Category Archives: Food

Homemade (Almost Dairy-Free) Rainbow Chip Cake

If you haven’t already, you really must meet my friend Ashley. She used to run a dessert catering company, and a few years ago, I got to work for her as a sort of informal apprentice.

This came about almost accidentally, but was a pretty sweet deal (if you’ll pardon the pun), because though I showed up intending to chop chocolate and wash dishes, more often than not she let me do the fun stuff, like pipe polka dots on wedding cakes and liberally sample everything within reach – for educational purposes, of course.

At the time, her eldest son was six or seven months old, and Lydia was at least a year from being born. Since then, Ashley and I have hatched a combined four children, in two rounds of synchronized pregnancies: the first time, we shared a due date. The second time, we were within days of sharing a due date. Both times, the babies came five days apart.

I know, that has nothing to do with Rainbow Chip Cake. But trust me, we’re getting there.

My love of bittersweet chocolate stems directly from Ashley. Her recipe for tart dough is still the one I turn to, and her chocolate chip cookies are the ones that I make every single time I bake cookies. While pregnant with Sarah, I craved Ashley’s salted caramel macarons, which was unfortunate, because by that time she had moved to Seattle and started her blog.

And that, at last, brings me to Rainbow Chip Cake. In honor of her husband’s birthday, Ashley pulled together this incredible recipe, which left me wishing that a) she still lived in my town, and b) my daughter could eat eggs. Nonetheless, the second I saw photos of that cake, I knew that I’d be serving this at my birthday as well as Lydia’s, no matter how much creativity it took to make that happen.

I based my cake upon on the Bittersweet Chocolate Cake recipe, so the cake itself is dairy-free, but because I can’t vouch for the white chocolate chips, I call this Almost Dairy-Free Cake. The frosting is decidedly not dairy free, I’m afraid. But if you can stomach it, it’s incredible – comparable to Ashley’s Cadbury Eggs, really, and not nearly as messy to make.

Homemade (Almost Dairy-Free) Rainbow Chip Cake

For the cake:
3 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 c. cake flour (or more all-purpose flour)
2 c. sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/2 c. canola oil
2 Tbl. white vinegar
1 Tbl. vanilla extract
2 c. cold water
For the frosting:
3 sticks butter, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, also room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1-2 Tbl. heavy cream (or whole milk: I used it, and the frosting was still fabulous)
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

For the rainbow chips:
12 oz. white chocolate, finely chopped
food coloring, in four colors of your choice

First, make the rainbow chips. Over a double-boiler, melt white chocolate. (Alternatively, throw it in the microwave for 20 second increments, stirring well between sessions, until melted and smooth.)

Divide chocolate into four small bowls. Add desired amount of food coloring to each bowl, warming briefly in the microwave if white chocolate begins to stiffen. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, spread white chocolate into rectangles ¼” thick. Chill completely.

Once cool, chop into pieces approximately ¼” square – though, really, the size is up to you. It’ll be pretty and tasty no matter what. Store these bad boys in a Ziploc bag until you’re ready for them. They’ll be good for a while.

Next, make the cake. Preheat your oven to 350-degrees. Grease two 8” cake pans with butter, and line bottoms with parchment (for the record, I really do think this is worth the trouble).

Whisk dry ingredients together in medium bowl. Measure oil in a liquid measuring cup, then add vinegar and vanilla. Stir to combine.

Add oil mixture to dry ingredients and whisk until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

Add water and stir vigorously until lumps are mostly gone and the flour is completely incorporated.

Last, but absolutely not least, add ½ c. of the rainbow chips (or more, if you feel so inclined) and stir well.

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 30-35 minutes, until cake bounces back nicely when pressed with a fingertip. Cool completely before removing from pan.

Note: This cake keeps beautifully when well-wrapped with Saran wrap, so feel free to make it a day or two ahead and let sit at room temperature. If you’re really ahead of the game, store wrapped cakes in the freezer for a week before using. Let thaw completely before frosting, though.

Now, for the frosting: in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese until smooth. On low speed, add the powdered sugar. As you go, you might give it a taste (as though you needed any extra incentive) – depending on your inclination, you may not want to add the full 4 cups. Remember, the white chocolate will sweeten the frosting, too, so add the sugar to taste.

Next, add the cream (or milk), 1 Tbl. at a time. Add salt, then vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl to make sure that all ingredients are fully incorporated.

Finally, add the rainbow chips. Stand back and admire the beauty of your rainbow-studded frosting. Then lick the beaters (it’s in the recipe, so you’re just following instructions, right?).

Now, everyone has their preferred method of frosting cakes, but here’s mine (never mind the photos – I was feeling fancy that day): put the first layer on your favorite cake plate, because you might be like me and find them unbearably fun to collect. Slather on a goodly amount of frosting, ignoring the sides of the cake completely.

Put the next layer on top, making a beautiful frosting sandwich, and top that with another goodly amount of frosting (again, ignoring the sides – I like to let the cake peek through, especially when it’s this pretty). If you have any extra rainbow chips, sprinkle those over the top of the cake.

If you have any extra frosting (which you almost certainly will), put it in a bowl to serve alongside the cake, for those of your guests who don’t mind enduring a self-inflicted sugar coma. They will bless and curse you in the same breath, but they won’t deny that this cake is delicious.

Sprinkles

She considers candied ginger a treat.

She pilfers her papa’s medium salsa, drinking milk from a sippy cup when it gets too hot.

When offered raw garlic, she asks for seconds.

She eats hummus with a spoon.

And when I asked her what she wanted for her birthday dinner, she chose oatmeal.

But, like any self-respecting toddler, this girl loves frosting and sprinkles. (I don’t know where she gets it.)

Today, she is three, and I can’t quite believe it. We’ve already taken her new bike for two spins and eaten breakfast at an enchanted cafe and played dress-up for a good portion of the morning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy birthday, sweet Lu. I’m so glad that I get to be your mama.

Chuck’s Pear Gruyère Pie

I’ll just come out and say it: you need to see Pushing Daisies. Funny, romantic, slightly morbid, yet wistful, the show never takes itself too seriously (even if it tried to, Emerson Cod wouldn’t allow it). The colors are lovely, the sets eye-catching, the dialogue flawless and breathlessly clever, but most importantly of all, there is pie.

Lots and lots of pie.

In fact, there is so much pie that I rarely finish an episode without wanting a slice, specifically, of Chuck’s drug-smuggling Pear Gruyere pie. But since I can’t hang around the Pie Hole, eavesdropping on Emerson’s PI tips and savoring a slice of Three Plum a la mode, I opted to create a Pear Gruyere of my own (minus the homeopathic antidepressants).

The catch is that I am a baker of cakes, cookies and breads, but not pies. I have yet to produce a crust that I am pleased with, because my crusts have one unfortunate quality: they always crack. I have tried a handful of recipes, but I always end up piecing them together with wet finger tips and apologizing for them at the table. (Of course, I am the common denominator here, so I’m inclined to believe that I’m doing something wrong. Any ideas?)

Alas, this pie was no exception. When my crust disintegrated under the rolling pin, I grabbed my purse and my eldest daughter and informed Mitch that we were headed for Trader Joe’s. Could I have saved the crust? Perhaps. Did I want to? Not particularly.

So if you have a favorite pie crust recipe, by all means, use it. I used frozen crust, and the pie was delicious. Simple, slightly unusual, and delicious. As a testament to its goodness, notice that I have no existing photo of the pie post-oven, pre-consumption. This will have to do:

Chuck’s Pear Gruyere Pie

Note: I have found some recipes that bake the Gruyere directly into the crust, which sounds lovely, but given my ineptitude with crust, I opted to go all Hollywood and grate it all over the top of the pie (like Chuck does!). If you want a more elaborate version, try Blondie and Brownie‘s recipe. (It looks pretty amazing.)

Your favorite pie crust: enough to make the top and bottom of one 9″ pie

5 3/4 c. pear, peeled and chopped

6 Tbl. sugar

4 tsp. cornstarch

1/4-1/2 c. grated Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 375-degrees.

Combine pear, sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl. Add 1/4 c. or so of the Gruyere and stir with a wooden spoon.

To assemble the pie, place the bottom crust in a greased pie plate, fill with pear mixture, and top with remaining crust. Seal the edges of the pie, then sprinkle with remaining Gruyere over the top (to taste). Cut slits in crust and bake for 1 hour (mine actually took a little longer to get nice and brown, but then, I can’t put an egg wash on mine – you might try using a wash and let me know how it goes).

Unless you like your pie in a puddle, allow to cool completely before eating.

PS – For more pies from the Pie Hole, check out this page.

Photo albums: not just for photos any more

I’ve never considered myself an organized lady. At least, I didn’t until I took to staying home with small children. Something about the daily chaos drives me to control what I can, and what I end up with is color-coded books and a shelf full of photo albums, filled with everything but photos.

I also end up with a night guard and a cupboard full of lavender-chamomile tea. But I digress.

Mostly, my photo albums are full of recipes: one for sweets, one for Fall/Winter meals, and one for Spring/Summer. There’s also a funky one filled with craft ideas pilfered from old office magazines:

My abundant modesty urges me not to tell you this, but really, I think that this is one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. Really. I mean, you can fold up entire magazine pages and tuck them into spill-proof pockets!

You can doodle on the front pages, and scribble in the margins:

What’s not to love?

Bittersweet Chocolate (Dairy Free) Cake

This isn’t turning into a food blog, I swear. Food just happens to be one of the few constants in my life right now, since I find myself back in the kitchen, fielding requests for it, preparing it and cleaning up after it three times a day. And because I’m there so often, the likelihood of my stumbling across something worth sharing is pretty high.

Take this cake, for example. I have baked variations on this cake several times over the course of the last few years, and what I present to you now is the base from which my variations spring. This is the go-to birthday cake around here. It’s my potluck-in-a-pinch dessert. This cake lends itself to piped vanilla frosting, sifted powder sugar, melted (and cooled) dark chocolate, and I’ve spiked it with everything from black pepper to molasses, just to see what would happen. It’s embarrassingly easy, alarmingly delicious and (surprisingly) dairy free.

And yes, it was decorated by a two-year-old. Why do you ask?

You won’t believe me once you try a piece, but it’s true: this cake isn’t “good (for being dairy free)” but just plain good. I don’t know what happens when all of those odd ingredients interact, but the end result is fabulous – something I can attest to, because I have a double-layer, vanilla-frosted specimen on my kitchen counter right now.

Bittersweet Chocolate (Dairy Free) Cake

3 c. flour (I tend to favor white whole wheat)

1 1/2 c. sugar

1/2 c. cocoa powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

10 Tbl. oil

2 Tbl. white vinegar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 c. cold water

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate*, finely chopped (I used Ghirardhelli’s)

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/2″ pieces (optional)

*Instead of the unsweetened chocolate, you might try any of the following options (all of which have been tested and approved by my certified quality control staff): 1 tsp. instant espresso powder, 1 tsp. molasses, or a hefty dose of freshly ground black pepper. I warn you, though: do not try them all at once. That would taste terrible.

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Coat two 8″ cake pans with butter and line with parchment paper, trimmed to fit the bottom of the pans.

In large bowl, whisk dry ingredients together.

Combine oil, vinegar and vanilla in a liquid measuring cup and whisk to combine. Add to dry ingredients and whisk thoroughly, until mixture resembles a coarse, slightly lumpy, meal.

Using same liquid measuring cup, add cold water and whisk until the lumps break down. Stir in chopped chocolate, if using. The batter will be a bit runny and taste funky if you try it at this point, but nevermind that. The oven will make it all better.

Pour into prepared pans and bake 30-35 minutes, or until the cake bounces back nicely when pressed with a fingertip.

Yield: 2 8″ cakes, or approx. 24 cupcakes

We like sprinkles, yes we do!

And now, for the variations:

Casual: bake in a 9×13″ pan and top with sifted powdered sugar

Semi-Formal: layer and frost with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting, or Vanilla Buttercream Frosting. Or bake mini cupcakes, and top them with melted white chocolate and colorful sprinkles (we love sprinkles here, we really do).

Formal: bake in snazzy cupcake papers and top with melted bittersweet chocolate (and sprinkles).

Bonus Footage:

Who cares about the cake when you've got those two behind it?

The cake decorator takes a break.

The One Trick Up My Sleeve

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably learned a few things about me, namely that I:

a) enjoy talking about myself at length, and

b) like to bake. You know, a lot.

I equate cookies with love and cakes with comfort. When you’re sad, I don’t just give you a hug – I bring you butter, flour and sugar. And sprinkles, whenever possible.

However, Lydia is allergic to eggs.

My first concern, upon diagnosing her allergy, was not “How serious is it?” (Answer: not life-threatening, mercifully, but let’s just say that nobody has fun when she encounters an egg, and that includes our bathtub and washing machine.) It wasn’t even, “Will she outgrow this?” (Answer: hopefully!)

My first thought was, “But she’ll never get to have creme brulee!” A horrifying prospect, I know.

But after a few months without baked goods, I learned this happy trick, thus saving birthday cakes, chocolate chip cookies and pancakes for my otherwise pastry-less child. I don’t know what this is rightfully called, but I call it:

Faux Eggs

1 Tbl. freshly ground flax (I grind mine in a coffee grinder)

2-3 Tbl. hot water

Whisk together with a fork and substitute for 1 egg.

I’ve used this to replace up to four eggs with happy results, and have yet to notice a significant change in texture or taste. I’ve even used them in pudding, though I’m not sure that that worked as well.

The flax seed will probably leave some flecks in your vanilla cake, but I kind of like that. For some reason, it makes me feel fancy.

Cardboard Kitchen

The flu. It’s been here. It’s come and gone, and while it was here, life wasn’t pretty.

But, on the morning that I woke up queasy and feverish, this project saved the day. So, how did a bunch of boxes save a sick mama’s sanity, you ask?

One week earlier, I’d come across this project in an issue of Family Fun magazine. Smitten, I began saving boxes right away, and by the time our fateful morning rolled around, I had accumulated a decent stash. So, with the help of box tape, crayons and a few odds and ends (including, yes, some sterile breastmilk storage bottles), we created our cardboard kitchen.

The original plan was this: after an initial investment of queasy, feverish work, I would set Lydia up with a brand new, deliciously elaborate toy to occupy her for the rest of the day while Sarah amused herself with a teething ring and I languished on the couch.

I say “original” because what really happened was this: I got so absorbed in our project that I kind of forgot to be sick. In fact, I made a few interesting discoveries about myself, namely that I can get just as carried away with a few cardboard boxes as a two-year-old can, and that “crayon on cardboard” is, apparently, my new favorite medium.

So, this delightful set up has been occupying a substantial fraction of our living room for over a week now, and we’re both still enthralled with it. In fact, we’ve added to it as the week goes on. And the best part, in my book, is the fact that we can tear this down when the thrill wears off and then build it anew some other day, when some novel occupation is called for.

(I wish I could do that with a lot of her other toys, honestly.)

When that next time rolls around, I have plans to add a refrigerator. For now, I content myself with turning cardboard scraps into play food (yes, Lydia is cooking up a bacon and cookie saute, liberally seasoned with olive oil and paprika. And who doesn’t crave a cardboard muffin every now and then?).