Monday, June 27, 2011

Summer Strawberry Shortcake

When strawberries are in season and they can be had at local farmers' markets or pick-your-own farms, they are nothing short of amazing. These smaller, sweeter fruits almost bare no resemblance to their out-of-season grocery store counterparts. THIS is the time to make strawberry shortcake, and those beautiful berries demand that you don't skimp on the other ingredients - use REAL whipped cream and homemade cake (or a sweet biscuit, if you prefer) and LOAD IT UP! It took a quart of strawberries to make this cake, but boy, was it worth it. If you want to make this cake, here is the recipe:  Summer Strawberry Shortcake  It comes from my favorite cake book, Sky High by Alisa Huntsman. If you love baking cakes, you've got to get your hands on this book!

Summer Strawberry Shortcake

June means that Strawberries are in season! And there is nothing better than farm-fresh strawberries for this recipe. So if you can, buy them from your local farmer's market rather than the grocery store. It takes an entire quart of strawberries but it is SO worth it. Everything is made from scratch here, and it makes such a difference. This fantastic recipe comes from the book Sky High - Irresistable Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman.

For cake:
5 TB unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 c sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/2 c cake flour
2 1/2 tsp of baking powder
1/4 tsp of salt
2/3 c buttermilk

For Strawberry Filling
2 pints strawberries (save a few whole ones for garnish)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c sugar
For the whipped cream:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
Wash, hull and cut up the strawberries. Put them in a bowl with the sugar and vanilla. Let them macerate in the fridge for at least one hour, stirring occcasionally.
In the meantime, make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottoms and sides of three 6-inch round cake pans. (Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment for best results).
In a large mixer bowl, cream the butter, 3/4 c of sugar, and the vanilla with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add these dry ingredients to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk. (Start with the dry ingredients and end with the dry ingredients). Divide the batter amoung the three prepared pans/put in the pan.
Bake the cake layers for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the pan for ten minutes before inverting onto wire racks. Let the cake cool completely.
While the cake is cooling, place a mixing bowl and beater or wire whisk in the freezer. After they have chilled for a little while, take them out and whip the cream until it is thick enough to spread.
Assemble the layers like this: Cake, strawberries with juice, whipped cream. Repeat. Garnish with a few whole strawberries.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fourth of July Desserts

There is nothing more fun than a Fourth of July cookout. For me, the hardest part is deciding which desserts to make! A red velvet cake? A flakey pie filled with locally-grown summer berries? A cool and summery icebox pie? A batch of patriotic sugar cookies? It's so hard to decide! Here are some ideas that can be made a day or more ahead. I will post recipes in the recipe section if you'd like to try them out. If you're having a potluck party like I am, maybe the best idea is to choose one dessert, and ask others to make something else.


Berry and cherry pie can be made with locally grown fruits this time of year, so they are the best choice. Because it is "All-American," Apple pie is always a favorite for July 4th, but since apples are not in season, you'd be forced to use imported (and likely bland) fruit.  Resist the urge!


Cookies are festive and a great choice to make ahead. The best thing about them is that they are so portable - guests don't need a plate and a fork to eat them, leaving the other hand free to hold a beer, or play horseshoes. 


 There is something about a cake that shouts "celebration!" To quote a line from a kids' song I recently heard, "How can it be a party when there isn't a cake?!" A red velvet cake is perfect for July Fourth. I love the idea of using fresh strawberries and blueberries to add red and blue color. A perennial favorite of cake decorators is a sheet cake made to look like a flag, with blueberries as the stars and strawberries as the stripes.

Royal Icing

Royal Icing was traditionally made with egg whites, but many people are fearful of salmonella nowadays. I don't worry as much about salmonella as I do about the raw egg whites spoiling when left at room temperature for long periods of time. So I use Meringue Powder royal icing.
Royal icing is a common icing for sugar cookies because it dries hard and can be thinned to have a smooth consistency. It isn't necessarily the best tasting icing, but for decorating it is the most versatile. It also dries quickly, which is a plus if you need to stack them.

5 Tablespoons Meringue Powder
3/4 Cup warm water
1 tsp cream of tartar
2 lbs Confectioner's Sugar, sifted

In a mixing bowl, combine the water and meringue powder together. Whisk by hand for 30 seconds until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and whisk again for 10 seconds, then add the sugar and attach the paddle attachment of your electric mixer. At medium-low speed (I use #2 on the KitchenAid) beat for TEN minutes until thick, creamy, and it forms stiff peaks. This stiff icing is the ideal consistency for constructing Gingerbread Houses. You can thin it by adding small amounts of water to achieve a flow consistency for cookies and such. Flow consistency should be when you drag a knife through the frosting and it takes a few seconds for the icing to smooth out and the knife mark to disappear.

Basic Blue

Blueberry pie is one of the easiest to make, since you don't have to slice, dice and pit the fruit. During the summer, going to a local blueberry farm to pick your own berries will give you the best berries and is often cheaper than buying them in the store. You can use frozen berries in the off season with a pretty good result. My husband likes a no-frills basic blueberry pie, with no added flavors that distract from the berries, so here it is:

1 recipe Flaky Pie Crust
4 Cups fresh Blueberries
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup Minute Tapioca
1 Tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces
Optional: for very sweet berries, add up to 1 Tbsp lemon juice to increase tartness
Rinse the blueberries and pick them over to remove stems. Put the berries, sugar and tapioca in a large bowl. Stir the berries roughly - you actually want to break some up and release the juices. (Blueberries have an outer skin which prevents them from making their own juice in the sugar unless some of them are broken. They will create juice when cooking, but when you are using tapioca as a thickener, you need some juice for the tapioca to absorb before cooking).

Spoon berries into the pie shell and dot with butter. Cover with top crust and cut a few slits in the top to vent. Bake at 400 degrees for 40-50 minutes.

Cherry Pie

1 recipe for Flakey pie crust
6 Cups Cherries, washed and pitted (see note at bottom about cherries)
3 Tablespoons Minute tapioca
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
1 to 1-1/2 cups sugar, depending on the tartness of the cherries
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon butter, cut into little pieces

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Allow to mascerate for 20 minutes.  Spoon the cherries and juice into the pie crust, dot the cherries with the butter, then cover with the top crust or a lattice crust. Bake at 400 degrees for 40-50 minutes.

A note about cherries:
When I first started making homemade cherry pies, I did not know there was a difference between cherries. I bought Bing cherries in the grocery store and wondered why my pies, while tasty, didn't have that tartness that a cherry pie should. Then I realized it was because I had not been using sour cherries a.k.a. "tart cherries." Why hadn't I seen them in the stores like the other cherries? Well, they can be very hard to find. These elusive cherries are only available for a short time in the summer, and you rarely see them at your local grocery store. (In fact, I read in Martha Stewart's pie book that she grows her own cherry trees just for this reason.) Look at Farmer's Markets or specialty stores like Whole Foods. If you still can't find them, you have two choices: You can look for frozen sour cherries, or use Oregon brand canned sour cherries in water. It is not a pie filling, just the cherries, so you still make your own filling. The last option is to use fresh sweet cherries and realize that your pie will be sweet, lacking that tart "true cherry pie" flavor.You can always try adding a bit of lemon juice to add tartness if you'd like.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Real Strawberry Cake

This amazing Strawberry Scratch cake is from the book Sky High by Alisa Huntsman. This recipe adds strawberry puree to butter cake to give it a subtle berry flavor and pale pink color. I like to use a touch of pink decorator's coloring to highlight the color a bit, but it's up to you. The original recipe calls for a Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream, but everyone raves about my Fresh Strawberry Buttercream so that is what I use. This would be wonderful for a pretty princess birthday cake, but equally as lovely for an adult occasion.

Real Strawberry Cake

4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 cups sugar
5 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups pureed frozen strawberries*
8 egg whites
2/3 cup milk
Optional - 1 to 2 drops red food dye, if using (to make the pink color pop more)

1. Preheat the oven to 350»F. Butter three 9-inch round or 8-inch square cake pans. Line with parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.

2. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixer bowl. With the electric mixer on low speed, blend for 30 seconds. Add the butter and strawberry puree and mix to blend the ingredients. Raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes; the batter will resemble strawberry ice cream at this point.

3. In another large bowl, whisk together the egg whites, milk and red food dye, if using, to blend. Add the whites to the batter in two or three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate after each addition. Divide the batter among the three prepared pans.

4. Bake the cakes for 30 to 34 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 10 to 15 minutes. Invert and turn out onto wire racks and peel off the paper liners. Let stand until completely cooled before assembling the cake, at least an hour

*When fresh strawberries are truly in season, by all means use them instead of frozen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cake Trends: Back to Buttercream?

As a cake decorator, I love to see elaborate cakes decorated with fondant, gum paste, royal icing stringwork, and sculpted adornments. But as a baker, I have to say that there is something lost when one puts all their energy into making a visual piece of art - it often tastes more like art than food. I always used to take it as a compliment when someone would say my cookies were "too pretty to eat," but now I'm not so sure. When I see elaborate cakes on shows like "Cake Boss" and "Ace of Cakes" I am stunned by their appearance, but more often than not, I wouldn't want to eat them. The simple fact is that in order to build a cake that looks like a sculpture, you have to sacrifice some of the elements that make it tasty. The cake is heavy and dense; there is a lot of non-edible support inside; some of the decorations are often made from rice krispy treats (edible, yes, but let's face it - it's not cake). Finally, the cake is covered with fondant. Personally, I think fondant tastes fine when it is homemade. But more and more, I am hearing people say that they love the look but hate the taste of fondant. I often see it scraped off slices of cake and left sitting on the plate while the rest is eaten. Some people are asking for cakes decorated with buttercream instead. Is this the beginning of a new cake trend - forsaking fondant and getting back to buttercream? I don't know, but I guess I'd better brush up my piping skills!

Wedding Cake with Buttercream
(Birds, twigs etc are non-edible craft items)

Birthday cake covered with fondant
(Mushrooms are rice krispies covered in fondant)