Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Baking 101: Getting Even Cake Layers

Getting your cake layers even may seem like such a basic thing, but it is something that has to be learned and there are a few different methods to do it. Why should you bother to make all the layers nice and even? After all, we all remember the homey look of old-fashioned cakes with a domed top. Well, that looks fine for one or two layers with simple frosting. But when you are stacking three or more layers on top of each other, having a slightly domed top on each one will make the cake less stable. It will also look less appealing, and could create problems if you plan to do some intricate decorating. Lastly, having even layers is one of the visual things that takes a cake from "homey" to professional.

Prevention is key: Try to get even layers as you bake, so you don't have to cut away a domed top in the first place. My layers frequently come out without any dome at all, which makes things much easier!

Essential supplies: Quality pans, Parchment, Bake Even Strips, and Non-stick spray.

Line pans with parchment paper - it is the only surefire
way to not have your cake stick to the pan.

Spray the parchment paper as well as the pan.

Use professional pans. Professional pans will be made of aluminum in most cases; sturdy but not overly heavy. (I personally do not like dark coated non-stick pans for baking.) These pans heat evenly and have very straight (not angled) sides. My favorite brand is Magic Line cake pans, which you can buy online or at most professional cake supply stores. You can also buy Wilton pans at any craft store or online. But beware with Wilton - they also put out a line of pans which are geared toward amateur bakers and do not have nice straight sides. So take a good look at what you are buying. And don't worry - Professional pans are actually not expensive. You can buy a set of two 9" pans for under $20.

This Magic Line pan is lightweight aluminum, with very straight sides. Notice that it does not have a dark non-stick coating.

The sides to these 6" pans are straight, so they cannot nest inside each other when stacked. This is a good way to test pans in the store before buying.

Getting nice straight sides on a cake is not easy to do with the regular cake pans you buy at a department store (or even some cookware stores). You may not have noticed it, but most of them have sides that angle slightly outward. To get really straight sides you need professional pans.

Oven temp:
Get an oven thermometer and take your oven's temperature to make sure it is not over or under heating. Adjust the temperature accordingly, and take the temperature every time you bake.

Weigh the batter:
If you have a kitchen scale, weigh the batter so you have an even amount in each pan. This avoids having one layer that is thicker than the other.

Bake Even Strips:
I love these things. You soak them in water and then affix them to the outside of the cake before baking (see pic below). They come in large and small sizes.

Flower Nail Method:
Putting a flower nail upside down in the center of the pan will help the cake bake evenly because the metal core heats up and bakes the batter around it. This is recommended for larger layers (12" or larger). You can try it for smaller layers, but I prefer to use bake even strips instead. With a large layer, I do both the bake even strips and the flower nail. Be sure to spray the flower nail with non-stick spray (in addition to the pan itself). When you flip the cake out of the pan, turn it upside down onto a cooling rack, letting the nail go through the grates of the rack. When it is upside down, slowly pull the nail out of the cake by the flat end, and let the cake cool. There will be a very small hole that can easily be covered with frosting.

If you DO have to cut a domed top, or if you want to torte the cake (cut the layers horizontally to create more layers for filling):

Use a sharp serrated knife, such as a long bread knife. I recommend using a cake turntable, it is not necessary but will make the cutting easier.

You can measure the cake layer three different ways before cutting:

1) Take a ruler and measure where the domed area starts (at the lowest point) and mark it with a toothpick. Measure all the way around the layer, marking the same height with toothpicks as you go. Then cut just above or below the toothpicks.

2) Christa's Easy Method - Use a ruler without the toothpicks - this is the method I use most. I set my cake on a turntable and measure where it needs to be trimmed. Then I take my knife and, keeping the ruler at the cake with the other hand, I start cutting at the same mark all the way around. When I have cut a little bit into the cake, I set aside the ruler and follow my cut mark, working the knife into the center as I turn the cake on the turntable.

3)   If you have some cake boards on hand, put the cake boards into your pan (however many you will need to boost the cake layer up so that the dome is over the edge of the pan). Set the cake on top of them, boosting the cake layer up inside the pan so you can use the pan edges as a guide to cut.

As you get better, you will be able to just eyeball it for most cakes. Generally it will only be when you are doing elaborate decorations or tiering a cake that you need to be absolutely precise!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bon-Bons and Cake Truffles: Ways to use up leftover cake scraps

If you are a cake decorator, you will often have scraps leftover from sculpted cakes. It seems like such a shame just to throw those scraps out! Here are three things you can do with cake scraps:

Cake Bon-Bons - Put your scraps in a food processor and press pulse until they are all reduced to small crumbs. Pour the crumbs into a bowl. Have a liquid of your choice ready, such as cream flavored with a little vanilla extract, almond extract, or a touch of liqueur. Another liquid that some cake decorators like to use is liquid flavored coffee creamer (i.e. Irish Cream or French Vanilla). Whichever liquid you choose, add it to the crumbs just a spoonful at a time. How much liquid you need will depend on the volume of crumbs you are using. You are done when you can gather the crumbs together and roll them into a good tight ball. Roll balls of about ping-pong ball size, and lay them on a plate or cookie sheet. Refrigerate until set, at least one hour. When they are chilled, cover them with milk icing: Mix 2 cups confectioner's sugar with one tablespoon milk. Stir well, adjusting the sugar or milk until you reach a thick but pourable consistency. You can add a touch of vanilla or some coloring to the icing if you wish. Pour spoonfuls of icing over the bon-bons slowly, covering each one. Add sprinkles, if desired, right away before the icing hardens. Store in the fridge until ready to eat.

Cake Truffles - Same process as for bon-bons, but cover with melted chocolate instead of milk icing. (Just melt some chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler for a few minutes until smooth. Keep the melted chocolate hot over the double boiler as you are taking spoonfuls out to cover the balls, otherwise you may need to reheat it). You can then roll them in nuts while wet or roll them in cocoa powder after the chocolate dries.

Toba Garrett's "Spackle Paste" - Toba Garrett, renowned cake decorator and author of The Well-Decorated Cake, has this recipe for "Spackle" Paste: Mix 3-4 Cups of leftover cake crumbs with 1/2 to 3/4 Cup Buttercream to make a thick paste. This is something you can spread over cakes just like spackle paste on your walls - it fills in gaps and holes, making a nice even surface to work with. After covering it with spackle paste, you would then frost the cake as usual. You can also use this paste as a filling between layers. the crumbs give it a nutty flavor, so it is a "faux-nut" filling.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Homemade Boston Cream Pie

Mmmm...this is one of my husband's favorites. If you aren't from New England, you may not know Boston Cream Pie, but it is actually a cake. Two layers of yellow cake with a custard filling inside and rich chocolate ganache oozing over the top of it. The recipe varies a lot from place to place, but legend has it that it was invented at the Parker House Hotel in Boston, circa 1855.

One recipe Sour Cream Yellow cake baked in a 9" round pan. Bake and cool.

Vanilla Cream filling: (this recipe is adapted from the King Arthur Baking Book)
3 Cups Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract or 1/3 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 Tablespoon all purpose flour
4 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons butter

In a medium saucepan, combine 2 1/2 cups of the milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla bean (if using extract instead, add it last). Bring mixture to a boil over medium heat.

Meanwhile, whisk the cornstarch, flour, egg yolks and remaining milk together in a small bowl.

Whisk a small amount of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture to temper the eggs, then add a little more (you do this a little at a time so that you don't curdle the egg yolks). After you have added two or three small spoonfuls of the hot mixture, pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the milk mixure, and bring it back to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for thirty seconds. It will thicken a lot. Remove from heat. Stir in the butter and vanilla. Top it with some plastic wrap and refrigerate until cooled.

The King Arthur Baking book says to pour the mixture through a fine sieve at this point to get any lumps out, but I didn't find it necessary. Perhaps if you were making pastry cream for napoleons or something very delicate, you would want to do it. The King Arthur book also says to fold in 1 cup of whipped heavy cream (whipped to soft peaks) after the custard is chilled to achieve a lighter cream. I find that the thicker cream is great by itself and it is what I see most often for Boston Cream pie, so I don't add in the whipped cream at the end, I just use the vanilla custard itself.

Chocolate Ganache:
3/4 Cup Heavy Cream
1 Cup chopped Semi-Sweet chocolate bits (you can use chocolate chips)
1 Tablespoon corn syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

In a saucepan, bring the cream and corn syrup just to a boil, being careful not to let it scorch. Remove from heat and stir in the chocolate bits until they are melted and smooth. Stir in the vanilla. Let this glaze cool, stirring occasionally, until it is just warm or room temp.

Assembling the Cake:
Cut the yellow cake in half horizontally. Spoon the custard filling onto the bottom half of the cake until it is almost at the edge. Put the top cake layer on and press down gently until the custard comes to the edge. if it oozes out, scrape the excess off with a knife. Spoon the chocolate ganache over the cake, a little at a time, pushing it to the edges and just over so some of it drips down the sides. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Foolproof Pie Crust Tips

I used to be literally in tears over pie crusts. That old saying "Easy as Pie" seemed to be completely untrue! But after the advice of several family bakers and years of trial and error, I now feel like I have some (almost) Foolproof pie crust tips to share:

You can use your favorite flaky crust recipe, or try mine: Christa's Flaky Pie Crust
  • Have your butter or shortening chilled
  • Use ICE water instead of room temperature water. If you need to add extra water to get the dough to come together, use only a few drops at a time.
  • Chill the dough before rolling it out. I put a ball of dough between two sheets of waxed paper and then flatten in a bit. I store it in the fridge or freezer until I am ready to use it. If I am freezing it for later use, I always put the dough (still in the waxed paper) in a ziploc bag and squeeze the air out.

  • Roll the dough between two sheets of waxed paper (or plastic wrap). You have to reposition the waxed paper a few times, but it doesn't stick to the rolling pin or the board this way. It also allows you to add little or no flour during rolling, which keeps the dough from getting tough.
  • Measure how big your circle of dough is before transferring it into the pan. Seems like common sense of course, but it is easy to think you have made it large enough when you haven't. You can measure by simply holding the pie tin, upside down, over your circle of dough. Make sure it is a couple of inches larger than the pie pan. I also love those Pastry boards that have pie circles on them so that you can measure while rolling, like this one: Pastry Board
  • Transfer the dough into the pie pan using the waxed paper - peel off one side, then place that side into the pan, position it where you want it, then peel off the top layer of waxed paper and ease the dough into the bottom of the pan.

Fill the pie crust with your favorite filling. For Blind Baking instructions (for certain fillings) see below.

Assembling a two-crust pie:
You can cover your pie with a top crust using the same wax paper technique - peel one layer of the wax paper off, lay the exposed crust over the filled pie, then peel off the waxed paper from the top. This allows for easy repositioning if necessary. Seal the top crust to the bottom crust by brushing a little milk on the bottom crust and gently pressing the top and bottom crust edges together. (If it is a fruit pie, I like to use the little bit of leftover fruit juice that is in the bowl after macerating the fruit to brush on the crust instead of milk).  Then follow crimping instructions (same as for a single crust pie) below:

For a single crust pie:
Cut off the excess dough (or for a thicker edge, you can just tuck the excess under the edge and pinch it together). Crimp the edges by lifting a bit of dough onto your index finger then using the  index finger and thumb of your other hand to pinch the dough into a "fluted" shape.  Alternately, you can press the tines of a fork into the edges to crimp them together. As you make more pies, you can experiment with fancy edges, but I like a simple fluted edge myself. 

For Lattice Crust:
Lay your bottom crust into the pan and fill it as desired. Dot with butter (if desired) before starting your lattice. Roll out your top crust and cut it into strips 1/2" to 1" wide (this is a personal preference. I like mine on the wide side so I have fewer strips to work with). Lay strips across the pie in vertical lines, spaced evenly. Then fold back every other strip halfway (see picture below). Add a strip going in the horizontal direction across the unfolded strips, then place the strips back into place. Fold back the alternate strips and repeat the process. When you are done, press your strips into the edge to seal before crimping the edges.

Most Pie crusts benefit from being brushed with milk or egg and then dusted with sugar before baking. For Shaker Lemon (or Meyer Lemon) Pies, I like to use a dusting of course sanding sugar, the kind with very large granules. For Apple pie, I like to use cinnamon sugar. Check your pies about halfway thorugh baking to see if the edges are getting too brown. If they are, you can gently place strips of tin foil around the edges and press them lightly to "hug" the crust edge. You can also use a pie shield, which is sold in most cooking stores. But pie shields are a set size, and crusts don't always conform to that specified size.

Bake according to your recipe's instructions, and then...Voila!

Blind Baking:
Blind baking is where you bake the crust before filling it. This is a requirement for certain types of liquidy pie fillings, otherwise the bottom crust will not bake and will turn out soggy. To blind bake a crust, roll it out and transfer it into a pie pan as instructed above. Then prick it all over with the tines of a fork. Then line the crust with tin foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans (see picture below).

Bake the crust in a 450 degree oven for about ten minutes. (Time will vary a little based on crust ingredients and type of pie pan used, so watch carefully the first time you do it to make sure yours does not over brown.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Into the world of Bread-making!

This Sourdough bread was more than a week in the making! I have recently dipped my toes into the vast world of bread-making, feeling a bit guilty that my focus has been almost entirely on desserts for years. I felt like maybe I'm not a true baker until I know how to make bread. So I'm studying up on it and learning how to make sourdough, wheat, soft sandwich bread, and cinnamon rolls. As soon as I feel like I have a bit of a handle on it, I will blog about my learning experiences here! As with desserts, I am sure it takes years to get to be a really good bread-maker. But it's never too late to learn something new, right?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chocolate Rolled Cookies

This is a sophisticated alternative to the usual rolled sugar cookie. These chocolate cookies are not overly sugary, so they tend to appeal more to adult taste buds. But if you wanted to make a kid-friendly version, you could use all white sugar (instead of a mix of white and brown) and exchange the coffee for milk. This recipe comes from Toba Garrett, the famed cookie and cake decorator, in her book Creative Cookies. They are versatile, like any rolled sugar cookie - You can decorate them with icing or fondant for something special, or you can make sandwich cookies with them. You could add jam to make a chocolate version of a linzer tart. But my favorite is to just give them a drizzle of mocha icing!

1 Cup Butter
2/3 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Brown Sugar
1 large Egg
1 Tbsp Extra Strong Coffee
1/3 Cup Cocoa Powder (the recipe says Dutch-process, but regular is fine)
3 Cups All-purpose Flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugars together with an electric mixer for two minutes. Scrape down the bowl, then Beat in egg and coffee. (I also like to add a touch of vanilla even though the recipe doesn't list this). Sift together the flour, salt and baking soda in a separate bowl, then gradually add it to the butter mixture, adding the last cup of flour by hand. This is a stiff dough and you need to get your hands in there to work in the last little bit.

You do not need to chill this dough before rolling out, and in fact it will be too stiff if you do. If you do need to make it ahead of time, store it in the fridge but take it out about an hour before rolling.

Roll about 1/4" thick and bake on a greased cookie sheet for about 6-8 minutes, depending on the size of your cut-outs.

Here are some things you can do with these cookies:

Fancy Decorating...

 Sandwich cookies...

Mocha Hearts: For the Mocha glaze, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder, 1 Tablespoon espresso powder, and just enough milk to thin it to a drizzling consistency. Stir well until the sugar and espresso powder are dissolved. Drizzle over the cookies.

Vegan Chocolate Cake

I am not vegan, so if there is anything I've overlooked here, please let me know! But people ask me to come up with vegan recipes all the time, and I realized that since this chocolate cake contains no eggs or dairy, it fits the bill nicely. It is the same as the Quick and Easy Skillet Cake with only a minor modification to the frosting.

1 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
3 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder (natural, not dutch-process)
1 Cup Sugar
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1 cup cold Water

Preheat Oven to 350 degrees.
Grease or line with parchment paper one 9" cake pan for a single layer, or two 6" cake pans for a double layer cake.

Sift dry ingredients together and stir with a fork until well-mixed. Make three wells in the dry ingredients. Pour the oil into the first well, the vinegar into the second, and the vanilla into the third. Pour the cold water over the top of it all, then stir with a fork until well-blended. Pour into greased or parchment-lined pan and bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool, then frost.

Vegan Mocha Frosting:
4 Tablespoons Crisco
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 1/2 Cups Powdered Sugar
dash of salt
2 Tablespoons strong black coffee

Cream together the Crisco, sugar, cocoa and salt until well-mixed. Add the liquid and beat until fluffy. You can do this by hand since it is such a small batch, you really don't need to use a stand mixer for this.

If you prefer just a glaze on top, you can omit the crisco - just mix the coffee (or use soy milk if you don't want the mocha flavor) with the sugar and cocoa powder. You can add more liquid or more sugar to get the consistency you want.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie

Despite what we all say about Apple being the All-American favorite, THIS is the pie everyone drools over. Maybe it is the combination of the sweet meringue and tart lemon that goes so good together, or maybe it's just that the billowy meringue piled high on top looks so impressive. Maybe it is the fact that pie lovers know this one is like a hothouse flower - delicate, prone to wilting, and a bit temperamental. I don't know, but pie lovers RAVE about Lemon Meringue pie like no other. This particular recipe is my mother's. She is not a big pie baker, but this is the ONE pie she bakes, and it is her signature dessert. (Incidentally, my mother claims that making this is as easy as...well...pie. But what does she know? I have made tons of pies over the years, and I am officially labeling Lemon Meringue as one of the comparatively high-maintenance ones. So there.) If I haven't scared you off from trying it yet, let me tell you that it is WORTH THE EFFORT! This recipe calls for double the amount of meringue, because Mom likes it piled high and peaked, never swirled!

Fair Warning: This pie is best served the same day it is baked. The meringue will wilt and shrink a little by the next day, and if by some slim chance there is any left after two days, it looks downright pitiful! So be sure it is nice and fresh.

Prepare one recipe for Flaky Pie Crust (You will use the bottom crust only, so freeze the other half for later use). Pat the dough into a pie pan, flute the edges, and blind bake it. (Blind Baking is pre-baking the crust before filling it: Prick the crust bottom a few times all over with a fork, then put some tin foil inside the crust and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, then let it cool.) Leave the oven on so it is already preheated for the next step.

1 1/2 Cups Sugar
3 Tbsp Cornstarch
3 Tbsp Flour
dash of salt
1 1/2 Cups Hot Water
3 Slightly beaten egg yolks (save whites for meringue)
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp lemon zest
1/3 Cup lemon juice
Mix Sugar, Flour, Cornstarch, and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Cook until boiling, then reduce heat and cook two minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat. Mix a small amount (about 1 tsp) of the hot mixture into the egg yolks and stir. Add a little more and stir again (this is to temper the egg yolks so they don't cook and curdle). Then add the yolk mixture back into the pan and cook two more minutes, again stirring constantly, until even thicker. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and lemon zest, then slowly pour in the juice. Pour into the pie shell. Make meringue right away so that you can top the filling with meringue while the filling is still hot.

6 egg whites
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 Teaspoon cream of tartar
6 Tablespoons Sugar

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add sugar two tablespoons at at time, then beat until peaks are stiff and glossy.  Spread over the lemon filling, being careful to "seal" it to the crust well at the edges.

Bake at 350 for 12-15 minutes until the meringue is nicely browned.

Let it cool for at least an hour before slicing. I prefer to let it cool to room temp, which is usually 2+ hours (This pie is delicate - if it is too hot it will fall apart). Slice it with a sharp knife dipped in hot water.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Valentine's Day Cake

This striped Valentine's Day Cake is made up of layers of Red Velvet Cake and Strawberry Butter Cake, topped with Whipped Strawberry Buttercream. To create this cake, you need four things:
1) Recipe for Red Velvet Cake
2) Recipe for Strawberry Butter Cake 
4) Instructions for Levelling Cake Layers (to get the stripes even)
I used two 8" pans and cut each layer horizontally into two pieces. Then you will have four layers of each color. I used two red pieces and three pink pieces to create striped layers, putting a thin layer of raspberry jam between each color (you can't really see it). Alternately, you could use the pink frosting to fill between layers. This will give you an extra cake layer to munch on or freeze for another project.
You will have leftover batter, especially with the Strawberry Butter Cake, so plan to use it up on cupcakes or mini-cakes.
Happy Valentine's Day!

Fresh Strawberry Buttercream

This frosting has a surprising taste of fresh strawberries, and it gets raves every time I make it. Alternately, you can use 1-2 Tablespoons (depending on your taste) of seedless Raspberry Jam to make a Raspberry frosting instead.

1 Cup good quality Butter
4 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
1/4 - 1/2 Cup Real Strawberry Puree (see directions below)

Beat the butter in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer on low until creamy. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat on low until combined. Add 1/4 cup strawberry puree. Whip on medium for 5-7 minutes until very fluffy, scraping down the bowl about halfway through (this is one time where it really is good to have a KitchenAid mixer!) If necessary, add a little more strawberry puree or more powdered sugar to adjust the consistecy as you like it. It should be creamy and very fluffy, but firm enough to hold its shape.

Strawberry Puree - this is easy to make from fresh strawberries, or, if they aren't in season, use frozen ones instead. Just slice up 2cups of strawberries and add 2 Tablespoons of sugar. Stir them and let them sit 10-20 minutes until they create some juice. Then puree the strawberries with their juice in a blender until there are no big chunks. Freeze leftover puree or use it in smoothies. If you are making the strawberry butter cake to go with this frosting (see recipe page), you will need 1 1/2 cups of strawberry puree, so go ahead and make a lot!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quick & Easy Skillet Cake

This chocolate cake isn't fancy, but it is super quick and can be made with basic ingredients most of us have on hand at all times. There is no waiting for your milk/butter/eggs to get to room temp, because none of those things are in the cake (but it's still yummy, I swear!) Bake it in a cast iron skillet, or it would also work in an 8x8 casserole dish or cake pan. I have to give credit for this recipe to Marcia Rose-Richie. This recipe of hers originally appeared in the monthly catalog for Penzey's spices.

Preheat Oven to 350 degrees.
1 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
3 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder (natural, not dutch-process)
1 Cup Sugar
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon vinegar (do not use balsamic or flavored vinegar)
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1 cup cold Water

Sift dry ingredients together into a (10" or 12") cast iron skillet. If you don't have a skillet, use an 8x8 baking pan or casserole dish. Stir the dry ingredients with a fork until well-mixed. Make three wells in the dry ingredients. Pour the oil into the first well, the vinegar into the second, and the vanilla into the third. Pour the cold water over the top of it all, then stir with a fork until well-blended. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool, then frost.

4 Tablespoons softened Butter
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 1/2 Cups Powdered Sugar
dash of salt
2 Tablespoons milk or room temp black coffee

Cream together the butter, sugar, cocoa and salt until well-mixed. Add the liquid and beat until fluffy. You can do this by hand since it is such a small batch, you really don't need to use a stand mixer for this.
This recipe is featured on Simple Supper Tuesday at Hun, What's For Dinner?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Classic Peanut Butter Cookies

Get a glass of milk - you'll need it! These cookies are thick with peanut butter flavor. PB cookies made with butter tend to be flavorful and crunchy; ones made with shortening tend to be chewy but less flavorful. So I use mostly butter in these, with just a touch of shortening. That makes them slightly softer (but not quite chewy), while keeping that buttery flavor. This recipe is a cross between an old family recipe and one I found in my best cookbook. I really think it is the best Peanut Butter Cookie ever - And you can add any number of chips, nuts, or candies into this dough, so it's versatile too!

1 Cup Peanut Butter (Chunky or smooth depends on whether you want bits of peanut in the cookies)
1/2 Cup Butter (1 stick)
2 Tablespoons Shortening
1 Cup brown sugar (I like dark brown for more depth of flavor, but light brown or half white/half brown sugar will work too)
2 Eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 Cups Flour*
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda

Optional: Add Peanut Butter Chips or Chocolate Chips (1/2 to 1 Cup as desired)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cream the Butter, Shortening, Peanut Butter and sugars with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla, beating until combined. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking soda with a fork until well-mixed. Add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture and beat on low until smooth. Add any chips/nuts you want to at this point.

Drop onto a greased cookie sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes until the cookies are golden brown on the bottom and the tops no longer look shiny.

*If using all natural Peanut Butter, which is more runny, increase the flour to 1 3/4 cups.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Meyer Lemon Pie

Have you heard of Meyer Lemons? They are a cross between a Lemon and a Mandarin Orange. Meyer Lemons are smaller than regular lemons and are slightly sweeter with just a hint of orange flavor. They are sold in Supermarkets in small bags:

I decided to try out Meyer Lemons in a pie. So I made my Shaker Lemon Pie, but using Meyer Lemons instead of regular ones. It came out great. I had to make some adjustments to the recipe for these little lemons, but the result was fantastic.

This Pie is for the true Lemon Lovers - it is as tart as it is sweet! Remember to prep the lemons a day ahead, because they need to macerate in the sugar for up to 24 hours.

Meyer Lemon Pie:

4 Meyer Lemons
2 Cups Sugar
pinch salt
4 eggs

Grate the zest from TWO of the lemons and put it in a large ceramic or stainless steel bowl (Just don't use an aluminum bowl since it can react with lemons, giving them a metallic taste). With a very sharp knife, slice the rind from all four lemons:

 Cut the Lemons into thin, small pieces, being careful to remove all seeds as you go. (Have a towel handy to wipe up your board or your knife, because all that juice can get slippery!) Add the lemon pieces to the zest in the bowl. Add the sugar and salt, then stir well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit overnight up to 24 hours (the longer the better).

 After the lemon/sugar mix has sat for a long time, Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly and then add them into the lemon mixture. Stir well. Roll out your pie crust and line a pie pan with the dough. Pour in the lemon mixture (it will be liquidy).

Place the top crust gently on the lemon filling and crimp the edges of the pie crust. Cut vents into the top crust to allow steam to escape. Brush with milk and sprinkle sugar over the top crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temp to 350 and bake an additional 40-45 minutes. (Check after 20 minutes to see if the edges need to be covered with foil to prevent overbrowning.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cappuccino Pie

This is another variation on the standard cream pie recipe I like to use. It has a strong coffee flavor, and just a hint of cinnamon. I developed this recipe for a pie cook-off and it was a HUGE hit with my family and friends who were my taste-testers. I didn't get into the cook-off with it, but I got a fantastic new recipe out of it, so it's a good thing.

1 recipe Graham Cracker Crust but add a dash of cinnamon to the crackers before mixing.

1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 Cups milk
3 egg yolks
2 Tablespoons Instant Espresso Powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or for something interesting, try Rum extract instead)

In the top of a double boiler combine the sugar, flour, 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.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. Take a small amount of the hot milk/flour mixture (about a tablespoon) and stir it into the eggs. Add another spoonful and stir it in (you are "tempering" the eggs so they don't cook and curdle). Now pour the egg mixture into the rest of the hot milk mix. Return it to the double boiler and cook until thickened some more (about 3-5 minutes) stirring constantly. Take it off the heat and let it rest.

Add the Espresso powder and vanilla extract to the filling mixture. Now let it cool a bit. (You can stick the filling in the fridge or freezer to help it chill faster, just remember to take it out and stir it occasionally). When the filling has cooled pour it into the pie shell. Then return it to the fridge to for another hour to make sure it is well-chilled before topping it with whipped cream (you can add the whipped cream ahead of time or just before serving) and a light dusting of cinnamon. Keep it in the fridge when not serving.

Fresh Whipped Cream Topping:
1 pint heavy cream
1/4 - 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, depending on how sweet you want it

Make sure the cream is well-chilled, (I even chill the mixing bowl and beaters when I make whipped cream). Beat on high speed with mixer until it is thickened. Spread it over the chilled pie and then put the pie back in the fridge until serving.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Almond Coffee Cake

This coffee cake is a delicious alternative to the common cinnamon coffee cake. Sour cream makes it moist and dense. This basic recipe can be altered to make many other flavors - the Lemon Coffee Cake and Cinnamon Coffee cakes listed on the recipe page are just variations of this one.

2 Sticks of butter, softened
1 Cup Sugar
3 Eggs
2 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 Cup Sour Cream
1 teaspoon Almond Extract

1 Cup Powdered Sugar
1-2 Tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 Cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a bundt or tube pan.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together with a fork until well-blended. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter on low until for 30 seconds. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and almond extract, then beat for about two minutes until creamy.  Add the flour mixture to the butter and beat until smooth. Add the sour cream and mix on low until just blended (don't overmix).

Spoon the batter into the pan and Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Let it rest for 10 minutes before inverting it onto a cooling rack. After it has cooled a bit, you can add the glaze and the sliced almonds: Just mix the powdered sugar, milk (1 teaspoon at a time until you get a pouring consistency) and almond flavoring together in a bowl. Spoon it over the cake, letting it drizzle down the sides. Then sprinkle almonds on top.

Cinnamon Coffee Cake

This is a dense, home-style Coffee Cake. This basic recipe can be altered to make many other flavors - the Lemon Coffee Cake and Almond Coffee Cakes listed on the recipe page are just variations of this one.

2 Sticks of butter, softened
1 Cup Sugar
3 Eggs
2 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated if possible)
1 Cup Sour Cream

Streusel Topping:
3/4 cup Brown Sugar 
3/4 cup Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons Cinnamon
1/4 cup Butter, softened
Mix until crumbly. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a bundt or tube pan.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together with a fork until well-blended. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, beat the butter on low until for 30 seconds. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat for about two minutes until creamy. Add the flour mixture to the butter and beat until smooth. Add the sour cream and mix on low until just blended (don't overmix).

Spoon half of the batter into the pan. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the streusel topping mixture on top, then cover with the rest of the batter. Sprinkle the remaining streusel topping on top of the batter. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Let it rest for 10 minutes before inverting it onto a cooling rack. (You will need to invert it twice to get the streusel side up - just flip it onto a cookie sheet, then flip again onto a cooling rack or a decorative plate.) Let it cool another 10-15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm if possible. 

Lemon Coffee Cake

This is a variation of the same basic coffee cake recipe I use. The Almond Coffee Cake and Cinnamon Coffee Cakes listed on the recipe page are all variations of this one.

2 Sticks of butter, softened
1 Cup Sugar
3 Eggs
Zest of two whole lemons
2 teaspoons Lemon Extract
2 1/2 Cups All-purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 Cup Sour Cream
Juice of two whole lemons
1/2 -1 Cup Powdered Sugar (depending on how thick you want your glaze)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a bundt or tube pan.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together and stir until blended. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter on low until for 30 seconds. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, zest, and lemon extract, then beat for about two minutes until creamy. Add the flour mixture to the butter and beat until smooth. Stir in the sour cream by hand just until it is thoroughly mixed in (don't overmix).

Spoon the batter into the pan and Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Let it rest for 10 minutes before inverting it onto a cooling rack. After it has cooled a bit, you can add the glaze: Just mix the powdered sugar into the lemon juice a little at a time until you get a pouring consistency. You can choose whether you want a thin glaze that will saturate the cake and add flavor but not be visible when dried, or a thicker glaze that will look like a thin white icing. Either way, spoon it over the cake, letting it drizzle down the sides. You can garnish with a sprinkling of lemon zest on top of the icing if you wish.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sour Cream Yellow Cake

I can't take credit for this recipe, I found it on CakeCentral.com. It is apparently the classic Yellow Cake Recipe from Sylvia Weinstock, the legendary Cake Decorator. It is delicious, with a buttery taste and a nice soft texture. The sour cream helps keep it moist.

This recipe goes great with Whipped Butter-Rum Frosting

2-1/4 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) sweet butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, separated (you will use both the yolks and the whites)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup sour cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line two 9x2" pans with parchment. (You could also do two 8x3" pans or three 6x2" pans).

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Cream the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color, about 2 minutes on medium speed. Add the sugar and continue to mix until fluffy and light. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, being sure each is well incorporated before adding the next one. Add the vanilla.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients alternately with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour. Be sure the mixture is completely blended after each addition. Scrape the sides of the bowl, and beat for 1 minute.

In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Gently fold the whipped egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth with a rubber spatula.

Bake in the preheated oven, 35-45 minutes (depending on which pan size you use.) The top of the cake should be nicely browned. Test for doneness with a skewer or a toothpick; the tester should come out dry and clean.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Whipped Butter-Rum Frosting

This frosting looks light and fluffy, but tastes decadent. Using rum extract instead of real rum means that you can control the strength of the rum flavor without adding a lot more liquid, and the bonus is that anyone can eat it, even kids.

1 Cup good quality Butter
4 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
1-2 Teaspoons Rum extract, to taste
2 Tablespoons Dream Whip Powder*
3 Tablespoons milk (you can add more for a softer consistency)
1/2 teaspoon salt (if using salted Butter, omit salt)

Beat the butter in a KitchenAid mixer (with the whisk attachment) on low until creamy. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat on low until combined. In a separate small bowl, dissolve the salt (if using) into the milk (use the minimum of milk for now - you can add more later). Then add the milk, 1 teaspoon of the rum extract, and the Dream Whip powder into the frosting. Whip on medium for 5-7 minutes until very fluffy. Taste it and add the second teaspoon of rum if you'd like a stronger flavor. Add more milk or powdered sugar to adjust the consistecy. It should be creamy and very fluffy, with a rich decadent butter/rum taste. This frosting is a good choice for piping since it holds its fluffy shape.

*Dream Whip Powder is sold in most grocery stores in the pudding aisle. I actually DO NOT recommend it for its intended purpose, which is to make a whipped cream-like topping for desserts (real whipped cream is so much better and just as fast to make!) But for giving a fluffy consistency to frosting that will not deflate or give an off-flavor, this is great stuff.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sinful Chocolate Buttercream

This frosting is so thick and rich, it is positively sinful. A light and mildly flavored cake won't stand up to the full force of this chocolate, so choose a rich butter cake or a chocolate cake.

1/2 Cup Softened Butter
2 oz. chopped dark chocolate
1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
2 Cups Confectioner's Sugar
1 Tablespoon light corn syrup
1-3 teaspoons of milk (add 1 and then see if you need more)
1 tsp Vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or you can microwave it in ten-second intervals, stirring each time you check it. Then beat the chocolate with the butter, cocoa and confectioner's sugar on low in a KitchenAid mixer until combined. Add the remaining ingredients and turn the mixer setting to high. Beat an additional two minutes. Frost Cake immediately or cover in plastic wrap until ready to use.