Fudge Frosting for Caden's Birthday Cake

Hope y'all had a great weekend and thank you to all who have served our country, including the families of our veterans. 

Between our umpteenth Frozen party, playtime at the Carlsbad Lagoon and a day at dog beach, it was amazing to have some time as a family and I, for one, am feeling fully restored.

I also learned something about myself as a baker this past weekend: I am horrible at making frosting. Now, I never went to pastry school and don't know all that much about the chemistry of baking so I don't feel that badly about this unfortunate truth, but I am truly horrible at frosting. My former idea of cake topping was a stick of butter, some melted chocolate, vanilla extract and a whole lot of powdered sugar. It turns out the ingredient list was right, but my quantities and way of bringing it all together was all wrong.
I sat myself down with a few of my favorite cookbooks, my computer and a notebook and searched to find a fudgy chocolate frosting worthy of my nephew's 11th birthday cake. Caden is the younger brother to a superstar big sister and sometimes feels the effects of being in the shadow of her bright light. But, he carries his own light and a trove of his own larger-than-life talents. Caden has a nascent understanding of the stock market (at 11!), is an expert basketball player and is tremendously adept at math and science. He also happens to be ridiculously handsome and an incredibly patient, kind older cousin to my little Lulu. When I met him Caden was 4, the same age my daughter is now. And one of the first things he said to me was "You have big boobs" (I absolutely and unequivocally do NOT), so, Caden is the kind of kid I want to go out of my way for.

In order to focus on the outside, I baked 2 boxes of Betty Crocker Yellow Cake in 5 pans and took out a couple of pounds of butter and my best chocolate and got started.
After lots of melting, blending, heating, whipping and tasting (can you say "stomach ache?"), the best of the lot was from Tish Boyle's "The Cake Book" and is quite appropriately called Fudgy Chocolate Frosting.
This frosting is not ganache: it's light, chocolatey, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. My nephew was dazzled and my husband licked his fork! Some of the other attempts were overly light like whipped cream (not going to cut it on 5 full layers of cake) or super-buttery-but-not-chocolatey or curdled or too thick, but this one was, as Goldilocks would say, just right.

It seems that while frosting may be the last thing to do to a cake (unless you're decorating, which is a whole different ball game), it should not be the least effort. Certainly not the least effort when you're mixing up a boxed cake! Ironically, this frosting was less work than some of those I tried and the closest to what I was aiming for. Superb chocolate flavor, melty on the tongue and beautifully whipped in texture: perfect for a birthday cake!

Fudgy Chocolate Frosting
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 C unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 C confectioner's sugar
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 t sea salt

In a double boiler over simmering water, melt the chocolate. Then, set aside to cool. 

Beat the butter at medium speed until creamy - maybe a minute. Beat in the sugar until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla extract and blend. Turn the speed down to low and slowly pour the cooled chocolate into the butter and blend completely. Scrape down the bowl to make sure all the bits get mixed in and then whip until the frosting looks light, airy and is firm enough to spread, 2 minutes or so. 

Use immediately on completely cooled cake.

I wish Caden has allowed me to take even one photo of him so I could show you the pleasure on his face while eating this delectable creation, but he is a pre-teen and has his own ideas. Therefore, I ask you to picture a handsome, mostly-Italian, sun-browned boy with dark hair and chocolate eyes smiling and taking in the birthday attention with a giant bite of cake in his mouth, smiling and firmly planted in the spotlight. Right where he belongs.



Shopping, Baker's Style

Last weekend Lulu and I drove up to LA (again!) for a superfun birthday party and to take my mom to dinner for Mother's Day. Aforementioned superfun birthday party took place right around the corner from the most amazing restaurant supply store we have in LA, Surfas. This place is a mecca for bakers, home cooks and chefs alike. They have almost everything one could possibly need in the kitchen, plus a huge supply of gourmet foods and a cute little cafe that always has something interesting and yummy.

Naturally, I went straight for the cake boards chocolate. I mean, this is ME, right? I've been a little obsessed with hot fudge sauces lately and trying out quite a range of sauces and wanted to try some even more premium chocolate for a new recipe I was testing. Although I truly love the Ghirardelli 60% Cocoa Bars I use (I mean, this chocolate fits my taste buds like, well, like chocolate), there really is nothing better than Valrhona. So, I'm trying a 66% and an 85% just for kicks.

I also bought malt powder for a malt chocolate cake I'm planning and vanilla beans because I'm so inspired by The Vanilla Bean Blog's post on homemade vanilla extract last week that I'm going to make my very own Bourbon Vanilla Extract. Beware, friends, come holiday time, this is what you'll be receiving!

While my extract brews, though, I will need supplies, so, I broke down and bought the $30 32 ounce bottle of Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract. Buying this baby kind of felt like I'd arrived. Like in some parallel universe, I actually need this much vanilla extract for my customers. Perhaps because I've bought it, they will come.

In other news, I'm looking into selling a few things at the Leucadia Farmers Market if I can get a booth and studying for my health certificate test. Exciting stuff!

Thanks for reading and see y'all next week. Happy weekend!



Cherry Nut Granola (gf)

We eat a lot of granola in our house. Normally, we pile Whole Foods' Housemade Cherry Almond Granola onto a heap of Bellweather Farms' Vanilla Bean Yogurt and gleefully spoon it into our mouths. At $5 or $6 per container of granola - which lasted us maybe 4 meals - this was getting expensive! Naturally, I had to find another solution.
Some recipes use oil rather than butter or omit fats altogether, some use fruit juice instead of sugar and that's cool, but not really for us. I'm a pretty firm believer that everything in moderation is perfection, so, we're not sugar-free nor fat-free nor, really, anything-free in this household. I just wanted a nutty, not too sweet, mostly healthful, toasted granola with my favorite additions (cherry, almond, walnut, coconut) to serve for breakfast or late afternoon snacks.

Dana Slatkin writes the closest-to-perfect recipe (in my humble opinion) in The Summertime Anytime Cookbook that she wrote for Shutters on the Beach so I co-opted that and messed with it until it had all the variables I wanted. This recipe also happens to be gluten free for those who are so inclined.
This recipe turned out delicious granola. I might like it a wee bit clumpier, but perhaps the next round will yield that result. In the meantime, please feel free to halve this recipe as it makes enough granola for your family, the neighbors, their in-laws and your co-workers.

Cherry Nut Granola
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 C olive oil
1/2 C orange juice (preferably squeezed from one or two oranges)
1/2 C maple syrup
1 C brown sugar
8 C oats
1 C walnuts, chopped
1 C almonds, rough-chopped (this means just chop a little. Some almonds will still be whole, others in large pieces)
1/2 C flaxseed meal
1 C unsweetened shredded coconut such as Bob's Red Mill Shredded Coconut
1 T cinnamon
1/2 t almond extract
1 t sea salt
2 C dried cherries (or, really, any dried fruit that you like)

Pre-heat the oven to 300.

Mix the butter, oil, juice and syrup together and set aside.

Mix everything else together, omitting the cherries.

Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture and stir until nicely blended. Pour onto 2 baking sheets and flatten out, evenly distributing the granola across the sheets.

Bake for 30 minutes and stir. Bake another 15 minutes. Add the cherries in and stir again. Bake an additional 15 minutes (total baking time is one hour), remove from oven and let cool completely on the counter. Break up the granola again once cooled and try to resist popping it into your mouth as you put it into bags or jars for storage or giving.
This recipe is pretty easy to modify. If you want nut-free, don't add nuts. If you like raisins but not coconut, add raisins and omit coconut. Whatever you like, this oat base will give you leeway to try it out. We've been eating it like mad, so, maybe the 10 cup quantity is actually okay for our family. Let me know how yours likes it!



More from the Etsy Store

Medjool dates as they fell out of the container before chopping for date bars. I kid you not, this heart really happened spontaneously. 
Hello, friends.

This week, I filled Order no. 3 from my Etsy Shop and am so excited about (could it be???) possibly making my passion a business. I love that we're all doing this together, too. Along my path, I've often felt I had to have it all figured out before sharing my ideas, but this one is the most natural evolution I've experienced. I love to bake. Love. I do it almost every day, whether anyone's buying it or not. How amazing it might be to turn this into my profession.

I spent most of yesterday filling said Etsy Shop with new items, like favors and hot fudge sauce. I'm working on a fruit sauce and have nearly finished my caramel sauce, which will more than likely be called Hot Buttered Rum Sauce, although the whole salted caramel thing is big these days, so, I may fall prey to that trend. The sauce does include rum and is both sweet and tangy. I think people will like it. (Fingers crossed.)
Various favor options.
The Dark Chocolate Hot Fudge Sauce added yesterday is really for me dark chocolate lovers - me those who can take a whallop of chocolate with a smile. I've also developed a Caramel Chocolate Sauce that's sweeter and more appropriate for kids and those who prefer a more ice cream shoppe flavor, but that's not quite yet for sale. Try me Friday.

A few more things I'll be adding to the Etsy Shop include Earl Grey shortbread and a brown sugar ganache bar. I'm also seeking out the right food safe cold gel packs so I can ship all this stuff safely and the perfect little carton like this one for holding 3 4oz. tubs of my hot fudge sauces so I can create a gift pack. Any leads on gifty cartons/boxes/crates are welcome.
Hot Buttered Rum or Salted Caramel Sauce. Not sure yet!
Anyhow, that's what I'm up to.

I love you for reading this. It fills my heart. Thank you for being part of my love story.

And don't forget (shameless plug), you, too, can order my sweet things here.



Strawberries au Chocolat

What to do when you have a bucket of strawberries and the weather is too warm to bake with them? Dip them in chocolate, of course! (Recipe at the end of this post.)

We were on our way back from breakfast last weekend in some unseasonably hot San Diego weather (which, strangely is back with us this week, too) when we stopped at Carlsbad Strawberry Company, a roadside stand in Carlsbad where you can pick your own berries.
Just take the 5 to Cannon Road and head east. It's right there.
For a mere $20 (!!!) you can fill a relatively small bucket with fresh strawberries that you pick yourself. Naturally, this appealed to our now 4 year old, but Jeremy and I thought this was a brilliant ploy on the owners' parts. Charge people for the strawberries and have them do the fruit picking for you? So smart.
Admittedly, it's amazing to select your own berries. A little tip in case you're fortunate enough to have a strawberry field near you: the best berries are in the middle of the plant. They're unexpectedly tucked into the center where you wouldn't think enough sun would get in, but it surely must. These are the biggest, sweetest, least bug-stricken berries and we could not help but eating a few right there.

At first I thought I would make shortcakes with these beauties, but the thought of turning the oven on when we have no air conditioning and it was 90 degrees outside was not so appealing. A little melting chocolate on the stove top wasn't so bad though. I just poured a bag of chocolate chips into my double boiler and added about 4 tablespoons of butter so that when the chocolate hardened, it was still bite-able.
I'm pretty sure I melted right along with the chocolate.
Is it melted enough, Jeremy?
Sloppy but delectable!
We had such a great time doing this as a family and indulging in the literal fruits of our labor that I'm pretty sure we'll be doing more of this over the summer. Can you say "fondue"?

Chocolate for Dipping
One bag best quality chocolate chips
4 T butter

In a double boiler over 1-1/2" steaming water, melt the butter. Then, stir in the chocolate until thoroughly melted. If the chocolate is not thin enough, add a little more butter. Then, dip!

Place dipped fruit on parchment or another non-stick surface until it hardens. You can chill the dipped fruit, but it's not necessary. As soon as the chocolate hardens, serve.

These do not store well, so, make them the same day you plan to serve them for best presentation.

Note: you can dip pretty much any fruit in this sauce. Again, best served the day they're dipped. 
Someone enjoyed these A LOT!
Try this recipe. It's too easy not to!



Princess Cookies for My Little Princess

My fierce little princess Lulu is turning four tomorrow and while that definitely makes a mama want to cry (What??? No more baby? Noooooo!), it also makes me proud. She's such a good little bunny, very expressive and sure of herself. She likes to assess situations and then conquer them with humor and imagination, like her daddy. She's strong and knows the words to all her favorite songs, like her mama. She's our girl and we'd do anything for her. When she asked for a Frozen party for her birthday, we enthusiastically agreed. No matter that we're paying through the teeth for the Bippidi Boppidi Boutique at Disneyland tomorrow. Cost be damned! Let's order pizza for her class and make some treats!

Lulu and I set about making up our favorite sugar cookie dough after ordering these fabulous rice paper decals from It's Edible on Etsy. After a little baking and some vanilla buttercream (recipe below. Yes, there are better cookie icings, but this tastes amazing and works perfectly if you're okay with the homemade look) spreading, we went to town pasting down the decals and embellishing it all with sprinkles and blue dragees.

After allowing the cookies to set for about 3 hours, I simply dropped them into bags, put a Happy Birthday label on them and called them favors!

Gotta go. Jeremy and I are off to Lulu's school to meet the pizza guy and hopefully make this Frozen party come to life for the 30 minute lunch break. Wish us luck!

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting
Yields enough for one 8" layer cake or 30 3" cookies/cupcakes
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4-1/2 C powdered sugar
pinch of salt
2 t vanilla extract

Throw everything in the mixer and blend for at least 2 minutes or until there are absolutely no lumps and the frosting looks like whipped cream. That's it!

Spring Berry Trifle for a Clam Bake

Perhaps because my dad owned his own business, my parents entertained a lot. My mom would make elaborate meals with tantalizing desserts that would make her audience, my dad's future clients and contacts, swoon. One such sweet ending was the ever-fresh, creamy mess called trifle. The first time I put a spoonful of trifle in my mouth, I wasn't so sure what was happening. Sweet, tart, light, was that alcohol I tasted? and creamy, trifle was different from the cobblers, cakes and pies mom normally made. But, it was impressive. Gorgeous to look at and kind of a jumble of flavors and colors, it was both fancy and dressed-down all at once. When my husband Jeremy and I were invited to a clam bake at Chef Tom and his wife Dani's house last weekend, it seemed it could be the perfect ending to a fabulous meal. And, if I was trying to impress Chef Tom a wee bit, who can blame me?

I can't say I'm really certain what effort goes into steaming shellfish, potatoes and corn, but let me assure you I earned our keep with this dessert and my mama would have been proud. Like the Pavlova I made recently, this was an all-day affair as it requires a cake, fruit sauce, custard and whipped cream, plus assembly and presentation. The Type A in me was in heaven! My recipe is based on Tartine's Summer Fruit Trifle, although I had to modify each step due either to ingredients I'd forgotten to buy, taste preference or what is in season. One thing I loved about this book is all the notes the chefs have made and advice they give along the way. Those things make complicated recipes totally do-able. This one is not particularly complicated, but does have quite a few moving parts and is really incredibly rewarding once it's on the table, spoons digging in and smiles spreading across the faces of friends and those you love.

Spring Berry Trifle (based on Tartine's Summer Fruit Trifle)
(all recipes & photos below)
One 12x17 sheet of Genoise Cake
3 C vanilla bean pastry cream
2 C raspberry sauce
4 C fresh or frozen mixed berries
2-1/2 C freshly whipped cream

Serves 14-16

Genoise Cake
(photos below) 

1 C + 2 T flour
3/4 C sugar
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 C vegetable oil
3 large egg yolks
1/3 C + 1 T water
1 t vanilla
3/4 t grated lemon zest
5 large egg whites
1/4 t cream of tartar (or lemon juice)

Preheat the oven to 325. Line a 12x17 baking sheet with a sheet of parchment that's been cut to fit. Do not use oil or butter on the pan or parchment as the extra fat will affect your batter.

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, all but 3T of the sugar, the baking powder and the salt. In another bowl, whisk together the oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla and lemon zest until thoroughly combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and whisk the egg yolk mixture in as quickly as you can until well blended.

Place the egg whites into a large mixing bowl and beat until frothy. Add the cream of tartar (or lemon juice) and blend. With the mixer going, add the 3 tablespoons of sugar and beat until shiny, stiff peaks form. This can take up to 4 minutes.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold about one third of the egg whites into the cake batter until blended. Repeat with the next third and then the next, until all the egg whites are incorporated. Spread onto your baking sheet as evenly as possible. Genoise tends to come out the same way it goes in, so, if it's lumpy going in, that's what you can expect to see coming out.

Bake 30-45 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Set aside to cool while you make the sauces.

Making Genoise.
Spreading Genoise batter into the pan. Try to spread it as evenly as possible.
Ready to bake.

Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream
(photos below)

1 C lowfat milk
1 C heavy cream
1 T vanilla bean paste
1/4 t salt
3 T cornstarch
1/2 C sugar
4 egg yolks
4 T unsalted butter, cut into 4 chunks

Set a bowl and fine mesh sieve on the counter.

Stirring constantly, heat the milk, salt and vanilla bean paste over medium-high heat just until the milk begins to boil. Remove from heat immediately.

Whisk together the corn starch and sugar. Add in the yolks and whisk until smooth.

Slowly ladle one cup of the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture, whisking as you pour the milk in. This step is very important as you want to make sure to be mixing while adding the milk or else the eggs may cook and become icky. Whisk completely and then whisk the yolk mixture into the hot milk, stirring constantly until blended.

Continue whisking over medium heat until the custard thickens, 2-4 minutes depending upon your range. There may be a slow boil, but turn the heat down immediately if it gets any more vigorous. Gentle bubbles are ok.

Remove from the heat and run through the sieve. Then stir the chunks of butter in, one at a time, mixing completely before adding the next.

Place plastic wrap over top of the custard and set in the fridge until assembly of the trifle.

Raspberry Sauce
(photos below) 
3 C frozen raspberries, thawed
1/2 C sugar
2 T water

Throw everything into the blender and mix until smooth. Strain if you'd like to remove the seeds. Set aside until assembly of the trifle. 

Raspberry sauce, straining.
Freshly Whipped Cream with Grand Marnier
1-3/4 C heavy cream
1/4 C sugar
1 T Grand Marnier or other sweet liquer

Put all the ingredients into a bowl and mix until light, happy peaks form. 

Assemble the trifle (photos below).

Gather 16 mason jars, your cake and sauces and set up an assembly line. Cut the cake into 2" circles and start assembling in this order:
  1. Cake
  2. 3 T Raspberry Sauce
  3. 2-3 T Berries
  4. 3 T pastry cream
  5. 3 T whipped cream
Make 2 layers per jar, ending with the cream. If transporting, place the tops on the jars. If not, put the jars into the fridge and chill at least 3 hours or overnight before serving. These are all-in-one, ready to eat. Enjoy!

Ready to assemble!


I know, I know, I've probably lost most of you by now. For those who hung in to the end, you are true blue. Thank you!



New York Crrrrumb Cake!

Waaaayyy back in 1994 when I lived in New York, I'd often find myself trolling my local deli for a snack around 4:00am after tending bar at a smart little post-collegiate watering hole called Gentleman Jack's on the Upper West Side. Every once in a while there might be a fresh batch of crumb cake, cut into rather large 4-inch squares and individually wrapped in plastic poised by the register, awaiting my greedy little fingers. Naturally, a behemoth piece of cake seems like a totally reasonable idea at 4am. I'd grab my cake, make a cup of hot black tea with milk and sit in my futon bed watching Holly Golightly sing Moon River and melodically tell her new friend there was "no ribbon in it" when he claimed he wrote at his typewriter all day. By about 5:30am, belly full of cinnamon crumbs and buttery cake, I'd find nirvana and pass out.

Perhaps it exists, but I have yet to find a crumb cake that good on the west coast, so, when I found myself craving it recently, I naturally looked to my favorite east coast bakers. Now, before you get all "She just can't get enough of that Ina Garten" on me, please be advised that I did look through my trove of cookbooks to seek out the best recipe and Ms. Garten just happened to have it! She makes hers with blueberries, but I took those out (along with lemon zest) because I wanted a pure, New York Crumb Cake and that's just what I got.

Let me also say that for all the ingredients and instructions, this was a really simple cake that very much pleased the crowd. If you have a brunch coming up I highly recommend baking this one up, putting on your favorite shade of lipstick or bow tie and showing up ready to be hugged and complimented all morning long.

New York Crumb Cake (based on Ina Garten's Blueberry Crumb Cake)
For the Crumb Topping
1/4 C sugar
1/3 C brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1/8 t nutmeg
1 stick butter, melted
1-1/3 C flour

For the Cake
3/4 stick butter, at room temp
3/4 C sugar
2 extra-large eggs, at room temp
1 t vanilla
2/3 C sour cream
1-1/4 C flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
3/4 t kosher salt

Serves 8-10. 

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and flour a 9" round or square pan. Set aside.

Make the crumb topping. Whisk together the sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl.  Stir in the melted butter. Then, stir in the flour and mix well. Set aside.

Make the cake. Gently whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar 4-5 minutes, until very light and fluffy (this will serve you well later). Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time. Then, add the vanilla and sour cream and blend well. With the mixer still on low, slowly pour the dry ingredients into the bowl and mix just until blended.

Spoon the batter into your prepared pan and even it out with a spatula. Crumble the crumb topping over the batter, covering as much of the surface area as you can.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool, cut and serve.