blackberry plum streusel pie

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

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

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

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

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

Makes one 9-inch pie; about 8 servings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mai tai

mai tai 6So you’ve got a nice batch of rich, aromatic orgeat, but what do you do with it? It’s time for a mai tai. I used to think mai tais were fruity over-the-top frou frou drinks. Like daiquiris, maybe that’s true in some cases, but a true mai tai, like a true daiquiri, is relatively simple. The original mai tai contains only lime juice, sugar, orgeat, orange liqueur, and two types of rum. mai tai 1

With all that alcohol, it’s a strong drink, and I’ve found that I’m particularly picky about the alcohol quality in a mai tai. I’ve already told you about my favorite light (or silver) rum, Shellback, which fortunately is relatively easy to find. Amber and dark rums, the types used in mai tais, aren’t quite as available, but if you have a favorite liquor store, you should be able to find what you need.

mai tai 2Technically, a mai tai calls for an amber rum from the island of Martinique. Clement VSOP is the most widely available, but even it’s hard to find. Dave and I usually stick to a Jamaican amber rum; Appleton Estate Signature Blend (recently renamed from Appleton Estate V/X) is our favorite, because it’s really good and readily available. My brother likes Denizen’s Merchant Reserve, although I’ve never seen that one for sale where I live. mai tai 4

There are a number of dark rums out there, although quality varies. My favorite is Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old (just renamed from Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year Old), but my favorite liquor store doesn’t sell it. We use Old Brigand Black Label when we can’t get the dark Appleton, which isn’t Jamaican, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to dark rum. The most common dark Jamaican rum is Myer’s, which I haven’t tried in years. I remember it being harsh, but it should work in a pinch.

mai tai 5You might have different options available to you, and they’re worth trying. Trying new rums is part of the fun of tiki, although I understand that not everyone wants a liquor cabinet that’s overflowing with rum bottles like ours is. Fortunately, a mai tai is a very enjoyable way to test out a new rum. mai tai 9

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Mai Tai (rewritten from Rum Dood)

Makes 1 drink

If you can find it, our favorite orange liqueur is Clemont Creole Shrubb. It’s rum-based, instead of brandy-based like most other orange liqueurs.

Dave prefers this without the sugar syrup, but for my taste, that seemed off-balance. Ideal level of sweetness is a personal preference, but this is a good starting point. The sugar syrup we use is an equal volume of sugar and water, heated until the sugar dissolves.

¾ ounce (1½ tablespoons) lime juice
½ ounce (1 tablespoon) orgeat
¼ ounce (1½ teaspoons) simple syrup
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Martinique or Jamaican amber rum
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Jamaican (or other) dark rum
½ ounce (1 tablespoon) triple sec, such as Cointreau
mint sprig (optional)

Put all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Add 1½ cups crushed ice; cover and shake until the shaker is frosted over. Pour unstrained into a glass. Garnish with a mint sprig (or lime wedges, maraschino cherries, pineapple leaves, and cocktail umbrellas, as my brother did here), if desired.

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brown butter peach shortbread

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

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

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

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

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

Makes 24 2-inch squares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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lavender almond peach tart

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

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

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

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

Serves 8

I started with ground almond meal instead of almonds.

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Peach Jam (rewritten from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 1 cup

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

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

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

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grenadine and orgeat

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Tiki might sound like it’s all fun and games, but it helps to go at it with a liberal dose of snobbery. I’ve found that ingredients in cocktails matter significantly more than they do with food. Use store-brand artificial vanilla in your cookies instead of “good” vanilla and no one will be the wiser, but cutting corners on your rum quality can make your drink taste like rubbing alcohol.

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The quality of your syrups won’t be as distinct as the rum, but they do matter; plus, the ingredients to make your own are often cheaper than purchasing the pre-made syrup. Not only that, but it’s a lot easier to find almonds for sale than orgeat, even a cheap artificially-flavored version. Grenadine, by contrast, is readily available, but check out the ingredients – is it high fructose corn syrup and citric acid? If you’re using good rum and juicing fresh citrus, doesn’t your cocktail deserve real grenadine based on pomegranate juice instead of artificially-colored HFCS?

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Grenadine couldn’t be simpler to make – mix unsweetened pomegranate juice with sugar, heat it up until the sugar dissolves, and stir in lemon juice and orange flower water. Unfortunately, orgeat is not nearly so easy, but homemade orgeat is so rich, so aromatic, I can’t imagine that a commercial version comes close.

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Orgeat, by the way, is pronounced “oar-zsa”, as in Zsa Zsa Gabor, and it’s a syrup made from almond milk. The first step is to milk the almonds, and there’s no denying that it’s a bit of a chore – soak, grind, soak some more, squeeze, add sugar and orange flower water. (Okay, so orange flower water might not be so easy to find, but it is readily available online, and you don’t need much.) Then taste it, and you’ll immediately see why it’s such a common ingredient in tropical cocktails.

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It’s a lot of work for a drink when you could just open a can of beer or a bottle of wine instead, isn’t it? Tiki is more of a hobby for us than just a cocktail. But with richly flavored homemade syrups, it’s a very tasty hobby.

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Grenadine (slightly adapted from CHOW)

Makes about 1½ cups

1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
¼ teaspoon orange flower water

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the pomegranate juice and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Add the lemon juice and orange flower water. Store, refrigerated, for up to a month. (Can also be frozen for longer storage.)

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Orgeat

Makes about 2 cups

2 cups (8 ounces) almonds
4 cups water, divided
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
2 ounces vodka or brandy
2 teaspoons orange flower water

1. In a medium bowl, mix the almonds with 2 cups of water. Cover and set aside to soak for 30 minutes.

2. Strain the almonds, discarding the water. Transfer the soaked almonds to a blender or food processor and process until most pieces are approximately the size of a grain of rice. Transfer the ground almonds back to the bowl and mix with another 2 cups of water. Cover and set aside to soak for 4 to 5 hours, stirring occasionally.

3. Line a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth; place the strainer in a larger bowl. Strain the almonds through the cheesecloth. When most of the liquid has been removed from the almonds, wrap the cheesecloth around the almonds and squeeze out any remaining liquid, massaging the almonds to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the almonds and cheesecloth.

4. Transfer the liquid to a medium saucepan and add the sugar. Heat over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves. Let cool to room temperature, then add the vodka or brandy and the orange flower water. Store, covered, in the refrigerator, for up to a month. (The orgeat can also be frozen.)

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tonga punch

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Our experiments with rum cocktails have progressed from comparing how well different fruits infuse into rum (strawberries and raspberries work the best; apples don’t work at all) to trying a new tiki drink almost every week. Over the last year, we’ve tried over thirty tiki drinks!

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On Sunday evenings, after the chores are done, workouts are finished, food for the week is prepped, we reward ourselves with a couple cocktails. Sometimes we sit outside in the backyard while we sip; sometimes I sit inside on my computer and plan our next vacation. (We’re going to Iceland, which is about an untiki-y as you can get.) It’s one of my favorite times of the week, even though I know we have to go back to work the next day.

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Of all that we’ve tried, this one is both Dave’s and my favorite. It’s so refreshing – not too sour, not too sweet, not too strong, not too weak. As a bonus, it doesn’t require any particularly rare ingredients. It also doesn’t require tiki mugs, but if you’ve got them, they make the best time of the week just a little bit better.

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Tonga Punch (rewritten from Stephen Siegelman and Maren Caruso’s Trader Vic’s Tiki Party)

Makes 1 drink

I recommend Shellback, Flor de Caña, or Appleton white rums.

Technically, triple sec and orange curaçao are different and not interchangeable (Grand Marnier is curaçoa; Cointreau is triple sec), but using triple sec instead of curaçao won’t ruin this drink. We use Clement Creole Shrubb, which is neither triple sec nor curaçao.

Look for grenadine with pomegranate in the ingredient list; otherwise you’re just buying a combination of high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, and food coloring.

2 ounces silver rum
1½ ounces orange juice
¾ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce orange curacao
¼ ounce lime juice
¼ ounce grenadine
1 cup ice

Combine the liquids in a blender. Add the ice and pulse until the largest pieces if ice are approximately ½-inch. Pour unstrained into a glass and enjoy.

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blueberry lemon date bars

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Dave and I had a Serious Discussion last year about hiking. He loves it; I’m okay with it. I like the part that involves relaxing exercise (usually an oxymoron) in a pretty place, but not the part that requires several hours of driving. Dave doesn’t love the driving either, but for him, it’s worth it for the hiking. So we’ve compromised and are making more of an effort to get miles in; Dave’s goal this year is 100 miles.

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The more often we go, the more we get into a routine. Make coffee at home; stop for breakfast burritos to eat on the road; almonds, these bars, and camelbaks full of water for snacks; and a grain or pasta-based salad for lunch if it’s a long enough hike. Having a series of tasty foods lined up definitely helps get me motivated.

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Breakfast burritos win as my favorite food of the day, of course, but these bars are delicious too. They’re a perfect mid-morning treat, when you’re just over halfway up the mountain, the burrito has worn off, lunch is still a ways off, and your feet could use a break. They’re easy to make and last a while tightly wrapped in the fridge. I need to keep a stock handy; the easier it is to get out the door, the more likely we are to get those miles in.

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Blueberry Lemon Date Bars (slightly adapted from Use Real Butter)

Makes 8 bars

I should probably mention that I’ve never eaten a real Larabar, blueberry or otherwise.

I’ve found that these are great for plane rides too.

2 cups unsalted cashews
1 cup dried blueberries
1 cup dates, pitted
grated zest from 1 lemon
⅛ teaspoon salt
seeds of ½ vanilla bean

Transfer the cashews to the bowl of a food processor; pulse until coarsely ground. Add the blueberries, dates, lemon zest, salt, and vanilla seeds; process until the mixture forms large sticky clumps. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with parchment or wax paper, with the paper coming up the sides by several inches. Press the mixture tightly into the lined pan. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes (or up to several days). Use the ends of the parchment paper to lift the bars out of the pan. Cut into 8 bars; wrap individually. Can be stored in the refrigerator for several months.

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.

tiffany fondant collage

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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beef satay with spicy mango dip

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People keep giving me venison. I have friends who enjoy hunting but have families that don’t love the flavor of venison. I have another friend who doesn’t prefer the front shoulder, so I’ve turned several into barbacoa (and then gave him the recipe, and that was the end of my venison front shoulder donations). I don’t even know how I ended up with the prized backstrap, a cut similar to the tenderloin, but I’m not complaining.

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Rather than search for venison-specific recipes, I consider venison interchangeable with beef or sometimes pork. My brother sent me this recipe, and while I didn’t have the right cut of beef, I did have venison backstrap. It’s an interesting recipe, with a marinade that includes ground cashews. It ends up as more of a paste, which sticks to the meat as it cooks.

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It may be unusual, but it works. Dave and I made the full recipe, which supposedly feeds four, and we had no leftovers. Someone needs to give me more venison backstrap so I can make this again immediately – and this time I won’t share the recipe.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Beef Satay with Spicy Mango Dip
(rewritten from Linda Doeser’s Chinese: The Essence of Asian Cooking)

The recipe recommends serving with salad greens, but I mostly considered those garnish, while rice was important to soak up the sauce.

I made tamarind sauce the same way I do for pad Thai, by soaking tamarind paste in hot water, then straining out the solids and using the liquid in the recipe. You might also be able to find tamarind concentrate. If not, it won’t ruin the recipe to leave it out.

For the satay:
1 pound sirloin steak, thinly sliced across the grain and skewered
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup raw cashews
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
½-inch piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons tamarind sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salad greens, to serve

For the spicy mango dip:
1 ripe mango, peeled and seeded
1 to 2 fresh red chiles, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
½ teaspoon salt

1. Heat a small not-notstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the coriander and cumin seeds; toast, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Immediately transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Let cool completely before grinding.

2. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the ground spices, cashews, oil, shallots, ginger, garlic, tamarind sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Process until the cashews are finely chopped. Coat the meat with the cashew mixture; cover and chill for at least 30 minutes or up to 8 hours.

3. For the dip: Process the mango, chiles, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, cilantro, and salt in the food processor until smooth.

4. Prepare a medium-hot grill. Cook the skewers directly over the heat until browned and cooked through, 3-4 minutes per side. (Alternatively, cook for the same amount of time as close to the broiler element as possible.) Serve with the sauce and greens.
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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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