Raspberry Pavlova with Cinnamon Spiced Whipped Cream by Molly Brodak

I did it, I solved your holiday dinner party dessert problem. 

This is a showstopping dessert that is also very easy to make. Most importantly, it tastes like heaven. Truly, it is one of my favorite desserts to eat and I have never served it to someone who didn't like it. It's also gluten-free and relatively low fat, for a dessert anyway.

If you've never had pavlova before, brace yourself. You are in for something completely new. It's an iridescent dessert--shifting, dazzling, impossible to capture from just one angle. What looks at first--if you glance at the recipe--like a simple meringue is totally different from either the dried crunch puffs of meringue cookies or the foamy mounds of pie-topping meringue. It transcends all that noise.

this photo should be ILLEGAL

this photo should be ILLEGAL

Let me try to describe it. You have a crisp, delicate shell that might remind you of a meringue cookie, but not even a touch of denseness or chalkiness. Under the shell, a marshmallowy center that serves as the perfect foil to the wisp of crunch from the shell. Combined with a thick, tart raspberry sauce and an unexpected warm spice note from the cinnamon whipped cream, the dessert has a heady dose of flavor to match the otherworldly texture. It all melts in your mouth in a delectable instant, the best instant of your dinner, if I do say so myself.

The secret magic? A bit of cornstarch. And vinegar. Oh vinegar, you miracle worker! Is there nothing you can't do?

A touch of vinegar helps egg whites whip up nice and firm. But add more than a touch, and you've got real structure here, a density builds as the egg whites begin to shrink and tighten, while a crust from the heat forms and pulls away from the moist center. tl;dr version? It's a miracle of science.

delicious plate of science miracles

delicious plate of science miracles

Pavlova recipes are a dime a dozen as they are common treats in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. The recipe has an intriguing and much debated history; how it came to be associated with the ballerina Anna Pavlova is still hotly contested by food historians. In order to elevate this pav from everyday to transcendent, I tinkered with the recipe until I struck upon the perfect sugar and vinegar ratios and restyled the finished product into an impressive cake-like centerpiece. 

A few notes on planning this dessert: you can make the meringue cakes up to a day in advance as long as you keep them tightly sealed in a container--any moisture from the air and you will lose the crunch of the shell. They are also definitely delicate, and are very likely to break in moving them, but don't worry--if you plan to stack them, no one will notice the cracks since it's all going to be cut apart anyway. Assemble everything at the last of all possible minutes, since the raspberry sauce and whipped cream are going to work to soften the crunch of the shell. It's great to even assemble it at the table immediately before serving--quite the spectacle. 

You don't need any special ingredients for this recipe, except for maybe caster or superfine sugar, although that can be easily made by whizzing granulated sugar in a food processor for about 30 seconds until fine.

The whipped cream I've paired with this pav is infused with flavor by gently simmering cinnamon sticks in it which produces a far superior texture and taste than if one were to just dump ground cinnamon into the cream. Super simple, super tasty. Same goes for the raspberry sauce, which is as easy as tossing a bag of frozen raspberries into a food processor, et voila.

simmer until cinnamon-y enough for you

simmer until cinnamon-y enough for you

To get smooth pavlovas, you've got to beat your meringue low and slow at first to create an even foam structure in your whites. Skipping right to high speed whipping will result in large bubbles in your egg whites which will cause cracks and gaps in your pavs. Don't rush through the process. I always make this with a handheld mixer but it certainly could be made in a stand mixer if you think your arm will get tired after holding it up for 15 minutes or so. 

it's ready to bake when it is as thick as marshmallow creme

it's ready to bake when it is as thick as marshmallow creme

I traced three 6" circles onto the back of my parchment to make 3 rounds for my "cake," although two larger circles is just as nice. There's also nothing like individual servings for everyone at your dinner party--all are wonderful. 

poof babies

poof babies

This is one of those set-it-and-forget-it recipes. Bake for about 1 hr 20 min, then turn the oven off, and just forget it. You can just leave those puppies in there for hours while you get the rest of your holiday party together. 

Just one more nearly-indecent photo if you are not convinced yet to make this beauty tonight.

 

Raspberry Pavlova with Cinnamon Spiced Whipped Cream

8 large egg whites, cold

pinch salt

2 tsp white vinegar

2 tsp vanilla extract or one vanilla bean, scraped

2 c (400 g) caster sugar

1 1/4 tsp cornstarch

for the raspberry sauce:

12 oz. bag of frozen raspberries

sugar to taste

fresh raspberries for garnish

for the whipped cream:

1 quart heavy whipping cream

3 to 4 cinnamon sticks

pinch nutmeg 

pinch cloves

2 Tbsp. caster or superfine sugar

1/4 c. powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 250 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper with circles traced on the back as guides for pavlova layers or individual cakes.

Whisk sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl until evenly mixed. Combine vinegar and vanilla extract or bean scrapings in a small bowl. Wipe a large glass or metal bowl and beaters with a paper towel soaked with a bit of white vinegar. Whip egg whites with a pinch of salt on low for three minutes, and increase to medium speed until whites become a uniform foam with minimal large bubbles. Increase speed to high and gradually add sugar mixture until mixture is thick, glossy, and holds medium-soft peaks (this can take up to 15 minutes). Add vinegar and vanilla, mix until combined. Scoop mixture onto sheet and smooth tops. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes for 6-8 inch circles, or 1 hour for smaller circles. Once time is up, turn off the oven and allow pavlovas to cool completely before removing from the oven (at least two hours).  

To make the raspberry sauce, allow frozen raspberries to thaw about halfway and pulse in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add sugar to taste. Strain most of the raspberry seeds out through a fine sieve. 

To make the whipped cream, simmer cream and spices on the stovetop for about 20 minutes. Remove and discard cinnamon sticks. Remove from stovetop, pour into a clean metal or glass bowl, cover, and refrigerate until completely cold. Add caster sugar and vanilla extract or vanilla bean scrapings and whip to soft peaks, then add powdered sugar and whip to firm peaks. 

Assemble pavlova by dolloping whipped cream on each layer and drizzling with raspberry sauce. Garnish with fresh raspberries.

those beautiful pink ceramic bowls by  Lenneke Wispelwey

those beautiful pink ceramic bowls by Lenneke Wispelwey

jfc

Cream Cake with Browned Buttercream by Molly Brodak

Imagine if whipped cream had a baby with white cake.

Well she did, and her child is named is cream cake, and cream cake just became the boss of this here treatland.

This is a whole new kind of white cake. It's not not angel food cake, not buttermilk cake, it's cream cake. Rich, moist, tender, flavorful white cake that tastes like cream pudding. You see, my standard cake mix requires a lot of yolks for moistness and stability, but since egg yolks are not allowed in a real white cake, I had to come up with a substitute.

Egg whites provide structure for white cake but they are very, very drying. Any typical white sponge cake--angel food or otherwise--come uncannily close in texture to an actual kitchen sponge, and seem to require some other niceties to make them tolerable--whipped cream, fruit, compote, sauce, I don't know. 

So I moved towards dairy. Cream in particular--sour cream and my personal darling, heavy whipping cream. This cake really tastes like fresh cream. The texture is heavenly-soft, moist but not compact, and melts into satisfying creaminess.

It deserved a pretty presentation in an ikebana-inspired arrangement.

gold inside, gold outside

gold inside, gold outside

I tested dozens upon dozens of versions of this recipe--something close to 35. I mean, look at my tortured recipe notes.

I'll spare you every detail of every iteration, but one interesting highlight of the versioning is that I had to give up on making meringue. Whipping the whites into meringue frenzy and folding them in gently at the end, which is standard practice in white cakes, was holding my texture back from all it could achieve. It was always, well, spongey and somewhat dry with the whites whipped.

So I kept the whites un-merginued, and whipped them up just a little with vinegar for stability, then crammed as much dairy into this cake as I could

dairy laannnd

dairy laannnd

I just kept pushing it--more cream, more sour cream, until I found the sweet spot between dry and collapsed. This sweet spot made a cake moist beyond moist, no syrup soak or other niceties needed, but still light open-crumbed. The batter is rather acidic and leavened with a generous and meticulously adjusted amount of baking powder. (Side note--if it's been a while since you bought fresh baking powder, treat yourself to a new batch since this cake relies almost completely on chemical leaveners to rise since no creaming is involved.) It bakes up pretty evenly with no great dome because keeping the batter "low" kept it moist.  

Although the batter is quick and simple to whip up since creaming is removed from the process, you're going to experience some weirdness with this recipe, and this weirdness includes beating oil into flour to made a dough in order to create some structure. Also, for the frosting--steel yourself--some weird butter stuff. 

The story with this buttercream starts with trying to improve ABC--otherwise known as American Buttercream to bakers. That buttercream you've probably made: just butter and powdered sugar, a little milk or something. It's the simplest buttercream but has a bad reputation for being homely and too sweet, a little chalky or gritty thanks to the powdered sugar, and unspecial. I wanted to make it special, so I brought in my dearest secret baking star: browned butter.

Because of the quantity of butter here, you will end up clarifying some of it as you wait for it to brown. Don't worry. Your cooled brown butter will look like an insane weird mess at first, with nutso layers of solid butter, browned butter bits, and sweetened clarified butter underneath. Try to not be upset. See how it all whips up nicely? Trust me, the memory of the upsetting gloppy oddness with be all forgotten when you taste this fluffy buttercream.

So what does browned butter buttercream taste like?

"What is the flavor of this?" my boo asked me while tasting this out of the bowl. "I can't figure out why this is good, it's just so good. It's like, the flavor of tastiness. I can't stop eating it." Yes love, the flavor of tastiness, this is browned butter. You just have to try it to see. The melted butter also affords us an opportunity to add some melted sugar to the mix so that we can reduce the powdered sugar in this ABC to help solve some of its...homeliness. (You still want some powdered sugar for the starch and opacity, but taste it before adding because you can adjust the sweetness to your liking.)

BROWNED BUTTERCREAM

1 c. sugar

1/3 c. water

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter to brown

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter to cream, room temperature

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt or kosher salt

2 tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, scraped

1/4 to 1/2 c. powdered sugar

Combine water and sugar in a heat-safe bowl or measuring cup and microwave until sugar is dissolved into a smooth, thick sugar syrup. Melt 1 c. butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until browned, stirring with a heat-proof spatula to prevent burnt spots. Butter is perfectly browned when it smells nutty and is dark brown--remove from heat quickly as it can burn fast. Slowly pour in sugar syrup and mix until combined (be careful, it will bubble and steam). Transfer mixture to heat-proof bowl and refrigerate for about an hour or until butter is just barely solidified. If it becomes too cold and hard, allow to return to room temperature before using in the next stage. Whip remaining butter until light and fluffy, then add the browned butter mixture in stages. Add powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla, and beat until pale and fluffy, for at least 5 minutes. 

 

Now, I decided to attempt an ikebana-inspired design by transforming the cake into a hammered metal bowl full of some sugar flowers I had in storage. Any opportunity to show of one great gobsmacker peony is one I will take.

creamcake5.JPG

This recipe makes a hearty amount of batter, perfectly suited to three 8" or 9" cake pans. I don't recommend using smaller/deeper pans for this cake as the batter can fail to rise and you will end up with dense, gummy layers. If you don't have three pans or you don't want to bake off all of this batter, remember cake batter is something you an easily freeze for several months if stored in an air-tight container.

 

CREAM CAKE

3 c. (350 g.) cake flour (White Lily)

3 1/4 tsp. (12 g.) aluminum-free baking powder

5 large egg whites

2 c. (400 g.) sugar

1  tsp. white vinegar

1 tsp. fine sea salt or kosher salt

1 1/5 c. heavy whipping cream

3/4 c. (155 g.) sour cream

2 Tbsp. vanilla extract or one vanilla bean, scraped

2/3 c. canola or vegetable oil

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk flours and baking powder together thoroughly in a large bowl and set aside. Beat egg whites, sugar, salt and vinegar for one minute (use a timer) on medium high until mixture is thick. Continue to beat while adding in cream gradually. Add sour cream in spoonfuls, then vanilla, and beat until smooth for 30 seconds.

Add oil to the flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Add 1/3 of the cream mixture and beat until smooth and lump-free. Repeat with the remaining 2/3rds, scraping the bottom of the bowl and making sure no lumps remain.

Divide batter among three greased and floured 8" or 9" pans and tap on the counter to remove large air bubbles. Bake for 20-30 minutes until centers are fully set and spring back when pressed. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then level, fill, and frost.

ooh wee!

ooh wee!

Apple Pie Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce by Molly Brodak

That's right, I said Apple Pie Cake. It's a cake filled with apple pie filling. 

It's not that grody pie-baked-inside-cake monstrosity trotted out this time of year as a testament to America's top rank in Stuffership. This is a lovely, custardy cake with a layer of apples baked in the exact way I bake them for pie. It's the best of both worlds, and the caramel sauce is just the...caramel sauce on the cake.

Obviously you should serve this warm.

This is, so far, the easiest cake recipe I have posted this year. And you don't even need to plug in your mixer--all you'll need is a whisk!

Apple-wise, you can of course sub in your favorite pie apples, but trust me that a combo of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith makes the best pie filling on the planet--the Grannies provide the flavor and the Goldens offer the perfect baked apple texture (firm yet yielding). You can also use all Grannies if you like a tarter apple flavor but the filling won't be as tender.

Besides a tube pan with removable bottom to ensure the cake and apples are cooked thoroughly, the key piece of equipment here is a mandoline, which will make quick work of your apples and ensure the slices are all uniform. I'm a huge fan of my Benriner, which is has been an absolute all-star in my kitchen for years and can be had for under $30. 

Be sure to use one of these slicing safety gloves (that's what I do) or the little plastic finger guard that comes with the mandolin, because those thick slices of apple move off the blade faster than you might expect, and it's an utterly unnecessary tragedy to sacrifice your fingerprints to a cake.

Now, this caramel sauce is something you're just going to want to have on hand at all times, you know, like you might have mustard or soy sauce or whatever things you consider essential to a refrigerator. It is so, so easy to make and it's so, so good. 

Side note: don't ever listen to a recipe for caramel that asks for brown sugar. You'll end up with molasses goop, not caramel. The only way to make caramel is to caramelize sugar then add some butter/cream to it. Same goes for sweetened condensed milk...I will never understand the reasoning behind "caramel" recipes that ask for it. I just feel like it just doesn't get any sweeter than sugar, so the addition of sweetened condensed milk is just overkill.

real recognize real

real recognize real

Watch the caramel vigilantly--the difference between perfectly caramelized sugar and burnt sugar is just a few seconds. It's ok to err on the side of lighter caramel if you're afraid of burning it, but the more you push your caramel to the edge of burning, the better flavor you'll have. The addition of a squidge of lemon juice in caramel? That's what the french lady did at the candy shop where I used to work, and I feel it's safe to assume whatever french ladies do to their caramel is deeply correct. 

 

APPLE PIE CAKE WITH SALTED CARAMEL SAUCE

4 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/4 inch slices (2 Granny Smith & 2 Golden Delicious)

2 Tbsp (25 g) packed brown sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 c (130 g) all-purpose flour

1 1/4 tsp (5 g) aluminum-free baking powder

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 large yolk, room temperature

2 Tbsp milk

1 tsp white vinegar

1/2 tsp salt

1 1/4 c (260 g) sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

12 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled

for the salted caramel sauce:

1 c (200 g) sugar

1/2 c heavy cream

6 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut up

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Peel, core, and quarter apples, then slice on mandolin into 1/4" slices. Toss slices with brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg, and set aside.

Whisk flour and baking powder together thoroughly and set aside.

Grease and flour tube pan with removable bottom, or use baking spray. Whisk eggs, yolk, milk, vinegar, and salt until pale and slightly frothy. Add sugar and vanilla, and whisk. Add half of the flour mixture and whisk until smooth, then half the melted butter, then the remaining half of the flour and then the melted butter, whisking thoroughly between additions. 

Pour 1/3 of the batter into the pan. Place all of the apple slices horizontally onto the bottom layer of batter, stacking tightly and evenly around the pan. Top the apples with the remaining batter, smooth top. Bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown and the cake center springs back when pressed.

Prepare the caramel sauce while the cake is baking. Melt the sugar in a medium saucepan, swirling occasionally to prevent burning. As soon as the sugar is melted, watch for the caramel to turn a rich, dark amber color and begin to smoke slightly. Add butter cubes immediately and mix. Once the butter is fully incorporated, drizzle in the cream slowly and mix. Allow the caramel to bubble and rise for about one minute. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and salt, and transfer to a heatproof bowl. Cover tightly once cooled and store in the fridge for up to two weeks.

And then, you know what to do.

Vanilla Rye Cake with Ermine Buttercream by Molly Brodak

This is a special cake.

I know, I know, I always say that about my cakes. But I really mean it this time. You have never tasted a cake quite like this before.

In fact, my photo shoot with the finished cake kept getting interrupted as I stole away to snack on this beaut. And I can tell you, that does not usually happen--usually I am sick of the cake I'm working on by the time I'm done with it. But this one I could not stop tasting.

The taste of rye balances so well with the intense vanilla flavor in the recipe for a really captivating and homey--yet elegant dessert.

You have to make this cake.

gah

gah

Yes you're going to need to get yourself some rye flour. I tested this recipe with both dark and light rye flour, and found the flavor difference negligible. The texture difference, on the other hand, was dramatic--the dark rye flour had an unpleasant whole-grain chunkiness that I could not abide in my cake.

The good news is that light rye flour is easier to find anyway--I picked up mine at my local farmer's market (just called "whole rye flour"). Rye, turns out, is a lovely flour for cakes with its low gluten and more of the complex sugars called pentosans, which allow the cake to absorb more liquid (hence the extra dairy and oil in this cake)--making it super moist. These sugars also break apart easily when disturbed so your crumb will be very fine and short, and you will notice how little resistance the cake gives you when you cut it.

What to do with your extra rye flour? I've heard, although I have not tried it, that rye flour works well as dry shampoo. Worth a shot?

I've learned a lot about rye since I started working on this recipe. The main illusion of which I was disabused during this process was related to flavor. What I thought was "rye bread flavor" didn't come from rye flour at all, but from caraway seeds. 

Caraway seeds are tough little bastards. MINUTES of whizzing around my mini food processor could not reduce these buggers to dust. I resorted to my mortar and pestle, which worked pretty well, although they resisted me as much as they could. Or, you know, just buy ground caraway seeds.

Oh I haven't even gotten to the ermine yet. Richer and creamier in mouthfeel than Swiss Meringue Buttercream but just as silky, and even easier. It's not too different from the custard buttercream a few posts back, but rather than a custard we have more of a pudding--no eggs. Ermine has a long history in American sweetcraft--it was the original frosting used for red velvet cakes. If you have a handle on making roux, you'll have no trouble with this. Just whisk, whisk, whisk, as you add the cream/milk so you won't have lumps.

roux goo

roux goo

It has a rich, fully body so it is perfect under fondant and pipes beautifully. It also tastes WONDERFUL. Seriously. If you've never had ermine, you owe it to yourself to try it. You might never go back.

it frosts up so smooth! 

it frosts up so smooth! 

Ermine Buttercream

4 Tbsp. flour

1/4 c. milk

3/4 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. granulated sugar

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. salt

2 c. unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 c. powdered sugar, or to taste

Combine milk and cream. Place flour and 1/3 c. of the milk/cream mixture in a small saucepan. Whisk constantly over low heat until mixture thickens. Add remaining liquid and sugar, boil over low heat for about 2 minutes until mixture is thick as paste and bubbling. Transfer to a small bowl and refrigerate until cool. Whip butter, salt, vanilla, and powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cool pudding in small batches and whip until smooth and combined.  

If you don't like frosting because it's too sweet, or because you just don't like a mouthful of butter, try this buttercream--it is a revelation.

I highly recommend trimming this cake since the rye flour makes an especially tough/dark "rind"

I highly recommend trimming this cake since the rye flour makes an especially tough/dark "rind"

I finished this cake with hand painted fondant design that was inspired by this transitional time between summer and fall. A few touches of gold, a little fondant ribbon, and my heart is all aswole.

 

 

Vanilla Rye Cake

3/4 c. (88 g.) cake flour (White Lily)

1 c. (105 g.) light rye flour

1 3/4 tsp. (6 g.) aluminum-free baking powder

4 Tbsp. butter, softened

1 1/2 c. (310 g.) sugar

1 1/2 tsp. caraway seeds, ground finely

1/3 c. canola or vegetable oil

2 Tbsp. vanilla extract or one vanilla bean, scraped

3 yolks

2 eggs

1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 c. buttermilk

1/2 c. heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk flours and baking powder together thoroughly and set aside. Whip heavy cream to stiff peaks and set aside in the refrigerator. Whip butter, caraway seeds, and sugar until light and fluffy, then add oil, vanilla extract or vanilla beans, and salt and whip until combined. Add yolks, then eggs, one at a time, and beat until uniform and fluffy. Add buttermilk and mix until incorporated. Sprinkle in 1/3 of the dry ingredients and mix until combined, then add the rest and mix until just combined. Fold in whipped cream.

Divide batter among two or three greased and floured 8" or 9" pans and tap on the counter to remove large air bubbles. Bake for 30-40 minutes until centers are fully set and spring back when pressed. Allow to cool completely in the pan, then split, fill, and frost.

Honey Pepper Pistachio Brittle by Molly Brodak

Brittle is one of those dusty dinosaurs I pass up in the candy shop. Who wants that overly-sweet and dull filling-puller anymore? Those flavorless untoasted, unsalted peanuts staring at you from their sugar-glass tombs like a thousand sad eyes? Yeah no. It's the bottom of candy mountain.

Maybe it is because we are just starting to dip our toes into nostalgia-inducing autumn that I decided to dust off this codger candy and figure out how to update it a little, maybe even make it delicious.

First off, peanuts are out. Of course I have to admit I have a personal bias against peanuts and peanut butter because I find the entire peanut-flavor-world gross, but also there are just so many much more flavorful and interesting nuts worth employing in candy making. I tested this recipe with hazelnuts, pistachios and pecans and all were fantastic, so feel free to swap in your star nut.

pecans are my other star nut

pecans are my other star nut

I also tested this recipe with more nuts so that it looked like old fashioned peanut brittle, with the candy just serving as a thin mortar holding together a tightly-packed cobblestone street of nuts. But it was too nutty for me; it tasted like someone accidentally got a little sugar syrup into the nut bowl, so I pulled back and made it somewhat more proportionally akin to chocolate bark or toffee with inclusions. But you can definitely increase the nuts here if you want your nutty cobblestone street.

beauts

beauts

So onto the brittle. In order to make this hard candy less tooth-breaking and more, well, brittle, we add baking soda, which presents challenges. Side note--don't ever let anyone tell you that baking soda "adds bubbles" to candy/cake/whatever--it doesn't add any bubbles, just expands the air bubbles already present in any liquid/batter. Without it, our brittle would be as hard as a rock, so really we want a lot of baking soda for a nice light crunch. But baking soda also, you know, tastes like baking soda. Adding too much and you'll get that horribly bitter bite, the unmistakable baking soda error. But don't worry, that's not this--I use a little more baking soda than most recipes, but not so much that you can taste it.

We want an ideal nut, a good crispy texture, and lots of flavor. Most brittle recipes use a proportion of 2:1 white sugar and corn syrup, as the syrup helps stabilize the sugar crystallization. It's necessary, but flavorless--it's a no brainer then to sub honey for corn syrup as it imparts that beautiful, fragrant honey flavor, which is so nice with pistachios.

Butterwise, I noticed a lot of brittle recipes are surprisingly light on this key element--just a couple tablespoons. I doubled the amount so the brittle tastes noticeably buttery instead of just sugary. Pushing the butter envelope too far resulted in heavy, greasy candy, so it seems four tablespoons was the limit.

shoutout to the baking mat company that doesn't know the difference between the words urban and urbane

shoutout to the baking mat company that doesn't know the difference between the words urban and urbane

Pepper adds a savory note and a slight kick that is so welcome in super sweet candy--it's going to seem like a lot of pepper when you're grinding it out but I promise it's right. A pinch of cinnamon is there just to help scaffold that pepper in the flavor profile with some warmth, but feel free to add more if you want a distinct cinnamon flavor. 

grind, stunt, go hard

grind, stunt, go hard

It's buttery, crunchy, amazingly flavorful, andIt's a pretty simple recipe, and yes you will need a candy thermometer (this is mine), but don't be intimidated. The incredibly addictive candy you'll have on your hands makes a perfect movie snack or the ideal gift--great for your gluten-free friends, and can be made vegan by swapping in vegan margarine. If a staunch brittle-hater like me can be converted into the kind of maniac who stashes a ziplock baggie of this stuff on her nightstand, you know it's a new day for this granny candy.

the pecan version is equally delicious

the pecan version is equally delicious

Honey Pepper Pistachio Brittle

Makes about 1 pound of candy

1 1/2 c. (300 g.) sugar

1/4 c. (85 g.) honey

1/4 c. (60 g.) water

4 Tbsp. (60 g.) unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1 tsp. (3 g.) vanilla extract

1 tsp. (5 g.) baking soda

1/4 tsp. (1 g.) ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. (3 g.) fine sea salt

1/4 tsp. (1 g.) freshly ground black pepper

1 c. (125 g.) roasted and salted pistachios

Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray or line with a silicone baking mat. Stir together baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Place butter and vanilla extract into a small bowl and place both bowls, along with the nuts, next to your stovetop.

In a heavy saucepan, bring water, sugar, and honey to a rolling boil over medium high heat and clip in your thermometer. Stirring occasionally with a silicone spatula, cook to 260 degrees F (hard ball stage) which may take 10 to 15 minutes. Add vanilla and butter, then nuts, stirring to mix thoroughly. 

Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes until mixture reaches 305 degrees F (hard crack stage). Remove from heat and mix in the baking soda mixture, stirring vigorously until the candy expands and foams uniformly. Quickly pour the candy onto the prepared baking sheet and spread lightly with a spatula so the mixture is even--but don't squish it around too much or you will pop all the precious bubbles that make your brittle crunchy. Allow to cool for about an hour and break into bite sized pieces. Be sure to store in an airtight container or the candy will lose its crunch.

all of this was gone in 24 hrs

all of this was gone in 24 hrs

The Pinnacle of Shortbread Mountain by Molly Brodak

I realized recently I have been doing so much cake-work in my sweetcraft practice. Time to get back to basics. The most basic of all basics, shortbread, which is, if executed well, hardly basic. 

Recipes for shortbread should be, well, pretty short--this is a recipe about butter, and if you start mucking things up with bips and babs (chocolate, lavender, caramel, etc) you're not really doing shortbread. Shortbread's purpose begins and ends with chauffeuring butter to your palate.

I wanted to create a shortbread recipe that would ensure the most toasty, buttery flavor possible while maintaining an exceptionally tender texture, not overly sandy, dull, or pasty. (Almost) as always, a little bit of extra work makes a dessert that is enormously more extraordinary. We've got three different sugars, two different butters, two different flours, a resting period, and a bit of egg yolk coming down the line--still, it's a very easy recipe.

Let's start with butter, as we should. It makes sense to want to reach for a really expensive, European high-fat/cultured butter for a recipe like this. And, indeed, we will. But as most bakers will tell you, you can't always swap in your Plugra for your standard American butter. It has a slightly higher fat content, less water, and is often cultured (making it slightly acidic), all of which affects recipes substantially. Rest assured this recipe is adjusted for Euro-butter factors.

We're also going to to use browned butter for half of the total butter requirements. All-browned butter in a shortbread recipe would create a butter a little too solid, since so much more water is evaporated from browning the butter, little is left to create steam/rise in the dough. But we really, really want those little flavor bits that browned butter imparts, so a balance must be struck.

look at those precious chunks of browned milk solids!

look at those precious chunks of browned milk solids!

With our higher-fat Euro butter in play, we need to make some adjustments to the flour. Cake flour has the ability to absorb more liquids than all-purpose flour, but using all cake flour can leave you with a chalky shortbread. All purpose with a small portion of cake flour gives us the right texture and prevents the shortbread from becoming greasy due to the extra fat. Definitely use your scale here; in one test batch I added just half an ounce more flour and the resulting shortbread was too dry.

Often a little bit of starch is also added to the dough in order to help soak up some of that fat, and give the shortbread a silky tenderness. This is where our mix of sugars comes in. White sugar melts fast and will create the right structure for the starches and proteins, powdered sugar adds a silkiness thanks to the cornstarch, and brown sugar just for that light molasses-y flavor.

All that's left, ingredient wise, is some egg yolk. Purists would balk at adding egg to shortbread, but purists would also be too busy choking on a mouthful of their powdery sand cakes that explode into dust upon biting into them to admit that the old fashioned recipe for shortbread needs a little more structure, a little more protein in order to make it flaky and tender instead of a dust bomb. Just half an egg yolk; a full yolk would prevent shortbread from being "short" enough (refers to the extremely fine/melting crumb). Trust me, you'll see.

I also knew that, as with many other cookie recipes, letting the dough rest would result in a more flavorful shortbread. Unrested, you are baking flour particles next to butter particles in your dough, which is fine. But rested, you are baking butter-soaked flour particles, which is great. I tested the recipe at three stages--unrested, rested for two hours, and rested overnight. Guess which one tasted best.

The unrested dough tasted mostly like flour. Both rested doughs tasted fantastically buttery and complex. Texture-wise, they weren't that different; the unrested dough was slightly chalkier.

The good news is that the batch rested for two hours tasted pretty great, almost as great as the 24-hr shortbread, so if you are in a hurry you'll still come out ahead with just a little resting.

they don't look very different, but they sure tasted different

they don't look very different, but they sure tasted different

Thick shortbread is better than thin shortbread if you want a truly tender bite instead of just a crisp one. Double baking the shortbread a la biscotti will give you the most beautifully browned and crisp exterior; I highly recommend it. I also recommend removing the center of your shortbread if using a round tart pan since the center will never really get cooked, and those pointed edges of each wedge will always break anyway (see my set up above; I use a metal biscuit cutter as a center stay). A rectangular pan also works great here, just make sure you are using a pan with a removable bottom as the shortbread is really delicate.

The Best Shortbread Ever

makes 12-14 wedges 

8 Tbsp (4 oz) salted cultured European-style butter, soft but cool (Plugra, Lurpak, etc)

8 Tbsp (4 oz) browned butter, cooled to semi-solid

1/4 c. (1.75 oz) packed light brown sugar

2 Tbsp (0.9 oz) sugar

2 Tbsp (0.5 oz) powdered sugar

1/2 large egg yolk

2 tsp vanilla extract or scraped vanilla bean

1/4 tsp salt

2 c. (9.5 oz) all-purpose flour

1/4 c. (1 oz) cake flour (I use White Lily)

1 Tbsp Demerara or sanding sugar for sprinkling

With a hand mixer, beat softened butters, sugars, salt, 1/2 egg yolk, and vanilla extract/beans until just combined and smooth, about 2 minutes (stop before mixture begins to fluff up). Add flours and beat just until dough comes together; do not over mix.

Press dough into a 8" tart pan or cheesecake pan with removable bottom and pat the top with wet fingers to smooth. Dock the dough with a fork and sprinkle demerara sugar on top. Cover and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Bake in an oven preheated to 275 degrees for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and turn the heat up to 375. Allow shortbread to cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then cut into wedges and transfer carefully to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for an additional 15 minutes until toasted to a golden brown. Allow to cool completely before storing in an air-tight container.

possibly the most addictive thing on the planet

possibly the most addictive thing on the planet

Hazelnut Apricot Kokeshi Doll Cake by Molly Brodak

Hazelnuts are the diamonds of the nut world. My beloved pecans come in at a close second for baking purposes, but no other nut can touch the level of flavor that hazelnuts provide. They hold their own against the powerful flavor of chocolate, as any nutella lover knows, and have the brightest, sweetest, almost fruitiest flavor of any nut. 

This hazelnut cake, y'all, I have to admit--it's absolutely my favorite cake at the moment. It's secret? Three words for you: double-toasted hazelnut butter.

smells like angels

smells like angels

I was experimenting with hazelnuts for days before making this cake. I tried toasting them at different temps--high and fast, then low and slow--but the difference was minimal. I tried grinding them finer then coarser and adding the differently-sized chunks to the cake batter--the flavor was basically the same. I tried pan-frying them in butter, dry roasting, brining, candying--everything I could think of. But only one move gave me the intense flavor I was looking for, and it was so simple. 

I ground the lightly toasted hazelnuts in a food processor until a butter/paste formed, then spread that hazelnut butter onto a bit of foil and popped it in the toaster oven to toast again. The toasted hazelnut butter was otherworldly. Hazelnut butter is great on its own, but still had that dull raw nut flavor I dislike so much. This stuff was exactly what I was looking for--sweet, toasty, insanely flavorful--like someone had turned the hazelnut dial up to 11.

I added it to the cake batter, then paired the resulting hazelnut cake with an easy apricot compote. And honestly, I think you can just stop right there. The buttercream and ganache and fondant were necessary here to build the cake I wanted to make, but flavor-wise the hazelnut and apricot were perfect together. Although a very old-fashioned staple of Continental patisserie, apricots really have an almost tropical flavor, with more acid than the other stone fruits and the kind of brightness that works so perfectly with heavy, dark flavors. 

With a hearty amount of double-toasted hazelnut butter, I knew this cake would have plenty of structure going for it, so I wasn't going to need the butter portion of my usual butter-oil ratio that keeps my cakes both stable and moist. But I really wanted a toasty, buttery flavor here--clarified butter was the obvious solution.

Ridding our butter of those pesky milk solids and the water leaves us with pure butterfat, which will function as the perfect oil in our cake and add a buttery, toasty flavor.

Of course you can buy clarified butter, or ghee, to cut down your prep time, but homemade is better here since you can keep your butter cooking until the solids are cooked very dark, almost burnt, and the clarified butter will have that fantastically nutty browned-butter flavor to add even more depth to this cake. I highly recommend making a large batch of clarified butter and saving the remainder in the fridge for other purposes since it is such a flavorful and versatile cooking oil.

Since I was in middle school I have loved kokeshi, traditional wooden dolls carved from a single block of wood found primarily in Northern Japan with a legacy that dates back to the Edo period.  I love their simplicity and tranquility. Other than carving the head and a little handpainting on the fondant, I knew this shape would be a pretty simple but interesting design for even a beginner to pull off.

I think it would make a fantastic birthday cake for a girl. Next time I'm going to try an even more minimal approach, keeping it all wood-grain toned with just a few accents of paint as the older style kokeshi are made.

the head was supported by a cardboard round cut to shape, and a bubble-tea straw through the body kept the head in place

the head was supported by a cardboard round cut to shape, and a bubble-tea straw through the body kept the head in place

head awaiting fondant

head awaiting fondant

I used a 5" Fat Daddio's half-sphere pan and a stack of 6" rounds for the body, and buttercreamed and ganached it all together and handpainted a pine needle motif on her kimono. 

awaiting paint. Her hair was shined up with a coat of confectioner's glaze.

awaiting paint. Her hair was shined up with a coat of confectioner's glaze.

such a sweet face! literally!

such a sweet face! literally!

Hazelnut Apricot Cake

makes two 8" layers

4 ripe fresh apricots, peeled and diced finely

1 Tbsp. sugar

7.1 oz. cake flour (I use White Lily)

8 g. (about 2 tsp) aluminum-free baking powder

1/2 c. heavy cream

10.5 oz. (about 1.5 c.) granulated sugar

1/3 c. water

1/2 c. (4 oz) clarified butter

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 yolks, room temp

2 eggs, room temp

1 c. toasted and peeled hazelnuts (try to remove all of the skins, as the skins will add bitterness to your hazelnut butter)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare pans by greasing and flouring them. With a hand mixer, mix the flour and baking powder thoroughly in a small bowl until no lumps remain. Rinse beaters and use to whip cream in a cold bowl to firm peaks. Place whipped cream in the fridge. 

Prepare apricot compote by placing finely-chopped apricots into a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon of sugar. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes or until rendered down to half volume and mixture is thick and gelled. Allow to cool in the fridge.

Place hazelnuts in a food processor and grind until a paste forms (1 cup of hazelnuts will reduce down to about 1/2 cup of hazelnut butter). Continue grinding until mostly smooth. Spread hazelnut butter onto a piece of foil, and place into toaster oven (or under the broiler in a regular oven, but a toaster oven works really well for this purpose). Toast until golden brown, stirring and flipping the chunks of hazelnut butter around to evenly toast and prevent burning. Set aside to cool.

In a saucepan, heat sugar and water over medium heat until most of the sugar is dissolved. Stir frequently or use your hand mixer to speed up the process (be careful that the cord is kept away from the burner). Do not allow mix to boil. Once the sugar is mostly dissolved, pour into a large bowl and add clarified butter, salt, and vanilla, mixing until smooth.  Sprinkle 1/3 of the flour mix into the wet ingredients and mix well on low, then gradually add the rest but do not overbeat. Set mixer aside and grab a spatula and whisk. At this point, the mixture should be warm but not too hot to touch--If your sugar mixture is still very hot, allow it to cool--you don't want to cook your eggs.

Add the yolks next, one at a time, mixing in by hand with whisk, then the eggs. Mix in the hazelnut butter for just a few seconds with your mixer. Then gently fold whip cream into the mixture with a spatula until completely combined. Pour into prepared pans and tap them hard several times on the counter to release large air bubbles. Bake anywhere from 20--40 minutes depending on your pan sizes and depth. Cakes are done when their centers spring back, they no longer jiggle when moved, and the edges just begin to pull away from the sides. I don't recommend poking anything into your cakes to test doneness--just a quick press with your finger in the center will tell you all you need to know. Cool, level, and split cakes if desired. Spread cooled cakes with apricot compote and frost if desired with buttercream, ganache, or both.

Peach Buttermilk Cake by Molly Brodak

This terrible thing happened to my tree, which is where our story starts. My spindly but well-loved peach tree.

I planted this peach tree in our front yard myself. I nurtured it, fed it, checked on its growth and progress obsessively. I documented its budding, flowering, and fruiting. I selectively pruned away 60% of the green peaches to make sure the remaining fruit would be large and flavorful. I monitored their progress for months. 

Phone photos evidence my mania.

Then, I found one underdeveloped little peach on the lawn, half-gnawed. I was enraged. Little nibbly bites meant squirrels.

I festooned the tree with yards and yards of bird netting and secured it. Just for good measure, I sprayed all of the now-protected peaches with hot pepper spray which is supposed to burn the devil out of any little sneaky rodent mouths.

I checked on my peaches almost every day

I checked on my peaches almost every day

The peaches kept disappearing. One morning, I found only three remained. More netting, more spray, and yes--I resorted to watching from the porch. 

Soon the netting stakes were uprooted and every last peach was gone. Every. Single. Peach. Eaten by squirrels.

I admit it--I cried. I had been delightfully counting my proverbial chickens before they proverbially hatched, planning all the wonderful things I would make with those peaches. I started to plan my defenses for next year, which, I assure you, will be no mere cosmetic application of nets and staking. I'm going to build a goddamn fortress around this tree. And I will have homegrown Georgia peaches--next year.

Fortunately for me, LOTS of good people in Georgia grow fantastic peaches mere miles from my doorstep, so acquiring local peaches was no epic task.

Thank you Pearson Farm

Thank you Pearson Farm

This is one of the things I would have made with my peaches. Turns out, peaches from just down the road are just as tasty in this buttermilk cake.

Although many cake recipes use a touch of buttermilk as a tenderizer, this cake has a wonderfully pronounced buttermilk flavor because it simply has more. It tastes so buttermilky it reminds me of biscuits! So it pairs well with the sweet and fragrant flavor of fresh peaches. Often I will cook down a fruit I plan to incorporate into a cake batter (like strawberries, for example) to remove some of the water from the fruit and intensify its flavor, but I knew cooking these peaches would have destroyed their fresh taste and was also unnecessary, since they are already very intensely flavorful. 

There is a lot of liquid in this cake, so a 50/50 mix of cake flour (I always use White Lily) and all-purpose flour will help keep the cake's structure intact. I recommend cooking this cake fully and allowing it to cool completely in the pan, as it is a delicate cake and can't take rough or rushed handling. A small amount of cornstarch in the batter helps to keep inclusions (like peach chunks) from sinking to the bottom of the pan while the cakes rise. Still, some will fall to the bottom--if you chop your peaches finely there is less of a chance they will all settle downward.

I frosted this cake with my version of 7-minute, or cooked flour, buttercream (post on this soon) and outfitted her in dusty blue fondant and an ombre swath of pink gumpaste spray roses. It's funny...I'm not a huge fan of roses, but somehow when they are made very small I suddenly love them. I guess it is a cuteness thing. The wafer paper leaves add light and transparency to the arrangement, although I'm still woking on a good system for getting the wires to stick to the leaves--it's much more annoying than gumpaste leaves!

Peach Buttermilk Cake

6 oz. all-purpose flour

6 oz. cake flour (White Lily)

1 Tbsp. corn starch

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

12 Tbsp. butter, softened

12 oz. sugar

1/3 c. vegetable oil

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

4 eggs, room temperature

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

2 c. finely diced fresh peaches (about 3)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix or whisk dry ingredients thoroughly and set aside. Whip butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add oil, vanilla extract, and salt and whip until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until uniform and fluffy. Sprinkle in 1/3 of the dry ingredients and mix until combined, then add the rest and mix until just combined. Mix in buttermilk until smooth. Fold in peaches.

Divide batter among two or three greased and floured 8" or 9" pans and gently smooth tops--do not tap pans to remove air bubbles. Bake for 30-40 minutes until centers are fully set and spring back when pressed--undercooking will result in a gummy texture. Allow to cool completely in the pan, then split, fill, and frost.

I dare you to come get this one, squirrel jerks

I dare you to come get this one, squirrel jerks