Cake Success

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Last week I told you I was hosting my book group on Monday night, and I shared two of the dip recipes I was going to make.  And they were a big hit.  But there’s no question about the star of the show that night – the dark chocolate cake with raspberry cream filling.

Cakes aren’t my specialty.  Anyone who watched my kids growing up would be surprised to hear that, because of course I made a decorated cake for every one of their birthday parties.  The 101 Dalmations Party, the Harry Potter party, the Peter Pan party – they each received their own signature cake.  But those were labours of love, with emphasis on both words in that equation.
We celebrated the Wild-West theme party with a horse cake.
(Also useful for a Godfather theme party.)
The problem is, I’m not great with intricate details.  The cake itself is a cinch to whip up.  But decorating it?  That’s where I have problems.  I’ve experienced more than one icing landslide, and I’ve perfected the craft of hiding flaws with candles or oversized accessories.  While miniature disasters are easy to overlook for a seven-year-old’s birthday party, my standards are a little higher when it comes to the ladies of my book group.  And that’s why, when I find a cake that both tastes wonderful and doesn’t resist my attempts to tame it with icing, I want to tell everyone in the world about it.

One of the blogs I never miss reading is Une Petite Gamine.  Valerie and I are like sisters who have never met.  We both love Pablo Neruda.  We both live on the wild side by completing crossword puzzles in pen.  And if we lived in some horrible dystopia, where everyone had to choose between chocolate or lemon desserts, we would both choose Team Lemon.

But this recipe, which she printed on her blog a few months ago, might give me pause.  This Dark Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Cream Filling won rave reviews from everyone who tried it.  In fact, my attempts to photograph the cake were foiled at almost every turn by all those people who raved about it, and who crowded around for a second helping.

And best of all, the icing was incredibly resistant to landslides, as it spread easily and stay put where I spread it.  I’ve already got plans to make one again.

Dark Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Cream Filling
(from Une Petite Gamine, adapted from Country Living)

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp white vinegar
1 cup hot water or hot coffee

For the filling
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ (icing) sugar

For the frosting
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted over double boiler and slightly cooled
2 cups marshmallow cream
1/4 tsp almond extract
6 Tbsp confectioners’ (icing) sugar

To prepare the cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two 9” round cake pans, greasing sides and bottom.  Line the bottoms with parchment paper, then grease the paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In a separate bowl, combine eggs, vanilla, sour cream, oil, vinegar and hot water (or hot coffee).  Using a wooden spoon, mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 30 – 35 minutes or until a thin knife inserted into the centre of a cake comes out clean.  Remove the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool in the pans for about 20 minutes before releasing them onto cooling racks.  Cool completely before adding the filling and frosting.  (Note: cake can be made a day in advance.)

Prepare the filling:
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter on medium-high speed until creamy, about 3 – 5 minutes.  Add the raspberry jam and beat to combine.  Turn the mixer down to low speed and add the confectioners’ sugar.  Beat until smooth.  Cover and set aside until ready to use.

Prepare the frosting:
In a mixing bowl, beat the butter on medium-high speed until creamy, about 3 – 5 minutes.  Add the melted, cooled chocolate and beat until well-combined and fluffy.  On medium speed, add the marshmallow cream, almond extract, and confectioners’ sugar.  Once everything is combined, increase speed to medium-high and beat until smooth and flutffy.  Cover bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Assemble the cake:
Place the first cake top side down on serving plate.  (This will give you a flat surface on which to spread the raspberry cream.)  If the cream has been in the fridge, give it a good stir to soften it up a bit.  Spread the raspberry cream over the first layer.  Place the second cake on top of the filling (bottom side down, so the flat surfaces of the cake meet.)  Frost the rest of the cake, top and sides, with chocolate buttercream.

Serve cake at room temperature.

Thursday's child: Urquhart Castle, Scotland

Thursday, April 26, 2012

One of the greatest castles to visit in Scotland is Urquhart Castle.  Although the castle itself was blown up over 300 years ago, the location is so evocative and the view so famous that a visit to Scotland wouldn’t be complete without it.

Unlike the other castles I’ve written about this month, there isn’t much to see at Urquhart.  Over its 500-year history, ownership passed from one side to the other countless times.  Early on, the Scottish and English fought for control.  Later, interclan wars resulted in the MacDonalds repeatedly invading from the western isles.  Finally in the late seventeenth century, as the government pulled their soldiers out, they blew up the building to prevent the Jacobites from using it as a fortress.

All that remains now is crumbling stone remains. The location is so peaceful, it’s difficult to conjure up the castle’s violent history.  We had to use our imaginations to picture what it must have been like for the local villagers, living through century after century of siege and tumult.

And using our imaginations also came in handy when we took in the view of lovely Loch Ness which Urquhart overlooks, and which is probably much more well-known than the castle.  No sightings of the Loch Ness monster were made by the Pollock family that day, although one of us wistfully claimed to have seen a fin.

Book Group

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Our book group has been meeting for nearly eighteen years.  I remember precisely how long we’ve known each other because I was on maternity leave with my oldest daughter at the time.  When she was a month old I realized I wanted more adult company.  I found a book club that was just getting started, and these wonderful women have become some of my best friends.  (For a picture of our group, and a description of the fund-raising some of them started, see here.) 

I’m hosting our book group tomorrow night, and I started thinking about the best books we’ve read together.  Over those years we’ve read a lot of books, and it would be impossible to list all the ones I’ve loved.  But here are three that came to mind first when I started thinking about my favourites:

The Sparrow – the best part of being in a book group is reading something you never would have picked up on your own.  I hadn’t even heard of this book, and if I had, I wouldn’t have read it anyhow since it’s classified as science fiction.  It’s so much more than that, with a great story that explores ethics and theology.  All these years later, I can’t get it out of my mind.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – this is one of the best Canadian books I’ve ever read. It combines fact and fiction in telling the story of the entrance of Canada’s tenth province into Confederation.  I was lucky enough to meet its author, Wayne Johnston, last year, and it was an honour to tell him how much I loved this book.

Wintergirls – this young adult book is an astonishingly powerful story about a teenager with an eating disorder.  I found myself holding my breath as I sped through the pages.  Half of me wanted to slow down, to admire the excellent writing, but the other half was desperate to know what happened.  Let’s just say we ate dinner late that night.

Almost as important as the books is the food at our meetings. 

I tried a couple of dip recipes earlier this week.  Often I just buy vegetable dips, but as the author of a cooking blog, I thought the least I could do was whip up a couple of them. 

The first is a white bean and roasted garlic dip.  It’s a great basic dip, with a mild flavour and a smooth texture.  This is the kind of dip we all need in our repertoires.

And then there’s the peanut dipping sauce.  I would eat it with a spoon.  I would eat it with a trowel.  I would make a mega-batch so I could dive into a pool of it.  This stuff is ambrosia.  And if ambrosia grants immortality, then I am living forever.

So I’ll be making both of these dips tomorrow, in addition to a few other treats, to serve while we chat.  And if you’re reading this and you’re in my book group … try to act surprised.

White Bean and Roasted Garlic Dip
(adapted from The Food You Crave by Ellie Krieger)

One 15.5 ounce can white beans, preferably low-sodium, rinsed and drained
1 clove garlic
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (first amount) 
1 1/2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (second amount)
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
salt and white pepper, to taste

To roast garlic, preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cut the top third of the garlic head off so the tops of the cloves are exposed.  Place garlic head, unpeeled, in a small ovenproof dish and drizzle with 1 Tbsp oil.  Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes.  Let cool.  Set aside 1 Tbsp roasted garlic for this recipe and mash it.  Reserve the rest for another use.

In a food processor, combine the beans, roasted garlic, oil and lemon juice, and process until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper.  This will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.  Serve with your favourite vegetables for dipping.

Peanut Dipping Sauce
(adapted from The Food You Crave by Ellie Krieger)

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (she suggests using natural peanut butter)
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 Tbsp packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced (about 1 tsp)

Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.  It will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Thursday's Child: Castle Levan, Gourock, Scotland

Thursday, April 19, 2012

From time to time, I might be accused of being a romantic traveller.  I’m not interested in staying in a chain hotel, where the rooms look the same no matter what country it’s in.  I love to stay in an inn, bed and breakfast, or even a casbah that really reflects the place I’m visiting and its people.

So it should come as no surprise that when we visited Scotland seven years ago, I wanted to spend a night in a castle.

Great idea, but here’s the problem: most castles are really expensive.  The amount of money it would have cost for the Pollock family to stay one night in many Scottish castles would have eaten up half our trip budget.

So I started researching castles that were a little off the beaten track, and found the charming Castle Levan.  Recently restored by Historic Scotland, and run by Lady Lydia and her husband Jan, it perfectly suited our budget and our need for romance.

We loved exploring the castle inside and out, and Lady Lydia was eager to show off her wonderful homestead.  A narrow stone staircase wound up to our third floor bedrooms. Our rooms were homey rather than glamorous, which suited us perfectly. Most important, there were enough turrets, stone walls and arrow loops to make us feel like we were experiencing a small part of the Middle Ages.

Best of all, the castle even came with its own ghost, The White Lady.  Since we were traveling with our two little girls, we were grateful that Jan waited until breakfast the following morning to tell us the story.  We didn't see this apparition, but shivered to hear the tale that involved Lady Marion Montgomery and Mary of Guise (the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots).  Forget the girls – I’m not sure I would have slept a wink had I known about this ghostly being that haunts the premises.

And how smitten were the girls with Lady Lydia?  When she was too ill to join us for breakfast and see us off in the morning, they drew her Get Well cards.
Photo credit: Castle Levan


Sunday, April 15, 2012

I think ginger is the perfect ingredient.

Ginger has a heat and an indescribable kick that are unbeatable.  My favourite cookies as a child were my Grandma Baker's ginger snaps.  One of my best food memories of our trip to China was the ginger chicken we ate with our friends, the Jay family.  Add ginger to your cooking and you'll bestow it with the grace of Ginger Rogers and the smarts of Ginger Pye.

I regularly keep three kinds of ginger in my house.  Ground ginger in my spice cupboard (well, everyone has that), fresh ginger in my vegetable drawer (often useful for savory dishes), and candied ginger in my cupboard (perhaps not a necessity, but it makes me happy just knowing it’s there).  I’m not sure everyone regards ginger as a household staple in the way I do, but a week rarely goes by when I don’t use it in at least one of its forms.

This was a week when I used all three in a variety of recipes.  And the fresh ginger worked beautifully in a sauce to accompany these salmon cakes.  I love Ellie Krieger’s cookbook, The Food You Crave, and I think its title is perfect.  I’m amazed at how I crave the gorgeous, and healthy, recipes that are contained within.

Especially the ones that use ginger.

Salmon Cakes with Ginger-Sesame Sauce
(from The Food You Crave, by Ellie Krieger.)

Note: This recipe makes twelve large salmon cakes.  I halved it when I made it.

5 slices whole-wheat sandwich bread
Two 15-ounce cans salmon, drained and picked over for skin and bones
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
5 green onions (white and green parts)
1/2 cup canned water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 tsp olive oil
Ginger-Sesame Sauce (recipe below)

Tear the bread into pieces and process in a food processor until you get fine bread crumbs.  In a large bowl, flake apart the salmon with a fork.  Add the eggs and mix well.  Finely chop 4 of the green onions and add to the bowl.  Add the water chestnuts, cilantro, pepper and bread crumbs and mix well.  Shape the mixture into 12 patties.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat half the oil over medium heat.  Add 6 patties and cook for 5 minutes on each side.  Transfer the cooked patties to a plate and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.  Add the remaining oil to the pan and cook the rest of the salmon cakes in the same way. 

Chop the remaining green onion.  Serve the salmon cakes with the sauce on the side, garnished with the onion.

Ginger-Sesame Sauce

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt, or 6 Tbsp plain Greek-style nonfat yogurt
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 1/2 Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp low-sodium soy sauce

If using regular yogurt, place the yogurt in a strainer lined with a paper towel.  Set the strainer over a bowl and let drain and thicken for 30 minutes.

Place the drained or Greek-style yogurt in a small bowl.  Add the mayonnaise, ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce and whisk until smooth.

Thursday's Child: Bled Castle, Slovenia

Thursday, April 12, 2012

All castles are romantic by their nature, but the most romantic one I’ve ever seen was Bled Castle.  This seemingly inaccessible fortress sits high on a rocky ledge overlooking Lake Bled in the tiny, beautiful nation of Slovenia.

For all that it looks impossible to reach, we actually walked there.  One morning we decided to walk the perimeter of the lake and ascend to the castle.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to climb the rock face, since a path winds behind the castle and leads to the summit.  Once there, we stood on the castle terrace, taking in the stunning views of Lake Bled and the Julian Alps.

So often when I see something beautiful, I rely on the words of the great writers to express it on my behalf.  John Keats wasn’t writing about this castle, but he could have been when he imagined the following:

“You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand
Upon a rock, on the border of a lake,
Nested in trees, which all do seem to shake
From some old magic-like Urganda’s Sword."

"You know it well enough, where it doth seem
A mossy place, a Merlin’s Hall, a dream;
You know the clear lake, and the little Isles,
The mountains blue, and cold near neighbour rills.”

- from “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds”, by John Keats


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Are you ever too old to colour eggs?

I didn’t colour them this year, but my 17 and 14 year old daughters did, with great pleasure.  We spent this Easter weekend at my mom’s place, and we made the two-hour trip to the farm early yesterday morning. 

Eggs aren’t the only tradition they helped with.  The Baker family Easter reunion wouldn’t be complete without green-tinted cornflake nests that cradle half a dozen chocolate eggs.

And of course, the highlight of Easter Sunday is the church service, celebrating the true meaning of the holiday.  Three generations of our family attended my mother’s church this morning. This is the same church, Calvary United in Rodney, Ontario, in which Andrew and I got married nearly twenty-one years ago.

Wishing all of my readers a weekend full of blessings.  And for those of you who celebrated Easter or Passover, I hope you had a holiday filled with joy and love.

Remember last year, when I gave up baking for Lent?  My sacrifice this year was of a more spiritual nature, but my youngest daughter (with a sweet tooth greater than mine) gamely gave up sweets. As a result, I haven't done much baking for the past few weeks.  So today I'm sharing a great recipe that I made just prior to Lent.  Everyone loved these Chocolate Chip Nutella cookies and, now that my daughter is eating sweets again, I've promised to bake more this week.  It's unbelievable how two tablespoons of Nutella can elevate a cookie.  I think it's my new favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe.

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Nutella
(from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark)

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp Nutella
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 to 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Sift flour, baking soda and salt into a small bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter, white sugar and brown sugar in a large bowl.  Add Nutella and beat until smooth.  Beat in the egg and vanilla extract.

With a spoon, stir in the flour mixture until completely mixed in.  Stir in the chocolate pieces.

Form into cookies and bake for 9 – 10 minutes.  Cool the cookie sheets before removing the cookies with a spatula.

Thursday's child: Royal Palace, Stockholm

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Who doesn’t love visiting a stately palace or a magnificent castle?  This month I’ll be writing about some of the royal residences that we’ve visited.

We didn’t even go inside the Royal Palace in Stockholm, but we were truly impressed by what we saw in the palace courtyard.  Every day, the Royal Guards perform their Changing of the Guard ceremony at the palace in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (Old Town), and we saw this ceremony last summer.

Watching the Changing of the Guards is always exciting, but this one was special for a couple of reasons.  First, we were incredibly close to them, separated only by a rope hung between a couple of posts.  And second, the guards were so enthusiastic about their roles. Being a palace guard in Stockholm isn’t a permanent job, but a temporary one that young members of various branches of the military are called to for a few weeks.  Every member of the guard seemed intent on making the most of his or her time at the palace, serving with the eagerness of the young and the precision of the well-trained.

We got to the courtyard early that day, to ensure a front row position.  As the hour approached, we heard faint strains of the military band as it wound its way through Gamla Stan, and finally we saw them as they turned the corner into the palace courtyard.  The brilliant blue uniforms were dazzling, and the helmets gleamed with a dazzling polish.  The guards strode in time to a stirring Scandinavian march.  And on a sunny day in Stockholm, we felt honoured to watch the Changing of the Guard.

A House Divided

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This vegetable dish is one of my favourite new recipes.  I would like to say I can guarantee you’ll love it.  I would like to tell you that serving it will put an end to world strife, global warming, and questions about what you’ll serve for the next meal.

I’d like to, but I can’t.

This recipe has been a source of great division in our house.  Two of us adored it.  And what’s not to love?  As a side dish, it’s a nice accompaniment to whatever is being served.  But as a sandwich filling, it is nonpareil.  Serve it on homemade bread, with hummus and bean sprouts, and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever look for another sandwich filling in your life.  It’s also a wonderful way to use up the odds and ends of vegetables in the fridge.

The other two people in my house – one of whom was the other adult – did not care for these vegetables.  Did not even try them, to the best of my memory.  When I asked them (for the purposes of this blog) what they didn’t like about it, I was greeted with shrugs and retching noises.

So what can I say?  Having failed to achieve unanimity in my own house, I can hardly promise that you’ll achieve it in yours.  But I can promise that you’ll secretly cheer any time one of them rejects it, because that means one more herbed vegetable sandwich for you.

Herbed Vegetable Packets

1 cup diced peeled sweet potatoes
1 cup diced bell peppers
2 cups zucchini
1 1/2 cups mushrooms
1 1/2 cups carrots
1 cup diced onions
2 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 Tbsp copped fresh basil
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tsp salt
8 sheets parchment paper, 12 x 15 inches each

(I used the vegetables I had in my fridge, in the measurements above.  You can use other vegetables, such as diced butternut squash or green beans/asparagus cut into 1 inch lengths. You can also use other proportions of these vegetables.  Just be sure you have 8 cups altogether.)

1. In a large bowl, mix together the vegetables and herbs.  In a small cup or bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt.  Pour over the vegetables and herbs and mix well.

2.  To make the packets, fold a sheet of parchment paper in half to form a 12 x 7 ½ inch rectangle.  With a short side of the rectangle nearest you, place a cup of the vegetables in the centre.  Bring the two short sides up like a tent, fold them together, and roll down to the vegetables.  Then fold over and crimp the open sides to form a neat packet to seal in the vegetables.  Place the packet on an unoiled baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining sheets of parchment paper.

3. Bake for 25 minutes in a preheated 375 oven.  Remove a packet and carefully unfold it to test the tenderness of the vegetables.  If the vegetables are not quite done, bake for an additional 5 minutes.