almonds and roses and oranges – oh, my

For my recent Moroccan night meal, I needed a Moroccan inspired dessert that was easy to make ahead of time. I decided to slightly alter this recipe for almond cake with orange blossom syrup by making an almond cake with rose water. Ethereal and fragrant rose water, to me, is a clear flavor trip to North Africa, Middle East and South Asia. I simply omitted the vanilla in the recipe and added 1 teaspoon almond essence and 1 teaspoon rose water essence to the batter. You can find this in a specialty grocer or an Indian or Middle Eastern shop. A little bit of rose water goes a long way! Make sure not to add too much or else your cake will taste like a bar of fancy soap. For this recipe I also used whole fat Greek yogurt and made the simple orange syrup without the orange blossom essence. The syrup added another fragrant layer to the flavor and really helped keep this nutty crumbly cake moist the next day.


a brunch hunch

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m a brunch girl. I wear this label pretty proudly and yes the stereotypes are all true: I have my favorite brunch spots in every neighborhood with backups, I will break a diet for brunch, I consider brunch as anytime between 8am and 4pm, I will optimize my brunch experience by ordering a savory dish for myself and a sweet dish to split, and anything on the menu can be had on the side. My one pet peeve is waiting more than 20 minutes for a table. I HATE waiting to eat, so I know that if I’m not at the neighborhood darling cafe by 10.30AM I better head to the unknown greasy spoon diner instead to get my omelette on.

A typical weekend includes Sunday brunch, usually exploring a new place in the neighborhood if the day is decidedly leisurely or heading straight to a favorite stand-by if there are other shenanigans planned for the day. However, my neighborhood gets a lot of crowds during certain city-wide events (Bay to Breakers, SF Pride) and its a nightmare to even consider going to brunch unless you are OK fighting the crowds. For those days, I’ll try to remember to plan ahead and make brunch at home. My goal for brunch at home is to make it as easy as pointing to the menu at that lovely place down the block.

I always use this wondrously simple recipe for baked french toast from Martha Stewart which turns out like a scrumptious bread pudding, yielding the perfectly baked texture of a creamy custard within each sweet slice of challah. Make sure to use thick slices of challah or a similar sweet eggy bread. The soaked up custard forms a caramelized crust on each slice. The best part about this recipe is it takes about 4 minutes to make it the night before and you have everyone’s French toast ready at the same time. Why would you ever make French toast on the griddle, a few at a time while the rest dry out in the oven, ever again?

I love to top this crisp, custardy French toast with the tartness of a simple summer fruit compote. Simply melt some brown sugar in an equivalent amount of butter over low heat. Add your favorite in-season fruit and simmer until the juices are released. Just before turning off the heat to allow it to thicken, I add cinnamon and a splash of maple syrup. I used plums and blueberries this time, but have also used peaches, raspberries, blackberries, pears, and apples with the same ease and tasty results.


good mornin’ punkin

…..and the pumpkin party don’t stop. Well, maybe it will. After all the holiday wintery festive twinkling shiny sparkling luxurious Season Shenanigans, it’s time for some ballast. May I suggest replacing the routine muffin, scone, mcmuffin thingie with a quick bread – and I mean Quick.  Pumpkin bread feels simple enough, even wholesome and earthy – but really you can’t eat pumpkin bread in July. It’s just not right. So you extend the holiday cheer just a few weeks longer, secretly, over a seemingly plain pumpkin bread (with a cup of peppermint hot cocoa – who’s to know? there’s no judgement here.) But then you tuck into a slice, and find that the bread is moist and aromatic with the perfect balance of spices, and yet so light tasting you cut yourself another slice.  Add a schmear of mascarpone, or apple butter if you’re feeling really nostalgic for last week. Mine ended up kind of undercooked at the bottom, so maybe I will bake a bit longer next time. It’ll allow me some time to consider finally taking down the Christmas lights.


that warm holiday feeling

The best parts of the holiday season are that warm, fuzzy feeling of goodwill toward humankind, the impulse to bestow good tidings to strangers, and the deep-seated flush from feelings of cheer, magic, and merriness. Of course, I am talking about alcohol. When is a better time to catch that spill of Kahlua with a mug of hot chocolate? What other time of year is vodka undoubtedly better with some hot apple cider and spices? Why else does peppermint Schnapps exist?

Let’s see, so far I’ve baked with Irish beer, Mexican tequila, and French calvados, so I clearly have an alcohol problem. The problem being that I haven’t even considered an American spirit – so it’s time for some good old-fashioned, stars and stripes, eagle clutching a lady liberty figurine-style patriotism. In the form of bourbon.

Bourbon, that great American whiskey, lends its earthy, sweet, and nutty flavor well to other traditional tastes of the holidays – namely, pecans and pumpkin. It’s a natural fit.  This bourbon and pumpkin pie with pecan streusel has everything you could want in a holiday dessert, especially if you can’t decide between a slice of pumpkin pie, pecan pie, or a shot of Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Have them all! I plan to substitute it for vanilla extract in every recipe from here on out. OK, maybe not but the idea still stands – it’s a great flavor that makes other flavors greater. And super patriotic.



She’s back, and she’s claiming her cupcakes.  So said the message I received not too long ago from Tanima, and I was excited and anxious. Excited to see her, and anxious that the cupcakes I owed her better turn out well after the wait. I met Tanima two years ago at my first Christmas on the west coast, and found out quickly that she is glamorous, funny, and a wicked good cook. She was visiting Monisha from back East, and her visit and my new arrival made it a great opportunity to have fun around the area – including a weekend ski trip to Tahoe. Now, mind you, I can not ski. So, after a day of butt-hurting falls down the bunny slope I wanted to commune with nature’s cold wet blanket no more.  So one afternoon I stayed in our cozy cabin, pumped up the jams way too loud (“Humpty Dance” NEEDS to blasted to be appreciated properly) and relaxed by baking up a batch of coconut cupcakes. These cupcakes are awesomely scrumptious, and they look like sparkling snowflakes so I always associate them with winter.  When they returned, the group nibbled on them and then some more and then we were having a full-fledged cupcake party and were littered by little paper wrappers everywhere. Before she departed, Tanima promised to return for another west coast extravaganza, and that upon her return I was to make special delicious cupcakes to mark the occasion. We decided on red velvet cupcakes, because that seems pretty special and definitely delicious.  These are those cupcakes.

baking, lunch/dinner

trans-bay tex-mex

Now that my buddy Monisha is for-sure firmly settled all the way across the bay, we don’t get to spend as much time together except for our semi-monthly series of pizza taste testing.  So, we planned to get together and make dinner, maybe even semi-regularly if we can tamp down the inertia that glues us to our sides of the water.  For our first endeavor, we came up with a Tex-Mex theme because she had a perfect recipe she had wanted to make. And, oh how perfect it was. The tortilla soup with corn and roasted red peppers from Mollie Katzen (veggie maven of  the Moosewood Cookbook fame) was bold with both flavor and body that a lot of vegetable soups can sometimes lack.  Monisha wisely saved a few of the herbs and veggies from puréeing, which added texture and made the soup much heartier.  Definitely add the lime, it adds a needed citrus kick that plays nicely off of the chilies.

I made a batch of Ina Garten’s cheddar and jalapeño cornbread to accompany the soup.  This ended up with more of a quichey texture than I expected as I halved the recipe and didn’t have half an egg. However, as non-traditional as it was in terms of cornbread, it was still buttery, rich, and salty-sweet as you could ever want. In other words, a perfect foil for a zesty soup.  I couldn’t really taste the jalapeños, so I may leave the seeds in next time.  I was impressed with our due diligence, as we polished the whole pan off in one sitting.

For dessert, we got tipsy over this margarita cake – simple and unadorned but moist and juicy with bursting flavor.  Double-glazing the cake means not only a super moist cake but also that the luscious margarita flavor soaks into the cake and gives it a tart sweet zing with a background of tequila warmth.  You don’t really taste the alcohol in the cake itself, but with the glaze it’s like the best things in life together on one fork: sweet moist cake and a tart strong margarita.  I’d splurge on a really good margarita mix for this, and if you can find it I highly recommend Tommy’s Margarita Mix.  Tommy’s is a landmark Mexican restaurant here in SF known for their tequilas and their delicious, delicious margaritas.  If you only have access to frozen margarita mix, I’d cut 1/2 cup of the frozen concentrate with 1/4 cup water for the cake but use a tablespoon straight up frozen for the glaze.  This recipe makes enough batter for a Bundt pan or two 8 inch cakes, but since I weirdly made one 10 inch cake, I just used the leftover batter to make mini-cupcakes.

Margarita Cake with Tequila Glaze


1 package white cake mix

1  package instant lemon pudding mix

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup margarita mix

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup gold tequila

2 tablespoons triple sec


3 tablespoons tequila

2 tablespoon triple sec

1/2 teaspoon lime zest

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon margarita mix

2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour pan (one Bundt pan or two 8 inch pans).

For cake: Combine all cake ingredients in a large bowl and beat for 5 minutes at medium speed of an electric mixer. Pour into prepared pan and bake 45-50 minutes for Bundt pan (or 35-40 minutes for 8 inch pans), or until an inserted toothpick in the center comes out clean.

While cake is baking, prepare the glaze: Mix all glaze ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add more sugar if needed to desired consistency.

Cool cake in pan for 5 minutes. Use a fork to poke holes on top of the warm cake while in the pan. Drizzle 1/2 of the glaze over the cake. Cool cake for another 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool completely. Spoon the rest of the tequila lime glaze over cooled cake.

Serves 12

Last but not least, we ended an evening full of cooking, laughter, and stuffed tummies with a refreshing palate cleanser in the form of watermelon granita. We had to end our Tex-Mex night with another touch of tequila, but that is optional for you (or, consider vodka).

Watermelon Tequila Granita

1 watermelon, about 4 lbs

1/2 cup sugar

juice and rind of 1 lime

1/2 cup gold tequila

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

Cut the flesh from a ripe watermelon into 1-2 inch cubes. Place the watermelon into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Mix in the sugar, lime juice and rind, and tequila until the sugar is dissolved. Place the mixture into a shallow pan and into the freezer. Every hour or so, scrape up the ice crystals with a fork. In a few hours you’ll have a perfectly pink, icy, juicy tequila-watermelon granita. Garnish with fresh mint.

Serves 6

baking, ice cream

in the kitchen making sammiches

Some people are bicoastal and commute back and forth to enjoy the best of east and west coasts. I am bi-kitchen, in that I have a commuter kitchen. When I’m not in my shoebox kitchen(-ette) making a cluttered mess while spacedly staring out at the Transamerica pyramid, I’m at B’s lovingly renovated  (but oft-neglected) kitchen making a mess while spacedly staring out at the Calla lilies and rose bushes. This commuting requires some forethought, and I am frequently schlepping spices, pans, and gadgets back or forth. Sometimes, I duplicate inventory – two bottles of good vanilla, two mini-cupcake pans, two cans of panko breadcrumbs – and divide the bounty between my kitchens. Other times, I forget which kitchen holds my brownie pan, or cumin, or zester.  This is a tale of one of those days.

I decided to make ice cream again at B’s, but this time to master vanilla ice cream. I was prepared to be painstakingly precise and would not settle for anything less then perfection.  As I start to measure out the sugar, I realize I’m short on white sugar – OK, half white sugar and half brown sugar goes into the mix. Time to whip the egg yolks – oh, forgot the hand mixer back at my place.  No problem, I’ll use the whisk manually and build some biceps. While whipping up a frenzy, the handle of the whisk comes off. OK, time to clutch the whisk by the nubbin and build some hand muscles as well. Later, it’s time to chill the custard mixture over an ice bath. There is no ice. OK, let’s put some metal bowls in the freezer, and once they are chilled I place the custard in a bowl within a bowl. Then I stick the whole thing in the fridge and try to remember to stir it every 20 minutes to prevent a skin from forming. I promise myself to not even think about sticking the mixture into the ice cream maker until it is cold: not cool, not room temp, but cold.

Waiting for the hot mixture to get super-cold takes time. A lot of time – and I’m impatient. So I decide to make cookies and turn out some ice cream sandwiches. I use a chocolate sugar cookie recipe from a Williams-Sonoma cookbook Selina gifted me, but I cut the recipe in 1/3. When it’s time to line the baking sheets with silpat I realize that there is only one baking sheet, and I forgot the silpat. No problem, right? OK, line the single baking sheet with parchment paper and repeat the rest of the steps twice more – yielding 18 cookies total.  Now, I get the counter ready for rolling out the dough (hey, I remembered the rolling pin!) and….forgot the cookie cutter.  Now I’m a pro at improvising – I scavenge the pantry and grab a can of black beans. I use the cleaned emptied can to cut out circles of chocolate cookie dough.

I found this dough to be a sticky mess to work with, even chilled, and nice little circles don’t want to come off the plastic wrap unless they’re squished into an unappealing lopsided oval. I end up using a spatula to gently curl up edges of the circles and quickly get them on the pan – the warmer the dough gets the messier the ordeal.  After I get my one tray of cookies in the oven, I put the rest of the dough into the freezer to get cold again.  Out of the oven, the cookies are nicely round again, smooth and flat – perfect chocolate discs for wielding some ice cream damage. Time to cool them – of course there is no cooling rack, but the rack from the unused toaster oven will do nicely, thank you.

Meanwhile the ice cream custard in the fridge is nice and cold, and hey, no skin! Time to stick it in the ice-cream maker and it is a golden, creamy beauty to behold with tempting flecks of vanilla beans throughout. This looks like a success – I sneak a taste, oh yeah, that is decadent and perfectly smooth. Maybe it’s time to get a little crazy. As I scavenge the pantry, I spy a leftover baggie of milk chocolate toffee chips. Yeah, lets dump them in.

While the ice cream is chilling in the freezer, I cut out some squares of parchment paper, about 5×5 inches, and get out some quart-size freezer bags. Then it’s time to go watch movies and HGTV for 4 hours while the ice cream gets its frozen beauty sleep. Once ready, I smoosh a scoop of ice cream in between the undersides of two cookies and wrap it in a parchment square, bag it and freeze it flat. For more texture and sugary pop, I added mini chocolate chips to the sides. The ice cream and 1/3 of the cookie recipe made 9 big sandwiches – you definitely need two hands for these. The parchment wrapper keeps the ice cream from becoming a soggy mess in the bag if it should start to melt, and hold stray choco chips together.  Allow the sammies to freeze for at least another hour or so.

Finally – time to reward myself for being a kitchen Macgyver with an ice cream sammich. The vanilla bean, brown sugar and toffee ice cream is perfection – smooth, rich, buttery with the brown sugar, and crunchy with the toffee chips – like a vanilla butterscotch cloud. The chocolate sugar cookie is decidedly worth the fussy dough. Its crisp texture bookends the smooth ice cream nicely, and it yields a deeply chocolatey yet super sweet flavor. A week later, the ice cream sandwiches hold up wonderfully – the cookies are only a bit chewy but not in any way mushy. This is what kitchen Mcgyvering is all about – the long, improvised, ridiculous journey full of whisk-nubbins, black bean cans, and toaster oven racks – lead to a chocolatey pot of cold creamy gold.

Vanilla Bean, Brown Sugar, and Toffee Ice Cream

adapted from recipe in bon appétit Desserts, 2010, Barbara Fairchild

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1 cup whole milk

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

5 large egg yolks

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup milk chocolate toffee chips

Combine cream and mild in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from heat.

Whisk egg yolks and sugars in large bowl until well blended. Gradually whisk in hot cream mixture; return mixture to same saucepan. Stir constantly over low heat until custard thickens and leaves path on back of spoon when finger is drawn across, about 12 minutes (do not boil). Strain custard into medium metal bowl. Set bowl of custard over large bowl of ice water and stir until mixture is cold.

Process custard in ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Stir in milk chocolate toffee chips at the end. Transfer ice cream to airtight container and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

makes 1 quart


cookies take the cake

The postings have been slim because the eating’s been slim recently, unless photos of Greek yogurt and protein bars day after day after day intrigue you.   Then a breakthrough moment, when having lost a harmless bet to B meant I owed him something delicious, fresh-baked and definitely not part of the boring routine.  Knowing that B is quite the carrot cake aficionado, I remembered that I had this great bon appétit recipe forwarded to me by Anna for carrot cake cookies.  How brilliant is that? Bite-sized cookies with the crisp-chew of oatmeal cookies, but with the golden sweetness of carrot cake.  I looked the recipe over and it is really simple, and carrots are totally healthy right? I wouldn’t even feel guilty if I succumbed to temptation and tried one or two…or more.  The only tweak I made was using a basic cream cheese buttercream rather than the recipe’s frosting, which has lemon juice and cream. I didn’t want to worry about the frosting making the cookies soggy or spoiling, and a whipping together a stick of butter, a cup of powdered sugar, an 8 ounce package of cream cheese and a teaspoon of vanilla is super easy.  After the cookies were made and stacked up in little orange piles all over my kitchen, I couldn’t imaging storing them would be easy with frosting just the domed tops.  So, I decided to  stick ’em together and made sandwich cookies for easy packaging to deliver to my debtor.  The funnest part was sorting through the cookies and matching up cookie bottoms to make sandwiches. As in life, no matter what size or bizarre shape they turned out to be, each cookie had a perfect mirror image to fit them.


fruit fireworks

Look no further for an awesomely bright summer dessert for 4th of July or just your next weekend barbecue.  For a recent Very Important birthday party for beloved and brilliant Barney, I was invited to bring a dessert to accompany the birthday cake. I needed something light and fresh, fruity and summery, elegant and sophisticated, and the complete opposite of cake.  This nectarine and mascarpone tart, resplendent with its gingersnap crust, and studded with crystallized ginger, was a perfect find.

I increased the crust size for a 10 inch tart pan, but used the same amount of filling as the recipe.  I used just about an entire tub of Trader Joe’s triple ginger cookies (fresh, ground and crystallized ginger) for the super easy crust, which is like a crumbly crisp buttery gingersnap.  The filling itself is a creamy, tangy dairy wonderland with cream cheese, mascarpone, and sour cream.  The lemon zest is a must to brighten up the flavor and it ties in nicely with the stonefruit’s tartness.  Don’t skip the ginger bits in the filling or on top, they add a slight bite to make the flavor more complex and complements the sweetness nicely.  A tip: buy the crystallized ginger at Whole Foods or a food coop at the bulk section – so you can get a few tablespoons at a time (I don’t know how much crystallized ginger you use in life, but a few tablespoons will last me a few years).

The nectarines absolutely must be at the peak of ripeness, sweet and juicy without being tasteless and flat or mushy.  I even bought peaches as an alternative just in case.  For me, removing the nectarine pit was the hardest part of this recipe! For a more rustic tart, you could omit the glaze, but I did add the peach jam glaze which not only improved the presentation, but also helped the crystallized ginger stick to the fruit.  I added a few blueberries for a nice contrast in flavor and color.

I would definitely recommend adding the fruit just before serving / presenting if possible so that the juices don’t make the tart soggy.  I made the crust and filling (no-cook!) the day before and added the fruit the day of serving.  This tart sat out a few hours before serving, because let’s face it was pretty to look at and I was rather proud that it didn’t collapse in the car ride over – I held my breath the entire time. However, I think it would have tasted even better 30 minutes out of the fridge rather than at room temperature as the filling, although not runny, was too soft for my taste.  Even so, I would make this again in a heartbeat whenever stonefruit are in season and a Very Important occasion dictates a spectacular sweet celebration.


bleeding mauve velvet

I love layer cakes, but rarely have occasion to make them. Transporting and devouring three entire cakes requires a proper setting with a cast of accomplices.  Hence, the plethora of cupcake posts on this blog (portable cake! individual servings!) So when B asked me to consider contributing a dessert for a family Christmas dinner with Anna and Pat, I was excited to make a glorious layer cake.  A few things, though: it had to be festive so chocolate/vanilla boringness would not do. Also, I had not made a layer cake in years, so I needed a recipe that was fool-proof for a potential spaz like me. I could see a future with a gentle suggestion to bring something store-bought next time. Lastly, it had to be universally appealing, or rather – nothing too weird.

With this in mind, I have learned: in Paula we trust. I don’t know much about Paula Deen. However, I am aware of her position as the premier Southern food belle in popular American cookery.  So, when I had decided that the perfect festive, straightforward, not-too-weird Christmas cake would be red velvet, I researched and researched recipes, and came up with Paula Paula Paula. I have made red velvet cupcakes before, and this recipe was closest to what I knew from them: red velvet is a cocoa-based cake but not chocolatey, the buttermilk tang is distinctive in its flavor, and although cream-cheese frosting is not traditional, I personally think it tastes best paired with the cake.

The recipe wasn’t difficult but I was initially worried with the results. I used no-taste red gel food coloring because the thought of an entire bottle of food coloring to produce the deep red color makes me gag. The gel is more potent, so you use less of it, and it doesn’t taste (as) chemically. I doubled the cocoa to get a deeper, richer flavor, which in turn made the batter more brown and the end result was mauve. Mauve velvet cake. After I baked two 9″ cakes, the layers were disappointingly thin, maybe less than 1.5 inches tall each. I was hoping for a tall towering cake, so I baked an extra layer – which was a completely different color mauve than the first two. Ah, bi-colored cake. That’s festive, right?

I froze the cake layers, then thawed and assembled them at Anna’s. Once unwrapped of plastic wrap and foil, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the cakes remained moist, REALLY densely moist.  In fact, it was messy to try to even the layers because of the stickiness of the cake tops, so my stacking of the layers was a bit lurchingly lopsided. It’s nothing that copious amounts of icing can’t fix! The icing was easy to whip up if you substitute a jar of marshmallow fluff for the melted ‘mallows. The result was easy to spread and the sweet marshmallow mellows the cream cheese nicely. The final cake was bi-colored, dense, mauve, not too chocolatey, sufficiently rich, moist, and I think, delicious.