Saturday, February 28, 2015

Let me eat (homemade) cake!

I will never understand people who say, "I don't like cake."  What kind of a statement is that? Who does not like cake?  Could it be that they have been deprived of ever eating proper cake in their lifetime?  Perhaps they have only had the kind of cake ordered from the local supermarket to be served to large numbers at a ribbon cutting ceremony or someone's 80th birthday party. A huge sheet cake frosted in garish colors with overly sugary, super thick frosting.  Then I can at least understand why cake would not be high on that person's list of treats.  It's sad but true that even some wedding cakes that cost a pretty penny and are so beautifully decorated they trick the guests into believing that of course, the taste must be outstanding, out of this world, moist and melt in your mouth flavorful are actually quite disappointing once they are cut and served on tiny plates. Upsetting.
I think a lot about cake as icy cold February leads into still icy and still cold March.   March is known in my family as the birthday month with now so many people claiming a day that we actually have some overlap and necessary sharing.  When I was little, there were only 4 of us that I knew of claiming March as their birthday month.  My sister, Karyn and I on the 11th, Val on the17th and my brother, Ethan on the 21st.  Since Ethan is the youngest and the last one of the month, a few times, he received a wedge of cake instead of whole one for himself.  Val claims we were all sick of cake (can you believe it?) by then and he wasn't supposed to notice since he was likely only a toddler.  I tend to think that she might have been tired of baking an average of a cake per week and with our demands for certain decorations ( I recall her making a tiger cake for my 4th birthday) she must have been ready to through in the towel.  In later years, she began to switch it up.  One of my fondest "cake" memories took place on my 16th birthday.  Val surprised me with an elegant dinner: candle light, white table cloth, etc. While my dad drove around town secretly picking my friends up for the soiree, I questioned Val on the number of place settings, but she kept her lips sealed. I was over the top surprised and delighted when my girls came to the door giggling with their overnight bags, cards and gifts.  I have to admit I don't recall the meal but I will never forget the cake: a rich chocolate cheesecake with a chocolate crumb crust decorated with dollops of cold whipped cream, each cloud accented with a bittersweet chocolate heart. Although it wasn't a traditional birthday cake, it perfectly represented everything I love: chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.
There are times other than birthdays that I absolutely crave cake.  And I'm not the only one.  Recently, I came across a blog post on Smitten Kitchen:  The author, Deb Perelman describes a moment where she absolutely must have cake (and a chocolate one at that).  I couldn't agree with her more.  Like hers, my recipe below is an easy one, too. You can choose to eat it as is, which works great for packing it up easily for lunches. Serve it warm with a dollop of whipped cream to impress your dinner guests.  And it always works with a big scoop of melty vanilla ice cream, especially when the soft ice cream gets partially absorbed into the cake...mmmm.  In this version, I opted to slice it  horizontally and add a layer of buttercream frosting and a skim of raspberry jam.  (Frosting it on the inside only keeps the frosting in place and prevents it from sticking to the plastic wrap when you pack it up for lunch. There is almost nothing more disappointing than looking forward all morning to the sweet in your lunchbox only to lose the entire cake frosting to the packaging and having to scrape it off with a fork, or, your tongue.  (You know you've done it.)
Here is one of my go-to chocolate cake recipes.  Enjoy it, riff on it, share it. And please if I make it to 80, somebody make me a homemade cake!

Chocolate Chocolate Cake
(makes about 9 servings)
1 1/4 cups AP flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
1 tablespoon instant coffee
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
Buttercream Frosting (see recipe below)
3-4 tablespoons raspberry jam (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Coat a 9x9 baking pan or round cake pan with cooking spray.
Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, coffee, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium sized mixing bowl.  Whisk together buttermilk, butter, eggs and vanilla in another bowl.  Add wet mixture to dry ingredients and stir to combine thoroughly without overmixing.  Pour batter into prepared pan.  Sprinkle chocolate chips on top.
Bake for 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the pan on a rack for 5 minutes.  Invert cake to remove from pan and allow to cool on rack for a few hours.
Cut cake horizontally into 2 equal slices.  Place bottom slice on a plate.  Coat top of slice with a layer of buttercream frosting (see recipe below) about 1/4 inch thick. Top frosting with a skim of raspberry jam, if desired.  Place top half of cake (with chocolate chips) on top of frosted half.  Enjoy!
This frosting is all-purpose.  I use it to frost sugar cookies, cupcakes or eat it straight out of the bowl.
Buttercream Frosting
(enough for 1/2 layer, double for complete 2 layer cake)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 cup milk, plus more if needed
Place butter in a mixing bowl and beat until creamy.  Add sugar and combine well.  Mix vanilla into frosting.  Add milk slowly until desired consistency is achieved. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Closed for the Season


All I can think about right now is how long it's going to take for this massive amount of snow to finally melt.  April 1st is about 6 weeks away.  Not that April 1st guarantees that we will be safe from snowfall.  Most of you probably remember back in 1997 when snow dumped on the Cape, Boston and most of Rhode Island.  I was still living in an apartment in Boston while commuting to work in Rhode Island.  On my way home from work during the storm, I decided to cut my losses and go to Val's house where I knew at least the house would be warmed by her wood stove and there would be homemade snacks to eat.  My sister, her newborn son, 2 year old daughter and husband were hunkered down on Old Meeting House Road as well, along with Val and Dick and a few pets, too.  Just thinking of the memory of that late season snowstorm makes me cringe and a little crazy. I long to see some green instead of the huge expanse of white that looms outside my window.
I want to get outside and dig around in the dirt.  Empty out the composter into my small gardening plot and all over the flower beds.  Finally get out the clippers, loppers and gardening gloves and go to town on the corner that protects the shed and house from the rest of the street. It gets so overrun with thorns, weeds and poison ivy year after year.  By the time I think about doing anything about it in the late spring, it's already become unruly and unmanageable.  Especially all those shiny green leaves grouped in three's threatening to cover my body with an itchy rash.  Childhood memories of waking up in bed with my eyes swollen shut and my skin covered in red welts keep me from battling it out with these plants once they have grown to just a few inches tall.  But not this year.  Cabin fever has emboldened me.  I can't wait to eradicate those terrorizing weeds.
I'm ready to cut back bushes, dig up some plants and move things around.  I can't wait to open my doors to an outdoor space, an additional "room" where I can spread out away from all my stuff: computers, to-do lists and TV's but all I can do right now is crack open a few windows to let in some freezing cold fresh air and quickly shut them again before I owe my life savings to the electric and gas companies.
It's getting to the point where I am excitedly waiting in anticipation to finally see the thing that usually drives me absolutely crazy: the lawn.  It's really a terrible sight , having been neglected and played upon by children and dogs for quite some time without any additional care from me.  At least the thought of being able to plant new seed and shoo everyone off of even a small patch until the new grass takes hold would be a welcome option.  For now, all I can do is trudge in knee deep snow(threatening to reach my waist with each forecast!) to empty the kitchen compost hoping that my boots don't get stuck and come off with each attempt at taking a step.  Is there anything worse than jamming a snow covered stocking clad foot back into a warm boot and creating a melty, cold, soggy pedi-environment in less than five minutes of being outdoors?  Damn Snow!
I guess all I can do right now is accept the fact that "the best room in the house" is closed for the season.  That's what my father, Dick calls the backyard on Old Meeting House Road.  The place where everyone in the family can comfortably relax at the picnic table under the tall oak trees after a long day at the beach.  We gobble up grilled pork tenderloin, warm potato salad and crunchy lettuce, tomato, name it, fresh from Val's garden.  The breeze at dusk keeps the mosquitos away and the kids run around playing hopscotch, shooting hoops and swinging on the old tire swing, a leftover piece of Harding history from the tan Volkswagon Bug that carted our family around town in the years before we all lived in this house.  The kids stop playing just long enough to yell, "Can we have dessert?!!"  What kind of a question is that?  Anyone who knows Val is counting on something warm from the oven.  If we are lucky, we'll be enjoying strawberry rhubarb pie smothered in whipped cream.  Or if it's been an exceptionally hot day, at the very least we can expect to pile in the car for a ride over to Smitty's Ice Cream....her treat!
All that seems so very far away on this 10 degree day.  (With any luck, we might make it to a high of 20 degrees.)  Today the snow threatens to stick around and the forecast for tomorrow promises at least another 6 inches.  On days like these, I don't think about eating hot soup, or heavy stews.  Instead, I dig out some of those "summertime" recipes.  Maybe I'll put on some Jimmy Buffet "beach" music and make an ice cold cocktail, preferably with Bourbon or tequila (to remind me of warmer climates).  I might whip up a batch of biscuits or even roast a chicken to warm up the house.  But the rest of the menu needs to conjure up high temperatures, flip flops and the distinct smell of Coppertone on suntanned skin.  It's the only way I know to make it through until winter is finally over and I can open up my extra "room".

You can make this pie with frozen fruit to create a brief moment of summertime.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
(makes on pie)
For the crust:
2 cups flour, plus extra for rolling
2/3 cups vegetable shortening (Crisco)
4 tablespoons COLD butter, cut in teaspoon sized chunks
1/2 cup COLD water
Place 2 cups flour, shortening, and butter in a large bowl.  Using a pastry cutter, work the ingredients together until small pea size pieces form.  Make a mound out of the ingredients and a hole in the middle.  Pour 1/4 cup water over the mixture, blend with a fork.  Add more water and continue blending until mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Do not overwork dough!
Once dough comes together, separate into to small balls.  Flatten into 2 disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
For the pie:
3 cups sliced strawberries
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup tapioca
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, place strawberries and rhubarb.  Mix sugar, spices and tapioca in a small bowl.  Combine all ingredients.
Roll out one disk of pie dough on a floured board into a 10"-12" circle.  Place into pie dish.  Pour fruit mixture into pie shell.
Roll out second disk of pie dough on a floured board into a 10"-12" circle.  Using a crinkled rotary cutter, cut 1/2" wide strips of dough. Place the longest strip down the middle of the pie.  Place the second longest strip across the first, forming an "x".  Place the 3rd longest strip parallel to the first leaving 1/4" opening between the 2 pieces.  Continue in this manner until the top of the pie is covered in a lattice pattern.  Trim excess dough from the edge of the pie dish leaving 1" overhang.  Roll edges inward.  Crimp edge of pie by pushing dough between your two forefingers, continue around entire outer edge of pie. 
Place pie on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (for overflow).  Bake in preheated oven until crust is golden and berry mixture begins to bubble up between the lattice, about one hour.  Remove from oven and place on wire rack to cool well before serving.
*(Use a large piece of tinfoil with a round cut out to cover the crimped edges of the pie if it begins to brown faster than the lattice.)

Mailbox Cocktail
(recipe from "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea" by Martha Hall Foose
serves one
Crushed ice
at least 2 ounces of good Bourbon
2 ounces ginger ale
lime wedge
Fill an insulated tumbler with crushed ice.  Pour the Bourbon over the ice.  Top with ginger ale and a squeeze of fresh lime.
***Silver lining moment:
According to Martha (Hall Foose), Tervis Tumblers are the best and keep ice from melting on the hottest of days.  However, we don't have the problem right now here in New England.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Lemon Toast

It never seems that it will be so bad in the early morning hours, about 5:00am before the kids are up while I am sipping my first cup of black coffee on the small couch in my office.  In my hiding place, where everyone knows where to look.  As the sun is rising and I look out across our tiny front yard, I catch the first glimpse of the pine branches against the white snow.  "Everything will be fine, I'll get a lot done, the kids can finish their science projects and do some reading", I think to myself.  The idea is a good one but always destined to fail.
Before I went to bed, I already knew just like every other parent in town that school was cancelled for today.  AGAIN.  It's not just school being cancelled.  I would like to get on with the rest of life, tired of dealing with the snow.  Now the rain that keeps turning back and forth into snow and the deep freeze that is predicted to come upon us tonight is becoming really annoying.  ICE.  I hate the ice.  The ice is by far worse than snow.  But I can't do anything about Mother Nature's wrath by complaining about it.  The only thing left to do is to make lemonade out of lemons, or in my case,  time to whip up the lemon curd recipe I have been tossing around in my head for the past week.
Before I began this endeavor, I needed a vehicle other than a spoon for the sweet sour curd to be delivered into my salivating mouth.  I know just the thing.
Of all the recipes my mother has made throughout my childhood, her white bread remains my favorite comfort food. Sliced thin for peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, toasted up and slathered with butter or eaten just plain, it's soft texture melting in my mouth. I should bake this recipe more often than I do.  It's really not difficult if I have enough time to allow for the two required risings.  This weather this morning  compelled me to have enough time.  Proofing the yeast, melting the butter into the milk, and kneading the dough on a floured board takes no longer than 30 minutes.  It's a small project that allows me to linger in the kitchen and daydream, the steps to the recipe are like second nature to me.  I baked 2 loaves of this white bread every week during my senior year in college.  No longer on the school meal plan and living in an apartment, I prided myself on spending less than $20.00 a week on groceries.  I made batches of chili with beans, red pasta sauce from canned tomatoes and ate the occasional tuna sandwich for lunch but mostly I survived on homemade toast with butter. And free beer from the frat house next door. 

True to the recipe, the loaves baked to a deep golden in 25 minutes, filling the house with the aroma of baking, of kitchen work, of I made this because I love you and you need to eat kind of smells.  The kids suddenly appeared from their bedrooms upstairs as I tilted each hot loaf out of it's pan onto a wire rack to cool.  "OOH! Can I have some?"  "Is this Gramma's bread?"  It is hard to resist cutting into a hot loaf for instant gratification but I managed to hold them off.  "Not until 12:00pm, you can have some for lunch."
 The curd would have to wait until the hide and seek game, screaming and yelling because our friends are here and now it's raining to hard to go outside and play is finally over.  I need peace for this endeavor as I have not ever attempted this type of recipe before.  I wanted quiet and uninterrupted opportunity to let my thoughts wander while I grated the zest, it's sharp, sour scent keeping me focused just enough on the task at hand. Reading through the directions, I realized that this is another "project" that requires/allows lingering and daydreaming.  Stirring the lemon juice, sugar, butter and eggs until thickened just enough, reminds me of the custard base in my favorite ice cream recipe. The one that Val used from her set of Encyclopedia Cookbooks that she collected from the local grocery store.  The creamy custard slow churned in an electric ice cream maker by the oak tree in our backyard.  The wooden barrel base filled with rock salt to keep it all cold, a thick orange extension chord running from the kitchen, out the back door to the contraption creating icy goodness. I couldn't wait to eat it later, after dinner, after running around in the yard and swinging on the tire swing. Val loved to make peach ice cream but I always wanted chocolate, the deeper and darker the better.
The bright yellow curd thickened in about 30 minutes with near constant stirring as I took a moment break to address a computer problem then again to find clean socks for children who were searching for something to do now that their friends had gone home. It's only late afternoon but all the parents wanted to get home before dark, tired of driving on the slick, snowy roads.  When Declan comes to me to complain about the slow computer, I distract him with a spoon coated with sticky, warm curd. He was skeptical at first, as usual whenever I want him to try something new.  He stuck his stubby tongue out and touched it to the end of the spoon, once his brain signaled approval, he licked the entire surface clean, his eyes growing rounder, then closed slowly with pleasure when the sour notes hit his taste buds. Success.
 I shooed him out of the kitchen so that I could finally reach my goal: homemade toast topped with smooth, creamy lemon curd.  Since we were nearing dinner time, I decided not to over indulge, one half a piece would have to do.  For now. The crispy toasted edges and soft center of the bread are just right to be smothered  in all types of toppings.  I devoured my snack in three bites, wanting more and wishing that I had savored it.  No matter.  I've got plenty more lemon curd and freshly bake bread to indulge myself  for the next few days.  But where to hide it?