Thursday, April 6

Three Traditions







As I'm writing this, I'm looking out the window at a cold white sky above fragile tree branches, soft with baby-green leaves, bending low to the ground under the weight of the heavy blanket of snow which continues to float from the clouds -  and I'm wondering, exactly where did spring go?  The electricity went out at 3:30 this morning - a tree that fell on the lines, they say - and it only came on briefly about an hour ago, but long enough to make a pot of coffee.  Fingers crossed that my laptop battery will hold out until it comes back on again!

I'm feeling a little nostalgic, I guess, as I watch the winter scene unfold (in April!) and here's why.  I always wanted a spring baby.  There's something so special about being born during the season of renewal and rebirth.  When I became pregnant with Eva I was elated and began thinking of Spring-inspired names and perusing the pages of the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue in search of the perfect "gardenesque" nursery set, and when we found out she was due on Easter Sunday my mind happily wandered to lilac Easter sundresses and sunny straw hats.  She ended up coming a few days before Easter and I remember that first Easter Sunday was very much like today - snowy, wet, cloudy and cold.  So much for the dreams of dresses and sun hats, but I had something better to occupy my thoughts.



This week my spring baby is turning 8 and each year, right around her birthday we have one of these heavy April snowstorms.  It's become sort of a birthday tradition.  One that mother nature seems to enjoy but I could just as easily do without.  Still, it wouldn't feel right if mother nature skipped that tradition for a year.  So we appease her by spending the entire day in the warm kitchen.

Another tradition we've adopted and come to love is that, instead of throwing a big birthday party, we try to dodge the April snow and have a girls'-day-out shopping spree in Denver - just Eva, my mom & me.  The American Girl Store is always our first stop, and there's usually some pampering involved (for the girls & the dolls!), and of course, a soda.  The kids never drink soda regularly, so I have to admit that I'm quite amused by their sheer excitement when they're promised a drink from the soda fountain!




A  few weeks before the trip, we start thinking about the birthday cake.  Actually, to be honest, I started thinking about it months ago, in the dead of winter, when spring was still the subtlest of distant dreams.  We plan the flavour.  What colour should we make the frosting?  How will we decorate it?  If you know me, you know that I often plan in pictures, scribbled & sketched in a little notebook that I keep in the kitchen.  We drew a little cake with notes on color and flavor.   Eva crossed out "yellow buttercream" and added "pink" instead.  Sometimes we hop on to YouTube for inspiration.  I guess this planning stage has become somewhat of a third tradition.  One that I love!  I have notes  & diagrams of all the cakes I've made over the years, scrawled in that kitchen notebook.  Some end up on the blog, even!





This year we had popcorn on the brain.  I remembered the big, colorful tins of popcorn my grandparents gave me every Christmas.  They were separated into 3 sections, each with a different flavour - buttered, cheese & candied.   A few weeks ago I teamed up with SkinnyPop Popcorn to create a spring-inspired treat, and as I thought about how I would use popcorn in a recipe, I kept coming back to that candied popcorn from my childhood.  So I began sketching little puffs of popcorn on top of one of the cakes in my notebook.  A few days later, when I looked back at it, I saw that Eva had taken her colored pencils to my popcorn mound, adding pastel pops of pretty pinks, teals, blues & greens. She often embellishes my notes & recipes with her own repertoire of silly smiley faces, hearts and stars.  She even drew in some popcorn that had fallen off of the cake and onto the table...with an arrow pointing to a drawing of the emoji with his tongue sticking out!  And so the cake was born.  Another spring baby!  I had in mind the flavour of buttered popcorn with the salty-sweet crunch of candy, so the base is a butter cake, covered in a thin layer of buttercream, then drizzled with a salted brown butter glaze which acts as the glue to hold the candied popcorn in place.  It's really two recipes in one, as the candied popcorn alone is one of our favourite treats - just a good for Easter as it is for Christmas!



Four Layer Pastel Candied Popcorn Cake


Don't be intimidated by how many step there are in this recipe.  The popcorn can be made up to a week in advance and stored in an airtight contained.  I usually make the cakes the night before and place them in the refrigerator.  They're easier to cut and decorate when cold.

Candied Popcorn

I made this with SkinnyPop Popcorn which is our go-to packaged popcorn because it's completely nut & peanut free.  For each color I used approx. half of a 4.4 oz bag of SkinnyPop.  This is about 6 cups of popped popcorn.

for each color use:
6 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup sugar
3 TBSP water
1 tsp butter
food coloring of choice

Place the popcorn in a large bowl and set aside.

Combine the sugar, water & butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.  Bring to a simmer without stirring - just swirl the pan to combine.  Once the mixture comes to a full boil, swirl the pan over the heat and cook for approx. 30 seconds longer to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.  Add the food coloring to the sugar mixture and swirl the pan to combine.  (I wanted a fairly light, pastel shade so I added only one - two drops of color to the mixture.  Keep in mind that the shade in the pan will be significantly darker than it will be once it is poured over the white popcorn.)

Immediately drizzle the sugar mixture over the popcorn and quickly stir to make sure all the popcorn is evenly coated.  Spread the popcorn on a parchment-lined sheet pan and allow to cool & dry for several hours.  Wash the pan and the bowl before starting on another color.

Four-Layer Butter Cake

3 cups sifted cake flour
3 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup (16 TBSP) butter, very soft
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk

Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C). Trace the bottoms of two 8 inch round cake pans on parchment paper. Carefully cut out the circles just inside the lines.  Butter the inside of the pans. Press the parchment into the bottoms and butter that as well.  Dust the inside of the pans with flour and set aside.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, slowly beat in the soft butter until just incorporated. Beat in the sugar and then the eggs, one at a time.  Mix the vanilla and milk and slowly beat this in until everything is just combined. Don't over mix.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake 30 - 32 minutes, shifting the pans in the oven half way through to ensure even baking. Test for doneness with a toothpick or wooden skewer. Cool completely before unmolding and icing.  (I place the cakes in the fridge overnight before icing.)

Buttercream

12 TBSP butter at room temperature
a pinch of salt
5 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
a few drops food coloring

Place the butter, salt & sugar in a large bowl.  Start by whisking slowly by hand until the sugar and butter and combined, then switch to an electric hand mixer and slowly beat in the milk & vanilla.  You should have a fairly soft, spreadable buttercream.  If it seems too stiff add a few more drops of milk.  If it's too thin, add a little more powdered sugar.

Place about 1/4 - 1/2 cup of the buttercream in a small bowl and stir in a few drops of food coloring until you reach your desired shade.  Set aside; this will be your finishing coat.  Use the remaining icing to fill and ice the cake.

Salted Brown Butter Glaze


2 TBSP butter, room temperature
1 cup icing sugar
2 TBSP whole milk
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp French grey sea salt
a few drops of a complemtry food color (if desired)

Place the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.  Melt and cook until light brown and fragrant.  Remove from heat.

While the butter is browning, whisk together the sugar, milk and vanilla.  Whisk in the warm, browned butter, salt and food color, if using.  Drizzle this over the top of the cake, allowing a little to drip down the sides.  While the glaze is still warm, add your base layer of popcorn.  

To assemble the cake:

1.  Cut each cake in half horizontally to create the four layers.  Set one cake on a large, flat cake plate or turntable.  Carefully mark the center all the way around the cake with a sharp serrated knife.  Keeping your knife on the mark you made, slowly turn the cake while cutting in until you've cut the cake in half evenly.  Set the layers aside and repeat with the second cake.











2. Determine the top and bottom.  Choose the cake with the nicest BOTTOM and set aside.  This will be the top layer of the cake.  Place the other bottom on your cake plate and start icing and stacking.

3.  Ice and stack.  Place a dollop of white icing in the middle of your first layer.  Spread it out to the edges.  You should have a layer of icing that's about 1/4 inch thick.  Place a layer of cake on top.  Make sure it's even and level by checking the sides and then looking at it from top down.  When you're sure its even, press it gently onto the first layer.  Continue icing and stacking the layers, making sure the top cake layer, which you had set aside, is placed bottom-up so you have a nice, eve, flat top.  (Tip - use a spoon to separate out the icing and a separate spatula or butter knife to spread it on the cake.  Don't stick your spatula back into the clean icing or you'll get crumbs in your icing.)

4.  Apply a thin crumb-coat.  Ice the exterior of the cake with a very thin coating of icing, then place in the refrigerator until the icing is hard.  This will capture all the crumbs and keep them from getting in the final layer of icing.



5.  Apply the final layer of icing.  Spread another thin layer of icing over the cake.  Then use a cake scraper or the flat edge of a spatula to scrape and spread the icing around the edge of the cake.  To do this slowly turn the cake while dragging the scraper along the side.  You should be able to partially see the sides of the cake through the frosting, but if you don't like the "partially-naked" look, add a little more icing.

6.  Finish with the colored icing.  Place dollops of colored buttercream on the side of the cake.  Using the scraped and the same technique you used in the previous step, scrape and drag the colored icing into the white icing below it.  I wanted the colored icing only on the bottom of my cake, but you can apply it where ever you want,  just make sure to spread it out so you end up with a smooth cake.  Place the cake back in the refrigerator to chill completely.

7.  Glaze.  Pour the warm glaze over the top of the cake and gently spread it to the edges, allowing a little to drip over the sides.  While the glaze is still warm add your first layer of popcorn.  This will provide a foundation and help your popcorn mound to stay in place.

7.  Decorate.  Top with a huge mound of the candied popcorn and any other candy you like.  I used a mixture of small and large Sixlets, which are nut & peanut free.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.







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