Holiday desserts can be a minefield. The perfect pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving; Grandma’s plum pudding at Christmas; a lamb cake at Easter. The pressure is on to get things just.exactly.right.
But when the weather heats up, you can relax. Who has time to worry about perfect pie crust when it’s 95 degrees in the shade? So when you’re planning the dessert for this year’s Independence Day get-together, stick to a sweet and simple color combination: red, white and blue.
The best part of these recipes is that kids can help. Put your little ones to work washing fruit or arranging toppings on cookies. Older children can line up fruit on skewers. As you’re working, help younger children learn their colors and shapes; tweens are old enough for a (fun!) history lesson about how these colors came to symbolize our country.
Pet peeve alert: You’ll see lots of ideas for food made to look like the American flag — cakes topped with strawberries, blueberries and bananas to form the stars and stripes, for example. They’re lovely, but I am just not a fan of them — I think we should treat the flag with a smidge more respect than turning it into nibbles. In the words of the great Molly Ivins: “(President George Bush’s) birthday cake was in the form of the American flag, and he ate it — stars, stripes, and all. Think about where that flag wound up — I call that desecration.”
That said, there are dozens of ways to bring a bit of patriotic color to your table; and it doesn’t hurt that there’s plenty of red and blue fruit in season. Fruit skewers with watermelon, blueberries and marshmallows (or chunks of pound cake, yum). Parfaits that layer red and blue berries with creamy yogurt. Star-shaped cookies topped with strawberry points and a blueberry center.
Annnnnd then there’s the stuff I make.
I am a well-behaved cook most of the time, but there are times I go a little nuts. On any given holiday, my kitchen is filled with fat and sugar and artificial color and all sorts of things that your nutritionist would hate you for eating. The three I’ve made this week aren’t original creations (you’ve probably eaten a version of them yourself), but they’re guaranteed to please.
Make the batter for a white cake; you can make it from scratch or use a mix, whichever you prefer. (If your recipe gives you a choice of using whole eggs or egg whites, go for the egg white version; it’ll make your cake a true white rather than a golden color.)
Divide the batter among three bowls. You want each bowl to hold roughly the same amount, but you can eyeball it. Set one bowl aside; that’s your white batter. Add blue food coloring to one bowl, and red to another — you can decide how much is enough, but I find it’s hard to overdo it. Better to have brilliant red and brilliant blue than baby blue and pink. To get truly intense colors, try gel color at a craft or kitchen-supply store instead of the little dropper bottles you get at the grocery store.
Now you’ve got your three batters. Fill each cupcake mold with a tablespoon or so of red batter; then an equal amount of white batter; then an equal amount of blue batter.Bake as directed.
When the cupcakes have cooled, frost them and decorate with red, white and blue sprinkles or colored sugar. (Helpful hint: You don’t need to buy a special mix of Independence Day decorations. Get single colors and mix them as you like; then save them for later in the year.)
Cake balls — a delicious mouthful of cake, frosting, chocolate coating and sprinkles, all in one — are among my very favorite things to make for parties, because you can spread the work out over several days. So if you have a whole menu to prepare, make these up to a week ahead — people will think you slaved for hours. And you did — just not all at once. They work for any holiday, and you can play with color and flavor combinations — I am a fan of chocolate cake mixed with German chocolate frosting, dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with coconut. Divine.
But we’re talking Independence Day here. For a red, white and blue cake ball, you could go several ways: red velvet cake with white cream cheese frosting; white cake with a blueberry compote; blue cake with strawberry or cherry pie filling. Dip in white chocolate (or color the chocolate red or blue if you want to get really fancy, but be sure to use an oil-based dye), then cover with tricolor sprinkles.
Sound good? Here’s how you do it.
Make a cake. Any cake will do, but consider the flavor and color you want in the final product. Let the cake cool completely. I find I get better results if I let it dry out a bit, so let it sit for a few hours or overnight. Gently break it apart with your hands, or two forks. You want little crumbs of cake.
Mix the cake crumbs with frosting — again, consider how the color and flavor of the frosting will blend with your cake. Add a little frosting at a time until the consistency feels right — you don’t want the final product to be too soft.
Let the mixture chill in the fridge for a few hours to firm up. Then roll spoonfuls of dough into bite-size balls. (If you want to make cake pops instead of cake balls, you can make them a little bigger, and insert a cardboard skewer into each ball.) Place them on a parchment-covered plate or cookie sheet and put them the freezer for an hour or so. This keeps the crumbs from bleeding into the chocolate in the next step.
Melt chocolate according to the package directions, and add coloring if you’re going that route. Dip each ball or pop in the chocolate; swirl it around a bit so the chocolate coating is smooth, and then set it down on a parchment-covered plate or cookie sheet. Put the sprinkles on quickly, before the chocolate sets too much.
In a South Carolina summer, you’ll be better off putting the balls or pops in the fridge to finish setting. Chocolate will melt faster than you expect, so if you’re transporting the balls or pops, consider putting them in a cooler for the trip. In the event you have leftovers, store them in the fridge — this never happens, though.
“Sparkler” Pretzel Rods
These Martha Stewart-approved treats are so easy, but they get a huge response. I think it’s because they look like food on sticks. Who doesn’t love food on sticks? And in this case, you get to eat the stick!
Melt chocolate according to package directions. Dip one end of the pretzel rod in it. Sprinkle decorations on top. Let the chocolate-covered rods cool on a parchment-covered baking sheet. That’s it!
What will you be eating at your Independence Day parties? Let us know in the comments!