Fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frosting

My dad’s 50th birthday was on Friday. I emailed him to ask what his favorite cake was.

His helpful response: “I never met a cake I didn’t like.”

Given free reign like that, I decided to do something a little different. Something he’d never order in a restaurant or ask for someone to make him, but that would still knock his socks off.

I also wanted to make something summery because of his late August, dog days of summer birthday. S’mores cake? Eh, I’ve made it in cupcake form before and wanted to try something new. Chocolate-orange? Nah, that seems like more of a cold weather one to me. I thumbed through All Cakes Considered for ideas. I hemmed. I hawed. I pondered.

Eventually I got stuck on my favorite thing about summer: figs. The rest came together pretty quickly after that. A fluffy white cake with a fig jam in the middle. A light, whipped honey meringue buttercream on top. Not too heavy, but certainly tooth-achingly sweet. Good for the kids.

But I wanted to slightly temper the sugar rush for the adults. Something herby. Which of course led to my favorite fig accompaniment, thyme. It’s piney, but not too piney like rosemary sometimes is. It doesn’t overpower the delicate honey flavor in the frosting, but it does effectively counter the sweetness while adding a little flair of its own.

Of course, the best part of this flavor combo is that I can say that I made my dad a fig-tieth birthday cake, on account of him being alive for a long thyme.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry!

I cut plain slices for my niece and nephew, then said to my dad, sister, and brother: “I didn’t think the kids would like this, but if you’d like I can put some fresh thyme over your piece of cake.”

Sister: “What’s thyme?”
Brother: “That sounds really weird. But usually when you try to get me to eat something weird, it’s good, so okay.”
Father: “If you say so.”

I sprinkled a few leaves over each piece of cake. I could tell they didn’t trust me one bit.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingThen they tasted it. “I can’t believe that’s… actually really good.” Well gee, thanks for trusting my judgement, folks. But I knew I had a winner when my sister and dad both took tiny slivers for seconds, and chose to add thyme to them completely of their own volition.

My dad knows I post my recipes on the internet. He saw me taking my photos and figured (correctly) that they were for a post. He said, “People aren’t going to think that’s good when they read the recipe. It’s too weird. They’re not going to realize how good it tastes and they won’t make it.”

It’s not that weird. Prove him wrong.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingFig and Thyme White Cake with Whipped Honey Frosting
Adapted from Whipped Cream Cake by Melissa Gray in All Cakes Considered and Brown Sugar Meringue Buttercream from Sky High Cakes as posted on Completely Delicious

Serves 10 to 12

Cake:
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup whipping cream
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Frosting:
3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons water
9.6 ounces (about 19 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into chunks

Garnish:
scant 1/2 cup fig jam, at room temperature
fresh thyme leaves, stripped from woody stalks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray two 8-inch pans, then line with a parchment paper circle. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together cake flour, salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, beat eggs until thick and pale yellow. Set both aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Add beaten eggs and beat again until fully integrated and foamy. Add sugar and extracts and beat again for about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and beat on low speed until barely combined — there should still be some visible flour. Use a spatula to fold the ingredients the rest of the way to avoid over mixing.

Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, then put in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, removing when a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven heats unevenly, swap positions of the two layers about 10 minutes into the baking time.

Place on a wire rack until cool enough to handle. Use a knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan, then flip out onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper from the bottom and let cool completely.

For the frosting, there’s a little bit of timing involved in making this all work. Start by combining the water, sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Do not yet put it over the heat.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.

Put sugar solution over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it comes to a boil. Once it is boiling, stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer. Book without stirring until it reaches 238 degrees F (soft ball stage).

Turn the mixer with the egg whites back on medium speed. Carefully pour the hot (seriously, really really hot, be careful) sugar mixture in a thin stream into the egg whites. Try not to hit the beater or the side of the bowl.

Once the sugar syrup has been added, raise the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is down to room temperature (touch the side of the bowl to check). This will take several minutes.

With the mixture still running, add the butter cubes a few tablespoons full at a time. Once all the butter has been added, continue to beat until smooth. The mixture may start to look curdled at one point, especially if your butter was a little too cold or too warm. Just let the mixer keep running and it will work itself out. Once the frosting is smooth, creamy, and light you’re good to go.

Put one cake layer on a serving plate or pedestal. I’m no expert cake decorator by a long-shot, but the best tip I can give for tidier looking cakes is to line the plate with strips of parchment paper tucked under the cake before you frost it. Try this! It really helps your cake look better to not have frosting smeared all over the plate.

Spread the fig jam evenly over the first layer. Then using an offset spatula, spread a small layer of frosting on top of the fig jam. Go almost all the way to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, then frost the top and sides to coat.

Sprinkle fresh thyme over the top of the cake, then serve.

Pride rainbow flag cookies

It’s almost Baltimore Pride!

My friends Liz and Kendall are tailgating in the Lesbian Lot tomorrow, and sometimes I think I am physically incapable of going somewhere without making something to eat or drink. I wanted to make something properly festive and queer, and I figured Pride is as good of an excuse as any to ingest a bunch of no-good-for-you but oh-so-cute artificial food coloring.

Hello rainbow flag cookies!

pride rainbow flag cookies

Layered cookies are nothing new — I’d be impressed if you haven’t yet seen the Cinco de Mayo piñata cookies that took the internet by storm a few years ago. Luckily, a flag shape doesn’t require any special cookie cutters. All you need is a sharp knife and a rainbow of gel food colors to transform these basic, buttery cookies into pride flags.

In order to make perfect little flags, you have to trim some dough off the edges. Don’t toss it! Pinch off equal sized portions of the scraps, then roll into balls and flatten for little tie-dye cookies.

tie-dye scrap cookies

Please note: it’s hot outside right now, so pretty much every other step in this recipe is “put it in the freezer!” If it is cold in your kitchen while you are making these, you may not have to do as much chilling. But for me, the slightly warm kitchen combined with the pound of butter (yep) and I had to chill a lot.

Happy Pride!

Pride Rainbow Flag Cookies
Adapted from Slice and Bake Cookies by smitten kitchen

Makes 30 – 35 cookies

4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cup powdered sugar, sifted
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
4 cups all-purpose flour
gel food color — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add powdered sugar and beat again until combined. Add egg yolks, extracts, and salt and beat again until smooth. Add the flour, then beat on low until almost combined. Fold the rest of the way with a spatula and work into a rough ball. Put dough into a storage container and freeze for 10 to 15 minutes.

Turn dough onto counter and divide into 6 equal portions. I used my food scale to make sure everything was pretty darn close. Put one ball on a parchment-lined surface, and wear powder-free latex gloves if you don’t want to potentially stain your hands. Use a toothpick to transfer a small amount of one gel food color from the container to the piece of dough. Knead dough in your hands until the color is fully integrated and no longer streaky. Add more color as desired to increase saturation, but start small and move up. A little goes a long way!

Once dough has achieved desired color, roll into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap, then place in the fridge. Repeat the process with the remaining colors. Chill dough balls for at least 30 minutes, longer if you can stand it.

Prep a small baking sheet (I use a quarter size baking sheet) with a piece of plastic wrap to build up your cookie loaf on.

Remove the purple dough ball from the fridge and place on a piece of parchment paper or Silpat. I also use a piece of plastic wrap on top to prevent sticking to the rolling pin. Roll out and shape into a roughly 4″ x 10″ rectangle. Place on plastic wrap covered baking sheet and carefully peel back Silpat/parchment to remove.

Place the whole pan in the freezer while you prepare the blue rectangle. Then repeat, centering the blue one over the purple one. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat with green, yellow, orange, and red, keeping the pan in the freezer whenever you’re not using it.

Once your loaf is complete, wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, then in a freezer bag, and freeze for at least 2 hours and up to 1 month.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.

Remove dough loaf from fridge or freezer. Using a very sharp knife, trim about 1/3 of an inch on each side to even up the edges.

Cut 1/4-inch slices from the loaf, then place on baking sheets with about 2 inches between each cookie. (I was able to fit 10 cookies per half-size baking sheet. While I was waiting for one of my baking sheets to free up, I put the loaf — surprise — back in the freezer.)

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until they are firm but not yet brown. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire cooling rack.

Store baked cookies in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Twelve days of food gifts: vanilla extract

twelve days of food gifts 2012: apple cider caramels | basil vodka | lemon sugar | lime sugar | Old Bay vodka | orange sugar | peppercorn vodka | rosemary salt | salted maple caramels | vanilla extract | vanilla sugar | zesty salt’n'pep

This is not a gift you’re going to start making today and have ready by Christmas.

But do you remember a few months ago, when I started making vanilla extract?

homemade vanilla extract

Well, as a part of my Twelve Days of Food Gifts series, it’s now time to bottle ‘em, label ‘em, and give ‘em away! If you started vanilla extract when I did, I’ve got a printable for you.

Anyway, on with it.

vanilla extract

Vanilla Extract

Makes approximately 12 bottles

1.75 liter bottle of vodka
8 ounces vanilla beans

Transfer about two cups of the vodka to a measuring cup.

Using a sharp knife, slice down the middle of each vanilla bean. As you slice them, plop them into the bottle of vodka. I didn’t use the entire half-pound of beans — I saved several for other uses. If you don’t have anything else you want to use them for, just toss them all in.

Using a funnel, pour your reserved vodka back into the bottle until it is full. Find an interesting use for the rest of the vodka. I’m sure you’ll manage.

Put in a cool, dark place. Shake it up every few days or so to agitate the beans, and let it infuse for about two months; longer is better if you have the time.

Strain through a coffee filter to remove beans and sediment.

Decant strained extract into bottles. If desired, add one vanilla bean to each bottle.

For Gifting:
Amber Boston Round Glass Bottle 4 oz w/ Std Cap
full-sheet inkjet adhesive
printable (single .5″x2.75″ label)
printable (16 .5″x2.75″ labels per 8.5″x11″ adhesive sheet)
clear contact paper (optional)

Print labels onto the full-sheet adhesive paper. Make sure you are printing them at 100% — your PDF software may try to automatically resize them. Trim away white edges (a paper cutter really comes in handy for this part). Remove backing, center over a filled bottle, and press firmly in the middle of the label.

If you’d like to protect the label from potential moisture-related accidents, cover the labels with clear contact paper before cutting them out.

It’s time to start making vanilla extract for holiday gifts

I’m way behind the times on this one, but I finally remembered far enough ahead this year. I’m making vanilla extract to give as holiday gifts! And, of course, use.

There are instructions all over the internet for this, but the basic idea is: put vanilla beans in some liquor. Let it sit and shake it up sometimes.

homemade vanilla extract

There are some options regarding what type of liquor to use. Vodka produces the cleanest vanilla taste, but bourbon and white rum are popular choices too. I saw a post that suggested using the mini liquor bottles to try different types if you want to compare the differences, which seems like a pretty fabulous idea.

However, for my purposes I decided to use vodka, because a clean vanilla taste is just what I’m looking for. I’d like to be able to use this in anything — basically, to replace store-bought vanilla extract. And I decided to use a big bottle, so I can give it away for holiday gifts, as well as having a lot left to use myself.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

1.75 liter bottle vodka (I used Tito’s Handmade Vodka because it is corn-based, and I have a couple of gluten-intolerant friends, and because I am apparently susceptible to the ads in Readymade Magazine)
8 ounces vanilla beans (I ordered Marky’s Tahitian Vanilla Beans pretty much just because it was eligible for Amazon Prime shipping)

Transfer about two cups of the vodka to a measuring cup.

Using a sharp knife, slice down the middle of each vanilla bean. As you slice them, plop them into the bottle of vodka. I didn’t use the entire half-pound of beans — I saved several for other uses. If you don’t have anything else you want to use them for, just toss them all in.

Using a funnel, pour your reserved vodka back into the bottle until it is full. Find an interesting use for the rest of the vodka. I’m sure you’ll manage.

Put in a cool, dark place. I have it in the basement, next to her cage. Shake it up every few days or so to agitate the beans, and let it infuse for about two months. Feel free to pour off little nips here and there to “test” it, and add more vodka as needed.

So, just before Christmas, I will be straining and decanting them into little bottles to gift, as well as a slightly bigger bottle to use myself. I’ll write an update at that time, I’m sure. Any suggestions for a source for some cute little vanilla-extract-appropriate bottles?