Dark Chocolate Cupcakes w/ White Chocolate Cream Filling & Carnival Frosting

It has been a long time since I’ve baked anything in my own kitchen.  I’ve been spending every livingwakingbreathingpossible moment either at work (hostessing for a simply fantastic restaurant) or tucked away in my work’s kitchen helping out and learning from the chefs there.  I love every minute, but that doesn’t mean I’m not desperately enjoying my day off.  There is something very wonderful about being in my own kitchen again, using the same wooden spoon I was licking brownie batter off of when I was five, and knowing exactly where every bowl is.  There is also something wonderful about returning to the kitchen I grew up in with a new confidence and mastery of the culinary arts.

Somewhere in-between the hot-press and stress-rush of the professional kitchen, I lost the doubt, hesitation, and waffling that always surrounded my baking endeavors.  Do I use this recipe or this one?  Two to five hours of deliberation.  Should I add that extra egg yolk in?  One hour of intense consideration.  Is it ready to take out of the oven?  Several minutes of gut-wrenching indecision.  Now I can create a multi-part dessert in 3 hours; that time including prepping, baking, cooling, presenting, and the initial ten minutes of excited imagining.  I can even create frostings sans recipe, with just a few moments of rifling through my fridge.

I had recently made a milk-chocolate panna cotta at work and I wanted to make another.  The original idea was for a dark chocolate panna cotta topped with a white chocolate one and filled with a raspberry or strawberry syrup.  That idea turned into dark-chocolate cupcakes with white chocolate panna cotta filling and bacon-fat icing.  I really need to find a more attractive name for that last bit.

First, the panna cotta middle.  This recipe produces a smooth and deliciously rich panna cotta with a heavy milky taste.  It’s not too gelatinous and pudding-y, it’s more of a creamy and dense feel with a slight goey-ness.  The white chocolate gives it that sweet-cream taste and the vanilla beans come through for an added layering of flavor, giving this dessert a more sophisticated and complex taste.  If you like white chocolate, you will love this.  If you don’t like white chocolate, chances are you’ll still like it.  It’s great just plain in ramekins, topped with tart berry syrup, or accompanied by dark chocolate ice cream.

Second, the dark-chocolate body of the cupcake.  I love this recipe.  I love dark chocolate, I love fudgy dessert, I love little hot molten cakes, and I love this recipe.  It doesn’t produce a liquid-center chocolate cake (which is good because of how I used it), rather a dense, rich cake with a soft and gooey-center.  This is less of a cake kind of cake and more of an almost-brownie.  These little chocolate delights have a little bit of a rise, just enough for a plump and rounded top (which remains delightfully crispy) but not enough to overflow in leavened abundance.  The texture is dense and thick, with a deep flavor that’s all chocolate and bittersweet.  These are absolutely fabulous on their own with a little vanilla ice-cream.

Third, the unusual and really quite good, bacon-fat vanilla icing.  This is something I saw in the fridge, said hey, a little bacon fat never hurt, and went for it.  No recipe, no research, nada.  Just winged it.  It’s a little salty, a little sweet, and completely addictive.  The bacon fat gives it a little extra something that’s hard to identify (if you don’t happen to eat a lot of bacon fat) and very unique.  A good friend of mine said it tasted something like funnel cake or the kind of fried, sugary treats you find at a carnival (which is why I’m calling it “carnival” frosting).  It requires a very delicate balance between the individual elements; too much bacon-fat and it’s too greasy tasting, too little salt and the bacon-fat won’t come through, etc.  I recommend tweaking it to your personal taste but being bold enough to give it a try.

SOFT-CENTER DARK-CHOCOLATE CAKE

Yields 12 regular-sized cupcakes

Ingredients:

  • 9 oz. bittersweet chocolate
  • 12 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 large yolks (at room temperature)
  • 2 large eggs (at room temperature)
  • 7 tbsp of sugar
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)
  • 1 pinch salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F and line a standard-sized cupcake pan with appropriate sized cupcake liners.  You can also do larger or smaller cupcakes, but it’ll affect estimated yield and baking time.
  2. Cut your butter into roughly 1” pieces and chop your chocolate.  You can set aside 2 oz. of your chocolate and place the rest into a small saucepan with your butter or you can just melt it all.  Melt the chocolate slowly over a low flame, checking frequently and stirring slightly less frequently.
  3. Meanwhile, in a medium-large bowl, combine your eggs and egg yolks, whisk until homogenous.  Mix in your sugar, then sift in your flour, cocoa powder, and salt.  Mix until just incorporated.
  4. Once your chocolate has melted, let it cool until it’s about body temperature (so that you can’t feel it as hot or cold when you stick your finger in it) and pour over the rest of your batter slowly and stir until completely mixed.  Fold in the remaining chopped chocolate if you chose to set some aside.
  5. Pour your batter into the prepared cupcake tins (I scoop it with an ice-cream scooper to help keep the amount of batter even) and bake for 12-14 minutes, until top cracks and a toothpick comes out fairly cleanly.
  6. Once they’re baked, carefully take them out of the cupcake pan; try not to let them separate from the cupcake liner.  Let them cool on a wire rack.

WHITE-CHOCOLATE PANNA COTTA

Yields 3-4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 tbsp white sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean pod
  • 4 oz white chocolate
  • 1 tsp (0.125 oz)
 gelatin
  • 1 tsp water

Directions:

  1. Pour your heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar into a small saucepan.  Split your vanilla pod and scrape the beans into the cream; toss the leftover pod in, as well.  Heat this over a low to medium flame, stirring occasionally, until your mixture begins to simmer.
  2. While that’s heating, chop your white chocolate (unless you’re using small chocolate chips) and pour into a medium-sized heatproof bowl.
  3. Mix your gelatin with your water in a small cup (I did it in a 1/8 cup measurer).  Stir with a toothpick; it’ll be solid and grainy.
  4. Once your cream mixture has simmered, remove the vanilla pod, and pour the cream over your white chocolate.  Let stand 1-2 minutes till melted, add in the gelatin, then stir slowly until all incorporated.
  5. If you’re using it as a filling, pour your panna cotta through a sieve into the prepared cupcakes and refrigerate for 3 hours.  If you’re just making straight-up panna cotta, pour it through a sieve into individual ramekins and refrigerate for at least 3 hours to set.

Tips:

Don’t let your cream scald or it’ll get a burnt-cream flavor.  Remember to stir it occasionally to disperse any skin that forms over the top of the cream.  If one forms, don’t fret, it’ll be strained out later when you pour the panna cotta through a sieve.

Always strain your panna cotta before pouring it into ramekins (or wherever it’ll end up when you serve it) to get out any larger solids and make sure your panna cotta has a smooth, even texture.  It’s also a good idea to strain ice cream bases and anything else where eggs or dairy is heated.

When you’re melting chocolate by pouring hot cream (or milk, etc.) over it (ie. when making a ganache), pour the hot liquid over it and let it stand for a few minutes to melt.  Then, using a whisk or a spoon, start at the center and make small, calm, circular stirs that slowly, steadily spiral out to the edges of the bowl.  Your chocolate should be melted by the time you get to the edges of your bowl.  Try not to incorporate too much air as you go.

CARNIVAL FROSTING

Yields enough to frost 6 cupcakes excessively or 12 cupcakes moderately

Ingredients:

  • 16 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 10 tbsp solid bacon lard
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp finely chopped crispy bacon-fat bits (optional)

Directions:

  1. In a medium-large mixing bowl, cream together your butter and bacon lard on a high speed until fluffy.  Beat in your vanilla until fully incorporated.
  2. Slowly add in your powdered sugar and salt until frosting reaches desired consistency and taste.  I suggest tasting after each addition and adding more if needed.
  3. If you’re adding in bacon-fat bits, then mix them in at the end at a low speed until evenly incorporated.

Tips:

To obtain bacon grease, simply drain off and save the liquid grease every time you fry up some bacon for breakfast.  Keep it refrigerated and soon you’ll have enough (depending on how much bacon you and your household go through).  I get mine from the restaurant I work at, so I have pretty much an unlimited supply.  The bacon fat I get is also not salty, so make sure to adjust the amount of salt you add to your frosting if yours is.

The key to this frosting is balancing the bacon fat and the salt.  Too much salt will turn your frosting into sea-water but too little and it’ll taste greasy.  The goal is to make a salty-sweet frosting with a hint of something extra.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

  1. Make your cupcakes first and when they’ve cooled a bit, cut out little holes in them for the filling.  My holes were big enough for about 2-3 tbsp of filling. I used a small knife to saw out a hole in the top, leaving about a 1.5 cm rim, then carefully dug out cupcake to deepen it.  Don’t dig too deep though; if you go through the bottom of your cupcake, your filling will drain out.  Try to leave at least 1 cm padding at the bottom.
  2. Stick the hollowed cupcakes in the freezer and let them hang out for 30 min-1 hr.
  3. Meanwhile, make the panna cotta.
  4. Once the panna cotta is done, pour some out into a room-temperature (or slightly warmed) cup and pour into your cupcakes (still in the freezer) until each is filled. Leave the panna cotta somewhere warm (I let it sit on the top of my stove while the oven’s on to keep it nice and toasty)
  5. After about 5-10 minutes, you’ll want to check your filled cupcakes.  The filling’s probably soaked into the cupcake a little, possibly leaked out a little, so you may need to top them off again with more panna cotta.  Then, if you have any left, you can pour it off into little ramekins and voila, two desserts for the price of one.
  6. Once your panna cotta has set (it’ll be firmer to the touch and won’t stick to your fingertip), make your frosting.
  7. When your frosting is done and ready to go, take the cupcakes out and frost them as you please using a piping bag, a spatula, or any other method you so desire (I opted for spatula and massive frosting overload).
  8. Lick the frosting bowl clean, stick the cupcakes back in the fridge after decorating them (chocolate sprinkles, fleur de sel, bacon bits, etc.) or serve them right away if you absolutely cannot wait to eat them.  Mine did not quite make it to the fridge; the crumbs might have though.

Chocolate Pots de Crème (Cayenne-Chocolate)

I have found my new obsession.  Perfect, creamy, fun, little pots de crème.  They’re adorable, sophisticated, and utterly divine.  I eat them tiny spoon-scrape by tiny spoon-scrape because I absolutely don’t want the taste to end.  These chocolate delights are unbelievably decadent and rich.  The texture is the perfect blend of smooth yet solid, something dense but something that will melt like satin on your tongue.  This is the kind of dessert that turns heads, the kind that will leave your friends dumbfounded and wanting more.  The best part is that it’s so versatile.  This recipe can be added onto, tweaked, and modified almost endlessly.  That’s why it never gets old and always stays fun.

I’ve included the recipe for my absolute favorite version: cayenne-chocolate pots de crème.  It’s got a sweet spice that pricks the tongue gently before rolling into a slow, sensuous warmth.  The combination of cayenne and cinnamon is classic, but combined with the silky richness of the chocolate, it creates a unique and irresistible taste.  Eating these little pots de crème is truly an experience.

CAYENNE-CHOCOLATE POTS DE CRÈME:

Ingredients:

  • 1.3 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 oz. sweetened chocolate
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 3 tbsp powdered sugar
  • 2 sprinkles cinnamon
  • 1-2 dashes of cayenne
  • 1 pinches of salt
  • 2/3 c heavy cream
  • 1/6 c half n half
  • 2 tsp bourbon

Directions:

  1. Finely chop (or grate) your chocolate into a medium-sized, heatproof bowl.  Set a sieve or a strainer over the top (make sure it’s not too fine, otherwise your creme anglaise may not pass through easily)
  2. Whisk your egg yolks and powdered sugar together in a small saucepan. Then, whisk in your heavy cream, half ‘n half, cinnamon, cayenne, and salt (it’s a good idea to taste the mix now, to see if it has enough cinnamon/cayenne.  Remember that the point of this is the spicy kick of cayenne; the cinnamon is only there for additional warmth and a subtle touch of aromatic spice).
  3. Heat  this mix (your crème anglaise) over medium-low flame until thickened (8-12 minutes), stirring constantly (really, constantly.  Get lazy and you end up with lumpy bits of cooked egg not a smooth crème anglaise).
  4. Pour immediately through strainer onto your chocolate and let stand for 3-5 minutes.
  5. Whisk together mixture, adding in your bourbon as you go.  You should also taste your mixture again and add more cayenne, if needed; the rich chocolate taste may cut out some of the cayenne’s punch.
  6. Pour into ramekins and let stand to cool.  Then cover and store in refrigerator for at least 2-4 hours.

Tips:

Stir, stir, stir, stir, stir your crème anglais.  Heat it slowly, building up the consistancy, and keep it lively (treat it like a good romance).  You want every part of your crème anglaise in equal movement at all times (just don’t get splashy and rambunctious).

Add in a splash of alcohol (rum is always a good, complimentary option) to help keep your chocolate pots de crème nice and smooth.  Just don’t add too much or you’ll cut out the chocolate flavor.

If you’re one of those rare people who don’t taste cayenne as spicy (like me), it’s best to have a guinea pig standing by to taste your creation as you go and make sure it’s edible for everyone (unlike my first batch).

*Other variations I like are espresso+vanilla (mix up about 1 tsp strong espresso and 2 tsp vanilla, add in after the chocolate has melted), ginger+anise (mince some fresh ginger and toss it in your crème anglaise with 3/4 tsp anise seeds; you can add in some powdered ginger, too, once your chocolate has melted), and orange liqueur (grate some orange zest and add into your crème anglaise; stir in some vermouth or orange liqueur once your chocolate has melted)

My Favorite Brownies

Courtesy of Google images

I am a brownie hound.  The richer, thicker, and fudgier, the better.  I’m also a brownie purist and strongly believe that a brownie should never be cake-like; otherwise, it would be chocolate cake, and it is not.  I have been in constant search of the perfect brownie recipe ever since I graduated from boxed mixes (it’s funny how differently they taste now that I’ve had good, homemade ones) and nowhere did I find one that was as decadent, luscious, dense, and dark as I wanted.  After many, many transformations, I finally evolved an old recipe into something approaching the perfect brownie.

This recipe makes a thick, unbearably rich, and luxuriously fudgy brownie.  For the dark-chocolate lover and all my fellows who scoff at “cake-like” brownie recipes, this brownie is the one for you.

CLASSIC BROWNIES:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 6 ounces of unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Directions:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° F. Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.
  2. In a small bowl, combine your flour and salt.
  3. In a small saucepan melt butter and chocolate, over low heat, stirring the mixture constantly (take your time with the melting, chocolate can be a tricky thing sometimes and you don’t want to burn it)
  4. When the chocolate and butter are melted, remove from heat, and stir in your sugar. Allow this to cool slightly (3 minutes, or until just slightly warm).
  5. Pour the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and beat in your eggs one at a time, mixing well after each, then stir in the vanilla (don’t over-mix here, stir until just combined)
  6. Stir in your flour and salt.
  7. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.
  8. Bake in oven 20 to 25 minutes (I cheat here and under-bake.  I take them out when an inserted toothpick still has some brownie clinging to it).
  9. To make your brownies a little denser (and prevent over-cooking while in the pan), you can stick them in the fridge and lay a ziplock with ice in it over the top.

Tips:

This is sort of the ultimate brownie rule: never, ever over-mix your batter.  I would recommend hand mixing this entire thing with a wooden spoon (not an electric mixer).  The more you mix the batter, the fluffier the end product becomes.

When you’re looking to try a new brownie recipe, always look to see if it calls for chocolate or cocoa powder.  Cocoa powder yields a drier and more cake-like brownie.

Using unsweetened chocolate (if the recipe calls for semi-sweet or bittersweet) may make your brownie too dry and crumbly.  Sugar holds things together and keeps pastries moist.

Review:

This recipe is incredibly easy to make, consistently delicious, and simple.   It yields an intensely dark, rich fudge brownie (and it tastes amazing as batter, too).  This is a classic brownie and works as a great base with room for improvisation (like adding nuts, caramel, toffee bits, ginger, raspberries, espresso, etc.).  It uses the classic brownie “cheat”: under-baking, but who cares when it tastes so smooth and luscious?  The search for the perfect fudge brownie continues, but so far, I haven’t found anything to top this one.