Last night was the faculty Christmakwaanzukkah/end-of-the-semester party at the local Elks' Club. In a town of limited party spaces, the Elks have about the best location in a lovely old Victorian home near the lake. But the food there is sometimes mediocre at best. So I joined the planning committee this year, and our goal was to step the menu up a notch or two and make a few more elegant choices. And I think we were fairly successful. For examples, instead of pizza rolls and Buffalo wings and crackers and cheese, we ordered Swedish meatballs, crab-stuffed mushrooms, bruschetta, a huge, gorgeous antipasto salad (with mozzarella, shaved parmesan, ham, salami, prosciutto, olives, and so on, all dressed with vinaigrette and mounded up on baby greens), and of course, the ubiquitous veggie tray. Then for entrees, we chose a vegetarian pasta primavera, Seafood Newberg with saffron rice, roast pork with some sort of Jack Daniels sauce (some liquor or another--I forget which--but it was tasty!), scalloped potatoes, prime rib, and green beans almondine. For banquet food, I must admit that it was all quite good, and certainly an improvement over previous years.
The other big change we made was in our dessert choices. Every year, we pay three or four dollars extra a head for a teeny dish of the same institutional crisp (apple or berry). So back in September, in a moment of lunacy, my friend, Janice, and I decided to make all of the desserts for the affair ourselves. It seemed reasonable at the time. We each would only have to make three or four cakes of our choosing. Of course, we didn't really think through the logistics of having to bake four cakes during the crunch of finals at the very end of the semester! Actually, it was five cakes for me last week, including the roomie's birthday cake! Yegads! I did try to undertake my tasks systematically by baking and freezing the layers ahead of time, and then glazing and frosting and decorating bit by bit over a week's time. Still, it was quite a project! I would never be able to handle a cake business, I know that. But it was very rewarding, because we produced wonderful desserts for about half the price, and it was fun to see all of the party guests wander by and admire the dessert buffet all evening. Janice made (back row) a carrot cake, some sort of Italian ricotta cheesecake, German chocolate cake, and a walnut tart (middle row, right). Then I made (middle row left) lemon-glazed gingerbread in my new Holiday Trees Nordicware pan that my sweet friend, Lee Ann, gave me for my birthday back in October. I also made (front row from left) a chocolate peppermint cake with dark chocolate layers, a mint truffle filling and candy cane frosting, a tangerine-glazed cranberry creamsicle pound cake castle (using another fabulous Nordicware pan that Lee Ann gave me!), and a white layer cake with raspberry almond filling. Whew! The recipes are as follows:
Cranberry Creamsicle Pound Cake
2 sticks butter, softened
1/3 cup shortening (I use butter-flavored Crisco)
5 large whole eggs
3 cups sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3 cups all-purpose white flour (measure on the 3rd and last sift)
zest of 2 oranges, very finely grated (preferably, with a Microplane/wood rasp)
1 cup whole milk (If you want to live dangerously—and I always do—half and half makes it melt in your mouth!)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 teaspoon fiori de sicilia (an extract with citrus and vanilla flavors--you can order some from King Arthur Flour), optional
2 cups fresh cranberries, halved
Preheat oven to 325. Spray or grease bundt pan and lightly flour entire surface. (Or the Pam with flour for baking makes it even easier!) Cream butter and shortening together at slow mixer speed. Add sugar and eggs, one at a time, alternating with the sugar. Begin and end with sugar. Scrape bowl often. When all added, set mixer on high speed for exactly four minutes. Sift flour three times, adding baking powder and salt on last sift, then measure three cups. Whisk the orange zest into the flour mixture and set aside. Add the vanilla and the fiori di sicilia to the milk and stir. Add the milk and the flour mixtures to the bowl, alternating ingredients, beginning and ending with flour. Spoon batter gently into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.
The cake will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes to cook depending on your altitude, humidity and oven calibration. Test by inserting a knife or tester. It's done when it comes out a little oily but no batter. Cool on rack precisely 10 minutes and turn immediately out on a plate. Let it cool a bit, and then glaze with the recipe below.
3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed tangerine juice
1 tablespoon butter
splash of vanilla, optional
*You could also add the zest of two tangerines to this, but I wanted a very smooth finish on this molded cake, so I didn't this time.
Whisk the powdered sugar and tangerine juice together until smooth. Add the butter and microwave on high for 30 seconds to one minute (until butter is melted). Add a splash of vanilla, and whisk again until smooth. Coat pound cake with every last bit of the glaze (using a pastry brush is very helpful here), then let cool until set before serving.
(Source: Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking)
The following recipe makes one nine-inch cake:
1. Cream one stick (1/4 pound) of sweet (unsalted) butter with 1/2 cup of light or dark brown sugar. Beat until fluffy and add 1/2 cup of molasses.
2. Beat in two eggs.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and one very generous tablespoon of ground ginger (more or less, according to taste, but this makes it very gingery). Add one teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves and 1/4 teaspoon of ground allspice.
4. Add two teaspoons of lemon brandy. If you don’t have any, use vanilla extract. (Lemon extract will not do.) Then add 1/2 cup of buttermilk (or milk with a little yogurt beaten into it) and turn batter into a buttered tin.
5. Bake at 350 degrees F. for between twenty and thirty minutes (check after twenty minutes have passed). Test with a cake tester, and cool on a rack. This is great with a lemon frosting or glaze.
3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
zest of 2 lemons, very finely grated
1 tablespoon butter
splash of vanilla, optional
Whisk the powdered sugar and lemon together until smooth. Add the lemon zest and butter and microwave on high for 30 seconds to one minute (until butter is melted). Add a splash of vanilla, and whisk again until smooth. Coat pound cake with every last bit of the glaze (using a pastry brush is very helpful here), then let cool until set before serving.
Vanilla Bean Layer Cake with Raspberry-Almond Filling
Dear friends, I confess that this was a bit of a cheater cake, as I started with a boxed mix. I used a classic white cake but added a scraped vanilla bean to the batter before baking. I made two eight-inch rounds, and split those in half to make four layers. To fill and frost the cake, I adapted a recipe from Cook's Illustrated:
24 tablespoons unsalted butter (3 sticks), softened but still cool
6 cups confectioners'sugar (1 1/2 pounds)
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons whole milk
1 1/2 cups blanched slivered almonds (7 1/2 ounces), toasted and chopped coarsely
1 cup raspberry jam (preferably, seedless)
Beat butter, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, milk, and salt in bowl of electric mixer at slow speed until sugar is moistened. Increase speed to medium-high (high if using handheld mixer); beat, stopping twice to scrape down bowl, until creamy and fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. Avoid overbeating, or frosting will be too soft to pipe.
For the Filling: Combine 1 1/2 cups of the prepared frosting with the almonds in small bowl and then spread 1/3 of the mixture over first layer. Carefully spread 1/3 cup of jam on top (but don't go all the way to the edge or it will ooze over the sides!), then cover with second cake layer, and so on. Spread frosting over top and sides of assembled cake. Pipe any remaining frosting around the perimeter of the cake at the base and the top. Add fresh raspberries and sliced almonds to decorate.
Chocolate Peppermint Cake
Again, I began this cake with a boxed mix--dark chocolate fudge--baking three nine-inch layers. Then I filled them with two layers of mint ganache.
Makes 3 cups
While the ganache is cooling, you'll need to stir it as instructed; otherwise, the ganache around the edge of the bowl will harden and the center will remain liquid. The finished ganache should have a consistent texture.
12 ounces Nestlé semisweet chocolate morsels
2 cups whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1. Place chocolate morsels and cream in a heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until combined and thickened, between 20 and 25 minutes. Increase the heat to medium low; cook, stirring, 3 minutes more. Remove pan from heat.
2. Stir in corn syrup and peppermint extract. Transfer frosting to a large metal bowl. Chill until cool enough to spread, about 2 hours, checking and stirring every 15 to 20 minutes. Use immediately.
After filling the cake layers with the chocolate mint ganache, I frosted the sides and top of the cake with cream cheese frosting--the one from Cyd's birthday cake in the last post--but I replaced the buttered pecans with eight candy canes that I pulverized in the food processor. Then I decorated the top of the cake with two more candy canes that I busted up into small pieces, two whole candy canes, and some colorful sparkling sugar. And since I had some ganache leftover, too, I formed some truffle balls and rolled them in cocoa powder and put some around the cake and a few on top.