It was the loaf pans, I think. They were at the start of all of this.

When I set about baking homemade sandwich bread, I tried Julia Child's recipe. A recipe which specifies a 8-by-4-inch loaf pan, instead of the more common (and larger) 9-by-5-inch variety. After baking my loaves and admiring their modelesque proportions (slim, tall), I was smitten. I took to baking many of my breads and cakes in these pans, thinking there was no harm in my fondness for foods on a smaller scale.

But those pans served only as a gateway to increasingly-elfin baked goods.

When baking a pound cake, I brought out miniature tube pans and split it into six. Banana bread was divided into eight little loaves to be tucked into lunches. My super-secret recipe Chocolate Crunch Bars were made in individual squares, rather than a monstrous slab. 

Somewhere along the way of this Lilliputian baking, I had two realizations. Well, one realization, and one moment's pause. First, I realized I have amassed more than a few baking pans. Second, I became somewhat self-conscious about my weakness for the wee.

You see, dear reader, there has been some recent criticism of diminutive cakes.

I can agree that some cupcakes are over-the-top sweet, with such an excessive helping of tooth-aching frosting that they are nearly impossible to enjoy. And I do think that some bakeries have gone a trifle mad in their pricing of these cakes.

But I cannot subscribe to the theory that lies at the root of much of the disapproval. The objection of the individuality of the single-serving cake, a trait seen as embodiment of the "mine-all-mine" mentality that represents all that is wrong with the world.

In the eyes of these critics, the small is associated with the sole, and that is seen as sad. Lonely, even isolated.

And so, if no man should be an island, should no cake be a cupcake? Has this predilection for the compact been the result of a larger trend of greed?

Pshaw.

Now lest I ignite a debate on whether or not there is room in this world for a moment to treat oneself (I am firmly in the "yes" camp on that one), I will instead consider the fact that most of these criticisms are aimed at the purchase of cupcakes. There is no mention of making cupcakes; making them is another thing entirely.

Making small cakes almost always ensures sharing. The sheer number of of treats made in a single batch encourages generosity. Sure, a large cake can be doled out in slices and wrapped for giving, but most often it is served to those who happen to attend a specific event. In contrast, an armada of cupcakes (baked right in their travelling clothes) are perfectly suited to be sent out into the world - event or not.

You see, small cakes can be more approachable than one behemoth beauty. A layer cake on its pedestal is lovely, but a bit standoff-ish. All-too-often I have been at a party, admired the cake perched prettily on its stand, and noticed that nary a crumb has been touched. Unless the host serves, rarely does a guest feel bold enough to "be the first" to mar its pristine completeness.

But set out a tray of cupcakes, or single-serving squares, and they are scooped up before you can bat an eye.

Little cakes are just that bit friendlier. They do not stand on occasion. While a slice of cake may seem like it requires a holiday, a small cake slips easily into the everyday.

While we are at it, small cakes are cute and neat. Sure it is shallow, but even though I love some messy fun in the kitchen, I do believe that the recipients of my efforts appreciate the clean edges that personally-portioned baked goods provide. I am routinely inept at cutting straight lines, and so perfect shapes would surely be preferred over my mangled efforts.

But, all said, there is one trouble with making petite treats. Miniature baking pansare truly infuriating to keep clean. I have a serious case of dishpan hands from scrubbing all those teeny-tiny nooks and crannies.

I blame Julia.

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE CAKE

Adapted from a recipe for Chocolate Chip Mascarpone Cupcakes by Giada de Laurentiis. A note on its flavour; despite its appearances, this cake is not overly rich. It is the sort that is best with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or as a simple dessert. Canadians (and some Americans), will find the taste of this cake is strikingly similar to the chocolate glazed doughnuts from well-known national chain.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE CAKE

  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup water, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

INGREDIENTS FOR THE GLAZE

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 shot of espresso
  • around 1/2 cup of water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa powder

METHOD

Make the cakes. Preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter and flour two 8-by-4-inch loaf pans, set aside.

Place the two types of chocolate in the top of a double boiler or a heat proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until melted; remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, whisk together the water and sour cream to combine. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using a hand mixer or whisk, beat together the sugar and oil until well blended, around 1 minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in the vanilla, then the cooled chocolate. Add flour mixture alternating with sour cream, starting and ending with the flour mixture and stirring until just blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans and bake until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the loaves comes out clean, around 55-65 minutes. Remove from oven, cool 10 minutes in pan, then remove the cakes to a wire rack to cool completely (right side up).

For the glaze, take the shot of espresso and pour it into a 1/2 cup liquid measure. Add enough water to bring the level up to a 1/2 cup. Pour the water mixture, sugar and cocoa into a small saucepan and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Simmer until the glaze is thick, about 5 minutes.

To glaze the cakes, set the cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, paint the glaze all over the top and sides of the cakes; carefully apply multiple thin coats for the finest finish. Let stand until set.

Makes two 8-by-4-inch loaf cakes.

Notes:

• If you do not like espresso, use only water for the glaze.

• The cake pictured was baked in a Nordic Ware Pro Cast Brownie Bundt pan (thanks Mum!). In this size, the recipe will yield about 36 cakes.

And now for the giveaway. The fine folks at Subscription.com were generous enough to offer me a complimentary magazine subscription. Sadly, I am unable to take advantage of their kindness due to international distribution restrictions. So, we thought to pass the offer on to you.

Subscription.com will give one reader a full-year subscription to the cooking/food magazine of their choice (as selected by the winner from their list of titles). There is no cost to be incurred by the winner, the only condition is that you must be is a resident of the United States or have a US mailing address. To enter, leave a comment at the end of this post, with a mention of your desire to be included in the draw, and I will compile these comments into a master list (this way, non-entrants can still comment if they'd like). A random winner will be selected and announced on April 21, 2009.

My apologies to Canadian and international readers for their exclusion. There will be some more giveaways in the future to make it up to you; please understand that I simply could not pass up the opportunity to share this prize.

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With our impending arrival well on its way, we are currently attempting to reiterate the importance of sharing to our first born. Though his universe has happily (and steadily) revolved around Ben for the past two years, we have come to the point when patience, respect and understanding are becoming part of our daily conversations.

I am terribly thankful for his gaggle of contemporaries who help him in his education. He has had to learn that not everyone plays with blocks in exactly the same way, that many little hands can create stories with the Little People and that cuddles can be given to cousins and friends - not just Mummies and Daddies. He has started to learn to take his time with those younger, to allow for the independence of those older, and to realize that he is not the only one who would like a cookie. He has seen that our lives are interconnected with those of others; we share our days and ourselves, as well as our toys.

Such is the case with our Valentine's Day festivities. Even though Sean and I will have our own evening out, the day itself is saved for the shared celebration of both the sweethearts in my life. Each bring me such happy contentment, Benjamin will see that instead of choosing just one (something I could never do), I would rather choose to spoil everyone. He will see that treats, consideration and hugs can be shared equally, and that there is as much joy in the giving as in the receiving.

A weeknight family dinner calls for a dessert that is special but does not take too much attention away from enjoying everyone's company. Nothing too elaborate or fussy, an offering as perfectly sweet as those gathered around the table.

This cake is dense and moist, with the fine texture of a pound cake. The richness of butter and cream cheese is underscored by mellow almond and luscious bits of white chocolate that only almost melt into the batter. Perfect on its own, sublime when topped with raspberry sauce, and decadently stodgy as the base of a midwinter trifle - it is sure to send more than one heart aflutter.

If one happens to have miniature tube or Bundt pans, this batter makes adorable little plated desserts; the perfect size for two, or in our case three, forks to share.

White chocolate almond cake
From a variety of inspirations.

Ingredients
Melted butter for greasing the pan
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup finely chopped white chocolate

Almond simple syrup (optional)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C). Using a pastry brush or kitchen towel, lightly coat a 10" tube pan with melted butter.

Sift together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or with an electric beater, cream together the softened butter, cream cheese and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes, being sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides again and beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.

With the mixer on low, add the flour in two additions, alternating with the milk. Mix until just combined. With the mixer still on low (or with a rubber spatula), stir in the white chocolate. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, mounding the edges up slightly and leaving a bit of a furrow through the middle. Hit the pan against the counter to remove any trapped air bubbles.

While cake is baking, combine the water, sugar and almond extract in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup becomes thick.

The cakes should be done after 75-85 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean and the top is golden brown. Allow to cool in pan, on a wire rack, for 10 minutes.

Turn the cake out onto the rack (see note) and, use a pastry brush to coat the cake entirely with the syrup. Allow to cool completely.

Notes:

• You will want to suspend the rack over a sheet pan to catch the excess glaze. A spoon can also be used to glaze the cake, but I prefer the finer finish a pastry brush offers.
• For a citrus variation, omit the almond extract and white chocolate from the cake. Add 1 teaspoon grated zest of your choice and one tablespoon of freshly-squeezed juice replaces the same amount of milk. For the syrup, omit the extract and substitute juice for the water.
• For a chocolate chip version, the white chocolate can be substituted with 3/4 cup bittersweet and the almond extract can be omitted (but this is not necessary). The syrup is made more of a glaze, substituting the extract with 1 teaspoon cocoa powder and boiling the mixture gently for 5 minutes. Spoon this over the top of the cake, allowing it to dribble down the sides.