Tag Archives: Chocolate

Chocolate sour cream bundt cake

This is my absolute number-one favorite chocolate cake. Hands down. And I say that as someone who usually thinks chocolate cake is a waste of chocolate. Oh, it’s tasty, no doubt, but between the flour and the butter and the sugar and the eggs, it’s often hard to taste the chocolate at all.

This cake is different. It’s a sour cream cake, the softest and plushest kind of cake there is. That means it can support a heaping helping of cocoa powder–amounts that would dry out a lesser cake. (I’ve actually increased the amount of cocoa in this cake since I started making it, and if anything I think the texture is better.) It’s also a hot water cake, which makes the texture even moister and helps draw out flavor, coffee-like, from the cocoa. And instead of a sickly-sweet buttercream frosting, it’s covered with dark chocolate ganache. What’s not to love?

In fact, this cake is so soft that I’ve had trouble with it falling apart if I take it out of the pan too soon. Most bundt cake recipes say you should cool the cake in the pan for exactly 10 minutes–no more, no less–before turning them out. When I do that, the cake slumps into a pile of delicious crumbs. I’ve found it’s best to wait a bit longer, until the sides of the cake pan are warm but not hot to the touch. That’s my cue that the cake has cooled enough to hold together, but not enough to cement itself to the pan.

When my family makes this cake, we use a standard-sized bundt pan and a demure drizzle of ganache over the top. The cake in the picture below was for a friend’s 30th birthday party, so I scaled up the recipe to fill my giant bundt pan and shellacked the entire surface with ganache. Honestly, do as you please–I’ve never seen someone turn up their nose at this cake.

chocolate-sour-cream-bundt-cake

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Orange mocha frappuccinos

Anyone who’s spent any length of time with me–say, more than 10 minutes–knows that I am a huge fan of Zoolander. It’s one of my five desert island movies, hands down. When it first came out, I avoided it, since Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell usually grate on me like crazy, and I’m usually too buttoned-up and serious for movies this goofy. But then I caved in and watched it, and fell under its spell. It’s a dumb movie written by smart people. It’s silly, but sharp underneath.

And it’s insanely, obnoxiously quotable. My parents, siblings, and I will throw around Zoolander quotes at the least possible provocation. Whenever we’re indignant about something, it’s always, “What is this?!? A center for ANTS?!?” If someone coughs, even once, for any reason, you better bet someone will pipe up, “I think I’m getting the black lung.” And, of course, there’s never a bad time for “Orange mocha frappuccinos!!!”

So when my friend Lucia decided to put together a Zoolander-themed party, there was no question that orange mocha frappuccinos would be on the menu. But, surprisingly, when I started poking Google for ideas, there weren’t many recipes to choose from. A lot of folks seem to have done orange mocha flavored things–cupcakes, mousse, actual mocha drinks–but not frappuccinos. With any normal recipe, I would take that as a hint that it was perhaps not the best idea. But I was determined. We needed orange mocha frappuccinos, or the party would be ruined. So I decided to doctor a more traditional frappuccino knockoff recipe with some orange syrup and homemade chocolate syrup, and see what happened.

So did it work? Well…yes, and no. Honestly, there’s a reason you don’t often see coffee and orange paired together–it just tastes funny. Coffee and chocolate are wonderful, and chocolate and orange are wonderful, but all three mashed together make a bit of a flavor muddle. (Things improved marginally with a couple shots of vodka added to the blender, though that may have been the vodka talking.) That said, as a party drink to suit a theme, this more than fit the bill. It was totally drinkable, and awfully fun. I’d recommend it to anyone who needs a sugary, spikeable beverage to take to a gasoline fight.

orange mocha frappuccino

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Chocolate syrup

As a home cook, I often fall into the trap of “fancy is better.” Since I’m mostly self-taught–fairly competent, but decidedly amateur–I still have some lingering insecurities about how much more impressive my cooking could be. So I’m always looking for ways to amaze people, to introduce them to new foods, to show off. And somehow, I keep getting it into my head that the more elaborate and complex a recipe is, the more impressive it’ll turn out.

It’s true that sometimes the most elaborate projects are the ones that wow people. I’ll happily make layer cakes and from-scratch burger buns and quiche and paella, even if they take me all day and leave me sweaty and stained. There is enormous satisfaction in tackling some multi-hour, multi-step cooking process and coming out the other end with something ferociously tasty. But it’s shockingly easy to forget that sometimes the most amazing and appealing dishes are also the simplest. Like Irish soda bread. Refrigerator pickles. Eggs, cooked really well. A pot of lentil soup.

So, when I felt a strong urge to do something flashy recently, I decided to go ultra-simple and make a batch of chocolate syrup. It sounds fancy, and tastes incredible–satiny and bittersweet and dark, dark chocolatey, like a fudgy brownie in syrup form. This stuff is seductive and showy, miles away from the little-kiddishness of the stuff in the squeeze bottle. But it’s also one of the quickest kitchen things I’ve ever done–from start to finish, from dry ingredients to gooey sauce, took under 5 minutes. It’s made entirely of pantry staples and water, so it can happen any darn time. There’s no corn syrup, of any variety, so it’s almost virtuous. And did I mention it tastes like a brownie?

In fact, this stuff is so utterly delicious that I have no idea what the shelf life is, because we blew through the entire first batch in less than 24 hours. Acting on a tip I picked up in the blogosphere, I added a touch of baking soda to the syrup, which supposedly keeps the syrup from going gloppy over time. (It also reacted with the cocoa powder and turned the sauce a deeper, sexier shade of brown, which was a plus.) My guess is that this will keep in the fridge for a couple weeks, and at some point I will test that–if my friends and I can keep our hands off it.

chocolate syrup

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Whole wheat banana bread

My office shares a small kitchen with the other offices on our floor. It’s a tiny but magical place, where drinks and snacks and sandwich fixings are free, plentiful, and replenished every week. There are always several different kinds of fresh fruit, including a basket of bananas. Recently, I started noticing something: even if there are old spotty bananas left on Friday afternoon, the basket is always filled with flawless yellow bananas come Monday morning. So where do the Friday bananas go?

In the compost bin, that’s where. Every week, the ugly but still perfectly edible bananas are thrown out to make way for the pretty new ones. I found this out myself on a recent Monday, when the admin who normally stocks the kitchen was a little late making the rounds. I went into the kitchen to turn on the electric kettle, and there was a bunch of brown bananas in the basket. I came back in two minutes later for my tea, and they were in the bin.

Well, no more. I am the banana rescuer. Whenever there are leftover bananas on Friday, I’ve started bundling them up and taking them home with me. Some of them get eaten as-is, but the majority get tossed in the freezer, peel and all, for a day when I feel like making banana bread.

There are approximately 2.6 bazillion banana bread recipes in the universe. I’m not pretending to break new ground here. But I have learned, from hard experience, that there are two things that make for really good banana bread: use the squishiest, ripest bananas you can find, and a lot of them. When I bring my already-splotchy bananas home from the office, I’ll leave them in a paper bag over the weekend, until their peels are almost completely brown, before freezing them. My friend Shaw swears that the best banana bread he ever made was with a bunch of forgotten bananas that were so ripe, their skins turned black and they started to ferment. Shaw also doubles the amount of banana in any banana bread recipe; I don’t go quite to his extreme, but I’ve found that using 5 bananas in a recipe that calls for 4 only makes it better.

The benefit of using so many ripe bananas is that you can then dial way back on the added sugar. Over the past couple years, I’ve found myself wanting less and less sweetness in my baked goods, and using pungently sugary bananas is a great way to compensate. To use up my most recent banana windfall, I made two banana loaves: a whole wheat loaf sweetened with just a touch of maple syrup, and a chocolate loaf fortified with cocoa and sweetened with brown sugar. I was lazy about mixing, so that the breads came out with large yellow pockets of banana throughout. I didn’t have a problem with this, but if you do, just mash your bananas into oblivion.

banana bread - maple and chocolate

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Green tea chocolate chip cookies

My neighbor Jess is a total badass. By day, she’s an animator at a major motion picture studio; by night, she repairs bicycles and makes pots for her succulent plants out of concrete and old buckets. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s also a talented baker, with a particular knack for delicate and sophisticated cookies. She makes adorable bite-sized macarons that could make you weep, they’re so perfect. (She showed me how. I tried. I can’t make ’em like she can.)

I will forever be indebted to Jess for two things. First, for introducing me to matcha, or finely ground green tea. I’d heard of matcha before, mostly in the context of making green tea-flavored sweets, but Jess was the one who finally inspired me to go out and buy some. It’s certainly pricey–mine cost $8 an ounce–but a little goes a long way. Traditionally, matcha is whisked into hot water to form a frothy, intensely green tea. I used some of mine this way recently when I was fighting off a cold, and the thick forested punch it gave seemed to knock the bug right out of my system. But really, I bought matcha to use it in cookies, which leads to the second reason I’m indebted to Jess.

A couple months ago, we got together for a lazy Sunday of baking, tea, and chitchat. We made a tomato tart, baked peaches, and then Jess started gathering ingredients for cookies. “Green tea chocolate chip,” she said. “I just use the recipe on the back of the Nestle bag, but I replace two tablespoons of the flour with matcha.” The dough mixed up bright green, almost alien-like; when it baked, the cookies took on an eerie moss-toned color. At first bite, I thought I was just tasting an ordinary  cookie–but then the flavor of the green tea slowly took hold, blossoming grassy and slightly bitter through the rich goo of the chocolate chips. It stunned me. I thought about those cookies for days.

I’ve since made these cookies for myself several times, tinkering a bit to find a balance I like. For me, that includes a dose of whole wheat flour to offset the grassiness with nuttiness, as well as almond extract in place of vanilla. These seem like an ideal Halloween cookie, green and spooky as they are, but with enough subtlety to please adults as well as children.

Thank you, Jess, for bringing these cookies into my life.

green tea chocolate chip cookies multiple

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Triple chocolate cookies

All right. Time to let these cookies out into the world.

These started out as a Nigella Lawson recipe that failed on me. I followed the recipe to the letter, and came away with a single amorphous cookie-blob on a baking sheet. Normally I would have just chalked it up to bad luck and let it go, but something about this recipe stuck with me. Maybe it’s the fact that it calls for three types of chocolate: melted, cocoa, and chips. Maybe it’s that I’ve never had a chocolate-chocolate-chip cookie that really lived up to my daydreams. Whatever it was, I had to perfect these cookies.

I don’t think I’ve ever obsessed over a recipe like I have this one. I’ve tweaked and fiddled and ruined more batches than I care to count, all in service of my one dream cookie: intensely dark and decadent, sturdy at the edges and soft in the middle, with an absurdly high chip-to-dough ratio. It’s taken at least a year of frenzied testing; at the end of it, I was back at approximately the same proportions as when I started. But I think I’ve finally cracked the chocolate chip cookie code, and it comes down to four things:

  • Melted butter. I don’t own a stand mixer, and beating cookie dough with a hand mixer never goes well for me. So I always cream sugar and butter by hand, and that can make for wildly inconsistent cookies. Melting the butter along with the chocolate solves this problem, and helps the cookies stay soft and yielding. It does, however, make for an almost alarmingly gooey dough, so soft that you may worry it won’t hold together when scooped. Trust me–it will.
  • Size. I’ve tried shaping and scooping the cookies several different ways, and there’s no getting around it: bigger is better here. Larger cookies hold their shape better in the oven, are more resistant to overbaking, and yield a lovely range of textures: crumbly on the sides, crisp on top, soft and melting in the middle. I’ve had best results with my beloved #16 cookie disher, but you could also use a 2 oz (1/4 cup) ice cream scoop, as long as it’s got some sort of spring release mechanism.
  • Temperature. You could certainly scoop and bake the cookies straight from the mixing bowl–they’ll spread quite a lot and become chewy-crisp all over. But if you have time, I highly, highly, highly recommend that you scoop the cookies in advance and freeze them. Just portion the cookies out onto a baking sheet, freeze them till rock-solid, then pop them into a zip-top bag and bake as many as you want, when you want, straight from the freezer. Baking the cookies when they’re ice-cold means they’ll spread less and rise more, yielding a tall and tender cookie with a crisp exterior and a luscious, fluffy center. Yum.
  • Time. The cookies are best when baked until they’re just barely set–there should be a thin, firm crust on top, but the interior should still feel gooey and unstable. For my oven, the magic number is 12 minutes for fresh cookies, and 14 minutes for frozen. Once they’re out of the oven, let the cookies cool for at least 15 minutes on the baking sheet, so that the heat from the metal underneath can gently coax the interior to doneness. You want the cookies set enough to handle, because breaking into that pillowy interior is an absolutely glorious thing. And don’t worry about losing the fresh-from-the-oven magic–the cookies will stay warm for at least 30 minutes, and the chocolate chips inside will stay molten for at least an hour.

Oh, and about that chocolate: don’t bother with the expensive stuff here. You’re going for big, brawny, chocolate-dense, nothing subtle or refined; supermarket chocolate fits the bill nicely. This is San Francisco, so I use Ghirardelli all the way–bars, cocoa, and chips. The cookies are still seriously indulgent.

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Hazelnut biscotti

Several months ago, the lovely and talented Daisy over at Daisy’s World did a giveaway featuring hazelnut flour and polenta from Bob’s Red Mill. As one of the lucky winners, I was tasked with sharing a recipe using one of the products. I can do that, I said. The moment the box arrived on my doorstep, with my winnings tucked securely inside, I tore open the bags and went to work.

I’m still working on finding a polenta recipe worth sharing–I slipped quickly into the tasty rut of topping it with crispy mushrooms and sausage, and haven’t deviated much since. The hazelnut flour, on the other hand, has gotten a serious workout. I’ve worked it into chocolate chip cookies, blended it into mole sauce, and used it as a crust for turkey tenders. But I keep getting drawn back to the most unassuming recipe I’ve tried: hazelnut biscotti.

They’re deceptively simple, these cookies, with the round richness of hazelnuts front and center. Unlike many biscotti recipes, which bulk up with butter, these rely only on the fat within the hazelnut flour itself. (Near as I can tell, that brings them closer to the spirit of the original Italian almond biscotti, which contain no added fat.) They’re pebbly-crisp and subtly nutty, with a breath of cinnamon for warmth and a kiss of orange zest for brightness. And they’re flecked with chopped hazelnuts–but finely chopped, almost invisible, not the massive tooth-testing nut-hunks you usually see in biscotti.

“Biscotti” translates to “twice cooked,” which is where the cookies get their unmistakable shape and nubbly texture. First, the dough is formed into logs, and baked until it puffs and sets, almost like a cake. Then it’s sliced, breadlike, into thin flat cookies, which are toasted on both sides until they’re dry and crumbly all the way through. These work best when they’re formed small and sliced thin, for maximum crumbly crunch. Once they’ve cooled and crisped, you could dip them in chocolate, if you wanted to. But I prefer them naked.

These are nice enough on their own, but they’re just about perfect with a cup of tea. Coffee or hot chocolate would work also, but good black tea is my favorite. Dunked in something hot and soothing, these biscotti make an ideal after-dinner wind-down.

Thanks, Daisy!

hazelnut biscotti

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