Friday, March 22, 2013

Dulce de Coco Cake

The Setting: A beautiful day in the Bend. If only it were warm enough to venture outdoors....

The Soundtrack: Say Yes to the Dress. Why can't I stop watching?

Steaming up the Oven: Sausage and veggie pizza.

The Scenario: Despite appearances, this is not a cookie. But with crunchy, toasted coconut on the outside and gooey, coconut-milk caramel on the inside, this is one cake that's sure to cater to your coconut cravings.

Hoosband has always been a huge fan of coconut.

I, however, have historically steered clear of the stuff.

My opinions on the matter could have best been summed up by Tallahasse's  reaction to finding a truck full of Sno Balls on the side of the road in the modern cult classic Zombieland: "I hate coconut. Not the taste, the consistency."

My fondness of coconut rum and Thai curries was proof positive that the taste of coconut wasn't keeping me away. The texture, on the other hand, I always felt was somewhat suggestive of freshly clipped toenails--an offense I simply couldn't see past.

Recently and inexplicably, though, I seem to be coming around.

Visiting Nashville a few weekends ago, I couldn't get enough of my mother-in-law's incredible, homemade German-chocolate cake with oozing layers of coconut-filled icing.

And once back in the Bend, the first thing I wanted to do was hit the baking aisle and dig out my bundt pan so I could put my own spin on coconut cake.

It's pretty clear where the inspiration for this cake comes from.

It's Girl Scout cookie time. And as such, the Internet has been inundated with copycat recipes and heated debate over the "true name" of what some call Samoas and others call Caramel deLites (turns out they're both legit, just produced by two different bakeries).

Hoosband had been mourning our decision not to place an order with our local Girl Scout this year, so I wanted to surprise him with something suggestive of his favorite cookie. While I love a good copycat challenge (Oreos, E.L. Fudge, Oatmeal Creme Pies, Cranberry Bliss Bars, etc.), this time I thought I'd take my homage in a different direction.

I envisioned a butter cake coated in chocolate, caramel, and coconut with a tunnel of caramel running throughout.

My initial concept involved traditional dulce de leche (made from dairy milk), but I wondered if I could amp up the coconut flavor a little by making dulce de coco instead.

The experiment paid off. While classic dulce de leche has a richer caramel color and flavor, the dulce de coco has the same thick, gooey texture and sweetness, plus the deep and delicious taste of coconut.

At one point I considered going truly loco for coco and swapping out all the butter in the cake for coconut oil, but two factors held me back:

1) I wanted the richness...actually...the buttery-ness of the butter to compliment the coconut and chocolate for a deeper, more well-rounded flavor.

2) Butter is pretty cheap. Coconut oil is not. Since this whole thing was an experiment, I figured I'd rather it be a relatively inexpensive one.

If, however, you'd like to make this cake dairy-free, it would be a simple swap to make!

 Dulce de Coco Cake
The toasted coconut on top and the tunnel of dulce de coco running throughout are the stars of this cake. The dulce de coco takes a while to make but can be prepared up to a week in advance if desired.

~for the dulce de coco~
2 cans unsweetened coconut milk (look for it in the international aisle near the Thai items)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Combine the coconut milk and brown sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

When the mixture begins to bubble, turn the heat to med-low and continue to cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat if necessary to prevent scorching, until the mixture has reduced by about half, is light tan/dark blonde in color, and is very thick but still free flowing.

Remove from heat and stir in the salt and vanilla. Use a rubber spatula to push the mixture through a sieve into a bowl or storage container. Allow to cool completely at room temperature before covering and storing in the fridge for up to one week. You should have about 1 1/2 cups dulce de coco.

~for the cake~
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, left out at room temp for 20-30 min (does not need to be completely softened)
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp coconut rum (optional)
1 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp fine salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
dulce de coco from above

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour a standard-sized bundt pan. I just place a T or so of flour in the pan after I butter it, cover the top with plastic wrap, and shake it until the entire pan is lightly coated. 

Any excess flour can be shaken out into the sink.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, vanilla, and rum (if using) and beat on med-high speed for 3-4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as necessary. Don't worry if the mixture looks broken or curdled--it will look like yummy batter once the dry ingredients are added.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixer and beat on low speed 30 seconds just to incorporate. Scrape down the bowl if needed, increase speed to medium, and beat an additional 30 seconds.

Transfer the dough to the prepared bundt pan, using a spatula to help spread it around evenly.

Drop 8-10 T of the dulce de coco, evenly spaced, on top of the batter.

Drag a knife or spatula through the dulce de coco to connect/distribute the spoonfuls and push them down slightly in to the batter.

Reserve the remaining dulce de coco for the glaze.

Bake the cake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the cake is set.

Allow to cool in the pan for at least one hour before running a knife along the edges (if needed) and inverting over a cooling rack. If the cake is at all warm at this point, allow to cool completely on the cooling rack.

~for topping~
2 squares Baker's semisweet chocolate*, divided
2 squares Ghirardelli unsweetened chocolate, divided*
1 tsp coconut oil, divided
1 cup sweetened coconut
2 1/2 T butter
2 tsp cornstarch

Place one square of Baker's chocolate, one square of Ghirardelli chocolate, and 1/2 tsp of coconut oil in a microwave-safe cup or bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds. Stir until completely smooth.

Use a pastry brush to paint the entire bottom (flat side) of the bundt cake, extending the chocolate about 1 inch down the sides of the cake. This should take every bit of the melted chocolate.

Allow to harden completely at room temperature. Don't wash out the chocolate bowl.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the coconut out evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes. Take the baking sheet out and use a spatula to toss/redistribute the coconut so that the golden bits around the edges are in the center and the whiter parts are on the edges. Return to the 350-degree oven for 5 more minutes. Let cool.

Once the chocolate has hardened and the coconut has cooled, prepare the glaze:

Place the dulce de coco and the butter in a microwave-safe bowl and microwavw for 30 seconds. Transfer to a blender or food processor along with the cornstarch. Blend until smooth. Transfer the mixture back to the dulce de coco container if desired.

Carefully turn the cake over so that the chocolate-coated side is on the bottom.

Use a clean pastry brush to coat the top and sides of the cake with the dulce de coco mixture.

Use your hands to gently apply the toasted coconut all over the glazed cake.

Place the remaining squares of chocolate and the remaining 1/2 tsp coconut oil in the same chocolate bowl used before. Microwave for 30 seconds and stir until completely smooth. Use a fork or spoon to drizzle the melted chocolate all over the top of the cake.

Allow chocolate to set at room temperature before cutting. Store tightly wrapped at room temperature for up to three days.

*You don't necessarily have to use these brands of chocolate. This is just the combination that I know works well for this application and with these instructions.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Irish Ploughman's Lunch

The Setting: 50 and cloudy in Nashville.

The Soundtrack: Various morning shows.

On the Stovetop:
Poached-egg English muffins, courtesy of my mom-in-law.

The Scenario: Looking for something to sustain you this St. Patrick's Day?

Try an Irish Ploughman's Lunch: a humble but hearty assortment of snackables, easy to assemble and munch on, for ploughmen, pub-lovers, and partygoers of all varieties.

The Ploughman, as it's called in passing, may have different components depending on where it's served and what's on hand, but there should always be a minimum of bread, spread, and protein.

Mine has seven components but could certainly be fleshed out with fresh fruits, veggies, and/or additional meats. Here's what I suggest:

Cider-Vinegar Soda Bread

Some folks assert that the bread in a ploughman's lunch simply must be of the crusty baguette variety. While that opinion may hold up in other parts of the UK, in my experience, Ireland calls for soda bread and lots of it. Be it white, brown, or dirty blonde, quick and yeast-less soda bread is butter's best friend, the perfect accompaniment to Irish stew, and an awesome, anytime addition to the Irish table.

This particular recipe gets a flavor boost from unfiltered apple-cider vinegar and is ready for your St. Patrick's Day spread in about an hour.

Homemade Cultured Butter with Celtic Sea Salt

Irish butter is incredible; I've said it time and again. But you can make some pretty incredible butter at home in less time than it takes to go to the store. To make festive shamrocks, or any shape for that matter, simply press fresh butter into molds and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to harden. Carefully un-mold when ready, and use a paring knife to tidy up the edges if needed.

If you'd prefer to work with store-bought butter but still want festive shapes, simply allow the butter to come to room temperature and beat it up for 30 seconds or so with an electric mixer before pressing it into molds. Make sure to use salted butter (I prefer Kerrygold), or add salt to the mixer (to taste) when beating unsalted butter. I prefer coarse, gray, Celtic sea salt for its flavor and texture, but any salt will work.

Whiskey-Apricot Chutney

Salty and sweet with a hint of hotness from red pepper flakes and warming notes from the whiskey, this savory apricot spread turns humble bread and cheese into an Irish canape. Ready in under an hour, the versatile condiment is a simple way to bring complex flavor to everything from sandwiches to sausages.

Aged Irish Cheddar

The older the better. I prefer cheddars aged at least a year, preferably longer, with the crunchy little tyrosine crystals that come with age. Older cheeses tend to be stronger in flavor and drier in texture. If you prefer a milder, creamier cheese, go with something young. Another exceptional and accessible Irish cheese is Kerrygold's Dubliner, a flavorful but approachable cheese, somewhat like a hybrid of cheddar, Parmesan, and Gruyere.

Refrigerator Pickles

Pickled onions tend to be more common in the UK than the pickled cucumbers we love in the US. These refrigerator pickles bring both onions and cucumbers to the party for the best of both sides of the pond. Easy to make and long-lasting in the fridge, they provide a pleasant vinegary accent to everything from the Irish Ploughman to American favorites like BBQ and fried chicken.

Hard-Boiled Eggs
Packed with protein and easy to come by, hard-boiled eggs are the perfect fuel for the Ploughman. Place eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Generously salt the water and bring to a boil. When the water has reached a rapid boil, cover and remove from the heat. Let set for 16 minutes. Gently pour off the cooking water and run cold water over the hot eggs to cool down. Peel once cool.

Sausage Crisps
This is not particularly Irish (I used an Italian calabrese), but sausage crisps make a nice addition to any snack or platter. To make the crisps, thinly slice a fatty, cured sausage and arrange slices in a single layer on a cooling rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes or until the slices are all crisped up, like little meat chips. Perfect for dipping or simply for munching.

Not into the whole sausage-crisp concept? Any cured sausage or meat (even prosciutto or a Spanish ham) will do, no crisping required. For even more of an Irish flair, try smoked Atlantic salmon in addition to (or in place of) these meaty options.

Serve the Ploughman's Lunch with pints of stout, or your favorite Irish brew.


Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Homemade Cultured Butter with Celtic Sea Salt

The Setting: A balmy day at my in-laws' home in Nashville. 

The Soundtrack: Birds, corgis, wind chimes, family.

Satisfying my Sweet Tooth: A mammoth apple fritter from the Donut Den.

The Scenario: Making a butter that's worthy of your favorite bread.

One of my favorite field trips as a kid was to an old historical site where we kindergartners got to make our own butter just like they did in the old days--okay, the early settlers used churns, and we used babyfood jars and added yellow food coloring to the cream...but other than that it was just like in the old days.

Twenty-something years later, I got a new favorite field trip: a visit to a Kerrygold creamery in County Cork, Ireland. I didn't get to shake any jars, but I got to sneak a peak as pristine machines churned snow-white milk into golden-yellow butter, no food-coloring required.

The Irish butter, made from cultured cream collected from grass-fed cows from a farmer-owned co-op, was the best I'd ever tasted.

My former love, the sweet-cream (uncultured) butter ubiquitous in the States, was suddenly yesterday's garbage.

I dreamed of owning a creamery one day where I'd churn out vats and vats of my very own cultured butter.

The dream always seemed so distant until a month or so ago, when Hoosband and I attended a cheese-making class at Standing Stone Farms outside of Nashville.

Our gifted instructor, Paula Butler, led us through a butter-making demonstration and explained how we could take our homemade butter to the next level by adding a pinch of powdered mesophilic culture to the cream the night before churning.

Presto! Cultured butter.

The butter can be "churned" in a stand mixer, blender, or even by hand (if, you know, you're training for an arm-wrestling tournament or something).

I use a Vitamix, which takes about a minute and a half. The danger of using a high-powered blender is that it could shatter the butter before you realize it's ready, making it harder to drain and resulting in a somewhat inferior texture. Whatever method you choose, just keep an eye on the cream. The moment you see clear liquid (and solid white chunks), you are done.

It's highly important to strain off all the liquid at this point because the buttermilk (yes, this watery stuff is real buttermilk) is highly perishable (best used within a few hours) and will greatly diminish the shelf life of the butter if not completely drained off.

Once the buttermilk has been drained off, season the butter with salt. YOU MUST ADD SALT. If you do not, the butter, in all its beautiful, homemade glory, will taste like nothing. You can add any salt you like. I like coarse, gray, Celtic sea salt the best. It has great flavor, and the coarse-but-somewhat-soft crystals provide tiny bursts of texture in the creamy, smooth butter.

The butter can be made in any quantity and is a great use for any half-spent cartons of cream lurking around the fridge. Never let unused cream spoil on you again!

Mesophilic culture can be easily sourced on the Internet or from cheese-making shops. If you don't feel like adding the culture, simply omit it. Homemade sweet cream butter is still pretty fabulous.

Homemade Cultured Butter
The cream needs to be at room temperature--60-70 degrees F. I leave my cream out on the counter for 8 hours to warm up and let the culture do its thing. This is 4 hours longer than food safety rules allow. If this is a concern for you, do not leave the cream out for more than 4 hours. 

heavy whipping cream (grass-fed and organic if possible)
pinch of powdered mesophilic culture
salt, to taste

At least 4 hours before you'd like to make your butter, add a pinch of mesophilic culture to the carton of cream and leave the cream out at room temperature to warm up. I suggest starting with a small pinch of the culture and experimenting with quantities each time you make butter until you find your magic amount.

When ready to make the butter, pour the cream into a blender.

Turn on the blender and blend on high just until you see clear liquid and/or solid chunks. With a Vitamix, this should take 1-2 minutes. First it will turn to whipped cream. The mixer will seem to stall out for a few seconds after this. Suddenly, the cream will start to move again, and very shortly thereafter you will have butter. But it won't look like butter yet.

It will look something like this--note the separation of solids and liquid.

If you would like to keep the buttermilk to drink, cook with, or add to coffee in the immediate future, strain the buttermilk into a bowl and set the liquid aside before rinsing the butter with ice-cold water to wash off any remaining buttermilk--otherwise go straight to rinsing.

Use a rubber spatula to help press out any liquid.

Lightly pat dry with a paper towel and use a spatula to mix in the salt. Taste the butter to see if you need more salt. Place the butter on a sheet of parchment or plastic wrap and roll into a ball or log--alternatively, press into molds.

Store the butter in the fridge for up to one week, or freeze for later use.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Whiskey-Apricot Chutney

The Setting: Back in Nashville for a few days! It's amazing how 50 degrees (F.) feels like swimsuit weather when you're used to 5-below and snowstorms.

The Soundtrack: Something on the Food Network.

Steaming up the Oven: Nothing today. Waffle House for Breakfast and Which Wich for lunch!

The Scenario: A savory-sweet spread gets all spiked up.

In my previous life as a specialty-foods buyer for a major retail chain, my eyes were opened to the sweet and salty, slightly spicy and subtly sour world of chutneys and their surprising affinity for cheese.

If you want to elevate a block of cheddar, for instance, from a mid-day snack to an appetizer fit for company, pair it with Virginia Chutney's Spicy Plum or Hot Peach, and watch as guests go back for more.

I thought I'd put a Tennessee spin on this classic old-country condiment with the unexpected addition of Lynchburg's finest. The whiskey cooks down considerably, deepening the flavor and leaving a subtle warmth with no harsh bite.

Use Irish whiskey (if you prefer) and pair with Irish cheddar and soda bread for a hearty St. Patrick's Day snack, or puree with a drizzle of soy sauce anytime for an incredible (and impressive) pot-sticker dipping sauce or glaze for chicken or pork.

Whiskey-Apricot Chutney
1/2  cup whiskey
1 cup chopped dried apricots
1 small onion, chopped
2 T butter
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
the juice from half a lemon

In a small bowl or cup, soak the apricots in the whiskey. Set aside.

Add the onion, butter, black pepper, and red pepper flakes to a nonstick skillet over med-high heat.

Once the butter has melted and the onions have begun to soften, give the mixture a stir, add the brown sugar to the top, cover, and cook 20 minutes over med-low heat, stirring once halfway through.

Uncover, remove from heat, and stir in the salt, lemon juice, and the apricots along with the whiskey.

Return to med-high heat and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the remaining liquid looks like syrup.

Let cool before transferring to an airtight container to store in the fridge. Store the chutney this way for up to two weeks.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.