Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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Hey! I jumped off here for a bit. My dude and I paid a nice little visit to New Orleans, the only other city we’ve ever lived in together. It was half vacation, half we’ve had too much Chicago winter and, even though it’s getting nice now, our bones are still frozen. Since we left, New Orleans is 300 years old (what?!) and way cooler. Us leaving may have even had something to do with that. We do not usually go to the swankiest places, but a quick rundown of our old and new favorites include: Elizabeth’s and Paloma Cafe, in the Bywater, for great food and drinks; our old haunt Cure on Freret (they just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program!); Alto, the poolside, rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel; Bouligny Tavern, our favorite neighborhood spot (when Uptown was still our neighborhood); and Jacques-Imo’s on Oak, for really solid New Orleans cuisine (be prepared to wait for a table).

So, now the reason for this post: It’s the two-year birthday of my little blog-baby! As a person who studied and loves history, but has no interest or intention of ever teaching, my blog has become my little passion project of researching, writing about historical people, historical recipes, and family recipes. I’ve been lucky enough to have very, very cool women agree to share their family recipes and stories with me. I’ve learned some cool new things myself, and hopefully you have, too! I’m having a mini-celebration with cake.

When I was little, my favorite dessert was strawberry shortcake (and my favorite cartoon was Strawberry Shortcake–which came first??). I see recipes for strawberry shortcake online and they look amazing, but they are not what I had as a child. In fact, the only strawberry shortcake recipe I knew as a child was probably mostly chemicals: Those little store-bought, yellow, spongecake discs, accompanied by a tub of bright red glaze, strawberries (perhaps the only non-lab-created ingredient), and cool whip. As a child of the nineties, my body was raised on preservatives and corn syrup. I think it’s really nice when I hear people my age say that cookies and candies weren’t even allowed in their house, or that if desserts were allowed they were always hand-made from scratch. That just wasn’t my experience. Cake was available at every celebration, and almost always from a box. And I loved every minute of it.

As a grown-up who knows more about nutrition now, I eat a little better. Cakes are made, sure, but I enjoy only a little, or give them away as gifts. Also, I am blessed with a lot more time than my mom had. I am not working overtime in a factory, with two kids to feed. So, while I appreciate the tiny celebrations that we had, my happy medium as an adult is making things I love from scratch, with fresh and whole ingredients (including sugar and butter) when I can. This strawberry sponge cake is my version of my favorite childhood treat.

There is no history to this post, except for my own. It’s just a thankful strawberry spongecake recipe to remind me of summer days as a child, why I love food so damn much in the first place, and how grateful I am that people like you show up to look at my pictures and read my words.

To begin, and to really get the nostalgia flowing, instead of a biscuit-like base (like the ones I see online that are very beautiful and delicious), I made a yellow sponge cake. There are not one, but two, layers of strawberries, one layer floating just above the cake, dripping with a strawberry glaze that melts into the top, the second sitting on a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. It’s my own personal version of heaven.

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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream
Makes one 9×13-inch cake.

Ingredients:
For cake:
2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
For topping:
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (measure after quartering)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced (to add to sauce)
1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (to add to whipped topping)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, very cold
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

For the cake: Grease a 9×13-inch pan and line with parchment paper (you may want to use a binder clip to hold the parchment to the sides of the pans). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and combine with the whole milk. Stir in the vanilla. Set aside.

In a double boiler, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisking constantly, heat the mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture should be very light yellow and thin. Remove from heat.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until about double in size. When ready, the mixture will be very light yellow in color, and will hold its shape for a moment, when you move the beaters through it.

Pour in all the flour mixture and gently fold from bottom to top until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Add in the butter and milk mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be quite thin.

Pour the batter into the pan, bake for about 25-30 minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees at the 15-minute mark.

When it is lightly golden brown on the top, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, it is done. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping: Hull and quarter strawberries and add them to a food processor with sugar. Blend until liquefied, then strain the mixture into a bowl.

Slice two cups of berries and stir them into the sweetened berry purée.

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

Using a large serrated knife, slice the very top layer off the cake to make it a flat and porous surface. Pour the strawberry purée mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Add whipped cream. Then top with quartered berries and mint (optional).

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This cake is not for everyone. Not even my mom who used to make it for me, who says she doesn’t like “goop” on her cake. But for me, it’s perfect. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a little messy. Probably good for a picnic. It checks a lot of boxes.

If you share my passion for food and history, you’re always welcome here! This is not a business for me, but it does feel like more than just a hobby. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll be back soon!

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Cherry Cheese Danishes

Update from my last post: The weather is no longer killing me. It’s supposed to get up to almost 80 today!! I feel like a mummy coming back to life. We grilled for the first time, next weekend we’re going to our first baseball game of the year, and I’m eagerly checking the weather every day to see if the temperatures are creeping up. Anyway, it finally feels like a new season.

And, speaking of new seasons, it’s the first day of May, colloquially known as May Day, which is an unusually historic calendar event, and which gives me an occasion to write about today’s recipe. Originally, May Day was an ancient pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, actually celebrated at the end of April. However, in many countries across the world, May Day has been adopted as a day to honor workers. This holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day, was created in the contentious 1880s after the infamous Haymarket Affair in Chicago. On May 4, 1886, during a labor rally in support of an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown at police. One policeman was killed by shrapnel, and six other officers and at least four civilians were killed in the chaos. It was assumed that local labor-activist anarchists were responsible for throwing the bomb, and very shortly eight self-described anarchist leaders of the labor movement were arrested for the officer’s death (some of whom were not even present during the rally). Eventually, four of the defendants were hanged for the crime, while one committed suicide, two were given a life sentence, one was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Though the Haymarket Affair occurred in the United States, it was later formally decided that Labor Day, which had been semi-officially established during the same period of labor agitation, would be celebrated in September. However, for much of the rest of the world, May 1st was chosen by a delegation of Socialist and Communist groups in the late 1800’s as the day to celebrate laborers and the working class, partly thanks to its proximity to the Haymarket anniversary.

But let’s get to why you’re really here: These precious, puffy Danishes.

The delicious Danish may have been popularized thanks in part to a labor movement. There are a couple of theories about their creation, and likely both have a bit of truth. The first story involves Niels Albeck, a Danish baker who, in the 1830’s, traveled to Vienna to study the art of traditional Viennese pastry. He returned and opened a bakery in Denmark selling Viennese pastries. The second story centers around a strike that took place in Denmark in the 1850’s: After Danish bakers went on strike, bakery owners replaced their absent employees with Austrian and Swiss bakers. In fact, in Denmark the pastry is not known as a “Danish” but rather as wienerbrød or “Vienna bread.” And the official name for the dough that produces these flaky, buttery treats is known as Viennoiserie, French for “things of Vienna.” But Danes are well aware that the pastry that carries their name in the U.S. was created elsewhere. I asked my good friend Jen, who studied abroad in Denmark years ago, what Danes thought of the Danish pastry. She told me that her Danish friends knew about the dubious naming of the pastry, and told her, “We would never mix cheese with sugar.”

And, while the first “Danish” pastry in the US quite possibly arrived with Danish immigrants, its popularity greatly increased in the early 1900’s, when a Danish baker by the name of L.C. Klitteng, who was one of the bakers for President Woodrow Wilson’s marriage to Edith Bolling in 1915, began doing touring presentations on how to make a traditional “Danish pastry.” (I could find no mention of the Danish pastry in newspapers before 1915.)

I was hoping to find an older recipe for the dough to compare it to other laminated dough recipes and see if anything special sets it apart, but I couldn’t find any historical recipe for it. So, instead, I used the recipe below. While making this dough is not necessarily any more difficult than other pastry, it does take some time (mostly several hours for the dough to chill). But if you can plan ahead a bit, these would be easy to prepare for a weekend brunch.

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Cherry Cheese Danishes
Makes about nine four-inch Danishes. This version of laminated dough is from Yossy Arefi, via Samantha Seneviratne.

Ingredients:
For dough:
1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
3/4 tsp salt
14 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1 egg (plus one more for egg wash)
1/4 cup milk
2 tbsp water
For filling:
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 egg
3 1/2 tbsp honey
zest of one small lemon
pinch of salt
Jam or berry filling
For glaze:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2-3 tsp milk

Instructions:

For dough: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and butter. Pulse a few times to combine the mixture. When ready, the butter pieces should be about the size of small peas and the dough should just begin pulling away from the sides of the processor bowl.

In a small bowl, beat together the milk, egg, and water. Pour the dough mixture from the processor into a medium-sized bowl. Pour the milk and egg mixture over the top and fold the liquid into the dough until it’s evenly covered.

Pour the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Fold into a ball, and then after you wrap the ball, form it into a rough rectangle. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.

Once refrigerated, place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll out into an 8×15-inch rectangle. Use your hand or a bench cutter to shape the sides and corners to keep them as even as possible. The dough will still be quite shaggy and large butter pieces will be visible. With the short side nearest to you, fold one edge of the dough down, then fold the other edge over on top of it. You should have a book-shaped rectangle again at this point. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the rolling and folding process. Continue this for a total of five folds and turns, straightening the edges as you go. Once you’ve made your fifth turn, wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least an hour. After an hour, roll out the dough and fold again, for a total of six turns altogether. Wrap the dough again and refrigerate for at least two hours, and up to two days.

When ready, roll out the dough into a 13×13-inch square. Trim about 1/2 an inch off each edge (using a pizza cutter works well) to make sure the edges are very straight. Then cut 9 4×4-inch squares from the dough. Beat together an egg with one tablespoon of water or milk. Brush this mixture across the top of the entire large square, then reserve the remaining mixture for after the dough has risen. Then, working with one small square at a time, fold each corner to the middle and place on two large parchment-paper-lined baking sheets. Repeat with each square. Cover the baking sheets with plastic wrap, and allow to rise slightly for 60 to 80 minutes.

As the dough is rising, beat together the softened cream cheese, egg, honey, lemon zest, and salt. If you’re using a pie filling for the topping, be sure to drain, but not rinse, before using.

For the glaze, mix together powdered sugar and milk in a small bowl.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Once the dough has rested for at least an hour, place about 1 tablespoon of cream cheese filling in the middle. If using fruit topping, you can spoon about a tablespoon of that over the top of the cream cheese mixture.

Bake for about ten minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees halfway through. Allow to cool slightly before spooning the glaze over the top. Enjoy!

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This dough was a fun experiment for me. I had never made laminated dough before, and I knew it was pretty time-consuming. But I was curious, and I also had some fine flour that my mother-in-law sent me from Cairnspring Mills in the Skagit Valley of Washington State. (This is not a sponsored post, I just thought it was a nice gift, and a nice flour to use.) I made my “Danishes” cherry cheese, because it is absolutely one of my favorite pastry combinations of all, but you can have fun with it. We don’t have a lot of beautiful produce here yet, but I’m thinking next time… rhubarb? Why not?

So, whether you are celebrating with a dance around the May Pole, or a union march, happy May Day to you!

Penelope Nejad’s Banana Meringue Pie

Emily Nejad

Emily Nejad and I met last spring when we sat next to each other at a Forth Chicago event for female entrepreneurs. When I sat down and realized who she was, I immediately began fangirling. I had never had one of her cakes, but I had already been following her on Instagram for months, regularly admiring her colorful, textural masterpieces. I asked if she would be interested in sharing a family recipe with me, and I’m so pleased that she said yes!

If you live in Chicago or the surrounding areas, you may already know Emily as the powerhouse behind Bon Vivant Cakes. Emily grew up in southern Indiana, attended Ball State for musical theater, and moved to Chicago. A musician before she was a baker, she and a friend started a band called Celine Neon, whose bright and theatrical videos and energetic electro-pop sound could easily be considered the sonic version of one of Emily’s cakes.

Even though her cakes might seem the product of years of baking experience, the Bon Vivant story is only about two years old. “I was baking for friends and it occurred to me that there might be a market for the cakes I was making. I put up a website and started an Instagram account and went from there,” she says. She was still waiting tables at the time, but after making a cake for a baby shower for a well-known Chicago blogger, her business blew up.

Elegant, whimsical, and each totally unique, Emily tries to ensure that her cakes represent the person ordering them. When you order a cake on her website, she wants to know everything about you. She describes her method on her site: “I want to know your hobbies, your passions, and your favorite band so that I can blast it in my kitchen while I’m baking your cake.”

Emily insists that she does not come from a long line of amazing cooks. “My maternal grandmother is not known for her culinary skills,” she says. “She used to make something called ketchup salad. Holy cow, it is BAD.” Emily’s mother, Penelope, however, has been cooking since she was young. “My mom was the sixth of nine kids. By the time she was a teenager, she was making meals for her whole family.” During college, Penelope met her future husband, an Iranian engineering student with, as Emily describes it, “a gregarious personality and a purple velvet disco suit.” They were married and the couple settled into their roles of bread-winning dad and stay-at-home mom. But in 2009, when the family hit some financial hardships, Penelope decided to go back to work. With her experience cooking for her family and baking during college, she decided to open a restaurant. Emily emphasizes that her mother decided to this “with no experience, in a bad economy, in a one hundred-year-old building, in southern Indiana.” Needless to say, things could have gone badly. “There are many reasons that this was risky, but she did it anyway, because her kids needed health insurance and a college education. So she went to work.” Things have grown quickly for her mother, just as they have for Emily. “Today she owns 3 restaurants, has around 50 employees, and works harder than anyone I know,” says Emily proudly.

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The recipe that Emily wanted to share is not a long-held family recipe. Instead, it’s her mom’s banana meringue pie that her mother used to make for holidays and Emily’s birthday. It originated from a recipe in a Presbyterian cookbook from Knox, Pennsylvania, that her mom has tweaked over the years. “Banana cream pie is my favorite pie, hands down,” Emily says. “My favorite time to eat it is at breakfast. There is nothing better than waking up and knowing that there is leftover pie from the night before.”

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Penny’s Banana Meringue Pie

Filling Ingredients:
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups
whole milk
4 egg yolks, slightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, room temp
1 tbsp, plus 1 tsp vanilla
2-3 bananas

Meringue Ingredients:
3 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
6 tbsp sugar
1/4
tsp vanilla

Pie Instructions:

Make 1 pie crust of your choice and set aside. (Emily says she prefers an all-butter pie crust. I prefer, and almost always use, this recipe.)

Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt in ½ quart saucepan, making sure that the sugar and cornstarch are mixed thoroughly so that they don’t clump once heat and liquid is added. Add milk.

Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.

To make your pudding, you’ll temper the hot mixture into the egg yolks: stir half of the hot mixture gradually into the egg yolks, being very careful not to scramble the eggs. When the yolks are warmed, add the hot mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot mixture. Boil and stir one minute.

Remove the pan from heat and stir in butter & vanilla.

Right before you add the hot pudding to the pie shell, add the sliced bananas to the bottom of the pie crust.

Pour pudding into pie shell to set; press plastic wrap over filling.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours but no longer than 48.

After the pudding has set, add the meringue to the pie. Make whatever swirly pattern you’d like with the fluffy meringue. Bake at 375 for no longer than 5 minutes on the bottom third of the oven, checking constantly. It can burn really easily. It’s done when the peaks of meringue start to brown.

Meringue Instructions:

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar, add the sugar 1 tbsp at a time until very stiff and glossy, and then stir in the vanilla. You must use very clean stainless bowl and stainless whisk.

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Seeing as how Emily and her mom both started their own businesses around food, I wondered if her mom had influenced Emily as an entrepreneur. She says, “My mom and I started growing as entrepreneurs at relatively the same time. There were a lot of parallels in our lives. The advice we pass back and forth to each other is, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your vision. You have something special.'”

If you want to keep up with Emily, follow her on Instagram @BonVivantCakes, where she showcases her cakes, and new creations, like cookie dough chocolate pops (WHAT?!), which you can sample this Saturday, September 23, at Chicago’s West Elm on North Avenue. AND she will be creating edible art for the MCA’s 50th Anniversary celebration on Oct 21st!

Emily, thank you so much for sharing your story, your mother’s story, and this delicious recipe with me! I’m so excited to see what’s next for you!

Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches

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My favorite human turns 30 years old today! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love birthdays (my birthday! friends’ birthdays! strangers’ birthdays!). I also believe that birthdays should be celebrated for no less than a month, particularly if they are 30th birthdays! Alex doesn’t agree. He doesn’t like celebrations, particularly if they are celebrating him. He also doesn’t like cake, which I will never understand.

So, instead, we started celebrating last week, a whole three weeks shy of full birthday celebration. Per his request, we saw the anxiety-inducing Dunkirk on opening night at the Music Box. (Really, truly spectacular, if your heart can take it.) Tonight, we will have a nice dinner and some drinks. Tomorrow, we’re both taking off work and making a special trip to Werewolf Coffee Bar, and going to Sunset Pho Caffe for dinner with Alex’s dad. This weekend, we’ll probably make our way over to the Newberry Library’s Book Fair and celebrate with some friends. And, before the weekend is over, I suspect we’ll eat more than a few hot dogs. (Alex claims to never have food cravings, but this man has been talking about hot dogs, like, a lot.) For dessert, we will not have birthday cake.

Since cake was off the table, I tried to plan a celebratory dessert that captured the genius that is my wacky husband. Things I know about Alex are this: He is particularly fond of chocolate. A chocolate fiend, in fact. He’s been known to devour entire bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips. So, chocolate, sure, we’re getting somewhere.

The sandwich cookie is also a favorite. Alex’s love of cookies, particularly cookie sandwiches, knows zero bounds. His Instagram handle is @eatingcookies. No joke. (Don’t go looking for cookies there, though. He mostly takes pictures of garbage during our walks around the city.)

Finally, when I ask him about desserts he would like to try, they are almost never fancy. A while back, out of the blue, he mentioned he had read an article about an Australian snack called Chocolate Crackles. Essentially, this is a cupcake-shaped, chocolate Rice Krispies treat.

So, I combined the three, chocolate, cookie sandwiches, and Crackles, into a dessert truly fit for a 30-year-old man’s birthday.

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Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches
Makes 24 rounds; 12 filled sandwiches. Slightly adapted from this recipe.

Ingredients:
For krispy treats:
6 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the cookie sheet
1/8 tsp salt
10 1/2 oz bag of marshmallows
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
7 cups rice cereal (like Rice Krispies)

For filling:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

Instructions:
For krispy treats:
Butter a 12″ x 18″ cookie sheet.

In a large saucepan, melt 6 tbsp of butter over low to medium heat.

Once melted, add the salt, marshmallows, semi-sweet chocolate, and cocoa powder. Stir until combined and the marshmallows have completely melted. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla.

Add the rice cereal and stir until completely coated.

Immediately pour onto the buttered cookie sheet. Using your hands, or a spatula, press the mixture into the pan, filling to the edges. If you have a bit of leftover butter from the stick you used, you may find it helpful to cover your fingertips or the spatula with a bit of the butter while pressing to keep the mixture from sticking.

Once you have completely filled the pan with an even layer, refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

Using a 2 1/2-in round cookie or biscuit cutter, punch out 24 circles and move to another cookie sheet or plate.

For filling:
In a small bowl, beat the peanut butter, salt, powdered sugar, and vanilla until completely combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Add the heavy cream to the peanut butter mixture and fold together until combined.

Fill two rounds with peanut butter cream, press together, and enjoy!

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So, to recap–Rice Krispies Treats are good. Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats are better! Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats, filled with peanut butter cream are the best of all! Maybe they’re not the most grown-up dessert. No, they’re definitely not. But, being a grown-up is overrated anyway. Even as I was writing this last sentence, my brain was thinking, “You know what would be really good? Some peanut butter ice cream smooshed between two chocolate Rice Krispies Treats!” Omg brb gtg make some ice cream sandwiches!

Happy birthday, my love. Welcome to your 30’s!

The Quakers and the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie

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Happy, happy #piday, everyone!  For the first time since December, it’s snowing here in Chicago. Like, really snowing. In March. Less than a week before Spring. To remind us all where we live and that we didn’t beat the system this winter. It’s bogus. But, what an excellent day to make (and eat) pie! For this, the most special of days, I made the official pie of my home state, Indiana: The Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.

I have mentioned that I’m from Indiana before. I haven’t lived there for over a decade now but it is, for all technical purposes, home. My family, both sides, have lived in Indiana for well over a century. My dad’s side, mostly Scottish and German, came from Pennsylvania, down through Ohio, finally settling in Indiana in the mid-1800’s. My mom’s parents were both originally from Central Indiana. My maternal grandfather’s family were Clevengers and were part of a very large group of Quakers in the area.

Originally hailing from Guilford and Randolph Counties in North Carolina, Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, were fierce abolitionists in a southern state where slavery was a way of life for many landowners. Unable to change the laws in North Carolina, throngs of Quakers began migrating to the free states of Ohio and Indiana in the north. My particular family line settled in Randolph County, which was named after the county they left in North Carolina. And it is generally agreed that with them came a version of the sugar cream pie recipe.

The sugar cream pie falls into the category of “desperation pie.” Desperation pies could be made by cash-strapped families with low-cost ingredients that they often already had on hand. They could also be made during the winter months when fruits were less available. The sugar cream pie was traditionally favored for its simplicity (another hallmark of the Quakers), which allowed for farm wives to toss everything into the crust, stir it with a finger, and pop it into the oven to bake as they went back out to help with the farm chores. Several variations of this recipe exist, including those from the Amish and the Shakers communities. It’s likely that all three of these groups have some responsibility for the continued popularity of this old pie in Indiana. One of its more well-known purveyors, Wick’s Pies, in Randolph County, has been in business for over 60 years and makes their sugar cream pie with a recipe dating back to the 19th century. It’s not uncommon for families, especially those near Randolph County, Indiana, to have their own family version. And in 2009, the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie became the “official pie of Indiana.”

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Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Recipe

Crust Ingredients:
For the crust, I halved this recipe from Epicurious.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp granulated sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick of unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp, chilled
1/4 cup (or more) ice water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar

Cream Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slight variation of the Hoosier Mama Pie Company’s Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie recipe.

3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Ground nutmeg, for sprinkling
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Instructions:

Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes and spread out on a plate. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to set in the freezer for about 10 minutes.

In the bowl of a food processor, add the flour, sugar, and salt. Set in the freezer as you get the remaining ingredients ready.

In a measuring cup, fill to just over a 1/4 cup, then add 3 ice cubes.

Remove the food processor bowl from the freezer and pulse a few times to combine the flour, sugar, and salt.

Add the butter all at once and quickly pulse until the mixture produces smaller than pea-sized pieces. Add the water and vinegar and pulse again about 5 times to combine. Grab a bit of the dough and squeeze together. If it holds its form, it’s done. If it is still dry, add 1 tbsp of ice water at a time, pulsing about 3 times in between, until the dough begins to form large clumps.

Pour the dough out onto a work surface, gathering into a ball any little pieces of dough that escape.

Form the dough into a ball and flatten into disk. Wrap the disk in plastic; refrigerate at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight. Before rolling out the dough for your pie, allow it to soften for about 5-10 minutes at room temperature.

Roll out the dough into a circle that’s large enough to allow the edges to fall over the edge of the pan. Crimp the edges of the dough, or decorate with a fork. Place the pie crust in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Blind bake your pie crust by first heating your oven to 400 degrees. Place the frozen shell on a baking sheet. Line the inside of the inside of the pie crust with parchment paper and fill to the top with uncooked beans or pie weights. Be sure they fill to the edges, to help the pie crust keep its shape. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate 180 degrees, and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove the pie shell from the oven, and remove the parchment paper and weights from the crust.

Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Bake for 2-3 more minutes until the crust’s interior is golden. Allow to cool to room temperature before filling.

Combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to break up any clumps and to combine ingredients. Gently stir in the heavy cream and vanilla with a wooden spoon or spatula. Do not whip the cream or the pie will not set.

Pour the filling into the baked, cooled pie shell, sprinkle with nutmeg, and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pie 180° and bake for about 20 more minutes, or until the edges look as though they are beginning to set and large bubbles cover the surface. (The pie will still be jiggly in the center when you remove it from the oven.)

Allow the pie to cool to room temperature, then put it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours and up to overnight, before serving. When ready, dust with confectioners’ sugar before slicing and serving.

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And that’s it, you’ll have a rich pie to satisfy the masses. Traditionally, only white sugar would have been used, so if that is all you have, you can certainly use it in place of brown sugar. Your pie will be a bit sweeter than it would if you use a mix. Brown sugar adds caramel color and flavor to the custard filling, which is really nice. Cinnamon and vanilla may have also been a little over-budget for Indiana farm wives a century ago, but both add some nice depth. And I really think the sprinkle of nutmeg on top is important. To me, that’s what makes it a real Hoosier Cream Pie. The sweetness of this pie makes it a perfect pair to a strong cup of coffee. And if you can resist eating it all, do yourself a favor and freeze a piece to eat (while frozen) the next day. You’ll thank me for that later. Sweet eating!

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King Cake Paczki

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I have been lucky enough to live in two of America’s greatest cities: Chicago and New Orleans. When we lived in New Orleans, I was introduced to the holiday of Mardi Gras, the bacchic feast day before Ash Wednesday. Of course, New Orleans manages to stretch the holiday for about three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which means work gets a little lighter for a month while traffic congestion gets a lot heavier (roads close, parades roll, etc.).

Well, tomorrow is Mardi Gras! Full disclosure: I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mardi Gras. One of my first experiences was getting punched in the face when a fight broke out in a group as I passed, and then I got hit in the head by a bag of beads (why do they even throw those!), not to mention my interaction with everyone’s elbows. I’m kind of shocked that I even considered going back again. But I did, every single year. One year, we lived about two blocks away from the parade route and that was the best. When I got tired of being elbowed in the eye sockets, I just went home. Or bought a corndog. That would usually get me through the rest of the parade.

But now, being far, far from the action, seeing all of my friends posting about the 610 Stompers they saw and the floats they rode and the shoes they caught at Muses, I get nostalgic. Chicago doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras the same way that New Orleans does (few cities do). But both have their own beloved, pre-Lenten treats: King Cake and Paczki.

Both of these desserts were born from the same necessity: to use up fats and sugars in the house before Lent begins. But they are very different.

Paczki, (pronounced punch-key, or some drawn-out-vowel variation of that if you include an authentic Chicago accent) were brought by Polish immigrants to Chicago and several other cities in the United States, and are similar to jelly-filled yeast doughnuts. Paczki traditionalists would probably punch me in the arm for reducing their beloved dessert to those terms, but it’s true. King Cake, at least the kind that is gobbled up by the millions in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, is essentially a large cinnamon roll that’s been braided into a ring, also optionally filled with cream cheese or fruit jam, and covered with icing and sprinkles.

To bring together my two favorite cities, in a way sure to blaspheme both of them (sorry, everybody!!), I made  King Cake Paczki just in time for the holiday. This paczki dough is flavored with cinnamon before it is fried, filled with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with icing and sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, yellow and green, which denote, respectively, justice, power, and faith.

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King Cake Paczki
Makes approximately 1 dozen. Slightly revised version of this paczki recipe from The Spruce.

King Cake Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp rum or brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
oil, or lard (traditionally used), for frying
Purple, yellow, and green sugar

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla

Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch

King Cake Instructions:

In a measuring cup, mix the milk, dry yeast, and 1 tbsp of sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.

In a separate, larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to beat together the unsalted butter and sugar until it becomes white and fluffy.

Add in the whole egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just until the egg is completely mixed in and the mixture appears consistent.

Add a little of the yeast mixture and then a bit of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir until you no longer see white streaks of flour. Continue alternately adding the yeast mixture and flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until you no longer see streaks of white flour between each addition. Once you have added and stirred all ingredients, the dough should begin to form a very loose ball. If it is still quite loose and wet, add in 1 tbsp of flour at a time until it just begins to form, but no more than a 1/4 cup of flour should be added. The dough will still be quite sticky.

Grease a very large bowl, pour the dough into the greased bowl, spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, or lightly brush with vegetable oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm spot to rise for about 1 hour.

After about an hour, when the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for about 45 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, pour the dough out and pat down until it’s consistently about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly flour the top of the dough and, using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds, placing them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You may need to re-roll the dough and pat down again to get 12 rounds.

Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to set in a warm spot for about 1/2 an hour.

While the rounds are rising again, add two inches of oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Using a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil to between 325 and 350 degrees.

Add two to three rounds to the hot oil at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip the dough in the pan and allow to cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the finished paczki to a paper-towel-lined plate.

While the paczki are cooling, make your filling and icing. For the filling, use a hand beater to mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and cornstarch.

When the paczki have finished cooling, poke a hole into the side using a small, thin knife, without poking all the way through. Using a piping bag, fill each of the paczki with cream cheese. Drizzle the top with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars.

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Don’t be weirded out by these tiny plastic babies you see. Traditionally, plastic babies are baked into king cakes, and the person who gets the piece with the baby buys the next king cake.

The many breaks required in this recipe to let the dough rise are great for, say, drinking champagne, because you’ve got to make sure to get that out of your house along with all the fats and sugars. And because it’s Mardi Gras.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting

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Um, today is my birthday. My BIRTHDAY! From what I understand, there are people out there who hate celebrating their birthdays. I’m not one of those people. I can’t get enough birthdays. One a year just seems like… not enough. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I like getting presents (which I actually hate), but because it’s positively the best excuse for a little self-indulgence. For example, I’m going out dancing with a group of friends tonight, if only to prove to myself that my hips still work in my 32nd year. AND, I made myself a cake. If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that my love of cake knows no bounds. I make myself a birthday cake every year. This year, it’s a Mexican hot chocolate cake with a cinnamon whipped cream frosting. I will go ahead and say that it’s now one of my favorite birthday cakes in the last 32 years. It’s not as good as when my mom made them for me. It’s not as good as the one I got when I was five that was shaped like Strawberry Shortcake. No one can top that cake for the rest of time. It’s pretty good, though.

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Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting
Makes 2 8-inch round cakes

Ingredients for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake:
1 1/3 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp espresso powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Ingredients for Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Very slightly altered recipe from Food52
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp, powdered sugar

Instructions for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 2 8-inch by 2-inch round cake pans and cut out two parchment paper rounds to cover the bottom of the pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cayenne, and cinnamon.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, vegetable oil. You want to mix until you see that the oil has been thoroughly mixed, but stop just after you no longer see droplets of oil and it is a uniform color of pale yellow.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix with a spatula until fully combined.

Quickly stir in the boiling water.

Fill each cake round slightly less than half full.

Bake for 22-25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around 22 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean the cake is done.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove from pans, peel off the parchment paper, and allow to completely cool on a wire rack before frosting.

While the cakes are cooling, place a deep bowl and metal beaters into the freezer to chill.

In a saucepan, combine the cornstarch and powdered sugar. Fully mix both of these dry ingredients before mixing in 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Stirring constantly, place the saucepan over medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken, but not quite boil.

Remove the pan from heat and allow the mixture to cool in a separate bowl. It’s very important that the mixture is room temperature before you add to the other ingredients.

Remove the bowl and beaters from the freezer. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of whipping cream, along with the vanilla, cinnamon, and remaining 1 tbsp of powdered sugar, to the chilled bowl. Beat until the liquid begins to come together, but stop before it’s stiff.

Add in the completely cooled cornstarch mixture a little bit at a time, mixing in as you go. Stop beating when it is just combined.

Frost your completely cooled cake, as desired, immediately.

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Oh, gosh, this cake is dynamite. Warning: it is spicy. If you like a little less spice, use less cayenne. You could also forgo the cayenne altogether, and only use cinnamon. You’ll still have a super moist and quite chocolatey cake. Also, this whipped cream frosting is so killer. I am a whipped cream frosting fanatic, but I hate how weepy it gets after only a short time. The recipe I used here stabilizes it a bit, which makes it not only last longer, but easier to use when frosting your cake.

Also, I want to give a very special shout-out to my friends Kristina and Conrad who gifted me with this bad ass wooden table for my photographs. Conrad made it with his hands from an old piling from the Chicago River. Very cool, right? I have very cool friends.