Monday, September 26, 2011

The Best Chocolate Buttercream...EVER!

6" 4 layer chocolate hazelnut cake with chocolate hazelnut buttercream: so hard not to keep a slice for myself!

My fascination with cakes came out of desperation.  One night, while watching a cake show on the Food Network I had such a hankering for cake...and not just any cake, but a tall, layered, pretty cake with smooth buttery buttercream and Belgian chocolate. Something you'd see in Laduree in Paris or BAKED in New York. So, since no one has invented the TV that actually hands you the product it is waving in your face, I popped to the nearest grocery store to buy a cake. Not surprisingly, lardy grocery store cake just didn't cut it for me. I went home empty handed. Somehow my moving to a small town coincided with the plethora of cake and cupcake shows that flooded the Network - a visual feast, yet more and more inaccessible to me.

In typical Kristen fashion, I put on some BBC period drama, poured myself a cuppa Earl Grey (in a pretty tea cup - of course) and started first attempt turned out to be a crumbly mess. But after further research and a lot more practice I started producing quite deliciously moist, dense cakes - my preference. I'm not a big fan of the light and airy cakes...they tend to fall apart and do not hold up under the weight of more than one layer. And they tend to be on the dry side.

When a recipe calls for milk, I use heavy cream. If it calls for buttermilk, I use whole milk yogurt or sour cream. It makes a difference in texture and moistness. Yes it's a calorie issue to substitute higher fat content...sure it's going to add calories, but let's face it...if you're going to reward yourself with a piece of cake, wouldn't you want it to be rich and moist and flavorful instead of something airy and dry? You might as well have a Ryvita cracker. A waste of a reward if you ask me.

There are quite a few methods to making cakes. I have found the one I prefer to produce the product I like most. If you're about to teach yourself how make cakes try all the methods until you find the density and texture you most prefer. Here are a few resources that I found quite helpful in my quest for the yummiest cake:

Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes,
my favorite: The Cake Bible,
All Cakes Considered
Baked Explorations,

And the best recipe and resource I have found for cake: Anna Olson's White Chocolate Berry Wedding Cake.  I have adapted this recipe for every possible kind of chocolate cake I could think of. My favorite adaptation is a white chocolate cake with white chocolate buttercream and fresh raspberries and lime zest filling. Heavenly. Another beauty is a chocolate hazelnut cake with chocolate hazelnut buttercream filling and frosting.

The magic of this recipe is entirely in the buttercream. It is by far the best buttercream I have ever come across - both tastewise and level of difficulty. There are no egg whites involved (thank you very much Swiss and Italian meringue buttercreams) candy thermometers...and no falling flat and turning into a runny mess (like my last Swiss meringue).

Here is my adaptation for a chocolate hazelnut buttercream based on Anna Olson's recipe above:

2 cups  unsalted butter at room temperature 
16 ounces *couverture* bittersweet chocolate (I prefer Callebaut), melted
2 cups  icing sugar, sifted - very important that it's sifted to get a smooth finish
1/2 cup  chocolate hazelnut spread (I prefer Nutella)
1/2 teaspoon Frangelico liqueur

  1. Add chocolate hazelnut spread to melted chocolate and mix until smooth. Set aside and let cool to room temperature. In a stand-up mixer or in a large bowl with electric beaters, beat butter until fluffy. Beat in cooled melted chocolate combo on medium speed. Reduce speed and beat in icing sugar and Frangelico (icing will be a little soft). You may have to chill to set before using (for about an hour), but only if it's still too thin from the melted chocolate.
  2. Icing can be made ahead and chilled for up to a week, or wrapped and frozen up to a month (thaw refrigerated). Once thawed, beat to make fluffy, then use.
*Please note: your chocolate should be good quality couverture chocolate. Waxy chocolate chips are going to mess with the consistency and flavor of this incredible buttercream...

If you need to go nut-free or do not like hazelnut flavor, you can skip the last 2 ingredients. You still end up with a smooth, beautifully chocolaty buttercream.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Turning Naked Lemons into Lemonade

After four weeks of baking for the St. Stephen market, I am exhausted! I'm so not in my 20s anymore. I'm not even sure I can say I'm in my 30s given my lack of endurance. My birth certificate says 37, my legs say 93. It wasn't so much the baking every was the standing and selling for 5 hours, along with low blood sugar and poor sleep (my toddler still wakes in the night). What happened to my youth? I can remember pulling all-nighters and surviving on coffee alone. Gone are those days. By week three I even uttered "should have worn Naturalizers." Who said that? Me? ME? Suddenly I'm in the function over fashion group. Chiropractors everywhere want to make me their poster child for appropriate footwear.

Thankfully, it was a successful run and SUGAR's name is out there. I've received a few online orders already, which was the main goal behind doing the market.

Now, I have a few lingering ingredients I had purchased to make the market goodies and must figure out what to with them so they do not go to waste.  In particular, many of my treats required  lemon zest...but not lemon juice. So now I am left with a fridge full of naked lemons. Solution #1: Strawberry Basil Lemonade!

Juice or sangria pitcher
4 naked lemons
(they don't have to be naked, but why waste the zest? You could add the zest to the lemonade - it adds a lovely flavor and aroma)
3 cups frozen whole strawberries (or thickly sliced fresh)
one bunch (1 cup-ish) fresh basil leaves, some chopped some whole
1 1/2 cups sugar in simple syrup form
filtered water (as much as will fit in your pitcher)
First make the simple syrup so it has time to cool before adding it to the lemonade:
Pour sugar into small saucepan and barely cover with water. Bring to simmer and stir until sugar has melted. Remove from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, add strawberries to your pitcher. Squeeze lemon juice through strainer (to catch the seeds) into the pitcher. I find the most effective (and cathartic) way to get the juice out is to cut it in half and stab the lemon sections with a fork multiple times. Then while squeezing the lemon, twist the fork around in the middle. Or you can use a lemon reamer. I like getting a little pulp in there too.

Add basil.

Fill the pitcher with filtered water, but leave enough room for the simple syrup. Add syrup to taste (keep in mind the longer the strawberries steep in the lemonade the sweeter it gets).

Stir and let sit in the fridge for an hour. After it has had time to steep, taste to see if you need more of anything.
Fresh basil from my ridiculously out of control basil plant that I purchased at the market.
Serve chilled over ice, as ice pops, add a wee bit of vodka for a fun cocktail (which also makes a delightful ice pop!)...enjoy!