Dennis the Cat Cake (Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Filling and Buttercream Frosting)

A puzzle for you today! One of these photos is a cat and the other is a cake in the likeness of the cat. Don’t worry if you struggle to tell the difference – I know my cake decorating skills are exceptional ;)Dennis cat and cake

Didn’t fool you one bit, did I? Trying to rapidly decorate a cat cake less than an hour before a potluck shouldn’t seem like a good idea. Ever. I’m not sure why I thought that would work out, but let me tell you: it was crazy! So, Dennis the Cat Cake looks a bit rugged because I was running around the kitchen frantically mixing colors, hastily putting them in ziplock bags, and hurriedly pushing frosting around with a toothpick, all while watching the clock tick down and debating the merits between being punctual and bringing a pretty cake. Punctuality won, as you can see.

Dennis is the sweetest “old man” cat that my friends recently adopted… who also kind of looks like he could be in the mafia. To celebrate and introduce him to everyone, they invited us all over for a potluck party. There were some seriously incredible dishes to enjoy: garlic knots, “ants on a log,” warm bread and brie, potato latkes, spring rolls with a spicy sauce, noodles, asian coleslaw, wine… I could barely move by the end of it all! And all this before we even touched the cake. UGH. Luckily this cake was delicious, so it was worth the uncomfortable stomach fullness. But goodness, it was quite the meal.

I had to keep this recipe relatively simple since I’ve never made a shaped cake before and didn’t have any directions to go off of, so I stuck to basics: one of the best chocolate cake recipes ever + a gooey salted caramel layer + buttercream frosting = simple and delicious! Definitely worth trying, even if you just make it a normal layer cake and don’t shape it into a cat’s face.

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CHOCOLATE CAKE

From: Smitten Kitchen, originally from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch process

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups water

2 tbsp. distilled white vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs

Directions to make the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottoms and sides of three 8 or 9-inch round cakepans. Cut out a circle of parchment or waxed paper and line the bottom of each pan; grease the paper. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the oil and sour cream; whisk to blend. Gradually beat in the water. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well-mixed. Pour into the prepared cake pans, dividing evenly among all three.

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Like Deb notes, these cakes are incredibly delicate. Put them in the freezer for half an hour to make your life infinitely easier. In fact, it’s going to be essentially impossible for you to make a layer cake (let alone a cat face) out of these cakes if you don’t firm them up in the freezer. They’ll defrost once assembled, don’t worry.

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SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE

Adapted from: Ree Drummond, on the Food Network

1 packed cup brown sugar

1/2 cup half-and-half

4 tbsp. unsalted butter

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1 tbsp. vanilla extract

Directions to make the sauce:

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, mix the brown sugar, half-and-half, butter, and salt. Cook while whisking gently for 5-7 minutes, until it gets thicker (mine started bubbling and turned lightly golden at this point). Add the vanilla and cook one minute more to thicken further. Turn off the heat and remove from the stove. Set aside for use when assembling the cake.

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BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

Adapted from: Gale Gand, on the Food Network

6+ cups powdered sugar (add until you’re satisfied with the consistency)

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1-2 tbsp. half-and-half (vary based on how much powdered sugar you have and what consistency you like)

Gel food coloring

Directions to make the frosting:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together half of the sugar and all of the butter. Start on low speed until well-blended and then gradually add in more sugar. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes. Add vanilla and cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream or powdered sugar as necessary to reach spreading consistency. Gel food coloring should be beat or stirred in as desired (see directions below for details).

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Directions to assemble the cat cake (or a simple layer cake):

1. Remove the three cakes from the freezer. If they are not flat on top, level off the unevenness using a serrated knife. Place one cake down on your cake plate. Using the buttercream frosting, make a 1/2-inch tall and at least 1/2-inch wide “dam” all the way around the perimeter of this bottom cake. The dam will hold in your caramel, so make sure it’s tall and wide enough to prevent caramel from oozing out.

2. When you are confident in your dam’s ability to hold back the caramel, give your caramel a few stirs (at this point it should be a bit cool – don’t use it right off the stove or you’ll melt the buttercream frosting) and then gently pour it into the reservoir you’ve created in the center of your cake. *Note: if you are making a 3-layer cake (and not a cat face), only pour half the caramel in. Reserve the second half for the next layer, repeating this step.* Gently place a second cake circle on top of the buttercream and caramel.

3. Place the third cake on a flat surface, like a cutting board. From one of the edges, cut out a circle-ish shape for the mouth/nose area (use the edge of the cake as one of the “sides” of this shape, then line up this edge with the edge of your stacked cakes). Attach to the top of your stacked cake with buttercream frosting. From the remainder of the third cake, cut out four ears of the same size and attach them to the cake with buttercream frosting, stacking them two layers high so they are as tall as the cake.

4. Place the assembled cake in the refrigerator for 5-10 minutes, then remove and do a crumb coat. If you haven’t done one of these before, it’s basically a very thin layer of frosting that covers the entire cake and seals in crumbs. This way, when you frost “for real,” you don’t end up with cake bits mixing into your frosting and making it look ugly. Refrigerate for another 5-10 minutes to harden the crumb coat.

5. While your crumb coat is setting up in the refrigerator, tint your frosting with the gel food coloring. Think about how many colors you want and how much you need of each color, then mix up colors in different bowls. For this cake, I made a tiny bowl of pink and a tiny bowl of green, and saved a small bowl of white. I colored the rest of the frosting orange. When you’re ready to frost, remove your cake from the refrigerator and have at it! Frost with an offset spatula and decorate with piping bags. Small plastic bags with the tips cut off make for good piping bags if you don’t have any fancy ones. Toothpicks are very helpful for pushing frosting around to make small details. Finish off with chocolate chips for eyes (I used mini ones).

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This cake went over very, very well with everyone – even Dennis! (Notice the hand restraining him? Poor Dennis, we put a tasty buttercream frosting cake in front of him in his honor and we wouldn’t even let him have a lick. We’re cruel.)

Dennis the cat and his cake

And of course, an inside shot. See that caramel oozing out everywhere? Oh, my! And note the buttercream strip at the edge of the caramel – that’s the “dam” I talked about, holding all the caramel in. This isn’t a pretty cake by any means, but I promise you that no one will care about aesthetics after one bite of this cake!

Dennis cake slice

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Dark Chocolate Chip Salted Caramel Nutella Cookie Bars

This weekend found me back at the Cape Cod field site for a few days, ostensibly to help with data collection and discuss potential contributions I can make to the research. And both of those did happen

cape sand ripples

But we also explored the Cape for a few hours, walked along the beach for a few miles, and were fascinated by the water and sand ripples. I even found a half dozen heart-shaped rocks! The hunt for these put me a good 100 yards behind Beth and Ellie for half of the walk… oops. But aren’t they just so darn cute?!

heart rocks

Furthermore, I was treated to some hilarious delirium on the parts of Beth and Ellie, who’ve been out here for weeks now. As an ever-so-slightly-more-sane addition to the house, I felt it was necessary to cure their field campaign doldrums with something sweet. While hunting for recipes, I asked Beth if I could make this one and she gave me the most incredulous look. “Has anyone ever said no?!”

choc chip caramel nutella cookie bars

A dinner of homemade lasagna and garlic bread paired with local Truro red wine (Beth and Ellie have amazing taste and culinary skills, in case you couldn’t tell), topped off with these dark chocolate chip salted caramel Nutella cookie bars for dessert was just what we needed to push through the last few days out here. Days that included unlocking and re-locking dozens of chained entrances. Days of moving very large and very heavy gas cylinders up and down an uneven sandy hill. And yesterday’s grand adventure: getting locked out of our rental house after they showed it to prospective buyers, thus having to break back in by climbing (horrifically ungracefully) through a window. All excellent excuses to savor our relaxed evening. Find yourself a similarly perfect excuse for making these. Did you check off a few key things on your “to do” list recently? Spend your entire day working up data or tweaking models on a computer? Finally tackle the pile of laundry you’ve been putting off for weeks? Arrive to work on time every day last week? Successfully breathe all day? Impressive, my friend, very impressive indeed. You need these. No, wait, you deserve these. You worked hard for it.

I took this already perfect recipe from Two Peas & Their Pod and amped it up just a tad. First, I switched to dark chocolate chips because I love the combination of salted caramel and dark chocolate. Second, I added Nutella because why would you ever need an explanation for adding Nutella? These are buttery. These are sugary. These are melty. These are gooey and salty and sweet and chocolate-y and carmel-y and Nutella-y (those are all words) and basically everything you could ever dream of. Best of all, they are a cinch to pull together. The ONLY thing that could possibly be holding you back right now is lacking the right ingredients in your pantry. Otherwise, you should already be preheating your oven (325 F, but you scrolled to the directions a long time ago, didn’t you?).

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DARK CHOCOLATE CHIP SALTED CARAMEL NUTELLA COOKIE BARS

(Recipe barely adapted from Two Peas & Their Pod)

2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. baking soda

12 tbsp. butter, softened

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

~2 cups (one 1o-oz bag) dark chocolate chips

10 oz caramel candy squares, unwrapped

3 tbsp. heavy cream

~1/2 cup Nutella

Sea salt, for sprinkling over caramel and bars

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1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease an 11×7-inch baking pan with nonstick baking spray or butter.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking soda until well-mixed. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer or using an electric hand mixer, combine the softened butter and sugars until well-mixed, at least one minute. Beat in the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla extract until smooth. Gradually beat in the dry mixture until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

4. In a large microwave safe bowl, combine the caramels and heavy cream. In 20-second intervals, microwave caramels on High until they melt, stirring after each round. This should take ~2 minutes.

5. Press half of the cookie dough into the prepared pan, pressing it down evenly and smoothing the top with a spatula. Spread Nutella evenly over the cookie layer. Pour the melted caramel over the Nutella and sprinkle with sea salt. (Here I let out an audible “Oh!” because the sight of caramel pouring over Nutella is darn close to divine.)

6. Take small portions of the remaining cookie dough and press flat with your hands. Place gently over the caramel, and repeat until you’ve covered all the caramel. Sprinkle the top with additional sea salt.

7. Bake at 325 F for 30 minutes or until the top of the bars are light golden brown and the edges start to pull away from the pan. Cool completely* on a wire rack and then cut into squares.

cookie bars stacked

*Um, yeah right! I say go for it after you’re sure you won’t burn your tongue. Letting it cool completely means you’ll have clean cuts, but if you’re not giving the entire thing away to people, dig in as soon as it cools down. You’re okay with a spoonful of cookie, Nutella, and caramel all melted together, right? That’s what I thought. You can cut the rest up nice and pretty later. But you need a warm and gooey mess right now. Mmm… délicieux…

Also, apologies that we’re back to bad photos for the day. My talented photographers are a few hours away!

Simple & Addicting Caramel Chex Mix

caramel chex

Meet one of easiest to make and most addicting sweet snacks you will ever encounter. I think you two will get along very well!

My lab is partnering with another group on campus for a field campaign at Cape Cod over the next few weeks. I’m part of the set-up crew. One of our responsibilities was driving all the equipment out to the site and prepping instruments for sampling. Since the drive was a few hours, that’s kind of like a road trip, right? And all good road trips require proper snacking supplies, right? (Answers: yes and heck yes.) Fortunately, I just so happen to have the perfect, incredibly addicting road trip snack.

My family made this mix to take to our relatives a few years ago. We ate the entire batch en route and, upon arrival, handed them the empty tin with the sheepish promise to fill it up if they’d let us use their oven (and go grocery shopping). We must have made at least three more batches of this stuff over the course of our visit. I’m not even sure where it all went, but somewhere between all the card playing and drinking, bowl after bowl kept disappearing.

This recipe is embarrassingly easy to make. But everybody needs some fallback quick and delicious party/road trip/family gathering snacks in their repertoire, so I thought I’d share one of my family’s staples with you. Maybe you could use it for the upcoming Superbowl? I hope you find it as ridiculously addicting as we do. One note of warning: this makes a LOT, so plan to either have plenty of people over or give bags of this away!

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SIMPLE & ADDICTING CARAMEL CHEX MIX

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

3/4 cup white corn syrup

1 cup brown sugar

1-2 cups chopped pecans, almonds, and/or walnuts (adjust mix to your liking)

1-2 cups pretzels*

1 (12oz) package Chex cereal (rice is my family’s favorite, but corn or wheat will also work)

*If your grocery store is also organized by a five year old and, even after half an hour of searching, you can’t find the normal pretzels anywhere they should logically be, use whatever you can find. For example, pretzel Goldfish work great.

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1. Preheat oven to 275 F. Spray a large roasting pan generously with baking spray.

2. Pour the cereal, nuts, and pretzels in two large bowls or one extra large bowl (you’ll need space to stir them).

3. Microwave butter, corn syrup, and brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl for 2 minutes. Stir together until well-mixed. The butter will want to float on top, so you’ll have to do some creative stirring (stir in large vertical loops, pulling up the bottom and folding it over the top so that the butter gets pulled into the rest of the mixture).

4. Pour the butter/syrup/sugar mix over top of the cereal/nut/pretzel mix and stir to coat as evenly as possible.

5. Spread the coated mix in the roasting pan and bake for 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, pull the pan out of the oven and stir the mix really well. The more you stir, the more even you’ll coat all the pieces and the better the final mix will be.

6. Spread the mix on sheets of wax paper to cool. Be sure to break up any large clumps or it’ll harden together in a big lump.

7. Serve to anyone you want to fatten up. (Just kidding, but it really is impossible to stop munching on this stuff once you get started!)

big batch

Chocolate Caramel Cookie Dough Peanut Butter Cups

Lucky for you, they weigh enough to double-time as paperweights!Let me break this down for you: Chocolate shell. Chocolate cake + peanut butter layer. Caramel sauce layer. Chocolate chip cookie dough layer. Chocolate lid. Sprinkles. AKA everything that is good about baking. Happiness in a cup. Bliss made tangible. Need I go on?

These are brought to you by my insane, driven-crazy-by-research brain. The recipe was dreamt up over the course of a very stressful week, with the caramel added by a last-minute stroke of genius (even though you can’t see it in the photo, the caramel layer is there. Oh yes, it is there.)

Just make these. It might take you a few hours, but it’s worth it. I mean, LOOK AT IT. Did you read what’s inside?! Pure joy.

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CUP SHELLS

4 cups semi-sweet chocolate (2 for now, 2 for the top)
2 tbsp. shortening
cupcake liners (I used foil ones)

1. Microwave 2 cups of chocolate chips plus 1 tablespoon shortening for a minute.

2. Stir until all the chips have melted and it’s smooth, microwaving at 15-second intervals as necessary (stir first; usually simply stirring will work out the un-melted chips).

3. Drop a spoonful or two of chocolate into each cup, using your finger to push it up the sides of the cupcake liners. You might have to do this a few times to get a good coating on the sides and bottom.

4. Let these harden in the fridge or on the counter; I used foil liners so once the chocolate hardened, I could take the liners out of the muffin tin (the foil will hold the shell’s shape, and you can place these chocolate-filled foil-liners on any baking tray or plate) and make another round to get 24 cups.

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COOKIE DOUGH

¾ cup unsalted butter (softened)
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp. milk
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup powdered sugar
1 ½ cups mini chocolate chips

1. Use an electric mixer to combine the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until fluffy (1-3 minutes).

2. Mix in the milk and vanilla extract until combined. Add the flour and powdered sugar until well-mixed.

3. Stir in the chocolate chips.

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CHOCOLATE PEANUT BUTTER CAKE

Chocolate cake mix
1 cup peanut butter

1. Prepare the chocolate cake mix according to instructions, bake, and let cool completely (the refrigerator can help with this).

2. Cut off all edges (and eat, obviously). Crumble the cake into a bowl.

3. Microwave the peanut butter for 30 seconds; stir until it’s smooth and almost liquid-y.

4. Mix the peanut butter into the cake crumbles. You might need to use your hands to mix it in really well and get the cake sticking together.

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ASSEMBLY

More chocolate
Caramel sauce
Sprinkles

1. Push about a ping-pong ball-sized scoop of chocolate & peanut butter cake into each cup, spreading it out to the edges.

2. Pour in a thin layer of caramel sauce.

3. Top with another ping-pong ball-sized scoop, this time of the cookie dough, and press down until smooth.

4. When all the cups are filled, melt another 2 cups of chocolate chips plus 1 tablespoon shortening. Top off each cup (about 1 tablespoon) with the chocolate and spread a spoon or tilt/shake the cup gently to get the chocolate to spread out.

5. Decorate with sprinkles before the chocolate hardens. If the chocolate hardens before you get the sprinkles on, a quick blast with a hair dryer on the highest heat setting will melt the top layer of chocolate so you can add sprinkles. Cool on the counter or in the fridge.

Inspired by: Cake-filled Peanut Butter Cups on Vanilla Sugar