Chocolate marzipan cake and marzipigs

Chocolate marzipan cake

Chocolate marzipan cake

Rabbit rabbit! This morning I woke up feeling alright. Had a good cup of coffee, cuddled with the boys for a minute, and then Clio and I went out for a quick run. Bells were ringing out over town, the sky was bright on the melting snow, the birds were busy in the trees. We ran into lots of people and dogs, Clio exhibited her signature exuberance, and everybody cried, “happy new year!” 2013 feels like a hopeful year, so far! I had this picture in my head, in the middle of the night, of the world as a giant music box that played joyful, hopeful huzzahs and kisses and fireworks. As midnight struck in each part of the world, the tines struck the chord that set off happy cries and good wishes. Good wishes for everyone, because we’re all in it together, all hoping for the same things – I know I’m becoming redundant, but I believe this so strongly this year!! Yesterday we had a lovely quiet day. Malcolm and I went for a long snowy hike with Clio. The sky was dull and grey upon grey upon grey, but rosy on the edges, and the trees were dark and slick and beautiful. The ground was cold and wet, the mud seemed oddly black against the snow. Malcolm wanted to go on his secret passage-trail. I said, “If it’s too snowy I won’t be able to go, so don’t get your hopes up!” And he said, “I can’t not get my hopes up, because I’m a jolly good fellow!” When we got to the path it was too steep and snowy. I stood at the top and said, “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” Malcolm took Clio down the path, and made little footholds for me in the snowy mud, and I carefully edged down like the old lady that I am. Malcolm said, “Mom, you can do anything when you’re with me!” I do believe I can!! We walked and walked, and came out in a sort of valley down to the river, with the sky muted grey & rose, the world quiet, bridges crisscrossing across the sky, and Malcolm charging towards me, pink-faced and happy. When we got home David and Isaac were back from their separate trips-out-the-house, and we made a funny dinner of ring-shaped French lentil, chard, and butternut squash pie (I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow!!). And we made a ring-shaped chocolate marzipan cake with a touch of cherry. And we put marzipigs on top, which I love very dearly!! I’d read that somewhere in the world they make marzipan pigs for good luck on New Years, and when Malcolm said the cake looked like mud (a compliment from a ten-year-old boy, believe me!!) I knew we’d put our marzipigs on top, as happy as pigs in mud, as hopefully we all will be in the new year!!
Marzipan pigs

Marzipan pigs

Here’s Talib Kweli with Get By, one of my favorite resolution songs (and he samples Nina Simone!) I have a sneaking suspicion that I posted it last year, in which case we’ll call it a tradition.
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Lacy crispy nutty chocolatey malt cookies and malted chocolate chip ice cream

Lacy chocolate-nut-malt cookie

I bought some malted milk powder on a whim the other week, and for a few days I put it in everything I made. I’ve always liked malted milk. I’m fond of mild, distinctive flavors. We have a small brewery in our town, and some days the air is full of malt and hops, which I find lovely! And, of course, the words “malted milk” made me think of Robert Johnson! King of the Delta Blues. Such a fascinating figure, as everybody knows. I can’t get my mind around his story, somehow. It’s so shadowy and full of myth, so full of beautiful, odd details that make him the legend that he is. He sold his soul to the devil; he learned to play guitar on dark nights in graveyards, aided by ghosts; he played facing the wall, away from the other musicians; he died young, in mysterious circumstances; he used a different name everywhere he travelled. It’s the real, human details of his life that kill me, somehow – if they’re true, and that we’ll never know. His mother was born into slavery. He was sent from home to home, as a child, and given a different name each time. His sixteen-year-old wife died in childbirth. And he travelled – he went from town to town, staying with a different, frequently older, woman everywhere he went. They must have cared for him, and taken care of him, in so many different ways. I’m fascinated by the idea of a rambler – of a person who can’t stay in one place for too long, who needs to be rootless and wandering. I just can’t imagine a life like that, which is what makes songs on the subject so appealing.

And Robert Johnson’s voice touches a nerve. It’s so plaintive, and somehow both human and haunting all at once. He uses it so beautifully – it’s wild but controlled. But it’s his lyrics which really throw me for a loop. Dark, mysterious, elemental, sexual, violent, cryptic, and oddly touching, all at once. I always feel like I know what they’re all about, but I have no idea what he’s saying. And, as with all great poetry, it’s that feeling of the words slipping in my brain that makes me want to hear more.

One of my favorites is Phonograph Blues, which starts

Beatrice, she got a phonograph, and it won’t say a lonesome word
Beatrice, she got a phonograph, but it won’t say a lonesome word
What evil have I done, what evil has the poor girl heard

And then, of course, there’s Malted Milk.

I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
Baby, you just as welcome to my lovin’, as the flowers is in May

Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
And I have a funny, funny feelin’, and I’m talkin’ all out my head

Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Keep on stirrin’ my malted milk mama, until I change my mind

My door knob keeps on turnin’, it must be spooks around my bed
My door knob keeps on turnin’, must be spooks around my bed
I have a warm, old feelin’, and the hair risin’ on my head

Malt chocolate chip ice cream

Which brings us back to malt powder. These cookies have almonds, hazelnuts, spices, chocolate chips and malt powder. They are very very crispy. The day I made them was extremely humid, and within an hour they melted. I’ve never seen anything like it! I put them in a warm oven for about 10 minutes, and they came out as crispy as can be. Both the ice cream and the cookies have chocolate chips that I processed for a minute or two, so they’re a little crumbly. Some chips stay whole, some turn to dust, and I like the contrasting textures.

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Chocolate-saltine-almond balls and french cake cookies

French cake cookies

Here at The Ordinary, we feel that we are, perhaps, in a rut. As we’ve frequently stated, the task of cooking dinner is one of our favorite pursuits, and we think about it a ridiculous amount, and have a lot of fun doing it, and take great pleasure in eating it when it’s done. Well, we made a bad meal. Not an awful meal, but a strange, complicated and disappointing meal that yielded far more dirty dishes than it merited. We really cannot account for the level of crankiness that ensued. Our team of highly-trained rut-breakers have been doing extensive research to discover a way to take pleasure in the cooking process once again. This research, which seemed tangential at the time, exclusively consisted of a casual reading of Malcolm’s science almanac. Our attention was first drawn to a picture of a hibernating dormouse, cuddled up next to some hazelnuts that were almost as big as it was. That looks nice! But the true inspiration came a few pages earlier in a section called “Disgusting Diners!” I’m not going to tell you about the dracula ants, because they’re really too gross. But there were two animals that I don’t find disgusting at all. They’re really kind of beautiful. One was the star-nosed mole. An odd-looking creature, to be sure. But did you know that the mole can decide if something is edible in 227 milliseconds. Why is this? You ask. Well, it’s because the 22 tentacles on it’s face tell it whether or not something is food. Can you imagine having that sensitive of a tasting system? What would it be like? And, more importantly, would you eat worms and insects, if you did, because that’s what the mole eats, and it seems like a shame. Unless, of course, the flavor of earthworms improves with a more refined ability to taste. The other animal I’d like to tell you about is a certain moth. This moth drinks the tears of elephants. Other moths drink the tears of horses, deer, and even birds. They drink tears!! This kills me – it feels so mythological and lovely and a little disgusting all at the same time. I want to write a story about it! Here’s a bonus fact for you…all of the cattle in the world stand in a north-south direction whilst eating grass in an open field! It’s possible that they’re responding to the earth’s magnetic field. I wonder if the cattle are aware of this fact? I wonder if we, humans, have a similar unexpected force influencing the way that we eat, and what we taste, and we don’t even know about it! So maybe this is all we need – a completely new perspective on the way we actually taste the food, and our metaphorical alignment when we eat it. We need to move west-east.

Saltine chocolate almond cookies

Another good way to break out of food doldrums is to bake cookies with my boys. They’ll say, “Mom, we want something sweet!” And I’ll say, “okay, let’s bake cookies.” And then we’ll plot, fiendishly, to come up with a new way to bake cookies. Yesterday we made these ridiculously tasty saltine, almond and chocolate balls. I love saltines. They’re so simple, but they have malted barley flour in them, which is a subtle but lovely flavor. You don’t bake them, you just melt chocolate and butter and stir it into crushed saltines and almonds. The cookies were fun to make, and they turned out so good – salty, sweet, soft, crispy. I added a touch of drambuie, but you could easily add rum or kirsch or nothing at all. And the other cookies came about because Malcolm and Isaac found some old tubes of colored frosting and sprinkles from christmas-cookies and birthday cakes past. They wanted a simple cookie to decorate. I thought it would be fun to try to apply the french-cake-baking methods I’d learned lately to the cookie-making process. So we didn’t use leavening – we whipped whole eggs till they were pale and mousse-like. Then we added a touch of flour and some browned butter. They turned out very tasty indeed! Simple, but with a mysterious flavor that I’m sure any star-nosed mole would appreciate.

Here’s Lee Perry with Cow Thief Skank, complete with a chorus of mooing cows.
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Cherry chocolate coconut almond crisp

Cherry clafouti crisp

Here at The Ordinary, in our illustration division (located in a spacious and sunny atrium between the rooftop greenhouse and the outdoor swimming pool in the parpapets) we like to draw mixed up animals. You can find us hard at work, day and night, combining winged creatures, finned creatures and those with claws and tails. The best part of this fantastical exercise, is that the resulting mixed up creature is usually quite delightful. Let us present a few choice examples from our archives…
Malcolm’s fox-owl.

Isaac’s Ring-tailed Ouzel

Ring tailed ouzel

And my squirrel-giraffe

Squirrel giraffe

This dessert is a mixed up animal, too! Part cobbler, part crisp, part frangipane, part clafoutis. It’s fruity, soft, chocolatey, and crispy all at the same time! Here’s how it all went down: I had bought a bag of cherries. In general, cherries don’t last long in this house. However, we went away twice for a few days within a week or two, and before we knew it, the cherries were past their first blush of youth. Well! A chance to bake!! I wanted to make a cobbler/crisp type dessert. I also had clafoutis on my mind (the french cherry & baked custard dish) – specifically I was thinking about clafoutis with a frangipane type of custard. This combines all of those things. We have a layer of warm cherries splashed with rum, a layer of soft baked almond custard with bittersweet chocolate chips, and a crispy coconut topping. If I do say so, and I do, this is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever made! It has a lot of different flavors, it’s true, but they all go very nicely together. We ate it warm with lightly whipped cream flavored with maple syrup and vanilla.

Here’s The Kangaroo Rat from the Beastie Boys. I know that’s an actual animal, but they look so unlikely (perfect, but unlikely!) And the album is called the mix-up, so it’s double extra good.

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Quadruple vanilla ice cream with cherry-chocolate swirl

Quadruple vanilla ice cream

“And cherry jam? They have it here. You remember how you used to love cherry jam when you were little?”

“You remember that? Let me have jam, too. I still like it.”

Ivan called the waiter and ordered soup, jam, and tea.”

“I remember everything, Alyosha…”

Thus begins what must be one of the most remarkable conversations in literature. It goes on for pages. It goes on for chapters. It has acts like a play, movements like a symphony. And it all starts with the jam. I’m always moved by the intersection of food, memory, and comfort or kindness. The fact that it’s Ivan who remembers just kills me. He’s dark, doubting, cynical almost to the point of cruelty. You relate to him, certainly. He says the things you’re thinking (but more articulately!) or the things you try not to think because they’re too dark and hopeless. But you don’t love him – not until this moment. Everybody loves Alyosha, but I loved him more for still liking cherry jam, and for agreeing to order it. And because of the cherry jam we know that Ivan – cold, distant, disagreeable Ivan – loves Alyosha and always has. And for the first time, Alyosha know it too.

I like cherry jam, too. I like to bake it into cakes and cookies. And in this case, I put it in ice cream. I’m somewhat obsessed with vanilla. I literally dream about it. It’s not boring, or dull, or plain! It’s not white! For some time I’ve been dreaming of an intensely vanilla flavored ice cream. Really smooth and creamy and ridiculously vanilla-y. I got a few gift certificates for my birthday, to various places, and I bought vanilla powder, vanilla paste, and a vanilla bean. Oh yes! I decided to combine these with vanilla essence to make ice cream. If you don’t have any or all of these things, you could use extra vanilla essence. I also used brown sugar, because I didn’t want the ice cream to be white, and because I think the caramelly taste is nice with vanilla. I added a whole teaspoon of salt, to intensify the flavor. And, in honor of Alyosha, I melted some bittersweet chocolate with some cherry jam, and I drizzled it into the ice cream as it was freezing. It semi-hardened, creating lovely pockets of flavor and texture.

Here’s Drink Me with Song of the Ice Cream Truck.
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Peach and chocolate crisp with almond topping

Peach, chocolate and almond crisp

In our first house together, we had a peach tree in the back yard. The peaches never ripened. They would fall to the ground, hard little stones, and rot into oddly beautiful, decadent green velvet balls. Steenbeck was a wild little puppy, then, and she’d play with the rotten fruit, throwing it around the yard and chasing it. I always wondered if the moldering green peach fuzz gave her strange dreams. I had such an odd dream this morning. I know it’s boring to read about other peoples’ dreams, so I’ll keep it quick. Like all the best dreams, it was a dizzying mix of anxiety and joy. It was dark, and we were in a strange town, on an empty lot. I was worried about Steenbeck, alone in one of the low houses that ran in rows off the lot, so I went to find her. Somebody told me she’d been taken somewhere safe, with people that would look after her till I could be with her. I turned back to see my family, playing at the edge of the lot. Then waves started crashing towards them. Gentle at first, and then higher and higher, as high as the buildings. They knocked the telephone poles down into the houses. I waited till the wave subsided, and started across the lot, and then a larger wave came. I wasn’t scared. The water was clear and golden green-grey. I felt that I could breathe, even in the water. And then I heard the waves singing. They each had their own bell-like tone. I was lifted higher than the buildings, but I didn’t worry. And then I woke up.

I love peaches! So plump and juicy and summery. The boys like them, too, and they like to choose them at the store. They’ll pick hard, unripe peaches, and then take little nibbles of them. You’ll say, “they’re not ripe yet, you have to wait.” An hour later, “Mom, are the peaches ripe yet?” “NO!” And then by the time they’re actually ripe, the boys have forgotten all about them. I had a few large, beautiful peaches, in danger of turning green and squishy, so I decided to make them into a crisp. This was so simple, and turned out so tasty, that I’m very pleased with it. You cut the fresh peaches, without even peeling them. Spread them onto a pie plate. Sprinkle some bittersweet chocolate chips over. Peaches and chocolate is not an oft-used combination, but they’re very good together! You divide two eggs (you’ll use both parts!) The yolks become a very simple custard, with rum and vanilla, and the whites are whipped stiff, and mixed with almonds to make a sort of amaretti-type of topping. It’s humid as hell here (I imagine hell would be very humid!) So the crisp didn’t stay crisp for long, but the almonds kept it nice and crunchy. You could put this in a pate sucree crust, and make a pie, but I liked the simplicity of it baked as it is.

Here’s Elmore James with Rollin and Tumblin. I love this song so much! I can hear the first chords from several rooms away, and it’s still thrilling. And if you don’t want his peaches, don’t shake his tree!
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Chocolate gateau basque with apricots, cherries & cassis

Chocolate gateau basque

I made a cake on my birthday, and it provoked a minor existential crisis. Making a cake for somebody else on their birthday is easy. You just arbitrarily decide that they like something (based, say, on a piece of cake they ordered at a restaurant a decade ago, which they might not have particularly enjoyed) and you make them the same kind of cake for every single special occasion ever for the rest of time. Easy! But to make a cake I like, on my own birthday, well…that raised all sorts of questions. I like chocolate, sure, but do I like chocolate cake? Not really. But I like brownies. What’s that all about? I love fruit, but what kind of fruit, and should it be fresh? Do summery fruits taste good when they’re baked in a cake? I like apple cake, but this isn’t October, for heaven’s sake. Good lord…DO I EVEN LIKE CAKE?!?!?!?!

I decided to make a cake with chocolate in it, but melted chocolate, not cocoa. And fruit, but with apricots and cherries baked in, and fresh fruit and ice cream coming in over the top of it, at the moment of ingestion. I decided to make it like the gateau basque I’d made a while back, because I loved that. I’d put apricots in, because I really like them, and I know Malcolm isn’t crazy about them, but that would be the selfish It’s-my-birthday-and-I’ll-bake-with-apricots-if-I-want-to part. I love cassis, so we’d be having some of that. And, of course…chocolate chips, because everything in life is better with chocolate chips. The boys helped me make the cake, and it was a lot of fun. Malcolm decorated it with my initial and my age, which looked much nicer than the pattern I would have made with the tines of the fork. We ate it with vanilla ice cream, and lovely fresh strawberries, blueberries and, as a special treat, rainier cherries. It’s a nice cake, because it keeps for days, so you can look forward to some with your coffee in the morning as a reason to get out of bed.

Chocolate basque cake

Here’s Black Sheep with The Choice is Yours. Sometimes it’s hard to be the decider! I love this song!
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Red wine and dark chocolate cookies

Red wine & dark chocolate cookies

I like wine. It’s almost a defining characteristic. If I was coming over to your house for a meal, you’d probably say, “Claire’s coming over? Let’s see. She’s a vegetarian, so lets get some vegetables, and she’ll be wanting wine, so let’s stock up on that.” And then someone else – the imaginary friend of my imaginary friend – would say, “Should we get a good bottle?” and you’d say, “Nah, she’ll drink anything.” Well, not anything! I wouldn’t drink mad dog 20/20 kiwi strawberry, for pete’s sake. But I am fine with cheap and cheerful, it’s true.

I grew up in a house that had a little silver dish that said, “a dinner without wine is like a day without sunshine,” and I seem to have taken that to heart! When I was younger, before I even drank wine, I would listen to this song by Antoine Forqueray. It must have been wintertime, I remember a glowing sort of light in the kitchen. My mother must have been making dinner. The song sounded like red wine, and I remember thinking, “I hope someday I’m in love, and making dinner, and drinking red wine, and feeling like this song makes me feel.” Welladay! Here we are!

Of course, there’s no combination better than red wine and dark chocolate. And this was the inspiration for these cookies. There’s red wine in the batter. It makes the cookies a little soft and cake-like, but pleasantly so, I think. The taste of red wine in a baked good is quite nice. It’s like a little fruity tang. It’s not overwhelming – you can have these with coffee in the morning. You can feed them to your children. It’s just really nice. These went fast!

Here’s the Forqueray, as played by Jordi Savall. It’s the 2Eme Suite, Chaconne La Buisson. God, it’s gorgeous!!
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Nutella cake

Nutella cake

I was shelving some books in the boys’ room (their preferred method of storing books is heaping them in a giant pile on the floor, as if in preparation for a bonfire) when I came across a book from my childhood. My Learn to Ride Book. It was from the period in my life that I saved up every penny to buy myself a horse. Looking at the pictures – clean line drawings and simple colors, I recalled vividly what a keen pleasure the book had been for me. I can’t really explain why that would be. There was something so hopeful about it, maybe…the book goes from choosing a horse to jumping over giant hurdles on your horse in about twenty pages. It makes it all seem possible. I never did buy that horse.

Somebody asked me to bake a cake! For an occasion! I felt so honored. I decided to make a nutella cake – everybody likes nutella, right? So I added dark cocoa and ground hazelnuts to the batter, I put a thick layer of nutella in the middle, and I coated the whole thing with bittersweet ganache, just for kicks. While I was making it, I thought about a picture from My Learn to Ride Book. The picture shows the kind of horse you should avoid at all costs. The poor thing has so many problems, one of which is a sway back. Well…my cake didn’t get all puffy and round on top. It wasn’t meant to, I tell you! It was meant to have a dense but tender, cakey-brownie-like texture, with little crunchy hazelnut accents. It was all carefully calculated! But the people at the event might not know that! They might think my cake looked like an undesirable old horse! Sigh. I made myself a tiny version of the cake to be sure that it was edible, and let me tell you, people, it was delicious!! Firm on the outside, light and soft on the inside, with lovely lovely hazelnut taste and crunch. You really can’t go wrong with nutella!

This might seem like sort of an odd connection, but here’s Big Boi’s The Rooster. It was the PTA that asked me to bake the cake, and he talks about going to a PTA meeting on this track, which just kills me, somehow. I love this song!
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Isaac’s ultimate nutella-filled pretzels

Isaac had strep throat twice this winter. It’s almost a relief when you get the diagnosis, because you know what it is, and you know how to treat it. There must have been a time before antibiotics were discovered that it would have been such dire news. The medicine usually kicks in right away, but you can’t send the kid to school for another twenty-four hours. I like that grace period! I like spending a day with one of my boys, when it almost seems like they’re playing hooky, because they feel well enough to do (quiet) fun things. We’re always both a little tired, from nights of staying up feeling ill or worrying (I do a lot of that!), so it’s nice to cuddle on the couch and read, or draw, or sit in the sunshine. Or bake! It seems to have become a tradition that we’ll bake cookies, usually based on some idea of the boys’ clever little brains.

nutella-filled pretzels

This nutella-filled pretzel cookie, though, is something I’ve been scheming about for a while. Over the summer it was all the rage to dip skinny little pretzel sticks into a giant jar of nutella. (An invention of their cousin, Evan) It is an oddly perfect combination. Mild and salty meets almost-too-sweet. So that’s what we decided to do here. I wasn’t sure if the nutella would stay inside the pretzel, what with all the baking and the boiling. I was delighted that it (mostly) did! On a few of the pretzels, the nutella leaked out and somehow melded with the salt and the butter and lord knows what else to form completely delicious little crispy chips. Someday…I will find a way to make them.

We mixed up the dough, and then we had to let it rest for an hour, so I suggested Isaac have some lunch while we wait. “A lunch break!” he declared. “This is the first job I’ve ever had where I got a lunch break!”

These cookie pretzels are very popular in my family at the moment. Although for some reason David keeps saying, “you shouldn’t have done this!” They are dangerously good!!

We went to the doctor twice, and both times, this song was playing when we drove back down the flower-lined streets of our town. Isaac said, “this is one of my favorite songs at the moment.” Which is funny, cause it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s Barbara Dane with Ramblin’ Round. I’ve heard it a million times, and it makes me weepy every single time I hear it, as though I’ve never heard it before.

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