Category Archives: recipe

Almond Shortbread Brownies

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These brownies, oh, these brownies. These brownies are something special. They might be the dessert I’ve made the most frequently in the last ten years.

They are rich fudgy brownies baked on a buttery shortbread crust. Before the first time I made them, it never occurred to me that brownies would benefit from a crust, but ever since, it has seemed as natural as adding chocolate chips to a cookie.

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They are adapted from chocolate genius Alice Medrich’s book Bittersweet (recently re-released as Seriously Bitter Sweet). Her books are the first ones I turn to when I’m looking for anything chocolate, from truffles to tarts to mousses to cakes to brownies. She’s never steered me wrong.

These shortbread brownies are a study in the pleasure of contrasts. The brownie part seems smoother and more chocolatey against the crisp almond shortbread background. They are almost like handheld chocolate tarts.

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Even better, they are incredibly easy to make. The shortbread crust is a simple pour-melted-butter-over-flour-almond-meal-and-sugar, stir, and pat-in-the-pan job. It gets baked until golden while you put together the brownie batter.

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You melt the chocolate and butter and sugar together over a pan of barely simmering water, and then stir in the eggs, vanilla, and flour. Since they have so little flour, these brownies do need some serious stirring, but it still only takes a couple of minutes. Then you pour the batter over the shortbread crust and bake until the edges are puffed and the middle is set.

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I’ve made many variations on these over the years. I’ve omitted the nuts for friends with allergies, I’ve swapped in ground hazelnuts for the almonds, I’ve added a caramel layer to the top of the brownies, I’ve sprinkled them with sea salt, I’ve dusted the top with the faintest hint of freshly grated nutmeg. I’ve yet to find a version of these I don’t like.

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These brownies are, pretty much, unanimously loved when I bring them anywhere. People sometimes ask me what they are and look at me with incredulity when I say they’re brownies. As though something this good can’t just be as simple as a brownie. Rest assured, my friends, it can.

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Almond Shortbread Brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet (revised and reprinted as Seriously Bitter Sweet)

These brownies are one of my favorite easy-to-make desserts. They manage to combine the decadent pleasure of a fudgy brownie with the crisp, buttery, nutty texture of almond shortbread. You can pulse almonds in a food processor to make almond meal if you don’t want to buy it separately. Or you can omit the almond meal completely if you want to avoid nuts. These are quite rich, so cut them small. You can always have a second one.

For the almond shortbread crust:

6 tablespoons (3 oz, 85 g) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (1 oz, 24 g) sugar
3/4 cup (3 1/3 oz, 95 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 3/4 oz, 50 g) almond meal
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the brownie batter:

6 1/2 oz, 185 g bittersweet chocolate (66-72% cacao), chopped
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 oz, 98 g) unsalted butter, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
1 cup (7 oz, 200 g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (2 oz, 50 g) all-purpose flour

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil with enough overhang on two sides to be able to lift it out after everything is baked.

Combine the flour, almond meal, and salt in a small bowl. Add the vanilla extract to the melted butter and pour over the flour mixture. Stir until it comes together. Press the dough into the bottom of the lined pan in an even layer all the way to the edges.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.

Set aside to cool while you make the brownie batter.

Add some water to a wide skillet and bring it to a low simmer. Place the chocolate, butter, and sugar in a medium heat-proof (stainless steel is a good choice) bowl and set the bowl in the skillet. Stir until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and the mixture feels hot to the touch.

Remove the bowl from the skillet (wipe the bottom with a towel to prevent any drips) and turn off the heat. Add the vanilla extract and salt and stir. Add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Add the flour and stir until the batter is smooth and glossy and pulling away from the sides of the bowl. If you’re not sure, keep stirring. This should take about two minutes. Pour the batter over the shortbread crust and bake until the edges look puffed and the surface in the middle looks dry, about 20-25 minutes.

Allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack. At least an hour.

Lift the brownies out of the pan by holding onto the overhanging edges of parchment paper or foil. Using a sharp chef’s knife, cut into 25-30 squares. These are rich, don’t be tempted to cut them larger.

They keep well in an airtight container for about 4-5 days.

Yield: 25-30 small, rich brownies

 

Brown Sugar Oat Flour Banana Walnut Bread

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Another banana bread? Yeah, I know. I just wrote about the double chocolate one last week. But this one is different.

It’s more of a breakfast bread. It eschews chocolate in favor of whole grain oat flour and toasted walnuts and a more restrained use of butter and sugar. It fits a classic banana nut bread flavor profile, but the oat flour and brown sugar and the crunchy dusting of turbinado sugar give it a little extra depth.

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I love oat flour. So many whole grain flours have a heaviness to them, but oat flour feels so light. And it’s a natural flavor partner for brown sugar and bananas and walnuts. It’s also something that you can make yourself from rolled or quick oats–all you need to do is pulse them in a food processor and you have oat flour. Or you can go with the pre-milled versions from Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur Flour or any other producer you like.

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I went through a phase with my cooking where I was always adding something more–another spice, another flavoring–to make my recipes more interesting. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the idea of simplifying, stripping things down to the bare essentials so that each flavor can stand on its own. This banana bread is better for its simplicity. It’s simple banana bread, but it’s really good simple banana bread.

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You could add cinnamon or chocolate chips or any number of extras and it would still be tasty, but this banana bread just doesn’t need any of those things.

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It makes me appreciate just how pleasurable the flavors of banana and oats and brown sugar and toasted walnuts are together and reminds me that they don’t need to hide behind anything else. They’re perfectly wonderful stars themselves.

The only extra on this bread is the sprinkle of turbinado (or raw sugar), which adds a little textural contrast and serves to enhance the brown sugar flavor rather than competing with it. It also gives this homey banana bread a glint of sparkle when it catches the light.

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This made a lovely breakfast for most of last week. When it was gone, Dan and I were wishing we had more.

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Brown Sugar Oat Flour Banana Walnut Bread

This is a lovely banana bread with a classic flavor profile. You can make your own oat flour by pulsing rolled or quick oats (but not steel cut) in a food processor or you can use a commercial oat flour. You could substitute all-purpose or whole wheat flour for the oat flour and it would still work, but I really like the homey oat flavor here. This is one of my favorite kinds of banana bread to have for breakfast. It feels wholesome enough that I don’t mistake it for dessert. You can freeze overripe bananas if you want to keep them around for whenever the urge for banana bread strikes.

1 cup (3 1/4 oz, 95 g) oat flour
1 cup (4 1/4 oz, 125 g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 medium overripe bananas
1/2 cup (4 oz, 110 g) light brown sugar (dark would work too)
6 tablespoons (3 oz, 90 g) unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup (3 oz, 85 g) walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz, 12 g) turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9 x 5 inch  loaf pan with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a fork. Add the brown sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla extract and stir until well combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the oat and all-purpose flours, baking soda, and salt. Add to the banana mixture and stir until no dry bits of flour remain. Stir in the walnuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with top with an even layer of turbinado sugar, and bake for about 60-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Keeps, well wrapped at room temperature, for about 5 days.

Yield: 1 9 x 5-inch loaf

Roasted Cauliflower Soup with Balsamic-Glazed Shallots

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April is a Janus-faced tease. We all know that it’s Eliot’s cruelest month, but perhaps Robert Frost best articulated the month’s contradictions in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

When we find our April selves back in the middle of March, it’s nice to have a simple soup as warming and comforting as a soft blanket to turn to. This roasted cauliflower soup is that for me.

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I’ve done plenty of variations on this basic idea, but this particular one is one I quite like. It starts with a pile of parmesan rinds, and couple of cloves of garlic and a bay leaf simmered in water to make a rich broth while cauliflower and an onion and a few yukon gold potatoes go into the oven to roast until they are deeply caramelized.

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Then the parmesan rinds get strained out, the roasted vegetables go into the pot and simmer until everything is softened and then everything gets zizzed with a stick blender.

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But what makes the soup special is that it gets garnished with a generous sprinkle of balsamic-glazed shallots which bring an acidic hit of sweetness and a contrasting texture to the smooth soup.

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I like to drizzle it with olive oil (or even better, smoked olive oil) and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt. It isn’t a revolutionary soup, but it’s a good soup to keep you warm while you wait for spring to settle in.

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Roasted Cauliflower Soup with Parmesan Broth and Balsamic-Glazed Shallots

This parmesan rind broth is simple to make, but you can skip it if you like and use a chicken stock or vegetable stock or water (in that case, use about 4 cups). In Chicago, I’ve found parmesan rinds for sale at Whole Foods and Eataly. You can also save your parmesan rinds and store them in the freezer for months. This soup really benefits from the balsamic-glazed shallots, so don’t be tempted to skip them. They’re really simple to make. I especially love this drizzled with a little smoked olive oil. In Chicago, I’ve found it at City Olive. But it will be lovely with any olive oil you like.

For the broth:

A large handful of parmesan rinds
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf

For the roasted vegetables:

1 medium head of cauliflower, roughly chopped
2-4 small yukon gold potatoes, roughly chopped
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into eighths (quarter it then cut those in half)
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil (or enough to lightly coat the vegetables)

For the balsamic-glazed shallots:

3 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon olive olive oil

optional garnish:

good quality extra virgin olive oil or smoked olive oil and flaky sea salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a half sheet pan with aluminum foil (optional, but makes cleanup easier).

Place the parmesan rinds, garlic cloves, and bay leaves in a large saucepan or stock pot. Cover with about 5 cups of water and bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the cauliflower, potatoes, and onion with olive oil, rosemary, and salt. Spread in a single layer on the sheet pan and roast until the vegetables are browned and caramelized in spots, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. (Leave the oven on.)

In a small bowl, toss the shallots and balsamic vinegar and olive oil until well coated. Line another baking sheet with aluminum foil, spread the shallots out in a single layer and roast, until deeply browned (almost blackened) in spots, about 10-15 minutes. Set aside.

While the shallots are roasting, strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into a large liquid measuring cup (or bowl). Some parmesan may have glued itself to the bottom or sides of the pot. Peel off any large chunks of rind, but don’t worry about the parmesan residue left behind.

Return the pot to the stove and add the roasted vegetables. Retrieve the garlic cloves from the strainer and add them to the pot (discard the rinds and bay leaf). Pour the broth over the vegetables. There should be enough to cover. If not, add a little water.

Bring to a boil, and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender. Remove from the heat. With a stick blender, puree the soup until smooth. Taste to see if it needs more salt and add more if necessary.

Ladle into bowls, sprinkle generously with balsamic-glazed shallots, and drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper (if desired).

Yield: About 6 servings

 

Double Chocolate Banana Bread

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It was 70° on Saturday. Then on Sunday it turned cold and misty. And today it was colder still with a forecast for snow. It’s springtime in Chicago. A season that always seems intent on doubling back on itself a few times before it settles in for good.

It’s a good day for simple comforting baked goods. Like this double chocolate banana bread.

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This comes from Deb of Smitten Kitchen, so I’m pretty sure the whole internet already knows about it. But if somehow you missed it, I’m here to testify to its greatness.

Chocolate and banana are a classic pairing–from frozen chocolate covered bananas to banana and nutella filled crepes. I’ve made plenty of banana breads with chocolate chips, but this was the first time I made one where the cake (er, bread) itself was laden with cocoa powder.

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It’s a simple one-bowl job, as easy as any other basic banana bread. And it might be even easier to love. It’s rich and chocolatey but the banana flavor really shines through.

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It’s sweet enough for dessert, but there’s fruit in it (three whole bananas!) so you can justify having it for breakfast as well. I made it in three mini loaf pans and put two of the resulting loaves in the mail to be a birthday treat for my sister-in-law in Kansas.

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That left one little loaf for me, which wasn’t nearly enough.

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Double Chocolate Banana Bread

Adapted from Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen

This chocolate banana bread is a snap to make. You’ll want to use cocoa powder that is labeled Dutch-process (sometimes called alkalized) rather than natural cocoa powder here, the latter is acidic and can change the chemical reaction. I doubt that most people have mini loaf pans (I got mine from King Arthur Flour and I can no longer find them on the site, but they’re similar to these), so I’m providing instructions for one standard (9″ x 5″) loaf pan. If you choose to make the mini loaves, they take 30-40 minutes in the oven.


3 overripe bananas (the darker the better)
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 oz, 115 g) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup (5 oz, 145 g) brown sugar (light or dark)
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
1 cup (4 1/2 oz, 125 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 cup (6 oz, 170 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a fork. Add the brown sugar, melted butter, egg, and vanilla extract and stir until combined. Place the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a large fine mesh strainer and sift over the wet ingredients (cocoa powder has a tendency to be lumpy, so resist the temptation to skip the sifting) and stir until combined. Stir in the espresso powder (if using) and the chocolate chips or chocolate pieces.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about one hour or until a toothpick placed into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before inverting it onto a wire rack to finish cooling.

Keeps, well-wrapped at room temperature, for up to 5 days.

Yield: One 9 x 5 loaf or 3 mini loaves

Baked Sweet Potato with Marinated Feta, Olives, and Red Peppers

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This dish is perfectly balanced between hot and cold, sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy, bright and mellow.

It’s a spin on a stuffed baked potato, but this time it’s a sweet potato and the filling takes a turn for the Mediterranean with salty olives and tangy feta and crunchy sweet bell peppers and red onion all drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with mint.

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It’s a dish I used to make all the time, but had somehow sort of forgotten about as I took on new cooking projects. I was reminded of it when I was leafing through some of the older residents of my cookbook shelves, looking for inspiration and little gems on their pages I might previously have overlooked. When I saw this recipe when I was flipping through Diana Henry’s wonderfully titled cookbook Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, I remembered just how much I loved it and knew I had to make it right away.

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It’s a dish that feels perfect for the cusp of spring. It relies on produce that is easily findable in winter, but manages to combine them in surprising ways that wake up the palate and feel fresh and new. And it uses so many colors that it’s a feast for the eyes as well.

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And it could barely be easier. You throw the sweet potatoes in the oven to bake for about an hour, and while they’re roasting, you chop some olives, some red pepper, some red onion, some mint. You squeeze some lemon, crumble some feta, toast some spices, toss it all together in a bowl and drizzle in some olive oil and let everything marinate while the sweet potatoes finish baking.

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Then, when the sweet potatoes come out of the oven, you split them open and pile in the minty marinated feta-olive-red-pepper mixture and viola, you’ve got a meal. Or I suppose it could also make a pretty spectacular side dish, if you’re the organized, fancy sort of person whose meals tend to include main dishes and side dishes.

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Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marinated Feta, Olives, and Red Peppers

Liberally adapted from Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons

I love this dish so much. It combines familiar flavors in an unexpected way and the combination just works. If you’re an olive hater, you can leave them out and still have a great dish. The amounts here are pretty flexible given the variable sizes of sweet potatoes. I try to look for ones that are on the medium-small side rather than the huge ones that so often populate the grocery store islands. If all you can find are huge ones, you can certainly cut them in half after roasting and pile the feta-olive-red pepper mixture on top. 

2 medium sweet potatoes
4 ounces (113 g, about half a block) feta cheese, roughly crumbled
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1/2 medium bell pepper, thinly sliced and chopped into 1 inch segments
1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced and chopped into 1 inch segments
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
small bunch of fresh mint, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Scrub the sweet potatoes under cold water to remove any stray dirt, place them on the foil lined baking sheet (no need to x or prick the skin) and bake for 45-60 minutes (depending on size) until they feel tender to the touch.

While the potatoes are baking, add the chopped red onion to a medium bowl and pour the lemon juice over it and let it sit for a few minutes. This will help to take the bite out of the raw onion. Toast the fennel and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute, or until fragrant. Crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle and add them to the bowl. Add the olives, bell pepper, mint and olive oil to the bowl and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until the sweet potatoes are finished baking.

When the sweet potatoes come out of the oven, put them on plates, slice them open lengthwise, and divide the feta-olive-red pepper mixture between them. Eat.

Yield: Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side (easily scaled up or down)

Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

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These cookies are so delicate. They are crisp and buttery and nutty with complex sweetness from the honey and subtle herbaceousness from the rosemary. They are cookies for grown ups.

And I suppose Dan and I are something like grown ups now. After ten years (!) together, four of them married, we’re looking at real estate and trying to make sense not only of mortgage rates and Chicago’s property taxes, but also of a condo association’s financial reserves and how soon a building is likely to need more tuckpointing and if the fire escapes are up to code and if there’s a weight limit on dogs.

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It’s an exciting time. But also a scary one. We want to make wise decisions. We don’t want to get in over our heads. But we are in our thirties and we’re really ready to have our own laundry–the kind where we don’t need quarters. But even in this affordable city, the numbers involved are big and the enormity of the decision can feel overwhelming.

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Sometimes I just want to retreat back into a world I know. One with tea and cookies. Especially these cookies.

They come from Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Cookbook, a wonderful collection of antipasti and pastas and pizzas and lovely Italian dolce. I took some liberties with the method for putting them together to make the whole process less fussy. Silverton instructs you to knead the dough and roll it out and cut it out with cookie cutters, and because I was feeling a little lazy, I opted to streamline things and just roll them into a log and slice and bake them.

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Here’s a tip: any cut-out cookie recipe can be simplified into a slice-and-bake job if you want the flavor of the cookies without the hassle of rolling pins and cookie cutters and re-chilling and re-rolling the dough.

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I also skipped putting rosemary sprigs on each cookie, because as much as I love rosemary, I wasn’t in love with the idea of the texture of it with the cookie. In my version, the rosemary is more subtle and less visible than in Silverton’s original. (If you want to see the original version of the cookies, Tim wrote about them on his awesome blog a few years ago.) But I was very happy with the way these subtle and delicate cookies turned out.

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The way I did it, I also ended up with way too much pine nut nougatine–I must have used a lighter hand with it than Silverton does. I’ve cut it in half in the recipe below to reflect something closer to the amount I actually used.

I made them to go with the salted brown butter caramel pots de creme, and they made a nice pair, but they were also nice for a little after dinner sweet treat with a cup of tea. They were such a lovely way to end the evening that Dan and I were sad when they were all gone. I guess I’ll have to make more.

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Rosemary Pine Nut Cookies

Liberally adapted from Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Cookbook

These buttery, nutty, herby little cookies melt in your mouth. I’ve significantly simplified the method of making these cookies from the original version. I’ve also cut the amount of pine nut nougatine in half. These are delicate, sophisticated cookies–great for adults but maybe not quite right for the little ones in your life. The base cookie is so nice I’m thinking of using it for other things in the future. The original recipe calls for polenta, but I used corn flour because I had some on hand and I love the way it incorporates corn flavor without so much gritty texture, but the amount here is small enough that I’m sure even a courser grind of polenta would work. You could use also use cornmeal if that’s what you have on hand.

For the pine nut nougatine:

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 1/2 teaspoons honey
2 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split length wise
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (35 g) toasted pine nuts
1 fresh sprig of rosemary

For the cookie dough:

1/2 cup (1 stick, 113 g) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 1/2 oz, 75 g) confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz, 100 g) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 1/3 oz, 40 g) polenta, corn flour, or cornmeal

First, make the nougatine topping. Add the cream, honey, sugar, butter, and vanilla bean to a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil. Remove from the heat, and carefully remove the vanilla bean. Whisk in the flour, and then stir in the pine nuts and rosemary sprig. Set aside to cool to room temperature. When the mixture is cool, remove the rosemary sprig. (You can make this up to a week ahead of time, just store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator and bring it up to room temperature before baking the cookies.)

Then, make the cookie dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter and confectioners’ sugar and cream together on high speed until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla extract and mix until incorporated. Add the salt, flour, and polenta/cornmeal/corn flour and mix on low speed until all of the dry ingredients are incorporated.

Form the dough into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and wrap tightly in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (or up to 3 days).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and using a sharp chef’s knife slice into rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Place each round on the prepared baking sheet, leaving about an inch of space between each cookie.

Work the nougatine between your fingers to create a dime-sized disk and place a disk of nougatine in the center of each of the cookies.

Bake for about 10 minutes, rotating about halfway through, until the cookies are just starting to turn golden brown at the edges. Allow the cookies to cool to room temperature on the baking sheet before transferring them to a storage container (or serving them).

These will keep well in an airtight container for a solid two weeks.

Yield: About 28-30 cookies

 

 

Salted Brown Butter Caramel Pots de Creme

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These little pots of deliciousness tick so many of my favorite dessert boxes. Brown butter? Check. Vanilla bean? Check. Caramel? Check. Salt? Check. And an optional splash of booze? Check. They are rich and smooth and creamy with a real depth of flavor from all the browning and infusing and caramelizing.

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They are the result of an idea that’s been rolling around in my mind since I read about something similar on Molly’s site just, oh, six years ago. I always figured I would get around to making them eventually. And when we were having our good friends Maria and Tracy over for a low key dinner the other Friday, it seemed like just the thing to cap off the meal.

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Except, when I went back and looked at the recipe, I realized it had shifted and changed in my memory, and while I have little doubt that those butterscotch pots de creme are wonderful in their own right, they just weren’t what I was craving.

I wanted something that didn’t just use a combination of sugars, but something that included the alchemical wonder that is butter browned with a vanilla bean. And I wanted a salty edge to the thing. I couldn’t find a recipe that was quite what I was looking for. This came close. But I hadn’t yet hit the bullseye.

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So I took matters into my own hands. I browned butter with a half a vanilla bean and whisked it into some cream that had been heated with deep dark molasses-y muscovado sugar. I caramelized some light brown sugar and then added the brown butter-cream mixture to that. I added a splash of dark rum for another cane sugar note, and then I whisked it all with some egg yolks. Then I tossed in some salt.

And when these came out of the oven, they were just what I wanted.

They had all of us scraping the bottoms of the jars to get every last bit. They’re luxuriously rich but modestly sized desserts. Tracy said they’re the kind of thing that leaves you wanting more. They were nice with a dollop of whipped cream and some shortbread cookies on the side. To be honest, they were also pretty darn good the next day, completely unadorned.

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Salted Brown Butter Caramel Pots de Creme

Liberally adapted from Gourmet and Curtis Stone

Browning butter with a vanilla bean is a trick I learned from Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life, and it’s a technique I use all the time for making simple desserts extra special. You could certainly make these without the vanilla bean and add a splash of vanilla extract along with the rum, but this is one of those places where a vanilla bean really makes a difference. You could absolutely use dark brown sugar in place of the muscovado. The muscovado has a more complex flavor, but you’ll get the important dark molasses notes with the dark brown sugar as well. These are nice topped with whipped cream and some crisp cookies on the side, but they’re very nice on their own too.

3 tablespoons (1.5 oz, 43 g) unsalted butter
half a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup packed (4 oz, 110 g) light brown sugar
1 3/4 cups (14 1/3 fl oz, 406 g) heavy cream
2 tablespoons (1 oz, 28 g) muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz, 14 g) dark rum (optional)
1/2 teaspoon (2.4 g) kosher salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Have six 4-ounce ramekins or jars and a large roasting pan ready.

In a small light-colored saucepan add the butter and vanilla bean. Heat over medium-high heat until the milk solids turn the color of almond or hazelnut skins. The butter will sputter and foam and then settle down as the water evaporates so you can see the milk solids. When they are browned and fragrant, remove from heat. In a medium saucepan, add the cream, muscovado (or dark brown) sugar and vanilla bean brown butter mixture. Bring just to a simmer and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat.

In a small saucepan, add the light brown sugar. Add enough water to the saucepan to cover the sugar (about 1/4 to a 1/3 cup of water should do it).  Bring water and sugar to a boil, and cook over medium heat until the sugar is bubbly and dark brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the warm cream mixture until combined. Add the salt.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and rum (if using) until combined. Pour in the caramel cream mixture and whisk until combined. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a large (at least 4 cup) liquid measuring cup or bowl with a spout.

Divide the mixture between the six ramekins or jars. Place the jars in the roasting pan and add enough hot water (hot from the tap is fine) to come half way up the jars. Cover the pan with foil, carefully transfer the whole thing into the oven, and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the custard is set around the edges but still trembles in the middle.

Remove the jars from the roasting pan, and let cool on a wire rack for about an hour. Then transfer to the refrigerator to chill thoroughly. (This will take several hours.)

Top with whipped cream, if desired, and serve.

Keeps for up to two days in the refrigerator.

Yield: 6 servings

Shaved Fennel, Carrot, and Avocado Salad with Lime-Sesame-Soy Vinaigrette and Crispy Quinoa

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This salad feels so clean. So fresh. It takes its inspiration from the Japanese. It’s a nice change of pace from the arugula and kale and chard and spinach I’ve been eating so much of over the last several months. I love fennel. I think some people are resistant to it because of a prejudice against anything with anise flavor. But raw fennel is closer in flavor to basil than to licorice on the anise spectrum. It’s mild and crunchy and faintly sweet.

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And when it is shaved paper-thin it makes a wonderful base for a salad. It’s possible to do this with a sharp chef’s knife, and I’ve done it that way many times, but it’s so much more efficient and easier to get uniform thinness with a mandoline. As of my birthday last month thanks to Dan’s parents I am the proud new owner of this baby, and having it available makes me want to make shaved fennel salads all the time. (I just need to watch my fingers. It’s sharp!)

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Lots of fennel salads stick to the classic dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. But this one goes with a bolder lime-sesame-soy vinaigrette. It gets some heat from sriracha and citrus kosho (the latter is totally optional, but it’s a nice way to use it if you have some). The shaved carrots add more crunch and color and the avocado adds a creamy richness to dish.

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The sprinkling of pan fried quinoa adds the most wonderful texture. It’s crisp and light and gives way with a pop when it’s between your teeth. This makes extra and I’ve been popping the leftovers as a snack on its own. The flat leaf parsley gives the dish a fresh herbaceous note. I think shiso or mint would be right at home here too.

Dan said that this reminded him of the experience of eating sushi, what with the soy sauce and the kind of heat you get from wasabi and the texture of the shaved carrots and fennel reminiscent of pickled ginger. I think there’s something to the comparison.

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Shaved Fennel, Carrot, and Avocado Salad with Lime-Sesame-Soy Vinaigrette and Crispy Quinoa

This salad manages to be crispy and crunchy and creamy–a textural trifecta. It’s bright and fresh and flavorful and light. You can slice the fennel thinly with a sharp chef’s knife or you can use a mandoline (these Benriner mandolines [I have the wide version] are widely available and work like a dream). I’ve shaved the carrots with both a mandoline and a vegetable peeler, and I think the vegetable peeler is the winner for making delicate ribbons of carrot without making me watch my fingertips too closely. The citrus kosho is totally optional here. Don’t let not having it stop you from making this salad–you could add a dab of prepared wasabi or some extra sriracha if you wanted to ratchet up the heat in its absence.  This makes too much crispy quinoa, but it keeps for about a week in an airtight container and you can sprinkle it on roasted vegetables or other salads or anywhere you’d like some added crisp texture. This is gluten free if you make it with gluten-free tamari. 

For the crispy quinoa:

1/4 cup dried quinoa
2 tablespoons neutral oil
kosher salt 

For the salad:

2 medium fennel bulbs, tops and core removed, sliced paper thin
2 medium carrots, peeled, sliced paper thin
1 avocado, on the slightly firmer side of ripe, sliced thin
small handful of flat leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped

For the lime-sesame-soy vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons citrus kosho or yuzu kosho (optional)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon sriracha (increase to 1/2 teaspoon if not using kosho)
pinch of kosher salt

At least an hour ahead of time, make the crispy quinoa. In a medium saucepan, cover the quinoa with a few inches of salted water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until quinoa is just tender. About 12-13 minutes. Drain well through a fine mesh strainer and spread out in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet to dry out for at least a half hour.  Heat oil in a large skillet until shimmering, add the quinoa and pan fry until it is completely dry and crisp, about 2-3 minutes. Add a pinch of kosher salt and set aside to cool completely. Can be made up to five days ahead of time and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar, citrus kosho (if using), sesame oil, sriracha, and salt.

In a medium bowl, toss together the fennel and carrots and parsley until well mixed. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad. Add the avocado and toss gently to distribute.

Divide between plates, and sprinkle with crispy quinoa, to taste.

Yield: Serves 2 as a main dish or 4-6 as a side

Ginger Scallion Quinoa with Roasted Vegetables

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I still remember the first time I had quinoa. I was in college, and I had seen Sara Moulton use it on her show on the Food Network. I was trying to eat healthier, and I was intrigued by this plant-based complete protein. I remember hunting it down, thinking it was on the expensive side for someone on a student budget, and then I remember tasting it–and being so disappointed.

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It wasn’t that it was bad, exactly. But it was bland. And faintly bitter. It seemed to me that it had many of the cliched characteristics of health food. It seemed like the sort of thing you would only eat because it was good for you, not because it tasted good.

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I didn’t bother with quinoa for a few years after that. It wasn’t until I started reading Heidi Swanson’s blog that I gave it another shot. It was from her that I learned that quinoa could serve as a great canvas for bold flavors. I slowly figured out that I liked quinoa when it was paired with something strong enough to carry the dish. I learned to think of quinoa as more of a textural ingredient than a flavor in and of itself. And it turns out it’s a nubbly, light texture I really like.

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I’ve learned that I especially love quinoa when it’s paired with Asian flavors. It’s great with a riot of hot and sour and salty and sweet notes. It doesn’t get in the way of those bright flavors, and it feels lighter than rice. Quinoa is satiating, but it never seems to weigh me down. I’ve come to think of quinoa as a health food in all the good ways. When prepared well, it not only tastes good, but makes me feel good.

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This dish is a keeper. It takes advantage of quinoa’s best qualities by pairing it with a variety of contrasting textures from roasted brussels sprouts and sweet potato and parsnips and carrots and turnips. It uses a good mix of winter’s sweeter vegetables as well as the slightly bitter, more deeply savory ones.

I remember once seeing a Canadian public health campaign that recommended eating at least one green vegetable and one orange or red vegetable every day. It’s a snippet of advice that I think of whenever I come across a dish like this that features vegetables in those colors.

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But as much as I like the mix of vegetables here, it’s the bright ginger scallion dressing that really makes this dish sing. It’s potent enough to counter quinoa’s inherent blandness, and its complexity enhances the vegetables as well.

This is the kind of thing I could eat every week. It’s delicious. It’s a totally manageable amount of work for a week night. It’s great warm or at room temperature, which means it can be made ahead of time. And it’s pretty darn healthy too.

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Like last week’s cake, this recipe comes from Joanne Chang’s Flour, Too. And as much as I love that showstopper of a cake, this is the recipe that, for my money, is totally worth the price of the book. It’s something I know I will make again and again and again.

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Ginger Scallion Quinoa with Roasted Vegetables

Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour, Too

This is one of my favorite ways to eat quinoa and this is the kind of meal I like to eat all the time. The ginger scallion dressing really makes this dish come alive. I could imagine doing this with peas and asparagus and mushrooms and radishes when spring vegetables are in season. This is great either warm or at room temperature, and while I’d argue it loses a little something, it’s not bad cold either. If you use tamari, this dish is gluten free.

6 or 7 Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 small sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 small purple-top turnips, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups (225 g) dry quinoa
8 or 9 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced (both white and green parts)
4-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
3 tablespoons grape seed or other neutral oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
cilantro, basil, or mint for garnish (optional, I skipped it)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large a baking sheet with aluminum foil (optional, but makes for easier clean up). In a large mixing bowl, toss the Brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots, sweet potato, and turnips with olive oil and salt until well coated. Spread the vegetables in an even layer on the baking sheet and roast for 20-25 minutes, until the brussels sprouts are caramelized in spots and the harder root vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and add to a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover the quinoa by a few inches and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes or until the quinoa is cooked through. Drain the quinoa through a fine mesh strainer and transfer to a large mixing bowl (this can be your serving bowl if you’re trying to make things look nice).  Add the roasted vegetables and toss until the vegetables are well distributed.

In a small bowl, add the ginger, scallions, vinegar, soy sauce or tamari, grape seed oil, and sesame oil. Whisk together until combined and pour over the quinoa and vegetables, and stir well. Top with fresh herbs, if using, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

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Who wants cake? This isn’t just any old cake. It’s a special occasion cake. It’s a takes-three-days-to-make cake. It’s a hunt-down-three-or-four-kinds-of-chocolate cake. It’s a reorganize-the-freezer-to-make-this-thing-sit-level-overnight cake. It’s, let me just say, a totally-worth-it cake.

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I made this for my sister Erin’s birthday. She was having a low key party at her place, and I offered to bring a dessert. When I asked her what she wanted, she gave me carte blanche.

When left to my own devices, I have a tendency to go overboard when I’m making something for someone else. My ambition sometimes overmatches my time and basic sense of reason. It probably says something about me that when I scanned the recipe and saw instructions that said “at least two days ahead of time” I thought, “that seems reasonable.” Really with this cake, I was showing restraint.

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This comes from Joanne Chang’s second cookbook, Flour, Too (her first one is, not surprisingly, named Flour).  Both of her books are named for and feature recipes from her Boston cafe and bakery, Flour. The first book focused exclusively on sweets, but this one looks to be about evenly divided between sweets and savories. It doesn’t just have recipes for special occasion desserts, it has plenty of simple breakfast baked goods and light cafe fare that’s appropriate for everyday. In the headnote to this recipe, Chang mentions that this cake is a personal favorite, even though she isn’t a chocolate fiend. I can see why.

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With three layers of mousse, four layers of flourless chocolate souffle cake, all topped with a layer of bittersweet ganache, this cake sounds like it would be unimaginably rich and intensely chocolatey. But this cake is surprisingly, ethereally light. I kind of want to call it a triple chocolate cloud cake.

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The white, milk, and bittersweet chocolate mousses don’t just look pretty, they also balance each others’ sweetness and bitterness beautifully. It actually makes me wonder why we don’t see more desserts take advantage of this chocolate trio.

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I mostly followed Chang’s recipe. The one significant change I made was to the white chocolate mousse. She uses a vanilla bean to flavor the mousse, but I opted to swap in fennel seeds, which I think are just fantastic here. I wouldn’t call myself a big white chocolate fan, but I could have eaten a bowl of this white chocolate fennel mousse. Erin remarked that she really liked it too.

It’s worth noting that these are more chocolate whipped creams than true mousses, so maybe we shouldn’t be eating them by the bowl full, but each of them–the white chocolate fennel mousse, the milk chocolate coffee mousse, and the bittersweet chocolate mousse–is so good that if you’re not licking the beater after you whip these, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.

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It does take three days to make this cake, but most of the work is on the second day. The first day you make the mousse bases, which involves scalding the cream and pouring it over chopped chocolate and then refrigerating it overnight. The second day you make the cake and the soaking syrup, whip the mousses, assemble the cake and put it into the freezer overnight. The third day you trim the cake, and make and top the cake with ganache.

It is quite a bit of work, but it’s doable even if you’re not quite as insane as I am.

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Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake

Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour, Too

This cake sounds decadent, but when you eat it, it feels incredibly light. It’s a project. It needs to be started at least two days before you want to serve it. It’s totally worth all of the work. I think this is one of the best desserts I’ve ever made. It’s worth using good quality chocolate here. I used Guittard for the milk and dark chocolates because that’s what I had on hand and Ghiradelli for the white chocolate because that’s what I could find at the grocery store. The coffee flavor is very mild in the finished cake. It serves to deepen the chocolate flavor rather than stand out on its own. This makes a big cake. If you aren’t feeding a crowd, you can cut the frozen cake in two and store half of it, well wrapped, in the freezer for another time. I probably could have done that with this one. (Did I mention this cake happens to be gluten free and grain free, and I’m pretty sure it’s kosher for Passover for those having a dairy friendly meal?) 

 White Chocolate Fennel Mousse

1 1/2 cups (360 ml) heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon fennel seed
3 ounces (85 g) white chocolate, chopped
1/8 teaspoon salt

Milk Chocolate Coffee Mousse

1 1/2 cups (360 ml) heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground coffee
3 ounces (85 g) milk chocolate, chopped
1/8 teaspoon salt

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse

1 1/2 cups (360 ml) heavy cream
3 ounces (85 g) bittersweet chocolate (I used 72% cacao), chopped
1/8 teaspoon salt

Chocolate Souffle Cake

10 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup (60 ml) brewed coffee at room temperature
10 ounces (280 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (I used 72% cacao), melted and cooled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (250 g) granulated sugar

Cake-Soaking Syrup

1/2 cup (120 ml) hot brewed coffee
6 tablespoons (75 g) granulated sugar

Ganache

4 ounces (115 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (56% to 62% cacao), chopped
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream

At least 2 days in advance:

Make the three mousse bases. Start with the white chocolate. Heat the cream and fennel seeds in a heavy bottomed medium saucepan. Put the chopped white chocolate in a medium heat proof bowl and have a fine mesh strainer ready. Heat the cream just until bubbles form around the edges. Immediately pour over the white chocolate. Let it stand for about two minutes to melt the chocolate, then stir until the chocolate is thoroughly melted. Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the fennel seeds, add the salt and transfer the mixture to a small storage container. Repeat with the milk chocolate mousse, heating the cream with the ground coffee (pass it through a strainer, but don’t worry if some of the finer ground coffee slip through). Then repeat with the bittersweet chocolate mousse, heating the cream on its own this time. (No real need to strain this one.) Store in the refrigerator overnight (can be made several days in advance).

At least 1 day in advance:

Make the soaking syrup. Brew 3/4 cup of coffee. Use 1/2 cup hot here and reserve 1/4 cup at room temperature for the cake. Mix 1/2 cup (120 ml) coffee with 6 tablespoons (75 g) of sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place one rack in the center and one in the top third of the oven. Line two 13″ x 18″ rimmed baking sheets (half sheet pans) with parchment paper and spray with nonstick baking spray (if you’re making this gluten free, don’t use the baking spray that has flour mixed into it).

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, remaining coffee, melted chocolate and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the egg whites and beat on medium speed for about 2-3 minutes until soft peaks form. The tines of the whisk should leave a trail in the whites and when you lift the head of the mixer the whites should should peak and droop. With the mixer on medium, add the sugar slooowly, about a tablespoon at a time, until it’s all added. This process should take about 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the whites are glossy and smooth and hold their peaks.

Using a rubber spatula, fold about one-third of the whites into the chocolate-yolk mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in the rest of the whites until no white streaks remain. Do this carefully. Egg whites are easy to deflate.

Divide the batter between the two prepared sheet pans. Starting at the corners, spread the batter evenly over the pan with an offset spatula. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth, but you want the corners and edges filled in. The batter should be about a 1/2 inch (1 cm) deep.

Bake the cakes, rotating the pans from front to back and switching between the racks about halfway through, about 16-18 minutes. The cakes should look dry on top and when you touch it with a finger, the top should feel dry and delicate and almost shatter and the cake below should feel moist (Chang says the cake top should be “crispy”). Let the cakes cool on wire racks for 10 minutes. At this point you can assemble the cake or wrap the cakes (still in their pans) with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for one day.

Assemble the cake. Run a paring knife around the edge of the pan to release the cake from the sides of the pan. Using a very sharp knife (or kitchen shears) cut each cake in half–from the middle of one long side to the other–cutting through the parchment. You want to have four layers of cake, each about 8″x12″. Cut a piece of cardboard so it’s slightly larger than the cake (you don’t need much overhang here–I probably had too much in the photos above).

Take one cake layer with the parchment attached and carefully flip it over onto the cardboard and remove the parchment. If the cake breaks anywhere, don’t worry, just patch it together as best you can and keep going. In the bowl of stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, add the white chocolate fennel mousse and whip until it holds stiff peaks. Spread the mousse evenly over the cake layer with an offset spatula. You want an even layer, but you don’t need to worry about some of it spilling over the sides because you’ll trim the edges later. Clean and dry the mixing bowl and the whisk attachment. Take another cake layer with the parchment and carefully flip it over onto the white chocolate mousse and remove the parchment. Using a pastry brush, spread about a third of the soaking syrup over the cake layer. Whip the milk chocolate mousse until it holds stiff peaks. Spread it in an even layer over the cake. Again, clean and dry the mixing bowl and whisk attachment. Take another cake layer with parchment, flip it over onto the milk chocolate mousse, and remove the parchment. Brush about half of the remaining soaking syrup onto this cake layer. Whip the bittersweet chocolate mousse until it holds stiff peaks. Spread it in an even layer over the cake. Take the last cake layer with parchment and carefully flip it over onto the bittersweet chocolate mousse. Brush with the remaining soaking syrup.

At this point, make sure that you have an even landing spot for the cake in the freezer. Wrap the cake gently with plastic wrap and put it in the freezer overnight. Depending on how stiff your cardboard is, you might want to place a sheet pan underneath it to make this easier and to keep the cake even.

About 4-5 hours ahead of serving:

Remove the cake from the freezer and place on a cutting board. Using a sharp chefs knife dipped in hot water trim about a 1/2 inch (1 cm) from each side of the cake, dipping and wiping the knife clean between cuts, to expose the even layers of mousse. (You can snack on these trimmings later–they’re best after they thaw.) Trim the cardboard base so it is flush with the cake and set on a wire rack set over wax paper.

Make the ganache. Place the chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. With this small amount of cream, it helps to partially melt the chocolate before you add the cream. You can heat it in 15 second bursts in the microwave or heat it over a double boiler until it’s about half melted. Heat the cream in a small saucepan until bubble form around the edges. Pour over the chocolate and let sit for about 30 seconds. Starting in the center and working out to the edges of the bowl, slowly whisk the chocolate and cream together until the chocolate is fully melted and the mixture is uniform and smooth.

Pour the ganache over the cake and quickly spread in an even layer with an offset spatula, letting the excess drip down the sides of the cake. The sides should remain mostly exposed to show off the mousse layers. At this point, you can top with chocolate shavings or just leave the ganache as is. Store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve it.

To serve, slice the cake with a sharp chefs knife dipped in hot water. It’s a somewhat fragile cake, and it’s easy to make a mess of the slices. Don’t worry, everyone will be too busy eating to notice.

Yield: Serves 12