Train cake for a second birthday

So I’m 36 weeks pregnant and it’s my son’s second birthday party … of course I need to get all fussy over the dessert and make a train cake from scratch! Honestly, as I made this cake, I questioned why I was going through all the trouble. It probably cost 2-3 times as much as a sheet cake from the grocery store, and it took about 2-3 hours, instead of 2-3 minutes when just picking one out. But knowing exactly what went into this cake (including all the love), getting to be a bit creative, testing my “abilities” and seeing my son’s smile as the result of my work really did make it all worthwhile.
Since I’d be cutting the cake prior to frosting, I needed something “sturdy,” so a pound cake fit the bill. It’s not my favorite cake in terms of texture, but it did perform as required. A 7-minute frosting would have been my first choice, but it was 85 degrees and I needed something I could work with for as long as it took, so a modified cream cheese frosting fit the bill.
I was happy with the outcome, and so was my son, so I’m going to call this one a success.
Chocolate Pound Cake
  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
  • 4 sticks softened butter: unsalted plus 1 t salt, OR use salted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 9 eggs, lightly beaten

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees, line a 9 x 13 pan with parchment paper (leaving paper an inch above pan on all sides), and combine flour and cocoa powder in a bowl
  2. Cream butter (and salt, if using unsalted butter) and sugar with a mixer on high speed, scraping down sides of bowl, until pale and fluffy
  3. Reduce speed to medium and add vanilla extract
  4. Add eggs in 2-3 additions, mixing thoroughly after each and scraping down sides
  5. Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture in 3-4 additions, mixing until just incorporated
  6. Scoop batter into pan and smooth top
  7. Bake until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes
  8. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Pick up by parchment paper to remove from pan, and let cool completely on wire rack. Gently remove paper when cool and transfer to serving platter.
Cream Cheese Frosting
  • 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 6 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tablespoons milk

Directions

  1. Mix together sugar, cream cheese and butter on low speed until well blended, then increase speed to medium and beat until fluffy.
  2. Add vanilla and milk and continue to beat on medium speed. Add more milk or sugar as necessary to achieve desired consistency.
Train Cake Tips
  • This was the first time I used parchment paper for a 9 x 13 pan, and it worked great! No fear of breaking the cake upon “unmolding.” I’m a convert.
  • Use a very sharp knife to cut pound cake, and don’t get too fancy!
  • A “crumb layer” of icing is absolutely essential. I just covered the cut cake with a thin layer of un-colored frosting.
  • Yes, I used standard food colorings for the icing, I admit it.
  • I used chocolate Twizzlers, M & Ms, E.L. Fudge cookies and a German black-liquorice-and-chocolate gummi (yum!) to decorate the “train.”

Simply amazing cookies

What more can I say? These cookies are incredible. Amazing. Worth getting fat for. Almost impossible to stop at one. You’ve been warned.

Very Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

  • 1 1/3 C butter, softened
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 C packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 3 C flour
  • 1 C oats
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 12 oz. chocolate chunks
  • 8 oz. dark chocolate chips
  • 8 oz. white chocolate chips
  1. Combine first five ingredients
  2. In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients
  3. Mix dry ingredients with butter mixture
  4. Drop by large spoonfuls (golf ball-size) onto cookie sheet, slightly pressing down each cookie in the center
  5. Bake 8-10 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven, then remove to racks to cool completely

“Brown Velvet” Cheesecake

When life gives you really crappy chocolate cookies, make really fantastic chocolate cheesecake. Well, at least that’s my motto of the week.

Now to begin with, you may wonder, is there really such a thing as a crappy chocolate cookie? Sadly, yes there is, and they were lurking at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in the guise of great-looking cookies. My husband and I bought a stack of them and brought them home with the rest of our treasures, looking forward to breaking them out after dinner. And when we did … they were tough, excessively crumbly, and strangely lacking chocolatey goodness. Boo! We barely made it through one, but never a family to throw out food, we simply closed up the bag and tucked the rest of the large, homemade hockey pucks into the pantry.

Then one night as I tried to rest my weary mind, I was hit with inspiration! Of course, those mediocre cookies would make a exceptional crust. And an exceptional crust deserves an outstanding topper; cheesecake would fit the bill nicely. This time, I decided to expand my cheesecake repertoire with a Red Velvet Cheesecake recipe.

However, upon reading up on Red Velvet recipes, I was floored by instructions calling for 2 ounces of red food coloring. Um, I don’t think so, I’ll live with a not-red, Brown Velvet Cheesecake!

Crust

  • 2 cups finely ground cookie crumbs of your choice (chocolate graham cracker would work well)
  • 2 T brown sugar
  • 1/4 C butter, melted

Cake

  • 3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1 1/2 C granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten slightly
  • 1/4 C unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 C sour cream
  • 1/2 C milk + 1/2 T vinegar OR 1/2 C buttermilk
  • 1 T vanilla
  • 1 t white vinegar

Directions

  1. Mix together cookie crumbs and brown sugar. Add melted butter and mix well.
  2. Press mixture into bottom and up sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10 minutes; cool slightly.
  3. In a large bowl, combine cream cheese and sugar.
  4. Add beaten eggs, about 1/4 at a time, beating well after each addition.
  5. Add cocoa, sour cream, milk + vinegar or buttermilk, vanilla and vinegar; mix well.
  6. Pour batter into prepared crust and bake at 325 degrees F for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until cheesecake looks almost set. After cheesecake is cool, cover and chill in the pan, in the refrigerator overnight.

Oatmeal Cocoa Chocolate Chip Cookies

Did you ever bite into what you thought was an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, salivating with anticipation, only to discover that those “chocolate chips” were … raisins?! That might be great for some people, but I am not riding the white flour-butter-and-sugar-laden cookie train just to arrive at oats and raisins. But I do absolutely love a fresh, homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, and so does my husband. Last night, he requested a dose of homebaked comfort, but couldn’t decide whether the aforementioned cookie would ring his bell, or if it was a chocolate cookie he craved. No problem, we can have the best of both worlds. I threw together this recipe, and proved it.

  • 1 C softened butter
  • 2 C sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 t vanilla
  • 2 C flour
  • 3/4 C cocoa (I used Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa)
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 C regular oats
  • 16 oz. chocolate chips (I used half dark chocolate chips and half semi-sweet, with a few additional white chips for garnish)
  1. Combine first four ingredients, beating well.
  2. Mix together all remaining ingredients except chips, then stir into butter mixture.
  3. Mix in chips.
  4. Bake 9-10 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. So good!

New Mama, New Baby banana bread

My family was recently blessed with two new babies within a month of each other: my brother and his wife welcomed their second little girl, and my husband’s brother and his wife celebrated the arrival of their second boy.

Since both of my sisters-in-law are smart ladies who know all about the amazing benefits of breastfeeding, this loving act is a priority for each of them. But to successfully breastfeed, it’s important for new moms to enjoy plenty of nourishing food, something that’s easier said than done with a newborn babe, another little one to run after and a household to try to maintain.

To that end, I baked up a loaf of nutritious, delicious bread for each mama and her family. I concocted the recipe to include breastfeeding-friendly ingredients to support them in this venture as best I could. Oats, flax seed and brewer’s yeast are all traditionally thought to help increase milk supply. Nuts and whole wheat flour boost protein intake, and chocolate, well that just catapults this rich bread to a whole new level of deliciousness. Of course, though this bread is made with a breastfeeding mama in mind, it’s so yummy that every member of the family will be hacking off hearty slabs.

Selah and Nolan’s New Baby Banana Bread

  • 1/2 C unsalted organic butter
  • 3/4 C packed brown sugar
  • 2 organic eggs
  • 2 large, very ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 2 C whole wheat flour (can use 1 C whole wheat and 1 C white flour for a lighter texture)
  • 1 1/2 C oats
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/4 t nutmeg
  • 2 T milled flax seed
  • 4 T brewer’s yeast
  • 1/2 t salt (omit if using salted butter)
  • 3/4 C chopped pecans, walnuts or other nuts
  • 1 C dark chocolate chips
  1. Cream together first five ingredients.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients.
  3. Add dry ingredients  to banana mixture.
  4. Pour into two greased loaf pans and bake 45 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven, or until edges and top are set. Cool 10 minutes in pans before turning out onto racks to cool completely.

The Absent Hostess … or the Night Before the Next Morning

How to be a good host when you won’t actually be at home with your guests? That’s the quandary I recently ran into, which I solved with a simple dish: oven-baked french toast. This is a do-ahead treat that you can assemble the night before, pop in the fridge and simply slide in the oven the next morning, with your eyes still half-closed, as the coffee perks. It would work equally well as a hearty hangover breakfast, prepared long before the makings of the hangover are even underway. Whether or not I’ll be imbibing, I’m thinking this will become my new New Year’s Day tradition. In any case, I’ll fall asleep with sweet thoughts of the custardy breakfast bliss that awaits.

Oven-Baked French Toast

  • 1 loaf soft-crust Italian bread
  • 1/2 C butter, melted
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/4 t nutmeg
  • 1/2 C packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 C 2% milk (use 4% for a richer dish, or go all the way and use 1 3/4 C cream, eliminating the ingredient listed below)
  • 1/4 C half and half
    1. Combine butter, spices and brown sugar in shallow bowl. Briefly dip each piece of bread in butter mixture, using a pastry brush or your hands if necessary to slather each side.
    2. Transfer each piece to a buttered 9 x 13 glass pan, packing tightly and making two layers of bread.
    3. Beat together the eggs, milk and cream, adding in any remaining butter mixture, then pour evenly over prepared bread.
    4. Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.
    5. Bake 25-30 in a preheated 375 degree oven and enjoy with Michigan maple syrup.

      A mouthful of Thanksgiving

      It’s hard not to love Thanksgiving. This time-honored American tradition is, at the heart, still actually about gathering with family and being thankful. Though there’s no shortage of cartoony turkeys or plastic-leaf garlands on the market, it’s difficult to sully this day with cutesy characters and commercialization. Yes, there are probably special ingredients to buy, and in larger quantities than usual, but that’s all just leading up to the opportunity to relax, enjoy each other and partake of a butt-kicking feast.

      So how about an ultimate dessert to contribute to this feast? Well, since the beginning, or almost the beginning, of the Thanksgiving tradition, pumpkins have been part of the celebration. We’ll start with that. My rule for desserts is usually chocolate, but since chocolate and pumpkin may not be the ultimate pairing, make it cream cheese. Hmmm, sounds good, but we could probably tip the scales of decadence with nuts and caramel. Might as well. And just a regular crust won’t do, it needs to stand up to the filling and accentuate those pumpkin-pie spices. Gingersnaps, of course! OK, sounds like we’ve got a winner.

      Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake with Pecans, Caramel and a Gingersnap Crust

      Crust and Caramel

      • 25 gingersnaps, crushed (about 1 1/2 C)
      • 1/2 C finely chopped pecans
      • 1/4 C butter, melted
        1. Mix above ingredients and press firmly onto bottom and 1″ up sides of a greased 9″ springform pan.
        2. Bake 10 minutes in preheated oven (350 for silver pan, 325 for dark nonstick). Remove and let cool.
          • 14 oz. caramels, unwrapped
          • 5 oz. evaporated milk
          • 1/2 C chopped pecans
            1. Microwave caramels and milk until combined, stirring often.
            2. Pour mixture over crust and sprinkle with pecans.

              Cheesecake

              • 4 8-oz. packages cream cheese, softened
              • 1 C sugar, divided
              • 1 t vanilla
              • 4 eggs
              • 1 t cinnamon
              • 1 t nutmeg
              • dash ground cloves
              • 1 C canned pumpkin
                1. Beat cream cheese, 3/4 C sugar and vanilla until well blended. Add in eggs one at a time while blending
                2. Remove 1 1/2 C batter and combine with remaining 1/4 C sugar, spices and pumpkin
                3. Spoon 1/2 of pumpkin batter onto caramel, top with plain batter, and repeat. Gently swirl with a butter knife for a marbled effect
                4. Bake 45-55 minutes in preheated oven (see above for temperatures). Cool completely, then refrigerate before serving.

                  Tomatoes: summer’s rubies are still gleaming

                  Last year, which was the first summer in our home, our garden suffered greatly from poor soil and extensive shading by surrounding trees. Not to be defeated, my husband built a lovely raised-bed garden in a new location this past spring, and filled it with rich compost. With my due date fast approaching, I wasn’t much help, but he did a great job by himself. The result was a bountiful garden which yielded glorious fruits and vegetables, including enough tomatoes both to work into practically every meal and to preserve for the months ahead.

                  Now, with winter almost a month away, it is a joy to reach a jar of ruby-red, homegrown organic tomatoes off our pantry shelf. While they are an ideal backbone for comfort-food dishes like chili and venison stew, they also star in another of life’s simple pleasures, homemade tomato sauce.

                  I was in my early 20s before I’d every attempted to make my own tomato sauce. I was inspired, however, by a beautiful cookbook I’d received as a gift, The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. This is one of those beguiling cookbooks in which enticing recipes are interlaced with personal insights and pleasing vignettes (and yet the results never feel cloying). You get the feeling that each meal Anna creates is a celebration in itself, and you can’t help but get caught up in the vibe and want to fly to the kitchen, grab a spatula in one hand and a spoon in the other and go in search of food nirvana.

                  So, I was gung-ho as I completed each step for Anna’s tomato sauce, from peeling the tomatoes to roasting them to simmering away for hours. The results, of course, were heavenly,  the thought of committing once again to such an undertaking, daunting.

                  Over the years, I developed an easy, pared-down recipe for tomato sauce that still demands a good long simmer, but with very little prep time involved. It works equally well for a bumper crop of garden tomatoes or with jarred tomatoes. The deep, rich, tantalizing result is an asset to everything from the humblest pasta to the most elaborate lasagna.

                  Summer Rubies Tomato Sauce

                  Just do this: throw 3-4 pounds tomatoes, quartered, stem area removed (or 3 cups jarred undrained tomatoes or 28 oz. canned); 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks; and 6-8 plump cloves garlic, peeled, into a blender. Purée, working in batches if necessary; pour the results in a pot and simmer gently with the lid on, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and rich.

                  (Additions such as 1-2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, to taste; salt and pepper, to taste; 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil; 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil; and 1 tablespoon each chopped fresh oregano and flat-leaf parsley are all optional. Stick with the basic trinity of tomatoes, onion and garlic and you can’t go wrong; remember, you’re not being lazy, you’re a purist!)