I really enjoy making birthday cakes for my friends. Partially this is because yes, I do like making cakes but when it’s for someone you know you have a chance to think about what that person likes and dream up something special just for them.
This cake was made for a good friend who I’d been told was especially fond of red velvet cake. Truth be told I didn’t have a red velvet cake recipe I liked (most are too oily or taste like a weak chocolate cake…but red), but after scouring the interwebs for a bit I came upon this recipe. The author addressed all my red velvet concerns so I gave it a go.
After trying the cake, the birthday girl told me, “Wow, I actually really like this red velvet cake!” This surprised me because, well, I figured she always liked red velvet cake since it was her favorite. It turns out she thought red velvet cake was interesting because so many western people were fascinated with the flavor, and when she moved to Canada it was something she looked forward to trying. But she didn’t actually really like red velvet in particular. Except for this one!
Anyways, I loved this cake too and I’m not a huge red velvet person either; I thought the texture was perfect and it baked up beautifully. I dressed this simply with my go-to cream cheese frosting and some sugared cranberries, which has been my garnish of choice this season — they’re quick and easy, and they taste good too!
Finally, I got the news yesterday that my instagram account was included in Saveur’s list of 20 Favorite Food Instagrams of 2016! It was quite a surprise and I’m honestly shocked to see my name next to some insta-stars. I’ll admit, I was a bit of a latecomer to the insta-game (Snapchat in 2020, anyone?) but it’s become my favorite form of social media and the source of a lot of my kitchen inspiration. I’m happy to share a little of what I do there, the successes and the failures — and am grateful for the many talented people I’ve met along the way!
Now for some cake!
Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Sugared Cranberries
Makes 1 3-layer, 6 inch cake | Serves 8-12
Cake recipe adapted from Cake Paper Party
- 85 g butter, room temperature
- 58 g vegetable oil (I used grapeseed)
- 200 g granulated sugar
- 1 egg + 1 egg yolk (or 1.5 eggs — crack the second one, weigh it, and add half), room temperature
- 85 g AP flour
- 70 g cake flour
- 1 T natural cocoa (not dutch process)
- 3/4 t baking soda
- 1/2 c buttermilk, room temperature
- 60 g sour cream, room temperature
- 1/2 T white vinegar
- 1 t vanilla extract
- 1 T red food coloring (preferably gel) or red velvet essence (I used essence)
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour 3 6-inch pans.
- Beat butter, oil and sugar on medium-high speed for 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time and beat until incorporated.
- Combine buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar and vanilla and whisk to blend.
Sift together flours, baking soda, salt and cocoa. Add dry mixture to butter mixture and stir on low until just combined. Add half of buttermilk mixture and stir until it is just incorporated. Add remaining liquids and stir to combine.
- Gently stir in red food coloring and mix for about 30 seconds, scraping down once.
- Divide batter evenly among prepared pans and bake for about 20-25 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly pressed. Cool for at least 15 minutes in the pans before turning out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting. (I recommend freezing the cakes, wrapped in plastic, until firm before assembly as this cake is quite tender.)
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 225 g unsalted butter, softened
- 270 g powdered sugar, sifted
- 300 g cream cheese, COLD and cubed
- Beat butter until pale, about 2 minutes.
- Add powdered sugar and continue beating until frosting is very pale and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.
- Add cream cheese and beat until just smooth. Beat on low for a minute or two to get rid of any air bubbles. Best used immediately.
- A couple large handfuls fresh cranberries
- 1 egg white, beaten (I use pasteurized)
- 1/2 c sugar, preferably caster (you can grind granulated sugar in a food processor, or just use granulated — caster will give you a more “snowy” effect)
- Spread out a piece of parchment paper big enough to hold all the cranberries in a single layer.
- Coat the cranberries with the egg white set them on the paper to soak up some of the excess liquid (if they’re too wet, the sugar will clump).
- Toss the cranberries in the sugar and set them back on the parchment to dry completely before using and / or eating!
- Level your cakes (this is easiest to do when they’re completely cool; I like to stick them in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes right before assembly). Choose a layer for the bottom and put bottom-side down on a cake board.
- Spread about a 1/2 cup of icing evenly over the first layer. Repeat with the next two layers. Add a thin layer of icing over the entire cake. Refrigerate for 15-20 minutes to set the crumb coat.
- When the cake is chilled, add a second, thicker layer of icing over the entire cake. You can keep the sides smooth, or use an offset spatula / butter knife to create the swirl effect. Hole the spatula at a 45-degree angle to the cake while spinning your turntable, slowly, all the while slowly dragging your spatula to the top. Repeat on the top, starting from the outside and drawing your spatula in to the center.
- Decorate with sugared cranberries and a few sprigs of rosemary, if desired. Keep the cake refrigerated; bring to room temperature about an hour before serving.
One of my latest bread obsessions has been the twisty loaf. I’ve been wanting to try making those babka-esque twists that are all the rage these days, because who can resist a little swirly and pretty? Clearly, not me.
Twist breads are great for the holidays. They’re surprisingly easy to shape and faster than making a bunch of rolls; they can be equally appropriate for Christmas brunch or a potluck dinner; they double as decoration. Plus, they’re a chance to flex your culinary creativity — change up the fillings to suit your tastes and/or fridge contents!
After making a fair share of these guys I’ve learned a few tricks that can really help your twist breads shine in looks and flavor! While I did all my testing using my sourdough hokkaido milk bread recipe below, you should be able to use your favorite enriched bread dough (i.e. babka / challah / cinnamon roll / non-sourdough hokkaido milk bread dough, etc.) to make a twist bread. I would recommend a dough that is soft but sturdy enough to be rolled out fairly easily. My trusty pumpkin version of this bread works equally well as a base, and I’ve included a couple other flavor variations below as well.
Twist bread tips:
- Don’t roll your dough too thin.
I tried rolling my dough various sizes, and finally settled on an oval of about 10″ x 12″ as the ideal size for my loaf pan. I follow a process very similar to this one. You can roll your dough thinner to get more of a swirl, but (at least for my recipe) the bread will be more dense. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; but personally I prefer fluffier bread to more swirl. The nice thing about the oval shape is that the ends don’t get too thick when you tuck them under. (I never bother trimming the ends.) It’s also easy-peasy to fit the loaf into the tin; no double-helixing / multiple criss-crossing required.
- Don’t rush the proofing. Enriched breads take extra long to proof, whether or not it’s sourdough. In my room-temperature kitchen, this recipe takes at least 6 hours for the final proof. I’ve tried rushing it and the texture just wasn’t the same. I know mine is ready when the loaf has puffed to fill the pan almost to the top.
- Thick, strongly flavored pastes work best for fillings. For ease of rolling and the best swirl effect, a thick paste works better than lots of chopped up ingredients. I tend to not measure my filling ingredients; but in general I use roughly 1/2 a cup of filling per loaf. Again, I opt for a less-is-more approach here: too much filling can weigh the bread down, making it more dense and cakey. You may have to experiment a bit to find your ideal filling-to-bread ratio, but that’s half the fun.
A few ideas for fillings: fruit and nut butters, thick jams/compotes, cream cheese + fruit curd, pesto, grated cheese, etc. This is a great place to use up some of those half-eaten jars of jams and spreads. If I want to do a fruit filling (such as cinnamon raisin), I’ll rehydrate dried fruit in boiling water for an hour or so, drain, then pulse in a food processor with a healthy amount of cinnamon sugar and softened butter. I do find it helps to incorporate the butter into the paste rather than layer it, especially if you are doing a sweet loaf. Otherwise the sugar can turn into syrup and leak out, resulting in a sticky bun situation.
- Bake and cool fully. It can be a bit tricky to judge when these loaves are finished, as the filling can hide bits of uncooked dough. Your best bet is to check the internal temperature: it should register at least 195F. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out cleanly. Also keep in mind that if you’ve rolled out your dough thinner to start with and/or used a lot of filling, your bread will take longer to fully cook. When in doubt, let it go a few minutes longer, and tent with foil to keep the top from burning.
Also, cool your bread fully to room temperature before serving. This helps the bread fully set and avoids that icky gummy taste that comes from slicing too early. Better to fully cool, then gently rewarm for 5-10 minutes than cut too soon.
- Glaze it! A healthy dose of simple syrup (1 part sugar dissolved in 1 part water) applied to your loaf right after baking adds an attractive shine and keeps your bread tasting fresher for longer. Be generous — about a 1/4 cup for sweet loaves, a little less for savory. Warmed jelly or honey also works (you won’t need as much), but if you’re planning on having your loaf around for more than one day simple syrup is your best option. Right after glazing is also a good time to add any garnishes: toasted seeds / nuts, finely chopped herbs, pearl sugar, etc.
Time to get twisting!
Sourdough Hokkaido Milk Bread
Adapted from The Fresh Loaf | Makes one 8.5″ x 4.5″ / 9″ x 5″ loaf
- 18 g mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
- 30 g milk
- 56 g bread flour
Mix and ferment at room temp (73F) for 10-12 hours. When ready it should be puffy and domed and you should see large bubbles if you pull back the top.
Final dough ingredients
- 276g bread or AP flour (I used half bread flour and half AP flour for a balance of chewiness and volume)
- 45g granulated sugar
- 34g softened unsalted butter
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 6g fine grain sea salt
- 101g whole milk, room temperature
- 86g cream, room temperature
- 20g milk powder
- All of the levain
- Egg wash (1 egg, whisked with 1 tsp water or milk), for brushing
- Filling of choice, approximately 1/2 a cup
- Simple syrup, for glaze
- Optional garnishes (toasted nuts, seeds, herbs, etc.)
- Mix together all final dough ingredients except the salt and butter until just combined. Cover and autolyse (rest) for 30-60 minutes.
- Add salt, and knead dough until gluten is moderately developed. The dough will start out sticky and rough but should gradually come together and feel quite smooth and stretchy. Add butter in two batches, mixing the first completely before adding the second. Continue kneading until the gluten is very well developed and the dough passes the windowpane test as demonstrated here. The dough should be smooth and supple (and quite lovely to handle!). This will take quite some time, especially if done by hand. Consider it your arm workout for the day!
- Transfer to a clean bowl, cover, and bulk rise at room temp (73F) for 2 hours. The dough will be noticeably expanded, but not doubled. Fold, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, take the dough out and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Rest for one hour, covered by lightly oiled plastic.
- Grease and line a 9×5 loaf pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of at least 2 inches on the long sides (for easy removal later).
- On a lightly floured surface (I prefer a Silpat), roll out the dough into an oval roughly 10 x 12 in. Spread your filling evenly over the surface, leaving a 1/2 inch border along one short edge. Turn the dough so the short end without the border is facing you. Brush the opposite end with water, and gently but tightly roll up like a jelly roll. Once rolled up, roll gently back and forth a few times to seal. Transfer the log to the fridge or freezer for about 10 minutes to firm up (optional).
- If desired, trim about 1/2 an inch off each end (I don’t bother because I don’t mind if the ends don’t have filling; but if you do, trim them). Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Place the two sides next to each other, cut side up. Gently pinch the tops together and twist the two together, keeping the cut sides up. Transfer twist to the prepared pan. (See here for a some helpful pictures.)
- Cover with plastic and proof for about 6 hours at room temperature. When ready, the dough should look very puffy and have risen to the top of the loaf pan.
- When the loaf is nearly finished rising, preheat the oven to 400F and prepare the egg wash. Just before baking, brush the surface lightly with egg wash.
- Bake for 20 minutes at 400F, then turn the oven down to 375F, rotate the pan, and bake for about 15 more minutes or until the loaf is well browned and registers at least 195F in the center. If the loaf is browning quickly, tent with foil. (I cover mine for the last 10 minutes or so.)
- Immediately after taking the loaf out, brush all over with simple syrup and top with garnishes, if desired. Cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
- Matcha: replace 10g of flour with 10g culinary grade matcha powder. Pairs well with chocolate and black sesame fillings.
- Eggnog: replace the milk with full-fat eggnog, decrease the sugar to 34g, and add some freshly grated nutmeg to the dough. Pairs well with cinnamon sugar and cranberry fillings.
As cliche as it sounds, I love Christmas. I have many fond memories of driving around looking at lights (with McDonald’s hot chocolate and apple pies, which were the real highlight), dousing sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles, and playing for candlelight services. Nowadays, Christmastime is even more special for me because it means traveling back to Seattle to see family, friends, and all my old haunts. I don’t know how long this tradition will last, but I definitely will enjoy it while I can.
When Gastropost asked me to help create something with Rice Krispies for the Treats for Toys campaign, I jumped at the opportunity because playing with food for a good cause is totally something I can get behind. My treat was inspired by a couple of things: first, those little miniature Christmas scenes that stores set up during the holidays; and second, one of my favorite childhood Christmas activities: picking out a Christmas tree. This year is the first I can remember NOT having a tree — between having a
destructive busy toddler and traveling it doesn’t make sense (sniff sniff) — so in lieu of that I made an edible forest. And of course I had to add my favorite mountain pillows, Bambi, one of Marcus’ cars, and a little snow to jazz it up a little. Honestly, it was so fun. AND easy. The hardest part was trying to find decent light during naptime to photograph it!
This little forest scene would make a great centerpiece for a holiday party, or a fun craft project for the family. (My husband and I did it as a little date night activity; I probably had more fun than he did but he’s a good sport, lol.) Of course, you don’t need to make a forest scene. Individual trees would make great gifts or stocking stuffers — just be sure to make them soon before gifting (like the day of or night before) and keep them in an airtight container/wrapping so they don’t dry out. You should get about 18 small trees from one recipe (about 1/3 c mixture for each tree).
Want to join in the fun? Create a toy-inspired Rice Krispies treat, upload it to the Treats for Toys site or social media (using the #treatsfortoys hashtag), and Kellogg’s will donate $20 to the Salvation Army to buy real toys for children in need.
DIY Christmas Tree Forest
Recipe adapted from Kelloggs Canada / Treats for Toys | Makes about 18 small trees
For the trees:
- 56 g / 1/4 c unsalted butter
- 250 g marshmallows (I used mini)
- 168 g / 6 c Rice Krispies (or other rice puff cereal)
- Green food coloring (I used gel, a couple drops each of Wilton Moss Green and Americolor Leaf Green)
- Sprinkles / mini M&M’s / small candies for decorating
- Small chocolates (such as Snickers’ bites or Rolos) for the trunks
For the rest of the scene:
- 56 g / 1/4 c unsalted butter
- 250 g marshmallows (I used mini)
- 168 g / 6 c Rice Krispies (or other rice puff cereal)
- Graham crackers
- Icing sugar
- Toy car
- Baker’s twine
- First, make the trees. Melt the butter over low heat in a large pot (big enough to hold the Rice Krispies). When the butter is melted, add the marshmallows, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. When the marshmallows are almost melted, stir the food coloring a drop at a time until you reach your desired shade of green (go a little bolder than you want as the color will be slightly muted by the cereal). When the marshmallows are melted and the color is evenly dispersed, turn off the heat, add the cereal, and stir to coat evenly. Allow to cool for a minute or so (it’s hot!), then, using well-greased hands, take a small handful at a time and form into pyramids or cones, whatever your preference. Pack firmly but not so hard as to crush the cereal. Place on a piece of parchment paper to set. If you’re making a forest, try to vary the shapes / sizes a little for a more realistic effect; and if you want a tree for the top of the car, make sure to form a tree that will fit properly (for my car this was quite small). The mixture is most pliable within the first 5-8 minutes after mixing, so try to work quickly (or have a couple people help).
- When the trees are still a little pliable but not so hot as to melt your sprinkles, decorate. Press the candies / sprinkles into the sides of the trees. (I just pushed them in and they stuck fine, though if your sprinkles are flat you may need to use some royal icing to glue them on.) Press a chocolate into the bottom for the trunk. (You can also glue with icing / cut a toothpick in half, poke one end into your chocolate, and poke the other end into the tree for more security.)
Once your trees are decorated, make your snow scene. Make another batch of Rice Krispies as above, but omit the food coloring. Press into a greased quarter-sheet pan. To make a road, break your graham crackers along the perforations and line them up through the center of the pan. Press the trees into the Rice Krispies along either side of the road, staggering the sizes. Tie the small tree to the top of the car using baker’s twine. When the Rice Krispies are totally cool, dust some icing sugar over the top for a snow-like effect. Enjoy!