Category: Desserts

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

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Sarah, Kate, Ben and I had dinner at the Pump Room this past weekend and enjoyed a delicious meal using a Gilt City coupon that we bought a few months back.  The coupon was for a “shared meal” that included 2 appetizers, 2 pastas, 2 entrees, 2 sides and 2 desserts.

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As much as our group loves desserts, we are typically too full by the end of the meal to order anything.  But because this coupon included desserts anyway, we made the extra room in our stomachs and enjoyed a ice cream sundae dish and a delicious carrot cake.

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While we were enjoying our desserts, we got to talking about what we wanted to make for dinner on Sunday night (we are the type of people that make plans around what we are going to eat and when).  There were a lot of suggestions, but the one thing that everyone seemed to agree on was a homemade carrot cake.

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I have actually never made carrot cake from scratch before.  I generally don’t make any cakes from scratch because I find the boxed stuff to be totally palatable and very easy to make.  However, I knew that making a moist carrot cake with a rich cream cheese frosting would be worth the little bit of extra effort.  And really, that is all that it was, a bit more effort, but a lot more delicious than anything I have had out of a box.

The keys to my carrot cake were: 1) using a lot of fresh shredded carrots to keep the cake very moist 2) adding buttermilk to the batter to add a little bit of tang and make the cake not-over-the-top sweet 3) using room temperature ingredients which makes everything blend together easier.

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If you have carrot cake lovers in your family, I highly recommend this recipe.  We all couldn’t get over how delicious it was and how much better it was than most we have tried.

Made from Scratch Carrot Cake

Ingredients:

Cake:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup vegatable oil
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 tsp pur vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs (room temperature)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 lb carrots, peeled and shredded

Frosting:

  • 2 sticks butter, room temperature
  • 1 lb cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 TB pure vanilla etract
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.  Butter two 9-inch round cake pans (you can use a sheet pan or cupcake tins as well if you don’t want to do a layered cake).  After the pans have been buttered, follow with a light dusting of flour, tapping out an excess.

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In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.  In order to ensure that there are no lumps in the batter and that everything is equally incorporated, I sift all the dry ingredients together.

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In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, buttermilk and vanilla.

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In the bowl of an electric stand mixer (or a large bowl if you have a hand mixer), beat the eggs and sugar at high speed until they become a pale color, about 5 minutes.

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Once the eggs and sugar have been mixed, pour in the liquid ingredients and combine until well incorporated.  Beat in the dry ingredients until the batter is just moistened.

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Add the shredded carrots to the bowl and stir until incorporated.

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Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake the cakes for 55 minutes to an hour, or until you can stick a toothpick in the middle and have it come out smooth.

Allow cakes to cool on a cooling rack for 30 minutes.  While the cakes are cooling, you can make the cream cheese frosting.  Add all ingredients to the bowl of an electric stand mixer and beat on medium until everything is completely smooth and the frosting is light and fluffy.

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Once the cakes are cooled, you can remove them from their pans (they should come out easily, but if it is not, run a knife along the outside of the pan until they comes free).  Place one of the cakes directly onto your cake pan.

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Spread about a cup of frosting onto the first layer and top with the second cake.  Use remaining frosting (I actually used about 1 cup shy of the remaining, but use as much as you like) to frost the top cake and all of the sides.  Clean up any frosting that may have gotten on the cake stand for nice presentation.

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If you want to get really creative, you can use the excess cream cheese frosting mixed with food coloring to mold little carrots on top (blue and yellow make the green topping and yellow and red make the orange carrots).

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New England Patriots Tailgating Menu

As you know, I am a big time Chicago Bears fan.  So when they failed to make the playoffs this year, I was very disappointed. 

Luckily for me, I have a surrogate NFL team that I also love – the New England Patriots. 

Photo: Lets go Pats!

My love the Patriots is truly rooted in my love for Tommy – because to know and love Tommy – you at least have to appreciate the team that has such a big part of his heart.  Appreciate them I do and over the last millennium seven years that Tommy I have been together, I have truly developed a love for them myself.  I justify this love based on the fact that the Pats are an AFC team and rarely compete against the Bears.  When the two teams do meet however, rest assured I root for the Bears (not that it helps considering the last two meetings that I attended resulting in Patriot wins!).

The past weekend, the Patriots played in the AFC championship against the Baltimore Ravens.  Unfortunately, they were not victorious.  The Patriots loss was a total shock to me, because I had seen them give the Houston Texans a good romping the week before, and thought they were pretty unstoppable.  I was so confident in fact that I prepared a New England themed dinner, in their honor, that I planned to share with all of you as an idea for a riff on traditional Super Bowl party food.  On the menu – New England Clam Chowder and Lobster Rolls.

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I also thought that because the Patriots are, in some ways “America’s team,” that apple pie would be a great dessert to serve (note that this is a “mini pie” because it was only for me and Kate!).

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I thought these foods, in addition to some San Francisco themed menu items (cioppino with sourdough bread, wontons as a nod to the city’s iconic China town, crossed my mind as good menu ideas!) would be such a fun twist on the standard nachos, chips and dip and fried food you find at SB parties.

Now that the Patriots aren’t in the Super Bowl, I guess I will just have to urge you to make these dishes regardless!  They were so super satisfying and made me nostalgic for summers in Cape Cod!

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For those of you who live outside of New England, the lobster meat will be a bit of a splurge.  At a local fish shop in Chicago, the prices for live lobsters range from $15-$18/lb and lobster meat alone was $60/lb.  The guys at the fish shop told me that the price for the meat ends up being the same either way, so I opted to not have to deal with cooking the lobsters and just got lobster meat (which was a mixture of both claw and tail meat). 

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The clam chowder was much more reasonably priced to make.  For one, Costco often has fresh clams that are very inexpensive, so if you were making a big batch of this clam chowder, that would be prefect.  Because this was only for Kate and me, I got the clams at the same fish market I got the lobster and paid $6 per a dozen cherry stone clams (plus they threw in some extras). 

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True New Englanders would tell you that you do not need to use cherry stone clams in chowder – that the small clams should be reserved for steaming and eating straight with butter.  Because traditional chowder usually has chopped clams instead of whole clams, it is more typical to use the big quahogs.  But I say, use whatever you can find!  I can attest that both cherry stones and quahogs taste great in chowder.

Overall, the combination of chowder and lobster rolls was fantastic.  It went particularly well with the AFC Championship on in the background!

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Although the Patriots didn’t win, I was still happy I made these dishes and will certainly make them again (with or without a football game on!).  I was also very fortunate to have pie at the ready because I did some emotional eating to get through the loss!

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I am thinking that I may even make these dishes for Tommy in the coming weeks to help cheer him up as he is still in a state of depression.  Alongside a bowl of steaming chowder and nice fresh lobster roll, I will also remind him of the common Chicago creed: “There’s Always Next Year!”

New England Themed Tailgating Party:

  • Lobster Rolls
  • New England Clam Chowder
  • Apple Pie

Lobster Rolls – Serves 4

 Ingredients:

  • 1 lb lobster meat (or the meat from 2 1 1/2 lb lobsters), cut into large chunks
  • 3/4 cup chopped celery
  • 3 TB of lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup mayo (you can add more if it looks a little dry)
  • S+P to taste (start with 1/4 tsp salt and 1/2 pepper)
  • 4 hot dog buns (preferably split top if you can find them), toasted
  • 2 TB butter, melted

Directions

Add lobster, celery, mayo, lemon juice and S+ P to a large bowl. 

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Stir everything to combined and taste for seasoning. Adjust as necessary.  Toast the hot dog buns in an oven and spread the insides with melted butter.  Add lobster salad mixture to buns and serve!

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Clam Chowder– Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 4 dozen cherry stone clams, scrubbed (if you are using bigger clams you don’t need as many)
  • 4 slices of bacon
  • 1 cup onions, diced
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1 1/2 lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 5-6 thyme leaves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • S+P to taste
  • Oyster crackers, optional
  • 2 TB of minced parsley, optional

Directions:

In a large sauté pan, cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy.  Remove bacon from the pan, roughly chop and set aside. Reserve bacon fat.

Add the clams and 1 cup of water to a large pot.  Cover the pot and cook the clams over high heat for 5 minutes.  Uncover the pot to see if any of the clams have opened. Remove those that have.  Keep cooking remaining clams for another 2-3 minutes, checking every 1-2 minutes to remove opened clams.  Discard and clams that do not open after 7-8 minutes of total cooking time.

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The water that you used to steam the clams will not be flavored with lots of clam flavor and will serve as the broth in the soup.  Because clams often have sand in them, you want to make sure to strain this broth well.  I find that the best way to do this is by using a fine mesh sieve with a coffee filter inside of it.  Reserve the strained clam broth.

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Meanwhile, in another large pot (don’t use the same one you steamed the clams in without washing it because it likely has sand in it), pour in the reserved bacon fat and heat over medium heat.  Add the onions and celery and sauté for 5-7 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not browned.  Add the chopped Yukon potato’s and cook for another 5 minutes.

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After 5 minutes, add flour and stir to combine with all the vegetables. 

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Cook for 1-2 minutes.  Add the reserved clam broth and whisk until there are no lumps.  Add thyme, bay leaves and salt and pepper (about 1/2 tsp of each).

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Bring mixture to a boil and reduce heat.  Cook for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.  Meanwhile, remove clams from their shells and chop into small pieces.

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Add the chopped clams, milk and cream to the pot.  Stir to combine and cook for another 2-3 minutes to combine all the flavors and heat through.  Taste and adjust for seasoning.  Serve the soup with oyster crackers, reserved bacon and minced parsley.

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Apple Pie – Makes 1 9-10 inch pie (pie crust is “Perfect Pie Crust” Recipe by Ina Garten)

Ingredients:

Crust:

  • 12 TB butter (1 1/2 sticks), very cold, cubbed
  • 1/3 cups vegetable shortening, very cold
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 6-8 TB very cold water

Filling

  • 5-6 apples, peeled and sliced
  • 3 TB butter, cubbed
  • 2 TB lemon juice, plus more for spraying on top of the apples to prevent oxidation
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup of flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 egg, beaten

Directions:

First, you will want to prepare the pie crust.  The easiest way to make it is in the food processor in my opinion, but feel free to use a pastry cutter as well.

Add the flour and salt to the bowl of a food processor with the steel blade attachment.  Pulse the flour and salt to combine.  Then add the vegetable shortening and the butter.  Pulse 10-15 times until the butter is the size of peas.  Then, with the machine running, very slowly pour in the cold water until the dough begins to form a bowl.  Dump dough out onto a flowered board and roll into a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

While the dough is getting cold, you can prep the filling for the pie.  Peel and slice the apples and spray with squeeze of lemon to prevent browning.  Add to a medium sized bowl and add the sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt and lemon juice.  Stir everything to combine and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

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At this point, you can pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees.  Once the dough has chilled for long enough, remove the ball from the fridge and cut in half.  Place one half of the dough on a floured board and the other back in the fridge.  Roll out half of the dough and place into your pie dish.  Add the apples on top of the dough.

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Add the cubed pieces of butter on top of the apples.

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Finally, roll out the other half of the dough, place on top of the apples and crimp the top and the bottom together so that they form a nice seal around the apples.  Brush the pie crust with the beaten egg and sprinkle with additional cinnamon and sugar, if desired.  Cut 2-3 slits on the top of the pie crust to allow steam to escape.

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Place the pie dish on a cookie sheet (trust me, the sugar oozes out and its easier to clean a cookie sheet than it is your oven!) and bake for 30-40 minutes at 450 degrees.  Reduce heat to 350 and cook for an additional 10-20 minutes until the top of the pie is lightly browned and the juices beginning to bubble.

Remove from the oven and cool.  Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

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Sorry for the length of the post, but I hope you enjoy all these New England themed dishes!!

Italian Cream Cupcakes

As I mentioned yesterday, we celebrated my Dad’s 73rd birthday on Wednesday night.  It was a wonderful Italian themed dinner that included an antipasti platter and some homemade Bolognese sauce.  We knew that we wanted to continue the Italian theme into dessert, so we decided to make a family classic – Italian Cream Cupcakes.

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Truth be told, my Dad isn’t actually too much of dessert fan.  Strangely enough, he has three daughters, a wife and a son in law who all happen to love desserts.  So while my Dad happily choked one of these delicious cupcakes down, we mainly make him a dessert on his birthday so that he has something upon which he can blow out the candles and so that the rest of us can satisfy our sweet cravings.

I can’t tell you how old this recipe is (Mom – perhaps you could enlighten us in the comments section), but I know I have been eating Italian Cream Cupcakes since I was little.  They are extremely easy to make and the combination of chocolate and cream cheese is absolutely delicious.

Italian Cream Cupcakes – Makes approximately 40 cupcakes:

Ingredients:

Cake Batter:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 TBs vinegar
  • 3/4 cup oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla

Cream Cheese Filling:

  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 8 oz cream cheese (Philadelphia brand cream cheese works best)

Directions:

Allow cream cheese and egg to come to room temperature.  This is really important or the cream cheese filling won’t come together like it should.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, for the cake batter, mix all dry ingredients together in the bowl of an electric mixer.

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Mix to combine.  Combine liquid ingredients together and add to the dry ingredients.  Mix everything together on medium speed for 1-2 minutes until all the lumps have been removed and the batter is smooth.

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Pour approximately 1/4 cup of batter into each cupcake tin (about half way up).

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If used silicone or paper cupcake/muffin cups, there is no need to spread with cooking spray.  However if you put the batter directly into the cupcake pan, make sure you do add cooking spray so the cupcakes don’t stick.

Once the cupcakes tins have been filled, it is time to make the cream cheese filling.  Beat the egg, salt and sugar together until well combined.  Add the cream cheese and beat until incorporated.  Once smooth, add a heaping teaspoon of filling to each cupcake.

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Cook cupcakes for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Once finished, remove from the oven, allow to cool and then remove from the muffin tins onto wire racks for cooling.

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Serve as an Italian themed dinner dessert or to anyone you really like a lot!

Birthday Weekend Part 1

I turned 28 over the weekend and I have to say that this was my best birthday yet!  A friend joked that my birthday celebration sounded more like a 30th bash than a 28th, and I feel so lucky to have been with my family and closest friends.  On Thursday night, I had dinner at home with my family and the menu included my mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup plus some delicious rum cake (recipe at the bottom of this post!).

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On Friday, Tommy flew in from Boston and we enjoyed dinner at Sprout, which is located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Saturday night, my sisters, Ben and Tommy treated me to an amazing dinner at the Pump Room, which is an iconic and historic Chicago restaurant.

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After dinner on Saturday, we headed to a local bar to hang out with friends and continue the celebration.

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In between all these formal events, Tommy and I also had some delicious eats for lunch and brunch on Saturday and Sunday including as stop at The Meatloaf Bakery and Hash House a Go Go (strange name, amazing food). 

While I plan to summarize the entire weekend over a few posts, I thought I would get you started on arguably the best part of the weekend: Rum Cake.

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This is a recipe that my mom got years ago while she was working at First Chicago Bank.  A coworker of hers brought it into the office and my mom was in love at first bite!  She asked for the recipe and it has been a staple in our family ever since.  Strangely enough, a few years ago, my coworker and friend Gloria brought in a rum cake to the office that tasted eerily similar to my family recipe. Sure enough when we compared recipes, we found that we had the exact same one, but Gloria had gotten hers from her grandmother many years back.

A recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation in two different families?  You know this is a keeper. 

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It is unquestionably the most moist and flavorful cake you will ever eat.  The best part?  It uses boxed yellow cake mix and instant pudding as a base and then is enhanced with tons of rum and crunchy pecans!  The key to this cake being so moist is the infusion of rum in the cake itself and the addition of rum to the glaze which then soaks into the cake.  Also, it is important that you use dark rum in order to get the rich rum flavor that makes this cake great.

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Making this cake in a bundt pan is actually traditional, but because I don’t have one, I just use two nine inch round cake pans.

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While I think using a bundt pan produces a prettier cake, I think that the two pan approach results in a more flavorful one with a better disbursement of pecans.  I think that this would actually work well as a traditional sheet pan cake too, so use whatever you have!

Rum Cake – Serves 8-10

Ingredients

Cake

  • 1 box yellow cake mix
  • 1 package instant vanilla pudding
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1/2 cup dark rum
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped

Glaze

  • 1/4 lb butter (1 stick)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup rum

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.  Add all cake ingredients together in a mixer or a large bowl.  Mix on medium speed for 2-3 minutes until lumps are removed or mix by hand until lumps are removed.  Spray pans with cooking spray and dust with flour.  Sprinkle with chopped pecans.

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Evenly pour cake batter over two pans.  Hit the pans against the counter to make sure there are not air bubbles and it is even.  Bake for 1 hour.

For the glaze, melt butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.  Once melted, add the water and sugar and boil for five minutes, stirring constantly.  Turn off fire and add rum. Stir everything to incorporate.  Set aside.

When the cakes are finished baking, remove from oven and set on cooling racks.  Cool completely.  Remove one cake from the pan and place on a cake plate.  The cake should come out easily if it is sprayed and floured, however you can also run a knife around the edge to help facilitate the process.

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Prick the cake with a toothpick all over.  This will allow the glaze to truly seep into the cake.  Pour half the glaze over the first cake.

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Place other cake atop the first layer and repeat the whole process, making sure to cover any “dry” looking spots on the top and sides of the cake.

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We let our cake sit for over 24 hours, which I highly recommend.  This really lets the glaze seep into the cake and enhances the rum flavor.

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Thanks to my family for helping me celebrate my 28th (especially my mom who cooked dinner and baked me a cake!)  I couldn’t have asked for a better kick off to the weekend.

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