Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

Anyone who has spent any time with my family knows that we specialize in witty banter littered with obscure cultural references and movie quotes. One of the best parts about being reunited with any one of my siblings is that we always fall into conversing almost entirely in movie quotes. All of us have a knack for remembering even the most obscure quotes. Apparently, this is very much a hereditary trait because Emma seems to possess it as well.

For example, once a week we head up to Chick-fil-a to enjoy breakfast. The night before, the Chick-fil-A operator will post a password on their facebook page that we must repeat in order to receive the free entree. The kids very much enjoy not only eating out for breakfast once a week, but the thrill that comes to having the "secret knowledge" in the form of this password. It's been a fun little family tradition for the past year.

Anyway, this past Monday we headed up for breakfast and my friend Susan was behind the counter. Lucy and I repeated the phrase and then Susan bent down to be eye-level with Emma and asked her, "Do you know the secret password, Emma?" To which Emma responded maniacally: "The password? I'll tell you what the password is! The password is 'Don't ask the leader for the password!' Got it?"

Susan looked very confused but I understood the reference immediately (since it's, you know, my thing) and explained: "Have you ever seen The Secret Life of Pets? It's a quote from that movie." Emma, meanwhile, continued to giggle gleefully: "Yeah! It was so funny when that crazy bunny said that!"

Another incident occurred at the dinner table recently when Emma suddenly looked up from poking gingerly at her chicken and asked:  "Mommy, what does 'fell into despair' mean?"

"It means to be really, really sad. Where did you hear that from?"

Emma pokes at her dinner in disgust again, "In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast fell into despair because he thought no one would love him...but Belle did!!"

Silence followed for a few moments as the rest of us went back to eating our dinner. Emma continued frowning at her plate before turning to me once more: "Mommy? I just fell into despair because I don't want to eat my dinner."

Beauty and the Beast has been quite the hit around here - and I'm referring to the magnificent, old-school cartoon, not the new, glitzy version although we liked that too. Lucy has sweetly requested me to rock her each night while singing a certain famous song from the film, only she calls it "Beauty and the Beach". This cracks Matthew up to no end.

We'll see if either Matthew or Lucy also develop the ability to remember obscure quotes and references. So far it's not looking good for Matthew as he has displayed an unfortunate inability to remember even some of the simplest of song lyrics - or at least to remember them incorrectly and then insist vehemently that his botched version is in fact correct! That comes from my Mother, who lulled me to sleep during my younger years by singing classic nursery songs with completely mutilated lyrics, some of which I did not discover until I was ridiculed for my rendition by my wards while babysitting in high school. There's nothing like being mocked by a three-year-old.

Continuing with the randomness that has been this current posting, let's shift topics and talk about chocolate cake. For my birthday, I usually am in charge of making my own cake and I wouldn't have it any other way. I like to choose something different, new, challenging, and perhaps a little more in tune with my personal tastes than those of my little family. I have been drooling over this recipe for Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake ever since I saw it in an issue of Cook's Illustrated many years ago while rocking and nursing a newborn Matthew. Alas, I was unable to run to the kitchen to make it because my husband, for some strange, inexpressible reason, holds a deep disdain for all things mousse and pudding. Although his favorite cake is this Chocolate Mousse Cake. I didn't say he had a logical reason for hating it. But, because I did not want to be stuck eating a whole cake by myself, I saved the recipe in my files and put off making it until I came across it again recently. My birthday seemed like a perfect opportunity to make it and Paul was a good sport about agreeing to at least try it.

This cake is pretty amazing and certainly worthy of a show-stopping ending to a beautiful holiday meal or for when you're really trying to impress some guests. The first layer is a rich, dark chocolate flourless chocolate cake, followed by a fluffy dark chocolate mouse. The entire thing is finished with a layer of not-too-sweet white chocolate mousse, which provides a nice contrast to the richness of the previous layers. Chocolate shavings make the perfect garnish for this beautiful dessert.

There are multiple steps to this recipe but it was all really, really simple. I did a lot of washing of dishes in between the making of each layer, but that was probably the most difficult part of the whole process. Otherwise, it came together way more easily than your typical layer cake AND had the added benefit of being able to be made ahead of time and just kept in fridge until dessert time! I made mine a day in advance, saving both myself and Paul the stress of baking on the actual day.

This cake is exquisite. It is meant to be eaten slowly, pausing to savor each bite in between. It also should be cut into thin slices since it is a very rich cake. Coffee is the perfect accompaniment. I just loved it - and the kids did as well! My sister Sophie was in town for my birthday and I believe her exact comments were: "Ommm...mmmm...yumm....yum...yum!" Paul did give it a try, but really couldn't finish his piece. He just doesn't get along with mousse.

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake
from Cook's Illustrated

For the Bottom Layer:
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, plus extra for greasing pan
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon instant espresso powder
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs, separated
Pinch salt
⅓ cup light brown sugar

For the Middle Layer:
2 tablespoons cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
5 tablespoons hot water
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1½ cups cold heavy cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt

For the Top Layer:
¾ teaspoon powdered gelatin
1 tablespoon water
6 ounces (1 cup) white chocolate chips
1½ cups cold heavy cream

Make the Bottom Layer: Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan that is at least 3 inches high.

Melt the butter, chocolate and espresso powder in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla and egg yolks; set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt at medium speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Add half of the brown sugar and beat until combined, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining brown sugar and beat at high speed until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer, scraping down the sides halfway through. Whisk one-third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining egg whites until no white streaks remain. Carefully transfer the batter to the prepared springform pan, gently smoothing the top with an offset spatula.

Bake until the cake has risen, is firm around the edges, and the center has just set but is still soft (the center of cake will spring back after pressing gently with your finger), 13 to 18 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely, about 1 hour. (The cake will collapse as it cools.) Do not remove the cake from the pan.

Make the Middle Layer: Whisk together the cocoa powder and hot water in a small bowl and set aside. Melt the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream, granulated sugar and salt on medium speed until the mixture begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, 15 to 60 seconds.

Whisk the cocoa powder mixture into the melted chocolate until smooth. Whisk one-third of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining whipped cream until no white streaks remain. Spoon the mousse into the springform pan over the cooled cake and gently tap the pan on counter 3 times to remove any large air bubbles; smooth the top with an offset spatula. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes while preparing the top layer.

Make the Top Layer: In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water; let stand for at least 5 minutes. Place the white chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring ½ cup of the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and add the gelatin mixture, whisking until fully dissolved. Pour the cream mixture over the white chocolate chips and whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is completely smooth. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes (the mixture will thicken slightly).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the remaining 1 cup heavy cream at medium speed until it begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, 15 to 60 seconds. Whisk one-third of the whipped cream into the white chocolate mixture to lighten. Using a rubber spatula, fold the remaining whipped cream into the white chocolate mixture until no white streaks remain. Spoon the white chocolate mousse into the pan over the middle layer. Smooth the top with an offset spatula. Return the cake to the refrigerator and chill until set, at least 2½ hours.

The cake can be made up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 45 minutes before releasing it from the pan. Garnish the top of cake with chocolate curls or dust with cocoa, if desired. Run a thin knife between the cake and side of the springform pan, then remove the side of pan. Cut into slices and serve. (For clean slices, dip a sharp knife into hot water and wipe dry between cuts.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Blueberry Boy Bait

Mother's Day was so incredible this year. While the weather turned out to be a gloomy, chilly day, I was so pleased and touched at the amount of effort that both my kids and most especially my husband put into ensuring that I enjoyed a wonderful day. On Saturday afternoon while Lucy napped, Paul took Emma and Matthew out to do some "planning" for Mother's Day, a gift in itself because it allowed me the opportunity to take a much-needed nap while they were out in an effort to get rid of a cold that began bugging me at the end of the week.

On their outing, as related to me by Paul the next day, they went to several stores where Paul tried to gently guide the selections of the children regarding the food, drink, and presents for Mother's Day. First, he took them to the grocery store and instructed them to think of something "that Mommy loves to eat for breakfast." Emma came up with the idea of a "rainbow fruit salad" and Matthew, who also loves fruit, was very much on board with this. The two of them went about selecting a little of every fruit in the produce section - melons, peaches, kiwi, strawberries, mangoes, and grapes. Paul drew the line when Matthew tried to sneak a whole coconut into the cart, insisting "Mommy loves coconut!" Very true, but Daddy certainly does not love the process of breaking one open.

Next, they moved on to selecting the main course for breakfast. Matthew insisted that I love nothing more than the Egg McMuffin sandwiches at McDonald's, which everyone knows is my favorite restaurant (extreme sarcasm here). Bottom line is, Matthew really enjoys those sandwiches so he found the sausage, muffins, cheese, and eggs and the breakfast was planned. Paul also ensure that we had some good coffee beans on hand. And Bourbon Cream.

Next, Paul took the kids through several stores in search of a gift. The kids were really into this part of the errand and frowned and disagreed with nearly every single one of Paul's suggestions. Finally, while perusing a popular department store, Matthew stopped short at the mannequin display at the front of the Misses section and gazed up at the gorgeous purple floral taffeta dress the middle figure was showcasing. Instantly, both him and Emma decided that I had to have that dress.

Paul told them to look for a small in the racks - "Look for an S on the tag, Matthew!" Matthew desperately searched through the racks, but could only find "a size s" in the blue pattern. He really thought I'd love those purple flowers. Not to be defeated, Paul checked the size of the dress on the mannequin and, sure enough, it was a small. So, Paul, Matthew, and Emma - in front of the entire store - stripped the mannequin of that beautiful dress and bought it as a gift for me. And I loved it. It is so beautiful and fits like a glove. I felt so loved.

The kids also picked out cards for me and signed them proudly with their names. Each card selected displayed the individual personalities of the each child, but Emma's was particularly perfect.

Matthew also gave me a Marigold that he grew at school for me. So beautiful and he was SO proud.

Anyway, Paul worked so hard all day to cook me breakfast (with a little bit of help from the kids) as well as grill some Tri-tip steak for dinner. Since it was cold, we just chilled inside and I was feeling a bit under the weather anyway so the rest was appreciated. We took the puppy for a walk together when the sun finally made an appearance in the evening. Later, we enjoyed ice cream cones and a slice of Blueberry Boy Bait.

Paul tempted me with bakery cakes and pie for my Mother's Day dessert, but I do love to bake and told him that a simple cake incorporating fruit somehow would be perfect. I turned to an old recipe I had for Blueberry Boy Bait, a recipe named by the 15-year-old winner of the 1954 Pillsbury Bakeoff for the extreme effect this rich, buttery, blueberry-studded treat had on boys. After eating it a few times, there is no doubt in my mind that this treat is irresistible to not only boys, but girls, babies, and even Golden Retriever puppies, as evidenced by how badly my dog was drooling at my feet as I popped this out of its pan to cool. A simple cake to make since it uses no special ingredients or laborious techniques, it can be enjoyed both as a dessert with ice cream or whipped cream or as a wonderful accompaniment to coffee in the morning. Fantastic. The perfect, sweet ending to a wonderful day spent with my beautiful family.

Blueberry Boy Bait
from Cook's Country

For the Cake:
2 cups plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (if frozen, do not defrost)

For the Topping:
1/2 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (again, do not defrost)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 13 by 9-inch baking pan.

Whisk 2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl. With electric mixer, beat softened butter and sugars on medium-high speed until fluffy, a couple of minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until just incorporated and scraping down bowl as needed. Reduce speed to medium and beat in one-third of flour mixture until incorporated; followed by half of the milk. Beat in half of remaining flour mixture, then the remaining milk, and finally the remaining flour mixture. Toss blueberries with remaining one teaspoon flour. Using rubber spatula, gently fold in blueberries. Spread batter into prepared pan.

Scatter blueberries over top of batter. Stir sugar and cinnamon together in small bowl and sprinkle over batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in he center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Cake can be stored in airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Amazing Black Bean Burgers

As I write this post, the children are enjoying a uncharacteristic afternoon nap while I sit with a large cup of coffee on the newly constructed although not-quite-finished window seat in my kitchen. Since I was a very young girl, I have always been in love with window seats. I think part of this stemmed from my love of reading and my thought that a window seat would provide the perfect location to curl up with a good book, particularly if the weather outside was stormy. At one point, I even attempted to construct my own window seat in my little room in Montana out of cardboard boxes and pillows from my bed. The experiment failed, but my love of window seats remained. Fast forward many years later when Paul and I were looking for a home to purchase, one of the items on my list was always whether the home contained a window seat. Paul made me label it a "nonessential" but I never gave up hope of having one someday.

Then Paul decided to build me one. He took out the bay door leading to the outside and replaced it with a large window and began constructing a trapezoidal-shaped seat complete with a lifting bench for hidden storage. It is functional at this point and is waiting on a couple more coats of stain as well as the trim pieces to be installed - the project reserved for this weekend - but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying it even now! There Paul goes again, making all my dreams come true!

As a reward for all his hard work as my carpenter over the past week, I made Paul some pretty fantastic burgers. Since you've already read the title, you are probably fully aware that the burgers I made did not contain any meat. If you are a regular reader, you also know that Paul, my mountain man, needs his beef. Given his choice, it would be meat and meat alone that would sustain him. So, it might seem a cruel trick to "reward" him with meatless, black-bean burgers for all his hard work and dedication. But rest assured, that these are no ordinary bean burgers! These are not wet, not too sloppy, they have a bit of texture reminiscent of actual used-to-say-"moo" burgers. I have always liked the idea of meatless burgers in theory, but every recipe I have tried before turned out to be a bit messy, a bit disappointing, and quite a bit bland. In other words, they left me craving the real thing and far from satisfied. This recipe, my friends, changes all that. This was a veggie burger that even meat-loving Paul found incredible.

The secret to the success of these bean burgers is drying out the beans before making your patty mixture to ensure that any extra moisture is removed. Bread crumbs, eggs, and ground cashews are also used in the patty mixture to create a textured, cohesive mixture that will stay together when formed and cooked. Seasoning in the form of sauteed onions, poblano peppers, cojita cheese, and chipotle chilies are also thrown in. The mixture formed beautiful patties that truly did stay together when cooked but also formed these wonderful charred bits on the edges that were wonderfully flavorful and truly reminiscent of a char-grilled hamburger. Stick the patties on a brioche bun with chipotle mayonnaise, fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and thinly sliced dill pickles and these made an incredible meal. The recipe makes a big batch, so we had theses two days in a row. On the second day, when Paul came home from work, the first thing he asked was if we were having "those awesome bean burgers" again. That is the single greatest compliment those burgers could have received!

Give these a try! They can be grilled outdoors or cooked on the stovetop in a cast-iron pan or another skillet. Either way, be prepared to be blown away.

The Best Black Bean Burgers with Chipotle Mayo
from Serious Eats

For the Burger Patties:
2 (15 ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 large poblano pepper, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce, finely chopped, plus 1 teaspoon sauce
3/4 cup roasted cashews
1/2 cup finely crumbled feta or cotija cheese
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 whole egg
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sliced Monterey Jack Cheese

For Serving:
6-8 hearty hamburger buns (I LOVE brioche buns)
Chipotle Mayonnaise (recipe below)
Sliced dill pickles
Sliced Tomato
Iceberg Lettuce

Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread black beans in a single layer on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Place in oven and roast until beans are mostly split open and outer skins are beginning to get crunchy, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

While beans roast, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and poblano and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add chipotle chili and sauce and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer mixture to a large bowl.

Place cashews in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until chopped into pieces no larger than 1/3-inch, about 12 short pulses. Add to bowl with onions and peppers.

When beans are slightly cooled, transfer to food processor. Add cheese. Pulse until beans are roughly chopped (the largest pieces should be about 1/3 of a full bean in size). Transfer to bowl with onion/pepper mixture. Add mayonnaise, egg, and bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Fold together gently but thoroughly with hands. Patty mixture can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days at this stage.

To cook on the grillLight 2/3 chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the medium-high setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Form bean mixture into 6 to 8 patties as wide as your burger buns and brush top sides with oil. Place on hot side of grill oiled-side down and cook without moving until first side is well browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Brush tops of burgers with oil. Carefully flip and continue cooking until second side is browned, 3 to 5 minutes longer, topping with cheese if desired.

To cook indoors: Form bean mixture into 6 to 8 patties as wide as your burger buns. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add 4 patties and cook, swirling pan occasionally, until well browned and crisp on first side, about 5 minutes. Carefully flip and cook until second side is browned, about 5 minutes longer, adding cheese if desired. If cooking more than 4 burgers, cook in batches, keeping cooked burgers on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet in a 200°F oven while second batch cooks.

Spread top and bottom buns with chipotle mayonnaise or other condiments as desired. Add toppings to top or bottom bun as desired. Place patties on bottom buns, close burgers, and serve immediately.

Chipotle Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
2 chipotle chiles from 1 can of chipotles in adobo
2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Generous pinch of sugar

Place mayonnaise, sour cream, lime juice, and chipotles in jar of a blender. Puree until smooth and chipotles are completely chopped. Pour into an airtight container, cover, and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Milk Bar's Birthday Layer Cake

Since I am still playing catch up from my long absence from blogging, bear with me as I briefly recount the celebration of my eldest daughter's birthday nearly two months ago. Emma Rosie turned four at the end of March and she could not have been more excited about it. For weeks leading up to her big day, she would shove four fingers in my face and proclaim: "FOUR. FOUR fingers because that's how old I'm going to be! Then I can go to SCHOOL!" She has been looking forward to growing up since the day she was born, as evidenced by her ability to speak in sentences when under a year and her very "teenage"emotional tendencies during her toddlerhood. Emma has never ceased to amaze me with her intellig everything. This has proved to be particularly frustrating for her older brother who would like nothing better than to take charge over his younger sister and teach her a thing or two, but Emma has always refused to be patronized by poor Matthew. Thankfully, Lucy has proven to be a much more willing pupil.
ence and her ability to absorb

A classic memory demonstrating both Emma's sassy personality and her innate intelligence is when we were trying to teach Matthew how to read using the little Reader Rabbit books. Matthew was reading a book called "The Hat Fell on the Mat" and Emma, who always adores being read to, settled in next to him to enjoy the tale. She very quickly became frustrated as Matthew struggled to sound out each and every word. The story read like this:

"This is Ann, Sis.
See the hat. Sit in it, Sis.
Sis is in the hat. See Sis sit in the hat.
The hat fell.
The hat fell on Mat...."

Now, just imagine poor Matthew, newly reading, struggling through this epic tale at a rate that would test the nerves of even the most patient of people. Emma became increasingly agitated at how long it was taking Matthew to spit out each and every word. When he got hung up on the following word for the umpteenth time, Emma had had enough: "See the ha-ha-ha-h-h-h-ha...."

She cried out in frustration: "HAT, Matthew! HAT! It says HAT!"

Even though Matthew is a pretty fantastic reader now (two years later), Emma is still wary whenever Matthew volunteers to read her a book.

While her sassiness and smarts cause many, many problems for us from time to time, Emma wouldn't be Emma without those facets of her personality. I wouldn't change a thing about her. She certainly keeps me on my toes and challenges my patience at every moment, but parenting her also has had so many rewarding moments. I live for the times where she cuddles in close to me on the couch and whispers passionately, "I love you, Mommy!"

I was excited that Emma's birthday fell on a Saturday this year. Paul had to be at a conference all day, but my dear friend Jen (who is also Lucy's godmother) was coming up from Pittsburgh to spend the day with us. We were going to take the kids to see the new Beauty and the Beast movie then out to eat at Chick-fil-a (Emma's favorite restaurant). Cake, presents, and a much-requested game of hide-and-seek were also on the agenda. It was sure to be a fun day!

However, the morning of Emma's birthday, I woke up with a super-high fever, chills, body aches, and extreme nausea. I hadn't felt that sick in months. I tried to get up and move about but just going up and down the stairs was enough to thoroughly exhaust me. When I took fever reducers, I threw them right back up. Paul came home from the conference to be with the kids and I headed to bed where I stayed for the next three days. Luckily for Emma, Jen and Pat still spent the day with them and took them to the movie so the day was still special for her. I don't think she even noticed I wasn't there. While the birthday girl was perfectly content with this sudden wrench in my plans, my Mother's heart was full of guilt and self-loathing. How could I not muster enough the strength to be with my daughter on her birthday? I stumbled downstairs to watch her blow the candles out on her cake and then went back to sleep.

My single contribution to Emma's 4th birthday was her confetti cake from the Milk Bar Cookbook. It was per her request since she loves everything and anything with sprinkles and we had actually made it together in the days leading up to her birthday. She tasted each and every component as I assembled the cake and everything received her stamp of approval. The finished product was no exception. Emma lingered over each and every bite. She ensured that not a single crumb of cake nor a smear of frosting remained on her plate. She loved it. In the days following her birthday, she had a piece of cake for dessert each evening and enjoyed it just as much as she did that first day, declaring after cleaning her plate once again: "Mommy that was a very wonderful cake that you made!" Although the cake was my gift to her, she gave me the greatest of gifts by loving it so much. It gave me a little consolation for not being physically present to celebrate her birthday.

Emma has great tastes because this is no ordinary funfetti cake. It's sweet, it's salty, it is absolutely sinfully indulgent and conjures up plenty of childhood memories of themed birthday parties with balloons, streamers, and colorful funfetti cupcakes as the crowning dessert. It's a cake that just about everyone will love and it was certainly the simplest of all the milk bar cakes to make. The only non-pantry staple in the cake was the citric acid (easily found at Walmart) and the clear vanilla extract - something I skipped entirely and just used regular. It was mainly to make the cake and the frosting as white as possible and I was pretty sure that Emma did not care about that in the least. We made this easily in an afternoon with very little hassle. Emma is already requesting it again for her birthday next year and I will be more than happy to oblige.

Birthday Layer Cake
from the Milk Bar Cookbook

For the Birthday Cake Crumb:
½ cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1½ tablespoons light brown sugar
¾ cup (90 grams) cake flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles
¼ cup (40 grams) grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon clear vanilla extract

For the Birthday Cake:
4 tablespoons (55 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup (60 grams) vegetable shortening
1¼ cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons (50 grams) light brown sugar
3 eggs
½ cup (110 grams) buttermilk
⅓ cup (65 grams) grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons clear vanilla extract
2 cups (245 grams) cake flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup (50 grams) + 2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles, divided

For the Birthday Cake Frosting:
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup (50 grams) vegetable shortening
2 ounces (55 grams) cream cheese
1 tablespoon glucose
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 tablespoon clear vanilla extract
1¼ cups (200 grams) powdered sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch baking powder
Pinch citric acid

For the Birthday Cake Soak:
¼ cup (55 grams) milk
1 teaspoon clear vanilla extract

Special Equipment:
Quarter sheet pan
1 (6-inch) cake ring
2 strips acetate, each 3 inches wide and 20 inches long

To Make the Birthday Cake Crumb:

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper or Silpat.
Combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, salt and sprinkles in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until well combined. Add the oil and vanilla and mix on low speed until small clusters form.

Spread the clusters on the prepared sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes, breaking up the clusters once or twice during baking. The crumbs should be slightly moist to the touch; they will dry and harden as they cool. Allow the crumbs to cool completely on the pan before using. The birthday cake crumbs can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 week, or in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 1 month.

To Make the Birthday Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a quarter sheet pan with non-stick cooking spray and line with parchment paper, or with Silpat.

In a measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, grapeseed oil, and vanilla extract.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ¼ cup of the sprinkles.
Combine the butter, shortening, and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and mix on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once more.

On low speed, gradually pour in the buttermilk mixture. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat for 4 to 6 minutes, until the mixture has nearly doubled in size and is completely homogenous (don’t rush this step!). Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
On low speed, gradually add the flour mixture and mix just until the batter comes together, about 45 to 60 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and give the batter a final mix with a rubber spatula.

Spread the cake batter in an even layer in the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles evenly on top of the batter. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes; when you gently poke the edge of the cake with your finger, the cake should bounce back slightly, and the center should no longer be jiggly. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely. The cooled cake can be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 5 days.

To Make the Birthday Cake Frosting:

In a small bowl, whisk together the glucose, corn syrup and vanilla extract.

Combine the butter, shortening and cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

With the mixer on its lowest speed, stream in the glucose mixture. Increase the mixer to medium-high speed and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture is silky smooth and glossy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Add the powdered sugar, salt, baking powder and citric acid, and mix on low speed just to incorporate them into the batter. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the frosting is completely smooth. Use the frosting immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. (Bring to room temperature before using in the recipe.)

To Assemble:

Put a piece of parchment or Silpat on the counter. Invert the cake onto it and peel off the parchment or Silpat from the bottom of the cake. Use the cake ring to stamp out 2 circles from the cake. These are your top 2 cake layers. The remaining cake “scrap” will come together to make the bottom layer of the cake.

Layer 1 (the Bottom): Clean the cake ring and place it in the center of a sheet pan lined with clean parchment or a Silpat. Use 1 strip of acetate to line the inside of the cake ring.
Put the cake scraps in the ring and use the back of your hand to tamp the scraps together into a flat even layer.

In a small bowl, whisk together the milk and vanilla extract for the birthday cake soak. Using a pastry brush, brush half of the soak over the top of the cake.

Using the back of a spoon, spread one-fifth of the frosting in an even layer over the cake.

Sprinkle one-third of the birthday cake crumbs evenly over the top of the frosting. use the back of your hand to press them gently into the frosting.

Use the back of a spoon to spread a second fifth of the frosting as evenly as possible over the crumbs.

Layer 2 (The Middle): With your index finger, gently tuck the second strip of acetate between the cake ring and the top 1/4 inch of the first strip of acetate, so that you have a clear ring of acetate 5 to 6 inches tall. Set one of the cake rounds (the more imperfect of the two) on top of the frosting, brush with the remaining soak, and repeat the process for Layer 1 (a fifth of frosting, a third of crumbs, and another fifth of frosting).

Layer 3 (the Top): Nestle the remaining cake round into the frosting. Cover the top of the cake with the last fifth of the frosting. Garnish the frosting with the remaining birthday crumbs.

Transfer the sheet pan to the freezer and freeze for a minimum of 12 hours to set the cake and filling. (The cake will keep in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.)

At least 3 hours before you are ready to serve the cake, pull the sheet pan out of the freezer and, using your fingers and thumbs, pop the cake out of the cake ring. Gently peel off the acetate and transfer the cake to a platter or cake stand. Let it defrost in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours before slicing and serving. (You can store the cake, wrapped well in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.)

Friday, May 5, 2017

Chinese Chili and Scallion Noodles

Today, Matthew came home proudly displaying a Dairy Queen gift card that had been presented to him by his school for being a "Caring Crusader." I congratulated him but truly had no idea what this meant, so I texted one of my friends who has older children at the school and is certainly more "in-the-know" than me. Apparently, each month the teacher of each class nominates a student that shows an act of generosity or kindness to receive the Caring Crusader award. The names of all students are then entered into a drawing and three of the students win a gift card. I was so pleased to hear that Matthew had won an award for being kind! I know he was nominated earlier in the year as well and he was super excited to actually win the gift card this month! I told him that nothing, not even the highest marks on his exams, makes me more proud than hearing he is behaving virtuously and benevolently.

Of course, my pride and happiness in Matthew's award-winning conduct was short-lived. When I opened up the folder of my "caring crusader" to peruse his papers and homework for the day, I discovered a note from his teacher detailing how Matthew had a few behavior problems earlier in the day - particularly with being a bit unkind to another student. The irony was not lost on me. While he certainly is capable of moments of great kindness and virtue, my son is by no means a perfect child. We're not canonizing him yet.

Speaking of imperfect children, Emma has been very chatty lately. She is normally quite talkative, but has really been stepping up her game lately. Her most frequented topics of conversation include my infancy. More specifically, what she was like during my infancy. She doesn't quite get the concept that her and I have no always coexisted. She understands that Lucy grew in my tummy and was born and actually remembers a time before Lucy joined us, but there is a bit of a mental disconnect when it comes to understanding that her, Matthew, Daddy, and I did not all grow up at the same time. While driving home after dropping Matthew off at school one morning, Emma was being very quiet and contemplative in the backseat. I glanced at her in the review mirror, saw a very serious expression on her face, and asked her what she was thinking.

Her response was: "I was thinking about how we had a lot of babies."

With confusion, I asked: "When did we have a lot of babies?"

"I mean when I was a baby, and Lucy was a baby and Matthew was a baby and you were a baby and Daddy was a baby. We had a lot of babies when we were all babies. That's a lot. I don't know how we take-ed good care of all of them."

(Note: The "Take-ed" was not a typo...Emma doesn't have a fluent grasp of the English language yet, especially when it comes to the past tense!)

Emma has also been contemplating heaven a lot as of late. She's starting to make the connection that anything and anyone who dies is reunited with Jesus in heaven. Dead worm on the sidewalk? Don't worry, Mommy, the worm is in heaven! Dead flower in the vase? Don't worry, the flower went to heaven! This morning as she was putting her coat on, she suddenly burst out with: "Mommy! I cannot WAIT to get to heaven to be with Riley!.....**long pause**.....and Jesus!"

Nice to know that Jesus is a distant second to our dead feline in Emma's book. I'm sure he understands.

As much as I love talking about my crazy kids, let's start talking about these Asian noodles because they are truly something memorable. I made these on a whim with my sister Sophie to go with the Teriyaki meatballs we were also making and I actually think the noodles stole the show. They're a little sweet, a little salty, and have a perfect spicy kick. In addition to being completely, addictively delicious, the noodles are made with pantry ingredients that you probably already have on hand and take less than 20 minutes start to finish. We also really didn't need the meatballs - the noodles are filling enough on their own or with a fried egg served over the top for some protein. Not convinced by the egg thing? Try it - it goes really great!

Sophie and I raved and raved over this meal and we both could barely wait for dinner the next day so we could inhale the leftovers. It was a little hot for the kids, so I would probably serve Chinese pepper flakes on the side next time to make it a little more palatable for them. If you love traditional Chinese flavors, you'll love this meal.

Chinese Chili and Scallion Noodles
from Milk Street

12 ounces Udon Noodles, Lo Mein, or Spaghetti (I used spaghetti)
5 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup neutral oil (vegetable, grapeseed, or canola)
5 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 1/4 teaspoons red pepper flakes
12 scallions, white and green parts separated and sliced thinly on the bias
4 fried eggs, for serving (optional, but yummy!)

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook the noodles until al dente. Drain and return to the pot.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil.

In a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the vegetable oil, sesame seeds, and red pepper flakes and toast until fragrant and the sesame seeds begin to brown, about 3-5 minutes. Off heat, stir in the scallion whites, then transfer the oil mixture to the bowl with the soy sauce mixture.

Add the sauce to the cooked pasta and toss to coat well. Let sit, covered, for another minute or two, and then toss again. Add the scallion greens, reserving some for garnish, and toss again. Divide among serving bowls and top each serving with a fried egg.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies

We just wrapped up a fun week-long visit from my little sister Sophie. She took some vacation time to come visit her crazy nieces and nephew (and her big sister too!). We had a grand week filled with great food, lots of laughter, a bit of wine, and too much chocolate. I've missed having my little sister around and I hope that she comes back to visit soon.

One of the highlights of Sophie's visit was getting the chance to clown around in her brand-new T-Rex costume, a gift recently bestowed upon her by our younger sister Adrienne. There have been tons of videos and pictures of adults performing various activities while dressed in this or a similar costume - and for good reason. Even the most mundane activities become hilarious when wearing a dinosaur costume - running, jumping, unloading the dishwasher, reading a book, etc. The major downside of wearing the costume, in addition to how awkward and cumbersome even the most basic movements can be, is that it feels as if you are breathing in a plastic bag and dangerously close to suffocating. None of this stopped us from running around outside dressed as a giant dinosaur while wrestling the kids and making a fool of ourselves in front of our neighbors.

The BEST part of our dress-up fun was pranking our poor puppy. I wasn't sure how Peyton would react to me dressed up as a dinosaur, so Sophie and I decided to surprise him. Sophie ran ahead while I awkwardly tried to make my way to the front of our house where Peyton was leashed. Sophie petted Peyton who enthusiastically accepted her affection until I came into view. Then, his ears perked up, his entire body tensed, and he began to growl at the giant reptile standing on the edge of his yard. As I stomped forward, nearly tripping on our brick landscaping as I did so, Peyton took a beeline for safety only to be stopped short by the length of his leash. He continued to claw desperately at the ground as I continued to march forward. Finally, he gave up and just growled, the leash still pulled as taut as it could go, and I retreated back because I was afraid that he would actually attack and possibly rip Sophie's costume. When we finally revealed that I was inside the costume, with a little help from Sophie because I had no idea how to escape from that costume, Peyton immediately ran to greet me when he saw my face. His relief was unmistakable. It was the most hilarious thing - Sophie and I almost passed out from laughing so hard. Good to know that my dog is absolutely worthless against giant reptiles.

Later in the week, we hosted a couple extra kids. A friend of mine was going out of town with her husband and asked us to take two of her children for the few days they would be gone. The eldest child, an eleven-year-old girl, came prepared with a couple of different cookbooks because she knew how much I love to bake. We came up with a couple items to make and one of those treats were these Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies. I know cookie dough is not everyone's favorite thing, but I personally am the person who buys Cookie Dough Ice Cream from the store and just picks all the cookie dough bits out. Soft, salty, sweet, and buttery - I can't get enough of it. Place a layer of cookie dough on top of a chewy, chocolaty brownie and it sounds like you've got a pretty perfect dessert or snack!

These cookies did not disappoint. With plenty of help from my assistant baker, they came together quickly. We did have to wait for them to chill before slicing and serving - definitely the most difficult part of the whole process especially for my mini-assistant who was desperate to try them. I promised that she could eat two of them before bed if she had a bit more patience. Totally worth it.

Surprisingly, these really are not overly sweet. I loved the contrast in texture between the chewy brownie layer and the soft cookie dough layer. They were great chilled, slightly warmed in the microwave, and certainly best eaten slowly while savoring each and every bite with a big glass of milk nearby. The cookie dough alone, being egg-less and completely wonderful on its own, would be a great mix-in for ice cream or a fantastic surprise filling for chocolate cake.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies
from Brown Eyed Baker

For the Brownie Layer:
⅓ cup (28 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa
½ cup + 2 tablespoons (148 ml) boiling water
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
4 tablespoons (57 grams) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup + 2 tablespoons (140 grams) vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2½ cups (496 grams) granulated sugar
1¾ cups (248 grams) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt

For the Cookie Dough Layer:
1 cup (227 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (198 grams) light brown sugar
½ cup (99 grams) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (213 grams) all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped dark chocolate (I used a leftover Easter Bunny - recycling!)

Make the Brownies: Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9×13-inch baking pan with foil, leaving about a one-inch overhang on all sides. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Whisk cocoa powder and boiling water together in a large bowl until smooth. Add the unsweetened chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is melted. Whisk in the melted butter and oil (the mixture may look curdled at this point, that’s okay!). Add the eggs, yolks, and vanilla extract, and whisk until smooth and homogeneous. Whisk in the sugar until fully incorporated. Add the flour and salt and mix with a rubber spatula until combined.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread into an even layer. Bake until a toothpick inserted halfway between edge and center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool completely.

Prepare the Cookie Dough: Combine the butter and both sugars in a mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cream, vanilla and salt, and mix for another minute or so, until combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour, mixing just until incorporated. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the chopped chocolate.

Spread the cookie dough evenly over the cooled brownies. Refrigerate until the dough is firm, about an hour. Transfer the brownies to a cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut the brownies into squares. The brownies should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or at cool room temperature for up to 1 week.