Saturday, March 29, 2008

April: The Puberty Month

As far as months go, April does whatever the crap it wants. It can be moody, sunny, rainy. It might storm, snow, blow, or blaze. You may be all revved up, hands rubbing together in anticipation, for glorious fields of green ga-ga-goo-goo this-that with Julie Christie trilling through lush green-sounding nonsense in the background - but nooooo! - hold on, there. April is as predictable as a teenager in a long-term text-ing relationship whose 10 fingers have just been broken. April is hot and cold, wet and dry. April is hormonal. Anything can happen.

Historically, April can be a weird month for me. As a kid, it only conjures rather vague memories of sunny slushiness, some rainy days, and anticipation of May. The coming of May meant that summer was around the corner - so April always seemed liked summer's little ambassador - and winter's "don't let the door hit you in the arse". April always unfolded as a month of renewal, of growth, possibility, change. My 21st year, the (previously sweet) renewal came in the form of my Mother's death from cancer, after a year-and-a-half battle. Ten days later (still April), I tried to avoid hitting a possum while driving - and I flipped my car 4 times (sans seat belt, 75 mph) - ended up in the ICU with a whole mess of problems. Hello April! Fantastically strange, 8 years later to the day of the car accident, I was shopping alone and lost consciousness - I woke up on the floor, surrounded by about 30 people and I had no idea where I was! I had a gazillion tests - and no one ever really figured it out. It was probably related to the concussion and scar tissue received from that long ago car accident - but how obscenely odd that it should occur on the exact same day, no? Confounding, and yet, eerily lucid too.

So, when April comes 'round every year - I take notice, I get a bit wide-eyed. It is one of the few months that I actually step back, look around, perform a kind of visual scan, amp up my ever-present hyperchondricism, and BEG the universe for any extra protection it might be willing to cough up in my direction. Come on, man, I've paid some April dues here - surely there is something to spare.

Now that I live in the desert, and no longer have 4 seasons, April is a bit less poignant in terms of weather - but it certainly has not lost its clout toward giving me pause. April is unpredictable, after all, so I'm preparing to be unprepared. Still, many friends and family are wrestling with snow, wind chills, storms, and frosts - waiting for their share of sun, green, budding flowers, bursts of spring. So, in honor of April - our little ambassador of summer - I thought I'd make something fresh, light, clean, airy. And hopefully, it'll help kick the pants off of winter.

So, here's to April - our hormonal, pubescent, unpredictable little month. In spite of - and maybe because of - all her complexities, I do love April - damn teenagers.

Zest Bites

These are better than I thought; I brought 3/4 of my batch into work on a Friday, thinking - "oh, this is too much to bring in - they'll just rot over the weekend in the office". Well, they vanished before 11:00 am. They're like a lemon/lime cheesecake bar, but fluffier; the crust is crunchy, sweet, and dark golden brown. Before you start, a few tips: be sure to use real lime and lemon juice - do not use bottled juices; if you want to kick it up further – use key limes rather than regular limes. You always want to grate zests before juicing (otherwise, the fruit becomes too soft for grating) and, you want to avoid grating the white pith that is just beneath the colored porti
on of the fruit.


6 ounces animal cracke
4 tablespoons brown sugar
Pinch table salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

2 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 1/2 teaspoons grated lime zest, minced (grate, measure, then mince)
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest, minced
Pinch table salt
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons fresh lime juice, either Key lime or regular
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut a 12-inch length extra-wide heavy-duty piece of foil and line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch-square baking pan, allowing excess to overhang pan sides. Spray foil with nonstick cooking spray. To double this recipe, use a 9x13-inch pan; you will need 2 20-inch sheets of extra-wide foil for the pan and and increased baking time of 1-2 minutes.

Crust: In workbowl of food processor or in a blender, pulse animal crackers until crumbs are evenly fine, about 10 seconds (you should have about 1 1/3 cups crumbs). Add brown sugar and salt; process to combine, about 10 seconds (if large sugar lumps remain, break them apart with fingers). If using blender, transfer to bowl, drizzle butter over crumbs and combine until evenly moistened. If using processor, drizzle butter over crumbs and pulse until crumbs are evenly moistened with butter, about ten 1-second pulses.

Using round side of spoon, press crumbs evenly and firmly into bottom of prepared pan. Bake until deep golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Cool on wire rack while making filling.

Filling: In medium bowl, stir cream cheese, zests, and salt until softened and thoroughly combined. Add sweetened condensed milk and whisk vigorously until incorporated and smooth; whisk in egg yolk. Add juices and whisk gently until incorporated (mixture will thicken slightly).

Pour filling into crust, spread evenly with spatula. Bake until set and edges begin to pull away slightly from sides, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, 1-1.5 hours. Cover with foil and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours.

Lift bars from baking pan using foil edges; cut bars into 16 squares, cut each square into 4 small triangles. Bars can be refrigerated 2-3 days; crust may soften slightly. Serve cold or let bars stand at room temperature about 15 minutes before serving.

Look at the little flecks of zest, LOVE that!

Inspiration: Cooks Illustrated and Abe's Mom, Crystal.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Between Desserts

We polished off the cake, it's gone. It was such a beauty, so elegant and frou frou.

Now, we're between desserts. It's not pretty. It ain't glamorous. Sometimes, it even borders on trashtastic - embarrassing really. But we just need a little ping of something sweet - a teaser, a chaser of what was or what's to be - just a little moment where we might flex the muscle of those taste buds whose power gives women pause to consider whether, given the option, which would they choose - chocolate or sex?

At any rate, we don't like to neglect these little sensory powerhouses between desserts. Our answer? Whip cream shots. Straight from the can. Shake it up, tilt head back, fill mouth. So damn good. Sweet, creamy, dessert-like, fluffy, totally satisfying. You know, I would really like to say something tres chic here to cancel out the aforementioned confession. But, there it is - it is there. An expensive handbag may swing from my arm, I may love a glass of Veuve Clicquot, and I adore good caviar - but yes, I do whip cream shots 'tween desserts. We do what it takes, folks.

Our other little bumper crop, as we await my next creation, is the divine little savior called the chocolate chip. I lay at its feet. It doesn't have feet. Correction: I lay at its proverbial feet. I now understand why the word "morsel" often denotes feelings such as endearment, beloved-ness, almost a soft tenderness. These little morsels are endeared to this household; not only do they morph into larger, grander, more beautiful creations - but they also help us through the lean times - when all we can do is grab a few little chocolate beauties, and let them slowly melt in our mouths. Mmm, chhhhhocolate. It's no Lava Cake, but it's a nibble - and sometimes it's the nibble that inspires me to search for the next new creation, or it's just the thing to get me through, or it's just the thing to bring me back...right into the moment, if need be.

So, no recipe here - no great tip or technique to parlay - just sharing the mid-week food slump, the ho-hum of leftovers or cereal dinners that are, quite pleasurably, broken up by little injections of some sweetness. How do you inject sweetness into your week?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Spam In This Cake

I should explain myself. I hated food as a kid. Oh bleh. Really drab, lonely, sinking, quick-sand memories descend when I think of sitting alone for hours at the dinner table - staring at the obviously (in retrospect) lsd-angel-dust inspired, 70s wallpaper in front of me - locked in stare-downs with these scary little morphing leaf-wallpaper faces, one particularly mocking me (he wore a beret, oddly, but it wa
s actually just a leaf), as I tried to eek this disgusting grub down my throat. Ugh. That's generally how I remember food as a child, ick. Except...

Sugar. Sucre. Azucar. Zucchero. Satou. Siucra. Granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar. SHOO-ger, loved it, in any form. Vivid memories - not the hazy, just-woke-up-on-a-misty-morning kind of childhood memory. These are crisp. The granulated sugar was kept in an upper cupboard; but, there was always a little, plastic, red mug on the first shelf kept full of the glistening little crystals. Armed with a teaspoon, I would
open a bottom cupboard, place both feet inside - elevating my bad, short self - and proceed to scoop the white love into my future dentist's child's college fund. Powdered sugar was kept in a middle drawer - amidst chocolate chips, nuts and other baking kin - what I loved most about my powder scoops was rooted in the aftermath of the first pass: take heaping spoonage, consume most of it, and leftover is a kind of moist mass of soft sugar goo - a whole new sugar species, a new texture to finagle off the spoon, this one is a new kind of savor - it's a sugar paste, mind you! The brown sugar was a triple prisoner - kept inside the fridge - then inside tupperware - then inside a plastic bag. I needed time to get at this golden sand. She was unpredictable too (no idea how she just became a "she") - she might be soft, flowy, fluffy - or hard, crumbly, cracked. I liked her either way - just the approach that changed. One way, she was easy and light - the other, I had to work at her slowly. Either way, brown sugar was always grainy-sweet and wonderfully textural. All of them had that melt-in-your-mouth quality. All of them were the only food that I understood - for a really, really long time. I wanted to live on sugar and all things related to sugar. Only.

I grew up in the middle of the country, you see. Casseroles. Hot dishes. Layers of crap piled together - whose visual strata so repulsed me as a child - that even now I flutter with a bit of nausea as I recall them, with not a shred of fond nostalgia. I mean, was it meant to be art? Was there a time in the Meat-and-Potatoes-Movement where it became so oppressive that a group of women pressed forward, braced like Suffragettes, armed with almost every pre-pre-prepared ingredient in their kitchens - manically throwing together ingredients that make the mind, and the stomach, reel - proving, perhaps, infinite abilities to combine and create? Oh the combinations! I was going to list some repulsive casserole ingredients here, but the shivers down my spine are getting to me - and I'm feeling weak. Another time, perhaps, when I regain my strength. Tater tots, spam, cream of mushroom, yams - there! Four to get you started down queasy lane with me
(oh, gag).

Well, so, I guess I can trace my sugar ancestry quite succinctly here. Salty foods = ew. Sugary foods = heavenly. My sugar family tree. I did end up expanding my palette quite nicely, but it was after I left home. More on that some other time. Lately, I've really wanted to branch out a bit in the baking world, embrace my sugar roots - maybe try a new flourless cake - or something different. My lava cake production, no surprise, has been off the charts - Tony can't get
enough of them and I really cannot convince him there is anything else worthwhile. Last week, I mentioned a "caramel-xyz-thing" and he said "caramel can just go ___ itself!" - partly, he was kidding; but mostly, he feels so strongly about the damn Lava cakes that he really does not like anything jockeying for its position, elbowing its way in. In his mind, if we have found the equivalent of our dessert "true love", why on earth should we still be seeking? Well, I am not Gandhi folks. I can't answer the big ones.

So, I adapted this flourless cake recipe by the incredible Alice Medrich - how could she be wrong? Told Tony about it, told him ahead of time - that this was just an experiment - I'd probably still make Lava cakes on Sunday - the day we usually have them. He tasted it yesterday. Well, I don't have to make Lava cakes today. So, we have a birth on my little sugar family tree. Glowing over here.

Inside Out Truffle Cake

This cake is dense, moist, ultra chocolate-y. It tastes like the inside of a truffle and melts in the mouth. This recipe is for an 8-inch spring-form pan.

8 large cold eggs
1 pound semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 ounces unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1/4 cup strong coffee or liqueur, optional
8 inch spring-form pan
Chocolate meringue, for garnish, optional

Position the oven rack to the lower third of the oven (lower center) and preheat to 325 degrees. Line bottom of spring-form pan with parchment paper and grease the sides. Set the pan on a wide sheet of heavy-duty foil and wrap the foil up the sides, repeat for double layer. Set the pan in a larger baking pan or a roasting pan, set aside.

Melt the chocolate and butter (with optional liquor or coffee) in a double boiler, over simmering water, stirring frequently until the mixture is smooth. Meanwhile, bring a kettle of water to a boil for the water-bath. Allow chocolate mixture to cool slightly.

Using a hand held mixer, whisk the eggs at high speed until the volume of the eggs doubles, about 5 minutes. Fold 1/3 of the egg foam into the chocolate mixture with a large rubber spatula until just a few streaks of egg are still visible; fold in half of the remaining foam likewise. Fold the remaining foam into the batter until completely incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared spring-form and smooth the surface. Pour the boiling water into the roasting pan, about halfway up the side of the spring-form pan. Set the roasting pan on the oven rack. Bake until the cake has risen slightly, edges are just beginning to set, a thin glazed crust (like a brownie) has formed on the surface, and an instant read thermometer inserted halfway into the center of the cake registers 140 degrees, about 22-25 minutes.

Remove the spring-form pan from the water bath and set on a wire rack. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight to mellow. Cake can be kept covered and refrigerated up to 4 days.

About 30 minutes before serving, remove the spring-form pan sides, invert the cake on a sheet of waxed paper, peel off parchment pan liner, and turn cake right side up on a serving platter. Serve with crumbled chocolate meringue, confectioners sugar, cocoa, or crème anglaise.

Deep Breaths.

This is not like a casserole.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I'm choosy about tools - aka my kitchen accoutrements, as I like to think of them (I like the "warbly" feel of that word, accoutrement, no?). I don't know what it is, really, but I almost have to find them somehow attractive. What is that? Partly, I suppose, it's the design I might like - just the pure, utter, sculptural shape of something that is also useful. Other times, it might be the sound something makes - for example, I'm mesmerized by the sound of my Global knife against my well-worn, lovingly-slash-marked, gorgeously and personally distressed (but not emotionally) wooden cutting board (sidebar: when I walk by the cutting board, I sometimes unconsciously just run my hand over it and I catch Tony giving me that *you freak* look, so I just give him the *I know* look - I mean, I do know).

I love oddly shaped bowls (see eggplant dip bowl), perhaps because their more natural edge and shape reminds me of the more natural state of the food I'm starting with. I like wooden spoons that show their age, their scars, their chars - I love their different shapes and grains. I have little wooden trays that must be out with something upon them at all times (garlic or what not), just so t
hey have a reason to be out. My Mexican molcajete is just so appealing, that it too must be out at all times - though is seldom used, pobrecita. And don't even get me started on all my cooking tools that hang above the stove, gasp, waiting to be plucked from their stations - so they can use what their Mommas gave 'em. Oh my. (*I know*)

Sigh. Gaze off into yonder. Wistful smile. But really, I'd have to say that perhaps the darling of my kitchen - my petite coquette - is probably my set of little white measuring spoons. That's right. Look upon them now.

Aren't they adorable? Now, I know they are not a whoa-stop-me-in-my-tracks kind of thing. I get that. They used to live in one of my drawers; recently, I pulled them out and let them live on the counter - as you see them here, in their current existence. It changed everything. I am inspired by their new visibility - each day, I see them and think "what shall I make today? what needs to be measured? what could Tony and I make this weekend? just look at that little, enthralling still-life-with-spoons!" - ridiculous as it sounds, these freakin' spoons inspire me! And, they are high on the accoutrement food-chain too, let me tell you - they are almost never relegated to the dishwasher. These babies are hand washed, dried and placed back in their still-life as soon as possible. And the whole inspiration process begins again. Sitting just behind the spoons in position, literally and figuratively, is my milk-white-glass liquid measuring pitcher - about which I could also go on and on - it is so lusciously retro and modern all at the same time, and that duality - for me - harnesses power akin to nothing short of a Dyson vacuum. Man, I love that stinkin' little pitcher.

It's the little things, people. They all add up to the big thing, I suppose. Now, what is the big thing again?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Eggplant, Where Wert Thou?

Sometimes, a usually-ignored food will somehow meander its way into my grocery bag, wink-winking me toward all the appetizer recipes stuffed inside my quasi-organized recipe binder. I can rarely get excited about a main dish, for some odd reason - but find appetizers, side dishes, and desserts really quite enticing - perhaps they seem more flexible and feel like less commitment - two qualities I adore whenever they relates to tasks.

Main dish abhorrence aside, if you read my previous post (I'm not hinting) you know that I was wondering what to do with some very tasty ingredients. By the way, my husband, Tony, did read my previous post and was quite teary-eyed (from, ahem, laughing) over my "Story Developing" comment regarding the eggplant. Clearly, not everyone understands the bare-boned excitement that comes with a food combo unfolding before your very eyes. I felt like the Foodarazzi about to scoop a breaking, exclusive story with the most sought after eggplant-of-the-moment. Maybe not quite, but you know.

After some mucking around, I made a little something that tasted like a BIG something; and this will definitely be part of our regular rotation. Tony loved it, ahem. We inhaled it with veggies and tortilla chips. The recipe is a fusion of so many different things/dips I can't really source them - so I guess it's my own at this point. HOW did I NOT use eggplant before this?

Roasted Eggplant Dip

1.5 lbs. eggplant
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil, for bowl
1.5 T oil for saute
1 plum tomato (finely chopped, cored)
3 T red onion (or shallot)
2 T flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 t. red wine vinegar
2-3 fat garlic gloves, minced
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper

Pierce eggplant with a fork; put on foil on baking sheet. Place in 450 degree oven; cook for 45 minutes - 1 hour, until soft. Allow to cool; then, peel, stem, cut into chunks and puree.

Saute onion and 1.5 T oil for about 5 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent; lower heat and add garlic, being careful not to burn garlic (about 2-3 minutes).

Transfer eggplant puree to bowl. Add and stir in tomato, parsley, salt, pepper, vinegar, onion and garlic.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Goods

Shiny, purplish, plump eggplant - flaky garlic, shedding its skin, hinting its readiness - shallots reaching their little limbs through their netting...hmmm, what shall I do with this little trio?

Story developing.

We Didn't Call The Fire Department

I'm inevitably attracted to recipes with dichotomous reviews, but more on that later. Historically, I was resolute in my belief that nuts don't belong in desserts, period. I never met a nut whom I thought should co-mingle with a dessert - offered fudge or a brownie with nuts, I'd almost rather turn it down than be forced to navigate around the crunchy hardness in order to find its true essence - the creamy chocolateness. Hardly worth all the effort; well, and then - all the familiar existential gustatory wonderings and questions arise - why do people use nuts in sweets, what am I not getting here, am I missing some taste buds, what did my parents DO to me with nuts as a child anyway - must ask therapist about nuts. And well, all of that is hardly worth it, now is it?

Digressions aside, I was recently riveted watching Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, making her Pecan Squares. Can't say why really - something about them just looked --- utterly compelling and completely necessary for me to taste. The textures got under my skin as well - the smooth, buttery, blond crust - the rough, choppy, nubbly, nutty topping that is drowning in a darkly rich, carmelized, gooey looking mess - and if that doesn't have drool running down your chin, she then proceeds to dip half of each bar in chocolate ganache - the whole while chuckling to herself (and who wouldn't?). Saucy little minx. She got me, that one.

Anyhow, so I proceeded to Food Network to peruse the recipe and, of course, the reviews. And, wow, the reviews are *something*, all over the place I tell you. Most of the bad reviews are because of folks not following the recipe correctly - which of course - is clearly Ina's fault (*rolls eyes*). I mean, people reviewing the recipe are reporting fires in the oven, billowing clouds of smoke, alarms going off, spillage of toppings in their ovens, dough-not-holding-topping, calling the FIRE DEPARTMENT, and on and on.

But then, dichotomy....there were the 5-star reviews of the perfect recipe - from the
"I hate nuts with sweets, but this is insanely good" and "My nut-hating husband is starry eyed and gooey-shoed..." - well - I was off to the store. They were every thing I'd imagined, and we did not share them with any firefighters.

Pecan Squares
Adapted from Ina Garten


1 1/4 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 extra-large eggs

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pound unsalted butter

1/2 cup good honey

1/2 cup dark karo

3 cups light brown sugar, packed (last cup heaping)

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1/4 cup heavy cream

2 pounds pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For the crust, beat the butter and granulated sugar with an electric mixer, until light, approximately 3 minutes. Add the eggs and the vanilla and mix well. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix the dry ingredients into the batter with the mixer on low speed until just combined. Press the dough evenly into an ungreased 18 by 12 by 1-inch baking sheet, making an edge around the outside. Bake for 15 minutes, until the crust is set but not browned. Allow to cool.

For the topping, combine the butter, honey, brown sugar, and zest in a large saucepan. Cook over low heat until the butter is melted, stir occasionally. Raise the heat and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the heavy cream and pecans. Pour into the crust, trying not to crowd the edge. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Cut into bars and serve. Can dip in or drizzle with ganache prior to serving; highly recommended. Even more de-lish the next day. Freeze wonderfully.


4 ounces good semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon espresso powder (can omit)

I mostly followed the original recipe, but here are my tips:
  • Despite what the reviewers say, you can halve the recipe - use a 9 x 13 pan; if halved, you must use 1.5 eggs in the crust - tricky, but just halve one of the yokes and halve one of the whites - trust me, it can be done
  • Make as much of an edge as you can with the crust - flour your fingers, it is a very sticky dough; the edge will prevent filling from spilling over; you can also use the edge of a measuring cup to press the dough into the side of the pan as well
  • As a preventive measure, line baking rack (or extra baking tray) with foil to catch any errant spillage - so none reaches the floor of your oven (therefore, no "smoking"; therefore, no Fire Department)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Close Your Eyes

I really love eating anything that forces me to close my eyes. It's the litmus test for all the "saved bookmarks" of my palate - creating little ticklers, little flags that remind me of what to look for when perusing recipes, menus, food-zines et al. There are certain lid-dropping foods that snag me without any pause for air: sushi, chocolate, east African cuisine (yes, that's right). What is it, anyway, that can cause such rapturous delight - to the point of wanting to close one's eyes to relish in this moment, to let the moment *have you* in it's fullest capacity? I suppose we could look to science and discuss the release of endorphins and what not. But I don't find that particularly "relishing".

I just think when we allow one of our senses, in this case taste, to be completely enveloped, indulged, engaged, embraced - we are quite literally ushered into the very *moment*, via that sensory explosion - and are able to savor that tasty little moment, for just what it is. So, open your mouth and close your eyes.