Basic Chocolate Layer Cake

Dan and I ran out of ice cream several weeks ago, and with no car, it's been difficult to pick ice cream up from the grocery store. (It tends to melt on the way back.)

We have cookie dough in our freezer, but I wanted something different for dessert. When Dan tasked me with using one of my new kitchen implements (we visited a Sur la Table and came home with souvenirs), I immediately selected the offset spatula and got to work on chocolate cake.

First step: find a recipe. We tend to not keep baking chocolate in the house, so I was looking for a recipe that used cocoa powder. I chose Martha Stewart's ultimate chocolate cake recipe.

For the frosting, I wanted a true buttercream. Buttercream frosting was half of the reason I wanted a KitchenAid--it's just not the same when whipped by hand. I used this recipe from Savory Sweet Life, most because it calls for butter and it's near the top on google. It barely makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake, and next time I would increase the recipe for decorations (and eating!).

With a quick trip to our local store for cake flour and powdered sugar, I was off. The recipe is definitely not easy--it took most of the morning and more bowls than I care to count.

After reading a few handy tips on cake decorating, it went better than my previous attempt. Here are the basics:
1. After the cake comes out of the oven, let it cool on the counter and then refrigerate it (or freeze it) before trying to frost.
2. Use a long, sharp bread knife to trim the layers to flat. If the center sunk down, you can use extra frosting to fill the gap instead.
3. Little snippets of parchment paper can help keep your serving plate clean as you decorate.
4. Once the layers are stacked, decorate with a crumb coat of frosting--a super thin layer meant to hold all the crumbs in place. Then refrigerate to help set the frosting.
5. To smooth the second layer out, using an offset spatula dipped into super hot water--it will melt the icing just a bit so it dries glossy and smooth. This looks best if you're going to be decorating the edges/sides with piped frosting--hence wanting to increase the frosting recipe.

For my next cake, I'm hoping to make 3 or 4 layers, and decorate more thoroughly.

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Farmer's Market

It took me a month and a half of living in our new apartment to finally go to the local farmer's market. I now intend to go weekly. Dan and I have pretty high standards for fresh produce. Every weekend, we bike the 4.5 miles to Berkeley Bowl, a grocery store dedicated to quality, inexpensive produce. Seasonal fruit tends to sell for $1-$2 per pound, with daily specials often at half price.

To contrast, the Berkeley farmer's markets are mostly arts and crafts fairs--people selling handmade soaps, wicker baskets, and trinkets. The occasional farmer will sell bruised peaches for $4/lb. I was definitely not sold on the pros of farmer's markets.

This farmer's market is a different story. Situated near Chinatown, it definitely has an Asian flair, with over half the markets selling sugar cane, ginger and assorted broccoli and spinach relatives. But other vendors also sell more standard winter fare--broccoli, carrots, potatoes and winter squash, as well as apples, kiwis and lots of citrus.

It's huge, crowded and cheap. Some examples of our bounty from this week:
- kiwis for $1.35/lb
- apples for $1/lb
- bruised apples for applesauce for $0.50/lb
- napa cabbage for $0.60/lb
- a dozen fresh eggs for $2.25/lb
- flowers for $3/bunch
..... and much more!

They also have prepared food vendors, including breads, meats and roasted nuts. At one end, there's also a woman selling live catfish!

Not everything is less expensive than the Berkeley Bowl, but the quality is great and it's incredibly convenient--we're only a few blocks away. We still go to the Berkeley Bowl every week, but our load is a little bit lighter biking back.

We're looking forward to the June and July, when this market is exploding with nectarines, green beans and all sorts of summer produce!

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Quick and Easy Fried Rice

I promise the fourth installment of our wedding recap as soon as Dan sends me pictures. In the meantime, I'd love to tell you about a ridiculous easy meal! In fact, it was so easy, I made it this morning, in the time it took Dan to get dressed.

This fried rice recipe calls for very few ingredients, very little chopping and only one pan. Awesome. We chose savoy cabbage as the primary veggie because about 6 slices will chop an entire head of cabbage. We also threw in some carrots because we had them, but you could skip them, or add any other easy-to-prep veggies. (Ideas: bean sprouts, celery, red cabbage)

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15-minute fried rice

sesame seeds (optional, but delicious)
leftover rice (we had about 2 cups)
1 head savoy cabbage
other veggies as desired
your favorite asian condiments (we used soy sauce, sriracha sauce, sweet chili garlic sauce and oyster sauce--use whatever you have, even if it's just soy sauce)
2-3 eggs

1. Heat the oil in your pan until it's super hot and shimmery. (We used a wok.) 1 minute
2. Add the sesame seeds and cook for 2 minutes, or until just turning golden. Meanwhile, stick the rice in the microwave for 1.5 minutes. 2 minutes
3. Add the rice to the pan, stirring once at the beginning and every 2-3 minutes as it browns. Meanwhile, rinse/chop your cabbage and any other veggies you want to use. 5 minutes
4. After the rice is starting to look a bit brown, add the hardest veggies first (e.g. carrots, celery, broccoli), and the remaining veggies after 2 minutes or so. 2 minutes
5. Once all the veggies are added, add condiments and leave on high heat until everything is cooked, stirring as necessary. 3 minutes
6. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Clear a space in the center of your pan and crack the eggs in. Scramble lightly, let firm slightly, then fold into the fried rice/veggie mixture. To finish cooking the egg faster, turn the heat back to high until the egg sets. 2 minutes

Best served hot and fresh from the pan. I undercooked the egg slightly so it could be reheated for lunch. Easy, veggieful, and delicious.
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Wedding: The Party

We celebrated our marriage at a local restaurant situated above the boathouse where I learned to row. The city has put a lot of resources into beautifying the lake since I rowed there, and it ended up being a gorgeous backdrop.

Dan and I loved having our reception at a restaurant. Because they coordinated a lot of the details--including food, tables and dinnerware, and extra tables for gifts and the cake--our stress was pretty low approaching the wedding. The room even had a built-in speaker system, so my sister acted as DJ.

My mom and best friend organized all of the flowers--it made my life super easy.

Just like our ceremony, our reception was relatively small, with only our closest friends and family in attendance. We began the evening with mingling, and got to talk to most of the guests before we even sat down for the meal!

Talking to my grandpa at the beginning of the evening

I enjoyed a rare treat--a Shirley Temple--before dinner, and filled up on crudites to prepare for the rapid dinner to come. During the meal, which consisted of a salad appetizer and a main course, Dan and I made our way around to the tables to talk to our guests.

We were totally happy with the size of the party--we had an opportunity to stop at each table, and talk with each of our guests for a reasonable amount of time. Of course, all of this happened during the dinner, so Dan and I both had to scarf down our meals relatively quickly. Dinner was not the star of the show.

After dinner, we got to cut our cake! If there were two things I wanted out of my wedding, they were a husband and a delicious cake. I got both.

Aiming was just as difficult as expected.
Having been to weddings before, I've been uninspired by the wedding cake. I love cake--it is my favorite dessert-- and to waste such an excellent opportunity on sheet cake seemed a pity. So, Dan and I did some serious cake-tasting research.

(Actually, we only went to one bakery--a childhood favorite. But we did sample a lot of the flavors, many times.)

In the end, we picked an unusual design, inspired by the De Stijl art movement, in the color scheme of the wedding. The cake was primarily made of chocolate-hazelnut cake with a thick layer of buttercream, all wrapped in marzipan. The top tier, which we took home, was a princess cake.

We regret not delaying our dancing by five minutes to enjoy a second slice of cake, but we've promised each other a trip to the bakery.

We concluded the evening with dancing. Dan and I danced to Hard to Concentrate by the Red Hot Chili Peppers--one of our favorite songs. My dad and I danced to Daughters by Jack Johnson--during which I shed my first and only tears of the evening.

I was wearing 4 inch heels. Dan is TALL. 

As the evening began to wind down, and people headed home, Dan and I also rode off into the darkness to begin our very brief honeymoon (part 1).

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Wedding: The Ceremony

Although it was over 50°F out, the howling wind made outdoors slightly chilly in a strapless dress. We met on a grassy knoll over-looking the lake where I learned to row. We tried to position ourselves to maximize sunshine.

Dan and I decided we wanted to have a very small, private ceremony, with our very closest friends and family. We also opted to have Dan's dad officiate our wedding, making it a very personal affair.

Despite the weather, we both managed to make our promises to one another. I was shaking as much from excitement as cold.

The whole ceremony was over in around 15 minutes. Afterwards, we made our way quickly indoors to warm up before picture taking.

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Wedding: Getting Ready

After a week of 60 degree weather and gorgeous blue skies, we woke up on Sunday morning to gray skies and cold. I packed up my bags, bundled up like a good Californian, and headed to my parents house to get dolled up for the event. My two bridesmaids were over early to get the party started!

We spent the morning finishing up a few last minute details: getting a guest book, making adorable meal cards (thanks Tomas!), and picking up my great grandmother's pearl necklace (we had it restrung).

My sister, Katrina, also made us a delicious stirfry for lunch. I put her in charge of making sure I ate enough, and she did an awesome job. The stirfry had broccoli, tofu, carrots, and roasted sweet potato. It was different than any stirfry I've made, and incredibly delicious (like most things my sister makes).

In the afternoon, we worked on our nails, hair and make-up. It took the three of us at least an hour to paint our nails and ever so slightly pale nude color. Clearly, we are out of practice.

Hair was somewhat more successful, and with one attempt and some solid bobby pin work, we had it in place. With the wind howling outside, the plan to wear my hair mostly down was vetoed in favor of an equally gorgeous, but slightly more tame, hairstyle.

Make-up went on before the dress. Since I don't usually wear make-up, I tried to make it as subtle as possible: a tinted moisturizer, mascara, and light brown eyeshadow. My yogurt, honey and oatmeal mask the evening prior left my skin relatively smooth and moisturized, so I tried to expose it as much as possible.

Once the bridesmaids were suited up in their dresses, with hair and make-up done, it was time to get dressed!

I purchased my dress in early November, and it spent the last 6 weeks with a seamstress, getting tailored to fit me perfectly. Because the dress is strapless, it needed to fit snugly around my waist so it would stay in place.

With some effort, we got it all zipped, clipped and pinned in place. Katrina helped me buckle my shoes, and held my train as I walked down the stairs.

By the time we left the house, the grey skies had parted in favor of blue. The wind was still howling, and the temperature didn't break 55°F, but the clear skies were absolutely stunning.

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For the past month and a half, Dan and I have been living without a toaster. First world problem, I know, but perfectly golden toast is one of life's cheapest luxuries.

We'd been trying to replicate the transforming effect of the toaster on frozen bread, but were unsuccessful. Using the oven, we burnt more bread than we toasted, or the whole piece ended up pale and dry.

The frying pan was acceptable, especially if you were interested in buttering both sides of your bread, but made certain sandwiches much less appealing. Peanut butter and jelly and butter? No, thank you.

Finally, we found a solution! The result is perfectly golden, crisp bread, ready to be slathered with butter, jam, hummus, or whatever you desire.

How did we solve this most horrid of problems?? We got a toaster!

There are certainly appliances we can live without--like an ice cream maker or a donut machine. However, a cheap toaster is like $10, and something nobody should be without. (Unless you don't eat bread, in which case we should probably have a discussion about the merits of bread. I will win that argument.)

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Our Top 5 Kitchen Gadgets

We have a lot of gadgets in our kitchen.. somehow, I can't leave any home goods store without at least one more. Still there are definitely some we use almost every day. If I had to narrow it down to just five, this is what I would keep:

1. A wooden spatula
We use this for everything and anything we cook on the stovetop--stirring pasta, serving rice, freeing eggs from the "nonstick" frying pan.

2. Kitchen scale
Whenever I can replace volume measurements with weights, I do. It means fewer dishes, and less spilt milk, plus more accurate, repeatable recipes. I don't mind a little extra leg work at the beginning to do the conversions.

3. Chef's knife
We have an awesome, sharp, stiff chef's knife, that makes slicing and dicing an absolute pleasure. (Well, it's not so great with carrots, but for $12 it's a great deal.) It's sharp enough for tomatoes, and glides through vegetables and herbs. Lovely.

4. GIANT cutting board
Our cutting board is about 2.5 feet by 4 feet (and is affixed to a giant wheeling cart). It's like a playground for chef's. I can pre-chop my ingredients with no overcrowding, and set everything out before the action begins. The board is in two halves and lifts off for easy rinsing.

5. Collapsible salad spinner
So this one is really a three-in-one deal. At the moment, we don't own any mixing bowls or colanders, so we use the various pieces of the spinner as substitutes. Plus, it's collapsible, so it stores easily.

What do you use every day? What else could you absolutely never part with?

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Cooking Extravaganza

With less than a week until our wedding, Dan and I expect to be severely busy for the next week or two. When my sister offered to come home and help this weekend, we knew exactly how she could help.

We've spent the past two days making sure we would have easy, healthy, dish minimizing dinners and desserts for the next two weeks.

After several days of menu planning, the weekend started with a massive grocery shopping trip on Saturday afternoon. Normally, we bike to the grocery store (we don't own a car). It was glorious not to worry about how many pounds of carrots we bought, or whether it would fit into our backpacks.

By late afternoon on Saturday, we got started. I started by roasted veggies--potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower and brussel sprouts. Although delicious plain, we also had thoughts of these going into a pesto pasta.

Meanwhile, Kat started on frying up frozen potstickers--her awesome idea for good, hot, savory snack foods. While they aren't the healthiest of options, I would rather grab a few potstickers for lunch than a piece of chocolate. If we'd had time, I would have loved to make them from scratch, but sometimes, life demands compromises.

Sunday, our to-do list was much longer, but with three of us in the kitchen, we accomplished a lot. Dan and I started the day by making muffins.

These are my all-time favorite muffins--slightly decadent, but full of fruit and whole grains. They take a bit of effort but the recipe could easily be doubled to make a huge batch of breakfast muffins. They freeze really well.

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Cranberry-Walnut Whole Wheat Muffins
makes 12 large muffins or 18 small muffins

1 stick unsalted butter
1c packed brown sugar (do not substitute white sugar!)
2 large eggs
0.5c milk
1.5c white whole wheat flour
2t baking powder
0.25t baking soda
0.5t salt
1c chopped walnuts
2c whole fresh cranberries

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F
2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, letting it brown as much as you're comfortable with. (Butter burns quickly, so if it's your first time, turn the heat down as soon as you see brown bits.)
3. Once the butter has browned, turn the heat to medium and add the sugar, stirring vigorously for 2-3 minutes.
4. Remove the butter/sugar mixture from the heat.
5. In a medium mixing bowl, mix the whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. (Omit the salt if your nuts are heavily salted. Mine were unsalted.)
6. Add the eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, stirring thoroughly and immediately to incorporate. The mixture should become more homogenous with the addition of the eggs.
7. Add the milk to the butter  mixture, again stirring to incorporate.
8. Add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir until just combined.
9. Fold the walnuts and cranberries into the muffin batter.
10. Divide among muffin tins, filling to a maximum of 2/3rds full (for large muffins) or to half full for small muffins.
11. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the tops spring back when pressed. For browned edges, turn the oven up to 375°F for the last 5 minutes of baking.
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Meanwhile, Kat got started on a miso-ginger lentil soup. The miso adds umami, instead of adding meat, and the ginger adds some sharpness.

Once the muffins were done, Dan and I split up. He worked on hard-boiling eggs, while I made no-bake granola bars.

We then started on making a big batch of chili con chorizo, while Kat marinated chicken for stirfries. To end Sunday, Kat made two huge batches of cookie dough to stash in the freezer--one chocolate chip and one chocolate cherry. We of course sampled, and both are delicious.

We still have a few fresh veggies in the fridge to use as we see fit, but we definitely have enough food to last us for most of two weeks.

How do you plan ahead for busy weeks? What's your go-to freezer meal?

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Preventing Self-Pity with Peanut Sauce

When I get home in the evenings, I'm usually ridiculously hungry. When I get hungry, I get grumpy. And when I get grumpy, the only thing I want to eat is chocolate.

So usually, I end up eating nothing and just wallow in self-pity about just how hungry I am while reading food blogs and Tastespotting. This generally doesn't alleviate the problem.

Since Dan usually gets home before me, he's been starting dinner so I have no choice but to eat well. However, there are nights when both of us get home late, or he goes to the gym after work and can't start dinner.

We've been using our slow cooker to its max to help out; we start a soup midday and it's ready to go around 7:30 or 8pm--right as I get home. Sometimes I pre-chop ingredients for a quick stirfry, or we have grilled cheese and apple sandwiches for dinner.

Last night, we tried something a little bit different: pasta salad! This isn't just a normal pasta salad, though--it's a peanut sauce soba noodle pasta salad from Smitten Kitchen!

Because the salad is meant to be eaten cold, I made it in the morning, when I was fresh, awake, and full from breakfast--the perfect time to cook.

You can find the recipe here. We used bell peppers, carrots and broccoli (we cooked the broccoli with the noodles), and used edamame instead of tofu. It was absolutely delicious--it was savory from the peanut butter and soy sauce, but tangy from the ginger. The sauce was creamy and coated all of the ingredients, but wasn't overly heavy.

Next time, I would use about 2/3rds the amount of noodle, and maybe a bit more vegetable.

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Roasted Tomato Soup

Tomato soup is one of my favorite foods. It's warm, tangy, luscious, and pairs well with cheese and basil--two more favorite foods.

I haven't been able to make a proper tomato soup for a while, since we didn't have a blender. However, we are now the proud owners of an immersion blender, and I took full advantage of that opportunity.

I prepped this soup this morning, and by the time I got back from my final dress fitting (!) it was ready to be blended and eaten. I enjoyed it with almost stale Acme baguette and a generous heap of basil.

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Gardening + First Harvest

Our apartment has a pretty big balcony, and we face southwest, so we get great sunlight. I've always wanted to have a vegetable garden, so I went and purchased the supplies and started planting seeds. Being a Californian, I gave absolutely no thought to time of year and began planting in late November.

We've had several plants successful germinate. So far, our green beans, mesclun and cilantro are thriving. Chives and parsley are starting to take root. We also have a budding crop of carrots and radishes, and are waiting on germination from lettuce, cabbage, chinese cabbage, and tomatoes.

I also ordered more seeds. I'm most excited for cucumber seeds!

Green beans

Spring mix


Of course part of planting is thinning. Since this was my first attempt at planting, I erred on the side of too many seeds rather than too few. It was a bit of a waste of money, but now we have lots of sprouts to enjoy!

Our first harvest of mesclun sprouts went into this amazing sandwiches:

Without the fried egg

You can barely see the sprouts buried under the egg and tomatoes.

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Popcorn.. in a wok!

Dan and I watched an Alton Brown episode about popcorn. In it, he recommends using a metal bowl over the stove to pop your corn. The shape funnels all of the unpopped kernels to the bottom, while letting the popped kernels breathe at the top.

Trying to replicate the shape, since we don't have any metal bowls, we decided to use our new wok. It's fitted with a heavy glass lid, to hold the popcorn in. It worked perfectly! Every single kernel was popped, and since the lid was glass, we could see when the popcorn was done.

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Vietnamese Spring Rolls

We've made these for dinner a few times. They're relatively quick, and very light on the palette--great for hot summer days, and directly after the holidays.

I don't think they even merit a recipe, they're so easy, but I'll give you one anyways.

This is not how you should fold them.. unless you put in too much filling.

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Vietnamese Spring Rolls

rice wrappers (two per roll)
leftover meat or fried tofu in small pieces
julienned veggies (carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, snow peas, cabbage, lettuce, etc.)
julienned basil
dipping sauce (recipe below)

1. Prepare all of your ingredients in an assembly line.
2. Fill a bowl with warm water (110-120°F).
3. Soak two rice wrappers together in the water (for structural stability) until they soften. Working quickly, remove the wrappers from the water (they should stick together) and fill the center with about .25 cup of filling (more if you're using a big wrapper, ours were about 6" across)
4. Fold the wrapper on itself like a mini burrito.
5. Dip in the sauce and enjoy.

Dipping sauce

Ingredients (approximately)
3.5t fish sauce
2T lime juice
2 small cloves of garlic, minced
0.5t white sugar
0.5T cock sauce
1t grated ginger

1. Mix ingredients together in a small bowl.
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New Year's Resolutions

I've never been one for resolutions. Then again, I've never been one to follow recipes, plan menus, or not eat meat, and all of those things seem to be working out well. So this year, I'll give it a try.

Maybe all I need is some good ol' accountability.

1. Update the blog at least twice a week
I have plenty to post about, especially as we try new recipes and cook for ourselves for the first time. I just need to get in the habit of writing it down, and getting Dan to take pictures.
2. Learn how to use Dan's camera
A lot of the time, I cook and bake while Dan is at work. I'd like to have a record of those adventures as well. He has a really nice camera, so why not learn how to use it?
3. Continue to train regularly
I haven't really decided what I'm training for yet, but I have some ideas in my head. I really don't like running, so I'd like to be able to join an gym with a rowing machine.
4. Get my personal trainer certification
I've been working on this for a month or so. I love coaching, but the hours are pretty limited. I'd like to be able to expand my work, and start working as a personal trainer as well.
5. Try at least two new recipes each week
We've been menu planning, so we've been trying lots of new recipes each week. I want to continue the trend, and expand our repertoire.
6. Bake at least once a week
With a new KitchenAid, a new apron, and a new baking book, I'm looking forward to rediscovering the oven. Baking is one of my favorite things in the world, and I've barely scratched the surface! There's so much more to make than chocolate chip cookies.
7. Remember that I'm not in college anymore
In college, homework seemed to fill all of the nooks and crannies between athletics, class, work and sanity. I'm in the habit of leaving those spaces free, and I need to retrain myself to fill them with friends, family and fun.
8. Go on one adventure a month
I want to explore! I love seeing new places, or seeing old ones with new eyes. Adventures keep life interesting, and I like interesting.

It's a short but ambitious list. I'm looking forward to seeing how I do with it!!

Do you have resolutions? How long do you stick with them?

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