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.
In a world of coffee drinkers, Sam and I are tea fanatics. Our cupboards are bursting with tins and boxes, strainers and saucers. We drink black tea in the morning, green tea after dinner, and herbal tea late at night. We even have one of those fancy tea kettles that heats water to different temperatures for different types of tea.
I love cooking with tea–and with one tea in particular–almost as much as drinking it. Lapsang souchong tea is dried over wood fires, giving it a distinctive smoky flavor. Add some leaves or a bag to a pot of soup broth, and you’ve got something deeper and huskier than any non-meat broth I know. My new favorite trick? Cooking black lentils–sometimes called beluga lentils, because they resemble caviar when cooked–in a cauldron of smoky tea, tomatoes, and spices.
The recipe I adapted this from called for simmering everything together at once–lentils, tomatoes, the works. I’ve tried that, and don’t recommend it; the acid in the tomatoes keeps the lentils from softening. Instead, I use the method from my grandmother’s bean and tomato soup. In that recipe, you start simmering the legumes on their own, cook up a saucy tomato mix in a separate pan, then bring everything together towards the end of the cooking time. I added a handful of greens, too, which wilted down and made the whole dish more substantive.
At first taste, you might assume there’s meat in these lentils. It’s a nifty little trick, brought about by the marriage of smoky tea and glutamate-rich tomatoes. You could easily serve this as a standalone vegan meal–I have, and my omnivorous dinner guests loved it. If you eat eggs, these lentils are incredible with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top. And as with so many soups and stews, the flavor gets even better after some time in the fridge or freezer.
It’s phyllo central over here. Something about that golden, flaky crackle-crunch is really hitting the spot right now. And if I feel myself burning out on layered pies, there’s always the trusty triangle.
This particular recipe was my contribution to an Ethiopian-food potluck. It’s a riff on lentil sambusas, one of my favorite things to order at an Ethiopian restaurant. Picture an Indian samosa if that’s more familiar, but smaller and lighter, with a filling of gently spiced lentils. I love a good samosa, but the combination of pastry and potato always makes me feel like I’ve eaten a brick. Not so with sambusas–the best ones I’ve had are earthy but delicate, with a thin-and-crisp shell.
Normally, sambusas in restaurants are deep-fried. But I hate the mess and hassle of deep-frying, so I decided to bake my sambusas instead. As always, the challenge when turning a deep-fried food into a baked one is texture–it’s hard to really mimic that great golden crunch. Of everything I’ve tried, phyllo’s flaky crispness gets the closest.
I started with the classic triangle instructions on the back of the phyllo box, and added a sambusa-inspired filling of lentils and spiced, sauteed onions. You could make the filling all in one pot, but I decided to cook the lentils on their own and then fold in the spiced onion mix to keep the textures and flavors distinct. I used ordinary, cheap green lentils, but beluga or Puy lentils would be lovely since they keep their shape when cooked. Make sure to use plenty of butter or oil–it’s what gives these little pastries their color and crunch.
It’s a new year, and a lot of people are eating their greens. Even if you’ve already had your traditional New Year’s Day greens for luck, we’re now in the health-conscious days of January, and winter vegetables are the order of the day. Of course, my favorite way to eat greens is to mix them with cheese and sandwich them between layers of buttery pastry, but hey. You do what you can.
Spanakopita, or Greek spinach pie, is one of my absolute favorite foods. If it’s on a restaurant menu, I order it. If it’s in the freezer case at the grocery store, I buy it. And whenever I end up with a glut of greens in the fridge, I make it myself. The filling is simple–a boatload of cooked greens, some sauteed onions or scallions, cubes of feta cheese, fresh herbs, nutmeg, and an egg to hold it all together. And the crust involves frozen phyllo dough, which thaws quickly on the counter and bakes up golden and flaky-crisp like you wouldn’t believe.
I’d be lying if I said making spanakopita was quick. I’ve done this on a weeknight, but you probably won’t want to. Phyllo is fussy stuff–you have to lay it out one gauze-thin sheet at a time and brush each sheet all over with melted butter or olive oil. But I’ve found ways to make it easier on myself, and the biggest one is simply to make smaller pies. Most recipes call for a 9×13 pan, which involves lots of jigsaw-puzzling of phyllo sheets to make sure everything is covered. I make my spanakopita in an 8-inch square pan, which is much closer to the size of a single sheet of phyllo, meaning more flaky layers with less work. I also don’t worry about the phyllo sheets cracking and tearing, which they inevitably do; that just means more crunchy flaky goodness later!
If you have the gumption to tackle phyllo–and I really think you should–then this is a great recipe to have in your back pocket. The filling is super-adaptable and uses up a lot of greens, which is great if you’re drowning in kale. You can serve it as an appetizer or as a showy vegetarian main course. The pie tastes great warm, but I also love it at room temperature. It even makes great (if slightly less-crunchy) leftovers.
I know it’s cool to hate on pumpkin spice these days. Honestly, whatever. It’s a classic for a reason. I’m not mad at pumpkin spice. But if you are, I can suggest a spunkier substitute. Enter: Chinese five-spice.
I’ve fallen hard this year for Chinese five-spice in baked goods and holiday sweets. The exact ingredients vary, but most blends I’ve seen include cinnamon, clove, fennel seed, star anise, and either black pepper or Sichuan pepper. (Some versions include ginger instead of pepper, so look for those if pepper in your baked goods feels like a stretch.) It’s just close enough to the familiar American sweet-and-spicy thing to be comforting. But it’s also a little funky and unexpected, with a quiet kick of heat and licorice. In my experience, people won’t put their finger on the difference right away–they’ll assume it’s pumpkin spice with a mystery twist.
Lately our crisper drawer has been overrun with carrots–I keep forgetting we have them and buying more. So I’ve been making batches of carrot bread with a healthy dose of five-spice. This is a riff on my go-to zucchini bread recipe, and it works really nicely in a variety of guises–one big loaf, several mini-loaves, even muffins. Because carrots aren’t as watery as zucchini, I usually find myself adding a bit of milk or water to thin out the batter. Other than that, this is a pretty basic quickbread, but the five-spice makes it pop.
This bread is terrific baked just as-is, but for a special flourish, get yourself some raw sugar (also known as turbinado sugar, or demerara over in Europe) and sprinkle it over the top. I don’t know why, but it impresses people like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve had folks assume that this carrot bread came from a bakery, just because of the scattering of sugar crystals on top. It also adds a lovely crunch and a bit of extra sweetness. Highly recommend.
Just under the wire before Christmas, here’s an edible gift idea: candied citrus peels. Start them tonight, and they’ll be ready by Saturday.
I’ve been doing this for years, and it’s probably my greatest kitchen love-hate relationship. On the one hand, candied citrus peels are incredibly delicious, a real show-offy gift, and a great way to use up food scraps. On the other hand, making them is labor-intensive. Not difficult or complicated–just a lot of f’n work.
That said, this is the kind of elaborate kitchen project that even a rank newbie can take on. All you need is a sharp knife, a pot or two, a lot of water and some sugar, and a place to set your peels to dry. Beyond that, what matters isn’t skill so much–it’s patience.
Below is a long, elaborate explanation of how I do this. The short version is: peel yourself some citrus and cut the peels into pieces. Blanch the peels in boiling water a few times. Simmer the peels in simple syrup for about an hour. Lay the peels out to dry for a day or two. Coat the dried peels in sugar or chocolate. Done.
I usually save citrus peels in the freezer and make a big batch of candy every few months. Every time, about 24 hours into the process, I wonder why I got myself into this. Then I take a nibble, and remember: oh, yeah. It’s because candied citrus peels are amazing.
God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.
On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.
Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.
As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.