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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Printer Friendly Recipe
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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Printer Friendly Recipe
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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cappuccino fudge cheesecake

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Cheesecake, the more I think about it, is an almost perfect choice for bringing to dinner parties. It’s universally loved. It’s rarely complicated to make. It can be made several days in advance (or farther in advance and frozen). It transports well. The only tiny potential issue is that a full slice of cheesecake after a big meal can be tough to tackle.

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I get together with a group of friends every month; usually it’s some version of a potluck – perhaps the host will provide salad greens and dressings while everyone else contributes toppings (and wine). Or perhaps the host will provide corn tortillas and barbacoa and everyone else contributes toppings and sides. Last month, the host provided crostini, zuppa toscana, and salad. I was thrilled she didn’t have a dessert planned, providing me with an opening. Cappuccino fudge cheesecake seemed to fit the theme.

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Still, I was worried that 2 pounds of cream cheese, 1¼ pounds of chocolate, 1½ cups of heavy cream, and 1½ cups of sour cream would be overkill after bread and soup and lasagna, so I pared down the recipe to something more reasonable. Considering how much my friends raved, I’m not sure I needed to make a smaller version. Yes, there were leftovers, but there was no shortage of people to take them home. I might start bringing cheesecake to all the parties; I can’t imagine anyone will complain.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Cappuccino Fudge Cheesecake (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

16 servings

Crust:
5 ounces chocolate cookies
1 tablespoon sugar
5 tablespoons butter, melted

Ganache:
1 cup heavy cream
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons Kahlúa or other coffee-flavored liqueur

Filling:
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons dark rum
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder
1½ tablespoons ground whole espresso coffee beans (medium-coarse grind)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons light molasses
3 large eggs

Topping:
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
chocolate-covered espresso beans

1. For the crust: Spray the bottom of a springform pan with nonstick spray. Either grind the cookies with a food processor or place them in a ziptop bag and crush with a rolling pin. Add the sugar and butter to the crumbs and stir until evenly mixed. Press the crumbs into an even layer covering the bottom of the prepared pan and up the sides an inch or so. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.

2. Bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a small saucepan; pour over the chocolate and stir in the kahlua. Gently whisk until the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth. Pour 1½ cups of the ganache over the bottom of the crust. Freeze until the ganache layer is firm, about 30 minutes. Reserve the remaining ganache; cover and let stand at room temperature to use later for decorations.

3. For the filling: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Beat the cream cheese on low speed until smooth; add the sugar and beat until blended. Mix in the flour. Combine the rum, espresso powder, ground coffee, vanilla, and molasses in a small bowl until the instant coffee dissolves; beat into the cream cheese mixture. Beat in eggs one at a time, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl.

4. Pour the filling over the cold ganache in the crust. Place the cheesecake on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the top is brown, puffed and cracked at the edges, the center two inches moves only slightly when pan is gently shaken, and the cheesecake reads 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour 5 minutes. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack. Cool 15 minutes while preparing the topping (the top of the cheesecake will fall slightly). Maintain the oven temperature.

5. For the topping: Whisk the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl to blend. Spread the topping over the hot cheesecake, spreading to cover the cheesecake filling completely. Bake until the topping is set, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack. Refrigerate the hot cheesecake on a rack until cool, about 3 hours.

6. Run a small sharp knife between the crust and pan sides to loosen the cake; release the pan sides. Transfer the cheesecake to a platter. Spoon the reserved ganache into a pastry bag fitted with small star tip. Pipe lines one inch apart atop the cheesecake. Repeat in the opposite direction, making a lattice. Pipe ganache around the top edge of the cake. Garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans, if desired. Chill until the lattice is firm, at least 6 hours. (Cheesecake can be made 4 days ahead. Wrap loosely in foil, forming a dome over the lattice; keep chilled.)

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buche de noel

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I was tense for the entire 2½ hours I spent making this cake. I’d signed up to bring it to the office holiday party potluck, and I wasn’t sure which title was more commonly known, yule log or buche de noel, so I wrote down both. This was a mistake; several hours later, Big Boss came barreling down the hall blustering about using fancy French words and/or bringing a piece of wood to the party.

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He was mollified when I told him it was a cake. “Chocolate”, he asked? “Um, yes, chocolate”, even though I hadn’t really planned on chocolate.

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So I felt like the stakes were high. And considering that I hadn’t made a rolled cake in seven years, the risk was high as well. This is why I spent all afternoon nervous, waiting to make a mistake that would result in a cake disaster.

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There were no cake disasters. It wasn’t a perfectly smooth process – the grocery store ran out of mascarpone, the cake cracked when I rolled it, my baking pan is too small so the spiral was loose, the ganache didn’t set up, the cake cracked again when I tried to move it, and the last minute sugared rosemary and cranberries I made for decorations weren’t dry so the sugar dissolved instead of sparkled – but there was nothing that a little ganache couldn’t cover up. Once the ganache was frantically put in the freezer so it would set, that is.

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Substituting cream cheese for mascarpone worked in my favor in the end, because when Big Boss asked me what the filling was made of, I told him cream cheese and didn’t mention the mascarpone. I’ve learned my lesson about fancy European words. Fortunately, the cream cheese/mascarpone filling really was delicious, just like the chocolate cake, and the ganache. Even the mushrooms were all gone by the time we left the party. It was an unqualified success; still, next year I’m bringing all-American cheesecake.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Bittersweet Chocolate Yule Log (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8 to 10

The ganache didn’t firm up for me in an hour at room temperature, so I put it in the refrigerator for a 10 minutes or so before icing the cake.

I was afraid to move the cake after it was formed and frosted, so I put it together directly on the serving plate. I slipped thin strips of wax paper under the edges of the cake to catch extra ganache, then discarded the strips before serving.

My grocery store ran out of mascarpone, so I used half mascarpone and half cream cheese in the filling, which worked very well.

The original recipe calls for an espresso-flavored filling instead of vanilla, but I didn’t think espresso would be as popular with the crowd I served this to. If you’d rather have the espresso, replace the vanilla flavorings in the mascarpone cream with 2 teaspoons espresso powder.

Dark Chocolate Ganache:
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (high-quality), chopped
1 tablespoon Cognac or brandy

Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream:
½ cup heavy cream
seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar (1½ ounces)
16 ounces mascarpone cheese (about 2 cups)

Roulade:
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour (about 1¼ ounces), plus more for dusting baking sheet
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
2 tablespoons cold water
¼ cup cocoa (¾ ounce), Dutch-processed, sifted, plus more for unmolding and garnish
⅛ teaspoon table salt
6 large eggs, separated, room temperature
⅓ cup granulated sugar (2⅓ ounces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar

1. For the Dark Chocolate Ganache: Bring the cream and butter to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Place the chocolate in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. With the machine running, gradually add the hot cream and brandy through the feed tube and process until smooth and thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer the ganache to a medium bowl and let stand at room temperature 1 hour, until spreadable (ganache should have consistency of soft icing).

2. For the Vanilla Bean-Mascarpone Cream: Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla seeds, extract, and confectioners’ sugar; cool slightly. With a rubber spatula, beat the mascarpone in a medium bowl until softened. Gently whisk in the cooled cream mixture until combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

3. For the Roulade: Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray an 18 by 12-inch rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, cover the pan bottom with parchment paper, and spray the parchment with nonstick cooking spray; dust baking sheet with flour, tapping out excess.

4. Bring 2 inches of water to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Combine the chocolate, butter, and water in a small heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set the bowl over the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and heat until the butter is almost completely melted and the chocolate pieces are glossy, have lost definition, and are fully melted around edges, about 15 minutes. (Do not stir or let water in saucepan come to boil.) Remove the bowl from heat, unwrap, and stir until smooth and glossy. While the chocolate is melting, sift the cocoa, flour, and salt together into a small bowl and set aside.

5. In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the egg yolks at medium-high speed until just combined, about 15 seconds. With the mixer running, add half of the sugar. Continue to beat, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary until the yolks are pale yellow and the mixture falls in a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted, about 8 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat to combine, scraping down the bowl once, about 30 seconds. Turn the mixture into a medium bowl; wash the mixer bowl and beaters and dry with a kitchen towel. (If you have 2 mixer bowls, leave the yolk mixture in the mixer bowl; wash and dry the beaters and use second bowl in step 6.)

6. In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar at medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the mixer running, add about 1 teaspoon of the remaining sugar; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 40 seconds. Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and supple and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted, about 1 minute longer. Do not overbeat (if the whites look dry and granular, they are overbeaten). While the whites are beating, stir the chocolate mixture into the yolks. With a rubber spatula, stir a quarter of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whites until almost no streaks remain. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the egg and chocolate mixture and fold in quickly but gently.

7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan; using an offset icing spatula and working quickly, smooth the surface and spread the batter into the pan corners. Bake until the center of the cake springs back when touched with a finger, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

8. While the cake is cooling, lay a clean kitchen towel over a work surface and sift 1 tablespoon cocoa over the towel; with your hands, rub the cocoa into the towel. Run a paring knife around the perimeter of the baking sheet to loosen the cake. Invert the cake onto the towel and peel off the parchment.

9. For the finished cake: Starting at a long side, roll the cake and towel together into a jelly roll shape. Cool for 15 minutes, then unroll the cake and towel. Using an offset spatula, immediately spread the mascarpone cream filling evenly over the surface of the cake, almost to the edges. Reroll the cake gently but snugly around the filling. Set a large sheet of parchment paper on an overturned rimmed baking sheet and set the cake seam-side down on top. Trim both ends of the cake on a diagonal. Reserve ¼ cup of ganache for attaching meringue mushrooms. Spread the remaining ganache over the roulade with a small icing spatula. Use a fork to make wood-grain striations on the surface of the ganache before it has set. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, on a baking sheet to slightly set the icing, about 20 minutes.

10. When ready to serve, carefully slide two wide metal spatulas under the cake and transfer the cake to a serving platter. Arrange the meringue mushrooms around the cake, attaching them with dabs of reserved ganache. Sift a light dusting of cocoa over the mushrooms. Sift the yule log with confectioners’ sugar. Serve within 2 hours.

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Meringue Mushrooms (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 30

I didn’t need 30 mushrooms, so I cut the recipe in half, using a hand mixer and a small mixing bowl. Although maybe 30 mushrooms wouldn’t have been so bad, considering how smooth and airy and delicious these were.

CI note: If the caps and stems become soggy during storage, crisp them in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes before assembling the mushrooms.

¼ cup water
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch table salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven racks to the middle and lowest positions and heat the oven to 200 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine the water and sugar in heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil, swirling the pan once or twice, until the sugar has dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. If necessary, wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan with a damp pastry brush. Cook, uncovered, until the temperature registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes.

3. While the sugar is cooking, place the egg white in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk. Beat at medium-low speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream of tartar and beat, gradually increasing speed to high, until the whites hold soft peaks, about 1 minute.

4. With the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the hot syrup into the egg whites, avoiding the whisk. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the meringue cooks to room temperature and becomes very thick and shiny, 5 to 10 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the vanilla.

5. Fit a pastry bag with a ¼-inch pastry tip and fill with the meringue. Pipe about 30 caps and an equal number of stems onto the prepared pans.

6. Bake the meringues for 2 hours, then turn off the oven, leaving the meringues in the oven until very dry and crisp, about 30 minutes longer. Cool the mushroom caps and stems on the baking sheets. (Caps and stems may be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.) To assemble the mushrooms, use ganache to glue the caps and stems together.

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chocolate port wine cake

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I try not to be a hoarder. If I splurge on something, the last thing I want is for it to go to waste. That’s what almost happened with this bottle of port. We bought it last fall on a trip to Texas’s hill country, known for its wines. I have a friend who loves port, so we brought it over a few weeks later when we were invited to their house for dinner. And then, since port has a long shelf life, even after it’s opened, we put it back in the pantry.

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And that’s where it stayed, for a year. I think the problem is that I always think of port as pairing nicely with desserts, particularly chocolate, but Dave and I rarely eat dessert at home. I couldn’t bear to pour it down the drain, so instead, I put it in cake.

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Considering how good this cake was, the port can’t be said to have gone to waste. The port wasn’t an obvious flavor in the cake, but it must have contributed something to how rich and soft this cake was. Still, next time I buy an expensive bottle of wine, I’ll drink it with cake and save the cheap stuff for putting in the cake.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Port Wine Chocolate Cake (rewritten but barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

8-12 servings

Cake:
1 cup + 1 tablespoon (5.1 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (1.5 ounces) Dutch cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) firmly packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup port wine (tawny or ruby)

Topping:
½ cup mascarpone cheese
½ cup chilled heavy or whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the cake: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper; butter and flour the bottoms and sides of the lined pan, or spray with baking spray. In a small bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.

2. In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugars, and salt; beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the egg yolk, beat until fully incorporated, then add the whole egg. Add the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the wine, another one-third of the dry ingredients, the remaining wine, and the remaining dry ingredients.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before topping, at least 1 hour. (The cake can be baked, cooled, tightly wrapped, and stored for at least one day before serving.)

4. For the topping: In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mascarpone, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until soft peaks form. Spread the topping over the cooled cake.

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sweet potato cake

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As far as I can remember, my mom only prepared sweet potatoes one way when I was growing up, and I don’t know exactly what that is, because I wouldn’t eat them. They were the only dish I was ever allowed to skip without even a no-thank-you helping. She served them twice a year, at Thanksgiving and then a month later when we repeated the Thanksgiving meal on Christmas. I don’t think anyone ate them except my mom and my brother-in-law.

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I was in my twenties the first time I saw someone serve sweet potatoes any other way. They were simply roasted and served with salt and pepper. It was a revelation to me that sweet potatoes could be served without sugar and syrup and marshmallows. These days, I like sweet potatoes okay, but with dinner, I prefer to pair them with savory ingredients. Adding sugar to potatoes that are already sweet seems like serving dessert on the same plate as dinner.

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No, if I decide to add sugar to sweet potatoes, it will be to make them into something that is unmistakeably dessert. With only 1 cup of mashed sweet potatoes in a 3-layer cake, this cake doesn’t taste overwhelmingly of sweet potatoes, but it is a pretty orange color, not to mention light and fluffy and moist, everything you want in a cake. If you’re going to add a bunch of sugar to your sweet potatoes, this is the way to do it.

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Sweet Potato Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (slightly adapted from Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne’s Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes )

Cake:
2 medium or 1 large sweet potato (12 ounces)
3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
5 eggs, separated
2¼ cups (15.75 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups milk, room temperature

Frosting:
10 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons maple syrup

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick each sweet potato with a fork in 5-6 places; place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour or until the potatoes are very soft. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. When the potatoes are cool, peel off the skin and remove any dark spots. Cut the potatoes into chunks and puree in a food processor until smooth. Measure out one cup of potato puree; discard the rest or save for another use.

2. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Butter and flour the bottoms and sides of three 8- or 9-inch pans, or spray with baking spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper; grease the paper. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves; set aside.

3. In the bowl of electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add ¼ cup sugar. Continue to beat until the egg whites are moderately stiff. Transfer the egg whites to a separate bowl.

4. In the same bowl (no need to wash it), with the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sweet potato, butter, vanilla, remaining sugar, and salt; beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Add the egg yolks one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each egg yolk is added. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the dry ingredients, followed by half the milk, another one-third of the dry ingredients, the remaining milk, and the remaining dry ingredients.

5. With a large spatula, fold in one-fourth of the egg whites into the batter to lighten it. Fold in the remaining egg whites until no streaks remain, making sure to not over mix. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

6. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake layer comes out clean. Let the cake layers cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Cool completely before frosting, at least 1 hour.

7. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer, add the sugar, and mix on low speed until the sugar is incorporated; increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until light and smooth, 2-3 minutes. Mix in the maple syrup.

8. To assemble: Transfer one cake layer to a serving platter. Evenly spread ⅛-inch frosting over the top. Top with a second cake layer and another layer of frosting, then the third cake layer. If you have time, spread a very thin layer of frosting over the top and sides of the cake; chill, uncovered, for 30 minutes; this step will reduce crumbs in your final layer of frosting. Spread the remaining frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake.

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bittersweet chocolate and pear cake

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Earlier this summer, one of my coworkers brought in peaches from his tree, so I took some and made peach cupcakes to share at work. Then a couple weeks ago, another coworker was giving away apples, so I took some and made apple pie-cake for everyone. After that, the apple grower was excited to find someone to offload her apples to, so she brought me another bag, and I made apple cake and then apple muffins. Also, my mom gave me pears, so I made pear chocolate cake.

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It sounds weird, right, pears and chocolate together? That’s what most of my coworkers said, but then they said that it definitely worked. It’s a fun recipe, with the eggs beaten until foamy and the batter spread in the pan with the fruit and chocolate on top. As the cake bakes, it rises up due to all the air beaten into the eggs, incorporating the fruit and chocolate.

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Just like in a chocolate chip cookie, the chocolate here provides a bitter richness to compliment the sweet butteriness of a fruit-based cake. Sugar and butter being, of course, the perfect compliments to almost any fruit. Basically, if you have too much fruit, give it to me and I will make cake out of it.

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Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Cake (rewritten but not significantly adapted from Al Di La Trattoria via Smitten Kitchen)

My homegrown pears were small, so I used five of them.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room-temperature
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar
3 pears, peeled, cored, and diced into ¼-inch cubes
¾ cup (4.5 ounces) bittersweet chocolate chunks

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick baking spray (or oil and flour the pan). In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When the foaming subsides, start swirling the butter around the pan. When the milk solids sink and turn brown and the butter smells nutty, remove the pan from the heat and pour the butter into a small bowl or measuring cup so it stops cooking.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the eggs until light yellow and thick, about 5 minutes on a stand mixer and 9 minutes with a handheld mixer. When the whisk is removed from the bowl, the egg should flow off of it in a thick ribbon. Gradually add the sugar to the eggs, beating for 1 minute after it’s all added. Reduce the mixer speed to its lowest setting and add one-third of the flour mixture, then half of the butter, another third of the flour, the rest of the butter, and the rest of the flour, beating just until combined.

3. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Evenly distribute the pears and chocolate over the top of the batter. Transfer to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 45-60 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If desired, dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

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blackberry cake with raspberry filling

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I require a weekend for my birthday. Not a week, certainly not a month, just two days and one evening to do as many as my favorite things as possible and as few of my least favorite things. So wine and a new novel are in; laundry is most definitely out.

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Baking and eating my birthday cake is in, but I was really on top of things this year and did all the steps I don’t like so much beforehand. That includes digging around in the messy, nearly unreachable cabinet for pans, lining the pans, and pureeing and straining the fruit. All that was left to do on my actual birthday was add things to the mixer and nibble on frosting while assembling the cake.

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I’d originally made this cake for a friend’s bridal shower, but there were two issues: 1) I only got one piece, and 2) I didn’t save any for Dave. He’s pretty adamant about not being a dessert guy and even less so a cake guy, but our friends had such good things to say about the cake after the party that he was sorry he missed it.

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So choosing this year’s birthday cake wasn’t a hard decision. Making the cake wasn’t hard either, since I’d left only my favorite parts of baking for my birthday itself. I made a small cake, but I had just enough to last for my entire birthday weekend. Cake everyday is definitely on the list for an awesome birthday.

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Blackberry Cake with Raspberry Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting (cake adapted from Cook’s Illustrated White Cake recipe; filling is just barely adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Raspberry Coulis)

The bride’s wedding colors are Tiffany blue and red, so I originally made a blackberry cake hoping that it would turn out blue, like Elly’s, with raspberry filling as the red. I ended up with a purple cake with pink filling, but no one complained. However, you could mix this up with other berries – blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries can be used in both the cake and the filling. Fresh or frozen and thawed berries can be used.

I made a three-layer cake for my birthday, and a four-layer cake for the shower, which I preferred. I love the raspberry filling, so an extra layer of it is very welcome.

For heavy decorations like the roses, increase the frosting recipe by 50% (using 12 tablespoons butter, 12 ounces cream cheese, and 6 cups powdered sugar).

Cake:
¾ cup pureed and strained blackberries (from 8 ounces of blackberries)
⅓ cup milk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2¼ (9 ounces) cups cake flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
4 egg whites, at room temperature

Raspberry Filling:
6 ounces fresh raspberries (or thawed if frozen)
2½ to 3½ tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch table salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Cream Cheese Frosting:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
pinch salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar

1. For the cake: Heat the oven to 350F. Spray two 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 a blender, puree the blackberries. Transfer them to a fine-mesh strainer set over a small bowl; use a spoon or rubber spatula to press the liquid through the strainer, discarding the seeds. Measure ¾ cup of puree. Stir the milk and vanilla extract into the blackberry puree. In a separate small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.

3. Place the butter, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer). Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the blackberry mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the blackberry puree, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix on medium-low speed for 15 seconds longer.

4. Divide the cake between the prepared pans. Bake for 22 to 28 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 5 to 10 minutes. Invert and turn out onto wire racks and peel off the paper liners. Let stand until completely cooled before assembling the cake, at least one hour.

5. For the filling: In a medium saucepan, bring the raspberries, 1 teaspoon water, 2½ tablespoons sugar, and salt to bare simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally; cook until the sugar is dissolved and the berries are heated through, about 1 minute longer. Transfer the mixture to the blender; puree until smooth, about 20 seconds. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a small bowl, pressing and stirring the puree with a rubber spatula to extract as much seedless puree as possible. (there’s no need to wash either the blender or the strainer between the blackberries and the raspberries.) Stir in the lemon juice and additional sugar, if desired. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour. Stir to recombine before serving. Can be refrigerated in airtight container for up to 4 days.

6. For the frosting: Place the butter, cream cheese, and salt in the (clean) bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; beat on medium speed until smooth. Switch to the whisk attachment; on low speed, gradually add the powdered sugar, beating until it’s just incorporated. Increase the speed to high and beat for 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.

7. To assemble: To make the cakes easier to handle, wrap each tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour or up to overnight. Working with one cake at a time, unwrap it and use a serrated bread knife to cut the cakes horizontally in half. If you’re using a cake board, put a small spoonful of frosting in the center of it to glue the cake to the board; if you’re not using a cake board, line the perimeter of your serving dish with strips of wax paper, then put a small spoonful of frosting in the center of the serving dish. Center a layer of cake over the frosting, cut side down. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese frosting over the cake layer. Spoon 3 tablespoons of raspberry filling over the frosting, spreading it to within about an inch of the edge. Center another cake layer over the filling, cut side-down. Repeat the layering of frosting, filling, and cake twice more. Spread a thin layer of frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake to seal in crumbs. If the layers slide around while you’re spreading the frosting, push wooden skewers from the top to the bottom of the cake in three places to secure the layers. Chill the cake, uncovered, for 30 minutes to 2 hours to set the frosting. Remove the skewers if necessary, then spread the remaining cream cheese frosting evenly over the top and sides of the cake, decorating as desired. Either transfer the cake on the cake board to a serving platter, or carefully remove the strips of wax paper to leave a clean serving platter around the sides of the cake.

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