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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vanilla Cake and Three's Company

I love Three’s Company.  Yes, that Three’s Company.  That kooky, ’70s/80s tv show that starred John Ritter as Jack Tripper who continually got the door slammed in his face by one of his female roommates due to some silly misunderstanding that conveniently didn’t get explained until the end of the show.  It’s silly, farcical, slapstick humor, and I love it.  I also love the muppets and 1930s screwball comedies.  I love how innocent the show was, how clever a farce the scripts always were, and how John Ritter always gave his all.  Believe it or not, I even own all eight seasons of Three’s Company on DVD, and I love to have them on while baking.  I think somehow Jack’s antics, the girls’ misunderstandings, and Mr. Furley’s comical reactions infuse my baked goods with a certain light heartedness.  Chocolate Chip Cookies, especially, benefit from the Three’s Company touch.  But while the show always inspires a giggle from me (the one where Jack and Chrissy get handcuffed together kills me!) and always gives my Chocolate Chip Cookies that extra kick of happiness, one episode in particular became my motivation to discover the perfect Vanilla Cake with Buttercream Frosting.
It was the cake that captivated me.  In an episode in the short, but sweet, season one of Three’s, Jack bails on Janet’s birthday celebration to take out Mr. Roper’s niece.  There was, of course, a birthday cake in that episode, and when I first beheld that vanilla cake with blue frosting and cake crumbs on the outside, I was transfixed.  That delicious-looking cake made an indelible impression on me.  As a chocolate fan, vanilla cake wasn’t my favorite, but suddenly in the hands of a favorite TV character, vanilla cake took on a whole new light.  At that moment, watching the show wasn’t enough–I wanted to be there.  I wanted to jump in to the screen and be one of the gang, making wisecracks to Jack, giggling with Chrissy, and most importantly, eating that heavenly cake.

Ever since that day, I have been on a mission to recreate the cake.  My goal was the find a deliciously delectable cake recipe, create a creamy and divine frosting, and combine them into an experience of utter joy, not unlike the experience of watching Three’s Company.  I didn’t know vanilla cake could be that blissful.  I thought only chocolate cake could bliss me out, but that episode somehow convinced me I was wrong, that vanilla cake could create an experience of perfect happiness.
Finally, I found it.  I found a vanilla cake recipe that mirrored the perfection I saw on screen.  A little tweak made to Shirley Corriher’s Magificent Moist Golden Cake created the exact one I was looking for.  This cake required a real, true American buttercream frosting, one that was very buttery, yet light and fluffy.  I concocted a buttercream recipe that was light, fluffy, and delicious, using heavy whipping cream to help to lighten it and less confectionary sugar than many traditional buttercreams.  I devised a way to coat the outside with cake crumbs.  I tested my concoction with a number of taste-testers, and the result was confirmed: Utter joy has been achieved.
Creating a cake that mirrors the innocent happiness of my favorite sitcom has given me a way to bring Three’s to life.  I am sure that Janet’s birthday cake from the imaginary Three’s Company world tasted just like this.  And to know that I have entered Jack, Janet, and Chrissy’s fictional world and brought back this cake makes me feel like an explorer and a vanilla cake hero.

Three’s Company Vanilla Birthday Cake

Vanilla Cake

Adapted from Shirley Corriher’s Magnificent Moist Golden Cake:
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/3 teaspoons cup buttermilk, divided
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cake flour, spooned and leveled
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
Directions for the cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Place a mixing bowl in the freezer.
2.  Spray two 8-inch round cake pans with non-stick cooking spray and line bottoms with parchment circles.
3.  Stir the eggs, yolks, and about half of the buttermilk and the vanilla together in a medium bowl.
4.  Mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Blend in the butter until finely dispersed.  Add the oil and the remaining buttermilk.  Mix on low to moisten the dry ingredients, then increase to medium speed and beat 1 1/2 minutes.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.  Add one-third of the egg mixture and beat for 20 seconds.  Repeat, adding thirds until all the egg mixture is incorporated.  Scrape down the sides with each addition.
5.  In the cold bowl from the freezer, whip the cream until soft peaks form when the beater is lifted.  Beat just a little beyond this soft peak stage.  Stir about one-quarter of the whipped cream into the batter to lighten it.  Then fold the rest of of the whipped cream into the batter.
6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans.  Drop the pans onto the counter from a height of three inches to knock out the bubbles.  Place the cake in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean but moist, about 20-25 minutes.  Ideally the cake should not pull away from the sides until it has just come out of the oven.  Cakes are ready when the tops spring back when touched.
7.  Place cake on the pan on a rack to cool, about 10 minutes, then loosen the cake before inverting onto the rack to finish cooling.  Peel off the parchment.  Cool completely before icing.

Yellow Cake for Crumbs:

1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon canola oil
1/4 cup  + 3 tablespoons cake flour
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 T heavy cream
Mix egg, egg yolk, buttermilk, vanilla, and canola oil in a small bowl.  In a medium bowl mix the cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together.  Blend in butter to the dry mixture until coarse crumbs, then blend into wet mixture until just mixed.  In a cold bowl, whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold into batter.  Pour into a six inch cake pan, greased and floured.  (If you don’t have a six inch cake pan, use cupcake tins)  Bake until golden on top.  About 20 minutes.
Let cool. Break up into chunks and make fine crumbs in a food processor.

Buttercream Frosting:

4 1/4 cups confectioners sugar
1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
5-6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Directions for frosting:
1.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, or using a hand mixer, beat the butter until smooth.
2.  With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the sugar and milk, a bit at a time.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
3.   Beat in the vanilla extract. On high speed, beat frosting until it is light and fluffy.  Add food coloring if desired.
If not using right away, cover with plastic wrap to prevent the frosting from drying out.  This frosting can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days–bring to room temperature and re-whip before using.  Add a little milk or sugar if needed to get the right consistency.
To assemble the cake, frost the double cake, then press the cake crumbs into the sides of the cake.  The best way I’ve found to press the crumbs into the side is using your own (clean) hands: Get a generous handful of cake crumbs so that your entire palm is covered and then gently press it into the sides of the cake.  There will be a lot of crumbs that fall, so do this with the cake plate over wax paper so that you can collect what falls and reuse.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Chocolate Ganache Brownies and My Dad

I have been told I'm the devil.  And by my own dad, too.  You see, my dad and I share many traits.  We both have blue eyes, we're both dreamers, and we both have a terrible weakness for chocolate (an unfortunate family trait that we both try hard to resist).  Every time I make him a deliciously chocolately dessert (like these killer brownies), he eyes them hungrily and says, "Oh Mary, what are you making now?" Then, shaking his head, he tells me, "You're the devil." I know he's teasing, because in his heart he believes the exact opposite of that.

My dad is a complete softie.  He's generous to a fault and would do anything for his family, coming to our rescue on numerous occasions. (My brothers and I seem to excel at providing these.)  Loving us unconditionally is like a drug for him.  My brothers and I even make fun of his goofy way of telling us at the end of a phone call how much he loves us--one "I love you" just doesn't cut it.  I've even accidentally hung up on him once or twice because I didn't realize the "I love you"s weren't over yet.

My dad is also a pretty smart guy.  I used to think that earning his Ph.D. and directing a college mechanical engineering program was no-sweat for him because of his super intelligence.  But lately I've learned that the amount of work my dad put into his career was far more than I previously thought.  This revelation came to me during one of my dad's many stories.

My dad has a story or theory for every occasion.  Among the top ten are his repotting theory about making life changes and the story about selling his beloved corvette in order to get married.  (The stories involving my mom are classics, and some of these have grown to epic proportions.) Even today, after years of hearing his stories, I am still hearing new ones.  His theory about the importance of perseverance was recently explained to me over a plate of pasta at a favorite family bistro.  (Ever the scientist, he even drew a diagram on the paper tablecloth cover.)  I'd like to share this theory with you:

The Perseverance/Ability Theory:

There are basically four types of people:

1.) Those who have high perseverance and high natural ability.  (These are the Henry Fords and Steve Jobs of the world.  My dad didn't have to push students like these.  They flew on their own.)

2.) Those who have high perseverance but low natural ability.  (These are the hard workers, the ones who are determined to succeed no matter what.  These are the students who came to my dad for extra help.)

3.) Those who have low perseverance and low natural ability.  (My dad did his best with this group.  He challenged all of his students so much that this group was forced to either join the high perseverance group or change majors.)

4.) Those who have low perseverance but high natural ability.  (These are the students who could be great, but they coast on their ability and let their potential go to waste.  Whether it was by love, laughter, or humiliation, my dad targeted this group, determined to light a fire under them.)

I was shocked to find out that my dad considered himself one of the low ability/high perseverance crowd.  The answers I thought came so easily to him were only the reward of great effort on his part.  Success and happiness don't come easily to anyone, it seems.  You have to work at it.  My dad's stories and his life prove this.

Even though I've known my dad my entire life, there are depths to him I know nothing about.   But I do know this:  He will never stop teaching us.  He will never stop loving us unconditionally.  And he will never stop tagging on those extra "I love you"s whenever he has the chance.

Even though my dad tells me he loves everything I bake, I always try to make him the most delicious desserts.  These brownies are without a doubt the best, most luxurious brownies I've ever encountered and, therefore, worthy of him.  Even if it does make me something of a devil.

I love you, Dad!


Chocolate Ganache Brownies

WARNING:  These brownies are not for the faint of heart.  If you're squeamish about fat and calories, then these brownies are not for you!


Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (65 grams, though some brands may weigh more) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process) (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, about 25-28 minutes.  After pulling brownies out of the oven, prepare the ganache. (I prep the chopped chocolate while the brownies are baking.)


8 oz. good quality chopped semi-sweet baking chocolate
8 oz. (about 1 cup) heavy cream (Don't skimp--use heavy cream!)

In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water, combine the chocolate and heavy cream.  Stir gently until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is entirely smooth.  Pour over the brownies and let sit until ganache is set--this will take several hours. (I usually make these in the morning for an evening gathering.)  When cooled, pull the brownies out of the pan using the parchment sling and cut into 16 or 25 squares.


Best Cocoa Brownies and Trust

Life can be scary sometimes.  It doesn't matter if you're five years old or 105, there are going to be moments when you just want to close your eyes and make it all go away.  When you're five, and your fears amount to a darkened room or not getting the gold crayon before the other kids, it's easy to soldier on.  But when you're an adult, life's scary moments can be much more frightening.

It's true there are plenty of upsides to being a grownup, but a major downside would have to be losing that unshakable trust in life.  It's easy to trust things are going to work out when your parents, your teacher, the bus driver, and even Santa Claus are in charge of keeping you happy and safe.  And when things get a little scary, all it takes is a hug from your teddy bear to make everything right again.  Trust is not so easy for a grownup.  Santa can't help you with a new job, and your teddy bear just doesn't understand about Roth IRAs or 401ks.  But no matter what your age, sometimes the best remedy for life's scary moments is a nice, warm brownie and someone to tell you it's all going to be okay.

When the world doesn't make sense, these amazing brownies are enough to renew your trust.  One bite of their rich, chocolatey goodness, and your faith in the grand scheme of things is restored.  A world that produces such a perfect brownie has to be good.
As far as brownies go, I used to be a box mix junkie and no recipe could make me change my ways.  That is, until I found the Katharine Hepburn brownie recipe.  As an avid fan of her acting, I had to try her recipe, and I discovered a new universe of from-scratch brownies. 

But I still couldn't find a brownie recipe that reminded me of those box-mix beauties until I came across this one from Smitten Kitchen.  Not only do they resemble everyone's fudgy box mix favorites, these babies far outweigh them.  And since they are made with cocoa powder, there's no need to mess with melted chocolate, and they come together very easily.  Trust me.

Whether you're feeding a hyper party of five-year-olds or just need a comforting indulgence at the end of the day, you can place your trust in these brownies.  So, go ahead, pour yourself a glass milk, grab a brownie, and know that all is well.

Best Cocoa Brownies

From Smitten Kitchen
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

10 tablespoons (140 grams) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (65 grams, though some brands may weigh more) unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process) (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup (75 grams) walnut or pecan pieces (optional) (I didn't use them.)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but don’t fret — it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes is Medrich’s suggestion, but I baked them for 25-27 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.

Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies and the Joy of Christmas

Christmas is upon us.  Big sales and even bigger lines.  Must-try peppermint flavored treats everywhere you look.  Non-stop Christmas music on the radio.  Magazine covers touting the best holiday decorating ideas.  But above all the activity, there is something magical about Christmas, something wonderful and joyful.  In those moments in between writing out the Christmas cards and wrapping the gifts, you can feel it.  That Christmas joy seeps into your soul even when stress is uppermost in your mind.

I think that’s why cookies are such an important part of Christmas.  They’re simple, sweet and joyful, just like Christmas is supposed to be.  They're little, tasty reminders that your first priority, no matter how many tasks are on your to-do list, is to feel the joy and be happy.  And these Soft Sugar Cookies are, without a doubt, the sweetest, happiest cookies you’ll taste yet.

Baking Christmas cookies is one of my favorite things of the season.  Just like Christmas, a cookie is a gift of pure happiness.  Christmas cookies, to me, symbolize the love, joy, and generosity that this season is all about.

And so, I’m going to let my every Christmas activity be a reminder of that Christmas joy.  I’ll try to let every sparkly decoration I see give me pause to feel the magic and love that is everywhere these days.  A special little baby is on his way, and it’s my job at Christmas to enjoy the excitement!

I found the recipe for these soft frosted sugar cookies–which were modeled after their grocery store bretheren–on Annie’s Eats.  I had never been drawn to those grocery store monstrosities.  Besides that, my family already has a frosted sugar cookie recipe, so there was no reason for me to make these.  And yet, they kept calling to me, so I finally gave in. 

After baking and frosting them, I tasted one…and good golly almighty!  It was amazing!  It was one of the most deliciously joyous cookie experiences I’ve ever had!  Biting into this little pillow of sweetness was like entering another dimension where joy is everything and stress is non-existent.  I definitely encourage you to make these.  You will not be disappointed!


Soft Frosted Sugar Cookies

Yield: about 2 dozen large cookies


For the cookies:
4½ cups all-purpose flour
4½ tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
5 tsp. vanilla extract

For the frosting:
5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tbsp.) unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
7-8 tbsp. milk (plus more, as needed)
Food coloring (optional)


In a medium bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt, and whisk together to blend.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar and beat together on medium-high speed until soft and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition and scraping down the bowl as needed.  Blend in the vanilla.  With the mixer on low speed, add in the dry ingredients mixing just until incorporated and evenly mixed.  Cover and chill the dough for 1 hour.

When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350˚ F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.  Scoop a scant quarter cup of dough and roll into a ball. 

Flatten the ball slightly and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the cookies at least 2-3 inches apart.  Bake about 10-12 minutes or just until set.  (Do not overbake!  The edges should be no more than very lightly browned if at all.)  Let cool on the baking sheet for several minutes.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

To frost the cookies, place the confectioners’ sugar in a medium bowl.  Add the melted butter, vanilla, and milk to the bowl and whisk until smooth.  Whisk in additional milk as necessary, 1 teaspoon at a time, until you reach your desired consistency.  Tint with food coloring if desired.  Use an offset spatula or spoon to frost the cooled cookies.  (If the frosting begins to thicken as you decorate, just continue to whisk in small amounts of milk to keep it workable.)  Top with sprinkles if desired.  Store in an airtight container.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Let Them Eat Fantastic Funfetti Cake!

This is an amazing cake.  I'm not kidding.  It's pure joy.  This cake can redeem lost souls, end wars, and even show health-conscious foodies the goodness of sugar.  I've been down the road of less than stellar cakes in a vain attempt to create a cake that has some health benefits.  Each of my experimental cakes was a disaster.  They weren't light and fluffy, with a moist tender crumb.  They weren't loaded with sugary sweetness and covered with sprinkles.  They weren't bliss to behold and heaven to eat.  They weren't anything like the sweet perfection of this one.  This is the cake that brought me back to the sweet side.  This is the best confetti cake (or funfetti cake--whichever term you prefer) you will ever eat.

I love sweets.  I love cookies and brownies and chocolate.  I love baking every kind of fluffy wonderful delight.  But after reading about the evils of sugar, I decided to try to create healthy desserts.  Certain desserts are fun to experiment with, cookies.  But there are other ones that shouldn't be tampered with, like cake.  Last year, on my birthday, I made two 6-inch cakes.  They were my attempt at "healthy" cakes, utilizing healthy whole wheat (and even a little sprouted wheat) flours and substituting coconut palm sugar for cane sugar.  One was vanilla and the other was chocolate.  Or rather, one was tree bark flavored with a hint of vanilla and the other was dirt flavored with a hint of chocolate.  The frostings for these cakes were even more difficult to manage.  In the end, they were edible.  The chocolate was even fairly okay.  But they were definitely weird.  And definitely not cake, the way it's supposed to taste.

Cake is meant to be a cloud of sugar. Cake is pure delight.  Cake is a celebration on a plate.  When you try to make cake healthy, it ceases to be any of those things.  And so, when my brother's birthday rolled around, I was ready to delve in and create a wonderfully sweet, terribly unhealthy cake.  My funfetti cake had to be the perfect white fluffy cake recipe--not too light and airy, but not thick and dense either.  It had to be accompanied by my favorite frosting recipe.  And it also had to have something more.  Something exciting, like confetti cookie crumble between the layers!  I found my perfect recipes and put them together to make this fantastic cake.  Although I may still experiment with teff flour in my ginger snap cookies or sprouted wheat flour in my dark chocolate chip cookies, cake is cake.  It is the almost sacred expression of pure indulgence.  So, go ahead and indulge yourself!

Fantastic Funfetti Cake

Birthday Cake Crumb
Adapted from Hummingbord High, who adapted it from Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook
(makes about 2 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar, tightly packed
3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons rainbow sprinkles
1/4 cup grape seed oil (I used canola oil)
1 tablespoon clear vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 300 (F).

Combine the sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed until well combined.

Add the oil and vanilla and paddle again to distribute. The wet ingredients will act as a glue to help the dry ingredients form small clusters; continue paddling until that happens.

Spread the clusters on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes, breaking them up occasionally. The crumbs should still be slightly moist to the touch; they will dry and harden as they cool.

Let the crumbs cool completely before using. Stored in an airtight container, the crumbs will keep fresh for 1 week at room temperature or 1 month in the fridge or freezer.
Fluffy Vanilla Funfetti Cake
Adapted from Sweetapolita

5 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 whole egg
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2-1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups cake flour, sifted
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into 24 even pieces
3/4 cup rainbow sprinkles

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease, flour, and line with parchment three round 8-inch pans.  (The original recipe calls for two 8-inch rounds, but I used three for this cake.)

In a medium bowl or measuring cup, combine and stir the egg whites, whole egg, 1/4 cup of milk, and the vanilla.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Add the butter one piece at a time, about every 10 seconds. Continue to mix on low until the mixture is a fine crumbly texture. Add milk, and mix on low speed for 5 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl and begin to add the egg mixture in 3 separate batches, mixing until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. (You want to ensure that the batter is homogenous.)  Fold in the sprinkles.

Divide the batter into the three pans, spreading it evenly with a small offset palette knife. If you have a kitchen scale, weigh to ensure even layers.  Bake until a cake tester comes out with a few crumbs when inserted into the center, about 30 minutes. Be so careful to not over-bake. Check cake at 20 minutes, but not before, and then set the timer for 5 minute intervals. Let cool on racks for 10 minutes before loosening the sides with a small metal spatula, and invert onto greased wire racks. Gently turn cakes back up, so the tops are up and cool completely.

Kathy's Buttercream Frosting
adapted from Wilton

3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
3/4 cup shortening
3 teaspoons clear vanilla extract 
6 cups confectioner's sugar
3-4 tablespoons milk 
Cream together butter and shortening.  Add vanilla.  Beat in confectioner's sugar one cup at a time.   Add milk, beating until light and fluffy.  For a stiffer frosting, use less milk.  For a creamier frosting, use more milk.

Assembling the Cake

1.  Divide the cookie crumbs into three parts.  
2.  Spread some frosting on top of the first cake layer.  Then sprinkle a third of the cookie crumble on top of that.  
3.  Place the second cake layer on top of the first, pressing down gently to push the cookies crumble into the frosting of the first layer. 
4.  Frost the second layer, and sprinkle a third of the cookie crumble on top.
5.  Place the third layer on top of the second, pressing gently. 
6.  Frost the rest of the cake and pile the rest of the cookie crumble on top.
7.  Decorate with extra sprinkles.
8.  Indulge!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Quilt for Scout

This chick's got game.  She knows the score.  She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it.  She's no damsel in distress.  She's my 3 year old niece, Scout.

Her full name is Scarlet Reagan, which is a gorgeous name, but one look at her big, daring blue eyes and that head of sassy, reddish brown curls and you know the name Scout fits her to a tee.  Scout is the best gal pal every man, woman and child is going to want to have in their lives.  She's bold.  She fun.  She's mad about the color pink.  She likes sparkly things.  She wears sunglasses all the time to keep a cool profile. And she's always up for a good caper.

Scout loves books and cuddling, and can't get enough of either one.   Her favorite animal is a kitten and when she pretends to be one, her cute little meowing is irresistible.   When asked what she wanted for Christmas a year ago, she didn't hesitate a moment with the words "pink helicopter."   And when she opened it up, the excited shout of glee upon seeing that hot pink chopper reverberated through several states.  I don't know any other little girl who would want a pink helicopter, but that's Scout.

She and her brother are two peas in a pod.  They do everything together and have a sibling relationship that most adults would be envious of.  They love each other with abandon, and they always have each other's back.   When one of them is up to something, the other one always on the look out.  There's no doubt these two have a connection that started in heaven.

When my sis-in-law told us there was another little one on the way so soon after her and my brother's first child, Dallas, I was both overjoyed and slightly protective of my perfect little nephew.   He deserved a playmate--someone to go trick-or-treating with and build couch cushion forts with--but at the same time, I thought... how dare they?  It reminds me of favorite family tale, a scene that took place years ago:  When my Dzia Dzia (my grandfather) was told that my mom was pregnant for the second time, he scooped up my eldest brother, who was only ten months old, and held him tightly in his arms as if my parents had just declared their intention to sell him on the black market.   But with Scout, just as it happened years ago, when baby number two came along, the entire family fell completely in love.

When I heard it was a girl on the way, I rummaged through mental images of cutsie pink quilts and decided any child of my brother's needs something different from the normal baby girl quilt.  I designed something elegant and quaint.  Pink columns surrounded by soft green blocks with a cream-colored border was perfect for Scout.   And a thin, bold line of dark brown was the key piece to pull it all together.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Empowerment Tree and Being Creative

When I was a child, I brought home every piece of art I made and presented it to my parents.  My mom and dad would "ooh" and "aw" over my masterpiece and put it in a place of honor where it could be appreciated.  This was enough to make my young artistic self vastly proud.   Grown-up artists, I find, are not so lucky.   Many singers, poets, painters and sculptors create wildly beautiful things, but Mom's dresser or Dad's desk just won't cut it anymore.  Art shows, open mic nights, poetry readings, and blogs are proof that to simply create is not enough.  We want to put our creations in the world.  We crave the opportunity to move at least one person with the creative contents of our hearts.  Recently, I made a piece of art for the sole purpose of putting it out into the world, a quilt which is currently looking for an owner.

Although I'd never in a million years want my doodles in an art show or think I could create a sculpture worthy of looking at, I consider myself an artist, merely because I need to create.  I love to create.  Music is my primary passion, but it is also the most personal and most difficult thing to do.  And so my creativity finds other outlets, including writing, poetry, baking, and design.  Quilts are a favorite medium of mine mainly because the idea of a piece of art that you can wrap around yourself while watching old movies excites me.

Various family members have been the happy recipients of quilts of mine, and until inspiration struck some years ago, I'd never thought of making a quilt to sell.  It was at breakfast at a diner when a friend of mine told me of her plans to participate in the Susan B. Komen 3-day, 60-mile walk.  I thought I had heard her wrong.  Sixty miles???  I couldn't believe it.  (Even now, I have to look up just to make sure.)  I've heard of plenty of walks for causes, but they are usually under 10 miles, most under 5.  Sixty miles was outrageous!  When I got home, I looked it up on the internet and was struck by the empowered women in the pictures taking on sixty miles in 3 days to prove their strength.  I was awed by their determination and devotion, not to mention their overwhelming amounts of pink!

A few days later, an idea for a quilt came to me, and like any artist, I had to bring to life the idea that kept knocking around my mind.  The design I came up with was a huge tree with pink leaves, symbolizing the strength and beauty of the female spirit, a spirit that no disease could ever truly conquer as made evident by the inspiring walkers of the Susan B. Komen 3-Day.  I had never made a quilt before without knowing the recipient.  And so, I took a chance, and every step along the way--designing the quilt on graph paper, collecting fabrics, cutting and piecing--I knew deep down that this quilt must have an owner.  Somewhere, someone was meant to be the owner of the pink tree.

I can't possibly imagine what it must be like for a painter to have a room full of gorgeous paintings waiting desperately for an art show, but in a small way, I've made something and I'm sending it out into the universe.  I'm hoping that it will be seen and appreciated, and maybe, just maybe, my quilt will find its owner.  And so, here it is, I call it "Empowerment Tree:"