Caramel Koala Cracker Cake

I grew up in rural Illinois, jumping on the trampoline in my backyard to see above the cornfields, a good mile down to our neighbor’s house.  What’s beyond the horizon was always more appealing than where I was.  This hunger for leaping to the next thing has led me around the world to live in Tokyo, Chicago, Paris, Kyoto, and finally, New York.

I finally feel like I’m at the heart of where I’ve been striving to be for so long.  I’ve survived the University of Chicago and pastry school (somehow), hustled my way through food service jobs, and have found my place, at last, marrying digital media with my love for restaurants and branding.  I’m settling down in my new Prospect Heights neighborhood, finally in an apartment that I could picture staying in for more than a year.

It’s a good feeling, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t help but think what’s next?  Is this really where I’m supposed to be?

I made this sweet caramel layer cake a few weeks ago to celebrate a special birthday.  It’s a birthday cake that I would have loved as a kid.  It’s a birthday cake that makes me feel like a kid in the best way.  It’s a birthday cake that I’m going to make for my kid someday.  Focusing on this cake, I am content.

This two layer caramel cake is covered in a thick caramel, spread in lieu of frosting.  Each substantial layer is actually a full 6 inch cake!

By frosting the outside of the cake with a thin layer of caramel, you can adhere a Pocky fence border.  Carefully attach, and tie securely with a bow once complete.  After creating the cute fence, you can pile the top of the cake high with your favorite snacks.  I chose to use Koala Crackers, sweet potato wagashi, and Japanese Kitkats.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Caramel Koala Cracker Cake

For the Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste, or vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup salted caramel sauce

Instructions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans and set aside
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.
  3. Using an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks individually until smooth.  Add in the vanilla and caramel sauce and mix until combined.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.
  4. Gradually add in half of the dry ingredients.  Slowly stream in the milk and mix until combined.  Add in the remaining dry ingredients and mix until the last streaks of flour disappear.  Mix on medium for no more than about 30 seconds.
  5. Evenly distribute the batter between the two pans.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.  Let cool for at least 10 minutes before removing the cakes from the pan.  Once the cakes have cooled, cut off the rounded tops of the cake, so that the cakes lay flatly on top of each other.

For the Icing

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 sticks butter
  • 2 cans evaporated milk (12 ounces each)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Instructions:

  1. Add butter, evaporated milk, and sugar to saucepan over medium heat until everything has melted together and is well incorporated.
  2. Leave over low heat stirring periodically for about 30 minutes (watch the entire time to make sure it does not burn until thickened.  The caramel should turn a golden brown color.)
  3. Make sure the caramel clings to the spoon – this is the perfect thickness.  Watch the pot closely, adjusting heat temperature to avoid burning.
  4. Remove from heat and add in vanilla extract.
  5. Cool for about 15 minutes to allow the caramel to thicken further before icing the cake.

Assembly:

After frosting the outside of the cake, adhere Pocky sticks to the edge while the caramel is still wet and pliable.  Tie with a bow.  Pile the cake high with your favorite sweet snacks!  My selection was procured in Manhattan’s Chinatown.  Koala Crackers never fail to put a smile on my face!

 

Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Pumpkin Spice Lattes are afoot, and Halloween cards and plastic pumpkin pails are already on jaunty display at your local Target wonderland.  ‘Tis the season for garish pumpkin goodness!  In order to welcome autumn without making my readers roll their eyes, I decided to make some muffins using kabocha squash, a sweet and subtle reminder of chillier days to come.  My first bite of sweet kabocha squash took place in the mountains just outside of Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

I lived with various host families during my two years in Japan.  More than one of my host mothers teased me that I have the sweet tooth of a Japanese grandmother… It’s no secret that I’m still crazy about the depth in flavor and texture of red bean paste, black sesame, and satsumaimo sweet potatoes.  Kabocha is another flavor that I’ve learned that I can’t live without, especially when autumn rolls around.

The taste of kabocha is a food memory forever linked with a pottery class that my host family and I took together in the aforementioned mountain hideaway.  After crafting a beautiful mug and candle cover with the help of the pottery senseis, I made a bowl modeled after the sprightly forest spirit Totoro, the Studio Ghibli character, with my extra clay.  After the focused pottery session, we went to the adjacent cafe to rest up and refuel before our journey back to Tokyo.  The cafe’s menu was seasonal and earthy; it transported me to a lush world where Studio Ghibli sprites might actually emerge from underneath the teapot or from behind the salt shaker.  Of course, all of the utensils and tableware at this gorgeous cafe were handmade in the pottery studio by more adept craftsmen than myself.  Rich kabocha soup and roasted kabocha were served alongside other autumnal dishes.  This lavish and hearty meal remains a flashpoint of Japan’s seasonal care and attention to detail in my memory.

This caramelized kabocha muffin recipe captures the sweet kabocha essence without overpowering it with too much sugar.  The chunk of roasted kabocha on top of each muffin has a soft and chewy texture that balances the muffin crumb.  After baking the muffins, let them cool and top them with a few pinches of coarse turbinado sugar.  Blast the sugar with a culinary torch until the sugar melts and caramelizes.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Some treasures from a pottery studio hidden in the mountains outside of Tokyo!

Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 cup (240ml) vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup (200g) packed light or dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 kabocha squash
  • turbinado sugar, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease muffin tins.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice together in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk the oil, eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla extract together until combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined.
  3. Cut the kabocha squash into chunks, about 1/2 inch thick.
  4. Roast the kabocha for 30 minutes in the oven.
  5. Spread batter into the cupcake pan. Place one piece of kabocha in the center of each muffin.  Bake for 30 minutes. Baking time may vary based on your oven. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Take the muffins out of their pan an let cool on a cooling rack.
  7. Sprinkle each muffin with a large pinch of turbinado sugar.
  8. Torch the turbinado until it melts.
  9. Let cool and enjoy!  Itadakimasu~