When Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine by blogger Shaina Olmanson landed in my mailbox, my first reaction, quite frankly, was to roll my eyes. Come on. Can't we just make really good desserts without relying on gimmicks like cakes on sticks and pies in jars?
But after sitting down with this new cookbook, I'm pretty much wowed. Published by the highly regarded Harvard Common Press, Desserts in Jars boasts gorgeous photos, and clearly written text. The recipes for cupcakes, frozen treat, pies and the like are straightforward and easy to follow.
Olmanson walks you quickly and economically through the steps for making a variety of desserts in vintage glass canning containers. She tells you which size jar to use for which type of baked good or frozen concoction (if you're making a trifle-type concoction, keep the jar shallow so your spoonful contains all the layers). There are recipes that are baked, like a luscious-looking Coconut Cream Pie, and there are recipes that are finished in the freezer, like Frozen Mudslide Pies.
A huge bonus and enough reason to buy the book alone: Olmanson has a gift for explaining basic baking techniques that can sometimes bedevil even the most experienced among us. For example, Desserts in Jars is laced with several extremely user-friendly sidebars on how to make a perfect pie crust and the best way to fill a pastry bag. In fact, in just three short paragraphs, Olmanson soothed my near phobic pie crust making fears.
I'm looking forward to making some of these treats as gifts, especially the Macarons in a Jar. What a great idea! There's also a peach cobbler that I'll try. In fact, one of the very few recipes that didn't ring true for me was the pain au chocolat. It seems kind of a stretch to squeeze this flaky, classic French pastry into a glass container.
To make these desserts, you can use classic Ball Jars, which are easy to find in just about any supermarket. Or if you want higher end containers, Olmanson helpfully lists some online sources. Here's a recipe to try:
"Recipe © 2012 by Shaina Olmanson and used by permission of The Harvard Common Press."
Makes 24 individual cakes
For the strawberry cake
• 2½ cups cake flour
• 1½ cups granulated sugar
• 2½ teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 8 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled and pureed, preferably, or ¾ cup frozen strawberry puree
• 4 large egg whites
• ½ cup whole milk
For the white and chocolate cakes
• 2½ cups cake flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 2 cups granulated sugar
• 4 large eggs, at room temperature
• ½ cup whole milk, at room temperature
• ½ cup heavy cream, at room temperature
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ¼ cup hot coffee, or ¼ cup boiling water
• ½ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
For the frosting
• 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
• 4 cups confectioners' sugar
• 2 tablespoons heavy cream, plus more as needed
• 3 strawberries, hulled and pureed
• 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
• ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray the insides of twenty-four 4-ounce jars with canola oil.
2. Make the strawberry cake batter: Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and strawberry puree, and beat, starting slowly and then more quickly, for 2 to 3 minutes, until you have a very thick batter. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy, then whisk in the milk. Add ⅓ cup of the egg white mixture to the batter, then beat until incorporated. Repeat until all the egg white mixture is incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl as you go. When all the egg white mixture has been added, set the batter aside.
3. Make the white and chocolate cake batters: Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and set aside. In another large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and cream. Stir ⅓ cup of the milk mixture into the butter mixture, and then stir ⅓ cup of the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Continue alternating additions of milk and flour until they are fully incorporated into the batter. Stir in the vanilla. Divide the batter between two bowls. In a small bowl, mix together the hot coffee and the cocoa, and add this mixture to one of the bowls, creating the chocolate cake batter.
4. Layering the flavors one at a time, scoop or spoon 2 tablespoons of each of the three cake batters into each of the prepared jars. Place the jars 2 inches apart on a large baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the centers of the cakes spring back when touched. Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool completely.
5. While the cakes are baking, make the frosting: Cream the butter, add the confectioners' sugar, and beat thoroughly. Beat in 2 tablespoons of the heavy cream. Divide the frosting into thirds. Add the strawberry puree to one third and mix in. Beat the bittersweet chocolate into the second third and the vanilla extract into the final third. Add a teaspoon or two of additional heavy cream to the buttercream frostings if needed for a smooth consistency.
6. Transfer the three frostings to three piping bags. Cut the tips off to create a ½-inch opening, and then place the three bags into one larger pastry bag fitted with a large star tip. Pipe the frosting onto the cooled cakes in a swirl shape before serving.
Laura Weiss is the author of Ice Cream: A Global History (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press). @foodandthings.com.