Strawberry Vanilla Agua Fresca

The nearly two pounds of leftover strawberries from Andrea's cake were taunting me incessantly from the refrigerator; threatening to turn white and fuzzy at any moment if I didn't find a suitable application for them quickly. Thanks to Serious Eats, I found exactly what I was looking for.

Aguas Frescas are refreshing, light fruit drinks popular in Latin America, which basically consist of some sort of pureed fruit, sugar, and ice cold water. I would make no adjustments to this recipe unless you're making it for a picky 7-year-old, in which case you should add a glug or two of simple syrup to pump up the sweetness. Otherwise she may tell you "it tastes like nothing." Hmph.

While we didn't partake on Saturday afternoon for obvious reasons, a splash or two of Triple Sec or Limoncello might be nice also.

You will need:

1 pound strawberries, hulled
4 cups ice cold water, divided
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
Ice, for serving
Optional: simple syrup, recipe follows

In a blender, combine the strawberries with 2 cups of the water and the vanilla extract. Puree until completely liquid. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or through cheesecloth into a pitcher.

Stir in the remaining 2 cups water, lemon juice, sugar and/or simple syrup to taste, if using. Pour into ice-filled glasses and serve.

Simple Syrup:
1 cup water
2 cups sugar

Bring the water to a rolling boil and add sugar. Stir and heat through until sugar is completely dissolved. Cool to room temperature and pour into a sterilized glass bottle (I just dunked it and rinsed it in some more boiling water). Keep in refrigerator for up to a month.

Drunken Citrus Chicken

Sticking to the rules of marinating (acid/oil/herbs), these skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs bathe in silver tequila (100% agave is always preferred), Meyer lemon juice, orange juice, lime juice, cilantro, jalapenos and green onions for 2-4 hours before cooking entirely under the broiler. Don't fear the broiler!

You will need:

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
Cayenne pepper
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Lime juice - the equivalent of two fresh-squeezed limes (about 3 tablespoons)
Juice of two Meyer lemons (if available - optional)
1/4 cup orange juice
Three green onions, white and light green parts only, chopped
2 jalapenos, roughly chopped, seeds and ribs intact
Handful cilantro
1 cup tequila (any kind)

Rinse chicken and pat dry. Season liberally with salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder. Set aside in a medium-sized bowl.

In another bowl, combine tequila, citrus juices, green onions, jalapenos, cilantro and citrus rinds. Add a pinch of salt and pour over the chicken. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-4 hours, or overnight if possible. Remove the citrus rinds, cilantro and jalapenos before cooking!

Cover the bottom of a roasting pan with aluminum foil and place a roasting rack in the pan. Spray the rack and the bottom of the pan with cooking spray. Adjust the top rack of your oven to approximately 8 inches from the broiler; set broiler to low if possible. Keeping the door of the oven partially ajar, broil chicken thighs until they start to crisp, about 3 minutes. Flip and broil the other side until crispy, about another 3 minutes. Continue flipping chicken every 3-4 minutes, basting on occasion with leftover marinade, until an instant-read thermometer reads 165-170 degrees.

I set my smoke detector off approximately 87 times throughout the broiling and flipping process, but again, please don't fear the broiler! It's a misconception that food won't cook properly if cooked under the broiler, as it basically emulates an outdoor grill. As long as your chicken is far enough away from the broiler, and you pay close enough attention to the chicken as it's broiling, you can obtain a crispy (but not burnt) skin and fully-cooked meat. Crispy skin, juicy meat...what's so frightening?

Andrea's Birthday Cake: Part Three

Not Andrea - this is Josh's daughter Alyssa.

There's nothing better than the stiff but creamy, grainy but smooth, tangy and sweet goodness like cream cheese icing.

I sat watching the blinking cursor for a moment, contemplating how to elaborate upon that sentence, but I'm not sure I need to. If you know the pleasure of red velvet cake, then you know the pleasure of cream cheese icing. And I can stop there.

To this particular cream cheese icing, I added fresh strawberry juice revved up with simple syrup. You could probably use frozen strawberries and do without the simple syrup - it just so happened this time around that strawberries came into season about the same time as Andrea's birthday.

Strawberry juice:

To start, you will need about a pound of fresh strawberries, hulled and halved. Puree the strawberries until completely pulverized, then add simple syrup (recipe follows) a tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired sweetness. Don't make it too sweet - you're about to dump it in 6 cups' worth of powdered sugar. The goal is to even out the taste and sweetness of the strawberries, compensating for the inevitable few in every case that are underripe or too tart. Pour the mixture into a fine-mesh sieve or over cheesecloth into a small bowl. Set aside.

Simple Syrup:

1 cup water
2 cups sugar

Bring the water to a rolling boil and add sugar. Stir and heat through until sugar is completely dissolved. Cool to room temperature and pour into a glass bottle. Keep in refrigerator for up to a month.

For the frosting:

2 8-ounce bricks cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 cups confectioners’ sugar

Once your frosting has come together, slowly start adding the strawberry juice. Mix well after each addition and taste - you will probably not be able to detect strawberry flavor right away, so keep going. Stop when you can taste strawberry (the flavor will develop as the cake sits).

To assemble the cake:

I cut each layer in half so I ended up with 4 thin cake layers. You don't have to do this, but like I said before: I had a lot of frosting. Place the first layer on your cake plate and drop a large blob of frosting on top. With a spatula, work from the inside out and cover the top of the layer. Place the next layer on top and repeat with as many layers as you have; just frosting the tops at this point.

Next, frost the sides of the cake. Don't worry about crumbs - this is your crumb coat. A thin layer of frosting seals in the crumbs, and when properly chilled, your second, thicker layer of frosting will glide over the crumb coat perfectly, flawlessly. Having said that, after you frost the sides, keep the cake in the refrigerator to chill - preferably overnight. Add your final layer of frosting and decorate.

Andrea's Birthday Cake: Part Two

I'm slacking on replacing my camera, but for the meantime I suppose at least I have my cell phone's camera. The lighting is horrible and the shutter is far too slow (resulting often in blurry, unappetizing food pictures), so please forgive the lack of cake-baking-in-process pictures. That's not just an alibi - I swear I didn't use a box mix!

I purchased cake flour for the first time in my life and, proceeding with hopeful caution, modified Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake recipe. Why cautiously? Honestly, I didn’t know that it would work. I ditched the lemon zest, substituted vanilla extract for lemon, and did away with the raspberry filling and coconut. There’s a distinct reason I feared baking for so many years: unlike cooking, there’s no way to taste-test before serving, lest you hack off a piece of somebody’s else’s birthday cake – but even then, if you screw up, you can’t add a little of this or that to doctor it up. Baking is a science of leaveners and acids; a science I’m learning but on which I'm certainly not an authority.

The original from Dorie Greenspan's book, Baking: From My Home to Yours. Photo from a fellow food blogger.

Fortunately though, the baking gods smiled upon me and it was better than I could have hoped: moist but spongy, airy but firm, and it rose perfectly and evenly during baking, eliminating the need to even the tops out with a serrated knife. The two nine-inch layers (that I cut in half to make 4 layers – I had a ton of frosting) were a perfect, gorgeous canvas for my also-experimental strawberry cream cheese icing (see part 3).

Here’s my modified recipe, and a link to the original:

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups half and half
1 tsp red wine vinegar (trust me)
4 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and place a large baking sheet on the top rack of your oven (I'm not sure how, but I believe this has something to do with the evenness of the cake tops). Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each pan with a round of buttered wax paper.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Whisk together the half and half and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and the butter in a mixing bowl, and beat with a hand or stand mixer at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the vanilla extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

I know it seems very specific, but even though I happen to hate sifiting, I followed the instructions to the letter and arrived at the best cake I’ve ever pulled out of my oven. It’s worth it to do as Dorie says.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch – a toothpick inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes. Cool to room temperature (or be impatient like me and stick them in the freezer), turn over on to a plate and remove wax paper. If you choose to cut the layers in half to double up, use a serrated knife and make a clean cut halfway through each layer.

Next up: frosting and assembly.

Andrea's Birthday Cake: Part One

My dear friend Andrea's birthday was fast approaching when she was still deciding how to celebrate. Once she'd settled on a low-key get together, I offered to make her cake. But what kind of cake? Andrea had a few specific parameters: no chocolate, no lemon anything, no mint, and most especially, no cooked fruit. Such specifications immediately knocked about every cake in my repertoire out the window.

But, after tossing around a few ideas from Dorie Greenspan's Baking book, we ultimately settled on a white cake with strawberry-cream cheese icing. Not a huge stretch, but different nonetheless. Since I made it a personal goal early this year to bake every cake I make completely from scratch, I'll be blogging the creation of this cake in parts. Today's topic: decorations.

I knew from the start that I wanted to make the cake's flavor obvious on sight. I hemmed and hawed for a while over how to decorate it so it was obviously strawberry, but cutting up fresh strawberries and arranging them on top seemed too easy and overdone. Did I want to pipe on buttercream strawberries? Did I want to shape the cake like a strawberry? Finally I settled on cutting out and decorating butter cookies as strawberries and strawberry blossoms and plopping them on the cake.

But I couldn't find a strawberry cookie cutter to save my life. Even after the clerks told me they carried no such cookie cutter, I wandered nevertheless around a new baking supply store for inspiration (not that I'd need a reason to wander around a baking supply store). I happened upon a row of silver heart-shaped cookie cutters on wall pegs, in varying sizes. As I removed the smallest cutter from the wall and held it upside-down, I felt a stroke of genius. Surely I could decorate the hearts as strawberries!

Upon finding some teeny white sugar flowers:

I nixed the cookie blossom idea, picked up some royal icing powder, and headed home.

I made about 50 tiny heart cookies using a very simple butter cookie recipe (it didn't need to be an earth-shattering, delicious cookie, as it's just being used for decorating).

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine flour and salt, set aside. Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy; add egg, corn syrup, and vanilla and beat until combined. Slowly add dry ingredients. A slightly crumbly dough will form, but should come together when pressed. If your dough is too dry, try adding half of another egg (beat it in a separate bowl and pour in half of the mixture) and beating together again.

Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters into desired shapes, then place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 325 for 12-14 minutes (with such tiny shapes, mine took no more than 10). Allow cookies to cool while you prepare your royal icing.

If you aren't lazy or in a hurry like I was, you can make your own royal icing, and here's a good recipe (see "runny icing" section). If you do opt to use a mix like I did, just add about 5 tablespoons of water to a one-pound bag and mix by hand with a wooden spoon. Make sure you follow the directions on the bag for "picture/flood" icing, otherwise you'll be creating a whipped icing for decorating cakes - not ideal for cookies. Basically, you want it to be thick enough not to run right through the tip of a piping bag, but thin enough that it will easily "flood" the inside of a cookie outlined in icing (for reference).

Divide into small bowls with lids (or use plastic wrap), to keep the icing from drying out - which it will do, more quickly than you may think. Color the icing in each bowl with food coloring, and mix well. You can use a spatula to spread the icing, but I prefer the piping bag/squeeze bottle method.

Tada! I successfully transformed the tiny hearts into tiny strawberries. I'm still not completely sure how I'll lay them out on the cake with the sugar blossoms, but I think I'm off to a good start.

Now I just need to find an application for the other 30 naked hearts...

Stay tuned! Next up: white cake from scratch.