Friday, November 28, 2008

When life gives you soft fudge, make frosting.

I'm really not sure if it was my substitution of a chocolate bar instead of chips, an extra 1/4 cup of evaporated milk or just a sketchy recipe but what I had hoped would become fudge turned out to be the best fudge frosting ever.

Matt and I love chocolate, and our mutual favorite chocolate fix is Chocolate Sambuca Cake from Buca de Beppo (recently renamed "double dark chocolate cake"...whatever). It has fudge-like icing on top of a rich chocolate cake served with a spicy sambuca chocolate sauce, absolutely divine. When I found myself with mushy, icing-like fudge, I immediately set forth on a mission to make my own Chocolate Sambuca Cake, sans sambuca sauce (I'm not buying a bottle of aniseed-flavored liquor just for this, plus I ran out of butter).

I have made chocolate cakes that call for cocoa powder, and I have made chocolate cakes with all-purpose flour instead of cake. It never came out well. This time I found a recipe that called for unsweetened baking chocolate squares and I used real cake flour: it's hands down the best made-from-scratch chocolate cake I've EVER made.

Most importantly, I thoroughly enjoyed every step of making this chocolate cake. It was not easy, but it was worth all of the effort. The internet is flooded with quick-and-easy recipes that will take far less time than this, but I guarantee this rich, chocolate cake is worth it, and it's a fun way to spend an afternoon in your kitchen. The genius of this cake is in the details: using hot coffee instead of boiling water and adding a dash of mace adds complexity and depth to the rich, chocolaty flavor.
Chocolate Heaven Cake

This recipe is for one tall 9" cake, a 2-layer 6 - 8" cake, or 12 cupcakes. The quantities easily double for a two layer 9" cake.

3 squares unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup butter
1-1/4 cup sifted cake flour
1-1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt
pinch mace
1/2 cup sour cream (or butter milk, or milk with 1 tsp. vinegar)
3/4 cup hot coffee*
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Unwrap your chocolate squares and cut a couple of times with a sharp knife. Use the wrapper to pour it into a microwave-safe bowl. Slice 1/4 cup of butter onto the top of the chocolate. Microwave at power level 6/60% for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. Stir until most of the chocolate is melted.

Pour very hot, fresh coffee onto the top of your melting chocolate. Stir until all is melted.

In a separate large bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. Add eggs, mix until blended, then add sour cream, vanilla and a pinch of mace. Mix in your chocolate-coffee mix until blended.

Now aren't you glad you got that complete set of nested mixing bowls? It's time to whip out a third one for the dry ingredients. Start by sifting your cake flour directly into a measuring cup until you get to 1-1/4, then add baking soda and salt and whisk until well-blended. Slowly add your dry ingredients to your wet ingredients while mixing at low speed--stop right when your batter is smooth. (I stopped a little early and had a floury lumps in my otherwise perfect cake, but it's best to err on the side of under-mixed: too much mixing will make the flour do uncakelike things).

*One of the numerous "errors" I made when making this forgiving cake was doubling the hot coffee. It came out very dense and moist and it did not poof up...if you want a spongy or fluffy cake, reduce the liquid.

While your cake is baking, prepare the frosting.

Fudge Frosting
1/4" cup butter
4 ounces 70% cocoa chocolate bar or dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup marshmallow cream (this is 1/4 of a jar of 7 ounces of cream)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup + 3 Tablespoons evaporated milk (1/4 a 14 ounce can)
1 cup white sugar

Set up a double boiler (metal bowl over water or steam). If you are brave and you have a very heavy pan that distributes heat well, you can skip the double boiler and use very low heat and a lot of patience: heating too quickly will ruin it.

Put evaporated milk, sliced butter, and sugar in your metal bowl. Heat very slowly, 6 - 12 minutes, until your candy thermometer reads 236 degrees. While heating, crush the chocolate bar. Immediately remove from heat, add chocolate and stir until melted, then stir in vanilla and marshmallow cream.

If you plan to transfer your frosting to a storage container do so now before it hardens and becomes difficult. If it's all going on your cake, just place the metal bowl in the fridge.

Allow your cake and your frosting to cool for about 30 minutes before applying. Room temperature frosting on a chilled cake is ideal. Don't bother trying to smooth down the unruly frosting: use the back of a spoon to make lots of wild swirls and peaks. Serve cake chilled for maximum fudge-like frosting.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Institutional Investors: The Real Profiteers at the Pump

Futures trading is complicated, so complicated that there is an entire commission devoted to overseeing it. We'll get back to that later.

In this pretend game of Futures Trading we have four players: Drew the Driller, Ben the Banker, Ike the Investor, and Ron the Refiner. Drew the Driller ships oil overseas, and as soon as he knows how much he is going to ship he calls Ben the Banker to buy it. Ben offers to buy it at the expected future price of, say, $120 per barrel. Drew happily accepts.

Ben now holds a contract for oil at the Future price of $120 per barrel. Ike the Investor hears about Ben's Futures, and thinks the actual future price will be $125 per barrel. He is willing to bet on this, so he calls Ben and offers to buy it at $122 per barrel. Ben accepts, having just made $2 per barrel for doing almost nothing with extremely low risk. The day finally comes when the oil actually arrives at port and is ready to be sold. Ike the Investor is required to sell it. Ron the Refiner needs as much crude oil as he can get--refineries are already operating at only 84% capacity and he cannot afford to further reduce his supply. Ike the Investor offers it at $125, and he grudgingly accepts.

This is how institutional investors drive the cost of oil up. In our fictitious and oversimplified scenario, the Refiner paid $5 more than the Importer received, to people who had nothing to do with the production of oil. I suspect the actual amount of money going into investor's pockets is more than $5 per barrel, but the government is too busy pretending the problem doesn't exist to publish any facts on this.

This same speculation is happening in food markets, aided by increased competition from biofuels companies, who are reaping more profits due to the relative high price of oil. This is increasing inflation and putting all of us at risk for an economic downturn. I'm not sure I have all of my facts straight, or if I really even get how Futures work, but I've done some research on the subject and this is what I've come up with:

Oil Futures & Speculation FAQ

  1. Who Regulates Futures Trading? The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which is a lot like the SEC (only not).

  2. What is the CFCT doing about it? Worse than "doing nothing," the CFTC is contributing to the problem by regulating institutional investors as if they are commercial buyers. That means Ben the Banker and Ike the Investor follow the same rules Drew the Driller buys, even though Ben and Ike are "speculating" and Drew actually needs the oil.

  3. Who are these idiots at the CFCT?
  4. The CFTC Chairman is Walter Lukken, a lawyer appointed by President Bush. He is not an economist. He has no previous experience in oil futures trading.

  5. Why would these idiots want to protect institutional investors?
  6. They think they are preventing a Great Depression. Institutional Investors suffered massive losses due to inflation in the real estate market, and if they don't start making money the USA will not have the credit/funding necessary to continue growth, and we'll all fall apart.

    What they seem to be ignoring is the glaringly obvious fact that by allowing investors to inflate oil and food, they are contributing to inflation and increasing our risk of entering a depression. I think they are just scared, and doing nothing seems safer than the drastic tinkering of financial markets that is necessary to restore sanity to the Futures markets.

  7. But I thought this was all caused by decreased oil and food supply while demand increases?
  8. It is. Sorta. Kinda. Investors are drawn to these markets because the increased demand and reduced supply = price increases, so Commodities Futures are considered low risk. However, it is the competition among investors to buy these commodities contracts that is driving up prices further than they would if they would fuck off and let supply/demand determine the price.

  9. What can we do?
  10. Well, both politicians and the media seem content to ignore the problem. The only article I could find that implies the CFTC is full of shit was published in the UK. The US version of the same testimony, also published by Reuters, simply states and affirms the CFTC's position. If you want to be REALLY daring, tell everyone you know that the federal government is allowing banks to profit at the pump.

  11. Is that ALL I can do?
  12. There are many news reports of people stockpiling food and fuel. This is actually a good idea politically, and possibly a bad idea for your pocketbook.

    You see, the more people stockpile the lower future demand will be. Remember when I said increased demand was drawing investors? Knowing demand is going down will cause them to flee from the markets, and while they whine to congress for Relief we will benefit from low food prices. The $4 bags of flour in your pantry may seem silly when it's on sale for $1, but you can feel good knowing your stockpiling fucked with the market enough to make a difference.

    It's also a great time to BUY LOCAL and REDUCE YOUR SPENDING ON NEW GOODS.

Whole Wheat Buttermilk Biscuits

Over the holiday weekend I indulged in white flour goodies from buttermilk biscuits to bread pudding, and after squeezing into my work slacks on Tuesday I decided it was time to go back to the wholesome fibery goodness of whole grains. My resolve is so intense last night I made a vegan one-pot dish of brown rice, tofu, garbanzo beans, sweet onions and swiss chard in a light curry sauce. Yum.

Matt has also been on a fiber kick, and was in need of something to supplement his morning oatmeal when he doesn't have 5 minutes to spare to prepare it. Buttermilk biscuits, even with whole wheat, are not the healthiest breakfast treat* but they are an improvement over his old diet of gooey Lean Pockets, breaded Tyson Chicken or baked crab cakes (yes, I am still talking about breakfast). It's difficult to wake up with a man who will eat neither cold cereal nor fruit.

I found this recipe on Recipe Czar, and it needs a bit of adaptation. The original recipe calls for 1 teaspoon. salt, way too much for 6 - 8 biscuits. I compromised at 3/4 teaspoon and still could taste the salt, 1/2 teaspoon is just right for one batch of biscuits.

The recipe also calls for baking at 450 degrees for 10 - 12 minutes until golden brown. At 10 minutes it was not golden brown, so I waited until the full 12 only to discover it is golden brown on top but dark brown and crunchy on bottom. This left me with biscuits unworthy of a photograph for this blog entry, but I am fairly certain 400 degrees for 12 minutes would have solved the problem. Watch closely.

Whole Wheat Buttermilk Biscuits (adapted from

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the board
1 cup Whole Wheat Flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold
3/4 cup buttermilk
Extra butter for brushing

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Mix your dry ingredients together, then cut in very cold butter. I use a KitchenAid stand mixer for cutting, but a food processor or a manual pastry cutter would work just fine. Once the butter is in tiny bits no larger than 1/4" inch, add buttermilk and gently stir until just combined.

Drop dough on heavily floured surface. With floured hands, gently pat it down to about 1/2". Fold dough over, pat down again until about 3/4". Tear off circularish biscuits, cut into square biscuits, or use a round cookie cutter. Place on greased cookie sheet, melt a little bit of extra butter and brush it on (I actually gently rub in on to my dog ate my pastry brush). Bake at 400 degrees until the tops begin to golden, promptly move to a cooling rack or plate to prevent bottoms from browning. After they have cooled, they can be stored in a covered dish in the fridge for 3 - 4 days.

*I am trying to come up with a healthier, high fiber breakfast treat. I am putting together a recipe for a whole wheat cinnamon swirl bread that uses an azuki (red bean) paste for the cinnamon swirl and contains oats for extra fiber.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cherry Berry Bread Pudding

Many people have had traumatic childhood experiences related to bread pudding or its first cousin, rice pudding. These memories start with the promise of "dessert" and end when Aunt Mae places a sloppy, milky mush of barely sweet, flavorless goo before you. Your horror intensifies when you discover sticky raisins floating between globs of...pudding? This is PUDDING???

Bread pudding doesn't have to suck. It can, but it doesn't have to. The secret to awesome bread pudding is a thick, dense bread that will hold some of its texture (day old french bread is perfect), plenty of vanilla, and a delicious sauce.

With the right ingredients, bread pudding can be as decadent as creme brulee without as much fuss. The ingredients are really flexible--in the recipe below I use real cream and milk because I happened to have it on hand, but if you google it you can find bread pudding bases with various combinations of milk, evaporated milk, and butter.

I've added tart berries to my recipe in the form of dried blueberries (hand plucked from my muesli...I've never been a fan of dried fruit in cereal) and fresh bing cherries. The sauce is given some additional sour properties with a citrus liquor, Cointreau, and these sour notes are balanced with generous spices. A variation of this recipe using dried cranberries and spiced cherry liquor would make a perfect holiday dessert.

Cherry Berry Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding:

5 - 7 1" slices of day-old french bread (enough to fill 1.5 quart casserole dish)
3 eggs
3/4 cup white sugar
2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinammon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon mace
1/4 cup dried blueberries

Cherry Cointreau Sauce:

12 - 16 ounces of fresh cherries, pitted and diced
1 ounce Cointreau or Triple Sec
1/4 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ginger

If you are using your oven, preheat to 300 degrees (pressure cooker directions to follow). In your mixer, beat 3 eggs. Add sugar, beat until dissolved. Add milk, cream, vanilla and spices and beat until smooth and blended.

Slice bread into 1" cubes, sprinkle dried blueberries over the bread, and pour cream sauce over bread in 1/5 quart casserole dish. Bread will float; put a plate or lid over the dish or gently push down to help it absorb the liquid. Allow 10 minutes for it to soak in. Bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes, or get it all done in 20 minutes using your pressure cooker.

Pressure cooker: place a trivet or steaming plate at the bottom of the cooker, add 2 cups liquid. Make two long ropes of tin foil, cross them like an "x" beneath your casserole dish and use the ends as handles so you can easily lift the casserole dish in and out of the pressure cooker like this:

Crossing each rope like an "x" is crucial for stability. Cut a square section of tin foil for the lid, lightly grease a circle the size of your dish with butter. Tightly secure the lid onto the dish, then lift it into the pressure cooker.

Heat on high until the pressure thingy starts to rock, then reduce to about medium high so that it is gently rocking. Cook for 10 minutes, allow to cool. If desired, place your dish on a cookie sheet and place it in the broiler for a minute or two to brown the tops.

To prepare the cherry sauce, crush your cherries flat using the side of a heavy knife. Once crushed it is easy to remove seed and stems by hand. Lightly chop your cleaned cherries, then divide into equal portions.

Simmer half your cherries with Cointreau, sugar and ginger for just a minute or two until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. In a separate sauce pan, heat cream until simmering, whisking constantly. Add two egg yolks, stir until dissolved. Add hot cherries, stir until simmered and then reduce heat. Add your reserved fresh cherries.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thyme Lemon Chicken Papardelle

First it was the buttermilk biscuits for dinner, then it was the bagel for breakfast (cuz it was free), the bagel for lunch (still free, and I hate driving in the rain), the afternoon birthday cake (I can't say no to homemade cake), and now it is papardelle pasta and white bread served with mushrooms and mozzarella. My tummy feels so full I'm convinced all of these starches formed a wad of gluey crap that is simply stuck in my stomach...this protruding gut will eventually go down, right?

Thyme Lemon Chicken Papardelle warrants a flavorful side dish. I chose Orangette's Sliced Mushrooms with Mozzarella and Thyme dish (adapted from Jamie Oliver), served of course with a large heel of bread.

Lemon Thyme Chicken Papardelle (pressure cooker)

1/2 lemon
several sprigs of fresh thyme
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 - 1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup water
6 - 10 ounces chicken breast, chopped into 1" cubes
Splash worchester sauce
Lots and lots of pepper
Generous dash of salt

Optional: dash of honey and feta cheese; butter & cornstarch

Pappardelle lemon pasta from Trader Joes; or wide egg noodles

Throw all ingredients into the pressure cooker with the chicken. If you are garnishing with feta, add a dash of honey so the finished product is not too sour. Allow the pressure cooker to heat, cook for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Start water boiling for pasta.

Chicken will be cooled in about 10 - 15 minutes. Remove the lid, add a splash of wine, generous pepper, and a little more thyme to replace the flavor lost in the steam. If you like a nice saucy texture, mash 1 tablespooon of corn starch into equal parts butter to form a paste. Heat chicken back up to a light boil, add paste, and stir constantly. Sauce will thicken once cooled. Enjoy.

Bing Cherries & Gay Marriage

The streets are literally overflowing with bing cherries in California, or at least the intersection of Harbor Blvd and the 22 Fwy is: that is where you can find a very pleasant Latina hocking fresh bags of bing cherries to sweltering-hot motorists for $5 a pop. I tried to change lanes to toss her some cash so I could partake in the seasonal abundance, but this intersection is a bitch and since Matt does not eat fruit and I don't particularly love cherries, even if they are ripe and fresh off the tree and looking so darn cute all bagged up...all last weekend I debated going back to that intersection for the fresh cherries despite my misgivings, but then I made a trip to the grocery store had an overflowing table of cherries they were trying to clear out for $2.50 per bag. Niiiiice. (no wonder that Latina lady was so well dressed)

That was last weekend, when it was so hot I thought I just *might* ignore my dislike of tart, fresh cherries just so I could bite into something ice cold. This weekend we're expecting rain, thunderstorms, and hours spent cuddling under fuzzy blankets (hey, it's not worth relighting the heater for two days of cold, and even if I wanted a fireplace I can't have one). When I stare at the unopened bag of cherries in the fridge I feel like I was suckered into the Tickle-Me-Elmo of seasonal produce: I bought them because they are in season and everyone else was buying them and they looked so damn red and pretty, but now I have no idea what to do with fresh cherries. Warm cherry pie seems nice in theory, but I loathe cherry pie and cherry pie fillings. I do like cherries in chocolate, where the tartness is more subtle. I'm hoping I can find (or think of) an easy way to serve them with a rich dark chocolate and maybe a few almonds...maybe some kind of warm chocolate bread pudding with cherries? Stay tuned.
. . .

California streets are also overflowing with homosexuals flush with the news that they may marry soon, giving them the same right to the legal status of "married" as every other Californian. Today, the LA Times is scaring the gay community into believing that the unexpected victory may be overturned because a majority is against the court ruling and in favor of a constitutional amendment.

I haven't figured out how the new constitutional amendment is different from the old constitutional amendment that the courts overturned, but I am appalled at how quickly the tyranny of the majority flexes its muscles and jumps to overturn the court-ordered protections on minority rights. Marriage is, above all else, a LEGAL status that entitles both spouses to a whole host of rights and privileges enjoyed by no single adults. My 401(k) now belongs to my husband if I die; I had my sister as beneficiary but now that I am married, my husband has to waive his rights to my 401(k) in the presence of a notary public in order for me to bequeath my (our?) retirement money to another individual. This is only one tiny example: married people enjoy a legally secure partnership unparalleled by any other form of union, and I see no reason why this security should not be available to any two individuals who choose to commit to each other.

I also find it ironic that many opponents of same sex marriage believe they are protecting the decaying institution of marriage. Marriage is a lifelong commitment between two individuals to love and support each other, a partnership, a legal entwining of two lives that provides a sense of security that is deeply emotionally satisfying. Unfortunately, marriage (and divorce) has become insanely easy for heterosexuals, so easy that we make and break marriages at alarming rates. No one knows how important and valuable this institution is better than homosexuals, because they have been deprived this right and know what it is like to spend a lifetime without the security of the legal protections marriage provides. I have a feeling this exercise in considering the meaning of marriage will help us all remember just how important and valuable it is, and in recognition of that I hope we have the wisdom to impart this right on all citizens regardless of sexual orientation.

Indiana Jones 4: No.

Matt doesn't blog, so like any good wife sometimes I have to step up to the plate and put his wisdom out there:

Matt: Honestly, it's just a bunch of old men (Ford, Speilberg, Lucas) trying desperately to prove to themselves that they are still relevant, but instead are proving how utterly outdated their style and lines of thought are.

Today, audiences have been saturated by thin, illogical plot lines, cheesy snappy one liners, and ridiculous action scenes where a fat guy, or a paper thin girl can easily defeat an army of muscle bound fighters. And we are SICK of it.

And all they want to do is shovel all of these things that we are sick of in an ultra-concentrated form (Indi 4) and expect us to scarf it up for the sake of "nostalgia."