I’m a sucker for a good heirloom recipe. In fact, I’d venture to say that if I were a Hilton or a Rockefeller or somesuch, I would be apt to say something like, “Forget the jewels and the inheritance, Grandmummy, what I really would like is the family chef’s recipe box!”. I should note that I go to these extremes in my mind because a) I’ve always kind of wanted to be a socialite and b) because my own family doesn’t really have a whole lot of heirloom recipes to speak of. But that didn’t stop me from trying to pry a few out of my Gramma the last time we got to visit with each other out in Denver this past August–she’s always been quite the baker when she gets around to it. You’ve really never had a better sugar cookie in your life. I am very serious about this claim.
Anyway, I’d only been back in San Francisco for a day or two before a cheery card from Gram showed up in my mailbox, stuffed thick with handwritten recipe cards for some of her favorite desserts (doesn’t she have the loveliest handwriting you’ve EVER seen?). I was unnaturally excited by all of this–it was the stuff that schmaltzy food blog entries are made of. But I’ll spare you all of that and just say that within the hour of opening that envelope, I was cranking up the oven and baking up my great aunt Phyllis’s Crusty Butter Pound Cake.
Aunt Phyllis was my Grampa’s sister, from the Foropoulos side (Greek, much?) of the family. Most of this branch of the family live in and around Memphis, Tennesee, so I’ve never really known any of them very well, just from stories that my mom and aunts would tell or a few fuzzy memories from when they’d come up to visit us Yankees in Chicago when I was really little. I do know I have a second cousin down there who is about my age and who has always had a freaky resemblance to me. And now I also know that I really should have been going down there to visit more often if these people are turning out baked goods as fantastic as this pound cake.
Now, I know what you’re thinking–um, pound cake? Snore. But! Before you click-click away from this post to find something that involves chocolate or cream cheese and is generally more food porny, let me make a case here. First, you can never really try enough pound cake recipes. Everyone should have a no-fail favorite pound cake in their repertoire. Because with a good pound cake as your foundation, you dessert options are seriously limitless. It’s the chicken of the dessert world.
Secondly, and maybe this is one of those things I should keep to myself, but I always sort of marvel with childlike amazement at how many different results can come out of the simple combination of butter, sugar, flour and eggs, which is what every pound cake is based upon. Whether you settle on this one being your very favorite ever or not, every recipe you try helps you figure out what your idea of pound cake perfection is. Are you after super moist? Buttery? Eggy? Dense? Light and airy? Almost chewy? Crust, no crust? Have I blown your mind with how much their is to consider with the humble pound cake, here, people?
This particular recipe, as you may have guessed from the name, is of the buttery, crusty variety. It’s basically the most awesome kind of pound cake, because the buttery flavor and crunch of the crust make it interesting and delicious enough to stand on its own, but it’s not so absurdly moist and dense that its overkill to add some fruit, chocolate sauce, a syrupy coulis or ice cream (or hey, maybe all of those things–I won’t tell if you won’t).
The light and fluffy batter, with its fabulous use of cake flour instead of all-purpose and a good dose of sour cream, gives you a clue as to how tender this cake is, but don’t let it trick you into thinking that it’s at all precious–this is a sturdy, no-nonsense cake. Bake sale material of the highest order, I’m telling you. It also is the perfect blank canvas on which to put your own twist–cinnamon sugar, citrus zest, a scrape of a vanilla bean, chocolate chips, berries of all sorts–very little would ruin this workhorse of a cake. Double the recipe, freeze one cake to “have one on hand” and feel like a champion of domestication–you’ll be searching for ways to use it up before you know it.
Aunt Phyllis’s Crusty Butter Pound Cake
I’ve reworked this recipe a bit–note that it calls for the flour to be spooned into the cup and then leveled. The original recipe makes one large cake in a Bundt pan or angel food cake pan, but you can also divide the batter and bake it in two standard loaf pans (or halve the recipe for one loaf). I recommend making the full recipe in two loaf pans because this cake freezes beautifully. So bake one and freeze one–you won’t regret it.
Makes 1 large Bundt cake, or 2 9x5x3 inch loaves
3 cups cake flour, spooned and leveled
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream (not lowfat)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan, angel food cake pan, or two 9x5x3 inch loaf pans.
Sift the flour, then sift it again with the salt and baking soda. The easiest way to do this is to first sift the flour onto a large sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil, set the sifter over a large bowl, then use the sheet to help pour the flour back into the sifter. Add the salt and baking soda to the flour in the sifter, then sift all the dry ingredients together into the bowl.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to medium-low, and beat in the eggs one and a time. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and stir in the sour cream and vanilla on low speed. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time on low speed until the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 90 minutes for a Bundt-size cake, and about 60-70 minutes for loaf pans. Cool completely in the pans on a wire rack before inverting and slicing.
There are a few things that give me a fair amount of anxiety in life. One is air travel. And not just the flying in the airplane part of it. It’s the whole thing–the lines, the crowds, the sweating while trying to beat the clock and lugging bags and tripping over myself. Ugh. Another personal stressor–wholly embarrassing to admit since I keep a baking blog–is Seven-Minute Frosting.
Seven minutes?! Schaa! Try seven years. Until very recently, I’ve had nothing but tragic, inexplicable failures with this frosting that is supposedly the simplest of them all. Regardless of the recipes I would try or how carefully I would follow them, no amount of whip-whip-whipping would ever make that frothy syrup spin into the billowy, glossy frosting that was promised to me. Cut to me in tears, chucking the offending liquid into the disposal and settling for a much more reliable American buttercream. Until now. I have emerged victorious over Seven-Minute Frosting, people. Boo ya!
I don’t know what happened–I didn’t do anything differently than I had in the past. But for some reason the planets recently aligned in such a way that a batch of Seven-Minute Frosting finally came together in the quick and easy way everyone always says it should. It started with an awesome cake recipe on America’s Test Kitchen (Christopher Kimball–Be Mine?) that featured my icing nemesis perched on a lovely, lemony layer cake. I scoffed. But still, I was inspired. And so into the kitchen I went, whisk attachment held high, ready to take on the flippin’ frosting that had always flippin’ alluded me. And you know what? The first batch flippin’ failed. AS PER USUAL! Gah!
BUT! The second try was a blazing success, and I stared in amazement as I watched the sugary syrup magically billow up the whisk before my very eyes. Eureka!
All of this dramatic prose to say this: it really shouldn’t be this hard for you, dear readers. Millions of bakers swear by this frosting. And unlike me, I’m sureyou won’t be ridden with a freakish inability to make this frosting happen from the get-go. I believe in you. Just bang all the ingredients into the bowl of your standing mixer (or another aluminum bowl) and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring until the temperature hits 160 degrees.
Then simply put the bowl onto your mixer (or get your electric hand mixer set up), and let ‘er rip. And watch the magic happen. When it starts to look gorgeous and thick and glossy, almost like shaving cream, stop the mixer and give it a check–it should be room temperature and have a nice firm peak.
Now the world of Seven-Minute Frosting has been opened to you. If you can keep yourself and your family from eating the whole lot of it straight from the bowl with a soup spoon, the possibilities are endless. I like the modern twist of adding a bit of lemon juice when putting it on white cakes to cut the sweetness just a touch and keep the cake from being a flat, endless sea of sugar, but I’d stick to the traditional addition of vanilla extract for a nice balance with dark chocolate cakes. And glory of glories, you can torch (yessss!) the finished frosting for a genius toasted marshmallow effect on cakes of all kinds and on pies in lieu of traditional meringue.
And since I’ve put one of my (now former…for the moment, anyway) kitchen failures out there, let’s all clear the air: with what culinary demons do you wrestle? You know, those sticky wicket recipes that you can never seem to get just right. Be honest, and then we’ll do a big group hug.
Fluffy White Icing (Seven-Minute Frosting)
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
Makes enough to frost a 9-inch layer cake
I love including lemon juice to add a bit of dimension to this very sweet frosting–the flavor works fabulously on white or yellow cakes, especially those layered with fruit fillings. If you’re making a cake where the extra tang won’t work as well–a deep chocolate cake, for instance–simply swap out the lemon juice for an extra tablespoon of water and add a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. In either case, use and serve this frosting as soon as possible–it does not hold well.
2 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt
In the bowl of a standing mixer or another aluminum bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Place the bowl over a medium saucepan with about an inch of gently simmering water, making sure the water level doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Stir the mixture constantly and check the temperature often with an instant-read thermometer until it reaches 160 degrees.
Dry off the bottom of the bowl and place it on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or set up an electric hand mixer). Whip the frosting on medium speed until it becomes opaque and soft peaks form, about five minutes. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and whip until the frosting is glossy, billowy and reaches a stiff peak and cools down to room temperature, about five minutes more. Use immediately and serve as soon as possible.
You know what drives me crazy? When I go to a restaurant and try to order dessert and the whole pastry menu is full of savory. I mean, I appreciate a dessert menu that has more than the
options of flourless chocolate cake, some form of apple tart and a selection of gelatos. But a polenta olive oil cake with rosemary ice cream? Really? I already had dinner! I’d rather just have a Snickers bar and call it a night.
Dessert should be dessert, people. It should not be confused with other courses or meals from other parts of the day. Another example: no matter what nutritionists in womens’ magazines say, a dish of plain fruitis not sufficient for dessert. It is breakfast. I think I heard Ina Garten say once that no one remembers what you serve for dinner, but everyone remembers dessert. And if all I get is a plate of strawberries, then I am definitely remembering the time I got so depressed at the end of a meal that I stopped speaking entirely. This is just the way I usually feel. Unless–unless!!–said fruit is accompanied by a pile of etheral cookies like Cats’ Tongues. Bring on the fruit salad, sister!
This recipe comes from The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, and you know Alice Waters is all about fruit for dessert. But in the recipe notes for Cats’ Tongues, she mentions how she could eat an entire platter of them with a fresh peach. There ya go, Alice! I knew you had it in you, girlfriend. It was my first clue that these cookies were really something special.
It’s almost a misnomer to call these beauties “cookies”. They’re really more of a wafer, so thin and delicate they practically melt in your mouth as soon as they shatter between your teeth. The hit of almond extract and spark of ginger makes them a beautiful accompaniment to seasonal fruits of all kinds. When shaped as directed in the recipe, they really do resemble the thin curve of a cat’s tongue. Well, some of mine came out looking like that, but some in the batch also came out looking just like potato chips. And I couldn’t help but think of how awesome it would be to have a bowl full of “cookie chips” and just watch Oprah or something, definitely without fruit. But I digress.
The batter for Cats’ Tongues comes together swiftly–it’s the shaping that takes some doing. The batter needs to be spread thin in on a sheet pan with an offset spatula or the back of a teaspoon, and precision counts to achieve even baking.
I found the easiest way to get some consistency in the size and impressive thinness of the cookies was to first pipe Hershey’s Kiss-size dabs of batter (or thereabouts–you can make them whatever size and shape you want) onto the baking sheet, then spread the batter into wafer-thin submission with a spoon and a little flick of the wrist. (Tip: if you use Silpat liners, it’s extra easy to scrape up your mistakes and re-form the cookies while you get the hang of it–as if I need to give you another reason to buy Silpat if you haven’t already).
When the cookies go into the oven to bake, watch them like a hawk. Once they begin to brown at the edges, the rest of the cookie will brown all over so quickly your head with snap back (sort of an exaggeration, but just watch them closely, okay?). Pull them from the oven and immediately begin delicately pulling the cookies from the sheet and forming them into some kind of interesting curved shape that appeals to you, twist them at both ends, or drape them over a wooden spoon handle or even the grates of your cooling rack.
If you make them really big, you can even drape the warm cookies over inverted custard cups or something similar, and form them into adorable edible vessels for serving a bowl of berries that even I might actually call dessert.
Adapted from The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook
Watch the cookies carefully during baking after about the 6 minute mark. If you let the cookies get too brown all over before pulling them from the oven they won’t be as malleable; whereas if you pull them out a wee bit too soon, and you can’t form them all quickly enough before they start to cool and harden, you can pop them back into the oven for a moment without worrying about them over-browning.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking liners.
In a medium bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg whites, then fold in the flour. Beat in the salt, vanilla, almond extract and ginger until the batter is perfectly smooth.
Scrape the batter into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip or plastic food storage bag (snip the corner of the bag with scissors after filling). Pipe the batter onto the lined baking sheets into whatever portion size you desire. Spread the batter very thinly with a vertical swipe using the back of a teaspoon or a small offset spatula. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are golden brown. While the cookies are still warm, twist and curve them into whimsical shapes before setting them on a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Happy Fourth of July, dear readers! I hope this summer holiday finds you surrounded by fun people, cold beverages and lots of great food cooked outside somewhere sunny. Around here, we celebrated like true Americans–obscenely large bone-in ribeyes on the grill, a wild arugula salad and an addictive fresh corn casserole with a good dose of grated onion and freshly cracked black pepper from which we literally had to hold back Baby C so she wouldn’t eat the whole darn thing. It was really something. But whatever amazing savory dishes are on your picnic table, it’s really not the Fourth without some sort of red, white and blue dessert, am I right, people?
That sexy lady up there is a lush, dreamy panna cotta, and the result of my absolute favorite recipe for it. It shouldn’t surprise you given my past raves on the greatness that is Lynne Rossetto Kasper that it’s a riff on her Farmhouse Panna Cotta from her genius book How To Eat Supper. Her recipe brilliantly includes sour cream, which gives a much-needed sharpening to a dessert that can often be just a round sea of cream, leaving a funky coating on your tongue that keeps you from really tasting the dish past the first bite. This panna cotta is indeed rich but so lovely and balanced that you will not put down your spoon until you’ve scraped the plate clean.
Panna cotta is so simple to make, it’s absurd, with one of the highest pleasure-to-effort ratios known to man. It comes together in minutes on the stovetop, then you just whisk in the sour cream, pour it into cups and let it set up for a couple hours in the fridge and that’s that. I’ve made a batch of this panna cotta on a weeknight, letting it set up in coffee cups and devouring it straight, but it’s also a perfect canvas for some seasonal berries and a dessert sauce. I decided to dress up this panna cotta with a sort of berry coulis that I’d been brainstorming, using my beloved Lillet as a backdrop.
If you’ve never had it, Lillet is the kind of drink that transports you, in a way. A French aperitif (so maybe not the most American of choices for a Fourth dessert, but whatevs), it’s a fortified wine that has the body of a liqueur, making it a great lower-alcohol alternative for cocktails. If I could spend every day, all summer long drinking Lillet and soda with a twist of lime or orange, oooh…mama would be so happy. I would also be very drunk and an irresponsible parent. So I’ve started thinking about other ways to incorporate the fruity, flowery, slightly herbal quality of Lillet into a few desserts, and it worked like a charm in the strawberry coulis I made to accessorize the panna cotta.
While boiling down the Lillet to a syrup, I pureed a mess of fresh strawberries with a bit of sugar, strained out the pulp and seeds, and whisked the juice into the Lillet syrup. Refrigerated alongside the setting panna cotta, the coulis thickens slightly and tastes of strawberries on steroids. Unmold the set panna cotta onto a plate, bathe it in coulis and dress up the whole thing with some patriotic fruit. I think you’ll agree that this dessert deserves its own parade.
Feel free to experiment somewhat with the dairy in this recipe, making the finished dish as rich or as light as you’d like. I like this combination of heavy cream and milk, but have also had success with half and half, light sour cream and even buttermilk along with the cream. In any case, don’t go lowfat with every element of this recipe, or it will get weird and grainy and just not worth it–always aim for at least half cream in the stovetop part of this equation to get the lush quality that makes panna cotta so, oh, oh…
1 tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk (lowfat is okay, but not skim)
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup full-fat sour cream
1/2 cup Lillet Rouge
1 cup strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 teaspoon sugar
Strawberries and blueberries, for serving
Place the water in a small cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let soften for five minutes. Into a medium saucepan over medium heat, gently warm the cream and milk with the sugar, salt and vanilla–do not let it boil. When the cream is very warm to the touch, remove it from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin until dissolved. Let the cream mixture cool for five minutes.
Put the sour cream into a medium bowl or a large (4-cup) glass measuring cup. Whisk the warm cream mixture into the sour cream, a little at a time, until the panna cotta is smooth. Pour the panna cotta into four custard cups, ramekins or coffee cups. Refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.
To make the coulis, pour the Lillet into a small saucepan over high heat. Boil it down until it reduces to about two tablespoons of syrup. Pour into a small bowl, set a sieve over the bowl, and set aside. Puree the strawberries in a food processor with the sugar. Press the puree through the sieve into the Lillet syrup and whisk to blend. Refrigerate until ready to serve–coulis will thicken slightly while chilling.
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.
There are a few tips that really help to make baking projects successful, and most of them are all about precision–the exact measuring, the perfect oven temperature, mixing things just so. As I’ve said before, these parts of baking appeal to my Martha-like tendencies. But I have to say, a girl can’t operate like that all the time. There has to be a little wiggle room, a risk-free way to add some pizazz to a recipe without throwing everything off. When I want to add a little oomph to my recipes without drastically changing the formula, vanilla sugar is where it’s at.
I used to think that making vanilla sugar was the epitome of having way too much time on one’s hands, but it really takes no effort at all. The creation of a certain cake lead to the ownership of a few more vanilla beans than I knew what to do with. Rather than tossing the seedless pods into the trash, I threw them into a jar of granulated sugar, and after a few days, began using the fantastically fragrant and flavorful results in everything from my morning coffee to iced tea (in moderation, of course) to cakes, cookies and candymaking. Just about anywhere you would use granulated sugar in sweets, vanilla sugar adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished product. It’s not as assertive as extract, which makes it great for things like pumpkin pie or citrus-based desserts that wouldn’t list extract as an ingredient. And all you have to do is just keep topping the jar off with more sugar–the infusing power of the vanilla beans lasts for years. Seriously!
It’s the perfect time to get a jar of vanilla sugar going, just in time for all those holiday baking projects. Plus, it makes a cheery little hostess gift–just pack sugar and a few vanilla bean halves into a quart-sized jar, tie a sweet little ribbon around the lid and label the jar with a small card.
2 whole vanilla beans
a large jar or other airtight container
Split the vanilla beans, and scrape out the seeds if desired. Place the pods into the container, and fill the jar with granulated sugar, leaving a bit room at the top. Give the jar a good shake, and set it in a cool, dry place to rest for a few days, shaking every so often to help the vanilla essence permeate the sugar. Use in place of granulated sugar for a little extra something special.
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