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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devil’s food cookie butter cookie sandwiches

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I thought these were going to be all about the cookie butter, that delicious mashup of ground cookies and stabilizers and fat, but the devil’s food cookie itself was remarkably good. It was meltingly tender, but somehow the very edge had just a big of crackle to it. It turns out that I hadn’t added enough cookie butter to the middle of the sandwiches, but I didn’t even care because the cookies themselves were perfect.

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Another reason I wish I’d spread more cookie butter on the cookies is that now I have an open jar of cookie butter in the pantry, constantly tempting me to eat it by the spoonful. This is the first time I’d baked with it, and I’m glad I chose a recipe that put the spotlight on the cookie butter, because I love the graham cracker flavor. That delicious spread, combined with a perfectly cakey chocolate cookie? I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I ate the last one.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Devil’s Food Cookie Butter Cookie Sandwiches
(slightly adapted from Le Pain Quotidien)

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.25 ounces) all-purpose flour
⅓ cup (1 ounce) cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
7 tablespoons butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons cookie butter
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (5.65 ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
additional cookie butter for assembly

1. In a small bowl, combine the flour and baking soda.

2. Place the butter, cream cheese, and 2 tablespoons cookie butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer). Beat on medium-low speed until the mixture is smooth, then add the salt and sugar. Continue beating on medium-low until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer running, add the egg, then the vanilla, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until evenly combined. Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

4. Scoop the dough in heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until they no longer look wet on top, about 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Spread the bottom of half of the cookies with additional cookie butter. Top with the remaining cookies.

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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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cranberry swirl shortbread

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I was not feeling it the Monday night I made this shortbread. I was, however, feeling it the day before, when I had a relatively chore-free Sunday, and went ahead and made the cranberry filling, a double batch. In fact, I was so in the mood to bake that afternoon that I made a batch of my favorite Christmas cookies, just for the heck of it. But I forgot how long it takes to shape those cookies into their spirals and stripes and by the time that was over, I’d pretty much had my fill of baking.

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Which left me with a weeknight to make the shortbread dough, roll out four circles, chill the circles, partially bake two of the circles, layer them with cranberries, add more dough, pipe on more cranberry filling, score the dough, and add designs in the filling. All when I just wasn’t feeling it.

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My coworkers, however, were definitely feeling it the next day when a double batch disappeared in no time. Not only are these bright and attractive – even when you rush through making the design – but they’re tender and sweet with refreshingly tart filling. I will definitely make these again, but next time I’ll make sure I’m in the mood.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Cranberry Swirl Shortbread (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes 16 wedges

4 ounces (1 cup) fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon grated orange zest plus 2 tablespoons juice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and chilled

1. Bring the cranberries, ¼ cup granulated sugar, orange zest and juice, and cinnamon to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the cranberries have burst and the juice has just started to thicken, 2 to 4 minutes; let cool for 1 hour.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Process the flour, confectioners’ sugar, salt, and remaining ¼ cup granulated sugar in a food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Scatter the butter over the top and process until the dough starts to come together, about 1 minute. Gently knead the dough by hand until no floury bits remain. (Do not wash the food processor bowl.) Divide the dough in half and roll each half into a 9-inch circle on parchment paper; refrigerate for 20 minutes. Process the cooled cranberry mixture in the food processor until smooth, about 20 seconds.

3. Press one dough circle into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and poke all over with fork. Bake on a baking sheet until the edges are light golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating the tart pan halfway through baking. Spread the dough with ¼ cup cranberry puree, the top with second dough circle, and poke all over with fork. Pipe the remaining cranberry puree over the dough in a spiral shape. Score the dough into 16 wedges. Between the score marks, lightly run a knife in the opposite direction of the cranberry spiral. Bake until the top is pale golden, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the tart pan halfway through baking. Let the shortbread cool for 10 minutes, then remove the outer ring of the tart pan. Cut through the score marks, transfer the wedges to a wire rack, and let cool completely before serving.

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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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cranberry almond crostata

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I’ve got nothing against pie – buttery, flaky crust, fruit filling, what’s not to like? – but I’m mostly a cake girl. Soft, spongy, tender, doughy cake. Brownies are good too. Or cookies. Pie is great, but it isn’t as good as doughy baked things, either to eat or to make.

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This crostata, however, is the perfect compromise, because the crust is made from cookie dough, not pie dough. The filling, on the other hand, is classic pie – thickened, fruity, juicy. It looked just like cherry pie as it baked.

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When I made this for my big Italian-themed turkey feast last year, I mixed and cut the dough the day before the meal, storing it in the freezer. I also cooked and chilled the filling overnight. The next day, I spent 15 minutes assembling the tart in the morning before anything else needed to go in the oven. After transferring the beautifully browned and sugar sparkly tart to a cake stand, I didn’t have to think about it again until it was time for dessert. This sweet and tart and buttery dessert was the perfect end to the meal – and it was just as good the next morning for breakfast, just like pie.

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Cranberry Almond Crostata (from Gourmet via epicurious)

For pastry dough:
⅛ cup whole raw almonds (¼ pound), toasted and cooled
2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1¼ sticks unsalted butter, softened
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten, divided
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon pure almond extract
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon salt

For filling and assembly:
2½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries (10 ounces)
¼ cup fresh orange juice
½ cup sweet orange marmalade
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1. Make the dough: Pulse the almonds with ¼ cup flour until finely ground (be careful not to grind to a paste). Beat together the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the beaten egg, chilled, for egg wash and beat the remaining egg into the butter mixture, then add the vanilla and almond extracts, beating well. At low speed, mix in the almond mixture, zest, salt, and remaining 1¾ cups flour until mixture just forms a dough. Halve the dough and form each half into a 5- to 6-inch disk. Wrap the disks separately in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the filling: Bring the cranberries, orange juice, marmalade, brown sugar, and salt to a boil in a heavy medium pot, stirring, then simmer, uncovered, until some of the cranberries burst and the mixture is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Cool the filling quickly by spreading it in a shallow baking pan and chilling until lukewarm, about 15 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees with a foil-lined large baking sheet on the middle rack. Generously grease a springform pan.

4. Roll out 1 piece of dough between sheets of wax or parchment paper into a 12-inch round (dough will be very tender). Remove the top sheet of paper and invert the dough into the springform pan. (Dough will tear easily but can be patched together with your fingers.) Press the dough over the bottom and up the side of the pan, trimming the dough to reach ½ inch up the side of the pan. Chill.

5. Roll out the remaining dough into a 12-inch round in same manner. Remove the top sheet of paper, then cut the dough into 10 (⅓-inch-wide) strips with a pastry wheel and slide (still on the wax paper) onto a tray. Freeze strips until firm, about 10 minutes.

6. Spread the filling in the chilled shell and arrange 5 strips 1 inch apart on filling. Arrange the remaining 5 strips 1 inch apart diagonally across first strips to form a lattice with diamond-shaped spaces. Trim the edges of all the strips flush with the edge of the shell. Brush the lattice top with the reserved beaten egg and sprinkle the crostata with the 1 tablespoon granulated sugar.

7. Bake the crostata in the pan on the hot baking sheet until the pastry is golden and the filling is bubbling, 50 to 60 minutes. (If the pastry is too brown after 30 minutes, loosely cover the crostata with foil.) Cool the crostata completely in the pan on a rack, 1½ to 2 hours.

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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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