So here’s the thing: the past several weeks have just about blown my head off my shoulders. Lots of travel, lots of appointments to keep, and many, many lists. (Lists are my savior. The hand-written kind, scribbled on scraps of paper or in my little planner book. I get endless grief from the husband about my very non-technical list-making efforts, but there you have it.) And every time I’ve written one of these lists lately, I’ve lamented the fact that none of them have had a “make ___” entry. No cookies, no cakes, no little homespun confections. Well, except for lots and lots of marshmallows.
Turns out, when you write a single subject cookbook and go places to pimp it out, everyone wants you to bring samples. Not that I’m complaining at all–I still love making those fluffy, puffy gems just as much as when the recipe testing flurry began more than a year ago. But after dozens of batches of them over the past couple weeks, I was so ready to make a dang cake the first chance I got. And the push came from a source from whom I’ve been gleaning much book promotion inspiration throughout this whole crazy cookbook process.
You know Ree Drummond, don’t you? This lady is everywhere, people. Blogger! Author! TV! Supermom! Wearer of Amazing Tunics! It’s almost maddening, the amount this woman can accomplish in a day. And her second book just came out, full of the lovely photos and ranch life anecdotes for which she is totally famous on the interwebs. She has the sort of easy, warm persona that makes everyone think they’re best friends with her, like, say, daydreaming about co-hosting a hybrid cooking/parenting/musical variety show with her or something but hey I don’t know whatever I’m just saying. Anyway.
I suppose in the way others obsessively look to icons of style for inspiration about what to wear, or celebrity designers’ coffee table books to figure out how to redecorate their living rooms, I idolize food people. Which might explain this 1980s gym teacher getup I’m currently sporting and why 75% of my furniture involves particle board, but dang, check out my fly cake pan collection!
Anyway, rather than just craving certain dishes, I go through phases of who I might like to eat like during a given week and embrace it with a restraining-order-level dedication. Typing that out makes me realize how totally weird that is. But there you have it.
After many weeks of going through an unspeakable amount of butter, sugar and flour, all in the name of recipe testing for the new book (and still going), I’m pretty sure that lazy moaning you hear is my digestive system dying for a break. And buckets of vegetable juice. So goes the occupational hazard of testing and writing a whole lot of dessert recipes–a little bit of every result must make its way into my mouth (I’m doing it for you, of course). Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m being proactive, putting myself on some sort of virtuous diet to combat the insanity (see also: the day I had vegetable juice with a cookie), but I am thinking that it’s time to find a bit of balance while I’m working on this latest manuscript. Somewhere between a macrobiotic goddess and a Morgan Spurlock documentary would be just fine. This fall fruit salad, with a fantastically spiced syrup for extra punch is a gentle nudge to get a little further away from the latter. Probably.
What do you mean it’s the Fourth of July next week? My head is still in, like, March or something. At the risk of totally sounding like Andy Rooney, where has this year gone? Really, people.
Never mind that Eton Mess is actually a British thing and maybe it’s kind of bizarre to go British on America’s holiday, but hey, when something’s this good, it really, really doesn’t matter. Eton Mess is basically a deconstructed pavlova, which, by the way, is the most perfect dessert ever created and I’m pretty sure I would make that my pick for my last meal on earth. You just can’t beat the combination of billowy whipped cream, crunchy, sweet meringues that melt on the tongue, and a punch of fresh berries. Divine.
This recipe is really not so much a recipe as it is a basic idea. Although berries, especially strawberries, are the traditional way to go here, there is no earthly reason why you couldn’t use stone fruits or tropical fruits or whatever. The tartness of raspberries plays especially nicely with the sweet meringues and cream in this version, and of course a smattering of blueberries adds a bit of July Fourth jazziness. Dress it up by layering it in fancy champagne or parfait glasses, lay everything out buffet-style and have people make their own dang dessert, or throw the whole lot in a big glass bowl and go at it with a spoon. Whatever you want! You are free to make your Eton Mess all your own! Now that’s America, right there.
Although you can absolutely make your own, I love store-bought meringue cookies for this recipe because they’re always very firm and crisp, and really, there’s nothing easier. Just read the label and make sure you’re getting ones that just contain egg whites, sugar and vanilla– no funny business. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have good ones.
If you want to experiment with other fruits here (I’m thinking peaches would be insanely delicious), just peel and chop them fine for the sauce and use your judgement with the sugar and lemon juice needed to balance the sweetness of the fruit you choose.
Frozen raspberries work perfectly fine here for the sauce–just get a small package of fresh ones to toss in for texture. Freshly whipped real cream is the ticket to heaven here.
3 6-ounce containers fresh raspberries
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 6-ounce container fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled (or more, if you like–I sure do)
1 1/2 cups coarsely crushed vanilla meringue cookies (or more, if you like–again, I sure do)
Combine two containers of raspberries, 1/2 cup of sugar and the lemon juice in a small saucepan set over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, mashing the berries with a fork. Cook until the berries have broken down and the sugar has dissolved, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the third container of fresh raspberries. Pour the sauce into a bowl and chill completely, either in the refrigerator or the freezer to cool it down quickly.
Whip the cream and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to stiff peaks. When the raspberry sauce is cold, assemble the parfaits. Start by placing a dollop of whipped cream in the bottom of six dessert glasses. Spoon a bit of raspberry sauce over the cream, followed by a smattering of meringue pieces. Spoon on more cream, dot on some blueberries, and sprinkle on more meringue. Repeat the layers, alternating raspberry sauce and blueberries after the cream layers. Serve immediately.
I debated about telling you about this, but I’m just gonna put it all out there, people. The Piece of Cake kitchen (which is to say ME) has been on a diet. Like, an honest-to-God, excruciatingly boring, buckets of salad, no-sugar diet. Today is Day 9. Perhaps you can guess by my counting of the days that said diet has not been fun. You would be correct in guessing that. Congratulations. Take yourself out for the ice cream that I can’t have.
So I’m going hard core just for the next couple weeks, all protein and vegetables and sparkling water like a psycho Bravo Network housewife. The goal is to reduce sugar cravings (or at least get them somewhere near a non-epidemic level) and not bleed corn syrup when I cut myself shaving. After that, I’ll gradually start getting back to healthy levels of dessert consumption (read: maybe not, oh, say, five flippin’ times per day). Truthfully, despite being waaay out of my comfort zone, I am feeling a whole lot better already. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to start throwing brownies made with black beans and Splenda or some other crazy talk at you. Evidence: a perfectly lovely Strawberry Buttermilk Upside-Down Cake. Or, as I like to call it, The Last Dessert before all this no-sugar diet nonsense started.
For your own sense of well-being, I really, really hope strawberries are as glorious where you are as they are in California right now. And if you are in California, can I get a HECK YEAH? Glittering cartons of berries are spilling over in the supermarkets right now, and if you head out to some of the smaller towns, you’ll find tons of the kind of charming little ramshackle roadside fruit stands that food magazine dreams are made of. The berries taste like candy, they smell like flowers, they are absolute perfection straight up on their own.
But because I am who I am (never mind that I’m snacking on bell pepper strips, for the love of God), I feel like the thing Mother Nature intended for us to do with a pile of perfect in-season strawberries is to bake them into a tender buttermilk cake. Add a sweet-salty caramel to the mix to make those berries all glossy and jammy and OH MY GOD I WOULD KILL SOMEONE FOR A PIECE OF THIS CAKE RIGHT NOW.
Deep breath. This too, shall pass. Now go bake this cake and eat the whole thing and don’t tell me about it.
Strawberry Buttermilk Upside-Down Cake
Although this cake will keep nicely in a cake dome for a few days at room temperature, it’s best eaten the day it’s made. Serve with some unsweetened whipped cream and die of summer happiness.
If you make stuffing from a box.
If the gravy you crave comes from a jar.
I judge you for none of it. You go on and love all up on yourself and do what makes Thanksgiving taste like Thanksgiving to you. Whatever makes you celebrate the heck out of this grand American tradition during which we do nothing but eat like a bunch of crazies is all right by me. But can I make one teeny, tiny suggestion? If you make nothing else from scratch whatsoever, go on and do something nice for yourself and your loved ones and adorn your plates with this cranberry sauce. And experience the sort of intense admiration that perhaps the inventor of that weird-but-iconic cornucopia thing experienced on a Thanksgiving long, long ago.
Think of a great homemade cranberry sauce as the crown jewel on a glorious meal of splendor. If you’re the kind that slaves over the meal for weeks leading up to the actual holiday, clipping recipes months ahead of time, nuturing a bread starter in September, brining your heritage bird for days–then this ruby-red accoutrement is the sort of thing that just makes everything that much more magical.
But if you’re more of the type to make a few calls and leave the heavy lifting to the experts, whipping up a batch of this cranberry sauce is still the absolute right thing to do–elevating the meal to a home-cooked level, a jazzy and impressive little button that you can call your own. And really, what else do we yearn for with our holiday cooking and baking other than to be jazzy and impressive?
Even better, the impressive jazziness of which I speak can be yours with mere minutes of prep time and less than 30 inactive minutes on the stovetop, save an occasional stir or two. Sweet-tart, bold with citrus and a good hit of brandy. The texture here is what I think makes it a real winner–it starts with fresh cranberries and finishes by folding in dried cranberries which plump a bit as the sauce cools, but maintain their character and intense, almost winey, cranberry flavor. Double cranberry sauce. Double awesome. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Double Cranberry Sauce
Use a slightly bigger pot than you think you might need for this recipe–the bubbling can get quite intense and climb high up the sides of the pot in a flash. Adjust the heat as needed to keep it at a nice even simmer and not a fierce boil. I like to use organic citrus here since the entire fruit is zested. I make this sauce several days before Thanksgiving–it keeps great tightly covered and chilled, and tastes best when it has a few days to relax in the refrigerator.
Makes about 4 cups
12 ounces fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
1 large orange, zested and juiced
1 large lemon, zested and juiced
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons brandy
1 cup sweetened dried cranberries (like Craisins)
Place the cranberries in a large saucepan or other heavy-bottomed pot with the water and sugar. Stir and bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until the cranberry skins begin to pop open, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the diced apple, lemon and orange zests and juices, salt and brandy. Continue to simmer over medium heat until the mixture thickens and reduces slightly, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the dried cranberries. Transfer the sauce to a heatproof bowl or container and let cool a bit before covering and refrigerating, up to 1 week in advance. Serve slightly chilled.
Do you ever get all fired up about the idea of certain food projects? Like you see a thing about pickling or bread making with a carefully nutured starter or something and out of nowhere you’re all, “Yes! Why don’t I do that?! I should be doing exactly THAT!”. And then you head directly to a kitchenware shop and drop ridiculous money on unitasking kitchen tools that you end up using exactly once?
Yeeeaaahhh. I’ve done that a time or two.
Like, say, jam making. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve boiled down fruit with sugar and canned it. And it’s sad, really. Because homemade jam is such a delightful thing to make and eat and give to other people. A true beacon of Americana, if you will.
Plus I own all the equipment I need to do some serious jam making without acquiring burns on 75 percent of my body (note: I say this because I bought said equipment after my own Macgyvered jam-making tools failed miserably and threatened to leave me with burns on 75 percent of my body). So the other day I told myself to get it together, brave the crazies at the mid-week Civic Center farmers’ market, see what was good and fresh and fruity, and make jam out of it. Plums won, big time.
Besides making you feel like you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting, jam making is one of those activities that sort of centers you. Chopping fresh fruit, measuring out sugar, dumping both in the biggest, oldest pot you’ve got, stirring, stirring, stirring with a big wooden spoon. It’s glorious. this is the stage of jam-making when I always wonder why in the world I don’t do this more often.
I get visions of making jam of every conceivable fruit combination and gifting my friends with carefully preserved jars that they can pop open months later for a taste of summer, when berries and stone fruits have long past their peak. It’s so romantic. Until–fast forward 30 minutes later–I am cursing while running my hand under cold water because of a wayward molten jam splatter. But when the jars are filled, capped and lined up, cooling on the counter, I’m glowing with acheivement, again wondering why I don’t do this more often, seared skin notwithstanding.
This batch of plum jam was nothing short of super late summer bliss. Bright, sweet-tart, hints of lemon, vanilla and a gossamer blanket of cinnamon to warm the whole thing up. And tasting exactly like a plum Jolly Rancher, if they ever made one. Can’t explain it, but it’s totally true. I’m just passing on my feelings to you here, like good friends do. Neosporin-ed hands and all.
Late Summer Plum Jam
Makes about 5 half-pint jars
Any variety of plums will work here. I found some lovely ones with a ruby-red interior that made for a stunning shade of jam, but those cute little Italian prune plums that are happening right now would be great too. Since plums are so thin-skinned, peeling isn’t necessary, so buying organic ones is an especially great idea.
If you want to can your packed jam jars, check out this great resource–Canning 101.
3 pounds plums (any variety–see note), washed, pitted and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon, if you can find it)
In the biggest, heaviest pot you’ve got, stir together the plums and sugar. Let sit, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has given off some juice and the sugar has mostly dissolved, about 1 hour.
Set the pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, vanilla bean and cinnamon. Bring to a hard boil, stirring often, until the jam is thickened and runs off the back of a spoon in big, heavy drops, about 25-30 minutes. While the jam is cooking, skim off any foam that comes to the surface. To test for doneness, spoon a dollop of jam onto a freezing cold plate and let it sit for a minute or two–of you can run your finger through the dollop and a track remains, the jam is done.
Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterilized jars, leaving about 1/4 inch of room at the top of each jar. Cap tightly and process the jars in boiling water for 10 minutes, or store in the refrigerator.
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