Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crisis Averted

As I've previously mentioned, I am responsible for the baking for a special wedding reception coming up in September. Now that it is safe to reveal the details, the happy couple is my sister Lisa and her new husband Joe. They were married on the beach in Key West a few nights ago and their reception is less than a month away.

I have changed my mind about the oreo cupcakes. They were a hit with the 13 year old boys at Connor's birthday party, but I really want the desserts at this occassion to be elegant. I've chosen a new theme (thanks to Jill who suggested coming up with some kind of theme!) and have some recipes saved. I'll share all of that after the fact as I want some of this to be a surprise and Lisa reads this blog!

What has remained in the plans from the beginning, however, is the "star of the show," the tirimisu cake. Tirimisu is Joe's favorite dessert and a special request from Lisa. Research indicates that tirimisu cakes are becoming quite popular for wedding cakes but they can be tricky. So I have been doing some practicing. I found a picture of one that gave me some great ideas for how to garnish and decorate the cake. The next step was to look for a recipe, make a practice cake, and find some guinea pigs to try it out.

My first attempt produced a beautiful looking cake, but the sponge layers were very fussy to work with and came out so thin that it had to be a two rather than a four layer cake. I served it at home to the kids and Gillian's friend Abby after dinner one night and everyone liked it. The cake stood up well and was still good a few days later when I shared it with some people at work. I was basically happy with the outcome, but knew I would need to find a different sponge cake recipe and try again. Additionally, I felt like it was missing something; like it needed more traditional tirimisu flavor...

...which brings us to round 2. Last night we had friends coming to the house for dessert after going out to dinner, so I thought I would try a new sponge cake recipe. I also decided to try a mascarpone filling recipe that was part of a traditional tirimisu. It involved making a zabaglione with marsala wine, cooling it, then adding it to whipped cream and the mascarpone. It made so much filling- about twice as much as was needed, so I decided to frost the whole cake with the filling as well. Big mistake. Since this filling was intended to be layered with lady fingers, it is much softer than a frosting and can't really stand up to a cake. An hour later I checked the cake and the top two layers had slid over and I was in disaster mode.

There was really no way to salvage this as a cake, and I didn't have the time (or ingredients) to start over, so I decided to try turning the whole thing into a trifle. I cut the cake up into big chunks, whipped up some cream with sugar and little Tia Maria to blend with the coffee soaked cake, and layered the two in a trifle bowl. The result is shown in the picture above. Baking crisis averted!

So now I feel ready for the final tirimisu cake without having to make another practice one. I'm going to use the sponge cakes from the second cake, the filling and decoration from the first cake and just spike the whipped cream frosting with coffee liqueur for a little extra flavor. You'll have to wait to see the finished product and the other desserts after September 19th!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Quinoa, the Protein Powerhouse!

I was introduced to quinoa a few years ago when Carly was working at a contemporary restaurant called "Tasteology." I'd heard of it before, but not being able to pronounce it, didn't brave asking about it in the grocery store. I know now that it is pronounced "keen-wa" and it is a nutty, delicious grain that behaves more like a protein.

Since I gave up many of the breads and starches of my past long ago, it's exciting to me when I find a healthy grain that is fun to work with and interesting on the plate. Quinoa has been compared to a couscous, but it's smaller, more delicate, and its appearance is unique. It can be combined with vegetables, herbs, cheese, etc. and eaten hot or can be used in a cold salad. Until recently, I've only used the light colored quinoa, but I'd seen several recipes that called for red quinoa and was anxious to try it.

So this is my first dish using red quinoa: Grilled Lemongrass Chicken with Red Quinoa and Vegetables. I found it on but it originally came from SELF magazine. The dish is very flavorful and I would definitely make it again! The chicken is marinated in lemongrass, shallots, ginger, canola oil, lime juice, and tamari (Japanese soy sauce), and I'm sure you would guess, a substitution of agave nectar in place of the brown sugar! It is then grilled and served over the red quinoa which is toasted, then cooked in chicken broth. The dish is complimented by a mix of red bell pepper and sugar snap peas sauteed in canola oil and tossed with fresh mint.

Red Quinoa has a little bit more of an "earthy" flavor, in my opinion and was perfect for this dish. Another first-time ingredient that I used was lemongrass. This is a fun ingredient to work with because in order to bring out the flavor, you need to whack it a few times on your countertop. You can take out a little frustration, then smell the lemongrass and be soothed by the wonderful aroma!

The recipe can be found at the following link:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Cobblers

This is a tale of two cobblers. The first, an indulgent delicious mix of berries topped with a blueberry scone; a creation of one of the three Food Network stars I mentioned in an earlier post, Tyler Florence. The other, my variation of a cobbler I found on the Mayo Clinic website. Again, a delicious mix of fruit but with no white sugar and a 100% whole grain pastry topping. Both were successful desserts but not exactly what I originally intended.

To start with, I made Tyler Florence's "Summer Berry Cobbler" when I was asked to bring a dessert to my daughter Gillian's boyfriend's family's lake cottage. (how's that for a triple possessive???) I would highly recommend the recipe as it bakes up beautifully (as shown in the bottom picture) and the flavors are wonderful! However, I do have a few suggestions. First of all, the recipe calls for way too many berries to fit in a tart pan: one pint each of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I had a good sized bowl of berries leftover. Since there is a quart of blueberries mixed right into the scone on top, I would leave the other pint of blueberries right out of the fruit mixture. Secondly, the dessert is meant to be served warm, but I had to bring it somewhere, and needed to cover it for traveling. So by the time I served it, the scone had softened somewhat and was room temperature. Still, it was delicious, especially topped with fresh whipped cream.

Now here is where my plans went awry. I originally wanted to make a healthy version of the same cobbler. And I actually attempted to do this a few nights ago. My plan was to substitute agave nectar for the sugar and whole wheat pastry flour for the white flour. So I went out and spent another small fortune on berries and did some research on the substitutions (apparently you need to use 1/8 cup less of whole grain flour for every cup of white flour, and agave nectar to taste because it is sweeter than sugar and a liquid instead of a solid......). I proudly put it in the oven and ten minutes later I realized that I never put the egg in the scone mixture. YIKES!!! It was really too late to save it and the whole thing went in the trash.

Well. How depressing. And I didn't have the heart to do it all again. So I searched for healthy cobbler recipes instead and stumbled onto this apple-blueberry cobbler from the Mayo Clinic. It is an overall healthy recipe but I did make some changes to suit my preferences (like using whole wheat pastry flour instead of half whole wheat, half white and agave nectar for the sugar, among a few other minor changes). I was very pleased with the result. I served this to three adults and four children, and only one child said "no thanks!" It definitely does not taste like a diet dessert, was plenty sweet and just as pretty as Tyler's cobbler. I loved the cut-out pastry flowers on top and I had a few left over which I baked up with cinnamon as cookies for the little "no thanks" guy! I'm showing two pictures of this because the little cut-outs hid the filling. I'd definitely make this again, and recommend serving it up warm with whipped agave sweetened cream.

I'm leaving you the link to Tyler's cobbler and my adjusted recipe for the Mayo Clinic one. I may someday give the healthy version of Tyler's a try, but for now I am "cobbled out!"

Tyler Florence's summer berry cobbler is at:

Apple-blueberry cobbler
(based on a recipe from

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 Tbl fresh lemon juice
2 Tbl agave nectar
2 Tbl cornstarch
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups fresh blueberries
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a tart or deep dish pie pan. Pour lemon juice and agave over apples in bowl. Mix to combine. Mix cornstarch and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Sprinkle over apple mixture and combine with your hands. Gently mix in blueberries. Pour fruit into prepared dish.
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbl cold butter cut into pieces
1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 Tbl agave nectar
Extra cinnamon to sprinkle over topping.
In large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Cut in the butter. Add buttermilk, vanilla and agave and mix only until combined. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead a bit with floured hands. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thickness and cut out desired shapes. Place shapes on top of fruit to cover. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake until fruit is bubbly and topping is brown, about 30 minutes. Serve warm with whipped agave sweetened cream.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cupcake Surprise

In my welcome post, I hinted that you'd see some sweet treats here. I LOVE to bake for special occasions and it so happens that there is a very special occasion coming up next month- a wedding reception that I have been asked to bake for. I'm so excited about doing this, but a bit nervous because I want everything to be perfect. So I decided that I would use every opportunity I could to do some "rehearsing."

For the wedding, I will be making one special dessert (more in a later post about this...) and a few different kinds of cupcakes. I'm not 100% set on the cupcakes yet, so if anyone has seen (or eaten) something really special, I'd appreciate your ideas!

My first cupcake idea was to make a cupcake topped with an oreo ball. For those of you who have not tried oreo balls, they are the most simple little gems to make but they go over so well that they disappear quickly and I get many requests to make them. So then I decided it needed to be an oreo cupcake with a cream cheese frosting (since the oreo balls are made with cream cheese). I looked at several recipes and finally relied on a website I've used for cakes, fillings, frostings, and decorating many times before. They have a white cake recipe that is very special and I figured I could just mix crushed oreos in with the batter. I used the same website for the cream cheese frosting. And here it is: As they say on the website, "unleash your inner cake diva!"

Here is where we see why rehearsing a recipe is a good idea. If I make these for the wedding, I think I will use a white frosting instead of the cream cheese which was softer than I would have liked and too yellow.

And here is where the surprise comes in. There is a whole oreo cookie on the bottom of the cupcake that serves as a kind of crust. It is a very cool idea, but not original. I found it on a website called Very simple- just put a whole oreo cookie on the bottom of the cupcake liner before you fill it with the dough. Ingenious!

These practice cupcakes went to Connor and his friends for his birthday party. There are LOTS leftover so I will be giving them away this week. Check back for more wedding recipe rehearsals!

*See website mentioned for a highly recommended white cake recipe. It makes a three layer 10 inch cake. I got 30 cupcakes and one layer out of it!! The cake is light and flaky an the top has a little crunch on it due to the whipped egg whites folded in at the end.

Oreo Ball directions: Put a whole package of oreo cookies in a food processor and process into fine crumbs. Add an 8 oz. package of cream cheese and process until it becomes a dough ball of goodness! Refrigerate until very cold and roll into small balls. Dip each ball in melted "candy melts." Leave on wax paper to dry. Store in a cool place (or fridge).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Everything tastes better when it's a baby. Eat a baby today.

It's true- everything tastes better when it's a baby. Baby cow- VEAL. Baby sheep- LAMB. Baby pig- SUCKLING PIG. Ok, so I've never eaten a suckling pig, but you have the idea.

I have no idea what is wrong with people who say that they can't eat lamb because lambs are cute. Seriously? Eating only the ugly animals means missing out on some truly delicious dishes. Now try saying that three times fast.

People who say they don't LIKE lamb probably never had it made well. We've had many a lamb stew on St. Patricks's Day (and when March looms closer, I'll definitely blog about our huge St. Patrick's Day feasts...)and enjoy the lamb lollipop appetizer at Bistro 135, but the best lamb I ever ate was tonight's dinner.

Again, I have relied on Giada's expertise. Her "Grilled lamb with salsa verde" was to die for! All five of us loved it and I had to stop Connor from going back for thirds. You can find this recipe in her book- Giada's Family Dinners, but I'll post it here as well. This is the first time I have bought a leg of lamb and I asked if it could be butterflied for the recipe. I was told that it was already deboned and that it would be easy to just slice it down the middle and open it up. Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as he described it, and there was also a very thick layer of skin that I had to wrestle off! It was quite a scene and I was in fear that I might be ruining a very expensive piece of meat. Fortunately, I won the wrestling match and the lamb was wonderful. I would, however, recommend asking the butcher to do all of this for you and make your prep easier!

Here is the recipe- It's enough for about 6-8 people. We'll eat the leftovers in a bit of whole grain pita and yogurt sauce tomorrow!

Grilled lamb with salsa verde

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (3-4 lemons)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup salted capers, soaked, drained, and coarsley chopped
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
3 1/2 tsp. coarse salt (I used sea salt)
1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 (41/2-5 lb.) boned and butterflied leg of lamb
1 Tbs. minced garlic
Nonstick cooking spray

In a large bowl, stir the oil, lemon juice, parsley, scallions, mint, capers, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes to blend. Whisk in 1 1/2 tsp. of the salt and 1/2 tsp. of the black pepper. Set the salsa verde aside.

Place the lamb in a 15X10X2-in, glass baking dish (I used 13X9 and it worked fine). Rub the remaining 2 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper and the garlic all over the lamb. Pour 1/2 cup of the salsa verde over the lamb, turning to coat it evenly. (At this point, lamb can be covered with plastic wrap and be refrigerated up to a day).

Spray a grill rack with nonstick spray and prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium-high heat. Grill the lamb, turning occasionally, until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest parts registers 130 degrees for medium-rare. (The recipe says about 40 minutes, but it only took about half that time on our gas grill. Transfer the lamb to a work surface and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Cut the lamb across the grain into thin slices. Arrange the lamb slices on a platter and drizzle with some of the reserved salsa verde. Serve with remaining salsa verde alongside.