Vanilla Sour Cream Cake with Strawberry Jam

It’s easy these days to become bogged down in the day to day – worried about school schedules and job applications and how we’re going to ever afford to go on vacation again.  Sometimes it’s nice to throw myself into a project, shift my focus to something else for a change.  As I set out the ingredients for this cake yesterday, listening to the whine of the grain mill as it ground the flour, I was completely immersed in creating this celebratory gateau.  Nothing else mattered for a few hours, except making the perfect birthday cake.

You see, yesterday was my husband’s 37th birthday.

I asked him what kind of cake he wanted, and he told me yellow cake with white frosting.  It’s his favorite.  In fact, I shouldn’t have even had to ask, but I always feel compelled to do so.  Like maybe one year, he’ll choose something different.  But no, yellow cake with white frosting it was.  I chose to shake things up a bit by adding some strawberry jam to the mix, but ultimately it was still a yellow cake.  With white frosting.

There’s something sort of magical about taking raw ingredients and creating something beautiful and delicious.  Whole grains get ground into flour, then combined with leveners, fat, sugar, eggs and liquid, and suddenly you have cake.  It’s really an amazing process.  And then you take it a step further and layer it with homemade strawberry jam and thick and creamy cream cheese frosting, and you’ve got a masterpiece on your hands.

This cake comes together fairly quickly and easily, with little effort.  It does require you to separate your eggs, and whip the whites to soft peaks with cream of tartar, but for the most part, it doesn’t require much in the way of baking prowess.  It helps to have a stand mixer, but you could do it with a hand mixer and a couple of bowls.  I used freshly ground soft white wheat flour, so I imagine you could do this with a conventional white whole wheat, or even all-purpose and achieve the same results.

You’ll end up with a moist, rustic cake that soaks up all of the wonderful strawberry flavor from the jam and stands up nicely to the weight of the cream cheese frosting.  The tang from the yogurt and sour cream provide a nice balance for what could be an overly sweet cake, with all of the sugar in the frosting and the jam.  I imagine if you wanted something even more simple, you could leave the frosting off all together, and just give it a light dusting of powdered sugar.  Or, you could use fresh seasonal fruit in place of the jam (ooh, wouldn’t figs be lovely here?) and keep the frosting for some sweetness.  The possibilities are really limitless here.

Vanilla Sour Cream Cake
prep time: 10 minutes
bake time: 20 minutes
yields: 2 8-inch layers

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cup sifted flour
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 Tablespoons butter
  • seeds scraped from 1/2 of a vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (I used 4 oz. of yogurt and 4 oz. of sour cream)
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 cup good quality strawberry jam
  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 4 oz. softened butter
  • seeds scraped from 1/2 of a vanilla bean
  • 1 lb. powdered sugar
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F, and grease and flour two 8-inch cake pans
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and vanilla seeds until creamy
  4. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy
  5. Beat in the egg yolks
  6. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the yogurt or sour cream in two parts, beating until smooth.
  7. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks.
  8. Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining whites, taking care to deflate them as little as possible.
  9. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans.
  10. Bake at 350F for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out cleanly
  11. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack to cool completely
  12. Once cooled, carefully cut each of the layers in half, creating a total of four layers
  13. to make the frosting, combine the cream cheese, softened butter and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Beat on high to combine.
  14. Reduce speed to low, and gradually add the powdered sugar until completely combined.
  15. To construct the cake, place one layer on a cardboard cake round or cake plate.  Spread half the jam evenly across the layer.
  16. Add a second layer of cake, and spread frosting evenly across layer.
  17. Add a third layer, and add remaining strawberry jam, spreading evenly.
  18. Add the final layer, and frost with remaining cream cheese frosting.
  19. Decorate with sprinkles, if desired.
  20. Enjoy!

Peach Habanero Basil Jam

I think for some of us there is an ingrained need, an inherited proclivity, to put food by.  Not so much out of physical necessity or fear of running short of foodstores come winter, but because we have a genetic predisposition to do so.  Whether it’s because we want to ensure the ability to eat local produce year-round, or because we are control freaks who need to know exactly what ingredients go into every little thing that we eat, when we see mounds of fruits and vegetables we immediately get excited at the prospect of standing over a hot stove in the high heat of August so that we can load our pantry shelves with gleaming glass jars of jams, jellies, tomatoes and other assorted foodstuffs.  It may be hot, hard work, but for us the reward is far greater than the effort needed to achieve it.

On Monday, after dropping my oldest at day camp, my mother and I strapped the baby in his car seat and headed an hour south of home to the state farmers market in Forest Park, GA.  While it is called the “state farmers market”, it is really more of a giant produce market – with products hailing from as far away as California and Mexico.  However, there is a row of stalls dedicated to Georgia farmers, and the market produce stand features local and regional options as well.

We wandered the stalls, marveling at some of the more exotic options, but mostly keeping our eye out for peaches and plums.  We both have fond memories of my grandmother’s peach jam and plum jelly – put up every year from the fruit that grew on trees just outside the kitchen window at their home in rural Mississippi.  I can remember clearly standing in the shade of the peach tree, biting into the warm flesh of a perfectly ripe peach that I had just plucked from overhead.  And while I would love to tell you that we have our own miniature orchard in our backyard, that just isn’t the case.  Luckily we live in an area where peaches and plums are readily available this time of year.

Needless to say, we came away from our perusal with more than a few bits of fruit.  That is to say, 50 lbs. of peaches, 25 lbs. of plums and 24 lbs. of cherries.  Oh, and 24 lbs. of strawberries.

I know – it’s a little ridiculous.  But the prices were too good to pass up, and the prospect of freezing and preserving all of that lovely fruit for use throughout the winter was equally as enticing.

We got everything home and immediately set to work processing the ripest of the fruit.  The cherries we pitted and froze in gallon bags.  I’ll figure out what I want to do with them later.  The strawberries were so ripe, we chose to make jam out of most of them, and then freeze a couple of gallons.I also made a few sheets of fruit leather from the strawberries.  I’ll do an entire post on the processing of the strawberries, and the strange circumstances that led us to buy 24 lbs. of almost (but not quite) rotten strawberries later.

Today, I’m focusing on peaches.  50 lbs. of peaches is a lot, in case you were wondering.  We froze three gallons worth, and I managed to ruin at least 10 cups (and one stock pot) in my first attempt at jam – you really do need to keep an eye on things like fruit and sugar when you’re cooking them over high heat.  Scorched peaches and sugar are not the most pleasant scents with which to start your day.

The second and third attempts were much more successful, and I’m now the proud owner of nine pints of peach jam – three of which are spiced up a bit with the addition of some heat from habanero peppers and given a floral note from a few sprigs of purple basil.

Peach Habanero Basil Jam
prep time: 30 minutes
cook time: 2-3 hours
processing time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 5 cups peaches, peeled, halved and pitted
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 3 habanero peppers, stems removed and four slits cut into the sides (leave them whole)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 large sprigs of purple basil
  • 1 packet liquid fruit pectin

  1. Combine peaches, sugar, peppers and lemon juice in a 4 quart (or larger) saucepan.  Stir to mix, then let sit for 10 minutes or so to allow the peaches to release some of their juices.
  2. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to low and allow to gently boil and reduce to a jam-like consistency.  This could take as many as 2-3 hours.  Do not rush it – that’s how I ruined the first batch.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  3. Once the mixture has reduced and thickened, stir in the basil and let it steep for a few minutes.
  4. While the basil is steeping, prepare your jars (I used a mixture of pint and half-pint jars) – sterilize jars and rings in simmering water.
  5. After the basil has steeped for a few minutes, add the pectin to the peach mixture and bring to a hard boil.  Allow to boil hard for five minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat, remove habanero peppers and basil sprigs from the mixture and discard; fill the hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space.
  7. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 20-25 minutes (20 for half-pint, 25 for pint).
  8. Remove from the water bath and allow to cool on the counter.
  9. Enjoy!

The resulting jam is decidedly peachy in flavor, with just the slightest heat.  The basil isn’t terribly prevalent, but it lends a nice back note to the whole thing.  I’ve eaten some on toast for the last two mornings at breakfast, and it is a great way to start the day.  I think it would also be a great glaze on a roasted chicken or a pork loin.

What kinds of things are you putting by this summer? Or is the prospect of spending hours on end in a hot kitchen just too much to bear?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Tomato Jam

The tomatoes, they just keep coming!  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – just trying to find some inventive ways to use them.  As much as I love a good BLT, or a fresh tomato and mozzarella salad, there are really only so many tomatoes you can eat in a day.  That’s where this tomato jam came into the picture.  I was perusing the fabulous Food in Jars, and I came across her version of this tasty treat.  I was intrigued by the idea of a sweet/savory ketchup alternative.  I knew as soon as I had the requisite five pounds of tomatoes, this would be my next canning endeavor.

With this morning’s garden haul, I topped the kitchen scale with five pounds of a mixture of grape tomatoes, black princes and brandywines.  The majority of the weight was made up of the tiny grape tomatoes, with the brandywines and black princes making up the difference.  I was slightly concerned that the tart, firm grape tomatoes wouldn’t give up enough juice to make the recipe successfully, but they didn’t let me down.

Tomato Jam (adapted from Food in Jars)
prep time: 20 minutes
cook time: 1 – 1 1/2 hours
processing time: 20 minutes
yields: 4 pints (I used 4 oz. jars and got 12 jars with about a 1/2 pint of overrun)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 cups honey granules
  • 2 1/2 cups sucanat
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup minced jalapeno pepper (about 7 small peppers)
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  1. Chop the tomatoes – I used a mixture of small yellow grape tomatoes, which I halved or quartered depending on their size, and black prince and brandywine tomatoes, which I cut into medium dice.  Be sure to remove the stem and core on the larger tomatoes, but do not peel or deseed them.
  2. Combine the tomatoes and all other ingredients in a stock pot and bring to a boil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced and become thick and jam-like (about an hour, depending on whether you keep the mixture at a boil, or reduce it to a simmer).
  3. Sterilize your jars in simmering water.
  4. Ladle the tomato mixture into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headroom.
  5. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp cloth and place the lids on.  Screw the rings on.
  6. Place the jars in a boiling water bath and process for 20 minutes.
  7. Remove from the water at the end of the processing time and allow to cool on the counter.

I tried a little bit of the overrun with some cream cheese on a cracker.  The flavor is complex – a little tart, a little sweet, and a little savory.  The sucanat gives a depth to the sweetness that you don’t get when you use refined white sugar, and the jalapenos give just a hint of heat (removed most of the ribs and seeds when I chopped them – if you want more heat, leave them in).  I imagine this will be excellent as a topping for burgers, paired with goat or bleu cheese on crackers or flatbread, or as a sauce base for barbecue chicken.

Even if your garden is no longer producing tomatoes at a record rate, I suggest you head to the farmer’s market and pick up a few pounds.  This recipe is definitely worth the time and effort!