Category Archives: cake

celebrate with citrus cupcakes

Last weekend we gathered with friends to celebrate the forthcoming birth of a new family. The party [yes, party. this was not a baby shower. and yes, boys were invited.] was co-hosted by myself and two lovely ladies, all of us brought together by our shared bond to Joe and Erin, the parents-to-be. The event was in the works for two months.  Dozens of emails were passed between the three hostesses as we planned. The only request from Erin was that there be no diaper decorations and no silly shower games. No problem.

We decided to throw a simple summer party and to decorate using colors inspired by the nursery; shades of blue, yellow, and green.  There was fruit-laden sangria and homemade lemonade, pulled-pork sandwiches and corn straight from Erin’s family’s farm. The weather was kind, overcast and cool with only the slightest spattering of rain. We sat outside sharing stories and laughter as candlelight flickered across happy faces long into the night.

Also, we ate cupcakes.

[To see more images of the evening, visit the AHPhoto blog.]

I love an opportunity to make cupcakes, and an outdoor summer party seemed to be the perfect occasion. A quick email to Erin verified that she had no preference for cake flavor, which was lucky because I had already decided that chocolate wasn’t an option. It just didn’t fit in with the party decor, which is a perfectly valid excuse I assure you.

And so I was left thinking about vanilla and lemon. It is no secret that I am a fanatic for citrus-flavored sweets, with four lemon cakescitrus sconeskey lime butter cookies, and coconut lime bars all listed on the Bella Eats recipe page. I should probably apologize for giving you yet another citrus dessert…but I won’t. You just can’t go wrong with citrus, and that requires no apology.

The cake itself is actually a modification of an old favorite, borrowed from the Lemon Mousse Cake I made for my own birthday a few months ago. It is a chiffon cake, made light and spongy by the egg whites folded into the batter just before baking. The addition of lemon and orange zest brightens the flavor, but it is the swirl atop the golden domes that truly stands out. The meringue buttercream seemed to be a hit, although it is the most unusual frosting I have ever tasted. A finger swiped across the side of the mixing bowl produces a dollop of ultra-creamy spread that melts as soon as it hits the tongue. At first the taste buds are overwhelmed with the flavor of butter, which then melts away to become a bright pop of lemon, that then fades to the slow warmth of Grand Marnier. It is a three-step process using each third of the tongue – front, middle, back – in succession, with each flavor forming its own distinct statement. And it isn’t too sweet, so you could easily eat several cupcakes without causing your teeth to ache.

Not that I would know that…

The frosting shapes beautifully, and despite my fears did not melt in the warm and humid evening air. A summer winner, for sure.

Sunshine Citrus Cupcakes

cake modified from the greyston bakery cookbook, pg. 46,  frosting from gourmet

makes 18 standard cupcakes

Cake Ingredients:

  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp orange zest
  • 1/2 fresh lemon, seeds discarded

Frosting Ingredients:

  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons and softened slightly
  • 1/3 cup orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Cake Method:

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350º. Line 1 standard muffin tin with 12 liners, and another with 6 liners.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, butter, milk and vanilla.  Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 cup of sugar, baking powder and salt to blend.  Add the lemon and orange zest and blend with your fingers to separate clumps. Add the egg yolk mixture and stir until well combined.  Set aside.
  4. In a clean dry bowl, using clean dry beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks.  Lower the mixer speed to medium and gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating the whites until they hold stiff peaks.  Stir about one-third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten.  Gently fold the remaining whites into the batter, in two batches, to blend thoroughly.
  5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling each muffin cup 3/4 of the way full.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted near the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
  6. Set the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes to cool.  Remove the cupcakes from the pans and allow them to cool completely on wire racks.

Frosting Method:

  1. Heat whites and sugar in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisking constantly, until sugar is dissolved and a thermometer registers 160°F. Remove bowl from heat and beat mixture in standing electric mixer on medium-high speed until thick, glossy peaks form. If mixture is still warm, continue beating until cool. (this takes about 10 minutes)
  2. With mixer running, add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. Add liqueur and lemon juice, beating on high speed until smooth and fluffy, about 10 minutes. If buttercream begins to separate, beat on high speed until smooth.

Assemble:

  1. Use a pastry bag to pipe frosting over cupcakes once they are completely cool. Keep refrigerated until ready to consume.

Congratulations Joe and Erin, we are so excited to meet your baby boy!

blueberry hill cupcakes, and a happy 4th to you!

The 4th of July is upon us already!  I’m not sure why 2010 is in such a hurry to rush on by, but I do wish that she would slow down just a bit.  I had big plans for this week, some favorite salads and cocktails and desserts to share with you before the holiday weekend ahead of us.  But, well, time flew.

I did manage to share one dessert with you, and here is a second.  The first was somewhat healthy, this one is not. Both are delicious, and either would make a nice addition to your picnic, bar-be-que, or party.  How to choose…

I am keeping things short and sweet today, because I have family in town!  That means wandering shops on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, stopping for gelato, lunch on a patio, pampering with my Momma, vinho verde on the back deck, sausages on the grill.  And that’s just today!  Oh, the weekend we’ll have.

I hope that yours is just as lovely.  What are your plans?  (I really do want to know!)

Perhaps you could make these cupcakes?  Lemony and chock-full of bright bursts of blueberry, they absolutely scream summer.  You’ll love them, I’m sure.

Blueberry Hill Cupcakes with Blueberry Glaze

cupcakes from bon appetit, glaze from bella eats

I’ve heard good things about the frosting that accompanies this recipe on bon appetit, but wanted something lighter and with a bit of color.  I bet a lemon buttercream or a lemon glaze would also be really delicious.

Also, my “glaze” originally started out as a full-blown buttercream frosting.  I frosted one cupcake, but found the very sweet topping to be very overpowering.  The cake itself is so delicious that you really want to let it shine.

Cupcake Ingredients

  • 3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk or low-fat yogurt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 1/4 cups fresh blueberries, frozen for 4 hours

Glaze Ingredients

  • 2-3 tablespoons blueberry puree (about 1/2 cup blueberries, pureed and strained if desired…I did not strain)
  • 4 tbsp butter (1/2 stick), room temperature
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 350* F.  Line two 12-cup muffin pans with paper liners.  Sift flour and next 4 ingredients into a large bowl.  Whisk the melted butter and oil in a separate, medium bowl.  Add eggs; whisk to blend.  Whisk in buttermilk, milk, vanilla extract, and zest.  Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients; whisk just to blend.  Stir in frozen blueberries.
  2. Divide batter among liners.  Bake cupcakes until a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 23-27 minutes. Transfer cupcakes to racks; cool.
  3. Beat butter in electric mixer with whisk attachment until creamy.  Add about 1/2 the sugar slowly.  Add 2 tbsp of the blueberry puree and continue whisking to blend.  Add the last of the sugar and whisk to blend. Taste, and add more blueberry puree if desired.  You want the consistency to be like a loose buttercream; easy to spread but also easy to control (you don’t want it running down the sides of your cupcakes).
  4. When the cupcakes are nearly cool, brush them lightly with the glaze.  You will find that the glaze will harden nicely in about an hour.
  5. Keep stored at room temperature in an air-tight container.

happy, happy day

Last year at this time I was posting regularly about our backyard vegetable patch. I’d shared potato salad with our sugar snap peas, an earthy, herby frittata, and a rosy beet risotto. The garden was, while a bit overgrown, orderly and walkable. I visited it every day, scurrying through the gate in the morning after my runs to pick raspberries for breakfast, losing myself to daydreams as I stood with a hose each afternoon and soaked the soil under the tomatoes and peppers. I was oh-so-proud of our little plot, and oh-so-excited to share its progress with you all.

In December, after harvesting the last of the carrots for our Christmas dinner, Brian and I mourned the fact that those were probably the last vegetables we’d see come from our current backyard. We were planning to move this Summer, and didn’t think it would be very smart to put a lot of time, money, or energy into a piece of land that would no longer be ours in just six months’ time. It made me sad. Very, very, sad.

March came and went without us ordering organic compost to till into soil already rich from three years of amendment and gardening. There was no sprinkling of lettuce, kale, carrot, or beet seeds; no elaborate map drawn to show the exact location of each plant to come. May 15th, the last frost date for our part of Virginia, rolled by without us spending a Saturday planting tiny tomato, cucumber and pepper plants. The weeds grew, and grew, and grew…and I just let them.

Multiple friends who don’t know our plans to move, but do know the joy we get from growing our own food, have asked “how’s that garden of yours?”. This single question, innocent as it is, elicits a panicked look from Brian, who tries to change the subject before I can launch into our sorrowful (to me) tale. About how, no, we didn’t plant any vegetables in our backyard this year. And no, we don’t think we’ll be moving into a new house in time to establish a new garden. And yes, I am devastated that we’re not spending a portion of our weekends weeding and watering and planting and harvesting. Harumph.

In hindsight, we should have planted summer veggies. Things never move as quickly as anticipated, and our putting the house on the market was no exception. By now we could have been eating our own lettuce, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, and beets. Instead we’re buying them at the farmer’s market, which is the next best thing, but still not quite as satisfying. I’m getting over it. Really.

However…our berries have been AMAZING this year. Strawberries, red and golden raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries. Thank goodness for hardy perennial fruit that grows no matter the neglect it’s received! Those shots at the top of the page are from my visit to the garden last Friday morning, when I first noticed that the blackberries are starting to ripen. I did a little dance, hurried back inside for my camera and a bowl, and proceeded to pick every single fully-black berry on the vine. Happy, happy day.

This cake was actually made with blackberries that we grew last summer and froze. We had 8 quarts in our own freezer, and many more were given to friends. I’m betting that our harvest will be doubled this year, and we’re not moving until I am proven right.  Stubborn?  Not me.

Even if you have fresh blackberries on hand, you should still freeze them for at least 4 hours before adding them to the batter. The frozen berries, with the help of the syrup, will stay firmly rooted to the bottom of the pan without rising to the top (which will become the bottom) of the cake.

The whole wheat flour provides the cake with a dense crumb, perfect for picking up between two fingers.  I made it for dessert, but I think it is even better for breakfast.  Not too sweet, hearty with whole grains, a nice compliment to a cup of coffee.

Blackberry Upside-Down Cake

from Sweet and Natural Baking, by Mani Niall

serves 10

Ingredients

fruit

  • 1/3 cup liquid fruit juice concentrate (or, agave nectar)
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 3 cups frozen blackberries

cake

  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup liquid fruit juice concentrate (or, agave nectar)
  • 2/3 cup skim milk
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

Method

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch ovenproof skillet or springform pan with vegetable oil spray.
  2. For the fruit:  In a small saucepan, bring the fruit juice concentrate and oil to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Pour into the prepared pan. Immediately arrange the blackberries in the pan in a single layer. Work quickly, as the syrup will harden rapidly. Place in the freezer while preparing the batter. (This will keep the fruit from floating to the top of the batter while baking.)
  3. For the cake:  In a medium bowl, using a handheld electric mixer at high speed, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the fruit juice concentrate, beating until stiff peaks form. Reduce the speed to low and add the milk, oil and vanilla, mixing until well combined.
  4. In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt until combined. Add to the liquid ingredients and whisk until smooth. Remove the pan from the freezer and pour the batter over the fruit.
  5. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a cake rack for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the skillet or springform to loosen the cake. Invert onto a serving plate. Let stand for 5 minutes so that the cake can absorb the juices. Remove the skillet of release the sides of the spring form and carefully lift off the bottom. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature.

a persuasive cake

Here we are at the end of March. Spring has claimed her space and unpacked her bags, kicked off her shoes and accepted a glass of lemony iced tea. She’s fully settled in and ready to chat for awhile, her pony-tail bobbing enthusiastically as she shows you what’s in store for the next few months.

There are predictions of 83* sunny days in Charlottesville this weekend…83*! That is shorts weather, my friends, and tank tops and strappy sandals and [eek!] swim suits weather. It was all very exciting until I pulled out a pair of those shorts last night and realized that this month coming to an end, the month full of birthdays and cake and cocktails, has done a number on certain, *ahem*, areas. Those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions set in January were shaken with the arrival of Brian’s birthday 29 days ago, and continued to slowly slip away as we celebrated our way through March.

This last weekend was the culmination of all of that good cheer. With my Daddy in town for four days spoiling us rotten, there were indulgent meals shared at favorite restaurants and bottles of wine Brian and I could never justify buying ourselves. As a “thank you!” for all of that generosity we had a little barbeque Saturday afternoon, complete with Double H Farm baby back ribs smoked on the Big Green Egg, the best baked beans I’ve ever had, salad with a hearty base of [local!] emerald green spinach and a delightfully moist lemon mousse cake. Although the air was a crisp 50*, we had a cloudless Caribbean-blue sky and a brilliantly radiant sun to warm our skin and confirm the departure of [old man] Winter.

And now today, with all of those birthdays behind us and the very last of that lemon mousse cake tossed away in the trash (but not before a bite or two passed my lips to verify its staleness) it is time to think of April, the second to last month before the water flowing steadily through our surrounding rivers warms to a point that justifies the loading up of kayaks and the donning of swim suits. It’s time to welcome the farmers back to downtown Charlottesville, to our Saturday morning City Market that starts this weekend(!), and to embrace the first gifts of Spring. It’s time to lighten up and brighten up, to take a break from all the sugary-sweet goodness of March and indulge in the green that comes with April.

But first, I want to give you more cake.

With a buoyant crumb that bounces back at the poke of a finger and an airy, lemon-tinted mousse so cool and refreshing you’ll have to fight yourself not to finish the entire bowl in one sitting, this cake seems to be the perfect welcome for Spring. It’s a persuasive cake, the kind that you want to always have under a dome on your counter, ready to share with important guests while sitting on the front porch drinking a tall glass of iced tea. It seems that, when being offered a cake like this one, it would be impossible for those guests to leave.

That’s my hope anyway, as I embrace Spring and ask her to stick around for awhile.

This is a very long recipe, but is actually very simple.  Especially if you divide the tasks between two days – the cake and lemon curd on the first, the mousse, frosting and assembly on the second.

Lemon Mousse Cake

from the greyston bakery cookbook, pg. 46

serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

for the cake

  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 fresh lemon, seeds discarded

for the lemon curd

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 2 medium lemons)
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

for the lemon mousse

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup lemon curd

for the lemon buttercream frosting

  • 6 tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 3 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1-1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp lemon extract

Method

make the cake (up to one day ahead)

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350*.  Grease and flour two 8″ round cake pans and line the pan bottoms with parchment rounds.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the egg yolks, butter, milk and vanilla.  Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1 cup of sugar, baking powder and salt to blend.  Add the egg yolk mixture and stir until well combined.  Set aside.
  4. In a clean dry bowl, using clean dry beaters, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed until they hold soft peaks.  Lower the mixer speed to medium and gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating the whites until they hold stiff peaks.  Stir about one-third of the egg whites into the batter to lighten.  Gently fold the remaining whites into the batter, in two batches, to blend thoroughly.
  5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans, filling them equally.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sides of the cakes begin to pull away slightly from the pans and a wooden skewer inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean.
  6. Set the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes to cool.  Turn the cakes out onto the rack and carefully remove the parchment.  Reinvert the cakes and allow them to cool completely on wire racks.
  7. If making the cakes the night before (as I did), wrap them tightly with plastic wrap once entirely cool and keep at room temperature.

make the lemon curd (up to one week ahead)

  1. In a small saucepan set over medium-low heat, whisk the eggs and egg yolk with the sugar, lemon juice and salt.  Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for 10 minutes or until thickened.
  2. Remove the curd from the heat and add the butter, stirring until melted.  Strain the mixture through a mesh sieve into a small bowl.  Stir in the lemon zest.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic directly on the entire surface of the lemon curd to prevent a skin from forming.  Chill the curd in the refrigerator until firm.

make the lemon mousse

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the cream until it holds soft peaks.  Working in three batches, gently fold the cream into the lemon curd.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.

make the lemon buttercream frosting

  1. In a clean bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, cream, vanilla and lemon extract.  Mix on medium-low speed until well combined.

assemble the cake

  1. With a long serrated knife, trim the rounded top off each cake layer to create a flat surface.
  2. Squeeze half of the juice from the lemon over the cut side of one layer of cake.  Place that layer, cut side up, on a serving plate. Spread the lemon mousse evenly on top.
  3. Carefully place the next layer, cut side down, on top of the first layer.  Squeeze the rest of the juice from the lemon on top. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the lemon buttercream frosting.  Place the cake in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set.  Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

tall, dark, handsome and dreamy

March is a month full of birthdays, a month for celebrating family and friends.  Twelve family members and good friends, to be exact.  It seems that every other day Brian and I are passing a card between us, signing our names and licking an envelope, sending our best wishes and good cheer zipping across the country to loved ones. Each of these special days surely contributes to my attachment to this third month of the year, with so many excuses to reach out and connect with people we don’t see or talk to nearly enough.

It is a part of the start of Spring, the phone calls and cards and Facebook messages, a routine as comfortable and happy as the emergence of lemon-hued daffodils and the pop of blushing cherry blossoms.  We send wishes for a year better than the last, marvel at the changes that have come in just twelve months’ time.  Across the line there are promises to visit, promises to talk more, promises to write often. The phone disconnects and we return to our routines, our hearts a little more full with the knowledge that we are better for knowing that other person, for being able to share another year with them even if from a distance.

I’ve come to think of March as the beginning of the new year, with all of its fresh growth and rekindled promises to keep in better touch, rather than the dreary gray and reclusive hibernation that is typical of January.  I find myself with renewed motivation, making plans while seeking spontaneity, striving to keep up with the ever-changing state of the surrounding environment. Each new clump of tiny chartreuse leaves, each cotton ball puff of Bradford Pear blossoms is a reminder of time’s quick passage, a kick in the backside that jolts the gears in my head to life, prompts me to take action on the ideas swirling through my brain.

I realize that these feelings come in part because Brian and I each celebrate our birthdays in March, his falling on the 2nd and mine on the 29th. We can’t help but to reflect on years passed as yet another draws to a close, setting goals for the coming weeks or in our case, the next two years before we hit the big Three-Oh.  Three.  Oh.  Wow.

We’ve started a ‘thirty before thirty’ list, although I don’t think either of us has finalized the catalog of things we’re set to accomplish. A lot can happen in two years’ time, and I’ve come to terms with the reality that is a sliding scale of goals, an evolving list of priorities. The point is to think about it, to make an effort towards trying new things, towards bettering and challenging ourselves in the smallest or biggest of ways.

One of the ways I am seeking to improve upon what is already a lovely life is to increase the connections we have with distant friends and family beyond the every-few-months phone calls. I want to follow through on the March promises, pick up the phone more frequently to catch up with those we hold dear.  This is a goal I’m not willing to let slide, a priority at the top of my list as I embark on my 29th year.  Phone calls to loved ones.  Often.

And, if I had my way, along with those phone calls there would be more cake.  Shared on actual birthdays.  We’d sit across from each other at my dining table, forks in hand, three-layer pillar between us.  There would be wine and coffee, stories and laughter, a vase of Spring flowers in the corner.  It would be so simple if only I could convince each person we love to move to Virginia, to live within a few hours of Charlottesville. Perhaps a task for the ‘forty before forty’ list…

This cake I’m sharing today was made for Brian, on his 28th birthday, just 3 weeks ago.  It is the same chocolate cake that I baked for him last year, which was the first from-scratch cake I’d ever made.  When I asked Brian what I should make for his birthday this year he requested the same chocolate cake, and left the frosting and adornment up to me.

The praline was a good choice, the crunchy texture a nice contrast to the dense, moist crumb of the cake and the creamy, stick-to-your-tongue ganache.  The whole ensemble is tall, dark, handsome and dreamy, just like my Hubb.

Happy 29th year, my love.  I feel certain it will be a good one.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again, this is the best chocolate cake recipe.  Ever.

Double Chocolate Cake with Praline Topping

Makes 12-14 servings. Cake recipe from Epicurious, praline recipe from Bon Appetit

Ingredients

for cake layers:

  • 3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
  • 1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk (for dairy free variation: mix 1 1/2 cups soymilk with 1 tablespoon cider vinegar and set aside to curdle)
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla

for ganache:

  • 1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
  • 1 cup heavy cream (or soy creamer)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter (or margarine)

for praline topping:

  • 3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup pecans, toasted, chopped

Method

make cake layers:

  1. Preheat oven to 300* F and grease two 10″ cake pans, or three 8″ or 9″. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.
  2. Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
  3. Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.
  4. Divide batter between pans (pans should only be half full – if you use 8″ pans you will have some batter leftover) and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes for 10″ pans, 50 minutes for 8″-9″ pans.
  5. Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.

make ganache:

  1. Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.
  2. Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency). I found that stirring this over a bowl of ice water did a great job of cooling it off quickly and evenly.

assemble cake:

  1. Use a serrated knife to cut off domes of cakes if needed (mine came out perfectly flat, so there was no need to take a knife to them).
  2. Place first layer on the plate you’d like to keep the cake on.  Spread a layer of ganache across the top of that layer, about 1/8-inch thick. Place the second layer on top of the first, and spread ganache on top of it.  Place the third layer on top of the second, and cover the sides and top of the cake with ganache.

make praline:

  1. Stir first 3 ingredients in a large, heavy sauce pan over medium-high heat until butter melts.  Boil 1 minute without stirring.
  2. Remove pan from heat, whisk in sugar and vanilla.
  3. Add pecans, stir just to incorporate.
  4. Pour praline over top of cake and spread to edges, working quickly to get even coverage before praline sets.

Cake will keep stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-5 days (and will stay incredibly moist, too!)

the clearest route

Why, hello March! How sneaky of you, creeping up behind me quickly and quietly, propelling past February’s tail just outside of my peripheral vision. It was nice of you to bring gifts – warm, sunshine-filled afternoons set against a bright, sapphire sky.

Walking through the park on Thursday, I noticed that beds are filled with the lime green leaves of young daffodils, and the tiny bell-shaped snowdrops are in full bloom. I even unbuttoned my coat, let it drape open to expose my sweater-clad chest, loosening the protective shell I’ve encased my body in for months.

Friday morning I glanced out my kitchen window and a bright spot of yellow caught my eye. Crocuses(!), peeking out from underneath a layer of leaves and mulch.

And yesterday, out taking care of errands with Brian, wandering in and out of shops, I had to dig my sunglasses out from their hiding place in our car. Oh Ray-Bans, how I’ve missed you!

As I write this, there is bright southern light streaming through the back door of my kitchen, the pattern of the glass casting a gridded shadow across the floor. And the window right over the sink, open as wide as it will go, grants permission to the cool breeze to filter through, picking up the scent of banana bread before moving on to the rest of the house. So motivating, the near-Spring feel of the space is calling to me, luring me to the pantry to gather ingredients for my next project.

I am constantly amazed at the affect that weather has on moods, on preferences, on behavior.

I am inspired to cook again, to browse my books and magazines in search of the perfect use for the local spring produce arriving any week now. Arugula and swiss chard, broccoli and kale. Green, green and more green.

The need to see something grow, to cover my hands with soil and coax tiny seeds to life, is overwhelming. The desire to walk out my back door with clippers in hand, returning with arms full of fresh produce, is palpable. Soon, so very soon.

Oh, and we’ve been talking about moving. Wanting to start over on a new (old) house, to tackle different renovation projects and to pick out brighter paint colors. I am addicted to our local real estate site, checking my email for new listings first thing each morning.

And then there’s photography, which I’ve been practicing regularly. Photographs of people and flowers and jewelry and food are popping up on my newly established Flickr page. It seems that inspiration is everywhere, and I am desperate to capture it all.

It’s a very nice change, this desire to invent, to create, to produce in place of the urge to sit still with a mind devoid of motivation. I credit the Spring-ish weather, feeling as if I am emerging from hibernation, stretching my legs and taking confident strides towards goals set with the new year. Some personal, some professional. Some big, some small. All important.

At any given moment my mind is flickering between half a dozen thoughts, trying to decide which to settle on and move forward with.  I am often overwhelmed, the trails in front of me not entirely clear and me standing at the head of them with my shoes laced up, ready to go but not sure of which to choose.

But when the kitchen is an option, it is undoubtably the route that I embark on.  Always the clearest, with a succinct set of instructions to accompany me, the outcomes are mostly joyous. Even if I get lost. And then there’s that southern light, and the crisp breeze, and the possibility of banana-scented air.  Who can say no to that?

And so, in this time of overwhelming possibility I’ve busied myself with baking, covering my hands (and face, and hair, and thighs) with flour, watching cakes and cookies rise to gentle domes through the oven door. I enjoy the satisfaction of this productivity, of harnessing some of the energy emanating from the Earth as it prepares for this next season, directing it towards bowls of sifted sugar and flour, creamed butter and silky eggs. As my hands work to chop walnuts and mash bananas my mind is able to wander, to slowly wrap itself around all those other thoughts, to sort through and file them away for a different time when the sun isn’t shining through the window quite so perfectly.

This cake, while not the prettiest kid on the block, certainly has the possibility of being the most popular with its stellar personality. So dense, so moist, the banana-scented crumb is perfectly balanced with dark chocolate and toasty walnuts. I brought it in to share with my office, a group notoriously hesitant about sweets, and it was polished off within a day.  That says something, something very good, I assure you.

banana cake with dark chocolate and walnuts

from gourmet, february 2008

serves 8-10

Ingredients

  • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened, plus 2 tbsp, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1-1/4 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 medium)
  • 2/3 cup fat-free, vanilla, greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 (3-1/2 to 4-ounce) bar bittersweet chocolate, or 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 cup walnuts, toasted, cooled and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 375* with rack in middle.  Butter a 9-inch square cake pan.
  2. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. Beat together softened butter (1 stick) and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Beat in eggs one at a time until blended. Beat in bananas, yogurt and vanilla (mixture will look curdled).
  4. With mixer at low speed, add flour mixture and blend until just incorporated.
  5. Toss together chocolate, nuts, cinnamon, melted butter and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl.  Spread half of banana batter in cake pan and sprinkle with half of chocolate mixture.  Spread remaining batter evenly over filling and sprinkle remaining chocolate mixture on top.
  6. Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35-40 minutes.  Cool cake completely before cutting.

retail relay

Charlottesville folks, have you heard of Retail Relay?  I had my first experience with the company last week, and am so impressed by the service they are providing to local consumers and businesses.  It’s a one-stop shopping experience for most of your favorite local food providers, at no additional cost to you.  Our order included items from Foods of all Nations, Feast, The Organic Butcher, Belle Haven Farm Bakery and Mona Lisa Pasta. I’ll be doing a post about the experience soon, but wanted to extend a coupon code they’ve offered my readers as soon as possible.

**For $10 off your Retail Relay order of $50 or more, enter ‘bellaeats‘ in the coupon bar on the online order form.**

immediately, if not sooner

I know that I am so late in saying this, but,

MERRY CHRISTMAS! HAPPY HOLIDAYS! WARMEST WISHES!

I hope that you all had as lovely a holiday as Brian and I did, filled with family, friends, good food, wine, multiple desserts and maybe even a little bit of snow.

Charlottesville actually had a lot of snow last weekend, just a few days before Christmas.  We did go out and frolic around in the drifts – laughed as the dogs frog-leaped through fluff as high as their shoulders, got in a workout shoveling multiple routes to the car and street, attempted the creation of a snow angel and a snowman – but mostly we watched the accumulation from behind our windows, warm and toasty in fuzzy socks with hot coffee in hand.  It was so peaceful, the snow falling silently on the other side of the glass, the city slipping into a lazy slumber as it was blanketed in white.

I managed to tear myself away from the windows and snow-watching for a short time in order to bake, feeling the need for the tiniest bit of productivity and worrying that we would lose power and the opportunity.  I had cake on the brain, particularly a store-bought, rum-soaked pound cake that my family consumed by the dozens when I was young.  We’d hand the mini cakes out as holiday gifts to all of our friends, and keep a stash of them in our pantry for months after Christmas.  It had been years since I’d had one of those cakes and I wanted  one.  Immediately, if not sooner.

While this isn’t exactly the cake of my youth, it has all of the most important attributes.  To me it screams “Winter! Holidays! Friends!”.  It is rich and dense, heavy with vanilla flavor and soaked with rum, and will warm you from inside out.  It is the perfect cake to whip up as snow falls outside your window, and lovely to share the next day with friends who walk a mile through two feet of fluff to visit with you.

Vanilla Bean Pound Cake with Rum Caramel Sauce

adapted from Paula Deen and Bon Appetit

serves 12

Cake

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pan, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 2-1/2 cups sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
  • 1/2 tsp fine salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 vanilla bean
  1. Preheat oven to 350*.  Butter and flour a tube cake pan, knocking excess flour from pan.
  2. With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and shortening.  Add the sugar a little at a time, and blend well.  Add eggs one at a time, blending after each addition.
  3. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder in a separate bowl.  Add to the butter mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the milk, starting with the flour and ending with flour.  Mix in the vanilla and the scraped-out insides of the vanilla bean.
  4. Pour into your buttered and floured baking pan and smooth the top of the batter.  Bake for 60-75 minutes, until the top is starting to turn golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Cool on rack completely before removing from pan.

Rum Caramel Sauce

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tbsp spiced or dark rum
  1. In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt your butter.  Stir in sugar until smooth, about 2 minutes.  Add cream and rum and bring to a simmer, cooking until sauce thickens and is reduced to about 1-1/2 cups, about 5 minutes.
  2. Drizzle rum sauce over individual slices of cake.

Sauce can be prepared up to 2 days ahead.  Refrigerate, and reheat on stovetop when ready to serve.