Milk Bar’s Birthday (or Mother’s Day or Any Day) Cake

Birthday Layer Cake7Christina Tosi from Milk Bar loves classic, sweet, indulgent and at times industrial (oh no!) desserts. At least that is what she claims. I really have my doubts about that. You know, about her actually enjoying the shitty cake that comes out of a mix box tasting of chemicals and sugar. I digress, regardless of her inspiration, Tosi produces fantastic sugary treats that are playful, beautiful and delicious. She seems like a delightful person as well judging by her appearances on Chef’s Table and Mind of a Chef TV shows.

Birthday Cake

The cake batter has not one but three different fats: butter, canola oil and shortening. That must be what helps give it an excellent texture and a very good “fridge life”. It is flavored with vanilla and has a bunch of sprinkles mixed in. I baked it in a quarter sheet pan and let it cool there. Then I used a 6 inch cake ring to cut 2 circles and large “scraps”. The scraps will make the bottom layer. This process is pretty typical of all the cakes in Milk Bar cookbook recipes.

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I love some textural variation in cakes. A big part of why I think most cakes are boring is the uniform texture and lack of crunch. Tosi uses a “crumb” between the layers to add that much needed texture and boosts of flavor. Crumb is very much what it sounds like, made from sugar, fat (canola oil in this birthday cake crumb), flour, salt, baking powder and flavoring. Since this is birthday cake crumb it also has sprinkles mixed in. The mixtures is combined in a stand mixer then baked at 300 F for about 20 minutes. Once it is completely cool it is crunchy, crumbly delicious stuff. I used the extras to mix into a homemade ice cream I made. Very proud of that idea. The ice cream was excellent.

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Frosting is what brings it all together, holds the layers in place and of course it…well it’s frosting. This one is butter, shortening and cream cheese whipped very well. Then you add glucose, corn syrup, vanilla, powdered sugar a pinch of baking powder and a pinch of citric acid. Why those last 2 ingredients? I’m guessing Tosi again is trying to get it sort of close to what a “store frosting” tastes like. Don’t know, but this stuff tastes 100 times better than any crappy store bought frosting.

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To assemble, the fun part, using the 6 inch ring mold and acetate sheets we start layering. The “scraps” in 3 or 4 pieces go in the bottom. The cake gets brushed with a birthday cake soak (really it’s just milk and vanilla). Then goes the frosting, then goes a layer of crumb. Then a layer of cake and the same sequence again. When that is done the cake gets frozen until 3 hours or so before cutting into it. Slip it out of the ring, remove the acetate and place on a cake stand. Let it defrost and come to proper temperature. Slice and serve.

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A distinctive feature of Milk Bar cake is that they are “naked”, no frosting covering the whole thing and sides. Why? Tosi explains it best. Why go through all that hard work with cake and crumb and frosting and then cover the whole thing up! I agree. It is really beautiful, rich and so delicious.  Below is a gratuitous picture of a recent cake I also made based on Tosi’s formulations; chocolate cake with milk crumb and strawberry frosting. This one stayed delicious even after being in the fridge for a week.

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Panforte di Siena with Chocolate and Rum Raisins

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As I type this I am still munching on more of this goodness that i baked about two weeks ago now. This Holiday pastry is a “bread” in as much as “short bread” is bread. It’s a delicious, nutty, spicy and chewy candy almost more reminiscent of Spanish turron than a bread or cookie. Whatever we call it, it is a wonderful and addictive Christmas time treat. It’s origin is Italian, more specifically from Tuscany and the town of Siena. It’s even usually referred to as Panforte di Siena or “strong bread of Siena”.

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As the name indicates this one is a strongly flavored preparation and is best served in thin wedges. So what’s in it this stuff? Nuts; plenty of them; dried fruit; usually including a lot of candied citrus peel; spices, sugar and honey. This recipe is courtesy of the always reliable David Lebovitz and it includes cocoa powder and dark chocolate as well.

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I opted for a combination of hazelnuts and almonds with the balance tilted more towards the hazelnuts. That was a very good choice because of the cocoa and chocolate in the recipe. The combination is a delicious classic. I toasted the hazelnuts and rubbed them in a kitchen towel while they are still warm to get rid of most of the skins.

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To the chopped up nuts, I added the spices (lots of cinnamon in this one, but again, it works great), chopped up candied citron, flour, a decent pinch of salt. I’m not sure why the recipe does not include salt but I think it makes sense to add it. I wanted to include some other dried fruit in the Panforte. I also figured some booze would be nice. So, I soaked about 50 gr of golden raisins in rum for a few hours and subbed those for 50 gr of the candied citron. The instruction to work the dry mixture well with your fingers is a good one. It ensures that the ingredients, especially the candied fruit, do not clump and stick together.

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Lastly, I made the syrup by heating up honey and sugar to 240 F and poured that along with melted dark chocolate on the dry ingredients. You really need a good stiff spatula or wooden spoon to mix the stuff. It is heavy and needs a strong arm to get everything incorporated. I put the mixture into a spring form pan that I had sprayed with non-stick spray and lined the bottom with a round piece of parchment.

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Since the mixture is very dark already, judging baking doneness is tricky. I went by the recipe instruction to judge it “…the center will feel soft, like just-baked custard; if you touch it, your finger will come away clean when it’s done“. That took about 40 minutes in my oven. Once it is cooled, I sprinkled it with powdered sugar and sliced it with a heavy knife. It really is great with deep rich bittersweet and spice flavors all topped off with great crispy chewy nutty textures. We ate several wedges with hot cups of coffee and stored the rest for later snacking. Along with Alton Brown’s fruitcake and Michael Ruhlman’s Aged Eggnog (although I’ve tinkered with this one a touch), this will now be another Holiday must have. Cheers!

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Plum Tart with an Almond Crumble

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Summer is winding down supposedly, even though it is still close to 100 F out there. I do not much like summer in Houston. It’s too hot, too humid too…sunny. Autumn is by far my favorite season and I look forward to its -hopefully- lower temperatures and cooking. Summer does have some things going for it though, like the awesome fruit and sweet corn.

Fruit is what we are talking about when I bring up one of my all-time favorite desserts; the fruit tart (or pie, or gallette,…). This version, created by David Lebovitz is right up there in the Pantheon of amazing tarts. The original recipe, from his book My Paris Kitchen (great book by the way, buy yourself a copy), can also be found on Leite’s Culinaria. The original uses apricots and it is fantastic. The crumble works so well with the tart juicy fruit to add much needed texture and also helps support the fruit and all its juices. It also looks great giving the tart a rustic elegance that is a bit American and a bit French.

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I love the original apricot version but when I wanted to make this recently, no apricots could be found. So, I picked up some really delicious juicy pink plums instead (Plumcots or Pluots specifically). That is really all you need, some delicious fruit and this tart can be made with them.

The dough is pretty classic pate sucrè made with flour, sugar, butter, egg yolks and mahlab. Well, wait a minute. What the hell is mahlab?? That is not traditional French. It is my addition to this dough and to many other things to give them a unique flavor and fragrance. Mahlab is the ground up seed of a specific cherry and is used in tons of Middle Eastern and Turkish pastries and breads. I buy the stuff whole because it keeps better from a local Lebanese grocery and grind it with sugar before adding to the dough. About a half teaspoon went into this dough. You can read a bit more about it here. Since it is made from a stone fruit I like to include it in some breads and desserts that have stone fruits, but really it works in all kinds of stuff. Try it as an alternative to nutmeg in some things and it will give your dish an exotic can’t-quiet-put-my-finger-on-it flavor.

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When the dough is cooled, I pat it down into a spring-form pan. No rolling or anything, just evenly pat it into the pan with the sides of the dough about halfway up the side of the pan. I have tried rolling it and laying it in there. That works too but I’ve come around to using the hand patting method more. I like the process and speed by which I can get it done. It does not have to be perfect, just as even as possible and the sides close to 2 inches tall or so. This gets blind baked with a piece of aluminum and a bunch of beans for weight and then it is ready to fill and bake.

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This filling is fruit, starch, sugar and some vanilla and almond extracts. After the filling goes in the blind baked shell, it gets topped with a generous helping of crumble made from butter, flour, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The pie bakes for a good 45 minutes or so and the edges of the crust get a lovely dark color. It seems too dark almost but it is not, it tastes great and the texture is excellent.

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After it cools a bit, it is ready to go. It is delicious with ice cream or whipped cream of course but it is also delicious on its own at room temperature. The only downside to this lovely dessert are those juicy fruits. It does not keep very well. So, try and polish it off with some friends with in 12 – 24 hours of baking which really should not be much of a problem.

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Pierre Herme’s Awesome Rich Chocolate Cake

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Pierre Hermè makes desserts with flavors that really pop. If it is a fruit dessert then it sure tastes like that fruit. If it’s a rose litchi macaron then it is the essence of the flower and the tropical fruit.  His book on chocolate desserts with Dorie Greenspan is a classic and I’ve been cooking from it for years. This one is pure chocolate, deep rich cocoa flavored moist cake for real chocolate lovers.

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The original recipe is for what is called a Pavè. This literally means a paving stone or large brick. It refers to the shape of the smallish cakes. Instead of making two cakes I went with one round cake. It’s more convenient and less labor intensive and it was to be taken to a friend’s house for a dinner. So it made more sense and it worked out great.

The cake layers are made with whipped egg whites, egg yolks, all purpose flour, cocoa powder and potato starch. The potato starch is not essential but it is that extra layer of precision I mention with Hermes recipes. It has no gluten and no real flavor. So it helps make the cocoa flavor pop and contributes to a lighter more tender cakes. I think it also helps the cakes suck up more of the caramel syrup.

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Seems odd to have caramel syrup in the cake. Wha??? Well, again, it’s a building block. The cake does not taste of caramel. The sugar in the syrup is cooked to almost burnt and then loosened with water and enriched with a bit of butter. When brushed over the cakes and allowed to soak they add bitterness and richness that makes the chocolate more “chocolate-y”.

Apricots are not the first fruit that I think would go with chocolate, black pepper though makes sense. Turns out combined together they both work with chocolate. I simmered dried apricots in water for a few minutes then diced them up. Then I tossed them with ground black pepper and lemon juice.

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Last component to make is the rich chocolate ganache. This one is made with a mix of bittersweet and milk chocolates and whipped with a good bit of softened salted butter. Now the cake is ready to assemble.

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I sliced the two round cakes in half to get four layers and brushed them generously with caramel, then a layer of soft ganache. I sprinkled some of the apricots over the frosting topped it with a layer of cake and kept going.

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The frosting is very rich and gets trickier to apply if it warms up. So before frosting the outside I put the cake in the fridge to let the ganache set very well then I spread the remainder on the outside. After another rest in the fridge I used a fork to “decorate” the edges of the cake with some neat striations. One apricot that I saved after poaching got glazed with a touch of syrup and sat on top of the cake. The cake is best served at room temperature when the ganache is at the perfect creamy texture.  So, we let it rest for a bit and dug in.

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The French Laundry: Pear Strudel with Chestnut Cream and Pear Chips

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Back to that endless well of inspiration and technique, The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s like a small mini cooking course for every…course. I refine, learn and always end up with an awesome dish or two. This dessert was from a couple months back when pears were at their most abundant. I had some of the fruit and wanted to make some kind of pastry with them. A quick search against my cookbook database using -the very useful- Eatyourbooks.com resulted in several recipes using pears in a pastry including this lovely and refined version of a strudel.

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The first component I prepared was the fruit. I cut the neck from the pears and peeled the remaining rounded part. I used two different round cutters to make even cylinders and to hollow them out. These got poached in a syrup of white wine, vanilla, sugar and water. Once cool they went in the fridge until baking time.

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With another large pear I made the crystallized pear chips. Using a mandolin, I sliced it into paper thin slices. I poached these in a syrup of sugar and water, heavy on the sugar, until translucent. I laid them carefully on a Silpat and dried them in a 275 F oven until perfectly crispy. I reserved these in a container with a pack of silica to keep them crispy.

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This is by and large a classic recipe with classic components like the crème anglaise. It is really one of my favorite sweet treats. It’s just egg yolks, sugar, vanilla seeds made into a velvety custard with hot milk. I have made this using my sous vide precision cooker many times but this time i went old school and made it in an old fashioned pot and whisk. It is so delicious that I can eat it by the spoonful.

Chestnuts are not as beloved in the US as they are elsewhere and that’s a shame. They have a rich nutty and sweet flavor with a great buttery texture. Here roasted chestnuts get cooked with heavy cream and vanilla for an hour or so. Then they get pureed along with a bit of the pear poaching liquid and strained to make a luscious smooth puree.

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To complete the strudel I brushed 4 layers of filo with clarified butter and sprinkled each with sugar. I stacked them and cut them into strips a bit wider than the pear cylinders. I laid the cylinders on the filo and rolled them up to make neat packages. I baked these at 350 F until golden brown and let them cool slightly before serving.

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I plated the pear strudel and dusted it with a bit of powdered sugar. I poured some dollops of the custard next to it and each got a bit of reduced pear poaching liquid in the center. Then a scoop or thick smear of the chestnut puree went next to the strudel. This is a delicious dessert with contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors. I was a bit skeptical about how the chestnut puree would work with the rest of the dish other than that it has the perfect texture to hold the pear chips. However, it was delicious and added a great almost-savory accent to the dish along with a rich creamy texture.

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Naturally Leavened Panettone

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This is another recipe from this past holiday season and it is worth recording for reference (and I got it posted before the end of January!). It worked very good but I will need to change a few things next time around, so a quick record of it is a good idea. Usually I make a Panettone or Stollen for Christmas but never with a 100% natural leaven. The idea to make a Panettone with natural levain is something that I wanted to do as soon as I saw the loaves made by Roy.

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I used my regular 100% rye starter to make the levain as always using 50-50 mix of white and whole wheat flours. For the recipe, I used Peter Reinhart’s from Artisan Breads Everyday as a reference. Seeing pictures of Roy’s bread I decided on chocolate and cherry as my flavors.

I soaked the cherries in dark rum while I worked on the starter and dough. To make the levain I mixed roughly 40 gr of the rye starter with 170 gr of 50-50 white and whole wheat flours. After about 6 hours it was bubbly and good to go. The dough in Reinhart’s recipe uses commercial yeast in addition to the levain, I opted to stick only with the natural starter and skip the yeast.

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Since the dough is enriched with soft butter and egg yolks it is a good idea to make it in a KitchenAid mixer to get everything well incorporated and the gluten developed. I decided to bake it in one large loaf using a bundt pan that I sprayed with non-stick oil. The dough, like most Panettone is too slack to really shape it so I just transferred it from the bowl of the mixer into the bundt pan and evened it out as much as possible.

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The dough rises slowly for about 12 hours and develops a lot of flavor. After baking and cooling it is ready to slice. The shape, look and texture of the finished loaf are all excellent. Due to the levain and the long fermentation time, the bread had a great robust flavor. This however did not really work as much as I would’ve liked with the tart cherries and dark chocolate chips.  There was almost too much flavor in there and the bread needed more sweetness and mellow flavors. Next time I’ll go with some almonds and some sweeter fruit like currents, apricots, prunes and maybe just a few cherries.

Plums and Pistachio: Dacquoise, Blueberry Poached Plums, Ice Cream, Chantilly Cream

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This is a very good combination of flavors that I tried out in two separate desserts, both are delicious, both imperfect and need some tweaking. The first one is another lift from Daniel Bouloud that features a disk of crunchy chewy pistachio dacquoise with whipped cream and poached plums with a scoop of pistachio gelato. The original recipe uses cherries instead of plums.

Making a pistachio dacquoise is pretty much the same as the dacquoise for one of our favorite cakes. A mixture of pistachio powder, pistachio paste and sugar is combined with whipped egg whites. This mixture is baked until browned and mostly crispy but not brittle. When done I cut it into roughly 2 inch circles and a few smaller ones for  the ice cream.

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Bouloud actually does not cook the cherries in his recipe. He just marinates them in a hot syrup. That would be fine for cherries but I had other plans for the plums. I cooked them sous vide with blueberry syrup.  The syrup is just blueberries, water and sugar simmered, mashed and strained. I bagged the sliced plums with the purple syrup and cooked it at 82 C for about 30 minutes.

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I liked how this worked out very much. The plums took on the amazing color from the syrup, they cooked perfectly without being mushy and had nice hints of the blueberry. It is obvious from the pictures that the plum took on a much deeper ruby color after cooking. I strained the cooking liquid and reduced it as well to make a simple sauce for the dessert.

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Now where the recipe failed is the pistachio ice cream. Bouloud’s recipe makes for a very thick ice cream base with lots of pureed pistachios. The end result had a good flavor but was closer to frozen pistachio butter than creamy smooth ice cream. To plate it I put a disc of the cookie and layered the poached plums in top. I whipped some cream with cherry liqueur and vanilla sugar then piped a nice rosette on top of the plums. A scoop of the mediocre ice cream goes along the side and a few drizzles of the reduced plum sauce.

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