Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gingerbread Peach Upside-Down Cake

Usually I'm a bit of a baking snob. I prefer to make things from scratch, and I can always tell after one bite if someone's taken a shortcut and used a box for their brownies. But sometimes life calls for a baking quickie (especially when you're in law school. Damn, did I really just say "especially when"? I really can't get away from it anymore! If anyone from my section ever reads this they will understand . . . everyone else ignore the last few comments.) I have to admit, however, that I love cakes made from boxes because they are fast, fluffy, moist, and easily adaptable so even a baking snob can add a creative spin to make the cake more authentic.

My mom has been making this recipe for me and my siblings for as long as I can remember. The robust, spicy-sweet aroma of ginger and bubbling peach syrup takes me right back to my childhood. The combo of trashy ingredients (boxed gingerbread mix, and canned peaches) takes minutes to mix, and somehow produces a sophisticated dessert that will fool any foodie into thinking you baked it from scratch. A word of warning: DO NOT attempt to replace the silky dollop of sweetened, freshly whipped cream with a squirt of its canned counterpart. Impostor whipped cream will cheapen the rich, dark cake, and transform the sweetness of the caramelized topping from coy to cloying. Avoid tragedy. Whip your own cream.

Gingerbread Peach Upside-Down Cake

1 box gingerbread mix (plus ingredients listed on the mix)
1 large can of peach havles in syrup
3/4 stick of butter
brown sugar (indeterminate amount. just have a bag handy)
1 c. heavy whipping cream
2T. powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to whatever temperature the gingerbread cake requires. Melt the butter in the microwave and pour it into a square baking pan (9x9 will work). Spoon enough brown sugar into the pan to absorb the butter, and pat it down into an even layer. Drain the peaches and lay the peach halves cut side up. Follow the directions on the gingerbread cake mix to make the batter, and then pour the batter over the peaches and brown sugar. Bake for however long the mix calls for on the box. The cake should have risen, and should look firm. Pull the cake out and test for doneness by sticking a knife halfway into the center. If it comes out with batter on it, return the cake to the oven for another 5-10 minutes and test it again. When the knife comes out clean, remove the cake and let it cool for a few minutes while you whip the cream.

Use electric beaters to whip the cup of whipping cream on high speed until soft peaks form. Add 2T. powdered sugar and whip on medium speed for another ten seconds. Do not overwhip or your whipped-cream will end up with a chunky, unpleasant texture and may taste more like butter than whipped-cream. The cream should have a fairly loose consistency.

To serve, cut a square of the cake out of the pan (try to get a peach half in there), and spoon the juices from the bottom of the pan over the cake. Dollop with copious amounts of freshly whipped cream. This dessert is best served hot from the oven!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies (chocolate sandwiching optional, but recommended)

These sandwiches (more or less the same as the ones in this month's Fine Cooking) remind me of inside-out Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. The salty-sweet peanut butter "shell" steals the show. You almost don't need the chocolate filling, but why would you want one regular cookie when you could eat two cookies slathered in butter-infused chocolate (laziness is not a good excuse, trust me - I got a marriage proposal out of these cookies when I brought them to a potluck - they're that good).

Peanut Butter Cookies:

2.5 c. creamy peanut butter (you'll need about a jar and a half - the medium jars)
1.5 c. firmly packed light brown sugar
1 t. baking soda
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla

If you want chocolate sandwich cookies . . .
12 oz package chocolate chips
1 stick butter

Preheat oven to 350. Beat the peanut butter, baking soda, and brown sugar in a medium bowl until well blended. At this point the batter tastes remarkably similar to the center of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup (grainy, salty, sweet, mmmm . . . must not eat the batter . . . ) Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until just blended (the mixture will firm up after adding the eggs). Roll 1in. balls and space them on a cookie sheet about an inch apart. Bake about 11 min, until cracked and puffed, but still moist looking.

It's basically impossible not to scarf down the entire tray of cookies as they come out of the oven, but if you have a modicum of self control, try to exercise it at this point. While the cookies cool, pop the chocolate chips in the microwave with the stick of butter (microwave safe bowl, obviously) and nuke 'em for a minute. Stir, nuke, stir, nuke, until the chips and butter melt. Stir to combine thoroughly and allow the mixture to cool.

Spread the flat side of a peanut butter cookie with chocolate, and top with another cookie. The resulting sandwiches might be roly-poly. Consider this as a sign of success. Flat sandwich cookies may be more aesthetically pleasing, but they're not nearly as satisfying as their chewy, chubby counterparts. Enjoy peanut buttery goodness whilst fending off ring-wielding men.

Variation: Oatmeal Chocolate-Toffee Peanut Butter Cookies

Nix the filling, increase the egg count to 3, add 2/3 of a cup old fashioned oats, and stir in two coarsely chopped toffee-almond Symphony bars. Bake as directed above.

**Avoid making this variation if you are: a) hungry, b) depressed, c) done with your last law school final that you totally bombed, d) all of the above. Exceptions should be made if you are depressed due to rejection. In that case the cookies will probably be less damaging than tequila.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Chardonnay Club Lemon Bruleé

"When life doesn't hand you lemons . . . break out the wine!"

Combine an elegant sounding recipe ("Lemon-Champagne Bars with Strawberry Bruleé Topping") with a pinch of laziness, a dash of carelessness, and a healthy dose of resourcefulness, and you get Chardonnay Club Lemon Bruleé.

My friend and I wanted lemon bars. Good old fashioned, simple as summer lemon bars. Having recently moved, I only had one cookbook in my apartment, and it only contained one recipe for lemon bars, which involved the afore-mentioned strawberries and champagne. We nixed the strawberries, but the champagne sounded intriguing, so we decided to give it a shot, and we set off to the store for ingredients. Enter problem one. New York, I've discovered, has an inconvenient law that prohibits supermarkets from selling wine. So, if you're making pasta and you're in the mood for chianti, (or you're making lemon bars and you need champagne) you'll have to make a separate, annoying trip to a liquor store, which may or may not be close to the supermarket. As it so happened, we had no idea where the nearest (open at 9:00 p.m., Sunday) liquor store was, and a half-hearted detour down a side street lead us to a sundry store instead. They definitely did not have champagne, but they had chardonnay and club soda! We figured the taste of lemon would be so strong that no one would be the wiser . . .

Enter problem two. Halfway through the recipe, we realized that we had misread the ingredient list, and we were short two lemons. So much for our idea that the lemons would mask the flavor of cheap chardonnay! Fearing that our lemon bars were turning into wino bars, but having little choice in the matter (we were too lazy to return to the store), we shrugged our shoulders and replaced the missing lemon with chardonnay and club soda. Initial tastes of the lemon filling induced grimaces and murmurs of, "It'll probably be fine after we cook it," and it gave off an odor reminiscent of fondue as we stirred in chunk after chunk of butter, but we were determined to see it through. When we finally cracked open the bruleéd sugar crust and bit into the wobbly lemon custard we were surprised to find that it had a pleasant, mild taste. And thanks to the savory edge of chardonnay, the bars lacked the headache-inducing sweetness that overwhelms the run-of-the-mill lemon bar. Overall I'd say, "Great success!" It probably wouldn't hurt to have a little more lemon flavor . . .


2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1c. sugar
2c. flour
1/4 t. salt
Zest of 2 lemons (but get an extra lemon if you like your desserts tart!)


6 extra large egg yolks
6 extra large eggs
1 3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. lemon juice
1/2c. chardonnay
1/2c. club soda (replace 1/4 c. with lemon juice for tarter bars)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold


1/2 c. sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and butter a 9x13 in. baking pan.
Make the crust: Cream the butter and sugar, add the flour, salt, zest, and beat until just incorporated. Press the dough evenly into the pan and bake 12 to 15 min., or until golden.

Lower the oven temp. to 350 and make the filling:
Whisk the lemon juice, chardonnay, club soda and sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Add the eggs and the yolks, and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens (about 15 min.). Add the butter a tablespoon at a time, into the lemon mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture becomes thick and pudding-like.

Pour the filling into the crust, and bake for 10-15 minutes. Cool. Refrigerate the bars overnight, or put them in the freezer for an hour (but don't forget them!). When they are firm and cold, spread the sugar topping in an even layer over the bars, and pop them under the broiler for 1-2 min., or until the sugar bubbles and browns. Cool and refrigerate until firm again. Crack the crust and enjoy!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cupcake What?

Cupcake Boutique. That's right, and if you haven't already jumped on the cupcake boutique bandwagon, it's time. As ridiculous as it may seem, cupcakes have taken the country by storm. They pop up at weddings in lieu of the traditional wedding cake. They make cameo appearances in hit shows (Magnolia Bakery in "Sex and The City"). There are clothing lines devoted to them (Johnny Cupcakes). People are even inventing carriers designed specifically to transport cupcakes! That being said, if you're going to go out and spend an arm and a leg on a cupcake or cupcake paraphernalia, there is one place you should not miss out on: Sprinkles Cupcakes. Magnolia Bakery may take to cake as the most well-known cupcake hot spot, but they are no match for Sprinkles (actually, I'd rather eat a cupcake from a boxed mix than from Magnolia's any day, and this is coming from a baking snob).

Let's do a comparison. On one hand we have Magnolia. They offer only two flavors, vanilla, and chocolate. Let's say you pick vanilla. As you unwrap your cake, the paper sticks to the dry crumb. Hmm, not good. The icing piled on top feels stiff and grainy on the roof of your mouth as you take the first bite, and the cake itself offers no moist relief from the thick, cloying glob. Do you even want the rest? Proceed to Sprinkles.

Not only does Sprinkles offer a rotating, multi-flavor cupcake schedule, there are also four Sprinkles locations so you can indulge your cupcake cravings more easily. The flagship store is in Beverly Hills; what better place for the latest trend?

For comparison's sake you pick the vanilla cupcake at Sprinkles as well. Oh, what a difference! Fluffy, tender crumb! Satiny smooth frosting! You hardly even realize that you're consuming upwards of 300 calories as the last buttery bite slides down your gullet. In fact, you still have room for one or two of Sprinkles' innovative Frosting Shots, or another cupcake.

I have yet to find a bakery in New York, Magnolia or otherwise, that can hold a sprinkle to Sprinkles. How do they do it? I wish I knew. My cupcakes, even when made from Sprinkles mixes, never turn out as rich and soft as the originals. They're velour to velvet, pleather to leather. I'm working on it! At least they're better than Magnolia's (burlap!).

Molten Chocolate Cakes

Although the novelty of these cakes has worn off after eating them a million times, the enjoyment has yet to fade! There are two methods (that I know of) to making a molten chocolate cake. The obvious way to do it would be to stick a meltable ball of something-or-other into the center of the batter prior to baking. This method has the advantage of allowing you to incorporate a molten center other than chocolate, but why would you want to do that anyways?? The method I prefer uses just six basic ingredients (not counting garnishes or sauces!), which come together without any fanfare to create one of the most delicious, deeply chocolaty desserts imaginable. I originally obtained this recipe from Nigella Lawson's "How To Be A Domestic Goddess" (fantastic book!), and have altered it a teensy bit to suite my taste (especially since, in my opinion, extra chocolate topping and ice cream are indispensable companions to this dessert). I've made it dozens of times, and it's virtually foolproof as long as you don't overcook the cakes! I wish I had a picture, but the time it would take me to grab my camera would cause the glaciers of vanilla ice cream around my cake to melt into puddles. Ok, ok, the real reason is that I'm always too distracted by dessert to remember the camera at all . . . maybe next time.

Cake Ingredients:

1/4 c. unsalted butter (plus extra for buttering)
one package bittersweet chocolate chips, or semi-sweet if you're a chocolate wuss
3/4 c. sugar
4 eggs
1/3 c. flour
pinch of salt


Vanilla ice cream (please don't insult the dessert by using "light" ice cream)
equal parts chocolate chips, and milk (or cream if you want to go all out)


Parchment paper
6 ramekins, or a 6-muffin jumbo muffin tin
A cookie sheet to transfer cakes to and from the oven, and for easy removal if using a muffin tin

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Fold a piece of parchment onto itself three times, set a ramekin on top, and trace the bottom of a ramekin onto the parchment. Cut out the tracing to create 8 ramekin-sized circles (you only need six, obviously). Butter the ramekins, place a parchment circle in each, and butter the parchment circle. Set the ramekins aside.

For the cakes: Microwave the chocolate chips for 30 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until they are melted. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer (this can be done by hand with forks or a whisk, but it's a real pain). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Stir the pinch of salt into the flour, and stir the flour into the egg mixture until just combined. Blend in the cooled chocolate.

Divide the batter between the ramekins/muffin tins and place them on a cookie sheet (if using). Pop it in the oven for 10 minutes, and not a moment longer!

While the cakes cook, take the vanilla ice cream out of the freezer to soften, and make the sauce. For the sauce, microwave equal parts chocolate chips and milk on 30 second intervals, stirring between each interval until smooth. If you like a runnier sauce, add more milk.

Immediately remove the cakes from the oven. Use a sharp knife to separate the edges of the cakes from the ramekins/muffin tins. If you are using ramekins, tip the cakes out one by one onto plates, remove parchment, top with sauce and ice cream, and serve. If you are using a muffin tin, place the cookie sheet on top of the muffin tin, and using your thumbs (inside oven mitts of course) to hold the cookie sheet firmly against the muffin tin, invert the whole contraption over your head. Place it on the counter and rap the bottom of the muffin tin to make sure the cakes release. Carefully lift the tin up to reveal six perfect little cakes. Remove the parchment and proceed with saucing and serving.

Another incentive to use the chocolate sauce is that if you do overcook the cakes by accident, you'll still be able to enjoy melted chocolate. And the ice cream? Trust me, you don't want to miss out on the delightful contrast between the sweet, cold ice cream, and the rich, piping hot cakes. Phenomenal!