blackberry cake with raspberry filling

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

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

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I’d originally made this cake for a friend’s bridal shower, but there were two issues: 1) I only got one piece, and 2) I didn’t save any for Dave.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

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

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

The bride’s wedding colors are Tiffany blue and red, so I originally made a blackberry cake hoping that it would turn out blue, like Elly’s, with raspberry filling as the red.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

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

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

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

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

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

1. For the cake: Heat the oven to 350F. Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with baking spray (or grease and flour the pans). Line with parchment or waxed paper and grease the paper.

2. Using a blender, puree the blackberries. Transfer them to a fine-mesh strainer set over a small bowl; use a spoon or rubber spatula to press the liquid through the strainer, discarding the seeds. Measure ¾ cup of puree. Stir the milk and vanilla extract into the blackberry puree. In a separate small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.

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

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

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

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

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

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blueberry pie

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The two weeks a year when blueberries are reasonably priced are almost a tease. Blink and you miss it! Down here in the desert, some years it doesn’t happen at all (or maybe I blinked). They went on sale recently, and I loaded up my cart. I didn’t know what I was going to make for dessert that weekend, but I knew it would have lots of blueberries in it.

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Pie. Pie is so classic, and like I recently said, I don’t get many opportunities to make it. While pies aren’t the easiest desserts to make, at least blueberries don’t require any tedious prep like most other fruits – that is, unless you choose a high-maintenance Cook’s Illustrated recipe for blueberry pie.

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I did, because I hate soupy pies enough to pre-cook the filling and peel and grate an apple into the mix. And clean out the coffee grinder to powder the tapioca when the grinder I keep in the kitchen for non-coffee things broke. All the cleaning, dough-rolling, pre-cooking, and apple-shredding was worth it when I was rewarded with a flaky crust over a juicy but not soupy filling of my favorite summer fruit.

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Blueberry Pie (pretty much straight from Cook’s Illustrated, except for I don’t use their crust)

CI notes: This recipe was developed using fresh blueberries, but unthawed frozen blueberries (our favorite brands are Wyman’s and Cascadian Farm) will work as well. In step 4, cook half the frozen berries over medium-high heat, without mashing, until reduced to 1¼ cups, 12 to 15 minutes. Grind the tapioca to a powder in a spice grinder or mini food processor. If using pearl tapioca, reduce the amount to 5 teaspoons.

dough for double-crust pie (I always make this one)
6 cups fresh blueberries (about 30 ounces) (see note)
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and grated on large holes of box grater
2 teaspoons grated zest and 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
¾ cup sugar (5¼ ounces)
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca, ground (see note)
pinch table salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water

1. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, place rimmed baking sheet on oven rack, and heat oven to 400 degrees. Place 3 cups berries in medium saucepan and set over medium heat. Using potato masher, mash berries several times to release juices. Continue to cook, stirring frequently and mashing occasionally, until about half of berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to 1 ½ cups, about 8 minutes. Let cool slightly.

2. Place grated apple in clean kitchen towel and wring dry. Transfer apple to large bowl. Add cooked berries, remaining 3 cups uncooked berries, lemon zest, juice, sugar, tapioca, and salt; toss to combine. Transfer mixture to dough-lined pie plate and scatter butter pieces over filling.

3. Roll out second disk of dough on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 11-inch circle, about ⅛ inch thick. Using 1¼-inch round biscuit cutter, cut round from center of dough. Cut another 6 rounds from dough, 1½ inches from edge of center hole and equally spaced around center hole. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll over pie, leaving at least ½-inch overhang on each side.

4. Using kitchen shears, trim bottom layer of overhanging dough, leaving ½-inch overhang. Fold dough under itself so that edge of fold is flush with outer rim of pie plate. Flute edges using thumb and forefinger or press with tines of fork to seal. Brush top and edges of pie with egg mixture. If dough is very soft, chill in freezer for 10 minutes.

5. Place pie on heated baking sheet and bake 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until juices bubble and crust is deep golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes longer. Transfer pie to wire rack; cool to room temperature, at least 4 hours. Cut into wedges and serve.

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strawberry rhubarb crisp bars

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I never make pies anymore. Most of what I bake is meant to be easily shared by a large crowd, either at work or at a party. That’s fine, but pies are fine too.

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This was part of my annual frenzy to use rhubarb as much as possible during its short season. When the grocery store has it, I buy it, whether I have a plan for it or not. That’s easy when you have a bunch of coworkers who will eat anything – preferably anything handheld, easy to grab along with a cup of coffee.

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Until I find a small gathering – with plates and even forks – to make a pie for, these bars are a good stand in. The balance of tart, juicy fruit to buttery flour is spot on, and although the crispness isn’t like a flaky pie crust, the oaty crunch is a good stand-in. Best of all, I actually had an opportunity to share them, unlike a silverware-demanding pie.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars (adapted from Yvonne Rupert’s One Bowl Baking via Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 9 to 16 bars

I un-one bowled this. I’m spoiled by my dishwasher and would rather mix things conveniently than use less dishes.

1 cup (80 grams) rolled oats
¾ cup (95 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (95 grams) light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup (125 grams) small-diced rhubarb (from about 1½ medium stalks)
1 cup (155 grams) small-diced strawberries
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Powdered sugar, for decoration, if desired

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray an 8-by-8 inch square pan with cooking spray.

2. In a medium bowl, mix the oats, flour, brown sugar, and salt. Add the butter and stir until clumps form. Set aside ½ cup of the crumble mixture and press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan.

3. In a medium bowl (you could even use the same bowl; see, one less dish to wash!), combine the rhubarb, strawberries, granulated sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Evenly distribute the fruit over the crust, then scatter the reserved crumbs over the fruit.

4. Bake the bars until the fruit is bubbling and the crisp portion is golden, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

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strawberry shortcake cupcakes

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I’ve had these cupcake wrappers for at least a year, maybe close to two years. But because they’re tulips, I was determined that I could only use them in the spring, and sometimes, a whole month or two can go by where I don’t think about cupcake wrappers. If that month is April and May, then it’s too late for tulips. Having actually remembered this year, I wanted to make the most springy cupcake I could.

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Strawberries are the obvious choice. And what dessert is more springy than strawberry shortcake?

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This isn’t too different than a cupcake adaptation of this strawberry cream cake, but the cake portion of that recipe is meant to be dense enough to stand up to layers of strawberries and whipped cream. I wanted something fluffier, so I started with my favorite basic vanilla cake. The filling in that strawberry cream cake would be perfect for adding to the middle of cupcakes, because the strawberries are minced and juicy, just right for maximizing the flavor they can contribute in just a small hole in the middle of each cupcake.

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The topping is perfect as well, since the cream cheese stabilizes the whipped cream enough to mound on top of each cupcake. With a slice of strawberry over the hole filled with strawberries to even out the top of the cupcake, plus more fresh strawberries on top, there were plenty of berries to balance the cake and rich cream topping. It was a perfect combination.  Tulips and strawberries, what’s better than that for spring?

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Strawberry Shortcake Cupcakes (cake adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride; filling and topping adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Strawberry Cream Cake)

24 cupcakes

Vanilla cupcakes:
3 cups (12 ounces) cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1¼ cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Strawberry filling:
8 ounces fresh strawberries (about ½ quart), washed, dried, and stemmed
1 tablespoon sugar
½ tablespoon Kirsch or port
Pinch table salt

Whipped cream topping:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt
2 cups heavy cream

6-8 strawberries, sliced crosswise into rounds
additional strawberries for garnish

1. For the cupcakes: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour and baking powder.

2. Place the butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer). Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.

3. Gradually add the sugar to the butter mixture, beating until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated. Combine the buttermilk and the vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup. 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. Mix for 15 seconds longer.

4. Divide the batter between the prepared paper liners, filling each about two-thirds of the way full. Bake 18-22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

5. For the filling: Quarter the berries; toss with sugar in a medium bowl and let sit 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Strain the juices from the berries and reserve (you should have about ¼ cup). In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, give the macerated berries five 1-second pulses (you should have about ¾ cup). In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer the reserved juices and Kirsch until the mixture is syrupy and reduced to about 1½ tablespoons, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the reduced syrup over the macerated berries, add a pinch of salt, and toss to combine.

6. For the topping: When the cake has cooled, place the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to low and add the heavy cream in a slow, steady stream; when it’s almost fully combined, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, 2 to 2½ minutes more, scraping the bowl as needed (you should have about 4½ cups).

7. To assemble: With a paring knife, carve a cone out of the center of each cupcake. Use a slotted spoon to transfer some strawberry filling to the cavity; top each hole with a round slice of strawberry. Frost the cupcakes; garnish with additional strawberries. If not serving within about an hour, refrigerate for up to 8 hours. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to an hour before serving (otherwise, the cake will seem hard and stale).

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strawberry daiquiris

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These ain’t your mama’s strawberry daiquiris. Or at least, they’re not my mama’s strawberry daiquiris, which are slushy and sugary and delicious and rightfully earn their classification as a foofoo drink.

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These strawberry daiquiris are no foofoo drink. They’re serious. Made from nothing but strawberry-infused rum, sugar syrup, and lime juice, they are also the most delicious cocktail I have ever had.

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It’s all thanks to Dave, who found an interest in rum after we went on a Caribbean cruise with his parents last year. Our liquor cabinet is now half rum, which is fair since that’s all we drink now that Dave is willing to mix up a variety of rum drinks and I’m willing to let him bring them to me.

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My part in this recipe is to think ahead enough to pour a bottle of rum over strawberries. Let them sit for a week (or really, just a few days if you’re in a hurry), strain, and you’re on your way to a seriously great cocktail. Just be careful, because these ain’t no foofoo drink.

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Strawberry Daiquiris

4 drinks

Make the sugar syrup by heating 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool before using. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for several weeks.

Make the strawberry rum by pouring 1 (750-ml) bottle of rum over 1 pound of stemmed and quartered strawberries. Strain after 5-7 days. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for several weeks. Your yield, unfortunately, will be slightly less than 750 ml, as the strawberries soak up some of the rum.

Our favorite rum for mixing is Shellback Silver.

Update 6/5/2014 – Unfortunately, I had this recipe wrong initially.  The sugar syrup has now been reduced from ½ cup to ¼ cup.  We use ¼ cup, although we like our drinks on the tart side.

1½ cups strawberry rum
¾ cup lime juice
¼ cup sugar syrup

In a large measuring cup, mix the three ingredients. Fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice; add half the rum mixture. Cover and shake until the sides of the cocktail shaker are frosty. Strain into two glasses. Add more ice and repeat with the remaining mix. Add some of the ice from the shaker into each glass. Serve immediately.

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blood orange cosmopolitans

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My new favorite thing is to sit in my favorite chair in the living room, the one that gets the most direct sun, and read a book with my cat on my lap, while drinking something delicious. On a weekend morning, this delicious thing is coffee. On a Sunday evening, it’s a cocktail.

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I’m a latecomer to blood oranges, both in life and this season, so I’ll probably have to move on to a new cocktail soon, but while they’re in season, I’ll be enjoying these cosmos. I have nothing against oranges, I’m just not usually all that interested in them. Maybe blood oranges are sweeter and juicier than regular oranges, but I wouldn’t know, because as soon as I buy them, I mix their purple juice with cranberry juice, orange liqueur, and vodka.

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Then I add ice and give it a shake-shake-shake, strain into a glass for me and one for Dave, and plop myself down in my spot. My cat will run over to wait for me as soon as she sees me heading that direction. Then I finish up my weekend with all of my favorite things – a cozy place, a good book, a cuddly cat, and an excellent drink.

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Blood Orange Cosmopolitans (adapted from Pink Parsley)

Makes 2 cocktails

I had to reduce the orange liqueur a bit, because while I used to like the one I’m using (Pitron Citronge), lately it seems a little harsh. If you’re using Grand Marnier or another higher quality liqueur, you might prefer the higher amount. Similarly, you might want to adjust the vodka depending on the quality of the one you’re using. This Crystal Head vodka was nice and smooth.

3 ounces blood orange juice, from 2 blood oranges, strained of pulp
3 ounces unsweetened cranberry juice
2 ounces orange liqueur
5 ounces vodka

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, attach the lid and shake until the sides of the shaker are frosted. Strain liquid into 2 glasses. Serve immediately.

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banana cream pie

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It’s Dave’s birthday (well, yesterday was), and therefore time for my annual banana cream pie post! Except last year I made banana cream cupcakes, and the year before I took a break from posting about banana cream pie – I must have assumed I’d made all the variations that were out there. But then I found a recipe that steeps bananas in the half-and-half that is then used to make the pastry cream, and I had to try it.

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I have to say that this might be my favorite banana cream pie recipe. There are things I really like about each of them, but this one is simply just what a banana cream pie should be – the crust stayed crisp even after two days in the fridge, the pastry cream didn’t slop all over the plate, and everything was in balance.

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Steeping the bananas in the dairy used for the pastry cream didn’t make an obvious difference, but I wonder if that was part of what made this pie so good, because all the components seemed to go together so well. Unless I find yet another trick to try in the realm of banana cream pies, I’ll be making this one for Dave’s birthday next year too.

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Banana Cream Pie
(very slightly tweaked from Cook’s Country)

I didn’t want to buy a second container of half-and-half only use a small portion of it, so I used 2 cups half-and-half, ¼ cup whole milk, and ¼ cup cream. Then I only used ¾ cup of cream for the topping, reducing the confectioners’ sugar to 1½ tablespoons. I also scraped the seeds of a vanilla bean into the steeping dairy and let the bean steep as well. And I forgot the orange juice.

5 ripe bananas
4 tablespoons butter
2½ cups half-and-half
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
pie crust for single-crust pie (recipe below)
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1. Peel 2 of the bananas and slice them into ½-inch-thick pieces. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced bananas and cook until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the half-and-half, bring to a boil, and boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow to sit for 40 minutes.

2. Whisk the granulated sugar, egg yolks, and salt together in a large bowl until smooth. Whisk in the cornstarch. Strain the cooled half-and-half mixture through a fine mesh strainer into the yolk mixture – do not press on the bananas – and whisk until incorporated; discard the cooked bananas.

3. Transfer the mixture to a clean medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it is thickened to the consistency of warm pudding (180 degrees), about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat; whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl, press greased parchment paper directly against the surface, and allow it to cool for about one hour.

4. Meanwhile, roll the pie dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured counter. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, fold the edge of the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the plate, and flute the edges. Refrigerate for 40 minutes, then freeze for 20 minutes. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375°.

5. Line the chilled pie shell with a 12-inch square of aluminum foil, folding the foil over the edges of the dough. Fill with pie weights, place the pie plate on a baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and the weights, rotate the plate, and continue baking until the crust is golden brown, about 7 to 11 minutes. Transfer it to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.

6. Peel and slice the remaining 3 bananas to about ¼-inch-thick and toss them with the orange juice. Whisk the pastry cream briefly, then spread half over the bottom of the pie shell. Arrange the sliced bananas on the pastry cream. Top with the remaining pastry cream.

7. Using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, whip the cream, confectioner’s sugar, and the remaining ½ teaspoon of vanilla on medium-low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and whip until stiff peaks form, about 1 to 3 minutes. Spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the pie. Refrigerate the pie until it is set, at least 5 hours and up to 24 hours.

Pie Crust for Single-Crust Pie (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Deb has instructions for mixing by hand if that’s your preference.

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

Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until mixed. Add half of the butter; pulse once, add the remaining butter, and process with 1-second pulses until the largest pieces of butter are about ¼-inch across. Add ¼ cup of water; pulse once, then add 2 more tablespoons of water. Pulse a couple times to incorporate the water, then pinch a portion of the dough together; if it crumbles, pulse in another tablespoon of water. If it barely holds together, transfer the mixture to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a ball, kneading it once or twice so it holds together. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling.

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mango cream puffs

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For the first Friday happy hour get-together we threw, I had about 24 hours notice, which works out to just a few hours in which I was both awake and at home. I got home from work fifteen minutes before our friends showed up. And yet, it went off without a hitch. I reminded Dave approximately five hundred times that night that I can clearly keep things simple when I need to.

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The second happy hour was a different story. I had that Friday off of work, and I took advantage of it by spending just about all day cooking – and cleaning and emptying the dishwasher.

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Dave has gotten into making rum cocktails lately, so I went with a Caribbean theme for the food – empanadas, bacon-wrapped stuffed dates, fried yucca root, shrimp ceviche, and cream puffs filled with mango curd. We also had an assortment of Mexican beers available for anyone who fancied themselves too manly for a cocktail.

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It was another success, although not quite as smooth as the first. A good portion of the people we invited didn’t show, even a few who had RSVPed, and there was a ton of food leftover. Plus, apparently when you supply your guests with cocktails that taste like juice (I’ll share the recipe later; trust me that Dave has perfected it), they’ll stick around longer than the two hours we’d all joked was the limit.

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Still, it was a great time, and I can’t wait to throw another one of these little parties. And I was not unhappy about leftovers. The empadanas were great for lunch, and the cream puffs were a perfect pre-breakfast snack the next day – after I finally got all the dishes done. There are some advantages to simpler entertaining, but to be honest, I love both.

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Mango Cream Puffs (from Cook’s Illustrated’s Baking Illustrated via Annie’s Eats)

Makes 24-30 small cream puffs

My food processor was dirty when I made this, so I used the mixer fitted with the whisk to mix the dough. It worked well.

Dough:
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg white
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
2 tablespoons whole milk
6 tablespoons water
1½ teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (2½ ounces) all-purpose flour
Mango curd (recipe follows)

1. Whisk the eggs and egg white in a liquid measuring cup. You should have ½ cup (discard the excess). Set aside. Combine the butter, milk, water, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Heat over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring once or twice. When it reaches a full boil and the butter is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the flour until incorporated and the mixture clears the sides of the pan. Return the saucepan to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, using a smearing motion, until the mixture is slightly shiny, looks like wet sand and tiny beads of fat appear on the bottom of the pan (the mixture should register 175-180 degrees on an instant-read thermometer).

2. Immediately transfer the mixture to a food processor and process with the feed tube open to cool slightly, 10 seconds. With the machine running, gradually add the reserved eggs in a steady stream. When they have been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then process 30 seconds more until a smooth, thick, sticky paste forms.

3. Place an oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip with the dough. Pipe the paste into 1½-inch mounds on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1 to 1¼ inches apart (you should be able to fit 24 mounds on the baking sheet). Use the back of a teaspoon dipped in water to even out the shape and smooth the surface of the piped mounds.

4. Bake for 15 minutes (do not open the oven door during baking). Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until golden brown and fairly firm, 8-10 minutes longer. Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Use a paring knife, cut a ¾-inch slit into the side of each puff to release steam; return the puffs to the oven, turn the oven off, and prop open the oven door with the handle of a wooden spoon. Dry the puffs in the turned-off oven until the centers are just moist (not wet) and the puffs are crisp, about 45 minutes. Transfer the puffs to a wire rack to cool completely.

5. To fill the puffs, use the tip of a paring knife to make a small cut perpendicular to the first, creating an X in the side of each puff. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ¼-inch plain tip with the pastry cream. Pipe some of the pastry cream through the X into the side of each puff until it starts to ooze back out. Repeat to fill all the puffs. Dust with powdered sugar and serve within several hours.

Mango Curd (from Bon Appetit via Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 1 to 1½ cups

1 15-ounce ripe mango, peeled, pitted, cut into ½-inch pieces
⅓ cup (2.33 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1. Puree the mango, sugar, lime juice, and salt in a food processor or blender, scraping down the sides of the work bowl as necessary. Add the yolks; puree 15 seconds longer. Strain through a sieve set over a large metal bowl, pressing on the solids with the back of a spatula to release as much puree as possible. Discard the solids in the sieve.

2. Set the metal bowl over a saucepan that contains 1 inch of simmering water (do not allow bottom of the bowl to touch the water); whisk the puree until it is thickened and a thermometer registers 170 degrees, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk in butter one piece at a time. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

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mulled wine cranberry sauce

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This, finally, is the cranberry sauce I’ve been looking for – the one that is worth making not just because making cranberry sauce is fun, but because this is better than anything you could buy. And it’s no more effort than any other cranberry sauce; the only difference between this and the most basic recipe is that wine is used to simmer the cranberries instead of water, and there are a handful of warm winter spices thrown in.

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With so much wine, you might think that the sauce ends up tasting like wine, but that isn’t the case. It tastes like something much more than the in-your-face tart and sweet of regular cranberry sauce, but it isn’t particularly boozy. It’s just deeper, more complex, with a little buzz on your tongue.

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Unfortunately, with half a bottle of wine stirred into one bag of cranberries, there’s no chance of claiming that all the alcohol cooks off, so this isn’t the best cranberry sauce for kids. That’s why my friend offered to bring a can of jellied cranberry sauce for her kids when I invited them over for a big turkey feast.

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When she forgot, we figured what the heck, what harm could a few tablespoons of winey cranberries do? Not much at all, it turns out, as her son took one spoonful of sauce, noted that there was wine in it, and pushed it aside in favor of the stuffing. So maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely my new favorite.

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(turkey cranberry green chile sandwich on a crescent roll)

Printer Friendly Recipe
Mulled Wine Cranberry Sauce (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I pressed the sauce through a food mill right after simmering, because I like my cranberry sauce smooth.

zest from 1 orange
1½ cups red wine
½ cup (3.5 ounces) packed brown sugar
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 ounces fresh cranberries

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered until the berries burst and the mixture thickens, about 20 minutes. Transfer sauce to bowl; chill until cold. (Can be prepared 1 week ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

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caramel apple cheesecake bars

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Fall in upstate New York, where I went to graduate school, was amazing. Even my drive through town to work was gorgeous, passing hillsides of brightly colored trees. I lived a couple blocks away from a cider mill, and Dave and I made a point to go there every year for cider, doughnuts, and squash so oddly shaped they looked deformed. It was my favorite place to buy apples too; some, like Empire and Cortland, even named for the area.

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The only problem was that fall came too soon, at least for this lover of summer. It seemed like it had hardly warmed up after the long freezing winter before it started getting chilly again. For this reason, I had a strict rule of no fall-inspired foods until October – no pumpkin, no candy corn, no apples.

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It’s kind of the opposite here in southern New Mexico. I’m tired of being hot and welcome the chill we’re getting in the mornings and evenings. I’m not quite ready for pumpkin – things need to cool off a bit more, so I probably will wait until October. But apples are just right.

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These apples are piled on top of a cookie crust and a cheesecake layer, then topped with streusel and caramel. I saw the recipe on a blog and was aghast at how rich it was until I traced it back to its original source, Paula Deen. This is my first time making one of her recipes, but my understanding it that it’s par for the course.

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In this case, it definitely works. I’ll add another apple next time, because the apples were pretty balanced with the other components, and I want them to stand out more. But having those other components come forward is not a bad thing, because each one was so good. Somehow, the combination of everything didn’t make these overpoweringly sweet or unpleasantly rich.  Really, these were a perfect fall treat.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Caramel Apple Cheesecake Bars with Streusel (adapted from the Food Network via Closet Cooking; caramel sauce from Smitten Kitchen)

There are a lot of steps, but none of them are hard.

If you like to line your pans with a double layer of aluminum foil for bar cookies for easy removal, this recipe is a good candidate for that. I prefer not to, and the first bar I removed crumbled. The remainder were easy enough to get clean slices of with a spatula.

Streusel:
1 cup (7 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
½ cup quick cooking oats

Apples:
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon lemon juice
pinch salt

Cookie base:
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3.5 ounces) firmly packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter, room temperature

Cream cheese layer:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
pinch salt
½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Caramel sauce:
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon corn syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubes
⅛-¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
⅓ cup heavy cream

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

2. For the streusel: Add the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade; pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture is crumbly. Add the oats and pulse just to combine. Transfer to a bowl and chill. Do not wash the processor bowl.

3. For the apples: In a medium bowl, mix everything. Set aside.

4. For the cookie base: Add the flour, sugar, and salt to the food processor bowl; pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture is crumbly. Press into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake until lightly browned around the edges, about 15 minutes.

5. For the cream cheese layer: While the cookie base is baking, beat the cream cheese and salt with a mixer on medium-low speed, until softened. Add the sugar and continue mixing until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, one a time, mixing just until combined. Mix in the vanilla extract.

6. Pour the cream cheese mixture over the warm crust. Spread the apples over the cream cheese batter, then top with the streusel, breaking it until ¼- to ½-inch chunks. Bake until the top is browned and the cream cheese filling is set, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

7. For the caramel sauce: Add the sugar, water, and corn syrup to a 2-quart saucepan. Cover and heat over medium-high heat until simmering, then remove the cover and let simmer until the mixture is honey-colored, swirling the pan occasionally at first and more often as the sugar browns. Add the butter, which will foam violently, and stir to combine. Stir in ⅛ teaspoon salt, lemon juice, and heavy cream. Once the mixture cools slightly, taste and add more salt if necessary. Let the sauce cool to room temperature before topping the bars. (Caramel can be made up to a week in advance.)

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