Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dark Chocolate, Coconut, & Hazelnut Skillet Blondies

You might notice a preponderance of chocolate in my last few posts. That's because I've been self-medicating a heavy heart. As of late, I've needed mega doses of chocolate just to get through the day.

Our beagle, Harry, was diagnosed with prostate cancer last October. It's a rare form of cancer for a neutered dog to develop and there is no treatment. By the time we discovered it, tumors had already spread to his kidneys. It was a blow to hear the news from our vet but Harry seemed to be doing reasonably well despite the cancer. We were advised he might have a few good months left and to enjoy our time with him.

After a period of initial grief on hearing the diagnosis, I promptly went into denial and set about spoiling Harry with plenty of love and treats. I think I actually believed my dog would get better and I wouldn't have to face losing him.

And he did seem to rally for a little while. He was our same old Harry- alternately contrary and stubborn, then loving and snugly. He'd still practically do a back flip for cheese and he still insisted on a daily minimum number of pets that he'd extract from you by resting his head on your lap and looking up at you with the most soulful yet slightly pathetic eyes. I was an easy mark and would crumble under that look and gladly pet him until he got his fill and wandered off to do something else. 

Life seemed to go on as usual and the longer it did, the more my denial increased.

When Harry did get sick over the President's Day holiday weekend, my delusion shattered and I broke down along with Harry. He declined pretty rapidly and by Monday we knew it was time to make arrangements to let him go. I spent his last day by his side trying to comfort him and choking back sobs. Our vet came to the house that evening and mercifully and kindly put Harry to sleep. 

As you might imagine, I'm bawling as I type this. The tears aren't as constant this week as they were last week but my heart is still pretty raw. 

It's amazing how empty a house with two adults and two remaining dogs can feel. We're all out of sorts and it's just going to take time to get over losing Harry. Every day gets a little easier but the sadness is still palpable. Jack and LuLu seem lethargic and aren't eating as much as usual- dogs grieve in surprisingly similar ways to humans. 

If I could heal my broken heart with chocolate, plenty of hugs from Eric, and smothering Jack and LuLu with affection, I think I'd have made a full recovery by now.  Since that's not the case, I'm going to move on from chocolate desserts for now. I'm sticking with Eric's hugs and the puppy love, though. I've learned not to take it for granted that they'll always be by my side.

Go kiss your kitty, pup, rabbit, ferret, bird, whatever and thank them for the immeasurable joy they add to your life. Soon, hopefully, I'll just remember all the happy, goofy times with Harry and not the pain of losing him.

I found this recipe on The Kitchn while trying to distract myself from crying. I think the title "blondie" is a bit of a misnomer 'cause my batch look a whole lot like brownies. It's probably due to the addition of espresso powder- I think I might skip it next time. Do not, however, skip the optional coconut flake. It added just the right note. These blondies couldn't be any simpler to make- a perfect project for someone not particularly inclined to bake but trying to get back to some sense of normalcy. That probably doesn't sound like much of a recommendation but I promise they're worth the (minimal) effort. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chocolate Chili Spice Cookies

I'm always admiring the lovely little creations Whimsy & Spice churn out so when I saw the chocolate chili spice cookie featured in their Valentine's Day cookie box, I couldn't wait to get in the kitchen to try to re-create them.

Adding a savory element (or in this case two) to a chocolate recipe is always a winner in my book. Not only does the addition of chili powder elevate these cookies past merely chocolately goodness but a little fleur de sel sprinkled on top seals the deal- these cookies are strait up fabulous.

A cookie like the best Valentines- a little bit sweet, a little bit spicy.

Have a lovely Valentine's Day all!

Chocolate Chili Spice Cookies
adapted from the Triple Chocolate Cookie 
in Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon Valrhona dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup cane sugar
3/4 cup dark brown cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split horizontally, seeds scraped and reserved
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 – 3/4 teaspoon chili powder (add to taste)
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel in fine grains + additional for sprinkling on top
3 ounces 41% milk chocolate, roughly chopped
3 ounces 65% bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 325° Fahrenheit. Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper. Sift the flour and baking soda together into a bowl and set aside. Beat the butter on medium speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until creamy. Add the sugars, vanilla extract, cinnamon, chili powder, vanilla bean seeds, and fleur de sel and beat on medium speed just until combined.
2. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in three additions, just incorporating each addition before adding the next one. A crumbly dough should form. Add all chopped chocolate and mix on low speed just until combined.
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to bring the dough together. Roll the dough out to approximately 1/4” thickness and use a heart shaped cookie cutter to cut out cookies. Sprinkle a little fleur de sel on the middle of each cut out cookie. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets.
4. Bake one sheet pan of cookies at a time on the middle rack of the oven, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through the baking time, about 14 minutes. Bake until the cookies are set but still slightly soft when poked with a fingertip. Allow to cool completely on the pans on wire racks. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Nigel Slater's Chocolate Beetroot Cake

Beets are controversial. Like cilantro, people seem to either love them or hate them. Me- I'm in the love 'em camp.

I'd see beet cake recipes pop up every now and then and kept meaning to try making one. I adored this gorgeous video on making a beet cake from the couple behind Tiger In a Jar but even with such an amazing source of inspiration, I never got around to it last year.

I vowed this would be the year- The Year of the Beet Cake. So when I picked up Nigel Slater's Tender, Volume 1, and saw his recipe for chocolate beetroot cake, I took it as a sign. There was no question that, amongst a book filled with many recipes that I've bookmarked, the beet cake would be my first attempt.

I'd wax on about my love of Nigel Slater's books but I won't bore you with a swoon session, other than to say, if you haven't done so already, do add Tender, Volume 1 (all about veggies) and Volume 2 (all about fruits) to your cookbook library. Hell, even if you don't cook, buy these books as food for the soul. The photography is lovely and Mr. Slater is such a charming writer that his descriptions of fruits and vegetables and their varied and myriad uses are flat out delightful.

O.K. I've gushed enough and I promised I wasn't going to.
flyleaf on Tender, Volume 1

Now I realize some of you may look askance at a cake recipe that calls for the inclusion of boiled beet purée. I even thought about mounting an argument on the merits of chocolate beet cake to convince such skeptics. I planned to point out that the crumb of this cake not only looks like velvet but also feels like it on the tongue, how moist and chocolately this cake is, with a hint of sweetly tart beet flavor peeking through and intriguing your taste buds. I could have continued along those lines but you know what? If you don't take a chance on making this cake to see what you're missing, so be it. Beets just aren't for everyone and perhaps this cake isn't either. I've made my peace with it.

Also, that just means there's more beet cake for me. And I like it that way.
Nigel Slater’s Chocolate Beetroot Cake
adapted from Tender, Volume 1

Since Mr. Slater is British, the ingredient quantities for his recipe are in metric. If you haven't done so already, purchase a kitchen scale- you'll find weighing ingredients to be much easier than using measuring cups. Most scales provide weights in both metric and American. I'm really pleased to see more cookbook authors including ingredient quantities by weight and hope the trend continues. The recipe as written called for topping cake slices with crème fraîche and poppy seeds. I decided to sprinkle confectioner's sugar on top à la Tiger in a Jar's approach. Joy the Baker topped her cake with beet and cream cheese frosting- I think I might give that a whirl next time I make this cake. And there will definitely be a next time....

250 grams beetroot (approximately 3 medium sized beets)
200 grams good quality dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids)
4 tablespoons hot espresso (or coffee)
200 grams butter, cut into small pieces
135 grams plain flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons high quality cocoa powder
5 eggs
190 grams light brown sugar
Confectioner’s sugar, lightly sifted over the top of the cake

1. Lightly butter an 8-inch (20cm) spring form pan and line with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350º Fahrenheit (180º Celsius).
2. Boil the beets, whole and unpeeled, for 30 to 40 minutes until they feel tender when cut with a knife. Note that young beets may require less time so start checking early. Pour the boiled beets into a strainer and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle. Slice off the stems and roots, peel, and purée in a food processor to a rough consistency.
3. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler set up i.e. a small bowl that can sit snugly over a pot of simmering water. Don’t stir the chocolate as it melts. Toward the end when the chocolate is almost fully melted, pour in the espresso/coffee and stir just until combined. While still over the double boiler, add the butter pieces to the bowl and submerge with a spoon into the hot chocolate to allow the butter to soften.
4. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa. Crack and separate the eggs- put the whites in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir the yolks together in a small bowl.
5. Work quickly and carefully to take the bowl of chocolate off the heat and stir the butter into the melted chocolate. Set aside for a few minutes and then stir in the egg yolks until thoroughly incorporated into the chocolate mixture. Fold in the beets. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and then fold in the sugar to make a meringue. Next fold the meringue into the chocolate mixture, being careful not to over mix. Last, fold in the sifted flour, baking powder, and cocoa.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and place on a baking sheet before putting in the oven. Immediately turn the oven temperature down to 330º Fahrenheit (160º Celsius). Bake for 40 minutes until the edges of the cake are slightly set but the middle of the cake is a little jiggly when gently poked with a finger.