Vanilla Bean Cake

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m the kind of gal who bakes her own birthday cake. This year I went back and forth between several ideas, and finally settled on a two-layer, 6-inch cake decorated with a buttercream hydrangea. Happy birthday to me, eh?

A while back I’d bought this color swirl piping set, and it was a total disaster. This time, I tinted my buttercream three different shades of purple and blue, then put them in three separate 12-inch piping bags, all of which went into an enormous, 18-inch piping bag. It worked incredibly well; see more photos of the cake below. A word of caution, though: I actually think this cake would be even more delicious without buttercream frosting. The next time I make it, I think I’ll bake it in a regular 8-inch round pan and either drizzle it with a powdered sugar icing or just serve it with fruit and whipped cream.

Vanilla Bean Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • dash of salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped*
  • 6 tablespoons milk

*Save the pod and make vanilla sugar – just add the pod to a jar of white sugar and let it infuse the sugar with vanilla-ness!

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease two 6-inch round cake pans, line each with a parchment circle, and lightly grease the parchment.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until very well-blended. Add eggs and vanilla seeds and beat well to combine, scraping the sides of your bowl a few times.

Add flour and milk alternatively in two batches, beginning and ending with the flour and beating until completely combined.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 18-22 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Vanilla Almond Buttercream

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups butter, at room temperature
  • 5 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons almond extract
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • Purple, sky blue, and leaf green gel food coloring

Preparation

In a mixing bowl, beat butter for about 2 minutes. Add powdered sugar all at once and beat on low speed until all of the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter; this will take a few minutes.

Add vanilla and almond extracts and beat on medium, then medium high speed for about 2 minutes. Scrape down your bowl, then add the heavy cream and beat for another 2-3 minutes.

To frost and decorate your cake, place one cake on your cake stand and top with buttercream, spreading almost to the edge. Top with the second cake and frost the top and sides, smoothing the buttercream as much as you can.

Divide your remaining frosting into one small portion (about 1/4 cup) and tint leaf green; set aside. Divide the rest into three equal portions and tint one dark purple, another light purple, and the other sky blue.

Place dark purple, light purple, and sky blue frosting into separate 12-inch piping bags. Fit an 18-inch piping bag with a Wilton M1 tip and place the 12-inch bags inside. Pipe petals in a few layers (I did three, and it was a ton of frosting) to make your hydrangea flower, then pipe petals around the bottom edge of the cake.

Fit a small piping bag with a leaf tip and fill with leaf green frosting; pipe leaves on each side of your hydrangea flower, then pipe a few leaves around the bottom of the cake.

Store in a domed cake stand at room temperature for up to 3 days. Makes about 6 slices.

Here’s a detail of the flower.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you look closely you can see the tiny vanilla seeds in the cake. 

 

Peanut Butter Smoothies

What do you do when you want something like a brownie, but you can’t eat chocolate? You make these peanut butter smoothies, another treat from my beloved King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion. It’s funny to describe something chocolate-free as fudgy, but these absolutely are.

While the original recipe calls for baking in a 9 x 9 pan, I made mine in an 8 x 8. The edges are definitely darker than I wanted them to be, but the end result is delicious nonetheless. I covered mine for the last 5 minutes of baking to prevent over-browning on the top, and the center of my squares fell as it cooled, which was fine. You could substitute chocolate chips or lightly salted peanuts for the peanut butter chips if you like, and I’m sure they’d be equally delicious.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup peanut butter chips

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 baking pan.

In a small bowl, combine flour, salt, and baking powder; set aside.

In a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and peanut butter until smooth. Add sugars and beat to combine. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add vanilla and beat to combine.

Add flour and beat on low speed until just combined, then mix in peanut butter chips.

Spread batter in the baking pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the edges are golden brown and pull away from the pan; if you use a cake tester on the center, it should have some moist crumbs sticking to it. I covered my bars for the last 5 minutes of baking to prevent them from over-browning on the top.

Remove from oven and cool completely in the pan before cutting. Cut into 16 bars.

Strawberry Vanilla Cupcakes

Filled cupcakes became a big deal a few years back, but as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, my grandma Zella made filled cupcakes back in the ’80s and ’90s. Long before shows like Cupcake Wars appeared on television, Zella scooped out her cupcake centers and filled them with lemon curd, pudding, and pie fillings. I think this strawberry vanilla cupcake would have made her proud.

If you’re using a fruit or pudding-like filling, you’ll want a sturdier cupcake so that a) the cupcake doesn’t fall apart when you take a bite and b) the filling doesn’t get too absorbed into the cake. These cupcakes are on the drier side, more like a pound cake and able to hold the strawberry filling very well. When paired with a fresh strawberry buttercream, the flavor combination is a delightfully summery treat. I recommend making your filling first and allowing it to cool completely before you bake your cupcakes and make your frosting to save time during assembly.

Strawberry Filling

Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces strawberries, pureed
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons water

Preparation

In a medium saucepan, stir together strawberry puree, powdered sugar, cornstarch, and water. Cook over medium heat until the mixture boils, then allow it to boil for 1 minute, stirring well, until the mixture thickens.

Remove from heat and press through a fine sieve to filter out the seeds – this will take a few minutes, but is absolutely worth it. Allow to cool at room temperature before using; makes about 1 cup.

Old-Fashioned Vanilla Cupcakes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup plus 6 tablespoons cake flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes, at room temperature
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners.

Combine milk and vanilla extract; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine cake flour, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, then reduce mixer speed to low and add butter a few cubes at a time. Continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until the mixture looks like coarse sand.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well between each. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the vanilla milk mixture.

Return to medium speed and continue to beat for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl well.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of batter into prepared cupcake pans, filling about 1/2 to 2/3 full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from pans immediately and cool completely on a wire rack before filling and frosting.

Fresh Strawberry Buttercream

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 to 3 cups powdered sugar
  • Scant ¼ cup strawberry puree

Preparation

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and vanilla extract on low speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes.

Gradually add powdered sugar, in half-cup increments, beating until fully incorporated.

Slowly add strawberry puree, mixing until completely incorporated, about 1-2 minutes. If your mixture is too thin, slowly add more powdered sugar, about 1/4 cup at a time, until you reach a consistency that will be easy to pipe.

To assemble your cupcakes:

Use a melon baller to scoop out a small amount of cake from the center of each cupcake.

Using a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip, pipe strawberry filling into each cupcake.

Fit a large pastry bag with a Wilton M1 tip and pipe generous swirls of frosting onto the top of each cupcake. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Makes 24 cupcakes.

Here’s a photo of the inside! 

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

Biscotti can be simple or fancy, which is one thing that makes them such good treats. This recipe is adapted from a basic chocolate biscotti recipe in my Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook.

Instead of adding chopped white and semisweet chocolate to the dough like the original recipe called for, I chose to go the chocolate almond route. I mixed in some almond extract along with the eggs, then once the biscotti baked and cooled, I dipped them in chocolate and sprinkled on some chopped toasted almonds. You could certainly leave them plain if you like, or mix the chopped almonds into the dough. Maybe I’ll do that next time.

Ingredients

  • 5 1/3 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • About 1/3 cup chopped toasted almonds

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Add sugar, cocoa powder, and baking powder, beating well to combine.

Scrape down the bowl and add eggs and almond extract, beating well to combine. Add flour and beat to combine; dough will be fairly thick and sticky.

Lightly dust your counter top with flour and turn dough out onto it; divide into two portions, and shape each portion into a 9-inch log. Transfer logs to the baking sheet and flatten each slightly.

Bake for 20 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Transfer logs to a cutting board and cut into 1-inch slices. Return slices to the baking sheet and bake for 8-9 minutes on one side, then flip and bake for another 8-9 minutes on the other side. Remove from the oven and cool completely before dipping.

Once biscotti are cool, combine shortening and chocolate chips in a small saucepan over low heat and stir until the mixture is melted and smooth.

Line a cool baking sheet with waxed paper. Dip one end of each biscotti into the chocolate, then place on waxed paper. Top with chopped toasted almonds; allow chocolate to set before storing. Store in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper for up to 3 days.

Makes about 24

Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Mike has quite the garden going this summer, growing tomatoes, beans, squash, and zucchini in the best spot in our backyard. And because you can only grill so much zucchini, I decided to grate some and mix it into this chocolate bread.

The recipe below is adapted from King Arthur Flour’s Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread, which is simple to make and smells delicious when baking. I strongly recommend shredding your zucchini in a food processor rather than grating it by hand to save time, but you could hand-grate if you like. Also, if you add your vegetable oil before you add your honey, you can use the same measuring cup and the honey will slide right out because of the residual oil on the sides of the measuring cup. Very convenient!

Ingredients

  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 2/3 cups flour
  • 2 cups shredded, unpeeled zucchini, gently pressed to release some of the liquid
  • 1 cup chocolate chips

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease an 8 x 4 loaf pan.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs, oil, honey, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth.

Add the salt, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa, and flour, mixing until well-combined.

Stir in zucchini and chocolate chips.

Pour batter into the loaf pan and bake for 60-70 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean or with a light smear of melted chocolate chips.

Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Wrap well and store at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Cinnamon Bread

A few nights ago I really wanted to make a quick cinnamon bread, so I adapted a muffin recipe from my trusty Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook into a loaf. It turned out pretty well, though I’ll fully admit that this bread was best on the evening it was baked, and the morning after. It dried out quicker than I expected, but hey, live and learn.

To adapt a muffin recipe into a quick bread, you’ll need a longer baking time at a lower temperature. For example, as muffins, this recipe bakes at 400 for 20 minutes, but as quick bread, it bakes at 375 for about 35-40 minutes. Make sure to keep an eye on your bread to ensure that it doesn’t over-brown; I covered my loaf after about 25 minutes of baking to make sure it didn’t burn.

 Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease an 8 x 4 loaf pan.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Make a well in the center.

In a medium bowl, combine egg, milk, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract; pour into the well in the dry mixture and stir until just moistened. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s fine – you don’t want to over-mix.

Spoon batter into loaf pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, checking around 25 minutes to make sure your loaf isn’t browning too much. The bread will be done when a cake tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.

This bread can be served warm, but if you prefer to cool it, allow it to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes then turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Store at room temperature for 1-2 days.

Almond Raspberry Cupcakes

Baking requires instincts, and I should know by now not to ignore mine. Usually when I fill cupcakes with a custard or fruit filling, I scoop out the centers with a melon baller and pipe the filling into the divot, yielding a nice filling-to-cupcake ratio. For cream fillings, I place the filling in a piping bag and injecting it into the cupcake, because cream fillings are heavy enough to push the cake out a bit and yield the same nice filling-to-cupcake ratio.

Because I wanted to save a bit of time, I decided to use the injection method with my raspberry filling in these cupcakes. After I’d frosted them and tried one (because what kind of baker doesn’t engage in quality control?) I realized that the injection method had failed me: my cupcake had a sad little tunnel of filling, not nearly enough for a good flavor or texture balance. I wondered for a moment if I should drizzle the tops with raspberry jam to ramp up the flavor, then decided to use the leftover raspberry filling for drizzling. Another mistake. It looked ridiculous, far too thick and amateurish.

Eager to maintain my baking cred at the office, I carefully scraped the filling off the tops and replaced it with some raspberry jam to cover the gashes in the frosting. My colleagues enjoyed them very much, but I’ve learned my lesson: my instincts are important, and the next time I get the idea not to follow them, I’ll remember these cupcakes.

Ingredients

For the almond cupcakes

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • dash of salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

For the raspberry filling

  • 6 ounces fresh raspberries, mashed
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon water

For the almond frosting and raspberry jam drizzle

  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
  • Red food coloring
  • About 1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-count cupcake tin with paper liners.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until very well-blended. Add eggs, vanilla extract, and almond extract and beat until combined; scrape down the sides of your bowl a few times during this step.

Add flour and milk alternatively in two batches, beginning and ending with the flour and beating until completely combined.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, scoop batter into cupcake wells, dividing evenly and filling about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

Bake for 18-22 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove cupcakes from the tin; cool completely on a wire rack before filling and frosting.

While the cupcakes bake, make your filling. Stir together raspberries, powdered sugar, cornstarch, and water in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture boils, then allow it to boil for 1-2 minutes, stirring well, until the mixture thickens.

Remove from heat and press through a fine sieve to filter out the seeds. Allow to cool before using; makes about 1/2 cup.

Once both the filling and cupcakes are cool, use a melon baller to scoop out a small amount of cake from the center and pipe or spoon filling into each.

For the frosting, place butter in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 1-2 minutes.

Scrape down the bowl and add powdered sugar all at once, beating on low speed until the sugar is completely incorporated into the butter; this will take a few minutes. Continue beating on medium-high speed for 2 minutes.

Add vanilla extract and almond extract, then beat on medium-high for another 2-3 minutes. Add a few drops of red food coloring to tint a light pink.

Fit a large piping bag with a Wilton 1M tip and pipe frosting in swirls on the tops of each cupcake.

Stir raspberry jam to make it smooth, then fit a small piping bag with a small plain tip and twist the bottom of the bag near the tip so the jam won’t run out when you pour it in. Untwist the bag and pipe jam over the tops of the cupcakes.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator but bring to room temperature before serving.