Perfect Party Cake

It seems that March is the month for birthdays; I know of a dozen people offhand who celebrate birthdays during this month, one of whom is my dear husband. I decided that this year, rather than buying a cake I would make one for him.

I was feeling a little intimidated by the prospect of baking a layer cake, as well as stacking it and icing it. But I was determined to do it! After scouring the web for recipes, I went out and finally purchased the infamous Dorie Greenspan book so that I had all the information I needed to make the cake I decided on, the Perfect Party Cake. This book is a must-have in my opinion; lots of clear, detailed instruction and hints for variations on most of the recipes, as well as the sheer volume of delicious cookies, cakes, and desserts to bookmark.

I chose this cake because it was reminiscent of our wedding cake, which was a snow-white cake with fresh raspberries and Grand Marnier. For this cake, I used fresh raspberries in addition to the raspberry preserves called for in the recipe, and decided to try Meyer lemons in place of the regular lemons. The greatest thing about this recipe is that it can be easily adapted to whatever tastes you prefer; I believe fresh strawberries would be equally fantastic.

My cake definitely had a "homemade" look to it, but for my first cake, it turned out pretty well. I baked the layers the day before I actually put the cake together, and just wrapped them well with plastic wrap. The layers were quite sturdy, but I decided to use a cake torter to cut them since I didn't trust my abilities to cut a straight layer ;) I had a little trouble trying to get the frosting to cover the entire cake, as the fresh raspberries created a bit of extra room between layers, so I was a little short when the time came to fully cover the sides. I compensated for this by adding some chopped almonds to the sides of the cake, which complemented the other flavors nicely.Perfect Party Cake
from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking From My Home to Yours

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk or buttermilk (I used buttermilk)
4 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp grated lemon zest (I used Meyer lemons)
1 stick (8 tbsp or 4 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 tsp pure lemon extract

1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
3 sticks (12 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut (omitted)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9 x 2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

Cake: Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unfold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature, right side up (the cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to two months).

Buttercream: Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or another large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a plan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat. Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat in the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6-10 minutes. During this time the buttercream may curdle or separate – just keep beating and it will come together again. On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

Assemble: Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half. Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one third of the preserves. Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream. Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream leftover). Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

Storing: The cake is best the day it is made, but you can refrigerate it, well covered, for up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before serving. If you want to freeze the cake, slide it into the freezer to set, then wrap it really well – it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer; defrost it, still wrapped overnight in the refrigerator.


Irish Soda Bread - Spotted Dog

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I decided to make some Irish soda bread. I made a loaf last year that was rather unimpressive, and I knew there had to be better ones out there. I chose this one because I happened to have several of the ingredients left over from the recipe for Nick's birthday cake, and also because it had raisins in it. My husband is away right now on an internship (he LOATHES raisins; I really enjoy them) so he doesn't have to be subjected to them!

This bread was so good, I ate about 3 slices as soon as it had cooled enough to eat. The buttermilk adds a delicious light and flaky quality to what can be a very dense bread, and the raisins and caraway seeds round out the flavors with a hint of sweetness and nuttiness.

Irish Soda Bread with Raisins and Caraway (also called Spotted Dog)
Good Things Catered

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 c. cake flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 - 2 c. buttermilk (I used about 1 3/4)
1 Tbsp butter, melted

-Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a heavy baking sheet with parchment.
-In large bowl combine dry ingredients, caraway and raisins.
-Whisk to combine.
-Add buttermilk and slowly fold in with a spoon until it starts to come together.
-Turn dough out onto floured surface and with floured hands, divide into two and knead one half until just coming together.
-Form dough ball into 6 by 2 inch disk and place on prepared baking sheet.
-Repeat with other half of dough, placing the two disks as far apart as you can on the baking sheet.
-Cut cross in top of dough and place in oven.
-Bake for about 30-40 minutes or until middle of loaf is set and outside has started to brown to a light golden color.
-Remove from oven and brush tops with melted butter.
-Let cool on pan for 10 minutes.
-Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely or let cool for 10 more minutes and serve warm.


Doughnut Muffins

These muffins are very, very dangerous to have around. They may not be as good as an actual doughnut, but they come pretty darn close. I saw this recipe last week on the blog Sweet Cheeks in the Kitchen and I've been dreaming about them ever since.

I went a little heavy on the cinnamon sugar topping (key word: sprinkle), but otherwise I thought these were excellent muffins with that distinct doughnut flavor. I think I would probably bake them at a little bit lower temperature, as they were a little crispy by the time I took them out (and I took them out after about 17 - 18 minutes of baking.) I am trying to keep from eating anymore today, as I have already consumed 3. I will definitely put these in my favorites category - they are fantastic!

Doughnut Muffins
from Sweet Cheeks in the Kitchen,
Source: Marjorie Standish
Yield: One dozen medium sized muffins

1 egg
1/3 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 cups flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar

Beat egg and then add oil and milk. Beat. Sift the dry ingredients. Add dry to wet and stir with forks. Pour into greased muffin tin. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and dot with butter. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes (mine were definitely ready to come out around 17 minutes, but my oven tends to run hot, so just check on them around 15 minutes.)

Optional: Once the muffins came out of the oven I brushed each with melted butter then rolled completely in cinnamon and sugar.


Yogurt Scones

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Draney Photography

This post marks my 1st Blogiversary! It has been an amazing year experimenting with different recipes and posting to a food blog, and I look forward to many more posts in the future.

I found this amazing recipe on the blog Chocolate & Zucchini. I was attracted to this recipe because it only called for 2 tablespoons of butter. (I know, I know, there's nothing wrong with using lots of butter in your scones. But I was looking for something that would be a tad bit lighter in the calorie content.) Trust me, you won't even notice the lack of butter once you taste these light, fluffy scones.

I took her basic recipe and added cranberries and lemon zest, but you can mix any add-ins that you like. And the best part is you won't feel quite so guilty reaching for a second (or a third...)

Yogurt Scones
Chocolate & Zucchini

1 2/3 cups flour
2 heaping Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
2 Tbsp butter, softened & diced into cubes
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 Tbsp milk
2 - 3 Tbsp chopped nuts or dried fruits, or a teaspoon citrus zest (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Add in diced butter and blend it in with a fork or pastry cutter, until no visible lump of butter remains. Add the yogurt, milk, and zest, as well as any add-ins (cranberries), and blend them until the dough forms a ball. Handle the dough as lightly as you can, without overmixing, or the scones won't raise as much.

Pat the dough into a flattened round, a little over an inch thick, and cut into eight wedges. You can also divide the dough into eight balls, which is what I did.) Place the eight wedges/rounds a couple inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, until the top of the scones are set and lightly golden.

Yields 8 scones
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Draney Photography


Double Chocolate Cookies

This recipe comes from my new "The Best of Cooking Light" cookbook, and provides exactly what I was looking for - small, soft, chocolate-packed cookies for around 100 calories a pop. (Although I think with the extra chocolate chips I added, that number is a bit conservative.)

Double Chocolate Cookies
adapted from The Best of Cooking Light

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 Tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg white
1/3 cup dried cherries (I didn't have any so I omitted and just added more chocolate!)
1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chunks (I upped this to 1/2 cup)
2 1/2 Tablespoons white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly spoon the flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk ingredients together.

Combine butter, sugar, and brown sugar in a large bowl; beat with a mixer on medium until well blended. Add vanilla and egg white; beat for another minute. Stir in flour mixture, cherries, and chocolates.

Drop the dough by tablespoons onto baking sheets. Place the pans in the freezer for around 5 minutes, then bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. (Mine stayed in for almost 12 minutes, and my oven tends to run hot, so make sure they are done when you take them out.) Cool on pans for 2 minutes before removing, and cool completely on wire racks.

Yields 2 dozen cookies; 1 cookie ~98 calories


Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Draney Photography

Growing up, whenever we went somewhere for ice cream, I always went for the mint chocolate chip. Something about the fresh minty cream and the sweet, crunchy chocolate pieces made for a perfect treat on a hot summer day.

I received an ice cream attachment for my beloved KitchenAid mixer back in July as a birthday gift, but I had yet to try this childhood favorite flavor of mine. I have to take advantage of the mild winters here in Southern California, so I decided to make a batch despite the fact that it's January - hardly a time most people are thinking about eating ice cream! (Although I suspect true ice cream lovers will eat it any time of year, even when temperatures drop below zero.)

I found this recipe on the blog Proceed with Caution after spotting this other recipe for Nutella ice cream (which I would also like to make, although I am afraid to be left alone with the remainder of the Nutella once the recipe is made...highly addictive stuff.) I liked this recipe in particular because she gives suggesting for working with different amounts of creams and milks to bring the ice cream that is not quite so high in fat, but yet still has a rich and creamy consistency, rather than an icy one.

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
adapted from Proceed with Caution,
originally adapted from Doc Wilson

- 1 egg
- 1/2 can of fat-free sweetened condensed milk
- 6 Tablespoons white sugar
- 4 ounces heavy whipping cream
- 16 ounces fat free half and half
- 4 ounces skim milk (or 1%, or 2%, whatever you have)
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
- 3 - 4 drops green food coloring (I only used 3 to keep it from being too green)
- 2 tsp vodka OR mint schnapps OR "The Good Doctor" (optional, I didn't have any so I omitted)
- 6 ounces semisweet or dark chocolate (I used Lindt 70%), finely chopped - keep in freezer until using

In a large mixing bowl whisk together egg, sweetened condensed milk, and sugar until thoroughly mixed. Add heavy whipping cream, half and half, skim milk, salt, vodka or schnapps, mint extract, and green food coloring. Chill the mix in the refrigerator for about four hours which allows the mix to "age" before freezing according to the directions with your ice cream freezer. Add the chocolate pieces in the last 5 minutes of freezing. This recipe makes the perfect amount to fit in a 1.5 quart ice cream maker. Makes between 4 and 5 cups of ice cream.


Cranberry Orange Muffins

I guess I went a little crazy with buying cranberries when they went on sale for .39 cents a bag after the holidays...I was starting to run out of room in my freezer after a recent trip to the grocery store and decided I needed to use some of them up. I had saved this recipe in my Google Reader in December, and came across it this weekend as I was looking for cranberry-related goodness.

I really love the way cranberry and orange go together, and what better way to start your day off but with some tasty muffins? Despite the fact that this recipe only uses whole wheat flour, they were still quite light and fluffy, and make for a (somewhat) healthy breakfast.

Cranberry Orange Muffins
From The Way the Cookie Crumbles,
adapted from King Arthur Flour

Makes 12 muffins

1½ cups whole wheat flour
¾ cup quick-cooking rolled oats
¼ cup buttermilk powder or nonfat dry milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon orange zest (finely grated orange peel)
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped
½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
2 large eggs
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar
¾ cup milk
⅓ cup melted butter or vegetable oil

Glaze (I omitted)
2 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick vegetable cooking spray.

2. Whisk flour, oats, milk powder, baking powder, and orange zest in a large mixing bowl. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk egg until broken up. Add sugar and whisk until combined. Whisk in butter (or oil) and milk.

3. Add cranberries and nuts, if using, to dry ingredients and stir to combine. Add milk mixture and fold with rubber spatula until batter comes together. Do not overmix.

4. Divide batter among 12 muffin cups. Bake until toothpick inserted into center of muffin comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then transfer them to a rack.

5. If using glaze: In a small saucepan or the microwave, stir together the glaze ingredients. Bring just to a boil, to dissolve the sugar. Dip the tops of the warm muffins into the glaze.