kentucky butter cake

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I’ve told you before that my coworkers go crazy for pound cake. They’re always appreciative of treats that I bring in – I work with good people – but pound cake disappears the fastest.

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Even pound cake gone wrong. The first time I made this, I messed it up, and not in a minor way. I forgot to add not just the baking powder, but the buttermilk. Basically, instead of making a cake, I made a giant ring-shaped cookie.

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first attempt

It was still pretty good, so I brought it in to share at work anyway. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who came by claiming it was the best thing I’ve ever baked – in three years of almost weekly treats! I’m glad it was so popular, because I didn’t feel bad making it again a few days later, this time with all the ingredients.

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Most people said it was better with the buttermilk, lighter and more tender. A few didn’t notice the difference. One stalwart fan said that while both were good, the first version was better. So there you have it – you really can’t go wrong with this cake, even when you do actually go wrong.

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One year ago: Meyer Lemon Semifreddo
Two years ago: Strawberry Cream Cake
Three years ago: Strawberry Chocolate Ice Cream Pie
Four years ago: Strawberry Lemon Sorbet
Five years ago: Franks and Beans

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Kentucky Butter Cake (adapted from allrecipes via Beantown Baker)

Makes one 9-inch Bundt cake

I do have some uncertainty with the glazing method. The recipe instructions are to pour all of the glaze onto the cake while it’s still in the pan, so you’re essentially saturating the bottom of the cake. The cake is left in the pan until it cools completely, which presumably gives the glaze (which is now more of a soaking liquid than a glaze) a chance to soak into the cake. I did this the second time I baked the cake, wanting to follow the directions exactly.

The first time, I poured only about half of the glaze onto the cake before unmolding it and pouring the remaining glaze down the sides. I liked this method better, because the glaze formed a delicious hard crust on the cake (although a lot of it dripped right off the cake too). However, it’s possible that it only worked this way on the firmer more cookie-like cake, and would simply soak into the top of the cake when it’s made correctly. It’s good either way.

For the cake:
3 cups (14.4 ounces) unbleached flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
4 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup buttermilk

For the glaze:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt pan or spray with baking spray. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda.

2. Place the butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Gradually add the sugar to the butter mixture. Mix in the eggs one at a time, until incorporated, then add the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the buttermilk, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the buttermilk, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan, smoothing the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

4. Shortly before the cake is removed from the oven, combine the butter, sugar, salt, and water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the butter melts. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

5. Pour about half of the glaze mixture over the cooling cake. After the cake has been cooling for at least 10 minutes, invert it onto the wire rack, removing the pan. Place a baking sheet below the cooling rack to catch drips, then spoon the remaining glaze over the top of the glaze. Cool completely before serving.

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rhubarb snack cake

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I never got around to telling you about my New Awesome Recipe Database back when it was new. It’s still awesome. But now that it’s well over a year old and has over 1500 recipes entered into it, it definitely isn’t new.

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I love it. I built it myself, something I’d wanted to do for at least a decade. I remember getting Microsoft Access for Dummies from the library shortly after I moved out of my parents’ house for graduate school. But without anything to really push me or anyone around to help me, the project never got off the ground. It wasn’t until I had to use databases at work that it finally clicked.

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I seem to have a bit of a natural aptitude for them, probably because I love organizing things and playing with data. There were a couple online recipe databases I could have downloaded and built upon, but they didn’t have all of the categories and features that I was looking for, so I made my own database from scratch. And almost a year and a half later, I still absolutely love it.

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One of the ways it’s so useful is that when the grocery store carries relatively fresh-looking rhubarb, I snatch it up whether I have a plan for it or not. And then I can go to my Not-New Awesome Recipe Database and do a search of all the recipes I’ve saved over the last few years that include rhubarb.  Narrowing down to the one that only includes ingredients I already have and can be made after work takes no time at all.  The only problem, other than the tedium of entering recipes (my goal is 6 per weekday), is that searching for recipes is so easy and fun with my database that I hardly use my beautiful and inspiring cookbook collection anymore.  Until someday, when I enter those recipes into my Awesome Recipe database, and then I’ll have the best of both worlds.

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One year ago: Shrimp Ricotta Ravioli
Two years ago: Barbecued Pulled Pork
Three years ago: Cream Cheese Spritz
Four years ago: Orange-Oatmeal-Currant Cookies
Five years ago: Snickery Squares

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Rhubarb Snack Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes about 24 servings

Crumb:
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) light brown sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Cake:
1¼ pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into ½-inch lengths
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1⅓ cup (9.65 ounces) granulated sugar, divided
8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 large eggs
1⅓ cups (6.4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
⅓ cup (2.75 ounces) sour cream

1. To make the crumb mixture: In a small bowl, whisk the flour, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon together, then stir in the melted butter. Set aside.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray, then line the bottom with parchment paper, extending the lengths up two opposite sides of the pan to form a sling. In a medium bowl, stir together rhubarb, lemon juice and ⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar; set aside.

3. For the cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a medium-sized mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, remaining ⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar, and the lemon zest until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and ground ginger. Add one-third of this mixture to the batter, mixing until just combined. Continue beating, adding half of the sour cream, half of the remaining flour mixture, the remaining sour cream, and then the remaining flour mixture, mixing between each addition until just combined.

4. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Pour the rhubarb mixture over the batter, spreading it into an even layer. Scatter the crumbs evenly over the rhubarb layer.

5. Bake the cake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out free of the cake batter. It will be golden on top. Cool completely in the pan on a rack. To serve, use the parchment sling to remove the cake from the pan; cut into 2-inch squares.

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whole wheat biscotti with pistachios, apricots, chocolate, and lavender

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Sometimes you want the comfortable and familiar. You want brownies. You want vanilla or strawberry ice cream. And who am I to begrudge you a good ol’ chocolate chip cookie craving?

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Sometimes, though, maybe you want something more interesting, maybe even a bit challenging. You want something more adult. But you should keep the chocolate. This is dessert we’re talking about here, a treat, not a chore.

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For those times, you can add fruit. Nuts, maybe. Use whole grains and unrefined sugar. Add…flowers?  Why not?

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I made a half batch of these for a gathering of myself, Dave, and two of our guy friends. They were all gone (except one, which was perfect with coffee the next morning) by the end of the evening, and I swear I didn’t eat them all myself! Grown-up food isn’t so bad.

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One year ago: Ginger Fried Rice
Two years ago: Green Pea Ravioli with Lemon Broth
Three years ago: Pizza with Figs, Prosciutto, Gorgonzola, Balsamic, and Arugula
Four years ago: Pan-Roasted Asparagus
Five years ago: Sichuan Green Beans

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Whole Wheat Biscotti with Pistachios, Apricots, Chocolate, and Lavender
(adapted from 5 Second Rule)

Makes 72 1-inch bites

You can probably choose one type of sugar and one type of flour. I was hedging my bets on the healthier additions.

I used 6 ounces of chocolate, and it was delicious but too much for the dough to hold onto, so I’ve reduced it slightly.

1 cup (4.8 ounces) whole wheat flour
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (3 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) turbinado sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ounces (¾ cup) semisweet chocolate chips, chopped
½ cup finely diced dried apricots
½ cup pistachios, rough-chopped
1 teaspoon dried lavender

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mats or parchment paper.

2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flours, sugars, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until well combined, then add the olive oil and vanilla extract. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and use a rubber spatula to stir the ingredients until the dry ingredients are evenly moistened. Stir in the chocolate, apricots, pistachios, and lavender.

3. On a dry work surface, knead the dough until it’s no longer sticky. Transfer it to the prepared baking sheet and press into a ½-inch thick rectangle measuring about 10 by 6 inches. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, or until the top no longer looks raw. Transfer the baking sheet with the dough to a cooling rack. Let dough cool for at least 5 minutes.
4. Transfer the dough to a cutting board. Cut each block into 6 long strips, then cut each strip at 1-inch intervals to form squares. Transfer the pieces back to the baking sheet. Bake for 10-14 minutes, until the squares just begin to brown at the edges. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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stuffed mascarpone strawberries

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We moved into the new house! And less than a week later, we went on vacation! And now we’re back, and although we don’t have internet or television at home, and there are no curtains or pictures hung, and we haven’t bought mirrors for the bathrooms, it’s safe to say that we’re settling in. The kitchen is unpacked and has been through multiple rounds of tweaking, and what else matters?

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With the move, the vacation, and a couple big projects at work, March got a little crazy. It started off with a visit from a friend, here to interview for a job at our company. Which, by the way, she got, so she and her husband will be moving out to our little New Mexican town sometime this summer. After her interview, we showed her around town, but there really isn’t much to see, so we spent most of the evening hanging out at home, drinking wine and eating a nice meal.

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I’d forgotten that she eats like a bird, so I’m glad I kept dessert light. Fruit is a nice ending to a meal of salad, shrimp, bread, and lasagna, but plain fruit is a snack that I eat several times a day. Stuffing the berries with a lightly sweetened and spiced creamy mixture was the perfect way to make these a treat worthy of being called dessert. Plus, it was easy, and last month, easy was extremely important.

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One year ago: Strawberry Lemonade Bars
Two years ago: Chocolate Chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Dried Cherries and Pecans
Three years ago: Vodka Gimlet
Four years ago: Black Bean Squash Burritos
Five years ago: Scotch Eggs

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Stuffed Mascarpone Strawberries (adapted from The Quinces and the Pea via Pink Parsley)

1 pound strawberries, rinsed and dried
½ cup mascarpone cheese
⅓ cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean, scraped
½ teaspoon cardamom
cinnamon, for sprinkling

1. Halve each strawberry through the stem-end, and use a melon baller or paring knife to scoop out part of the middle.

2. In a medium bowl, beat the mascarpone, cream, sugar, vanilla, and cardamom until soft peaks form. Using a piping bag fitted with corner snipped off (or a round tip), fill each strawberry with the cream. Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon; serve.

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green pig macarons (green tea macarons with vanilla bean swiss meringue buttercream)

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These might have come out okay in the end, but it was looking bleak at first – and in the middle, and even a bit toward the end. I might have been overly confident when I agreed to make shaped macarons, with just one previous attempt at the notoriously finicky cookie. To make matters worse, the inspiration blog entry was written in Hebrew.

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I’m not the first person to make shaped macarons, but most people are using the traditional method for macarons, the one I used last year, in which egg whites are beaten with granulated sugar until stiff peaks form, then almond meal and powdered sugar are folded into the mixture. It’s fussy – the egg whites need to be aged overnight, just the right amount of folding is necessary to deflate the meringue just so, and the piped batter needs to sit at room temperature for an hour before baking. Annie promised to have a simpler, more dependable method, and I wanted to try it.

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In this method, half of the egg whites are mixed into the almond meal and powdered sugar; the other half are whipped into a meringue with hot sugar syrup, then folded into the pasty almond meal mixture. The cookies are piped and baked immediately.

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It sounded simple enough, but things started going wrong early on. First I ran out of almond meal, which I discovered after I’d measured out egg whites, sugar, and water to the gram. I had some slivered (not blanched; they still had skins) almonds in the pantry, so I ground those up and mixed them into the batter. One obstacle was overcome.

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My next mistake was adding too much of the meringue mixture to the almond meal mixture. You’re only supposed to add as much of the meringue mixture for “thick ribbons to batter to run off the spatula”, but that required all of the meringue for me, and at that point, the batter was too loose, and the cookies spread when I piped them.

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My next problem – there was always a next problem on this particular day – was trying to get the nose and ears on top of the main body of the cookie. Eventually I found that the best method seemed to be baking the plain macarons for the specified time, then piping the nose and ears on the firm surface of the cookie and rebaking them for a few minutes until the smaller portions set. The cookies seemed no worse for the extra time in the oven.

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It’s a good thing that the Angry Birds pigs aren’t pristine shapes even in their original format on the game, because my cookies were anything but round, with ears of indeterminate size and shape. Sometimes the ears blended right into the rest of the cookie; sometimes the noses caved in. And by this point, my kitchen was covered in macaron batter, which, by the way, turns into concrete when it dries, and my bread dough was overrising while seemingly infinite batches of macarons hogged the oven.

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The piggie faces, thankfully, were mostly saved by the addition of nostrils and pupils. Eyebrowns drawn on with a edible marker didn’t hurt either. And I think it speaks volumes about the dependability of this recipe that with all my foibles, the macarons rose enough to somewhat form those elusive foamy feet. (Not that my troubles were completely over.) But while they might not be as pristine as I had intended, the 6-year-old birthday boy didn’t seem to mind. I’m going to call this kitchen battle conquered, though it wasn’t easy.

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One year ago: Chocolate Sugar Cookies
Two years ago: Fettuccini Alfredo
Three years ago: Toasted Vegetable Subs
Four years ago: Red Velvet Cake (comparison of 5 recipes)
Five years ago: Vanilla Frosting (comparison of 4 recipes)

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Green Pig Macarons (Green Tea Macarons with Vanilla Bean Swiss Meringue Buttercream) (adapted from Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel’s Bouchon Bakery via Annie’s Eats)

Makes 24 sandwich cookies

The very small amounts of almond meal, powdered sugar, and egg whites are for the white eyes. If you’re just making regular green tea macarons, you can skip that.

Where I went wrong with the batter was adding too much meringue. Once I got to the point where I had thick ribbons of batter, it was definitely too much meringue and the batter was too loose, spreading on the baking sheet. All I can recommend to correct this, until I gain more experience with macaron-making, is that you watch for VERY thick ribbons of batter falling off the spatula.

Green tea cookies:
212 grams almond meal, plus 16 grams
212 grams powdered sugar, plus 16 grams
1½ teaspoons matcha powder
82 and 90 grams egg whites, plus 6 grams (about 6 eggs total)
236 grams granulated sugar, plus ¼ teaspoon
158 grams water

Vanilla bean buttercream:
2 egg whites
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar (vanilla sugar if you have it)
pinch table salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
seeds from ½ vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the middle of the oven. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Fit one pastry bag with a ½-inch round tip and two with ¼-inch round tips (for the white eyes and the green ears and nose).

2. In a large bowl, combine the 212 grams almond meal, 212 grams powdered sugar, and matcha powder. Whisk together to blend and break up any clumps. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in 82 grams of the egg whites. Blend the egg whites into the dry ingredients until evenly mixed. The mixture will be thick and paste-like. For the white eyes, in a small bowl, mix together the 16 grams of powdered sugar, 16 grams of almond meal, and 6 grams of egg whites.

3. Combine 236 grams granulated sugar and the water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the temperature is around 210 degrees, combine the 90 gram portion of egg whites with ¼ teaspoon sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Begin whipping on medium-low speed. Continue whipping the whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks. If soft peaks are achieved before the syrup reaches the target temperature, reduce the speed to low to keep the whites moving.

4. Once the syrup reaches 248 degrees, immediately remove it from the heat. Increase the mixer speed to medium and pour the syrup down the side of the bowl in a slow drizzle until fully incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and whip the meringue until stiff, glossy peaks form.

5. Add one third of the meringue mixture to the bowl with the almond mixture with the matcha. Fold in gently until the mixture is smooth. A bit at a time, gently fold in the remaining meringue until the batter is smooth and runs in thick ribbons off of the spatula. You may not need all of the meringue, so add it gradually. Repeat the process with the white batter.

6. Add most of the green batter to the pastry bag with the ½-inch tip. Hold the bag perpendicular to the baking sheet about ½-inch above the surface of the pan. Steadily pipe rounds about 1¼- to 1½-inches in diameter. The batter may create small peaks immediately after piping, but if it is the correct texture these will smooth themselves away after a minute or two. If the batter is too stiff, the peaks will remain and the tops of the shells may not be totally smooth. If the batter is too thin, the rounds will spread further.

7. For the ears: Transfer some green batter to a piping bag with a ¼-inch tip. Pipe small ears adjacent to the larger circles of batter.

8. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Bake for 9-12 minutes, until the tops are smooth and set and “feet” have formed around the bottom.

9. Transfer the white batter to a piping bag with an ⅛-inch tip. Remove the baked cookies from the oven and immediately pipe on a green nose in the middle of the circle and 2 white eyes to the side of the nose. Return the cookies to the oven for 3-4 minutes, until the nose and eyes are set. Add noses and eyes only to every other batch; the backs of the sandwiches will just need ears.

10. Transfer the baking sheet with the cookies to a cooling rack; cool 5 minutes, then peel the cookies away from the parchment and transfer to a cooling rack. Repeat as needed with the remaining batter, replacing the parchment paper with each batch, bringing the oven temperature back up to 350 degrees before baking each sheet.

11. For the buttercream: In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees.

12. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment; beat the egg white mixture on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and it has cooled to room temperature, about 8 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is thick and smooth, 3-5 minutes. Add the vanilla seeds and extract; mix until incorporated.

13. To assemble: Pipe the buttercream onto the flat sides of half of the cookies. Top with the remaining cookies. Serve immediately or cover and store overnight in the refrigerator (bring to cool room temperature before serving).

Thirteen steps, and I forgot to tell you how to make the project-saving eyes and nostrils. Powdered sugar + milk + food coloring, stirred until smooth and dripped off the end of a toothpick.  Tedious, but it got the job done.

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banana cake with cream cheese frosting

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I was very excited about both making and eating this cake, so of course I screwed it up. Things were going suspiciously smoothly while I was baking it, as they should have been, considering that I’d put extra effort into making sure it was an easy process. All that means is that I already had the dry ingredients measured and the rest of the ingredients and equipment out and ready to go, but every little bit helps when you’re squeezing cake-baking into short weekday evenings.

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All I had to do was mix up a simple batter, then make an easy dinner while the cake baked in the oven. The cake was done right about when dinner was, but I thought it might be on the early side of ready, so I left it in the oven for a few more minutes while I served up our meal. I did turn the oven off, but apparently the plate of hot food in front of me was too distracting, because I wandered off to enjoy my dinner, completely forgetting about the cake still in the oven.

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When I took it out, it was more brown than the blonde I had planned on.  Fortunately, bananas keep desserts nice and moist, so even fifteen minutes of extra baking couldn’t ruin this cake. It wasn’t quite as fluffy and tender as I’d been counting on, but it was far from inedible, especially once smeared with cream cheese frosting. I know no one who ate the cake noticed that it wasn’t perfect except for me, and I loved it anyway – not that that means I’ve completely forgiven myself for screwing it up.

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One year ago: Black Bean Avocado Brownies
Two years ago: Almond Biscotti
Three years ago: Oatmeal Raisin Muffins
Four years ago: Tofu Croutons
Five years ago: Potstickers

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Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from allrecipes via Just Baked)

Makes one 9-by-13-inch pan; 18-24 servings

For the cake:
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 3 bananas)
1 cup sour cream, room temperature

For the frosting:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
salt
2 cups (8 ounces) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with baking spray (or spray it with regular nonstick spray and distribute flour over the spray). In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking soda.

2. Place the butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, until light and creamy. Gradually add the sugar to the butter mixture while the mixer is running. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and banana, mixing until incorporated. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the sour cream, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the sour cream, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

4. For the frosting: Place the cream cheese, butter, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add the powdered sugar, and mix on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. With the mixer on medium-low speed, blend in the vanilla. When the cake has cooled completely, spread the frosting evenly over the surface. Cut the cake into squares and serve.

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banana cream pie cupcakes

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This is the first of his birthdays since I met Dave over eleven years ago that I haven’t made a banana cream pie. This is okay with me; for one thing, it isn’t one of my favorite things to make; I don’t get to use the mixer and there’s no batter to eat, where’s the fun in that? For another, I’ve pretty much expended the banana cream pie category, making versions with regular and graham cracker crusts, richer and lighter pastry creams, traditional and tweaked whipped cream toppings, even additional layers of chocolate and caramel. There’s not much for me left to explore in the banana cream pie realm.

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Except turning it into cake. Dave actually requested green tea crème brûlée for his birthday dessert this year instead of pie, but I also offered to make cupcakes to bring to work. This would hopefully head off our standard office procedure of a coworker making an emergency trip to the grocery store to pick up a cake for an afternoon birthday celebration. (It sort of worked; instead, someone made an emergency trip to the store for cheese and crackers and fruit for the afternoon birthday celebration.)

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These are not so different than all the various banana cream pies I’ve made over the years. There are still sliced bananas, pastry cream, whipped cream, and a buttery mixture of sugar and flour. The difference is that the butter and flour is baked into cupcakes instead of rolled into a pie crust. Dave is generally a bigger fan of pie than cake, but he enjoyed these, and our coworkers raved. And by my standards, they’re a heck of a lot more fun to bake than a pie, so everybody wins.

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One year ago: Asian Lettuce Wraps
Two years ago: Feta and Shrimp Macaroni and Cheese
Three years ago: Maple Oatmeal Scones
Four years ago: Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins
Five years ago: Lasagna Bolognese

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Banana Cream Pie Cupcakes
(from Annie’s Eats and Cooks Illustrated’s Yellow Cake recipe)

Makes 24 cupcakes

For 23 cupcakes, I fitted a slice of banana into the bottom of the carved out center before spooning on pastry cream and topping with a portion of the removed cone. For the last cupcake, I decided to try adding the pastry cream first and then topping with a banana and discarding the entire cone. This was much more successful because you can fit in more pastry cream and the banana makes a stable surface for the whipped cream topping.

Filling:
1 cup half-and-half
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar, divided
Pinch of salt
3 large egg yolks
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

Cake:
2½ cups (10 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for dusting pans
1¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon table salt
1¾ cups (12.25 ounces) sugar
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks plus 3 large egg whites, at room temperature

Topping:
1½ cups heavy cream
½ cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ bananas, peeled and sliced

1. To make the filling, heat the half-and-half, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat until simmering, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until the sugar has begun to dissolve and the mixture is creamy, about 15 seconds. Whisk in the cornstarch until combined and the mixture is pale yellow and thick, about 30 seconds. When the half-and-half mixture has reached a simmer, slowly add it to the egg yolk mixture to temper, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Return the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until a few bubbles burst on the surface and the mixture is thickened and glossy, about 30 seconds. Off the heat, whisk in the butter and vanilla. Strain the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve set over a medium bowl. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until cold and set, at least 3 hours and up to 2 days.

2. To make the cupcakes, adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 24 cupcake wells with paper liners. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar together in a large bowl. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and yolks.

3. In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium-high speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar; continue to beat until stiff peaks just form, 30 to 60 seconds (whites should hold peak but mixture should appear moist). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

4. Add the flour mixture to the now-empty mixing bowl fitted with the whisk attachment. With the mixer running at low speed, gradually pour in the butter mixture and mix until almost incorporated (a few streaks of dry flour will remain), about 15 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape the whisk and sides of the bowl. Return the mixer to medium-low speed and beat until smooth and fully incorporated, 10 to 15 seconds.

5. Using a rubber spatula, stir ⅓ of the whites into the batter to lighten the mixture, then add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake liners. Lightly tap the pans against the counter 2 or 3 times to dislodge any large air bubbles.

6. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then remove them from the wells and cool completely on a wire rack.

7. Use a paring knife to remove a 1½ inch-diameter cone from the center of each cupcake; discard the cones. Spoon 2 teaspoons of pastry cream into the well of each cupcake, then top with a slice of banana.

8. To make the topping, beat the heavy cream on medium-high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until frothy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, scraping the bowl as necessary.

9. Pipe the whipped cream onto the cupcakes. Top with a slice of banana.

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christmas star wars cookies

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I’m exceptionally proud of these cookies. Not necessarily for how they came out in the end, although I’m pleased with that too. But mostly for coming up with the idea completely on my own.

christmas vader

This is rare for me – I’m a good idea copier, and a proficient idea alterer, but a poor idea generator. I don’t even remember how I came up with the idea of Star Wars Christmas cookies, except that I wanted to send my in-laws cookies for Christmas and didn’t know how I could possibly live up to the original Star Wars cookies I sent them last spring. And, okay, maybe the picture of Darth Maul in a Santa suit on the front of the Star Wars Lego advent calendar we got our nephews for an early Christmas present helped.

christmas stormtrooper

But my creativity didn’t end with just coming up with the idea. Googling “Christmas Darth Vader”, “Christmas Yoda”, and “Christmas Stormtrooper” just showed me a few pictures of each character wearing a Santa hat. That wasn’t going to cut it, because I wanted the characters to be different.

christmas yoda

Combining the ultimate Star Wars bad guy and the ultimate Christmas good guy to make Vader Santas was a given, and the white stormtroopers would work well for snowmen. Yoda’s wide earspan would make good antlers, and hopefully the red nose would make the Rudolph idea obvious. That left Boba Fett…my least favorite of the character shapes got left with the leftover idea, and he just ended up with an elf hat.

christmas boba

It seems to have worked out, because we gave the cookies to a 4-year-old, and he identified the Star Wars/Christmas connection of each cookie immediately…except for Boba, and that’s no surprise. He’s got a red and green hat, that’s Christmassy enough. And hey, if that’s the best I can come up with, at least it was my own idea. And Rudolph Yoda’s red nose makes up for any weaknesses in the vaguely elf-like Boba.

One year ago: Herb-Roasted Pork Loin
Two years ago: Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls
Three years ago: Twice-Baked Potatoes
Four years ago: Pumpkin Seed Brittle

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hot chocolate mix

hot chocolate mix 2

I’m not usually much of a Christmas baker, but I got this grand idea last month that I should send my in-laws packages of cookies for Christmas. I sort of had a bad feeling about it, like it was probably going to end up stressing me out, but once I get a hold of an idea that sounds fun, I have a hard time letting go. And so it was that a week and a half before Thanksgiving, I was mixing, forming, and freezing dough for Christmas cookies.

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I didn’t have much of a plan from the beginning. I love this bourbon pound cake recipe and thought it would ship well. I knew I wanted something fruity and something chocolately. Hazelnut dried cherry biscotti covered the fruit requirement, but the decorated sugar cookies I couldn’t resist adding wouldn’t help with the chocolate. And then I remembered this hot chocolate mix recipe, which I first made several years ago.

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It’s the perfect thing to ship off to northeastern Ohio in December, sure to be appreciated through the upcoming snowy months. There’s no worry about breaking in transit, a relief after individually wrapping 28 treat bags containing sugar cookies in bubble wrap. And it’s easy, a relief after spending the greater part of a weekend decorating elaborate sugar cookies (that had better not break in transit). I think it’s safe to say that my cookie packages were a great success – assuming those 28 bubble-wrapped sugar cookies arrive safely, at least.

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One year ago: Mushroom Farro Soup
Two years ago: Gingerbread Cake
Three years ago: Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream
Four years ago: Candied Orange Peel

Printer Friendly Recipe
Hot Chocolate Mix

Makes about 36 servings

To make vanilla sugar, mix a vanilla bean into the sugar and let it set for a few days.

I used 2 cups of sugar, but the mix was two sweet for me, so I’ve reduced it in the recipe.  It might depend on how sweet your chocolate is too; mine was 72% cocao.

The amount of espresso powder you add might depend on who you plan to serve the hot chocolate to: more adds complexity and cuts the sweetness, but less is more appropriate for kids.

20 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) vanilla sugar
2¼ cups unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
1-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder

Grind chocolate in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the remaining ingredients and process until mixed. Transfer to an airtight container. To serve, mix 3-4 tablespoons into 8 ounces of hot milk.

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gingerbread cookies

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I have what I admit is a random prejudice against crisp, crunchy cookies. I want soft, I want tender, I want chewy. I think most people, or at least most people of my generation, agree with me, but I doubt it was always this way. Surely there was a time when crisp cookies were at least as popular as soft ones. How else would we have gingersnaps?

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Obviously when I went looking for a gingerbread cookie recipe, “snap” wasn’t going to be part of the title. I wanted chewy and sweet but not too sweet and spicy but not too spicy.

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What I got was just about the perfect cookie – by my soft cookie standards. It puffed quite a bit in the oven, but not enough to lose its shape. It could use some more spice, but that’s easy to fix next time. More importantly, it was just the right level of sweetness, and even better, perfectly chewy. At least I thought so; Dave said he prefers his ginger cookies crunchier. Unfortunately for him, the only way he’ll get snappier gingerbread cookies is to make them himself, because this recipe was too perfect for me to try another.

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One year ago: Pizza with Butternut Squash and Kale
Two years ago: Red Pepper Risotto
Three years ago: Steak au Poivre
Four years ago: Sausage Apple Hash

Printer Friendly Recipe
Gingerbread Cookies
(slightly adapted from Gourmet via epicurious)

Makes about 3 dozen, depending on the size of your cookie cutters

I chilled my cut cookies on the baking sheets, before baking, for about 10 minutes before transferring to the oven. This tends to help cut-out cookie retain their shape during baking, but these still puffed quite a bit.

I didn’t use the icing recipe linked here. I decorated my cookies with cream cheese frosting because it seemed easier and tastier. It was, but the cookies had to be stored in a single layer to avoid messing up the frosting.

The spices in the original recipe here were pretty mild; next time I’ll double them.

⅔ cup molasses (not robust)
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3¾ cups (18 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading and dusting
½ teaspoon salt

1. Bring the molasses, brown sugar, and spices to a boil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally; remove from heat. Stir in the baking soda (mixture will foam up), then stir in the butter 3 pieces at a time, letting each addition melt before adding next, until all of the butter is melted. Add the egg and stir until combined, then stir in the flour and salt.

2. Arrange a rack in the middle position and heat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking, until soft and easy to handle, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Halve the dough, wrapping one half in plastic wrap; keep at room temperature.

4. Roll out the remaining dough into a 14-inch round (⅛-inch thick) on a lightly floured surface. Cut out as many cookies as possible with cutters and carefully transfer them to the prepared baking sheets, arranging them about 1 inch apart.

5. Bake the cookies, one sheet a time, until edges are slightly darker, 8 to 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool for a couple minutes on the pan before transferring them to racks to cool completely. Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps. Decorate cooled cookies as desired with decorating icing.

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