yay, America

Maybe you’ve already moved on from the festivities of last week. Me? I had LOADS of fun (probably too much, since I fell at some point and have a ginormous bruise on both my leg and hip), and when Thursday rolled around, going back to work for 2 more days seemed a little unfair.

Of course, I’d take a mid-week day off any time over none at all. So I’ll stop complaining.

We got a pretty big group together (friends, friend of friends, and so forth) and had a most-amazing picnic in Golden Gate Park. Our area was right in front of Stow Lake, where folks rent paddleboats and such. That meant lots of people-watching, and also lots of gorgeous scenery – a Chinese-style sitting area, waterfalls, and great views of Sutro Tower until the afternoon fog rolled in.

Food-wise? We all just brought whatever we felt like bringing, and it came together just fine. Chris manned the grill and we had burgers, brats, polenta, and whatever else could be thrown atop the grates. We had plenty of snacks, salads, and treats and as if you really had to ask – plenty of beverages.

I hadn’t baked a cake in a little bit, so when I was trying to decide what to bring alongside our burgers (with house-made balsamic ketchup!), I found an awesome recipe for a festive cake, and I just happened to have some food coloring gel in the pantry.

This probably goes without saying, but this isn’t some “everyday” cake. First, it’s clearly a bit of effort (but well worth it, for the fun it was to cut into it!). Second, it is packed with calories – in butter form, in sugar form, and totally in cream cheese form. It’s not something you want sitting around the house, or as Chris would attest to, something you want to hold on the way home, when getting a slight case of the munchies (I had a ton of crumbs in the passenger seat as proof).

But for America’s birthday? The perfect cake, indeed.

Oh, and here’s a less time-intensive, but equally tasty, red velvet cake. Yeah!

Red, White, & Blue Velvet Cake
Adapted, barely, from Epicurious; serves 12

Sure, this is way too late for July 4th THIS YEAR, but you can make this cake for any occasion. It would make an awesome Halloween cake using black/orange food coloring (and black icing!) or a festive Christmas cake too. Shoot, you could make the layers any color you want for any day that you want. No big deal.

time commitment: 4 hours, according to Epicurious. I did the cake in steps, making the white layer first and refrigerating it, then making the other two layers later on that night, so it seemed less time-intensive that way. I made the icing and cut the fruit while the cakes were baking. You could easily bake off the layers of the cake well in advance and freeze them. Let them thaw in the fridge a few hours before you need to ice the cake.

printable version

red/blue velvet cake layers
2 1/2 c sifted cake flour (sift before measuring)
1/4 c unsweetened natural cocoa (such as Hershey’s; not Dutch process)
1 t baking soda
3/4 t salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c granulated sugar
1 c vegetable oil
2 large eggs
food coloring of your choice (I use Wilton food gel, about 1/2 of the 1/2 oz jars for each layer)
1 1/2 t white or cider vinegar
1 1/2 t vanilla extract
3/4 c sour cream mixed with 1/4 c water

white cake layer
1 1/3 c sifted cake flour (sift before measuring)
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
3 large egg whites
1/4 c sour cream mixed with 2 tablespoons water
5 T unsalted butter, softened
3/4 c granulated sugar
1/3 c vegetable oil
1 T grated lemon zest
1 t vanilla extract

cream cheese frosting
2 1/2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese (20 ounces total), softened
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 T fresh lemon juice
2 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
3 1/4 c confectioners’ sugar

fruit topping
1 pint (8 ounces) strawberries, preferably small; halve or quarter if large
1 pint (12 ounces) blueberries

Make red/blue velvet cake layers
(NOTE: If you’re using two different colors for the top and bottom layer, divide the batter into two bowls and mix in the food coloring after the flour/sour cream is blended (see below). If you’re using one color, just add the food coloring when you add in the vinegar and vanilla. Also, if you’re using two different colors, it might be helpful to weigh the bowl before you add in ANY ingredients so that you can weigh again before you divide the batter, subtracting out the weight of the mixing bowl to know how much to put into each bowl.)

Heat oven to 350 F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, then line bottoms with rounds of wax paper. Butter paper and dust pans with some additional flour, knocking out excess. (Alternatively, you can spray with cooking spray instead of buttering.)

Resift cake flour together with cocoa, baking soda, and salt into a bowl (true confession: I skipped this part – I just whisked it together).

Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer (fitted with paddle attachment if using stand mixer) at medium-high speed until combined well, then add oil and beat until very pale and creamy, about 3 minutes.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, and beat in vinegar and vanilla extract (read the first step about food coloring!).

Reduce speed to low and mix in flour mixture and sour cream mixture in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and mixing until batter is smooth.

Divide batter between pans (about 3 cups in each, or weigh to be exact) and smooth tops. Rap pans on counter a couple of times to expel any air bubbles. Bake in middle of oven until a wooden pick comes out clean and cake begins to pull away from sides of pans, 25 to 30 minutes. Keep oven on.

Cool layers in pans on racks 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around edge of pans. Invert layers onto racks and peel off wax paper. Cool layers completely.

Make white cake layer while red velvet layers cool
Butter one 9-inch round cake pan, then line bottom with wax paper. Butter paper and dust pan with some additional flour, knocking out excess.

Resift cake flour together with baking soda and salt into a bowl (yup, skipped this, too and just whisked…). Whisk egg whites in another bowl with sour cream mixture until combined.

Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer (fitted with paddle attachment if using stand mixer) at medium-high speed until combined well, then add oil and beat until very pale and creamy, about 3 minutes. Beat in zest and vanilla extract (add food coloring here if you’re making a non-white layer for the middle.).

Reduce speed to low and mix in flour mixture and sour cream mixture in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is smooth. Transfer batter to pan and spread evenly. Rap pan on counter a couple of times to expel any air bubbles.

Bake in middle of oven until a wooden pick comes out clean and cake begins to pull away from side of pan, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around edge of pan. Invert layer onto rack and peel off wax paper. Cool layer completely.

Make cream cheese frosting
Beat together cream cheese and butter in a large bowl with an electric mixture until creamy and smooth. Beat in lemon juice, vanilla extract, and salt.

Sift confectioners’ sugar into a bowl and add to cream cheese mixture. Mix on low speed until incorporated, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until smooth.

Frost cake
Brush loose crumbs from cake layers with a pastry brush. Carefully slice some of the top of the cake to make flat, if you want. Use a long, serrated knife for this or skip this step.

Put a red velvet layer, bottom side up, on a cake plate or stand. Spread 1 cup of frosting over layer. Cover with white layer, bottom side up, and spread with another cup of frosting. Top with second red velvet layer, bottom side up.

Spread a thin layer of frosting around sides and over top of cake. Chill or briefly freeze cake just until frosting is firm.

Spread sides and top of cake with remaining frosting. Chill or briefly freeze cake just until frosting is firm.

Make fruit topping
Toss together fruits in a bowl. Let cake come to room temperature before serving and top with about 1 1/2 cups fruit. Serve remaining fruit on the side.

when life gives you lemons

When I was a kid, my parents had a French friend name Aurora (which is SO French, right?!). I swear I’ve mentioned her name here before, but once you write a blog for 3 years, it becomes hard to keep track. So forgive me if I’m on repeat.

Either way, being around Aurora, in those few years that I knew her, was a definite treat.

My parents, Aurora, and Clyde (her boyfriend) used to play cards together on what seemed like every Saturday. They’d take the extra leaf out of our dining room table, load up with beverages, using bar stools as coasters, and deal out hands of Spades and Hearts for hours. It was through these card games that I learned about the awesomeness of getting drunk with your friends. Man, the songs they’d sing, the shit they’d say; I probably don’t remember half of it, but I remember thinking they were so cool. And also, a little bit weird.

I wish I had access to some of our family photo albums, and I’d show you the awesomeness of the styles back then. Clyde and my dad used to rock these awesome hats, like the ones the golfers wore before they all had Nike and Titleist logos. And the pants, oh boy, the pants. Sorta tight, plaid, and kinda big at the bottom – not quite like a bell-bottom, but close. Flare leg, I reckon. And the ladies wore these polyester button-up shirts with these weird ribbon ties at the top. Aurora had a sexy red number with a hole right near her boobs, what today I’d probably call a cleavage shirt. Is it weird that I remember these details? Who cares…

I also remember showering one night when they were over. I’d just learned to shave my legs, and I suppose my fancy Bic razor was on the dull side, because the second I aligned the razor with my thigh, the water hit the razor and slipped, taking a ginormous slice of my thigh with it. I wasn’t sure what to do about gushing blood, so I proceeded to toss on a towel and run out to the adults. Drunk adults aren’t very helpful in those situations, as it turns out. But eventually, the bleeding stopped and I was probably way too dramatic about it anyway. That was probably too much information, but you’ll deal.

Last but certainly not least, I remember Aurora for her skinny long cigarettes (so French and sophisticated) and her love of citrus fruits. We’d sometimes eat lemon rinds together, just to gross everyone else out. If it wouldn’t tear the enamel from my teeth, I’d probably eat a lemon daily just like an apple or a bowl of cherries. Dang, they’re tasty.

So when I found out about my coworker’s lemon tree burgeoning with fruit, I easily volunteered to take some off of her hands. What she gave me were the biggest lemons I’ve ever seen, and after a little thought, I made yet another batch of lemon curd. It’s sour enough to remind me of all those lemons I used to eat, but tempered by the eggs and the butter so other people will like it, too. Its biggest claim to fame? the stuff goes on everything. I like a regular ol’ piece of toasted bread, truth be told, but next week I’ll give you an extra-tasty option. Of course, you can always see what you find in the bread or breakfast section of the recipe index, but if all else fails, a spoonful is just as good all by its lonesome, or with a plate of berries.

Lemon Curd
from Gourmet via Epicurious; makes 1 1/3 cups

time commitment: 1 hour, 15 minutes (15 minutes active)

printable version

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into bits

Whisk together juice, zest, sugar, and eggs in a 2-quart heavy saucepan. Stir in butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of whisk and first bubble appears on surface, about 6 minutes.

Using a fine mesh strainer, strain curd into a bowl and chill, its surface covered with plastic wrap, until cold, at least 1 hour.