Blueberry Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

I have a 2 year old! Saturday’s weather was sunny and warm, perfect for Levi’s birthday BBQ at the park. He ran around, he played with sticks in the dirt, he colored on butcher paper with crayons, he blew bubbles, and he devoured chips and salsa, a grilled sausage (bockwurst is his personal favorite) on a sesame challah roll with arugula and sweet mustard, baked beans (his Uncle Lars’s contribution to the party – thank you!), potato salad with spring vegetables and mustard vinaigrette, and of course, his special birthday cupcake. Like most 2 year olds I know, Levi can really power through the blueberries; they are his favorite snack, so I knew that blueberry cupcakes were in order for his birthday celebration.

I came across a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for peach cupcakes with a brown sugar-cream cheese frosting. I simply swapped the peaches for blueberries and had the blueberry cupcake I was envisioning. The brown sugar in the frosting really sets it apart from regular cream cheese frosting. I know that Levi approved when I saw the look on his face when he licked the beater 🙂

I topped the cupcakes with a mint leaf (our plant in the backyard is flourishing!) and, of course, a blueberry. Then I packed them into  my handy new 36-cupcake carrier, where they arrived at the park in perfect shape, ready to be devoured and washed down (by the adults) with some Pale Ale and Amber Ale from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

See that ice in the bottom tray of my cupcake carrier? When I read that the mercury was going to hit the 80s on the day of Levi’s party (what a relief, since last year the cake time at his 1st birthday party was cut short due to drizzle!), I filled some of the cups in the bottom tray with water and stuck it in the freezer (a tip that I read in one of the Amazon reviews). It seemed to help because despite the heat, the frosting didn’t melt! Of course, I kept the carrier in the shade as well.

He was one happy birthday boy. Happy birthday, dear Levi, happy birthday to you! And let’s hope Mommy and Daddy survive the terrible 2s!

Blueberry Cupcakes

(Slightly adapted from the peach cupcakes with brown sugar cream cheese frosting on Smitten Kitchen; makes 24 cupcakes)

3 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Pinch of nutmeg
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks or 6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup dark or light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) buttermilk, sour cream or full-fat yogurt
3 4.4-ounce containers of organic blueberries, washed and dried (set aside 24 blueberries for decorating the tops of the cupcakes)
24 fresh mint leaves

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin cups with paper liners.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg and set aside.
  • Cream the butter and sugars together, beating until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl between each addition, and then add the vanilla. Gently mix in the buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt. Stir in the dry ingredients and fold in the blueberries.
  • Divide the batter evenly among the prepared cupcake liners. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of cupcakes comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes for five minutes in the tin, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 8 tablespoons) butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cornstarch and powdered sugar.
  • In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add the sugar-cornstarch mixture and vanilla, beat until frosting is smooth and light. Chill the bowl in the refrigerator until it thickens back up a bit, about 30 minutes, then spread or dollop on cooled cupcakes. Decorate with a mint leaf and a blueberry, if desired.

Chewy Chocolate Chunk Cookies

I grew up eating a crisp oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I still turn to when I’m having a cookie craving, but I do love a soft, bakery-style cookie once in a while and have been meaning to try a recipe at home with my little assistant, who (at almost 2 years old!) is now old enough to “help” me. On a rainy Wednesday, Levi and I made a batch of these together – him perched on a kitchen stool; me on my own two feet.

He got really excited when I retrieved the hand-mixer from the baking drawer, and imitated the sound while doing his own little mixer charade. He also does a perfect imitation of the sound of an egg cracking on the counter. When I spooned the flour into a measuring cup, he helped me level it off with a knife then dump it into the bowl. What a good helper. After much measuring, mixing and scooping, the cookies were in the oven and there was flour everywhere, even on the tip of Levi’s little nose. We both peered through the little oven window and exchanged looks of anticipation and delight.

My little assistant, wearing my apron (which he insisted upon). He was so excited, he couldn’t keep his face still, hence the blur!

These cookies were just what I was craving – sweet with a hint of salt for balance, slightly crisp on the exterior with a chewy inside, and a gooey dark chocolate chunk in every bite. I found the recipe on Kelsey’s blog Apple a Day – thanks for a recipe that I’ll surely return to again and again. My only adaptations were using 3 tablespoons of olive oil because I was short 3 tablespoons of butter (which I wasn’t sure about but you couldn’t even tell in the end!), using salted butter and reducing the amount of salt in the recipe to just over a 1/4 tsp., and using chopped semisweet dark chocolate in place of chocolate chips.

Chewy Chocolate Chunk Cookies

(Just slightly adapted from Apple a Day; originally from Food Network Canada)

3/4 cup salted butter, softened 
3/4 cup brown sugar 
1/4 cup granulated sugar 
1 egg 
2 tsp. vanilla extract 
2 cups all-purpose flour 
2 tsp. cornstarch 
1 tsp. baking soda 
1/4 tsp. salt 
1 cup chopped good-quality semisweet dark chocolate, such as Scharffenberger
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In a large bowl, using a hand-mixer, cream together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix until blended. Add flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt and mix until flour is incorporated. Stir in chocolate chunks.
  • Drop tablespoons of dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, until barely golden brown around the edges.  (It actually took my cookies/oven about 11 minutes to achieve that ‘barely golden brown’ – also note, the tops will not brown so don’t overcook them!)
  • Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for five minutes.  Remove cookies from baking sheet and let cool completely.  Makes approximately 3 dozen, which may sound like a lot, but trust me – they’ll go fast!

Butterscotch Pie, and saying goodbye

The first week of February has come and gone, and I’ve left all of my readers hanging since the 9th of January? How unfortunate, for both of us. A couple weeks ago we had to say goodbye to Mikki, Dustin’s grandma, an extraordinary woman whose kindness left a huge imprint on all of our lives. She always treated me like an honorary granddaughter, and I was especially blessed to witness her interaction with her great-grandson, from the first time she met him at 5 days old, to last month when we visited her and he displayed the art of tantruming in her living room, to which she calmly and sweetly responded, “Brianna, I’ll definitely be thinking of you during this phase.” That meant a lot, coming from an experienced mother of two, especially in light of Levi’s new habit of screaming at the top of his lungs at me and then waving “bye” (translation: mom, I’m done with you) when he can’t do what he wants. Levi had his sweet moments as well during our great-grandma visit. After he was over whatever trivial thing set him off, he gave her a kiss, and she offered him a couple bites of the egg she was eating for breakfast. It was one of those moments you wished you could have frozen in time.

I know that Mikki loved reading this blog. As she tasted the baked mac and cheese that we made for her (per her request) while we were in town for that last visit, she looked up at me and said that she loved our recipes and that I write beautifully. I don’t think I’m worthy of that comment, but it obviously stuck with me and I find myself drawing strength from it. Anyway, Mikki wouldn’t have wanted me dwelling on how sad we feel that she’s gone. She’d want me to get straight to the point; the food. In this case, a butterscotch pie, and one that her family loved.

This is a recipe from The Purity Cookbook.  It is a Canadian cookbook that Mikki’s family has used for decades. It was also Dustin’s Grandpa’s favorite pie and he made it often as well. Mikki loved a crust made with lard and now we know why. Thanks to El Salchichero, our local butcher shop, it was easy to find, and it produced a texture and a flavor that I’d never experienced before in a pie. It’s definitely the way to go.

When my mom asked what dessert she should make Dustin for his 29th birthday dinner last weekend (I’m working on another blog post about that dinner … stay tuned!), I suggested this recipe, which my mother-in-law had emailed me a couple months ago, but I hadn’t had a chance yet to make. It was a little piece of nostalgia for Dustin, and it made me happy to see him happy. Happy Birthday, Dustin. You had an amazing grandmother. I celebrate both of you.

Butterscotch Pie

(From The Purity Cookbook)

4  TBS. butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/3 cup hot milk
5 1/3 TBS flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 cup cold milk
2 eggs
Pie shell (use lard for best results; my mom used the recipe from Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant)

  • It is suggested that you use a double boiler for this recipe.
  • Cook butter and brown sugar for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add hot milk (it is important that the milk be hot but not quite scalded), and simmer until sugar dissolves.  Mix salt, flour, and cold milk; add gradually to hot mixture*.  Cook for 15 minutes or until thickened, stirring constantly ( if you are not using a double boiler, this will not take as long).  Beat eggs and pour into hot mixture, stirring briskly as you add the eggs.  Cook 2 – 3 minutes on low heat.  When thickened, pour into cooked pie shell.  Top with whipped cream. Levi recommends licking the beaters 🙂

* This is a very old fashioned recipe in that it uses flour instead of cornstarch for thickening. If you find that the flour produces lumps, strain the mixture before adding the eggs.

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting

I blinked and my newborn became a 1-year-old. He walks, he points at things, he babbles, and he eats everything with gusto, especially cake, as we now know. I picked my favorite cake/frosting combination for Levi’s birthday cupcakes – yellow cake with chocolate, because I know he’s not picky and I’d be the one licking the beaters. I used the best birthday cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen – yellow cake with chocolate sour cream frosting – but made cupcakes instead of a layer cake and topped them with festive sprinkles. The recipe made 36 cupcakes, and I even had enough batter to make a little personal cake for Levi to eat on his actual birthday. So yes, we were eating cupcakes for days, and they were delicious. This recipe was exactly what I had hoped it would be. The cake was nice and moist with a little tang from buttermilk, and the frosting was nice and chocolate-y, but not too sweet. I decided to omit the espresso powder this time, since Levi was going to be eating a good amount of frosting, but I can definitely see how adding it would have brought out the flavor of the chocolate even more, and next time I will!

At the end of a 1st birthday party, there’s that rite of passage when you stick a slice of cake or a cupcake in front of the birthday child and stand around and stare at them to see what they’ll do. At first they hesitate; they might curiously poke at it, as Levi did, but soon they discover that what has been placed in front of them is actually edible. After a while it gets pretty messy, and the only people who think that the baby with frosting all over his face is cute is the parents. Yep, I was that proud mom. I’m also proud to share these cupcakes with you (which are actually the first I’ve ever made from scratch!) They were made and decorated with love for our little boy. Happy Birthday, Levi! And many more.

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Sour-Cream Frosting

(From Smitten Kitchen)

For the Cupcakes:

4 cups plus 2 TBS. cake flour (not self-rising)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with the festive cupcake liners of your choice.
  • Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
  • In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  • At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (it’s ok if the mixture looks curdled). Add the flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  • Spoon the batter into the muffin tins so that they are 2/3 full. Bake for 17-20 minutes or until the tops are golden and a toothpick entered into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then carefully remove from the muffin tins, using a knife to loosen them if some of the cake is sticking to the edges of the muffin cups. When completely cool, frost cupcakes (recipe below) and decorate with sprinkles!

For the Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting (makes 5 cups):

15 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup light corn syrup
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract

  • Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring until it melts. Remove from heat and allow to cool until tepid. You want your chocolate and your sour cream to be around the same temperature so that the chocolate doesn’t seize when you add the sour cream.
  • Whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined. Add the tepid chocolate slowly, whisking quickly until the frosting mixture is uniform. Taste for sweetness, and if needed, add additional corn syrup in 1 TBS. increments until desired level of sweetness is achieved.
  • Let cool in the refrigerator until the frosting is a spreadable consistency. This took only 10 minutes for us. If it becomes too hard, leave out at room temperature until it softens again.

The Birthday Boy!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

On Halloween my family comes over and we sit around a fire pit on our front deck and eat chili out of mugs. Then after we’ve handed out candy to the sparse trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood (leaving a huge bowl of candy that will tempt us for the coming weeks), we indulge in THE best bread pudding ever. Ever since my mom discovered this recipe in Gourmet a few years ago, it’s been the Halloween dessert stand-by. Everyone has a can of Libby’s in their pantry these days, so give it a try. Buttery bread cubes combined with rich, pumpkin-y custard and baked until crispy on the edges and moist in the middle. Mmm … Oh, and how can I not share our little pumpkin!

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

(From the October 2007 issue of Gourmet, as seen on Epicurious)

1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
5 cups cubed (1-inch) day-old baguette or crusty bread
3/4 stick butter, melted

  • Preheat oven to 350°F and place rack in the middle.
  • Whisk together cream, pumpkin, milk, sugar, eggs, yolk, salt, and spices in a bowl.
  • Toss bread cubes with butter in another bowl, then add pumpkin mixture and toss to coat. Transfer to an ungreased 8-inch square baking dish and bake until custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 6.

Olive Oil Bundt Cake with Blueberries in Red Wine Syrup

Ott’s Berry Farm in Modesto produces the biggest, juiciest, tastiest blueberries. After thankfully receiving several containers of them last week from our friend Chris at the Farmer’s Market, we wanted to highlight them in a simple dessert. This flavorful (dairy-free!) olive oil cake was delicious topped with blueberries that had been warmed in a simple red wine syrup infused with lemon verbena.

Olive Oil Bundt Cake

(Slightly Adapted from the Feb. 2010 issue of Food & Wine )

5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon finely minced lemon verbena*
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups cake flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

*Original recipe calls for finely grated orange zest

  • Preheat the oven to 325° and butter and flour a 10-cup bundt pan.
  • In a bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar and lemon verbena at medium-high speed until smooth.
  • Gradually beat in the olive oil until creamy, about 2 minutes.
  • In a small bowl, whisk the cake flour with the baking powder and salt.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating on medium speed between additions.
  • Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven for about 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
  • Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then invert onto a rack. Let the cake cool completely before cutting into slices and serving.

Blueberries in Red Wine Syrup

  • Combine equal parts red wine and sugar in a saucepan (about 3/4 cup each was a good amount for this cake)
  • Add a branch of lemon verbena. If you don’t have any lemon verbena, try a sprig of rosemary, lavender, or some fresh mint!
  • Simmer the mixture for about 15 minutes or until it boils down. Cool and remove the herb.
  • Warm several big handfuls of blueberries in the syrup before serving. Spoon on top of slices of olive oil cake.

Simple Vanilla Pudding with Sliced Bananas

This basic vanilla pudding is made on the stove top, thickened with cornstarch, and much tastier than store-bought pudding cups. To make it chocolate pudding, add 2 ounces of unsweetened or semisweet chocolate when you heat the milk, and stir until melted.

But before I share dessert, I have to share our Valentine’s Day dinner, which I was quite proud of (if I may say so myself).

Here is Arius, trying to blend in with the table setting. He does a pretty good job.

We ate Shrimp Pil Pil (shrimp sautéed in garlicky, spicy olive oil), polenta hearts (hand-cut by me :)), and sautéed red chard. The salad (which didn’t get photographed) contained mixed greens, juicy blood orange segments, and crunchy jicama.

Now for dessert, which was Dustin’s special request!

Simple Vanilla Pudding (Blancmange) with Sliced Bananas

(From The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham)

3 TBS. cornstarch
4 TBS. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
sliced banana

  • In a heavy-bottomed pan, combine the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and a 1/4 cup of the milk.
  • In a smaller sauce pan, heat the remaining milk, then slowly add it to the cornstarch mixture, whisking constantly.
  • Cook over moderately low heat, whisking constantly until thickened. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes to get rid of the raw cornstarch taste. Let cool slightly, then add the vanilla. Cover and chill. When ready to serve, spoon into individual bowls and top with sliced banana. Serves 5.

Angel Food Cake with Chocolate Glaze

Lake Tahoe is beautiful in the snow, isn’t it? We spent last weekend in a cozy cabin, celebrating both Dustin and his sister Courtney’s birthdays. While Dustin was snowboarding on Saturday, Courtney and I made this cake, using a recipe that she had requested from a coworker. Despite the elevation, and the cabin’s lack of a flour sifter and heavy cream (I decided to wing it and use milk and butter in the glaze, but it didn’t thicken up quite as well), we were happy with how it turned out. It was a little tougher than your ideal angel food cake (due to the sifting issue), but the taste was wonderful. So after making snow angels or instigating snow ball fights, or skiing, or whatever it is you do in the snow, come home to a warm kitchen, make some hot cocoa and cut yourself a slice of this light, flavorful cake.

Angel Food Cake with Chocolate Glaze

(From The Food Network)

For the Cake:

2 cups sifted superfine sugar
1 1/3 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 cups egg whites at room temp (we used 10 large eggs)
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup coarsely grated semisweet chocolate

For the Glaze:

1/2 lb. semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 CUP + 1 TBS. heavy cream

  • Preheat oven to 350. Combine 1/2 cup of the sugar with the flour and sift them together 4 times. Set aside.
  • Place egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar in a large metal bowl. Beat on high speed with a hand mixer until the whites form medium-firm peaks, about 1 minute.
  • With the mixer on medium speed, add the remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar by sprinkling it over the beaten egg whites. Beat on high for a few minutes until thick and shiny.
  • Add the vanilla and continue to beat until very thick, about 1 minute more.
  • Sift 1/4 of the flour mixture over the egg whites and fold it very carefully into the batter with a rubber spatula. Continue adding the flour by fourths, sifting and folding until it’s all incorporated. Fold in the grated chocolate.
  • Pour the batter into an ungreased 10 inch tube pan, smooth the top, and bake 35-45 minutes, until it springs back to the touch. Remove the cake from oven and invert pan on a cooling rack. When cool, run a thin, flexible knife around the cake to remove it from the pan (it might stick to the sides of the pan a little, but the glaze will cover any imperfections. Don’t worry).
  • For the glaze, place the chocolate chips and cream in a heat proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until chocolate melts. Pour the chocolate over the top of the cooled cake to cover the top completely and allowing it to drizzle down the sides. Slice and serve.

Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies

‘Tis the season for peppermint bark! We loved the combination of buttery shortbread, white & dark chocolate, and peppermint in this festive looking cookie. Cut these into fun, irregular pieces and people will be grabbing for them. If you’re suffering from candy cane overload, or want some variety, try topping this cookie with chopped toffee or peanut butter cups instead. Mmm … feeling inspired?

Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies

(From the December 2009 issue of Bon Appetit)

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies or candy canes (about 3 ounces)
2 ounces high-quality white chocolate (we used Ghirardelli)

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Line bottom of pan with long strip of 9-inch-wide parchment paper, leaving overhang on both short sides of pan.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Set aside.
  • Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually beat in sugar. Continue beating until mixture is light and fluffy, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla, then egg yolk. Gradually add flour mixture, beating on low speed just to blend.
  • Pour the dough into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly, using moistened fingers to press dough to form even layer over bottom of pan. Pierce dough all over with fork.
  • Bake cookie base until light golden brown and slightly puffed and edges begin to come away from sides of pan, about 30 minutes. Place pan on rack; immediately sprinkle bittersweet chocolate over. Let stand until chocolate softens, about 3 minutes. Using small offset spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate over top of cookie in thin even layer. Immediately sprinkle chopped candy canes over.
  • Stir white chocolate in medium metal bowl set over saucepan of simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from over water. Using fork, drizzle white chocolate all over cookies. Chill until white chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.
  • Using paper overhang as aid, lift cookie from pan and transfer to work surface. Using large knife, cut cookie into irregular pieces (makes about 36). Store cookies in the refrigerator in an airtight container between layers of waxed or parchment paper. They’ll be good for 1 week.

Chocolate-Black Pepper Cookies

Ah, I love the time of year when the tree is illuminated, the Christmas music is cranked up, and you can stay inside all day baking cookies. These chewy chocolate cookies with a hint of espresso are rolled in coarse sugar and finished off with cracked black pepper before going in the oven. They’d be a welcome addition to any holiday cookie platter! Thank you, Martha Stewart, for this intriguing spicy/sweet cookie. The recipe that we referred to in her cookie cookbook said that the recipe yields 4 dozen cookies, but we only got 30 cookies. Actually, we ended up with even less because Nikita and I ate several while we were waiting for them to cool  🙂

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper, plus more for sprinkling
1 TBS. plus 1 tsp. good-quality instant espresso powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
coarse sanding sugar, for rolling

special equipment: parchment paper, electric mixer

  • In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa powder, salt, pepper, espresso powder, and cinnamon. Set aside.
  • Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture, and mix until just combined.
  • Turn out dough onto a piece of parchment paper, and roll into a 2-inch-diameter log. Roll log in parchment paper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove log from parchment paper. Let soften slightly at room temperature, about 5 minutes. Roll log in coarse sugar, gently pressing to adhere sugar to dough.
  • Transfer log to cutting board. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place rounds on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing 1 inch apart. Sprinkle some freshly ground pepper on top of each round.
  • Bake cookies until there is slight resistance when you lightly touch the centers, about 10-12 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool completely. You can store them in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Happy Easter! Part 4: Paskha

In our family, Easter is not Easter without this traditional Russian dessert. This version is made by heating buttermilk until it separates into curds and whey (yep, just like what Miss Muffet ate). Then the curds are combined with eggs, butter, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, and lemon zest to create a delicious creamy mixture that’s poured into molds lined with cheese cloth. As a child I always looked forward to eating it for breakfast on Easter morning before church, and then again for dessert after Easter dinner. I loved watching it come out of its mold, and then helping decorate it with almonds and raisins, making the letters XB, which stand for Христос Воскресе (Xristos Voskrese), meaning Christ is Risen!


(Serves 12-16)

1 gallon buttermilk
zest of 2 lemons
2 eggs
2 cups sour cream
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
almonds, raisins, and/or edible flowers for decorating
special equipment: cheesecloth

Pour buttermilk into heavy 5-6 quart pan and warm over medium low heat, stirring once or twice until separated into curds and whey (about 20 minutes).

Line a fine mesh strainer (or colander) with 2 layers of cheesecloth, rinsed and squeezed dry.

Pour curds and whey through strainer. Let stand until curds stop dripping, 10-15 minutes.

Pick up the cheese cloth around the curds and squeeze to discard clear whey.

Tada! You have beautiful curd cheese made from buttermilk!

Combine the curds, lemon zest, eggs, sour cream, and vanilla bean seeds in a food processor. Process until very smooth. In the heavy pan, combine the butter and the sugar. Heat over low heat, stirring, until the butter melts. Add the processed mixture to the pan with the butter and sugar, and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Line several 3 small bowls or clay pots with 2 layers of cheesecloth.

Pour cheese mixture into containers.

Fold excess cloth over cheese. Transfer to refrigerator to chill for 6-24 hours.

Invert onto serving plate, decorate with almonds/raisins or edible flowers, and serve. Or chill up to 3 days.

Happy Easter! Part 3: Rhubarb Tart with Orange Glaze

I love rhubarb. It’s a vegetable with an identity crisis because it’s usually prepared and eaten as a fruit would be. The night before Easter, we ate dinner at La Posta, where my mom ordered a salad special that contained thin slices of raw rhubarb. I tried a bite and agreed that its subtle flavor and light crunch was appealing and a nice change from the usual baked or stewed rhubarb. Happy to have enjoyed rhubarb in its pure state, we baked it in a puff pastry tart for a light Easter dessert the next day. It was simple to make and the orange glaze on top is the perfect match to the tart rhubarb!

Rhubarb Tart with Orange Glaze
(From the April 2009 Gourmet)

1 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 pound rhubarb stalks, thinly sliced diagonally (about 1/8 inch)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (from a 17 1/4-ounces package), thawed
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest

  • Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle.
  • Stir together orange juice, lime juice, and sugar in a bowl. Add rhubarb and let stand, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, cut pastry in half lengthwise, then roll out each piece into an 11-by 7-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin. Arrange pastry rectangles side by side on an ungreased large baking sheet.
  • Make a 1/2-inch border around each pastry rectangle by lightly scoring a line parallel to each edge (do not cut all the way through). Prick pastry inside border all over with a fork.
  • Strain rhubarb mixture through a sieve set over a bowl, reserving liquid. Top 1 pastry rectangle (within border) with half of rhubarb, overlapping slices slightly. Repeat with remaining pastry and rhubarb.
  • Bake until pastry is puffed and golden (underside of pastry should also be golden), 20-25 minutes. Keep an eye on it. The pastry can easily go from golden to black!
  • Meanwhile, boil reserved rhubarb liquid in a small saucepan, skimming foam if necessary, until reduced to about 1/4 cup, 15 to 18 minutes.
  • Transfer tarts to a rack. Brush rhubarb and pastry with glaze and sprinkle with zest. Makes 8 servings.

Say "I love you" with Coconut Hot Chocolate

I originally intended to post this recipe around Valentine’s Day, but obviously that didn’t happen. Then I thought of saving it until next year, but I’m too impatient. Luckily the temperature has still been dipping into the low 40s in the evenings, therefore I deem hot chocolate still “in season.” I found this recipe in an article in the Food & Wine section of our local newspaper, in which a woman shared the story of her husband’s request for hot chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Since he couldn’t have dairy, soy milk, rice milk or even nut-milk, this proved to be a challenge for her! After several attempts at various recipes, this hot chocolate was born: rich and creamy with a nice bitterness from the cocoa. Served with some raspberries on the side, you have a decadent dessert for both you and the lactose-free friend/relative/sweetie/person in your life.

Coconut Hot Chocolate for Two:

2 TBS. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 15-ounce can coconut milk
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

  • Bring 1/3 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Whisk in the cocoa. Set aside.
  • In a saucepan, combine the coconut milk, brown sugar, and salt. Simmer, stirring, until sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes.
  • Whisk in hot cocoa and chocolate until smooth. Stir in vanilla.
  • Pour into two mugs.
  • For an (optional) dairy-free topping: Beat 1 egg white with an electric mixer on medium speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Add 3 TBS. of sugar (one tablespoon at a time) while the mixer is running. Continue to beat until egg white forms soft peaks and is shiny, about 5 minutes. Dollop onto mugs of hot chocolate.

Chocolate-Guinness Cake & Black Velvet Cocktails

This is the last cake I’ll be making for a while. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I didn’t have a baking disaster that ended in tears. Quite the contrary. I enjoyed making this cake very much. The recipe was easy to follow, the ingredients simple, and I even got to drink the leftover stout while it was baking. No, the reason I won’t be making any more cakes for a while is that when we returned home last night from our corned beef eating-frenzy at my parents’ house, my two naughty cats had gotten into the dish drainer and chewed my silicone baking pan. Little holes are now all over the bottom and sides of the poor thing. Their intentions I’ll never know, but anyway I’m quite pissed about it. Now that I’ve vented to you about my pan, I must turn to the cake. It kicks ass. The Guinness Stout gives it a wonderful depth of flavor, sort of nutty and caramely. I’m usually not a fan of the ultra rich, death-by-chocolate sort of cakes, so this one was a nice surprise. Its complex flavor was pleasing both to my brother’s palate (the chocolate lover) and mine. Instead of the icing in the original recipe, I decided to finish it off with a dusting of powdered sugar in order to highlight the flavor of the cake itself. I should also note that the recipe below (halved from the original) fits in a 9-inch circle cake pan, but not my silicone one anymore, thanks to Arius and Jonas!

Chocolate-Guinness Cake

(From Smitten Kitchen, which was adapted from the September 2002 Bon Appetit. Original recipe from the Barrington Brewery in Barrington, MA)

1 cup Guinness (or other stout)
1 cup (2 sticks) butter (I always use salted)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan and set aside.
  • Bring 1 cup stout and 1 cup butter to a simmer in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until smooth. Let cool slightly.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt until combined.
  • Using electric mixer, beat the eggs and sour cream in another large bowl to blend. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat until just combined. Add flour mixture and beat briefly on low speed. Using rubber spatula, fold batter until completely combined.
  • Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Transfer cake to rack; cool completely in the pan, then turn cake out onto serving plate. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with Black Velvets:

Black Velvets

If you’ve never heard of a Black Velvet, it’s worth trying, even if it’s just for the oddity of the sound of it. It’s a very intriguing combination of Guinness (or other stout) and sparkling wine (or champagne) which you’ll find to be both rich and effervescent. If you are patient and carefully poor the sparkling wine over the back of a spoon, you can get it to sit on top of the stout. If being the key word. We were too excited to dig into the cake to perfect the method! A little research taught me that this cocktail originated at the Brooks Club in London. It was served in 1861 when people were mourning the passing of Prince Albert.

Guinness Stout
Sparkling Wine

  • Fill a champagne flute half way with Guinness.
    • Gently pour the champagne over the back of a spoon so it runs down the sides of the glass and doesn’t mix with the beer. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry. Just enjoy the drink as it is!

    Blast from the Past: Muddy Buddies

    Do “Muddy Buddies” belong on a food blog? Or any recipe that you can find on the back of a cereal box for that matter? Heck yes. Why not? I want to say my brother and I ate these all the time when we were kids, but when you’re young you often exaggerate the frequency of things. The more likely story is that we ate them several times, but were totally psyched when we did. So … I’m bringing them back for you today! And because you (okay, I) don’t need 9 cups of these in my refrigerator (unless you have a huge family), I’m going to write the measurements for half a recipe, which is more than enough in my opinion. I made them on the stove top, because back when I was little we didn’t have a microwave yet! Aw, those were the days. Or in Japanese, Natsukashii!

    Muddy Buddies/Puppy Chow (whatever you want to call it!)
    (From the Chex® box, of course!)

    4 1/2 cups Corn Chex® cereal
    1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used a coarsely chopped chocolate bar instead)
    1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
    1/8 cup (2 Tablespoons) salted butter
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
    3/4 cup powered sugar

    • Place the cereal in a large bowl. Set aside.
    • In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate) and peanut butter and stir until chocolate is almost melted. When almost melted, turn off the heat and continue stirring until mixture is smooth.
    • Pour the chocolate/peanut butter mixture over the cereal and gently stir. Make sure cereal is evenly coated.
    • Pour coated cereal into a 1 gallon zip-lock bag. Add the powdered sugar. Seal bag securely and shake well until cereal pieces are well coated.
    • Spread on waxed paper or a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap to cool.
    • Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

    Chocolate Chunk – Hazelnut Blondies

    I was in search of a dessert that Dustin could take in his lunches all week when I came across this recipe. These blondies were simple to make and are very adaptable. You can top them with any combination of nuts and/or chocolate that you like. You’ll find that the bitterness of the dark chocolate and the crunch of the nuts compliments the sweet, chewy base. The perfect afternoon pick-me-up! The only challenge I encountered while making these was keeping my kitties off of the counter and stove while I was baking them. They sure are determined little guys.

    Chocolate Chunk – Hazelnut Blondies
    (Adapted from the recipe Blondies with Pecans and Chocolate Chips on Epicurious, from the July 1998 issue of Bon Appetit)

    2 cups all purpose flour
    1 teaspoon baking powder

    1/2 teaspoon salt

    1/4 teaspoon baking soda

    10 tablespoons (1
    1/4 sticks) salted butter
    2 cups (packed) brown sugar
    2 egg

    2 teaspoons vanilla extract

    4 oz. (1 bar) bittersweet chocolate, chopped

    3 oz. (a couple handfuls) roasted-salted hazelnuts, chopped

    • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and a flour a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan. Set aside.
    • In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.
    • Melt the butter in a large sauce pan over low heat. Turn off the heat and whisk in the sugar to blend.
    • Whisk in eggs and vanilla extract.
    • Gradually stir in the flour mixture (the batter will be pretty thick).
    • Pour into prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with the chopped chocolate and nuts.
    • Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the pan comes out with moist crumbs attached.
    • Cool the blondies in the pan, then cut into squares. Makes about 24.

      Lime-Glazed Birthday Cake

      Happy Birthday, Dustin! I’ve made muffins, cookies, fruit crisps, and quick breads, but this was my first birthday cake! I think I’ll be doing it again now that I’m less intimidated by my silicon baking pan. The cake itself was not too sweet, and the lime glaze (made with the limes that are growing in our backyard) was the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. And get this – according to the article in Bon Appetit (in which the food editors had to come up with a week’s worth of dinners for under $100), the cost to make this cake came out to only $1.10 (assuming you have everyday staples on hand, like flour, eggs, and butter). Now that is something to get excited about.

      Lime-Glazed Cake
      (From the Jan. 2009 Bon Appetit)

      3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, room temperature
      2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided
      2 large eggs, room temperature
      1/4 cup milk
      1 1/3 cups self-rising flour*
      2 to 3 large limes
      1/4 cup sugar

      *If you don’t have self-rising flour on hand (as I didn’t), you can make it like this: For every cup of self rising flour, mix together 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and a scant teaspoon of salt.

      • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
      • Butter and flour 8-inch square baking pan (I used a 9-inch round silicon cake pan)
      • Using an electric mixer, cream butter and 1 1/2 cups of the powdered sugar in a large bowl. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in milk. Lastly, beat in flour.
      • Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top with a spatula.
      • Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes.
      • Meanwhile, finely grate enough lime peel to measure 1 tablespoon. Cut the limes in half and squeeze enough juice to measure 1/4 cup. In a small bowl, combine peel, juice, and 1/4 cup sugar. Mix and set the lime syrup aside.
      • Using a skewer, poke holes all over the baked cake. Spoon half the lime syrup (about 3 tablespoons) over hot cake. Allow to cool.
      • When cool, transfer cake to a platter (lime-syrup side up, of course). Whisk 1 cup powdered sugar into remaining lime syrup. Drizzle over cake. Let stand 1 hour. Cut cake into slices.

        Roll-and-Cut Sugar Cookies

        What do German Shepherds, trees, people, stars, and firetrucks have in common? Absolutely nothing except that those are the cookie cutters that my Mom and I decided to use for our decorated sugar cookies! You can sprinkle the cookies with colored sugars and add pieces of nuts before baking, or you can decorate your cookies when they cool with a simple icing made from combining powdered sugar, a little water (until it reaches a good consistency), and food coloring of your choice. These cookies made great Christmas gifts this year!

        Roll-and-Cut Sugar Cookies

        (Adapted from the December 2008 issue of Food and Wine)

        2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
        3/4 cup sugar
        1/8 teaspoon salt
        2 sticks cold salted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
        2 large egg yolks
        2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
        Colored sugar, pieces of nuts, and/or icing for decorating

        • In a food processor, add the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is broken up into small pieces. Continue to pulse until flour and butter form small clumps.
          • Add the egg yolks and vanilla and process at low speed until the dough comes together in a few large clumps. Pat the cookie dough into two 1/2-inch-thick disks, wrap them in plastic and refrigerate until chilled but not firm, about 30 minutes.
          • Preheat the oven to 375°. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, working with 1 disk at a time, roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick. Using cookie cutters, cut the dough into shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheets. Re-roll the scraps and cut out more cookies. Refrigerate the cutout cookies until chilled, about 30 minutes (we skipped this step and the cookies baked just fine). Sprinkle the cookies with colored sugar and add nuts, if you need to make eyes, ears, noses, etc.
          • Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, until they are lightly golden around the edges; shift the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through for even baking. Let the sugar cookies cool on the baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then, using a metal spatula, carefully transfer them to a rack (we just used the counter) to cool completely, about 20 minutes.
          • Decorate with icing and have fun!

          We hope everyone had a great Christmas!

          Vanilla-Lime Bites

          These bite-sized cookies are delicate and buttery, with a burst of lime and just enough sweetness from a dusting in powdered sugar – the perfect holiday cookie. Merry Christmas from our kitchen to yours!

          Vanilla Lime Bites

          (Adapted from the Vanilla Crescents in the December 2008 issue of Food & Wine)

          2 sticks salted butter, softened
          1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
          1 lime, zest and juice
          1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
          2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

          Pinch of salt

          • Preheat the oven to 350° and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
          • Using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the butter with 1/2 cup of the confectioners’ sugar until pale white, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla, lime zest and juice.
          • Add the flour and salt and beat at low speed just until combined.
          • Form small balls with the dough in the palm of your hand. Carefully transfer the balls to the baking sheets, leaving an inch between them.
          • Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden and the tops are pale blond; shift the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through for even baking.
          • Let cookies cool for 10 minutes on wire racks (or the counter).
          • Fill a small bowl with confectioners’ sugar. While the cookies are still warm, coat them in the sugar and transfer to a clean sheet of parchment paper to cool slightly.
          • Roll the cooled cookies in the sugar again and let cool completely.

          *Vanilla-Lime Bites can be stored in an airtight container between sheets of wax paper for up to 1 week. Dust the cookies very lightly with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

          Coconut Rice Pudding

          This is my new default rice pudding recipe. I used to make it in Japan after we got home from our night classes, and we’d eat it in fancy Japanese rice bowls while watching something on TV (hopefully something in English; not dubbed in Japanese). Rice pudding also reminds me of my childhood. It has always been one of my favorite breakfasts, especially topped with cinnamon. This version, made with coconut milk, is a little different, but is still rich and delicious. It’s worth it to stand over the stove for 40 minutes. I personally enjoy stirring the mixture and watching it transform from cooked rice swimming in milk to thick, rich goodness. I make a few changes to the original recipe on Epicurious; more coconut milk and the addition of butter (like the rice pudding my Mom used to make me). Enjoy!

          1 1/2 cups cold unsalted cooked rice
          3/4 cups whole milk
          3/4 cups well-stirred canned unsweetened coconut milk
          2 TBS. butter

          1/3 cup sugar

          1/4 teaspoon salt

          1/2 teaspoon vanilla

          • Simmer rice, milk, coconut milk, butter, sugar and salt, uncovered, in a 2 1/2 – to 3 – quart heavy saucepan over medium heat.
          • Stir frequently until thickened, about 40 minutes.
          • Stir in vanilla
          • Serve warm, with toasted coconut on top (if you desire), or just on its own.