Vanilla Bean Pound Cake

Growing up, my mom had a drawer filled with recipes that were handed down through the generations. In that drawer were recipes for her heavenly cheesecake, a neighbor's carrot cake and the most superb pound cake I've ever tasted. Like any good mom, mine lent me that pound cake recipe and I wish I could tell you that is what I'm going to give you here.

However, I lost it.

I know... I'm the worst and, trust me, I have apologized. My ever-gracious mother assured me it was fine. But I wasn't going to let something so precious go so easily. I went on the hunt for a pound cake recipe that could rival our heirloom recipe and didn't stop until I found it.

The Best American Recipes 2000 seems to have been dropped into my cookbook library by my fairy godmother. Perhaps she knew how terrible I felt about this loss. (I know I sound dramatic, but this was serious!) I don't remember buying it and I don't know who may have given it to me but it has the most spectacular recipe for pound cake and it is really close to the one my mother had. With a few tweaks, I've made it pretty identical.

If you like rich, vanilla-y, buttery cake that's so versatile that it can be eaten warm with chocolate sauce, room temp with traditional frosting or cold (maybe dollop a little lemon curd or jam on top) with a nice cup of tea, this is it.

One note: if you don't think an entire bundt cake will be consumed in your house, this cake my be baked in 2 loaf pans. After baking, wrap one loaf tightly in plastic wrap, drop it into a freezer bag and freeze it for up to 6 months. When an unexpected guest or celebration or break up occurs, you'll be well prepared!

Vanilla Bean Pound Cake
1 C unsalted butter
3 C flour
3 C sugar
6 large or extra large eggs
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 C sour cream (full fat)
2 T vanilla bean paste
1/2 t almond extract

Yield: one tube or bundt cake

Oven to 325. Butter and flour a bundt or tube cake pan.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating fully before adding the next.

In a separate bowl, whisk the dry ingredients.

Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the sour cream. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and almond extract.

Pour the batter into the pan and, using a spatula, evenly distribute it.
Bake at 325 for 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. (It can take up to 1 hour, 15 minutes at 325.)
 Cool in the pan for 15 minutes and invert onto a baking rack to continue cooling.
Once the cake is cool, slice it up and add your toppings. I went with vanilla ice cream and dark chocolate sauce and strawberries and ice cream this time.
The scent of vanilla plus the faint almond taste make this cake delicious, but it's the sour cream and butter that give it body and its silky crumb. It's as delicious as I remember the cake I made using that recipe from the sacred drawer. Even my mom has said this one is very near the heirloom recipe, which, if you tasted my mom's baking and knew her standards, you'd know is the ultimate blessing.

One last thought. This may seem like a lot of work, but this recipe and the way it combines the ingredients is sooooo simple that I'm pretty sure it's close to foolproof. But, don't take my word for it. Bake this one and let me know how it turns out. 

Happy weekend!



Stacy's Favorite Date Bars

Stacy is my very first mommy friend. Our babies brought us together at Donna Holloran's Babygroup when they were 8 weeks old (almost 4 years ago!), but our own friendship has deepened as we've stood by each other during both personal triumphs and setbacks, helped each other through starting businesses and cross-country moves. I call Stacy when I need the hard truth, a new way to see something or the words to say. She is not the friend who will let me wallow in my misery or tell my story without showing me the other side. She's a wise woman and a beautiful mother. She's a dedicated wife to her husband of almost 20 years and a devoted friend and I adore her with my whole heart. Even my husband - who doesn't like anyone - loves her, and that, really, says it all. 

Stacy also throws a lot of parties, dines out quite a bit and knows a lot about great food. When she tells me she loves my date bars, I have an inkling they may be pretty good. So, when she and her daughter came down for a visit last weekend, naturally, I made her favorite treat. 

Date bars are a delicious combination of chewy-crunchy-oatey cookie and sweet date jam. Some bakers add coconut to the date jam, but I add coconut to the cookie so that all the crunch and chew stays in the cookie and the jam is soft, warm and melty good. These also have a bit more date jam than others. Feel free to halve the amount of jam if these look too gooey. But, I mean, when is a treat too gooey?

Another great thing about date bars is that they're filled with natural, healthy ingredients like oats, walnuts and dried fruit. Okay, they're also full of butter and sugar, but you may as well complement that with wholesomeness, right? If you prefer, these can also be filled with 1-1/2 C any type of jam. Just stir the jam well to loosen it up, spread it atop the first layer of cookie and top with the rest. Bake as directed below. But, really, don't miss out on the dates. They're so...sweet. Like Stacy!

Stacy's Favorite Date Bars
The Date Jam
2 C chopped, pitted dates (I used a combination of Medjool and Deglet Noor)
1/3 C sugar
2/3 C water
1 t vanilla

The Cookie
1-1/2 C flour
1 C oats
1 C dark brown sugar
1/2 C toasted, chopped walnuts
1/2 C shredded coconut
1/2 t sea salt, crushed
1-1/2 sticks butter, cubed

Yield: 16, 2" bars

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter an 8"x8" baking pan. 

Make the date jam. Add the dates, sugar and water to a saucepan and bring to a boil for 5 minutes or until the dates start to break down and the mixture thickens. 

Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool. 

Make the cookie. Stir the flour, oats, sugar, walnuts, coconut and salt together in a large bowl. Add the cubed butter and mix just until everything comes together. The mixture will look like lots of little flour-covered peas. 

Press half of the cookie mixture into the bottom of the 8"x8" pan. Really press it down and flatten this layer. Spread the date jam over the top. Drop the rest of the cookie dough in clumps over the date jam. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until the edges are nice and brown (up to 40 minutes, but no longer or they'll be like bricks).
Let the bars cool completely before trying to cut into them. Once they're room temperature, slice them into sixteen 2" bars.
I use a pan with a removable bottom for my bars. Makes it so easy to press the whole batch out the pan and cut evenly without losing any of the edges.
Once they're cut up, these will stay fresh nicely covered on the counter for 3 days or so and frozen up to 3 months. 
Stacy loved them. I hope you will too!



Whole Wheat & Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies

Oh, Sycamore Kitchen, I miss you so. I miss your Quiche of the Day, your lovely iced tea and the outdoor seating. But, most of all, I miss your Chocolate Chip Rye Cookie. Perhaps someone else has thought of adding rye flour to a chocolate chip cookie, but yours was the first I ever tasted and I believe I had one every day last summer and fall while I was working for my friends at Standard Time. Because we are now so very, very far apart, I had to try to make this delicacy myself.

I did okay. I haven't nailed it yet, but the cookie I put forth is a rich, robust chocolate chip cookie that will please the palate, and especially the palates of those who prefer a chewier treat. The additions of rye and whole wheat pastry flours really changed the texture from my normal white flour cookie and I LOVED it. Unfortunately, the rye flour I purchased barely tasted of rye, so, I'll have to try other brands and maybe even add some crushed caraway seeds to the next batch.

I may not have hit the target yet, but never fear, I will keep trying until I get it right. In the meantime, bake this baby and let the scent of chocolate and vanilla fill your home and the deeper texture enrich your senses.

Whole Wheat & Rye Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yield: 36 larger cookies
1 C all purpose flour
1/2 C whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 C rye flour
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
3/4 t sea salt

1-1/2 sticks butter, softened
1 C dark brown sugar
1/2 C granulated sugar

1 egg
1 t vanilla

1 10oz. bag Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Chips (This post is not sponsored. This is just my favorite brand and I like that the chips are larger than others. You can also use 10oz. of chopped bittersweet chocolate, but you really do need the larger chunks and you really do need darker chocolate to collaborate with the richer flours.)

Oven to 350.

Cream the butter and sugars until nice and light, about 3 minutes. Mix in the egg. Then, add the vanilla and beat until blended.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Fold the dry mixture to the butter mixture until blended. Add the chocolate chips and stir just until incorporated.
Drop by tablespoonsful onto a lined cookie sheet.
Bake 11-14 minutes until the cookies are lightly browned.
These will hold a beautiful shape and taste fresh if well-covered for 2 days. They can also be frozen up to 6 months.

If you try these, let me know how you go. My husband keeps asking for more, and I have a feeling you might, too.



Luck o' the Irish Guinness Cake

Much to my Italian father-in-law's chagrin, my husband was cleverly born on St. Patrick's Day and this year is cause for a triple celebration. We're celebrating the man, the saint (did you know that St. Patrick was actually a Roman Brit? He wasn't even Irish!) and the fact that we're in a new home in San Diego after essentially couch surfing as a family for almost a year. Naturally, we're raising our glasses, but who doesn't like a good, boozy cake every once in a while, too?

I found this chocolate cake on Taste of Home dot com made with Guinness (smart) and sour cream (anything with sour cream is a winner) and cocoa (can't live without it) and added a ganache filling (because, chocolate goes with...chocolate!) and vanilla bean cream cheese frosting. Can you say crowd pleaser?

Chocolate Guinness Cake a la Taste of Home
1 C Guinness
1 stick butter, cubed
2 C sugar
3/4 C cocoa
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 C sour cream
3 t vanilla extract
2 C all-purpose flour
1-1/2 T baking soda

1/2 C cream
1/2 C best quality bittersweet chocolate

Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
4-1/2 C confectioner's sugar
1 T vanilla bean paste  

Oven to 350. Butter and cocoa a 9" springform pan or two 8" cake pans. Set aside.

In a saucepan, heat beer and butter until butter is melted and remove from heat. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Whisking the sugar and cocoa together before adding to the beer and butter.
Whisk in sugar and cocoa until blended.

In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Whisk into beer mixture.

I love the marbling of the chocolate with the sour cream mixture. So pretty!
In a third bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Whisk into beer mixture until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s).

Bake at 350° for 45-50 minutes for the 9" or 25-30 minutes for the 8" or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool completely and remove sides of pan.

While the cake is baking, make the ganache. Chop the chocolate into pea sized bits. Pour the cream into a saucepan and bring it just to a boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate bits and let sit 5 minutes. Whisk. Leave on the counter for an hour and then transfer into a mixing bowl. Beat the mixture until the chocolate color lightens and it's looking a little fluffy. Set aside.

Make the frosting. Beat the cream cheese and sugar in a stand mixer for 1 minute, until thoroughly mixed. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat until all the little lumps are gone. Add the vanilla bean paste and beat one more time, until your frosting is gorgeously flecked with those little vanilla bean bits.

If using the 9" pan, slice the cake in half. Place the cake on a plate and then insert a serrated knife halfway into the cake. Turn your cake pedestal or plate 360 degrees until the cake is sliced all the way through. Using a second plate and a large spatula, remove the top half of the cake and set aside. Disclosure: I had never done this before and was pretty sure I'd ruin the cake. This cake has a nice firm crumb that makes it super easy to handle. Phew!

This baby had a little dent in the top because I took her out of the oven 3 minutes too soon so I filled that up with ganache, too. See, even imperfection is delicious!
Fill the cake with the ganache and place the top back onto the filled bottom.
Frost the cake with the vanilla bean cream cheese icing and let set on the counter one hour or in the fridge 15 minutes.

Slice and eat. And don't forget to toast to St. Paddy, who is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland.

Happy Birthday, Babe!



Olive's Birthday Surprise: Sugar Cookies!

The craziest thing happened to us last year. My husband got this amazing offer to work for a highbrow advertising agency in Richmond, Virginia of all places. I had only vaguely heard of Richmond, Virginia prior to this agency's hardcore pursuit of my so-very-talented husband, but, after much consideration and a brief weekend trip during August that dazzled with green, green trees, cobblestone streets and brownstones, we decided to make a go of this new place. And thank goodness we did because even though the job ended after 8 months and we moved right back to Southern California, I found my friend-soulmate Leigh. She's that friend you feel like you've always known. The friend you can totally be yourself with - bodily functions and all (just being real). In fact, it was sort of like we'd known each other all along. I'd even go as far as to say that my family met our soulmate family. You know the family you want to travel with? Whose kids get along really well with yours? Even your husbands fall in friend-love? (Plus, they both happen to be named Jeremy.) That is this family. And we miss them every single freaking day.

Today our friend (and Leigh & Jeremy's oldest daughter) Olive turns six years old. Six! She's so smart and loves to play piano. She's an incredible big sister to her 3 year old sister Delilah and an all around sweetheart. I adore this child. Now that you know me a bit, you know that when I adore someone, I bake for them. It seemed like a fun idea to put a care package together, so, I got out my favorite sugar cookie recipe and made a few variations: jam sandwiches, ganache sandwiches and sugar cutouts that spell "Happy Birthday Olive", of course! The cookie recipe, adapted from Alison Boteler's book The Great American Bake Sale which is out of print but worth buying used, is foolproof. Simply delicious any way you make them, we'll find out how they travel a little later today. Stay tuned!

Sugar Cookies
1 C butter (2 sticks)
2 C sugar
2 eggs
3-1/2 C flour
3/4 t kosher salt
1 t vanilla
1/4 t almond extract
Yields 4 dozen 3-4" cookies
Oven to 350
Bake 8-10 minutes each batch

1/2 C powdered sugar
1 T water (or cream or milk)
1/2 t vanilla 

1 C heavy cream
1 C best-quality chocolate chips
1/2 t vanilla

Colored sugar
Mini chocolate chips
Smaller candies
Really anything you can think of!

Make the cookie dough. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 minutes or so. 
The butter and sugar should be pretty light in color, too.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in flour and salt. Add in vanilla. Divide the dough, roll into balls and flatten into discs.
Refrigerate at least one hour or as long as overnight.

When you're ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350 and take the chilled dough out of the fridge. Once the oven is pre-heated, 10 minutes or so, flour a board or large counter space and roll the dough out to about 1/8".
The floured board.

Lulu helping make cookies for her friend. Using the shapes is the perfect task for a little one.
Using your cookie cutters, cut shapes and place onto a cookie sheet.
Ready to go into the oven.
Bake 8-10 minutes or until very lightly browned.

While the cookies are cooling, you can assemble the decorations and make the glaze and filling. 

Make the glaze. Pour one cup of powdered sugar into a bowl (I used a 2 C measuring cup) and add the vanilla and water. Whisk until blended. Set aside.

If you want to make the most scrumptious vanilla chocolate sandwich cookies ever, make the ganache. Place the chocolate chips in a heat proof bowl. Heat one cup of cream just until boiling and pour over the chocolate chips.
Let sit 5 minutes and add vanilla. Whisk until blended. Let cool on the counter at least one hour or in the fridge, whisking every 5-10 minutes for 30 minutes or until thickened. Set aside.
The decorating station.
Sugar row.
Once the cookies are cooled and you're all set up, paint the glaze onto the cookies and dip into your toppings.
That's an actual Crayola paint brush.
Dipped and decorated!
Set the decorated cookies aside and let them dry and set for at least one hour. Longer if you can.

To make the chocolate sandwiches, drop a dollop of ganache onto the backside of one cookie and place its mate on top. Press them together and let them set for an hour or refrigerate them for 20 minutes or so.
One more thing. Because I have biscuit cutters and now own the letter O cutter, I decided to make a sort of pressed jam cookie dropping about one tablespoon of jam onto the circle cookie and pressing the O into the top. Have a look.

Magically delicious.
 Okay, everything has been mixed, baked, decorated, pressed and cooled. Start boxing it up!
The wrapping station.
I layered the most breakable cookies on top of the strongest cookies with layers of printed waxed paper in between each layer.
All loaded up!
 I wrapped the box in 2 layers of plastic wrap.
This idea shamelessly stolen from another friend Stacy who did this last year with her daughter Georgia's paintings at Christmastime. Brilliant, isn't it? She's good like that.
And then wrapped the box in my paper of choice -  a beautiful Lulu painting!
The finished prezzie.
Tying it all up with bakers' twine, I added a hand made card I bought in Virginia. The girl on the card looks a little like Olive, although maybe more like Olive when she was four.

I packed it all up and took it to the post for overnight delivery. I cannot wait to hear if anything (dare I hope, everything???) was in tact. I know it'll taste okay either way, but I want it to look good, darn it!

Happy Birthday, my sweet girl. We wish we were there to sing to you and squeeze you.



Cherry Cobbler, Y'all!

When I think of cobbler, I remember the first time I had its biscuity, fruity goodness. I was maybe 8 or 9 and my mom had made peach cobbler with melty vanilla ice cream that when I spooned it into my mouth, all warm and gooey with a vanilla biscuit cloud, I thought I could die right there and then and have lived a satisfied existence.

As springtime brings fresh cherries, I optimistically opted for cherries last Monday night. Cherries add their own version of twang to any recipe. Not too soft, not too firm, they are a perfect consistency in baked desserts. Plus, their tartsweetness is unparallelled. 

The light-but-satisfying biscuit recipe I very slightly modified from the classic Silver Palate Cook Book, as Julee Rosso's and Sheila Lukins' recipes are already practically perfect in every way (yes, Disney lovers, I did steal that line from Mary Poppins. Good catch!).

This recipe can be made with most any kind of fruit and while I labored over my filling, you could opt for those canned cherries in heavy syrup (do NOT tell my mother I said this. I will be disowned) and just drop the biscuit mixture right on top before baking. 

Cherry Cobbler

24 oz. or 1-1/2 C cherries, rinsed and pitted
1/4 C water
2 T sugar
2 T flour
1/2 t almond extract

Biscuit Topping
1-1/2 C flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t sea salt
1/3 C vegetable shortening
1 egg, gently beaten
1/4 C cream (or whole milk)
2 T sugar, divided

Preheat the oven to 400. Place (4) 13 ounce ramekins on a cookie sheet.

Make the filling. Place the cherries, water and sugar over medium heat until it reaches a boil. 
Once boiling, spoon 2-3T liquid into a measuring cup and whisk in the flour.

Pour the flour and cherry juice mixture back into the cherries and simmer until the fruit is thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the almond extract. 

Make the biscuits. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together.  Cut in the shortening until small "peas" form. Add the egg and the cream and stir until blended. The batter will look clumpy.

Divide the fruit evenly among the ramekins and spoon the biscuit batter over the top. Sprinkle the reserved one tablespoon of sugar over the top of each cobbler and bake 15-18 minutes until they are lightly browned. 
Before baking.
Fresh out of the oven.
If you can stand to, let them cool about 30 minutes and top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. 
Don't stop there! Eat!
Mmm. See you next time!