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Chocolate Caramel Cake

November 9, 2009

Halloween CakeMaking a layer cake is a full day activity.   The kind where you end up with flour all over the floor, and half of your pots and pans are left soaking in the sink.  But at the very end of the day you end up with a deliciously moist and extravagant looking treat to serve to your friends on a special occasion. Sometimes special occasions just don’t come often enough.  Halloween?  Great, lets make a cake!!  This is another amalgamation of Martha recipes that I have been collecting over time.  I avoid decorating cakes with my Wilton collection of cake tips and pastry bags.  I would like to say it’s because my style leans toward sophisticated and modern, and less toward 1950’s floral aprons, but the truth is I don’t have a very steady hand and I hate flowers.  There I said it.  I deserve to be booted from the Martha fan club.  But just because I hate flowers, doesn’t mean my cakes have to be plain.  This cake has a funky, retro feel, even if you do have to push the caramel dots and sticks to the side to eat it.  Don’t let the thin, wet, one-bowl chocolate batter fool you.  It’s the moistest, most flavorful chocolate cake recipe on the planet.  It’s the foundation for many of my best experiments.


Layer CakeIngredients

1 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups sugar2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large whole eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups milk (whole tastes great, but skim works well too)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups warm water

Caramel Buttercream
1 1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cups heavy whipping cream
6 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1T pieces
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Caramel Decorations
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice


  1. Make Cake. Preheat oven to 350°.   Prepare 2 8×2 round cake pans (or 2 9×2 cake pans for slightly shorter cakes) by spraying with cooking spray for baking.  Line the bottom with a round parchment, and spray parchment with cooking spray for baking.  Set Aside.
  2. Sift cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large mixing bowl.  Add eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla, and beat on low speed until just combined.  Slowly add the warm water and mix until smooth, around 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  3. Divide batter among cake pans. Bake, rotate pans until halfway through, until tops spring back when touched and cake tester comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cake pans to wire rack and lest rest, 15 minutes.  Invert cake onto wire rack, peel off parchment, and reinvert cakes so they are top side up.  Let cool completely.
  4. Using a serrated knife, trip the tops of the cake layers to make level.  Then cut each cake in half, so there are 4 layers.
  5. Make Buttercream.  Caramel: Pour 1/4 cup water into saucepan.  Add 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar.  Cook over medium-heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and syrup is clear.  Continue to cook, without stirring, until syrup comes to a boil.  Let syrup boil, gently swirling pan occasionally, until syrup is dark amber.  Remove from heat.
  6. Slowly pour in 1/3 cup of cream while stirring.  Continue to stir until smooth.  Transfer to a bowl and let cool.
  7. Whisk 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream until thick and fluffy.  Cover with plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator.
  8. Whisk together remaining 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, the egg whites and salt in the heatproof bowl of a standing mixer.  Set bowl over pan of simmering water and whisk until sugar is dissolved and mixture reaches 140 degrees.
  9. Return bowl to mix and using whisk attachment, beat on medium-high until stiff.  Reduce speed to medium low; add butter a few tablespoons at a time.  Continue whisking until smooth.
  10. Switch to paddle attachment.  Add caramel and vanilla; beat on lowest speed until combined, 3-5 minutes.
  11. Add 1 1/2 cups of the buttercream to the bowl of whipped cream and fold together.
  12. Assemble Cake.  Place one layer of cake on a cake plate, and spread 1/3 of the lightened buttercream on top.  Place another cake layer on top and spread another 1/3 of the lightened buttercream.  Repeat with one more layer.  Put the final cake layer on the cake.  Spread a thin layer of the buttercream over entire cake as a crumb coat.  Cover cake with a cake dome and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until frosting is firm.
  13. Spread remaining butter, smoothing with an offset spatula. Cover with a cake dome and refrigerate until ready to serve.
  14. Decorate Cake.  Lay out pieces of parchment paper and cover with cooking spray.  Add 2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup water and lemon juice to saucepan.  Cook over medium-heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and syrup is clear.  Continue to cook, without stirring, until syrup comes to a boil.  Let syrup boil, gently swirling pan occasionally, until syrup is light to medium amber.  Remove from heat and let sit for 5-8 minutes.
  15. To make sticks, drizzle caramel on prepared parchment with long strokes.  To make dots, drop spoonfuls of caramel to form 1-inch rounds.  Let caramel stand until firm, about 5 minutes, then remove with an offset spatula, and arrange on cake immediately prior to serving.

Halloween Pumpkin Tartlets

November 1, 2009

Pumpkin Tartlets

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!  In honor of the year’s best holiday, I made little pumpkin tartlets with jack o’ lantern faces.  The filling is a typical pumpkin pie flavor and consistency, and the crust is a flakey tart dough with a hint of fall spices.  These were inspired by Martha but I made some changes to conform with my own favorite recipes.

I always think its important to play tart dough off of the filling – in other words, don’t just always use the same plain dough.  The two should be connected somehow.  It should either have similar flavors (without being matchy-matchy), such as cloves and ginger in the filling and allspice and nutmeg in the dough; or they should be very different, but complementing flavors, such as lavender in the dough, with lemon raspberry filling.

Sorry for the iPhone quality photo.  And try not to overcook the faces like I did!

Pumpkin Tartlet



For crust:
2 cups 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces
2 large egg
4 tablespoons vodka frozen
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
All-purpose flour, for work surface

For filling:
1 can (15 ounces) solid-packed pumpkin
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Place dry crust ingredients in a food processor and pulse. Add cold butter and pulse until the texture of cornmeal. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until blended into one large ball of dough. Split dough into three portions. Place each portion on plastic wrap, flatten to a disc and wrap. Place dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  3. Place one disk of dough on a lightly floured work surface; roll out to 1/8 inch thick. Cut out three 7-inch rounds, gathering scraps and rerolling dough once if needed. Fit rounds into three 4 3/4-inch fluted tart pans with removable bottoms. Trim dough flush with tops. Refrigerate on baking sheets 30 minutes. Gently pierce bottom with a fork. Repeat with second and third disk of dough to make 9 tartlets. Combine remaining dough and wrap as before and place dough in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk pumpkin, 1 cup cream, whole eggs, honey, sugar, salt, and spices in a large bowl. Divide among tart shells so each one is 3/4 full. Bake tarts on baking sheets until edges are golden brown and filling has set, about 30 minutes. Let cool on wire racks. Keep oven on.
  5. Roll out remaining dough to 1/8 inch thick. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
  6. Using a paring knife, cut out jack-o-lantern features from the chilled dough; transfer cutouts to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill in freezer 15 minutes. Whisk yolk and remaining 2 tablespoons cream in a small bowl. Brush cutouts with the egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 9 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Arrange cutouts on top of cooled tarts, and serve.

Lemon Thumbprint Tartlets

October 30, 2009

These are a great alternative to my Meyer Lemon Tartlets when you are short on time, or simply want a different look.  Once again it was inspired by Martha (I sure have been on a Martha kick recently thanks to her solid baking recipes) using her recipe for Lemon Tassies with a slight modification to double the amount of crust.   Since they are made in a mini muffin tin and you don’t have to roll any dough out, they can be made fairly quickly.  Also, they last for 3 days and I thought were at their best on the 2nd day.   Small bites perfect for a cocktail party.

Lemon Thumbprint Tartlets


For the Candied Lemon Zest:
1 lemons, well scrubbed
1 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup cool water

For the Crusts:
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
2 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt

For the Filling:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
3 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


  1. For candied lemon zest: Remove zest from lemons with a vegetable peeler, keeping pieces long. Remove white pith using a paring knife, and finely julienne using a very sharp knife. Place julienned zest in a small bowl; cover with boiling water. Let stand for 30 minutes; drain.
  2. Bring 1 cup sugar and the cool water to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When sugar is completely dissolved, add julienned zest, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand overnight. Remove zest, and drain on wire rack. Cut each piece in half. Roll in sugar. Dry on wire rack. Store zest in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
  3. Make the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with rack in upper third. Lightly butter a 24-cup mini-muffin pan; set aside. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flour and butter. Pulse until mixture is the consistency of fine crumbs. Add the sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt. Process until evenly incorporated and smooth; do not overprocess.
  4. Divide the dough into quarters. Divide each quarter into 6 pieces. Shape into balls. Place each ball in a muffin cup; press down in the centers so that the dough fits the cups snugly. Use a small tart tamper or other tool with a flat round end, and use it to ensure the bottom is flat and a nice cup is formed. Set muffin pan on a baking sheet.
  5. Bake until lightly browned all over and slightly darker at the edges, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer baking sheet with muffin pan to a wire rack to cool.
  6. Make the filling: In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese, sugar, egg, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla until completely smooth. Using a 1/4-ounce ice cream scoop, fill the cooled crusts. Bake until filling is set and just beginning to color at the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer muffin pan to a wire rack. Garnish with candied lemon peel. Let cool completely before serving. The tartlets may be stored in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

Spinach Pesto

October 29, 2009

Spinach Pesto

I tried out the aerogrow system (with mixed success) and was ready to replace all my used up and/or dying herbs, and start a new cycle.  But the basil was still thriving.  So how to use up basil?  MAKE PESTO!  I have been experimenting with my pesto recipe, trying different nut additions (walnuts or pine nuts), adding spinach and Parmesan cheese.  I finally have come up with a winning combination that I will use from now on.  The biggest influence was Ina Garten’s recipe in Back to Basics (using both kinds of nuts – genius!).  But I love adding a little spinach and lemon into my pesto and I don’t like it too salty or garlicky.  After making the recipe, I split the pesto into three portions, threw two in the freezer (where they will be good for 2-3 months) and one in the fridge (where it will be good for 3-4 days).  Each portion serves 2-3 people for an entree-sized pasta dish.  Pesto is also great on fish or chicken.  My hubby sauteed some shrimp, and tossed them with cherry tomatoes, the pesto, and some angel hair pasta for a quick and delicious Sunday night dinner.


1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
6 cloves garlic
3 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves, packed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups good olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan


  1. Place the walnuts, pignoli, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process for 15 seconds.
  2. Add the basil, spinach, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Process for 30 seconds.
  3. With the processor running, VERY slowly pour the olive oil into the bowl through the feed tube and process until the pesto is thoroughly pureed. Add the Parmesan and puree for a minute.
  4. Use right away or store the pesto in the refrigerator or freezer with a thin film of olive oil on top.

Spice Cured Turkey for Mocksgiving

October 28, 2009

Every cook feels the best part about Thanksgiving is the turkey.  It needs to be juicy, flavorful, and fully cooked, but not tough and chewy.  I have a couple tricks up my sleeve to ensure the perfect bird.

Years ago I tried the brining method.   Flavorful and moist it was, but it was still a little tough and chewy.  Then I switched to the butter-rub method, which makes the meat perfectly tender.

I have a couple rules:

  • Number one, always buy organic or at least free range, and try not to buy frozen (I am a big fan of Diestel, specifically their Heidi’s Hens birds).
  • Number two, put the butter rub both under and over the skin.
  • Number three, treat heidi the hen, or tom the turkey to a spa day.  This is usually the step that makes people cringe.  When you loosen the skin around the breast, you want to very gently massage the butter onto the meat for 5-10 minutes.  The pressure should be like giving a facial.  This rubs the butter in and tenderizes the meat.  I am also known to talk to the bird to thank it for providing its bounty with us on the holiday.  People think I am being funny, but I am usually pretty serious 🙂

This year, I ran across a Martha Stewart Recipe that called for both a brine and a butter rub, which included all of my husband’s favorite spices.  I thought it was worth a try to combine the two methods.  So we started a new annual tradition called Mocksgiving, where we have an urban Thanksgiving with our friends, a month before the big day.  I wanted to test the recipes I had chosen before committing myself.

The turkey turned out fabulous!  It was moist, tender, and flavorful.  It held up well on its own, and made a great sandwich filling the next day.  Part of that was also due to the new carving method my hubby used (Take the whole breast off, and then slice across the grain.  Don’t try to carve perfect slices straight off the bird at the dining table like they do in the movies.  Slicing parallel to the “spine” only makes it more chewy.  You want to slice it parallel to the ribs).

I was very hesitant that the recipe called for stuffing the bird – something I have always been very wary of.  But I obsessively checked the temperature of the stuffing, the breast and the thigh and everything reached a safe temperature.  The trick was only stuffing the bird with half the stuffing (so it was only loosely stuffed), cooking the other half of the stuffing separately, and then mixing them together to serve.

My version of Martha’s Recipe below.  Next year, I might play with the spice combination for a more “apple cider” feel.  Don’t be scared of the Cumin, while I am not normally a big fan, it was a great addition.  Also, I didn’t like how the gravy turned out.  I am always a big fan of the Williams Sonoma Jar that you mix with milk (and its much healthier).  Sorry about the un-prepped photo – I had hungry people and side dishes to finish.

Spice Cured Turkey

Serves 12 to 14

4 cups coarse salt
5 cups sugar
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 leeks, cut into 1-inch pieces and cleaned of all sand
3 bay leaves
1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons crushed red-pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cloves
2 teaspoons whole allspice
7 cups water
1 cup unfiltered, unsweetened apple cider
1 (18-20 pound) organic turkey
1 recipe Apple-Chestnut Stuffing
1 recipe Spice Butter, softened
Container of Chicken Stock


  1. In a large stockpot, combine salt, sugar, carrots, celery, onions, leeks, bay leaves, garlic, peppercorns, cumin, red-pepper flakes, cloves, and allspice. Add the water and apple cider, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. The brine needs to cool completely before the turkey is soaked in it: It can be made a day ahead or chilled over an ice bath.
  2. Rinse turkey under cold water; pat dry (Clean your sink and surrounding counterspace when you are finished). Place in stockpot or large brining bag, breast side down. Add brine and enough water to cover. Cover the stockpot, and refrigerate overnight. Remove turkey from brine; drain.
  3. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Secure skin over neck cavity with toothpicks or skewers.  Gently loosen the skin from the breast.   Massage half of the butter under the skin onto the breast.  Rub turkey with the remaining spice butter, and place on a rack in a roasting pan.  Tuck wings under the bird.
  4. Right before you put the bird in the oven, fill cavities with stuffing, being careful not to pack too tightly.  Then tie legs together with kitchen twine.
  5. Place in oven, and roast 30 minutes. Baste with pan drippings, rotate pan, and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Continue basting every 30 to 45 minutes, switching between the pan drippings and the chicken stock, until temperature taken in thickest part of the thigh registers 180 degrees. Around 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Once turkey is well browned, tent with foil. Allow turkey to rest 30 minutes before carving. While turkey is resting, remove stuffing.

Shades of Pink on Black – A Wedding Mood Board

July 3, 2009


I was inspired to make another wedding mood board for my engaged-to-be-married friend.  She has decided to get married at her mother’s home in Oklahoma.  Naturally, being a California girl, I have no idea what Oklahoma looks like (besides what the song says), so I pictured this expansive yard for the wedding with candles and moonlight and chirping crickets.  These are an assortment of images for inspiration for a black and white wedding with shades of pink.

Southwestern Frittata

June 28, 2009

Southwestern Frittata

With my parents in town, I wanted to treat them to a special breakfast.  With very little time to get up and on the road for a hiking trip, I turned to a frittata.  Lots of protein, classy presentation, and easy to prepare, frittatas are a great standby when you have active house guests.  Also, our sweet 100 tomatoes are finally starting to ripen out in the hot sun and I wanted to take advantage of them!


6 large eggs
2 large whites
3 tablespoons parsley
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 jalapeno peppers, halved, seeded, and finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
4oz crumbled soft goat cheese
15 ounces black beans (1 can), drained and rinsed
1/2 avocado, sliced


  1. Heat the broiler.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg whites, and parsley; season with salt and pepper.
  3. In a 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and tomatoes and cook until the onion has softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in the jalapeno peppers and egg mixture. Sprinkle cheese over top. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook until eggs are almost set, 5 to 7 minutes.
  4. Place frittata under broiler and cook until the top is set and starts to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, cook beans until heated through (add water if too dry); season with salt and pepper.
  5. Run a rubber spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen the frittata. Carefully slip the frittata out of the pan onto a large serving platter. Serve wedges of frittata topped with avocado slices and with black beans on the side.