December 23, 2012

Sweetness instead

These chocolates. I almost don’t know where to begin.

Ok, let’s start here: it’s two days before Christmas. You are frantically wrapping presents, bracing yourselves for your in-laws, decking your halls, scrubbing your floors, trying to plan various menus, and holding on for dear life to your sanity. If you have the tiniest bit of time to spare in the midst of all of this, may I suggest that you do the following?

Make these Chocolate Grand Marnier Truffles.

Then, if you have a little more time after that, there’s another thing too: make Orangettes—those sublime French confections that take the meager orange rind and elevate it to something that is nothing short of perfection; a confection that asks for bitterness and gives you sweetness instead; that seeks beauty when they should speak of mere hunger.

I promise, you will thank me later.

The thing about the truffles is that they are laced with booze. The other thing about them is that they are the easiest confection in the world to make. If you have chocolate, cream, and a little liqueur on hand (and who, I ask you, doesn’t?), you are ready to go. If you have ten minutes in which to chop chocolate and scald heavy cream, and mix these things together, adding a heavy splash or two of Grand Marnier—filling your kitchen with an aroma that will drive both man and beast to distraction—then you are really all set. That’s all you need. Your friends and roommates will praise you as being a confectioner-Goddess; they will moan as they bite into the silky smooth ganache, and praise the stars above once that little bite of liqueur comes onto their palates, kicking all of their senses into high gear. People do crazy things under the influence of these chocolates. Lovers reunite, enemies shake hands, a series of little violins and a mournful cello raise themselves into song. Something like that.

(I have a certain friend out there who is about to bake from my blog with his mother for Christmas (enter sighs of sweetness and a particular warmth filling my heart)—A., might I suggest that you two make these?)

Then, there is confection-heaven part two: Orangettes. A sublime French dessert of orange rinds dipped in semisweet chocolate. Those orange rinds are candied—they have simmered themselves into delicate, sticky, shining little things, after over an hour of bubbling away in a simple syrup. They simmer away on your stovetop and fill your house with the most beautiful citrus fragrance. It’s hard not to let the spirit of the season overtake you when you are in the midst of cooking Orangettes. Then, once the rinds have candied and dried, and are shimmering elegantly on a rack, curling this way and that, you dip those rinds in melted semisweet chocolate. I don’t need to tell you what to do after that. I’ll leave the part where they dance on your tongue in a dissonant, but entirely pleasurable, symphony of bitter and sweet up to your imaginings.

I know this post is emphatic, but hey, it’s chocolate: a cause worthy of poetic uproar. I want to revise my earlier statement and say this instead: whatever you are doing right now, drop it immediately, and make something chocolate-y laced with orange instead.

Let sweetness and warmth fill you up, body and soul.

And happy baking to all.

P.S. If you get tired of dipping your Orangettes in chocolate, you can also roll them in sugar, as shown above, for an elegant fruit glacé.

Chocolate Grand Marnier Truffles

Adapted from this recipe, originally printed in 1994

10-12 ounces semisweet chocolate (60 or 62% cacao; I used this)

1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (you can also use armagnac, brandy, or Frangelico)
Unsweetened cocoa for dusting the truffles

Chop the chocolate very finely and place in a metal bowl. 

In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream just to a boil. Pour the heavy cream over the chocolate and let it sit for 5 minutes. 

Stir the chocolate; if it is not completely melted at this point (mine never is), place the bowl over a double boiler and stir constantly until it is silky and no lumps remain.

Chill until firm (overnight, or at least 3 hours). 

When the ganache is firm, you may form the truffles: Scoop out 1/2 to 1 teaspoon spoonfuls of the chocolate at a time, and form the chocolate into small, imperfect balls. The truffles are, in my mind, most beautiful when they look like actual truffles from the earth---meaning they are misshapen and bumpy, rather than smooth and perfectly round.

Place the truffles onto a plate filled with unsweetened cocoa as you work; then, once you have 15 or so truffles made, roll them in the cocoa all at once, shaking off excess by gently tossing the truffles between your palms. 

If your house is very warm, store the truffles in the refrigerator. 


Adapted from here and here

4 large organic oranges (I used Cara Cara, but Navel oranges would work too; I think organic is important here since the only part of the orange you are consuming in this recipe is the rind)

1 cup of water (plus more for initial blanching and rinsing)
1 cup of sugar
12 ounces of semisweet chocolate (60-62% is ideal, any less will not be as rich and dark in color)

Fill a large saucepan or stock pot with 3 inches of water and bring to a boil.

While the water comes to a boil, prepare the orange rinds: Cut the top and bottom off each orange to make a flat surface on each side, leaving as much rind as possible lengthwise. Stand the orange upright on one of the cut ends, and cut from top to bottom with a serrated knife in such a way as to remove only the rind (trying not to cut into the flesh of the orange). The white pith should remain on the rind. If some of the fruit comes off with the rind, scrape it out using a spoon. Repeat with all four oranges. 

Slice the large pieces of rind into thin, julienned strips. Plunge the strips into the boiling water and let them blanche for 4-5 minutes. Drain, and rinse with cold water. Refill the pot with 3 inches of water and bring to a boil again, repeating this process. (This blanching process is necessary in order to make the orange rinds less bitter.) 

Drain the orange rinds and return them to the now-dry pot. 

Add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar to the pot with the orange rinds, stir gently, and turn the heat on to medium. When the mixture begins to bubble, turn the heat down to low, and allow to simmer for 1 hour, uncovered, stirring occasionally. The mixture should stay at a gentle simmer for the entire hour. After an hour, the liquid should have reduced and almost entirely evaporated, leaving a glossy syrup clinging to each orange rind strip. 

Arrange the orange rinds in a single layer on a wire rack (the rack should be placed over a baking sheet to catch the drips), and allow to dry overnight (or at least 6 hours). 

To finish the orangettes: Chop the chocolate and place it in a metal bowl. Set the bowl over a pot with 2 inches of water in it, and bring the water to a boil. Stir the chocolate until it has melted thoroughly and no lumps remain. 

Dip each slice of orange rind in the melted chocolate, so that two-thirds of the orange rind is coated in chocolate. Place the rinds on a rack or on waxed paper. Allow to cool for 2 hours, or until the chocolate is set and can be handled. 

You can also reserve some of the candied rinds for rolling in sugar to make candied orange glacé.

Store the orangettes wrapped in parchment in an airtight container. 

December 20, 2012

Here We Go


Well, people, the season is upon us. I’m feeling a little late to the game this year. But I did buy firewood yesterday, which is resting calmly in the back of my pick-up truck, and I did drink a lovely little brandy cocktail last night, so that’s a start.

I also did something else yesterday evening, right before friends arrived: I made Viennese Almond Crescents—the single most important Christmas cookie in my mind, and the most crucial item in my family’s cookie repertoire.

I wanted to share it with you.

My mother and I have been making these for years. As with most good traditions, I can’t really remember when it first started. But the NY Times magazine from which it was extracted is dated 1992—so twenty years ago. That sounds about right. Most likely, in other words, I have been making these cookies for Christmas since I was ten.

This gives you a sense of how well-used the recipe is:

There are a lot of lovely things about them that I could recount: they are buttery, tender, and flecked with ground almonds; they have an earthy nuttiness that keeps the cookies from ever seeming too sweet; and they are coated in a dusting of billowy powdered sugar—sugar that clings to your fingers when you eat them, that you lick off of your fingertips when you are done. But there’s something else about these cookies that I love too: They’re crescent shaped.

Little moons.

For the next couple of days I’m going to try (I repeat, try) to make a selection of sweets to suit the season; I’ll post them here as soon as they are done and documented. I’ll keep the writing to a minimum—because you have a lot of baking to do, and so do I.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these.

P.S. Ever since I posted about Anis Plätzchen (those tiny German anise cookies), I have received numerous inquiries about where to buy them and where to find a recipe. My answer is always the same: I have no idea. But, recently, a very generous reader posted his research on the cookies, along with a detailed recipe of how to make them at home. You can find it here; scroll down to the comments.

And thank you, Jake.

Viennese Almond Crescents
Adapted from the NY Times, December 13, 1992
Makes roughly 30 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter, cool and cut into chunks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cups ground almonds (I use sliced almonds with the skins on and then grind them in a blender)
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar, for coating the cookies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Cream together the cool butter and the sugar. Add the almonds, and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, toss together the flour and the salt, and then stir this into the butter mixture. I use my hands to help bring the cookie dough together once it is nearly combined, but don’t handle the dough too much, or the butter will warm and the cookies will lose their shape when baked.

Break off about 1 tablespoon of dough, and roll the dough in your palms to form a cigar shape; curve each little cigar into a crescent shape. Repeat until you have finished the dough, placing the cookies approximately 2 inches apart on the parchment-lined cookie sheets.

Bake until the cookies have browned ever so slightly around the edges: about 12-18 minutes. Begin checking them at 12 minutes and watch closely from there.

Transfer baked cookies to a rack to cool. Directly before serving, roll in powdered sugar; shake off excess powdered sugar by tossing each cookie lightly between your palms.

December 15, 2012

I Promised You Cake

I promised you cake. You can find the emphatic declaration here. And, well... I'm nothing if not good for my word.

As you know, it's been a year since this blog began. Last week I gave a little history on how it came to be and how it really got going. It was heartbreak that spurred this thing on initially, and it's been many other things that have kept it going since. Some bits of romance here and there. Moments of happiness. More sadness in between. And the most important thing of all: sharing experiences and creating community. We've come together through this, and your lovely notes and sweet emails and encouraging texts have kept me coming back. Thank you to all of you who have written to me, and also to my more silent, but diligent, readers. This cake is for you.

I thought we would try a little something different in honor of this one-year mark. A sort of year-in-review, if you will:

For one thing, there has been lots of cake. In one of my more nostalgic posts, there's even been cake on the shores of the Point Reyes National Coastline. I shared that cake with someone close to me and compared it later to sand dunes. We had a good time that day. I even remember reciting a poem. My friend's dog was there, too, yanking her leash and getting herself a muzzle full of sand at every opportunity.

There have been two notable pancake incidents—incidentally, or perhaps not-so-incidentally, following a night of sadness. In the first one, I made a sort of sexual innuendo that involved a reference to the heat from a sizzling, nonstick griddle. (Maybe not one of my finest writing moments here, but much appreciated by a certain friend of mine. M., I'm talking to you.

Recently, I wrote about my sister and how much I miss her. That was a hard post to write, but I was glad to have done it. That post has become a place where I can go when I want to think of and be close to her. I now also associate her with the colors in that first photo—the vibrant purples from that bougainvillea bush and the cool blue light on my old kitchen table.

We’ve also had a bit of success: I discovered one morning, much to my surprise, that my blog had been picked up by the Bon Appétit website. I celebrated by digging my heels into a couple paralyzing weeks of writer’s block (!!!), followed by happiness and disbelief, followed by more paralysis and writer’s block. I got over it eventually and somehow decided to keep writing.

Then there was meat, the first ever on the blog, and a celebration of all things animalistic and primal. That post also featured my roommate's cat. His name is Chulo. This is another photo from that shoot; a slightly less elegant—but more characteristically Chulo—moment:

In spring, there were strawberries with chamomile cream and a rhubarb clafoutis (or, rather, a Flaugnarde—a divine French custard oozing with roasted rhubarb and cinnamon sugar). I also wrote about someone I never knew in that post: my great-grandfather—the original grower of the rhubarb plants that my mother and I still pick from.

In the summer months, we had cold soup and watermelons with chili salt. Much earlier, in winter, we ate oatmeal with roasted cherries and almonds.

There was also a trip to New York along the way, during which I turned 30 alongside some of my closest friends and in the arms of my beloved city.

There were many other things too: things both written about and omitted, grandiose and insignificant, uplifting and tragic.

It’s been a busy year.

For the first time in a long time… no, for the first time ever, I’ve found a way to track these moments that can also be shared with others. Outside of the pages of a journal, in a slightly more dressed-up form, I’ve written about and noted and made photographs of various events both large and small. I’ve given them over here, to this format, for us to be in together.

It’s a unique experience and one that I am grateful for.


In honor of the occasion, I’ve made us a birthday cake, as promised, to give this blog a proper celebration.

And a celebration cake it is—orange and pistachio yogurt cake, layered high with a grand marnier buttercream, bedecked with candied orange slices… orange slices that have been simmered in a honey syrup fragrant with cardamom.

It really is quite the thing.

It took me a while to figure out what kind of cake I wanted to make. I needed something different for this post—something truly new and celebratory; something that seemed fresh and that could signal a sort of renewed excitement and energy. I saw in my mind a beautiful, creamy white frosting; I tasted citrus on my tongue; and then I built from there.

As a result, the recipe is a sort of amalgam of different sources—sources that have also been heavily tweaked by me. I might even be able to take credit for this thing as being an “original recipe.” It was inspired by many sources, yes, but it is also new and original in its own way.

Here’s to the start of another year—a fresh start; one with an infinite array of possibilities, both terrifying and intoxicating.

For the first time in a long time, I think I’m ready. 

Orange-Pistachio Cake with Grand Marnier Buttercream and Candied Orange Slices

Serves many, many
Inspired by this, this, and this

For the cake (makes two 8-inch round cakes, to be divided into two layers each):

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
2 cup granulated sugar
6 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon grated orange zest (I used Cara Cara oranges)
1 cup canola oil
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup ground pistachios

For the candied orange slices:
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup orange blossom honey
1 orange, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon crushed cardamom pods

For the buttercream frosting:

6 cups confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice

Bake the cakes:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans.
In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, sugar, and eggs until thoroughly mixed. Add the flour, baking powder, orange zest, and a pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Add the oil and stir until the batter comes together and is smooth and silky. Fold in the ground pistachios until fully incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes in their pans for 20-30 minutes and then turn out onto a baking rack and allow to cool completely. 

Prepare the candied orange slices:

While the cake is baking, you can prepare the candied orange slices. They are very elegant, but require minimum effort. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, and cardamom pods with 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and add the orange slices. Stir gently once or twice, and allow to simmer for 40 minutes, or until the orange slices are softened and slightly translucent. Place the orange slices on a baking sheet with parchment until you are ready to use them.

Make the Grand Marnier buttercream frosting

In a large bowl, cream the butter until soft and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioner's sugar until fully incorporated and no lumps remain. Stir in the Grand Marnier and the orange juice. These measurements can be fiddled with to get the right consistency; for a thicker frosting, add more sugar; if you need to thin the frosting, add juice or liquor. 

Assemble the cake

Once the cakes have cooled completely, you may prepare the layers. Trim the tops of each cake so that you have a relatively flat surface on each. Flip the cakes over so that the cut side is facing down. Then, score each cake about halfway up the side and around the entire cake—the score marks act as your guide for slicing the cake into two even layers. Once the score marks are made, run a large serrated knife through the cake, making sure to keep a steady hand and cut evenly through. Separate the layers, and brush away stray crumbs.

The original bottoms of each cake (with the most even surface) should be used for the top and bottom layers—for the bottom layer, place one of these layers cut side up; for the top layer, this layer should be cut side down. 

Place your first layer on a cake stand or plate. Place strips of parchment paper around the plate and under the first layer of cake to protect the surface of your serving dish. Spoon 3-4 tablespoons of frosting onto the first layer, and smooth out evenly, going almost to the edge. Place the next cake layer on top, and repeat this process until you reach the top layer. (I like very thin layers of frosting between each cake layer, so the cake does not become overly sweet.)

Once all four layers are in place, you should thinly frost the entire cake to make a "crumb coat." This first coat seals in the crumbs and will ensure a beautiful, unmarred final frosting. After the crumb coat, frost the entire cake again more thickly using a butter knife. 

Add a few candied orange slices to the top of the cake, right in the middle, and garnish with chopped pistachios, if you wish.