Saturday, November 29, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge

Daring Bakers
November Challenge: Caramel Cake
Author: Shuna Fish Lydon

I had more fun thinking about last month’s challenge (pizza dough), but I had more fun baking the caramel cake. I did not try the caramel candies because I had too many distractions and candy takes complete concentration. The cake was fabulous. I knew my husband would love this cake because caramel is one of his favorite flavors.

Since I have baked a gazillion cakes in my lifetime, I found this recipe to be very simple, yet totally delicious! The caramel syrup is really good and gives this cake a depth of richness that would otherwise be absent. The same is true of the browned butter icing. The first time I baked the cake, I followed the directions exactly, but when I started to ice the cake, I decided to split the layer to make a two layer cake. Here in the south, layer cakes are huge, so I could not resist the opportunity for a larger portion of icing between the two layers of luscious cake. I liked the cake so much that I decided to make another one for Thanksgiving. This time, I made two batches of batter and divided it evenly between four 9-inch pans. This version is in keeping with my layer cake tradition. I will be keeping this recipe close by for future celebrations.
Pictures to follow....busy holiday weekend....
Here's the recipe if any one dares ;-)
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 Cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 Cup Caramel Syrup (see recipe below)
2 each eggs, at room temperature
splash vanilla extract
2 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup milk, at room temperature
Notes from Natalie for those of you baking gluten-free:So the GF changes to the cake would be:2 cups of gluten free flour blend (w/xanthan gum) or 2 cups of gf flour blend + 1 1/2 tsp xanthan or guar gum1/2 - 1 tsp baking powder (this would be the recipe amount to the amount it might need to be raised to & I'm going to check)I'll let you when I get the cake finished, how it turns out and if the baking powder amount needs to be raised.
Preheat oven to 350FButter one tall (2 – 2.5 inch deep) 9-inch cake pan.In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter until smooth. Add sugar and salt & cream until light and fluffy.Slowly pour room temperature caramel syrup into bowl. Scrape down bowl and increase speed. Add eggs/vanilla extract a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down bowl again, beat mixture until light and uniform.Sift flour and baking powder.Turn mixer to lowest speed, and add one third of the dry ingredients. When incorporated, add half of the milk, a little at a time. Add another third of the dry ingredients, then the other half of the milk and finish with the dry ingredients. {This is called the dry, wet, dry, wet, dry method in cake making. It is often employed when there is a high proportion of liquid in the batter.}Take off mixer and by hand, use a spatula to do a few last folds, making sure batter is uniform. Turn batter into prepared cake pan.Place cake pan on cookie sheet or 1/2 sheet pan. Set first timer for 30 minutes, rotate pan and set timer for another 15-20 minutes. Your own oven will set the pace. Bake until sides pull away from the pan and skewer inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool cake completely before icing it. Cake will keep for three days outside of the refrigerator.
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup water (for "stopping" the caramelization process)
In a small stainless steel saucepan, with tall sides, mix water and sugar until mixture feels like wet sand. Brush down any stray sugar crystals with wet pastry brush. Turn on heat to highest flame. Cook until smoking slightly: dark amber.When color is achieved, very carefully pour in one cup of water. Caramel will jump and sputter about! It is very dangerous, so have long sleeves on and be prepared to step back.Whisk over medium heat until it has reduced slightly and feels sticky between two fingers. {Obviously wait for it to cool on a spoon before touching it.}Note: For safety reasons, have ready a bowl of ice water to plunge your hands into if any caramel should land on your skin.
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound confectioner’s sugar, sifted
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons caramel syrup
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Cook butter until brown. Pour through a fine meshed sieve into a heatproof bowl, set aside to cool.Pour cooled brown butter into mixer bowl.In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle or whisk attachment, add confectioner's sugar a little at a time. When mixture looks too chunky to take any more, add a bit of cream and or caramel syrup. Repeat until mixture looks smooth and all confectioner's sugar has been incorporated. Add salt to taste.Note: Caramelized butter frosting will keep in fridge for up to a month.To smooth out from cold, microwave a bit, then mix with paddle attachment until smooth and light(recipes above courtesy of Shuna Fish Lydon)(Optional)
GOLDEN VANILLA BEAN CARAMELS- makes eighty-one 1-inch caramels
1 cup golden syrup
2 cups sugar
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons pure ground vanilla beans, purchased or ground in a coffee or spice grinders, or 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened
A 9-inch square baking pan
Candy thermometer
Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil. Combine the golden syrup, sugar, and salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to simmer around the edges. Wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile, rinse the spatula or spoon before using it again later.) Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more. Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 305°F. Meanwhile, combine the cream and ground vanilla beans (not the extract) in a small saucepan and heat until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover the pan to keep the cream hot. When the sugar mixture reaches 305°F, turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks. Gradually stir in the hot cream; it will bubble up and steam dramatically, so be careful. Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until any thickened syrup at the bottom of the pan is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245°F. Then cook, stirring constantly, to 260°f for soft, chewy caramels or 265°F; for firmer chewy caramels. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, if using it. Pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight until firm. Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner. Cut the caramels with an oiled knife. Wrap each caramel individually in wax paper or cellophane.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Southern Layer Cakes

Don't you love cake? There is something so unmistakably southern about a big and tall layer cake, don't you think? I will be baking some cakes this week. I am contemplating a "thousand layer cake" as Nick calls it. I tried this once without a recipe and it was not good.....this time I am better prepared! I am always on the lookout for the perfectly gooey coconut cake recipe. So far my favorite is the recipe from the Pennisula Grill in Charleston, SC, even though Bobby Flay won this throwdown (I would have to taste both cakes myself to really believe Bobby Flay from New York City, oh my gosh, could beat a SC boy in a cake contest!). Nick's grandma made a coconut cake that is his favorite but she took the recipe to the grave!! I am still searching for its match! And rumor has it there is a caramel cake in my future!
I just want to reiterate to my buddy Bill Schmidt that even though NC State gave UNC a mean whipping yesterday, I am still baking a red velvet cake for his birthday next month!
In the infamous words of Marie Antoinette, "let them eat cake!".

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mary Bill's Cafe

I have commented on breakfast restaurants before since we usually go out for breakfast every Friday. Nick loves breakfast and I love it as long as someone else is cooking! We usually eat at Zorba’s. The food is decent and fairly priced, but the atmosphere can be daunting depending on where you sit, and the smell of the open kitchen lingers on your clothes. For the past two weeks we have gone to Mary Bill’s Café at Eutaw. The prices were unbelievably low and the variety of dishes impressive. My standard breakfast plate is two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast. Mary Bill’s price for this is $3.99. My meal was very good and I was able to choose between an English Muffin, toast, or biscuit. Nick was ecstatic because he tried the grits which were creamy and buttery, just like at home. This week I had the Viva La France which is four wedges of delicious French toast, an egg, and a slice of bacon. This is also $3.99. Nick tried a western omelet. This omelet was as beautiful as a picture, perfectly cooked, and tender to eat. The simple atmosphere makes for a pleasant, quiet meal, and my clothes didn’t pick up the odors of the kitchen. Although the drive is a little longer than Zorba’s, this will be a frequent haunt.

Fabric Addict

I love fabric, right up to the point when I have to wait for my fabric to be cut at the store. The other day I went to Hancock Fabrics to buy fleece to make throws. (Follow this link to the pattern: Unfortunately I had waited until Saturday, my least favorite shopping day. The store was full of customers, but only two clerks. When I was ready for my twelve bolts of fabric to be cut into one yard increments, no clerk could be found. I waited at least ten minutes before someone finally showed up at the cutting table Anyone know of a self-service fabric store? I’m there!

Tour of Greensboro

Last week we spent a couple of days in Greensboro. I don’t love Greensboro like I love Raleigh, but it is a nice, clean city with lots of good places to eat and shop. Nick and I always follow our “When out of town Eating Rule” which states “when out of town, never eat at a restaurant you could eat at in Fayetteville”. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, we faithfully adhere to this tenet.

On Monday night we ate at Bonefish Grill. I love their house salad because it has hearts of palm and pine nuts with a citrus vinaigrette. This salad reminds me of a salad I had in Fort Lauderdale at Mangoes. Instead of an entrée I ordered the coconut shrimp appetizer. I got six good sized shrimp served with an orange dipping sauce. Along with the fresh bread, these two items made a completely satisfying meal. Nick enjoyed English style fish and chips.

The next day at lunch we gathered at Macaroni Grill. The economical lunch combos surprised me. From a list of salads, soups, and sandwiches, you may choose two for $6.50 or three for $8.50. I had the insalata blu and a chicken Caesar calzonetta. The insalata blu consists of mixed field greens with finely shredded blue cheese, walnuts, and a red wine vinaigrette. Sometimes at dinner, I add grilled chicken to make this an entrée. Pizza dough encased grilled chicken and greens with parmesan and Caesar dressing for the calzonetta. This combination made for a very filling lunch. I find Macaroni Gill to be a consistent performer.

After our substantial lunch, Nick and I chose Qdoba for a light supper. I tried a new chicken mango salad that I will definitely order again. The tortilla shell is filled with greens, grilled chicken, cheese, and mango salsa. This was the freshest, lightest salad I have ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant. Nick’s overstuffed burrito was eaten with a fork.

Lunch on Wednesday was at Mimi’s Café. I love Mimi’s Café and had previously previewed this on an earlier post. One of my favorites for lunch is quiche and salad. Today I had the crab and asparagus quiche. YUM. The plentiful crab and the asparagus were perfectly balanced. I tried the carrot raisin muffin. This colossal muffin could have passed for a cake if it only had cream cheese frosting! My meal was completed by one of my favorite Mimi drinks, strawberry lemonade.

After such a happy meal, staying awake for the ride home was challenging. Another trip, another successful restaurant tour!

Sunday Dinner?

I don’t cook on Sundays. Our busy schedule dictates eating out at lunch and leftovers in the microwave for supper. Most Sundays we choose fast foods because we are anxiously awaiting naptime. (By the time we leave the church after the last service we have been there about five hours. :o!) Once in a while we choose a sit down restaurant for Sunday lunch. This brings up one of my pet peeves, “Why don’t restaurants have their regular lunch specials on Sunday?” This is definitely a violation of some ordinance, I’m sure. The last time I visited Applebee’s (which, BTW, was months ago since the service was so bad we haven’t been back) I wanted to try their lunch combos, but of course, they are only available Monday through Friday. I rarely eat at this type of restaurant for lunch. I am a teacher, not a business woman. Lunch for me is usually Nabs or soup. The same thing happened at O’Charley’s a couple of weeks ago. The lunch combos and prices sounded great, but once again, they are only offered during the week, not Sundays. I’m not paying twelve or fifteen dollars at lunch for a full plate of food, so I ordered the club sandwich that came with fries for about $8.00. I sensed I might be in for a surprise when the waiter put down my plate and said, “Be careful, it’s hot.” And it was hot because O’Charley’s version of the club sandwich is turkey, bacon, and cheese grilled, not toasted. One of my favorite club sandwiches was at Daryl’s, which is no longer in this area. The three slices of toasted bread held turkey, bacon, ham, cheddar and swiss cheeses as well as lettuce, tomato, and mayo. The tall sandwich was quartered and held together with long toothpicks. O’Charley’s version is a sad semblance of the traditional club. I would not order that sandwich again. I am, however, intrigued by their Monday through Friday lunch specials and I hope to eat there soon with my Sensible Shoes Sisters. Details to follow…..

Monday, November 17, 2008

Panda Express Premier Proves Pitiful

Sorry, I was trying to see how far I could go with alliteration. Apparently, that far. I don't know when Panda Express opened at Cross Creek, but Nick noticed today that it was open, so we stopped in for dinner. I have never experienced a Panda Express, but I was hoping against all odds that it vaguely resembled Pei Wei. No such luck. First of all, the presentation of available meals was confusing. Basically, you can pick 2 or 3 entrees and 1 side for a set price. Everything else is a la carte. The menu board only listed the available combinations, but not the entrees themselves. I asked someone cleaning the tables if she could tell me what the entrees were. She gave us a brochure, but when we got to the serving line, there were at least twice as many entrees as the brochure listed. I really wanted the Orange Chicken, which is supposed to be their signature entree, but the brochure indicated this was spicy, so I chose the Mandarian Chicken instead. Besides not even remotely resembling the picture on the brochure, this dish had a strange spice that I despised. I think it was allspice. I chose to get two vegetable spring rolls and chow mein to complete my meal. The spring rolls were not very flavorful, even with a liberal dousing of duck sauce, and the chow mein was awful. Nick got the Orange Chicken and Bejing Beef dish. The Orange Chicken was not spicy at all, so we traded, and Nick ate the Mandarian Chicken. I tasted his fried rice which was okay. If I were to try this again, I would get the Orange Chicken over white rice in a bowl. Because Fayetteville has so many excellent Asian themed restaurants, I seriously doubt that the Panda Express will be able to survive. It's really a shame because the concept is a good one and the Panda mascot is adorable.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Short Pump Town Center

Shopping was my hobby. I say “was” because being married to a minister limits both my time and budget. Prior to the mid nineties, Raleigh shopping lacked the pizzazz and variety of the bigger metros. Vacations were planned for the sole purpose of shopping. At that time, my two favorite malls in the southeast were Tyson’s Corner in Virginia and Lenox Square in Atlanta. Fortunately my job at IBM took me to Atlanta several times a year. I always left RDU with a large suitcase, sparsely filled, and returned with bags bulging. The changing season and colors of fall signified my annual trip to Washington, DC. My friend and I would take several days, shopping every mall in the area and sampling the plethora of interesting restaurants. The boardwalk fries doused in malt vinegar and ketchup discovered in Annapolis, Maryland, are still one of my favorite finds. Just to balance out our activities, we would spend at least half a day at the Smithsonian. Since then, Raleigh has morphed into quite the shopping Mecca. North Hills, Cameron Village, Crabtree Valley, and Cary Towne Center all received major face lifts. Streets of South Pointe and Triangle Towne Center complete the list of major shopping centers in Wake and Durham counties. Even sleepy Chapel Hill has grown with a huge new Southern Season, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and a sparkly chic Franklin Street.

On our trip back from Massanutten last month we stopped in Short Pump, a suburb of Richmond. Raleigh and Richmond are so much alike. Here we were in Short Pump and I was reminded of North Raleigh and Wake Forest: carefully planned communities with upscale shopping and comfortable living. I found this area on the internet. With Williams-Sonoma as my goal, I plotted a trip to Short Pump Town Center. ( Unique. I was expecting a mall like the Streets of South Pointe with most stores enclosed in a traditional mall with a few stores open to the outside. This mall is entirely open. The corridors are open to the outside, yet protected from the elements with roofs and overhangs. I enjoyed walking through this beautifully appointed mall; however, during the heat of summer or the bitter cold of winter, this mall would take on the inconvenience of a strip mall. I especially loved the elaborate pump fountain, but the crowning glory for me is the two-story Crate and Barrel. This Crate and Barrel carries everything from sofas, tables, and sideboards, down to dishtowels and drinking glasses. I could have spent a lot of time and money here. Because this was the last leg of our vacation, we were tired and ready to see our girls so we didn’t spend much time here. I would love to go back soon with a blank credit card and a case of Red Bull. Nordstrom, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, J. Jill, and Orvis are just a few of the fabulous stores that beckon me.

Not only does this mall have exceptional shopping, the surrounding restaurants are impressive as well: California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill, and Maggiano’s Little Italy. And if you need a vacation from the stress of shopping and eating, there’s even an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. To quote the governor of California, “I’ll be back!”


Earlier this year I spent several months selecting my perfect laptop purchase. After I decided which model I wanted, I found the best price at Costco, even with the $50 membership fee. I ordered my computer online and my membership credentials were mailed to me with a twenty dollar gift card, bringing my membership cost down to only thirty dollars.

Every month or so, I am mailed a booklet full of useful coupons. The disadvantage to this relationship is that the closest Costco is in Raleigh. I personally don’t mind this because I will take any and every opportunity to go to Raleigh. I once had the privilege of residing in Wake County. Those ten years were a reprieve from my thirty-eight years in Fayetteville. I would still be in Raleigh if …oops, love ya, honey, didn’t know you were reading this!

Costco at first glance seems to be a kissing cousin of Sam’s Club. Upon further inspection you’ll find that although they both are huge stores with jumbo sizes of everything from olives to laundry detergent, Costco outshines Sam’s in their product selection, store appearance, and courteous staff.

I should stop right now and confess----I despise Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. Until I started catering in 2000, I had spent very little time in either one. My business partner convinced me that more profit could be made for our small venture by shopping these stores. She was right, but since I am no longer in this business, I limit my exposure to the Sam Walton dynasty. I like a certain dog food at Sam’s (that takes my little girls about two months to consume) and their meat department is good. I also think the photo shop does a great job, but don’t hold your breath on the hour processing time or you’ll be blue in the face.

Costco, on the other hand, is a delightful adventure. I find their stores very clean and neatly organized, and yes, I have visited other Costco stores. The quality of the food is outstanding. The bakery offers items freshly baked on site as well as items packaged from vendors such as the Atlanta Bread Company. A plethora of cheeses, meats, and prepared entrees and salads await your approval in the deli area. A special extra chilly room offers a wide and exotic selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and special salad mixes. I especially like the Parisian blend that includes a fancy lettuce mix, dried cranberries, almonds, feta cheese, and white balsamic vinaigrette. The frozen foods and dry goods sections of the store are as well stocked and varied as the fresh foods. This is the only store where I can find cases of FUZE, Nick’s answer to avoiding Diet Cokes.

In addition to foods of all types, Costco sell books, music, health and beauty items, furniture, appliances, and electronics. They even sell hearing aids and that’s just in the store, online you will find even more choices, and most posted prices include shipping costs. The selection and quality of merchandise is exceptional, but when you come to the checkout counter, a clerk will unload your items onto the conveyor belt, something that rarely happens at Sam’s Club. I have found the staff at Costco to be very helpful and friendly.

After leaving the store, but before exiting the parking lot, check your gas gauge. The other week at $2.42, Costco had the lowest price per gallon on gas that I saw in Raleigh. (See my photo of the long, but fast line). While you may not net a lot of savings by driving to Raleigh for Costco shopping, if you’re already there, this is a great store.

Costco is on Old Wake Forest Rd, at the Six Forks Rd. intersection.

A Day at the Creek

Nick and I attended Homecoming at Campbell University on November 2nd. It’s hard to believe that thirty years ago we were freshmen (Nick at Campbell and me at Carolina). Nick enjoyed seeing all the changes that have been made since he last visited campus about fifteen years ago. The new football program has everyone, current students and alumni alike, excited. Right now the field and bleachers look a lot like a high school stadium, but the field house is impressive. It’s definitely a work in progress. What is not a work in progress is the new beautiful convocation center. We’re already checking the calendar for a date with the basketball team. While these sports programs are not as elaborate or established as some of the larger universities in the area, the spirit of the fans cannot be matched.

After the game, we went to the Brass Lantern in Dunn for dinner. The décor of this restaurant reminds me of the type of fancy adult restaurant I saw as a teenager. My childhood restaurant experiences consisted of Big Daddy’s Seafood in Kure Beach and Hardee’s. Unlike modern families, we seldom ate away from home. When I was fourteen, I went to Florida with my brother’s family and we ate at an Italian restaurant in Daytona Beach. This place has tablecloths, cloth napkins, and even served cocktails, something that was unheard of and illegal in North Carolina. The Brass Lantern reminds me of this kind of classy restaurant: subdued background music, low lighting, and cloth linens. There are no televisions, loud music, garish props, or theme dressed wait staff. Food and relaxation are the focus. Even though the atmosphere is fairly formal, casual attire is acceptable.

Nick had baby back ribs and I had prime rib. Both came with salad bar, baked potato, and fresh bread. The salad bar consists of very basic items; however, the quality and freshness of the ingredients elevate it to a higher level. I especially enjoyed the watermelon pickles. The ribs were tender and sweet. The only disappointment to me was the prime rib. I could tell this was cooked under the broiler. I feel this compromised the taste. I prefer grilled meat. The prices were typical for this type of “Saturday Night” restaurant. My prime rib was $17.95. Nick’s ribs were on special for $11.95 for a full rack, but he had to pay an extra $3.79 for the salad bar. Overall, I highly recommend the Brass Lantern for a good meal at a fair price in a pleasant environment.