Lockdown baking

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I don’t bake much any more. And during a lockdown I can’t even give the baked goods to very many people. But I also have a bunch of ingredients that need to be used… so here’s the vanilla pound cake I made the other day.

Vanilla pound cake

1 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup softened butter
3/4 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup milk (you can use milk substitutes; I used coconut milk)
2 eggs (lightly beaten)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I also threw in a dash of vanilla bean powder)

How to

Heat oven to 170c/325F. Grease and flour your loaf pan.

Sift the flour and add the baking powder.

Cream the butter and sugar for several minutes.

Slowly add the beaten eggs on low speed. Add the vanilla extract once mixed.

Add half the milk, mix. Then mix in half of the flour, keeping the mixer on a slow speed. Add the remaining milk and fold in the rest of the flour until combined.

Put mixture in prepared loaf tin. Bake for about 1 hour. Use a toothpick in the middle to check its doneness; when it comes out clean, it’s ready to take out. Cool in the pan for ten minutes; remove from pan and let cool.

best chocolate cake ever – supposedly

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My go-to chocolate cake recipe has always been a bit more than ‘basic’. When I first published it here in this blog way back in 2009, I referred to it as “basic”, but later, when I started baking on a grander scale, I realized that, no, in fact, it has too many separate steps to be called basic. When you can make one-cup microwave chocolate cake to satisfy those driving choco-cravings or something a few steps simpler, this one is not the easiest you can get. But every chocolate-loving friend with whom I have shared this particular cake will tell you that the extra steps are well worth it.

Many years ago when I started making this cake, one friend told me it was the second-best cake of her life (after her wedding cake). Another friend uses this recipe every time she needs a killer cake that will not fail. The other day for a work dinner, I produced this cake, and one of the dinner party guests exclaimed that it was possibly the best cake she has ever eaten. High praise indeed. Similar accolades flow every time.

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best chocolate cake ever

The only difference this time between my original recipe and what I did now is that I used two different kinds of frosting. I made a standard buttercream (cocoa, powdered sugar, butter and sprinkle of coffee), which I used as a rather thick crumb coat. On top of this, on each layer, I slathered on generous heaps of chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream, which always comes out tasting a bit like chocolate mousse. Again, worth the extra work.

fruity cake?

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Nearing the end of my tenure as enthusiastic amateur baker (I remain forever an amateur but not enthusiastic any longer), I am using up ingredients I have on hand. I am also thinking about the “fruity cake” my friend Esteban and I have been joking about forever.

I tried out this lovely Berry Mascarpone Layer Cake from Life Love and Sugar. I don’t normally bake cakes so this was just… new. An experiment of sorts with a few slight modifications from the recipe in the cited blog.

Vanilla cake
2 1/2 cups (325g) all purpose flour
2 cups (414g) sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup (240ml) milk
1/2 cup (120ml) vegetable oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup (240ml) water (this is what the original recipe called for but I used about half this amount)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C) and prepare three 8-inch cake pans with non-stick baking spray and parchment paper in the bottom. (The original recipe called for non-stick spray and parchment. I went with the old-fashioned grease and flour. I experienced absolutely no problems with this cake sticking to my pans even though the original recipe said that there is a tendency for the recipe to stick.)
2. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt to a large mixer bowl and combine. Set aside.
3. Add the milk, vegetable oil, vanilla extract and eggs to a medium-sized bowl and combine.
4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat until well combined.
5. Slowly add the water to the batter and mix on low speed until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
6. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cake pans and bake for 24-28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs.
7. Remove the cakes from oven and allow to cool for 2-3 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

Mixed berry filling
1 1/2 cup (240g) mixed berries (I used a frozen selection of strawberries, raspberries and …? I can’t recall. I threw in a few frozen blueberries as well. No idea if it is okay or not! Lab rats to the rescue…)
3 tablespoons (45ml) water
3/4 cup (155g) sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch

8. To make the berry topping, add the berries and water to a food processor and puree until smooth. You should end up with about 2/3 cup puree.
9. Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a medium saucepan. Stir in the berry puree.
10. Cook over medium heat, stirring until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, about 8-10 minutes.
11. Allow to boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Refrigerate and allow to cool completely.

Mascarpone cream frosting
2 1/2 cups (720ml) heavy whipping cream, cold
1 1/2 cups (173g) powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
16 oz (452g) mascarpone cheese, chilled

12. Add the heavy whipping cream, powdered sugar and vanilla extract to a large mixer bowl and whip on high speed until soft peaks form.
13. Add the mascarpone cheese to the whipped cream and whip until stiff peaks form. It will happen fairly quickly. Set whipped frosting in the refrigerator.

Put it all together

These are the instructions from the original recipe – I did it a bit differently. You can of course decide what works for you.

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14. To assemble the cake, use a large serrated knife to remove the domes from the top of the cakes.
15. Place the first layer of cake on a serving plate or a cardboard cake round. Pipe a dam of frosting around the outside of the cake. I use Ateco tip 808 for the dam so that it’s tall.
16. Spread half of the berry filling evenly on top of the cake layer, inside the dam. It should fill the dam about half way full.

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17. Add some additional mascarpone frosting to the top of the berry filling and spread into an even layer to fill in the remaining dam space.
18. Add the second layer of cake and repeat the filling layer with the remaining berry filling and additional mascarpone frosting.
19. Add the final layer of cake on top, then smooth out the frosting around the sides of the cake.


20. Frost the outside of the cake.
21. Finish off the cake with some swirls of frosting and fresh berries.


22. Refrigerate cake until ready to serve. Cake is best for 2-3 days.

Random thoughts: Wunderkind underdog & throwing away talent

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You can start off well, with something like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (“The False Husband”). Set the scene, tone, soundtrack.

I made a deal with myself that I need to be in the habit of writing, so I write in this blog come hell or high water, as the saying goes. I force myself to write every day – usually I have something to say, even if it is largely useless, and can cobble together something that stays thematically cohesive (for example, it might not be important to tell the world, i.e. whatever unlucky soul stumbles into this blog, that I changed my mind about Julie Delpy or that I desperately want to make chicken pho, but these posts at least have a theme and a target – a point.

Today, though, my head is a jumble of random thoughts that I want to spew out in a most random fashion, if for no other reason than to follow through on writing at least one post per day. Rest assured, all the deal-making with myself will hopefully not be for naught. I have specific writing projects I want to tackle at some point but have fallen so far out of the habit of regular, disciplined writing that I am at least trying to create a pattern or a rhythm to start with. The organization comes later. It’s kind of funny because you’d think that writing about things you really want to write about – whatever it is – would come easily. For me, as soon as I sit down, determined to write something with a purpose (other than something academic or a blog post, anyway, which is informal in any case), everything goes out the window. That is, every day in my job and in my freelance work, I research, organize and write all kinds of outlandish things that I never imagined knowing the first thing about. But it’s something that can be ordered – someone says, “I need a white paper about connected TV” or “We need a clinical summary of this paper on manual dexterity when employing double-gloving practice” – I am perfectly able to wrangle all the disparate details, read the studies, gather intel and info and get to work and produce perfectly workable results. Someone else has requested these things, so it’s work.

But when it’s me and my stuff – with a fairly solid outline and a crop of good ideas – I can find every reason to put it off. I don’t know when this happened. As a kid and teenager, I suppose I was less concerned with what other people thought about the outcome and wrote stories every single day. All I did was write and, like a maniac, get months ahead on school homework so I would have more free time to write. I earned this reputation among teachers and adults around me as “a writer” to the point that the reputation preceded me and stifled me and caused me to start feeling insecure and trapped. I stopped writing and buried myself in foreign language textbooks. I distinctly remember making a couple of choices at the pivotal age of 13 or 14. Take creative writing as my English course or enroll in regular English (where my friends were). I opted for the latter. The following year, our courseload was reduced from seven classes per day to six (so we could have even longer classes – ugh!), meaning we had fewer choices/options. I was faced with the choice between taking journalism or French. The journalism teacher (who had taught creative writing the previous year and was disappointed that I did not join) practically begged me to join – I took French. The journalism teacher still let me write articles for the school paper. I did it, but my heart wasn’t in it. By then, I was completely in love with all my irregular verbs and the passé composé.  I spent the rest of my school years studying all the languages the school had to offer – except German, which seems to have hurt the German teacher’s feelings. Writing for pleasure – complete fiction and imagination – stopped.

I still wrote a lot, of course, because I was a very engaged student. I wrote papers and never, ever managed to stick with word limits. I still struggle with this but am getting a little bit better. I became skilled at research and writing what was asked of me – and this continues today in my career and my lifelong engagement as a student (always enrolling in study programs just for the sake of learning).

I am, however, further away from personal writing, really good writing and being able to self-edit my own personal writing. I let all the creative energy slip away. Perhaps it is still there somewhere, but I have no one but myself to blame. As I wrote, all the adults in my life encouraged me to write to an almost daunting degree, but that was also the problem. It was daunting, and I did not think I could live up to their expectations or hopes. I was not sure I wanted to. Deciding to pursue something in life like writing or the arts or photography is undoubtedly a hard road – completely subjective, all about timing, a person needs to develop thick skin and embody perseverance. I was never sure I could endure the subjectivity and fickle nature of perceiving “talent”.

My feelings about it are still mixed. Creativity and imagination when we’re young are vibrant and unbridled forces – unfettered by the real life we later experience, which dampens the spark we may have to explore ideas that are fictional and illogical. Yet writing, fictional or otherwise, informed by life experience can have so much depth and meaning, touched as it is by reality, which requires time, insight and experience. My feelings on the subject are similar to how I feel about therapists. In addition to wanting to write, I always thought – and still think – I would like to be a therapist. I love listening to other people’s problems and thoughts more than almost anything, but it occurred to me early on that it seems, no matter how mature and insightful you are when you’re young, that you don’t really have enough insight, gravitas or authority to be a good therapist until you’re about 40. Rough rule of thumb, really. I am sure there are gifted therapists of all ages, but for me, and in my view, I never seriously considered going back to school to become a therapist until the last few years. I only feel fully prepared to do that right now.

Then again, if I am being honest (and random), there are a lot of things that I only feel prepared to do (or think about doing) right now. I only think of things like having serious relationships or rearing children now. It seemed totally improbable and unappealing in my 20s. More power to the people who did pursue those things when they were young and potentially had more – or at least less complicated – choices. I still think there are plenty of choices but I tend to think fairly broadly. The whole world is my workshop (my personal motto and seemingly also the motto of American foreign and military policy! Reminds me, totally off topic, that my brother described the end of the last US government shutdown thusly: “the dick show is over”). I don’t feel limited by location, language or any other constraints.

Things can expand into all kinds of crazy territory if you let them. For example, you can start out with a marketing idea of just giving your customers some cake and somehow end up with seven local, interactive microsites to capitalize on their brand loyalty. You can start off buying green beans from Kenya and end up with a wife from there! Sounds like a good case study, doesn’t it? “Kenya: From green beans to a new wife” – it certainly piques some curiosity and raised eyebrows. “What could this possibly be about?”

But then you can end badly. Toto will do it for you with “Africa”. Don’t get me started on the whole “generalizing Africa” topic.

Baked goods: Chocolate peanut butter bundt cake

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Apparently, November is bundt month. I had no idea. The 15th is bundt day. I recently learned the entire history of the bundt pan. Fascinating stuff.

I decided to bake this because chocolate and peanut butter are a nice combination but one I rarely see in Europe, given the anti-peanut butter feelings most Europeans harbor. This was an experiment since it was my first time attempting this, but most of those who ate some have reported enjoyment.

CHOCOLATE BUNDT CAKE WITH PEANUT BUTTER FILLING

For the filling

2/3 cup peanut butter
1/3 cup cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon butter, softened
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour

To make the filling

Beat peanut butter, cream cheese and butter until combined. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and beat until combined. Mix in vanilla. Mix in sugar and flour until combined. Fit a pastry bag with a large plain tip and scoop the filling into the bag. (Or put into plastic Ziploc-type bag and cut a hole in one of the corners for piping.) Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the cake

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 cup boiling water
3 ounces (85 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cups sour cream
3/4 cups butter, softened
1 2/3 cups packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Grease/flour a bundt cake pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a medium metal or glass bowl, whisk cocoa and boiling water together. Add in chopped chocolate and whisk until smooth. Mix in sour cream.

In large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, and then beat in vanilla. Alternately mix in the dry ingredients and the cocoa mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix until just combined with each addition.

Spoon a little less than half of the batter into bottom of the bundt pan. Using the pastry bag of peanut butter mixture, carefully pipe a ring of the filling over the center of the chocolate batter. Pour the remaining cake batter on top and gently tap the pan to remove air bubbles. Do not let the peanut butter touch the sides.

Bake until top springs back when lightly touched or a toothpick comes out mostly clean with a few crumbs attached – about 50-60 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Place a wire cooling rack on top of the cake and carefully turn over – remove the pan and let cool completely.