strawberry and chocolate cupcakes

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There were probably better things I could have been doing with my time instead of making fancy cupcakes. Surely I should be focusing on easier, more straightforward treats right now. Even better, I had planned to get the flower garden ready for spring that Sunday afternoon. Or I could clean my house. Instead, I couldn’t resist the siren call of my mixer, plus butter, sugar, and flour.

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It went about how most things do these days: I thought I’d have enough time to get the batters made and the cupcakes in the oven, but the baby woke up earlier than expected. Once she’d eaten and we gave her a bath and read a few books to her, I hurried back to finish the cupcakes while Dave took a turn trying to get her to sleep. Then he removed the cupcakes from the pan while I took my turn trying to get her to sleep.

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Baking, frosting, and garnishing cupcakes all in one day is nearly impossible right now, at least if I want to do anything else with my time, like dress the baby up in silly outfits and take pictures. I packed the cupcakes away overnight, then got halfway through making the frosting the next morning when the baby woke up earlier than expected. (The baby almost always wakes up earlier than expected, unless she sleeps for hours longer than expected.)

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Fortunately, I was able to finish the toppings when Dave came home for lunch. He took most of the cupcakes to share at work, and I stashed a couple away for a well-deserved treat for myself. I’ll work in the garden next week (unless I find another fun dessert to bake instead).

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Strawberry Chocolate Cupcakes (cake recipes are both adapted from Alyssa Huntsman’s and Peter Wynne’s Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes via Smitten Kitchen; chocolate frosting is from Martha Stewart)

Makes 24 cupcakes

I’m years overdue for a thorough chocolate cupcake comparison, but right now, I’m really happy with this recipe. It’s chocolately, tender, and moist.

A friend gave me this fun cupcake batter divider, but I’m sure you can just simultaneously spoon both batters into the cups.

Strawberry cake:
1 cup (4 ounces) cake flour
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup pureed frozen strawberries (from about 5 ounces of strawberries)
3 egg whites
3½ tablespoons milk
1 drop red food dye, optional

Chocolate cake:
1 cup (4 ounces) cake flour
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
½ cup (1.5 ounces) unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 egg
½ cup freshly brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature

Frosting and garnish:
7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1½ cups (6 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
pinch salt
½ cup sour cream
12 strawberries, halved through the stem

1. To make the cupcakes, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 24 cupcake wells with paper liners.

2. For the strawberry cake: Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixer bowl. With an electric mixer on low speed, blend for 30 seconds. Add the butter and strawberry puree and mix to blend, then raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. In another large bowl, whisk together the egg whites, milk, and red food dye, if using. Add the egg white mixture to the batter in two or three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate after each addition. Set aside.

4. For the chocolate cake: In a large mixer bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. With an electric mixer on low speed, blend for about 30 seconds. Add the butter and buttermilk and blend on low until moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Whisk the eggs and coffee together, and add to the batter in 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl and beating only until blended after each addition.

6. Simultaneously spoon the two batters into each cupcake well, filling them about two-thirds full. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove them from the wells and cool completely on the rack.

7. For the frosting: Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Set aside to cool until just barely warm.

8. In a large mixer bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. Gradually mix in the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Beat in the melted and cooled chocolate and then the sour cream. Continue beating until the mixture is smooth and well blended. Frost cupcakes immediately. Top each cupcake with a strawberry half.

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rhubarb sour cream pound cake

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The newborn stage hit all of us hard – including the baby, who apparently found life outside the womb to be unsatisfactory. I was grateful for a freezer full of dinners, although I did manage to do some simple baking – chocolate chip cookies, pound cake. My favorite recipes, made almost more for the comfort of going through the motions, of feeling like me, than to have a delicious dessert to share and enjoy.

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I’m hesitant to put this in writing, but things are a little better now. We’ve figured out how to calm the baby’s cries (usually), she smiles and even sometimes coos, and we’ve learned to adapt to a routine where nothing is really routine. For example, I learned the hard way, when a pissed off hungry baby had to wait to eat until the cookies I’d just put in the oven were done baking, that I can’t bake unless Dave is home to take things out of the oven if necessary. Also, it’s best if I divide up the baking as much as possible; for one cake I made recently, I had the measured dry ingredients and the baking pan sitting by the mixer for almost a week until I finally got a chance to mix it all together.

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This cake was slightly more impromptu, only because the days before I baked it had gone so fast I couldn’t make time to prepare the ingredients. Fortunately, the baby had a particularly sleepy day on the last day of the weekend, and I was able to mix and bake a cake. She woke up hungry when I was doing the final mixing of the dough, so Dave did his best to soothe her while I rushed to get the cake in the oven. I left myself a bit of batter in the mixing bowl to enjoy after the nursing session. After this last month, I definitely deserve a treat.

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Rhubarb Sour Cream Pound Cake (rewritten and slightly adapted from Cook’s Country)

16 servings

The original recipe is for cranberries (fresh or frozen), but I’ve found that rhubarb and cranberries are interchangeable in baked recipes like this. I also doubled the recipe so I could bake it in a bundt pan instead of a loaf pan.

10 large eggs, at room temperature
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
3½ cups (17.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ plus ¼ teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅔ cup sour cream
½ cup milk
28 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2½ cups (17.5 ounces) granulated sugar
2 cups (8 ounces) finely diced rhubarb
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease and flour (or spray with baking spray) a 12-cup bundt pan. In a medium bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, 1½ teaspoons salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and milk.

2. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand-held mixer), beat the butter on medium speed until smooth. Gradually add the granulated sugar, then increase the mixer speed to medium-high and continue to beat for another 3-4 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Reduce the mixer speed to medium; gradually add the egg mixture. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then continue to mix on medium speed until evenly mixed; the mixture will probably look curdled. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the sour cream mixture, another third of the flour, the remaining sour cream, and the remaining flour. Mix until almost combined, with a few streaks of flour remaining.

3. Toss the rhubarb with the powdered sugar and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Add the rhubarb to the batter and use a large rubber spatula to fold it in until the rhubarb is evenly incorporated and the batter is thoroughly mixed. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan.

4. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 1½ to 2 hours. Transfer to a wire rack; cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert the cake onto the rack. Cool the cake completely, about two hours, before serving. Tightly wrapped, the cooled cake can be stored for up to three days.

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confetti cake

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Because I don’t have enough to keep me busy between a house under construction and lugging around ten pounds of belly, I thought it would be a good idea to make my own baby shower cake too. What can I say? No one in my town can make a cake as delicious as I can.

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Plus it was fun to choose my own flavors and design. Somehow in the three big cakes I’ve made previously, I’ve never made a chocolate cake, which needed to be remedied. Two of the three other cakes I’ve made had additional frosting in between the layers, and I wanted to use a different filling. All of the cakes, including this one, used cream cheese frosting, because there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.

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Photo by Lisa Watson

The blackberry cake has been a favorite since I made it for a bridal shower, and then a few weeks later, for my birthday. The confetti cake I first tried right after one of the big baby shower cakes last summer. I found out about my friend/coworker/husband’s boss’s (who was also my baby shower host, who also took a lot of the pictures in this post) birthday just one day beforehand, and it was a big one, so it couldn’t be ignored. Even though I was feeling a little caked out, I loved this cake so much that I had two pieces and have been thinking about it since.

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Photo by Lisa Watson

I assumed baking a tiered cake at 8-months pregnant would be a challenge, so I baked and froze the cake layers in December, in the 2-week window that we were home between drying out the house and when we moved out for construction to begin. It turns out that the big belly was the least of my issues; I did not expect to be working around contractors in a corner of the kitchen uncovered of plastic and washed of paint residue, but with my mom there to help, we actually got the cake finished in time to take Dave out for a birthday lunch before the shower.

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Photo by Lisa Watson

I kept the design simple, but it fit in perfectly with the rustic decorations at my shower, which I loved. As a bonus, I didn’t have to do the worst part, the cutting of the cake. I asked a friend to do that while I gushed over adorable tiny pink clothes. Even better, I got to take home the leftovers – which made a great lunch, snack, and dessert the next day as we continued to coast through this crazy time in our lives as best we can.

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Confetti Cake (from Cook’s Country)

12-16 servings

Cook’s Country recommends pulsing a portion of the sprinkles in the food processor, but I’ve never bothered. I filled the cake with raspberry filling and topped with cream cheese frosting.

6 large egg whites, room temperature
⅔ cup whole milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
1½ (10 ounces) cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces, softened
¾ cup rainbow sprinkles

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans with baking spray (or grease and flour the pans). Line with parchment or waxed paper and grease the paper.

2. Using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a handheld mixer), mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt on low speed for about 30 seconds. With the mixer running, add the butter, one piece at a time, until it is incorporated and the mixture looks like moist crumbs. Add all but ½ cup of the milk mixture to the crumbs and beat at medium speed (or high speed if using handheld mixer) for 1½ minutes. Add the remaining ½ cup of the milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of bowl. Add the sprinkles, return the mixer to medium speed (or high for a handheld mixer) and beat 20 seconds longer.

3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake for 21 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 5 to 10 minutes. Invert and turn out the cakes onto wire racks; peel off the paper liners. Let stand until completely cooled before assembling the cake, at least one hour.

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Photo by Lisa Watson

lemon cheesecake

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I read somewhere the sanctimonious line that “eating for two while pregnant doesn’t mean eating twice as much, it should mean twice as healthy.” I decided early on that my my regular diet is plenty healthy, so my extra calories could come from string cheese, cereal, and a few more servings of dessert. As a result, I’ve started making the occasional dessert just for me and Dave to have at home, which pretty much never happens otherwise unless it’s our birthdays.

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Of course, more dessert isn’t so bad when you’re growing a new little person, which I am but Dave is not. So sometimes the desserts are just for me. I didn’t exactly hide this one from Dave, but I just sort of never offered him any. I’d only made a mini version, and it was just too good to share. He never showed any interest, which was a relief. I did make a big version first, to share at work, but when I didn’t get my fill from the two slivers I saved for myself, I needed a little one to hoard to myself at home. Hey, I’m growing a tiny person, I deserve my own tiny cheesecake, right?

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Lemon Cheesecake (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

I made a few changes to this. First, if you make the lemon sugar in the food processor before the crust mixture, you don’t have to clean the processor bowl between uses; a little lemon in the crust is okay, but trace amounts of cookie crumbs in the cheesecake is not. Second, I accidentally overbaked mine slightly the first time, but I thought it was the perfect texture. The same week, my brother baked it to the temperature recommended in the original recipe and found it underdone for his taste. Therefore, I’ve increased the goal temperature of the cheesecake from 150 degrees to 155 degrees. Third, my brother and I both agreed that we prefer making the curd in a double boiler instead of directly in the saucepan. For both of us, when made in the saucepan as per the original recipe, the curd curdled. The lumps smoothed after straining, but I feel more comfortable using a double boiler and it isn’t more work, so I’ve adapted the recipe for a double boiler.

Filling:
1¼ cups (8¾ ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
1½ pounds (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup heavy cream

Cookie-Crumb Crust:
5 ounces animal crackers
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Lemon Curd:
⅓ cup lemon juice
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt

1. To make lemon sugar: Process ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) of the sugar and the lemon zest in a food processor until the sugar is yellow and the zest is broken down, about 15 seconds, scraping down the bowl if necessary. Transfer the lemon sugar to a small bowl; stir in the remaining 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar. Do not wash the food processor.

2. For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. In the food processor, process the cookies to fine, even crumbs, about 30 seconds (you should have about 1 cup). Add the sugar and and salt; pulse 2 or 3 times to incorporate. Add the melted butter in a slow, steady stream while pulsing; pulse until the mixture is evenly moistened and resembles wet sand, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch springform pan; using the bottom of a ramekin or dry measuring cup, press the crumbs firmly and evenly into the pan bottom, keeping the sides of the pan as clean as possible. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 30 minutes. When cool, wrap the outside of the pan with two 18-inch square pieces of foil; set the springform pan in a larger baking pan.

3. For the filling: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on low to break it up and soften it slightly, about 5 seconds. With the machine running, add the lemon sugar in a slow steady stream; increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the eggs one at a time; beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl well after each addition. Add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds; add the heavy cream and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds longer. Give the batter a final scrape, stir with a rubber spatula, and pour into the prepared springform pan; fill the larger baking pan with enough hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

4. Bake until the center jiggles slightly, the sides just start to puff, the surface is no longer shiny, and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the cake registers 155 degrees, 60 to 70 minutes. Turn off the oven and prop open the oven door with a potholder or wooden spoon handle; allow the cake to cool in the water bath in the oven for 1 hour. Transfer the springform pan without the foil to a wire rack; run a small paring knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the sides of the cake; cool the cake to room temperature, about 1 hour.

5. For the lemon curd: Set a metal or glass bowl on top of a saucepan that contains 1 inch of simmering water (do not allow bottom of the bowl to touch the water). Add the lemon juice to the bowl and heat until the juice is hot but not boiling. Whisk the eggs and yolk in a separate bowl; gradually whisk in the sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot lemon juice into the eggs, then return the mixture to the bowl set over the saucepan and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, often at first and constantly when the mixture begins to thicken, until the mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to a spoon, about 5 minutes. Immediately remove the bowl from the saucepan and stir in the cold butter until it’s incorporated; stir in the cream, vanilla, and salt, then pour the curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a small nonreactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.

6. To finish: When the cheesecake is cool, scrape the lemon curd onto the cheesecake while it’s still in the springform pan; using an offset icing spatula, spread the curd evenly over the top of the cheesecake. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours. To serve, remove the sides of the springform pan and cut the cake into wedges.

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cinnamon zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting

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How do we justify putting zucchini in desserts? Carrot cake, for example, while it isn’t my favorite dessert, makes sense to me – carrots are sweet, cake is sweet. I don’t like beets, but I can see why they’re used in cakes, because they’re also sweet (and colorful). Zucchini, though, really isn’t that sweet.

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In fact, it really isn’t that anything – it’s fairly bland, as vegetables go. You could say it adds moisture, but there are plenty of more flavorful liquids to add to desserts than zucchini juice. So are we just trying to make cakes healthier by adding a bland, easily-disguised vegetable? Because trust me, this cake isn’t healthy, and adding a pittance of shredded zucchini to each serving isn’t going to change that.

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It certainly doesn’t taste healthy; it tastes like a delicious lightly spiced cake. Maybe the zucchini isn’t adding anything other than pretty flecks of green and a trick to use up the summer garden excess. I suppose I don’t care, because I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve baked with zucchini and have no plans to stop.

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Cinnamon Zucchini Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cobbled together from a bunch of recipes)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

I used one large homegrown zucchini that weighed about 12 ounces. The zucchini at my store are much smaller, so two or even three might be necessary, but they should still weigh a total of 12 ounces.

Cake:
2 cups shredded zucchini
1 teaspoon table salt
2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup oil
1½ cups (10½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk

Frosting:
8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar

1. For the cake: Combine the zucchini and salt in a strainer set over a larger bowl; set aside for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, use a rubber spatula to press on the zucchini in the strainer to release liquid. Discard the liquid.

2. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, oil, and sugar, on medium speed until evenly combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add half of the dry ingredients, then all of the buttermilk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until evenly combined. Stir in the drained zucchini.

4. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it evenly to the corners. Bake until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool completely before frosting.

5. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla on medium speed until smooth. Stop the mixer, add the powdered sugar, and beat on the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated, then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until smooth and creamy, 2-3 minutes. Spread the frosting evenly over the cooled cake.

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spiced layer cake

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Oh, I just do these cakes like they’re no big deal now. Getting back from Iceland Sunday night and having a three-tier fondant-decorated cake ready to deliver by Saturday afternoon after working a 44-hour week? No problem.

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To be honest, it really was manageable. I baked, tightly wrapped, and froze the cake layers before vacation, as well as mixed and colored the fondant. Friday night I made a big batch of cream cheese frosting, layered and crumb coated the cakes, then tediously made way too many pink and purple flowers. That just left about seven hours of cake decorating on Saturday, plus a couple hours at the shower and a couple hours cleaning the kitchen afterward. And then a couple hours napping on Sunday.

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The bottom two tiers were the same as in the last cake I made, vanilla bean and red velvet. The top tier this time was spice cake. It was my first time making spice cake, but I always assumed I’d like it. It would be like apple or carrot cake, but without the fruits and vegetables.

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That describes it pretty well, and I did like it, light with a balanced level of spices. To be honest, I liked baking and decorating the cake too, even in the midst of a busy schedule. These cakes really do get easier every time, although somehow I doubt they’ll ever be no big deal.

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Spiced Layer Cake (slightly adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I frosted the cake with cream cheese frosting.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup sour cream, preferably room temperature
½ cup whole milk, preferably room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons grated orange zest
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, preferably room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray three 9-inch round pans with baking spray and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. In a small bowl or measuring cup, use a fork to combine the milk and sour cream.

2. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the sugar and orange zest until fragrant. Add the butter and salt, and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated before adding another. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, immediately followed by half of the sour cream mixture. Repeat with another one-third of the flour mixture and the remaining sour cream mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, until evenly combined.

3. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pans to remove the cakes. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely before frosting.

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cheesecake squares with sour cream topping

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I tend to think of this as my dad’s cheesecake, even though it’s really my grandmother’s cheesecake, based on the handwritten recipes that she gave to each of her granddaughters, wildly inaccurate baking time included. I think we each discovered the error the hard way before talking to each other (and my mom) and figuring out that we needed to almost double my grandmother’s recommended baking time.

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I also think of it as “the flat cheesecake.” Most cheesecakes are tall, round, and impressive. This one is flat and, served straight from the 9-by-13-inch pan it’s baked in, maybe not particularly impressive, no matter how hard I try to add pretty swirls in the topping.

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But I love it anyway. It’s simple – no goat cheese, no amaretto, no pumpkin. There’s nothing to distract from sugary cream cheese, which is one of my favorite flavors. The sour cream topping, which might sound weird, is the perfect sweet and tangy complement to the cake underneath. It’s no wonder that my grandmother and my dad and I all love this recipe so much.

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Cheesecake Squares with Sour Cream Topping

12 servings

Once the topping is added, it’s best to serve the cheesecake within about a day, because the topping dries out. However, both the cheesecake and the topping can be made several days in advance if kept separate until shortly before serving.

Crust:
18 full sheets (10 ounces) graham crackers
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch salt
5 tablespoons butter, melted

Filling:
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Topping:
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray.

2. In a food processor, process the graham crackers until finely ground. (Alternatively, put the crackers in a ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Transfer the crumbs to a bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients.) Add the sugar and salt and process until mixed. Add the butter and process until evenly incorporated, stopping to scrape the sides as necessary.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium-low speed until smooth. Add the salt and sugar, and continue beating until blended, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until blended. Beat in the vanilla extract.

4. Pour the filling mixture over the crust, spreading it evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until the cake is just slightly jiggly, 45-55 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely before topping.

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confetti cookies

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I had this great idea at the beginning of the year to send my eight nephews and one niece cookies for each of their birthdays. That’s less than one package per month, how hard could it be?

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Of course, that’s assuming that their birthdays are evenly dispersed, which they definitely are not. There were three the first week of February, which I scrambled to keep on top of, and then there are three the first week of April. At least I get two-thirds of them out of the way within a few months, I suppose.

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I haven’t been able to find the perfect cookie for each kid, but for my girlie-girl niece, it was an easy choice. Sprinkles! Pink! Crumbles of cake within the cookies that have more pink sprinkles! These really do scream “Happy Birthday!”, which makes them the perfect package for the birthday girl halfway across the country. And the Facebook picture of the cookies being enjoyed makes it all worth it. Only three more birthdays to go this year!

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Confetti Cookies (from Christine Tosi’s Momofuko Milk Bar via Eva Bakes)

I doubled the sprinkles in the cookie dough. The cookies needed more color, I decided.

Birthday Cake Crumbs:
50 grams (¼ cup) granulated sugar
13 grams (1 tablespoons) light brown sugar, lightly packed
45 grams (6 tablespoons) cake flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon rainbow sprinkles
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Cookies:
400 grams (3 cups) all-purpose flour
50 grams (⅔ cup) instant dry milk powder
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
80 grams (½ cup) rainbow sprinkles
16 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1¼ teaspoons salt
1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Birthday Cake Crumbs

1. For the Birthday Cake Crumbs: Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles. Add the oil and vanilla and stir until the mixture forms small clusters. Spread the clusters on the prepared pan. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The crumbs should still be slightly moist to the touch; they will dry and harden as they cool. Let the crumbs cool completely before using. (Stored in an airtight container, the crumbs will keep fresh for 1 week at room temperature or 1 month in the freezer.)

3. For the cookies: Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, dry milk powder, cream of tartar, and baking soda.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the butter, salt, sugar, and corn syrup on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla; continue to beat on medium-high speed for 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the Birthday Cake Crumbs.

5. Using an ice cream scoop, scoop the dough 4 inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Transfer the pans to the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. (The prepared and portioned dough can be chilled for up to 1 week; if storing for longer than an hour, wrap the pans tightly in plastic wrap. If you’re storing for a while, you can save space by arranging the dough portions closer together on one baking sheet, then dividing them onto separate pans right before baking.)

6. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cookies until very lightly browned around the edges, about 18 minutes.

7. Cool the cookies completely on the pans before transferring to a plate or to an airtight container for storage. The cookies can be stored for up to five days.
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coconut cake

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I’ve been plastering pictures of this cake on all of my social media outlets, and I’m starting to feel like quite the attention whore, but I’m just so dang proud of it. The decorations are cute; the buttercream is smooth; the tiers are centered. The railroad tracks have wood grain! And then, someone at the shower told me it was the best cake she’d ever eaten.

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Not only that, but there were no tears in the making of this cake. There was certainly struggle, and there wasn’t as much sleep as I would have liked, and I was sore the next day from all the fondant-kneading, but it was overall a much smoother process than the last fancy cake I made.

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The recipes were all familiar to me, so that helped. I keep meaning to do a comparison of vanilla cakes, but in the meantime, this one has always served me well, so I made that for the bottom layer. The middle was my favorite red velvet cake, and the top was a coconut cake I made years ago. People raved about the coconut cake more than either of the others, which was a surprise to me. The host and I had chose it for the smallest tier because coconut can be polarizing; either you love it or you hate it.

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The cake gets a lot of its flavor from cream of coconut, which seems to me to be the coconut equivalent of sweetened condensed milk. It’s very rich, and very sweet. You can use it to make a calorie-buster of a piña colada, which is maybe why it’s usually sold in the drink section. It also makes great cake – the best cake some people have ever eaten, and the best cake I’ve ever decorated.

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Coconut Cake (from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 large egg plus 5 large egg whites
¾ cup cream of coconut
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces), sifted
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), cut into 12 pieces, softened, but still cool

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans with shortening and dust with flour.

2. Beat egg whites and whole egg in large measuring cup with fork to combine. Add cream of coconut, water, vanilla, and coconut extract and beat with fork until thoroughly combined.

3. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on lowest speed to combine, about 30 seconds. With mixer still running on lowest speed, add butter 1 piece at a time, then beat until mixture resembles coarse meal, with butter bits no larger than small peas, 2 to 2½ minutes.

4. With mixer still running, add 1 cup liquid. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 45 seconds. With mixer still running, add remaining 1 cup liquid in steady stream (this should take about 15 seconds). Stop mixer and scrape down bowl with rubber spatula, then beat at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. (Batter will be thick.)

5. Divide batter between cake pans and level with offset or rubber spatula. Bake until deep golden brown, cakes pull away from sides of pans, and toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes (rotate cakes after about 20 minutes). Do not turn off oven.

6. Cool in pans on wire racks about 10 minutes, then loosen cakes from sides of pans with paring knife, invert cakes onto racks and then re-invert; cool to room temperature.

7. While cakes are cooling, spread shredded coconut on rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until shreds are a mix of golden brown and white, about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. Cool to room temperature.

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lemon cake with lemon curd filling and cream cheese frosting

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Two years ago, I made this cake for a Tiffany-themed baby shower (and I’m just now telling you about it), and it became infamous for the cake that made me cry. I wouldn’t have told anyone that myself, but Dave blurted it out when we delivered the cake. “Never again!”, he told our friends.

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I’m actually proud of the cake, but it’s true that it wasn’t a smooth process. When my friend showed me a picture of the cake and asked me to reproduce it for the baby shower she was hosting for her daughter, I ambitiously agreed. I had never worked with fondant before, but how hard could it be?

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Well, pretty hard, actually, at least when you’re both inexperienced and a perfectionist. I found a few opportunities to practice before the shower and learned some valuable lessons, but on the morning of the shower, the ruffles and lace were still uncharted territory. Looking back, I can’t remember what caused the tears, but it could have been any number of things – the lace sticking to the mold, running out of fondant, running behind schedule.

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Fortunately, whether the lace had obvious seams or the fondant cracked at the corners, I knew the cake itself would taste good. I’m much more confident in my baking skills than my decorating skills. I took one of my favorite white cakes and added lemon zest, so that, at least, was one part of this project that wasn’t complicated.

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Despite my struggles, I think the cake turned out great, and the host seemed pleased. It tasted at least as good as it looked. Still, it was two years before anyone asked me to make a tiered cake with fondant for them again. That is what I’ll be doing this weekend. Any bets on how many times I cry this time?

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Lemon Cake with Lemon Curd Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic White Cake)

Makes a double-layer 8-inch or 9-inch cake

1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
6 large egg whites (¾ cup), at room temperature
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of 1 small lemon
1¾ cups granulated sugar (12¼ ounces)
2¼ cups cake flour (9 ounces)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1½ sticks), softened but still cool

1. Adjust an oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8- or 9-inch-wide by 2-inch-high round cake pans and line with parchment paper. In a 4-cup liquid measure or medium bowl, whisk together milk, egg whites, and vanilla.

2. In bowl of standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt at low speed. With the mixer running at low speed, add the butter one piece at a time; continue beating until the mixture resembles moist crumbs with no visible butter chunks. Add all but ½ cup milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed until mixture is pale and fluffy, about 1½ minutes. With mixer running at low speed, add remaining ½ cup milk mixture; increase speed to medium and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium speed and beat 20 seconds longer. Divide batter evenly between cake pans; using rubber spatula, spread batter to pan walls and smooth tops.

3. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, about 20 minutes for 6-inch pans, 22 minutes for 8-inch pans, and 26 minutes for 10-inch pans. Loosen cakes from the sides of the pans with a small knife, cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert onto greased wire racks; peel off parchment. Invert the cakes again; cool completely on rack, about 1½ hours.

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Lemon Curd Filling (from Cook’s Illustrated)

⅓ cup lemon juice, from 2 lemons
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk
½ cup sugar (3½ ounces)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt

1. Heat lemon juice in small nonreactive saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Whisk eggs and yolk in medium nonreactive bowl; gradually whisk in sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour hot lemon juice into eggs, then return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until mixture registers 170 degrees on instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to spoon, about 3 minutes.

2. Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in cold butter until incorporated; stir in cream, vanilla, and salt, then pour curd through fine-mesh strainer into small nonreactive bowl. Cover surface of curd directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.

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Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 6 cups

You can use 12 ounces powdered sugar instead of 16 if you’re going to make pretty swirls with the icing instead of decorating. It’ll taste less sweet and more cream cheesy.

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter room temperature
4 cups (16 ounces) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With a handheld electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat on low speed to combine.

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