Chitown, the Food Saturday, Sep 18 2010 

When Boyfriend and I vacation, we tend to do a lot of walking.  We’ll tell you that it’s the best way to see the city, or that it’s silly to spend money on cab fare when it’s seventy perfect degrees outside, or that this is the reason we chose a hotel right smack in the center of everywhere we wanted to be.  But the real reason?  The real reason is that we really like to eat, and on vacation, we eat a lot. 
 
Chicago was, of course, no exception to this rule.  I spent a solid two months perusing the boards over here to get the rundown on what Chicago had to offer.  I ogled the crazy menu at Alinea (and, of course, ultimately deemed it too rich for our twenty-something wallets), and had a days-long inner battle about which deep dish pizza we should try (since we’re both insufferable snobs when it comes to our pizza).  I even had a list of brewpubs and bars with extensive beer lists that I was forced to narrow down quite a bit for lack of time.  With all this hemming and hawing between our various culinary choices, there was one stop that was simply a no-brainer the instant I looked at the menu.  It fairly shouted Boyfriend’s name to me, through the computer screen, and, despite its distance from the hotel and relative obscurity with respect to anything else we wanted to see or do, I knew we had to go. 


 
So onto my carefully-planned itinerary it went – after the brewery tour, and before a stop at Hopleaf to keep our buzz going, I decided that we’d go to Hot Doug’s so Boyfriend would experience the glory of the “encased meats” I knew he’d love, and the duck fries we’d never heard of (but now simply had to have).  And that was that…until we went to The Second City Comedy Club the night before.  I’d overestimated both how long it would take us to walk from The Loop to Old Town, and how long dinner at Adobo Grill would take, and we had a little time on our hands.  I insisted we go to the Spice Merchants, which instantly assaulted every one of our senses in the best possible way, and to get some fudge (because there is always room for dessert on vacation), before we wandered into a specialty store selling olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  Since we walked in only a few minutes before closing, I fully expected to be hustled along and back out the door, especially since we didn’t really want to buy anything that would necessitate checking our bags on the flight back to Jersey.  But, on the contrary, the clerk struck up a conversation about what we were planning to do while we were in Chicago.  When we casually mentioned Hot Doug’s as part of our plans for the next day, he was instantly apologetic.  “I’m really sorry,” he told us, “but I’m pretty sure that they’re closed this week…” After a few frantic minutes peering into Boyfriend’s (incredibly slow) BlackBerry, our fears were confirmed – there would be no Hot Doug’s trip on this vacation. 
 
Of course, we were disappointed.  And I have no doubt that Hot Doug’s would’ve fulfilled every one of our salivating expectations.  But the rest of Chicago’s food more than made up for the travesty of missing out on one of our highly anticipated destinations.  
 
Most notably, Boyfriend and I both returned from Chicago completely devoted to the genius that is Rick Bayless.  Not only were the churros and hot chocolate at XOCO mouth-watering and flawlessly executed, but the menu was so original, so eclectic.  In a world of taco-enchilada-fajita Mexican restaurants, Rick Bayless challenged everything Boyfriend and I thought we knew about Mexican food.  We were hooked from the first bite. And the Wednesday-only pork belly torta?  Words cannot describe.  Having never eaten pork belly in our lives, I wasn’t honestly sure we would enjoy it.  Or, more accurately, I wasn’t sure I would like it, since Boyfriend likes virtually everything he eats.  And no amount of glowing reviews on every website I read could make me order that sandwich without knowing what pork belly tasted like.  But when Boyfriend shared a bite with me, I instantly regretted that decision.  Because my torta was really good, but Boyfriend’s was outstanding.  The salsa, in particular, was stellar – hot enough to satisfy our spice-loving palates, but not so harsh that it overwhelmed the rest of the sandwich.  And this magical sandwich…did I mention that it was our very first meal in Chicago?  I think we knew right then and there that we’d be enjoying our time in this city.


 
Aside from our new crush on Rick Bayless, we also developed a really strange love for Portillo’s hot dogs.  I don’t mean that it was unusual because of the place we got so attached to – with the sports memorabilia, highly amusing staff, speedy service, and delicious chocolate milkshakes, it was no wonder we enjoyed it. But hot dogs?  We don’t even eat hot dogs at barbeques if there are other options – we’re really cheeseburger and sausage kind of people.  But these hot dogs.  I don’t really know what it was; I got very attached to the chili dog, while Boyfriend raved about the Chicago dog and it’s tiny, lime green peppers.  I would tell you the exact tally of hot dogs eaten in five days, but it’s embarrassing, and quite frankly I’d rather not face the potential judgment. 
 
And then there was the thing we didn’t think we were going to like.  We’re Jersey kids and we like our pizza the way we like our pizza, so neither of us thought that deep dish was going to do it for us.  We actually walked into Lou Malnati’s expecting to be underwhelmed (I know, I know…blasphemy!), and were pleasantly surprised to find that we more than enjoyed our little upside-down pizza (I’m sorry, the toppings go on the top.  This is why they’re called toppings).  While it will never replace the pizza I’ve grown up with, the pizza I desperately miss whenever I leave the tri-state area, Boyfriend and I were glad to have tried, and liked, it, if for no other reason than to avoid the wrath of Chicagoans everywhere. 
 
And!  And!  Garrett’s Popcorn.  What is that about?  Though fully warned by a friend from the Chicago area, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wandered passed our first Garrett’s and found an actual line of people waiting for the doors to open in the morning.  Not that we didn’t eat it and love it (I mean, it’s popcorn drenched in caramel, after all), but lining up outside the door?  At breakfast time?  I don’t know…maybe I just didn’t eat enough to get hooked.
 
Now, I’ve long held the belief that calories don’t count on your birthday, but after a trip like this, I may need to revise my theory a little – perhaps to include one’s significant other, vacation, and several days of eating as if it were your birthday.  And at the end of it, only hours after we landed in Newark, I’m sure you can guess what we were doing. 
 
Eating birthday cake, of course.

Cornbread Tuesday, Aug 10 2010 

A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I went to see Dave Matthews play at Citi Field in New York.  This was a big deal for a lot of reasons:

1 – Boyfriend is a huge Dave fan, and he’s seen him enough times that he can’t remember the actual tally.

2 – Zac Brown Band, who we both love, was the opening act.

3 – Boyfriend hadn’t seen DMB in concert since college.

4 – It coincided with NYC Restaurant Week.

I think you can imagine how excited I was to discover this out this last detail.

Since Boyfriend was already coming home the night before the concert, we planned to spend the entire day in the city – eating, drinking, and sweating in the 100-degree temperatures.  After attempting to read through the exhaustively long list of participating restaurants and their menus, I had an epiphany.  And that epiphany’s name was Bobby Flay.

I’ve never eaten at a celebrity chef’s restaurant, but the topic was on my mind after days of planning our Chicago itinerary and reading up on Rick Bayless’s restaurants.  So to Mesa we went for their pre fixe, Restaurant Week lunch menu.  And can I tell you?  I haven’t been that full after a meal that involved not one bite of meat ever. Ever.  We had delicious smoked shrimp cakes (that I was predictably nervous about, being very afraid of all things deemed “smoky”) dressed in a beautiful pineapple relish that balanced the heat out nicely.  Boyfriend had red snapper that he assured me was fabulous but was, to me, just another fish I wasn’t interested in.  And I had a monstrous chile relleno followed by the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted, while Boyfriend enjoyed a chocolate strawberry shortcake.

But for Boyfriend, who loves all things spicy and most anything unique, the real gem of the meal was the cornbread.  Made with both yellow and blue cornmeal and studded with kernels of corn and chunks of jalapeno, he took one bite of his first roll, looked across the table at me, and whispered, almost in awe, “when are you making these for me?”  We ate the entire basket of them, in addition to a second basket brought over to replenish the first.  I mentioned we were really full afterward, yes?

Several hours after cleaning our plates at Mesa, we made our way to Citi Field to watch the show.  Halfway through, Dave played the song we were hoping he would – Boyfriend’s favorite song, and the one he was very much looking forward to hearing live for the first time in years.  The song we’d sung loudly in the car on the way to the train that morning, and the song that is the first track on the DMB/Zac Brown Band playlist I made in preparation for the concert.  What song is that, you ask?

Cornbread, of course.

Spicy, Cheesy Cornbread

Adapted from this recipe http://allrecipes.com//Recipe/jalapeno-corn-bread/Detail.aspx

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

6 tbsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 vegetable oil

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

2 – 3 tbsp red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease a 9-inch square baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and red pepper flakes.  Stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk, and oil together.  Slowly pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir to combine.  Add cheese, and stir until it’s well-distributed.

Pour batter into pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cut bread into squares and serve warm.

Bruschetta Tuesday, Jul 20 2010 

During the oppressive heat of the summer months, most food bloggers take solace in the fact that the stellar produce at this time of year makes up for the sweaty, blistering temperatures.  The peaches, the blueberries, the sweet Jersey corn…farmers markets are brimming with foods that require very little alteration to taste phenomenal.  This isn’t the winter, where the East Coast bemoans its abundance of squash and Brussels sprouts and dreams of the days when strawberries ripen.  Around this time of year, people are thrilled to leave their ovens off and let the fresh produce speak for itself.

Often, it’s the tomato that steals the spotlight.  But here’s a confession – I don’t like tomatoes, at least not raw ones. I don’t like the seedy, pulpy interior, and I don’t like the slick skin that holds it all together.  I don’t like large, fresh slices of the beefsteak variety on hamburgers, and I pick them out of salads, unceremoniously dropping them on Boyfriend’s plate more often than not.  He, of course, adores them – he wishes I liked them more.  And I want to like them, I really do, but if I can’t stomach them at the peak of their apparent deliciousness, I don’t think it’s in the cards for me.

Not to be outdone in the crazy department, though, I’ll eat them peeled and cooked into tomato sauce.  In fact, I love tomato sauce.  And salsa.  But not ketchup.  You know, just in case you thought I was predictable. As if I’d let that happen.

Spurred by this irrational love of saucy, cooked tomatoes mingled with onions and garlic, I decided to do bruschetta for dinner.  Simple, fairly healthy, and so quick to put together, I find this meal endlessly satisfying – the crunchy bread, the acidic bite of the tomatoes, the tangy cheese…what’s not to love?  Unless, of course, you don’t like tomatoes.

Bruschetta

3 tbsp olive oil, divided

4 thick slices of French bread

1 tbsp butter

1/8 cup diced onion

1 clove fresh garlic, minced

1-2 tbsp fresh chopped basil

3 whole, peeled plum tomatoes (Yes, I did get mine from a can.  In the midst of tomato season.  I’m a sad, sad creature.)

Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, to taste

Shredded Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and brush both sides of each piece of bread evenly with 2 of the 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Once your oven has reached 350, put the bread on a baking sheet in the middle of the oven and cook for 5 minutes on each side (or until the bread is crunchy and golden).  Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil and butter in a saucepan over medium heat.  When the oil has heated, add onions and cook until transluscent.  Add garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant but not browned.  Add tomatoes, basil, and spices, and cook until everything is heated through.  Taste and season accordingly as you go.

When the topping and bread are both finished, top each slice with a quarter of the tomato mixture and sprinkle with cheese.

Oreo Cheesecake Ice Cream Tuesday, Jul 6 2010 

Though at the moment we’re enjoying a very reasonable streak of 80 degree weather, those psychics we all call weathermen assure me that this won’t last – by Sunday the temperature will return to a staggering 95 degrees, and we’ll all sweat ourselves into puddles watching the fireworks. Such is life in the summer months. But I’m not complaining! At the end of the day, the bottom line is that I would rather slather myself with sunscreen and watch through the fiery humidity than spend even one extra minute in snowy winter weather. But when the weather gets this toasty, there are certain things my heart just yearns for. Things like beaches, cold beers, watermelon…and ice cream.

I’ve waxed poetic about my adoration of all things cold and creamy before, but the summer only amplifies my desire for it. I’ve tried to trick myself into forsaking my love for something a little less, um, fattening, but nothing else does it for me. Sorbet, frozen yogurt, Italian ice – they’re all very lovely, but they lack the smooth taste of velvet that ice cream has. In my mind, at least, nothing else comes close to satisfying the craving. It’s ice cream, or it’s nothing. And really, the first choice is clearly the superior one.

So  it’s kind of a miracle I haven’t attempted a custard-based ice cream before. Actually, it’s not that miraculous – I’m very, very impatient. And that extra cook-cool-refrigerate for two hours bit always put me off the custard base strategy that everyone else raved about. It was way easier for me to throw some milk and cream into the ice cream maker and let it just twirl away for a half hour. But now that I know when I’m missing? Now that I’ve experienced how much of a difference those three little steps make? Now, I don’t know how I’m going to go back.

Oreo Cheesecake Ice Cream

Adapted from over here, at Cathy’s Kitchen Journey

2 cups whole milk, divided

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

12 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 tsp vanilla extract

10 Oreo cookies, crumbled

Beat cream cheese in a large bowl until soft and smooth. Set aside.

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine sugar, eggs, and 1 1/2 cups milk. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture comes to a boil (I took mine off pretty much the instant it came to a boil – see the very, very impatient mention above). Slowly and carefully add the hot milk to the cream cheese and beat until combined.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate until the mixture is cool (I did all of this on day one, refrigerated it overnight, and finished it the next day).

When you’re ready to make the ice cream, remove the bowl from the fridge and add the last 1/2 cup of milk and the vanilla to the mixture (it will be thick and custard-like already). Pour the mixture into the ice cream maker and mix according to manufacturer’s instructions.

When the mixture is finished, scoop the ice cream into a bowl and fold in Oreo cookie crumbs. Store in a freezer-safe container.

Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Tuesday, Jun 22 2010 

Several years ago, while I was studying abroad, my college boyfriend came to visit.  As an early 21st-birthday present, I took him to Dublin for a long weekend, where we celebrated by going, where else, the Jameson Distillery.  First of all, if you’ve never been (to Ireland, Dublin, and/or the Jameson Distillery), I highly recommend it (Ireland, Dublin, and the Distillery).  The tour ends with a whiskey tasting involving all the usual suspects: Jameson, Jack, and Johnny.  The idea, of course, is to prove to you how smooth and delicious Jameson is, as compared to the rather harsh bite of the other two, er, gentlemen.  Not that I’ve ever been a particularly hard sell in that department.

Irish whiskey is, was, and maybe always will be my shot of choice, especially when pitted against scotch and bourbon.  I just can’t get passed the burn of even the longer-aged bourbons, and the only scotch worth drinking is prohibitively expensive compared to my favorite whiskey.  But I never like to judge too quickly, especially when it comes to something that could be delicious if given a chance.  Thus, the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival in National Harbor this weekend.  The festival boasted 60 beers to sample, 40 bourbons to try, and a bacon-tasting station.

Now, just to recap, I do not like the following:

1) Bourbon

2) Bacon

Which left beer.  And pulled pork.  And hushpuppies.  And more beer.  And water, given that it was 93 broiling, sunny degrees, and, despite mopping sweat from my forehead for five hours, I got not one single shade tanner.  The injustice of it all.

Anyway.  I’d like to report that I gave bourbon a fair go and despite my best attempts to choke down more than the eensiest, tiniest little sip of a taste, I still hate it.  I’m sorry.  I don’t know why, beyond the fact that it freaking hurts more than I can explain, and if I wanted something to burn like that wouldn’t it be easy to just chug some shitty tequila?  I even tried the 18-year-aged stuff and, to be honest, I don’t think it even tastes any different from the not-aged-at-all crap.  I can taste the years in scotch, but definintely not in bourbon.

I did have some fan-freaking-tastic beer, pulled pork, and hot sauce though.  Also, whoever convinced me that I don’t like barbeque sauce is an idiot, because that shit is tasty if it’s done right.  We tasted one that I was fully planning on purchasing before our departure, but in our near heat-stroke state of mind, all we could focus on was returning to the air-conditioned car and taking a nice long nap.  I’m regretting it now though, and seriously considering ordering myself a little stock of it from their online store.  A few considerations must be made for the fact that I rarely cook anything on which barbeque sauce would traditionally be eaten, however, and I fear that if I learn to cook things like pulled pork and ribs for myself, it will be literally all I want to eat during grilling season.

Boyfriend also raved about the bacon, which I confess I didn’t even try.  Honestly, I’m not a fan of anything smokey – if you describe food to me as having any kind of smokey character, it immediately turns me off.  And don’t even get me started on the rauchbeir thing.  I can’t even stand how that smells.

All in all, neuroses aside, it was a pretty great day.  We ate ourselves silly and washed it all down with some great beer.  Boyfriend purchased an obscenely large bag of beef jerky and ate half of it on the 45-minute drive back to Baltimore, which meant I woke up from my sun-induced nap to the overpowering smell of dried meat and a Boyfriend who was maybe rethinking the amount of jerky he’d just ingested.  Because like everything else in life, you can often have just a little too much of a very good thing.

Cherry Jam Tart Tuesday, Jun 8 2010 

I have a real problem making cherry desserts.  It’s not that I don’t like cherries; quite the opposite, actually.  I love cherries.  I love them so much that I can, will, and do eat an entire three-pound bag in mere days.  I look forward to the sweet, ruby little gems every summer, and I react as if someone’s baked me a cake whenever they’re brought home from the grocery store.  I love them just that much.  So why do I hesitate to bake them into buttery pie crusts and tart shells?  Why do I balk at the thought of pitting a bag of those beauties and making cherry vanilla ice cream?

Because they’re too delicious. I literally refuse to waste their limited-time bounty on a pie.  They just don’t need it!  At the peak of their season, deeply red and oh-so juicy, why would I bother burying them under butter and crust and unnecessary sugar?  I wouldn’t.  I won’t.

Which is why desserts like this are so crucial to me – while I adore cherry-flavored anything almost as much as the cherries themselves, I don’t feel guilty baking and sharing a dessert centered around a jar of cherry jam.  Would this be better with homemade cherry jam?  Cherry jam you pitted, boiled, and canned yourself?  Probably.  Was it delicious as-is, with a jar of store-bought jam and an impossible-to-screw-up crust? Absolutely.  And best of all, I personally harmed no cherries in the making of this tart.

Cherry Jam Tart

Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen

In my continued efforts to screw things up really badly to make sure they’ll stand up to the “oops” moves of others, I added the butter and sugar to the rest of the dry ingredients instead creaming them together independently.  Unwilling to let it go and start dough over at 9pm on a weeknight (what I was doing baking at that point anyway is really beyond me), I just crossed my fingers and mixed feverishly until dough materialized.  I’m sure there are all kinds of technical reasons why this is badbadbad, and I don’t advise you to replicate my mistake, but all’s well that ends well, and this one ended pretty freaking well.

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup polenta

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

8 tbsp butter, cut in one-inch cubes and at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/4 tsp vanilla extract

1 10-ounce jar of cherry jam

Extra sugar, for sprinkling

1 egg white

Combine flour, baking powder, polenta/cornmeal, and salt in a small bowl.  Set aside.  In a larger, separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth and pale yellow.  Add eggs (not the egg white) and vanilla and beat to combine.  Add the flour to the wet ingredients slowly, just until the dough comes together.

Separate 1/3 of the dough, and roll it into a log.  Wrap well in plastic wrap, then refrigerate for at least an hour (I left mine for two days before I cooked it and it worked out fine).  Form a ball with rest of the dough and wrap it in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until you’re ready to make the tart.

When you’re ready to bake the tart, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and butter a tart pan (I don’t have one – I used a pie pan).  Press the larger ball of dough evenly into the bottom of the pan (I rolled mine out, which was also, evidently, wrong, but that seems to be the theme of this post. It worked fine, and any breaks in the dough can just be pressed back together if you opt for my screwy version. Also, I was supposed to refrigerate the dough-lined pan at this point, and I didn’t do that either.). Spread jam evenly over the top of the crust.  Remove the dough log from the fridge and cut very thin disks using a sharp knife.  If the dough becomes too soft to do this, feel free to pop it back in the fridge until it firms up, then resume cutting.  Lay the circles over the jam in concentric circles until the entire top is covered.  Brush the top with the final egg white and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake until the top crust is golden brown, 20 – 25 minutes. Cool completely before eating.

Strawberry Buttermilk Cake Tuesday, Jun 1 2010 

I feel like I say this kind of a lot, but it’s been a crazy few weeks.  Not only has everyone I know turned one year older, I’ve also driven to Boston and Baltimore in the last two weeks, attended an all-day concert, and, you know, worked occasionally.  As if it hasn’t been busy enough around here, Boyfriend also got some pretty great news recently that has resulted in a group effort to move him from Boston to Baltimore in under two weeks.  So this weekend, instead of the leisurely weekend of relaxing at a bed and breakfast in PA to celebrate our anniversary, we’ll be packing up his life (for the second time in under a year), and moving it down to Maryland.  We’ll also be watching the NCAA National Lacrosse Championships live from some great seats, which is the Memorial Day activity Boyfriend has been hoping to have for several years.

But all this pack-up-and-move, find-him-an-apartment, drive-up-and-down-the-East-Coast thing is sort of taking a toll on my culinary adventures.  I can barely get in the time to sleep, let alone cook, bake, or write, and the sugar high I’m on after a month of birthday cakes has yet to subside.  But of course there were more celebrations to be had, including perhaps the most interesting yet – a non-dessert eater.

How anyone manages to get through life without the occasional bite of chocolate or bowl of ice cream is certainly beyond me, but the birthday girl eats neither.  She also, of course, doesn’t eat cake, but what is a birthday without cake!? Instead, she routinely requests an apple bread (we’ll talk about that later) that, while delicious, is by no means a celebratory affair.  I know it’s her birthday and she can celebrate however she sees fit, I just can’t handle missing the opportunity for a cake.

I did manage to exercise a bit of restraint though.  I didn’t bake a layer cake, and I didn’t make any buttercream.  In fact, baked into a loaf pan, this might just be mistaken for a sweet bread with a soft, moist little crumb.   But it’s not, and do you know why it’s not?  Because it was her birthday.  And on birthdays, we eat cake.

Strawberry Buttermilk Cake with Orange Glaze

Adapted from Gourmet, the late, great love of my life 

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

4 tbsp salted butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup strawberries, thinly sliced

Zest and juice of one orange

1/2 – 1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch cake pan.  Lay half of the strawberries flat on the bottom of the pan in a single layer.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  In a separate, large bowl, cream together butter and sugar, then add vanilla and egg.  Beat until combined.  Slowly add dry ingredients to wet, alternating with the buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour.

Once the batter is combined, pour it into the pan on top of the strawberries.  Lay the other half of the strawberries flat on top of the cake.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  The cake will be quite brown.  Cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes, then invert onto a plate.

To make glaze, whisk confectioner’s sugar into orange zest and juice until it achieves the right consistency and a milky, soft orange color.  Pour over cake slices just before serving (it’ll soak into the cake – which may not be a bad thing…)

White Chocolate Coconut Rum Cake Monday, May 17 2010 

I may have mentioned before that I’m really, really, horrifically bad at remembering birthdays – it’s the number one reason I keep an up-to-date calendar, and even that isn’t foolproof.

And May is The Month of Birthdays.  Literally every weekend (and several week nights) is dominated by cake, ice cream, and presents.  I can’t even estimate the amount of icing I eat in May, but suffice to say it’s too much.  So I suppose I should’ve expected to screw something up sooner or later, but I may have really picked the wrong birthday to skip.

It goes without saying that Boyfriend and I work hard to see each other at least once a month.  Since we haven’t seen one another since early April, the ideal time for me to head up to Boston would’ve been the very first weekend in May – only my cousin was turning 21 and I was otherwise occupied screwing up cupcakes and taking birthday shots with her.  Mother’s Day weekend?  His parents were visiting.  Which brings us to last weekend, when I finally got to make the trip…much to Cousin’s dismay, since she turned 25 while I was in Boston. Obviously, I’m the worst cousin in the whole world.

To chip away at the years of penance I’ll certainly have to do to make up for my stupidity, I had to at least bake a cake for her.  And what was her reaction to the two-layer white chocolate coconut rum cake I presented her with?

“Um, you know I don’t like coconut, right?”

The hole I’m in just keeps getting bigger.

White Chocolate Coconut Rum Cake

I found these layers ridiculously flat – either my baking soda/powder is dead, or I lost something in the merging of too many recipes and ideas to count. Regardless of its teeny little proportions, it was delicious – moist, sweet, and just enough like coconut rum to remind Cousin that while she doesn’t like shredded coconut, she definitely likes the kind that can give you a good buzz.

For the Cake

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup butter

2 eggs

2 tbsp white rum (+ 1 tbsp extra for brushing onto cake)

1 1/2 cup flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 cup milk

1 tbsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease two 8-inch cake pans.  Cream butter and sugar together in a medium bowl until pale yellow and creamy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Stir in rum.

In a separate bowl, mix flour and baking powder together.  Slowly add to the wet ingredients, beating until incorporated.  Add milk and beat until smooth.

Pour into prepared pans and cook for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

When the cake has cooled, poke holes all over cake with a toothpick and brush it evenly with a mixture of 1 tbsp rum, 1 tbsp vanilla extract, and 2 tbsp water.

For the Icing

1 3.5-ounce coconut white chocolate bar (I literally used this only because the store I was at had no other white chocolate; I imagine a regular white chocolate bar – or even white chocolate chips – and a bit of coconut extract or coconut rum would work in place of this)

1 ½ sticks butter, softened

4 tbsp milk or cream

1 ½ cups confectioners sugar

In a double-boiler over medium heat, melt the chocolate bar with the milk/cream.  Once the bar is completely melted, let the mixture cool slightly.

In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy.  Add sugar to butter and beat until combined.  Add chocolate, and beat until combined and creamy.

To assemble

If you’ve opted to freeze the cake, defrost it before assembly.  Line a cake plate with parchment paper, and place the first layer in the center of the plate.  Use roughly 1/3 of the icing to cover the top of the base layer.  Lay the second layer on top of the iced bottom layer.  Use the rest of the icing to cover the cake.

Lime Layer Cake Saturday, May 8 2010 

I have an oddly high amount of amusing Disney World stories.  It’s not as if my family vacations there every year and I have 24 years of material – it’s just that weird shit happens to us there.  I mean, weird shit happens to us a everywhere, but especially in Disney.

There was the time I got bronchitis there and we had to take a cab to the doctor and explain to him that this was, in fact, a fairly normal occurrence for me and that his best course of action was to prescribe drug XYZ so that I could breathe without hacking up my left lung.  Which was not so much weird as entirely, pathetically, predictable given that I got bronchitis like clockwork at the same time every year well into my teenage years.  Also, our cab driver brought my poor, sick little self a Minnie Mouse doll and didn’t even flinch when I unceremoniously coughed all over God’s green earth and every inch of his cab to and from the clinic.  Bless his heart.

Then there was the petting zoo.  Because I was that kid at an early age (24 years and counting, baby!), I insisted on constantly wearing dresses.  My mother weathered many an incredulous across-the-playground stare from other mothers when her daughter insisted on climbing trees in her ballet tutu and patent leather shoes.  I actually still have a scar on my knee from falling off of my scooter while wearing that exact outfit.  Because of course I do.  And in case you were wondering, no, I did not take dance for more than one month (which was the amount of time it took my family to unanimously decide that I’m quite possibly the least graceful person any of us has ever met) as a child. Anyway.  The petting zoo.  I was obviously wearing a sundress, and it was obviously beautiful, and the goat obviously shared my opinion on its splendor, because he started to eat it.  That’s right: the goat I was politely petting reached his bigass, dirty buck teeth right through the wooden fence and started munching on my dress.  And there I am, confused, because my sundress is literally disappearing before my very eyes and I’m wondering if perhaps the goat is going to decide that maybe he wants to try something a little meatier, like, you know, my leg.  How am I recalling this event with such clarity?  Well, clearly we have it on video.  I assure you that within moments of this entry posting I will receive a phone call from Boyfriend requesting this video be brought to Boston for his viewing pleasure when I visit next week.  The joys of my childhood and 21st century technology, people.

And finally, during my last time at Disney, my freshman year of high school, there was Epcot.  My family loves Epcot.  We may never get back there because we have this crazy life goal of working our way through freaking Europe, but I think that actually has a lot to do with our love of Epcot and its worldliness.  We were (in typical fashion) eating our way through the Epcot countries and Dad got a piece of pie.  Because these were my picky-eater days and I am an idiot, I didn’t know what kind of pie it was.  Nor did I look when he offered me a bite.  Nor did I ever think to ask what kind it was, beyond uttering the phrase “is there meat in this?” immediately after swallowing it…which made my parents dissolve into incoherent laughter, as it was key lime pie.  And as you’re probably aware, there is no meat in key lime pie.  Ever.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that last story.  Suffice it to say that it’s been repeated once or twice.  And I have no doubt I’ll be enduring it even more than usual in the common week for two reasons: a) because I stupidly decided to post about it on my blog, for godssakes, and b) because for his birthday my Dad requested a “lime cake…with no meat, please.”

Obviously.  Because didn’t I walk right into that one?

Lime Layer Cake

This is not a cake for the faint of heart – it’s really lime-y.  Dad loved it, because he loves lime.  I actually thought it was really good combination of curd, cake, and icing, but I thought the cake was a bit dry – I would advise brushing the cake with either simple syrup or a combination of lime juice and water after it cools (poke it all over with toothpicks first so the cake absorbs the juice).  If you’re concerned about being overwhelmed with lime, I would take the lime out of the cake itself and just make a plain white cake with lime curd and icing.  Also, my limes were not at all as juicy as I was anticipating. Not that the lime taste was muted by any means, but if your limes are on the large and/or juicy side, I would use less in the cake and icing.

For the Cake:

Adapted from this cake


1 ¾ cups sugar

¾ cup butter, softened

3 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

¾ cup milk

Butter/cooking spray

Zest and juice of two limes

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and grease three 8-inch cake pans.  Set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating after each egg is added.  Add lime zest and juice.

In a separate bowl, mix together salt, baking powder, baking soda, and flour.  Add one third of this mixture to the butter/sugar and beat until mixed.  Add half of the milk and beat. Repeat until all of the flour and milk have been added (you should start and end with the flour).  Pour the batter into the prepared pans (it’s going to be fairly thick).

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the center is set.  After removing from the oven, take the cakes out of their pans and allow them to cool completely on a wire rack.

If you’re making the cake more than a day in advance, wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and freeze.

For the lime curd:

Adapted from allrecipes

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup butter

3/4 cup lime juice (it took me more than 3 limes to get this much juice)

1 tbsp lime zest

2 eggs, beaten

In a double boiler over medium high heat, combine sugar, butter, lime juice and lime zest.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until butter melts.  Once the butter has melted, slowly add 2 tablespoons of the hot lime mixture to the beaten eggs, mixing vigorously during the addition.

Lower the heat on the double boiler to medium, and slowly whisk the egg mixture into the butter/sugar/lime mixture.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 – 25 minutes, until the mixture coats the back of the spoon.  Cool completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator if not using immediately.

For the icing:

Adapted from this icing

4 tbsp butter, softened

3 tbsp milk

1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

Zest and juice of 2 limes

2 cups heavy cream

Green food coloring (optional)

Mix together butter, milk, sugar, lime zest, food coloring and lime juice in a small bowl.  Set aside.  In a large bowl, beat cream until stiff peaks form.  Fold butter/sugar into whipped cream until combined.   Cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to construct the cake.

To assemble:

If you’ve refrigerated or frozen the cake, allow it to come to room temperature.  On a cake plate lined with parchment paper (more detail in the assembly of the Cannoli Cake), lay the first cake on the plate (because of the low cooking temp, the cakes should be fairly flat – if you wish to get them flatter, cut the domed top carefully off prior to assembly).  Cover with about half of the lime curd mixture (this will be a really thin layer, as you don’t need much; if you overfill this, it will ooze out the side of the cake and make icing the cake a challenge).  Lay the next cake on top and repeat.  Finally, put the last cake on top and ice the top and sides with the whipped cream icing (I had a little extra icing and curd when I was done, so don’t worry about using every ounce of either).

Alternately:

I thought about cutting each cut in half and making it six layers, each with a thin layer of lime curd, but I was really pressed for time and didn’t get a chance. I think it would’ve helped out a bit with the dryness I noted in the headnote of the recipe…If you go in that direction, I’d love to know how it went!

Red Velvet Cupcakes and Pomegranate Buttercream Monday, May 3 2010 

I’m sort of a cynical person.  I’m adamantly stubborn and incredibly sarcastic, and I rarely believe things I find to good to be true.  But I have a bad habit of putting an unreasonable amount of faith in new recipes.  I don’t know why this is – I just always assume that every recipe I try will work out flawlessly, perfectly, and effortlessly the very first time.

Obviously, it doesn’t always happen that way, and I’ve had my share of kitchen trauma.  I always feel guilty blaming the recipe when something fails.  Usually, I blame a variety of things: my failure to read specific instructions, the food itself, the ingredients, myself…the list goes on.  But I never want to judge something I’ve only tried once too harshly, since it could very well be my fault that it didn’t turn out right.  In fact, considering the sources of some of the recipes I’ve bombed, I’d say that’s a fairly reasonable guess.

But the cupcakes – I don’t necessarily think the cupcakes were all my fault. Nor do I think they were a complete failure, since they set up a little more the next day and lost the weird, jelly-like substance buried at the bottom of their cupcake liners under a deceptive, moist layer of cake.  But even if you looked passed the gelatinous depths of the pretty pink cakes, they had bigger problems: they failed to rise at all, and they just looked so pathetically diminutive in their half-filled cups.  There was no beautiful sloped top, no cute muffin-top puff over the edges of the liner, no nothing.  Just under-filled and underwhelming cakes, which were so cloyingly sweet that the taste just lingered in my mouth, coating my teeth with sugar and shattered dreams.  I knew the instant I pulled them out of the oven I’d be chucking them and starting from scratch.

And I did start all over, but here’s the thing – if I really cared to know whether it was me or the recipe that failed, I’d try again.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been a scientist, and I don’t like to waste handmade baked goods.  Instead, I scrapped that recipe, and found a red velvet cake recipe with over 100 successful attempts on All Recipes and a buttercream I already knew how to make. Because sometimes new just isn’t better, and when my cooking confidence is shaken, it takes a slam-dunk recipe to set it back on its feet.

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from allrecipes

Makes 20 cupcakes

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1 fluid ounce red food coloring

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tbsp white vinegar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line or grease your cupcake pans.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until pale yellow.  Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Add vanilla, buttermilk, baking soda, and vinegar, and stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, mix flour, salt, and cocoa powder together, then slowly add the wet ingredients.  Mix until combined. Add red food coloring and mix until the color is uniform.

Spoon batter into cupcake liners, filling each about 3/4 of the way.  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Cool completely.

Pomegranate Buttercream

1 ½ sticks butter

2 cups confectioners sugar

4 tbsp whole milk or half and half

2 tbsp pomegranate schnapps

In a large bowl, cream together butter and confectioners sugar until pale yellow.  Stir in milk and schnapps until creamy and pale pink.

Keep refrigerated until use.

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