Monday, January 25, 2016

The Silver Palate's Chocolate Cake

The introduction to this cake recipe talks about its "incredible simplicity." As someone who rarely makes cakes, I think any recipe that requires me to whip egg whites until they have stiff peaks, fold in egg whites, melt chocolate with boiling water, and cook icing on the stove top doesn't qualify as incredibly simple. It's not that any of these tasks are so difficult, but I've made simpler cakes from scratch on the rare occasions that I've made them.

However, I'm not in this for the simplicity. In fact, I'm in it for what is different from what I've tried before as I hope the techniques used will produce a result which will surprise. After all, there's no point in doing what I've always done as it'll just give me what I've always had.

I've been craving a really lavish cake lately, and by "lavish", I mean something with good frosting. It is extremely rare for me to make such a cake and I tend to rely on supermarket bakeries when I get a craving. The reason is, in part, because they are more reliable when it comes to decent frosting than me. Mine always turns out tasting like powdered sugar and has a grainy texture. My frosting is also often too heavy. Part of the appeal of this recipe for "The Silver Palate's Chocolate Cake" is that the icing is made from chocolate chips and is cooked. That, to me, signaled an increased chance of something which didn't taste like my usual sub-par frosting attempts.

I followed the recipe precisely as stated except for two small changes. I don't have a tube pan, so I made two round layers. In accord with this change, I reduced the baking time to 30 minutes so as not to dry them out. The timing was perfect and the cakes rose well. They have substance without being too dense. They lack the overly hole-y look and texture of a cake mix cake, which I was happy about.

Because I had two smaller cakes, I stacked them in layers and spread a thin amount of the icing on top of the first layer before adding the second one. My cake looked like this:

Don't judge my stacking. I hurt my finger and manipulating anything is tricky. I kept getting icing on my latex-glove-protected, bandaged finger while trying to do this as it had to stick out all of the time. I think that the amount of icing is about right when the cake is made as a double layer one. However, it would have been more decadent with more filling. My husband felt that the proportions were exactly right for the amount of cake so that's quite a solid endorsement. The man likes a good cake to icing ratio.

One thing I can say about this cake is that the quality of both the baking chocolate and the semisweet morsels you use really matter. I used Trader Joe's baking chocolate because it was what I had, but I was impressed with its flavor when I tasted the batter. It's also easy to use if you don't have a kitchen scale as it is a box with four individually wrapped one-ounce portions. I used Nestle's semisweet morsels (the type used in Tollhouse cookies) for the icing. I think both worked well, but I wouldn't scale any lower on the chocolate scale than the Nestle's morsels and think that Ghirardelli's or some other high quality brand would be a good idea. If you use cheap chocolate, my guess is the flavor will suffer, but the texture will be fine.

This is a great chocolate cake that is worthy of the accolades it gets in comments on the recipe page, though I'm not sure what all the fuss is about using salted butter. Someone claimed that that would "ruin" the cake, but there is no salt in the actual recipe and I used salted butter and it didn't taste overly salty at all. My best guess is, again, that the type of chocolate may be a part of this, but salted butter should work fine.

When I ate this cake, my taste buds weren't sure what to make of it. I believe this is my first experience making a homemade chocolate cake. I've made only yellow cakes from scratch and there is a certain quality to this which is cleaner and fresher that is very hard to describe in words. It won't taste like you're accustomed to, but it will taste good.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Nova Scotia Fish Cakes

During much of my life, fish has been off the menu. It's only in the last year that I've taken to regularly eating fish. It might be menopause, or it could be that, once people stopped telling me I should do it, I decided to give it a chance. I'm not a stubborn person, but I prefer to try things based on curiosity rather than being pushed. It doesn't help that those who recommended fish only pushed it for health reasons and really didn't describe the experience in any other terms. If you can't tell me that it has some sort of textural delight or flavor potential, then I'll stick to other, cheaper, healthy dishes.

It also did not help that I was in Japan and most of the fish I was told to eat was raw. I really dislike the texture of raw fish and I was raised to think uncooked flesh of any sort would result in dire healthy results. And, of course, my mother's home cooking of fish was not especially impressive. It usually meant a carp or trout wrapped in foil and cooked with lemon, salt, and pepper until it had had all of the textural delights steamed out of it.

I've tried to overcome the disadvantages of my youth in this regard. Pollock has been helpful in this regard as its the least "fishy" fish. It's also cheap. I've been trying it in various preparations and have generally been pleased. I had not folded it into a recipe which wasn't simply a way to make a whole piece of fish so the Nova Scotia Fish Cakes recipe caught my eye.

This was my first experience cooking fish in milk. I did as instructed, but I didn't know why this was of value until I did a little research. It's supposed to remove the "fishy" smell and taste and restore fish to a fresher flavor and impart a better texture. I do believe this worked and was effective. The fish did taste good without being overly "fishy" (which is an unpleasant taste  and odor that comes from the aging of the fish).

Since the recipe called for any white fish, my stash of frozen pollock which was a little over 14 oz. fit the bill well. I soaked it in milk as instructed, though some of the fish was partially frozen and it froze the milk so I wonder if that may have undermined the soaking effects. I also cooked it in milk, but for a very short time (about 4 minutes) because my fillets were very thin. This worked well as the fish didn't seem rubbery or overdone when I flaked it.

For the potato, I weighed it out to be sure to get the proportions correct and I used a ricer to mash it. This allowed for a much more even mashing than using a fork and I was pleased with how uniform it was when I made the cakes. I am dubious, however, about boiling the potato as part of the cooking and wondered if steaming my not have been a better idea. When I prepared the cakes for frying, they were delicate and it was hard to keep them from falling apart in the egg mixture. I had to roll them back into shape to some extent when I applied the bread crumbs. One cake broke in half, but cooked fine anyway. My best guess is that making smaller "appetizer" size cakes would have made this less likely, but I was prepping these for an entree. Mine looked like this:

The original potato patty was actually round. The shape change occurred because of the softness of the patty and the need to roll it around in the bread crumbs (I used panko) to keep it together and firm it up after the egg coating.

In terms of how this was, it was actually pretty great. The outside is crispy and not too oily. The inside is tender and soft and there's just enough flavor variation to keep things interesting without overwhelming the potato and fish flavors (which can be faint). I would make these again in a heartbeat if I had the fish on hand. I modified the recipe little, but the one thing I did do was add a 1/8 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning. I'm not sure that it made any difference given how tiny the amount was, but I might throw in 1/4 teaspoon next time to see if it has an impact. These were very flavorful on their own because of the scallions, salt, and pepper, but I don't think adding more complexity would do any harm.

The only problem is that this makes a lot and I am the only person in the house eating them. My batch made five cakes and I cooked them over two days. I allowed the leftovers to cool and froze them immediately. My hope is that fast freezing (while the coating was still crisp) and then cooking them still frozen and in a toaster oven will keep the delightful crispy exterior's charms intact.

Update: Freezing them (in plastic wrap) shortly after they'd full cooled and then re-heating in them in the toaster oven straight from the freezer worked very well. It retained the crispy exterior and tender interior. This is a winner for long-term use and a way to avoid process breaded products and make your own. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Almond-Lemon Macaroons (Almendrados)

The men in my life (all two of them - my husband and a good friend) are great fans of all things lemon when their gaze turns to sweets. My tastes are more varied, but I'm all onboard with lemon as well and almonds are just the icing on the cake. This simple recipe for a cookie with only four ingredients was pretty irresistible, though the need to set the dough aside for at least twelve hours was at odds for the desire for immediate gratification.

Before I put this together, there was one thing that I knew I'd change and that was the amount of lemon flavor. It was beyond imagination that the scrawny zest of one lemon was going to impart enough flavor so I added in a teaspoon of natural lemon extract as well as a half teaspoon of vanilla extract. The vanilla is probably some sort of sacrilege for a Spanish cookie recipe, but I often feel it adds depth to lemon-based sweets and notice its absence when I omit it from other recipes.

The only other alteration other than one and a half teaspoons of extra moisture in the form of those extracts that I made was to use almond flour instead of making the almond meal myself. The conversion that I made and have confirmed with web sources is that one cup of almonds yields 2/3 cup of almond meal/flour. I prefer recipes that work by weight rather than volume because of the imprecision brought to the mix, but this recipe only gave volume measurements. This may have been why my cookies ended up looking like little pancakes instead of the nice, rounded mounds in the picture on the recipe page:

I allowed my dough to rest for 22 hours and, when I formed balls, they came together very well, but I imagine the only reason that these flattened out was that I didn't use enough almond flour relative to what would have happened with a cup of almonds that I ground up fresh. It's also possible that I pushed down too hard when I stuck an almond in the top and flattened the little dough balls too much (or a combination of both). I'm certain I cooked them for the proper length of time though give that the recipe says they should be baked very little and just to the point of having some color (which you can see by the cookie that I flipped over was the case). I baked them for 9 minutes.

Regardless of how they look, they tasted amazing. There is a perfect combination of flavors and the texture is a mixture of a crispy exterior and a tender, chewy interior. It is hard not to gobble down a large number of these little cookies (mine made 27) at one sitting. I will definitely make these again, though I'm certain to increase the almond flour volume to 1 1/2 cups next time and I probably will just skip the almond on the top completely and just bake the little dough balls as is. The almond on the top adds one bit of crunch and salt in my case as I used salted Spanish Marcona almonds, but I don't think it does that much for the experience overall. Next time I try these, I'll do an update with a new picture to see if the changes make a difference in taste, texture, and appearance.

Monday, January 4, 2016

David Taniss Persian Jeweled Rice

I've never been a fan of mixing sweet and savory and what few experiences I have had with such dishes have been less than stellar. Dishes like sweet and sour pork or chicken are barely tolerated and I would never entertain the idea of pineapple on pizza despite the enthusiastic endorsement of said combination by more than one person that I am friends with (including my sister).

The point of this blog, however, is to push myself to try things I wouldn't normally try, and this "jeweled rice" recipe seemed to have more going for it than other sweet and savory combinations. Rice goes well with both of those flavors and I'm a fan of all of the spices (cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, cardamom, and allspice) in this particular recipe. The only weirdness from my limited taste perspective is the mixing of various sweet dried fruit types with onion. Still, onward and, with any luck, upward.

I largely followed the recipe as offered with a few exceptions. One is that I cut the volume of everything in half because my husband won't touch a dish like this and I don't want to eat an enormous amount of rice by myself. There is also the fact that, if I hate it, I don't want to waste a lot of dried fruit. The other thing which I changed was that I added 2 dates into the mix because it sounded like a good idea and one of the commenters mentioned it would be a good addition. I used gojiberries because I have no access to barberries and I think cranberries would be far too tart.

The biggest change that I made was to not parboil the rice. I did this for two reasons. One was simply that I didn't have the time or inclination at the time that I made this to go through the time and mess. Another was that I didn't trust that this was an important step. It turned out that it was not except for one point. Without the parboiling stage, I had to add in more water and steam the rice to cook it. I didn't realize this until after it was done, but that guaranteed that I wouldn't have a crispy crust on the bottom of the rice. Everything cooked just fine. Mine just had less contrast and a uniform texture.

To be honest, the browning of the rice part of this was the most tenuous and least predictable part as the instructions recommend that you do it "by nose." I'm a pretty experienced cook, but I have no clue what browning rice is supposed to smell like (nor did a few of the commenters). The rice at the bottom of mine was slightly brown, but my best guess is that adding in more water washed away a lot of what may have been brown. It was the price I paid for refusing to parboil.

I am pleased to say that the flavor and texture did not suffer at all. The rice was properly cooked - tender, but firm. The contrasting flavors balanced each other well. The picture does not show it, but I did add nuts to each serving before I ate it. While the recipe recommends almonds and pistachios, I liked pecans better. The fruit was just amazing in this and I think the spice level was fine, but it might be interesting if it were a bit more intense. I used 1/8 teaspoon of every spice because I have no idea what a "large" pinch is, let alone how I'd cut that in half.

This is actually a restaurant quality dish. It's exotic, but approachable and complex, but not too time-consuming to make, especially if you don't fuss with the parboiling and just add enough water to cook your particular volume of rice and cook it normally (low simmer for 20 minutes, allow to rest for another 20 minutes).