Camping Birthday Cake

Our camping adventures always involve amazing food  — like pulled pork, adobo beef tacos, or Gorgonzola stuffed burgers on homemade buns.  We’re never short on sweets either.  Seems like there’s always a pan of dark chocolate brownies to snack on or some homemade graham crackers and marshmallows to turn into s’mores.   Since this season’s first camping trip coincided with two birthdays, the time had come to add cake to our food lineup.  In my book,  birthday celebrations require cake, and I had no intention of letting the weekend pass without cake and candles and singing.

On our last trip to Costco, my husband tried to talk me into spending nearly $200 on a camping oven to bake a cake.  Bringing all the ingredients needed for baking a cake to a camp site seemed like too much trouble, even for me.  Besides, I didn’t intend to miss a hike around the lake to bake and assemble a cake, no matter how much I love my friends.   I wanted to prepare something easy yet worthy of celebration — a Four Layer Blueberry Gingerbread Cake with Mocha Cream.

I baked two cake layers the night before we left, and, once they cooled, I sliced each round in half horizontally so I wouldn’t have to do it at the campground.  I washed the cake pans and slid plastic-wrapped layers back into the pans for safe transport.

Normally when I make this cake, I whip the mocha cream filling in an electric mixer;  this wasn’t an option at our camp site, so I brought the ingredients to mix and pour into a whipped cream dispenser.  Since this toy belongs to my husband, I let him prepare the filling and activate the nitrous charger that whips the cream.

Those who licked the brown sugar, espresso powder, cocoa, and cream concoction from spoons and paper mixing cups when he had finished immediately started planning a mocha cream-inspired ice cream for our next camping adventure.
Armed with the dispenser, I started stacking the layers, sandwiching mocha cream and fresh blueberries between them. While the dispenser worked fine for our camping adventure, its extreme fluffing power gives the cream a rough and rugged look;  using cream prepped in a mixer creates a smoother, more polished look.

I topped the cake with flourishes of mocha cream and the remaining blueberries.  The whole process took about the same amount of time it takes to roast a marshmallow and turn it into a s’more.

While this cake may not include the satisfying step of roasting food over the fire, its combination of earthy, rich gingerbread and sweet, flavorful cream — punctuated with bursts of tangy blueberries — tastes spectacular around the campfire.  Happy birthday to Cole and Sharalyn!

Blueberry Gingerbread Cake with Mocha Cream

Adapted from Foster’s MarketServes 12 to 16.

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 cup molasses
2 cups buttermilk
4 cups blueberries

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Grease and lightly flour two 8- or 9-inch cake pans and set aside.

Combine 4 cups of flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and salt in a bowl.  Mix well and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and fluffy.

Pour 1 cup of oil into a 2-cup measure, and then add 1 cup molasses on top of the oil (this will keep the molasses from coating the measuring cup).  While the mixer is running, slowly add the oil and molasses, beating constantly, until well combined.

Add the flour mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, in three or four additions, stirring after each addition until the dry ingredients are just blended. Do not over mix.

Toss 2 cups of the blueberries with the remaining flour in a separate bowl.  Fold gently into the batter.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the cakes are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center of the each one comes out clean.

Cool the cakes on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes in their pans. Remove from the pans and cool completely.

Using a long, serrated knife, slice off the top rounded portion of each cake to make a flat, even surface (I recommend eating the trimmings with vanilla ice cream).  Slice each layer horizontally through the center to create 4 layers.

Place 1 layer, trimmed side down, on a plate and top with slightly less than one-third of the mocha cream.  Sprinkle with slightly less than one-third of the remaining blueberries.  Add the next layer, cut side down, before adding a cream and berries.   Add the third layer, trimmed side down, and top with cream and berries.  Top with the fourth layer, cut side down.  Add flourishes of mocha cream and top them with remaining berries.

Mocha Cream

From Foster’s Market.

2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

Combine cream, brown sugar, cocoa, and instant espresso in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Beat on high speed until soft peaks form.  Alternatively, combine ingredients in a glass measuring cup and pour into a whipped cream dispenser.  Add nitrous charger, shake, and dispense.

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Star Light, Star Bright

Just once I tried piecing a real quilt.  I loved it.  I’m amazed that the simple arrangement of geometric shapes creates amazingly varied results.  The process of moving hues and shades around until you get a look that you like is, to me, addictive.

Unfortunately, when I decided to give quilting a try, I never made it past the piecing process.  I’m just not patient enough for the long haul that it takes to create a quilt.

Luckily though, I’ve found a way to play with quilt patterns in a different medium.  I made a tumbling blocks quilt cake for my mom’s birthday last year, and ever since, I’ve been looking for an excuse make another quilt-inspired cake.

When I offered to bake a cake for a cake walk fundraiser last week, I found my chance to try out another quilt pattern — the lone star.  I drew a mock up of the pattern on paper so I could fill the diamonds with various color combinations to help me decide what shades of fondant–and how many–I wanted to use for the cake.

On one lovely afternoon, my daughters and I sat at the kitchen table coloring diamonds in varying patterns with colored pencils and pastels (my youngest daughter still asks for copies of the “star coloring page,” which I love to print for her).

I used my set of diamond cookie cutters to make 54 tiny fondant diamonds–nine of each of the six colors.  For this eight-inch cake, the smallest cutter (1 1/16″ long) enabled me to create a star with room to spare around the edge.   Once I started placing the diamonds on the cake, all I had to do was follow the pattern I created, which I mostly did.

I had mixed extra hot pink fondant for a border.  Because of my brief foray into quilting, I happen to have a quilting ruler, which has come in handy for trimming straight, even strips of fondant on more than one occasion.

I cut a strip of fondant and then rolled it around an empty cardboard tube to help me transfer it to the cake.  Fondant gets very stretchy;  using a tube means that the ends of your carefully measured strip will actually match up perfectly on the finished cake.

It turns out that I didn’t get to go to the cake walk, so I don’t even know who took my cake home with them.  It feels kind of funny to send a cake off into the world like that.

I guess that just means that I need to make another lone star quilt cake to eat myself.

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Almost Health Food

Lemon Rhubarb Bundt Cake with Candied Rhubarb Curls

Fancy cakes, like the one I made recently for my daughter’s birthday, certainly delight, but they require a serious time commitment.  They aren’t the sort of cakes you throw together on a weeknight to bring to a friend’s house, especially when your husband is out of town.

My friend Val tried to talk me out of baking dessert since she knew I had my hands full.  I promised that I wouldn’t if it felt like too much.  So, after I tucked the kids in bed, I dug out my Bundt pan.  Bundt cakes come together quickly;  they’re really no trouble at all, plus they look pretty fantastic right out of the pan doused with a generous bowlful of glaze.  Since I could make the cake the night before, all I had to do the next day was collect my children after work and head to Val’s.

Two sour flavors — lemon and rhubarb — create a zingy-sweet combination in this moist, tender cake.  I liked it quite a bit and felt eager to bake it again, but making gingerbread houses for a fundraiser and throwing together a certain birthday cake took precedence.   When the dust cleared, I found that my friend Sharalyn had tucked some garden-fresh rhubarb in my fridge’s crisper drawer.  I took this as a sign and started zesting lemons.

Sharalyn had given me more rhubarb than I needed for the cake.   Since it wasn’t a weeknight, I went searching for something to do with the extra rhubarb.   I didn’t have to look far — a recipe several pages back in the cookbook I was using suggested candied rhubarb as a garnish for another dessert.

Candied rhubarb curls may be one of my most exciting discoveries of late.   They’re sour and sweet and crunchy and surprising, and, best of all, super easy to prepare.   Truth be told, I didn’t actually end up with so many curls;  my rhubarb strips had dried out too much by the time I started twisting them around a chop stick.  Mostly they shattered into candied rhubarb shards, but this did not trouble anyone in the slightest.  In fact, I had to fight my children off from the small bowl of sweetened rhubarb so we’d have some left to sprinkle over our dessert that evening.

This experience has left me pondering the merits of serious candied rhubarb production as a ploy to help my children to eat more vegetables.  If I serve it with lemon-rhubarb cake, they’ll get a double-helping of vegetables and some fruit as well.   I’d call that health food.

Lemon Rhubarb Bundt Cake with Candied Rhubarb Curls

Lemon Rhubarb Bundt Cake

Serves 10 to 12.  Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts.

Cake
2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
zest of 2 lemons
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cups buttermilk
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and cubed (about three cups prepped)

Glaze
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, plus more as needed
juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Butter and flour a 10-to 12-cup Bundt pan.

Combine 2 1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.  Set aside.  In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, cream butter, sugar, and lemon zest together for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.  Mix in vanilla extract.  Stir in flour mixture in about three additions, alternating with the buttermilk, scraping down the sides occasionally.

Toss rhubarb with 2 tablespoons flour and fold 3/4 of the rhubarb into the batter.  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the remaining rhubarb on top.

Bake for 30 minutes, and then rotate the pan and cook for 30 minutes more, or until the top of the cake is firm and the center springs back when lightly touched.  Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

While the cake cools, whisk confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, salt, and butter together.  The mixture should be thick.  If needed, add few tablespoons more confectioners’ sugar.

Invert cake on a wire rack.  Immediately place the rack over a baking sheet and spread the glaze on the cake.  When fully cooled, transfer carefully to a serving plate.  Serve with whipped cream and candied rhubarb curls.

Candied Rhubarb

Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts.

2 stalks rhubarb
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup water

Preheat oven to 200° F.  Line a baking sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper.  Cut rhubarb into 4-to 6-inch lengths.  Using a peeler or mandolin, cut each piece into strips about 1/4-to 1/8-inch thick.  Bring sugar, vanilla, and water to boil in a small saucepan over high heat.  Cook and stir until sugar dissolves.  Immerse rhubarb strips in the syrup, and then place them on prepared baking sheet, making sure that they lay flat and do not touch each other.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until dry.  While they are still warm, twist each strip around around a chop stick or wooden spoon to create curls, if desired.

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Seeing Spots

My daughter Eliza thinks she’s a dog.  When she feels especially puppy-like, she puts underpants on her head and tucks a pair of socks under the elastic to give herself floppy ears.  She even lets her little sister walk her.  Trying to decipher her barking presents no end of challenges.

When she’s not pretending to be a puppy, she just wants one.  For now, we have a good excuse for not caving in and getting a dog;  we live at a biological preserve, which means we can’t have any pets.  We have painted ourselves into a corner, though;  every time Eliza bemoans her puppy-less state, we promise we’ll get one when we move.

Since we’re holding real dogs at bay, at least for now, the least we could do was throw Eliza a 101 Dalmatian-themed party for her seventh birthday.  She’d recently read Dodie Smith’s book and fell in love with Pongo and Missis.   While “dog” dogs aren’t welcome where we live, “kid” dogs always are.

At her party, the first order of business involved becoming Dalmatians.  We told her friends that if they wore white, we’d provide spots.  With the help of some black stickers and inexpensive dog collars, we had a pack of Dalmatians in no time.  Before long, the kids set off to find the missing puppies we had hidden in the woods, around the playground, and on the beach.  In reality, we only hid 40 toys, which turned out to be just fine.  The little dogs proved harder to find than we thought.

And, of course, the birthday girl needed a Dalmatian cake.

I modified Debbie Brown’s Dotty Dog Cake into a truly dotty dog.  To create its body, I baked a Devil’s Food Cake recipe in two well-greased and lightly floured metal bowls measuring 7 5/8″ and 5 3/8″.  The small bowl took about 50 minutes to bake and the large bowl about 1 1/2 hours.
I trimmed the top of the larger cake slightly to smooth out the flat top and then frosted both cakes with vanilla butter cream.  I fondant-wrapped the head and body separately and then dropped them on the prepared cake board.
Adding a blue dog collar between the two pieces easily joined them together into a seemingly seamless dog.  I rolled four equally-sized pieces of fondant into ovals, and then indented them with the back of a knife to create the paws.
I created legs for the back paws, ears, eyes, a tail, and another fondant oval for the nose.  Finally, it was time to add spots.
My husband had the foresight to order some dog bowls for serving the cake.

In the flurry of candles, singing, and serving cake for eager kids, we forgot to bring forks to the table.  Eliza assumed we’d done this on purpose and tucked in just like a puppy.

For once, we didn’t tell her, “No puppies at the table.”
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