black bottoms; a family obsession

IMG_7691Obsession is a strong word, but in this case, an accurate one.  When I began making these for our bakery (twenty years ago), everyone in my family got hooked on them.  Moist chocolate cake and a rich chocolate chip cheesecake are baked together in muffin cups and the result is a decadent, obsession worthy treat.

My preference is to bake these in giant muffin pans with a cup volume of about 7 oz or 200ml, the ones that are sometimes referred to as Texas size.  Just try not to eat the whole thing by yourself!  This time, I made them in standard sized muffin cups which have a volume of 3.5 oz or 100ml,  but they can be made in any size pan as long as you use cupcake liners.  Otherwise, it is a lot of work to pry them out of the pans.

There are a few tips I like to share in hopes of guaranteeing success for anyone that makes these.  First of all, use a cream cheese that is dense rather than fat free, whipped or extra creamy.  While that famous brand (named after a Pennsylvania city) is great for spreading on a bagel, it really doesn’t provide the best results for this recipe.  Whatever they do to make the cheese creamy yields a filling that is thin and runny.  During baking,  the chips can sink to the bottom of the cupcake while the cheese floats to the top.  If the filling doesn’t sink in the middle a bit, they just don’t look like they should but more importantly, the two batters bake layered.   The best ones have a cheesecake center with cake on the sides and bottom and just a little of the cheese filling peeking out on top.  Save your pennies and buy the store brand, it will work perfectly!  You can make the filling ahead of time and keep it in the fridge; cold filling is more likely to sink in than room temp filling.

When I make these, I generally use whatever chocolate chips I have handy.  However, if you use mini chips, they will be less likely sink to the bottom like the large ones will.  Keep in mind that either way, the results will be delicious.  Just save the freshly chopped chocolate for a different recipe since the tiny shards will color the filling and make it look more like a chocolate filling.

Want to make these quickly?  Want all of them to be the same size?  Use portion scoops!  Seriously, purchase professional style portion scoops, also called dishers, in a range of sizes and you will not have to worry about the size or whether they will bake evenly.  Depending on what size pan you use, you will need a range of scoops.  For jumbo pans, #12 and #16 will work for the cake and cheesecake, respectively while #16 and #40 will be needed for a standard sized pan.  Purchasing scoops is an investment but if you are regular baker, you will find yourself using these scoops for all sorts of things such as muffins, drop biscuits, cookies and more.  For the best prices and range of sizes, look in a restaurant supply shop or website.

If you do not intend to use the scoops, you will need a 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup measure for the jumbo cupcakes (chocolate cake and cheesecake filling respectively) or 1/4 cup and 1/8 cup measure for the standard sized cupcakes.

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Black Bottom Cupcakes

makes 12 jumbo or 24 standard sized cupcakes

12 ounces cream cheese (see notes above)

1-1/2 cups plus 2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips (see notes above)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup unsweetened, natural cocoa powder

1-3/4 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons vinegar-distilled white or cider

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup vegetable oil such as canola or soybean

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line the muffin tins with paper cups and set aside.  In a mixing bowl, cream the cheese with the 2/3 cup sugar to combine, do not whip it because it will warm up (see notes above).  Add the eggs, one at a time, then mix only enough to combine.  Stir the chocolate chips into the filling by hand and set it in the fridge until needed.

Place a large mesh strainer or sifter into a large mixing bowl.  Add the flour, remaining 1-1/2 cups sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt to the strainer and sift the dry ingredients into the bowl. Using a whisk, combine them completely.  In a large liquid measuring cup, pour 1-1/2 cups water, the vinegar and the vanilla and set aside.  Dump the oil into the dry ingredients and add about half of the water.  Using the whisk, mix it well to create a smooth paste.  Scrape the bowl and whisk in the remaining water mixture.  Whisk it well and using the larger portion scoop or measuring cup (see notes above), divide the batter between the cups.  Top each cupcake with a dollop of the cheesecake using the scoop or measuring cup called for in the notes above.

Bake the cupcakes until they have a little golden-brown color around the edges of the cheesecake and they feel firm around the edges of the cake, about 40-45 minutes for the jumbo size, 30-35 minutes for the standard size. To bake them evenly, be sure to turn them halfway through baking.  Once baked, let them cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes then carefully turn them out and place them on a rack to cool completely.  To store these, keep them in the fridge, but let them sit out a bit to warm up to room temp for serving.  Freezing works well for longer storage; wrap them individually and place them in a closed container in the freezer.  Allow them to thaw in the fridge, still wrapped and then serve them at room temp.  They will last in the freezer for a month, maybe two but I doubt they will ever make it there…

This recipe can also be found in my book, Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe.  

 

Gardening with water runoff in a stream and pond

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Living in a mountain setting generally means having to manage storm runoff at times.  Luckily for my mother, the previous owner of the property finished drainage ditches with stones.  For the most part, all she needs to do is keep them clear of weeds and debris.  However, she is currently recovering from a bad fall and cannot get out into the ditches to do the work.  If you look at the slide show above, you can see how badly one small section of the stream and the pond filled in with forget me nots.  As is with all weeds, digging them out is best and I filled the bushel basket I was using about 6 times with plants pulled out from the stream and another two or three times with the plants growing in the pond.

Once everything was cleaned out, I reopened the trench that runs down the hill to the pond and began contouring the sides of the stream bed with rocks.  If there was one thing I did not need to worry about, it was having enough rocks to do this.   Never in all of my years of gardening have I encountered such a large amount of rocks in the ground and it made the work challenging.

Once I had the stream bed finished, I started adding plants for color.  Blue Eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium angustifolium ‘Lucerne’, is such a dainty little plant that will not reseed vigorously but will grow near stream beds.   Did you know that this plant is not actually grass?  True fact; it is a member of the iris family and my guess is that is why it likes to be near water.

After clearing out the stream bed, it was so muddy and barren that I decided to try some plants that I know will spread; Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’ (commonly called Bugleweed) and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (commonly called Creeping Jenny). Only time will tell if they also enjoy frequently moist soil.  After just over a week, both are showing some growth.

IMG_7620Let me just say that I am not a landscaping expert.  My first idea was to shingle the rocks starting at the top.  The thought was that the flow of water would be slowed down from hitting the cracks and crevices created by the rocks.  It did slow the water but it also created many little pools of water and as I stood out there in a down pour watching, I realized that I needed to try it in reverse order.

IMG_7665Because I had previously hauled all of the rocks to the stream, reversing them was a fairly quick task.  For my second attempt, I started at the bottom and shingled them upwards.  So far, it seems to work better but I suspect that in time, I will have to come back and truly dig out the stream bed to create a deeper channel that I can line with rocks.  For now, this works.

IMG_7642As I gathered rocks, I tried to pick them for shape and color but also for moss.

IMG_7638Lichen also makes nice markings on the rocks.

IMG_7636Because this is a mountain stream, mosses were a must and there is also no shortage of it here.

IMG_7667By carefully digging out small ferns, I was also able to add them to the rocks.

IMG_7625Once the stream was finished, I began working on the pond area.  The person who built the stream bed had it all flow down hill into a small pond which acts as a basin to hold most of the water.  The area is terraced and has a dry bed as well as a wet bed where the water from the stream flows in.  Almost the entire yard is shaded or has dappled sun light which makes it easy to use plants like hostas but beware, deer will eat them and the pond is fenced in to keep them out.IMG_7645The flowers on shade plants generally are not as showy as their sunny counterparts.  This tiny spike of pink blooms on the Tiarella Pink Skyrocket, commonly called Foamflower, it your reward for taking the time to look closely at the plants in the garden.

IMG_7676If you recall, about a year ago, I posted here about my mother’s garden.  In that piece, I mentioned how she is a gardener of things rather than plants.  This meant that I spent some time rearranging the statues in the garden as well.

IMG_7623In the wet area of the pond, I had the chance to plant some water lovers; Iris versicolor Blue Flag and Iris sibirica Sparkling Rose.  Keeping them company is a Ligularia stenocephala Little Rocket (commonly called Leopard plant or Ragwort), Lobelia speciosa Vulcan Red (commonly called Cardinal Flower),  Pulmonaria Raspberry Splash (commonly called Lungwort), Phlox divaricata Blue Moon (commonly called Wild Sweet William or woodland phlox) and Astilbe chinensis v. taquetii Purple Candles.IMG_7628One of the surprises in the yard is the large quantity of native Jack in the Pulpits growing.  With a small trowel, I carefully dug a few smaller specimens up and moved them into the wet area as well and near the center of the photo, you can see the trio of leaves from a single plant.

IMG_7649Ligularia in bloom makes a statement and is large enough to be easily seen from the deck.

IMG_7647The pulmonaria and the phlox have adapted well to their new homes.

IMG_7651The cardinal plant has show quite a bit of new growth; the bright green leaves will turn darker with age.

IMG_7674This is the first time I have tried gardening in my mother”s yard and everything I have planted is an experiment.  Between the growing conditions and the deer, I am hoping for success.  After seeing the amount of growth on this Cardinal plant in just one week, I am encouraged!

IMG_7680Whoever did all of the stone stacking and terracing gets the blue ribbon!  When the stream empties into the pond, it comes over this pile of rocks and collects in the basin which is lined with cement.  Years of water have led to lots of ferns, moss and lichens but I think I like the reflection best.

IMG_7682On my next visit, I hope to bring help with me along with a mattock; that hose needs to go!

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there’s gnome place like home…

IMG_7587Long story short, I am staying with mom while she recovers from a fall.  While out in the yard, she fell, broke her leg and had to have a rod inserted to support the bone.  Thankfully, she is well on her way to returning to normal but it will take some time and for the next few weeks, I will be here doing all of the things she cannot do and some of the things she does not care to do, like baking cookies.

IMG_7600Leaving my garden for a month was rough.  We had really just begun to get the summer crops in and there is still much to do to eradicate the bermuda grass.  Here in PA, spring is still in the air and the trees have only recently leafed out.  In case you haven’t visited this blog before, I have posted photos of my mother’s yard before.  In her community, deer are prevalent, and as a matter of fact, there are several grazing in the yard as I write this.  Because they eat everything, including plants that they shouldn’t, mom gardens with things rather than plants.  As you walk the yard, little statues and hidden treasures will become obvious.  Of course, gnomes have a mind of there own and we never quite know where they will pop out and surprise you.  Standing stock still and looking like a statue, you will almost think that someone placed them there on purpose…

IMG_7602Moss grows all over the yard because it is shady and moist.  This little cherub spends his time watching the yard but if he knows what the gnomes are up to, he isn’t telling anyone.  He sits and stares in disbelief as raccoons and squirrels come to the basin to drink water.

IMG_7604This little guy seems to be guarding the front door.  We throw peanuts to him from the deck but he usually lets the squirrels eat them.

IMG_7607The yard is so lush and green right now that the only color that pops out is red.

IMG_7611All over the yard are these tiny blue blossoms, wish I had my wildflower book with me!

IMG_7612When you walk the yard, you really need to watch where you are going, it is easy to step on the residents.  This moon face greets all that visit the pond.IMG_7617It must be nice to have the time to lounge in the woods all day.

IMG_7576Mom is not a big fan of chocolate so I made a batch of crispy lemon cookies with a small amount of anise seeds thrown in for fun.  Since I do not have my cookbooks here to flip through, I used this recipe from Taste of Home magazine.  They really are crispy and for the most part, I followed the recipe except I used fresh lemon zest instead of the extract, threw in a half teaspoon of anise seeds and scooped them out with a #70 scoop.  Because I am unfamiliar with the oven here, I lowered the baking temp to 375 which allowed them to spread out nice and thin but I did have to increase the baking time by 2-3 minutes.  The review, mom tested and mom approved; this recipe is a keeper!

Happy baking and gardening and if I were you, I would keep an eye on those gnomes-just leave them a cookie every now and then, that should keep them happy…

 

latest news from the garden

IMG_7534We have been hard at work building our new garden.  Actually, we have been engaged in a war with bermuda grass and right now, we are barely hanging on to the lead in this battle!  Despite using lots of cardboard and wood chips, this stuff finds a way to break out and sprout up everywhere.  Luckily, there is no shortage of cardboard or wood chips as well as my stubborn determination!

Because of the density of the grass layer, we have turned to a favorite method of building beds and have begun layering materials on top of it rather than break our backs and knees with digging and sifting.  The blue tubs each have a sweet potato plant and we are hoping that we will have good luck with this method.  In the empty beds, I have layered horse manure, leaves and grass clippings and I will cover the area with cardboard and use purchased organic soil to grow in.  Eventually, the layers will compost and the cardboard will disintegrate leaving us with a nutrient rich layer of soil to garden in.  Patience is key here because this will take at least a year to accomplish and if all goes well, it will also smother out the bermuda grass in the beds.  Otherwise, I will have to dig it out because using something like glyphosate is not an option-read this to see just how bad the stuff is!

IMG_7536In late winter, I started a few beds by broadcasting a bunch of seeds over them.  In this bed, the Chinese Cabbages are doing really well and we should be harvesting them soon!

IMG_7539These Tokyo Market turnips are a favorite of ours and we are harvesting them about once a week.  They are wonderful when roasted and the greens are tender enough that you just have to saute them, no boiling necessary!

IMG_7541In a nearby bed, I threw in lettuce seeds, obviously too many but, we have had tons of lettuce to eat and to share.

IMG_7545We purchased about a dozen broccoli plants and we have been eating it roasted and in salads.  Did you know that you can harvest those large leaves and eat them too?  We have done this on many occasions making the individual plants twice as productive.  Use the heads and some of the stems raw in salads and slaws or roast the florets with a little oil and your favorite spice blend.  The leaves should be blanched first to soften them, then saute them with a little garlic, you won’t regret it.

IMG_7554Who doesn’t love surprises?  Especially if it is a raspberry bush-we have found two so far!

IMG_7556Of course, we learned of the muscadines from a neighbor and earlier this spring, we gave them a hard pruning to alleviate some of the weight and shading on the vines.  New vines have erupted and we are starting to see the promise of fruits.

IMG_7557Beyond the garden is an area where I am hoping to develop a meadow for bees and butterflies.  Right now, it is a tangle of weeds and in the middle, is what looks like a dandelion on steroids.  Goatsbeard, trogopogon dubius, is a type of salsify and is considered a weed.

IMG_7560It was disappointing to learn that it is an introduced species and not considered a beneficial addition to the landscape. But that seed head!

IMG_7550Then there is this guy, Hunky Dory the Americauna rooster we got in the latest brood.  He is a handsome fellow but a noisy one as well.  We gave him that name because he will crow to let us know that something is not up to his standards.  Not enough pellets; crow.  No water; crow.  Roosting bar fell down; crow.  Clock strikes 3am; crow…

IMG_7553Not only is it against the law, we do not want fertilized eggs or more chickens so the handsome fellow will be rehomed as soon as we can find a suitable situation.

To keep up with the happenings here, sign up for emails.  Happy Gardening!

Anzac Biscuits; a Tuesdays with Dorie post

IMG_7493How time flies…We have been so busy here; the garden takes so much of our attention and leaves little time for anything else.  The space the garden occupies is the footprint of the garden that was maintained by the man who once lived here but has since passed away.  Funny coincidence, he too was a member of the master gardeners and more than one of my fellow members remembers him and stranger still, several of them would come here to help him in the garden.  It has been interesting to learn about him and the methods he used here.

When we hold our monthly meetings, we always have a potluck dinner.  Along with a large platter of salad greens fresh from our garden, I brought a tray of cookies.  Well, we call them cookies but to the folks in Australia where this recipe originates from, they call them biscuits.  If you take the time to read about the recipe in the book Dorie’s Cookies, you will learn that Anzac is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and that the history of the cookie suggests that it is a wartime recipe and was most likely favored because it was easy to ship.  Interesting to say the least but truthfully, tasty cookies worth the effort!

IMG_7490The recipe calls for golden syrup, a traditional British and Australian favorite but I used wildflower honey; it tasted awesome in the cookies.  Oatmeal and coconut are the other predominant flavors but the surprise is that the cookies contain no eggs!

IMG_7487Crispy and chewy at the same time.  These went fast at the potluck and I received many compliments.  The verdict; must make these again!  May even pick up some golden syrup just to see if it makes a difference.

IMG_7495To see how the other bakers did, check out the website.  Feel like baking along with us?  Pick up a copy of the book and get to work!

Rose-Hibiscus Shortbread Fans; a Tuesdays with Dorie post

IMG_4417Isn’t it wonderful when several of your favorite things come together?  Everyone who visits this blog knows I love to garden and that baking is what I do professionally.  But I am betting that not many of you know that I have a thing for hibiscus plants, specifically, Hibiscus sabdariffa.  More commonly known as Roselle, this is the variety of hibiscus used to make tea.  Just look at that bloom; how could you not love it?

IMG_4424While the flower is pretty, and edible, it is a day flower which means it opens for a day and then dies.  As soon as the bloom withers, the plant begins producing seeds in the calyx.  To make tea, you must gather them before the pod swells with immature seeds.  It takes quite a few to make a pot of tea!  Because of this, I generally plant 3 or 4 of them around the garden and yard.  They can get quite large if the conditions are right; lots of direct sun, plenty of moisture but not soggy.

IMG_4431If you are looking at this plant and are thinking that it looks like okra, you are right!  Hibiscus is also related to cotton and if you spend time in garden centers, you will find that there are lots of perennial and annual varieties of hibiscus.  Unfortunately, this variety will not survive a freeze which means you must overwinter it indoors or start over each spring which is what I do.  The seeds need heat and will not germinate until the soil is warm.  Start them indoors or wait until about May to plant seeds outdoors.

img_4439They will begin blooming in late summer and that is when you will have calyxes to collect.  Spread them out and dry them completely, I do it in the oven with just the light on.  Then when dry, you can store them in a glass jar.

img_7400So what does this plant have to do with baking?  This week’s recipe from Baking Chez Moi calls for hibiscus tea!  This recipe mixed up quickly and easily and when it was all said and done, I sent these, along with the Valentine’s Share-A-Heart cookies to my girls for Valentine’s Day.  They loved them!

img_7401Devon called hers a little pink pizza and looking at that shot, I can see why.  However, they tasted like no pizza I have ever eaten!  Crispy and flaky and full of vanilla(I was out of rose water) and with just a hint of tangy, floral notes from the hibiscus tea.

img_7404The recipe does not call for much tea so I only used a few calyxes-whizzed them in the spice grinder.  My thought is that next time, and there will be a next time, I will use double the amount.  After all, summer is coming and I will have more plants in the garden!

img_7405Join us sometime!  We love the company.  Pick up a copy of Baking Chez Moi and bake along with us.  To see how the rest of the bakers did, visit the website.

building garden beds from the soil up

img_7420Although the space we have fenced in was once the site of a very successful garden, it hasn’t been maintained in years.  Then as if to add insult to injury,  some thoughtful person seeded it heavily with Bermuda Grass.  Really heavily-inches thick on top with roots half a foot deep.  What a nightmare!!!  We started the process of building the beds today and in 4 hours time, we only finished 3 (4’x4′) beds.  This is going to take a while to do and we may not have much of a garden this spring.

The first thing we did was to outline the beds with string.  Using shovels, Darry flipped the top 8 inches of soil and we spent a lot of time shaking out the roots to save the soil and remove the Bermuda Grass roots and rhizomes.  Along the way, we threw many larvae, worms and beetles at the chickens who were watching our every move! img_7426My good friend and fellow Master Gardener Shirley always tells me that Bermuda Grass is meaner than a snake and if you try to rip it out, it gets even meaner.  She is absolutely right about that!  Each jointed area is a node and it has the potential to become a complete plant.  It isn’t enough to just pull it out, you must remove all of the little pieces or you will have lots of new little plants!  We spent at least an hour sifting the soil as we turned it to remove as many little pieces as we could.

img_7428Once the soil was prepped, we spread the contents of a bag of Black Cow Composted Manure over the surface.  We didn’t have much to work with and bit the bullet and purchased a bunch of bags to use.  As far as purchased compost goes, this stuff works pretty well.  We then cut used leaf bags to cover the surface of the bed.  Our hope is that the paper will help cut back on the weeds and Bermuda Grass from sprouting in the beds.

img_7429Since we haven’t found an arborist to supply us with wood chips yet, we are using a combination of cardboard and leaves to control the Bermuda Grass in the walkways.  Free leaves and cardboard make this project a lot more affordable and keep stuff from going to landfills.

img_7431We purchased a dozen broccoli starts to test our method.  To plant each start, I cut an “X” in the paper and folded the pieces underneath to create a hole.  Then I used my hands to make a hole and plant each start.

img_7432It isn’t the prettiest bed I have ever seen but it should work!

img_7433We are also without rain barrels which means using city water and decided to top each square with straw.  If all goes well, this layer of straw will help conserve the water so that we do not have to pay Metro for tap water.  The added bonus, the paper and straw will also break down over time and help improve the soil.

Be sure to visit the blog regularly to see the progress of our new garden.