Every cookbook and blog tell you the same thing: use high quality, fresh ingredients for the best tasting results. This makes sense and I completely agree. But there is a line between high quality ingredients and break-the-bank ingredients. Certain blogs (no, I won't name them) assume that you have both access to quality but expensive foods and the bank balance to possibly waste a large quantity of said expensive foods.
"Take a quick hop over to Nepal and hike to the Lumbini Buddhist monastery. Trade the monks for yak butter specially prepared according to the ancient rituals. P.S. You need two cups of butter for this recipe."
No, thank you. I will just use the regular, straight from the farm to my local farmer's market butter that is still kind of expensive but worth the money to support local farmers.
For this month's potluck, I tried two new recipes. One was completely reasonable and used ingredients that I can get at my local supermarket. The other one was also completely reasonable if you bake or cook using mostly pre-made stuff. I am snobby enough that I will make my own whipped cream instead of using "whipped product". This recipe was probably pretty cheap when made using Duncan Hines cake mix, etc, but became pretty expensive when I made almost everything from scratch.* The good news is that everybody said both recipes tasted great, which is the most important part.
* Okay, so my complaint about how expensive the ingredients were for this recipe is due to my insistence on using expensive ingredients and not on the recipe itself, but let's forget about that so I can complain some more.
The first recipe was raspberry bars, although the original changed recipe used blackberries and the original original recipe used blueberries. There weren't any blackberries at the store so the main ingredient changed. People said that the crust was great and that the bars tasted very strongly of raspberry. I like blackberries better than raspberries so I'll probably remake this one when blackberries are in season, or I may try this using cherries. I also like this recipe because it shows the type of evolution that recipes undergo when we use in-season ingredients. You can see how the basic structure and dough part of the recipe stay the same, but we all used different fruits.
The second recipe was a chocolate-nutella mousse stack cake. If you love Nutella like I do, this is the cake for you. This recipe also had very little from-scratch baking in it so my version has a similar result to the original but a very different set of steps. People said that the Nutella mousse was fantastic as frosting, that the taste and texture was amazing. They also said that the cake was great but the Nutella mousse got more compliments. I would have felt better about all of this if the cake hadn't broken in the middle.
Cakes weigh a lot, so when you stack them up they need to be strong enough to hold up the layers on top of them and to stay together when stacked on top of other cakes. Many cakes are moist and lovely but not strong enough to either hold up layers or stay together on top. This cake recipe produced exactly that type of cake: moist, soft, and easily broken. Stacking layers with this cake will work if you don't slice each cake into two layers.
I'm not kidding about how much cakes weigh - those 3-tier wedding cakes usually weigh between 75 and 100 pounds. When the cake started breaking in half, I stuck in my cake carrier tupperware to keep it together and get it to the picnic. I figured when people ate it, they wouldn't care if it had split in half. They didn't.
Tips: for the bars, the butter needs to be cold but not so hard that you can't chop it up with a knife. When you incorporate it into the flour mixture, you need to be able to push it through the tines of a fork but it needs to be more solid then when butter is creamed. I hope this makes sense. I ended up doing the first pass with a fork, and then using my hands to smush up the chunks that were too big into smaller chunks that were about half of the original size. You want small chunks of butter, but not small enough that the flour looks like it's sand.
Put the cubed butter into the flour, then press the butter cubes into the side of the bowl with the backside of a fork so that the butter is pressed through the tines and ends up on the front side of the fork. Stir the smaller chunks of butter into the flour. You should end up with small cubes of butter that are still visible in the flour.
The cornstarch will dissolve in the lemon juice but you will still need to stir in the sugar to make sure that there aren't any clumps. You can pour the lemon juice mixture over the fruit before making the flour/butter mixture, and let the berries sit in the lemon juice. Don't skip the cornstarch or you will end up with very runny bars.
Remember to zest the lemon before you juice it!
My bars were done after 35-40 minutes. The recipe says that the time seems to vary between 35 and 50 minutes. My oven is usually not very reliable with baking times and since mine took a smaller amount of time, I recommend checking to see if the top has browned starting at about 30 minutes.
I baked the bars the night before and left them overnight in the fridge. The consistency stayed firm even through a hot car ride for an hour and then a 20 minute hike afterwards.
For the nutella cake, the original recipe says to make one Pillsbury German Chocolate cake mixes (plus nutella) and to split the batter between two cake pans. Then those two cakes are sliced in half length-wise. I made two devil's food cakes instead, which has a looser crumb (can't support weight as well). There's nothing wrong with using cake mix instead of using your own dry ingredients, but I dislike not being able to control the amount of sugar in the batter.
It is important to use parchment paper to line the bottom of the pan when you bake the cakes. I don't bother using a pen when I cut out the circles: press a piece of parchment paper into the pan and run your finger around the bottom of the pan to press the paper firmly against the pan. When you pick the paper up, there will be a circle imprinted on the paper. Just cut around that circle.
Coffee is a taste emphasizer for chocolate. If you add a small amount of coffee to a chocolate recipe, you won't taste the coffee but the chocolate will taste more chocolate-y. Many dense chocolate cake recipes call for a tablespoon of espresso powder or a cup of coffee.
1 ounce is not a lot of chocolate. Fortunately Baker's sells 10 ounce boxes of baking chocolate where each ounce is individually wrapped. Take one of the ounces and leave it in the paper wrapper, place it on a cutting board with the bottom side up, and smash it to bits with the edge of a can of vegetables. This is much easier than chopping chocolate with a knife, and all of those little bits of chocolate stay in the wrapper.
Brown sugar is packed or tightly packed when it is pressed down firmly into the measuring cup. Pour out about half or one cup of brown sugar, and press it down with a fork. Continue pouring small amount of sugar and pressing it down until you have one a half cups, pressed.
Since I don't have a stand mixer, I made this recipe just whisking and stirring by hand. It was fine and pretty easy.
I added half a cup of nutella to this recipe right before I poured it into the pans. Honestly, I didn't taste nutella at all in the baked cakes so it was pretty much a waste of nutella.
The original recipe suggests: to stack the cakes, slide a cake layer onto a large plate and then slide it onto the cake. This tip worked really well.
If you forgot to take the cream cheese out of the fridge to soften up, put it in a bowl and microwave it in 5 second increments, stirring it between increments. It should only take 10 or 15 seconds to loosen up. You want it to be solid, not liquidy.
I also made the nutella mousse the night before, so it had been in the fridge overnight. I used a measuring cup to split it evenly into four parts and then stirred each part with a fork to loosen it up a bit.
When you're stacking the cakes, you don't want to spread the mousse (or whatever filling you're using) all the way to the edges of the cake. The weight of the cake will press down on the mousse and squish it out towards the outside edge.
For the drizzled chocolate topping, I melted a bag of chocolate chips in the microwave. It was slightly clumpy and I couldn't get it to drizzle evenly. Nobody cared. I also skipped the chocolate curls part of the topping. To make chocolate curls, you run a potato peeler down the side of a solid bar of chocolate.
Blackberry Pie Bars
recipe from wit and vinegar, originally from smitten kitchen, more originally from allrecipes.com
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup cold unsalted butter (2 sticks, cubed up)
- 1 egg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- 18 ounce package berries (black, rasp, blue, or halved cherries) (roughly 3 cups)
- 1/2 cups white sugar
- 4 teaspoons cornstarch
Grease a 9X13 inch pan. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Combine lemon juice, cornstarch, and sugar in a medium bowl. Wash fruit and add to lemon juice mixture. Gently toss until fruit is evenly covered with lemon juice mixture.
In a very large bowl, whisk together sugar, baking powder, flour, salt, and lemon zest.
Using a fork, a pastry cutter, or your hands, incorporate the cold cubed butter and egg into the flour mixture until it’s crumbly. Don’t let the butter cubes become too small.
Pat half of the dough mixture into the pan. Top with fruit, then crumble the remaining dough over the fruit. Bake for 35-50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Start checking the color of the top of the dough at about 30 minutes, and continue checking every 5 minutes until the bars are done.
Let the bars cool completely and then put the pan in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. If the pan is made of glass, it will shatter if you put it in the fridge when it's hot. Wait 20-30 minutes before putting the bars in the fridge. Once the bars have been refrigerated, cut them up using a sharp knife.
Nutella Chocolate Torte
Idea and original recipe for nutella mousse from the Gunny Sack; devil's food cake recipe from Sprinkle Bakes, original recipe from Rose Levy Berenbaum
1 chocolate cake, baked in two pans:
- 1 ounce fine quality unsweetened baker's chocolate (chopped evenly)
- 3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup hot coffee (can use hot water or decaf coffee if caffeine sensitive)
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, tightly packed
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 16 tablespoon (2 US sticks) unsalted butter (softened)
- 1/2 cup nutella (if desired)
- 8 ounce package cream cheese (softened)
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3/4 cup Nutella
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 16 ounces heavy whipping cream
- 1 package high quality chocolate chips (milk or bittersweet depending on your tastes)
- 1 ounce baking chocolate or 1 bar solid chocolate
For the devil's food cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans with vegetable shortening or butter and line with a circle of parchment paper. Grease paper and flour; tap out excess and set pan aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk the chocolate, cocoa and hot coffee (or water) until smooth. Set aside.
In another bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks, sour cream, half the chocolate mixture and vanilla until just combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, brown sugar, baking soda and salt on low for 30 seconds. Add the softened butter and the remaining chocolate mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
With the mixer off between additions, add the egg mixture in two parts, starting on medium-low speed and gradually increasing to medium. Beat on medium speed for 45 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. The batter will be fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Using a silicone spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface evenly with a small offset spatula.
Bake for 30-40 minutes (check at 30). Cake is does when a toothpick tester comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed in the middle. Let the baked cakes cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn cake out onto a wire rack sprayed with cooking oil. Let cool completely.
When the cake are cooled, slice each cake horizontally so that there are now two cakes of the same width but half of the height as the original. Use a bread knife, a long knife with a serrated edge. You will need to "saw" the cake, or cut back and forth with the knife, as you cut through the cake.
For the nutella mousse:
With a hand mixer, beat the heavy whipping cream until soft peaks form. Beat the softened cream cheese with a fork until light and fluffy. Add the nutella, powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat with a fork until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Place one of the cake rounds on a platter. Spread 1/4 of the nutella mousse onto the cake round. Top with another layer of cake, spread mousse, and repeat until all four cake rounds have been stacked and covered with mousse.
Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave. Drizzle the melted chocolate over the top of the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides.
Soften the chocolate bar in the microwave for a few seconds. Run a vegetable peeler along the edge of the chocolate bar to make chocolate curls. Top the cake with the chocolate curls. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
|Lemon juice mixture.|
|Raspberries covered in lemon juice mixture.|
|One lemon makes a lot of zest.|
|Flour + butter without the egg.|
|With the egg added, and some of the larger butter cubes smashed up by hand. Note that you can still see the individual butter cubes.|
|Half of the dough pressed into the greased pan. Press down firmly so the the dough feels solid.|
|That's as evenly as I could scatter the raspberries.|
|With the dough crumbled on top.|
|It took about 35-40 minutes for the top to turn golden brown.|
|One ounce of baking chocolate.|
|Chocolate, cocoa powder, and hot coffee mixture.|
|Eggs, sour cream, and vanilla.|
|1 1/2 cups tightly packed brown sugar.|
|Flour mixture with softened butter.|
|With the butter mixed in.|
|With the other half of the chocolate/coffee mixture.|
|With the first half of the egg mixture.|
|With the second half of the egg mixture. The batter really was fluffy at this point.|
|Adding the nutella. The batter had almost the same consistency as the nutella.|
|Cream cheese, nutella, powdered sugar, and vanilla.|
|16 ounces of whipped cream.|
|Nutella mousse. It tasted amazing!|
|Getting ready for assembly.|
|Measuring and stirring the mousse.|
|First layer with mousse.|
|Third layer. So far, so good.|
|Whoops, spoke too soon. The top and second top layers started breaking.|
|I just put the cake in my trusty cake carrier which kept the two halves of the cake in one place for transportation.|