Triple Layer S'mores Brownies | Tara O'Brady + Seven Spoons

I have no intention of relying on phone photography here, but I am a bit in love with this shot. It wasn't my plan on sharing this recipe either, as snapping the pic was a spontaneous thing, and the recipe was a bit thrown together, in the aim to perfect a birthday wish. But we'll get to that. First, to explain.

My freezer storage is divided into three distinct, but unequal zones. The largest is ingredient storage. It's where I keep nuts and grains, plus seeds and cacao nibs, and things like wheat germ and bran. Flours and shredded coconut. There's fruit from the summer stacked in flat packs, and bananas black-ripe and ready for bread. Ginger root I grate while still rock hard, chiles, and lime leaves. I am rarely without frozen spinach and sweet peas.

The smallest category is full of odds and ends; ice cubes, egg whites, and parmesan rinds. A package of homemade puff pastry, unbaked streusel from when I made too much, discs of pie dough, and bones for stock.

Between the two are the prepared leftovers. There is enough tomato sauce for one pizza, cooked rice, some savoury hand pies, Julia's turkey meatballs, and cakes. A lot of cake. It's not just that the pace of our consumption rarely keeps up with the celebrations around here. It's also one of those rarely-discussed byproducts of recipe testing. The spoils are regularly parcelled for giving away, but a small stash is always kept behind. Right now, my inventory includes the thinnest slice of walnut cake from Divali, a quarter of a vanilla bean cheesecake, bagged muffins, a coffeecake that's a work in progress, and s'mores brownies.

Those brownies though, they're celebratory through and through. Benjamin turned 11 in January. He's all knees and elbows now, and has strong opinions. He's had a thing for s'mores for years, and this birthday wasn't any different. He asked for a repeat of last year, brownies with chocolate ganache and a seven-minute frosting to billow on top. When I've made s'mores cupcakes in the past, the inclusion of graham crackers added essential contrast against all the dense-chocolate-marshmallowyness going on. I like them as rebar in the ganache rather than rubble in the brownie itself. Somehow they make more of an impact that way. Toasting the grahams in the oven crisps them up, the process and effect amped up with a sugar syrup glaze. 

I use my own brownie recipe, but as it was included as a preorder inclusive for my book, I made the squares this week with another favourite, from King Arthur Flour. As advertised, their brownies exist ideally between squidge and cake. You can use my recipe, if you have it, or theirs, or your preferred. One thing I'll say though, is resist the urge to use an intensely fudgey one. When combined with the ganache and the meringue frosting, it is a combination that can careen into headache-inducing real quick.

The brownies are over the top. They bring out the childlike and exuberant, and are the antithesis of refined. They are unbridled and unrestrained, and remind me of the happiest days. Don't let the fact that there were leftovers steer you into thinking they went unloved. Sometimes, you want to make the good things last. And, as brownies never fully freeze, a skinny slice on a Monday midmorning with coffee, falls into that category. 

For the record, that was exactly what I was planning when I took the photo.

Have a great week, pals. xo

 

TRIPLE LAYER S'MORES BROWNIES

The brownie recipe is this recipe from King Arthur Flour, halved.  The marshmallow frosting owes it loft and stability to Stella Park's revolutionary Easy Swiss Meringue

Makes an 8-inch pan

FOR THE BROWNIE BASE

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 55 g dutch process cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon medium grain kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 2  teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup | 115 g unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons | 225 g sugar
  • 3/4 cup | 95 g all-purpose flour

FOR THE GRAHAM CRUNCH AND GANACHE

  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 8 graham crackers
  • 8 ounces | 225 g bittersweet chocolate, 70% cocoa solids
  • 1/4 teaspoon espresso powder, optional
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • 2/3 cup | 160 ml heavy cream

FOR THE MARSHMALLOW FROSTING

  • 4 egg whites
  • 3/4 cup | 150 g granulated sugar, preferably toasted
  • Generous 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • A good pinch medium grain kosher salt
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

METHOD

Make the brownies. Preheat an oven to 325°F | 165°C.

Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking tin, then line with a piece of parchment paper with a 1-inch overhang. Press the paper into the pan and then remove. Line the pan with another piece of parchment paper, then place the first piece, buttered side up, across. Set aside.

Crack the eggs into a bowl. Sift in the cocoa, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. Add the vanilla. Beat for four minutes on medium speed (you can do this while melting the butter in the next step).

Place the remaining butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the sugar. Heat over medium low, stirring, until the butter is melted. Continue to cook until the mixture is hot but not bubbling, maybe 1 minute more. It should go shinier as it heats. 

Stir the hot butter and sugar mixture into the beaten eggs until smooth. Sift the flour over top and mix it in. 

Spread the batter into the baking dish, nudging it to the edges as needed. Bake until the top begins to crack, 32 to 35 minutes or so. Cool on a wire rack.

While that bakes, make the graham crunch and ganache. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small, heavy bottomed saucepan, dissolve the sugar into the water. Bring to a boil over medium heat then simmer for 5 minutes. Brush both sides of the graham crackers with the syrup then arrange on the prepared baking sheet (there will be syrup left over. Save it as a sweetener for coffee, oatmeal, or fruit). Bake the crackers until toasted, 8 to 10 minutes, flipping once. Set aside to cool then snap into pieces, some small, some large bite-sized.

Tumble the chopped chocolate, espresso powder, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Heat the cream in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Once steaming, pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand 5 minutes, undisturbed. After the time is up, stir until smooth, starting at the centre of the bowl and working outwards. Fold in the graham crunch. Pour the rubbled ganache over the brownies and spread to an even layer. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until set.

Finally, make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure that the bowl has some clearance. Heat, stirring attentively and scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically with a silicone spatula, until the mixture reaches 175°F | 80°C on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes. Transfer the whites to the stand mixer with the wire whisk attached. Beat, starting slow and increasing the speed steadily, until the mixer is on full. Whip until the stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the vanilla.

Retrieve the brownies from the fridge. Spoon the frosting onto the ganache layer. Use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to swoop and swirl it to your liking. Toast the frosting with a culinary torch or under a hot broiler—watching it all the while. Let cool and set, then use the cross of parchment to lift the brownies from the pan, then slice and serve. Extras can be refrigerated in their pan, loosely covered with cling film, for 2 days. Or, frozen until firm and then transferred to an airtight container for freezer storage up to a month. 

NOTE: 

Right now, I don't think I have the words to properly convey what it was like to launch Seven Spoons the book. My book. Please bear with me, as I try.

Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream, Caramel and Candied Cacao Nibs | From the book, Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady

The launch happened in stages. Last night, some of my nearest and dearest gathered at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. (If you've never been, please go. It is an utterly charming space, straight out of Harry Potter in the best way, all wood and warm lighting. And Ben is even better.) I had to make a speech. I did so with my sons and nephews nearby — they stole the show. And, even though I had the distinct sensation of my windpipe vibrating while I spoke, looking out onto that room of people, shaking or not, I felt exceptionally lucky.

We had cheese from St. Lawrence Market with pickled strawberries, charcuterie, and chocolate chip cookies. There were a few rolls of Instax film (evidence, here), and bubbles and oysters around the corner to end the night with Nikole, Michael, and Julia. There again, that lucky feeling. 

Today was a blur; interviews and tastings, and a lot of excitement. A highlight was when some readers took time out of their day to come and say hello. It is because of all of your that I have this opportunity in the first place. So, to share this day with you feels right.

Very quickly, there's something else to share — a recipe from the book, and the one I may crave the most. It's my Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream, swirled with espresso caramel and topped with candied cacao nibs. It is no secret that I love ice cream. I announced the book with one, so launching it with another lines up nicely. I'm also quite a fan of coffee. Thus, putting them together was inevitable, and condensed milk in the mixture sealed the deal. I describe it in detail below.

For now I'll sign off, with gratitude. Here's to you, with ice cream. 

 

By the by, a few people and places have written about Seven Spoons. If you'd like to read their thoughts, here they are:

  • I spent a day cooking with Chris Nutall-Smith, talking about the book, butter tarts, and inspiration, while sipping on some Palomas. It was a good time. (The Globe and Mail)
  • Deb declared the Mushrooms and Greens on Toast a "one-pan miracle" and I don't think I could hope for higher praise. (Smitten Kitchen)
  • Heidi makes the case for green smoothies, with my Default Smoothie with kale, pineapple, and nut butter to make her point. (101 Cookbooks)
  • Sara, a person I consider an expert on Huevos Rancheros, gave her stamp of approval to my Huevos a la Plaza de Mercado, and I couldn't be more chuffed. (Sprouted Kitchen)
  • I was so happy to once again appear on Design*Sponge's "In the Kitchen With ..." series, this time with my Esquites and Yellow Tomato Gazpacho. Sincere thanks to Grace and Kristina. (Design*Sponge)
  • Food52 asked me to write about the inspiration behind the book, and I was honoured to oblige. (Food52)
  • Epicurious calls my Chicken with a Punchy relish a knockout, in a pun I appreciate. (Epicurious)
  • Ashley made the Roast Chicken with a Punchy Relish, and used lentils as the base. Brilliant. (Not Without Salt)
  • Shauna and Danny prepared a gluten-free feast from the book, including their adaptation of the Bee-stung Fried Chicken, and naan. (Gluten-free Girl and the Chef)
  • Olga made the Lentil Kofta Curry, and some thoughtful words about community. (Sassy Radish)
  • Julie's Bee-Stung Fried Chicken (+ her fritters!) look brilliant. (Dinner with Julie)
  • ... and Julie invited me to her other site to talk music and dinner parties.As an aside, have you seen the documentary It Might Get LoudI found it fascinating. (Rolling Spoon)
  • Vy posted a detailed and thoughtful look at a whole collection of recipes. (Beyond Sweet and Savoury)
  • Shelley also discussed the book as a whole, and then featured the Fattoush with Fava Beans and Labneh. (Cookbooks 365)
  • My publishers invited some new-to-me bloggers to the launch last night, and I am so glad they did! Nikki and Christine were firecrackers. So fun. (Nikki the Knack and Padfoot's Library)

 

VIETNAMESE COFFEE ICE CREAM 

Indians make something they call espresso, which I've talked about before, but it’s unlike any espresso you’d see in Italy; it’s actually closer to a Greek frappé, a bold brew of instant coffee whipped with an enthusiastic amount of sugar, and then combined with hot water and milk. The slurry magically blends, then splits, with a layer of thick foam above a rich, creamy elixir below.

I’ve been a longtime fan of that coffee, so when I was first introduced the Vietnamese version, a drink with very much the same uncompromising intensity, the same weighty, toasted, caramel flavor, this time tempered with sweetened condensed milk, I was lost. When I decided to freeze it, well then things got even better.

This is my full-stop favorite ice cream, both to make, and to eat. It is brazenly prepared without a traditional custard base, which isn’t missed in the least, and skipping that step makes it quick work to pull together. A voluptuous mix of evaporated milks and cream gets infused with ground coffee, then chilled, churned and swirled with caramel. Easy peasy, that's that, and you’re left with an ice cream worthy of any and all accolades. Have a spoon at the ready.

Makes about 1 quart

 

Ingredients

  • 1 (14-ounce/400g) tin evaporated milk
  • 1 (14-ounce/400g) tin sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup heavy (35%) cream
  • 2 ounce (57 g) coffee beans, ground, see note
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • A good pinch of salt

To Serve or Swirl

  • Espresso caramel and/or Candied Cocao Nibs, recipes follow

Method

Combine all the ice cream ingredients in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture begins to steam. Remove from the heat and leave to steep for 20 minutes.

Using a fine-meshed sieve, or a standard sieve lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, strain the mixture into a bowl. Cover and chill for 3 hours, but preferably overnight. Freeze the base according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s directions.

Spoon 1/3 of the ice cream into a storage container. Smooth the top, and pour over a few tablespoons of caramel in long stripes. With the tip of a knife, lightly swirl the caramel into the ice cream. Layer in half of the remaining ice cream, and repeat the layers two more times, ending with a drizzle of caramel. There will be caramel left over. Set this aside. Cover the ice cream and freeze for at least 6 hours.

Serve as is, or in a sugar cone, or scattered with candied cacao nibs. Then, dive in.

Note: The coffee beans should be medium ground. Café Du Monde French Roast Chicory is the traditional choice for the hot preparation that inspired this cold one. For a milder, rounded flavor, use 2 tablespoons of instant espresso powder or 3 tablespoons instant coffee powder instead of ground beans.

Chocolate fudge can take the place of the caramel.

Masala Chai variation: Replace the coffee with 2 tablespoons black tea such as Darjeeling, a short cinnamon stick, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger and 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom and 3 peppercorns. Omit the espresso in the caramel, or omit the swirl entirely.

 

ESPRESSO CARAMEL

Makes about 2/3 cup

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (106 g) dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml)  heavy cream
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon finely-ground espresso beans or espresso powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high, heat the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt, stirring until the butter is melted. Pour in heavy cream and espresso beans. Bring to a boil, whisking until smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Lower the heat and simmer, undisturbed, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the stove and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally. If making ahead of time, cover and refrigerate until needed, then rewarm gently before using.

Note: Any leftover caramel can be used on pound cake, or plain ice cream, or stirred into a milkshake or warm milk. Those sips can be made all the more warming with a share of whisky.

 

CANDIED CACAO NIBS

Makes approximately 1/2 cup

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (43 g) cacao nibs
  • 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter

Method

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat.

In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, warm the sugar for a minute, without stirring. Scatter the cacao nibs over the sugar, and leave the pan undisturbed until the sugar begins to melt in spots. With a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, quickly stir the cacao nibs into the liquid sugar, incorporating any unmelted sugar as you go. Once most of the sugar has coated the nibs, remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the butter. Immediately scrape the cacao nibs onto the prepared baking sheet, pressing them into an even layer with the back of the spoon or spatula. Allow to cool.

Break the cacao nibs into tiny clusters by hand. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.

Friends, I'm writing a book.

I wanted to keep this business under wraps until I was sure it was really, truly, real. And now, it is. 

In the spring of 2015, around the ten-year anniversary of this site, my first cookbook will be published by Ten Speed Press and Appetite by Random House in Canada. 

(There's a lot in that paragraph right there that seems surreal.) 

Plums by Tara O'Brady

The book will be a collection of previously unpublished recipes, with only a few especially-loved ones revisited. When I was working up the proposal for the book, Sean noticed that the recipes on my prospective list were ones I already make; to him, they weren't new. And to me, that was the whole point. It is meant to be all the best from my kitchen, given to you. It is the meals I make in my day-to-day and for our celebrations, and the family secrets I've long wanted to get down on paper. It's a book we've lived and are still living, one tested and tried at our table.

The book is an extension of Seven Spoons. The funny thing about writing a blog is that while some may have started reading at the beginning in real-time, as years wear on, it's more and more likely that folks joined in along the way. So, there's never set course by which the story will be told. Parts can be read out of order, skipped even. A book gives the opportunity to set up a complete, contained work — it will be a sustained conversation, and one I'm excited to have.

Black + German Plums by Tara O'Brady

That said, the idea of a book still feels wobbly and whoa-boy-crazy sometimes. There's been moments when I've turned completely jello inside. But sharing the news with you pals, knowing one day I'll be sharing a book with you, well, that makes it great. Grand, stand-stand-up straight, arms wide, big grins, hurrah and yelping, super, happy great.  

In other words, your company makes it better. Makes this less intimidating, makes me less fearful. Everything more fun.

Actually, your company makes me better. Your company is what's at the heart and start of all of this. You've been here, sticking around, even when I was quiet, picking up right where we left off. You have been immeasurably kind. I am grateful and so very happy to know you.

plum rippled ginger crunch ice cream

It was the day before yesterday that I found out that the book had been officially announced. I read the email twice, squinting at my phone. Sean was home for lunch and right beside me. I was sure I was reading it wrong. It didn't sink in until later, until I was driving a few towns over, when laughter bubbled up. 

The last of the afternoon's errands had brought me out to a farm stand, one further than my usual. The weather had been showing off. I've got two coats ready for autumn but it was a wilting day of turned-up summer. The owner's daughter was behind the tables. Punnets were to her left, bigger baskets in the middle, then heaping bushels to her right.  Fruit and harvest got us talking, started us on that game of matching up favourites, of swapping tricks and tips and traditions. There was a discussion of peaches, the best for canning and eating, and talk of apricot jam. She offered me slices of fruit across the blade of her knife.

She told me some news, news that prompted me to share the photographs her mother let me take summer before last. She noticed her father's thermos of coffee, and I told her their plums were the stuff of legend. She walked me to the car, sending me away with more than I paid for, having pressed into my hand a bag weighted with Coronation grapes in tight, shadowy clusters, dusky purple-black, hugged up against a few, palm-sized, fat-bottomed pears with long stems. There were peaches already on the backseat, and plums in their baskets, ripe and full like water balloons, feeling as though their thin skins could only barely contain the sweetness within.

(If you're in Niagara, the stand is over on Victoria Avenue in Vineland, south of Claus Road. Drop me a line and I'll point you there.)

plum rippled ginger crunch ice cream

As I told her, I had in mind an ice cream stuffed with biscuits and plums, knobby in places with crunch, others smooth. In practice, it meant taking a prime extravagance and turning it into September's ice cream. Sharp and lush, this recipe is in honour of a family and the fruits of their farm, an ice cream that reminds me of the first time I drove out their way and found the sense to stop.  An ice cream as fancy as we needed to celebrate a book, as well as the years that brought us here, and the good fortune that brought me you.

Thank you for the bubbling laughter. 

(That was pretty smooshily said. Meant it just the same.)

 

 

 

PLUM RIPPLED GINGER CRUNCH ICE CREAM

Very much a plum crisp, frozen. I keep tripping over my words and calling it Plum Rumple Ice cream, which is how I sort of think of it. The fruit and crumbs and cream don't wholly blend, so the flavours are separate, yet in harmony.

FOR THE ICE CREAM BASE

  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 (14-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • A pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream

FOR THE PLUM RIPPLE

  • 8 ounces plums, pitted, halved if small, quartered if large
  • 2-4 tablespoons brown sugar, depending on fruit
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated ginger

 

FOR THE GINGER CRUNCH

  • 4 ounces gingersnap cookies, homemade or store bought
  • 1 1/2 ounces pecans, toasted

METHOD 

To make the ice cream base, stir the condensed milk and evaporated milk together in a medium saucepan. Spilt the vanilla bean down its length, scraping out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the bean to the saucepan, along with a pinch of salt. Heat over medium-low heat until just under a simmer, stirring often.

Pour the mixture, including the vanilla pod, into a clean bowl or pitcher. Stir in 1 cup of the heavy cream and taste. It should be very sweet, but not uncomfortably so. If needed, add up to 1/2 cup more cream. Cover and chill the mixture in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, and up to overnight.

While the base is chilling, make the plum ripple. Tumble the plums into small, heavy-bottomed saucepan along with 2 tablespoons of sugar and the grated ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring regularly, over medium heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Let the fruit blip away until the flesh is quite soft and the juices deeply coloured, around 3 to 5 minutes. Push the fruit through a fine-meshed sieve over a bowl, then pour the liquid back into the pan and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes more, stirring often. The sauce should look shiny and thick, with a fresh, true plum flavour, tangy but fairly sweet. Keeping in mind that the flavour will dull when frozen, , stir in additional sugar as needed. Set the plum sauce aside to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

For the ginger crunch, simply crush the cookies in a mortar and pestle or in a resealable food bag with a rolling pin. The crumbs should be irregular, with some dust and some chunky bits. Pour the cookies into a bowl, then bash the toasted pecans the same way. Stir the nuts into the cookie rubble, and that's done.

To assemble, strain and freeze the ice cream base in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions. When it reaches the consistency of soft serve, spoon the ice cream out into a large mixing bowl. Fold most of the ginger crunch through the ice cream with a few purposeful strokes. Do not over mix.  

Spoon one third of the ice cream into a lidded, freezer-safe storage container. Sprinkle some more of the crunch over the layer, then drizzle on a few long stripes of the plum sauce. With the tip of a thin-bladed knife, gently ripple the plum sauce into the cream. Top with half the remaining ice cream, and repeat the layers, ending with crumbs and plums. Cover and freeze for at least 3 hours.

Makes a generous quart of ice cream.

 

Note:  

  • The plums can be roasted instead of cooked on the stove. Arrange them snugly in a dish, toss them with the sugar and ginger, then pop it all into a moderately hot oven, say 400-425 degrees, until the fruit is soft. 
  • The crumble on my serving is pulverized candied pecans. They added some extra gilding to an already-fine day.

 

*Note: The book was tentatively-titled Well Fed, but that has since been changed. Some of the kind comments below reflect the earlier title. Thanks! 

 

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seven!

Seven years ago today, I pressed publish.*

At the time I was in my twenties. I'm not anymore, in fact that cake up there was to celebrate yet another birthday into my thirties. Sean and I called an apartment our home back then; we don't anymore. It was in the city where he grew up. We don't live there anymore, either.

I worked at a job that had me in a windowless office. Scratch that, there was a window but it was blocked from easy view by a bookcase taller than me. I could see a slivered glimpse of an interior courtyard by leaning all the way back in my chair and scooting over to the left. That's changed too — I've not sat in that chair or stood in that room in six years.

I couldn't have imagined these 2,557 days since that apartment, that career, those first words. I knew Sean was the finest man I could ever hope to marry, so that was a strong beginning.

Over the years we moved, and moved again. We left things behind and gained so much. When we moved here, to the city where I grew up, things had changed, were changing. I got to know new neighbourhoods, new shops, new people. I learned to live in a place I thought I knew, as an adult and a parent. We settled in and stretched out and explored.

One of the elementary schools I had attended closed, torn down to its foundations and then paved over for townhouses. When I pass that corner I think about the sturdy, square building that used to stand there. I think of how the thin heels of my loafers would often hook the edge of the stairs when I'd run from our classroom up on the top floor down to the room on the bottom where we had assembly. I remember the sound of chairs scraped across linoleum and the crumpled paper of packed lunches. I think of all the childhood, childlike dramas and tragedies that took place with those halls as backdrop, the stage now cleared.

We went to my high school's anniversary. The halls seemed wider.

strawberry conserve

I recently spent a day in truly windowless room. It happened to be that day in spring when the trees pop, and the leaves go from frilled curls to full spread. That blink-and-you'll-miss-it day. Keeping occupied over hours of waiting, Sean and I reached the topic of Jack Kerouac and On the Road, specifically the original text versus as it was published by Viking in 1957, with names changed and sections removed.

Kerouac put On the Road to paper over a span of three weeks in April 1951. Three weeks! He worked it out on a manual typewriter, taping sheets of teletype paper together so the resulting roll could be fed into the machine once, and he could then go from there continuously, uninterrupted. The manuscript is single-spaced, without paragraphs or breaks, a solid block of text with the words stacked like bricks in pavement, one hundred and twenty feet long. Edits are in pencil. Kerouac didn't write a book; he told a story. Starting at the outset and working his way to the conclusion.

A book written in three weeks makes a great headline. It's a headline that swaggers, full of bravado. That said, what catches me are all the years that built those twenty-one days. Kerouac had a famous habit of notebooks, of scribbling and collecting stories as he went — like those pebbles that you kick around for a while before picking them up — he tucked them in his pockets in between pages. He began writing On the Road as Sur le Chemin, in colloquial Québécois French, three months before he started the scroll.

I like that. I like the idea that even a work known for the spontaneity of its prose — one that reads like a singular act of improvisation — could have begun in fits and starts. I like that, for even him, it can take some time to get one's mind around things. We may need to circle our destination, figuring out how best to approach, from what angle, and where to land.

In a beautifully fitting twist, Kerouac's scroll is jagged and torn at the bottom, the end ripped away. And so, his finale, in its original form, is a mystery. The margin reads, "ate by Patchkee, a dog", which may or may not be the truth, which could very well be a joke, but it is another thing I like.

testing colours

Endings are often messy. They smudge and smear into the next beginning as everything starts again. Endings follow along, trailing behind forward progress, like the echo of your own footsteps.

So here we are, with the trees heavily green and mornings still cold. We've made some headway, the first seven years done, with still a ways ahead. (Seven is a number that's important to me, as you might have guessed.) That milestone passed, this road has been an exceptional one to travel thus far, and I'm looking to the horizon, looking to reach the rim of its curve and then drive past it.

Thank you, thank you for the company. Let's get going on the next seven. I'll bring the cake. 

*If you follow that link, it's rather empty, save for a comment made by Tarasome years later; she's a treasured friend and I'm happy that she's there, Anne and Diana are we. However, the quiet there is a bit misleading; when I transplanted this site from another space to this one, the comments from those early posts did not come along. I have them saved though, and if I can figure out a way to respost them I will, as I am, still and always, grateful for the welcome and continued friendship from this community. xo, all.

In other business, we have the UPPERCASE winners — congratulations Melinda and Jade! I'll be in touch soon. 

sliced

HAZELNUT AND STRAWBERRY CELEBRATION CAKE

Think of this cake as a gussied-up version of a Victoria sponge. The flavours are the same, as we've got the well-worn charm of strawberry jam, lemon and (butter)cream. Folding beaten egg whites into the batter, as done with chiffon cakes, results in an airy, delicate crumb. I've gone and mussed up that delicacy a little with ground hazelnuts, but I think the modest sacrifice in height is worth it — the cake has fluff but also has enough structure to stand up to the rich weight of the preserves, and it's still plenty tall. I also happen to think that the teensy flecks of gold and brown look pretty, so there's that, too.

The layers are adaptated from the Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake in The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook (America's Test Kitchen, 2011). The cake uses 6 yolks and 3 egg whites, so be sure to keep those extra 3 whites aside if making the Swiss Meringue Buttercream. 

For the cake

  • Softened butter and cake flour for pans
  • 2 ounces hazelnuts, skin on, roasted and cooled
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) cake flour, sifted
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 3/4 cup (12 1/4 ounces) granulated sugar, divided
  • 10 tablespoons (5 ounces, 1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil (like grapeseed or safflower)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 6 egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature 
  • 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

To assemble

  • 1/2-3/4 cup strawberry preserves
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon finely-grated lemon zest, depending on taste
  • 1/2 recipe Swiss Buttercream, with 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt added at the start (and without coconut)

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease three 8x2-inch pans with softened butter. Line the bases with parchment paper, grease the parchment, then dust bottoms and sides with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside.

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, grind the hazelnuts into a fine meal. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides and pulse again one or two times. You should have about 1/2 cup hazelnut meal.

In a large bowl, whisk together the ground hazelnuts, cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt and 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar. In another bowl, or a jug with a pouring spout, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, neutral oil, vanilla extract and egg yolks. Set aside. 

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Sprinkle in the cream of tartar. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high, and with the machine running, pour in the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar in a steady stream. Continue to beat until the egg whites are glossy and stiff peaks form, about 2 to 3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the egg whites into a bowl and set aside.

Add flour mixture to the now-empty mixer bowl. With the machine running on low speed, slowly pour in the buttermilk mixture, stirring until just incorporated, around 20 seconds. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl and whisk again until there's no visible flour, around 15 seconds more (note: due to the hazelnuts, this batter will not be completely smooth).

With a rubber spatula, stir 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the batter to lighten. Add 1/2 of the remaining whites and fold gently until almost combined, a few white streaks can remain. Add the last of the whites and continue to fold until no streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans. Tap the pans gently on the counter a few times to release any large air bubbles. 

Bake layers in a preheated oven until the cake begins to pull away from the edge of the pan and a cake tester (toothpick) inserted in the centre comes out clean, around 20 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the edge of the cakes with an offset spatula or butter knife, then invert onto a wire rack lined with clean parchment and remove the baking parchment from the bottom of the layer. Invert the cake again onto a greased wire rack and cool completely before filling and frosting, at least 2 hours. 

To assemble, mix the strawberry preserves with the lemon zest in a bowl. Stack and fill the cakes, dividing the jam between the cake layers and topping each with thin coat of buttercream. Use the remaining buttercream to cover and decorate the sides and top to your liking.

For a tutorial on filling and frosting a cake, see here.

Makes 1 8-inch, three-layer cake.

Notes:

  • The ground hazelnuts can be substituted for an equal amount other ground nuts — almonds, walnuts or pistachio are winning bets. Or, if not your thing, omit nuts altogether and make up the difference with an equal amount (2 ounces, 1/2 cup) of sifted cake flour.
  • The cake layers can be made a day ahead and kept at room temperature overnight, wrapped well in clingfilm. As pictured, I used three 6-inch pans, baking the cakes for around 25 mintues.
  • I use a chunky, homemade strawberry preserve, one that's not particularly sweet as far as jams go. If yours is on the sweeter side, you might want to pull back to 1/2 cup total. Also, keep in mind that a thick layer of jam will cause the cake to slide when stacked, so err on the side of miserly.
  • This cake plays well with other frostings. A malted or coffee buttercream would be ones I'd suggest, or even a good old whipped ganache. The buttercream can be coloured or left plain — it is naturally white, as seen in between the layers, and I used a mix of paste food colours to tint the icing for the exterior.
  • I did a piece on decorating layer cakes for Saveur last year; if you're looking for more tips, it might be of interest.
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in the spoon

What would you consider the value of a bowl of frozen yogurt?

To be clear, I don't mean its sentimental value, nothing as romantic as all of that, I'm talking about nitty-gritty, slap-a-pricetag-on-that-puppy value.

Hold on, let me give you the details before you all start yelling out answers all The Price is Right-style on me.

This is not just any frozen confection. It is removed from the insipidly-sweet ranks of those frozen yogurts parading as ice cream. It has the unmistakable twang of yogurt, softened only slightly by sweetness. This is one that puts Greek yogurt front and centre; yogurt so thick that when spooned it falls lazily back upon itself in luscious folds. This is one where the yogurt plays equal partner to handful upon handful of mixed berries that have been squished and squashed into a violet-hued pulp.

It's darn good stuff.

Still can't decide? I'll be more specific. Would you think that the aforementioned frozen yogurt was worth, hmm ... I don't know ... say, a bouquet of peonies?

I'm totally serious. You can keep your dollars and cents, thank you very much, I will happily hand over pints in exchange for armfuls of blooms.

Why, you ask? The peony is one of my two absolute favourite flowers. They are, without a doubt, the most feminine of beauties; debutante-dreamy with their frilled crinoline petals. And I am surrounded by them, everywhere but in our yard. While our neighborhood is filled plentiful bushes, heavy with showy blossoms, ours is a peony-free zone. Our yard is too shady for their liking.

In lieu of turning to a life of floral theft, I am seriously considering a trade with our neighbors. Or, better yet, a frozen yogurt stand at the end of our driveway. One bloom for one scoop of equally girly-girl pink yogurt sounds fair, doesn't it?

Epilogue:

My father has glorious peonies growing at home; if our neighborhood's contingent are debs, his are divas. His bushes boast bountiful blooms, bodacious in their size. He kindly gifted me with some recently, on Father's Day no less. (If you look carefully in the photograph above, you'll catch a glimpse of his flowers in the reflection on the spoons.)

The next day, I made Dad a batch of mango frozen yogurt.

So all's well that ends well, dear reader. The only thing wanting is that I do wish I offer you some frozen yogurt. We could sit around my kitchen table, leaning into our bowls, and have a good chat. I could excitedly share with you the news that I am a contributor to the summer issue of UPPERCASE magazine.

I came to know about UPPERCASE gallery through the art of Jennifer Judd-McGee. When she unveiled the piece she had completed for an upcoming show, I was curious to learn more about the (Canadian!) gallery hosting the exhibit. And when I did, I became an immediate fan of Janine Vangool and her many creative endeavours. The magazine is her latest, and I am happy to be included in its pages.

The issue will out on July 2nd. Here's a sneak preview of what I made, and a peek between the covers. In other news, I have also been working on a revised About section, with a little more about me and answers to often asked questions. See the link at the left.

MIXED BERRY FROZEN YOGURT

Greek yogurt is rich to say the least, and heavy on the tongue. It provides a rounded base to all the high-note acidity of the fruit juices.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh mixed berries, I used strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, see note
  • 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 cups Greek yogurt, or well-drained whole milk yogurt

METHOD

Take your lovely berries and, in a large bowl with 1/3 cup of the sugar, crush the life out of them with a potato masher or the back of a spoon. Add the lemon juice, stir briefly, and cover. Allow the berries to macerate at room temperature for about an hour.

Using a coarse sieve set over another large bowl, press the berries through the mesh with the back of a spoon. Underneath the juices should be thick and slightly pulpy, but all seeds and larger fibers should remain above. Once all the berries have been sieved, you should have a generous 1 cup of purée.

Stir in the yogurt. Sweeten, a little at a time, with the remaining sugar. As so much will depend on the sweetness of your berries, add the sugar judiciously, tasting often. You want to take the mixture to where it tastes balanced to your palate, then sweeten it a little bit further. Sweetness is dulled by freezing, so this extra oomph will compensate.

When satisfied with the level of sweetness and all the sugar has dissolved, cover and chill the mix for two hours. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 quart. Soften at room temperature for a few minutes before scooping.

Notes:

• I have used as little as a 1/2 cup of sugar, and as much as almost a full cup for this recipe.

• As Elise points out, frozen yogurt will turn icy once frozen for more than 6-8 hours. So really, the universe is telling you to eat this yogurt the day its made. If you really must store it for longer than that, follow her advice and "add a tablespoon of vodka or kirsch to the mixture right before churning."

trio

So here's my trouble. I wanted to tell you about Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009). To chat about my impressions, my likes, my dislikes, the nitty gritty details of this cookbook devoted to the small.

But my attention has been captured by someone small, a small one who is getting bigger every day. Happy Birthday to you, our William - today is your first, and I can hardly find the words.

All week I have been vacillating between my heart bursting with pride and my chest tightening with emotion. Such is the state of Mummyhood. The First Birthday is an event met with a mile-wide grin and cheers of joy tempered with the sob-sniffle-wail of "my goodness, this is all too fast."

And fast it has been. Our Littler Man is walking.

William took his first tentative steps a few weeks back, and has now fully embraced the notion of upright locomotion. The rapid-fire thwack of his hands and knees on the floors of our home has been replaced with the padded rhythm of confident footsteps. And confident he is, as Will is not one to toddle.

In a manner unsurprising to anyone who has met him, our William has the audacity to promenade. His walk is so spirited, his step so lively, there is most surely a song in his heart.

Oh there now, I've digressed into ridiculous levels of Proud Parent Mode. My apologies.

Where was I? Oh yes, cupcakes. With William's first 1st birthday party planning underway, Martha Stewart's Cupcakes was a wealth of imaginative cake ideas, all on a scale befitting the occasion. Silly me though, I put Benjamin in charge of selecting the flavour to try - and again as my children are nothing if not consistent, he chose the most basic of recipes, chocolate upon chocolate.

But his choice was surprisingly astute, as our previous favourite chocolate cupcake was the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005). Now One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes are in the new book, but it is a different recipe.

So it was settled, the dessert menu chosen for our celebration. The recipe itself warrants little description; it is a standard cocoa and buttermilk cake, with only a scant amount of oil. The method is as demanding as a boxed cake, with the dry ingredients whisked in a bowl, then the eggs, buttermilk and oil poured over. A few stirs, and it is done.

This recipe yields cakes that look the example of cupcake perfection; each rose with the same rounded cheek, bulging slightly at their edges but with a gentle slope. Best of all was their colour - a true, dark brown, exactly how a chocolate cupcake should look.

As we did not have the recipes side-by-side for comparison, we had to rely on (unreliable) memory for our verdict. While everyone enjoyed the cupcakes, they were not met with the same knee-buckling adoration of the previous version. When I first made the Baking Handbook incarnation of One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes, I recall thinking that these were simply the best cupcakes ever. This time, not so much. They were good, but not exceptional.

It should be said though, that I am terribly finicky about my chocolate cakes so it takes a good deal to impress. While I shrugged at the taste, there was nary a complaint from our guests. Approximately 5 minutes after the Happy Birthdays and candles blown out, there were quite a few happy faces smeared with whipped ganache frosting.

While my personal assessment of the cupcakes was lackluster, my overall impression of the book from which they came is not. I did not test many recipes from the book (honestly, even I can only eat so many cupcakes) as I would have liked, but I can tell you that the book Martha Stewart Cupcakes is full of fun.

There is an obvious, infectious merriment in the way that the subject matter is treated, and the variations on the theme simply make me smile. One cannot help but be made a bit happier by pages upon pages of sprinkles and gumdrops, marizpan ladybugs, and coconut-feathered chicks.

What's more, the cookbook is inspiring. Ingeniously, the book pushes the boundaries of cupcakery to include all manner of small cakes, and even cookies and meringues, as long as they are baked in that distinctive shape.

There are filled cupcakes, layered mini-cakes, cookie-crusted cheesecakes, and simple pound cakes. Not all cakes are frosted, such as the Tiny Cherry and Almond and Pistachio-Raspberry teacakes, making these gems the ideal everyday treat to be tucked into lunchboxes or enjoyed as an afternoon snack. The combination of flavours, specific decorating techniques and helpful guides (including clip art templates) could all be adapted and developed to suit your specific tastes, and could be applied to the creation of full-sized cakes.

One caveat, as with Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008), much of the content included in Martha Stewart's Cupcakes has been previously featured in the various publications of Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Personally, I enjoyed having the recipes available in a single source, but others may disagree and might have preferred a wholly originally collection.

Time to get back to the business of being Mum to a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Oh my. So big. So fast. So wonderful.

Happy, happy day.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From the book Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.

Recipe

crossed lines

More photos from this series shot by my brother and sister-in-law can be seen here.

Now you didn't think that I'd forget to announce the winner of our Martha Stewart Cupcakes giveaway, did you?

Without further wait, Mr. Random.Org took the honour of selecting ourwinners, as follows.

The First Prize Winner will receive one copy of the Martha Stewart Cupcakes and one copy of Martha Stewart Cookies:

Chocolate Shavings

The Second Prize Winners will each receive a copy of Martha Stewart Cupcakes:

Dor and Michelle R.

I would like to thank everyone who entered, and highly recommend the checking out the fantastic conversation taking place in the comments section. To the winners, please e-mail me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net, with your contact information at your earliest convenience.

Thanks to my sis-in-law Rene, for not only hosting the dinner tonight, but also being our photographer. She's especially snazzy.

Sorry about this. Really.

I know, we were chatting about chocolate and coffee just a few days ago. And it seems as though I have had sweets on the brain for weeks now.

But, if ever was there a day when maybe, just maybe dear reader, you could cut me some slack for my repetitive ways, I hope it will be today. Because really, who would begrudge a birthday girl her chocolate wish?

That's right, today was my birthday.

Please excuse my sweet tooth and forgive me for being a trifle scatterbrained just now, but I wanted to stop in to share with you the dessert we chose to celebrate.

Our fancy-dress festivities are not for another few days, so today is all about a night just for family. And for me, if there is one dessert that ties together my thoughts of family and nostalgia all in one ribbon-tied package, it would be my Mum's Mocha Dessert.

When I was little, this Mocha Dessert was the often-requested sweet ending to my parents' dinner parties, parties I considered the height of elegance. Silver was polished to perfection, the good china was brought out, and the menu were planned days in advance. When the night arrived, the men were dapper and the ladies were always dressed to the nines; you can surely imagine how my six-year-old self loved the glamour of dark lipstick and dangling baubles.

I remember their conversations lasting into the night. The deep murmur of their voices, often punctuated by peals of sparkling laughter, made its way through the darkness, up the stairs and to my ears as I strained to catch what was surely exceptionally witty banter. I thought it all terribly romantic.

As an adult, I can appreciate why this simple recipe was the subject of such praise. Layers of graham crackers were sandwiched with coffee cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. After a night's rest in the icebox, the formerly-disparate components relax into each other. The graham crackers loose all their crispness, the cream turns thick and luscious. In the end, everything is mousselike, with a delicate delineation of layers that yield to the slightest pressure from a spoon. A cross between an icebox cake and a tiramisù, I strongly believe that it was this ethereal confection that started my love affair with coffee.

This cake is ridiculously easy to make and decidedly old school. It is not about bells and whistles, or technique and the latest trend. Instead, like all fond memories, it simply makes me smile.

Of course I had a little bit of business to attend to today, and that is the announcement of the winner of the giveaway. I am happy to say that Random.org has selected Angela as the recipient of a one-year subscription to the food magazine of her choice. Angela, please contact me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net with your contact information.

Thank you to everyone that entered and a here's wishing a happy day to each and every one of you!

MOCHA ICEBOX CAKE

Adapted, with thanks, from my Mum. Hers was made and served like a tiramisù, with more cream and less cookie, scooped out for serving. I have turned the dessert out on its head, and added some chocolate whipped cream.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 1/2 cups heavy (whipping cream), divided
  • 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, divided
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 45 honey graham crackers, the single kind
  • 1/3 cup chocolate syrup, see note
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted

METHOD

Line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of clingfilm, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip 2 1/2 cups of well-chilled heavy cream. Once the cream begins to thicken, sift in 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, the coffee granules and salt. With the mixer on medium-high, whip until the cream begins to hold soft peaks. Add the vanilla, and beat until the cream just holds a stiff peak.

Spread a small amount of the cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Lay 9 crackers, in a 3-by-3 grid, on top of the cream. Spoon 1/2 cup of the cream on top of the crackers. Then, using an offset spatula, gently spread the cream to cover the crackers entirely. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the chocolate syrup over the cream, spreading to form an even layer if desired.

Top with another layer of graham crackers, continuing the layering until you have 5 layers of crackers and 4 of the cream and chocolate. Make sure to reserve a small amount of cream to cover the last layer of crackers (no chocolate on this one).

Cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, then draw the overhanging clingfilm from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.

About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the clingfilm. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining clingfilm from the top and sides. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula if needed. Place the cake in the freezer, uncovered, to chill for 15-30 minutes.

Prepare the cocoa cream. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip the remaining 1 cup of well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the reserved 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar and the cocoa powder. With the machine set to medium-high, whip the cream until it holds a firm peak, but being careful not to over beat.

Take the cake out of the freezer and carefully spread a thin layer of the cocoa cream over the top and sides. Once completely covered, use any remaining cream to decorate as desired. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then serve.

Notes:

• If you are going for authenticity, my Mum used Hershey's Chocolate Syrup (the dessert topping in the yellow tin, not the brown squeeze bottle). But if you are feeling posh you can make your own using one of theserecipes.

• For the sake of honesty, I will say that maybe I went a little overboard and used a full 2 cups of cream for the cocoa frosting. The last 1/2 cup looked so sad in its carton, and heck, you only have one birthday a year. Totally not necessary to the cake, but enjoyably decadent. To follow suit, add a bit extra cocoa powder and confectioner's sugar, to taste.

• A pinch or two of instant coffee granules added to the cocoa cream is also a good thing.