Sunday, March 30, 2008

Perfectly Delicious

At some point in your life you, too, will want to have the Perfect Party Cake. Dorie Greenspan’s book Baking: from my home to yours has the recipe and you can also find it on many Daring Baker’s sites this month and on our hostess, Morven’s blog Food Art and Random Thoughts here. She certainly made a great choice for the challenge! The recipe is also at the bottom of this post

Go to the Daring Baker’s blogroll HERE to browse through the many, many versions of this lovely cake.

From Dorie Greenspan’s Baking from My Home to Yours (pages 250-252)

Words from Dorie
Stick a bright-coloured Post-it to this page, so you’ll always know where to turn for a just-right cake for any celebration. The original recipe was given to me by my great dear friend Nick Malgieri, of baking fame, and since getting it, I’ve found endless opportunities to make it – you will too. The cake is snow white, with an elegant tight crumb and an easygoing nature: it always bakes up perfectly; it is delicate on the tongue but sturdy in the kitchen – no fussing when it comes to slicing the layers in half or cutting tall, beautiful wedges for serving; and, it tastes just as you’d want a party cake to taste – special. The base recipe is for a cake flavoured with lemon, layered with a little raspberry jam and filled and frosted with a classic (and so simple) pure white lemony hot-meringue buttercream but, because the elements are so fundamental, they lend themselves to variation (see Playing Around), making the cake not just perfect, but also versatile.

For the Cake
2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing
2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready
Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.
Whisk together the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant.
Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.
Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed.
Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated.
Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients.
Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated.
Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean
Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners.
Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

To Make the Buttercream
Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes.
The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream.
Remove the bowl from the heat.
Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes.
Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth.
Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes.
During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again.
On medium speed, gradually beat in more lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla.
You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake
Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half.
Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper.
Spread it with one third of the preserves.
Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream.
Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream leftover).
Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top.
Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

The cake is ready to serve as soon as it is assembled, but I think it’s best to let it sit and set for a couple of hours in a cool room – not the refrigerator. Whether you wait or slice and enjoy it immediately, the cake should be served at room temperature; it loses all its subtlety when it’s cold. Depending on your audience you can serve the cake with just about anything from milk to sweet or bubbly wine.

The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.

Playing Around
Since lemon is such a friendly flavour, feel free to make changes in the preserves: other red preserves – cherry or strawberry – look especially nice, but you can even use plum or blueberry jam.

Fresh Berry Party Cake
If you will be serving the cake the day it is made, cover each layer of buttercream with fresh berries – use whole raspberries, sliced or halved strawberries or whole blackberries, and match the preserves to the fruit. You can replace the coconut on top of the cake with a crown of berries, or use both coconut and berries. You can also replace the buttercream between the layers with fairly firmly whipped sweetened cream and then either frost the cake with buttercream (the contrast between the lighter whipped cream and the firmer buttercream is nice) or finish it with more whipped cream. If you use whipped cream, you’ll have to store the cake the in the refrigerator – let it sit for about 20 minutes at room temperature before serving.

I'm Late, I'm Late, I'm Late

It's Daring Beker day for March all over the world and my cake is still only partially made.

Perhaps this month's visit to the Land of St. Honore' should have been in company with Cinderella, 'cuz it may take until midnight to get it posted this time. Since it's already past midnight in parts of the world, very sorry ladies and gents, to be late.

Asking for your thought and prayers for Nora and Ethel-Bethel, both family members who could use 'em. Thanks!

Hope to get the real challenge post up by the midnight hour if not sooner.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Feelin' Nutty

When I was asked by our good friends in Healdsburg to bring some noshes for our picnic today, including 'finger food' dessert, I knew just the thing to make. While drooling over many recipes in Dorie Greenspan's Baking; from my home to yours (sorry about the ruined pages Natasha, but you chose well!), The Peanuttiest Blondies caught my eye. Full of both peanut butter and chopped peanuts, plus chocolate chips, what better cookies for a picnic?

As I was lining up the ingredients, I mentioned to Sweetie that I was making peanut butter blondies. He asked if I could make brownies instead. Since I already had a powerful urge to make these cookies, I decided to add some cocoa powder and brownie them up a bit. Worked like a charm!

These bar cookies are thick, have a nice bit of crust on top, a moist and dense interior, full of chopped peanuts, chocolate chips, and a flavor similar to peanut butter cups. The chocolate flavor is not too intense. At the picnic none of us could stop at just one brownie, either, so you know these are well worth making. They are easy, too. The hardest part is chopping the peanuts, so you know you can do it, right?

With spring officially here, add these to your picnic basket or lunch'll be glad you did.
Peanuttiest Brownies
makes 16 brownies

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cocoa powder
½ cup peanut butter – crunchy or creamy,
but not natural
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temp.
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brewed coffee, cooled (optional)
1 cup coarsely chopped peanuts
1 cup chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
(I combined ½ cup semisweet chips and ½ cup milk chocolate/caramel swirl chips)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lina a 9-inch square pan with poil, butter the foil and put the pan on a baking sheet.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the peanut butter and butter together on medium speed until smooth. Add both sugars and beat for 1-2 minutes, until well incorporated into the butter. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each egg goes in. Beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape beaters/paddle and bowl.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear into the dough; the dough will be thick. Add the peanuts and chocolate and give the mixer a few turns to stir them into the dough. If the chunky ingredients aren’t mixed in after a few seconds, just finish the job with a sturdy spatula – don’t over mix the dough. Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and level it.

Bake the brownies for 40-50 minutes or until the top is dry looking and a thin knife (or toothpick) inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool to room temperature.

When it is completely cool, carefully lift the brownies out of the pan, using the foil edges as handles, and turn them out onto a rack. Peel away the foil and invert onto a cutting board. Use a long knife (I used a serrated bread knife) to cut into 16 bars, each roughly 2 ¼ inches on a side.

Serve plain or with ice cream. Great with milk, hot chocolate, coffee and tea.

Wrapped well, these brownies will keep for about 3 days at room temperature or for up to 2 months in the freezer…that is if you can resist eating them all as soon as they are cool enough to cut.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Naked little tart tins, that is. The possibilities for filling them up are almost limitless. Cute little blueberry buttermilk lemon tarts like Tartlette posted about here, or chocolate and almond beauties with hidden jam that I posted a while ago here, or even mini quiche, perhaps made with some of the asparagus that is just coming into season here in of my favorite spring flavors.

But for today, these little tart pans are naked and the photo is my entry in this month's food photography event, Click, Show Us Your Metal, hosted by Jugalbandi. Go here to check out the other entries so far. Metal is an unusual subject for food photography, but allows for creativity.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Proper Afternoon Tea

You don't have to go to the Empress in Victoria, B.C. or to England, either, to have afternoon tea in style...although those are great places to enjoy tea, too.

Yesterday, as a late celebration of my birthday, my sister Natasha took me to humble Sebastopol and we enjoyed a proper afternoon tea (which some mistakenly call high tea) with a whole array of goodies.
The place was La Dolce V on Main Street, a combination chocolate shop and tea salon. Outside the noisy traffic surged by while inside it was calm and comfortable.
I was here a while back with Anna of Anna's Cool Finds, but we had limited ourselves to a single treat and beverage
(which you can read about at Now that La Dolce V is serving a full on tea, it seemed like a good idea to try it out.

We were seated at a glass topped table that had French postcards just under the glass. They were advertising chocolate and other appropriate foods. Each place was set with a bone chine teacup decorated with flowers. A small vase of flowers graced the table, too. Natasha had read about their French style hot chocolate, so she ordered some to share while we waited for our tea. It was delectable; intensely chocolate, frothy, not too sweet.

There were a number of choices of teas, including black, white, green and herbal. Instead of the usual china pot, our tea was served in glass coffee press pots. It was not the best choice since the tea cooled quickly in the press pots. The tea itself was delicious. We started catching up on news and waited to see what they would serve for the sweets and savories. Once the tiered tray arrived we knew that we were in for a treat.

On top there was a plate with tiny almond tartlettes with a ripe blueberry baked in the center. Tender heart shaped lavender shortbread cookies with a subtle lavender flavor were joined by creamy jasmine chocolates decorated with tiny white flowers and in the middle of the plate were fresh mandarin orange segments.

The next plate down had fresh tender currant scones and little dishes of lemon curd, intensely flavored house-made strawberry jam, and a mock Devonshire cream.

The final plate had some serious sandwiches, including egg salad on white and cucumber with hummus on wheat. The cucumber and hummus combination was unusual, but it worked very well. The sandwiches themselves were too large for a tea tray and still had the skin on the cucumbers and the crusts on the bread...but I guess Sebastopol is not the height of 'dainty'. There were also some tiny tarts with savory melted Gorgonzola cheese topped with a red onion confit. Crisp crostini topped with slices of brie and tart apple completed the assortment.

The afternoon was spent nibbling, sipping tea, talking, laughing, and admiring my birthday gift from Natasha and her Sweetie: Dorie Greenspan's wonderful Baking: from my home to yours. By 2 pm it was time for Natasha to head for home and were were quite satisfied. Looking at the photo, it may not seem like a lot of food, but it was just the right amount.

Taking tea has become popular, so check in your phone book and see if there are places in your area offering afternoon tea, or even just cream tea (scones, jam, lemon curd, Devonshire cream or whipped cream), then find a friend to enjoy it with. Very civilized and quite fun.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Amazing Shrinking Spinach Soup

Yesterday we had something gooey and sweet. Today here's some soup that is souper healthy (sorry...couldn't resist). It's named for one of the properties of fresh spinach...that it shrinks down quite a bit in volume as it cooks...but maybe eating it will help me shrink into a bathing suit come summer and not look like I'm stuffed with Big Blondes.

Spring is inching it's way along toward us. Now we have started daylight savings time and, around here, the plum trees and almond trees are in blossom. Still the days can have a chill to them and the nights are cold.

This evening we had a simple supper of soup and salad. The soup was just right for a chilly evening. It was made from scratch, but didn't really take very long.

There is something satisfying in making spinach soup. A whole large colander of fresh spinach went into this soup. That may seem like a lot. While I was cutting piles of spinach leaves with a scissor into smaller pieces, it seemed like a lot. But once the leaves started steaming on top of the sauteed onions and garlic, the mass of leaves shrank down to a manageable lump, perfect for adding to the potato/broth combination.

This is an easy but filling soup, fresh tasting, savory and light. You can also make it with a 10 oz. package of frozen chopped spinach that has been thawed...that would be far quicker. Additions can be the quick garnish of non-fat sour cream and a sprinkle of cayenne that I did, or you can add cubed chicken or turkey, or crumbled cooked bacon, or slices of cooked Italian sausage for a little more protein.

Amazing Shrinking Spinach Soup
Serves 2-4

5 medium red potatoes, cut into 1 inch dice
1 can low sodium chicken broth
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grapeseed or olive oil
1 large colander washed fresh baby spinach leaves (about 8 cups)

In a saucepan, boil the red potatoes in enough water to cover until tender. Drain. Return to the pot and mash with a fork or potato masher. Add the can of low sodium chicken broth and warm over low heat.

While the potatoes are cooking, saute the onion in the grapeseed oil in a frying pan or skillet until the onion is translucent, about 3-5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute, stirring to keep the garlic from burning.

Turn off the heat under the onion mixture. Pile up 8-10 spinach leaves in your hand and, with kitchen shears, slice the spinach into chunks about 1/2 to 3/4 inches in size. Repeat until all of the spinach is piled up over the onion mixture. Turn on the heat under the onion mixture to high. Add 1/2 cup of hot water to the pan and cover. Let the spinach steam for 3-4 minutes until leaves are cooked, but still a not-very-dark green. Stir the onion mixture and spinach together. Add this mixture to the potato/broth mixture and stir. Turn heat up to medium and cover. Heat for 2-3 minutes.

When heated through, use a stick blender to liquefy the soup ingredients so that it is still a bit chunky, but all of the ingredients have been blended together. Alternately, put half of the soup in a blender or food processor and process, stopping while mixture is still a bit chunky. Repeat with the other half of the soup, then heat it all until mixture begins to bubble.

Serve hot, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle of cayenne.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Worth Waiting For

Life can be a splendid tapestry of work and play and still be frustrating. There are just not enough hours in the day sometimes. This poor blog has been neglected, even though I have three new cookbooks with a bunch of recipes just waiting to be tried. Since all three books are gifts, I want to send the results of recipes to the senders as sweet gifts in thanks for sweet gifts.

This evening I finally made a recipe from Jill O'Connor's gorgeous cookbook, with the impossible-to-resist name: Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey.

The recipe is for bar cookies called Big Blondes. They bear a faint resemblance to regular blondie bars. The usual blondie bar has the same butterscotch flavor, some nuts and some chocolate or white chocolate chips. These bars are both decadent and over-the-top; chock full of nuts, shredded coconut, three kinds of chips, and toffee candy bar chunks.

Since the recipe makes 30 small bars, there are enough for us and some more that can be gifts. The book was a gift from my Mom, so, in appreciation, she will get a small box of Big Blondes for a rainy spring day, perhaps to be enjoyed with a cup of afternoon tea. My daughter is away from home on a business trip, so her package will be a little treat and a surprise, too. Bet the Big Blondes don't make it home to Seattle. Danielle of Habeas Brulee is hosting Sugar High Friday # 41 Sweet Gifts. This is my entry.

Check out the batter...very gooey!

The butterscotch batter is delicious, but what makes these special are all the added goodies. As a matter of fact, the additions (see photo above) probably have more volume than the batter. If you like sweet, nutty, chunky, chewy, gooey bar cookies, try these. Definitely worth waiting for.

A few changes were made to Jill O'Connor's recipe, including the addition of toffee coated walnuts and milk chocolate caramel swirl chips, but the heart of the recipe is unchanged.

Big Blondes
A variation of a recipe by Jill O’Connor in Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, Desserts for the Serious Sweet Tooth.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
3 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder

Nuts: all should be toasted in a 350 degree oven for 5 or 6 minutes, but don’t burn them
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup walnut halves
1 cup blanched slivered almonds

1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 full size (1.4 oz) toffee candy bar, such as Heath, very coarsely chopped
1 cup toffee coated walnuts (I used Emerald brand)
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup milk and caramel swirl chips

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Use cooking spray to lightly coat a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Melt the butter and brown sugar together in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the butter and sugar are blended and completely melted and starting to bubble gently. Remove the pan from heat and let the mixture cool slightly.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla and salt. Slowly whisk the cooled butter and sugar mixture into the eggs just until combined. Whisk in the flour and baking powder to form a loose batter. (Make sure the batter is cool before stirring in the remaining ingredients, otherwise the chocolate will start to melt before the bars are baked.)

Stir the nuts, coconut, toffee chunks, and chocolate chips into the cooled batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.
Bake until the tip is shiny and slightly crackled and feels firm to the touch, 30 – 35 minutes. A wooden skewer inserting into the batter should come out with moist crumbs clinging to it. Let cool on a wire rack to room temperature, then cut into bars and serve.
Makes 15 large or 30 small bars.