Bake it Happy, Make it Pretty

Cookbook author and Kansas City Spaces contributor Judith Fertig whips up some springtime delights

How can baking contribute to a happy life? In my new cookbook, Bake Happy, I think I’ve come up with 100 little recipe answers to that big question.

Colorful, flavorful home-baked treats signal celebration for big and small occasions alike, from a milestone birthday to an “I deserve this” coffee break. They make us feel good just to look at them and even better when we taste them.  And in a world of 24-hour news, fiscal cliffs, terrorist threats, economic recovery, and paper or plastic, we need all the happy we can get.

Here are a few ways to bake happy.

Start with a blank canvas—a cake batter, a sweet meringue, a pastry crust, a cheesecake, a custard, a buttercream frosting, a cookie base. The base recipe has to be delicious, homemade and easy to follow. You won’t be very happy if you spend hours in the kitchen and then your cake doesn’t turn out. You will be deliriously so if you stir together a delicious one-bowl cake, whip up a cloud-like meringue, pat a buttery crust into a tart pan, or make a brownie that you can marbleize like fine Florentine paper.

Stir in a little flavor and color. Flavors and colors can come from natural ingredients: veggies and fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices, canned pumpkin and butternut squash, frozen fruit concentrates, and more. The flavors are also mood-lifters—coffee, chai, orange, raspberry, chocolate, pumpkin, spice, banana, lime, lemon, and so many others. Specific colors help lift the spirits. The color of a dessert plate or ramekin can also increase the perception of better flavor.

Add a little fun with a unique or playful twist. Maybe the batter is speckled or dappled or marbled or striped. Maybe there’s a secret flavored or colored filling in a cupcake that you don’t see until you take a bite. Maybe it’s a drizzle of ooey-gooey caramel over a slice of cake. Maybe it’s a final sprinkle of a flavored “pixie dust,” like a sweet gremolata made with sugar and mint and orange, edible flowers, colorful mukhwas (available at places like Ambica Foods), chopped nuts, flavored sugars or spice mixtures, or colored sprinkles made with natural colorings and egg white.

Remember when. A favorite dessert prompts memories of happy occasions (or creates new ones), which, in turn, prompt feelings of well-being.

Share. When you bake, it’s only natural to share your cookies or brownies or cupcakes with others. And that leads to building or strengthening relationships—another pillar of well-being.

Learn to make gluten-free and vegan desserts. If you really want to bake something that almost everyone can enjoy, you’ll have to have a few gluten-free and vegan desserts in your repertoire. Once you try the gluten-free Vegan Chai Cupcakes, they may become your go-to offering.

Make it pretty. Use vintage or special dessert plates for small eclairs, turquoise platters for a conga line of Creativity Kickstarters. Scatter a white rectangular platter with mukhwas (candy-coated aromatic herb seeds used as after-dinner mints at Indian meals) and arrange gluten-free Vegan Chai Cupcakes on it.    

Enjoy special treats from Bake Happy on June 2 at Rainy Day Books in Fairway at the launch party for Judith Fertig’s debut novel The Cake Therapist. Click here for more info.

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“There has to be a better way!” I said to myself. I was at a brainstorming meeting. To help us along, the group brought out a plastic tray full of pallid sugar cookies that tasted as uninteresting as they looked. One tiny bite and I was all out of ideas. I went home and took out my little bottle of Aura Cacia “Creative Juice,” a blend of non-culinary essential oils that includes bergamot and cardamom. I opened the bottle and sniffed its wonderful aroma. The light bulb went on, and the result is these soft sugar cookies, flavored with cardamom. The final touch is an aromatizing gremolata with citrus zest, orange mint, and natural granulated sugar that practically shouts “fresh and new.” The cardamom in the cookie itself follows and then lingers on the taste buds a bit. If the ideas don’t flow after that, it’s not my fault.

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Soft Sugar Cookie Dough
Makes about 36 cookies

cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup sour cream, at room temperature

½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

cup granulated sugar

large egg

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

tablespoon ground cardamom

Orange Glaze

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

teaspoon orange zest

tablespoons orange juice

Sweet Orange Mint Gremolata

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh orange mint or mint leaves

½ teaspoon orange zest

½ teaspoon lemon zest

¼ cup natural granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

For the cookies, whisk the flour, baking soda and salt together in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream the sour cream, butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the egg, vanilla and cardamom. With the mixer on low speed, mix in the dry ingredients, a third at a time, until you have a smooth, soft dough. Pinch off a tablespoon-sized ball of dough, roll gently in your hands and flatten into a one-inch thick disc. Place each disc 1-1/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until just firm to the touch and slightly golden at the edges. Let cool in the pans.

For the orange glaze, whisk the confectioners’ sugar, orange zest and juice together until smooth. Turn each cookie upside down and dip the top in the glaze. Turn upright and place on the baking sheet again to dry. For the gremolata, muddle the orange mint, citrus zests and sugar with a muddler or with the handle of wooden spoon in a medium bowl until the sugar is suffused with color and aroma. Sprinkle the gremolata on the glazed cookies and leave until the glaze has set, about 30 minutes. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.


The color of natural linen or unbleached muslin, these all-natural cupcakes are also gluten-free and vegan. Baking them in unbleached cupcake papers continues the color and ingredient theme. When I was shopping for the chai spices in an Indian/Pakistani grocery store in my neighborhood, I found something else in the spice aisle—a jar of multi-colored fennel, sesame, and coriander seeds, known as mukhwas, that function as after-dinner mints. They worked great as colored sprinkles and as a bed on which I nestled the cupcakes for an easy presentation. For the best flavor, I ground the cardamom in a spice grinder and grated fresh nutmeg with a microplane grater. I used a pastry bag fitted with a star tip to pipe the frosting on the gently spicy cupcakes.

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Chai Cupcakes
Makes 14 cupcakes

¾ cup boiling water

chai tea bag

cups gluten-free unbleached all-purpose flour 

teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground green cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla-flavored almond, soy, or coconut milk

tablespoon cider vinegar

½ cup organic cane sugar

1/3 cup canola oil

teaspoons vanilla extract

Vegan Chai Buttercream Frosting

1 cup vegan buttery stick, such as Earth Balance, at room temperature

cups organic confectioners’ sugar, sifted

teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground green cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ cup brewed chai tea

teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Mukhwas or other Indian candied seeds for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with 14 paper liners and set aside. Pour the boiling water over the tea bag in a cup and let steep until very strong, about 15 minutes. Measure out 1/2 cup for the cake and 1/4 cup for the frosting and set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In large mixing bowl, stir together the almond milk, brewed chai tea and vinegar. Allow to sit for one minute. Whisk in the cane sugar, oil and vanilla extract. Whisk in the flour mixture, one third at a time. Whisk until the batter becomes smooth and starts to thicken. Pour 1/4 cup batter into each lined cupcake mold.

Bake for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Place the pan of cupcakes on a wire rack to cool.

For the frosting, use an electric mixer to beat the vegan buttery stick together with the sifted confectioners’ sugar and spices until well blended and very thick. Beat in the brewed chai tea and vanilla and beat until light and fluffy. If you like, place in a piping bag fitted with a star tip and pipe the frosting or simply spread the frosting on the cooled cupcakes. Sprinkle with mukhwas and serve.


Eclairs were once the darlings of mom and pop bakeries. With a simple pastry made in a saucepan, they were just right for small-batch baking. Now, they’re making a couture comeback as the darlings of upscale bakery boutiques like Fauchon in Paris, Lafayette in New York, and Bobbette & Belle in Toronto. The traditional eclair filling would be pastry cream (recipe follows), and the traditional icing would be sweetened, melted chocolate, also delicious. Once you get started with this recipe, however, feel free to do oh-so-much more. Flavor the pastry cream. Dip the eclair into a thin icing you can flavor or color as you wish. Then sprinkle on a fun topping: homemade colored sprinkles, sugar pearls, dragees, edible flower petals, or shaved chocolate. Food writer Maria Siriano of Columbus, Ohio, who blogs at Sift & Whisk, made purple-iced Blueberry Violet Eclairs, the pastry cream and icing flavored with crème de violette liqueur. She then finished off the look with edible flowers. Stunning! These Razzle Dazzle Eclairs are likewise pretty in pink. For a final flourish, scatter organic, unsprayed flower blossoms from your garden or edible flowers from the grocery store herb section. You can form and freeze eclairs (unbaked) for up to three months; then thaw, bake, fill and ice.

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Razzle Dazzle Eclairs
Makes 2 dozen

For the choux pastry

½ cup unsalted butter, cut into cubes

cup water

cup unbleached all-purpose flour

large eggs

For the filling

Pastry Cream (see below) flavored with 1 teaspoon almond or raspberry extract

For the Raspberry Icing

1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries, thawed

tablespoons granulated sugar 

cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

tablespoon whole milk

Edible flowers for garnish

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With a pencil, mark 24 (4-inch) vertical lines spaced two inches apart. Set aside.

For the pastry, bring the butter and water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Vigorously whisk in the flour and salt all at once until the dough forms a ball in the middle of the pan. Remove from the heat and scrape the dough into a food processor. Pulse in each egg, one at a time, until you have a smooth, shiny, golden dough.

To form the eclairs, fit the end of a pastry bag with a 1/2-inch diameter tip. Fill the bag with the choux pastry, twist closed, and squeeze the dough down until it goes through the tip. Hold your finger over the tip to keep the dough from flowing out. To pipe the dough onto the marked lines on the parchment paper, press the tip of the tube at the top of a line, and gently squeeze the pastry bag while you trace down the length of each line. You should have a line of choux pastry dough about 1-inch wide and 4 inches long. Start and stop the dough by pressing the tip of the tube firmly onto the parchment paper.  Lift up the pastry bag to begin a new line. Refill the pastry bag as needed.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until the eclairs have puffed and have turned shiny golden brown. Let cool on the baking sheet.

For the icing, combine the raspberries and sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, until the raspberries have softened, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and strain through a sieve lined with cheesecloth to remove the raspberry seeds. Transfer the puree to a bowl and whisk in the confectioners’ sugar and milk. If necessary, add more milk until the icing just barely drips off the whisk. Set aside.

To fill the eclairs, pass a wooden skewer lengthwise through the center of each eclair to make a channel. Fit a pastry bag with a plain tip, such as Wilton #230. Fill the bag with almond-flavored pastry cream. Holding each eclair between your thumb and forefinger, pipe the pastry cream in one end until it starts to come out the other. You will feel the eclair get heavier as your cue to stop filling. You can also use a serrated knife to cut the eclair in half like a hot dog bun. Pipe or spoon pastry cream on the bottom half of the eclair and close. Dip the top of each filled eclair into the icing. Set aside, right side up, and scatter with edible blossoms. The icing will cool and harden in about 30 minutes. Eclairs are best eaten the day they’re made.


Over the years, I’ve made a lot of pastry creams. This version is my current favorite, with the infused lemon peel adding just that little bit of mmmmm, and cornstarch replacing the flour for a light, gluten-free result. Pastry cream can be a filling for cakes, pastries, and tarts or the base of a soufflé mixture. And it’s a perfect blank canvas for a nuance of flavor for the eclairs or soufflés.

Pastry Cream
Makes 2 cups

cups whole milk

strip of fresh lemon peel

½ cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

6 large egg yolks

1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted 

teaspoon vanilla extract

3½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature

Place the milk, lemon peel, and 1/4 cup of the sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Scoop out the lemon rind and discard. Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and the salt. Whisk in the cornstarch until the mixture is smooth. Pour 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture and whisk until smooth. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken and registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vanilla extract. Transfer to a bowl, cover the top of the pastry cream with plastic wrap, and let cool to room temperature. Chill until ready to use. Keeps for up to one week in the refrigerator.


SIDE DISH

Award-winning writer and longtime Spaces contributor Judith Fertig spends some of life with pen and paper and some wearing a grilling queen tiara (she and fellow foodie Karen Adler have cooked up 10 books dedicated to grilling and ‘cue). She gained her professional training at London’s Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, formerly housed in Paris. Bake Happy is the latest cookbook by Fertig, and Adler and Fertig have just released BBQ Bistro.

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