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Exactly one year ago, I was finalizing plans for my daughter’s volcano birthday cake.  Little did I know that signing her up for hula class would lead to a luau-themed party complete with erupting cake.  In hula, all dances tell stories, and, of course, the volcano dance made a serious impression.   Since I’ll spend the coming weekend working on entirely different cake for her seventh birthday, l need to write about the erupting volcano cake now, or I probably never will.

Anyone who knows my family could tell you that the prospect of this cake excited my scientist husband more than soon-to-be-six-year-old Eliza.  In fact, when she first requested the cake, he didn’t miss a beat:  “If you can make the cake, I can make it erupt.”  He had the details for our confectionery explosion worked out in no time.  Dropping a few pieces of dry ice inside a test tube and then injecting raspberry Jell-O produces an instant, impressive, and crowd-pleasing eruption.

I wish I could say I figured out how to make the cake itself as easily.   The idea of baking cakes, stacking them, and then carving them into a volcano seemed daunting.  I puzzled over what to do until my friend Val suggested shaping a Rice Crispy treat volcano.  I can’t stand Rice Crispy treats, so this never would have occurred to me, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I had the solution to my volcano problems.

The Rice Crispy-marshmallow combination provided the perfect medium for mountain building.  After getting the shape just right, I shoved a test tube into the mountaintop.   Next I covered two sheet cakes with a base layer of frosting and then covered them with blue fondant.   Atop my sugary sea, I added a layer of sand colored  fondant that would serve as the island from which the volcano rose.   Since volcanoes are generally rough and rugged, I didn’t worry about folds as I covered the rice crispy treat volcano with brown fondant.  After making a hole in the top to uncover the test tube, I added fondant lava, and then set the volcano on top of the prepped sheet cakes.

Technically, we had our volcano cake, but it didn’t look finished to me.  Clearly 3 am delirium had me in its grips as I started forming sea creatures, rocks, and plants for the island and cake  base.  My husband grabbed a bag of pretzels and formed some fantastic palm trees.  One even included a sea gull.

I don’t know if Orca whales hang out in Hawaii, but since they’re regulars here in the San Juan Islands, I couldn’t resist making one for the cake.

Eliza loved her tropical volcano cake, and so did her friends.  After the smoking, molten eruption, we witnessed a birthday party first.  The kids didn’t want us to cut into the cake and serve it to them, they wanted my husband to make it erupt again.  And so he did.

This year’s cake will not erupt.  Let’s hope the kids (and my husband) don’t feel cheated.
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Just Desserts

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Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour ArrangementsI‘m not much of a brunch person.  I usually wake up starving and need to eat breakfast right away to stave off a hunger-induced nervous breakdown.  Even my children understand that I’m mostly useless until I have a bowl of cereal in my belly.
Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour Arrangements

While waiting genteelly for brunch may not be my forte, I have definitely made friends with this much-beloved meal:   when a brunch date presents itself, I eat my bowl of cereal as usual upon waking, and then, by the time brunch rolls around, I’m eagerly anticipating dessert.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour Arrangements

Since I have come to view brunch as a dessert course, I always offer to bring something sweet whenever friends invite us.   Recently, this has meant doughnuts, but since my last attempt at Vanilla-Cream Filled Doughnuts failed miserably, I felt the need to expand my morning-sweet repertoire.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour Arrangements

Enter Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid. This sweet bread looks super impressive.  When I pulled it out of the oven last Sunday morning, I almost couldn’t believe I made it.  And it tastes great, too.  Tart jam and sweetened cream cheese combine inside tender yeasted dough flavored with lemon zest and vanilla.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour Arrangements

The best part about this breakfast dessert, though–despite its complicated looking appearance–is its simplicity of preparation.  Flatten out your dough, spread some jam down the center, and top it with the cheese mixture.  Make angled slits down both sides and then fold them over the top, alternating as you go.  Tucking in the ends is the only tricky part.  I trimmed some of the dough off the both ends before folding them over the jam and cheese fillings;  this gave the braids a tidier look and helped maintain the the dough-to-filling ratio.

Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour ArrangementsI’d place this braid distinctly in the breakfast-dessert category.  It’s sweet, but not overly sweet.  It satisfied my morning sugar craving without encroaching on the seriously rich and indulgent territory that I prefer, say, every night after dinner.

And so, alas, since a raspberry braid can never fill the dinner-dessert role, I won’t be making it again until someone invites us over for brunch (hint, hint).

Raspberry Cream Cheese Braid | Flour Arrangements

Raspberry-Cream Cheese Braid

Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.  Makes 2 braids, about 16 servings each.

1/4 cup warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sour cream
6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 large egg
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1 large egg
1/2 cup raspberry jam

1 egg
1 tablespoon water

For the Dough:  In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, combine water, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of the sugar.  Let sit until bubbly, about 10 minutes.  Add 1 cup flour, remaining sugar,  sour cream, butter, salt, egg, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.  Mix with paddle attachment until combined.  Add remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time.  Switch to the dough hook and knead for a few minutes until soft and pliable, but not sticky.  Knead briefly by hand if desired.    Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes.

For the Filling:  In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the cream cheese, butter, sugar, salt and vanilla. Mix in 3 tablespoons flour and the egg, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl thoroughly.  In a separate bowl, combine jam with 2 tablespoons flour.

To Assemble:  Gently deflate the risen dough, and divide it in half. Roll each half into a 15 by 10-inch rectangle, and place them onto lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets. Spread half of the jam in a 2 1/2-inch-wide swath, lengthwise, down the center of each dough rectangle, leaving a 1-inch border at the top and bottom. Top jam with half of the filling. Make 1 3/4-inch cuts every 3/4 inch down both long sides of the dough. Fold the ends over the filling, then pull the cut strips up and over, alternating sides. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough.

Cover the braids with plastic wrap and let them rise for 30 to 45 minutes, until they’re puffy looking.  Brush with egg glaze mixture and bake the braids in an oven preheated to 350°F for 32 to 36 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes before slicing.

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I‘ve never liked Wheat Thins — the pasty texture, the Play Doh-like flavor, the way they stick in my molars when I eat them.   My husband, on the other hand, loves to snack on them, which means we always have a package of Wheat Thins in the cupboard.  I try not to bias my children with my personal prejudices, so I frequently give them to Eliza and Tessa when they ask for a snack.   And I swear I’m not just trying to empty the box so I can throw it away.

The other day Eliza declared that she didn’t like Wheat Thins.  I admitted to her that I didn’t much like them either, and then asked her if she wanted to make some crackers with me.  I’d noticed her nibbling sesame seeds off the counter the other day after I made some seeded bagels, so I suggested that we make sesame crackers.  This made her smile.

Eliza was so excited that she decided to wait on the snack that she’d requested until after we finished baking.   She and Tessa helped me measure and mix, and then roll and cut our crackers.

These crackers include both sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil;  they burst with a nutty, rich flavor that seems almost surprising in such an unassuming little cracker.   They taste great alone, and even better topped with goat cheese and smoked salmon.

In addition to having a satisfying crunch, these crackers don’t stick in my teeth.   And Eliza loves them.  She says they’re seedy.

Sesame Crackers

Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.  Makes about 8 dozen small crackers.

1/2 cup black sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 325° F.  In a large bowl, combine seeds, flours, and salt.  Add the oil, tossing with a fork until the mixture forms even crumbs.  Sprinkle the water over the top and toss until the dough sticks together when pinched.  Form into a ball and knead together very gently.  Take care not to over mix.

Divide the dough in three pieces. Roll the dough, once piece at a time, as thinly as you can.  Sprinkle lightly with salt;  roll over the dough once or twice to press down the salt to help it adhere to the crackers.   Cut dough into squares, rectangles, triangles, or whatever shapes you like using cookie cutters, or trim into shapes using a pizza cutter.  Transfer crackers to a lightly greased or parchment-line baking sheet.

Bake crackers for 25 to 30 minutes or until they begin to brown around the edges.  Remove from the oven and transfer them to a rack to cool completely.

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Winter always brings me down.  I have nothing against rain, sleet, and snow;  it’s the vanishing daylight that kills me.  Round about February each year, I begin to wonder if spring will return before I come unhinged.

April’s finally here, and by the look of things, spring’s come with it.  Flowering red current bushes explode in hot pink.  Yellow daffodils stand at the ready.  Best of all, the sun is sticking around until after dinnertime these days.

One sun-dappled evening last week, my husband started talking about hummus.  The next day, after he picked up some pitas at the store, I tossed garbanzos in the food processor along with some garlic, lemon juice, and tahini.  Good stuff, hummus, and so simple to make.  As I nibbled, I decided I wanted to try homemade hummus on homemade pitas.  Was this my husband’s plan when he began extolling the virtues of hummus?  Probably.  In any case, we now know that hummus does taste better on homemade pitas.

This pita dough recipe calls for a three hour rise, which gives the flavors of its simple ingredients plenty of time to develop.   The long rise also gives a person time to come up with more complex plans for those pitas that will eventually emerge from the oven.

In my case, the gorgeous sunny weather got me hungering for fresh, flavorful greens.  I envisioned arugula, with its sharp, spicy flavor and bright-but-bitter-edge, spilling from loaded pita halves.  Add savory prosciutto, sweet tomatoes, rich Parmesan, and flavor-packed pine nuts, and then toss it all up with a lemon-shallot dressing.  It’s like a spring day in sandwich form.

Patience is not one of my strengths, but pita dough demands it.  Making pitas without patience will drive you as crazy as the long, dark nights of winter.  First there’s that long rise.  Then you need to let the dough rest between the dividing, the shaping, and the rolling.

Once you start working the dough, the gluten springs into action, making it impossible to create the circular pitas that you imagine in your mind.  Take a break after shaping the dough;  letting the dough relax will make it much easier to roll into perfect circles.
When they’re finally ready for the oven, these pitas bake quickly.  The recipe I used called for a 10 minute baking time, but this was way too long.   The pitas puffed perfectly, but permanently, except when you tried to slice or tear them, in which case they shattered to pieces.
I finally settled on about five minutes of baking time, which produces the soft but sturdy texture you expect from a pita.  These pitas provide just the right heft for scooping freshly-made hummus.  Halved, they’re sturdy enough to cram full of just about any sandwich filling you can imagine.
If, like me, you’ve anticipated spring’s salvation this whole dark and drawn-out winter-long, go make yourself a vibrant spring-time salad and stuff it in a sandwich.  It will make you happy.  I promise.

Pita Bread

Adapted from Baking, by James Peterson.  Makes 8 pitas.

3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water, plus 1 tablespoon
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the yeast, 1 tablespoon water, and 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour in the bowl of a standing electric mixer.  It will be thick and pasty.  Let the mixture sit for a few minutes until it looks puffy.  Add remaining water, whole wheat flour, the salt, and olive oil.  Mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until combined.  Add remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.

Turn out dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes  (you can use the dough hook with your mixer, but I usually have better luck kneading such a small amount of dough by hand).   Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise at room temperature for about 3 hours or until tripled in bulk.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Divide the dough into 8 evenly-sized pieces.  Shape each piece into a round ball, pinching the seams together on the bottom.  Let rest for at least 10 minutes.

Roll each ball into a 6-inch disk, flouring as needed to prevent sticking.  Allow the disks to rest for about 10 minutes.

Place the pitas on a baking sheet, two at a time, and slide them on the bottom rack of an oven preheated to 500º F.  Bake for about 4-5 minutes, until puffed.   Move the baking sheet to the top rack and bake for 1-2 minutes more, until very lightly browned on top (err on the side of under baking;  if you bake the pitas too long, they will not deflate).

Slice pitas in half to fill, or cut them into small wedges for dipping.

Arugula Salad with Lemon-Shallot Dressing

Serves 4.

1 large lemon, zested and juiced
3/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons minced shallot
1/4 cup olive oil
3 ounces arugula
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup pine nuts
4-5 slices prosciutto, torn into small pieces
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Combine lemon zest, juice, salt, and minced shallot in a small bowl.  Mix well.  While whisking, pour olive oil in to the bowl in a slow, steady stream.  Set aside.

Combine remaining ingredients in a large bowl.  Toss with dressing.

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