Tender, Tangy Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

Hibiscus Cake (13)Maybe it’s all the long-awaited rain that has flowers on my mind lately: the magnetizing truth that soggy, grey days will lead to blooming brightness. So when I recently came across dried hibiscus petals in powdered form, I knew they were destined for my next dessert. I was already craving their vivid color and tart taste — and besides, it had been awhile since I’d baked with hibiscus, let alone any flowers: the namesake of my blog.

Hibiscus Cake (18)While hibiscus is often flaunted in brewed tea (it’s the zing in Red Zinger; the punchy part of Passion), its fragrant, earthy notes make it a wondrous edible treat, too. This time, I echoed it with other tangy tones: rich buttermilk and plenty of Meyer lemon. The result was a refreshing and succulent new cake—moist, citrusy layers with a deep burgundy hue. Cream cheese frosting proved to make for a decadent pairing (my rather rustic version is shown), but it can also be stacked and more artfully iced, or simply dusted with powdered sugar.  Any way you serve it, it’s delightfully addictive.

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Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

For the cake (makes two 8” cake layers; serves about 12)
• 2 medium-large lemons, preferably Meyer
• 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
• 1 and 1/3 cups granulated sugar
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil, such as sunflower or canola
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 and 1/3 cups all purpose flour
• 2.5 ounces (70 grams) powdered hibiscus petals (about a scant ½ cup)*
• 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease insides of two 8” cake pans, and either line bottoms of pans with parchment or dust with flour; set aside. Rinse and dry the lemons. Finely zest the outer lemon peel; set zest aside. Juice the lemons; measure out 1/3 cup lemon juice, seeded or strained; set aside. (Reserve any leftover lemon juice for frosting, if using.)

Hibiscus Cake
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla until smooth and even. Sift over the bowl: flour, hibiscus powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Begin to beat, gradually adding the 1/3 cup lemon juice and the buttermilk, stopping to scrape the bottom of bowl with a spatula, and mixing until smooth. Fold in about half of the lemon zest, stirring until just dispersed. (Reserve remaining zest for frosting, if using.)

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Pour batter into prepared pans equally. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until fragrant and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out batter-free; a few moist crumbs are fine. Cake layers will not be very high/domed. Let cakes cool completely in pans before removing (loosen sides with a butter knife, invert cake, and remove parchment). Serve under a blanket of sifted powdered sugar, or spread cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows). Store tightly covered at room temperature or in the fridge.

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For the frosting (makes enough to frost and fill a two layer cake)
• 1 pound cream cheese, softened
• ½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
• ¼ – ½ teaspoon hibiscus powder (optional for pale pink color)
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1.5 cups powdered sugar, well packed
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice (if you have any left from cake recipe; otherwise, this is optional)
• remaining lemon zest from cake recipe
• a few whole dried or fresh hibiscus flower petals for decorating (optional)

Beat the cream cheese and butter until well blended and uniform. Sift the powdered sugar, hibiscus powder and salt over the mixture; mix until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and lemon juice, whipping well and scraping bowl with spatula. Finally, fold in the lemon zest until evenly dispersed. Slather or pipe the frosting over cooled cake layers, whether stacking them into a two layer cake or serving them separately. If desired, decorate with hibiscus petals. Keep frosted cake covered and chilled, eating within 3 days.

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With a burst of distinctive hibiscus flavor, this tender, tangy cake offers vibrant deliciousness in every bite. The buttermilk batter creates a lusciously moist crumb, while the subtle surge of lemon makes for a clean and bright taste. A beauty to both the tongue and the eyes, this celebration of hibiscus is a reminder of the sweet satisfaction flowers can bring — any time of year.

Hibiscus Cake (16)Maybe next time… I love the pairing of hibiscus with lemon here, but I have a hunch that orange zest and juice would be just as wondrous — or maybe even lime or grapefruit. Similarly, melted unsalted butter can be swapped in for the oil if you wish.  *I found my hibiscus powder at a natural foods store and have seen it online, but I realize it’s much easier to find the whole dried petals. These can be powdered in small batches in a blade spice/coffee grinder; you could also try a mortar and pestle, but be ready for a workout!

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Juniper Gin Cookies with lime zest and vanilla bean

Juniper Gin Cookies (15)Even though the holiday season can seem to smother us with cookies, their high time never ends in my orbit (it’s cookies all year around here!). For a long time, I’ve wanted to create a bright and buzzy cookie as a nod to my most popular dessert. And with a new year on the horizon, the refreshing duo of gin and lime seemed especially timely and quite appropriately spirited. A scoop of vanilla bean would also fit the bill, balancing the cool citrus tones with a welcome warmth.

Juniper Gin Cookies (14)I decided on a buttery bar cookie full of crushed juniper berries (gin’s signature essence), plus plenty of lime zest for a natural match. The sweet, crisp icing would deliver a dose of revered local gin, while the pastry would offer a deliciously delicate, tender crumb — in part thanks to a bit of rice flour. Whether cut into bars or bite-sized morsels, these juniper gin cookies proved to sing of celebration.

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Juniper Gin Cookies (makes a 9×13” pan: 3 to 8 dozen cookies, depending on cut size)

For the cookie dough:
• 2 limes (plus extra if decorating cookies with zest)
• 1 tablespoon (5 grams) dried juniper berries
• 1 cup softened unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan
• ¾ cup granulated sugar
• 2 extra large egg yolks
• ½ teaspoon vanilla bean powder or paste, or seeds scraped from one large vanilla bean
• 2 cups all purpose flour
• ½ cup rice flour (white, not sweet)
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease inner bottom and sides of a 9×13” pan, then line with an oversized sheet of parchment so that it hangs over the two longer sides. Lightly grease the surface of the parchment. Set aside. Wash and dry two limes. Using a fine grater such as a Microplane, lightly zest the limes; set zest aside. Reserve zested limes for icing. Using a blade grinder or mortar and pestle, pulverize the juniper berries until powdered (some small flakes are fine); set aside.

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In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth. Add the egg yolks one at a time, incorporating them individually. Mix in the vanilla bean and crushed juniper until dispersed. Sift both flours, baking powder and salt over the bowl. Mix until distributed, adding the zest berries. Knead with hands until dough holds together and zest is well dispersed. Press dough evenly into lined pan, to the edges and reasonably flat. Bake for 20 minutes, until edges are toasty and center does not look wet. Let cool completely to room temperature before making icing.

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For the icing:
• 1 tablespoon lime juice (from lime above)
• 1/3 cup minus 1 tablespoon good tasting gin
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 2¾ cups (13-14 ounces) powdered sugar

Juice limes (you may not need both); remove any seeds. Place one tablespoon of lime juice in a 1/3 cup measure, then add gin to fill cup. Place in a medium saucepan. Stir in the salt. Measure out the powdered sugar (do not add to saucepan yet) and set nearby. Keep cooled cookie pan nearby, along with a heatproof whisk and an offset spatula.

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Heat saucepan over a medium flame until mixture is simmering, scalding hot. Turn off heat and quickly add the powdered sugar to the pan. Without delay, vigorously whisk the mixture until smooth, then pour the icing over the cookie slab, rapidly spreading with spatula evenly to edges of pan. Surface of icing will dry quickly. Let pan sit in cool, dry air until icing has hardened completely.

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Once icing has set, run a knife along the non-parchment edges of cookie slab to loosen it from pan. Carefully use parchment to lift slab from pan; transfer to cutting board and remove parchment. Using a sharp, non-serrated knife, cut with a firm downward motion; do not move knife up and down. (I cut my cookie slab into three even lengthwise columns, then cut each column into about 12 bars: the size shown in many of the photos here. I also love to cut each cookie bar into 2 or 3 even pieces, resulting in up to 8 dozen little squares that are perfectly bite-sized.)

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Serve in mini cupcake liners and, if desired, decorate with spirals of lime zest. I like to use a citrus zester (not a grater) and pull long strips. If you’d like them to stick to the cookies, reheat some icing and use a dab as glue, or use a tiny drop of corn or golden syrup.  Store cookies in sealed containers for up to 5 days.

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With their soft, speckled dough and cool gin glaze, these cookies pack an abundance of delight. Citrus lovers, gin lovers, and all kinds of cookie lovers will enjoy these vanilla-flecked treats. Their rich yet delicate flavors and crumbly, buttery texture offer a sweet harmony that’s welcome on the tongue and in the belly. Fragrant with citrus and spirits, they are flavorful and fresh: a perfect pick-me-up for a special occasion, an edible gift, or anytime. Cheers!

Juniper Gin Cookies (12)Maybe next time… Instead of strips of lime zest, green or silver sugar sprinkles are a fun and easy decoration — just be sure to scatter them the moment you add the icing since it hardens quickly; they may not stick otherwise. Similarly, a zig zag of tinted icing or melted white chocolate would also be lovely across each cookie. If you don’t need a whole pan’s worth of cookies, shape dough into balls and bake what you need, halving the recipe or freezing extra dough balls. Use a scant tablespoon of dough a piece and bake on parchment lined cookie sheets, checking at 8 minute mark and baking in further 2 minute increments as needed. Dunk cooled cookies in icing or spoon it over each one.

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Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake with a Curious Crust

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As corny as it sounds, I recently wished a friend “a pomegranate week: healthy, vibrant, sweet!” While I’ve long hoped to celebrate their qualities in the form of a new dessert, the pomegranate harvest comes along and I find myself gleefully breaking them open — red splatters and all — and immediately eating every last juicy morsel. But this year I determined to be different: I brought home several extra pomegranates from the market, and a bit of self-discipline to boot.

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This recipe started with my familiar dream of a fruity, creamy treat (a craving which, by the way, has also had me making multiple batches of this lately). Most recently, I envisioned something with complexity in both texture and taste, and I craved a whole lot of seasonal flavor packed into each bite — so pomegranates would be perfect. Once I settled on making a cheesecake, I decided I wanted to keep it from being too towering or too heavy; it would be compact and crust-free.

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (3)In its first version, it was served upside-down with the lovely pomegranate arils draped across the top. But a few factors led me elsewhere: first, the arils lost their vibrancy once cooked — while they kept their succulence and crunch, they simply weren’t as pretty anymore. Second, the juiciness of the fruit soaked downward into the cheesecake over a short period of time, with the risk of sogginess casting a murky shadow. Third, I found that the crisp, flavorful arils made an absolutely lovely replacement for traditional crust (and one that’s gluten-free as well).

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (15)Reaching for orange zest and some pumpkin puree felt like a given, and together they proved to sing of the season. Meanwhile, the molasses-rich sugar and scoop of spices offer a warmth that balances the subtle tartness of both the cream cheese and pomegranate.

Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake (makes an 8″ round cake; serves 8-10)Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (1)

  • 1 cup (6 ounces) fresh pomegranate arils, plus more for decoration if desired
  • finely grated zest of one orange
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons corn starch
  • 1 pound cream cheese at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar or muscovado sugar
  • 3 large eggs at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • fresh peppermint leaves for decoration, if desired

Begin by setting the pomegranate arils in a colander to strain any excess juice. Wash, dry and zest the orange. Grease the inner sides and bottom of an 8″ cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment, or lightly grease an 8″ springform pan. (Note: if you use a pan larger than 8″, it will require more pomegranate to cover the bottom and will result in a shallower cheesecake needing a shorter baking time.) Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (4)In a bowl, toss 1 cup (6 ounces) strained pomegranate arils with the orange zest. Sift granulated sugar and corn starch over the bowl, then toss until all fruit is coated. Transfer to the prepared pan and spread the fruit in an even layer to the edges. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese and brown or muscovado sugar until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, completely incorporating each one, but not over-beating so as to not add too much air. Scoop out 1.75 cup of the cream cheese mixture and carefully pour it on top of the pomegranate arils without moving them. Be sure the cream cheese mixture reaches edges of the pan and is even. (This layer of batter is a bit thicker than its pumpkin counterpart, which helps hold the fruit in place while offering a pleasant, pure flavor.)

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By hand, fold 3/4 cup pumpkin into the remaining cream cheese mixture, stirring until just incorporated. Sift spices over the mixture and stir until dispersed. Gently and slowly, spoon the pumpkin mixture on top of the cream cheese layer, completely covering it. Place pan in oven and bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until top reveals some toasty spots and center is set. (Note: While a water bath is recommended in many cheesecake recipes, I discourage using one here — this recipe doesn’t need more moisture.)

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Remove cheesecake from oven and let cool completely to room temperature on countertop. Place in fridge if not serving soon, or if you prefer your cheesecake cold. When nearing serving time, run a knife around the side of the cheesecake, invert it onto a plate, remove the parchment, and re-invert onto your serving plate. If it’s stubborn about coming out of the pan, first set it on a burner over medium heat for 10-15 seconds. (Or, if using a springform pan, simply remove the sides of the pan.) Decorate with arils and mint leaves if desired, slice with a sharp knife, and enjoy. This cheesecake tastes best the day it’s baked but can be kept chilled and eaten up to 2-3 days later.Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (16)

With its surprising burst of pomegranate “crust”, this distinctive dessert offers decadence, complexity and seasonal spice. Its notes of molassesy sugar, vibrant orange zest, and rich pumpkin are beautifully balanced with the tang of velvety cream cheese and the crisp bits of pomegranate. Smooth yet crunchy, rich yet bright, this cheesecake is a showcase of scrumptious qualities in a single, simple form. It’s as wondrous for breakfast with tea or coffee as it is a luscious evening treat. Enjoy!

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Maybe next time… Using fresh pumpkin (cooked then pureed) would be a great alternative to canned pumpkin, as would butternut squash or sweet potato — just make sure the veggie of choice is not too watery since the juice of the pomegranate is already present. Feel free to play with the spices (cinnamon and cardamom could be particularly nice). Instead of mint leaves and pomegranate arils, a zig-zag of pomegranate jam and a few curls of orange peel would make an equally lovely decoration atop each slice.

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Posted in Baking with Veggies, Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Purple Potato Cupcakes with Molasses Cream Cheese Frosting

Purple Potato Cupcakes (2)I love the idea of purple potatoes. I know, I know: they’ve been around forever and are far from uncommon — but they bring a welcome whimsy to a menu, in my view. Maybe it’s their unexpected burst of color, or their superbly syllabic name. Whatever the appeal, it lured me into purchasing a few too many pounds at the market recently. And it wasn’t long before the potatoes’ mild but earthy flavor whispered of dessert potential.

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I imagined grating them into a carrot-cake-like batter, and knew they’d match nicely with a generous scoop of ginger. Tangy orange zest and mellow turbinado sugar would be musts, as would molasses — which is featured both in the cakes and frosting. (I’ve since wondered why I never thought of adding molasses to cream cheese frosting before; it tastes like velvety gingerbread cheesecake on a spoon — ahem, I mean, on cake!) While the potatoes lose their vivid color in the process, they take on a vibrant new life in the form of tender, rich, and splendidly balanced cupcakes: a perfect fall or winter treat.

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Purple Potato Cupcakes [makes 16-18 standard sized cupcakes]


• 1 medium orange
• 8 ounces purple potatoes (from about 5 small potatoes), measuring about 1.5 cup grated
• fresh ginger root to grate into 1 tablespoon
• 2 eggs
• 2/3 cup vegetable oil
• 1/4 cup molasses (warmed slightly for easy pouring, if desired)
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 2/3 cup turbinado sugar
• 1.25 cups all purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
• optional: 2/3 cup raisins and/or chopped walnuts, preferably toasted

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line muffin tins with 16-18 paper liners. Rinse, dry, and finely zest the orange peel; set zest aside. Juice the orange, remove any seeds, and measure out 2 tablespoons juice. Set aside. Wash and dry potatoes; grate with a standard size (large hole) grater to make 1.5 cup grated, moderately packed, weighing 8 ounces. Using a very small, sharp grater such as a Microplane, grate the ginger until you have 1 packed tablespoon grated (see tip below*); set aside.

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In a large bowl, beat eggs and oil until smooth. Beat in the molasses and vanilla. Add the sugar and stir until evenly dispersed. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and ground ginger over the bowl. Begin to stir, alternately adding the 2 tablespoons of orange juice. Fold in the grated potato, orange zest and fresh ginger, mixing until incorporated. If using, fold in the chopped nuts and/or raisins.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (9)Fill the lined cups of the muffin pans 1/2 to 2/3 full. Bake for about 15 minutes, just until a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean, with no wet batter. Remove from oven and let sit in pan just until cool enough to handle, then transfer to wire racks or a towel on your countertop. Let cool completely before frosting.

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• 14 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter, softened
• 1-2 tablespoons molasses, to taste (warmed slightly for easy pouring, if desired)
• 2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
• 1.25 cup powdered sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)

Beat cream cheese and butter until completely mixed. Add molasses and beat until evenly incorporated. Sift ginger, powdered sugar, and salt over the bowl. Beat until smooth, occasionally stopping to scrape sides and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula. Transfer frosting to a pastry bag, and pipe it onto the cupcakes. If desired, decorate with sprinkles or more turbinado sugar. The texture of these cupcakes is best at room temperature, but if not eating within a few hours, store covered in the fridge for up to three days.

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With their spiced, seasonal flavors and succulent texture, purple potato cupcakes are a celebration of unexpected decadence. The potato shreds offer gentle hints of an earthy, almost mineral taste, which is complemented perfectly by the dark molasses, warm ginger, and sweet orange. The dreamy frosting is smooth and addictive, with cream cheese and molasses proving to be a perfect pair. Carrot cake’s striking new cousin has arrived, and I think you’ll want it to stick around.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (1)Maybe next time… I love the play of flavors in these cupcakes, but I do think they’d welcome other spices, either alongside or instead of the ginger (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves…). Similarly, feel free to use demerera or brown sugar in place of the turbinado.  Dried cranberries would add some seasonal flair swapped in for the optional raisins, as would hazelnuts or pecans instead of walnuts. I trust that this recipe would work nicely as a cake instead of cupcakes; just be sure to adjust the baking time accordingly.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (10)*Grating fresh ginger can be tricky. I find it helps to start with a chilled or frozen ginger root, and to cut a long rectangle out of it, which will also remove the peel. I use a sharp, fine grater such as a Microplane, and hold the ginger rectangle in one hand and grater in the other, over a plate. Press the tip/narrow side of the ginger very firmly against the grater, and push back and forth quickly. Don’t expect the outcome to be dry or separated; it will most likely look like ginger mush, which is perfectly fine for most baked goods.

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Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars

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I’ve always felt that a good, ripe fig is like a little scoop of jam in its own bite-sized pouch. So when fig season arrives, I enjoy lots of them unadorned and I gleefully accept their sweetness as a timely gift. (Something ought to soothe the sting of summer’s end, don’t you think?) But it never takes long before the jammy fruit inspires me to create a new treat in its honor, like a creamy pie or a tender torte. This year was no exception.

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (14)My mood was casual yet decadent this time. I wanted to pair the figs with the depth and richness of browned butter, and I gravitated toward the warmth that whiskey would offer. Together, this combination found its home in a blondie-like bar with a hearty dose of salty-meets-sweet. The double-cooked fruit turns extra tender, and its tiny seeds become scattered across the bars, offering pleasant bits of crispness in every bite.

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Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars
[makes a 9 x 13″ pan, 24- 48 bars depending on size]

  • 1 cup unsalted butterWhiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (2)
  • 12 ounces fresh ripe figs (about 10-12 medium figs; I used Black Mission)
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon whiskey (I used Rye)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 egg yolks (reserve the whites)
  • 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, heat the butter over a medium flame, stirring occasionally. Let it bubble for several minutes, watching closely, until it’s becoming brown and fragrant. Remove from heat; set aside. (Note: Many people strain their browned butter at this point in a recipe, in order to remove the bits of charred solids — but I prefer not to; I like the hints of smoky complexity they add to these bars.)

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (3)Rinse figs, remove stems, and cut them into wedges (I cut each of mine into eighths, but the size of your figs may require a different division). Set nearby. In a small to medium saucepan, heat 1/2 cup whiskey, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and the granulated sugar, stirring over heat until sugar has dissolved. Add the sliced figs and cook at medium heat, bubbling uncovered for 8-10 minutes. Remove from stovetop, let cool for a few minutes, and transfer to a sieve set over a bowl in which the syrup will gather. Set in a cool place.

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Grease sides and bottom of a 9 x 13″ pan, then line with a piece of parchment big enough that it hangs over the two long sides of the pan. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F. Once the butter has cooled to lukewarm, beat it with the brown sugar. Add the egg yolks and 1 teaspoon vanilla, mixing until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the butter mixture and begin to stir. Measure out 1/4 cup of the fig syrup and add it to the batter. (If there is any syrup left, use it as you wish: think cocktails, waffles, even just sparkling water.)  Beat batter until smooth and even.

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (7)Spread batter evenly into parchment lined pan. Carefully arrange the cooked fig slices, which may still be quite warm, sliced side down on top of the batter, only gently pushing them in.  [Optional: To give the bars a toasty shine, make a whiskey egg wash. To do so, vigorously whisk 2 tablespoons of reserved egg whites with remaining 1 tablespoon whiskey. Evenly brush the mixture over the bars until just coated (no need to use it all, as pooling of the egg white is not recommended).]

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (10)Bake for 20-25 minutes, until edges are toasty brown and center is not wet. Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan. Use parchment to remove the cooled slab. Carefully peel off and discard parchment, and transfer bars to a cutting board. Slice as you wish, remembering that these bars are rich, and that — like brownies — their toasty edge pieces are often the most coveted. To store, keep covered and chilled, eating within a few days. I like to stash and serve mine in mini muffin liners or slips of parchment.

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Soft and buttery, these whiskey fig bars burst with both luxury and succulence. The ultra-tender fruit offers mellow hints of warm liquor and vanilla. Meanwhile, the silky batter bestows a delightful depth of flavor: molassesy brown sugar, flecks of toasty browned butter, and a perfect portion of salt.  Let’s celebrate the season with figs in many forms! These luscious bars are a great place to start. 

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Maybe next time… While I like to use figs that are ripe but not mushy, this recipe is forgiving — it works fine with figs that are a little past their prime, or even with firm or otherwise imperfect figs. Similarly, other varieties of figs would work, or even a mix of types. Muscovado could be nice in place of the brown sugar, just as bourbon or even scotch would work in place of the rye whiskey I used here. Rum or brandy would be great, too.

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Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake with Pink Peppercorn and Lemon

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (10)When I first came across Pink Pearl apples, I was simply magnetized. Their flesh is a vibrant, creamy rose color, their flavor is pleasantly mild and citrusy, and they only stay around for a few weeks each year — so embracing their season felt like a must. While munching on many in their delicious, pure state, I relished in the tangy-sweet crunch I love so much about eating apples raw. Still, it didn’t take me long to start daydreaming of how to showcase them in a new baked creation.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (19)The tart pink beauties invited a citrus counterpart, and I knew lemon would make a perfect pairing. But the apples’ color also deserved a celebration, so I reached for my stash of bright pink peppercorns: crisp and faintly peppery with lovely floral tones. (In fact, I’m told they’re actually dried berries — not really pepper at all!)  I decided on an upside down cake that would flaunt both fruits when served, and included a scoop of cornmeal for added character in the batter. The elements turned out to complement each other beautifully, resulting in a delicious symphony of flavors amid a moist, tender crumb.

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Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake with Pink Peppercorns, Lemon and Cornmeal
Makes a 9.75” cake, serves 8-10

You’ll need three to four lemons total for this recipe (I used Meyer, but any kind will do). Begin by finely zesting two of them and setting the zest aside for the batter. Then juice them until you have ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice for the batter and fruit layer, respectively. Be sure to use an ovenproof skillet such as cast iron. My skillet is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″, but it’s only 9.75″ across the top at the widest part. Feel free to use one that’s close to this size, and carefully watch the baking time, adjusting as needed.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (24)FOR THE FRUIT LAYER:

• 2-3 medium sized pink pearl apples
• 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
• ¼ cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon pink peppercorns

Rinse and dry apples. Using a mandolin slicer or sharp knife, cut apples crosswise into thin (1/8″) slices. Remove core from slices with a paring knife. Toss apple slices in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar; set aside. In a 9-10″ heatproof skillet, heat the butter until just melted; remove from heat. Rotate pan to let butter coat its inner sides. Scatter the pink peppercorns rather evenly over the butter, then make a layer of overlapping slices of apple on top of the peppercorns, starting at the outer edge. Return skillet to medium heat, letting fruit bubble and saute for 5 minutes, until apple slices have softened and can be penetrated easily with a paring knife. Remove from heat.

FOR THE CAKE BATTER:Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (25)

• 1.25 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons corn meal
• 1/3 cup melted unsalted butter
• ½ cup sugar
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup strained fresh lemon juice
• ½ cup room temperature water
• finely grated zest of 2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk in the cornmeal. Set aside. In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar until even. Stir in the vanilla. Making sure the mixture is not too hot from the butter (lukewarm is fine), add the eggs one at time, beating well after each is added. Starting with the dry ingredients, alternate adding the flour mixture, water and lemon juice, mixing thoroughly until ingredients are incorporated. Finally, fold in the lemon zest and stir until evenly distributed. Gently pour the batter over the fruit, letting it reach edges of skillet.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (26)Bake for about 30 minutes, just until edges of cake are golden brown and center tests clean with a toothpick (no wet batter; a few moist crumbs are OK). Carefully remove from oven. Let cool for at least an hour. If not serving within a few hours, let cool completely then tightly wrap skillet in foil. Store at room temperature up to 10 hours. When ready to serve, place skillet over medium heat for 30-60 seconds to help loosen apples. Run a butter knife around the edge of the cake, and carefully invert onto your serving plate.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (28)Draped in a layer of pink deliciousness, this tender, corn-flecked cake offers sweet vibrancy in color and flavor alike. The lemon bestows a brightness that’s perfectly balanced with fruity bursts of peppercorn (which some tasters declared are the key to cake’s magic). Tender apple slices make for a moist and succulent texture, enhanced by the toothsome cornmeal throughout. Refreshing and not too sweet, this skillet cake makes a great breakfast, a nice treat with afternoon tea, or a light and satisfying dessert. Anytime of day, its vividness proves welcome with every bite.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (1)

Maybe next time… Stunning Pink Pearl Apples were the inspiration behind this cake, but when they can’t be found, other varieties of apples would work fine in their place — try picking your favorite kind. For a sweeter, more decadent cake, replace the water and lemon juice with lemonade, and/or dust with powdered sugar or top with vanilla ice cream to serve. This cake is all about the citrus, and I imagine orange juice and zest would be as marvelous as lemon. But please try not to omit the pink peppercorns, nor to increase the amount; the tablespoon noted here was truly the sweet spot.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (29)

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (27) Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (3)Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (9)

Posted in Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

My July: Birthday Cakes and Baking Honors

Aperol Cupcakes 1
It happens every year. July begins and I feel both hopeful and slightly terrified at once: the year is half over (yikes!), yet it’s a chance for renewal and lots of celebration. But in a blink, the lively month is at its end. The frosting splatters I find in my house remind me of the festivities I’ve been fortunate to be part of — which this year were more bustling than ever. (Stay tuned for recipes I’ve been dreaming up but haven’t had the chance to perfect yet.)

Jacobs birthday cakeIt started off with the birthday of our newest staff member at the office, whose big day coincided with his first day at work. In the whirlwind, I failed to take a full photo of his cake, but imagine this one with tart cherry juice and cherries swapped in for the blueberry elements, and with its swirly meringue edges nice and toasted. [Tip: everyone should bring a kitchen torch to work once in awhile.]

A few days later, my husband turned 40!  We decided to have a tiny barbeque where I served this summery cake, frosted with a bit of lime-speckled cream cheese icing and topped with a mountain of sweet nectarines. The day seemed truly magical and left the birthday boy feeling grateful and, most of all, loved — exactly my wish for him.
Jacob birthday party

Little David turned four soon after that, and while I couldn’t stay long at his picture-perfect party, I was honored to provide the cake custom made to his very specifications: chocolate cake, vanilla frosting and strawberries — with some extra chocolate cupcakes to match. And then, before I knew it, my father in law, my office mate, a few dear friends, and even yours truly had turned a year older. What a compilation of lovely lives to celebrate!

Aperol cupcakes 2

And the icing on the cake* this July was a new opportunity: a kind Campari publicist asked if I’d make my Aperol Spritz cupcakes for an exclusive SF party at the end of the month. After a quick, healthy dose of my typical what-ifs, I said yes. After all, I’d baked for big gatherings before — it’s just that I’ve usually known the hosts. This time, I only knew of the party’s hostess, and I was flattered, honored, and ready to bake!
*pun intended

Cherry bourbon bars

So even though I don’t have a new recipe to share with you yet (like the iced cherry bourbon bars or sesame mango cookies I’ve been testing), I’m full of inspiration from the birthday-baking extravaganza that was my July. I hope yours was fantastic, too, and I’d love to hear about it in the comments. See you in August!


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