If you're hosting a shindig in honor of Independence Day, you're likely well into planning the menu, and maybe even a fireworks display. But have you begun to brainstorm décor (besides sticking a few mini American flags into the ground)? Before you work yourself into a tizzy, consider turning your desserts into a patriotic tableau. We tapped Amy Atlas, founder of Amy Atlas Events and master of mouth-watering dessert tables, for a few tips on creating the most stunning red, white, and blue spread.
"My family always has a picnic on July 4th and this spread was inspired by my love of informal picnic gatherings," says Atlas. "For July 4th, there’s nothing like gingham to set the tone. The sweet little check was my starting point for this table, and it led to other traditional red and white patterns—ticking and awning stripes. For the tablecloth, I opted for a classic French ticking in which red predominates, a good way to ground that entire pattern, then added the gingham and striped accents with abandon." Atlas continues, "Red fruit seems to ooze summer so cherries figure largely here—they’re in the cupcakes, mini pies, and fresh, still-on-the-stem in small, scalloped bags. The red-and-white strawberry trifle is a dessert that gives you a lot of visual bang for your buck. It’s an indulgent combination of dense butter cake, sweetened and spiked strawberries, and tons of whipped cream. Add some blueberries to it if you want to mimic the American flag. And since PB and J sandwiches are a classic American pick, I made a sweet version with those two 'slices' of sugar cookies spread with peanut butter and jelly."
Check out the recipes below, which originally appeared in Atlas's book Sweet Designs ($18; amazon.com), to help you complete your festive tableau.
1. Dried Sour Cherry Cupcakes with Simple Glaze
"These dense, delicious cupcakes are an ideal picnic treat; they’re transportable, and the icing won’t slide off," writes Atlas. "I’ve also made them for school bake sales and as an after-school treat, with many happy takers."
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract cup sliced almonds, finely chopped
1 cup dried sour cherries, rough chopped
2/3 cup milk
Simple glaze (recipe follows)
For the Simple glaze
2 cups confectioners sugar, plus more to thicken if necessary
1. To make the glaze, pass the confectioners sugar through a sieve into a medium bowl. Add 4 tbp of water and stir until the icing is smooth and coats the back of a spoon. If the icing seems too thin, gradually pass a bit more of the sugar through a sieve into it and stir until smooth. If it is too thick, add water by the drop and stir until smooth.
2. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a nonstick cupcake tin with nonstick spray labeled "for baking." Alternatively, grease and flour the pan.
3. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
4. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and sugar and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle as necessary. Add the vanilla extract, almond extract, almonds, and cherries and mix until combined. Add the milk and mix until combined. Reduce the speed to medium-low and gradually add the dry ingredients, mixing until combined and the batter is smooth.
5. Remove bowl from mixer and stir batter a few times to make sure it’s completely combined. Divide the batter evenly in the cupcake tin and bake until the cupcakes are just set and the edges are golden brown, about 17 minutes. Let cupcakes cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
6. When the cupcakes are completely cool, drizzle the icing by the tablespoonful over each. Let set. Arrange the cupcakes on a cake stand in a pyramid shape and set on the table.
2. Sweet Cherry Pies
"As with most of my desserts, I prefer making this in multiples to create a look of abundance," says Atlas. "Don’t worry if your lattice isn’t perfect; these pies are supposed to look a bit rustic.The filling can be made 2 to 3 days in advance, covered tightly, and refrigerated." Atlast also suggests using a store-bought pie crust if you're short on time.
Makes 4 5-inch pies
All butter pie dough
For the All butter pie dough
2 1⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄4-inch pieces
For the Filling
5 cups frozen sweet, pitted cherries (2 12-oz bags)
1⁄2 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1⁄4 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tsp demerara sugar or sugar in the raw
1. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to combine, about 10 seconds. Add the butter and mix on medium-low speed until the mixture is not dry and no chunks of butter remain. It should resemble coarse meal with pieces no larger than a small pea. Drizzle 1⁄4 to 1/3 cup cold water over the mixture and mix on medium-low speed, adding more water as necessary, until the mixture just comes together in a large clump. Transfer the dough to a work surface and shape into two 1-inch-thick disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until ready to use, at least 1 hour.
2. In a large saucepan, combine the cherries, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and cornstarch. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until cherries begin to release their juices, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir constantly as the cherries soften, their juices thicken, and the mixture slowly comes to a boil, about 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Set aside to cool.
3. Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and place a baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
4. Take one disk of dough out of the refrigerator. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out each piece of dough into a 7-inch circle, about 1-inch thick. Line each of 4 5-inch pie plates with a circlet of dough, letting it hang over edge.
5. Divide the filling equally among the pies. Roll out the remaining dough into a 12- × 6-inch rectangle. With the long side facing you, cut the dough vertically into 1⁄2-inch-wide strips with a chef’s knife or pastry wheel, to yield 24 6-inch-long × 1⁄2-inch-wide strips.
6. Lay 3 strips, evenly spaced, over the filling of each pie. Place 3 more strips crosswise over them to create a lattice top. Gently press around the edges of each pie to adhere the tops to the bottom crust. Crimp and trim dough with a knife.
7. Carefully brush the lattice top and edges with the beaten egg. Sprinkle 1 tsp sugar over each.
8. Line the preheated baking sheet with parchment. Place pies on the baking sheet and bake until the crust is set and begins to turn golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350°F and continue to bake until the filling is bubbling and the crust is a deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let pies cool completely on wire rack.
3. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Cookies
"Yes, I could have gone a more traditional route and piped icing on top of a single sugar-cookie 'slice of bread,' but it’s a lot more fun (and clever) to turn them into real sandwiches," writes Atlas. "Sometimes turning away from the expected can make or break a table. These are spread with peanut butter and jelly. You can fill them with Nutella Hazelnut Spread or cream cheese and honey, too. My kids love them with those fillings!" To achieve the bread slice shape, you can use a cutter ($3-$6; jbcookiecutters.com) or go freehand.
Makes 8 to 10 cookie sandwiches
Sugar cookie dough
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup Concord grape jelly
For the Sugar Cookie Dough
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1. To make the cookie dough: in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugar, and salt on medium-high speed until just combined. Add the egg and beat until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Reduce speed to medium-low and add the flour. Beat until just combined.
2. Place the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and press firmly into a 1-inch-thick circle. Wrap tightly and chill until firm, for at least 1 hour.
3. Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and preheat oven to 325°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the cookie dough to 1/8-inch thick. Using the cutter or your own hand, begin to create bread slice shapes. Re-roll any scraps and continue to cut out cookies. The dough should yield 16 to 20 cookies.
5. Transfer cookies to baking sheets, spacing them evenly 1-inch apart.
6. Put cookies in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes prior to baking.
7. Bake cookies until light golden, rotating pans from top to bottom and from front to back, 10–12 minutes. Let cookies cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
8. When cookies are cool, spread 2 tsp of peanut butter onto the bottom side of half of the cookies. Spread 2 tsp of grape jelly on the bottoms of the remaining cookies. Sandwich the cookies together and serve. Wrap in gingham cloth, tissue paper, or napkins.
4. Strawberry Trifle
"This is one of those desserts that gives you a lot of visual bang for your buck," says Atlas. "Not only is it a lot easier to put together than it looks (especially because I use packaged pound cake!), but it’s a ridiculously indulgent combination of dense butter cake, sweetened—and spiked—strawberries, and tons of whipped cream. If you’re looking for upping the dessert ante, this is the way to go."
Makes Fills one 16-cup trifle bowl
3 pints strawberries
4 tbsp sugar
6 tbsp Grand Marnier
2 tbsp lemonjuice
1 1⁄2 loaves packaged pound cake
4 cups heavy cream
4 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1. Set aside 3 perfect strawberries for the trifle garnish. Hull and slice the remaining strawberries into 1⁄4-inch slices. Combine the strawberries, sugar, Grand Marnier, and lemon juice in a large bowl and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate until the strawberries begin to soften slightly and have soaked in the liquid, stirring occasionally, about 3 hours.
2. Meanwhile, slice the pound cake into 1-inch cubes.
3. Just before you’re ready to assemble the trifle, whip the cream in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, on medium speed, until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar and vanilla. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Spoon 1/3 of the whipped cream into the bottom of a 16-cup trifle dish. Arrange a single layer of cake cubes over it, using about half the cake. Top with 1⁄2 of the strawberries and their liquid. Spoon 1⁄2 of the remaining whipped cream over the top of strawberries. Arrange a second layer of cake onto the cream and top with the remaining strawberries. Top with the remaining whipped cream, swirling the top, and garnish with the reserved whole strawberries. Chill for 15 minutes to let cake soak up the juices. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Tie a festive ribbon around the base of the trifle dish.
5. Red Zinger Iced Tea with Watermelon Wedges
"Watermelon wedges make a perfect garnish," says Atlas of this ice-cold beverage. "Swap out everyday glasses for handled mason jars wrapped with frayed strips of gingham fabric."
Makes 2 gallons
2 gallons red Zinger tea, chilled ($3; shop.celestialseasonings.com)
1 small watermelon, cut into 2-inch wedges
Divide the tea between two vessels. Just before guests arrive, add the watermelon wedges. Provide a ladle for serving.