fussy chestnut cake

fussy chestnut cake

Apparently, I was in the mood for some fancy-pants baking this past weekend. Like, multiple-day, million-step, fussy-as-can-be baking. As I mentioned in my last post, I’d been fantasizing recently about chestnuts. I just love those little guys so much; they’re sweet, they’re meaty, and I feel like they’re a bit underutilized in the baking world. I mean, sure, one always hears about chestnuts going in turkey stuffing or whatnot, and of course there are always those dudes selling them on the street, but I don’t think I see chestnut desserts quite as often as would be desirable. So I started poking around for something inspiring to do with chestnuts, and lo, I found one over at the Queen of Domesticity‘s place: a chestnut cake filled with chestnut pastry cream, frosted with a bittersweet ganache, and finally topped again with a chocolate-armagnac glaze. Holy moly.

can you say fussy?

fussy eggwhites

Okay, so let me get one thing out there: I’m not the hugest fan of Martha Stewart, but I think she’s awesome at what she does, and generally, her recipes are really quite outstanding. So when I saw a recipe for chestnut cake on her site, I thought, “well, this looks a bit complicated, but certainly worth a try.” We were even planning to go to dinner at Kenan‘s dad’s house on Sunday, which gave me at least somewhat of a reason to get this adventurous on what otherwise would have been a fairly sleepy weekend. So, on Saturday morning, I went off to the grocery store to get supplies for this chestnut cake to end all cakes. First on my shopping list was a jar of whole roasted chestnuts, which rang in at a whopping $13. My original thought had been to get fresh chestnuts and roast and shell them myself, but alas, they were nowhere to be found, at least at my usual grocery haunts. Which left me stuck buying an outrageously expensive thing of nuts. At any rate, I also got a bit of armagnac (a type of brandy similar to cognac but made using a different type of still), milk, cream, eggs, and butter.

And then it was time to get started. First step: make a chestnut puree. This involves simmering some chestnuts, half a vanilla bean and some milk until the chestnuts soak up a lot of the liquid and everything cooks down. Then the mixture is strained and pureed until it comes out to about the consistency of a thick hummus. I tasted a bit of it, and it’s seriously, outrageously delicious. It’s sweet, it’s nutty, and I wanted to spread it on toast. So after that was done, make a pastry cream using the aforementioned chestnut puree: whisk some yolks together with sugar, add corn starch and some chestnut stuff, heat up some milk, temper the yolks with the milk, pour everything back into the pan, heat it until it comes to just under a boil, strain it and then let it hang out in an ice bath until fully cool. When those two things were done and I had cleaned everything up (I think I managed to use every mixing bowl in my possession at least twice), I called it quits for the day.

The following afternoon, I started in on the cake. Ms. Stewart’s recipe requested a nine-inch pan but didn’t specify how deep. Because I knew the cake was supposed to be cup into three layers, I figured she meant a springform with thick sides. But all I had was a ten-inch springform, so I threw caution to the wind and used two regular eight-inch pans and cut each of them into two layers, thus creating a four-layer cake. Take that, fussy recipe. So anyway, first, I sifted together the dry ingredients. Then I scraped out the seeds from half a vanilla bean pod and mixed it with some granulated sugar. Next came the butter, which is whipped with the sugar until it gets pale and fluffy, as per usual. Then the egg yolks, and then the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the rest of the chestnut puree and a bit of milk. Then I whipped five egg whites with some sugar until they formed medium-stiff, glossy peaks, and folded that into the other mess. The batter is pretty thick, as these things go: almost like the batter for a tea cake. Then I baked the suckers until they puffed at the top and turned a golden brown, which took about an hour. While the cakes were baking, I whipped up the armagnac simple syrup, which would be coated on the cake layers later. There was still much more to come, but there wasn’t really much I could do to assemble the cake until we got to Kenan’s dad’s place, so I wrapped everything up and we left for Manhattan.

fun times, eating times

fussy preparation

Over on the Upper East Side, I sliced the cakes into two layers each and coated them with armagnac syrup. Then I stacked the layers up, topping each one with a layer of pastry cream, and then let the whole lot hang out in the fridge for a while. And then we shared an amazing dinner with Kenan’s family, and, after too much wine and far too much food, it was time to do the rest of the cake. I scurried back to the kitchen and got to work on the whipped frosting. I simmered some heavy cream and then poured it over bitter sweet chocolate and whipped it until it got fluffy. Then I spread it over the cake, let it sit for a few minutes and got started on the glaze while the frosting was setting. I simmered more cream, poured it over more chocolate, let it stand to allow the chocolate to melt, mixed the stuff together, added some armagnac, and then drizzled the whole mess over the cake.

The thing look fantastic: a towering mountain of chocolate and chestnuts, all shiny and aromatic and lovely. I was very, very excited to dig into it. And… I was not entirely thrilled. Sure, the taste of chestnut was great, and the frosting and glaze were delicious, but the cake itself was a bit dry. Kenan’s sister pointed out to me that the texture was not unlike angel food cake, which I think is true. I mean, I don’t have any problem with angel food cake, but there was something a bit chewy about this particular cake that I wasn’t too happy about. Don’t get me wrong; it was certainly a good cake, but it wasn’t great, and I really don’t think it was worth so many hours of preparation and so much fuss to prepare. It also didn’t really seem to be worth the money: two sticks of butter, a lot of whole milk, lots of heavy cream, 14 ounces of baking chocolate, a jar of chestnuts, and armagnac. It is, however, very, very impressive, and not too shabby if you’re willing to put all the work into it. But for myself, I think next time I might do something more straightforward, like a chestnut pudding – perhaps using some of the chestnut puree, which is outstanding, in a more standard pudding or custard recipe.

And that was that. Not the best in the whole world, but still worth the try. Have at it, if you’re up to a challenge.

chesnut cake with chocolate-armagnac glaze.

fussy sauce

get fussy and get a recipe, after the jump

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gingerbread pudding with almond cream sauce.

gingerbread pudding with almond cream sauce.

A couple of weeks ago, Kenan and I were over at Boots and Coach’s place, enjoying a nice dinner. Afterward, while we were digesting and enjoying some quality bonding time with the sofa, I started leafing through a few cookbooks I had brought over to plan for my next baking adventure. Looking over my shoulder, Boots noticed a recipe for steamed gingerbread pudding and asked, coyly, if I could make something similar for her half-birthday, which fell the following week. I said yes whole-heartedly. I mean, I probably hadn’t heard anybody mention half-birthdays since middle school, but I find something charming about the idea that people in their mid-twenties can still get excited about (and celebrate, and bake for) un-birthdays. So we set the (half-)birthday celebration for last Friday, and I started researching.

cake or pudding?


So first of all, let’s clarify that steamed pudding is not what Americans generally think of as pudding: in Britain, steamed, boiled and baked puddings generally refer to a cakey type of dessert, rather than something custardy or otherwise milk-based. So when you hear someone refer to a steamed pudding, think cake, not cream. Steamed puddings are made from a thin batter which is placed in a sealed container (or a pan covered tightly with foil) and then either baked in a water bath or boiled on the stovetop in a large pot with a steamer rack, depending on the technique. The moisture from the water allows the pudding to stay incredibly moist while at the same time baking up to a nice, fluffy consistency. I’d never done one of these guys before, so I was excited to give them a try. I’d also been thinking for a while about doing something cozy and specifically wintry, and gingerbread definitely fits that bill.

My problem with most ginger-based desserts, however, is that they’re a bit lackluster: sweet, not quite spicy enough and seemingly lacking anything substantial to say for themselves. I like ginger things with a nice little bite to them. I’m not talking about something so kicky it’ll knock your socks off, but I want a little bit of heat: a reminder that I’m eating something with an actual spice in it. Armed with those considerations, I set off to look for an appropriate recipe. And really, I wasn’t quite satisfied with anything I found. Each recipe was either too bland, or too full of weird ingredients, or otherwise not so awesome. But I found one that seemed decent, so I decided to go with it, though I ended up using it as more of a general guide than a specific recipe.

ginger up


On the night of the celebration, Kenan and I headed downstairs to Boots and Coach’s place (they’ve moved into our building; this becomes relevant later on). Boots was making pizza for dinner, so both of us got started on our respective tasks. But as I went to preheat the oven, I realized that Boots was going to have to use said oven for pizza, which would preclude my using it for gingerbread. So I went upstairs and preheated our oven, hoping that I wouldn’t spill the cake all over the stairs when I took it up to bake it or, you know, burn our apartment down. Then, back downstairs, I got started on mixing up the pudding. First, I melted some butter and set it aside to chill out. Next it was time to mix together the dry ingredients: some flour, baking soda, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and, of course, ginger. I whisked three eggs with some brown sugar and then the melted better until the stuff got light and fluffy. Then I mixed some blackstrap molasses (yum!) with honey, hot water, and some very finely chopped fresh ginger. Then I mixed everything together, alternating dry and wet ingredients, and voila! The thing was ready to steam. I hauled the pan upstairs, placed it in a water bath, covered everything with foil, and popped it in the oven for about 40 minutes. And when it came out, oh man, it was fluffy and a nice dark brown and smelled like everything that’s amazing about winter. Now it was time to let the cake cool off a bit and prepare the sauce.

I had elaborate plans for the sauce to go with this cake: I wanted to do something with chestnuts, and I was really interested in making a nice caramel sauce and then mixing in some candied ginger or lemon zest. But this time, owing to laziness and a dearth of the appropriate ingredients, I kept things simple, hoping that the spices in the cake would shine through. I heated up some heavy cream on the stove, whisked it a bit, stirred in a little brown sugar, and finally added some almond butter. I cooked it down for a few minutes, and it was ready to go. And the combination of the sauce and the cake was delicious, and spicy, and creamy, and rich as hell, just as such things should be. There was some debate about what should be the proper ratio of sauce to cake (Coach n’ Boots wanted the whole slice dipped in the sauce and then slathered with more; Kenan preferred a less saucy gingerbread), but everyone agreed that the pair went together splendidly. Certainly a perfect thing for a wintry evening, and for a celebration.

gingerbread puddin’.


get a recipe and line your tummy with winter happiness, after the jump

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chocolate chip cookies.

chocolate chip cookies.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Hiro wrote to me with a desperate plea for some advice on chocolate chip cookies. She recently moved to Denmark, and is having trouble replicating the crispygooeychewy texture that is so desirable in these enigmatic little mounds of dough and chocolate. Always eager to take on a challenge, I assured her that I would do some research and come up with a good recipe, along with an at least pseudo-scientific explanation of why (and which) things can go wrong when whipping up a batch of these suckers.

My journey into the hows and whys of chocolate chip cookies began with a perusal of several articles and lists dedicated to finding the best chocolate chip cookies, whether in a recipe or from a purveyor of baked goods. From the Times, I got a basic best cookie practices education. I perused a list of “New York’s best” chippy wonders over at New York Mag. And I browsed through countless recipes on Food Network, Epicurious and All Recipes. I came up with a list of things that are necessary for a good cookie, and along the way, I developed my own recipe. Shall we?

chocolate chip science.


1. Chill yer dough. Nearly every article and recipe I read said always to chill cookie dough. The suggested length of time for this chilling out process varied from source to source, with most of them falling in the 10 – 36 hour range. The system I worked out is to at least chill the dough overnight (i.e., around 12 hours), but preferably 24 hours for optimum awesomeness. The chill time allows the flour to absorb all the goodness from the liquid ingredients, particularly the eggs. You see, the liquid in eggs moves particularly slowly, and the butter in cookie dough basically acts as a shield blocking liquid from being absorbed into the flour, so it takes some time for the goodness in the eggs and the other stuff to permeate into the flour. Chilling also allows any gluten that developed in the mixing process to relax, resulting in a less tough cookie. Allowing the dough to rest for a day also creates a better consistency. And finally, chilling hardens the fat in the dough (in this case, butter), and when you bake the dough, the fat releases steam, contributing to puffiness and flakiness (flakiness is more relevant with pastry, but you get the picture). So yes, chilling the dough for so long takes away the instant satisfaction of whipping up a batch of cookies and then enjoying them in the same afternoon, but it seems that in this case, advance planning makes a world of difference. What I’ve done a couple times is make a batch of dough, stick it in the fridge, and then over the course of a week bake off a couple cookies at a time whenever I felt the urge.

2. Flour is your friend. All of the better recipes I looked at, including the Times’ monumental, delicious contribution to the chocolate chip world, called for what might seem like a lot of flour. This goes along with the last point: the more flour, the more the egg is soaked up, the drier and firmer the dough (drier doughs create a better consistency), the more delicious everything becomes in the finished product. The gluten content of the flour you use is also important. I’m not quite sure how, but bread flour allows the cookie to develop a chewier texture without getting cakey. I ended up using mostly bread flour with a little bit of cake flour, to give things a bit more of a softness.

3. Use nice butter. For obvious reasons, using high-quality ingredients always has an effect, but with a dessert that relies so heavily on butter, you need to make sure you’re using the good stuff. After perusing the internet a bit, I found that cultured butter (Organic Valley has a delicious one that I use all the time) is best for baked goods. Cultured butter is made from cream with bacterial culture and lactic acid added. Then the cultured butter develops flavor during an aging process (see wikipedia for more information). Because of the aging process, cultured butter has more of a taste than non-cultured butter. Yes, it’s more expensive, but considering it’s made in smaller batches and actually tastes better than other butter, I would suggest that it’s worth it. Just give it a try, and if you decide you hate it and it’s a total waste of money, you can write me and tell me how wrong I am.

4. Salt and savor. Did you know that salt is awesome? Cause it is. It brings out the flavor of whatever you’re baking; it makes the flavor of certain ingredients, like flour and butter, more pronounced; it slows down chemical reactions, causing fermentation to happen more evenly (this is really only pertinent to bread, but it’s still awesome); and it has a positive effect on texture. Basically, it brings a lot of things together in a very pleasing way. Yes, too much salt is bad, and you should limit your intake of it generally, but in baked goods, it’s delicious, and your basic cookie recipe probably doesn’t call for enough of it.

5. Don’t overdo it. This goes for most things, as far as cookies are concerned. Don’t overmix, don’t add too much sugar or vanilla, and (I think) most importantly, don’t overbake your cookies. When they’re done, they’ll actually look like they might be a bit underbaked: the top should be puffy and slightly sticky looking and golden brown, but not dry. Overcooked cookies will still taste awesome, but they won’t maintain that chewy texture after they’ve cooled down. As long as you’re not terrified of raw eggs, I would err on the side of underbaking, rather than overbaking.

happy tummies, happy hearts.


I did my cookies this weekend, excited to bake my own guys after weeks of testing and tasting and tweaking. My recipe is pretty standard, with a few little flourishes: I used a tiny bit of almond extract (less than a quarter of a teaspoon) in addition to vanilla, because I adore almond; and I browned a little bit of the butter (it adds a bit of nuttiness) and added it along with the vanilla and almond. But essentially, the above points are what I found to be most important: chilling, flour content, butter quality, salt, and not overbaking. So I did all of those things: I sifted together the drying ingredients, creamed the butter with the sugars (mostly dark brown and a little bit of white), added the eggs, the vanilla and almond, and the brown butter. Then I gently folded in the flour. The dough might look a little more dry than you’re used to, but as I mentioned above, that’s a good thing. Then I mixed in the chips, zipped everything up in a bag, and put it in the fridge until the following day.

When I was ready to bake the cookies off, I heated up the oven and plopped those puppies onto a baking sheet. Then, after a little time sunning themselves, the cookies were ready. And I was really happy with them: they’re sweet, but not too sweet, buttery, chewy, a bit crispy around the edges, and happy all around. Boots came over and ate two on the spot. Most importantly, they maintain their chewiness even after they’ve cooled down. I took most of the guys to work and ate one with a cup of tea: fabulous.

And that’s the that. Hooray!

girlcate’s best ever chocolate chip cookies oh my goodness hooray.

sea of cookies

get happy, and get a recipe, over this way

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brioche french toast with apple compote.

brioche french toast with apple compote.

Some weekends are perfect for french toast. I was sick all last week, and the cold was definitely presenting some major deterrents to venturing outside for more than the most important of errands, so some warm, comforting food seemed like it would do just the trick. I’d made french toast dozens of times before, but never with home-made bread, so I decided to try out the brioche recipe from my brand new baking bible and then use the bread to make french toast.

qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

bread baby

Okay, so apparently what’s her face never actually said that thing about cake, but still, people probably should eat brioche, because it’s delicious. Anyhow, like I said, it was a super cold weekend, but I managed to drag myself out of bed to get some supplies at the store. After I’d braved my way back home through the cold, I got started. The recipes in Baking and Pastry are almost entirely given in industrial proportions (11 pounds of brioche or 10-12 loaf pans, for example), so I had to scale back the recipe quite a bit to get something approximating what we’d be able to eat without turning into rolly pollies. The book is also big on measuring ingredients by weight, which I’d never done before and made me feel quite fancy. So, armed with my brand new, neato food scale, I weighed out each of the ingredients before placing them in the mixer. Then it was a matter of getting my super awesome mixer to do its thing with the kneading and getting the dough into the refrigerator for a long nap.

Late that night, after a splendid dinner with Chris and Jodi, I took the dough out of the refrigerator, separated it into two loaf pans, gave it an egg wash, proofed it, egg washed it again, and stuck it in the oven. The proofing didn’t turn out quite as perfectly as I might have hoped (I had to cheat and stick the pans in a 100 degree oven for a bit to get them to perk up), but the loaves came through pretty much as well as I could have hoped for a first try. They’d risen very nicely, turned a deep brown and gotten airy and fluffy. Overall, I think it was a fairly resounding success from a girl who doesn’t know jack about bread baking.

toast a la francaise

brioche french toast breakfast

The following morning, I woke up early to get the french toast ready. Because the brioche was pretty fresh, I toasted it for a few minutes to get it to dry out a bit. Then I prepared the custard for soaking the bread. I used a recipe from epicurious, but modified it heavily; it called for six eggs and three eggs yolks. That’s basically nine eggs, people. Now, I love eggs and all, but nine eggs is pretty excessive for a recipe that prepares french toast for six people, unless you’re planning to go body building afterward or something. So I used three eggs and one yolk, then mixed them together with some cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, and almond and vanilla extracts. Then I poured all that over the toasted bread and let the slices soak for a few minutes. After that was set up, it was time to get started on the apple stuff. I heated some water with honey, sugar and cinnamon and then cooked it down with the apples until it got syrupy. I ended up with a bit too much liquid, so I had to drain some of it off, but after about 15 minutes it was a delicious apple compote.

After the brioche had soaked for a few minutes, I heated up the pan to fry them up. I had done some pretty hefty slices (about 1 inch thick), so they took about four or five minutes on each side to cook all the way through. I did two guys at a time and then stuck them in the oven at 350 to keep them warm while their friends were getting cooked. When everything was done, we sat down to eat with Coach and Boots. And oh gosh, it was really good. Really rich, but really very good. In retrospect, I would have used bread that was a bit less fresh and then soaked it in the custard for a much shorter period of time; the end result was a bit too wet. But aside from that, it was splendid. The apple compote was such a good pairing for the bread that I didn’t need any maple syrup. Hooray for winter mornings.

french toast redux: bread pudding

bread pudding devoured

The only problem with having made the brioche, however, was that we had nearly half a loaf left after the french toast, plus two slices that had been soaked in the custard but not cooked. We could have saved it for making more french toast the following morning, or used the rest of the brioche for spreading with jam or peanut butter or something, but I thought better of all that and decided bread pudding was the way to go. So later that night, we went over to Coach and Boots’ place and I whipped up a bit more custard, soaked the remaining bread in it, and baked it for about an hour. And okay, that french toast was pretty good, but the bread pudding was spectacular: the top had formed a bit of a crust from the baking, and the inside was melty and sweet and warm. As Boots said, “tastes like hugs.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.


recipes and more recipes, after the jump

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sour cream cake with cocoa filling.

sour cream cake with cocoa filling.

Hello, friends! I don’t know about you, but I had a very exciting holiday season, and I pretty much made out like a bandit. Among the host of awesome baking tools and cookbooks I received was a standing mixer from my favorite certain someone. It’s awesome and amazing, and also makes me fairly certain he has a huge crush on me. It’s grey and lovely and fits quite nicely into our increasingly fort-like apartment. Granted, it also takes up a surprisingly large percentage of our kitchen’s already hard-pressed food prep space market, but it’s still the coolest thing ever, and I’m certain it’s going to do lovely things for us.

After we’d finally figured out a place for the mixer to live and gotten settled after our holiday travels, I started poring through my new books to find something pleasant to make for a New Year’s Day potluck we were going to attend. My curiosity was piqued at pretty much everything in the Culinary Institute of America’s hefty tome, but eventually I settled on a cake from The Simple Art of Perfect Baking: a nice little sour cream tea cake with a cocoa filling and a jam glaze topped with a second, shiny glaze for a pretty, translucent effect. Also, it’s a bundt cake, and as I’d just received such a pan (I told you I made out like a bandit), it turned out I even had the right tools for the job.

baking, glazing.


Obtaining ingredients for cake on New Year’s Day was a little bit of a to-do, but we managed to scrounge up ingredients in one form or another. I set to work on the recipe, excited to try something by Flo Braker (I’ve read nothing but stellar things about her). First, butter is creamed, and then some sugar is added, followed by eggs and vanilla. Using the mixer is quite satisfying; what would have taken a few minutes and some wrestling with a hand mixer was super easy with my new guy. At any rate, then the dry ingredients are mixed into the liquid, alternating with the sour cream. I was a bit troubled by the thickness of the batter, but apparently that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The batter and the cocoa take turns getting into the pan, creating a nice little marble in the finished product. Then the cake hangs out in the oven for about an hour while the hot air does its magic.

While that was happening, I set up the ingredients for the glaze, which mostly involved straining a bunch of jam to come up with a half cup of liquid. I’m sure this is quite easy and quick if one has proper equipment, but all I had was a fine mesh sieve, so I had to let the jam strain for quite a while before I had the right amount. Braker’s recipe says apricot jam, but I went with a combination of blood orange marmalade and apricot spread, for funsies. I put the strained jam in a sauce pot and then sifted some confectioner’s sugar for the second glaze. After the cake had cooled and been freed from the pan, I heated up the jam and coated the cake with it. When the first glaze had chilled out a bit (maybe ten minutes later), I mixed some water into the confectioner’s sugar for the second glaze. Some of the still-warm jam mixed with the sugar glaze when I was coating the cake with the second time, but it ended up not affecting the appearance. After about 15 minutes of resting, the cake looked beauteous and appealing: shiny, crackly sugar glaze on top of a marbled brown and tan cake.

party magic

party cake

Later, after we’d eaten way, way too much delicious food at the potluck and spent what was probably too short a time recovering from dinner, we broke out the cake. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I have to say that I was really proud of it. The cake was just the right amount of sweet and had a moist, fluffy crumb, the cocoa filling was a nice offset to the sour cream flavor, and the glaze was crackly and sugary without being cloying. The only disappointing thing about it was that didn’t bring it home with us at the end of the night (a decision we regretted the following day).

So, Happy New Year, folks. Make some cake, and stay warm.

sour cream cake with cocoa filling and blood orange-apricot glaze

cake mess

get a recipe and soothe your post-holiday stomach woes with more sugar, this way

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