Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chocolate Shortbread for a GNI

Thanks to the television show The Office, I can no longer hear the term “Girls' Night Out” without thinking of one particular episode of the show and one of the more memorable (in my mind) Office quotes. One of the women in the office is getting married, and the female employees throw her a worktime bridal shower, which is joked about as their “Girls' Night Out.” Of course, a lunchtime party with co-workers is not normally what many think about as “Girls' Night Out,” and is does not turn out to be: in fact, the presentation given by a Ben Franklin impersonator isn't what many people consider entertaining or enjoyable at all. But, The Office manages to make it both, and the following exchange is what always come to my mind when the phrase “Girls' Night Out” is uttered around me.
Angela says: “You know this is a luncheon shower. Girls only.”
And Michael, her boss, responds with, “No problem. The guys are having a little shindig of their own in the warehouse. From 2:30 to 3:15. That is the only time that Bob was available. Sort of a guys' night out. A 'G-N-O' if you will. A 'gno.' Actually it's more of a guys' afternoon in. A G-A-I. A gay. Not-- not... it's uh, not gay. It's, uh, just uh, it's a bridal shower for guys. A guy shower. An hour long shower with guys.”
So this week, when my roommate and I hosted a relaxing “Girls' Night In” at our place, my mind immediately jumped to this quote, and I giggled endlessly to myself as I baked the Chocolate Shortbread cookies for our GNI.
And the cookies were a lighter, smaller dessert selection to top off the full table of tapas that we snacked on into the evening. Additionally, they were easily handled while lounging in the living room, watching a movie. I found just one cookie to be the perfect end to a larger group dinner, with a powerful chocolate taste that left me, and the others, very satisfied.

Chocolate Shortbread Cookies


2 cups all purpose flour
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract


Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt.
Place butter in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until the butter is fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, and beat about 2 minutes until very light in color, scraping down the side of the bowl as necessary. Add vanilla, blend, then add flour mixture, mixing until the flour is just incorporated and the dough sticks together when squeezed with fingers. Form dough into a flattened disk, wrap in plastic, and chill until firm (at least 1 hour).
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly spray two baking sheets with vegetable oil.
Using a spoon, form dough into 1-inch balls; place on prepared baking sheets. Bake until firm, 20-22 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Cool completely on a wire rack. Dust with cocoa powder just before serving.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Luscious Chocolate Mousse Cake

Although my baking habits generally err on the side of healthy (my desserts do not normally boast the butter or sugar content of, say, Paula Deen), I still savor the opportunity to make a fully no-holds-barred dessert that equally tickles the palate of those who swear by sweets and also of those who instead appreciate one spectacular piece of chocolate a month. This really only happens when I'm baking for a group, and most definitely when I'm baking for someone other than just myself. This is when I want to create something memorable that is so decadent that I simply cannot wait to pull it from the oven, let it cool, and then plate it. A dish that's mere smell or appearance induces raised eyebrows, salivating mouths, and smiles of anticipatory pleasure (of the chocolate variety).

When this sort of dish is in order, I have found that I cannot trust just any recipe to fulfill the specifications. I do not pull a random one from my recipe file, but I go straight to my most trusted teachers. In this case, I took my cookbook, “How to be a Domestic Goddess” from the shelf, and asked it to give me something that would elevate me slightly higher toward that title. Of course, I brought the book with me to the kitchen in which I was cooking — which was not my own, but that of a friend's —and I received a requisite amount of teasing over the title. I counteracted with a confident smile and a remark about her Nigella Lawson's expertise, and then I continued to work with some of the most marvelous equipment that I ever have: heavy ceramic mixing bowls, metal measuring utensils, a wonderful springform pan. And although these pieces played an integral part in the creation of this Chocolate Mousse Cake, the real reason for its amazingly light composition, yet decadent flavor (not my words, but those of my tasters) is the chocolate used. Nigella specifies that only the “best quality” chocolate bars should be melted into this dish, and she is spot on. This time, I used Green & Blacks Organic chocolate, and I'm sure that anything above the waxy drugstore candy will do. Decent eggs and butter are also essential, mainly because there are so few ingredients, and each one stands out in its own way.

This cake received many compliments, including “out of this world” and “absolutely amazing.” And upon trying a slice for myself, I can think of several more perfectly apt phrases.

Chocolate Mousse Cake

11 oz. dark chocolate
2 oz. good quality milk chocolate
¾ cup unsalted butter
8 large eggs, seperated
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
A pinch salt


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and put a kettle on to boil. Line the inside of a 9 inch springform tin with silver foil, make sure that the foil is pressed well to the sides to form a smooth surface.
2. Melt the chocolate and butter together and allow to cool. In another bowl, beat the eggs yolks and sugar until very thick and pale, they should form ribbons when lifted with the whisk. Stir in the vanilla and salt and then the cooled chocolate mix. Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl until they form soft peaks, lighten the chocolate mix with a beaten in dollop of the whites before folding in the rest of them.
3. Pour the cake batter into the foiled cake tin and place the whole thing into a larger roasting dish. Add hot water from the boiled kettle into the roasting tin until it comes about 1 inch up the side of tin. Cook for about 50 minutes - 1 hour.
4. When the cake has cooled, slowly peel off the foil. The outside of the cake will be cooked and dry and the inside will be soft and moussy. Dust with confectioner's sugar and serve.

Monday, February 16, 2009

For the Love of Lavender

My new found love of culinary lavender is quite well-known amongst my friends by now; it seems that whenever I talk about food lately, I'm describing the latest lavender Earl Grey tea I've tried (Revolution Tea has a blissful blend that is strong and aromatic), or the dark chocolate with lavender I ate (for this, Dagoba Organic chocolate), or the lavender-iced cupcake I enjoyed not too long ago. Even the chocolate shop where I work part-time recently debuted a specialty lavender hot chocolate, with the signature hot chocolate base, homemade vanilla whipped cream, and a sprinkling of culinary lavender buds on top, giving the drink a floral quality without being overpowering.

Lavender just seems to go well with so much in the foodie world, both in sweet and savory dishes. As I've looked for recipes, I've seen lavender sauces matched with duck and pork, it's included in beef Carpaccio dishes, paired with goat cheese in tarts, and roasted with tomatoes. For the majority of people I've spoken to, though, using lavender in foodstuff generally is a bit too adventurous. I, however, am all about adventure, which explains the wide range of ingredients that my baking cupboard contains.

Today was a beautiful day off from work (thanks, President's Day!) and as I walked through Woodland Park here in Seattle, my mind wandered to my baking, and why I have so quickly warmed to all things lavender. The reason, I mused, is that the very essence of lavender is soothing and calming, and what better way to infuse these properties into my life than to literally consume them? I know I was not considering this when I took the first sip of lavender tea or when I excitedly helped to put together the lavender hot chocolate at the shop, but it makes sense to me. I, like many others, use lavender body lotion and lavender candles to soothe myself at the end of the day: these things help me to relax and re-center myself. If I use lavender for these reasons, then why not take it a step farther by suffusing my diet with the herb? What other healing herbs can I make a mainstay in my kitchen, then?

It's a beautiful flower in sight and smell, and equally so in taste, as I'm discovering day by day.

This lavender recipe comes from Hood River Lavender in Oregon and is a wonderfully fragrant, bready dish that showcases lavender very well.

Lavender, Rosemary, Garlic and Olive Focaccia

1 pound pre-made pizza dough
2 Tbsp olive oil (extra-virgin)
¼ cup pitted & chopped black olives
2 tsp chopped lavender buds
1 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp coarse salt
ground black pepper to taste

1. Lightly oil a large baking sheet. On a work surface, roll pizza dough out into an 8 x 14 rectangle. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and cover with a clean dish towel, let rise at room temperature for 20 min. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. After final rising on baking sheet, make dimples in dough with finger tips. Brush on 2 Tbsp olive oil; then add mixture of: 2 tsp chopped lavender, 2 Tbsp rosemary, 2 cloves minced garlic and chopped olives. Press into place, sprinkle with 1 tsp coarse salt & black pepper to taste. Bake 12 – 15 min. or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack. Cut into pieces to serve.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cozy and Contented Chocolate Spice Cookies

There are desserts for lazy days, for overwhelming days, for nerve-wracking days, for disappointing days, and for birthdays, but my favorite desserts are the ones that I make after a gratifying, happy-go-lucky day: these are celebratory desserts, in the vein of tiny pats on the back and warm smiles, as opposed to over-the-top parties and long-winded speeches of triumph. So, to use food-speak: a cozy, contented cookie instead of a several layer cake with fondant.

Yesterday was a day for this sort of cookie, and normally when I have days like these (which is occurring more and more frequently, to my utter delight), I go for something familiar like my chocolate chip or my oatmeal raisin chocolate chip cookies: basic, delicious, and something I could put together in my sleep, if the need ever arose. But I had found this recipe for Chocolate Spice Cookies not too long ago, and I was intrigued: the chocolate was what grabbed my attention, and the gingerbread-like spices are what pulled me in.

The procedure is pretty standard for drop cookies: mix the dry ingredients, mix the wet ingredients, then mix both mixtures together. The resulting cookie is something different and delicious. The cinnamon, ginger, and cloves give the cookies just the right amount of spiciness mixed with the chocolate and sugar for sweetness – the balance here is really ideal. Additionally, the molasses and the applesauce make for a soft, chewy, and soothing texture that goes perfectly with the satisfied sigh of an altogether pleasant day.

Chocolate Spice Cookies
Yield: 3 dozen


1 ½ c. all purpose flour
½ c. alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa powder
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. salt
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 c. sugar
¼ c. unsweetened applesauce
¼ c. molasses


Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees
Stir the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and set aside
In another mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together with a large rubber spatula. Beat in the applesauce and molasses.
Stir in the dry ingredients to make a soft dough.
Drop tablespoons of the dough an inch apart onto greased cookie sheets.
Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes, changing the positions of the pans halfway through the baking. Exchange the top pan and the bottom and turn them back to front. The cookies will be fairly moist when they are done; avoid overbaking.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Banana Bread for All

Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of banana bread. This is only because of my aversion to bananas, which is not entirely uncommon, as I've found many people with the same dislike. But still, I do enjoy the smell of bananas in the same way that I love the aroma of coffee, but I find the drink itself slightly revolting. Following this logic, it makes little to no sense as to why I would bake a loaf of banana bread, but that is something I did over the weekend. To be fair, the bread was for someone else, so I'm not simply baking desserts that I have no desire to eat (the list of these desserts is very, very short anyhow).

But there were a few things that I very much liked about this bread, without even having sampled it: mashing bananas is quite fun, and the texture that I hate to eat becomes more than tolerable when it's in my hands. Also, the scent of baking bread is enhanced by the addition of banana. And thirdly, this loaf bakes up so large and dense that it would be perfect for potlucks, gifts, or easily feeding a larger group with something substantial.

This bread, so my taste tester told me, turned out dense and was very filling, but was hardly too sweet; in fact, a tablespoon of honey on a cooled slice only improved the bread.

Banana Loaf Cake


2 ½ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large egg whites
½ c. granulated sugar
½ c. dark brown sugar, firmly packed
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ c. mashed bananas (about 5 large, very large bananas, mashed, then measured)


Spray a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan and coat with fine, dry bread crumbs and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites about two minutes, then whisk in the granulated and brown sugars.
Whisk in the butter and vanilla, followed by the mashed bananas.
Shift the flour mixture over the banana mixture and thoroughly fold it in. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 55-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean.
Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes then remove from the pan to cool completely.