Chocolate Tears

DSC_0005I love all things chocolate – dark, semi-sweet, milk, and everything in between. But, alas, my body has decided that chocolate isn’t for me. I can eat small amounts of chocolate baked goods (like a bite), but anything more gives me a miserable migraine the next day. And forget eating a piece of chocolate itself.

I have mostly reconciled myself to avoiding chocolate most of the time. I stopped eating anything chocolate last fall, so it has been over six months since I have eaten more than a bite or two of chocolate. Yes, I went through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas without touching it. I thought maybe the months of (mostly) abstinence would have given my body a time to reset and maybe I could eat a bit of chocolate deliciousness again. No go.

I caved the other day and ate a brownie that was left over from a school party of Calvin’s. Well, it was really two brownies. I warmed them up until the chocolate chips inside were nice and gooey, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. But the next day I woke up with a miserable headache. Calvin, dear teenage son of mine, asked me if it was worth it. Most decidedly not. I am working toward accepting my need to avoid chocolate, but I’m not totally happy about it. There are so many chocolate desserts that I love making, and eating.

I have not been baking much of anything that involves chocolate, unless it is going out of the house. I didn’t expect Calvin to bring home so many brownies when he requested them for a school treat-fest last week. He said there were so many things to eat that the class didn’t even make a dent in the brownies. I wish I had told him to leave the leftovers at school for the teachers! I need to work on my willpower.

Don’t feel too sorry for me, though. I have been managing quite well with other flavors: vanilla, caramel, spice, almond and just about anything else that isn’t chocolate. If you are combing The Cook’s Life for chocolate recipes, you will find plenty in the archives. I can hope that my body will end its rebellion against chocolate some day, but probably not any time soon. So bring on the salted caramel whatever, the almond decadence or the vanilla anything. They will just have to do for now.

Decadent Fudge Cake for Easter

DSC_0012For the last several years I have made a lamb-shaped cake for my family’s Easter dinner. Last year I did a yellow cake, baked in the two halves of the open mold. The year before I made a carrot cake in the closed mold. Both years I made a tasty cake, though not without a few mishaps.

This year I decided not to mess with the potential frustrations of the lamb pan. I have a new swirly bundt pan that I am using every chance I get, so I used that to bake a chocolate cake. I didn’t expect any of the family to even notice that the lamb didn’t make an appearance.

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Boy, was I wrong. Everyone wanted to know what kind of lamb I had made this year. And everyone remembered the lamb from two years ago with his head held on with skewers. But they were all suitably impressed with the chocolate cake and the cool shape from the pan.

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The cake. Oh the cake. I have made this cake before, but this time it was at its best -darkly chocolate, slightly crispy on the outside, especially on the ridges from the pan, but very fudgy on the inside, almost like a flourless chocolate cake.

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This cake started out as a recipe from a card I received in the mail, which I have since lost. Companies used to send out sample recipes for monthly recipe clubs you could subscribe to. The internet sounded the death knell for these clubs. I never subscribed to one, but I did make this cake, with a few changes. The chocolate I use is darker than the original, I increased the vanilla and I changed margarine to butter. And I eliminated the fussy chocolate and white chocolate leaves that the original cake was topped with. The cake can certainly stand on its own, with no embellishment.

The cake uses chocolate syrup, which I rarely buy. I would like to find a substitute for it, since I just used up the last of the bottle to make the cake. It provides some liquid, some sugar and some chocolate. I am playing around with the idea of more buttermilk and a little cocoa, though maybe not more sugar, to make the cake even darker. Or I could just leave it out and see what happens.

I want to do some experiments, but I need to have another holiday or party so other people can help us eat the cake. If you have any ideas for substitutions, send them my way.

Download or print the recipe here.

Decadent Fudge Cake
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 12-15

4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
4 ounces 70% chocolate
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks butter (8 ounces), room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1½ cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
⅓ cup chocolate syrup (like Hershey’s)
1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heavily grease a 10-inch bundt pan and set aside.

Melt the baking chocolate and 70% chocolate in the microwave or a double boiler. Set aside to cool. Stir the baking soda together with the flour in a medium bowl and set aside.

Beat the butter with the sugar and vanilla extract until light and fluffy and no longer grainy – 3-5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

Add about one-third of the flour mixture and mix well. Add half of the buttermilk and mix again. Repeat with remaining flour and buttermilk, ending with flour. Mix in melted chocolate and chocolate syrup until well mixed, with no streaks of plain batter remaining. Stir in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top. The batter will almost fill the pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 45-60 minutes, until the top springs back when touched. Bake the shorter amount of time if you want the middle to be slightly fudgy.

Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Loosen the edges of the cake with a knife or thin spatula and turn out onto a serving plate. Place the plate on a wire rack and cool until room temperature before covering.

Dust cake with powdered sugar just before serving. Cake keeps well at room temperature for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Sweets for Your Sweetie

Not sure if you’ve heard, but Valentine’s Day is Friday. How could you miss the diamond commercials, the restaurant specials and the greeting card ads? I don’t buy into the idea that we have to get candy, flowers or jewelry to recognize the day. I really think Valentine’s Day should be more about celebrating however you like.

Rich and I sometimes go out for a date night dinner, but the last few years we have decided to cook at home and treat ourselves to a homemade dessert. Some years we make the expected decadent chocolate treat. Other years we go for something more non-traditional.

I have a few suggestions if you want to make something sweet for your sweetie, or yourself.

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If you want to have some fun, and make something impressive, try making your own candy hearts. They are much easier than they look. If you can play with play-dough, you can make these.

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For a supremely easy treat, try snickerdoodle bars. If you feel fancy you can cut them into hearts instead of bars.

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Try toffee bars for another easy treat that combines caramelly goodness with chocolate.

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If you feel like something a little more involved, try my version of zebra cakes. This is a great group project to share with your family or your better half.

We are still deciding what to make for our dessert this year. We do know we are having steak, baked potatoes and roasted green beans for the main event.

What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?

Toffee Bars

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The Christmas baking season has started for us. We were busy baking last weekend and already have gingersnaps, almond shortbreads and chocolate chip doodles in the freezer. When we were planning what to bake this year, we thought we would add a few different recipes to the mix, in addition to our old standbys.

Toffee bars are an old favorite that we haven’t made for a few years. I first made them when I was in high school and then somehow lost the recipe. Rich and I later found a similar recipe on the back of a condensed milk can. Since then we have tweaked the recipe and directions a bit.

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The bars start with saltine crackers as the base. I love how the crackers’ layers separate a bit as they soak up the butter from the bottom and the toffee from the top. Butter and sugar elevate most anything, even plain Jane saltine crackers.

The toffee bars really play up the contrast between salty and sweet. I prefer to use salted butter and ordinary saltines in these bars, to offset the sweetness of the toffee and the chocolate. If you really don’t like the salty-sweet thing, you could use unsalted crackers and unsalted butter, but the bars might taste a little flat.

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As we have made these over the years we have reduced the baking time again and again. The shorter baking time helps the toffee layer to stay soft instead of chewy and overly sticky. We like the texture contrast between the crispy cracker, the soft toffee and the harder chocolate layer.

These go together in minutes and are pretty much foolproof. They are different than the usual Christmas cookie offering and they just plain taste great. You can’t go wrong with buttery, sweet toffee and chocolate.

Print the recipe here.

Toffee Bars
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 50-60 small bars

Don’t be tempted to try these with anything but butter. You need it for both the flavor and the texture.

1¼ cups butter (2½ sticks), NO substitutions
45-50 saltine crackers
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1½ cups semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Melt ¼ cup (½ stick) butter in a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Pour into 12 by 17 inch baking sheet, or two 9 by 13 inch pans. Tilt pan to cover evenly with butter. Arrange crackers over butter in one layer, breaking crackers if necessary to fit.

In the same saucepan, melt remaining 1 cup (2 sticks) butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add condensed milk, stirring until combined.

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Pour toffee mixture slowly over crackers and spread evenly. Bake for 5-10 minutes. Keep a close eye on them after 5 minutes. When the bars are done the entire top will be bubbly and the edges will just be starting to darken slightly. Don’t cook longer, or the toffee will have a burned taste and be too chewy at the edges.

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Sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over the top of the hot toffee. Let stand 5 minutes, until chips are glossy and soft.

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Spread melted chips evenly over the bars. Let cool at room temperature for several hours until chocolate is set. Refrigerate or freeze to set chocolate faster.

Cut into small squares once the chocolate is set. Store bars in an airtight container, with parchment or waxed paper between layers. These keep at room temperature for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Peanut Butter Gooey Butter Tarts

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Peanut butter gooey butter was born out of a Twitter conversation between Rich and some of his colleagues. I’m not sure how it started – I came in on the middle of it. They were talking about peanut butter and somehow the discussion turned to gooey butter cake. That led to talk of peanut butter gooey butter and the gauntlet was thrown down to challenge The Cook’s Life to come up with a recipe.

Long story short, which is probably already too late, Rich and I whipped up a peanut butter gooey butter version that night and the office sampled it the next day. Everyone pronounced it a success.

While we made the original in cake form, I am still enamored with gooey butter tarts. There is something about getting my own little cake that makes me happy. And, with the peanut butter version, it is like eating a peanut butter cup in gooey butter cake form. You can even break out the mini muffin pan and make tiny tarts.

The peanut butter totally changes the filling – roasted peanut butter flavors and aromas harmonize beautifully with the cream cheese sweetness that is gooey butter. And there is no better platform for peanut butter goodness than a dark chocolate crust.

Say what you will about Twitter and its relevancy, but those 140 character posts led to one great recipe. Anyone have an idea for another gooey butter variation?

Download or print the recipe here.

Peanut Butter Gooey Butter Tarts
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 24 tarts

I prefer to use natural peanut butter in the filling. Mine has just peanuts and salt. You can use regular peanut butter, but the filling will be sweeter and less intensely peanut-flavored.

Crust:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 egg

Filling:
1 8-oz. block cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup creamy natural peanut butter (see headnote)
2 eggs
3 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 24 muffin cups – do not use cupcake papers.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix in melted butter and egg. Press slightly less than 2 tablespoons of crust mixture into the bottom of each muffin cup and set aside.

In same bowl, beat cream cheese and peanut butter until fluffy and fully combined. Beat in eggs until well blended. Add powdered sugar and mix well. Divide filling evenly among muffin cups, using 2-3 tablespoons per cup.

Bake 13-15 minutes, or until filling is mostly set and slightly puffed. The tops of the tarts will flatten as they cool. Let tarts cool in pans on a wire rack for about 15 minutes so they can firm up. Run a knife around the edge of each tart before removing it to the rack to cool completely.

Store in an airtight container for a few days, in a single layer or with parchment or waxed paper between layers, as they tend to stick to each other. Freeze for longer storage. Thaw at room temperature for a couple of hours.

Mini Tart Variation
Makes 72 tarts

You can also bake these as bite-sized mini tarts. They are great party desserts – one bite, no utensils or plates required.

Follow the above directions for mixing. Use about 2 teaspoons of crust mixture per mini muffin cup. Use about a tablespoon of filling. Bake 8-10 minutes. Cool in pans for about 10 minutes before removing to racks to cool.

A Day of Fun

Calvin has a day off school and he and I are spending it together. We are checking out a new doughnut shop this morning – Strange Donuts for anyone who’s curious. Then we are hitting Penzey’s to stock up on cinnamon, cocoa and salt, of all things. And we can’t head to that part of town without a visit to Kakao to pick up a few of their sea salt caramels.

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Of course we are fitting in some kitchen time. We are keeping it simple with only two projects – sour cream twists and Middle Eastern flatbread. The twists are for a fundraiser at church tomorrow, so we can’t eat those. Except for the broken and not-so-pretty ones. And we have to taste for quality control. We can’t donate untested baked goods, after all. The bread is for dinner. We are having another Fondue Friday tonight to top off our day.

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Doughnuts, chocolate and playing in the kitchen with my rapidly growing kid – I can’t ask for a better day.

What are your favorite things to do when you have a day off?

Fudgy Toffee Brownies

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These brownies should be called, “The Brownies That Must Not be Named.” I apologize to J.K. Rowling. The minute you even talk about the brownies, your blood sugar will rise and your arteries will clog just a bit. But they are worth it.

I started out with the idea of making caramel swirl brownies for Rich for his birthday. I wanted to make them even more of a special treat, and make the caramel for the topping. I have never made caramel candies, only caramel sauce, so I went in search of a recipe online. I should have done a tiny bit more research into the chemistry of candy making before deciding on a recipe. And of course, no recipe I found did exactly what I wanted, so I tweaked one recipe and combined it with another, which is a big no-no in making a new recipe. The kitchen gods were smiling though, so the results were fabulous, though unexpected.

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The caramel cooked up into a thick sauce-like concoction. Halfway through the brownie baking time, I drizzled them with our caramel attempt and a sprinkling of chocolate chips. Once they came out of the oven I added a sprinkle of very coarse salt.

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The brownies baked up soft and fudgy, with a buttery lusciousness supporting the expected chocolate. The topping reminded us of a soft toffee, with a thin, crackling crust on top and a sugary toothsomeness under the crust.

The topping made more than I needed for the recipe. I kept the proportions the same in the posted recipe, so you will have leftovers too. Once cool, the mixture thickened into a sweet mass of soft praline-like candy that is wonderful on pretzels, graham crackers and fingers. I’m sure you’ll figure out how to use it.

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Download or print the recipe here.

Fudgy Toffee Brownies
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 12-15 brownies

I topped the brownies with chocolate chips and coarse salt. They were icing on the cake, so to speak. Feel free to leave them off.

Toffee topping:
1¼ cups sugar
¼ cup water
5 tablespoons heavy cream
5 tablespoons salted butter, cut into 5 pieces
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Brownies:
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
6 tablespoons salted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour

Additional toppings:
¼ cup chocolate chips, optional
coarse salt, optional

Make the toffee topping before making the brownies. Stir the sugar and the water together in a 2-3 quart saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Swirl occasionally or stir very gently. Do not scrape down the sugar that collects on the sides of the pan, or you might re-crystalize the mixture and have to start over. Measure out the cream and the butter and set them next to the stove.

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Once sugar comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or slightly higher. Swirl the pan or stir only if one part of the mixture starts to darken before the rest.

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The sugar will turn golden and then amber colored. Try to let it darken until is a dark amber or caramel color, but not dark brown. Watch it. It can go from dark amber to black in no time. The whole process should take about 10 minutes from the time you turn on the heat.

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Remove the pan from the heat and add the cream. It will bubble up and the cream may seize into a hard mass for a second. Don’t panic. Just stir fairly quickly, without splashing, and it will combine.

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Add the butter, once piece at a time, and stir it in as it melts. Keep stirring until all the butter mixes in. Add the vanilla and stir again. Set the toffee topping aside to cool while you make the brownies.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9-inch square pan.

Melt the chocolate and the butter together in a large bowl in the microwave. This should take about 60 seconds on high power. Stir until the chocolate totally melts and the mixture is smooth.

Stir in the sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add eggs and beat until well combined. Stir in flour until no white streaks remain.

Spread the brownie batter in the greased pan and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and drizzle the toffee topping all over the top of the brownies. You probably will not use all of the topping. See end of recipe for suggestions on using the remaining portion.

Sprinkle the top of the toffee topping with the chocolate chips, if using.

Return the brownies to the oven for about 15 minutes, or until middle is barely jiggly and the edges are puffed and pulling away from the sides of the pan.

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Remove brownies from the oven and sprinkle with a few pinches of coarse salt, if desired. Cool to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack. The top of the brownies will crackle and parts will sink as it cools. This is fine.

Cut into small squares and serve. Store in an airtight container for several days.

You will have about ½-¾ cup of the toffee topping left over. Dip pretzels in it, warm it up and pour it on ice cream, spread it on graham crackers or just eat it with a spoon.