Friday, November 5, 2010

A Book Club Birthday

Make a Wish!

I was home in Toledo for a few days last week, delivering a Scrumptious Company party for the lovely ladies of my mom’s book club.  It was Carolyn’s sixtieth birthday, and so something special was in order.  I do feel pretty proud that an SC luncheon was deemed that special something.  And I feel pretty lucky too, because after years of hearing stories of all the fun that goes on at these gatherings, this birthday party was my in.  My first chance ever, to be part of one of my mom’s book club gatherings, with these fun and fabulous females.  I had an absolute blast, an amazing afternoon, well worth the wait.  And I was honored to cook for and share time with such a wonderful group of women! 

Curried Chicken Salad
Mixed Greens with Beets, Carrots & Pickled Red Onions
Sliced Ciabatta Bread
Clusters of Fresh Grapes
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting & Toasted Coconut

The menu was simple, as I think it well should be for any civilized ladies luncheon.  But it was filled with some of my absolute favorite recipes.  

Birthday Lunch

The curried chicken salad, another gem from Ina Garten, is to me, just about the best idea for lunch, ever.  Spread between two slices of seedy bread, it’s a wonderful brown bag treat, something I like to surprise Ben with every now and again.  But served alongside a tender greens, fresh fruit and wedges of crusty bread, it makes for a sensationally elegant luncheon salad.  So full of all sorts of deliciousness – bites of tenderly roasted chicken breast, sweet and chewy raisins, salty roasted cashews, crunchy slices of celery and spicy scallion specks - I just
can’t get over it.  And the dressing is simply delicious, just perfect.  Creamy yellow with bright hints of white wine, sweet complexity from mango chutney, and full of warm curry flavor. 

Chicken Salad Ingredients

As for salad, something simple is always best, alongside such a fully flavored dish as the curried chicken.  This mix of tender greens certainly stayed on the simple side, while sacrificing not an ounce of flavor.  A basic dressing of red wine vinegar, mustard and thyme lightly bathed the curly greens, paper thin rounds of fresh red beets, wide orange streamers of sliced carrots, and pink ribbons of pickled onions.  With an extra sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper, this simple salad became simply stupendous.

Salad, Grapes & Bread

Mixed Greens Salad with Carrots, Beets & Pickled Onions

And what would a birthday luncheon be without birthday cake?!  And this cake, my goodness, is quite the birthday-worthy cake! 

Slice of Carrot Cake

While the cream cheese frosting recipe is one of my own, one that I tinkered with for years until reaching a certain level of self-proclaimed perfection, the recipe for the cake itself comes from Gale Gand, a famous Chicago-area pastry chef.  I baked this incredible cake at least a dozen times over the last few years, and by now I’ve become a little bit famous for it myself.   With loads of freshly grated carrots, sweet golden raisins, snow white flakes of coconut, tender bits of chopped walnuts, and bright flecks of pineapple, this cake is just absolutely full of incredible taste.  And the crumb is moist and tender, just the perfect place between light and dense.  And the frosting – like I said, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just about the perfect cream cheese frosting, the best out there to my taste.  The right amount of sweet, the right amount of tangy, and utterly, utterly delicious.  A dusting of toasted coconut flakes is the final element of this four story tower of a cake, and also the secret to its gorgeousness.  Not only because it’s pretty, but because it hides any crumbs and imperfections in the frosting!  Seriously, this is one of my favorite secret tricks.  Frosting this cake, a chore that most of the time is a total headache, is as simple as can be, because I know the coconut will hide any mistakes!  And even though loads of people have gone so far as to say that this is the best cake they’ve ever had, I sometimes think that this coconut trick is maybe the best part about it!

A Cake in the Making - Eggs, Sugar & Oil     

Curried Chicken Salad with Cashews, Raisins, Scallions & Celery
Adapted from a recipe by Ina Garten
Serves 6
Curried Chicken Salad 
6 chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
about 1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cup mayonnaise (I’d recommend Hellman’s for sure)
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup mango chutney or Major Grey’s chutney (I like Stonewall Kitchen)
3 Tbl curry powder (sounds like a lot, I know)
3 large stalks celery, thinly sliced
4 scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 cups roasted, salted whole cashews
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Line a sheet pan with tin foil, then place a wire rack on top.
Place the chicken breasts, bone-side down on the wire rack.  Season them, top and bottom, with salt and pepper.  Then rub them with olive oil. Roast until the an thermometer inserted into the meatiest part of the breast registers 160°F.  (I highly recommend using a thermometer like this one.  It’s fool proof.  A long, oven proof wire connects the thermometer probe with a digital reader, which beeps when the meat comes to the desired temperature.  It’s so incredibly handy, I don’t roast meat without it!)  Remove the chicken from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Then remove the meat from the bones, discarding the skin and bones.  Slice the chicken into large bite sized cubes.
Roasted Chicken Breasts
To make the dressing, stir to combine the mayonnaise, wine, chutney, curry powder and few pinches of salt in a large mixing bowl.  Mix until smooth. 
Combine the chicken with enough dressing to moisten it well – which should be just about most of it, but you may not need to use it all.  Add the celery, scallions and raisins.  Mix well.  At this point, the chicken salad can be refrigerated in an air-tight container until needed, up to a day or two.  Before serving, remove the salad from the refrigerator and warm for about an hour at room temperature.  Then add the cashews and mix to combine. 
You can serve this as a salad dish or use it for as a sandwich filling.


Mixed Greens with Beets, Carrots & Pickled Red Onions
Serves  6
 Mixed Greens with Carrots, Beets & Pickled Onions
For the vinaigrette:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbl red wine vinegar
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/2 small clove garlic, peeled & finely minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil 
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the mustard, vinegar, thyme, garlic, a good pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  The dressing can be made ahead and stored about five days, refrigerated in an airtight container.

Making a Vinaigrette

For the rest of the salad:
2 small red beets
3 medium carrots
about 12 oz mixed baby greens (spinach, arugula, radicchio, frisee, mache, etc…)
about 1/4 cup pickled red onions, drained (See recipe below)
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Trim the root end from the beets and discard.  Leave a few inches of the stem end intact - This will give you something to hold onto while slicing.  Peel the beets.  Using a sharp mandolin, thinly slice paper-thin rounds from the beets, starting from the root end and working up toward the stem end.  Discard the stem end.  Set aside the sliced beets.
Trim and peel the carrots.  Using the mandolin, slice lengthwise, creating long paper-thin ribbons of carrot.
Carrot Ribbons
In a large mixing bowl, combine the mixed baby greens with the sliced beets, carrots and pickled onions.  Drizzle the vinaigrette over the top, enough to evenly coat the greens. (You definitely won’t not need to use it all – Save the rest for another salad.)  Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.  Serve immediately.
Pickled Red Onions
Makes about 1 cup
Pickled Red Onions
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
4 thyme sprigs
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pink peppercorns, lightly crushed
Place sliced onion into a large bowl, then pour boiling water over the to cover.  Soak 2 minutes, then drain and rinse and onions.

Combine the onions with the vinegar, bay leaf, thyme, sugar, salt, peppercorns and 3/4 cup cold water.  Place a plate on top, to help submerge the shallots.  If there isn’t enough liquid to cover the shallots, add equal amounts of water and vinegar.  Rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then refrigerate in an air-tight container until needed.  Will keep about 2 weeks.


Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting & Toasted Coconut
Cake adapted from a recipe by Gail Gand
Serves  12
This recipe calls for two 10-inch cake pans.  But most home cooks, myself included, have 9-inch cake pans only.  Don’t fret though. You can use a little bit of the leftover batter to make a few (probably about four) cupcakes (with frosting) or muffins (without).  If you do have 10-inch pans though, definitely go for it – This is a huge and gorgeous cake!
Carrot Cake
For the cake:
2 cups vegetable oil
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs
2 2/3 cups grated carrots
1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups canned crushed pineapple, drained
2/3 cup sweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbl plus 1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbl plus 1 tsp baking powder
2 Tbl plus 2 tsp ground cinnamon (I know these measurements seem like a lot, but just
     trust me - they’re right on.)
1 Tbl kosher salt
For the frosting:
3 cups sweetened coconut flakes
3 8-oz packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 sticks butter, room temperature
3 cups confectioners sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle position.  Generously butter two 10-inch cake pans and set aside. 
In a large mixing bowl, stir to combine the oil, sugar, eggs, carrots, nuts, pineapple, coconut and raisins.  In another (larger) mixing bowl, whisk to combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir to combine.  Pour the batter into the cake pans, filling each only about 2/3 of the way up the sides.  Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 40-45 minutes.  Remove the cakes from the oven and cool in their pans over wire racks for 30 minutes.  Remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on wire racks before making frosting.
Peeled Carrots
Carrot Cake Batter
Toast the coconut:  Spread the coconut flakes evenly over the surface of a sheet pan.  Bake for 5 minutes in the 350°F oven.  Stir well with a metal spatula, then return to the oven.  Continue baking for 5 minutes, then stirring, until the coconut is evenly golden.  You may need to shorten the cooking times towards the end. 
Toasted Coconut
To make the frosting, combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Beat on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes.  Add the confectioners sugar and beat on low until just combined.  Then add the vanilla and beat at medium-high until the frosting is smooth. 
Slice each cake horizontally into two equal layers.  Place the bottom layer on a serving plate, cut-side up. Frost the top surface with about 1/2 cup frosting, then place the second layer on top.  Continue frosting and placing layers one on top of the other.  Make sure to place the final layer with the cut-side down.  Frost the top and sides of the cake.  Then sprinkle the toasted coconut evenly over the frosted top and sides.  
The cakes can be made a day ahead and kept at room temperature wrapped in plastic.  The frosting can be made a day ahead too and kept refrigerated in an air-tight container.  Make sure to warm it at room temperature and re-beat it in the stand mixer before frosting the cake.  The assembled cake is best eaten the day it is made, but leftovers do keep for nearly a week.  The cake is also best served at or a little cooler than room temperature.
Coconut, Walnuts, Pineapple, Raisins & Carrots


  1. Was on my way out the door to the grocery store and saw that you posted about the curry chicken salad. Bought the needed ingredients and although I am still waiting on the chicken to finish cooking...the sauce and veggies smell delicious and taste great too! And we agree about Hellman's...there is no substitute!

  2. Awesome, Dana! I always love hearing when someone tries a recipe from the site! Definitely fill me in on the results!