Sunday, April 29, 2012

Old-Fashioned Banana Spice Cake

Each year on his birthday, I let Aaron select a cake and ice cream of his choosing. I pile up my cookbooks, magazines, and various clippings and let him have his pick. I think it's a slightly overwhelming task and each year I can see he gets a bit nervous, hoping he makes the right decision (all the while knowing he can't really go that wrong). I love this process, because he inevitably chooses something that I wouldn't choose myself, or an unexpected recipe I've forgotten about or never used. 

This year he chose an Old-Fashioned Banana Spice Cake from Birthday Cakes, a collection of recipes by Kathryn Kleinman and Carolyn Miller. He loves bananas and saw in the ingredient list that the cake calls for mace. I often find him rummaging through the spice rack seeking out the coveted scent of mace. I believe this is what sold him (even though it only calls for a pinch). I love how home-spun the cake looks, spilling over with heavenly custard, stuffed with bananas, and topped with freshly whipped cream. 

This particular recipe comes from chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, Bradley Ogden. Growing up, this was one of his favorite birthday cakes. I wouldn't say this cake screams birthday, but that's why I think it's a good choice. It's a departure from the sweet and overly frosted cakes (which, don't get me wrong, I deeply love) that are synonymous with birthdays. It's a nice change, not to mention absolutely delicious! We had a few friends over for cake and bubbly, and it was devoured in less than 30 minutes. Judging by the outcome, I would have to say Aaron made an excellent choice this year.

Adapted from Bradley Ogden, Birthday Cakes


For the cake:
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (2 to 3 bananas)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
Pinch of ground mace (or ground nutmeg)
½ cup buttermilk well shaken, at room temperature 

For the filling:
1½ cups whole milk
½ cup granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
6 tbsp. all-purpose flour, sifted 
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 or 2 tbsp. heavy cream or milk (optional)
5 to 6 bananas, peeled and sliced
Simple syrup (see notes below)

For the topping:
1 cup cold heavy cream 
3 tbsp. confectioner's sugar, sifted
¼ tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Evenly butter the sides and bottoms of two 8-inch round cake pans. Cut two pieces of parchment to fit the bottoms of both pans. Stick the parchment to the buttered pans and butter the parchment. Toss some flour in the pans to evenly coat, knocking out any excess flour. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl for about 10 minutes or until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, mashed banana, and vanilla extract. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices together onto a large sheet of waxed paper. While stirring, funnel the flour mixture into the banana mixture alternatively with the buttermilk.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared pans (if you have a kitchen scale, weigh the batter and distribute it evenly between the two pans), and smooth the tops with a spoon or rubber spatula. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the pans to wire racks and let cool for about 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes onto the racks and let cool completely before frosting.

While the cakes bake, make the custard filling: In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the milk over low heat until you see small bubbles beginning to form around the edges of the pan (keep and eye on it and be careful not to boil). Remove from heat and let it rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and egg yolks together in a small bowl, until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is pale yellow in color, about 2 minutes. Slowly beat in the flour and salt. Increase the mixer speed to medium and very slowly pour in the hot milk.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, about 3 to 4 minutes. As soon as the custard begins to thicken, remove the pan from the heat and whisk it vigorously for a few seconds. Whisk in the butter and vanilla. Transfer the custard to a small bowl and let cool for a few minutes. Place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard and refrigerate until completely cool, about 1 to 2 hours or overnight. 

To assemble the cake, split each cake in half using a long serrated knife. If the custard seems to thick to spread, thin it with a little cream or milk. Lightly brush the first cake layer with simple syrup. Spread one-third of the custard and evenly arrange one-third of the banana slices on top of the custard. Repeat with the next two layers. Carefully top with the fourth layer. Place in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to allow the custard to firm up. Meanwhile, place a small deep mixing-bowl and the whisk attachment to an electric mixer in the freezer to chill.

Just prior to serving (or about an hour before serving if you'd like to make it ahead), make the topping. Remove the bowl and whisk attachment from the freezer. Add the cream to the bowl and using an electric mixer, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Beat in the sugar and vanilla. Using a rubber or cake spatula, spread the whipped cream frosting over the top of the cake, creating a design if desired. 

Yield: One 8-inch, 4-layer cake (serves 10 to 12)

  • To make the simple syrup, combine 1 cup of granulated sugar with 1 cup of water in a small saucepan. Heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let cool before placing in a clean jar or bottle and refrigerating. Brushing the cakes with simple syrup will keep them nice and moist and prevent them from drying out. It's especially important to do this in cakes that are not frosted and exposed on the sides, such as this one.
  • Feel free to bake the cakes and make the custard the day before serving. Once cooled, place the cakes in gallon-sized zip-top bags or wrap with several sheets of plastic wrap. Cut and assemble the cakes the following day. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wooden Happy Birthday Banner

Every year for Aaron's birthday, I used to make a paper happy birthday banner. It was time consuming and only lasted a few hours before it was curling in on itself and falling apart. A few years ago I decided to remedy this problem by making a birthday banner out of wooden letters. Using paint I'd accumulated over the years and a ball of twine from the closet, I was able to construct a cheerful, celebratory sign that will last for many birthday's to come.

I love the use of simple bright colors when it comes to birthday decorations. Maybe because it reminds me of childhood, but the color combination has always put me in a jolly mood. The bright letters are contrasted by the rustic, neutral twine. Lightly sanding the edges of the banner gives it a homey, broken-in feel. I love this birthday banner because it reminds me of good times and eating delicious cake!

Here's how to make it:
  1. Buy the wooden letters at your local craft store. You can usually find them in a variety of sizes and styles. 
  2. Using a hand drill attached with a 1/3-inch drill bit, drill holes into the tops of each letter.
  3. Paint the letters in your favorite colors.
  4. Lightly sand the edges of each letter.
  5. Measure a length of ribbon or twine to attach the letters to.
  6. Thread thin twine or ribbon through the holes in the letters and tie them to the long piece of twine. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Arugula Pesto

Happy Earth Day! I can't think of a better way to celebrate than eating some delicious arugula pesto. Arugula pesto is a fun take on traditional basil pesto. A great alternative when basil is not in season and a perfect substitution for any dish where you'd normally use pesto. Arugula is easily one of my favorite greens. It creates a wonderfully bright green pesto with a peppery finish, making it a great addition to many spring dishes. I've used basically the same recipe as my basil pesto, just tweaked it a bit. A couple of batches of this will hopefully tide me over until my basil plant is in full bloom in a couple months.

I always feel somewhat silly writing down a recipe for pesto, as I find it's more of a guide than a set in stone master recipe. Pesto is completely dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Buy the freshest basil or arugula, use a good quality olive oil, and most importantly, real Parmigiano Reggiano. It's way more expensive than most of the stuff found in supermarkets, but it will reward you plenty! 


4 cloves garlic, peeled
¾ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated
¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2½ cups fresh arugula
½ cup olive oil
¾ to 1 tsp. sea salt
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. pepper 

Add the garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts to a blender or food processor and blend to a smooth paste. Add the arugula, olive oil, salt and pepper, and purée until you’ve reached a smooth and creamy consistency. Taste to adjust seasonings and refrigerate until ready to use. 

For long-term storage, transfer pesto to ice cube trays. Freeze overnight and transfer to zip-top bags (this allows for smaller serving sizes, so you're not stuck with a solid block of pesto, helping it to defrost more quickly). 

Yield: about 10 oz. or 1¼ cups

  • If you’re doubling or tripling this recipe, do it in batches, or as much as your blender or food processor will allow.
  • I like my pesto on the saltier side, so feel free to reduce the amount of salt, also taking into consideration how salty your parmesan is.
  • In a pinch, you can always substitute walnuts for pine nuts. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

DIY Wrapping Paper

Aaron's birthday is right around the corner and I felt inspired to make homemade wrapping paper for some of his gifts. I've always been a fan of using butcher's paper as wrapping paper, so I thought I'd start there and jazz it up a bit with some leftover paint I had lying around the apartment. I get so tired of spending money on wrapping paper that ends up getting wrinkled and destroyed in the closet or under the bed. Half the time I forget where I've stashed it. Creating your own allows you to make only what you need. 

Why would I spend time on something that's just going to be ripped apart, you ask? That's a perfectly logical question and one that I've asked myself. I don't really have an answer for it. All I know is that it makes the gift giving process that much more fun! Besides, it's not like you're creating an entire roll of gift wrap. Cut a piece of paper to the size you need and let your imagination run wild. Different shaped sponge brushes help to make quick, simple patterns. The best part is, homemade wrapping paper is imperfect, personalized, and entirely original. No one but the recipient will have a gift wrapped quite like it. 

Here's how to make it:
  • Begin by picking up a variety of sponge brushes and plain butcher or craft paper (gift bags work great for this too) from your local craft or art store. 
  • Simply cut a piece of paper large enough to fit the box you intend to wrap and decorate it using different colors and patterns.
  • Let the paint dry prior to wrapping.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Steak au Poivre

After searching for the quintessential Steak au Poivre recipe, I finally discovered it a couple of years ago through Saveur magazine. It has easily become one of my favorite ways to prepare steak. Aaron has been begging me to make this classic French dish for days, which originally became popular in the bistros of Normandy in the 19th century. It's no wonder it's still around today, as it's a beautiful steak covered in a luxurious sauce consisting of cognac and cream. A1 eat your heart out.

I picked up some gorgeous filet mignon steaks from Grazin' Angus at the farmer's market. I love how fast these are to make and yet the delectable sauce would have you think it took all day. The crushed peppercorns create a delicate crust for the steaks and are not hot as you might expect. Once the steaks are sauteed and the sauce is poured on, everything comes together in one harmonious bite. I served these steaks with roasted carrots and potatoes au gratin. I think if I had to choose a last meal, this might be it!

This sauce does require you to use the French technique, flambe (a.k.a. setting the pan on fire). Some of you just lost interest, I know. But don't, it's simply a fancy way to quickly burn off the alcohol in the pan. It sounds dangerous but it's not, in fact, I find it to be quite fun. Just remember to remove the pan from the heat before igniting the cognac, and keep your face averted. Always have a lid nearby to extinguish the flame if necessary. Keep in mind too, the height above your stove. I like to hold the pan off the stove when igniting it, so I don't have to worry about the flames reaching the fan unit, then I place it back on the stove to simmer out. Enjoy!


Slightly adapted from Saveur magazine, Issue 17

4 Tbsp. whole black peppercorns
4 6-oz. beef filets, about 1½ to 2 inches thick, brought to room temperature
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/3 cup Cognac
1 cup beef stock, preferably low-sodium 
½ cup heavy cream
Sea salt to taste

Wrap the peppercorns in a clean dishtowel and crush using a heavy skillet or mallet (alternatively, you could place them in spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and pulse once or twice). The idea is that they be cracked, not ground. Transfer the peppercorns to a plate. Tie each filet with butcher's twine (if necessary) to keep them together during cooking. Roll the filets in the crushed peppercorns so that they are evenly coated. Season both sides of each filet with salt. 

Heat the butter and oil together in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add filets to the pan and cook until well browned on each side, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare (work in batches if your pan is too small to ensure even browning). Transfer steaks to a warm plate, remove butcher's twine, and cover loosely with foil to keep warm while you prepare the sauce. 

Add the Cognac to the hot pan and heat for a few moments under low heat. Turn off the heat, and very carefully ignite the Cognac with a long handled match or lighter, keeping your face averted (have a lid nearby to extinguish the flame if necessary). Allow the alcohol to burn off, for about a minute before adding the stock. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan and cook the liquid until reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Add the cream and cook, stirring occasionally until the sauce thickens slightly, about 3 to 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt to taste and pour over steaks.

Yield: 4 steaks

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Garlic Naan

Holy crap these are good! I can't tell you how happy perfecting this naan recipe has made me (and my tummy). Naan, which today can be found in nearly every grocery store in America, is an Indian leavened flat bread. It is traditionally made in a clay tandoor oven; the dough is stuck to the oven's walls to bake. For most of us, the next best thing is the broiler, stovetop, or grill. I've been wanting to make Madhur Jaffrey's recipe for naan (from An Invitation to Indian Cooking) for a while, so when a friend at work asked me if I had a naan recipe, I knew it was time to try it out. I'm so glad I did! My adapted recipe creates a beautifully doughy naan and can be made almost entirely of items lying around a well-stocked kitchen on any given day.

Proofing yeast

On my first attempt, I made Jaffrey's original recipe exactly as written, which resulted in rather thick, stiff, and chewy naan. This was due to my dough being far too stiff  from the very start. It was not pliable and elastic as it should have been, making it difficult to knead. Jaffrey's recipe did not require proofing the yeast or a second rise and I think those are both neccessary steps needed to create a perfect dough. The addition of a little more milk helped to loosen it up as well. 

Also, the dough needed to be much thinner before cooking. In my first go-around, as advised by Jaffrey, I stretched and flattened the dough by hand. In my second attempt, I tried rolling the dough out with a rolling pin to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. This created the exact texture I was aiming for. I also tried cooking the dough on the stovetop in a hot cast iron skillet as well as in the broiler. I was surprised to find that the stovetop method worked leagues better and created the bubbling golden brown dough I was aiming for. 

Smooth and elastic dough after kneading 

First rise

Deflating the dough 

As with most yeast breads, contrary to common belief, I find they allow you a great deal of free time. The rising dough does all the work for you and only requires you to knead for 10 minutes. You can mix all the ingredients together, knead, and place in a warm spot to rise for a couple of hours while you run errands, walk the dog, or live your terribly exciting life. When you return, you knead it and shape it again, letting it rise, allowing you to carry on with your life once more. I like to make the dough work to my schedule and not the other way around. You will be welcomed home by your risen dough, ready to roll out and cook just in time for dinner.

Dividing the dough

Second rise

Rolling the dough to 1/8 inch thick


Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey, An Invitation to Indian Cooking

1¼ cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1  1/8 tsp. active dry yeast 
2 tbsp. vegetable oil or ghee, plus extra for cooking later (see notes below)
4 tbsp. plain Greek yogurt
2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely minced

In a small saucepan, heat the milk to 110 degrees F and set aside. Use an instant-read thermometer to be absolutely sure you've reached the right temperature (be careful not to overheat the milk, as this could kill the yeast, and your dough won't rise properly).  

Next, proof the yeast: add the yeast, sugar, and ½ cup of the warm milk to a small bowl and let rest for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, the mixture should be nice and bubbly, proving that your yeast is alive and active. Meanwhile, sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. 

Once the yeast mixture is bubbly, stir in the beaten egg, vegetable oil or ghee, yogurt, and baking powder. Mix well to combine and pour over the flour and salt mixture. Using a wooden spoon, mix the dough together, adding more warmed milk by the tablespoon until your dough begins to come together (you will probably not need all of the warmed milk, but it's good to have some extra if for some reason your dough becomes too stiff). Mix the dough together with your hands to fully incorporate the milk and flour (if it sticks ever so slightly to your hands that's ok, but you shouldn't have to scrape it off the bottom of the bowl or pry it off your fingers). If you add too much milk, simply add a little flour to the dough and knead to incorporate until you've reached the desired texture. Transfer the dough to a clean work surface dusted with flour. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, it should knead with ease and be soft, pliable, and extremely elastic (think pizza dough). Shape the dough into a ball.

Put a splash of vegetable oil or ghee in a large glass bowl, and roll the ball of dough around, so that it is evenly greased. Cover bowl with a clean damp cloth or plastic wrap, place in a warm spot in your kitchen, and let rise for 1 to 2 hours until it has doubled in size (I like to let the dough rise in the oven. Turn the oven onto 250 degrees F for about a minute and then it shut off- you don't want it to get too hot. Place the covered dough in the slightly warmed oven. Repeat with each rising session. If you're already baking something in the oven, simply place the bowl near it to stay warm). 

After the dough has risen, press it down and form into a log. Cut the log into 8 even pieces and form each piece into a ball. Place all 8 pieces on a floured baking sheet, and cover with a clean damp towel and let rise until doubled in volume again, about 1 to 2 hours.

After the second rise, dust a clean work surface with flour and use a rolling pin to roll out each ball of dough to 1/8 inch thick. Place a large cast iron skillet over high heat. When it is very hot, pour in just enough oil or ghee to coat the bottom of the pan, about 3 tbsp, and let it heat up for a moment (continue to add more oil to the pan as it becomes dry). Brush one side of your rolled out naan with water and place this side down in the pan. Cook over high heat for 30 seconds to a minute, until the naan begins to bubble up and become golden brown. Using tongs, flip the naan and cook 30 seconds to a minute on the other side. Remove the naan from the skillet and place on a paper towel lined plate. Repeat in the same manner until all of your naan are cooked. Serve immediately. 

Yield: 8 large naan

  • Ghee is a form of clarified butter (butter that has been melted and removed of milk solids and water, enabling a higher smoke-point). You can buy it in specialty food stores, Indian markets, or make it yourself. 
  • Feel free to add to the dough one or a combination of the following: cumin seeds, black onion seeds (kalonji), poppy seeds, minced green chilies, chopped cilantro, mint, or other herbs. 
  • If you haven't managed to gobble up all your naan at dinner, store it in a gallon-sized zip-top bag. Place the naan directly on the rack of a preheated 300 degree F oven for a couple of minutes to reheat (although nothing can compare to freshly cooked naan).