Brown Butter Pecan Gooey Butter Cake with Spiked Whipped Cream

Brown Butter Pecan Gooey Butter Cake with Spiked Whipped Cream
Brown Butter Pecan Gooey Butter Cake with Spiked Whipped Cream

Brown Butter Pecan Gooey Butter Cake with Spiked Whipped Cream

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 6 servings

This delicious cake has everything delightful in it: nutty brown butter, bloomed cinnamon and cloves, toasted pecans, a simple caramel sauce, and spiked whipped cream! It’s perfect for a holiday table, but easy enough for an anytime dessert.

Crust Ingredients:
1 cup cake flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup cold butter

Filling Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup toasted pecans*
icing sugar

Topping Ingredients:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
20 Werther’s Original® Baking Caramels
2 tablespoons whole milk

*NOTE: To toast pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F for around 6-7 minutes, tossing occasionally, until fragrant. Chop while still warm.

NOTE 2: If you don’t have a skillet, I believe you can bake this in a greased 9-inch square baking dish (I’d use a glass one if you have it, and check it early and often. Remove when there’s some jiggle left.) Let us know how it goes if you try it this way for all the other skilletless people!

Make the brown butter: Cut the 1 cup butter into 1-tablespoon cubes. Place it into a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat and brown the butter, whisking often. The butter will melt, foam, and then begin to brown, and the whisking is important so that it browns evenly. Whisk in cinnamon and cloves. Pour your brown butter into a shallow, wide dish to cool for a bit before sticking it in the freezer to set up. After it’s set up, set it back out at room temperature to soften for use.

Make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together cake flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling together (I often use my food processor for this step, pulsing the cold fat into the flour). Press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 10-inch cast iron skillet using a flat glass or the back of a spoon.

Make the filling: Cream together the softened brown butter and white and brown sugars until fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Mix in the egg until just combined. Alternate adding the flour and evaporated milk, mixing after each addition. Mix in the corn syrup and vanilla. Stir in the toasted pecans. Pour the filling into the crust and sprinkle the top with icing sugar.

Bake and assemble the cake: Bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until cake is nearly set (mine was probably ready around 30). Some jiggle is fine — do not overcook! It’ll finish setting up as it cools. Let it cool in pan for 2 hours. Whip the heavy cream, powdered sugar, and rum to stiff peaks. Melt the caramels and milk together in a microwave safe bowl for 2 minutes, stirring often but carefully, until the hot caramel sauce is ready. Pour caramel sauce over cooled cake and top with a giant mound of spiked whipped cream. Serve from the skillet with a few forks or on plates, if you like things a little more formal.

Biscoff Spread Sandy Buddies (Cinnamon Muddy Buddies!)

Can we all please agree that, “I’m sorry if that offended you,” is totally not a real apology? And that, in the event you offer it as one, you should fully expect to get a dishtowel upside the head? Just so we’re clear.

While we’re at it, tell my students that none of that I’m-sorry-with-an-eye-roll business counts, either. And don’t waste your breath with, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

When it’s time to apologize, only a straight-up, sincere, “I’m sorry,” will do. If you want to add some groveling, it will be happily accepted.

It’s with this knowledge of what constitutes an acceptable apology that I come to you today to express my regrets. I am sincerely sorry . . . ’cause I’ve been totally thinking you guys were nuts.

Awhile back, the interwebz exploded with enthusiasm about Biscoff Spread. Tons of food blogs were abuzz about the alleged deliciousness of said product. Based on the posts I read, I was pretty sure there were people composing songs in homage to it and creating oil paintings of the jar to hang in their living rooms.

I automatically became the Biscoff Spread Grinch.

This is totally just what I do. I’m too hipster, apparently, to like something popular (fortunately, being a hipster is also popular, so I’m also snotty about that). When things are trendy, I have a reflexive urge to scoff at them (except Gotye. You know you like that song.)

Also, I kind of assumed that the Biscoff Spread buzz was a farce to drive blog traffic increases. Basically, I thought bloggers were creating recipes with it mostly to tap into how excited people were and get more readers. I KNOW. That is so flippin’ cynical of me. I am ashamed.

I always intended to take my Grinchy, cynical self to the grocery store and buy a jar to confirm or disprove my suspicions, but never seemed to get around to it. In the meantime, I continued to be a total hater. I was drinkin’ the Hatorade.

Finally, though, a couple of weeks ago I was feeling lazy. I didn’t want to do a bunch of baking. Sometimes you want to Cook Hard Stuff and sometimes you want to make a simple, no-bake treat and then accidentally eat it all before you get a chance to take it to your holiday party, resulting in simultaneous feelings of self-disgust and dessert-induced euphoria.

I could have just made regular Muddy Buddies, also called Puppy Chow, which is basically a chocolate and peanut butter coated version of Chex Mix, but this was the perfect time to take Biscoff Spread out for a spin! I picked up a jar and created Sandy Buddies, a cinnamon and Biscoff flavored version of the original recipe. And um…

Y’all, I’m just gonna be honest. I ate an entire jar of Biscoff Spread with a spoon before I ever got a chance to try this recipe. Then I made two batches of this recipe (ostensibly to “tweak” it). Then I took it to work in an attempt to avoid eating it all. Then I still ate most of it at work.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry. You were right: Biscoff Spread is the bommmmb (do people still say that? Are my students laughing at me right now?) You should buy 3 jars: 2 to eat with a spoon, and one to make Sandy Buddies repeatedly.

What trends are you way too cool to like?

One year ago: Make-Ahead Gingerbread Coffee Cake with Cranberry Pecan Streusel
Two years ago: Dining in The King’s Kitchen (recipe: Southern Pimento Cheese with Lavash Crackers)
Three years ago: Roast Chicken and Onion Jam Panini with Sweet Potato Fries

Also, can I just tell you how excited I am to try the Oreo Cookie Spread over on Buns in my Oven? Now that I’ve put away the Hatorade, I’m all, “SPREAD ALL THE COOKIES!”

Biscoff Spread Sandy Buddies

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, based on Muddy Buddies by Chex
Yield: 2 cups of Sandy Buddies — a good amount for around two people

This recipe is quick and easy, but so yummy and delicious! If you love Muddy Buddies and Biscoff Spread, you’ll love these. If you don’t love Biscoff Spread, stop being a grinch. (I kid, I kid!) Feel free to multiply this recipe a few times for a gathering.

2 1/4 cups Chex cereal
2 tablespoons cinnamon chips (such as these)
3/8 cup (about 6 tablespoons) Biscoff Spread
2 tablespoons butter
powdered sugar for coating (I mixed in a little Cinnabon sprinkle topping)

Place cereal into a large bowl. In a separate small bowl, microwave cinnamon chips, Biscoff spread, and butter for 1 minute. Stir. Heat for 30 second intervals, stirring between each, until mixture is smooth. Spoon mixture into cereal and gently mix to combine all ingredients.

Place powdered sugar with option Cinnabon Sprinkle topping into a gallon resealable bag. Spoon in cereal mixture and shake to coat. I like to then pour this into a colander and shake some of the excess sugar off. Then spread them on wax paper to cool. Place in a festive bowl to serve!

Note: Lotus (the Biscoff people) and Chex were not involved in this post, nor did either of those companies sponsor it. Cinnabon sent me some of their Sprinkle Topping to try for free, so I used it here, but I’d never mention a product I didn’t genuinely enjoy, free or not!

Vanilla Custard Soaked Pumpkin Poke Cake

“What’s the cross-street?” the cab driver asked impatiently. I shifted my short orange skirt, uncomfortable by how it rode up my thighs as I sat on the sticky hot leather of the backseat.

“Um. I don’t know. I’m sorry; I’m not from here.”

“Do you have a phone where you could just look it up?” his voice was tinged with annoyance now.

“Um. No. I have a paper map.” His grunted response indicated that this wasn’t helpful. He slammed on the accelerator with the jolt I was becoming accustomed to in New York City cabs. I rolled my window down halfway to breathe in the mixture of exhaust and asphalt as we swerved our way out of Brooklyn.

My night until now had been filled with strange new experiences. I was wading through New York alone, and since the months leading up to this trip had been so emotionally difficult, I found myself seeing every street through a gauzy shroud. Everything looked gray and artsy. I accepted each new sensation like a confused guard — noticing its approach, unsure whether to welcome it or block it out. So far, though, I’d chosen to be rather hospitable, embracing the unusual slick of makeup across my cheeks and lips, some uncharacteristically chic earrings weighing down each lobe, and a solitary foray into the chaotic Brooklyn evening.

The neon glow of La Esquina, a corner taqueria and café, had cradled me in the darkness, lighting my way but hiding my uncertainty. The hostess looked just like Jessica Alba. She was wearing a tutu dress with a gorgeous back tattoo. I tried both on mentally, wondering if either tutus or body art was another sensation to embrace while I was feeling experimental. She tugged a table out from the wall to let me squeeze into the booth behind it, passing me one lonely menu and a sweet smile.

With the firm booth underneath me boosting my confidence, I looked around at the tiny café. People with hip hairstyles were drinking pretty drinks all around me. A wall of books decorated the back wall. Waiters kept their cool in the middle of chaos, sweeping steaming plates from the kitchen to each table. Looking over, I was suddenly sure that the pretty blonde next to me was Cate Blanchett. But I barely batted an eyelash; I played it New-York-cool.

I found myself torn between different choices on the menu — food always shapes a place for me, and New York had been no exception so far. The NYC atmosphere wasn’t comprised of skyscrapers, but of the thin, blistered slices of cheese pizza from the hole-in-the-wall pizzeria I slid into no more than an hour after arriving. It was built with the thick, seeded bagel I bought at Murray’s one sunny morning, with the skin that resisted my bite and the mound of smoked salmon and fresh whitefish salad tucked inside. It was cobbled together from wedges of Momofuku’s rich crack pie, layered with chocolate and pretzels, and tall bottles of the cereal milk that invoked my childhood’s empty breakfast bowls.

So the choice ahead of me was consequential. I knew whatever ended up on my plate that night would be the shape of Brooklyn in my memory.

I don’t usually drink, but then again I don’t usually walk around New York alone, peer down at a city from 86 floors up the Empire State Building, scale boulders in Central Park, or find myself sitting beside movie stars. So when a white sangria caught my eye on the menu, I ordered it (and a coke on the side). I took a few sips as I considered the tacos. The sweet-sharp wine and bitter citrus — along with the gorgeous guacamole Cate was eating beside me — made me crave something salty and fresh. I finally settled on a plate of the pulled pork tacos. The first bite painted Brooklyn neon-gorgeous: the crisp corn tortillas boasted mounds of succulent roast pork, jalapeños, shreds of cabbage, and pale pink pickled radishes. I squeezed a spritz of lime juice on before I devoured the tacos, trying to sip my sangria demurely between each greedy bite and listening to the hum of conversation around me.

It was after that amazing meal that I ended up in the cab with the only rude driver (and the only rude person in general, for that matter) I’d encountered in New York so far. I accepted his angst as a quaint tourist attraction, a phenomenon I had to encounter to say I’d really experienced the city. Then I muted the blaring television mounted on the back of his seat and settled in for the ride back to my hotel.

I’ve been back in Charlotte for months now, but all of my New York memories came flooding back recently as I read about the city in Luisa Weiss’s new book, My Berlin Kitchen. The book is a love story, a story of place, a memoir, a cookbook — so many different things. I’ve been a bit disillusioned with cookbooks lately. Everyone has one and they’re all beautiful, but the focus is on the food. Maybe it sounds odd or counter-intuitive for a food blogger to say the focus shouldn’t be the food, but I always feel like people can find recipes anywhere. There are websites and books full of great dishes, cooking tips and techniques, and reviews.

What I’m looking for in a food blog — and, I now realize, even in a cookbook — is a person. I want the intersection of a person’s fragile or sacred moments and the food that carries them through. I want to be invited in. In My Berlin Kitchen, Luisa opens the door, invites you in, and even serves you some cake. The beautiful, personal nature of the narrative and its gorgeous food descriptions make it such a wonderful book to settle onto the couch with. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Luisa spends most of her memoir trying to pinpoint “home,” so with my story of being a stranger in a strange land, I bring you a dash of the familiar. This homey, comforting, moist pumpkin cake is soaked in an indulgent cinnamon-vanilla custard before receiving its golden broiled icing. It’s simple to make and a lovely way to welcome fall.

What are food memories you have from different places you’ve visited?

One year ago: Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze
Two years ago: Assorted Donut Muffins
Three years ago: Mini-Pies: Pumpkin, Peach Crisp, and Sour Cream Apple

Vanilla Custard Soaked Pumpkin Poke Cake

Recipe by: Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s Oatmeal Snack Cake with Broiled Icing, totally inspired by Kristan’s Oreo Poke Cake
Yield: 9 servings

The moist pumpkin cake on its own is a huge hit, so imagine the deliciousness that ensues when you flood it with a sweet, warm cinnamon-vanilla custard. The resulting dessert is velvety and filled with autumnal goodness.

Cake Ingredients:
1 cup (3 ounces) quick-cooking oats*
3/4 cup water, room temperature
3/4 cup (3 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup pumpkin
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed (3 1/2 ounces) dark brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Vanilla Custard Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cardamom

Broiled Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup packed (1 3/4 ounces) dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons milk
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) pecans, chopped

Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Create a foil sling for an 8-inch square pan: cut two 16-inch lengths of foil and fold them to widths of 5 inches each. Fit foil pieces into baking dish, one overlapping the other, pushing them into corners and up sides of pan; allow excess to overhang pan edges. Cut two more pieces of the same size and arrange them in the same way, except perpendicular to the first two. This creates a sling that will help you remove the cake after baking and cooling. Spray foil lightly with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the oats, pumpkin puree, and water in medium bowl and let sit until water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg together.

In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars for a few minutes until the mixture resembles damp sand (scraping down the bowl as needed). Add the egg and vanilla and mix until combined. Add the flour mixture in 2 batches, mixing until just incorporated after each addition. Add the oat mixture and mix until just combined. Stir the mixture by hand to make sure everything is combined.

Glop the batter into the prepared pan and tap it against the counter a few times to ditch any air bubbles. Smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake the cake, rotating halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted into center comes out with few moist crumbs attached, about 28 to 32 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes while you make the custard.

Make the custard: Slowly melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Remove from the stove and stir in the flour until it’s blended. Add the milk and return to the heat, stirring as you add the sugar. Continue stirring, bringing the mixture to a boil and boiling for about a minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes as you use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes every inch or so over the cake. Pour the warm custard over the cake evenly. Let the cake continue to cool while you make the icing.

Make the icing: Move the oven rack to around 9 inches away from the broiler heating element and preheat the broiler. In a medium bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cinnamon, melted butter, and milk. Stir in the coconut and pecans before spreading the mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Broil the cake, keeping a close eye on it and rotating as needed, until topping is bubbling and golden, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let the cake cool in pan until it’s cool enough to pop into the fridge. Chill it for at least 2 hours before serving. Use the sling to pull the cake gently out of the pan. Cut it into squares and transfer to a platter or serving plates; discard the foil. Heat each serving for 30 seconds to a minute in the microwave before serving to remove the chill.

*ATK’s notes: Do not use old-fashioned or instant oats for this recipe. Be sure to use a metal baking dish; glass pans are not recommended when broiling. A vertical sawing motion with a serrated knife works best for cutting through the crunchy icing and tender crumb.

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German Chocolate Cheesecake

“You know, it doesn’t really matter,” I said with a shrug.

The AT&T tech looked perplexed by my indifference. I guess customers usually start foaming at the mouth when he tells them he can’t get their internet connection up and running. I explained: “I really don’t want the internet. You’d be amazed at how much you get done without it.”

For instance, things I’ve been getting done:

  • Napping.
  • Reading My Berlin Kitchen (Luisa of The Wednesday Chef‘s amazing new memoir. You have to read it.) on the couch with Byrd beside me.
  • Unpacking a box every now and then.
  • Arranging things in my new apartment.
  • Rearranging things in my new apartment.
  • Throwing all my windows open and lounging in the gorgeous new autumn.
  • Eating popcorn by the bucketful.
  • Trying to be bendy in yoga.

I’m going to be eating these words once my students turn in the first project for me to grade, but for now, I can’t believe how many hours there are in the day. I mean, I don’t know what I did on the internet all day to eat up the amount of time I’ve found myself with in its absence. Some worthy things, obviously: recipe research and development, writing about food, lesson planning, emailing students and their parents. But what consumed the rest of my time? Facebook? A prolonged email-checking stupor?

Actually, I know exactly why the internet was able to fill my schedule: my insidious addiction to multi-tasking.

I’ve spent the last, oh, sixteen years of my life running around like the proverbial headless chicken, completing each responsibility roughly 5 milliseconds before its due, and dealing with the not-infrequent crisis when a deadline slips by. I work on at least two things at a time, but usually five or six. For instance, right now I’m writing this, posting comments on two friends’ blogs, and reading the comments on Willow Bird Baking’s latest Facebook status. I’ll do each activity for a few seconds before switching to another, throwing in a glance at my email every few cycles for good measure. Why does my brain think this is an efficient way to manage tasks? And why must there be so many useless tasks available on the internet?

I’m going to go ahead and admit to the entire interwebz that I have a therapist. (I’m not even slightly shy about that fact, by the way — because I kind of think everyone should have a therapist. If you have one, you know what I mean! They’re wonderful. It’s like having a coach for life. Yes, please.) One thing she talks a lot about is mindfulness, which is being fully present, aware, and participatory in your every thought and action.

It’s amazing how many things we do mindlessly — things like scrolling through a billion pages of Dog Shaming (baaahaha, okay, I just added that to my list of things-I’m-doing-right-now), eating a whole bag of popcorn while watching a movie, having a phone conversation while working on other things. In fact, I think that if we really examined our daily lives, we’d find that we do most things mindlessly — or at least with split attention. And the internet reinforces that behavior. Time to confess: how many tabs or windows do you have open right now? (I have 13!) How many other activities are you completing while reading this post?

Having one of my favorite mindless-multi-tasking activities (that is, the internet) pulled right out from under me has made me realize how peaceful and productive mindfulness can really be. Sometimes I sit on my couch with a plate of food and do nothing but take bite after mindful bite, feeling the texture of the food, tasting each flavor, and enjoying the process. There’s no book in front of me, no television playing in the background. Nothing but me and the next bite. Eating thus becomes a meditation. Every activity I complete can be distilled down to its sensory components, down to the experience of completing it. And my spirit feels so much calmer and more satisfied.

I can’t go forever without the internet — I’m a food blogger, after all, and I do get tired of having to find a little café with wifi any time I want to check my email — but I will be using it differently when AT&T figures out what’s wrong with my wiring. At least, right after I catch up on Dog Shaming…

One thing I did (mostly!) mindfully Friday night was bake this German Chocolate Cheesecake. I did have soft music playing in the background, but other than that, it was just me, my new kitchen, and each ingredient. I expected the recipe to take forever, but the process actually went rather quickly — perhaps because I was focused on the tasks. I also have sharper memories of each moment: peeling the blocks of cream cheese off of their silvery paper, sticking the toothpick into the fragrant chocolate cake, stirring the coconut-pecan filling until the cold hunks of butter melted into the hot custard. The experience was just what I needed to make my new apartment into my new home. And I found one of those little wifi cafés just to share it with you!

One year ago: Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars
Two years ago: Bittersweet Marbled Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies
Three years ago: Peach Crisp Pie

P.S. Remembering a very special lady this week and always. We miss you, Rose!

5 from 1 reviews
German Chocolate Cheesecake
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Like many of my cheesecakes, this gorgeous German Chocolate Cheesecake would be easy to make over several days. For instance, you could make the chocolate cake layer one day, make the cheesecake the next, and make the filling and assemble the third. Alternatively, you can make it all in one go. Either way, it’s rich, indulgent, and so delicious. Try getting all of your ingredients ready before you begin and baking each component mindfully, letting yourself enjoy the experience. NOTE: This filling calls for 2/3 cup sugar, but I only had about 1/3 cup sugar. I didn’t want to run to the store, so I used some Cinnabon Sprinkle Topping Cinnabon sent me in place of the rest of the sugar, and it was so good! I think you could get the same effect by just using the 2/3 cup sugar below and adding a teaspoon or so of cinnamon, if you’d like. Or just buy the Cinnabon Sprinkle Topping — it really is so yummy. Y’all know I don’t just do product placements for no reason.
Serves: 14-16
Crust Ingredients:
  • 1 package (about 38) chocolate sandwich cookies, finely processed into crumbs (cream and all – it’ll disappear when you crush them up!)
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • Small pinch of salt
Ganache Ingredients:
  • 3/8 cups heavy cream (6 tablespoons)
  • 5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used half semisweet and half Ghirardelli 60% Cacao chocolate chips)
Cheesecake Ingredients:
  • 3 packages (8 ounces each) of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 3 ounces or about 6 tablespoons chocolate chips, melted and cooled (I used half semisweet and half Ghirardelli 60% Cacao)
Cake Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/8 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/8 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 1/8 cup plus 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3/8 cups warm water
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Filling Ingredients:
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 2 ounces butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut, toasted
  1. Make the cheesecake crust: Combine the chocolate cookie crumbs, melted butter and salt in a small bowl. Toss with a fork to moisten all of the crumbs. Press into a thin layer covering the bottom and sides of the springform pan (at least 3 inches up the sides). It’s hard to get the crust up that high, but keep pressing the crumbs up from the bottom with a smooth-sided glass (twisting the glass as you do so, so the crumbs don’t stick) and working them around — you’ll want it that high to hold the cake layer. Patience helps with this step.
  2. Make the ganache: Bring the cream to a simmer in a medium saucepan (or heat in the microwave for about a minute, watching to ensure it doesn’t boil). Place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Once the cream reaches a simmer, pour the cream over the chocolate and let stand 1-2 minutes. Whisk in small circles until a smooth ganache has formed. Pour the ganache over the bottom of the crust. Freeze until the ganache layer is firm, about 30 minutes.
  3. Make the cake: While the ganache is freezing, cut a circle of parchment paper and use cooking spray as “glue” to adhere it to a 9-inch round cake pan. Then grease the pan and the paper (I use Wilton’s Cake Release, but you could also use butter and flour). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. Whisk the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and coarse salt together in a mixing bowl. Beat the dry ingredients on low until combined before increasing the speed to medium and adding the egg, buttermilk, warm water, oil, and vanilla. Beat about 3 minutes until the mixture is smooth. Pour it into the pan.
  5. Place the pan in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 25-30 minutes. Rotate the pan about halfway through so it’ll bake evenly. When you take the cake layer out, leave the oven preheated for the cheesecake. Let the cake layer cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before turning it out onto a sheet of wax paper and leaving it to cool completely. Wrap the cake layer and stick it in the freezer to firm it up for assembly.
  6. Make the cheesecake: While the cake layer is baking, mix cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar in a large bowl until well blended and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing between each, and continue mixing until combined. Add the chocolate and continue mixing until combined. Pour mixture into prepared crust and smooth the top with a spatula.
  7. Bake for 55 minutes or until center of cake is almost set. The top may crack, but it doesn’t particularly matter, since you’ll be covering it anyway. Let the cheesecake fully cool. When almost cool, place it in refrigerator to chill while you prepare the filling.
  8. Make the filling: Place the butter, salt, toasted coconut, and toasted pecans in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the cream, sugar, and egg yolks over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened, coats the spoon, and reads 170 degrees F on a candy thermometer. Pour this mixture over the coconut mixture and stir until the butter melts. Let the mixture cool completely (I set mine in the fridge once it was almost cool to thicken it some more.)
  9. Assemble the cake: Place half of the filling on top of the chilled cheesecake and spread it out. Carefully place the chocolate cake layer on top. Spread the rest of the filling on top of the chocolate cake layer. Decorate with pecans. Chill for 3 hours or overnight. When completely chilled, loosen the cake from rim of springform pan by wrapping the pan in warm dishtowels. Remove the springform pan and serve.

Disclaimer: I was sent Cinnabon Sprinkle Topping for free to try, but didn’t plan to use it in this recipe until a cooking emergency inspired me to. I would never mention a product to you unless it was something I truly enjoyed, and boy did I love this one!

Anthony’s Cinnamon & Walnut Zucchini Bread (gluten-free adaptation included)

“Miss Julie, did you bring us prizes?”

“Um, no — your prize is getting to spend time with me, duh! Did you bring me prizes?”

This was clearly not the response Sophia had been hoping for. She poked out her lip in a faux pout before running off with Caroline to play airplanes.

Thus began another fun night of Vacation Bible School with my sweet group of third graders. Vacation Bible School is a week of activities, Bible stories, and snacks (one of their favorite parts!) for elementary school kids. You might remember that I look forward to it each year because God always does something special. This year was no exception.

Three years ago, when I started helping with VBS, God taught me that I was there to listen to children. Before that lesson, I’m sure I thought I was there to use my awesome teaching skillz: managing the kids, making them walk in a straight line, dictating when bathroom breaks were and how much silliness was appropriate. It’s always easy for me to zoom straight into teacher mode, assuming that because that’s what I’m good at, that’s how God wants to use me.

Have you ever done that? Assumed you knew just what God wanted from you and in doing so, jumped the gun?

But thankfully at that VBS three years ago, God caught me before I jumped in. Since then, I go into VBS every year with an open heart and a humble spirit. When we pray before we begin the activities each night, I make a point to “turn off” my teacher brain — no looking around to catch kids whispering during prayers, no worrying about who’s poking whom — and surrender to God in prayer.

This year, my sweet group made it easy to relax, listen, and care. Every child had something unique and special about them. One went to boy scout camp each day and always had a fun hiking story. He loved the Percy Jackson novels and was immensely proud of his older brother, who by all accounts must have hung the moon. Another little boy was a dedicated dancer during our music class, watching and copying every move diligently. One little boy didn’t think he’d like VBS, but ended up enjoying every night and dancing even though he didn’t want to! He assured me that his friend had a girlfriend, a charge which the other little boy vehemently denied: “No, I don’t like her anymore!” Wonder if she knows that yet!

Two of my little girls were amazing helpers — and were also the winners of the airplane relay race one night! Another little girl wore a smile every single day. Two of the kids brought friends with them to VBS and were great hosts, explaining each activity. One little boy had a birthday during VBS, prompting us all to sing a boisterous version of “Happy Birthday to You” at the top of our lungs. Each child was a treat.

Including Anthony. Remember how I’d jokingly asked Sophia if she’d brought a prize for me? Well, Anthony really did bring prizes for me!

The second night he surprised me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers that his Grandma revealed he had arranged himself (that’s talent!) I was tickled to get them, but just imagine my surprise when he showed up on Night 3 with another treat. This time it was gluten-free zucchini bread that he had helped bake. My co-teachers and I scarfed down our delicious slice before the night was over, fussing over how moist and amazing it was. Night 5 found me in possession of a delectable iced sugar cookie and a photo of Anthony making it.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Night 4. On Night 4, Anthony gave me another gift, but he also gave you one: he gave us the recipe for the amazing zucchini bread! I gave him a Willow Bird Baking card and told him to watch this space to see his bread in lights. And here it is!

This bread is moist, cinnamony, and nutty. And don’t worry that putting veggies in your bread will harm its flavor: it’s 100% delicious. I baked up a couple of loaves on Saturday and served them at a party with softened butter and a bowl of orange marmalade. They were met with praise by all who tasted. Thanks, Anthony and Grandma, for such a treat.

Let’s give Anthony a gift — let’s give him some wisdom. Leave your best piece of advice for Anthony in the comments. He’s in third grade — what should he keep in mind for school, family, and life?

One year ago: School’s IN for Summer Picnic
Two years ago: Homemade Buttery Croissants and Pains-au-Chocolats

Anthony’s Cinnamon & Walnut Zucchini Bread

Recipe by: Adapted from Lisa and family
Yield: 2 loaves

This recipe produces two moist, hearty, cinnamon-kissed loaves of quick bread perfect for slathering with soft butter and sweet orange marmalade. There’s a gluten-free adaptation included — and since I’ve tasted both versions, I can testify that they’re both fantastic. They also happen to be quick and easy to make. Enjoy!

3 cups all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini (this was about 2 zucchini for me)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

*Gluten-free substitution: You can use gluten-free baking mix (not just gluten-free flour) in place of the all-purpose flour above. Alternatively, mix 2 cups brown rice flour (or 1 cup brown rice flour and 1 cup sorghum flour), 1/2 cup potato starch (not potato flour), 1/4 cup tapioca starch, and 2 teaspoons xantham gum. This will make about 3 cups of gluten free flour mixture to substitute for the all-purpose flour above.

Grease and flour two 8 x 4 inch loaf pans (I use Wilton’s Cake Release.) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.

In a separate bowl, beat together eggs, oil, vanilla, and sugar. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Using a spoon, stir in the zucchini and walnuts.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans. Bake for 40-60 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the middle of the loaves comes out with just a few moist crumbs. Allow the bread to cool for 20 minutes in the pan before turning it out to finish cooling on a cooling rack. Serve with soft butter and orange marmalade.

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