two thanksgivings

November 29, 2009 § 3 Comments

Although this is my second year in the US, I’d never actually been to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. Glutton that I am, I made up for it this year by attending two dinners. One of my friends celebrated Thanksgiving on Friday, so on both days I got to revel in unreasonable amounts of food. They were both really fantastic: the first was with a friend’s family, and it was very cozy and traditional; the second was a lovely and relaxed evening with friends. Both events also featured an alarmingly huge turkey, which I gather is the main point.

Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out the pumpkin cheesecake recipe I recently found, but two dinners presented an even better possibility: to compare two separate recipes. Of course, this also meant separately making and baking two cheesecakes, and yes I was up until three in the morning getting it all done – but it was so very much worth it.

The two recipes were the Pure Pumpkin Cheesecake from Rose Beranbaum’s cookbook, and the Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake from Bon Appétit. Which was better? Um, I’m going with the cop-out answer: they were both really delicious, and quite different from each other. What they had in common was that they were surprisingly light for cheesecake, which was good given that they came at the end of an incredibly heavy meal. In fact, one friend who announced that he was too full for dessert somehow managed to eat three pieces (I might also have accomplished this feat. Two nights in a row.) Another friend announced that it made his cheeks tingle – I chose to take that as a compliment.

Rose’s cheesecake was incredibly creamy and smooth, and the pumpkin flavour came through really clearly. The caramel topping was also amazing, and it was worth the fact that I burned it to my pot on the first try (caramel is scary). The crust was a bit of a disappointment though, as it was pretty mushy. Next time I would try prebaking it for 10 minutes or so, to get it a little crispier.

The BA cheesecake was also fantastic: it has twice as much cream cheese, so the filling was much tangier. The spices and cream cheese were a great complement to the pumpkin, which was much more subtle in this rendition. The filling was more reminiscent of pumpkin pie, and was sturdier than Rose’s version, although still light and creamy. I topped it with a pecan praline, but the sugariness was a bit over the top, so next time I’d stick with a caramel drizzle.

The verdict? They’re both great, and you should pick the filling based on your own tastes (creamy and pumpkiny vs tangy and spiced). With either crust I would make sure to prebake it, and the caramel topping would be great with both. Also, be warned that if you eat three pieces you might feel somewhat ill afterwards.

Pure Pumpkin Cheesecake – adapted from Rose’s Heavenly Cakes

This recipe turned out great, but there were several disasters along the way. I blithely ignored the fact that you needed a food processor for this recipe, and tried to do it with my hand mixer. That did not work out. I managed to solve it by using my immersion blender instead, but note that this recipe really needs a serious blade to come out right. I also found the cheesecake needed a longer bake time than she specified (what’s listed here is what I used), so gauge according to your own oven’s behaviour.


  • 1/2 cup pecan halves
  • 1 cup gingersnap crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted


  • 1 cup pumpkin
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 pound (2 8-ounce packages) cream cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream, heated
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F. Wrap a 9-inch springform pan in tin foil to prevent water leakage.

For crust: Toast pecans until browned and aromatic, about 7 minutes. Put in food processor along with gingersnap crumbs, sugar, and salt, and process until fine crumbs, about 20 seconds. Add melted butter and pulse just until incorporated. Press crumbs into bottom of pan and 1 1/2 inches up sides (it helps to use a measuring cup). Although the recipe didn’t specify this, at this point I would prebake the crust for about 8-10 minutes, until golden.

For filling: Stir together pumpkin and sugar in small pot, and stir constantly on medium heat until sputtering. Reduce heat to low and cook until thick and shiny, about 3 to 5 minutes. Scrape into food processor and process for 1 minute.

Add heavy cream with motor running. Add cream cheese and process until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add eggs and yolks and process until just incorporated. Scrape filling into crust.

Put springform pan in larger roasting pan and fill with 1 inch of hot water. Bake for 55 minutes, then turn off oven without opening and let the cake cool until middle is softly set, about 1 hour. Cool on wire rack, then chill overnight in refrigerator.

For caramel:
One tip: be super, super attentive. I would ignore all instructions about temperatures, because while you’re fiddling with the thermometer your caramel has already burnt. This I know from experience.

In medium pot, preferably nonstick, stir together sugar, corn syrup, and water. Stir constantly over medium heat until sugar dissolves and syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring completely and let moisture boil until deep amber, lowering the heat when it starts to change colour. Remove from heat and carefully pour in cream. Scrape up solid bits and return to low heat, stirring gently for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Pour into a glass measuring cup and let cool slightly. Mix in vanilla and let cool to room temperature. Scoop into piping bag and swirl all over cheesecake.

Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake – from Bon Appétit


  • 9 whole graham crackers (about 4 ounces), broken
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted


  • 4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


  • 1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

For crust:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Wrap double layer of heavy-duty foil around outside of 10-inch-diameter springform pan. Combine graham crackers, sugar, and cinnamon in processor. Blend until graham crackers are very finely ground. Drizzle butter over. Pulse until crumbs begin to stick together. Press crumbs onto bottom (not sides) of springform pan. Bake until crust is slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool while preparing filling. Maintain oven temperature.

For filling:
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar in large bowl until smooth and fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Add pumpkin and remaining 7 ingredients. Beat just until blended. Pour filling into prepared crust. Place springform pan in large roasting pan. Add enough water to come halfway up sides of springform pan.

Bake cheesecake until slightly puffed and softly set and top is golden, about 1 1/2 hours. Transfer springform pan to rack and cool. Cover and refrigerate cake overnight.

For praline:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Line baking sheet with foil. Stir sugar and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until sugar melts and mixture comes to boil; boil 1 minute without stirring. Mix in pecans. Spread mixture on prepared baking sheet. Bake until sugar syrup bubbles vigorously, about 8 minutes. Cool praline completely. Break into pieces. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight.)

Using knife, cut around sides of pan to loosen cake. Release pan sides. Sprinkle praline over, leaving 1-inch plain border at edge. Cut cheesecake into wedges and serve.

more chocolate cake

November 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

chocolate party cake

I had every intention of bringing an elaborate and impressive cake to my friend’s potluck. But suddenly it was 2 in the afternoon, I was still in my pajamas, and the grocery store seemed very far away. So instead I rummaged through my cabinets and cookbooks, looking for a recipe that I could make quickly and only used what I had on hand. Luckily, I always have pretty much everything baking-related, so it wasn’t too hard – the main obstacle was that I kept getting distracted by pictures of pretty cakes. But eventually I overcame my tiny attention span and settled on the Chocolate Party Cake from Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.

chocolate cake batter

The cake is a sour cream chocolate batter, baked in a Bundt pan and then brushed with cocoa syrup, making the crust shiny and nearly black. How does this stack up against my go-to chocolate bundt, the Chocolate Guinness Cake? Despite their mutual resemblance, they’re pretty different. This cake is lighter and fluffier, with a more distinct butter flavour. I think I still prefer the moist denseness of the Guinness cake, but this is definitely also a nice option. Also, the lack of frosting makes it easy to transport, and it serves a ton of people, so in some ways it’s the ideal potluck dessert – especially because you generally receive a warm welcome when showing up with a giant chocolate cake.


Chocolate Party Cake – adapted from Rose’s Heavenly Cakes


  • 2/3 cup walnut halves
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3/4 cup sifted cocoa powder
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar (this is approximate because I measured by weight: 8.7 ounces / 250 grams)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

Cocoa Syrup

  • 1/4 cup sifted cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup boiling water (or more)
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a Bundt pan and coat with cocoa powder.

Toast walnuts for about 7 minutes. Pulse in food processor until medium fine, or finer if you don’t like the texture of nuts in your cake.

In a medium bowl, whisk sour cream, cocoa, eggs, and vanilla, until the consistency of slightly lumpy muffin batter.

In large bowl, mix walnuts, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add butter and half the cocoa mixture. Beat on low until moistened, then raise speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes. Add the remaining cocoa mixture in two additions, beating on medium speed for 30 seconds after each one. Scrape batter into cake pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.

Shortly before the cake is done baking, make cocoa syrup: whisk together cocoa and sugar. Add a small amount of boiling water and mix until moistened. Add the rest of the boiling water. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, stirring often. Remove from heat, and add vanilla. Add water to equal 2/3 cup, and use while still hot.

When cake comes out of oven, pierce all over with skewer. Brush with one third of syrup. After 10 minutes, turn cake out of pan and brush all over with remaining syrup.

Note: to avoid my last Bundt cake’s pan-sticking disaster, I was really thorough about greasing and powdering the pan. Since there’s no ganache here to hide mistakes, I highly recommend similar obsessiveness to everyone.

in honour of brains

October 28, 2009 § 6 Comments


In case you didn’t know, approximately 30,000 neuroscientists descended upon Chicago last week for their biggest scientific conference. Wherever I turned there were people in glasses, milling around with laptops and poster tubes. And really, that’s how any good party starts, right?

In all honesty, a large gathering of neuroscientists is actually pretty amusing to watch. This became obvious when I entered the Metra, where dozens of bewildered scientists were trying and failing to figure out public transit. Academic skills do not necessarily translate into the real world. Luckily a passerby took pity on us, and that became the theme of the visit – wherever we went Chicago natives would smile kindly and ask ‘Brain conference?’. Apparently we do not quite blend in with the normal folk.


The point being, brains are very important and useful. In celebration of this fact, I decided to let science inspire my baking! Yes, it is nerdy. I don’t care. Anyhow, one of the symposiums was about nutrition for brain health – this stuff is often kind of flaky, but there’s actual research on it too. I unfortunately could not attend these talks (i.e. I accidentally slept through them), but some of the main contenders were berries and walnuts – clearly the building blocks of something tasty. They also mentioned salmon, but I chose to omit that.

So, despite the lack of concrete evidence, I decided to make blueberry coffee cake – because, well, why not? The recipe is adapted from Rose Beranbaum’s gorgeous new cookbook. She’s very meticulous, and this is reflected in her recipes, but I was in a bit of a rush and not quite so careful. I did however follow the instruction that amused me the most – to take out your cake when it reads 208°F on an instant-read thermometer. How very precise!


Anyhow, this cake is yummy. I think I still slightly prefer my standard coffeecake recipe, which must wait till spring due to its use of rhubarb, but it’s good to branch out. Given that it’s October, this recipe probably would have been better in its original form, with apples rather than blueberries. Even in this dramatically out-of-season rendition, though, it was moist and sweet and perfect with a cup of coffee. Try to show more self-control than I did, and wait until it’s cooled – it really is better that way. And as an extra plus, you can feel good about eating it cause it makes you smart! (results not guaranteed.)


Blueberry Crumb Coffee Cake – adapted from Rose’s Heavenly Cakes


  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped coarse
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) salted butter, melted
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla


  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sour cream, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter
  • 6 ounces blueberries, fresh or frozen (about 1 cup – you can use whatever seems sensible)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment, and grease the parchment.

Begin with the topping: mix together walnuts, brown sugar, white sugar, and cinnamon. Reserve 1/2 cup to use for filling. To the rest, add flour, butter, and vanilla and mix briefly with fork until mixture is coarse and crumbly. Refrigerate for about 20 minutes to firm up butter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, 3 tablespoons sour cream and vanilla until combined.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add butter and remaining sour cream. Mix on low speed until dry ingredients are moistened, then raise speed to medium and mix for about 2 minutes, until batter comes together. Add egg mixture in two additions, beating for 30 seconds after each.

Scrape 2/3 of batter (approx. 18 ounces) into the cake pan and smooth surface. Sprinkle the reserved 1/2 cup topping over the batter. Drop the remaining batter overtop and spread it evenly. Sprinkle with blueberries.

Bake for 35 minutes. Break up crumb topping with fingertips so that the largest crumbs are about 1/4-inch balls. Remove the cake from the oven and sprinkle crumbs over top. Return to oven until cake tester comes out clean and cake springs back to the touch. Or you can check with an instant-read thermometer, which should read about 208°F.

a grown-up dinner party

October 15, 2009 § 11 Comments


I decided to finally take my last step into adulthood by having real grown-ups over, for a real dinner party. Frankly, I was surprised it took me so long – I’m well into my twenties, I love to feed people, so why don’t I host stylish and well-executed dinners? Then, five days before the event itself, I realized that I still don’t own any chairs. Thus illustrating one of the many reasons why I do not fall into the category of real grown-ups.


After briefly considering and discarding cardboard boxes as a valid seating option, I turned to Craigslist to save the day. My efforts were somewhat hampered by the fact that I also don’t own a car and can’t go anywhere far away, but eventually chairs were identified and secured, setting the stage for the perfect dinner party. And then I also bought a tablecloth! I am so very classy.


The most important thing though, was of course the food. I settled on what is probably the perfect dinner party dessert: a nearly flourless chocolate cake. It’s simple and stunning, but it’s also best if made a day ahead, saving the mad dash that occurs on the day of. Now, I wasn’t exactly organized to make this ahead of time, but it is theoretically possible. As for the recipe: I’m actually not generally a fan of flourless chocolate cakes, as they’re pretty intense, but this was definitely a good one. The single tablespoon of flour makes it less overwhelmingly dense, but it’s still rich and decadent. Plus, when my friend took his first bite, he started doing a little happy dance – generally a good sign.


Nearly Flourless Chocolate Cake
– from Rachel Eats

  • 200g butter
  • 200g very good quality dark chocolate, chopped
  • 250g granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line an 8-inch round cake tin with baking parchment and butter the parchment.

In microwave, melt butter and chocolate. Let cool for a few minutes. Scrape the butter and chocolate into a larger bowl and stir in the sugar.

In separate small bowl, lightly beat one egg and then add it to the other ingredients and stir thoroughly. Again in the separate bowl beat another egg, add it to the mixture and stir in. Repeat until you have added all five eggs. Stir in the flour.

Scrape the mixture into the lined tin. Bake just until the top is dry and cracking, but the centre of the cake still wobbles slightly, about 25 minutes. Keep a close eye after 20 minutes and be careful not to overbake.

Allow the cake to cool completely in the tin, about 2 hours. Gently invert it on to a wire tray and then revert it on to the serving plate. Dust with confectioner’s sugar.

my house is warm

September 22, 2009 § 2 Comments


The process of moving into a new apartment is my least favourite thing in the world (with the possible exception of box-mix cakes). Cleaning, painting, and complaining have consumed much of my time recently. But now that things are shaping up, we decided to have a housewarming barbecue! Which provided an excellent opportunity to bake.

Somehow I reined in my normal impulse to make wildly impractical things, and focused on recipes that were simple, delicious, and feed a crowd. I did break the rule of never cooking a new recipe for guests – but it worked out so well! Chocolate stout cake is ridiculously moist, and it’s definitely going to be one of my new standby recipes. It’s a rich but not too rich, very chocolatey bundt cake, covered in puddles of smooth ganache. It stuck horribly to the pan, so be warned. But luckily, when you cover anything in chocolate and cream, it starts to look pretty again.

My blondies also made a repeat appearance, and the other concoction was my favourite cupcakes, in miniature form for added cuteness. A while back, I carried out a search for a simple vanilla cupcake that was moist and rich without being too sweet. Eventually I stumbled across this one from Amy Sedaris, and after a couple adaptations I stopped experimenting. They’re perfect. Make them!

Oh yeah, and my roommates made healthy food… sensible folk.

Honestly, I think all three of these recipes are pretty amazing. The housewarming was great, and all baked goods had vanished by the end of the night. I maybe shouldn’t trust the judgement of dozens of tipsy scientists, but I still chose to take that as a sign that everyone else agreed with my assessment.

Chocolate Stout Cake – adapted from Epicurious via Smitten Kitchen

  • 1 cup stout (such as Guinness)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup sour cream

Ganache – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 6 ounces good semisweet chocolate chips
  • 6 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter or spray a bundt pan very, very well.

Bring 1 cup stout and 1 cup butter to simmer in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in large bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream in another large bowl to blend. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed. Using rubber spatula, fold batter until completely combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer cake to rack; cool completely in the pan, then turn cake out onto rack for drizzling ganache.

For the ganache, gently microwave the chocolate, heavy cream, and coffee until smooth and warm, stirring occasionally. Drizzle over the top of cooled cake.

Note: despite avid pan-buttering, my cake still stuck horribly. Next time I might try dusting it with cocoa powder as well. But if your cake does break, it’s still delicious!

Vanilla Cupcakes – Adapted from Amy Sedaris

Yield: 18 cupcakes or 45 mini-cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 cups milk

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Beat butter until smooth. Pour in sugar and beat well. Add 2 eggs and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, whisk together baking powder, salt, flour. Add dry ingredients and milk to egg mixture and beat until combined. Pour into individual baking cups, until they are about 2/3 full. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes for cupcakes, or around 12-15 for mini-cupcakes. Cool completely before frosting.

Note: Sometimes I burn these because I forget all my prior experience and wait for them to turn golden. Frequently these cupcakes are done before they brown, so a cake tester is the best bet.

Vanilla Buttercream

  • 1 cups (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups icing sugar
  • 2 tablespoons whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar, then cream and vanilla.

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