Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Harry Potter's First Birthday Cake!

We just celebrated an 11th birthday at our house, and I could think of no better cake than "Harry's First Birthday Cake: Chocolate Layer Cake," from The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook, by Dinah Bucholz. After all, Harry received his first birthday cake when he turned eleven. That Aunt Petunia was a real *#%*! Anyway, the instructions for this cake seemed a little laborious, but actually was quite easy to make. To my surprise, this was one of the best chocolate cakes I've ever had! Two layers of rich chocolate cake, enveloped in the creamiest chocolate butter-cream frosting, and the final touch of a rich chocolate ganache glaze! A true chocolate-lovers dream!

To manage my time in the kitchen, I made the chocolate cake layers a day in advance, stacked them between parchment, wrapped them in plastic wrap, and refrigerated them overnight. This allowed me to make the frosting, glaze, and icing the next morning. To truly enjoy the creaminess of the butter-cream frosting, this cake is best served at room temperature. One thing to remember, this cake is supposed to look homemade and a little messy; after all, Hagrid made it! So, if you are about to celebrate an 11th birthday, or any birthday for that matter, this is the cake for you!

Here's a look inside:

Harry's First Birthday Cake: Chocolate Layer Cake

Serves 16

For the Chocolate Cake
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant coffee (I used instant espresso powder.)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Chocolate Glaze
8 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli chips.)
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 stick (2 tablespoons) butter
1/4 cup corn syrup

For the Chocolate Frosting
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 of the above Chocolate Glaze recipe

For the Green Icing
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon water, or more if needed, to form a paste
Green food coloring

For the Chocolate Cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper cut to fit. Whisk together the boiling water, cocoa powder, and instant coffee in a measuring cup or small bowl until smooth; set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each until incorporated and scraping down the sides as needed. Add the vanilla extract and beat until combined. Add the hot cocoa mixture and beat until combined, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the flour mixture and stir on the slowest speed until combined. Finish by scraping the bottom of the bowl with a spatula and folding it in. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 20 minutes, until the cakes feel firm and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached. Be careful, as this cake overbakes easily. (I set my timer for 15 minutes, checked it with a toothpick, and it was already done!) Cool the layers in the pans for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and cool completely. (Can be covered and refrigerated overnight.)

For the Chocolate Glaze
Place the chocolate, heavy cream, butter, and corn syrup in a bowl and microwave for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Cool the glaze until it is thick but still pourable.

For the Chocolate Frosting
Place the butter, confectioners' sugar, heavy cream, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides as needed, about 7 minutes. Add half of the cooled glaze and beat until combined. If the frosting is too soft to spread, chill for 10 minutes and beat again. Chill another 10 minutes and beat again if necessary.

For the Green Icing
Add 1 tablespoon of water at a time to the confectioners' sugar and mix to form a thick paste. (The icing should be as thick as possible, yet smooth enough to be piped onto the cake. If it is too thin, the writing will run.) Work in the food coloring to tint it to the desired shade of green.

To assemble the Cake
Place one layer top-side down on a cardboard round. Spread 3/4 cup of the frosting over the cake and smooth it to the edges. Place the second layer top-side up over the first and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides. (At this point, I recommend placing the cake on a cooling rack with a piece of parchment or plastic wrap underneath before adding the glaze.) Pour the remaining glaze over the cake and smooth it to the edges, allowing it to drip unevenly over the sides. (If the glaze is too stiff, warm briefly in the microwave and whisk to distribute the heat evenly. You may need to wait again for the glaze to cool.) If you have any frosting left, use it to pipe a decorative border around the bottom of the cake. Place the icing in a pastry bag fitted with a #3 round (or you can use a sandwich bag with the tip snipped with scissors) and write "Happy Birthday Harry" on top of the cake. (I wrote "Happee Birthdae" because that's how it was in the movie!)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Comfy British Toast

Let's face it, the British are not known for their cuisine. Although, I love a good meal of fish and chips, bangers and mash, beef wellington, Yorkshire puddings, or a lovely English trifle, I am still baffled by the British's love affair with toast. In America, toast is an afterthought, something to add to a plate of bacon and eggs, and strictly for breakfast only. However, in Britain, toast is a revered treat any time of day. In fact, one of their most beloved treats is "beans on toast." Yes, at first thought you may think, "Wow, they must have a special recipe for the beans!" No, they don't. They prefer the English version of Heinz Beans with Tomato Sauce in the blue can. I kid you not. Literally, they open a can and dump it on toast! Sometimes cheese, Worcestershire sauce, or the occasional slather of Marmite (the powerful and salty yeast extract made as a byproduct of brewing beer with the slogan "you either love it or hate it") is used to elevate this "treat," but come on....canned beans on a piece of toast? Although I realize that this is a cheap comfort food for college students and the like (i.e., Karl Pilkington), akin to what Ramen noodles are here in the US, I am still surprised by what else they like to put on toast:
  • kippers (smoked herring) with buttered toast and maybe poached eggs,
  • Spaghetti O's (yes, canned spaghetti a la Chef Boyardee),
  • peanut butter and pickles,
  • canned tomatoes,
  • Patum Peperium (type of anchovy paste known as "The Gentlemen's Relish"),
  • Spam,
  • beef drippings or brown gravy,
  • buttered and sprinkled with flavored Jell-O powder,
  • mushy peas,
  • Cheese Whiz and condensed cream of chicken or mushroom soup,
  • Buttered and sprinkled with chocolate breakfast powder (my kids may like that one!), and
  • toast! (Yes, there is an old recipe for "Mrs. Beeton's toast sandwich" - a piece of dry toast between two pieces of buttered bread with salt and pepper to taste!) 
While I haven't tried these "foreign" combinations and cannot comment on their palatableness, I do have a favorite "on toast" combination, Chloe Scott's "Ultimate Mushrooms on Toast." This fabulous recipe, which I found on Metro UK, starts with toasted sourdough and topped with a combination of fresh and dried mushrooms sauteed with onion, garlic, and sherry, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and a sprinkle of chopped chives. The combination is utterly sublime! In fact, my mouth is watering just thinking about it! Maybe the British are on to something? Maybe I was wrong to judge prematurely? Maybe I should start looking for Heinz beans in the blue can? Oh well, until then, I have this wonderful recipe!

Ultimate Mushrooms on Toast 

Serves 2

4 slices sourdough bread
4 eggs, poached
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fino sherry (Chloe recommends Tio Pepe)
2-3 sprigs thyme leaves
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
200 grams chestnut mushrooms, sliced (or whatever variety you can find)
80 grams freshly picked mushrooms, chopped or 35 grams rehydrated wild mushrooms
Chopped chives, for garnish

For the hollandaise: (Or make blender hollandaise, which is what I should have done because my sauce split! It still tasted great, though!) 
1 egg
70 grams butter
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and black pepper to taste

If you're rehydrating your wild mushrooms, place them in a bowl of hot water 30 minutes before starting. Place the chopped onion in a mug of milk for 30 minutes.

Rub four slices of sourdough with 1 crushed garlic clove and drizzle each side with a little olive oil. Heat a griddle pan or frying pan on high heat and press the bread on to the pan so it toasts until charred a little for a smoky taste.

Drain the onion from the milk. In a frying pan, heat a little more olive oil and fry the onion and remaining two garlic cloves. Once soft, add the mushrooms. Stir in the sherry and let it simmer very gently. If it starts to dry out, add 1 tablespoon or so of the mushroom stock left after rehydrating the dried ones or a little water. To finish, add the parsley and thyme then season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you are not making blender hollandaise: Make a cheat's hollandaise by melting 70 grams butter in a saucepan then pour it quickly into a cup. Whisk the egg in the same pan off the heat. Then, whisking constantly, slowly pour the butter back into the egg mixture. Put it back on a low heat until it goes creamy but doesn't scramble. If it starts to overcook, remove from the heat again. Once it's amalgamated, squeeze in the lemon and salt and pepper to taste at the end.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Break four eggs into small cups and slip them one at a time into the boiling water. The water must be rolling. Don't stir it, just slip them in as gently as possible. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the eggs are poached. Remove them with a slotted spoon.

Place two pieces of griddled sourdough on each plate then top each slice with the mushrooms and a poached egg and drizzle over the hollandaise sauce. Garnish with black pepper and some chives. Serve.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hibernation, a German Stranger, and Richard Olney

My first experience with hibernation was in the 1990s, when I found myself trapped in a hotel in Toronto because of a blizzard that shut down the Philadelphia airport (where I was living at the time). Luckily, the hotel had a restaurant, and after a few lonely days lingering in my hotel room, I finally banished room service and meandered down for a proper meal. The hotel was empty, except for an older man who was also stranded. There we were, two people sitting at separate tables in a large dining room. After a few awkward glances and in need of human companionship, I finally asked him if he would like to join me and he did. To my surprise, this man was from Germany and did not speak any English and I did not speak any German. From what I deduced from our simple "conversation," he had a wife and three children, loved to vacation in the western United States, drove a Volvo, and told me I drove a "rice pot," referring to my Toyota. It was this meal that taught me the innate need and importance of human interaction. I wonder with cell phones and the technologies of today, if I would have eaten alone, oblivious to the loss of one of the most interesting meals I've ever had.

Fast forward to today, my second experience with hibernation. This time, due to an "arctic vortex," I am trapped in my comfortable home with my two kids and my manly husband, who appears to be the only one successfully going to work and back. Thanks to my basic knowledge of French culinary techniques, I have been able to create excellent stews and soups utilizing basic staples that I always have in my house. However, simple beef stew and chicken soup is not a complete meal in itself. Enter Richard Olney and his classic book The French Menu Cookbook (1970) that I thankfully received for Christmas. Richard Olney was an eccentric American from Iowa turned Frenchman and one of the most influential food authors of his day, promoting the art of eating seasonally. Olney was no stranger to the innate need of human companionship, entertaining guests (such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse) for days and sometimes weeks at a time at his secluded and derelict Provence farmhouse. He is said to have frequently greeted summer guests "wearing no more than a loincloth," scavenging olives, fruits, vegetables, and herbs from his property to create his uncompromising classic French cuisine, and mastering the composition of seasonal menus. It was in the pages of his book that I found what I needed to turn my stews and soups into a complete meal, specifically his recipe for "Fresh Egg Noodles."

Egg noodles have a long culinary history in Germany and the Alsace region of France, dating way back to the 14th century. Alsatian noodles are an egg-rich pasta with a soft texture and are very easy to food processors, mixers, or pasta machines required! They spared me a treacherous, if not impossible, trip to the grocer and provided the perfect accompaniment to my hibernation creations. If only I could have invited my German stranger, I'm sure he would have enjoyed the "nudels," as well as approve of my current mode of transportation. Yes, I traded in my "rice pot" and now drive a Volvo.

Fresh Egg Noodles

Serves 4


1 1/2 cups flour
2 whole eggs and 2 yolks


Sift the flour and salt, either into a mixing bowl or directly onto a pastry board, make a well in the center, add the whole eggs and yolk, work in the four, a bit at a time, add, finally, a bit more flour or a bit more egg white, if necessary, to bring the paste to a firm but easily malleable consistency. Make a ball of it, roll it on a lightly floured board so that the surface will not be sticky and knead it several times, pushing it out flat, away from your person, with the heel of your hand, gathering it back into a compact mass and repeating the operation. Roll it into a ball, wrap it in wax paper (or plastic wrap), and leave it to "relax" in the refrigerator for an hour or so.

Divide the paste into 3 or 4 equal portions, flatten each with the palm of the hand into a regularly formed patty on the floured board, turning it over so that it is evenly coated with flour, and roll it out very thin, turning it over 2 or 3 times during the process and patting it with flour to ensure its sticking neither to the board nor to the rolling pin. These sheets of dough should be allowed to dry for a couple of hours before being cut up. (I only dried mine an hour and if had waited any longer they would have been too dry to roll without breaking. So keep an eye on them!) The commonest and most practical home-kitchen method consists in hanging them over a broomsticks, the two ends of which are supported by chair backs. (I covered my broomstick with plastic wrap for cleanliness.)

Roll up the sheets of dough and, with a good, sharp knife, cut them crosswise into narrow strips approximately 1/4 inch in width. (Remember these are homemade, so they don't have to look perfect, it adds to their charm!) Lightly and delicately, with the fingertips of both hands, lift masses of these cut, rolled ribbons, toss them in the air, letting them fall into spread-fingered, open hands, and retoss until all are loosely unspiraled. be certain that no ends remain coiled, and leave them in a loose mass on the floured board until ready for use. Cook them in a large pot of salted boiling water. Fresh noodles require no more than 4 minutes cooking time (it may vary slightly, depending on the stiffness of the dough and the extent to which they have been dried out).

Recipe adapted from  The French Menu Cookbook, by Richard Olney.

(Without those lovely fresh egg noodles, 
this would have been a pretty boring bowl of stew!)