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Strawberry Shortcakes

July 11, 2012

Could there be a more classic summer dessert than a strawberry shortcake?  Probably not.  So when I finally got my hands on a lug of gorgeously fragrant, deep red strawberries from a local farm, all I could think of was making this simple dessert to showcase these berries.

Since there are only three simple components to a strawberry shortcake, it is essential that all three elements can sing on their own. Most recipes call for a cream scone, but I prefer a buttermilk biscuit not only because it reduces the overall fat in the recipe, but also for the lovely tang that the buttermilk provides.  This recipe makes buttery, flaky, beautifully browned biscuits.  Split them open and dollop  them with cream which has been whipped into a soft, velvety mixture.  (Do not pour in cream, turn on your mixer to whisk and then leave the room to mediate a sibling squabble,  oh no, do not.  You will make butter. Trust me.)

Last are the strawberries.  This dish is best with fresh sweet summer berries.  Pick ones that are small and red to the core, preferably from your local farmers market and not shipped to the supermarket in plastic boxes.  There is a huge difference.  Depending on the size of the strawberries, halve or quarter them and dust with a bit of sugar.  As the strawberries sit they will gently weep and make a beautiful pink syrup.  Scoop the berries and their syrup onto the pillow of whipped cream and top with the other half of the biscuit.  Simple and delightful.

The last time we made these was the 4th of July, so we tossed in some blueberries as well to go with the red, white, and blue theme.  My son insisted that the dessert would benefit from the option of Chocolate Pudding as well.  He was right.  We went with the self serve model, allowing each person to create their own shortcake dessert from bowls of whipped cream, strawberries, blueberries, and chocolate pudding.  For a more formal approach, serve the assembled shortcakes.

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My search for the perfect banana bread ended years ago.  There are plenty of recipes out there, but none that fit my tall list of criteria.  So many have a dead bland banana flavor, others are too dry, or full of overpowering seasoning.  This recipe, which is my standby banana bread, is to my taste, the best. It has just the right amount of sweetness (not a lot), a crispy , crunchy, buttery crust, a moist bananay interior, and a delightful tang from the baking soda.   Chunks of dark chocolate melt into the bread making it just a little more special.

This is why, though I attempted to give another recipe a try last weekend, I simply could not find another one worth baking.  Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread, developed from years of tinkering, is the one for me.   We ate this bread for dessert after a disappointing football game, the rest served as a happy surprise in my son’s school lunch.

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The darkest night of the year has come and passed and the holidays are well underway, but I would be remiss to not share with you this one last edible gift.Chocolate Bark with Chile-Spiced Mango and Pepitas is everything I want in a chocolate bar.  Dark chocolate (first and most important ingredient), sweet dried mango, spicy chile pepper, crunchy pepitas, and of course the sparkling salt dancing across the top.  This combination is unexpected and delightful.

Chocolate Bark makes an excellent gift, wrapped up with a tag and a bow.  It would also be a delicious way to encourage your guest to linger at the table after their dinner.  Put out a plate of chocolate bark and let everyone break off their own piece.  It is delicious with wine or coffee.

You can find chile-spiced mango at Mexican markets and Trader Joe’s.  If you have a different taste sensation in mind, go for it!  This recipe is incredibly adaptable, just keep the proportions of chocolate to chunks the same.  Other ideas  I would like to try are Dried apricot and pistachio and dried cherry and almond.  If you want chunks of another type of chocolate (white chocolate or milk chocolate in the bark, simply chop them up and add with the nuts and fruit (do not melt).  The possibilities are endless!

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My holiday baking got off to a late start this year.  There are still many edible holiday treats still on my to-do list, but this was one recipe I was not going to let pass.  In fact, this the only batch of holiday cookies that I was able to fit into my schedule this year.   They are so tasty!

Chocolate Candy Cane Crackle Cookies combine rich fudgy chocolate with a hint of peppermint flavor and crunch from candy canes and peppermint schnapps.  If you like dark chocolate and peppermint, these should definitely be on your “To Bake” list. The recipe is based on one from Dorie Greenspan that ran in the November 2006 Bon Appetit.  I made the original recipe years ago and enjoyed it very much.  The seasoning (cloves and cinnamon), make it more of an adult flavored cookie.  My adaptation below follows Dorie’s basic recipe, but leaves out the spices.  In their place are chunks of candy canes and a touch of peppermint schnapps. (Finally a use for that bottle I picked up at a white elephant gift exchange last year!)

There are a few things to keep in mind when you make these cookies.  First, the candy cane chunks are bound to melt in the oven.  There is nothing really wrong with this since they will still impart their flavor, but if you, like me, want to be able to see the candy canes in the final product, be sure to leave the chunks rather big (1/4 to 1/3 inch long).  Second, the dough is tough to work with.  It is super dry and firm and  tough to roll in your hands.  Both my kids were helping to roll and we ended up with chocolate crumbs everywhere and a bunch of squarish cookies.  The good news is, it does not really matter.  The cookies will still taste great.  Lastly, do not overcook these cookies.  Since the dough is so dry, it is much better to undercook them.  Think of brownies.  You want to pull them when the dough just begins to set, but is not completely cooked through.

My happy helpers bagged these up and delivered them to our friends and neighbors.  What are your favorite cookies to bake during this time of year?

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Everyone needs a go-to cookie recipe and this is mine.  I have made it more times than I can remember for snacks, parties, camping trips, gift bags, potlucks, you name it.  They are my favorite!  Adapt it to what you have on hand by adding nuts (walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, etc.) or leaving them out.  The chocolate chips can be replaced with peanut butter chips or white chocolate, but do not dare leave those out!

Mix up the dough, then chill it in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake them (at least two hours).  You can also freeze the dough if you want to make it in advance.  Portion out the dough before freezing to make it easier to use.  The cookies bake up slightly crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.  They are great straight from the oven,  as well as days later.  There is never a shortage of taste testers!

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There is a rule in our house: if I am going to make something decadent, there has to been people to share it with (preferably out of the house.) Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?  The problem is that from an early age I have learned to find the loophole in almost every rule.  And here is the loophole:  my brain is always inventing excuses to make decadent things and then share them.  My ear is cocked for someone celebrating a birthday, a friend with a new child, a neighbor in the middle of a remodel, an unexpected house guest, you get the picture.  So when a friend mentioned they needed a dessert for a moving party, I immediately jumped on the idea of making these brownies!

I adapted a recipe from Martha Stewart Living Desserts.  Her original recipe is excellent.  In fact it is so good that I have not been able  to bring myself to try a different recipe since I discovered hers years ago.  Martha’s recipe calls for baker’s chocolate but, I swapped that out for unsweetened ground cocoa because that is what I prefer to have on hand.  She also calls for a half cup of chocolate chips, which are a nice addition, but I feel they detract a bit from the phenomenal texture and taste of the brownie itself.  I left them out.  Taking a tip from Cook’s Illustrated, the walnuts are sprinkled on top of the brownie instead of mixed in the batter.  This prevents the top from cracking when you slice the brownies.  It also makes it clear that to anyone with allergies that the brownies contain nuts.  As a finishing touch, I sprinkle coarse sea salt over the top of the warm brownies.  This adds a nice salty contrasting crunch as well as gives a little sparkle to the brownies.

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It is birthday season in our family.  By some lucky roll of the dice, almost every member of our family was born between April and August.  We celebrate the birth of someone every couple of weeks, usually with the a candle topped Chocolate Birthday Cake.

This cake began as my own personal favorite.  I, like many, am a huge fan of chocolate. I am fairly certain that my birthday cake was chocolate for at least the first 25 years of my life (perhaps longer).   About 5 years ago, I came across this recipe for chocolate cake from Ina Garten.  Since then, I have made it countless times.

Imagine my delight when this cake became a favorite for my family as well!  This year already, I have made it five times.  In fact I have made it so much that I was reluctant when asked to make the most recent batch. I thought-  Hadn’t we already eaten that cake enough this season?  There are so many other good cakes to try.  But then I whipped up the batter, baked the cake, and tried a sample crumb, shhhhh.  This cake tastes sooo good! I would happily sign on to many more years of baking this exact cake.

Chocolate Birthday Cake is rich, chocolately, and incredibly moist.  The buttermilk gives it a pleasant tang and the last minute addition of brewed coffee deepens the delightful chocolate flavor.  As with any chocolate dish, it will be as good as the cocoa you use.  I prefer Ghiradelli or Scharfen Berger. The frosting choice will create the identity of the cake.  Mocha Buttercream is the frosting I most often pair with the cake.   I have also made it with vanilla buttercream and strawberry buttercream.  Really, you cannot go wrong.  This cake is absolutely decadent and delicious.  The very definition of a chocolate cake.  It is perfect for a birthday or any time you need a good chocolate fix.

Chocolate Birthday Cake

from Ina Garten

makes 1 8-inch layer cake

Parchment paper for lining pans

Butter for greasing pans

1 3/4 cup all- purpose flour, plus more for dusting pans

2 cups sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I use Ghiradelli)

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter 2 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment.  Dust pans with flour.

Sift together the dry ingredients into a large bowl: flour, sugar cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  In a separate bowl, mix buttermilk, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla.  Pour wet ingredients into dry and mix until just combined.  Pour in the hot coffee and mix until it is incorporated.  Be sure to scrape down sides and bottom to ensure all the flour mixture is thoroughly moistened. Batter will look very thin.

Pour batter evenly into the 2 prepared pans.  Slide pans in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Place pans on a cooling rack and let sit for 10 minutes.  Slide a knife around the inside edge of each pan to loosen the cake, then invert onto the cooling racks.  Peel the parchment off the bottom.  Let cakes cool completely before frosting.

Lay one layer, flat side up on your cake plate or stand.  Spread a layer of frosting over the top.  Place the second cake round on the frosting, flat side up.  Apply a generous amount of frosting to the top of the cake.  Spread the frosting over the top and down the sides.  Finish by filling in any places where the cake is exposed and smoothing the top and sides with a spatula.  If the frosting is too loose, put it in the refrigerator and allow it to set up before spreading.  The frosted cake can be kept on the counter until ready to serve.  If it is a very hot day, keep it in the refrigerator to prevent the frosting from weeping.

Note:

Unfrosted cakes can be made ahead and frozen.  After they are completely cool, wrap tightly in plastic and freeze for  up to three months.  Be careful not to place anything onto of the cakes.  Even though they are frozen, then are still delicate and will crush easily.

For a larger cake and crowd, you can double the recipe.  I have done this successfully many times.

Mocha Buttercream

adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven

makes enough for 1 8-inch layer cake

1 cup butter, at room temperature

3 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup fresh coffee, cooled

Cream the butter.  Add the vanilla and mix.  Sift in the cocoa and sugar (Do not forget to sift.  If you add lumps in at this point, they are almost impossible to remove).  Add the coffee and beat.  It may appear curdled or separated at first.  Continue beating frosting until it is fully incorporated, light, and fluffy.  Spread on cake.

Here is a printer-friendly version of the recipes:

Chocolate Birthday Cake and Mocha Buttercream

You may also like:

Satsuma Vanilla Upside-down Cake

Chocolate Pudding

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