Back when I was young and unafraid, I had the experience of a lifetime studying in Europe for a summer during college. It was the ultimate summer school–noisy pubs and boy chasing in England, sunbathing and karaoke at a dive bar with the Manchester United soccer (football, whatever) team in attendance in Malta (where did I put that photo of David Beckham and me, anyway?), lots of great chocolate in Germany and Austria. That sort of thing. And I think there may have been some schoolwork in there somewhere. Amazing what you can accomplish with a two-month-long hangover while a college student, really. Comes in second only to what a crazed mother of a 10-month-old can create when thinking of the days she was footloose and fancy-free. Like, say, working out a recipe for Nutella cupcakes.
The constant in my European summer, along with Boddingtons, was Nutella. It sustained Erin (she of Scotch-a-Roo lore) and I through the London portion of our trip, along with bread and Coke Light and a smartly-packed jar (her brillance, not mine) of American peanut butter. And to the delight of shoestring-budget college students like us, it seemed that you could find Nutella just about anywhere on the continent for dirt cheap. The hazelnut-chocolate combination is all over Europe in various forms, and is celebrated deliciously in the adorable Mozart Kuglen that I devoured by the dozen in Austria, making a huge dent in what was supposed to be a haul back to the states to gift to my family, who literally never really knew what they were missing.
The Supermodel Cupcake look doesn’t give away how simple, simple, simple this recipe is. The most difficult thing about it is toasting and peeling hazelnuts for garnish, which, if pressed for time, you could forgo altogether. But even that is pretty simple–just throw the hazelnuts into a baking pan and into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes or until toasty and fragrant, then let them cool completely before wrapping them in a little bunch in a dish towel and rubbing them in your hands like a bag of marbles–the peels will flake right off. Do a bunch at once and freeze the rest and you too can have peeled hazelnuts at a moment’s notice. The American dream, right?
To arrive at this gorgeous and delicious specimen of a cupcake, I had to really rework the aforementioned chocolate syrup cake recipe (chocolate syrup is fat free, Nutella is pretty much just sugar and fat), and I baked up a couple test batches before declaring number three the winner. The cakes are moist and somewhat dense, almost chewy, and come out of the oven with perfectly flat tops, which beg for a slick of ganache and end up having that gorgeous, streamlined European bake shop vibe.
Even better, these elegant lookers are perfect dinner party make-aheads–they taste so much better with a more pronounced hazelnut flavor the next day. I can’t recommend them enough, people. Have a glass of milk or a nice strong cup of coffee nearby, close your eyes, and pretend you’re at a little scrolly wrought iron table someplatz special.
Nutella Cupcakes with Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache
The ganache in this recipe is my go-to ganache–it firms up nicely with a slight chew and a satiny sheen. The recipe also works with dark, semi-sweet or milk chocolates. After the ganache sets up, I highly recommend storing the cupcakes in an airtight container overnight before serving them–the flavors are so much better the day after they’re baked.
For the cupcakes:
1/2 cup self-rising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup sugar
8 ounces Nutella
2 tablespoons whole milk
For the ganache:
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (60% cacao–I like Ghiradelli)
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
Whisk together the flour and salt and set aside.
With an electric mixer in a medium bowl, beat the butter until creamy. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and beat until well-blended. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and pale in color. Beat in the Nutella until well-incorporated, stopping to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl while beating. Add the eggs and beat until smooth. On low speed, beat in half the flour mixture just until it beings to disappear into the batter. Beat in the milk. Fold in the remainder of the flour mixture by hand until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the muffin cups, filling them no more than 1/2 full. Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs–if in doubt, pull them from the oven a bit early–do not over bake. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, prepare the ganache. Place the chocolate chips, butter and corn syrup in a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 30 second intervals, stopping to stir after each interval, until the mixture is shiny and smooth. Stir in the vanilla.
When the cupcakes are completely cool, using a spoon, top each one with about two teaspoons of the ganache, and with the back of the spoon coax it as close to the edges as possible without letting it drip down the sides (or go on and let it drip…drippy chocolate is rarely a bad thing). Sprinkle on a bit of the chopped hazelnuts. Let the ganache set before storing in an airtight container at room temperature overnight–these cupcakes truly taste better the next day. But if you want to defy me and serve the cupcakes immediately, refrigerate them for about five minutes and the ganache will quickly set.
Shirley’s Magnificent Moist Golden Cake has ended my search for the absolutely perfect yellow cake–sweet, tender and toothsome with a tight, velvety crumb, perfect for layer cakes and cupcakes alike. It’s a true food scientist’s cake recipe, so it took a few tries to wrap my brain around the recipe, but man, is it worth the details. Even though every time I’ve made this recipe, I’ve had to pull the pans from the oven in a panic a minute after putting them in because, really, it’s just not natural to “drop the pans from a height of four inches onto the countertop to knock out the air bubbles” before putting them into the oven (P.S.–if you forget to do this altogether, your cake will still be delicious, though pockmarked with air bubbles, so it’s more of a problem to neglect to do this with layer cakes, and a smaller problem with cupcakes). And the relatively small amount of butter in the recipe being offset by the folding in of whipped cream? I’m listening, Shirley.
My first attempt with this cake was a small 6-inch layer cake that had the husband and I closing our eyes and having a moment of silence upon the first tasting. Nom, nom, nom. It was really something.
The second time I used this recipe was to create cupcakes for a crowd of Southerners at a belated wedding reception and not-a-one purty little cake remained on the platter. And those people know cake.
And since I am a freakin’ American, I believe yellow cake belongs with a milk chocolate frosting. The end. So I tweaked Shirley’s Luscious Chocolate Icing a bit for my tastes, and really, truly, you will never find a more beautiful (and simple!) chocolate frosting. The chocolate is the true star here, there is no butter or confectioners’ sugar involved, and it doesn’t crust or run or do anything but just sit like a gorgeous chocolate pillow atop anything you put it on. I’ve spread it and piped it and swirled it on with a spoon and fallen in love all over again every time. I’ve found that as long as you use the right total weight of chocolate, the chocolates can be interchanged to give you exactly the right balance of bitterness and sweetness that you are looking for. So while I use mostly milk chocolate to pair it with a yellow cake, I might do a higher ratio of semi-sweet or bittersweet to milk chocolate for a deep chocolate cake or somesuch. Love.
Shirley Corriher’s Magnificent Moist Golden Cake
The original recipe calls for a single standard 9-inch cake pan for this recipe, with the intention of slicing the one thick layer into two or three layers. But I’d use a springform pan for the higher side for that purpose, or just use two standard pans and adjust the baking time. Quarter the recipe for a 6-inch two layer cake. The rise on this cake can be pretty amazing, so be conservative with how full you fill your cake pans and/or cupcake liners–I stick to just about 2/3 full in both cases. Unless, you know, you like scraping molten cake batter off the floor of your oven. Don’t ask me how I know this.
Makes 2-3 9-inch cake layers or two dozen cupcakes
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 cup buttermilk, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups cake flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan or two (or three) 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray and dust them with flour, or line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners for cupcakes.
In a large measuring cup or similar vessel, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of the buttermilk and vanilla.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of your standing mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat in the butter, oil, and remaining buttermilk on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened, then crank it up to medium speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. Add one third of the egg mixture, and beat for about 20 seconds, and scrape the bowl again. Repeat two more times until all the egg mixture is incorporated and the batter is smooth.
In a cold bowl with cold beaters, whip the cream to just beyond soft peaks. Stir a quarter of the whipped cream into the batter to lighten it, then carefully fold in the remaining cream.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans (about 2/3 full for cupcakes). Drop the pans onto the counter from a height of about 4 inches to knock out air bubbles. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when touched and a toothpick comes out clean but moist–about 40 minutes for one thick layer, 25-30 minutes for individual layers, and 17-20 minutes for cupcakes (checking progress early and often). Do not overbake. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
Shirley Corriher’s Luscious, Creamy Chocolate Icing
I adjust the proportions of milk and semi-sweet chocolates depending on the sweetness I’m after, and suspect dark and bittersweet chocolates added to the mix would work too. Chips or chopped bar chocolate work equally as well in this recipe.
Makes enough icing to frost and fill 1 9-inch 3-layer cake or 2 dozen cupcakes
12 ounces milk chocolate, chips or chopped
9 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups sour cream
Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe vessel and microwave on 50% power for 30 second intervals, stopping to stir after every interval, until smooth.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, salt, vanilla and corn syrup. Stir in the sour cream until nearly smooth. Add the melted chocolate. Beat on low speed until very smooth–it will get stiffer as you go, so beat just until it’s a nice spreading consistency and don’t overbeat. Use generously.
I’ve begun to dabble in the idea of baking more for other people, like maybe, possibly for profit. So I’ve been doing quite a bit of volunteering to be the dessert bringer for various parties and get-togethers as a way to perfect recipes and get feedback. Plus it gives me excuses to patronize dreamy places like Cooks Boulevard and the baker’s paradise that is Spun Sugar to pick up little baubles and piping bag tips and other things that make me dorkily, maniacally joyful. Is there a support group out there for people who clap their hands and bounce on their heels when presented with a shelf full of glistening sanding sugar in every imaginable hue?
A few weeks ago, a great opportunity to pass on some baking love arose. See, my darling husband, whose sweet tooth rivals (read: enables) mine, will eat and at least pretend to love anything I bake. So he likes to ask me to make stuff that he can bring into work and sort of “show me off”, kind of the married guy’s version of posting a hot picture of his girlfriend in his office. In this case, the stand-in for me posing in a short dress and suntan was a riff on Martha Stewart’s One-Bowl Chocolate Cake and a simple vanilla bean buttercream to make some girly cupcakes for an office baby shower.
You know that lovely smell of a freshly baked and American buttercream-frosted cake, all sweet cream butter and sugar, that explodes from whatever vessel in which you are storing said cake in as soon as it’s opened? Well, that kind of gorgeous scent was driving me bonkers, wafting through my car all the way downtown when I went to drop off these beauties. The kind of heady, sweet smell that has got to be caloric. And for that experience alone I highly endorse this combination.
One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from Martha Stewart
I get about 18 cupcakes out of this recipe, but you can stretch it to a full 2 dozen if need be. It also makes two great 9-inch cake layers. Using brewed coffee instead of just water makes the chocolate taste more…chocolatey.
Makes 18-24 cupcakes
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I love Ghiradelli or Valhrona)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup strong brewed coffee
3/4 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Spray the top of the muffin tin with cooking spray for extra non-stick insurance, as these cupcakes can have a serious rise and often puff over the edges of the tin’s wells.
Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Add the eggs, coffee, buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat until smooth with an electric mixer, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl to assure batter is well-mixed.
Divide batter evenly among muffin cups (an ice cream scoop works well here), filling each cup no more than 2/3 full. Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely before frosting.
Vanilla Bean Buttercream
Adapted from Amy Berman of Vanilla Bake Shop
I nabbed the idea of letting the salt dissolve in the liquid for American buttercreams from the fantastic Shirley Corriher, and will never go back to just adding it straight to frostings. I like a nice dose of salt in my icings, and this trick allows you to add a touch more without risking having a random crunchy salt grain in the mix. Love.
Makes enough to moderately frost 2 dozen cupcakes
1/4 cup milk
Scant 1/8 teaspoon of salt (one generous pinch)
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into small pieces
3 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Add the salt to the milk in a measuring cup and set aside to let the salt dissolve. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth. Add the vanilla seeds and vanilla extract, beating to incorporate. Beat in the milk last, adding a bit more milk if necessary to reach the desired consistency.
Use immediately or store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week. Bring the buttercream to room temperature and rewhip before using.
Can you think of anything better than baking on a Sunday when the rain and wind beat so hard against the windows that the
makes you pull your old sweater around you tighter? I didn’t think so. If I had gotten through the day without turning the oven on, I am certain some kind of culinary police would have come pounding at my door. If not for that, then because of the sweet, cakey air drifting from my kitchen that could have drawn in the entire city.
Some rainy days make you want to putter for hours in the kitchen, but others call for something with a quick preparation that allows you to get back to your big, cozy chair and your copy of The Tenth Muse as soon as humanly possible. In her memoir, Judith Jones (in addition to regaling me with stories of her years as a legendary cookbook editor) creates such vivid pictures of the French countryside that I have been choking back tears for not yet having traveled there. So I figured the best I could do was to crank up some Josephine Baker and throw together a cake well-loved by the French that is incredibly, deliciously simple. So simple, in fact, that the batter comes together in just one bowl, is mixed by hand, and traditional recipes for it call for the ingredients to be measured in “jars” rather than “cups”–meaning the jars that many wonderful French yogurts come packaged in, like the one in this blurry photo:
Although I opted to use my boring old American 1/2 cup measure, I added extra interest to the basic French yogurt cake recipe by adding vanilla extract and a scraped vanilla bean. And now would be an opportune time to admit to something in the kitchen at which I am completely inept–scraping vanilla beans. No matter how I do it, no matter how sharp my knife or how carefully I scrape out the seeds, the pods end up in gnarled shards, the fragrant pulp shmeared into my board, and I end up having to pick woody bits of pod out of my batters or frostings and trying to furiously flick seeds from my fingertips into the bowl. Witness the carnage:
Vanilla bean snafus aside, this cake is a winner. And so versatile–great with ice cream, flavored whipped cream, any kind of fruit or dessert sauce. Or eaten out of hand with a paper towel as a plate while standing at the counter, watching the rain through your rattling kitchen window.
Gateau au Yaourt a la Vanille
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
Makes one single layer, 9-inch cake
1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and the seeds of the vanilla bean until well-blended. Stir in the flour and baking soda until the batter just starts to come together–there will be some small lumps and that’s okay. Pour in the oil and whisk the batter until it is smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 32-35 minutes, until the cake is an even, deep golden brown, springy to the touch, and a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 30 minutes before turning it out onto the cooling rack to cool completely.
The further along I get in my pregnancy, the more my sweet tooth seems to change. Or, rather, the more the part of my brain that knows I should be eating more nutrient-dense foods wins out over the part of me that really just wants frosting out of a can. I mean, let’s not get crazy, I still indulge in a good frothy-looking cupcake or a shiny glazed donut here and there, and some days only a hunk of chocolate will cut it (though those days are pretty much long gone since I realized that for this pregnant lady, chocolate is a one-way ticket to all-night heartburn agony,
). But when it comes to my own baking projects, I’ve been pulled towards “earthier” items that have at least a modicum of nutrition (think whole grains, fruits, etc.). I know! I can’t believe it either. It’s really something crazy.
Take what happened the other day–I wanted the aforementioned frothy-looking cupcake something fierce, piled high with buttercream, which unfortunately they make no mention of in “The Pregnancy Diet” section of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. But after a few minutes of hemming and hawing, I decided I really should bake something slightly more virtuous, and I settled on a banana cupcake with a glazey, lightened up cream cheese icing. And so it began, using the brilliant Rose Levy Beranbaum‘s Banana Cake recipe as my starting point, and doctoring up a classic cream cheese frosting to cut the fat and the amount of icing that could be dolloped on each cupcake.
The finished cakes taste of a bold, flavorful banana bread, peppered with those mysterious black speckles that always appear inside after baking (can someone enlighten me as to what these speckles are? Seeds, random fiber, what?), and have a wonderfully springy, toothsome quality that contrasts in the most interesting way with the tender, delicate, cake-like crumb. And technically, this cake is a quick bread given its mixing method (wet ingredients all combined at once and mixed into the dries, no creaming of butter or sugar involved) but the use of cake flour instead of all-purpose changes the texture entirely.
The use of light cream cheese instead of full-fat yielded a topping with a thinner consistency (“light” versions of dairy products almost always contain more water than their full-fat counterparts), but retained all the flavor. A glorious, fluffy buttercream it is not, but that was kind of my point–I wanted a little to go a long way, making the whole thing less sugary while still getting that suggestion of a tangy-sweet cream cheese frosting. So now would be a good time to mention that if you want something fluffier, make the frosting recipe with full-fat cream cheese and sour cream. But give the lighter version a try if you happen to be going through a more virtuous baking phase like myself–you won’t be disappointed.
Banana Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing
Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum and Baking Illustrated
Makes about 18 cupcakes
As is the case with banana bread, use your sad, brown, way overripe bananas that you bought in too large of a bunch to eat before they all went bad here. I keep a stash of these in my freezer–they thaw quickly on the countertop, but make sure they are room temperature (a quick zap in the microwave will warm them quickly) before incorporating them into batters.
For the cakes:
2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large ripe bananas, peeled
2 tablespoons light sour cream
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
10 tablespoons butter, softened and cut into cubes
For the icing:
4 ounces light cream cheese, softened but still cool
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1/2 tablespoon light sour cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 12-cup muffin tins or line them with paper liners.
In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
In a separate bowl using an electric hand mixer (or in a food processor or blender if you don’t mind the extra dirty dishes) combine the bananas and sour cream, blending until smooth (a few tiny banana chunks may remain). Add the eggs and vanilla and blend again until well combined. Add half the banana mixture to the dry ingredients along with the butter and beat on low speed until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Scrape down the bowl and increase the speed to medium, beating for about 1-2 minutes. Add the rest of the banana mixture in two batches, beating after each addition until well blended. Portion the batter into the prepared muffin tins and bake until the tops spring back when touched and a toothpick comes out clean, about 15-17 minutes. Cool completely on wire racks before icing.
To make the icing, beat together the cream cheese, butter, sour cream, vanilla and salt until smooth. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar until well-combined. When the cupcakes are completely cooled, top them generously with the cream cheese icing. Refrigerate any leftover icing.
The Almond Cake from Alice Medrich’s fantastic Pure Dessert is a perfect example of what her book is all about–this simple, rustic cake is a true celebration of the earthy flavor of almonds. In trying to figure out how to describe it to you, I’ve decided that the Almond Cake is basically the most excellent Mad Lib of anyone’s dessert dreams–buttery, rich, nutty, incredibly moist, crunchy, crispy, chewy, tender, melt-in-your-mouth–you name it, it’s in there. A slice of this cake works with your 10 a.m. coffee, after dinner, as a sudden sweet bite from the countertop while passing through the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon.
And the flavor–oh, the flavor! Absolutely drunk with almonds. To start, imagine a pumped up, cake version of those crispy, perfectly sweet almond cookies you might get from your favorite Chinese take out place. One of the most interesting things about this cake is that its sweetness comes not just from the sugar in the batter and the smattering of it in the prepared baking pan, but also a different kind of sweetness altogether–a fragrance, really–that is provided by a dose of heady almond extract and the almonds themselves in different forms (ground into flour for the batter and layered in the pan to create a gorgeous crust).
If the promise of amazing flavor and texture isn’t enough, let me tell you that after a bit of mise, this cake comes together in minutes in a blender or food processor. No creaming, folding or alternating wets and dries required, people! You now have no excuse to miss the opportunity to make yourself and loved ones deliriously happy by trying this recipe. Like, now.
Crunchy Almond Cake
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert
For the crust:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft
Generous 1/3 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the cake:
4 ounces whole almonds
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
3 large eggs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, slightly softened
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack to the lower third of the oven. Generously butter a 9 inch cake pan with 1 tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter–it seems like an insane amount of butter, but you are also creating a crust for the cake here. After the pan is buttered, sprinkle the sliced almonds in a single, even layer over the bottom of the pan and work some of the slices up the sides of the pan as well. Sprinkle two tablespoons of granulated sugar over the butter and almonds and set the prepared pan aside.
To make the cake batter, throw the almonds, sugar, salt and almond extract into a blender or food processor and blend until the nuts are finely ground. Add the eggs and butter, blending throughly. Add the flour and baking powder and blend just until everything is incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is a deep golden brown and a tester comes out clean, about 32-35 minutes. Cool cake completely in the pan on a wire rack before sliding a thin knife around the sides of the pan to release it. Turn the cake out onto a serving platter so that the sliced almond-covered bottom becomes the top of the cake. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.
Anyway, even though I showed great restraint and just brought home the one flat of berries, panic set in the next morning after I finished my cereal piled high with fresh strawberry slices–there were still a whole heck of a lotta strawberries in that box. And with every hour that passed, they were expiring. I simply did not have the time nor the inclination to get into jam-making–even though living in California allows us to have gorgeous summer fruits months before what is fair, it just seems wrong to make strawberry jam in April. Unless I wanted waaay too much fiber in my diet over the next couple of days and enough vitamin C to retroactively prevent scurvy for the entire planet, I was going to have to get creative.
So here’s where I get honest with you guys. There was a recipe I worked on that used a lot of strawberries. It was indeed creative, a riff on another recipe that called for the juice of another fruit. And boy, did I have good intentions for it. I mean, swapping out most fruit juices in recipes is usually pretty foolproof. I should say that I will be trying my hand at a Strawberry Chiffon Cake with Strawberry Glaze again sometime in the future, because the experiment wasn’t altogether unfortunate–the cake was a solid chiffon effort, risen beautifully, tender and light and not too sweet, a good balance with the fruity, very sweet glaze.
But because I didn’t want to use any colorings or fruit extracts in the batter, the cake tasted more of the teeny bit of lemon zest that was in it than the heap of strawberries that went into it, and even though the berries were bleeding the most gorgeous shade of red and the puree swirled into the batter looked promising, there was no rosy punch in the finished cake–it had the strangest reddish-gray cast you’ve ever seen. Adding onto that the jammy cooked glaze that was not the firm icing glaze that I was after (although the strawberry flavor was excellent here), and I was bummed–so close, yet so far. And still so many berries left in the box! Punch-kick-sigh.
After that half-hearted result, I wanted a sure thing. Can you blame me? So I did the remaining berries up right, simply slicing them and letting them do their thing, macerating with some fragrant vanilla sugar. And then piling them onto tender sour cream shortcake biscuits with a crown of whipped cream. Heaven. And so yet another lesson learned: when life gives you beautiful strawberries at an insanely good price, let them be themselves and don’t jack up your good fortune by trying to get smart.
Individual Strawberry Shortcakes
Adapted from Nancy Baggett’s All-American Dessert Cookbook
Makes 6-8 individual servings
The amount of sugar tossed with the berries really depends on how sweet they are to begin with. Here, I use the minimum amount suggested by the original recipe. Be careful not to be too stingy with sugaring the berries, though, because the juice they release while macerating will moisten, sweeten and flavor the shortcake.
For the berries:
5 1/2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/2 cup vanilla sugar or granulated sugar
For the shortcakes:
2 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for shaping the dough
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar plus extra for sprinkling
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 1/2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Toss the berries with the sugar and and set aside to macerate for at least an hour while preparing the shortcakes.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and set a rack to the middle position. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sprinkle the butter pieces over the dry ingredients, and using your fingertips (or a pastry cutter or dump everything into a food processor, but I like using my hands) work the butter and flour mixture together until the butter is incorporated and in very fine bits, like coarse meal.
Add the sour cream to the flour-butter mixture and stir gently, just until the dough comes together. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons flour evenly over the dough and give it 5-6 good kneads to make a smooth dough. Let stand for 1 minute, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, pat the dough into about an 8 inch round. Using a 3 to 3 1/2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds, punching straight down into the dough without twisting for the most tender biscuits. When you’ve cut out as many as you can from the first round, keep gathering the dough scraps together and recutting biscuits until you’re out of dough.
Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet, brush them with a bit of heavy cream and sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. Bake for 10-14 minutes, until the shortcakes are risen and golden brown on the tops and bottoms. Cool completely on a wire rack.
To serve the strawberry shortcakes, slice the biscuits across with a serrated knife and place the bottoms on individual serving plates. Pile the berries onto each biscuit bottom, making sure to get a few spoonfuls of the sweet juice soaked into each biscuit. Place the biscuit tops on, and garnish each shortcake with lightly sweetened whipped cream and more berries and juice.
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