blackberry plum streusel pie

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Usually it works out that I get a bunch of birthday cakes – one that my mom makes whenever my family is all together near-ish my birthday, one I make for my birthday weekend, and one I make to bring to work. But this year I didn’t get any birthday cakes.

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I did, however, get birthday pie, and that was better this year anyway. Not only had I just baked, sampled, and eaten the trimmings of this huge cake, but I baked another pretty cake for a friend’s birthday just a few days before mine. I was pretty much caked out by then, which is perfect timing, because August is time for fruit desserts.

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I love combining stone fruits and berries, and I’d never had plum pie before. Plus, as good as I think my pie crust is, streusel is even better. And as a bonus, I had a batch of vanilla ice cream in the freezer that I’d made to use up egg yolks leftover from one of the cakes, and of course vanilla ice cream, baked fruit, and streusel is a perfect combination.

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It being my birthday weekend and all, I had pie for breakfast, lunch, and dessert. I only added ice cream for the lunch and dessert servings though; let’s not get crazy. But after all that pie, I think I’m ready for some cake now.

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Blackberry Plum Streusel Pie (pie adapted slightly from Gourmet via epicurious; crust from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes one 9-inch pie; about 8 servings

When tapioca is used as a pie thickener, I prefer to grind it up first, so it doesn’t form little beads of juicy filling after it’s baked. However, if you don’t have a method to easily do this, it certainly won’t ruin your pie. My spice grinder is broken and I was too lazy to clean out the coffee grinder, so I tried grinding the dried tapioca in a mortar and pestle. It didn’t work, but the pie was still delicious.

I didn’t peel the plums and didn’t notice any textural issues in the pie. I cut each plum into 8 wedges, but I thought the pieces were too big in the baked pie, so I recommend cutting them smaller.

Pie crust:
1¼ cups (6 ounces) flour
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very cold
⅓-½ cup ice water

Streusel:
3 ounces (1 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats
2.4 ounces (½ cup) all-purpose flour
3.5 ounces (½ cup) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes

Filling:
1¾ pounds ripe plums, pitted, cut into 8 wedges, each wedge halved crosswise
12 ounces (about 2 cups) blackberries
7 ounces (1 cup) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon salt

1. For the pie crust: Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until mixed. Add half of the butter; pulse once, then add the remaining butter, and process with 1-second pulses until the largest pieces of butter are about ¼-inch across. Add ¼ cup of water; pulse once, then add 2 more tablespoons of water. Pulse a couple times to incorporate the water, then pinch a portion of the dough together; if it crumbles, pulse in another tablespoon of water. If it barely holds together, transfer the mixture to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a ball, kneading it once or twice so it holds together. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Do not wash the food processor bowl.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the pie dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, folding the edge of the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the plate, and flute the edges. Refrigerate while preparing the streusel and filling.

3. For the streusel: Pulse the oats, flour, sugar, and salt in the food processor until mixed. Add the butter and process until the mixture begins to form clumps.

4. For the filling: In a large bowl, combine the plums, blackberries, sugar, tapioca, cornstarch, and lemon zest. Transfer the fruit mixture to the dough-lined pie pan. Evenly distribute crumbles of the streusel topping over the filling. Transfer to the oven and bake until the fruit is bubbling and the streusel is browned, 75 to 90 minutes. Transfer the pie to a cooling rack and cool for at least three hours before serving.

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brown butter peach shortbread

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I’m in fruity dessert mode lately. Blueberries, blackberries, plums. The peaches came from my coworker, which is always fun – people bring me fruit at work, and I bring it back to them a few days later, mixed with butter and sugar.

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I have another coworker with an apple tree, and that’s a little easier on me since apples have a long shelf-life. The peaches I was given were already very ripe, so I needed something simple that I could bake when I already had dinner to make and mountains of post-vacation laundry to do. Unfortunately, I’d just used up my ace-in-the-hole tart dough on store-bought peaches.

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Fortunately, I found a simple but delicious recipe. This shortbread has the extra step of browning and chilling the butter before cutting it into the dry ingredients, which doesn’t take long and adds a little extra specialness to the dessert. The peaches were small and impossible to remove from the pit, so I skipped peeling, pitting, and slicing in favor of cutting chunks directly from the seed.

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It might have been easy to put together, but the flavor didn’t reflect that. With just a few basic ingredients and plenty of peaches, it tastes like the best of summer fruit. That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for right now.

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Brown Butter Peach Shortbread (rewritten but not changed from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

The only part of this recipe I thought was annoying was chipping the hardened browned butter out of the bowl. I might line a bowl with wax paper next time so I can just lift the butter out and scrape it off the paper into the food processor.

The peaches my coworker gave me were very small, and I used eight or nine of them, not two. I did not peel them, which was not a problem in the final dish.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2¾ cups plus
2 tablespoons (12.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon cinnamon ¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 peaches, pitted and thinly sliced (between ⅛- and ¼-inch thick)

1. In a medium not-nonstick skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to cook the butter, swirling the pan occasionally, until the milk solids brown and sink and the butter smells slightly nutty. Immediately remove it from the heat and pour the butter into a bowl (not plastic). Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

2. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor; process until the ingredients are mixed, a few pulses. Add the browned butter and process until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. Add the egg; process until the dough just comes together into a crumbly ball.

3. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Press three-quarters of the dough into the bottom of the pan. Evenly spread the peaches over the dough, then scatter the remaining dough crumbs over the fruit.

4. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the crust is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before serving.

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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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lavender almond peach tart

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I shouldn’t complain about too many good things happening at once, but there were moments when it all seemed just a little overwhelming. Within a month, there were two big international vacations, trips for work, nephews’ birthdays to bake for, and another tiered baby shower cake to deliver. I probably didn’t have to keep up with my normal routine of baking something for my coworkers once a week, but I figured if I planned ahead, I could handle it.

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So I prepped this tart dough and put it in the freezer, waiting for rhubarb to appear at the store, when I would mix up the simple filling for a quick dessert. Unfortunately, I never saw any rhubarb this year. It was peach season and a vacation later before I gave up on it.

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Life hadn’t slowed down by then, so it was lucky I had something partly prepped. It was easy enough to press the dough into a tart pan and make a simple peach jam. With nothing but tart dough and peaches, I thought the tart might be plain, but I loved the peaches with the floral lavender. As a bonus, it’s fun to bring a fairly fancy dessert to work and pretend my life is so effortless, when really I’m barely keeping up.

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Lavender Almond Peach Tart (adapted from Desserts for Breakfast; jam recipe rewritten from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8

I started with ground almond meal instead of almonds.

I sliced the reserved dough and layered it over the jam, which was easy, but I don’t think it made for the prettiest presentation.

¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar
zest of 1 lemon
¾ cup (3.75 ounces) almonds
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon dried lavender buds
¼ teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
11 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 large egg yolk
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup peach jam, recipe follows
powdered sugar

1. Add the sugar and lemon zest to the bowl of a food processor; process until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the almonds, flour, lavender, salt, and cardamom; process until the ingredients are mixed and the almonds are finely ground. Add the butter and process until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. Add the egg yolk and almond extract; process until the dough just comes together into a crumbly ball.

2. Press three-quarters of the dough into a 9-inch round or 14-by-4-inch rectangular tart pan. Freeze the lined pan for at least 30 minutes. Cover the remaining dough and store in the refrigerator. (Both the dough in the pan and the reserved dough can be stored in the freezer, covered tightly, for up to a month.)

3. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the cooled jam over the dough in the pan. Break the remaining dough into ½- to 1-inch pieces and scatter over the jam. Transfer to the oven and bake until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbling, 40-45 minutes. If the tart browns too quickly, loosely cover it with foil after 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Serve, dusted with powdered sugar, or loosely cover and store for up to 24 hours before serving.

Simple Peach Jam (rewritten from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 1 cup

This jam cannot be canned. It probably makes a little more than 1 cup; I used it all in the tart.

8 ounces peaches, pitted, sliced, peeled if desired
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.4 ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine the peaches, sugar, and lemon juice in a medium saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and syrupy, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature before using in the tart.

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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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strawberry crinkle cookies

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It’s May, and strawberries are in season! Delicious red fresh strawberries are available for snacking, baking, and daiquiris. And I’ve done my share of snacking and daiquiri-ing. But when it comes to baking, I have to confess, I often prefer frozen strawberries, no matter what time of year it is.

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Maybe using frozen strawberries defeats the purpose of eating seasonally, but I like that they puree more thoroughly. Plus, because they’re not so perishable and delicate, frozen strawberries can be picked when they’re really ripe, unlike fresh strawberries you buy at the store, even this time of year. I have no shame in using frozen strawberries for baking, even in the peak of their season.

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I was impressed by how much strawberry puree was in these cookies. The dough (almost more of a batter) was delicious – like strawberry ice cream, except without the brain freeze. Once baked, the strawberry flavor was more muted, but still evident. These might become a spring tradition for me – or any other time of the year, since frozen strawberries are available whenever I want them.

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Strawberry Crinkle Cookies (slightly adapted from Merry Gourmet)

I used one drop of Americolor red food coloring, which made the batter the perfect color, but the baked cookies weren’t quite as pink as I wanted.

3 cups (375 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick; 113 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar, plus ¼ cup for rolling
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup strawberry puree (from 6 ounces or 2 cups strawberries)
2 drops red food coloring (optional)
½ cup confectioner’s sugar

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking powder.

2. 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, and 1½ cups sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla, strawberry puree, and red food coloring. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Chill the dough for 4 hours or up to 3 days.

3. Transfer the ¼ cup granulated sugar and the confectioner’s sugar to separate small bowls. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Coat the balls of dough with granulated sugar, then powdered sugar. Transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until they are puffed and do not look wet in the cracks, 12-16 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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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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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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