Friday 8 August 2014

Chocolate Cherry Chestnut Torte

Every year, as Jon's birthday approaches, I ask what kind of cake he would like. Invariably, the response has been the same: "something chocolate." This leaves things very much open to interpretation. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of very different things that can be considered chocolate cake. So, as usual, I found myself looking through lots of recipes for ideas and some points of reference - after all, cakes aren't something I make very often, so it's the least I can do to make sure his birthday cake actually tastes like...well, a birthday cake. But did I mention that there are a lot of kinds of chocolate cake? Fluffy and light, rich and fudgy, dense and flourless, elegantly simple, extravagantly layered...there is no basic formula, because there are so many different approaches. All are delicious, but in such different ways. How to even begin to choose?

It would be an exaggeration to say I completely scrapped all those recipes I was comparing and just improvised, but it's actually not such a huge overstatement. The recipe I ended up with doesn't quite fit any standard ratio I've previously followed, and it probably breaks some rules here and there as far as what "should" go in a cake, or the order in which things are usually done. Yet the results speak for themselves. Despite any rules I may have broken, the cake is light-textured, tender, moist, and rich, and pairs wonderfully with the equally delightful fluffy frosting. I'm really pleased with how it turned out - and I think if you try it, you will be too.

First, the flavor: The cake has some cherry juice in it, which complements the cherry filling and really brings out the fruitiness of the chocolate. I had some homemade almond milk on hand from another project, so I used it in the cake in addition to almond meal, to further emphasize the cherry-almond combination (cherries and almonds, after all, are related, and there is some overlap in the chemistry of the flavors we associate with them). Even if you usually use regular milk, I highly recommend almond milk in this recipe for the depth of flavor it contributes.

The cake itself is similar to a genoise, containing a significant proportion of nut meal and getting its light structure from a well-developed egg network rather than any added binders. Unlike most other sponge-type cakes, though, it also features two other distinctive flours, which also happen to be two of my favorites: chestnut (as you can tell from the title), and buckwheat. If you associate buckwheat with a "harsh" or intrusive flavor, as I often see recipes describing it, you might be surprised to see it in such a delicate cake. Let me tell you something: buckwheat should not be harsh. From what I understand, that flavor - as well as the dark, gritty appearance often associated with it - comes from small fragments of the bitter black hull remaining mixed in with the grain. I grind my own buckwheat flour, and the difference is striking. I'm not using any special variety of buckwheat, it's just that buckwheat packaged as whole grains will usually have any trace of hull removed. Its flavor, while still distinctive, is mild and pleasantly nutty. As you can see, the color is also much more appealing - almost creamy. I highly recommend giving it a try. If you don't have a high-powered blender or food processor, try grinding small amounts in a clean coffee grinder.

Front: fresh-ground buckwheat;
Back: store-bought buckwheat flour.
Difference: huge!
As for the chestnut flour, I'm lucky to have a good local source; if it's not available where you are, try substituting coconut flour - it will definitely change the overall flavor composition, but I'm sure it will be equally delicious.

I'd planned to complement this cake with a meringue buttercream, both because it's a special occasion and because a sponge-type cake like this is best with something less overwhelmingly sweet than standard powdered-sugar frosting. Just a couple of days ago, though, my kitchen thermometer spontaneously broke! (It's stood up to the high temps of deep-frying and candy-making, but apparently measuring the temperature of a warm water bath was just too much for the glass to handle...) Yes, I know, a lot of people make meringue icings without needing a thermometer and everything turns out fine, but since I've only made them on a couple of occasions, I didn't want to risk it. I was very much not in the mood for last-minute thermometer-hunting, so I decided to go hunting for a different frosting recipe instead.

Well, I never thought I'd say this...but I'm kind of glad my thermometer broke. If it hadn't, I might never have discovered this frosting! It's creamy and rich-tasting, yet it is not too sweet, and it is very light, not at all oily or heavy the way some buttercreams can be. It's still a cooked frosting, but it's pretty unusual as far as those things go - rather than egg white, the thickening comes from making a sort of pudding with starch and milk, and it uses regular granulated sugar instead of powdered sugar...but the sugar is creamed right into the butter! The trick is letting the mixer run a long time - eventually the sugar will be fully incorporated, not grainy, and the thick starch pudding will be transformed into velvety, buttery fluff.

Chocolate Cherry Torte

Makes a 2-layer, 8" round cake, with frosting and cherry filling.

Because the richness in the cake comes from the chocolate, egg yolks, and almonds rather than butter or milk, the cake itself happens to be dairy-free. The frosting and filling, on the other hand, are very much dairy-full; however, I've included a note at the bottom with some suggestions if you cannot tolerate dairy.

For the cake:

80 g almond meal
60 g chestnut flour
60 g buckwheat flour (see above)
25 g arrowroot starch
2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder (I used Rumford)
1/2 tsp sea salt

170 g sugar
3 eggs, room temperature (mine weighed 155 g total)

240 g unsweetened almond milk
120 g cherry juice, very hot

60 g semisweet chocolate chips
50 g high-quality cocoa powder (look for one with relatively high cocoa butter content)
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375ºF/190ºC. Prepare two 8" round pans, lining bottom with parchment and buttering lightly.
Pour hot cherry juice over chocolate and cocoa in a small bowl, stir to combine, and set aside (stir occasionally to make sure mixture is completely smooth). In the bowl of a mixer, combine eggs and sugar. Beat on medium-high for a few minutes, until foamy and glossy. This network is what will bind the batter, as well as trap air to provide leavening, so don't rush this step!
Add flour mix (including salt and baking powder) to the egg foam approximately 1/3 at a time, alternating with almond milk 1/2 at a time, stirring slowly after each addition and taking care not to deflate egg mixture. Stir vanilla and almond extract into cooled chocolate/juice mixture, then very carefully fold mixture into batter by hand, until just combined. Gently pour batter into pans, place both pans on insulated baking sheet, and bake 45-50 minutes, until cooked through to center.
Cool 15 minutes in pans, then turn out onto cooling rack. Make sure cakes are completely cooled before proceeding.

For the frosting:

The recipe I adapted this from calls it a custard frosting - despite the fact that it contains no eggs, this is a pretty accurate description of its flavor and texture. My special twist is using goat cheese in place of half of the butter, which gives the mixture a cheesecake-like flavor. This does admittedly make a softer, even lighter-textured frosting - if you want to be able to pipe it decoratively like shown in the link, it's probably best to stick with all butter. I just really love the subtle tartness the goat cheese contributes. (I think cream cheese would probably work too, though I haven't tried it.)

240 g whole milk
200 g granulated sugar
32 g starch (cornstarch recommended; see note below)
112 g unsalted butter, room temperature
112 g plain goat cheese
pinch salt
1/2 tsp almond extract

Combine milk and starch in saucepan and heat gently, with stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat and set aside to cool, stirring several times as it cools. Meanwhile, put sugar, butter, goat cheese, and almond extract in the bowl of a mixer and beat on medium-high for 4-5 minutes, until light and well-combined. It may seem more intuitive to add the sugar to the liquid, to dissolve it that way. Don't do that! The sugar would tie up too much of the liquid, leaving not enough free liquid for the starch to fully expand - meaning it won't thicken as well as it should, and will still have a raw starch aftertaste. (Trust me, I tried it.) When pudding mixture has cooled to room temperature, add it to the mixer bowl and beat a few more minutes, until fluffy and smooth.

For the filling:
120 g frosting, above
60 g additional goat cheese
50 g chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100 g high-quality jarred cherries, well-drained and roughly chopped (look for tart cherries with no added colors, in juice or sugar or in brandy/liqueur; not pie filling)

Combine frosting and cheese. Gently fold in chocolate and cherry pieces until just combined.

To assemble the cake: Spread filling mixture thickly between cake layers. Chill briefly before proceeding with frosting the rest of the cake, to ensure the filling does not get squished out the sides.
Frost sides and top of filled cake. If desired, decorate the top of the cake with cherries, finely grated chocolate, and/or almond pieces.
Keep decorated cake refrigerated.

Note about starch: The frosting pictured was made with arrowroot starch, which - as I would quickly discover, much to my dismay - apparently does not mix very well with dairy, becoming stringy and gloppy when they are combined over heat. While I was eventually able to force it to cooperate through extensive mixing (and a couple of spoonfuls of powdered sugar), I advise against using arrowroot in the frosting. I'm recommending cornstarch as per the original recipe linked above, but I confess I have not tested my full recipe as written with cornstarch, nor have I tested other starches such as tapioca.

Note about dairy substitutions: I honestly don't know yet whether this frosting would work with non-dairy milks - I'm not sure whether or not the milk is essential to the pudding thickening properly. If you want to be sure the frosting will turn out right, it might be better to use a recipe that does not call for dairy. If you do wish to experiment with this recipe, though, I would suggest possibly altering the procedure slightly depending on your ingredients. Since many ingredients used in baking as natural alternatives to butter (coconut oil, palm shortening, etc) are entirely fat, whereas butter contains some water, I think there's a chance the sugar may not be able to dissolve as completely. If you want to experiment with one of these fats, you might try reserving a small proportion of your chosen milk substitute and stirring that into the sugar before adding it to the creamed fat, then proceeding using the rest of the liquid for the pudding base as written. Blended butter substitutes (spreads, etc.) will contain some water, so while I haven't tested it to be sure, I would guess those would probably work with the regular method.
If you try making this frosting with non-dairy ingredients, please let me know how it turns out!

Saturday 2 August 2014

A taste of things to come

OK friends. I'll just be blunt: I have been a Bad Blogger. Not only have I not posted any recipes in more than a year (a year!), I have been terrible about keeping up with emails and social media. Despite what that evidence might suggest, I'm still here. And still baking. Definitely baking. In the meantime there have some pretty big changes - some hard ones, but some exciting ones too. I don't often like to stray too far from recipe-related things in posts, but under these circumstances, some explanation seems pretty relevant. (And then we'll get back to bread.) 
In case you need proof: bread. Specifically, sourdough rolls.

Some things emerged a while back which forced me to reassess...well, pretty much everything. At first I thought I wouldn't really go into it here - after all, this is a baking blog, not a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life blog. Yet on the other hand, it felt like unless I could be open about those things, I just wasn't being honest. Every time I tried to put it all aside and just make a post about bread, it became glaringly obvious that the supposedly-personal stuff was just too big to avoid. Not to mention, with all that was going on, sometimes there weren't many recipes to post anyway - baking, unfortunately, became very infrequent for a while. 

In any case, I should probably stop being vague and just get to the point: Some long-time readers may remember the other time I've written about something totally off-topic here. In the weeks following that post, I was caught off-guard by the number of supportive and encouraging emails I received from so many people I've never even met. (To everyone who I didn't manage to reply to directly, I want to take this opportunity to say a public (ridiculously overdue) "thank you" - your messages really meant a lot to me.) Anyway, as I learned later that year, I do in fact have the disorder my doctor suspected. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but it still felt a bit strange and surreal seeing the results from the geneticist. The diagnosis was a relief, in a strange way - I had my answer, and although the condition is a major pain to deal with sometimes (both literally and figuratively), it is fairly manageable on the grand scale of things. And I am not at risk of the super-scary complications which come up with one particular sub-type of the disorder, which was a huge relief to find out. Yet after a while, I noticed the weight on my mind was much heavier than I'd initially thought. Accepting the situation wasn't such a problem, at least not in theory. The hard part - the thing I didn't anticipate - was adjusting to actually living with it, with the knowledge that it's not going to go away. Getting on with my life while running on half the energy one would expect to have at my age (plus the chronic pain) - that's a lot more difficult than just accepting the idea of having a disorder. As the prospect sank in more fully, I got a bit overwhelmed by it all. 

Baking, like all things, took energy - of which there was already not enough to go around. There were bigger, more long-term things that needed doing, so I had to compromise somewhere - thus, as I mentioned above, baking got repeatedly pushed aside. I hated not having time for something I was so passionate about, but it was just a hobby, right? Making bread wouldn't lead to a degree or a career. These other things were more pressing, more "important." 
And then it hit me. These plans I was trying to stick to were ones I made when I didn't know I'd need to account for the effects of a chronic condition, and my stubbornness was keeping me from seeing the bigger picture. Things weren't going to go back to that particular normal - if I felt like there wasn't room for baking now, I certainly wasn't going to suddenly find extra time for it while I was focused on a thesis or an internship. Sure, I'd be able to make things here and there so we could have decent bread and such at home, but actual in-depth methodical recipe development - the thing that got me interested in food science in the first place - would generally need to wait. Would that kind of compromise really be worth it? What's more, were the things I'd been aiming for even realistic at this point in time? Reluctantly, I admitted I had to acknowledge the possibility that maybe the direction I'd been heading was not currently sustainable. I would need to make some choices.

This all makes a bit more sense if I take a moment to mention that for a long time, I'd been occasionally musing about turning the food-science research and baking experience I'd gathered into something bigger. Wondering, for instance, if I might eventually put together a cookbook, or once in a while when studying got especially frustrating, making jokes about how I should just go start a bakery instead (and then daydreaming for a few moments about whether that could actually work). It was always just a "maybe someday" kind of idea, not any specific plan. And when I'd been working on the assumption that baking would have to wait, that vague possibility seemed even more remote. Now, though, as I really critically examined things, what had started as a whim began to grow into an idea I was seriously considering. 

So, gradually, I began to bake again. Now that I'd officially made it a priority, I could take the time to really focus on a recipe, and fine-tune it until it was right. The results got better and better. Especially the bread. The taste, the texture - it was even obvious just looking at them that these new breads were even better than any I'd made before. But they're different in some more essential ways too. 

You see, in the process of all this baking, my bread has evolved. Not just the results - the whole process has changed. It's not like my older recipes and techniques. As far as I know, it's not like anyone's recipes or techniques. It's still developing, but I can see that it has the potential to grow into a distinct style of breadmaking, involving steps and properties which are specific to bread made from these ingredients - and that's a good thing. These loaves pictured are not adaptations of other recipes, or GF "versions" of existing bread varieties; this bread has many familiar qualities, but it also has defining characteristics of its own. And it's definitely not a "substitute for the real stuff" or a "replacement" for bread. This is real bread. (I have some pretty strong feelings about this distinction after encountering some opinions that GF bread can't be "real," but that's for another post.) 

Yup, pretty sure this counts as real bread.

Something it does share with many existing styles of bread, though, is that a recipe is not just a recipe - it is a craft, requiring not only attention and ingredients, but also skills and methods which in some cases take a good bit of practice and experience. Several books put out by experienced traditional bakers in the past few years - and the blogs and online communities which go through them recipe by recipe - have proved that plenty of people do want to put that kind of time and effort into a really great loaf of bread, and maybe even find it fun. But many people, even people who generally enjoy baking, don't exactly enjoy monitoring long multi-stage fermentations and maintaining sourdough starters and getting the hang of tricky shaping processes. My breads aren't any more difficult than those traditional artisan-style loaves, but there are a lot of steps compared to what you'd normally expect from a GF recipe, and some of the processes are pretty unusual. Especially since gluten-free baking can be already intimidating enough for some people, I always hesitate to post recipes that are particularly complicated. I started this blog partly with the hope that I could make genuinely good gluten-free food seem at least a little bit more accessible to everyone. I know a number of people who end up on this site are new to baking, and I definitely don't want to scare people away with recipes that look overwhelmingly involved.

Of course that, by itself, is no reason to keep a good recipe to myself. I know there are plenty of people who would find it easily worth the effort, even if a few might consider the recipe somewhat formidable. Bread this good needs to be shared. 

Here's the thing, though: as I said, some of what I've been doing is different - really different. Some of the baking techniques I've been developing...well, let's just say that if anyone else is doing these same things, I haven't come across anything about it. In other words, these breads aren't simply good - they are really something special, and possibly even truly original. 

When we get overly focused on trying to make something turn out "just like the normal kind," we miss out on so many wonderful results that use unique properties of our flours. It took me far too long to realize that if, rather than combining ingredients with the aim to make something nearly indistinguishable from the food I remembered, and instead started using ingredients in ways that actually placed emphasis on their unique qualities, I could create something just as delicious yet also distinctly different. Not only that - I could create something people enjoy specifically because of its differences. As much as people like familiarity, so many of the foods we love are the result of taking an ordinary concept and giving it a fresh regional, personal, or cultural twist. You end up with something that's familiar enough to be undoubtedly delicious, yet different enough to earn a separate place of its own.

Approaching baking with this new philosophy has helped solidify my decision to turn this from just a hobby into something greater. That's partly what I've been working on all this time - trying to decide what exactly that means and how to go about it. The bread recipes are only one element of it, but their originality is crucial to being able to make these plans a reality. I hope you'll understand, then, why I hesitate to post any of the recipes at this point in time. As much as I'd love to share these breads with everyone, I think the wisest choice is to keep certain things as "secret recipes," at least for now. The wait will be worth it.

So what does this mean for the blog?

Well, for one thing, there will still be other recipes that I can happily share. I plan to update the blog much more frequently now that I've reached some decisions about which recipes I can post and which ones are essential to keep under wraps. Unfortunately that means there may not be new yeast bread recipes for a while, until I can figure out the best thing to do about that. (Hopefully sooner than later!) There will also be a lot more chances to talk in depth about techniques and information that are useful for gluten-free baking. There are some questions about techniques, substitutions, and recipe conversion that I see a lot, both in emails and around the internet in general, so I will also be devoting some posts to these questions specifically - there will be an FAQs section so those posts can be found all in one place. 

I'm really excited about the bigger projects I have planned. I can't go into detail about the specifics just yet, but I will definitely be able to post updates as things develop further! And, of course, I can post plenty of pictures - I know it's not as good as a recipe, but while I'm working on the rest of it, I still want to share these breads in some way at least. 
Sourdough loaf shown above, sliced.