Chocolate Stout Cake

February 28, 2009 at 4:51 pm (B plus (3.5 stars, like a lot), Cake, Dessert, Necessarily nonvegan, Website / blog)

My friends Kathy and Spoons made this chocolate stout cake a number of years ago at one of Spoon’s ten-course birthday extravaganzas.  It was such a perfect chocolate cake that it stuck in my memory all this time, and finally, last weekend, not quite five years later, I finally tried to make it myself.

I actually, for inexplicable reasons, ended up make 1.67 recipes, and it took a surprisingly long time.  Nothing was hard, but beating the batter took lots of time (and arm strength!).  Even once the batter is ready, this cake takes quite a while.  It takes 45 minutes to cook, 20 minutes to cool before glazing, then after you add the glaze the cake has to sit probably another hour at least so that the glaze sets and hardens slightly.

For the chocolate, I used a mixture of two brands.  About 2/3 was from a bar of dark baking chocolate I bought at the local biofrischmarkt.  The other 1/3 was a bar of unsweetened Scharffenberger chocolate.  For the glaze, I used about half Scharffenberger and the other half a cheap milk chocolate baking bar that we got at Rewe, the local German supermarket.  I don’t know the German word for “dutch processed” so I’m not sure whether or not I used the right kind of cocoa.  I disobeyed the instructions and used blackstrap molasses, but it wasn’t a particularly bitter brand.

I served the cake at a party and it was a big hit.  One friend said “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve had in a long, long time.”  I thought that the cake was tasty, but it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it.  It was slightly less moist than I would have liked, even thought I cooked it for the lesser amount of time.  My oven isn’t very precise, however, so maybe the temperature was too hot.  Besides being slightly too dry, the texture was excellent, and the flavor was pretty good, but I could barely detect the beer.  The batter tasted super sweet, but the cake tasted like a not too sweet chocolate cake.  Without the glaze, it actually would have been not quite sweet enough, most people said.  Nonetheless, if I make it again I’m going to try using all unsweetened chocolate for the bar chocolate in the cake.  The glaze in particular was excellent, although I thought that the recipe made slightly too much glaze.  Unlike in the fine cooking photo, my glaze covered every square inch of cake.  Next time I’m going to cut the glaze recipe to 4 ounces of chocolate and 1/2 cup of cream.  For the second cake, I was out of sharffenberger, so I used only the Rewe milk baking chocolate, and the glaze was sickly sweet.

When I was making the glaze, I was really tempted to add a tsp. of minced jalepenos, or a little stout, or some crystallized ginger, or black pepper…. something to jazz it up a bit.  I didn’t have the nerve to experiment on so many people, but next time I’m going to be more adventurous.  If anyone else has ideas for interesting ways to jazz up the glaze, post a comment.

This recipe makes a big cake.  I forgot to count but it probably serves at least 12 people.

Update June 2011:  I made this cake to bring to a birthday party and for some reason the texture came out really strange.  The crumb was extremely fine.  Ahra said it reminded her of a cake made from rice flour.  I have no idea what caused the problem, but I didn’t care for it.  Maybe it was some difference between American and German ingredients?  Or maybe the cocoa I bought wasn’t the right kind?  (I had trouble finding a non-dutched cocoa powder and the one I ended up with said it was “lowfat.”  I thought all cocoa was lowfat (compared to chocolate), but maybe it was somehow even more lowfat than normal.

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Feta and mint Persian sandwiches

February 14, 2009 at 6:59 am (My brain, Persian, Quick weeknight recipe, restaurant inspired, unrated)

There’s a tiny little tea and coffee shop in Saarbruecken that’s owned by a Persian family.  Everyday they offer a traditional Persian lunch, but the hot special is rarely vegetarian.  I do like their sandwiches, however.  The first one I tried was the feta and mint sandwich: half of a baguette spread with creamy feta, lots of fresh mint, and cucumber slices.  It was delicious–much better than the typical German cheese sandwiches.  I liked the sandwich so much I decided to make it at home.  However, I used up all my cucumbers making sesame noodles.  To replace the cucumbers, I added diced kalamata olives and thin slices of a fresh red chili from the Turkish market.  I don’t know what kind of chili it is, but it’s bright tasting and hot but not too hot.  My version of the feta and mint sandwich was delicious, even without the cucumber.  Derek was skeptical at first, but after eating his sandwich he asked for another!  I was out of the red chili, so I spread the bread with a little harissa, which was also tasty, but slightly bitter.

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Light Tom Kha Gai

February 14, 2009 at 6:47 am (B_minus (2.5 stars), Dark leafy greens, East and SE Asia, My brain, Other, Quick weeknight recipe, soup, Tofu)

This version of Tom Kha Gai is vegetarian, and very light on the coconut milk.  Derek objected to calling it Tom Kha Gai (because it doesn’t have enough coconut milk), but I think it’s close enough.  If you want a more authentic version of this traditional Thai soup, simply reduce the water and increase the amount of coconut milk.

In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan combine and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat.  Boil for 15 minutes:

  • 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 bouillon cube
  • 15 quarter-sized slices fresh unpeeled ginger (about 30 grams)
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 10 wild lime leaves or wide strips of lime zest from one lime
  • 1 ounce of fresh lemongrass stalks, smashed with a heavy pestle, and cut into pieces that fit in your pan

Strain the soup, or use tongs to remove the flotsam.  Return the broth to the pan.  Add and cook for another 5 minutes longer:

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • 8 oz firm tofu, cut into bite-sized squares
  • 6 oz fresh, small button mushrooms, quartered (about 1 1/4 cups)
  • instead of mushrooms, I sometimes add ribbons of a fresh green, often bok choy.
  • 2 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1/4? tsp. salt (it despends on how salty your bouillon cube and soy sauce are)
  • 1/2? tsp. brown sugar (maybe 1 tsp.)

Remove the pan from the heat and add:

  • juice of 1 lime (about 2? Tbs. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste)
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced crosswise (optional)
  • slices of hot red chilis (optional)
  • bean sprouts (optional)

Serve hot.  Makes 4 large bowls or 6 small bowls.

Rating: B

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Oven Fries

February 14, 2009 at 6:32 am (B plus (3.5 stars, like a lot), Cook's Illustrated, Derek's faves, Root vegetables, Starches)

Derek has been sick this week, and Katrina suggested I make him “comfort food.”  So for dinner last night I made miso soup and oven fries.  I know the combination is a bit weird, but Derek seemed to enjoy the dinner nonetheless.

This recipe for oven fries is based on a recipe in the Cook’s Illustrated Best Light Recipe cookbook.  It’s actually not particularly light, but it makes very tasty, crispy potato wedges.  For optimal browning CI recommends intense heat and a heavy, dark baking sheet.  To get the insides creamy and smooth they recommend covering the baking sheet with tin foil and steaming them for the first 5 minutes of cooking.  They say that russet potatoes make the best oven fries, but russets don’t seem to exist in Germany.  Instead I used the standard German potato, which isn’t very starchy and has a very yellow flesh–maybe it’s akin to a Yukon Gold?  CI says the russets need to be soaked to remove some of the starch, but I skipped this step since my potatoes didn’t seem very starchy.  I also used olive oil rather than the peanut or vegetable oil they recommend, because that is what I have, and I don’t think it tastes “bitter and out of place”, as CI claims.  I oiled the cookie sheet with only 3 Tbs. oil rather than the 4 Tbs. the recipe called for.

  • 24 ounces of potatoes (1.5 pounds), scrubbed, each potato cut lengthwise and cut into even-sized wedges about 1/2 inch thick
  • 3 to 4 Tablespoons of olive oil + 1 tsp.
  • 1 tsp. fine sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  1. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 475 degrees.  Coat a large heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet (dark or nonstick is best) with 3 Tbs. of olive oil, then sprinkle evenly with the salt and pepper.
  2. Wash the potatoes and dry them thoroughly.  Cut them into wedges.   Toss the wedges in a bowl with 1 tsp. oil
  3. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and cover the pan tightly with tin foil.  Bake for five minutes, then remove the foil.  Bake for ten minutes, then rotate the pan. Bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms of the wedges are spotty, golden brown. Scrape the potatoes lose with a spatula, then flip each wedge over, trying to keep the potatoes in a single layer.  Bake until the potatoes are golden and crisp, 7 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan if the wedges are browning unevenly.  If the potatoes seem greasy, drain them briefly on paper towels, blotting away excess oil.

Serves 3 to 5.

Rating: B+
Derek: A- (when they’re right out of the oven)

I’ve made this several times now, and I’m not all that careful about the technique, but the fries always turn out well.  Depending on how fat I slice the potatoes, my largest cookie sheet (a rimmed medium-grey non-stick commercial half-sheet pan) holds about 1.5 – 2 pounds of sliced, small yellow potatoes.  I’ve found that you can really pack the potatoes in, as long as they’re in a single layer there doesn’t need to be much space between the potato slices. Although 2 pounds of potatoes will fit, you have to cut the potatoes a bit too thick, and the wedges don’t crisp up as well, although they do have a nice, creamy interior.   I’ve reduced the oil to a total of 2 Tbs. of olive oil, and although Derek says they’re not quite as good as the original, if the potatoes are cut thin they still crisp up very nicely and taste very good–and they still seem greasy to me.  I think a tsp. of fine sea salt is too much if you’re only using 1.5 pounds of potatoes.  I use about 1 tsp. of coarse salt for 2 pounds of potatoes.  Sometimes I briefly rinse the potatoes and dry them in kitchen towels, other times I’ve skipped this step.  Without a side by side comparison, however, I’m can’t say how much of a difference the rinsing step makes for the German potatoes.

Next time I make these I think I want to add some spices along with the pepper, maybe paprika and cumin?

Derek likes these potatoes as leftovers, heated up in the microwave, but the skins get kind of tough and the insides not as creamy.  I haven’t tried reheating them in the oven, but I imagine that would work much better.

I’ve also tried this recipe with parsnips and they also work well.

Fine cooking recipe:

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Greek pasta with broccoli, olives, feta, and mint

February 5, 2009 at 3:53 pm (B_minus (2.5 stars), Cruciferous rich, My brain, Pasta, Quick weeknight recipe, Starches)

I threw together this quick Greek-inspired pasta dish for dinner tonight, in order to use up some feta that needed to get eaten. Although it uses a pretty standard combination of ingredients, we liked it enough that we thought it was worth writing up what I did. Unfortunately, I didn’t measure ingredients, so everything is approximate.

  • 1 small bunch of mint (about the size of a fist), leaves minced
  • about 75 grams of kalamata olives, finely chopped
  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • splash of red wine vinegar (maybe a tablespoon?)
  • 2 small red onions, sliced into rings
  • a little olive oil
  • salt
  • 1/2 pound whole wheat linguine
  • 1 bunch broccoli, stem sliced and top cut into florets
  • 1/2 English cucumber, diced
  • feta, maybe 4 ounces?
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  While you wait, get out a very large serving dish.  Chop the mint and olives, and add them to the serving dish along with the chickpeas, lemon juice, and red wine vinegar. Slice the onions.  Heat the oil in a small frying pan.  When the oil is hot, add the onions and cook over high heat, briefly, until slightly softened and blackened in places.  Add to the serving bowl. Prep the broccoli.
  2. When the water comes to a boil, salt the water, and add the pasta.  When the pasta has only five minutes more to cook, add the broccoli to the pasta water.  Chop the cucumber.
  3. When the pasta is done (the broccoli should be done as well), drain it, and add it to the serving bowl.   Crumble in the feta, and mix well.  When the pasta has cooled slightly, add the cucumber, and serve immediately.

I thoroughly enjoyed this pasta.  The broccoli and mint and olives and feta and lemon were all essential.  The cucumber added a nice bit of cool crunch, but not a lot of flavor. The red onions added color and flavor, but probably aren’t essential.

Rating: B
Derek: B+

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