Thursday, January 19, 2012

Red Wine Chocolate Cake: A compromise

I went to a birthday party at a local bar two weeks ago.

It was very out of character for many reasons - first because I didn't know the person all that well and (usually) break out in hives at the thought of social situations that involve groups of strangers who all know each other. They stand in their little clusters laughing at their inside jokes, while I cower in the corner, nodding and smiling and looking very intently at my phone, because I don't know how to interject myself into their conversation without feeling like one of those beeping trucks that's backing up.

Right into those inside jokes that, in my hyper-neurotic world, are clearly about me and my weird phone-staring and smile-nodding and corner-dwelling.

But that's all beside the point.

The party was at a bar.

And it didn't start until 10:00 p.m.

I don't go out at 10:00 p.m. I'm home by 10:00 p.m. Home with my hair in an ugly knot bun, sporting my dark teal sweatpants, a swag-bag Nasoya tofu t-shirt and pink hoodie sweatshirt -- my unofficial apartment uniform. It gets extra scandalous when I break out my thick socks and purple fuzzy slippers.

It's dead sexy. Like if I was a contestant on "The Bachelor," it would be a total T.K.O. from the moment I stepped one slippered foot out of the limo with my mug of hot tea.

This party was huge for me. I was going out at 10:00 p.m. To mingle with strangers. At a bar. On a Friday night.

This is the sort of crazy shit that happens in the "year of yes."

Because, as I told myself over and over again so I wouldn't wimp out and go to bed at a "reasonable hour," it could be the best night ever. I could be the life of the party in my pink blouse and black cashmere cardigan. I could meet a guy who complimented my black flats and wanted to take me to Osteria Mozza.

And there could be cake.

This was what was going through my head as I willed myself to stay awake by dancing around my apartment to Rihanna's S&M on repeat. I secretly hoped that, yes, there might be a cute boy there with horrible taste in women (i.e. me), but more importantly, that someone would show up at the bar with an overly frosted sheet cake with balloons on it and those fake candles that don't blow out. Clearly that would be a totally normal thing to happen at a 27-year-old's birthday party.

At a bar.

At 10:00 p.m.

On a Friday night.

Even so, I held onto that sliver of irrational hope that someone else in my decade might be as lame as I am and still equate birthday parties with cake and balloons rather than tequila and regret. That someone else might be wishing they were home drinking tea and snuggling up with a fleece blanket rather than pretending not to be appalled by the subpar wine list and girls wearing tube tops as dresses.

But there was no cake. I was not the life of the party. And nobody complimented my flats or asked if they could buy me an al dente pasta dinner. There were half-naked strangers and inside jokes and loud voices and music that made my head hurt.

And, like I said, no cake.

There should have been cake.

At the very least, this cake, a red wine chocolate cake with mascarpone whipped cream and sifted powdered sugar that, in the world of people above the age of 10, is as close as one can get to neon-colored frosting balloons.

It's a proper compromise for an adult's birthday party - at home with friends, in an office with co-workers, or at a bar.

At 10:00 p.m.

On a Friday night.

Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Whipped Mascarpone
From Smitten Kitchen
Serves 8-10

Notes: In all honesty, when I set about to make this cake, I was expecting the wine flavor to dominate, to overwhelm the chocolate and leave that distinct boozy taste that I always hated in chocolate liquors. Instead, the wine was only perceptible through its fruit, lending a sort of jamminess that only enhanced the flavor of the chocolate. I loved it - so much so that half-way through my first slice, I emphatically declared to my coworkers that I would be having a second. I can easily see this becoming my go-to chocolate cake - and not just because of how easy it is to throw together. The only difficult part was finding Dutch processed cocoa, which is alkalized and less bitter than regular cocoa (think Ghiradelli and Hershey's, et all). Check the ingredients - if it says "alkalized," you should be good to go!

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
3/4 cup red wine, any kind you like (I used a sweet 'n spicy Shiraz)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Powdered sugar

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup chilled heavy or whipped cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform or round cake pan with parchment paper. Grease paper and exposed sides of the pan with butter, then lightly dust with flour.

Cut butter into smallish chunks into a large bowl, then use an electric mixer set to medium to cream till pliant. The butter will likely stick to the blades of the mixer - that's ok. Add the sugars, then continue beating with the mixer until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla (adding it before the egg makes the vanilla flavor more prominent), then add the egg and yolk and beat for a couple more minutes. Finally, add in the red wine, paying no attention to the somewhat garbled appearance of the batter at this juncture in the batter-making process.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt -- either directly into the wet ingredients, or into a separate bowl if the desire so strikes. Mix with the electric beater until about 3/4 combined, then fold the rest of the floury bits in with a rubber spatula. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing with the spatula until the top is even.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center comes out almost clean. (Mine took around 28-29 minutes and the tester was still a bit sticky, but not overtly so. It was perfect once cooled completely.) If using a regular cake pan, you can let cool for 10 minutes or so and then invert onto the rack to cool completely, but if you are using a springform pan, feel free to let it reside in said pan until you are ready to serve.

For Whipped Topping:

Combine mascarpone, whipping cream, sugar and vanilla in medium bowl with tall sides (to prevent splashage). Beat with electric mixer over medium-high speed for a couple minutes, or until soft peaks form. It is advisable to not overbeat. I may have done so with this preliminary wine cake attempt, but didn't so much mind the thick texture.

Dust top of cake with sifted powdered sugar, then slice into slivers. Top with whipped mascarpone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Black Bean Chili with Butternut Squash: A year of "yes"

2012 is going to be the year of "yes."

Or at least that's what I'm telling people. It sounds considerably more profound than my other new year's resolutions -- get to a point where I can afford my monthly car payments, floss more and my personal favorite... participate in a flash mob. (Bonus points if the song is Michael Jackson's "Thriller.")

While it's my job to be a "yes" woman in my professional life, I haven't been so good at "yes" in my personal life. I've become an expert at coming up with excuses of why I can't say "yes." Usually something along the lines of, "I'm tired." "I need to use up my kale." "I might be getting sick."

And, the ever redundant, "I'm signed up for a Bar Method class."

It's easy to say "no" and do what I always do because it's safe and comfortable and doesn't require me to put on makeup and clothes that don't have elastic waistbands. It's easy to hibernate at home and eat the same quinoa dinner I've had three nights in a row. It's easy to pretend that I'm okay with letting the last lingering months of my 20s (21 to be exact) pass by without acknowledging that I'm getting older and won't always be able to wear a backless top without a bra.

Not that I would do that.

But, I could.


If I keep going to those Bar Method classes.

The funny thing is that I rarely regret saying "yes." At least not until the next morning when the alarm goes off at 6 am and I realize that the second (or third) glass of wine wasn't the brilliant idea it seemed to be the night before. Yet even in those self-loathing, stomach-churning moments, I feel a glimmer of satisfaction that I feel miserable because I had that much fun.

My favorite memories of 2011 are of the nights when I abandoned my personality to stay out past my bed time, to drink and eat a little more than I should have, and to enjoy the moment without thinking too much about the consequences of that moment. I want more of that this year -- more enjoying and less thinking. More "yes" and less "no."

In as many aspects of my life as possible.

I'm saying "yes" to second slices of cake. "Yes" to skinny jeans (until those second slices of cake catch up with me). And "yes" to black bean chili -- a recipe I've been wanting to make ever since I saw Esi rave about it on her blog, Dishing Up Delights nearly a year ago.

After months of staring at the bag of black beans I'd bought to make the chili, I finally made it, symbolically, on New Year's Day. It was everything Esi promised it would be -- sultry, smoky and dramatically flavorful and hearty for a chili not containing any meat. I served it simply with a generous heap of Greek yogurt and cilantro.

It was the perfect way to begin my year of "yes." A year of possibility.

And flash mobs.

Black Bean Chili with Butternut Squash and Couscous
Adapted from Dishing Up Delights (via Bon Appetit)
Serves 4-5

Adaptations: I used extra butternut squash (nearly double what it called for), added cumin, and used whole wheat couscous instead of bulgur. I also used vegetable broth instead of just water.

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 1/4 tablespoons chili powder
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 14.5 ounce can fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup dried black beans (resist the urge to use canned), rinsed
1 chipotle chile from canned chipotle chiles in adobo, minced
1 teaspoons dried oregano
5 cups water
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon vegetable base
2-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup whole wheat couscous
Greek yogurt
Cilantro, chopped

Heat a large heavy-bodied saucepan over medium high heat. Once hot, add the olive oil and swirl it around so it coats the base of the pan. Add the onions and cook, stirring rather frequently, for a good ten minutes or until they are soft and well-browned. Add the garlic and cook for another couple minutes. Turn down the heat, and add the coriander, cumin and chili powder, stirring for a minute so the spices get slightly toasty and fragrant, but don't burn.

Stir in the tomatoes and their juices, the beans, and oregano. Add 5 cups water and the vegetable base. Bring to a boil, than reduce the heat and cover with the lid slightly ajar. Simmer, stirring occasionally to check on the amount of liquid, until the beans are tender (about 2-3 hours depending on how fresh your beans are -- mine took close to 3).

Add the butternut squash and continue cooking, uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir in the whole wheat couscous and cook for another 10 minutes until the couscous pearls have plumped up and the squash is tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately topped with Greek yogurt and fresh cilantro.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Favorite Recipes of 2011

I blame the arsonist.

I fully intended to post my favorite recipes of 2011 on New Year's Eve while I sat on my couch, my hand glued to a giant glass of white wine. That was the big plan. Couch time. Giant glass of white wine time. Sentimental reflective time.

It was going to make me uber-emotional and obnoxious. I was going to tell you that "2011 was a year of monumental change for me." I was going to tell you that I got a new job, a new car and a renewed sense of self. It was going to be gross and cliched and everything that makes me hate New Year's and resolutions and people who get reflective after they drink too many giant glasses of white wine.

Instead, I spent New Year's Eve driving down to my parents' house in Orange County because I was convinced that the LA arsonist was going to torch my new car, Molly. I didn't even consider that Molly was more likely to get in an accident driving on the 405, in the fog, on New Year's, than she was to be singled out for the arsonist's next sparkler. Clearly, my reflective skills were not functioning properly.

Again, I blame the arsonist.

Today, four days into the new year, I'm not feeling nearly as sentimental about 2011. I'm feeling convicted. Ready to eat 2012 whole with big messy bites. Just like I ate these recipes -- my favorite of 2011 -- this past year.

While I was, you know, going through all those monumental changes.

Nancy Silverton's Bran Muffins

These will always be the muffins I ate on the morning *I* bought my first car. It's only fitting that they were practically perfect in every way - hearty specimens with an unexpected depth of flavor and tenderness to their interiors. I wouldn't expect anything less from LA's queen of bread and pastry.

Spice Krinkles with Dried Apricots and Chocolate
I thought I'd moved passed the days when I could eat a half dozen cookies in a single sitting. Until this recipe came along. I ate no less than 15 of them this holiday season. These spicy vixens killed all my restraint with their chewy interiors, crackly exteriors and bold accents of apricot and chocolate. Joy to the World, indeed.

Colorful Lentil and Couscous Salad
I never knew a salad could smell intoxicating before I encountered this recipe adapted from the Kitchn. Lentils become anything but ho-hum with the addition of pomegranate molasses, sundried tomatoes and sauteed onion and peppers. Eating it almost made me forget that I'm supposed to be the Quinoa Queen -- not the Lentil Lady.

Egg Bruschetta
The only way to improve the most famous tomato sauce in the country is to add an egg and serve it on top of toasted bread. Scott Conant = Genius.

Warm Quinoa Salad with Fried Egg, Spring Vegetables and Herbs

This dish was the theme song of my spring. I scoured the farmer's market every weekend for asparagus and fresh English peas, and went through four basil plants from Trader Joe's making it over the course of the season. This is what delicious obsession looks like.

I coined these squares of sin the "Be-All End-All Brownie" for good reason. I have no desire to make any other brownie recipe ever again.

Warm Chickpea and Roasted Cauliflower Salad
Nine months later and I'm still hopelessly hooked on this salad. It's gotten to the point where I can't pass a cauliflower at the farmer's market or grocery store without envisioning it in this form. The key is using absurd quantities of lemon, garlic, parsley, basil, and Parmesan. You'll need a good half head of cauliflower per person.

Red Quinoa Salad with Apples, Walnuts, Dried Cranberries, and Smoked Gouda
This is the salad I make for people who say they don't like quinoa. It's trail mix in a less depraved form --utterly addicting with the different textures and assertive tang from the dried cranberries and sherry vinegar. The deal is sealed with the tiny cubes of smoked gouda. Quinoa haters don't stand a chance.
Chana Masala
I'm fairly convinced that this recipe is why Molly Wizenberg married her husband Brandon. I would marry a blender if he made me a crock of these saucy, seductively spiced chickpeas. Particularly if he served it to me with quinoa and roasted cauliflower on the side.

Braised Kale with Chickpeas
This simple dish was the sleeper hit of the year. While perfectly worthy of best recipe status as is, it was also a saving grace without the chickpeas -- a proper side dish for a roast chicken dinner with the parents or companion for a serious steak. It was perhaps most significant, however, when curtly topped with a runny fried egg. It would be indecent of me to not to admit how many mornings I relied on it as a recovery breakfast after one too many indulgences the evening before.