Project Wedding Cake

wedding cake love

When my little brother Timothy asked me to make his wedding cake, I was intimidated but also intrigued. While cake-making has become a hobby over the past couple of years, I’d never attempted a tiered cake or transported a cake more than an hour away (he and his now-wife Kelsey got married in middle Pennsylvania, a good 6.5 hour drive from us). But I figured I had some time to practice, plus it was an honor to be a part of their special day — so how could I say no?

Well, the big day finally rolled around last weekend. My baby bro is now married…and Project Wedding Cake was a success! I thought I’d share a little about the process, both for myself (should I — *fingers crossed* — get the chance to make another one) and for any other first-time wedding cakers out there.

wedding cake closeup

wedding cake cutting

Cake Flavors and Design

I had a bit of freedom with the cake recipes. Tim and Kelsey requested earl grey as one of the layers, but other than that the flavors were up to me. I eventually went with cardamom and strawberry for the top tier (6-inch) and earl grey and lemon curd for the bottom (8-inch). Both tiers were frosted with white chocolate mascarpone buttercream. I was initially nervous about using a frosting with cream cheese and mascarpone on a cake that would be in an non-air-conditioned room for several hours in the summer, but the lady who made my wedding cake (plus many others) recommended it — and it held up beautifully!

For the cake layers themselves, I developed recipes based off my favorite vanilla cake — a formula I love because it’s moist, sturdy, and keeps well for a few days refrigerated and/or frozen. Since we were traveling a fair distance, I made the cakes a couple days ahead of time and froze them, wrapping each layer in plastic wrap and foil. I also made the fillings (roasted strawberry balsamic jam and lemon curd) at home and brought those along. Kelsey’s family was kind enough to let me use their kitchen to make frosting and assemble the individual tiers, which I did the day before the wedding. Each cake layer was also brushed with simple syrup / earl grey syrup during assembly for extra moisture and flavor.

To match the overall wedding theme (they got married on a farm), I kept the decor simple with a rustic finish for the lower tier and a semi-naked finish for the upper. Their florist provided some gorgeous fresh blooms and I am thrilled with how the final design turned out!

Top tips:
If you’re using fillings, pipe a thick frosting dam! During my trial run some of the filling oozed out while I was icing (I just used a thicker layer of frosting on the outside so it was all fine in the end), so for the actual wedding cake I doubled up the dam ring just for extra security. No leaks! I also spread a thin layer of buttercream on each layer before piping the dam and filling with jam/curd, which added stability.

Use an inverted cake pan to store your cakes in the fridge between frosting coats. Normally I just keep my cake on the turntable between the crumb and final coats, but because I was doing two at the same time I didn’t have that luxury. Most fridges have a little lip on the edge of each shelf that makes it tricky to slide cakes out, so it’s definitely a good idea to pop them on something elevated to make your life easier.

Tiering and Transportation

Stacking and transportation were my biggest worries for this whole project, because prior to this month I’d never stacked a cake! To prepare, I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and ended up doing a trial run the week before just to put my mind at ease. The “dress rehearsal” really helped the real deal go very smoothly. (My sister-in-law and her fiance had a big BBQ the weekend before so there were people to help eat that one, hehe.) Plus, this cake was pretty small in the scheme of things — just two tiers. But a great size for a small (under 80 people) wedding and a beginning wedding caker!

wedding cake ready to decorate

I built the bottom layer on a very sturdy 10″ cake drum and used five bubble tea straws as dowels. I definitely recommend the straw method — they’re sturdy, cheap, and slid in really easily.

I built the top layer on a six-inch cake board taped to an eight-inch board, just for easier moving. I moved the individual tiers to the venue in cake boxes in a cooler (they fit really snugly) and stacked them at the venue the evening before the wedding. The cake was kept in the venue kitchen overnight, and the final decorations and moving were done the morning of the wedding around 9am. The cake was cut and eaten around 2pm. Yay!

Top tips:
Chill, chill, chill. It really helped to chill the cakes as much as possible — before doweling, before moving, before stacking. Cakes are so much sturdier when cold, and you can handle them with your hands without worrying about messing up your frosting.

Use cake boxes for transportation! They were inexpensive and honestly took the stress out of moving the tiers. Just make sure you get sizes that exactly fit your cake boards so they’re super snug!

Use a cake board to mark out where your tier is going to land. To make sure the top layer was centered, I just plopped a six-inch board on top of the frosted and chilled bottom layer and marked a few spots with a knife as guide marks. Way easier than trying to eyeball it.

Have a repair kit on hand. I packed extra frosting, a piping bag with a small tip, my offset spatula, and an icing comb for touch ups at the venue. I didn’t need to do any repairs, but I did pipe a bit of frosting on the bottom layer to “glue” the top layer on, plus some around the seam where the two tiers met.

All in all, Project Wedding Cake was a fantastic experience. Developing the recipes and planning the execution was a fun creative challenge; and it was so satisfying to see the final product come together. I’m grateful to my husband for patiently listening to my cake ramblings and helping with the moving and child-wrangling, and to Tim and Kelsey for entrusting me with this part of their special day. Congrats again, kids!

wedding cake backlit

Cold Sesame Peanut Noodles

This recipe is part of the Virtual Midsummer Potluck for Peace, hosted by Saghar Setarah of Lab Noon. Check out the links at the bottom of this post for other delicious potluck recipes from other bloggers!

We attended a lot of picnic BBQ potlucks growing up; and if you’ve ever picnicked with Asians you may have discovered we take our BBQs pretty seriously. There may be hamburgers and hotdogs, but it doesn’t stop there. Crockpots with congee, sticks of fish balls, plates of sushi — all par for the course. And of course — lots and lots of noodle dishes.

This is one of my go-to noodle salads for picnics, car trips, or — let’s face it — hot days when you don’t want to spend much time cooking. It takes all of 10 minutes to slap together, and is great on its own or as a base for a full meal (just add some shredded chicken, diced tofu, sliced raw veggies, etc.). If you have a peanut allergy, you can also sub out the peanut butter for tahini and that works great as well! Feel free to switch up the type of noodle you use too — my favorites are Yet-Ca-Mein (white Chinese wheat noodles) and dried shrimp egg noodles (the type you typically see in won ton noodle soup).

Cold Sesame Peanut Noodles

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

  • 8-10 oz. dried Chinese egg or wheat noodles
  • 1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp creamy peanut butter (or tahini, or a combination of the two)
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1-2 Tbsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp dark sesame oil
  • 1-2 tsp chili-garlic sauce (more if you like it extra spicy)
  • Thinly sliced scallions, chopped cilantro, toasted sesame seeds, and chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish

Method

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients from the rice vinegar to the chili-garlic sauce. Taste and adjust dressing for desired level of sweetness/spiciness.
  2. Prepare the noodles according to the package instructions. Rinse under cold water to cool them down completely. Transfer noodles to a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Top with desired garnishes. Served chilled.

More delicious potluck recipes:

Rhubarb Frangipane Tart

rhubarb frangipane tart before bake

I know, I know. Rhubarb is so April/May and I should be baking all the berry pies and strawberry shortcakes right about now. But to be honest, I saw my first good batches of rhubarb just a week ago. Maybe it’s the Canadian weather, but I find we’re a month or two behind everyone else when it comes to produce. Strawberry picking usually starts at the end of June, and peaches come up right around Labor Day. The good news is that if rhubarb season is long over where you’re living, this versatile frangipane tart base adapts well to other seasonal fruits. Apricots, nectarines, raspberries, figs — whatever looks good in your area, use it!

This shortcrust tart dough is adapted from Dorie Greenspan. I love how it comes together so easily and doesn’t shrink on me. Whereas I like making my pie crusts by hand, I typically use a food processor for tart dough. I like my tart crusts to be more crispy than flaky, so I’m not as concerned with big butter pieces and keeping all the ingredients super cold. That being said, if you don’t have a food processor or prefer not to use one, you can mix this dough by hand too (just do it as you would pie dough). Definitely don’t skip the chilling and freezing steps; it’s what keeps the dough from shrinking! At any rate, if you do have some cracking and shrinking, you can use any leftover dough to do a quick patch job after you take the foil off during the pre-bake step.

rhubarb frangipane tart after bake

Rhubarb Frangipane Tart

Makes one 9-inch tart

Ingredients

For the shortcrust pastry

  • 188g / 1.5 cups AP flour
  • 63g / 1/2 c icing sugar
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 128g / 9 Tbsp very cold unsalted butter, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked

For the frangipane

  • 115g / 4 ounces / 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 100g / 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 130g / 1 cup almond flour
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Generous pinch of salt

To finish

  • ~1/4 c strawberry or raspberry jam
  • 1/2 lb rhubarb, trimmed and cut into ~2-3in. pieces
  • Honey or confectioner’s sugar, for serving

Method

For the shortcrust pastry

  1. Place the flour, icing sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine.
  2. Scatter the butter over the top of the flour mixture. Pulse several times until the butter is cut in (you want irregular pieces ranging in size from a pea to a quarter).
  3. Add the egg in stages, pulsing after each addition. Once the egg is added, pulse in 10 second increments until the dough forms clumps (you don’t want it completely smooth). Once the dough reaches this stage, dump it onto a clean countertop or silpat and gently knead until the dough comes together. Place the dough between two Silpats (or pieces of plastic wrap) and roll it out into a roughly 12-inch circle of about a 1/4″ thickness. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
  4. Lightly grease a 9-inch tart tin. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge and let it stand for about 5 minutes, just to make it pliable. Turn dough into the tart tin and trim the overhang to about 1/2 an inch. Fold the overhang in to reinforce the edges. If there are any tears or cracks, use some of the extra dough to patch it up. Pierce the dough all over with a fork, then wrap in plastic and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375F. Grease a piece of foil and fit it firmly over the chilled tart dough. Put the tart tin on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove the foil (if the crust has risen at all press it down gently with the back of a spoon). If any cracks have formed, use some of the reserved dough to patch it. Bake crust for another 5-10 minutes, or until firm and golden brown. Allow to cool completely before filling.

For the frangipane

  1. Beat butter and sugar together on high speed until fluffy, about 1 minute.
  2. Add the eggs one at a time, beating the first in thoroughly and scraping down the bowl before adding the second.
  3. Stir in the almond flour, followed by the vanilla and salt (either by hand or on the lowest mixer setting).

Finish the tart

  1. Preheat oven to 375F. Spread the jam evenly over the bottom of the cooled tart shell. Spread the frangipane over the jam using an offset spatula. Arrange the rhubarb pieces on top and gently press them into the frangipane.
  2. Bake the tart for 35-45 minutes, or until frangipane is puffed and golden. Serve at room temperature or chilled, with a sprinkling of icing sugar or a drizzle of honey. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for several days.

Cardamom cake with roasted strawberry jam

cardamom cake

This cake. Oh, this cake. I spent a lot of time imagining the different components before actually baking it, and was so happy that it just worked. It’s actually one of the layers of my brother’s upcoming wedding cake, where my guidelines were cardamom plus something fruity. The cake part was pretty easy — just a slight tweak to my favorite vanilla cake was all it took. For the filling I finally settled on a very lightly sweetened strawberry jam. Strawberries + balsamic is a favorite in our house, and I think it matches well with that woodsy cardamom flavor. Next time I’m making a double batch of jam — it’s so delicious, whether spread between cake layers, stirred into yogurt, or just eaten out of the jar. Not to mention easy — just mix and roast!

This white chocolate mascarpone buttercream is a grown-up version of cream cheese frosting. Normally I don’t care much for white chocolate, but here it offsets the tanginess of the cheeses nicely. (Definitely don’t skimp on the quality of chocolate, though! Good chocolate will make or break this frosting.) The mascarpone mellows out the flavor, though you can replace with more cream cheese if you prefer. This frosting spreads and pipes well if used right away too — and no icing sugar means no grittiness! Winning.

cardamom cake top

Cardamom Cake with Strawberry Jam and White Chocolate Mascarpone Buttercream

Makes one 3-layer, 6-inch cake

Ingredients

For the Cardamom Cake
Adapted from Cake Paper Party

  • 100g all-purpose flour
  • 113g cake flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground cardamom
  • 225g granulated sugar
  • 2.5 large eggs, at room temperature (I crack an egg into a bowl to weigh it, beat it with a fork and add half to my other eggs. The rest gets used in omelets or for an egg wash.)
  • 170g / 6 oz. sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1/2 Tbsp vanilla bean paste
  • 113g / 1/2 cup unsalted butter, very soft
  • 4 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil

For the Roasted Strawberry Balsamic Jam

  • 1 pound strawberries, tops trimmed and halved (frozen is fine; keep whole and no need to defrost)
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the White Chocolate Mascarpone Buttercream

  • 255g / 9oz best quality white chocolate, chopped
  • One 8oz package regular or light cream cheese, softened
  • 4oz mascarpone cheese, room temperature
  • 113g / 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice (or to taste)

To Finish

Method

For the cardamom cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line the bottoms of three 6-inch cake pans with parchment paper and grease and flour the pans.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, sour cream and vanilla bean paste. Set aside.
  3. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and sugar in a medium bowl and mix on low 30 seconds to blend.
  4. Add butter and vegetable oil to flour mix and mix on low for 30 seconds to moisten dry ingredients. The mixture should look like wet sand.
  5. Add half of egg mixture and beat on medium-high for 1 minute. Add the remaining egg mixture and beat on low for 30 seconds more.
  6. Divide evenly between the prepared pans and smooth the tops with an offset palette knife. Bake for about 25-35 minutes until the cake is well done (the top should feel springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean). Cool 10-20 minutes in pan and then turn out to a cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting; wrap in two layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate/freeze if using more than a day later. (I definitely recommend chilling the cakes completely before assembling.)

For the Roasted Strawberry Balsamic Jam:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a roasting pan and stir to combine well. Allow mixture to sit for 15-30 minutes to macerate. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 275F.
  2. Roast for 1.5-2 hours, stirring occasionally. The mixture should look dark and syrupy.
  3. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before transferring to a jar and refrigerating. I let the jam cool completely in the fridge and puree it in a food processor before using as cake filling. You can strain the jam beforehand if you like a thicker jam, though I didn’t find this necessary. If you choose to strain, definitely reserve the syrup for brushing on cake layers / adding to drinks / drizzling on ice cream!

For the White Chocolate Mascarpone Buttercream:

  1. Place white chocolate in a microwaveable bowl.
  2. Microwave at 15 second intervals, stirring after each interval, until chocolate is mostly melted. Before chocolate is completely melted, stir until smooth allowing the residual heat to finish the melting process. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.
  3. Place softened cream cheese, mascarpone and butter in a large bowl and beat on low speed until creamy.
    Beat mixture on low speed until creamy and well combined.
  4. Add melted white chocolate and continue mixing on low to incorporate. Scrape down the side of the bowl as necessary.
  5. Add in lemon juice and beat until smooth. Use immediately.

To Assemble:

  1. Tint your buttercream and level cakes if desired. Place one cake round on a cake board and brush generously with simple syrup.
  2. Pipe a dam of buttercream around the edge and fill the center with about 1/4 c strawberry jam. Repeat process until all layers have been used, placing the last layer cut side down.
  3. Spread an even layer of buttercream over the entire cake to seal in the crumbs. If you’re doing the ruffle pattern as pictured, I suggest doing a thick crumb coat (i.e. try not to have cake layers visible). Chill cake for 20-30 minutes to set the frosting.
  4. Complete frosting as desired. I followed this tutorial for the ruffle pattern. For the top, I tinted the buttercream slightly darker and used an open star tip to pipe rosettes and stars, then finished with a light dusting of white sprinkles.

cardamom cake 2

Banana Bundt Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Ganache Drizzle

banana bundt
Summer is almost upon us and that means BBQs, picnics, and backyard get-togethers! While I love me a good layer cake, sometimes you just want a simple, unfussy dessert to take to a potluck; and this is is just that sort of cake. This delicious banana cake is a snap to whip up, and it’s totally fine to make ahead — it actually gets more moist after an overnight rest. Do use your blackest, deadest bananas for this recipe for the best flavor. Typically I keep a bag of overripe bananas (peeled) in the freezer and just defrost what I need in the microwave.

I made this cake in my 6-Cup Nordic Ware Heritage bundt pan. It’s my favorite shape because it’s dramatic and doesn’t really need any embellishment; but chocolate + banana is always a good idea so this cake got a little chocolate sour cream ganache drizzle. If you have a 10-12 cup bundt pan, double all the ingredients.

Banana Bundt Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Ganache Drizzle

Serves 8

Ingredients

For the Banana Bundt Cake:

  • 210g all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • Heaped 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 113g butter, room temperature
  • 200g / 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 115g / 1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 325g / about 2 large very ripe mashed bananas

For the Chocolate Sour Cream Ganache:

  • 40g good quality chocolate, milk or dark, chopped
  • 40g sour cream

Method

For the Banana Bundt Cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 6-cup bundt pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In a small bowl or jug, whisk together the sour cream, vanilla, and bananas. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until pale and creamy (about 5 minutes). Add the egg and mix in thoroughly.
  4. On low speed, mix in the dry ingredients until just combined. Gently mix in the sour cream/vanilla/banana mixture until you have a smooth batter.
  5. Pour into the prepared bundt pan and level the top with an offset palette knife. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. If the cake is browning too quickly, cover it with a piece of foil to prevent scorching.
  6. Cool on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes before turning out of the bundt pan. Allow cake to cool completely before glazing.

For the Chocolate Sour Cream Ganache:

  1. Combine the chocolate and sour cream in a heatproof bowl and heat over a bain-marie. Whisk constantly until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Alternatively, you can melt the chocolate in 20 second increments in the microwave, then whisk in the sour cream. Just ensure that the sour cream is at room temperature; otherwise, the ganache may curdle.
  2. Allow to cool at room temperature slightly before drizzling over the cake.

Brown Butter Rice Krispie Treats

rice krispie treat stack

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind complicated recipes. Since I break a lot of my baking into multiple days, a long list of directions doesn’t usually put me off. Plus, there’s something really satisfying about seeing larger projects come to life!

But sometimes you just need simple, 30-minutes-no-oven-required back pocket recipes; and this is one of those gems. These are not your back-of-the-box Rice Krispie treats. These are BROWN BUTTER RICE KRISPIE TREATS. But good news, they’re practically just as easy as the original recipe. What makes them special?

  • Brown butter. If you’re going to melt the butter anyways, why not take a few extra minutes and brown it for that extra delicious nutty edge? Oh yeah, this also calls for double the butter compared to the original recipe, because you only live once (don’t worry, it’s not so much that they’re greasy).
  • More marshmallows. WAY more marshmallows. And some are left unmelted for an extra surprise. Nothing is worse than a dry Rice Krispie Treat.
  • Thick, bakery-style pieces. I like my treats tall, so I make them in an 8×8 pan (I do the same thing with brownies). Double the recipe if you’re making this in a 9×13 pan; no thin and wimpy Rice Krispie treats here!
  • Salt. One of my pet peeves is under-salted baked goods. Especially when you’ve got all the sweetness from the marshmallows in there — you need a little bit of salt to round out the flavor. You might as well throw a dash of vanilla in there while you’re at it.

OK, enough talking. Here we go!

rice krispie treats close up

Brown Butter Rice Krispie Treats

Makes 9 – 16 treats, depending on how big you like them

Ingredients

  • 113g / 6 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 425g / 10 cups mini marshmallows, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
  • Dash of pure vanilla extract
  • 160g / 6 cups crispy rice cereal, such as Rice Krispies (about half a 12-ounce box)

Method

  1. Line an 8×8 pan with foil. Lightly butter or oil the foil for easy removal. Measure out all your ingredients — this is a quick and simple recipe, but once you start, you do need to move quickly!
  2. In a large pot over medium-low heat, brown the butter. It will melt, foam, turn clear gold, then finally start browning (and smelling nutty). Stir frequently with a silicon spatula or wooden spoon, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan as needed.
  3. When the butter has browned, take the pan off the heat and add the salt, vanilla, and 8 cups of marshmallows. Stir constantly until the marshmallows are melted and you have a smooth mixture. If the residual heat from the butter isn’t enough to melt the mallows completely, turn the heat back to low.
  4. Add the cereal and stir until evenly coated with the marshmallow mixture. Stir in the remaining two cups of mini marshmallows.
  5. Immediately scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and, using a greased silicon spatula or a piece of greased parchment/wax paper, press it firmly into an even layer. Let cool completely at room temperature before cutting into squares.
  6. Store in an airtight container and eat within 3 days.

rice krispie treats in hand

rice krispie treats marshmallows

Scoring bread

One of my favorite parts of baking bread is scoring. It’s like a baker’s signature — a special touch showing the loaf was made with love by hand. But it goes beyond just looks — proper scoring controls the way bread expands in the oven. Basically, you’re creating weak spots in the dough where the steam will escape (otherwise it’ll just burst out of any weak spots created during shaping). An unscored loaf that’s allowed to burst at will has a certain rustic loveliness, but usually I opt to do a little playing with sharp objects because it’s just so fun!

Like every other part of bread baking, scoring takes practice and it can take awhile to get comfortable with it — especially when you just get maybe one or two chances to try it each week. I’m certainly no scoring expert, but I’ve definitely seen my designs improve after learning a few tricks over the months.

Start with cold dough

It is much easier to score dough that is well chilled. The surface is firmer and less fragile. I typically proof my loaves overnight, so this isn’t a problem. If you’re proofing at room temperature, try sticking your loaf in the fridge (I’ve heard some folks use the freezer too) when it’s nearly ready for at least half an hour. Additionally, I like to uncover my loaves (and keep them in the fridge) while the oven is preheating. This dries out the surface just a little, which also helps make cleaner cuts.

Always use a sharp blade

There are several different tools you can use to score, but my favorite by far is the traditional lame. I like this Mure & Peyrot lame because it’s inexpensive and you can easily rotate and change out the razor blade. I usually flip or switch out the blade every few loaves so I’m always working with a really sharp razor. If you use a dull razor your blade is more likely to snag and you won’t get a nice, sharp design. Additionally, I like to dip my blade in water right before scoring as this seems to help the blade move more smoothly as well. If I’m doing a lot of cuts, I’ll dip every line or so just to clean off any flour or residue that the blade might pick up.

Dust with rice flour

This is optional, but if you’d like your design to stand out, use a small sieve to dust your loaf evenly with a thin layer of rice flour before scoring. This will create contrast, and rice flour has a high burning point so your loaf won’t taste like burnt flour. You can see an example of me dusting a loaf (and doing a single score) in this Instagram video.

Score according to the dough

I don’t usually plan my scores out ahead of time; instead, I try to judge what type of score will best suit the dough. For example, if I have a lot of add-ins like nuts and dried fruit, I’ll usually opt for a simple score like a single slash. Same thing if the dough feels especially weak — perhaps due to high hydration or overproofing (too many cuts can cause these loaves to collapse and spread).

If the dough is well developed and proofed, it can handle more intricate scoring. While I don’t have a signature score yet, I tend to favor a large slash with some type of leaf pattern. I like the contrast of the large and small cuts, and I love the way the leaf pattern blooms in the oven. This Instagram video shows me doing both a large slash and some leaf pattern work.

Know your angle

If you’re trying to get ears, hold the blade at a shallow angle (about 40-45 degrees) to the dough and score about 1/4″ deep. If you’re not, hold the blade perpendicular to the dough. The amount of steam you can generate in your oven coupled with the development of your dough will also affect how well your cuts bloom.

Move decisively

My scores turn out best when I move quickly and, honestly, don’t think about it too much. Trust me, the dough can sense your fear and if you are tentative with your cuts your blade is more likely to snag. Try to keep your wrist still as you move the blade, and think in terms of long lines rather than individual cuts when scoring things like leaf patterns. When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to hold the lame closer to the blade (like choking up on a bat) as you’ll have better control. As you get more used to scoring you’ll figure out a position that’s comfortable for you.

Cooking on a budget

slice of bread
Between buying a new house and preparing for baby #2, my husband and I decided a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t hurt to keep a close eye on our spending. We’re grateful that we’ve always had more than enough to live comfortably, but buckling down now and then never hurts. So we budgeted a conservative amount per week to spend on food/gas/miscellaneous, and went from there.

Since I do the majority of meal prep in our house, I’ve been particularly keen on cooking budget meals and finding ways to save on groceries…without sacrificing on taste and nutrition (having both a growing toddler and a pregnant lady to feed). Constraints often force the discovery of new ingredients and preparations, and this has definitely proven true even just a few weeks into this exercise. A few principles — none new, but diligently practicing them is another ballgame — have helped with belt-tightening:

Practice portion control
This has less to do with how much we eat per meal, but with how much we prepare and buy. I’m finding that for our family of 2.5, preparing food for 4-6 leaves us with enough for dinner, plus a couple lunches. That’s plenty. If there are too many leftovers, they inevitably hide out in the back of the fridge and go bad. Similarly, while buying in bulk is sometimes cheaper, the savings are canceled if you buy more than you can use.

Stretch meat
We do enjoy meat and are in the habit of buying less expensive cuts (think chicken thighs and certain Asian market cuts of beef), but we’ve also taken to using just a little less per meal — for example, using just two sausages in a soup instead of the called-for four. On-sale meat is something I do buy in bulk, then freeze in ~1 pound portions (butchers will often portion it out for you if you ask).

Rediscover rice and beans
Rice has long been a staple in our house, but we are learning to appreciate different types of beans and legumes. I have to say, the Instant Pot has really helped out here as it takes only ~20 minutes to cook up a batch of beans instead of a couple hours! We’ve also started trying more dal recipes using different types of lentils, and they’ve been a big hit. Fresh spices are key here; and this is another instance where I’ll buy from the local bulk store — not because I can buy a whole bunch but because I can get just the amount I need — 30 cents worth of tumeric, for instance.

Plan meals
I’ve never been much into weekly meal planning before; and I’ll probably never be the type to detail everything I’ll cook in the coming week. But I am trying to plan out at least the main courses several days in advance now, rather than just a couple. Mainly this is to cut down on unnecessary trips to the store where inevitably extraneous groceries make it into the shopping cart. I am in the habit of shopping the weekly grocery ads (the Flipp app is super helpful), which definitely helps determine what we’ll be eating.

I’m also trying to be more regular about preparing things that can be quickly thrown together for nutritious breakfasts/lunches — for example, boiling a dozen eggs and baking up a batch of granola at the beginning of the week; chopping up cheese cubes; baking a batch of muffins and freezing a portion. And of course a loaf of sourdough bread is almost always available.

Shop your pantry and freezer
One of the first things I did when we started this exercise was to take stock of what we already had at home. (Favorite rice vermicelli recipes, anyone? Because I have a lot…) Since we’re moving soon anyways, it makes sense to try to use up what’s in our pantry and freezer. I’m pretty good about knowing what meats we have in stock, but not so great at remembering our dry goods stash. (This ties back in with the first principle — don’t buy more than you can [remember to] use…) So I’m trying to do a better job of working in the wealth of neglected pantry items into meal planning.

Eat seasonally
Fruits and veggies get a bad rap for being expensive. If you’re buying strawberries in December, sure…but as long as you eat with the seasons, fresh produce is very affordable. (Plus, in-season always tastes better.)

What are some of your favorite budget recipes? Here are a just a few we’ve used for inspiration:

Recipes

My Favorite Granola

Granola is a bit like banana bread: there are a zillion different recipes out there, and many of them are good. But over time, you find that one recipe that checks all the boxes for you, and it becomes your house standard. This is mine. It’s my favorite because it’s crunchy, has clusters, and isn’t overly sweet. Paired with fresh berries and Greek yogurt, it’s one of my go-to quick breakfasts. But I’ve also been known to eat it by the handful for a mid-afternoon snack and sprinkle it on frozen yogurt for dessert.

The method and base recipe are from Tara O’Brady’s cookbook Seven Spoons. The original recipe calls for candied ginger and cacao nibs, which I omit (they sound delightful but aren’t normally stocked in my pantry). I’ve played around with different nuts and seeds, and the version below is what I typically use. But like most good granola recipes, this one is easily adaptable. Swap the sesame seeds out for flax or chia; use whatever nuts you have in stock; switch up the spices to suit your palate; omit the coconut if it’s not your thing.

Basic Granola Recipe

Adapted from Seven Spoons by Tara O’Brady | Makes about 8 1/2 cups

Ingredients

  • 60g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 3 Tablespoons pure maple syrup

  • 100g (1/2 cup) packed light brown sugar

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 455g (5 cups) old-fashioned rolled oats

  • 140g (1 1/2 cups) nuts, chopped if large (I like a mix of almonds, cashews, and walnuts)

  • 65g (3/4 cup) unsweetened flaked coconut

  • 35g (1/4 cup) sesame seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 150g (1 cup) dried fruit, chopped if large (I usually use figs and/or raisins)

Optional add-ins:

  • 35g (1/4 cup) raw, hulled sunflower seeds

  • 70g (1/2 cup) finely chopped candied ginger

  • 70g (1/2 cup) raw pepitas
  • Raw cacao nibs

Method

  1. Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C) with racks in the upper and lower thirds.
  2. In a saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter into the olive oil and maple syrup. Add the brown sugar, water, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring often, until the brown sugar dissolves. Remove the saucepan from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract, and set aside to cool.
  3. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, grind 2 cups (180 g) of the oats into flour. Transfer this oat flour to a large bowl. Stir in the remaining 3 cups (275 g) whole oats, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the nuts, coconut, seeds, and cinnamon. Pour the butter and sugar mixture over everything and stir to coat. Let stand for about 10 minutes, to give the oats the opportunity to lap up the sugar syrup.
  4. Line two half sheet pans or standard baking sheets with parchment paper. Using your hands, drop the oat mixture in clumps onto the pans, then bake in the preheated oven until dry, light golden, and evenly toasted, 40 to 50 minutes, gently stirring and turning the granola with a large spatula every 15 minutes or so and rotating the pans once from top to bottom and front to back.
  5. Remove from the oven and leave the granola on the pans. The granola will continue to crisp as it stands. After 5 minutes, stir in the candied ginger and pepitas (if using). Once the granola has cooled completely, stir in the dried fruit and the cacao nibs (if using).
  6. Transfer the granola to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

Mini 4-inch Vanilla Cake

mini vanilla cake

Who doesn’t love a mini cake? They’re perfect for smash cakes, birthdays, or — let’s face it — a Monday night when you want dessert but don’t want the temptation of a big, fat layer cake lurking in the fridge all week.

I’ve made quite a few mini cakes in the past. Normally I just bake an 8-inch layer and stamp out the layers using a round cookie cutter. This works really well, but it does leave you with a bit of cake scraps. Plus, I wanted to find a recipe that would perfectly fit my cute little 4 inch cake pans.

Turns out my go-to vanilla cake recipe, scaled down, worked like a charm with just the slightest bit of tweaking. One of the things I like about this particular recipe is that it bakes up fairly flat (thanks to the reverse-creaming mixing method, which produces a fine, dense crumb), a big plus when dealing with a small amount of cake (you don’t want to level off half the cake just to get a flat surface!). This cake is also sturdy, which makes assembly a lot easier (fluffier cakes are harder to layer, small-scale).

You can fill and frost this any way you want, but I opted for some strawberry jam and a super simple cream cheese frosting. This frosting is a nice, quick number that doesn’t require bringing any ingredients to room temperature. It wouldn’t be my first choice for doing fancy piping work, but it’s light and tasty and is easy to work with.

By the way, I made this particular cake to celebrate the fact that we’re having a GIRL!

mini vanilla cake sliced

Mini 4-inch vanilla cake

Makes 1 four-layer, four-inch cake | Serves 2-4

Ingredients

Mini Vanilla Cake
Adapted from Cake Paper Party

  • 50g all-purpose flour
  • 56g cake flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 95g granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 100g sour cream, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 57g unsalted butter, very soft
  • 2 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil (I like canola or grapeseed)

Quick Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from The Fauxmartha

  • 1 c heavy cream, cold
  • 113g / 4 oz. cream cheese, cold
  • 63g / 1/2 c icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

To Assemble

  • ~1/4 c strawberry preserves/jam (preferably on the thick side)
  • Simple syrup
  • Sprinkles, if desired

Method

For the mini vanilla cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line the bottoms of two 4-inch cake pans with parchment paper and grease and flour the pans.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, sour cream and vanilla bean paste. Set aside.
  3. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium bowl and mix on low 30 seconds to blend.
  4. Add butter and vegetable oil to flour mix and mix on low for 30 seconds to moisten dry ingredients. The mixture should look like wet sand.
  5. Add half of egg mixture and beat on medium-high for 1 minute. Add the remaining egg mixture and beat on low for 30 seconds more.
  6. Divide evenly between the prepared pans and smooth the tops with an offset palette knife. Bake for about 25-30 minutes until the cake is well done (the top should feel springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean). Cool 10-20 minutes in pan and then turn out to a cooling rack. Cool completely before frosting; wrap in two layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate/freeze if using more than a day later. (I definitely recommend chilling the cakes completely before assembling.)

For the quick cream cheese frosting:

  1. Combine the cold cream, icing sugar, cream of tartar, and vanilla in a bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat until the mixture reaches stiff peaks. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. In another bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth and spreadable, about two minutes. Add the cream cheese to the whipped cream mixture and beat at medium speed until completely smooth. Use immediately.

To assemble:

  1. Level the cakes and cut each cake in half for a total of four layers. Use a dollop of frosting to stick the first layer on a 4-inch cake board. Brush with simple syrup. Pipe a frosting border around the edge and fill the center with about 1 Tbsp of jam. Repeat until you have used all the layers.
  2. Spread a thin layer of frosting over the top and sides and refrigerate the cake for about 15 minutes to set. Frost as desired*, and top with sprinkles!

*For the watercolor effect, I tinted two small portions of frosting (~1/2 cup) different shades of pink (using Americolor Dusty Rose), then randomly dolloped little bits all over the sides. I used an icing scraper to blend the colors and smooth the frosting out, and an offset palette knife to give the frosting a little bit of texture for a rustic finish.

mini vanilla cake from above