Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing

After making the long drive to and from Boston a couple weeks back, I promised myself I would take a short break from road trips. But it turned out to be one of those broken promises. Although unlike most broken promises, this fell into the category of a good one. And like the trip out east, this one too felt like a whirlwind. This time the destination was Cincinnati, aka the 'to be or not to be' city where my favorite niece would embark on her post-college professional life. As she was spending most of the first day meeting with her 'to be or not to be' future team members, I wandered the streets of Cincinnati for three hours with my camera, wearing the wrong shoes, and without a map. If there is ever a way to get a real feel for a new place it would be to explore it on foot and rely on asking for directions rather than on the Google Map App. Whether or not it was my lucky day or not, I never got or felt lost, discovered some of the city's architectural treasures, found a Graeter's Ice Cream shop, and met some really kind, helpful people along the way. From my perspective, I loved everything about this city. But then again I was looking at it through a different lens than my niece. While going on a morning run, this time holding a three mile course map in my hand, I wondered if she would be able to see just some of the beauty and potential I felt this place held. Easy for me to think this was going to be a no-brainer decision for her. But then again, I had to remind myself my lens was very different than that of this new college graduate.

As I walked through a bookstore I came across a plate inscribed with the words "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." (Neale Donald Walsch). How true I thought. Making those life decisions pushing us outside of our comfort zone are sometimes, but not always easy ones. As we were driving back, I could see my favorite niece was at the edge of her comfort zone place. I would have been blind not to. However in my heart, I knew she was much stronger, more resilient, more resourceful than she believed. And how did could I possibly be so certain of this? Well, as her aunt, she has, for better or worse, some of my DNA.

While making a career life decision and tackling a new recipe aren't exactly on the same equal playing field, there are some common threads between them. The unknown outcome and a bit of skepticism are two of them. As enticing as Ottolenghi's Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing recipe was, I wasn't sure about the taste and texture of a cake made olive oil instead of butter or even vegetable oil. Up to this point, I had dismissed making any cake having olive oil as one of its' ingredients. Why? Because I couldn't wrap my head around it having both savory and sweet uses. It was one of those unknowns holding me back from even trying it.

So I had a choice. Speculate the outcome or make it to actually discover the outcome. Since nothing good or even great comes from speculation alone, the choice was clear. Make the cake. After reading the reviews of others who had made (and loved) Ottolenghi's cake, I decided there were some minor adjustments necessary to increase my chances of getting the best possible olive oil cake outcome.

The recipe in the US version of the Ottolenghi cookbook called for the use of three large Granny Smith apples. It seems the European version may have called for the use of Bramley apples. Apparently its' one of the favorite baking apples across the pond but not available here in the US. Spoiler Alert: I loved the taste and texture of the Granny Smith apples in this cake, but would consider using Braeburn apples the next time I make it as its' flavor and texture profile is closer to the Bramley apple than the Granny Smith apple is.

Given the choice between measuring and weighing my ingredients, I have come to fully embrace the weighing approach. It makes a difference.

Once the sifted dry ingredients are mixed in, the batter will be very thick. Or thicker than most other cake batters. In addition to the diced apples, some lemon zest is also in this cake. Don't be tempted to leave out the lemon zest as it adds a very subtle, complimentary flavor to the cake.

Four eggs are used in this recipe. Two whole eggs are mixed in with the batter while two egg whites (whipped to a soft meringue consistency) are carefully folded in at the end (in two additions). Note: Over-folding in the egg whites will adversely affect their impact on the cake's final baked texture.

Baking time as well as the interior/exterior textures were two of the issues raised by others who had previously made this cake.The original recipe called for the use of a single 8" springform with a baking time of 90 minutes in a preheated 325 degrees (F) oven. Separating the batter into two 8" cake pans and reducing the baking time to 30-35 minutes resulted in two perfectly baked, evenly moist layers. 

The aroma of these cakes baking in the oven was nearly intoxicating. After allowing the baked cakes to cool for 20 minutes, they were removed from their pans and transferred to wire racks. Once fully cooled to room temperature,  the cakes were wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. While this isn't a necessary step to the process, allowing the cakes to rest helps to deepen, mature their flavor. Could I have frosted and immediately served the cooled, not refrigerated overnight cakes? Yes, I could have. And so could you. However, I really liked the idea of baking the cakes one day and icing them the next.

The Maple Icing is really a cream cheese frosting made with butter, light brown sugar (or light muscovado sugar) and maple syrup. While not an overly sweet icing, it paired perfectly with the dense, moist cake. The recipe below reflects ingredients for a double batch of the Maple Icing. Trust me when I tell you not to cut the recipe in half. Seriously, a double batch of the icing makes for the perfect cake to icing ratio. 

If there was ever a cake worthy of being served at breakfast, brunch, dinner or for any celebratory occasion, this Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing qualifies. 

I am happy to tell you my trepidation over cakes made with olive oil has been replaced with (aka a lens shift) confidence and fearlessness. One bite of this Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing instantly converted me into appreciating the complexity, richness, and flavor olive oil brings to a cake. If by chance you think of apple cakes as fall or winter confections, I encourage you to see this as a four season cake. In other words, don't wait months to make it the first time. 

It looks my road trip days to Cincinnati are not over. Only the next time I travel there, I will have my own personal tour guide.

Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing (slight changes to the Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing recipe in Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)

Heaping 1/2 cup (80 g) golden raisins
4 Tablespoons water
2 1/4 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour
Heaping 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup olive oil (recommend a high quality extra-virgin)
3/4 cup (160 g) superfine or caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla or vanilla bean paste (or the seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean)
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
3 large Granny Smith or Braeburn apples, peeled, cored and cut into 3/8" (1 cm) dice
Grated zest of one lemon
2 large egg whites 

14 Tablespoons (200 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (200 g) lightly packed light brown sugar (or light muscovado sugar)
Scant 12 Tablespoons good quality maple syrup
16 ounces (440 g) cream cheese, room temperature

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (F). Prepare two 8" cake pans, line with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Place raisins and water in a small saucepan. Simmer over low heat until all of the water has been absorbed. Remove from heat, transfer to a small bowl and allow to cool.
3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. Set aside.
4. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add oil, sugar, and vanilla. Beat until they come together.
5. Gradually add the eggs. Note: The mixture will be smooth and slightly thick.
6. Add the apples, raisins and lemon zest. Mix until combined. 
7. Fold in the sifted dry ingredients. Note: Batter will be very thick.
8. Whisk egg whites, either by hand or with a hand mixer, until they have a soft meringue consistency. In two additions, fold the egg whites into the cake batter. Try to maintain as much air as possible.
9. Divide batter equally between the two cake pans and level with an off-set spatula. Note: Weighing the pans helps to ensure their evenness.
10. Bake in the center of the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan until cool enough to be removed.
11. Allow the cakes to completely cool. Can wrap and chill in the refrigerator overnight or for up to 2 days.

Icing and Assembly
1. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the butter, sugar and maple syrup until light and airy.
2. Add the cream cheese and beat until the icing is completely smooth. Note: Can chill icing for approximately 20 minutes in the refrigerator to make it easier to ice the cake.
3. Place one of the cold/chilled cakes on a cake plate or platter. Spread half of the icing on the cake.
4. Invert the second layer and place on top. Spread with remaining icing. Serve immediately.
5. Store cake covered in the refrigerator. Flavors mature over the course of several days.

Notes: (1) Recommend weighing ingredients versus using measuring cups. (2) The ingredients for the icing have been doubled. If halving the recipe, ice between the layers of the cakes and finish the cake with a dusting of confectionary sugar. (3) The original recipe calls for baking the cake in one 8" springform pan for 90 minutes. The use of two 8" cake pans and baking for 30-35 minutes is strongly recommended. (4) You can bake and ice the cake the same day as you serve it. However, for a more deeply flavored cake, make the cake at least one or two days before icing and serving.

Cincinnati, Ohio. The Roebling Suspension Bridge and an archway in a city park. (June 2017) 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars

The long awaited new season of "House of Cards" came out on Netflix this week. Initially I had planned on binge watching it, but after viewing the trailer I am not certain I could handle the intensity of the full season of this slightly surreal political drama all at once. So I am going to attempt to pace myself and try making the the thirteen chapters last at least a month. If for some reason you have never watched or gotten into "House of Cards" you should. It's so crazy good. And in full disclosure, watching it may even drive you a bit mad. But shouldn't really great television have an impact on our thinking or even cause us to have an emotional reaction to the characters or the content? My definition of great television explains why I also find shows like "This is Us", "Homeland", "Breaking Bad", and "Game of Thrones"so compelling. As much as I am not a fan of a long hiatus between the seasons of some of my favorite shows (waiting is not one of my virtues), having a short reprieve from their heart racing intensity is probably a good thing. While genuinely well intentioned, I will let you know whether or not I ultimately succumbed to binge watching "House of Cards". Wonder what the odds in Vegas would be on this.

Clearly having chocolate and Oreo cookies in the house is dangerous as having access to a full season of television series all at once. And yes, for someone who much prefers home-baked cookies over store-bought ones, it might seem a little strange to you that I would bring Oreo cookies into the house. Although it's not strange for me at all. For as long as I can remember, I have had a weakness for this chocolate cookie with white filing confection. They are one of my guilty pleasures. Years back when Double Stuffs came out on the market I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Bring me a package of Double Stuff Oreos and I would go to the end of the earth for you. At least once.

Combining chocolate and Oreos together isn't exactly anything new. Chopping Oreos by hand, mixing them into melted chocolate, sprinkling them with sea salt, and then cutting them into bars may only be a slightly nuanced version of a Sea Salted Chocolate Covered Oreo. Eating an Oreo cookie dipped in chocolate feels like you are eating a cookie. However, eating a bar made of chocolate and chopped Oreos feels like you are eating a candy bar and a cookie without having to choose one over the other. 

I happen to like the taste of milk and dark chocolate blended together, but when you make these Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars feel free use one or the other. Or if you don't want to choose, use an equal combination of both. For the past several years I have been melting chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water. I may someday go back to it in the microwave, however, I seem to have more success tempering the chocolate and ensuring it has a glossy finish the 'old-fashioned' way. 

The majority of recipes I came across for Oreo Cookie Bars or Bark called for putting the Oreos in a plastic ziplock bag and using a rolling pin or meat tenderizer to 'crush' them. But I wanted these Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars to be filled with cookie chunks and pieces, not cookie crumbs. So I coarsely chopped them with a knife. 

After mixing the coarsely chopped cookies into the melted chocolate, I poured the mixture into a parchment paper lined 9"x12"(half-sheet) baking pan as I wanted these bars to have a uniform thickness. Smoothing the top with an offset spatula helped to fully immerse the chunks of cookies into the chocolate. During the summer months when the humidity increases, exposed chunks of or even whole cookies will soften, ultimately spoiling the whole eating experience. If you ever took a bite of a 'soft' Oreo cookie, you know what I mean. Unless you are planning on binging on these Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars in one day, keep the chunks of cookie hidden in the chocolate.

Rather than set up the chocolate by first putting it in the refrigerator, I let it sit at room temperature for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. Long enough for me to be able to pre-cut it into bars using a sharp knife. Once precut the pan went into the refrigerator for somewhere between 15-20 minutes. Long enough for them to set up a little more, but not too long for the the final cut to be made. After the second and final cut, return the bars back to the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes to ensure they would be easy to handle when being wrapped.

Did I mention the top of the not yet set Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars were lightly sprinkled with some sea salt and the finely chopped crumbs from just one Oreo Cookie? It's a finishing touch detail taking them from ordinary to extraordinary.

These Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars were wrapped in pieces of parchment paper and tied with baker's string. You have the choice to wrap or not wrap them. But they really do look pretty wrapped. #justsaying

If you are looking to serve an incredibly delicious, not for the faint of chocolate heart, semi-homemade cookie bar to your family and friends, make these Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars. Cut them into squares instead of bars for the 'bite-sized' version. In other words, for those who might wan to pace themselves. Either way you decide to cut them, they are bound to quickly disappear. 

Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bars

14 ounces milk chocolate, chopped
14 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
22-24 Oreo cookies (regular or Double-Stuff)
Sea Salt

1. Line a 9"x12" baking pan with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Coarsely chop 22-23 Oreo cookies with a knife. Set aside. Finely chop 1 Oreo and set aside.
3. Place chocolates in the top of a double boiler or a bowl sitting over a pan filled with about an inch of water. Stir occasionally until chocolates are completely melted. Remove from heat.
4. Stir in the chopped Oreos. 
5. Pour chocolate and Oreo mixture into the prepared pan. Use an offset spatula to smooth out surface as much evenly as possible.
6. Lightly sprinkle top with sea salt and the finely chopped Oreo.
7. Allow the pan to sit at room temperature for approximately 20-30 minutes or until you can begin to cut into bars into 1"x 3" bars with a sharp knife. Note: If the cut doesn't remain, allow to sit slightly longer and recut.
8. Place the pan of partially cut bars in the refrigerator to harden. Approximately 15-20 minutes.
9. Remove from the refrigerator and use a sharp knife to make a final clean cut. Return cut bars to the refrigerator for an additional 20-30 minutes.
10. Remove chilled bars and wrap with parchment paper and baker's string. Serve and enjoy.
11. Store bars in tightly covered container.

Notes: (1) I used regular Oreos, but for bars with a greater amount of Oreo filling in them, use the Oreo Double Stuffs. If you want a Mint Chocolate Cookie (Oreo) Bar, use the Mint Oreos but omit finishing them with a sprinkling of sea salt. (2) Instead of using both milk and dark chocolate, can use either milk chocolate or dark chocolate only. (3) For slightly thinner bars, spread mixture out onto a large baking sheet. Either cut into bars or break into bark. 

Views of some of the statues and one of the formal gardens at The Mount in Lenox, MA. (May 2017)