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Peanut Butter and Julie

September 17, 2012

Pumpkin Spice Layer Cake with Toasted Walnut Buttercream


Ah! The circle of life.

Last week we experienced a loss in our household. The good news is that it wasn't a person or a pet. It wasn't even a plant.

It was a treadmill. My treadmill. My BELOVED treadmill.

Allow me a moment to compose myself before continuing. I really loved that treadmill. In the meantime, look at this picture of a cake:




So you're probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Lighten up, J. It's a freakin' treadmill."

You don't understand. I purchased this particular treadmill, Old Faithful, back in 1997. It has traveled cross-country with me twice and resided in four states. It has lived with me longer than my husband or my oldest dog.

My conservative estimate is that I used it 300 days out of the year, averaging about 5 miles per use. So let's do a little math, shall we?

5 miles X 300 days X 15 years = 22,500 miles

So I traveled from Los Angeles to New York City almost ten times on that machine -- almost one time around the earth......and all while watching DVR episodes of House Hunters, Fashion Police, and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team (it's an entertaining show -- don't judge).


Pumpkin cake5


This was such a humid summer in Las Vegas -- and we don't do humidity here -- so Eric had a tough time completing some of his longer marathon training runs outdoors. Because he looked like death every time that he would return from his "fun" hobby of running, I took pity on the poor guy. As a result, I did something that I never do:

I offered him the use of my treadmill.

The first 20 miler went fine, although it pained me to hear the repeated thud thud thud as Eric ran for 2-1/2 hours straight. Halfway through the second 20-miler, the thudding stopped.

Eric emerged from the workout room, still out of breath. "Hey -- I think your treadmill just died." My expression in response must have been meaningful, because he immediately said, "I'll go get another one."

Our new addition arrived two days later, complete with all sorts of bells and whistles that weren't available waaaaaay back in the 20th century. When the delivery guys saw my old treadmill, you would have thought they were looking at an ancient Egyptian relic.

"Whoa. I haven't seen one of these things in YEARS. They don't even make that brand anymore. That must be really old."

 Uh, thanks guys. Your tip just went down.




And what better way is there to welcome a new addition to the house than with a cake? OK, I know that's a stretch.  I just felt like making a cake. Perhaps this is because I haven't made one in a while.....or perhaps this is because I now have a new and improved way of working off the calories. 

It may not yet feel like fall outdoors, but that doesn't mean that it can't smell and taste like fall indoors, right?  This moist and flavorful pumpkin spice cake is topped with a luxurious and nutty buttercream.Here are my extra tips for making this autumn inspired dessert:

  • I originally wanted to make a toasted pecan buttercream, but alas, I was fresh outta pecans. So I moved on to walnuts (they're less expensive anyhow), and made the walnut buttercream.  The buttercream would work just as beautifully using a pecan paste, hazelnut paste or even a macadamia nut paste.  Simply substitute your preferred nut of choice for the walnuts and proceed as directed.
  • Once baked and cooled, the cake layers can be tightly wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to two weeks. Thaw them at room temperature before proceeding.
  • If you don't want to commit to such a massive cake (and it is pretty massive), you can turn this recipe into cupcakes.  Fill cups about 2/3 full and bake at 350F 18-22 minutes.
  • For a cleaner finish when icing the cake, do a "crumb coat" first.  Once the layers have been stacked, spread a thin layer of buttercream onto the sides and top of the cake (see below).  Chill the cake for 30 minutes.  This will seal in any loose crumbs so that they don't appear on the finished surface.  Use the rest of the buttercream for a second coat of frosting. 


Pumpkin Spice Layer Cake with Toasted Walnut Buttercream

Printable Recipe

Serves 12-16


Cake Layers

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup canola or safflower oil

4 large eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

15 ounce can pumpkin puree

3/4 cup unsweetened apple sauce

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut (optional)

1 cup golden raisins (optional)

Walnut Paste

6 ounces chopped walnuts

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar


6 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F°. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with non-stick baking spray and set aside. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and nutmeg. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat oil and eggs on medium speed until light, 3 minutes. Add both sugars; beat 2 minutes more. Beat in pumpkin, applesauce and vanilla.  On low speed, add flour mixture, beating until just combined. Stir in coconut and raisins, if using.

Evenly distribute cake batter into the prepared pans and transfer to the oven. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Let pans cool on a wire rack 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto rack; cool completely.

Make Toasted Walnut Paste: Preheat the oven to 350 F.  Place the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them for 10 minutes, until fragrant.  Cool 10 minutes. Place walnuts and confectioners' sugar in work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until walnuts are very finely ground. Continue to process until the nut mixture until smooth and a "paste" texture forms.

Make the buttercream while the cake is baking:  Beat the egg yolks in the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high until very thick, about 5 minutes.  Combine the sugar with the syrup in a small saucepan, and set over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a full boil.  Immediately scrape the mixture into a heatproof 1-cup glass measure.  With the mixture on high speed, pour a few tablespoons of the sugar mixture into the yolks and beat for a few seconds.  Repeat until all of the syrup has been added.  Beat until the bowl has cooled to room temperature.  On medium speed, beat in the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition.  The frosting will begin to come together after all of the butter has been incorporated (it will look curdled first, but be patient and it will come together beautifully!).  Scrape the bowl and beat in the vanilla and salt.  Add the Pecan Paste and beat until well combined and smooth.

Cut each cake layer in half horizontally, creating four layers (trim any mounds off top of layers so that they are flat). Set one later, cut side up, on a cake round or cake plate and spread a layer of buttercream on the surface.  Stack next layer on top and spread with a layer of buttercream. Repeat frosting-and-stacking process until each layer is frosted. Spread remaining frosting on sides and top of cake. Chill for 1 hour for easier slicing or serve immediately if you can’t wait!


August 22, 2012

Wild Huckleberry Crisp Ice Cream



If I had to sum up the summer of 2012 in one word, that word would be.........




I'll bet that you thought I was going to say "Lochte," didn't you?

Mini pies to be exact.  Hand held pies.  Pie pops. Sweet and savory turnovers. Empanadas.

And lots and lots of crust.



Yes, I am writing my first cookbook (whee!), and it's all about pies--portable pies that fit in the palm of your hand. Because, let's face it, having your own little pie all to yourself is so much better than having a slice.

So that's where I've been over my little blogging hiatus.  I've been covered in flour, toning my arm muscles as I roll out batch after batch of flaky/all-butter/whole wheat/vegan/gluten-free/cornmeal dough in the kitchen. And I've been loving every minute of it.

"Good things come in small packages" has become my mantra.



So my deadline is looming--the end of this month--but I didn't want to go an entire month without posting the recipe that has been running through my head over the past several weeks.

And yes, it was inspired by pie.

I've mentioned six-dozen or so times that Eric and I love Jackson Hole. We usually head up there for a few days twice a year.  During the summer (and sometimes during the winter), one of our first stops is the ice cream shop on town square, where they sell the most fantastic huckleberry ice cream.

I don't know what it is about this ice cream that makes it so necessary in my life.  Perhaps it's that fact that I can't get anything like it here in Las Vegas (we're not exactly known for our huckleberries.) Perhaps it's the fact that I am on vacation whenever I eat it, and everything tastes better on vacation.




No, I think it's simply really extraordinary ice cream: creamy without being too custardy-creamy and dotted with tart purple huckleberries.  A quintessential summertime treat (or wintertime or falltime or springtime for that matter.)

This ice cream inspired one of the mini pies in my book.  I actually bought frozen huckleberries at the Jackson Hole Grocer and toted them home with me on the plane, all in the name of research.

In turn, the ice cream that inspired a pie came full circle and inspired yet another ice cream, this time with a little streusel thrown in.  You know how I love my streusel.  There might be a bit of streusel in the book too.



The ice cream isn't exactly the same as the one that I get in Jackson, but it's pretty darn close for a first attempt.  And the streusel crisp topping turned out great, especially since there is some leftoer for nibbling.

So, the book will be published in the spring of 2013.  Until then, I'll certainly keep you posted with any updates.

In the meantime, eat lots of ice cream.....and streusel.  Here are some extra tips for making this pie-inspired huckleberry treat:

  • I realize that huckleberries aren't exactly a staple at grocery stores across the country.  Fortunately, this recipe will work beautifully with fresh or frozen wild blueberries.
  • If you absolutely must have huckleberries for your ice cream, you can order them from Oregon Mushrooms (warning: they're not cheap.)
  • Feel free to play around witht the crisp recipe, depending on personal preference. Substitute almonds, pecans or hazelnuts for walnuts.  Throw in a dash of ground allspice, cardamom or cloves (but just a dash!)

Wild Huckleberry Crisp Ice Cream

Printable Recipe

Makes about 5 cups


5 large egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar, divided

1/4 tsp salt

1-3/4 cup whole milk, divided

1 cup heavy cream

1 tbsp pure vanilla extract

2 cups fresh or frozen wild huckleberries

For the Crisp

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup rolled oats

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp salt

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed

In medium bowl, whisk together yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, salt and 1/2 cup milk. In medium saucepan, bring remaining milk and sugar to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Slowly add hot milk to egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl; cool completely.

When mixture has cooled, stir in cream, vanilla and huckleberries. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours or overnight.

Prepare crisp topping: Heat oven to 350F. In medium bowl mix together brown sugar, flour, oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and walnuts. Using your fingers, rub butter into mixture until fully incorporated and clumps form.

Press mixture into a glass baking dish or pie plate. Bake until your kitchen smells delicious and the topping has browned, 16 to 20 minutes. Cool completely then break into pieces.

Freeze ice cream according to ice cream maker's manufacturer instructions.  A few minutes before ice cream is ready add 2/3 of crisp mixture to ice cream maker.  Transfer ice cream to a container and freeze until firm.

Serve in a cone or in a bowl topped with additional crisp crumbles.

July 08, 2012

English Summer Berry Puddings


I hope that everyone had a safe and happy Fourth of July and that the wrath of Mother Nature subsided a little bit so that you could enjoy the holiday.  What's with her lately anyhow?  Horrible fires in the west.  Power outages and extreme heat in the east.  She's been in a consistently bad mood so far this summer.  Was it something that we said? 

My brother, who lives in Utah, even had to evacuate his house over the holiday due to the fires.  Per his emails, the firefighters worked tirelessly to get the damage under control.  So, I'm sending them all a virtual shout-out of much deserved acknowledgement (because, you know, I am certain that each and every Utah firefighter reads Peanut Butter and Julie religiously.)



Now that Indepence Day has passed, we have another big event to look forward to at the end of the month.  No, I'm not referring to the season finale of The Bachelorette.  That's the second biggest event, silly.

I'm referring to the London Olympics.

I'm one of those people who gets really into the Olympics, which comes as just as much of a surprise to me as it probably does to those of you who know that I am not exactly what you would call a "natural athlete." Despite the fact that I am unfamiliar with most of the key athletes before the trials start, I know most of their names, stats, and backstories by the time the trials have finished.  Eric loves watching the trials (well, except for gymnastics), so even if I am in the kitchen and only half listening to what is on T.V., I seem to absorb all of the pertinent information, and I am hooked.



This recipe is in honor of the two big events flanking the month of July 2012.  It's a red, white, and blue dessert in honor of the 4th, but it's a traditional English summer sweet in honor of the London Olympics.  I suppose it's my dessert version of a Glee mash-up.  Summer puddings are similar to bread puddings, but instead of a custard, the brioche soaks up a spiked fruit compote, so the result is a more refreshing blend of tart and sweet. I decided to make individual versions simply because everyone likes to have their own personal dessert moreso than having to slice up one big dessert and share it.  Here are a few extra tips for making these berry summery English sweets:

  • As noted below, these directions are for making individual puddings in ramekins.  You can also make one large pudding, using larger pieces of brioche.  You can use a loaf pan for this or you can also use a bowl, for a dome-shaped pudding.
  • Time is an important factor with this recipe.  Don't try to unmold the pudding earlier than directed or the brioche won't properly soak up the juices.  It's best to leave it overnight.
  • Feel free to mix and match any combination of berries listed below.  You can also substiture other liqueurs for the Chambord, such as framboise.


English Summer Berry Pudding

Printable Recipe

Serves 6-8


1 pound fresh strawberries, diced

1 pound fresh blueberries

1 pound fresh raspberries

1 pound fresh blackberries

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons Chambord

1/2 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped

1 loaf brioche (about 1 pound), sliced about 1/3-inch thick

Lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving

In a large saucepan set over medium-low heat, combine the strawberries, blueberries, half of the raspberries, half of the blackberries, sugar, Chambord, vanilla bean and seeds, and 1/4 cup water.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the fruit is soft and almost pureed. Stir in the remaining raspberries and blackberries and simmer for 2 minutes more.  Allow the mixture to rest for 10 minutes.  Remove the vanilla bean.

These directions are for making individual puddings using ramekins of pudding (as I did), but you can also make one large pudding in a baking dish (two sizes that work are 10X7X3 and 7-8 inch diameter round pans.) 

Using a round cutter or a glass as a guide, cut out circles of brioche that will fit snugly into the ramekins. Spoon a thin layer of the berry sauce into the bottom of the ramekins and press a round of brioche on top of the sauce.  Top with another generous layer of the berries and another round of brioche.  Continue to layer the berries and brioche until you reach the top of the ramekin, ending with a layer of berry sauce.

Tightly wrap the ramekins with plastic wrap, so that the pudding is "weighted down."  Top the plastic wrap with a small plate or a can to further weight the pudding and then place the ramekins in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Before serving, run a knife around the outside of the pudding and unmold it onto a serving plate.  Top the puddings with lightly sweetened whipped cream and fresh berries.

June 25, 2012

Blue Cheese and Walnut Biscuits with Bacon Date Jam


Sometimes I get very jealous of Ina Garten. 

No, I'm not saying that I long for a closet full of blue denim shirts -- nobody should even try to rock those like the Barefoot Contessa.  My envy derives from her massive and beautiful gardens, which are located behind her even more massive and beautiful Hamptons home.

There she will be, mid-episode of her Food Network show, casually putting together some sort of salad for some sort of scripted impromptu get-together with her fabulous friend T.R. (don't you just love T.R.?)  At some point during the process, she will realize that (gasp!) she doesn't have one of the salad's ingredients on hand, like fresh parsley or purple potatoes or some rare varietal of squash.



But that's OK!  This is The Barefoot Contessa, remember?  She can just run out back to her garden and pick whatever is missing straight from the vine/ground/branch.  She seems to have it ALL back there.

And on the rare occasion that her garden does not come to the rescue, that's OK too!  This is The Hamptons, remember?  According to the show, they have an endless supply of local artisans/cheese shops/chicken farms/dairies, so that Ina can just hop into her convertible BMW and pick up her ingredients from local vendors.




My "garden" is limited to a few citrus trees: a very generous Meyer lemon tree, an orange tree with a moderate crop, and a sad and droopy Charlie Brown grapefruit tree.  We also have an unlimited supply of rosemary, which really seems to thrive in the desert climate.  That's about it.

Thank goodness for the new Downtown 3rd Farmer's Market, which just started operating in Las Vegas a few months ago.  I'd heard some really great things about this market -- such as some of the best chefs on the Strip get their produce there -- so I decided to check it out last Friday.


Beautiful, fresh, organic and very non-Vegas-like produce (which was mostly foraged from California) and artisanal foods were everywhere, incuding bright seasonal rhubarb, freshly made porcini pasta, and several types of fruit that I had never even heard of.  Just look at these tomatoes for crying out loud!




As I filled my bags with just about as much as I could carry, I started to envision myself as one of those people who dictates what she serves for dinner by what she finds at the farmer's market that day.   

Why, I could be the Barefoot Contessa of Las Vegas! (Sans the denim, and I'd need to find my own T.R.  Any volunteers?)

Anyhow, one of my finds at the market were some surprisingly plump dried dates from a friendly vendor who sold all-things-date:  date cookies, date cake, date bread, date bars.  She was like the Bubba Gump of dates.  I love dates, so I purchased some and, per my new Barefoot Contessa mentality, decided that I would figure out what to do with them when I got home.




Here's what I came up with: Bacon Date Jam.  I mean come on! 

To go with this jam?  How about some flaky blue cheese and walnut biscuits?  I mean, shut the front door!

This combination of recipes offers up a little bit of sumpin' sumpin' for each and every one of your taste buds.  There is a little bit of sweet, a little bit of savory, some saltiness, some buttery-ness and some tanginess too.  You could probably even find a smidgen of umami if you look hard enough.  This will likely require multiple tastings -- but I know that you are up to the task.




Here are some extra tips for making this duo of deliciousness:

  • This biscuit recipe is actually a great blueprint for dozens of biscuit recipes, depending on your personal preference.  Try combining pecans with fresh rosemary and gruyere or sage, fontina, and hazelnuts.  You could even add some extra black pepper or a hit of cayenne for some spice.
  • These biscuits freeze well.  Seal them in zip-top bags and freeze for up to one week.  Reheat by wrapping frozen biscuits in foil and baking in a 300F degree oven until warmed through.
  • For a different twist on the jam, use dried figs instead of dates.

Blue Cheese and Walnut Biscuits with Bacon Date Jam

Printable Recipe

Serves 12-15

For the Bacon Date Jam:

8 ounces applewood smoked bacon, but into 1/2-inch pieces

2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

3/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup red wine

1/4 cup water

1 cup chopped pitted dates

2 tablespoons light brown sugar, packed

1/4 teaspoon allspice (optional)

For the Biscuits

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (optional)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

7 tablespoons chilled butter, cubed

4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled (I used Point Reyes)

1/2 cup finely chopped toasted walnuts

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk

Prepare the jam: Place the bacon in a large skillet set over medium-high heat.  Cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat has been rendered and the bacon is lightly crisped, about 10 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.  Carefully pour off all but one tablespoon of the bacon grease from the skillet.  Add the shallots to the skillet, and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the balsamic vinegar, wine, water, dates, brown sugar, allspice, and bacon to the skillet; stir to mix.  Bring the mixture to a low boil, and then reduce the heat to low.  Simmer the mixture until the liquid has reduced and thickened to a syrupy consistency, stirring occasionally, 25-30 minutes.  Allow the mixture to cool for 10 minutes in the skillet, and then transfer it to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.  Pulse the mixture until the bacon is coarsely chopped (do not puree!)  Transfer the jam to a bowl, cover, and set aside to cool completely.

Prepare the biscuits: Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, thyme, salt, and pepper in the work bowl of a food processor; pulse to blend. Scatter the butter pieces over the top and pulse several times until the butter is the size of small peas. Add the blue cheese and the walnuts to the bowl, and pulse until they are evenly incorporated.  Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.  Add 3/4 cup of the buttermilk and stir until moist clumps form. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead just until the dough holds together, about 4 to 6 turns. Flatten dough to 3/4-inch thickness. Using a 2 1/4-inch-diameter biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out rounds. Re-roll dough and cut out more rounds until all dough is used.

 Transfer biscuits to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spacing apart. Brush the biscuit tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons buttermilk. Bake until biscuits are puffed and golden, about 15 minutes. Serve warm with the bacon date jam.


June 11, 2012

Homemade Twix Bars

I have an odd habit when it comes to eating.  O.K., I actually have several odd habits when it comes to eating (i.e. snacking on frozen peas), but with this post in mind, I have one quirk in particular.

I like to deconstruct my food.

I don't mean "deconstruct" in a super fancy-pants Top Cheffy kind of way, where all of the dish's individual components are separated and artistically arranged on a plate (and usually drizzled with some sort of foam.)  I mean "deconstruct" in a more traditional sense:  I like to take my food apart, piece by piece, before consuming.

Let me offer up a run-of-the-mill turkey and swiss on rye as an example.  Most normal people would consume this sandwich by picking up one half and biting into it......then biting into it again.....and again, yes?

Most normal people would do this.  I repeat, most normal people.




I, on the other hand, feel the need to eat my sandwiches layer by layer.  First, I eat the top slice of bread.  Then, I eat the swiss (or the lettuce and tomato, whichever comes first.)  Next, I'll eat the turkey, slice by slice, and finally, the bottom piece of bread.

I don't know why I stick to this routine.  Freud would probably have a field day with the analysis though.  And Emily Post would tell you that this is incredibly poor etiquette (but I still send hand-written thank-you notes, so I am allowed this one, Em.)  My husband would tell you that it drives him crazy.




My earliest memory of playing the "let's take our food apart" game is from about third grade in the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart cafeteria.  I deconstructed a Ho-Ho.  First, I peeled off that oddly-textured chocolate shell.  Now that I think about it, how do they achieve that slightly waxy consistency?  Ew.  Next, I would unroll the chocolate cake and eat the sugary white frosting, followed by the cake.  I'm certain that the nuns were appalled. 

Candy bars were no exception.  The best example of this was a Twix bar, which I would stick in the refrigerator or the freezer before eating, so that it the buttery caramel would easily peel back from the crisp shortbread cookie.

I still love Twix, but I never buy them anymore (except maybe to hand out to trick or treaters.)  For today's post, I thought that I'd change things up a bit.  Instead of deconstructing a Twix, I decided to construct a Twix, layer by layer.  I'd seen a few versions of this recipe floating around the Internet and in magazines, so I took bits and pieces from various recipes (namely Sherry Yard's version and Martha Stewart's version), and put my own little spin on the candy.



The results are pretty darn close to the real deal.  More importantly, these bars deconstruct beautifully.

Here are my extra tips for making these copycat candy bars:

  • The bars can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, covered.  Because the caramel might be too hard after chilling, you might want to allow the bars to sit at room temperature a bit before serving.
  • If you don't have any Fleur de Sel, Maldon sea salt, or a flake salt, you can substitute kosher salt
  • I used Lyle's Golden Syrup for the caramel portion of the recipe, which has an appearance similar to honey and a buttery flavor.  I found it at our local international market, but I believe that it can also be found at certain Whole Foods or Cost Plus markets.  Per the recipe, you can substitute corn syrup.
  • The best way to cut the bars is by using an extra-sharp knife that has been run under hot water.

Homemade Twix Bars

Printable Recipe

Makes 16-20


Shortbread crust

12 tablespoons (6 ounces) butter, softened

1/4 cup golden brown sugar, packed

1 3/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

Chocolate caramel layer

1 1/2 cups sugar

9 tablespoons golden syrup or corn syrup

6 tablespoons water

3/4 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk

1/4 teaspoon sea salt or Fleur de Sel (plus more for sprinkling)

1/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (optional)

Chocolate coating (if you are dipping the individual bars, double this amount)

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons butter

Prepare the shortbread crust: Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.  Line a 9X9-inch baking pan with foil or parchment paper, allowing for a 1-inch overhang.  Butter the foil/parchment or spray it with nonstick baking spray.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 minutes.  Add the flour and the salt, and beat until combined.  Transfer the dough to the pan and press it into an even layer using your hands or a spatula.

Bake the crust until it turns golden brown, 20-25 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

Prepare the caramel:  In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, syrup, and water.  Place the saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly and wiping down any stray sugar crystals on the sides with a wet pastry brush.  Once the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring.

Insert a candy thermometer into the mixture and continue to cook until it reaches 300F degrees.  At this point, remove the pan from the heat and carefully whisk in the heavy cream (the mixture will bubbly vigorously.)  Whisk until smooth, then whisk in the condensed milk and the salt.  Whisk until smooth, then whisk in the chocolate (optional) until smooth.

Return the pan to the heat and whisk constantly until the temperature reaches 240F degrees.  Pour the mixture over the shortbread crust and sprinkle the surface with additional coarse sea salt or Fleur de Sel.    Place the pan in the refrigerator to chill until firm, about 1 1/2 hours.

Prepare the chocolate coating: Melt the chocolate with the butter in a double boiler set over low heat. You now have two options for coating the bars: 

1. Pour the chocolate mixture evenly over the chilled caramel layer and spread to cover all of the caramel. Return the pan to the refrigerator until the chocolate is set. Using a sharp knife run under hot water, cut into 2 x 2 0 inch squares to serve.

2. These bars can also be cut and dipped into the chocolate to more closely resemble Twix bars. After the caramel layer has chilled, cut down the length of the pan using a sharp knife that has been run under hot water, into two long pieces. Then cut each piece into strips, about 3/4-inch wide. Quickly dip the chilled bars into the melted chocolate, turning to coat, and place them on a wire rack set over parchment paper to set until firm. 

June 01, 2012

Sour Cherry Lattice Pie Bars


I'm just as guilty as any other avid baker/cook when it comes to an overabundance of kitchen supplies.  It has gotten to the point where I simply cannot cram any more pots/pans/mini appliances that I don't really use/baking dishes into my cabinets.  Trust me, I have tried to re-stack or rearrange the whole lot in every way possible.  Nothing new is taking up residency in those cabinets unless something gets the boot in its place.




The same applies for my utensil drawers.  To put it mildly, they are a cluttered mess.  Despite this, I still seem to instinctively know where my grapefruit cutter is whenever I need it --

Wait a minute.  Why do I even have a grapefruit cutter?  I never eat grapefruit.  Neither does Eric.

Clearly, I have a problem.  It's time to put a stop to my habit of mass collecting kitchen utensils that are only good for one rare purpose.  I'm looking at you, Mr. Corn Kernel Remover.

With this in mind, it probably wasn't the ideal time for me to bring home several pound of cherries with the intention to bake a pie.  I don't own a cherry pitter.  Damn.




Folks, I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  Google is a beautiful thing.  My cherry splatter-free t-shirt and unstained hands are proof.  After googling "ways to pit cherries without a cherry pitter," I learned a very cool and creative technique, which I will now pass on to you (you're welcome.)

(The only downside to this technique is that it required me to empty out one of Eric's bottles of Sam Adams lager.  Sorry Eric, I might have forgotten to mention that to you.)



Anyhow, here it is:

1. Stem cherries

2. Hold a cherry in place over the top of the empty beer bottle

3. Using the pointy end of a chopstick or a skewer, push the pit through the cherry and into the bottom of the beer bottle.  No clean up required!

4. Repeat with other cherries. Easy peasy.

Highly technical, I know, but I am convinced that you can handle it. 

Oh, and somewhere along the way, the intended cherry pie turned into cherry pie bars.  Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  Enjoy.

Here are my extra tips for making this sweet and summery treat:

  • Need some help with your lattice-work?  Here is a little how-to tutorial, compliments of All Recipes.
  • If you don't want to make bars, this recipe can be turned into a deep dish traditional pie, you might end up with a little bit of extra dough, but the filling amount should still be the same.
  • You may use frozen cherries for this recipe.  Just be sure to thaw and drain them before mixing with the other ingredients.  Otherwise, you will likely have a soggy dessert!
  • If you don't have turbinado sugar, then use regular granulated sugar or sanding sugar.
  • Cover the bars loosely with foil if they start to overbrown during the baking process (this shouldn't happen, but ovens can be temperamental!) 

Sour Cherry Lattice Pie Bars

Printable Recipe

Serves 8-10


For the Crusts

2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for dusting

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Zest of 1 small orange or lemon (optional -- I just love zest!)

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed

6-8 tablespoons ice water

For the Filling

5 cups fresh cherries, stems removed and pitted

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

Heavy cream

Turbinado sugar

Prepare the dough:  Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and optional zest in the work bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine.  Scatter the butter cubes over the flour mixture and pulse an additional 8-10 times, until the butter pieces are the size of small peas.

Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, and sprinkle it with 1/4 cup of the ice water.  Mix the dough with a rubber spatula, adding 1 tablespoon of water at a time until the dough starts to come together in large clumps.  Transfer the dough to a very lightly floured work surface and knead it together with your hands, gathering it into a large ball.

Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, and flatten each into a disk.  Wrap the disks in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375F degrees.  Line a 9X9-inch square baking pan with foil, allowing for a 1-inch overhang. On a lightly floured surface, roll the larger piece of dough to a 12X12-inch square (it doesn't need to be perfect!), and carefully transfer it to the pan, pressing to fit into the corners.  Chill the dough while assembling the filling.

In a large bowl, combine the cherries, sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice, cinnamon, and salt, tossing well to combine.  Pour the mixture into the bottom crust, spreading evenly.

Roll out the smaller piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to a 10-inch square.  Using a paring knife or a pastry cutter, cut the dough into 3/4-inch strips.  Arrange the strips, lattice-style, on top of the cherry filling, pressing into the sides of the bottom crust to seal.

Brush the top of the crust with the cream.  Sprinkle with the turbinado sugar.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is a lovely golden brown, and the filling is bubbling.  Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting and serving with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

May 23, 2012

Coconut Key Lime Pound Cake



Let's discuss pound cake, shall we?

I have a love/hate relationship with pound cake.  The love part?  Well, that should be fairly obvious.  I mean, it's pound cake, and if successfully prepared, pound cake is not too hard to love.

The hate part stems from the myriad of mishaps that inevitably occur when trying to create the recipe for a perfect pound cake.  I have had more than my fair share of these.




But what, you may ask, constitutes a "perfect pound cake?"

No doubt that the answer varies from baker to baker.  Purists may insist that the recipe is not truly a pound cake if it strays from the traditional formula: 1 pound each of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, possibly flavored with vanilla or brandy. 

But if we're being technical here, shouldn't this actually be called a four-pound cake? 

This baking powder and milk-free version tends to yield very dense golden brown loaves with a fine crumb.  Some say that they are too dense, or too dry (I fall into this category.) So, we bakers and bloggers do what we do best: We take a basic recipe and we change it around to make it our own unique creation.

There are countless credible recipes for pound cake in cookbooks and on the Internet these days.  Some use cake flour.  Some use bread flour.  Some add sour cream for moisture.  Some add whole milk or buttermilk.  Some separate the egg whites from the egg yolks.  Some incorporate fava bean puree into the batter (not really, just seeing if you are paying attention.)




Anyhow, my point is that there is no one right recipe for the perfect pound cake.  You really just need to play around with options until you find the mix that makes you happy.  Through trial and error, these are the things that made me happy:

1. Baking temperature:  I found that my perfect baking temperature for pound cake was 325F degrees.  At 350F, the loaves would become much too dark on top by the time that the insides were fully baked.  I ended up having to cover them with foil during the last 10 minutes.

2. Additional dairy:  My most successfully moist loaves had some sort of dairy added to them, about 1/2 cup per loaf.  I didn't find a noticeable difference if I used whole milk vs. buttermilk vs. sour cream, so I usually use what I have on hand, which is usually whole milk.

3.  Leavening:  1/2 teaspoon of baking powder per loaf wasn't enough.  The tops of the loaves were flat, which is a HUGE pet peeve of mine when it comes to pound cake.  How on earth is the glaze supposed to ooze over the sides if the top is flat???  I like a nice dome on my pound cakes.  So, 1 teaspoon it was. 

4.  Extras:  I'm a big fan of glazes and syrups on cakes.  The glazes just look pretty, and the syrups allow that extra punch of flavor to soak into the tops of the loaves.  I also like to stir things into the batter:  toasted coconut, chopped nuts, zest, etc.  It's always nice to add a little texture, right?




So, this recipe is where I am right now in my quest for perfect pound cake.  No doubt it will be tweaked even further in the future (I just can't leave well enough alone!) Here are my extra tips for making this lip puckering-ly possibly perfect pound cake:

  • The initial step of chopping the toasted coconut is not mandatory.  I just prefer to have the coconut in small enough pieces so that it doesn't interfere with the slicing.
  • This cake is actually better the day after it is made, both from a flavor and slicing standpoint.  Once the glaze has set, wrap the loaf tightly in plastic wrap, and either store it at room temperature or place it in the refrigerator (my preference).
  • Feel free to substitute regular limes in this recipe.  For other variations, you could also use lemons, oranges, or tangerines.
  • Add toasted and chopped macadamia nuts to the batter for an additional tropical element.

Coconut Key Lime Pound Cake

Printable Recipe

Makes one 9X5 inch loaf


1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, lightly toasted

1 3/4 sticks (7 ounces) butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

Zest of 6 key limes (about 2 regular limes)

2 tablespoons fresh key lime juice

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup whole milk

For the lime syrup

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup fresh key lime juice

For the lime glaze

1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar

2-3 tablespoons fresh key lime juice


Preheat the oven to 325F degrees.

Spray a 9X5X3-inch loaf pan with nonstick baking spray.  Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and spray the parchment. 

Pulse the toasted coconut in the work bowl of a food processor or a mini chopped until it is finely chopped.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and the sugar at medium speed until very light and fluffy, 5 minutes.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Continue to beat the mixture after all of the eggs have been added for 3 minutes.  Beat in the lime zest and the lime juice.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk, mixing until combined.  Mix in the toasted coconut.

Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top with a spatula.  Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean, 60-70 minutes.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then carefully invert it onto a wire rack set over a baking sheet.

Prepare the syrup:  Whisk together the sugar and the lime juice in a microwave safe bowl.  Heat the mixture for 30 seconds, stirring until the sugar dissolved (heat for an additional 10-15 seconds, if necessary.)  Using a spoon or a pastry brush, pour or bush the syrup over the still warm loaf, allowing it to soak in.  Let the loaf sit for 15 minutes.

For the glaze, whisk together the confectioner's sugar and enough of the lime juice to create a thick but pourable glaze.  Pour the glaze over the pound cake, allowing it to drizzle over the sides.  Let the glaze set for at least 15 minutes before serving.


May 09, 2012

Blueberry Lemon Tres Leches Cupcakes with Toasted Meringue Frosting


This is why I will never be hired by tabloid news show TMZ:



 Believe it or not, that is a photo of reigning pop queen Rihanna.  She was staying at my hotel during a recent trip to New York, and she was on her way out to what was likely a super-glamorous star-studded affair.  In my rush to snap a photo, this was the best that I could do.

Not exactly a photo that will earn me six figures (let alone six cents) from In Touch, now is it?

How was I clued in to the fact that Ri-Ri would be making an appearance?  Take a gander outside of the hotel:



 Again, another stellar shot.

Paparazzi central. They were camped out for hours in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the diva, and they were audibly disappointed when I, in all of my post-cross-country-flight unfabulousness, stepped out of the hotel lobby earlier that afternoon.

**Collective sigh.  Cameras lowered.  I think that someone might have even said "Oh, that's nobody."**

Right.  Like I'm going to let the opinion of someone who chronicles Lindsay Lohan's every move for a living put a damper on my day (it did sting a little.)

Fortunately, when I arrived back at the hotel, I learned that somebody out there thought that I wasn't a nobody.  At least, I was enough of a somebody to receive complimentary cupcakes and a glass carafe of ice cold whole milk from Straus Creamery.



 Now, if that's not the best damn hotel amenity ever, then I don't know what is.  Some occasions just call for whole milk from a glass bottle, and free cupcakes is one such occasion.  Also, I'm not sure if you are aware of this fact, but free cupcakes eaten in a hotel room do not have any calories.  True story.




I've heard rumblings here and there among the culinary community that cupcakes are on their way out.  I know that you've heard them too.

I disagree.

I mean, sure, there might be a few too many cupcakeries out there.  I don't know if one shop for every five residents is truly necessary, but if business is booming, then who am I to judge?  Just because something has become a trend does not mean that, at a certain point, elitist foodies need to declare said trend as being "out" or "over" (with the exception of cake pops -- I'm not really a fan, and I don't quite understand the draw.)



Cupcakes make people happy.  They are cute, portable, and unlike a cake, it's OK if you eat the whole thing.  There are limitless flavor inspirations and combinations which can be translated into a cupcake, and I love trying out new ideas.

Case in point:  Blueberry Lemon Tres Leches Cupcakes



Tres Leches Cake is one recipe that I have never attempted to make, but it has been on my culinary bucket list.  I thought that it would be interesting to translate the Tres Leches concept into a cupcake. But not just a plain ol' cupcake.  A blueberry lemon cupcake (I'm still trying to use up all of those Meyer lemons from my back yard.)  Most Tres Leches Cakes have a sweetened whipped cream frosting, but I thought a toasted meringue version for the cupcakes would be even better.  Plus, I love any excuse to whip out my kitchen torch.

These cupcakes are super-moist, thanks to the sweet and creamy soaking liquid, and they are guaranteed to make any old non-Rihanna feel like a "somebody."




Here are my extra tips for making these sweet and toasty treats:

  • The lemon flavor provided by the zest is not extremely tart.  If you would like more of a tart flavor, I suggest soaking the cupcakes with a lemon juice simply syrup before you soak them with the milk mixture.
  • These cupcakes are best served soon after they are frosted, as meringue frosting does not hold up well for long periods of time.  You can keep the unfrosted cupcakes chilled for up to two days and frost them just before serving.
  • If you don't own a kitchen torch you can serve the meringue frosting untoasted.  You could also frost the cupcakes with lightly sweetened whipped cream.





Blueberry Lemon Tres Leches Cupcakes with Toasted Meringue Frosting

Printable Recipe

Makes 16-18 cupcakes


6 large eggs, separated

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

3 tablespoons lemon zest

6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

1 tablespoon rum or vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups cake flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

14 ounces sweetened condensed milk

12 ounces evaporated milk

3/4 cup whole milk

For the frosting

4 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.  Spray two 12-cup muffin tins with nonstick baking spray or fill them with paper liners.

In the bowl of an electic mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks with the sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 minutes.  Add the lemon zest and butter; beat for 2 minutes more.  Beat in the rum or vanilla.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt, then add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredient, mixing until just combined.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until soft peaks form.  Fold the egg whites into the batter until thoroughly incorporated.  Carefully stir in the blueberries (try to avoid breaking them up and turning the batter blue!)

Divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling them about halfway full.  Bake for 16-18 minutes, until the cupcakes are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center emerges clean.

While the cupcakes are baking, whisk together the condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk.

Allow the cupcakes to cool in the tins for a few minutes, then carefully transfer them to a wire rack placed over a baking sheet.  With a serrated knife, cut 1/4-1/2 inch off the top of each cupcake, so that the top is fairly flat.  Using a tablespoon, pour the milk mixture over the top of the cupcakes, one at a time, allowing the milks to soak in before adding more.  Try to get about 2-3 tablespoons per cupcake.

Place the cupcakes on a plate or in a pan, cover, and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Prepare the frosting:  Combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a heat-proof bowl and place it over a saucepan of simmering water.  Whisk the mixture constantly until it is very warm to the touch and the sugar has dissolved.  Immediately transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat at medium-high speed until the mixture has cooled and stiff peaks form.

Transfer the meringue to a piping bag fitted with a large tip, and pipe the meringue onto the chilled cupcakes.  Optional: Using a kitchen torch, toast the meringue frosting.  Serve as soon as possible!


April 22, 2012

Breakfast at Elvis's: Whole Grain Peanut Butter and Banana Pancakes



During the IACP convention, which I attended in New York last month, there was an event called the Culinary Expo and Book Festival.  The book festival was an opportunity for authors with published books (like my roommate Camilla) to set up a table, promote their latest masterpieces, and hopefully sell a few copies in the process.

As a serial cookbook collector with an uncontrollable habit, the fact that I set foot the room meant that I would most definitely be leaving with at least one new title.

I left with three:

Fried Chicken and Champagne by Lisa Dupar, from whom I also took the most inspiring seminar called "Giving Your Event a Signature Style."  My parties are going to rock from now on.



Wicked Good Barbecue by the wicked awesome award winning pit-masters Andy Husbands and Chris Hart.  Part of me bought the book because I am in desperate need of an education for using my new backyard smoker.  Part of me bought the book because Andy was serving up complimentary pulled pork sandwiches at the festival (smart man.)  Part of me bought the book because of the title -- it was written by two guys from Boston.  Can't wait to perfect my brisket!




And I purchased Camilla's latest book, 5 Easy Steps to Healthy Cooking, a book that is essentially a miracle in my household, because after flipping through it Eric (a.k.a. Mr. In 'n Out Burger) was actually excited about the prospect of eating healthy dinners. 



Not too shabby of an outcome, n'est-ce pas?

So then, I made my way into the culinary expo, which was sort of a trick-or-treating for food professionals event.  There were all sorts of food companies, from small Brooklyn bakeries to Cuisinart, with booths and samples (well, Cuisinart didn't have samples, but a free food processor would have been much appreciated!) 

Some brands caught my eye more than others, but none so much as Peanut Butter & Co (for reasons that should be obvious -- see name of this blog.)  If you're not familiar with Peanut Butter & Co's line of products, allow me to enlighten you of their why-didn't-I-think-of-that genius concept.  They have taken all-natural peanut butter and elevated it by turning it into eat-it-straight-from-the-jar flavors like White Chocolate Wonderful, The Heat is On, and Dark Chocolate Dreams (which is indeed the stuff that dreams are made of.)




I think that I lingered at their booth a little too long, sampling here and sampling there, just to make sure that I got an accurate feel for their array of flavors.  I mentioned PB & Julie to the PB & Co gang, and they said that they would love to send me some samples to play around with in the kitchen. 

"ABSOLUTELY!"  (Said in a tone and volume worthy of all caps.)

So, about a week later, Christmas came early.  A box containing a jar each of  Mighty Maple, Cinnamon Raisin Swirl, and Dark Chocolate Dreams arrived at my doorstep, and I started brainstorming about what I could create with the flavors.

Well, that's not exactly true.  First I made the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my life, then I started brainstorming.




So the first recipe that I came up with was these Whole Grain Peanut Butter and Banana Pancakes, something that I envision Elvis enjoyed digging into on Sunday mornings (with a big side o' bacon, of course.)  I thought that I was being super original, but then while perusing PB & Co's web site, I found that they already have a peanut butter pancake on there.

Whoops.  Well, mine are better.

Kidding -- sheesh!

Well, let's just go with the whole "great minds think alike" thing.   They're not exactly the same recipes, and one can never have too many pancake recipes, right?  Next time, however, I will check first. 



Here are my extra tips for making these pancakes that are fit for "The King.":

  • Be sure to heat the peanut butter in the microwave or over the stove before adding it to the wet ingredients, or else it will be difficult to combine everything.
  • Be sure that the griddle/skillet temperature is not too high, or else the pancakes will burn on the outside but they will still be raw on the inside.
  • These would also make a great dessert pancake.  Make silver dollar-sized pancakes, and top them with a little bit of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.  You could also add chocolate chips to the batter.
  • To really add an "Elvis" twist to this recipe, add some chopped cooked bacon to the batter!




Whole Grain Peanut Butter and Banana Pancakes

Printable Recipe

Serves 6


1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats

1/3 cup chopped peanuts, plus more for serving

3 tablespoons golden brown sugar, packed

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 cup Peanut Butter & Co's Mighty Maple, warmed

1 large egg

1 tablespoon canola or roasted peanut oil

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 medium banana, diced

1 tablespoon butter

Maple syrup, honey, or chocolate sauce or serving

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, peanuts, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, peanut butter, egg, oil, and vanilla.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.  Fold in the diced bananas.

Heat a nonstick skillet or griddle over medium, and coat it with a thin layer of butter.  Using an ice cream scoop or a spoon, drop the batter by 1/4 cup portions onto the skillet, spreading it into a circle shape.  When the tops of the pancakes start to bubble and the edges start to firm up (about 2 minutes), flip the pancakes and cook until set, 1-2 minutes more.

Serve topped with additional sliced bananas and/or strawberries and a drizzle of warm maple syrup, honey, or chocolate sauce. 




April 05, 2012

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion, and Gruyere Tart


Hungry?  If not, you will be after reading this post.

Last week, as part of my trip to New York for the IACP Conference, I had the opportunity to take a tour entitled "Greenwich Village and Beyond: Exploring Italian Food."

If there's one thing that I know, it's this:  When you have the chance to "explore Italian food", you go.  So I did.  Fortunately for you, I also took pictures.

Our first stop on the tour was the quaint Pasticceria Rocco on Bleecker Street for cappuccino and mini Italian ricotta cheesecakes, or "croce", which means "cross".  Lemmetellya, if this is how the Italians start their day, then sign me upRalph Allo, whose father-in-law started the shop in 1974, came out and spoke to us while we nibbled.  When he told us about the 1920s granite cannoli-making machine downstairs someone of course asked if we could see it.

"No."  (Silence)

Ooh-kee-doo-kee.  I guess we've worn out our welcome.  Time to move on. Grazie!

(Don't get me wrong.  He was extremely hospitable.  I think that he's just protective of his cannoli machine.  I would be too.)



Next up was the teeny tiny Florence Market, one of two remaining meat markets in the area, which still uses the traditional apprentice system (as opposed to the Donald Trump circus variety) to train their butchersWe had to tour the shop in shifts, as it could only fit about 5 of us at a time.   No samples here, but I was eyeing the lamb sausage in their case--nice to know they ship. 

On to Faicco's pork store! So far, not really a tour for vegetarians...



Look at what I got to eat (below).  These were bananas.  Well, obviously they're not bananas in the literal sense, but they were totally bananas in the Rachel Zoe slang sense.  As these freshly fried prosciutto ricotta balls and arancini rice balls were passed around, Franco (of course his name was Franco), told us that Faicco's prides itself in being the only pork store in the city.

Now, I'm not a big consumer of fried food, but I could've eaten about 20 of these.



Next stop was Murray's Cheese shop, about which I was particularly excited.  Eric and I have been ordering from Murray's on-line shop for awhile now (Yes!  They overnight cheese and charcuterie to Las Vegas!), but I had never actually been to their store.   



I love cheese. 



And charcuterie. 



And olives.  Especially Cerignola olives.  Try them.  They're like buttah. 



I could've easily stayed at Murray's for 5 hours and been perfectly happy........but fresh pasta, and Nonna, beckoned.

This is Nonna Ramona.  Yes, it rhymes.  She is the matriarch of Raffetto's on Houston Street, and she prepared cheese and spinach ravioli with tomato-basil sauce and whole wheat taglierini with pesto just for us.



Then, she showed us how they make fresh fettuccine using their guillotine-style pasta cutter.  I really want one of these, but I'm not sure if it would fit in my kitchen.

At this point, obviously, I was famished.  Fortunately, we had fresh mozzarella in our future.




And when Joe's Dairy says "fresh", they really truly mean fresh.  The heaping platter of mozzarella that was served to us had just been finished 5 minutes beforehand.  Crazy, huh?





I loved so many things about this little shop, which sold about 35 different types of cheese.  They've never advertised anywhere except a listing in the Yellow Pages.  The owner had been making cheese since he was 11-years-old and, from listening to him, he was clearly an expert. 

Fun fact:  Did you know that winter curd is preferable to summer curd because the cows eat hay in the winter vs. grass in the summer?  Grass has higher water content, which affects the cheese.

You see?  I was eating and paying attention.




Grandaisy Bakery, formerly Sullivan Street Bakery, was up next for Roman-style pizzas.  Yes, plural.  Four pizzas to be exact.  Good.  Still famished.

This photo below is of what might just be the best thing that I tasted during the tour.  It's hard to pick just one favorite of course -- kind of like asking Michelle Duggar to pick a favorite child -- but this butternut squash, sage, onion, and Gruyere pizza is definitely a contender.  I kept talking about it long after the tour was over, and it inspired the recipe for today's post.

The other three flavors, cauliflower, wild mushroom, and potato, were also excellent, but this is the one that stood out.  Can't wait to go back.

Time for gelato!




This is Philippo, owner of Amorino Gelato.  I have no idea what he said, but he had the cutest accent, and he definitely had our attention (am I right, ladies?)




We were allowed to try as many flavors as we wanted, in either a cup or a cone.  I opted for a cup of the stracciatella, salted caramel, and Cioccolato Amorino, their own rich bitterweet chocolate flavor.




Others on the tour opted for Amorino's signature "flower" cone.




And then we were finito, and it was time to start thinking about where to have dinner.





Seriously though, I can't think of a better way than this tour to kick off my trip to New YorkIt really inspired me to explore other areas in the city on future visits, and to hunt down some of the great little artisan shops, of which I know there are many.

As I mentioned above, this Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion, and Gruyere Tart was inspired by that life-changing pizza that I tried at Grandaisy Bakery.  I decided to do a tart because I knew that my attempts to recreate a New York-made pizza crust would leave me disappointed.  Instead, I made a basic pate brisee crust, but I added a bit of cornmeal for some extra crunch.

This tart can really be served for any meal (or all three!)  It's also just as good at room temperature, or cold, as it is fresh from the oven.

Ciao, or rather, "chow"!




Here are a few extra tips for making this tour-inspired tart:

  • If you don't feel like making your own crust, certainly a store-bought one will suffice.  That said, this crust is really fairly simple, so I encourage you to give it a try.
  • No tart pan?  No problem!  Create a "rustic style" tart instead.  Roll the dough out to a 14-inch circle, and place it on a baking sheet.  Layer the ingredients in the center of the dough, leaving a 1 1/2-inch border.  After the ingredients are layered, fold the edges of the dough over to form a crust and slightly overlap the ingredients.  Bake as directed.




Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion, and Gruyere Tart

Printable Recipe

Makes one 10-inch tart

For the crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cubed

2-3 tablespoons ice water

For the tart filling

2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 large sweet yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced 

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 small butternut squash (1 1/2 pounds), trimmed, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cored

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

Prepare the crust dough:  In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, cornmeal, and salt; pulse to combine.  Scatter the butter over the flour mixture, and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 10-12 pulses.  With the machine running, add 2 tablespoons of the ice water through the feed tube in a slow stream, mixing until the dough just begins to hold together, adding more water by the teaspoon if necessary.  Do not overprocess, or the dough will become tough.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and gather it into a ball.  Flatten the ball into a disk, and wrap it in plastic wrap.  Chill the dough for at least 1 hour before proceeding.

Meanwhile, start on the filling:  Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet set over medium-low heat.  Add the slice onion to the skillet, and sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Cook until the onion is deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, 25-35 minutes.  Set skillet aside to cool slightly.

Thinly slice each half of the squash crosswise.  Toss the squash with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil and the sage in a large bowl.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 425F degrees.

Remove the crust dough from the refrigerator.  On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough out to a 13-inch round.  Carefully transfer the dough to a fluted 10-inch tart pan with a removeable bottom, pressing evenly into the edges.  Trim the dough so that it is flush with the edge of the tart pan.  Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes.

Spread the caramelized onions over the bottom of the tart pan.  Sprinkle the Gruyere over the onions.  Arrange the squash slices in concentric circles over the cheese, overlapping as necessary.

Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake for 35-45 minutes, until the squash starts to caramelize and the crust becomes golden brown.  Allow the tart to rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting, or allow it to cool completely and serve at room temperature.