over the place, including on the students sitting near the counter. That was shortly after I caught a paper towel on fire. Two blushes in one night.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Avenue Bar

It seems to take as long for me to post about a restaurant meal as it does for me to get a sitter so my husband and I can go out to eat.

But when I received two vouchers to go to Avenue Bar during Restaurant Week , I got right on it (the sitter part, I mean).

Avenue Bar on East Washington Ave was one of the participating restaurants during Restaurant Week, and is right in our neighborhood. Like so many of our great local restaurants, I had not yet been there, and was delighted to have a chance to experience some real Wisconsin supper club fare.

The food at Avenue Bar is all about comfort--soups, steaks, cakes, and, from what I hear, a great fish fry. While I enjoyed marinated salmon and rice pilaf, my husband opted for the steak. The very large steak. It was juicy and smothered in mushrooms and onions (we had the leftovers for breakfast with eggs). Dessert included a rich and warm bread pudding, and cup of liquor infused ice cream--a nightcap and dessert all in one.

Though the food and the decor could use a tad of updating (only my humble opinion. I suppose that's its appeal to many folks) the meal will certainly fill you up--as much with a great Sconnie vibe as with eats!

You can read the Eating Madison A to Z review here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pumpkin Flan

People either love it or hate it.

I am in the middle. I like about one, perhaps two, creamy bite (s) of flan, and no more.

I love the way the sugary syrup and the creamy custard melt on my tongue.
And how phenomenally easy it is to make. But sometimes I want a little something sturdier to hold it all up. Like a crunchy crust, or even a cake-like crust.

(There is something like that called Impossible cake, a.k.a. Chocoflan. I tried it once, as you can see here. Total cake fail. But I digress.)

Anyway, the addition of a pumpkin puree and a bit of cream cheese give this rendition of flan a bit more to hold on to, so to speak. Though I am still a bit ambivalent, I made this for my cooking class at Orange Tree recently and it was the hit of the night.

(I think the students were actually happy that we made it to the end of class and had survived a small fire, and a warm milk/sugar eruption from a blender. But I digress). If you make it this morning, it will be ready for your super bowl dinner tonight! It would go great with Tortilla Soup and Puff Pastry Empanadas!


For caramel sauce

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

For flan

Preheat oven to 325.

Heat water on stove.

Get roasting pan ready.


4 eggs

3 yolks

1 1/3 cup milk, 1 1/3 cup half and half

4 oz cream cheese

¾ cup sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla

½ tsp ginger, ancho chili powder

1 cup pumpkin puree

Caramelize sugar

Moisten sugar with water in saucepan and mix. Bring to a boil brushing down sides of pan if necessary. Let boil for about 3-5 minutes until it starts to turn golden, give a swirl then let boil until straw colored. Do not stir the sugar!!!!

Remove from heat and pour immediately in flan mold. Swirl to coat bottom.

Make custard

Mix milks, cream cheese and sugar in saucepan and bring to simmer.

Beat eggs and yolk in separate mixing bowl.

Add milk mixture to blender and add in spices and pumpkin until smooth. Add this mixture to eggs and whisk.

Strain into pitcher or bowl. This is very important. Non-strained flan looks like cottage cheese.

Pour strained flan mixture over caramelized sugar, and place flan mold in roasting pan. Add hot water to make a water bath and carefully place in oven. Bake 50-70 minutes, depending on size/depth of flan. Should be slightly jiggly in center, but not wet. Let cool for about an hour or 2 at room temp.

Cover and refrigerate 3 hours or overnight.

To remove, loosen sides with a knife, and invert on serving platter.