Graduate school’s out for summ – er – three weeks! Ok so maybe it’s not as glorious a feeling as the last days of school pre-2005 but, a break is a break and I’ll take it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore being a student again, especially when my classes consist of talking, debating, and analyzing all kinds of fabulous writing.
But having a career, a blog, a marriage, a home, homework, and an ever-growing list of things to bake and books to read can be pretty damn exhausting. So when the opportunity arises to have just one of those come off my plate for a little while, I celebrate. And then in three weeks, the mania will resume which, is perfectly ok. Frankly, I’d get bored without so many balls in the air. I live fast so much better than I do slow.
But, for now – a little relaxation. This weekend, we’re heading to Richmond for an extended family multi-event celebration that includes Zach’s birthday, Mother’s Day, my cousin’s engagement and a grad school graduation. There will be kabobs, Mom’s chocolate sheetcake, plenty of wine and beer, and a triple-layer cake version of these Strawberry Rhubarb Cupcakes.
I made these earlier in the week for my final class of the semester and they seemed to be a universal hit. This was my first time cooking or baking with rhubarb and to be honest, I totally winged it on the filling. I chucked a bunch of stuff in a pot, let it cook for a while, and prayed the taste and consistency would be right. Low and behold it was!
The cupcakes are more muffin than cake, with only a hint of sweetness. But paired with the tangy sweet strawberry rhubarb filling and the creamy punch of cream cheese frosting, the flavors meld wonderfully together. Note, though fresh berries are always preferred, I suggest using frozen in the batter unless you’ve laid your hands on some supreme fresh ones. You really need the strawberries to be full in flavor and perfectly ripe.
Strawberry Rhubarb Cupcakes
Cupcake recipe adapted from Martha Stewart
For the Cupcakes
2/3 cup strawberries, either fresh or frozen (thawed)
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg whites
For the Strawberry Rhubarb Filling
1 lb fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped
3-4 stalks rhubarb, chopped
1/4-1/2 cup sugar (depending on sweetness of strawberries)
1/2 cup water
1 Tb lemon zest
Pinch of salt
1.5 – 2 Tbs cornstarch
For the Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting
12 oz (1.5 packages) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 vanilla bean
1 tsp vanilla extract
4-5 cups powdered sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a muffin pan with paper liners. Purée the strawberries in a blender or food processor – you want to have 1/3 cup of puree for the batter.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt. In another bowl combine the milk, vanilla extract, and 1/3 cup of strawberry puree.
3. Cream butter on medium-high speed until fluffy, then add sugar. Add the egg and egg whites, combine well. Add half of the flour mixture, then the milk and strawberry mixture, then the remaining flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Divide batter evenly between 12 muffin cups and bake 20-23 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack.
4. To make the strawberry filling, combine all ingredients – except for the cornstarch – in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce and simmer for 1 hour or until rhubarb begins to break down. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly then purée the mixture in a food processor, strain, and return to the saucepan. Sprinkle in the cornstarch, whisk to break up any clumps, and cook over low heat until thick. Allow to cool completely.
5. To make the frosting, cream together the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer. Split vanilla bean in half length-wise and scrape the seeds – add to the mixer and beat until seeds are evenly distributed. Add the vanilla extract and powdered sugar. Beat to combine well.
6. To finish, fill a piping bag with strawberry rhubarb filling, insert tip gently into cupcake and fill with about 1 Tb. Frost, decorate, and serve!
A few weeks back, I scored a hell of a deal on a legendary Lodge cast iron skillet and it has been screaming for a pat of butter and the sizzle of cornbread batter since I brought it home. Sure, I’ve made plenty of cornbread in the past but they usually fall into the category of nothing special OR unconventional, but really just trying too damn hard to be sophisticated.
Cornbread needn’t be fussy or fancy and a good one is buttery, moist, golden and with a hint of sweetness. So why did it take me weeks to land on the right recipe? Because simple food can be the hardest to perfect.
This recipe is a result of thorough cornbread research and to answer a question you’re surely thinking: Yes, I AM crazy and care enough about baking to set up Google Alerts for “cornbread.” God forbid I miss any breaking cornbread developments.
I found your classic variations: Johnny Cake, Spoon Bread, and the somewhat distant and delicious fried relative – Hushpuppies. But I also discovered a new variety – Corn Pone.
Go ahead…just laugh it out, I’ll wait.
Ridiculous name aside, corn pone is made from a coarser corn meal and often fried in some combination of oil, butter, and bacon fat. According to Wikipedia, “corn pone” can also be used as a derogatory term meaning, “one who possesses certain rural, unsophisticated peculiarities” or “rural, folksy or hick characteristics.”
Think of how much more efficiently all those suburban, McMansion kids in Richmond’s West End could have insulted my subtle Applachian twang in the 4th grade? Childhood teasing aside, I couldn’t be prouder that to some I may show signs of certain rural, unsophisticated peculiarities.
Afterall, as the trucker cap I scored at a gas station outside of Elkins proudly says, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from West Virginia.”
Ok, back to cornbread. I stumbled upon a corn pone recipe in the aforementioned WV Junior League cookbook that called for molasses and a bit of bacon fat in the batter that I was sure could do no wrong. Sadly, it was dense and tasteless. So I went back to basics and settled on a recipe that included an ingredient familiar to the cornbread of my youth – creamed corn. Say what you will about canned food, I surely don’t eat a lot of it, but after tasting the end result, I’ll let it slide this time. And maybe next time I’ll go a step further and make homemade creamed corn which would no doubt be even better. I threw in some sharp cheddar cheese, having visions of the wonderfully crunchy crust it would form as it hit the hot pan. If you find yourself cast iron skillet-less, an 8 x 8 square baking pan should do the trick.
And for those still enjoying the childish amusement that is the word corn pone, I offer you this.
1 cup self-rising white cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 cup cream-style corn
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, coarsely shredded
1 Tb unsalted butter
1. Place cast iron skillet or pan in the oven. Preheat to 400 degrees.
2. Combine all ingredients, except the butter, in a medium bowl and whisk gently, just until blended and free of any lumps.
3. Remove the pre-heated skillet from the oven and toss in the butter. Swirl butter around and up the sides of the pan to coat, until melted. Pour in the cornbread batter and spread evenly. Bake for 40 minutes, or until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly in the pan on a wire rack and serve warm.
As I have mentioned before, I have an ongoing love affair with Italy. It started at an early age with grainy photos in our family’s Encyclopedia set and continued with a multi-country school trip to Europe at 17. Then, a semester in college living, speaking, eating, and smelling the country up close officially sealed the deal. It breaks my heart that it has been long, too long, since I’ve been back but whenever I get a little Italy-sick I seek out recipes that can take my taste buds there.
Marzipan is one of those passports. At 20, I had never even heard of the stuff but it lined the shop windows of every big-windowed bakery in Florence. Delicate and brightly colored pears, apples, and strawberries sparkling with sugar and stacked high on silver trays drew me from across the piazzas. At first naive glance, I thought they were decorative soaps or even little candles, until I spotted an old lady exiting the shop mid-bite. Surely something this beautiful, can’t be edible?
The flavor is distinct and pure, unadulterated almond. Not everyone gets into marzipan but I adore the chewy, creamy texture. And dipped in melted chocolate? Don’t even get me started. Though most are mass-produced these days with the aid of molds, I sought out a few shops dedicated to the art of hand shaping and painting where you could watch the masters at work. Real apples, after all, are not pure red but, flecked with bits of green or yellow and perhaps dented in a spot or two.
Back in my post-college and all-to-adult real world, I don’t have the time (or desire) to create my own and the store-bought variety are often stale, never measuring up. So what to do when I’m searching for a fix? I stumbled upon this recipe for Lemon Almond Tart in my mom’s recipe binder and had a hunch it might fit the bill. Scribbled down in her handwriting, I have no clue of its origin but with a few edits, it’s ideal for the almond lovers among us.
Though the flavor is strong on the nut, the lemon offers a wonderful splash of tartness to the filling, breaking up any intensity. I topped mine with some in-season strawberries and glazed them with a little simple syrup to give it that nostalgic marzipan sparkle.
It may not be as good as being there, but with a little imagination, it’ll do just fine.
Lemon Almond Tart
I rely on my good friend the food processor heavily in this recipe. However, if you do not own one, the crust can be made the old-fashioned way in a bowl with a fork to mix. Though I suggest you use butter closer to room temperature. The filling should be finely pulverized and blended well – a blender will work just the same.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and diced
4-5 Tb ice water
1 cup almonds, lightly toasted
1/2 cup almond paste
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup lemon juice, fresh
4 tsp grated lemon zest
Sliced berries & simple syrup* (for decorating)
1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, powdered sugar, almond extract and salt until combined. Add the chilled butter and pulse until the size of peas. Drizzle in the ice water 1 Tb at a time, pulsing until a moist, crumb-like dough forms. Do not mix until a ball forms. The dough will be fine and powdery, but clump together when pressed.
2. Press firmly into a 10 or 11-inch tart pan and freeze until set, at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line frozen crust with parchment and fill with beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes, remove beans, and return to the oven for 8 minutes longer. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and allow crust to cool completely.
3. In the food processor, blend together the toasted almonds, almond paste, and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs, heavy cream, lemon juice, lemon zest. Blend until fully combined. Pour into the cooled tart shell and bake at 350 until set, about 35-40 minutes. Cool in the pan and top with berries. Paint with simple syrup. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Remove the tart from the fridge 30 minutes prior to serving for ease in slicing.
*Note: For the unacquainted, simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar dissolves and then cooled.
For me, Easter has always been and always will be, all about the Cadbury Creme Egg. It seems everyone pledges their allegiance to one treat over any other at this time of year. There are the chocolate peanut butter bunny fanatics, the jelly bean addicts, and don’t even get me started on those misguided Peep people – ick!
As a child, Easter always meant a visit to the grandparents’ house and a special trip to dinky Mercer Mall for a pair of pristine white cotton gloves and matching dresses of pastel flowers for Ash and I. In the wee hours before Easter Sunday, I would creep up the basement stairs where Ash and I shared a pull-out sofa, and squint into the darkness. One year, I glimpsed a figure moving around our baskets and though his stature was suspiciously similar to my mom’s, I swore up and down that I saw those tell-tale bunny ears.
We dove into our baskets as dawn broke. I pushed past the stray jelly beans and decoy Peeps, digging until I found gold – the Cadbury Creme Egg. Each year I found one, maybe two or even (jackpot!) three. The other candy barely lasted a week but the eggs were rationed, savored.
Over many Easters I learned that there is an art to eating a Cadbury Creme Egg. It’s best to unwrap the egg as you eat to avoid any melting chocolate mishaps on those new white Easter gloves. Start at the top by licking a hole in the chocolate shell and gradually suck out the custard-y yolk. The goal is to work your way through the egg without causing a tragic shell implosion. In the end it’s best to just accept that it’s nearly impossible to eat one attractively or daintily. The entire process is grotesque really, but with smears of chocolate on your face and fingers sticky with filling, you may just find your inner 7-year-old self again. And what is so wrong about that?
This week’s recipe is a take on my Easter sweet favorite via a spin on the classic French dessert – Pots de Creme. The rich vanilla custard stands in for the creme egg filling and a thin layer of poured chocolate, for the milk chocolate shell yields a tidier and more adult Pots de Creme Egg. I opted for semi-sweet chocolate as I feared milk chocolate too rich for this application. To mimic the egg shape I used oval ramekins and tartlet pans to mimic flowers for spring. Decorating with bits of royal icing and silver dragees is optional but I figured, with a clever little idea like this one, why not live up to my name and go all Martha on you?
Pots de Creme Eggs
Custard recipe adapted from Mark Bittman
A vanilla pots de creme marries with a thin shell of semi-sweet chocolate for an Easter dessert that can’t be beat. Warning, the melted chocolate shell contains an entire stick of butter (I know, I know, is my name Paula?) but trust me, this is the best way to get the chocolate runny enough to achieve a thin shell that won’t bruise the custard. Plus, the goal is to spread as thin a layer as possible – so go light on the chocolate, relax – then eat a carrot.
Yields 4, 6-ounce ramekins or 8, 3-ounce oval ramekins (here)
For the custard
2 cups heavy cream
2 vanilla beans or 1 tsp vanilla extract
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
For the chocolate shell
1 1/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 stick unsalted butter
For the royal icing
1 1/2 Tbs meringue powder
2 cups powdered sugar
3-4 Tbs warm water
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Split and scrape seeds from vanilla beans and combine with the cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Warm over medium heat until cream just begins to steam. Turn off heat, cover, and let steep for 15 minutes. If using vanilla extract, just heat the cream and save the extract to add later.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until light yellow. Remove the vanilla bean pods and whisk 1/4 cup of cream into egg mixture to temper. Add eggs to the saucepan with the warm cream and whisk to combine. If using vanilla extract, add it now.
3. Pour custard mixture into ramekins, filling them about 3/4 full, and place in a baking dish. Carefully fill baking dish with water halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake 25-35 minutes until set, but center is still jiggly. Remove and chill in the refrigerator.
Tip: I transfer the baking dish with ramekins to the oven and then pour the water into the baking dish. This will keep the water from sloshing into the ramekins as you move them.
4. While the custards chill, combine the chocolate chips and butter in a microwave safe bowl and heat at 30 second intervals, stirring occasionally, until completely melted. Pour a very thin layer of melted chocolate on the tops of each custard and spread evenly. Return to refrigerator to set.
5. For the royal icing, mix the meringue powder, powdered sugar, and water together on low speed in an electric mixer. Beat until smooth, adding more water as needed to achieve a stiff, but flexible consistency for piping. Dye with food coloring as desired, and pipe away! Store finished custards in the refrigerator until ready to serve. These keep wonderfully and can be made a day ahead.
Tip: Royal icing can be made in advance and will keep for weeks in an airtight container at room temperature. If it becomes stiff, add a few teaspoons of warm water to thin.
Finding chemistry and compatibility with another person is a tricky thing to be sure and as many of us know, there is no such thing as a perfect match. Frankly, I cringe when I hear talk of long lists of qualities someone is seeking in a mate. No doubt, we all have items or issues that are major dealbreakers but I’ve found compatibility and the symptoms of love to be much simpler than complicated ratings games or laundry lists of pros and flaws.
My list, for better or worse, has always been pretty short. The ability to make me laugh, love for family, ambition and of course, attraction but, there was one thing that encompassed all the others and told me, this is it. So, what served as a sign that I was ready for a lifelong partnership?
My desire to give him the last piece of pie.
Yep, that was it. And it didn’t stop at pie, it’s the leftovers from a gorgeous Saturday night dinner, the last bite of my favorite cookie, or that final slice of homemade bread. I often sit at work, making plans for those last little bits, like using that bread to sop up the remaining drops of broth and rosemary in a bowl of soup. But then I arrive home to find only the tell-tale signs of stray crumbs littering the countertop and a crumpled bag in the garbage.
I am undoubtedly disappointed and even at times, momentarily angry. Anger was the case with the bread pictured this week. I was saving half the loaf for blog photos as I did not get a chance to snap the finished product before nightfall on Sunday. Though I asked Zach to hold off on eating that last half, I arrived home on Monday afternoon to a hacked up disk and a meek, “Sorry…” echoing from the basement. Ultimately, the anger subsided and I made do with a hasty Plan B.
My joy for cooking and baking stems not from eating it all alone, but from the happiness it can bring to others. It’s an expression of love in a humble slice of bread, studded with golden garlic cloves. And for me, there’s no better form of love in return, than an empty plate and a few stray crumbs.
It’s a good thing Zach is always hungry.
Roasted Garlic & Parmesan N0-Knead Bread
Adapted from Jim Lahey via The New York Times
This recipe is an adaptation of Jim Lahey’s infamous No-Knead bread method first published in The New York Times a few years ago. For those unfamiliar, this bread is virtually labor-free but does require a day or more to proof. I used a combination of mashed roast garlic and whole garlic cloves as I like the flavor to permeate throughout but also the zing from the whole cloves. This basic bread technique is wonderful for bread baking newbies and can be used as a blank canvas for an endless variety of add-ins.
1 head roasted garlic*
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbs water
1. Take half of the roasted garlic cloves and mash gently in a small bowl. Leave the remaining roasted cloves intact.
2. Combine the flour, yeast, salt, parmesan in a large bowl. Add the mashed garlic and mix to distribute then fold in the whole cloves gently.
3. Add the water and stir until blended. Tip, I find using my hand to mix the dough, though messy, is the best method for mixing. The dough will be pretty sticky and very shaggy. Carefully move to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rise in a warm place for 12, preferably 18 hours. Note, the microwave makes for a fabulous bread proofing box as it’s free of drafts and fairly warm.
4. When the dough is ready (it will be bubbly on the top) flour a work surface and place dough on it. Lightly flour the dough and fold it over itself once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
5. Working quickly, shape the dough into a boule, doing your best to form a taut top and pinch the underside seams well to seal. Note, this dough is harder to shape as it is very loose, but the baking process is very forgiving, so don’t stress over it.
6. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour and place the shaped loaf on it. Sprinkle the top with flour and place another cotton towel over it. Let rise for 2 hours, the dough should be double in size.
7. Thirty minutes or more before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a 6-8 quart cast iron, enamel or ceramic pot and its lid in the oven. When the dough is ready, remove the pot from the oven and carefully flip the boule into the pot, with the seam side facing up. Shake the pot once or twice to even out, cover, and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15-30 minutes to achieve a dark, golden crust. Cool on a wire rack.
*Note: To roast garlic, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut off the very top of the head of garlic, drizzle with olive oil and wrap in aluminum foil. Roast for 30-35 minutes, let cool and use a fork to pluck out the cloves.