Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Homemade And Comforting Food

Enchilada Casserole, Oven-Roasted Green Beans and Chips.
We served delicious and comforting homemade enchilada casserole and lasagna today at The Wednesday Community Meal and our guests loved it. The cheesy casserole-style dishes were the perfect antidote to another cold and rainy Portland day.

When I think about it, homemade casseroles are not easy to find in restaurants and so unless you cook or live with a cook, they're kind of a rarity. A casserole is special because it's something you get at home.
Adding cheese to the top of an Enchilada Casserole.

In addition to the enchilada casserole and lasagna, our guests sat back and relaxed with soup, salad, dessert and cups of hot chocolate, coffee, milk and lemonade.
Volunteers Linda and Leah made all the salads we served today. They were topped with strawberry slices and croutons and looked so pretty.
We served 325 meals and since Halloween is just days away, a few of our volunteers got into the spirit and dressed up.

There was a clown:

Dean is so much fun! Every Wednesday he serves coffee and hot chocolate tableside in the dining room.

Here's Dean again, clowning around with our wonderful volunteer servers, Mary, Dorrie and Carol.

There was a witch:
Dave is a Wednesday Community Meal VIP. Every week he arrives early to shop for us at Cash 'n' Carry, buying any additional items we need to make the meal happen. He also is part of our ace team of dishwashers.

And, there was a blind mouse:
Craig is great, a regular volunteer in the kitchen and willing to help wherever needed. Today he made sure all the pans of enchilada casserole and lasagna were cooked to perfection.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Salted Caramel Macarons

The filling for these Salted Caramel Macarons is just about the easiest thing ever. You whip room temperature unsalted butter, some store-bought salted caramel sauce and sea salt together until it's light and creamy and that's all there is to it.

It is absolutely delicious and would also make an exellent filling or frosting for a chocolate cake. Now that I think of it,  pumpkin cake would also be really good .... I definitely have some more baking to do.

In the meantime, here's the recipe:

Salted Caramel Macarons
180g ground almonds, sifted
270g powdered sugar, sifted
150g egg whites, aged 2 to 4 days in the fridge and then brought to room temperature
100g granulated sugar

Line four heavy baking sheets with good quality parchment paper and set aside. Also, set aside two pastry bags for the piping of the macarons.

Sift together your ground almonds with the powdered sugar and set aside.

Whisk the egg whites (at room temperature) to glossy firm peaks adding the granulated sugar gradually in four parts.

Incorporate the dry ingredients into the beaten egg whites using a large rubber scraper.  Mix well.

Fold the mixture with the rubber scraper by pulling down the sides and flipping the mixture over. Do this until you have a smooth mixture that falls like a “ribbon” off the scraper.

Transfer the mixture into the two piping bags. Use rubber bands to close the piping bags. Clip the tip of the bags, one at a time, and pipe small quarter sized rounds, leaving 1-inch of space between each because they spread as they set.

Leave to set for about 30 minutes or until the top has formed a crust and is not sticky to the touch. 
Piped macarons resting before baking.
A side by side comparison of baked and unbaked macarons.
While they are setting, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. A convection oven is preferable. 

Bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven for about 12 minutes or until the cookie is firm, matte and doesn't wobble when touched.

Baked macarons sorted into pairs.

Filling the macarons.
Leave them on the baking tray until cool then lift them all off the parchment carefully. You may need to use a thin knife to help lift them off.

Sort into pairs and fill with Salted Caramel Buttercream.
Store the macarons in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.

Salted Caramel Buttercream
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup salted caramel sauce
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Whip the butter until it is smooth and light. Add the caramel sauce and salt and whip again until light and creamy.
Adding the caramel sauce and sea salt to the butter.

After some whipping it will look like this.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Chocolate Flan Cake 2.0

I really didn't think it was possible but there is a way to make the unbelievably delicious Chocolate Flan Cake recipe from America's Test Kitchen even better. I posted the recipe before but now I need to repost it with one definite improvement — Use salted caramel. 

The good news is that you don't have to make the salted caramel yourself. Just buy a jar of salted caramel topping and you are good to go.

This cake needs to be made a full day in advance because it has to chill in the fridge for 8-12 hours before serving and has a few steps but it's not hard to make and always gets rave reviews.

Here's the updated recipe:

Chocolate Flan Cake 2.0
Note: A 12-cup nonstick bundt cake pan is needed for this recipe.

1/2 cup cup salted caramel sauce or topping
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used dark chocolate chips)
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk
2 1/2 cups whole milk
6 ounces cream cheese
6 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 12-cup nonstick bundt cake pan.

Pour the 1/2 cup of caramel sauce in the pan.

In a medium-sized bowl combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Put the 4 oz. of chocolate and 6 tablespoons of butter in a microwave safe bowl and microwave at 50% power for 1-minute increments, stirring in between, until the mixture is melted and smooth. Add the eggs, buttermilk, sugar and vanilla to the melted chocolate mixture and whisk. Add the cocoa powder and flour mixure and whisk again until combined.

Spread the chocolate batter over the caramel.

Using a blender, process all of the flan ingredients until smooth. Pour the flan mixture into the pan. When you do this, the cake batter will float to the top of the pan. And be careful not to overfill the pan. You might have a little flan mixture left over. If you do you can put a little caramel sauce in the bottom of a paper lined muffin tin, top it with the left over mixture and bake for a cook's treat.

Place the cake in a baking dish or roasting pan filled with warm water that reaches halfway up the sides of the bundt pan. I added the water after the pan was in the oven. It's much easier this way. Bake the cake for 75 to 90 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean and the flan registers 180 degrees.

Place the baked cake on a rack to cool completely at room temperature. After cooling, refrigerate the cake for 8 to 12 hours before removing it from the pan.

To remove the cake, fill a bowl with hot water and place the bottom third of the bundt pan in the water for 1 minute. Place a cake platter with at least a 1/2 inch rim to hold the caramel sauce on top of the cake and flip the cake over. Slowly remove the pan, letting the caramel drizzle over the top of the cake. Serve chilled.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Meal To Lift Damp Spirits

Our early crew of dedicated volunteers. When Mary, Martha, Nancy, Leah, Ann, Cheryl, Terri and Bill arrived this morning,  there was already a line to get inside.
 The weather today has been nothing but constant rain and at the Wednesday Community Meal there was much more than damp clothing in the dining room, there were damp spirits. We didn't see many smiles and our guests looked wet, cold and uncomfortable.

There was a line of men waiting under the covered porch of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral before 8 a.m., more than three hours before the doors opened, and at 1 p.m. when the meal was over, there was still a group under the porch, waiting for respite from the rain. None came.

As I write this at nearly 8 p.m., it's still raining heavily and I can't help but think of my homeless friends. I pray they are dry, warm and safe.

We served 380 meals. Most of the guests got roasted pork, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Dessert for the first 40 in the door was homemade Chocolate Flan Cake. The dessert is one of my favorites to make and is part chocolate cake and part creamy flan. I couldn't have picked a better day to bring it in as it was a special treat for those who came early and waited so long in line — A bit of sweetness on a somber day.

Today's entree.

Chocolate Flan Cake.

Slices of cake.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Packaging Truffles

Homemade truffles make wonderful gifts, especially when packaged beautifully with some loving care and attention to detail.

Now don't get me wrong, no one is going to reject a pile of truffles delivered on a paper plate but it's definitely more thoughtful to present them in way that's aesthetically pleasing and looks professional. Packaging truffles is also inexpensive to do with a little recycling, crafting and creativity. I actually think the packaging part is fun. Adults need art projects too!

Here's how:
After coating the truffles, I used chopped walnuts, shredded coconut and dark cocoa powder, chill the truffles for at least 30 minutes before packaging them.

After they've chilled, place the truffles in individual paper candy cups. The cups are inexpensive and can be found in craft and baking specialty stores as well as the baking department of many grocery stores. The papers keep the truffles secure and tidy.
I reused and upcycled a 4-piece candy box by covering it with craft paper.  I adhered the paper to the box with double-sided adhesive squares. Double stick tape would also work and I used my trusty large paper punch to make a tag. You could also fold your own box using the easy Origami method.  Click here for an instructional video showing how.

I covered the bottom of the box by cutting paper to fit and adhering it with adhesive squares.

To cover the top, I cut a piece of paper large enough to cover the top and sides plus 1/2-inch extra all around. Then from the corners, I cut diagonally to the corners of the top of the box.

Then, using the adhesive squares to stick the paper, I wrapped the box.

A tag made with the paper punch and an adhesive label adds that final touch.  I also padded the box with a bit of tissue paper and snugly placed the truffles in the box.

Another packaging option is to use self-sealing cellophane bags and attach a homemade tag with butcher's twine or ribbon. There are of course other options too so get creative and share some homemade truffles with your family and friends. It's fun!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dark Chocolate Truffles

I used my recent batch of Dark Chocolate Truffles to garnish a cake.

Dark Chocolate Truffles are the answer if you are searching for a homemade treat that is as impressive as it is easy to make.

Truffles are rich, creamy and elegant yet can be made in no time with minimal ingredients and effort. They're just chocolate ganache, cooled, scooped, shaped into balls and rolled in a coating.

The only trick really is to use good quality dark chocolate. My preference is Callebaut Belgian Dark Chocolate. I use the callets which are chocolate bits similar to chocolate chips but without the peak on top. I like to use the callets because it eliminates having to chop the chocolate.
My chocolate choice.

I also like that you can make an assortment of different kinds of truffles by splitting a single batch and just adding different flavorings or liquors to the ganache and rolling them in different coatings like cocoa powder, sprinkles, nuts or coconut.

For a recent batch that I used to decorate a tiered Anniversary Cake, I make the most basic kind — just dark chocolate ganache coated with dark cocoa powder — Simple but soooo goooood!

Here's how I made them:

Place one pound of dark chocolate pieces in a mixing bowl.

Measure out one cup of heavy cream. Heat the cream in the microwave in 30-second intervals until it is simmering, stirring between intervals. Watch the cream closely so that it doesn't boil over. In my microwave the cream was simmering in just 90 seconds.

Pour the simmering cream over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. This is the time if you choose to add flavorings to the ganache, just make sure the flavoring is alcohol based. Water and chocolate do not mix! Liqueurs like Grand Marnier and Ameretto and extracts like peppermint and raspberry are a few of my favorites. Set the mixture aside to cool for 1 hour.

After one hour, scoop portions of the ganache onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. I used a 1-inch ball scoop for the task. Place the scoops of ganache in the refrigerator to chill for 20 to 30 minutes to firm them enough so that using your hands you can roll them into balls.

After rolling the truffles into balls, roll them in the coating of your choice. I chose dark cocoa powder.

Here are the finished truffles that I used to decorate the cake.

A closeup of the finished cake. To keep the truffles secure, I piped buttercream around them.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mini Pumpkin Whoopie Pies

I made these cute Mini Pumpkin Whoopie Pies because I had a leftover Vanilla Cream Cheese Buttercream that I wanted to put to good use. The leftover buttercream was from the anniversary cake I recently made and I had at least four cups that I just had to save and use, especially with butter being so expensive these days.

The batter for the Whoopie Pies comes together easily by hand and contains olive oil and good doses of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. I also added cinnamon to the Vanilla Cream Cheese Buttercream to change it up a bit and compliment the pumpkin cakes.

Because I had a lot of buttercream to use up, my recipe makes four dozen mini pies but it can be halved for a smaller batch.

If you don't have leftover filling and don't want to go to the trouble of making a fresh batch of buttecream, plain cream cheese with a bit of butter, sweetened to taste with powdered sugar and flavored with vanilla and cinnamon works just fine too. Experimenting and getting creative is for me what's most fun about baking.
Filling the Whoopie Pies

Here are the recipes:

Mini Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
(makes enough cakes for four dozen filled pies) 

2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup olive oil
2 eggs
2 (15oz) cans pumpkin
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nugmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Line four sheetpans with parchment and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl whisk together the sugar, olive oil, eggs, pumpkin and vanilla.
Wet ingredients.

In another large bowl whisk together the remaining dry ingredients.
Dry ingredients.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until well combined. Use a 1-inch scoop to drop mounds of batter onto the baking sheets, spacing them 2-inches apart.
The dough before baking.

Bake the cakes for 10 to 13 minutes or until done and springy to the touch. Let the baked cakes cool for a bit on the baking sheets before transferring them to a cooling rack.

Sort the cakes into pairs and fill with the cinnamon flavored filling of your choice.

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Buttercream
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the milk and half of the sugar until simmering.

In the meantime, in a small bowl combine the cream, the other half of the sugar and cornstarch. Mix well with a whisk.

When the milk is simmering,  pour about half of it into the cream mixture and whisk well. Add it back to the milk in the saucepan and heat, stirring constantly until the mixture becomes very thick.

Remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla. Put the mixture into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the mixture cool completely.

When the buttercream base is cool, transfer it to a mixer and whip until smooth, add the butter and the cream cheese, a tablespoon at a time and whip until light and fluffy. Finally, add the cinnamon and whip again.

Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting
1 cup powdered sugar
12 oz. (1 1/2 pkg.) cream cheese 
1/4 cup softened butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
Whip cream cheese and butter thoroughly. Add the vanilla and cinnamon and then the sugar, a little at a time and whip until smooth.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Today's meal of spaghetti topped with shredded Parmesan cheese was served with a side of roasted green beans.

I think spaghetti just might be our most popular entree at the Wednesday Community Meal.

We served it today and longtime volunteer Carol told me the guests were really pleased when they saw what she was bringing them to eat.  One guest was so happy that he clapped his hands.

For us working in the kitchen though, spaghetti can be exhausting to prepare and serve. Boiling enough water to cook a pound of spaghetti noodles at home is one thing but cooking 15 pounds at once in a huge commercial pot is another. It takes nearly 45 minutes just to get the water up to a rolling boil and it's difficult and dangerous to lift the heavy pot to drain the pasta. When that time comes, we call on our team of strong and tall dishwashers to help. Really, if it weren't for them, we would have to just resort to cooking smaller batches.

We have also learned that it's best to mix the noodles with the sauce before serving instead of topping individual portions with the sauce. This mix ahead method keeps the noodles from sticking together and makes the spaghetti much easier to plate.

We served 283 meals today and heard many nice compliments from the guests. One man who came with his girlfriend to eat said, "Thank you so much, we just found this place."

 "We are glad you are here," I said and reminded him that food is available at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.

"Really?" he responded as if he couldn't believe what I was saying. "Yes," I said.

It was nice to see a genuine smile on his face.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tiered Anniversary Cake

Cake closeup.

I made two large single layer cakes that we could cut into right away so that the stacked cake could stay intact for as long as possible.
 I'm happy to report that Michael and Marc loved their anniversary cake. I'm so pleased and in debt to my wonderful friends Cindy, Cheryl, Anne and Tiffany who helped me set up and serve.  It takes a team to cut hundreds of slices of cake.

Cindy also deserves a special shout out for helping me transport and stack the cake. On the ride to the church she held a cake on her lap, kept the flowers from tipping over and calmed my nerves.

I had to drive so slow and carefully to keep the cakes safe that I'm sure I irritated other drivers. Cindy and I came to the conclusion that I need a "cake on board" sign for my car. 
Cakes in the car. Cindy ended up holding the smallest cake in her lap and I'm so glad she did.  It would have tipped for sure had I left it in the back of the car.
It's such a good feeling when a cake is done and you realized it survived transport and stacking unscathed.

Once at the church, the setup went fairly smoothly and best of all, the cake was a hit. Thank you Michael and Marc for choosing me to be a part of your special day. Making cakes for friends is the best! Happy Anniversary!

Here are the recipes:

Red Velvet Cake
(makes 2 9-inch cakes)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ounce red food coloring
1/2 cup buttermilk
4 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and line two 9-inch cake pans.

Cream butter, add vanilla and mix well. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Add eggs, sour cream, food coloring and buttermilk. Mix well. Add salt and baking soda. Mix well. Add cocoa powder and flour and mix just until blended. Don't over mix.

Divide batter among the two cake pans and bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until done.

Vanilla Cream Cheese Buttercream
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the milk and half of the sugar until simmering.

In the meantime, in a small bowl combine the cream, the other half of the sugar and cornstarch. Mix well with a whisk.

When the milk is simmering,  pour about half of it into the cream mixture and whisk well. Add it back to the milk in the saucepan and heat, stirring constantly until the mixture becomes very thick.

Remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla. Put the mixture into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the mixture cool completely.

When the buttercream base is cool, transfer it to a mixer and whip until smooth, add the butter and the cream cheese, a tablespoon at a time and whip until light and fluffy.