Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rhubarb Snack Cake with Pecan Streusel

I have recently been introduced to the concept of a snack cake. I don't mean Little Debbie snack cakes, although Star Crunch and those delectable chocolate cupcakes with the squiggly line should have a place in every balanced diet. No, I mean a cake one bakes purely for snacking. Not as rich as a coffee cake, nor sugary enough for dessert, but a light, moist, fruit-studded, streusel-topped snack cake. A cake that is both healthy and indulgent. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

So what makes a good snack cake? Well, it needs to contain a quick burst of sugar to give you some immediate energy, then have something lasting, some protein and fiber, to keep you alert and satisfied so you're not hungry again in an hour or so. This cake absolutely fits the bill. The recipe obviously contains sugar, as does the fruit, in this case either rhubarb or apple. But then you get lasting energy from the protein in the pecans, and the filling sensation from the whole wheat flour. It's really perfection in a slice. I highly recommend you try it. When you hit those afternoon hunger pangs at 3 o'clock and pull out a hearty chunk of homemade cake saved solely for that particular purpose, you'll know what I mean by indulgence. Contrary to most of my recent posts, it doesn't need to be chocolate. It's all about the snack cake.

Rhubarb (or Apple) Snack Cake with Pecan Streusel
(adapted from Cooking Light, May 2008)

2-3 cups finely chopped rhubarb (if frozen, thaw) or tart apple, such as Granny Smith
2 T all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
5 T unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1/4 of a Granny Smith apple, grated with a microplane (omit if using apple instead of rhubarb)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (a little more is fine, especially if using apple instead of rhubarb)
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (opt.)
1/2 tsp. salt
Cooking Spray

1/4 cup turbinado sugar (or sugar in the raw)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 T chilled butter, cubed
1/4 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray a 9x9-inch pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Combine rhubarb or apple in a small bowl with 2 T of flour. Toss; set aside. (This step, coating the fruit with flour, is an excellent idea for any baked good in which fruit needs to be evenly distributed, such as blueberry muffins. The flour provides traction so the fruit does not settle on the bottom of the pan.)
3. Place the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer. Cream them at medium speed until light and fluffy--it will look like wet sand. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sour cream, grated apple (if using), and vanilla. Beat until well-combined.
4. Whisk flours, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg (if using), and salt in a medium bowl. Gradually add them (in three batches) to the butter mixture; beat on low speed until just combined.
5. Fold in the fruit. Pour into prepared pan.
6. To prepare the streusel: Combine the turbinado sugar with the cinnamon. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, two forks, or your fingers. Add the pecans; toss well. Sprinkle over the top of the cake.
7. Bake at 375 F for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (check after 40 minutes). Cool completely on a cooling rack.

Yield: 12 pieces.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chocolate Peanut Butter No-Bake Cookies

You probably know these cookies. This is one of those Fourth-of-July-picnic recipes, a true taste of Americana. They have almost as many names and variations as there are families who make them. (Many of those names, such as Cowplop Cookies or worse, don't sound terribly appetizing, though are aesthetically quite accurate.) I remember always wanting to eat the warm batter with a spoon, rather than waiting for it to be dished into cookies and cool. I probably ate half the batch, you know, "just to check." In my defense, though, so did my mother--we're both impatient chocolate lovers. It's amazing there were any cookies left the next day. When I finished my busiest teaching day this week, I came home almost too tired to bake, but really needing the process to relax and reward me after so many hours of having to be "on," so to speak. Suddenly, out of nowhere, these cookies popped into my head. I hadn't made or eaten them in years, but I just knew that the combination of nostalgia and ease of preparation made them the perfect treat for an early start to my weekend.

As you know, I have posted many recipes with healthy eating habits in mind: lower-fat cookies and muffins, small-batch recipes, etc. This is not one of those recipes. Between the peanut butter and the actual butter, these are relatively high in fat and calories. They are also, though, quite rich--you don't need many to get your fix. And they are full of good protein and fiber, thanks to the peanut butter and oats. I attempted a lower fat version a few days later, cutting the amount of butter in half. The Verdict: Not worth it. They're fine, but somewhat crumbly and chalky-feeling. And I am not one to sacrifice flavor and texture for anything. Make the recipe below, and if you're really worried, eat fewer or take an after-dessert stroll. It's all about balance, right?

These are wonderful, simple, and quick--10 minutes plus cooling time (about 30 minutes). No baking required, which also makes them perfect summer cookies, since the oven won't heat up the whole house when it's already 90 degrees outside. For those of you who, like me, live in the South, we have a few more good months of no-bake cookie weather. So give these a try if you need a quick bite of chocolate. Or some seriously decadent oatmeal ;-).

Chocolate Peanut Butter No-Bake Cookies

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 tsp. vanilla

In a saucepan over medium heat, add butter, sugar, cocoa, and milk. Whisk until butter is melted and small bubbles appear around the outer edges. Remove from heat. Stir in peanut butter, oats, and vanilla. Drop on mounded tablespoonfuls on parchment paper, waxed paper, or a Silpat. Allow to cool. Chill to help them stay together, and store in the fridge. That's it--enjoy!

Yields: 16-20 cookies

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mocha Lava Cake

I have been craving chocolate recently. Perhaps this is my reaction to the onslaught of summer fruit desserts like cobblers, crumbles, pies, and pastries. I do think of chocolate as more of a fall/winter flavor, and since the weather here in Oxford has been uncharacteristically cool and breezy, I imagine my desire for chocolate has kicked in early. This recipe not only satisfies my flavor cravings, but also my attraction to bizarre foods (or bizarre methods for making foods). I was talking to a friend on the phone this morning about using 7-Up and Mountain Dew as leaveners in baked goods, something I tried for a lemon cake and worked beautifully. I also love my blackberry cobbler recipe, how the batter rises from the bottom of the pan to the top while baking--it's like magic every time, even though I know it's a typical cobbler recipe. Small pleasures. This Mocha Lava Cake (note the cute play on words: Java/Lava? Eh?) follows a similar method: A thin batter poured into the bottom of a pan, wet stuff poured on top, then they switch places while baking. It is, in fact, much like Southern chocolate cobblers. And, possibly the best part of this recipe: You can serve this cake right away. No cooling, waiting, pacing, salivating--when it comes out of the oven, it's done. All you need is some ice cream.

But really, the method does seem almost ridiculous. The batter is not only thin in consistency, it is also thin in the pan--it only comes about a half-inch up the sides. Then you sprinkle a sugar-and-cocoa mixture over the batter, then you pour on a cup of coffee. Just pour it on--no stirring. Stick the whole thing in the oven and, 35 minutes later, you have a crisp chocolate "crust" on top of what amounts to mocha pudding. Unbelievable. I had to try this recipe out of sheer curiosity! It is so simple as well. It uses ingredients you most likely always have in your house (if you don't already, you should), and is an excellent last-minute dessert for a chocolate craving or unexpected guests--or both. As you can tell, the method is easy, and it only takes about 15 minutes to put together. You could easily bake this for guests after dinner while they chat and sip their wine--they'll barely miss you! Put the batter together while you brew the after-dinner coffee, then just steal a cup of that coffee for the cake before serving your guests. Simple, simple! You have to try it.

My only note on the recipe: I thought it would be easier to use my stovetop espresso maker to brew the coffee for the cake. It works, but the coffee flavor is quite strong. My husband loved it; I thought it was a little overpowering. I recommend strong coffee, but not espresso, for great balance.

Oh, one more note: Serve it with ice cream. I used Butter Pecan, but a good French Vanilla would be amazing. That buttery flavor really adds something. You could use coffee ice cream, but then I would top it with chocolate chips to bring out the chocolate a little more. Crazy? Perhaps. But it's never good to only go halfway on your cravings. Indulge a little.

Mocha Lava Cake
(adapted from the indomitable Paula Deen)

3/4 cup granulated sugar (for the batter)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (for the topping)
1 cup AP flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 1-oz. square semisweet baking chocolate (chocolate chips will work in a pinch)
2 T unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 T cocoa powder
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup coffee (liquid)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9x9-inch pan liberally with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Whisk together the 3/4 cup granulated sugar, flour, and baking powder, and pinch of salt. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan (or in a microwave). Add chocolate mixture to the flour mixture; mix well. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
3. Whisk the 1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, and cocoa in a medium bowl. Sprinkle on top of batter.
4. Pour coffee on top of batter and sugar; do not stir. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until top looks moist but no longer too wet. The center will look like there are pools of chocolate syrup. The base will be a chocolate syrup. Cool for 5-10 minutes.
5. Cut into 9 squares. Invert them when serving, so the syrup is on top. Add ice cream.

Definitely serve warm. Enjoy!