Top 100 Cake Blog

Top 100 Cake Blog

Friday, April 26, 2013

Chocolate Cupcakes, Settlement House Style

Yesterday, some very special visitors stopped by Henry Street Settlement, including someone who, as a young child, had actually met Lillian Wald, the visionary progressive reformer who founded the Settlement in 1893.  We were honored indeed to welcome our visitors into our historic dining room.  In anticipation, I decided to bake something from The Settlement Cook Book which, though published by a settlement house in Milwaukee, features many of the same immigrant foods served at Henry Street in the early 20th century.

It took just a minute to select a recipe from this 622-page tome, first published in 1901.  (My copy dates from 1936.)  I mean, what could be more welcoming than old-fashioned chocolate cupcakes?  I "cheated" and frosted them with a modern-day vanilla buttercream (from a Magnolia Bakery recipe).  But even topped with the creamy icing, the cupcakes looked too plain for our special guests -- until I remembered the gorgeous crystallized violets I had made this past weekend.  Et voila, the perfect petit fours!

The cupcakes are truly simple to make.  Mix the butter and sugar; add the egg and blend in one square of unsweetened, melted chocolate.

Alternately add the flour/baking soda mixture and buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour.

The batter will be rather thick, and I found it easier to pipe from a pastry bag with a round tip. I used mini-cupcake tins, but one pays for their adorableness with the extra time it takes to fill them.  Still, I think it's pretty good value.

I also piped the frosting, and then topped each with a violet, a task best done right after piping so that the violets adhere well.

The recipe is on the first page of the chapter entitled Small Cakes, Cookies, Kisses.

Instructions, more clearly, below (with a miner change):
Cream butter and sugar, add egg, and blend.  Mix in chocolate.  Add flour and baking soda (which have been mixed together) alternately with the buttermilk (sour milk) beginning and ending with the flour.  Place in small greased (or paper lined) muffin tins, bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Orange Bars (Delicious Party Cookies)

How could I resist a recipe whose title includes the words: Delicious Party Cookies.  So even though it was Sunday morning and my weekend partying was behind me, I decided to take the plunge.  Within an hour (did I mention how quick and easy these are), I was having a party in my mouth, albeit for breakfast.

I thought these were pretty good, but then Johanna, a work colleague who has sampled nearly all the desserts I bring in, called me up -- in the middle of a deadline -- to rave about these.  Maybe they're even better than I thought.  The orange zest is the frosting is not only decorative, but adds a flavor note that contrasts with the very sweet frosting.

Orange bars are three-layer bar cookies, but the base --  a shortbread-like confection -- isn't that distinct in the finished product.   The center is a soft pudding-like cake and the top is an orange-infused confectioners sugar based frosting.

The base is made like pie crust, i.e., the fat is cut into the flour.  A food processor makes quick work of this task.

 Place the mixture into a buttered pan...

and press it down into place with your hands or the back of a large spoon.

Bake it for about 20 minutes, or so.  The crucial information as to exact time is missing on the recipe card.

While the base is cooling, prepare the filling. Yes, it's true -- just put all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and combine.  This could not be simpler.

Pour the filling over the base and bake for about 25 minutes.

The frosting is also simple.  Place some confectioners sugar (no need to sift) in a bowl and add some orange juice "right for good spreading" reads the recipe card. Add some orange zest and spread the frosting atop the cooled cake.  (I used Cara Cara oranges, which have a reddish hue, and used the zest from an entire orange, but you can adjust to taste.)

The first few pieces are for the cook.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Crystallized Violets

If you're like me and have a patch of violets growing wild in your backyard and are looking for a quick and creative Sunday morning project (or are otherwise looking for an excuse to avoid real work), then by all means do pick the blossoms and crystallize them for future use.  Placed atop a cake, pie or pudding, these beauties will add a touch of sophistication to your dessert.

It couldn't be simpler.  All you need are the violets, an egg white, a small paint brush and some superfine sugar.  (This can be purchased, or you can just pulse regular sugar in the Cuisinart until it becomes, well, superfine.)

After you harvest the violets, "paint" each petal with the egg white and liberally sprinkle the sugar atop, making sure to cover all the petals.  That's it!  Leave them out to dry and store them in an airtight container until such time as you need to dress up a dessert.

My violet patch is below.  I'm told they're weeds, but you can't believe everything you hear.

These last two photos are courtesy of the DH, taken with a real camera (as opposed to my phone).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fruit Compote

Today's post is courtesy of A Cake Stews in Brooklyn, for that's how this old-fashioned fruit dessert is prepared.

Fruit compote (beautifully plated above with a dollop of whipped cream by head chef and danseur  extraordinaire Antonio Carmena) was served at last night's installment of The Ballet Dinner Cook Book Series, in which a group of us are cooking (and laughing and crying) our way through 1966 The Ballet Cook Book, a compendium of recipes of the biggest names in ballet, collected and published by Tanaquil LeClercq, a New York City Ballet dancer and George Balanchine's fourth wife. (Can that last sentence be any longer?)

Last night's meal featured the recipes of Canadian-born Melissa Hayden, "one of American ballet's greatest ballerinas," according to the The New York Times.  Hayden, who danced for both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, contributed recipes that reflected her Eastern European heritage.  (You can read about the entire menu once the Series originator, Ryan Wenzel, and Carmena publish their blog posts.)

The pressure was on last night, as Hayden's son, Stuart Coleman, was one of our guests and had enjoyed many of these dishes while growing up.  But we needn't have worried, for Stuart's portrait hangs in our Hall of Fame under the heading:  "Most gracious and nicest guest."  His partner, Renaissance woman Meryl Rosofsky's portrait is right there next to his. (I got the feeling that even if we had served them something inedible, they would have been equally gracious.)  But one thing that came through loud and clear was the extraordinary love Stuart has for his mother, who passed away six years ago, and the opportunity to connect with her through her recipes.)

Now, on to the dessert, chosen because it was the only dessert in Hayden's chapter.  Fruit compote was served at every family holiday meal during my childhood, but I'd never made it.  It's very simple -- buy high quality dried fruit, soak overnight and simmer it for about 15 minutes.  It's quite delicious, even if it's not beautiful.  It helps to have Antonio in the kitchen, below, and not only for his ability to plate.

Start with all the fruit -- except the pears -- in water to cover.  Soak overnight. Hayden's recipe is much more gourmet than my family's on account of the pears and the addition of lemon peel.  (The recipe is at the end of this post.)

The dinner group, taken at the end of the meal.  From left, going clockwise: Antonio; Jeff Gageby, who has become quite the sous chef and whose all-around help is invaluable; Ryan, Meryl, Paul Epstein, a longtime family friend of Hayden's and Stuart's; Michael Pereira, Antonio's lovely partner who keeps us all honest and entertained in the kitchen; Garry Parton, Paul's partner; Stuart, and me.
(Photo taken by the long-suffering DH.  Thanks, Paul!)

And below, is Antonio's fabulous video of the event.  Be sure to watch until the very end to see the amusing outtakes.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Go, JIffy Mix!

Want to feel really good today and have your faith restored in the food business?  Read this.

A Cake Bakes generally avoids prepackaged mixes, but I couldn't resist sharing this fabulous article about the Jiffy mix company, written by Cory Suter, a Ph.D. student at Temple University. (Not to mention that one of my favorite family Thanksgiving recipes calls for a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix.)

The story, which originally appeared in, is pasted below.  Link is at the end of the article.

7 Reasons This Muffin Mix Can Save America

"Cory, My name is Howdy Holmes; I'm the CEO of Jiffy mix. Why don't you give me a call at ...." I could hardly believe my ears. There on my non-smart phone voicemail was a message from a Formula Atlantic Racing Champion-turned-CEO of the $100 million per yearmarket-leading company in prepared baking mixes. What could I possibly have done to deserve this honor? I simply had written a short note complaining that I preferred the flavor of real blueberries to the artificial ones in their muffin mix.
Anyone who has dared venture down a grocery store's baking aisle or opened their grandparent's cupboard has probably seen one of the timeless white and blue "Jiffy" boxes that haven't changed much since the mixes were first invented by Holmes' Grandmother in 1930. What I didn't know until I did some homework, was just how great of a company is behind Jiffy mix. After a 16-minute long chat with the Jiffy mix CEO, and 11 years of studying business and economics, I knew I had discovered one of America's last great businesses. Here is seven reasons why:
1. Jiffy mix sells over 55% of all muffin mixes in the United States, but doesn't spend a dime on advertising.
While Jiffy competes by selling quality products at the lowest price (40 to 60 cents for corn muffins, for example), most American companies now try to sell their products by making people feel inadequate. 
"Buy our products, or you won't be happy or sexually fulfilled" is the implicit message that lies to us each time we turn on a TV or catch up on the latest news. Instead of trying to convince us what we should want, Jiffy simply does the right thing, and works to meet a genuine need for convenient wholesome food. The 30% to 52% off the final price that Jiffy saves not advertising or making flashy packaging is directly passed on to customers in the form of unusually low prices.  
2. Jiffy mix denies Wall Street a chance to make money from other people's work.
Wall Street finance has increasingly morphed from being a source of investment in America, wisely allocating scarce resources, to being a predator "landlord" that makes money off of other people's work. Jiffy mix is a family-owned business that has repeatedly refused debt-financing and lucrative offers to hand the business over to a corporate conglomerate backed by a big bank. As CEO Holmes said in our phone conversation, "I didn't want a 28-year-old brat from Wall Street telling me how to run my company."
For Holmes, keeping local control of the company is about much more than stubbornness or pride. Keeping Jiffy mix away from the financial elites is a major contributing factor to their customer loyalty, and the quality of life in their neighborhood.
3. Jiffy mix management treats their employees the way they would like to be treated.
Not only does the CEO know most of his 350 employees on a first-name basis, he also has compensated them well, including giving some stock-ownership in the company. With an average salary for a production worker of $47,000 per year, the median family income in the little town where Jiffy mix is $72,266, which is $20,000 more per year than the median U.S. family income. While a Wall Street investor would want to lower this "unnecessary" labor expense, Holmes believes caring for his community and workers is what good business is all about.
4. Jiffy mix genuinely serves their customers needs, instead of being obsessed with profit.
Almost any analyst could tell you that Jiffy mix could make more profit by raising their prices. However, as CEO Holmes explained to me, "Most Americans don't have two homes or much extra money to spend on things that aren't necessary. We provide high-quality ingredients at the best price to help as many customers as possible." From an economist' perspective, raising prices close to the level of competitors would maximize profits, but it would also erase an even larger amount of consumer surplus, thus creating a dead-weight loss for society.
5. Jiffy mix staff find meaning and purpose through their work.
When I commented on Holmes' decision not to sell off even part of his multi-million dollar company, he said "What would I do if I sold-out? Spend my life vacationing somewhere?!" The CEO of Jiffy has the right attitude. Our occupations, in balance with our relationships, give our lives meaning. To work a job just for money or to escape from community and family responsibilities is shallow at best. A visiting reporter from Fortune magazine described Jiffy mix as "a decidedly chipper workplace, with friendly employees who seem to be genuinely enjoying their jobs. They greet Holmes warmly, he appears to know virtually all of them by name, and none of it feels phony."
One of the saddest trends in American culture today is the growing disconnect between making money and producing value. Many of our best and brightest minds shuffle paper and money for financial institutions to earn big salaries, while the real creators of wealth — bakers, builders, farmers, inventors, teachers, designers, and doctors are loaded down by debt. Jiffy mix is a welcome trend-breaker. According to CEO Holmes, "Our staff puts more emphasis on internal and external relationships than we do on completing tasks. This is very different from most companies ... Our dedication to strong family business values, combined with real world professionalism has us uniquely situated for the 21st Century."  
6. Jiffy mix is honest.
Instead of hiding their cost-cutting techniques in the small print ingredient list, Jiffy announces on the front of their Blueberry muffin mix package that their product is "artificially flavored with imitation blueberries." This behavior is a clear contrast to Betty Crocker's Premium 'Wild Blueberry' muffins that cost more than twice as much as Jiffy mix, but douse  their "real blueberries" in high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. Holmes told me that Jiffy mix "has even won accolades for being more honest than required in packaging our products."
7. Jiffy mix makes long-term decisions to benefit future generations.
With no concern for investor's short-term expectations of profits, Jiffy mix just invested over $6 million into a new research and development facility as part of their plan to keep the company going for many more generations. While other American corporations do invest in research, this essential business function is declining in the United States. CEO Holmes has concluded that long-term thinking is one of the key differences between family-owned businesses and other companies. 
Final thoughts
One of the world's most widely recognized ethical standards is to do to others as you would have them do to you. By separating the owners and executives of companies from the communities where these same companies do business, the corporate structure of business has increasingly lost sight of this traditional American ethic. Cutting employee benefits and jobs to enrich Wall Street has become almost as common as hidden fees,  and hiring lobbyists to gain unfair competitiveadvantages.
Small businesses and exceptional American companies like Jiffy mix, built our country'sonce-broadly shared prosperity. Sadly, thanks to Wall Street greed, large civic-minded companies are a dying breed. If all companies were as ethical as Jiffy mix, then most Americans could support the far right agenda to get rid of all the regulations. The best solutions are, of course, not so simple. We need commonsense protections from corporate abuse at the same time we need to scale back regulations that exist primarily to give big businesses advantages over competitors. Because, so few companies are like Jiffy mix, America needs a smart government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pinwheel Cookies

I was looking for a 1960s era dessert for Mad Men devotees, and this one fits the bill.  Though you may not be able to complete these in time for tonight's season premiere, unless you start RIGHT NOW -- these cookies require at least two hours to firm up in the refrigerator.

Pinwheel cookies, as you might imagine, are a bit labor intensive.  Betty wouldn't tackle them, but might direct her household staff to whip up a batch.  Trudy Campbell might make them; I can certainly picture these on her dining room table.

These cookies are perfect for those who think sugar is the devil -- they call for only 1/2 cup, so the sweetness does not overwhelm the sandy texture, which is contributed by the ground nuts.  These were such a hit at my house today that I doubt any will be left when Mad Men begins.  (I hope it gets me out of making dinner, as everyone will be full from cookies.)

Below is *some* of the mis en place.  Even though one should measure out and prepare all ingredients before starting a recipe, I never do.  Usually, it's fine.

Beat the butter and sugar, then add the egg yolk.  When combined, mix in the nuts and flour.

Divide the dough in two portions and add one ounce of melted chocolate to one.

Et voila, as Megan Draper would say.

Refrigerate for at least one hour.  Next, roll out each dough and then place the chocolate atop the white one. Run your rolling pin over this to combine.

Roll like a jelly roll, staring from the long end.  It won't be perfect, at least mine wasn't.  I strongly advise eating the scraps.

Cut the roll with a sharp knife, so you have something that resembles the cookie below. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet; they can be fairly close together, as they don't spread much.  Bake for about 11 minutes.  Bon appetite!

Recipe below. Some production notes: I used butter for the shortening and walnuts for the nuts.  This makes about 36 cookies.  I baked them for about 11 minutes.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Chocolate Coca Cola Cake

Some may ask, If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  In the Cake Bakes kitchen (not a place known for metaphysics) we had to ask ourselves, If a cake is baked and not photographed, did it really exist?

Yes, this happened last weekend. As I entered the kitchen to photograph the last slice of Chocolate Coca Cola Cake, there sat the DH (with the telltale crumb on his chin) and an empty plate before him.

Not wanting to bake this cake again, for there are so many recipes and so little time, I'm bringing you this cake without a proper photo of the finished product.  At top is a picture of the frosted cake, while still in the pan, so it's difficult to get a sense of it.  Cut, it looked "something" like this, below.  (Thanks, Google Images.)

Chocolate Coca Cola Cake is filled with all sorts of "bad" ingredients: cola, miniature marshmallows, etc., but the end result is quite delicious.  It's origin is said to be southern and, though I've never been to a Cracker Barrel restaurant, I've heard it's a dessert item there. I served this at Peaster (our Passover Easter holiday mash-up celebration) and it was *very* well received.

One thing that distinguishes this cake is that many ingredients in the cake (butter, cocoa, marshmallows) are also used in the frosting.  Also unusual, is that both the cake and frosting are started on the stove top, and not in the Kitchen Aid.

Start by placing the cake ingredients in a saucepan.

Stir until well combined and the marshmallows melt completely.

I transferred the mixture into a bowl before adding the flour and other dry ingredients.

While the cake is baking, start the frosting.  It will look a lot like the batter (but uses only one stick of butter).

The recipe, credited to Alma, was in a large collection of Amish recipes I purchased a few months ago.