Favourites from 2013

I started this blog in January of this year, and I am blown away by the changes that have swept through my life since then. I’ve lost my mother and my darling orange and white kitty, and I’ve had to learn to live without them, which is unfairly hard. I’ve tried new foods so that I could blog about them, as well as new cooking techniques and new flavour combinations. Blogging about food has led to a whole new approach to my time in the kitchen. I cook differently, I look at food differently; I eat with my eyes first, and then I carefully taste each component individually, if possible, before trying the dish as a whole. I’ve cemented my love of desserts with this blog, and I’ve simply loved sharing with you some of my favourite dishes. There are so many more to come!

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite dishes from the blog this year. These are dishes that my Hubbles and I personally love and make over and over again. Some of them could use some updated photographs, but despite the wonky photography, the recipes themselves are never short of stellar. I urge that you try them and decide for yourself if they are worthy of joining your family’s catalog of favourites.

As Julia Child would say, “Bon appétit!”

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CHEESECAKES OF GLORY

Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake

The layers

The layers: chocolate crust, ganache, coffee cheesecake, sour cream topping, and more ganache.

This showstopping cheesecake is a mocha lover’s dream. A delicate, nuanced coffee flavor permeates the cheesecake layer, which rests atop a thick layer of chocolate ganache. More chocolate ganache is piped across the top, and chocolate-covered coffee beans are scattered onto the cheesecake. A rich, dark chocolate crust enfolds these tasty layers and gives a great counterbalance of texture and flavor.

Bailey’s Irish Cream Cheesecake

A better view of the graham cracker crust that encircles the cheesecake. Ganache rosettes, hear me roar!

A better view of the graham cracker crust that encircles the cheesecake. Ganache rosettes, hear me roar!

As with the Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake, a thick layer of chocolate ganache rests beneath this Bailey’s-infused cheesecake. The flavor is a beautiful balance between classic New York style cheesecake and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Chocolate ganache is piped atop the cheesecake, and it must be said that chocolate and Bailey’s are just gorgeous together. (Irish Car Bomb cupcakes are proof of this.) The texture of this cheesecake is unreal.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin cheesecake with a slice of itself.

Pumpkin cheesecake with a slice of itself.

I boldly proclaim this to be the best pumpkin cheesecake in the world. A creation of Baker’s Illustrated, the texture is unbelievably silky, the flavours perfectly balanced between tangy, sweet, and pumpkin-y, and the crust an amazing recreation of gingersnap flavour and texture. The brown sugar & bourbon whipped cream is a gorgeous accompaniment. Even those who are blasé about pumpkin will kick up their heels at this incredible cheesecake. I myself am not a pumpkin fan, but this cheesecake converted me with just one bite.

Blue Velvet Cheesecake Cake Birthday Cake

CLOSEUP!

Blue and white gorgeousness that puts one in mind of a checkerboard from Alice in Wonderland.

This cake will always, always hold a special place in my heart, because it’s the last one my mom & I ever shared. Even though she was actively dying from cancer, she still managed a few bites and even enjoyed them. That memory makes me very happy and also very sad. This cake is the homemade (and blue!) version of the Cheesecake Factory’s well-known Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake, and I speak from experience when I say that this version is a million times better than the Cheesecake Factory version – which is oddly tasteless and boasts only a trace of cream cheese icing. Make the cheesecake the day before you make the red (or, in this case, blue) velvet cake, and then put it together. It’s much less work that way, and your mind will be blown by how amazingly tasty this is.

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AMAZEBALLS CHOCOLATE CAKES

Cadbury Crème Egg Cake

The ganache layer is incredibly thick and delicious! Note the yellow and white filling and the moist, fudgy texture of the cake.

See? Not boring! The ganache layer is incredibly thick and delicious! Note the yellow and white filling and the moist, fudgy texture of the cake.

The filling for this cake is mind-blowingly spot on with the real deal. Deep, dark, moist chocolate cake layers are the ideal accompaniment to the sweet crème egg filling, taking this cake from overly sweet to perfectly balanced in a trice. To me, this is the ideal Beltane cake. I had a great deal of fun cracking open real Cadbury Crème Eggs and decorating the cake with them, allowing their filling to spill out onto the cake.

Chocolate Stampede Cake

An interior shot of this cake: brownie layer on the very bottom; chocolate mousse layer; chocolate cake layer; then ganache over all.

An interior shot of the first version I ever made of this cake: brownie layer, on the very bottom; chocolate mousse layer; chocolate cake layer; then ganache over all.

Every time I make this cake, I fend off marriage proposals left and right! (I exaggerate only slightly.) I named it Chocolate Stampede Cake because it reminds me of the Longhorn Chocolate Stampede Cake, though this version will forever best the Longhorn Chocolate Stampede cake. Rich, thick chocolate mousse is sandwiched between a fudgy brownie layer and a dark chocolate cake layer, and the whole shebang is covered in a very thick layer of chocolate ganache. It takes a bit of time in the kitchen, but it’s worth every bit of effort and every dirty dish.

Irish Car Bomb Cake

That ganache sure is cheeky.

That ganache sure is cheeky.

I grew tired of the now-famous Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes, because cupcakes are messy to eat and don’t have enough icing or ganache in relation to the cupcake base. I riffed on the popular cupcake version by turning them into a cake. I don’t know if this has been done before; c’est la vie. I made the cupcake base into 9″ cake layers and filled them with Bailey’s-spiked ganache. I iced the outside of the cake with generous amounts of Bailey’s-spiked buttercream icing. The cake version is even better than the cupcakes, because you get more ganache and icing with every bite! I think the cake layers stay moister than the cupcakes, too, but this could be bias talking. I love, love, love this flavor combination. This is one of my favourite cakes, period.

Chocolate Fudgey Cake with Peanut Butter Icing

Totally forkable.

Totally forkable.

With or without that extra ‘e’ in “fudgey,” this cake is like crack for a chocolate & peanut butter lover. I’ve made it several times this year alone. Dense, fudgey, dark chocolate cake layers are perfectly complemented by silky peanut butter buttercream icing, and crunchy texture is added by sprinkling chopped chocolate or chopped peanut butter cups between the layers. It’s dynamite!! This is one of my top three favourite cakes in the world.

Chocolate Cakegasm

You can't see the layers too clearly in the finished cake, but it doesn't really matter, because the cake is an exercise in chocolate ecstasy.

You can’t see the layers too clearly in the finished cake, but it doesn’t really matter, because the cake is an exercise in chocolate ecstasy.

This is the one cake in the world that could possibly best the Chocolate Stampede Cake. Two different kinds of mousse – a straight-up chocolate mousse and a mocha mousse – are present! The more mousse, the merrier. (At some point, the antlers would become overwhelmingly numerous. I’ll be here all week!) The first layer of this cake – the first texture, in a sense – is a dense, fudgey brownie, iced in thick ganache. Next comes dark, silky mocha mousse, followed by another layer of chocolate brownie. The whole cake is iced in more ganache, and finished with a topping of smooth, sweet chocolate mousse. This is one of my favourite cakes, ever, though it is so dense that I save it for special occasions, when others are present.

McVitie’s Biscuit Cake

A cake of win!

A cake of win!

This cake tastes just like a Twix bar. As Hubbley-Wubbles and I are avid Twix bar fans, this cake stole our hearts. Hubbs has requested it for his birthday three years running now. 🙂 It’s quite simple to make, too. Melted chocolate is mixed with sugar and one raw egg, and tea biscuits, crumbled into bite-sized pieces, are stirred into this mixture. The final mixture is poured into a 6″ or 8″ cake ring (best double the recipe if using an 8″ ring) and refrigerated. Melted chocolate is poured atop the cold cake, and allowed to set. The final cake is akin to chocolate candy nirvana.

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FUDGE OF LOVE

Creamy Peanut Butter Fudge

Peanut Butter Fudge - cubed!

Peanut Butter Fudge – cubed!

This was one of my first cooked fudge recipes, and is still the one I turn to for peanut butter fudgey goodness! It doesn’t get any creamier than this fudge, and the peanut butter flavor is bold and sweet and highly addictive. The recipe is forgiving; it doesn’t seem to mind if you slightly overcook or undercook the fudge, which makes this a great recipe for beginning fudge makers. The only way this fudge could possibly get any better is if it were coated in chocolate. 🙂

Aunt Teen’s Creamy Chocolate Fudge

So beguilingly creamy... yet this fudge is, in reality, a sadist.

So beguilingly creamy… yet this fudge is, in reality, a sadist.

This recipe is actually quite finicky and unforgiving, even to seasoned fudge makers, but the results are so creamy and delicious that I have to recommend it, with reservations. Be prepared to throw out quite a few batches before you get it right. But when you get it right… oh, the Goddesses of Chocolate are with this one.

Mocha Raspberry Fantasy Fudge

I thought I'd go green for this shot.

I thought I’d go green for this shot.

I consider this to be the best fudge on Earth; mocha raspberry is, after all, one of my favourite flavor combinations. The texture is silky, the chocolate flavor bold and seductive. Use any extract you like, if raspberry doesn’t tickle your pickle. You can even leave out the instant coffee powder, but I love this fudge just the way it is: a milk chocolate canvas delicately painted with coffee and raspberry flavours. One of the best parts about this fudge is the ease of making it; it is the original Fantasy Fudge recipe and is reliable and virtually foolproof. If you’ve never made fudge before, this is the recipe to start with. It is so much better than the fudge made simply by melting sweetened condensed milk and chocolate together that it’s not even funny.

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MISCELLANEOUS

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I couldn't resist taking a family photo. Alla famiglia!

I couldn’t resist taking a family photo. Alla famiglia!

I was thrilled to learn how to make my own vanilla extract – it’s ridiculously easy! – and simply ecstatic when I finally made a blog post about how to make this essential baking ingredient at home. The price differential between buying vanilla extract at the grocery store versus making it yourself at home is such that it really is worth making this stuff at home. I found a large bottle of Smirnoff vodka on sale for $15, bought some extract-grade vanilla beans (grade B) from Amazon for $25, and made about four quarts of vanilla extract. You’d pay around $12 – $16 for 2 oz. of extract at the grocery store. Unless my math is insanely off today, it would cost around $1,000 to buy enough vanilla extract at the grocery store to equal four quarts.

Blueberry Danish Coffee Cake

Blueberries! Blueberries, everywhere! Raspberries for next time. :)

Blueberries! Blueberries, everywhere! A bit unevenly distributed, but what the hell. Raspberries for next time. 🙂

My favourite coffee cake, ever. Imagine a blueberry Danish with a thick cream cheese layer and a very moist, light cake crumb, slathered in blueberries and blueberry syrup. Absolutely the ideal cake to have with coffee, for brunch, or just because you remembered that we all live in the Milky Way galaxy.

Irish Soda Bread

Crisp, yet tender, even a little chewy. What's not to love?

A crispy crust encloses a texture that is tender, even a little chewy. My tummy desires thee!

My Hubbly-Wubbles, an Irishman born and raised, considers this to be the ultimate Irish Soda Bread. Enough said.

Chicken Pot Pie

This is a bowl.

This is a bowl.

Though this dish is a lot of work, it is phenomenal. No frozen chicken pot pie could compare to this, with its tangy cream cheese crust and thick, smooth cream sauce. Use a rotisserie chicken to make this if you must, but make this pot pie! You’ll sing like a canary when you taste this.

Mocha Buttercream Brownies

A close-up of the beauties in their pan, resting. They've worked hard up to this point - it isn't easy being this gorgeous!

A close-up of the beauties in their pan, resting. They’ve worked hard up to this point – it isn’t easy being this gorgeous!

I created these as a coffee riff on some Chambord brownies (about which I will post soon!). I didn’t like the brownie layer from the Chambord brownies, so I used this baked fudge recipe as a brownie base, then iced the base with a mocha buttercream icing and poured warm melted chocolate over the whole thing. These are just breathtaking, especially for the mocha freaks out there!

Badass Pecan Pie

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

Last but by no means least, the best pecan pie ever to grace the world! Another hit from Baker’s Illustrated, this pecan pie isn’t cloyingly sweet and has a beautifully smooth, creamy filling – no lumps like most pecan pies. The pie crust for this pie is just incredible; I could eat it plain without any pie filling whatsoever, it’s that good – buttery, flaky, moist, tender.

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Badass Pecan Pie

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It's an affliction that is poorly understood.

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It’s an affliction that is poorly understood.

Hold the phone, people! This pie is beautiful. This pie is poetical. The filling is buttery, the notes of vanilla definite and sure. It tastes almost like caramel; and the thick, smooth texture of the filling is actually quite reminiscent of caramel, only it holds its shape. The secret to the filling’s unbelievable, and atypical, smoothness is that the filling is cooked to 130˚F before being added to the just-baked pie crust, and then baked at 275˚F for an hour. The character of the pecans really comes to life against this butter-and-vanilla majesty. Crivens*, but I could eat this filling all day long.

And the crust! Oh, the crust! As if this amazing filling weren’t incredible enough by itself!

The filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

The filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

The crust, a vodka pie crust from Cook’s Illustrated, blew my socks off. It was such a scunner** to work with, being very wet compared to more typical pie dough, and it needed a lot of patching; but it’s so flaky, tender, and mildly sweet – the perfect backdrop for the rich filling – that I forgive it its scunnery. This is hands-down the best pie crust I’ve ever encountered. I am wowed. I am amazed. I am in love.

And I almost passed it by! Why? Because it has vodka in it, and I thought that vodka would make the crust taste of strangeness. But it doesn’t! It leaves no vodka flavor whatsoever in the pie crust. I was skeptical of this claim, but my skepticism was silenced by my first bite of this flaky wonder. I am a believer.

The cool thing about using vodka in a pie crust (aside from boozing while you bake) is that vodka retards the formation of gluten during the mixing process. Gluten forms when flour absorbs water and is subsequently physically manipulated, as with kneading. Gluten toughens the dough and too much of it, as would form with too much handling of the dough, makes for a tough baked product. With vodka, you can handle the dough practically all day long, and it won’t form much gluten compared to using water. The alcohol content of the vodka evaporates in the oven, leaving behind absolutely no taste of vodka. A bit of caution: This crust must be made in a food processor to get the flour both evenly coated and not coated with butter. (When you’re blending flour and butter, some of the flour is coated with butter and thus will not absorb water, while the rest of the flour is not coated with butter, and thus will absorb water.) Having said that, it’s certainly worth a try even if a food processor doesn’t enter the picture. I bowed to the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation and used a food processor. It really works wonders.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with making a good pecan pie. I could never achieve the right balance of flavours, and the texture was always a bit lumpy, which served as an addendum to the mediocrity of my pecan pies. And I never bothered making my own crust, because I figured its flavour and texture would disappear into the overly sweet filling. I used store-bought frozen crusts, which are very thin, and tasteless, and so I created my very own little self-fulfilling prophecy. Yay!

As you know, I’ve been trying out recipes for the upcoming Feast of St. Bird, and I was mighty pleased with how the pumpkin cheesecake from Cook’s Illustrated holiday baking magazine turned out. Leafing through the magazine – I still haven’t read all the recipes in it yet! – I encountered a recipe for Classic Pecan Pie. I made a few changes, and wound up creating an amalgamation of the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe and the pecan pie recipe I’ve been using and tweaking for years (from an old recipe card of my mom’s – unfortunately, I don’t have a more specific source than that). I downplayed the molasses flavour of the magazine’s recipe, slightly increased the amount of corn syrup, and scaled back the butter by 1/3. The full TBS of vanilla extract seemed spot on to me, however, and I happily tipped in a full measure of vanilla. So that’s why I could never seem to get a bold vanilla flavour out of my old pecan pie recipe – I was only using 1 tsp of vanilla! When comparing the two recipes side-by-side, I saw a note I’d written to myself on the old recipe card: “Try 1 full TBS vanilla?” So that made me feel a bit better about my thought processes regarding pecan pie.

What is your quest?

What is your quest?

Two things about the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe bothered me, and bother me still. The first is that the filling recipe yields enough for two standard-depth 9″ pies (or 1 deep dish 9″ pie), yet the recipe calls for the use of only one standard-depth 9″ pie dish. You will have enough filling for either two standard-depth 9″ pies, or one deep-dish 9″ pie. Trust me on this. I know of what I speak. The second issue is that the crust recipe for this particular pie would yield a fairly thick crust for a standard-depth 9″ pie dish, but a very, very thin crust for either two standard-depth 9″ pie dishes or one deep-dish 9″ pie dish. I doubled the crust recipe, as I have a deep pie dish, and I am so, so happy I did this. The crust was not overly thick, nor was it overly thin: it was just right. ‘Tis something to consider when choosing to make either two standard-depth 9″ pies or one deep-dish 9″ pie. The crust recipe below is the doubled version; simply cut the amount of each ingredient neatly in half to halve recipe.

*An all-purpose exclamation used by Pictsies.

**A deeply insulting word – also used by Pictsies – for a useless git.

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Pecan Pie

Yield: One deep-dish 9″ pie OR two standard-depth 9″ pies

Ingredients:

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus flour (up to 1/4 cup – yes, the dough is wet!) for dusting the rolling surface
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp salt
12 TBS unsalted butter, cut into 1/4″ pieces and chilled
8 TBS vegetable shortening (such as Crisco), cut into 4 pieces and chilled
1/4 cup vodka, chilled
1/4 cup ice water

For the filling:
4 TBS unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 TBS light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 cup light corn syrup
1 TBS vanilla extract
2 cups toasted pecans, chopped fine

Method:

For the crust:
In a food processor, process 1 1/2 cups of the flour, 2 TBS sugar, and 1 tsp salt until combined, about 5 – 10 seconds. Scatter butter and shortening atop flour mixture and process until mixture begins to form uneven clumps with no floury bits left, about 15 – 20 seconds. Scrape sides and blade of food processor; re-position mixture evenly around the bottom and blade of the food processor. Cover mixture with remaining 1 cup flour and pulse until mixture is broken into pieces, about 6 – 8 pulses.

Transfer mixture to large bowl and add vodka and water. Using a heavy, stiff spatula, press and turn the dough to incorporate the liquids.

If making one deep-dish 9″ pie, wrap dough as it is in plastic wrap; if making two standard-depth 9″ pies, divide dough in half before wrapping each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for at least one hour and up to two days. Dough can be frozen for 1 month; when ready to roll, allow dough to thaw completely at room temperature before rolling.

Note: Do not bake crust until ready to make the pie filling, as the heat of the crust and that of the pie filling (which is cooked to 130˚F before being baked) are necessary to achieve the smooth texture of the baked filling. When ready to make the pie filling, preheat oven to 425˚F. On a heavily floured surface, and with a heavily floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12″ round (or two 12″ rounds, if making two standard-depth 9″ pies) and place in pie dish(-es). Fold and tuck the overhanging dough underneath itself; patch any holes using some of the overhang, if necessary. With your fingers, crimp edges of dough. (Here’s hoping you’ll have more luck than I did. I’m terrible with managing pie crusts.) Loosely wrap dough and pie dish(-es) in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.

Line surface of chilled dough with double layer of aluminum foil, making sure to cover the edges of the crust. Fill with pie weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove pie weights and aluminum foil and bake an additional 4 – 7 minutes, or until crust(s) is (are) golden brown. Immediately after removing browned crust(s) from oven, reduce oven temperature to 275˚F. Fill hot crust(s) with pecan filling and bake (further instructions below).

For the filling:
While crust(s) is (are) baking, melt butter in 3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium-low heat. Off the heat, whisk in the sugar, brown sugar, and salt until the butter has been absorbed. Whisk in the eggs, corn syrup, and vanilla until completely incorporated and smooth.

Return mixture to the stove on medium-low heat and cook, whisking occasionally (at some point during this stage, the crust[s] will come out of the oven – you want the crust to still be hot when you pour the filling into it. Place baked crust[s] on rimmed baking sheet[s]* and set aside), until the mixture is hot to the touch and registers 130˚F on an instant-read thermometer.

Immediately remove mixture from heat; stir in pecans and pour mixture into hot crust (if making two pies, divide filling evenly between crusts). Bake at 275˚F for 50 – 65 minutes, rotating the pie(s) halfway through baking. The filling should look set and crispy on top. If you shake the pie gently from side to side, the pecans should not move about in the filling; they should form a united, stiff mass of browned pecans. The filling should “[yield] like gelatin when gently pressed with back of spoon,” to quote Cook’s Illustrated (p. 72 – 73). I didn’t find the gelatin qualifier to be of much help, as the top of a baked pecan pie is kind of hard due to the pecans rising to the top, but perhaps you will find this information helpful.

Let pie cool on wire rack, about two hours. This will help the filling set even further, as the pie will still cook a little after it’s removed from the oven. Wrapped in plastic wrap, the cooled pie can be stored at room temperature for 2 – 3 days. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm, with whipped cream if desired. This whipped cream would make a smashing accompaniment to this pie.

*Here is where the wisdom of placing the baked and empty crust on a rimmed baking sheet becomes apparent: If the pie is sitting on a rimmed baking sheet, it will be much easier to get into and out of the oven without destroying the edges of the crust, as the filling for this pie is very heavy. Using a rimmed baking sheet for this purpose also makes it easier to move the pie around in general.

Source: Crust from, and filling heavily adapted from, Cook’s Illustrated All-time Best Holiday Baking, 2013