FRENCH YOGURT CAKE

My friend Michele, the inimitable and unnaturally clever Brooklyn food writer, posted a recipe for this cake on her Facebook page many months ago, saying, “In all my years of cooking, I have never made a better cake than this.”  Well.  One does not ignore such an endorsement.

yogurt cake 2

As it turns out, Jill has been sentimentally attached to the idea of French Yogurt Cake since reading about it in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe.  Druckerman talks about how this cake is traditionally the first that French children learn to make with their parents; Jill & I both loved the idea of that.  I make homemade yogurt regularly, so it’s always around the house, and I’ve always got a hankering for something sweet–but not too sweet–to go with a cup of tea.

So we made our first—but certainly not our last—of these cakes this past weekend, when the Houston weather first dipped down into temperatures that could reasonably be considered “fall-ish,” and I brewed a pot of chai to go alongside.  It was lovely, lovely, lovely, and though Shiv wasn’t quite up to helping with the making of the cake yet, he was all too happy to help eat it.

shiv yogurt cake

News-y things:

•    The best interviews are more like conversations, and I had a really wonderful one with Bel Poblandor for Trop magazine: How to Carry Grief | An Interview with Nishta Mehra

•    I’m thrilled to be headed home to Memphis tomorrow, Thursday, September 26 for a reading & signing at St. Mary’s Episcopal School!  You can find all the details here.

•    A dear friend sent me a link to this blog post yesterday; this blog is new to both of us and, as my friend put it, “For a moment I thought she had hijacked my brain.”  A highly recommended read, and not just for mamas/parents.

•    A public service announcement: if you’ve never had the pleasure of an almond butter and Bosc pear sandwich for breakfast (on hearty, toasted bread, please), please remedy ASAP.

 

FRENCH YOGURT CAKE

recipe from Epicurious, via Michele Humes

The beauty of this cake is in this simplicity: best not to mess with it.  If you like your desserts very sweet, this may not be the cake for you.

yogurt cake with chai

ingredients:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1 T finely grated lemon or orange zest
¾ cup whole milk Greek yogurt (I used my homemade yogurt, straining it ahead of time to thicken)
½ cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla or citrus extract (I used the latter)

oven: 350°F
pan: standard loaf pan

Coat the loaf pan with a nonstick vegetable oil spray like Pam, then dust with flour.  Tap out any excess flour & set aside.

Whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, & salt) in a medium bowl.  In a separate, larger bowl, rub the citrus zest into the sugar until the sugar is moist & fragrant; you can also do this on a cutting board using a bench scraper a la Joy the Baker.  Add the yogurt, oil, eggs, & extract to the sugar, whisking to blend.

Fold the dry ingredients to the wet until just combined.  Pour batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until the cake is golden brown on top, 45-55 minutes.  Cool the cake in the loaf pan first, for about 15 minutes, before inverting onto a rack and cooling completely.  Cake can be made ahead & stored at room temperature, well wrapped or in an airtight container.  Serve with chai or coffee.

GUEST POST: STRAWBERRY CUPCAKES

On this Valentine’s Day, I’m so excited to share a guest post from my friend Tami.  She and I attended the same high school in Memphis, and I’ve always admired her sense of humor, willingness to speak her mind, and entrepreneurial spirit.  Plus, her strawberry cupcake recipe is a winner; I tested it this weekend and, for someone who doesn’t normally even like strawberry cake, managed to eat two cupcakes by myself.  When I took the leftovers to work (to prevent myself from eating them ALL), they promptly disappeared and my colleagues raved.  Thanks, Tami! –Nishta

strawberry cupcakes | Blue Jean Gourmet

Having spent the majority of my life in the South, I understand the importance of a good strawberry cake recipe. This caused much stress as I worked on perfecting my recipes for TamiCakes. In my mind, every strawberry cupcake or cake should taste as good as the slices of strawberry cake that I would devour at Bogie’s Deli on Mendenhall as an after school snack in high school. If I couldn’t get the same joy from eating my own strawberry cake as I did whenever I visited home, then the recipe was no good.

For months, I could not find a good recipe. I tried frozen strawberries, strawberry jello, strawberry yogurt, strawberry jam, and nothing worked. Whenever someone would order the Mia X (named for the first lady of No-Limit Records, a Southern music powerhouse during my teenage years), I would cringe, because I did not look forward to the outcome. Eventually, I unofficially removed the Mia X from my menu while I worked out the recipe.

One day while browsing through recipes online, I came across this recipe. The recipe called for frozen strawberries, but I switched it up to fresh strawberries. Fresh is always better in my mind. I also cook the strawberries on the stove and then puree the in the food processor, versus just pureeing them in the food processor without cooking them. The flavor, to me, is much better with these alterations. I top the cupcakes with my cream cheese icing instead of strawberry icing. I love strawberry on strawberry, but using cream cheese allows you to savor the flavor of the cake.

For me, this is a perfect strawberry cupcake recipe. A lot of strawberry cake recipes don’t translate well to cupcakes, but this makes the most delicious little bites. They’re even good enough to sit on top of the Bogie’s lunch counter.

STRAWBERRY CUPCAKES WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
Yields 18-24 cupcakes

Note: This recipe yielded only 16 cupcakes for me, but I used large muffin tins and filled them quite full.  Since I didn’t have any red food coloring on hand, the cupcakes you see here are more of a pale pink.  And finally, my piping skills are not what Tami’s are; despite my inability to make these cupcakes look fancy, they still tasted fabulous!

for the cake:

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 ½ cups granulated white sugar

2 ¾  tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup pureed strawberries (from approximately 1 lb. strawberries)

4 large egg whites

1/3 cup milk

4 -5 drops of red food coloring (optional)

for the frosting:

1 package cream cheese, softened

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla

2-3 cups confectioner’s sugar (I prefer two cups, since I’m not a fan of super-sweet icing)

strawberry cupcakes | Blue Jean Gourmet

directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.
2. Dice strawberries and place in skillet, covered with water.
3. Place over medium heat and bring to boil.
4. Reduce heat and allow mixture to simmer for about 3 – 4 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and strain. Reserve juice for another use.
6. Puree cooked strawberries in food processor, set aside.
7. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; set aside.
8. In an electric mixer, blend butter with strawberry puree.
9. Add flour mixture and blend until light and fluffy.
10. In another bowl, whisk together egg whites, milk and food coloring.
11. Add egg mixture to flour mixture and blend until completely mixed.
12. Fill cupcake liners with 1-inch ice cream scoop.
13. Bake 18 to 22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
14. Let cupcakes cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together until combined.  Add the vanilla, then beat in the powdered sugar gradually, pausing to taste as you go until your desired level of sweetness has been reached.

Tami

Tami Sawyer is 30, single & loves to bake.  TamiCakes is an entrepreneurial foray into her love of baking, which was passed on to her by her Mom & Granny. She resides in the District of Columbia where she maintains an active social & professional life and still finds time for cupcakes!

CHAI PISTACHIO CAKE

There’s nothing quite so great as watching a friend coming into his or her own.

For the first two years of Blue Jean Gourmet’s existence, Sonya Cuellar was this site’s exclusive photographer; I never could have gotten this blog off the ground without her.

Sonya is also an extremely talented painter.  Self-taught, her work betrays an innate talent for manipulating color and texture.  Jill and I are proud to hang several Cuellar originals in our home, and even prouder to call Sonya a friend.

Over the last year, Sonya’s artistic career has really taken off.  She started taking classes at Houston’s Glassell School of Art to hone her technique, and the resulting paintings have demonstrated an increased level of sophistication.  In January, she was selected for the John Palmer Escapist Mentorship Program, which has pushed and challenged and stretched her to take on new projects and promote herself and her work in new ways.  She’s taken to the whole thing like a duck to water, and I am so proud.

Recently, on our way home from an otherwise lovely trip to Memphis, Jill’s camera was stolen.  Thankfully, Sonya was willing to step in and become blog photographer again for the short term, until we can replace Jill’s camera.  Today’s cake image and others you’ll see in coming weeks were taken by Sonya.

To celebrate Sonya’s blossoming career and expose more folks to her beautiful work, we concocted a little giveaway!  To win a custom-painted messenger bag OR iPad cover like the ones pictured here, just follow these steps:

1. Head on over to Sonya’s website and take a look at her Paintings gallery.

2. While you’re there, like Sonya’s artist page on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

3. Post a comment here with the title of your favorite of Sonya’s pieces!

 

 The giveaway will be open until Friday, October 12th at NOON CST.  At that time, I’ll randomly select a comment number and inform the winner via email.  Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada only.

Many thanks to Sonya for letting me give away one of her awesome pieces–I have the bag pictured above and I love mine!  Go enter everyone!

 ***UPDATE***  We have a winner!  Congratulations to Sunny, with randomly selected comment #10.  I will contact you via email to get your mailing address!

 

PISTACHIO CHAI CAKE

Inspired by this article about baking with tea, and riffing off of this recipe, I give you this not-too-sweet and very moist cake.  I think it would work very well at brunch and, of course, it goes extremely well with a cup of tea!

I probably didn’t push the chai flavor as far as it could go—it wound up being more of a backdrop for the pistachios, which was fine by me.  If you want a more aggressively tea-flavored cake, go ahead and bump up the amounts for the spices.

 

ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup almond meal

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

pinch of salt

1 ¼ cup buttermilk

4 T browned butter

1 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs at room temperature

4 T good-quality loose-leaf black tea (or cheat and cut open some tea bags)

1 tsp. ginger

1 tsp. ground cardamom

½ tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. black pepper

for the glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar

approximately 2 T milk

½ tsp. vanilla

pinch ground cardamom—optional

 

for the topping:

½ cup raw unsalted pistachios, shelled & chopped

 

pan: I used an 8” spring form pan lined with a piece of buttered parchment, but an 8” square would work as well

oven: 375°

Combine the dry ingredients: flour, almond meal, sugar, baking powder, soda, & salt.  Whisk in the tea and spices.

Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and pour in the browned butter, eggs, vanilla, & buttermilk.  Stir the mixture until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cake has browned on top and cooked through (test with a toothpick).  Cool on a wire rack.

To assemble the glaze, whisk all ingredients together.  You may wish to adjust the consistency with more milk or powdered sugar, then drizzle over the top of the cooled cake.  Sprinkle the pistachios on top of the glaze and serve!

POPPY SEED CAKE

Anticipating the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, I sorted through the recipes I had bookmarked to try and asked Jill: “Apple cake, honey cake, or poppy seed cake?”  She voted poppy seed, and here we are.

As many of you know, I have the pleasure of teaching at a Jewish school, living inside of a culture that isn’t my own but is very close to my heart.  The rich food traditions associated with Jewish holidays are especially resonant for me, coming from another religious tradition (Hinduism) that buffets its celebrations and rituals with food.

Since Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, it’s traditional to eat sweet things to usher in a sweet new year, hence the apples and honey.  Some Sephardic families, as I understand it, even go so far as to eschew salt in the preparation of the entire Rosh Hashanah meal, and for a month thereafter.

Poppy seeds, though not sweet by themselves, are a traditional Eastern European ingredient and add beautiful flavor and texture to desserts.  They are said to symbolize the manna sent by God to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, a reminder of God’s promise and goodness.  L’Shana Tovah!

POPPY SEED CAKE RECIPE
take from this fascinating New York Times article about the Strawbery Banke restoration, a living museum “set” in 1919

The original recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar; I cut the amount down by 1/3 cup in order to make this a good afternoon-with-tea cake, but by all means, go with the full two cups if you want something more dessert-y.  And instead of dusting with powdered sugar, you could make a glaze with, say, orange or lemon juice or even some melted chocolate.  The addition of almond extract is mine; I think it adds just a leetle something extra, but you can certainly omit it if you don’t have any on hand.

One last note: if the first step of boiling and soaking the poppy seeds seems fussy, don’t skip it.  This allows them to soften and crack just a little, making their flavor more prominent and enhances the texture of the cake as well.

ingredients:

1 cup poppy seeds
1 cup milk or soy milk
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter or pareve margarine, plus more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting pan
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, separated
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. almond extract
½ tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. salt

powdered sugar, for dusting

Combine the poppy seeds and milk in a small saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil.  Immediately remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool, about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Grease a large pan (I used a Bundt, but you could use a couple of large loaf pans or a tube pan) with butter/margarine and lightly flour the inside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter/margarine and sugar.  Add the egg yolks, vanilla & almond extracts, and poppy seed-milk mixture, then beat until smooth.  Slowly add the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Mix well, then scrape out into a large bowl.

Clean the bowl of your stand mixer, then fit it with the whisk attachment and whisk the egg whites until they are stiff.  Fold them into the reserved batter and turn into the pan.  Bake until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean—about 1 hour for a large pan, 35 minutes for smaller shapes.  Cool, then dust with powdered sugar.

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BIRTHDAY CAKE

When it comes to birthdays, I opt for chocolate, but Jill loves her vanilla.

She is calm and rational, always able to think a problem through, while I am crazy-emotional, always feeling things.  Her brain is analytical, layer upon layer for digging and cross-referencing, built like a outline, hierarchical, ordered; mine is more like a wild and barely discernable mind-map, colors and doodles and scribbles that somehow make sense.

When she cooks, she dirties the least amount of dishes, keeping her food simple, satisfying, elemental.  When I cook, I amass a giant pile in the kitchen sink, primping and adjusting, always looking for one more taste to add.

She is an impeccable sight-reader; I play only by ear.  She is a code that needs cracking; I am an open book.  She reads politics and philosophy while I love my cookbooks and historical British lit.  She is good at being still and I am good at being busy.  She is a woman of well-chosen words and I am a woman of, well, lots of words.

She is my opposites-attract, the peanut butter to my jelly, the love and now co-parent of my life.  She never ceases to amaze, surprise, and inspire me, like she did recently when publishing her first novel (on the same day we brought Shiv home from the hospital, no less).  I urge you check out the book, Quail Fried Rice, on Amazon, where you can purchase either a paperback or Kindle version…I’m super biased, but I think it’s a very fine piece of writing.

VANILLA BUTTERMILK CAKE
from my hands-down favorite cake book–Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Jill’s birthday was this past Wednesday, July 25th, and we celebrated in new-parent style: at home, with a couple of good friends, some champagne, steaks on the grill, a (mostly) sleeping baby, and this cake.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cup plus 1/3 cup buttermilk
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks (save the whites for the icing!)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 ¾ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups white sugar
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ sticks (12 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature

oven: 325°F
pans: recipe calls for 9-inch, but I used 8-inch & was fine, they were just quite full!

Butter your cake pans, then line each with a round of parchment paper.  (Buying pre-cut rounds may seem extravagant, but I did it, and it’s kind of changed my life.)  Butter the parchment paper & sides of the pan, too.

Combine the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt) in the bowl of a large mixer; blend briefly.  Add the butter and 1 ¼ cup of the buttermilk, mixing on low speed at first.  Once somewhat combined, raise the speed and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl or glass measure, mix together the whole eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk until well blended.  Remove the bowl from the mixture and add the wet mixture to the mixing bowl in thirds, folding and scraping down well with a spatula between each addition.

Divide the batter evenly between the three pans (approximately three cups of batter per pan; you can also use a kitchen scale to weigh, provided your pans are uniform).  Bake cakes for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.

Turn the layers out onto wire racks, peel off the paper liners and let the cakes cool completely.  Once cool, wrap completely in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, and refrigerate or freeze.

VANILLA BUTTERCREAM
from Smitten Kitchen

These are the best instructions for a Swiss-style buttercream I’ve come across: uncomplicated, undaunting.  You can totally make this!  And it will taste DELICIOUS.  Believe me—even Jill, who normally scrapes icing off of her cake (like a weirdo, I know), loves this buttercream.

Somehow I wound up with a large stash of egg whites in my freezer, which I thawed for this recipe.  Egg whites in the freezer are brilliant for things like this and meringue cookies and pavlovas.  But say you don’t have any egg whites in your freezer and you have to crack some eggs for this recipe, what should you do with your yolks? Add them to your next batch of scrambled eggs—they’ll be rich and creamy and dee-licious.

ingredients:

1 cup sugar (I like to use vanilla sugar here)
4 egg whites
3 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In the bottom of your metal stand mixer bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisk the egg whites and sugar together.  Whisk occasionally until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Move the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium-high until the mixture turns white and grows a bit in size.  Add the butter a little bit at a time and continue to whip, whip, whip until it becomes buttercream—this can take a while, so don’t panic!  Just keep the faith and eventually it will become incredibly delicious icing.

Remove your cake layers from the freezer or fridge and assemble on a cake stand or plate.  You can put a cardboard cake board underneath, or just use wax paper to protect from falling icing.  Using a serrated knife, “clean up” the cakes so that their tops are level and their sides match.

Now apply the crumb coat: place a generous amount of icing between each layer, using an icing spatula (also called a palette knife) to smooth it down.  When you reach the top layer, use about twice as much icing as you did for the other layers and work it over the top and down the sides of the cake.  Turn the cake stand or plate as you hold your palette knife against the edges, to smooth the icing.  For the crumb coat, you want a thin, even layer—it’s okay if a little cake is showing here or there, you can fix that layer!  Return the entire cake to the fridge to chill.

After about an hour, apply the rest of the frosting to the cake for the finished layer.  You can do all kinds of fancy decorative things, like pipe buttons or ribbons, or use warm water & your palette knife to make swirls along the sides of the cake, or even a clean comb to “stripe” the cake, but personally, I just made the icing as smooth as possible, then decorated the top simply, with some sugar pearls, fresh blackberries, & candles.  Festive but not fussy!

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GUEST POST: POLISH PLUM CAKE

from Nishta: my friend Jessie, who guest-posted for me in the past (with recipes for ciabatta and challah), generously agreed to toss a few things from her pastry chef repertoire our way.  This plum cake is the first of two desserts inspired by her husband’s family.

I’ve been married to my husband, Ken, for two years now, but we’ve been together and a part of each other’s families for over ten years.  I knew early on in our relationship that he comes from a rather large, close-knit half Italian, half Polish family.  I just didn’t realize how large of a family until I attended my first Fila Family Reunion back in August.  The Filas represent the Polish half of Ken’s heritage, and there must have been at least 40 people there! Being the newcomer to such a large family, and coming from a small family myself, needless to say, I was quite nervous.

I’d met a lot of Ken’s family before and knew that they are all warm, welcoming, friendly people, but it didn’t ease my anxiety in the least.  The reunion was a potluck so I thought I would volunteer to bring dessert—it seemed to be the most logical thing to do.  Ken thought we should take it a step further and bring a traditional Polish dessert since some of his great aunts and uncles are actually from Poland.  I agreed that it was a great idea and thought it would be fun to learn a little about Polish desserts, of which I knew nothing about.  It was an adventure in research and execution, I must say.  But the outcome was delicious and both desserts (yes, I brought two, because I’m an over-achiever, and I wanted to impress my new family members) were a big hit.

The recipes I found online are adaptations of the traditional Polish ones.  Some of the ingredients are difficult to find in the U.S., so the recipes have been tweaked to make it easier on the home cook, which I, for one, appreciated.  I then took the recipes and tweaked them myself to enhance the flavors and presentations.

The plum cake I kept simple, adding orange zest and allspice for flavor.  You could change the presentation and make individual cakes just as easily as making one big cake:  butter 10-6 ounce ramekins, follow the cake recipe below and fill each ramekin halfway up with batter.  Press one half of a plum in each ramekin, top with the clove topping, and bake for 20-30 minutes or until the cake is golden brown.

POLISH-STYLE PLUM CAKE

Editor’s note: The second of Jessie’s recipes from the Fila family reunion, for individual, Polish-style cheesecakes, will be published as we get closer to the holidays—I think they will be perfect for Christmas!

This plum cake, however, I wanted to blog about while the fruit’s season was still going strong.  I messed with Jessie’s instructions a bit, slicing the plums instead of simply halving them, because the ones I was working with had some bruised spots.  

Fair warning: this cake will make your house smell FANTASTIC.  Who needs a scented candle when you can have cake?  Thanks Jessie!

ingredients:

2 1/3 cups all purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon allspice
1 cup sugar, divided use
1 stick butter, softened, plus 3 Tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes
¾ cup whole milk
Zest of 1 orange
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6-8 fresh black plums*, pitted and halved, but not peeled
¼ teaspoon cloves

Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly coat a 13” x 9” pan with non-stick spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, sift the flour, baking powder, salt, allspice, and ¾ cup of sugar.  Add the 1 stick of softened butter and about half of the milk and beat on medium-low speed until the mixture is crumbly.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining milk with the orange zest, eggs, and vanilla.  Add to the mixture in the bowl in three stages, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan and place the plums on top, cut side up.  Push the fruit into the batter slightly.

Combine the remaining ¼ cup of sugar with the cloves.  Using your fingers, rub the 3 Tablespoons of cold, cubed butter into the sugar mixture.  Sprinkle over the plums.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the cake is golden brown on top.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan completely before cutting and serving.

*The plums can be substituted with any stone fruit, such as peaches, nectarines, apricots, or even cherries.

 Jessie Fila fell in love with baking the summer after high school graduation when boredom led to a discovery that she is very good at pastry!  After attending college in Florida, she traveled to New York to complete her Associates Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from The Culinary Institute of America.  She loves dessert because it’s often the most memorable part of any meal, and can easily make or break a diner’s experience.  She currently works at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton, Connecticut.  At home on days off, she cooks to relax and to feed her lucky husband Ken.

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ORANGE POLENTA CAKE

You know what?  I am never going to be less than a size 10.  I am never going to not want to sing along to a Disney musical if in its presence.  I am always going to feel the need to plan things, to be obsessive and make lists, to send out texts and emails, “Hey do you want to…?”

I will procrastinate by cooking.  I will cope by eating things that I find delicious.  I will never be able to skip more than two days in a row at the gym because I am addicted to endorphins.  I will start books (particularly “thinky” non-fiction books) that I feel like I “ought to” read and never finish them, opting for really addictive, well-written fiction instead.  I will feel slightly guilty about this, and about the fact that sometimes I listen to music in the mornings on the way to work instead of NPR, but not guilty enough to stop.  I will go weeks without writing and when I finally set aside time to do so, I will think “Why don’t I do this more often?”

Every once in a while, I will snap at Jill for something that totally isn’t even her fault. I won’t call my mother as often as I probably should.  I will tell people “I love you” more times than is necessary, in ways that they’re not sure how to respond to, but that won’t stop me.  Sometimes I may pretend to be asleep when the dog needs to go out in the middle of the night.

If you ask, I’m going to tell it like it is.  (I may do that even if you don’t ask).  I’m going to save bacon fat in a jar in the fridge & then fry eggs in it, I’m going to flirt with good looking waiters, I’m going to lust after unnecessary shoes, I will probably always be a little bit vain, and I am never going to not want dessert.

The end.

ORANGE POLENTA CAKE
adapted from Bon Appetit

I love the texture that polenta brings to sweets; the pairing with orange is classically Italian, though this cake is more like a pound cake than anything else.  The original recipe calls for plums & blackberries to be served alongside, but I stuck to just the latter.  I also substituted good old-fashioned whipped cream for the more high-maintenance (though delicious sounding) buttermilk ice cream suggested.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cups flour
¾ medium-grind polenta
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup + 2 T sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk)

oven: 350°
pan: 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, buttered & floured

Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside.  In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, butter, & zest together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and blending well after each addition.  Beat in the vanilla.

Alternately add the dry ingredients and the yogurt, starting & ending with the dry ingredients.  Mix until just combined, then pour the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean or with dry crumbs clinging to it.  This may take anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour & 15 minutes, depending on your oven.  Cool the cake on a rack in the pan before running a knife around the edges and inverting the cake.

Serve with blackberries tossed with a little sugar & vanilla extract and some homemade whipped cream or ice cream.
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CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

Our memories are unreliable.

I’m a nonfiction writer by training and trade, and so I’ve spent some time thinking about the way the filing cabinet of my mind is built; in a rather unorganized fashion, I’m afraid.  We humans are storytellers by nature, narrators in perpetual search of an angle.  Not just those of us who call ourselves writers, either.  Story helps us make sense of our lives, form much-needed meaning, work out issues, and communicate things we couldn’t otherwise.  But since we’re telling stories about ourselves, we’re clearly biased.  Which means our memories are, too.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things complicated.  Memory leaves us, it changes shape, it butts up against the contradictory memory of another.  (Ask any couple to recount an argument, who said what, who did what, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Trick is, some memories are so good that we really don’t care if we made them up or not.  A glance from across the room, a kind word, a really good night, how happy we were then.

My Southern girlhood dessert memory includes a favorite which I finally managed to recreate: coconut, pineapple, pecans.  It’s like an Ambrosia cake without the oranges, a Hummingbird cake without the bananas.  Did it actually exist when I was small?  Have I had this cake before or did I simply conjure the idea of it in my mind?

The unreliable narrator that is my mind has no idea, but urges you to make these regardless.

CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

first things first:

2 cups chopped pineapple, preferably fresh

¼ cup sugar (omit if using canned)

a generous spash of dark rum

Combine in a nonreactive bowl & let hang out while you make the batter.

then:

1 cup sugar (dial back to ¾ cup if using sweetened coconut)

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 T vanilla

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup milk

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for garnish)

1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (plus more for garnish)

oven: 375˚

pan: muffin tins well-greased or filled with paper liners

Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and smooth.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition, then the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add in three batches, alternating with the milk:

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

Stir in the pineapple and all its rummy juices, pecans, and coconut.  Yes, the batter will look a little thin but FRET NOT!  All this means is that moist cake is in your future.

Fill the muffin tins about three-quarters of the way full, then bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown.

After 10-15 minutes, remove the cupcakes from muffin pans to cool completely on racks.  Frost with butter cream and garnish with extra chopped pecans & coconut.

for the butter cream:

1 ½ cups sugar

½ cup water

6 egg whites

4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into cubes

1 ½ T rum (optional)

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat until it dissolves.  Boil the mixture until it reaches soft ball stage on a candy thermometer.

While the sugar’s boiling, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  With the mixer running at medium-high, gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, taking care not to pour the syrup into the egg whites and not onto the metal (where it will instantly form sugar strings).

Reduce the mixer speed and beat the meringue until it cools to room temperature.  Beat in the butter a few tablespoons at a time.  Drizzle the rum in very slowly to incorporate.  Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container.

ALMOND-ORANGE TEA CAKES

I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.

Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die.  Get them to do the same for you.  Be clear, even if it’s painful.  Put it in writing and get that writing notarized.  Make sure everyone knows where the papers are.  Please.  Do it right now.

These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for.  But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them.  Because four years ago, I did.

I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away.  But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make.  We did not have to guess, or wonder.  And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.

So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog.  It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.

Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006


ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES

adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago

This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make.  These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.

1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt

oven: 450˚
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer

Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor.  Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest.  Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).

Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer.  Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes.  Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes.  (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)

Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).

CANDIED ORANGE PEEL

zest of 3-4 oranges
sugar
water

Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process.  Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.

Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar.  Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup.  Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.

Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup.  I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.

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CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE

I don’t buy the theory that everything happens for a reason.

crumb cake slice cut out

After watching my father go from perfectly fine to totally incapacitated in the course of three weeks, after witnessing some of the best people I know be unable to conceive and carry a healthy baby, after being privy to the pretty hellish family backgrounds of some of my students, I’m extremely resistant to the line of thinking that asserts “there’s some good reason for this totally shitty thing that’s happening.”  In my world, shitty things just sometimes happen.

I do, however, believe that if something shitty should happen, you might as well find an angle on the situation from which you can learn something, be grateful for something, grow, and/or laugh.

So.  As you might imagine, I’m not very good at standing around and not doing things.  Not good at going to Costco with my best friend and letting her put everything in my cart and load everything into my car.  Not good at letting Jill do the cooking.  Not good at standing around at a Halloween party, unable to pour drinks.

I’m going to back to the doctor today, but I have to say the experience of the last few days has made me grateful and thoughtful.  I see now how accustomed I am to assessing my value via the things I can do: baking, helping, fixing, mailing packages, cleaning, grading, writing letters, blogging (which I’m doing anyway—shhhh!)

What I’ve been forced to realize is that, even if I never contributed another action in my life, I would still be loved.  I’d be valued and of importance.  I’d be useful simply for being myself.

And that’s a pretty big thing to get.

CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE
ever-so-slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

If your hands are in even slightly better shape than mine, MAKE THIS CAKE.  The food processor & stand mixer do most of the work, and this cake tastes like fall, nostalgia, home, & butter all rolled into one.  Fresh cranberries are readily available these days, but if you must, you can substitute thawed, frozen ones.

Because I prefer my breakfast cakes a bit tart, I’ve dialed back the sugar by a quarter cup from the original recipe and added a bit of lemon zest.  Feel free to go for a sweeter version if you’d like.

cake ingredients: crumb cake slice 2

½ a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup cranberries
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
zest of one lemon

oven: 375°
pan: 9-inch round cake pan (I used a spring form)

Butter the pan & line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, too.  Trust me.  It’s easier this way.

Use your food processor to make vanilla sugar: scrape the insides of the vanilla bean* into the bowl of the food processor along with the sugar.  Pulse to combine.

Remove vanilla sugar from bowl & reserve ¼ cup for the topping.  Pulse the cranberries with another ¼ cup of vanilla sugar until finely chopped.

To make the cake batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Beat together the butter & remaining vanilla sugar (1 cup) until pale and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour mixture & milk alternately.  Begin & end with the flour!

Stir in the lemon zest; be careful not to over-mix.

To assemble the cake, spread half of the batter in the pan (don’t worry if it looks a little thin).  Because the cranberries tend to give off a lot of water, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the food processor & spread them in a circle over the batter, leaving a slight border.

Top the cake layers with the remaining half of the batter (again, don’t worry if it looks thin!)  Top with the crumble—see below—and bake for 45-55 minutes.  The cake will pull away from the pan & become light brown.  If using a regular cake pan, cool at least 25 minutes before turning out the cake.  With a spring form pan, wait 15-20.

*Don’t throw away that vanilla bean half!  Save it for flavoring purposes, the simplest of which is to store it in a jam jar with some extra sugar, which you can then add to your coffee, tea, baked goods, etc.

crumble topping:

¼ cup vanilla sugar (see above)
1 T flour
1 T unsalted butter, softened

Blend the ingredients with your fingers & scatter over the top of the cake.

Cake will keep, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for a week.

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