RECIPE: THE BEST EVER CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE WITH CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

Nothing says party like cake... and for me, nothing says delicious like a homemade chocolate cake. I've used this recipe for so many years, I cannot remember where I first got it. I know it did not come from my mother because she rarely made cakes and because my father didn't like chocolate, she certainly never made a chocolate cake. I started making this cake when I was in high school for parties I'd have at my house. There may have been a bakery in our neighborhood in those days but I never went to it because we made everything from scratch. There was a time when I made 7-Minute Icing for this chocolate cake but 7-minute icing is finicky and people seem to like the chocolate on chocolate better.

Make sure to use fresh baking powder and baking soda so you get a nice, fluffy cake.

PERFECT CHOCOLATE BIRTHDAY CAKE

INGREDIENTS

2 cups granulated sugar

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

1 recipe Chocolate Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans. (You can use Baker's Joy but I prefer the outcome using the grease-flour method)

Sift together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and kosher salt and add it to the bowl of your mixer. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time. Add the milk, oil, and vanilla and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Remove from the stand. Stir in the boiling water (the batter will be thin). Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Allow to cool completely before icing with the Perfect Chocolate Buttercream Frosting recipe below.

(For a sheet cake, use a 13x9x2 pan and bake for 35-40 minutes)


CHOCOLATE SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM

A Swiss buttercream is made using egg whites and not just butter (or shortening as some old recipes call for) to make it extra fluffy and lighter than a butter only buttercream. I like both but wanted to share this one-- or you can make traditional buttercream using just butter, powdered sugar, and chocolate. The one on the Hershey's Cocoa box is perfect. Can't go wrong with that!

INGREDIENTS

1 pound bittersweet chocolate

12 ounces semisweet chocolate

3/4 cup egg whites (4-5 extra-large eggs), at room temperature

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS:

Chop the chocolates and place them in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan simmering water. Stir until melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

Mix the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Place the bowl of egg whites over the pan of simmering water and heat the egg whites until they are warm to the touch, about 5 minutes. Return the bowl to the electric mixer and whisk on high speed for 5 minutes, or until the meringue is cool and holds a stiff peak.

Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, while beating on medium speed. Scrape down the bowl, add the melted chocolate, vanilla, and mix for 1 minute or until the chocolate is completely blended in. If the buttercream seems very soft, allow it to cool, and beat it again. If you want to make it extra special or cannot get your icing to look exactly perfect, top with chocolate curls like I did in the photo above. There are easy to make.

HOW TO MAKE CHOCOLATE CURLS

Melt some chocolate using a double boiler. Remove from the heat. Take a clean baking sheet and spread a thin layer of the chocolate onto it and place it in the freezer for 5 minutes. To make the curls, use a thin metal spatula or a clean putty knife. Press the edge of the spatula under the edge of the chocolate and push it forward... the chocolate will roll up. Place on another baking sheet lined with parchment paper and put back into the freezer to firm up. When you are ready to use, simply decorate the cake as desired... also a great garnish for ice cream!

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RECIPE: OLD FASHIONED SOUTHERN LEMON MERINGUE PIE

My mom was an amazing pie maker- I've said it a million times. She made a pie or cobbler almost every single day and when I'd come home to Birmingham from my travels, I always knew I could always count on there being a Lemon Meringue Pie waiting for me.  It is one of my favorite memories and certainly one of my favorite pies. Make one of these for someone special in your life and start a tradition of your own.

I wish I could take credit for those gorgeous swirled tarts on the right- those are from Chez Fonfon in Birmingham. I just wanted to show you that meringue can be a light to deep golden brown, depending on your taste. They make the swirls using a large pastry bag fitted with a wide, flat tip.

OLD-FASHIONED SOUTHERN LEMON MERINGUE PIE

For a 9 inch pie or 12 small tarts, depending on the size of your tart pans

INGREDIENTS

1- pie crust for a 9" pie plate, pre-baked (homemade or store bought)

LEMON MERINGUE FILLING

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole milk

4 egg yolks, beaten well. (Save the egg whites for the meringue)

1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons butter, room temperature

MERINGUE

4 egg whites

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar (find it in the spice aisle)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

FOR THE FILLING: Separate the egg yolks and whites. Put the yolks in a heat-proof bowl and beat them well until they are slightly thickened. Add the sugar, salt, and cornstarch to a saucepan. Use a fork to combine the ingredients. Add the milk, 1/4 cup at a time, whisking each addition to incorporate very well. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil exactly one minute, stirring constantly to keep it from burning. Remove from the heat. Carefully temper the egg yolks with the hot mixture by whisking 1/4 cup of the hot liquid into the eggs, stirring to incorporate. Whisk another 1/4 cup of the hot mixture to the eggs and then turn the tempered egg mixture into the saucepan.

Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and butter. Stir well to combine. Set aside. 

FOR THE MERINGUE: Put the egg whites in a mixing bowl. Add the cream of tartar. Beat on high speed for 30 seconds. Add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time until all the sugar is added and stiff, shiny peaks form. This takes about 3-4 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.

ASSEMBLY: Some people butter the bottom of a baked pie shell to act as a barrier between the filling and the crust so it won't get soggy. I did not do this step but you can if you like. Pour the filling into the pre-baked crust. Spread the meringue over the pie filling. The key is to make sure to spread the meringue all the way to the edges so the meringue doesn't shrink away from the crust as it bakes.

Bake the pie at 350 degrees F. for 15 minutes or until the meringue is golden. Cool the pie on a wire baking rack until it is cool and then put it into the refrigerator to cool completely before cutting it. (I usually allow it to sit for 20 minutes and then put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before serving.)

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RECIPE: TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN

People usually associate Southern cooking with three things: Biscuits, BBQ, and Fried Chicken. I probably need to get my passport revoked because I have not until today, put up a single blog post or recipe on fried chicken. Fried chicken is a lot like BBQ sauce or potato salad. Every Southern cook has their own version and usually, a couple of good stories to go with it. Here's mine...

My mom grew up in a children's home in Troy, Alabama during very hard times. The kids all had to have a job and my mom always preferred to be in the kitchen. Once a week there would be fried chicken and they would have to go out in the yard and catch the chicken, kill it, clean it and then help cook it. Ugh. Hard to imagine. Mom taught me how to cut up a whole chicken and her techniques for frying. The big secret is the buttermilk. Don't skip that step... makes the chicken so juicy.  Here is my mom's recipe. I still use her cast iron skillet when I make it.

 I don't often make fried chicken these days but when I do, it is always the star of the party.

I don't often make fried chicken these days but when I do, it is always the star of the party.

TRADITIONAL BUTTERMILK SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN

INGREDIENTS

1 whole chicken with skin, cut up (about 3 pounds)

2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon kosher salt + 1 teaspoon

1 teaspoon black pepper + ½ teaspoon

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon paprika

3 cups self-rising flour

6-8 cups Canola oil for frying based on the size of your skillet or Dutch oven

Special equipment: Thermometer for frying and a meat thermometer

DIRECTIONS:

Put the chicken pieces in a large zip top bag. Pour the buttermilk over it and close. Toss to coat all of the chicken. Put the bag in a bowl and place it in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours to soak, turning the bag occasionally.

When you are ready to fry, fit a deep cast iron skillet or Dutch oven with a thermometer. Pour in the oil about 1 ½ to 2’ deep. Over medium high heat, bring the oil up to 360 degrees. You want to try to keep the oil at 360 during frying process. It will drop as you put in the chicken but let it come back to 360 degrees before adding more.

Combine the 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, cayenne, and paprika. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk and discard the buttermilk. Season the chicken liberally with the spice mixture on all sides.  

Put the flour plus 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a zip top bag. (Back in the day, we used a brown paper bag.) Take the chicken, one or two pieces at a time and put into the flour mixture. Shake well to coat. Lightly shake off excess. Put on the baking rack after you have coated each piece.

When the oil is up to temperature, use the tongs to carefully put the coated pieces of chicken into the hot oil. Do this in batches, taking care not to overcrowd or put too many pieces in the pan at one time. You will lower the oil temperature and the skin will not be crispy. Cook the chicken for 15-20 minutes, turning occasionally until the chicken is deep golden brown and delicious. Remove one piece of chicken and check the temperature with a meat thermometer at the thickest part of the breast or thigh but away from the bone. Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees F. Drain on a rack covered with a brown paper bag. You may want to lightly sprinkle the hot chicken with a little salt. That’s how my mom did it. Hope you like it as much as I love remembering those days standing by the stove with my mom, on chicken duty.

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