wacky chocolate cake

I’ve been playing this game the past few days where I don’t spend any money—cooking from the pantry, eating from what’s already in the fridge. I’m doing it partly to cut costs (how does one person spend so much money on food?) and partly to avoid waste (we’re heading back to Chicago for a few days on Tuesday anyway), and I have to tell you: nothing shows you how much you enjoy spending money like telling yourself you can’t.

It’s bad.

But it’s good.

I’m just telling you right now I won’t make it to Tuesday.

buttered cake pan

So anyway, yesterday, wanting to find something to bake that wouldn’t require a trip to the store, I found myself Googling such strange combinations as “flour, sugar, cocoa,” “baking with no eggs” and even “recipes from the Great Depression.”

It was the final option that landed me on this cake, posted by Alice over at Sweet Savory Life, a version of which I had actually previously posted here (we’re talking previously as in March 2009), and even though I remembered it being just OK last time, I knew I had to try again, if for no other reason than that Hannah of Honey and Jam had just told me about Alice’s site when we met in Chattanooga last Thursday.

(Have I mentioned here how much I love meeting other food bloggers in person? Hannah was sweet, smart, full of interesting info about blogging, and easy to sit and talk with for like three hours in the middle of the afternoon—just like I knew she would be, after following her site for the last few years.)

dry ingredients in the bowl

This time, I did a little more research on the cake, partly because I remembered it being just ho-hum before, looking for tips and tricks other people had posted about changing it up. I saw someone used brewed coffee instead of water, another person added extra cocoa, someone liked to add vanilla extract (I thought about adding almond?) and a few people emphasized cream cheese frosting, which, between us, is exactly what I would go for if I made this again when I was, say, able to go buy some cream cheese beforehand.

cake batter in the pan

Of course I made a few obvious adaptations to ingredients because of personal preferences regarding nutrition—whole-grain spelt flour, avocado oil, Sucanat—and so, I wasn’t expecting much from the cake when it emerged from the oven, even when it was soft and springy, fragrant with cocoa.

cake in the hand

After letting it cool, I sprinkled it with organic powdered sugar I also had on hand (I know, right? I’m really suffering here) and sliced a small square to sample.

cake on the stove

slice of cake

cake and slice on top of oven

As for how it tasted, I’ll just say this: I baked it yesterday morning, and we polished off the last morsel of it last night. Tim says we should make layers next time, putting berries and maybe a whipped cream or marscapone inside between.

But even on its own, this wacky Depression-era cake is just slightly sweet, moist, perfect for pairing with something else like maybe ice cream or coffee, and it’s so crazy simple, so easy to make with what you already have, that I have to say I am sold.

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Warm Coffee-Infused Chocolate Cakes

You know, I’ve gotten some pretty fantastic packages in the mail since I started blogging—a jar of coconut oil, a case of Talenti gelato, a bag of Xylitol, something like 20 containers of Chobani yogurt.

But this month, I received something totally new, something I’d never have expected, something that kind of amazed me when I opened it, in fact: I recieved an entire case of Starbucks Natural Fusions coffee—filled with several bags each of the vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon flavors—and along with, so it turns out, the opportunity to host a meal featuring the coffee: with $100 of grocery money to do it.

case of coffee

This, as you can imagine for someone who clips coupons and winces at $5 blueberries, was an offer too good to pass up.

starbucks cinnamon coffee

We planned the meal for Saturday, with six of us gathered around a table, eating a delicious feast of salmon and salad and vegetables, of which the crowning glory was definitely the dessert: coffee-infused chocolate cakes, topped with a coffee reduction sauce, set next to homemade coffee ice cream, with hot coffee to drink on the side.

Seriously.

Thank you, Starbucks.

eggs

Of the three coffee flavors, we liked the ingredients from the cinnamon the best, as they were the most whole (i.e., no maltodextrin), so that’s what we used in every aspect of our dessert: some grounds in the cakes, some super-strong brewed coffee in the sauce, some grounds steeped with milk in the process of making the ice cream.

eggs in bowl

The cakes, served warm, are like little domes of soft, rich heaven, I kid you not. They’re not overly sweet, which makes them ideal to pair with ice cream, and they’re wonderfully moist in the center, with chocolate liquid oozing out as you eat.

cakes ready to bake

cakes baked

Saturday was actually the second time we made the cakes; the first time, at another group dinner, we had experimented with proportions, done without coffee, used the berries in a sort of puree all over the top.

That time was OK.

nate's cake

This time was perfection.

a cup of coffee

I mean, really. Forget cream and sugar. I think I’ve found a new favorite way to have coffee.

(And also, just because a delicious (and free!) meal is something to celebrate, pictures of our lunch:)

salad
cauliflower
rosemary sourdough bread
my plate
around the table

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Coconut Cupcakes (+ Xylitol!)

Thank you all so much for your congratulations and excitement on the last post! I told Tim, getting engaged feels like this giant burst of love from everyone who’s known you—and even some that haven’t. Thanks for sharing in our joy, every one of you. You are the best part of blogging.

And speaking of the best parts of food blogging, let me tell you about another one: namely, getting exposed to new and interesting ingredients—like Xyla (Xylitol), for example, the alternative sweetener I used in today’s coconut-packed cupcakes.

xylitol

Before an email from Xylitol USA found its way into my inbox a few weeks ago, I had heard a little bit about this “un-sugar.” I knew it was popular in chewing gums, but, actually, it turns out it’s been used in the dental field for more than sixty years, praised for its plaque- and cavity- fighting abilities, as well as power to fight demineralization of tooth enamel and mouth infections.

Even beyond dental benefits, Xyla has a long list of selling points, according to its sellers: way lower on the glycemic index than regular sugar (it’s like a 3 compared to 100) so it hits your body differently in terms of insulin, anti-aging properties, helps prevent ear infections, fights bacteria, increases absorption of B vitamins, aids in weight loss, inhibits harmful yeast. What’s more, Xylitol is said to be all-natural, derived from certain fibrous vegetables and fruit—or, like what Xylitol USA sells, from birch trees.

On the other hand, some research suggests there are dangers associated with this sweetener: an article in Natural News pointed out that not all Xylitol is created equal, as “one commonly used source is corn imported from China”—which then needs to be highly processed before consumption, making it a far cry from all natural. It’s really pretty interesting to read about Xyla; it’s been getting more and more buzz, with all kinds of mixed opinions floating around.

one cup of xylitol

Since Xylitol USA’s product comes directly from birch trees (a change made as recently as last year), I feel a little more comfortable using it in baking, where it’s supposed to be a one-to-one swap for sugar, behaving, looking, and tasting almost exactly like it.

So when, last week, I was in the mood for a cupcake loaded with coconut (we’re talking coconut milk, coconut oil, shredded coconut; coconut in the cake, coconut in the frosting), I pulled out the Xylitol to give it a shot as the sweetener to make it happen.

three eggs

Just to make sure I was giving you a fair assessment, I had at least seven people taste these cupcakes, quizzing them on level of sweetness, weird after-tastes, anything that stood out to them. The verdict? Xyla is a definite win.

One person thought the cupcakes had a very slight metal taste; a few of us thought they were powerfully sweet (but then, not eating regular sugar can affect your sensitivity to these things); but overall, these cupcakes were deemed delicious desserts. I will also add that since I used whole-grain spelt flour, they had a dense quality that’s hard to get away from with alternative flours.

coconut cupcakes

So would I use Xylitol again? Maybe. It’s hard to find in stores, so the Internet would be the only way to get it (XylitolUSA.com is actually offering a discount code for Food Loves Writing readers: 10% off with code FIRST).

cupcakes in container

I liked the way it tasted and I liked the fact that it’s a natural substitute for sugar—especially one that is so much lower on the glycemic index. Nonetheless, I’d like to do some more research before feeling confident.

So what about you: Have you ever used Xylitol? Know anything about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions, as well as any interesting research you find!

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[Another] Carrot Cake

If you’re like me, baking inspiration can come from pretty ordinary places. You see a recipe, a friend mentions a craving, or, you know, there’s that half a bag of carrots staring at you every time you open the fridge.

shredded carrots

This particular bag of carrots had gotten quite a lot of use already—six went into the homemade chicken soup I made in my first days here, then another handful were peeled and chopped for snacks for the drive up to Chicago for Mom’s birthday—now, almost a month into my new address in East Nashville, it seemed an obvious choice to put most of the remainder into a cake. Blame my economical nature (or, ahem, what my family terms cheap) if you like, but I’m kind of partial to ingredients like these, the ones that are versatile enough to be part of entrees, easy road snacks, and then still key players in weekday desserts—if only all good foods had so many uses.

toasted pecans

baking a carrot cake

I’ve made (and loved) other tried-and-tested versions of carrot cakes before this one, but just like with cookies, it’s still always fun to try something new. Plus, Kristin’s version has stuck in my mind ever since she posted it last year. It adds pecans and buttermilk, and it looks crazy gorgeous atop a white cake stand (there’s something I forgot to bring!). I would have loved to have also topped it with cream cheese frosting, but, in the name of using up what I already had, even on its own, this cake—dark and moist, fragrant and chocked full of bright orange ribbons—is a beautiful way to eat your vegetables.

carrot cake

So consider this your obvious inspiration: next time you find yourself with some carrots to use up (and honestly, they’re so cheap, why wouldn’t you?), this is what you need to do.

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Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

pumpkin cheesecake bars

I’ve always liked pumpkin. I like the way it tastes. I like the way it looks. Mostly, I like the season it comes in, fall.

The world just looks better this time of year, you know? The colors, the weather, the way you can see your breath in the morning but take your sweater off in the afternoon. This October, I’ve seen leaves fall in Seattle and Ohio and then back again in Illinois; I’ve sipped hot apple cider and walked on piles of crunchy leaves; I’ve felt crisp air and slept with the windows open. It’s been beautiful. And even though the days are darker as we edge closer to winter, I have to tell you: I love fall.

fall in chicagoland
crunching fall leaves
leaves wet on sidewalk

All that autumnal affection has to get channeled somewhere, and I’m happy to tell you I’ve found the place: pumpkin. Because listen, pumpkin is to recipes what fall is to the calendar. When I make something with pumpkin, it’s like I’m eating pure fall, and I like that. That’s why when the people behind The Old Farmer’s Almanac Everyday Recipes sent me a copy of their cookbook recently, complete with little sticky tabs signaling the best recipes with pumpkin, I was an easy sell.

Beginning with pumpkin cheesecake bars.

everyday recipes farmer's almanac

Velvety and creamy, these bars start with a thick graham cracker crust and finish with a pumpkin filling as rich as cheesecake. You’re supposed to let them chill before slicing, but between us, I had a piece right out of the oven, warm and golden, and it was quite nice. The next day, I ate another piece, chilled, for breakfast—because it’s October after all, and I might as well eat the most of it.

pumpkin cheesecake bars

And if you too find yourself indoors one of these beautiful evenings, away from the colors and the leaves and the chill in the air, I sincerely hope it’s because you’re making this or something like it, with pumpkin, in the season I wish wouldn’t end.

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Seattle Recap! (+ Pumpkin Muffins)

Fresh from four days in Seattle, I can tell you the city was both everything and nothing like I expected, the way most things we envision tend to be, the way you could also describe a certain pumpkin recipe I’d tried before I left.

trees in seattle

I mean, I liked Seattle. But before I went, I envisioned thick forests, days of rain, majestic mountains, lots of coffee, something called a Space Needle—and, I don’t know, people wearing lots of flannel or North Face jackets. In fact, it was all of those things. Despite our trip’s unending sunshine, the effects of rain were all around us: in the canopies of green over city streets, the fall leaves scattered on street corners, the fresh and wet smell throughout beautiful Bainbridge Island. We saw mountain peaks off in the distance, we ate soup with a view of the Space Needle, we passed more Starbucks coffee shops than I could count.

seattle fall leaves

seattle ships

wooded seattle

Indeed, Seattle is Pikes Place Market and the smell of the sea and a need for a jacket everywhere you go. But it is also something else. It is a city, like any other city, filled with tall buildings, urban architecture, the familiar retail shops. It’s hilly, like San Francisco, with steep sidewalks leading up ascending street numbers. It’s a place that makes it easy to eat organic or local or vegan or gluten-free.

seattle pines

organic ice cream

parfait ice cream

delancey pizza

Seattle is a gorgeous farmers market, a crowded Friday morning, a great dinner at Delancey—the Neapolitan-style pizza place I (and every other Orangette lover) watched develop online and now can say I’ve dined at.

Seattle was and wasn’t what I thought it would be, and that was exactly right, which is precisely the story of these muffins.

pumpkin muffins

See, just like you can have visions of a place you’ve never visited, you can have expectations of a recipe you’ve never tried.

whipped cream

And sometimes you bake something, say a cookie, expecting what a cookie recipe normally yields, be it a hard and crunchy biscuit you can dunk in tea, a large and cracked dessert speckled with powder sugar or a crumbly and mouthwatering morsel you can hold in your hand, but when you go to the kitchen, follow a recipe, make some adaptations and bake, you find surprise. What you’ve made aren’t the cookies of your imagination; they’re something else entirely—more like muffins, dense and fluffy, spreading and flattening into wide, round cakes on the baking sheet.

pumpkin muffins with whipped cream

So you pour them into muffin molds as you embrace the reality of what is, accepting and appreciating it. And you realize pumpkin muffins are exactly right.

I guess these are the preconceptions and surprises that make up our lives—be they new cities or new recipes or new faces that become friends. They’re everywhere. They’re worth noticing. I just hope they always involve such good things to eat.

pumpkin muffins

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Spelt Carrot Cake

Speaking from a history of impatience, I can tell you it helps, at least a little, if you can mentally psych yourself up for the things you have to wait for. Like, it takes time to learn things, have you noticed that? It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up a new instrument, taking driver’s ed, meeting a stranger or experimenting in the kitchen: nine times out of ten, you’re not going to get it the first time—ten times out of ten, if you’re me.

Then there’s the post office. It will be crowded, trust me, no matter when you go, so bring your iPhone and catch up on Words with Friends games while you listen for your number to be called. Rush-hour traffic? We all know what that’s like. Expect delays or, you know, quit your office job to avoid traffic altogether.

Just knowing these things, simply anticipating the waits, makes it easier to push through them, easier to handle. At least for me. That’s why I wish I could always know time frames beforehand, I really do.

It’s kind of like this carrot cake.

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