Sep 21, 2009

Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

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Okay people, I’ve been trying, really I have, but there really is no way to explain the surreal time warp that was my first year of parenting. So full of challenges and successes and failures and giddy celebration of the smallest things. Life has truly taken on a meaning I never knew existed. This, of course is not a revelation unique to me; millions and millions of other crazy people who have decided to become parents know exactly what I’m talking about. And to you, fellow crazy people, I offer you a cold beer held high and one of Baby C’s wholly delicious birthday cupcakes–a tender strawberry cake enlivened with a sassy strawberry coulis and white chocolate cream cheese frosting.

While I baked up a couple dozen of these heavenly cupcakes for a lively party to celebrate our sweet Baby C’s first year of life (and by extension, one year of parental survival), I really couldn’t help but marvel at the juxtaposition of the passage of time during Year One. For example, the months it took for our darling daughter to sleep through the night (nine of them, people–feel for me a little, won’t you?) made it seem like the first year would never, ever end, and some of those days seemed like such a bizarre blur of sameness that I felt (and let’s face it, looked) an awful lot like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

And yet, the leaps and bounds by which our daughter grew each day during this first year have created a staggering sense of jetting through time. Literally there were mornings where we picked her up out of her crib, looked her in the face and could have sworn that she had a completely different face from when we tucked her in the night before. That sort of thing is as astonishing as the insane amount of joy she brings us.

Oh, and the joy! A kind of spontaneous happiness that seems to flood me at the most unexpected moments; a feeling that puts me on maternal autopilot, so that no matter how frazzled I am, I can’t keep from dropping whatever I’m doing to smooch her chubby little cheeks and squeeze her tight, desperately hoping that she’ll somehow never grow out of my arms. Man, I wish someone could invent a way to bottle that feeling. Because that is what’s It’s really all about.

At one year old, it is also becoming clear what kind of child we have been given. I can’t mince words here, people. Girlfriend is basically a star. Her nickname in our weekly playgroup is Little Hollywood. This is not a joke. She would dramatically outstretch her arms and smile brightly on cue when someone would say “ta-daaa!” long before the whole “How big is baby? Soooo big!” act ever took hold.
She is endlessly curious, a true extrovert (when naps are a bust, we must go out–keeping my cranky child away from her public only exacerbates the situation), and a lover of music. She’s quite the dancer and a singer already too–eyes closed, chin jutting out, sustained falsetto notes, Mariah-esque hand movements–it’s fabulous.

Given her flair for the dramatic and the way she positively blossoms in a crowd, it was only fitting that we threw a big, loud party with all her little friends in attendance to celebrate her big day. I think she would’ve really let us have it otherwise.

There was a table of dips and chips and bacon-wrapped dates (!!–thanks, Aunt Lauren!) and slow-cooked pork with creamy slaw and a tangy homemade barbecue sauce. And of course, perfectly powder pink cupcakes fit for a first birthday girl. When the lights were dimmed and the birthday song was sung, Baby C lit up as bright as the flickering candles, and dutifully shoved an entire cupcake into her face in short order. It was, in short, an awesome day to celebrate one awesome little kid.

With one year of motherhood under my belt I can honestly say that I never thought I could learn so much, love so much, hope so much. And to my darling baby girl, thank you for making my life so, so sweet. I love you, Bubs.

Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes

Makes about 4 dozen frosted cupcakes

First, I’d like you to meet my new go-to cream cheese frosting. Perfection, I tell you. Also, for you party planners: the strawberry puree for the batter and the coulis can be made at the same time, several days in advance. The cupcakes can be baked a day before serving, kept at room temperature in airtight containers. The day of serving, whip up the frosting while you wait for the coulis to soak into the cakes a bit. There will be more spiced strawberry coulis than is needed to brush the cupcakes before icing them, but it thickens nicely in the fridge and is amazing on toast. You could also fill the cupcakes with the thickened coulis rather than brushing it on top, which would be both delicious and frugal of you.

For the strawberry puree and coulis:

1 1/2 pounds frozen unsweetened strawberries, thawed with their juices
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 star anise pod
1 one-inch piece of vanilla bean, split lengthwise

For the strawberry cakes:

4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 cups sugar
5 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups strawberry puree
8 egg whites
2/3 cup milk

For the white chocolate cream cheese frosting:

1 pound cream cheese, chilled (do not use reduced fat cream cheese)
6 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted if lumpy
6 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
White chocolate sprinkles, and various shades of pink Dum-Dum lollipops (sticks trimmed to about one inch long) for decorating (optional)

Begin by making the strawberry puree: Puree the thawed berries in a blender or food processor until smooth (do not strain the puree)–you should have about 2 3/4 cups. Set aside 1 1/4 cups puree for making the cake batter, and put the remainder into a small saucepan with the sugar. Add the cinnamon stick and the star anise, scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the pan, and add the vanilla pod as well. Bring the coulis to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened considerably and reduced by about half (about 3/4 cup). To ensure thickness, dab a teaspoon of the coulis onto a freezing cold plate and set it in the freezer for a minute or two–if you run your fingertip through the coulis, a track should remain. Discard the cinnamon stick, star anise pod and vanilla pod, and scrape the coulis into a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Next, make the strawberry cupcakes. Place the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt on low speed for a full 60 seconds. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the butter is well-blended into the dry ingredients and it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the strawberry puree and mix on low to blend, then crank the speed to medium and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until the batter is light and fluffy and resembles strawberry ice cream.

In a large bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the egg whites and milk until very well-blended. With the mixer running, add the liquid to the batter in 2 or 3 additions, stopping the mixer to scrape down the bowl as necessary. Divide half the batter among the muffin cups, filling the tins about 2/3 full. Bake for about 22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tins on wire racks for about five minutes, then remove the cupcakes to the racks to cool completely. When the tins have cooled, line them with more paper liners and bake the rest of the batter.

To make the white chocolate cream cheese frosting, place the very cold cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Start beating at low speed just to get the ingredients blending, then beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the melted white chocolate and the vanilla and beat on medium speed just to blend–don’t overbeat at this point, or the heat of the mixer will start to break down the cream cheese.

To assemble the cupcakes, thinly spread about half a teaspoon of coulis over the top of each cupcake (alternately, fill the cupcakes with the coulis using a squirt bottle or piping bag). When the coulis has soaked into the surfaces of the cupcakes a bit, frost them generously with the white chocolate cream cheese frosting and gently roll the frosted tops in a plate full of white chocolate sprinkles. Store the frosted and sprinkled cupcakes in airtight containers at a cool room temperature until ready to serve. Add an extra bit of flair with the lollipops just before serving, if desired.

Sep 10, 2009

Parmesan Thyme Crackers

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So what did you do over your Labor Day weekend?

Because I had a mini-vacation so blissfully divine, so Bucket List-level in greatness, that I now have a new happy place to which I can mentally escape. Let me begin by saying that it kicked off with two best girlfriends toasting with chilly glasses of prosecco and a pile of buttery parmesan thyme crackers. I know, right?!

If you’ve been a Piece of Cake reader for a while, you may remember that this little blog started more than two years ago when the husband and I lived mere blocks from the beach in Santa Monica (and I hadn’t figured out that I should REALLY not be using flash when taking photos). I also lived mere minutes away from my best girl Sara. We really lived it up back in the day–weekly lunches, pedicures, impromptu cocktails–the sort of glorious, childless kinds of activities that girls in their 20s are wont to do. It was, in short, The Life. And so, when the husband and I relocated to San Francisco a year and a half ago, despite our excitement about our new city, it was basically heartbreaking to leave my friend and all our good times.

Not that I’ve had time to sit and pine too much–I found out I was pregnant less than a month after moving to San Francisco and really, it is one of the most beautiful, exciting cities in the world. Still, when I’m elbow deep in oatmeal and mashed banana and limping between countertops with a fussy baby clinging to my jeans, I tend to wistfully mourn those days in Santa Monica, when my life was just My Life.

Well, this past weekend, we took a road trip down to LA and got to stay with Sara and her husband Nick in our old hometown. And for half a glorious day (while the boys hung out with Baby C) Sara and I got to pretend that we were right back in that relatively carefree place in our lives in the lovely city where I used to live.

The perfect prosecco and savory crackers were only the beginning of a fantastic weekend, people. There was Mexican food (the likes of which can only be found in Southern California–get with it, San Francisco!), a long run on my old beach route, salads at one of our favorite haunts, manis and pedis, shopping at Surfas (again, get WITH IT, San Francisco! I will totally help set up a franchise!), sunset bellinis on a beachside deck in a setting so perfect we felt like a Ralph Lauren ad, and cupcakes for the long drive back from a bakery that never ceases to inspire me. I’m pretty sure I had a single tear running down my cheek the entire time. I’m also sure that it all would never have been so awesome if I hadn’t moved away–you just forget the beauty in such small things when you have access to them everyday. But still, sigh…we’ll always have Santa Monica.

Sara and I agreed the weekend was, for us, the perfect Santa Monica experience. Now, I realize that even if you did exactly what we did and had the luck of some quintessentially perfect LA late summer weather, it probably wouldn’t be quite as emotionally fulfilling as it was for us. But I am very sure your soul will sing when you try the crackers that started the whole thing.

Of course this recipe comes from Ina Garten, a woman for whom my love grows more fervent with each recipe of hers that I try. Girlfriend’s recipes just work. I might go so far as to say that my love for Ina is on par with my adoration for/obsession with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, but that would just be crazy talk and I won’t let myself go there.

Back to the crackers: lip-smackingly good, crumbly with crisp edges, these crackers are basically a savory shortbread that scream for a cocktail to keep them company–just a ton of good, sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh thyme leaves held together with a lot of butter and a little flour to give them some body. The perfect day with a cherished friend and a Santa Monica beach as a backdrop or not, you really can’t go wrong here.

Parmesan Thyme Crackers
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

Makes 2 to 3 dozen crackers, depending on thickness

This recipe is cocktail party perfection–it can be doubled, tripled (or more) easily. The dough can be made weeks in advance and stored in the freezer, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, until you’re ready to bake. The original recipe makes 2 dozen crackers, but I wanted mine a bit thinner and more crisp, so I sliced the rounds thinner and cut the baking time by a few minutes and watched them carefully. When grating the cheese, you want it really fine, almost ground, not shredded, so use the finest holes on your grater or your food processor.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 ounces freshly finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (no stems)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it’s creamy. Add the cheese, thyme leaves, salt and pepper, and beat on low speed to combine. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough is smooth with no dry pockets. The dough will look crumbly, but should hold together when you squeeze some in your fist. Add a tablespoon of water if the dough seems too dry.

Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured board and shape it into a 9 inch long log. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 days, or freeze it for up to 6 months.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees with an oven rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and using a thin, sharp knife, slice it into rounds approximately 3/8ths of an inch thick to make 24 crackers (or slightly thinner if you prefer). Place the rounds on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the crackers are set and lightly golden, about 20-22 minutes (rotate the pan halfway through baking time). Cool completely on the baking sheet set on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

Sep 4, 2009

Brewers’ Blondies

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Anyone remember Chad Allen? He was one of those late 80’s TV teen heartthrobs on the relatively short-lived Our House. Ring a bell? Well, not that many people remember it. But I do because I was sure that I would marry Chad Allen one day. Back in, oh, say, fourth or fifth grade, I remember writing a letter to him. I’m not sure exactly what I wrote, but I know it was on my best Hello Kitty notebook paper and that right there says a lot about how important this correspondence was to me. I put that letter in my Esprit bag the night before school and stuck it in the mailbox on my way to the bus the next day.

And then I waited. And waited. And finally, after many months and a weeklong stint at summer camp, I arrived home to find that he had indeed written back! Well, not really him, more like his manager or whoever was responsible for assembling his form letters. But there was a really nice 8×10 photo with a fake autograph on it that I thought was rad. Even if it had taken so long to get that response that I’d sort of gotten over him. But that anticipation was delicious, waiting for a response and finally having that envelope show up.

I experienced that feeling all over again a few weeks ago, waiting waiting waiting for my copy of Baked: New Frontiers in Baking (from the charming boys at NYC’s Baked bakery, quite crushworthy themselves, incidentally) to show up on my doorstep. I’d been lovingly stroking this book at different shops for quite some time and finally found an online deal too great to pass up. Too bad that the online retailer I ordered it from took nearly two weeks to deliver the flippin’ thing. I almost passed out from the excitement while waiting. Who do you think you are, pokey online retailer?! Chad Allen? I don’t think so!

Anyway, flipping through the pages, my head was spinning from all the inspiration. I want to eventually get around to baking everything in the whole dang book, but settled on starting with the Brewers’ Blondies. Oh, man. Okay. So…I bake a lot, right? Well, I love the smell of baked goods wafting through the house, but sometimes it seems so much like the norm around here that it’s just sort of a nice backdrop to our lives and nothing too extraordinary. We-he-helllll….with this recipe, the deep, rich scent of pure butterscotch floating through the rooms in our house nearly made me pull my hair out. It was really something.

The finished bars are dense and chewy, all dark brown sugar and brown butter and so stunningly complex in flavor, with bits of chocolate and nuts and malt…malt, people! Ohmahgah.

A few notes: Does it have to be dark brown sugar? Yes, yes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but in this case it really matters–it’s what gives these bars their incredible depth of flavor and phenomenal chew. Also, the original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips–I felt like that would be a lot of chocolate and I was really feeling the blondie thing, so I did about half bittersweet chips and half white chocolate chips because I had them, but do what you like.

I also cut the walnuts down from 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup–just my preference. Turns out the movie-size box of malted milk balls available in supermarkets is just about the right amount for this recipe, plus a couple extra handfuls (cronch, cronch). Rather than chasing malted milk balls around my countertop with a chef’s knife or dirtying an appliance to chop them, I put them in a ziptop bag and gave each one a little pop with the end of my rolling pin and viola–just the right size pieces.

I sent the husband to work with half the batch (good call, otherwise I’d still be in a complete blondie coma) and when Baby C and I went to visit him at the office just a few hours later, I noticed there was already only one bar left in the container. So there ya go. I don’t see how you could go wrong, giving this recipe a try. They are a keeper, to say the least.

Oh, and P.S: Funnily enough, a few years back I actually got to interview Chad Allen on the red carpet for Brokeback Mountain. He was completely adorable. And of course I had to tell him that I got that letter and it totally made my whole summer, even it it wasn’t really from him. He thought it was hilarious. In other news, turns out boyfriend is totally all Brokeback Mountain himself now. I really know how to pick ‘em.

Brewer’s Blondies
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

Makes 24 bars

Malted milk powder can usually be found near in the tea/coffee/cocoa section of your larger supermarket. Toasted walnuts give these bars a great flavor–it’s easy to toast them if you preheat your oven good and early; toss the nuts into a small baking pan and put them in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until they are golden and fragrant (let them cool before adding them to the batter). I like to line the pan with a sleeve of parchment paper across the bottom and draped over the sides of the pan like parchment “handles” to make for easy removal of the blondie slab, which also makes for nice, evenly cut bars.

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons malted milk powder
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 3/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup malted milk balls (like Whoppers or Maltesers), coarsely chopped
1/3 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup white chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13 inch baking pan. If you like, line the pan with a parchment sleeve to make the removal and cutting of the bars easier.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and malted milk powder.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and dark brown sugar on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl, and beat in the eggs and vanilla until well-blended. Add the dry ingredients in two additions on low speed and beat until just combined. Mix in the malted milk balls, chocolate chips and walnuts. Give the batter a final folding by hand with a spatula to make sure there are no dry pockets and the batter is evenly mixed. It will be very thick. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it evenly.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the bars are deeply golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes before removing the bars to a cutting board and cutting them into 24 squares. Once they cool completely, they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days.

Aug 31, 2009

Peach Melba Cake with Raspberry Cream

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Whipped Cream. Fruit. Flowers. Booze. All makings of one crazy sexy hip hop video. And one very lovely birthday cake for an old friend who breezed through town in recent days.

My girl Heather and I go all the way back to high school. We’ve seen each other through unrequited crushes and bad highlights and an inexplicable addiction to ill-fitting flannel (hey, it was 1995, okay?). She’s lived in Atlanta for more than a decade now, and though we haven’t lived in the same city since our high school graduation, we have one of those friendships that picks right back up where we last left off in the time it takes to give a great big, girly-squealing hug. It was so fabulously fun to have her over for dinner a couple weeks ago, and after a feast of a Greek salad/panzanella hybrid and lemon-roasted pork, we celebrated her just-days-away birthday with a frothy confection of a cake, fit for my favorite Georgia Peach.

This cake recipe instantly grabbed my attention because it contains absolutely no butter. And no oil, either. Who-the-what-now? No, seriously! Whipped cream is the foundation of the cake (and the filling, and the frosting). Genius! I had to try it, simply on the basis that the concept pretty much blew my mind.

After whipping a healthy amount of heavy cream to soft peaks, you beat in some sugar, just like you would cream butter and sugar together in so many other cake recipes. Then the eggs are beaten in, followed by the dry ingredients, sifted over and very gently folded into the batter, and just a touch of buttermilk.

When baked, the exterior of the finished cake looks a whole lot like your standard butter cake, but the crumb is quite a bit coarser, uneven and more open. The texture is also considerably drier than that of a butter cake. It sounds less than delicious, I realize. But! There is meaning behind this. The open structure and slightly parched nature allows for plenty of spiked peach syrup to soak into the layers.

As is the norm around the Piece of Cake kitchen lately when making layer cakes, I opted to bake my cake layers and make the fruit purees for the frosting and filling the night before, and then assemble everything the next day. But if you’ve got a chunk of time to work on this cake, it’s easy to efficiently zip through the steps–make the peach mousse filling while the cake is baking and cooling, then make the raspberry cream frosting while filled and layered cake is chilling and setting up. And although there’s still some lovely fresh peaches and raspberries to be found in the markets, I gladly accepted this recipe’s time-saving suggestion of using frozen specimens.

Not only do you not have to wash, peel and slice the fruit, you just can’t beat the consistently bright flavor and brilliant color of frozen fruits. They make for the most stunningly pretty purees and finished frosting and filling for this cake. I challenge you to not eat half the batch of both elements while making them. They are the ultimate in ambrosial spoonability.

And speaking of the frosting and filling, the flavors are out of this world. Obviously it’s really hard to miss the mark with the combination of fruit and whipped cream, but what really makes them pop here is the addition of a few extra flavorings–peach schnapps for the peach mousse and the very interesting addition of rose water for the raspberry cream. A dash of alcohol is the ultimate flavor booster in cooking and baking, and, as alcohol is wont to do, it always livens up the party when fruit is involved in a recipe.

The rose water in the raspberry cream…well, there’s really no other way to describe it except to say that it makes the finished cream taste so, so beautiful. You don’t feel like you’re eating your Grandmother’s perfume or anything–in fact, you won’t even sense the essence of rose unless you really try and taste for it–but it creates a roundness to what would otherwise be a sort of sharp, tangy raspberry note. In other words, the raspberry cream tastes as soft and as pink as it appears, and I love, love, love that about this cake.

Although it’s billowy and dreamy when it’s first made, the raspberry cream isn’t nearly as stable as a trusty buttercream–it makes for a very thin layer on the cake and can’t really be fancifully swirled and reworked a whole lot on the surface of the cake. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to work quickly and have a set design in mind when you start dolloping on the frosting and all will be beautiful. I mean, c’mon! You really can’t go wrong–look at this color! Who needs Red No. 5?

And so I repeat: whipped cream, fruit, flowers, booze. That’s really all you need to know.

Peach Melba Cake with Raspberry Cream
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Makes 1 8-inch 3-layer cake

The following recipe has the proportions of the original. I halved this recipe to scale it down to a two layer 6-inch cake, which is the perfect amount for serving a smaller group (say four to six people). I then split the layers in half crosswise to make a cake with four layers of cake and three layers of filling. The cakes can be baked the day before assembly, cooled completely, wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated. The peach syrup and fruit purees for the frosting and filling can also be made the day before; when it’s time for assembly, quickly whip up the two batches of cream for the peach mousse and raspberry cream, fold them into the purees and you’re all set.

To find the rosewater that gives the raspberry cream it’s other-worldly flavor, look in the liquor section of larger supermarkets or specialty grocers.

You’ll notice there’s extra puree in the recipe than what is actually needed to make the frosting and filling. The intention is to use it for garnish. I didn’t bother with garnish and instead stirred mine into yogurt the next day.

For the cake:

1 3/4 cups cake flour
3 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons buttermilk

For the peach syrup:

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup peach schnapps or other peach liqueur

For the peach mousse filling:

1 pound peaches, thawed frozen with juices or peeled and pitted fresh
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin powder
2 tablespoons peach schnapps or other peach liqueur
1 cup heavy cream

For the raspberry cream:

12 ounces unsweetened frozen raspberries, thawed with juices
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease three 8-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment circles and grease the parchment too (butter or cooking spray works fine).

Start by making the cake. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Put the dry ingredients back into the sifter and set aside.

Whip the cream with the vanilla to soft peaks on high speed. Lower the speed to low and gradually beat in the sugar–do not whip until stiff. Beat in the eggs and egg yolks and continue whipping until soft peaks form again.

Sift about a third of the dry ingredients over the batter and fold in by hand with a spatula until well-blended. Repeat twice more. Fold in the buttermilk. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 18-20 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert them onto the cooling racks and peel off the parchment. Cool completely.

While the cake is cooling, first make the peach syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the syrup to about 1/2 a cup. Remove from the heat and stir in the peach liqueur. Set aside to cool.

Next, make the peach mousse filling. Combine the peaches, sugar, lemon juice and water in a medium non-reactive saucepan over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low, cooking until the peaches are soft. Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth (take care as hot liquids like to explode out of blenders). Measure out 1 cup of puree and set aside for garnish. Place the remaining puree in a large bowl.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the 2 tablespoons of liqueuer and let soften for five minutes, then microwave it on high for 10 to 15 seconds, stirring well to make sure it’s completely dissolved. Stir the gelatin into the peach puree in the large bowl.

In a large chilled bowl with chilled beaters, whip the cream for the peach filling until stiff. Fold the cream into the peach puree.

Begin assembling the cake. Place on layer upside down on a cake plate covered with strips of parchment to keep the platter clean. Soak with 1/4 cup of the peach syrup, and spread with half the peach mousse filling. Repeat with the second layer, 1/4 cup more syrup and the second half of the filling. Place the final layer on top and the rest of the peach syrup. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate the cake so it can set, about 1 hour.

While the cake is chilling, make the raspberry cream. Place the raspberries and their juices in a medium saucepan over medium low heat, mashing them with a fork until they’ve given up all their juices, about 15 minutes. Let the fruit cool slightly, then puree it in a food processor or blender. Run the puree through a sieve to remove the seeds. Remove 2/3 cup of the puree to another bowl, and reserve for garnish (sweeten to taste with additional sugar before serving). Into the remaining 1/3 cup, stir in the sugar and rosewater until the sugar dissolves.

In a chilled bowl with chilled beaters, whip the cream until stiff. Fold the raspberry-rose puree into the whipped cream.

When the filled cake has set, frost with the raspberry cream. Refrigerate cake uncovered for two hours before serving (and up to 8 hours for best results–this cake doesn’t keep well). Serve with the garnish, if desired.

Aug 26, 2009

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

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Somewhere in the back of my increasingly feeble, mother-to-an-almost-toddler mind, I seem to remember learning in school about the hierarchy of basic human needs. I’m pretty sure they included food, water, shelter, chocolate and an aunt and uncle set who are significantly cooler than your parents. Baby C scored on that last bit. A prime example being that her awesome Uncle Pat recently rolled through town on a tour with his band, while her totally boring mother baked cookies for said band. But as it turns out, it’s a tall order, baking for rockstars.

Although homemade cookies of all sorts would probably be welcomed by a van full of boys, you certainly don’t want to send them off with a container full of anything too delicate that might shatter into crumbs while getting rattled around among their gear and various gaming platforms. No, surely a lady cookie wouldn’t do. You need something sturdy. Dude Cookies. Road Biscuits. Like chewy nuggets of midnight dark chocolate, nubbly with tart dried cherries, bittersweet chocolate and toasty pecans.

This recipe comes from Alice Medrich’s great Pure Dessert, a book brimming with the kinds of recipes that turn out flavorful, earthy desserts that are never too sweet and always completely satisying. The recipes are familiar enough to create an instant craving, but there’s always a few ingredients that are off my everyday baking radar tossed into the mix that get me all excited to forage aisles in the market that I might not normally visit. And if that kind of spontaneity isn’t rockstar, well then I don’t know what is. How about staying out until midnight on a weeknight to go see a show in a bar AND paying someone to watch our kid for the first time?! THAT’S rock n’ flippin’ ROLL, people! Hard core!

Yeah. So…
This chocolate cookie recipe is going to be bookmarked for the long haul in the Piece of Cake kitchen. Not only can you turn out these rustic cookies that are perfect for gifting or keeping out on the counter for weekday snacking, you can also make a few tweaks during the prep and baking of them to create the kind of perfectly chocolately, thin, crisp, wafer-like cookies that are the ultimate building blocks for creating different desserts altogether and are getting increasingly harder to find in your typical supermarket (more on that in coming weeks). But for some awesomely talented guys several weeks into a non-stop national tour, it had to be a manned-up version of this recipe, the kind of brawny, chunky chocolate cookie that screams for a glass of milk. Or a handle of Jack. Or whatever those crazy kids are into these days.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies with Cherries and Pecans

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

Makes about 4 dozen

The original recipe calls for the dough to come together in a food processor. I’ve never acquired one myself, so I used a standing mixer and have rewritten the recipe as such. The beauty of a food processor is that it doesn’t incorporate a lot of air into the dough, making for a decadent, dense cookie, so if you use a mixer like I did, just keep the speed as low as possible.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into 12 chunks
3 tablespoons whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 ounces (1 cup) bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips
6 ounces (1 cup) dried tart cherries
1 1/3 cups chopped toasted pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.

Combine the flour, cocoa, sugar, salt, and baking soda in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to blend the dry ingredients thoroughly. With the mixer running on low speed, add the butter chunks to the bowl until the butter is incorporated and the mixture looks lumpy and sandy. Increase the speed slightly until the dough begins to clump up around the paddle. Combine the milk and vanilla in a small cup. With the mixer running, add the milk mixture and mix until the dough is smooth and creamy in appearance, like a thick frosting. Fold in the chocolate chips, dried cherries and toasted pecans.

Drop by level tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until the cookies look drier and set–the centers won’t be firm at all, but shouldn’t be too squishy. Cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in airtight containers in single layers separated by waxed paper or parchment.

Aug 19, 2009

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet

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It’s 7:00 am. A mother stands with her wiggly baby on her hip, looking out a picture window, still sleepy, willing her cup of coffee to kick in. The ever-present fog of a San Francisco summer is rolling down the street. It’s been a week since they’ve seen the sun, and it’s beginning to get depressing. Suddenly, a bright ball of light begins to burn through the thick cloud cover above. The mother first squints at the almost-unfamiliar light, then incredulously stares, her eyes as big as her baby’s lush, open mouth. The fog burns off before their very eyes, revealing patches of blue that grow together to form an expanse of clear sunny sky. Could it really be? A sunny San Francisco day in the summer? A fire sparks within the weary mother, burning as bright as the sunlight that is now searing through the window. Sweet Georgia Brown! Go, go, go!!

The mother leaps away from the window, quickly drops to her knees and busies her offspring. “Here, baby, take my Blackberry! Your favorite! Ooh, shiny!! Shiny, right?! And look at this pretty TV remote with all the buttons and mommy’s jingly keys and all these other things that transfix you that we never let you have. Super fun, right baby?! Okay, you sit here now. Mama’s makin’ sorbet!!

It may sound all dramatic, but it’s true, people. Though the stretch of cool, dreary days around here certainly made for excellent baking weather, there haven’t been many opportunities to enjoy summery frozen desserts in the manner in which nature intended–in full sun, on a deck, with peak-of-season fruit melting across the tongue. You’ll notice there’s only been two ice creams showcased here this season–tragic! I had to suck the marrow out of that sudden sunny day and get a batch of fresh strawberry sorbet churning first thing. There would surely be a dinner grilled outside later that day, and a sorbet would cap it off fabulously. Luckily, there was a basket of strawberries sitting in the fridge that were just edging past their prime.

I’d had such high hopes for eating those berries for breakfast, but the relentless cloudy weather had been more of the oatmeal variety, and even in their ruby-red glory, I just kept passing over those berries while skimming the refrigerator shelves in the morning. But I am a strong proponent of No Berry Left Behind. So into the blender went that still-promising fruit with a touch of sugar. I added about 1/3 cup of fresh orange juice just to bring the amount of fruit puree to two cups for a full pint of sorbet (and because I love the flavor combination). I’m thinking other fruit nectars, like peach, would also be lovely here.

I had a sorbet recipe bookmarked in my copy of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook that called for balsamic vinegar, so I glugged some of that into the blending puree. Anyone who’s had a syrupy balsamic reduction drizzled over berries will tell you that the intense fruity, winey taste of balsamic and strawberries is a match from the gods. It’s not that you actually taste vinegar–you use just a touch–rather you taste the strawberries in a much more profound way. Like strawberries on steroids. Much like my recent pairing of strawberries and Lillet, the vinegar just opens up the whole thing and renders it completely delicious. Coincidentally, I found that sunshine has a similar effect on the flavors of this sorbet–it just tastes that much better on a sunny summer day. Especially if you happen to have been the sun-starved type as of late.

Strawberry Balsamic Sorbet
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Makes 1 pint

Many sorbet recipes, including the one from the Zuni book, call for straining the puree. I skipped that step altogether–I like the body that the berry pulp gives the finished dessert and strawberry seeds are so tiny that you don’t even know they’re there. Plus you get twice the amount of finished sorbet without straining the puree. If you want a more refined finished product or have a skeevy relationship with seeds, by all means strain away, but double the recipe so you end up with a full pint of sorbet (one pound of berries yields about a cup of strained puree).

1 pound fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh orange juice or other unsweetened, complimentary fruit juice
4-6 tablespoons of sugar, to taste
1/2 to 1 teaspoon good balsamic vinegar, to taste

Puree the berries in a blender until smooth. Check to see how much puree you have at this point, and add orange juice to bring the amount up to two cups. Blend to combine. Add the sugar, starting with 4 tablespoons, and blend again. Taste the puree, adding more sugar to taste. You want the puree to be almost too sweet–the sweetness will dull considerably when the sorbet is frozen. Finally, add the balsamic vinegar to taste, beginning with 1/2 teaspoon. Stop adding vinegar when the strawberry flavor is noticeably more pronounced, but you can’t taste the vinegar outright. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Scrape into an airtight container and freeze until firm.

Aug 14, 2009

Three Dozen Cookies, One Stick of Butter (!)

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I realize that with my all-desserts-all-the-time blog that I’m not exactly the poster child for low-fat eats. I’ve said before that I’d much rather make my regular meals lean and mean than give up a good dessert made with real ingredients. I just don’t see the point of making a low-fat cake. But let it be known that when I work out a recipe that cranks out three dozen generously-sized, utterly satisfying cookies with just one stick of butter, I am going to make a Big Deal out of it.

These Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger are the love child of one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes and a banana bread recipe that I’ve had bookmarked for months. Those who are slaves to the low-fat baking movement (or those who read the ubiquitous “healthy treats” articles in womens’ magazines that tell you to do ridiculous things like putting only salsa on your baked potatoes and call fruit dipped in a teaspoon of chocolate syrup “dessert”) will tell you that fruit purees can make a decent substitute for fat in baked goods.

In my opinion, in order for the fruit puree technique to produce truly great results, conditions must be perfect. Those conditions include recipes that call for oil and/or melted butter (think quickbreads and muffins) and also include ingredients that naturally work with the flavor of the fruit puree, should any of it sneak out into the baked good. And I don’t know about you, but banana+chocolate+ginger+cookies=pretty great-sounding to me. I pulled out my ever-present bag of frozen-before-they-could-completely-decay bananas from the freezer and got to work.

It just so happens that one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes is made just like a quickbread, via the muffin method with melted butter–there’s that other aforementioned condition for fruit purees successfully acting as a stand-in for fats. But let’s not get ridiculous, okay? I have no interest in going all Susan Powter on my baking projects, so I only swapped out half the weight of the butter for mashed banana. The sweetness of the fruit also allowed for a third of the sugar to be slashed out too–bonus! All that was left to do was to add a little sparkle with minced candied ginger to the dough, and dish it out in delightfully non-dietetic portions.

I’ve decided that there is only one fragrance that can best the smells of banana bread or chocolate chip cookies wafting through the house and that is the smell of a banana bread/chocolate chip cookie hybrid. Oh. Em. Gee. And thankfully, the taste matched the olfactory delight. These cookies came out fabulously moist and chewy with crisp edges and were so flavorful that I really, honestly didn’t miss the extra butter at all. Even better, they were more delicious the next day. That is to say the two that were left over were more delicious.

I was so overjoyed by the results of this recipe, I had to work out the math. And by my calculations, there are about 3 grams of fat per cookie, half the fat of an average chocolate chip cookie. In the Piece of Cake kitchen, that means you can shove them in your mouth two at a time. Hooray!

Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies with Candied Ginger

Makes about 3 dozen

Keep an eye on the cookies during the last few minutes of baking–you don’t want them overbaked. Cooling the cookies completely on the sheet will make for a chewier cookie. If you want them more crisp, just transfer them to a wire rack to cool after a minute or so. After portioning the cookies, the dough balls can be frozen and stored in a zip-top freezer bag for up to three months.

2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces mashed banana (about 1/2 cup, or 1 medium)
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli 60% cacao, semi-sweet chips work too)
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, minced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with an oven rack set to the center position. Have ungreased baking sheets ready (I like to line mine with parchment or Silpat, but it’s not necessary).

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl by hand, mix together the sugars, melted butter, egg yolks and vanilla until well-blended. Stir in the mashed banana. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until nearly incorporated, then fold in the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger.

Portion tablespoons of dough out onto the baking sheets, 12 per sheet. Bake one sheet at a time for 14-16 minutes, or just until golden brown. Don’t overbake. Cool completely on the baking sheets on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.


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