August 16, 2014

Alice is one : strawberry cream cake

Alice turned one on August 1st, her golden birthday. We celebrated the weekend before with cake and friends and many many rounds of Happy Birthday. 

A year! My baby! 

I can't say her first birthday blindsided me, because I'd been watching it's steady approach since Alice turned nine months. Nine months was a month of milestones for Alice - she started crawling, stopped breast feeding, lost her spiky hair, and most notably to me, had been on the outside as long as she had been on the inside. I was in awe of my little apple seed that was crawling around the aparment. I knew one year would be the next big release of awe and amazement, and I knew it would come quickly, and it did.

And so here we are, one year and two weeks, and I'm constantly marveling at our baby, who now is mostly certainly more little girl than baby. It's hard to admit that, that she's not a baby anymore, but when she walked into the kitchen yesterday, where I was prepping dinner, with a blankie in one hand and a spoon in the other, it was clear to me that those sweet sleepy baby days, the ones with the tiny clenched fists, and puckered little lips, are behind us. I loved and cherished those early days and a nice big piece of me is sad that they are over. Thankfully she has grown into a delightful little girl, which softens the transition a bit.

To honor our summer baby I made strawberry cream cake. Alice loves strawberries so I knew those alone would make her happy, and I figured the layers of sponge cake and whipped cream frosting would make the rest of our guests happy. It took a little while to settle on what recipe to use. I'll admit that I felt a lot of pressure around the cake, I wanted to the perfect cake for our first birthday celebration as a family. I leafed through cookbooks and trolled the internet, before remembering that one of my blogging friends, Amy, had made a Cooks Illustrated Strawberry Cream Cake a couple of years ago. I saw her photos and skimmed the recipe, and I knew it was fitting of Alice's first birthday. 

And it was, it was perfect. Each component alone was delicious, but together they were awesome. The cake was light and moist and held it's own under the weight of whipped cream and strawberries. The whipped cream frosting, with added cream cheese for support, was airy and smooth and just the slightest bit sweet, which to me, not being a buttercream fan, are the traits of the perfect icing. And the macerated strawberry filling, amped up with the reduced strawberry juice, brought all of the layers together. It is a cake worth making a tradition out of.

Strawberry Cream Cake

My cake baking skills were not on par leading up to the celebration, which resulted in a bit of a mish-mash cake assembly. I had planned on making a three layer cake by slicing one 9" cake into three layers, but my first cake didn't rise well do to a bad batch of baking powder. I put that cake to the side, and baked a second cake. I cut the first cake down and then cut the second one in two layers. This is just to say that my cake might be a bit taller than yours if you cut one 9" cake into three layers. You can also opt to do what Amy did, which is to bake the cake in two separate pans for a two layer cake. It's really up to you. 

For the smash cake I used about 3/4 of a batch of cake batter and poured the rest into mini cupcake molds. 

If you don't have access to cake flour, which I don't, you can make your own. Simply measure out the flour, remove 2 tablespoons of flour and replace with 2 tablespoons of corn starch. Sift back and forth, between two bowls, at least 5 times. It's annoying, yes, but doable. See further instructions here

1 1/4 cup cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup sugar
5 large eggs, 2 whole, 3 separated, room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 pounds of fresh strawberries, washed, dried, and stemmed
4-6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsh (optional. use if your strawberries aren't in season/sweet. I didn't use it)
pinch of salt

8 oz cream cheese, slightly softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
2 cups heavy whipping cream

For the cake....
preheat the oven to 325ºF and place the rack in the lower-middle position. Butter and flour a 9" spring form pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit. 

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup + 1 tablespoon of the sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk in the 2 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks (reserving the whites), the melted butter, water, and vanilla. Continue whisking until the batter is smooth and thick

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment beat the 3 egg whites on medium-low speed for about two minutes. Increase the speed to medium-high and slowly add the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar. Continue to beat until soft peaks form, about two more minutes. Fold in one third of the egg whites into the batter. Fold in the remaining egg whites, until there are no white streaks left. Pour the batter in the pan and bake until a tooth pick or knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for ten minutes and then release the spring side and let it cool completely (a must!), about 1 1/2 - 2 hours. 

For the strawberries....
While the cake is cooling make the strawberry filling. Halve 24 of the best looking strawberries (8 for each layer) and set aside along with a few whole ones incase that isn't enough. Quarter the remaining berries and mix them in a bowl with 4-6 tablespoons of sugar. Let this sit for one hour, stirring occasionally. 

Strain the juice from the macerated berries and heat over medium high heat in a small saucepan with the Kirsh (if using), until reduced to a syrup, about 3-5 minutes. Put the quartered berries in a food processor for five, one second pulses, or chop with a knife. Pour the syrup over the berries and mix in the salt. 

For the whipped cream frosting
When the cake has cooled and you are ready to assemble it make the whipped cream frosting. Place the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk at medium-high until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the sides a couple times. Reduce the speed to low and add the heavy cream in a slow, steady stream. When it's just about all the way combined increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, another 1 to 2 minutes. 

To assemble the cake start by cutting the cake into three even layers. Start with one layer on your cake plate and array the halved strawberries around the edge. Pour half of the macerated berries into the center of the cake and spread towards the edges. Next, spread out a layer of whipped cream frosting over the macerated berries and towards the edges of the halved berries, but not fully to the edge of the cake (it will extend once you add the layers on top). Top with the second layer and repeat the process. Add the final and top layer and spread out a layer of frosting and trim with the berries and you're done!

I wanted Alice to have free reign of her cake, so I decided at the last minute to make a small "smash" cake just for her, which was really a ridiculous idea considering Alice had never had sugar before let alone cake, but it was her birthday, and so I did it anyway. She was much more into poking and dissecting than eating. I think she maybe had one or two bites and then continued with her smashing.

August 05, 2014

Chicken Marbella

This post is for my friend Jess, who lovingly told me last night to get my ass in gear, cut it with the excuses, because they simply aren't good enough, and to show up and write a blog post. So here I am. Easy as that, except not really because it's already taken me forty-five minutes of typing and deleting to write these two sentences. But the struggle of writing after not writing is worth if if it's true what she says, that I'm wasting my talent. (And she insists that this is a talent.) Tough love is necessary sometimes, ya know?

I'm going to keep it simple today with a recipe for Chicken Marbella, it's Jess's favorite after all. Jess isn't alone; it's a cult favorite from The Silver Palate Cookbook, published in 1982. Considering I was born in 1982 I wasn't a a groupie then, and I'm guessing maybe you weren't either, which means that maybe you've never heard of it or tried it. (Or on the other hand maybe you eat this weekly and this is b-o-r-i-n-g, you tell me.) I first tasted Chicken Marbella in May 2008 when my friend Helen threw a dinner party to mark the end of our first year of architecture school. I think anything out of a home oven would have lifted my spirits after a year of Pad Thai and pizza, but the Chicken Marbella that night, served with orzo and salad, tasted especially otherwordly. It was a reminder that good food can instantly transport you to a mindset where you forget the to-do's and delight in the wonder of good friends and a cozy home. 

I tend to think of Chicken Marbella as my back pocket magic trick: it's easy to pull together, it feeds a crowd, and it's incredibly flavorful and delicious. The moment I'm faced with feeding more than four people I go into a complete stupor about what to cook and how to coordinate the timing so everything is done at the same time. Complete. Stupor. Until I discovered this dish, which mostly comes together the night before when you dump the ingredients in a bowl and let them linger lovingly in the fridge overnight. An hour before you're ready to serve you put the chicken and it's accompaniments in a roasting pan, add some wine and brown sugar, and bake, and ta-da dinner is served.

The ingredients list might turn you off, especially if you don't consider yourself a prune person, which is probably a good chunk of the under eighty crowd, but I beg you to give them a chance. Alongside olives and capers, and roasted in a bath of oil and wine, the prunes stand alongside strawberry ice cream and dark chocolate in their deliciousness. They melt in your mouth and provide a subtle sweetness when eaten together with the chicken. I've seen my share of dinner guests start popping prunes long after they've finished their chicken. It's the pre-dessert course. 

As with any dish it's not about a single ingredient, but about the ingredients together, and that's where this dish knocks it out of the park. Olives and chicken, yes! Prunes and white wine, yes! Capers, prunes, olive oil and chicken, yes! Oregano, garlic, and olives, yes! Honesty every bite is so satisfying, whether it's a slightly savory olive bit or a sweet prune bite, but you'll have to try it to understand. 

* please note that I scaled back the recipe when I took these pictures because it was just the three of us. (A food photo shoot simply isn't in the cards when I have people over for dinner, which is why it's taken me so long to share this recipe here.) The recipe below will serve 10-12. When I do scale it back I use the same amount of liquid ingredients (vinegar/oil/wine) to ensure that the chicken is partially submerged in the pan.

* The recipe calls for chicken quarters, which is lovely, but I more often use chicken legs and thighs. 

* it makes for great leftovers so don't be shy about cooking the full amount and saving some for later

4 chickens, 2 1/2 lbs each, quartered
1 head garlic, peeled and finely pureed (I use a garlic press)
1/4 cup dry oregano
coarse sea salt and black pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar (I almost never use the full amount - I sprinkle a coating on each piece of chicken)
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley or fresh coriander, finely chopped

Place the chicken in a large bowl with the garlic, oregano, coarse salt and pepper to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, and bay leaves. Toss to combine and then cover and let it marinate, refrigerated, overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Arrange the chicken in a single layer on in a roasting pan and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Poor white wine around the chicken and then sprinkle a coating of brown sugar over the chicken pieces.

Bake for 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices (essential!). You can place the chicken, prunes, olives and cappers on a serving plate, or you can do what I do and serve from the pan, which will allow people to help themselves to more pan juices (delicious on polenta).