Friday, February 25, 2011

Strawberry Cake

photo by Anthony Palatta

The other weekend I was watching Paula Deen make this cake, and it had such a striking pink color, I decided to give her recipe a try. Click here for the recipe.

I usually don't make cakes recipes that start with a mix, which this one does. You take a box of white cake mix, add pureed strawberries, eggs, water, and oil, mix it together and then pour into two cake pans.  Paula had a great trick, which is to drop the pans on your counter several times until all the air bubbles come to the surface, so your cake layers come out more evenly.

After baking the layers, you make a cream cheese frosting by combining the usual suspects (butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar) with pureed strawberries and strawberry extract. I couldn't find any strawberry extract, and I didn't remember until after I made the cake that I have some strawberry liquor I could have used. Maybe next time. The frosting came out great anyway, though I could have used some red food coloring to make it a bit pinker.

I liked the cake, especially in combination with the frosting, but I felt it could have had more strawberry flavor, maybe if I'd added the strawberry liquor or extract to the batter itself. And the color was very pretty. I'm going to start researching some recipes from scratch and see what I turn up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pop-Tarts: Make them Yourself!

photo by Anthony Palatta

Whole Foods has just announced sign-up for my class "Out of the Box:  Making Brand-Name Desserts at Home." The idea is to learn to make your favorite treats like Oreos or banana pudding with vanilla wafers from scratch, minus weird-sounding chemical ingredients like Red #40 or TBHQ or wood pulp extract. Sign up for the class here.

To gear up for the class, I've been practicing and perfecting the recipes at home. Last weekend, I had a great time making Pop Tarts.

While doing research on Pop Tart recipes, I uncovered a few things. First, there's this notion out there that in the culinary world, gourmet Pop Tarts might just be the hot new trend. Cupcakes, oh so yesterday. Now it's about blackberry jam-filled Pop Tarts with Meyer Lemon glaze.

Second, I learned that the pastry dough for Pop Tarts is basically pie dough. (In fact, you could use a pre-made pie dough from the grocery store, cut it into rectangles, and fill with jam, and you'd basically have a Pop Tart.)

The recipe (click here) I chose as a base for my Pop Tart uses a variation on pie dough that's sturdier than the one you'll find in your mother's apple pie and easier to work with. The fillings are pretty easy too, though I'm playing with those on my own to come up with creative combos for class.

The big key to making a decent Pop Tart, to my mind, is about cutting the dough neatly, so you get lovely straight-edged rectangles. Don't worry if the filling bubbles over during the baking process. That's what icing's there for, to cover up the mistakes.

The result tastes much like a Pop Tart, only much more fresh and buttery than the cardboard taste of the pastry in the packaged version.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The "I Dare You to Try this at Home" Lemon Cake

This cake may take you a few days to put together, but it's worth it.

When I first saw the recipe from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, my first reaction was, "You expect me to make this???"

It's actually not too bad, just a lot of steps.  The kind of thing that you might do for a special occasion.  I'll break down the process, and give you some ideas for easy short cuts.

First, make some lemon curd.  (I've posted my go-to stove-top recipe below.)  You could also just buy some at the store, but I prefer the real thing, and it's not that hard to make in advance.  And you can keep it in the fridge for 4-5 days.

Next, bake your favorite lemon cake recipe, two round 9-inch layers. You could even do this from a mix if you wanted to cheat, but here's a link to Martha's recipe, should you choose to go the official route.

When the cake layers have cooled, you can wrap them in plastic or proceed to the next step, which is to whip up some lemon buttercream frosting. Again, you could go store-bought if you want to save time.

Now have the cake layers, lemon curd, and frosting in front of you. Cover the edges of a serving plate with several strips of wax paper. Set the first layer of cake on the strips. (Be sure you can easily yank the strips out from under the cake when you're finished. The idea is to get rid of the mess you'll get from the frosting process.)

Saw the cake in half with a serrated knife.  (You can stick toothpicks halfway up the layer to use as a guide.) Top the half-layer with lemon curd, and then put the top half back on and cover with lemon curd as well.

Cut the second layer in half and continue to fill with lemon curd and stack, ending with the top layer of cake, which you leave bare.

Cover the whole cake with lemon-flavored buttercream. Then using a piping bag, pipe dots of lemon curd of varying sizes on top and drizzle lines of lemon curd down the sides.

Pull away the wax paper, and voila--your lemon cake showstopper!

My favorite lemon curd recipe:


6 eggs
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp lemon zest
¾ cup lemon juice (from 5-6 lemons)
1/8 tsp salt
½ cup unsalted butter, sliced in small pieces

Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan and cook over
medium heat on the stove, while stirring, for about 7 minutes,
until the mixture starts to thicken. Immediately pass through
a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Press plastic wrap on the
surface of the curd and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Friday, February 4, 2011

One-Year Anniversary!

The Sweet Spot has officially hit the one-year mark!

What does it all mean?

I've found the practice of keeping this blog a meaningful exercise for a number of reasons. First, it's given my life a bit of extra dimension, a place to visit and channel my my penchant for making and baking desserts into words.

It's given me a place to share a bit of myself with others, including my partner Anthony, who takes most of the photographs, my friends and family, my students and co-workers, and people I've never met who've somehow gravitated here.

"But what will you do with it?" some people ask when I say that I keep a dessert blog.

Do?  Nothing as of yet, except indulge in the pleasure it brings me each week.

"How do you stay so thin?" is another question I get.

The answer is that I don't.  These sweets do pack on pounds, and so I'm trying to moderate my intake this year.  One thing that does help, however, is that when I try out new recipes, I like to give away the results immediately, so they aren't lying on the counter at home.  There's no better conversation-starter than, "Hey, I just made this new dessert.  Would you like to try some?"

I've learned a lot about baking in this past year, and I feel more confident in the kitchen than ever, but there's a lot more I want to learn.  I'm particularly determined to master cake-baking, as well as try some complicated desserts I'd have shied away from in the past.

I'd also like to try out some different things on this blog, like adding pictures of the baking process, as I've seen on other blogs I enjoy.

So stay tuned this year.  More delicious desserts to come!