baking

The Great Pumpkin (Season)

TDay. Turkeytime. It’s the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. The magical season of the pumpkin, of course. Luckily, I think there are some holidays surrounding this time of year, too – perfect for celebrating pumpkins! You can have your sweet potatoes and apples and peppermint – nothing to me signifies that earthy, warm quality of autumn as the sweet, rustic pumpkin. I have a few pumpkin treats lined up, but for today its a classic with a great twist – perfect for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Wednesdays.

For Thanksgiving this year I was lucky and thrilled to spend the day with friends, telling ridiculous stories and eating way too much on a Thursday night. Everyone brought their own flavor to the table, from a fabulous sweet-savory cornbread stuffing, to Hawaiian cranberry relish punched up with pineapple. I wanted to bring a dessert that was comforting but not expected, decadent but not heavy,  cool but not bland. For the first time in years, I made a cheesecake.

This pumpkin cheesecake starts with a delicious twist, a dark and buttery gingersnap crust. I found that the crystallized ginger didn’t add much and you can certainly do without it, but don’t skimp with cheap-o gingersnaps – get crisp cookies rich in gingery spiciness and it will play beautifully off the pumpkin. The resulting dessert is smooth and spiced as you would expect from a good pumpkin pie, but creamy and tangy as only cheesecake can be. You can do without the marshmallow/sour cream topping if you like, unless like me you have a giant crack in your cheesecake the size of the Grand Canyon – in which case it makes a perfect blanket to cover up mistakes! I liked the topping which was cool and tangy, but certainly didn’t taste too marshmallowy. And don’t panic (as I did) when the melted marshmallow separates, the sour cream will stabilize it right up.

I did make some alterations to the recipe as suggested by others and would definitely recommend them:

– use a larger (10 inch) springform pan

– decrease the cream cheese to three 8oz packages

– decrease the sugar to 1 and 1/2 cups

– increase the pumpkin by 8oz

– increase the spice by 50% (or add one teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice blend)

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baking

IOU RVC

She’s back, and she’s claiming her cupcakes.  So said the message I received not too long ago from Tanima, and I was excited and anxious. Excited to see her, and anxious that the cupcakes I owed her better turn out well after the wait. I met Tanima two years ago at my first Christmas on the west coast, and found out quickly that she is glamorous, funny, and a wicked good cook. She was visiting Monisha from back East, and her visit and my new arrival made it a great opportunity to have fun around the area – including a weekend ski trip to Tahoe. Now, mind you, I can not ski. So, after a day of butt-hurting falls down the bunny slope I wanted to commune with nature’s cold wet blanket no more.  So one afternoon I stayed in our cozy cabin, pumped up the jams way too loud (“Humpty Dance” NEEDS to blasted to be appreciated properly) and relaxed by baking up a batch of coconut cupcakes. These cupcakes are awesomely scrumptious, and they look like sparkling snowflakes so I always associate them with winter.  When they returned, the group nibbled on them and then some more and then we were having a full-fledged cupcake party and were littered by little paper wrappers everywhere. Before she departed, Tanima promised to return for another west coast extravaganza, and that upon her return I was to make special delicious cupcakes to mark the occasion. We decided on red velvet cupcakes, because that seems pretty special and definitely delicious.  These are those cupcakes.

baking

cookies take the cake

The postings have been slim because the eating’s been slim recently, unless photos of Greek yogurt and protein bars day after day after day intrigue you.   Then a breakthrough moment, when having lost a harmless bet to B meant I owed him something delicious, fresh-baked and definitely not part of the boring routine.  Knowing that B is quite the carrot cake aficionado, I remembered that I had this great bon appétit recipe forwarded to me by Anna for carrot cake cookies.  How brilliant is that? Bite-sized cookies with the crisp-chew of oatmeal cookies, but with the golden sweetness of carrot cake.  I looked the recipe over and it is really simple, and carrots are totally healthy right? I wouldn’t even feel guilty if I succumbed to temptation and tried one or two…or more.  The only tweak I made was using a basic cream cheese buttercream rather than the recipe’s frosting, which has lemon juice and cream. I didn’t want to worry about the frosting making the cookies soggy or spoiling, and a whipping together a stick of butter, a cup of powdered sugar, an 8 ounce package of cream cheese and a teaspoon of vanilla is super easy.  After the cookies were made and stacked up in little orange piles all over my kitchen, I couldn’t imaging storing them would be easy with frosting just the domed tops.  So, I decided to  stick ’em together and made sandwich cookies for easy packaging to deliver to my debtor.  The funnest part was sorting through the cookies and matching up cookie bottoms to make sandwiches. As in life, no matter what size or bizarre shape they turned out to be, each cookie had a perfect mirror image to fit them.

baking

fruit fireworks

Look no further for an awesomely bright summer dessert for 4th of July or just your next weekend barbecue.  For a recent Very Important birthday party for beloved and brilliant Barney, I was invited to bring a dessert to accompany the birthday cake. I needed something light and fresh, fruity and summery, elegant and sophisticated, and the complete opposite of cake.  This nectarine and mascarpone tart, resplendent with its gingersnap crust, and studded with crystallized ginger, was a perfect find.

I increased the crust size for a 10 inch tart pan, but used the same amount of filling as the recipe.  I used just about an entire tub of Trader Joe’s triple ginger cookies (fresh, ground and crystallized ginger) for the super easy crust, which is like a crumbly crisp buttery gingersnap.  The filling itself is a creamy, tangy dairy wonderland with cream cheese, mascarpone, and sour cream.  The lemon zest is a must to brighten up the flavor and it ties in nicely with the stonefruit’s tartness.  Don’t skip the ginger bits in the filling or on top, they add a slight bite to make the flavor more complex and complements the sweetness nicely.  A tip: buy the crystallized ginger at Whole Foods or a food coop at the bulk section – so you can get a few tablespoons at a time (I don’t know how much crystallized ginger you use in life, but a few tablespoons will last me a few years).

The nectarines absolutely must be at the peak of ripeness, sweet and juicy without being tasteless and flat or mushy.  I even bought peaches as an alternative just in case.  For me, removing the nectarine pit was the hardest part of this recipe! For a more rustic tart, you could omit the glaze, but I did add the peach jam glaze which not only improved the presentation, but also helped the crystallized ginger stick to the fruit.  I added a few blueberries for a nice contrast in flavor and color.

I would definitely recommend adding the fruit just before serving / presenting if possible so that the juices don’t make the tart soggy.  I made the crust and filling (no-cook!) the day before and added the fruit the day of serving.  This tart sat out a few hours before serving, because let’s face it was pretty to look at and I was rather proud that it didn’t collapse in the car ride over – I held my breath the entire time. However, I think it would have tasted even better 30 minutes out of the fridge rather than at room temperature as the filling, although not runny, was too soft for my taste.  Even so, I would make this again in a heartbeat whenever stonefruit are in season and a Very Important occasion dictates a spectacular sweet celebration.

baking

bleeding mauve velvet

I love layer cakes, but rarely have occasion to make them. Transporting and devouring three entire cakes requires a proper setting with a cast of accomplices.  Hence, the plethora of cupcake posts on this blog (portable cake! individual servings!) So when B asked me to consider contributing a dessert for a family Christmas dinner with Anna and Pat, I was excited to make a glorious layer cake.  A few things, though: it had to be festive so chocolate/vanilla boringness would not do. Also, I had not made a layer cake in years, so I needed a recipe that was fool-proof for a potential spaz like me. I could see a future with a gentle suggestion to bring something store-bought next time. Lastly, it had to be universally appealing, or rather – nothing too weird.

With this in mind, I have learned: in Paula we trust. I don’t know much about Paula Deen. However, I am aware of her position as the premier Southern food belle in popular American cookery.  So, when I had decided that the perfect festive, straightforward, not-too-weird Christmas cake would be red velvet, I researched and researched recipes, and came up with Paula Paula Paula. I have made red velvet cupcakes before, and this recipe was closest to what I knew from them: red velvet is a cocoa-based cake but not chocolatey, the buttermilk tang is distinctive in its flavor, and although cream-cheese frosting is not traditional, I personally think it tastes best paired with the cake.

The recipe wasn’t difficult but I was initially worried with the results. I used no-taste red gel food coloring because the thought of an entire bottle of food coloring to produce the deep red color makes me gag. The gel is more potent, so you use less of it, and it doesn’t taste (as) chemically. I doubled the cocoa to get a deeper, richer flavor, which in turn made the batter more brown and the end result was mauve. Mauve velvet cake. After I baked two 9″ cakes, the layers were disappointingly thin, maybe less than 1.5 inches tall each. I was hoping for a tall towering cake, so I baked an extra layer – which was a completely different color mauve than the first two. Ah, bi-colored cake. That’s festive, right?

I froze the cake layers, then thawed and assembled them at Anna’s. Once unwrapped of plastic wrap and foil, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the cakes remained moist, REALLY densely moist.  In fact, it was messy to try to even the layers because of the stickiness of the cake tops, so my stacking of the layers was a bit lurchingly lopsided. It’s nothing that copious amounts of icing can’t fix! The icing was easy to whip up if you substitute a jar of marshmallow fluff for the melted ‘mallows. The result was easy to spread and the sweet marshmallow mellows the cream cheese nicely. The final cake was bi-colored, dense, mauve, not too chocolatey, sufficiently rich, moist, and I think, delicious.

baking

10 carrot gold

Oh, autumn. Glorious harvest time with hearty autumnal aromas – sweet chestnuts, mulled ciders, baked apples. Fall always reminds me of baking with robust flavors – sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins.  Hmm, there’s a weirdly vegetable-y trend there.  My favorite vegetable-y baked sweetness is a nutty spiced carrot cake, but somehow I associate carrots with spring baking rather then the autumn harvest – even though they’re grown year-round. (Easter bunny, maybe?)  This great recipe from picky cook (+ bonus heartwarming love story, gratis!) makes fantastic carrot cupcakes that feel more like autumn than spring – they’re light and moist, but delicately spiced and feel hearty with an abundance of nuttiness.  B is a big fan of these, and he’s somewhat of a carrot cake connoisseur so I hold his opinion on this subject in great esteem. I substituted chopped pecans for the walnuts because I prefer their sweetness and although I don’t approve of it, I suppose you could add raisins, too. (I am anti-raisin in most things except oatmeal cookies and Raisin Bran.) I especially adore the lightness and subtle sweetness from the mascarpone frosting – it cuts the sourness from a straightlaced cream-cheese frosting without mitigating the creamy tang that offsets carrot cake so well.  I think I’d rather use this mascarpone/cream cheese mashup for all of my cream cheese frosting needs, actually. The cupcakes, grainy and wholesome, are delicious on their own as well.