A Southern Grace: August 2011

August 31, 2011

cream of the crop


I didn't tell you guys at the time, but I decorated my first wedding cake this summer. No, not the cake for my own first wedding--that has yet to occur. My friend, being suitably impressed with my mad skills (she says halfway facetiously), asked if I'd be willing to take on the challenge for her big day. I was indeed willing, for she's a great friend (and not at all prone to bridezilla behavior).

To make a long story short, I have a new appreciation for wedding cake decorators. This particular creation was three tiers of lemon cake with lemon-flavored swiss meringue buttercream, and it was quite an undertaking. There was a lot of recipe testing and tasting, for both the cake and the frosting. (That part was not a struggle.) I also learned all about proper support and transportation and symmetry, which I'm sure will be useful for future endeavors. I had big plans for the designs on the side of each cake, but when the day came around, time and amount of experience were not on my side. The end result was still lovely and the bride was pleased, but I was exhausted, a little disappointed, and a lot more admiring of you professionals out there.

My friend wanted deep purple calla lilies to accent her cake--aren't they a gorgeous color!?!
Another lesson learned: Adding lemon zest to the frosting makes it IMPOSSIBLE to get a perfectly smooth application.

Speaking of wedding cakes, I'll bet most of you are familiar with the classic Italian cream wedding cake. It's chock-full of pecans and coconut, and it requires the separation of eggs and some white whippage to produce a lighter, more tender crumb. It's delicious and full of great textures (and coated with cream cheese frosting), but because of this, I don't think it's a cake of which you'd want multiple tiers. That's just asking for a cake collapse.

Eye-talian Cream Wedding Cake
(based on this classic)

2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
5 large eggs, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
cream cheese frosting

Preheat oven to 350°F and grease up three 9-inch round cake pans.
In a bowl with an electric mixer beat together sugar, shortening, and butter until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Into another bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Beat flour mixture into egg mixture in two batches alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat in vanilla, coconut, and chopped pecans.
Beat egg whites in another bowl until they just hold stiff peaks and fold into batter gently but thoroughly.
Divide batter among pans, smoothing tops, and bake in upper two thirds of oven, switching position of pans in oven halfway through baking, until a tester comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool cake layers in pans on racks 10 minutes and invert onto racks to cool completely.
Fill and frost lavishly with cream cheese frosting. Decorate as desired.

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August 22, 2011

ore-oh no, she didn't!


I'd like to thank the maker of muffin cups, who brilliantly made the base the exact size of many types of cookies--Oreos, 'Nilla Wafers, and the like. They're the perfect ready-made crust for many treats.

So by now, you probably don't believe me when I tell you I don't like cheesecake. That statement (be it true or not) is irrelevant in this case, as these cakes really taste nothing like cheesecake at all. What they taste like to me is an Oreo cookie that's been dipped in milk until it's reached the point of perfect sogginess softness. In my opinion, that's all kinds of yummy.

This recipe comes from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes, which has yet to steer me in the wrong direction. If you want a cool, creamy bite that's quick and easy to make and tastes everything like Oreos and very little like cheesecake, give this one a go.

Oreo Cheesecake Cups
from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes

42 cream-filled sandwich cookies, such as Oreos, 30 left whole, and 12 coarsely chopped
2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
1 cup sour cream
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line standard muffin tins with paper liners. Place 1 whole cookie in the bottom of each lined cup.
With an electric mixer on medium high speed, beat cream cheese until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Gradually add sugar, and beat until combined. Beat in vanilla.
Drizzle in eggs, a bit at a time, beating to combine and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in sour cream and salt. Stir in chopped cookies by hand.
Divide batter evenly among cookie-lined cups, filling each almost to the top. Bake, rotating pan halfway through, until filling is set, about 22 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (or up to overnight). Remove from tins just before serving.

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August 14, 2011

break out the lederhosen


German is a fun language--from what I can tell, there's a lot of phlegm-rattling and that's always a good time. Plus, some of their words are ridiculously lengthy. Try saying whoppers like vergangenheitsbewältigung and schwangerschaftverhütungsmitte five times fast.

I like their food, too--I'll take all but the worst of the wursts, the warm potato salad, the spaetzle. Good stuff. I was all set to list German chocolate cake among those, and then I found that its conception wasn't German at all--it's named after an American man called Sam German. Oops!

Regardless of its origins, I love the flavors combined in German chocolate cake. The chocolate itself is subtle yet just rich enough, and the frosting, which consists of toasted coconut and pecans swathed in a custardy goo, is hard to resist simply eating with a spoon.

These cookies include all of those aspects (save the custardy goo), and they are an absolute pleasure. They're hearty and thick and full of crunchies and chewies and tasties. Be sure to toast both the pecans and the coconut--it changes the texture and flavor completely!

Das schmeckt gut!

German Chocolate Coconut-Pecan Cookies
from The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett

2 1/4 cups shredded or flaked sweetened coconut
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 large egg
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon coconut extract
1 4-ounce bar German's sweet chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray cookie sheet with non-stick spray
Spread the coconut and pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 9 minutes, or until lightly browned; be careful not to burn. Let stand until cool; set aside.
In a medium bowl, thoroughly stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, with a electric mixer on medium speed, beat together the brown sugar and butter until very well blended and light. Beat in the egg, corn syrup, vanilla, and coconut extract until well blended. Beat or stir in the flour mixture, then the pecans, coconut, and chocolate, until evenly incorporated.
Drop the dough onto the baking sheets by heaping measuring tablespoons, spacing about 3 inches apart. Using the tip of a table knife, spread out the cookies to about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 6 to 9 minutes, or until lightly browned all over and slightly darker at the edges. Transfer the sheet to a wire rack and let stand until the cookies firm up slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a spatula, transfer cookies to wire racks. Let stand until completely cooled.

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August 8, 2011

jack of all trades, master of none (also, a giveaway)


There are a lot of activities for which my skills are passable, and sometimes even impressive, but I've never been called a master. The same cannot be said of Whitney Miller, winner of last year's season of MasterChef.

She handled both the snarling and temperamental Gordon Ramsay and dour, cantankerous Joe Bastianich with good ol' Southern class and aplomb. I was really impressed by that and pulled for her from the get-go. To add to my respect for her, she's now come out with a terrific cookbook called Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm, in which dear Whitney treats readers to a fresh take on classic dishes that have been passed down throughout generations of Southern women in her family. The book features everything from comforting beef chili to clever upside-down quiches to surprising sun-dried tomato and cranberry ketchup, complete with lovely pictures and short descriptions of each dish.

One of the recipes I opted to use as a gauge for her greatness was for Toasted Coconut Cupcakes with Lemon Glaze, and it yielded some magnificent little treats. Although I went ahead and frosted some with a bit of coconut swiss meringue buttercream (yeah, I did it), the lemon glaze was a wonderful accompaniment to the soft, fluffy, nutty cakes.

Toasted Coconut Cupcakes
from Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm by Whitney Miller

1 1/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg plus 2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten, at room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon canned coconut water
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
Lemon Glaze
3/8 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the cups of one 12-cup muffin tin and 4 cups of a second 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
To make the cupcakes: Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
Place the butter in a large bowl and stir until it reaches a creamy consistency. Slowly stir the sugar into the butter. Slowly stir in the egg mixture. Add one-third of the flour mixture. Add one-half of the milk. Continue adding them alternately, ending with the flour mixture. Stir the batter after each addition. Stir in the coconut water and vanilla.
Fill the paper liners half full of batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 14 minutes. Leave the oven on. Transfer cupcakes to a rack to cool, about 20 minutes.
To make the topping: Spread the coconut on a baking sheet and bake until lightly browned and fragrant, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a shallow bowl and let cool.
To make the lemon glaze: Mix together the lemon zest, lemon juice, 2 T water, and confectioners' sugar in a small shallow bowl.
To assemble, dip the top of a cooled cupcake in the glaze. Immediately dip the glazed top in the coconut. Allow the glaze to set before serving or storing the cupcakes.

I also tried a recipe that required me to step out of my comfort zone. Although I enjoy basil pesto, I had my doubts that anything involving turnip greens could be edible, much less delicious. To my surprise, Whitney's Turnip Greens Pesto was flavorful and perfect to use as dressing for a batch of Mediterranean pasta salad.

Turnip Greens Pesto
from Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm by Whitney Miller

11 turnip green leaves, ribs removed
2 1/2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 garlic clove, peeled
Salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Place the turnip greens two at a time in the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove the leaves and drain on paper towels and pat dry. Stack the leaves on top of one another. Roll into a cigar and cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the walnuts on a baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted, about 5 minutes.
Place the turnip green strips in a food processor. Add the toasted walnuts, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Process until it begins to form a paste, about 2 minutes. With the processor running, drizzle in oil and butter. Add the Parmesan andpulse 2 or 3 times. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Transfer the pesto to a small bowl.

Well done, Whitney. Keep up the good work--you're doing us Southern gals proud!

Good news! I have an extra copy of Whitney's cookbook, so if you'd like a shot to have it on your bookshelf, leave a comment below and you'll be entered to win. Tell me who intimidates you more, Gordon or Joe? Tell me if you agree that Graham is almost completely useless as a judge. Tell me who you're pulling for this season. Tell me you've never seen the show before in your life and have better things to do with your time. Regardless, I'll close the comments on August 14th, do a random drawing, and contact the winner shortly thereafter (assuming he or she leaves a way to be reached). Good luck!

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August 1, 2011

jammed with jam


The East India Company has struck again! Last time, they bestowed upon me some of the most flavorful pepper jelly I'd ever encountered, and now they're back with some extraordinary strawberry and pepper jam.

Are you noticing a theme here?

This jam was, first of all, gorgeous to behold, with the deepest burgundy hue imaginable. Secondly, it tasted fantastic--very complex, sweet with a bit of a kick in the background. No, let's call it more of a nudge than a kick. Whatever its degree of potency, it was a joy to eat on my morning biscuit.

I also tried the jam mixed with fresh strawberries as the filling to some hand pies. The kick nudge from the black pepper was diluted into a caress, but it was still there. Plus, I'm always up for some flaky, buttery crust, pretty much regardless of what's contained within it. Yes, it was an interesting and pleasing dessert, if I do say so myself.

Houston, we have a cinnamon dispersal problem.

The East India Company is officially two for two.

Spicy Strawberry Hand Pies
2 cups strawberries, stemmed and mashed
1/2 cup strawberry & pepper jam (or whatever sticky product you have on hand)
1 cup whole strawberries, stemmed and chopped

Sweet Butter Pie Dough:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3-4 tablespoons cold buttermilk (or milk with a bit of lemon juice)

In a small bowl, combine vanilla and buttermilk, stir to combine and set aside. In a large bowl, add flour, sugar, and salt and whisk to combine. Use a pastry cutter or two knives to cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk mixture a bit at a time and stir in until dough comes together.
Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and shape into a flat disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least one hour.
Meanwhile, make the filling by stirring together the mashed berries and jam and then folding in the remaining berries.
After the dough has chilled, turn it out onto a floured work surface and divide in two; rewrap one half and place it back in fridge to stay cold. Roll the pie dough out until it reaches a thickness of about 1/8". Using round pastry cutter (or a bowl, if that happens to be all that you have...), cut out about 4-5" rounds. Place rounds onto the baking sheet and back into the fridge if necessary. If not, place about 2-3 tablespoons of the strawberry mixture into center of each round.
Using a pastry brush dipped in a small amount of egg, brush the edge of half of each round. Fold dry edge onto egg-brushed half, forming semicircle shape, and press edges together with a fork to seal in an aesthetically-pleasing manner. Brush the top of each pie with the egg mixture and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Use a small knife to make a 1 inch slit in the top of the pie for steam to escape. Repeat with remaining pastry dough.
Place the pies in the oven and bake at 350F until tops are beginning to turn golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool on sheets for 7-10 minutes and then transfer to wire rack to cool completely. Serve warm or at room temperature, preferably smothered in vanilla ice cream.

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