Special Occasions

Challah with Poppy Seeds

  challah with poppy seeds

The slightly sweet, cake-like challah's braided shape makes it look as sophisticated as it tastes.  When I realized it was Chanukah, I knew I wanted to try baking a loaf.

Day 9: Challah with Poppy Seeds

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

Baking bread requires focus and patience. If you've got both of those, this challenging recipe becomes rather simple. There are no fancy ingredients, and the Kitchen Aid stand mixer does the kneading.

This bread is more cake-like than other breads I've made due to the relatively high quantity of eggs and sugar.  If you stick to the recipe I'm sharing, that's adapted from one of my most trusted Williams Sonoma baking books, you'll have success. But, here are a few potential culprits to watch out for.

  1. The yeast. Make sure you use the right kind, and make sure it's alive.  It is also important that the water it's dissolved in is hot enough to activate the yeast.
  2. Make sure the dough rests in warm enough place, free from any drafts, and for enough time.
  3. Technique in braiding the dough. Lucky for me, I made two braids (with this recipe, you can make one giant one, or two smaller ones).  I messed up the first one, but got the hang of it for the second one.
  4. Bake it for the right length of time. This bread will brown before it is ready to be taken from the oven, so you will have to watch the clock, as well as do the other suggestions in the recipe. Otherwise, you bread will be cooked on top and not inside!

The dough should not be too sticky.

Divide the dough into four parts (or 8 if you make two), and roll each part as long as the length of the pan you use to bake the challah.

Tuck the top and bottom parts under. Then carefully place the dough in the prepared pan to rest again.

Brush the dough with egg wash, then top with the poppy seeds.

Remove from the oven and allow it to cool completely on a wire rack.

challah bread


Challah with Poppy Seeds
Author: Vallery
  • 2 packages (5 tsp.) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, plus 1 egg, beaten, for glaze
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room
  • temperature
  • 1 Tbs. poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional)
  1. In the bowl of your stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar, 3 eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the salt and butter. Place the bowl on the mixer, attach the dough hook and knead on low speed, working in the remaining flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not be tempted to add too much flour. The dough should stay soft and will become less sticky with kneading. Remove the dough from the bowl.
  2. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot until it doubles in bulk, about 2 hours.
  3. Line a half-sheet pan or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Using a plastic pastry scraper, scrape the dough out onto a clean work surface. To make a 4-strand braid, cut the dough into 4 equal pieces with a sharp knife or a bench scraper. Using your palms, and starting in the center and working outward, elongate 1 piece by rolling it gently against the work surface with even pressure until you have formed a rope as long as the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining 3 pieces.
  4. Line up the 4 strands in front of you horizontally. Cross the strand farthest from you across the other 3 strands so that it is nearest you. Cross the strand that is now next to it across the other 2 strands away from you. Position the outside strands so that they are away from the center ones, and position the center 2 strands perfectly horizontal. Bring the strand nearest you down between the 2 horizontal strands. Bring the strand farthest from you up and across to the opposite side. Again, bring the strand farthest from you down between the 2 straight strands. Bring the strand nearest you up and across to the opposite side. Starting from the strand nearest you, repeat the braiding until you reach the ends of the ropes. Pinch them together at the top and at the bottom, and tuck the strands under at the ends.
  5. Place the braided loaf on the prepared pan, cover with a dry kitchen towel, and let rise again in a warm, draft-free spot until the loaf doubles in size and is spongy to the touch, 45 to 60 minutes.
  6. Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 350°F.
  7. Brush the braid gently with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the seeds. Bake the braid until it is nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Makes 1 large braided loaf.


Wedding Cake Sugar Cookies

Wedding Cake Sugar Cookies I celebrated a dear friend's last days as a single lady this weekend.  We had afternoon tea at Alice's Tea Cup on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so I baked and decorated wedding cake-shaped sugar cookies as party favors.  I found a new sugar cookie recipe to try, and it will undoubtedly be my new go-to recipe for using cookie cutters. The cookies were thick and chewy and held their shape while baking.  I then whipped up a batch of royal icing and made a cone out of parchment paper to decorate the cookies.

Roll out the dough until it is 1/2 inch thick

Use cookie cutters to carefully cut the cookies from the dough


Best sugar cookie recipe



Allow the cookies to cool completely on a cooling rack before decorating.

wedding cake cookies


Wedding Cake Sugar Cookies
Author: Vallery
Serves: 2 dozen large cookies
These cookies are thick and chewy, and are perfect for using cookie cutters!
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened (8 tablespoons)
  • 1 and 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 cups (500g) all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  1. Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about four minutes.
  2. Reduce speed to low. Add vanilla extract. Add eggs one at a time, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Make sure each egg is completely incorporated.
  3. Add the flour, baking soda, and cream of tartar. Mix until just combined. The dough may appear crumbly--that is ok!
  4. Dump the dough onto a work surface, and mound it into a round disc. Make sure there is no space within the dough. Press the dough firmly into the disc, and the dough should come together completely.
  5. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  6. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and preheat the oven to 350F.
  7. Lightly flour the work surface, rolling pin, and cookie cutters. Starting from the center, roll the dough out evenly, so that it is 1/2 inch thick. Cleanly cut each cookie, using a spatula to carefully lift the cookie. Place the cookies on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and refrigerate for another 10 minutes.
  8. Remove the chilled cookies from the refrigerator, and bake for about 12 minutes, until lightly golden at the bottom and just starting to brown around the edges.
  9. Remove cookies from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  10. Decorate as desired.

Afternoon Tea at Alice's Tea Cup

Bridal Party at Alice's Tea Cup

SV 03 502


Homemade "Funfetti" Cake

Let cakes cool completely on a wire rack. You can make any cake a "funfetti" cake by adding 1/2 cup of sprinkles to the cake batter of any white or yellow cake.  This festive celebratory cake is one that will transport those who eat it to the days of simpler times--ballon animals, face painting, or maybe gifts from elementary school classmates.  The spectrum of colors that were sprinkled in the cake was always a delight, and the rainbow of colors seemed to explode in my mouth.  Luckily, these cakes are fairly simple to make if you are already an avid baker.  A homemade "funfetti" cake can be made with pretty much any white or yellow cake recipe by folding a half cup of sprinkles into the batter before dividing the batter among cake pans.  If you are making a very large cake, you will need to add more sprinkles.  But, as a rule of thumb, add 1/2 cup of sprinkles for every 2 dozen cupcakes, two-layer 8" round cake , or 1/4 sheet pan cake.

A dear friend of mine still likes funfetti cake--despite the fact that we are well into adulthood.  We threw her a huge birthday bash, so I decided to make a giant funfetti cake to commemorate her birthday and love of this multi-colored cake.  I decided the cake needed to fit the party--a  colossal party deserves a colossal cake.  This two-tier cake is made up of three 8"x2" layers on the bottom tier, and two 4"x2" layers on the top tier.  I used a somewhat traditional buttercream frosting, and I dyed marzipan for the detailing.  I sprinkled the cake with sprinkles.  I wanted the outside of the cake to be as colorful as the inside.

Fold sprinkles into the cake batter

Pour the cake batter into prepared pans

Pour the cake batter into prepared pans

Allow the cakes to cool briefly in their pans

Assemble the Cake

Dye, roll out, and cut marzipan into shapes

Decorate the cake as desired.

homemade funfetti cake with buttercream and marzipan

Homemade "Funfetti" Cake
Cuisine: Dessert
Author: Vallery
Serves: 2 (8"x2") round cake pans
This funfetti cake will add flair to any birthday party. The recipe below is for two 8"x2" cake layers. If you'd like the two-tier cake pictured above, double the recipe and you will yield three 8"x2" cake layers + two 4"x2" cake layers. This recipe is adapted from Food52.
  • Cake:
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup sprinkles
  • Butter cream frosting:
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups powder sugar
  • 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Marzipan
  • Food Coloring
  1. Prepare the cake pans by greasing and dusting them with flour. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Prepare the dry ingredients by whisking the cake flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
  3. Mix butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with mixing paddle attached, on low speed for about a minute. Mix on medium-low speed for another minute. Mix on medium until light and fluffy.
  4. Add the egg whites, one at a time, mixing on medium-low until each is incorporated.
  5. Add the vanilla and oil and mix on medium-low until incorporated. The batter should be smooth.
  6. Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk.
  7. Mix until the batter is smooth, but do not over mix.
  8. Fold in the sprinkles and divide the batter among the cake pans.
  9. Bake for 25-30 minutes. The cakes are ready when an inserted toothpicks comes out clean.
  10. Remove from the oven and let cool on a cooling rack in the pan for five minutes. Remove from the pan and let cool completely.
  11. Prepare Buttercream Frosting: Mix the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on medium-low for about one minute. Add the powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Add the vanilla extract, almond extract, and salt. Mix until combined.
  12. Prepare Marzipan: Add a few drops of food coloring to a small chunk of marzipan and knead until the color is completely incorporated. Roll out the marzipan and cut into the design you desire. Once the cake has been iced, stick the marzipan onto the cake.


Barbie Bachelorette Cake

Barbie Bachelorette Cake This past weekend, I helped a dear friend celebrate one of her last night's as a single woman in the City of Brotherly Love.  To commemorate the occasion, I made a four-layer white cake with chocolate buttercream, covered with purple fondant, and topped with Barbie who had a little too much to drink and lost one of her shoes.

Traditional American White Cake

I used a traditional American "white cake" recipe.  This is the type of cake that is traditionally used in formal cakes, such as wedding cakes.  It has an almond-y flavor, and a tender crumb.  I made an Italian Meringue Buttercream, which I flavored with Scharffen Berger 99% cacao Fine Artisan Dark Chocolate.  (Scharffen Berger was America's first contemporary Artisan Chocolatier, and my personal favorite American brand.)

I had several mishaps with the buttercream, and ended up having to make three batches.  The first batch: I added too much vanilla (which contains alcohol, and too much alcohol will "break" the emulsification).  The second batch: I spilled half of it on the floor.  I guess the third time's a charm..

Next, I "filled in the holes" and coated the cake with a think layer of Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the "crumb coat."  (This is kind of like glue--something for the fondant to stick to.)

Masking White Cake with Buttercream

Next, I mixed purple and white fondant (since the purple alone was too dark), and I rolled it out and masked the cake.  I then added a band at the bottom, designs, and rhinestones.  I also made Barbie a fondant "Bachelorette Sash" which unfortunately did not survive the night.  (I think drunk Barbie lost the sash at the first stop.)

Classy Barbie Bachelorette Cake

I also made a mini Vegan cake since the Bride-to-Be is Dairy Free.  I converted a Vegan Chocolate Cupcake Recipe, and I used tiny cake pans (the only modification was that I lowered the baking temperature from 350 to 300/325, and I baked it longer).

White Cake Recipe (for three 9-inch round cake pans)

Ingredients: 18 tablespoons (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature 4 1/2 c. cake flour 1 1/2 c. whole milk 9 large egg whites, lightly beaten 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 2 tablespoons baking powder 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 1/4 cups sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour three 9-by-2-inch round cake pans, tapping out excess flour; set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together, milk, egg whites, and extracts. Into a second medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed for 30 seconds. With machine running, gradually add the sugar. Continue beating until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl as necessary.

  4. Add one-third of the flour mixture and one-third of the milk mixture, and beat on low speed until just incorporated. Add remaining flour and milk mixtures in 2 separate batches beating between additions to fully incorporate. Scrape down sides of bowl, and stir by hand to finish.

  5. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans. Smooth surface with a rubber spatula. Bake until top of cake springs back when lightly pressed and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

  6. Let cakes cool in pans on wire racks for 5 minutes. Run a small metal spatula around the sides of the pan, and invert cakes onto greased racks. Reinvert cakes onto cooling rack. Let cool completely before filling.

  7. Place one cake layer on a cake stand. Spread 3/4 cup buttercream evenly over top of cake. Top with a second layer. Repeat with a second layer. Top with third cake layer. Insert a few skewers into cake to keep cake from sliding. Spread remaining buttercream evenly over surface of cake. Decorate. Remove skewers before serving.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream Recipe

Ingredients: 4 large egg whites 1 1/4 c. sugar 1 1/2 c. unsalted butter, (3 sticks), softened, cut into tablespoons 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  1. Put egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer set over a pan of simmering water. Whisking constantly, cook until sugar has dissolved and mixture is warm (about 160 degrees).
  2. Attach bowl to a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat egg-white mixture on high speed until it forms stiff (but not dry) peaks. Continue beating until fluffy and cooled, about 6 minutes.

  3. Switch to the paddle attachment. With mixer on medium-low, add butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. (If frosting appears to separate after all butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again, 3 to 5 minutes more.) Beat in vanilla. Reduce speed to low; beat 2 minutes to eliminate air bubbles. Stir with a rubber spatula until smooth.

Four-Layer White Cake with Fondant

Slice of cake at the glitz station

A few more pics from the night...

Bachelorette Party Fun

back15me and the bride-to-be!


Drunk Barbie Bachelorette Cake with Fondant

Bridal Shower Cookie Cut-Outs

Image I made sugar cookie cut-outs to give as party favors for my friend's bridal shower. As soon as she got engaged in January, I went to Sur La Table and stocked up on wedding-themed cookie cutters! I bought a wedding gown cookie cutter, diamond ring cookie cutter, and a wedding chapel cookie cutter.

Well, my friend isn't getting married in a church. She's getting married on the beach, in Punta Cana (so the wedding chapel cookie cutter was out). I also considered doing a wine glass or wine bottle cookie cutter, but I had a bad experience coloring the icing with the food dye I purchased--so I figured white royal icing was the safest bet!

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Vegan Cupcakes for A Bridal Shower at a Winery

Bridal Shower Photoshoot in the Vineyard The concept of “Vegan Baking” has often befuddled me.  One of the hallmarks of baking is richness—a richness that you get from high-quality butter, egg yolks, and whole milk.  And, well, Vegans don’t eat any of those.

But, what’s a girl to do when one of her best friends (and cosmic sister) is getting married?  Well, I made Vegan cupcakes. And Vegan frosting.  The cupcakes were chocolate, and I used Valhrona 100% cocoa powder. Valhrona is the premier French chocolatier and by far the richest chocolate available commercially, so I hoped that some of that richness would make up for the lack of dairy. The recipe was fairly straight forward.

The frosting was a little trickier. I adapted a recipe for Vegan vanilla frosting. According to online commenters, the frosting was too sweet. The dilemma with American frosting (and the reason why a meringue buttercream is preferable) is that you have to add TONS of powdered sugar to get the frosting to a workable consistency.  Vegan frosting is pretty much like other American frostings: powdered sugar, vanilla extract, and butter (or Vegan butter).  With a classic buttercream, you make a meringue, so the sugar has much less to do with the consistency. Classic buttercreams are definitely preferable, but not a possibility since they rely heavily on egg whites (eggs = NOT Vegan).

So, I replaced some of the powdered sugar with 100% unsweetened cocoa in an attempt to cut down on the sweetness of the frosting. The cupcakes were definitely a hit! I’d even recommend making them WITHOUT frosting—just dust them with powdered sugar and cocoa. They are delicious on their own! (Although for purposes of entertaining, most people dislike the concept of “naked cupcakes.”)

Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes

1 ½ cups cake flour

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¼ cups water

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners; set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or large regular bowl with a whisk), mix together the oil, vinegar, vanilla, and water until well combined. Add flour mixture to the mixer and mix until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary. Batter should look and feel more watery than normal cake batters.
  4. Pour batter into prepared muffin tin, filling each cup ½ to ¾ full. Transfer to oven and bake, rotating pan halfway through cooking, until a cake tester inserted into the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean, 20-25 minutes.
  5. Immediately remove cupcakes from muffin tin and transfer to a wire rack. Let cool completely before frosting.  (If you choose not to frost these cupcakes, dust with cocoa powder and powdered sugar immediately before serving.)

Adapted from Divvies Bakery Recipe in Martha Stewart’s “Cupcakes”

 Vegan Vanilla Frosting

1 ¾ cups confectioner’s sugar

½ cup dairy-free margarine, chilled

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon rice milk

  1. Combine 1 ¼ c. confectioner’s sugar, margarine, salt, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
  2.  Add rice milk, continuing until well-combined. Slowly add remaining ½ c. confectioner’s sugar. Mix until well combined. Store in airtight container, refrigerated, up to one week.

Courtesy of Divvie’s Bakery via marthastewart.com

me and the bride

Cheering for Love with Hydrangea Pompoms