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Posts Tagged ‘baked goods’

This past week, even though it’s still rather warm here in Southern California, I’ve definitely noticed the changes that mark the movement of Summer into Autumn.  They’re very subtle, and someone who hasn’t lived here for most of their lives wouldn’t necessarily notice–how the morning air is just a few degrees cooler, the afternoon light tilts just slightly casting a warm glow across the skies, even though it’s still 85 degrees outside.  With the seasonal nestiness kicking in, my thoughts have been moving to some of my favorite things to make–roasts, braises, and the like.  Tonight, I made some last minute plans to have friends over for dinner, so I wanted some uncomplicated dishes that I knew I could put together easily–a Roast Chicken with root vegetables cooked in the pan; a salad… but what about dessert?

Yes, even with living a primal lifestyle, dessert can and does come into the equation.  The occasional sweet thing is not verboten, and with a little tweak here and there, you can make something spectacular.  Here at El Rancho, I had a bag of pears sitting on my counter that needed some attention, and I KNEW what I had to make.

Taking the firmest of the pears, they got the peeling and coring of their lives.

A vanilla bean was split down the middle and scraped of its insides (wow, that sounds awfully violent, doesn’t it?) and blended with some melted butter and local Orange Blossom Honey.  After the pears took a little bath in this magical syrup, they were nestled in one of my favorite roasting dishes and put in the oven for an hour.

What came out:

And I’m not joking when I tell you these smelled amazing when they came out of the oven.  The pears with the honey, vanilla and a splash of lemon just works.   What’s fantastic is that the juices mix with the syrup and caramelize into this sauce you could pretty much wear as a perfume.  It’s so simple, but one of these guys with a spoonful of whipped crème fraiche and a handful of fresh raspberries… okay, words don’t do it justice.

I admit:  not the greatest picture.  Not gonna apologize for it, either–that pear was warm, the crème fraiche was melting, and I needed to PUT IT IN MY MOUTH.

Honey-Vanilla Roasted Pears

  • 4 firm pears, peeled, cut in half and cored
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup butter, plus extra for pan
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  1. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. Butter roasting dish and arrange pears cut side up
  3. Split vanilla bean and scrape seeds.
  4. Add seeds to a small saucepan with the honey, butter, lemon juice and melt on low heat until butter has melted and created a syrup.
  5. Tuck the remaining vanilla bean with the pears, pour syrup over the pears, making sure some of the syrup is in the core of each pear.
  6. Roast for about 30 minutes, then turn over and roast another 20-30 minutes until the pears are fork-tender.
  7. Turn the pears cut side up again, and brush juices over the tops.
  8. If you’d like a little extra browning like I did, turn broiler on low and broil the tops for 3-5 minutes.
  9. Serve warm with whipped crème fraiche or if you’re feeling decadent, some great vanilla ice cream.

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Yow, that was a long title.

Hey, can you believe it’s been this long since I’ve posted?  I’ve been a bad, bad food blogger, not getting pictures of anything interesting when I’ve made it.   Most of my holiday baking this year I’ve already posted about before, but I do have something new for you guys.  Tomorrow is the office holiday party, and we all know how much of a drag those things are, but I still wanted to bring something fun and tasty for the office.  These were a whole lot faster than trying to decorate an army of gingerbread men, but they’re full of spice, a little dense and moist, and the orange zest in the frosting helps keep the whole thing from getting too heavy.  As for decorating, go silly with sprinkles, or get elegant with some fine slivers of crystalized ginger.  You can see which way I went.

Gingerbread Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes approximately 22 cupcakes

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup boiling water
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, spices and salt
  3. Beat butter, sugar and molasses at medium speed until smooth and light.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time, and scrape bowl between each egg.
  5. Add flour mixture alternating with boiling water, beating in at low speed after each addition.
  6. Spoon batter into paper-lined muffin cups and bake 20-25 minutes.
  7. Cool in pans for 5 minutes, then cool completely on wire rack before frosting.

Vanilla Bean-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1-8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (save pod for another use)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest
  • 1 pound confectioner’s sugar
  1. Beat cream cheese, butter, vanilla seeds and orange zest until fluffy.
  2. Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar and beat until smooth.

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Growing up, there were two uses for pumpkins:  pie and jack o’lanterns.  I never heard of pumpkin in soups or curries or quick breads, and can you imagine, the little pumpkin-pie-lover that I am, to be opened to those possibilities?  Of course, I still love carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en:

We’ve had a surfeit of pumpkins and other winter squashes coming in with our CSA box–Long Island Cheese Pumpkins, Butternut Squash, Delicata Squash–perhaps not great for carving, but absolutely delicious when roasted and pureed into soups, and in this case, a savory tart.  It’s rich stuff, with butter and sour cream and sweetened ever-so-slightly with caramelized onions and the natural sugars that develop with roasting squash.  I’ll admit something to you–because I was baking this on Hallowe’en evening, and along with getting ready for the Big Night, I cheated and used a Pillsbury Pie Crust.  I KNOW, I KNOW, I can make pate brisee and it would have been so much better, but I was in a time crunch you guys!  Anyway, it was a huge hit with Choo, who shares my love of all that is pumpkin.

I used a blend of a few different squashes–I had roasted a pan full of pumpkin, butternut squash, and delicata to help clear some counter space earlier in the week.  Roasting winter squashes is incredibly easy:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°
  2. Cut squashes into large pieces, scrape out seeds and stringy pulp.  You can peel them, but it’s really not necessary–the flesh can be easily scraped out after roasting.
  3. Toss in just enough olive oil to coat pieces lightly, and if using squash for savory dishes, add a head’s worth of garlic cloves.
  4. Roast in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until flesh is browned and tender.

If you have extra puree, then it’s fine to store in the freezer in an airtight container.

Even though I served it for dinner, this tart would make an excellent Autumn brunch dish–it would go perfectly with a mixed greens salad with fall notes (pomegranate seeds, candied walnuts, chevre, etc.).

Savory Winter Squash & Caramelized Onion Tart

  • 1/2 batch of Pate Brisee (or one refrigerated pie crust if you’re a cheater like me)
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 large Maui Sweet onion, sliced
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 1/4 cups roasted squash puree, any combination of pumpkin, butternut squash or delicata
  • 5 cloves roasted garlic
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 Tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 10-12 fresh sage leaves (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 425°
  2. Roll out pate brisee and line a 9″ tart pan.  Cover and refrigerate lined tart pan for 20 minutes.
  3. Blind bake tart crust for 10-12 minutes.  Blind baking is done by lining dough with a layer parchment paper and filling crust with pie weights such as dried beans, rice, ceramic beads.  Set aside to cool slightly and turn oven down to 350°
  4. Melt butter in a skillet on medium-low heat and add onions.  Gently cook until soft and add thyme.  Slowly cook onions on low heat until caramelized, about 20-30 minutes.  Remove thyme branches and set aside.
  5. In a food processor, add squash puree, roasted garlic cloves and caramelized onions (and any melted butter remaining in the pan) and pulse until smooth.
  6. Add sour cream, eggs, cream, salt and pepper to food processor and pulse until incorporated fully, scraping sides down with a rubber spatula at least once.
  7. Pour into prepared tart shell and decorate with sage leaves if desired.  Bake for 30-35 minutes until center is set and top is browned.

 

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The strawberries are out in full force at the farmer’s markets right now; the bounty coming in from Ventura and Oxnard brings that heady, sweet perfume of fresh berries that wanders along the stalls, enticing you to stop and get a sample of one of those juicy little sugarbombs.  I picked up a 3-pack of some gorgeous, small, deep-red berries that packed a real punch of flavor for their size.

Now, when I have plans for a strawberry dessert, I usually either go with a pie or strawberry shortcake, but I was ready for something new.  I remembered a cake I had made years ago, with layers of meringue, strawberries and whipped cream, and I knew that’s what I wanted to make.

A dacquoise is a type of cake made with layers of nut meringue;  often, it is filled with ganache, mousse, and/or buttercream–Marjolaine is the perfect example of a dacquoise.  I decided to go with a deconstructed version, using freshly made lemon curd as a bright and tart replacement for ganache, sliced strawberries, lightly sweetened whipped cream, and crunchy-chewy almond meringues.

After baking, let the meringue layers cool completely.   This is a dessert, once assembled, that should be served within an hour or two, as the meringue softens after being in contact with the fillings.  However, the meringues can be made the night before, and left to cool in the oven overnight.  The lemon curd can also be made well in advance and stored in an airtight container.

Sure, it’s a little messy, but for this dessert, the point of it is being simple and casual–capturing the essence of early summer, like strawberries in season at the market, sitting outside drinking lemonade, and having a fun dinner with friends out on the patio.

Strawberry & Lemon Dacquoise

Meringue Layers

  • 1 1/4 cups whole almonds
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 275°.  Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Trace one 8″ diameter circle on to each sheet and turn paper over.
  2. Pulse almonds in food processor with cornstarch and 2 tablespoons sugar until finely ground.
  3. Beat egg whites at medium speed with an electric mixer until foamy, and add cream of tartar and a pinch of salt, then gradually beat in remaining sugar and vanilla.  Increase speed to high and beat until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks.
  4. Fold ground almonds gently into meringue.  Pipe or spread meringue evenly into the traced circles on parchment.
  5. Bake for approximately 1 hour until firm and golden.   Slide meringues onto a cooling rack while still on parchment.  When ready to assemble meringues, gently peel parchment off.

Lemon Curd (from marthastewart.com)

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, plus 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 8 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ pieces
  1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, zest and egg yolks then whisk in lemon juice and salt.
  2. Add butter and place pan over medium-high heat.  Cook, whisking constantly until butter has melted, mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and small bubble form around the edge of the pan, about 5 minutes (do not boil).
  3. Remove pan from heat while continuing to whisk.  Pour curd while still hot through a fine mesh sieve into a glass bowl.  Press plastic wrap against the surface of curd and refrigerate until cool.

Note:  this recipe makes approximately 2 cups; I found this to be pretty generous for the recipe, and had about 1/2 cup leftover.  Then again, I really don’t see a problem with having some extra lemon curd hanging around the house.

Filling and Assembly

  • 4 cups sliced fresh strawberries, plus 10-12 whole strawberries for decoration
  • 2 cups cold whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Whip cream with sugar and vanilla extract until it holds a soft peak.
  2. Place first meringue on a plate and spread about a 3/4 cup of lemon curd across the surface of meringue.
  3. Place half of the sliced strawberries on top of lemon curd.
  4. Spoon 1/3 of whipped cream on top of strawberries, and spread to cover.
  5. Place 2nd meringue layer atop whipped cream and repeat with lemon curd, berries, and 1/3 of the whipped cream.
  6. Top with final layer of meringue, spread remaining whipped cream on top, and decorate with whole berries.
  7. Best served within 2 hours of assembly.

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Sometimes, I wonder who on the Peach Board got the ear of the nation when it came to their fruit.  Let’s face it, Americans love peaches, and even the word peach is a part of our lexicon;  we’ll call someone a peach when we think they’re a nice, sweet person.  But… what about the other stone fruits?  Plums do get some recognition, but it seems like nectarines and apricots are a bit like the red-headed stepchildren of the stone fruit world.

The funny thing is, nectarines are essentially peaches, as they’re of the same species; they’re peaches that have a recessive gene that creates the nectarine’s smooth skin as opposed to the notable fuzzy skin of the peach.

You know what that means, right?  Anything you could make out of peaches can be made of nectarines.

Stone fruits are perfect for cobblers.  Juicy summer fruit topped with a buttermilk biscuit dough and baked?  Why, yes, please.  I love the addition of blueberries–they work so nicely with nectarines and peaches, and they’re so good for you.

Besides, it’s healthy because it’s fruit, right?  There’s something after a summer dinner of grilled meats that a bowlful of warm fruit, buttery biscuit and a ginormous scoop of ice cream that is just So. Right.

Nectarine Blueberry Cobbler

  • 5 cups fresh nectarines, sliced
  • 3 cups fresh blueberries (frozen can be used in a pinch, I promise, I won’t tell)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar (check the sweetness of your fruit)
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 2 Tablespoons Tapioca*
  • 2 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • appx. 3/4 cup buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. In a large bowl, toss nectarines, blueberries, sugar, lemon juice and tapioca and set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.
  4. Add butter to dry mixture, and cut with a pastry blender (or pulse in a food processor) until butter pieces are about pea-sized or smaller.
  5. Pour in buttermilk and stir until liquid is absorbed–don’t overwork–dough should be lumpy and on the wet side, like a drop biscuit.
  6. Butter a 9 x 13 pan and add fruit; spoon biscuit dough on top of fruit, spreading slightly to even out.
  7. Bake for about 30 minutes–top should be well-browned and the fruit will be bubbling through the cracks in the topping.
  8. Let cool about 15 minutes before serving with ice cream or whipped cream.

*Dry tapioca can be found where you would find pudding mixes at your local market.

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This is something we all know as the honest-to-god truth:  there’s nothing quite like homemade bread.  It’s just one of those happy scents that when it’s wafting through your house, you know there’s going to be something delicious on the table. 

See, last week I had a hankerin’ for some Middle Eastern food.  You know the drill:  hummous, baba ganoush, tzatziki, falafel, and pita bread.  I thought I’d give doing my own pita a shot again;  I had done it during those long-ago days of school, so I knew it wasn’t hard to do.  And, really, if you’ve ever made a loaf of bread in your life, making your own pita is a snap. 

This recipe makes a good amount of dough–I got a dozen 6″ pita breads, which is plenty for our little family.  The great thing about leftover pita bread:  it makes delicious pita chips.  All you do is cut them into 1/6 wedges, toss them in some olive oil and salt, and toast them in a 400 degree oven until crispy.  You’ll make pita bread just for the purpose of making chips, I tell you. 

Kiddo got into the act with helping roll out the breads. 

A great thing about pita is that it cooks fast–it’s just a few minutes on a pizza stone or sheet pan in a hot oven.  This is definitely worth the effort of making your own.

Pita Bread – Recipe adapted from Flatbreads & Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

  • 2 teaspoons regular dry yeast
  • 2.5 cups lukewarm water
  • 5-6 cups all-purpose flour (I used a 50/50 combination of whole wheat and white flours)
  • 1 tablespoon table salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water, and stir in one cup of flour and let sit for about 15-20 minutes. 
  2. Add salt, olive oil, and flour in 1 cup increments to the sponge (that bubbly flour-yeast mixture–it’s called a sponge, but you knew that, right?), stirring until the dough is too stiff to stir.  Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, or knead in a KitchenAid with a dough hook for about 6 to 8 minutes.
  3. Place dough in a clean and lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 90 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 450°.  Heat pizza stone or baking sheet in oven.
  5. Punch dough down, and divide into 10-12 pieces, and roll into balls.  On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/4″ thick.
  6. Place 2 or 3 breads onto heated stone/sheet and bake for 3 to 4 minutes, until bread has fully ballooned.  If your bread doesn’t balloon, it’s okay, it’ll still be very tasty.
  7. Keep baked pita wrapped in a clean kitchen towel to keep warm while the rest of the breads bake. 

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Ah, pretzels… a staple of ballparks and Oktoberfests everywhere.  There’s just something to the way they smell, the chew to the crust, the crunch of pretzel salt that brings back memories of good times.  Nowadays, you can find a pretzel stand at every neighborhood mall, and even though they may be tasty, they’re often doused with butter, oversalted, and the crust is all wrong. 

Surprisingly, they’re not as difficult as you may think to make at home, and they’re a great project for the kids in regards to the kneading and shaping of the pretzels. 

I started off with Alton Brown’s recipe as it seems to garnered quite a few good reviews;  I did make a few adjustments to the recipe to suit my personal tastes (don’t I always do that?).  While making the dough, I ended up having to add about an extra 1/2 cup of flour–it was a rainy night, and I do believe that affected the dough by being far too sticky to work with at the start.  I also cut down the amount of baking soda to a 1/4 cup in the boiling solution.  Adding an alkaline is necessary for the distinctive pretzel crust;  In Germany, the pretzels are dipped in a food-grade lye solution before baking. 

Yes.  Lye, the same stuff that’s in Draino and is used in soap-making.  It’s used in other foodstuffs:  it is what makes whitefish into lutefisk and corn into hominy.  I’m not going to tell you not to use it, but if you do (all the directions are out there and easily Googled), use all the proper precautions, because it is, even though it’s food-grade and diluted in water, it’s still a corrosive chemical.   Use goggles, gloves, and most importantly, common sense.  Here, for our uses today, it’ll be baking soda. 

The last adjustment I made to the recipe is I just didn’t bother with pretzel salt, mainly because I’m old and have to watch my sodium these days.  Boo, hiss, I know–but my fingers get all puffy if I’ve overindulged in the salty stuff.  I just gave them a very light sprinkle of kosher salt.   If you’re feeling fancy (and I may do this myself next time), they’d go nicely with a dusting of garlic powder and parmesan cheese, or perhaps a few jalapeño slices and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese just before baking. 

Alton Brown’s Soft Homemade Pretzels

  • 1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
  • Vegetable oil, for pan
  • 10 cups water
  • 2/3 cup baking soda
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
  • Pretzel salt

Directions

Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.

Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

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I’ve got a drafty house with a high cathedral ceiling; when the nights are chilly, it sometimes takes more than just our little heater to get the living room to a livable temperature.  On evenings like that, one of which happened to be last night, I start thinking of a good reason to turn on the oven.  What better reason to whip up a batch of oatmeal cookies?  Not just any oatmeal cookies, but spicy, chewy, stuffed-full-of-fruit that I could pretend that would be a perfectly healthy breakfast kind of cookie (it’s got oatmeal!  And fruit!  Fruit is healthy, right?) I could chow down on with a big steaming cup of coffee the next morning. 

I hadn’t made oatmeal cookies in a long time, and I believe it was based on that the last time I made them, they were kind of uninteresting and bland.  I played around with a pretty standard recipe, adjusting the sugars to have more brown sugar, adding a blend of spices rather than just cinnamon, and adding two-and-a-half times the dried fruit than the original cookie recipe.   I also bumped up the salt–I’ve mentioned before my love of the sweet-and-salty combination, and I added more than some people would like.  With the increased brown sugar, it gives the cookie a flavor reminiscent of salted caramel, which I love, but I know is something of an acquired taste to others.  Of course, you don’t need to add the same amount of salt.

Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks to produce not only delicious, but attractive, bakery-style cookies made from drop cookie dough.  I’m feeling generous (and a little over-sugared), so I’ll share with you today: 

  • Everyone knows to let the butter get to room temperature, but also let the eggs come up to room temperature, too. 
  • When creaming the butter and sugars, beat them for a few minutes until light and fluffy.  This will help to beat in some air into the batter which will help the cookies rise.
  • Give it a rest!  The dough, that is–once all the ingredients are all incorporated, chill the dough for at least an hour.  This gives the flour a chance to absorb the moisture from the wet ingredients, and cold dough going into a hot oven will help create that ideal cookie texture–crunchy along the edges, chewy in the middle.
  • Invest in an ice cream scoop.  Scooping the dough into small balls will help create cookies of the same size and shape-it’s how bakeries are able to create their cookies looking so nice. 
  • In the vein of the last two tips, if all you want is just a few cookies out of a batch, drop cookie dough is easily frozen for future use.  On a sheet pan, line up scoops of dough and place the pan in the freezer until dough is solid–about 4 hours.  Fill up a Ziploc bag and stash those proto-cookies in the freezer.  Next time you have guests, all that needs to be done is preheat the oven and bake off just the amount needed.  Guests will think you’re the next Martha.  Or something like that. 

My precious stash of oatmeal cookie dough. 

Fruit-Loaded Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 heaping teaspoon coarse salt such as kosher salt (if you’re not into the extra salt, use a level teaspoon)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon clove

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 1/2 cups dried fruit (what makes this cookie special is using a mixture of fruit–I used cranberries, raisins, apricots and figs–use what you like, but use at least 3 different fruits)

  1. In an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugars together on medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula.
  2. Add eggs and vanilla, beat until fully incorporated.
  3. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and spices, and add to mixer; beat until incorporated.
  4. Slowly add oats and fruits and mix until just blended.
  5. Scoop dough onto parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 2″ between cookies.  Cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  6. Preheat oven to 350° while dough chills.
  7. When dough is set, place pans into preheated oven and bake for 14-16 minutes. 
  8. Cookies are done when the bottoms are golden brown, but the centers will still be a little soft.  Cool on sheet pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool. 

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As you may or may not know, today happens to be Three Kings Day, and Three Kings Day means cake.  Ok, we’re lapsed Catholics and we’re not from Louisiana, so I’m not talking about King Cake;  it’s because it’s my mother-in-law’s birthday;  Reyna’s name comes from the holiday she was born on (Reina is Queen in Spanish… aaaaand now you get the title). 

My in-laws, being from South America, love the traditional kinds of desserts that come  from the homeland:  tropical fruits, flans, and Tres Leches Cake.  Buying a tres leches (“three milks”) cake from a market can be kind of a crap shoot–sometimes it’s overly sweet with a grainy cake and sometimes it’s perfectly rich and creamy, with the cake almost pudding-like, but still standing up to the long soak in the milk mixture. 

My first experiences with Tres Leches Cakes were sad affairs:  mass-produced pieces bought off taco trucks or slices of store-bought birthday cakes at parties thrown by the family, and I wasn’t particularly fond of it.  Then, came the day I sampled the Tres Leches Cake at Border Grill, and all of a sudden, I was a convert.  

I wanted to keep it simple and traditional, but with a twist that I knew my mother-in-law would love:  the addition of coconut.  Coconut works perfectly with a creamy dessert, and it was the absolute right amount of tropical flavor that the whole family loved. 

So, let’s break down the three components needed for a Tres Leches Cake:  the cake, the milk mixture, and the topping. 

The proper cake to use would be a sponge cake;  to tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of the stuff on its own–it’s dry and bland–but, that’s what makes it perfect for other uses, such as being sliced and soaked with liqueur-spiked syrups and layered with jams or pastry creams.  Or, in this case, being soaked in milk.  A traditional sponge cake is simply eggs, sugar, and flour–no extra fats, no chemical leavening, maybe a bit of vanilla;  the rise comes from the eggs being separated, whipped full of air, and gently folded together with the flour. 

Once the cake is baked and fully cooled, the edges are trimmed (I find them a bit too hard).  I line a cake pan with plastic wrap with plenty of overlap, poke the cake full of holes, and begin to pour my mixture of condensed milk, coconut milk, and half & half onto the cake.

When I start pouring the milk mixture onto the cake, I go slow and steady, taking about a third of the mixture and lightly covering the cake.  After about 2-3 minutes, it’s been mostly absorbed, so I repeat the process two more times with the rest.  With the overlap of the plastic wrap, I just lightly cover the cake, and refrigerate overnight. 

The next day, the cake gets turned out on a platter; lightly sweetened heavy cream is whipped and spread on top, and a good solid dusting of toasted coconut to finish off the cake. 

(Yeah, I know, that’s not a “dusting”… we like coconut, okay?)

Ah, there’s the glamor shot.

Coconut Tres Leches Cake

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup vanilla sugar (or, 1 cup sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 14-ounce can light coconut milk

1/2 cup half & half

2 Tablespoons Coconut Rum

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 Tablespoons sugar

2 cups shredded sweetened coconut

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Line a 13 x 9 metal cake pan with parchment paper and lightly spray with non-stick spray.
  2. Separate eggs;  beat yolks with 3/4 cup of sugar (add vanilla if needed) until pale yellow and leaves a ribbon when the whisk is pulled from yolks. 
  3. In a separate bowl (or transfer yolks to another bowl and wash mixer bowl, if using a KitchenAid), beat egg whites until just frothy, then add 1/4 cup of sugar and whip egg whites to a stiff peak.
  4. Gently fold egg whites into yolks until streaky, then sift in flour.  Continue to gently fold in flour and egg whites until flour is absorbed into batter.
  5. Spread batter into prepared pan and smooth top.  Bake until golden, approximately 22-28 minutes.
  6. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack and cool completely.
  7. Line a clean 13 x 9 cake pan with plastic wrap, leaving plenty of overlap (enough to gently fold extra plastic over cake, but well-lined so all the milk stays with the cake).  Trim edges from cake and set into pan.  With a fork or skewer, poke plenty of holes over the surface of the cake.
  8. In a pitcher, whisk together the condensed milk, coconut milk, half & half, and coconut rum.  Pour mixture over entire cake in thirds, waiting 2-3 minutes between each pouring to let the cake soak up the milks.  Fold over the plastic wrap to lightly cover the cake and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, up to overnight.
  9. When close to serving, toast coconut in a 350° oven for 7-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes, until golden brown.
  10. Unwrap cake and gently turn out onto a platter.  Whip heavy cream with sugar and spread on top of cake, and sprinkle the coconut on top of cream. 

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You should know by now that I wouldn’t invite people over for dinner and not serve dessert.  So, in following yesterday’s entry of A Winter Dinner for a Crowd, this is the cake I prepared for our guests. 

Since I was going with a rustic Italian theme for the dinner, I turned to one of my well-loved cookbooks:

I knew there would be a perfect dessert recipe here that would be the right sweet ending for the evening, and the Torta di Mele fit the bill.  It was an unusual cake recipe–most cake recipes start out with creaming butter and sugar, or whipping eggs–this starts with blending flour, sugar and butter together, as if you were making shortbread, and using a portion to press into the bottom of a springform pan to create a thin, crunchy crust.  The rest of crumb mixture is blended with the rest of the wet mixture, leavening and apples which creates a fluffy but moist texture; plenty of lemon zest keeps the flavor light and fresh.  The cake is topped with a very light coating of meringue, when after the cake is baked, creates a crackly sweet top–there is absolutely no need for icing or confectioner’s sugar to finish it off.   All it needs is a big dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream on the side, and maybe a cup of coffee. 

Torta di Mele (Apple Cake with a Crackly Meringue)

from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar

Generous pinch of salt

1 1/2 sticks (6 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3/4 cup milk

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Shredded zest of one large lemon

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 large apples (Granny Smith, Braeburn, Gala are good choices), peeled, cored, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 large egg white

  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°.  Grease and flour a 9″ springform pan.  In a large bowl, with your fingertips, rub together the 2 cups flour, the 1 1/2 cups sugar, salt, and butter until crumbly (note:  I just used a pastry blender).  Remove 1 cup of the crumbs and press them over the bottom and about 1/2″ up the sides of the springform pan, making a crust about 1/8″ thick.
  2. Make a well in the remaining crumb mixture.  Add the milk, eggs, vanilla, lemon zest, the remaining 3 tablespoons flour, and the baking powder.  With a whisk, blend this mixture thoroughly without incorporating the crumbs.  Then, with a wooden spoon, stir in the crumbs until well blended but still a little lumpy.  Fold in the apples and scrape batter into prepared pan.
  3. In a small bowl, beat the egg white until foamy.  Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until the whites barely stand in peaks.  Spread over the top of the batter.
  4. Bake 65 to 75 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from oven and cool 30 minutes on a wire rack.
  5. Slip off the sides of the pan and finish cooling the cake.  Serve at room temperature.  Covered in plastic wrap, the cake holds well at cool room temperature up to 2 days, and up to a week in the refrigerator. 

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