Cake Baker’s Apprentice (Chocolate Pretzel Crunch Cake and Pavlovas)

Chocolate Pretzel Cake (Matt Lien Photography) | ZoeBakes 10

It’s really not that unusual for someone to leave a panicked comment saying they have offered to make the cake for their best friend’s wedding. I salute them and hope their BFF knows exactly what a loving gesture it is. My friend Molly asked me to help her come up with a dessert for her best friend’s big day. Molly is a gifted writer, a brilliant adventurer and has the wit and wisdom to keep Andrew Zimmern in line on their shared podcast, Go Fork Yourself, but she is NOT a baker. So, this request was done in a tone of slight trepidation. Besides working with Andrew she also has a blog called Hey Eleanor, where she chronicles overcoming of her greatest fears. She’s jumped out of a plane, bungeed off a bridge, she did stand up comedy (that’s what my nightmares are made of), quit her job and got married (her husband is awesome, so not much risk there). We’d always talked about baking together for her blog, but why not up the ante by trying to create something extra special for her friend’s most important day. No pressure there. We settled on a rather ambitious menu of individual chocolate pretzel crunch cakes and a rose scented pavlova with lemon curd and berries. She did an absolutely fantastic job, as she does with everything.

Chocolate Pretzel Cake (Matt Lien Photography) | ZoeBakes 09

Our journey in the kitchen was captured by Matt Lien. I spotted his photos on Facebook after he shot Sameh Wadi’s cookbook, The New Mediterranean Table. I immediately contacted Matt to gush over his gorgeous work and figure out a way to work together on something, anything.  That was just weeks ago and he was game to come over and play in the kitchen with Molly and me. These images perfectly capture how much fun we had and how easily Molly conquered her fear of baking. (Matt had to leave before we were finished, so the pictures of the final desserts are mine, which will be painfully obvious.)

Chocolate Pretzel Cake | ZoeBakes (photo Matt Lien) 01

Chocolate Pretzel Cakes

pavlova | ZoeBakes 01

Pavlova

Follow her adventure and maybe you’ll offer to make your friend’s wedding desserts, or a birthday cake.

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Super Bowl Bars

Bars | ZoeBakes

I can’t wait to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. I don’t want you to get the false impression that I follow any team in particular, or even the sport as a whole. I can safely avoid upsetting anyone by picking a side, since I have no idea who’s even in the game this year. I do love the clever ads and I’m a big fan of Bruno Mars. As is the case with most occasions like this, I’m totally in it for the food. My husband  will make buffalo and “mahogany” chicken wings (recipes he only whips out for this event). My sons explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that I need to make bars, and they are not to be “too fancy.” They Fear I’ll show up with some girly, frilly, lacy dessert and be a humiliation to their dude-ness. Granted they are teens, so I am almost always an embarrassment. So, I layered up all the things I could think might be appropriate at a party dedicated to football, including potato chips, coffee, peanuts, and much, much more. Everything but beer. These treats are a bit inspired by the Momofuko Milk Bar Compost Cookies, but I took it to a whole new level with a rich chocolate topping. When my youngest son taste tested them he asked, suspiciously and with a full mouth, if I’d put a layer of mousse on top, which would have placed them in the realm of “fancy.” I did not, but the nutella ganache is very mousse-like and completely awesome. He had another one just to make sure.

A fact about me that not many people know, until now…I was a cheerleader in highschool (and middle school) for the football team. I had two qualifications that made this a more obvious fit than you might think, given my indifference to the game. I was a loud mouth and I was pretty coordinated, having grown up with a mom who owns a dance studio. I had no idea what was going on behind on the field and quite frankly I never really cared. But, when it came to the bake sale to raise money for the team, I was all about it.

Here are my “Not Too Fancy for the Super Bowl, but just fancy enough to make ME happy, Bars”. They are really simple to make, so if you need a last minute treat to bring to your Super Bowl Fête, these are perfect and decadent. Go Bars! (more…)

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Éclairs

eclairs 02

“Lightning!” That’s the literal translation from French I got when I put éclair into google translate. I’ve read a couple of explanations for this name, but only one makes any sense to me. “They disappear in a flash, quicker than a bolt of lightning.” This is the absolute truth. Éclairs are a formula for deliciousness…Starting with delicate pâte à choux (which has a rather indelicate translation of “paste of cabbage.” Representative of the cabbage shape, when piped into a profiterole (cream puff) and baked, not at all indicative of its lovely, buttery, rich flavor and light texture). The choux is piped into the shape of a small log. Once baked and cooled the log is filled with Crème pâtissière, “pastry cream,” which is simply custard that is thickened with both eggs and a starch, usually corn starch and flavored in this case with vanilla and white chocolate. The custard filled pastry is traditionally decorated with fondant, the shiny poured variety, not the rolled one we use for cakes. I find poured fondant, which translates as “melting,” (probably because it melts in your mouth or melts away your teeth with its sugary cloying-ness), much too sweet, so I use ganache. Ganache is a smooth mixture of chocolate and something else (cream, butter, coffee, water, booze, crème fraîche and/or anything else you can think of). There is no translation for ganache, but it stems from the word “jowl,” which I can’t even begin to ponder. I hope you all know that despite my very French name, Zoë François, meaning “Life Frenchman,” I don’t speak the language at all and therefore I will most likely be corrected by my French-speaking readers. Please, correct me if I’m wrong. Despite the odd names of all these things, they are quite sensational and will be consumed at lightning speed.  (more…)

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Thin Mint Cupcakes for St. Patrick’s Day

mint cupcakes

‘Tis the season of Girl Scout cookies and there is none more famous and beloved than the thin mint, at least in my house. I love Girl Scout cookies, both for the memories of being a scout and for what they represent; empowering kids is always a good thing. Sadly, the days of my 13-year-old metabolism are long gone, when I was capable of eating an entire box at a sitting. Now just a couple cookies will do me and the thin mints are still my favorites. They just seemed to have the perfect ratio of chocolate to mint, and go down easy with a glass of milk. I have to act quickly, because my boys are still at the age when they can polish off an entire box, even though mom would never allow such a thing. 😉

This cupcake recipe manages to be light, fluffy and moist, all at the same time. It starts with a true all-American white birthday cake. The recipe is made with whipped egg whites and no yolks, so the color is bright white. It’s perfect for adding color, but this time I left that to the mint icing. A thin layer of ganache between the cake and icing makes these just a touch more sophisticated, in case you are looking for a St. Patrick’s Day treat to bring to work. The super creamy icing is one that I made from Vintage Cakes, an adorable addition to my cookbook collection. It is made by thickening milk and flour together into a smooth paste, then adding it to creamed, sweetened butter. The thickened milk and flour gives the icing body and a luxurious texture. Despite the extra step, it is an easy recipe, my 11-year-old made it start to finish with perfect results. The basic icing takes flavors really well, so a bit of mint extract and a few caps full of Crème de menthe and these cupcakes taste just like a thin mint. (more…)

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Chocolate Fondue (No Special Pot Required)

chocolate fondue

In the 1970s I lived in Westport, Connecticut and my best friend’s aunt owned a fondue restaurant. It was the hot spot in town for people to go on dates and it all seemed terribly sophisticated and romantic to my 13 year old self. I have to admit I’m a little disappointed to have missed the era when everyone got a fondue pot, or two, as a wedding gift. By the time I got married in the 90s, fondue seemed dated and reminded us too much of our parents. Luckily, most things that are worth while enjoy a comeback and I predict that fondue is on its way. Traditionally, fondue was nothing more than melted chocolate that was kept warm in a pot called a Caquelon, which was set over a sterno or other source of fire. My version is a ganache, which is thick enough to cling to the variety of treats dipped into it, but thin enough to stay liquid without the fire. I poured the ganache into individual ramekins so each person has their own “pot” of chocolate to dip into. You can set out an assortment of cakes, cookies, meringues, fresh and dried fruits for a larger party or a romantic Valentine’s Day with someone special. (more…)

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PB&J Cheesecake with Poured Ganache (how-to video).

PB&J cheese cake zb 22

Peanut Butter and Jelly is a staple in most children’s diets. In fact, I just read that Americans will consume billions, with a B, of them every year. I can believe it, since my kids picked it for lunch 9 out of 10 times, until very recently. I’ve gone through what must be 100s of pounds of peanut butter and even more jelly. They’re certainly easy to make, which saved me lots of time in the mornings before school, but I felt a little guilty packing it for them EVERY day. I mostly dreaded other parents finding out that my kids ate the same thing over and over. In my head I wanted them to eat bento boxes, with carved vegetables and seaweed salad, but, it was their lunch, their choice and they loved PB&J. The truth is that I love it too; almost everyone does, if we’re honest. Here’s a cheesecake that has all the fond memories of those childhood sandwiches, but it’s way more decadent and sophisticated.

Once in a while I find a new product that changes the way I cook and bake. I felt this way about the Silpat and the Microplane Grater when they first hit the restaurant kitchen scene. It was a eureka moment, since both saved time, money and provided results like nothing I’d used. This Lekue 9-Inch Springform Pan may be the coolest new toy in my kitchen. It is made by Lekue and uses the same technology as the beloved silicone mats. The base is made of ceramic, so it is lovely enough to serve on, which eliminates the need to remove the cake from the base. That, in itself, is brilliant, but the silicone also gives insurance that the cake will not stick to the sides, so there is no holding your breath as you remove it. I baked this cheesecake without a water bath. I need to test to see if it is waterproof, but that is asking a lot of a springform pan and I would continue to wrap the bottom in foil if I used it in water.

 

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