Category Archives: Chocolate

homemade graham crackers & nanaimo bars (daring bakers)

It’s been a little quiet around ye olde simmer down kitchen for the past month or so, but things are finally starting to kick back into gear.  Two weekends ago I finally made that yuca shepherd’s pie I’ve been wanting to make, and this past weekend I went nuts and made about 5 different Indian dishes.  To be honest, I wasn’t even planning on participating in this month’s Daring Bakers because I  didn’t think I’d have the time, but I found an eleventh-hour burst of energy and decided to go for it, especially seeing as how I missed last month’s gingerbread house challenge.

The challenge was two-fold: to make gluten-free graham crackers, and to use those graham crackers to make a Canadian treat called Nanaimo bars.  Because I was doing the challenge super last-minute (like, um, the day before it was due) I was not able to go hunt down the special GF flours the recipe called for, but luckily the challenge hostess was gracious enough to allow for regular flour, which was cool because I happened to have a bag of graham flour left over from this challenge that I wanted to use up.  Rather than try to convert the GF recipe, I just used the graham cracker recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook (see below).  It was easy but the crackers came out VERY rich and buttery, more like shortbread than what I think of as a graham cracker.  Since the Nanaimo bars only required 1 ¼ cups graham cracker crumbs, I reserved half the dough for future use as a pie or tart shell.

I have mixed feelings about the Nanaimo bars- any of my regular readers probably know I don’t have much of a sweet tooth; I prefer desserts with more complex flavors or a note of sour or bitter to balance the sweet.   The base of the bars, made of butter, cocoa, egg, almonds, coconut and crushed graham crackers, was right up my alley.  I used Green & Black’s organic cocoa powder and the flavor was wonderful.  Where this recipe lost me was on the middle layer.  I originally thought it was a sort of custard, but it’s actually an insanely sweet buttercream.  I tried to do this layer really thin because I knew I wouldn’t like it, but it still ended up too thick for my taste.  I even flavored it with some instant espresso powder to try to counteract how sweet it was, but it didn’t make much difference.  The top layer was just melted chocolate with a little butter to make it spreadable, so no objections there.

It was fun to make the homemade graham crackers, but I will probably be giving away the bulk of the Nanaimo bars- the icing layer just made them too sickly sweet for me.  Or perhaps I’ll end up disassembling some and eating the bottom layer by itself… coconut, chocolate, graham, almonds, yum!

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and

Martha Stewart’s Graham Crackers
printer-friendly version

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups graham flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 sticks (½ cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
2 Tbs honey

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Put the flours, cinnamon, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl; stir to combine.

Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  If it’s still on the cold side, you can cut it in chunks and mix it by itself for a minute or two to make it more malleable.  Add the brown sugar and honey and mix until fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

Put the mixer on low speed and add the flour mixture about ¼ cup at a time until fully combined.  You may want to scrape the sides down once or twice during the process.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and cut into 4 equal pieces.  Note: Martha doesn’t instruct you to rest the dough, but if it’s at all difficult to work with, 10-20 minutes in the fridge won’t hurt.  Roll out each piece between 2 layers of wax or parchment paper into a 6″x9″ rectangle (I use my bench scraper to coax the dough into the right shape and to even up the sides).  Cut the dough into whatever size crackers you want.  I used a zigzag cutter that came with my pasta maker and cut each rectangle into 12 crackers.   Transfer the dough to a sheet pan (keeping the parchment underneath) and chill in the freezer until firm, 10-15 minutes.  Prick the dough with a fork in a decorative pattern.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, rotating the pan(s) halfway through.  These can quickly go from a nice toasty brown to burnt, so keep an eye on them!  Cool on a rack and store in an airtight container.

chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies, s’more style (daring bakers)

cookies on plate verticalThe end of July sneaked up on me like a ninja, what with studying for a final exam and just being busy in general.  We were supposed to post this a week ago… But as they say, better late than never, especially where cookies are concerned, am I right?  Hopefully this post will still “count” and I won’t be booted off the DB blogroll for being a procrastinator!

The July 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Nicole of Sweet Tooth.  She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

cookies w marshmallow 1

I’m not the hugest marshmallow fan, but the Milan cookies just seemed a tad bit boring/ unchallenging, and Daring Bakers is all about stretching yourself to try new things, so I opted for the Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies.  It occurred to me that I could make them a little more exciting by trying to make them taste like s’mores, so I substituted graham flour for half of the regular flour in an attempt to make the cookie part taste like a graham cracker.  (It sort of worked, but I think if I tried it again I would use an actual graham cracker recipe; I think it needed brown sugar or something else in there to give it that “graham cracker” flavor.)  For my marshmallows, I used golden syrup instead of light corn syrup because that’s what I had on hand.  It resulted in the happy accident of my marshmallows tasting like burnt sugar, giving them more of a toasted-marshmallow flavor which fit in perfectly with the s’mores thing I was going for.  Nice!

cookies being dipped

My marshmallow didn’t fluff up as much as it should have, and was a little runny, but other than that, the assembly went pretty smoothly.  I wasn’t sure if I had enough chocolate, so I just dipped the tops, which was actually a LOT easier in terms of messiness, and I think there was still a more than adequate chocolate-to-cookie ratio.

cookies on plate closeNow I just have to find a way to get rid of these… any takers?  I’m taking some to the zoo today to give to my niece & nephew, but I still have a few dozen in the fridge and there’s no way I’m going to eat them all myself!  Please apply within…

P.S.  I couldn’t resist updating this with a couple snapshots of the kids enjoying their cookies! Joey ate the top off his first, while Aleyna went for a more “direct” approach. 🙂

Joey cookie 2

cookie monster aleyna

flourless chocolate cake with raspberry ripple ice cream (my first Daring Bakers challenge!)


I had seen this “Daring Baker” logo around a few different blogs I frequent, but wasn’t sure what it was all about, so I decided to check it out. For those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s basically a group of food bloggers who all make the egg-white-peak2same recipe once a month and post about it on a pre-determined day. I had seen some of the completed challenges on fellow MLFB blogger Maggie‘s site, and they looked pretty difficult, but I thought it would be fun to challenge myself. I signed up at the end of January and almost laughed out loud when I got the challenge recipe- a flourless chocolate cake. Ironically, flourless chocolate cake is my “ace in the hole” dessert, the one I can make in my sleep, when I need something that is simple but tastes like a million bucks, and for which I will likely have all the ingredients without having to make a trip to the store. It’s probably the only recipe for a dessert that I have memorized. I like to switch it up by adding different flavors such as cinnamon and cayenne for a “Mayan” cake, espresso powder, or a little orange oil or hazelnut oil. Since the top of the cake caves in and is not much to look at, I usually pile billows of lightly sweetened freshly whipped cream on top. People go into ecstasies at this cake, and it’s only a few ingredients. Once you master the knack of folding the egg whites into the chocolate, you’re golden.

(We’ll pause here for a word from our sponsors: “The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE’s blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.”)

chocolate-bars-2I was intrigued by the recipe given to us since it varies from mine in that it uses no sugar, less butter and an entire POUND of chocolate!!  If you’re feeding a crowd, maybe this is the recipe for you, but this is an extremely rich cake as it is, and I’ve never met anyone who could eat more than a small-to-moderate size piece.  But, I was curious to see how the DB recipe stacked up to the one I was used to using.  The final product was pretty similar to what I was used to, and may have even been slightly more chocolatey.  (My recipe yields a smaller cake, and is a little lighter, less fudgy and more “crumbly” on the edges.) I didn’t make it for Valentine’s Day, but Marvin had invited a couple friends over for dinner last night so I decided that would be as good a time as any.  And hey, it wouldn’t be in character for me to make anything more than a day before the deadline!

For the ice cream, our hosts provided a couple recipes for vanilla, but were gracious enough to let us pick our own flavors if we so chose.  I was going to do hazelnut ice cream, until I got to the store and found out that hazelnuts were $7.99 for an 8-oz bag.  Boo!!  I changed tack and chose raspberry instead, seeing as how a bag of good quality frozen raspberries can be had for a few bucks.berries-in-pan

If you’d like the Daring Bakers recipe for the cake, it can be found on either of the host blogs linked above.  I’m going to give “my” recipe below.  If you’re a chocolate lover, make them both and do a taste test and let me know what you think.  I have a slightly sentimental attachment to my recipe, as it comes from the first cookbook I ever owned, a tome entitled France the Beautiful Cookbook.  In the book, the cake bears the somewhat un-politically correct name “Le Nègre”, but if you can move past that, it’s a good recipe.  The ice cream recipe comes from Nigella.

Flourless Chocolate Cake (aka “Le Nègre”)

(printer-friendly version)

7 oz best quality bittersweet chocolate
7 oz unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated

Directions:  Preheat the oven to 375.  Butter an 8-inch round cake pan.  Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler.  Or, do what I always do and nuke them on really low power.  I do 5 minutes at 30% power, give it a good stir and then another 3-5 minutes at 20% power.  Set aside to cool.

egg-yolks-with-whiskWhile the chocolate is melting, separate the eggs, putting the whites in a metal bowl if you have one (I use my stand mixer).  It’s important that the bowl be very clean and grease free, or the whites will not attain their full potential.  (If you get any yolk in with the whites, start over, like I had to do, and save them for scrambled eggs.)  Whisk the yolks with half the sugar (you can do this by hand) until mixture becomes pale in color.  Whip the whites, gradually adding in the rest of the sugar, until glossy and forming stiff peaks.  (This is another difference in my recipe- because the whites have sugar added, they are sturdier when beaten, and I think easier to fold in to the chocolate.)


Once the chocolate has cooled, stir in the egg yolks.  Take a large dollop of the egg white and beat it into the chocolate to lighten the mixture. Gently fold the chocolate into the egg whites until completely incorporated and no white remains.  The way I go about this is to pour the chocolate a little at a time down the side of the bowl and then stir with a spatula with a scooping motion, down the side, along the bottom of the bowl, up and over.

cake-on-cooling-rackPour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.  Let cool on a rack.  The cake will fall considerably, but c’est la vie.  If you want to decorate it, you can turn it out on a plate so the flat side is on top and use a stencil and powdered sugar to do a design.

Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream (adapted from Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson)

(printer-friendly version)

1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups half and half
6 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups raspberries

1 1/2 tsp best quality balsamic vinegar


Whisk together egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar.  Heat the cream until almost boiling, then pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, whisking.  Return to the stove over medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the custard thickens.  Let cool, and freeze in an ice cream maker according to instructions.  (If you don’t have an ice cream maker, the Daring Bakers hosts give instructions with their recipes.)Make the raspberry sauce by putting the raspberries, balsamic and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a blender and pureeing until smooth.  (The balsamic may seem like an odd ingredient, but it really amps up the raspberry flavor.)  If desired, put through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the seeds.  When the ice cream is almost frozen but still soft enough to stir, put it into a container a little at a time in layers, drizzling the raspberry sauce in as you go.  Use a skewer to swirl the sauce through the ice cream.  Freeze for another 1-2 hours until firm.  I made extra raspberry sauce to drizzle over the top of the cake.

a homely cake for a lovely friend

sarah-cake-cropI understand what it’s like to have your birthday fall close to a holiday and feel a little bummed out when people are too busy to get together, or out of town, or whatever.  So when my friend Sarah, whose birthday was Dec. 19, invited me out to meet them for drinks that night, I wanted to do something to make it a little bit special.  They were having a holiday/birthday party the following night for her and her husband Steve (whose birthday falls on Christmas- I guess I shouldn’t complain!), but I wanted to do something that was “just for her” rather than lumped in with everything else.   I told Steve I would bring a cake; the only problem was that we had had a HUGE snowstorm and the prospect of going out to the store for supplies was not an option with the time-frame I had.  I keep my pantry fairly well stocked with baking supplies, but every recipe I looked at seemed to have one ingredient I lacked, until I came upon a recipe for a “pudding cake”.  I’m sure you’ve had one of these at some point: it’s a cake with a thick, brownie-like batter topped with a liquid “sauce”; as the cake bakes, the batter rises to the top, leaving a chocolate sauce on the bottom to be spooned over the cake.  (They’re often made in individual ramekins and turned out on a plate to serve, so that the sauce tops the cake, but that would have been trickier to transport.)  The cake isn’t the prettiest thing, but eaten with a scoop of ice cream it’s pretty tasty.  

Homely Hot Fudge Pudding Cake (adapted from Birthday Cakes: Recipes & Memories from Celebrated Bakers)

1 1/2 cups strong black coffee, cooled (feel free to use decaf if serving to kids!)
1/3 cup cocoa powder (see note)
1/3 cup brown sugar, tightly packed
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 tsp baking soda

6 tbs butter (= 1 1/2 sticks)
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, broken into pieces
1/3 cup milk
1 tbs vanilla extract
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda

Note: The original recipe called for Dutch process cocoa (such as Droste), but all I had was regular, so I made adjustments.  If you happen to have Dutch process cocoa on hand, by all means use it- just omit the baking soda altogether and up the baking powder in the batter to 2 tsp.

Adjust your oven rack to the lower third of your oven and preheat oven to 325F. Lightly grease an 8″ square or round glass or ceramic baking dish (it should be at least 3-4″ deep; see photos).

For the topping: mix together the cocoa, baking powder and two kinds of sugar in a bowl; mix well to eliminate lumps in the brown sugar.  Set aside.sarah-color-adjust-11

For the batter: Put the butter and chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and cook on low power for a couple minutes.  As it starts to melt, take it out and stir it periodically until the mixture is fully melted.  (Alternately, you can melt it on the stove by placing the bowl in a pan of simmering water, but I find the microwave much easier as long as you take care not to let it get too hot.)  Stir in the cocoa powder, whisking out any lumps, and set aside to cool.

Combine the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder; set aside.  In a larger bowl, combine the milk, sugar, vanilla and egg.  I do this in my stand mixer but a regular whisk or hand-held mixer works fine.  Next, add the cooled chocolate/butter mixture.  Stir to incorporate, then slowly add the flour mixture and mix until everything looks smooth.  Put this batter in your baking dish, smoothing it so that the surface is fairly even.  Sprinkle the cocoa/sugar mixture evenly over the top, then gently pour the coffee on top.  Bake for about 45 minutes or until the cake starts pulling away from the edges of the pan; do not overbake.  Serve warm, with vanilla or coffee-flavored ice cream.

how sweet it is: victory cake for Obama!



A couple weeks ago, I started pestering my friend Steve: “Hey, you guys should have a potluck on election night so we can watch the results come in together!”  Happily, he and Sarah obliged.  As the event neared, I pondered what to bring… Driving through my neighborhood a few days ago, I happened to glance at an Obama sign in someone’s yard and it hit me: a round layer cake, decorated with the Obama campaign’s symbol on top!  (I obviously wasn’t the only one out there to have had this idea, but I was excited nonetheless.)

As well as the cake turned out, it wasn’t without incident.  I used a cake recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, which instructed me to use two 8-inch cake pans.  I thought it was a lot of batter and perhaps I should go up to the 9-inch pans, but I trusted Martha… and ended up with a stove full of burning cake batter as the pans overflowed.  My house still stinks like burned cake, but fortunately the cake itself was salvaged and didn’t have any off flavors.

Yesterday I was too antsy to stay at work all day.  I had planned to go vote on my lunch break, but instead I just ended up working through lunch and leaving at 3PM.   After all of the predictions of long lines at the polls, I was almost disappointed when I was able to walk right up to the registration table with no wait.  After carefully filling in all my ovals, I thanked the election workers for having volunteered, and skipped outside into the 68-degree fall sunshine.  As I got in my car, my eyes welled up with pride in my candidate and the happiness at having been part of something so historic.cake-w-candles1

Then it was back home to decorate my cake!  I like to bake but I’m not much of a cake decorator; this was actually probably the most complicated thing I’ve ever attempted (not saying much, I know…).  I frosted the cake all over with a base layer and then used a jar lid to make a light impression of a circle for the middle; the rest was done freehand.  When I finished, I couldn’t actually believe how good it turned out (not tooting my own horn, I was just expecting it to look messier due to my lack of decorating experience!) so I had to take a phone pic and send it to half my friends.  Just in case something happened to mess up the frosting in transit, I wanted proof of my efforts!

Fortunately we made it Steve & Sarah’s without incident.  In the car on the way over, we heard the news that they had called Pennsylvania for Obama… things were looking up!  I was so grateful to be spending the evening among friends.  I figured no matter how things turned out, I would want to be among sympathetic souls.  We had the TV on the entire evening, but mostly only paid attention when the “big” announcements were made, like Ohio.  I think that was the point at which we all felt we could relax a little and open the champagne & cut the cake (which, of course, had to have its portrait taken first… Thanks once again to Marvin for his photography services). 

blowing-candles1After the results were official and we had sufficiently hooted, hollered and clinked glasses, I spent some time on the phone talking and texting with my friends and family out of state: Katie in Denver, Leighanna in Florida, my sister Beth in Chicago (all of whom helped put their states in the blue column!), and my mom in South Carolina (who TRIED her best, volunteering for Obama… I’m sure the national results made up for the fact that her state went red though).  Then we all settled in to watch McCain’s speech as he conceded the election.  The general consensus was that his speech was very positive and will hopefully help bring some of his “fringe” supporters a little closer towards acceptance and tolerance. 

As the election results sank in, we all pondered the historic nature of what had happened, knowing that we would remember for the rest of our lives where we were that night and how it felt to be a part of history.  I thought of my nieces and nephew, who will never know what it’s like to live in a world where only a white male has ever been president, and of my friends Ian & Michelle’s not-yet-born son, who will enter the world in the first month of Obama’s presidency.  I can only wait with eager anticipation to see how this moment in history will affect the way they see their world.  As we listened to his acceptance speech, I was filled with hope for the future and relief that our country had done the right thing, Bradley effect be damned.  It was beautiful and inspiring to see the rally in Grant Park, where people from all backgrounds and walks of life celebrated this victory together. 

The gang at Steve & Sarah's on Election Night
The gang at Steve & Sarah’s on Election Night


 Victory Cake for Barack Obama

1 recipe for chocolate cake layers (I used the recipe on page 168 of Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook)
4 cups vanilla buttercream
2 cups unsweetened coconut flakes
red & blue food coloring
pastry bags for decorating

This is obviously more about the assembly than anything.  I used chocolate cake layers and vanilla buttercream as a nod to Obama’s mixed heritage (the coconut is because he was born in Hawaii and because I love coconut!)  🙂  Invert one cake layer onto a cake plate or platter and frost the top.  Sprinkle with coconut.  Lightly frost the top of the other layer and then invert that onto the first layer (this is so you have a nice flat surface on top.)  Frost the top and sides.  You don’t need to frost the top very heavily since it will get another layer when you decorate it.  Try to make sure it’s as smooth and even as possible to give yourself a good surface to work on.  Press the remaining coconut onto the sides of the cake.  Take about 2/3 cup frosting and color it blue; color another 2/3 cup red.  Center a jar lid or other circular lid of the appropriate size onto the top of your cake and press lightly; this will be your guide to outlining the inner white half-circle.  The rest you can pretty much do freehand. (I’m clumsy so if I can do it, so can you!)  Make this cake on Inauguration Day or any other day you want to celebrate Obama’s victory!