You know what’s less fun than taking care of a sick baby? Oh, wait, that’s right. THERE IS NOTHING LESS FUN THAN TAKING CARE OF A SICK BABY. I-yi-yi. Little C got a case of something nasty a while back (just a bad cold, thank God, a small bright spot of the whole ordeal in our H1N1-fearing times), and the frustration and exhaustion was akin to the early weeks of motherhood. And by that I mean the time period during which half of my waking moments were spent devising a plan to crawl unnoticed into a dark closet with a bottle of Wild Turkey so I could sob and question why I decided to become a parent in peace.
Yeah, taking care of a sick kid is no fun, indeed. Night wakings. Crying, whining, crying, whining (from mother and child). Child vibrating with overtired energy, screaming and struggling violently with pudgy limbs against a mother wielding the thermometer/Tylenol/Kleenex/nose suction thing–roughly one hundred times per day. Child sobbing and desperately wanting something she can’t express, mother frantically trying to guess what that thing might be just to make something better for at least five flipping minutes so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind. Repeat.
And on top of all of that drama comes the not eating. Naturally, when we’re sick, we don’t feel much like eating, but to a worried mother of a sick baby, this logic goes out the window. I was convinced my daughter was going to wither away and die from starvation if this vicious, exotic illness didn’t take her first. So I inanely pushed food in my child’s poor, snuffly, puffy face every chance I got, driving my own stress levels higher as the child refused all of my lame attempts. So much untouched food went into the trash in our home during those few days, I started looking over my shoulder for Sally Struthers to come read me the riot act.
In the interest of getting some calories in my poor babe, any at all, really, I gave up on forcing the “right foods” and just went for what I hoped would be a Sure Thing: a silky, homemade vanilla pudding with lots of comforting milk and eggs and an all-ages-palate-pleasing dose of brown sugar.
Like peace and quiet and the general wellness of my family, I’m kind of obsessed with homemade puddings of all sorts. They’re just so delightfully real–the most basic ingredients, so simple, everything coming together with little fanfare, right on the stovetop with a wooden spoon. It just feels right. If there’s a chicken soup of desserts, a sweet tooth’s tonic to cure all ailments, homemade vanilla pudding has to be it. I would bet my Mommy Card on this claim.
So sure was I of the magical powers of this pudding, I was going to send this child back from whence she came if this tactic didn’t work. But lo, it did. In fact, it was all she ate for two days straight. And if we’re being honest here, it made up the bulk of my diet, too. Not a bad way to ease the suffering, for all parties involved. And even if you find yourself in gloriously good health this winter, there’s really nothing like hunkering down with a cozy bowl of homemade pudding, maybe slightly warmed, or just straight from the fridge with a serving spoon.
Brown Sugar Vanilla Pudding
Using brown sugar in this recipe gives a really lovely caramel note and a great depth of flavor to the dish. But if you prefer a more straightforward vanilla pudding, just use all regular granulated sugar. You can also jazz up this recipe even more by scraping half a vanilla bean into the pot, and dropping the scraped pod into the mix as well.
Makes about 2 cups
3 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon table salt)
2 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Whisk together brown sugar, granulated sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisking constantly, add about a third of the milk to the pan until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the egg yolks, and then whisk in the rest of the milk.
Set the pan over medium heat and cook the pudding, whisking often, until is is thickened and just begins to bubble, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and switch to a rubber or silicone spatula to stir the pudding constantly for another 5 minutes or so, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you go. When you can run a track through the pudding on the back of the spatula with your fingertip and the track remains, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter and the vanilla.
Set a sieve over a large bowl and strain the pudding to catch any wayward lumps of cooked egg yolk or cornstarch, using the spatula to encourage the pudding through the sieve. Lightly press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until the pudding is completely chilled and set, at least 2 hours.
I went to high school in Barrington, Illinois, a picturesque Chicago suburb about 45 minutes northwest of the city. It was a wonderful place to live–safe, lots of trees and friendly people, most of whom had crazy amounts of money and did things like take family ski trips to fancy mountain resorts over Christmas and jet off to beach homes for Spring break. In case you’re wondering if I enjoyed such school break splendor, well, we went to visit my uncle in New Mexico one year. So close to Aspen, yet so far. Anyway.
Most of the kids who got to experience all of these fantastical, faraway outdoorsy places like Colorado is that they had (to me, then) the coo-hoo-lest sense of style. North Face catalog models, all of them. Spendy high-tech hiking boots, even though we were in flatter-than-flat Illinois. It actually made no sense. But then, oh, that was the look, people. And the girls who really rocked it did the hiking boots with perfectly worn jeans, fitted flannel shirts with lacy camisoles underneath, and glossy hair tied up in fabulously messy buns, sometimes held in place with only a pencil, a magical hairdo I just couldn’t work with my endless, thick, heavy mane. But the best part about these girls was the irony–the clothing said Effortless Mountain Sex Kitten, but the face said Seventeen magazine–foundation, powder, eye liner, loads of mascara and lip gloss.
They were called the Maybelline Granolas. True story.
But this actual granola is the real deal, and could give the Maybelline Granolas a run for their eye liner money. For one, it is everything granola should be–earthy, wholesome, satisfying, the perfect balance of salty and sweet, and completely addictive. And ooh, it is ever pretty. Golden brown oats, creamy almonds, jade-colored pepitas and ruby-red dried cherries tucked into the mix like little jewels. This stuff is allll natural, baby. No cosmetic retouching required.
Piece of Cake Granola
This granola is my personal formula, my idea of granola perfection. But as long as you keep all the oats and maintain the proportions, you can swap out the seeds, nuts and fruits with whatever you have on hand. Pepitas (here I’m referring to raw, hulled pumpkin seeds) can be found in natural foods stores and most supermarkets if you ask for them. Keep an eye on the granola during the end of baking—it can burn quickly!
Makes about 5 cups
3 cups rolled oats (look for old-fashioned, not quick cooking)
1/4 cup pepitas
1/4 cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 cup dried cherries
Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 12×17-inch baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
In a large bowl, stir together the oats, pepitas and sunflower seeds.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the honey, oil, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla, and almond extract until homogenous and well-blended. Pour over the oat mixture and toss well to evenly moisten (clean hands are the most efficient tool here). Spread the mixture evenly on the prepared baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven, stirring the granola about every five minutes and rotating the baking pan occasionally. Stir in the sliced almonds 10 minutes into the baking time. The granola will be done when it is just beginning to turn golden brown and has lost most, but not all, of it’s moist appearance, about 20 minutes. If you wait until it looks completely dry, you’re on your way to burning it.
Let the granola cool on the baking sheet set on a wire rack. When the granola is completely cooled, stir in the dried cherries and store in an airtight container.
At 16 months, my sweet Baby C has officially been upgraded to Little C. Although with the way this girl is trucking through pant lengths (I cringe on the playground–I swear I’m not trying to make my kid look like a hapless geek with highwaters on purpose, people! They fit fine yesterday!) we may have to come up with another nickname. Anyway, she’s already developing her own particular brand of logic like all little kids do, funny ways of getting from point A to point B that leave us highly intelligent, efficient grown-up types chuckling and shaking our heads, because, you know, we’re so smart and all that we don’t need to invent gimmicks to complete a task.
Like how I got all seven years old with myself other day, pretending I had been recruited to an Olympic Tiny Dough Ball-Rolling Team in order to get through the incredibly arduous, albeit delicious result-yielding, task of making the topping for this really great crumb cake. I hope you’re happy with it. I did it for you.
So as I’ve said before, I am totally obsessed with PBS’s America’s Test Kitchen. It appeals to my detail-loving, Type A side. Recipes from this show and its cookbooks rarely fail, if ever, and if they do, you can be pretty sure that it’s you that sucks, never the recipe. I like that. I can appreciate the authority of an ATK recipe, even if I know that it will probably never involve the easiest way of getting to a finished product. So I went into this crumb cake with the knowledge that one of the steps would take some time. The kind of time that allows you to contemplate big, Oprah-esque Life Questions while rolling tiny dough balls, like, Hmmm, whatever happened to that turquoise v-neck sweater? I really liked that sweater! I need to figure out where that thing went. The sleeves were the perfect length.
But happily, the rest of this cake is actually really easy–basic, even–and the end result is certainly worth the trouble.
That cranky, needy, relentless bowl of hand-formed pebble-sized crumbs bakes up into a fantastically thick layer of crunchy-yet-tender edible cobblestones, like a blanket of little brown sugar shortbread cookies. And underneath is a dense, moist, buttery cake, rich with vanilla. It’s reminiscent of the mile-high crumb cakes you’ll find in old world, family-owned bakeries, the kind of thing that just feels so nice with a cup of coffee.
You really can’t go wrong with this cake. It’s the perfect kind of All-Day Cake to keep on the counter–a piece with breakfast, a bit with afternoon tea, a little extra sliver after dinner, etc. And if you have kids around that aren’t of the age where everything, regardless of origin, is deemed fit for eating, then their curious little hands will be perfect candidates for forming the crumb topping for you. Just tell them they could be an Olympic medalist if they do it fast enough! It worked on me, anyway.
For the crumb topping:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, still warm
1 3/4 cups cake flour
For the cake:
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
Set an oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and line it with a strip of parchment paper or aluminum foil that is just shy of the width of the dish and long enough to overhang the sides of the dish. Spray the parchment paper with nonstick spray as well.
In a medium bowl, stir together all the ingredients for the crumb topping until they form a smooth dough. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes while you prepare the cake.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, stir together the cake flour, sugar, baking soda and salt at low speed. With the mixer running on low, add the butter chunks one at a time, letting each one incorporate into the dry ingredients before adding another. When the mixture resembles even, moist crumbs, add the egg, egg yolk, vanilla and buttermilk, and increase the speed to medium. Beat until the batter is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
Break apart the crumb topping into large pea-sized pieces, rolling them slightly in between your fingertips to get them to hold their shape. Spread the crumbs in even layer over the batter. Bake until the crumbs are golden and a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes. Lift the cake out of the pan using the parchment handles. Dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.
Happy New Year, darling readers! I hope you had a fabulous time celebrating with family and friends. I told you my big plans involved couching it in my stretchy yoga pants with a glass (or three) of Prosecco. Well, the couch and attire was a go, but unfortunately the bubbly was traded for a steaming cup of Theraflu and my poor husband rang in the New Year alone as I was knocked out cold by 9:30. Rock. Star.
But! One of the bonuses of forcing myself to sloooow dooown earlier in the day was that I got to leaf through cookbooks and long-bookmarked recipes and found one for a delightfully ambrosial and surprisingly virtuous strawberry mousse, just perfect for resetting after the holiday feast-fest and starting off the New Year right. Which is to say that I will be getting all up in your face with a buttery crumb cake before you can say “low fat”. So don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Susan Powter on you in 2010. But this mousse came out so dreamy and lovely that I just had to share it with you, virtue be damned.
This recipe is adapted from Nick Malgieri, he of phenomenal dessert cookbooks and recipes of all sorts. My love for his work comes very close to my near restraining-order-sized love for Lynne Rossetto Kasper and my coveting of all things Ina Garten. I celebrate his Entire. Catalogue. (name that movie!).
So I knew this recipe would at least be good, and that Malgieri wouldn’t let a silly thing like lightening up a dessert get in the way of great flavor and texture, even a mousse, which is classically based on lots of egg yolks and whipped cream. And that definitely was true. This mousse is cloud-like, creamy and has huge strawberry flavor with just a few grams of fat and a wee bit of sugar. And, if you’re counting, a good amount of protein and fiber as well. With some fresh strawberry slices added before serving, the whole thing feels like a simply delicious, edible spa treatment. Everyone together now: spoon, inhale, exhale, ahhhhh…
Virtuous Strawberry Mousse
Adapted from Perfect Light Desserts
Fresh or frozen berries can be used for this recipe. Experiment with other fruits with this formula and switch out the liqueurs accordingly raspberries (framboise), peaches (peach Schnapps) and cherries would be especially good. Be sure to use a small bowl for whipping the egg whites–it can be nearly impossible to get enough air into them if they’re spread out in too large of a bowl. This recipe doubles easily.
2 cups (1 pint) whole strawberries, rinsed and hulled, fresh or thawed and drained frozen
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Kirsch (a clear cherry Brandy, optional)
2 1/2 tablespoons cold water
1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
1 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1/3 cup egg whites (from about 2 large eggs)
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries, for serving
In a blender, finely puree the 2 cups of whole strawberries. Pour the puree into a small saucepan and simmer over medium-high heat until the puree is reduced to about 3/4 cup. Stir in the lemon juice and Kirsch and cool to room temperature (pouring it into a chilled bowl will move the cooling along quickly).
Place the water in a small, microwave-safe bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the water. Let it soak for about 5 minutes.
When the strawberry puree has cooled, pour it back into the blender, along with the ricotta. Heat the bloomed gelatin in the microwave on high for about 15 seconds or until the gelatin is melted and clear when stirred. Add the melted gelatin to the blender and blend on the highest speed for 1 full minute, stopping to scrape down the pitcher if necessary. Pour the strawberry mixture into a large bowl.
Half-fill a small saucepan with water and set it to simmer over medium heat. In a small, heatproof metal bowl, whisk together the egg whites, salt and sugar. When the water is simmering, place the bowl over the pan and gently whisk until the egg whites are hot to the touch and the sugar has dissolved.
Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer on high speed until the egg whites form a stiff, glossy meringue and the bowl had cooled completely–it should not be warm at all. Gently whisk the meringue into the strawberry mixture until no traces of white remain (a whisk can help with blending). Spoon the mousse into 4 dessert dishes, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve, at least one hour. Top the mousse with the strawberry slices just before serving. The mousse can be made up to one day ahead.
We-hel-helll…I can’t believe 2009 is on the way out, can you? What a year! And I’m not just referring to the fact that I’ve spent most of it with a tiny person clinging to my jeans. I mean because of you guys. After stepping up the work here this year, I’ve gotten to know so many of you who come visit this space through your comments and e-mails. Thank you for being so awesome!
Also, if you are way more interesting than I am and will be hosting or attending some fabulous, fanciful New Years’ festivities, here’s some suggestions for the occasion from the Piece of Cake kitchen. I will be thinking of you from my big couch, in my stretchy yoga pants, Prosecco in hand. Have fun, be safe, and I’ll see you back here in 2010!
1. You suddenly realize you are drunk in front of your future in-laws.
2. The doctor says, “I think we need to try forceps.”
3. You are mid-recipe for these completely insane Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crumble Bars.
If the name alone doesn’t get you into all sorts of trouble, then maybe a rundown of what we’re dealing with here will: a chewy, nutty, oatmeal cookie-like base, a salty-sweet streusel topping studded with chocolate bits, and to hold it all together, a layer of what basically translates to peanut butter caramel hovering in between. Oh, I said it. Like a young lady who drinks her face off in front of her future in-laws, I said it.
Now, I know you may be thinking to yourself, “Sweet Lord, Shauna, you’re throwing something with chocolate and and peanut butter and sweetened condensed milk at us four days after Christmas?!” Just hear me out, okay? Yes, these bars are crazy, I know that. But! They came out of a need to clear out the few last bits of goodies that were acquired from weeks of holiday baking and entertaining–some half-consumed bags and bars of chocolate, leftover nuts from cocktail noshing, that sort of thing. So these bars are resourceful! These bars are green, people! They are also chockful of health! Heart-healthy nuts and oats, guys!
Also, there’s only a couple days left to ride that cushy denial train until we arrive at the New Year and skinny jean-fitting reality comes crashing down on us. Won’t you join me? All aboard!
You truly can make this recipe all your own. I’ve listed some suggestions, but go with whatever varieties of chocolate and nuts you happen to have on hand–milk, dark, semi-sweet chips, bits of stocking-stuffer candy bar, salted or unsalted nuts, whatever you’ve got. If the nuts are raw instead of roasted, a quick toasting while the oven’s preheating adds a nice touch of flavor.
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, soft but still cool
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1/2 cup chopped mixed nuts (I used half pecans, half roasted, salted almonds)
1 egg, at room temperature
7 ounces (about half a can) sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter (crunchy is ok, don’t use natural peanut butter)
Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with a strip of parchment paper or aluminum foil that will fit along the bottom and up two opposite sides of the pan with a bit of overhang to create “handles” to easily remove the bars later.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar, oats and nuts. Put about a quarter of this mixture (roughtly 1 1/2 cups) into a small and stir in the chocolate bits. Set aside.
Into the remaining three-quarters of the crumb mixture, stir in the egg until it comes together into an evenly moistened mass, sort of like a loose cookie dough. Pat the dough into the bottom of the prepared pan and pre-bake for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, stir together the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter until well-blended. When the bottom layer of the bars is finished pre-baking, spread the peanut butter mixture evenly over the warm layer. Sprinkle the reserved chocolate-crumble mixture evenly over everything and press down lightly.
Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes, until golden brown. The bars will feel very soft and not done in the center, but they will set as they cool. Let the bars cool in the pan for 10 minutes before running a thin knife along the edges and removing the slab to a cooling rack to cool completely. Cut into 16 squares. Store any leftover in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.
Chocolate and peppermint is the Brangelina of the holidays. Fact.
Just in time for the Christmas cutoff, I’m finally sharing a recipe with this celebrated holiday combination, while simultaneously packing like a madwoman for our trip to Colorado, being careful not to forget the essentials, like several pairs of stretchy yoga pants.
If you’re looking for an extra little something to add to the cookie plate this year, something with true holiday pizazz–this Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark is it, guys. And I’m happy to report that this peppermint bark has more personality than any other I’ve tried. Sure, you’ve got the usual suspects–white chocolate and a generous sprinkling of crushed peppermint candies–but with a layer of bittersweet chocolate and a smattering of candy bits tucked within, you get a particularly awesome flavor and texture that keeps you going back for just. One. More. Bite.
Beyond the fabulous texture (spectacularly crunchy at the outset, melting into a silky sea of white and dark chocolates on the tongue), and blast of refreshing mint flavor (so nice after a hearty winter meal), you just can’t beat the pretty factor with this treat. And you and your oven will enjoy a much-needed rest from the holiday baking frenzy–whipping up a batch of this bark feels delightfully more like a creative, crafty project than anything cooking-related.
Now, between you and me, there would really be nothing wrong with making a batch of this stuff solely for the purposes of self-indulgence while doing some last-minute online shopping. We’re totally worth it. But the sparkly, elegant look of the finished candy is just begging to be wrapped up in pretty glass jars with holiday ribbon and gifted to the people you really like. Consider it an amendment to the POC Treats for Gifting Guide! Happy, happy holidays, guys. Enjoy!
For the chocolates, you can use either bar chocolate or chocolate chips, but keep in mind that the results with bar chocolate will be a little bit finer textured and more luxurious than if you use chocolate chips (which have stablizers in them). For the dark chocolate, I like to use a half-and-half blend of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates, but use whichever you have on hand. Crush the peppermint candies by placing them in a large ziptop bag, having at them with a rolling pin and release that holiday stress!
Makes about 36 pieces
17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (I like Ghiradelli, see note)
6 ounces coarsely crushed peppermint candies (about 30 round striped ones or 12 regular candy canes)
7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (see note)
6 tablespoons whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Place the white chocolate in a metal bowl set over saucepan of barely simmering water (being careful not to allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water), and stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth and a candy thermometer registers 110°F. Pour 2/3 cup of the melted white chocolate onto the baking sheet, and using an offset spatula, spread it into about a 9×12-inch rectangle. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup crushed peppermints. Refrigerate until set, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, stir together the bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Pour the dark chocolate mixture in long lines over the white chocolate rectangle (pouring it in a puddle will start to melt and smear the white chocolate layer) and using a clean spatula, spread the chocolate in even layer. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, at least 25 minutes.
Rewarm the bowl of white chocolate over barely simmering water again, to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet chocolate layer and spread evenly to cover. Immediately sprinkle the remaining crushed peppermints over the surface of the candy. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.
If using a silicone mat, slide a thin spatula under the slab of bark and remove it to a cutting board. (If using foil, remove the entire sheet of foil with the bark to a cutting board and trim the bark on the foil, removing the pieces once they’re cut.) Trim the edges of the slab of candy, and then cut the bark into 36 pieces. Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving. Can be made 2 weeks ahead and kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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