April 26, 2013

Strawberry Cake

It may be a tad early but since strawberries are emerging left and right at the markets these days, it would be fair to admit that strawberry season is upon us.  Last week, I had boxes and boxes of strawberries greeting me at the market entrance.  Most of them are already big, beautiful and crimson, though their perfume and sweetness are rather subdued.  Strawberries are not at the peak of their season just yet, but they definitely shine in this Strawberry Cake. 

Growing up, my grandparents’ garden was vastly populated with gorgeous rows of strawberries.  And every spring I would peek underneath each strawberry patch savagely foraging for the ripest and most perfect exemplars.  The strawberries would reveal themselves like hidden treasures, which only made my thrill and enthusiasm almost palpable.  Now, if you assumed that these splendid fruits found their place into my grandmother’s Strawberry Cake, you would be totally wrong.  In fact, they were all reserved for the express purpose of eating them fresh.


That’s right!  So, this cake, although similar in shape with this glorious summer sensation, is known in my grandmother’s repertoire as a Sour Cherry Cake.  I just couldn’t wait for sour cherries to come into season and decided that strawberries would be the perfect substitute; and they were indeed.   

First, the strawberries are soaked and lightly sweetened in glossy agave nectar; then the exquisite bright red slices speckle the top, and while in the oven they descend slowly into the warm batter.  Out of the oven, the strawberries, just like the sour cherries, still maintain a delicate tartness that plays beautifully against the sweetness of the moist and light dough.  When I first made this cake, I didn’t know what to expect or how the strawberries would hold their shape and aroma; but it was all I hoped it would be – a charming, one for the ages Strawberry Cake!                       

Strawberry Cake
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Serves: 32 squares


·         1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
·         1 kilogram (2 pounds) fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
·         2 Tablespoons light agave syrup
·         400 grams (14 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
·         8 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder
·         6 large eggs, at room temperature
·         400 grams (14 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, plus extra for dusting
·         1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·         100 ml vegetable oil
·         100 ml tap water, at room temperature
·         1/8 teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Coat the bottom and sides of a 14 x10 x 2-inch baking pan with butter and flour.

In a small bowl, mix the strawberries and agave syrup and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.  Then drain the extra syrup from the strawberries.  Keep close at hand.

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

Separate the egg yolks and egg whites.  In a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer on medium-low speed beat the egg yolks, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract for about 2-3 minutes until all the ingredients are well incorporated and the color is light yellow.  Gradually and with the hand mixer on low speed, add the vegetable oil and then the water until well incorporated.  In batches, add the flour and baking powder mixture and beat until incorporated.   

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites and salt on medium-high speed until they hold medium-firm peaks.  In batches, gently fold the egg whites into the batter.   

Pour the obtained batter into the prepared pan.  Arrange the strawberries on top.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown, a tester comes out clean and the fruits have submerged into the dough.  Cool for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack.  Slice the cake into squares and carefully take the squares out of the pan and arrange them on a serving platter.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and enjoy! 

Note:  Feel free to use sour cherries instead of strawberries when sour cherries come into season.  You won’t regret it! 

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)

April 17, 2013

Double Chocolate Layer Cake

Do you know what the best thing is when you cook and learn new recipes alongside your grandmother?  You also get to teach her new recipes.  While at home, grandma Vicki and I made an old favorite, revisited a classic, baked a popular pie, and gave my grandma’s pork roast recipe a facelift.  But I also lured my grandma into baking together my spectacular-special-occasion-go-to chocolate cake.

The first time I ever made Barefoot Contessa’s Double-Chocolate Layer Cake was for Adrian’s 30th birthday; we were smitten at first bite, including myself especially since I’m not that much of a dedicated chocolate eater.  But this cake was something special.  I instantly knew that I had to share this recipe with my grandmother.  So, I took the recipe with me on my trip home and right before boarding our flight to Europe, I also grabbed the anniversary edition of Food & Wine magazine.  Thumbing through the magazine I stumbled upon the magazine’s pick for Best Chocolate Dessert – Barefoot Contessa’s Double-Chocolate Layer Cake.  I was stoked!  I knew I discovered a winner and was not looking for validation; but it’s funny how the choice of a renowned magazine can suddenly give you an extra boost of confidence that you indeed selected a special recipe!  

The first time I made this cake was also the first time I had ever tackled a two layer cake.  Back then, I was still rather tentative at undertaking such an ambitious baking project and the timing was questionable to say the least.  I knew I wanted to make something special for Adrian’s birthday, but to try something new on such a memorable occasion could have been a calamity into making.  Just the sole thought of failure made me break out into a sweat.  But it was a coup!  In the end, this ambitious baking project was a breeze to complete and a pleasantly soothing chocolaty experience.  The best part – my grandma and my entire family in Romania loved this cake.

This cake will forever change your perspective on chocolate cakes.  It’s so dazzling and imposing that it makes you swoon just staring at it; it’s moist and light, silky and fudgy, and the good bit of caffeine kick will easily make you skip that extra cup of coffee.  You can also give the cake a more festive treatment like my grandmother’s signature decoration that you can easily achieve by gliding the tip of a fork through the frosting; or you can leave it unadorned just with the old fashioned messy look.  Embellished or not, you’ll go for seconds in a heartbeat!   


Double-Chocolate Layer Cake
Adapted from Beatty’s Chocolate Cake by Barefoot Contessa

Makes: 10-12 servings

Ingredients for the Cake:

·         Butter, for greasing the pans
·         1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
·         2 cups sugar
·         ¾ cups cocoa powder
·         2 teaspoons baking soda
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         1 teaspoon salt
·         1 cup buttermilk, shaken; OR 1 cup sour cream
·         ½ cup vegetable oil
·         2 large eggs, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Ingredients for the Chocolate Frosting:

·         6 ounces semisweet chocolate
·         2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
·         1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
·         1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
·         1 Tablespoon instant coffee powder

Instructions for the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter two 8-inch x 2-inch round cake pans.  (I used two 9-inch x 2-inch round cake pans and the result was beautiful.)  Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans. 

In a large bowl, sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix until combined.  Using an electric hand mixer, combine the buttermilk (or sour cream), oil, eggs, and vanilla in another bowl.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry.  With the mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scrapping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.  Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

Instructions for the Chocolate Frosting:

Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water.  Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature. 

In a large bowl, using an electric hand mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract and continue beating for 3 minutes.  Turn the mixer to low, gradually add the confectioners’ sugar, then beat at medium speed, scrapping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy.  Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of the hottest tap water.  On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended.  Don’t whip!  

Place 1 layer of the cake, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal.  With a knife or offset spatula, evenly spread the top with one-third of the frosting.  Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake.

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)     

April 5, 2013

Vegetable Sour Soup

A while ago, I told you about Romanians’ fascination with soup; that for us soup is an everyday affair regardless of season, and that we treat it with the utmost respect.  It’s so true!  What I omitted back then was that we have two types of soups in Romania, and that we make a clear distinction between them.  First, we have the clear soup filled with dumplings, homemade noodles or pasta.  Second, we have the sour soup, also known in Romanian as ciorbă, which is, as the name suggests, sour and tart thanks to the various souring agents used to flavor it such as lemon juice, vinegar or even sauerkraut juice.       

While home this time around, I was indisputably on a soup diet.  It wasn’t a diet per se; it was just the regular everyday Romanian custom of indulging in a bowl of soup before the main course.  And I didn’t mind it; not even a bit.  I can’t really decide whether I prefer the clear soup or the sour soup; they’re quite different and each unique and delicious in its own and delightful way.  

I’ve already shared with you grandma Vicki’s classic Chicken Ciorbă; a staple in our family and easily adaptable according to occasion.  You’ll see this sour soup made with pork for New Year’s, or with lamb for Easter, or with chicken for an uneventful Sunday lunch.  This Vegetable Sour Soup (Vegetable Ciorbă) sprung up from my experimenting with the classic only to come up with something cleaner and less sophisticated, yet still packed with flavor.  

For me, this Vegetable Sour Soup (Vegetable Ciorbă) is one of those go-to soups or whenever-I-want-something-more-besides-the-main-course kind of soup.  I love that it’s a cinch to make; it’s light, refreshing, colorful and loaded with vegetables.  It doesn’t have meat but the tiny pasta acts like the meaty element of the dish, while the splash of vinegar spurs your taste buds.  A few sprinkles of fresh parsley are highly recommended but not mandatory.  As you can clearly see from the pictures, I didn’t use any parsley this time, but I’ll make sure to add it to my next pot of soup for that extra kick of freshness.  With or without parsley, this vegetable sour soup is simple and perfect to welcome spring! 

Vegetable Sour Soup (Vegetable Ciorbă) 
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki

Makes: 8-10 servings


·         3 Tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
·         4-5 carrots peeled and chopped
·         1 medium yellow onion, chopped
·         1 red pepper, chopped
·         1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
·         1 cup small pasta such as ditalini
·         Salt and pepper
·         1-2 Tablespoons white vinegar
·         Optional: a small bunch of fresh parsley, chopped


In a large pan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the carrots, onion and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook together for about 5 minutes adding a bit of water so that the vegetables don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Add the red pepper.  Cook for 2 minutes.  Add the can of tomatoes and mix well.  Cook everything together for 3 minutes stirring occasionally.  Add water to fill up the pan.  Season with salt.  Bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 25-30 minutes.  

In the meantime, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil.  Drizzle a Tablespoon of oil.  Add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package.  Drain well and keep close at hand.  

When the vegetables are cooked, season with salt to taste, and add the vinegar and bring back to a boil for 2 minutes.  Turn the heat off, add the pasta and stir well.  Sprinkle with fresh parsley on top. 

Note:  Let the soup cool completely before you put it in the fridge. 

Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)