Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dark chocolate peppermint cake

Deep, dark, chocolate peppermint cake that is sure to knock your socks off! A rich and chocolate-y cake is topped with dark chocolate ganache, peppermint cream cheese frosting and chopped mint sandwich cookies. Make sure you save some of the cake for yourself!

This cake was so magnificent that I made it twice in a month. That's pretty much unheard of for me, since I try not to repeat cake recipes. I baked this cake at my in-laws' house over the holidays and it was such a huge hit that I baked it again for my family a few weeks later. Yes, it was that good.

I usually bake Patty's White Chocolate Cheesecake over the holidays, but my husband suggested that we try something new this year. I thought about my favorite flavor combination (chocolate and mint) and figured that a layered cake would be plenty for all of us to share. This cake was so big that my father-in-law took the leftovers into work for his team to eat.

This cake has three layers chocolate cake. Each layer is topped with a rich and smooth chocolate ganache and chopped peppermint cookies (I used crushed candy canes for the first cake). As if that's not enough, there is a layer of peppermint cream cheese frosting in between each cake layer as well. Then the whole thing is covered with the same peppermint frosting. Not to mention the cookie bits on top too.

Don't worry - the mint flavor is not overpowering at all. You get a subtle bit of mint from the chopped cookies and the frosting. If you're a mint fiend, feel free to dial up the peppermint extract or even use peppermint chips in place of the candy canes or crushed cookies. Or, even add some into the cake.

You'll want to clear out the refrigerator for this cake. It is extremely tall and might not fit into a regular cake carrier or cake dome. Assuming you have leftovers, of course. Or, you can just invite me over and I'll gladly finish the cake for you.

Dark chocolate peppermint cake
Cake
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons dark cocoa powder
  • 2 and ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 and ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • 2 and ¼ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons warm water
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons buttermilk
  • 4½ tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Ganache
  • 6 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
  • ½ cup heavy cream
Cream cheese buttercream
  • 4 ounces (1/2 block) cream cheese, softened
  • 3 sticks (1½ cups) unsalted butter, softened
  • 5-7 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½  teaspoon peppermint extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • About 1-2 teaspoons of milk of choice
  • About 4-6 chopped peppermint cookies (can use crushed candy canes as an alternative) for garnish, optional
Directions 
Bake the cake: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease 3 8-inch or 9-inch round cake pans and set aside.

In a large bowl (not joking here - you need a REALLY large bowl), whisk together the cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the eggs, warm water, buttermilk, oil and vanilla and mix well until the batter is smooth and clump-free. Do not over mix.

Evenly distribute the batter into your 3 pans and bake in your preheated oven for 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely before assembling the cake.

Make the ganache: While the cake is cooling, make the ganache. Place the chopped chocolate in a small, heatproof bowl. Microwave the heavy cream for about 1 minute (alternatively, you can allow it simmer on a stove, but I'm too impatient for that). Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes untouched. Then whisk with a spatula until the mixture is smooth. Set aside until you are ready to assemble the cake.

Make the buttercream: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large mixer if using a handheld mixer, cream together the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth. Turn the mixer down to low and add the powdered sugar, about 1 cup at a time until it is thick enough to frost. Add the vanilla and peppermint extracts and the salt. Add the milk, if desired, to make the buttercream smoother. Set aside until ready to use.

Assemble the cake: Place one cake layer, flat side down, on a cake plate. If desired, shave the domed top off the cake with a serrated (bread) knife to even out the layer. Spread some ganache on top and allow it to set or harden (you can place in the refrigerator for a few minutes to save time on this step). Sprinkle with crushed candy canes or chopped cookie bits. Then spread a layer of frosting on top. Repeat with the remaining layers. Cover the rest of the cake with the leftover buttercream. If desired, sprinkle the top of the cake with additional crushed candy canes or chopped cookie bits for presentation.

Cake should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and will keep for about a week.

Yield: About 12-16 servings

Source: Barely adapted from The Baker Chick

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Friday, February 5, 2016

Skating Fridays

Trudging Through Mud


I have been told many times in my skating career that my arm (and leg movements) appear very sharp and un-poetic. I attribute that to my former gymnastics training - although the elements are fluid, the transitions were often very rigid and pointed.

Unlike ballet.

Ballet dancers are smooth, polished and move effortlessly across the floor. Good skaters should be able to do that too, except across the ice.

Coach B said that I looked like I was trudging through mud during a recent lesson. Ouch. She's blunt, but I am glad that she's honest so I know what I need to fix.

So how am I supposed to glide my mud-slugging self across the ice and make it look easy?

Well, I need to learn how to extend my arms and legs with every push. Hold my chin up high and "channel my inner Meryl Davis," according to my coach. Tighten the core and skate with "neat feet." None of this sloppy, choppy business.

I also bought a book called Ballet Secrets for Skaters, which I am hoping will help.

Chin up, legs extended and no more mud. That's the goal.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Peppermint cookies and cream blondies

A delightfully minty cookies and cream blondie that will make you think of candy canes and wrapped presents. Even though the holidays are over, you can extend that holiday feeling with these bars!

I don't know about you, but I'm not quite ready to give up all the peppermint stuff yet. Although the holidays are over, and I am still all about the peppermint desserts. Bring on the candy, truffles, brownies, cake and these blondies.

I adapted a cookies and cream blondie recipe to make it minty. I added a bit of peppermint extract, tossed in some peppermint chips and chopped up some peppermint sandwich cookies. While that may sound like a lot of mint, it wasn't.

These bars were soft and chewy like a blondie should be but had a hint of mint throughout. The cookie chunks provided a nice crunchy texture throughout each bite.

I loved that these bars help me extend the holiday season, one bite at a time.

Peppermint cookies and cream blondies
  • 1 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 stick (6 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 1/4 cup peppermint chips
  • 6 mint sandwich cookies, chopped
Directions
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.

Generously grease or line a standard 8"x8" baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl, mix together the melted butter and sugars until well incorporated. Add the egg and peppermint extract and mix well. Transfer the content to the large bowl with the dry ingredients and fold until a few dry streaks remain. Add in the peppermint chips and chopped cookies and mix until everything just comes together - do not over mix.

Bake in your preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes or until the sides are golden brown and the center is slightly soft (and a bit underdone). Allow the bars to cool completely before slicing and serving.

Store the bars in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator. They will keep for about a week.

Yield: One 8"x8" pan; about 16 servings

Source: Adapted from Baker By Nature

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Flour Bakery's famous banana bread

An almost-perfect banana bread, this is a top-seller at Joanne Chang's Flour Bakery in Boston. You'll want to stock up on bananas so you can bake another batch!

Santa was good me last month, as I received a copy of Joanne Chang's cookbook for the holidays. I remember watching her battle Bobby Flay on Food Network's Throwdown where she beat the famous chef during a sticky bun challenge. That television show really put her on the (culinary) map.

After I read through her cookbook, Joanne's banana bread stood out to me. It was titled "famous banana bread" and said that this item was a top-seller at the bakery. Banana bread, while it seems like a pretty humdrum baked good, is usually really awesome or awesomely bad. Some are too sweet, while others are too dry. Some have too many nuts, while others could use some add-ins.

This version is pretty much perfect. I made some slight alterations to Joanne's recipe to suit my tastes: I upped the quantity of bananas, omitted the creme fraiche and nuts, and substituted oil for applesauce. The banana bread was just the way I wanted it to be, and my husband happily agreed. He couldn't wait to try a slice after it came out of the oven and said that the house smelled amazing.

The bread has a wonderful springy texture and wasn't a bit dry. The bread was sweet from the bananas and I probably could have decreased the sugar since I used 4 bananas instead of the 3.5 that Joanna's recipe recommended. All in all, I was very happy with the way this banana bread turned out and am sure that I will be baking it again soon.

Flour Bakery's famous banana bread
  • 1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 4 medium sized bananas, very ripe and mashed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Directions
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Generously grease a standard 9"x5" loaf pan (I used a silicone pan and did not grease it).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer, beat the sugar and eggs on medium speed until mixture is pale and fluffy.

Turn the mixer down to low and add the applesauce a little bit at a time. Then add the bananas and vanilla and mix until just combined.

Turn the mixer off and fold in the dry ingredients by hand until no dry streaks remain. Use as few strokes as possible.

Transfer the batter to your prepared loaf pan and bake in your preheated oven for about 1 hour or until the top is golden brown. If you press down on the middle of the bread, it should spring back. If it doesn't, bake for longer.

Bread should be cooled before serving. Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator. It will keep for several days.

Yield: One 9"x5" loaf; about 10-12 servings

Source: Slightly adapted from Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Skating Fridays

A Slightly Improved Double Loop Attempt


Coach B has me working on double loops to help with my double salchows. The point of this exercise, as you may recall, is to help my body understand how to rotate and stay in position. My body tends to freak out and open up too early. I guess this is a natural tendency for adult skaters, since many of us are afraid of falling and injuring ourselves.

I attempted a double loop during practice one day and was excited to see that it had improved. While my ankles aren't even close to touching (they should be), I seem to be rotating faster and getting closer to landing an IJS clean jump. There is still a lot of work to be done, but at least I'm making some progress.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chunky apple cake with salted caramel sauce

Love apples but don't want to make an apple pie or crisp? Look no further and make this chunky apple cake. It uses 6 cups of apples and is topped with a decadent salted caramel sauce.


Apples are such a versatile fruit. You can certainly make a classic apple pie or a crisp/strudel/cobbler with it, but that tends to get boring after a while. Have you ever thought about making an apple cake? This recipe will use up at least 5 apples so it's a great way to use up your apple stash and please a crowd (no crust rolling here!).

The apple cake is soft and chock full of tart apples, and the salted caramel sauce on top really makes the cake special. This recipe yields a 9"x13" pan so you will get at least 24 servings out of this. Just make sure you save yourself a few slices because this will go fast.

Store any leftovers (ha!) in the refrigerator, or just send it to me. I'll make sure any extras don't go to waste. Heh heh.


Chunky apple cake with salted caramel sauce
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs 
  • 6 cups tart apples (I used 5 medium Pink Lady apples), peeled, cored and chopped
  • Salted caramel sauce (store bought or homemade), optional
Directions
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a standard 9"x13" baking pan and set aside.

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after the last egg. Turn the mixer to low and gently add in the dry ingredients until everything just comes together. Turn off the mixer.

Fold the apples in by hand. The batter will be super thick and seem difficult to mix.

Transfer the batter to your prepared baking pan and bake in your preheated oven for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean. If desired, top with salted caramel sauce or frosting of your choice.

Allow the cake to cool before serving. Store leftover cake in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will last for several days.

Yield: One 9"x13" cake; at least 24 slices, more or less depending upon how big you slice them

Source: Cake from Taste of Home; sauce is from my first batch of failed dry salted caramel

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cranberry bliss bars

A copycat version of a national coffee chain's dessert, these cranberry bliss bars are a soft and chewy frosted dessert that you'll want to double or quadruple! The frosting alone is heavenly bliss.

Cranberry bliss bars seem to be everywhere around me. I attended a cookie swap and retirement party last month, and these bars were at both of the parties. I found out that these bars were a copycat recipe from a certain national coffee chain. Since I don't drink coffee, I hardly ever set foot in the coffee bars and therefore missed the boat on this dessert trend.

I loved these bars so much that I wanted to try making my own at home. I found a few different versions out there, most of which called for ginger. Those of you who know me well are aware that I have a very bad aversion to ginger. As a result, I didn't use a recipe that included ginger. I also made a half batch since my little family of 3 did not need more than 18 bars. If you are hosting a party or need some bars to feed a crowd, double the recipe and bake in a 9"x13" pan (keep the baking time the same).

Originally, I thought that the frosting amount wasn't enough, but after sampling a few bars (OK, more than a few), I actually think that the bar to frosting ratio is just about right. It's about 70% bar to 30% frosting. Feel free to double down on the frosting and just eat that for breakfast though. I'm not here to judge.

My bars baked up a little bit puffy but shrunk down a bit after I frosted them and placed them in the refrigerator to chill. The bar layer is sweet and blondie-like with little bursts of sweetened dried cranberries. And the frosting is obviously awesome enough to eat on its own. I mean helloooo... cream cheese frosting?!

Bake these bars at your next potluck or get-together. I'm certain that these will be a huge hit with all your friends, family and coworkers alike. They will taste just as good as the ones from that coffee store!

Cranberry bliss bars
Bars
  • 3/4 stick (6 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sweetened dried cranberries
  • 3 ounces white chocolate, chopped (I used white chocolate chips)
Frosting
  • 1/2 package (4 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 3 ounces white baking chocolate, melted (I used white chocolate chips)
  • 1/4 cup sweetened dried cranberries
Directions
Bake the bars: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease or line a standard 8"x8" baking pan and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together the melted butter with the light brown sugar. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer. Mix the brown sugar mixture, the egg and vanilla together on medium speed until light and fluffy.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

Turn the mixer to low and add in the flour mixture. Turn mixer to medium and beat until everything just comes together. Turn the mixer off and fold in the cranberries and chocolate by hand.

Press the batter onto the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for 18-21 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not over bake. Allow the bars to cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting: In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer, cream the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth and fluffy. Slowly add the powdered sugar until well-blended. Then add in the melted white chocolate.

Spread the frosting on top of the cooled bars and sprinkle with the sweetened dried cranberries. If desired, you can melt additional melted white chocolate and drizzle it on top of the bars for a prettier presentation.

Yield: About 18 (triangular) bars

Source: Slightly adapted from Recipe Girl

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