Strawberry Birthday Cake, and not from a box

Another reason I miss my recipe notebook acutely at this time of year is BIRTHDAYS.  Lots and lots of birthdays.  Jake’s is January 27, John AND Emily’s is February 4, Teddy’s is February 15, and William’s is March 5.  That’s a lot of cake.
We’ve been through one whole set of birthdays since the fire, so I’ve rounded up all the tried and true cake recipes.  Jake had Milky Way Cake this year, and John had Strawberry Cake.
Ah, Strawberry Cake.  Twenty-five years ago was John’s first birthday with us as a couple.  It was a fantastic birthday–my gift to him was his college ring, and my roommate and her boyfriend and I “kidnapped” him and took him to the Kennedy Center to see HMS Pinafore.  And I baked him the first of many birthday cakes.
“What kind of cake do you want?” I asked him.  And he, no doubt envisioning a box of pink nastiness from the grocery store shelf, asked for a strawberry cake.
My mother did not have a recipe for strawberry cake.  The Georgetown University Library is not exactly overflowing with cookbooks.  And there was no Internet to consult.  And I haven’t used a box cake mix since I was maybe 12.  So I set out to invent my own recipe.
I don’t remember what I did, but although I am sure John appreciated my efforts, he probably would have preferred the box.
John bday 22
 
But I got better, and I’ve had years to work on my recipe.  The one I made this year was the best one ever, and I am pleased to share it with you. 🙂
It starts with a recipe called “Old-Fashioned White Birthday Cake.”  That came out of one of my mother’s cookbooks years ago.  Then I added some things (strawberries!).
Ingredients:
One container of strawberries, washed and drained
sugar to taste
1 c. butter, softened (REAL butter, mind you.  Don’t you dare use that nasty margarine.)
2 c. sugar
3.5 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
3.5 t. baking powder
milk
1 t. vanilla
8 egg whites
1/8 t. salt
It helps if you are an experienced baker when you make this cake, because I cannot give you exact measurements for the strawberry part of this.  Slice up the strawberries and puree them in your blender with enough sugar so that they are not tart.  If you need to add milk to get them pureed, you can.  Sometimes I’ve needed to; this time I did not.  You want to end up with about 1.5 cups of liquefied strawberry.
Halve the remaining strawberries and reserve.
Cream butter and sugar.  Add salt and baking powder and beat well.  Add vanilla and beat.  Add flour, alternating with liquid strawberries, beginning and ending with flour.  The recipe calls for 1 cup liquid.  If it doesn’t look like cake batter should, you can add more.  This is where experience comes in handy!
Now wash your beaters and beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.  (I gave all the yolks to the dog, but you can use the for scrambled eggs or french toast!) Add 1/8 t. salt to the beaten whites.  Fold lightly into cake batter.
Grease two round cake pans and dust with powdered sugar, and pour in your batter.  Bake at 350 until done.  I know that is not very exact, but the recipe really calls for 1 hour in a tube pan.  I started checking at 30 minutes.
When your cake is cool, spread the bottom layer with strawberry preserves.  Actually, I use one of the “all-fruit” strawberry spreads.  Make a basic buttercream frosting, and thin as needed with the rest of your strawberry juice for color and flavor.  Frost cake, and garnish with sliced strawberries.  Everyone will tell you it is the best cake they ever ate.
strawberry cake

Let the Preparations Begin!


That’s my counter, waiting for tomorrow.  We are hosting Thanksgiving for the first time in several years, and I expect to be cooking all day.  I hope to have only the turkey to deal with on Thursday.
When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was so comforting, following the same pattern every single year.  We ate dinner at Mima’s at 2 p.m. and supper at Granny’s later on.  At Mima’s there would be turkey and giblet gravy; at Granny’s there would be ham and dumplings.  (And many other things too, of course!)
But divorce, marriages, kids, and deaths have intervened.  We’ve never really come up with a permanent Thanksgiving plan like we had back then.  Thus added to the stress of preparing for the holiday is the stress of deciding where and how it will happen.
We started hosting the dinner before we even had a house big enough to do it, with a table that filled the entire living room of our ratty apartment.  Once we’d moved to the Victorian house, which had a dining room made for that kind of thing, we were the natural hosts and we filled that role for a long time.  My sister and I took turns a couple of times once she had a house.  But for the past couple of years we have gone out to eat and then met later on for homemade desserts.
But if you are a parent you know that kids thrive on tradition and DEMAND that it be followed.  My kids have never approved of this going out to eat on Thanksgiving business.  So this year I am cooking again.
I’m making the turkey, of course (and I plan to document just how I am doing that for my post tomorrow),  the gravy (sorry, Mima, no giblets in mine!), the dressing (I’d like to try something adventurous but when I’ve added craisins or nuts in the past my family members have disapproved), sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes (something we added for John–we never had them growing up), pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and possibly apple pie if I don’t get burned out before then.  And I’ll also be supplying the tea (VERY sweet), the cranberry sauce (the kind that keeps the shape of the can only, please!), and the sweet pickles and olives (because Mima always had them).
My mother is making the rolls and the green beans.  My sister is making casseroles (she is big on casseroles and invents her own recipes) and her mother-in-law is (I think and hope) bringing a ham (I’m the only big ham fan in the family so we never have it; I hope she will leave me some leftovers!).
I feel like I am whining all the time but I do feel just a little melancholy about not having special china and crystal any more.  We used to set a beautiful Thanksgiving table.  That was John’s contribution and he always did a wonderful job.  He even did fancy things with the napkins.  Rather than even attempt to replicate that I think we will be more casual and do buffet style and sit wherever.  It is easier anyway–I used to get so worn out from serving all those plates that I was just about too tired to eat!
What about you?  What’s on your menu for Thursday? What Thanksgiving food can you just not do without?

Pumpkins Pumpkins Everywhere!


Yes, it’s that time of year–or really, it’s slightly after that time of year, since I couldn’t find a carving-sized pumpkin for love or money the night before Halloween, which is when I attempted to buy them.  But that meant I ended up with several smaller ones instead.
Now, growing up I had no idea you could do anything with a pumpkin except carve a face in it.  Later my ideas expanded to include using them decorations in one of those ubiquitous fall displays.  But at some point it occurred to me that the pumpkin in a can had to come from somewhere, right?  So I consulted The Joy of Cooking and learned how to roast a pumpkin.
The roasting is easy, the pureeing much less so.  It may not be worth it to those who like to do things the easy way, but once I learn how to do things the hard way (think rolling out pie crusts by hand) I find it hard to go back to my old, convenience-oriented ways!
Another thing I never knew you could do is roast and eat the seeds from your pumpkin.  Now that’s a Halloween night tradition for us.

All of this is a preface to this, my first-ever cooking post!  Since it’s my recipe, of course it won’t be easy.  It takes several preliminary steps to get to the tasty result, but you can skip the hard parts if you want.
Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip Cookies
Ingredients:

2.5 c. flour

1 t. baking soda

1 stick butter (PLEASE use real butter!)

1 c. sugar

.5 c. packed brown sugar

2 eggs

.5 c. roasted and pureed pumpkin

2 t. vanilla

.5 c. roasted and salted pumpkin seeds, chopped fine

1 12-oz. bag milk chocolate chips

You will want to do these first two preliminary parts the day before you want to make the cookies!  Or buy a can of pumpkin and a bag of seeds.  Just don’t tell me about it!
First, roast a pumpkin.  A small one is fine.  Here’s how you do it:
Cut the pumpkin in half and scrape out its insides; reserve seeds.  No need to be too anal; I am lazy and leave a string or two behind and never have a problem.
Grease a cookie sheet (just a spray with Pam or its generic equivalent, if you are me, will do).
Place the two halves, cut side down, on your cookie sheet.
Cook at 350 degrees for about an hour.  You will know you are finished when the pumpkin halves start to collapse a little bit.
Remove from oven and let cool.  Peel off the skin and put the flesh away until you are ready to puree it.  You can freeze it for just about forever if you wish.
Now, attend to your seeds.  You should rinse them in a colander and dry them with paper towels.  The dryer you can get them the quicker they will roast.
Grease another cookie sheet and spread the seeds thereon.  The thinner you can spread them the shorter the roasting time will be.  Put them in a 200 degree oven.
Check the seeds every half hour or so.  At some point you will want to put some butter on them and some salt.  Stir them around when you check them.  You can add more butter and salt when you check them–that’s up to your taste.
Now I cannot tell you how long this is going to take, because it varies.  I cooked mine for probably four hours.  Anyway, when they are crunchy but not burned, remove them from the oven and put them aside.
When they are cool, chop them up in your food processor or blender.  Or you could use them whole; it’s up to your family’s taste.  Mine were more like meal than seeds when I was finished.
By now your pumpkin has cooled off–it’s had four hours after all–so you can puree it.  I imagine a food processor would make this easy but I don’t have one so I use a blender, which is hard.  I usually cheat and add a little liquid to make it easier.  This time I used eggnog for this, which gave it a nice flavor.  And you’ll be using beaters on it too, so if you get frustrated doing this remember it doesn’t have to be perfect.  Take out what you need for the recipe and put the rest away for another day.
Here comes the easier part.
Cream the butter and sugar.  The proportions are strange because we are replacing part of the fat with the pumpkin, so don’t worry if you can’t get it perfectly creamy.  I am a lazy cook on details like this and have found that seriously it doesn’t matter much, no matter what your mother told you.
Let your kids crack the eggs and then add them and beat again.  And the vanilla, then the soda, beating after each.  Next the pumpkin.  Then the flour.  Then stir in the nuts and the chips.

Isn’t it a pretty color?  The batter is not going to have the texture of a typical chocolate chip cookie because of the pumpkin.  Don’t worry; it will be okay.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Drop spoonfuls of batter on your cookie sheet.   These stuck to my dark cookie sheet but not the shiny one, so you might want to grease yours if they are dark.  These don’t spread much at all, so you can factor that in to how many you put on each sheet.
Cook each batch for ten minutes, maybe longer, till they are a little brown on top.  They are not going to be as brown as typical chocolate chip cookies.  And they are going to be a bit pouffy, so they are probably more done than you think they are.  More than twelve minutes is probably going to be too long.

I was pleased and proud and my family loved them!  Be sure to tell me if you make them!

It's Cake Time in Tennessee . . . or at least in the Sholly house

I have an astonishing number of birthdays to deal with at the beginning of every year.  I say *I* have to deal with them because I am the one making the cakes.  Sometimes I feel like all I do is bake cakes for six weeks straight.  Jake’s birthday is January 27, John’s and Emily’s is today, Teddy’s is February 15, and William’s is March 5.
Suzy Homemaker I am not, except when it comes to baking.  No cake boxes or cans of icing will ever come through this door.  All my cakes are made from scratch (which honestly is not that hard and I’m not sure why people think baking cakes from scratch is such a big deal).  To make things easier, I have a few tried and true recipes that people usually pick from for their birthdays.  Not that I wouldn’t make something else if anyone asked. But usually they are plenty happy with one of the old favorites.
Jake said he did not care what kind of cake I made for him, so for his family party I picked the easiest one:  Coca-cola cake.  I’d already made it for Lorelei’s birthday back in November, so we were over the hurdle of finding the recipe, all my cookbooks, including the hand-written one with all my most-used recipes having, of course, burned.

This is actually Lorelei's cake, but it's the same recipe.

Jake had a second party with his friends, and for that one I made Aunt Hattie’s cake.  Apparently there are or were a lot of Aunt Hatties who liked to make cakes, because I could not find the right recipe on the internet.  I thought I remembered it, and I double-checked with my mother to make sure.  It’s a basic yellow cake–it’s really buttermilk pound cake with one extra egg.  I use buttercream frosting.
Last year Emily actually asked me to mail her a cake, which I did–a Milky Way Cake.  This year I think she is more excited about legally drinking than eating cake, so I got off easy with one cake today.  I always tried to make a special celebration for each birthday person on their shared day, so that meant two cakes every February 4th for eighteen years.
John is saving up his partying for his next big birthday, and didn’t even ask for a cake, so I actually decided to try something new.  A friend had given me a recipe for Wet Coconut Cake, which I’d tasted at a church function.  The original recipe was just too darn easy for me, so I had to tinker with it a little bit.  As written, you make a yellow sheet cake from a mix, poke holes in it and saturate it with a mixture of cream of coconut and sweetened condensed milk, chill it, and then spread it with Cool Whip and sprinkle it with coconut.  Cool Whip is something I never knowingly let pass my lips.  So what I did instead was make another Aunt Hattie’s cake, gave it the saturation treatment, chilled it, spread it with homemade whipped cream, and flaked an actual coconut onto it (no, that very last thing was a lie).
William has already put me on notice that he expects Red Velvet Cake for his birthday.  That recipe came from my friend Rico’s mother, and it is the best cake ever.  Teddy has not yet expressed his preference, but besides the above choices he might request Old-Fashioned White Birthday Cake or my own variation, Strawberry Cake.
And then I won’t have to make another cake until November!