S'more N'more

I'm sorry to tell you this. In about a week, I'm going into hibernation for the winter. I'll be back in the spring. Okay, so I might put up a squeaky clean post now and then, if I can keep it on the DL (send me a note if you want to be able to read posts)....we'll see...
Don't forget me! XOXO

S'mores Bars (a choose your own adventure recipe)

  • about 10 graham crackers, crushed (see my crushing opinion here)
  • 5 T butter, melted
  • 2 T brown sugar
  • pinch of salt

  • 3 cups marshmallows
  • 1.5 cups chocolate chips
  • a couple graham crackers, broken in pieces.

Brownie Layer (the choice is yours):
  • A.)*my choice.*TJ's Truffle Brownie mix + 1-2 oz melted chocolate + whatever butter/egg amount it requires on the box
  • B.)Your favorite brownie recipe
  • C.) Melt 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate with 3/4 cups butter in the microwave (about 1-2 minutes on high. Uses residual heat to finish the melting.) Stir in 2 cups of sugar and 1 tsp vanilla, then 3 eggs. Mix until well combined. Add a cup of flour.

Preheat oven to 350 °.

Grease a 13 x 9 pan. Mix crust ingredients together with a fork and press into prepared pan. Bake for about 5-7 minutes...until it smells yummy but not until it browns too much. Remove from oven.

Spread whichever brownie batter you've chosen over the crust. Return it to the oven. I can't tell you how for long because my oven is NUTS. I'd say check it after 20 minutes. It might take up to 30 or 35. Err on the side of gooey. Really, don't let it get all the way done. Remove it from the oven. Quickly sprinkle marshmallows, chocolate chips, and graham shards over the batter. Turn the oven up to broil and return the pan to the oven. Keep a close eye on it and remove it when the marshmallows look toasty, about 2-3 minutes.

Let cool, if you can bear it. It helps if you spray your knife with cooking spray before cutting.

Mocha Cigarettes Russes

I'm sitting here admiring the smear of peacock under my ankle, admiring how rapidly bruises fade. I got two emails this morning from friends who told me "things were getting better." In fact, this seems to be the sentiment of most conversations these days.

All the optimism seems appropriate for the start of a new year. I'm tempted to delve into reflection on how much has shifted in 12 months, but it would take too long. A year ago I was doing a traditional Rosh Hashanah cooking marathon. This year this is all I have stamina for.

I'd like to celebrate every calendar's new year because I'm hooked on having a chance to try again. I guess I also need more than a yearly kick in the butt to reassess. Besides, mid-winter doesn't feel like a good time to start anew (and the obligatory Jan. 1st headache doesn't help). Fall seems more logical as a time-gauge to me. The change of season is more dramatic: days suddenly get short, kids head off to school in a bicycle swarm, armed with freshly clicked mechanical pencils, apples drop in price, and I dig out a few sweaters (because I own only a few).

A year ago, the train tracks were lined with white and fuschia oleander bushes. We were ending a heat wave. This year we were also ending a heat wave, but the floral edging is now chain-link. Even though we said our goodbyes and I put the specter to rest, there still is a tinge of that feeling when I see the lack of flowers. It's like half-hollowness or heartbreak-by-proxy; like sadness not over what is missing, but what could have been; like a little hole bore in me as a marker. But it's gotten better. It's getting better. Pass the spackle.

What I love about the new year is the possibility for things to look up, and this year I think we have extra hope. (To be totally uncharacteristic,) I want to dedicate this post to all the babies coming into the world this year. I know of a few (here's one) and have a strong sense there are more that I haven't heard about yet. They have the ultimate fresh start. It may not be the best economy to be born in to, but I'm sure the buoyancy and love floating around this year will make up for the lack of dough. It really will get better and better.

Cigarette cookies are a type of tuile that is wrapped around a chopstick or pencil rather than draped over a larger diameter rod. They are often made with citrus or nut flavors and are sometimes filled. I decided against the delicate flavor for these ones. I wanted to make dark little tunnels with a light at the end, so I went mocha to get a deep tone. (They also might make good straws for your coffee or White Russian.) Don't be scared because of the nimbleness and grace required--I only possess one of these traits and I managed.

Mocha Cigarettes Russes
  • 3 egg whites (buy and handle wisely, folks)
  • 3/8 C flour
  • 1/8 C cocoa powder
  • 3/4 C powdered sugar
  • 1/3 C butter (5 1/3 T), melted
  • 1 1/2 tsp instant coffee powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cinnamon
  • 3 oz bittersweet chocolate
Preheat oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with a Silpat, parchment, or just butter.

Whisk egg whites until loosened. Stir in melted butter and instant coffee granules. In a separate bowl, sift flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, & cinnamon. Whisk the dries into the egg mixture until blended. Bake in batches of 4 at a time (grueling!) by dropping by even teaspoons 4 inches apart on the sheet. Spread each cookie out with an offset spatula until it is a 3 inch round. Bake for 6-8 minutes, until edges brown very slightly. Remove from the oven and, working quickly, use a flexible spatula (or your iron fingertips) to roll the cookies around a chopstick or other small dowel. Slip them off the dowel immediately and let cool on a rack. They'll hold their shape as they cool. If they get too brittle to work with, pop them back in the oven for a minute and try again.

Once cool, melt the chocolate. Dip the ends of the cookies in the melted chocolate and let cool on a piece of parchment. Store the cooled cookies in an airtight container, as they will soften with moisture in the air.

Key Lime Pie

Everything is bigger when you're smaller. I used to get so excited about the trip to my grandparents' house in Florida that I'd start counting down the days to our flight weeks in advance. The vacation meant a week of Raphael (in his rattail) and I (in a floral dress) lying on the astroturf of the sunroom, flicking the bellies of the sillouhetted lizards on the other side of the screen and trying to capture them in Dixie cups.
Because of the time difference I must have wandered around often at night. In the dark, my grandparents' house was a wonderland (yes, like Alice's). There was a white tile hallway that divided the white carpeted living room and dining room (I have no recollection of ever using either room) that turned into a virtual rope-bridge that I had to wobble across, one foot in front of the other. I remember staring at the grandfather clock, watching its gears like an ECG, believing that if it stopped ticking someone would die. This is why it is called a grandfather clock, obviously. Figurines in a glass case became actors in dramas that hushed when the sun came up. It took a hell of a lot of restraint not to run my fingers over the porcelain-dipped lace of their tutus. Perhaps the greatest fantasy was my grandpa's cupboard which was full to the top with glass jars of candy and Planter's cheese balls. Maybe it only existed when we visited, but it seemed like a truly heavenly and totally logical thing to have in a house. (*I actually had to check with Raphael to make sure I hadn't fabricated the whole thing.)
My grandpa also had an affinity for cream pie, though "cream" was an understatement. I think we got a new one every night (I'm sure this isn't true)--coconut cream, banana cream, lemon meringue, key lime--all too tall and unnaturally hued. Key lime was my favorite and hard to find in California. It was a once a year treat, just like our vacations used to be--something to anticipate. My memory of my grandparents is fuzzy but intertwined with the memory of key lime pie, which lasts.

I wanted to make something comforting--not "comfort food" necessarily--but something I always make. I've been very resistant to putting my key lime pie recipe up. It's not a family heirloom, nor is it any secret at all. I've probably rattled it off to scores of people already. But I've been making it so long and with all my little tweakings and superstitions that it's hard to put into words.

OK so this is how I do it: I like it tart so I add more key lime juice than most recipes call for. I use really good eggs, because after all, it is essentially a custard and the eggs are the most important component. Also, the eggs add richness to balance the acid of the lime. I don't have strong opinions on dying the pie, though when you use really good eggs it is hard to achieve that Doublemint gum shade. Sometimes the occasion calls for a green pie, sometimes it's wiser to go au naturel. You could buy a crust but it is sooooo much better to make your own. I like to do a two-part smashing of the crackers, first in a bag with a rolling pin or heavy pot then finishing it with my fingers. I like to have variation in texture of the crumbs, so I don't use a food processor. I also add some ginger cookies or sometimes chopped candied ginger. Just a little. I've also found that baking in a square pan and cutting into bars is better for occasions that aren't sit-down dinners.

Key Lime Pie

  • 1.5 C graham cracker crumbs from about 9 crackers. I like to throw in a few of those ginger thins they sell at IKEA
  • 5 T butter
  • 2 T brown sugar
  • few grains of sea salt

  • 4 good egg yolks
  • 14-oz can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 10 T key lime juice
  • grated lime zest

  • cream for whipping

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Mix the crumbs, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add in the melted butter and mix with a fork. Press the mixture into a lightly greased pie pan or 8x8 cake pan and bake for ~10 minutes until lightly brown. Remove from oven and place on a rack. Leave oven on.

Meanwhile, whisk the yolks and the sweetened condensed milk in a bowl until well combined. Slowly add in the juice and zest and whisk until combined. The mixture should thicken slightly. Pour the filling into the crust and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and cool completely on a rack. The custard will set as it cools. Once room temperature, chill completely in the fridge for several hours.

Serve with whipped cream.

Darkness! Black Forest Dacquoise

Darkness: the 9th plague on Egypt and the final plague I'll do here. Darkness is the most intriguing plague to me. While the others are visible and tangible, running from irritating to fatal, darkness is abstract. However, Exodus describes it as a "darkness that can be felt." After logging so many hours in the pitch-black closet of the color darkroom, "feeling" darkness makes perfect sense to me. While I've grown fond of spending entire days swathed in darkness and the way it quiets my mind while I fall into the rhythm of making a photograph, I completely understand the terror it can provoke. Your brain starts to do funny things: you lose perception of time and space, you can't tell if your eyes are open, you see what isn't there. In fact your senses get switched up, your ears become fierce and your fingers grow eyeballs. It hugs you, it crushes you. Sometimes it feels like you're being watched, sometimes panic arises suddenly.
I've seen this watching some of my students go from the already disorienting B&W darkroom, protected by a dim red light, into the completely dark film loading rooms for the first time. All of the sudden you cannot control your fingers, simple tasks become impossible (The trick is to take deep breaths). Occasionally, I'd have to go in to rescue someone and I would take the developing reel from trembling hands. Sometimes just having someone standing nearby is enough to ease the pressure of the dark. The darkroom is comforting to me now, but I've had my share of cold-sweat moments. Besides being black and blue from misjudging distance, I've accidentally discovered that I'd flooded the floor or cut myself and then turned the light on to find more blood splattered than expected. The thing with the darkroom is that if the dread becomes unbearable, you can shove your work into the safe-box and hit the light switch. Not the case with alleys and empty parking lots, power outages and spaces filled with coyote howls .

I could have done a flourless mocha cake, chocolate fudge, or pudding for this plague, but to me darkness is not so much dense and rich as it is layered and smothering. Chocolate seemed an obvious choice for darkness, as did something with a dark name. So I riffed off of the flavors of Black Forest Cake (like my favorite Cherry Garcia!): dark chocolate(dark) and cherries (also dark) and Kirsch (clear, but powerful). To circumvent using flour, I made a dacquoise , which is a layered meringue, usually with nuts, filled with whipped cream or buttercream and fruit. I went to the Black Forest 26 years ago (I hear I was much cuter back then) and remember nothing other than thinking that the name sounded like the setting of the shadowy part of a fairy tale. Actually that memory itself is pretty murky.

Black Forest Dacquoise

Meringue Layers:
  • 4 egg whites (separate cold, warm to room temp.)
  • pinch of salt
  • 10-11 T sugar, divided
  • 1/2 C powdered sugar (or food-processed granulated sugar)
  • 1/4 C unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 6oz bittersweet chocolate for melting

Cherry Filling:
  • 2 lbs canned, frozen or jarred pitted sour (or not too sweet) cherries, 1/2 C juice reserved. (Trader Joe's carries jarred Dark Morello Cherries from Germany that are quite gorgeous)
  • 3/4 C sugar
  • 4 T cornstarch/potato starch
  • dash of lemon juice (optional)
  • 2-4 T Kirsch

Kirsch Whipped Cream:
  • 2 C whipping cream
  • 4 T powdered or granulated sugar
  • drop of vanilla
  • 2-4 T Kirsch

For the meringue:
Position racks in the upper and lower third of the oven and preheat to 300°F. On 2 pieces of parchment paper, draw three (two on one piece of parchment and one on the other) rectangles (6x8"), squares (7x7") or circles (8"). Flip the papers over so you can see the markings through them. Place them onto two cookie sheets.
Sift the powdered sugar, 3 T granulated sugar, and cocoa powder into a small bowl. In a large, clean, metal bowl, beat egg whites and salt until foamy. Add the remaining 6 1/2 T sugar, one T at a time until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks. Gently fold in the cocoa mixture. Spread the meringue evenly into your 3 shapes. Bake about 1-2 hours or until dry. I'd let 'em cool in the turned-off oven for awhile.
Melt the chocolate and drizzle/spread over the cooled meringues. Let harden.

For the Cherry Filling:
Combine 1/2 C reserved juice, lemon juice, sugar and corn/potato starch in a saucepan over moderately low heat. Stir until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the cherries and Kirsch. Chill in the fridge. Can be made a day before and kept in the fridge.
Kirsch Whipped Cream and Assembly:

When ready to assemble, beat the cold cream until a little foamy, add in the sugar to taste, vanilla and Kirsch. Whip till stiff.
Place one meringue layer on a serving plate, gently top with 1/3 of the whipped cream, then with 1/2 the cherry filling. Repeat with the next layer. Top with the third layer and whipped cream. You can shave some chocolate or drizzle a few cherries on top for looks, too.

Locusts! Mini Frozen Grasshopper Pies

Around my Sea-Of-Red Lettuce and arugula bed is a fearsomely sharp barricade of wooden kabob skewers to deter a certain four-legged creature from demolishing my pint-sized garden. (This certain quadruped spends 95% of her time in bed and 5% wreaking havoc. It's the sweet life.) My greens have fared pretty well, but the Gerber daisy I got for Valentine's day has not been so lucky. I'd been happy to be given a potted plant, since, to me, the imminent wilting of a bouquet taints any romance with foreboding. After surviving a hasty transplanting and a couple of storms, I found it riddled with insect holes. Besides being a little upset by the symbolism, I was not devastated from losing one daisy. For every thing, there is a season, I guess. I started drifting down memory lane, reminiscing about the plants I've lost and the ones that hurt the most. Certainly, the more I had been looking forward to the fruit--the two or three cucumbers a potted patio plant can bear--the more crushed I was. Shaking the dirt off the roots of the droopy green lace that was once my daisy, I caught myself fantasizing about what it would be like to have the acreage to grow a garden that, when ravished by bugs, would be heartbreaking.

Locusts, the 8th plague on Egypt, descended as a cloud and devoured what was left (after the previous 7 plagues) of any living plant before you could even see what was happening. Certainly a terrifying image--and one that is still relevant, as foreign pests can wreck a crop. Little things, en masse, do some serious damage.
Little grasshopper pies hopefully do less damage. A Southern dessert via a cocktail, popular in the 1950s-60s, Grasshopper Pie is traditionally a chiffon pie flavored with crème de menthe and set in a chocolate crumb crust. Probably a more apt coda to chicken and dumplings than matzo ball soup. Oh well.
Chiffon pies generally use gelatin or cornstarch, both of which I avoided by making a custard ice-cream. I replaced the cookie crust with a kosher -for-passover shell adapted Fannie Farmer's very old recipe "chocolate coconut crust for frozen desserts" adding ground nuts to the coconut.
I went a little overboard on the crème de menthe, which I don't recommend doing because each tablespoon lowers the freezing point of the ice cream. Keep in mind that mint leaves may vary in strength so I do recommend tasting a little of the mixture as you add the liqueur so that you don't cross the threshold into Aquafresh.

Mini Frozen Grasshopper Pies
Grasshopper Ice Cream
  • 1 C milk
  • 1/2 C sugar, divided
  • 2 C cream
  • 4-5 egg yolks (apparently counting is not my strength)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 C packed fresh mint leaves
  • 3-6 T crème de menthe (I added a little choco-mint schnapps)
Chocolate Crust
  • 1 C angel flake coconut
  • 3/4 c blanched almonds toasted
  • 2 T matzo cake meal or flour
  • 1 C powdered sugar (or granulated sugar that's been pulsed in the food processor)
  • 3 T hot water
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • melted chocolate for drizzling
For the ice cream:
Place the mint leaves in a large bowl or jug. Whisk the yolks and half the sugar in a bowl. Heat the milk and other half of sugar in a heavy pot until almost boiling and sugar is dissolved. In a slow, steady, stream, pour the milk into the eggs, whisking continuously. Pour back into the pot and cook over moderately low heat, stirring often, until the mixture reaches 170 ° or coats the back a spoon. Pour the hot mixture over the mint leaves. Press a piece of wax paper or plastic wrap over the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature then chill in the fridge. Once cold, strain though a fine sieve. Stir in cream and salt. Slowly add the crème de menthe one tablespoon at a time, until desired mintiness. Transfer to an ice cream maker or still freeze. Place in a container and finish freezing in the freezer.

For the crusts:
Grind the nuts in a food processor until about the size of cookie crumbs. If your coconut has large flakes, process it too. Add the matzo cake meal, salt, and coconut (if you haven't yet) to the nuts and pulse a few times to mix. In another bowl, whisk the sugar with the water. Melt the chocolate and butter together, then add to the sugar-water. Stir in the nut mixture. Press into greased mini-mufffin tins (or regular muffin tins, or pie plate). Chill in the freezer for a couple hours.

To assemble:
If you want, remove the crusts from the tin by running a knife dipped in hot water around the sides of each crust. Spoon some ice cream into each crust and top with melted or shaved chocolate. You can re-freeze them or serve right away.

Dyed Eggs, Huevos Haminados II

Here are some pictures of the onion-skin eggs we made for the Passover seder. They came out so pretty I thought I'd share. I created the pattern by pressing a leaf (cilantro, greens) against the egg and tying the egg in a nylon stocking before slow-cooking them in onion skins (the recipe for Huevos Haminados is here). The stocking made an interesting pattern, too.

Wild Beasts! Marzipan and Chocolate Wild Beasts

In 1993, Palo Alto Animal Services received a phone call in which an anonymous person reported a missing pet: a huge, fast, aggressive and highly venomous Black Mamba snake. Basically, unless you carry antivenom in your lunchbox, there's about a 100% chance a bite will kill you. Clearly, black mambas are not cuddly pets. The phone tree went into immediate effect, calling to warn parents to drive their children to school rather than let them walk. Some schools even roped off areas. Since I knew that black mambas have a particular affinity for little girls, I was terrified. I remember being in the backseat of the carpool Volvo, peering into every bush we passed, expecting a giant snake to lurch out (like this). I think we were on lockdown the rest of the afternoon but eventually the scare faded when people realized that a) black mambas wouldn't survive long without a climate like Kenya's, b) it's pretty hard to obtain and keep a pet black mamba in the US, and c) the whole thing was probably a hoax. Someone made "I survived the Black Mamba" t-shirts. It ended up being a joke for anyone that remembers it. Nonetheless, the idea that dangerous animals would "invade" our suburbia can be unnerving.
Slightly less of a joke, because much more real than the mamba, are the mountain lions that sometimes take a short jaunt down from the hills to visit our backyards. I think usually they are just checking out the real estate values (they seem to prefer Atherton, wouldn't you?) but now and then they attack someone. In 2004, when the police shot a skinny mountain lion that was hiding out in a residential tree there was quite an uproar. Judging from the comments in the paper every time there's a sighting reported, having to share property with wild animals captivates our imagination and kindles our fears: "Are the mountain lions on our turf or are we on theirs? Are they trying to tell us something? One ate a goat--is that a sign? Have they newly developed a taste for human flesh? Or have they liked eating us all along? Do they like eating us better when we are shrink-wrapped in spandex biking gear?"
Wild beasts are the 4th plague on Egypt and the idea of wild animal mauling is still alarming...unless the animals are made of marzipan.

Marzipan is a traditional Passover confection in some parts of the world. You can buy it, of course, but it's simple to make at home. It is one of my absolute favorite treats and unlike the meringue in my earlier post, it is easy to model. If you're not like me and aren't equipped with a hedgehog cookie cutter (how did I end up the kind of person who has a hedgehog cookie cutter?) you can shape marzipan any way you like with your hands.
I originally tried painting my wild beasts...

but didn't like where that was going, so covered them in chocolate instead (could that have been the solution for all my failed art?) rrrRRROOOoooaaarr!

Marzipan Wild Beasts

  • 200 g blanched almonds (first healthcare, then weights & measures?!)
  • 175 g powdered sugar (FYI some powdered sugar has cornstarch. If that's an issue for you, you can process some granulated sugar in the food processor until fine.)
  • 1 egg white
  • few drops of almond extract
  • pinch of salt

Grind the almonds in a food processor until very very fine, stirring now and then to make sure it's even.

Add in the sugar and process. Then add in the egg white, extract, and salt and pulse until a lump of dough forms. Sprinkle a work surface with powdered sugar and knead the marzipan for a minute or so until smooth and easy to work with. Either roll out into a sheet about 1/2-1 cm thick and cut with cookie cutters or a knife, or model by hand. Let dry out for an hour before painting, icing or dipping in chocolate. Then keep in a covered container.

Blood! Blood Orange Salad on Bitter Greens

Continuing with my plague-inspired entries:
Blood is the first plague on Egypt. All the water turned to blood, killing the fish and making for some lousy tasting drip coffee. It would have been easy for me to go whimsical with this one (if you'd been to my apartment in Irvine, you might have seen a jar of homemade fake blood in the fridge) but I forced myself to do a straight recipe instead. The only "blood" here comes from the blood orange. I adapted this recipe from the Andalusian orange salad in Diana Henry's lovely "Crazy Water Pickled Lemons." It makes a great Passover salad because you get a bed of maror, or bitter herbs, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, topped with oranges, dried fruit, nuts and sweet wine--echoing the Passover condiment, haroset, which represents the mortar used by the slaves to build. The sweet and pungent flavors compliment each other on the Seder plate and otherwise, as do the colors of the greens and the blood orange.
Blood Orange Salad on Bitter Greens

  • 5 blood oranges (regular oranges are OK too), peeled and sliced horizontally
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely sliced
  • 1/3 C raisins, currants, golden raisins, barberries, etc.
  • 1/4 C sherry. This time I used California madeira, marsala would work, Manischewitz would be great!
  • 1 T wine vinegar
  • Bunch of greens: In the past I've used arugula, watercress, or endive. This time I used mache, which is not as strongly flavored (but is also called "lamb's lettuce," which I felt was fitting)
  • bunch of mint (optional)
  • slivered, toasted almonds, for sprinkling.

  • 1 T wine vinegar (TJs used to carry a pomegranate vinegar which was perfect)
  • 3 T olive oil or walnut oil
  • reserved sherry from plumping raisins
  • 1/2 tsp honey
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the raisins 1/4 sherry and 1 T vinegar in a small saucepan until boiling. Remove from heat and let the raisins plump for about 15 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.
Pour most the reserved liquid over the sliced onions and let them sit. This will remove some of their bite.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together, adding about a spoonful of what's left of the reserved cooking liquid.
Arrange the greens and mint (if using) on plates. Add the orange slices and onion slices, then top with raisins and almonds. Drizzle with the dressing.

Frogs! Swiss Meringue Frogs

If I'm trapped in this house when the Big One strikes, I'll be surviving off the boxes of unused matzoh meal, potato starch and Passover cake mix from years past. Yes, it's that time again. Time for stocking up on more kosher-for-Passover products than you can use (because if you wait until the last minute, the shelves will be empty [from everyone else stocking up on more than they can use{because if they wait the shelves will be empty}]). It's also time for spring cleaning and celebrating the end of the cold, dark, months. The trees are exploding into little white flowers and I'm remembering my little skirts (OK it's California so they were never forgotten). Passover is a spring holiday and one of my favorites. Even more so than Rosh Hashanah, it's filled with very symbolic food. In addition, there is the restriction of not eating chametz, leavened products, the definition of which varies and can include most grains, legumes, and corn/syrup/starch. For many cooks, myself included, this limit presents an exciting challenge. I'm not one to try to fake a cake with matzoh meal. Just like tofu cheese, it will never taste like the real thing. I'd rather avoid matzoh altogether, just like matzoh would rather me avoid the bathroom.

I might get to the tears, bitterness, and freedom on this blog eventually, but first I'd like to attempt a couple of plague inspired treats, in no particular order (I know, I know, it's all about order. Sorry). I can't make any promises because I'm so busy that attempting an omelette for dinner is a rare thing these days--so don't hold your breath for "death of the first born" fashioned in spun sugar. However, I'm taking a class right now that is sculpturally inspiring/sculpturally humbling, so I thought I'd take a stab at making a few things during a study break.

Frogs. Perhaps the funniest of the 10 plagues to me. (Are plagues funny? Frogs on your bed! Take that!) Here I made them out of Swiss meringue, which according to Martha Stewart, is an "intermediate-level meringue", up from the beginner's French. Can I have my yellow belt now? Basically, you cook the egg whites and sugar over simmering water before beating into shiny, stiff peaks. It is more stable, especially if you add a little meringue powder along with the fresh eggs. As always with meringue, use a clean metal bowl and clean mixers, since the smallest trace of fat will affect volume. Separate cold eggs and allow the whites to come to room temperature before beating. It's best if the air is dry. If you are not feeling artistically inclined, you can easily make boils instead of frogs. Just switch the food coloring to red and form lumps. I might even top them with a little white chocolate pus. :)

Meringue Frogs
* FYI: meringue powder and food coloring can sometimes contain cornstarch.
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 T meringue powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • few drops of green food coloring
Preheat the oven to 175-200 °F. Line baking sheets with parchment.
Whisk the whites, sugar, and meringue powder together in a clean metal bowl. Continue whisking with the bowl placed over gently simmering water until the sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and then beat with the electric mixer, starting on slow and moving up to high speed, until stiff, glossy peaks form. This will take about 10 minutes. Stir in vanilla and food coloring. Gently transfer some of the
meringue to a pastry bag, careful not to deflate it. Using two spoons, make a lump of meringue on the baking sheet for the body, then another smaller lump for the head. Pipe the legs and any other details you'd like. I kind of pushed things around gently until they looked as good as they could, given that meringue isn't Play-Doh. Work as quickly as you can, because the frogs will start to droop. Bake until dry, for about 1 hr to 1.5 hrs depending on the size. Turn off the oven and let cool in the oven. You can crack the door after a little while, if you like.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Thumbprints

Lately I've been waking up thinking I'm not in my own room, but in Hollywood instead... In a small bed with pilled madras sheets, birds singing against the unabating whisper that comes from being wedged between Santa Monica Blvd. and Sunset, the stifling smell of the neighbor's guava trees, and the sunlight flooding like a sustained Polaroid flash, throwing a glare on the hardwood to make you wish for lead goggles.
It's odd that I'd be confused, since the dark 6 AM quiet that I wake up in now bears no resemblance. Maybe I'm craving those lazy Hollywood mornings when I was hiding out from the street-cleaning meter maids, killing hours making breakfast and reading the Economist alone in someone else's kitchen. Or maybe I'm craving the companionship that allowed me to wake up in someone else's apartment. However, now in my own bed, I can make a snow angel (eye-mask still on). It's a relief to brush my arm over the smooth, cool sheets on the other side of my bed, immaculate since no one dragged wrinkles through them rolling out on the way to work. I didn't think much of it at the time, but those Indian sheets slightly scratching my skin developed into a mildly irritating compromise. Now, when I've shaken off the disorientation of sleep, I appreciate what a comfort it is to sleep on a pillow I picked for myself.

I have never made peanut butter cookies for myself. I make them all the time. I'm pretty fond of cookies, PB are just not my favorite (it works out: I'm not tempted to eat the whole batch before they make it to their destination). But my peanut butter cookies were someone else's favorite--so much that I'd ship them as a forget-me-not. There's something nice about making a thing for someone else, even when the recipient isn't there. There's something warm about the routine of it and where your mind goes when you're creaming the butter, rolling in sugar, dropping by rounded spoonful. Especially these days where most things I do are for me, there's a tenderness in creating something with the spirit of a gift.
As I was walking with a tupperware full of my last batch of these, a woman in her parked car rolled down her window to ask what I'd made. Turns out peanut butter chocolate are her favorite but she "doesn't know anyone who makes them anymore". Hopefully, a couple cookies from a passerby improved her evening.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Thumbprints
adapted from Rose's Christmas Cookies:"Peanut Butter and Jelly Jewels"

I've been making this recipe for 7 or 8 years. There could be a better one but it doesn't feel right to switch. It makes a sandy cookie rather than a chewy one and is good even without the chocolate.

  • 1 C flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • shake of nutmeg
  • double shake of cinnamon
  • 1/2 C light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 C granulated sugar
  • 1/2 C unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 C peanut butter (I really like chunky. Natural doesn't work very well)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • sugar and cinnamon for rolling

  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips (milk chocolate or bittersweet works too)
  • 6 T butter, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 ° F and place oven racks in top and bottom third.

Sift flour, salt, baking soda, and spices together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Mix sugars together. Beat sugars with butter until lightened. Beat in peanut butter until creamy. Add in egg and vanilla and beat until just incorporated. Switch to a spoon if you were using an electric beater and slowly mix in the dry mixture to the PB one, until just incorporated. Refrigerate the dough at least an hour (and up to overnight).

Place some granulated sugar and a little cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Remove dough from fridge. Scoop dough by rounded teaspoonful and roll through the sugar. Place balls 1.5 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Using your finger, or the end of a wooden spoon, make a deep well in the center of each ball.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating oven racks halfway. Cool on sheets for a couple minutes then transfer to cooling racks to cool completely. You can deepen the wells while the cookies are still warm.

For the Filling:

Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler, stirring constantly until it is smooth (since I'm neurotic about burning chocolate, I remove it from the heat before it is completely melted and use the residual heat to finish). Let it cool very slightly, then whisk in the softened butter until just mixed in. Use a pastry bag and tip, a cut-off Ziploc, or a spoon to fill the centers of the cookies. Allow the filled cookies to set until firm.

Chocolate Pecan Whiskey Balls

Because it's fun to say.
(I don't see these very often. Am I going to the wrong parties?)

  • 1 C combination (to your preference)semi-sweet chocolate chips and bittersweet/unsweetened chocolate pieces
  • 1 C powdered sugar, divided
  • 3 T light corn syrup
  • 1/2 + C bourbon whiskey
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • pinch salt
  • 2 1/2 C finely crushed Nilla wafers
  • 1 C pecans, toasted and finely chopped
  • 1 T cocoa powder

Mix crumbs and nuts in a large bowl and set aside. In a double boiler (or just carefully) melt the chocolate until smooth and shiny. Whisk in 1/2 C powdered sugar, corn syrup and salt. Remove from heat and add bourbon and vanilla. Pour the chocolate mixture over the cookie/nut mixture and stir to combine. Let sit for about 10 minutes so everything can absorb. Mix the remaining 1/2 C powdered sugar and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Form ~1 inch balls of the chocolate/cookie mixture and roll them in the sugar to coat. Chill in an airtight container in the fridge at least overnight and up to a week.

Red Hot Chocolate Ice Cream

Two things override my indifference to Valentine's Day: 1)the license to wear pink and red in the same outfit and 2) the chalky candy/singing toys that go 50 % off on the 15th. Otherwise, I tend to feel that it's a holiday that promotes unnecessary consumerism, equating human interaction with material objects, and one that fosters unmeetable expectations. (Despite my criticisms, I certainly have amassed a bunch of heart-shaped bakeware...I guess love for kitsch conquers all.) A fabulous thing about tossing out expectations is that everything is a pleasant surprise. I was looking forward to something different this year, like a date with Jack Daniels or maybe a quiet evening at home with Charles Shaw (we're going steady) but I got neither. I did get two dozen red roses, though, for the first time in my life (not counting the rose left on my desk by a high-tech-low-talk [or perhaps non-English speaking] secret admirer on Valentine's 2006). The bouquet was tucked into my grocery bag by the checker at Trader Joe's as I was grabbing a last-minute red and a chevre log. Perhaps it was as a reward for bringing my own bags? Or because of the dearth of XX-chromosomed-ones in the Silicon Valley? Or simply as an effective marketing ploy (how do I love thee, T. Joe? Let me count the ways....)? I'm totally baffled and totally smug. Roses are not my favorite flower-- and actually smell a little funereal to me-- but this bouquet certainly adds dramatic effect to the table... and I'm finding humor in the impersonality of such a cliched $grandiose$ gesture. (*I have to add that I also did actually get a real gift of flowers&chocolate and spent two evenings in great company.)
So after all this rambling and parentheses-ing, here is my "traditional" slightly punny and very smooth Valentine's Day ice cream flavor: Red Hot Chocolate-- spicy, chocolatey, bad romance-y. It's reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate and the heat and crunch of the candy contrasts nicely with the cool, dark ice cream. I've tried many kinds of chocolate bases-- bittersweet, hedonistic custardy- rich, sweet and milky-- and I've found this scoopable and creamy Philidelphia-style type to be the best suited to being studded with anti-classy candy.

My Red Hot Chocolate Ice Cream

  • 1/3 C cocoa powder
  • 1 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/2 C sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 1/2 C whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 C heavy whipping cream
  • pinch salt
  • shake cinnamon
  • generous 1/2 C Red Hots or cinnamon hearts

In a heavy saucepan, bring cocoa powder, chocolate, sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and regular milk to a boil. Simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring CONSTANTLY. Remove from heat and place pot in cold water to cool it fast. Stir in salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Chill completely then stir in chilled cream. Strain into an ice-cream machine or still freeze. During the last couple minutes, add in the Red Hots. Transfer to a container and freeze completely in the freezer.

Pecan-Oat Lacies with Orange

"Miss Arielle, which Puffle are you?" G. asks, pointing to a chart of character personalities in a book which is based on a video game which is based on penguins. "You're the Yellow Puffle," he says, hardly pausing. "You're just like me."
I can't say I'm flattered, since 9 year old G. will soon be an orthodontist's fantasy and his white polo is daubed with a rainbow of every McDonald's sauce. (I'm trying to decide if he was hired by the Clorox test lab or if he is just a blossoming Jackson Pollock.) However, I am touched and a little surprised that G. feels that he knows me. Kids are perceptive and I started wondering if I might really be the Yellow Puffle and just hadn't realized it before. Maybe this 4th grader sees what I can't.
After what seems like many years of hurtling forward like a horse with blinders, I'm finally getting a chance to pause and assess what's been left in the wake. Unfortunately, this means some serious pride-swallowing and Etch-A-Sketch shaking.
Last week I watched G. stand in the parking lot, one hand on his hip, the other pinching a chunk of sidewalk chalk, as he leaned back and squinted through smeared glasses to evaluate his large scribble. I felt tempted to advise him to focus on long division and keeping his shoes tied instead. Appalled at how jaded I've become, I wish I could channel his 4th grade freshness to blow life into new fantasies....so, to make room for some, I've been gritting my teeth and sifting through the jar of dreams to scrap all the ones that have settled on the bottom, in crumbs.

These are some fragile, crumble-prone cookies. They break. It happens. The shards taste as good as the survivors. They are also extremely simple for looking so elegant.

Pecan-Oat Lacies with Orange

  • 1/2 C unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 C firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2-3 T flour
  • 2 T milk
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3/4 C old-fashioned oats
  • 1/2 C chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp grated orange zest

Preheat oven to 350°.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the flour, milk, salt, and vanilla. Stir in the oats, nuts, and orange zest. Drop by round teaspoons onto ungreased baking sheets, LEAVING 3 INCHES between them--THEY SPREAD. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until bubbly and lightly brown. Let them cool on the sheet for about a minute until they are hardened enough to move. Using a metal spatula, transfer the cookies to rack to cool completely.

Epiphany 2010: Galette Des Rois

Yesterday I was coerced into playing jump rope. I had the horrifying realization that I don't remember how to "jump in." It's no fun to be reminded how time turns teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around into a rhyme for putting this teddy bear into a noose.

I'm not crazy about celebrating my birthday and luckily I have another holiday as a buffer.

If you were born on January 6th, the calendar might say "Epiphany" on your birthday. It might also say "King's Day" or "Twelfth Day" (of Christmas). You'd be a Capricorn, which might make it hard for you to distinguish between work and play. It might also make it hard for you to relinquish control of your puff pastry to the makers of the frozen variety (even if you know they sometimes do it better, or at least, do it consistently). So, unless it's your birthday and the idea of spending a day disciplining butter sounds like a celebration, go ahead and buy a box or two of the frozen stuff for this recipe.
King's Day celebrates the day when the three kings finally arrived to the baby Jesus, bearing gifts. (I wouldn't mind frankincense, myrrh and gold {hint hint} but this year I got myself Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads, rolling pin rings, and a garter belt.) This birthday year I'm hoping for the "epiphany" and expecting the Mardi Gras.

My students have been raving about what they do on my birthday, a.k.a Dia De Los Tres Reyes Magos, namely eat Rosca de Reyes and tamales. The Rosca is an enriched bread topped with candied fruit and concealing a plastic baby Jesus. Mexico and Spain both make this kind of cake. New Orleans eats a similar thing, often filled then iced in Mardi Gras colors. Greece buries a coin in an orange-scented pound cake calledVasilopita, and France+neighbors hide a bean or fancy "feve" in a Galette des Rois. There are varying traditions and games regarding who gets the hidden treasure. I was feeling inspired by the idea of the whole world eating cake on my birthday, but having a hard time deciding which version to make. The French kind seems like a good place to start, since that's how I grew up. The traditional filling is a frangipane cream. I topped it with a pear. I used a whole Brazil nut as my "feve," since the idea of having to explain why you were choking on a Donald Duck figurine to an EMT seemed too embarrassing.

Galette Des Rois

Rough Puff Pastry:
  • 1 C butter (2 sticks), frozen
  • 1 1/3 C all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 bread flour (or use all-purpose)
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • <1/2>

  • 4 T butter, softened
  • 1/3 C powdered sugar
  • 1/2 C ground blanched almonds
  • 2 T flour
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 egg, room temperature
  • pinch of salt

  • one pear, sliced
  • 1 T butter

Egg Wash
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T milk
  • powdered sugar for dusting

For the pastry:
1. Mix the flours, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Coarsely grate the frozen butter over the dry mix. A grater disc of the food processor makes light work of this. Gently toss the flour over the butter to coat. Sprinkle ice water over then mix gently with a fork. You should be able to squeeze a handful without it crumbling apart. If it's too dry add another spoon of water. Don't overwork it.

2. Dump the mixture out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface and divide into 5 portions. With the heel of your hand, smoosh each portion forward a couple times to flatten the butter. Then scrape them all together and flatten into a 6-7 " square. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for an hour.

3. Working on a floured surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle of about 21 x7". With the short end facing you, fold into thirds like a letter: top third down and bottom third up over dough, brushing off excess flour as you fold. Rewrap and chill for 30 minutes.

4. Remove dough and place it on your work surface so the 3-layered edge is facing you. Roll out again into a 21x7" rectangle and fold into thirds again. Rewrap and chill for another 30 minutes.
5. Repeat the rolling, folding, chilling 3 more times. The last couple times, brush the surface of the dough with ice-water as you fold. This creates steam that will help with the "puff" when you bake it. (This technique is from Shirley Corriher's BakeWise.) After the last folding, chill for at least an hour.

For the Filling:

1. In a food processor, blend the butter, sugar and salt until smooth. Add in the ground nuts and blend. Add in the egg and extracts and pulse until incorporated. (Filling can chill in the fridge for a few days, if needed.)

2. Heat 1 T of butter in a pan. Lay in pears and cook, flipping once, until starting to brown. Remove from heat.


1. Divide the chilled dough into half, reserving the half you are not working with in the fridge. Roll out each half into a 12" square, transferring each to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Then cut out a 11" circle from each half. On one of the circles, score (not cut) a 9" circle (basically, use a knife to draw a border 1-2" in from edge). Cut out a 1/2" hole in the center of this circle, for a steam vent. If you like, score curved lines radiating out from the vent to the scored border. Chill both circles in the fridge for 30 minutes or freezer for 10.

2. Preheat the oven to 450.° Place one rack on the lowest shelf and one in the upper third.

3. Gently beat the egg with the milk to make the egg wash.

4. On the un-scored circle, brush the egg wash as a border on the outer 1" edge of the circle. Then spoon the almond filling in the center, spreading to 1 1/2 inches from the edge. Hide your bean, nut, baby Jesus, or feve somewhere in the filling. Arrange the pear layers on top of the almond filling. Lay the scored circle, scored side up, on the filling and press the edges of the two circles together to seal. Seal it good. Crimp or notch the edges. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

5. Bake on the lowest shelf for 15-20 minutes. Then transfer to the upper shelf and bake for another 10-20 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool a little, and serve warm. (The assembled but unbaked galette can be kept in the fridge overnight.)

Roasted Parsnips and Quince with Orange and Balsamic

Parsnips and quince seem like such perfect companions; I wish I'd thought of this earlier. Both are a little sweet, a little earthy, a little wintery, and rosy-creamy colored. Quince, like apple, turns caramely when roasted. Unlike apple, it holds its firm texture, making it a cinch to include with slower-cooking root vegetables.
I love how simple and flexible roasted vegetables are. I find it a great solution to the straggling carrots, onions, potatoes, etc. that would otherwise die, withered and lonesome, in my vegetable drawer. Here, the orange juice/zest adds a spark of brightness and the balsamic lends some depth. Both play up the roasted sweetness of the vegetables. I've left this recipe open-ended, since you can throw in whatever you have on hand.

Roasted Parsnips and Quince with Orange and Balsamic

All measurements are approximate.

  • 1 lb parsnips, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
  • 1/2 lb carrots,peeled and cut into 1" pieces
  • 1-2 quince, cored peeled and cut into 1" pieces
  • 1 red onion, quartered
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 C olive oil
  • 1/8- 1/4 C orange juice
  • zest of a half lemon
  • 2 T balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Toss everything together in a bowl and then roast on a lined baking tray in a preheated 400° oven until tender. Or cook by layering under a roast or chicken.