Baby Woodland Owl and Rich Dark Cocoa Cake

Welcome to the world, baby Nicholai!

This cake has been a long time in the making… My friend Chris (a woodworker, no doubt) and his wife Karen just welcomed their first child, a baby boy! Not only did I want to make this new family of 3 a wood grain cake because Chris would think it was super cool, it just so happens that the baby’s new nursery is painted with a fantastic mural of a big tree with a couple of owls sitting and keeping watch on the branches above the crib.

This cake turned out perfectly- a sweet, sweet celebration Modeling chocolate owl on woodland cakecake made with my best cocoa, favorite fudge frosting, and cute woodland owl. The owl itself is completely made of modeling chocolate, both semi-sweet and white (some of it colored to create that festive robin’s egg blue balloon and the bright blue piping on top). My favorite wood-grain silicon mat was used to create the intricate wood siding, and I piped the top rings myself to give it a bit of a cutesy, cartoon feel.

This chocolate cake recipe is also the best I’ve found. It’s rich, incredibly moist, bakes up evenly, and holds up well to handling- making it the perfect recipe for fudgy layer cakes! It’s also incredibly simple to put together- just drop everything into a bowl, mix, and bake! Use good quality, dutch-processed cocoa and strong, dark roast coffee for best results. (Don’t worry, there isn’t a dominant coffee flavor- it’s included to intensify the flavor of the chocolate.)

Even if you don’t have a special reason to put this whole cake together, give the dark cocoa cake and fudge frosting recipes a try… you won’t be disappointed!

Rich, Dark Cocoa Cake

adapted from AllRecipes

makes two round or square layers, one 13x9x2

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup cocoa powder, preferably dutch-process (I like Cacao Barry, extra-brute)

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup strong, hot black coffee

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Choose your pans (I used 2 round, 7-8″ cake pans) and butter, line with parchment, and re-butter them.

In a large bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and mix until well blended.

In a separate, medium bowl lightly whisk the eggs, then mix in the rest of the wet incredients. Stir just to combine, then add to the dry ingredients. Process for 2-3 minutes, scraping the bowl to make sure it is thoroughly mixed.

Pour into your pan(s), weighing the pans if you’re using more than one to make sure you divided the batter equally. (This will make sure you end up with 2 layers of the same size.) Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Turn the pans out on to a cooling rack to let the layers cool completely before trimming and frosting.

Favorite Fudgy Chocolate Frosting

adapted from AllRecipes

makes about 4 cups

1/2 cup unsalted butter

1 1/3 cup cocoa powder, preferably good quality dutch-processed

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted, to taste

1/2 – 3/4 cup half and half, or whole milk

1 tablespoon corn syrup (light or dark, doesn’t matter)

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Sift the cocoa powder into the large bowl of a stand mixer. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and pour over cocoa

powder. Mix to form a thick paste.

Pour in 1/2 a cup of half and half, and mix to combine.

Sift in the powdered sugar in 1/2 cup increments, beating after each addition. Continue adding powdered sugar, checking (and tasting :-P) after each addition and mixing well. Once the frosting is sweetened to your liking, add in your corn syrup and vanilla extract and beat on high (speed 5-6 on the Kitchenaid) until it’s smooth and shiny. It can be left, covered, on the kitchen counter for hours if you’re not ready to use it yet. It is soft, spreadable, and won’t ooze off your cake.

** As with the cake recipe, the cocoa powder you choose for this frosting makes a HUGE difference, since that’s where your flavor will come from. I use Cacao Barry Extra-Brute, and it’s amazing. Use the best stuff you can find for best results.

Italian Red Sangria Sorbet

June is here, and that summer sun is starting to peek through the clouds. It’s time to enjoy the sunshine, head outdoors, and pull out some of those favorite summer recipes- smoky BBQ, fresh salads, and light, fruity chilled cocktails!

Now besides the ever- classic Margarita, sangria is my favorite hot-day libation. Even though red wine can be rich, warm, and intense, it’s fanastic and fresh mixed with some dark berries and citrus. This sorbet, adapted from a recipe by the ice cream master David Lebovitz, is perfectly icy, refreshing, and easy to make. One of the best things about it? The wine flavor really comes through, and the alcohol doesn’t cook out.

If you have an ice cream maker, certainly use it! However, it’s not necessary and turns out amazing with just a freezer and a blender. It takes a few hours, so do some advanced planning if you want to serve this at an afternoon get-together or evening soiree.

Italian Red Sangria Sorbet

adapted from David Lebovitz

makes approximately 1 quart (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup water

2 tablespoons invert sugar (or corn syrup, honey)

1 bottle fruity red wine (I used an Italian Red- the Sartori Valpolicella, a medium bodied, slightly sweet wine with berry flavors)

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (or Triple Sec)

1 cup orange slices, chopped with as much pith removed as possible

1 cup raspberries

1 cup blackberries

In a large saucepan, combine sugar, invert sugar, water, wine, and Grand Marnier and bring to a boil. Let boil for about a minute to completely dissolve the sugars. Remove from heat.

In a food processor or blender, combine the orange slices, raspberries, and blackberries and puree until smooth. Stir them into the wine and sugar mixture, and let sit for 20 minutes.

Strain the mixture into a shallow container (cake pans or large a tupperware container work great) with a fine mesh strainer.

Put the container in the freezer. Let freeze to a semi-soft stage (about 2-3 hours), then remove and put the entire mixture in the blender, and puree until smooth. This will break up any large ice crystals, creating a smoother texture. Pour the mixture back into the container, and place back in the freezer. Check the texture, and repeat the blending/freezing process until you’re satisfied with the result. It shouldn’t take more than 2-3 trips to the blender. I used only one.

Scoop into bowls or glassware, and garnish with orange slices, fresh berries, and mint leaves for a bit of color.

Tips and Alternatives:

  • The freezing/blending method works great, but of course if you have an ice cream maker, feel free to use it!
  • Feel free to mix up the berries/citrus in this recipe. Orange and dark berries are amazing, but adding strawberries, blueberries, or different citrus like lime or even apple would be delicious too. Just keep the volumes the same- 3 cups, or so, of fruit.
  • Pick a red wine you actually like! Since the alcohol doesn’t cook out of this recipe, the flavor will really shine through (in a good way, of course!) You can also use a Rose, or blush wine for a lighter flavor.
  • No need to buy expensive, fresh berries if you are on a budget. Frozen berries work perfectly. No need to defrost them before processing, either!

Crispy, Crunchy Homemade Granola

My man absolutely loves granola. His dream breakfast consists of some sort of delicious blended fruit smoothie, topped with banana (or I suppose other fruits), and capped off with a generous helping of crunchy granola. Sounds pretty tropical and summery, right? He says he discovered this, the most perfect of breakfasts, while visiting the warm and welcoming beaches of Hawaii.

Unfortunately for him, I have yet to jump on the granola bandwagon. I have tried quite a few variations on granola- some are too bland, boxed versions have a tendency to be a bit stale, and yet others are so hard you almost break a tooth biting through it. Not to mention that a small box of the stuff here in Nova Scotia costs an incredible $6.00.

Alas, when you are fond of someone who loves the stuff, you have to make it work. So I have searched the grand inter-web for decent granola recipes. I have one saved in my recipe box at Epicurious from Gourmet Magazine, and found another delicious sounding recipe on David Lebovitz’s blog.

This recipe has been created out of these two great recipes. I have modified the ingredients list to fit my tastes, and if you decide to make it, you should do the same! Homemade granola is worlds better than any boxed version you will find on the market- you can completely customize it to your own likes and dislikes, you know exactly what is going into it (no preservatives, and you can change the fat and sugar content easily), and it will be fresh and actually crunchy.

Crunchy Oven-Baked Granola

adapted from David Lebovitz and Gourmet magazine (1996)

makes 7-8 cups

5 cups old fashioned oats

1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

1/2 cup chopped cashews

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp sea salt

2/3 cup applesauce

1/2 cup honey

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 to 2 cups dried fruit (I used raisins and golden raisins, and would love to try cranberries)

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix the first group of ingredients (all the dry stuff) until combined.

In a small saucepan, warm up the applesauce, honey, and oil. Pour over the dry mixture of oats and mix until everything is thoroughly coated.

Spread the granola mixture evenly over 2 baking sheets. Bake 30-45 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes to make sure it cooks evenly. Make sure to check more frequently towards the end of the baking time, as it will easily burn if left too long. The granola will be a roasted, golden brown color when it’s finished baking.

Cool completely, then store in an airtight container for up to a month, for best results.

 Other Ideas:

  • I’m sure this granola would make delicious granola bars. Let me know if anyone gives it a try!
  • This is a customizable recipe- try swapping out ingredients, or adding chocolate chips or chunks (after it is completely cool, of course), dried cherries, coconut, dried pineapple, different nuts, or even whole grain cereal flakes.
  • I have made a few breakfast-style fruit bars, some topped with oatmeal. This granola mixture would make a great topping for any similar recipes.

The Perfect Oatmeal Raisin Cookie

Cookies. The no-fail crowd pleaser, simple to make, easy to eat (too easy, one might say), and they come in endless varieties to please any palate. Chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sandwich, sugar, ginger spice… the list is endless, I could go on for pages. That is what is so great about them- there is something for everyone.

I feel the need to share this with you because I have noticed a supreme lack of even half decent bakery cookies in my city. Every one I’ve tried has been flat, dry, not sweet, and just straight up bad. A lot of recipes out there even tout the “great bakery-style cookies you can make at home!” thing. In my experience, it’s the homemade cookies that really stand out. They are certainly the most freshest and home cooks rarely skimp on the flavorful stuff. The only good thing about bakery cookies is the size (really, bigger than my face, it seems) and this is easily adjusted.

Now cookie texture- a whole other thing, something sure to cause deep discussions! Some like them crispy and crunchy, others doughy and underbaked, yet others chewy and soft. My tastes fall somewhere in between them all: I like a crisp outer side and edges, but soft and chewy in the middle. It’s this melding of textures that, to me, create the perfect cookie.

With the heavy spring rains starting up, I thought a hearty, rich spiced oatmeal raisin cookie would be perfect to warm up my day! And I may have needed something to do with all the extra oats and raisins I had lying around from my recent granola making…

These oatmeal raisin cookies are full of walnuts and raisins, plenty of oats, and a rich brown sugar, cinnamon, and honey batter. The sugar and honey give the edges that perfect crispness and the walnuts and raisins add complexity and texture. De-lish!

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies with Walnuts

Bon Appetit, 2003

Makes 15- 6″ cookies / 48- 2″ cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup vegetable shortening, room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)

1/4 cup honey

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

3 cups old-fashioned (rolled) oats

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet(s) with foil and butter it.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg and mix until well blended. (If you choose to use unsalted butter, you can also add a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to this mixture.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and shortening together on medium speed until fluffy. Add in the two sugars, and beat again until combined. Mix in the vanilla extract and honey. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for a few seconds to incorporate before adding the next.

Stir the flour mixture in on low speed in one addition, mixing just until no large streaks of flour are visible. Stir in the oats, walnuts, and raisins until the batter is uniform.

Measure out 1/3 cup scoops of dough (for large 6″ cookies) or 2 tablespoon scoops (for small 2″ cookies) and place 2 inches apart on the buttered foil-lined cookie sheet, flattening them slightly.

Bake until light golden brown, about 10-12 minutes for large cookies, and 8-10 minutes for small. Check on them diligently during the last few minutes of baking as the high sugar content will lead them to overcook quickly.

Cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet, then finish cooling on racks.

Tips and Variations:

  • If you’re so inclined, you can substitute some or all whole wheat flour for the all purpose. I am sure it will be absolutely delicious. Just be careful on your baking times, as the higher protein content of wheat flour may cause the cookies to set faster than when made with all-purpose. Adjust times accordingly.
  • After making this recipe a few times, I am convinced that adding an extra 1/2 cup each of walnuts and raisins would only improve them. Feel free to throw in a little extra, or swap out dried fruits and nuts of your choice. I’m sure that combos like cranberry and white chocolate, or macademia nuts, dates, cherries, etc would be fantastic.
  • These cookies are definitely sweet, and I think it’s great. If you prefer a less sweet version, reduce the amount of white sugar (the brown gives the cookies that warm, rich toffee complexity). They won’t get quite as crispy, but this will be worth it for you if you really don’t want them sugary.
  • If you’re low on time or are just feeling lazy, toasting the walnuts is amazing and worth it, but not necessary.

Fresh Sour Mix for Cocktail Love

Just under a year ago, I left my sunny California home for the love and adventure of the East Coast- a new coast, country, and city. Halifax is slowly but surely becoming a home away from home. Even through all my comments about how ridiculously cold the winter is and how I miss the unrelenting sunshine (even though this was supposedly the mildest winter in years), and how I dream about my favorite restaurants (and the ganache-covered chocolate mousse cake that will make your toes curl), I am learning to love my new city. There are even a few things that I think I like even better than my old oceanside home: the library system that actually has new titles and an extensive non-fiction section for all my curiosities;Point Pleasant Park is just under a mile from my downtown apartment, built of evergreens and maples, right on the ocean, and filled with endless winding pathways ripe for running; and new food discoveries like Sushi Pizza topped with fresh salmon, spicy sauce, avocado, and dripping with sweet BBQ teriyaki. They say that home is where the heart (or stomach) is.

Sunshine is returning to Halifax after the cold, grey winter. All the trees are coming back to life and the residents are shedding their winter layers and coming out of their caves. And although this new warmer weather is brightening my day-to-day, there are things I’ve had in California that Halifax life just can’t compete with, starting with the Margarita.

There is something so comfortable about sitting on a creekside patio in the middle of the afternoon, sun beating down on your face, condensation dripping down your salted margarita glass. Making a good one isn’t hard- the basic recipe is all you need. It’s the quality of the ingredients that makes all the difference in a simple recipe. And for margaritas, a good sour mix is certainly one of them. This recipe is seriously easy- sour mix is just citrus juices mixed with sugar in the form of simple syrup. Fresh citrus makes all the difference here, so don’t go buying that pre-bottled lemon juice at the grocery store. So grab your favorite tequila, some fresh limes, kosher salt, and your sunglasses- here is the recipe for the fresh sour mix you need for all your summertime margaritas (and then some).

Fresh Sweet and Sour Mix

for Cocktail Love – makes about 5 cups

adapted from Bon Appetit magazine – 1995

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups water

1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 8-10 lemons) *don’t use the bottled kind

juice from 3 limes

juice from 1 orange

Make the simple syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Juices: Meanwhile, squeeze your lemon, lime, and orange juices into a small bowl or graduated measuring cup. You should end up with about 2 cups. Make sure you strain this to remove any seeds and the pulp before adding in your simple syrup.

Once your syrup is luke warm, begin adding it slowly to your citrus juices. Start by adding a cup at a time, tasting it after each addition to tailor it to your own tastes. I tend to like mine a little on the sour side, so I end up not adding all the syrup in. It’s your palate, do what you like. If possible, chill in the refrigerator until ready to use.

This is also perfect for whiskey sours, long island iced teas, or any cocktail calling for sweet and sour mix. Get creative!

*This will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Just keep it in a tightly closed container, preferably a bottle of some sort left over from previous adventures.

 A Simple Margarita with Fresh Sour Mix

 with variations

2 oz your favorite tequila

3/4 oz triple sec or Cointreau

1 1/2 – 2 oz fresh sour mix (to taste)

the juice of 2 lime wedges

1/2 oz Grand Marnier, for float

plenty of ice

kosher salt (optional)

Rim your glass with salt, if desired, and fill it with ice.

Combine tequila, triple sec, sour mix, lime juice, and lots of ice in a martini shaker. Shake for 15-20 seconds, and strain into your salt-rimmed glass.

Float Grand Marnier on top and garnish with a salt-covered lime wheel.

Variations:

  • I love fresh fruit in margaritas! You can muddle fresh raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, or even more tropical fruits like mango or pineapple into your glass before adding other ingredients. Shake and use a strainer to keep any fruit chunks/seeds from ending up in your glass.
  • If you don’t have triple sec or Grand Marnier around, no worries. I highly recommend you use at least one of them, but you can easily squeeze an orange wedge into your drink to sweeten it and add a little orange flavor.
  • For a blended version, use a little extra sour mix. Just pour your liquid ingredients into the blender first, then add ice only until the top of your liquids. Blend until smooth.

Lavender Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Frosting

Lavender! My new favorite thing. It smells amazing, tastes delicious, and really brightens my day. Lavender flowers have a sweet, herbal and floral scent that is incredibly delicious and relaxing.  Essential oils are extracted from the flowers and are commonly found in bath products and perfumes. It is also sometimes added to tea leaves, chocolates, and, of course, cupcakes!

Sadly, it is one of those culinary ingredients that many people are ever so slightly intimidated by. Fear no more! This recipe is perfect for first-timers and experienced bakers alike.

The whipped buttercream frosting is sweet and floral thanks to the vanilla bean, a perfect complement to the fluffy lavender cupcake underneath. Adding a bit of purple (or red and blue) food coloring adds a colorful pop and really sets off the ivory, speckled frosting ruffles on top.

Lavender Cupcakes 

makes 12

adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery’s recipe

3/4 cup whole milk

4 tablespoons culinary lavender

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

a scant 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 eggs, room temperature

food coloring, optional

Bring milk to a simmer and add lavender. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line/grease your cupcake pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and butter and beat on low speed with the paddle attachment until combined in a sandy consistency. (This is the point at which to add the food coloring, if you’re using it. I prefer gel colors, because they are more potent and won’t water the batter down.)

Strain the lavender-infused milk into the flour mixture, and beat until its well mixed, about 1-2 minutes.  Add the vanilla extract and the eggs (To measure 1/2 of an egg, beat the egg with a fork until well mixed, then measure out 2 tablespoons. Discard the other half.) and mix well, being careful not to overbeat the batter (this creates tough, dry cupcakes!).

Fill each liner 3/4 full. Place in the oven, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool completely before frosting.

Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting

from Sweetapolita

3 sticks + 2 tbsp unsalted butter (375g)

3 cups powdered sugar, sifted

3 tbsp milk (or cream)

1 vanilla bean, scraped

1 tsp vanilla extract

pinch of salt

Whip the butter in a standing mixer on speed 4 (medium) for 8 minutes. The butter will become very light, pale, and fluffy.

Add the vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds, mix on low for a few seconds, then add the sifted powdered sugar, milk, and salt.

Mix on low for 1 minute, then on medium (speed 4 again) for another 5-6 minutes.

The frosting will be extremely fluffy and light. Best if used right away, but you can refrigerate it if you need to make it in advance. Simply let it come to room temperature before re-whipping it in the mixer for another couple of minutes, until the fluffy consistency is back.

*If you don’t have vanilla beans on hand (although I do recommend making the frosting with it), you can substitute an extra 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract for the bean.

Makes ample frosting for 12 cupcakes, and then some.

Tips and Alternatives:

  • If vanilla isn’t your favorite frosting flavor, there are many amazing options for pairing with lavender: Chocolate (dark, especially), honey, lemon, more lavender, almond, and white chocolate are just a few. Feel free to think of your own combination.
  • You can decorate your cupcakes with lavender colored sugar, ivory pearl sprinkles, or actual lavender buds. So far as I’ve read, the buds are indeed edible. Make sure you are using culinary lavender, as there a few varieties and some are better tasting than others.

The Wood Cake: Wood Grain Chocolate and How to Apply it

The first time I saw wood-grain chocolate, I was in awe. How on earth do they create that pattern? Intricate, thin, alternating lines of dark and white chocolate, complete with knots and impossibly realistic-looking. I knew immediately that I must figure out how to make it happen for myself.

I began reading blogs, searching Google, and browsing photos, always looking for the secret to making this mysterious wood-grain chocolate pattern. Let me tell you, there is not a whole lot out there. The best advice,  you may have guessed, came from Martha Stewart, queen of all things domestic and creative. She makes amazing chocolate-almond wood-grain bark, and has created a wedding cake with the wood-grain pattern as well.

While on this seemingly futile search for wood-grain, I have picked up a handful of helpful tips. So, here they are, all in one place!

  • Chocolatiers recommend using acetate paper for chocolate sheets of this nature; Acetate can be ordered online, and is great for keeping that glorious shine on chocolate. However, I used parchment paper for this particular project, and find that it dulls the shine in a way that makes it look more realistic. How many glossy trees have you seen? Think of it this way: acetate = glossy, stained planks; parchment = matte, natural planks.
  • There are two ways (that I know of) to create the wood-grain pattern: First, with a wood-grain painting tool that can be picked up at most local hardware stores, or ordered online. This is the method you would use for making planks of chocolate for a cake. Second, with a wood-grain silicone mat, used for creating Martha’s chocolate-almond bark, or for putting the wood-grain on bars, etc. I got my silicone mat at Chinese Clay Art.
  • Use dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, for the dark “rings” to really show up. To make the pattern, the chocolate you use first, with the wood-grain tool, is the “ring” color; the second chocolate is spread over the ring pattern, and is the “background”, or spacing color. Martha uses the white first, and the milk chocolate second (Check out her tutorial.) For a more realistic look, I use the dark chocolate first, and the white second. This creates dark rings, and natural looking spaces.
  • Keep your chocolate layers thin- just a couple millimeters. It will be difficult to cut through on the cake if you make it too thick. Also, you’ll end up with huge chunks of chocolate in your bites of cake and frosting (which some of you may love); the point is for your design to shine and really stand out. If you are looking for your cake to be super chocolatey, use fudge frosting or ganache under the wood-grain chocolate.

This cake is such a crowd-pleaser- it’s unusual, a bit of a novelty, and all the men in my life love it. So! Here it is: How-To Make a Wood-Grain cake.

You will need: (to cover 1 cake, approximately 8″ by 3″ square)

wood-graining tool

parchment paper

white chocolate (16 oz)

dark or milk chocolate (8 oz) *These measurements are conservative, as you will probably use far less. However, to allow for proper coverage and/or mistakes, it’s good to have a little extra.

2 microwave-safe bowls, or 2 double-boiler set ups

off set spatula

cookie sheets or cutting board

How-To:

  1. Bake your cake layers. For this one, I used the “zebra” cake technique to create alternating swirls of chocolate and vanilla in my 2 layers… similar to the wood-grain pattern. Cool them completely.
  2. Once your layers are cool, even them out, frost and fill them with whatever you like. I like brushing my cake layers with whiskey caramel, and filling and frosting it with a whiskey caramel buttercream. It is also helpful to reserve a 1/2 cup or so of frosting to fill in any small gaps when you are applying your chocolate later on.
  3. Measure your cake’s dimensions- height and width. This one is 7.5″ square, and about 2.75″ high. You can build your cake to be however many layers and however high you like.
  4. Cut parchment/acetate strips with “tabs” at the top to match your cake’s dimensions. This means I cut 4 strips that were 7.5″ by 2.75″ (one for each of the sides) and one square 7.5″ by 7.5″ for the top. You can see in the picture that I left atab of parchment at the top of each strip. *This is very important* You will end up with chocolate covered fingers, and possibly an uneven pattern if you don’t have parchment to hold on to while you’re pulling the tool through the chocolate.
  5. Cover your work surface with parchment paper for each clean up. Melt your chocolates, and set up your wood graining tool and cookie sheets. You will be transferring your strips to it to place in the refrigerator for a few minutes at a time. 
  6. Work 2 pieces at a time. Put a small dollop (*no more than a tablespoon*) of the dark chocolate at the top of your strip. Holding on to the tab and starting at the top, pull your wood grain tool through the chocolate slowly, using a smooth, rocking motion. (You can google a wood-grain paint tutorial for example of how to do this.) Vary your rocking motions for each strip so they will all look a little bit different. If you don’t like the pattern, you can simply pull your tool through the chocolate again, as long as the chocolate is still melted. You may need to do this once or twice anyway to get this chocolate layer thin enough. You want to be able to see the parchment through the knots. (Note photo below.)
  7. Transfer each strip to the cookie sheet. Repeat with the other 2 strips and your top square, and place them in the refrigerator for up to 10 minutes to let them harden. Don’t skip this step, as you need your chocolate to be completely hardened and cold for the next step. 
  8. When your chocolate strips are completely hardened, pull them out 2 at a time and put another dollop (this time 1-2 tablespoons) of white chocolate at the top of the strip. Use an off-set spatula to spread the white chocolate down the strip in one fluid movement. *Use as few strokes as possible* The warm white chocolate will begin to warm up the dark chocolate, and your beautiful knot pattern will become smeared if you move the white chocolate too many times. Keep this layer thin, only a few millimeters thick. Repeat with the other 2 strips, and your top square separately, and immediately put them back in the refrigerator to cool.

To apply the chocolate planks to your cake: 

  1. Remove your cake from the refrigerator, if necessary, for 30-60 minutes before you apply the chocolate planks. The frosting needs to be soft enough to allow the chocolate to stick to it. Also, remove your chocolate planks from the refrigerator and allow them to warm up slightly.
  2. Working one plank at a time, line up the bottom and sides to your cake and gently press it on. Do not remove the parchment paper yet! Once you have all four planks applied, place the cake in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes to set the chocolate. 
  3. Pull it out of the refrigerator, and gently and slowly remove the parchment/acetate strips from the chocolate in one smooth motion. If necessary, loosen it from the paper gently with a paring knife. Also if necessary, you can use a warm paring knife to trim the top/sides of your chocolate plank to perfectly fit the cake and match up to the other pieces.
  4. Note whether there are any small gaps that can be filled with frosting, particularly at the corners, and fill them in for a seamless fit.
  5. Repeat with the top piece of chocolate, again refrigerating for a short period before removing the parchment.
  6. BE PATIENT! This is a technique that requires practice and focus. Feel free to practice on a few sheets of parchment ahead of time. You will inevitably improve the more you work at it. And, definitely adapt the process to fit your kitchen and individual needs. What works for me might not work the same for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Feel free to leave comments with any questions about the process! It is definitely worth the effort to learn how to do it. Applying the chocolate to this cake took me about an hour- completely manageable.

Good Luck, and Happy Wood-Graining!

Chocolate Ambush Cupcakes

Happy Tuesday! Welcome to the first recipe post of Baking, I Love You.

Chocolate Cupcakes. Did that catch your attention?

Cupcakes have sort of become the darling of the baking world these past few years. Cupcake-only bake shops have popped up everywhere, particularly in California and NYC. There’s Yummy Cupcakes, the Vanilla Bakeshop, and of course the ever famous Magnolia Bakery and Sprinkles Cupcakes. Needless to say, I’m sure you’ve all tried at least one (or ten, or twenty) cupcake recipes… so why post about a plain, regular ol’ chocolate cupcake? Because these cupcakes are a bit of a surprise (hence, the Ambush Cupcake) because… they are vegan.

Now, before you stop reading this post because I’ve mentioned a word that brings to mind hippie food, and bland, dry baked goods that contain far too many pieces of dried fruits, nuts and none of the good stuff, let me say that these are the BEST, and my go-to recipe, beloved by all in my omnivorous household. You can’t tell that they don’t contain any eggs or real butter. These little guys are moist and springy, full of chocolate flavor and absolutely de-lic-ious. The secret is the vegan butter (I prefer Earth Balance). It acts as regular butter, whipped light and fluffy with sugar and real vanilla extract, providing lightness and richness. I topped these with a vegan peanut butter-buttercream, but some of my other favorite variations include chocolate ganache, whipped vanilla buttercream, and fudge-filled.

Let these little cakes ambush your stomach and become a believer in trying new things.

Before we get to the recipe, there are a few tips every baker should know. Cupcake baking is pretty straight forward, but these few tidbits will help your results become more consistent.

  1. Always mix your dry ingredients together in a small bowl thoroughly before adding them to your wet ingredients. This means whisking them with a fork/whisk etc to completely mix them. This will properly distribute your leaveners, providing a good rise and less of those random gaping holes in your cake’s texture.
  2. Fill your cupcake liners 3/4 of the way up. It seems like a lot (this recipe only makes 10 cupcakes when you properly fill the liners). This rule, combined with the next tip, will make sure your cupcakes rise into perfect, perky domes, avoiding those pesky flat tops.
  3. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, put your cupcake pan in the oven, and then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. This burst of heat at the beginning starts the rising process, again forming those perfect domed tops. Read more about this on the Best Friends for Frosting blog.

Chocolate Ambush Cupcakes

adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World

makes 10

1 cup soy milk

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1/3 cup (5 tablespoons) vegan butter, pulled out 10-15 minutes before use to slightly soften it (I use Earth Balance and think it’s the best)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (use the real thing, especially in vegan baking, as the flavor really comes through)

1/2 teaspoon extract- either additional vanilla, almond, or chocolate

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cocoa powder, regular or dutch-processed for an extra dark look

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line cupcake pan with paper or foil liners (Grease-proof is best).

  1. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and whisk with a fork until well mixed. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, add the apple cider vinegar to the soy milk (no stirring necessary). Set aside. (I do this in a graduated measuring cup- just measure out 1 cup of soy milk in the cup, then add the vinegar. It saves dishes.)
  3. In a large bowl with a hand mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until light and fluffy, about one minute. (Be careful not to overbeat, as vegan butter behaves slightly differently than regular and can be over-softened.) Add in the sugar and beat until well combined, then beat in the vanilla.
  4. Add the soy milk mixture to the butter mixture and beat until foamy. (Again, don’t over-mix. If you’re using a stand mixer, your mixture may look curdled at this point. Don’t be alarmed, just mix for a few seconds here, and mix a little extra after adding the dry ingredients to smooth your batter out.)
  5. Add in your dry ingredients and beat until smooth and no large lumps remain, about 30 seconds.
  6. Fill your liners 3/4 of the way to the top.
  7. Put the pan in the oven, and turn the temperature down to 325 degrees. The initial burst of heat will help your cupcakes rise into perfect, domed tops.
  8. Bake for 16-20 minutes, until toothpick inserted into the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean.

Now for the sweet stuff…

Frosting Options!

Besides vanilla, chocolate is one of the most versatile flavors out there and can be paired with just about anything you like. These are just some of the many possibilities:

  • Peanut Butter-Buttercream (My choice for this batch, also adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World)
  • Chocolate ganache (If you’re making these for someone who is actually vegan, make sure you use vegan chocolate- not all chocolates are created equal)
  • Whipped vanilla buttercream
  • Chai tea frosting, complete with lots of spices
  • Lavender
  • Chocolate buttercream, or whipped chocolate ganache
  • Just a sprinkling of powdered sugar

A final word on Chocolate Ambush Cupcakes:

  • Although I highly recommend the vegan butter, these can also be made with vegetable oil. Just swap it out by mixing the oil, vanilla, and sugar together until dissolved- no beating required.
  • Since this method only makes 10 cupcakes, if you are looking for 12, or 24, etc, feel free to double the recipe. I frequently multiply recipes by 1.5, and have had no issues. Just do the math.

Enjoy!

Welcome!

Welcome, new reader! I am a new blogger.

Baking, I Love You has been created out of my love for creating delicious food- particularly baking, caking, and all things sweet. I am not new to baking, but in the past few years it has truly become a passion of mine. I have grown from a break-n-bake cookie, boxed-cake-mix lover into someone who creates everything from scratch- because I truly believe it’s better! To me, there is something so classic and comforting about spending time in the kitchen creating something delicious to share with whoever is around!

I have started this blog because, like a lot of you out there, I am still learning. I know that keeping a written account of all my thoughts, recipes, and progress will help me figure out what works and what’s good. A favorite part of my day is visiting each of my favorite blogs, reading about the authors adventures in the kitchen, testing and tasting and failing and finding success. I have learned incredible things from others’ experiences- some details that are so important and often overlooked by bakers of all calibers. I have read recipes, “how-to”s, and “how-NOT-to”s on all of these blogs and picked up something new from each of them. It is my hope to add to this amazing base of knowledge and group of bloggers through sharing my own efforts and recipes, whether they are successful or not.

It is also my hope that all of this will lead me to my goal of owning my own business. I am always planning and plotting my amazing business venture! And, of course, baking will be a big part of it.

Some things to look forward to in future blog posts:
Vanilla Pear Muffins
Wood grain chocolate and how-to apply it to a cake
My favorite (Vegan) Chocolate cupcake
Brown sugar mousse

I hope that you can learn as much from this blog as I will! And of course, I am looking forward to feedback from any and every one of you. Feel free to e-mail me, leave comments here, or send a message via Twitter.

In Peace, Love, and Sugar,

Becca