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So it turns out that strawberry shortcake is NOT simply strawberries with pound cake, angel food cake or sponge cake (no, not even those perfectly round little sponge cakes sold in packs of six in your grocery store’s produce section).

The shortcake you likely remember from your childhood? An imposter.

Shortcake is its very own thing. Simply placing strawberries and whipped cream (or, more likely, Cool Whip) on top of any kind of cake does not magically turn it into shortcake. (And while I’m on the subject of Cool Whip, how is it that nobody ever told me how EASY it was to make your own whipped cream?)

Shortcakes are essentially biscuits made with butter instead of shortening, with just a hint of added sugar. They’re supposed to accent the strawberries, after all, not compete for the title of sweetest dessert element.

I’ve made the Cook’s Illustrated version of strawberry shortcake a couple of times, and it’s a winner. The shortcakes are light, but substantial enough to hold the juicy berries without falling apart. The strawberries themselves could probably do with a little less added sugar, especially if you’re lucky enough to get specimens as sweet as I’ve found at the Dennison’s Family Farm strawberry stand this year. The recipe makes way more shortcakes than two people need, but the leftover cakes are good for a couple more days and you can make half, a third or even a quarter of the whipped cream recipe if you like.

Strawberry Shortcake

  • 8 cups (about 2.5 lbs.) strawberries, hulled
  • 6 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting the work surface and biscuit cutter)
  • 5 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick (8 Tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tsp. half-and-half
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups whipped cream

For the strawberries:
Place 3 cups of the hulled strawberries in a large bowl and crush with a potato masher. Slice the remaining 5 cups berries and stir into the crushed berries along with the sugar. Set the fruit aside to macerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours. (Note: Our leftover macerated strawberries were good for three more days.)

For the shortcakes:
Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a food processor, pulse the flour, 3 Tbsp. of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt to combine. Scatter the butter pieces on top and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about fifteen 1-second pulses. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Mix the beaten egg with the half-and-half and vanilla extract in a measuring cup. Pour the egg mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Combine with a rubber spatula until large clumps form. Turn the mixture onto a floured work surface and lightly knead until it comes together. (Note: I’m not sure how I avoided screwing this up, given my lack of prowess with bread dough. It was a sticky mess, but I somehow managed to work enough extra flour in to make it work without ruining it. The husband has mad dough-making skills, so I should probably convince him to handle this part.)

Use your fingertips to pat the dough into a 9-by-6-inch rectangle about ¾-inch thick, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Flour a 2¾-inch biscuit cutter and cut out 6 dough rounds. Place the rounds 1 inch apart on a small baking sheet, brush the tops with the beaten egg white, and sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar. (Dough rounds can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 hours before baking.) (The recipe notes that you can roll up the leftover dough scraps and make more shortcakes, but warns that they may not be as good as the originals. I detected no difference, so use all of your dough.)

Bake until the shortcakes are golden brown, 12-14 minutes. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack and cool the cakes until warm, about 10 minutes.

To assemble:
When the shortcakes have cooled slightly, split them in half. Place each cake bottom on an individual serving plate, and spoon a portion of the fruit and a dollop of whipped cream over each cake bottom. Cap with the cake top and serve immediately.

Whipped Cream 
Makes about 2 cups

  • 1 cup heavy cream, cold
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Chill a deep, non-reactive, 1- to 1.5-quart bowl and beaters in the freezer for at least 20 minutes. Put all ingredients in bowl and beat on low until small bubbles form, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat until beaters leave a trail through the mixture, approximately 30 seconds more. Beat on high until the whipped cream is smooth, thick and nearly doubled in volume, about 20 to 30 seconds. (Note: Don’t skimp on freezing the bowl and beaters. That’s what makes the magic happen.)

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CokeCake

During the last few weeks of my brief relocation to Atlanta, I craved Coca-Cola cake. Not because I saw it on a menu or because somebody mentioned it, but because you can’t travel an entire block in Atlanta without seeing some sort of reminder that it’s the home of Coke, and my mind heads off in unpredictable directions when it gets a prompt.

Atlanta, the home of Coke, leads to Coca-Cola cake. Why not?

I remember eating Coca-Cola cake on a pretty regular basis when I was a kid. It’s pretty easy to throw together, and since you bake it in and serve it from the same pan, the presentation is simple, too.

I’ve had a copy of Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola for years, apparently always meaning to make this cake, but I got very confused when I tried to look up the recipe. I found three recipes for chocolate cakes containing Coke, but none of them called for the 13-by-9-inch pan that I specifically remembered. Online, Southern Living linked to a recipe that called for a good bit more sugar than the one in my book (not that I’m trying to make a low-sugar cake, because LOL low-sugar cake, but I didn’t want a chocolate cake in which the sugar overwhelmed the chocolate). Finally, I flipped through my copy of The Mississippi Cookbook, figuring that the Southern classic would surely hold the recipe I was looking for. I found that the sugar-cocoa ratio in its version was even more unappealing than the one in the online recipe.

Other than the sugar discrepancy, the online recipe’s ingredient list was nearly identical to one of the recipes in Classic Cooking with Coca-Cola, AND the online recipe gave me instructions for baking in a 13-by-9-inch pan instead of a sheet pan, so I figured my baking time would be about the same. And it was.

As I remembered, the cake was at its best the day after I made it. As the icing sits overnight, it hardens into a fudgy topping — not quote a hard coating, but not a soft frosting, either.

Admittedly, this cake was not the ambrosial concoction I remember from my childhood, but it was quite delicious. I think cake, like sandwiches and salads, is simply one of those treats that always taste better when somebody makes them for you.

One regular can of Coke is enough to make the batter and the icing, provided you don’t drink the leftover soda while the cake is baking. I’m not judging, either way. And seeing as I have NEVER purchased a carton of buttermilk, I always have to use the standard substitution: 1 tbsp. white vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup milk. I also understand you can use yogurt or buttermilk powder.

Start making the icing a couple of minutes after the cake comes out of the oven. You’ll want to pour it on top of the cake after the cake has cooled off for about 10 minutes. Also, the original recipe indicated that the pecans in the icing were optional, and pecans are SO not optional for this cake. In fact, I might try to work some pecans into the batter AND the icing next time.

Coca-Cola Cake

  • 2 cups plain unsifted flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 3 tbsp. cocoa
  • 1 cup Coca-Cola
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups miniature marshmallows

Grease and flour a 13-by-9-inch pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift the flour and sugar into a large mixing bowl. (Note: I didn’t sift anything because I kind of hate to sift. I had to mash down a few flour pellets in the batter with my stirring spatula, but that was the only consequence.)

In a saucepan, bring the butter, cocoa and Coca-Cola to a boil. Pour this mixture over the flour and sugar and stir until the batter is mixed thoroughly. Stir in the buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, vanilla and marshmallows; mix well.

The batter will be extremely thin, and the marshmallows will float to the top. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, and move the floating marshmallows around until they’re spread out reasonably evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. (Note: None of the recipes I consulted tell you how to tell that this cake is done, which was a little scary because the batter is so weirdly thin. The toothpick test worked, though. After 35 minutes, the toothpick came out with a few moist crumbs on it.)

Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then pour the icing on top. It should spread itself out pretty evenly over the cake. Let the iced cake sit for at least an hour to let the icing firm up a little before you cut it, or risk scraping icing run-off out of the bottom of the pan with a spoon (which, really, is not such a terrible thing).

Coca-Cola Icing

  • 1 stick butter
  • 3 tbsp. cocoa
  • 6 or 7 tbsp. Coca-Cola
  • 1 box powdered sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

In a saucepan, heat the butter, Coca-Cola and cocoa until everything is melted and mixed together. Pour over the powdered sugar and mix well. (Note: I broke out the mixer for this.)

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This loaf of cinnamon sugar bread almost never came to be, which would have been quite unfortunate, because it was a thing of perfection, with a crunchy top and soft interior laced with more than a mere hint of cinnamon sugar.

The first time I tried the recipe, the top wasn’t crunchy, and the interior was a wet, soupy messy of cinnamon sugar and raw batter. It fell apart coming out of the loaf pan, and I had to cut it into pieces before bringing it to the office to save myself the embarrassment of co-workers trying to cut/scoop servings for themselves.

The concoction’s only saving grace? It was, beneath the disfigured clumps and raw batter, utterly delicious.

The original recipe called for all of the cinnamon sugar mixture (a full 1/3 cup of sugar and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon) to be sprinkled in one layer on top of half of the batter, then topped with the rest of the batter. The cinnamon sugar mixture seems to have liquefied and prevented the batter immediately surrounding it from baking completely.

I decided to give the recipe one more chance, figuring that if I could make smaller layers of cinnamon sugar, maybe the batter would have a chance to cook more evenly.

I didn’t get the chance until this weekend, when I babysat my nieces while my sister-in-law had a much-deserved girls weekend out. Given my ineffective Barbie doll skills (the girls got pretty upset when I couldn’t remember the names of the dozen dolls NOT named Barbie) and the cold weather preventing us from easily pursuing outdoor, more tomboyish activities, I decided that a baking project was in order.

Part of the reason I wanted this recipe to work was its ease of preparation: You literally stir seven ingredients together for the batter and then layer it in the loaf pan with cinnamon sugar. No mixer. No sifting. No melting.

After having my charges stir the batter and shake the cinnamon sugar mixture together thoroughly, I poured what I figured to be about a third of the batter into the bottom of the greased and floured pan. I then had my nieces spoon about a third of the cinnamon sugar over the batter. I added another layer of batter, then almost all of the cinnamon sugar save for about 2 tablespoons. I added the rest of the batter, then sprinkled on the rest of the cinnamon sugar.

50 minutes in the oven plus 10 minutes on the wire rack and the loaf slid right out of the pan. After allowing the bread to cool for about 20 more minutes while watching Scooby-Doo (the 2002 live-action version), we had cinnamon bread and hot chocolate out of my childhood Tupperware tea set (now theirs).

Babysitting perfection.

The original recipe came from A Whisk and a Prayer via Pinterest.

Cinnamon Sugar Bread

Adapted from A Whisk and a Prayer

  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9×5-inch inch loaf pan (I also cut a piece of parchment paper to fit on the bottom for extra non-stick protection). Stir the cinnamon and 1/3 cup sugar together.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup sugar. Add the egg, milk and oil. Stir until just moistened.

Pour approximately a third of the batter into the loaf pan. Sprinkle with about a third of the cinnamon sugar. Top with another third of the batter, then almost all of the remaining cinnamon sugar. Pour the rest of the batter in the pan and sprinkle the rest of the cinnamon sugar on top.

Bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing it to a wire rack to cool completely.

The original recipe advises you to wrap the loaf in foil and let it sit overnight before slicing. If you can endure the scent of freshly baked cinnamon bread wafting through your home without cutting a piece off until the next day, then go for it. If not, enjoy your snack today AND tomorrow.

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I gave up on finding an authentic, reasonably priced king cake in Huntsville this year. The king cakes at Publix have gone downhill since the days in which the bakery reportedly imported simple, unbaked cakes from Louisiana, baking and decorating them in the days leading up to Mardi Gras. This year, the offerings were filled with cream cheese in various artificial flavors, and I’m tired of bakeries trying to complicate the king cake. It’s SUPPOSED to be relatively simple. By the time you combine a thick, sweet filling with powdered sugar icing AND a heap of colored sugar on top, you’ve got a sickly sweet concoction that in no way resembles a traditional king cake.

Even Earth Fare got in on the act, promising me a king cake complete with apple filling.

No thanks.

After last year’s debacle with frozen bread dough, I decided to simply dedicate an afternoon to the old Southern Living recipe that my mom found some 20 years ago. It had been too long since the husband and I had enjoyed the real thing, and I had volunteered to make a king cake for my co-workers in lieu of suffering through some sort of monstrosity filled with artificially flavored goop.

I’m never convinced that I haven’t added too much flour in my efforts to make the dough manageable. My biggest complaint about this recipe is that it calls for flour by volume rather than weight; measuring flour using the scale is much more accurate than using measuring cups. The cake turned out fine, however, with both the husband and the co-workers giving it rave reviews.

I’d still give somebody $20 to make an acceptable king cake for me, but apparently I’m not going to be able to do that in Huntsville anytime soon.

King Cake

(Adapted from Southern Living)

Makes 2 cakes

  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 (16-ounce) container sour cream
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (.25-ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • ½ cup warm water (100 to 110 degrees)
  • 2 eggs
  • 6½ cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • Frosting (see below)
  • Colored sugars (see below)

Cook the first four ingredients in a saucepan over low heat, stirring often, until the butter melts. Cool the mixture to between 100 and 110 degrees.

Dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in ½ cup warm water in a large bowl; let stand 5 minutes. Add the butter mixture, eggs and 2 cups flour; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer for 2 minutes or until smooth.

Gradually stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place in a well-greased bowl, turning to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees), free from drafts for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Stir together ½ cup sugar and cinnamon; set aside. Punch dough down; divide in half. Turn one portion out onto a lightly floured surface; roll to a 28-x-10-inch rectangle.

Spread half each of the cinnamon mixture and the softened butter on the dough. Roll the dough, jellyroll fashion, starting at the long side. Place the dough roll, seam side down, on a lightly greased baking sheet.

Bring the ends together to form an oval ring, moistening and pinching the edges together to seal. Repeat with remaining dough, cinnamon mixture and butter.

Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden. Decorate with bands of frosting, and sprinkle with colored sugars.

Note: This year, I spooned the frosting into a zip-top bag, cut off a corner and squeezed the frosting onto the cake. This gave me a much neater, more even application than I would have gotten by simply drizzling it on the cake. Also, sprinkling the sugar on top will make a HUGE mess. You’re going to want to sprinkle the sugar on the king cake far away from the edge of the countertop or table so you don’t get sugar on the floor. Moisten a couple of dish towels with water and place them on the surface beneath the cake platter (cookie sheet, whatever) that’ll be holding the cake as you sprinkle on the sugar.

Frosting

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Stir together powdered sugar and melted butter. Add milk to reach desired consistency for drizzling; stir in vanilla.

Note: The original recipe advises you to divide the frosting and tint it green, yellow and purple, but since you’re going to coat it with colored sugar anyway, you’ll do just as well to leave it white.

Colored Sugars

  • 1½ cups white sugar, divided
  • 2 drops green food color
  • 2 drops yellow food coloring
  • 2 drops red food color
  • 2 drops blue food coloring

Place ½ cup sugar and green food coloring in a jar or zip-top plastic bag; seal.

Shake vigorously to evenly mix color with sugar. Repeat procedure with ½ cup sugar and yellow food coloring.

For purple, combine red and blue food coloring before adding to remaining ½ cup sugar.

Note: A couple of years ago, I discovered that Wal-Mart made much prettier, more vividly colored sugar than I could. My colored sugar was always paler than the sugar I saw in bakeries, and it was decidedly non-sparkly. You might have to use blue instead of purple, but you’ll live.

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Photo courtesy of Bakers Royale

Saturday, I applied a popular exercise mantra — “No pain, no gain” — to cooking.

The gain — delicious Mini Pommes Anna — was totally worth the pain.

I had purchased the entry-level OXO mandoline slicer several months ago, partly so I could make some version of pommes Anna, which is simply very thin slices of potato layered and baked with butter. (And if you’re one of those people who can make paper-thin slices of veggies with a knife, congratulations. You have mad knife skills. I do not.) I was in the middle of my final semester of grad school, however, so the mandoline has been resting in the gadget drawer.

The semester eventually drew to a close, and Pinterest pointed me to this intriguing recipe for smaller, individually sized versions of Pommes Anna, courtesy of Naomi at Bakers Royale. The mandoline finally made its debut.

And boy, was it angry.

Seriously, I underestimated the danger of the mandoline (and found out that just about everybody has a story about somebody taking their fingertip off with one). Having failed to keep the potato attached to the finger-protecting holder mechanism, I ran it across the blade by hand, which worked great right up until the moment I cut my thumb.

I immediately initiated Standard Operating Procedure for kitchen injuries:

  1. Don’t bleed in the food.
  2. Evaluate the injury.
  3. Wash the injury with soap and water.
  4. Wrap the injury with paper towel to try to stop the bleeding, or at least keep the blood out of the food.
  5. Soldier on. You’re not going to make more blood by starving yourself.

It was a minor cut, although it was a heck of a bleeder.

The potatoes were simply divine. The mandoline had cut them into sheer little circles that, when tossed with butter and layered with kosher salt and pepper in a muffin pan, baked up into a luxurious side dish. The husband commented more than once on these buttery and creamy little stacks of goodness.

And yes, there were only four ingredients: Yukon potatoes, butter, salt and pepper. I cut the recipe in half, so it made six. I figured two stacks per person was about right (they compress while baking, so each one ends up being about 1.5 inches high). We each ate a third stack, partly because they were so delectable and partly because they didn’t seem like the kind of food that reheats properly.

And one of us was making replacement blood, after all.

They were definitely a welcome change from mashed potatoes, which is what I usually serve with meat loaf (and more on that fabulous meat loaf later).

As for the mandoline, I think I should probably upgrade to the model with non-slip feet (seems like an upright model might be safer than one that “hooks” over a bowl). Also, a couple of friends pointed me toward Kevlar gloves made for use with mandolines, so those might be showing up in the gadget drawer, too. (Actually, when the first friend, Crafty Kristen, mentioned Kevlar gloves, I kind of thought she was joking — LOL Kevlar gloves for the clumsy cook, very funny. But no. They are real. And possibly a necessity.)

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Two years ago, I completed a successful search for a recipe that tasted like the fabulous Gingeroos that I bought at a Las Vegas Trader Joe’s but couldn’t find in Nashville.

The husband and I spent Christmas in Vegas this year, and when I spotted the bags of Gingeroos on the shelf at TJ’s, I knew it was the perfect time for a taste test since we had just polished off the last of this year’s Triple Ginger Cookies a couple of days earlier.

The verdict? My cookies are actually BETTER than Gingeroos. Either I originally gave these cookies more props than they deserved, or the recipe has changed over the last three years. They were lighter than I remembered, more like a basic gingerbread than the spicy cookies I’ve been making. The big chunks of candied ginger that I recalled simply weren’t there.

Don’t get me wrong: Gingeroos are still one of my favorite store-bought cookies (granted, this is not a long list). They served as a delicious impromptu hotel snack and got us through the last 30 minutes of a long flight home.

The revelation that they’re not the best cookies in the world, however, has made me realize that I not only can make foods that are just as good as store-bought, I can make them BETTER.

End-of-the-year ego boost? I’ll take it.

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I participated in a virtual cookie swap earlier this week hosted by Kat over at She Cooks, He Eats. I can tell you from experience that this swap was a lot less stressful than a real-life cookie swap.  Kat only wanted links, photos and recipes, whereas the real-life cookie swap hostess actually made us bring cookies.

Kat offers delicious-looking recipes for everything from versatile shortbread cookies to peppermint brownies, all submitted by a variety of bloggers. Recipes from Entirely Adequate include my favorite treat, spicy Triple Ginger Cookies, and the troublesome-to-make but scrumptious Glittering Lemon Sandwich Cookies.

Head over to the swap and check out all the recipes if you’re looking for a new holiday baking project.

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