Chocolate Frosting

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If you are an expat wanting to make an American-style cake, you will probably be frustrated to find that frosting is unavailable in your local supermarket.  This lack of frosting is actually quite surprising, considering how trendy cupcakes have become over the past two years. Sure, you can find Betty Crocker frosting in some specialty shops, but expect to pay up to 6€ per can. Some online cupcake supply sellers offer tubes of decorating icing (but no frosting!), but there again, it can be pricey – about 4€ for 4¼ oz. tube, before shipping.

When you want to frost your cake, but you don’t want to spend a small fortune or have to wait three days for it to be delivered to you, your best bet is to make it yourself. Frosting is easy to make and can be whipped up in a jiffy while your caking is cooling. You may try several different recipes before finding the frosting that suits your taste. I have tried many over the years, some of which were too sweet, too thick or too stiff. This chocolate frosting, however, has never let me down. Be sure to sift the powdered sugar and the cocoa powder. It may take a couple of extra minutes, but the frosting will have a lighter, fluffier texture.

Chocolate frosting

Ingredients:
½ cup butter, softened
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar (sifted)
½ cup cocoa powder (sifted)
6 Tablespoons heavy cream
1½ teaspoons vanilla

Directions:
Cream the butter in a large bowl. Add the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, cream and vanilla.

Beat with an electric mixer until the frosting reaches the desired consistency, occasionally scraping the sides and bottom of bowl to ensure that all of the ingredients are well blended. If the frosting is too thick, add a little extra cream a few drops at a time, and continue beating until the desired texture is achieved.

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The recipe yields enough to frost a 2-layer cake (and lick the beaters and sides of bowl !). For the purposes of this post, I simply made a 1-layer chocolate snack cake (without the ganache), and divided the frosting recipe in half.

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Herb Update (Progress!)

Three weeks ago, I wrote about my new attempt at indoor herb gardening. I planted parsley, oregano, chives and mint. I promised to post progress reports and promptly crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t kill the poor plants before I actually had something to report. As you may recall in my previous post, I mentioned that I was not born with green thumbs, so even a potted herb plant is a daunting experience for me.

However, three weeks later, I am happy to report that all of my plants are still alive! One of them – the parsley – is actually thriving, much to my delight and astonishment. The first parsley sprouts began to appear after a week or so. After ten days, they looked like this:

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Today, they look like this:

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I must be doing something right. Perhaps a repotting will soon be necessary.

The oregano is also doing well. I honestly didn’t expect it to grow at all, as I thought it required more sunlight than is available in my apartment. Yet sprout it did and it is still growing. New sprouts are appearing almost daily:

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The mint and chives have taken longer to show themselves. I don’t know if this is normal for these particular herbs, or if I was doing something wrong. But patience has its rewards, and I now have three of these tiny mint plants:

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As for the chives, I was beginning to wonder if they would ever grow. Some other plant, which is not a chive and looks suspiciously mint-like, started to grow instead and I thought perhaps I got my pots mixed up. I now believe the rebel mint plant is merely the result of a stray seed during the potting process, for this morning I noticed this small, green chive sprout poking through the soil (It’s hard to see in the middle of the photo, but believe me, it’s there.):

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Now that the plants are growing and appear healthy, a new challenge presents itself. With summer vacation fast approaching, I need to find a way to keep my plants adequately watered during our two-week absence. I have read about DIY solutions that work for a few days, but nothing that would appear to work over longer periods of time. Suggestions welcome!

Coleslaw

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Nothing says “summer” quite like barbecued (insert your favorite meat here) with a generous helping of coleslaw on the side. Coleslaw is cool, creamy, sweet and sour all at once, and it seems to go well with just about everything.  However, if you’re an expat like me, you probably find that the coleslaws sold in your local supermarkets are excessively liquid and taste like vinegar. Nothing like the creamy, sweet coleslaw you grew up with.

As a child, like most kids, I thought I hated vegetables. Yet I distinctly remember enjoying my grandmother’s homemade coleslaw, made with vegetables from her garden. She very wisely never told me what was in it, for had I known it contained cabbage and onions, I probably never would have tried it! I did try it, however, and coleslaw has been one of my favorite side dishes ever since.

I never tried making it myself, though, because in my naïveté, I always assumed it would be too complicated and time-consuming for me to ever possibly get it right. Fed up with the industrial, store-bought coleslaws, I nevertheless decided to venture to recreate my grandmother’s coleslaw. My grandmother never used a recipe, but my aunt was able to give me some helpful suggestions and point me in the right direction. I was amazed at how few ingredients are actually required to make good coleslaw! A little trial and error was needed to get the measurements right, but I managed to make a tasty, basic coleslaw that I will probably become my standard coleslaw recipe from now on. I say “basic” because I’m sure there are ways to vary the flavors by adding other ingredients. Maybe a little garlic or possibly some Espelette pepper?

I recommend letting this coleslaw chill overnight, so that the different flavors have time to blend together before serving. Take care not to over-season the coleslaw, even if it seems bland while you are making it. The flavors will intensify slightly during chilling. Taste before serving, and adjust seasoning as needed.

It’s not quite my grandmother’s coleslaw, but then, I don’t suspect any coleslaw ever will be.

Coleslaw
(Yield: approx. 5 cups)

½ head of white cabbage
1 large carrot, peeled
½ white onion
1½ cups Miracle Whip
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ tsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

Shred the cabbage, carrot and onion. Mix the vegetables together in a food processor until they are finely and uniformly chopped. This may seem redundant, but I do get better results by shredding and chopping the vegetables.

Place shredded/chopped vegetables in a large bowl or Tupperware container. Add the remaining ingredients, and stir until well combined.

Cover and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Serve and enjoy!

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I did it! Today, I decided to try something that I’ve wanted to do for the longest time, but never dared attempt! I decided to try and grow my own herbs in my kitchen, “try” being the operative word here. I have always felt that it would be more fun – and flavorful – to cook using fresh, homegrown herbs, but I’m not exactly known for having a green thumb. Despite my very best intentions, I have an unfortunate knack for killing any plant life that enters my home. It’s quite sad, really.

I refuse to accept defeat, however, and decided to read up on indoor herb-growing. The biggest obstacle for me to overcome is the lack of direct sunlight in my apartment. This has always been the most daunting factor for me, and the main reason I never tried herb-growing in the past. Indeed, there is a small storage room which separates my kitchen from the outside world, limiting the amount of sunlight that actually enters the kitchen. We are not allowed to have windowsill planters (nor anything else that alters the outward appearance of the building), so I really have no choice but to grow them indoors. A recent reorganization of our storage room has increased the influx of sunlight to my kitchen, prompting me to finally give herb-growing a try.

It seemed to me that it would be best to start out simply, choosing three, easy-to-care-for herbs that I use frequently when cooking, and that tend to thrive in low light conditions (or so I read): chives, peppermint, and parsley. I also decided to try growing oregano (because I love oregano!), but I fear that I won’t be successful. I understand that oregano likes well-lit areas, and I’m not sure my kitchen is the right environment for it. I’ll give it a go, however, and hope for the best.

Today, I picked up some seeds, pots and soil labeled “suitable for organic gardening” and planted my future (or so I hope!) herbs. I am very much a beginner when it comes to growing herbs, but I’m looking forward to learning more about caring for these plants so that they may thrive. I will keep track of their progress and update the blog accordingly. So wish me luck, dear readers. I’m going to need it!

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with Lemon Glaze

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I’m not a huge fan of lemons, but I love lemon desserts. Throw in some poppy seeds and it’s even better! I don’t remember where I found this cake recipe, but the glaze is straight out of my Betty Crocker cookbook. I find it really complements the cake. I like to whip this up when I know people will be stopping by for coffee or tea. It’s light and moist, and works well as a snack cake or a dessert.

As much as I love poppy seeds, I find that 1/3 cup is a bit too much for this cake. Next time I will reduce to ¼ cup, which will most likely yield better results. As for the lemon juice, fresh is best, but bottled will do. When using bottled juice, I just omit the zest.

I realize this post is a bit on the short side, but there’s not much to say about this cake. I will let the lemony goodness speak for itself!

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with Lemon Glaze

Cake Ingredients:
1 cup flour
½ cup sugar
(¼ to) 1/3 cup poppy seeds
1½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
¼ cup butter, melted
2 egg whites
½ cup milk
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Glaze Ingredients:
2Tbsp. + 2tsp. butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1½ tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. hot water

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and grease a loaf pan.
  2. For the cake: Combine the flour, sugar, poppy seeds, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients to the flour mixture and stir until just combined.
  4. Pour into loaf pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
  5. Let cool 15 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.
  6. For the glaze: Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat.
  7. Stir in the powdered sugar until well blended. Add lemon juice.
  8. Stir in the hot water. If the glaze is too thick, add more hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the glaze achieves the desired consistency.
  9. Spread over top of cake and let drizzle down the sides.photo (20)

Amish White Bread

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There’s nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread just out of the oven to make your mouth water and your stomach growl. I love having that wonderful bakery smell in my home, so I occasionally enjoy making my own bread. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why bother? You live in France, land of bread. Indeed, it may seem like a lot of hassle to make my own bread when I can just pop down to the corner bakery and pick up a loaf whenever I feel like it. But where’s the fun in that? Actually, most French bakeries sell a wide variety of breads from baguettes to pains de champagne to any number of specialty loaves. But when you’re craving a sandwich – a real sandwich, not just a measly slice of ham stuck in a baguette – there aren’t a lot of sandwich bread options. Yes, French supermarkets carry sandwich breads (white and wheat), but they are usually very small, dry and stale-tasting (the only real exception to this rule being Harry’s brand American Sandwich bread).

Making your own bread can be a nice, fun alternative to the store-bought, industrial sandwich breads. This Amish White Bread is one of my favorites! Like most breads, it does require a little planning ahead of time, since the dough needs time to rise. I have often considered buying a bread machine to make the bread-making process easier, but I always end up changing my mind. To be honest, I have much more fun making my bread the old-fashioned way. Sure, a machine would be easier, but I would miss the satisfaction of kneading the dough by hand and watching it rise.

When making your own bread, remember that the amount of flour in the recipe usually includes the flour used on your work surface, as this flour will also be incorporated into the dough during the kneading process. In the present case, the recipe calls for 6 to 7 cups of flour. I use 6 cups in the dough and the remainder for kneading. Of course, you may not need to use the entire 7th cup.

This recipe for Amish White Bread yields 2 loaves, but you can easily divide the ingredients in half to make just one loaf. A couple of helpful measurements when making just one loaf: 1/6 cup of sugar = 2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. ; 1¼ Tbsp. of shortening = 1 Tbsp. + ¾ tsp.

Sliced thick, this makes wonderful French toast.

Amish White Bread
(yield: 2 loaves)

Ingredients:
1 packet dry yeast (¼ oz. or approx.2½ tsp.)
1/2 cup warm water
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
2 cups water
2 1/2 Tbsp. shortening
6 – 7 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. butter

Directions:
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.

Mix the sugar, salt, 2 cups of water and shortening together in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast mixture and stir until well combined.

Add the flour one cup at a time until a soft dough forms.

Place dough on a well-floured surface and knead gently until the dough is smooth and the flour is well-incorporated, like so:

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Place in a large, greased bowl. Cover and let the dough rise for 2 hours, or until it has nearly doubled in size.

              after kneading :                                     2 hours later:
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“Deflate” the dough with a gentle punch to its center. Divide the dough into two loaves.

Place each loaf in a greased 9″ x 5″ loaf pan and prick the tops with a fork.

Let the dough rise another 2 hours, or until it reaches the top of the loaf pan (or slightly higher).

           newly-formed loaf:                               2 hours later:
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Bake in a preheated 375°F (190°C) oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Let cool for about 10 minutes.

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Rub the butter (about 1 scant Tbsp. per loaf) over the tops of the loaves.

Turn the loaf pans onto their sides for a minute or two to loosen the bread. Remove the loaves from the pans and let cool completely… if you can wait that long!

Chocolate Snack Cake with Chocolate Ganache Topping

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Okay, so this isn’t so much an expat thing as it is a “my-daughter-and-I-had-a-craving-for-chocolate” kind of thing. This cake is perfect for those moments, because it is moist and chocolately, and can be whipped up in no time! Even without the topping, it’s delicious.

When I was a newlywed, my sister had the brilliant idea to give me the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (9th edition) for Christmas (Yes, my sister has a knack for picking out the perfect gifts!) That book was a wonderful source of recipes, hints, tips and techniques as I learned to hone my cooking skills over the years. Even now, though many of the pages are stained, wrinkled or torn, I still turn to that big, red binder when I need some culinary inspiration. It was in that book that I found the recipes for a chocolate snack cake and a chocolate ganache. I tried the cake, and it instantly became my go-to chocolate cake recipe for every occasion. It is my daughter’s favorite cake, and she asks me to make it every year for her birthday. I just simply double the recipe to make a 2-layer cake. The only adjustments I made are to substitute lemon juice for the vinegar to add an extra tablespoonfull of cocoa powder (for a little extra chocolateness!).

For the ganache, it is important to use a good quality chocolate that contains cocoa butter (like chocolate is supposed to!). Poor quality chocolate made with vegetable oil will result in a ganache that is too liquid.

Chocolate Snack Cake

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup baking cocoa (+1Tbsp.)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. white vinegar (or lemon juice)
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup cold water

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour an 8″ or 9″ cake pan.
Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl until well-blended.
In a small bowl, combine oil, vinegar (or lemon juice) and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture, along with the water, stirring until well-blended.
Pour into cake pan and bake 30-35 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Chocolate Ganache

Ingredients:
2/3 cup heavy cream
7 oz. baking chocolate, broken into small pieces

Directions:
In a saucepan, gently heat cream and chocolate together over low heat, stirring until chocolate is melted and mixture is well blended.
Remove from heat and let stand 5-10 minutes or until ganache has thickened.
Pour onto the cake, spreading over the top and letting the ganache drizzle down the sides of cake.

Crème anglaise

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Honestly, I never heard of this until I came to Europe, but I quickly learned to love it! It’s a liquid, vanilla-flavored custard sauce (think egg nog without the spices or rum) that the French serve with many different desserts – especially cakes. Crème anglaise literally translates to “English cream”, although whether or not the sauce actually originated in England is unknown.

Crème anglaise can be purchased in any French supermarket and generally comes in 200ml, 500ml or 1L cartons. But as always, I find it’s more fun to make my own! It only takes a few minutes to prepare, but does require some chilling time before serving. If you prefer, you can use a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract (I just never seem to have whole beans on hand). If you do use a bean, remember to remove it after the custard has thickened and you have turned off the stove.

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Crème anglaise (Custard Sauce)
(Yield: 1 cup)

Ingredients:
1 cup of milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 eggs yolks

Directions:
Using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs and sugar until the mixture reaches a creamy texture and pale yellow color.

In a saucepan, bring the milk and vanilla to a boil. Pour the hot milk over the egg mix and blend well. Pour the custard back into the saucepan and, over very low heat, stir constantly with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens and coats the spoon. Do not let the custard boil or it might curdle!

Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Cover, and store in refrigerator until ready to serve. Enjoy!

Miracle Whip Copycat

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Do you want mayo or Miracle Whip on your sandwich?

For decades, that question has fueled heated debates in many American households over which product is the better choice. For some, the sweeter flavor of Miracle Whip is a refreshing alternative the strong taste of mayonnaise. For others, there simply is no alternative to mayo.

Personally, I’m more “middle-of-the-road” on this issue, and I enjoy both condiments. But Miracle Whip supporters who come to France will be sorry to learn that their beloved dressing is nowhere to be found! Indeed, the French have never heard of this product, and even if they had, I doubt they would venture a taste. The French are mayonnaise purists, and to suggest a possible alternative is unimaginable.

I like French mayonnaise, but I do find that its flavor is a bit too strong for certain recipes. If a recipe calls for mayonnaise, I reduce the quantity and add a little crème fraîche or plain yogurt (1 cup mayo ≈ ¾ cup mayo + ¼ cup crème fraîche).

But what’s a Miracle Whip lover to do? There are numerous substitute suggestions and copycat recipes available online, and so I decided to try my hand at making my own Miracle Whip! It’s actually very similar to making mayonnaise, with a few additional ingredients.

My first attempt was an utter failure. The egg base never emulsified and I ended up with a yellow, oily, liquid mess. But I refused to admit defeat and tried again. The first time around, I added the oil slowly, but apparently not slowly enough. So on my second try, once the egg base began ever-so-slightly to emulsify, I paid careful attention to add the oil a spoonful at time, letting the eggs begin to “re-emulsify” between additions. This took a while, but after adding about half the oil, the mixture was sufficiently thick that I could add the remaining oil a bit more quickly.

In the end, I obtained the creamy white, slightly sweet dressing I was hoping for. It has been so long since I last tasted Miracle Whip that I cannot be one hundred percent certain that the copycat version tastes the same. Truth be told, it’s probably somewhere between Miracle Whip and mayo. Perfect for a “middle-of-the-roader” like myself!

Here is the recipe, for those who would like to give it a try. Feel free to adjust the seasoning to your liking.

Miracle Whip Copycat
(Yield: approx. 2 cups)

Ingredients:
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. powdered sugar
3 Tbsp.lemon juice
1½ cups oil
¼ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. paprika
1½ tablespoons flour
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup boiling water
2 Tbsp. vinegar

Directions:
In a food processor, using the whisk attachment, blend together the egg yolks, salt, powdered sugar and 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice.

When the egg mixture begins to thicken, start adding the oil 1 spoonful at a time, beating continuously. After adding all the oil, blend in the remaining 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice, garlic and paprika.

In a small bowl, mix the flour, mustard, vinegar and water until well-blended. Heat in a saucepan over low heat until, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Pour into the egg mixture and blend well. Store in containers in the refrigerator.

Cream Puffs (Choux à la crème)

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My husband, who is French, recently challenged me to make cream puffs. I admit, I’ve always been hesitant to try French desserts as I feared they would be too complicated. I decided to give it a go nonetheless, and I was actually surprised to discover how easy cream puffs are to make! While I still haven’t found an icing recipe that I like, I was quite pleased with the pastry and filling.

I thought the pastry would be a daunting experience, but in fact, it was quick and easy to prepare and only requires a few ingredients, all of which I had on hand. It took me a couple of tries to get it right; the first batch was inedible and ended up in the trash. While the dough is easy enough, the key to yummy cream puffs is, I believe, in the oven temperature and cooking time. The recipe I used said to bake the puffs for 20 minutes in a 200°C (400°F) oven. This did not work for me at all! The puffs were burned on top and undercooked in the center. Every oven is different, of course, but I obtained better results baking the puffs at 190°C (375°F) for about 25 minutes. Also, I formed the first batch of puffs using a pastry bag, which gave them a very… unappetizing shape. The second time around, I “dropped” the dough onto the baking sheet by heaping tablespoonfulls, the way I would a cookie, gently smoothing out the tops and sides as needed. This gave the puffs a more uniformly rounded shape.

While the puffs were in the oven, I made the crème patissière filling. Again, I was expecting this to be a complicated process; but in fact, it is very similar to making vanilla pudding! Once the puffs and the filling had cooled, I was able to fill the puffs using a pastry bag with a narrow tip.

After the filling process, I made the icing. This did not go as well as I had hoped. I found a recipe for a fondant icing, but it turned out to be a vanilla glaze, the kind one drizzles over cinnamon rolls. Tasty, but not the right icing for cream puffs. The recipe called for an egg white and about 180g of powdered sugar. The result was far too liquid, so I added a little extra sugar. This thickened it a bit, so I dipped the tops of the puffs in the icing. Apparently, the icing was still too liquid, and it dripped down the sides of the puffs and turned translucent as it set – like a glaze, rather than an icing. I placed the cream puffs on a cooling rack in the refrigerator to the let the icing set, taking care to line the shelf with parchment paper to catch the drips.

Despite the icing fiasco, the cream puffs were quite tasty – even better the next day!

And now for the recipe, with step-by-step directions (except for the icing – I will post a recipe for that as soon I find one that is suitable). Converting the amounts from metric to US Standard can result in some unusual measurements, but I’ve tried to get them as close possible:

Cream Puffs
(yield: 12)

Ingredients for pastry
– 1/3 c. + 1 tsp. butter
– 1 c. flour
– 1 c. water
– 3 eggs
– 1 tsp. sugar
– pinch of salt

Ingredients for crème patissière filling
– 2 c. milk
– 1 tsp. vanilla
– ½ c. sugar
– 2 egg yolks + 1 whole egg
– 1/3 c. + 4 tsp. flour
– pinch of salt

Pastry:
Preheat oven to 400°F (I prefer 375°F).

Heat the butter, water, sugar and salt together in a saucepan. When the butter is completely melted, add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the pan. Remove from heat.

Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each addition until each egg is fully incorporated into the dough. The result should look something like this:

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Place the dough in small mounds on a greased baking sheet. I use about 1 heaping (and I do mean “heaping”) tablespoon per puff.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastries are golden brown and spring back when touched. Let cool completely.

 

Filling:
Prepare ingredients. Heat the milk and salt in a saucepan.
While the milk is heating, beat the eggs and sugar together until they reach a pale yellow. Add the flour and vanilla. Gradually stir in the hot milk.

Pour le mixture back into the saucepan and continue stirring over low heat until it thickens. Let cool. To speed things up, I cover the surface of the filling with plastic wrap (to prevent a skin from forming) and I let it cool in the refrigerator.

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When the filling is completely cooled, put it in a pastry bag with a long, narrow tip, and fill the pastries by piercing them from underneath. How can you tell if the pastries are full? I judge the amount of filling by the weight of the pastry in my hand. You can also pierce another small hole in the top, and stop filling the pastry one the cream starts to come out of the top. That hole will ideally be covered by the icing. Store cream puffs in the refrigerator.