Saturday, September 26, 2009

Viennese Shortbread Cookies & Salzburg


I realized, more than a year after my trip, that I still haven't told you about Salzburg. It was one of those places, like Buenos Aires or Santorini, that I've always wanted to visit just because I had the inescapable feeling that I would find a little magic among its old, winding streets. Everyone told us not to go; they said there was "nothing to do there" (how I hate that trite, useless phrase!). We went anyway, and we fell in love.

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It's hard to describe all the charm, all the gentle loveliness of Salzburg. Beyond the Mozart chocolates and the bright, colorful bustle of its plazas and markets, we found that magic I always knew was there. We found it everywhere, just underneath the surface - in the call of a half-familiar song that always seemed just around the corner, the ancient fortress watching over the stately buildings, the quick splash of the fountains and the flowers in unexpected places.

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The past rulers of Salzburg seemed like people after my own heart. They encouraged commerce; built a fortress which could hold and protect all the people in a pinch; one of their palaces has sparkly chandeliers and delicious nooks and crannies, and the other, just down the street, a most magnificent garden with flower-lined paths and mysterious, shaded corners. There was a torture tower where, so it is claimed, no one was ever tortured, and though I am not naive enough to believe that all was happy all the time, I'd like to think that bad times passed by quickly in this beautiful, charmed place.

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There are many stories my sister and I took away from our time in Salzburg. Disproportionately many, really, when you consider the short time we spent there. It started from the very beginning, as if the city was trying to show up all those nay-sayers who tried to prevent us from coming here. We were wandering around the 1000-year old fortress that stands on a hill above Salzburg - a mini city in itself - when we heard chanting voices. Naturally, we followed the sound, we could not resist. It was the first of many times when we would follow the sound of music in Salzburg and discover something completely unexpected. We came to a low door with red and blue stained glass. We opened it a tiny chink. It was really like a scene out of a movie - a small stone chamber with an altar and about twenty or thirty men, kneeling and chanting a prayer we did not recognize. We snuck away quietly, and then watched the men - in business suits and with briefcases - emerge from the room and leave their separate ways. Was it a meeting of a secret society? A cult? Mysterious choir practice? We never found out; in fact, we never asked. It was part of the magic that we should continue guessing.

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The one thing you cannot escape while in Salzburg (and why would you want to?) is chocolate. There is chocolate everywhere, dark and light, wrapped in the most enticing array of Christmas-colored wrappers; chocolate bars and chocolate liqueurs, chocolate truffles, tarts and macarons; and of course, we brought some back with us (though *ehem* not all of it actually made it back... sorry, mom). There was a whole aisle of chocolate at the supermarket - a whole aisle! - my sister had to stage an intervention to drag me away. And everywhere we went after Salzburg, my carefully-wrapped chocolate liqueurs were unwrapped, inspected, and put back into my suitcase most reluctantly. I believe that if they hadn't been exactly compliant with airplane policies, there would have been at least a few slightly squiffy Air France employees bumping into each other at the Charles de Gaulle airport.

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For people who like to "do" things, I suppose I should tell you to make your travel plans in a different place because we didn't climb any mountains or do any special activities while there (unless one considers shopping and eating chocolate an acceptable form of special activity, in which case, hey, you found your spot). We sat on benches underneath overhanging flowers, ate ridiculously good pizza, chocolate and cookies, took long walks down streets that ended in small churches and listened to a piano player play Brahms' Hungarian dances in the main plaza. We lost our hearts to this city, absolutely and without reservations, because we found music there, just when we needed it most.

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*And the winner of the giveaway is:* if you've stuck with this long post this far, you're probably wondering who won the book featured two posts ago. The random number generator picked no. 6, and I was very excited to learn that it is my very good friend, Brentwood Kitchen Shopper! She loves food and I just know she is going to love this book! Congrats, BK!

Viennese Lemon Cookies

Why Viennese, you ask, if this post is about Salzburg? Well - we ate cookies just like that while there - tender shortbread piped into shapes with a star tip and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Their elegant simplicity reminded me so much of the city that I wanted to share them with you. The recipe comes from the always beautiful blog Fragrante Delicia, and the only thing I would change next time is to swap the whole wheat flour for all purpose flour because I think shortbread should be as sinful as possible. I substituted orange zest for lemon zest because I had oranges on hand.

Viennese Shortbread Cookies
via Leonor at Flagrante Delicia

makes 12 [I got about 16]:

50 g powdered sugar
125 g butter, room temperature
1 g salt
Zest of 1/4 lemon [I used orange]
20 g egg white
150 g wheat flour [or all purpose flour]
Powdered sugar to sprinkle

Cream the butter and sugar together. Add lemon zest and salt and beat for another minute to incorporate. Add the egg whites and whip for a minute or two, until the egg whites are fully incorporated. Gently mix in the flour.

Fit a pastry bag with a star nozzle and, over a siplat or a lined baking sheet, pipe "W"s or "S"s, about 2 inch height. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350F and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until cookies are golden around the edges [it took me a little longer, about 15 minutes). Cool and sprinkle with icing sugar. Best served the same day as made, but will keep in an airtight container for at least a few days.

Continued after the jump...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chocolate Cupcakes with Strawberry Buttercream


Friends, let's talk cupcakes - dark, rich, chocolaty cupcakes; cupcakes with batter that practically begs you to lick the bowl; cupcakes which make you think, "Surely, I didn't say I'd bring all 12, right?" Draped in silky smooth strawberry buttercream, these will make you and everyone around you really happy. The beautiful thing about cupcakes is that you don't really need a reason to make them. A giant layered cake demands An Occasion, but cupcakes are your excuse to celebrate weekends, sunny days, getting-a-new-pair-of-shoes days and pretty much any day of the week that ends in "Y".

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Oh, and did I mention the chocolate? And the pink strawberry buttercream? You'd better believe that these are good. I made them for my dear friend's baby shower and I wanted to tint the buttercream pink (because it's a girl!) without food coloring or any other artificial stuff. Strawberries frozen back in May came to the rescue and added just the right touch of flavor to balance the sweetness of the buttercream. Of course, strawberries and chocolate always play well together, and the girls loved them. Although, I'm pretty sure that - despite the ladylike pink color - even the most non-baby-shower-going manly man would also jump at one of these dark, rich beauties.


Chocolate cupcakes with strawberry buttercream

Cupcakes (from Cake on the Brain via Cooks Illustrated)
(makes 12 - the instructions are not to double the recipe, just make a second batch if you need more)

These cupcakes are really easy to make - they only require a whisk and a few bowls. They are light and moist, and the chocolate flavor comes through beautifully. Also, these are wonderful to decorate because they bake up fairly flat. I was extremely pleased with them, as you can tell!

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (1 1/2 oz) Dutch-processed cocoa
3/4 cup (3 3/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs
3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup (4 oz) sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350F and prepare a standard-sized muffin pan.

In a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl set over barely simmering water (not touching the water), combine the butter, chocolate and cocoa. Heat until the butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth. Set aside to cool until just warm to the touch.

In a small bowl, whisk flour, baking soda and baking powder.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs just to combine - then add the sugar, vanilla and salt and whisk until smooth and fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined.

Add the flour and sour cream in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Whisk only until each addition disappears into the batter. Don't overmix, but make sure the dry and wet ingredients are fully combined before proceeding.

Divide the batter evenly among 12 muffin cups and bake for about 18-20 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes and then set on a rack to cool to room temperature before icing.

Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream

[I've had great success with Martha Stewart's recipe and this time, I scaled it down a bit and added strawberry puree for some tartness and for that lovely pink color. I was a little light-handed with the frosting, so there was buttercream left over which you can save in the freezer for about 3 months - just bring it to room temperature and re-whip before using. Don't be afraid of Swiss Meringue buttercream - it's about patience and faith. Just trust me when I tell you - if you whip it enough, it will work out.]

4 egg whites
3 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
8 oz (about 1 cup) strawberries, fresh or frozen (if using frozen, thaw)

Puree the strawberries and pass through a fine-mesh sieve; set aside.

Place the egg whites, sugar and a pinch of salt into a heat-proof bowl set over barely simmering water (make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water and that steam doesn't get out). Whisk constantly until the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites are hot to the touch - when you rub the mixture between your fingers, it should be smooth, without granules of sugar.

Transfer to the bowl of a mixer, making sure no condensation from the other bowl gets into the egg whites. Whip with a whisk on high speed until the egg whites form stiff (but not dry) peaks and are glossy, about 10 minutes.

Cut the butter into 1 tbsp pieces and add it, one piece at a time, until it's completely incorporated. It's important that the butter is really at room temperature. Continue beating on high speed. The mixture will first look like curdled soup; then, it will look like curdled cream; then, just when you're ready to cry and give up in despair, it will magically transform into wonderfully smooth buttercream. Trust me, this will happen.

Switch to a paddle attachment and, with the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla. Beat for about a minute until incorporated. Then, still on low, gradually add the strawberry puree and beat for 3-4 minutes, until the strawberries are completely incorporated and all the air pockets are gone.

Decorate the cupcakes!

Martha says that you can make this up to 3 days in advance and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator - just bring to room temperature and re-whip with the paddle attachment until smooth, about 5 minutes. You can also store in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Continued after the jump...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Black Forest Cake, a.k.a. the Drunken Cherry Cake


I'm very late in sharing this cake with you, but that doesn't detract from the fact that this is the best damn cake I've ever made. It's kind of a big statement, given some of my previous experiments - the Strawberry Cream Cake, the Nutella Chocolate Cake or the Tiramisu Cake (dubbed "Temptation" by the birthday girl) - but this, this cake topped them all. I'm a little lost for words to describe it, though, which is kind of embarrassing for a food bogger and a lawyer. Let's first start with the perfect combination of ingredients - soft, light as air chocolate sponge cake that's been soaked in kirsch; big, juicy, tart brandied cherries; perfectly sweet whipped cream cushioning said cherries; and cold, crunchy chocolate curls. I mean, it just doesn't get much better than this.

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This cake was for my dear dad's birthday, so you can imagine the days I spent flipping through recipes to find something that reflects his strength, wisdom, kindness and overall mench-ness. It just so happened that at the same time, I was reading "Confections of a Closet Master Baker" that I told you about in the previous post, and as I was getting deeper into the book and the author's remembrances about her family and the kuchens her German mom and grandmother used to make, the idea for a Black Forest Cake took over my mind and didn't let go. It seemed the perfect cake for my dad - complex and dark, full of strong flavors, and also, totally and completely liquored up. It was an awesome cake, best cut and shared in big, dramatic, drunken slices.

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Black Forest Cake
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes
(makes 3 9-in layers)

3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp cake flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
7 eggs
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 cups heavy cream, chilled
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Brandied cherries (1 lb cherries, 1/2 cup kirsch [I used 1 cup])
Chilled chocolate curls, for decoration

The night before:
Pit the cherries and halve them, reserving 9 or 10 whole cherries for decoration. Submerge the cherries in kirsch. I found that 1/2 cup was not enough and I used 1 cup (I figured, I could always drink the leftovers later). Leave in the refrigerator at least overnight. Prepare the chocolate curls and put them in the refrigerator to chill. (The authors also suggest you could use frozen cherries - thaw them and then combine the cherries and their juices with the kirsch)

The day of: Preheat the oven to 350F and line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper. Do not grease pans.

Sift the cocoa powder and cake four together, set aside. In a large bowl, beat the eggs on medium high for about a minute, to blend. Slowly add 1 1/2 cups of sugar and beat on medium high for 3-5 minutes, until the eggs are a light yellow color and the stream of eggs, when the beater is lifted, leaves a thick ribbon.

Sift the cocoa powder and flour into the eggs in 3 additions, gently folding after each addition. Take care not to deflate the batter, but make sure that no large pockets of dry ingredients remain. This is kind of tricky, so just make sure to fold thoroughly and have a very light hand when folding.

Divide among 3 9-in round (or 8-in square) pans and bake for 20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. The cake is very fragile, so you need to cool it in its pan for at least an hour before attempting to take it out. When cool, gently run a knife around the cake edge and (again, gently) flip over onto a cake board. Remove the parchment paper.

Make the whipped cream: in a chilled bowl, beat the heavy cream on medium-high speed for one minute, until frothy, and then, still beating, slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and the vanilla extract. Beat until hard peaks form and the cream is fairly stiff.

Drain the cherries and reserve the liquid.

Assemble the cake:
Place one layer on a cake board or cake plate. With a teaspoon or a pastry brush, soak the layer with about 1/3 of your cherry brandy (for me, that was about 1/4 cup). Spread a thin layer of whipped cream on top of the layer. Then spread half of the cherries and cover with a little more whipped cream. Place the next layer on top and repeat. Place the third and final layer on top and soak it with the remaining cherry brandy. Now, frost the cake with the remaining whipped cream. The cake is really crumbly, but since you will be covering the sides with chocolate shavings, you do not need a crumb layer. Once frosted, decorate with chocolate shavings and the 9-10 whole cherries you set aside in the beginning. This cake is better left standing for at least 4 hours or overnight before serving so that the layers can really soak through and the flavors can meld.

Continued after the jump...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Giveaway: Confections of a Closet Master Baker

Confections of a Closet Master Baker - Hi Rez Cover

Having this blog is rewarding in so many different ways. There are you guys, the best and most wonderful readers ever. You guys make me so happy! There's the way that I can just pull up some of my snappiest dinner ideas from myself... a little weird, but still happy. There's also the fact that I sometimes get books for free. Books! For free!!! I can imagine very few gifts better than that. Certainly, it was a fantastic gift to receive Confections of a Closet Master Baker for a virtual book club event hosted by the lovely Cath from A Blithe Palate.

I tore into my book impatiently and it was, indeed, a fun and lovely treat. Which is why I'm sharing it with you, the readers that make me so happy. See how it comes full circle there? All you have to do is leave a comment on this post and I will use a random number generator (or maybe the number of red chocolate M&Ms in my bag) to determine a winner, to whom I will send my copy of this book.

In lieu of a book review, we were all asked to bake something inspired by the book (very cool), and hooo boy, did I ever! I'll share that a few days from now, but meanwhile, the author of the book, Gesine Bullock-Prado, graciously consented to give a small interview about her book. I was thrilled to be able to "chat" with her. Thank you, Gesine, for letting us read your book and thank you, Cath, for including me in this great event!

Here's my interview with Gesine:

What inspired you to write about your transition from working as a Hollywood exec to opening your own bakery and cafe?

I moved to Vermont to write as much as bake. Once the shop opened and took every last vestige of energy I had, I stopped writing. But I missed that outlet, so much so that I nudged a customer/friend/fellow writer to start a writing group with me to force me back to the page. I'd also been asked through email, letter, phone calls and personal visits at the store the same question every day, many times a day: "How did you manage to start over and pursue your dream?" So when our small group met in the shop after hours, I'd have pages. I already had what I felt was a compelling story to tell, I just had to structure time to tell it.

I was particularly touched by your description of a baker as someone who brings out the little, impish kid in all of us and who makes the masks of adulthood melt away into the genuineness of a smile. I've definitely experienced that, on both sides of the table. What are some of the other things you find rewarding about baking for others?

Baking is a universal celebration. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. We share cake to mark these occasions. We break bread with our neighbors. We save room for dessert. We dodge traffic and break at least 9 state laws in pursuit of the Good Humour truck. Food memories linger. Being in charge of not only feeding someone but feeding someone a creation whose very purpose is to symbolize an event is huge. It's an honor and a burden both.

In the book, you talk a lot about your close relationship with your sister and your memories of your mom. I really enjoyed reading about it and I found myself chuckling over several scenarios and conversations that I could really see happen within my own family. When you think about your family, is there a certain food that you associate with them or are inspired to make? What food-related or food-inspired memories would you want to pass down to the next generation in your family?

There's something about ritual that stays with me. Those times when my mother would declare that we'd have kaffee und kuchen at 3pm was a rare treat. And often we'd go to the local patisserie and choose a few things to share. We weren't marking a specific occassion but that's what made it magical. We sat together sharing a few beautiful morsels, drinking fresh brewed coffee from the good china, and enjoying each other's company. Strangely, it's the coffee that plays the most prominent role in these memories. Fresh ground beans, carefully brewed and savored in bone china. That I'd happily pass along.

What is the one thing about your job that makes getting up in the morning worth it?


When writing, it's always extremely difficult to skate that line between being personal and revealing too much - how did you decide which memories and which recipes to release into the wild?

I'm a private woman from a very private family. But there are universal truths that we all share and one of them is our common search for meaning and fulfillment. When an experience related to my journey, I wove it into the narrative. Originally, I wrote the book without recipes. When I was convinced to add them, I made sure to choose a concoction that was relevant to the chapter and to the story as a whole. I also thought about my customers who'd really dig getting their hands on, say, Starry Starry Nights or Golden Eggs.

What is your favorite dessert to eat? To bake?

Changes with my mood, my location and the season.

Do you come back to Los Angeles, and also now that you're out of the Hollywood microcosm, do you enjoy any other aspects of the city? And to follow up on that, what is your favorite city and why?

I genuinely like Los Angeles, I just don't like the Hollywood Industrial Complex. I'm in awe of the kind and stable souls who play well in it's confines without losing their minds. There are lovely people who work in the industry, enjoy it and don't let the pervasive douchebaggery get them down. I'm not made of that mettle, so I wasn't able to enjoy the great things the city had to offer because I was seething most of the time. I can visit now and enjoy the place. And whether I like it or not, I did a lot of growing up there and I'm inescapably part LA girl.

As for my favorite cities, honestly I'm a mountain and lakes sort. Give me a steep hill to climb with a body of water to fish and swim. As long as there's a beautiful boîte tucked away where I can have a beer and cake, I'm very happy. But if I had to choose a favorite city, Fez and Paris. Fez for magic of the souk and Paris for being Paris.

And finally, what is the one question you wish someone had asked you about the book, and how would you have answered it?

I'd hope that instead of having questions, people are compelled to bake something with love after reading the book. But you have to share.

Continued after the jump...