Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Chocolate and vanilla....where some may see boredom, I see simplicity.  Ask me what my favourite ice cream flavour is, and despite having tried flavours as varied as mango, pomegranate, maple bacon, and Cabernet, I will usually vacillate between chocolate or vanilla.

So when asked by a friend to make mini-cupcakes for a baby shower, vanilla and chocolate was the plan.  A double-barrel shotgun of simplicity.  Singular flavours of vanilla with vanilla buttercream, and chocolate with chocolate buttercream were anything but.  Not all cake recipes are equal, I discovered.  I was like Goldilocks finding the one that was 'just right.'  Over the span of a week, out from the oven came four cakes, two winning recipes, and the end-result of a few dozen  mini-cupcakes.

The winning chocolate cake will be re-visited often.  Not too fudgy and not too sweet, you can enjoy it with a thick layer of buttercream or dusted with confectioners' sugar.

Texas Sheet Cake
Makes 20 to 24 servings
(From Bonny Wolf's 'Talking with My Mouth Full:  Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories')  

1 cup butter
1 cup water
1/4 cup cocoa
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cups chopped pecans (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter or line with parchment a 15.5 x 10.5 jelly roll pan.  Combine the butter, water, and cocoa in a saucepan.  Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally.  

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda.  Remove the butter from the heat and add to the dry ingredients.  Mix well (either by hand or with a mixer).  Add the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla.  Mix again.  Pour into the pan and bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Note:  I halved the recipe and ended up with close to 4 dozen mini-cupcakes.  It will also make an 8 x 8 inch cake.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Birthday Without A Cake...

On the Reading List at the moment is 'Talking with My Mouth Full:  Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories,' by NPR Food Commentator Bonny Wolf.  I didn't know who she was when I checked it out from the library,  but I'm enjoying the book immensely.  Bonny writes in a very easy-going way.  The book is full of anecdotes from her life and is filled with lots of great recipes.  More importantly, they are recipes she's culled from friends and family over the years, so they're unfussy and fall into the 'tried and true' category.  I ordered a copy of the book, so I'll have the recipes close at hand whenever I need them.

What caught my attention the other day was an essay entitled, "Let Them Eat Cake," where she talked about the birthday cakes her friends have made for the their children, year after year, from the times they were little to the not-so-little age of their early adult years.  She writes about the fancy cake she had on her fifth birthday, the cake her mom made that had a doll coming out from the top and the cake looked like a tiered skirt of frilly ruffles.  I remember having one like that myself, probably from my fourth or fifth birthday, and somewhere there's a photo of me in the kitchen, standing next to the table, and looking happily at that cake.

Over the past couple of years, I've taken it into my own hands to have a cake on my birthday.    In 2010, I made lavender cupcakes with a lilac-tinted lemon buttercream, each topped with a single blueberry.  Yes, they look like breasts.  Don't ask me what I was thinking, but I wanted embellishment.  Any kind of psychological insight aside, they were delicious.  Last year, I opted for cupcakes again, this time strawberry with a pink-tinted vanilla buttercream.  They were frilly and girly and I ate too many of them.  May Day arrived this year and I ended up with not one, but two birthday cakes.  My co-workers surprised me with a cake at work.  Red Velvet with melted chocolate artfully strewn across the expanse of bakery buttercream.  Thick white ruffles of icing lining the perimeter.  Remember the bakery cakes from when you were little, the cakes with huge buttercream rosettes?  I was the one gathering more than just those that came with my piece.  That was me again on Monday (since I was off yesterday), with loads of buttercream heaped on my plate.  The sugar rush and crash that day was palpable.

Despite the surprise birthday cake, I still had plans for my own-baked version.  With a load of lemons from a co-workers tree, I made lemon curd.  And because I have a thing for lavender in baked goods, I once again opted for a lavender cake.  So 2012 became the year of the Lavender Cake with Lemon Curd Filling.  A single layer, sliced in two with a thick layer of curd, and lightly dusted with confectioners' sugar.  For the past couple of days, I've had the privilege of having cake multiple times in one day.  (If this doesn't get me back to the gym, I don't know what will!)  The lavender cake is perfect with coffee in the morning and the red velvet makes a great mid-afternoon forkful treat.

As Bonny Wolf so truthfully writes at the end of the essay, 'A birthday without a cake is like a wedding without a bride.'  Wise remember, friends don't let friends have a birthday go by without cake.

Lavender Cake with Lemon Curd Filling
Makes one 8-inch layer cake
(Adapted from a recipe on Everything

For cake:

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon culinary lavender
4 tablespoons half and half

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a cake pan with parchment or grease and flour the pan.  In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time and mix until incorporated.  Add remaining ingredients and mix until combined.  Pour batter into cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Let cool in pan for 10 minutes before tranferring to wire rack. Let cake cool completely before slicing.  

Spread lemon curd in a thick layer on bottom portion of cake.  Carefully place top layer back on and dust with confectioners' sugar.  

For lemon curd:
Makes about 1 1/2-2 cups
(From easiest recipe I've come across for lemon curd)

6 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs one at a time and mix well.  Add egg yolks.  Add lemon juice and mix well.  It will look curdled because of the lemon juice, but it's okay.  Heat mixture over low heat in a saucepan until it looks smooth.  Increase heat to medium, cook until mixture thickens, stirring constantly (about 15 minutes).  Do not let mixture boil.  Mixture should easily coat a wooden spoon and leave a clean path when you run your finger through it.  

Remove from heat and mix in lemon zest.  Transfer curd to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic on top of curd so a skin doesn't form.  Chill in refrigerator.  Curd will thicken.  You can make this the day before.  Covered tightly, it will last for about a week.  

From the co-workers
Lavender Cake with Lemon Curd Filling

Birthday 2010:  Lavender Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream

Birthday 2011:  Strawberry Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream