I started a gratitude journal. Corny, I know, but I’ve found myself, like many people, struggling to stay on track during the pandemic. There’s too much time spent watching Tiger King, not enough time hiking or baking or gardening. On one such evening, splayed on my couch with blanket and Netflix and feeling low, my cat, Mochi, jumped up on my chest, gave my tummy a gentle knead, curled up and soothed me with his motor at a steady rumble. I scratched his head and thought, “THIS is contentment. This is all I need tonight.” The first entry in my gratitude journal:
Mochi, sleeping on my chest, purring
On today’s walk, the birds and their new babies were a choir of song, warming sunshine shone across my back while the lightest breeze kept the heat from being unbearable, Jacaranda trees Jackson Pollocked the sidewalks in a lavender explosion, and the air smelled sweetly of star jasmine. “THIS,” I thought as I traversed the neighborhood, “is all I need.”
I’m also grateful that my local Italian Market, Claro’s, stocks a pretty decent Cannoli shell.
Hazelnut Mocha Cannoli
- 12 cannoli shells
- 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 2.25 oz. chopped hazelnuts, toasted
- 8 oz. Nutella
- 8 oz. mascarpone cheese
- 10 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
- 4 teaspoons instant coffee
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
- Melt the bittersweet chocolate in the microwave by heating it at 30 second intervals and stirring until melted (about 90 seconds total). Dip both ends of cannoli shells in chocolate then in the hazelnuts. Set aside to set.
- Lightly beat together Nutella, mascarpone, ricotta and instant coffee. Fill a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle with filling. Pipe the filling into both ends of the cannoli, filling completely. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately.
“How often do you blog?” he asks.
“I try to post twice a week,” she unthinkingly replies, “Every Monday and Wednesday.”
Her answer was honest…albeit, incorrect. She USED to post twice a week, yet she hasn’t done so in a year. In December, Mardi Gras for most dessert bloggers, her fingers didn’t type a word. In 2019, her unique views didn’t surpass the previous year’s count, a first.
It’s not only about the statistics.
She compares her dull flat-lays to the avante-garde images in her head – a bowl of soup precariously teetering on a see-saw (quirky and unexpected), a slowly melting chocolate truffle on a tongue (sexy, gothic and moody) – and is chagrinned. Her intros are stilted and forced – telling, rather than showing. Her words only seem to flow when in the midst of upheaval – not a sustainable situation. Unsatisfied with her results, she wonders if she’s stuck in a pattern that doesn’t suit her anymore.
But who is she without her blog, her constant companion for the past 11 years? She considers her options and decides, before killing it off completely, to seek CPR – her first remedy – a writing course to revive words that have flat lined.
Apple Molasses Spice Cupcakes
Moist cupcakes with the unexpected flavors of cardamom and 5-spice garnished with walnuts and rich cream cheese frosting, if desired.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¾ teaspoon cardamom
- ½ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
- ¼ teaspoon clove
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup molasses
- ½ cup brown sugar (packed)
- 1 large egg
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- ½ cup boiling water
- 2 apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 ” pieces
- ½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
- Cream cheese frosting (optional)
- Heat oven to 350⁰ F. Line cupcake tins with papers.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, soda, spices, and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together molasses, sugar, egg, oil, ginger and water. Add molasses mixture to flour mixture and whisk until just combined. Fold in apples.
- Pour batter into tins, sprinkle with chopped walnuts (if using) and bake until toothpick comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Cool completely and decorate with cream cheese frosting.
I’m a list keeper. I keep shopping lists, lists of books to read, lists of desserts I want to make, lists of writing topics, and my never-ending to-do list. Of all my lists, my favorite is one I’ve entitled “Things I Love” and it captures some of the things, from the silly to the sublime, that put a smile on my face. If you want to know what makes me happy, you can read my list here.
Looking back, I can’t recall why (or even when) I started this list. Remembering how crazed my work world used to be, I was likely attempting to bring a little contentment into my life. By reminding myself what truly brought me happiness, I could remember to appreciate these simple delights.
Christmas light displays didn’t make the list, but they’re a much-loved part of my holiday season. When I was little, my siblings and I would squeal from the station wagon’s back seat, “Pretty lights! Pretty lights!” whenever we’d drive by a festively lit house. As adults, we road trip to other neighborhoods – and other cities (Portland!?) in search of flamboyantly adorned holiday houses. If Jesus, Santa, Snoopy, AND a giant snow globe all make it into one tableau, our holiday is complete!
I’m thinking about Christmas light displays today because I’ve had a request to bake a few treats for a neighborhood holiday light stroll next month – a request I happily accepted. These sticky, spicy gingerbread cupcakes are my first contibution, adapted from Gramercy Tavern’s Gingerbread. My coworker, John, took a bite and said, “This is dangerous.” He then took a second bite and said, “This is really dangerous.” By his third bite, the cupcake was gone. Others agreed.
Sticky Gingerbread Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
Dangerously sticky, spicy, not-too-sweet cupcakes topped with lashings of cream cheese frosting, salted caramel and candied walnuts.
- 1 cup Guinness Stout
- 1 cup dark molasses
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 2 Tablespoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¾ cup vegetable oil
Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
- 16 ounces cream cheese, chilled
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
- 3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
- ⅓ cup good quality salted caramel, plus more for drizzling (It’s worth making your own!)
- 24 candied walnuts
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin tins. Bring stout and molasses to a boil in a large saucepan and remove from heat. Whisk in baking soda, and then cool to room temperature.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and spices in a large bowl. Whisk together eggs and sugars. Whisk in oil, then molasses mixture. Add to flour mixture and whisk until just combined.
- Fill muffin tins ¾ full and rap pan sharply on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake in middle of oven until a tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs adhering, about 25 minutes. Cool completely.
- To make frosting: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and salted caramel. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high speed and beat for 3 minutes until creamy. If frosting is too soft, refrigerate for 15 minutes before piping.
- Frost cupcakes, drizzle with additional salted caramel, and garnish with a candied walnut.
I’ve been enjoying more than my fair share of ice cream these last few scorching days of summer – I’m up to a 3-scoop per week habit. Some of the goodness I’ve recently been devouring inspired the flavors in this tart – chocolate, peanut butter, and salted caramel (oh my!).
“Are you a Pastry Chef?”
A simple question, and one I’ve been faced with before, yet the usual self-effacing, rambling answer once again tumbles from my lips…
“No, not really. I make my living as an event planner, although I am, technically, a classically trained, non-practicing chef…but not a pastry chef. Pastry is my passion, but I’ve never gone to Pastry School, although I’d like to eventually. Baking is a hobby.” Ramble, ramble, ramble.
Why is it so difficult for me to acknowledge my merit, embrace my abilities and just answer, “Yes. Yes I am.”
And here, my friend, is the proof.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Salted Caramel Tart
A silky combination of dark chocolate, peanuts, and buttery salted caramel.
- 10-oz package shortbread cookies, such as Lorna Doone
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup salted butter caramel, plus more for garnish (I use David Lebovitz’s version)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, at least 60% cocoa, chopped
- ⅓ cup (rounded) peanut butter (not natural peanut butter, which will separate)
- ½ cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped, plus more for garnish
- Sweetened whipped cream, for garnish
- Make shortbread crust: Preheat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse shortbread cookies and salt into crumbs. Add melted butter and pulse until mixture resembles wet sand. Press crumbs along bottom and up sides of a 9” tart pan. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Cool.
- Make filling: In a medium saucepan, bring heavy whipping cream and salted butter caramel to simmer – don’t boil. In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks and then slowly whisk cream mixture into yolks, tempering to avoid curdling eggs. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until temperature registers 170 degrees. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate and then peanut butter until melted.
- Sprinkle cooled crust with roasted salted peanuts. Pour filling through a sieve over peanuts. Chill, uncovered, until set, at least 2 hours. Garnish with sweetened whipped cream, drizzled caramel and peanuts. Chill until ready to serve.
The first time I prepared a British summer pudding, the final result was…well, I guess it came out resembling exactly what it was – white sandwich bread, made florescent pink and soggy with fruit juice and mushy berries.
The result was underwhelming. It was just…um…bad.
The recipe went in the trash bin and I didn’t think upon summer pudding again. Thanks, but no thanks.
These last few weeks, I’ve been staring at a package of Italian savoiardi cookies left over from my limoncello tiramisu recipe. I’ve been trying to decide how to best use them (soak them in rum syrup and use them in place of Nilla wafers in banana pudding? Yes please!), when I remembered summer pudding. Savoiardi’s, or ladyfingers’, sole purpose, in my opinion, is to soak up liquid and, lord knows, they taste a hell of a lot better than crust-less Wonder bread. Perhaps this is what was needed to elevate the pud to something worthwhile. And with that idea, and eight cups of summer berries, Italian Summer Pudding was born.
Italian Summer Pudding
A refreshing use of Summer’s bounty of fresh berries.
- 8 cups mixed fresh berries (sliced strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries)
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 T. orange liqueur (such as Triple Sec)
- 20-24 ladyfinger cookies (Savoiardi)
- Freshly whipped cream
- Cook berries, sugar and zest in large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until berries release their juice and sugar has dissolved, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in orange liqueur. Drain fruit, reserving juice and fruit separately and cool slightly.
- While berries are cooling, line a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap. Briefly soak ladyfingers in berry juice and tightly line loaf pan with a single layer, trimming them to fit, if needed.
- Spread ½ of cooked berries on ladyfingers. Repeat with another layer of soaked ladyfingers, berries, and ladyfingers (when you’re done, you should have 3 layers of ladyfingers and 2 layers of berries). Drizzle a few spoonfuls of remaining juice over top layer to ensure everything is well soaked, cover with plastic wrap, and weigh with a plate or dish and heavy cans. Refrigerate at least 8 and up to 48 hours.
- Remove weights and plastic wrap. To unmold, invert onto serving platter. Lift off loaf pan and remove plastic wrap. Garnish with freshly whipped cream and serve.