Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ginger-Spiked Flourless Chocolate Cake

On his way home from Israel, my friend Jason stopped in Rome last weekend to celebrate his birthday. I flew down to meet him, and we were joined by friends from Birmingham and Madrid. I generally take advantage of every opportunity to mark a birthday, and I believe the best way is through baking. I couldn’t go to Rome empty-handed, so I made a cake in Oxford and took it on the airplane to Italy.

Given the multiple legs of travel involved, I decided to create a cake without icing or frosting. I also figured that a dense cake would be more likely to survive air travel than a fluffy one. Since chocolate is almost always a hit, a flourless chocolate cake seemed appropriate. To make this original recipe a bit more interesting, I spiked the batter with ginger.

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cups light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
4 eggs, separated
confectioner’s sugar and/or cocoa, for dusting (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line an 8-inch round pan (if available use a springform pan) with wax or parchment paper. Grease the bottom and sides of the pan. If you are not using a springform pan, you can first line it with a large piece of foil, followed by wax or parchment paper. After baking, you dislodge the cake by pulling up on the edges of the foil.
2. In a small pan over low heat, melt the chocolate and butter. You can also do this in the microwave, stirring frequently so that the chocolate does not burn.
3. Add sugar and ginger to the chocolate mixture and stir well. Allow the mixture to cool for 10-15 minutes.
4. In a large bowl beat egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
5. Add egg yolks to the cooled chocolate mixture and stir well.
6. Using a spatula, gently add the chocolate mixture to the egg whites, taking care not to deflate them.
7. Pour the batter into the pan, and bake for 30 minutes or until the cake is set. When it is ready, a cake tester will come out almost clean. Cool for 10 minutes.
8. Dust with confectioner's sugar and/or cocoa. Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or whipped cream. The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for one week, or frozen for several months.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cherry Coconut Banana Bread

My friend Devaki celebrated her 18th birthday a few weeks ago with a sundae party. Despite my ambition to leave at a reasonable hour, I found myself in the familiar position of being one of the last people there. As I helped Devaki and her sister clear up, I was offered leftover ice cream toppings for my baking adventures. Despite my refusal, I ended up with three containers of glacé cherries (similar to maraschino cherries in North America, but not floating in syrup) and a bag of desiccated coconut. My friends were doubtful that these unwanted ingredients (especially the cherries) could be transformed into anything worth eating. I hope I’ve proven them wrong with this funky banana bread.

Banana bread is a ‘quick bread’, one that uses baking soda and baking powder instead of yeast. These leavening agents became widely available in the United States in the 1930s, leading to a rise in popularity of quick breads. Banana bread is a popular way to use over-ripe bananas. The fruit should be ripened until the skin has turned dark brown. You can also peel ripe bananas and freeze them until you are ready to make the bread. To defrost, leave bananas in the fridge overnight.

Banana bread has become quite popular in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Common variations include nuts and chocolate chips. I have been experimenting with banana bread recipes for a while – look for my mascarpone version later this year.

1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup desiccated coconut, toasted
1/2 cup glacé or candied cherries, chopped
1/2 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup granulated or caster sugar
2 eggs
3 overripe bananas, mashed
zest of one orange or lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract


1. Preheat oven to 325F. Line a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with parchment paper and grease and flour the pan.
2. Toast coconut in oven (at 350 F for 10-15 minutes), saucepan or microwave (on high for 30 seconds at a time). Check frequently as coconut can burn easily. Set aside to cool.
3. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, walnuts, coconut and cherries and set aside.
4. In a large bowl beat together butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat well. Add bananas, zest and vanilla and mix well.
5. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients until combined. Pour batter into loaf pan.
6. Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes in pan. Remove from pan and cool to room temperature. Do not try to serve this banana bread warm.
7. Using a sharp serrated knife, slice banana bread into 3/4 inch pieces. Serve at breakfast, brunch or tea time.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine Brownies

The first reference to Valentine’s Day and romantic love comes from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382. His poem Parlement of Foules, written to mark the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, states:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese [choose] his make [mate].

The resurrection and commercialization of Valentine’s Day began in the 1840s and by 1847 the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were sold by Esther Howland of Massachusetts. Since that time, the holiday has become associated with flowers, jewellery and chocolate.

Not one to pass over an opportunity to celebrate with chocolate, I made these Valentine brownies for my boyfriend. If you are short on time and creativity, try this adaptation of a brownie recipe to win points with your sweetheart. The recipe is a Treat a Week original, but the idea of stamping out heart-shaped pieces comes from Martha Stewart’s minions. Like good chefs around the world, they make ingenious use of the leftover brownie bits (see photos below).

2 sticks butter
8 ounces dark or unsweetened chocolate
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
confectioner’s sugar or cocoa, for dusting

1. Butter and line a 9x13 inch baking pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 325 F (165 C).
2. In a medium bowl, mix together flour, cocoa, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl in the microwave or in a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and chocolate. Mix in sugar until dissolved.
4. Remove from heat and beat in eggs and vanilla. Fold in flour mixture.
5. Pour batter into baking pan. Forcefully tap the pan on the counter to remove air bubbles.
6. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
7. Cool to room temperature. Run a butter knife along the edge of the pan to detach the baked brownie. Invert onto a countertop lined with foil or wax paper.
8. Using a heart-shaped cookie cutter, punch out brownies. Rotate the cutter to maximize the number of hearts that can be made.
9. Dust brownies with confectioner’s sugar or cocoa and serve with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or crème fraiche. You can also heat the brownies briefly in the microwave and serve warm.
10. Roll the soft brownie leftovers into balls, and roll them in confectioner’s sugar or cocoa and serve as truffles. The crispy leftovers (especially at the edges of the brownie) can be broken into bits and served with ice cream.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Passionfruit Tart

On a recent trip to London I met my friends Nadia, Kristina and Catherine for a bottle of wine in the Members Room of the Tate Modern, followed by a fascinating Louise Bourgeois retrospective. Afterwards, we went to a funky restaurant, benugo bar and kitchen, tucked away inside the British Film Institute. Our delicious meal ended with a luscious passionfruit tart. Since we were reconvening for a dinner party the following night, I decided to attempt to reverse engineer the tart.

I must admit I had never seen a passionfruit before (that's it in the photo above). There are two main types, the bright yellow variety has a smooth rind and is the size of a grapefruit and the purple variety (which I used) has a tough wrinkly skin and is the size of an egg. Both are native to Latin America, and are now widely grown in Australia, South and East Africa, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Hawaii and other tropical places.

To my surprise, the name does not come from the passion inspired by this heavenly fruit, but because the structure of the passionflower (below) reminded early Spanish explorers of symbols associated with the Passion of Christ. Specifically, the radial filaments (which vary in number from flower to flower) represent the Crown of Thorns, the ten petals and sepals represent the apostles, the top three stigmata represent the three nails and the lower anthers represent the five wounds.

The tart was tasty but not nearly as flavorful as the original. I suspect the restaurant uses fresh passionfruit pulp or passionatefruit concentrate. As you can see from the photos, I got involved in a great conversation and left the tart in the oven just a little too long. Luckily, it was rescued with only first degree burns, which made it look like a cheese pizza. Ultimately, the tart was well enjoyed since my dinner companions were too polite (and possibly too inebriated) to be critical.

Serves 8

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
10 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons cold water

1 1/2 tins sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces each)
6 egg yolks
1 cup passionfruit juice (use fresh passionfruit pulp or passionfruit concentrate if available)

8 passionfruits
4 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

1. Mix flour, salt and sugar.
2. Cut butter into small pieces and blend with flour until it resembles coarse meal. Add egg yolks and water and roll into a ball. Flatten, wrap in saran wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 400 F.
4. Roll dough until it is 12 inches in diameter and lay in a 10-inch tart pan.
5. Bake blind for 15 minutes and cool.
6. Mix condensed milk and egg yolks. Add passionfruit juice and mix well.
7. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes or until set. Cool for 1 hour or overnight.
8. Make passionfruit coulis by mixing passionfruit pulp and seeds and confectioner’s sugar.
9. Serve tart with coulis and whipped cream or crème fraiche.