The Cake Therapist: How to Kickstart Creativity

Cake doesn't always mean big layer cake.

"Cake" can mean cupcakes, cakelets, a snack cake, or the soft and cake-like texture of a tender sugar cookie, madeleine, or brownie.

Whatever size or shape you make it, "cake" is a great vehicle for adding a little color and flavor to your life.
In The Cake Therapist, my debut novel, the main character Neely uses flavor--and her baked goods--to propel her bakery customers and wedding cake clients through the year. 

Take-charge coffee and chocolate at the start of the new year, blood orange and raspberry that together create a romantic and aromatic coral color in February, and so on.
Flavor, color, and aroma can also be wonderful ways to kickstart creativity. 
(And I needed every iota of creativity I could muster, writing a novel, a barbecue cookbook, and a baking cookbook that are all out at the same time!)
Here's how I discovered the secret.

“There has to be a better way!” I said to myself. I was at a brainstorming meeting. To help us along, the group brought out a plastic tray full of pallid sugar cookies that tasted as uninteresting as they looked. One tiny bite and I was all out of ideas. 
I went home and took out my little bottle of Aura Cacia “Creative Juice,” a blend of non-culinary essential oils that includes bergamot, citrus, and cardamom. I opened the bottle and sniffed its wonderful aroma. The light bulb went on, and the result is these soft sugar cookies, flavored with cardamom and topped with an orange glaze and a sweet gremolata of citrus zest, fresh mint or orange mint, and natural sugar (which has a larger crystal than granulated sugar). 
The Cake Therapist would definitely approve.

Creativity Kickstarters

The final touch to this soft, glazed sugar cookie is an aromatizing gremolata with citrus zest, orange mint, and natural granulated sugar that practically shouts “fresh and new.” The cardamom in the cookie itself follows and then lingers on the taste buds a bit. If the ideas don’t flow after that, it’s not my fault.

Adapted from Bake Happy (Running Press, 2015) by Judith Fertig.

Makes about 36 cookies

Soft Sugar Cookie Dough:
23/4 cups (335 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (121 g) sour cream, at room temperature
1/2 cup (113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon ground cardamom

Orange Glaze:
1 cup (120 g) confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest
3 tablespoons orange juice

Sweet Orange Mint Gremolata:
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh orange mint or mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup (50 g) natural granulated sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

For the cookies, whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream the sour cream, butter, and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Beat in the egg, vanilla, and cardamom. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the dry ingredients, a third at a time, until you have a smooth, soft dough. Pinch off a 1 tablespoon-sized ball of dough, roll gently in your hands and flatten into a 1-inch thick disc. Place each disc 11/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.
Bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until just firm to the touch and slightly golden at the edges. Let cool in the pans.

For the Orange Glaze, whisk the confectioners’ sugar, orange zest and juice together until smooth. Turn each cookie upside down and dip the top in the glaze. Turn upright and place on the baking sheet again to dry. 

For the Gremolata, muddle the orange mint , citrus zests, and sugar with a muddler or with the handle of wooden spoon in a medium bowl until the sugar is suffused with color and aroma.  

Sprinkle the gremolata on the glazed cookies and leave until the glaze has set, about 30 minutes.  Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Recipe from Bake Happy, where many more recipes with flavor, color, aroma, and more await!

The Cake Therapist's Strawberry Cake

My daughter is getting married in two weeks.

I get a little teary-eyed just thinking about it.

Planning this wedding has been such an unexpected gift. Not that the wedding was unexpected or the groom or the day or the dress. What has surprised and delighted me is the pleasure my daughter and I have both have taken in the planning. No hissy fits. No spats (except over her desire--nixed by me--to wear Thom's canvas shoes under her exquisite lace dress). But we joke about that.

I have new admiration for my daughter's gift of looking at things in a clear, what's-important-here? fashion. 

The time we have spent together working on this big project is precious to me. We have always loved and appreciated each other, but planning the wedding has brought this into sharper focus but also diffused this into a happy, golden light that I'd love to capture and keep. But I know it's fleeting.

Her life will change. She'll be married. Have a bigger house some day. And children. 

So this time, for me, is like a sunny summer's day when everything is possible.

Can that feeling be translated into flavor? I think so.

It reminds me of a crucial scene in The Cake Therapist (debuts June 2) in which Neely brings three people together who knew each other in childhood but have been estranged. It's a taste of the strawberry cake she brought that takes them back to those sunny, summer days and unlocks the past.

When I was working on The Cake Therapist, I was also working on a cookbook, Bake Happy. So when I wondered what a sunny summer day might taste like, I went into the kitchen and conjured the flavor of sun-kissed, juicy berries with a slight floral aroma.

Strawberries with a little sugar and just a touch of rosewater to bring out their berry-ness.

You can make the one-bowl cake like this one, above, and dress the cake casually with more sweetened and rose watered berries and a little fresh mint or orange mint.

Or you can make it more traditionally, as the cake on the cover of Bake Happy.

First, conjure the flavor with an easy syrup.
Rosy Strawberry Syrup
Adapted from Bake Happy by Judith Fertig.
Once you’ve tasted the tiny strawberries known as frais de bois, you’re spoiled for life. Adapted from a recipe by the late, great Lee Bailey, this aromatic syrup adds frais de bois flavor to fresh strawberries. This recipe also works for raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries. It looks like a lot of rosewater in this recipe, but it’s just enough.
Makes 11/2 cups (375 ml)
8 ounces (250 g) strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated or raw sugar
1 cup (250 ml) water
1 tablespoon rosewater
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Combine the strawberries, sugar, and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the rosewater. Strain the syrup through a fine sieve into a bowl; discard the solids. Stir in the lemon juice. Let cool, then use right away or cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
So Happy Together
Red berries + Rosewater
You might think that adding rosewater to fruit might result in an experience like “being pressed to your auntie’s perfumed cleavage,” as Niki Segnit so memorably writes in The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook. But you would be wrong. With strawberries, raspberries, and red currants, rosewater adds “an unfathomable background note,” Segnit explains. To me, the combined flavor is of sun-warmed berries, picked ripe and eaten on the spot.
Strawberry Birthday Cake
Adapted from Bake Happy by Judith Fertig.
Made with an easy yet delicious one-bowl yellow cake, this birthday cake is the traditional American layer confection with a twist. Strawberry syrup colors as well as flavors the buttercream frosting, evoking lazy summer childhood days. You can also make a blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, or passion fruit version simply by using a different syrup and fruit for the filling. Add colored sprinkles to the top and sides, unfurl a homemade cake bunting across the top of the cake, and the kid in anyone will be happy. Or, if you wish, double the amount of berries and keep sliced strawberries to use as the cake topping, sweetened with a little sugar and flavored with a little drop of rosewater.
Makes one 8-inch (3-layer) cake
Strawberry Birthday Cake:
Baking spray
3 cups (285 g) unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
2 cups (500 g) granulated or raw sugar
11/2 tablespoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup (170 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
11/2 cups (375 ml) whole milk
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Flavored Syrup Buttercream Frosting  made with Rosy Strawberry Syrup (above), prepared
1 pint (250 g) fresh strawberries, hulled and finely chopped
Colored sprinkles for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Spray the inside of three (8-inch) cake pans with baking spray and set aside.
For the Strawberry Birthday Cake, sift the flour sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, milk, and vanilla and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and beat again at medium speed for 3 more minutes or until well blended, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl. Spoon the batter into the prepared pans.
Bake for 25 to 28 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then invert the cake layers onto cooling racks. Let cool completely.

To assemble the cake, save the most domed layer for the top. Place the flattest layer on a serving plate, spread with 1/2 cup (125 ml) frosting, and scatter with half of the strawberries. Place another layer on top, frost with another 1/2 cup (125 ml) frosting, and scatter with the remaining half of the strawberries. Place the third layer on top and frost again. Using an offset spatula, frost the sides of the cake with half of the remaining frosting. Sprinkle colored sprinkles on the top and partially down the sides of the frosted cake.

Flavored Syrup Buttercream Frosting
It’s great to have flavoring and sweetening all in one to create a signature cake frosting. A take on the traditional American buttercream made with butter, confectioners’ sugar, and a liquid, this tastes fabulous made with Rosy Strawberry Syrup  on Strawberry Birthday Cake 
Makes enough for a three-layer cake
2 cups (454 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (250 ml) Rosy Strawberry Syrup or bottled red raspberry or blueberry syrup
71/2 cups (940 g) confectioners’ sugar
In a medium bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until light and fluffy , about 5 minutes. Mix in the vanilla and syrup, and then beat in the confectioner’s sugar, 1 cup at a time, until thick, fluffy and well blended. Use right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Let come to room temperature before using.