April 29, 2015

Chocolate Coconut Cake

Sometimes baking is a messy business.  And when it comes to drowning cake squares in a pool of hot chocolate and then showering them with flaky coconut, it’s messy times two.  But it’s so worth it!  Growing up, this beautiful Chocolate Coconut Cake used to be a charming, long-awaited rarity in my grandma’s baking repertoire; a concoction bursting with unrestrained, wonderful and well-remembered flavors.  So, when I managed to trick her into making this cake when I was home in March, I fully relished the exciting and entertaining day of baking with my grandma.      




This is a simple white cake that you jazz up with rum and fully cover in a thin sheath of rich chocolate ganache and delicate coconut, and thus bring it to a whole new level of deliciousness and elegance.  The Chocolate Coconut Cake is moist and dense yet not overly sweet, nicely infused with a subtle amount of rum, while the slightly hardened ganache conveys a sophisticated exterior peppered with fine coconut flakes.  In the past, my grandma used to douse this cake in a basic cocoa and milk sauce, but I feel that the chocolate ganache gives it more texture and a lovely understated elegance.  
  




This is not your special occasion kind of cake; it’s more of a Saturday or mid-week type of indulgence but one hundred percent delicious nonetheless; not to mention an instant crowd pleaser.  Cut up in squares and displayed on a beautiful platter, this cake will make a bold statement.  In fact, I shouldn’t even call this an actual cake since it’s made in a plain rectangular baking pan and doesn’t involve any fancy layering and decorations of any sort; perhaps Chocolate Coconut Squares would be a better name, but to be honest I’ll always think of this as a cake, a laid back type of dessert packed with tons of festive flavors.  Enjoy!






Chocolate Coconut Cake
By Simply Romanesco inspired my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 24 squares

Ingredients for the Cake:

·         500 grams (3 ½ cups) all-purpose flour
·         2 teaspoons baking powder
·         Pinch of salt
·         300 grams (2 ½ cups) Confectioners’ sugar
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         100 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1/3 cup honey
·         1 cup whole milk
·         1 teaspoon vanilla




Ingredients for the Rum Syrup:

·         ½ cup sugar
·         ½ cup water
·         ¼ cup rum

Ingredients for the Chocolate Ganache:

·         400 grams (14 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
·         350 ml (1 ½ cups) heavy cream
·         1 teaspoon vanilla
·         1 ½ cups unsweetened shredded coconut
·         1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut





Instructions for the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Coat the bottom and sides of a 14 by 10-inch baking pan with butter and flour.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt.  Set aside. 

Heat the honey in a small saucepan over medium heat for about 30 seconds. 




In a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer, beat the butter with the eggs, sugar and warm honey until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.  Add the milk and vanilla and mix until incorporated.  In batches, add the flour mixture and beat until incorporated. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spread the batter evenly in the pan and bake for 35 minutes.  Let the cake cool completely.




Instructions for the Rum Syrup:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water and whisk until the sugar dissolves.  Off heat, add the rum, whisk well and set aside to cool completely.  Once the cake has cooled, pierce the surface with a fork.  Using a spoon, drizzle the syrup all over the top of the cake.  You will use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the syrup.  You want the cake to be moist but not overly damp.  Just discard the remaining of the syrup.  Allow the cake to sit and absorb the syrup, about 1 hour.  Cut the cake into squares.  





Instructions for the Chocolate Ganache:

Place the chocolate chips in a medium bowl and set aside.  Combine the heavy cream and vanilla extract in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Cook until small bubbles appear on the outside edge of the cream.  Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate chips.  Using a fork or a spoon, gently stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.





Place the two types of coconut in two separate small bowls.  I like to cover half of the squares in unsweetened coconut flakes and half of them in sweetened coconut for an extra level of sweetness.  But you can definitely opt for either version; it all depends whether you like this dessert on the sweeter side or not.   




Take each cake square and dip it in the chocolate ganache.  Once you’re done with dipping the cake squares into the ganache, cover them in coconut flakes.  Set the cake squares on a platter and serve. 




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

March 31, 2015

One Flew South

It seems that I literally fell off the face of my blog and PG Plate alike, this past month, but I’m happy to say that I was able to squeeze in our annual visit home to Romania during this time.  More on my adventures and food explores from the land of Dracula later on.  Right now, I want to tell you about One Flew South.  As fate has it, our travels home brought us again to the familiar (to us anyway) terminal E at the Atlanta International Airport.  And we couldn’t help but revisit one of our favorite airport restaurants, One Flew South.  




It’d been a long while since my mouth was graced with the not at all predictable food bonanza that is One Flew South and my stomach was loudly begging for a Pulled Duck Sandwich by the time I was scanning the menu.  Yes – that exact sandwich I raved about three years ago. This time around, I managed to take a picture, a rushed picture.  Okay… a lousy picture that won’t do it any justice but at that point in time I was drooling like Pavlov’s dog, my brain lost any function at the enticing whiffs, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into that fantastic sandwich.  No excuse, I know but trust me when I tell you that this sandwich is one of the best I’ve ever had!  It’s juicy, flavorful duck meat piled up high on a toasty Challah bun with a sweet and tangy fig and toasted peanut relish, fresh scallions and a side of creamy slaw.  It will rock your world!




Adrian opted for the “ofs” Dirty South, an open face meatloaf sandwich with pimento cheese, some sautéed spinach, crispy and slightly sugary bacon, sweet and tasty bbq sauce, and a perfectly fried egg stacked on top.  It’s one of the restaurant’s signature sandwiches.  He loved it!  I loved it too after one bite and made my husband trade half of it for half of my Duck Sandwich.  He reluctantly conceded and at the end of our meal we were both very happy campers, stuffed and ready for our long flight.  But we couldn’t skip dessert. 




Dessert consisted of yet another signature dish; this time, “ofs” Banana Pudding.  A smooth and velvety custard, peppered with chunks of banana and spongy cake throughout and a light whipped cream atop.  The dessert was also accompanied by homemade vanilla wafers.  A lick-your-fingers-sweet perfection! 




Before I encourage you to fly through Atlanta next time around just so you can dine at One Flew South, I have to tell you that we also ordered the Pork Belly Sliders.  They were mouthwatering, rich and impossibly tasty, enveloped in a golden raisin slaw and bathed in bbq sauce, nestled in between toasty buns and finished with buttery pickles.  But you guessed right – no picture for these ones, unfortunately… So, I owe you one.

Now, next time you travel, make sure you fly through the Atlanta International Airport and pay a visit to One Flew South.  Your layover will be wisely spent and your stomach will thank you!

Restaurant Information:
One Flew South
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Terminal E
Phone: (404) 816-3464

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

February 21, 2015

Chocolate Coconut Date Bars

I’m still comfortably basking in the realm of chocolate goodness but this time the magic comes in the form of energy bars.  That’s right!  These awesome Chocolate Coconut Date Bars are actually considered to be power bars; homemade power bars.  So, forget about shelling out your money on pre-packaged energy treats and whip up these flavorful super snacks that will conveniently power you through your most hectic days. 




These Chocolate Coconut Date Bars are laden with nutrient-rich elements and tons of flavor.  They are fudgy, intensely chocolatey and pleasantly chewy.  The bars are not overly sweet and they sport the right punch of salt to balance out the sweetness and slight bitterness of the chocolate while the coconut atop is the perfect finishing touch.  One tiny bar can effortlessly replace the mid-afternoon-pick-me-up espresso shot.  





Although they are named energy bars, I personally view these Chocolate Coconut Date Bars as a super easy, no baking required energy dessert.  But whatever you want to call them, dessert or power bars, the truth remains that nothing beats a homemade sweet treat.  Enjoy!    





Chocolate Coconut Date Bars
Adapted from Bon Appétit (January 2015)

Makes: 12 bars

Ingredients:

·         Nonstick vegetable oil spray
·         Parchment paper or aluminum foil
·         2 cup Medjool dates, pitted
·         ¾ cup cocoa powder
·         1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, divided
·         ¼ cup cacao nibs
·         2 Tablespoons agave nectar
·         1 teaspoon kosher salt
·         2 Tablespoons water





Instructions:

Coat an 8x8” baking pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray and line it with parchment paper or aluminum foil leaving overhang on all sides.  





In a food processor, process the dates, cocoa powder, ¾ cup coconut, cacao nibs, agave nectar, salt and water until smooth (you may need to stop and scrape down the sides a few times).  Press the mixture firmly into the prepared pan.





Scatter the remaining ¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut over the top and press to adhere.  Cut into bars. 
 




Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

January 31, 2015

Chocolate Loaf Cake

With all the cold and snow outside, I’ve been longing for some warmth and coziness in the house.  And there’s nothing better than some good ol’ baking and a dense, fudgy effortless Chocolate Loaf Cake to sooth you on icy, winter days.  Even if you’re not particularly keen on chocolate you’ll easily and unequivocally appreciate this dreamy concoction.  You won’t be able to resist it, I guarantee it.  One bite and you’ll be craving more, not to mention all the points you’ll score with everyone in the family.  And, yes, you’ll be adding another solid brick to the chocolate repertoire!   




This cake is the epitome of all things chocolate.  It’s so plain and easy to whip up yet intensely elaborate tastewise conveying a heady, damp (as Nigella might say), chocolatey aroma.  It’s almost like gingerbread: slightly sticky, borderline soggy and very, very tasty.  Nigella’s recipe doesn’t call for toasted walnuts but I tossed them in the mix for that subtle and distinct crunch kick that elevates the flavor and chocolate intensity of this wonderful dessert.  



This is not your elegant, sensual and seductive chocolate cake, and it probably wouldn’t excel in a beauty pageant.  I mean, the thing is more than likely to collapse in the middle while it bakes.  But if you’re willing to overlook the less than appealing appearance, you’ll be in for a mouthwatering ride; this cake with rock your world.  



The Chocolate Loaf Cake is absolutely lovely with coffee or tea or whipped cream or ice cream or simply by itself.  And it will make for a great sweet treat during the highly anticipated Super Bowl Sunday.  Enjoy!




Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake
Adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

Makes: 8-10 slices

Ingredients:

·         1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1 2/3 cups dark or light brown sugar
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         4 ounces best bittersweet chocolate, melted
·         1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
·         1 teaspoon baking soda
·         1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons boiling water
·         ½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped





Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Grease and line a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.  The lining is important as this is a very damp cake: use parchment paper, heavy duty aluminum foil or one of those loaf-pan-shaped paper liners.





In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar, with an electric hand-held mixer, then add the eggs and vanilla, beating well.  Next, fold in the melted and now slightly cooled chocolate, taking care to blend well but being careful not to overbeat.  You want the ingredients combined: you don’t want a lightly airy mass.  Then gently add the flour, to which you’ve added the baking soda, alternately spoon by spoon, with the boiling water until you have a smooth and fairly liquid batter.  



Pour the batter into the lined loaf pan.  Sprinkle the walnut pieces on top.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Turn the oven down to 325ºF and continue to cook for another 15 minutes.  The cake will still be a bit squidgy inside, so an inserted cake tester or skewer won’t come out completely clean. 





Place the loaf pan on a rack, and leave to get completely cold before turning it out.  (If you leave it for a day or so: like gingerbread, it improves.)  Don’t worry if it sinks in the middle: indeed, it will do so because it’s such a dense and damp cake.  





Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

December 30, 2014

25 years of remembrance

On November 9, 2014 the world celebrated 25 years since the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall.  Romania, though, had to wait for another month and a half to properly rejoice in the prospects of a future filled with freedom and democracy.  The Romanian Revolution of December ’89 occurred 25 years ago, yet I remember it as if it was yesterday.  I was only four years old; but the memories of those bloody events and gory week in late Dec. ‘89 are some of the most vivid memories of my life and I truly believe they will accompany me forever.  It’s funny how a child’s brain works – just like a sponge – it absorbs anything and everything whether it’s a foreign language or graphic, gruesome events and images.  Sometimes, I feel that my memory came to life during that week.  I don’t have any specific recollections before Dec. ‘89; everything was a mere blur, but after that things and life came into focus. 




My hometown, Arad, was one of the pivotal cities of the revolution.  Situated only thirty miles north of Timișoara, the birth city of the Romanian Revolution, it didn’t take long for my hometown to join the manifestations against the communist regime.  Unfortunately, the many victims were a bitter aftermath. For me, the days back then all blended together in a cacophony of rich memories.  As it turns out, what I remember the most were events that actually transpired during the bloodiest night my hometown experienced during the revolution.  




It was the night of Saturday, Dec. 23 through Sunday, Dec. 24.  I was at my nanny’s place across the street from my grandparents’ house.  Her grandson, Alex, was there too.  I recall it was a fairly mild winter; there was no snow on the ground just yet.  That specific evening, strange, repetitive firearm sounds came from outside, which prompted our curiosity to rush to the window and investigate.  The sounds were coming from the river bank.  So, Alex and I, two four-year olds, perched on the window, craned our necks and were met by a blazing spectacle of red and green colors displayed above the river.  They were fairly loud and colorful but they were not fireworks.  I was smiling in awe until my nanny stormed through the bedroom door and yanked us down from the window before securely closing it.  My grandpa showed up a few minutes later to take me home.  




While crossing the thirty yards from my nanny’s house to my grandparents’, I glanced over my shoulder to steal another peek of the back and forth display of colorful lights clearly visible above the river as my grandpa was purposefully dragging me home.  That night, I slept on the floor of my room with my grandparents.  My parents were not with us and it was only later that I discovered where they spent that dreadful night.   The next day, on a very sunny and clear Christmas Eve, I wasn’t looking for Christmas gifts from Santa under the tree; I was scavenging for bullets on the street outside the house.  Luckily, my grandparents’ house was untouched, but we still found a handful of bullets on the street.  Not to mention the bullet surprise in my very own bedroom at my parents’ apartment. 




The night before Christmas Eve, while I was at my grandparents’, my dad was at home in our flat on the sixth floor of a ten story apartment building located on one of the most assaulted streets during that frightening night.  Our neighbors from across the hallway found refuge in our bathroom, the only room in the apartment with no windows, since their apartment was shattered to pieces.  That same night, a bullet was shot through my bedroom window.  The bullet went through the balcony window, the bedroom window and the curtains before hitting the wall above my bed, recoiling back underneath the window and eventually melting on the hardwood floor.  




Fortunately, I was not sleeping in my bed that night, but my dad was lounging on the couch in the next room over. After a few hours in the bathroom, he decided that he would not spend the entire night hiding there and grabbed a bottle of wine and sprawled on the couch in the living room.  In his own words, ‘if I were to die tonight, at least I would do it with my stomach full.’  A few years ago, my mom finally replaced the old curtains that bared the black rimmed hole of the bullet and held intact the memories of that horrific night, yet the melted mark of the bullet still mars the hardwood floor of my bedroom to this day.     




While my dad was in our apartment my mom was stuck at work and couldn’t come home due to the slaughter throughout town.  She only returned home in the awfully sunny morning covering the five long miles from the factory to the apartment on foot through the blinding layers of freshly laid snow that was barely coating the bloody and bullet scattered grounds.




The horrendous events of those days escalated with the speedy trial and execution of our former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day.  I was sitting in my own little chair next to my family gaping at the incredible events unfolding on TV.  It was like watching live reality TV but with people being shot with real bullets, laying in puddles of blood and never getting up again.  And yes, I witnessed it all.




My parents were exactly the age I am right now when the revolution took place.  Would I be as brave as they were, gathering during tumultuous times in the town hall square and protesting against an oppressing regime while handing out holiday candy to the armed soldiers?  I don’t know… I don’t believe so… But they did and so did many other Romanians who experienced the revolution and lived to tell about it. 




Aside from my personal story and because we’re still in the midst of cookie season, I also want to share with you my grandma’s recipe for one of my family’s favorite holiday cookies: Sugar Snails.  These adorable concoctions are always present on our Christmas table.  It’s rather easy to guess why – you get a heap of servings, they’re great with coffee or tea, cute, a little crunchy, a lot nutty and good, really good.  And as my mom likes to say – ‘anything with walnuts is a winner.’  I absolutely agree with that.  Enjoy this sweet treat and Happy New Year everyone!    




Sugar Snails
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 55+ servings

Ingredients:

For the Dough:

·         250 grams (1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
·         300 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus more to roll out the dough
·         1 teaspoon fast rise dry yeast
·         2 Tablespoons sour cream
·         4 large eggs, at room temperature
·         ¼ teaspoon salt
·         Up to ¼ cup milk, if necessary

For the Sauce:

·         280 grams (10 oz) walnuts, ground
·         280 grams (2 ¼ cups) Confectioners’ sugar
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         Lemon zest from 1 lemon




Instructions for the Dough:

Separate the egg whites and egg yolks.  Set the egg whites aside. 

In a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, yeast, salt, sour cream and egg yolks until the dough gathers into a ball.  If the dough is too dry, add a bit of milk to the mixture (a couple of Tablespoons).  The dough should be neither too dry nor too soft.  Gather into a ball and divide in four pieces.  Sprinkle some flour on top of the dough and put it in the fridge for 1 hour.




Instructions for the Sauce:

In a medium bowl, combine the ground walnuts with the confectioners’ sugar and lemon zest.  Set aside.  Using an electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites with the vanilla extract until firm peaks form.  Using a spatula, gently mix in the walnuts and sugar mixture.  




Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Line four baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Transfer the dough to a working surface.  Flour the rolling pin and working surface and roll out the dough into a ¼-inch thick rectangular sheet (work with one ball of dough at a time).  Spread a fourth of the walnut sauce all over the rolled out dough leaving a 1-inch margin.  Gently roll up the sheet into a log and cut (flour the knife so that the dough does not stick to the knife) as many 1-inch pieces as possible placing them on one of the baking sheets.  Bake the snails for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.  Repeat with the rest of the dough.  




Once out of the oven, allow the snails to cool on a cooling rack before dusting them with more confectioners’ sugar.      
  



Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)