This is a story about baking perfect sweets.
Not those multi-tiered constructions you see on TV or desserts by pastry pros with not a single crumb out of place.
This is about baking sweets for a baby shower or bridal shower or church potluck by adding an ingredient that makes them perfect -- lots of love.
Sure, cakes may be lopsided, cookies crooked and the decorations deliriously overwhelming, judging by the multicolored nonpareils that keep popping up around my kitchen days after a decorating extravaganza with a couple of young bakers.
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Amy Atlas, the author of "Sweet Designs: Bake It, Craft It, Style It" (Hyperion, $27.99) who was blessed with a grandma who taught her to bake, is a wizard at creating fabulous dessert tables. She also likes letting kids help in the kitchen, especially when it nurtures their inner Picasso.
"If they're decorating a sugar cookie or helping decorate a cake or cupcake, let kids have fun with it and be their own little artist and take pride in it," says the New Yorker.
Atlas regularly cooks and bakes with her family but also understands life's realities. For her tickled pink poundcake bites, she uses a purchased poundcake, which she cuts into cubes, then dips into tinted melted white chocolate.
So maybe Dad will stir up a scratch cake for our petite sweets, a cake our family baked as children. Or your teens will use a brownie mix to make brownie hugs. And everyone will help decorate with colorful sprinkles or piped buttercream rosettes.
Prep: 2 hours
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 16 to 24 little cakes
2 1/4 cups cake flour, lightly spooned into cup
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup each: sour cream, milk
1 teaspoon vanilla or orange extract
1 ½ sticks butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs, well beaten, to measure ½ cup
Orange icing, see recipe below
Decorations (candied violets, pastel-tinted buttercream frosting rosettes, etc.)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt; set aside. Combine sour cream, milk and vanilla; set aside. Lightly butter a 9-inch square or 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Line with waxed paper; butter and flour paper.
2. Cream butter in a bowl with an electric mixer, 1 minute. Add sugar, a little at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Add eggs a little at a time to butter mixture, beating at high speed until incorporated. Scrape down sides. Lower speed. Add flour mixture, ½ cup at a time alternately with 1/4 cup liquids; beat after each addition only until smooth.
3. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until cake tests done, 35 minutes for a 13-by-9-inch pan. (For the 9-inch pan, after 35 minutes, increase heat to 375 degrees, bake another 10 minutes.) Remove cake from oven; cool on wire rack.
4. When cake is room temperature, loosen sides with a knife; invert onto wire rack. Carefully remove paper. Cut cake in squares with a serrated knife; place squares right side up on cake rack set over waxed paper.
5. Spoon icing over each square; use a small spatula to cover sides. Let glaze dry 30 minutes. Add more sifted confectioners' sugar and orange juice to icing remaining in the bowl to make a slightly thicker mixture. Ice squares a second time. Decorate as desired. Store in a cool place, or refrigerate then let come to room temperature to serve.
In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup orange juice with 2 tablespoons melted butter. Add 3 cups confectioners' sugar (sifted to removed lumps) little by little, beating until smooth. Add more sugar if needed to make a glaze that coats the back of a spoon.
Per square for 24 squares (without icing): 155 calories, 7 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 85 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Note: Adapted from a recipe for Florentine pastry squares in "The New Antoinette Pope School Cook Book," by Antoinette and Francois Pope. You can bake the batter in a 9-inch square pan (for 16 roughly 2-inch squares) or use a 13-by-9-inch pan, for 24 shallower, roughly 1 ½-inch squares.
Amy Atlas' book, "Sweet Designs," offers a recipe for fudge-y brownies that calls for cutting the baked brownies into stars, apple shapes or diamonds before dipping them in melted chocolate. She suggests that time-crunched cooks use a boxed mix.
1. Prepare fudge-type chocolate brownie mix; pour into baking pan lined with parchment that has been lightly buttered. Bake; cool in pan on wire rack. Remove from pan; cover and let sit overnight.
2. Remove parchment. Cut in shapes with a knife or cookie cutter dipped in hot water, then wiped off. Chill, 1 hour.
3. Melt 12 ounces semisweet chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl (on medium, stirring every 30 seconds). Dip brownie tops in chocolate. Set on wire rack, chocolate side up. Refrigerate, 10 minutes. Decorate with nonpareils, colored sugars or candies. Refrigerate to set chocolate.