The Green Cake Report

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Okay, if you're familiar with my rants about how much I detest artificial anything—especially food coloring—you may wonder how I can criticize blue cakes, then write a post singing the praises of green cake. But wait! This cake gets it's color naturally, from Matcha powder (green tea leaves). And because the recipe includes milk, the result is a moist cake with a slightly earthy undertone, almost like cocoa. It's a cake for those who aren't fond of chocolate (I know, I know, but these people deserve love and cake too).

This great recipe from Real Simple has just the right balance of soft crumb and dense moisture, and the Matcha is subtle, not cloying. I chose to pair it with plum frosting instead of the vanilla pictured here; the green and soft pink combo, as well as the flavor combination, are a nice nod to Japanese cuisine. All you need is a few tablespoons of plum jam to add to your favorite vanilla frosting, and voila! Pink frosting, nature baker-boy style.

One of my workshop participants took one look at my cupcakes and said, "I'm not sure I can eat green cake, but I may try a tiny bite." Two cupcakes later, she was a convert. Get the scrumptious recipe here, and transcend your fear of green cake too.

Are Chocolate Chip Blondies an Oxymoron?

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Recently, someone asked me what makes my blondies so special. When I confessed I thought it was the combination of white chocolate chips, dark chocolate chips, and mini-peanut butter cups, they laughed. "They have chocolate in them?" they asked. "Then they're not really blondies, are they?"

Okay, I admit it: blondies are supposed to be the anti-brownie. Blondies were probably invented because there are actually some people out there who don't like chocolate (and really, I'm cool with that, but we're probably not going to ever get married). The classic blondie has white chocolate chips, often walnuts, and in one memorable version my Pop loved, dried cranberries (to get the whole story there, read, "A Shared Palate," the first memoir piece in my cookbook).

So sure, you could make my blondies without chocolate. I don't really see the point of living without chocolate, but go ahead, knock yourself out. Because my entire cookbook is really about generosity, I've included the recipe below. 

Enjoy.

BEAUTIFUL BLONDIES

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt

2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
3/4 mini peanut butter cups                                                                                                                                                 3/4 white chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 Pyrex (glass) baking dish (metal pans won't work as well)

3. Firmly pack the sugar and place in a large bowl. Melt the butter slowly in a small pan over low heat, or in the microwave in a glass measuring cup. Stir the butter into the sugar until smooth.

4. Meanwhile, in another medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together.

5. Beat the eggs lightly, then add with vanilla into the sugar mixture. Add the flour mixture a bit at a time and mix until a smooth, thick batter forms. Stir in the chips.

6. Spoon the batter to the prepared dish and spread to evenly fill the dish. (note: it will be sticky, so work that spatula!)

7. Bake until the blondies are light brown around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean: 20 minutes is just perfect.

8. Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into squares and serve.

Book Launch at the San Francisco Ferry Building, Book Passage: March 10, 2018

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Seeing this image of me in front of a wall of books makes me quite happy. I keep saying it was the happiest day of my life. The room was filled with people who represent the whole spectrum of my life's work, from graduate schools friends, current workshop participants, recent USF students, siblings, old friends and chosen family, writers whom I've known for over a decade, even local musicians and fine artists whose work has consistently inspired me.

I also began what will surely become a tradition: serving sweets made from the recipes in my cookbook. And I couldn't have asked for a warmer reception from the bookstore staff. The fog even lifted and the sun came out. The universe was smiling down on me.

If you missed this one, not to worry. I have more readings planned in the Bay Area, and am working on one on the Peninsula in the summer. For a schedule of upcoming readings, see the Reading Schedule link in the menu bar above. And be sure to scroll down this page to view past blog posts.

American Cake: A History Lesson

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At this point, you think I'd be tired of cake, but the truth is, I could cake talk for hours. There's always so much more to learn. After hearing Anne Byrn interviewed on NPR I spent nearly an hour trying to find her recipe for a Cowboy Cake—a cake baked on the stove top in a cast iron pan—but to no avail. Byrn recently published a new cookbook titled, The American Cake: A History, and I was salivating just looking at the picture above. Byrn's remake of the sticky, raisin-based concoction (which is void of eggs and best made with strong coffee), seems to be locked up inside the book. Even Pinterest couldn't do much better than a dark brown, gummy looking version. So I've been Cowboy Cake frustrated ever since.

This isn't the first time a cake has frustrated me. Several years ago I entered a cake baking contest honoring Julia Child and the 50th anniversary of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, (which will change the way you think about pastry crust forever). The prize was $1000, so I entered my Champagne Cake and got to work writing up the directions. It was the very first time I had written out a recipe using that level of detail, not just copying it or jotting it down for a friend, but step by step, and I found it quite challenging. But that wasn't the frustrating part: two weeks later I lost to a blue cake. Blue! Although I admit the winner had ingeniously designed her cake to look like a replica of Child's book cover, I found the FD & C blue #5 color unappetizing (not to mention carcinogenic). Really, people? You want to eat a blue cake?

There are some random cake disasters in my baking history too: a Tres Leches nightmare comes to mind, as does a chocolate cake that fell apart because I used golden organic sugar. Not cute at all. It seems cocoa and moreno sugar make a fragile cake, but killer brownies. Who knew? But this is how one learns as a baker: through little disappointments and big fat disasters. Baking is alchemy, after all, a science.

For some reason, I'm hearing Marie Antoinette in my head now.

"Madame," they said, "the villagers have no bread."

"Well then," she answered, "let them eat cake."

You may think of her as innocent, heartless, or horribly naive; historians disagree. "Cake" it seems, was also a term at the time for crumbs left in the bread drawer, so she may have been saying, "Who cares? Let them eat crumbs." The jury is out on what she actually meant, but after visiting Versailles many years ago, I can empathize with the French Revolutionaries. She lost her head soon after she uttered those words, but the poor dear might have been sincere. After all, what would you rather have for breakfast? Whole wheat toast or chocolate cake? For me, the answer is obvious.

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Check out this less than satisfying recipe for Texas Cowboy Cake

 

A Lifetime of Cake

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Many years ago, a two-year-old I loved demanded that we get to work in the kitchen. "Bake cake! Bake cake!" she said. By her fourth birthday, she was a bit more specific, requesting a strawberry cake: bright pink, with bright pink frosting. That became the ritual and annual request until her tenth birthday, when without consulting her, I gave up the artificial color and used strawberry jam to make a pale pink beauty that pleased me, but really disappointed her. "It tastes good," she said, "but it's not pink enough."

That year I learned a very important lesson: if you're going to bake a cake for someone, bake them the cake they want, even if it's blue—(which I detest)—even if it's hot pink. I struggled with this lesson, and sometimes faltered. Not that long ago I caught myself trying to push a cake flavor on a close friend. She wanted a mocha cake with caramel frosting, but I tried to encourage her to have a chocolate cake with lemon frosting. On an ice cream related note, my sister always wants a chocolate cake with mint chip ice cream on the side, preferably Baskin Robbins, which is a nuclear green. One year I bought Breyer's Natural mint chip instead, a beautiful french vanilla with chocolate shavings and natural peppermint oil. "It's good," she said, "but it's not the same." Oh. That again.

What I've finally learned after all these years baking birthday cakes is this: if you're baking someone a cake, it shouldn't become a negotiation or a compromise, not even if we're talking about the difference between au naturel and carcinogens. To bake or not to bake? That should  never be the question. Because baking a cake for someone is about being generous, caring, and thoughtful. And you can't be thoughtful and controlling at the same time.

I think I figured this out in the wee morning hours. I nearly named my baking business "The Midnight Baker," because I am often up past the bewitching hour watching that miracle rise in the oven, flipping the pans to release the warm layers, then waiting until they are completely cool so I can frost them and place that layer cake safely in a cake carrier. It may look pretty on the table, but true satisfaction comes only when I give that cake away, when I can cut into it and place the first slice on a pretty plate and offer it up to the lucky recipient, like the gift that it is.