Sunday, March 30, 2008

Daring Bakers: Party (Tea) Cake(s)!

Why all the parenthetical modifications in the title? Well, thanks to Morven of Food Art and Random Thoughts, this month's Daring Bakers Challenge - Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake - came with an added bonus: abundant creative license! A layer cake it should be, with Dorie's famous recipe - and our own special touches. If you read my post for last month's Daring Baker's challenge - also my first - in which I hyper-enthusiastically carried rising bread dough about the house to show Zach (my boyfriend, with whom I share a house and 3 cats), you can probably imagine the various ways in which I expressed my delight over this month's challange. Yes, I squeaked with excitement, ran upstairs in search of my cell phone, ran back downstairs again, actually found the phone, called my college roomie Lisa, told her about how thrilled I was, and then proceeded to dream about the cake at inopportune moments at work for an entire week.

I was especially ecstatic that the challenge coincided beautifully with both Easter and Zach's return home from a week's trip visiting his parents and brothers (I was remained at home with school and work, but that also meant I got to bake the cake, so I was content!). Since it was just the two of us having a cozy Easter dinner and welcome home celebration, I decided on a petite version of a whole huge layer cake - layered tea cakes!

I halved the recipe, and used only one pan instead of two... The single layer of cake emerged delightfully golden and light as vanilla cotton candy. (As a side note, since lemon and vanilla are both delicious, why should one have to choose? :-) I kept the perfectly piquent lemon flavor of the lemon zest, and replaced the lemon extract with a doubled amount of vanilla extract. They melded perfectly...)

Then I used a biscuit cutter to cut four cake circles... and stacked them into the tallest two tea cakes I'd ever seen! Since the use of only egg whites in the cake seemed to lend itself beautifully to a lighter dessert, I decided to use extra all-fruit strawberry jam on top of the tea cakes instead of icing... and I dyed some raw flaked coconut green to look like "Easter basket grass," gaily topping and surrounding the cakes with pastoral abundance.

Zach added the final touch, with a smile of whipped cream!

With regards to the actual recipe, I was thoroughly grateful to Morven for her notes on adapting individual ingredients slightly in accordence with what's actually residing in the recipe... Hence, I used raw sugar instead of regular white sugar, light vegan margerine instead of butter (sounds scandalous, I know, but I'm still fond of my vegan days and continue baking vegan desserts quite frequently! I did keep the eggs in the cake, but, as mentioned earlier, was quite fond of how well the egg whites pared with the vegan marg to create a light yet still decadent-flavored cake. Despite the recipe's request for whole milk I did gamble and use low-fat 2% milk, and, well, the cake was still every bit as scrumptious as we could have wished! Thank you, Morven, for a challange that added a wealth of deliciousness to my quest for healthy(er) desserts!

Here, then, is my version of the recipe... (using half the quantities of the original recipe, which made two tea cakes - use the regular recipe for more tea cakes, because one can never have too many tea cakes around to bestow tea cake joy upon all!)

My Pantry's Adaptation of Dorie's Perfect Party Cake

1 1/8 cups flour, 1/2 tablespoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 10 T low fat milk, 2 egg whites, 3/4 cups raw sugar, 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, 1/4 cup light vegan margarine (at room temperature), 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 cup all-fruit strawberry jam, 1/2 cup raw flaked coconut (tossed with 3 drops green food coloring and 1/2 tsp water), whipped cream

~ Coat an 8X8 baking pan with cooking spray, then dust with flour. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the vegan margarine and beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the marg and sugar are very light. Beat in the vanilla, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2- minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Pour the batter into the pan and smoothe the top with a rubber spatula. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes (mine took 40 minutes), or until the cake is springy to the touch and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cake and unmold. Once the cake has cooled, use a biscuit cutter to cut 4 circles out of the cake. Spread 1/8 cup strawberry jam on top of each quarter, than stack two of the quarters to make two tea cake towers, with jam between the layers and on top of the top layer. Generously sprinkle the top layer of each cake with the coconut, and surround the cakes with the remaining coconut. Top the cakes with whipped cream, and serve right away!

The result was divine - light, airy, springy, lemony, fruity, tender, and meltingly moist... and the rest of the Daring Bakers Blogroll is equally tempting!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ensalada de la Casa

The unthinkable nearly took place. I almost didn't write a post about our salad. It dawned on me during work yesterday that I haven't yet told y'all about our "house salad" - i.e. the salad we have almost every night with supper - and, given that it's one of our favorite foods of all times, keeping it a secret is nothing less than a travesty.

The salad's appeal, in a nutshell? Completely healthful, composed entirely of whole foods, positively bursting with delectable flavors both piquant and delicate, and the simplest thing on earth to toss together in 60 seconds while setting the table.

Most often, we are content to savor the delightful, raw "base" combination of greens, fruit, and nuts. However, this ever-versatile salad is also a wonderful way to use up any leftover veggies, or provide a stunning background to a new veggie dish... which is exactly what we did the other night when we splurged on the first asparagus of spring - white asparagus, no less!

First the asparagus were roasted with strips of red bell pepper...

and then added to the salad!

Wondering what I did with the tough, woody asparagus stems I couldn't bear to waste? Next post... ;-)

Our House Salad

Leafy greens of any sort you desire
Raw almonds
Cajun seasoning
Balsamic vinegar
Any additional vegetables you have on hand or feel inspired to add!

~ Wash and dry the leafy greens.
~ Toss in the raisins, raw almonds, and any additional veggies.
~ Sprinkle with Cajun seasoning to taste, then add a few splashes of balsamic vinegar. Toss to coat, taste, and alter seasonings as desired... Serve immediately for crunchy yummyness!

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Surfeit of Bananas

One would think Zach and I would be the perfect couple - for using up bananas with all efficiency and speed.

While I do think we're the perfect couple (I know... apologies for the mushiness...), we somehow still manage to always have a few overripe bananas lingering about. Heaven only knows why... I love under-ripe bananas - half green, with peals still crisp - and Zach maintains that my banana preference is inedible, and will only consume a perfectly ripe banana. Hence, I usually purchase a big bunch of bananas each week (yes, a big bunch - since recently discovering that my childhood allergy to bananas dissapeared, they have become one of my favorite foods, savored at least twice a day in various forms - in cereal, with yogurt, in smoothies, in milkshakes, in peanut butter sandwiches and all by themselves...) My banana purchase in hand, I think that I will enjoy a few unripe specimens, and then in a day or two they'll be ripe enough for Zach to take charge of the banana consuming. Unfailingly, however, this method always resulted in two-thirds of the bunch falling, literally, onto Zach's plate... and by the end of the week, despite Zach's best efforts, several would have crossed into the over-ripe zone of no return. More recently, I've started seeking out both stages of bananas at once, bringing home a small bunch of ripe bananas and a small bunch of unripe bananas. Alas, despite the wonders of having our own personal banana bunches, I still wind up with over-ripe bananas from both of our collections. However... while the forboding length of this perhaps overly detailed window into our banana-eating and purchasing habits might suggest that something fearsome is in store, all is not lost... for one can always find some way to bake up those bananas.

As you might guess, we have banana bread quite frequently... Thankfully, it remains a favorite of both of ours, but the other night I was longing for a wee bit of variety... and Banana Chocolate Spice Cupcakes appeared. Lightly sweet and quite healthful, these are delightful both for dessert and breakfast! My favorite kind of dessert, indeed...

Banana Chocolate Spice Cupcakes

3/4 cups flour
6 T raw sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
2 T light vegan margarine, melted
2 T applesauce
3/4 cup mashed banana
2 egg whites, beaten
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup chocolate chips

*Note: this recipe makes 6 muffins - double or triple as desired*

~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin cups with paper liners.
~ Toss together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
~ Add the margarine, applesauce, banana, egg whites, vanilla, and cinnamon, and mix well until combined.
~ Fold in the chocolate chips.
~ Spoon the batter into the muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean - 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold, plain or topped with whipped cream...

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Many Flavors of... Brown?

I've known I was going to post about this stew for a while, I just had to reconcile myself to revealing its, er, lack of aesthetics to the world. You see, this stew is brown. I'm not talking about the kind of "brown" where you have barley, or maybe brown rice, mixed in with other colors... No, this stew manages to incorporate even non-brown ingredients and still turn out a big bowl of brown as an end-product. It's just brown. And mushy.

By now, you're probably contemplating wandering off in search of something literally more colorful, but before you do, let me at least tell you a little bit more about what goes into this very brown stew that Zach and I had for supper two nights in a row, and then for lunch every day for a week, without complaining one bit.

Earthy, hearty lentils. Crisp, slightly tangy cabbage. Smooth, delicate arborio rice. The heady aroma of cumin. Fiery, smoky red pepper. The luscious softness of sour cream.

Come on. Fill your bowl with hearty, comforting, rapturously smooth sustenance. So it happens to be brown...

Brown Lentil Sustenance Stew

2 cups arborio rice
1 T olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 cup shredded carrots
3 gloves garlic, minced
2 tsp cumin
1 bay leaf
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
8 cups vegetable broth, plus more if necessary or desired
1 cup brown lentils
5 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup low fat sour cream (optional - you can leave out the sour cream if you'd like the stew to be vegan - it's delicious with or without the sour cream)

~ Cook the rice according to package directions.
~ Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat. Saute the onions and carrots until the onions are transparent.
~ Add the garlic, bay leaf, cumin, and red pepper, and saute for 30 more seconds.
~ Add the broth and lentils, and simmer until the lentils are soft, adding more water if necessary - around 30 minutes.
~ Stir in the rice and cabbage, and cook until the cabbage is just crisp-tender.
~ Stir in the sour cream, if you like, and serve nice and warm!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Brownie Cake, Brownie Cake, Baker's Man...

Oh no, wait, that's patty cake... Personally, though, I'd really rather have a brownie cake, wouldn't you? ;-)

and when Matt's birthday rolled around (Matt is one of Zach's med school buddies, and one of our most devoted recipe testers), I figured he would rather have a brownie cake too... So I fixed one!

Brownie Cake

3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup light canola margarine, divided
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup light canola margarine
2 cups raw sugar
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp instant coffee granules
1 cup flour
2 cups dark chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips, divided

~ Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two 8X8 baking pans with aluminum foil, then spray the foil with cooking spray.
~ In a small saucepan over low heat, stir the cocoa powder and 1/4 cup margarine until melted and blended. Set aside to cool a bit.
~ Beat the butter, 1/2 cup margarine, and sugar until fluffy.
~ Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
~ Fold in the vanilla, coffee granules, and flour until just combined.
~ Fold in the cocoa mixture and the dark chocolate chips.
~ Divide the batter between the two prepared pans, and bake for 30 minutes - until the top is just slightly cracked.
~ Let the brownies settle in the pans for 10 minutes. Then, to assemble the cake, remove one layer from a pan, set on the serving tray, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup white chocolate chips. Top with the second layer.
~ Melt the remaining 3/4 cup white chocolate chips (either in the microwave or in a small saucepan over low heat), and pour the melted white chocolate over the top of the cake. The melted chocolate will run down the sides and make a dramatic glaze...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

For the Love of a Perfect Pizza

Pizza can get very personal. Elise says that The Perfect Pizza must contain ham and pineapple. As a result, she has that pizza to herself whenever she and Scott order pizza. Two of my college roommates, Emily and Aaron, are now married, and still argue heatedly over whether a pizza should be topped with or without mushrooms. I like 'unusual pizzas,' such as smoked salmon, dill, and goat cheese pizza, and Zach looks at me sceptically whenever I suggest such a combo.

Ultimately, though, Zach and I do agree on our Perfect Pizza. I'm not about to try and convert anyone, but I can vouch for the fact that this is seriously good pizza.

We start by sauteing some onion and garlic...

which makes an especially flavorful marinara sauce...

Homemade pizza dough, of course...

and finally, some very serious toppings.

Our Perfect Pizza

For the dough:
1/2 cup warm water (105 to 110 degrees F)
1 packet quick rising dry yeast
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil

~ Mix the warm water and yeast together, and set aside for 5 minutes.
~ Meanwhile, toss the flour and salt together in a large bowl.
~ Pour the yeast mixture and the olive oil in with the flour, and knead by hand or with a dough hook until smooth.
~ Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl, and turn the dough to coat with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free area just until the toppings are ready.
~ Once the toppings are ready, flour the bottom of a large baking pan or pizza stone, and pat out the dough in a circle or rectangle to the desired thickness. Use your fingers to make depressions approx. 1 inch from the edge, to form the edge of the crust - you'll be piling on lots of toppings, so you need a bit of an edge to hold them in!

For the toppings:
1/2 lb. chicken sausage, sliced OR vegetarian "sausage" style crumbles plus 1 T olive oil
1/2 lb turkey bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces OR vegetarian "bacon" plus 1 T olive oil

1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
1 cup whole black olives
2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Cajun seasoning
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese

~ Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
~ In a large skillet, coated with cooking spray, saute the sausage and bacon over medium high heat until browned. Remove, and set aside.
~ Pour off most of the grease in the skillet, leaving just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Saute the onion and garlic until the onion is limp and translucent.
~ Stir the onion mixture into the marinara sauce.
~ To prepare the pizza, spread the marinara mixture across the dough.
~ Scatter the mozzarella cheese on top of the sauce, followed by the olives, and the sausage and bacon.
~ Season to taste with Cajun seasoning, then top with the pepper jack cheese.
~ Bake for 12 minutes - until the crust is lightly golden. Mmmmm...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I'm Not Crazy - I'm Just Making Onion Jam

A few decades short of being able to claim senility as an excuse, I find I've turned into the crazy lady in the grocery store. No, I haven't gone so far as to start talking to myself in the aisles, but I do find myself staring at the same shelf for an inordinately long amount of time.

Actually, I'm not crazy - nor has my eyesight failed me. It's just that sometimes the key ingredient is completely illusive, no matter how long I search the shelves hoping it will appear. A few Sundays ago, for instance, I set out on a quest for sandwich ingredients. This was no ordinary sandwich, however - Zach had requested the recreation of one of Gourmet magazine's cover recipes, a grand combination of sourdough bread, fontina cheese - and onion jam. This particular recipe happened to be in the "gourmet everyday" section, and called for "prepared onion jam." I usually consider it against my family's code of ethics to not fix every single little thing from scratch, but, in this case, since I've been somewhat frazzled with schoolwork lately, I decided that if prepared onion jam was good enough for Gourmet, it was good enough for me.

However... Yes, you've guessed it - I'm sure onion jam exists in a jar somewhere, but it certainly doesn't in our hometown. So I made it from scratch anyway... and am now eternally thankful for our grocery store's failure in stocking.

I could spend pages telling you of the unparalleled wonders of homemade onion jam, which we did indeed savor in sourdough paninis with fontina cheese and baby spinach, but then I would be occupying more time that would be much better spent making onion jam...

I kid you not. This. Stuff. Is. Amazing.

Onion Jam

2 T butter
2 large yellow or white onions, sliced
1/3 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

~ In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Saute the onions in the butter, stirring occasionally, until the onions are completely limp and beginning to brown (approx. 10 minutes).
~ Stir in the sugar, stir until the sugar is melted, and simmer, stirring again occasionally, until the mixture is thickened and caramelized.
~ Add the vinegar and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened again. Enjoy warm or cold!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I'm Swamped with Schoolwork, but I'm Still Fixing Risotto...

Classic, traditional risotto is incredible - but also time consuming, somewhat painstaking to cook, and usually laden with fat in the form of cream and butter... Sigh. How about, then, an equally delicious version of risotto that's healthy, low-fat, and such a breeze to prepare that you can have it simmering and occupying itself while you're off cooking (or doing) something else?

This is the kind of risotto you fix when you're flooded with schoolwork, final exams are upon you (my school uses the quarter system, which means that we have final exams at strange times, like in March...), you really want to cook something comforting and energizing, but you need whatever your cooking to be tolerant of the fact that you're stirring with one hand and holding a textbook with the other - and paying more attention to the textbook than what's in the saucepan...

Bring on the multi-tasking!

Orzo Corn Risotto

4 cups vegetable broth, plus more for adding during cooking
1 cup uncooked whole wheat orzo pasta
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup milk
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cup corn kernels
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Cajun seasoning to taste
salt and pepper to taste

~ In a medium saucepan, bring the 4 cups vegetable broth to a boil. Add the orzo, and reduce the heat just enough to keep the broth at a gentle boil without going too crazy.
~ Continue to cook until the liquid has been absorbed/reduced by 2/3. Add additional broth gradually, as needed to keep about 1 cup of liquid around the orzo, stirring occasionally, until the orzo is tender and fully cooked (but still al dente).
~ While the orzo is doing its thing, combine the milk, onion, and garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook just until bubbles appear around the edge of the pan, taking care not to let it boil.
~ Drain the onion mixture, keeping the onion and garlic and discarding the milk (or reserving it for something else - it makes a great onion-infused cheese sauce).
~ Returning to our other pan - once the orzo is cooked, reduce the heat to medium, stir in the rice, and add additional liquid to reach a stew-like consistency. Cook, still stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
~ Stir in the corn and the onion mixture, and cook until just heated through.
~ Over low heat, fold in the parmesan cheese. Season to taste with Cajun seasoning, salt, and pepper, and it's ready to serve!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Shhhh... My Souffles Have a Secret...

First of all, a giant thank you to MaryE of Apron Strings and Simmering Things, who graced this blog with an E for Excellent award!

MaryE, I am so honored and delighted. Even better, I get to pass the award on to 5 fellow bloggers! (I seem to be sending all sorts of things out across the blogging world lately...) For maximum suspense (and because I confess I'm having an incredibly hard time picking just five), the five will be revealed in my next post... (drum roll please...)

MaryE's award also happens to be the first award bestowed upon this blog - how exciting! It seems the occasion calls for something fabulous, no?

It seems the occasion calls for chocolate souffles...

Except first I have to divulge the secret of these souffles. (If souffles could talk, they would be wiggling around in their little dishes right now, and whispering "shhhh, don't tell!) These are healthy souffles: low fat, a good source of calcium, made with antioxident-rich cocoa powder that could also easily be adapted for a carob powder version, and only 180 calories per ample, luxiourious serving. Sounds impossible, right? I mean surely, these can't be any good, can they? (In fact, by now, they probably even sound a little bit gross...)

Well, the recipe that inspired this final, it's-actually-not-impossible and these-are-crazy-amazing-oh-my-gosh-I-can't-believe-
recipe, did indeed sound, well, not so delicious. They had all the same health claims, but I took one look at the recipe, squinted suspiciously, and said "hmm, this will probably result in a burnt, bitter mess..." Then, purely out of morbid curiosity, I did follow the recipe, and lo and behold, soon had a burnt, bitter mess sitting on our counter-top. (Hey, for some people morbid curiosity entails looking at vaguely inappropriate pictures - for me it's trying the occasional dubious recipe...) By then, though, the idea had captured my imagination - why couldn't one create a souffle indistinguishable from it's egg-yolk, butter, and saturated fat filled, and absolutely delicious, counterpart?

Why not, indeed? Last night, I placed these souffles in front of our dinner guests with some trepidation... and watched with amazement as they ooohed, ahhed, got very quiet, made mmmm noises, scraped their dishes clean,

and then fussed about how they should feel guilty but they didn't because that just tasted so good...

I almost told them they didn't have to feel guilty at all, I almost told them these souffles were actually good for them, but I didn't. In that brief, transcendent moment of chocolate ecstasy, why worry about details?

Secretly Light Chocolate Soufflés

1/2 cup cocoa powder
6 T hot water
1 T butter
1 T canola oil
3 T flour
1 rounded T peanut butter (either chunky or smooth, depending on whether you want a wee bit of texture, or want to keep your soufflés completely smooth)
6 T raw sugar, divided
2 T honey
1/8 T salt
¾ cup reduced fat milk
4 egg whites

~ Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat 4 individual (10 oz) soufflé dishes with cooking spray.
~ Stir together the cocoa powder and hot water to make a smooth paste, then set the paste aside to cool.
~ Place the butter, canola oil, and peanut butter in a small saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, just until the butter is melted. Remove the pan from the heat, and continue stirring until the peanut butter has finished incorporating and all three ingredients are well combined.
~ Add the flour, return the pan to the heat, and stir constantly for one minute.
~ Remove the pan from the heat again, and stir in 3 T of the raw sugar and the 2 T honey. (All this business of taking the pan on and off of the heat is necessary just so your mixture doesn’t burn… It’s really not quite as annoying as it sounds, I promise! :-)
~ Return the pan to the heat, and gradually add the milk, stirring constantly. Cook, with lots of stirring, until the mixture is thickened – this will take around 3 minutes.
~ Remove the pan from the heat one last time, stir in the cocoa mixture, and set aside to cool slightly.
~ With an electric mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the remaining 3 T raw sugar 1 T at a time while continuing to beat on high speed, until stiff peaks form.
~ Gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the cocoa mixture. Pour the resulting, now slightly fluffy cocoa mixture into the remaining egg whites, and fold in gently until just combined.
~ Spoon the batter into the soufflé dishes, and bake for 15 minutes – until the soufflés have puffed up and are set in the center. Serve warm, after they rest for 10 minutes, or cold, after they’ve cooled all the way – just make sure they’re topped with whipped cream! :-)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Raw Sugar Red Velvet Cake

Raw sugar is the reason I can't bake a red velvet cake for Zach's family's annual 4th of July reunion.

Red velvet cake is a southern cake figurehead, along with, of course, coconut cake and pound cake. Red velvet cake also happens to be Zach's favorite (hence the birthday version pictured here :-), so I've surely experimented with nearly e-v-e-r-y method and variation in existence - or at least I must be somewhat close. Last year, however, during my first introduction to the aforementioned family reunion, I met a cake that surpassed them all - Miss Ginger's red velvet cake.

"Want to try the best red velvet cake ever," Zach's great aunt asked? Of course...

The cake was moist. The cake sang with the classic, delicate red velvet blend of chocolate and vanilla. And to top it all off, a cooked, whipped frosting melted in your mouth with airy perfection. Apparently, my excitement was so palpable that at the end of the day, Miss Ginger (aka Zach's aunt) found me and, with a warm smile and careful directions, wrote out the recipe for me from memory.

The following weekend, back at our house, I eagerly followed Miss Ginger's directions. That night, we took the cake to Scott and Elise's house (Scott and Elise [of muffin fame] are Zach's brother and sister-in-law). Scott took one bite and proclaimed succulently, to my delight and total embarrassment, "this is the best freaking cake I've ever tasted. I think I want to marry this cake."

After a second helping, Scott turned to look at me quite seriously: "I don't know what you did, but this cake is even better than Aunt Ginger's. You can never tell her about this cake."

I was thoroughly perplexed at first, for I had religiously followed Miss Ginger's directions - or so I'd thought. Actually, the original recipe calls for white sugar, but I confess I haven't any in my pantry - not only does raw sugar have a lovely, soft caramel flavor that's milder than brown sugar but deeper in flavor than white sugar, but raw sugar retains the vitamins and minerals naturally present in sugar cane that are lost during white sugar's processing. I had used the raw sugar in that initial red velvet cake with nary an afterthought, and it turned out to be the magical ingredient - subsequent bakings with both raw and white sugar revealed that the raw sugar version was indeed far superior. And hey, if I'm going to use sugar, it might as well come with health benefits, right? :-)

Miss Ginger, the credit all goes to you - and to raw sugar!

Raw Sugar Red Velvet Cake
½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs
2 T cocoa
2 oz red food coloring
1 t salt
1 t vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 ¼ cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp vinegar

~ Grease and flour the sides of two cake pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper.
~ Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs.
~ Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring. Add to shortening mixture.
~ Mix salt, vanilla, and buttermilk. Add alternately with flour, starting with flour.
~ Mix soda and vinegar and fold into batter.
~ Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
~ Turn cakes out of pan immediately
~ When cakes are cool, split layers with dental floss (Yep, dental floss! Best baking trick ever). Frost, and refrigerate.

Cook 5 T flour and 1 cup milk (not skim) to a stiff paste while stirring constantly. Remove from heat, and beat with a fork or spoon until cool. Cream 1 cup butter with 1 cup granulated sugar. Add 1 tsp vanilla and flour paste and beat until it looks like whipped cream.

A few of the secrets to red velvet cake...

Number one, the soda and the vinegar foams into extra rising ooomph, making the cake especially light, fluffy, and airy... Chemistry at work in the kitchen! Such fun!

As you may have already noticed, red velvet cake owes its color and its name to A Lot of Food Coloring... As in two whole bottles... See? In it goes...

The red coloring makes a very scary looking paste...

Now it's starting to look less scary, right? Soon it'll be all pretty and cranberry colored, whipped into the previously white batter... Festive, indeed!