March 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

So last week our house was robbed. And robbed very mysteriously – we still haven’t figured out how they got in. That makes me extra nervous, since we can’t fix the problem to make sure it doesn’t happen again. On the other hand, we no longer own anything valuable so I guess future robberies wouldn’t be so bad.

This left us all a little nervous though, as it’s a bit of a shock to realize how easy it is for someone to invade your private space. Almost all of us, that is – one of my roommates is from South Africa and has been burglarized (it’s a word!) a dozen times or so already. He’s mildly amused at our alarm, and thinks we were tempting fate just by not having bars on the windows. I suppose he may have a point.

I reacted mainly by whipping up a batch of my favourite comfort food: chocolate chip cookie dough. I actually baked most of it into cookies! The internet has about a bazillion and one chocolate chip cookie recipes on it already, and this one isn’t particularly distinctive in any way, so I don’t think it’s really worth sharing. The cake I made, though, may be my favourite coffee cake in the world. I’ve been waiting almost a year for rhubarb to come back into season so that I could bake it, and when I finally saw gorgeous pink stalks at the grocery store, I leaped! Like the rhubarb-eating ninja that I am.

This cake is moist and tender, and wonderfully tart from the rhubarb. Also, it’s bedecked with a generous helping of crumb topping. It’s also an effective antidote to burglar-nervousness, should you ever need that, but I’m hoping that you won’t. Lock your doors!

Rhubarb Crumb Coffee Cake – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


  • 1/2 pound rhubarb, trimmed
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger


  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 ounces) butter, melted
  • 1 1/4 cups flour (you may need slightly more or less to get a stiff dough)


  • 1/3 cup sour cream
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons softened butter, cut into 8 pieces.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round or an 8-inch square baking pan.

For filling, slice rhubarb 1/2 inch thick and toss with sugar, cornstarch and ginger. Set aside.

To make crumbs, in a large bowl, whisk sugars, spices and salt into melted butter until smooth. Then, add flour with a spatula or wooden spoon. It will look and feel like a solid dough. Leave it pressed together in the bottom of the bowl and set aside.

To prepare cake, in a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, egg, egg yolk and vanilla. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment (I just used the beaters on my hand mixer), mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add butter and a spoonful of sour cream mixture and mix on medium speed until flour is moistened. Increase speed and beat for 30 seconds. Add remaining sour cream mixture in two batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition, and scraping down the sides of bowl with a spatula. Scoop out about 1/2 cup batter and set aside.

Scrape remaining batter into prepared pan. Spoon rhubarb over batter. Dollop set-aside batter over rhubarb; it does not have to be even.

Using your fingers, break topping mixture into big crumbs, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size. They do not have to be uniform, but make sure most are around that size. Sprinkle over cake. Bake cake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean of batter (it might be moist from rhubarb), 45 to 55 minutes. Cool completely before serving.


lemon poppy-seed cake

February 27, 2010 § 9 Comments

I get oddly nervous about baking sometimes. When something doesn’t behave precisely as I would expect from the instructions in the recipe, I become staunchly convinced that I’ve ruined everything and am eternally doomed to failure, whereas my roommates roll their eyes, having seen this madness before. This cake is a case in point: the instructions said to beat egg yolks until very fluffy. What does fluffy mean? Can egg yolks really be fluffy? I’m not sure, but beat them for a full 20 minutes to find out. Nothing much happened and now my arms hurt.

I forgive the cake though, as it turns out that non-fluffy eggs still produce a very yummy result. This cake is very civilized. It made me want to nibble it while drinking tea, preferably from nice china. I found the lemon flavour to be fairly subdued, each bite crackles with poppy seeds, and it has the rich, soft texture that comes from 8 egg yolks and a cup of butter. All in all, it’s light and subtle – not a decadent dessert, but rather a very satisfying snack cake that you might accidentally eat for breakfast.

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake – from Smitten Kitchen

  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 8 large egg yolks
  • 1 large whole egg
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, melted and cooled a bit
  • 1/2 cup poppy seeds (I got this from one 3-ounce spice bottle)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and flour an 8-inch fluted Bundt or tube pan generously. (I used a 10-inch, and thought my tiny cake was adorable.) Butter the dull side of a 10-inch piece of foil.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the sugar with the egg yolks and whole egg at medium-high speed until the mixture is pale yellow and very fluffy (or not), about 8 minutes. Beat in the lemon zest. Sift the flour and cornstarch over the egg mixture and fold in along with the pinch of salt with a rubber spatula. At medium speed, beat in the butter, then beat in the poppy seeds.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and cover tightly with the buttered foil. Bake for 45 minutes (35 minutes in 10-inch pan), or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan and a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the foil and let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely before serving, at least 30 minutes.

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.

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