Grated Bread & Chocolate Cake

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When it comes to unusual cakes, this one takes the… well. I guess you could say it takes itself! 😉

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The texture of this cake is decidedly European. Its structure comes from a blend of ground nuts and beaten egg whites – so, nuts and air. 🙂 This kind of cake is common in Europe, especially in older European recipes, but it is rarely seen in American cake recipes. The crumb is not as sweet as American palates are accustomed to; it is a subtle blend of almond and chocolate, owing to the inclusion of grated semisweet chocolate in the batter. Heightening the complexity of the cake’s flavour is the addition of Merlot. It’s mild-tasting only if you are used to the in-your-face sugary concoctions that define America; it’s stunning if your palate is more open to finessed flavours. The cake is filled and iced with a semisweet chocolate mousse which pairs perfectly with this cake, teasing out the mild chocolate flavour inherent within the crumb. I further enhanced the chocolate flavour by brushing the cake with a mocha raspberry simple syrup. Not only does this further moisten the cake’s soft crumb, it adds yet another subtle layer of flavour.

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This sophisticated cake won the $25,000 grand prize of a heritage recipe contest held by America’s Test Kitchen. According to the recipe’s author, the cake was apparently borne of the desire not to waste bread! Indeed, the cake does include grated bread crumbs. I read the list of ingredients and almost didn’t bother making this cake, as it sounded weird. I’m so glad I took a chance and tried this cake out. It really stands out in a sea of oversweetened, one-note desserts. (My taste buds really woke up when I stopped eating sugar every single day!) I’m fairly certain that most people reading the recipe have the same reaction I did; a combination of “Bread crumbs? Huh?” and “That sounds like it would turn out kind of dry.”

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Surprisingly, the cake does not come out dry, even without the application of simple syrup. It is reminiscent of an angel food cake. The simple syrup gives it the kind of moisture we associate with devil’s food cake, and that legendary texture coupled with the cake’s intriguing complexity of flavour makes it something unforgettable.

Despite the inclusion of 9 egg whites, the finished cake does not taste eggy. It tastes of chocolate, coffee, and mild sweetness. I urge you to try this, even though it probably sounds a bit odd to you, as it did to me. It’s a taste of Old World Europe, just waiting for you at the edge of a microplane zester. 😉

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Grated Bread & Chocolate Cake

Yield: One 9″, two-layered cake

Ingredients:

For the cake:
9 oz. (2 c.) almond flour
1/2 c. plain dried bread crumbs
2 TBS all-purpose flour
1 oz. semisweet chocolate (I used 70% Lindt), grated finely (I used a Microplane zester)
1 tsp. baking powder
9 large egg whites
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar, optional (use if your eggs are old, or if you aren’t sure how old they are; older egg whites simply won’t beat up as well)
6 oz. (1 1/2 c.) powdered sugar
1/4 c. Merlot or similar (I used a blend of Merlot and ruby port)
2 TBS lemon juice

For the simple syrup:
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. water
1 TBS Chambord liqeuer
1/3 c. coffee, cooled

For the icing:
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped fine (I used a blend of 70%, 84%, and milk Lindt)
2 c. heavy whipping cream, divided
1 oz. semisweet chocolate (I used 70% Lindt), finely grated, for garnish

Method:

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F (350°F for electric ovens). Spray 2 9″ cake tins with nonstick spray and dust with flour. Line cake tins with parchment paper and spray parchment paper with nonstick spray. Set aside.

Stir together almond flour, bread crumbs, all-purpose flour, chocolate, and baking powder until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

Beat egg whites (and cream of tartar, if using) in bowl of electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment on low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase speed to high and beat until whites form soft peaks, about 1 – 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and gradually add powdered sugar, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to high and beat until stiff, but not dry, peaks form, about 3 minutes.

Whisk wine and lemon juice into egg white mixture, being careful not to deflate whites.

Fold in 1/3 of the flour mixture until a few streaks of flour remain. Fold in half of remaining flour until a few streaks remain. Fold in remaining flour mixture until thoroughly combined.

Divide batter between pans and smooth tops. They will not smooth out during baking, so use a finger wetted with water to smooth them, if necessary.

Bake until cakes spring back when poked gently with a finger, about 20 minutes. Rotate pans around 12 minutes into baking. Start checking for doneness 16 minutes or so in; you do not want to overbake these cakes. If you poke with a finger and a dent remains in the top of the cake, they aren’t done yet.

When cakes are done, remove pans to wire rack and cool 10 minutes in pans. Release cakes onto wire racks and cool completely, about an hour to an hour and a half.

While cakes are cooling, make the simple syrup and chocolate mousse. Proceed as directed in “Assembly.”

For the simple syrup:
Boil sugar, water, and Chambord until sugar is completely dissolved. Stir in coffee. Cool completely.

For the icing:
Place chocolate in medium heatproof bowl. Heat 1/2 c. cream until boiling; pour over chocolate and allow to stand 2 minutes. Gently whisk together until completely blended. Allow to cool completely.

Beat remaining 1 1/2 c. cream until soft peaks form. Add all of chocolate mixture and whisk until completely blended; continue to whisk until stiff peaks form.

Assembly:
Slice each cake layer in half, for a total of four layers. Place four strips of wax paper on cake plate and place first layer, cut side up, on top of strips; you’ll pull these strips out after you’ve iced the cake.

Generously brush cake layer with simple syrup. You’ll use probably 2 – 3 TBS of syrup for this; it will seem like too much, but make sure cake layer is moist from the syrup. Spread about 2/3 c. of chocolate mousse onto cake layer and smooth. Place next cake layer, cut side up, on top of mousse; brush with syrup. Spread 2/3 c. mousse on top and repeat with third and fourth cake layers, ensuring that the fourth cake layer is placed cut side down. Ice top and sides of cake with remaining chocolate mousse. Carefully pull wax paper strips from beneath cake.

Decorate with grated chocolate. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Source: Cake barely adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Best-Ever Lost Recipes (January 2018), p. 84; icing from Chocolate Stampede Cake; simple syrup a KitchEnchantress Original. The original version of the cake can be found here.

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Apple Crumble

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I’m pretty crazed for apple pie, but pie crusts always defeat me. They turn out very tasty, for sure, but they always look… deformed. I’m being kind; really, I am. I just cannot seem to get pie crust to look pretty. And it is very important to me that my desserts look as pretty as I can make them. I usually don’t hit my goal posts in this regard, but I always keep trying. 🙂

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This apple crumble recipe from Cook’s Illustrated piqued my interest. I thought I might be able to adapt this to something akin to a Dutch apple pie without the bottom crust. I ended up making quite a few changes to the original recipe. This turned out exactly as I’d hoped: a filling to rival that of the best apple pie, and a crumb topping that is both firm and tender, not to mention buttery!

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I thought the baking times given by Cook’s Illustrated would yield some still-tough apples. I increased the baking time for the apples, baking them at 325°F for a while and then increasing the temperature to 350°F before finishing them at 375°F. The apples emerged soft, tender, juicy, and flavourful. To get the filling even more pie-like, I added some butter and brown sugar to the apples and increased the amount of cinnamon; I also added some cornstarch to get the filling to thicken. The finished filling tastes far better than the premade canned apple pie filling you buy at the store, and I’m proud to finally be able to say I created something that does this.

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The crumb topping contains almonds. I was highly skeptical about including them, but I did so anyway, and I’m glad I did! I did change how the almonds were incorporated into the crumb topping by making sure they were completely ground up in the food processor, rather than leaving them in chunks as directed in the original recipe. The texture of the crumb topping is very rich, almost meaty, if you will, and I think this is due to the almonds. They impart a very faint nutty flavour to the crumb topping that gives the overall dessert more complexity and, oddly, makes it more satisfying. (This might also be due to the extra butter I added to the crumb topping. 😉 )

I thought this was unintentionally adorable and hilarious: One of my butterscotch rivulets formed a little heart on its own. I swear I didn’t engineer this; it just happened. Serendipity, I say: Just in time for Valentine’s Day. 🙂

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Apple Crumble

Yield: One 8×8″ dish

Ingredients:

Filling:
1 generous TBS cornstarch
1 TBS + generous splash of lemon juice
generous sprinkle cinnamon (about 1 tsp.)
2/3 c. granulated sugar
pinch Kosher salt
6 Braeburn or similar apples (3 lbs. total), peeled and cut into 1/2″ cubes
about 2 tsp. light brown sugar
2 TBS unsalted butter, cut into about 12 – 16 pieces

Topping:
5 oz. (1 c.) all-purpose flour
1.75 oz. (1/4 c.) granulated sugar, plus 1 TBS for sprinkling on top
1.75 oz. (1/4 c.) light brown sugar
pinch Kosher salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract, optional (pretty sure I didn’t use any)
1/2 cup whole roasted, lightly salted almonds
1 stick unsalted butter, divided

Method:
Preheat oven to 325°F.

Topping:
Process flour, sugars, and salt. Add vanilla, if using, and pulse until combined. Add almonds and process until finely chopped. Add 6 TBS butter & process until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Turn mixture out onto baking sheet lined with Silpat or parchment paper and knead with heel of hand, as with puff pastry, until mixture clumps into large, crumbly balls. Spread mixture into even layer (there will be some small, sand-like bits along with mostly large crumbs about 1/2″ to 1″ in size). Set aside.

Filling:
Combine cornstarch, lemon juice, cinnamon, granulated sugar, and salt in large bowl. Stir to combine. Add apples and toss to coat; mixture will thicken. Pour into 8×8″ glass baking dish and smooth top. Sprinkle brown sugar over filling. Dot pieces of butter evenly across top of filling. Cover dish tightly with aluminum foil.

Bake both topping and filling at 325°F for 15 minutes. Remove crumb mixture (it should be lightly browned and firm; if not, bake for a few more minutes) and set aside on wire rack to cool completely. Increase heat to 350°; remove apples only briefly to stir, then bake them at 350°F for 15 minutes. Remove apples briefly to stir; increase heat to 375°F and bake apples for another 15 minutes. Remove aluminum foil and bake at 375°F, uncovered, for about 12 additional minutes, or until apples are starting to bubble in dish and are tender when poked with a fork.

Reduce oven heat to 350°F. Meanwhile, scatter crumb topping evenly over apples. Sprinkle 1 TBS white sugar over topping and bake about 20 minutes, or until tips of crumb topping (but not the entirety of each crumb) is golden brown and fruit is bubbling around edges. Cool 15 minutes on wire rack; serve with ice cream, whipped cream, and / or butterscotch (or caramel) sauce.

Source: Heavily adapted from Cook’s Illustrated (paid content)

Ladyfingers from Scratch

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Once baked, the ladyfingers puff and may crack on top. The airy, puffy interior is visible, contrasting with the crispy, sugared outside.

I’ve been making my own tiramisu for years, but I only got around to making my own ladyfingers this past Thanksgiving. Why? I really don’t know. I’ve made eclairs and puff pastry before, so I’m no stranger to finicky French pastry techniques. I guess I was just lazy and assumed that going to so much effort wouldn’t make much of a difference compared with supermarket ladyfingers.

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Another close-up of freshly baked, still warm ladyfingers.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong! Typical supermarket ladyfingers aren’t crispy on the outside but rather soft all the way through. They get soggy and squishy easily, and have a boring, kind of chemical-ish flavour. Homemade ladyfingers are crisp on the outside and light as air on the inside; they taste fresh, like the pastry version of zabaglione: kind of eggy and buttery, even though there isn’t any butter included.

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This illustrates the crispy outside of these cookies. The soft texture inside is a perfect contrast.

Their remarkable texture enables them to hold coffee worlds better than their supermarket counterparts, and – also unlike their supermarket counterparts – they are delicious when dipped in melted chocolate. They make for a terrific dessert in and of themselves. I wish I’d started making my own ladyfingers sooner. They have made my tiramisu into something truly special, lightyears better than anything I’ve ever had at even high-end restaurants. (I’m still tweaking it, so no post for tiramisu yet. It’ll get here eventually, no worries! 🙂 )

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A tray of baked ladyfingers. The fingers have puffed! That never fails to thrill me 😀

I promise this next point is related to this recipe: I think vanilla extract is overused. I can’t taste it in a rich, fudgy chocolate cake, for example; vanilla is a delicate flavour and is easily overpowered by other flavours. I’ve started flavouring my chocolate cakes just with coffee, not a trace of vanilla, and no one is the wiser. In this recipe, vanilla is the star. You really can taste it in the finished ladyfingers, and in my opinion, adding vanilla to these is what makes them a formidable dessert either by themselves, or with chocolate (ooh, or dipped into zabaglione!). I haven’t tried these cookies with lemon zest, but I imagine that would make these even better; lemon and vanilla go marvelously well together.

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The ladyfingers, fresh from the piping bag but before sugaring.

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Unbaked ladyfingers, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

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Definitely not perfectly piped, but they’ll turn out amazing nonetheless. I just need to keep practicing my piping skills. 😉

Don’t worry if your ladyfingers aren’t piped perfectly. As you can see from the above photographs, I still have a way to go in piping prettily, and my ladyfingers are delicious anyway. Yours will be, too. 🙂

The Serious Eats recipe kindly includes measurements in both volume and weight, which I have included below. Happy baking! 🙂

Ladyfingers

Yield: About 30 ladyfingers, depending on how large they are piped

Ingredients:
3 large eggs (155 g)
2/3 c. sugar (135 g)
1/4 teaspoon (1 g) Kosher salt
1 TBS vanilla extract, optional
zest from 1 lemon (7 g), optional
1 c. all-purpose flour (125 g)
2 TBS cornstarch (15 g)
about 1 c. powdered sugar, for dusting ladyfingers prior to baking (may need additional powdered sugar to generously dust all ladyfingers)

Method:
Preheat oven to 350°F. (I have a gas convection oven, so I preheat mine to 325°F.) Prepare a bain marie by filling a small pot (a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan works well for this) about 2/3 full of hot water; set it to boil. Make sure the bowl you whisk the ladyfingers in (preferably the bowl of a stand mixer, as whisking takes a full 10 minutes at high speed on such a mixer) is larger than the pot and thus sits atop the water bath without directly touching the boiling water. Once the water reaches a rolling boil, reduce heat so that it maintains a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, line 2 baking sheets with parchment or with Silpat liners. (Silpat liners really do produce a superior result with this recipe, but parchment will do fine.) Do not spray or coat parchment paper or Silpat liners with butter; the cookies won’t crisp properly if you do.

Place 2 piping bags, pointy ends down, in two tall, large drinking glasses. Roll the edges of the piping bags over the edges of the glasses. This is to make filling the piping bags easier. Have scissors ready to snip the ends of the bags when it’s time to pipe the batter.

Place a medium-sized sifter into a large, shallow bowl and fill sifter with about 1 c. powdered sugar. (You may need more than this to generously dust all ladyfingers.)

Measure out flour and cornstarch into a small bowl. There is no need to stir them together. Place small to medium-sized sifter (preferably not the same one you use for sifting the powdered sugar) next to bowl; you’ll need to sift this mixture into the eggs.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, place eggs and sugar. Immediately whisk these ingredients together so your eggs don’t “burn” (develop small hard bits due to contact with sugar). Add salt and vanilla, if using; whisk to combine. Attach a candy thermometer or else have an instant-read thermometer handy. It’s crucial you reach the right temperature during cooking, or the ladyfingers won’t puff properly.

Set bowl with egg mixture over prepared bain marie and whisk constantly (you can also use a heatproof spatula for this) until mixture reaches 160°F. A sufficient supply of steam ensures that this should only take a few minutes. Immediately remove bowl from heat and remove candy thermometer. Transfer bowl to standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment and whisk at high speed until eggs have more than quadrupled in size and are thick enough to briefly hold a soft peak when lifted with a whisk. This will take up to 10 minutes, depending on a couple of factors: whether your egg mixture reached 160°F exactly during the cooking stage, and the horsepower of your mixer. (I’ve had this process take 15 minutes before, but I had slightly undercooked my eggs.) If eggs are unable to hold soft peaks, the ladyfingers will not puff properly and will be flat and dense.

Once eggs have reached desired stage, place lemon zest (if using) atop eggs and sift flour/cornstarch mixture atop eggs. Gently fold into egg mixture with a rubber spatula and transfer mixture to piping bags, half of mixture in each bag.

Twist the open end of the first bag to close and snip the pointy end off, leaving an opening approximately 1/4″ in diameter. (Holding the pointy end up while you cut the end off will help contents from starting to spill out of the hole you just cut.) Holding bag at a 45° angle, pipe contents of first bag onto one tray. You’ll be making approximately fifteen 3″x1″ finger shapes, leaving about 1/2″ between each cookie. Repeat with second bag and second baking sheet. The fingers don’t have to be perfect; they’ll still taste fine. The more you practise piping, the more you’ll get the hang of it.

Dust first tray (but not the second tray yet) generously with powdered sugar, ensuring the top of each cookie is completely coated in powdered sugar. Bake one tray at a time for 12 minutes, or until cookies are puffed and firm to the touch. They will not turn golden brown but will remain pale, so start checking cookies about 1 minute before the given time. Allow to cool completely on baking sheet before removing.

Dust second tray just before baking and bake as before.

Immediately upon the cookies’ cooling to room temperature, transfer them to an airtight container; they start getting soft instantly after cooling, and you want them to remain crispy on the outside with a soft center. These cookies will taste fresh for up to two weeks if stored in an airtight container at room temperature. Beyond two weeks, they start to taste stale.

Source: Slightly adapted from Serious Eats