Almond Cake with Raspberry Filling and Swiss Buttercream

This year for my mother's birthday, we decided to marry the best of all world's by ordering dinner at one of her favorite restaurants and picking it up for a nice, stay-in evening. No big mess in the kitchen to clean up and more time to bake? Sounds like a win to me.

Since it was a meal for four, I didn't want to make a big confection with lots of leftovers. My favorite cakes are always the small ones! Especially a 6-inch round, it's just right! They're more fun to decorate and you can spend extra time on the details.

The flavor of this cake is almond but it's really white in disguise. Yes, white is a flavor. That means egg whites for a nice, airy texture and an open palette for customization. I've used white cakes for several specialized flavors like Blue Moon and Thai Iced Tea. Simply pick your favorite white cake recipe and use a bit of almond extract.

The filling is my favorite raspberry spread- nothing fancy but full of delicious flavor. You can find the Bonne Maman Raspberry Preserves at your standard grocery store. Use as much as you want, just make sure that you line the border of the cake with a sturdy frosting so it doesn't ooze out. I may have overdone it a touch this round.

And lastly of course was the swiss buttercream. As if I ever use anything other than the recipe from Smitten Kitchen! It's just too reliable to turn away. I added a few drops of almond extract just for fun but you can keep it vanilla. The color comes from the slightest bit of rose food dye as I don't like using artificial elements. You can imagine my devastation when I realized mint chocolate chip ice cream isn't naturally green!

At some some point, I would love to try this Almond Cream Frosting or experiment with this naturally tinted Hibiscus buttercream, but not this day. I needed a frosting that does well in the piping bag! My mother loves flowers, especially roses hence the decoration. This is one occasion where form trumps function. Just look at that adorable birthday girl's smile!

No fuss, no muss for a classy birthday for a classy lady!

As stated, the recipe for the Almond Cake can be found on Tastes of Lizzzy T's with basic raspberry preserves as the filling and Smitten's Swiss Buttercream.

Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Cupcakes and Cake

Before I start on this post, I would like to cheer from the top of my lungs about Portugal's win in the Eurocup 2016 this past weekend! We spent the entire game riveted to the screen, flinching here and there as we volleyed between excitement and terror with a nearby table of French fans at the  restaurant. I grew up with soccer blaring from the television and the love has only grown over the years. This win is a mind blower - especially since the team wasn't exactly burning things up in the matches leading up to the final and the star player was knocked out of the game by injury. What defense! Then that incredible goal in overtime that came out of nowhere! For├ža! 

All right back to the world of confections with this fun Mickey Mouse Clubhouse adventure. It was a basic lemon cake, covered in swiss butteream, and draped in fondant. Each character from the club (Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Pluto, and Goofy) has their own cupcake with a simple topper.
This creation was made specially for my friend's son's first birthday party. I met the father back in elementary school and the wife later on through high school marching band (yes, the marching band). They started dating in high school and have been together ever since!  Even though we're not close, there' something about this couple that I just like. You look at them go - yes, they rock! You don't have to be besties to be giving.

Needless to say, when I saw the wife's inquiry online on where to find a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse themed birthday cake, I threw my hat into the ring. Consider it a happy birthday, feliz natal, and congratulations offering all wrapped into one! To my surprise, they took me up on my offer! Let the planning commence!
Then I heard the chilling word: fondant. I bleeping hate the taste of fondant and tend to peel it off. Yes yes yes... there are alternatives these days to the store bought, bland tasting stuff. You can make it yourself or use one that's marshmallow based but this was my first rodeo. It was too high risk to try making it myself for a special occasion - maybe next time when it's not a gift. Hello Wilton!

I am delighted to report that decorating the cake was surprisingly smooth sailing because I was not alone. The husband jumped right in (yay for marrying an artist) cutting shapes and coloring the frosting while our dear friend Brandon (a huge Disney fan) reviewed the overall look. The cake is covered in Decorator Preferred Fondant.
For the actual cupcake toppers, I discovered an amazing product: Shape-N-Amaze Edible Fondant. This made the creation of the toppers super easy as the fondant is stiff and holds shape. It does have limits so it's best for basic shapes. For example, I couldn't make the bows for Minnie and Daisy the standard way because when I folded the fondant, it cracked on the edges. The work-around was to shape a rectangle and then pinch in the middle. Additionally, rather than buy multiple batches in different colors, I used one white block and colored small portions with concentrated food dye.
The only thing that I regret about this cake is the actual cake. I made three... yes three... different lemon cakes. Crazy right? What I thought was a "sure thing" recipe turned out to be a dud. It was based on a box cake recipe that was doctored up. The reviews were sensational! Unfortunately, since its publication, the box cake ratio had changed.  Fine cake Gods! Shame on me for taking a short cut! Alas, two from-scratch recipes and I still was bitter about the cake. It just wasn't passing my test! I'm a huge lemon lover and it simply wasn't doing it for me. If I could go back, I would do a simple white cake with lots of lemon zest (with more budget, lemon curd would be essential). Know an awesome lemon cake recipe? Please share!
Overall, I would say this cake was a success and a feather in my cap as my first foray in the world of a fondant allover cake. Special thanks to my college confidant and fabulous cake maker Dr. Vashee for all her great insights on cake decorating!

Maybe Milano Cookies

While waiting in line at the grocery store, I thumbed through the magazine Bake From Scratch - The French Issue for ideas. That's when I stumbled upon a cookie recipe that made me hop around like a little bird - "Langues de Chat." The translation is "cats tongue" which in itself would turn heads. For me, however, it stood out because I grew up eating Portuguese cookies with the same name ("linguas de gato"). They were a casual snack, nothing you would break out for guests at a dinner party. Could the French and Portuguese be using the same cookbook?

As it turns out, this recipe is a far cry from my childhood treat even though the ingredients are the same with varying ratios. The cookies I grew up eating were crunchy and small, more resembling a British biscuit than the traditional American cookie. These were much softer and larger in comparison.  I think it's all the same cookie but in this instance, the size makes all the difference!

Additionally, the French version has optional chocolate ganache on the side. I didn't find it necessary to enjoy but it was a thoughtful touch. A thoughtful and familiar touch... That's when it hit me. Light, buttery cookies. A dash of rich chocolate. If you put the two together... perhaps in a sandwich form.... you get something equally fantastic: 


I flipping love Milanos! My family has never been big on homemade desserts but we always put out a box of Pepperidge farm cookies for guests. Milanos were the crowd favorite and tasted incredible with a cup of strong coffee. I've had a homemade recipe bookmarked for months but never got around to it. It was simply meant to be! There are so many different versions out there - some call for confectioners sugar instead of regular, others use whole eggs instead of the whites. Regardless. This recipe makes some banger cookies.

What's most stunning is how easy they are to make. It's literally flour, sugar, unsalted butter, egg whites, a pinch of salt, and vanilla bean. So simple! A few minutes in the oven and your kitchen smells incredible. Bake them to meet your desired texture - a little longer for some crunch or a little less for a soft chew. And of course, if you want the traditional Portuguese version (example here), keep them tiny!

Unfortunately, I cannot find a link to the recipe online from the magazine but I won't leave you hanging! Check out this recipe for Milanos that is extremely similar in terms ingredients and I'm sure just as scrumptious! Enjoy!

Heather and Mike's Wedding Cake

Last year, I had the tremendous honor of making the wedding cake for one of my favorite couples, Heather and Mike. That's right, our husband's have the same first name - we must be on to something!  I offered my baking services as a wedding gift and was blown away when they accepted. There are tons of talented bakeries out there and I am so touched that they would trust me with such an awesome responsibility. It was time to roll up the sleeves and get serious.

The biggest obstacle was distance. Heather and Mike live in the Midwest and I am in Northern Virginia. How the heck does one pick their cake from their baker when they're thousands of miles apart? Fortunately, the beautiful couple knew that they wanted a chocolate cake with raspberries so that question was already answered - it was a matter of picking the right combination of recipes.
We only had one shot for a formal cake tasting when they visited VA shortly before the wedding. To expedite the process, I had pulled together an expert team of taste testers to form, "the Cake Committee." Based on the Committee's feedback, I had a strong recipe in mind but still wanted the bride and groom's full participation. As a blind taste test, I included two entirely new chocolate cake recipes and fillings with two frosting options. 

Much to my delight, they picked the same chocolate cake and Swiss buttercream frosting as the committee, both from Smitten Kitchen! As for the filling, the winner was Bonne Maman Natural Raspberry Preserves. This delicious and convenient spread beat out a fancy raspberry curd that I bought from an up-scale bake shop. Delicious doesn't have to be over-budget. The final cake was three tiered, two layers each with a 12 inch round base. There was a pan of sheet cake on deck just in case!
Now that the recipe was settled upon, it was time to strategize! The wedding was being held down near Richmond, about a two hour drive from our home, and there was no way a fully frosted cake would make it in our car. Luckily, the reception hall had a small kitchen and agreed to let us put the cake together on-site the night before. 

Three days before the wedding, I made a huge batch of Swiss buttercream and let it rest in the fridge, Two days before the wedding, all the cakes were made with extra layers as back up should something go wrong en route and mummified in saran wrap. We headed down to the in-laws to mitigate the impact of potential traffic. The day prior to the wedding was reserved solely for cake transportation and construction.
This was honestly a stress free experience thanks to careful planning and an INCREDIBLE support team. My husband jumped all in with cake transportation and set-up. For the life of me, I could not cut the cake skewers needed to stabilize all the layers of cake. Mike managed to find a box cutter at the reception hall and made it happen through sheer force. He also managed to find dinner that I wolfed down while the crumb coat set - I seriously cannot function without food. He is my biggest supporter and I cannot thank him enough for always helping out.

Additionally, my wonderful in-laws pitched in by emptying out their refrigerator to store the wedding cake. Their home was the in-between point between the reception hall and our house. You can never trust traffic on the highways out here and we left no room to chance. When we arrived, the contents of their fridge was distributed between coolers in the kitchen to make sure the entire cake fit. I couldn't ask for a more awesome family to marry into! 

There was one vital lesson learned - if you really want a white frosting - don't rely on butter. I thought it was the vanilla adding a slight hue but even with clear vanilla extract there was a noticeable tint. To ensure a snow white look, I resorted to a thin layer of marshmallow frosting covering up the beautiful Swiss buttercream right there in the reception hall. It was a snap decision and was much harder to stylize. We settled on horizontal stripes than the planned vertical lines. For a manageable white finish - use a frosting that is shortening based.
Adorned with purple and blue flowers, golden acorns, and tiny pine cones - this cake captured the natural simplicity and gentle spirit of Heather and Mike. It was an incredible ceremony and reception, filled with thoughtful accents of their journey together- from the dried Wyoming wildflowers to the cute puns on the buffet tables. You are amazing individuals and bring out the best in one another. Thank you both for believing in me! Sending much love and wishing you many happy anniversaries to come! 

PS. Mike, keep HB away from those darn moose! We can only handle so much wildlife!

Not-So-Bad-For-You Squash Pie

This healthy and delicious pie comes from the lovely chefs of True Food Kitchen. The first time we ate at True Food was last year in San Diego, CA. We found it by chance during a day trip and were immediately hooked on the concept: a menu built around an anti-inflammatory diet. This is a dream that I've been hoping would come true! Being able to walk into a restaurant and knowing that whatever you pick has actual nutritional benefits. What a relief!

The hubs and I are all about healthy eats so it's not wonder my in-laws are hooked as well. My father-in-law had a slice of the Squash Pie and raved about it for days after. Much to my delight and surprise, True Food Kitchen was kind enough to actually publish the recipe for public consumption!

This pie is "not-so-bad for you" which is not license to eat the whole thing in one sitting though you may be tempted. There's still a 3/4 cup of sugar in the mix. It's dessert after all people! 

What makes this pie less evil than other traditional pies is the lack of ingredients like condensed milk, half-and-half, and heavy cream. Instead, the recipe calls for coconut milk which has much more nutrients. The crust skirts away from butter and uses tahini (sesame paste) as a binding agent with a hint of sweetness from maple syrup, a natural sweetener. What I really enjoyed was the use of brandy because it smells so heavenly - it's like concentrated vanilla. Play with the spice ratio until you love the flavor of the mix - you know me and the cinnamon!

The other perk is that if you use the vegan graham crackers in the crust - than you can serve this pie to a vegan audience! Don't wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy a slice! It tastes great with a scoop of vanilla gelato or a big dollop of coconut whipped cream. Personally, I enjoyed it after a thorough chilling in the fridge.

Have a fantastic week!

Not-So-Bad-For-You Squash Pie
from True Food Kitchen

1 packages vegan graham crackers, pulverized
2 tablespoons sesame tahini
 2 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 tablespoon water
1/2 tablespoon grape seed oil

For the crust, blend all ingredients until well combined. Press the crust into a pan and up the sides.  Bake crust for 15 minutes at 325 degrees, until the crust is dry and crisp. Set aside.

3 cups pureed squash — chef Cory Holland recommends butternut
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/3 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons brandy
3/4 cups coconut milk
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
scant dash of nutmeg, if desired

For the filling, bake a whole squash (butternut, buttercup, Hubbard, Tahitian, etc.) at 375 degrees wrapped in aluminum file until it is soft enough to pierce easily with a toothpick (about an hour). Cool, cut in half, remove the seeds, and scoop out the flesh. Mash the flesh and measure out three cups.

Blend the squash with the remaining ingredients until smooth and pour the mixture into the baked crust. Bake the pie at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, until browned and set. Cool at room temperature and then chill overnight in the refrigerator. Serve cold or cool with a dollop of sweetened, whipped coconut cream. Holland adds vanilla bean paste to his whipped coconut cream.