Sunday, March 30, 2008

Perfect Party Cake - A Daring Bakers Challenge

This was my very first Daring Bakers Challenge. I am happy to report that it was a success! But, before I discuss the challenge, let me tell you a little bit about how I came to join this group of talented bakers.

I am relatively new to the world of food blogging. As I began pouring over other food blogs, I kept seeing the logo for Daring Bakers. After reading many other's posts about their participation, I knew I had to join. The idea is simple. Each month a new challenge is presented to the members. We have the entire month to bake the challenge, but we all have to post on the same day. Today is the day. Today is the day of my first challenge.

So, I give you the Perfect Party Cake. First of all, it was chosen by Morven from Food Art and Random Thoughts. I was very excited to bake this cake. I proudly own this cookbook, so I was very excited to have a reason to bake it. Not only does the cake look wonderful in the cookbook, but it tastes yummy as well. And, the mere fact that the cake was a Dorie Greenspan concoction made it that more exciting. The cake itself was so moist. The texture was light and airy, and very delicate. The butter cream frosting added the perfect sweetness. My only deviation came in the form of the layers. The recipe has you bake 2 9-inch rounds and cut them in half to make four layers. Based on the batter, I ended up with 3 layers. I basically only cut one of the layers in half.

If you have a special occasion coming up, you should give this cake a try. I promise you won't regret it. It is a real winner!!

Perfect Party Cake
Courtesy of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking from My Home to Yours

For the Cake

2 1/4 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.
Put 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 the 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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Blackout Cake - This Cake is For You

Happy Birthday, Dan! This cake is for you. I couldn't wait to bake this cake just for you.

On Sunday, we not only celebrated Easter, but we celebrated Dan's birthday. Dan is a very old and dear friend. We only put one candle on the cake, because we didn't want to trigger the smoke alarms. Ha! Ha! Seriously, he is like a brother to me, so it was an honor to bake his birthday cake.

This cake was not a surprise for him, it was a request. No, it was actually a requirement. He was reading The Week a few months ago and stumbled upon the recipe. Immediately, his mouth began watering for a bite of this luscious velvety cake. So, I did what any food lover would do, I immediately offered to bake it for him. Needless to say, he accepted the offer.

I'm a tried and true Southerner, so I wasn't very familiar with this cake. Apparently this cake is iconic with Brooklyn, New York. It was a famous creation from the now closed Ebinger's Bakery.

As you can tell, this cake is all about the chocolate. It is a moist chocolate cake with creamy chocolate pudding in between the layers. The frosting is actually the pudding. You crumble one of the cake layers and smoosh it to the pudding to form the outer layer. If you look at the slice, you can see the yummy pudding between the layers.

This cake was very easy to bake. The recipe was easy to follow and it turned out great. One warning, it is easy to get chocolate everywhere! If you like chocolate, then this is the cake for you. You must try this creation. You will not be disappointed.

What to Drink: Milk!

Until we can visit again, raise a glass and Cheers to You!

Chocolate Blackout Cake

Give the pudding and the cake enough time to cool or you’ll end up with runny pudding and gummy cake.

1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
6 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tsp vanilla extract

8 tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick), plus extra for greasing pans
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pans
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 cup strong black coffee
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the pudding: Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt, half-and-half, and milk in large saucepan. Set pan over medium heat. Add chocolate and whisk constantly until chocolate melts and mixture begins to bubble, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir in vanilla and transfer pudding to large bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on surface of pudding and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours and up to 1 day.

For the cake layers: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in bowl. Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in cocoa and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Off heat, whisk in coffee, buttermilk, and sugars until dissolved. Whisk in eggs and vanilla, then slowly whisk in flour mixture. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool layers in pans 15 minutes, then invert onto wire rack. Cool to room temperature, at least 1 hour.

To assemble the cake: Cut each cake in half horizontally. Crumble one cake layer into medium crumbs and set aside. Place one cake layer on serving platter or cardboard round. Spread 1 cup pudding over cake layer and top with another layer. Repeat with 1 cup pudding and last cake layer. Spread remaining pudding evenly over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle cake crumbs evenly over top and sides of cake, pressing lightly so crumbs adhere. Serve. (Cake can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.) Serves 10 to 12.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Showers Bring April Flowers...May Babies are on the Way

Sigh... Today is the first day of Spring. Just saying those words make me smile. Spring is my most favorite season. I can't believe it is finally here.

I am very late in posting and am very sorry for my tardiness. I actually began this post on Tuesday, but didn't get it posted until today. I have a million and one excuses, but none worth boring you with. Last week did culminate into a very big event. I had the honor of hosting a baby shower for my very good friend, Annie. She is pregnant with twins, so it was only natural to give her an elegant baby shower in the form of a a ladies brunch.

I must begin by admitting that I could not have done this without help. I have to give a big shout out to my friend Frannie. Not only was she there for moral support, but she single-handily turned my home into a beautifully decorated festive tea room. The main table looked beautiful, as did the side tables of desserts and drinks. It was confirmed when the guests asked who catered the brunch. Here is a picture of the table. This was still early, so not everything was on it. I was remiss in getting a good photo once we had the table completely set. But let me tell you, it was stunning.

Now, what was on the menu? If you look closely, you can see the fruit salad, the pedestals which would eventually showcase the quiches, the muffins, mixed green salad, cocktail shrimp, and cupcakes. It was beautiful. We filled the tiny espresso cups with roasted red pepper soup topped with chives. We served brownies topped with a light and fluffy cherry mousse. We had peanut butter cups, chocolate raspberry cups, a chocolate fountain with pound cake, strawberries, and marshmallows.

The shower was a success! It was a perfect ladies brunch. Annie received many wonderful gifts for her new babies. It seemed as if everyone had a great time.

The menu was diverse, so it was difficult to pick something to share with you. I'm sorry to revisit the topic of blueberry muffins, but I must share this new and improved recipe. They were SPECTACULAR. If you read last week, you know that I did a trial run on the muffins and came out disappointed. The muffins were okay, but not special. They just wouldn't do for this shower. So, I went back to the mixing bowl and stumbled upon these divine creatures from Dorie Greenspan. They are in her cookbook Baking From My Home to Yours. They were excellent - so moist with a perfect balance of orange and blueberry flavors. They are my new and forever Blueberry Muffins. I will never eat a muffin in the same way again. For the shower, I made the Blueberry Muffins as well as the Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins (both from Dorie and both delicious).

What to Drink: For the shower, the main beverage of choice was champagne. We created a drink buffet with a tea punch, orange juice, and a sherbet punch. All could be mixed with champagne. Many ladies elected to have the champagne solo (which was my beverage of choice).

Orange Berry Muffins
by Dorie Greenspan

Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
About 3/4 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons honey
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries - fresh, preferably, or frozen (not thawed)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper muffin cups. Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.

Pour the orange juice into a large glass measuring cup or a bowl and pour in enough buttermilk to make 1 cup. Whisk in the eggs, honey and melted butter.

In a large bowl, rub the sugar and orange zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the fragrance of orange strong. Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend. Don't worry about being thorough - the batter will be lumpy and bubbly, and that's just the way ti should be. Fold in the blueberries. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.

Bake for 22 to 25 minutes. When fully baked, the tops of the muffins will be golden and springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins will come out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing each muffin from its mold.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Great Expectations

I'm sitting in a hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sagebrush are tumbling and the wind is blowing mightily. It's really lovely here, but I do wish I were home with my hubby in my cozy house with the smell of coffee brewing. I'm traveling for work this week, which means that I already miss my kitchen terribly.

This is going to be a very busy week for me. Not only are the work demands high, but I am also hosting a baby shower brunch for my good friend Annie. The shower isn't until Saturday, so I have a few days left to prepare. This could be tricky since I'm 5 states away. The good news is that the details are well planned out. The cooking and baking are really the "open items", but that can't happen until Friday/Saturday - now can it? So, I'm forcing myself to relax and await the weekend. I also have the luxury of relying on my good friend Frannie to help. So, in theory, this weekend should come off without a hitch.

Shower brunch menu, what shall I serve? My thoughts are hovering around some lovely quiches, fritatas, muffins, strawberry butter, fresh fruit, simple green salad - to name a few - I so could go on......hmmmm...I just heard my tummy growl.

In honor of Annie and her shower, I thought I would give the Blueberry muffins a dry run. I wanted to make sure they would be tasty and moist, so I gave the recipe a try over the weekend. They tasted good, but I wasn't blown over. I was really looking for a knock your socks off, best blueberry muffins in the world, oooh could I have another moment....... I'm still waiting. sigh!

I will gladly share these with you. But, I promise, before Saturday arrives, I will find my muffin mecca, my muffin moment. I am now on a quest!

So let's talk about the recipe. I combed all over the internet - looking at Epicurious, Martha, you name it. I was looking for the quintessential blueberry muffin. Some recipes seemed overly complex, others overly simple. I decided to try the simple recipe. Sometimes the most loveliest items come in the most pure packages. The recipe was very easy to make, and I possibly would make it again. There is something to be said for the simplistic nature of the process and the ingredients....and they were tasty. Take a look at the batter. It was very thick and creamy. The muffins were a success, but I suppose my Expectations were just too Great.

Blueberry Muffins

3/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 3/4 cup sifted flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup blueberries
1 tablespoon flour

Cream butter and sugar. Add milk and egg and beat until smooth. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to creamed mixture. Mix until moistened. Toss blueberries with flour and fold into batter. Fill a well-greased muffin pan 2/3 full with the batter. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Vanilla Shortbread Cookies - Take Two

I have to thank Mandy from Fresh Out of the Oven.  I was reading her blog about Vanilla shortbread and knew that I had to make it.  I was hooked after reading the words, "Chef Thomas Keller".  He is the famed chef from the award winning restaurant, The French Laundry. I had the pleasure of dining in this most special restaurant - once.  I will never forget the morsels of food that graced my lips.  I was especially fond of the vanilla shortbread cookies that were given as a gift at the end of the meal.   As soon as I saw this recipe, I knew I had to bake these buttery wonders.  

I promptly went out and bought Claire Clark's Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts.  Clair Clark happens to be Thomas Keller's pastry chef at The French Laundry.  Well, the recipes are written in the metric system.  So, my first try was a bit off.  Let's just say I didn't do a good job in the translation of the measurements.  The recipe is quite simple with only a few ingredients: butter, flour, caster sugar, and vanilla bean.  Because I didn't have caster sugar, I sifted granulated sugar.  I also don't think my flour to butter ratio was right.  As I was mixing the dough, it felt too sticky - almost as if there was too much butter.  I had a difficult time cutting out rounds.  I was hoping to use a small biscuit cutter to bake small little cookies.  It was just too sticky.  So, I began to shape them in long biscuits.  As they baked, they ignored all of my hopes and dreams.  They decided to flatten out and meld together. 

So, I did what any good friend would do - I scooped them up in a baggy and game them to my girlfriend Fran. She served them at tea, and said they were a hit.  She is such a good friend, always trying to salvage my ego.   At least they tasted yummy. 

Well,  I wasn't satisfied.  This bugged me for two days.  So, I went back to the drawing board - or back to my rolling pin. I surfed through cyberspace back to Fresh From the Oven and again gazed at how Mandy's shortbread came out so beautifully.  I was a little jealous.  So, I did what I should have done in the first place - I followed her adapted recipe.  Take a look at that beautiful cookie!  I was so happy.

Not only was the dough not sticky, I was able to roll it out perfectly.  It was a breeze to cut out my rounds.   You can see the tiny specks of vanilla throughout.  They smelled heavenly.  I decided to package them in little gift bags to give to a few girlfriends.  And yes, they tasted great.  Thank you, Mandy!

Vanilla Shortbread
originally by Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts

225g/8 oz all purpose flour
75g/2 3/4 oz caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
150g/ 5 1/2 oz unsalted butter, at room temperature
50g/ 1 3/4 oz granulated sugar, for dusting

(Mandy's conversions)
1 3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 vanilla pod
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
granulated sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Sift the flour and confectioners' sugar into a large mixing bowl. Using a sharp knife, slit the vanilla pod open lengthways and scrape out the seeds with the tip of the knife.  Add the seeds to the bowl, along with the butter.  Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients.  As the mixture begins to come together, use your hands to help it form a dough.  Shape the dough into a ball and flatten it slightly.  Roll out on a lightly floured surface to about 1/2 inch thick.  Cut into your desired shape and place them on a baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper.  Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the baking sheet around and continue baking for 10 minutes, until the shortbread is golden brown. Remove from the oven and dust with an even coating of granulated sugar.  Leave on baking sheet to cool.