Monday, December 21, 2009

English Gingerbread Cake

This week's Heavenly Cake Baker's assignment is Rose's take on gingerbread cake. I love a good gingerbread, so I was excited to try her take.

December 5, 2009
Name of cake: Rose's Gingerbread
Occasion: Heavenly Bakers
Constituents: Gingerbread, with a lemony syrup

This cake is definitely one of the quick and easy cakes. Everything can be mixed together by hand in a lovely earthenware bowl, instead of beaten wildly by a stand mixer. As much as I LOVE my stand mixer, it is fun to go old school and mix up a batter by hand. When I do, I like to pretend I have six children and a husband who still plows the fields with our trusty horse, Trusty, and that our older children help their pa out in the fields while the younger ones play with paper dolls and wooden soldiers by the roaring fireplace. Yes, I was a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan when I was a child.

First off, butter is melted in a saucepan with golden syrup, more of my favorite dark muscovado sugar, and a little bit of orange marmalade. I was happy to have an excuse to buy orange marmalade as it is one of my favorite spreads for toast.

the liquids, before heating

Next, all the dry ingredients are whisked together in a bowl. I was excited to see that whole wheat flour was one of the ingredients; not only did I have some waiting patiently to be used, but I like to sneak a little fiber in my baked goods and then tell people the cake is "healthy." I mean, it kind of is. Kind of.

This is the best part. After completing the melted butter concotion and whisking together the dry ingredients, all that is left to do is to add the liquids to the powders and mix by hand. Then the very liquidy batter is poured into a square cake pan and baked. Easy peasy!

Mine had a funny looking top after it was baked, plus a few little floury spots. I guess I didn't incorporate the liquid and flours too well.


While the cake cools, a lemony buttery syrup is made to pour over the cake. This is also easy-peasy, as the syrup is literally sugar, lemon juice, and butter, which you heat over a low flame until the butter is melted and the sugar dissolved. And, scene.

This syrup is then spread over the top and bottom of the cake, and it keeps the cake moist and gives it a nice lemony edge. After syruping it takes another 24 hours before the cake should be eaten, presumably to let the moisture evenly distribute and the flavors to sort themselves out. I found that after another 24 hours (48 hours total) the cake had thoroughly sorted itself out and was much fuller in flavor than the day before.

Rose describes the cake's flavor as "an intriguing blend of buttery, lemony, wheaty, and treacly flavors" which I quite agree. There is a little bit of spiciness from the cinnamon and ginger, but it plays a faint background note. This cake, covered and at a very cold room temperature (my kitchen is very very cold), stayed moist and yummy for about a week.

I will admit that I wouldn't call this cake a gingerbread cake. I associate gingerbread cake with the flavors of molasses, ginger, and cinnamon. I like my gingerbread spicy, dark, and a tad dense. This cake was none of these things, but it was delicious with a wonderful blend of unusual flavors. I would certainly make it again, but I might not call it gingerbread. Maybe I'll call it a Lemon-Treacle Cake. I like the way that sounds!

gingerbread cake

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Layer Peppermint Bark

three layer peppermintbark

I posted this recipe last year, but not until February. So here I am, trying to be timely. Go make this! It is easy, and quite possibly the best peppermint bark you'll ever taste. There's a layer of peppermint ganache between all that white chocolate, and it gives a slightly soft, slightly bitter, seriously chocolate pow to this bark. The contrast of textures between the crunchy candies, the aforementioned ganache, and the sorta snappy white chocolate is delightful. And pepperminty. And addictive.

Last year I wrapped the bark in cellophane bags and stuck them in my family's stockings. This year I made a tin for my work peeps, and another tin for my roommate (Annmarie's weakness is chocolate and peppermint). I will be making another round for family stockings next week as well.

Enough talk. Start melting that chocolate!!

Three-Layer Peppermint Bark
From Orangette, adapted from Bon Appétit, December 1998

To crush the peppermints coarsely, Bon Appétit advises tapping the wrapped candies firmly with the bottom edge of an unopened 15- to 16-ounce can. She used a heavy glass jar, and that worked fine too.
  • 17 oz. white chocolate, finely chopped (make sure cocoa butter is one of the major ingredients--I used the Whole Foods white chocolate chunks)
  • 30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, coarsely crushed
  • 7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, such as E Guittard 61% semi sweet chocolate
  • 6 Tbsp. heavy cream
  • ¾ tsp. peppermint extract
Turn a large baking sheet upside down, or an unrimmed cookie sheet, and cover it securely with aluminum foil. Measure out and mark a 9- by 12-inch rectangle.

Put the white chocolate in a metal (or other heatproof) bowl, and set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water. (Do not allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water.) Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth; if you take its temperature with a candy thermometer, it should register 110°F. Remove the chocolate from the heat. Pour 2/3 cup of it onto the rectangle on the foil. Using an icing spatula, spread the chocolate to fill the rectangle. Sprinkle with ¼ cup of the crushed peppermints. Chill until set, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the bittersweet chocolate, cream, and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan. Warm over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Then remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator, and pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture over the white chocolate rectangle. Using an icing spatula – make sure you cleaned it after using it for the white chocolate, above! – spread the bittersweet chocolate in an even layer. Chill until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Rewarm the remaining white chocolate over barely simmering water to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet layer, using your (again, clean) icing spatula to spread it to cover. Sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.

Carefully lift the foil from the baking sheet onto a large cutting board. Trim away any ragged edges of the rectangle. (These are yours to immediately devour, which you will.) Cut the bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips. Using metal spatula, slip the bark off of the foil and onto the cutting board. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections, and then cut each section diagonally into 2 triangles.

Pack into an airtight container, with sheets of wax paper between layers of bark to prevent them from sticking to one another. Store in the refrigerator. Serve cold or, to emphasize the slight softness of the bittersweet layer, let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving. (Much better at room temperature.)

Note: This bark will keep for up to 2 weeks, if not more. If you plan to pack it in a tin or baggie with other holiday sweets, be sure to wrap it separately in plastic wrap. Or maybe wax paper and then plastic wrap, so that it doesn’t sweat. If you left it naked, so to speak, to mix and mingle with other cookies or candies, everything might wind up tasting and smelling like peppermint.

three layer peppermintbark

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Guest Post: Raiuchka's Salted Caramel Cupcakes

Many of you may recognize Raiuchka as one of the frequent commenters on this site. Raiuchka and I went to the same college and along with two others, spent four months in Simferopol in 1994 studying Russian, dispelling myths about America and Americans, and making friends. Russians believe that the bonds of friendship are forged over glasses of alcohol, and once a bottle is opened it must be finished. To the detriment of our livers, we made a lot of friends, including with each other.

Raiuchka and I have maintained our friendship (now over blog posts instead of warm glasses of vodka) over the years and recently she contacted me looking for help making cupcakes for her son's birthday. I was only too happy to give her a cake recipe and a little bit of advice. I also asked if she would like to guest blog her adventures in cupcake making, which she did!

And now, heeeeeeerrrrrreeeee's Raiuchka!

Name of cake: Salted-Caramel Cupcakes for 28 First-Graders
Occasion: Raiuchka's baby turns seven and Raiuchka has a crisis
Constituents: Rose's White Velvet Butter Cake, salted-caramel Swiss meringue buttercream, caramel, anxiety

My son turned seven last month, and he asked for caramel cupcakes for his class. While I consider myself a good cook, I am not a baker. I approach baking a cake with terror in my heart.

After we sent out invitations for the party, we found out that another kid in my son's class had scheduled his birthday party just an hour before ours at the same public pool, and had sent out his invitations long before. I pictured my son arriving at his own birthday party only to watch many of his friends leave for cake at the other boy's house. I consoled him (and myself) with the fact that he would get to celebrate with all his classmates on his actual birthday.

Suddenly these cupcakes took on epic importance. So now I could worry about making hockey-puck cupcakes and about whether my baby was on the edge of his first heartbreak. Awesome.

I found a yummy-looking recipe for Salted Caramel Cupcakes online, but the cake recipe only yielded a dozen! As a rank amateur I knew that I could not get through it three times without meeting disaster, but I also knew enough not to blithely triple the recipe and expect success. So I turned to my dear friend the Evil Cake Lady, who very kindly gave me the recipe for White Velvet Butter Cake (from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible) and advised me that it would make about 30 cupcakes if I filled the cups two-thirds full, and that the Caramel Swiss Meringue Buttercream frosting in my online recipe could easily be doubled.

So, the afternoon before his birthday, I shook myself out of my panic about the party, put on some Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and pulled the dairy out of the fridge. Much too late. Lots of dairy, and it took an age to come up to room temperature. Luckily I could make some extra caramel while I waited. Caramel cupcakes can't have too much caramel, right?

perhaps I should not have stirred yet. ugh, free-form candies!

I thought I would try putting the sugar on a cold burner to start with, and stir it immediately. In the batch I'd made a day ahead, the sugar formed little free-form candies as it melted, which I attributed to having preheated the pan. (Hey, I'm a cook, not a baker! That's what I do with stainless pans!) This change didn't help; perhaps I shouldn’t have stirred the sugar until it started to melt. Because these little sugar rocks needed to melt down, I kept it on the heat. However, even I could intuit that smoke = bad, so I snatched it off and finished melting down the sugar with residual heat. I also added the cream off the heat, which caused an alarming amount of bubbling up and boiling. I was glad I was using a pot that had seemed too big.

adding the cream to the melted sugar finished caramel

As the caramel cooled and the dairy continued to come up to room temperature, I went to the store to get this mysterious baker’s sugar of which I have heard tell. I trust ECL! I know that I need help! When I got back, the dairy and eggs were still too cold, so I decided to measure everything out while I waited. Only a few stupid questions occurred to me while weighing out the flour and sugar. Such as: should I pour the sugar in on top of the flour that I just sifted? Wouldn't that pack down the flour and defeat the purpose of sifting it? I poured the sugar down the side of the mixer bowl just in case. Remember, my little guy's happiness may depend upon these cupcakes. I cannot be too careful.

butter and milk sifting cake flour

WOW – more evidence (if Rose's word isn't enough) that you should always weigh your ingredients when you bake. The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder, or 19.5 grams. I wasn’t sure whether the tablespoon/teaspoon measurement was for was packed or sifted. So I mixed the powder up a little bit in the can and measured out 1 T + 1 t. -- it only weighed 14 grams! It took another whole teaspoon to get to the specified 19.5 grams. Yet another reason why my cakes usually come out flat – not enough baking powder. Same with the egg whites. I was so glad that ECL had sent me a note about weighing the egg whites, because if I had only gone by number of eggs, I would have been short.

ANNNNDDDD the milk and butter was still sort of cold. Only an hour and a half was left until the birthday boy would come home from school. Eeek. I love my son dearly, but he has the attention span of a gnat and I just couldn't face baking with him that day. I pulled out my trusty digital thermometer and wasted several minutes obsessing over what constitutes "room temperature". Milk was 61 degrees, eggs were 65 degrees, butter was 63 degrees. These things are the temperature of a rather cold room…. What else could I do while waiting? Check the oven temperature. 410 degrees. Eeek! I want 350! I jiggled the knob a little bit. Stupid oven.

beating ew... looks like when I start pizza dough.
beat it!
starting to look like cake batter

Finally the dairy was at approximately college dorm-room temperature, so I put the batter together. Rose's recipe is very easy to follow, even for this total rube. I love that the recipe includes instructions like "Gradually add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure." That's the sort of recipe I need: explanations so I don't get neurotic about how long I'm beating the batter. I had no actual emergencies during this portion of the exercise, which is supremely amazing to me. The batter is gorgeous, fluffy, and creamy, and it tastes amazing. I have never made a cake batter like this before. The Cake Bible is going on my Christmas list.

final batter

As the cupcakes were going into the cups, I worried about having enough batter, because I figured I needed no fewer than 30 cupcakes if everybody was present. My innate baking idiocy kicked in again when the first pans went into the oven -- I forgot to set the timer. I only realized it afterwards, so I had to estimate how much time I had been faffing around changing the Harry Potter CD. I set the timer for what I thought might be the remaining time and got a toothpick ready. See, I do remember something from middle school home ec!

While waiting, I struggled not to eat any of the the remaining batter, because it is really, really tasty, and then I thought – there’s something missing. It needs some salt! Aaaaarrrgh. I had forgotten to add the salt to the dry ingredients. So I put a little pinch of salt into the batter that’s waiting. Should this be waiting in the fridge, or what? You see, baking-talented peoples? There are SO MANY QUESTIONS. Things you just know and probably never have to wonder about. What do you do when you are baking three dozen cupcakes and only have room for two 12-cup muffin pans in your oven, and your new convection oven will not be arriving for another week? Do you hold the rest of the batter in the fridge? I guessed not, after all that time I spent trying to get the eggs, milk, and butter to warm up.

The smell while the cupcakes were baking was incredible. Like... the Platonic ideal of "cake" incredible. It smells very eggy, a little like warm custard. I wondered whether all the cupcakes would make it to school the next day. With five minutes left on the timer I chanced opening the door to get a photo. They were so cute! See? Little domes!

starting to puff up

I know the domes will fall, but still! Cute! When I saw they were browning, I poked one and the toothpick came out clean. Maybe I spent more time changing the CD than I thought. I could have avoided this angst if I had been paying attention, rather than thinking about Hermione Granger's cool beaded bag, with an undetectable extension charm so you can carry all your belongings around with you. How cool would that be? Moms need that to be invented, pronto.

sweet little cakes!

The recipe says to leave the cupcakes in the pan for 5 minutes and then take them out to cool. I headed out to get the little man from school while they cooled. I planned to wait until he was in bed to do the frosting, because, looking at the recipe, I thought that part of the project might involve colorful language.

It turned out, though, that making the Swiss meringue buttercream was pretty easy. Heating the egg whites and sugar on the stove took a bit longer than the recipe said it would. I didn’t want to overheat the egg whites, but I did want to get it right. I finally took it off the heat when it had thickened considerably.

this part took forever! still too runny, but it's way over time

I put it into the KitchenAid and whipped it with the whisk attachment for 6 minutes or so on speed 8. It was room temperature and thick, like the recipe called for, but it was not holding stiff peaks. I put it in for a couple more minutes, until it was like fairly thin Marshmallow Creme, but not as sticky. I added the butter, and the frosting still seemed thin. Perhaps the butter had moved too far past “room temperature”? I added 5 more tablespoons of slightly firmer butter a tablespoon at a time. I whipped that in for a few minutes and checked the consistency again. Now that looks like frosting!

nope, still meringue finally looks like frosting
caramel swirled in caramel folded in.

At this point the frosting recipe said to put in the caramel drizzle and whip it in. Having finally arrived at something resembling frosting, I wasn't brave enough to do that, so I gently folded it in. After firming the frosting up in the fridge for a little while, I frosted and decorated the cakes with no further mishap.


The cake was tender, light, fully perfumed with the vanilla, and rich from the egg and butter. The caramel frosting was extremely light and buttery, and really tasted like caramel. The caramel topping was scrumptious; the extra caramel met some very nice Honeycrisp apples and lived happily ever after.

the finished product, less one bite!

They were an enormous hit -- in fact, the substitute teacher begged for the recipe and the teacher's aide said they were as good as... um, conjugal relations. Well, there you go. Success! The kids liked the All-Important Salted Caramel Cupcakes too. Thanks, ECL!

The Birthday Boy enjoys his cupcake

Monday, December 07, 2009

Heavenly Fruitcake

About four years ago, my dad wistfully remarked that he would like to sample a really good fruitcake. It was during the holidays and he possibly was looking at one of those yucky fruitcakes that look all sticky and sweaty in their plastic-wrapped packages, with the colored bits of "fruit" and chewy looking "nuts" poking out of the "cake." I cheerfully told him that I had a real fruitcake recipe (RLB's Less Fruity Fruitcake from The Cake Bible) and that I would happily bake him one next Christmas.

So, I'm about 4 years overdue, and it's a different recipe, but who's counting?

December 5, 2009
Name of Cake: Heavenly Fruitcake
Occasion: Christmas, Melinda, and Heavenly Cake Bakers
Constituents: Cake, with rum and glaceed fruit and pecans

do not open until christmas, or later

I don't think I have ever tasted fruitcake, as I've only seen the terrible versions described above. Rose's photos of her Less Fruity Fruitcake in The Cake Bible began to change my mind about what a fruitcake could be. There could actually be cake! It could actually taste good!

I have truly been planning on baking the Less Fruity Fruitcake for years now, but I've always let the holiday season come and go without the cake being made. Mostly, I have been uninspired by the yucky looking candied fruit that the grocery stores tell me I ought to bake a fruitcake with. Eeewwwww.

Then here comes along Rose's Heavenly Cakes and she's got another recipe for fruitcake, this time with a lot more nuts, less glaceed fruit (which she now recommends should come from Europe), and a bigger capacity bundt pan. The pan costs about $35 so I was still more interested in The Cake Bible's version (Rose also recommends making little fruit cakelettes or one 6 in round), but Melinda and I agreed to try this one out together. Then we discovered the HCB were set to bake this for December, so Melinda and I planned to publish our posts at the same time.

fruit, getting rummy

First off, glaceed fruit must be soaked in rum for at least a week. Rose recommends getting the good stuff from France (via, but I found some good looking lemon and orange peel at the local Whole Foods. Many suggested that I candy my own peel, which really isn't so hard, but I wasn't up for the task. Good looking glaceed charries was nigh impossible to find locally. I almost ordered from chefshop, but then decided it would be faster to just give in and get the crummy grocery store cherries. I was already two weeks behind Melinda and getting nervous there wouldn't be enough time for the cake to mellow and get all yummy before Christmas.

When it came to making the batter, Rose gives curious instructions to soften the butter unti it becomes creamy. Creamy? Like this?

so is this what she means by creamy butter?

This creamy butter is them creamed with the beautiful, luscious, delightful dark muscovado sugar. Regular readers will recall how much I love muscovado sugar. For those of you who are new, just know that I freaking love the hell out of muscovado sugar.

I am curious why Rose goes back to the creaming method for this cake. With the Chocolate Streusel Cake, Rose explains that with all the liquid the creaming method is necessary so that the flour can absorb better. There doesn't seem to be a lot of liquid with this cake (or any liquid), but the butter is almost equal in weight to the flour. Is that why? Why, Rose? Why?

The batter, regardless of all these questions, was as lovely and thick as most RLB batters are:

heavenly fruitcake batter

I chose to use all pecans, as I am not much for walnuts and, more importantly, I discovered three different stashes of pecans in the freezer. That is pretty exciting!

I smoothed about 2/3 of the batter into two 8 inch loaf pans, and the rest into my 6-cup cakelette pan. I forgot about the instructions Rose gave about turning down the oven temperature if using a dark pan (which they all were) and about tenting the loaf pans with foil halfway thorugh the bake. After about 20 minutes the cakes and cakelettes were all pretty much overdone. Dang!

dangit, burnt fruicakelettes

These little cakelettes are the most burnt. The loaves aren't quite so black. The loaves got the rum-soaked cheesecloth treatment and will hang out until Christmas, or sometime thereabouts.

My friends, The Jellos, and I are sampling the little cakelettes as I write this post. Despite their burnt crust, the insides are moist, lightly sweet, and faintly spicy. The nuts and fruit are delicious and in good proportion to the cake (that's right, there's CAKE in this fruicake!), and our only complaint is that there isn't enough rummy taste. The Jello's bassett hound liked the cakelettes so much that not only did he help himself to one whole one (that he stole off the counter) and while we were standing in the kitchen amazed that a bassett hound stretched himself long enough to reach the countertop, he ran into the living room and stole the rest of my fruitcakelette. So hats off to Rose, who created a fruitcake delicious to both man and man's best friend!

I look forward to sampling the mellowed out loaves at Christmastime, and to get my dad's opinion on them. I will have to report back.