summer

triple blueberry layer cake

Well look at me, another fancy ass layer cake!

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I generally try to reserve these “celebration” cakes for special occasions, namely my blogging anniversary or my birthday or Russell’s, mostly because they’re a whole mess more complicated than bundts or simpler “everyday” cakes, but also because I really don’t need all this cake in my house on the regular.

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Only about a month after my own birthday though, another special occasion came up that was a huge deal and really called for a seriously fancy ass cake.

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Last week my grandfather turned 90 years old!!!

To celebrate, we had a little reunion with 4 generations of grandpa’s family and it could not have been a more perfect day. It was so great to see everyone, especially some cousins I hadn’t seen in maybe a decade or more. There was even a sidewalk snail race thanks to the tupperware full of snails my little nephew found in my sister’s garden the day before.

Of course, it being my family, we definitely overdid it with the food. We did a pot-luck style bbq with all the traditional sides; bratwurst, hot dogs & burgers, German potato salad, baked beans, pasta salad, veggies, cheese & crackers, deviled eggs, watermelon & a fruit tray. My grandma spent the better part of the day going around telling everyone to eat more because we’d never get through everything. I brought my favorite coleslaw, and of course, I was in charge of dessert.

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

To be honest, I can’t even imagine living to 90 years old, especially looking as great and remaining as active as grandpa is at his age.

Although he definitely needs more help around the house than he used to, he and my grandma still live in the country on their own and he still keeps a garden and a small fruit orchard.

A few years ago he had to give up on the gigantic strawberry patch he used to have because he couldn’t bend down to pick them all, but since then he’s planted a couple dozen blueberry bushes, all different varieties so they ripen at different points in the summer, and now blueberries are his favorite!

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

So, I knew blueberry cake was the way to go for grandpa’s 90th!

Grandpa loves blueberry pie, so I made a fresh blueberry jam/pie filling to use between the layers of cake, and then for a brighter, fresher blueberry flavor, I decided to use freeze dried blueberries in the actual cake recipe. When you use freeze dried fruit, it retains much of the freshness of actual fresh fruit, but it’s completely dry so it doesn’t water down your batter. I ground the berries into a powder in the food processor and then mixed that into part of the batter, swirling that in to the remaining plain batter like marble cake.

At first I considered adding lemon zest to the icing, but opted for simple vanilla to avoid competing with the blueberry flavor. Last but not least, the cake was topped with a mound of fresh blueberries, both for flavor, and so that people could tell it was a berry cake even though the icing was solid white.

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

The cake was a HUGE hit. Usually a quiet, stoic German man, complements don’t come super easily from my grandpa, but he must have come over to compliment and thank me for this cake at least 5 times. Nice and moist and not to sweet. His cousin even came over to shake my hand because he liked it so much!

This cake is SUPER blueberry-y. The freeze dried blueberries really come through, and just like grandpa said, the cake is moist and tender and just sweet enough. The blueberry filling tastes just like blueberry pie filling or homemade jam, and the vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream is delicately sweet, smooth and silky, and definitely lets the blueberry filling shine without anything competing with it.

If you love blueberries, you HAVE to make this cake y’all!

triple blueberry layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Triple Blueberry Layer Cake

  • Servings: 12 to 16-ish
  • Print
Blueberry Vanilla Swirl Yellow Cake
makes three 8-inch layers

3 1/3 cups all purpose flour (plus 1 tablespoon for blueberries)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
2 1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1.2 oz bag freeze dried blueberries (about 1 cup)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line the bottoms of three 8″ cake pans with parchment paper. No need to butter and flour the pans. *see note
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt until well combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on high for about 3 minutes, or until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed and add oil, then the eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating after each addition. Add vanilla until just combined.
Alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour (3 additions of flour and 2 of milk), fully incorporating after each addition.
Add 1 tablespoon of flour & freeze dried blueberries to a food processor and pulse into a fine powder. Its okay if there are a few small chunks left, but get it as fine as possible.
Divide about 1/2 to 2/3 of the batter evenly between the three pans. Mix the freeze dried blueberry powder into the remaining 1/3 to 1/2 of the batter and fold in to combine. Divide blueberry batter between the three pans by dotting the tops of the cakes, then use a small spatula or knife to swirl it in.
Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. If using bake-even strips, they may need a few additional minutes.
Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes. Invert cakes onto rack, peel off parchment, and let cool completely.
If the cakes domed in the oven, you’ll want to slice the very tops of the cakes off to make each layer completely flat and level for a more professional look. You can do this using a very sharp bread knife, or a cake leveler.
If you’re not assembling cakes right away, individually wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap to prevent drying. Layers can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two, or frozen (wrapped in plastic wrap first, then aluminum foil) for up to two weeks. You may want to consider brushing the layers with simple syrup if you’re refrigerating or freezing them.

*baker’s note: Not buttering or flouring your cake pans actually helps the cakes keep their shape better when cooling and helps prevent the outer edges of the cakes from overcooking. The parchment will allow the bottoms to release from the pans easily, but you may need to run a knife or a toothpick around the outside edge before turning out of the pans.

Blueberry “Jam” Filling:
(You may also use store bought blueberry jam)
18 oz Fresh Blueberries (about 4 cups)
2 cups sugar
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons corn starch

Reserve about 1/2 cup of the blueberries for the decoration/topping of the cake. Pulse the remaining 3 1/2 cups berries in a food processor just to break them up a bit. Don’t puree them. You can also mash them up with a potato masher instead.
Add the blueberries to a large heavy pot or sauce pan, and stir in the sugar, salt, & cornstarch. The mixture will boil up a lot so a large pot is important.
Bring the mixture to a rolling boil over medium-high to high heat, stirring occasionally, and boil for 15 minutes or until reduced and thickened.
Transfer to a heat safe bowl or container and refrigerate until ready for use. If it’s a bit thinner than normal jam, that’s fine.

Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream Icing:
Adapted from “Layered” by Tessa Huff
3/4 cup fresh egg whites (not pasteurized egg whites)
1 1/2 cups sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (cut into 1 tablespoon slices)
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Place the egg whites, sugar, & salt in a very clean bowl of a stand mixer and whisk them together by hand to combine. Fill a medium saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat. Place the mixer bowl over the saucepan to create a double boiler. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t directly touch the water, and that the water doesn’t reach a full boil.
Heat the egg whites until they register 160F on a candy thermometer, whisking regularly to avoid cooking the whites. As soon as they’re at the correct temperature, carefully attach the mixer bowl to the stand mixer and add the whisk attachment.
Beat the egg whites on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes until they hold stiff peaks and the outside of the bowl is cooled to room temperature. Stop the mixer and swap the whisk attachment for the paddle.
On low speed, add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time, waiting for it to incorporate before adding more. Once all the butter is mixed in, add the vanilla extract and mix in to incorporate. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is smooth and silky, about 3 to 5 minutes.
If the mixture starts to look curdled, just keep beating. It’ll come together.
If the whites were still too warm when the butter was added and the buttercream is too thin and soupy, refrigerate the bowl in 10 minute bursts until it’s cool (but not cold) and beat again until smooth.

Assemble cake:
Place the first cake layer on an 8″ cardboard cake round, serving plate, or cake stand. Using a cake round will make it easier to ice and decorate, especially if you have a revolving turntable for decorating (I use a lazy suzan, but you can also just spin your plate or cake stand while you work).

Fit a piping bag with a large round or star tip and fill with a cup or two of the Swiss meringue buttercream. Pipe a thick dam of icing around the outside of the cake to contain the blueberry filling. This will ensure that the filling stays in place and doesn’t squish out when the layers are stacked.

Place about half of the filling in the center of the cake and spread it smooth and even using an icing spatula. Add the next layer of cake, looking from directly over the top and from eye level at the cake to make sure each layer is directly one above the other, rotating the cake to be certain. Repeat the same procedure with the buttercream dam and the other half of the filling, then add the third and final layer of cake and check for straightness again. Using about half of the remaining icing, crumb coat your cake (If you have any icing left in the piping bag, empty it out and use that too). Starting with the top of the cake, spread the icing thin and work some of it down the sides of the cake to completely cover the whole thing in a thin, smooth, even coat of icing. This first layer of icing seals the cake and keeps crumbs from being visible in the outer layer of icing. It may seem like unnecessary trouble, but it really is worth it to get a smooth professional finish on the icing.

Place the cake in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to an hour to help set the icing and firm up the cake.
Reserve about 1/4 cup of icing for decorating (optional), and spread the remaining buttercream over the whole cake the same way you did the crumb coat. Start by smoothing the top and slowly working the icing down the sides to cover the cake completely. Try to get the icing as completely smooth as possible with straight sides and a flat, level top. I use a long offset icing spatula. If desired, once the icing is smooth, you can use the tip of a small icing spatula or butter knife to create a swirl in the top & sides. Make a small smooth mound in the center of the top of the cake with the reserved 1/4 cup of icing, and cover the mound as completely as possible with the reserved fresh blueberries so it looks like a heaping pile of blueberries. (If you tried to just make an actual heaping pile of blueberries, they’d roll off the top of the cake) If you have some blueberries left, dot them around the mound so they look like they spilled away.

Refrigerate the cake again for at least another 30 minutes to set the icing before covering or serving.

This cake will keep well in a cake saver at room temperature for a day or two if the weather is not too hot or humid. Otherwise, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

If refrigerating, bring cake to room temperature at least two hours before serving.

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s’mores layer cake

You guys. I did it again.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I baked my own birthday cake.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I know that some people gasp in horror or baulk at the very idea of such a thing. On one’s birthday, one is supposed to just sit back and enjoy the day without having to lift a finger.
But, you know what, one thing that I enjoy even more than eating cakes, is baking cakes! Especially if doing so means that I get to share them with people I love.
And guess what else. I could never find a cake in a bakery that would be as good as a cake that I could bake myself, and even if I found one, I couldn’t afford it!
So, tradition be damned, I bake my own birthday cakes.
And I like it!

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As my birthday was approaching, the weather finally started to warm up here in New York after what felt like an endless grey & chilly spring. To celebrate both the arrival of warm weather and my advanced age, we decided to invite a bunch of friends and have a big festive bbq in our suddenly green backyard.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I plotted and planned out my menu, scouring the internet for recipes for sides, salads, mains, and options for vegetarians. Russell even asked his family from San Diego to ship us a box of avocados from their own avocado tree, so that we could offer our guests a big ol’ bowl of the freshest guacamole in Brooklyn.
Of course, I knew that I wanted my birthday cake to be the pièce de résistance. It’s been so long since I’ve done a big festive layer cake that I also wanted to come up with something that I hadn’t really ever done before.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Nothing says Summer quite like s’mores.
Amirite?

Especially for a bbq or a backyard party, there’s clearly nothing better to round out an evening. I still love them to this day (duh), but it’s almost impossible not to think of childhood when eating them. Even though these days I’m usually making them over the leftover embers from my charcoal grill, they instantly transport me to campfires in the woods of upstate New York, with multiple marshmallows skewered on gnarled sticks found on the ground or ripped from a low-hanging branch.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Of course, like any good fat kid, when I was young I was super impatient to heat up those marshmallows as quickly as possible so I could get those s’mores into my face on the double. I learned pretty early on though, that the chalky texture and acrid flavor of that burnt sugar shell isn’t actually all that pleasant, even when sandwiched between melty chocolate and crisp graham crackers.

So, at a younger age than most kids (or adults for that matter), I figured out that slow and steady wins the race when it comes to building s’mores. A slow roast, with a steady rotation far from the flames, produces a vastly superior marshmallow with a soft, gooey center and a delicate toasty caramelized crust. The last time I went camping with my sister and her kids, my nephews actually poked fun at me for how long I take to toast my marshmallows. What can I say, I’m a perfectionist. Or neurotic. Potato, Potahto.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I suppose that slow and steady toasting is sort of a metaphor for building this cake. I’m not going to sugar coat things (lol) and tell you that this is an “easy” or “quick” recipe for novice bakers. It takes time and effort and has multiple steps and components. It’s basically four recipes in one, with 3 layers of cake, a flavored icing, a multi-step filling, a ganache drizzle, decorations on top, and long set of assembly instructions.

If you’re patient and determined though, and have a fair understanding of layer cake construction, all the effort definitely pays off in the end. I promise you that this cake is seriously incredible.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Unfortunately my birthday bbq never actually happened. Just as my excitement about the party was reaching it’s peak, the weather forecast started showing rain in the future. I tried not to panic and just kept telling myself that the weather changes so quickly in New York that by the weekend the forecast could be completely different.

I went ahead with planning and recipe testing my cake, but once I was sure that the recipe was solid and all the elements really worked together, I was also sure that it was time to start cancelling on our guests. A few nights before the big day I was home alone and actually started to pout and feel sorry for myself. I’d put all this work in for nothing and I had no clue what I’d end up doing on my birthday. After a few minutes though, I snapped out of it and decided that bbq or no bbq, I was going to have a good time.

I already had an amazing cake recipe, and after all that work to perfect it, I needed to show it off. I invited a small group of close friends to brunch not far from our place, and told everyone that afterward we’d be heading back to our apartment for cake and Cards Against Humanity. And guacamole!

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Multiple people took one bite and their faces lit up and told me that it actually tasted like real s’mores, almost as if they weren’t expecting something that looks so pretty to also actually taste great too. They clearly underestimated me!
Russell even told me, repeatedly, that it’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever made, and kept going back into the bowl to steal stray spoonfuls of the marshmallow filling while I was stacking the layers. Actually my mom did the same exact thing when I was trying out the filling recipe for the first time!

The layers of cake are moist, tender, and richly chocolatey thanks to double dutch cocoa, strong coffee, and real butter. The toasted marshmallow filling is made from actual marshmallows rather than marshmallow spread, so it genuinely has the rich flavor and gooey texture of a warm marshmallow right off the stick. Once the layers are stacked, everything gets enrobed in a velvety swiss meringue buttercream loaded with graham cracker crumbs and just a hint of cinnamon. As if all that weren’t enough, rich dark chocolate ganache is the… umm… icing on the cake. In addition to the cocoa flavor from the devil’s food layers, the ganache adds that melty chocolate flavor you know and expect from s’mores. The only thing missing here is the camp fire and the sticks!

I promise you that this show-stopping cake really does taste as good as it looks. Better even!
If you’re up for the challenge, it’s definitely worth the effort.

s'mores layer cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

S'mores Layer Cake

  • Servings: 16 to 24-ish
  • Print
Devil’s Food Cake
makes three 8-inch layers

butter and flour (or baking spray) for pans
1 1/2 cups unsweetened natural cocoa powder (I used Double Dutch Process)
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee (or hot water if preferred)
3 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 cups peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 large eggs
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter three 8 inch round cake pans, line bottoms with parchment paper, butter paper, and dust pans with flour.
Whisk together cocoa powder and coffee (or hot water) until smooth and set aside.
Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda; set aside.
Beat melted butter, oil, and sugars together on medium-low speed until combined.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
Beat in vanilla and cocoa mixture. Reduce speed to low.
Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with buttermilk and beginning and ending with flour. Beat until just combined.
Divide batter evenly between the three pans, and bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into centers comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.

Transfer pans to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes. Invert cakes onto rack, peel off parchment, and let cool completely.
To achieve a perfectly flat, professional looking cake, you’ll want to slice the very tops of the cakes off to make each layer completely flat and level. You can do this using a very sharp bread knife, or a cake leveler.

If you’re not assembling cakes right away, individually wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap to prevent drying. Layers can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two, or frozen (wrapped in plastic wrap first, then aluminum foil) for up to two weeks.

Graham Cracker Swiss Meringue Buttercream Icing:
Adapted from “Layered” by Tessa Huff
3/4 cup egg whites (I used pasteurized egg whites from a carton)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature (cut into 1 tablespoon slices)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Place the egg whites and sugar in a very clean bowl of a stand mixer and whisk them together by hand to combine. Fill a medium saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat. Place the mixer bowl over the saucepan to create a double boiler. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t directly touch the water, and that the water doesn’t reach a full boil.
Heat the egg whites until they register 160F on a candy thermometer, whisking regularly to avoid cooking the whites. As soon as they’re at the correct temperature, carefully attach the mixer bowl to the stand mixer and add the whisk attachment.
Beat the egg whites on high speed for 8 to 10 minutes until they hold stiff peaks and the outside of the bowl is cooled to room temperature. Stop the mixer and swap the whisk attachment for the paddle.
On low speed, add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time, waiting for it to incorporate before adding more. Once all the butter is mixed in, add the vanilla extract and mix in to incorporate. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is smooth and silky, about 3 to 5 minutes.
If the mixture starts to look curdled, just keep beating. It’ll come together.
If the whites were still too warm when the butter was added and the buttercream is too thin and soupy, refrigerate the bowl in 10 minute bursts until it’s cool (but not cold) and beat again until smooth.
Once smooth, add the graham cracker crumbs and cinnamon and beat in to incorporate.

Toasted Marshmallow Filling:
10 oz mini marshmallows
1 stick unsalted butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup powdered sugar

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and spray the paper with cooking spray or rub with butter. Reserve 1/2 cup of mini marshmallows, and spread the rest on the tray in a single layer.
Toast the marshmallows under the broiler in your oven, rotating the pan if necessary to promote even browning. Keep a close eye on the pan, as this should only take a few minutes but the exact time will depend on the strength of your broiler and how close the pan is to it. The marshmallows should mostly be a dark toasty brown, but not burned. Watch them like a hawk through the oven door.
Let the marshmallows cool to room temperature before proceeding, and they should peel off the greased parchment in one single sticky layer.

Place the toasted marshmallows in a medium saucepan along with the unsalted butter. Heat over medium to medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until the marshmallows are all melted and completely combined with the butter.

Transfer the marshmallow mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat in heavy cream and powdered sugar. Transfer the bowl to the refrigerator and let cool completely, then beat again to loosen the mixture up a little. The mixture will be a bit stiff and sticky, but should be soft enough to spread.

Glossy Ganache Drizzle:
4 oz good quality dark chocolate (60% works well)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon honey
pinch salt

Chop chocolate into small, easily melted pieces and place in a heat proof bowl.
Heat heavy cream, honey, & salt in a small saucepan (or microwave save bowl) just until it comes to a light boil, and immediately pour directly over chocolate. Wait 2 to 3 minutes before stirring until completely smooth and melted and free of lumps. If the mixture seems very hot still it may melt the icing as you pour it so wait a few minutes for it to cool slightly. Do not let it get too cool or it will not drizzle nicely and may look messy.

*Do not make the ganache until the cake is completely iced and ready to decorate.

Decorations: (optional)
Remaining 1/2 cup mini marshmallows
Broken pieces of graham crackers

Toast the remaining mini marshmallow on a sprayed or buttered parchment lined baking sheet in the same way they were toasted for the marshmallow filling. Try to space them out on the pan so they don’t all touch, and toast them to a lighter brown than you did for the filling. It’ll be easier to decorate with individual marshmallows, and they’ll melt less if they’re only lightly toasted.
You probably won’t use the whole 1/2 cup, but it’s nice to have more than you’ll need so you can choose the nicest looking ones.

Assemble cake: 
Place the first cake layer on an 8″ cardboard cake round, serving plate, or cake stand. Using a cake round will make it easier to ice and decorate, especially if you have a revolving turntable for decorating (I use a lazy suzan, but you can also just spin your plate or cake stand while you work).

Fit a piping bag with a large round or star tip and fill with a cup or two of the graham cracker buttercream. Pipe a thick dam of icing around the outside of the cake to contain the marshmallow filling. This will ensure that the filling stays in place and doesn’t squish out when the layers are stacked.

Place half of the toasted marshmallow filling in the center of the cake and spread it smooth and even using an icing spatula. Add the next layer of cake, looking from directly over the top and from eye level at the cake to make sure each layer is directly one above the other, rotating the cake to be certain. Repeat the same procedure with the buttercream dam and the other half of the marshmallow filling, then add the third and final layer of cake and check for straightness again. Using about half of the remaining icing, crumb coat your cake (If you have any icing left in the piping bag, empty it out and use that too). Starting with the top of the cake, spread the icing thin and work some of it down the sides of the cake to completely cover the whole thing in a thin, smooth, even coat of icing. This first layer of icing seals the cake and keeps crumbs from being visible in the outer layer of icing. It may seem like unnecessary trouble, but it really is worth it to get a smooth professional finish on the icing.

Place the cake in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to an hour to help set the icing and firm up the cake.
Spread the remaining buttercream over the whole cake the same way you did the crumb coat. Start by smoothing the top and slowly working the icing down the sides to cover the cake completely. Try to get the icing as completely smooth as possible with straight sides and a flat, level top. I use a long offset icing spatula. Refrigerate the cake again for at least another 30 minutes (or up to a day).

Make your ganache just before you’re ready to remove the cake from the fridge.

It’s not necessary, but I find it easier to get an even, professional looking drizzle with a squeeze bottle. Slowly add the ganache just around the outer edge of the top of the cake so that it drips in some places. Slowly rotate the cake to do the entire outside edge. Once you’re happy with the amount of drizzle coming down the sides, fill in the center of the top of the cake with ganache, smoothing it flat with a clean icing spatula before the ganache sets.

If you’d like to add decorations to the top of the cake, be sure to add them before the ganache sets.

This cake will keep well in a cake saver at room temperature for a day or two if the weather is not too hot or humid. Otherwise, cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

If refrigerating, bring cake to room temperature at least two hours before serving.

Cash me outside

If you follow me on instagram, you probably noticed I was spending A LOT of time out in our backyard this spring.

urban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemaker urban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemaker

As soon as the weather turned warm and things started turning green, I was out there every night. You may have even been sick of all the pictures and videos of our yard, usually with smoke pouring out of my charcoal grill and string lights hanging overhead. Sorry not sorry.

I grew up in cow and corn country in Upstate New York, so I was always outdoors in nice weather, and even though I live in Brooklyn now my love for the outdoors is just as strong. We were lucky enough to find an apartment with outdoor space years ago, but if you’ve been reading for a long while now, you’ll remember that the space out back was a little, well, rough around the edges when we first moved in.
A few years back I posted about the progress we’d made so far, which felt monumental at the time, but looking back at pictures seems pretty meager compared to how things look now. Up until that point we’d spent every Summer clearing out debris and weeds and sick unhealthy plants. It took a long time to get everything clean and tidy before we could even begin planting anything new or making the space livable and attractive.

That post was basically the beginning of when we were able to finally start planting, and since then things have changed quite a bit so I thought you might enjoy a little update.  I’ve planted plenty in the past few years, figured out what plants do well and which ones don’t, and added some fancy-pants new outdoor furniture to boot.

urban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemaker

I know I also mentioned this in my last gardening post too, but just to refresh your memory, we have a big evil mulberry tree out there that makes the yard a disgusting unusable mess for anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks out of every summer. The tree is too tall and the berries fall too far to make collecting them possible, so instead they just splatter into a juicy mulberry paste that attracts flies and ants and birds (and bird poo) and eventually turns moldy and stinky and awful. And guess what. We’re in the midst of berry season proper right now, so I haven’t been back there for a good three weeks. The photos in this post were taken a few weeks ago, just before it started.
Even when the tree isn’t dropping the got-damned berries, instead it’s shading most of the yard and sucking up all the moisture in the soil. As if the berries weren’t enough to deal with, that tree is the source of two little words that have made my life very difficult over the past few years.
Dry.
Shade.

It’s incredibly difficult to find plants that thrive in dry shade. Most shade plants are moisture lovers, and most drought-tolerant plants love lots of sunshine. So, after years of experimenting, I’ve basically learned that Hostas are my best friend if I want the yard to look green and lush. I know they’re kind of boring, but there are so many different colors and shapes and sizes available these days that even a yard filled with Hostas can look interesting and modern. I’d actually already figured this out before my last yard post, but at that point I’d only gotten around to planting few of them. These days they’re all over the place.

Bleeding Hearts and Coral Bells seem to do well back there too, so I’ve started mixing them in between the Hostas. There’s one little corner of the yard that gets a few hours of decent light, so I have some orange day lilies planted there, but they haven’t flowered yet and so far they just look like overgrown grass. Because I like to live dangerously, this spring I also decided to test the limits of the sunshine back there, and planted a sun-loving Forsythia against the fence. Fingers crossed!

urban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemakerurban outdoor space | Brooklyn Homemaker

To mix in some color and texture, I like to fill pots with hardy annuals like wax begonias and I always do a few herbs in one of the big galvanized buckets we added a few years ago too. Sometimes they don’t get enough sun and don’t last the whole summer, but they’re nice while they last and so far they seem to be doing well this year.
Early in the spring I usually try some pansies too for some color and life while the hostas are just barely poking out of the ground, but they don’t really last once the weather turns hot and I’ll need to replace them with something else mid-summer. They looked great in the photo below, but they’re already starting to look pretty scraggly.

For the first time ever this year, I mulched a good portion of the beds to try to keep them moist and healthy during the hot dry spells we always seem to get in Brooklyn summers. Not only do I hope it’ll keep the plants happier, it also went a long way in making the yard feel so much more “finished” and attractive. We went with brown mulch so it doesn’t really “read” in photos all that well, but I promise it looks great in person, especially compared to bare dirt. Getting the heavy, wet, stinky bags of mulch out there meant carrying them all by hand through our apartment and out our bedroom window, and we needed about 30 bags for the area we mulched, but it was well worth the effort in the end and I really wish we’d done it sooner!

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When we first moved in there was an old swing in the yard, and a rotting old wooden table left by one of the previous tenants. We moved the swing into the back of the yard this spring, and the table has since fallen apart. I re-used the legs to build the red coffee table you’ll notice in some of these photos, but I don’t know how much longer that old wood will hold out. The paint is peeling pretty badly so I’m hoping new paint will protect it and help it last a few more years.
I just need to decide on a color…
Any suggestions?

Almost half of the yard space is covered in concrete and works as a patio area for us. When we first moved in I was disappointed that there wasn’t more space for planting, but now that I know how challenging it is to get plants to thrive in our dry shade conditions, I’m actually relieved that we have more space for entertaining and lounging.
That’s why we decided to make a pretty serious investment in outdoor furniture this year. Russell got me an outdoor sectional for my birthday, and it all kind of snowballed from there. Upgrading from the old two-seater swing made me suddenly realize how much more comfortable our outdoor space could be if we were willing to put the time and money into it, so I kind of went a little overboard with the online shopping. We’d gotten the dining table a few years ago but never really got around to finding chairs to go with it, so that was my next mission. Then came the throw pillows, and a deck box to store all the cushions and pillows in. Then we just stumbled on those black and grey club chairs one day and we had to have them! Luckily everything was (relatively) reasonably priced.
In case you’re interested, the sectional, dining chairs, and deck box are from Wayfair. Unfortunately the sectional and chairs don’t seem to be available right now. The outdoor throw pillows and big grey club chairs are from Target, and the dining table and lanterns are from Ikea.

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Things are looking a little more full and lush since I’ve taken these photos because we’ve had a lot of rain lately, so once the berries stop dropping I’ll get out there to clean up the mess and start barbecuing again! You’re more than welcome to live vicariously through my instagram stories, but my life really isn’t all that exciting so I’d suggest trying to find someone a little more interesting to follow!

Who knows, if things look different enough maybe I’ll give you another glimpse into our yard in another couple years.

nectarines and cream icebox cake

Why hello there friends! Remember me???

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Yes it’s me! Tux!

I’m back! (well, sort of.)

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I are still plugging away at the project I mentioned in my last post, and while we’re (hopefully) nearing the finish line, we’ve still got plenty of work to do so I’m not exactly back for good. I just happened to get a little down time recently and I couldn’t bare to stay away from you for one more second!

I’ve missed you guys SO MUCH that I jumped at the opportunity to get back in the kitchen when I finally had a moment to myself. We’ve been so completely consumed with our project in the past few months that my poor kitchen has felt almost as neglected as all of you probably have.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As it turns out though, my little bit of down time just happened to fall smack dab in the middle of our SECOND heat wave in the past couple months. For almost two weeks the daily weather forecast included “Excessive Heat Warnings”, and the city even set up “cooling stations” for the sick and elderly without air conditioning to be able to escape (and survive) the oppressive daytime temperatures.

To make matters even worse, unlike my brown-lawned family upstate, we’ve also had plenty of rain (and thunder and lightning) here in Brooklyn so along with the heat we’ve also had plenty of soupy, steamy, thick, and swampy humidity. In other words, we’ve just been sweating our butts off here in Brooklyn!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

As you can imagine, that meant that turning the oven on to bake a cake has been sort of out of the question.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

With actual baking off the table, my first thought was to make some kind of ice cream or frozen something-or-other to help cool us off and keep me as far as possible from the oven. It didn’t take me long to realize though, that I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and my ice cream maker bowl requires overnight freezing before I could even get started.
I briefly considered popsicles but I couldn’t seem to get inspired. What I really wanted to do was bakeor at least make something that felt as homey and satisfying as something fresh from the oven. I’d been out of the kitchen and away from my oven for so long that my head kept going back to the idea of a fruity crisp or crumble or skillet cake.

Then it suddenly hit me!

Icebox cake!

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

If you’re not familiar with an icebox cake, the concept is fairly simple. You layer thin crisp cookies with whipped cream and let the whole thing set up in the refrigerator (or icebox as it were). While the cake sets up, moisture is pulled from the whipped cream, softening the cookies and firming the cream until the whole thing is transformed into a dreamy, wonderful, lick-the-plate-clean dessert with a perfectly cake-like sliceable texture.

The original recipe has been around since the first world war and was most likely inspired by similar desserts like the Charlotte or the Trifle. The first icebox cakes were made with thin chocolate wafer cookies that are increasingly difficult to find (Smitten Kitchen has a recipe if you want to make your own), but these days you can basically make them with any thin, crisp cookies you like.
The filling options these days are just as limitless as the cookies, so I knew I’d find a way to make something bright and summery and satisfying.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

I wish I had some sepia-colored story about the nostalgic icebox cakes my grandmother used to make me as a boy growing up in the countryside in 1764, but the truth is that I’d never even tasted icebox cake until I made one with gingersnaps and maple cream this past December.

Even though I didn’t grow up with them, they feel every bit as homey and comforting as the bundt cakes that I actually did grow up eating in grandma’s kitchen in the country. While they’re relatively new to me, I would bet that a few more icebox cakes will turn up on the pages of Brooklyn Homemaker in the years to come. They just have that folksy days-of-yore feeling that lets me wistfully imagine joyful, touching family moments that never actually happened.

Not to mention they’re also freakin’ delicious, and crazy simple to put together.
If you can whip cream and open a box of cookies, you can make an icebox cake. They’re actually much simpler than I myself would normally go for, and the last time I made one I went the extra mile and made my own gingersnaps as the base of the cake. (You know I’m a glutton for punishment.)

This time around though, I wanted to take it easy, keep it simple, and highlight the other ingredients I wanted to feature in this simple summery creation.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Russell and I signed up for a CSA from Local Roots earlier this summer, but of course that was before we knew how busy we were about to get. We’ve been loving every ounce of fresh, local, seasonal produce, but it can sometimes be a challenge to find uses for everything without letting anything go to waste.

We’ve been getting pounds and pounds of white nectarines in the past few weeks, so I really wanted to do something special with them. What could be better than giving them the peaches and cream treatment with vanilla wafer cookies and mascarpone thickened whipped cream?

Nectarines and peaches are so similar in flavor and texture that you could substitute peaches without affecting the flavor of the recipe much at all. The white nectarines we had from our CSA though had a crisper, slightly more acidic zing to them than a standard peach, which I thought was a nice compliment to the richness of the cream. Honestly though, you could swap them out for strawberries or cherries and this cake would still be a little summery slice of heaven.

nectarines and cream icebox cake | Brooklyn Homemaker

Nectarines and Cream Icebox Cake

2 lbs nectarines (or peaches), peeled, pitted, and roughly chopped
3/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Cointreau (optional) *see note
2 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
8 oz mascarpone at room temperature
Two 11 oz packages of vanilla wafer cookies, such as Nilla Wafers

Combine roughly chopped nectarines with sugar, salt, and orange liqueur in a medium bowl. Stir to combine and macerate for at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream on high just until it begins to thicken and form soft peaks. Add the mascarpone and beat on low speed until almost smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and fold to incorporate. Add the macerated chopped nectarines and beat on low for 30 to 60 seconds and scrape down the sides and fold again. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is thick and holds firm peaks, another 30 to 60 seconds. Do NOT over-beat or the cream can become waxy and the mascarpone can become grainy.

On an 8″ cake board, or a cake stand or serving plate, arrange a layer of vanilla wafer cookies into three tight circles. I used 19 cookies per layer, with 1 cookie in the center, then one circle of 6 cookies and another circle of 12, but that’ll depend on the size of the cookie you use. Once you’ve arranged your first layer of cookies, place about a cup of cream over them and smooth it out with an offset icing spatula. Spread the cream almost to the outer edge, leaving just a small edge of cookies showing. Arrange another layer of cookies, trying to alternate the layers so they appear staggered above one another. Repeat another layer of cream and then another layer of cookies, again and again until you have as many layers as you desire or until you run out of cookies or cream. Finish the top of the cake with a final layer of cream. My cake was 8 layers tall, but again, this may depend on the size of the cookies you use.

If you have a cookie or two left over, garnish the cake by crumbling them in the center of the top if desired.

Try to delicately tent the cake with plastic wrap or cover with a large inverted bowl or cake dome before transferring to the refrigerator to set up.
Place cake to refrigerator for an absolute minimum of 6 hours (but ideally 12 to 24 hours) before serving. This cake will continue to improve the longer you can wait. As it sets, the cream will get firmer as the cookies get softer, and the flavors will distribute more evenly. Patience is a virtue!

Once set, the cake can be sliced and served much like a regular cake. If possible, it’s best to use a sharp serrated knife with a gentle sawing motion to avoid smooshing the cake and to get the best looking slices possible. Really though, you could dish it into bowls with a spoon if you wanted, and everyone would love it just as much.
Cake can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for 3 or 4 days.

*Note:
Peach schnapps would be great too if you have it, or you could also substitute rum or bourbon for a bit of extra warmth.
If you’d prefer to keep it completely non-alcoholic, a teaspoon or two of orange blossom water or rose water would be a lovely substitution. That stuff is potent though so start with just a little and taste to see if you’d like to add more.