Strawberry Cake

My youngest turned 4 over the weekend, and she requested a strawberry cake for her birthday.

This turned out to be a little more of a challenge than originally intended. Probably influenced by our viewings of the Great British Baking Show, she wanted a giant layer cake, frosted white and topped with fresh strawberries. The cake itself also needed to be strawberry flavored and pink.

Since we were taking the cake to a family birthday party at which some family members with food allergies would be present, I needed to make it from scratch, and I needed to ensure no corn, soy, or cottonseed oil products would be included in the baking. That meant no powdered sugar, which contains cornstarch to prevent caking. It also meant a deep dive into the world of strawberry cake to find a solution.

Most strawberry cake recipes include strawberry gelatin for flavoring and color. That was a no-go for this occasion. Some recipes included pureed strawberries, cooked down for flavoring–something I didn’t really want to do, given the temperature and the humidity on baking day. Two mentioned the concept of pulverizing freeze-dried strawberries, and that the texture of the finished cake was good and flavorful, if not as moist as the kind with the pureed strawberries.

In the end, I went with a vanilla cake recipe, substituting pulverized freeze-dried strawberries for part of the flour. I baked the batter in three eight-inch layers and left them to cool while I contemplated icing.

So, buttercream would be ideal, but it contained powdered sugar, making it off-limits.

I settled on Seven-Minute Frosting, using Paula Deen’s recipe from the Food Network website.

Seven-Minute Frosting is plain white sugar, egg whites, water, and cream of tartar beaten over boiling water for seven minutes to create a thick, glossy icing that holds its shape and acts like candy when it sets. The day I was making this cake, the humidity was ridiculous, so the icing didn’t set up well at all. I persevered, however. And in doing so, I made a rather tasty mistake.

As I stacked my layers of strawberry cake, I added a layer of icing and fresh sliced strawberries between each cake, forgetting that fresh strawberries and sugar together produce syrup. It got very sloppy for a bit. I spread the icing over the top, letting it drip down the sides, and my preschoolers “helped” put the fresh cut whole strawberries, cut side down, on the top. The icing kept melting down the sides with the humidity and the chemistry, so I set it, uncovered, in the refrigerator for what amounted to about eighteen hours.

I quietly scooped frosting and strawberries off the cake plate every so often all evening, spreading them back up over the sides of the cake.

The next day, the icing had set. The cake looked pretty. And when we started to serve it, lots of wonderful things became apparent. First, the icing layers crackled as I sliced through the cake, sounding like rich candy. They weren’t too dry to cut, but provided a delicious texture with the soft berries and the rich cake. The cake itself, far from being dry, had soaked up the strawberry syrup created by my mistake. As one guest said, it tasted like old-fashioned shortcake when it had been soaked in the juices of the strawberry syrup.

We ate it all up. And the birthday girl loved it.

If you try it, I used the vanilla cake recipe found here. I used an entire 0.8 oz bag of freeze dried strawberries, blending them until they resembled flour. I spooned the strawberry dust into a one-cup measure, then added enough all-purpose flour to the cup to fill it up, incorporating it into the flour quota for the recipe.



Baking for the Holidays

I’ve spent the last few days in a baking marathon, getting ready to gift treats to friends and families for the holidays.

Said marathon was accompanied by eight inches of snow and two enthusiastic preschool helpers, who had a great time playing with all sorts of cookies.

When I’m able, I like to make one new cookie each year, followed by an assortment of old favorites. This year, so far, I’ve made my comfort chocolate chip cookies with a mix of butterscotch and chocolate chips, stir-and-drop sugar cookies with a green glaze, lemon-sugar cookies with a lemon frosting, fudge, and assorted chocolate-covered pretzels.

I still need to make, per tradition, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls and gingerbread cookies.

I’ve been posting pictures of the treats as I make them on Facebook, just to tease my friends and family. It’s been fun. And I dropped off my first treat box today, to my department’s treat day. It’s the week before finals in the Department of Mass Media, and for a change, I’m not a part of the general wash of frantic activity.

I have, however, been busy.

I mentioned several weeks ago that I had serious writing goals for November.

I presented at a conference, and I managed to write more than 25,000 words on my original fiction. I also made it through literature review and preliminary research for the main paper I’m working on as part of my sabbatical, so I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

I’m also thinking about a draft abstract for LauraPalooza, the deadline for which is Wednesday of this week, so I’d better move on it if I plan to.

But as snow fell this weekend, my focus was entirely on my family, and my young taste-testers, who love to smell every ingredient before I put them in the mixing bowls.

Lemon was a “thumbs up” from my younger, but a “thumbs down” from my older little girl. Fudge was “thumbs up” for my older little girl, but a “thumbs down” from my youngest, despite her trying it twice. They have widely different tastes in some areas!

But both love getting to help. With supervision, they made a bunch of white-chocolate-covered pretzels, decorated with green M&Ms, and placed Rolo candies on other pretzels for the Rudolph treat.

I look forward to helping them learn to make the other treats as they grow.

Comfort Food for a Snowy Monday: Saucepan Brownies

I just got back from a great, but quick, trip to Tennessee to speak at the Symposium for the 19th Century Press about my mentor, Hazel Dicken-Garcia, who was an avid supporter of that annual event.

It was good to see old friends and reconnect. I came away with numerous ideas for upcoming research projects and more invitations for visits and trips and conferences.

I also came away a bit blue, so today, I’m posting my recipe for quick saucepan brownies.

This is another recipe that I no longer need to look up. When we want a quick, chocolate, treat, this can be whipped up in five minutes and in the oven. Within the hour, we can be savoring warm brownies, sometimes with frosting, sometimes not, but always delicious.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8 by 8 baking pan.

Melt together:

1/3 cup baking cocoa

1 stick real butter

Remove from heat; let cool briefly. Add:

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

Beat together with a big spoon until glossy, then stir in:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Until it’s mixed in well.

Pour into prepared baking ban and bake 30 minutes, or until it passes the toothpick test.

We often top with chocolate chips when it comes out of the oven, letting them melt and spreading the warm chocolate over the top before we cut into it. We’ve also topped them with scoops of virtually any flavor ice cream you can imagine. I think my favorite is raspberry sorbet.

Enjoy when you need quick comfort food on a snowy Monday.

Soup’s on!

When the weather starts turning colder in the northern Midwest, I start digging out my biggest pots for making soup.

Having a batch of fresh soup simmering on the stove makes the house smell amazing, and the steamy kitchen warms everyone right up. Bake a batch of fresh rolls at the same time, and we’ve got a house that smells like home and a meal ready that satisfies everyone’s need for comfort and deliciousness.

As a grad student, I made soup annually for the grad student committee’s “Bring your own bowl” soup party, usually in October or November, as we all needed just a bit of comfort with finals approaching and cold weather making life a little more challenging. A number of my fellows were vegetarian, so I came up with two soups that remain staples in my pantry: Chicken noodle, for the meat eaters, and cheesy potato, for the non-meat eaters.

Chicken noodle I made the old-fashioned way, which takes a good portion of the day, but yields yummy results. I use a 16-quart stockpot to begin with, and locally sourced, scratch made egg noodles rather than a commercial brand. I can shorten the cooking time for this recipe by using chicken stock as a base, skipping to the after-cooling step, and using boneless chicken breasts as the meat source.

But I do like the way the house smells when the soup simmers all day.

Old-School Chicken Soup

In a 16 quart stockpot, add:

1 whole chicken, giblets removed

3 bay leaves

1 tsp peppercorns

1 Tbsp salt

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

3 stalks celery, cleaned and diced

1 medium green pepper, washed and diced small (including seeds)

1 Tbsp dried sage

1 Tbsp dried thyme

1 Tbsp dried parsley

1 Tbsp dried dill

(Note: You can put all the herbs in a tea strainer or cheesecloth bag, closed tightly, and it will work well for a “clean” soup; just remove at the cooling step. I don’t usually bother, though. Also, these vegetables will stay in the soup until the very end. I’ve seen some recipes that remove and discard the veggies and add fresh after the cooling step, but I think that’s a waste, and I like the texture.)

Fill the pot with cold water. (Using cold ensures that you will extract as much flavor as possible from your ingredients.) Set on the stove and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cover. Forget for at least three hours. (It’s fine to check on it periodically, but don’t go overboard.)

At the three-hour mark, check your soup. Taste the broth with a clean spoon. If it seems weak, remove the lid and simmer for another hour to reduce. (Frankly, the longer it simmers, the more intensely flavored your soup will be.) When it “tastes right” to you, turn off the heat. Remove the chicken to a strainer to cool. Remove the bay leaves, and if you can find, them, the peppercorns. Cool the broth and remove as much of the fat as you can. (If you have time, you can chill it all the way down, and remove the fat in a sheet from the top of the broth. If not, you can siphon the fat off while warm, but it’s messy and not fool proof.)

While the broth is cooling down, start to disassemble the chicken. Remove meat from the skin and bones, and dice up for the pot. When your meat is diced up, and your broth has cooled, with fat removed, add the meat back to the pot, bring back up to a boil, and taste. Adjust your seasonings. This may mean adding more salt and pepper, or even a bullion cube or two, to reach the flavor profile you want. I’ve also added the zest and juice of a lemon at this stage to add a little zip.

When the broth is simmering and tastes just right, add sixteen ounces of fresh wide egg noodles. Cook until done, and serve.

Egg noodles: In recent years, I’ve taken to buying locally sourced fresh or dried egg noodles. I live in a rural area, and it’s fairly easy to find some locally made and for sale in our supermarket or at the farmer’s market. But when I was growing up, we made our own.

For one pot of soup, you need the noodles from this recipe: two cups of all purpose flour, two eggs, and 1 tsp salt. Mix the flour and salt together, make a well in the center, and beat in the eggs. Knead the stiff dough, letting rest periodically to relax the gluten, until smooth. Let rest again, then roll out thin, and cut into strips. Let dry while your soup is simmering.

Cheesy potato soup

This is a smaller batch.

In a large pot, (I like to use my Dutch oven) sauté 1 medium onion, diced; two medium carrots, peeled and diced; 1 stalk celery, diced small; 1 clove of garlic, minced; and two bay leaves in a little olive or canola oil, until most of the vegetables are translucent. (Obviously not the carrots.) Add four medium potatoes, peeled and diced into half-inch cubes. Stir through, then add four quarts of chicken or vegetable stock (or water and bullion cubes).

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for twenty minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings. It may need salt; potatoes absorb it. A little pepper this stage is good, too.

To a plastic zip bag, add four Tbsp. All-purpose flour and four Tbsp softened butter; seal and knead until blended. Snip the end of the bag off with scissors and pipe the roux right into the soup, stirring constantly. When the soup looks creamy, add two cups of shredded co-jack cheese, slowly, stirring constantly. Finish with a tablespoon or two of fresh chopped dill and serve.

(If you want it to be flat-out vegan, use vegetable stock and omit the cheese.)

Chocolate Chip Cookies: Comfort food for a hard week

Times are challenging, the news is triggering, and I’m not quite sure what I want to say about all of it. I learned long ago not to speak out rashly in anger, but to think carefully about what I want to say, especially about important and potentially combative topics.

That said. I’m still angry. So I’m still percolating.

While I’m percolating, I decided to share one of my comfort food recipes. I’ve made so many batches of Chocolate Chip Cookies that I no longer need to refer to the recipe. I am the family cookie baker, but my skills with this recipe were honed in my time as a nutritionist and cook’s assistant for the campus day care at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Four out of five days in the week, I prepared and served healthy, balanced snacks for the under-five set.

But on Fridays, I broke out the treats.

Chocolate Chip Cookies are a classic favorite. My original recipe was ripped right from the Nestle Chocolate Chip bag, but I’ve tweaked it a lot to produce a cookie that’s uniformly cooked, chewy instead of crunchy, and loaded with chocolate chips. Pay special attention to the method.

The recipe:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Beat together until fluffy:

3/4 cup of white sugar

3/4 cup of brown sugar

1/2 cup of real butter

1/2 cup of butter-flavored shortening

Gently stir in:

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of vanilla

Blend in:

1 cup of all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Fold in:

1 1/4 cups additional white flour

Fold in:

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (Variation: mix up your chips–my husband particularly likes a mix of butterscotch and chocolate chips)

Using a one-ounce scoop (or a rounded teaspoon), drop cookies onto ungreased sheet pans. I bake two sheets at a time, swapping the trays’ placement in the oven half-way through baking. I usually start with 4:30 on the timer, then swap for another 4:30.

Your oven might be tricky, so watch for lightly browned bottoms and golden, dry tops of the cookies. If the tops are brown, you’ve baked them too long for the chewy stage. They’ll still be tasty, but they’ll be crunchy. Yield is about four dozen.

I made a double batch this week.

Making Fry Bread

As promised in the post about the Mahkato Wacipi, I’m discussing the Fry Bread that is a staple at many First Nation gatherings.

The recipe I use comes from a small cookbook I picked up at the Wacipi several years ago, and it offers a bit of back story for the recipe. Fry Bread is one of those recipes that evolved out of the American Indian experience interacting with the U.S. Government. White flour as we know it today was not a part of the original diets of most First Nation tribes.

Flour came into their diets with the distribution of food stuffs and commodities to tribal members living in poverty in the wake of numerous conflicts across the country. Fry Bread became a staple food, using the groceries made available.

I’ve seen several other recipes for Fry Bread, some claimed by different regions and tribes, but they all start with flour and dried milk powder.

This is the recipe I used to make Fry Bread as an after-school snack for my older children when they were teens, and I’ve also used it for small group demonstrations. I’m not an expert on indigenous foods, but this one is pretty tasty and well worth the effort.

Fry Bread

Heat oil for frying. You could use a deep-fat fryer at 375 degrees. I use my enamel-lined, cast-iron Dutch oven filled about half-way with canola oil, heated to about 375. You could use a candy thermometer to check the temp.

Measure out three cups of self-rising flour (or three cups white flour, 1 T. baking powder, 1 t salt, mixed together). Add one cup whole milk (or equivalent in dried milk powder and water). Mix together. Dough will be stiff. Knead briefly and let rest for at least five minutes, while oil is heating.

Turn out dough. Cut into 16 pieces. (I just cut dough into quarters, then in quarters again.) Roll each piece into a ball.

When ready to fry, pick up a dough ball and flatten it into a circle about a quarter to a half-inch thick. Drop into hot fat and fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove to a rack or towel to drain.

Best eaten hot. We like to sprinkle with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar, to serve with honey. For a savory take, divide the dough into eight pieces instead of 16 before frying. Top these bigger pieces of bread with seasoned ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes to make what’s known as an “Indian Taco.”

Baked Beans

My mother’s contribution to nearly every holiday feast we had growing up was her from-scratch baked beans.

Baked beans are a classic British dish, often served as breakfast with a full English (which also includes grilled tomatoes, fried eggs, and fried pork) or on toast. My father’s mother, Elsie, always ensured she’d have some of the leftover baked beans to take home, if possible, for her favorite beans-on-toast.

Today, it’s easy to buy baked beans in a can to heat and eat. Recipes for their use as a base also abound. However, the original recipe can’t be topped by something out of a can.

This classic features heavily in the Little House series, in which Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her mother’s procedure for making baked beans and bean soup as staples of winter eating. It was years before I connected those stories with my mother’s recipe and my own enjoyment of baked beans. Another recipe for them can be found in Barbara Walker’s excellent Little House Cookbook.

This recipe, however, comes directly from my mother, who notes that the “bean pot” — a covered crock–is key to the success of the dish. She also notes that her sister, my aunt Julie, often skips the first step and uses plain, rinsed-and-drained, canned navy beans as her starter to cut down on prep time.

Linnea’s Baked Beans

Soak overnight:

1 lb. navy beans.

In the morning, drain the beans, cover again with fresh water and ¾ t. baking soda, and bring just to a simmer. Skim off foam as beans cook. They’re ready when you can spoon up a few and blow on them and the skins crack. Drain again, and add beans to the bean pot.


½ c. brown sugar

1 sm. onion, chopped

¼ to ⅓ c. molasses

½ lb. bacon, chopped

½ t. black pepper

⅓ t. dry mustard

1 T. salt

Add just enough water to cover the beans. Bake at 300 degrees for at least four hours.

Miracle Chocolate Cake

I had an urge for chocolate cake yesterday, and remembered this cake, which some call Depression Cake because if its apparent roots in the 1930s. It takes no eggs or dairy to make, and the story goes that it was developed as a means of making a special treat when one didn’t have the ration coupons for eggs or butter.

That said, it’s been made in my family for as long as I can remember. Many of us have special dietary needs or food allergies, especially to dairy or eggs, and this is one of the recipes that can be eaten by nearly everyone. In fact, I remember my Grandmother Fern mixing this recipe up right in a well-seasoned baking pan, which would certainly cut back on the number of dishes that needed washing later.

My mother and sister discovered that if you substitute rice flour for the all-purpose wheat flour, it can be made to be gluten-free, too.

The recipe also can be easily doubled to bake in a 9 by 13 pan. Choose your favorite frosting or just sprinkle on powdered sugar when it’s cool for a pretty topping.

Grandma’s Miracle Chocolate Cake

Stir together:

1 1/2 c. AP flour

1 c. White sugar

3 T. Cocoa

1 t. Baking soda

1 t. Baking Powder

Mix separately:

1 c. Water

1 T. Vinegar

2/3 c. Oil

1 t. Vanilla

Whisk wet ingredients into dry ingredients until well-blended. Pour into a greased 8-inch square or round baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, until a clean knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Visiting the Farmers Market

September is my favorite month in which to visit the Farmers Market in Minnesota. Harvest is rolling in and the selection of fresh veggies is wide and varied.

Saturday at the Mankato Farmer’s Market (located next to the Best Buy off Adams Street in Mankato) we found eggplant, yellow summer squash, zucchini, green and yellow beans, kohlrabi, tomatoes, beets, sweet corn, onions, shallots, potatoes in four colors, some late rhubarb, and a ton of fresh greens.

We also found, since we were later than normal, that our favorite bakery booth was down to one table. We snapped up the last two cinnamon rolls and one loaf of rustic Roma bread.

I like to garden, but I don’t have much space, so stopping by the Farmer’s Market is the next best thing. Lunch on Farmer’s Market day always depends on what’s available, and when tomatoes are in season, we often go straight for a classic BLT on the bakery stand’s fresh Ciabatta bread.

But sometimes, we get a little crazier. One of my favorite things to do is make a fresh vegetable “sauce” for angel hair pasta for lunch. My favorite combination of veggies for this is in season right now in Minnesota, and here’s the recipe:

Market Pasta (serves 4)

8 oz Angel hair pasta, cooked and drained. (Reserve one cup of cooking liquid).

1 Japanese eggplant, sliced on the diagonal

1 yellow summer squash, sliced on the diagonal

1 small zucchini, sliced on the diagonal

1 small shallot

1 T each fresh chopped basil and oregano

Olive oil for the pan

Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste

This is basically an Italian stir-fry. In a large skillet, sauté the vegetables in olive oil until fork tender. Season with salt, pepper and stir in the herbs. Let the herbs wilt a bit, then add the cooked and drained pasta. Fold together; add Parmesan to taste and enough cooking liquid to keep it together. Serve hot, with more Parmesan at the table.