Chocolate, Almond, & Pear Cake

For all the cakes that I have baked, this one right here from Twigg Studios is in my top five. I never would have found it if it wasn't for my brother. Every year, I make it a point to bake him something other than the standard confetti cake. He has an adventurous palette and loves trying new foods. This year, I decided to try the fruit route. He likes pears - heck he even has a guest post on this blog for a cake using canned pears (brace yourself, it's from a time when I didn't have a fancy camera). I had the idea - I just needed some inspiration.

Enter inspiration. Let me tell you what... this recipe made me do a little jig. Sure, I've seen plenty of posts for luscious, dreamy confections that are too sugary to eat but are epic to gaze upon. Don't be intimidated by the pear on top! It's very easy to bake. This cake combines the rustic beauty of a minimalist design and ties it together with three delicious components. 

The Cake. Chocolate with almonds? Oh heavens yes. The texture is not super light and fluffy; it's actually a little dense and reminded me of a rich brownie. It's soft with just the right amount of sweetness. 

A few little notes. The original post incorporates flaked almonds which I vote as optional depending on your audience. I liked the added dimension but the husband wasn't a fan. If you cannot find golden caster sugar, don't worry about it - regular granulated will do just fine just try to shoot for organic because of the rough crystals. As for the self raising flour, don't bother buying it if you have some all purpose lying around the house- you can make it yourself

The Frosting. This may sound like blasphemy... but I'm not a huge frosting fan. Generally, buttercream just doesn't do it for me which is why this recipe is such a welcome change. It's made of mascarpone cheese! Now don't make an "ick" face. What many people don't realize is how freaking awesome mascarpone is in desserts. That creamy filling in Italian cannolis? Yup. It can even be found in some tiramisu recipes! Throw in some amaretto (substitute with almond extract if you're avoiding booze), heavy cream, and a little icing sugar. 

Another little note because I jumped the gun. Whip the mascarpone and cream together first -- THEN add the other stuff. I used the amaretto with the heavy cream hence my frosting didn't come out looking as smooth as it could have been. The flavor was there though so it's okay.

The Filling. Lastly, the ingredient that made this cake such a show stopper. I've never poached a pear before; the result is akin to roasting but it maintains the shape of fruit better. It's not just that the pear is cooked in warm water - it's cooked with vanilla bean and more amaretto (this time you don't have to substitute - the heat will cook out the booze). Throw a few extra pears in the pan if you're looking for work-time snack! We used them in smoothies and with our morning yogurt!

A sprinkle of crumbled amaretti cookies and almonds in between the layers is optional.

The version that I baked in this post is HALF of the original recipe. It worked out perfectly for three (3) layers using six (6) inch pans. Because the recipe is measured in the metric system, it made halving the ingredients super easy. If you don't have a kitchen scale, it's a well worth investment and they are relatively cheap. Because this version is much more petite, I only needed two pears- one for the topper and one split between the two layers. 

My family was head over heels for this cake and the birthday boy gave his seal of approval. I love letting them try new things they would never bake themselves! Plus, they push me to be creative. Yay!

The recipe for this Chocolate, Almond, & Pear Cake can be found on Twigg Studios.

Vanilla Bean and Cardamom Scones with Dried Cherries

A few weeks back, I saw an Instagram post from King Arthur Flour that had me salivating: vanilla and cardamom scones studded with dried cranberries. I love both vanilla and cardamom - just the smell of them makes me weak in the knees. The image was a total tease as there was no shared recipe just yet from the creator, By Guess and By Golly.  In my impatience, I decided to search the internet for a substitute until the original was available.

Fortunately, I find a delightful little recipe from Savory Simple for Vanilla and Cardamom scones. All that was missing was the dried cherries which was an easy enough addition!  Game on!

These scones are soft with a slight crumble, a delightfully sweet biscuit with a whisper of cardamom to brighten your day! They are fantastic with a cup of chai tea or a medium roast coffee! Additionally, you can keep them uncooked (sans the Cardamom Sugar) and wrapped tightly with saran wrap in the freezer for about two weeks. Pop them in the oven at your leisure!

Vanilla Bean and Cardamom Scones with Dried Cherries
recipe slightly modified from Savory Simple
makes 6 scones


1 1/2 cups (7.5 ounces) all purpose flour
1 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup dried cherries
1 vanilla beans
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup light cream (half & half may be substituted)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Cardamom Sugar Topping
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cardamom mixed together

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place cherries in a heat-proof bowl and cover with hot to boiling water. Set-aside to soak - this will help soften the cherries - for 10 minutes then strain.

Slice the vanilla beans in half lengthwise and use the flat side of a paring knife to scrape out the seeds.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, vanilla seeds, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Add the cold butter pieces and, using your fingers or a pastry blender, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal with a few larger pieces scattered around.

Add the cream and vanilla to the bowl and use a spatula to mix the ingredients until they are just combined. Sprinkle in the cherries. The dough will look like it’s barely coming together. Kneed the dough in the bowl until it comes together. Divide the dough in half and flatten into two round discs, about 7 inches in diameter. Cut each disc into 6 pieces. Brush melted butter on top of each piece and sprinkle with cardamom-sugar mixture.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden. Serve warm.

Sticky Buns with Pecans

This recipes comes from one of my favorite cook books, "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science" by Kenji Lopez-Alt. I had never even heard about it until it was given to me by my awesome MIL (thank you!) The mission of Food Lab is similar to that of my beloved America's Test Kitchen but instead of an arsenal of chefs, it's a one-man army. Kenji tinkers with the science of recipes in the quest of not just perfection - but understanding how to achieve such results. Luckily for us, he's done the hard part and we get to reap the benefits! It's an insightful read that will give you the tools to grow as a home cook. 

The first recipe that I ever tried from this book was one of my arch nemesis... the buttermilk pancake. I love a good stack of pancakes! Heck my husband refers to last year as, "the year of the pancake." They are one of the few things I crave and one of the few foods that can frustrate me in the kitchen. A good pancake has to be fluffy, not overly sweet, and can stand its ground without tons of maple syrup.  

Suffice to say, I was impressed by some of the tips in Food Lab. The key lesson that won my approval was how to coat the frying pan. In the past, Mike has donned my apron as a cape and came to the rescue as Captain Pancake - the King of Flipping Pancakes. I hate it when pancakes stick to the pan or the butters starts to burn.  Thanks to Food Lab, I learned that the best approach is put a little oil in the frying pan, spread it around evenly, and then wipe the excess off with a paper towel. It prevents the pancake from being saturated in excess fat while ensuring a smooth flip. Point Food Lab.

After passing this initial test, it was time for the big leagues: Christmas morning. This recipe for Sticky Buns was the perfect way to start a holiday! 

Point #1: these buns can rise overnight in the fridge saving you from getting up at the crack of dawn to impress friends and family. Just make sure you don't start too late because the dough needs to rise for two hours before forming the actual buns. Once you have them rolled and cut, then they can go in the fridge for at least 6 and up 12 hours. To put it into perspective, if you are a late riser on the weekends, you could commence the first dough rise by 8pm so it's done by 10pm. By the time you finish rolling and slicing, it will be about 10:30pm. Shove 'em in the fridge and go to bed. By no later than 10:30am, the buns needs to be out of the fridge and awaiting the oven as it preheats. No problemo!

Point #2: simple dough with almost a brioche flair thanks to the eggs in the mix. I've never made dough that incorporated brown sugar and they still came out marvelously light! If this is your first time making rolls, don't be intimidated.  

Point #3: the pecan caramel sauce is super easy and won't make a huge mess in your kitchen like normal caramel - phew! I hate it when the filling runs from the heat of the oven but that's not a problem with sticky buns. The caramel sauce on the bottom seals everything in.

Point #4: delicious. I was fascinated that the bread didn't get soggy after sitting in a bunch of caramel goo over-night and held its form even while baking. You don't need the cream cheese glaze but if you must, use one with a little orange or lemon zest - always kicks things up a notch! 

These buns are a gold star in our kitchen! The recipe for Kenji's, "The World's Most Awesome Sticky Buns" can be found in his cookbook, Food Lab, as well as online, i.e. check out this post on Eater.

Japanese Cheesecake

I've made a variety of cheesecakes (i.e. Raspberry Swirl, America's Test Kitchen, Bourbon Pumpkin, Pumpkin Spice, No-Bake Nutella, Key-Lime, and Lite-Mixed Berry) in my time but none quite like this: a Japanese Cheesecake. I had no idea what I walking into but the concept sounded fascinating. The best description that I read was it's like a cheesecake and chiffon cake met in bar and had one too many, resulting in this this bundle of joy. I decided to make it for the ultimate cheesecake lover, Brandon

So what's the difference between a Japanese versus a New York style cheesecake? For starters, there's almost a full cup of flour in the batter which accounts for the chiffon feel. Not quite a cake - not quite a cheesecake. It takes away from that trademark texture of being creamy and dreamy. I would almost describe it as slightly dry. So be forewarned: if you are looking for silky smoothness - keep moving.

Another big difference is the amount of sugar. In a New York style cheesecake, there's 1 1/2 cups of sugar while the Japanese version halves the amount! This makes it far less decadent which, depending on your preference, is awesome or a bummer. Personally, I don't like super sweet desserts so this a bonus.  You don't feel the urge to chug a gallon of water after a slice or go to they gym the next day as penance. 

A key element that differentiates these two recipes is the actual baking method. A New York style cheesecake is pretty straightforward - mix all the ingredients, pour into a spring form pan, and bake in the oven in a hot water bath (bain marie). It has a graham cracker crust so there's no need to line the pan. A Japanese cheesecake is a touch more complicated. 

As you can see above - there is no graham cracker crust ergo, the pan needs to be lined with parchment paper so you can safely extract it from the pan. This is one area where I got sloppy! See how my Japanese cheesecake doesn't have perfectly smooth sides? It's all lumpy and bumpy. Well ladies and gentlemen... that's because I did a sloppy job lining the pan, cramming parchment paper against the sides of the spring form. Make sure you cut out a nice smooth sheet and line it against the cake round! : ) 

Also, rather than just mixing everything together, the Japanese version is a two step process. There is the basic mix portion but the second component requires a light meringue. Whip the egg whites with some sugar until it's thick and glossy then gently fold into the cream cheese base. Now it's ready to bake in the oven like any ol' cheesecake! 

I'm not going to lie to you - this variety of cheesecake was not up Brandon's alley and that's okay. B loves the glamor and sin of a full-bodied American cheesecake. He likes the trademark sweetness and creaminess that makes people fall in love with it in the first place. I, however, can only handle cheesecake in small slices for those very same reasons. This is definitely the type of cake you would find in an Asian or European bakery where decadence is not the goal. Top this bad boy with fresh or roasted strawberries (totally vote simple roasted or the fancy kind) - yummy!

The recipe for this Japanese Cheesecake can be found on Baked to the Roots. Again, it's a classy option for those who don't enjoy super sweet desserts.

Cosmopolitan Cake

Right before the New Years Eve shenanigans popped off, I saw this Cosmopolitan Cake from King Arthur Flour and knew it had to be a guest at my girlfriend's NYE party. Carolyn is known for her glamorous, quirky style and throwing some killer soirees. Cake soaked in Triple Sec, lemon-lime curd, and cranberry frosting would fit in perfectly!

Since this was whisked away for the evening, I didn't have the opportunity to take any fancy photos. I didn't use any food coloring so it doesn't have the same vivacious pink as King Arthur's version but it was still just as darling. Plus, a sprinkle of edible stars around the border makes it irresistible!

The cake itself came out a bit dense. I read the reviews and other bakers had similar results; it was implied that it may have been the amount of flour. That being the case, I wish the ingredients were posted with metric measurements rather than "cups." Better safe than sorry! I even baked the cake a second round to troubleshoot with fresh baking powder but alas - same texture. It's not distasteful but it makes halving the two rounds into four impossible. My recommendation: use a fluffy white cake recipe instead and stick with the Triple Sec soak. I love this recipe from America's Test Kitchen! If you're avoiding booze, skip the soak and incorporate orange instead (i.e. orange zest in the batter or orange extract).

As for the frosting and curd, both came out sensational. I never used meringue powder before in frosting but it turned out silky smooth and luscious. If you cannot find undiluted cranberry juice, fret not! Take some regular juice and reduce it on the stove top to at least half to concentrate it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this cake! It's not super sweet - it quite tart and refreshing. Everyone at the party raved about it but when my friend with a wicked sweet tooth had a slice, he said it was too tart for him. That being said, tart is not everyone's cup of tea so know your audience. Happy New Year!

Check out the recipe for this Cosmopolitan Cake at King Arthur Flour!