Friday, March 27, 2015

$100 Chocolate Cake With Swiss Almond Buttercream Frosting

Anyone who has been reading my ramblings here for the past few years might be familiar with my stories about Caterer Chris. Even though I only worked with her for a very brief time back in the 90s, the recipes that I learned under her direction are some of my favorites to this day.

Included in the short but important list of her great recipes, is one for $100 Chocolate Cake. This recipe claims to have had its beginnings in the dining room of the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, but now in the days of the internet I have found that its origins just might not be so clear.

So the urban legend goes, this cake was so good that the Waldorf's resident chef, weary from so many recipe requests, would gladly pass on the recipe for this cake, and a bill for $100.00 right along with it. As you can well imagine, this must have certainly cut down on the constant recipe requests from their patrons.

Through much Googling and reading, I have discovered that the original recipe for the Waldorf's cake very well might have been for more of a red velvet recipe than this one. As with most urban legends, the true story has been lost long ago, but that in no way takes away from the taste of this particular delicious chocolate cake recipe.

Caterer Chris's recipe that she passed on to me calls for more of a mocha/coffee frosting, but my family didn't like it nearly as much as I do. Consequently, I have been in search of a worthy substitute for all these years. Finally, I can now emphatically state that I have found the perfect frosting for this delicious cake.

This Swiss Buttercream recipe, introduced to me by one of my pastry chef friends is easy to make, light and fluffy and stable at room temperature. It is also easy to work with, and I am happy to say that the family loves it.

So here you go, a recipe for a great chocolate cake with a buttery Swiss Almond Buttercream frosting and you didn't have to pay a penny for it. You can thank me later.

$100 Chocolate Cake with Swiss Almond Buttercream Frosting

4 squares unsweetened chocolate (I used a cocoa powder substitute which is 3 tablespoons cocoa powder plus 1 tablespoon cooking oil per square)
1/2 cup (1 - 4 ounce stick) butter (I used Churn 84, but any high butter fat content butter will work)
2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 - 1/2 cups milk

Line the bottom of 2 - 9 inch round cake pans with parchment and spray with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.

Heat chocolate and butter in a sauce pan over low heat until melted and smooth. Transfer mixture to a large bowl; set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium size bowl; set aside.

With an electric mixer set to medium low speed, blend the sugar with the eggs. To this add the vanilla and the chocolate mixture, continue beating until well combined.

With the mixer at low speed, add the flour mixture and the milk, starting with 1/4 of the flour mixture, followed by 1/3 of the milk, repeating until all the ingredients are well combined.

Pour batter evenly into the prepared pans. Bake 30 - 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out ALMOST clean. Top center of the cakes will be soft so the perfectly done cake will not spring back in the middle if touched with a finger.

Cool cakes in pans for 5 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks to cool completely.

Frost with Swiss Almond Buttercream, recipe follows.

For high altitude, I decreased the baking powder to 1-1/2 teaspoons and increased the flour by two tablespoons.

Swiss Almond Buttercream

1 - 2 ounces sliced almonds
4 egg whites from 4 large to extra large eggs
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
Pinch of salt if desired
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoons almond extract
1 pound high butter fat butter, softened to room temperature

Place almonds in a pan set over medium heat. Toast, stirring frequently until they are golden brown and they become aromatic. Transfer to a cool plate and set aside until ready to use.

Whisk egg whites and granulated sugar in the top of a double boiler or in the metal bowl of a stand mixer set over a pan of gently simmering water.  If desired, you can add a pinch of salt at this time. Heat, while whisking constantly until all of the sugar is dissolved and no "grit" can be felt when rubbing a bit of the mixture between your fingers.

Transfer the hot mixture to a mixing bowl and whisk with an electric mixer set to medium high. Whisk until mixture is completely cooled and resembles marshmallow fluff, about 10 minutes.

Once cooled, add the butter a large pinch (about a tablespoon or two) at a time to the egg white mixture, blending well between additions. Add vanilla and almond extracts.

After all the butter is added, increase the mixer speed to high and whip until the mixture looks like over beaten whipped cream, approximately 2 minutes.

Use immediately or cover bowl and store in a cool place. Refrigeration is not recommended until after you frost your cake as the butter hardens making it difficult to use until it returns to room temperature. Sprinkle with toasted almonds.

This recipe makes enough frosting to generously frost a two layer cake.

Butterball Farms, the makers of Epicurean Butter, recently sent me a sample box of their new European style butter, Churn 84. At 84% butterfat content, this butter surpasses the usual 80% found in most butters on the market today. Presently only available to food service companies, Churn 84 is available in butter sheets for making croissants and pastries, butter pats, rolls and blocks. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Something From Nothing #32: Cacio e Pepe (Pasta with cheese and cracked pepper)

I remember my parents talking about the good old days when my sister and I were babies and they didn't have two nickles to rub together. They ate lots of dried beans, rice and macaroni. They even mashed up these foods and fed them to us as baby food, more out of necessity than choice. This is probably why we grew up eating everything. There wasn't much that Mom pulled out of her 1960's pantry that we turned our nose up at.

I don't know about your pantry, but mine is probably much like my mother's. It is always stocked with flour, sugar, dried pasta, beans, rice and an assortment of canned goods that usually include tomatoes, beans of every kind and maybe just a can or two of condensed milk.

Now my fridge on the other hand is a bit of a different story. Being a person that loves to cook, you might see things in there that some people might not believe is a staple. Like cream. I always have cream on hand because it is so versatile. Not only does it last in the fridge a long time, it can be whipped for sweet treats, used as an ingredient for a delicious sweet or savory sauce, frozen for ice cream or used plain as a delicious dessert topping. Love the stuff.

I also always have a couple of cheeses on hand at all times. I love Parmesan, blue and cheddar, so one or all are usually hanging around in the deli drawer. I always use real butter so I stock up when there is a sale. You might want to watch your toes when digging through my freezer, because you never know when a frozen pound or two will come tumbling out.

So these are some of the ingredients that set the stage for my Something From Nothing posts. Simple things that get us through those times when we are too tired, or like in the case of my young parents, too broke to hit the supermarket.

For this month's recipe, I looked to Italy for inspiration. The Italians are some of the most frugal people on earth, and the things that they can do with a few simple ingredients are no less than magic. This simple recipe of pasta in a buttery pepper sauce with lots of cheese is a prime example of the things you can do with just a few things that you might have hanging around your villa.

Cacio e Pepe

Simply translated, cacio e pepe means cheese and pepper. This dish is as popular to the Romans as mac and cheese is to us.  Even though I am calling it by the same name, my version has a few variations that make it a little less traditional than you would find in the cafes of Rome, but good all the same.

8 ounces spaghetti, bucatini or your favorite pasta, cooked to package directions in generously salted water
1 - 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black, pink or white peppercorns (or a blend of)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
2/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling on finished dish
1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water

While pasta is cooking, place ground peppercorns in a medium size saucepan over medium heat. Toast until aroma is released, stirring frequently.

After 30 seconds or so add olive oil and butter to the pan, stirring until butter is melted. Add the garlic and cook until the butter just starts to brown.

Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the butter sauce. Sprinkle with the cheese. Toss with tongs to coat. Toss in pasta water 1/4 cup at a time if needed to loosen sauce.

Serve immediately with extra cheese, or red pepper flakes.

Serves 2 as a meal or 4 as an appetizer.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2015: Hint O' Mint Macarons with Irish Cream Buttercream Filling

As I sit and write this my kitchen looks like an Irish car bomb went off in it. Not the drink kind, the real kind, but by gosh we have macarons. I don't know where the last four hours have gone or how many my dog ate off of the table when I went to look for my phone, but mission accomplished, we have St. Patrick's Day themed macarons.

Since I went to work at my new job, I have assisted in no less than 5 French macaron classes and have taken the class once. I have made them at home 3 times now, so I feel like I am at least experienced enough to pass on the recipe and a few observations to you at this time.

1. Macarons aren't really hard to make, they are just temperamental. If you have an old or uneven heating oven like I do, you will be challenged, but don't give up. The French have been making these for hundreds of years in old school ovens, so I can make them too.

2. Some of them might turn out ugly, but that doesn't mean they have no value. I like to call these the chef's treats. The ugly ones aren't a failure, they are a gift from the macaron gods. They are still delicious and they belong to you, so be thankful for them.

3. As my experience has it, the first batch unfortunately is often like the "test pancake". You will learn a lot from this first sheet of cookies. Cracked puffy tops? Your oven is too hot. Hollow? You whipped the whites for too long or didn't mix them with the flour for long enough. No feet? You didn't whip the whites long enough or you stirred them too long when you added the almond flour mixture. Brown? Your oven is too hot or you baked them for too long.

4. The ingredients for these delicate little cookies are simple, but having a few tools will make your experience much more pleasant. Everyone should already have a kitchen scale, but if you don't you might want to make the small investment and get one. Volume measurements are best used for liquids. I found out when I was living in England how much more accurate weight measurements are for dry ingredients and this recipe is a perfect example.

You will also need a food processor or a large, fine screen strainer, an electric mixer, some parchment paper and some pastry bags. For the filling you will need an instant read or candy thermometer. Nothing exotic, just a few things that are very useful in any one's kitchen.

Hint 'O Mint Macarons

Be sure to process the almond flour with some of the powdered sugar or you will end up with almond butter.

7 ounces powdered sugar, divided
4 ounces almond flour or meal
4 large egg whites (about 4 ounces), room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
3 - 1/2 ounces granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon mint flavoring
Paste food coloring of your choice (if desired)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. If using, place paper macaron templates in the bottom of a cookie sheet. Top the templates with parchment or just line the cookie sheets with parchment or a Silpat; set aside.

Place 1/3 of the powdered sugar and all of the almond flour in a food processor and pulse several times to make a fine powder. Add the remaining sugar and pulse several more times to insure a fine texture. Sift this through a strainer, pushing through with a rubber spatula. You might have a tablespoon or two of almond bits that won't pass through the sieve. This is OK, a little waste is normal. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl (if using a hand mixer), fitted with a whisk attachment and set to medium speed, beat egg whites and cream of tartar until they are foamy and little to no yellow color is visible. Gradually add sugar in one steady stream. Once all sugar is incorporated, increase beater speed to high and beat until soft peaks form. At this point, stop beater and add mint flavoring and food coloring by painting it onto the side of the beater. Continue beating until stiff, glossy peaks form.

Stop beating and add the almond flour and sugar mixture 1/3 at a time to the egg whites using a rubber spatula, folding in flour well after each addition. Once all the flour is added fold until mixture is still thick but drips slowly from the spoon.

Place mixture into a pastry bag (you will probably have to do this in 2 or 3 batches) fitted with a No. 10 or 12 tip, or clip a small hole in the bottom of the bag if you are experienced or brave. Pipe mixture into 1 - 1/2" circles that are about 1" apart on to the prepared baking sheets. Do this by piping mixture onto the parchment in a stationary dot, letting it expand from the middle (I pipe for a 5 or 6 count, stop squeezing and then making a quick "comma" with the tip of the bag). The mixture will settle into a larger circle as it sits. Repeat until you have covered the baking sheet.

Pick the baking sheet up by the edges and hold about 8" in the air before dropping it on a sturdy surface. Repeat this 5 or 6 times to pop any air bubbles that might have formed during the piping. Set aside for about 10 minutes to let a skin form on the top of the macarons. You will know when they are ready when they are dry when touched lightly with your finger.

I took this photo when I went to rotate the pan after the first 8 minutes. As you can see, some of them are forming nice feet (the bubbly, frilly looking bit at the bottom) and some of them are cracked and puffy from the uneven heat in my oven. 

When a skin has formed, place the baking sheet into the preheated oven. Set a timer for 8 minutes. At the end of 8 minutes, rotate the pan and cook for an additional 8 minutes. Check for doneness by gently gripping a middle one and giving it a gently "wiggle" if it moves, return it to the oven for a few minutes. If it is firm on its "feet" it is done and can be removed from the oven to cool.

When macarons are cool to the touch, gently peel away from the parchment; set aside. Repeat with remaining batter. Fill with buttercream, recipe below or a simple chocolate ganache if you prefer. Store any uneaten, filled macarons in an airtight container. Since these are filled with buttercream, they will need to be refrigerated. If you can possibly hide them out, they are best the next day when the macarons are still crispy on the outside but chewy on the inside.

Irish Cream Buttercream

3 large egg yolks
1 - 1/2 ounces plus 6 ounces granulated sugar, divided
Pinch of salt
2 ounces of water
2 teaspoons corn syrup
12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces and brought to  room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon very strong coffee or 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder mixed with 1/2 teaspoon water
2 tablespoons chocolate/hazelnut spread
2 tablespoons bourbon or Irish whiskey

Place egg yolks and 1-1/2 ounces sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer set with the whisk attachement. With beaters set to medium high, beat until mixture reaches the ribbon stage, or light in color and thick and foamy.

Combine water, remaining sugar, and corn syrup in a small sauce pan. Stir to combine but once mixture starts boiling, quit stirring. Bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 235 degrees on a instant read thermometer.

With the mixer running on medium, pour the cooked sugar in a slow, steady stream into the yolks being careful not to let the sugar hit the side of the bowl or the beater as this will result in lost sugar (I always have some lost sugar and it always tastes good).

Once all the sugar is incorporated, reduce the beaters to medium speed and beat until mixture has cooled to just barely warm when you touch the side of the bowl.

At this point reduce the beaters to low and add butter 1 piece at a time whisking after each addition. Once all butter is incorporated add the vanilla extract, coffee, hazelnut spread and whiskey. Beat on medium high to incorporate.

Immediately transfer buttercream to a pastry bag and clip a small whole in the tip. Pipe about 1 teaspoon buttercream onto the inside of 1/2 of the macarons. Close with another macaron to form a sandwich cookie.

Makes about 4 dozen.