Sunday, April 20, 2014


   Pongal is a harvest festival-the Tamil equivalent of Thanksgiving.  In an agriculture based civilization, the harvest plays an important part.  The farmer cultivating his land depends on cattle, timely rain and the Sun.  Once a year, he expresses his gratitude to these during the harvest festival.  With the end of the est month of Margazhi (mid December to mid January) the new Tamil month of Thai heralds a series of festivals.  The first day of the month is a festival day known as "Pongal Day".  Pongal means the 'boiling over" of milk and rice during the month of Thai.

    The act of boiling over of milk in the clay pot is considered to denote future prosperity for the family.  Traditionally celebrated at harvest time, it is a celebration of the prosperity associated with the harvest by thanking the rain, sun and the farm animals that have helped in the harvest.  Pongal is celebrated by the Indian state of Tamil Ndu as well as Tamils worldwide, including those in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauitius, South Africa, USA, Canada and Singapore.  The festival is at least 1000 years old although some believe that the festival is more that 2000 years old.  It used to be celebrated as Puthiyeedu during Medieval Chola empire days.  It is thought the Puthiyeedu meant the first harvest of the year.  People of all religions celebrate the Pongal festival.

    Tamils refer to Pongal as "Tamizhar Thirunal" (meaning "the festival of Tamils").  This festival originated in Tamil Nadu.  The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning "the birth of the month of Thai will have the way for new opportunities", often is quoted regarding the Pongal festival.
   Usually, the festival takes place January 12th to the 15th (on the Gregorian calandar).  The festival is celebrated 4 days from the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi (December-January) to the third day of Thai (January-February).  The first day, Bhogi, is celebrated by throwing away and destroying old clothes and materials, by setting them on fire, marking the end of the old Thai and the emergence of the new Thai.

   The astronomical significance of the festival is that it marks the beginning of Uttarayana, the sun's movement northward for a six month period.  Markar Sankranthi refers to the event of the sun entering the zodiac sign of Makara (Capricorn).  While Pongal is predominantly a Tamil festival, similar festivals are also celebrated in several other Indian states under different names.  In Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka, the harvest festival Sankranthi is celebrated.  In northern India, it is called Makara Sankranti.  In Maharashtra and Gujarat, it is celebrated on the date of the annual kite flying day, Uttarayah.  It also coincides with the bonfire and harvest festval in Punjab and Haryana, known as Lohri.  Similar harvest festivals in the same time frame are also celebrated by farmers in Burma, Cambodia, and Korea.


The book that started it all

    "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is an 1865 short story by Mark Twain, his first great success as a writer, bringing him national attention. The story has also been published as "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" (its original title) and "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". In it, the narrator retells a story he heard from a bartender, Simon Wheeler, at the Angels Hotel in Angels CampCalifornia, about the gambler Jim Smiley. Twain describes him: "If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to—to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road."

Samuel Clemons aka "Mark Twain"

    "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is also the title story of an 1867 collection of short stories by Mark Twain. Twain's first book, it collected 27 stories that were previously published in magazines and newspapers.
    Twain first wrote the title short story at the request of his friend Artemus Ward, for inclusion in an upcoming book. Twain worked on two versions but neither was satisfactory to him—neither got around to describing the jumping frog contest. Ward pressed him again, but by the time Twain devised a version he was willing to submit, that book was already nearing publication, so Ward sent it instead to The Saturday Press, where it appeared in the November 18, 1865 edition as "Jim Smiley and His

   Jumping Frog". Twain's colorful story was immensely popular, and was soon printed in many different magazines and newspapers. Twain developed the idea further, and Bret Harte published this version in The Californian on December 16; this time entitled "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County", and the man named Smiley was changed to Greeley.

About the Frog Jump and Its History

    In 1928, the Angels Camp Boosters Club (which is still very active in promoting fun events in Calaveras County) organized a celebration in honor of the first paving of Main Street in Angels Camp and chose to use Mark Twain’s famous story as the focus for their event. The first Calaveras Jumping Frog Jubilee drew over 15,000 people to Angels Camp. Visitors came from all over the countryside on foot, in wagons, and on horseback.Today, thousands of frog jump contestants from all over the world give the Celebrated Calaveras Frog Jump unique international acclaim. Plan to attend the

   Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee is held annually, the third week in May at “Frogtown”. Breathtaking rodeos, live concerts, exhilarating midway rides, country crafts, professional and amateur art and exhibits, lots of food, a beautiful setting, and much more make this a fun weekend for the entire family. For more information, take a look at the official frog jump site at www.frogtown.org


Seven Sins Chocolate Cake

Not long ago I sampled a cake from a bakery that boasted seven forms of chocolate. "Seven Deadly Sins" they called it.  It had two types of dark chocolate frosting, milk and white chocolate pastry cream, white chocolate curls... you get the idea. All those chocolates sound interesting when used in one cake, but I thought those "seven sins" could be more... sinful.  The gears began to turn.

Since then I've been scribbling in my recipe journal and testing decadent flavor combinations; a bit of espresso here, a bit of whiskey there...

Last week I finally pieced together what I consider the best of the best, and here you have it. A truly sinful Seven Sins Chocolate Cake. 

Shall we meet the players?

1,2,3:  The trio of pastry creams all work together without being overly sweet, and they all retain their individual nuances of flavor when eaten together.  I could eat a vat of each on any given day.

4: Can we all agree that a "Seven Sins" cake should have Devil's Food as a base? Yes? Good. This one is moist and has a structure sturdy enough for torting.

5: Milk chocolate marshmallow frosting - it's as good as it sounds, and probably a bit lighter tasting than you'd expect.

6: Dark chocolate drizzle is the perfect counter for the light-tasting marshmallow frosting.  It demands attention, both in flavor and appearance.

7: Squares of chocolates and chocolate shavings are a pretty and tasty decoration. It's like dessert on top of dessert.

Seven Sins Chocolate Cake

Yield: 15+ servings                                                                                         [click for printable version]
I recommend making this cake over the course of 2 days. The devils' food cake and pastry creams can be made on the first day, and the frosting, drizzle and assembly can be completed on day 2.

Devil's food cake:
This is my favorite devils' food cake recipe adapted from a Rose Levy Beranbaum recipe. This double layer cake gets torted and filled with three types of pastry cream.

Tip: Instead of picking up a torted cake piece with your hands, slide it onto a large plate. This will keep the cake from breaking into pieces and makes it easy to slide the piece back onto the filled cake.

1 oz. fine quality unsweetened baker's chocolate, chopped evenly
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup hot coffee  (can use hot water or decaf coffee if caffeine sensitive)
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, tightly packed
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
16 tbsp (2 US sticks) unsalted butter, softened

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease two 9-inch cake pans with vegetable shortening and line with a circle of parchment paper. Grease paper and flour; tap out excess and set pan aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the chocolate, cocoa and hot coffee (or water) until smooth. Set aside.
  3. In another bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks, sour cream, half the chocolate mixture and vanilla until just combined.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, brown sugar, baking soda and salt on low for 30 seconds. Add the softened butter and the remaining chocolate mixture.  Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  5. With the mixer off between additions, add the egg mixture in two parts, starting on medium-low speed and gradually increasing to medium. Beat on medium speed for 45 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. The batter will be fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Using a silicone spatula, scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface evenly with a small offset spatula.
  6. Bake for 30-40 minutes (check at 30). Cake is does when a toothpick tester comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed in the middle.  Let the baked cakes cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn cake out onto a wire rack sprayed with cooking oil.  Let cool completely.

Trio of pastry creams:

Tip:  Be sure to temper eggs carefully! If you goof a little and pastry cream turns out lumpy, pass it through a fine sieve before refrigerating.

2.5 oz. dark chocolate
2.5 oz. white chocolate
2.5 oz. milk chocolate
¼ cup cornstarch
2 cups evaporated milk
2 eggs
4 egg yolks
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tbsp. whiskey
3 tbsp. dulce de leche (find this canned in the ethnic food aisle)
1-2 tsp. espresso powder (to taste)

  1. Have ready three small bowls (2 cup size), wiped spotless of any moisture.  Chop the chocolate evenly and place each type of chocolate in a separate bowl.  Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in 1/2 cup of the milk. Beat the whole eggs, then the yolks, one at a time, into the cornstarch mixture.
  3. In a saucepan, combine the remaining milk and the sugar; bring to a boil, whisking constantly.
  4. While whisking the egg mixture, slowly pour 1/3 of the boiling milk into it, to temper the eggs.
  5. Return the remaining milk in the saucepan to medium-low heat.
  6. Pour the hot egg mixture into the saucepan in a thin stream, whisking, so as to not scramble the eggs.
  7. Whisk constantly until the mixture thickens and begins to boil.  Remove from the heat and pour the hot pastry cream over the chopped chocolate, dividing evenly between the three bowls.  Let stand for 2 minutes, and then stir each bowl until mixture is well incorporated.  Mix 1 tbsp. butter in each of the bowls.  When butter has melted and is thoroughly combined, fold in 2 tbsp. whisky into the dark chocolate pastry cream; 3 tbsp. dulce de leche into the white chocolate pastry cream;  1-2 tsp. espresso powder into the milk chocolate pastry cream.
  8. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surfaces of each type of pastry cream so they do not form a skin. Cool to room temperature.
  9. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Milk chocolate marshmallow frosting:
12 tbsp (1 1/2 US sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
6 oz. milk chocolate melted and slightly cooled
7 oz. marshmallow cream

  1. With a hand mixer or standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat butter for 3 minutes until fluffy.  Add powdered sugar and mix on low until incorporated.  Add melted chocolate and beat until fluffy. Add marshmallow cream and beat until frosting has lightened in color and all ingredients are well combined.
  2. Scrape down bowl and mix again.  Transfer 3/4 cup to a piping bag or zip-top bag with the corner snipped for later use. 

Fill and frost the cakes:
Cut each cake in half horizontally (this is called "torting"); pipe a line of frosting around the edge of the first cake piece. This makes a reservoir in which to hold the pastry cream (this is extra insurance, sometimes pastry cream is lax if not well refrigerated). Spread the pastry cream inside the icing ring and top with another cake piece.  Pipe an icing line as before and fill white chocolate dulce de leche cream; repeat with the next cake piece and milk chocolate mocha cream.  Top with the final cake layer and frost the entire cake.  You may choose to crumb coat the cake and refrigerate, then do a final smooth coat of icing (recommended).

Dark chocolate drizzle:

Note: This portion should not be made ahead. The chocolate thickens quickly and needs to be applied to the cake 10-15 minutes after making it.

4 oz. dark chocolate chopped evenly
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup light corn syrup
2 tsp. vanilla

  1. Place chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. In a 4-cup measure, heat cream until very hot but not boiling (about 45 seconds for me, but all microwaves vary); you can also do this in a saucepan over medium heat if you don't have a microwave. 
  2. Pour hot cream over chocolate and let stand for 2 minutes.  Whisk until all chocolate is completely melted and mixture is consistent.  Whisk in corn syrup and vanilla.  Let mixture stand until slightly thickened - about 10-15 minutes.  Pour over cake; allow the mixture to run down the sides of the cake in fingers. 

Final flourishes:

Chocolate shavings

Your choice of chocolate pieces - this version has 16 squares of chocolate and 16 silver chocolate buttons (product sources are listed in blog post)
Remaining 3/4 cup frosting in piping bag/zip-top bag

  1. Pipe frosting in mounds around the outer edge on top of the cake.  Sprinkle-on chocolate shavings.  If using, place a chocolate square in the center of each mound and place a silver button in front of each square of chocolate.
Important! Keep this cake refrigerated, but be sure to bring it to room temperature before serving.  Pastry creams and frosting flavors are fully developed at room temperature.


    Myths and legends are a part of virtually every culture. One of the most interesting legends of Russian culture is that of Baba Yaga. She is, however, not unique to Russia. There are similar stories about her, under other names, in Poland as well as in the Czech Republic.
    The figure of Baba Yaga is most often pictured as that of an old hag on a broomstick, reminiscent of the kitchen witches we often see today. Some believe that she might have been the precursor for the ugly, old crones that most often represent witches at Halloween.
    In truth, however, Baba Yaga is a complicated creature associated as much with fertility and fate as she is with death. Some believed that she also had the gift of prophecy and great wisdom. However, for reasons never understood, she seldom chose to use those skills without exacting a gruesome payment. Anyone wishing to partake of Baba Yaga's wisdom had to take on a challenge, which began with a trip to her home hidden deep within a treacherous forest. Those arriving there would often decide to turn back without confronting the hag because of the gruesome look of the house itself. As legends have it, Baba Yaga's home sat atop four chicken legs that allowed her to move it from place to place at will. Surrounded by a black picket fence adorned with flaming human skulls, those arriving on her property were no doubt scared about what they were about to encounter.
    Inside the house, it was said that the crone sat at a spinning wheel, spinning with thread made from the tendons and muscles of human beings. Not prone to help anyone out of a sense of kindness, Baba Yaga would put those who sought her assistance through a series of tests before agreeing to help them.
    Few ever completed them and even some of those who did were never seen again because they dared to anger the old woman in the process. She then turned on them with her sharp teeth. It was said that she could rip apart an animal or a human in less that 30 seconds.