Chocolate Pudding: A Cautionary Tale

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Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding |

I stole a cookbook from some friends’ house a couple of months ago.

It happened like this.  I have this uncontrollable need flip through cookbooks, and this particular one, Molto Italiano, had too many recipes that I needed to try.

So I took it home with me.  I’ve had it all summer, and I’ve loved every recipe I’ve made from it.

My friends, the ones I stole it from — really don’t need it right now.  It’s summer time, and Ivan runs a whale watching boat.  Obviously he’s not getting crazy in the kitchen these days since he’s busy helping people commune with orcas and other wildlife currently frequenting the San Juan archipelago.  And Jackie, well, Jackie doesn’t really like to cook anyway.   That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I obviously need this book way more than they do.  I even made them pudding — courtesy of their cookbook — to prove it.

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding |

I brought cute little mason jar puddings to their house one night when Ivan made us salmon for dinner (I’m going to pretend that last sentence doesn’t completely undermine the rationale of my moral justification).

Those puddings I made that night, well, imagine a cool, creamy spoonful of dark chocolate with a bit of whipped cream and a toasted pine nut or two.  Oh, and behind all of that, add a hint of cinnamon for depth.  That Mario Batali, he really knows his stuff.

After the salmon dinner, we savored slow spoonfuls of rich pudding around a bonfire in Jackie and Ivan’s backyard.  The kids left us in peace and ran off to play in a huge dirt pile.  How perfect does that sound?

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding |

This story, remember, began with the act of stealing.  This story, dear reader, therefore, must end with a moral.  The moral of this particular tale could read, “Stealing cookbooks will spoil your pudding.”

If I had only returned the cookbook as I should have that night we ate pudding, I surely would have avoided the disaster I am about to relate.

Let me explain.

We had a party to attend, and I offered to bring something.  The magic of that pudding lingered in my thoughts, and, because I wasn’t yet ready to part with it, I still had the cookbook.

The pages of my own cookbooks alternate with splashes of sauce, cake batter, and, in once case, an entire bottle of balsamic vinegar.   I may be a thief, but I do have standards;  when using a borrowed (or stolen) book, I keep it far away from where I’m working.

Since this recipe came off so well the first time I made it, I got careless.  After a quick glance at the recipe, I sauntered over to the stove and got started.  Somehow, as I walked across my tiny kitchen, 1/3 cup flour transmogrified into 1/2 cup flour.  And the cookbook, too far away to trouble me, never got a second look.

I realized my error too late, long after the mixture seemed too thick and tasted of flour, long after it poured gloopily into those cute little jars.  This time around they did not look cute, and the pudding was neither smooth or creamy. It tasted more like gummy cake batter.

I hate to waste food, so I figured I’d serve these less-than-perfect puddings to our friends the next day anyway.  It’s not like cake batter tastes terrible, right?  With a little cream and a sprinkling pine nuts, they’d be just fine.  Right?  Right.

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding |

As I mulled this over, my husband walked out the door to check on his Biomechanics students who were madly preparing their final presentations for the following day.

“Ask them if they want pudding,” I called after him.

He returned in a hurry for the still-warm puddings.  Not long afterward , he came back with empty cups and a good report.  He did add a caveat:  “They looked so frazzled I’m not sure they paid much attention to the taste or texture.”

We still had the party to go to, so I made pudding again the next day.

This time, I read the recipe twice and used the proper amount of flour.    Oh, and, in penance, I ordered my own copy of the cookbook.

I’m glad I did.  Not only have I recaptured the pudding’s magic, but I now own a new cookbook.

And I’m almost sure I’ll never steal a cookbook again.  But I totally understand if you feel the need to hide your cookbooks when I come over to your house.

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding

Adapted from Molto Italiano.  Makes 10 servings.

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups milk
12 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted

Mix the cocoa powder, sugar, flour, and salt together in a large saucepan.   Whisk a portion of the milk into the dry ingredients to form a paste, and then slowly whisk in the remaining milk.   Over medium heat, slowly bring to a boil, whisking constantly, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon,  mixing well until the chocolate melts.  Divide the hot mixture between ten 6-ounce ramekins or small mason jars, pouring quickly to achieve the smoothest possible surface.

Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until cold.  Before serving, sprinkle with toasted pine nuts.  Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream, if desired.

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding |
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I usually shy away from cookies studded with walnuts or pecans.  Besides the fact that I’m allergic to walnuts, chunky nuts, in my opinion, interfere with the chocolate-to-dough balance in a perfect bite of cookie.

I do love pecans, though, and I love to bake with them — just not in cookies.

But then I stumbled across a recipe that called for finely chopped nuts instead of the usual chunks, and I started to wonder if this simple variation would change my mind about pecans in cookies.

A few good whirls in my food processor reduced those brainy looking nuts into small crumbs that I mixed into the dough.   The nuts give the cookies an interesting texture and a richness that elevates them a notch above your standard chocolate chip cookies.

Of course the addition of fine dark chocolate doesn’t hurt anything either.   I chopped part of a four-ounce bar — the part I didn’t eat while I worked — into irregular chunks, which resulted in cookies laced throughout with fine veins of chocolate, as well as rich chocolatey pockets inside.

I never thought I’d  get excited about cookies with pecans in them, but these sophisticated little bites have me hooked. Even my husband,  ever wary of nuts in any baked good, likes them.  His only suggestion — add more chocolate.  Next time, I’ll try not to snack on the chocolate bar.

Chocolate Pecan Cookies

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  Makes about three dozen cookies.

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups flour
1 mounded cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
2 – 4 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 375 ° F.  In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter and sugar with the paddle attachment until smooth and light.  Beat in egg, vanilla, and salt.  With the mixer on low, stir in nuts and chocolate.

Drop teaspoonfuls of dough right away onto parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake, or chill the dough for about 45 minutes before rolling it into 1-inch balls for smoother, more evenly shaped cookies. Bake until pale brown on top and slightly browner around the bottom edge, about 10 minutes.  Remove from baking sheets to cooling rack immediately.

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The Princess and the Dragon | Komodo Dragon Cake

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Create a komodo dragon cake from a single sheet cake and marshmallow fondant.

My friend Ellie, who just turned six, asked for a pink bedroom for her birthday.  Her mom and grandmother spent a week painting her walls a combination of Pom Pom and Princess pink.   When they finished, my friend Rita added a small tree flowering with Bubble Gum pink hearts.

Just in case you think you understand the personality of the the princess who lives in this pink wonderland, I need to tell you about her birthday party last weekend.  It featured no pink hearts or glittery crowns or knights in shining armor.    No, this party featured cold-blooded, scale-clad, sharp-toothed dragons. Komodo dragons.

About midway through the party, Ellie’s dad, a vertebrate morphologist, gave a short talk about the habits of Komodo dragons.  A spellbound group of girls learned, among other things, how Komodo dragons stick the forked tips of their tongues into Jacobson’s organs inside their mouths to help them detect the scent of small girls distant prey animals.

They also learned about how bacteria-laden saliva in Komodo dragons’ mouths poisons their prey.  They learned that, because of this nasty saliva, even if prey escapes with only a little bite, that single jaw-snap enables the Komodo dragon to follow its nose at a leisurely pace to a feast of fresh carrion or, at the very least, an animal simply too incapacitated to flee.  Ellie, who knew these facts by heart, could have delivered the lecture herself if Adam hadn’t been having so much fun.

Komodo Dragon 101 led right into a game of Komodo Dragon Mealtime.  Several adults ran off and hid in the yard. After counting to 50, snarling girls opened their eyes and descended on their prey.  The dragons delivered deadly poison “bites” (by way of cute reptile stickers) and chased their wounded targets until each one finally fell from laughter agony.  When the girls had their fill of pretending to be Komodo dragons, they got to eat cake.  Komodo dragon cake.

Several weeks before Ellie’s birthday, my friend Sharalyn told me about Ellie’s idea for the party, and she also told me that her daughter had asked if I’d make the cake.   I’m trying to learn to say no to things, but I  couldn’t get the idea of a Komodo dragon cake out of my head.

Many fruitless google searches for variations on “Komodo dragon cake” convinced me that no one has ever made such a cake before.  Finally I stumbled on a lizard cake tutorial that gave me a starting place;  I could bake a single sheet cake and turn it into a Komodo dragon (I used this recipe in a 9 by 13-inch pan).

I traced the outline of my pan on a piece of butcher paper, and,  inside the rectangle, I sketched a two-piece pattern — one piece for the head and body and another for the tail.  I would form the legs and claws from large pieces of fondant.

I roped our visiting friend Patrick into helping me figure out how to elevate the head.  Once I’d cut up the sheet cake, we propped wedges of cake trimmings underneath, which gave it enough lift to do the trick.  I stuck two skewers down into the head to give it a bit more stability.   After more trimming and shaping, I frosted the cake with a thin layer of butter cream.

This cake proved to be the easiest one ever to wrap in fondant.   I rolled out a long strip of brown fondant, and, since Komodo dragons sport more than their share of wrinkles, I didn’t worry about keeping the fondant smooth as I worked.  Ironically, I only ended up with wrinkles under the head, and the rest of the cake came together practically flawlessly.  It almost broke my heart to create scales with the pointed “V” of a heart shaped cookie cutter, but it needed doing.

I tinted the dragon’s legs a bit darker than the body since most of the Komodo dragon pictures I found showed them with darker legs.

I used the heart cutter again to make the legs look wrinkled and scaly, and then I added black fondant claws.

After adding eyes and nostril slits, I thought I was finished.  Patrick and my husband argued for a tongue, but the fondant was just too flimsy to create the vicious-looking  forked tongue this cake needed.  Finally, my husband found some strawberry fruit leather, which I sliced into a narrow fork.

I made two tongues, actually, and my younger daughter ran around with the spare in her mouth while I put the finishing touches on the cake the next morning.

I covered the cake board with crushed graham cracker “sand,” tucking it right up to the edge of the cake.  The final product turned out way better than I’d ever hoped, and I’m pretty sure it made Ellie happy.

After she blew out her candles, she asked for its  head on her plate.

Her bright pink princess plate.  Awesome.

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Barred | Cherry Almond Bars

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Ripe cherries, awash in thick lemony syrup top brown sugar-almond shortbread. A sprinkling of almond-streusel topping adds extra sweetness to these Cherry Almond Bars.

This summer, just like last summer, I bought too many cherries.  My children, who gobbled them madly for weeks, now refuse to eat them.

At the market, they now oooh and ahhh over the flats of fresh berries — brilliant red raspberries like giant thimbles, glossy purple Marion berries bigger than their hands, and deep, muted blueberries looking like over-sized marbles.   Of course I buy them.   How could I say no to berries so beautiful, juicy, and delicious?

But then there’s the matter of those neglected cherries.  We’ve already done some baking with them, but clearly not enough.

If my children won’t snack on fresh cherries, darn it, they will eat them in dessert.  How’s that for a threat?

These Cherry Almond Bars won me over as soon as fresh cherries and lemon juice began to simmer on the stove.  The smell alone made the splattery mess of pitting cherries worthwhile.   One taste of the tangy, rich juices got me thinking about other potential variations of these perfectly paired fruits —  cherry lemonade, lemon cherry souffle, or cherry-lemon ice cream.

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