Monday, August 29, 2011

Smitten Kitchen's chocolate peanut butter cake and baking with natural peanut butter

chocolate peanut butter cake
Chocolate peanut butter cake. Recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen.

I've loaded my blog with peanut butter recipes over the last month. Some peanut butter recipes came about in sad times, others for big celebrations. Peanut butter is the ultimate comfort food in North America, so I guess it makes sense. It's the one ingredient that conjures memories of happy times and comfort in most of us (even from the simplest peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread).

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Kraft peanut butter. It's the peanut butter that comes in the plastic jar, with a green label. There's a teddy bear on that green label. I loved the stuff. Kraft peanut butter was the only peanut butter we ever had in the house, and it was probably the only peanut butter I ever ate. In fact, I'm not sure I ever even tasted peanut butter from any other brand when I was a kid.

monkey cake
Monkey cake! Banana layer cake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate ganache.

Then, I grew up, and I went sugar-/gluten-free for 40 days.

Yes I, the baking-obsessed person that I am, the lover of all things cake-y and sweet cut all processed sugars and gluten from my diet (for 40 days). And so, my beloved Kraft peanut butter didn't make the cut. I made the switch to Maranatha organic peanut butter.

The first time I cracked open a glass jar of organic peanut butter, I was a little annoyed. The oils were obviously separated from the nut butter (no emulsifiers here!). There was a lot of work to make the two-phased product look like anything resembling what I called peanut butter. The jar was slippery from all the spilled peanut oil that came from vigorous and labor-intense stirring. Frustrating. Why would anybody buy this when it requires so much work?

peanut butter cups
Peanut butter and chocolate cups.

After all the work was done, I fell in love with natural, unsweetened peanut butter. It is absolutely delicious, and oh so peanut-y. Organic peanut butter was a revelation to me. And if you buy the kind made with roasted peanuts and with just a touch of sea salt added.... Wow. It's crazy good. I ate my first jar in less than a month. I drizzled it over apples as a snack. I ate it by the spoonful.

As I baked with it over the month of August, I learned a few things that I thought I'd share:
  • Natural peanut butter in frostings: If you use organic, natural peanut butter in a peanut butter frosting recipe, the frosting will begin to separate at room temperature (this meant that my monkey cake got a little "sweaty" at the table). Best to store your peanut butter frosted cake in the fridge, and don't leave it at room temperature for too long before serving.
  • Natural peanut butter in ganache: Organic peanut butter can cause your chocolate to seize as you melt it. You may end up with a solid block when you heat dark chocolate and organic, natural peanut butter together (as in this recipe) for a peanut butter ganache. When this happens, don't panic! Warm the cream (milk) called for in the recipe (to hot, but not boiling), then pour it over the peanuty-chocolate solid, let sit for a few minutes, then slowly whisk/stir to incorporate the cream and remelt the chocolate. In the end, if your ganache is lumpy and if you're using it to top a cake, sprinkle some chopped peanuts over the ganache, and nobody will ever know that your ganache was lumpy (like the photo at the top of the post)!
  • Natural peanut butter in a pie filling: Organic peanut butter worked beautifully in my peanut butter and chocolate cups. The peanut butter filling was sinfully good and oh-so-fluffy.

I have no recipe to include for this post because I used Smitten Kitchen's recipe, pretty much word for word, to make the cake shown in the first photo in this post. The only thing I did differently was the ganache since the chocolate and peanut butter seized over a double boiler. I simply took the bowl off the heat, and added the hot cream, slowly incorporating it by stirring (and eventually whisking) slowly. The finished cake was a huge hit among peanut butter and chocolate lovers.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late summer black currant and amaretto cakes

In my most recent CSA basket, I got these late-summer berries (pictured below ) and I, the food-lover that I am, did not have a clue what they were. All I did know was that they were NOT blueberries. I tried googling them, but came up with nothing. Then I turned to twitter. A few tweeple showed me that they were black currants (thank you to the lovely tweeple of the twitterverse for helping me out!). By the way, tweeple is definitely a word. I'm not making it up.

black currants

I'm pretty embarrassed that I had never seen black currants before, and I call myself a foodie? I always encountered these berries in jams and sauces, cooked down and sweetened. Fresh, they are quite tart, so they are perfect baked into a sweet late summer cake.

black currant and amaretto cake

Conveniently, Abby Dodge's latest baketogether is a summer fruit cake, so that's what I made with my black currants. I halved the original recipe, and tweaked it a little, using yoghurt in the cake batter (in place of sour cream), and flavoring with vanilla, amaretto, and a touch of organic almond extract to reinforce the flavor of the amaretto. The nutty, amaretto flavor was the perfect complement to the tart black currants.

black currant and amaretto cake

If you don't have black currants, any berry, fresh or frozen, would work well, especially raspberries. I think most berries would work really nicely with the almond flavor . Even chopped apricot or peach would be nice. The cake is not an airy-fairy kind of cake, but it is definitely spongy. I guess you could say it's more "rustic."

The temperatures at night are definitely colder and crisper than they were in July. It's sad to say, but I guess summer is winding down. Love it or hate it, it had to happen eventually. At least I have these cakes to warm up with.

Summer black currant and amaretto jar cakes

black currant and amaretto cake Serves 4
  • 3 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1.5 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tbsp amaretto liqueur
  • 1/8 tsp natural almond extract
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/3 cup (80 mL) yoghurt (2.5% fat)
  • 3 oz (1/4 pint) black currant
  • 1/2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1 tbsp all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease four 250 mL mason jars.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until well blended. Set aside for later.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high until well blended, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add the egg, beating on medium speed until just blended.
  5. Add the flavorings and the lemon zest.
  6. Add the dry ingredients and the yoghurt alternately into the butter mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape the batter into the prepared jars and spread evenly. Bake for 8 minutes.
  7. After you put the cakes in the oven, make the topping. Combine the black currants, sugar, and flour in a small bowl. Using a table fork, mix the ingredients together to evenly coat the fruit.
  8. After the cake has baked for 8 minutes, working quickly, slide the oven rack out and scatter the fruit evenly over the top of the cakes. Continue baking until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about another 15 to 25 minutes.
  9. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Peanut butter and chocolate cups

peanut butter cups
Baking makes me happy. When sad things happen, I bake. My friends know this all too well. Even when sadness hits me so hard that I feel no hunger for food, I still bake. It's what I do to cope, for distraction, in search of a happy moment, or a good feeling. I bake.

peanut butter cups

Jennifer Perillo suffered a tragedy that I, at this stage of my life, cannot understand. However, I can bake for her and her family, and for Mikey, from far. It's the least I can do, and it's what she has asked us all to do.

peanut butter cups

I made something sweet, inspired by Jennifer Perillo's peanut butter and chocolate pie recipe, and as I write this, I think of her and her family. The road ahead will not be easy, but I hope that someday soon, she and her family will again be able to enjoy those peanut-butter-pie-filled moments of life, so precious.

peanut butter cups

I transformed Jennifer's pie recipe (with the help of Jennifer Schall's adaptation) into an easy peanut butter treat that can be whipped together in a matter of minutes. These peanut butter and chocolate cups are airy and sweet, chocolaty and loaded with peanut butter flavor, definitely a little source of comfort.

Peanut butter and chocolate cups

peanut butter cups
Makes 4 glasses

  • 3 oz chocolate wafers
  • 2 oz cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup organic peanut butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • Dash vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 3 tbsp chopped peanuts

  1. Pulse the chocolate wafers into fairly fine crumbs in the food processor. Place about 2 tbsp of the wafer crumbs at the bottom of each glass, saving some for the topping.
  2. In a medium bowl, cream together the peanut butter, sweetened condensed milk, and the vanilla. Set this aside while you whip the cream.
  3. Add half the whipped cream to the peanut butter mixture, and mix this together to lighten the peanut butter mixture. Then add the other half of the whipped cream, folding it in gently to combine.
  4. Divide the peanut butter filling among the four glasses. Top with a sprinkling of chocolate wafer crumbs and chopped peanuts.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Plum cardamom coffee-cake muffins


As time goes by, I both love and hate to see the latest of the season's local fruits and berries. I love the changes in the market stands for obvious reasons: new and exciting eating and baking options! But I hate to see the fruit varieties gradually disappear as the season progresses because it means that summer is slipping away with each passing fruit.


I guess I can't be too upset when the berries make way for stone fruits like these plums. The flesh is firm and tastes like sweet candy, and the skin is crisp and tart. The plums are great at breakfast, served with tangy plain yogurt and crunchy quinoa puffs. Healthy. Or.... you could make these muffins.


The recipe for these muffins is adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (page 39). My tweak to this recipe is to add cardamom to the muffin batter. The floral cardamom enhances the flavor of the vibrant plums. If you dare, you can even up the amount of cardamom to a full teaspoon, or more. These muffins are super light, made with a full tablespoon of baking powder. The texture is quite cake-like, though the batter is assembled just like a traditional muffin recipe: adding the wet ingredients to the dry. I've been making these muffins at least once a year, and I just love them. I hope that you will too. They almost make me forget that the strawberries are long gone. 

This recipe was submitted to Lisa at Sweet as Sugar Cookies. She is hosting a Sweets for Saturday link-up. Hop on over and check out her blog and all the delicious creations over there!

Plum cardamom coffee-cake muffins

muffins Yields 10 muffins
  • 150 grams (3/4 cup) plus 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 155 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp cardamom
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 190 mL (3/4 cup) skim milk, room temperature
  • 110 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
  • 3–4 (~250 grams) firm but ripe plums, pitted and chopped

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Generously grease 10 cups of two standard 6-cup muffin trays. Set aside.
  2. Combine 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar with the cinnamon in a small bowl or a little teacup. Set aside for later.
  3. Prepare the dry ingredient mix by whisking together, in a medium bowl, the rest of the sugar, the flour, baking powder, salt, and cardamom. Set this aside.
  4. Prepare the wet ingredients in a medium bowl by gently whisking together the eggs, vanilla, milk, and melted butter.
  5. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients, and stir to combine.
  6. Divide the batter evenly by filling each of the muffin cups at least halfway with batter. Then distribute the plum chunks evenly over the batter in the muffin cups, and top with another dollop of batter. Sprinkle the tops of each muffin with a little of the cinnamon sugar mixture (you will probably have lots of cinnamon sugar left. Sprinkle it on buttered toast for breakfast!).
  7. Fill the remaining empty muffin cups halfway with water, transfer the pans to the oven, and bake for about 18 minutes. Check to see if they're done with a cake tester. It should come out clean when the muffins are done.
  8. Transfer the pans to a rack and cool for about 10 minutes before unmolding the muffins.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Monkey cake: Banana cake with chocolate ganache and peanut butter frosting

monkey cake

When a PhD student defends their thesis, it's a really big deal. Actually, it's huge. It takes anywhere from four to seven years to get to that day. Yes, often in Chemistry, it takes seven solid years of work to finally get to that one day. Defense day is full of fear and excitement, not only for the student defending, but also for those that attend. So much hard work, sweat, and tears go into the years before the big finale. It is truly a moment to celebrate.


Me after my defense, shoes off, with a crown and necklace of popcorn and helium-filled balloons.
Photo courtesy of an anonymous, sugar-addicted chemist

My defense date was over a year ago, March 8th, 2010. I was seriously afraid to defend my thesis, scared to make a fool of myself in front of my friends and family when I was supposed to be demonstrating that I was an expert. To be honest, I cried before the defense, out of sheer panic. I also cried after the defense, from the immense sense of relief because this huge, difficult part of my life was finally over. I cried when my panel of judges, one by one, took my hand to shake it in congratulations and when they gave me the title of doctor. We celebrated with boat-loads of popcorn that one of my best friends, E, spent three days lovingly popping, just for me. There was popcorn everywhere. It was epic.

monkey cake

Genius idea: Make a parchment round like this, then use the scrap to protect the cake board when icing and decorating!

Friday, I attended E's defense. E is a very hard worker, and she gave every one of her projects her undivided attention over the years, working most nights and week-ends. I was so happy to have the opportunity to witness such an important event in her life, and be there to support her. For the post-defense celebration, we celebrated with fruity cocktails, and I happily contributed a monkey cake for this momentous occasion. She loves monkeys. That's her thing. How could I resist the chance to make her a monkey cake?

monkey cake

Obviously, since I was making a monkey cake, the two 9-inch cake layers had to be banana-flavored (tweaked from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, page 157). I used chocolate ganache (Alton Brown) and peanut butter frosting (Bon Appétit, January 2003) between the layers. The ears were made by baking two cupcakes-worth of the banana cake batter in a muffin tin. The entire cake was frosted with chocolate ganache, and the monkey face was made with both the ganache and peanut butter frosting. The combination of banana, peanut butter, and chocolate was a huge hit with everyone, especially our friend-turned-doctor. The cake layers are firm but moist, and with just enough banana flavor that is not overpowering. To cut down on the sweetness of the decorated cake and to make it more "adult-friendly," I opted to use an unsweetened, lightly salted natural peanut butter to make the peanut butter frosting, and semi-sweet chocolate for the chocolate ganache.

E's three-day popcorn popping spree made my defense party unforgettable. I hope that my little monkey cake contribution made her big day a little more special too. 

Banana cake with chocolate ganache and peanut butter frosting

monkey cake
One 9-inch layer cake

Banana Cake Layers
  • 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour, plus more for pans
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup mashed, ripe banana
  • 1/4 cup yoghurt (2.5% fat)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare two 9-inch round cake pans by greasing, lining the bottom of each with parchment, and then greasing and flouring them, tapping out the excess flour. Set them aside for later, saving the parchment scraps for when you decorate. Do the same to two cups of a 6-muffin pan, but don't line the bottom of the cups with parchment. Set the prepared muffin pan aside for later.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set the dry ingredients aside.
  3. In a small bowl, mix together the mashed banana, yoghurt, and vanilla. Set aside the banana mixture for later.
  4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and granulated sugar on medium-low for a few minutes, until it is light. Scraped down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, as needed.
  5. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on medium-low between each addition, and scraping down the bowl as needed.
  6. Add one-third the dry ingredients, mix well and scrape down the bowl, and then half the banana mixture. Repeat this again with half the remaining dry ingredients, and the rest of the banana mixture. Finish by adding the last of the dry ingredients, and mix well, scraping down the sides of the bowl to make sure every ingredient is evenly incorporated.
  7. Divide half the batter between the two prepared cake pans. Scoop out about 1/3 cup from each cake pan, and transfer to each of the muffin pans. Fill the empty muffin cups half way with water.
  8. Bake the cakes for about 25 minutes (though the original recipe says 30–35 minutes). Check the cakes to make sure they are done by poking through the center with a skewer or cake tester. The skewer should come out clean.
  9. Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack to cool completely.

Chocolate ganache frosting
  • 16 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped fine
  • 16 ounces (2 cups, ie 500 mL) heavy cream

  1. Heat the heavy cream in a quart-sized, microwavable container and microwave for 3 to 4 minutes on high, or until it just begins to simmer; be careful not to allow cream to boil over.
  2. Place the chocolate in a medium, heat-proof bowl. Pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand for 2 minutes (don't rush this step), then slowly stir with a spatula. As you stir, the lumpy mixture will slowly blend together and become a thin, chocolate syrup.
  3. Let the syrup set at room temperature for a few hours, then transfer it to the fridge for another hour or so. When the ganache has a thick pudding-like consistency, transfer it to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip it into frosting. Use right away, before it hardens any more.
Peanut butter frosting
  • 1.5 cups creamy peanut butter (I used natural, organic peanut butter, but this means the frosting will separate if left too long at room temperature, so beware!)
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp spiced rum
  • Enough skim milk to obtain a spreadable consistency
  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the peanut butter, butter, rum, and the powdered sugar until mixture is smooth.
  2. Add milk by teaspoonfuls until the desired, spreadable consistency is reached.

Cake assembly
  1. Line a 12-inch cake board with the saved parchment scraps.
  2. Trim the top off of one of the baked cake rounds so that it is flat and even. Peel the parchment lining off the bottom, and place it in the center of the board.
  3. Frost the top of this layer with a thin layer of both the ganache and peanut butter frostings.
  4. Peel the parchment lining off the bottom of the second cake round, and place it on top of the first. Do not trim this cake round. Frost the entire cake with ganache frosting.
  5. To fix the ears to the cake rounds, frost the bottom with ganache, and skewer them to the cake with toothpicks. Place them at opposite sides of the round. Frost the ears with ganache.
  6. With peanut butter frosting, fill in the ears, and paint on the monkey face. For the lines of the mouth, eyes, and nose, use a piping bag with a round tip and the ganache.
  7. Refrigerate the cake until you are ready to serve. To cut through the ganache layer, you may want to use a knife dipped in warm water.