Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mocha Icebox Cake

Icebox Cakes aren't the prettiest dessert in the world, but they are a great option when you don't want to turn your oven on. Icebox cakes all follow a pretty simple formula: Graham crackers, thin cookies or pre-made cake are layered with a pudding-type filling and whipped cream. The dessert is then left in the fridge for several hours to meld together. The filling softens the crackers into a cake-like consistency after several hours of refrigeration, and what you end up with is a cool refreshing "cake." The possibilities are limitless for flavor combinations, so experiment with different fillings.

Mocha Icebox Cake:

1 Box Graham Crackers (I used about 2/3 of the box)

1 Cup Sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 Cup milk
1 teaspoon espresso powder

In the top of a double boiler combine the sugar, flour, cocoa, salt, and milk. Stir the mixture in the bowl while the water boils beneath it, cooking for about 10 minutes until the mixture thickens (stir it frequently). Remove from the heat. Stir in the espresso powder until dissolved. Let the mixture sit or chill it in the fridge until it is no longer hot (it can be lukewarm, just not hot).

Whipped Cream:
1 pint heavy cream
1/3 Cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

The cream should be very cold before starting. (I even chill the mixing bowl and whisk in the freezer for about 20 minutes to keep everything very cold.) Pour the cream into the mixing bowl and beat with the whisk until thickened and soft peaks form. Add vanilla and gradually add sugar. Beat until  mixture is very thick and stiff peaks can form. Put it back in the fridge until ready to use.

To assemble:
In an 8x8 pan, place one layer of Graham Crackers on the bottom. Spoon a thin layer of the mocha filling over the graham crackers until completely covered. Spoon a thin layer of whipped cream over the top. Begin again with the graham crackers, then a layer of mocha filling, then whipped cream. Repeat if you have more filling left (this will depend on how thick you've been filling your layers). End with graham crackers and whipped cream on top. Dust with a little cocoa powder for garnish.

Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge overnight, or at least 6 hours.

Icebox cakes rarely slice up all pretty, but that's okay! It will taste cool and delicious.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Baking with Fresh Summer Fruits

Summertime brings gardens and farmer's markets full of fresh local fruits. But how to use all those different kinds of fruits in baking? What are the different types of fruit out there and which is best for each recipe? Here's a primer on some widely available summer fruits:  


 There are many different types of cherries, but most of us will only see one of three varieties at our local store or farmer's market. Sweet cherries such as Ranier (which is gold and red in color) and Bing (dark red, shown above) are the most readily available everywhere. I prefer Ranier for eating raw and Bing for baking. Sweet cherries are delicious in baked goods. They are not the cherries used in a traditional tart cherry pie (see sour cherries below), but sweet cherries are more versatile, being great for baking and also for eating raw.

Sour (tart) cherries are harder to find and usually very pricey when you can find them fresh. The reason for this is because sour cherries are grown in fewer areas and are not as hardy as sweet cherries, so there is more crop loss and they do not ship as well. Sour cherries are small and bright red; the most common type is Montmorency. You may see these cherries for a brief time in July at specialty stores or farmer's markets, or even in upscale grocery stores, but some years they can be hard to find at all. Sour cherries are generally used for traditional cherry pie (which is meant to be tart) or similar tart baked goods. They are not good for eating raw. If you are really set on making a tart cherry pie and cannot find fresh sour cherries, you can buy them frozen online (though pricey to ship overnight). There is also a brand of sour cherries packed in water, Oregon brand, which is available in most stores in the canned fruit aisle.

To prep fresh cherries for baking:

After washing the fruit, you can use a cherry pitter to get the pits out, or just
cut them in half and pull out the pits. If you want to keep your cherries whole,
you will need a pitter.

Even with a pitter, I prefer to still cut them in half. I think it releases the juices better.

Here is a bowl of dark red Bing cherries, all prepped and ready to go.


Strawberries are easy to prep and so versatile. You can use them in Strawberry bread, strawberry shortcake, strawberry muffins, puree strawberries to make a real strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream. Or how about strawberry pie or a strawberry icebox cake? The list is endless. There are many different types of strawberry plants, but unlike cherries, the berries that come from those plants are pretty much the same, and totally interchangeable in baking. The most important thing is to try to get the freshest ripest strawberries you can. I highly recommend going to the farmer's market instead of your local grocery store.

To prep strawberries for baking, all you need to do is wash them, pat them dry, hull them, and then cut them into uniform pieces (or leave them whole if they are small berries).


Strawberry Buttermilk Cake, Real Strawberry Cupcakes, Strawberry Shortcake


Blueberries are one of my favorite summer fruits to bake with. Not only do they taste great, but they are versatile and SO easy to use. Just pick over the berries to make sure there are no stems or rotten berries in the bunch. Then wash them and pat them dry. Done! Now you are ready to make a pie, muffins, bread, skillet cake, cobbler, custard, pancakes or any number of other blueberry things.

Blueberry Custard Pie

Traditional Blueberry Pie

Raspberries and Blackberries:

Raspberries and Blackberries are great for jams and baked goods. For things like pie fillings, I prefer to use them mixed with other berries like blueberries and strawberries. The reason is that raspberries turn mushy and juicy when cooked, so they need to be paired with firmer berries when used in something like a pie. And both Raspberries and Blackberries contain seeds which can be overwhelming when used alone (i.e. Blackberry pie tastes great, but it is very seedy, so I do mixed berry instead). But for baked goods such as breads and muffins, you can use them alone. These berries just need to be picked over to get rid of stems, then washed and patted dry before use. As with all berries, don't wash them ahead of time, wash them right before using. (If you wash them when you first bring them home and then leave them piled in their containers for a day or two, they can turn moldy due to high moisture). Be sure to be very gentle when handling blackberries and especially raspberries - they are fragile and will break up easily!

Raspberry filled white cake with Raspberry Buttercream


I love peaches, but if I am honest here, I'll admit that my favorite way to eat them is raw. I prefer other fruits in my pies, cobblers and muffins. But for those who do like to bake with peaches, here is the low-down: Peaches are very easy to use in baking. Choose the ripest ones you can find (again, farm-fresh is best). Wash, peel, and slice the peaches, removing the pit. Slices should be uniform in size, (I cut them about 1/2" thick) so they bake evenly. Peaches are almost never pre-cooked before putting them into a pie or cobbler - just peel and slice them, add sugar and thickener according to the recipe, then fill and bake as instructed. You can also add raw cut peaches to breads, muffins, pancakes (cut very small) or make a peach puree to add to cakes.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Taste-testing Buttercreams

As a baker and sometimes cake decorator, I have many frosting recipes that I use depending on what the cake will be used for. Since there is a battle of opinion raging among bakers, pastry chefs, and cake decorators about which buttercreams are best, I wanted to have my own taste test with a group of "Average Joe" Americans. I had about twenty people at my house for the Fourth of July, so I pounced on this opportunity to make them all my guinea pigs. These are the (somewhat surprising) results of my *totally unscientific* taste test:
I offered three of the buttercreams that I use most often. I made them all with no color added, and only vanilla extract as flavoring, so tasters could concentrate on the buttercreams themselves.

Here's a little about each one and what I consider to be their pros and cons:
American Buttercream - a simple butter frosting made from creaming butter with confectioner's sugar and a little milk or other liquid. Vanilla is the common flavoring, but you can use any flavor with it. Some people think that "American Buttercream" is made with shortening instead of butter, but no, that is the stuff you see in grocery store cakes, and who really knows what to call that? American Buttercream is usually the frosting of choice for beginning bakers because it is so easy to make. Various versions of this are also used by many cake decorators because it withstands heat and humidity better than other frostings.
Pros: Easy for anyone to make, holds up well to a moderate amount of heat (can serve a cake outside on a hot day)
Cons: Very sugary, texture always has a bit of grittiness, even after beating it a long time. Sweetness cannot be reduced the way it can in other frostings, since the confectioner's sugar provides the body of this buttercream (although it can be offset somewhat by adding other flavors).
Swiss Meringue Buttercream - A very basic explanation of Meringue buttercreams is that they are made by mixing beaten egg whites with sugar and butter. Italian Meringue Buttercream and Swiss Meringue Buttercream differ in the method used to combine these ingredients, but the result is pretty much the same taste - a buttercream that is airy and light with a silky texture and a rich buttery taste. Usually preferred by Pastry Chefs, Swiss Meringue Buttercream is notoriously difficult to make but it's actually not that hard once you get the hang of it.
Pros: Sophisticated taste appeals to adult taste buds when many other types of frosting are too sweet; texture is nice and light while the flavor is rich and buttery
Cons: Can be kept at room temp but NOT in high heat, so cake decorators need to advise clients that the cake must be refrigerated or at least kept in a cool room (Sometimes this is not possible for every event). The flavor can be too sophisticated - kids often don't like meringue buttercreams.
Cooked Milk Buttercream - This is an old-fashioned frosting that, like seven-minute icing, is rarely used these days. It is made by making a slurry of flour and milk and then cooking this mixture until it thickens. You then add this mixture to a mixture of butter and superfine sugar, which has been creamed for several minutes. Whip until fluffy and what you end up with tastes like a combination of whipped cream and vanilla pudding. This is my personal favorite.
Pros: Sweet enough for kids while also appealing to adult palates. Creamy and light, not gritty 
Cons: Does not pipe intricate decorations; does not hold up to high heat

American Buttercream:
The winner, overwhelmingly, was American Buttercream. I was surprised by this, but I suppose I shouldn't have been. A lot of Americans grew up with this kind of frosting made by their grandmas, so nostalgia factors in heavily here. Very famous bakeries have made their names in large part by cashing in on this nostalgia - It's on Magnolia Bakery's famous cupcakes, as well as Sprinkles cupcakes and countless others. 

Surprisingly, some of the things I considered "cons" about this frosting were things that tasters liked. That slight grittiness and super-sweetness? The heavier texture? All considered good things by this crowd. What I considered "unsophisticated and child-like" were the very things that brought tasters back to their childhood. BUT it was not unanimous - Although one person said, "This is what frosting should taste like!" one other person said, "Tastes kind of like canned frosting."

Cooked Milk Buttercream:
Second place went to the frosting that had the best of both worlds: Sweet and creamy, light, but not too light. I actually expected this one to win, but then I am biased. I really love this one. Tasters did really like this one, though it was a bit more popular with adults than kids. Some comments were, "Creamy, Airy. Sweet but not too sweet." Unfortunately, this is not one that can really be used to decorate cakes with intricate decorations, so I only use it for cupcakes and simple layer cakes.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream:
I was really surprised this one didn't do better. I expected it to come in second or maybe even first. I hear so many raves about this frosting from online foodies, and celebrity pastry chefs are always singing the praises of it. I personally love it, but then I like all different kinds of frosting. Kids overwhelmingly pushed this one aside, while adults gave it mixed reviews. Most said it was TOO light and not sweet enough. A few of them said, "This one has no texture to it. Doesn't taste like much" But a couple of people really liked that it was so light, especially one taster who said she usually doesn't like frosting.


I have to tell you a very puzzling thing about these results: People that had previously liked one kind of frosting (my husband) gave it disparaging remarks in a blind taste test when it was not on an actual cake. And one taster who previously stated that she did NOT like a particular frosting, actually chose it as her FIRST choice in the blind test. One frosting that two people said was "not sweet enough" two other people said was "too sweet." I think people's opinions were also based on which order they tasted the frostings in. If they tasted a really sweet one first, maybe the others seemed bland in comparison.

So apparently in my non-scientific poll, only one thing is clear: everyone has different tastes after all!

Here are links to the Buttercreams I used:

American Buttercream

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Cooked Milk Buttercream

Monday, July 1, 2013

Independence Day Desserts!

Everyone likes to get festive for the Fourth of July! I live just outside of Boston, so revolutionary war history (and Independence day in particular), is a big deal in our area. My family always has a big party, so I thought I'd share some of my dessert ideas here, from the simple to the show-stopping. Click on the links for recipes:

"As American As..." New England Apple Pie
 "I cannot tell a lie" Cherry Pie

Hidden Flag Cake - Next time I make this cake, I plan to make it a more accurate representation of the flag, with 13 stripes. Anyway, this was not difficult but it does require some precision and time. I can't take credit for the idea; other bloggers did it first. I got the idea from Cake Central
How to do it:
One recipe of my Moist White Cake can make all the layers you need here, or use any white cake.
1) Make three 8" pans of white cake dyed red (or red velvet cake).
2) Make one thick 6" layer of white cake dyed blue (fill the pan a little over halfway full) if you have them, use "bake even" strips for the blue to get a nice flat top.
3) Torte each red cake into three thin layers (Cut it horizontally - I use a ruler to measure where I am cutting - see my post on Leveling Cake Layers for how to torte a cake)
4) Make white buttercream frosting (this will be the white stripes).
5) Cut the dome off of your blue cake (if there is one) and measure how thick it is. This will tell you how many stripes you can stack your red and white before adding the blue.
6) After measuring how many stripes thick the blue field is going to be, (for example, 2 inches thick might equal 5 stripes), you can start assembling the cake.
7) Put down a red layer, frost it with white frosting, repeat. Go up a little more than halfway, or however far it is until you will be adding the blue.
8) Take your other red layers and stack them, frosting in between layers. Set this part of the cake aside.
9) Decide how big of a circle you want your blue cake to be and cut it with a cookie cutter (I think I used a 4" circle to cut mine out).
10) Cut a circle in the center of your assembled top striped layers. Put these layers on the cake. You should have a hole where the blue will go.
11) Add your blue to the center, gently pressing it into the rest of the cake. 
12) Frost as you would like. When you cut it, each slice should look like the flag :)
Cake with edible fondant flag on top
Take your favorite cake and top it with an edible flag: Use white fondant rolled out and cut into a rectangle. Measure out lines for your 13 stripes with a ruler so they will be even, and mark lightly with a toothpick so you will know where to paint. Count down seven stripes from the top and mark a spot that is slightly more than 1/3 of the width - that is where your blue field of stars will go. Using gel food colors (available at craft stores or cake supply shops) paint the blue field and the red stripes directly onto the fondant with a fine tip brush. (Leave the white fondant bare for the white stripes) Add tiny dots of white Royal Icing to represent stars. Before the flag is dry, set it on your cake either flat or slightly waved. (Once it is dry it will not be pliable).