Plum cake: Not just for fairytales

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Plum cake has always sounded like something served in a children’s story, and I’d never really thought about it until one of my co-workers named it as his favorite dessert. I keep a list of my co-workers’ birthdays and favorite desserts so, if I have time when their birthdays roll around, I can bake something for them. I once baked a pumpkin pie for one of my reporters, and he sat at his desk and ate it out of the dish for his lunch that day. I loved that he enjoyed it so much.

Since this particular co-worker was out of the country when his birthday rolled around, I had some time to look through plum cake recipes before I settled on this one. I picked up plums from the farmers market and got to work on it. The batter is a pretty basic mix of ingredients, and it was stiffer than I expected it to be. I figured the juice from the plums would provide the extra sweetness and moisture once it was baked.

Though it isn’t normal for me to give someone something I haven’t first tried myself, I felt pretty confident that this cake turned out the way it was supposed to. My co-worker, of course, told me he had never had a plum cake, so his expectations weren’t as high as I had believed. He enjoyed it, and I was able to sample a bite of it and I was surprised at how good it was. I consider that to be a success for a first attempt.

Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Large pinch of salt

1 cup granulated sugar plus 1 to 2 tablespoons (depending on sweetness of plums)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

6 large imperial plums, halved and pitted

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Heat over to 350 degrees F. Sift or whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a larger bowl, cream butter and 1 cup sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, all over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle the top with lemon juice, then cinnamon, then remaining sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into a center part of the cake comes out free of batter, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack.

Leave it covered at room temperature overnight so the plum juice can soak into the cake around it.

Just add cheese sauce for a cauliflower gratin

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Cauliflower doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own. When I’ve made it in the past, I’ve either roasted it on a baking sheet or steamed it because I rarely feel inspired to do much more with it.

Last week, Curtis Stone posted a recipe for cauliflower gratin, which only required five ingredients, so I thought I’d try it. It’s basically just cauliflower and cheese — the cheese sauce is a roux with grated Gruyère thrown in.

What I most liked about this recipe was that the cauliflower still had texture and flavor — it wasn’t overpowered by the sauce, though it made a lot of sauce for just one head of cauliflower. I could have easily added another half of a head of cauliflower and still had an abundance of sauce. But, this is another nice, simple way to do something more interesting with cauliflower.

Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 quart whole milk
2 cups grated Gruyère cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

While the water is heating up, break up the cauliflower into medium to small florets. Cook the cauliflower for 3 to 4 minutes, or until just barely tender but still has a bit of bite. Transfer the cauliflower to a bowl of ice water and cool completely. Remove the cauliflower from the ice water and allow to dry completely.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Whisk in the flour to blend well. Cook, whisking constantly, for about 5 minutes, making sure the mixture doesn’t take on any color. Slowly whisk in the milk and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the flour taste is gone, stirring often and making sure the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pan.

Gradually add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, whisking until melted and smooth. If the sauce thickens too much, thin it out with a little more milk. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

Place the cauliflower in an ovenproof dish and drizzle the sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the cauliflower and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the top is light golden brown.

Let stand at room temperature for about 5 minutes before serving.

Savory biscuits for Sunday morning

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This is one of those recipes you really dig your hands into. It’s a basic biscuit recipe with a couple extra ingredients added for flavor and flair.

I got the idea to make these after visiting a coffee shop a couple weeks ago. They had ham-and-cheddar biscuits on the menu, so I ordered one and was surprised at how much I liked it. Since biscuits are a pretty easy thing to make, I set out to find a recipe and found this one.

If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use the old trick of taking a one-cup measuring cup, adding a tablespoon of lemon juice, filling it up the rest of the way with milk, and letting it sit for about 5 minutes.

These can be made quickly, whether you want to eat them for breakfast or pair them with a salad for dinner.

I’ll be in Boston next weekend, so look for my next post in two weeks!

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) all purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 ounces ham, diced
2 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Stir flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in large bowl to combine. Add cold butter cubes and use fingers to press butter into the flour (see note) until the butter pieces are the size of large peas.

Stir in buttermilk, ham, and cheddar until just combined, using hands to press dough together if necessary. Stir in a small amount of extra buttermilk if mixture is too dry.

Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and roll into a rectangle 1/2-inch thick. Fold 1/3 of the dough toward the middle. Fold the other 1/3 piece of dough toward the middle (you should have three layers of dough). Roll out to about 1-inch thick. Cut out biscuits with 2 1/4-inch biscuit cutter or top of a glass (you should get approximately 9 biscuits). Chill biscuits while you preheat the oven.

Arrange biscuits on parchment lined baking sheet and bake until golden and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool.

Whiskey cake a divine treat for a dinner party

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My friend threw a Prohibition-themed dinner party on Friday. I figured it would be too obvious to bring a bottle of booze, so I started looking for recipes that included alcohol. Since baking is my thing and the main course was pretty much decided, I decided to look in the dessert section of Bon Appetit, which is where I found this whiskey cake. Whiskey is my preferred spirit and thus one of few I always have on hand, so I decided this cake was the winner.

When I looked at the list of ingredients, I saw that it contained some key ingredients — espresso and vanilla — which are known for enhancing the flavor of chocolate in baked goods. The low amount of flour it called for also meant it would be a very rich, dense cake. The finished product was only about an inch thick, but the intense flavor more than compensated for the lack of volume.

Though the original recipe called for an 8-inch springform pan, mine is 9 inches so I had to make do. It only took 30 minutes for mine to bake completely. I followed the cooling instructions and frosted it the next day. While sometimes you can put the frosting on while the cake is still slightly warm, this is not one of these cases. This frosting isn’t like your traditional buttercream. No powdered sugar is involved, so it has less to keep it sturdy.

In the end, this small-but-mighty cake was a nice treat, and a sweet ending to a fun dinner.

Ingredients
1/2 cup plus Irish whiskey
6 ounces bittersweet (70 percent cocoa) chocolate (such as Scharffen Berger or Lindt), chopped
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 6 tablespoons hot water
1/3 cup blanched almonds (about 2 ounces), lightly toasted
6 tablespoons all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
7 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch of fine sea salt

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour 8-inch-diameter springform pan.

Dissolve espresso powder in water. Set aside.

Boil 1/2 cup whiskey in small saucepan until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 2 minutes. Combine bittersweet chocolate, espresso powder mixture, and 1/4 cup boiled whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water; stir until mixture is smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Finely grind almonds with 2 tablespoons flour in processor.

Using electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup butter and 6 tablespoons vanilla sugar in medium bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks 1 at a time, then sea salt. Fold in chocolate mixture, then ground almond mixture. Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in another bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into batter alternately with remaining 4 tablespoons flour in 3 additions. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 30 minutes. Remove pan sides and cool cake completely.

Frosting
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons whiskey
1/4 cup butter, room temperature

Combine semisweet chocolate and remaining whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Add butter to chocolate mixture, 1 small piece at a time, whisking until each piece is melted before adding next. Place bowl over larger bowl of ice water. Using electric mixer, beat icing until thickened to spreadable consistency, about 1 minute. Spread icing over top and sides of cake. This can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.

Deconstructed BLT salad is easy to assemble

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This protein-packed salad is a filling meal that’s easy to assemble if you prepare each component ahead of time. It’s like a deconstructed BLT or club sandwich, and just as delicious. It’s another gem from “Raising the Salad Bar,” which I’ve been using a lot more lately for fresh salads for weeknight dinners.

I’ve found that I enjoy salads for dinner instead of lunch because I can assemble them instead of combining them in a tupperware to sit for hours before lunch rolls around. Heartier salads such as this are a great meal to come home to after a long day.

Ingredients
1 head of romaine lettuce, chopped
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
5 slices bacon, cooked
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup pesto
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 1/2 cups garlic croutons (optional)

In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise and pesto until well combined. Add the chicken and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the tomatoes, bacon, and croutons. Add lettuce and toss thoroughly.