Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cinnamon-Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Cake

One of my favorite treats as a kid was a basic homemade fudge made of cream and baking chocolate, grainy with undissolved sugar. The memory seems cloying to my adult palate, but as a kid I was capable of downing a whole plateful on my own. One afternoon I decided to make up a batch for myself, but found we were out of baking chocolate. So I pulled down the box of cocoa powder, which helpfully told me that 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder, along with a spoonful of oil, was just the same as a square of baking chocolate. As I simmered and simmered a gross, grainy mixture that refused to come together, I realized I'd been duped. Sometimes there just is no substitute for the real thing. This is true of confections that rely on the solidity of cocoa butter to set up (which, it just so happens, is stripped from cocoa powder), and it's equally true of this luscious, dairy-rich cake.

This cake, taken from the ever-wonderful Smitten Kitchen, is truly lovely. It's unabashedly buttery, but at the same time impossibly light, with a wee bit of tang and lots of moistness from the sour cream. Cinnamon, which is normally overdone in breakfast pastries, does a lovely job of subtly setting off the chocolate chips (and, as a bonus, you have an excuse to eat chocolate before noon). I generally pass on morning sweets, but a square of this cake made a lovely coda to a recent brunch of huevos rancheros (a course my 7-year-old nephew refers to as "breakfast dessert"). I wouldn't change a thing.

Cinnamon-Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Cake

yields 1 9x13 cake

adapted, but hardly, from
Smitten Kitchen

3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
16 ounces sour cream

12 ounces chocolate chips (usually one package)
1/2 cup sugar mixed with 1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, grease and flour a 9x13 cake pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda, and set aside. Whip the egg whites into stiff peaks, and set aside as well.

Cream together the butter and sugar until it's light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, and beat until well-incorporated. Gently mix half the sour cream into the batter, then half the flour mixture, then repeat with the remaining halves (being careful not to over-mix). Mix in about a third of the egg whites to lighten the mixture, then gently fold in the remainder, again being careful not to over-mix.

Pour half the batter into your prepared cake pan. Sprinkle on half the chocolate chips, and half the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Gently spread the remaining batter on top, and finish with the remaining chocolate chips and cinnamon-sugar. Bake until a tester comes out clean, ~40-50 minutes. Let cool slightly, then devour.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vegetarian (or not) Stuffed Cabbage

Usually Portland's temperate climate is pretty inviting. Sure, we get rained on in the winter. But other parts of the country get blizzards. At least when the clouds part here, it's fairly balmy. Well, usually.

Recently it looks like the rest of the country is warming up to spring. But here in Portland, we've been getting dumped on by daily rainstorms, and the ground has sogged up to a muddy sponge. It's like it's winter or something, I keep telling friends (to nobody's amusement). Our downtown farmer's market just opened for the season yesterday, but I'm not really thinking about tender green shoots. I'm thinking about stuffed cabbage.

I never liked stuffed cabbage all that much as a kid, mostly because I'd only tasted versions that played up the sweet'n'sour Eastern European flavoring a bit too much (I'm of the firm opinion that meat and raisins should never play together). But a few months ago I was filling up a friend's freezer during a visit, and figured stuffed cabbage would be a great dish for cold storage. I came across a lovely version from this lovely blog, which lightens up the filling with sweet and earthy carrots and parsnips. I made a beefy version that my friend loved, and have since twice made it vegetarian by swapping some faux chicken for the meat. It's a great veg-packed all-in-one meal, and does a lovely job of getting you through the last soggy days of winter.

Vegetarian (or not) Stuffed Cabbage

yields 1 large tray (the exact number of rolls will vary, depending upon the size of your cabbage)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, but baked instead of simmered, green instead of savoy cabbage, and a different sauce

1 large head green cabbage
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1-2 carrots, shredded
1-2 parsnips, shredded
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup rice, uncooked (or 1/2 cup brown rice, par-cooked for 20 minutes and drained)
1 lb beef, or grated vegetarian beef substitute (I've used chicken-style patties to good effect)
2 cups tomato sauce or v8-style tomato juice
1 cup vegetable broth
1-2 Tbsp cider vinegar
1-2 Tbsp sugar
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the cabbage by cutting out the core (without cutting into the leaves too much). Place in a large pot, and cover with boiling water. Let sit in the water to soften ~10-15 minutes (the cabbage will float, so try to spin it around a bit to ensure it all comes in contact with the water). Alternately, you can soften the cabbage by placing it in the freezer the night before and allowing it to thaw (the ice crystals will do enough damage to the cell walls that the thawed cabbage will be limp enough to work with), but I never think of this in advance.

Heat the oil over a medium flame in a large skillet. Add the onions, and saute until translucent and softened. Add the carrot and parsnip, and saute for another minute or two, until softened. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper (season a bit heavily if using beef, just to taste if using a pre-seasoned meat alternative). Add the tomato paste, rice and meat (or meat substitute).

Drain the cabbage, and pull off the leaves. If the center rib of any leaf is big and unwieldy, you can cut it out with a v-shaped slice (but this isn't necessary). Take a leaf, and scoop 1/4-1/3 cup filling in the center (the exact amount will vary based upon leaf size - no need to overstuff). Fold the sides of the leaf around the filling, and roll up the remainder. Place the stuffed leaf, seam side down, in a large casserole dish. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling. If you have leftover leaves, you can chop them finely and scatter them over the top, although that sadly distracts from your neat little packages.

In a separate bowl, mix together the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adjusting the vinegar and sugar as needed to make a sauce that is just a little bit sweet and tangy. Pour the sauce over the stuffed cabbage (you may need to wait a few moments to make sure it settles into all of the nooks and crannies, depending on how densely you've got them packed). Cover tightly with a lid or foil, and bake until the filling is set and the cabbage is totally soft, ~ 1 hour. Enjoy right away, or let cool and freeze.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hamantaschen Redux

This Sunday marks the Jewish holiday of Purim, which marks the baking and distribution of hamantaschen. Although some have debated otherwise, I'm of the opinion that these cookies can be one of the loveliest examples of Jewish cuisine -- a flaky, tangy, buttery little hand-held jam tart. Except often, they're not. If you'd like to avoid dry, chalky cookies, and bake up hamantaschen that can win any debate hands down, click on over to the The Oregonian and pick up my recipe.

And if you're looking to burn off calories (rather than piling them on in a fit of jammy comfort-food deliciousness), I recently produced a radio story about exercise equipment that can turn your sweat equity into electricity. You can listen over at NPR's All Things Considered.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache and Almonds (aka Almond Joy Cookies)

I recently received a package from a friend who is traveling in Africa. The brightly-colored fabric-backed painting was lovely, but honestly I was probably just as thrilled by the basic fact of the envelope as by its contents. Care package! Foreign stamps! Hand-written letter! Getting mail is so exciting!

These days, it's possible to go years without receiving a little homemade postal love. Unless you're sharing grocery lists, you might not know what someone's handwriting even looks like. There's the mass-produced holiday card, or the wedding thank-yous written out by the dozens, but honestly it's not the same. A care package, lovingly assembled in another city and posted out to you, is such a thrill. I give and receive them all too infrequently.

But when I do, the question remains: what to send? The shelf-stable particulars vary based upon the recipient, but I'm almost always looking to include a little handmade sugar as well. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find the right cookies to send. Chocolate chip cookies and brownies are great fresh from the oven, but unless you're a starving college student, you're probably not going to want them six days later. Things like gingerbread or biscotti, dried out to a long-term-storage crisp, work well. But recently I pulled together a package for someone in need of a little pick-me-up, and demure crunchy tea cookies weren't going to do. I wanted something a little more gooey, more chocolatey and indulgent, but still delicious after spending the better part of a week in transit. Fortunately, I discovered these macaroons.

This recipe produces a showstoppingly good cookie. Fresh out of the oven, you're struck by the moist, rich coconut filling, gently toasted to a crisp on the outside. And to make matters even better, this richness is offset by a bittersweet fudgey ganache. I was compelled to take it even further, adding a sprinkling of toasted almonds, and the lightest dusting of coarse salt to bring out the sweetness. They ship well (having no delicate edges to break off in the mail), and even a few days later still taste like a candy bar. If you really want to play up the similarity, you can omit the chopped nuts, and hide a single toasted almond beneath the ganache. These macaroons are my new favorite for shipping off across the country (or hiding away in my very own freezer).

Macaroons with Chocolate Ganache and Almonds (aka Almond Joy Cookies)

adapted from a recipe that Bon Appetit adapted from Marigold Kitchen, with thanks to Orangette for flagging
makes ~ 4 dozen

3 cups (lightly-packed) sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup egg whites (about 6)
pinch salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract

Ganache and Topping:
9 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 Tbsp heavy whipping cream (if shipping, reduce to 3 Tbsp for a firmer set)
1 Tbsp corn syrup (optional, but gives a nice gloss to the finished ganache)
~1/4 cup chopped and toasted almonds
coarse salt for sprinkling (optional)

Mix together the coconut, sugar, egg whites and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly once it warms. The mixture will gradually dry out and become less loose and gooey, and more of a sticky paste (~12 minutes). Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla and almond extracts. Spread out in a thick layer on a cookie sheet, and refrigerate until cold, ~1 hour (you can also place in a sealed container and allow to sit in the refrigerator overnight).

When the dough is chilled, preheat the oven to 300, and line a couple baking sheets with parchment.

Take the chilled dough, and shape into packed, mounded heaping tablespoons (a mini ice-cream scoop is ideal for this). Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets (they won't spread, so you don't need to space them too far apart). Bake until the coconut on the outside begins to get golden, ~20-30 minutes. Remove, let set on the sheet for a few minutes to firm up, and then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

When the cookies are cool, prepare the ganache. Place the chocolate, cream and corn syrup in double boiler, and heat until the chocolate is almost entirely melted. Remove from heat, and whisk until smooth. Spoon the glaze over the macaroons, allowing it to form little chocolate hats and drip down thickly over the sides. Sprinkle with toasted almonds, and, if desired, just a few grains of coarse salt (you can lightly press down any sticking-up almonds to make sure they are fully anchored in the ganache). Refrigerate until the ganache fully sets (at least two hours), then transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator or freezer, or ship off to the loved one of your choosing.