Archive for chocolate

Oh, Fudge!

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

I might as well get this out of the way right up front:  I am a fudge snob.  I grew up close by to two absolutely fabulous candy stores that made homemade fudge (Mill Creek Chocolates in Port Elgin, and The Tobermory Sweet Shop, where I also spent a summer working).  As a result, I find most fudge (especially the storebought stuff) to be a poor imitation of the “real thing”.  Real fudge is creamy, melty, and so sweet that even as a small, sugar-driven child I had a hard time eating more than a teensy piece.

So you can probably guess that when I make fudge at home, it’s good stuff.  No sweetened condensed milk here.  No marshmallow fluff.  No microwaving.  No powdered sugar.  Just awesome.

Now, to make fudge properly, you really, REALLY need a candy thermometer.  Digital is best, of course (mine cost less than $15 and has been SO worth the investment).  There are dozens of “tricks” out there for how to tell when your fudge has reached the proper stage (most common being the ‘cold water test’), but 90% of the time you’re going to end up with over- or under- cooked fudge if you’re not going by temperature, because things like the ambient humidity and the temperature of your ‘cold’ water are going to affect matters.

The real difference between a high-quality homemade fudge and most of the stuff you’ll find out there these days is the sugar crystals.  A really good fudge should be creamy, not grainy.  Getting the temperature and the ratios of the ingredients just right will help to keep your sugar crystals smaller.  The waiting time between boiling the mix and stirring the mix also helps — any crystals that start to form too early (usually along the top, where cooling is faster) will be broken up and re-absorbed during the stirring.  You could, of course, just spend 15 or 20 minutes stirring your fudge after cooking to inhibit crystal formation, but that’s a LOT of work — better to wait while things cool down a little, and then get to the stirring when it’s really needed.  One final trick: I also use a small amount of corn syrup, in addition to the sugar, as corn syrup is liquid at room temperature and this will help to improve the texture.

My basic vanilla fudge has only five ingredients:

  • 3 cups white sugar (you can use brown, but it gives a different flavour)
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup salted butter
  • 1-1/4 cups whole milk or light cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

And that’s it.  Put it all into a pot over medium heat, and stir until it reaches a boil.  Then stop stirring.  Put your candy thermometer into the pot and just watch while the temperature climbs to 240 degrees Fahrenheit (should take 3-5 minutes).  Remove the pot from the heat, and then wait.  Don’t stir it yet.  Give it time to cool down to somewhere between 120 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit (this will take 15 minutes to a half hour, depending on the temperature in your kitchen).  Then you can start stirring.  Stir and fold the mix over on itself until it looks opaque and is becoming quite thick (about 3-5 minutes, depending on just how vigorous your stirring is).  Pour the mix into a pan (an 8×8 for shorter, wider squares, or a bread pan for taller slices).  It should be thick enough that you’ll actually need to press it down into the pan; it won’t flow easily into all the corners.  Let it cool down completely (put it in the fridge to make it firm and easy to slice), then wrap it to prevent moisture loss.

This recipe gives you a delicious, plain, simple fudge — but it’s only the beginning.  There are so many variations on plain old vanilla fudge, and with a little creativity you can create your own mixes, too.

For a chocolate fudge, use only 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and add 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder.

For a peanut butter fudge, use only 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and add 1/4 cup of peanut butter.  If you’d like a “crunchy” version, stir in peanuts once the mixture has cooled after boiling, just before you pour it into the pan.

For a maple fudge, just replace the corn syrup with maple syrup.  You can reduce or leave out the vanilla.

For a coffee fudge, either add a shot of freshly-made espresso to the mix, or dissolve a tablespoon of instant coffee granules in a tablespoon of hot water and add that.  You can add coffee to a chocolate fudge to get a nice mocha flavour, too.

For a peppermint fudge, just replace the vanilla extract with peppermint extract.  Same goes for any other extract — try orange, rum, anise, almond, or coconut!  For seasonal peppermint fudge at Christmas, add crushed-up candy canes to the mix once it has cooled down after boiling, just before you put it into the pan.

For a pumpkin pie spice fudge, reduce the vanilla to 1 teaspoon.  When the mixture has cooled to stirring temperature after boiling, add 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice and blend well.  Alternatively, you can use other spices — cinnamon works nicely all on its own, or try adding chili powder or ginger to a chocolate fudge for a hit of the unexpected.

One of my personal favourites is chocolate with peanut butter swirls, which is achieved by first making chocolate fudge as described above.  Just before pouring the mix into a pan for the final cooling, add a couple tablespoons of peanut butter.  Give it a quick swirl, then put the mix into the pan and get the pan into the fridge before the peanut butter gets a chance to melt.

Another excellent option is rocky road fudge, which can be made with either vanilla or chocolate fudge as a base.  As with the peanut butter, wait until the last moment to add nuts, marshmallows and chocolate chips — quickly swirl them in, then get the mix into a pan and into the fridge for cooling.

Feel free to experiment with other flavours, and tell me in the comments what you’ve tried!  I’m thinking of doing a chocolate fudge with pretzel pieces, next — or possibly maple with plain popcorn mixed in.

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Recipe: Traditional-ish Black Forest Cake

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

My sister’s birthday is in February, and her request this year was for a Black Forest cake.  I was happy to oblige, but ran into a few problems with finding a recipe that would be something close to the Black Forest cakes we remembered from childhood.  Most of the ones I was able to find online called for boxed cake mix, canned cherry pie filling, and (gag!) Cool Whip topping instead of real whipped cream.  In other cases there were debates over what makes a “traditional” Black Forest cake — what sort of cake to use, whether or not to put kirsch (cherry brandy) in the whipped cream for flavoring, whether to use jam for the filling or a more gooey, pie-filling-like substance … it was all a little overwhelming.  Finally I gave up the search and just emailed my mom, to ask if she had a good recipe.  She got back to me with two: one from a book of traditional Ontario immigrant recipes, and another from a family friend who spent some time living in Germany.  I combined the best elements of both, and came up with something that I was very happy with.

My sister approved, too, as you can see.

Making the Cake

For the cake portion, I used the recipe from mom’s book of traditional recipes.  It’s a chocolate sponge cake, which I felt would better hold up to being soaked with cherry brandy.  It’s not as moist as some other cakes, but if you apply the brandy properly (read: use lots!) that’s really not an issue at all.  The ingredients are as follows:

  • 4 eggs, separated (the recipe calls for small, but I used medium because my grocery store doesn’t carry small)
  • 4 tbsp warm water
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and prepare an 8-inch springform pan or two 8-inch round pans (if using round pans, I suggest lining them with parchment paper to make it easier to lift the cake out afterwards).

Separate the eggs so that the whites are in one mixing bowl, and the yolks are in another.  To the yolks, add the warm water, and whisk until foamy.  Add the 2/3rds cup sugar, vanilla and almond extracts, cinnamon, and salt.  Whisk together for a couple of minutes, until everything is thoroughly combined and there are lots of little bubbles in the mix.

Using an electric mixer or whisk that is clean and free of any oil (this is important!), whip the egg whites until they are foamy.  Sprinkle in the 2tsp of sugar, and continue to beat the eggs until stiff peaks form.  Remember: the fluffier you can get the eggs to be, the fluffier the finished cake will be!

Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mix, then sift the flour, cornstarch, cocoa, and baking powder over top and fold in.  Mix very gently until the mixture is just barely blended together — overmixing will pop all those little bubbles you worked so hard to make in the eggs.

Pour the batter into the pan(s), and bake for 30 minutes (slightly less if using two pans — they’ll cook faster if they’re thinner).  A toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.

Once the cake has cooled down a little bit, you can slice it in half (or into 3 layers, if you’re feeling adventurous).  A piece of unwaxed dental floss works well for cutting — just saw it back and forth and work your way patiently through the cake.  Once the cake is cut into layers, you can add the cherry brandy — sprinkle it on a little bit at a time, until the cake is fully saturated.

Let the cake sit and cool down completely while you prepare the cherry filling and whipped cream.

Making the Cherry Filling

Since it’s February, I had to buy frozen sour cherries — fresh just aren’t available right now.  Frozen are preferable over canned, since they don’t have anything added to them, but if canned are all you can get, then just work with what’s available.  In a pinch you can resort to pre-made canned cherry pie filling, but homemade always tastes better.

This is the same filling that I use for making cherry pies, but I only made a half-sized batch, as you don’t really need a whole pie’s worth of filling for this cake.  Double this recipe if you want to make a pie with it.

  • 2 cups sour cherries, pitted and drained (reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/6 cup flour
  • dash of salt
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract

In a saucepan, combine the 1/2 cup of cherry juice with the sugar, flour and salt.  Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.  Continuing to stir, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter and almond extract, and then add the cherries.

Cool this mixture down completely before using it on your cake, or it will melt the whipped cream.

Making the Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is easy stuff to make from scratch, and I always prefer the homemade stuff to the stuff that comes in a can.  When making a black forest cake, you ALWAYS want to do your whipped cream from scratch, because a) you can add cherry brandy to the whipped cream for flavour, and b) you can add a pinch of gelatin or cream of tartar to stiffen the cream and stop it from gooshing out between the cake layers.

Combine a cup of whipping cream with a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of cherry brandy, and a pinch of unflavored gelatin or cream of tartar.  Whisk or beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.

Putting it All Together

Once the cake and cherry pie filling have cooled completely, you can assemble your black forest cake.  You can use either two or three layers of cake — three looks fancier, but otherwise it makes little difference.

With two layers, you’ll want to put both cherry pie filling AND whipped cream between the layers.  With three, you’ve got an option: you can either put cherries in one of the spaces and whipped cream in the other, or use a combination in both.  You might need to make a bit of extra whipped cream, if you choose the latter, but avoid the temptation to overfill: you want this to taste like cake, not like whipped cream with occasional bits of cake in it.

Once your layers are stacked up, coat the entire cake in the remaining whipped cream.  Shave two squares of semi-sweet chocolate using a cheese grater, and pat these chocolate shavings onto the sides and top of the cake, leaving a ring of white around the top edge.  Place maraschino cherries around the top edge (I like to use one per slice).  Store the cake (covered) in the fridge until serving, so that the whipped cream won’t get droopy.

And enjoy!  Black forest cake is a little bit labour-intensive to make, but it’s definitely worth the work.  Nom-nom-nom.  Delicious.

Happy Birthday Skink Cake

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

It was my roommate’s birthday last week, and so I decided to attempt carving a shaped cake for only the third time in my life.  I’m by no means an expert on this, but I was mostly pleased with the results:

The animal I decided to model this cake after is the blue-tongued skink (specifically, the western blue-tongued skink).  Besides the fact that Kenneth really likes skinks, I figured that this would be a relatively easy lizard to carve, since the legs are so tiny in comparison to the large, chubby bodies that these adorable reptiles have.  Figuring out the longer legs of a bearded dragon or leopard gecko would have been much more of a challenge, and my cake carving skills simply may not have been up to it.  Even as things were, I chose to carve the legs separately from the rest of the cake, and then stuck them on with icing.

The Cake

I went with a plain chocolate cake recipe for this one: a slightly modified version of the one found in the Hershey’s Chocolate cookbook (they call for vegetable oil; I used butter instead).  You could probably get away with using most any chocolate cake recipe, or even a boxed cake mix if you’re feeling really lazy.  I chose this particular recipe because it’s quite a dense cake (easier to carve in a uniform way), and very chocolatey.

  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare two 9-inch round baking pans.  You’ll want the pans to be quite well-greased, or use baking parchment to line them, because you’ll want to start your carving with some nicely formed cakes.

Dissolve the cocoa powder in the boiling water, then put it into the fridge to cool down so that it won’t melt your butter later.

Beat together the butter and sugar until the mix is nice and homogeneous.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

In another bowl, combine together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.  Remove your cocoa powder/water mix from the fridge and add to it the milk and vanilla.  Alternate between adding a bit of the flour mix, then a bit of the cocoa mix, stirring well between each addition, until everything is combined.

Pour the batter into the baking pans.  Bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the pans comes out clean.  Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove them from the pans onto wire racks to finish cooling.

If you’re going to be using these for just a plain old normal-shaped cake, you can frost them as soon as they are cool.  If you’re going to carve your cake, though, you’ll want to stick the cakes together with a layer of buttercream, and then wrap them in plastic wrap and pop them into the freezer overnight.  Frozen cakes are WAY easier to carve, because they don’t squish and deform while you’re working on them.

Carving

As mentioned above, it’s much easier to carve a frozen cake, so you’ll want to bake your cakes in advance and leave them in the freezer at least overnight before carving.  When it comes time to carve, use a serrated knife — a larger one for working out the basic shape (I used a bread knife for this part), and a small one for details (I chose a boning knife for flexibility with the fine details, but a paring knife would probably work quite well too).

I can’t stress enough the importance of planning.  Draw out your design in advance, full-sized if possible, so that you’ll know exactly what you’re working with when it comes time to carve.  More experienced cake carvers can just “wing it”, at least on more simply shaped cakes, but when you’re just starting out, having a plan drawing is really helpful.

Carve the details of your cake in a bit of an exaggerated way.  Subtle curves and shapes will get lost once they’re covered by icing.  Remember also that some of the most fiddly bits can just be shaped with icing, and they don’t need to have cake in the middle.  Also, don’t freak out if you make a little mistake — a slightly thicker layer of icing will cover up all but the biggest mistakes.

Icing

Once your cake is carved, all that’s left to do is ice it.  Most professional cake decorators will use fondant icing, but I’ve never been a fan (I find it’s often tasteless, even if it does look really smooth and pretty).  So I use buttercream instead, and suffer with a few uneven places for the sake of better flavour.  You can use whatever sort of icing you prefer (even storebought, if you’re not a fan of making it yourself).

A basic buttercream is made as follows:

  • 1/4 cup butter (very soft butter is important here!)
  • 1/3 cup milk or cream
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 2-1/2 cups icing sugar

Combine the butter and icing sugar, then add the vanilla and milk a little bit at a time.  For thicker icing add more icing sugar; for thinner use more milk.  For the skink cake I used very thick icing so that I’d be able to use a toothpick to add details like scales, eyes, toes, etc.  If you want to add details like this, just wait until the buttercream has “set up” a bit on the cake, and then you’ll be able to press the details into the surface of the buttercream without wrecking the smooth finish.

Some of the icing used on the skink cake was chocolate — I just added a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder in with the icing sugar for this.  And of course the tongue was done in bright blue — for this I simply added a few drops of blue food colouring to a small amount of the vanilla buttercream.

Buttercream is supremely versatile, and you can add lots of different things to it.  Instead of vanilla extract, you can use almost any other extract you like (almond extract is a favourite of mine).  Add food colouring to make it any colour you choose, or some nuts or dried fruit or sprinkles to give it texture.  You can spread the buttercream on with a spatula for a smooth finish, or pipe it on using any icing tip you like to create textures and depth.  It’s only limited by your creativity.

Peanut Butter Cookie Brownies

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So last night I came up against an age old dilemma:  would I rather have peanut butter cookies, or brownies?  Kenneth solved the problem for me by suggesting that I create a combination peanut butter cookie/brownie confection.  And it turned out so well that I’m going to share it with you!

The Cookie Crust

You can use any recipe for the cookie crust that you like — just make sure it’s a soft and easily formed dough.  I chose to go simply with the old Skippy-jar 3-ingredient standby, and adjusted the usual recipe so that it would only make enough to cover a 9×9 pan.  You could, of course, make more cookie dough and just freeze the rest for later (or make cookies AND cookie-brownies all at once, if you’re feeling daring).  But since I’m going to be moving to a new apartment soon, I’m trying to reduce the amount of frozen goodness in my freezer.

So for my cookie crust, I just combined 1 cup of peanut butter, 1/2 a cup of white sugar, and 1 egg.  Pressed into the bottom of a 9×9 pan, this made for a crust about 1-1/2cm (1/2 inch) thick.  I suggest poking some divots into the top of the cookie with a fork to help the brownie batter adhere during baking.

Set your cookie crust aside while you prepare the brownie batter.

The Brownie Batter

As with the cookie crust, you could probably get away with using any brownie recipe that you like for the brownie portion of this delicious snack — but I highly suggest trying this one.  It’s from my mom’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, and it’s actually the very first recipe that I ever made all by myself (well, I was 5, so dad handled putting it into the oven, but I did all the measuring and stirring).  I’ve made it many different ways over the years, but I keep coming back to the original.

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine (softened)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cocoa
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts (optional; or you could use other nuts)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cream together the sugar and butter, then add the vanilla and the eggs.  Stir in the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.  Finally, fold in the nuts (if you’re using them — you can also try chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, or dried fruit).

Once your brownie batter is prepared, spread it in an even layer over top of the cookie crust.  Then it’s into the oven for about 50 minutes (this is about 10-15 minutes longer than the brownies would take alone, but the cookie crust adds some time).  A pick inserted in the center of the pan should come out clean when the brownies are finished.

Tips and Tricks

You’ll definitely want to let your cookie/brownies cool pretty thoroughly before you attempt to remove any from the pan.  The cookie crust needs some time to solidify, or else it’s just going to come out in a whole lot of little pieces.

I think that next time I make these, I’m going to sprinkle the top of the brownies with mini marshmallows before baking.  That way, they’ll be kind of like peanut butter s’more brownies.  I’m also considering making a chocolate chip cookie brownie, with chocolate chip cookie dough in place of the peanut butter cookie dough.

Let me know if you come up with your own variations!

Happy Pi Day!

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Happy 3.14, everyone!

For ScienceBlogs’ Pi Day competition, I’ve whipped up a pie that I’m calling “Citric Acid in your Eye Pi”.

Last year’s contest winner involved bacon, and I had no wish to be a copycat, so I’ve steered clear of meat entirely (because let’s face it: bacon is pretty unbeatable, so doing some other meat would just be begging for only second place).  Instead I chose to do a pie involving my arch nemesis: whipped eggs.  Custards and meringues have always posed a great problem for me, because no matter how many tips and tricks I learn, no matter how long I chill the bowl and the beater, and no matter how sure I am that there’s not a single drop of yolk or fat in the mix, there’s a 50/50 chance that my eggs just won’t ever reach stiff peaks.  The reaction that makes simple egg whites turn into fluffy deliciousness is both fascinating and frustrating to me, and I love it.  It also seemed appropriately scientific, considering that this contest is being done through ScienceBlogs.

Once it had been decided that custard was the order of the day, all that remained was to think of a flavour.  Blueberries were suggested (they’re Kenneth’s favourite), but then another reaction came to mind: the curdling reaction of milk and acid.  It’s always baffled me how lemon custard can manage to come out so sweet, without curdling into something completely disgusting, when the recipe involves both milk and lemon juice.  I made a few alterations on an old-fashioned recipe, threw in a quote from The Simpsons (episode 2F22, Lemon of Troy), and voila!  A pie was born, and my contest entry completed.

The Recipe

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter (softened)
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup citrus* juice
  • 2 tsp citrus* zest

* My original recipe just calls for lemon, but today I used a mix of lemon, lime and orange.  You can use any and/or all of the above.

The Prep

Start by building yourself a crust.  Any type of pie crust will do, but today I used a chocolate crumble crust.  Simply combine together 1-1/4 cups of chocolate cookie crumbs with 1/4 cup of melted butter, and press the mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch pie pan.  Refrigerate the crust until the filling has been prepared.

To make the filling, combine the sugar and butter together until the butter is well mixed in.  Then add the two egg yolks, and again mix well until the mix is relatively homogeneous.  Next add the milk, flour and salt.  This is easier if done in several additions, so that the flour doesn’t clump up.  If you do end up with clumps of flour, use a fork or a whisk to break them up.  Finally, add the citrus juice and zest.  Set this mixture aside while you deal with the egg whites.

As I mentioned above, whipping up egg whites into a nice, frothy foam has always been a bit of a cooking challenge for me.  Others continually inform me that it’s a very easy thing to do, but experience has taught me that there are many ways that it can go wrong.  So here’s a few tips to help you out:

  1. Make sure that your bowl and whisk (or beaters, if you’re using a hand mixer) are VERY clean, and completely free of any oil or grease.  The tiniest drop of oil in the mix will totally screw things up.
  2. Chill the bowl and whisk beforehand in the refrigerator.  The cold will help.  I use a metal bowl, but glass will work just as well (it just takes a bit longer to chill down).
  3. Don’t let any egg yolk get into your whites.  If you’re not really confident in your egg-separating abilities, you can do each one separately into a smaller dish, and then pour all of your successful whites into your mixing bowl only once you’re sure that they’re yolk-free.  If you screw up an egg or two, don’t worry:  cover the dish with plastic wrap and set it aside in the fridge for tomorrow’s breakfast.

Once you’ve got your egg whites separated into your clean, cold bowl, get whisking.  The egg whites will first become frothy, and then will start to stick together (and to your whisk).  When you reach the stage known as “stiff peaks” — a consistency similar to whipped cream — you’ve had success, and you can stop whipping.

Fold your whipped egg whites into the rest of the custard mix, then pour the whole thing into your prepared pie shell.  Then it’s into the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes to an hour — a toothpick inserted in the center of the pie should come out clean.

The Decorations

For the chocolate decorations on top of this pie, I melted some semi-sweet chocolate chips together with a little bit of butter (about a cup of chocolate chip to a half-teaspoon of butter).  The butter prevents the finished product from getting that white stuff on the outside.  I then poured the melted chocolate into a Ziplock baggie, and snipped off a tiny corner.  Through that corner I could then pipe the chocolate designs out onto some waxed paper (always do a few extra pieces, just in case some break when you try to lift them up later).  The chocolate then went into the fridge to harden and cool.

For the citrus slices, I simply sliced very thin pieces of lemon, lime, and orange.  I then covered those slices with white sugar, and refrigerated them for a few hours to let them soak up the sweetness.

It’s very important to not put on your decorations until the pie has COMPLETELY cooled.  Otherwise the chocolate will melt, and the citrus slices will sink into the custard.  Be patient, and leave your pie in the fridge for an hour or two before attempting the decorations.