Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Basics Part I: Yellow Cake

For most of my life, I've turned my nose up at the idea of vanilla cake. Maybe I'd simply associated it with cake mixes, with the infinite parade of brightly frosted birthday sheet cake monstrosities of my youth. And, as a chocoholic born and raised, I'm of the opinion that there is NEVER a superior alternative to chocolate.

However, I do occasionally accept requests from one of my innumerable admirers, and recently I baked a "confetti" cake, using this Yellow Sheet Cake recipe from Baking Bites, and mixing in a cup of sprinkles before baking. The cake itself was divine; the buttercream icing I attempted, not so much.

And so, true to form, I hastily made the cake again, this time in the form of cupcakes, and added--what else?--chocolate.

The most interesting thing about this cake recipe is the method in which it is mixed. From Baking Bites:

"Beating the butter into the dry ingredients gives the finished cake a beautiful and tender crumb, inhibiting gluten development by creating a protective coating of fat around the flour. Beating the flour/butter mixture with some of the eggs gives the remaining gluten a chance to develop and incorporate air into the cake."

This is by far the lightest, fluffiest cake I have ever made without buttermilk. It has become my designated, go-to vanilla cake recipe.

Yellow Sheet Cake recipe from Baking Bites. I adapted this only in that I made two 8-inch round cakes, or 24 cupcakes, as opposed to one 9 x 13 cake.

Simple Chocolate Frosting

2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened baking chocolate
1/2 cup butter
6 tablespoons milk
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a saucepan, melt the butter and baking chocolate. Let cool.
2. Combine with milk, vanilla, and cocoa in an electric mixer (a handheld one is fine, as well).
3. Add confectioners' sugar (1/2 cup at a time).

TIP: You may need to adjust the amount of sugar or milk. The frosting should be spreadable but hold its shape easily when applied.

PS: I have been on vacation these past couple of weeks. I hope to post once a week from now on!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Martha Stewart

I am in the process of forming my own definitive cookbook collection. This means that I own about 15-20 cookbooks, half of which are truly useful. The other half are gifts or hand-me-downs or book sale purchases that are pretty to look at, but haven't provided me with any solid recipes. Among the good ones I own: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, The Joy of Cooking (a battered 1964 edition), Moosewood's Simple Suppers, and The New Food Lover's Tiptionary.

Books I still want to aquire: Heidi Swanson's cookbook, The Cake Bible, and Baking from My Home to Yours.

This post is about Martha Stewart! I have been desirous of her book, "Martha Stewart's Cookies," for so long, and have dropped so many hints, that my mother finally bought it for my birthday. I am in love with Martha's system of organization, and the beautiful pictures that accompany each recipe. While I'm not crazy about her level of perfectionism (I.E., "beat the eggs in electric mixer on medium until pale, or 4 minutes,"), these are some amazing recipes. This is the first one that I attempted, slightly revised.

Double Chocolate Brownies
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cookies

6 Tbsp butter
6 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup unsweetened, Dutch-process cocoa powder
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Butter an 8-inch round cake tin. The original recipe calls for a square pan, but I wanted a sort of brownie-cake I could cut into slices.
3. Melt butter, chocolate, and cocoa powder in a pan. (TIP: I find that, when melting chocolate for baking purposes, it's sufficient to use a little butter and just melt it over a burner or in the microwave. The butter keeps it from scorching. Martha wants you to use a double boiler, or a "heatproof bowl over simmering water." In my opinion, this is totally unnecessary. As long as you keep stirring and make sure the butter has coated the pan, you'll be fine.)
4. Beat sugar, eggs, and vanilla together. Add cooled chocolate mixture.
5. Mix the dry ingredients with a whisk or fork. Add to the rest of the batter.
6. Spread the batter evenly into pan. Bake approximately 30 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out with a few crumbs, but not wet. Allow to cool, and slice!

Here's another TIP: when you're making something like brownies, where the chocolate is the most important factor, use the best quality ingredients. Baker's chocolate will suffice if you're experiencing a major craving, but I would opt for something like Scharffen Berger, if possible. This goes for the butter and eggs, as well. You want to use fresh, good quality ingredients. Trust me. When I was in Mexico, I was persuaded to buy a giant glass bottle of pure vanilla extract. It has lasted me over a year and half, and has an incredible taste. I wish I could carry it everywhere with me. Anyway, the better your ingredients, the better the final product. This seems so simple, but I'm always forgetting it...

Next up on the brownie front: finding the best vegan brownie recipe out there!