October 20, 2014

Chocolate Orange Cake with Salted Cream Cheese Frosting

I have a confession.

The truth is, this chocolate orange cake started out as a red velvet cake. You see, despite my love for red velvet cake, I've always been a little bit skeptical of its components. According to a Wikipedia article on its origins, the first red velvet cake recipes contained beet juice which gave the cake its reddish tones. There are other varying origin stories (like the famous Waldorf Astoria version in which the lady is charged a fortune for asking for the recipe), but the beet one makes most sense to me.

One thing I've often struggled with is how to describe red velvet to those who have never had it before. I've heard others try to describe it as "a cross between vanilla and chocolate cake", but that doesn't seem sufficient. But my own explanation of "red velvet's unique flavor comes from the way it's leavened, the reaction between the acidic vinegar and the alkaline cocoa powder and baking soda" tends to glaze over most people's eyes. Sure, it's scientific and all, but I'm not sure if the reaction actually causes the flavor. Because the best red velvet cake I ever had doesn't really fit either of those descriptions.

I came upon the best red velvet cake I've ever had by chance. It wasn't anywhere especially fancy or even renowned for dessert; instead, it was a small hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint near Columbia University in New York City. They've since gone out of business, which isn't all that surprising because their barbecue was thoroughly mediocre at best. But I didn't care much for their barbecue, nope — instead, I went for their red velvet cake. It was outsourced from a bakery in nearby Harlem (which I sadly, do not remember the name of), and it was the best red velvet cake I've ever eaten in my life. The color was a deep, dark maroon and the cake tasted predominantly of chocolate with a hint of orange. All of this was topped with an incredibly light and fluffy buttercream frosting with that same subtle, almost elusive essence of orange (which I was surprised to find I adored, especially considering that I firmly believe that red velvet should often be topped with cream cheese frosting).

Throughout the last few years, I would try different red velvet recipes, throwing in some orange zest, extract or oil here and there in an effort to recreate that same cake. No recipe could ever quite capture that same flavor. It was only in a somewhat tipsy discussion with a baker friend with whom I was discussing the baked goods that we had failed to master (for me, those damn French macarons and this cake), that she suggested I ditch the red velvet base all together and try messing with a chocolate one instead. Because the best red velvet recipe she'd tried, for instance, contained an extra cup of hot coffee to add depth to its faint cocoa flavor.


That lit a light bulb in my brain. The best chocolate cake recipe I had, this crème fraîche chocolate cake, also contained a cup of hot coffee. What if I was going about my attempt to recreate this red velvet cake all wrong? What if, instead of using a red velvet cake recipe as a base, I used a chocolate cake recipe instead?

Well, as you probably figured out from the blog title's post and the picture above, it didn't really work. In my first attempt, I kept it simple and just added a couple tablespoons of food coloring and orange zest to the chocolate cake recipe. No surprises here — the amount of cocoa powder overpowered the food coloring, leaving me with a standard looking chocolate cake.

As for the flavor itself, the cake tasted like... well, chocolate cake, with a hint of orange. I was partially right about the vinegar and baking soda giving red velvet it's unique flavor, which this cake was missing because it used baking powder instead. But the flavor of this cake wasn't bad at all — in fact, it was tasty enough for me to forget my original intent, scarf down a slice or two and think about what could be improved for the next run. While the fresh orange zest imparted a lot of flavor, it definitely needed a touch more. I made a note to swap out the recipe's vanilla extract with an orange liqueur like Grand Marnier. And as for frosting, it needed to be tangy, but salty to really make the chocolate and citrus flavors sing; cream cheese would be the best base for that.

So behold, this cake — it's definitely not the red velvet I initially set out to make, but it's a cake that shouldn't be swept aside anyway. Chocolate and orange is one of my favorite combinations, and when topped with this salted orange zest cream cheese frosting? It's a recipe that deserves to be blogged about as it is its own star.

Until next time, red velvet. I'll be back for you. But for now, this chocolate orange cake will do just fine.

Some baker's notes:
  • Plan ahead for this one; the recipe calls for you to combine sugar and orange zest a day ahead to make orange-infused sugar. Of course, you can always just combine the sugar and orange together on the day of — using your fingers to rub fresh orange zest into sugar and letting it sit for 10 minutes will allow the oil from the orange zest to soak into the sugar. But allowing this to marinate overnight leads to a stronger aroma and flavor.

  • The cake batter will seem like it's super liquidy, but don't panic — it's just how it is. Trust the recipe!

  • I love the flavor of both salted chocolate and salted orange, but know that some people find that to be a bit weird. So let me warn you now that the frosting that accompanies this cake is sweet, but also salty. I think it goes well with the sweetness of the chocolate orange cake, but if you're not into that, reduce the salt quantity in the recipe by 1/2 teaspoon.

  • I'm not usually a stickler for sifting ingredients, but in this particular recipe, it's key that you sift the confectioner's sugar or you'll end up with a lumpy frosting. This is especially important if both your butter and cream cheese aren't at room temperature — if all of the ingredients aren't at the same temperature, you'll have a harder time getting a smooth frosting. If in a rush, you can even soften both the cream cheese and butter in the microwave at 10-second interval, until completely squishy but not melted. Be sue to check the texture between every interval!

  • Several people have asked me this on Instagram, so I'll share it here as well: the jadeite cake stand is from Food52's Provisions store and is still available for purchase. Yay!

October 14, 2014

Concord Grape, Honey and Goat Cheese Galette with Black Pepper

Five years into working the typical 40-hour, 9-to-5 job, I've come to realize that I am the worst kind of lunch taker there is. If I'm not grabbing an unhealthy-but-conveniently-close lunch with my coworkers, I can often be found having lunch at my desk, hunched over my laptop and eating greasy takeout as quickly as possible so I can stop the rather pointless multitasking. Often times, it's a 10-minute affair — I rarely ever take the full hour for lunch, even on the occasions I eat with coworkers.

Luckily, my company has a pretty easygoing work-from-home policy. I try to work from home at least once a week; doing so means I'm actually able to get more work done (my office has an open floor plan, which is prime for distractions and interruptions). But during those days, I usually fall into the same patterns as I do at work — that is, eat frantically while glued to my laptop, so I can get back to whatever I'm working on as quickly as possible.

So when I was working from home most recently, I opened my fridge to see if there was anything I could make a quick meal out of. The fridge was pretty empty at that point, containing a few bottles of condiments, a tube of goat cheese, and some Concord grapes left over from when I made this Concord grape cornbread. I wrinkled my nose, thinking that I would have to let my coworkers know that I was running somewhere quick for lunch.

But as I was about to type the message, it gave me pause — why did I need to be in a rush all the time? It was a Friday after all, and Fridays tend to be the days when my coworkers and I took longer lunches. I'd already started my day earlier since I'd literally rolled out of bed, immediately grabbed my laptop and proceeded to get sucked into work emails. Maybe just this once, it was time to take the full lunch hour without worrying about any emails, IMs, and projects.

And so I did. Goat cheese and Concord grapes by themselves aren't a substantial lunch — but on a buttery, flaky cornmeal crust with a dash of olive oil and pine nuts here and there? It was game time:

This galette, made from the contents of my fridge that day, contain a generous amount of goat cheese and grapes. The galette contains a few dashes of honey, and is topped with a sprig of rosemary and pine nuts to bring it some herby and savory flavors. I also served it with a few sprinkles of fresh cracked black pepper, kosher sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil. And the best part? Because the filling requires so little prep, this galette came together in less than 40 minutes, giving me the full 20 minutes to enjoy it during the rest of my lunch break.

But to be fair, it's not the sort of meal I would have every day for lunch — it's a little overly-elegant and insubstantial, the kind of food consumed by "ladies who lunch" with their girlfriends before an afternoon spent shopping for expensive clothes and walking their French bulldogs. I don't really have that sort of luxurious lifestyle (or aspire to have it, really), but that day, with this galette, I felt like I did.

Some baker's notes:
  • Although any kind of grape could theoretically work for this recipe, I went with Concord grapes because they are smaller and don't have much of a seed (or at least, not the kind I buy, which are seedless). If you're using any other kind of grape, be sure to use ones that are smaller (aim for grapes that are slightly bigger than blueberries) and seedless. If you insist on using grapes with seeds, use a cherry pitter to de-seed them and make your life easier! 

  • If you only have seedy grapes available to you and don't want to bother with a cherry pitter, note that this recipe works with a variety of different fruits, especially berries — try swapping the grapes with blueberries or raspberries! 

  • I wrote the recipe for the cornmeal galette dough the way I made it, which was using a food processor. I know that not everybody has a food processor though (and to be fair, I only got my food processor pretty recently), so you can also cut the ingredients together using a pastry blender, two knives, or even your hands. And if you want to see this crust in action elsewhere, check out my recipe for this stunning plum and marzipan galette.

October 9, 2014

Chocolate Sugar Cookies with Pink Frosting

When I was younger, I played lots of team sports like soccer. I like to think that doing so was formative in allowing me to be a “team player who works well with others” (something I frequently hear during my performance reviews), but really, the only thing that I can directly attribute to all those hours spent running around is my ability to kick a soccer ball with a halfway decent aim. That, and my love for soccer game snacks, the kind that would frequently appear during halftime breaks. Juice boxes, orange slices and grocery store baked goods like muffins and cookies.

One of my favorite grocery store baked goods were these weird “muffin top” cookies that often came stacked in rows on top of each other in plastic bins. They were like whoopie pies minus the sandwich component, with the frosting sitting on the domed tops instead of the flat bottom. Like a black and white cookie, but instead of the chocolate and vanilla glaze, they were frosted the bright blue or hot pink color you often see in grocery store baked goods, and adorned generously with sprinkles.

Sadly, I don’t see these muffin top cookies anymore in grocery stores — perhaps it was just a Texas big-box supermarket specialty? Eitherway, I decided to see if I could remake them at home:

Now, these aren’t exactly the cookies I remember from my childhood. For one thing, I used a chocolate sugar cookie recipe that makes these guys more cookie-like than whoopie pie-like. At first I was slightly disappointed to find that my own version left me wanting, but a few bites later, I realized that these cookies were delicious by their own merit. And topped with a pale pink sweetened condensed milk frosting (which I added a generous amount of salt to, to ensure that the cookie wasn't too sweet) and a handful or rainbow nonpareils? They were simply irresistible.

Some baker's notes:
  • This recipe uses vegetable shortening, an ingredient I actually avoid because trans fats are terrible for you, etc. Unfortunately, the first time I tried this recipe and replaced the shortening with melted butter, it just didn't have the sugar cookie texture I was looking for (although it was really pretty tasty). So it's really up to you — if you're uncomfortable with using shortening, replace the amount in the recipe with the same quantity of melted butter.

  • One of my favorite things about cookies is that you can adjust the baking time to get the temperature you want. Want a softer, traditional sugar cookie texture? Bake for 14 minutes. Want a crisp, crunchy cookie? Bake for 18 minutes. However, if you're a crispy cookie person, I'm going to warn you that these cookies don't keep very well and will eventually turn soft — overnight, the chocolate cookie will absorb some the moisture from the pink frosting and soften up the cookie. I'm personally a big fan of that texture, but I know it's not for everybody.

  • Let me warn y'all now — this pink frosting isn't all that sweet. In fact, it's a little bit salty and tastes a lot like the hydrogenated frosting you get in between Oreo sandwich cookies. I made the frosting salty on purpose so that it would complement the deep chocolate flavor. If you're not into the combination of chocolate and salt, or would prefer something a little more like regular frosting, decrease the amount of salt in the recipe by half to 1/4 teaspoon frosting.

October 6, 2014

Concord Grape Cornbread with Rosemary Whipped Cream

I've never baked with grapes before. To me, they always seem like the kind of fruit you snack on and didn't have much place in desserts and baked goods. I mean, think about it — how often do you see a grape cake? Grape muffins or grape loaves? Almost never, right? And I'm not exactly sure why. With their sweet, slightly astringent flavor and their consistency matching that of a blueberry (which often makes appearances in muffins and loaves), grapes seem like they'd be the perfect candidate for fruit to use when baking.

A few quick Google searches yielded lots of ideas for grape baked goods. There was this beautiful Concord grape and walnut frangipane tart and this absolutely stunning Concord grape pie. But the recipe that appealed most to me was this simple cornbread recipe with a handful of Concord grapes thrown in:

Really, "cornbread" is a bit of a misnomer — this is more like a corncake. Think: a buttery, honey cornbread with a slight crunchy crisp from the cornmeal, but this time with bursts of fruit flavor from the Concord grapes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, unlike other fruits that grow more tart during the baking process, these grapes grew sweeter and came to have an almost jam-like taste and texture.  I recommend the cornbread for brunch, served warm with a dollop of rosemary-infused whipped cream.

Some baker's notes:
  • Although any kind of grape could theoretically work for this recipe, I went with Concord grapes because they are smaller and don't have much of a seed. If you're using any other kind of grape, be sure to use ones that are smaller (aim for grapes that are slightly bigger than blueberries) and seedless. If you insist on using grapes with seeds, use a cherry pitter to de-seed them and make your life easier!

  • Be sure not to skip the part where you toss the grapes in a tablespoon or two of flour before adding them to the batter. I've talked about this in my recipe for blueberry brownies, but the flour coat absorbs some of the liquid released by the fruit as it bakes and keeps the fruit in place until the crumb has set. A good rule of thumb is to use more flour for riper, juicier fruits and less for less juicy fruits. Be careful not to abuse this rule too much, or you'll end up with dense baked goods whose proportions are all off due to extra flour.

September 30, 2014

No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream with Circus Animal Cookie Crumbs

So I am totally one of those people who goes to one of those DIY frozen yogurt shops and, instead of taking advantage of the froyo, pile on way more toppings than I really should. On a good day, my topping to froyo ratio is probably 50/50, but if I'm being completely honest with you guys, it's really more like 75/25. My toppings of choice? Yogurt chips, mini mochi squares (like these ones by the crazy talented Cynthia) and Circus Animal cookies.

As for where I get my froyo, my cousin got me hooked to the Yogurtland froyo chains a few years ago; down in Los Angeles, Yogurtlands are a dime-a-dozen and are seemingly on every street corner. But up here in Oregon, the closest Yogurtland is in a fancy mall in the ritzy suburbs, about a half-hour drive from my city-dwelling, bike-commuting self. But no worries! Erlend and I would make the occasional trek out there, ending our half-hearted suburban shopping trips with scoops of tart, tangy yogurt heaped with all sorts of crazy toppings.

On our latest trip, however, we were dismayed to find that Yogurtland HAD CLOSED. The one and only Yogurtland in the entire state of Oregon! As Erlend and I looked through the shuttered windows, I gave a wail of despair. "OH NO!" I said, so shrilly that several people turned around to stare. "How am I going to get my Circus Animal cookies now?!"

Erlend gave me a weird look. "The real question is where I'm going to get my yogurt. You can buy your cookies in the grocery store!"

He was right. Yogurtland closing was ultimately a bigger heartbreak for Erlend, who actually preferred his froyo to be about 90% froyo and 10% toppings, as opposed to my own suspect 75/25 ratio. I could just walk to the grocery store from my house, and purchase a giant bag of those Circus Animal cookies for less than $5. It occurred to me that this was something I'd never done on my own, as an adult, because I'd always associated it as some sort of unattainable childhood treat. But as a grownup, I could now do whatever I wanted to.

So I bought a giant bag of Circus Animal cookies. And threw them into some homemade coffee ice cream. BECAUSE I COULD. So I did! And it was epic and delicious:

In the Netherlands, a cup of coffee is always served with a cookie or biscuit of some kind. While I'm a huge fan of this idea in theory, the Dutch always pick the most boring cookies to serve with their coffee. You know, stuff like generic grocery store shortbread cookies, or half-hearted chocolate sables (which really, are the same recipe for the shortbread cookies with a teaspoon or so of cocoa powder added — no bueno).

I like to think of this ice cream as living up to that idea, but kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. No boring cookies in my household, nope! Coffee ice cream with frosted circus animal cookies for everybody!!!

In all seriousness, the Circus Animal cookies add a nice texture and unexpected flavor to an otherwise one-dimensional coffee ice cream. But don't get me wrong — "one-dimensional" here isn't an insult. I used Nigella Lawson's no-churn ice cream (courtesy of Food52), which is simply whipped cream, sweetened condensed milk and espresso powder and liqueur whisked together to create an airy, silky smooth ice cream. On its own, it tastes a lot like Vietnamese iced coffee, which I am plenty a fan of — but some days, you just want something a little more, right? And these Circus Animal cookies do the job, adding a nice pop of color and some fun to an otherwise classically serious coffee ice cream.

Some baker's notes:
  • This ice cream really is no-churn, meaning you don't need an ice cream maker or any other special equipment to make it! But you'll need to do a lot of whisking in order to get it to come together, so having a freestanding electric mixer with a whisk attachment or a handheld electric whisk would really come in handy unless you have arms of steel. Whipping the ingredients together is what gives the ice cream its incredibly silky soft texture. Be sure your cream is as cold as you can get it so it whips up properly!

  • If you're not a coffee drinker, you can substitute out the instant coffee granules with malted milk powder or cocoa powder and a vanilla-y bourbon or rum for the same quantities listed in the original recipe. Unfortunately, it's important that the alcohol remains in the recipe — the alcohol (along with the sugar from the sweetened condensed milk) is what keeps the mixture from just freezing solid into a hard ice block.

September 27, 2014

Feast Portland 2014: USA Pears Night Market


In case you missed my last post, this past weekend, I was a photographer for Feast, Portland's biggest food and drink festival. Famous chefs from around the country join forces with Portland's local culinary talent to cook for crowds and host classes and dinners for an action-packed four days. Each night, there's a marquee event that ranges from a sandwich making competition to a black-tie affair at one of Portland's ritziest hotels.

My favorite of the events, however, has always been the Night Market. I mean, just last year, I got to meet one of my baking heroes, Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar at this event! The USA Pears Night Market creates a street food fair akin to those in Southeast Asia, but with booths staffed by national and local chefs handing out their favorite dishes, which often times consisted of an Asian-flair to stay true to the theme:


Up top is the lovely Lee Anne Wong from Honolulu, Hawaii's Koko Head Cafe, serving up one of her famous breakfast dumplings. The dumpling consisted of maple Sriracha pork, bacon and sage gravy, creamy eggs and maple Tabasco. One of my favorites of the night.

Fish was a popular ingredient that was served; there was a lot of raw tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and other seafood to choose from:


From top to bottom: albacore tuna with sea vegetables, matsutake, dashi and nasturium from Oregon Coast Restaurant Beck; a salmon and apricot ceviche from local Peruvian fusion restaurant Andina; a raw salmon and grape salad with jerk spice, palm sugar and habanero vinaigrette from Jon Shook of Los Angeles' Son of A Gun restaurant.

There were also some wraps, frybread (kind of like tacos, but better), and skewered dishes that stayed true to Night Market's streetfood theme:


From top to bottom: masa cake frybread with beef tongue, tomato jam and crema from Smallwares, one of my favorite restaurants in town; grilled beef kofta with herbed yogurt and roasted tomato relish on lavash from local Arabesque restaurant Levant; and skewered rabbit loin medallions wrapped in serrano jamon and topped with ginger-soy aioli and nori from Spanish-influenced Ataula, another local favorite. 

Oh, and of course, these dungeness crab nachos (topped with pimento cheese, pico de gallo, and habenero cherry hot sauce to boot) from local Argentinean-inspired restaurant, Ox:


One of the longest lines of the night was local talent Gregory Gourdet of Departure, who'll be competing in the next season of Top Chef. Chef Greg served up Vietnamese grilled pork with candied carrot, cucumber, chili and toasted peanuts:


Another crowd favorite was this braised beef cheek barbecue sandwich with pear slaw from Chef Ethan Stowell of Seattle's Staple & Fancy Mercantile restaurant:


And on to desserts!

Although Night Market is primarily about the street food, there were a couple of desserts that I was super into this year. Philip Speer of Austin, Texas's famous Uchi restaurants was serving up an Asian-style tres leches cake with coconut mousse and lavender and lemon jelly:


And of course, the man himself:


There was also these epic miniature Baked Alaska ice cream cakes from local ice cream parlor, Salt & Straw. Salt & Straw's head ice cream maker, Tyler Malek (and people's choice winner of Feast's Sandwich Invitational), actually flambeed them on the spot:


I was also particularly fond of these alfajores cookies (that is, Argentinean shortbread cookie sandwiches with a rich dulce de leche caramel in the middle) from Andina, which I'll be attempting to recreate on the blog soon:


My favorite dessert, however, was local winemaker Union Wine Company's collaboration with other local purveyors Jacobsen Sea Salt and Quin Candy. Together, they teamed up to bring us some wine-flavored sweet treats, including this Pinot Noir-flavored cotton candy (handed out by Quin's head candymaker Jami Curl herself) and caramel corn topped with Pinot Blanc-infused Jacobsen sea salt:


And that's all for now!

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September 24, 2014

Plum and Marzipan Crumble Galette

Hey guys!

I'm going to keep today's post short and sweet, since I'm still recovering from the events and festivities of Feast Portland. For those of you who followed along on Twitter and Instagram, thanks so much for putting up with my festival updates and pictures! I know it's probably not the funnest to see pictures from an event you're not at, so thanks for all the likes and comments anyway.

Somehow in between the flurry of activities, I managed to buy a pound of Oregon grown plums. I thought I had missed the season, but considering that it's still in the 90s here (despite it being late September, ugh), it's safe to say that we're having a lonnnggg summer and that plums are still in abundance. With all the eating out I've been doing, my plums quickly over-ripened and got soggy on me, so I decided to bake the remaining fruit into this beautiful galette:

If you're unfamiliar with galettes, they're basically free-form pies; that is, all the flaky, buttery, crispness of pie crust minus the hassle of molding the dough into a pie tin and dealing with lattice tops and artful edges. I hate admitting this (especially as a desserts blogger), but I've never been able to master lattice crusts — mine always look too messy and bleedy and blurgh. But with a galette, that's kind of the look you're going for. The sloppyness in my pie making skills becomes beautifully rustic, wouldn't you say?

For fun, I topped the plum galette with marzipan crumble. The marzipan crumble adds a sweetness to the plums, which can sometimes turn tart and sour during the baking process. I also added a touch of toasted almond flour to really highlight the marzipan candy's subtle, nutty aromas. All of this rests on this wonderful crunchy cornmeal crust, a recipe I've had for a while but kept close to my heart as a secret weapon. When served warm, fresh from the oven with some vanilla whipped cream? It's absolutely perfect.

Some baker's notes:
  • This recipe works with a variety of different summer fruits, especially stone fruits like plums and berries. You can experiment with different combinations and quantities of fruit, just be sure to adjust the quantity of granulated sugar accordingly. The amount of sugar you use should also depend on the fruit's ripeness — because my plums were overripe, I used a small amount of granulated sugar and added no additional liquid. If you're working with underipened fruit, throw in more sugar and tablespoon or two of lemon juice.

  • I wrote the recipe for the cornmeal galette dough and the marzipan crumble the way I made it, which was using a food processor. I know that not everybody has a food processor though (and to be fair, I only got my food processor like two months ago), so you can also cut the ingredients together using a pastry blender, two knives, or even your hands. 

  • You might have a little marzipan crumble leftover, because I am crazy and piled it on like whoa. If you have extra, you can preserve the unbaked crumbs in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. It also works well on apple crisps