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.

DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersWell, the semester has begun and though I wish I was creating blog content all the live long day, I’ve been back to teaching and guiding students through their first few weeks of gender & women’s studies classes. For the first time in a long time, I’m teaching some intro-level classes, which are my absolute favorite. Observing students as their minds are being blown is just the very best feeling as a teacher. These are the perks!

Before things really got underway this semester, though, I celebrated my birthday last week with a friend whose big day is just a day before mine. Surrounded by friends and loved ones, we drank champagne and ate an amazing Italian-inspired meal, al fresco, in our beautifully decorated side yard. It was quite a time! For dessert, I made us a giant cheesecake, covered in the season’s sweetest strawberries, and used these easy DIY cake toppers I had made the week before to make it extra special.

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersIf you follow my Instagram feed or checked out the highlights from Charlotte & Katie’s wedding feature, these may look familiar to you. I made Charlotte & Katie a pair for their wedding cake back in July and because they were just so easy (and almost criminally inexpensive), I followed up with a set for myself. What’s wonderful about them is that they’re reusable – the white paint that spells out your message of “Happy Birthday!”, or what have you, is written on a chalkboard paint background with a chalk marker! With a damp cloth, the slate is wiped clean and they’re ready to go for your next happy, cake-included, occasion.

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersYou’re limited here really only in terms of what shapes of wood you can find. While I’ve come across other shapes and sizes at Joann’s, these hearts are my favorite and are most applicable to a variety of holidays and events. Chalkboard paint, though, is available in so many different colors now and what you use as an accent color for the backs, edges, and skewers is entirely up to you. Now that I’m thinking of it, I wish I had tracked down a hot pink chalkboard paint because, paired with the metallic gold accent, it would have been a femme birthday dream come true!

DIY Chalkboard Cake ToppersThis is an easy craft that you can pull together in about an hour total, that costs only a few dollars, and will add a really personal touch to any future party. Arrange them on cakes, pies, cupcakes, and even stuck in the middle of a mound of cookies. They’re a sweet addition to any dessert and something you, or your loved one, can hang onto as a memory afterward or re-use in the future.
DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

DIY Chalkboard Cake Toppers

Supplies:
Two wooden cut outs in any shape; I used hearts from Joann Fabrics, which were under $1 each!
Chalkboard paint
Acrylic paint in color of your choice for backs, edges, and skewers
2 wooden skewers
Hot glue sticks & glue gun
Foam paint brush, about 1″ wide
Small thin-tipped paint brush, s square tip works best
Chalk marker, or regular chalk

Directions:
On a flat surface lined with newspaper, paint the backs and edges of your shapes with your accent color of choice; I used the foam brush for the back and the thin-tipped brush for the edges. If you get a slight bit on the front, just wipe it off as best you can, but don’t fret – the chalkboard paint will cover all. After the accent color has mostly dried – about 10 minutes – apply a second coat to backs and edges. When the second coat dries either move on to the following step or add a third coat if needed. Using the thin-tipped brush follow your shape and paint a perimeter on the front of the piece with the chalkboard paint so that you create a margin and don’t risk painting over the edge that you just painted with your accent color. Using the wider foam brush, fill in the shape with a coat of chalkboard paint and allow to dry. Follow this step for the front of the shape for at least three coats in order to get a truly opaque surface. Allow to dry completely. If need be, touch up the edge with your accent color.

When your shapes are completely painted and dried, heat your glue gun and ready your two wooden skewers. If you choose to paint the skewers in your accent color, painting them when you paint the shapes is the best plan, as painting them once they’re glued to the shapes is a bit awkward. Flip your shapes over so that the back side is facing up. Apply a small, 1/2″ or so line of hot glue to the back of the shape and press the top, non-pointed, side of the skewer into the glue. If the glue is not enough to encase the top of the skewer, apply a bit more glue over top so that it is covered. Do the same to the other shape & skewer and allow to dry completely. Hot glue is usually clear, so depending on your preference, you can either leave as is or, if you’d like, once the glue is hardened and cooled, you can use your accent color to paint over the glue and make it blend a bit more seamlessly. This step is optional.

Once the skewers are dried, the cake toppers are ready for use. Use a chalk marker for easy, seamless writing (or regular chalk if preferred) and spell out your message of celebration. Chalk markers can be easily removed with a damp cloth (avoid paper towel, as it catches on the paint and the wood). Allow surface to dry before re-printing.

Strawberry Lime Yogurt Cake

Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeI love the overabundance of fruit and veggies in the summer. Not only because it means there are more options of what to make, but also because it’s a challenge to discover new recipes and create your own in using up what you have on hand. Some of my tastiest dishes have come out of staring into the deep abyss of the refrigerator, or at a dwindling fruit bowl, and thinking, “What am I going to make with these remnants?” or, shamefully/more realistically, “What should I make with all of this before it’s past its prime?” The latter is exactly what occurred a few weeks ago when I overbought on strawberries thinking I was making shortcake for a party and then changing my mind at the last minute. It’s not like it’s hard to just eat strawberries – they’re my favorite of all the berries – but they take a turn for the worse so quickly that having them around, without a plan, makes me fret. Those red beauties aren’t cheap! Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeSeeing them looking back at me from their front-and-center spot in the fridge made me start hunting around for flavors that pair well and before I knew it, I had limes and was on my way to a baked good of some sort. Inspired by all of the gorgeous strawberry buttercream-topped desserts I keep seeing online, I knew I wanted to make a cake, but didn’t have the energy or the ingredients to go in that direction. Instead, I thought a loaf cake of sorts would be just the ticket and with the added bonus of having some yogurt on hand, things quickly took shape. The yogurt and sour cream combo in this cake keeps the crumb super moist, but also lighter than if you used only sour cream. The tang of both plays well with the sweetness of the berries and mirrors the lime, which makes everything feel so fresh and summery. Because when I think “lime,” I almost always think of “coconut,” I substituted coconut oil for the vegetable oil and put some unsweetened flakes in the batter too; the result was subtle, allowing the strawberries and lime to shine, but present enough that it gave the cake a bit of a tropical feel.

Strawberry Lime Yogurt CakeServed with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, ice cream, or just on its own, this cake is the perfect light, refreshing end to a summer meal. It also makes a great gift to welcome a new neighbor or to say “thank you!” to a friend because it’s a small, easy-to-transport cake with not a lot of frills to make it messy. Plus, it’s pretty as a picture. What a keeper!

Strawberry Lime Yogurt Cake
Yields one loaf cake; adapted from here.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (if you’re skipping the fruit, you can also skip the last tablespoon of flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt (whole-milk is preferred, but non/low-fat works well too because of the sour cream addition)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons grated lime zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup melted coconut oil, plus 1 teaspoon or so for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cups chopped strawberries
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

Directions
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Using approximately one teaspoon of melted coconut oil, grease an 8 1/2 by 4 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the 1-1/2 cups of flour, baking powder, and salt, and add the unsweetened coconut flakes. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the yogurt, one cup of sugar, eggs, lime zest, vanilla, and coconut oil. Slowly add the dry ingredients, a bit at a time, into the wet ingredients and whisk gently until all is combined. Toss the strawberries in the remaining tablespoon of flour and fold gently into the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and bake for approximately 50 minutes or until a cake tester is inserted into the center and comes out clean. While the cake is finishing cooking, cook the 1/3 cup of lime juice and remaining one tablespoon of sugar together in a small pan until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Remove from heat and set aside. When the cake is finished baking, allow it to cool for 10 minutes and then gently flip it out onto a cooling rack. Put the cooling rack over a sheet pan or cutting board to prepare for glazing. While the cake is still warm, poke a few holes into the top with a fork or a skewer and then pour the lime-sugar syrup over the cake and allow it to soak into the cake. If desired, sprinkle with some additional coconut flakes – I would have done this, but ran out! Allow to cool thoroughly before serving.

A Visit Home & My Mom’s Strawberry Shortcake

3 of the 13 dozen eggs I dyed for a (flustered) family friend’s Easter event.

My blogging has been a bit lagging lately only because I had to make an unexpected trip home to my mother’s house, my childhood home. Everyone and everything is fine, so it’s been a good visit, filled, so far, with lots of laughter and food. Time spent home is generally happy, as I get to see some of my most favorite people – my mom, grandma, and bestie who comes in from the city to lounge around in the country with us. Here are some photos of what being home has looked like so far.

Love at First Sight: New-to-me vintage desk!

My mom and grandmother are my two best sources for being inspired to make my own home a space that nourishes and makes comfortable anyone who comes through the door. For as long as I can remember, they have both always gone above and beyond to demonstrate love, care, and friendship through their domestic prowess. People who have come for a meal at my mom’s house, or who have stayed the night for a visit or en route to another destination, have always commented on the warmth they felt at her table, at the comfort felt at slipping into a bed made fresh with sheets and blankets hung to dry in the sun.

I’m a work in progress (still trying to learn their love of cleaning), but by example, they’ve taught me how to build my own sense of “home” with the intention of making it as welcoming to others as it is for me. Oh, how this dream will only be further realized when I, someday, have a guest room of my own and don’t, instead, need to make up the couch for visitors. Apartment or house, no guestroom or 3 guestrooms, though, there will always be my mother’s strawberry shortcake to welcome in friends both old and new.

This isn’t strawberry shortcake in the traditional sense of the dryer, flakier, individual biscuit-like cakes, but a moist, vanilla, 13×9-inch cake with strawberries and cream layered on top. I love conventional shortcake, but since this is what I grew up calling “shortcake,” this is where my heart is.

My mother has always made this cake with a mixture of fresh and frozen strawberries; the former for the texture and the latter for the moistness they give the cake. I’ve made it on my own with entirely fresh and just sliced the strawberries 2 hours before serving with a little sugar, which produced a natural syrup that did the same job as the frozen berries. Depending on what you have access to and when you want to make it, this cake can be an any time of year stunner.

Mom’s Strawberry Shortcake
Yields one 13×9-inch cake, ~12 servings

For the cake:
1-1/4 cups of flour
1-1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3 eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 cups of white sugar
3/4 cups of milk
3 Tablespoons of butter
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

For the topping:
1lb. frozen, sliced strawberries, thawed
2lbs. fresh strawberries, sliced
2 cups of heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup of white sugar

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350°, grease and flour a 13x9x2-inch baking pan, and set aside. In a small mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. In a medium bowl, beat eggs for 4 minutes with an electric mixer. Gradually add sugar and beat on medium speed for an additional 4-5 minutes until light and airy. Add the flour mixture slowly and beat on low speed until combined.

In a small saucepan, heat and stir milk and butter together until the latter melts. Drizzle into batter along with the vanilla extract and whisk to combine. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool cake completely.

In a chilled bowl, add heavy cream and sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until creamy and soft peaks form. With the end of a wooden spoon, poke holes in the surface of the cake and pour frozen strawberries and juice over the top of the cake. Add the juice slowly, so that you can account for how much you want to use. Add the fresh strawberries to the top and then cover with the freshly whipped cream. This will last in the refrigerator, covered, for 5-7 days.