If you’ve ever come to one of my picnics, you know that you never get closer to the great outdoors than peering at it through a window. No itchy blankets; no pesky bugs; no beach sand, park dirt or tickly grass; no threat of rain; no sunburns and no plastic wineglasses. I hold all my picnics indoors, on the dining room table.
Here’s the thing: I love picnic food, but I also love tables and comfy chairs, real flatware, real glassware and air conditioning. The solution for me is plenty of room-temperature food in a room whose temperature we all enjoy.
I like to see a table that’s full of colorful food. I like green salads and grain salads and pickled vegetables. I like roasted salmon and grilled steak, with citrus-spiked salsas and chunky tomatoes you can spoon over them. I like frittatas and quiches and stratas. I like big platters with hunks of cheese, thinly sliced rounds of salami and ribbons of ham. I like boards with cut-yourself-a-slice breads and baguettes you can pull apart. And I like dessert. I like dessert a lot.
I’ll put out a bowl of berries or some cut fruit. I’ll have cookies, because what’s a picnic without cookies? And I’ll always have a cake of some kind: a plain cake that’s good on its own and good with fruit or jam or ice cream. My current fave in the cake department is sour cream with a crunchy swirl. I bake the batter in mini-loaf pans, so the cakes are picnic-worthy.
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I think I’ve been making some form of this cake ever since I started baking. It has been a Bundt cake, a square coffeecake with streusel topping and even a frosted round. It’s been speckled with cranberries for Thanksgiving; with blueberries and raspberries for the Fourth of July. Yet I always come back to a cinnamon-and-sugar swirl with raisins and nuts, the most traditional swirl and, to my mind, the most delicious.
In this current version, I’ve switched up the spices: The cardamom is optional, but it’s so good with the cinnamon. There’s brown sugar, a newcomer; and I’ve done something wacky but delish with some of the swirl: I’ve mixed it into some of the batter, so that you get a bottom layer of cake, a layer of swirl, more cake and then an everything layer. Made that way, the small cakes have a measure of my favorite ingredient: surprise.
- Toss the swirl ingredients together first, so the mixture will be ready to go once the cake’s batter is complete.
- The batter beats better when you start with room-temperature ingredients. Take the butter, eggs and sour cream out of the refrigerator at least 20 minutes beforehand.
- If the butter is still cold or too firm to beat easily, either cut it into small pieces or smear it across a cutting board with the heel of your hand before adding it to the mixing bowl.
- Beat the butter, both sugars and the salt together until they are smooth; that can take about three minutes.
- Don’t cringe if, when you add the sour cream, your batter looks curdled. The addition of the dry ingredients will make everything fine again.
- You get the most tender cake when you beat the flour the least. When I’m using a mixer, I like to pulse it on and off to start incorporating the dry ingredients and to mix only until they disappear into the batter. I’ll often finish the mixing by hand, babying the batter a bit.
- Keep an eye on the cakelettes while they’re baking. You’re looking for the classic signs of doneness here: a beautiful golden brown color, a sign that the cakes are pulling away ever so slightly from the sides of the pan, and a tester that comes out clean when you poke it deep into the center of each one.
Of course, you can move the party outdoors. The cakelettes will be happy. And, as long as you don’t invite me, everyone else will probably be swell, too.
Dorie Greenspan’s sour cream swirl picnic cakelettes
16 servings (makes 4 mini loaves)
You’ll need mini loaf pans that measure 5 3/4 by 3 1/4 inches or a bit smaller; disposable ones are okay to use here.
Make ahead: Cooled and then wrapped in plastic, the cakes will keep at room temperature for up to 3 days. They can be frozen for up to 2 months.
For the swirl
1/2 cup (3 ounces) mini chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate)
1/2 cup (about 2 1/4 ounces) chopped nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or almonds
1/3 cup (2 3/4 ounces) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (about 1 1/3 ounces) raisins or small bits of other dried fruit (make sure the fruit is moist and plump)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch fine sea salt
For the cakes
2 cups (8 3/4 ounces) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (may substitute that much more ground cinnamon)
16 tablespoons (8 ounces; 2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (8 1/4 ounces) granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar (3 3/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream (remove from the fridge 20 minutes before using)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use baker’s spray to grease 4 mini loaf pans; place them on a baking sheet.
For the swirl: Combine the mini chocolate chips, nuts, granulated sugar, raisins or other dried fruit, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl, mixing to evenly distribute.
For the cakes: Whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and cardamom, if using, in a mixing bowl.
Combine the butter, granulated and brown sugars and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld mixer; beat on medium speed, scraping down the beater and bowl as needed, until light, smooth and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and beat for a minute after each goes in; beat in the vanilla extract. Scrape in the sour cream and beat on low speed to incorporate. The batter may look curdled, but it will come together once the dry ingredients are blended in.
Stop the mixer, add half of the flour mixture and pulse the mixer, on low speed to start incorporating it. Once most of the flour mixture is in, add the rest; pulse and then work on low speed to form a well-blended batter. Scrape the bowl to make certain there are no clumps of flour lurking at the bottom.
Use a large (3-tablespoon-capacity) cookie scoop to fill the pans, or you can heap the batter on a large spoon, if you prefer. Put two large scoops of batter in each pan and smooth them with an icing spatula or butter knife. Stir the swirl mixture, then sprinkle 1/4 cup of it into each pan, scattering it evenly over the batter. Top with two more scoops of batter, spreading them evenly.
Turn whatever swirl mixture is left into the bowl with the remaining batter, stir to blend and then divide among the pans, again smoothing the tops.
Bake the cakes (middle rack) for 50 to 55 minutes, rotating the baking sheet from front to back after 25 minutes, until they are golden brown. (They may start to come away from the sides of the pans.) Most important: A tester inserted into the center of the cakes should come out clean. Transfer the mini loaves to a wire rack and allow the cakes to cool (in their pans) for 5 minutes before turning them out onto the rack to cool to room temperature.
You can cool - and serve - the cakes top sides or bottom (smooth) sides up.
Nutrition per serving (using pecans and dried cherries): 360 calories, 4 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 105 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 31 g sugar