Spring Thaw

Drinking in the sunshine with a bottomless thirst, tiny shoots burst forth with renewed vigor after a long winter’s slumber. Awakened by the warmth, heads still full of dreams, they blossom with intoxicating brilliance. Splashing color like splattered pant across cracked sidewalks, breaking through the earth’s crust in empty alleyways, everything is fresh and new again. Anything is possible.

Spring is the season of renewal, a shift toward forward motion that I can feel acutely in my bones. At last, I can throw off heavy knit blankets and rise with the sun again. At last, I can take deep, restorative breaths, not sharp and shallow gasps, to fill my lungs with the scents of freesia, jasmine, and lilac.

Inspiration abounds; from farmers markets to urban foraging, there’s no shortage of new, novel, inspiring ingredients. One unconventional source has haunted me for years, though, like a promise unfulfilled. Back when I aspired to a career in fine pastry, crafting fancy plated desserts in Michelin-starred kitchens, El Bulli positively captivated me. Creating dishes based upon nature but crafted with startlingly sophisticated, scientific methods, it was like nothing I had seen before. I spent all my allowance money on obscure, out of print cookbooks, trying to decode their magic. That’s where I first came across the concept of “Deshielo,” also known as “Thaw”

Deshielo was inspired by the ice melting in spring with the first shoots sprouting out of the frozen blanket. The description of the dessert itself is as daunting as it is confounding. “Coffee and licorice sponge and yogurt gelatin with concentrated lemon sorbet, rose sugar, and frozen water powder. Different herbs and flowers blooming in matcha tea sugar.”

Many years later, modified, simplified, my rendition has finally blossomed into a reality. Cake is now the feature, infused with robust coffee flavor and the licorice-y perfume of fennel. Crisp cacao nibs contrast sharply to the soft, moist crumb beneath, but that’s only the beginning. Lemon granita lends a unique chilling effect which draws out the citrus elements of the brew. Matcha sugar, a study in balance between the bitter tea leaves and pure crystalline sweetness, peeks out from this frigid topper, crowned with a glorious shoot of fresh mint, a few fallen candied rose petals at its side. Yes, it’s quite a lot of flavors all in one bite, many that would seem to conflict on paper, but they coalesce into a stunning springtime celebration on the plate.

It’s not quite molecular gastronomy, far more humble than fine patisserie, but a genuine, passionate ode to the spirit of the season.

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Age is Just a Number

“14 (fourteen) is a natural number following 13 and succeeded by 15,” as the dictionary so helpfully explains. That’s one earth-shaking headline for you there, right? Try as I might to find something witty to say about the figure, some pop culture reference to connect it with, there’s just nothing particularly exciting about the figure. So here we are, the day of BitterSweet‘s fourteenth blogoversary, which is little more than a blip on the radar at this point.

Growing older isn’t easy, but as they say, it sure beats the alternative. Merely surviving for so many years in a world that’s constantly evolving, rewriting the rules of the game at every stage of play, definitely calls for some sort of celebration. Rather than writing at length about my navel-gazing and self-congratulatory blogging victories over the years, I’m raising a glass to you, my dear reader, for really keeping this crazy dream alive.

Tempting as it was to just keep on writing without proper acknowledgement of the milestone, that would be like forgetting your birthday, and I just wouldn’t be so cruel. Even if it’s an unremarkable age, a relatively unimportant number, you still deserve cake.

Little cakes for a little festivity; seems to fit the bill, don’t you think? Mini bundt cakes condense all the show-stopping beauty of a full, gargantuan baked good down into manageable single serving portions. Make a batch for a party, freeze extras for later, and never worry about either running out or over-serving. We can make this revelry even more low-key by fashioning the batter into standard muffins, for those seeking that everyday sort of sweet gratification instead.

Suitably unconventional for such a quirky little blog, gluten-free sorghum flour and maca powder work in concert to create a uniquely malty, nutty, toasted cereal flavor that plain malted milk powder could never replicate. Chocolate is a natural pairing with that nostalgic scoop shop taste, which is why I doubled down, employing both rich chocolate chips and crisp, crunchy cacao nibs. Decadent enough that there’s no need to gild the lily with frosting, you get the complete package in every bite. If you had to add a bit of extra sparkle, I suppose a gentle dusting of confectioner’s sugar wouldn’t hurt, though.

Should I have something more profound to share on this 1900th post on the 14th year of BitterSweet? Perhaps. Then again, I’d like to think that it’s just one of many more birthdays to come. We’ll have plenty of other opportunities to trade wisdom on aging gracefully, and sweetly.

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Dogged Ambition

Dogs are more than just man’s best friends. Dogs are family members, every bit as precious and vital as the small creatures with two legs. Some recoil at the comparison, loathe to grant a “fur baby” the same sort of allowances, but the bottom line is that we need dogs just as much as they need us. Beyond basic care and feeding, your most valuable resource costs nothing to invest: Compassion. So many hundreds, thousands, and yes, millions of dogs out there are changing lives, yet find little to no love in return. Today is the time to celebrate these canine companions, big and small, mixed breed and pure, because it’s National Dog Day.

Yes, so many national “holidays” are silly, baseless non-events schemed up by corporations looking to make a quick buck or steal the social media spotlight for a minute. This day, however, was founded in 2004 with a far more noble objective. The goal was to not only show appreciation for dogs, but to bring attention to the plight of abused dogs, to end puppy mills and to bring an end to breed-specific legislation that regulates, or outright bans, certain breeds in the hope of minimizing dog attacks. Every day should be dog day, whether or not you’re a proud puppy parent.

I’d like to raise a glass to all the hard working canines out there, as well as the simply doggedly adorable fluff balls. The only thing fitting here would be a salty dog cocktail; classically composed of grapefruit juice and gin, with a salted rim, the origin of the name is a bit murky, but the bright, punchy flavor profile is clear. Tangy citrus, herbaceous spirits, and a salty kick to accentuate the two leaves nothing left to be desired. Well, okay, a bit of sweetness might be nice… and on that note, how about a dessert while we’re at it?

My take on the salty dog involves cake, because what’s a celebration without cake?

If the dog bone shape strikes you as a bit over-the-top, or you’re baking to suit a different theme, it’s even easier to simply cut the cake into squares instead. Better yet, bake the batter into cupcakes and no cutting will be necessary.

These treats are for adult humans only, as they do include a decent splash of alcohol that doesn’t cook or bake out. Each morsel is glazed with a poured fondant icing spiked with gin that sets up as a crisp, sugary shell for the tender grapefruit cake within. Don’t forget the pinch of flaky salt on top to complete the experience. While such garnishes are often listed as “optional,” it’s utterly essential here- it’s in the name, after all. It’s a bold change of pace, bright and refreshing, just like the original inspiration.

Let’s all raise a glass, or a piece of cake, to all the canines in our lives. Whether you have one, two, three, or none, there’s never a bad time to adopt

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Think Outside the Chocolate Box

Romance comes in many flavors, but chocolate is the dominant taste on lovers’ lips come February 14th. Truffles, molded and dipped, lavished with nuts, caramel, spices, and salt, line up in neat lines across interminable rows of red boxes, nestled into fluted paper cups serving more as garnishes than practical storage solutions. Chocolate, the ubiquitous sweet aphrodisiac, is easily the top treat for this loving affair, beating both flowers and jewelry offerings by a mile. Predictable yet indisputably in demand, it’s hard to argue with another chocolate-covered Valentine’s Day.

That doesn’t mean you need to stick with conventional confections to win over a fickle mistress. Consider a deeper dive into the cacao pool with a Homemade Tunnel of Fudge Bundt Cake. Originally devised as an amalgamation of questionable packaged baking mixes, a true tunnel of fudge cake is easier to assemble than your average Bundt. With a river of gooey, rich chocolate running through the core, it’s essentially a supersized lava cake if eaten warm. Dense, rich, and intense, at the core resides the famed heart of fudge, thick as cookie dough without the harsh sugar rush synonymous with unbaked batter. Nuts traditionally make up the bulk of this blend, but to make it allergen-free, they’re replaced with decadent chocolate morsels instead, much to the delight of devoted chocoholics and picky eaters, as well.

Just in time for this sweet heart’s holiday, you can find my recipe over on Go Dairy Free.

Lucky Number Thirteen

Dearest BitterSweet,

Mazel tov! Today, you have crossed the invisible line separating childhood from the rest of your life, straight into ranks of adulthood. It’s unthinkable that your journey began thirteen years ago, back in the early days of blogging and before Blogging, capital B, became a legitimate occupation. Granted, you still have a long way to go before you reach that lofty pinnacle of professional success, but pure and simple survival is a triumph to be celebrated in this competitive, ever-changing field. You have beaten the odds to officially become a teenager.

I still struggle to define you at times, to explain your occasionally baffling tantrums and errors, but what child doesn’t have their rebellious moments? Even when we fight, no matter how ugly the language gets, it’s never enough to pull us apart. Thirteen years in, I couldn’t imagine my life without you.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into when I hit that fateful “publish” button on day one. The lessons came in fast, tough to swallow, painful at times, but always for the best. Let’s review in brief…

  • If you don’t love what you do, it won’t work out. Like any relationship, it can’t be about money, fame, or any other traditional marker of success. At the end of the day it’s always about passion and inspiration.
  • These things can’t be forced. You, little BitterSweet, only began to grow and thrive when given the freedom to do so. True followers can’t be bought and genuine comments seeking further conversation, not just self-promotion, can’t be be forced.
  • Perfection is the enemy of progress. It would be impossible to move forward if we focused on all the little shortcomings of every post, every photo shoot, every social sharing; the endless tally of flaws would be downright laughable.
  • Community is everything. It takes a village to raise a blog, or support one long enough for it to survive infancy. There’s not a chance that BitterSweet would still exist without the kindness and encouragement of a thousand voices chiming in from all corners of the earth. It still boggles to mind to consider how this tiny corner of the internet has brought together such an incredibly vast, diverse array of friends, whom I would have had no chance of finding otherwise.
  • Most importantly, if there’s anything I’ve learned after all this time, there’s only one real way to mark the occasion: Cake.

A grand cake, pitch-perfect with bittersweet layers of chocolate ganache sandwiched between tender yet bold espresso cake layers and dressed in a robe of the finest white chocolate frosting you ever did see.

Strong espresso, the kind that makes your eyes open wide and sends you flying high on a rush of energy, has become a recent obsession. Though I typically limit myself to one shot per day, for fear of never sleeping again should I exceed that modest dose, this treat really packs a serious punch of caffeine in each slice. Rest assured, however, that the belated bedtime will be worth every last bite. Tempered by the light, luscious buttercream, flecked with vanilla beans and redolent of cocoa butter, chocolate ganache could tread dangerously into the realm of excess, but it’s just the right amount of sweet indulgence here. The trio sings like a well-practiced choir, supporting without smothering one another… Much like a succession of outstanding blog posts, I suppose.

So today, BitterSweet, you turn thirteen years old. Happy birthday, my dear. You’ve come a long way, but we have so much further still to go.

Yield: 12 - 16 Servings

Bittersweet Espresso Layer Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

Bittersweet Espresso Layer Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

A dessert worthy of a celebration all on its own, the contrast of light and dark flavors is positively irresistible. Bold espresso layer cake with bittersweet chocolate ganache filling, covered in light, fluffy white chocolate buttercream frosting.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Additional Time 3 hours
Total Time 4 hours

Ingredients

Espresso Cake

  • 3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 3 Tablespoons Arrowroot
  • 3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Teaspoon Baking Powder
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Cup Olive Oil
  • 1 1/2 Cups (About 12 - 14 Shots) Brewed Espresso, Cooled
  • 1/4 Cup Kahlua or Coffee Liqueur
  • 1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

BitterSweet Chocolate Ganache

  • 2/3 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
  • 2 Cups (12 Ounces) Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

White Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, arrowroot, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Separately, combine the oil, cooled espresso, kahlua or liqueur, vinegar, and vanilla, blending well before adding the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry.
  4. Stir with a wide spatula to bring the two mixtures together. It's perfectly fine to leave a few lumps remaining in the batter, rather than running the risk of over-mixing.
  5. Divide the batter equally between your two prepared pans, smoothing the tops as needed.
  6. Bake for 20 - 24 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean. Cool completely before assembling.
  7. Meanwhile, prepare the ganache by heating the coconut milk and chocolate together either on a double-boiler or in the microwave. Stir frequently until perfectly smooth. If using the microwave, heat in 30-second intervals at full power. Chill, stirring periodically, until thickened but spreadable; about 3 hours in the fridge or 1 hour in the freezer.
  8. For the frosting, heat the white chocolate over a double-boiler or in the microwave but be vigilant! White chocolate is very easy to burn, so stir constantly, until smooth. If using the microwave, heat in 20-second intervals at full power. Cool to room temperature.
  9. Cream together the butter and sugar in your stand mixer using the whisk attachment. Once smooth, add in the cooled but still liquid white chocolate along with the vanilla. Beat on high speed, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, until smooth and fluffy.
  10. To assemble the cake, slice both layers into two equal halves, creating four thin layers. Place your first round of cake on your desired serving plate and top with a third of the ganache. Carefully spread it to cover the top evenly. Top with another round of cake and repeat, until you end with the final round of plain cake.
  11. Smoother with frosting and decorate as desired. Be aware that if the cake is cold, the frosting will begin to set immediately. You can slightly melt and coerce it to a smoother finish by heating a metal offset spatula, but bear in mind that this will darken it to a more yellow finish, rather than bright white.

Notes

Cake layers can be baked in advance and stored separately in the freezer until ready to assemble. Thaw completely and bring to room temperature before beginning the process. Ganache and frosting must be made just prior to using.

Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Do you know what’s in your pumpkin puree? No, do you REALLY know what’s mashed into that aluminum tomb, wrapped up like an autumnal present with labels that promise “all natural” and “100% pure!” contents? This isn’t not a trick question like asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, but a real head-scratcher that might surprise you. That golden orange goo has little to do with actual pumpkins, which are much more stringy, watery, and bland than what we’ve been raised to enjoy. Rather, a blend of hardy squash, such as butternut, Hubbard, Boston marrow, and golden delicious are the unsung gourds that have bakers swooning. Like orange juice, natural variations between harvests turn the job of maintaining consistent flavors a perpetual challenge between batches. It takes more than one source to hit just the right standards for the tastes and textures we’ve come to know and love. If you thought you were really just getting plain Jane pumpkin all along, I’m very sorry to pull the curtain back and ruin the illusion.

By spreading this knowledge, my goal is not to incite riots in the canned goods aisle, but encourage everyone to think beyond those metal constrains. There are so many more squash in the sea, looking for love, and a place in your kitchen.

Featuring a few of the unsung heroes of autumn, this grand double decker celebration cake is a gloriously sweet tribute to those underdogs at the farm stand. Butternut squash puree is an easy swap for pumpkin, since you were probably using that anyway without even realizing it, but I’ll readily admit that spaghetti squash might be a bit of a stretch for some. In fact, it rarely makes it onto the dinner table as is; a real shame, considering just how delicious those firm, noodle-like strands are, especially when smothered with red sauce or pesto. We’re talking dessert today though, so just consider this a natural evolution of carrot cake or zucchini bread. You wouldn’t give a second though to including those vegetables in their eponymous confections, so why should this humble gourd be any different?

Crowing this pièce de résistance, naturally artful slices of delicata squash contribute beauty along with brains, adding a moreish bite to the moist, delicate crumb down below. Paper-thin shavings are essential here lest you risk throwing off that careful balance, perfected by the crisp crunch of fresh squash seeds. If you have to call it a day and resort to good old pepitas, well, I won’t tell. A little bit of pumpkin is still welcome on my table, especially if it’s not coming out of a can.

Does this revelation ruin or redeem the classic orange gourd for you? Hopefully I can make amends either way with this offering of the best cake autumn’s bounty has to offer. Trust me, you’ll never miss the pumpkin; you were never eating it anyway.

Harvest Squash Cake

2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry or All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Ground Cinnamon
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 1/2 Cups Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Butternut Squash Puree
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Cups Cooked Spaghetti Squash*
Delicata Squash, Seeded and Thinly Sliced (Optional, for Topping)
Reserved Squash Seeds or Pepitas (Optional, for Topping)

Cream Cheese Filling:

1 (8-Ounce) Package Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Extract or Lemon Zest
1 – 2 Teaspoons Water

*To easily cook your spaghetti squash, slice it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving them for the topping if desired. Place the halves with the cut sides down in a microwave-safe dish, adding about an inch of water around them. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave for 8 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes before carefully removing the plastic. Test for doneness by piercing them with a knife; if it slides in easily, and the squash give under gentle pressure, they’re done! When cool enough to handle, take a fork to the interiors and scrape out the strands of tender squash.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices, stirring thoroughly to evenly distribute all of the dry goods throughout the mixture.

Separately, whisk together the coconut milk, vinegar, butternut squash puree, olive oil, and both sugars. Still to dissolve the sugar and smooth out the mixture, so that there are no lumps of butternut remaining.

Toss the cooked spaghetti squash into the bowl of dry ingredients, coating the strands with flour to keep them from simply sinking to the bottom of the cakes. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, folding the two together with a large spatula to combine. Resist the urge to break out the heavy artillery here; the batter will be fairly thick, but it’s perfectly fine to leave a few lumps, rather than risk over-mixing.

Divide the batter equally between your prepared cake pans. If desired, seed and very, very thinly slice the delicata squash, arranging the pieces artfully around the top of one pan of unbaked batter. Sprinkle with the leftover seeds or pepitas for a final flourish. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bear in mind that the layer topped with squash will take longer to bake due to the excess liquid expressed by the gourd.

Let cool completely before assembling the final cake.

To make the filling, simply toss the cream cheese and butter into your stand mixer and beat until soft, smooth, and homogeneous. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and begin to mix on low speed. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, as needed. Once mostly incorporated, add in the vanilla and lemon, and increase the speed to high. Add water as needed to reach your desired consistency, but use sparingly! It doesn’t take much at all. Whip for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Turn out the bottom layer of the cake onto a serving vessel and smoother generously but evenly with the filling. Top with with second, decorated layer, press down to adhere, and serve with aplomb. No pumpkins need apply.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

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