Tuesday, March 20, 2012


  Last week, in honor of our tenth anniversary Hub and I decided to throw a dessert party on Saturday after services. I gave myself the goal of 12 cakes in 3 days. I ended up with 11 and a batch of cookies.
 To me, those three sugar covered and flour dusted days were as mellow as a pat of room temperature butter.  It was just the right time to lose myself in a world of sweetness and spice and all things nice. Sometimes when things are starting to get sour and bitter and hard and brittle it's nice to make it over as sugary and rich, soft and smooth.
The sunday before the Shabbat Sugar Party, I went through all my baking and dessert cookbooks and magazines. I hoped to try one of the cakes in Rose Berenbaum's aspirational cake bible, but I think her cakes are so magnificent that they need to be the prima diva of the event, not crowded out by 10 other lovelies. Besides I was going for quantity as well as quality and her cakes are an investment in time, which unfortunately is something you can't pick up at the supermarket.
 I ended up with a cross-section of cakes and desserts from my post-it fringed gourmet mags. The Pecan Caramel Tart came from one of those baking booklets that slows you down at check-out when you're at Stop 'n Shop. It was very well-received, particularly with the gents.  A  crisp and buttery shortbread cookie crust served as stage for  crunchy caramel glazed toasted-pecan topping.
Next up was a Maple Mascarpone Cheesecake, the slightly-tart-totally-smooth maple flavored cheesecake was baked atop a beautiful walnut butter crust. I think I will adapt this recipe for Passover purposes, since there is no flour or any verboten items in this wonderful dessert. Garnished with a scattering of toasted chopped walnuts on top, the two layers of warm nuttiness both enhanced the warm flavor of the maple syrup, and balanced out the sweetness, not to mention, added another pleasing texture to the cake.
I wanted to try a new Carrot Cake recipe, so I decided on a Fine Cooking Sweet Cakes recipe for Carrot Cake with Classic Vanilla Frosting. To be fair, this was my least considered and regarded recipe. I didn't have the right amount of carrots, I added ground cloves when it probably should've been ground ginger. The frosting, which allows what is basically a healthful baked good, into the cake bakery, was pretty good. A little too sweet for my taste, not enough cream cheese tang due to the equal amount of butter. I think I'll go back to my original.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake. So uncomplicated and simple, yet so profound and beautiful. The small pineapple we received for Purim, had plenty of time to ripen and get heavy with sweet juice. I cut it into eight 1/2 inch slices, removed the tough core. And lay them over a base of sweet brown sugar syrup, spiced up a bit by some ginger mixed in. The coffeecake batter was smooth, creamy, and gentle with just a hint of ginger spice mixed in at the last minute with the buttermilk. After it baked for enough time to make the pillowy coffeecake surface light golden yellow I let it cool. And then with some anxiousness I flipped the baking pan onto the serving platter. It came off (mostly) without a hitch, and what was revealed was an edible Van Gogh composition . The pineapple rings shrunk slightly and looked like sweet sunflowers. The brown syrup background was at the center of the pineapple petals. Gorgeous, especially since Hub and I spent our real anniversary weekend in Philly, where we were lucky enough to take in an exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum, of Van Gogh.   I was so impacted by the obvious amount of strained effort Van Gogh made. He tried hard to be a great artist. Always working to improve and learn more. Toiling  to get better. Trying to be healthy and sane. Trying to figure out how to be a painfully sensitive person in a harsh world. Eat more cake.
Two Layer Peanut Butter Pie, was my zen meditation of the week. Nothing insists you be more present and in the moment than making pudding from scratch. You have to stir, stir, stir, and if you get sidetracked by a telephone call or by checking your email, it will scorch, and leave a black layer on your saucepan that is a bitch to remove. Better to just focus on the pudding for 5 solid minutes. And the second effort was totally worth it. Half of the pudding was mixed with peanut butter chips, the other half with semi-sweet chocolate chips. After more stirring I had two separate yet equal pudding flavors. First the chocolate pudding was spooned over a crispy crust made from crushed peanut butter sandwich cookies and butter. It was followed by the peanut butter pudding, and then a fluffy layer of white whipped cream with salty pops of chopped peanuts. I never even got to try it. It was gone twenty minutes in
Lemon Meringue Pie: I hate you. Ok hate is too strong a word. I resent you and your sour ways, which you cover up in gobs of fluffy super-sweetness. I am not faultless in your lack of success. Fine Cooking this month features a beautiful slice of pie that boasts fluffy cloudlike topping and bright sun-yellow filling. They promised to reveal the secret to Lemon Meringue Pie. And here's the spoiler: It's just not worth all the effort. I scrimped on the meringue. I just didn't feel like standing around making marshmallows for the full 11 minutes of beating time. So this little tart repaid me by falling flat. The rich yellow gel poking ungracefully through the flat white layer.

Caramel Cake. (This paragraph is to be read with a deep southern drawl). The true southern belle at the cotillion. It demanded time, quality ingredients, and lavish attention. And ultimately garnered the most adoration. The provenance of this recipe came from Saveur Magazine. The cover zoomed in on a slice of red velvet cake that was sublime looking, and after glimpsing the other southern layer cakes in the article, I knew that it would take me to the next level of cake baking. The Southern Layer Cakes unit, which was all about this caramel cake. First the light and fluffy golden yellow cake layers, I substituted buttermilk for milk, because when in the south... But it was the frosting, my sweet lord, the frosting! In a big stock pot, butter, vanilla, cream, and sugar and a pinch ot two of pink salt mingled and cohabitated and became one: Caramel. 45 minutes of steady stirring resulted in a warm soft pudding texture that dripped oh-so-lazily over the three light yellow layers, coyly making it's way to the cake stand platter like a southern belle making her way over to the most eligible gentleman in the room.
The new version of Chocolate Mocha layer cake was well received, but I prefer the mocha mascarpone chocolate layer cake from Bon Appetit. One of the three cake rounds broke so it only ended up as a squat looking two layer cake. It was pretty strong on the coffee flavor, which was a credit to this rather average cake.
My Chocolate Bundt is my old faithful, it pleases in a way that a good brownie pleases. It's just good- there's nothing show-stopping about it, although the thick chocolate glaze that collects at the bottom is ooey-gooey-yummy-in-your-tummy looking.
The Tres Leches cake was my sleeper favorite of the afternoon. A nice subtle white cake, poked periodically to allow the creamy rich combination of whole milk, evaporated milk, and condensed milk (tres leches) to soak in. Topped with cold lightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh sliced strawberries, it was a strawberry shortcake with a bread pudding consistency.
And then there were the snickerdoodles...Sweet, slightly spicy, soft, circular snickerdoodles. Simple really. This will be my default cookie. Easy, uncomplicated, and they hold their shape nicely.

By the end of this baking adventure I was twitchin' like a kitchen timer. Between the lack of sleep, glut of sugar, periodic doses of caffeine, and the general adrenaline surge of a good absorbing project I was a bit...keyed up. But also revived back to engagement and interaction. It was a bit like a sugar defribrillator shocked me back into being.

Sunflowers Pineapple Upside Down Cake (adapted from BHG Holiday Baking)

1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
6-8 1/2 " slices of cored fresh pineapple
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Heat oven to 350F. Grease bottom and sides of 13x9" casserole pan
2. In medium saucepan melt 1/2 cup butter over low heat. Stir in 1 cup brown sugar and 1/2 tsp. ginger. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring often. Pour into prepared pan spreading evenly. Fit pineapple rings into surface of pan.
3. For cake: in a medium bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and ginger; set aside. In a large bowl beat 1/2 cup butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed for about 2 minutes. Beat in eggs until combined. Beat in half of the flour mixture on low speed. Beat in buttermilk and vanilla until combined. Beat in the second half of flour mixture. Spread batter carefully over pineapple slices.
4. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a woodpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once cooled, loosen sides of the cake and invert onto a serving platter.