Foodie Tuesday: Madame X’s Birthday Cake

Photo: Birthday Cupcakes for Madame XJust a little treat for a friend on the anniversary of her birth. And, since she shares her natal day with my dear brother-in-law, separated at birth by mere decades, I send a virtual cake to him, too, despite the separation of mere thousands of miles. Happy birthday to both!

Malted Buttermilk Cakes with Strawberry-Peach Buttercream
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or [as I made] a dozen + a small sheet cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F/177°C.

The Cakes

Dry goods: Whisk together in a big mixing bowl: 2-3/4 cups all-purpose [optional: GF] flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons cardamom, and 2 cups sugar (I used about 1 1/2 cups cane sugar plus 1/2 cup coconut sugar, to deepen the flavor).

Mix 2-3 Tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of buttermilk. And if there’s really such a thing as “low fat” buttermilk, please tell me how it can parade around under the first name of Butter. Just get the real deal and cinch up your waistband a little if you have to, okay?

Now, in a fresh mixing bowl or your trusty 1-gallon plastic measuring pitcher, mix the wet ingredients: a good slug of quality vanilla extract, and a splash of butter emulsion if you like, the cup of malted buttermilk you mixed earlier, and four large eggs. When those have been well whisked together, pour them into the dry ingredients, along with 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of your best butter, softened—don’t forget that I’m a believer in well-salted sweets, so I use salted butter (sorry, baking purists. But not really sorry). Whisk just until it’s smooth. This makes a thick batter, but not so thick that it’s the least bit difficult to whisk entirely by hand.

Bake the batter in muffin tins or cake tins that have been well greased (coconut oil is nice) and, if you like a little crunch for added pizzazz, dusted with either almond meal or cornmeal, for about 20-25 minutes. Cool for another 15 minutes or so, gently remove the cakes from their pans (unless, as I am, you’re going to take the cake tin right along to your friend’s house), and let it finish cooling before getting all frosty on ’em.Photo: Tutti-frutti Icing

The Icing on this here Cake:

Pop a batch of freeze-dried peach (about 2 oz) and strawberry slices (about 1 oz), along with a cup or so of granulated or icing sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of cardamom into your food processor. If you don’t have such a beast in your kitchen, you can crush these little fruity beauties with a rolling pin or bottle, a full tin of beans, a rock, or your hands, depending on your mood and tool availability, but boy howdy, the processor makes quick and thorough work of it! I don’t recommend inhaling deeply as you open the processor or bag you pulverize this mixture in, or you’ll be sneezing fruit for a week, and that can put a damper on your next brunch with the queen. No, I didn’t realize I could buy freeze-dried fruit already powdered. Once the dust has settled sufficiently, however, home crushed works fine; blend this gloriousness into another half pound of butter, along with about a quarter cup of whole-milk plain yogurt. The ingredients of the frosting are all very much to-taste and adjustable in quantity in order to reach the creamy texture and proportions of deep sweetness and fruitiness you prefer. This is best spread or piped at room temperature or slightly cooled onto equally cool cake surfaces.

Whether you choose to refrigerate and serve the finished cakes cold or serve them at room temperature is up to you. Me, I’ll just see if I can wait long enough for either to happen. I went so far as to snip the corner of the plastic zipper bag I’d put the frosting into, making a wildly erratic star tip, but waiting for or fussing over anything fancier is not my strong suit, as you all know.

Photo: The Rest of the Cake

I sprinkled black sesame seeds on the sheet cake before I remembered I had Dutch chocolate sprinkles for my birthday girl’s cupcakes. If my spouse and I want, we can always add sprinkles on top of the sesame seeds, no? The touch of crunch was what mattered, anyhow.

Foodie Tuesday: Breakfast of Champers

There’s an American breakfast cereal whose manufacturer advertises it as the Breakfast of Champions, inspiring many a skinny little kid over the decades to eat monstrous quantities of it in hopes of becoming an impressive physical specimen. The slogan also inspired things as diverse as a Kurt Vonnegut novel by that name and a wide range of decidedly non-healthful sounding food and drink combinations that mock the very idea, not least of all the hilariously infamous day-starter of Little Chocolate Donuts ‘advertised’ by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live many years ago.Photo: Arabic Choco-PuffsGiven how often and how utterly our concept of what constitutes perfect nutrition, health and fitness practices changes over time, it seems incumbent on any of us who care about our own well-being to figure out what suits our own bodies’ needs and wants and not slavishly follow anyone else’s regimen, no matter how magically ideal it purports to be. At the same time, you know me well enough to guess that I think every so-called prescription in the dietary realm—barring allergies or other potentially life-threatening pains—deserves to be broken on occasion. At the start of a day seems to me the perfect occasion for such hijinks, particularly if the breaking of the fast leads to mood-enhancement and a general tendency toward having a sunnier day. There were excellent reasons for the invention of Bloody Marys and Bellinis and Mimosas. Break out the champers for breakfast!

Photo: Holy Toast!Or, if you feel it necessary to legitimize your breakfast playtime further than you can by acknowledging the fruit and vegetable content of the aforementioned drinks (not least of all, the venerable fermented grape), I’m sure you’re as able as I am to find the good in any dish that cries out to you at the break of day. Little Chocolate Donuts? Why, not only do they contain the marvelous seed of the Theobroma cacao, and if you can’t argue for the food of the gods for breakfast, then I think you need more help than a mere menu tweak can give you, but they also contain sugar, a sure source of [however short-lived] energy. If you take things a step further, choosing a raised donut, you can argue that the live culture of yeast that begins raising its inflatable goodness to a frying-ready state is also bound to be fine feed for your inner biome and all its happy bacterial citizens.

Photo: Raised & Glazed

Cake? Lest we forget, it very often has the proteins and vitamins of eggs, enriched flours, perhaps some buttermilk for further culture. Why restrict it to after-dinner eating, when we have less of the day in which to burn off its calories and possibly, less appreciation for its magnificence when we’re already full from the main meal? Throw in some nuts or dried fruits, some coconut meat, some cinnamon (who knows how true are the speculations on cinnamon’s superfood status)—and you could practically be breakfasting on medicine and having spa treatment before you even leave the house in the morning. There are plenty of people who have busily experimented their way to cakes and quick breads and donuts and all sorts of treats hiding, in their deceptively yummy midst, many clandestine vegetable and other supplemental ingredients to make them Better for You. That’s swell, really it is. But you know, being contented and happy is good for you, too.Photo: Bear Claws

So I’m going to keep eating chocolate at any and all hours of the day and night, cake with and without secret good-for-me ingredients, raised donuts and cake donuts, sugary cold cereals, popsicles, custards, ice cream, smoothies disguised as Protein Shakes, and any pretend-breakfast cocktails I can get my hands on whenever I feel the need. Whatever gets us through the day, no?Photo: Let Me Eat Cake

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.