A Perfect Cheescake….Finally!

There are those recipes you dare to try, going in with great gusto and leaving all inhibitions aside. Cheesecake may safely be said to be one of those such recipes. (At least for me.) I’ve lived in New York City long enough to consider myself a New Yorker and, thus, a fan of cheesecake. Those of you inhabiting the East Coast of the U.S. may likely be familiar with Junior’s cheesecake, originating in Brooklyn; decadently rich and smooth. But, honestly, I don’t know too many people, regardless where they originate or currently find themselves geographically, who don’t enjoy a thick slice of gateaux du fromage.

I’ve attempted my hand at creating a cheesecake worthy of praise a few times in my life. I’ve had some near successes, but certainly nothing I could sell at a corner bakery. Until now…

I recently began reading a book titled, “CookWise,” by Shirley O. Corriher. I haven’t completed reading it cover to cover, so I can’t give a final review at this time, but I can tell you how exciting it is to read sections and chapters at random and get new insights about various recipes I’ve tried without a lot of success, simply due to my lack of food science knowledge. I find this book to be most like a hand guide for those of us home cooks who have always had an inkling to — but never found the time — to attend cooking school.

I tweaked the following recipe — it originally called for sour cream, and I replaced it with Greek thick yogurt, with much success. I added pure almond extract, but you could instead add an almond-flavored  liquor, such as amaretto, or simply omit the almond flavoring and opt for lemon juice and zest. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers in the graham crust, however I used some tea biscuits and loved the outcome. It’s totally up to you and your preference.

Because this recipe doesn’t contain any starch in the batter, it must be baked in a water bath. The cake pan should be placed in a casserole dish large enough to leave a good inch of space around the entire cake pan. I was a little apprehensive the first time I attempted this recipe, but placing a thick, terry cloth towel underneath the cake pan provides extra protection from heat on the bottom of the pan, and allows the cheesecake to bake nicely without overcooking. The towel will certainly not burn, so not to worry!

Cheesecake will appear to be undercooked when you need to stop the baking process. So if the cake looks a bit jiggly in the center, don’t fret. It will set nicely in the fridge overnight. Most cheesecakes I have made in the past came out cracked in the center, which I later found meant I had overcooked the cake. I made a simple preserve syrup out of frozen strawberries, blueberry/cranberry juice, almond extract, and sugar, but it’s certainly not necessary. This cheesecake is divine on its own, topping or no.

Crust:
14 wafers, or tea biscuits (chocolate or plain)
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
2 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
4 tsp. pure almond extract, or 1/4 c. amaretto
3 c. thick Greek yogurt, such as FAGE brand

Crush the wafers or biscuits in a plastic zipper bag or in a food processor. In a small bowl, stir together the crushed wafers, sugar, and melted butter until a coarse crumb is achieved. Line the bottom of an 8 x 3″ round, straight-edged cake pan with parchment paper, cut to fit. (Despite what you see in the photo below, I do not recommend using a spring form pan, as a little bit of water will leak through the pan during the baking process, making the crumb crust soggy.) Grease the sides of the pan, then press the crumb crust into the bottom of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Meanwhile, in a food processor or standing mixer, blend the cream cheese and sugar well, removing all lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add the vanilla, salt, and almond extract (or amaretto). Blend well. Add the yogurt. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Prepare a water bath by folding a thick, terry cloth towel into the bottom of a roasting pan. Place the cake pan on top of the towel. Pull out the oven shelf you intend to use to bake the cake, and place the roasting pan onto the oven shelf. Carefully fill the roasting pan with nearly boiling water until the water reaches about an inch up the sides of the cake pan. Carefully slide the oven shelf back into place. Close the oven door and do not open it for 45 minutes, despite any temptation to do so. After 45 minutes, shut off the oven heat and allow the cake to sit inside the oven for another hour. The cheesecake batter may look undercooked to you, but trust me, it’s going to be fine! Remove the cake from the oven and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, you will need to remove the cake from the pan. It will need to be inverted twice, so cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap and set aside. Turn a burner on low and place the cheesecake pan on the burner for a few seconds. This will allow you to remove the cake from the pan easily. Place the plastic-coated baking baking sheet over the cake pan and invert the cake onto the sheet. Peel the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and then re-invert the cake onto a pedestal cake dish, or cake plate. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Believe me, you (and all your guests) will be blown away by this cheesecake. In fact, I think I am going to have another slice from the fridge as soon as I finish writing this post!

Advertisements

Cherry Almond Mini Muffins

I’ve noticed a recent rise in the availability of virgin coconut oil in my local supermarkets. Even Trader Joe’s offers a jar of this sweet tasting stuff for an equally sweet price of $5.99. I started experimenting with the addition of coconut oil in numerous sweets I enjoy baking. It adds a lovely, gentle coconut taste and moisture to whatever it’s incorporated into. It also has numerous health benefits, some of which you can read here. Plus it tastes amazing on homemade popcorn!

I came across a lovely recipe for muffins with dried cherries and almond paste. It was Saturday morning, and I really wanted to churn out something for breakfast. Since I didn’t have any almond paste on hand, I decided to substitute some of the required butter with coconut oil and a small portion of the required amount of flour with some almond flour. I added a splash of almond extract, and I was left with an irresistible almond paste substitute. (Well, at least I thought so!) I was in the mood for something mini, so I decided to opt for downsizing the muffin. My children love mini muffins for their cute size, and I love them because they are the perfect portion size, allowing you to indulge in some sweetness without going overboard.

Yield: 24 mini muffins (12 regular size)

juice from one orange (about 6 Tbl.)
3/4 c. dried cherries, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp. almond extract
3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 2 Tbl. almond flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two mini muffin tins with muffin liners. (If you prefer, you can exclude the muffin liners and just oil the tin, but I tend to have better luck removing the muffins once they are baked with liners.) In a small sauce pan, or butter warmer, add the orange juice, cherries, and almond extract. Slowly bring the liquid mixture to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow the cherries to seep in the liquid until softened, about 10 minutes.

Whisk the flours, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the stand mixer running on low, add the eggs one at a time. Add the coconut oil and orange zest. Add the cherry liquid mixture. Continue to keep mixing until all ingredients are incorporated. Spoon the batter evenly between all the muffin cups. The batter should be even with the top of the liners. Place the muffin tins onto the middle oven rack and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the muffin tops are nicely golden. Allow the muffins to cool on a wire rack. The muffins can be kept in a cake dome for 2-3 days, but it’s highly unlikely that will happen. Usually, in my home, all 24 are consumed by evening!

Valentine’s Day Banana-Beet Muffins

I have a delicious recipe from my grandmother for banana bars that I have adapted many times into cakes, cupcakes, and muffins with varying flavors and toppings.  So when I was deciding what to make for Valentine’s Day for my son’s pre-school class, I saw a couple aging bananas and decided to experiment.  This is what I came up with:

Banana-Beet Muffins

1/2 c. butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. (8 oz.) plain or vanilla-flavored yogurt (The original recipe calls for sour cream, but yogurt works just as well.)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. mashed ripe bananas
1/4 c. pureed beets

Note:
Beets are what I like to call all-natural food coloring. Red beet juice or puree adds a lot of color, but little flavor to baked goods and other sweets. For instructions on how to make this, see below, or read our previous post about pureeing vegetables. Alternatively, you can use one full cup of mashed bananas, which is how this recipe is made with my grandmother’s original recipe.

Directions:

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, sour cream, and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; gradually add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the bananas and beets. Spoon the batter into lined muffin tins, filling about 2/3 full. To make the muffins heart-shaped, add a glass marble between the liner and the tin to make an indentation in the liner and how the muffins bake. (The marbles won’t make the muffins look like “perfect” hearts, but the frosting and sliced strawberries can help further define the shape.)

Bake at 350° for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool. Yields about 2 dozen.

Decorating the muffins:

My grandmother’s recipe recommends a basic cream cheese frosting on the banana bars, which is decadent (recipe below). But for this batch, I decided to make a pink-tinted yogurt glaze that is just as delicious, but a tad bit healthier for the small bodies that would be consuming the muffins.

Pink Yogurt Glaze

4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1/4 to 1/3 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
4 oz. plain or flavored yogurt (vanilla and strawberry flavors work nicely)
1-2 tsp. pureed beets (optional, for color)

8-10 strawberries

Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the vanilla, yogurt, and beet puree. Stir until blended. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cut the stem off the strawberries with two inward cuts to make them look like a heart, then slice lengthwise, making sure to preserve the heart shape. You should get 3-4 slices per strawberry. Frost the muffins and top with a strawberry slice. Store in the refrigerator. Use any extra yogurt glaze as a fruit dip.

Cream Cheese Frosting

4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 to 2 c. powdered sugar

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla. Gradually add enough powdered sugar to reach your desired consistency.

Pureed Beets — There are several ways to cook the beets, but I like to wrap them in foil (like a baked potato) and set them in the oven for about 1-1.5 hours while something else is cooking. Anywhere from 350-400° works well. After they cool, unwrap them carefully (beet juice stains!) and peel them. Avoid touching them directly too much so that your hands don’t get stained red. Mash them with a potato masher or ricer or puree them in a food processor.  Add a little water (one tablespoon at a time), if needed.  Use right away or store in an air-tight container in pre-measured amounts (ice cube trays are great for this).

Weekend Breakfast: Dutch Pancake

One of my fondest  childhood memories is my father’s Saturday morning pancake ritual. Throughout a majority of my youth, my father worked third shift, which meant I didn’t get a chance to see him too frequently during the week. Weekends were cherished moments, accented by raucous backyard trampoline jumping, visits to the cinema, and baking chocolate chip cookies. How I loved to watch my father mix the pancake batter to the right consistency, then add a small dollop of butter to a cast iron skillet, before he spooned out the batter in some shape we children had requested. I always wanted the first pancake off the griddle, as that was the one which had the slighty fried and crispy bottom ring from the batter hitting the sizzling butter.

Now that I am a mother, I try to continue this Saturday morning tradition with my children. I usually give my father a phone call to invite him over, at which point he laughs and says he’ll be right there! [My father lives about 470 miles away from me, thus the chuckle.] Whether I make pancakes and eggs, or scones, or muffins, I try to recreate that magic feeling surrounding weekend breakfasts for my children, just as my father made for me.

 The other day I came across a recipe for a Dutch pancake. The accompanying magazine picture, showcasing this lovely ballooned pancake, made me immediately want to try it. And so, we did. I must say it was extremely uncomplicated to make and a ton of fun for my children (and myself!) to watch while baking in the oven. It is quite a crowd pleaser, and would be a welcome addition to any sort of brunch you may be planning for company. Feel free to add a nice dusting of powdered sugar to the top of the pancake, and, or homemade whipped cream. I omitted both of these ingredients, opting for a simple sprinkling of cinnamon instead, as my children certainly didn’t need the extra “energy” from yet even more sugar in the morning. If you do decide to omit the sugar or the whipped cream on top, I do recommend adding about a 1/4 c. of sugar into the batter prior to baking, or a drizzle of maple syrup upon serving.

Here’s to weekend breakfasts and making lasting memories with your loved ones!

Dutch Pancake Recipe:

3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. whole milk, room temperature
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 c. sugar (optional)
1/2 c. maple syrup
confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon for dusting

Put an 11″ ovenproof sauté pan in a cold oven and preheat oven to 475° F. While the oven and pan heats, place the eggs, flour, sugar (optional), milk, and vanilla in a blender. Blend on high until frothy, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and blend again if necessary. Once the oven reaches the required temperature, remove the sauté pan. (Be sure not to touch the handle of the pan by accident without an oven mitt. The pan will be VERY hot!) Add the butter and return the pan to the oven. After the butter melts, about 2 minutes, remove the pan once again and carefully pour the batter inside. Return the pan back into the oven and allow the batter to bake for about 17-19 minutes, or until the  pancake is lightly brown on top and the sides have risen.

When the pancake is fully cooked, remove from the oven and sprinkle with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Allow the pancake to cool for about 3 minutes before cutting it into wedges. If you choose, serve with whipped cream and sliced orange rounds or fresh berries.

*My children love to watch the pancake balloon while baking, so I recommend turning the oven light on and taking a peek now and then. Just be sure no one leans up against the oven glass in the thick of excitement, particularly if your oven is situated low to the floor!

Whipped Cream Recipe:

1 c. heavy cream, chilled
1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. vanilla

In a large bowl, add the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Beat on high speed until the mixture has a thick consistency. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Keep chilled until ready to use.

Don’t throw out the pumpkins…or the seeds!

One of my favorite things about Halloween is seeing all the pumpkins, carved and whole, adorning porches, windows, and doorsteps.  And one of my other favorite things is spending an entire season consuming the delicious foods derived from pumpkins and other squashes — seeds, breads, soups, pies, casseroles, and more.  Despite the fact that a shortage of pumpkins — caused by unusual weather circumstances — has pervaded many communities in the U.S. this year, many shoppers heading out on November 1st will find stores offering great deals on the leftovers of these orange orbs.  Below are a few ideas on how to take advantage of this autumn favorite.

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Pre-heat the oven to 300ºF. Scoop out the seeds from your carved pumpkins or squash into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water and separate the seeds from the pulp by hand, discarding the stringy orange part. Don’t worry about getting them perfectly clean. Rinse and drain the seeds and shake off any excess water. Place the seeds on a rimmed baking sheet. Season them with your choice of flavoring. My favorite is simply adding a sprinkling of sea salt, but you could add garlic or onion powder, chili powder, cinnamon and sugar, or even a little maple syrup. Let your taste buds guide you! Sprinkle (or drizzle) your flavoring over the wet seeds and toss to evenly coat them. Spread the seeds out on the pan in one even layer and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, until they are dry and crisp, but not brown and burnt. Toss the seeds every 10 minutes or so while toasting so that they dry out evenly. The cooled seeds can be kept fresh in an airtight container for several days. Enjoy!

Use the pumpkin as a baking dish!

A hollowed-out pumpkin makes a wonderful and festive container for baking anything from pasta and bread casseroles to potatoes, soup, and meat dishes. Small pumpkins can be used for individual servings, and large ones can contain a centerpiece dish for your next dinner party. Your imagination is the limit!

Pureed Pumpkin

Sugar pumpkins (or pie pumpkins) can be found at rock-bottom prices, and the puree made from this variety can be used in a ton of recipes. Cooking it is quite simple.

Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. Place the cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet with about 1/4 inch of water, and bake at 350º for about an hour, until a fork can be inserted easily. Add more water while cooking, if needed. Scoop the meat away from the skin and puree it in a food processor until smooth.

This method can be used for used for other types of squash, such as acorn, butternut, and (my favorite) delicata.  The pumpkin or squash puree can be used right away or frozen.  During the fall, while this produce is abundant, I like to make a lot of it and freeze it in 1-cup portions that can be pulled out at a moment’s notice for a quick soup or casserole dinner.

Pumpkin bread

This is a delicious recipe that came from my sister, and it can be made into loaves, cupcakes, or mini-muffins.  For my last batch, I made all three!  Spread some soft cream cheese or top it with cream cheese frosting to make it extra special.

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice (or 1/4 tsp. nutmeg)
  • 2 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups puréed pumpkin (or one 15-oz. can)
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 350º. Sift together all the dry ingredients (except the sugar) into a large bowl. Cream together the sugar, eggs, and oil in a separate mixing bowl. Add the puréed pumpkin. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the water to the egg mixture, one-third at a time.  Stir in the nuts.

Bake as follows:

  • Bread: pour batter into 3 greased and floured loaf pans and bake for about one hour, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If baking with dark pans, reduce the oven temperature to 325º.
  • Cupcake / mini-muffins: makes three dozen standard cupcakes or nine dozen mini-muffins.  Fill cups or liners 3/4 full.  Bake standard size for 20-25 minutes and the mini size for 12-15, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Hint: to satisfy both those who do and don’t like walnuts, instead of mixing the nuts into the batter, sprinkle them along the top before baking so that they can be easily removed later on. Just watch them to be sure that they don’t burn.

It’s a Piece of Cake

I’d like to start out by dispelling a myth that pervades many kitchens:  baking a cake from scratch does NOT have to be difficult.  But those fancy cakes from the bakery seem way too beautiful and tasty to pull off at home, right?  Do you know what they have that you don’t have?  Courage…(no, no, no….I just watched the Wizard of Oz recently, and I still have lines, lyrics, and tunes coursing through my veins).  Okay, maybe a little courage is useful (as well as a brain, a heart, and a home), but if baking is totally new to you and seems a bit intimidating, what often makes bakery cakes so good is simply a good recipe.

Technique also comes into play when baking a cake from scratch, and there certainly are some types of cakes that require more advanced skills than the novice baker may possess.  But, with a few basic tips to follow, many recipes can become fool-proof and will produce delicious and beautiful results every time.

The following recipe is one from the treasure chest of Olive, a beloved neighbor and seasoned baker, and it’s a wonderful choice for a birthday cake, cupcakes for school events, or just an anytime dessert.

But, first, some tips for the baking newbies…

For making the perfect batter:

  1. Let all cold ingredients come to room temperature (e.g. butter, eggs, milk), unless the recipe specifies otherwise.
  2. Do not rush the creaming of fat and sugar.  Beat it until it becomes light and fluffy, and all the sugar is incorporated.
  3. Do not rush the beating of eggs.  This is what gives cakes, cookies, etc., a lot of their volume.  See the picture to the right for an example of what it should look like.
  4. Measure carefully – a little variance of ingredients in most cake recipes can completely change the results.  Once you are an experienced baker, you can add a little, cut a little, to achieve different results.  But for now, just follow the directions.

For easy removal of cakes from baking pans:

  1. Grease and flour cake pans generously and thoroughly.  The wrappers from the used butter are perfect for greasing pans.  Next sprinkle flour around all parts of the pan, then bang one side of it on the palm of one hand while holding it with the other to shake the flour around, kind of like playing a tambourine.
  2. Line the bottom of the cake pans with parchment paper to further assist in easy removal of the cake once baked and cooled.  Just trace the outside bottom of the pan on the paper, and cut just inside your markings for a perfect fit.  (By the way, do NOT use wax paper – it is not the same.)
  3. Allow the cakes to cool completely before removing them from the pans.

For producing a perfectly baked cake:

  1. Some ovens leak a lot of heat, which makes the back a lot hotter than the front.  If this describes yours, you may need to rotate the cake halfway through the baking time.
  2. Allow the cakes their own time in the oven rather than doing double duty and sticking it in with that casserole for dinner.
  3. Place cake pans on a rack in the top third of the oven, but not the very top.
  4. Toothpick test – stick a toothpick in the center of your cake to see if it’s done.  If liquid batter still sticks, it needs more time.  If crumbs appear on your toothpick, it may be over-done and too dry.
  5. Another way to tell if a cake is done is to see if the center is firm yet, or if it still jiggles at all.  You can also lightly press the top with your fingertip – if it bounces back immediately, it’s probably done.
  6. Keep in mind that each time you open your oven, much of  the heat is lost (I’ve heard estimates of 25-30%).  And every time that you pull the cake out to test it, it stops cooking.  This can lead to a cake with a burnt edge and soft center – yuk!  So be diligent about the cooking, and resist the temptation to check once a minute for the last five minutes of baking time.

Buttermilk Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • zest from 2 lemons (optional)

Add the baking soda to the buttermilk in a medium bowl and set aside.  The mixture will foam a little.  Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each.  Mix in alternately the flour and buttermilk mixture.  Then add the vanilla and lemon zest.

Line with parchment paper, grease and flour two nine-inch cake pans.  Bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes.  I also get 10 standard cupcakes from this recipe.

Frosting:

Here’s a little secret about bakery-style frosting — you know, that light and creamy frosting that tops the cakes from most grocery store bakeries?  It’s most likely made from vegetable shortening, which is a man-made fat of partially hydrogenated oils.  Its benefits are that it withstands temperature changes and does not spoil quickly, but there’s nothing natural or healthy about it.  So please, take pause, when you feel compelled to grab the piece of cake with towering frosting at the next birthday celebration you attend, if you don’t know who made the cake and what’s in it.

Smaller, independent bakeries (those outside of the grocery and big-box stores) tend to use better, more natural ingredients — so vanilla buttercream frosting will likely contain real vanilla, butter, and cream.

Don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING healthy about cake frosting — it is pretty much all fat and sugar.  But this is why we don’t eat it every day, right?  And natural ingredients are most certainly a better bet for your body than the unnatural ones.

This being said, here is a basic recipe for a buttercream frosting.

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature
  • 3-4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out, or 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2-3 tablespoons of milk or cream

Directions:

Beat together the butter and one cup of the sugar in a mixer for one minute on low speed.  Add the salt, two tablespoons of the cream, vanilla beans or extract, and then, gradually, two more cups of sugar.  Increase the speed and beat until light and even.  Add more sugar or cream to reach your desired consistency.

I like to use real vanilla bean in buttercream frosting because I love the flavor and the look of the little seeds in the finished product.  Sometimes I go overboard and use both the seeds and one teaspoon of vanilla extract.  It just makes it a little extra special.

Assembling the Cake

Carefully remove the round cakes from their pans.  To do this, first use a flat utensil (preferably plastic, so you don’t scrape your metal pans) to fully separate the cake from the sides of the pan.  Although, with the coating of grease and flour, the cakes should have mostly pulled away from the sides by the end of the baking time.  If you used parchment paper on the bottom, it should come out easily now.  If not, use your spatula to gently lift the cake away from the bottom of the pan without any of it sticking.  Once it is all loose, invert a plate on the top of the pan, turn it over, and it’s out!

If your cakes are domed (rounded on the top), trim a bit off the tops with a sharp knife to make them flat and even.

To frost your cake, it’s best to use either an off-set or flat spatula, but in a pinch, a butter knife will even do.  Smear a small dollop of frosting in the center of your cake plate — this is so that the cake does not slide around if it has to travel.   Place one of the cakes with the bottom up on the cake plate.  Scoop about 2/3 cup of the frosting gently onto the center of the cake.  Using your spatula, press the frosting carefully out to the sides, being careful to not allow crumbs to be lifted.  Add more frosting, if needed, to completely cover the top of the bottom layer.  Next, carefully lay the second cake on top, again, bottom side up.  Frost the second layer in the same way as the first, covering the sides, as well.

Don’t worry if the cake, at this point, doesn’t look quite as pretty as the store cakes.  If you are artistically talented, perhaps it looks lovely, but if you’re like me, you may want something up your sleeve to finish it off.  An easy way to make a cake look beautiful is to sprinkle the entire thing with shredded coconut.  Not a coconut fan?  Try lining the top perimeter with thin strawberry slices (and even including a few strawberry slices between the cake layers).  Let the cake be your canvas, and only goodness can result.

Ok, you may be reading through this entire post, thinking to yourself, “hey, I thought they said this was uncomplicated.”  Trust us, it is. Baking is a delicate art, which is mastered once one knows all the subtleties.  But, honestly, it only requires a few more measurements on your part to forgo the box and bake from scratch. And believe us, the results are a million times more delicious.  Baking can be a real joy.  As with just about everything in life, the more you practice, the better you will become.  So whip out your mixing bowls and spatulas, and get baking!!!

Coconut Cupcakes

It’s that time of year again…..blossoms are blooming, the tendrils of green leaves have sprouted on all the trees, and the grass (whatever small patches I have the opportunity to experience in New York City) seems to have shot up six inches suddenly. People begin to reemerge from winter hibernation, and you seem to get an invite to a party or BBQ every week. So what to bring the host/hostess on such occasions?? I have a couple of dessert recipes in my “arsenal,” which I can whip up quickly, simply because I’ve made them so many times, and honestly, they’re not complicated to make at all. Of course, deliciousness is a major factor. Your arsenal needs at least three recipes which are easy, quick, and deliciously crowd pleasing. (I mean, who doesn’t want to be congratulated a few times when the other guests sample your party contribution?!?!)

I give you: the coconut cupcake.  Simple, yet scrumdiddlyumptious! Ok, unless you detest coconut. These baby cakes have been a favorite of my son since he was about two-years-old. Plus, there’s just something about that sprinkling of coconut atop each cupcake, which brings you back to your childhood. At least for me. I usually add significantly less sugar to the cream cheese frosting, but feel free to add as much as you like. If you prefer, you could always substitute with a butter cream frosting. You may also substitute some coconut oil for a percentage of the butter called for in the recipe, which intensifies the coconut flavor.

Yield: 12 cupcakes

1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened (or 1 stick butter; 1/4 c. coconut oil)
1 c. sugar
3 lg. eggs
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. almond extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. buttermilk
3 oz. shredded coconut, plus more for topping

12 cupcake liners

Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. (If you’re using the dry powder form of buttermilk, include it in with your dry ingredients and then add the water at the end.) In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, add the butter (and possibly oil) and sugar. Begin incorporating the two ingredients, then add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. Alternating between the buttermilk and dry ingredients, add the rest of the ingredients. Mix until everything is incorporated together. Add the 3 oz. of dried coconut. Place the cupcake liners into the baking tray, and spoon the batter about 3/4 to the top of each cupcake mold. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cupcakes have a lovely golden hue around their edges.

Allow the cupcakes to cool in the pan for about 8-10 minutes. Then place the cupcakes on a cooling rack. Ice the cupcakes with the cream cheese frosting, and sprinkle each cupcake with a bit of dried coconut. Health food, or organic food stores most likely will carry a brand of dried, unsweetened coconut, such as, Let’s Do….Organic, a brand which I have used numerous times and recommend.

Cream Cheese Icing: 

1 pkg. cream cheese (don’t bother with the low-fat stuff.; it won’t have the proper consistency), room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. almond extract
1 3/4 c. confectioners’ sugar (I tend to only use about 1 cup; add it in slowly, and keep tasting)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and butter. Add the extracts and some of the sugar. Begin to beat the ingredients with a hand mixer. Continue to add more sugar until you’ve attained the sweetness you prefer.

Pear Cake

My fruit bowl always seems to have a few pieces of unloved, uneaten fruit that begin to show signs of expiration. On occasion, I have been known to eat them anyways because there’s nothing more I hate than throwing away a lovely piece of fruit. Fortunately, I have a wonderful cake recipe, which utilizes unloved fruit perfectly. In my home, it’s usually the pears which are unloved the most, and thus, I titled this post, “Pear Cake.” However, you can use plums, strawberries, or even apples–just make sure to slice hard fruit very finely, or else it won’t cook thoroughly while baking. This cake is just as delicious served at room temperature as it is warm. It’s really up to you. I highly recommend serving it with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. There’s just something special about taking a bite of the silky ice cream, followed by the crustiness of the cake, and finished with the smoothness of the fruit.  A true delight for the palate!

*All ingredients are at room temperature.
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 c. flour (alternatively, you could substitute 1/4-1/2 c. ground almond flour or other flour of your choice)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon, plus more for dusting over top of cake
pinch of salt
1 pear, skinned, cored, and sliced thinly

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Whisk the dry ingredients together. In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Begin mixing; add eggs one at a time. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients. Combine until batter comes together. Pour batter into an 8″ springform tart pan. (If you don’t have a springform pan, any 8″ tart pan or cake pan will do.) Carefully place and press the fruit slices, decoratively, into the batter. Lightly dust the top of the cake with cinnamon.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top has browned nicely. Remove from oven and allow to cool. After about 10 minutes, remove the cake from the pan and place it onto a serving plate or cake stand. (By the way, I don’t bother to remove the base of the springform pan since this cake is literally gone within a few hours of my husband’s return home from work. But if you prefer, you could attempt to remove the base, prying it gently off with a large, thin spatula, once the cake has cooled.)

Cinnamon Yogurt Coffee Cake

It’s always a good idea to have 4-5 dessert recipes floating around in your head, and the ingredients available in your pantry, just in case you need to pull something together quickly for last-minute guests. What I love about the following recipe is that it is easy and fairly quick to make, plus it looks and tastes impressive. One of my favorite seasonings is cinnamon. I add it to cookies, sauces, and even the occasional meatball. I immediately think of yummy-ness when I smell cinnamon, and I even admit to having taken whiffs from a jar of the ground stuff when I need a quick pick-me-up!

This recipe originally calls for sour cream, but since I regularly have thick Greek yogurt on hand in the fridge, I always substitute the sour cream with it. Not only is yogurt nutritionally superior to sour cream, I find it provides the finished product with a better taste and moistness, as well. I highly recommend purchasing the FAGE brand of Greek yogurt if it is available to you. Be aware of certain brands, like Trader Joe’s, which claims their product is Greek yogurt. It isn’t. And it certainly does not taste the way it’s supposed to……trust me.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (keep the wrapper and use it to butter the pan before baking)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Topping:
1/2 c. chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cinnamon

1 springform tube pan, greased (if you don’t have a springform pan, you could use a regular tube pan, however the springform pan makes the cake’s removal much easier after it’s finished baking).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the topping first, placing the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon into a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into fairly small pieces and incorporated with the cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In a small bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and stir together with a whisk. Set aside. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Alternating between the yogurt and dry ingredients, add to the wet mixture until all the ingredients are incorporated together.

Take your buttered pan and sprinkle the bottom with the nut mixture, adding about 1/4″ evenly around the tube pan. Add half the cake batter. (Don’t worry if it’s not completely even. It will even out while baking. I drop spoonfuls around the tube pan, attempting to cover the circle evenly, but it is ok if there are some small spaces.) Add another layer of nut mixture, using the remaining portion. The finished cake looks nice with a substantial line of cinnamon and nuts throughout the middle, so don’t feel like you’re adding “too much.” Add the remaining portion of cake batter around the tube pan.

Place the pan into the oven and bake anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Set your timer for 30 minutes and keep an eye on it. You don’t want it to dry out too much. Test with a cake tester, or a good old-fashioned tooth pick, into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, your cake is ready.  Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before attempting to remove it from the pan. If you are not using a springform pan, do not be tempted to remove the cake from the pan for a good 20-30 minutes, or else the cake could come out in pieces.

I like to place this cake on a nice display cake dome, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. I do recommend covering it, which allows it to retain more moisture. This cake lends itself to a nice vanilla ice cream pairing, or perhaps even some fresh berries during the summer months. Honestly, I think this cake is better the following day, and it certainly lasts a good four days before it’s too dry. But if your house is anything like mine, I don’t think this cake will last four days…….