creme brulee (twd)

I love Dorie’s creative recipes, but I tend to turn to Cooks Illustrated for classics. So when I saw that Mari had chosen crème brulee for TWD, my first thought was to compare the two. But I’ve already compared Dorie and CI’s recipes a couple times, so instead, I decided I would play with some of the different flavors Dorie recommends.

I made vanilla, Earl Grey, and ginger variations. I thought I could combine some of the steps for the variations, but that didn’t work out, so it was really like making the recipe three separate times. I didn’t have enough of the right sized ramekins, so I put the custard mixes in mini-tart pans instead. I was worried that the custard would leak because the tart pans have removable bottoms, but it worked out okay. Until I dropped the baking pan with the six full tartelette pans on it and everything spilled. Being clumsy is a pain in the ass.

Frustrated with that, I went back to my original plan to compare Dorie’s recipe to CI’s. (My freezer is full of egg whites now.) I was curious about this comparison anyway, because the recipes were significantly different. Dorie uses almost half the number of egg yolks compared to the amount of dairy, and she also uses a combination of heavy cream and milk instead of just heavy cream. That makes CI’s recipe much richer.

Whoa. Dorie’s also makes tiny servings. I wouldn’t expect that from her.

I assumed we’d like the richer crème brulee better, but Dave and I both preferred Dorie’s softer custard. However, Dave liked the flavor of CI’s better, which may be the pinch of salt added, or the lower amount of sugar used in CI’s, which could bring out the flavor of the other ingredients more. I used vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract in both recipes.

This is my most successful brulee job. (That goes for Dave too – this is the only kitchen task he’s excited about helping with.) I used a mixture of brown sugar and granulated, and in the past I used pure granulated. Apparently the mixture is more forgiving, because I used to end up with a combination of charcoaly burned areas and raw areas.

It’s crème brulee, so you really can’t go wrong. Unless you spill it all over the oven. Check Mari’s blog for Dorie’s recipe.

Classic Creme Brulee (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 8

CI note: Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks after the cream has finished steeping; if left to sit, the surface of the yolks will dry and form a film. A vanilla bean gives custard the deepest flavor, but 2 teaspoons of extract, whisked into the yolks in step 4, can be used instead. The best way to judge doneness is with a digital instant-read thermometer. The custards, especially if baked in shallow fluted dishes, will not be deep enough to provide an accurate reading with a dial-face thermometer. For the caramelized sugar crust, we recommend turbinado or Demerara sugar. Regular granulated sugar will work, too, but use only 1 scant teaspoon on each ramekin or 1 teaspoon on each shallow fluted dish.

4 cups heavy cream, chilled
⅔ cup granulated sugar
pinch table salt
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
12 large egg yolks
8 – 12 teaspoons turbinado sugar or Demerara sugar

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees.

2. Combine 2 cups cream, sugar, and salt in medium saucepan; with paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into pan, submerge pod in cream, and bring mixture to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that sugar dissolves. Take pan off heat and let steep 15 minutes to infuse flavors.

3. Meanwhile, place kitchen towel in bottom of large baking dish or roasting pan and arrange eight 4- to 5-ounce ramekins (or shallow fluted dishes) on towel. Bring kettle or large saucepan of water to boil over high heat.

4. After cream has steeped, stir in remaining 2 cups cream to cool down mixture. Whisk yolks in large bowl until broken up and combined. Whisk about 1 cup cream mixture into yolks until loosened and combined; repeat with another 1 cup cream. Add remaining cream and whisk until evenly colored and thoroughly combined. Strain through fine-mesh strainer into 2-quart measuring cup or pitcher (or clean medium bowl); discard solids in strainer. Pour or ladle mixture into ramekins, dividing it evenly among them.

5. Carefully place baking dish with ramekins on oven rack; pour boiling water into dish, taking care not to splash water into ramekins, until water reaches two-thirds height of ramekins. Bake until centers of custards are just barely set and are no longer sloshy and digital instant-read thermometer inserted in centers registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 35 minutes (25 to 30 minutes for shallow fluted dishes). Begin checking temperature about 5 minutes before recommended time.

6. Transfer ramekins to wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 2 hours. Set ramekins on rimmed baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.

7. Uncover ramekins; if condensation has collected on custards, place paper towel on surface to soak up moisture. Sprinkle each with about 1 teaspoon turbinado sugar (1½ teaspoons for shallow fluted dishes); tilt and tap ramekin for even coverage. Ignite torch and caramelize sugar. Refrigerate ramekins, uncovered, to re-chill, 30 to 45 minutes (but no longer); serve.

white cake comparison

Several months ago for the Daring Bakers, I made Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake. Most of the group members, including myself, had very positive things to say about this cake. However, many of us, again including myself, found that the cake didn’t rise much. Granted, the copy of the recipe I used had a typo in it regarding the amount of flour, but that wasn’t the case with everyone who had problems.

So a few weeks ago when I made white cupcakes, I used a different recipe, by Nick Malgieri. The recipe calls for 2 cups all-purpose flour, but I was pretty sure I’d like it better with cake flour, so I used 2¼ cups cake flour instead. The cupcakes were definitely good, but just the slightest bit dry.

Now I was on a mission. Is it just a characteristic of white cake that it’s dry? Would Dorie’s recipe be perfect if I used the correct amount of flour, or would Nick’s be better if I followed it exactly? And why not throw a third recipe into the mix, and try one from my old favorite, Cooks Illustrated?

I pared the recipes down so that they each used 2 eggs, and I made cupcakes. I made them all in one afternoon, leaving the oven on between batches and not adjusting the dial, to make sure oven temperature wasn’t a factor in any differences. I left out any flavorings besides vanilla, used the same amount of vanilla in each, and used whole milk in all three recipes.

You can see that the three look very different. Left to right, the photos show Dorie’s, Nick’s, and CI’s. Nick’s looks drastically different, which I can attest is due to the all-purpose flour. The photo below shows the result of Nick’s recipe when made with cake flour. It more closely resembles the other two.

The difference in taste and texture mirrors the difference in looks. Nick’s cupcakes are far drier than Dorie’s and CI’s. You can see that their texture looks more muffin-like with a coarser crumb. Dorie and CI’s are more similar. They’re both fluffy and light with a nice resiliency. Dorie’s cupcakes rose nicely, in contrast to when I made the layer cake in March.

At first, Dave and I agreed that CI’s beat out Dorie’s by a hair. They seemed moister and more flavorful. But later on, I did a comparison of just those two, unfrosted, and I was able to spot some subtle differences. CI’s cupcakes are undeniably moister. They are also sweeter. Dorie’s cupcakes aren’t as sweet, but I do like their flavor. Without the sweetness, some of the other flavors in the cupcake are noticeable.

The question then arises – what causes these differences? I’ve laid out the points of the recipe that I think would have the most significant impact on the outcome. I’ve entered Malgieri’s recipe as using 9 ounces (2¼ cups) cake flour instead of 10 ounces (2 cups) flour, since it seems pretty clear that all-purpose flour in a cake as light as white cake is a bad idea. I’m guessing Malgieri’s cupcakes are drier because they use less milk. Obviously CI’s are sweeter because they have more sugar. Dorie’s and CI’s recipes, which produced similar results, are actually pretty different. Dorie’s uses less butter and sugar, which I’m assuming is balanced by more milk and less egg whites so the cupcakes aren’t dry. I think the coarser, more muffin-like texture of Malgieri’s cupcakes might arise from the lack of a final beating step after all the ingredients are added.

I wonder if I can tweak the recipes to get my favorite aspects of each. It’s not as simple as just reducing the sugar in CI’s recipe, because sugar contributes moistness. But maybe I should reduce the sugar by 2 tablespoons and increase the milk by 2 tablespoons. It’s worth trying, but to be honest, after this experiment, I think it’s going to be a while before I feel the urge to make white cake again!

Classic White Layer Cake (from Cooks Illustrated)

Serves 12

CI note: If you have forgotten to bring the milk and egg white mixture to room temperature, set the bottom of the glass measure containing it in a sink of hot water and stir until the mixture feels cool rather than cold, around 65 degrees. Cake layers can be wrapped and stored for one day.

Nonstick cooking spray
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces), plus more for dusting the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (¾ cup), at room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¾ cups granulated sugar (12¼ ounces)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), softened but still cool

1. For the Cake: Set oven rack in middle position. (If oven is too small to cook both layers on a single rack, set racks in upper-middle and lower-middle positions.) Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray; line the bottoms with parchment or waxed paper rounds. Spray the paper rounds, dust the pans with flour, and invert pans and rap sharply to remove excess flour.

2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into 2-cup glass measure, and mix with fork until blended.

3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed. Add butter; continue beating at slow speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.

4. Add all but ½ cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for 1½ minutes. Add remaining ½ cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer.

5. Divide batter evenly between two prepared cake pans; using rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops. Arrange pans at least 3 inches from the oven walls and 3 inches apart. (If oven is small, place pans on separate racks in staggered fashion to allow for air circulation.) Bake until thin skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 23 to 25 minutes.

6. Let cakes rest in pans for 3 minutes. Loosen from sides of pans with a knife, if necessary, and invert onto wire racks. Reinvert onto additional wire racks. Let cool completely, about 1½ hours.

Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake recipe can be found here.

Classic White Cake (from Nick Malgieri)

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
6 large egg whites (¾ cup)
¾ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 (9-inch) diameter by 1 ½ -inch deep layer pans or 1 (13 by 9 by 2-inch) pan, buttered and bottoms lined with parchment or waxed paper

Set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Combine egg whites, milk and vanilla extract. Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to butter mixture then add half the milk mixture. Continue to alternate beginning and ending with flour mixture. Scrape bowl and beater often. Pour batter into prepared pan(s) and smooth top with a metal spatula. Bake cake(s) about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack, remove paper and let cool completely.

*To make cupcakes from any of these recipes, line a standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners. Fill cups just over ½ full with batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-21 minutes.

chocolate pudding (twd)

Melissa’s TWD pick of chocolate pudding really hit the spot for me this week. I hadn’t made anything chocolately in a while, and something smooth and cool like pudding is perfect for the hot summer weather right now. Also, as much as I like to cook, it’s nice to have something simple every once in a while.

Oh, except that I’m incapable of keeping things simple in the kitchen. I’ve had my eye on the chocolate pudding recipe that Deb posted a few months ago. Deb was looking for an easy pudding recipe after making her way through a disappointing one that sounds suspiciously familiar now that I’ve made Dorie’s pudding recipe. Deb’s pudding looks dark and chocolately and delicious, and as an added bonus, there’s no egg yolks to mess with. I decided to make both recipes and compare them. (I made a third recipe as well, but it didn’t set properly, so I’m not going to review it on the assumption that I screwed something up.)

Both puddings had their strong points. The eggless pudding had a much darker chocolate flavor, which I like but Dave isn’t crazy about. It was also really firm. Overall, it reminded me more of chocolate pots de crème than good ol’ pudding. In contrast, the chocolate flavor of Dorie’s pudding seemed weak, at least to me. However, the texture was that of a perfectly smooth and refreshing pudding.

Clearly, Dorie’s recipe requires more effort, what with moving the pudding back and forth between the food processor and the stove. I haven’t decided if it was worth it. I’d like to take Deb’s recipe (or maybe the third recipe I tried, which was similar), and tweak it. I think if I just add a little more milk, it won’t be so overpoweringly chocolately and the texture will soften to be more like a pudding. But we’ll see.

Dorie’s pudding recipe can be found on her blog.

Silky Chocolate Pudding (adapted from Smitten Kitchen; originally from John Sharffenberger)

Serves 6

Bridget note: There was no coating the back of a spoon after 20 minutes on a double boiler over gently simmering water. I’m assuming this is because I used a glass bowl instead of a metal bowl. I cranked the heat up and cooked it for another 10 minutes or so over a very lively simmer, and that did the trick.

¼ cup cornstarch
½ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
6 ounces 62% semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. Combine the cornstarch, sugar and salt in the top of a double boiler. Slowly whisk in the milk, scraping the bottom and sides with a heatproof spatula to incorporate the dry ingredients. Place over gently simmering water and stir occasionally, scraping the bottom and sides. Use a whisk as necessary should lumps begin to form. After 15 to 20 minutes, when the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of the spoon, add the chocolate. Continue stirring for about 2 to 4 minutes, or until the pudding is smooth and thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a serving bowl or into a large measuring cup with a spout and pour into individual serving dishes.

3. If you like pudding skin, pull plastic wrap over the top of the serving dish(es) before refrigerating. If you dislike pudding skin, place plastic wrap on top of the pudding and smooth it gently against the surface before refrigerating. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days.

carrot cake (twd)

I don’t really get carrot cake. I don’t hate it. But what’s the appeal? Vegetables in cake – it just ain’t right. Wouldn’t you rather have a more logical flavoring for cake – chocolate or vanilla or strawberries or butter? If it’s the spices you love, pair them with apples. If it’s the cream cheese frosting, spread it on chocolate cake. But don’t put vegetables in my dessert. It just ain’t right.

So I can’t say I was ecstatic to see Amanda’s choice for this week’s TWD recipe. Plus, while I usually enjoy the creativity that comes from having someone else choose a recipe for me, it’s a problem when I already have a similar recipe picked out to try. I’ve had my eye on Cooks Illustrated’s carrot cake recipe for years, I guess with the idea that if anyone could make me love carrot cake, it would be CI.

I thought I could kill two birds with one stone – I’d make Dorie’s recipe and CI’s, and that way I could compare them. My mom has a recipe she loves, so I threw that into the mix as well. They each call for four eggs, so it would be easy to quarter each recipe. Then I decided that that would still be too much carrot cake, so I got all OCD and decided to use one egg total, but still make all three recipes, so I made one twelfth of each recipe. It was a pain in the ass even with good math skills and a digital scale. I skipped all of the chunky ingredients (coconut, raisins, nuts) in Dorie’s recipe so that the recipes would be more equivalent and comparable.

The three recipes weren’t drastically different in their ingredient lists, although the mixing method varied. After baking, Dorie’s and CI’s carrot cakes look very similar, but my mom’s recipe, which was the only one that didn’t call for baking powder, didn’t rise nearly as much. (CI’s is the bottom layer, then my mom’s recipe, then Dorie’s.)

Unfortunately, I can’t give a good comparison of the three cakes. I’ve only had one slice, and the cream cheese frosting pleasantly dominated the taste of the cake. I’ll try harder next time, scraping off the frosting and eating the cake plain. And then finishing dessert off with a spoonful of pure, unadulterated sugary cream cheese frosting.

Update/Comparison: I really didn’t eat much of this cake, so I can’t give a very good comparison.  That being said, I think Dorie’s recipe was my favorite.  My mom’s needs baking powder so it will rise higher.  Cooks Illustrated uses both brown and granulated sugar, and I think using all granulated sugar gave the cake more flavor.  I do like CI’s mixing method though.  Because most of the ingredients are similar, in the future, I’ll probably use CI’s recipe with all granulated sugar.

Bill’s Big Carrot Cake (from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours)

10 servings

For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 carrots, you can grate them in food processor fitted w/ a shredding a blade or use a box grater)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)
½ cup moist, plump raisins (dark or golden) or dried cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs

For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or ½ teaspoon pure lemon extract
½ cup shredded coconut (optional)

Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)

Getting ready: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9- by 2-inch round cake pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. Put the two pans on one baking sheet and one on another.

To make the cake:
Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.

The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.

To make the frosting:
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the lemon juice or extract.

If you’d like coconut in the filling, scoop about half of the frosting and stir the coconut into this position.

To assemble the cake:
Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. If you added the coconut to the frosting, use half of the coconut frosting to generously cover the first layer (or generously cover with plain frosting). Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft.

Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.

Serving: This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature and while it’s good plain, it’s even better with vanilla ice cream or some lemon curd.

Storing: The cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it’s firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

Simple Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (from Cooks Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe)

2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon gound cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound (6-7 medium) carrots, peeled
1½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1½ cups safflower, canola or vegetable oil

Cream cheese frosting

8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups confectioners’ sugar

For the cake:

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment and spray the parchment.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a large bowl; set aside.

3. In a food processor fitted with a large shredding disk, shred the carrots (you should have about 3 cups); transfer the carrots to a bowl and set aside. Wipe out the food processor workbowl and fit with the metal blade. Process the granulated and brown sugars and eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about 20 seconds. With the machine running, add the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until the mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 20 seconds longer. Scrape the mixture into a medium bowl. Stir in the carrots and the dry ingredients until incorporated and no streaks of flour remain. If you like nuts in your cake, stir 1½ cups toasted chopped pecans or walnuts into the batter along with the carrots. Raisins are also a good addition; 1 cup can be added along with the carrots. If you add both nuts and raisins, the cake will need and additional 10 to 12 minutes in the oven. Pour into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. cool the cake to room temperature in the pan on a wire rack, about 2 hours.

For the frosting
1. When the cake is cool, process the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, and vanilla in a clean food processor workbowl until combined, about 5 seconds, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the confectioners’ sugar and process until smooth, about 10 seconds.

2. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake to loosen from the pan. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment, then invert again onto a serving platter. Using an icing spatula, spread the frosting evenly over the surface of the cake. Cut into squares and serve.

Carrot Cake (from my mom, and I don’t know where she got the recipe)

1½ (10.5 ounces) cup sugar
2 cups (10 ounces) flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (scant)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup cooking oil
3 cups (16 ounces) finely grated carrots (raw)
4 whole eggs

Sift dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl making sure they are thoroughly mixed. Add cooking oil and blend. Add eggs ONE at a time and mix (by hand). Stir in carrots. Bake in two deep cake pans sprayed with Pam. Bake at 350 for 30 to 40 minutes until cakes spring back in center or toothpick comes clean. Cool 10-15 minutes. Remove from pans and frost while warm.

Cream cheese frosting:
1 8 ounce package cream cheese (regular, not low or non-fat)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
4½ cups (16 ounces) powdered sugar
1 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Let cheese and butter sit at room temperature for half an hour, then mix thoroughly. Add powdered sugar slowly, alternating with vanilla. Stir in nuts last. Frost and enjoy.

four vanilla frostings

opener.jpg

A week ago, I published a post on chocolate cupcakes and vanilla frosting. It’s already become my most popular post, because my site comes up when people search for vanilla frosting recipes. The problem is that I didn’t love the frosting I made to go with those cupcakes. I decided to do a more thorough test of frostings to help out the random internet searcher.

Oh, also, it’s my nephew’s 0th birthday. He was born on Monday. Isn’t he just the cutest little cuddly thing? I haven’t seen him in person yet, but when I do, he’d better be prepared to get some major squeezing. (And today is that cuddly little guy’s brother’s birthday, as well as my brother’s birthday.)

bryce.jpg 0th.jpg

Right, and I apparently need lots of justification to make some more cake.

A few notes on my methods. These frostings topped Cooks Illustrated’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake. CI has two recipes with this title – this is the one published in April 2006. It is, quite frankly, better than the one published in The New Best Recipe.

Also, I made the smallest practical amount of each frosting. This was ¼ of the recipe for everything except the Fluffy Icing, which I made half of.

The first frosting (blue) is Easy Vanilla Buttercream. This appears to be the most common vanilla frosting. It’s also called decorator’s icing, and it’s what I ate as a kid, because my mom decorated fancy cakes for us on our birthdays. You simply mix powdered (confectioner’s) sugar and butter together, with a bit of vanilla extract for flavor and a little milk or cream (you could easily use soy milk if necessary) to achieve the right consistency. This was my favorite of these four frostings, even though I know that I pooh poohed as too simple last week. It was Dave’s second favorite.

The second frosting (yellow-orange) is a Vanilla Buttercream from epicurious. For this buttercream, egg whites are whipped in a bowl while sugar is heated on the stove. When the sugar is hot and the egg whites are frothy, the hot sugar is drizzled into the egg whites with the mixer beating continuously, and then butter is slowly added. I had a bit of stress with this recipe because it provides a temperature for the sugar to be heated to without giving any visual clues, and I don’t have a candy thermometer. A quick check on the internet gave me some useful information, so I waited until a drop of the liquid sugar formed a ball that could be squeezed before beginning to add the sugar into the egg whites. A few of the reviewers on epicurious recommended using only ¾ of the butter. I like this idea because I like a sweeter and less buttery frosting, but the buttercream looked curdled until I added just about all of the butter. In the end, though, it was pretty good. It was Dave’s favorite and my second favorite of these four recipes.

The next frosting (green) is Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Buttercream. In this recipe, whole eggs, sugar, and vanilla are heated in a double boiler, then whipped until airy, when softened butter is slowly added. It was my least favorite and Dave’s second to least favorite. It had significantly less flavor than the other three frostings, to the point where I wonder if I forgot to add the vanilla. (I’m almost positive I didn’t forget.)

The last frosting (pink) is Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Icing. This is a seven-minute frosting. Egg whites, sugar, water, vanilla extract and cornstarch are heated in a double boiler, then whipped to stiff peaks. Mine refused to form stiff peaks, even after whipping for well beyond the recipe’s suggested times. I thought it was okay, although I liked the Easy Buttercream and epicurious’s recipe better. It didn’t necessarily go with the chocolate cupcakes, but I think it would be great with the lemon cake that CI originally published it to accompany. Dave didn’t like it at all, but I’ve had my eye on that lemon cake for a while, so he’ll have to try it again when I make that. And hey – no fat in this recipe!

To conclude, my preference, from most to least favorite, is Easy, epicurious, Fluffy, Classic. Dave’s are epicurious, Easy, Classic, Fluffy. I think the secret to making the Easy Vanilla Buttercream great is to whip it – whip it good. It becomes lighter and fluffier and easier to work with if it’s beat at high speed for several minutes. It had the strongest flavor, tasting somewhat tangy, and didn’t feel as buttery as the other two buttercreams.

Like I said before, I do think that the Fluffy Icing has its place, but its place isn’t topping chocolate cake. The Cooks Illustrated Classic Buttercream was lacking flavor, and both Magnolia’s Bakery and epicurious’s buttercreams were buttery and sweet. I’d probably choose Magnolia’s recipe over this epicurious one because Magnolia’s seems a bit stabler, and there’s no messing around with raw egg.

Easy Vanilla Buttercream (from Cooks Illustrated April 2007)

The buttercream frosting can be made ahead and refrigerated; if refrigerated, however, it must stand at room temperature to soften before use. If using a hand-held mixer, increase mixing times significantly (at least 50 percent). This recipe can be doubled to make enough for a two-layer cake.

Makes 3 cups

20 tablespoons (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2½ cups Confectioners’ sugar (10 ounces)
1/8 tablespoons table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons heavy cream

In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.

Vanilla Buttercream (from epicurious.com and Gourmet January 2004)

Makes about 6 cups.

4 large egg whites at room temperature for 30 minutes
Rounded ¼ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine whites and salt in a very large bowl. Stir together water and 1 1/3 cups sugar in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil over moderate heat, without stirring, brushing any sugar crystals down side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water.

When syrup reaches a boil, start beating egg whites with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until frothy, then gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat at medium speed until whites just hold soft peaks. (Do not beat again until sugar syrup is ready.)

Meanwhile, put thermometer into sugar syrup and continue boiling until syrup registers 238 to 242°F. Immediately remove from heat and, with mixer at high speed, slowly pour hot syrup in a thin stream down side of bowl into whites, beating constantly. Beat, scraping down side of bowl with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes in a standing mixer or 15 with a handheld. (It is important that meringue is properly cooled before proceeding.)

With mixer at medium speed, gradually add butter 1 piece at a time, beating well after each addition until incorporated. (Buttercream will look soupy after some butter is added if meringue is still warm. If so, briefly chill bottom of bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all of butter is added but will come back together by the time beating is finished.) Add vanilla and beat 1 minute more.

Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting (from Cooks Illustrated March 2000)

The whole eggs, whipped until airy, give this buttercream a light, satiny-smooth texture that melts on the tongue.

Makes about 4 cups

4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch table salt
1 pound unsalted butter (4 sticks), softened, each stick cut into quarters

1. Combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt in bowl of standing mixer; place bowl over pan of simmering water. Whisking gently but constantly, heat mixture until thin and foamy and registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer.

2. Beat egg mixture on medium-high speed with whisk attachment until light, airy, and cooled to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add butter, one piece at a time. (After adding half the butter, buttercream may look curdled; it will smooth with additional butter.) Once all butter is added, increase speed to high and beat 1 minute until light, fluffy, and thoroughly combined. (Can be covered and refrigerated up to 5 days.)

Fluffy Vanilla Icing (from Cooks Illustrated March 2007)

3 cups, enough to frost one 4-layer cake

2 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar (7 ounces)
¼ cup water plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon corn syrup

Combine all ingredients in bowl of standing mixer or large heatproof bowl and set over medium saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water (do not let bottom of bowl touch water). Cook, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved and mixture registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove bowl from heat and transfer mixture to standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 5 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and continue to beat until mixture has cooled to room temperature and stiff peaks form, 5 minutes longer.

closer.jpg