Strawberries and Cream Cake

Naked Cake

Good cooking is all about love. Food has a unique ability to bring people together. It’s an important part of our lives that is often enriched by the experiences we have shared with others. What I love about the cooking community is its generosity. I believe that good cooks are always learning from others.

Food and recipes are better when they are shared. Cooking at its best is a great act of generosity and soulfulness. This week I have been watching the new episodes of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. Phil Rosenthal the writer and creator of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, created this new show where he travels to cities across the world to taste and share what makes these places so wonderful. I particularly wanted to see this new season because he had an episode on Chicago.

Chicago has amazing food and chefs. But what inspired me most was Rosenthal’s connection to the people and the stories behind this city’s unique melting pot of cuisines. It was an especially good reminder of the power of food and its ability to bring us together.

I have been amazed at how many new readers have found my blog over that past three months. People from all over the United States and the world which speaks to the power of food and its ability to connect and comfort us in hard times.

Nothing lifts my spirits like making and sharing something sweet. So this week I am sharing my recipe for a summer inspired strawberries and cream cake. A delicious cake that brings together some of my baking favorites .

This cake has light layers of lemon cake filled with a sweet cream cheese icing and fresh strawberries. It’s a simple summer cake that’s fun to bake and share.

Strawberries and Cream Cake- makes one 10-inch cake

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour (if you can’t find it in the stores at the moment then all purpose flour will work)
  • 1/4 cup potato starch
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 sour cream
  • 1 pint of strawberries
  • 1 bunch of fresh mint or strawberry blossoms (optional)

Cream Cheese Icing

  • 1 Stick of Softened Butter (I usually let it sit out of the fridge for at least an hour)
  • 1 (8oz) Softened Brick of Cream Cheese (I let it sit out with the butter)
  • 1 Tsp Vanilla
  • 5 Cups of Powdered Sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons of Milk

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees

In a large bowl or the bowl to your standing mixer add your sugar, eggs, lemon zest and vanilla. Mix about a minute on medium speed.

Add in the potato starch, salt, baking powder and half of your flour with your milk and oil. Mix on low speed until just blended then add in the last part of your flour and mix until the flour is incorporated.

Line the bottom of your your 10 inch round cake pans with parchment paper and then spray your pans with baker’s joy or alternatively butter and flour the pans

Pour your cake batter evenly between the two pans.

These are thin cakes so bake them for 20 to 25 minutes until the tops are golden and the cake is just cooked through. Let them cool completely before you frost them.

Cream cheese icing is light fluffy and irresistibly good!

Now make the frosting. In the bowl of a mixer cream the cream cheese and butter. Add the powdered sugar vanilla and milk. Mix on high-speed until the icing is smooth and fluffy.

To assemble your cake place a small spoonful of icing on the base of the plate and spread it slightly. This will hold the bottom layer of the cake and keep it from sliding.

Then place the first cake layer flat or bottom side up and then pipe or spread half of the cream cheese frosting over the top. I like to use a large star shaped tip to pipe small dots of frosting. This gives the center layer a pretty finish.

Add a thin layer of cut strawberries on top.  If you are using a piping bag then pipe and extra swirl or dot of frosting between the strawberries on the outside edge.

Place the second cake layer on top. Then pipe swirl of icing to cover the top or spread enough icing on top to fully cover the top layer. Use a separated spatula or butter knife evenly cover the top of the cake.

My trick for an extra smooth top frosting layer is to use a Viva paper towel (this brand is particularly smooth so it needs to be a Viva). Place the frosted cake in the fridge for 5 to 10 minutes. Then take it out of the fridge and lay a Viva paper towel on top and lightly smooth the top of the cake by lightly pressing your hand against the paper towel. Reposition the paper towel if needed to smooth away any knife or spatula marks.

Finally top the outside edge of the top of the cake with some extra swirls of icing with a mint spring and some whole strawberries to add pretty finish.

The cake is light and tender. The slight tanginess of the cream cheese icing pairs well with the sweet strawberries. It’s a great way to celebrate the flavors of Chicago’s most glorious summer season.

Fried Green Tomato BLT

Fried Green Tomato BLT

Fresh tomatoes are one of summer’s great gifts. One of my favorite ways to eat them is in a sandwich. This past weekend I set out to create the ultimate BLT sandwich. This fried green tomato BLT is crusted in crispy corn tortilla chips and served with a tangy sriracha lime mayonnaise. It’s absolutely scrumptious and substantial enough to make a wonderful summer supper.

These fried green tomatoes cook in just minutes. So, it’s a good meal to serve on a night when you want a delicious dinner, but you don’t want to be in the kitchen for too long. The flavors and textures on this sandwich make this anything but your ordinary BLT.

Fried Green Tomato BLT Serves 4

  • 2 medium sized green tomatoes (If you are in the Chicago area where green tomatoes can sometimes be a little trickier to find then try Pete’s Fresh Market)
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup corn tortilla chips finely crushed (about 2 cups whole)
  • 2/3 cup fine yellow cornmeal
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons of milk
  • canola or vegetable oil
  • 8 slices of good quality French or Italian bread, toasted
  • 1 small head of butter lettuce
  • 8 slices of bacon, cooked

Sriracha Lime Mayonaise

  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 teaspoon of sriracha
  • 1/4 teaspoon honey
  • zest of 1/2 of a lime
  • 1 teaspoon of fresh lime juice

First slice your tomatoes into about 1/3 inch slices. I got about 5 slices from each medium sized tomato.

Next crush your tortilla chips in a food processor or alternatively you could crush them in a large zip top baggie.

Then prepare your three breading bowls for the tomatoes. In one bowl add 1/2 cup of flour. In the second whisk together your eggs and milk. Then in the third bowl combine your cornmeal and crushed tortilla chips.

My breading bowls all ready to make my tomatoes.

Dredge the sliced tomatoes in the flour making sure that they are evenly coated. Then dip them in the egg mixture. Finally make sure they are well coated in the cornmeal-chip mixture.

Here you can see the different textures of the corn meal and the tortilla chips. This gives the tomatoes an extra crispy crust.

Over place a sauté pan or a cast iron skillet over medium to medium high heat fill it with about 1/4 inch of canola or vegetable oil so it fully covers the pan. Allow the oil to heat until it just begins to sizzle. You will know it is ready when place a wooden spoon or spatula handle in and it begins to form bubbles around it.

Now fry your tomatoes in batches cooking them for 2 minutes a side until they turn a golden brown color.

There is nothing like the sound of a good tomato sizzling in the skillet.

Then let your cooked tomatoes drain on paper towel while you finish the rest of your tomatoes.

Next you want to mix together the sriracha lime mayonnaise. In a small bowl mix together the mayonnaise, sriracha, honey, lime zest and lime juice.

Now assemble the sandwiches, by spreading the sriracha lime mayonnaise to taste on each side of the bread. Place several lettuce leaves on the bottom piece of bread then top it with your fried tomatoes, bacon and the remaining piece of bread. The sandwiches are wonderful when served warm, but they are also surprisingly good as leftovers the next day too. I like to serve my sandwiches with a side of fresh fruit.

The the crispy texture of the tomatoes with a touch of saltiness form the bacon and the crunch of the lettuce make this one outrageously good bite. So if you are looking for something new for dinner then try my fried green tomato BLT.

The French 40 Cocktail

I had a big birthday this week. Although I may have been on what felt like “plan G” for birthday party plans. I wasn’t about to let the COVID 19 quarantine, days of rain and flash flood warnings stand in the way of celebrating. My husband had to pick up an extra ICU shift at the hospital so I had my girls up early and working on their home schooling assignments hoping that we could finish a bit earlier. I got the cake baked and I was working on icing it. I was feeling like things were generally going well for the plan G birthday dinner until the dog disappeared from the backyard.

All the rain had washed a hole under our fence. Suddenly our dog decided to take out on an adventure. I dropped everything, grabbed his leash, a bag of treats and a jar of peanut butter. I spotted him in on the far edge of the yard behind us. However when my daughters and I got close he dashed. When I called his name he gave me a look, as if there was no treat that could possibly be worth his new found freedom. Then he made a mad dash across the street and the chase was on.

It was like the scene from Ferris Buller’s Day Off where he is running through peoples’ backyards and over fences trying to make it home before his parents discovered that he was missing. I was racing over decks, back porches, rocks, and water features. Screaming “peanut butter” (his favorite treat) at the top of my lungs. I was whizzing by peoples back doors and windows. I lost the treat box along the way. Meanwhile I was trying to look back and make sure that my daughters who were trying to follow along were safe. “Look before you cross the street or better yet just stay there.”

Finally I thought I had caught a break when I got him to run towards my oldest daughter. She put her hand on him and then screamed “EEEWWW!!! He’s dirty!”  Then I watched in horror as her hand let go. “This is not the time to worry about being dirty” I shouted.

After another 10 minutes he finally got tired enough to think about stopping for some peanut butter and I got a good grip on his collar. My little white fur ball was wet and covered in mud, but he was safe. I got everyone cleaned off and the dog secured.

Then I looked over at the cake on the counter. I had left it out and now the strawberries and cream cake was melted strawberry goo. I for a second thought about just throwing the cake in the trash. But then I thought about that episode from The Great British Bake Off where the baker throws his melted ice cream cake in the bin and decided that the trash just wasn’t the answer. I scraped off the icing  and found just enough fondant to cover the sides of the cake.  It may not be my prettiest cake ever, but it was delicious.

Then I set out to make seafood gumbo and just about then my husband made it home. He helped me make these champagne cocktails called French 75s however in honor of my birthday I am renaming them French 40s. A great cocktail for any party especially the ones the kind that feel like a frazzled plan G.

My husband put on some Zydeco music, to go along with our New Orleans styled meal and he began dancing with my girls. They were twirling across the dining room and beaming with joy. We all took turns dancing and we lingered at the table together. Savoring our gumbo and garlic bread. Sometimes the best moments are the ones you don’t plan. In the end the evening was so wonderful that my youngest daughter now wants a dance party for her birthday too.

So this week I thought I would share the recipe for a French 40 a recipe I adapted from the Queen of New Orleans Miss Julia Reed.

French 40 Cocktail 

  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Cognac
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons lemon simple syrup (see recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons champagne, chilled
  • lemon peel twists, for garnishing the glasses

Combine the cognac, lemon juice and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake. Strain into a Champagne glass and top with the champagne. Then garnish with a lemon peel twist.

Lemon Simple Syrup (makes 1 cup enough for several rounds of cocktails)

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 inch piece of lemon peel

In a small saucepan over medium high heat bring your water to a simmer and then add your sugar and stir your sugar until it dissolves. Then add in your lemon peel to infuse it with a hint of lemon flavor. Cover and refrigerate the syrup. It will keep for up to two weeks in the fridge and makes a great base for other cocktails too.

Here is the strawberries and cream cake and the last of the tulips that I rescued from all the rain. A little New Orleans styled garden party fun.

This was definitely a memorable birthday. One to toast and remember. So if you are looking for a festive cocktail or moment of fun in all this quarantine craziness then I highly recommend our French 40 cocktails.

Summer Berry Crisp

Summer is coming and I am already seeing so many beautiful strawberries, blackberries and blueberries berries in the stores. This weekend I was talking with family about different berry salad recipes and all that berry talk had me thinking about creating a new berry recipe. My summer berry crisp has a crunchy oat topping with a sweet mixed berry filling. I love it because it’s an easy dessert that comes together quicker than your traditional pie or tart. The mix of berries with just a hint of lemon creates a bright, sweet, and delicious bite.

Summer Berry Crisp- Serves 6

Crumble Topping

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut in pieces
  • 3/4 cup old fashioned rolled oats

Berry Filling

  • 1 cup blackberries
  • 1 cup raspberries
  • 1 cup strawberries, halved or quartered if your berries are large
  • 2 cups blueberries
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees

In a food processor pulse together your flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Next add in the butter pieces and pulse until you get pea sized crumbs of butter and flour. Alternatively, if you don’t have a food processor you could also use a pastry blender or a fork to work the butter into the flour mixture.

Place your blended flour and butter mixture in a medium bowl and mix in your oats. Now set the crumble mixture aside while you prepare your berry filling.

In a medium sized bowl mix together the zest, lemon juice, water, sugar and flour. Then add in your berries and carefully stir to coat them with the lemon sugar mixture.

Spray an 8×8 inch baking pan with cooking spray. Next, pour your berries in the base of your pan and spread them evenly.

Finally, take your crumble topping and sprinkle it evenly over the berries.

Bake for 40 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve your summer berry crisp warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Warm berry crisp a sweet crunchy bite that only gets better with a scoop of ice cream. So if you too have been thinking about berries or looking for a simple dessert, then give this berry crisp a try.

Small Seeds of Beauty

Home schooling hit a speed bump in our house this week. Studying for a Zoom spelling test caused my first grader to declare that she was getting a substitute teacher. It was hard not to chuckle as she told me that, but schooling and even spelling tests go on. However, on the brighter side, home schooling has given me the opportunity to share more of the books I loved as a kid with my daughters.

One of this weeks’ better loved assignments was a book report. My suggestion of  Miss. Rumphius, one of my childhood favorites, went even better than I thought it would. It turns out that my flower loving daughter liked this one too. Barbra Cooney’s award-winning book, Miss Rumphius, is based on the true story of a woman named Hilda Edwards. Edwards lived in Christmas Cove Maine where she is still remembered and celebrated for covering the shores of Maine with beautiful blue, purple and rose-colored lupine flowers.

Miss Rumphius tells the story of how she was inspired to “do something to make the world more beautiful.” Seed by seed her love of lupines still brightens the countryside each summer.

Reading this story again years later, has me thinking about how important it is to cherish the beauty around us. Creativity and a love of beauty can be taught and passed on. I learned about art and the wonder of nature from my mother. There is something important about appreciating the beauty that surrounds us and sharing that with others. In this time of uncertainty, I am inspired by all the beauty around me. Colorful sidewalk chalk art, gorgeous gardens and online concerts. Everyone sharing something to reach out to each other and make the world more beautiful. These are the things that I want to remember about this time.

Like Miss Rumphius, we are drawing, writing, cooking and planting small seeds of beauty together. In hopes that my girls might know the importance of giving something of themselves to others. This Mother’s Day may look a little different, but I am grateful for my mother who’s love always encourages me to make the world around me more beautiful.

Gorgeous Tulip Gardens

Spring is here in Chicago. I am so grateful this year to get outdoors and take in the gorgeous tulip gardens. The sun is shining and I am enjoying the views from my garden and my neighbors too. The botanical gardens and arboretum maybe closed this spring, but as the artist Henri Matisse once said, “there are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

More than ever I have enjoyed the seeing all the spring blooms and tulips gardens. The bright green leaves and shoots suddenly sprouting everywhere. The trees are covered in blossoms and for a moment it takes you to a more optimistic time. Nature has a way of lifting my spirits and reminding me of God’s great beauty.

Delightful Spring Daffodils

This garden is one that had me smiling and lingering as I walked by. The yellow and white daffodils were planted with purple hyacinths and double tulips. The tulips blooms were so full that they almost looked like roses.

These cheerful yellow daffodils looked so beautiful along the fence line of the house.

Tulips Around Town

These pretty pink tulips covered the lawn in this traditional garden. I love this English styled boxwood hedge.

This vibrant mix of pinks, yellows, oranges and reds caught my eye. I love how they spaced these little grouping in a rhythmic swirling pattern.

I also happen to love the happy bright blue green door and the garden lanterns that were scattered in the garden beds.

These lovely lavender and cream tulips looked so elegant in between the boxwood topiaries.

My Garden

I love color, so I a went with bright mix of tulips. This fall I planted a little over three hundred tulip bulbs in anticipation of spring. I got this colorful mix from a bulb wholesaler called Colorblends. It’s a mix of seven different pink, purple, red, and apricots bulbs called  Well Spring Mix. I also added in some white emperor bulbs as well.

I love the fuchsia rhododendron with the bright jewel toned tulips and muscaris.

We have lots of shady trees so spring is a special season in our yard because before the new leaves sprout I can plant a few more colorful flowers.

The long front flower bed extends to the side where I planted another large drift of tulips.

The front is pretty, but my favorite spot is on my back patio where I have my largest tulip bed. I love spending time here. It one of my favorite places in our home.

Here they are when the late afternoon sun comes pouring in. I love the vibrant mix and the different texture of the petals.

This year I extended my planting to another smaller flower bed around the corner.

I decided to plant a mix of white tulips in this smaller spot.

We are spending lots of time on our patio where we have loved watching these little house wrens. They have moved into the colorful bird houses my daughters painted. My girls were thrilled! They sing the most cheerful little tunes as they flit and fly about.

So for now I plan to be outside enjoying the view as much as possible. I have always loved flowers, but tulips are one of my absolute favorites.

Tulips are the most hopeful flowers because they can take the cold dark winter and turn it into something that is breathtakingly beautiful. So in this time of uncertainty I am looking for the beauty around me and I am finding so much joy and peace in the garden.

Reading and Eating: Ginger Soy Salmon

I have never cooked so many dinners and meals in a row! I love cooking but, I have been in the kitchen more than usual. Grocery store ingredients have been hit or miss this past month.  Although I am grateful, grocery shopping  just isn’t quite the same. My carefully planned ingredient lists have needed to give a bit so I have been getting creative to keep cooking  fun and delicious.

I enjoy trying new recipes because I want dinner to be exciting. Something to look forward to and savor. So I love this new cookbook I found called All About Dinner by Molly Stevens. Stevens worked at the New England Culinary Institute and now is a freelance cooking instructor and writer. She was named best cooking instructor by Bon Appetit magazine and her previous two cookbooks All About Roasting and All About Braising each won a James Beard cookbook award.

I enjoyed reading her thoughts about cooking at home. “Cooking is not about perfection,” she writes, “it’s about making the time to care for ourselves and for others.”  So as we all find ourselves at home and in the kitchen more than ever, I think it’s important to have some simple and flavorful meals that make the most of your time in the kitchen.

One of my favorite recipes from the book is her Ginger Soy Roasted Salmon. It’s a one sheet pan dinner. It’s quick to prepare, but the flavors are fantastic. Stevens uses broccoli, but I have a family member who has some strong feelings about that particular vegetable. Therefore my version of this dish uses asparagus which is also delicious.

Ginger Soy Salmon and Asparagus – Serves 4 to 5

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoons, neutral flavor oil like canola oil, grapeseed or sunflower
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoon grated peeled ginger
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Sriracha
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds center cut salmon into 4 to 5 portions
  • 1 bunch of asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons neutral flavor oil

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees

Next make your marinade. In a small bowl whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, oil, honey, ginger, Sriracha, sesame oil, a pinch of salt and pepper.

Reserve half of your marinade as a sauce at the end and place the other half in a ziplock bag to use as a marinade for your fish.

Let your fish marinate for 30 minutes and prepare the asparagus. Trim off the ends and cut the asparagus into small bite sized spears. Then place the spears into a medium sized bowl and coat them with 2 tablespoons of oil and a pinch of kosher salt and pepper.

Roast your salmon. Lift your fish from the marinade letting any excess drain away. Then place you salmon fillets skin side down on a rimmed sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil for easy clean up. Put them in the oven to roast. I like my salmon cooked through so I roasted mine to 135 degrees which was about 22 minutes in my oven. If you like your salmon less firm then you will want to start checking it’s doneness at about 15 minutes. You want salmon to be anywhere between 120 degrees to 140 degrees on an instant read thermometer.

When your salmon has 10 minutes left to roast add your asparagus.  Asparagus cooks quickly so you don’t want to add them at the beginning.

I like to serve this dish with Jasmine Rice which cooks in just 20 minutes. So I start my rice just before I place my salmon in the oven, but you could serve it with any cooked rice or grain that you like.

Then as you serve the salmon drizzle the reserved ginger soy sauce on top.

This recipe can be easily halved if you are serving just two or doubled if you have more. But if you double the recipe I recommend using two sheet pans so everything cooks evenly.

If you too are looking for a few new dinner ideas then I highly recommend Molly Steven’s new book. I made her Swedish Meatballs, which we liked and I am eyeing a few more recipes too, like her Roasted Halibut with Chile Lime Butter. She even has a section of her book dedicated to snacks and substantial dinner sandwiches. Cooking dinner as Steven writes can be the “ultimate expression of love” so in these tough times take care of yourself. We can all get tired from time to time, but I have found that that making something simple is often what I need to just keep cooking.

Groundhog Day

These days I find myself waking up to what sometimes feels like one long day on repeat. As our routines have changed the days have a way of blending together a bit. Occasionally I have to remind myself what day of the week it actually is. I watched the movie Groundhog Day recently which in light of the COVID 19 quarantine has taken on a slightly new meaning to me.

This classic old movie imagines a moment where a cynical local weatherman Phil Connors gets caught in a time loop. Connors, played by Bill Murray, is forced to repeatedly relive the same winter day. Along the way Connor’s soul begins to evolve as his perspective changes. He even picks up a few new hobbies like piano and ice sculpting.

On a Zoom call a friend asked a good question that has had me thinking. “Is there any one thing that is saving you these days?” Personally, I am not sure that there is one consistent thing, instead I have found it to be more of a mindset. This quarantine certainly has its Punxsutawney moments. Sometimes I have to remind myself no matter how cold the winter is, spring will eventually come.

So, what has saved me this week is that Chicago is finally turning a bright spring green. The trees are beginning to bud and the daffodils are freshly in bloom. We had a light snow this week, but I have had a taste of spring. So, this week’s winter shadows won’t keep me from looking forward to warmer and more social days.

Unless homeschooling counts, I haven’t picked up any new hobbies yet. Instead I have been focusing on a few of the things I love and keeping my house from being completely overrun by dishes and art projects. I have also managed to turn my basement office into a mini greenhouse. A few of my favorite online gardener’s supply stores have helped me get a head start on spring. I now have few trays of seedlings that I am looking forward to planting soon. I have also ordered some summer zinnia seeds and dahlia tubers too.

My tulips will hopefully be blooming soon

I loved seeing other gardeners on Instagram growing some seedlings as well. Proof to my husband that I am not the only one longing for a few flowers. I have also enjoyed hearing talented friends host concerts at home and seeing the colorful sidewalk and window art in our neighborhood. So, as these quarantine days stretch on, I am trying to learn how make the most of each one.

Spring in the garden is my very favorite time of year

A Few of Our Favorite Quarantine Things:

  • The drawing videos that my daughters absolutely love
  • Storyline Online featuring some wonderful videos of children’s books
  • My favorite instagram gardener Linda Vader her videos and daily garden photos always make me smile
  • Finally if you are wanting to do a little gardening then I like ordering seeds from Park Seed and if starting from seeds is a little too much then I like ordering plants from Bluestone Perennials or if you are looking for gardening supplies I have had good luck with Gardeners Supply Company

The Peach Tree Homemade French Bread

Have you had a bite of something that was so deeply satisfying that you could just taste the love? In times of change and uncertainty cooking and baking have a way of bringing us comfort. During this pandemic, people are now cooking and baking at home more than ever. Searches for recipes are now at record numbers. Google search trends show that searches for bread and baking have hit an all-time high in the U.S. So why are so many people baking?

Baking builds connection to our families, to our past and to happy memories. The Journal of Palliative Medicine found that baking can have a therapeutic effect that calms the central nervous system. Baking, especially bread baking, requires you to use repetitive motions. All that kneading has a way of smoothing the rough edges of one’s thoughts. A welcome distraction from reading too many worrisome news reports. It’s reassuring to shape a loaf, watch it rise and smell the aroma as it bakes.

I still remember the joy of tasting homemade bread. Commercial grocery store bread can’t come close to the soft sweet taste of home baked. When I was in high school and learning to bake on my own, I remember tasting the homemade French bread a a little Texas hill country tea room called The Peach Tree.

Picture from the Peach Tree’s Facebook page

The tea room was set in a beautifully restored German limestone home from 1895. The Peach Tree, which was open for 49 years has now closed. But it was is known for its fabulous soups, breads and desserts. Recipes from the Chef and owner Cynthia Collins Pedragon won acclaim from Gourmet Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and The San Antonio Express-News. Pedragon’s food was so well-made and beautifully presented. You could taste the love in her cooking and especially in her homemade breads.

As the bakery shelves were looking a little bare this week, I pulled out an old recipe for the Peach Tree’s Homemade French bread. I had some trouble finding specialty flours these days so I tested and adapted this recipe so it would work well with all purpose flour. This bread is made from simple ingredients, but when you bring them together it makes these delicious loaves. As we gather around our table to break the bread, I am grateful. Maybe this bread baking boom shouldn’t be such a surprise because in times like these we need the joy and connection that baking brings.

The Peach Tree Homemade French Bread– makes two large loaves

  • 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 package of active dry yeast
  • 4 cups of all purpose flour, plus 1/2 cup for dusting when kneading
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon water

In a glass mixing cup or a small bowl mix together the water and sugar until dissolved. Add the yeast and gently stir it in. Then let the yeast mixture rest and bloom for 5 minutes.

Happy Yeast that has bloomed for 5 minutes.

Then in a large bowl mix together the yeast mixture, the salt and 4 cups of the flour. String well with a wooden spoon or alternatively this step could be done with a stand mixer using a dough hook. The dough will look a little shaggy but the kneading will incorporate any little bits.

Next knead the dough on a lightly floured baking mat or a large cutting board. Gradually add some of the reserved 1/2 of flour as you need it. Continue to knead the dough for about 10 minutes until it is no longer sticky.

My baking assistant loves to help me knead the dough.

The dough will be smooth and elastic. Place the dough into a large bowl bowl that is coated in cooking spray or oil, turn to coat the top of the dough ball.

The dough before covering it to rise

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let it rise until doubled in size, 1 hour.

The dough after it has risen for an hour.

After the dough has doubled, punch it down and turn it out on your floured mat or board.

Divide the dough into two equal parts. Then pull and roll your dough till it is about 14 inches long.  If you prefer a thinner loaf then you can roll and pull it slightly thinner and longer. Make sure that the ends are smooth and that the seam sides are down.

The top loaf is seam side down and the bottom loaf is flipped over so you can see how I pulled and shaped the bottom and sides of the loaf.

Place your loaves on a greased and cornmeal dusted cookie sheet or line your pan with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Then using a serrated knife gently make some shallow diagonal slices on top of each loaf. Then cover and let your loaves rise for about 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Then after your loaves have risen, in a small bowl whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon of water. Brush the loaves with the egg wash making sure you cover the tops and sides evenly.

If you have a spray bottle then you can lightly mist the top of the bread as you put it in the oven.

Bake your loaves at 400 degrees. Then you can mist the bread again 1 to 2 times more in the first 5 minutes of baking to give you a crispier crust. (Don’t worry if you don’t have a spray bottle on hand it will still be good.)

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden.

If you want more recipes from The Peach Tree, then Cynthia has several cookbooks including her last book With Love, From Cynthia.

Easter Lamb Cake

Easter is coming soon and its message of hope and etneral love couldn’t come at a better time. Although many of our traditional Easter plans will need to change, we are still making plans to celebrate. I love holiday meals and one of our family’s traditions is this lamb cake. I made one for my youngest daughters baptism and my family loved it. So, it has now become a part of our Easter celebrations. I adapted a vanilla pound cake recipe from Ina Garten so the cake is delicious. Pound cake makes a wonderful molded cake because it’s tight crumb stands up well.

Talking to friends, I know that an Easter lamb cake is a tradition for other families too. Some people even have their mother or grandmother’s old cake pan which is especially meaningful. My cake pan is newer. Its from Nordic Ware, but I liked it because it has a more nostalgic feel to it. Looking into the history of these cakes I found that one of Nordic Ware’s original 1950s lamb cake pan molds is actually in the Smithsonian’s collection.

This lamb cake is fun to make. Although it takes a little patience it’s easier to frost than your traditional layer lake where you have to worry about the sides. My girls love to help me bake so I know this cake would make a great family baking project.

Honey Vanilla Pound Cake– Makes one lamb cake or 1 standard loaf ( 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch pan) if you just want to make a traditional pound cake

  • 2 sticks of butter, cool room temperature (let it sit out for 1 hour)
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Grease both sides of your lamb pan well, using Baker’s Joy. This flour baking spray is the very best when it comes to bundt cakes and molded pans.

In the large bowl of your stand mixer fitted with your battle attachment beat your butter and sugar at medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes.

Then add in your honey, vanilla and lemon zest and blend until incorporated. Next with your mixer on medium low speed add in your eggs one at a time.

Scrape down the sides of your bowl and add in your salt and baking powder. Finally on low speed slowly add your flour mixing until it is just combined.

Then spoon your batter into the front of your lamb cake mold (the side without the cake testing hole.) When smoothing the top make sure to press the cake batter in well so you don’t have air pockets.

Make sure that you place your batter in the front pan.

Place the front cake pan on a cookie sheet. Then place the back on top and place it in the oven to bake.

The cake will rise and fill the back side of the mold as it bakes.

Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. Check the doneness at 50 minutes by using a toothpick in the testing hole to make sure the cake is cooked through.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes before you remove it.

Vanilla Buttercream

  • 12 tablespoons butter (1 1/2 sticks) at room temperature
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoon of milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 6 cups powdered sugar

In a large bowl of your stand mixer add your butter and salt and beat your butter on medium high speed for a minute. Scrape down the bowl sides and add in your vanilla, and half of your milk and powdered sugar. Blend on medium speed until blended and then add the last of your milk and powdered sugar. Continue to beat at medium high speed until it is light and fluffy.

How to Decorate Your Lamb

  • 1 small container of white fondant
  • Pink gel food coloring
  • 1 small container of black fondant or black gel food coloring to color some of your white fondant
  • 1 piping bag with a medium sized star tip
  • 1 piece of ribbon (optional)

First roll out a small piece of white fondant and cut it in an almond like shape to fit the lamb’s face. I like to use clean kitchen scissors to cut out my fondant.

Then mix together a tiny drop of pink food coloring and a small amount of white fondant. Shape a small set of ears and a little nose. Use a toothpick to add little nostrils to the nose.

Once your cake has completely cooled then crumb coat the entire cake with a thin layer of icing. Then add your fondant face by gently pressing it on, letting the heat of your hands smooth it to fit. Add your ears and then attach your nose with a small drop of icing.

Roll your black fondant into a thin rope like piece to create your eyes and eyelashes. Put a tiny bit of water on your finger to wet the back of the eyelashes so they will stick.

Finally, use a pastry bag with a star tip to pipe your lamb’s wool. Use a smaller star around the face and ears. Then on the body you can make larger rosettes.

Once your lamb’s wool has been piped on you can add other small details like a ribbon collar and sugar gum paste flowers.

Other ideas include edible flowers like violas or pansies. You could also add jelly beans or small chocolate eggs on a bed of green icing or coconut grass.

This is another lamb cake that I made last year.  I used different sized star tips to make the wool have a slightly different texture. I also added some violas and candy Easter eggs.

Every year our lamb has a new look, which is part of the fun. So get creative and add your own special decorations. Most importantly my girls want you to know that  this cake is “so good” to eat and share together!