Archive for Chocolate

Nutella-Swirl Banana Bread

Nutella-swirl Banana bread

Today is the 8th annual World Nutella Day. As if I needed an excuse to eat Nutella. But if you insist, I made banana bread with a tunnel of love. The trouble with baking Nutella though, is its smoothness and flavor degenerate with heat (as evidenced in my Nutella babka). It’s also candy sweet. So I added a bit of cream for smoothness and chopped chocolate for complexity.

World Nutella Day

Mission accomplished: my cake had lava-like craters of chocolate. I ate three pieces in one sitting, and someone else ate four. It was brown and caramelly because of coconut sugar.

Coconut sugar (my favorite new baking ingredient) is a whole, unrefined sweetener from coconut nectar. It has 412 times the potassium of cane sugar and also contains magnesium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. It has a low glycemic index too: 35 compared to agave (42) and cane sugar (68). Most importantly, it tastes good, like a tropical toasted marshmallow. You can generally substitute it 1:1 for white sugar. Just know that coconut sugar has some moisture (add more cream of tartar to meringues), and while it resembles brown sugar, the latter has more acidity (adjust leavening accordingly, or only use in place of white sugar). I dig Big Tree Farms because it’s fair trade and not diluted with other sweeteners. Find it at Whole Foods, Amazon, or Vitacost (use the link for $10 off an order of $30 or more).

Thanks to Ms Adventures in Italy and Bleeding Espresso for hosting World Nutella Day. For 700 more recipes, check out the website. Remember, keep calm and eat Nutella.

keep calm and carry a spoon

Nutella-Swirl Banana Bread

Rating: 51

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Nutella-Swirl Banana Bread

Inspired by The Bake Sale Cookbook by Sally Sampson and the Nutella-swirl pound cake from Cake Keeper Cakes


1/2 cup Nutella or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
2 tbsp cream
4 medium overripe bananas, the blacker the better
1 cup coconut or granulated sugar
scant 1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips or finely chopped dark chocolate (60-70%)


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease and flour a 9"x5"x3" loaf pan.
  2. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the Nutella and cream. If mixture is stiff, microwave for 10 seconds at 50% power.
  3. In a large bowl, mash the peeled bananas with the sugar. Beat in eggs, oil, and vanilla with an electric mixer on low speed.
  4. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to banana mixture and beat on low speed just until combined.
  5. Pour 1/3 of batter in pan. Take half of the Nutella and cover the batter with tablespoon-sized dollops. Sprinkle half of chocolate on top. Add 1/3 more batter and layer again with remaining Nutella and chocolate. Add the rest of the batter. Zig zag a knife through the pan (just once through, so chocolate streaks remain).
  6. If pan is more than 2/3 full, place a piece of foil below the pan to catch drippings. If pan is more than 3/4 full, prepare for major spillover or add excess to another pan.
  7. Bake for one hour, or until the top springs back when touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out without batter (melted chocolate may stick). Chocolate may ooze out, and center may sink when cool. Don't worry, your cake just has character.
  8. Cool and serve from pan (cake will be too delicate to unmold).

Related Links:
Homemade Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread
Pierre Herme’s Nutella Tart
Nigella Lawson’s Nutella Torte
Full Nutella Coverage

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Double Chocolate Raw, Gluten-Free Brownies

gluten-free raw brownies

I call these psychotic brownies. They’re for those days where if you don’t have chocolate, you’ll hurt someone. Or when you can’t think of anything else till you get a hit of chocolate. They’re one of the few things that can satisfy the chocolate monster within.

These brownies also happen to be raw and gluten free. They’re nutrient dense because they’re full of cocoa (fiber, iron, flavonoids), nuts, fruit, and don’t have refined sugar. Of course they’re calorically dense too, but if you’re going to eat something delicious, it might as well be functional. Taste wise, I prefer them over most brownies (the exception being one recipe with 12 ounces of chocolate and three sticks of butter, but come on). The coconut-oil ganache is my new substitute for Nutella, and if you use hazelnuts, you’ll have that flavor profile.

This recipe is a lose blueprint. The minimal amount of maple syrup (1/3 cup each in the brownie and ganache) was sweet enough for me. I used toasted nuts because I like the flavor better, but if you’re on a raw diet, simply use raw nuts and cocoa (unless labeled, cocoa is not raw). You also have a couple choices for the dates. Medjools are the king of dates because of their jumbo size and moistness, or you can use the cheaper, more common Deglet Noor. These brownies are difficult to mess up. Can you hit a button on a food processor? Good!

gluten-free raw brownies

Double Chocolate Raw, Gluten-Free Brownies

Rating: 51

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 64 rich squares


For the brownies:
2 cups (224 grams) almonds or your favorite nut, toasted at 350° F for 15 min.
2 cups (240 grams) unsweetened shredded coconut
10 large (240 grams) Medjool or 20 Deglet Noor dates, pitted
1 cup (100 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3-1/2 cup (120 ml) maple syrup
Pinch of salt
For the ganache:
1/3-1/2 cup (120 ml) maple syrup
1/4 cup (60 grams) virgin coconut oil
1/2 cup (50 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch of salt


    Make the brownies:
  1. Grind nuts in a food processor until very fine (be careful to not over process the nuts into butter).
  2. Add the coconut and process till fine (as close to the consistency of flour as possible). Add the dates (if using old dates or the Deglet Noor variety, add a couple tablespoons water) and mix until a soft paste forms. Add the cocoa and process again.
  3. Add the maple syrup, salt, and a couple tablespoons water (if necessary) and process till creamy, scraping down the sides with a spatula as needed.
  4. Line an 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Using the back of a glass cup or damp hands, flatten mixture into pan.
  5. Place in fridge while making the ganache.
  6. Make the ganache:
  7. In the food processor (no need to wash), mix the maple syrup and coconut oil until well combined.
  8. Add the cocoa and salt and process until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed.
  9. Pour ganache over the brownies and spread evenly. Return the pan to the fridge to firm up for at least one hour.
  10. Cut into one-inch squares, and for the best texture, let warm to room temp for 15 min. before eating. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge.


For raw brownies: use raw nuts and cocoa powder.

Related links:
Breakfast Cookies
Raw Maple-Pecan “Ice Cream”
Homemade Larabars

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Holiday Gift Guide 2013

Here are a few of my favorite things that I’ll be gifting this holiday season. I wouldn’t mind receiving them either! They’re twists on old classics and will surprise you.

Catskill Provisions Chocolate Honey Truffles
Photo: Catskill Provisions

Catskill Provisions Honey Truffles
This is by far my favorite chocolate find of the year. Chocolate and honey are assertive and tend to overpower each other. These truffles, however, have the richness and complexities of both flavors. Co-founder Claire Marin took a full year to perfect the truffles. She started with her raw fall honey, with rich notes of maple and buckwheat. After trying a variety of chocolates, she was satisfied with Callebaut 72% (whose neutrality works in the honey’s favor) and brought everything together with a touch of organic NY state butter. They’re pricey but worth it. From $15 for 4 plus shipping;

Richart Holiday Truffles
Photo: Richart

Richart Holidays in Périgord Truffles
At this time of year, there are chocolates that are doused with peppermint oil, and then there’s Richart. Their collection has unique flavors, though they tend to be light. My favorite is the spiced black truffle, which fortunately doesn’t taste like mushrooms but pumpkin pie instead. Chestnut desserts are difficult to find in the states, so I appreciate Richart’s creamy rendition. The walnut ganache is also silky. The walnut is subtle, but it’s a classic, intense chocolate. Sadly, the apple and strawberry aren’t my style because they taste like liqueur (they actually don’t have any), and I’m alcohol adverse. From $25 for 9; free shipping with the code “magic” on $50+ orders until Dec 18th, 2013; Also available in New York at Gastronomie 491, 491 Columbus Ave. (by W. 84th St.)

Jem Raw Cinnamon Red Maca Almond Butter

Jem Raw Cinnamon Red Maca Almond Butter
Natural foodists claim that raw or sprouted foods are more nutritious and easier to digest. I’m not sure whether it’s folk wisdom because by the time most sprouted food reaches you, who can say it’s still “alive?” I have yet to see definitive scientific studies, and UC Davis says the nutritional difference between sprouted and unsprouted grains is negligible. So while Jem has a following among health nuts, my primary concern is taste.

They exceeded my expectations. Jem’s almond butter is silky smooth (ground to less than 20 microns, where your tongue can’t distinguish individual particles) and packed with superfoods: butterscotch-y maca (a root vegetable that Incas ate for energy), warming cinnamon, and low-glycemic coconut sugar from Big Tree Farms. It tastes like Biscoff cookie spread but without that greasy, heavy feeling.

Jem also makes other varieties such as chocolate hazelnut, but the latter has a wild, astringent taste. It’s pretty good for something healthy, but the cinnamon almond is good, period. $12.99 for 6 oz., Also available at various retail stores.

Fat Toad Farm Cinnamon Caramel

Fat Toad Farm Goat’s Milk Caramel
I had grand plans to add this caramel to banoffee pie, Greek yogurt cheesecake, coconut cream pie, and Belgian waffles, but I couldn’t resist eating it straight from the jar. Made with goat’s milk, this caramel has a gentle tang and buttery smoothness. You could make it at home, but to do it like Fat Toad, you’d have to pasture goats and cook the sauce by hand for six hours. Get yourself at least two jars: one for impulse dipping and the other for actual recipes. $13 for 8 oz.,

Holiday Gifts You Can Make:
Pumpkin Spice Granola
Chocolate-Caramel Cookies
Simple Chocolate Truffles
Savory Cheese Biscotti
Full List

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Favorite (Vegan) Chocolate Cake

Vegan Chocolate Cake

Picking a favorite chocolate cake is like asking a teacher to choose a favorite student, or a parent a child. Narrowing down the categories is hard enough: molten, Nutella torte, layered… But if I could only go with one, it’d be the classic layers. Specifically, this vegan chocolate cake.

Vegan or not, this cake is all about the balance. The first thing you taste is the chocolate—not the sugar (nor any off flavors). The frosting (previously paired with chocolate-potato cake) is like a whipped truffle. Although the cake was developed by the perfectionists at Cook’s Illustrated, I replaced the vegan butter substitute with virgin coconut oil, which has a mellow sweetness and texture akin to real butter.

Although coconut oil is high in saturated fat, it’s not the same kind that’s found in animal products. In fact, the medium-chain fats/lauric acid improve cholesterol ratio levels and may speed up metabolism. I’m not saying you should eat gobs of it, but it’s not as unhealthy as previously thought. Don’t worry, the cake won’t taste like Hawaiian Tropics.

You may be wondering: why can’t I make that easy “dump” cake from Joy of Cooking? Will this recipe really turn out? I used the Joy of Cooking recipe for years, but it’s a snack cake. Something you might eat while watching an action flick. This recipe is something you eat at a fireplace with classical music in the background.

Favorite (Vegan) Chocolate Cake

Rating: 51

Favorite (Vegan) Chocolate Cake

Cake adapted from Cook's Illustrated. Frosting adapted from More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally by Fran Costigan.

Vegan or not, this cake is a winner for its delicate texture, deep chocolatiness, and truffle-like frosting.


For the cake:
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oat flour (or whizz oatmeal in a food processor until very fine)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
1/3 cup natural cocoa
1 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup hot brewed coffee
1 cup light coconut milk
2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup virgin coconut oil
For the frosting:
1 (12.3-ounce) aseptic box firm silken tofu (recommended brand: Morinu)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon canola oil
1/3 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 heaping teaspoon vanilla extract
6 ounces (about 1 cup) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted
1-3 tablespoons chocolate, vanilla, or plain soymilk, if needed
food processor
2 9-inch round cake pans
Serrated knife
Icing spatula


    Make cake:
  1. Position racks in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.
  2. Sift sugar, flours, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl, then whisk to combine.
  3. In another large bowl, combine cocoas and chocolate. Pour hot coffee over mixture and whisk until smooth.
  4. Combine coconut milk, vinegar and vanilla in large cup. Place coconut oil in a medium bowl and add the coconut-milk mixture in two additions, whisking until smooth after each.
  5. Add the coconut mixture to the chocolate and whisk to combine. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, folding gently with rubber spatula until just incorporated and no flour streaks remain.
  6. Divide batter evenly between pans and bake until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes, switching pans and rotating them after 12 minutes. Cool cakes in pans to room temperature, about 2 hours.
  7. Make frosting:
  8. Combine the drained tofu, oil, and salt in a food processor, and process about 1 minute until pureed. Use a rubber spatula to clean the sides of the bowl and add the sugar, cocoa, and vanilla. Process 1 to 2 minutes, until the tofu mixture is smooth.
  9. Add the melted chocolate and pulse the processor three or four times to incorporate. Process 1 to 2 minutes until the mixture is very creamy. Refrigerate in the processor for 20 minutes. The cream may need to chill for 1 to 6 hours in order for it to become firm enough to spread.
  10. The degree of firmness will determine the amount of soy milk needed to create the final texture. It should be thick but easy to spread. Dip an icing spatula into the cream to test to the texture. If the cream is too stiff to use, add 3 tablespoons of the soy milk and process 1 minute. Add more soy milk, 1 tablespoon at a time as needed. When the cream is ready to use, spoon it into a bowl and begin to assemble the cake.
  11. Frost the cake:
  12. Level off the top of the cakes (mine always come out domed): With a serrated knife in your dominant hand, keep your cutting arm against your body and bend your forearm so it’s parallel to the cake. Steadily place your free hand on top of the cake and turn it counter-clockwise (if you're left handed, rotate the cake clockwise) into the knife. Do not move your cutting hand. Keep pushing/rotating the cake into the knife, and you’ll get a clean cut.
  13. Top one layer with a cup of frosting (when in doubt, it's easier to work with more frosting than less). Spread the frosting to the edges by rotating your wrist. To prevent stray crumbs, lift the spatula off the cake as few times as possible and gently nudge the frosting rather than making sweeping movements.
  14. Place the second cake layer on top and cover the top and sides with frosting. After one day, store cake in fridge.
  15. Save the leftover frosting for vegan truffles!

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Lake Champlain/Fairway Chocolate Review

Lake Champlain Chocolates hazelnut bar

A rite of passage for any New Yorker is experiencing the wonder of Fairway. Its shelves are stocked with esoteric products: imported $12 bottles of fruit soda, “The World’s Best Brownie” (it doesn’t live up to its name, but what would New York be without its hyperboles?), and matzoh crunch ice cream. It even has the old New York staple: rude customers. If you’re lucky, you’ll scrape by as people run you over with their carts and don’t even acknowledge your presence, much less apologize.

Or things can get more personal. I once saw a customer at the olive oil sampling area, dousing his prepackaged salad with a bottle. “I think you’re supposed to pay for that,” I said.

“You’re stupid!” he said and glared.

Fortunately, you can now experience Fairway without the ‘tude. In December, it launched an online store, stocking spices, sauces, pasta, and olive oil that hasn’t been touched by miserly men.

Lucky for me, they sent samples of chocolate bars, which have been repackaged from Lake Champlain Chocolates. Better than Hershey’s but not quite gourmet, they’re like grown-up candies.

The short, stubby bars are the highlight, with well balanced, not too sweet flavors. My favorite by far was the chocolate-hazelnut bar (pictured), which is like a hunk of sophisticated Nutella with hazelnut pieces and crushed Pirouline-like cookies. The tartness of the dark chocolate, raisin, cherry, and pecan bar is also enjoyable. I only wish the fillings were smoother and resembled truffles.

Lake Champlain chocolate-raspberry truffle bar

As of now, I only see the candy bars as part of small and large gift boxes (you can always go to Fairway and get whatever combo you want though). The larger bars are like filler. The chocolate itself is one dimensional and too thick on the truffle bars (pictured). Although Lake Champlain and Fairway don’t specifically advertise it, the couverture (base chocolate) is from Callebaut, the only “Belgian” chocolate maker who would manufacture on such as scale. I’m not a huge fan of their flavor profile.

For the casual chocolate lover though, these bars are a value (the little ones are $2.69 versus Lake Champlain’s $3.75) and would make a fun gift.

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New Amano and Gail Ambrosius Truffles

When New York was still buried under snow, two chocolatiers sent me some new truffles to try. They were phenomenal, but I got sidetracked with independent projects, writing about strange chocolates and wildlife spotting for (a third piece is on the way) and editing materials for The Guggenheim Museum (the exhibition, stillspotting nyc, runs in Brooklyn till this weekend).

Even though these chocolates aren’t so new anymore and require extra care in the summer, they’re still worth seeking.


Amano truffles
Photo courtesy of Amano because I couldn’t wait to eat them all!

For all that I’ve raved about Amano, you’d think I’m running a kickback scheme, but I assure you, my words are genuine. For these truffles, Art Pollard partnered with executive chef Rebecca Millican to create flavors that complemented his chocolate. Most are subtle, and even if you’re a fan of intense flavorings, you can’t argue that the truffles are technically flawless. The paper-thin shells snap cleanly, giving way to a smooth filling. Although they’re dainty, Amano’s chocolate is so complex that golf ball–sized truffles would be overkill. My favorites were the honey, key lime, and cinnamon pecan, but here’s descriptions of their other flavors as well. From $12 for for 6, plus shipping;

Key Lime-Refreshing, tart filling is paired with Guayas chocolate.

Cinnamon Pecan-Sophisticated yet retro take on pecan pie and snickerdoodles in chocolate form. Crunchy and not too sweet.

Yemeni Sidr Honey-The most expensive honey in the world lends woodsy, smoky notes to Guayas chocolate.

Cardamom and Black Pepper-Single-estate pepper (one of the few that are fully matured prior to harvest) enhances natural hints of bergamot and lavender in Dos Rios chocolate.

White Chocolate Yuzu-Amano’s elusive white chocolate (they sell it to chefs, but otherwise it’s only available in their truffles, though things may change once they expand their equipment) covers a Japanese-citrus ganache

Palet d’Ors (literally “disk of gold”)-A true test of the chocolate (and chocolatier), these four varieties are made with Ocumare, Guayas, Dos Rios, or Madagascar chocolate. Since are no additional flavors are added, the chocolate itself shines though.

Gail Ambrosius

Gail Ambrosius praline box
Praline chocolates in 80% cacao-leaf box (made from cacao leaves and bean shells)

Inspired by her trip to Paris, Ambrosius updated classic French pralines (candied, ground nuts) with a jolt of spices, salt, and housemade nut butter. $17 for 10, plus shipping;

hazelnut and pistachio bon bons
Hazelnut and pistachio praline truffles

Pistachio Bomb-An explosion of flavors and textures. A crunchy pistachio is tucked inside an almost-liquid center of buttery white-chocolate ganache with lime zest, chile verde salt, and cayenne pepper.

Pecan-Applewood smoked salt and roasted nuts conjure bacon sans the weird porkiness. I enjoyed the Kit Kat–like texture, but unfortunately I have a low salt tolerance and was overwhelmed. This is geared toward fans of salted sweets.

Hazelnut-Like a love child of Nutella and Pioroline cookies, but a technical glitch (at least in my eyes) stopped it from reaching greatness. The bottom layer of chocolate was much thicker than the other sides; it disrupted the texture and overshadowed the filling.

Orange Almond-Crushed, candied almonds with marzipan and orange peel evoke Christmas fruitcake (in a good way). I just couldn’t get over the nubby texture.

I thought the pistachio was easily the best of the bunch and recommend customizing a box with that flavor ONLY (just add a note to the comments section of your order). It’s um, the bomb.

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Chocolate and Peanut Butter Streusel Bars

chocolate peanut butter streusel bar cookies

Several years ago, I made these bar cookies as a farewell present for a colleague. Turns out these bars ushered in the end of an era. It started innocently on a crisp Friday evening, when I met my co-worker at a nouvelle French restaurant. Although it was her goodbye party, it was a reunion for me, since I left the company several months prior and got to see my work buddies again.

Our large party sampled a wide range of foods: delicately flavored head cheese, bold sausages, and three sundaes. I also took my first sip of a White Russian but didn’t go beyond that. Any more, and I would have been drunk. As we exchanged hugs, I gave my colleague chocolate and peanut butter streusel bars. She had impeccable manners and as such, I didn’t know whether she disliked any foods (I never heard her say one negative thing). But I figured chocolate and peanut butter was a safe combo.

The following Monday was business as usual, until I heard that the company I used to work at was shutting down, immediately. Little did we know, our dinner three days before was our last hurrah. By week’s end, everyone had left the company. Now, they’re scattered across several states and countries.

Although these bars represent the bittersweet, I hope they bring you nothing but good memories. They’re a riff on Ina Garten’s peanut butter and jelly bars. Instead of the jelly, I filled them with ganache. Naturally, I also reduced the fat in the dough and added whole grains (uh, all that extra chocolate probably cancels out the health benefits). Don’t be disturbed by the modest amount of chocolate in the picture; I adjusted the recipe so you’ll have enough filling.

Recipe: Chocolate and Peanut Butter Streusel Bars
Inspired by Ina Garten
Servings: 48 bars

1 cup heavy cream
12 ounces (about 2 cups) 60% chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, tightly packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups (18 ounces) creamy peanut butter (not “natural”)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour or spelt flour (can substitute all-purpose flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/2 teaspoon table salt)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease and flour an 11×14-inch cake pan.
  2. Bring cream to a boil in a small, heavy saucepan. Place the chocolate in a medium bowl, and pour cream over chocolate. Mash any big pieces with a wooden spoon. Whisk until smooth. Set aside.
  3. With an electric beater on medium speed, cream the butter and sugars in a large bowl until light yellow, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, eggs, and peanut butter and mix until combined.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture. Mix just until combined.
  5. Place 2/3 of the dough into the pan. Spread and press over the bottom with your fingers. Spread the ganache evenly over the dough. Form the remaining dough into pea-sized globs (it takes a while, but it ensures that the crumbs stay chunky). Drop the dough evenly over the ganache. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool and cut into 1 1/2-inch squares.

Variation: Reduce the fat by substituting water or milk for the cream. In my experience, water ganaches aren’t as rich as the traditional version, but it’s worth a try.

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Chocolate-Peppermint Cake

chocolate cake with peppermint frosting

My go-to chocolate cake is from the ancient days of the Food Network, when it was located in Long Island (instead of Chelsea Market in Manhattan), and AOL was synonymous with the Internet. Actually, back in the 90s, you could request recipes by sending a SASE envelope to their offices (in case you didn’t have Internet access). It only took two months before you received the recipe in the mail.

Nowadays, you can look up any recipe on your phone while you’re standing in line at the grocery store, but this recipe still has its charm. It’s everything you’d want in a chocolate cake: rich, moist, dark, and airy. It’s just like the cake mix but better. I’ve updated this classic and added peppermint frosting for the holidays.

Psst! Still figuring out what to give people this year? Here’s dozens of ideas for homemade gifts.

Chocolate Peppermint Cake

Cake adapted from the Food Network’s “How to Boil Water,” hosted by Sean Donnellan; frosting inspired by The 1997 Joy of Cooking

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil, preferably expeller pressed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/8 teaspoon salt
A couple drops of red food coloring (optional)
1/2 teaspoon peppermint oil, or to taste
A couple tablespoons milk, as needed

Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare one 9-inch cake pan or bundt pan by spreading it with butter, dusting it with flour, and tapping out the extra.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, beat the eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla on medium speed with a hand mixer, until well mixed. Slowly add the boiling water and mix. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon, just until smooth.

Pour batter into pan. Bake 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

Make the frosting: In a large bowl, beat the butter on low speed until fluffy, then gradually add the powdered sugar and salt. As soon as it’s incorporated, increase the speed to medium and mix until smooth. Add the food coloring if desired, or set aside a portion to color, so you can pipe a candy stripe design. With a rubber spatula, mix in the peppermint oil (do not use the electric mixer, as it will cause the aroma to dissipate). If needed, thin out the frosting with one tablespoon of milk at a time.

Frost cake: Place the cake on a platter and using an offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly on top, 1/2″ thick. To create the candy stripe design, fill a ziptop bag with half a cup of red frosting, and cut a very small corner off the tip of the bag (when in doubt, but a smaller hole than you think you need; you can always make it bigger if you have to). Pipe red stripes across the cake, 3/4″ apart. Drag a toothpick through the stripes to create the swirled design.

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Gail Ambrosius Chocolate Review

Gail Ambrosius chocolate
Courtesy of Gail Ambrosius

If you’re a New York snob like me, you might glaze over the other 49 states when it comes to chocolate. With stores like La Maison du Chocolat and Jacques Torres, I assume that I can buy everything I need here.

Imagine then, my surprise (and excitement) when a chocolatier from Wisconsin sent me a box of truffles to review. Gail Ambrosius‘ chocolates are exquisitely crafted, from the cacao sourcing to the finished product. She’s personally visited cacao farms in Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica. As a result, she helps farmers refine their harvest and ensures that they earn a livable wage (most don’t). Like all good chocolatiers, she chooses a specific chocolate (such as El Rey, Vintage Plantations, Finmac, or Santander) to pair with her flavors.

The ganache centers are intensely creamy (I wouldn’t be surprised if there was butter in them) and hand-dipped in a thick layer of 70% Colombian chocolate.

fleur de sel caramel
Caramel sprinkled with grey salt, courtesy of Gail Ambrosius

The chocolates come in several collections: classic, adventurous, and tea-inspired. Lucille’s vanilla tastes like your mother’s chocolate pudding, while the caramels are soft and chewy, with a jolt from grey salt. The other flavors are exotic without being overpowering (I’ve had my share of bad bacon chocolate and such). Lemongrass with ginger has a dreamy coconut aroma, while shiitake mushroom is deep and earthy (actually, it’s probably the only flavor that was weird for me).

I was greedy and ate all the chocolates before I had a chance to photograph them, so sadly I’m resorting to their PR photos. As of now, the chocolates are only available in select stores in the Midwest, plus online. Let’s hope they expand their distribution. The shipping ups the price, but they’d make a great gift for chocolate lovers who think they’ve tried everything.

Truffles start at $4.25 for a two-piece box,

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New Favorites from the Fancy Food Show

It’s been a while, but here’s another list of my favorite finds from the Fancy Food Show. Look for these up-and-comers at a store near you.

Askinosie chocolate-hazelnut spread

Askinosie’s Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread

No matter how hard I try, I could never produce this spread at home (even though I have an excellent recipe for a Nutella knockoff). The hazelnuts are a rare variety from Washington, known as DuChillys (pictured). Because of their oblong shape, you might mistake them for almonds. But once you taste their sweet flesh, you won’t forget them. The hazelnut butter, cocoa powder and nibs (from the Philippines), and organic sugar are mixed in a melanger for nine days. It tastes fruity (like raspberry) and is worth every penny. $13 for 6.5 oz, available at

Comptoir du Cacaco little crusties

Comptoir du Cacaco flaky pralines

Comptoir du Cacaco

Comptoir du Cacao, a family-run chocolate factory in France, is finally coming to the states. I first tried their products in 2007, during an otherwise bum year at the Chocolate Show. I’ve been dreaming about them ever since (they weren’t available via mail order). Their signature “flaky pralines” contain nuts and/or caramel that are finely ground with single-origin chocolate. The texture’s like a Kit Kat to the nth degree. I also love the “little crusties,” which come in dark chocolate with candied oranges, chocolate-hazelnut with salted butter caramel, and white chocolate with coconut. Visit for more info.

Zingerman's Zzang Original candy bar

Zingerman’s Candy Bars

Zingerman’s, the famed specialty-foods store in Ann Arbor, Mich., has made candy bars for several years, but they started their dedicated candy business a year ago (which means wider distribution). Each bar is made when it’s ordered, and stores can only display them for 60 days. The freshness, as well as the high quality ingredients (Valrhona chocolate, for instance), is evident when you taste the bars. The Zzang Original is what a Snickers was meant to be: crunchy nuts, soft nougat, and not too sweet. About $7 each, available at specialty stores and

La Tourangelle oil

La Tourangelle Oil

This California-based company makes some of the most intensely flavored oils I’ve tried. I wouldn’t recommend baking with them (the heat will destroy the delicate flavor), but try using it in homemade chocolate-hazelnut spread, or drizzling it on vanilla ice cream. My favorites are the pecan and sesame oils (custom made from Japan, and the seeds are roasted at a low temp so they don’t burn). From $8.99 for 8.5 oz, available at specialty stores;

Raw IceCream

Talk about a conversation killer. Just say the words “raw” and “vegan,” and people will run away from you. But wait, I promise this tastes just as good as traditional ice cream. I asked them how in the world they get it smooth instead of grainy, and they aren’t talking. All I know is that they use cashews, coconut, agave nectar, cocoa butter, vanilla beans, salt, and other ingredients based on the flavor. The company is truly eco conscious, making carbon neutral and compostable packaging. Available at specialty stores in New York;

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