There are cakes to impress, and then there are cakes to act as a balm. I’m a fan of both, of course, but give me a cake that can comfort like none other and I’m sold. No fussy frostings, no putting on cakely airs, just bake, cut, and serve straight outta the pan. Preferably on a paper plate. Even better is when said comfort cake is actually beautiful enough to impress, dead simple and keeps on the counter for several days of “just a sliver” eating. If I’m being real, though, for me that means a sliver after breakfast, a sliver after lunch, a sliver around 3:30 p.m. when my exhausted self is dying for coffee and a little bit of sugar. And then of course a “real-sized” piece for dessert, after dinner. All of that adds up to a criminal amount of cake in a day, really. But when a cake is just that good, you’re willing to be arrested for your eating habits.
I feel like I owe you an apology, friends. I made this Boston Cream Pie weeks (months?) ago, with the intention of telling you all about it the very next day. It was an event, this Boston Cream Pie. A day of assembling the elements–baking cake layers, whisking pastry cream, melting chocolate. Doing my Food Blogger Due Diligence, taking photos of the creation of said elements, in between baby feedings and kid snack distribution and making shopping lists and errands and all those other crazy things you do on Sundays. When the resulting cake was served, we all marveled at its glory. And in fact, it was so good (and enormous) that I promptly lopped off hunks of the remainder and drove around the neighborhood after dark, delivering them to friends after a furiously sent text–HAVE BOSTON CREAM PIE. TOO GOOD. MUST GET IT OUT MY HOUSE. WILL DELIVER.
And then I totally forgot to tell you all about it.
So let’s make up for lost time, yes?
Well, hello! You’ll never guess what I’ve been up to over the past couple weeks. Okay, I’ll just tell you. That baby boy? The Inside Baby that was making me huger and more miserable by the minute? He finally decided to make his entrance into this crazy world two weeks ago and it turns out he’s been making up for giving me a massive ongoing case of heartburn for the past nine months and a myriad of other aches and pains by being an absolute Superstar Outside Baby. Nursing well, even sleeping well, he is the stuff of newborn dreams, I’m telling you. I will be sure to share more stories and photos as the weeks go on and we get into a groove around here.
But in the meantime, I wanted to take a quick minute to share some tips with you about a recipe from Pure Vanilla. Turns out, at the exact moment Sir Baby was making his entrance, the fabulous folks at USA Weekend published a lovely piece on the cookbook and the recipe for Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding. And as a bit of press in a national publication is wont to do, it’s garnered some attention and filled my inbox with e-mails from enthusiastic home cooks: some raves about the recipe (thank you, I love you, too!), some polite questions about substitutions and technique (many thanks to you, too, for wording your thoughts so nicely), and, of course, a couple standout notes from a few people for whom the world has seemingly ended due to their pudding not setting (oh, Internet, you vex me so).
At any rate, all the correspondence left me with me with a serious case of rice pudding on the brain (related: having a newborn also gives you a serious case of Rice Pudding Brain–coincidence?). So I gave into the craving and whipped up a batch the other day (you know, for quality control), and while working through the recipe, I realized that to the inexperienced, a traditional, eggless rice pudding recipe like the one in Pure Vanilla can be tricky to master, and we all know what I stickler I am for giving you clear, concise recipes that work. So in the interest of always being Your Kitchen Pal, I thought I’d lay out a few tips to lead you to rice pudding success, and point out a couple things that are listed in the recipe, but might benefit from further emphasis or clarification.
How is it November already? HOW? This is all just bananas to me. Because in my feeble mind, it seems that just a couple months ago we were ringing in 2012, and then a few weeks after that my first cookbook was unleashed onto the world. Hours later, I discovered that we would be thrown into the newborn abyss once again. Somewhere in there my first baby turned four (four!!) and then a few blinks later I had a second cookbook come out. I’m sure it didn’t go exactly that way, but it sure feels like it. Turns out that time moving at warp speed isn’t exactly conducive to a massive case of pregnancy brain. Plus I’m, like, 23 weeks sober. Someone remind me what day it is. Eesh.
So! Here we are, inexplicably teetering on the edge of the holiday season. Do you know what you’re doing for gifts this year? Clearly, given the above paragraph, I do not. But even though we’re barreling towards a whole lotta fa-la-la-la-la!, now is the perfect time to crank out awesomely inexpensive, handmade holiday presents that seem all highfalutin, and are perfect for blowing minds and taking names. Seriously, you can crank out a dozen gifts or more in a matter of hours, suitable for giving to everyone from your mother to the mailman. And, like so many things in my life these days, it all starts with the genius of vanilla. Obvi.
To start, you’ll need to get yourself a bunch of vanilla beans, which I know can be pricey. But! I am kind of an expert at sourcing the best beans at the best prices by now, so can I just recommend Vanilla Saffron Imports (don’t let the sparse website and packaging dissuade you–this place is the real deal) and Beanilla? Some folks find good vanilla deals on Amazon as well. But the bottom line is that ordering online will save you tons of cash. No way around that. Buying vanilla beans at retail will make your wallet cry.
So now that you know how to get a bundle of well-priced, good-quality, fragrant vanilla beans in your hot little hands, let me pass on a few DIY gifty ideas from Pure Vanilla, as a little present from me to you:
You know what drives the husband nuts? “Lady coffee”–that is to say, any coffee that has a creamy look and is flavored. He fears it, this lady coffee. It’s like he thinks it will make him grow a uterus or something. Anyway, he can smell that such a coffee beverage has been created in our kitchen before he even enters the house and his disdain while walking in the door is loud and extremely negative, cursing and shouting, “Ack!! LADY COFFEE!!”, as though he’s discovered something unsavory on the sole of his shoe. It’s all quite dramatic.
Unfortunately for him, I happen to looove lady coffee. For a while, the only thing that kept me from always making lady coffee (besides the Man Whining about it) was the high price and somewhat questionable ingredients in the flavored coffee creamers from the supermarket. It’s almost kind of amusing to learn that most store-bought coffee creamers don’t actually contain any milk or cream, plus there’s lots of other stuff in there I can’t quite pronounce. But recently I learned that I could make my own fabulous flavored coffee creamer for a fraction of the cost with a much simpler ingredients list, and it is awesome.
So here we are, guys. Just days away from the most marshmallow-y holiday of all! Mallows seem to be everywhere these days, from sweet little packets of artisan treats to ahem, a certain book all about the subject, to those ubiquitous Peeps and bunnies in day-glo colors. Hooray! To me, marshmallows are the ultimate happy candy, and really, whether they’re packaged or homemade, I love them. Of course, I’ve become quite partial to from-scratch mallows myself, as I can now make them practically in my sleep, but that is neither here nor there. I want to get you mallowing right along with me, to make me feel a little less crazy. ‘Tis the season, after all! Come along, won’t you?
Welp, that’s all the fun we’re going to have for a while now, folks. The holidays have come and gone, we can’t legitimately say “Happy New Year!” to strangers anymore, and Valentine’s Day has fizzled out and left us all with killer chocolate hangovers. Now it’s just…winter. Bah.
I can’t be the only one who feels that the last two weeks of February are akin to watching a Top Chef marathon when you’ve already seen all the episodes, like, five times each. Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter bars, guys–consider them your ticket out of this crazy-making holding pattern.
Speaking of things that aren’t dreary, several months back the husband and I got all 2003 with our ourselves (read: barely married, childless) and decided on an impromptu weekend trip down to Monterey. We were giddy about getting out of the city for a couple days, and thought that Little C would just love a visit to the insanely enormous aquarium down there. Our first little family getaway–how Griswold of us! So fun! So much bonding! So much gear required OH MY GOD DO WE REALLY NEED A CASE OF GRAHAM CRACKERS.
Four duffle bags, two sacks of snacky groceries and a loaded DVD player later, we were on our way to the Central Coast. Aside from Little C soaking her entire carseat with apple juice before we even reached the freeway, we had an awesome time together. The views were literally breathtaking, the heavenly sort that make you feel so tiny in comparison to their majesty. The aquarium was indeed Little C approved. And most importantly, I convinced the team to stop in Big Sur so I could cross something off my Baking Geek Bucket List: Lunch and dessert at Big Sur Bakery. Yesssss.
The savory items we tried at the bakery were terrifically satisfying, fresh and flavorful, but the desserts–oh the desserts!–that’s what Mama really came for, people. And the Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar did not disappoint.
The recipe in the book is neither for a Pear-Vanilla bar nor the aforementioned Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar, it’s actually made with rhubarb. But like I said earlier, we are in the slog of February here and rhubarb is in very short supply. In a couple months, we can make Rhubarb Brown Butter Bars happen, but for now, all things pear are the order of the day. And happily, the pairing positively sings.
Now I’m not going to lie, darling readers–for as unassuming as this bar looks, you do have to go through a few steps here to make it all happen. But if you’re like me, you might be so intrigued by some of the elements that you won’t really mind the extra time spent doing things like, say, browning two separate batches of butter, and then freezing some of it solid to make the crust. Genius!
After you’ve got your solid brown butter ready, the crust comes together in seconds in the food processor. Then while the crust is baking and cooling, you can start preparing a pear-vanilla jam of sorts and attempt to not pass out from how beautiful it smells while cooking.
In addition to the fabulously ambrosial jam, you’re also going to whisk up a brown butter filling, which is a concoction so magical I might go into some very suggestive language to describe how delicious it is. I’ll just say this: warm browned butter, sugar, eggs, hits of vanilla and orange? Huminuh, huminuh.
My only suggestion to you beyond being prepared to do a few extra dirty dishes with this recipe is to also have something heavy to chain yourself to while these bars are baking, because, good Lord, the smell is incredible. You’ll suddenly care about those February doldrums not a bit.
Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook
These bars are so sweet and rich, I halved the original recipe and cut them much smaller than the bars the bakery serves.To feed a bigger crowd, you can double this recipe and use a 9×13 pan. When doubling, use 3 whole eggs.
For the crust:
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