Tuesday, July 27, 2010

There's no wrong way to eat a blondie

If I had to pick a favorite dessert, it would be brownies.  Just the fudgy or chewy kinds, not the cakey ones.  I have a favorite recipe, but I'm more than willing to try new ones, because you never know when you might find something else that's great.  There are times, though, when I want something not as chocolatey.  Lemon bars are another favorite bar cookie, but they're a little more fussy and time consuming (it always seems to take me forever to juice the lemons; my favorite recipe uses a lot of juice).    Things with brown sugar are something else I like, so sometimes I just make blondies.

My favorite recipe (which I really need to blog one of these days) uses melted butter, lots of brown sugar, and no chemical leavening.  So the texture ends up being rather dense and fudgy, a lot like the brownies I prefer.  This weekend, though, I got to try a new version, thanks to Tuesdays with Dorie.  Our hostess this week is Nicole of Cookies on Friday, and she picked Chewy Chunky Blondies for us to make.  Dorie's version of blondies reads a lot like a chocolate chip cookie recipe (it uses the creaming method), but as usual, she adds all sorts of interesting things, to the point where there's almost more stuff than batter. =)

I decided to halve the recipe--in case we didn't like them that much, or we liked them too much. =)  For the additions, I immediately eighty-sixed the coconut (if you've read my blog for any length of time you'll know why).  I also decided to skip the nuts, since I wanted Brianna and Gillian to actually eat these.  They don't seem to like any nuts but cashews and pistachios, and prefer to eat those out of hand, not in things.  That left me with the chocolate chips and butterscotch chips.  For the chocolate chips, I went with bittersweet (Guittard 63%) since I knew the batter would be sweet.  That made me worry about the butterscotch chips, which tend to be incredibly sweet.  I wasn't up for that, but still wanted to add something besides the chocolate chips.  I recently reorganized my chips collection (yes, I think it qualifies as a collection--I can think of about ten different kinds in my pantry right now) and I remembered that I had a bunch of peanut butter chips.  Perfect!  I used 100g each of chocolate and PB chips for my half recipe.

I mixed the dough by hand, like I do with chocolate chip cookies and my usual blondie recipe.  The process was pretty straightforward.  Cream together the butter and sugars (white and brown), then mix in the egg and vanilla.  Next up, dry ingredients (AP flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt).  I kept the original amount of salt even though I cut everything else in half, to help combat the sweetness a bit more.  Finally, I stirred in the chips.  The batter was very stiff, and was a bit of a challenge to spread evenly in the pan.  I used an 8" square Pyrex pan (I really need to get a metal 8" pan one of these days), but left the  oven temp at 325F.  To make sure I'd be able to get the blondies out of the pan without a problem, I lined it with non-stick foil (I love that stuff!).  I ended up baking them for 30 minutes or so (might have been a minute or two longer--I was upstairs and didn't hear the timer right away).

The verdict? I was prepared not too like these that much.  After all, I messed with the add-ins, guessed at the baking time, and was worried about the texture, since they seemed to have puffed around the edges.  I was thinking they'd be cakey, or dry.  Well, I shouldn't have worried.  Gillian pronounced them one of the best things I've made.  Brianna inhaled hers as well.  Jamie enjoyed them, too (especially the peanut butter chips).  I liked the texture quite a bit--the top was crunchy and the inside chewy without being overly gooey.

If you'd like to try these for yourself (and have fun deciding what to mix in), you can find the recipe over at Nicole's blog.  And be sure to check out this week's links to the other TWD bakers.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spur of the moment

This was my weekend off.  I worked the last two Saturdays, and will work the next two.  (Sometimes the schedule just works out that way, with lots of vacations this time of year.)  I had lots of plans for stuff to make this weekend.  I've done almost none of them.  Yesterday, the girls and I went to the farmers market (only came home with tomatoes; very sad that my usual cheese guys wasn't there this week), Build-a-Bear (finally spending B's birthday present from Aunt Kate), and story time at Borders.  This morning, we went to the pool with some friends, stopped to pick up some lunch to bring home, and all took naps.  I did squeeze in some baking this morning, and still hope to this evening, but things didn't really go according to plan.  

What's funny is that last weekend, I made all sorts of stuff in a much smaller window of time.  Sometimes it just happens that way.  Some of the things I had made before, like the scones we ate for breakfast on Sunday.  And then I couldn't resist making the plum cake again, with peaches.  For the record, the plum version is better. =)  But one of the recipes I made was a brand-new one.  One of the things that pops up in my Google Reader every weekend is Dan Lepard's baking article in The Guardian.  There are all sorts of yummy looking recipes, but the ones that really catch my eye (and the ones that I've actually made) are the bread recipes.  

The recipe for July 17th was Semolina BBQ Buns.  Right away, I was drawn in by the semolina part.  I love breads with semolina (I often add it to pizza crust, too).  I took a quick look at the ingredient list and was happy to see that I had everything on hand to make them--semolina, butter, honey, yogurt, salt, yeast, and bread flour (what I usually use when UK recipes call for "strong flour"), plus water and a bit of oil for kneading.  This recipe employs one of my favorite techniques, which I originally learned from another Dan Lepard recipe.  Once the dough is all mixed together, you knead it on an oiled surface for about 10 seconds every ten minutes for about half an hour.  Each brief knead develops the gluten a bit more, until you have a fairly smooth dough.  Then you let the dough rise for a longer period (an hour, for this recipe).  For these buns, you then roll the dough out into a large rectangle and place it on a parchment lined baking sheet.  The dough is cut into 8 rolls (I used my metal dough scraper to cut through the dough) that are left in place.  The dough is covered and allowed to rise a bit more.  Before baking, the dough is brushed with water, sprinkled with more semolina, and lightly scored with a butter knife (for decoration).

The verdict?  Dan suggests in the article that these are perfect buns for barbecued pork.  I'm not a big barbecue person, but I have to say, they're great with chicken salad.  Or for most other sandwiches--including jam, according to Gillian. =)  They're also quite good eaten plain, with some salted butter.  Or toasted.  So yes, I'm telling you that these didn't last all that long around here.  I ate the last one for breakfast this morning, and they only made it that long because I froze most of them.  I really love the bit of crunch in the crust from the semolina sprinkled on top.  I generally prefer rolls over sliced bread for sandwiches, since they have a higher ratio of crust, and these are perfect in that respect.  

If you'd like to give these a try for yourself, you can find the recipe here.  And be sure to check out the other recipes on that site.  (The Buttermilk Baps are another favorite of mine.)  And these rolls are also being Yeastspotted!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ready for something new

I've been trying to do a better job of blogging lately, and I think that for the most part I'm succeeding.  One thing I've been trying to do is get myself on a more consistent posting schedule, about three times a week.  Tuesdays, of course, are pretty much reserved for Tuesdays with Dorie.  I'm also trying to post some sort of bread about once a week (either BBA recipes or other breads).  The third category is more random.  I've been making an effort use some of the many cookbooks on my shelves more frequently.  So while I'm sure I'll continue to make some of my old favorites (like these scones that we had again for breakfast this morning), I want to make and share some new ones, as well.  

While we're still seeing pretty good strawberries (and I keep buying them), more stone fruits are showing up at Central Market as well.  I need to remember to look at the farmers market next weekend, too.  I haven't had much luck with peaches yet (a lot of them are still rock hard and not smelling like much), so I've been checking out the plums (and relatives like plumcots and pluots) as well.  I saw some red plums last week that seemed good and not too expensive, and brought them home.  Unfortunately, I wasn't thrilled when I sampled one--the texture was fine, but it didn't have much flavor other than sweet.  It reminded me that I usually buy darker plums with red flesh.  Then it occurred to me that maybe they'd be better if I baked them.  The question was, what to make?  I wasn't in the mood for something like a crisp, and I was a bit leery of a cake, since I've had bad experiences with the Dimply Plum Cake from Baking From My Home to Yours.

A couple months ago, I bought myself a copy of David Lebovitz's newest cookbook, Ready for Dessert.   I read through it after I got it, but have only made a few recipes from it so far, for chocolate cookies and caramel ice cream.  But I knew it had a lot of fruit desserts, so I pulled it off the shelf and took a look.  In the first section (cakes), I found a recipe for Spiced Plum Streusel Cake with Toffee Glaze.  In the introduction to the recipe, David says, "This cake combines everything I crave: tangy plums, toffee with a bit of salt, and buttery cake."  I stopped searching right then.  Sounds good to me!

The streusel consists of sliced almonds, brown sugar and spices, with a bit of flour and some melted butter to hold everything together.  I don't usually have almonds on hand, so I went with some pecans that were in my freezer.  The spices (both in the streusel and the cake) are cinnamon and cardamom.  I don't use cardamom nearly enough, so I was glad to try it in this recipe.  The cake batter is made with the creaming method--butter and sugar are beaten together until fluffy, then eggs are added.  Finally, the dry ingredients (AP flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and cardamom) are added, alternating with some buttermilk.  (I left out the vanilla extract by accident, but used vanilla sugar, so it was okay.)  The batter is spread into a 9-inch springform pan and slices of plums are pressed into it. Then the streusel is scattered on top.  My cake took 50 minutes to bake.

It was late when I made my cake, so I let it cool overnight and added the toffee glaze the next morning.  The glaze is made by melting together butter, dark brown sugar, heavy cream and a bit of salt.  The mixture is brought to a boil and simmered for a minute, then allowed to cool to room temperature.  The glaze seems thin at first, but thickens as it cools.  Once it's cooled, a bit of vanilla is added, then it's drizzled over the cake.

The verdict?  Well, the cake barely survived 24 hours, so that should be a good indication of how much everyone liked it. =)  Knowing that fruit desserts don't keep that well and not wanting to try to eat it all at home, I took the cake to work with me.  Only about a third of it survived to go home again, and we polished that off pretty quickly.  One of my employees commented that this cake might just be the best thing I've ever brought in.  So it's safe to say that this cake is a new favorite.  While it was excellent with the plums, I suspect it will be delicious with other stone fruits as well.  Next up, peaches! (That version of the cake is in the oven as I type.)

If you'd like to try this cake for yourself, I highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Ready for Dessert.  Edited to add: I did find the recipe on Google Books, here.  (Don't forget to check your local library if you want to try before you buy!)  I look forward to making and reviewing more recipes from it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Since July 5th was a federal holiday this year (due to the 4th falling on a Sunday), I had the day off.  The daycare was closed that day, too, so I had both girls home with me, while Jamie had to work.  (UT has its own ideas about holidays sometimes.)  Since I'd already been home with them for Saturday and Sunday, I was really hoping that they wouldn't drive me completely crazy.  I was really brave that morning, and took them to Target in search of new puzzles.  That trip went better than expected, so I was even braver in the afternoon.  I let them both help me in the kitchen.  One at a time is usually just fine, but with both of them, things usually degenerate into arguing and sniping at each other.  But they were really excited at the prospect of helping me with this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe.  Karen of Welcome to our Crazy Blessed Life picked Brrr-ownies for us to make.  I think the girls were intrigued by the idea of putting candy (in this case Peppermint Patties) into brownies.

I've discovered that the key to having both Brianna and Gillian in the kitchen with me is to give them different jobs. Brianna is now at the point where I can let her help measure stuff.  I use my scale for everything these days.  She knows how to tare, and since I use grams most of the time now, that's what she gets to use, too.  Starting her out right!  =)  Maybe this way it'll end up being more intuitive for her that it was for me at first.  

The girls both like to stir, so usually Gillian gets dry stuff (flour, salt, baking powder, etc), while Brianna gets to do the wet stuff (liquids, eggs).  They fight over who is going to get to crack the eggs, which up until now has consisted of tapping the eggs on the counter until they crack a little, then giving them to me to actually break the shell the rest of the way.  This time, though, I let B do the whole thing, and she was quite startled when the shell on one egg separated unexpectedly.  No eggshell in the bowl, though, so it was a success!  G would have been giving me a hard time about letting B do the eggs except that I'd given her the most important job--cutting up the peppermint patties.  Armed with a plastic knife and lots of muscle, she carefully cut each pattie into quarters:  

At least she waited until she was done to lick the knife! 

Once she was done, I stuck the bowl in the freezer to chill the pieces.  A number of people reported on the P and Q this week that they had problems with the peppermint patties melting and bubbling out of the brownie batter, and I thought the chilling step might help.  Once Brianna finished mixing up the batter, I carefully folded in the peppermint patties and spread the batter in a pan lined with non-stick foil.  (That stuff is great!)  We baked the brownies for about 30 minutes. 

Brianna complained that I don't bring treats for her teachers often enough, so I told her that we could take these brownies in for them.  Not knowing how many people would be there, I went for pieces that were bite-sized.  I was looking for something to put them in, and discovered that I still had some snowman mini cupcake papers.  I figured they would be perfect for these minty treats.  Christmas in July, anyone?  =)

The verdict?  These brownies were quite good.  They lasted longer at the school-age building (where B is for the summer) than they usually do with G's teachers, but the container still came back empty.  (I tell them they have to return it so I can fill it up again.)  Brianna and Gillian liked them, too, and were happy to tell Jamie all about how they helped make them.  I wasn't surprised, though, when B asked if the brownie recipe could be made without the peppermint patties.  She tends to like things without add-ins.  I liked the big pieces of peppermint patties, and I think the size helped keep them from melting too much and making a mess.  I would definitely make these again.

If you'd like to try this week's recipe for yourself, you can find it on Karen's blog.  And don't forget to head over to this week's Leave Your Links page to see what everyone else did!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Brought to you by the letter S

I was recently amazed to discover that Gillian can write a lot more than I realized.  I knew she could recognize all the letters and write her name (a few of the letters are interesting, but you can make out what she's writing).  We were at Borders for story time, and afterwards they got to make Father's Day cards.  She sat there and asked me what letters she needed to say "Happy Father's Day." I offered to help her write it, but she insisted she could do it herself.  She only needed me to explain how to form one of the letters.  Boy, this kid is quick, even more so than her big sister.  She's not even four yet!  And with the timing of her birthday (October), she'll be almost 6 by the time she can start kindergarten.  It's really hard sometimes to figure out what to do with my smart kids to keep them challenged.

Jamie and I realized a couple weeks ago that boredom may be a lot of the reason B is driving us crazy lately.  She doesn't have enough to do of her own, so she starts bothering G and wanting to play with her stuff.  And I get tired of explaining, that yes, those toys were originally hers, but now G gets to play with them, since they're geared more toward a 3-year-old than a 7-year-old. *sigh*  Fortunately, we were able to come up with a few ideas...J is teaching her how to play chess, since he loved it as a kid (and still does).  I can play, but am nowhere near his level.  And he's a much more patient teacher than I am.  He found a couple of chess books for kids, too.  Another thing that B really likes is puzzles, both word puzzles and the jigsaw variety.  I think it's time to get some new ones--harder ones that G can't do yet, with more, smaller pieces.  

She's also been reading a lot, which is good, but that only keeps her occupied for so long.  Besides some new Betty & Veronica comics (J is the comic book influence), the main thing she's been reading is her Christmas present from my sister Kate.  Kate got her the entire collection of Ramona books.  With the new movie coming out next week, she's been trying to read as much as she can beforehand.  She's already talked me into taking her to see the movie.  The only movies I've seen in a theater for the past several years are the ones I've taken B to.  Going to the movies isn't in the budget much.  

Of course, you're all familiar with my main source of entertainment these days--baking. =)  And a lot of the books I read are cookbooks.  I was thinking the other day that I've gained an amazing amount of knowledge and skill through my participation in various baking groups.  Tuesdays with Dorie and Daring Bakers have helped with cakes and other sweets.  For bread, though, the biggest influence is definitely the BBA Challenge.

I mentioned in my last BBA post that I got stuck on the Marbled Rye and decided to jump ahead for the time being.  Since I was making pâte fermentée for the Pain de Campagne, I figured I'd make a double batch so I'd have some ready for the next recipe, too, which is Pane Siciliano.  I was really looking forward to this one, because I've really enjoyed every bread that I've made with semolina.  The addition of semolina flour gives bread a pretty yellow color and I like the texture it contributes, too.  

The dough for Pane Siciliano is fairly lean (bread flour, semolina flour, salt, yeast and water) but does have a small amount of olive oil and honey added to it.  After the initial mixing, my dough was rather sticky.  Rather than add flour when kneading, I decided to try Peter Reinhart's stretch and fold technique from his newest book, Artisan Breads Every Day.  I did the stretch and fold on an oiled countertop 3 or 4 times in about 45 minutes, and then let the dough rise for another 45 minutes.  When it was time to divide the dough for shaping, I decided that I wanted to set some of it aside for pizza crust.  I did three portions of 7 ounces each that I formed into balls and stuck in the fridge to use for dinner.  The remaining dough was about 23 ounces, and I shaped that into the traditional "S" shaped loaf.  It's supposed to be topped with sesame seeds, but I didn't have any.  The shaped loaf is retarded overnight in the fridge to develop flavor.  The next morning, I pulled it out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit while the oven preheated, about 45 minutes.  The loaf only took about 20 minutes to bake.

The verdict?  I really enjoyed this bread.  It made a very nice loaf, and excellent pizza crust.  Next time I make it, I'll make sure I have sesame seeds on hand so I can try it that way.  Everyone else here loved it as well.  Jamie is my main critic for the various pizza crusts that we've tried, and he commented that he really likes how this dough worked--stayed nicely firm and crisp on the bottom with his choice of toppings, but was tender on top.  I loved the edges of this crust--nice and puffy.  I love the bubbles. =)

If you'd like to try Pane Siciliano for yourself, check out a copy of The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  There are so many excellent recipes and such good information on how to make bread.  To see how everyone else is doing with the challenge, check out the BBA Challenge blogroll.  Also, check out Yeastspotting for lots of other yummy yeasted treats.  And I'm submitting this to Bread Baking Day #32: Italian Breads!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Gluten-free Friday

We recently got a new loan officer assigned to our branch. I frequently bring baked goods to the branch to share (so we don’t eat them all at home), and offer them to whoever is around. Several times, I've offered him things that I’ve baked, but he declined. At first I just thought that he was being health-conscious and more disciplined than I am. =)  But then at one point I saw him eating a candy bar and drinking soda, and wondered. Finally, one day when I asked him if he wanted something, he said, “You know I can’t eat wheat, right?” Um, no, I didn’t, or I wouldn’t have kept offering him things that he couldn’t eat!

So that led me to thinking about what sort of things I could make that he would be able to eat. He did clarify for me that it’s gluten that he can’t have, not just wheat (which I pretty much figured). I had an employee a number of years back with the same dietary restrictions. I usually make cakes for people’s birthdays, and for her I ended up making my favorite cheesecake, which doesn’t have any flour in it. Instead of a cookie crust, I made a brown sugar/pecan crust. It worked out quite well. But much as I love that cheesecake recipe, I needed to expand my gluten-free repertoire.

Fortunately, there are lots of great resources out there these days for gluten-free recipes. One great website is Gluten-Free Girl and The Chef. Another place that I looked was the King Arthur Flour website. King Arthur recently introduced a line of gluten-free mixes, including a gluten-free multipurpose flour that you can use in your own recipes. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic HEB grocery store to shop in that carries quite a few King Arthur products (including their new unbleached cake flour blend, but that’s another post). Even so, I was pretty surprised to find that they’re already carrying a whole bunch of the new GF products, including the flour! It is a little on the expensive side, but worth it to me, since I’m just starting out with GF baking and it’s easier than buying and mixing an assortment of other flours and starches.  (And HEB has great prices, so it costs a bit less than on the KAF website and I don't have to pay shipping.)  The one thing I didn’t find at my local grocery store was xanthan gum--I had to go to elsewhere for that. It can also be a bit pricey at first, but it’ll last me quite a while since most recipes only use a little at a time. Xanthan gum is important because without gluten, you need something to hold things together.

I decided to start simple for my first attempt.  In a blog post back in May, Shauna (the above-mentioned Gluten-Free Girl) mentioned that the recipes in David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert are generally very easy to convert to gluten-free.  Conveniently, one of the recipes he included in the book is a slight variation on my favorite brownie recipe.  The brownies don't have much flour to begin with, so I figured it would be easy to substitute the gluten-free stuff.  That was the only change I made, and I didn't bother adding any xanthan gum since I was using such a small amount of gluten-free flour.  I don't usually put nuts in my brownies, but I did add some pecans to these.  I used El Rey 70% chocolate (which is what I usually use for the Essence of Chocolate recipe) and I baked the brownies for 25 minutes.

The verdict?  Not surprisingly, the brownies were a big hit with all who tried them, including the intended recipient.  I definitely prefer mine without nuts, though.  And I realized after tasting these brownies that the original recipe includes salt, which this one did not.  I definitely think the salt should be added.  Also, the DL recipe is baked in a 9" square pan, while the recipe I usually make uses an 8" pan.  I like the thicker texture of the brownies baked in the smaller pan.  This was definitely a worthwhile experiment, but next time I'll do the flour substitution in the recipe I usually make.

You can find the Ready for Dessert recipe (with wheat flour) on Leite's Culinaria.  I'll definitely be making more recipes from this cookbook (already have, in fact).  And there will be more gluten-free baking, both adaptations and recipes designed to be gluten-free.  At some point, I do want to try other gluten-free flours, not just the premixed blends.  While I'm glad that I don't have to avoid gluten myself, I like being able to make things that all of the people I know can enjoy.  Coming soon, my variation on a gluten-free scone recipe from King Arthur. =)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


There are times when I really wish I was fluent in a second language.  For work, and life in Texas in general, Spanish would be the obvious choice.  Through listening to some of my Spanish-speaking bankers, I've gotten to the point where I can at least understand some very basic banking terms.  Through Gillian's fascination with Dora (and some faint memories of my one semester of Spanish in junior high), I know some numbers and colors and a few other words.  But that's about it.  Spanish just didn't appeal to me early on.  So instead, I took four years of French in high school, and another year in college.  I've never been that good at speaking it, though.  My shyness and lack of self-confidence worked against me there.  I have a really hard time opening my mouth unless I'm certain I know what I'm talking about.  Not the best approach for learning to speak a foreign language.

While I wasn't that good at speaking, I could read and write somewhat competently.  I've lost a lot of that now, since it's been....umm....over 20 years since I actively studied it... Eek.  But some of it's starting to come back to me, since some of my blogging friends post in French, and it's fun to try to read their posts before resorting to a translation.  And of course, French is used so much in cooking and baking.  This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe is a good example.  Dharmagirl of bliss: towards a delicious life picked Tarte Noire for us to make this week.  Noire, meaning black, refers to the dark color of this elegant chocolate tart.  

It wasn't until I was talking with Nancy on Twitter that I realized that this tart recipe is quite similar to the Chocolate-Crunched Caramel Tart that we made last fall.  It's just the ganache layer and crust, without any other distractions.  Because of that, Dorie recommends using your favorite chocolate, since it will really stand out.  I went with Scharffen Berger 62%, which I really enjoy eating plain (and I can get the 6oz packages for $4.50 at my grocery store, so the price isn't as outrageous as it could be).  The filling is simple to make--cream, chocolate, and softened butter.  

For the crust, I went out on my own.  I've made Dorie's Sweet Tart Crust a number of times, and like it.  But I couldn't resist making this tart with my new favorite crust.  It's the one that Alice Medrich uses for most of the tarts in Pure Dessert, including the Lebni Tart I made recently.  The recipe uses melted butter and the dough is simply pressed into the tart pan and baked, no fussing with chilling or pulling out the food processor.  And it tastes fabulous.  Once the tart crust was baked and cooled, I filled it with the ganache.  I actually didn't refrigerate it at all, but the filling set up nicely at room temperature.

The verdict?  Yum.  This tart didn't last long around here.  Unlike the chocolate caramel version, it was eagerly devoured by all the members of our household, since it didn't have nuts.  In fact, I've already been asked by Brianna when I'm going to make it again. =)  The great thing is, it's so easy to make, it probably will make an appearance again soon.  It looks so elegant--I love the shiny surface of the tart.  This would make an simple yet impressive dessert for guests (if I can find any willing to brave the mess that is my home).  

Want to try this tart for yourself?  Head on over to dharmagirl's blog for the recipe.  The tart crust I used can be found in this recipe for Alice Medrich's Lebni Tart.  To see what everyone else did this week, check out the TWD Leave Your Links page for this week.  

Friday, July 2, 2010

The early bird gets the worm

I’ve always been more of a morning person than a night owl. College was the one exception, where I did stay up late.  But that was only because I had homework and other stuff to get done, not because I wanted to. Given the choice between staying up late to finish something or getting up early to do it, I’ll pick early almost every time. I just think better in the morning. Frequently, I’ll be trying to work on a blog post in the evening, and the words just won’t work for me. But when I return to it the next morning, things flow much better.

Morning is a great time to bake, too, since then you get to eat things fresh from the oven. =)  A lot of my early morning baking sessions are quick things, like muffins or scones.  For more involved things, like yeast doughs, I'll often start things the day before and finish in the morning.  I can shape dough before I go to bed, let it proof in the fridge overnight, and be able to get it baked a lot sooner the next morning  thanks to the advance preparation.  And sometimes I just need to finish up a more involved project--this cake is a good example. I baked the layers in the evening, and left them to cool overnight. The next morning I made the frosting and assembled the cake.

While I frequently take baked goods to work, I also bake cakes (or other requested desserts ) for everyone’s birthdays. As with family birthdays, the birthday girl or boy gets to pick what kind. This most recent cake was for my boss’s birthday. She likes chocolate cake, and is a bit of a kid at heart. When I was asking her what she wanted, she said that she would like a “Dirt Cake.” At the time, the extent of my knowledge about dirt cakes was that they involved chocolate (usually crumbled Oreos) and gummy worms. But I figured between the internet and advice from my 7-year-old, I could come up with something good.

I had some thoughts on what I wanted to make, but started off by looking up a couple recipes online. That’s when I discovered that dirt cake doesn’t actually have any cake in it! It’s mainly Oreos, cream cheese, chocolate pudding, and whipped cream. And of course, the gummy worms. I wanted an actual cake. It occurred to me that the perfect cake recipe for this application is one that I look at all the time--the cover cake from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking From My Home to Yours. It’s designed to be decorated with crumbs, so I figured it would work nicely.  And I've made it before (when it was chosen for TWD), so I knew it would be tasty.

For the filling and frosting, I wanted something different than the frosting that accompanies the cake recipe.  Since dirt cake traditionally uses chocolate pudding, I was looking for something light in texture and creamy, not to mention chocolately.  I decided to go with one of my recent favorite discoveries, chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream.  I've made Swiss meringue buttercream a bunch of times, and in different flavors, but it wasn't until I made these cupcakes for J's birthday that I made a chocolate version.  It's really yummy. =)

The cake is pretty straightforward to make.  The cake recipe makes two layers.  After they are cooled, you cut each in half so you end up with a total of four layers.  One is crumbled up to be used for decoration.  One of the remaining layers is placed on the serving plate and topped with a thick layer of frosting.  I put it in the freezer for about 10 minutes to let the frosting get very firm before adding the next layer.  Layer number two is also topped with frosting and chilled.  Once the third layer is on top, the whole cake (top and sides) are covered with frosting.  Then the reserved crumbs are gently pressed onto the top and sides of the cake.  Last, but certain not least, the gummy worms are added to the top of the cake.  Brianna and Gillian really enjoyed helping with that part of the assembly.  I also had to make sure I had enough worms so they could each sample some. =)

The verdict?  The cake turned out great, and was enjoyed by the birthday girl and everyone else who tried it.  I had no idea so many people liked gummy worms.  I like the texture of the Swiss meringue buttercream with the cake.  And the crumbs definitely looked appropriately dirt-like.  I have a feeling this one will be making more appearances around here, since Brianna and Gillian were very excited by it.  

If you'd like to try the cake for yourself, you can find the recipe here on the NPR website.  And here's my version of the frosting:

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream
(adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

120g (4 large) egg whites
150g (5.25 oz) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
340g (12 oz/3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into large pieces and softened
285g (10 oz) bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature

Put the egg whites, sugar and pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer bowl and place it over a pan of simmering water.  Whisk the mixture constantly until it registers 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer.  The sugar will be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream.  Remove the bowl from the heat.

Attache the bowl to the stand mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.  Add the butter a piece or two at a time, beating until smooth.  Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes.  During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.  Then on medium speed, gradually beat in the vanilla, then the melted chocolate.