Galaxy Whoopie Pies

Galaxy Whoopie PiesFor the past two years, I’ve participated in a recipe round-up of Oscar-inspired treats based on the films nominated for Best Picture; thanks to Haley who is so kind to invite me back time and time again! If you’re a dear friend/long-time reader (or maybe my mom? Hi, Mom!), you might remember the Lemon Chantilly Cream Puffs I made two years back for The Grand Budapest Hotel or the Chocolate Stout Cannoli I dreamt up for Brooklyn last year. For this award season, I was super excited to be paired with the film, Hidden Figures, which immediately inspired these Galaxy Whoopie Pies!

I’ve been wanting to try my hand at the galaxy-themed dessert trend for a while now, but I won’t lie – making homemade buttercream and tinting all those colors both felt a little intimidating and like a lot of work. While delicious work it is, indeed, making those gorgeous, nebulous swirls is easy peasy with the right supplies.

Jackson, Vaughan, & JacksonBut before we get into the merits of gel food coloring and what size and shape pastry tip to use, let’s talk about Hidden Figures for a sec. If you haven’t yet seen it, do – not only because the vintage wardrobe of pencil skirts and fitted cardigans will make your femme heart swoon, but because you need to know this history of Black women in the space program (or at the very least, the three women whose stories are featured: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson). It’s a feel-good film, which I get sugarcoats a lot more of the racism and sexism these brilliant women, undoubtedly, faced in their careers at NASA. But it also served as a relevant story of strength and resistance for this presently fraught time. It’s definitely worth a watch even if it casts Kevin Costener as the white man savior who wasn’t even a real person in the lives of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson. I’m eye-roll-emojiing all over that!

Galaxy Whoopie PiesThese whoopie pies are delicious, but also really smart texturally: they’re moist in the center, but ever-so-slightly dry throughout to accommodate all of the thick, luscious frosting you sandwich between them. The cake has a deep, chocolate flavor, though they’re only slightly sweet, which is important because that gorgeous filling? That’s Swiss meringue buttercream, the richest, most delicious frosting of all! Yes, it’s also a complete departure from the fluffy, marshmallowy fillings of regular whoopie pies, but stay with me. In this recipe, I made a caramel Swiss meringue buttercream that is out of this world and, well, isn’t that just the most appropriate thing considering these are Galactic Whoopie Pies?

Galaxy Whoopie PiesThe ingredients here are all ones you would likely have in your pantry and fridge – Dutch-processed cocoa powder, a few sticks of unsalted butter, brown sugar, eggs, and a few other things. Things really only get fancy when it comes to creating those beautiful swirls of pink, blue, purple, and black. To achieve these intense colors, you’ll need to invest in gel food coloring. You could probably get close with the trusty McCormick set of liquid dyes that are synonymous, for many, with Easter eggs, but because they’re liquid, they’ll change the consistency of your buttercream and may even cause it to separate. Gel food coloring isn’t particularly expensive and you can pick it up at most craft stores and, of course, online. I’ve used my Wilton set for eons and still have a bunch left – a little goes a long way!

Galaxy Whoopie PiesBecause I wanted a great swirl effect, I opted for a large open star tip (#1M by Wilton – I’m not sponsored by Wilton, but I did take a Tuesday night cake decorating class at my local Joann’s a billion years ago and still have a ton of the supplies!) for my pastry bag, thinking the grooves would add a lot of definition and make the most out of all of those beautiful colors. Really, the most difficult part was getting the colors where I wanted them with the food coloring in terms of their depth and intensity. When I was ready to pipe, I simply alternated tablespoons of each color into the bag, used the dull end of a skewer to gently poke through the colors to blend them a bit, and then piped a few test stars until multiple colors came out at once. If you’ve never piped icing before, this is a great way to learn technique and tension, since you’re just piping circles and swirls as opposed to anything too elaborate. Plus, worse comes to worse, you’re going to pop a lid on these anyway!

Galaxy Whoopie PiesTo hammer home these Galactic Whoopie Pies, I played around with some edible pearlescent dust for the lids, as well as some edible glitter stars. I think the dust, in particular, added some visual interest to the lids, causing them to look a little bit like moons and planets with their craggy surfaces. And the stars? Well, they’re just pretty and make this dessert the perfect centerpiece for your Oscars viewing party. Check out the full list of talented folks taking part in this year’s recipe round-up with me below and happy watching!

Galaxy Whoopie Pies
Yields 8 whoopie pie sandwiches; whoopie pie cake recipe borrowed from here

Ingredients

For the whoopie pies:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 large egg

For the caramel buttercream:

  • 1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • small pinch of kosher salt
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Pearlescent dust (I used lilac) or edible glitter stars, optional

Directions:

For the whoopie pies:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl until combined. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in another small bowl and set aside. Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, then add egg, beating until well combined. The mixture should be pale and very, very shiny. Reduce speed to low and alternately mix in flour mixture and buttermilk mixture in batches, beginning and ending with flour, scraping down side of bowl occasionally, and mixing until smooth.

Spoon level, 1/4-cup mounds of batter about 2 inches apart onto 2 buttered large baking sheets. Gently smooth each mound and spread them slightly with an offset spatula. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed and cakes spring back when touched, 11 to 13 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

For the caramel buttercream:

First, make the caramel by adding sugar into a small saucepan with enough water to give it the texture of wet sand. Cook the sugar and water mixture on low heat until it has dissolved, then raise the heat to high and let cook until it turns golden. Swirl the pan gently, intermittently, but do not stir or attempt to stir in crystalized bits of sugar on the sides of the pan, as it could cause the caramel to seize. Don’t walk away during this stage as the sugar can burn very quickly.

While sugar is cooking, add cream to a microwaveable bowl or cup and microwave for 30 seconds, just until it begins to warm. When the sugar has turned golden brown, remove it from the heat and pour in the cream in a slow, steady stream, whisking to incorporate thoroughly. Add a very small pinch of kosher salt and whisk once or twice more. If any crystallization occurs, place the caramel back over medium heat to melt. When finished, caramel may appear thin, but it will thicken as it cools.

To make the buttercream, begin by combining the sugar and egg whites in a medium metal bowl and place over a pot of gently simmering water. Whisk the sugar mixture constantly until it becomes smooth and shiny. Continue whisking until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F, then remove the sugar mixture from the heat and pour into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the mixture has cooled. You can test this by feeling the side of the bowl. Your egg whites should be smooth, shiny, and peaked.

Next, switch to the paddle attachment and with the speed on low, add the room temperature butter one piece at a time, beating until smooth. Do not add too much butter too quickly, or beat the mixture at too high of a speed, or the buttercream may break. When all the butter has been added, switch back to the whisk attachment and beat the buttercream on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes until it is very thick and smooth. If it appears to separate briefly, continue beating and it should come back together. If at any point you get true separation – you’ll know because it will look like a horrifying mess of watery liquid and big globules of fat from the butter, don’t panic. Scoop out about half the mixture and warm it in the microwave for a minute or so. Add it back to the mixer and beat on medium, graduating to high, and it should all reincorporate.

Once the buttercream is ready, stream the caramel into the buttercream and beat to combine. If the caramel has cooled too much in the meantime, or has solidified, just give it a gentle heat on the stovetop. The buttercream is now ready to go. If you’re not going to use it immediately, place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface until you are ready to use it, to prevent it from drying out.

When you’re ready to fill your whoopie pies, separate out the buttercream into four containers and tint each one to the desired hue of pink, blue, black, or purple. Fit a pastry bag with your tip of choice, then fill the bag with alternating tablespoons of each color. Once filled, I used the dull end of a skewer to push down inside the bag and gently blend the colors. Be especially careful if you’re using a plastic, disposable pastry bag, so you don’t risk puncturing it. Test your buttercream by piping a few stars and swirls on a paper plate or napkin. You’re ready to fill the whoopie pies when multiple colors emerge at the same time.

Fill each whoopie pie with a generous swirl of galaxy buttercream, then pop a lid on and decorate the top to your heart’s desire with pearlescent dust, edible glitter, or just leave them plain – they’re pretty as a peach no matter how you finish them.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt Oranges

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesThis recipe is inspired by an old friend of my dad’s, Charlie, who used to visit us regularly for a weekend here and there when I was very small. While I’m not sure I could pick Charlie out of a line-up today if you put 6 elderly, white gentlemen in front of me with strong noses and spotted hands, my memories of time spent together are much clearer: Charlie quizzing me on my first grade vocabulary words and giving me a Tic-Tac for each one I managed to spell correctly. My father teasing him about his love for freshly grond black pepper noting that, “Charlie puts pepper on everything!” and me, my eyes wide, asking Charlie, “Even on apple pie?!” But most clearly, Charlie, coming through the door with an overnight bag in one hand and a paper bag in the other, filled with his wife, Charlene’s, chocolate cake with burnt oranges.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesCharlene’s cake was the perfect marriage of both their heritages – first generation Irish-Americans whose families lived on the same block in the Bronx growing up, making their courtship one that started in the 8th grade and lasted until they were both well into their 90s. While looking through old photographs on a visit home recently, I came across a photo from the ’70s of my young, stocky, mutton-chopped father sandwiched between Charlie and Charlene, a grocery bag at his feet with what I can only imagine is a chocolate cake with burnt oranges for him to carry home to my mother and me.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesChocolate cake with burnt oranges isn’t actually a “thing,” such as peanut butter and jelly or bagels and lox. In Ireland, burnt oranges are their own dessert, a sweet and bitter compote, spiked with whiskey, that caramelizes in the oven with butter and sugar and are then eaten, cooled, with cream or custard. Somewhere along the way, though, Charlene rather brilliantly decided to pair this golden-hued sauce with a dark chocolate cake and, well, she should be properly canonized for it. The oranges add the perfect bit of bitterness to offset the richness and sweetness from both the cake itself and the orange-caramel syrup produced by the oranges while roasting. Spooned over an already moist cake, the oranges and their amber juices turn the cake’s texture into one, almost, like a steamed pudding – soft and treacly.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesSadly, Charlene’s exact recipe is lost to history, as both she and Charlie passed on long ago, well beyond I became consciously interested in cooking and baking. I remember it enough to think, though, that this recipe is fairly close and, if my memory does fail me at all, well, this is awfully good too. What this recipe lacks in visual appeal (in addition to this weird set of half-cropped photos I’ve, somehow, managed here!), it makes up for in flavor – of which it has a lot! Share this with your favorite chocolate-orange lover or after your St. Patrick’s day dinner. With a swirl of whipped cream and a cup of tea or, better yet, an Irish coffee, this cake is sure to leave you returning for seconds.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt Oranges
Cake is Ina Garten’s recipe. Oranges adapted from here & here.

Ingredients
For the cake
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Powdered sugar for garnish

For the burnt oranges
3 large navel oranges, scrubbed clean
7 tablespoons of butter, softened and separated
3-1/2 cups of granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1-1/2 tablespoons of Irish whiskey (brandy may also be substituted)
1/2 cup of orange juice, fresh-squeezed or bottled
1/8 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Directions
For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour one 10″ bundt pan and set aside.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl and blend by hand or on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With a hand blender on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. The batter will be very, very loose after the coffee – don’t fret! Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack and cool completely. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar.

For the burnt oranges
Preheat your oven to 450° F. Pour 1/2 cup of sugar onto a large plate. Next, smear the oranges with 6 tablespoons of the softened butter and roll them in the sugar, being sure to cover them as fully as possible. Pour the remaining 3 cups of sugar and whatever sugar remains on the plate into the bottom of an 8″ square cake pan and shake it gently to evenly distribute it over the bottom. Place the butter and sugar coated oranges into the pan and bake for 20 minutes; you may need to give the pan a little swirl halfway through to break up any unmelted sugar. After 20 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and transfer the oranges to a stable work surface where they can cool for 15 minutes. Do not turn your oven off, but do turn it down to 425° F. After the oranges have cooled enough where you can touch them, carefully cut each of them into quarters and place them skin side up back into the pan. Bake for another 15 minutes, or until the skins have browned.

Remove the oranges from the oven once more, but leave it on. Put oranges back on your work surface and in the hot pan, immediately add a tiny pinch of salt, the whiskey, and the orange juice. Return to oven for 10 minutes or until the liquid has become a bit thicker and is bubbling. In the meantime, remove the pulp from the oranges carefully avoiding any of the white pith, which will make your mixture very bitter. You only want to remove the flesh. After the liquid has thickened, remove from the oven (you can finally shut your oven off now), and add the vanilla and remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir in the orange pieces. Serve warm over slices of cake and add a dollop of homemade whipped cream.

Victoria Sponge Cakes

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesLike a lot of people, Bear and I ditched cable a while back and, for the most part, have no complaints! Not having a huge bill is the greatest perk, of course, but so is discovering new shows. This can go either way and, if we’re being honest, at least 20% of what we queue up is for hate-watching; have you re-watched any early 90s cooking shows lately? Hilarious…and also a study in food trends. Ah, the days when the portobello mushroom was “exotic,” as I recently heard it referred to or how we watched an entire show dedicated to the “wonders” of basil. I die.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesRecently, our hunt for new shows of the cooking variety brought us to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) series, which airs on PBS. Oh my god, you guys, we have lost the last three weeks to watching every single episode in all five of its seasons! It is so, so good! GBBO is a baking competition that follows 12 amateur home bakers through 10 weeks of challenges. Sounds familiar enough to U.S. cooking competition shows, yes? Well, that’s about where it stops. GBBO is wonderfully antithetical to anything you’ve  watched on the Food Network or Fox. It is believable, first and foremost, and the most impressive part about it is how genuinely invested the contests and judges are in the skills and in each other. There’s no “Welcome to the Thunderdome!” element to it, no sabotage, no surprise twist ingredient. It’s just an honest competition with lots of talent and two totally delightful co-hosts. I’m so sad we’ve watched, literally, all of it. Good thing Season 6 starts in just a few months! Eee!

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAfter watching five seasons of GBBO though, you can imagine that there’s a strong impulse to bake alongside the contestants and try out the (new-to-this-American) confections. Season after season, it seemed as if each had a challenge where the bakers had to make classic Victoria sponge cakes (also called Victoria Sandwiches), a double-layer vanilla sponge cake filled with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream, and named for Queen Victoria herself. While I was tempted by more complex undertakings, such as brandy snaps and mille feuille, it was the simple Victoria sponge cake I most wanted to try.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesTraditionally, the batter for Victoria sponge cakes is evenly divided into two 8″ round cake pans, but with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I couldn’t resist using my heart-shaped muffin tin. I think I chose right! In tins such as mine, one batch made 24 mini cakes, which is perfect if dividing into small gifts, favors, or serving them alongside afternoon tea, as intended. Of course, these will taste just as delicious as a large two-layer cake in proper English tradition.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAt any rate, I hope you’ll try these. The cake itself is so buttery and airy – just strong enough to cradle layers of sweet preserves and a very lightly sweetened whipped cream between its halves. Everyone always says that simple is better and, in this case particularly, it is absolutely the truth. I would take a perfect, tender Victoria sponge cake over something complex covered in salted caramel and spun something-or-other any day – they are so sublime! Happy Valentine’s Day, lovies! xoxo

Classic Victoria Sponge Cakes
Yields one 8-inch double-layer cake or 24 mini layer cakes; recipe only slightly altered from here.

Ingredients
4 eggs
1 cup of superfine sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for whipped cream
1 cup of self-rising flour
1 cup of butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons to butter tins
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of homemade strawberry or raspberry jam (or store-bought with visible pieces of fruit), approximately
1 cup of heavy cream
Powdered sugar for decorating

Directions
Preheat your oven to 355°F. Prepare your tins. If using two 8-inch round tins, cut a round of parchment for each. Butter the bottom of the tins lightly and then lay down the parchment rounds. use remaining butter to spread all over the top of parchment and all around the interior sides of the tin. You may wish to add a slight dusting of flour to these as well for easier removal. If using muffin tins, liberally butter each hole, as well as the area in between each section in case they bake up over their individual spot.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the butter, 1 cup of sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder, vanilla extract and salt. Blend with a hand-mixer until just combined. Do not over-mix or your cakes may sink. Fill your tins evenly and gently smooth the tops with a butter knife or a cake spatula. If you are using muffin tins, each hole needs only to be filled about 1/3 of the way. Place cakes in the oven and gently shut the door. Two 8-inch rounds will take approximately 25 minutes, while those in muffin tins will take approximately 15-20 minutes. Cakes are done when they are lightly browned, pulling away from the sides of the tins, and spring back with a gentle touch.

Allow cakes to cool in their tins for 5 minutes once removed from the oven. Next, transfer to a baking rack and allow to sit until they are cold. When ready to prepare your cakes, pour 1 cup of heavy cream and three tablespoons of superfine sugar into a medium bowl and blend with a hand-blender or a whisk until whipped peaks hold their shape. Under-mixing will cause the whipped cream to ooze out of the cakes once sandwiched and over-mixing will turn the cream to butter.

If you are baking the traditional 8-inch, two-layered Victoria sponge cake, place one layer upside down on a cake plate and spread as much, or as little, jam as you’d like on the top. Repeat with a layer of whipped cream. Affix the top cake layer top-side up and dust generously with powdered sugar. If you are using a muffin tin, slice each cake in half horizontally and fill as described above. Dust with powdered sugar. Store cakes in the fridge for up to 5 days.