Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Triple Layer Chocolate Coconut Cake

I baked this cake last week for a family birthday party. It is a combination of a two layer coconut cake and a two layer chocolate cake which can be made separately or combined into a three layer cake (with a single layer left over).

The tradition of the birthday cake may date to ancient Greek times when round or moon-shaped cakes were offered to Artemis, the Goddess of the moon and hunting. Apparently these cakes were also decorated with candles to make the cake glow like the moon. It is unclear whether these cakes influenced the Roman tradition of simple, round, yeast-leavened, honey-sweetened cakes served on important birthdays.

Another theory about the birthday cake has its origins in Germany. In medieval times, sweetened bread dough was baked to commemorate Jesus’ birthday. The custom was reborn in the 18th century as Kinderfest, a German children’s birthday celebration. Placing candles on the cake was believed to draw on the 16th century German tradition of placing candles on Christmas trees. Candles are believed to symbolize the passing of time. In North America, the number of candles placed on the cake is equivalent to the age of the person, though in Germany at that time a few extra candles were placed on the cake for good luck in upcoming years.

By the 15th century the production and consumption of sugar had escalated (through slave sugarcane production in the New World), and European cakes became ornate, multi-layered confections. Such cakes were only available to the wealthy. As a result of the industrial revolution, tools and materials necessary for home baking became more readily available. The Germans also baked a multi-layered sweet cake called Geburtstagorten which may have been a precursor to the modern birthday cake. Today’s North American birthday cake is usually a frosted, multi-layered affair. The layers are separating by cream, fruit, jam, or frosting.

Cakes are often decorated with the phrase “Happy Birthday” which was popularized as a result of the song “Happy Birthday to You”. While the origin of the lyrics is disputed, the melody was popularized (though not necessarily created) by the Hill sisters, kindergarten teachers from Louisville, Kentucky. The song has the distinction of being the most well-recognized song in the English language.

This cake is a crowd pleaser and is ideal for birthday, anniversaries or other special occasions. It does take a fair amount of effort but if you do the work over several days, it is quite manageable.

Serves 16-20 people

Two Layer Coconut Cake
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
2/3 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract

Two Layer Chocolate Cake
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/3 cups milk

Coconut Filling (for a Three Layer Cake)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup shredded or flaked coconut

Chocolate Coconut Frosting (for a Three Layer Cake)
12 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup cocoa powder
5 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup coconut milk, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup or more unsweetened flaked coconut

Two Layer Cake – same directions for both cakes
1. Butter two 9-inch cake pans (note that you measure the radius of a cake pan at the top, not the bottom, of the pan). Place a circular piece of parchment in each pan, and re-butter and flour the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. In a small bowl, mix flour and other dry ingredients. Set aside.
3. With an electric mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat for 5 minutes to incorporate air into the mixture.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. While constantly beating, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by 1/2 of the coconut milk. Repeat and finish with the remaining flour mixture.
6. Add extracts and continue to beat until just mixed.
7. Spoon batter into cake pans, and level with a knife. Rap cake pans on counter top several times to remove excess air bubbles.
8. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
9. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Slide a butter knife around the edge of the cake to detach it from the side of the pan. Invert onto a cooling rack and cool completely. The cakes can be made several days in advance. Store in an airtight container or Ziplock bag to keep moist.

Coconut Filling (for a Three Layer Cake)
1. In a small bowl mix together all of the ingredients. Can be made several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.

Chocolate Frosting (for a Three Layer Cake)
1. Mix powdered sugar and cocoa and set aside.
2. With an electric mixer beat butter until light and fluffy.
3. While constantly beating, slowly add sugar/cocoa mixture alternatively with milk until incorporated.
4. Blend in vanilla and beat to a spreading consistency. Add more milk if necessary.
5. Can be made several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. To use, bring up to room temperature (requires about 30-60 minutes). You may need to add additional milk or water to get it to a spreading consistency after refrigeration.

Assembling a Three Layer Cake
1. Bake two coconut and two chocolate cakes. You will have an extra layer that can be frozen for up to one month. I would not recommend making a four layer cake as it will be extremely difficult to assemble, slice and serve.
2. On a cake plate or other large flat plate, place the bottom layer top-down (so that you have the bottom of the cake facing up). Frost to within 1/2 inch of the edge using 1/6 to 1/8 of the chocolate frosting. With a spoon spread 1/2 of the coconut filling to within 1/2 inch of the edge of the frosting. Do not skip the coconut filling as it provides necessary moisture for the final cake. When frosting, it is best to place all the frosting in the center of the area to be frosted and push the frosting to the edge rather than pull frosting to the edge. Pulling can sometimes gather up cake crumbs from the service.

3. Place the next cake layer top-side up. Frost to within 1/2 inch of the edge using 1/6 to 1/8 of the chocolate frosting. With a spoon spread 1/2 of the coconut filling to within 1/2 inch of the edge of the frosting.

4. Place the final cake layer top-side up. Press down gently to adhere the layers to each other and to test the stability of the cake.

5. Using a butter knife, cover the top and sides of the cake with 1/3 of the remaining frosting. This is called the crumb layer of frosting and it traps cake crumbs so that they do not end up on the outside of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for 1 hour to seal the crumb layer.
6. Remove the cake from the refrigerator, and cover generously with the remaining frosting. Use the frosting to even out the sides of the cake. Top with flaked coconut and gently press coconut into frosting to adhere. Cool cake again to set the frosting.

7. To serve the cake, use a long serrated knife to slice and a deep pie slice to remove the cake. If you slice too thinly, the three layers may fall apart. The cake can be covered tightly with saran wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blueberry Peach Muffins

The other day I saw an ad in the subway urging New Yorkers to consume fewer calories. It’s part of a campaign to remind (maybe inform is more appropriate) people of the recommended daily caloric intake of 2000, and to feature food that has more calories than one would expect. The ad showed an innocuous muffin with a banner noting that it contains a whopping 470 calories.

The term muffin was first seen in English in 1703. It comes either from the Low German muffen for small cake or the Old French moufflet for soft. Early versions were limited to a single type of grain (such as corn, oat or bran) with the addition of simple additives such as raisins, nuts or apples. These muffins had a short shelf-life, and were thus not commonly sold in bakeries.

With the decline of home baking, growing coffee consumption and the health food movement, muffins began to be sold commercially in the mid twentieth century. This required an increase in sugar, fat and preservatives which put them into dangerous territory of being mistaken for cupcakes (without frosting).

At some point the shape of the commercial muffin changed from a small domed top to the mushroom top. This instigated the muffin top craze where retailers produced disproportionately large muffin tops; some produced muffin tops without bodies. The tops were valued for their crispy texture in contrast to the cakey texture of the muffin body.

I was part of the muffin top generation. As a child, I thought muffins were a healthy breakfast alternative to donuts. I used to love the chocolate chip version at the now-defunct Canadian chain mmmarvelous mmmuffins. The other meaning of muffin top can be found here.

This healthy recipe comes from my friend Mira’s father. I first encountered these muffins in Oxford, and got to sample more of Philip’s excellent cooking a couple of years later on a trip to Iowa City. The adapted version contains peaches and blueberries which can be substituted with other fruit in. Philip’s original recipe had 1 cup apple, 1/2 cup carrot and 1/2 cup zucchini. These are perfect breakfast muffins – ideal during the holidays when you have a full house.

Makes a dozen regular sized muffins

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup oat bran
1/3 cup wheat germ
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup ripe peach (about 1 peach)
1 cup blueberries
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
coarse sugar and/or slivered almonds, for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Place foil liners in muffin pan or grease and flour each muffin cup.
2. Mix all but the last four ingredients together in a big bowl.
3. In a small bowl mix milk, egg and oil. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture.
4. Spoon batter into muffin liners. Fill to 1/4 inch from the top of the liner. Sprinkle with coarse sugar or slivered almonds.
5. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake.
6. Cool in muffin pan for 5 minutes. These muffins are best eaten warm and served with jam, honey and/or butter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Over the past several months we have made stuffed zucchini on two or three occasions. It was the next recipe in our dinner schedule, but a recent visit to the doctor made us reconsider the cheesy stuffing high in saturated fat. We decided to come up with a healthy alternative and settled on brown rice. We supplemented it with zucchini, olives and a bit of mozzarella. Later, we realized this would be a great way to use up leftover rice (in fact, we found some such rice in our fridge after we made a new batch).

Instead of zucchini we used bell peppers, also known as sweet peppers, capsicum or simply peppers. In some European countries they are called paprika, which is also the name of the spice made from its dried fruit that has become synonymous with Hungarian cuisine. They are native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America, and were spread to Asia and Europe by Christopher Columbus who took their seeds to Spain in 1493. Bell peppers are most commonly green in color, though red, orange and yellow fruit are commonly available. More rarely, they can be white, brown, blue or purple. The color depends on the cultivar and time of harvest. While styled as vegetables, bell peppers are actually fruit.

The word pepper has its origins in Sanskrit. It is a confusing term since it can refer to plants in three different groups: the pepper family which is known for the dried and ground berries of plants including black pepper and cubeb; the myrtle family including allspice and the West Indian bay tree; and the nightshade family which is known for the multi-colored fruit of plants including bell pepper, and many types of types of chili peppers. The term pepper has also been used to refer to trees described as pepper trees and pepperwood trees, which are so named because they have traits similar to other plants we refer to as pepper, such as having spicy leaves or producing berries that are dried and ground into spices.

This recipe makes a great appetizer, or can be a satisfying main dish served as a double portion with a hearty salad. Great for people with celiac disease and can be adapted for vegans by skipping the cheeses, using a substitute, or topping with hummus.

Serves 8 as appetizer, 4 for main meal

4 large red bell peppers
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
6 ounce zucchini, grated
1/2 cup olives, chopped (optional)
3/4 cup bottled tomato pasta sauce
1 cup brown rice
1 cup mozzarella, partly skimmed
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (optional)

1. Cook the rice and set aside to cool.
2. Preheat oven to 400 F.
3. Cut peppers into half lengthwise or widthwise. Remove stems, seeds and membranes.
4. Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes to soften.
5. In a large bowl, mix the remaining ingredients including half the mozzarella but not the Parmesan.
6. Scoop mixture into peppers and top each with remaining mozzarella. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
7. Place peppers in a lightly sprayed baking dish. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and slightly brown.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Red Pepper, Broccoli and Tofu Stir-Fry

I was at a conference this week which included surprisingly delicious meals. One night we had a buffet dinner in a gymnasium but the spread was amazing. There was a meat carving station, pasta bar, sweet potato bar (served in martini glasses with nuts, coconut and raisin toppings), smoked salmon station, boiled egg ‘Santas’ and French pastries. There was also a ‘sushi’ station which I put in quotation marks because it was California rolls served with ‘condiments’ that you took with a spoon including ‘wasabi’ sauce, soy sauce and ginger. I remarked to a friend that the Japanese would probably be appalled with what we’ve done to their cuisine. As I thought more about it, I realized that many dishes or cooking techniques that originate in other parts of the world have changed drastically in this country. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

This week I’m featuring an American version of stir-fry which is significantly different from its Chinese origin. The term stir-fry was coined by Chinese American physician B.Y. Chao in her notable book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. The goal of stir-frying is to impart wok hei (Cantonese) or wok chi or qi (Mandarin) – the ‘essence’ of the wok on the food. Stir-frying requires very high temperatures and cold oil with a high smoke point (such as peanut oil or lard).

There are two traditional stir-fry methods. In the chao technique, oil, ginger and garlic are added, followed closely by meat which is seared by rapid and quick tossing. The meat is then removed and vegetables and liquids are added. The wok is covered briefly to steam the vegetables (if there are large pieces of meat they may be re-introduced and steamed as well). In the other technique, bao, the oil, seasonings and meat are put in together and tossed continually. Vegetables may be added later but they too are continually tossed. The ingredients are usually cut into smaller pieces so they can be cooked without steaming.

While my dish may be more accurately described as sautéed vegetables and tofu, I’m going to stick with stir-fry – the American version.

Serves 4-6

3 tablespoons canola or corn oil
1 teaspoons sesame oil
1 block extra firm tofu (10 to 16 ounces), cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
black pepper freshly ground, to taste
2 teaspoons garlic (minced or paste)
1 red pepper, cut into bite-size pieces
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
1 can water chestnuts, drained
1/3 cup spicy stir-fry sauce (I use House of Tsang)

1. In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons canola/corn oil and 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil.
2. Place all tofu pieces in skillet (with largest surface area down) and season with chilli powder and black pepper. Sauté until light brown on one side which will take about 10 minutes. Flip all tofu pieces so the opposite side is facing down. Sauté for a further 10 minutes. The tofu is done when it appears pockmarked on its surface. Set aside.
3. Add the remaining oils and sauté garlic for 30 seconds.
4. Sauté red pepper for 2-3 minutes. Add water chestnuts and broccoli and sauté until broccoli is bright green (about 2 minutes).
5. Add stir-fry sauce and heat for a further 2 minutes.
6. Remove from heat and serve with rice or couscous.