Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chocolate Sheet Cake for a Crowd

It's 78° here in Chicago making it a near perfect day. This is summer at its best, without too much heat and humidity. I still feel like baking and there seem to be many opportunities to do so - with backyard cookouts, neighborhood picnics, and 4th of July celebrations around the corner. These events usually drum up a crowd and feeding a hungry horde can be a bit of a challenge. What to bring? This isn't the time for fancy layer cakes and if I bake cupcakes, I have to show up with at least 24 and most of my recipes are for a dozen. I could bake a couple of cherry pies but they're a bit labor intensive and I'll still wind up with only 12 servings (have you ever seen anyone eat slivers of pie?). For casual gatherings of 20-30 people, my Chocolate Sheet Cake fits the bill.

Variations of this very simple recipe have circulated for years. Also known as Chocolate Buttermilk Sheet Cake and Texas Sheet Cake, it comes together in just a few minutes and only requires a hand mixer. Melted butter is used in both the cake and frosting, so you don't have to remember to take the butter out of the refrigerator or freezer ahead of time. It's likely you'll have all the ingredients needed on hand, too (if you don't have buttermilk, just add 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk and let it stand for 5 minutes). You'll need a 15"x 10" or 16" x 11" sheet pan, also known as a jelly roll pan. This is a very moist cake because it contains both butter and oil. This delicious dessert will remind you of a frosted cakey brownie - only better! You can serve the cake directly from the pan but feel free to use one of those 3-tiered cake plates for a nicer presentation.



1-2 tablespoons butter or shortening for greasing the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oil (I use canola)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup water
4 tablespoons natural cocoa (do not use "Dutched")
1 teaspoon instant coffee or espresso powder
2 large eggs
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour the pan. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the oil, butter and water and heat until the butter melts. Remove from heat and add the cocoa and instant coffee. Add to the dry ingredients in the mixing bowl. Using an electric hand mixer, blend for about 15 seconds. Add the eggs, buttermilk and vanilla and beat until blended, about 30 seconds, stopping to scrape the bowl after 15 seconds.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 20-22 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1/3 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons natural cocoa
1 teaspoon pure vanilla

While the cake is baking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the rest of the ingredients and keep warm. Pour frosting over hot cake and spread quickly. Cool on a wire rack. Yields about 32 generous pieces.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Review: "Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More" by Carole Walter

This is my fourth book by Carole Walter - the preceding three being single-subject volumes covering Cakes, Cookies, and Pies & Tarts. Like the others, this book doesn't disappoint. If you're a fan of Dorie Greenspan, Maida Heatter, or Abigail Johnson Dodge, this will be a welcome addition to your library. It will be your "go to" cookbook when the baking bug hits you on a cold winter's day or when you're searching for the perfect "take-along" sweet for a family gathering.

Walter is a pro - and it shows - but she's also friendly and approachable. As you read through a recipe, you'll feel as though a much loved grandmother is guiding you through the process. Even the more difficult recipes, such as strudel and croissants seem doable. Most of the recipes are easy, however, and the levels of difficulty are indicated for each.

The first chapter opens with "Perfect Pound Cakes" and there are 16 from which to choose, including "Sour Cream Pound Cake"; "Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake"; and "Butter Pecan Pound Cake". All are remarkably simple to prepare and are baked in Bundt, angel food or loaf pans - equipment already in your cabinet. It's likely you'll have the ingredients on hand, too. The second chapter, "Home-Style Coffee Cakes" boasts 19 enticing options such as "Sour Cream Marble Cake"; "Butter Crumb Coffee-Cake"; "Irish Whiskey Cake"; "Banana Chocolate Chip Cake" and "Pineapple Squares with Coconut Streusel".

Additional chapters cover "Muffins & Quick Breads"; "Biscuits and Scones"; "Yeasted Coffee Cakes"; "Brioche, Croissants & Danish"; "Strudel"; and "Coffee Break Bites". The final chapter incorporates "Streusels, Glazes, Frostings & Spreads", all of which can be used for recipes outside of this book.

"Great Coffee Cakes" is full of helpful tips and techniques. A page is dedicated to "Marbling", making the whole process much less intimidating. Other handy tips include turning muffin recipes into quick breads; effectively dealing with cutting bar cookies; and working with yeast. Helpful drawings make the more challenging recipes less so. There are five pages dedicated to "Equipment" and there's a 24-page section dealing with "Ingredients and Techniques". Walter also provides eight sources for ingredients and equipment, complete with websites and phone numbers.

The book is peppered throughout with endearing quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Julia Child, and Graham Greene. Each recipe begins with a memoir, a story, or a technique and ends with recommendations for storage (some cakes are actually better the next day - but I doubt you'll be able to resist that long!). The book is a nice size and the typeface is readible, if not ideal. There are 31 pages of beautiful photographs - which for a book of 200 recipes is quite generous. For old-fashioned comfort treats, this book is nearly perfect.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cold Cherry Soup

When I was in college, I had the good fortune to meet a fellow classmate whose parents were from Lithuania. Kristina, and Marcy, her roommate of four years, were nearly inseparable. Both majored in Biology and spent many hours in the science building. The three of us became fast friends (we called ourselves "The Three Musketeers") and through them, I got to know their Chemistry professor very well. Although I was a solid Political Science major, the Chemistry professor became my faculty advisor during my junior year - and in that role, she was superb. The best part of the deal was that the prof invited us to her home for dinner on many occasions! Home cooking for three hungry students!

Kristina was from St. Paul, Minnesota, where her parents and younger sisters lived in a beautiful house in a gorgeous wooded setting. I was a guest in their home and at their table on several occasions. Kristina's mother, a stunning woman with great class and style, was also a marvelous cook. Much of what we ate was Lithuanian and it was delicious.

One warm summer evening, we were treated to a first course of Cold Cherry Soup. It was the height of the cherry season and it was a particularly lush crop. The soup was cool and refreshing - a blissful gift of the season. Chilled fruit soups are very popular in Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as Russia. Swedes eat a fruit soup made with dried fruit, tapioca and warm spices. It's often part of a Smörgåsbord and may be served hot or cold. It's one of my favorite Swedish comfort foods. Russians and Hungarians make their Cold Cherry Soup with fresh sour cherries (most often Morellos) and they're similar to the soup that was so elegantly prepared by Kristina's mother. Although I left Minnesota without the recipe, I was eventually able to closely replicate it at home. You may use Bing cherries or whatever cherries are in season.


2 lbs ripe red cherries, rinsed and pitted (reserve 12 for garnishing the soup)
1 cup water
1 cup Riesling, Rosé, Gewürztraminer, or other medium-dry wine
1/2 cup superfine sugar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Grated zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons kirsch (clear black cherry brandy)
2 cups sour cream or plain yogurt, divided (lowfat is OK but do not use fat-free)

In a large saucepan combine the cherries, water, wine, sugar, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil while stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, covered, until the cherries are soft, about 15-20 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and puree in two batches in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or a blender until smooth. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in 1-1/2 cups of the sour cream and kirsch. Taste and add an additional tablespoon of sugar if needed. Chill for at least 3 hours. Ladle into bowls and garnish with a dollop of sour cream and the reserved cherries. Serves 4-6 as an appetizer, first course or dessert.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hot Days - Cool Melon with Fresh Basil and Lime Juice

It's officially summer - at least "meteorologic summer"- the first day of June, and hot days are ahead. For my part, nothing is more refreshing on a sweltering day than cold Watermelon. I love Honeydew, Cantaloupe, Canary, Casaba, Sharlyn, Cranshaw, Santa Claus, and Galia melons, too. Growing up, we had seasonal melon almost every day. I can still eat melon regularly during the summer months and not get tired of it. In fact, melon with a little cottage cheese is one of my favorite summertime suppers.

I'm enjoying the plethora of fresh herbs now, too. Basil is the classic summer herb - its bright green flavor capturing the essence of the season. It's one herb that completely loses its flavor when dried, so enjoy it fresh when it's available. The combination of melon and basil with a splash of fresh lime juice is delightful. Use a variety of melons for this fruit salad - Watermelon, Cantaloupe, and Honeydew are the perfect combination of color and flavor.


4 cups melon, cubes or balls
1 bunch fresh basil (about a dozen leaves), cut into strips or torn
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons mild honey
pinch non-iodized salt

Put the melon in a bowl, add the lime juice, honey and salt. Toss. Add the basil. Toss again. Chill for an hour or two if you wish. That's it. If you have some fresh mint, you can add that, too. Strange as it may sound, you may also add a 1/3 cup of crumbled feta cheese and a grind or two of freshly cracked pepper (omit the salt). After all, fruit and cheese are a natural combination!

Note: Watermelon is in a different botanical family than the other melons mentioned here. It is, in fact, related to the cucumber. I'm told that gardeners are advised to plant cucumbers and watermelons far apart or they cross-pollinate, resulting in an odd hybrid.