Sunday, March 27, 2016

Joyous Birthday Cake with Easter Peeps

Oh what an exciting day!  Easter and a 12 year old girl's birthday rolled into one!  It also commands a very strict early morning schedule per Ava:

"Get me up at 6:00am.  I need enough time for Easter basket, presents and collecting eggs before we leave for church."


This eventful sunrise agenda was followed by some righteous church going.  (Yes, Declan, you do have to wear a belt.) Children's choir singing, the story of the Resurrection, and more candy filled eggs on the church lawn because Jesus wants you to have ridiculous amounts of candy to commemorate your everlasting life.

All of this before 10:30am.

Then we wait.  We wait for the ham to bake, for the relatives to arrive, to drive the long, 4 mile trek to Val's house where the smell of freshly baked pie and the crispy edges of salty ham mingle together as we enter the house through the kitchen door.  At least that's what I am waiting for.

Ava is waiting for cake.

Not just any cake.

Did you see it on facebook, yesterday?  If you did not, here it is:

 Beautiful, isn't it?
It is a triumph over birthday cake trouble.  The kind of trouble I seem to have every time I decide I want to make something special for one of my special people.  Don't ask me why but there is always some sort of epic failure that accompanies these projects.  Maybe it's because I have so much personally invested in the outcome.  Maybe I always seem to try out new recipes for these important occasions even though I know better.  I just can't help myself. And this time, I had involved Ava, the actual birthday girl in this madness.  How did this happen?  Let's flash back on the last few days...

First, Ava found a recipe for a fancy cake in Food Network Magazine.  I thought we could make it  better by using a chocolate cake base (isn't everything better in chocolate?).  This time, I was smart and we used the foolproof recipe from the back of the Hershey's Cocoa can.  No problems, yet.
Frosting is something that I feel I need to master.  I have made it many times but it often comes out grainy, or just not quite right.  So, I thought, "Why not use the recipe from the fancy cake in the magazine?"  I should have known when I read the ingredients list:  "egg whites and butter?"  and the advice: "don't worry if it starts to separate?"  These bits of information should have been red flags.  I chose to ignore them.  We soldiered on.  Bad idea. Four egg whites and 3 sticks of butter later, all we had was a separated, gloppy, chunky mess.  A barfy looking mess.  This would not do.  I began to swear.  Not good.
Thankfully, my child is resilient and knows I am like my mother (except for the swearing, my mother, Val never swears).  Val always has enough sugar and butter in the pantry and neither one of us will give up until we get the special cake right for a precious 12 year old birthday girl.  But forget trying to remake that stupid frosting recipe.  Time to go old school. Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book.  It's a classic for a reason.  7 minute frosting (which took me 10 minutes and until my arm almost fell off) was our saving grace.  Phew. My baby's cake was salvaged.  Time to frost.  Get out the decorations! I was so spent, let Ava use an entire package of sprinkles (what the hell!) and 2 packages of bunny peeps.  Let's celebrate!

Oh!  Oops! Did I forget to mention that the inside of this delightful creation was filled with M&M's? Because we needed to have even more candy on Easter.  Because a candy filled cake is always better than a regular cake. After researching on Pinterest, I found that there are many ways to make a "Pinata Cake".  Now it seems that all birthday cakes going forward will need to be candy filled.  Well, I guess I can live with that.
Happy Birthday, Ava!

Here are the cake and icing recipes we used, below.  You can also take a gander at some fancy "Pinata Cakes" on Pinterest to get some cool ideas, too.

From the back of the Hershey's Cocoa can:

Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake
(makes two 9" round cakes)
2 cups sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour two 9" round cake pans.  Combine all dry ingredients.  Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla, beat on medium speed for 2 minutes.  Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin).  Pour into pans and bake for 30-35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool 10 minutes.  Remove pans to wire racks.  Cool completely.

The next day....

Cut out a 3 1/2 inch wide circle from the center of one layer of the cake.  Reserve the removed piece.  For the bottom layer of the cake, cut  a 3 1/2 inch wide circle from the center but only slice halfway through the cake and gently remove the center of the cake leaving the bottom of the layer intact. Place bottom layer on plate.  Frost around top edge of bottom layer and place the top layer on frosted bottom layer.  Fill center with candy.  Trim the reserved center from the top layer to make a cap that will fit the top of the cake and cover the candy inside.  Frost and decorate cake.

7 Minute Frosting
(Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book)
( just enough to frost one 2 layer cake) 

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup cold water
2 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla

In the top of a double boiler combine all ingredients except vanilla.  Beat with an electric mixer on low for 30 seconds.

Place over boiling water (upper pan should not touch water).  Cook, beating constantly with the electric mixer on high speed about seven minutes or until frosting forms stiff peaks.  Remove from the heat an add vanilla.  Beat 2-3 minutes more or until frosting reaches spreading consistency.  * Work quickly to spread on cake before frosting hardens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Irish Soda Bread

I have never been a fan of typical Irish American foods.  Shepherd's pie, corned beef and cabbage and even Guinness leave me curling my lip in disgust.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that Val dislikes them and never cooked these dishes at home. In spite of this, everyone we know who happens to be Irish deems it lucky that Val's birthday falls on St. Patrick's day.  Alas, to bring her out to a restaurant meal on her special day would always mean that Irish/American fare was the only thing featured on every menu in the few dining establishments that were open in March on beautiful (and open only for the season) Cape Cod.  The smells of boiling meat and vegetables permeated the air, taking root in her winter coat and hair.  Even after the disappointment of her birthday meal, she could never get away from it without hanging her coat on the line for the March wind to air it out.
That isn't to say that Val is by any means anti-Irish.  On the contrary, she loves to learn of all things Gaelic and if offered to live out another life, she would likely choose being a peasant woman on a remote farm in the lush, rolling green fields of The Emerald Isle, tending to her old milking cow, a few pigs and bountiful garden.  In the evening, retiring by the fire with a hot cup of cocoa and a warm, fresh slice of soda bread with butter and her cat curling up by her side. She is intrigued by Irish heritage, history and poetry.  She just doesn't like the stereo-typical dinner menu as filtered through the years in the good old USA.
But there is one Irish recipe that made it's way across the Atlantic which still remains today to be truly delightful.  I'm sure it has been toyed with and adapted by different families over time but for me, Irish Soda Bread has never lost it's charm.  It's much like southern biscuits, but formed into a loaf and enjoyed sliced rather than portioned with a cutter before being baked.  Who can argue with flour, sugar, and butter?  No one. Not even Val.  In fact, she is the reason why I love any combination including those 3 ingredients so much so that I write about my obsession consistently on this blog. So, in honor of Val and all things Irish on St. Patrick's day, I am baking a batch of soda bread.
Happy birthday, Mom.  May you have the "Luck of the Irish" and many treats on your special day.

Just recently, I learned that soda bread with caraway seeds and the addition of raisins and currents (or both) was traditionally made for St. Patrick's day.  I say, make it anytime because it is so easy and delicious.

Irish Soda Bread
(makes 4 small loaves)

4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup golden raisins
2 1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 3/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  
Whisk together 4 cups of flour, sugar, salt and baking soda in a large mixing bowl.  Using  pastry cutter (or two knives), work butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal, then stir in raisins and caraway seeds.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Add beaten egg and buttermilk and stir together until dough becomes stiff.  Lightly flour hands and gently knead dough in the bowl just enough to form a rough ball.  Do not over knead or handle dough to much.  Transfer dough onto a lightly floured board and divide into 4 equally sized pieces.  Form each into a round loaf.  Transfer loaves to a lightly greased cookie sheet.  Using a serrated knife, score the top of each loaf about an inch deep in an "x" shape.
Transfer loaves to oven and bake until bread is golden and bottom sounds hollow, about 20-25 minutes.  Also, check for doneness by inserting a long thin skewer.  If it comes out clean, the loaves are done.  Remove to wire racks and allow to cool before slicing.

Delicious the next day too, as toast with butter.

Honey Butter

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon honey
1 pinch salt

Mix together butter, honey and salt.  Transfer to a ramekin and refrigerate until ready to use.  Spread it on toast, crackers or whatever vehicle you like.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Kitchen Happy

When I am happy, things go a lot better in the kitchen.  And when I am sad, things can be utterly disastrous.  For instance, last week, I was in a deep funk and I decided to tackle a jam making project that I had been meaning to get to all winter.  Bad idea.  The jam recipe was not quite right and my wits were no where to be found. The jam texture was gluey and I felt that I had wasted a good amount of ingredients on a failed project.  I plunged into the depths of despair.
Today, however my kitchen time was far better.  So much so, that I not only was able to create the yummy raspberry and pastry cream triumph (see March 1st) but I was also inspired to create another delightful treat with the remaining piece of puff pastry and the leftover pastry cream. They are inspired by chocolate eclairs with the semi sweet chips added to the flaky pastry and eggy cream filling.  But they are far less labor intensive, for this reason, I dubbed them, "Faux-clairs".  If you make the recipe for La Tresse Framboise, (preceding post) use the remaining puff pastry sheet (2 per box) and the remaining portion of pastry cream from that recipe to make these at the same time.  Everyone will be impressed that you are some kind of pastry wiz.  Unless of course, you may want to just eat the remaining pastry cream by the spoonful while you watch the latest episode of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" before the kids get off the bus. That's o.k., too.

Faux Clairs
(makes 12)

1 sheet puff pastry, thawed (I use Pepperidge Farm)
1/2 batch pastry cream see: Pastry Cream  
1/2 bag (6 oz.) semi- sweet chocolate chips
1 egg
turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out pastry dough to roughly 12" x 16", using a small amount of flour so the dough does not stick to the surface.  Cut dough into 12 squares/rectangles.  Lightly grease a standard muffin tin with cooking spray.  Lay each piece of pastry in the muffin tin.  Dollop one heaping tablespoon of pastry cream into each muffin section on top of the puff pastry.  Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons chocolate chips onto pastry cream.  Gently fold puff pastry over pastry cream and chips.  Whisk egg and 1 tablespoon of water together to make an egg wash.  Brush egg wash over top of folded over pastry and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until pastry is golden brown.  Remove from oven and immediately remove Faux-clairs from muffin tin to a wire rack and allow to cool.  
*These are best if they are devoured within 24 hours as puff pastry tends to become soggy after that point.



Tuesday, March 1, 2016

March 1st

     "There's no spring on the Cape!" That's what my father has always said.  The ocean surrounding Cape Cod takes her sweet time warming up, leaving the residents here wondering when we will finally be able to pack away our winter woolens. Tell that to the snow drops and daffodils that have recently pushed themselves through the dirt, threatening to grace us with their hopeful presence. They are early this year. The sun is shining on most mornings now but the wind is still chilly when it blows down the back of my neck and makes my eyes water. I'm glad February is finally behind us.  The shortest, yet mentally, the longest month of year. 
     There is no tie-in to this delightful confection. Only that pastry cream has been on my mind and I saw something similar on a fancy cooking show.  I'm using puff pastry instead of making my own croissant dough like the chef on t.v. did.  Because, while I love to bake and create in the kitchen, I have the rest of my life to lead: working, driving to soccer and ballet, grocery shopping, vacuuming, etc.  You know, the exciting stuff.  So, I deserve a break with a hot cup of tea and big slice of yum, don't you agree?
     And I am fancy so I named this one in french...translation: Raspberry Braid

La Tresse Framboise
 (serves 8)

1 sheet puff pastry (1/2 package Pepperidge Farm)
3/4 cup pastry cream (see recipe below)
3/4 cup fresh raspberries
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
2-3 tablespoons turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Thaw puff pastry.  Using a small amount of flour to keep it from sticking, roll out into a larger rectangle approximately 12" by 16".  With a sharp knife cut horizontal 3" slits into each side, leaving about 1" between each one.  (Be sure to leave enough space down the center of the dough for the filling.) Dollop pastry cream down the center of the puff pastry and spread with a frosting knife.  Sprinkle raspberries over pastry cream. To create braid, take one strip from the left side and fold it over the filling, angling it slightly downward.  Take a strip from the right and angle it down and overlap the left.  Continue until all strips of pastry are braided. 
Gently lift braid using two spatulas and place on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Create an egg wash by beating the egg with water.   Brush over the entire braid and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.  Remove from oven.  Slide parchment onto a cooling rack and allow braid to cool before slicing and serving.

I found this recipe in one of my favorite "Parisian" cookbooks, Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo:

Pastry Cream
adapted from The Little Paris Kitchen
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup superfine sugar (I used regular, granulated)
1/3 cup  cornstarch
1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole milk

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until light and thick, then whisk in the cornstarch.  Split the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds, using the back of a knife.  Add the vanilla bean and seeds to the milk .  Bring the milk to a boil and switch off the heat.  Remove the vanilla bean and pour the milk in a slow stream onto the egg mixture, whisking vigorously all the time.  
Return the mixture to a clean pot and continuously whisk over a medium heat.  Make sure to scrape the sides and the bottom, otherwise it will burn.  The cream will start to thicken.  Once it releases a bubble or two, take it off the heat.
Pour into a heat proof bowl and cover with plastic wrap directly onto the cream.  Refrigerate for at least an hour before using.