The Red, White and Blue of Memorial Day, Part 1

by Jane Remley

Soon it will be here. We"ve been waiting and waiting, and it"s almost here. Its arrival means all sorts of thing to all sorts of people. For some, the day signifies the end of cold dreary weather; for others, it means the school year is almost over; for many, it means the official kick-off of summer-time picnics, camping, and outdoor fun. But for most people, Memorial Day is more than an official day off from work. It represents a day of greater meaning - the one it was meant to hold.

Memorial Day is a legal holiday that is observed on the last Monday in May in honor of all the nation"s soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in wartime. Parades, ceremonies, and the decoration of graves with flowers and flags are all a part of Memorial Day observances that began a long time ago at the end of the American Civil War. It is a day when individuals and communities join together out of respect, caring, and sharing to honor those who died for their country. As we celebrate the last Monday in May, let"s not lose touch with the real reason for Memorial Day - to honor all who have died in our nation"s service. And while we"re at it, let"s honor those survivors of wars who remain with us as well as all those who have passed on, whether in war or otherwise.

Memorial Day also marks the official beginning of the summer season in the United States. As the weather gets warmer, our thoughts turn to picnics, barbecues, ball games, and other summer activities. Of course, depending on where you live, the end of May can often bring other unpredictable weather. A sudden downpour or unexpected cold front can quickly turn your outdoor get-together into an indoor event. As you carefully prepare your menu and desserts for your Memorial Day celebration, keep in mind that you may need an alternative game plan. It"s always best to be prepared.

Speaking of game plans, do you know that the origin of the game of checkers can be traced to the Egyptians back as early as 1600 BC? The game of checkers has been a popular American tradition for hundreds of years. Our Civil War soldiers played it as they rested after battle, and our military personnel have played it during every war since. The checkerboard pattern contains equally square spaces colored alternately by two contrasting colors. This pattern is seen on game boards, clothing, and virtually everywhere - and yes, even in cakes.

There are several different ways to make a cake with a checkerboard pattern. One of the easiest ways is to use the novel checkerboard cake set. This convenient set contains three pans, a magical plastic divider, recipe, and instructions. The recipe that is included with this set is a good one that will provide you with a vanilla and a chocolate batter. However, you can also create the checkerboard cake with two cake mixes, one chocolate and one white. With separate bowls, and a little coordination, the cake mixes can save you a lot of time and effort. Assemble the ingredients, and be sure everything is at room temperature. If you forgot to set the eggs out, you can bring them to room temperature by gently placing them in a small bowl and filling it with warm water. While you set up your other ingredients and get your work area ready, the eggs will be gently warming up to room temperature. Preheat your oven. The three pans in this set are coated with non-stick SilverStone, which means that you need to set the oven temperature 25 degrees lower than suggested on the cake mix package. You may have noticed that dark non-stick pans cause cakes to brown faster on the sides. You can get a more even browning and avoid burning the sides of the cakes by lowering the oven temperature and increasing the baking time by about ten minutes or so. It"s also a good idea to grease and flour the pans to ensure easy cake removal.

Prepare the cake recipe or the two cake mixes. If you mix the vanilla batter first, all you have to do is scrape the excess batter off of your beater attachment and go right to mixing the chocolate batter. Be sure to keep the cake directions directly in front of you, because it is easy to get confused, particularly when it comes time to pour the batter into the divider sections. The batter will be poured into each pan according to the diagram that comes with the checkerboard cake instructions. It"s a bit awkward to try to pour the batters directly from the mixing bowls. You may find this task easier if you use two large measuring cups or some sort of pitchers from which you can neatly pour the batters into their proper places.

Place the divider ring into the first pan. Even though it will snap into place, you still need to press it down into the pan to avoid having it float up or shift when you pour the batters into the divider sections. The first two pans will be set up exactly alike. These will eventually become the top and bottom checkerboard layers. While pressing down the divider ring, pour the dark batter into the outer and center rings only. Fill them equally and halfway up. Take the light batter and pour it into the middle ring. Use teaspoons to gently smooth out the batters to make them level and even. (Resist the temptation to shake the pan from side to side to level it out, because the batter will shift and distort the circles.) Now, carefully lift the plastic divider ring straight up and out of the pan. Move it away from the pan and quickly wipe it off with a clean paper towel. Repeat this procedure with the second pan. It is set up identically to the first. After you remove the divider ring, wipe it off again with a clean paper towel. Place the divider ring into the third pan, then pour the light batter into the outer and center rings, and the dark batter into the middle ring, filling them each half way up. After you smooth out the batter, lift the divider ring straight up and out of the pan.

Carefully place the cakes into the preheated oven, leaving ample space around them so they are not touching. After 20 minutes, gently rotate and turn the pans so they will brown and rise evenly. Continue baking for about 10 minutes longer, and then begin testing them for doneness. The handy cake tester is a great gadget to own. Its 6" length makes it a convenient tester for all size cakes - no more burnt fingers or misplaced toothpicks!

When the cakes are completely baked, remove them from the oven and place them on a cooling rack. The stackable set of three cooling racks (BE4698) is wonderful for saving counter space, great for when it comes time to flip the cakes out of the pans, and essential when you bake all those holiday cookies! Next, run the metal cake tester or a thin knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake. After about 10 minutes, see if the cakes are ready to be removed from the pans. If you can touch the pan and it feels warm and comfortable enough to hold in your hand, the cake is ready to be removed. If the pan is still hot to your touch, let it cool down for several minutes more. Run the knife around the sides of the pan again to make sure the cake is loosened. Take one of the cooling racks and place it over the top of the cake pan. Flip both the pan and the rack over so that the cake is inverted on the rack. Using both hands, gently lift the pan straight up and release the cake. (This should be very easy with the non-stick pans.) Remove the cakes from each of their pans.

Let the cakes cool completely. This is a very important step. Resist the temptation to move, manipulate, ice, or decorate the cake layers until they are completely cooled. When they"re cooled, you"ll be ready to assemble and decorate your checkerboard cake. Because of the checkerboard design on the inside of the cake, colorful and elaborate decorations will take away from the novel look of the checkerboard effect. This is one case where you have a good reason to go easy on the decorations and icing colors. Chocolate icing between the layers of the cake will contribute to the checkerboard look. The chocolate Buttrcreme icing is very convenient and easy to use. You will find the flavor and consistency to be very pleasing, and you can"t beat the convenience. Scoop about half of the container into a mixing bowl and whip it for a few minutes to fluff it up. If it seems too thick to you, just add a tablespoon of warm water and continue whipping. You will have a smooth, fluffy, chocolate icing that will be easy to spread on your cake layers.

Use a serrated knife to level the tops of the layers. Don"t cut off too much, and try to keep the layers as even as possible. If your layers domed a lot in the center when they baked in your oven, next time you may want to consider using the Bake Even Cake Strips to control the rise of your layers. They will keep the layers perfectly level, and help avoid distorting the overall checkerboard effect.

To assemble the cake, remember the bottom and top layers are identical. Place the bottom layer on a plate or an 8" cardboard cake board. Spread a thin coating of icing on the bottom layer, place the center layer on top of it, and repeat the procedure for the third layer. Finish icing the sides and top of the cake. If you used the 8" cake board for the bottom of the cake, you can easily lift the cake and place it on a clean plate or a 10" cake board. Using a 12" disposable decorating bag and a #20 star decorating tube, pipe a chocolate icing border on the bottom and top of the cake. The new "Cake Decorating Beginners Guide" or the "Wilton Decorating Cakes" reference and idea book will give you some great border ideas with easy-to-follow directions.

When you finish decorating the cake, resist the temptation to cut it until your guests arrive. When everyone is assembled, then you can cut the cake. You will all marvel at the checkerboard cake design together! Just as the object of the game of checkers is to clear the board of the opponent"s pieces, your guests won"t be able to resist clearing their plates as they ask you how you made such a wonderful checkerboard cake. Tell them it was magic!

Incidentally, it"s okay if you accidentally mixed up the order of the dark or light cake batters or placed the layers in the wrong order when you assembled the cake. Just pretend that you did it on purpose. You will still end up with a unique design for the inside of the cake. It will be your "oops" cake; it will still be intriguing; and no one will know that it was an "oops." The next time, for variety, you can even purposely alter the design or use two of the layers together as one cake, and cut the third layer in half, stack those layers and then decorate a half cake as a gift for a neighbor or someone who would prefer less than a whole cake. Or you can also make three half cakes alternating different layers. If you remember to always have an alternative plan, the possibilities are endless!

Checkerboard Cake Recipe:

This cake can be made buy using a checkerboard cake pan set one vanilla and one chocolate cake mix, chocolate icing, and your choice of decorations.

  • Have all of the ingredients at room temperature.
  • Grease and flour the three cake pans. The bottom and top layers will be set up exactly alike.
  • Preheat the oven to 25 degrees less than the cake mix recipe states.
  • Set the oven rack to the center position.
  • Using separate bowls, mix the vanilla cake batter first.
  • Then mix the chocolate cake batter.
  • Place the plastic divider ring into the first pan, and hold it down as you pour the dark batter into the outer and center rings. Fill them half way up and equal. Pour the light batter into the middle ring, making sure it is even with the other rings.
  • Remove the plastic divider ring by lifting it straight up and out of the pan. Be careful not to tilt the divider as you lift it out.
  • Wipe the divider off with a clean paper towel.
  • Place the divider into the second pan, and repeat the procedure. The first two pans are exactly alike. Remember to fill the pans half way up and keep them level.
  • Remove the divider, and wipe it off again.
  • Place the divider into the third pan and pour the light batter into the outer and center rings. Pour the dark batter into the middle ring.
  • Carefully place the cakes into the preheated oven, leaving ample space so they are not touching.
  • After 20 minutes, gently rotate and turn the pans so they brown and rise evenly.
  • Continue baking for about 10 minutes more, and then test for doneness.
  • Remove the cake pans from the oven, and place them on a cooling rack.
  • Run a knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the sides of the cake.
  • When the cakes are cooled down enough, remove them from the pans, and place them on the rack to cool completely.
  • When cooled completely, carefully trim the tops of the cake layers to level them.
  • Try not to cut away too much of the cake. Remove all of the cake crumbs from your work area.
  • Remember that the bottom and top layers are identical. Take the bottom layer and place it on a cardboard cake circle or a serving dish.
  • Spread a thin layer of chocolate icing on the bottom cake. Then place the middle layer on top of it.
  • Spread a thin layer of icing on the middle layer, and place the top layer on top of that layer. Completely ice the rest of the cake, and decorate it as you choose.
  • Try not to overdo it with the decorations, because they will conflict with the overall checkerboard effect when you cut the cake.
  • It"s okay if you accidentally mixed up the order of the light and dark batters or placed the layers in the wrong order when you assembled the cake. Just pretend you did it on purpose, and call it your "oops" cake. You will still end up with a unique vanilla and chocolate design for the inside of the cake.
  • You can also make one two-layer cake from two of the three layers. Then cut the third layer in half, and stack the halves together to make a half-cake. Half-cakes are great for giving to friends and neighbors who wouldn"t want a whole cake. A decorated half-cake is a perfect size for gift giving, and it will certainly be appreciated.

The thought of summer not only stirs ideas of barbecues, picnics, and outdoor fun, it also brings on cravings for cool and refreshing desserts. Fresh berries, such as blueberries and strawberries arrive on the scene and become plentiful this time of year. Ice cream cakes, popsicles, slushy drinks, and whipped cream fruity concoctions also start to appear when the weather gets warmer.

Memorial Day and Independence Day celebrations both generate an interest in the patriotic red, white, and blue. There"s never a better time to explore or create dessert recipes that use combinations of these traditional colors. Because the color blue doesn"t fare well as a popular food choice, and most of us can only name a handful of foods that are naturally blue, this is the time of year when blueberries reign supreme. So, in keeping with the traditional red, white, and blue theme, you may want to consider highlighting the season"s luscious blueberries and their counterparts, the succulent strawberries for your holiday desserts. Because both of these berries have their own distinctive flavor as well as color, and some people prefer one over the other, it has become popular to highlight each berry separately. By making two cakes, and using one filling mixture, you can create two uniquely different desserts with very little extra effort.

Part of the blue decorations for the red, white, and blue effect will be sweetened shredded or flaked coconut that is tinted blue. This needs to be prepared a day in advance in order to give the coconut time to dry. Take a generous cup of coconut and place it in a plastic bag. Shake and roll the bag around to loosen any clumps of coconut. Put a couple of drops of royal blue liquid gel food color in the bag with the coconut. Immediately close up the bag and shake it well. Add more color gradually until you get the desired shade of blue. A little goes a long way, so be careful. To avoid having blue fingers for the next several days, put a plastic bag over your hand or better yet, use a disposable food handler"s glove so you can break up the coconut clumps and distribute the coloring. Take a sheet pan or other suitable flat pan and line it with plastic wrap. Empty the coconut onto the pan and spread it out to let it dry. Every hour or so, stir the coconut and continue to let it dry.