living underground in the real world

pisces love cancers / everyone should be loving agar

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For someone who says she doesn’t believe in astrology, I seem to have a ridiculously large amount of Cancer friends. I’m pretty in love with all of them, and was super psyched that I rounded so many up to have dinner and managed to fit all their names on one cake! I was planning on decorating it with tiny peanut butter cups, but in the end it was just going to be too busy, so chocolate shavings won.

At any rate, I’m pretty happy with this cake. It’s a basic chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and filling that I frosted with my favorite easy easy easy chocolate frosting: ganache (yeah, it’s got a double frosting: ganache, then the pb just on the top.). Ganache frosting really is the shit. Have you ever made it? You pour it on the cake and it hardens to a shiny, smooth gloss. It’s incredibly rich and, unless you always have a lot of untempered chocolate to use up like I do (you don’t need tempered chocolate for ganache, and I’ve always got chocolate hanging around that’s been in the tempering machine for 2 hours or something and is tired of being tempered. [Yes, chocolate gets tired and needs a rest sometimes too!]), it’s pretty expensive. Basically you’re covering your entire cake in a chocolate bar.

I usually use about half a pound of chocolate on a standard cake. To make it, just bring 3/4 of a cup coconut milk and 1 tablespoon coconut oil to a strong boil. While it’s coming to a boil, finely chop 8 oz. of chocolate and put it in a medium bowl. When the liquids boil, pour them over the chocolate, stir for a few seconds, then cover it and let it sit for a few minutes. You can also add 1 tablespoon or more of any alcohol that will go well with your cake, or 1/2 teaspoon or so of any extract that will go with the cake. I usually add a little brandy. After the chocolate has sat for a few minutes, stir it until it’s completely smooth. If some chocolate pieces won’t melt, cover it for another few minutes then try again, and remember to chop the chocolate more finely next time.

Spread whatever filling you’re using for your cake on the middle layer (you can use ganache for that too, or raspberry jam, or anything else you can think of), top it with the top layer, and make sure it’s nice and cool before frosting. Set it on a rack on top of a parchment-lined sheet pan—all three of these (rack, parchment, sheet pan) will make your life so much easier when frosting this cake, I really wouldn’t recommend doing the ganache frosting unless you have a rack or can rig up something like a rack to put the cake on. You need some space between the cake and the pan to let the excess frosting drip.

When the ganache is super smooth, pour it over the cake. Use an offset spatula to smooth it all out gorgeously. Work rather quickly, because it’ll start setting up pretty quick (especially if the cake is very cold), then you won’t be able to smooth it out. You can always reclaim all that frosting on the parchment and spread it over any holes on the cake, too.

Here’s a picture of a plain chocolate cake frosted with this frosting.

I pretty much made up the peanut butter frosting on the spot (I knew Jacob & Veronica liked p.b. + choc, but I had to quickly call Randy to make sure his sweetheart Lacey liked the combo. [“Randy, is Lacey near you? Don’t say it’s me!” “Sort of.” “OK, just say yes or no: does Lacey like peanut butter and chocolate?” “YES!” “OK, see you tomorrow!”], and I know it’s going to enter my regular rotation. I’ve been slowly training myself to use agar-agar powder to thicken all kinds of sauces, frostings, fillings, etc.

I already make a killer fluffy chocolate fudge frosting (it’s based on one in Myra’s first book—that recipe is worth the price of the book alone, I swear) with coconut milk and agar that incorporates lots and lots of chocolate. It’s a perfect decorating frosting, you can pipe it into all kinds of shapes, and it makes great fluffy fudgy swirls of frosting on a cake. It’s the complete opposite of the cool cucumber that is ganache frosting, which is sophisticated and fierce. It’s good to have both under your belt.

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I also make a super basic white frosting used only for writing on cakes and decorating that is nothing more than coconut milk, water, agar-agar powder, maple syrup or sugar. It sets up very firm then I process it in the food processor and it’s perfect to put in a pastry bag. You can tint it with those nice all-natural food colorings the health food stores have, or you can go all DIY and add some turmeric (yellow), or beet juice (red).

Oh wait, but what is agar-agar? I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about it on the blog and as I am writing all this from a hotel room in downtown Manhattan on the Fourth of July,* I’m not exactly inspired to get all into it right now, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Vegans should be using a lot more agar than they do (I use the terms “agar-agar” and “agar” interchangeably). Agar is often called “vegetarian gelatin” and that’s exactly what it is. You don’t use it exactly like the ground up hooves and whatever else is in death gelatin though.

Hmm, can I find something already written about how to use agar, so I don’t have to do it myself? Well, here’s something.

Where they get it wrong:

  • “Agar, also know as agar agar,”   Um.
  • “Create a mousse or pudding by adding tofu or yogurt—or both.” Eeeew. Tofu thickened with agar, ick.
  • “Gelatin can be replaced with agar powder or flakes in a one-to-one ratio.” Nope. Agar powder is about ten zillion times stronger than agar flakes. My guidelines are to 1) NEVER EVER use agar flakes, or those horrid agar bars. They are a huge pain to work with. Buy agar powder. You can get it in health food stores where it will cost you dearly, or in Asian (usually Thai) markets where the exact same stuff will be 99 cents for a packet that will last you a while. I’m all fancy these days and I buy Ferran Adria’s brand of agar, but that’s because I like to pour money down the drain. If you can only find agar flakes, grind them as finely as you can get them in a coffee grinder. The truth is, it’s not difficult to get the flakes to work perfectly too, but agar powder is so much easier that I hate to think of novices even fucking with the flakes. The bars are twice as annoying as the flakes, so, skip those all together. 2) If you’re using powder in a recipe that calls for flakes, use about 1/2 as much powder as flakes.
  • “Agar will not gel liquids containing vinegar or foods that contain high levels of oxalic acid, such as chocolate.” Uh, that’s completely wrong. I’ve made lemon gels and tons of chocolate-agar concoctions. The trick is to use a lot more agar in recipes that contain a lot of acid, and if you’re using chocolate make sure you have some sort of carrier like water or coconut milk, because you couldn’t just melt chocolate and add some agar powder and you know what, actually? Who knows? It seems like it wouldn’t work because of the oxalic acid, but I’ve never tried it. I’m not sure why anyone would, but I’m not going to be a hater like stupid ehow and say it’s impossible.

OK, clearly someone different wrote this article on using agar in dessrts, and it’s a lot better. Good tips, lady!

So, that peanut butter frosting.

I didn’t write down what I did, but here’s what I can reconstruct after three days, two glasses of wine, 1 glass of sake, and four beers standing between me and the frosting:

2 (14 oz) cans coconut milk

3/4 Tb. agar powder (I bet you could do 1/2 Tb. I always add too much agar because if you add too little your recipe is crap, and if you add too much you just need to process it more later and it’s fine.)

pinch of sea salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup peanut butter (I doubled the amount in the original recipe, per Erin’s comment below)

splash vanilla

So you just bring the milk, agar, salt and sugar to a boil, whisking once in a while. Bring it to a boil slowly so the sugar dissolves. When it’s all dissolved, crank up the heat and let it come to a real, rock-solid, rollicking boil. Agar needs heat to do its thing, but too much heat will kill it, so don’t boil it forever. Turn off the heat and whisk in the vanilla and p.b. If the p.b. doesn’t want to get totally smooth, don’t sweat it, it’ll be fine.

Taste it and see if you want to add more p.b. or sugar or anything. If you want to add more sugar, use powdered sugar so it doesn’t get grainy. Put the entire thing in the fridge for an hour or so until—magic!—it sets up super firm and hard. You can now have fun by slicing it up and handing out slices, or you can make a frosting by whipping it in the food processor until it’s creamy and smooth. Keep tasting and adding stuff (vanilla, sugar, peanut butter) until it’s perfect.

Spread it on the cake!

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(Oh, hey, local peeps: I brought this cake to Garden Café in Woodstock**, and they were so incredibly sweet about a party of 11 people and a cake—they even put candles on it and brought it out singing, though I didn’t ask them to do either! And as always the food was super super tasty, and I loved that they were only going to let me bring the cake if it was vegan—fuckin’ A! Go Garden Café!)

OK, oh dear, its getting late, I’ve got to go outside!

*

*Can you believe there are hotel rooms so teeny that they don’t even have a bathtub? This Wall St-area hotel is ridiculous. One of the main reasons I decided to follow my sweetheart around for the past few days was to stay in an NYC hotel room & take a bath, because my bathtub at home is so shitty. Tragic.

**Um, a message to the person who wrote the “disappointed” review on that page: you are possibly certifiably insane and should really seek professional help.

16 Responses to “pisces love cancers / everyone should be loving agar”

  1. brittany

    yay for pisces/cancer love!!! i have a TOTAL love/hate relationship with pisces, generally hate for pisces men and love for pisces women… so yeah, that all makes sense. :)

    that cake looks incredible (and ganache should be considered its own food group)…

    agar is AMAZING and not only is it a wonderful vegan substitute for gela-suck, but it can also be used for all kinds of fun biological studies! i’ve used it to do bacterial and fungal cultures and analyzing DNA. SO FREAKING COOL!!!!!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      HA! Yeah, I quite often can’t stand wishy washy over-emo pisces dudes too! Holy shit, I can’t believe you’re a cancer too!! wow.

      Reply
  2. momo

    me don’t personally believe in astronomy as well..but i know mines anyway. aquarius.. neither pisces or cancer.
    now i know a lot more on using kanten. Actually i tried using the flakes. in the end i didn’t get to melt all of it. and it tasted very fishy, seaweed-ish. if it was salty i would probablee eat it.

    Reply
  3. momo

    oh, i just wanted to share something with you.
    like how you meet a lot of cancer friends.
    i have a classmate who was born on the exact same day as me..
    we say happy birthday to each other on the same day.

    Reply
  4. Christy

    Oh, dear. Remembering only that your directions said to add more agar than less, I attempted to wing a chocolate frosting with 3TPS agar to one can of coconut milk. It is a brick. Getting chunky in the food processor, not creamy and fluffy. I’m not ready to give up. I’m already into it one can of coconut milk, and some Tropical Source chocolate chips. I’m going to go melt it down again and, somehow, fix it..

    Reply
    • lagusta

      You might want to try pouring in a little hot water while the food processor is going, or maybe some oil—keep the processor running forever, it might just surprise you! That’s an INSANELY high amount of agar to coco milk though!!!!!!! 1 teaspoon would have been more than enough, but you’ll know that for the future. Also you could keep putting in oodles of melted chocolate while the processor is going. It’ll work!

      Reply
  5. jan falk

    love your website, I am a cancer married to a pisces and was actually googling, “why are pisces men such assholes”, my female pisces friends have been wonderful tho not exactly of this planet. I am a psychotherapist and absolutely believe in astrology.

    Reply
  6. ecclescake

    I just wanted to mention that I made a half recipe (using 3/4 tsp agar powder) and I thought the flavor was a little more coconut than peanut butter. The texture was divine, though! I will be making this again, and I’ll try starting at one and a half times the peanut butter amount and work up from there if necessary. Thanks for posting this!

    Reply
  7. Michelle

    I’ve used agar bars and they are so annoying! I find they never dissolve properly for me. But I have used Kuzu powder which is similar to agar and works quite well.

    I haven’t used it to make a frosting or icing…but I have used it to thicken up custards, gravies and jams which work really well.

    But next time I make a cake or cupcakes Im a gonna try this!

    Reply
  8. Vee

    Whoa, this is INSANE! That agar frosting thing is so wonderfully weird, I am not resting until I’ve tried this. Gawd I love you and your Earth-Balance-eschewing habits.

    Reply
  9. Vee

    Okay so my health food store stocks agar, but like everything else it sells, at a ridiculous price. I know the zillion Asian grocery stores around here sell it, but generally in bars/flakes. Anyway, I tried this frosting out with almond milk (I was scared about it tasting too much like coconut) and…xanthan gum, which I already had on hand. Freaky peanut jelly was what I got. I blitzed it over and over, finally added hot water and some powdered sugar and it smoothed out into a sort of thick, sweet peanut buttery gloop. Not your regular peanut butter frosting but definitely delicious.

    Reply

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