Sunday, August 19, 2012

heat wave chocolate buttercream cake

it’s been hot here. big blue skies and 100 degree days.

this morning it was hazy, cold like an autumn morning. it sprinkled.

i must be turning into a real pacific northwesterner, relieved to have a few hours from the sunshine.

the heat sure does make me sluggish out here.

but i’ll tell you what, no matter how hot it gets, how sunny and sweaty and still, i just can’t stop baking.

i’ve got my oven packed with peach pie and moroccan cookies and almond biscotti

it’s hot, sure, but ain’t nothing like a biscotti on a cool morning like today.


last weekend i trucked out to hood river, east of portland, on the columbia river gorge. i have dear friend, keely, who lives in a country home with her husband on the outskirts of her family’s vineyard, wy'east

wy’east is the native name for mount hood, which can be seen like so, from their rolling vineyards

i’ve always loved the countryside, so being out there is like going home.

not to mention, it’s beautiful, and when i woke up in the morning, mount adams greeted me

it sure is something to be out there – purple martins just barely touching the ponds edge, crickets all night, meteor showers, windy afternoons, quiet.

keely’s family was having us for dinner, and at her father’s request, we were to make chocolate chip cookies. we decided it would be more fun to make chocolate buttercream cake.

so we pulled the shades, plugged in the fans, and pulled out a few bowls, a whisk, a wooden spoon, and other cake-baking amenities.

so here’s a copy of chocolate buttercream cake that i found a many years ago in a barefoot contessa cookbook

it is, of course, to be enjoyed on a cool summer night, after swimmin’ and snoozin’ and workin’ and lovin’

bon appétit

chocolate buttercream cake

for the cakes, you'll need:

1 ¾ cup al purpose flour
1 cup dutch cocoa powder
1 ½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
½ cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 tablespoons coffee, cooled

ideally, with this recipe you should use a stand-up kitchen aid mixer. however, this piece of equipment is, indeed, a luxury, so a hand mixer will be just fine

preheat oven to 350. butter two 8 inch round cake pans, and dust them with flour

in a medium bowl, sift flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa. set aside. in a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk, sour cream, and coffee. set this aside, too.

in a big bowl, cream butter and sugars. add eggs and vanilla. add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately in thirds.  

divide batter between your 2 pans and bake in on middle rack for about 25-30 minutes, or until the center of the cake doesn't spring when you lightly touch it with your fingers

meanwhile, take a break, enjoy the sunshine, and make your frosting

for the frosting, you'll need:

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
1 lb unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoon instant espresso powder, dissolved in 1 tsp water
2 tablespoon dark rum, optional

chop chocolate and melt in a double boiler (in french we call these bain-marie, or, a water bath, you don't need anything fancy - just one big pot filled about half way with water, and a smaller pot that fits over top.  the water heats the top pot and thus, melts the chocolate without burning). once chocolate is completely melted, set aside and let it cool.

in a medium sized bowl, heat the egg whites in your bain-marie until they are warm to touch. throw in your sugar and salt with heated egg whites and begin to whisk with your mixer until the meringue is col and holds stiff peaks.

add butter one tablespoon at a time, scrape the bowl and add melted chocolate, vanilla, espresso, and rum (if using).


and there ya have it, chocolate buttercream frosting! if its too soft (because it's over 100 degrees outside...), don't freight! you can throw it into the fridge for a little bit and re-whip it up before frosting your cakes.

the most important thing to note when frosting cakes is this: the cakes must be completely cooled. if they're not, the frosting will melt, and your cakes will fall all over the place. believe me, it's happened to me more times that one. so don't jump the punch folks, wait it out, enjoy the afternoon, and frost them when they're ready.

and so, to end my weekend at the vineyard, even though the buttercream was soft, it held up just fine in all that heat, and we brought it out to her folks, and their friends, and shared it in the breezy evening, beneath the stars (sans city glow) with willamette valley dessert wine.

Friday, August 3, 2012

my papa's djej emshermel

for as beautiful as the pacific northwest is, my heart is in michigan.

sometimes when i’m riding my bike to work early in the morning, past big old houses with wisteria wrapped around the porches, and artichoke plants lining the sidewalks, i think of home. i push the wheels back and forth and back and forth, and in my mind, i spot a downy woodpecker on the huron river, i watch the lilac bloom on the shore, i see the maples turn golden.

nostalgia is comforting.

because i’m all the way out here, i try to embrace all of the wonders of this place – the explosive produce, the wild rosemary bushes, the lavendar, the snowy mountain sides, the mossy hikes, the bald eagles along the columbia.

but sometimes, no matter what i do, i can’t help but think of home.

i think about the smells of my parents kitchen:

boiling tomatoes
mint tea
orange zest
toasted almonds

besides a good old midwestern casserole, my favourite comfort food is my fathers chicken and olive tagine.

my father is one of the best people i know. he also happens to be one of the best cooks i know, too. he’s always calm in his kitchen. rolling almond cookies, stirring applesauce, chopping cilantro, washing peaches, listening to npr.

my father is from morocco, and i can imagine that although he has made a nice life for himself across the ocean, he too, gets homesick.

so whenever i’m feeling a little blue, and nostalgia just isn’t enough, i pull out his scribbled and stained recipes.

this one in particular always does the trick:

papa’s djej emshermel

you'll need:

1 4 lb chicken – unless you have a cleaver, ask the butcher to quarter the bird
*make sure you get the livers, too!
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground black pepper
1 yellow onion, minced
¼ tsp pulverized saffron
½ cup chopped cilantro and parsley (mixed)
½ cup green olives
2 preserved lemons
1 fresh lemon

rinse meat in cold water, set aside

over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter with ¼ cup olive oil. when butter melts, sauté onions and garlic for a few minutes. add chopped herbs and spices, mixing with a wooden smooth until evenly dispersed.  place chicken and livers in casserole, add water to cover.

bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for about thirty minutes.

turn meat in sauce, giving it a good stir. now for my favourite – and probably the most important part - remove livers from casserole. mash with a mortar and pestle, and return to sauce. this adds a certain richness, a creaminess to the sauce that makes the dish.


add water, if necessary, and continue to cook the meat for another 30 minutes.

meanwhile, rinse your preserved lemons and quarter them. you can discard the pulp if you prefer, i usually leave it.

after the chicken has cooked in it’s sauce for about an hour, or an hour and a half, add the olives and preserved lemons. continue to cook another 5 or 10 minutes.

at this point, turn your oven to 325. place chicken on a baking sheet - or a cast iron skillet, as shown below - spreading out evenly. 

when the oven is ready, bake the chicken, briefly, for about 5 minutes. while it is in the oven, turn the heat up on your sauce, stirring it, scraping the bottom to reduce the sauce to half.

remove the chicken from the oven and place it on a platter, pour our sauce over top.

serve immediately with fresh bread 

now here's the thing: moroccan food is not to be eaten alone

there is a lot to say about moroccan food, and morocco in general. it is difficult to summarize a culture, a history, a people, a cuisine. although for the sake of a greater understanding here is what i can say - from what i have learned from my family, my father, and my visits to north africa, i have gathered this: moroccan culture is a mirror of it’s food - rich, multi-faceted, colourful, wholesome, complex, thoughtful. it is a culture of hospitality, of giving. 

so whenever i make moroccan food, i do so for people i love. this time, dinner was a gift for my new roommate, jasmín, and her friend gregor.

i guess you could say, it was my little moroccan-american way of fending off homesickness, and saying: 

marhaba, jass!