Nanaimo Bars

For being so on top of the Fourth of July (did you make the star-spangled cupcakes yet?), I sure failed at alerting you to the other major holiday of the week: Canada Day!

(July 1, for you oblivious folks out there)

nanaimo bars canada day dessert

Canada is the only country I got to visit outside of the U.S. during the first 18 years of my life. I owe a lot to our northern neighbor: Grandma’s love of Cribbage. Older cousins who let us braid, clip, pin, and tie their hair. Hours-long drives through gorgeous forests. Grinning every time I hear “loonie” and “toonie.” Learning how to play A**hole/Janitor (depending on whether the children are playing) late into the night. Tim Horton’s (not for coffee, seeing as I was a kid and also don’t like coffee, just pastries). Coasting down a river in giant inner tubes. Multi-story indoor-and-outdoor water fights. Crazy, awesome, hilarious relatives. Snow. Snow on Christmas (we don’t get that in California). Oh, yeah, and my dad, who coincidentally is responsible for my last name and thus the name of this blog. He’s pretty cool I guess, so thanks for him, Canada!

canada day dessert nanaimo bar

Canada also gave me Nanaimo Bars. Aka nana-what?! bars. Aka “Finding Nemo?” bars. Aka nanananananaMO!! bars. Aka a chocolate coconut cookie-like base, vanilla kind-of-custard-kind-of-frosting filling, and smooth chocolate on top. Aka perfection out of the fridge. Aka try these now, and you can appreciate a little slice of Canada without the travel cost. Aka thanks, Canada, you rock!

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NANAIMO BARS

Recipe from Hidden Ponies

Base layer:

¾ cup unsalted butter

¼ cup granulated sugar

6 tbsp. cocoa

1 large egg

1 tbsp. milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 cup shredded coconut

Middle layer:

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

6 tbsp. milk

4 tbsp. custard powder (or instant vanilla pudding powder)

4 cups powdered sugar

Top layer:

8oz (8 squares) semisweet or dark chocolate baking squares (NOT chocolate chips; they won’t melt properly)

1 tbsp. unsalted butter

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1. Make the base first. Combine the first 6 ingredients in a large saucepan. Heat and stir over medium-low heat until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in the graham crumbs and coconut. Pack firmly into ungreased 9×13” pan. Place in the refrigerator while you prepare the middle layer.

2. To make the middle layer, beat all four ingredients together in a medium bowl until smooth. Spread evenly over the first layer. Chill for at least 45 minutes.

3. When the second layer is chilled, make the top layer. Melt the chocolate and butter in a small bowl at 50% power in microwave. Microwave for about 1½ minutes, then stir thoroughly. Microwave another 30 seconds or longer if needed, stirring frequently. Spread fairly evenly over middle layer. Chill for 1 hour, then score chocolate with a sharp knife (aka make shallow cuts that will prevent your chocolate from cracking later) and return to fridge to chill completely before cutting into bars. Keep refrigerated until you’re ready to serve.

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nanaimo bars canadian dessert

Black & White Cake

Before I recently moved to my new apartment, I had no idea how I was going to get everything over. Being in the middle of end-of-semester stress, I didn’t have time or energy to think about logistics. I kind of just hoped it would work out somehow. Because that’s how responsible people operate, right? Just fail to plan and keep your fingers crossed that something will come along. It’s exhilarating! (←lies)

Lo and behold, I have some pretty darn amazing people in my life. Alex and her family helped me load and transport my larger pieces using the U-Haul they had rented. They were literally heaven-sent! I couldn’t have made it without them. Furniture moved, I now had to bring over all the “things” I left behind. I didn’t have my bike yet, so I thought briefly about walking stuff over. I estimated I could finish within a week, if I never slept or took any breaks. The appeal factor for this plan was dismal. Luckily, Tommy (ZipCar member) and Dave came to my rescue. I packed up my stuff in bags and boxes, and we transported it to the new apartment… only to find that the elevator was broken.

And of course my new place is on the top floor.

Much laughter ensued as we carried everything up all four flights of stairs. And by “we” I mean “the boys,” because while I was carrying things like lamps and pillows, they were competing to see who could carry the most weight – and I’m pretty good at packing things to be obnoxiously heavy (hey! I wasn’t thinking that the elevator would break!).

In addition to a much-deserved dinner and drinks, I promised the boys a cake for all their assistance. Plus, it’d be perfect because Tommy could come back (with Erika!) and see the place once it was all set up and pretty. I got the requests (Tommy likes chocolate; Erika likes white cake; Dave was down for anything) and put them together to create this:

Black and white cake

Lest you think I simply frosted this cake to be half buttercream and half chocolate frosting, please observe the complete division of flavors:

black and white cut

Yes, this is a cake that is literally half chocolate and half plain white. Yes, I did eat two pieces. Naturally. Who wouldn’t?! You have to try both sides! This cake was a solid winner, although we could barely get through the slices. You see, Erika works in a fancy bakery and is therefore extraordinarily talented at cutting slices. Not just any slices, but thick, decadent works of art. Evidence:

WhiteCakeSlice

Can I please never be in charge of cutting my own cakes ever again? Erika, you are officially hired! Pay will consist of cake slices, and you’ll have to cut them yourself, but hot damn look at how pretty that is…

We mostly all agreed that, while both halves were delicious, the chocolate cake wins because it’s so over-the-top rich and moist. In fact, I’m tempted to make an entire cake of the chocolate side, because the “frosting” is more like a rich fudge ganache that blends seamlessly together with the cake to provide a death-by-chocolate sort of experience. That is not to say the white cake side wasn’t good; it was soft and delicate as white cakes are, and the buttercream tastes like sugary goodness. But I accidentally overcooked the cake (still adjusting to the new oven and I’m convinced it runs too hot), so it bordered on being too dry. Watch your baking times carefully, and you’ll be sure to impress with a cake that pleases both sides of the chocolate vs. plain cake war!

Finally, before I get to the recipe, some notes about orchestrating the creation of this masterpiece without taking all day:

  • I recommend making the chocolate cake first; while it’s in the oven, make the chocolate frosting. This goes in the fridge to harden up.
  • When your chocolate cakes come out of the oven, let them cool for at least 10 minutes before inverting them onto a cooling rack. Wash up your cake pans (if you don’t have four; if you have four pans, you can make the white cake while the chocolate one is in the oven) and get them ready for your white cakes.
  • Make the white cakes and pop them in the oven. While they are cooking, put the chocolate cakes in the freezer and give the chocolate frosting a stir to make sure it’s cooling evenly. This is good time to tidy up the kitchen, because it probably looks like a science experiment gone wrong at this point in the process.
  • When the white cakes come out, let them cool for about 10 minutes and then move them to wire rack and put them in the fridge to cool off a bit (they’re studier than the chocolate cake, so they don’t need to be placed in the freezer). Prepare your cake stand (put down strips of wax paper in a circle that you can remove after decorating – this prevents frosting and crumbs from getting all over your stand).
  • Make the buttercream frosting. Remove the white cakes and cut them in half. Stack these, alternating cake layers with buttercream frosting. When the cake is fully stacked, slather the flat, cut side with a thick wall of buttercream (if the buttercream has “dried” a bit by this point, blend in some extra butter (softened) or milk to make it “sticky” again).
  • Remove the chocolate cake and frosting. Stack these, pushing them against the wall of buttercream as you go. Alternate cake layers with chocolate frosting. You’ll have to cut the last half-circle so that it’s even with the white cake side (you don’t want your cake to be too lopsided!).
  • Put the cake (now with the white and chocolate cake halves stuck together, but no frosting on the outside) in the fridge for 10 minutes.
  • Remove the cake. Frost the chocolate side with the chocolate frosting, then frost the white side with the buttercream frosting (the buttercream is easier to work with and is thicker than the chocolate frosting, so it should go on second).
  • Finish off with any decorations! I used white and brown sprinkles on opposite sides of the cake to tie it together, but feel free to get creative!

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BLACK AND WHITE CAKE

For the 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

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

For the chocolate frosting (but really more like fudge ganache):

12 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

3 tbsp. light corn syrup

4 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 1/2 cup heavy cream

For the white cake:

Adapted slightly from Group Recipes

1 cup + 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

2 tbsp. milk

For the buttercream frosting:

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened

1-2 tsp. vanilla extract

1-2 tbsp. heavy cream

3-5 cups powdered sugar

(Sorry I don’t have better estimates on these, I basically just combine things until I like the taste and consistency!)

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Make the chocolate cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch round cake pans. 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.

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean. Let cool in the pans for 10-20 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 out of these cakes if you don’t firm them up in the freezer. They’ll defrost once assembled, don’t worry.

Make the chocolate frosting/ganache:

Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl with the corn syrup and butter. Heat the cream just until it begins to boil.  Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate.  Let stand for 1 minute, then stir until smooth. Chill thoroughly in the refrigerator or freezer until firm enough for decorating. (Mine took about 2+ hours to thicken up satisfactorily.)

Make the white cake:

1. Your oven should already be at 350 degrees F, but if you are doing this at a later time, preheat it now. Grease the bottoms and sides of two 9-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, two at a time, and then stir in the vanilla.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl and then gradually add to the creamed mixture until well-mixed. Blend in the milk.

4. Pour into the prepared cake pans, dividing evenly. Bake for 30-40 minutes (the recipe calls for 40-45; mine were done at 30 – it just depends on your oven, and I’m still adjusting to our new one), or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out just barely clean. Let cool in the pans for 10-20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks and let cool completely. Put them in the fridge to cool even faster.

Make the buttercream frosting:

In a stand mixer, beat together 1 cup of the sugar and softened butter. Mix on low speed until well blended, gradually adding the rest of the sugar. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes. Add vanilla extract and cream; continue to beat on medium for 1 minute more, adding extra cream or powdered sugar to reach a spreading consistency. (I used a hand mixer this time because I moved to a new place and won’t have a stand mixer until I can ship mine over from California; it worked just fine, but the frosting was a bit thicker and less fluffy than I would prefer. That’s the magic that only a stand mixer can bring!)

Assemble everything:

1. Starting with the white cakes, cut them in half so you have four half circles. Stack them, alternating cake layers with buttercream frosting. When the cake is fully stacked, slather the flat, cut side with a thick wall of buttercream (if the buttercream has dried a bit by this point, blend in some extra butter (softened) or milk to make it “sticky” again).

2. Next, work with the chocolate cake. Cut them into half circles, and stack them, alternating cake with frosting. This time, though, push each layer against the wall of buttercream as you go. You’ll have to cut the last half-circle so that it’s even with the white cake side (you don’t want your cake to be too lopsided!).

3. Put the cake (now with the white and chocolate cake halves stuck together, but no frosting on the outside) in the fridge for at least 10 minutes. Remove and frost the chocolate side with the chocolate frosting, then the white side with the buttercream frosting (the buttercream is easier to work with and is thicker than the chocolate frosting, so it should go on second). Finish off with any decorations you like. I used white and brown sprinkles on opposite sides of the cake to tie it together, but feel free to get creative!

black and white top view

Heart-Filled Cupcakes

heart cupcakesValentine’s Day is almost here! It should come as no surprise that I am quite fond of this holiday. Not the processed, packaged, generic, store-sold Valentine’s Day stuff… well, except for those cards that kids pass out. I have a weak spot for those. They’re just so cute and silly, and remind me of being a kid. And some of them have stickers or holograms! So, so cool. But aside from those, I don’t like the Valentine’s Day that stores try to push on you. What I do absolutely adore is everyone dressed in pinks, reds, and whites. I’m smitten with all the hearts, hugs, smiles, songs, and handmade cards. And I truly treasure the celebration of friendship, appreciation, and love. What’s not to love about all of that?! Add the chance to make super cute, heart-themed treats and this becomes a holiday worth celebrating!

Ever since Katie sent me Megan Seling’s book, Bake it in a Cupcake, for my birthday, I’ve been obsessed with the heart-filled cupcakes that grace the cover. I’ve waited three months now for Valentine’s Day to come just so I could make these, and I’m so glad I did – they are adorable! You have to cut into them just right in order to see the heart, but the wonderful surprise of seeing a heart inside your cupcake never gets old and makes it 100% worth the effort.

You’ll need a small heart-shaped cookie cutter for this recipe. For me, this proved to be surprisingly difficult to find. After visiting numerous stores without luck, I finally ended up asking one of my labmates to help me make a cookie cutter in the lab’s machine shop. He is really talented and has made all sorts of utensils and whatnot, so I figured he would be up for the challenge. I wasn’t wrong! Check out this awesome, handmade cookie cutter he made for me:

cookie cutter

Impressive, right?! He said he’s going to make an octopus next, so keep an eye out for some crazy cookies… ha!

The one downside to these cupcakes is that despite all their visual bravado, they are a bit on the bland side. I think the strawberry frosting included in the recipe would remedy this, but since I strongly dislike artificial strawberry flavoring and I am the baker, I decided to go with a buttercream frosting (which could also easily be tinted pink). I think next time I would make the hearts white and bake them into a red velvet cupcake, or keep the hearts pink/red and bake them into a chocolate cupcake. Don’t get me wrong – these are still very good, and their cuteness quota is off the charts, but I’m a chocolate loyalist at heart. Try whatever sounds best to you!

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Megan has posted the recipe on her blog so follow this link to make the cupcakes: Pink Heart-Filled Cupcakes. Because I dislike artificial strawberry flavor, I topped them with this fluffy frosting recipe from Cooking Classy.

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A few hints:

1.Vanilla beans are great but expensive; 1.5-2 tsp. vanilla extract can be used as a substitute.

2. When you’re cooking the small pink/red cake for the hearts, put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator. Do not leave it on the counter! I made two batches, and the first batch I didn’t refrigerate the batter (it doesn’t say to in the recipe) and half of the hearts floated to the top of the cupcakes during baking. Oops. The second time around, I refrigerated the batter and didn’t have any issues getting the hearts to stay upright in the batter. Much better. Learn from my mistake and you’ll save yourself the heartache of a bunch of cupcakes with rotated hearts!

3. On that note, once the small pink/red cake is done baking, pop it in the refrigerator/freezer for a few minutes to cool it down asap. The longer you wait, the “flatter” your batter in the refrigerator is going to get and the denser your final cupcakes will be.

4. These cupcakes won’t rise too much, but if you fill up the cupcake liners more than 4/5-ths full or so, the batter will run over the edges and cement the liner to the cupcake tray. I lost a cupcake that way: trying to pry it loose from tray, I ripped the cupcake in half. You win some, you learn some. On the upside, I got to do some quality assurance, so I can’t complain too much!

5. She provides a single baking time (20 for the small cake, 24 for the cupcakes) but you should start testing your treats earlier. Mine were done at 19 and 22 minutes; if you don’t know how your oven behaves, then just keep an eye on your cupcakes to make sure you don’t over-bake them.

6. For the buttercream frosting, use gel food coloring to dye it pink/red. Gel food coloring doesn’t affect the consistency like liquid food coloring does, and it gives the frosting a nice vibrant color. Since I made 24 cupcakes (2 batches), I frosted 8 with plain white frosting. Then I added some red food coloring to the remaining frosting and beat it until the frosting was light pink, and used that to decorate 8 more cupcakes. For the remaining cupcakes, I adding additional food coloring to the frosting and brought it to a darker pink color. The three shades of frosting looked quite cute sitting together on the cupcake tray!

heart cropped

Joyeuse Saint-Valentin! I hope you spread and receive lots of love this week!