Monday, February 11, 2013

An Ode to Chocolate and Coconut


Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. ~ Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)



I've been feeling a little caged recently. My days seem to revolve around work--teaching, writing the dissertation, going home and taking care of the dog and dinner and then grading/preparing for class the next day. Sure, there are some joyful moments--the play of shadows on a building as I walk to campus or a visit from a student who wants to talk about how she prefers Dostoevsky to Tolstoy (hear, hear!)--and successful ones, too, but, for the most part, it seems like this is a rut that will, at least until I am free of both the dissertation and this current teaching assignment, just keep on giving. 

Of course, I realize that this is what life is like (this is perhaps a sad realization, but a true one all the same) and that, if you want to achieve that elusive state of happiness, you simply must both find and make your own joy within the endless monotony. For me, this used to be going to the movies or reading a book for fun or baking a cake, but these days I don't always have time for such things (or I don't feel that I do; really, two sides of the same coin). You may be wondering why I don't make time for them and, let me tell you, it's a reasonable question. But the truth is that I can't really read while I'm writing and my productivity level, at this stage at least, needs to remain high; as for the movies, the pup can't be left in the crate forever and ever...and, when you teach M-F, there really aren't any free evenings....and that beautiful thing we call the weekend disappears in the blink of an eye.

But this weekend I decided that something had to give. And believe me when I say that it was a strange weekend to decide to let go of my rigid ideas about dissertation writing madness. On Friday I ran into my dissertation adviser, who asked if I'd be sending her something soon. While this may seem like an innocuous question, within it lurked the insinuation that it was high time that I send something and maybe that I already should have sent something (and, no, I'm not projecting). I promised something by the end of the next (i.e. this) week and I will, come hell or high water, deliver on said promise. But her question also made me feel even more tired. And by tired, I mean "brain tired," that feeling of fatigue that makes you think that you need to rejuvenate yourself by taking time off. Maybe you don't really think you have time to spare, but you know that, without it, there will be no further progress (as a sidenote, the New York Times confirmed my inherent belief about this in the Sunday paper).



So I baked and cooked to my heart's content. On Friday night, I tried my hand at popovers for the first time ever. I was largely inspired by this post on popovers, which I had been rereading the whole week, although I went with this recipe instead, using a mixture of fresh rosemary, Parmesan and goat cheese. Upon first glance, I was attracted to the height and the beauty of this souffle-like bread and, to be entirely honest, I welcomed the challenge that they posed: will they or won't they rise? And then, will they or won't they deflate? Mine did both--they rose and then they deflated before I could get them out of the pan--but that's okay. I'll have better luck next time and, paired with a variation on this soup, they were, even if in the shape of hockey pucks, nothing short of one of the most comforting Friday night dinners ever.

Then on Saturday, the Greek, who is not the world's biggest fan of dates, spent the evening building a reactor in lab, which meant that I was on my own for dinner. Armed with baby spinach and almonds from a recent trip to the grocery store, I made a salad--not just any salad, an Ottolenghi salad from Jerusalem--that celebrated the date for dinner. Even with fresh red onions, it was a winner. And then, for dessert, I abandoned food and watched two episodes of Castle instead, which I've taken to  because Firefly has convinced me that Nathan Fillion is more than worthy of a little crush.



But the crown jewel of my weekend experiments didn't take place until Sunday. I had received an email from Food52 on Saturday morning that featured 9 Chocolate Cakes, but as simple (i.e. boring) as chocolate cake can sometimes be, these were not just your average chocolate cakes. They were glossy, creative (Chocolate Thai Green Curry Cake?) and provocative enough to send even the most unenthusiastic of bakers into the kitchen to dirty more than a dozen dishes. Personally, I had my heart set on the Rich Chocolate Cake with Coconut Filling and Ganache. So I made it.



You don't realize how much you need chocolate sometimes until you have it in your mouth. And, clearly, I needed it desperately--layers of it, in fact. This cake, from its softly tangy coconut-cream cheese filling to the drizzle of ganache that goes on top, comforted me, reminding me that everything would be okay. In part, it was the chocolate coconut combination that, ever since I was a child, has been a favorite of mine, largely thanks to the simple goodness of the classic Almond Joy. Beyond this simple reminder of childhood, this cake also broke the curse that has plagued me and the bundt cake pan that, until this past weekend, I had never successfully baked a cake in. In and of itself, this is the stuff of weekend miracles.



Maybe this isn't the kind of productivity I was, in my most perfect world of worlds, hoping for, but I'll take what I can get. Fortunately, with this particular (under)taking came a lot of rich chocolate leftovers and enough ganache and toasted coconut flakes to last through and well beyond Valentine's Day. Considering the way the rest of my week is going to look, I'm definitely going to need it. 

 Chocolate Bundt Cake with Toasted Coconut Filling and Chocolate Ganache

Yields a ridiculous amount of heavenly slices (12-16, depending on their thickness)
Adapted from Food52

I wanted the coconut flavor in this cake to be highlighted, so I decided to toast the cup of coconut that would go into the cream cheese filling, as well as to toast an additional half cup for sprinkling on top of the ganache frosting and on individual pieces. In a moment of baking/cooking happenstance, when I was at the supermarket picking up the chocolate for this cake, I saw that I had an unexpected option that would also work with my goal of making the cake extra coconut-y.  Rather than use regular old bittersweet chocolate for the cake itself, I decided to go with Theo's Toasted Coconut Dark Chocolate.
         Also, while I'm not exactly stingy when it comes to putting sugar in baked goods, when I saw that the cake called for 3 cups of sugar, I couldn't bring myself to do it, so I added only 2 instead. The taste, in my opinion, was just right; in fact, I think an additional cup of sugar might have been overkill.
          As a final note, I don't usually bake with shortening, but I decided to give it a go in this recipe. I could have substituted 2/3 cup coconut oil for the shortening--this would have reflected my coconut-to-the-max goal--but for some reason I decided that it couldn't hurt to go with shortening. Since I have some in my pantry, I decided to use it.

For the coconut cream cheese filling:
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (I like Bob's ), lightly toasted (1/2 cup is to be set aside for decorating the cake)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

For the cake:
10 ounces Theo's Toasted Coconut Dark Chocolate, finely chopped
2/3 cup shortening
3 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups strong black coffee (I used instant espresso powder to make the coffee)
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

For the ganache:
1 cup heavy cream
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used Ghiradelli's 60% Baking Chips)

-Preheat oven to 350 F and grease a 10-12 cup bundt pan and dust it with cocoa powder. Shake out excess and set aside.
-Add the softened cream cheese, 1 cup toasted coconut, egg, vanilla and sugar to the bowl of standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix until well incorporated and set aside.
-In a small saucepan, melt the 8 ounces finely chopped chocolate and shortening. Set aside to cool.
-In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda and salt.
-Then, in a large mixing bowl, whisk together the cooled chocolate mixture, coffee, vanilla and three eggs. Once mixed, pour in the dry ingredients and, with a wooden spoon, mix until just combined (be sure to scrape the bowl to make sure that you get all of the flour).
-Pour half of the cake batter into the greased bundt pan. Then, pour the coconut cream cheese mixture on top and spread very lightly with a spatula. Pour the remaining chocolate cake batter on top and lightly shake the pan so that the batter settles evenly (N.B. In the notes on Food52, I read that the coconut cream cheese mixture might rise to the top of the cake pan once the rest of the batter is added. In my experience, this didn't happen, but, if it does for you, it doesn't seem to be a problem.)
-Bake on the center rack for 65-70 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean (N.B. Again, I would like to note that the original recipe says that the cake should be done after 45 minutes of baking; I started checking my cake at that point, but a cake tester didn't come out clean until a little after a solid hour of baking. You might want to start checking around 50 minutes, but I would anticipate the cake taking over an hour to bake fully.).
-Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15-20 minutes and then invert it onto a serving plate.
-As the cake cools, make the chocolate ganache by bringing the heavy cream to a simmer. Then, turn off the heat and whisk in the chocolate chips until the mixture is smooth and shiny. Set aside to cool slightly.
-Drizzle on the chocolate ganache--as heavily or as lightly as you desire--while it is still thin enough to pour easily; sprinkle a handful of toasted coconut flakes onto the gooey ganache for decoration.
-If you have extra ganache, I recommend setting it aside for serving; spreading it onto a slice of cake makes for a nice chocolate touch and a dollop is just as satisfying. An additional sprinkling of coconut also makes for a flavorful and decorative touch.

17 comments:

  1. I love it! The cake and the post! I am so happy you are liking Bird by Bird--I have been doing a lot of reading about writing, and that one is in the queue for sure. I love what you say about finding and creating your own joy. That's definitely the way to live! And I fully understand the terror of an innocuous dissertation question. I am also glad you have this cake to buoy your spirits this week! And now that Eric likes coconut, I will be making it soon too:)

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    1. Thank you! I had a lot of fun making it; it's the first cake I've baked since I was in Pennsylvania, which, quite frankly, is crazy!

      I'm not really reading "Bird by Bird"; when I was going through my files this weekend looking for something, I stumbled upon the handout I had received at the dissertation workshop I attended back in the spring of 2011. There were several excerpts from the book and I found them really comforting.

      Was it an innocuous question? Maybe. In any case, I truly hope so. :)


      Hope you like the cake!

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  2. Wow, these photos are *stunning* and the cake looks incredibly delicious and creamy and decadent. Equally scrumptious is your writing and the honesty within it. I love this post!

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    1. Thank you, Moriah! It was a lot of fun to get back into the kitchen with the camera on a sunny day; I had forgotten how much I enjoyed snapping pictures...not to mention eating the product of a Sunday morning bake-fest all week long. :)

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  3. I went and looked at your salad recipes b/c I was curious whether K dislikes свидания or финики. ;)

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    1. How could it ever be свидания? In any case, I think you'd really like the date-spinach-almond salad. Sounds like your kind of meal...Maybe we could do a switch: Jerusalem for Burma? :)

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  4. I have experienced many days where I just had to give up and stop doing anything in order to recharge. So useful.

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    1. It is useful! I just need to find a way to make it part of my routine! And to do it without the accompanying guilt. I was just reading something about guilt and, apparently, it's the worst of the emotions. Maybe sometimes useful, but often just plain not.

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  5. AMAAAAAAAZINGGGGGGGGG. I love cake. Especially whatever-stuffed cake. And even better, when that whatever is cream cheese. And flaked coconut. What amazing cake universe did you step out from. Love it!

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    1. Thank you for your sweet comment! I totally agree about cream cheese; it's one of those things I could (and do) happily eat all the time, but especially when stuffed into something good and sweet.

      I guess that the cake universe I stepped out from is 3 parts imagination, 1 part recipe I encountered somewhere else. Adaptation/imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. :)

      Hope you like the cake if you make it!

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  6. Have felt all that kind of rut and tired you speak of - know it all too well. You are so right that you just have to pick those moments where you will choose to relax, create some bliss, and try to recharge just a bit. I sometimes find that it is difficult to focus on the recharge, though, because somewhere in the back of the mind are all those "shoulds" swirling around.

    I have not yet tried any recipes from my Jerusalem cookbook - I am still reading through it and just loving every page. I am now looking forward to trying even more - clicked over to the salad in your link and it looked ah-mazing. Kind of want one right now.

    I hope that your chocolate cake served (is still serving?) you well and that you have recovered a bit from the "brain tired." Isn't it the worst?

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    1. Lisa, hello! Yes, I know exactly what you mean; it's so hard to focus on the recharge. I really believe that, until you finish a big project, you can't entirely relax; maybe there are moments of relaxation, but the project is hard to leave behind--at least mentally.

      And that salad with the dates and pita is pretty amazing; anything that can make me eat raw red onions (they usually make me kind of sick; it's their pungency) is clearly a keeper! I also really want to try to make the Chocolate Krantz Cake one day...

      Amazingly, that cake lasted for over a week and was still moist and flavorful; it really makes me think that Bundt cake is the cake that keeps on giving. Either that or I cut my pieces too thinly.

      Hope you're well, too and that the weekend has been rejuvenating (oddly, I'm still brain tired, but I think this will last for a while). :)

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  7. "Then on Saturday, the Greek...spent the evening building a reactor in lab..." For reals? He's a genius.

    Omg. If you two choose to have children they will run the world. It reminds me of this line that Andy Dwyer says in P&R about Ron Swanson and a Women's Studies Prof--how if they had babies, they would be super babies who would rule us all. That's you and the Greek.

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    1. I will agree that the Greek is probably a genius.

      But I don't know if we can handle children, even genius babies (if they would in fact be geniuses and who can say with certainty?), considering that one little 15-pound beagle nearly proves enough to keep us well and truly exhausted.

      And, while I'm flattered by the genius comment, my dissertation feedback tells another tale. ;) Humility is never a bad thing.

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  8. Wow, what a gorgeous cake -- I am dead impressed by the filling in the center!

    I feel your pain about the lack of time, the pressing projects, the chains that bind you to your dull, dull desk. But as someone who has just finished a big project, let me assure you, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Progress can be made, dissertations can be finished! And then you have glorious reading and baking to anticipate. I hope to do some myself this week. Hang in there!

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    1. Ann, hello, and how nice to hear from you! Congratulations on completing your big project and thank you for the cake compliments (it makes for a great celebratory cake, so perhaps it's in your future?)!

      I definitely agree that optimism is key here; there is light at the end of the tunnel and I will reach it soon!

      Hope the reading and baking have proven themselves to be glorious and that you're enjoying your freedom! I look forward to seeing you on the "other side!"

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  9. These are such gorgeous photos! This blog is a great idea. I actually created a Capstone Project (kind of like an undergrad dissertation) that involved me cooking historical dishes. It was sometimes a relief to grate carrots rather than stare at a word document. You can see the results here: www.cooksandqueens.com

    -Abigail

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