Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Triple-Ginger Cake

"Oh shit, I turned into my mother."

My best friend bought me a pin with that saying many years ago. It's one of several items that I keep on a memory board, along with a few old pics of her.

We met in high school when we discovered we were both dating the same guy. At the same time. Naturally, we hated each other at first but then we wised up, realized what a loser he was, and bonded over our mutual loathing for him. So thanks for that, Nathan.

Christi was like the mean, cooler than thou, older sister I never had.

She was sitting in my mom's kitchen, teasing me, when she gave me the pin. We would call one another Sue (both of our mothers are named Sue) in a derogatory manner if we felt the other needed to be taken down a peg. Don't get me wrong. We loved our mothers dearly but there was no higher insult between the two of us. At the time we thought that, surely, becoming just like one's mother was the absolute worst thing that could happen to us in life. 

Except, of course, it wasn't. The worst thing that could have happened to one of us was cancer. Christi was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor that didn't respond to treatment. She was 33 when she passed away in 2006. 

I still miss her all the time.  

But she still makes me laugh all the time, too- most often when I encounter something that reminds me of one of the countless inside jokes that we shared, like the Sue insult.

Christi would have totally made fun of me if she found out I clipped this ginger cake recipe from Better Homes & Gardens. As she should- our moms read BHG. It's right up there with Southern Living on the list of mom-appealing periodicals. 

In my defense, I came by the issue of BHG inadvertently when the publisher swapped it for the remainder of my subscription to the now-defunct Ready Made. Why on earth they figured that BHG would appeal to Ready Made subscribers is beyond me.

While I may sneer at the overly dolled up, gaggingly charming cottages featured in the pages of BHG, I have to admit that the recipes ain't so bad. I've ear-marked a few to try and this one was my first attempt.

So call me Sue but I really liked this BHG cake.

(You can bet Christi is rolling her eyes in heaven.)

Triple-Ginger Cake
adapted from a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens, November 2011

As you might have suspected from the name, this is a very gingery cake. Be forewarned- it's spicy! But then, if you don't really like ginger, you probably didn't read past the title. For those of you who do like ginger, this cake is a real winner. 

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons mild-flavored molasses
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

1 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons whipping cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoon mild-flavored molasses
5 pieces crystallized ginger, cut into thin strips (buy ginger strips or slices, rather than nuggets)

1. Preheat oven to 350º degrees Fahrenheit with a rack centered in the middle. Butter a 9” cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper, then butter the paper.
2. In a medium bowl, add the flour, baking powder, ground ginger, fresh ginger, black pepper, and salt and whisk or stir to combine.
3. Add the butter and granulated sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer and fit the mixer with the beater attachment. Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Turn the mixer speed to low and beat in the honey and molasses. Next beat in the egg. With the mixer still on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk, and mix until just combined.
4. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan and use a spatula to smooth and level the batter, if needed. Bake approximately 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool slightly on a wire rack. When cool enough to handle, turn the cake pan over onto the wire rack and remove the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake. Turn the cake back over onto another cooling rack and place the rack over a baking sheet or a sheet of waxed paper.
5. Prepare the glaze. Sift confectioners' sugar into a medium sized bowl. Next add the cream, butter, and molasses to a small saucepan, place over medium heat and stir until butter is melted. Pour the cream mixture into the confectioners’ sugar and use a silicon spatula or whisk to stir until smooth. Pour glaze over the still warm cake and work quickly with a spatula to spread it evenly to cover the top of the cake. Let the iced cake stand for at least 4 hours before serving.
6. To serve the cake, cut with a serrated knife, dipped in hot water and wiped dry between slices. Top each slice with two crisscrossed strips of ginger.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grown-up Peanut Butter Cups topped with Smoked Sea Salt

Every Halloween swarms of trick-or-treaters descend on our neighborhood like a plague of locusts. We stockpile gobs of candy to pass out to the hordes but it's never enough- we always run out. Mostly because the number of kiddos arriving in droves on our doorstep seems to increase exponentially each year but also because Eric or I usually wind up pilfering a candy bag or two before the big day arrives.

This year I made a deal with myself that I wasn't going to touch the Halloween candy I purchased for the little ghouls and goblins that overrun the 'hood.

I know what you're thinking, and secretly, I too thought I'd break down and get into the candy. But people, I dipped into some reserve of willpower I didn't even know I had.

I resisted temptation and actually made good on the deal!  

So I left the store-bought, processed crap to the kiddos. Instead, as a reward to myself, I ate almost a dozen of these amazing homemade peanut butter cups. (I did let Eric sample a few just to confirm they're as good as I thought.)

These “grown-up” peanut butter cups feature a filling made with a caramelized honey peanut brittle that is seasoned with smoked sea salt. Never one to leave well enough alone, I couldn’t resist sprinkling a little extra smoked sea salt on top of the peanut butter cups. That way, when biting into a cup, the aroma of the smoked sea salt hits your nose and enhances the flavor in the filling.

Do I even have to tell you that these cups put Reese’s to shame?

Now that I know how easy it is to surpass Hershey's products, I'm thinking about taking on Willy Wonka too.   

Next year, I just might make homemade Nerds. 

Grown-up Peanut Butter Cups
adapted from Stella Parks recipe featured on Gilt Taste

Note that the chocolate coating on these cups doesn't have to be tempered. Simply melting the chocolate to coat the cups is fine but you'll need to store them in the refrigerator. Also, I wanted to use my set of pretty, colorful silicon mini muffin cups so I halved the ingredient quantities listed below. The recipe as written should make 20 peanut butter cups if using standard size cupcake liners.

1 ½ ounces water (3 tablespoons)
3 ½ ounces sugar
2 ounces honey (approximately ¼ cup)
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or seeds from 1 vanilla bean
3 ounces unsalted peanuts
6 ounces unsalted, natural peanut butter (if using commercial peanut butter, use half of the called for quantity of salt initially and add more to taste)
½ teaspoon smoked salt
approximately 1 ounce peanut oil (2-3 tablespoons)
20 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
20 cupcake liners

1. Pour a tablespoon of peanut oil on a baking sheet and use your hands or a paper towel to spread the oil to coat the sheet. Set aside.
2. Add the water, sugar, honey, and vanilla bean paste (if using vanilla bean seeds, add later with the peanuts) to a heavy gauge sauce pan and place over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar until the liquid starts to bubble up. When it reaches a boil, cook, without stirring, until the mixture turns a deep caramel brown. If using a candy thermometer, the temperature should reach approximately 340° Fahrenheit.
3. Once the mixture reaches the desired color, remove from heat and stir in the peanuts to make a brittle. Pour out onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the brittle mixture with a heat proof spatula and then set  aside to cool.
5. Once the brittle has cooled, use your hands to break it off the baking sheet and put the brittle pieces in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to break the brittle into small pieces and then allow the processor to run until a rough, slightly dry paste forms.
6. Add the peanut butter and salt to the brittle paste and pulse to combine. Let the processor run while slowly pouring in one tablespoon of peanut oil. Check the consistency and add more peanut oil, a little at a time, if the paste is too thick.
7. Scoop the peanut butter filling into a large pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip or a gallon sized ziploc bag with a corner snipped off. Set aside.
8. Melt or temper the chocolate according to your preferred method. Since I halved the ingredient quantities listed above to make a smaller batch of peanut butter cups and used less than a pound of chocolate, I followed The Kitchn’s technique on tempering small amounts of chocolate in the microwave.
9. Arrange the cupcake liners on a baking sheet and ladle, using a tablespoon (1 tablespoon = ½ ounce), melted or tempered chocolate into each of the liners. Next pipe a dollop of peanut butter filling into the center of the chocolate filled cup. Top each peanut butter mound with another tablespoon of melted or tempered chocolate. When all cups have been filled, gently rap the baking sheet on the counter to level the chocolate in the cups and to pop any trapped air bubbles. Set the cups aside until they have set up and then peel off the cupcake liners before serving.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Seattle and a Sour Cherry Pie

Around mid-summer, when it wasn't uncommon for the mercury to rise to well into the hundreds for days in a row, I started planning a fall getaway. Cold, dark, and wet may not sound like ideal vacation weather to most but it sounded like heaven to me after the dog days of record heat and drought we experienced this summer in Central Texas. Seattle's weather seemed like the perfect antidote to our summer so I booked airline tickets and day dreamed about rainy days and cloudy skies while waiting impatiently for our October departure date.

To help with planning the trip, I reached out to a couple of fellow bloggers for recommendations. Stevie over at Weird Combinations is a wealth of information about California wines so I knew he could point me to someone knowledgeable about Washington wines. He steered me to WinePeeps where I contacted Kori. She sent me a list of wineries to check out in Woodinville, a town just outside of Seattle where many wine makers in Washington have tasting rooms.

When we visited Woodinville, we stopped by Mark Ryan Winery, Delille Cellars, and Matthews Estate. We particularly enjoyed the Doyenne Metier and Roussanne at Delille Cellars and the Matthews Estate Claret was nice as well. Overall, we were impressed with the Washington State wines we tried- the red wines were quite good and were great values compared to Oregon reds, in particular Willamette's vaunted yet pricey pinots. Notably, Washington wines seem to have the same problem as Texas wines in that we found very few bottles on the wine lists of Seattle restaurants that we dined in.

Robin, who blogs at A Chow Life, lives in Seattle and was also an excellent resource. She steered us to great eats, sites, and 'hoods. On Robin's recommendation, we checked out the Ballard neighborhood and stopped by the Ballard Farmer's Market. Like most West Coast farmer's markets, the Ballard market was a wonder. Just look at those beautiful multi-colored carrots below. And blackberries! In October! Those gorgeous husks of multi-colored corn also caught my eye.  

On the list of restaurant recs Robin sent, she emphasized not to miss The Walrus and the Carpenter, an oyster bar known for an extensive menu of local oyster varieties. Aside from fabulous oysters and a great cocktails menu, I would have loved The Walrus and the Carpenter for the decor alone- it looks like a traditional Parisian brasserie only done up in a Scandinavian-like color palette of shades of white and light grey. It's a popular spot (thanks to Bon Appetit naming it a Best New Restaurant this year) and doesn't take reservations so we waited over an hour on a Monday night for seats at the oyster bar. Fortunately, a bike shop next door has taken advantage of the crowds milling around waiting and offered a small beer and wine menu and a seating area so the time passed pleasantly enough. I'm pleased to report the oysters were well worth the wait- I was in heaven slurping down Barron Points, Penn Coves, and Baywater Sweets as fast as they could be shucked.

Robin also recommended Sitka & Spruce, a gorgeous little restaurant that we visited for lunch. The restaurant is housed in the Corson Building, a multi-purpose space that bills itself as a home, a restaurant, and a community. I understand Sitka & Spruce's menu changes daily and when we stopped in, the dishes were mostly vegetarian and featured North African spices and flavors. I wish we had been able to go for dinner as well but we had reservations at Book Bindery. Thankfully, my disappointment didn't last long as our meal at Book Bindery was the highlight of the trip.

As you might expect from the name, the Book Bindery Restaurant is housed in a former book bindery, which endeared me to it even more than the excellent reviews I read. We lucked upon an amazing server named Luciano when we dined at the restaurant- he put together a wine pairing for us based on our menu selections and his choices were spot on. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea but we had a foie gras terrine that was to die for. As in, I would have died happy if that terrine were my last meal on earth. Luckily, I lived to go on to eat some wonderfully prepared caramelized scallops and finished my meal with a bay leaf-scented semifreddo with huckleberries.

And of course, since I'm pretty sure it's a required pilgrimage for all food bloggers who visit Seattle, we went to Delancy, the adorable little wood-fired pizza place owned by Molly, of Orangette, and her husband. Delancy was charming and warm- just like Molly's blog. Eric, who is quite the pizza critic, said his pepperoni and fancy cheese (the cheese of the day, which I can't recall) pie was almost as good as Bola Pizza. If you've ever tasted Bola, you'll know that is high praise. Me, I was obsessed with the chocolate chip cookie sprinkled with grey sea salt I had for dessert. (I'll be experimenting soon to see if I can re-create it so you may see such a cookie in an upcoming post.)
Lest you think that all we did was eat and drink (and that wouldn't be far from the truth), we did catch some of the local attractions. See above pictures for proof. You might recognize that tall building on the left with the space ship-looking apparatus on top, aptly called the Space Needle. I was tempted to skip it but I'm glad we went. The view really was spectacular and that day the weather was clear and sunny- not at all Seattle-like. The Olympic Sculpture Park is only a short distance from the Space Needle so we were able to hit both in one day. Of all the sculpture installations in the park, my favorite was the Seattle Cloud Cover bridge seen in the middle photo. Inserted between the glass walls of the bridge are transparent photos of changing sky views. The sun reflects the colors in the images so the accommodating weather made it a spectacular day to see the bridge. I only wish my photos did it justice.

The Space Needle and the sculpture park were both impressive but my absolute favorite place in Seattle would have to be the Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Although it's a must-see for architecture buffs, I'm pretty sure everyone who visits the library leaves entranced. Aside from its highly original and thoughtful design, the city skyline views from the upper floors are a sight to behold. And for some reason, the lime green fluorescent lighted escalator that runs through the core of the library, seen in the middle picture below, really tickled me. I'd like one just like it in my next home. Or better yet, I could happily live in that library.
Since we were so close, I couldn't resist taking a drive over to Twin Peaks and Eric humored me in going along. Actually, the town of Twin Peaks doesn't really exist but exterior location scenes for the series Twin Peaks were shot in Snoqualmie Falls and North Bend, just 30 minutes east of Seattle. I've been a huge fan of the show since my high school days when the series originally aired. I'm currently re-watching the entire series (for the 4th time) on Netflix Instant. The Salish Inn seen below and the Snoqualmie Falls are featured prominently in scenes in the opening credits of the show.  
The storyline of the series follows the murder of a high school girl, Laura Palmer, and the subsequent investigation which reveals complicated and often sordid relationships amongst the members of the fictional town. My favorite character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, comes to Twin Peaks to investigate Laura's murder. Agent Cooper was a fount of slightly canned wisdoms, such as, "Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee." Along with his black coffee, Coop loved a piece of "damn fine cherry pie" from the Double R Diner.

The exterior of Twede's Diner in North Bend, seen above in the middle pic, was used to set up scenes at the Double R Diner. As you can see from the painted storefront, Twede's Diner has capitalized on the success of the series by proclaiming the diner the "home of the Twin Peaks cherry pie." When we stopped by to take pictures I decided to pass on going in for a cup of coffee and and a piece of cherry pie.

Perhaps Twede's pie is actually damn fine but I usually find such trips down nostalgia lane disappointing and I don't want to be reminded of bad pie every time I decide to re-watch my beloved show. Since I like to have my pie and eat it, too, I didn't leave matters to chance. As soon as we returned home, I made my own damn fine (sour) cherry pie.

Sour Cherry Pie

I followed the recipe below and found the filling a little too loose for my preference. Since cherries are out of season, I had to use frozen fruit and this might have exacerbated the soupiness of the pie. If I make this pie again, I would increase the amount of corn starch to give the pie filling more body. I think I’d use at least ¼ cup of cornstarch with fresh cherries and up to ½ cup for frozen cherries. Note- I wasn’t able to find sour cherries so I increased the lemon juice as noted below in the recipe when using sweet cherries. This trick worked well- the extra lemon juice added a tartness that tempered the sweetness of the cherries just enough. 

Pie crust- adapted from Tartine
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup of very cold water
3 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup + 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Filling- adapted from Epicurious
1 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 cups whole pitted sour cherries or dark sweet cherries (about 2 pounds whole unpitted cherries)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (if using sour cherries) or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (if using dark sweet cherries)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon milk

1. This pie crust recipe makes two 9 inch pie shells. Combine the salt and water in a small bowl or measuring cup and stir to dissolve the salt. Place in the refrigerator to keep cold until ready for use. Add the flour to a large mixing bowl and scatter the butter over the flour. Use a pastry blender or 2 knives to cut the butter into the flour until large crumbs form and pea-sized pieces of butter remain.
2. Slowly pour in the salty water while stirring with a fork until the dough roughly comes together. Turn the contents of the bowl out on a work surface and just knead until the dough comes together into a ball. The dough will not be smooth and pieces of butter should be visible. Divide the dough and form two rounds approximately 1-inch thick. Wrap the rounds in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.
3. Preheat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit with a rack placed in the lower third of the oven. To prepare the pie filling, stir together 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium sized mixing bowl. Add the cherries, lemon juice, and vanilla and toss with a fork to combine. Set the filling aside while you line the pie pan with dough.
4. Butter the pie pan. Roll out one of the chilled dough rounds on floured work surface until approximately 1/8 inch thick. Work quickly to keep the dough cold and be sure to lift and rotate the dough on the work surface as you go to prevent it from sticking. Wrap the dough over the rolling pin to transfer it to the pie pan. Press the dough gently into the pan and trim off excess dough with a sharp knife, leaving about a 1 inch overhang.
5. Spoon the filling into the pie pan lined with dough and mound slightly in the middle to prevent the center of the pie from sinking while baking. Top with butter cubes.
6. Roll out the remaining dough round on the floured work surface to 1/8 inch thickness. This dough round will be used to top the pie. You can also cut strips if desired for a lattice style pie top. Again, work quickly and lift and turn as you go. Wrap the dough over the rolling pin to transfer and unroll it over the filled pie shell. Or, if making a lattice topped pie, arrange the strips in an alternating pattern over the top of the pie filling. Trim the top dough to allow a 1/2 inch overhang and fold bottom crust overhang up and over the top overhang. Use your thumb to pinch the edges together against the pie pan to seal the crust layers. Brush the top crust with milk and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
7. Place the pie on rimmed baking sheet and bake 15 minutes at 425° Fahrenheit. Lower the oven temperature to 375° Fahrenheit and bake for approximately another hour until the crust is golden brown. If the edges of the crust begin to brown too quickly, remove the pie from the oven and cover just the edges with foil, then continue to bake until the top has browned sufficiently. When done, remove the pie from the oven and transfer to a rack to cool completely.