Cake

strawberry graham icebox cake [smitten kitchen]

Did you know Florida has its own strawberry season?

The harvest runs December through March, and for any lucky states within fruit-shipping distance, this means the sudden appearance of countless boxes of vivid, juicy strawberries in our grocery stores–and the blessed drop in prices–before spring even rolls around. I was thoroughly confused the first time I experienced this last winter.

3 lbs of strawberries for $5? But…it’s February? And why do they all have these blue and black labels instead of the Driscoll’s ones?

Well, Southeast friends, the season is still in full swing. In honor of this glorious reprieve from maddeningly expensive and disappointing strawberries, I give you Smitten Kitchen’s strawberry graham icebox cake–originally made for a Memorial Day barbecue, but a fitting recipe for a time like this.

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This “cake” is a celebration of strawberries in their best form: fresh, ripe, and smothered in lightly-sweetened homemade whipped cream, sandwiched between crisp graham cracker-cookie rounds that support the sweet and bursting fruit with a light crunch and hint of cinnamon. A simple topping of lemon zest adds a pop of color and brightness in every slice.

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There’s a sweet spot to find with this cake. Once you’ve assembled the layers, the sturdy graham cookies will start to absorb some of the moisture from the whipped cream. Give it about an hour to rest, and you’ll see the cake collapse a bit, softening just enough to make it easy to slice and serve.

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But assemble the cake too early, and your “support” will turn into something more like “the soggy biscuit pieces that fell into your tea mug”. Not unpleasant, but unwieldy for cutting. Like I said–sweet spot.

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Pair this cake with good friends, a grill, a shared meal, and a pitcher of iced tea, or serve it up after a family meal and revel in this taste of spring before the seasons catch up to the date.

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***

My good friend and star baker Sheena has inspired me to make an all-stops-pulled birthday cake for myself over spring break. Check out her Instagram here–and in particular, take a look her own Pinterest-worthy marvelous creation from a few weeks ago. (Try not to let your jaw drop too far.) Add in the siren song of Pi(e) Day puns and St. Patrick’s Day treats, and I’m about fit to burst with baking ideas. It’s going to take all kinds of willpower get through this week without casting my books aside and hiding in my kitchen for three days straight. Please send help. (And hungry mouths for when it inevitably happens anyway.)

fig & honey spice cake [nyt]

This is not a Valentine’s Day post.

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There will be no red velvet here today. No chocolate, even. No flowers, no candy hearts, and nothing fluffy and pink.

This is not because I hate Valentine’s Day, or love. It’s because I think these winter months are neglected. I think we do ourselves a right injustice with the things we bake in January and February.

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Maybe this is out of sheer exhaustion after the baking and cooking marathon that is the Holiday Season, and we need a month off. Maybe it’s reflective of common New Year’s resolutions to be healthier, feed ourselves better, detox after cookies and eggnog and pies and more cookies. (And then suddenly February 14th rolls around, and we want to stuff ourselves with sweet, sweet chocolate again.)

Whatever the reasoning, I think it is silly.

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Why do we relegate warming spices to the months of October through December? Why do we leave our cans of pumpkin and bottles of allspice in the late fall? Y’all, anyone who’s lived in a place with seasons knows that the real cold comes in the depths of January and February, right after the last of the warm embers left over from Christmas lights and cozy evenings with family have burned out inside of us. And while I can appreciate a good red velvet, chocolate cake with more red dye than you care to know just doesn’t sing the same notes as cinnamon, cardamom, or earthy herbs.

Let’s be real: this time of year is when we need that comfort food, in the form of hearty soups, lots of steaming potatoes, and warm, dense spice cakes.

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(I say this, of course, as Atlanta is a pleasant but humid 60 degrees. Whatever, it was cold a couple weeks ago, okay?? I’m a Northerner at both heart and stomach.)

So maybe this is a Valentine’s Day post after all, insofar as I want to express my undying love for spice cakes and cream cheese frosting. This one in particular comes courtesy of the New York Times, made dense with olive oil and fig jam, pleasantly studded with bits of fresh figs, and topped with a tangy-sweet cream cheese-and-honey combination–and more fresh figs, of course.

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I know this isn’t quite the time for figs, so if you can’t find them at your usual grocery store, feel free to skip them and add a touch more jam instead. Maybe experiment with different fruits. Apricots? Pears? Surely, you can’t go wrong here.

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Do keep an eye on the cake, especially if you’re using two 9″ pans like I did. 35 minutes left them under-baked, but 10 more minutes dried them out a touch. Of course, if you do over-bake, don’t worry–leaving the cake out for a day allows the moisture from the frosting to sink into the cake, bringing back that nice, tender crumb. Just make sure you pop it in the fridge soon after to prevent the fruit from spoiling.

***

I said earlier that I don’t hate Valentine’s Day. While this is technically true, I don’t like it, either. I spent my evening doing homework, munching on leftover baked tofu, watching a bit of the Olympics. (Who else saw Shaun White last night?! What an absolute legend.) But if you are less of a grump than I am, I hope you got to revel in the cutout hearts and cupids and saccharine sap of today. Just make sure you enjoy an extra chocolate-covered strawberry for me.

magic matcha custard cake [raspberri cupcakes]

(Originally posted: October 27, 2014)

Fourth week.

What can I say about fourth week?

I could tell you about midterms.

I could tell you about cheerleading, or Homecoming.

I could tell you about the color-changing leaves, the emergence of peacoats and boots, or the fact that I still pick the wrong days to walk outside without an umbrella.

…or, we could pretend it’s still September, and I could tell you about the most incredible edible feat of science to come out of my kitchen.

I found the recipe for these while scouring the Internetz one summer day for the perfect green tea dessert. I had a hankering for a sweet green tea something-or-the-other, and dangit, I was determined to listen to my gut. Literally.

Lo and behold, the ever-reliable raspberri cupcakes has a recipe for magic matcha custard cake.

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Now, hold the phone.

Magic? Really?

Yes. Really.

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Well, okay, no, not actually. But it might as well be magic for all the awesome science it takes advantage of.

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These custard cake bars call for an egg yolk-based milky batter with whipped egg whites folded in at the very end. The whole (brilliantly green) bowl gets poured into an 8×8 pan, laid carefully in the oven so as not to spill any of the mixture that is only too eager to end up in a puddle on your floor, and promptly forgotten about until the timer goes off.

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pre-milk matcha batter

This is when the magic happens.

That single-batter pan you put in the oven has since split into two distinct layers: a fluffy green tea egg white cake, thin but substantive, covering a thick, chewy mass of matcha custard that is perfectly reminiscent of green tea mochi.

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What. One bowl, two layers? But how?!

Let’s take this moment to talk about eggs–specifically, egg whites.

You’ll find plenty of recipes that call for “egg whites whipped to stiff peaks”–recipes that take advantage of this very cool property of egg whites. Egg whites, though 90% water, are chock full of complex proteins. When you whip egg whites, you’re trapping air bubbles in this mess of proteins and water. These air bubbles are maintained by the unfolding egg white proteins, which create a viscous network around the air. The more you whip, the more tiny bubbles are created, eventually leading to the airy foam you want to achieve. Unfortunately, even with the protein network stabilizing the air bubbles, this gorgeous foam won’t last forever. The water will begin to drain out, leaving a dry, useless egg foam on top. Stabilizers, like sugar and vinegar, act, well, to stabilize the foam, letting it last longer before water begins to drain out.

Feed has a fairly detailed article about the science of beating egg whites, which you should check out if you’re interested in baking science. (Yay, science!) There are a lot more factors involved in achieving the perfect whipped egg whites, like glass bowls vs. stainless steel vs. copper, but this covers the basics.

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As it turns out, when I first tried making this cake, I did not know these very important and useful facts about stabilizers. Nor did I have an electric mixer to speed up the process. No, instead, I spent at least 20 minutes at my kitchen counter, whisking away at vinegared whites that just refused to form peaks, stiff or otherwise. When I finally seemed to have gotten somewhere, I paused my whisking, only to notice that my egg whites had lost almost half a cup of fluid to the bottom of the bowl.

Well. Rats.

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I tossed the pathetic whites and tried again, this time taking extra care and even trying to speed up the process by blending the new egg whites first–but to no avail. I added whatever I could salvage to the batter, crossed my fingers, and put the pan in the oven.

The outcome? Definitely not magic.

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sad, single-layer matcha bars 🙁

When I went home, I tried the recipe again, but with 1. a KitchenAid, and 2. 1-2 T of sugar added to the egg whites while whipping. Success! I soon had glossy peaks to fold into my batter.

This time around, I saw what I wanted:

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oooh, aaah

The moral of the story?

Learn to whip your egg whites right, and don’t be afraid to add some sugar.

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If you don’t like green tea, you can leave right now make this into a chocolate or vanilla custard cake, too! The world is your delicious, magical, custardy oyster.

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Happy Sunday! And to those of you who, like me, are putting off your homework: here’s a little motivation for you. Happy fifth week!