Jul 27, 2009

Apple-Cinnamon Crumb Coffee Cake

I brought this coffee cake with me to a neighborhood July 4th brunch, so it was actually the first cake of two cakes I ate at different July 4 festivities, but I actually made the tiramisu on July 3, so I blogged about it first.
What is not to like about a sour cream-apple coffee cake? It's an old standard for a good reason--everyone loves it. And it's easy enough to make that you can sleep in, read the paper and have a cup of coffee, mix it up and bake it, and let it cool--all in time to take it to a brunch.

This may be the closest I've come to so far to a cake that you could decide to make with ingredients you have at hand. It uses just one Granny Smith apple, so you can make it all year long, and if you've got walnuts and sour cream, you're all set.
The cinnamon crumb topping is actually both the topping and the filling--
one-half cup of walnuts, brown and white sugar, and cinnamon are reserved for the filling.

The flour and butter are added to the rest of the walnut-sugar mixture and this mixture is set aside, refrigerated, for the topping.
Layer some of the lovely, thick, sour cream batter in the bottom of a cake pan.

Sprinkle with the reserved filling and place a layer of apples on top of the filling.

Then top with the rest of the batter.

When I put it in the oven, Jim said, "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Aha!" I said. "I am forgetting nothing!"
He thought that I had forgotten the topping, which was chilling in the refrigerator, but the clever twist on this coffee cake is that it's baked until it's about half done and THEN the topping is added. This way, the topping doesn't sink into the coffee cake and it also doesn't get too brown. And Jim will never know whether I actually forgot or not.
After 30 minutes, the cake is maybe 2/3 done.

You're supposed to form some of the crumb topping into tiny circular blobs, but I got bored with trying to form blobs of 1/4-inch diameter, so most of the topping has no man-made crumbles. I don't think was the wiser.

Can you count the number of crumbles that I laboriously pre-formed? I thought not.
I didn't check this recipe against the sour cream coffee cake in The Cake Bible, but it's certainly similar, except for the part about baking it for a while before adding the crumble. When I made The Cake Bible coffee cake, however, the bottom got too brown. This one turned out perfect. There are also variations - peach-cinnamon and blueberry-cinnamon, and it would be hard to go wrong with either of these.
But no more coffee cake for me--I have many, many cakes left to bake, and I can't afford to look back.

Jul 20, 2009


After making mistakes in my last two cakes, I decided to change my attitude from a teeth-clenched "must be more careful" to a blithe zen-ness: "If you try to aim for it, you are turning away from it."
So I read the directions twice, assembled the ingredients, and tried not to aim for perfection. The result? A perfect tiramisu.

I made a delicious tiramisu once before, many years ago, but I lost the recipe and have never found one that sounded as good as the lost one--until I read the recipe in Heavenly Cakes. Its flavors are pure and uncomplicated, and each bite is a marvel.
You start by making a batter with egg yolks, sugar, and sweet marsala.

You whisk this mixture over simmering water, whisking away for five or ten minutes. The old obsessive Marie would have fretted about scrambling the eggs. The new carefree Marie just stayed in the moment and enjoyed the whisking.

Into the custard go two cups of mascarpone and a cup of whipped cream.

I got the mascarpone at Broder's Cucina Italiana. Two cups cost about $20, so it's not a purchase you'd want to make every day, or every week, but I've tasted the mascarpone you can buy at a supermarket, and if you're making tiramisu, the quality of which largely rests on the creaminess and subtle sweetness of the mascarpone, it's worth the extravagance. (Well, that's how I justified it anyway).
Meanwhile, Jim was making two cups of espresso. I could have used instant espresso powder, but I was glad when he volunteered to make real espresso for me. I could also have gone to the local coffee shop and ordered a whole bunch of espresso, but that would probably have cost more than the mascarpone.

Rose has a recipe for ladyfingers in this cookbook, and I suppose I'll make them eventually, but for this recipe, since they were going to be soaked in espresso syrup, I bought them. "Soaked" isn't really the right word--they have to pick up the espresso flavor but keep their shape. No more than one second per side!

You can see that the first one was soaked a little too long and started to disintegrate, but the second one is just right.

After the first layer of espresso-imbued ladyfingers, half the custard mixture goes on top; then another row of ladyfingers and the rest of the custard. The custard is a little runny, but it firms up nicely overnight. In fact, you can make this recipe up to three days ahead, so it's a perfect idea for entertaining. All it takes is a sprinkle of cocoa when you're ready to serve it.

I brought this fabulous dessert to a July 4 cookout potluck. The other desserts were more midwestern in nature--to be precise, they were "bars," the quintessential prairie end-of-the-meal. We had Almond Joy bars (chocolate and coconut) and key lime bars. They were both good, but very sweet. The tiramisu was not sweet, but very rich. Two women asked me for the recipe. I hesitated, trying to think if I could remember the specifics, and then one of them asked me if it was hard. "I only do easy," she said. "No, not really. First you beat eight egg yolks over a pan of simmering water...." "You mean, like a double boiler?" she asked. "Pretty much," I said. "Oh, no, I said I do easy. That means I don't do double boilers." Please don't let a fear of double boilers keep you away from this recipe. It's every bit as good--probably better--than the tiramisu of yore that I could never re-create. In fact, if someone from Venice person dropped by, I wouldn't hesitate to make this tiramisu for them. They'd probably say, "I wish I could get this at home."

Jul 13, 2009

Banana Refrigerator Cake with Dreamy Creamy White Chocolate Frosting

This cake turned out just fine, and was the hit of our neighborhood Friday Happy Hour, which we do every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But allow me a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself first. It seems impossible for me to make a cake without making a few stupid mistakes. So far, the cakes have been excellent, even with the mistakes--but I want a PERFECT cake, not just a good one.
I decided on this cake because I had a supply of overripe bananas.

As a somewhat crotchety aside, I don't understand why fruit has to have cute labels on it, as if the fruit is talking to you--almost stalking you, really. This banana is supposedly saying, "Psst! I'm full of vitamins." I don't like to pretend that fruit has speaking capabilities and, at the same time, is begging me to eat it.

This banana cake is in the "quick and easy" list, and this is a legitimate placement. I won't say that you can just whip it up with items that you always have on hand, unless you always have creme fraiche, turbinado sugar, white chocolate containing cocoa butter, and cream cheese on hand, but you don't have to special order anything either.
You mash the bananas.

Then process them with creme fraiche, eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla.

Then transfer it to a mixing bowl, and add the sugar. Easy enough, but here comes my first mistake. "Gradually add the [canola or safflower oil]...."

I emptied my bottle of canola oil and still needed a bit more neutral-flavored oil. I pulled out my jar of vegetable oil and added enough to get to the required 108 grams. When I pult the bottle down, I realized I had instead used olive oil. Now, I realize that on a scale of global catastrophes, this is not even on the chart. But still.... And then I yelled at poor Jim, who was innocently standing by with his camera. "Did you know I was using olive oil?" I demanded. "Well, uh, sure," he said, "the bottle says olive oil. I figured you wanted to use it." I was in no mood for that kind of reasoning, I can tell you.
And when I smelled the batter, I could smell only olive oil. It overpowered the bananas. Once again, I was on the verge of tossing everything and starting over, except that I had already run through my supply of ripe bananas. I had to just hope there were no super-tasters in the crowd.

It's a very thin batter, and I wasn't sure that it would actually turn into anything resembling a cake.

But it did. It was not quite as tall as the cake in the photograph. Maybe the olive oil? But it looked respectable.
Next came the "dreamy creamy" white chocolate frosting. That name is just a little too cute for me. I'd be OK with dreamy white chocolate or creamy white chocolate, but not both. So I just said it was white chocolate frosting. With the crowd I was hosting, calling something "dreamy creamy" would get you nothing but ridicule.
This frosting is another of the super-easy food processor frostings, like the peanut buttercream from the first recipe. All you do is mix melted white chocolalte, cream cheese, butter, creme fraiche, and a dab of almong extract in the food processor. Let me just say that unless you have the steady hands of a surgeon, you should not measure 1/8 teaspoon of almond extract over the mixing bowl. As you might surmise, if your hand slips, you may end up with considerably more than 1/8 teaspoon. As you might also surmise, my hand slipped. I probably added about a half-teaspoon to the frosting--not a killer amount, but about 4 times more than it should be. Oh well, I thought, maybe the almond extract will cover up the taste of the olive oil.

My Tasting Panel was my entire neighborhood, who first chastised me for "breaking the first rule of Happy Hours." "What rule?" I said. "The 'no baking' rule," they replied. "There is no such rule," I protested. Then, after they were done chastising me, they wanted more: "Why didn't you bake two, as long as you were baking?" These are difficult people to please.
They were extremely enthusiastic about both the cake and the frosting. When I said I wanted quotes to use in my blog, they said things like, "It's delicious." I asked for something more quotable. Joe looked thoughtful and said, "It is delicious, but if I were going to critique it, I might say there's just a touch too much almond flavoring in the frosting." I couldn't argue with him.
On a roll, Joe continued, "And, although it's very moist, I detected a slight note of chalkiness in the cake." The rest of the neighbors turned on Joe. "Are you crazy? Do you think she's going to bake more cakes for us if you tell her they're chalky? This is not a chalky cake!"
I was with Joe on the excess almond, but not on the chalkiness. Still, maybe he's another super taster. Or maybe my olive oil tastes like chalk.

Jul 6, 2009

Golden Lemon Almond Cake

Poor Jim. This was his Father's Day cake, and I screwed it up royally. It's not a hard cake to make. In fact, it has a place on the quick and easy list, and rightfully so. It's a simple butter cake, with the addition of sour cream, lemon oil, grated lemon rind, and ground almonds. And yet, I totally messed it up.
When Sarah walked in the door, I announced that I had ruined the cake. She was ecstatic. "Oh, that's great," she said, "Is it bad enough for Cakewrecks?" It is her goal for a cake of mine to be pictured on cakewrecks.com. I don't find this to be a particularly supportive goal.
When she looked at it, she was disappointed. "Mom, it doesn't look like a wreck at all, it's pretty!"

But when I showed her the seamy underbelly, she had to admit it wasn't so lovely.

Here's the problem. I had all the ingredients ready to put in at the right time, and I thought I had done that. When I re-read the ingredients after I'd finished mixing everything, I realized that I'd forgotten the sugar. I was disappointed because it meant that the sugar wouldn't be added at the right time, which I believed would affect the texture. But at least it would be added. So I scraped all the batter in the pan.

Then Jim asked, "When did the almonds go in?" Or that's what I thought he asked. He says he asked, "When do the almonds go in?" I said, "When they were supposed to go in." He thought I said, "When they're supposed to go in." Then, after I smoothed all the batter in the pan, I saw the ground almonds, still in the food processor. Which shows, I guess, that you shouldn't have two old deaf people working in the kitchen together. I dumped the nuts on top of the batter, and stirred them in, but I could see it wasn't going to work out that well.
This is my new NordicWare Bavaria cake pan.

I love its intricate design, which is prettier than the regular Bundt cake design. It also makes it harder to remove from the pan. I sprayed the pan heavily with Baker's Joy, but a few dabs of cake still clung to the pan when I inverted it.

When the cake comes out of the oven, you poke holes in the bottom, and brush on some easy-to-make lemon syrup (lemon juice and turbinado sugar). After ten minutes, you invert it and place it on a platter.
I decided to put it on a plate, and then transfer it to the serving platter later. DO NOT DO THIS. You would think I'd have learned about transferring a finished cake after the ginger cheesecake broke in half. But some people learn the hard way. The cake was firmly embedded in sticky lemon syrup, and did not want to be moved. I finally transferred it, but let's just say the transfer did not improve the cake's looks. I ran to the garden to cut some roses to put in the center so you could not see how the cake was on the verge of collapsing.

I wish that I weren't getting so much experience in disguising disasters.

The truly amazing thing is that, after all this, the cake was good! A definite, although not overpowering, lemon taste, a richness from the sour cream and butter, and a moist but not heavy texture.

(Lots of lemon flavor from two big tablespoons of grated lemon rind, plus lemon oil (courtesy of Woody), plus fresh lemon juice in the syrup).
I'm very curious to see what it would taste like if I made it the right way, and it may be the first cake that I repeat, because how could you not like a buttery almond lemon cake that is still delicious even if you make serial mistakes?


Karen: "You made me think this was going to be awful, but it's really, really good."
Sarah: "This is the best cakewreck I've ever tasted!"
James: [big piece of cake in mouth] Gives thumbs up sign.
Jim: "Can I have the rest of it?"