baking, burgers & sandwiches

red carpet brown bag

pan bagnat

Whilst packing for an all-day whale-watching excursion, I had a moment where I thought I’d slap together a good ol’ PB&J and call it a lunch. There is nothing dishonorable about this traditional option, but I decided on this day to honor the sea by treasuring one of it’s finest offerings, the humble tuna.

pan bagnat

On the Mediterranean coastline of France, the clever and life-affirming residents of Nice created the best tunafish sandwich known to mankind, and it is the pan bagnat. The best quality tuna is simply dressed in fruity olive oil and acidic champagne vinegar or lemon juice. Leave the gloppy mayo to your tuna melts. Then you add in some vegetables for crunch and flavor (artichoke hearts, peppers, red onion), some nice salty olives, aromatic fresh basil, and hearty hard boiled eggs. Add it all in loving layers to the partially hollowed out casing of a crisp baguette or boule. I used a mish-mash of this recipe from Food 52 and this one from Martha Stewart.

pan bagnat

The beauty of this sandwich is that you can use up a lot of stuff laying around your fridge, pantry, and condiments shelf. No, the beauty of this sandwich is that you can make it entirely ahead of time, press it down in your fridge under a heavy skillet or a baking tray weighed down with heavy books overnight. No, no, no the beauty of this sandwich is that you need to make it ahead of time, because the multitude of bright flavors really come together and then soak into the bread to make it taste even better after a night being pressed.

bourbon dark chocolate blondies

While you sit back and admire your work on a lunch well-packed, might I suggest adding these supremely easy one-bowl bourbon dark chocolate blondies? Whales will be watched, seas will be sailed, and tummies will be satisfied, fortified, and nourished to forge forward into the wild blue yonder.


German’s American cake

German chocolate cake
German chocolate cake is not German. The consummately American cake was created in the U.S. and named after an American chocolatier who worked at the oldest chocolate company in the U.S. In summary, German chocolate cake is named after German’s chocolate bar who created chocolate for bakers at Baker’s. Got it? More precisely, the cake was named after Sam German, who created a more sweetened version of dark baking chocolate at Baker’s, the chocolate company founded in part and owned by Dr. James Baker. Phew! Can we eat it now?

German chocolate cake

This beautiful version of German’s American Chocolate Bar for Bakers by Baker’s Chocolate Cake (which is a more accurate name for this confection, in my opinion) is brought to you by the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook. The cake layers are wafer-thin and deeply chocolatey. The filling substitutes the typical gooey sugar-bomb caramel with a more subtle, coconut milk-infused caramel that is chunky and crunchy. Double the recipe to achieve the height in the photo above to impress your guests visually, then barrage them with trivia about the cake as I have done to dazzle them with your knowledge. Or, as I should, just pipe down and serve it already.


punkies…or something

So if brownies are from chocolate and blondies are butterscotch, then what would you call a tender, cake-like pumpkin bar chock full of gooey chocolatey chunks? An orangie because of the color? Or a gingerie? Or a punkie? I admit that these are all terrible names, I mean really really atrocious – but they don’t convey the wonder of these delicious pumpkin bars. With a few standby ingredients you can whip these up with the same handful of minutes it would take to read the directions on that store-bought boxed brownie mix. I added a generous amount of spice (I love my pumpkin spicy!) and a dollop extra of pumpkin (I love my spice pumpkiny!) and the results were perfect for a wintery snack while watching movies or with tea or maybe for after-breakfast breakfast. These chocolatey pumpkin bars (or whatever they’re best called) are beautiful piled high on a plate for sharing, and do be generous with the ice cold milk.


pumped up pecan pie

We’re hosting Christmas in SF again this year, and I’m so excited for: avoiding holiday highway traffic, driving by Tom and Jerry’s wild and wacky Christmas display, cooking up a storm with Anna in the kitchen, decorating the tree and arranging the presents just so, enjoying a glass of wine with a house full of roasting turkey aroma. I’m very lucky that the main deal, the Christmas meal itself, is a collaborative affair with B’s mom Anna expertly navigating us through the menu. This allows me to take my rightful place, as the slower, clumsy sous chef always standing at the ready.

Another thing I am looking forward to is making dessert. The Christmas dinner dessert, I believe, should be a comforting classic but with an enticing element of excitement. I don’t need a spectacular show-stopper because the meal itself is so rich and hearty – and I definitely don’t need something so complicated as to set myself up for a flailing failure either. Last year, I made a fragrant bourbon pumpkin pie with pecan streusel. This year, I’ve decided to go the way of a pecan pie, and this salted chocolate pecan pie  will please a lot of different tastes. Its gooey and sweet but also a touch salty like the best caramel, crunchy and nutty chock full of sweet pecans, and crumbly with smooth pockets of intense chocolate. If you or your loved ones are fans of any of the above, then this should be your Christmas dessert, too.

Some notes on this recipe: I recommend toasting the pecans to round out the flavors. Also I royally failed on the crust end. I think what happened was that the pie was too full and some of that caramel like filling oozed over the edge and behind the crust: effectively super-glueing the pie crust to my dish. I had to chisel out shards of pie crust and the plated dish was more like chocolate caramel pecan cobbler (a delicious, delicious, cobbler). So use whatever crust (ready-bought or from scratch) that you like but watch the level of the filling, chill the dough, and flour that crust before laying it in the dish. Or, just get out some bowls for a scrumptious cobbler and call it a success.

baking, Uncategorized

earl cocoa tea

My darling buds Monisha and Max got hitched in an intimate and personal ceremony under the California sun. The best part of the day was the “it takes a village” spirit of family and friends building, decorating, cooking, and arranging to throw together a wedding picnic for the amazing couple. My job was to bring some cakes to serve with Max’s mom’s homemade fruit pies with gemlike berries culled from her own garden.

I needed an arrangement of cakes that were suitably festive, offered guests a variety of flavors, complemented the fresh fruit pies, and most importantly – could withstand that California sun for hours preceding serving. Phew! My brain calculated all the possibilities of a non-frosted but not-just-poundcake effort and came up with following: cakes that are festive by shape (Bundt) or topping (candied oranges), that are interesting with surprising flavor combinations, and that remained moist sitting outdoors. Shown together above, I think they were befitting of a casual, yet celebratory occasion. Part one: earl grey tea chocolate bundt cake.

Max (good man that he is) likes chocolate, so this one is for him. To me, the perfect chocolate cake has tons of gooey buttery frosting and that would not possibly withstand a day of sitting outdoors. So, instead I wanted to go in an unexpected direction with the routine chocolate cake and this recipe for Earl Grey tea/chocolate cake was a standout. The flavors are surprising but utterly smoothly melt together in your mouth. I found that adding semisweet chocolate chips or chopped semisweet chocolate (about 1/2 cup) really helped bring out the chocolate flavor and added bursts of texture. A dusting of powdered sugar is all the prettying up it needs, although a drizzle of melted chocolate would be welcome, too.

This cake is spongy with the fragrant bittersweet notes of black tea  complementing the light smooth flavor of chocolate, and yet it was not overly rich or sugary.  You have here a chocolate cake light enough for afternoon tea but sweet enough for a formal dinner dessert.


cinco de mayo brownies

The days are getting longer and it’s time to savor the lingering sunny hours with friends, food, and oh yeah – margaritas.  Cinco de Mayo is a perfect excuse to fire up the grill, chop up some taco fixings, and have an ice chest full of Pacificos and Mexican Coke. After a bit of sun, two or three too many tacos, and   an empty ice chest, you and your guests are going to experience a wicked sugar crash – will you be prepared? Save the day with a plate of Mexican chocolate-inspired brownies (I mean really, who doesn’t like brownies?).

The sweet, fudgy brownies in this recipe reflect the flavors of Mexican chocolate: chocolate, cinnamon and almonds. They’re super easy to make and home-made brownies are so much more delicious than the boxed stuff. The only substitute I made (and definitely recommend) is semisweet chocolate chips as the milk chocolate makes these overpoweringly sweet.

For me, these brownies were even better the next day. Keep them in the fridge and let them come to room temperature before eating – the consistency after refrigerating is more fudgy and the chocolate chips creaminess really coming through.

The topping starts out like dulce de leche, a sticky caramel that dries into a crisp glaze. I could have done with out its excessive sugariness, but it does keep the almonds on (and the almonds are integral), maybe next time I’ll just drizzle melted dark chocolate for the same effect.

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


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.


have your beer and eat it too

I promise this will be the last cupcake post for some time. They’re just really fun to make and then give away to all the people you know so that you don’t have any left in your house to tempt you late at night, after feeding the cat, while doing the dishes, or for breakfast as part of a not-so-healthy diet.  I like chocolate cupcakes, but sometimes that’s too easy and boring for me. (Even with the vegan ones, I really feel that adding the chocolate chips to the batter added some needed oomph, although the cupcakes are yummy on their own.) So, when I came across this Dave Lieberman recipe for Guinness stout chocolate cupcakes it was a melding of all things delicious in my life coming together in perfect harmony. Guinness already tastes like a meal – malty, bittersweet, rich, and creamy all at the same time.  It’s the perfect foil for chocolate, really. This recipe would probably be excellent substituted with Young’s Double Stout which tastes like Cadbury chocolate beer to me. But don’t be dismayed if you are not a beer-drinker: these cupcakes don’t taste like beer. They taste like a rich chocolate cake with…..something….what is that other flavor? Is it a different spice? Is something healthy like a vegetable sneaked into here? If you give these to your friends, they’d never know what that mystery ingredient was, until you point out that particular malty bite – then of course! it’s all so apparent now. The cream cheese frosting pairs perfectly with the Guinness flavor – however I added scraped vanilla bean with delicious results. You could also use the mascarpone frosting from the carrot cupcakes or a vanilla buttercream, but I’d definitely keep the topping white to mimic the head of a cold, refreshing (and filling) freshly pulled pint of Guinness.


sweetness and salt

I adore peanut butter and chocolate. Reese’s peanut butter cups are my second favorite candies. My favorite candies are Reese’s peanut butter Easter eggs which have the absolutely perfect ratio of salty fluffy peanut butter to creamy chocolate shell. Those, however, have to be hoarded in the spring to last during the leaner months. So in search of a suitable year-round fix, I came upon this Martha Stewart recipe for rich, fudgy, decadent chocolate brownies tempered with ribbons of salty, creamy peanut butter. The recipe uses a sweetened, fluffy peanut butter filling rather than the straight-from-the jar sticky salty stuff which makes the texture wonderfully light compared to the dense brownie, and reminds me of a Reese’s. These were perfect for a hiking trip to see waterfalls in Big Basin, a late summer potluck cookout with friends, and even for sneaking into the movie theater for a frothy comedy. No hoarding, though.