A Lemony White Chocolate Birthday Cake

When one of your best friends turns 27, you throw down in the cake department. At least that’s what my friends and I do.

So I started planning for Samantha’s birthday cake weeks in advance. Sam’s birthday is in the beginning of April, right when Spring starts to tease you with a few warm, sunny days. So a cake that says Spring! She doesn’t really like chocolate in an obsessive way, which is OK because in my book this time of year rings in the beginning of fruit-baking season.

So when I saw a white chocolate cake filled with lemon curd, I figured I’d found my cake. I like white chocolate in certain situations, where you don’t want a chocolate flavor perse, but you want a nice, sweet cake. I looooove lemon curd. Have you ever had it? Seriously, it’s worthy of eating all by itself with a spoon. Creamy, tangy, delicious. Balances out the white chocolate perfectly. I was completely inspired by the original cake’s pretty pastel-colored frosting and polka dots, but not so much the fact that it was cream cheese based. Too heavy. So I opted for whipped cream. I felt really good about giving this cake to Sam to celebrate her life.

Also, a note. I’m normally terrible at assembling layer cakes. As in they end up lopsided, the icing melting down the sides, and the layers sliding apart. This cake was supposed to be four layers (bake two layers, slice each in half). The idea of four layers scared the shit out of me. I went with two. I also think the whipped cream as icing really helped. It slathered on easily and I didn’t have to do a lot of smoothing. The pink and yellow really helped the whole thing look nice, too I think. Sam said the yellow dots looked like popcorn. I’ll let you decide!

I did use some layer cake tricks that I’ve picked up on various blogs. I’ll bold them in the directions below. I did do the cake over two days. Actual cake (and curd if you make your own) day one, whipped cream and assemblage day two.

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Cranberry Orange Cornmeal Bread/IheartNC

Oh my goodness. I always forget how entirely exhausting the holidays are. I get excited every year for baking, presents, family, and friends being home. And then I get caught up in this whirlwind of…baking, presents, family, and friends being home. It’s not a bad whirlwind at all. I mean, who am I to complain when I get to host a sleepover for eight lovely ladies at my house and paint our nails and make friendship bracelets?

I’m awfully lucky to be friends with these beautiful girls.

And why would I complain when I got to spend Christmas with my little family? Especially when they threw down in a huge way to put this under the tree for me!

Hello lover, we will be very good friends, I just know it.

Right before the holiday rush began, I up and went to North Carolina to visit one of my best friends in the world Bette. But I may have screeched about that on here earlier…

I don’t know if you have a place like North Carolina is for me, so maybe you won’t quite get what I’m about to say. But when I go down there, it feels just like I’m home, not like I’m on vacation. It’s like I’m just picking right back up in my other life, right where I left off last time I was there. It just…fits. So it’s no wonder that’s where I ran the second I needed to clear my head. And let me tell you, North Carolina never fails. Head? Cleared.

We spent most of our time in Charlotte, and one of our good friends from Raleigh even drove down to hang out! But, we also went up to camp. Talk about places where you just fit. We had lunch with old friends who are practically family in my mind. They care so much it blew my mind. Then of course the fact that people can care so little also blows my mind.

Anyway, Bette and I met at camp in the summer of 1995.

Some of the horses that we rode that summer we met are still there. We snapped some pictures with them.

Did you survive Christmas? Are you looking forward to New Year’s Eve? Is your belly so full of holiday food you may pop? Mine is!

Meanwhile, back at the Indianapolis ranch, a good month ago, I made some kickass quick bread. Cranberry orange cornmeal bread. I am BEGGING you to run to the grocery store right now and snatch up the last bags of cranberries you can find before the disappear. Please. I’ve become obsessed with cranberries this winter. They’re so deliciously tart and brightly, festively red. And they work so well with oranges, which are also in season during the winter.

So this bread is studded with cranberries, laced with orange flavor, and sweetened with cornmeal and honey. It’s just completely amazing. All day, every day, any time of day. Sadly, I took no pictures, but if you pop over to Joy the Baker’s site (link to her recipe to follow after the jump) you’ll see her photos, and I only made a few small changes.

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Fat Witch Brownies

So, did you have a good Thanksgiving? Did you survive? Did your stomach survive? By the end of the weekend I felt slightly pregnant, but in all honesty this may have been the best Thanksgiving I’ve had in awhile. I think that’s because I had no expectations. No, that’s a lie. I expected to miss celebrating with a big family as well as my own. This year I just spent time with my family. We don’t have a huge Thanksgiving; just my mom, dad, brother, and my grandfather, and this year Ian’s girlfriend. Ian and I pulled up to my parents’ house around 1pm to start cooking…and drinking. After all, what’s Thanksgiving without some wine?

Look at my brother! He’s a cook!

A quick rundown of the really really delicious food we made.

So, now starts December. I’m very excited because this year my friends and I have decided on a no presents rule. Instead I’ve ordered two packs of really cute (and some baking-related) holiday cards. Also begins a time when I feel absolutely guilt-free about baking non-stop. Who cares about calories during the month of December? OK, actually, I’m buying a cold-weather running shirt to combat all the baking. As in, I will be running aplenty. Out-of-doors.

So, the first delicious-you-must-make holiday recipe is: brownies! Fat Witch Brownies to be exact. This recipe has been floating around the food blogosphere internet for quite awhile. I’ve just been slow to jump on the bandwagon. Fat Witch Brownies come from a bakery in New York called, yes, Fat Witch Bakery. They seem to specialize in awesome brownies. Sweet. They have a cookbook, in which the recipe for their original brownie can be found.

It’s a very different brownie from the other brownie recipe I have on here. Still gooey, but much more mellow. It’s still very obviously chocolatey, just not insanely intense, probably because it has only 1/2 cup of chocolate in it. And it’s kind of buttery. I have no other word to describe it. These are every day brownies, the kind you can snack on without feeling like you might explode. They’d probably travel really well in holiday care packages too.

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Chai Snickerdoodles

This recipe comes to you a bit out of order on my recipe list. In fact, I just made them this past weekend. But they’re so good that I cannot wait.

When I lived in Raleigh, I worked at a coffee shop called The Morning Times. Still probably the best coffee shop I’ve ever been in. Best Americanos I’ve ever had. We also made our own chai tea. It was a mixture of tea and spices, the one which I remember the most being ginger. I spent lots of time peeling and grating ginger for that tea, but it gave the end result such a nice bite.

These cookies are basically sugar cookies filled with all the spices that make chai tea so warm and autumn-y and delicious. They’d probably be really awesome with a cup of tea. They’d also be perfect for a holiday party. Not hard to make at all. I promise. And so festive and flavorful.

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Ginger Chocolate Cookies

These past few weeks I’ve been too exhausted to cook or even really bake much. I’ve been eating out with my parents, eating over at my parents’ house, eating with my girlfriends, and sometimes throwing something together at home. I’m sure you know the feeling. Work is overwhelming, your personal life is a roller coaster, and standing in the kitchen becomes a chore rather than a joy. No one ever told me that being a beginning grown-up was so hard and tiring! Your college diploma should come with a big warning label: Hard times ahead. Forget staying up late to party or study. You won’t be able to make it past 10:30pm lots of nights. You think being independent will be cool and will involve having fancy drinks at fancy bars, buying awesome clothes, and decorating your first real apartment? Think again and this time include bills, rent, credit cards, food for your pets, gas money, food for yourself…and then swear that the only time you’ll look at your bank account is when you need a good cry. Oh and balancing your personal and work lives? They overlap. Work seeps into personal time, even if you don’t work long hours. It affects your personal relationships. Just…be prepared.

OK, so enough with the bitching about being a grown-up. The good part is that if you do come home from work one day and are craving cookies like woah, you can make a batch of cookies if you damn well please.

And these ginger chocolate cookies are the ones you should probably make. That’s what I did one Friday about a month ago. (shut up, I know I’m behind on posting!) They’re hella easy and you most likely have everything in your house.

Chocolate and brown sugar make cookies magical

(You may not have molasses, but you should probably buy some and keep your cabinet stocked with it always. It adds amazing depth and flavor to baked goods.) Kind of like chocolate chip cookies with a fantastic kick.

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Iced Pumpkin Bread

This is a story of how I made my own pumpkin puree and how it was awesome and not scary. This is also the story of how I put the puree in things like my morning oatmeal and pumpkin bread.

Here’s a warning – do not get that pumpkin pie filling stuff. Use pumpkin puree for all your pumpkin cooking and baking needs. You can get it canned this time of year (and only this time of year. Why??), or you can make it yourself. I promise you up and down and all around that making your own is not hard to do. You will need a bit of time. I’d suggest making the puree either the day before you plan on actually using it and then storing it in the fridge, or just giving yourself a couple of hours for puree-making + using puree. All this recipe involves is cutting up the pumpkin into quarters, baking it, peeling off the skin, and pureeing it.

So I spotted pie pumpkins in my Farm Fresh…err, nope GREEN Bean Delivery (they changed their name FYI), and decided it was high time I stopped buying cans of pumpkin. Pie pumpkins are smaller than your average pumpkin, but really I think you can make puree out of any kind of pumpkin. They all seem to be the same to me.

Now you have your pumpkin puree plan. What will you do with it? I suggest pumpkin bread. Or oatmeal. Or put a bit in your favorite pancakes. There are tons of recipes out there. I’m going to attempt to try a few more this fall.

I had one thing in mind for my puree: pumpkin bread. One of Adam’s all-time favorite baked goods is pumpkin bread, and a couple of years ago his mom gave me her recipe (this was also the same time she gave me the potato chip cookie recipe. So now I can pretend to be Adam’s mom by baking him pumpkin bread. And that’s not weird at all.

Make this pumpkin bread. It’s spicy (in a cinnamon and nutmeg sort of spicy way) and pumpkin-y, and never dries out. This time I topped it with cinnamon cream cheese icing, but it’s equally delicious plain.

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Fake Empires Apple Pie

First off, my friend/coworker Jen and I are taking a work trip out to L.A. on Thursday and Friday. We’ll be carrying four giant checks with us to present to a school as prizes for our art contest. Two of my close high school friends live in L.A., so we’re going to spend some time with them. Does anyone have any suggestions on must-sees, amazing restaurants, or anything else for us? This’ll be my first trip to L.A., and California, and Jen’s second I think.

I’ve kind of wanted to name baked goods after songs or bands. Saturday night, as the National rocked my world in concert (I may have had a religious transcendental experience or two … I swear, and I totally touched Matt when he came into the crowd and walked around as he sang the last song), I came up with my first baked good with a song name after The National’s “Fake Empires.”

Stay out super late tonight
Picking apples, making pies
Put a little something in our lemonade and take it    with us
We’re half awake in a fake empire

Hence, Fake Empires Apple Pie. Oh hey, and it doesn’t hurt that there’s an apple called the empire apple.

I don’t have a strong attachment to how apple pie should taste. It doesn’t evoke childhood memories for me. But I know it does for so many people. Apple pie is one of those dishes that people feel very strongly about. It’s a classic, an all-American standby. So, though I contemplated doing things like throwing in some rum or mixing in ribbons of caramel sauce, I didn’t. I figured best to get down the standard, delicious apple pie first because that’s what people love. You don’t mess with a classic until you know it well. So I figured I’d need at least two attempts at this pie before it was worthy of bringing to a Coffin or Goodman Thanksgiving. Lo and behold, I fricking hit the jackpot on my FIRST TRY. You guys, this pie, it’s sweet and tart, it’s gooey, it tastes like autumn, dare I say it? It’s a classic.

A quick note on the apples you may want to use. I highly suggest either finding a local orchard and picking your own or buying local apples at your farmers market or grocery. You usually want to use some tart apples and some sweet apples. You can’t go wrong with Golden Delicious/Granny Smith mix. If you want to get creative, here are some tips. For a nice mix of sweet and tart, use Jonathan, Stayman-Winesap, Cox’s Orange Pippin, or Jonagold. Straight up sweet choices are Golden Delicious Braeburn, Fuji, Mutsu, Pink Lady, Suncrisp, Rome Beauty, or Empire.Tart baking apples are Idared, Macoun, Newton Pippin, Granny Smith, and Northern Spy. Stay away from apples that become mushy when cooked like McIntosh and Cortland.

And a quick note on your filling not being soupy. (I’ve had this problem and it BLOWS.) Bake the pie until the filling is really bubbling. This will give your thickening agent (flour, tapioca, or cornstarch) time to activate and work. To prevent the crust and top from burning, make a little tent over the top of the pie with foil about 15 minutes in. Let the pie cool ALL THE WAY, like an hour at least, before you slice into it to let all the juices thicken up.

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