Monday, November 30, 2009

Holiday baking tip: Substitute for brown sugar

If you're baking and you run out of brown sugar, or you find you don't have quite enough, or if you find you need a little and you don't want to buy a 1-pound package because the rest will just harden in your cabinet, try this:

Measure 1 cup of granulated white sugar and add 2 teaspoons molasses. Mix with a fork or an electric mixer.

I learned this trick from author Joanne Fluke who writes the Hannah Swensen series of culinary mysteries.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unexpected food find: Almond milk at Shop'n Save

I was surprised to find what I consider an upscale product at the Terra Alta Shop 'n Save. I am intrigued that there would be enough demand for a small grocery store to stock almond milk. But they have pleasantly surprised me before with products like acini di pepe, which I couldn't find at Wal-mart in larger neighboring towns.

A half-gallon carton of the Blue Diamond Almond Breeze lactose-free, vitamin-fortified almond milk cost $2.99. I splurged.

I made a kheer-like concoction (kheer is an Indian rice pudding) by mixing the milk with a little sugar, cardamom and vanilla extract and putting it over cooled basmati rice. It was OK but I made more than we really wanted to eat.

I would much rather drink just the spiced, sweetened milk -- especially at bedtime. Just pour some almond milk into a glass and add a little granulated sugar, vanilla extract and cardamom to taste. Stir and enjoy. Good night!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Talking turkey about the cost of eating organic



The elephant in my kitchen all summer has been a turkey.

This year for Thanksgiving, I decided to reserve a live turkey from a local farmer who sells produce at the farmer’s market across the street from my house.

On the market’s opening day in June, I sought him out and signed up for my bird.

Only then he tells me how big the birds were last year – and how much they cost per pound.

Last year, his family cooked and ate a 48-pound turkey. That’s dressed weight, meaning the turkey had been stripped of feathers and other inedible parts.

And his price, derived from the cost of organic feed, was $2.75 per pound. That would be $132 for my Thanksgiving turkey.

He called to another shopper, Loretta Wotring, to tell me her story. She bought a 38-pound turkey. It barely fit in her roaster pan. And she had just served her family the last of the frozen leftovers that spring.

I started to sweat.

As the weeks slipped by till Thanksgiving, I tried to save money and I occasionally worried how I was going to pay for the bird. I decided if it was huge, I’d just cut it in half and freeze half of it raw – presentation be damned!

I sheepishly told my husband we might have to pay as much for the turkey as I would’ve previously spent on the whole meal, frozen store-bought turkey included.

My curiosity got the better of me in October and I called the farmer, James Stemple.

He said this year the price per pound would be the same but he was sure the birds would be smaller – in the 12- to 18-pound range because he got the day-old chicks in July this year. Last year he had hatchlings in May so they had more time to grow and get larger.

I wanted the local turkey for the experience. I’ve never roasted a fresh turkey, only frozen. My experience tasting locally raised animals is limited to pork and beef.

I am apathetic about food politics.

I think it’s important to support your neighbors if you can, but I don’t buy all my food from local sources. I understand how it pollutes the earth the farther your food travels and that it puts big business over the small farmer. It’s admirable to be a locavore, but I am lazy. I am also concerned about additives, hormones and injections that are given commercially raised animals. But I’d rather not think about it. Price is the biggest influence on my purchasing.

I spent no more than $150 on the Thanksgiving dinner I’m serving to eight people this year. That is easily half my monthly food budget. The turkey’s price was $38 of that. I could’ve had a turkey for 39 cents a pound from Kroger with a $25 purchase. And I have had several local women laugh at me (actually laugh out loud) and tell me I was crazy for spending so much. I do not begrudge James Stemple the money at all. Even having not yet tasted the bird, I’d buy from him again if I could save the money. I have the highest respect for farmers. He and his father, Darwin, graciously showed me around their farm and talked turkey with me. They are very kind and hardworking.

It’s just that I am too poor to have a food conscience.

I cannot buy organic and sustainable and make a statement with my purchases year-round. I have long thought it a shame that fruits and vegetables cost more than processed foods; juice costs 2 to 3 times more than soda. Poor people are at the mercy of whatever is in the food they can afford.

This is a difficult post to write because I'm not comfortable sharing details about my personal financial situation. We aren’t hungry. We don’t go to food pantries. Maybe if I did I could meet every bill every month.

But I want to end this blog post on a happier note. So I will tell you about the Stemples’ farm.



The Stemples – James and his dad Darwin – farm on the sides of two steep hills in rural West Virginia. It is incredibly rocky on the hill where the Stemples have a house, barns and the livestock. It’s easier to break ground on the facing hillside where James grows the produce for his farmers’ market stand. He had just finished planting garlic when I visited in October. The driveway is a deeply rutted meandering cow path. You have to stop and open the gate, drive through, then close it behind you so no cows get out. They have a beautiful view of the surrounding tree-covered hills.

The farm has been in the family since 1941 or ’42. The Stemples moved to it in 1992. James had always wanted to keep birds. He sells eggs and the occasional chicken from his flock. And he has a personal flock of heritage turkeys that he occasionally harvests for a Sunday dinner. He buys white turkeys – the same that wind up inside the Butterball wrapper at the grocery store – to raise for sale at Thanksgiving. He doesn’t grow heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving because they take a long time to mature.

The turkeys are allowed to roam free-range. He feeds them a mix of corn and oats he buys from other local farmers and a feed blend he orders. He doesn’t inoculate his flock and he’s never had a problem. He is interested in sustainability, and he shyly grinned and said he wasn’t sure anyone would want to read about his flock. But he told me anyway. And I thank him. For his time and for his candor.

I thank him for raising the turkey my family will eat. And I thank him for selling it because I wouldn’t have found, or went to great lengths to seek out, the opportunity to serve a fresh, locally grown bird this year. Having the chance to buy local food that’s not been injected with something is only half the challenge of choosing organic. It also has to be affordable. And that is not Stemple’s problem to solve – he charges what he must to cover production costs and I think he deals fairly.

I want to reassure readers I am not indigent and I am having a happy Thanksgiving. I wish you the same.

Tread lightly on tradition when you host Thanksgiving dinner

Last year, I posted an opinion piece that said food writers hate Thanksgiving because they are pressured to develop new recipes that will largely be ignored. Few consumers break with tradition when the day comes to break the wishbone. They will make green bean casserole and marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes despite all the side-dish variations and innovations presented in magazines and newspapers.

My experience has also been that people want Thanksgiving to taste a certain way -- the recipes prepared the way they remember their mothers or grandmothers making them. A woman at church complained last week that her aunt wants to put lemon pepper on the turkey this year because she saw Martha Stewart do it. The changes I have implemented in my holiday meals are, in my opinion, not that radical, but I have met resistance of varying intensities.



My mother-in-law distrusts my cooking because, in part, one Thanksgiving I was assigned to bring the green beans. Instead of boiling them within an inch of their lives with butter and bacon, I sauteed them until crisp-tender and sprinkled chopped smoked almonds on top. And that is how I will be serving them at my house this year. She better brace herself.

Last year, I made a side dish that combined mashed red skin and sweet potatoes. Mashed white potatoes are piped into the center of a mashed sweet potato nest, drizzled with melted butter and broiled. It is called two-tone potato cups. My mother-in-law, again, was not satisfied with what was served and she went looking through the covered pots on the back of the stove. She found the mashed white potatoes that I hadn't baked off yet and scooped them on her plate. Because they have raw eggs in them, and potentially bacteria, I made her scrape them off her plate.

My advice, especially if you are trying to build your own traditions or hosting dinner for the first time, is to make changes slowly. Add one new dish, homemade dressing for example, alongside the traditional boxed dressing. Don't do anything too radical if you want to host the meal next year and have people accept your invitation.

The holiday meals of my childhood were good. My mom makes wonderfully creamy and fluffy mashed potatoes and terrific from-scratch gravy. She also used some convenience products. There is nothing wrong with brown-'n-serve rolls, Stove Top stuffing and Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. But when I got out on my own, I wanted to do things my way. I still serve frozen rolls -- Rhodes are quite good. I sometimes top them with a spice butter. But I make from-scratch bread dressing.

Going against my own advice, I am trying something risky this year. Instead of merely buttering my turkey before I roast it, I'm going to rub herbs and spices under its skin.

I am also trying a new dressing recipe for the first time ever -- another no-no. Alongside the familiar bread stuffing, I'm serving a cornbread-sausage dressing.

A few years ago I started making a sweet potato casserole with curry, cherries and bleu cheese to serve alongside my mom's candied sweet potatoes. The savory casserole will be on the table this year, and I'm adding a new sweet potato dish: chunks of the tuber coated with a cinnamon-honey glaze.



The casserole with curry, bleu cheese and cherries is pictured above. I have served it with ham and cornbread before.

There are some institutions I will not mess with -- they cannot be improved upon or replaced. One is Libby's pumpkin pie. Alongside the pie, I am going to serve a marbled pumpkin cheesecake. I might make the pear cake from an earlier post.

I better get busy starting some of the recipes. And I overlooked a few ingredients when I made my list for my first shopping trip so I have to make a foolhardy last-minute dash to the grocery store.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Thanksgiving 2009 Recipes

Turkey seasoning rub

In making the turkey this year, I am going against everything I advise about 1. Trying something new for a major dinner instead of having a trial run first and 2. messing with how people expect something to taste.

I am going to rub a mix of seasonings under the skin instead of just butter. This recipe comes from TV show host and cookbook author Jim Coleman.


COLEMAN'S RUB
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon powdered coriander
1 lemon


Wash turkey inside and out with cold water and pat dry with paper towles. Using hands, lift up the skin (without tearing) and rub herb mixture onto meat under skin, starting near the neck and continuing to rump. Squeeze lemon over turkey and use remaining herb mixture to caot the top of the bird.

I bake my turkey in an electric roaster at 350 degrees because it leaves my oven free for preparing other dishes and it cooks faster.

Dressing No. 1

I never bake stuffing inside the bird. I worry about bacteria. The recipe is from the November 1999 Good Housekeeping magazine. It was the first Thanksgiving in my house and the first time I tried to host the dinner.


TRADITIONAL BREAD STUFFING WITH HERBS

1/2 cup margarine or butter (1 stick)
5 large celery stalks, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1 14 1/2-ounce can chicken broth
2 16-ounce loaves sliced firm white bread, lightly toasted and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped


Preheat oven to 325. In 12-inch skillet, melt margarine or butter over medium heat. Add celery and onion, and cook 15 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in thyme, salt, pepper, sage, chicken broth and 1/2 cup water; remove skillet from heat.

Place bread cubes in very large bowl. Add celery mixture and parsley; toss to mix well.

Spoon stuffing into 13-inch-by-9-inch glass baking dish; cover with foil and bake 40 minutes or until heated through. Makes about 12 cups.

Dressing No. 2

This is also the first time I'm trying this recipe for cornbread dressing.


CORNBREAD AND SAUSAGE STUFFING from Martha Stewart
1 pound fresh pork sausage, casings removed, crumbled (plus giblets, diced; optional)
1 large onion, (about 2 cups), finely chopped
3 celery, finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
2 pounds prepared cornbread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (12 cups)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large nonstick skillet, cook sausage (and giblets, if using) over medium-high heat, stirring often, until browned and cooked through, 5 to 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a large bowl.

To pan, add onion, celery, and 1/4 cup water. Reduce heat to medium; cook, scraping up browned bits with a wooden spoon, until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add to sausage.

Add cornbread, sage, and eggs to sausage and vegetables. Bring broth to a simmer in a small saucepan; pour 1/2 cup over stuffing, and toss gently (cornbread will break down into smaller pieces). If needed, add up to 1/2 cup more broth, until stuffing feels moist, but not wet. If you aren't planning on cooking the stuffing inside the turkey -- and I'm not, pour all the chicken broth over the entire amount of stuffing, and transfer to a large baking dish.

Sweet Potato Side Dish No. 1

SWEET POTATO, DRIED CHERRY, MADRAS CURRY AND BLEU CHEESE DRESSING

1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch buves (about 4 cups)
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
2 slices hardwood smoked bacon, julienned
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons Madras curry powder
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup crumbled bleu cheese
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup diced green onions
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine sweet potatoes, onion, bell pepper, bacon, olive oil and curry powder. Pour mixture into an ovenproof dish, cover with foil and bake until sweet potatoes are tender, up to 90 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool about 30 minutes.

Once mixture has cooled, add the dried cherries, bleu cheese, orange juice, green onions, salt and pepper and mix ingredients until well incorporated.

Makes 4 to 6 side-dish servings. Also good with steak or pork. Can be used to stuff quail, Cornish hens, chicken or turkey. If used as stuffing, decrease initial baking time to 50 minutes.

Sweet Potato Side Dish No. 2

This recipe is new to people outside my household, but I have made it once before and found that it tastes even better the second day. If anyone misses the marshmallow-topped candied sweets, this should partly make up for it. I am also planning to make this as a side dish for barbecued pork tenderloin in the future. The recipe is from Pillsbury.


SWEET POTATOES WITH CINNAMON HONEY

5 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons grated fresh lemon peel
1/2 cup honey
4 pounds sweet potatoes


Heat oven to 325. Brush 13-inch-by-9-inch glass baking dish with melted butter. To remaining butter, stir in cinnamon, salt, lemon peel and honey; set aside.

Peel sweet potatoes; cut into 1-inch chunks. Place in baking dish. Drizzle with half of the honey mixture; stir to evenly coat potatoes.

Cover tightly with foil; bake 30 minutes. Remove foil; spoon remaining honey mixture on top. Recover; bake 20-30 minutes longer or until potatoes are tender.

Last year's mashed potatoes

I am not making these this year, but I wanted to share the recipe. My mom is making mashed russet potatoes. But last year, I nearly poisoned my mother-in-law because she went looking for "regular mashed potatoes" in a pot on the back of the stove that held some that I hadn't baked yet -- that wasn't to be served. Because the eggs were still raw and the dish potentially harbored bacteria, I made her scrape her plate into the trash. She was unhappy with me. The recipe is from an old Better Homes & Gardens magazine.


TWO-TONE POTATO CUPS

3 red-skinned medium potatoes (1 pound), cooked and drained
2 medium sweet potatoes (1 pound), cooked and drained
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon finely shredded orange peel (optional)
2 tablespoons margarine or butter, melted
Salt
White pepper


Peel all of the potatoes.

In two separate mixing bowls mash the white potatoes and the sweet potatoes with an electric mixer on low speed until smooth, adding 1 tablespoon of the butter to each. Beat egg white and onion powder into white potatoes. Beat the egg yolk and orange peel into the sweet potatoes. Season both potato mixtures with salt and white pepper to taste.

Line a baking sheet with foil; spray with nonstick spray coating. Using a wooden spoon, spread about 1/4 cup of the sweet potato mixture into a 2 1/2-to-3-inch nest on the foil. Repeat with the rest of the sweet potato mixture, making 8 nests total.

Spoon the white potato mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip. Pipe white potato mixture into the center of the sweet potato nests. Loosely cover nests with plastic wrap and chill for 2 to 24 hours.

At serving time, drizzle the melted butter over the potato nests. Bake the nests, uncovered, in a 500-degree oven for 10-12 minutes or till golden. (Or, broil potato nests 4 inches from the heat about 7 minutes.) Let stand for 1-2 minutes. Use a wide spatula to carefully transfer the nests to dinner plates. Makes 4 side-dish servings.

Vegetable

Green beans, steamed, sauteed or oven-roasted, topped with chopped smoked almonds

Rolls

I prefer Rhodes frozen dinner rolls. I top them with this terrific sweet spiced butter that tastes like what they serve at Texas Roadhouse. It's also good on baked sweet potatoes.

CHRISTMAS SPICE BUTTER

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon sugar


Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until fluffy and well-combined. Transfer to a small bowl, cover and refrigerate until needed. Makes 1 cup.

Cranberry sauce

My mother-in-law makes the relish-like sauce from the recipe on the back of the package of cranberries. Here is Ocean Spray's.

Dessert

Libby's Pumpkin Pie

I toted this pumpkin cheesecake to a newsroom potluck when I worked in an office and to my mom's house a few Thanksgivings ago. It is from the Oct. 5, 1999 issue of Woman's Day magazine.

MARBLED PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE

Crust
7 whole chocolate graham crackers, finely crushed (1 cup)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons stick butter, melted

Filling
5 ounces semisweet chocolate or 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 8-ounce bricks reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon each ground cloves and nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs plus whites from two large eggs
1 15-ounce can solid pack pumpkin


Heat oven to 350. Lightly coat an 8-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Stir cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a small bowl until evenly moistened. Press over bottom of pan. Bake 8 minutes. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

Meanwhile melt chocolate according to package directions. Keep warm.

Beat cream cheese in a large bowl with mixer on high speed until smooth. Add sugar, cornstarch, spices and vinall. Reduce mixer speed to medium and beat mixture until very well blended. Scrape bowl and beaters, add eggs and egg whites, and beat just until mixed.

Add pumpkin and beat on low speed until well blended. Stir 2 cups pumpkin mixture into chocolate. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pumpkin batter and pour the rest onto the crust.

Pour the chocolate mixture on top of the pumpkin batter in a thick ring about 1/2 inch in from sides of pan. Top with dollops of reserved 1/2 cup pumpkin batter. Run a knife through both batters for a marble effect. (Don't overdo or effect will be muddied.)

Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted near center comes out clean. Run a knife carefully around edges to release cake from pan.

Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours before removing pan sides. Place cheesecake on serving plate.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Spice Cake with Caramelized Pears and Maple Buttercream



When I read about this Spice Cake with Caramelized Pears and Maple Buttercream in the November issue of Gourmet magazine -- the last one they will ever print -- I couldn't wait to try it. I am considering offering it in addition to the pumpkin pies and pumpkin cheesecake at Thanksgiving.

The batter is thick and luscious -- there are two sticks of butter in it after all -- and it is fragrant with vanilla and spices. The pears do not make the cake soggy at all. The maple frosting ties everything together. It is lightly sweet and quite yummy. I think it is the butter, the 5 eggs and the baking powder and the way you thoroughly beat the batter after adding each egg that makes the layers bake up even and near-perfect. Don't neglect to rap the pans in the counter to jar out air bubbles.

Here is a link to the recipe for Spice Cake with Caramelized Pears and Maple Buttercream from the November 2009 Gourmet magazine.

And in case they ever take down Epicurious.com, seeing as how Gourmet closed, I will print the text of the recipe after I tell you what I did differently.

I made one of my two regular buttercream frosting recipes. I didn't make the cooked version from the recipe. It sounded like a lot of bother, frankly. And if I did it incorrectly -- such as somehow "cooking" the egg white with the hot syrup (I've seen it done in candy making and it is a disgusting chunky result), I'd waste a lot of pricy ingredients like real maple syrup. So I used imitation maple flavoring in my frosting. I didn't like the idea, but I already had it in my pantry. I think it turned out just fine. My frosting recipe follows the one from Gourmet.


Spice Cake with Caramelized Pears and Maple ButtercreamGourmet | November 2009
by Gina Marie Miraglia Eriquez


When layered with tender, brandy-spiked pears and a fluffy maple-flavored frosting, spice cake sheds its old-fashioned modesty, becoming impressive enough for any Thanksgiving sideboard. While it will surely satisfy the cake fans at your holiday gathering, it just might tempt a few diehard pie lovers, as well.

Yield: Makes 10 to 12 servings
Active Time: 1 1/2 hr
Total Time: 2 hr


For spice cake:
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
5 large eggs

For caramelized pears:
2 1/4 pounds Bartlett or Bosc pears (about 5)
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons brandy

For maple buttercream:
4 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple sugar
1 1/3 cups pure maple syrup (preferably Grade A dark amber)
4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons and softened

Equipment: 3 (8-inch) round cake pans (2 inches deep; see cooks’ note, below); a candy thermometer



Make spice cake:

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour cake pans.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a large bowl. Stir together milk and vanilla in a small bowl.

Beat butter and sugars with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with milk mixture (begin and end with flour mixture) and mixing until just combined.

Divide batter among pans, smoothing tops, then rap pans once or twice on counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until pale golden and a wooden pick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pans on racks 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge of pans, then invert cakes onto racks. Reinvert and cool completely.


Caramelize pears:

Peel and core pears, then coarsely chop.

Heat butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then sauté pears, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in sugar, lemon juice, and brandy and cook over high heat, stirring, until juices are deep golden and pears are tender, about 5 minutes.


Make buttercream:

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar and salt using cleaned beaters at medium speed until they just hold soft peaks. Add maple sugar a little at a time, beating, then continue to beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.

Boil maple syrup in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat, undisturbed, until it reaches soft-ball stage (238 to 242°F on candy thermometer), 3 to 7 minutes.

With mixer at low speed, immediately pour hot syrup in a slow stream down side of bowl into egg whites, then beat at high speed, scraping down side of bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 6 minutes. (It's important that meringue be fully cooled before proceeding.)

At medium speed, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition. (If buttercream looks soupy after some butter is added, meringue is too warm: Chill bottom of bowl in an ice bath for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all butter is added but will come together before beating is finished.)


Assemble cake:

Put 1 cake layer on a serving plate, then spread with 3/4 cup buttercream and top with half of pear filling. Top with second cake layer, 3/4 cup buttercream, and remaining pear filling. Top with remaining cake layer, then frost top and sides of cake with remaining buttercream.


Cooks' notes:
•Cake can be made in 3 (9-inch) cake pans (cake layers will take a few minutes less to bake).
•Cake layers can be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped in plastic wrap, at room temperature.
•Buttercream can be made 1 week ahead and chilled or 1 month ahead and frozen. Bring to room temperature (do not use a microwave), then beat with an electric mixer before using.
•The egg whites in this recipe will not be fully cooked. You can substitute reconstituted powdered egg whites.



Cynthia's Maple Buttercream

I adapted a recipe from Ann Byrn "The Cake Mix Doctor".

1 stick butter, softened
3 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon maple flavoring
3-4 tablespoons of milk

Put the butter in a mixing bowl and mix it on medium-high until fluffy, about 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the sugar, vanilla, maple flavoring and 1-2 tablespoons of milk. Beat again until the sugar is incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add more milk 1 tablespoon at a time till you get a spreadable consistency.

Note: When I make the pear cake again, I think I will make a recipe and a half of frosting. I was spreading it pretty thin trying to cover the sides and top of the cake.

Other tips I would give, in case some readers are new to baking:
1. Measure carefully. Baking is exact.
2. Don't substitute. Use real ingredients: butter, whole milk, etc.
3. Make sure your spices are fresh.

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