Berries-and-Cream Vanilla Layer Cake

A light and fresh vanilla cake that’s all about summer berries:

When it comes to baking I keep it simple, preferring goodies that are fresh and light. This especially applies to cake. It was my daughter’s birthday recently, and her favorite cake is a Danish lagkage (layer cake) which is the  traditional birthday cake served at celebrations. It’s a simple and easy cake to make and eat, with thin layers of vanilla sponge, gobs of whipped cream, and fresh berries. It’s flexible, kid-friendly, and pretty to look at. No piping or fiddly decorations needed. The only bling is a pile of fresh berries smeared into the cream and piled on top, and, if you’re so inclined, pretty snipped sprigs and edible flowers from the garden.

I have messed around with different vanilla cake recipes over the years, and this is the one I currently favor. This sponge cake recipe is adapted from Cooks Illustrated. Make sure that all of the sponge cake ingredients are at room temperature before you begin.

Berries-and-Cream Vanilla Layer Cake

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, plus cooling time
Serves: 8 to 10

Cake:
4 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened

Whipped Cream:
2 cups chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons sifted confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fresh raspberries

1 cup good quality raspberry preserves
Assorted berries, such as raspberries, strawberries, currants, for garnish

Make the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two (8 or 9-inch) cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment and butter the parchment.
2. Whisk the eggs, milk, vanilla, and lemon zest in a medium bowl to combine.
3. Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Briefly mix on low speed to blend.
4. Add 1/3 of the butter and mix on slow speed to blend and then increase the speed to medium and mix for about 10 seconds.
5. Add half of the remaining butter and mix for 10 to 15 seconds to blend. Add the remaining butter and mix for 10 to 15 seconds. The mixture should be wet and granular.
Add half of the egg mixture and mix to just combine without over-mixing. Add the remaining egg mixture and mix until smooth without over-mixing.
6. Divide the batter between the pans. Transfer to the oven and bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the cakes and cool completely. When cool, use a serrated knife to slice the cakes in half horizontally (optional).

Make the cream:
Whip the cream in the bowl of an electric mixer until traces of the whisk are apparent. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until firm peaks form. Place the 1 cup raspberries in a medium bowl and mash with a fork. Add half of the whipped cream and gently fold in to combine.

Assemble:
Place one cake layer on a cake plate. Spread a thin layer of the raspberry preserves over the cake, and then smear a layer of raspberry-whipped cream (not too thick) over the preserves. Repeat with remaining layers. Spread the top and sides of the cake with the remaining whipped cream. (You can leave the sides “naked” if desired.) Garnish with more fresh berries and sprigs. Refrigerate until serving, up to 2 hours.

Farmers Market Potato Salad

Tasting Potatoes, Danish-style

I discovered this fresh and light-handed salad years ago when I lived in Denmark. Most likely it was at one of our frequent family gatherings, seated outdoors at a long wooden picnic table in the shadow of a thatched roof farmhouse with the summer sun hanging, as if caught on the hook of the horizon, refusing to sink as the evening set in. It was certainly summer, because that’s when new potatoes are at their peak in Denmark, and considered not only a staple but a delicacy to be greedily devoured.

I was smitten by the salad’s restraint, simply tossed with oil and vinegar, and generously layered with freshly snipped flowering sprigs and herbs from the garden. As an American, my experience with potato salads to that point had been the heavy-handed mayo and egg sort, tasty for sure, but more of a cloak and disguise to the mild-mannered potato. I would prod a fork through those murky salads swathed in cream, sugar, and oil in an attempt to fish out any intact morsel of potato, which by then had no flavor except that of the coating with which it was blanketed. The Danish potato salad was delightfully different, and appropriately Scandinavian in its understatement and use of fresh ingredients, celebrating the humble potato with a confetti of garden herbs. Most importantly: I could taste the potato.  And when the season’s newest potatoes are available, delicately sweet and faintly redolent of butter, there is nothing as sublime as the taste of potato.

As you can see, I chose blue potatoes for this salad, since I love their unusual color and how they contrast with the flowering yellow mustard greens I found at the farmers market. You can also use yellow or red new or small potatoes. The combination of herbs is up to your taste and whatever might be growing in your garden or stashed in your fridge. If you can find flowering mustard, add it to the mix or use it as a garnish, since it adds a nice peppery bite and vibrant color to the salad.

Danish Potato Salad with Garden Herbs

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes plus cooling time
Serves 6

3 pounds new potatoes or small potatoes (red, white, or blue), washed
Salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, chervil, chives, tarragon, coarsely chopped
Flowering mustard sprigs for garnish

1. Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover with cold water and add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Partially cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the potatoes. Drain the potatoes and let stand for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

2. Cut the potatoes in half or large bite-size pieces. Add the potatoes, the oil, vinegar, scallions, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper to a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Cool to room temperature.

3. Before serving, taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if desired. Add the fresh herbs and stir to blend. If the salad is too dry, add additional olive oil. Serve at room temperature.

Paella on the Grill – Recipe and Tips

Fire up the Paella Pan (and the Grill) for Father’s Day

Father's Day Paella - on the Grill

Father’s Day is around the corner, so get ready to fire up the grill and break out the big guns – or in this case, the big paella pan. Paella is always fun to make and of course, to eat. It’s a perfect way to feed a crowd and your family, and the best way to make it is over a fire. When it’s ready to serve, simply plunk it down in the center of the table and let everyone dig in. Family-style eating doesn’t get better than this, which is a perfect way to celebrate Dad.

Myriad versions of paella exist, depending on region and taste, but there are specific ingredients to use and techniques to follow for authentic results.

The pan:
Think wide, low, and flat. The key is to spread the rice in a thin layer, so that as many grains as possible are in contact with the bottom of the pan. This will ensure not only contact with the aromatics (soffrito) but the desired crispy bottom (socarrat) of the cooked paella. Paella pans are easy to find and affordable. I purchased my 15-inch pan for less than $30. Alternatively, a very large cast iron skillet will do the trick.

Rice:
Short grain rice will absorb the liquid, remain relatively firm during cooking, and crisp – long grain rice will not. Use short grain rice, preferably Spanish Bomba or Valencia. Risotto (Arborio) rice may be substituted, if necessary. Note: Depending on the rice, cooking times may vary slightly.

Soffrito:
An important blend of sautéed aromatics, typically onion, garlic, and grated ripe tomato, is used as a base to flavor the rice. It’s important to sauté the ingredients until the moisture from the tomato and the wine evaporate and the soffrito thickens, and let it deepen in color to build flavor.

Stock:
If possible, use a homemade stock, chicken or shrimp stock are ideal, although a good quality store-bought chicken stock is a fine substitution. A key step is to add a generous pinch of saffron to the stock to infuse a subtle perfume and a burnished golden-red color.

Socarrat:
This is the holy grail of paella, the coveted crispy bottom that forms in the pan while the paella is cooking. To achieve this, a few techniques are imperative. Do not overload the pan, or the rice will not be able to dry out and will not crisp. And, most importantly, do not stir the paella once the rice is spread in the pan and topped with the proteins. You will know if the rice is crisping when the paella begins to make crackling sounds. This is the sure-fire way to know when the paella is ready, so be sure to wait for the “snap-crackle-pop” before you remove the pan from the grill!

Grill it!
It’s important for the pan to cook over an even heat source. A grill can accommodate the size of a large paella pan, unlike many stovetops. Plus, the fire will add a smoky backdrop to the dish. And finally, Father’s Day really wouldn’t be replete without turning on the grill, right?


Grilled Paella

Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour, plus standing time
Serves: 6

4 plum (Roma) tomatoes, halved lengthwise
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
Smoked sweet Spanish paprika
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound large (16/18) shrimp, shelled and deveined, tails intact
Extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices

1 medium yellow onion, chopped, about 1 cup
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine

2 cups paella rice (Bomba or Valencia), rinsed

12 to 16 mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Lemon wedges for serving

1. Grate the tomatoes, cut-side down, on a box grater. Discard the skins and transfer the pulp and juices to a small bowl.

2. Bring the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the saffron and keep warm over low heat.

3. Place the chicken in a bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon paprika, and then lightly season with salt and black pepper. Put the shrimp in a separate bowl and toss with 1/2 teaspoon paprika, and then lightly season with salt and black pepper.

4. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat. Preheat a 15-inch paella pan or large cast iron skillet for about 10 minutes.

5. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the paella pan. Add the chorizo and cook until the chorizo is golden brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes, turning as needed. With a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a bowl. There should be rendered fat from the chorizo remaining in the pan. If not, add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Arrange the chicken in one layer in the paella pan and cook until colored on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes, turning as needed. With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to the bowl with the chorizo. (The chicken will not be cooked all the way through at this point.)

6. If the pan is dry, add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 tablespoon paprika and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the grated tomatoes with juices and the wine, stir to combine, and simmer, with the lid closed, until the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens and darkens slightly, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rice and 1 teaspoon salt and stir to coat. Pour in the broth, stir to blend, and smooth the rice in an even layer in the pan. (Do not stir the rice after this point!) Arrange the chicken and chorizo over the rice and drizzle any accumulated juices from the bowls over the rice.

7. Cook the paella, with the lid closed, until about 3/4 of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is exposed, turning the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking, about 15 minutes.

8. Nestle the shrimp and mussels (hinge-side down) into the rice and continue to cook, with the lid closed, until the shrimp are cooked through, the mussels have opened, and the rice is making a crackling sound, 10 to 12 more minutes, turning the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking.

9. Remove the paella pan from the grill and discard any unopened mussels. Let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle the parsley over the paella and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve immediately.

Summer Pizza with Squash Blossoms and Sweet Peppers

Decorate your summer pizza with flowers – squash flowers, that is:

Grilled Pizza with Squash Blossoms

Squash blossoms might make this pizza sound pretty fancy, but it really isn’t. Delicate squash blossoms are everywhere at the farmers market at this time of year. I’ve been eyeing them, and contemplating ways to easily incorporate the floppy, sunny flowers into a meal. I’ve eaten blossoms fried and stuffed, but to be honest, I find them time consuming to prepare and often oily and rich. So I decided to simply layer them, with no other preparation, on a white pizza – or a pizza with no red sauce – and see what happened. The results were resoundingly good and a unanimous hit at the dinner table. The flowers shriveled and crisped while cooking, which concentrated their subtle and nutty flavor, which was nicely rounded out by sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers, onions, and a kick of heat from crushed red chili flakes. These fragile squash blossoms may be delicate, but it’s clear that they are no shrinking wall-flower.

For this recipe, you can make your own dough or purchase a good quality fresh dough from your supermarket, which is a simple shortcut for an easy meal. This recipe stretches one pound of fresh dough into a large rectangle, but you can also shape it into 2 smaller pizzas.

Squash Blossom Pizza with Sweet Peppers, Onions and Pecorino

Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Makes one (10 x 15-inch) pizza

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt
1 pound homemade or prepared fresh pizza dough
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced, about 1/2 cup
1/2 cup thinly sliced sweet red peppers, such as Jimmy Nardello peppers
8 squash blossoms, quartered lengthwise
1 (8 ounce) fresh mozzarella ball, patted dry and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the grill for indirect cooking over high heat (about 500°F for a gas grill) and preheat a pizza stone for at least 15 minutes. (Or preheat the oven to 500°F. Place a pizza stone on the lowest oven rack and preheat for at least 15 minutes).
2. Whisk the oil, garlic, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.
3. Stretch the dough out as thinly as possible and lay on large pizza peel (or rimless baking sheet lined with parchment). Lightly brush with the oil. Sprinkle half of the Pecorino over the pizza. Top with the onions and peppers. Arrange the squash blossoms over the vegetables, and then place the mozzarella around the squash. Sprinkle the oregano, chili flakes and pepper over the pizza and lightly season with salt. Top with the remaining Pecorino.
4. Slide the pizza onto the pizza stone. Close the grill lid and grill until the pizza is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove and brush the crust with some of the oil. Drizzle any remaining oil over the pizza. Cut into serving pieces and serve immediately.

Shrimp, Avocado, and Grapefruit Salad

avocado shrimp salad

It may sound cliche, but “less is more” and “what you see is what you get” are perfectly descriptive of this clean and refreshing salad. Layered with citrus, briny shrimp, sweet onion, and creamy avocado, each ingredient hits the right spot and unites in a light and lovely summer lunch or salad course.

Shrimp, Avocado, and Grapefruit Salad
Serves 2 to 4

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
Salt
Fresh lime juice
Extra-virgin olive oil
12 large (16/20) shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large avocado, halved, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 ruby grapefruit, sectioned, membranes removed
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley leaves

1. Salt the onion slices and place in a colander in the sink or over a plate for 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water and blot dry, then toss the slices with 1 tablespoon lime juice.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper, add to the skillet, and cook until colored on both sides and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes, turning as needed. Transfer to a plate.
3. Halve and pit the avocado, then cut into 1/4-inch slices
4. Cut away the skin and pith of the grapefruit, then cut away the membranes and seed the segments.
5. On individual serving plates, layer the avocado, grapefruit, onion, and shrimp. Drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lime juice. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.

 

Upside Down Baking: Raspberry, Fig and Almond Cake

Fig Raspberry Cake TasteFood

Upside-down baking is  irresistable to me, whether it’s in the form of a tarte tatin or a cake. The common denominator is a gorgeous, gooey caramelized bottom, which, once inverted, becomes the top. Nestled in the sticky caramelized goodness are hunks of seasonal fruit, which release their juice and perfume the pastry, while studding the topping like jewels in a crown.

The other winning quality of upside-down desserts is that they are generously flexible with the seasons. In the fall, pears and apples are the fruit of choice. In the summer, stone fruit, figs and berries display their wonders. Mix and match to your taste. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Fig and Raspberry Upside-Down Cake

Serves 8 to 10

1/2 cup plus 3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar
8 large figs, halved lengthwise
3 ounces raspberries
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup almond flour (meal)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment. Tightly wrap the bottom of the pan with foil.
2. Melt the 1/2 cup butter and the light brown sugar together in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to combine. Pour into the springform pan. Arrange the figs, cut side down in a circular pattern in the sugar. Fill in the gaps with the raspberries.
3. Mix the flour, almond flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk the sour cream, lemon zest, vanilla and almond extracts in a small bowl.
4. Beat the 3/4 cup butter and the granulated sugar in a mixer with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in 1/4 of the flour mixture to blend. Add the sour cream mixture and mix to combine. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix to thoroughly combine without overmixing.
5. Drop the cake batter over the fruit in large spoonfuls, then carefully spread the batter to cover the fruit and caramel.
6. Bake the cake in the oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes then invert onto a plate. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

 

Greek Tabbouleh Salad

Greek Tabbouleh Salad TasteFoodWhen it’s super hot outside (like now), who wants to cook? (Not me!) In the heat of summer, dinner prep should be low maintenance with oodles of fresh ingredients. I like to make all kinds of salads brimming with crispy garden vegetables, often including a grain or legume and not-so-much heavy meat protein. These salads can stand in for a light dinner, or accompany anything fresh off the grill. Tabbouleh salad is a favorite of mine, a Middle Eastern mixture of bulgur wheat, handfuls of fresh herbs, peppers and spice. It’s light yet substantial with a kick of heat to wake up any lazy tastebuds enjoying a siesta.

Greek Tabbouleh Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups bulgur
1 1/4 cups boiling water
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 poblano pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely diced
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup crumbled feta

Combine the bulgur, water, and lemon juice in a bowl. Cover the bowl and let stand until the liquid is absorbed and the bulgur is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the oil, cumin, salt, black pepper, and cayenne and stir to blend. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning. If the bulgur is too dry, add additional olive oil to achieve your desired consistency. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour to allow the flavors to develop. Serve as is, or add to pita pockets with spoonfuls of tsatsiki and harissa.