Thursday, January 28, 2010

Even More Cake!: Banana Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting

New Year's weight loss resolutions be damned! I mean, it's almost February, right?

Pretty much all the credit for this cake goes to my friend, Meredith. She came up with it after having the Banana Cake at Momofuku Milk Bar, and decided to make a birthday cake out of it for her friend Cricket (best name ever). I was, at most, a consultant on this project, and yet, in the grand consultant tradition, I was richly compensated (in bourbon). Good deal.

The cake we made was a "trial run" for the actual birthday cake. This kind of thing is important when you're just making something up, or are intending to present your baked goods to someone else as a gift. No one likes an busted cake on their birthday.

To make the cake, Mer and I complied two recipes from Epicurious and made some changes:

For the cake we started with a Banana Layer Cake recipe from 1997, and for the frosting we started with the icing from a Hazelnut Cream Torte.

In what can only prove that a trial run is important, the banana cake recipe was entered incorrectly on the website, because, once we had added all the ingredients in, the "cake" was essentially had bread dough. Now, I do love banana bread, but Mer and I wanted a light, fluffy cake--a ladies cake if you will--and the tough mass staring up at us from the bowl was just not going to cut it (ha! get it! :(). We ended up adding an additional cup of buttermilk to the thing before the batter looked right. Amazingly, no one in the recipe comments even mentioned that a cup of buttermilk was missing! They must have all wanted dense, chewy lumberjack cakes.

Something I didn't realize until the cake was already pretty much eaten was that we were supposed to have put some liqueur in the frosting. Whoops! The truth is that by the time it was time to finish the frosting, we were a couple of Old Fashioneds deep (made with a splash of apricot brandy instead of sugar, yum!)so...I think we had the liquor taste covered.

Banana Cake with Peanut Butter Creme Frosting

2 1/4 cups cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 2 large)
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter two 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides; dust pans with flour.

Combine cake flour, baking soda, baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in medium bowl. Mix mashed bananas, buttermilk and 1 teaspoon vanilla in another medium bowl.

Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until blended. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating to blend after each addition. Add dry ingredients alternately with banana mixture in 3 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients and beating just until blended after each addition. Divide batter equally among prepared pans.

Bake cakes until tops are just beginning to color and tester inserted into center comes out with a few crumbs attached, about 30 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on racks 10 minutes. Using small knife, cut around cakes to loosen; turn cakes out onto racks and cool completely.

For filling and frosting:
1 cup peanuts
2 cups chilled heavy cream
3 1/2 tbsp confectioners sugar
bittersweet chocolate, shaved, for toppings
1 banana, sliced, for decorating.
Make filling and frosting

Grind nuts in a food processor until they are chopped finely.

Beat 1 1/2 cups cream with the confectioners sugar with electric mixer until it holds stiff peaks. Chill until ready to assemble cake.
When you are ready to ice the cake, fold the ground nuts and remaining cream into the chilled mixture. Ice the cake, using half the banana slices on top of the icing between the layers. Decorate top with banana slices and chocolate shavings.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Red Velvet Cake

My first introduction to Red Velvet cake was at the rehearsal dinner for some friends' wedding. Red Velvet was the groom's favorite cake, and so it was meant to be a present to him from the bride. Unfortunately, the restaurant somehow forgot to make a red velvet cake, and so, when we cut into the cake, it was just plain chocolate. Yikes.

I remember two things from the aftermath:

1. the bride handled this mistake with considerable grace (personally, I would have had the manager's head on a platter as my centerpiece).
2. when I asked her what, exactly, makes red velvet cake "red," she replied only that I "didn't want to know."

Anyway, I did eventually find out that red velvet is usually colored with not the blood of misbehaving southern children but with either red food coloring or beets. It occurs to me that red food coloring is probably terrible for you (red dye 40 apparently gives you ADHD or something). So maybe I should have used beets--which are certainly an effective dye for counter-tops, in any event. Well--maybe next time.

The following recipe is from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008. I know I was a little cranky about their website (Cooks' Illustrated is by the same people) in the last post, so this is my peace offering--the books are usually pretty damn good. In fact, this cake is so good I don't think a week went by in my old apartment that we didn't make red velvet cupcakes from this very recipe.

Even though you probably can't tell from the photos, I actually only baked half a cake. This is an easy thing to do if you don't feel up to eating a whole cake. Just half the recipe and then cut the resulting cake in half and frost as you would normally, laying one half on top of the other. How many times can I say "half" in one sentence? Jeez.

The cake kinda looks like the Eye of Saruman because I couldn't find a toothpick, and so I checked it with a knife.

Red Velvet Cake
from The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2008


12 TB unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pans
2 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch salt
1 c. buttermilk
1 TB white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 TB natural (not "Dutched" [ew?]) cocoa powder
2 TB red food coloring
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar


16 TB unsalted butter
4 c. confectioners' sugar
pinch salt
16 oz. cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces and softened
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract


1. Preheat oven to 350 with rack in the middle position. Generously grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk the flour, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl. Whisk the buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs together in a medium bowl. Mix the cocoa and food coloring together in a small bowl until a paste forms.

2. With an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed in a large bowl until fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add one-third of flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add half the buttermilk mixture and beat on low until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Repeat, ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the cocoa mixture, then mix on medium speed until completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Using a rubber spatula, give the batter a final stir.

3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and smooth with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, about 25 minutes, rotating the cake pans halfway through. Cool the cakes in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely, at least 1 hour. Make sure they are completely cool before attempting to frost. ...And it will be an attempt if they're still warm.


With an electric mixer, beat the butter, confectioners' sugar, and salt on medium-high speed in a large bowl until fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the cream cheese, 1 piece at a time, and beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Refrigerate until ready to use, but allow to approach room temperature before starting.


Place one cake layer on a cake plate or cardboard round (I like to stick strips of wax paper underneath to protect the platter). Spread 2 cups of the frosting evenly across the top of the cake with a spatula. Place the second layer on top, then spread the remaining frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake. Slip wax paper out from under the cake and serve.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Acorn Squash and Cheddar Bread Pudding

This is not the dish I set out to make. What I wanted to make was Molly Wizenberg's Butternut Squash and Cheddar Bread Pudding from the November 09 issue of Bon Appetit. I had already made her version once for a pot-luck. It was a super hit at the party and was also delicious when Kate and I wanted a snack a few hours later.

Unfortunately, Sunday night is not the ideal time to shop at an organic grocery; I think because there's no delivery. And this Sunday selection was especially ill-fated for me. Every major ingredient for this recipe (barring the cheddar) was out of stock!

Butternut Squash. No.
Kale (of any kind). No.
Baguette. No.

I was actually counting on the Sunday shop for the baguette, since Ms. Wizenberg calls for "day-old"--which Sunday baguettes almost certainly are--but, alas, no baguettes were to be found.

Not to be deterred (though, honestly, I almost was), I pushed on with alternative ingredients, a determination which gave me the chance to work on both my recipe improvisation and my optimism (two goals for the new year). The final dish actually turned out just as tasty as the original, especially because the Swiss chard added a little more color and flavor to the mix.

P.S. I am obsessed with Swiss chard.

*thank you lovely assistant*

Here's my improvised recipe:

Acorn Squash, Swiss Chard and Cheddar Bread Pudding
reluctantly, but happily adapted from Molly Wizenberg, BA Nov. 09
makes 6-8 servings

2 pounds acorn squash, sliced in half
3 TB olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
7 large eggs
2 1/4 cup half and half
6 TB dry white wine (plus the rest of the bottle for drinking)
1 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 day old large rustic bread (I used Pain au Levain), sliced into 1-inch cubes
1 c. chopped shallots
2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed and chopped separately, leaves coarsely chopped
8 oz. extra sharp cheddar, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle squash with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake for about 40 minutes, until tender--checking after 30 minutes. Allow to cool until you can handle them. Use a knife to score the skin, and then peel. (If anyone has a better way to peel these, let me know. This is just something I improvised when the ridged shape of the squash made peeling them raw difficult.) Chop into 1-inch cubes.

Whisk eggs in large bowl. Add half and half, wine and mustard; whisk to blend. Add bread pieces, folding gently into egg mixture. Allow to soak for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, heat 2 TB oil in large pot and add shallots and chard stems. Saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add chard leaves by the handful, cover and cook about 2 minutes. Uncover and cook until fully wilted, but still bright green, about 5 more minutes.

Reduce oven temperature to 350.

Generously butter a large baking pan (13 x 9 inch). Using a slotted spoon, place 1/2 of bread pieces in the bottom of the pan, arranging to cover most of the dish. Add 1/2 chard mixture, then 1/2 of the squash and 1/2 of the cheese. Repeat with remaining bread, squash and cheese. Pour remaining egg mixture over dish.

Cover bread pudding with foil and bake about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until custard is set and bread feels springy to the touch, about another 20 minutes.

Preheat broiler and broil pudding for 2 minutes, until cheese browns slightly. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Spinach and Artichoke Bechamel Lasanga

Ok so this is not a weeknight lasagna by any stretch of the imagination, unless you are unemployed. (In which case, every night is a weekend. WOOO! Actually, folks, it's not that fun.) I would call this is more of a Martha Lasagna in that it takes 400 years to make, but has a big payoff--creamy, starchy goodness with some veggies thrown in for "health."

To make it I used this Betty Crocker recipe for inspiration. I just love old recipe books with splashes of sauce on them.

For help with the arrangement and sauce I used this recipe from the Cook's Illustrated website. You need to pay to access most of their recipes, but, honestly, I find that site so infuriating that it's not even worth it unless you can get one through dubious means. Which is, of course, what I did.

My problems with that site are many, but what bothers me most is that: number one: the design is like something out of a children's stencil book with a word document tacked on. Number two: there's no way to search recipes in order of date, and their catalog goes back so far that the first hit for spinach lasagna was one that called for Velveeta. VEL-frickin'-VEETA. Ok, Cook's is a little low-brow on purpose, but I can only assume that they haven't included a recipe with Velveeta in at least 15 years. Have they? :(

Anyway, the lasagna I made was loosely based on these two. I didn't use as much mozzarella as the Cook's recipe called for, mainly because I was tired. However, I'm glad I did skimp on it, because if there were any more dairy in the recipe it would be a recipe for making a cow.

I only used one can of artichokes, and I might consider using more if I made it again, especially because the acidity in them would cut some of the richness of the bechamel and 4 pounds of cheese. And yes, I know, canned artichokes are not fresh and whatever, but I have TRIED to use fresh artichokes in the past and it has never, EVER, been edible--even when I followed a six-part diagram of how to cut them. So there.

This baked up all poufy like a souffle, which was, admittedly, mildly scary, but very pretty. Maybe too much egg? Eh. Whatever.

Spinach and Artichoke Bechamel Lasagna


6 cups milk
1 cup butter
1 cup flour
1/8th tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper


1/4 c.vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cup onion
1 1/2 lb. fresh spinach
1 or 2 cans of artichokes, drained and chopped
3/4 cup parsley
1 lb. ricotta cheese
2 eggs
1 1/2 c. grated Parmesan
1 c. grated mozzarella (it helps if you stick it in the freezer for a bit)
1 package lasagna noodles

For the sauce:

Heat milk until hot but not boiling. In another pan, melt butter and gradually whisk is flour. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk slowly, whisking all the while. Stir until incorporated and sauce is thickened. Flavor to taste with nutmeg, salt and pepper.


Put a large pan on to boil and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saute garlic and onions until transparent, add spinach by the bunches with 1/2 c. parsley in the last addition. Allow to wilt and add artichokes. Heat through and set aside.

Mix rest of parsley and ricotta with eggs and half of Parmesan. Blanch lasagna noodles, about 2 minutes. Oil a large pan and layer the ingredients in this order: 1/2 to 2 cups Bechamel, then cover the pan with noodles (I used about 5), 1/2 of spinach and artichoke mixture, and all of mozzarella. Next, 1 1/2 to 2 cups of Bechamel, another layer of noodles, all the ricotta mixture and then the rest of the spinach and artichokes. Last, another 1 1/2 to 2 cups Bechamel, noodles, and then another layer of sauce. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Bake covered for 45 minutes. Uncover for the remaining 10 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Case of 68 Restaurant and the Inconsistent Dining Experience

I just cannot figure out why 68 Restaurant in Greenpoint is not a dining mainstay of North Brooklyn. Yelpers (that gilded fount of culinary expertise) seems to feel mainly ok to awesome about the place. Though there are a few exasperated "I am so over you" posts. Personally, I think the chef has some real talent, they offer great deals in addition to more than reasonably priced menu items, and the decor is fitting to the industrial venue without going overboard with North Brooklyn Baroque or whatever we want to call it.

That said, there are a few problems:


It's really hard to staff an inconsistently busy restaurant. I know. I've been there for brunch on days where there was only one waiter for a full restaurant. Of course service was slow that day! Poor guy! But I've also been when there were three servers for two tables, and, in that case, things were even more frustrating. Yes, it's hard to get a rhythm when you have one table--you don't want to be right in the diner's face all the time, so you need to spend some time hiding out somewhere. But. I feel like if my beer is empty when you walk by on the way back from your smoke break or wherever...maybe you should ask if I want another? More beers faster = bigger check = bigger tip. God, I feel dirty even bringing that up. Moving on.


The flavors are always really great and sometimes even unexpected. Last time I was there I got butternut ravioli with walnuts and sage butter sauce. Really good. It sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill winter/fall dish, but I found it super satisfying. My dinner companion ordered wild sea bass with brussels sprouts and saffron orzo (trying to remember here, apologies). The fish was cooked perfectly, and the accompanying flavors were succulent and bright at the same time.

However: Things sometimes seem like they've been hanging out under a heating lamp in the kitchen for a while. The edges of my ravioli were bordering on crispy, and I've been served eggs at 68 that had that weird film on them that eggs get when they sit for even a short time. This evidence, coupled with the fact that no matter how busy or slow, I always feel like I wait forever for food here, makes me call this problem plain ol' TIMING. Any home cook can crank out a dish at a time that tastes great; what sets restaurant chefs apart is that they can crank out lots and lots of them in an hour. Or should be able to.


I didn't even know that this place was called 68 Restaurant and not Coco 68 until I googled it for this post. I guess no one ever talks about it or something. I'll bet half the people who go to Coco 66 (the adjoining bar and original business in this space) don't even know there's a restaurant next door because there's NO SIGN. Yeah, I get it, not having a sign is cool. Well, you know what else is cool? Getting people to eat at your restaurant. On Coco 66's (mildly disastrous-looking) website, the restaurant has only the smallest mention-- in 12 point font--in the middle of a sea of other information. Help your Siamese twin out! Give her a mention at the top of the page! A tab! Something! Finally, 68, get yourself some press. Don't allow Yelp and one post from Greenpointers control your image (or lack thereof).

Anyway, I guess the reason I am being crazy about this is that I really like 68: I think it could be a go-to neighborhood spot. The food is well-conceptualized, the prices are fair, and, when they are either not bored to tears or waiting 25 tables of hungover people at once, the servers are really nice. I want it to succeed, but I can't quite figure out how it should launch itself out of this conundrum. I'm no restaurant consultant, so I don't really have the answers.

Maybe the problem is that I just keep coming in at weird times, and everything is just fine, thank you very much. Or maybe they should just change their name to sound a little less like 99 Restaurants--where my grandmother and I once had to promise not to sue in order to get our burgers medium retrospect eating those was probably a bad idea.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Rustic Wheat Bread

Like every other obnoxious Brooklyn/Cali foodie, after reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (it's the short one) I was completely terrified by all the weird chemicals that are in basically every food (and especially "food") ever. Now, I've never been a big processed food eater, and I pretty much make everything from scratch due to the overwhelming guilt I would feel for taking a culinary shortcut. That's right, people, I make my own pie crust in order to avoid feeling guilty. Actually, the avoidance of guilt has been pretty helpful along the way in helping me make decisions. For realz!

What was I talking about? Oh. Chemicals.

Right. Well here's the deal--I was sitting around on my high horse while reading Pollan's book because I'm sooo virtuous and don't eat processed food (except for hot dogs on Kate's birthday) when I happened to take a look at the ingredients in my fancy twice-wrapped Healthy Multi-Grain bread. Ready?


So far so good. Rice is a little weird...ok...but wtf are half of these things?


Hmm. Not so "healthy" after all. So, in a frenzy of righteousness, curiosity and just a shake of unemployed boredom, I decided to start making my own bread. I've been tweaking this recipe from Bittman's How to Cook Everything (a.k.a. the Bible) for several loaves now. It takes all told about five hours to make, but most of that time can be spent twittering or messaging people on facebook since the bread is just rising. The texture is not quite as elastic as normal supermarket bread, but it makes really tasty and satisfying sandwich bread and really good peanut butter toast when you come home wasted at 5am. *cough*

Rustic Wheat Bread
adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

makes 1 large loaf

1 c. wheat flour
2 1/2 c. white flour
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tap. instant yeast
2 TB honey
2 TB butter, cut into 1/4 in. cubes,
at room temperature, plus a bit more for the pan
1 1/3 c. (scant) cool whole milk

Place half the wheat and half the white flour in a small bowl and blend. Place other portions of flour and remaining ingredients in the bowl of a strong stand mixer. Mix on low until butter starts to become incorporated, then slowly add the remaining flour to the bowl. Continue to mix (you may have to steady the mixer with your hand) until a dough forms. Do not over-mix. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface with a ramekin of extra flour set aside. Knead for about a minute or more, folding the dough over itself, adding flour to the board until the dough is smooth and no longer sticks to your hands as you work.

Lightly oil a large bowl and shape the dough into a ball. Let rise for 2 hours covered by plastic wrap, until the dough doubles in size. Once the dough rises, deflate it and reshape it on the same floured surface. Flatten it into a rectangle and then fold the sides under and pinch together to form a loaf shape. Butter a 8 x 4 inch pan and press the dough down into it with the back of your hand, seam side down. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 to 2 more hours until nearly level with the top of the pan. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush top with just a bit of water and place in the oven for 40-45 minutes.

When it's done the loaf will sound hollow if you tap it and the sides will pull just slightly away from the pan.

*P.S. The photo positioning was being an asshole. So I'm sorry if this posted to anyone's RSS 400 times.