The Birthday Menu

by Caroline

The one day a year I am very happy to take orders from my kids is on their birthdays, when they know they can order up a day of special meals, culminating in whatever birthday cake they like.

Ben’s birthday today falls on a school day, so I have no say over his lunch, but I’m mixing up waffle batter for breakfast. Then for dinner at home, the boy has requested homemade sushi and a lemon layer cake for dessert.

The layer cake is one I haven’t made since a friend’s baby shower four years ago, but it’s a classic 1-2-3-4 cake that’s a good one to have in the repertoire. I’m using the Martha Stewart recipe for a lemon version, with The Joy of Cooking’s lemon curd filling (because it uses whole eggs rather than the just-yolks version Martha suggests) and a lemon cream cheese frosting. And then, because my boy loves candied citrus peel, I’ve made candied lemon peel to decorate the top. Ben, claiming birthday boy prerogative, is not assisting with the baking (even I don’t bake my own birthday cake), but his younger brother volunteered as an enthusiastic sous chef, and wound up pretty much handling the project on his own. He just needed me to read the recipe:

I don’t think I’ll leave the baking entirely to him anytime soon; after all, it feels like a privilege to bake something delicious for my favorite nine-year-old.

Sugar on Snow, Literally

by Caroline

I am a big fan of letting the kids experiment in the kitchen to discover what tastes good to them. Ben, for example, went through a period of snacking on sun-dried tomatoes and graham crackers — a snack I never would have thought to offer the child but kept him happy for countless afternoons. At home, my boys have a pretty well-stocked pantry to explore, with a nice variety of nuts and dried fruit, as well as a good supply of fresh fruit, yogurt, and other snacking ingredients, and it’s always interesting for me to see what they come up with.

When we are traveling, though, our supplies are necessarily more limited. So it was the other afternoon in Lake Tahoe, where we spent some of the boys’ winter break. Eli was snacky and also, after a full morning in a ski lesson, a little tired. He needed something mellow and fun to do as much as he needed something to eat. So, I looked out on the balcony at the quickly-accumulating snow and asked him if he wanted to eat some of that. “Really, Mama? I can eat the snow?” “Sure,” I reminded him; “We can make sugar on snow like we do at Granddad’s, we just don’t have syrup.”

So, I thought about Lisa’s Hawaiian shave ice treats and we improvised with the ingredients at hand.

First, snow sprinkled with cocoa mix:

Surprisingly, not a huge hit.

Then we tried snow with raspberry jam heated into a syrup:

I liked it, but Eli didn’t.

Finally, the winner: snow drizzled with honey!

It’s not, of course, the most power-packed nutritional snack; ultimately the activity was more important here than the appetite. It was fun and easy and the boy was in charge: a winner in my book.

Birthday Cake

by Caroline

Five years ago today, in honor of her milestone birthday, I organized a virtual birthday celebration for my sister by having her many friends post birthday cake pictures on their blogs.

This year, with fewer of us blogging and more of us on Facebook, her friend Becca and I organized a somewhat different celebration of the day. But here I am, still blogging, and still with cake-baking energy, so in her honor I want to post the recipe for the first cake we ever baked together. It’s known by many names — Crazy Cake, Cockeyed Cake, 6-Minute Cake — but no matter what you call it, it’s always delicious. I usually make it now with revisions Libby first suggested to me — adding espresso powder and chocolate chips; using raspberry vinegar for the white vinegar — but whether you use those variations or not, the result is always surprisingly chocolate-y and rich. It happens also to be vegan, which is often convenient these days.

So for Libby on her birthday:

1 1/2 c white flour
1/3 c unsweetened cocoa
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp espresso powder (optional but good)
1/2 tsp salt

1 c water or coffee
1/2 c vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp vinegar (any old vinegar will do, but red wine or raspberry is particularly nice)

1/2 c semisweet chocolate chips (optional, but what’s not better with some chocolate chips?)

Preheat the oven to 375.

Combine the dry ingredients in an ungreased 8″ square or 9″ round baking pan. In a 2-cup measure, combine the water, oil and vanilla. Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking pan and mix the batter with a fork until smooth (make sure to get into the corners so that you don’t get dry floury bites in the finished cake!). Now add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter from the baking soda and vinegar reacting. Stir just until the vinegar is evenly distributed. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top.

Alternatively, line a cupcake pan with liners, mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then carry on with the directions as above.

Bake a single cake for 25 minutes, bake cupcakes for 15, cool briefly on a rack, and enjoy.

Valentine’s Hearts

by Caroline

In years past, I have made heart-shaped chocolate sandwich cookies, I have made heart-shaped brownie ice cream sandwiches, and even homemade Ring Dings (or Ding Dongs, depending on whether your family bought Hostess or Drake’s Cakes). Last year, apparently not so much in the mood for sweets, I made a bright pink beet pasta for Valentine’s Day. This year, with a kid at home — not quite sick but not quite well– taking a midwinter personal day off from school, I wanted to make a Valentine’s treat that involved him. I had a vague recollection of a stained glass cookie, and Ben’s the one who found the recipe in his Spatulatta cookbook. And because we already had a supply of pomegranate-tangerine lollipops (long story) available for crushing, we didn’t even need to go to the store!

12 T (one and a half sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
2 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
clear red hard candies, like Life Savers, crushed

First, enlist a willing young helper to crush the candies. Stick them in a big ziploc bag and use a rolling pin or a can of beans for pounding:

He is *definitely* going to school on Friday

They're rather pretty when smashed, aren't they?

Next, beat together the butter and sugar until pale, add the eggs one at a time, and then mix in the vanilla. Now add the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until well blended. Form two discs of dough, wrap well and refrigerate for about an hour.

Toward the end of the hour, preheat the oven to 375. Line two cookie sheets with parchment.

Sprinkle a work surface with a bit of flour and, working with one disc of dough at a time, roll out to 1/8″ thick. Cut out large hearts and put them on a cookie sheet, then cut out small hearts from the middle of each large heart. If you are lucky, you’ll have another willing helper to do this part for you:

Fill the heart-shaped hole with crushed candies:

Sprinkle the small hearts with colored sugars, or simply bake them with the large hearts and frost them (or not) after they have baked and cooled.
Bake the cookies 7-9 minutes, until lightly browned.

Let the cookies cool completely on the cookie sheet before removing them to a rack, or else when you lift the cookies, your candy hearts will remain behind!

sweets for my sweets

Triple Citrus Cream Cheese & Poppy Seed Coffeecake

by Caroline

Before my mom went back to work full-time, when I was in elementary school, she cooked dinner every night and baked bread every Saturday. She made birthday cakes for all four of us kids and thousands (I’m not exaggerating) cookies at Christmas. But the one thing I don’t recall her making on any regular basis, if at all, was coffeecake. We bought Entenmann’s. Most New Yorkers I know will sigh with happiness when they think of Entemann’s, the grocery store coffeecake in the windowed box. There were strudels and crumb-topped cakes, but my favorite was the cheese-filled danish.

I don’t make coffecake very often myself — pancakes and waffles are much more common — but for New Year’s Day and other brunch parties, this is the one I make, which is like a fresh update of those classic Entenmann’s cheese coffeecakes of my childhood. I found the recipe first in a Martha Stewart Living and noticed it also on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks blog, so those are great bona fides if you don’t quite trust me: this is a delicious, moist, and easy to make ahead treat.

Note: you can leave out all the citrus zests, or just use one (orange or lemon) if you don’t have all 3. Zests keep well in the freezer (I have little waxed paper bags to store each kind) so you can always have a supply on hand.

For the dough:
½ c warm water
2 T active dry yeast (2 envelopes)
1 t sugar

½ c butter, melted and cooled (plus some more to grease the bowl)
2/3 c sugar
1 c orange juice
2 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 orange
1 t salt
5-6 c flour

For the filling:
1 pound cream cheese (room temperature)
1 c confectioner’s sugar
2 egg yolks
2 t vanilla
1 c dried cranberries, dried blueberries, dried currants (or a mix)
2/3 c poppy seeds

For the egg wash:
1 lightly beaten egg

Stir together the water, yeast and 1 t sugar in a large bowl until yeast dissolves. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Now whisk in juice, eggs, remaining 2/3 c sugar, melted butter, zests and salt. Stir in flour, 1 cup at a time, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and forms a ball.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until just slightly sticky, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a buttered bowl and turn so that the dough is lightly coated with butter. Loosely cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, either at room temperature (about 1 ½ hours) or in the refrigerator overnight.

Meanwhile, stir together cream cheese, egg yolks, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add poppy seeds and dried berries. Set aside (at room temp or in the fridge, wherever your dough is).

When you’re ready to shape and bake the coffee cakes, butter 2 baking sheets and set aside. If you’ve refrigerated the dough, let it come to room temperature before proceeding (usually an hour or so, depending on your fridge and kitchen!)

Punch down dough and divide in half. Roll out one half into an 11 x 15” rectangle. Spread half the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a 1” border. Beginning at one long side, tightly roll dough into a log, encasing the filling. Carefully transfer log to baking sheet, seam side down. With a sharp knife, make cuts about 2” apart along one long side of the log, cutting just three-quarters of the way across, like this:

Lift the first segment, turn it cut side up, and lay it flat on the baking sheet. Repeat with the next segment, twisting it so it sits on the opposite side of the roll. In my picture, the dough wasn’t quite laying flat, but you get the idea:

Continue down the log, alternating sides.

Roll out, fill and cut remaining dough.

Preheat oven to 350. Loosely cover dough and let rise until almost doubled in bulk, about 30 minutes. Brush dough with egg wash, avoiding the filling. Bake until cooked through and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Carefully slide coffee cakes onto wire racks, and let cool completely before slicing.