Category Archives: Dessert

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

My son LOVES red velvet cake and asked for his birthday cake to be red velvet.  As a person who is rather opposed to artificial flavors and colors, red velvet cake presents a conundrum.  It’s a really good cake with my favorite cream cheese icing.  But… the dye.   It’s a horrible ingredient.  The birthday boy picks his cake, of course, but can I make it without the dye?  Red velvet red just isn’t a natural color.  All over the internet there were recipes with beets or pomegranate used in place of the dye.  Neither one is really going to wow my son.  However, I thought beets might add some moisture and deep color, so maybe that was a better choice if it needed to be a really red cake.

I looked for red velvet recipes in my older cookbooks and found plenty of “velvet” cakes, but nothing specifically “red”.  Across the internet, there are various origin stories for the red velvet cake.  One is that it became popular when Adam’s Extract included a recipe for the “red” velvet cake in order to promote the sale of various extracts and dyes.  The original recipe from Adam’s Extract can be found here.  If I’m hesitant about using red dye, the artificial butter extract and vegetable shortening wasn’t too appealing in this recipe.  Other stories said the “red” was really more of a reddish brown and only recently came to mean food color red.  So, the old cookbooks were of little help, because my son wanted “red” red velvet cake.

I came across several recipes for red velvet that used beets and had no artificial ingredients, which was exactly what I was looking for!  My son gave his ok to use beets for the coloring, but I had to guarantee that if it was terrible I would make a “regular” red velvet cake.  A money back guarantee, if you will.

I found a very simple recipe from Domino Sugar and tweaked it ever so slightly.   The cake came out rich and extremely moist.  It’s a deep red and simply divine.

Red Velvet Cake
Makes:  two 9 inch layers or 24 cupcakes
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes

1 ¼ cup – Granulated Sugar (Domino recommends Domino’s)
¾ cup – (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 – large eggs
1 ¾ cup – cake flour or all purpose flour
¾ cup – unsweetened cocoa powder (NOT dutch processed)
1 ½ tsp. – baking powder
½ tsp. – baking soda
1 tsp. – salt
1 cup – buttermilk
1 tsp. – white vinegar
2 tsp. – vanilla extract
2 cups pureed roasted beets or canned beets*

*Beets: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash 6 medium beets and trim off the tops. Roast beets for 75-90 minutes until soft. Cool and then remove outer skin. Puree in food processor until completely smooth. I can’t speak to how well this recipe works with drained, canned beets that are pureed. I’ve only used fresh roasted beets.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Grease two 9-inch cake pans with butter and coat with flour. If you would prefer to make cupcakes, line two cupcake tins with paper cups and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter until fluffy and lightened. Add each egg, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a medium bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In another medium bowl, combine buttermilk, vinegar, and vanilla. Whisk to blend well. Fold pureed beets into buttermilk mixture.

Add sifted dry ingredients and buttermilk-beet mixture alternately to creamed butter, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing well after each addition. Pour into prepared cake pans or cupcake tins. (Fill cupcake tins 2/3 to 3/4 full.)

Bake about 25 minutes (cupcakes) to 30 minutes (cake layers), or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cupcake or cake comes out clean.

Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before frosting with Cream Cheese Frosting, without the cocoa powder!!

Red Velvet Cake Red Velvet Cake

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Pumpkin Cream Pie

Pumpkin Cream Pie

As I mentioned in my post on stuffing, I love Thanksgiving.  It’s a food extravaganza.  People aren’t shy about carbing it up.  Stuffings, breads, pies, and potatoes of all varieties grace the table.  Unfortunately, most of the time, pumpkin pies are either bought from the supermarket bakery or reheated from frozen.  Sad.  Why?  Because the hardest part of a pumpkin pie is deciding when it’s finished in the oven.  It’s a dump and bake proposition, otherwise.

Most people will make the Libby’s recipe for pumpkin pie on the back of the can of canned pumpkin.  While it’s perfectly fine, that’s kind of the problem, it’s fine.  I discovered this other pumpkin pie recipe several years ago and just found it to be so superior to the Libby’s version, I had to try it.  It’s from the New York Times Cookbook (the Craig Claiborne version). First, it had cream.  Real, heavy, cream.  NOT evaporated milk.  It had me at cream, really.  Then it had 3 cups of canned pumpkin, which is a LOT more than one 15 ounce can.  I was intrigued.  If you are familiar with the New York Times Cookbooks, there are no pictures, you are on your own.  I tried it and it changed our family’s pumpkin pies forever.  This is a rich pie with lots of creamy pumpkin flavor, not wan or thin.  It’s truly amazing.  Many people who didn’t like pumpkin pies, like this version.

This recipe just cannot be easier, for the amazing dessert you end up presenting.  Get a store bought crust (I prefer the frozen ones to the refrigerated roll out kind), and it’s super easy.  I like making my own crust, which presents a variety of challenges, all of which end up in deliciousness.

Now, the hard part:  when is the pie done.  Generally speaking, it’s done when the center jiggles just a little.  Helpful, no?  How much is a little?  When is a jiggle?  Why has my pie cracked open?  I avoid these issues with a low temperature baking.  This varies from Claiborne’s instructions.  If I follow his instructions, it comes out pretty cracked and sort of not done in the center.  Could be my oven.

Pumpkin Cream Pie
Serves: 8
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour and 15 minutes (approx.)

Pie Crust
3 cups canned pumpkin
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon powdered ginger (or 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

If using a homemade crust, roll out crust and place into pie dish. Prick holes in the crust all around with a fork to prevent bubbles. Add pie weights. Blind bake (bake with no batter) the crust for 10 minutes at 450. Remove the weights and reduce heat to 375 and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Blend well over medium speed. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and place in the oven.

Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Check crust for signs of browning, if brown, cover. Bake for 45-55 minutes more, or until the center is just slightly jiggles when the pie is slightly jostled. You may want to check often after the 40 minute mark, as oven temperatures vary.  Cool and serve.

Pumpkin Cream Pie

Pumpkin Cream Pie

Strawberry Lime Popsicles

Over the summer, I have the kids do “academic work” so that they stay sharp.  Yeah, I’m that mom.   In order to minimize the whining, I “incentivize” my children to complete these academic assignments.  Each assignment is worth a certain number of “points” and points can be cashed in for various and sundry items.  My daughter has been dying for a Zoku Quick Pop Maker.   She worked really hard this summer to earn enough points for one of them.  I spied a really easy recipe on Pinterest (http://www.theblackpeppercorn.com/2012/06/strawberry-paletas/) for a strawberry lime popsicle and a post was born, as my daughter LOVES strawberries.

Honestly, I was dreading this task.  The Zoku has to be frozen for 24 hours, so already there’s a delay, which is oh so popular with the elementary school set.  I then have to “blend” the ingredients together.  About 7 years ago, I broke the glass blender.  Never replaced it, and, as a bonus, have never heard the end of it.  My kids are 10 and 8, and somehow they know I busted the blender.  In my defense,  we really didn’t use it and I broke it moving it out of the way.    As a substitute, I would have to use the food processor, which can be a touch leaky.  Fun!

But, we persevered.  We blended the ingredients (no leaks!), chilled the mixture, used the Zoku and had popsicles in a fairly short amount of time!  It was really hot today, so they were definitely needed!

Strawberry Lime Popsicles
Total Time: about 1 hour and 20 minutes
Makes about 3 popsicles in a Zoku Pop Maker

1 cup halved strawberries
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water

Chill Zoku Pop Maker for 24 hours.

Place ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Refrigerate mixture for about an hour. Pour mixture into Zoku Pop Maker and in about 7 minutes remove the popsicle from the pop maker. When repeating for the final two popsicles, you may have to leave the mixture in the Zoku for longer periods of time.

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Chocolate Hazelnut Cream Pie

Easy no bake chocolate hazelnut cream pie

My kids are with their aunt and grandparents this week.  Therefore, I have taken this rare opportunity to make things that have gotten the veto from the kids. Lemon Chicken was one. Chocolate Hazelnut Cream Pie was the other one. I’m not sure why the hate for this particular dish. I love the taste of hazelnut, but if you are thinking something will taste just like chocolate, hazelnut may not be a welcome flavor.

The inspiration for this dish came from my peanut butter cream pie experience. I thought, if a pie can be this awesome with peanut butter, what would it be like with Nutella? Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to say “Really!?!?” to those who sued Nutella because they were allegedly “deceived” by the commercials that said Nutella was healthy. Check out the news coverage here.

Let me start by saying the first ingredient is sugar. Yes, sugar. Read a label, people. Commercials make their products sound better than they are. Shocking, I know.

It was a small rant, but important one.

So, this pie is light and cold and completely easy. My elementary school kids made it easy. Great for summer entertaining or potluck!

Chocolate Hazelnut Cream Pie
Serves 8

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature (Philadelphia brand tastes best)
1 cup Nutella
2 cups heavy cream, whipped to stiff peaks
1 chocolate wafer pie crust

Combine cream cheese and nutella in a mixing bowl and whip until well combined and fluffy. Fold in whipped cream one third at a time, until thoroughly combined. Pour mixture into pie crust. Cover in plastic wrap and freeze until solid. Remove from freezer about 10 minutes prior to serving. Melt a small amount of nutella to drizzle on top for “flair”.

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Strawberry Shortcake

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I have a love/hate relationship with Strawberry Shortcake.  I generally have a “no fruit”  dessert policy, save apple and pumpkin pie.    Why waste my few precious carb calories on a dessert with no chocolate?  Seems like madness, truly.

The other thing is, well, I thought shortcake sort of sucked.  It’s either made with that yellow spongy crap that I now realize is the yellow spongy cake that makes up a Twinkie.  Well played, Hostess.  Tell people that all they have to do is spray whipped cream into these yellow dimpled cake shells and top with strawberries.  Voilà!  Strawberry “shortcake”!  Or, it’s made with cut up store bought Angel Food Cake.  Ugh.

A few years ago I had a berry shortcake at a small restaurant in Annapolis called “O’Leary’s”.  Honestly, the other desserts looked terrible.  “Terrible” being defined as a dessert “containing chocolate that was contaminated with fruit”.   Is there a rule that raspberries must be in a chocolate dessert?  Anyway, it was an order of last resort.   My low expectations were exceeded when a lovely confection was placed in front of me.  A tender, yet crispy biscuit split and oozing thick whipped cream topped with berries of all colors.  What was this?  Where was the Angel Food or bland yellow cake?  Instead, I got an actual “shortcake” and it was amazing.  Despite it being really good, I had no desire at the time to make it because of the whole lack of chocolate thing.

So, I’m reading the Wall Street Journal the other day and come across an article about how the French are up in arms about whether an establishment can be called a “restaurant” when it doesn’t actually cook all of the food served.  Some of the food, gasp, is frozen and prepared off site.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323398204578488990597549094.html0597549094.html

This article brought me back to my shortcake experience, and other brushes with mass produced food being used in a “restaurant”.  The “semi-homemade” take on strawberry shortcake is far removed from the real dessert.  The same could be said for dry chocolate cake or waxy “New York Style” cheesecake.  Most desserts at restaurants are so lackluster.  They pretty much taste like they came from Costco, Restaurant Depot, or some other mass production facility.   I was very sad to learn that Molten Chocolate Cake dessert can be microwaved in a minute and served.  Sigh.

One time, at Outback Steakhouse, my plate came out with a plastic bag on it.  Inside the bag were my veggies, freshly microwaved, I presume.    Honestly, it’s why I cook.   I know where my stuff comes from and who made it.

So, inspired by some of the most esteemed names in French Cooking saying they had to preserve the French Cuisine, I wanted to make a real, authentic shortcake.  My small attempt to rescue the true shortcake from the “dessert shell” purgatory it’s currently in.   On the plus side, there are plenty of old recipes.  On the minus side, they are all different.   Of course they are!!!

First of all, shortcake is not so named because the cake is short.  It’s because a fat inhibits the flour from forming long structures.   Adding a fat (in this case two, butter and shortening) creates the “short” part of the shortcake.    Shortcake also got a boost of lightness from the advent of chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder.    Traditional English shortcakes made without chemical leavening are extremely dense.

I think it’s amazing that a classic dessert is built around the humble strawberry.  A fruit that, realistically, was only available for a very few weeks every year.   Strawberries are fragile and they have a short harvest season.  Despite the restricted availability of strawberries during her time, Fannie Farmer has no fewer than 3 dessert recipes for just Strawberry Short Cake in just one of her cookbooks.  She also has one for “Fruit Short Cake”, which, according to Mrs. Farmer may also include strawberries.  The dessert called for the strawberry  to be paired with a quick cooking “shortcake”.  Originally, whipped cream was not part of the dessert.   Just a sweetened shortcake, strawberries, sugar and butter.  By the mid-1800s, whipped cream became integrated into the recipe.

While any berry could be used, the dessert is synonymous with strawberries.  You can certainly make a “raspberry shortcake”, but let’s just say they didn’t name a doll “Raspberry Shortcake”. This is certainly a classic summer recipe.  And, really, making the shortcake is very easy.  Make the whole dessert and really, you won’t be disappointed.

I love cooking from extremely old, some would say “historic” cookbook.  I feel a bit like an archeologist trying to recreate the exact dish the author did over a hundred years ago!  I picked a very traditional recipe from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book called:  Rich Strawberry Short Cake, she credits a “Hotel Pastry Cook” with the recipe.

Rich Strawberry Short Cake

2 cups of flour
1/4 cup of sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup butter (about 5 1/3 tablespoons butter, diced)
1 1/4 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening
1 egg, well beaten
2/3 cup of milk
1 pint strawberries, washed and quartered with tops removed
Sugar
1 quart heavy whipping cream

Heat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease 12 inch cast iron skillet with lard.

Mix dry ingredients and sift twice. Work in butter and lard to the flour mixture, until mixture appears crumbly. Add egg and milk. Stir until the dry ingredients are moistened. You may need to add a bit more milk if there is still a lot of dry flour. Place mixture in the cast iron skillet, and use your hands to spread mixture into the pan. (Tip, oil hands first!) Bake until the bottom is lightly browned and a slight crust is apparent when the shortcake is touched, about 12 minutes.

While the shortcake is baking, sprinkle enough sugar on the strawberries to sweeten the fruit and slightly macerate, about 1-2 tablespoons, depending on the strawberries.

Whip the cream until stiff peaks are formed. If sweet whipped cream is preferred, add a tablespoon of sugar to the cream while it is being whipped. A bit of vanilla extract (a teaspoon) can be added too.

Split shortcake, add whipped cream and strawberries layered with the shortcake, and serve.

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Peanut Butter Cream Pie

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You’re invited to a cookout. You want to bring something, but what? You could pick something up at the local supermarket. I find those foods sort of sit because people want to try the homemade stuff first. But you are busy, right? No time for homemade. Or, maybe your cooking skills just aren’t up to where you would like them to be.

You want to take something that will be the talk of the picnic. You want to be fawned over. I get it. Who doesn’t? No one wants to be potato salad #3 at a picnic with 5 different types of potato salad.

So, I offer the following dessert: Peanut Butter Cream Pie. Why? Because, frankly, fruit desserts just aren’t my thing, with the exception of apple pie. Peanut Butter Cream Pie combines some of my favorite ingredients: cream, sugar and peanut butter. What’s not to love? It’s not like Chocolate Cream Pie, so don’t be worried about whether the pie will “set” or if you will need to serve it in bowls. If you have a mixer and a freezer, you can totally make this dessert. It’s that easy. I found this dessert years ago in New Orleans at Emeril’s. He put the recipe for it in his cookbooks and now, on his webpage. The pie is crazy easy. Combine peanut butter, cream cheese, confectioner’s (powdered or 10x) sugar and whipped cream. Pour into crumb crust. Freeze. Done. Seriously. If you want to be fancy, melt some chocolate and stripe the top of the pie.

Some caveats. This is a really rich pie, so cut the slices small. You will want to cut a hunk of pie off and eat it. Don’t. You can’t. My 10 year old son who grows 6 inches a year tried and couldn’t. Also, you need to not just like peanut butter, you need to love it.

Now, I mentioned that I was inspired by Emeril to make this recipe, and I was, but this recipe is inspired by Martha Stewart. Why? Well, Emeril called for 4 cups of cream and Martha 2. I had 2. So, the winner was Martha! Her original recipe can be found here: http://www.marthastewart.com/258413/chocolate-peanut-butter-pie

My deviations are the crust and the amount of peanut butter. I looked at a pre-made graham cracker crust, but that had trans fats. So, I was resigned to the fact that I was going to have to make a crust. I thought chocolate wafer crust would be the best, but the thought of taking the middles out of a ton of oreos made me weep. Luckily, on my travels to three different grocery stores (can’t 1 just have everything I need?), I found an oreo cookie crust with no trans fat or other terribly nasty ingredients, so I went with it. As a result, that last minute find made this recipe super easy and fast. I reduced the peanut butter by 1/4 cup just to bring a little more balance to the pie.

Peanut Butter Cream Pie
Serves 6-8
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

6 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
1 oreo pie crust
1 ounce semisweet chocolate, melted, for decorating

Cream together the cream cheese, sugar and salt, until well combined and “fluffy”. Add the peanut butter and vanilla and beat until combined. In a separate mixing bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Loosen the peanut butter mixture by folding in about a third of the whipped cream. Add the rest of the cream to the peanut butter mixture and, using a mixer with a whip attachment, whip until well combined.

Pour peanut butter mixture into oreo pie crust and freeze for about 2 hours. Place melted chocolate in a freezer bag and snip a small opening on a corner of the bag. Drizzle chocolate on the pie and serve.

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Frosting

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I am one of those people who could seriously leave the cake on a plate and just eat the frosting.  Love it.  Vanilla, chocolate, cream cheese or caramel, it is all good.  Of late, however, I notice this annoying trend of wrapping everything in fondant so that it looks smooth and perfect.  Frosting is not supposed to be perfect looking.   It’s supposed to look like something you want to dig your finger through.  Who isn’t jealous of the baby at his or her first birthday party completely engulfed in a buttercream glaze of frosting and cake bits?

Frosting, in all of its fluffy goodness, is a rather new “invention”. Most beginning cake toppings were thin affairs made with a combination of sugar and egg whites. An example of this type of recipe can be found in The New England Economical Housekeeper (1845):

Beat the whites of an egg to an entire froth, and to each egg an 5 teaspoonfuls loaf sugar, gradually; beat a great while. Put it on when your cake is hot or cold, as is most convenient. A little lemon juice squeezed into the eggs and sugar, improves it. Spread it on with a knife, and smooth it over with a soft brush, like a shaving brush.

Another early variation of frosting was the boiled frosting. Fannie Farmer’s recipe in her The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book is as follows:

Boiled frosting

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Whites 2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

Put sugar and water in saucepan, and site to prevent sugar from adhering to saucepan; heat gradually to boiling point, and boil without stirring until syrup will thread when dropped from tip of spoon or tines of silver fork. Pour syrup gradually on beaten white of egg, beating mixture constantly, and continue beating until right consistency to spread; then add flavoring and pour over cake, spreading evenly with back of spoon. Crease as soon as firm. If not beaten long enough, frosting will run; if beaten too long, it will not be smooth. Frosting beaten too long may be improved by adding a few drops of lemon juice or boiling water. This frosting is soft inside, and has a glossy surface.

Well, in today’s world, the first one would appear to kill you with Salmonella or any other bacterial plague bought about and worsened by factory farming.  The second one sounds kinda hard. Thread, soft ball, hard ball stages of melting and boiled sugar require more judgment than I care to employ for a cake frosting. The success of my kid’s birthday party can’t hinge on whether I boiled the sugar past the soft ball stage and into the hard ball stage. That’s too much pressure!!!

As a kid, frosting in a can was always a big hit. But, looking back, the ingredients look a touch sad:

Duncan Hines Creamy Homestyle Classic Chocolate Frosting (http://www.duncanhines.com/products/frostings/creamy-home-style-classic-chocolate-frosting)

Sugar, Water, Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oils, Mono- and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 60), Cocoa Powder Processed with Alkali, Corn Syrup. Contains 2% Or Less Of: Corn Starch, Salt, Invert Sugar, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Carmelized Sugar (Sugar, Water), Caramel Color, Acetic Acid, Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate), Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate.

The other frosting trend when I was small was to use  the Wilton Buttercream Icing Recipe (frosting and icing are terms that are used rather interchangeably). You could decorate with it more easily, I suppose.  Wilton also helped to user icing flower decorations to the masses.  Rose covered cakes became all the rage.   The Wilton recipe combines confectioner’s sugar, butter, vegetable shortening, vanilla extract and a touch of milk. The mouthfeel is what you would expect when one eats vegetable shortening. Sort of waxy and thick. Whenever you see cakes in the bakery with “buttercream” listed as the frosting and they are decorated with blindingly white icing, remember what butter looks like and just know it might have some butter in there, but will likely have shortening as well. I am generally anti-shortening because of the severe manufacturing process that turns a soybean and a cottonseed into a solid mass of fat-like substance. And the taste. Ick.

Do you want a good looking frosting or a good tasting frosting? That’s the question. Sure, you can have a marble smooth covering on your cake that will look fantastic in pictures, but the taste? Eh. How much taste can you get out of sugar, glucose, vegetable shortening, gelatin, water and extract?  I’ll say it:   fondant isn’t good. It’s gummy and rather artificial tasting, as most fondants are manufactured and stored in plastic tubs indefinitely.  You can also have a beautiful white frosting, but you’ll get stuck with something made from shortening.

Or, you can go retro and have a frosting made with real butter.  It won’t be blinding white and you can’t make flowers out of it.  But, it will taste amazing.  Like, you are hoping some makes it on the cake amazing.  And frankly, it doesn’t really look “bad”.  And, you can make it chocolate or vanilla flavored!!

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My inspiration from this recipe came from an episode of Good Eats and a book named The Cake Mix Doctor.  I have every great cake book.  Ruth Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible?  Check.  Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts and Cakes.  Check and Check.  Still, every cake I made was lacking.  Then I saw Alton Brown recommend a box cake mix.  Really?!?  According to him, you can’t beat the chemistry in a box for great cake.  With that logic, I found myself face to face with The Cake Mix Doctor book by Anne Byrn at a local bookseller and decided to try it for my son’s birthday.  He wanted a cake that “bled”.  So, I made the Red Velvet Cake.  First of all, it was so easy because it was a mix.  Second, he LOVED it.  Now, usually when people go to a kid’s birthday party, I never see the adults take a piece of cake.   I do the calculation myself and decide it’s not worth the calorie bomb to eat a piece of supermarket “buttercream” frosted cake and politely decline.  The kids love anything “cake”, and that’s what is important.  I don’t need it.

At my son’s party, not a single piece of cake remained.  It was gone.  The adults ate it.  No leftovers!!  The secret? Probably not the “doctored” German Chocolate Cake mix with sour cream and red food dye (although that was good), but the rich cream cheese frosting.  AMAZING.  Anne Byrn recommends homemade frosting for her doctored cake mixes, and includes several in her book.  She is right.  No one thought I used a mix, and the frosting was great,  but I have to doctor hers up a bit.  Hers are overly sweet for me.  My experiments are your gain.  Also, making your own cake will cost a fraction of a bakery cake, and be just as good.

Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Frosts a 2 layer 9 inch round cake
Total Time: 10-15 minutes

2 8 ounce packages cream cheese, softened
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) butter, softened
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Cream together the cream cheese and butter in a large mixing bowl until well combined. Turn off the mixer. Add the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and confectioner’s sugar. Mix on low speed until the sugar and cocoa are mostly incorporated (this avoids the explosion of powdered ingredients). Increase to medium speed and beat the frosting until it is fluffy.

Done.

I know, not hard, right? Not scary, no fear of failing. Just awesome, spoon lickin’ frosting. If you don’t want chocolate, omit the cocoa powder and cut the sugar to 3 1/2 cups and it’s an awesome white frosting.

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Brownie Joys

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I am going to give you two versions of the same recipe. One is super easy, but comes partially from a box. One is still easy and gluten free. Completely up to you as to which version you choose. Both are spectacular and impressive. I favor the non-gluten free one slightly, but my kids and husband like them both equally.

A few years ago, I started trying out for the Pillsbury Bake-Off, but to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it. How could I encourage people to use their heavily processed, suspect-ingredient products? So, I quit. But the one recipe that I really liked from my efforts was a very simple, but impressive brownie dish.

My kids love coconut and my husband thinks he hates it. As he’s diabetic, this was a win-win for me. I taint my baked goods with coconut and he avoids them. No guilt about him “missing out” on things I make because frankly, he thought he didn’t like it.

So, I make my brownies. I make a brownie batter from a box of brownie mix that’s suitable for a 9 x 13 pan. I place half the batter in the bottom of an 8 x 8 pan. I then in a separate container mix together coconut, sweetened condensed milk, melted white chocolate and almond extract. I layer the coconut mixture on the bottom brownie layer and top with the remaining brownie mix. Done. When you cut it, the layers were completely intact and the dessert was really impressive.

He couldn’t resist and tried the brownie, despite the presence of the accursed coconut. Turns out, he likes coconut. Now, he’s ordering items like curry with coconut milk in it everywhere. Apparently, he doesn’t like the artificial coconut taste.

So, I haven’t made these brownies for a while. Last weekend, my neighbor Sherron made some great cookies for a photoshoot that she shared with me. She eats a gluten free diet. I don’t really get to give her that many baked items because of it. Gluten free is scary to me. Gluten is a really important chemical to baked goods and whenever I have something gluten free, it tastes “off”. So, I scoured the internet for brownie recipes that are gluten free and came across one by Martha Stewart using corn starch instead of flour. I’ve made a cornstarch cake before and it was passable, albeit not great. So, my hopes were low for this recipe. However, my low hopes were tempered by the really good reviews.

I call them brownie joys because they are very similar to my Joys recipe, but in Brownie Form.

If you want to make the easy, gluten version, make the brownies per the directions on the box, and follow the Coconut Layer instructions below.  Layer in an 8×8 pan and bake.  Done.  And trust me, people will think you are pure genius.

Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Gluten Free Brownies.

Brownie Joys

Brownie

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for the pan
1/3 cup cornstartch (spooned and leveled)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Ghirardelli’s)
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips (60% cocoa)
3/4 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Coconut Layer
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 can (7 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup white chocolate, melted
1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter an 8×8 square baking pan and line with parchment paper so that there is some overhang on the pan. The purpose of this is to allow for easy removal of the brownies after cooling.

Whisk together cornstarch, cocoa and salt. Set aside.

In a large, microwave safe bowl, add the chocolate chips and butter and melt over low heat, checking and stirring frequently until thoroughly combined. The mixture will look like lush, glossy, thick chocolate. Try not to eat. Stir in sugar and vanilla. The chocolate will look gritty and rather unappealing at this stage. Add the eggs and stir until combined.

Add the chocolate mixture to the cornstarch mixture and stir vigorously until you notice the mixture coming together and pulling away from the bowl. I noticed this within about a minute. Add nuts and stir.

Coconut Layer

In a small mixing bowl, combine the milk, the coconut, the white chocolate and the almond extract and stir.

Brownie Assembly

Divide the brownie mix in half. Add half the brownie mixture to the brownie pan, top with the coconut layer, then finish the remaining brownie mixture.

Place pan in the oven and cook for about 35 minutes. The clean toothpick test will work on the brown parts, not the coconut parts.  This brownie needs to cool all the way.  It’s also best to sit over night.  Don’t get me wrong, it will taste great out of the oven, but without gluten it can be a little greasy without enough time to rest.  For a perfect fudgy brownie that is exactly like it’s gluten counterpart, wait a day.

Dry ingredients whisked together

Seriously, don’t you just want to eat that?

Crazy easy coconut mixture

First layer in the pan

Second layer in the pan

Third layer in the pan

Completely cooled and out of the pan

Fudgy with impressive layers!

 

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Pie or Pastry Crust

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Behold my flaky layers!

There’s nothing that seems to scare the crap out of people more than flour, salt, solid fat (butter, lard, shortening), and cold water.  In other words, pastry.   When I bring pies to places people cannot believe I have made my own pie crust.  It’s like a bucket list item:  Climbed Everest, Visited Easter Island, made own Pie Crust.  Done.

The Food Industrial Complex has made people so complacent that most don’t see the need to make their own crust.  Just unroll the crust from the refrigerated section of your grocery store and BAM! pie crust.  But is it really?  Gummy, lacking any snap or palpable flakey layers, is it really pie crust?  Or something lesser.  Let’s look at the competition.

Pillsbury Rolled Pie Crust ingredient list:

Wheat Starch, Lard Partially Hydrogenated, with BHA and, BHT To Protect Flavor, Wheat Flour Bleached, Water, Sugar, Rice Flour, Salt, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate Preservative, Sodium Propionate Preservative, Citric Acid, Color(s), with Yellow 5 and, Red 40

My ingredients?  Seriously: flour, sugar, butter, lard, salt and cold water.  No competition.  I’m not even sure what Wheat Starch is and why it is the largest ingredient on the list.  Flour is a distant third.  What’s wrong with their ingredients that they need to add food coloring?  Oh, that’s right, there’s no butter to give the “pie crust” a warm golden color.

The competition is rather sad.  A pale imitation of real pie crust.  In The 1892 Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer (yes, she was a real person), there is an entire chapter dedicated to pastry.   In this chapter Fannie Farmer divides pastry by duty.  Puff pastry was suitable for rims and upper crusts of pies, vol-au-vents, patties, rissoles, bouchees, cheese straws, and tarts.  But is never for lower crusts!!  Puff pastry is made exclusively with butter, according to Mrs. Farmer.   Plain paste, with a mix of lard and butter, was more suitable for lower crusts.  James Beard detailed various pastry in 9 pages of his American Cookery published in 1972.    Today, sadly, most people don’t make pies much less pie crust.   After reading these books, it is easy to see why.  The first few sentences of Mr. Beard’s introduction are flat out intimidating:

Flaky, tender pie crust must have a delicate balance of fat and flour and not too much liquid.  For this reason, measure the ingredients carefully. Too much flour can make a tough crust; too much fat, a greasy crumbly crust; and too much liquid will in turn require more flour and result in a tough crust.

But persevere!  Look at the Pillsbury ingredients.  There are no liquids.  What do you think you have there?  A tough, non-flaky mess.  That is your competition.   If your dough is “tough”, seriously, who’s going to know?  Few people expect a flaky crust anymore because most are used to the industrial stuff.  That’s the worse that happens.  You make a crust with no preservatives that is still better than what you can roll out of a package.  Fear not!

The recipe is super easy and if you have a food processor, it’s laughably easy.  You will scoff at yourself for ever being too intimidated to try.

My goal here is to get you to make a great crust.  Give it a go, so to speak.  You don’t have the time?   Is 10 minutes too long?  If you take out the time it takes to assemble the ingredients, it takes 2 minutes, tops to actually “make” the crust.  Then it rests.  Then you roll it out.  Done.  I make mine the day before I need to make the pie.

This recipe is adapted from Paula Deen’s Perfect Pie Crust.  It is a sweet, but not too sweet crust and very aptly named.

Perfect Pie Crust

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
3 tablespoons granulated white sugar
1/4 cup lard, very cold (may substitute vegetable shortening)
12 tablespoons butter, very cold and cubed
1/4-1/2 cup ice water

Hand mixing directions:

Sift the flour, salt and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. Work the lard into the flour mixture with your hands. Work quickly so that the lard doesn’t get too warm. Add the cold butter and quickly work into the mixture until the flour is crumbly, like coarse cornmeal. Add the ice water slowly until the mixture comes together, forming a dough. Gently shape the dough into a ball. Divide the ball into two, shape into disks, wrap each disk in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to use.

Food processor directions:

Place the flour, salt and sugar in the processing bowl, pulse until combined and aerated. Add the lard in pieces and pulse until incorporated. Add the cubes of butter a few at a time, pulsing between additions until the additions are incorporated. Slowly drizzle the water into the bowl and pulse. Stop adding water when the dough comes together in the bowl. Turn the dough out on a floured surface, gently shape into a ball, and divide the ball into two disks. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes prior to use.

It’s really that easy.  Use for almost any recipe that requires a crust.  This recipe makes two 9 inch pie crusts.

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Not the course meal like texture already developing.

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