Adventures in Cake – Easter 2013

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I am making it a tradition to make a cake in my lamb mold for Easter dinner. Some might call it an obsession, but I am going with tradition. My grandmother (my mom’s mother) made a lamb cake most years when I was a kid and I like continuing the tradition. I don’t remember Grandma ever talking about having any trouble baking her cake, or with it sticking to the pan. Not sure what that says about my cooking skills, but I’ll leave it to you to draw conclusions.

My mother did mention this year that she isn’t sure that the pan I have is the one Grandma had. She has a vague memory that Grandma had a cast iron pan, which has long disappeared. That might explain the problems I have getting my cake baked evenly – the pan I have is thin aluminum. Cast iron would heat more evenly than my pan does.

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But pans aside, I am still in search of the perfect cake recipe to bake in my lamb mold. I want the cake to have enough structure to stand up, but to still be moist. It is a fine line that I am trying to walk, and it is still a work in progress. I think the lamb shape works against me every year – baking it long enough to get the middle done dries out the edges. This year I used an eight-yolk cake from “Joy of Cooking.” I had yolks left over from making an angel food cake for my mom’s birthday (so many recipes, so little time to post them!). I have made the cake before as a regular layer cake and liked the results – moist, buttery and yellow from all the egg yolks.

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This year I also decided I didn’t want to bake the cake in the closed mold. I thought maybe the large diameter of the middle of the body was working against me. I baked the two halves separately and planned to glue them together with icing for the finished cake. I’m not sure it made a whole lot of difference. The ears, head and rear end all baked faster than the middle and were a little bit dry. If I weren’t worried about the sturdiness of the cake, I would soak the whole thing with sugar syrup to deal with the dryness, but I am afraid that might make the whole thing slump down onto the plate.

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I repeated last year’s grease job with melted shortening, though I must not have been as diligent with the shortening, as one ear and the head on the back half stuck in the pan.

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For a bit I thought I wasn’t going to get the back half of the lamb to come out of the pan at all. Better to lose the head than to have to dig the whole thing out in pieces, I guess.

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I was able to stick everything back together with icing. And the lamb survived the night intact, unlike last year. See last year’s results in the pictures below.

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The cake was fragrant with vanilla, the cream cheese icing was all I could wish for and everyone was impressed that it held together without the benefit of skewers.

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Somehow though, everyone will remember last year’s reattached head a lot longer than this year’s (relative) success. It’s funny how failures become family stories and successes are just tasty desserts.

A Trio of Vanillas

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How much thought do you put into vanilla extract? If you are the average bear, not much. Well, if you are a bear, probably none at all. In our house, we think about vanilla a lot. It is one of our favorite flavors and we probably spend way too much time thinking about it.

Rich’s mother asked us for Christmas ideas in November (she is on the ball with all things, but especially Christmas shopping). I had seen a vanilla extract sampler with one bottle each of Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican extracts in the King Arthur Flour catalog and thought it would be perfect for Rich. I like vanilla, but Rich likes it a LOT. When he bakes anything, he usually doubles the vanilla. And if I ask his opinion about adapting a recipe, he always wants to increase the vanilla. (I wonder how many more times I can write the word “vanilla” before I finish this post?)

I was right about the success of the present. Rich was thrilled. We both have been having fun using the various extracts in different recipes. The extracts smell a little different from each other in the bottles, but they smell wildly different when they are cooking in something. We keep thinking we should make something like custard, vanilla pudding or ice cream with each different extract so we can do side by side taste tests. Are we food nerds, or what?

Last week I made waffles and used the Tahitian extract. The whole house smelled like those fabulous ice cream shops that make their own cones. The waffles didn’t taste exactly like ice cream cones – they were better. The Tahitian extract is more floral, with a lighter scent but a deeper vanilla flavor than typical vanilla extract.

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The Madagascar extract is closest to “regular” vanilla. It is vanilla, but certainly not plain vanilla. Try adding a little more than the recipe calls for and see what it does for chocolate chip cookies, brownies or your favorite cake.

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The Mexican extract has a deeper, fuller scent and flavor than the other two. It is more assertive, if you can call a flavor like vanilla assertive. So far I have used it in flourless chocolate cakes, homemade caramel sauce and the icing for biscuit cinnamon rolls. It pairs particularly well with chocolate and cinnamon. Strangely enough that was what the label said. I guess sometimes the label writers really know what they are talking about.

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Tonight we had blueberry pancakes for dinner, with a little Tahitian vanilla in the batter. I have been adding a teaspoon of vanilla to my pancake batter since I happened to see a recipe for pancakes that was almost identical to mine, with the addition of vanilla. I can’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of that, given our crazy vanilla obsession fascination. The whole house again smells like an ice cream shop.

We don’t have a favorite. It would be like choosing which kid we liked best, if we had more than one. Why should we have to choose between our vanillas? Like children, we love each vanilla for its own unique attributes. That might be going a little far, but we are having fun playing around with them.

How do you have fun in the kitchen?

Chocolate Pudding Cake

This was one of my favorite desserts when I was growing up. Mom liked it because it was easy to make, included a sauce, so no icing necessary, and it baked in about the time it took to eat dinner and do the dishes. My brother and I liked it because it was something different and, after all, what’s not to like about chocolate cake with a built-in chocolate sauce/pudding.

This is another recipe, like the Black Devil’s Food Cake, that is from the cholesterol-free baking booklet Mom had. She still has no idea where it was from or where it is now, but at least she saved these recipes. This is our fall back dessert when we want something quick that uses ingredients we have on hand.

I think I am going to experiment with using more cocoa next time. The cake didn’t taste as dark as I would like. Maybe I was just in the mood for something darker that night, or maybe the cinnamon ice cream we had with it needed a darker chocolate for contrast. I’m not saying the cake wasn’t delicious. It tasted like it always does, but if you are looking for a deep, dark chocolate – this isn’t it. It’s more of a middle-of-the-road basic chocolate. Post in the comments if you experiment with more cocoa. Or I’ll do another post for Deep Dark Chocolate Pudding Cake if I come up with something good.

Chocolate Pudding Cake
From The Cook’s Life

Serves 6-8

Cake:
1 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla

Sauce:
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup cocoa
1¾ cup hot water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and 2 tablespoons cocoa. Add milk, melted butter and vanilla and stir vigorously until no dry streaks remain. Spread in greased pan.

In small bowl, mix together brown sugar and ¼ cup cocoa. Sprinkle evenly over batter.

Pour hot water gently over the top. DO NOT stir.

Bake 35-40 minutes. Cake will rise to top during baking and pudding/sauce will settle to bottom. Press gently in the middle of the cake to see if it feels firm, though the whole cake will be floating on top of the sauce, so it might give a little. Just make sure the cake isn’t wet in the middle.

When done, the edges of the cake will be pulling away from the sides of the pan and the top might be cracked in spots, with sauce boiling up through the cracks.

Let the cake cool on a rack for at least 30 minutes before serving. When hot the sauce/pudding is thin. It will thicken as it cools.

Serve warm. Good with ice cream.

If you have any leftovers, briefly rewarm each serving in the microwave for 15-20 seconds before serving.

Download the recipe here.

Made in a minute, gone in a minute.

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I made my favorite Black Devil’s Food Cake on Saturday to take to a wine tasting and dinner at our church. We did a variation that Rich came up with a few years ago that ends up looking like a giant Hostess Ding Dong snack cake – two chocolate layers with cream cheese icing in the middle and chocolate icing all over the outside. This time I did make a design on top instead of leaving it smooth like a Ding Dong.

This cake recipe was my mom’s go-to recipe for birthday cakes, potluck desserts or any time we needed a quick dessert. She got the recipe from a cholesterol-free booklet (long since lost) she had from the late seventies, when they decided that eggs were the worst things you could eat. Believe me, there is no redeeming food value in this cake, despite the lack of eggs!

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I have worked on many variations of this recipe, as you can see from the page out of my cookbook. This is the one that we like the best, and the one that I made on Saturday.

If you always use cake mixes, give this cake a chance. It goes together quickly, requires no special equipment (not even a mixer) and makes an excellent chocolate cake that leaves cake mixes in the dust. And the icing is, of course, the topper (pun intended). I have been known to make a double recipe just so we will have some left over to spread on graham crackers or to eat with a spoon.

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To make the version we made, you do have to make two kinds of icing, and you end up with a pretty thick coat of the chocolate icing. If you would rather simplify things, skip the cream cheese icing (which does require a mixer, unless you have forearms of steel and want to beat it by hand) and just make the chocolate. Your icing layer won’t be quite as thick, unless you make a double recipe. We’ve been known to do that too. We really like this cake, if you can’t tell.

Calvin wasn’t going to the wine tasting, and he really wanted a piece of the cake. I decided to go ahead and cut him a piece and leave it at home. We got some kidding about the cake that already had a slice out of it, but I am glad I snagged Calvin a piece ahead of time. We came home with one bite of cake left on the plate.

Don’t forget to post in the comments and let me know how the cake works for you!

Black Devil’s Food Cake
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 8-inch round layer cake

2 cups flour
1 ¾ cups sugar
½ cup cocoa
1 tablespoon baking soda (yes, it really is a tablespoon)
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup plain, nonfat yogurt
1 cup buttermilk *
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup strongly brewed coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans. Stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa and baking soda in a large bowl. Add oil, buttermilk and vanilla and stir well. Carefully stir in coffee. Batter will be very thin. Pour into pans. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until cake bounces back when lightly pressed in center.

Cool 15 minutes in pans on racks and then turn out of pans directly onto racks to cool completely before icing. This is a tender cake, so use a cooked icing or a very fluffy icing or the cake may tear when you are icing it.

* Commercial buttermilk works best. But you can also substitute slightly less than ½ cup yogurt and slightly more than ½ cup regular milk, mixed together. Or measure 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice into a measuring cup and fill the rest of the way with regular milk. Let stand for a few minutes before using. The cake won’t rise quite as high with either substitution.

 Cream Cheese Icing
adapted by the Cook’s Life
from The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
Makes enough for one 8-inch layer

2 ounces cream cheese (1/3 less fat or regular), room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons milk (approximately), if necessary

Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add powdered sugar gradually, and mix well. Beat for 30 seconds, or until fluffy. If icing seems too thick, add a teaspoon of milk and beat again.

 Fudge Icing

3 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup sugar
dash salt
¼ cup milk
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all but vanilla in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat slightly and boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Stir until thick enough to top cake (it will look like a thick milkshake). Pour over cake and spread to edges. If frosting a layer cake, let icing run down sides of cake and then smooth with a knife. Let icing cool thoroughly before covering cake.

Cake is even better the next day.

Download recipe here.

Grandma’s Banana Bread – with a few tweaks

I forgot to take pictures before I cut one of the loaves. Quality control tasting of course!

My dad’s mom’s cooking is legendary in the family. I remember her biscuits as part of a huge breakfast at family reunions. And I have heard countless stories about her Christmas fruitcake, strawberry shortcakes and chicken and dumplings.

According to my dad, Grandma was always changing recipes and methods, depending on her mood and what ingredients she had available. I am no different, nor is just about any cook I talk to. We all have that memory of the special dessert or dinner that we will never be able to recreate because we changed the recipe and forgot to take notes.

My aunt sent me a recipe a few weeks ago for Grandma’s banana bread, as dictated to her soon after she married my uncle. My aunt said she has made this banana bread this way ever since. I made it for the first time today, and I changed it just a bit. I know I should have made it as written the first time, but I just couldn’t help making a few changes.

I have a banana bread recipe that my mom made when I was growing up that used one stick of butter and three bananas to make one loaf of banana bread. And I have a recipe that Rich’s mom made when he was a kid that has one stick of butter and four bananas to make two loaves of banana bread. I also have a banana bread recipe that I like to make when I have a lot of bananas to use up (it calls for seven bananas, and no butter at all).

The recipe from my grandma, via my aunt, is different from all of those. I think it really is more of a cake than a quick bread, based on the amount of butter, sugar and eggs. I did cut back the sugar by a full cup, and I also cut back the flour by a cup. My batter was so thick that I didn’t think another cup of flour would mix in. I also omitted the nuts, which are a substantial 2 cups, because we really don’t care for the texture of nuts in banana bread. My loaves were not very tall, as you can see from the pictures, but I expected that since I left out four cups of ingredients. In hindsight, I should have used 8-inch loaf pans instead of 9-inch. Next time I might finely chop almonds or pecans and include them for another taste dimension. But I really am inclined to make it just as I did, because it is quite tasty.

I squashed it a little because I cut a piece while it was hot, but you can see the light, cake-like texture here. It truly tastes better than the picture looks!

As I made it, the bread (cake?) is buttery and very subtly banana flavored. To me it is plenty sweet enough and I definitely wouldn’t use any more sugar. The texture is airier than what I usually think of as banana bread. I might bake it in round layer pans or a bundt pan next time and call it a cake. It only needs a dusting of powdered sugar or a drizzle of powdered sugar glaze to top it off. I think icing would distract from the delicate banana flavor.

I am posting the recipe as I made it, with a headnote of the original ingredient amounts as my aunt gave them to me. Feel free to experiment and post your results in the comments.

Grandma Dunehew’s Banana Bread
from The Cook’s Life
2 loaves

The original recipe called for shortening or margarine instead of butter, 3 cups of sugar and 4 cups of sifted flour. I didn’t sift, but stirred the flour and lightly spooned it into the measuring cup before leveling the top with the back of a knife, which is probably why I didn’t need all of the flour. The original recipe also called for only 3-4 bananas.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup buttermilk or sour milk*
2 cups mashed bananas (I used 5 bananas)
2 cups chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening and sugar with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Add flour mixture in three parts to the butter mixture, alternating with the buttermilk. Add mashed bananas and nuts, if using, and mix well. Pour into 2 greased loaf pans (9-inch pans will give you shorter loaves, 8-inch pans will give you taller ones. You might have to bake 8-inch pans a few minutes longer). Bake 45-55 minutes. Cover pans with a loose tent of foil if they are browning too fast. Loaves are done when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool in pans on racks for 10 minutes, then remove from pans to cool on racks.

*If you don’t have buttermilk, make sour milk by adding 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice to ½ cup regular milk and letting it stand for a few minutes before using.

Download recipe here.

Moderation went out the window

Deep dish pizza from Pi.

Rich’s mom was in town for a long weekend and we almost literally ate our way through St. Louis. She stayed for 5½ days and I think we gained about ten pounds while she was here. Quick run-down of her stay:


Glazing our own doughnuts.

If we could have licked the pot, we would have.

Cupcake split and drizzled with icing while it was warm and still pourable.

-Homemade cheese-stuffed shells, very buttery garlic bread (thanks Calvin!), and then out for frozen yogurt
-Out for burgers, fries and ice cream for lunch the next day
-Homemade pizza for dinner (probably the healthiest meal of the week)
-Homemade angel food cake with caramel icing/sauce and peaches for my mom’s birthday
-Doughnuts from World’s Fair Donuts before touring the Botanical Gardens
-Deep dish pizza at Pi for lunch, including garlic bread and shakes for dessert
-Homemade (baked) vanilla doughnuts for breakfast
-Cheese and chocolate fondue for dinner at The Melting Pot to celebrate Calvin’s good grades
-Our own cheese plate, with four cheeses, pita chips (home crisped from store pitas – post on those next week), spiced nuts from a recipe on The Sweets Life blog, dried fruit and apple slices
-Homemade Black Devil’s Food cupcakes, with double icing (post coming soon)

After all that I was tempted to post a recipe for plain oatmeal, no milk, no butter, no cream, no brown sugar. But I took pity on everyone and am doing the caramel icing. This was my maternal grandmother’s topping for angel food cake. She never put any other icing on angel food cake – it was either plain, or had this icing on it. And she never put this icing on any other cake. I don’t recall that it even had a name; it was just “that icing that Grandma puts on angel food cake.”

My brother and I always hoped Grandma would make this icing when she said she was making angel food cake, though I don’t know that we ever requested it. It was always a surprise. And it wasn’t always in the same form. Sometimes the icing glazed the cake, drizzling down the sides like it was supposed to. Sometimes it all sat on top in a thick layer. And sometimes it all ran off the cake and made a puddle in the hole in the middle and around the edges. Not sure if it was the weather, or if Grandma sometimes cooked it longer than others. We always ate it – no matter what form it takes, the icing is good.

My mother and grandmother hardly ever used cake mixes, but angel food cake was the exception. When you have the time and want to try it, make an angel food cake from scratch (I’ll do a post sometime). But one from a mix is perfectly tasty and almost foolproof.

Would you believe I forgot to take any pictures of the icing? I'll just have to make it again and add a picture later! When finished, the icing will be about the same color as the golden brown parts of the cake in the picture.

Grandma’s Caramel Icing
When I asked for the recipe, Grandma’s directions were to cook until thick. That’s all. I expanded on the directions just a bit here.

2/3 cup (5 oz. can) evaporated milk*
2/3 cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine milk, sugar and butter in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until thickened, stirring almost constantly, about 8 minutes. Icing will begin to turn a light tan. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Stir until slightly thicker, about 5 minutes. Pour over cake and let icing drizzle down the sides. Or, if you prefer, pour into a bowl to serve as a sauce. You might have to rewarm the sauce for a few seconds in the microwave if you are serving it later.

Let icing cool and set up before slicing cake. The icing tastes even better the next day.

*If you can’t find the small cans of evaporated milk, measure out the 2/3 cup from a larger can and store the rest in the fridge for a later use. Maybe another batch of icing…

Download the recipe here.