For eleven and one-half months, I wait for the lilacs to bloom. Aside from lacey wisteria, there is no more intoxicating a scent mixed with lovely, variegated lavender flowers and fresh green foliage. I visit my lilac bushes many times a day, when I am home, to store up enough natural lilac perfume to last me all year until they bloom again. Ah, lilac, I love you.
Happy Valley lilac bush
the lilac bouquet in Watsonville
The very unpredictability of the weather adds to the exhilaration of the season. Some days the sun is so warm, we are tempted to venture out in sandals (at least here in California) while another spring day has us congratulating ourselves on not yet sending our rain boots to storage.
In the spring kitchen, pretty much anything goes, depending on today’s weather. A hearty curried chickpea stew is called for on those rainy evenings while a supper of baby carrots, peas, and asparagus blanketed by velvety hollandaise would celebrate a warm spring day.
I know we at My Tea Planner are possibly biased but hot tea feels even more essential on days when perhaps you thought it was going to be warm but oh dear, the spring winds are gusting the blossoms right off the trees.
I’ve asked myself for years, which is my favorite season for hosting a tea party, and for years I have no conclusive answer. Our autumn tea party possibly rivals our spring tea party but being aficionados of both art and science, we need at least ten to fifteen more years of data to make a determination, wink, wink. Both seasonal menus can be viewed on our website, so do check them out and see which you favor. There are no wrong answers.
Astute readers of this blog will recognize Suzi Russo as my dear, long-time friend and baking partner. By long-time, I mean over forty years now. We met in high school English class and have been besties ever since. Together with Gina, and a rotating crew of wild girls, we enjoyed plenty of Reagan-era hijinx and adventures. From working in finance, Suzi moved to managing bed & breakfast inns on the Monterey peninsula. She rose so quickly in the company and became such a force, staff took to calling her “The Suzi.” She gave me my first b&b job, cooking for fifty guests a day.
When Gina got married, Suzi and I took on the daunting task of making her wedding cake, for her guest list of 200! To complicate matters, Suzi was pregnant and we were both bridesmaids. But we did it. The redwood grove was a magical backdrop for the three-tiered carrot cake, Gina’s favorite. From that beginning, our side hustle was wedding cakes, among other food businesses. Suzi and her sister, Patti, baked, decorated, and sold the exquisite sugar cookies readers see frequently on the blog and on our website, My Tea Planner as well as their mother, Barbara’s, addictive English toffee. Many times we will start texting each other before dawn, because that’s the quiet, cool time to create the intricate confections she is known for. As Gina says, we went “from booze to batter!”
April 29th is Suzi’s birthday as well as my grandfather Patrick Murdock’s, two of the best people ever. Pat has passed on now but during his life, his traditional birthday cake was a simple, unfrosted two layer chocolate cake, filled with blackberry jam. No frosting for Pat! I think that is where I come by my love of blackberries and chocolate. It is subtle and quite delicious. I recommend you all bake your favorite chocolate layer cake and fill it with blackberry jam. For the frosting lovers, offer a slightly thinned down frosting to pour over their serving but do try it without frosting first, and see what you think. If you don’t have a go-to chocolate cake recipe, try my standby, Hershey's "Perfectly Chocolate" layer cake.
There are a few people for whom I pull out all the stops when making their birthday cake each year. Suzi is at the top of the list. She appreciates the skill and the artistry that goes into a beautiful cake. And bonus, she is not picky. She loves a wide array of flavors and is happy to come along with me on whatever cake odyssey I’m currently on. I want to make the loveliest cake for her and I also want it to be the tastiest, the freshest, and not what we had last year. They definitely don’t always hit all these targets but she is such a wonderfully warm person, she is always grateful and complimentary of the effort. Did I mention how much fun she is?
This year, I’m planning a birthday cake for Suzi that involves a couple of our favorite European ingredients, mascarpone cheese and lady fingers. Instead of the classic coffee and chocolate tiramisu, I’m going to use spring strawberries to make it a pink, red, and white cake, which will hopefully unmold to slice attractively. I’m calling it:
This is another in my mousse cake series of experiments. They have all tasted pretty good and have unmolded well. In spring, strawberries are my first choice for a light, fruity mousse. Later in the year, summer through fall, I’ll usually go with blackberries or raspberries. They all make delicious mousses and cake fillings. I think the strawberry flavor will pair well with the tang of the mascarpone cheese.
As seen above, the TiramiSuzi test #1 unmolded quite well. The lady fingers stayed together around the perimeter and the mascarpone mousse filling sliced beautifully, though perhaps a little more the texture of panna cotta than mousse. All testers agreed that it was indeed tasty. It is a looker, up on the cake pedestal, but I think I’ll return the components back to a clear glass dish, like traditional tiramisu. A footed trifle bowl will be just right and they’ll be no anxiety about having to unmold the cake. Here are a couple of brands of lady fingers available in larger grocery stores.
- 2 tablespoons liqueur, orange, cherry, or berry flavor, orange juice may be substituted
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 small box (3 ounces) strawberry flavored gelatin, about 3 tablespoons
- 2/3 cup sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup strawberry preserves
- 20 to 24 ounces frozen strawberries, thawed, undrained
- 1 pkg. dry lady fingers, about 7 or 8 ounces
- 1 8” or 9” sponge cake, sliced in half horizontally (I used the Fanny Farmer hot water sponge cake recipe but a purchased one will work fine.)
- 16 ounces (2 8 ounce tubs) mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 cup cream
- 1 pint fresh strawberries for garnish
Special equipment: microwave-safe small bowl or 2 cup glass measuring cup, large mixing bowl, silicone spatula, footed trifle bowl or other large, clear glass serving bowl, cutting board, serrated knife,
Serves 10 to 12 generously
- In microwave-safe bowl, heat liqueur and water on high, until liquid boils, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in strawberry gelatin, until gelatin is completely dissolved, about a minute. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.
- In large mixing bowl, stir together gelatin mixture, 1/3 cup sugar, strawberry preserves, thawed strawberries and any juice. Chill mixture for 20 to 30 minute, stirring occasionally or until mixture is partially set, as thick as egg whites or heavy cream.
- Trim 1 layer of sponge cake to fit in the bottom of trifle bowl. Place sponge cake in trifle bowl and pour half of the strawberry mixture over cake. Carefully line trifle bowl with lady fingers, prettier side facing out. Leave the remainder of the strawberry mixture at room temperature while chilling the TiramiSuzi.
- Meanwhile, in clean mixing bowl, stir mascarpone to soften. Beat in the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and the cream.
- When TiramiSuzi is slightly firm, carefully spoon in half of the mascarpone mixture, smoothing top. Place remaining sponge cake layer over mascarpone. Stir strawberry mixture then pour over sponge cake layer. Return to refrigerator to chill for 20 minutes.
- Spoon remaining mascarpone mixture over top. Gently shake bowl to settle the layers and smooth top, if needed. Cover and chill for 6 to 24 hours.
- To serve: trim the best-looking strawberries and place in a ring on top of the TiramiSuzi. Serve with whipped cream, if desired. Chill any leftover for up to 3 days.