Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to Make a (Vanilla Blueberry) Ice Cream Cake

First, find a good reason to make one. I knew for months that I wanted to make an ice cream cake for Evan's birthday party. He tried to steer me away, saying it would be too messy, too hard to serve, etc. Indeed, I usually avoid making cakes for parties, preferring to bake simpler handheld apportioned desserts like cupcakes. But I felt a special occasion such as a double 30th birthday party (he shared his party with his best friend who was born only 10 days away) merited an extra special baking adventure, especially for someone who loves ice cream as much as Evan.

Second, decide on your preferred style of ice cream cake. It turns out it's hard to find basic instructions for ice cream cake. There are lots of variations out there, often involving elaborate cookie studded ice cream or unusual flavors. Some aren't real cake, just cookies crumbled into a layer topped with ice cream. I scoff at those. Some are made of ice cream spread between two whole layers of cake. But Evan doesn't like regular cake that much, so I didn't want to make the cake primary and the ice cream secondary. Some versions involve a layer of ice cream molded in a cake pan to perfectly match a layer of cake in size. However, those recipes call for a lot of ice cream (two quarts), which would consume too much money and time to make. Many suggest whipped cream as frosting. But I don't like whipped cream.

Decide on a cake of your own design: In my case, it was a Vanilla Ice Cream Cake with Blueberry Filling: half a layer of vanilla cake, topped with blueberry filling, then a layer of vanilla ice cream, then half a layer of vanilla cake, and then frosted with vanilla ice cream. After it's all spent time in the freezer together, the slightly-ice-cream-soaked-half-cake-layers are just the right size to provide a chilled sturdiness, while the pure vanilla ice cream shines and the blueberries jazz it up.

Two or three days ahead, bake the cake. I used Smitten Kitchen's Best Birthday Yellow Layer Cake. Like Evan, I think regular cake is kind of boring, but Deb did not let me down and this cake was surprisingly tasty, so I kept sneaking bites of the bits that stuck to the pan. I have just one cake pan that is a rectangle around 7x11 inches, so I diminished her recipe by a quarter and left out the buttermilk and salt because no one misses that. Cream 1 1/2 sticks of butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar, whisk in 3 eggs, 1 cup milk and 2 tsp vanilla. Dump in 3 cups flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1 1/4 tsp baking soda and beat to combine until smooth. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. I had trouble getting the cake out of the pan even after it had cooled for an hour, so I employed a trick of placing a wet washcloth around the bottom of the pan for a few minutes before trying again, and it actually worked. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and store it in the freezer.

Sometime between making the cake and the ice cream, make the blueberry filling. It is essentially a blueberry jam, and you want to make sure you leave enough time for it to chill before assembling the cake. In a saucepan, combine 1 pint of blueberries, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, 2 tbsp cornstarch and the juice of half a lemon. Let the mixture simmer on low for about a half hour, until the juice has evaporated off and it's thick enough to spread. Let it cool completely.

One day ahead, make the ice cream and assemble the cake. Homemade ice cream is soft enough to spread easily after it first comes out of the ice cream machine, so you want to have everything ready to assemble as soon as it is done churning. I followed the trusty recipe for basic vanilla ice cream that is found in the little pamphlet that accompanied my ice cream machine. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar and one cup milk until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Whisk in 2 cups cream and 2 tsp vanilla. Turn on your ice cream machine, pour it in, and let it churn for 15 minutes.

While it churns, begin to assemble the cake. Remove the cake from the freezer and carefully carefully slice it in half. You probably want to use a long serrated knife. Spread the blueberry preserves over the bottom layer and stick it back in the freezer to let the blueberry layer firm up a bit.

When the ice cream is done churning, spread about half of it on top of the blueberry filling. Lay the second layer of cake on top and then spread the remaining half of the ice cream across the top. Leave the sides for last and do it quickly. As I learned, ice cream does not work that well as "frosting" since it melts and drips rather than adhering to the sides. Nevertheless, do your best and ignore the mess. You can cleanly scrape away the melted puddle around the cake after it has spent its time in the freezer.

Store the ice cream cake in the freezer until just before serving. Luckily, it fit quite well inside of my cupcake carrier, which fit just barely into my freezer. Otherwise I probably would have tried to wrangle plastic wrap around it.

When it comes to time to serve, make sure all accompanying items are at hand, since time is of the essence when it comes to serving ice cream cake. We ushered everyone outside to wait with champagne and sparklers, while I scrambled last minute to find a lighter for the candles. Then I was glad to have a real candlelit cake to present for the happy birthday chorus moment. This was followed by shouting "quick come and eat the cake before it melts!" while the other birthday boy was presented with his present, a bow-adorned bicycle. We got about 20 small squares out of this ice cream cake, which turned out to be enough, because as anyone who's been to a wedding knows, not everyone wants cake at a party.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ramekin Dreams

It was a certain someone's birthday last weekend. A certain someone who was turning 30 and likes cooking and has often wished for ramekins so that he can bake adorable individual desserts and dishes for guests. I commissioned my friend Andy Boswell to make a set of six as a gift for Evan.

When we were young, my dad took pottery lessons from Andy's dad. Now Andy too is a potter (or utilitarian ceramic artist as he calls himself), who shares his father's studio. His etsy shop is full of beautiful mugs, teapots, and other vessels. It is much nicer to have his unique and meaningful pieces added to our home than generic mass produced items from China.

Evan is happy that his ramekin dreams have come true. We used them for the first time last weekend to make mini frittatas for brunch for overnight guests. I plan on using a few as serving dishes for his big birthday party coming up this weekend. And I see lots of personal apple crisps in our future this fall.

Mini Fritattas

Arrange the ramekins (one per person) on a baking tray in the oven and preheat the oven to 350. Whisk two eggs per person in a bowl. Add whatever extras you would like, such as grated cheddar cheese, sauteed onions and roasted red peppers. Add salt and pepper to taste. Carefully grease the insides of the ramekins with butter. Pour whisked eggs evenly among the ramekins. Bake for about 20-30 minutes, until the eggs puff up and a knife inserted comes out only slightly wet. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Girls Getaway in Ithaca

It's become a yearly tradition that I get together with a few high school friends in Ithaca, as a halfway point between our various homes across New York State. The first year was the summer of Elaine's bachelorette and wedding (technically we were in Syracuse and Seneca Lake that year). The second, we went cabin camping with Elaine's puppy. The third, we stayed in a hotel to accommodate Elaine's pregnant belly, and this year we rented a house, now that she has a nine month old baby. 

Renting a house was a good choice, as it allowed us to relax comfortably while the baby crawled around and we cooked meals at home. This was my first time renting from Airbnb, so I was a little anxious about it, but the house delivered on our expectations of cleanliness and size and amenities (a deck for mosquito-free lounging and grilling! a swing for making babies smile!). Hopefully we'll stay there again next summer, and maybe we can do more hiking and camping in another few years once little Emma's older.

We always try to hit up the Ithaca Farmers Market, which is huge and is housed in a wonderful permanent wooden structure. We cooked black bean tacos the first night, and then supplemented it with vegetables from the farmers market to transform our leftovers into black bean burgers and salad the next day.

This annual gathering is a great way to catch up on our changing lives each year. As Meredith put it: "It's nice to spend time with people that you've known for a really long time! Even if we are not all in the same places in our lives right now, I think its good for us to see what each other are up to and how we all made different choices and have different ideas."

Also, I couldn't help capturing that great graffiti trying to alert the populace to the perils of fracking. Just say no...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Quinoa Salad with Chickpeas, Tomatoes and Squash

Here's a good quinoa dish that I've added to my roster of summer salads. I made this back in June for a party whose invitation jokingly requested no healthy stuff like quinoa. So of course that's what we had to bring. The salad is composed of quinoa, chickpeas, chopped cherry tomatoes, a diced yellow summer squash, diced spring onion, and fresh parsley. It qualifies as vegan and gluten free. Despite their love of meat, everyone at the party ate it up.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bike Commute Reflections

Last summer, my bike commute took me over the Williamsburg Bridge. This summer, it's the Manhattan Bridge. (And soon enough, my commute will likely change to the Brooklyn Bridge when my office moves to the financial district in the fall). I like seeing the wildflowers and smelling the grass on the Brooklyn side ramp, a rare glimpse of nature against the steel and concrete.

One thing I will say about biking in New York City is that I find it exhausting. Not only physically, but also mentally, as you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings. My eyes scan the parked cars to the right to make sure none are about to open a door or pull out. I listen and glance behind me to make sure there are no cars approaching too fast that I should move out of the way for. Before I go through a green light, I check to make sure there are no cars running red lights in the other direction.

Biking doesn't tire me out that much in the mornings, because I take it easy on my way to the office. But I definitely feel it in the evenings, after I've worked all day and then biked five and half miles home with a gradual incline at the end. I welcome the occasional stormy day when I can veg out and close my sleepy eyes or read on the subway.

But I keep it up because it's still the best form of exercise for me personally. It's consistent and it's fun and it's hard enough finding "me" time in my current schedule that I don't know how I could fit in cardio workouts otherwise.

I realized that it actually limits my future job options, because I don't think I ever want to work somewhere with a bike commute that would be longer than six or seven miles. When it gets to be ten miles each way, it's too rough to do regularly, as Evan has found out at his new job. But I've decided I'm okay with that right now, because I'm prioritizing my health and quality of life.

And sometimes biking earns you comments like this one, said to me from a garbageman the other day: "Even in that helmet you look beautiful."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Strawberry Rhubarb Ice Cream

The season of strawberries and rhubarbs has come and gone, but I've only now had time to take these photos off the camera. Evan made this ice cream, not me, but he was so enamored with it that he wanted me to share. For fruit ice cream, he likes to take the time consuming method of cooking fruits down into a jam that can be added to the ice cream machine after you've put in the plain ice cream base. Bookmark this one for next June.

Strawberry Rhubarb Ice Cream
1 3/4 cup rhubarb, chopped
1 cup strawberries, chopped
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Stew ingredients for twenty minutes. Puree. Return to the pot and simmer until it reduces to a jam consistency. Test to see if it's ready by using the frozen plate test (put a spoonful on a frozen plate, wait a few minutes, then touch it and see if it wrinkles).

1 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar

Meanwhile, whisk these ingredients together until sugar is dissolved. Pour mixture into ice cream machine to churn. After the ice cream machine has been going for ten minutes, slowly add the strawberry rhubarb jam. Let it churn for about another five minutes. Store in the freezer overnight until the ice cream firms up.