The Cake Slice: Espresso Cake with Hot Kahlua Syrup and Milk Chocolate Ganache

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It’s a miracle that I survived this month’s cake challenge. And that the cake actually did get baked…just in the nick of time. And that I actually have pictures to show you.

The forces were definitely against me this month.

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Notice how the majority of my pictures depict the ingredients rather than the final creation?

When I first learned of the chosen cake for March, espresso cake with hot Kahlua syrup, I was really looking forward to baking it. Coffee and chocolate are some of my favorite things. Add to that a splash of Kahlua, and now we’re talking.

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The first indication of trouble was when I read through the ingredient list in preparation for my next shopping trip. Flour, eggs, cocoa powder….all typical cake stuff.

And then, espresso powder. Hmmm???

First, what is it? And second, can I just substitute coffee grounds?

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So, I began by googling “what is espresso powder“ and quickly learned that it’s finely ground espresso beans, basically instant espresso, that is sometimes used in recipes to intensify the flavor of chocolate.

Ok. That made sense.

So, then I googled “espresso powder substitute” and that’s where things got interesting. There is no good substitute. Nothing.

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Long story short: three weeks passed, my baking deadline was imminent, four grocery stores in two states had been searched, and no espresso powder was to be found. Fortunately, I made a stop at a high-end grocery store near my office as a last ditch effort, and there it was. Espresso powder. Two lovely ounces for $4.39.

Espresso powder in hand, I made my way home, ready to bake. It was Friday night. The plan was to whip up a batch of homemade mac and cheese, watch a little TV with the family, and then get baking as soon as I put the kids to bed. That’s not exactly how it went.

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You see, this recipe requires a good amount of prep time even before it goes into the oven. First, you have to dissolve the espresso powder into boiling water and set it aside to cool. Then, you have to triple sift the dry ingredients – I cheated and only single-sifted. After more mixing, whipping, and sugar adding…one tablespoon at a time over the course of 6 to 8 minutes, per the recipe, the cake is finally ready for the oven.

The cake bakes for an hour. After that, you let it cool for 15 minutes in the pan, while you prepare the hot Kahlua syrup, and then the cake has to sit at least another hour while it drinks in the flavorful syrup until absorbed, and then, THEN…you can finally invert the cake onto a cake plate to remove it from the pan. Did I mention the ganache? Well, that’s the next step once the cake is finally out of the pan. You have to prepare the ganache, let it cool to thicken slightly, then drizzle it over the cake. At that point, you’re FINALLY done.

It’s a good thing I read through the recipe in its entirety before getting started with it on Friday night…or I would have been up all night. Just reading through it was exhausting enough, and convincing enough to reserve the project for Saturday.

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And so, Saturday was spent prepping, mixing, whipping, stirring, baking, syruping, and glazing, all for the love of coffee and chocolate, with the prospect of expanding my baking skills. Until…I grated my thumb along with the lemon and turned the lovely, fragrant lemon zest an unlovely shade of crimson. After all the yelping and cursing and throbbing, all I could find was a Spongebob band-aid, that lasted no more than a few minutes before soaking through…it was a very deep cut. Still, I persevered.

When the cake came out of the oven, I poked some holes in it to help the syrup tunnel through, which in the end weren’t very necessary because the syrup (a mix of Kahlua, water, and honey boiled until thickened) never got syrup-y. So, I poured the runny liquid over the cake and watched as it pooled on top and prayed that it would eventually soak in without creating a soggy mess.

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Five hours later (after errands and dinner out), I returned home to finish the project. I ran a knife around the edges of the bundt pan hoping it would slide right out easily. WRONG.

It shattered into several pieces, with some remaining pieces left to be coaxed out of grooves of the pan. SERIOUSLY. Again, I persevered.

I grabbed a plate, fit the pieces back together like an edible jigsaw puzzle, then made a double batch of milk chocolate ganache to drizzle over all the imperfections. The ganache was a mix of equal parts heavy cream and chocolate chips with a few splashes of Kahlua mixed in. Of course, the Kahlua caused the ganache to be a bit thin, so it ran down the cake more than I had hoped – honestly, would you expect any less at this point?

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When it was finally time for the first bite, I was so upset with this cake and this recipe and this whole ordeal that I wanted throw it at the wall. The cake, the espresso powder, all of it.

And yet.

I decided that if it was worth all this effort, than at least it was worth a taste. So, taste it I did.

And it tasted…heavenly.
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If you’d like to try your luck at baking this cake (good luck – you’ll need it), check out Carole Walter’s cookbook Great Cakes. Also, click the link below to see how my fellow cake club members’ cakes turned out.

Sweet Italian Sausage Stuffed Pork Chops

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Some days just call for comfort food…real, hearty, stick to your ribs comfort food. On those days – days where the snow continues to pile up and we begin to doubt that spring will ever come – stuffed pork chops just seem like the right thing to make.

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This recipe looks fancy, and it is. It’s definitely a “company’s coming” sort of dish, and it does take some prep time. But it’s not all that tricky. Spoken from a girl who was afraid to attempt anything so fancy or tricky until recently.

The truth is: I cook from scratch every single day now. So much so, that it takes a really impressive dish to truly wow my family. Homemade dinners from scratch, whether it’s pizza, or mac and cheese, or calzones have become commonplace rather than intimidating. But this one, albeit initially intimidating, turned out to be fun to make and really delivered the wow. Continue reading

The Cake Slice: Lemon Velvet Squares

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Two things I know for sure:

One. Spring will come. Despite this brutal winter, before we know it, we’ll be sloughing off our layers and venturing outside. As the last of the melted snow drips off our south-facing deck, the cedar boards will again drink in the heat, creating a cocoon of sunny, radiant warmth around our deck chairs, our favorite backyard haven.

And, Two. Baking is most joyful when in the company of a little helper. This one in particular is my ever-curious, not afraid to get messy, culinary explorer. He helped me zest the lemons for this month’s cake. A fresh, fragrant lemon cake, evocative of Spring. Continue reading

Be My Valentine: Mini Cheesecakes

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In our house, it’s go big or go home when February 14th rolls around. We go all out to celebrate V-Day in our family. Heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast, mini cheesecakes for dessert, and – new this year – an exciting hunt throughout the house for Valentine cards and/or gifts. Don’t tell the kids, but I already found my Valentine card from my 7 year old secretly hidden under the plunger in the bathroom…oh boy!

Here’s a fast, bite-sized dessert from our family to yours just in time for Valentine’s Day.

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Mini Cheesecakes
Makes 24 mini cupcakes

12 oz cream cheese (1 1/2 of the 8oz packages)
2 tsp lemon juice
1 egg
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp butter
5 graham crackers
Garnish – strawberries, blueberries, cherries, chocolate chips, etc.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a food processor (I use my mini prep), grind the graham crackers. Then, add the butter. Press the graham cracker mixture into the bottom of 24 mini cupcake liners. Rinse the food processor bowl, then use it again to combine the cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice, and egg. Spoon the cream cheese batter over the top of the crust in the 24 mini cups. Bake for 12-14 minutes until top is firm. Remove from oven, cool slightly, and add toppings.

Lunch in a Flash: Cheddar Chicken Ranch Wraps

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If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’re probably wondering if all I’ve been doing is baking cakes. Yes, it’s true that I’m having fun trying new cake recipes and baking along with the cake club that I joined, but…no, we don’t actually eat cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our house. Despite the cake club, we are on a mission to eat healthier this year, and we’re making strides to cook the vast majority of our meals from scratch. And, that includes our weekday lunches that my husband and I bring to work.

Our lunches have come a LONG way in the past few years. Previously, we would rotate through a neat stack of frozen, microwaveable box meals that fit just right into our work bags to grab, go, and nuke. Back then, we only read the front of the box to determine whether we wanted to eat it. If we did give the back a quick glance, it was just to check the fat and calorie content, never to actually look at what ingredients were in it. We knew nothing about the hyper-processed ingredients that went into even the “healthiest” version of these box meals at the time. All we cared about was that they were fast, and if they tasted a fraction as appetizing as the pictures on the front indicated, they were good enough for our lunch.

When we grew tired of the frozen meals, we would throw in a few frozen, packaged pizza pockets or a can of salty, processed soup for a bit more variety. We also bought our fair share of deli meats to make sandwiches. One week: turkey, cheddar, and mayo. The next week: roast beef, provolone, and more…mayo. We’d make a HUGE stack of sandwiches on Sunday, bag them up, and stack them in the fridge for the week.

So, we had the planning thing down…we just didn’t have the healthy thing quite right.

It wasn’t an overnight shift, but over time we learned how much salt, sugar, and fat were in frozen prepared meals and deli meats. (If you haven’t read Michael Moss’ book Salt, Sugar, Fat you should…it will open your eyes.) Add in the numerous preservatives and other artificial junk, and we decided it was time to clean up our lunches. And now, I honestly can’t remember the last time we bought a frozen meal or deli meat at the grocery store, but I’d say it’s been at least two years.

So, what do we eat for lunch now? Well, here’s one example.

Cheddar Chicken Ranch Wraps.

This is a great way to use up leftover chicken. I’ll cook a whole chicken in the slow cooker, and we’ll eat it for dinner that night. The leftovers go into the fridge for quick meals later in the week. Once we get to the end of the week, if there is still some chicken left that needs to be eaten, frozen, or tossed, I will rescue it for future lunches by making and freezing whole wheat tortilla wraps. The ones I made this week contain diced chicken, shredded cheddar (I buy the block cheese and shred using my food processor to avoid the cellulose…aka wood pulp…that’s in pre-shredded cheese), green peppers, mushrooms, a squirt of ranch dressing, and shake of chile powder for an added kick.

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These guys are much more filling than the store-bought frozen varieties, and they don’t last long in our freezer.

Other things we eat for lunch are fresh fruits and veggies, salads with homemade vinaigrette, leftovers from meals that were cooked from scratch…we literally fight over who gets the homemade mac and cheese leftovers. We make big batches of chili and lasagna which provides plenty of freezable leftovers that we pack in lunch-sized portions. We also make homemade pizza at least weekly, which we used to have more of left over…but as our boys grow, we can often finish it all one meal. Leftover quinoa, brown rice, bulger…all work great to mix in to salads or heat up with veggies at lunch. Lots of possibilities, and lots more recipe for me to share with you later!

The Cake Slice: 18th Century Pound Cake

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A half dozen eggs and a couple sticks of butter. That’s the base of our January cake. New Year’s Resolutions be damned. Queue the Van Halen. This month we’re baking pound cake.
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It took me a while to get around to making this month’s cake. After several weeks of holiday feasting with friends, family, and coworkers, the idea of baking a heavy, calorie-packed pound cake wasn’t top on my list. It’s particularly difficult since we’ve vowed to up the ante further this new year by focusing on eating even healthier than last year….but, as they say all things in moderation. Continue reading

6 Ways to Eat Healthier in the New Year

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It’s a new year, and, as always, many people are making (and breaking) resolutions.

Eat right. Exercise more. Lose weight.

By January 15th, the majority of these…pledged in blood by the typical resolutioneers…have already fallen by the wayside. But, sticking with your resolutions doesn’t have to be such an arduous challenge. The key to maintaining focus on resolutions revolves around setting realistic, attainable goals. Our family’s primary resolution each year is to eat better than we have in the prior year.

Here are some tips on how we’ve achieved our goals.

1. Blend It

Smoothies offer the most versatile way to start the day on the right foot. A few months ago, my family surprised me with a Ninja blender for my birthday, and it was love at first site. Every morning, I mix up a new blend of smoothie using whatever fruits and vegetables we have on hand. It pulverizes carrots, celery, spinach…you name it. The beauty of it is that if you mix in some fruit along with the veggies, the rest of the family is none the wiser, and they happily power it down. For a power-packed combo, try blending up a handful of fruit, a handful of veggies, a scoop of plain yogurt, and a splash of orange juice. Flax seed or a handful of raw almonds are also great additions.

2. Cook It

Pass up the frozen food section at the supermarket and vow to try making a few dishes from scratch. Don’t be intimidated. We are just talking about baby steps here. Instead of frozen pizza, try making a homemade pizza…dough is SO easy…just four simple ingredients…flour, water, yeast, and salt. We started making pizza from scratch a few years ago, and we haven’t bought a frozen pizza in years. Our kids love it. We love it. We control what goes into our pizza, and it’s just as delicious without all the extra preservatives and junk.
Continue reading

The Cake Slice: Streusel Squares

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It’s finally time to reveal our December cake…hooray! This is my second month in the Cake Slice Baking Club, a group of bakers who all bake the same cake each month as a way to learn from one another and share in eachother’s baking successes and flops. This month, we baked our second selection from Carole Walter’s Great Cakes cookbook, and it feels like I’ve been waiting an eternity to reveal this month’s selection to all of you. Continue reading

The Cake Slice: Applesauce Spice Cake

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And so it begins…

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Last month I mentioned that I’ve joined a secret cake baking club called The Cake Slice Bakers. Little did I know then how much fun this would be… Continue reading

Who doesn’t love banana bread…

Sour Cream Banana Bread

I almost did it. I almost went an entire weekend without baking…or cooking or using the stove whatsoever for that matter. Last weekend, Matt was up north hunting, so it was just me and the boys at home…a weekend consumed by laundry, playdates, classmate-birthday-party-shuttling, checkbook balancing, and quick meals of fresh fruit, veggies, yogurt, and so on. Before I knew it, Sunday night dinner was staring me in the face…and I hadn’t cooked a thing…ALL weekend.

So, I made pancakes. Double batch. I couldn’t help myself. After a two-day break from cooking, it just felt right.

And then. Well. There were two bananas looking rather ripe on the counter. So I had to bake some bread.

Thinking of ripe bananas reminded me of the frozen bag of mixed leftover pineapple, bananas, and melon in my catch-all Ziploc in the freezer. So I blended up some smoothies to go with the pancakes.

It’s like giving a mouse a cookie, if you give Amy a recipe, she’ll need some ingredients to go with it…

Sour Cream Banana Bread

(reposted from my original March 2012 post…with improved photo that makes it actually look appetizing this time)

6 Tbsp butter, melted
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups flour
2 bananas, mashed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a small bowl. Mix sugar with melted butter and set aside to cool for a few minutes. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the eggs and butter/sugar mixture and stir until combined. Add the vanilla extract and mashed bananas, give the batter a quick stir, and pour into a bread pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes until a toothpick tests done.

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