chocolate brownie cake

April 18, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

I haven't seen a whole lot of bloggers talk about this, but there are days in which I wonder why I keep doing all this at all. Although I still enjoy baking (and occasionally, the photography, but admittedly less so these days on account of my cookbook — but more on that in another post, I guess), my numbers are stagnant. My monthly traffic reports and social media numbers basically stay the same month over month. I appreciate the core group of audience that I have, but frankly, stagnant numbers don't look great from a brand/sponsorship perspective. Numbers are unfortunately something I have to keep growing, given that this is where the majority of my income now comes from. But with so many more bloggers and Instagrammers joining the game, it's harder and harder to get and stay noticed. There's a lot of *content* out there, everywhere, all the time.

And with the Instagram algorithm being what it is, people are more discerning about which accounts they follow and unfollow. As somebody who uses Instagram primarily for business purposes (to keep up with my peers, to find inspiration for my own work), I 100% get it — it can be frustrating when the algorithm serves you the content that they think you want to see, but ends up being completely off the mark most of the time. And for some reason, it's usually the same few accounts they keep serving up. Thus, the unfollowing.

I always thought that the following and unfollowing was something that was just part of the game, but it seems that everybody takes it personally (even just a little bit). Because it happens to me on such a mass scale (Seriously — for every few followers I gain, I lose twice as much. I 100% don't know why, and have given up on trying to figure it out), I've become somewhat desensitized to it. I just figure it's a combination of everybody being frustrated with the algorithm and being flooded with all sorts of content all the time. It's annoying from a business perspective, sure, but unless it's a good friend of mine, I won't lose any sleep over it. But I have friends (bloggers and non-blogger alike) who really, truly agonize over their unfollows, even going so far as to download apps that track such activity or check SocialBlade everyday. It scares me to see how much they take it personally — smart, rational people whose self-esteem has been crushed by a social media app. But I'm not here to judge, because I actually get it. It stings to have folks unfollow you.

I don't know what the solution to any of this is, except maybe to just keep my head down and focus on my baking. But I'm not going to lie — there are some days when that's a drag too. Developing recipes for a cookbook is a beast, and I spend most of my days making the same recipe eight or so times to really, truly hone it to perfection. After days (and weeks) like that, the last thing I want to do is do the same but for my blog instead. So I'm trying to give myself a little bit more breathing room, and pick recipes that are more low-key and fun for Hummingbird High.

Like this cake! This is the Happy Wife, Happy Life dump-it chocolate cake adapted from Small Victories. It's a one bowl recipe where there's no need to cream the butter, sugar, and eggs — hence the name "dump-it", I guess, because you literally just dump all the ingredients into a bowl and mix. As a result, it's a bit denser and flatter than most chocolate cakes, but plenty tasty still (it actually reminded me of a Little Debbie Cosmic Brownie, if that's your jam). I also had a bunch of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie box mixes left over from when I was reverse-engineering a box mix brownie recipe for Weeknight Baking, so I decided to bake a mix in a cake pan to use as the middle layer for this cake. The brownie layer added extra height and decadence, and worked really well with the lighter-yet-still-dense chocolate cake layers. I foisted this cake off to my friends Kyle, Jenny, and Pech, all of whom came back with rave reviews (well, except for Kyle, said that my frosting job looked like something a kid would make but then ate the majority of the cake so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).


Some baker's notes:
  • Because there are a lot of components to this cake, the best way to make it is to break the work up over a few days. First, make the box mix brownie layer on Day 1. I used a Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie box mix, which makes an 8 x 8-inch brownie. I baked it in an 8-inch round cake pan, upping the baking time for about 5 to 10 minutes than what's suggested for an 8 x 8-inch brownie. You can totally make this with another brownie mix brand, but watch out for its yield — most box mixes make 9 x 13-inch brownies. If you go this route, you'll need to bake the mix in two 8-inch pans instead (and end up with a quadruple layer cake). Allow the brownie to cool to room temperature completely before turning out of the pan and wrapping fully in plastic wrap. Well wrapped, the brownie layer will keep at room temperature for a few days — you can make the chocolate cake and frosting then!

  • This is one of those rare recipes on my blog where it's incredibly important that all the ingredients are at room temperature. Because you won't be using a mixer for the chocolate cake, it can be hard for the ingredients to incorporate together when mixing by hand. If some of the ingredients are cooler than others, there's a possibility that they'll separate during the baking process and you'll end up with a weirdly textured cake. Bring all your ingredients to room temperature first! 

raspberry lemon snickerdoodles

April 10, 2018

Los Angeles, CA, USA

Greetings from sunny, sunny Los Angeles! I know, I know, I literally just got back from Turkey a few days ago and here I am on the road again. I'm here for a work trip, but there's fun involved too: I'm staying in the heart of Hollywood and am going to have dinner with some of my favorite Angeleno blogger babes. Then Alana and I are going to Harry Potter Land (okay, I think it's technically called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but that's too much of a mouthful so Harry Potter Land it is)!!! I'm SO excited. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I'm sort of a closet Harry Potter nerd and spend a lot of time spamming my friends with Harry Potter memes. But more on that later — because we're going soon, so be sure to follow along on Instagram Stories!

Also, even though I'll only be here until Friday, send me all your best recs. Where do I eat? What do I do? Let me know!

Now let's move on to these cookies. While fighting jet lag, I found myself flipping through my camera at 4AM and realized I'd shot these cookies a few weeks ago but never blogged about them. One of the unexpected side effects of writing a cookbook is that I stumbled upon some really cool recipes when researching and developing my own version. This is one of them — this is a snickerdoodle recipe is from Cookie Love, and creates the most buttery and chewy cookie there is. I don't know what it is, but I suspect that it's because the pastry chef substitutes a teeny tiny amount of the granulated sugar in the recipe with brown sugar, adding extra moistness and caramelization.

While I was up to my elbows in snickerdoodle recipes, however, I discovered something a little disconcerting: I am maybe not the biggest fan of cinnamon? Although I loved the sugar cookie base, I much preferred the cookies without any coating at all. I am just not a cinnamon girl, I guess, which is weird because I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But my solution was to substitute the cinnamon with other spices and flavors like freeze-dried fruit. So consider this a sneak preview of snickerdoodle magic from Weeknight Baking Book: spiked with fresh lemon zest and rolled in freeze-dried raspberries, this is a Modern Snickerdoodle for the Millennial. Enjoy!


Some baker's notes:
  • Freeze-dried raspberries are basically raspberries that have been dehydrated; they retain all of the flavor and color of the fruit, but none of the moisture. I like to think of them as "fruit MSG" for bakes. You can buy bags online, Whole Foods, or at Trader Joe's (which also sells freeze-dried blueberries and strawberries). 

  • You'll notice that this recipe uses cream of tartar — when researching snickerdoodles, I learned that cream of tartar is the ingredient that actually distinguishes snickerdoodles from traditional sugar cookies. Cream of tartar is slightly more acidic than traditional leaveners, giving snickerdoodles a mild tang, and also prevents the sugar from crystalizing fully, giving the cookies their tender chew. 

ube babka

April 4, 2018

Istanbul, Turkey

Hi friends! I'm currently in Turkey on vacation with my mom, but had this post lined up for you folks to read while I was gone because The Content Machine is scary and powerful but also because I was really excited about sharing this ube babka with y'all. Be sure to follow along on Instagram for my Turkey-related stories and photos; we're currently in Cappadocia for some hiking and hot air balloon riding, and I am beyond stoked! 

I made my first babka almost four years ago in 2014, before it really "became a thing"; after seeing Deb's version, I was inspired to give it a shot. My first babka, which is still alive on vintage Hummingbird High, interwove chocolate and pumpkin together in celebration of autumn and cookbooks (lol). Although I was very proud of it at the time, in retrospect, the loaf looks small and underproofed in the photos. I had no idea though – I just thought that maybe babka wasn't really my thing and that other desserts were more my jam. This was confirmed when, a year later, I moved to San Francisco and had the driest and blandest babka slice from Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen.

It was only recently, after moving to New York, that I realized the full potential of the babka. Molly tipped me off to Breads Bakery, maker of New York City's best babka and the bakery often credited with bringing the babka as we know it today to the mainstream. Then there was the babka french toast at Russ & Daughters and the chocolate glazed babka at Sadelle's. Heck, even the pre-wrapped and shelf-stable packages from Green's Babka blew anything I'd previously made or had out of the water. It was babka like I'd never had it before: sky high in height with picturesque swirls weaving throughout the bread... and the crumb — oh, the crumb! Light, buttery, and fluffy, but made fudgy and dense from chocolate and simple syrup.

Living in New York, there was never a reason to make babka at home. My office was a stone's throw away from Breads, and I could easily go to any of the places I mentioned above to pick up a loaf. But Portland is a different story. As far as I know, there is only one place in the city that makes it, and I am suspicious of it because their bagels are very much lacking. Portland does a lot of food things well, but bombs others completely: bagels, in particular, are a nut that Portlanders have yet to crack.

So, I decided to roll up my sleeves and try it again at home. I used the same base recipe as I did when I first attempted homemade babka in 2014: Yotam Ottolenghi's chocolate krantz cake recipe in Jerusalem.

This time around, the babka was magical. You can see from the photos yourself — there's no sad and dense flatness here. The loaf was almost bursting out of the pan! And the swirls, those swirls. They're purple! Inspired by the success of my ube cinnamon rolls, I decided to make this babka with ube filling as opposed to the traditional chocolate or cinnamon fillings of babka. Ube, you may recall, is a purple yam akin to a sweet potato in flavor (but milder and more rooty, if that's a real world) and is frequently used in Filipino and other South East Asian desserts. It was delicious.

I'm not going to lie — babka is a time-consuming venture, and is tricky for novice bakers to nail (I mean, you saw my sad, flat loaf from a few years ago). So be sure to read the Baker's Notes below beforehand to learn where I *think* I went wrong the first time around. It's also worth investing in a copy of Jerusalem to see step-by-step photos of how to actually braid the babka; you can also check out my babka post from 2014, as well as my Instagram profile on your phone under the Instagram Story "Ube Babka" — both will have some photos on how to slice, roll, and braid the dough appropriately. God speed, and enjoy!


Some baker's notes:
  • I made a major couple of changes to Yotam Ottolenghi's original recipe. First, his recipe  instructs you to divide the dough to make two 9 x 5-inch loaves. But dividing the dough means having to fuss and mess with two loaves as opposed to one, and I am wayyyy too lazy for that. So instead, I baked the loaf into a large 13 x 4-inch pullman loaf pan — the pretty kind I used is no longer available, but you can easily find more utilitarian ones online (this one or this one looks like it'll do the trick). The second major change I made was to add an egg yolk to the recipe. Yotam's original recipe instructs you to use extra-large eggs, which I never have on hand because literally 90% of all recipes instruct you to use large ones instead. Since I didn't want to go out and buy extra-large eggs, I just used regular large eggs and added an egg yolk to account for any lost moisture and protein. It worked! The extra egg yolk also gave the crumb a subtle pale yellow color that complimented the purple of the ube wonderfully. 

  • Speaking of ube, you'll need two sources of ube for this recipe: ube halaya jam and ube extract. Ube halaya jam is available online, and can usually be found in the Filipino/Hawaiian aisles of an Asian supermarket (Portlanders — I bought the Monika brand at Fubonn, which is also available at Uwajimaya). Ube extract is tricker to source in real life, but can easily be purchased online (I used the McCormick brand). Use any leftovers to go on an ube baked goods bender and make these ube cinnamon rolls and ube crinkle cookies

  • Alright, let's talk science for a hot second. One of the reasons why I think my first babka didn't rise all that well is because I used active dry yeast as opposed to instant yeast. If you're an intermediate/advanced baker, you'll probably know what I'm about to tell you, so you can skip this part. But beginners, listen up: it's important that you follow the recipe and use the exact type of yeast that it's called for. Different kinds of yeast are activated in different ways and at different temperatures. You can't substitute in one for another without changing the way you work with the yeast too. Active dry yeast is usually activated by soaking it in some warm water, whereas instant yeast can be mixed in with ingredients directly. Check out this article from The Kitchn for a quick primer on the differences between the two. Be sure to use instant yeast for this recipe. Similarly, it's important to learn how to read the dough — the times for proofing in the recipe are estimates and assume that you're working in a room that's between 70 to 75 (F) degrees warm. If your kitchen is colder than that, like mine frequently is, your bread will rise more slowly and will need to proof for longer than what is stated in the recipe. Baking underproof loaves will lead to squat, dense ones like my sad babka from 2014, so go with visual cues as opposed to recipe times. The first proofing will have the dough double by half, the second proofing will have the dough double by 10 to 20%. I know that it can be time consuming to let breads proof, so there are some tricks to get around this — I always mix my dough in the evenings and stick it in the fridge to proof slowly overnight so that it's ready to go first thing the next morning. If you do this for this babka, you'll still need to wait for the babka to rise after braiding again, but it definitely cuts down your waiting time from potentially four hours to just two max. 

small batch easter cookies

March 28, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

This post was done in partnership with Land O'Lakes who sponsored this post. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own, and I'm incredibly excited to announce a year long partnership with Land O'Lakes because of their high-quality butter and dairy products. Thank you for supporting Hummingbird High and my awesome sponsors!

So! Easter is coming up this weekend — are you guys prepared? I'm actually not doing anything Easter-specific this year since my mom and I are heading to Istanbul TOMORROW (squeeeeee!). In past years, however, Erlend and I have typically celebrated with the following tradition: he makes me an Easter basket full of chocolate, I eat 90% of it within 24 hours and get grumpy when he asks me to save him one single chocolate egg. LOL.

I recognize that he doesn't exactly get the best end of the deal, so I eventually started baking some goods for us to share — a cake that looks like a blue robin's egg, some strawberry and tea-flavored bunny marshmallows, matzo crunch for Passover. This year, I thought it would be funny if I made cookies in the shape of the chocolate eggs I always deny him of:

I decided to half one of my favorite sugar cookie recipes to make a small batch for Erlend to enjoy all by himself (Erlend isn't coming to Turkey with us because it's a Girls Trip and only girls are allowed... kidding! It's because he's finishing his last clinical for grad school and doesn't get any vacation until he graduates this May). This recipe only makes 8 large cookies, which really is perfect because I only have the time and patience to decorate literally that exact number of sugar cookies. I have such mad respect for all the sugar cookie bakers of Instagram, because whatever magic they have, I just don't have it. I've written about my struggles with decorating sugar cookies in the past, but these actually flew by really easily! It turns out that it's a lot easier to decorate with just dots and straight lines than it is to draw and fill actual shapes like dinosaurs and gingerbread men. Also, I cheated a little bit and occasionally used heart shaped sprinkles because my piped hearts kept looking like blobs. Shhh.

Happy (almost) Easter, y'all!


Some baker's notes:
  • Because this is a half batch recipe, it uses smaller quantities of ingredients than what's usually needed in most baking recipes. For this recipe, I specifically sourced and used Land O' Lakes® Unsalted Butter in Half Sticks. It's the Land O'Lakes® Butter you know and love, but in pre-measured and easy to use half sticks. Each half stick is 1/4 cup of butter, and because they're individually wrapped, the butter stays fresher longer since it's less likely you'll have half opened unused sticks of butter lying around for a while. I legit used this butter almost exclusively when I was living in New York City and had the world's smallest kitchen — the little sticks could fit almost anywhere in my tiny (and usually fully packed) fridge!

  • Similarly, because of the recipe's half batch nature, it uses an odd quantity: a 1/8 teaspoon measure for baking powder. Unless you shelled out for a fancy measuring spoon set, a 1/8th- sized teaspoon isn't a measure that traditionally comes with most measuring spoon sets. No worries! You can purchase one online easily for less than five dollars.

  • Because Erlend is a fan of coconut, I used some coconut oil to give these cookies a subtle coconut flavor. But for this recipe to work, you want to use coconut oil that is not liquid, but not too solid either — you want it to have the consistency of room temperature butter. I usually microwave about a quarter of what the recipe calls for to a liquid state, and then whisk the melted coconut butter into the remaining solid coconut butter to get it smooth and creamy; the ideal temperature of the perfect coconut oil consistency is around 72 (F).  

  • I rolled my cookies out to 1/8-inch thick, but it might have been too thin — although it yielded a lot of cookies, they got a little brittle and broke easily after a few hours. When making these next time, I'd aim to roll these out to 1/4-inch thick instead; you'd likely end up with less cookies (depending on the kind of cookie cutter you used), but they'd be more solid and less prone to breaking. 

  • If you prefer not to use raw egg in the royal icing recipe, no worries! You can easily substitute with meringue powder, which is available at speciality gourmet stores or online. Substitute 1 large egg with 1 1/2 tablespoons meringue powder and reduce the water required in the recipe by 1 tablespoon down to 3 tablespoons total. Proceed with the recipe as instructed.

cherry blossom cake

March 21, 2018

Portland, OR, USA

In two weeks, my mom and I are heading to Turkey for our Girls' Trip! Before we landed on visiting Istanbul and Cappadocia, we considered a ton of other places: the Catalonia and Basque region of Spain (too politically unstable), the southern Italian countryside around Naples, and Hokkaido, Japan's northern island. I'm not going to lie — my vote was for Japan. I've never been, and have been dying to go ever since my friend Steph published her food guide to Tokyo (is it unsurprising that food is my largest motivator for travel?). Unfortunately, Mama Lopez nixed it because she'd been to Japan three times in the last year chasing the Cherry Blossom Trail. What a life!

It also happens to be cherry blossom season in Portland, which is one of the prettiest times of the year to be in the city. Portland has a lot more trees and greenery than your average city in the US, and it's especially obvious this time of the year when everything bursts into bloom. I've been waiting for Portland to do so ever since moving back from New York — as much as I loved living in The Big City, the parks and gardens there can't ever hold a candle to springtime here where there are literally just streets lined with flowering trees.

So last weekend, as I was biking back from my fauxcycle studio, I did something kinda naughty (and no, it wasn't "use salted butter in my baked goods", eyeroll): I "foraged" (sounds so much better than stole, right?) a blossoming branch (or two) from some of the trees I passed by. I'd recently ordered some sakura extract from Japan with the intention of making this cake and thought that they'd be lovely on top.

If you're unfamiliar with sakura, here's a quick primer: sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom. And although it's not common in the United States, it's used as a culinary flavor in Japan and other Asian countries, usually in desserts. If you've ever had a pink-colored mochi, it's likely that it was sakura flavored. It's a very delicate and perfumey flavor, and is similar to using rosewater or lavender in baked goods — too much and it would taste too perfumey, but a drop or two is just perfect. I replaced vanilla extract for sakura extract in one of my favorite white cake recipes and couldn't get enough of it. Enjoy!


Some baker's notes:
  • I bought my sakura extract online via Amazon; it took ages to get here (it always takes around a month or so because of the Japanese customs process, I think). You can also try and source it from an Asian supermarket, but I had no luck with the Japanese supermarket in Portland. So if you live in Portland and know where to find it here, lemme know! I'll give you bakes as a reward. 😜

  • The cake recipe is based on the white cake from Ovenly, a popular bakery in New York City. I tested Ovenly's vanilla bean cake recipe as a base recipe for the white cake recipe in my cookbook but found that it wasn't quite what I needed for my purposes. But it makes a damn good cake (think: moist, fluffy, and yet dense? idk) because it uses both cream and sour cream. Let's live our best selves and forget calories exist, mmmkay? For the sour cream, I used Vermont Creamery's vanilla crème fraîche, which is slightly sweetened and spiked with a TON of vanilla beans. I'm flat-out addicted and it's worth sourcing (you can usually find it at Whole Foods) for this cake, but in a pinch, you can use regular sour cream and 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract. You don't want to use anymore than 1/2 teaspoon since it might drown out the sakura flavor. Oh, also, the cake color is not natural or from the sakura extract — I used food coloring from this Americolor set to try and replicate the color of cherry blossom petals.

  • The frosting is inspired by the many gorgeous frosting jobs of Buttercream Bakery (see here and here) and also meant to replicate the color and texture of cherry blossom petals — I deliberately didn't smooth down the dabs of frosting to get a more textured effect on the cake, making them look like real petals. To get the look, cover the entirety of the cake in an even base layer of frosting. Divide the remaining buttercream into three bowls and add a drop or two of pink and/or red food coloring in each bowl; you want to have different shades here for the full effect. Take a small spatula (I used this one) or a small offset spatula and dab—literally, just dab don't even think about it, flicking the spatula away quickly, not worrying about if the frosting is too smooth or uneven or whatever— a very small amount (about half the size of your pinky nail) of dyed frosting on the cake. Repeat across the base layer with the different colors and step back. Voila. You've got petals.

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