toasted confetti

How many times, do you think, does it take for something to become a tradition? We're at year three of making icebox cakes every third week in April, and it's starting to feel like it's been our way since forever.

I'm liking it. A whole lot.

After the cakes of everyone else's days of revelry, when we end up on my birthday, this is what we do.

It requires a box of graham crackers, a carton of cream, and this year, a half dozen eggs. A whole half carton, yes, I mean it, because we made coconut pastry cream and it's what took our usual and made it the all-time favourite. The cake is, to all intents, coconut cream pie without the bother of crust and turning on the oven. And despite those subtractions the sum we are left with is the whole shebang of all the its best parts.

It's a step added to past versions, but the pastry cream is a breeze to manage I promise. It's custard that's thickened with a starch in addition to the egg's yolks. It is thick and glossy, and here coconut milk brings flavour and fragrance. Coconut milk has a clean sweetness to its scent, and since there's not too much sugar to muck it up, that elusive essence remains.

Still, I wanted to up the coconut ante so to speak, and my hand settled upon the lid of our jar of shredded coconut. My thought was to not only to further infuse the cream, but I was also thinking of its texture, because I find it difficult to conjure the flavour of coconut without a thought of its chew; most specifically, most ideally, the damp, toothsome centre of a coconut macaroon. And we've got it here in spades.

I had planned on chocolate to pair with the coconut, however a long story, a confusing grocery list, an impending holiday weekend following a weekend of possibly too much of good things, meant I was without the chocolate I wanted, but stumbled upon something even better instead.

Blackberry jam.

A few weeks ago, in a fit of unseasonality, I made blackberry jam in the midst of March. We had frozen berries stocked in our freezer from last season, and in a burst of positive thinking that if I used the icy berries then fresh ones would soon follow at our market, I set about using them up. The jam had sugar, lemon and nothing else besides the fruit.

Now my hand set upon the lid to that jar. I heated a few spoonfuls, added a teacup's worth of fresh (frozen) ones to the thickly bubbling jam, and stirred it all through. Once the fruit squished and softened, barely cooked, I pressed it all through a sieve. Seedless, smooth and glistening, the sauce had body with the direct brightness of fresh fruit. It was the match we needed for our coconut cream - without it the cake would have been too much of the same, all cream and sweet; the jam's the standout, more than chocolate could have been.

It's not often I'll say fruit over chocolate, for the record.

Essential variables sorted, the remaining preparation was as per well-tread habit. Benjamin dealt out graham crackers, our card sharp's getting quite good at Crazy Eights and happy put his skills to culinary use; he lined each up neatly to make a layer in the bottom of the pan. With William's assitance we spread on cream, then jam, and repeated the routine until everything was used up. Overnight, in the cold of the fridge, the crackers turned to cake - puffing up, leveling out, absorbing some of the moisture from the cream so that the filling goes that much more sumptuous. The cake got turned out, slipped into a coat of whipped vanilla cream, and it was ready for the party.

Hooray.

COCONUT CREAM ICEBOX CAKE

The instructions are for a square cake, which is easier and neater than our attempt at a round. But, if you decide to aim for circular, these amounts will be about right. The cake can also be served, trifle style, in the dish it was made. In that case, you'll only need about 1/2 cup of cream, whipped, to cover the top.

FOR THE COCONUT PASTRY CREAM

  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut, see note

FOR THE BLACKBERRY SAUCE (makes approximately 1 cup)

  • 1 pound blackberries, hulled and roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup caster sugar, or thereabouts
  • 1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • A pinch of salt

FOR THE CAKE

  • 2 cups whipping cream, divided
  • Coconut pastry cream
  • 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar or thereabouts
  • A pinch of salt
  • 45 honey graham crackers, the single kind
  • One recipe blackberry sauce, divided

METHOD

Make the pastry cream. In a medium saucepan heat the coconut milk and milk. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod, stir those into the milks, then pop the pod in too. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then set aside to steep for a few minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch until smooth, pale and fluffy. Slowly and in a thin stream, pour the hot milks into the egg yolks while whisking constantly. Continue whisking until completely combined. Add in the salt and whisk again.

Strain the mixture back into the saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Cook until thickened and the custard boils at its centre. Continue to cook, still whisking well, for another minute.

Off the heat, stir in the shredded coconut. Transfer to a bowl, pressing a piece of clingfilm directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming as the pastry cools. Refrigerate until well chilled and firm, around 2 hours.

To make the sauce, put three-quarters of the berries in medium saucepan with 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the salt and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the fruit becomes soft and the juices begin to thicken, around 7-10 minutes.

Carefully remove the blackberries to a blender (or use an immersion style), and process until smooth. Push the puréed sauce through a sieve, back into the saucepan. Return to the heat and bring again to a simmer, stirring often. Cook the sauce until it becomes truly thick, with a clear, glossy look, around 10 minutes. At this point you want it on the verge of jammy-ness, close to the texture of hot fudge sauce.

Tumble in the reserved berries, give them a few turns in the pan and cook for another minute or so.

Again with care, remove the blackberries to that blender of yours and whirr them around. Sieve again, this time to a clean container, and set the sauce aside to cool. It should be about the consistency of chocolate syrup, rather than fudge, and will coat the back of a spoon thickly, but not heavily. Once it has cooled to a non-molten level, taste for balance and stir in the rest of the sugar and lemon if need be.

To assemble the cake. Line an 8-by-8-inch metal cake pan with a cross of clingfilm, leaving an overhang on all sides. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip 3/4 cup of well-chilled heavy cream until the cream begins to hold soft peaks. Take the coconut pastry cream, give it a stir or two to make sure it's smooth, then fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream.

Spread a small amount of the coconut cream on the bottom of the prepared cake pan. Lay 9 crackers, in a 3-by-3 grid, on top of the cream. Spoon one-quarter of the cream on top of the crackers. Then, using an offset spatula, gently spread the cream to cover the crackers entirely. Drizzle a few tablespoons of the blackberry sauce over the cream, spreading to form an even layer if desired. (You will use a generous 1/2 cup of the sauce for the entire cake.)

Top with another layer of graham crackers, continuing the layering until you have 5 layers of crackers and 4 of the pastry cream and blackberry. Make sure to reserve a small amount of cream to cover the last layer of crackers (no sauce on this one).

Cover loosely with a piece of clingfilm, then draw the overhanging clingfilm from the sides up to cover the edges. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 2 days.

About 1 hour before serving, remove the cake from the fridge and peel back the clingfilm. Invert the cake onto a serving plate, removing the remaining clingfilm from the top and sides. Smooth out the sides with an offset spatula if needed. Place the cake in the freezer, uncovered, to chill for 30 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or in a medium bowl with a hand blender or whisk, begin to whip the remaining 1 1/4 cup of well-chilled heavy cream. When the cream begins to thicken, sift in the 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar. With the machine set to medium-high, whip the cream until holds a firm peak, but being careful not to over beat.

Take the cake out of the refrigerator and gently spread a thin layer of the whipped cream to cover. Chill the finished cake in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, then serve with the remaining blackberry sauce passed alongside.

Makes one 8-inch square cake.

Notes:

  • Sweetened or unsweetened shredded coconut can be used, depending on your taste. The granulated sugar may need to be adjusted accordingly.
  • In the case you do not have both jam and fresh fruit on hand, this recipe was written with a from-scratch berry sauce. If you do, then simply heat around a 1/4 cup of blackberry jam in a saucepan over medium heat. When it at a simmer, add 1/2 cup fresh blackberries to the pot. Stir, cooking the fruit briefly, then proceed with the blending and straining of the sauce as detailed above. 
  • The thing about fruit sauces is that so much will depend on the fruit itself. You might need more or less sugar than I've suggested. This recipe will make around 1 cup, but it might be more or less depending on the juiciness of the fruit and how thick your final sauce ends up. Any leftover sauce can be used over to drizzle over ice cream or stirred into yogurt. It's also rather good as the base of a berried champagne cocktail (which gets my vote).
  • Previous icebox cakes can be seen here and here
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Most often an optimist, my moments of pessimism sometimes pay off. Last week, not even an hour after we talked about melting snow and bare earth, it snowed. I just knew that would happen.

That night, we shoveled the driveway.

Then, starting two days later, it snowed for three days straight. We cleared and shoveled often. We almost broke a shovel.

With the romantic fancy of my burgeoning hope for spring, I'd be blameless in muttering a sailor's curse or three as I tromped up and down and back and forth across our driveway and up the garden path. Maybe it is the madness of midwinter, but I have, shockingly, embraced the snow.

And shoveling. I really like the shoveling.

I volunteer to shovel. Trippingly pulling my boots on, and with the words only halfway out of my mouth, I'm out the door. I try to wait until after dinner, so everyone's fed and happy; when the darkness has settled in and all the streetlights are on.

In that quiet, the scene that greets me is especially beautiful. The languid wind of our street, the glow of porches lit in rows, a car rolling slowly past with its wheels crunching the snow the plows haven't cleared yet.

Tethered to our house with the task of shoveling, it's a snow globe existence; a world contained by how far I can see around the bend of the road.

There is a deep satisfaction in the feel of a blade cleaving through the weight of snowdrift, the metallic scratch of the shovel against the pavement. There is a thought of productivity and industry, a chest-puffing pride in getting a job done.

And yet, moving back and forth across the drive, the pattern of my footsteps is simultaneously meditative. The imagined dome of my small world condenses my thoughts and clears out the rubbish. I come back inside, cheeks flushed and arms tired, my mind full of a hundred new ideas.

I'm an odd duck, I know. But it makes me happy and I always sleep well after.

Yes, I really do like shoveling. Not something I'd ever thought I'd say.

And, while we're on the subject of likes, I really like cakes made with tangerines and almonds. It's a like I think you'll find easy to understand.

I made this cake as an interpretation of Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake from her book How to Eat, which as it happens is an interpretation of Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake.

It's made without flour; at its most simple the recipe only requires fruit, nuts, eggs, sugar and baking powder. I've fussed up the cake because of the ingredients I had, and appreciated the effect of those additions. Neither version disappoints though, so either way you're set.

It reminds me of marmalade, with the pith and peel used to their fullest. It is modestly sweet with a sourness you feel on your teeth. That devastating bitterness humming underneath the waxy fat of the ground nuts.

The exterior bakes to a glossily sticky bronze, with a blond crumb underneath. The scent of almonds and citrus is remarkable, smelling as you'd imagine wintertime should.

To eat this is to swallow the March sun, a beam of brightness on a snowy day. Or, if you're like me, it's just what you want when you come in from an evening of shovelling.

TANGERINE ALMOND CAKE

Adapted from Nigella Lawson. I use skin-on, raw almonds for colour and texture. Blanched almonds or pre-ground meal can be used as well.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound tangerines, around 4 medium, washed well
  • 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water (optional)
  • Butter for greasing a pan
  • 9 ounces raw almonds, see note
  • 6 eggs
  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • Seeds scraped from half a vanilla bean
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

METHOD

Place the tangerines in a medium pot. Pour over the orange flower water if using, then fill the pot with cold water until the fruit is covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the tangerines are quite tender, around 2 hours. Drain the fruit and set aside to cool.

Over a large bowl to catch the juice, split each tangerine in half horizontally, and pick out any seeds. Put the flesh, peel and pith to the bowl, and discard the seeds.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan, then line with parchment paper on the bottom and sides (with a collar of paper extending a little past the rim of the pan).

In the bowl of a food processor with the blade attached, grind the almonds to a fairly even meal. Add the tangerines, and process to a thick purée. Bits of nut and tangerine skin will still be visible.

In the large bowl used for the juices earlier, beat the eggs until blended but not frothy. Stir in the sugar and vanilla bean seeds, then the baking powder and salt. Fold in the fruit mixture.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean and the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, around 1 hour. If the cake is browning too quickly towards the end of baking, tent with foil. Remove from the oven and cool, still in its tin, on a wire rack.

Makes one 8-inch cake that's even better after a day.

I had not intended this humble walnut cake to be a topic of discussion. It was the fulfillment of a request of something simple to end a mid-week lunch ten whole days ago. No bells or whistles or sugarplum fairies required. No ballyhoo to be had, nothing to talk about here.

And good gracious, it was yet another walnut recipe. And not only that, it also represents not one, but another two recipes from Gourmet magazine, the apparent alpha and omega of my kitchen exploits. I assumed that my fancy, and our conversation, would move on to other things.

Silly, silly me. Despite the days that have passed the charm of that uncomplicated cake is still peerless in my estimation.

The preparation was as simple as can be. It all came together in a food processor, where toasted walnuts are left with butter and sugar to whir on their own for a while. Once smooth, they become what I can only imagine akin to what peanut butter wants to be when it grows up - a smooth blend of butter and nuts, intensely flavoured and sharply aromatic. Next it's just eggs, flour, baking soda and salt, and it's done, off to the oven.

What emerges is a cake that's fairly thin and mostly flat, with the gentlest of swells at its middle. Medium brown with darker flecks throughout, it is resolute in its plainness and yet exceedingly appealing. For the sake of fuss I improvised a frosting of one part cream cheese to equal parts soft, unripened goats cheese and butter, with enough icing sugar to sweeten and a splash of vanilla to round out the flavour. But the gilding was hardly necessary; the cake itself was memorable, moist with a tender, springy crumb.

I offered an Apple-Fig Compote at its side, fruity and jammy and tart to counter the resonant nuttiness of the cake. The combination was gorgeous.

So gorgeous in fact, I'll probably still be talking about 10 days from now. Maybe more.

WALNUT CAKE WITH APPLE + FIG COMPOTE
 

Recipes

Walnut Cake (omit the topping)

Apple-Fig Compote (see note below)

Notes:

• For the compote, I omitted the lemon juice and zest, and used maple syrup in place of the sugar. I popped a 1x1/4-inch piece of peeled ginger into the pot while simmering the fruit, removing it before cooling.

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There is that saying about loving something enough to give it away, and if it comes back then it was meant to be.

I'm wondering if that applies to cakes, too. Specifically a Cinnamon Walnut Mud Cake.

I made this cake for a birthday celebration I was unable to attend. It was packed up with not even a crumb missing; an exercise in willpower and an act of true affection.

The next day a generous slice was brought back to me, with thanks, so that I could share in the festivities. I took this as a sign that not only was this cake meant to be mine, but it was also meant to be one I told you all about.

My friends, this cake deserves the chatter. As straightforward as they come in method, it is a melt-n-mix affair that was just right for a midweek birthday. Despite its brooding looks, the cake is has a surprising delicacy. A fudgy underside is layered with a cracked and crumbly, mousse-like top, with airy texture that immediately melts upon contact with the tongue. Bouncy for all of its darkness, like damp, rich soil that's made of chocolate and sugar instead of, well, dirt. Walnuts break up the crumb like supple pebbles.

I sent this cake out into the world with little expectation, and it returned as a gift for me. And while a selfish little voice my be murmuring somewhere in the corners of my mind, it is a gift I am happy to share.

Grab a fork and dive in.

The box in the photo was made by simplesong designs, and is one of Suann's wonderful letterpresssed creations. Her store is full of treasures like these pencils, and her blog is a perfectly-curated collection of things that have caught her fancy, as well as her own beautiful projects (be sure to check out the adorable invitations to her son's birthday and the dinner party she recently threw for charity - it's stunning). She's just fab.

And to all my Canadian friends, Happy Thanksgiving!

CINNAMON WALNUT MUD CAKE

Those who appreciate the depth of chocolate might want to substitute 4 ounces of bittersweet for the same quantity of semisweet here.

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 ounces (2 sticks, 1 cup) unsalted butter plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted and lightly salted while still warm
  • Cocoa powder, to serve

METHOD

Lightly butter a 10-inch springform pan then line the bottom with a disc of parchment paper. Use strips to line to line the sides, pressing the parchment into the butter to adhere.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C).

Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the 8 ounces of butter with the chocolate, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla. You do not need to blend them together terribly vigorously, just enough so that the sugar is dissolved. The mixture should barely lighten in colour and there will be a layer of bubbles at the surface but not throughout.

Pour the egg mixture into the chocolate, and stir to combine. Fold in the flour mixture, being careful not to overmix. Stir in the walnuts.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the centre is puffed and cracked. A cake tester inserted into one of these cracks should come out with wet, clumped crumbs; gooey but not liquid. The cake will continue to cook as it cools, losing its crown and falling back upon itself.

Remove the cake to a wire rack to come to room temperature. To serve, release the sides of the springform carefully and remove the parchment paper. Dust the top with cocoa powder pushed through a sieve.

Makes one 10-inch cake, serving 16.

Notes:

• If I am being honest, even though I have directed to sieve together the dry ingredients in the recipe, I may have simply dumped those dry ingredients onto the wet without adverse effect. Shh. Don't tell.

• This cake likes to be handled with care. For ease of serving, chill the fully-cooled cake for around 30 minutes before slicing and it will firm up. It can be stored at room temperature for a day or two, but I prefer to keep it covered in the fridge.

• A spoonful of sweetened sour cream makes an ideal accompaniment.

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IMG_07752a

I have been thinking about this Buttermilk Pudding Cake for quite some time. When I saw it's photo, with those carmine-coloured berries all snuggled up against a cushion of tender, melting cake, the image stuck with me. It looked like all things dreamy, served up on a spoon.

Nevertheless, with such a short ingredient list, the skeptic in me raised a singular eyebrow - something the actual me cannot do without looking oddly quizzical or slightly pained. Could such a meagre collection of ingredients really amount to a dessert that lived up to its looks?

Oh my yes. If I was not blissfully married already, I would be writing Mrs. Tara Buttermilk Pudding Cake over and over in notepads, with hearts all around. I might whittle a million pencils down to the tiniest of nubs, and my hands could cramp, but I wouldn't care. Not at all. I am head-over-heels lost over this cake.

After getting all your bits and bobs in order, this is a cake that takes all of five minutes to make (with a mixer, a little longer by hand), but tastes exponentially better than the effort it requires. After stirring and whipping the disparate components, they are folded together into a marshmallow-tender batter. It sighs and slips its way into a pan, baking gently until pouffed on top and turned luscious below.

The only gentle suggestion I might offer would be to switch the raspberries for fresh peaches, as around here, raspberries are terribly last month. We live in peach-growing country, and at present the trees are heavy with their weight. For this, you want the ample-bosomed variety, full and soft, with a velvet skin that begs you to nuzzle in close and get a bit familiar. That yielding flesh mimics the softness of the cake's custardy belly, in delicious repetition.

And now that you have been formally introduced I do believe you should give this cake a thought as well.

If you require more reason than the case I have laid before you, you could be like me, and take my unabashedly shameless excuse, disguised under a flimsy veil of altruism. First, agree to make a recipe for a loved one that requires buttermilk, then accidentally-on-purpose purchase more buttermilk than said recipe requires. Wait a few days. Finally, choose a quiet afternoon to nobly bake the aforementioned Buttermilk Pudding Cake, as you wouldn't want the excess to go to waste.

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Everybody wins.

On a personal note, I want to dedicate this post to the talented and breathtakingly-honestJess. She mentioned elsewhere that this dish took her fancy, and as she's been through more in her 28th year than many go through in decades, the least I could do is offer her something that might make her smile, as if to say - "We're so glad to see you on the other side."

IMG_07942A

BUTTERMILK PUDDING CAKE WITH MAPLE SUGAR PEACHES

From Gourmet.com, with minor changes. As you can see from the telltale marks on the dishes, this cake soufflés beautifully in the oven, but collapses quickly upon its removal from the heat. For the prettiest presentation, I would take the cake straight from oven to table in its fully plumped glory, then cruelly make your guests wait as it cools.

INGREDEINTS

  • 4 medium peaches, sliced into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wedges (or thereabouts)
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple sugar or equal amounts of maple syrup
  • Softened butter for greasing the pan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cups well-shaken buttermilk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided

METHOD

In a medium bowl, gently stir together the peaches and enough maple sugar or syrup to sweeten to taste. Allow to macerate at room temperature while preparing the cake.

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Lightly butter the inside of a 1 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. In another mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, butter, egg yolks, and 1/3 cup granulated sugar until well combined and the sugar is pretty much dissolved. Add the liquids to the flour mixture, stirring until just combined. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, either by hand or with a mixer, beat the reserved egg whites on medium speed until frothy and opaque. Increase the speed to medium high, or if by hand beat faster, and start adding the remaining sugar a tablespoons at a time, beating well to incorporate each addition. Continue whipping the egg whites until they just hold a stiff peak. Do not over beat.

Working quickly but gently, stir about one-third of the egg whites into the prepared batter. Once almost combined, add another third of whites, this time folding the batter over the whites to incorporate thoroughly. Repeat with the last of the whites.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, place this dish in a larger dish or roasting pan, and pour hot water from a recently-boiled kettle in the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the smaller. Bake the cake in this water bath in the preheated oven for 4- to 50 minutes, until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving with the peaches alongside.

Serves 6, but I would really think 4, greedily, is the way to go. Sharing is difficult with this one.

Notes:

• I used Brien's superfine maple sugar, which has lighter taste than others I have tried, with an understated sweetness rather than that throat-warming hit associated with maple syrup. I further preferred maple sugar over syrup as it seemed to draw more juices out of the peaches, and thickened those juices only slightly.

People are already starting to talk about summer in the past tense. And it makes me want to weep.

I am evidently the vulnerable sort. Or just a trifle prone to the dramatic. Either way, its making me a bit emotional. We're only just barely two weeks into the month of July, and I've heard the hushed mention of back-to-school. Really?

A few days ago I was innocently flicking through a clothing catalogue and noticed sleeves were getting longer than those shown a month before. And while I might have gazed longingly at a particularly-tweedy ensemble for a nanosecond, I rallied myself against that affection. Surely the season cannot be over already, before it has even really begun?

We've only had one carnival, the tomatoes are still green and I have not had nearly enough time in the pool. And the other night, there were fireflies. There is still so much of summer left.

I hope that there are days to come with time for walks on warm evenings, the sort that lead you to meander through neighborhoods until the last of the light. For strong coffee in the quiet of the early morning, when the air is already thick with heat. And opportunity to savour sunwarmed peaches, and raspberries picked by eager hands, brought home in baskets stained purple with juice.

And picnics. Days and days for picnics, please and thank you. Did I tell you? We've become the sort to picnic. Picnic folk, if you will. Give me a tree, a patch of grass, even a rock and a box of takeout, I am blissful to sit and while away a minute or an hour or an afternoon. I will find each and every possible excuse to pack up our boys, pack up some nibbles, and make our way to the great outdoors - even if that just means the backyard.

I consider this cake, this raspberry-rippled marvel you see before you, to be my sticking point, my line drawn in the sand against all of those eager to write off the season and look forward to fall.

A buttery base is drowned in an ocean of blue-black raspberries, dolloped with more batter, then covered in a nut-flecked crumble. It is a cake full of berries and peaches and it is ideal for a picnic. Pretty as it is, it is a sturdy sort of beauty. It is a cake as easily eaten out of hand as it is with a knife and fork, and truth be told, I prefer the former method. It makes for effortless picnic-ery.

No siree Summer, I'm not letting go of you yet.

Raspberry Peach Crumb Cake

Adapted from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe, via Inn Cuisine. It is a fine dessert, a grand snack, and I'm sure nobody would sneer if it was offered alongside that aforementioned early-hour coffee.My wonderful (and super cool) nephews, ages 5 and 10, were kind enough to pick these for us - bringing in not one, but two generous harvests. Thanks to you both for your enthusiasm and stained knees.

Ingredients

6 ounces raspberries, fresh or frozen, I used fresh wild black ones

2 medium peaches, peeled and sliced into chunks

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 egg

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup butter, cold and diced

1/3 cup sliced (flaked) almonds

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

coarse sugar for dusting

Preheat an oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter and flour a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, or a 10-inch springform pan.

In a medium saucepan, toss the raspberries and peaches with the cornstarch to coat. Stir in the sugar and cook over medium heat until bubbling and thick. Remove from the heat and mash the berries and peaches slightly. Take approximately 1/3 of the mashed fruit and transfer to a medium bowl. Set a sieve over the same bowl, and a little at a time, push the remaining fruit through the mesh to remove any seeds and large pulp. Remove the sieve, discard the seeds and pulp, then stir the purée to combine with the reserved fruit. Set aside to cool slightly.

For the cake, in a medium bowl stir together the sour cream, milk, egg and vanilla. Set aside.

Combine the flour and sugar in a large bowl. Using fingers, two knives or a pastry cutter, cut the cold butter into the flour mixture until you have a texture that resembles coarse meal. Remove 1/2 cup of the crumb mixture to a small bowl and stir through the almonds. Set aside.

To the remaining flour mixture, whisk in the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquids. Using light, quick strokes, stir until only just combined. The batter should be thick, but smooth.

Take about 2/3 of the batter and spread it across the bottom and up 1-inch of the sides of the prepared pan. Damp fingers or a wet palette knife make easy work of this. Spoon the reserved raspberry filling over the batter, gently spreading to cover and leaving a 1/2-inch border at the edge. Dollop irregular mounds of the remaining dough over the fruit layer, again using damp fingers or a wet palette knife to coax the batter to almost cover - some gaps are good. Top with the crumb topping over all and then sprinkle with a couple of teaspoons or so of coarse sugar.

Place on a sheet pan and bake in a preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean and the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool, in pan on a rack, for 15 minutes. Remove from the tart pan and serve at warm or at room temperature.

Makes one 10-inch cake.

Notes:

• Although I have not tried it, I am certain another berry or fruit could be substituted in the filling. The original recipe asked for all raspberries, with all the pulp and seeds removed. I am one who believes that sometimes a bit of seeds is a good thing, somehow making the berries taste all the more like themselves, and so I kept some seeds for texture. By all means though, follow what is your preference.

trio

So here's my trouble. I wanted to tell you about Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009). To chat about my impressions, my likes, my dislikes, the nitty gritty details of this cookbook devoted to the small.

But my attention has been captured by someone small, a small one who is getting bigger every day. Happy Birthday to you, our William - today is your first, and I can hardly find the words.

All week I have been vacillating between my heart bursting with pride and my chest tightening with emotion. Such is the state of Mummyhood. The First Birthday is an event met with a mile-wide grin and cheers of joy tempered with the sob-sniffle-wail of "my goodness, this is all too fast."

And fast it has been. Our Littler Man is walking.

William took his first tentative steps a few weeks back, and has now fully embraced the notion of upright locomotion. The rapid-fire thwack of his hands and knees on the floors of our home has been replaced with the padded rhythm of confident footsteps. And confident he is, as Will is not one to toddle.

In a manner unsurprising to anyone who has met him, our William has the audacity to promenade. His walk is so spirited, his step so lively, there is most surely a song in his heart.

Oh there now, I've digressed into ridiculous levels of Proud Parent Mode. My apologies.

Where was I? Oh yes, cupcakes. With William's first 1st birthday party planning underway, Martha Stewart's Cupcakes was a wealth of imaginative cake ideas, all on a scale befitting the occasion. Silly me though, I put Benjamin in charge of selecting the flavour to try - and again as my children are nothing if not consistent, he chose the most basic of recipes, chocolate upon chocolate.

But his choice was surprisingly astute, as our previous favourite chocolate cupcake was the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005). Now One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes are in the new book, but it is a different recipe.

So it was settled, the dessert menu chosen for our celebration. The recipe itself warrants little description; it is a standard cocoa and buttermilk cake, with only a scant amount of oil. The method is as demanding as a boxed cake, with the dry ingredients whisked in a bowl, then the eggs, buttermilk and oil poured over. A few stirs, and it is done.

This recipe yields cakes that look the example of cupcake perfection; each rose with the same rounded cheek, bulging slightly at their edges but with a gentle slope. Best of all was their colour - a true, dark brown, exactly how a chocolate cupcake should look.

As we did not have the recipes side-by-side for comparison, we had to rely on (unreliable) memory for our verdict. While everyone enjoyed the cupcakes, they were not met with the same knee-buckling adoration of the previous version. When I first made the Baking Handbook incarnation of One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes, I recall thinking that these were simply the best cupcakes ever. This time, not so much. They were good, but not exceptional.

It should be said though, that I am terribly finicky about my chocolate cakes so it takes a good deal to impress. While I shrugged at the taste, there was nary a complaint from our guests. Approximately 5 minutes after the Happy Birthdays and candles blown out, there were quite a few happy faces smeared with whipped ganache frosting.

While my personal assessment of the cupcakes was lackluster, my overall impression of the book from which they came is not. I did not test many recipes from the book (honestly, even I can only eat so many cupcakes) as I would have liked, but I can tell you that the book Martha Stewart Cupcakes is full of fun.

There is an obvious, infectious merriment in the way that the subject matter is treated, and the variations on the theme simply make me smile. One cannot help but be made a bit happier by pages upon pages of sprinkles and gumdrops, marizpan ladybugs, and coconut-feathered chicks.

What's more, the cookbook is inspiring. Ingeniously, the book pushes the boundaries of cupcakery to include all manner of small cakes, and even cookies and meringues, as long as they are baked in that distinctive shape.

There are filled cupcakes, layered mini-cakes, cookie-crusted cheesecakes, and simple pound cakes. Not all cakes are frosted, such as the Tiny Cherry and Almond and Pistachio-Raspberry teacakes, making these gems the ideal everyday treat to be tucked into lunchboxes or enjoyed as an afternoon snack. The combination of flavours, specific decorating techniques and helpful guides (including clip art templates) could all be adapted and developed to suit your specific tastes, and could be applied to the creation of full-sized cakes.

One caveat, as with Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008), much of the content included in Martha Stewart's Cupcakes has been previously featured in the various publications of Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Personally, I enjoyed having the recipes available in a single source, but others may disagree and might have preferred a wholly originally collection.

Time to get back to the business of being Mum to a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Oh my. So big. So fast. So wonderful.

Happy, happy day.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From the book Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.

Recipe

crossed lines

More photos from this series shot by my brother and sister-in-law can be seen here.

Now you didn't think that I'd forget to announce the winner of our Martha Stewart Cupcakes giveaway, did you?

Without further wait, Mr. Random.Org took the honour of selecting ourwinners, as follows.

The First Prize Winner will receive one copy of the Martha Stewart Cupcakes and one copy of Martha Stewart Cookies:

Chocolate Shavings

The Second Prize Winners will each receive a copy of Martha Stewart Cupcakes:

Dor and Michelle R.

I would like to thank everyone who entered, and highly recommend the checking out the fantastic conversation taking place in the comments section. To the winners, please e-mail me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net, with your contact information at your earliest convenience.