I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately. I’m torturing myself with homemade cakes.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been revamping my eating habits. I’m eating healthier, and I’m eating smaller portions. Along with the changes in my diet, I’ve started running again. Well, a bit more walking than running, but I’m following a training program, and I know that soon there will be more running than walking.

chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting | the merry gourmet

After I had my daughter, I was heavier than I’d ever been. I joined Weight Watchers, even attended meetings, and managed to lose 45 pounds. I finally liked how I look in the mirror, but more importantly, I felt in control of my health and my life for the first time ever.

While I was losing that weight, I kept a bowl of candy – chocolates, my favorite sweet – on my desk. I might have one piece, but more often than not, I completely resisted. Looking back, I believe I put those chocolates there as a challenge to my willpower. A small daily test. As each day passed that I ignored that candy bowl, I felt more strong and empowered.

chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting | the merry gourmet

I’ve slid backwards these last five years, since having my second child, my son. Sure, initially my clothes weren’t fitting well because of baby weight, but after a year had passed, my only excuse was that I overindulged too often and regularly. Exercise was not a priority, and I sacrificed that part of my life for other things — work, spending time with the kids, cooking or blogging even. I’m an expert at finding excuses not to exercise.

I’m revamping my lifestyle now, and I feel great about it. I’m ready for change. More importantly, I’m ready to wear smaller pants.

So, I baked another cake (remember the lemon one last week?) this weekend. Maybe I’m testing myself again, just like I did with those chocolates that sat on my desk, begging to be eaten. I’m proving to myself that I can do this, that I am stronger than the call of desserts. Even chocolate desserts.

After eating one small piece of this beauty, I won’t have any more. The rest will be shared with family and friends.

And tomorrow, I run.

chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting | the merry gourmet

Yield: 10 servings

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

Rich chocolate cake slathered in creamy vanilla buttercream. What could be better? Serve this cake for your sweetie's birthday and you'll earn yourself lots of hugs and kisses.

Ingredients:

For Cake:
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao), chopped
3/4 cup cocoa powder (Dutch process is preferred)
1 cup boiling water
1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For Frosting:
4-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt
4 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

To Prepare Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment. Lightly dust the pans with flour, shaking out the excess. Set aside.

Combine the chopped chocolate and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Add the cup of boiling water and whisk until chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside.

On low speed in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt until combined. In another bowl, stir together the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients. With the mixer still on low, add the melted chocolate mixture, stirring until just combined, using a rubber spatula to scrape down sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.

Pour the batter into the cake pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cakes in their pans on a rack for 30 minutes, then invert them onto the cooling rack to cool to room temperature. Note: Cakes may be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap at this point and refrigerated until ready to use.

To Prepare Frosting:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until smooth, about 60 seconds. Reduce speed to medium low and slowly add confectioners' sugar. Beat until smooth, about 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together salt, cream, and vanilla; stir until salt is dissolved. Add cream mixture to butter mixture, increase mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Note: Frosting can be made ahead, up to 2 days, and refrigerated in a tightly covered container. Bring to room temperature when ready to use, and beat on medium-low in the stand mixer for 3 to 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Frost the Cake:

To frost cakes, place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, and spread frosting evenly over top and sides of cake.

I’ve been a fan of Kelsey Banfield’s blog for quite a while. What sold me on her recipes was how approachable and accessible they are. The fact that she makes the prep and cook time fit into a busy family’s schedule is really icing on the cake. And, what sold me on Kelsey herself is that she’s a warm and beautiful person. The only downside to Kelsey is that she lives so far away from me.

Kelsey’s new book,The Naptime Chef: Fitting Great Food into Family Life, has just hit the market. When her publisher, Running Press, offered to send me copy to review, I jumped at the chance. Not only do I have an unhealthy addiction to new cookbooks, but I adore Kelsey, and her book has been on my must-acquire list since I first learned she would be writing it.

The first recipe I tested was the recipe for herbs de provence popovers. I’ve never made popovers before, and I loved that the recipe didn’t require me to go out and buy a special pan to make them in.

Popovers are a beautiful thing, really. The billowy tops almost beg to have a finger poked in them, but I resisted. The popovers were loaded with herbs de provence, and the savory aroma that filled the house as they baked was intoxicating.

For lunch one day, I tried the recipe for couscous salad with blue cheese and dried cranberries. I’m trying to take my lunch to work more often, and these are the kinds of salads I look for. Couscous is simple to prepare, and with the addition of a light vinaigrette and the sweet and salty add-ins of pecans, blue cheese, and dried cranberries, this is one beautiful salad. It can be made ahead, perfect for that dreaded Sunday night weekday-lunch-prep-time.

The Naptime Chef is an empowering cookbook for parents, especially new parents who are struggling to find a way to eat well while working around a little one’s schedule. In fact, this is a great book to give to a new mom or dad – it would make a wonderful baby shower gift.  It’s not comprehensive, but it’s not meant to be. Kelsey’s book is just meant to show you that eating well while raising children can be done.

*    *    *    *    *    *

the giveaway

Running Press was gracious enough to allow me to give a copy of Kelsey’s book to one of my readers, so here’s your chance to get the book in your own warm little hands.

to enter:

It’s very simple to enter — no hoops to jump through. And, while I would love it if you followed me on twitter and liked my Facebook page, it is by no means a requirement.

Since the theme of this book is all about fitting wonderful meals into a busy family life, all you have to do is leave me a comment on this post with the answer to this question:

What is your favorite weeknight meal to serve your family, and how do you fit it in your schedule?

the fine print:

I’ll close comments on Thursday, March 15 at 5pm EST, and I’ll randomly select a winner from the comments. Please, only one comment per person, and you must live in the US or Canada to win the giveaway.

Don’t want to wait for the giveaway to end? Buy The Naptime Chef right now.

*   *   *   UPDATE!   *   *   *

Time’s up and the winner of this wonderful cookbook goes to…

Congratulations, Flavia! I’m sure you’ll enjoy Kelsey’s book as much as I’m enjoying it. I love the dinner suggestion, too. It sounds like exactly what I’d love to eat right this very minute, in fact.

Yield: 4 servings.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Couscous Salad with Blue Cheese and Dried Cranberries

Kelsey notes that this salad tastes better if made at least a couple of hours in advance, to allow the flavors to meld. Chill it in the refrigerator before serving.

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups (10 ounces) uncooked plain couscous
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Zest and juice of 1 medium lemon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (4 ounces) dried cranberries
1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup chopped scallions (about 3), white and light green parts only
3/4 cup (3 ounces) pecans, coarsely chopped

Directions:

Prepare couscous according to package directions, making sure to fluff it with a fork when it's cooked.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Set aside.

Pour the prepared couscous into a large mixing bowl. Add the cranberries, blue cheese, scallions, and pecans and pour the dressing evenly over the top. Mix everything together lightly with a fork so the ingredients are lightly coated with the dressing and the mixture stays fluffy.

Taste the salad for seasoning, and add another pinch or two of salt if necessary.

Reprinted with permission from Kelsey Banfield's The Naptime Chef: Fitting Great Food into Family Life.

The annual carnival at my daughter’s elementary school was this weekend, heralded by a two-week onslaught of fundraising forms and letters, requests for silent auction donations, treasure box prizes, volunteers, and cakes for the cake walk. I did my best to tune out all the notices flying at me, by way of email and the weekly homework folder, but when Madeline begged me to please, please donate a cake, I had a hard time telling her no.

The deadline was Friday morning by 10am, and of course, I didn’t commit to bringing one until mid-week last week. A couple of hectic days at work and late meetings – and, let’s face it, apathy – kept me from doing what I needed to do to get that cake baked. So, hanging my head in shame, I dropped Maddie off at school on Friday morning with a cake box from Publix, a little ladybug cake with red and black frosting – made by the grocery store bakers – nestled inside. I know, I know. How could I?

Truthfully, I didn’t expect to admit my slacker-parenting out loud to anyone, especially any one who knows how much I adore cooking. But, the guilt has been tugging at me, so I needed to get it out there.

The carnival was better than last year – more organized, and with great volunteers running the games and activities smoothly. No thanks to me, of course. I ignored those volunteer request forms.

lemon layer cake with lemon cream cheese frosting | the merry gourmet

What drew my daughter’s attention, naturally, was the cake walk. The essence of the game is that twenty people, kids or adults, played a sort of musical chairs. The chairs were numbered, and whatever number you happened to be sitting on when the music stopped was your number. The leaders of the game called out three or four numbers at random, and if your number was called, you won a cake. They played the music three times with each group of people, and at least 6 out of the 20 contestants won cakes, getting to choose their prize off the cake-laden table in the back of the room.

Madeline insisted we play, so we did.  After the first losing round, her competitive nature kicked in, and she demanded we go back to the end of the line and try again. After the second losing round, she was in tears. I promised to bake a special cake at home, and I reassured her that my cake would be better than that store-bought Publix cake she was so hoping to win back. Oliver seemed happy with that plan, but it didn’t have a real effect on Maddie. Sam and Madeline lined up for a third try at the cake walk while Oliver and I got snow cones.

The third try was definitely not the charm. No cake prize.

lemon layer cake with lemon cream cheese frosting | the merry gourmet

I’m not sure how we got over the devastation of losing the cake walk game three times, but thankfully, we did. Since then, though, all I’ve heard is that the cake walk is not a fair game. It’s clearly rigged.

When we got home Saturday afternoon, I started baking this lemon layer cake. I did it in part to soothe my daughter’s soul, hoping to make up for the sense of injustice that she felt. And I also did it for me, to assuage my guilt for having sent my daughter to school with a store-bought cake. A store-bought cake that stood out like a sore thumb on that cake table in the classroom where the cake walk was held.

Madeline feels better today. I do too. Amazing what a slice of cake will do to improve one’s mood.

lemon layer cake with lemon cream cheese frosting | the merry gourmet

Lemon Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

This cake would make a lovely celebration cake for a baby shower or birthday, or really, anytime you just want to make someone feel better. I used regular lemons for this cake, but if I'd had Meyer lemons on hand, I certainly would have used those.

Makes two 9-inch round cake layers and about 4-1/2 cups frosting.

Ingredients:

Ingredients for Cake:
3 cups (11.25 ounces; 315 grams) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1-1/2 cups (12 ounces; 3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces; 392 grams) granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
Zest of one lemon
1 cup milk, room temperature
7 large egg whites, room temperature

Ingredients for Frosting:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 box (16 ounces; 453 grams) confectioners sugar

Directions:

To Prepare Cake:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment. Lightly dust the cake pans with flour, shaking out excess. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, and scraping down sides of bowl as needed, beat butter and 1-3/4 cup sugar about 3 to 4 minutes, until pale and fluffy. Beat in extracts and lemon zest. With mixer on low speed, add the flour and milk in an alternating fashion (starting and ending with flour), and beat until just combined. Transfer mixture to a large bowl.

In a clean bowl and using the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites on low until foamy. With mixer running, gradually add in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat on high speed until glossy, stiff peaks form, about 4 minutes, taking care not to overbeat. Fold 1/3 of the egg white mixture into the flour/butter mixture, incorporating the egg whites completely. Repeat this two more times until all of the egg white mixture has been folded into the cake batter completely.

Divide batter between the two prepared cake pans, smoothing batter, then bake for 30-35 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of each comes out dry. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes, then invert, peel off parchment, and re-invert cakes so they cool completely with the top facing upward. When completely cool, frost with cream cheese frosting, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To Prepare Frosting:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat together cream cheese, butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Beat until light and fluffy. Gradually add in sugar, beating until completely blended. Cover and refrigerate to allow the frosting to firm up some and until ready to use.