Gourmet No-Bake Banana Split Cake

A slice of banana split cake on a white plate with the entire cake in the background

PINEAPPLE CONFESSIONS:
Never have I ever dissected a whole pineapple.  Me – the woman who whips up her own marshmallows, won’t buy jarred caramel sauce when homemade tastes so much better, who measures out and combines 16 ingredients over 2 days to concoct her own vermouth  recipe – can’t be bothered to dismember an innocuous pineapple.  In the produce section, faced with the choice of intact pineapple or flayed and filleted cylinder,  I’ve always chosen the latter,  gladly plonking down a few extra quid for the convenience.  During my childhood, we often enjoyed fresh pineapple in our home on Nutwood street.  I remember mom deftly slicing off crown and bottom,  paring off the skin, gouging out the brown eyes, carving the pineapple carcass into equal disks, removing the core,  and then ultimately chopping the remaining succulent flesh into chunks to be devoured after dinner.  My mouth would water at the sweet, tart, tropical scent wafting from the kitchen.  To assuage my longing to savor a hunk of the golden flesh,  mom would hand me scraps of the core to suck and gnaw on while she worked.  A poor surrogate for the fleshy real McCoy, these woody nobs with mere hints of juicy tartness managed to sate my desire until after I had cleaned my dinner plate.  Perhaps watching mom wrestle with this bromeliad beast turned me off from the dismemberment process.   It’s always seemed like too much work and  too much waste compared to the juicy payoff.  I was faced with this pineapple dilemma when purchasing ingredients for the following recipe.  Convenience won out again. 

TODAY’S RECIPE:
With another nod to edible nostalgia,  I’ve whipped up one more sweet treat from my childhood.  The actual name of this dessert is “Banana Split Cake,”  but, growing up, it was known around our house as “Happy Easter Cake,” because mom would often serve this dessert after Easter dinner, spelling out “Happy Easter” with garishly bright red maraschino cherries on the top.  My favorite part of this cake was the decadent second layer, which I believed to be pure butter and confectioners’ sugar – should I be relieved to know now that it also contained cream cheese to, um, cut the richness?  Always one to gild the lily,  I’ve spiffed up mom’s recipe substituting fresh pineapple for the original canned, freshly whipped cream for Cool Whip®, luxurious Luxardo maraschino cherries for the grocery store variety, and I toasted the raw pecans. 


Gourmet No-Bake Banana Split Cake

Close your eyes and take a bite. You’ll be reminded of a banana split when the ice cream begins to melt and the flavors meld. For a twist, my mom added a layer of tart, homemade raspberry jam between the banana and pineapple layer for an added jolt of color and flavor. I've kept it out of this version.


Ingredients

    Crust
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 15 full sheets of crackers)
  • pinch salt
  • Filling
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup (8 oz.) cream cheese
  • 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½ cups finely chopped fresh pineapple, well drained
  • 4 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 1 ½ cups whipping cream
  • 2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 16 Luxardo maraschino cherries, drained and patted dry
  • 1 cup chopped pecans, toasted and cooled

Directions

  1. Melt ½ cup (1 stick) butter and combine with graham cracker crumbs and salt. Press firmly into the bottom of a 9×13” pan.
  2. Beat together remaining ½ cup (1 stick) butter with cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, and salt 3-4 minutes until fluffy. Spread evenly over graham cracker crust. Layer with chopped pineapple then bananas.
  3. Whip whipping cream with 2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar. Cover bananas with whipped cream and garnish with Luxardo maraschino cherries and chopped pecan.
  4. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Frango Semifreddo

A small frango Semifreddo with a pink plate holding more on the side.

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Oh, my goodness.  I’m seated at my desk astonished that it has been four months since I’ve practiced my writing exercises,  over three months since I’ve posted on this blog, and well over a month since I’ve attempted writing anything at all.  How has this lag happened?  If only I could blame it on a busy life and blossoming relationship, but those are pathetic excuses.  If I have time to watch Netflix,  I have time to write.  And, full disclosure,  I have plenty of time for Netflix.  So,  what’s the impediment?  Writing for me, alas,  is a lot like my efforts at a consistent gym schedule. It’s good for me; it’s something I need to do, I’m frequently satisfied with the long-term results, but I’m not wholly convinced I actually enjoy the process.  “Write” is on my daily to-do list,  yet the climb from contemplation to commencement is a monumental crag to ascend, necessitating further tenacity when the words on the page fail to satisfy me.  After a hiatus, after putting my pen down for far too long,  the first few visits to my writer’s retreat are a trudge…a snail’s pace on a treadmill while staring at a blank wall.  I want these efforts to be fruitful, expecting to see the contours of my writer’s muscles reflected on the page immediately, yet I often gaze upon flabby dreck even following an entire afternoon’s hard labor.  It takes consistent, focused determination to settle myself and put words on the page without expectation of an inspired outcome.  It takes a few sessions before I’m once again caught in a rhythm of writing and re-writing,  before it becomes part of my day and begins to feel natural, as if I was meant to do this.  If I practice, I will, eventually, produce results.  I will write and write and, in due course, dare to label myself “writer” once more, until, a distraction throws me off  yet again – a vacation, a need to work late, a new interest – and then, before I realize what has happened,  it’s four months later,  the season has changed,  and my writer’s muscles have atrophied again. After yet another hiatus, I will sit astounded in front of the recriminating blank page, admonishing myself for veering so widely from my decided path yet again.

One of my many barriers to writing consistently is the obvious fact that my writing is at its best when I am indignant over some personal affront. When I am passionately righteous in my position,  the words flow from my fingers to the page as if the tap of a deep, dark, underground well has been cranked wide open.  Yet,  I cannot live in a world of perpetual righteous indignation for the sake of writing.  The tap runs dry, the wound scars over,  the damage, if not repaired, is razed for rebuilding.  My obsession over others’ wrongs slowly fades away into “who cares?” and with this diminishing ire, my muse also dissipates. It’s difficult to write when my life is on track. Of course, I can always tap into that faintly festering swamp of ancient hurts and childhood traumas, but it’s not pleasant spending one’s down time perpetually slogging through the mire. 

Writing,  for me, never comes easy. Never.  Even when the words flow,  there is rewriting to be done and, even when the writing is good and I complete a piece, splaying myself on the page,  I hobble from this desk, sore and a bit delirious with stiff joints and cloudy brain, not prepared to reemerge into the world outside my writer’s retreat.  The process is never straightforward for me, and yet it beckons.  So,  after four months away,  I am hunched over my laptop again,  rusty in my attempt to make these words sing, tinkering with each sentence in hopes you can relate to what I’m trying to say.  I’ve renewed my membership, returning to my writer’s gym, gently, tentatively stretching these muscles once again. 

TODAY’S RECIPE:
When choosing desserts,  mint chip is a flavor both Mr. M and I agree on,  so when I decided to whip up a quick dessert a few weeks ago,  I recalled my mom’s iconic recipe for “Frozen Chocolate Frangos.”  These “special occasion” velvety chocolate and mint semi-frozen treats were so decadently rich, wee little Julie couldn’t finish one by herself.  I dug out my mom’s  old recipe and zhuzhed it up just a bit for an adult palate. These semifreddos are the result. NOTE: Semifreddos are made with uncooked eggs.  If this is a concern for you, substitute pasteurized eggs.


Frango Semifreddo

For those who love the combination of refreshing mint and smooth chocolate, these rich, not-too-sweet semi-frozen treats will delight your taste buds. Named after Frango mints, these melt-in-your-mouth treats are a perfect after-dinner dessert.


Ingredients

    Crust and Topping
  • 14 Chocolate wafer cookies (or Oreo cookies)
  • ⅓ cup toasted walnuts
  • 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • Filling
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
  • 1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 1 cup whipping cream, Slightly sweetened and whipped
  • Mint sprigs for garnish (optional)

Directions

  1. In a food processor, blitz cookies and toasted walnuts until finely ground. Add melted butter and blitz until crumbs begin to stick together. Reserve 2 Tablespoons of crumbs. Evenly distribute remaining crumbs between 8 lined muffin tins and lightly press into bottom of each liner. I use the bottom of a ¼ cup to help pack the crumbs into the liners.
  2. Using an electric mixer, beat together butter, sifted confectioner’s sugar, and salt until smooth and fluffy. Add melted chocolate and beat until combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and peppermint extract. Beat for 5-7 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed, until filling is very light and fluffy.
  3. Pipe filling into each muffin tin until full. Sprinkle reserved crumbs over top and freeze until firm, about one hour.
  4. To serve, remove frangos from freezer and let set at room temperature for 10 minutes. Pipe with whipped cream and garnish with mint sprigs if using.

Bergziegenkeks (Mountain Goat Cookies)

A white plate of Mountain Goat cookies with a sprig of lavender

Today’s Musings:
What do you do when you find yourself with an extra 20 minutes to spare?  Work out?  Go for a walk?  Scroll Facebook?  For me,  the obsessive baker, an extra 20 minutes usually results in throwing together the ingredients for a small batch of cookies, devoured that same day, regrettably often in one sitting.  The kitchen is my nirvana.  Sometimes I wonder why 75% of my home exists.  Nestle my bed next to the stove and I could happily reside in my kitchen (it would save on heating bills, too).  These simple cookie recipes are usually quick experiments inspired by whatever ingredients I happen to have on hand; nothing serious, nothing special, nothing blog-worthy, just a quick baked-good fix for my ever-present sweet tooth.

The other night,  while waiting for Mr. M to arrive for dinner,  I found myself with just such a pocket of time.  With no dessert planned, and spying a bag of almond meal on the counter, I quickly whipped up these cookies, rationalizing that these humble treats would be better than nothing, even if they weren’t up to my usual baking standards.  I was astonished when Mr. M said they were practically  “the perfect cookie” – not too sweet, loaded with spices, not overly rich, crispy on the outside with a tender interior.  He even claimed they were a contender to my sister’s buttery, crumbly, oatmeal flips,  my all-time favorite cookie.  High praise, indeed. 

An added bonus – the ingredients, on the whole, aren’t overly decadent…no butter, milk, yolk, or flour.  In honor of Mr. M,  I’m sharing this throw-together recipe that ended up being my first hit of 2022.

Today’s Recipe:


Bergziegenkeks (Mountain Goat Cookies)

  • Servings: A dozen cookies
  • Print

These spicy cookies are not overly sweet, crispy on the outside with a tender interior, and come together in a jiffy.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup almond meal or almond flour*
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • 1 large egg white
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon allspice
  • Generous pinch white pepper
  • Pinch salt
  • Powdered sugar (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and stir well until fully combined. Measure and roll into 12 equal balls (about 15-16 grams each). Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment or a silicon baking sheet. Slightly flatten each cookie with your fingers.
  2. Bake for about 1 7 minutes or until tops are firm and a few cookies are just barely browning around the edges. Remove from oven and let cool slightly on the baking sheet. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar (if using).

*Typically, almond meal is made from unblanched almonds while almond flour is made from blanched almonds. Either will work in this recipe.  If you use almond flour, expect a lighter colored, more delicate looking cookie. 

Vegan Lasagna

A pan of vegan lasagna with a pice taken out

Today’s Musings:
At first glance, 2021 appeared to be a 7” version of 2020, the single (kudos to anyone who is old enough to understand that reference). And that distills down to a tale of opposition – heated, angry, fractious opposition…fact/science/proof/experts vs. anecdotal evidence/conspiracy theories/personal (internet) research. When I think of a personification of America today, an image of “Bison Guy” from the Capitol mob attack, rather than Uncle Sam, springs to mind. Our collective New Year’s Eve was again spent in isolation (thanks Delta), anti-vaxxers still refuse to get vaxxed, Global warming continues its march as glaciers melt, fires burn and wildlife suffers – starving, homeless, and unable to escape inevitable extinction. In Texas and other states, old white men still insist on regulating my body. Black men continue to get killed for minor or non-existent infractions of the law.

And yet, for me, 2021 provided me with a clearer focus of who I am and where I’m striving to go. A major shift, 2021 was about GROWTH. I started the year by finding my voice – my loud, outdoor, “I matter” voice – as I recounted my uncensored personal struggle to survive the aftermath of a toxic relationship. I felt ill as I hit the “publish” button each day, afraid of the repercussions, emotional and potentially physical, yet forged ahead irrespective of my fear, buoyed by friends, fellow victims and a therapist. I burned a few bridges in the process, telling my truth – what happened to me and my subsequent healing. If others were incensed by my brash decision to speak out, that’s their burden.  Overall, however, the response was overwhelmingly positive – counselors, educators, and victims thanked me for sharing my experience and assured me my words matter.  

That farce of a relationship compelled me to take a stark look at my own culpability. I chose to pursue him,  to not ask questions, to ignore the red flags which, in hindsight, waved furiously in front of my eyes throughout my time with him. Life doesn’t allow do-overs. I couldn’t return to the time before, start over, make better choices, but I could sure as hell ensure it never happened again. So, using this specific tragic coupling along with other previous disastrous relationships as guides, I created a list of eight must-have, line-in-the-sand characteristics the next man would possess. No longer would I be blinded and distracted by charm, superficialities, or the dark, damaged men I inexplicably find so appealing. I created a roadmap for the type of love I deserve.

In addition to romantic love, 2021 offered fertile ground for nascent buds of new female friendships to bloom and grow as well. A few years ago, I developed an inkling that my inner-circle, my sounding-boards, my confidants, didn’t always have my best interests in mind or, when they did, didn’t fully understand my perspective. Taking the quote, “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you,” to heart, I began developing friendships with an expanded circle of women who shared my lifestyle, goals and perspective; women who built each other up instead of competing; women who were smart and funny and lived full lives. I’ve enjoyed connecting with this new pussy-posse, building friendships, and supporting them as much, I hope, as they’ve supported me. Two of these fabulous women, in fact, encouraged me to write the cookbook I began in March, a humongous exercise in personal growth.

The recipe below is an additional testament to my 2021 evolution. This time last year, I was baking up Gourmet S’mores and Rocky Road Pie, while my kitchen staples amounted to whole milk, whipping cream, butter blocks, eggs, and cheese wedges. Then, in July, I met Mr. M. – a vegan (gasp!). Food avoidance is ordinarily a deal-breaker in my book, and vegans…well, vegans, no matter their laudable motives, are culinary self-flagellators and should be avoided. Yet, before I closed the door on us permanently, I perused my new “must have, line-in-the-sand” list referenced above and also pinned prominently on my bulletin board. I scanned the list for mention of dietary restrictions and found none. This culinary quirk was obviously not as important as I thought. So, I gave us a chance, with happy results. Shortly after we became a couple, my annual blood test showed alarmingly high cholesterol levels (see previous list of kitchen  staples – is  it any wonder?!) prompting a choice – statins or a diet overhaul. I chose the latter – while not vegan or even vegetarian, the beginning of 2022 finds me with a refrigerator full of vegetables, “plant based” bacon, creamer, mozzarella, pepperoni, and butter – and a 13 x 9 inch pan filled with the remnants of our New Year’s Eve dinner – my version of vegan lasagna. Growth, indeed.

Happy New Year!

 Today’s Recipe:


Vegan Lasagna

Layers of vegetables and plant-based ricotta result in surprisingly satisfying Italian comfort food – you won’t miss the meat. It tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have had time to meld.


Ingredients

    Lasagna
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and diced
  • 10 oz. package sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 oz. package baby spinach
  • 12 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
  • 24 oz. jar tomato basil marinara sauce
  • 12 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
  • 16 oz. vegan ricotta, divided in half
  • 4 oz. vegan parmesan, divided in thirds
  • Bechamel
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup oat milk
  • pinch nutmeg

Directions

  1. Make Lasagna: In a large pan, sauté onion and red bell pepper in olive oil until beginning to soften. Add cremini mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms have released their juices and onions are beginning to brown. Add garlic and baby spinach and sauté until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat, stir in artichoke hearts and approximately ½ cup marinara sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Cover bottom of a 13” x 9” pan with about ¼ cup marinara sauce. Dip lasagna noodles in additional sauce and cover bottom of pan with one layer of noodles. Spread ½ of vegetable filling over noodles. Cover noodles with half the ricotta and a third of the parmesan. Continue with another layer of marinara dipped noodles, vegetable filling, ricotta and parmesan. Cover parmesan with one more layer of marinara dipped noodles – you should have 3 layers of noodles, and two layers of vegetables and ricotta.
  3. Make Bechamel: Melt butter in a small sauce pan. Add flour and whisk until thoroughly combined. Continue whisking for another minute, but do not let the “roux” brown. Add milk and bring to a simmer. Cook bechamel until it resembles a thin pancake batter. Remove from heat and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour bechamel over lasagna and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Cover with foil and let lasagna rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to allow noodles to soften.
  4. Preheat oven to 375° F. Bake lasagna, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until lasagna is bubbly and edges are beginning to crisp. Remove from oven and let rest for 20 minutes to ensure it slices cleanly when cut.

Italian Hot Chocolate – Cioccolata Calda

A mug of Italian hot chocolate with freshly whipped cream

TODAY’S MUSINGS:
Yes,  I know, it’s been ages since you’ve heard from me, but I have a legitimate reason for the silence and, no, my “reason” isn’t that I’ve been lazy.  If you are reading this post for illumination on where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing these past three months,  I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m saving that story for another day.  Stay tuned.

Today,  you’ll find me sitting at a dining room table, swaddled in a bright orange down comforter in a chilly, yet cozy cabin just off the main road in Angels Camp, CA.  Outside my window, sun-spattered rolling golden hills dotted with majestic live oaks belie the chilly temperatures outside my door.  Yesterday, an unexpected “bomb cyclone” made for a grey, cold and wet day  – and fevered conversations about hot chocolate steaming away on the camp stove.

Let’s face it,  American hot chocolate is insipid at best – lackluster, brown-colored Swiss Miss® water at its worst.  We are not celebrated for our chocolate beverage prowess in the States.  The Spanish, with their thick chocolate and churros, are world-renowned for their rich, dark, dippable rather than drinkable, chocolate and they stand proudly at the apex of the hot chocolate pyramid of deliciousness.  Not far behind them are the French and their “chocolat chaud,” The rich beverage available for sipping on chilly Parisian streets.  Christmas mornings, my sister combines copious quantities of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate cocoa powder,  a smidge of sugar, and an equal ratio of whole milk to heavy whipping cream in an effort to recall her memories of the decadent beverage sipped in the City of Lights. Her final result?  Satisfying, but not quite mind-blowing.  I must admit, however, until last night,  I was entirely in the dark when it came to Cioccolata Calda, Italy’s version of the drink.  I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy and, during my travels, study, as well as indulge in, its cuisine.  Accordingly,  I’m familiar with Italian espresso, various wines and their regions, amaro, limoncello, nocino, grappa, and the early evening Aperol spritz, leaving nary any room for something as seemingly innocuous as hot chocolate.  Oh, what have I been missing?!

Last night, with my first (scalding) sip,  my hot chocolate world expanded. I could use poetic words like “decadent,” “rich,” “silky,” and “fudgy” to describe this ganache in a mug,  but today I’ve decided to be straightforward – the Italians can call their hot chocolate what they like, but it is, in essence, a mug of warm chocolate pudding before it has been allowed to set – milk, cream, cornstarch and dark chocolate…the makings of a most excellent creamy dessert – and damn indulgent hot chocolate.  It would be made only more satisfying with crisp biscotti for dunking.  This Christmas,  I’ll be taking the reins on the morning beverage; step aside, Sis.

TODAY’S RECIPE:
Forgive the less than professional photo – and the inartfully dolloped cream.  As mentioned above,  my inaugural recipe was created over a camp stove; the cream “whipped” in a vigorously shaken plastic container.  Nevertheless,  the results did not disappoint, possibly even made more delicious by our rustic surroundings. The Spanish may have Chocolate and Churros; we had Patagonia and Cioccolata Calda.

Tip:  You don’t want the hot chocolate to boil (212° F), but you need to heat it to a temperature of 203° F for the cornstarch’s thickening properties to activate.  Don’t rush the process by turning up the heat – be patient, heat it slowly, and stir often.


Italian Hot Chocolate

This ultra-thick, rich and not overly sweet elixir will change the way you think about hot chocolate. This recipe should make two servings, but I find it so decadent (even for me!) that it can easily stretch to 4 servings. With the addition of coffee, this belly warmer also makes a five-star mocha.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 ½ oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • Tiny pinch salt (optional)
  • Lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together ¾ cup whole milk, heavy whipping cream and sugar until small bubbles begin to form around the edges (don’t boil).
  2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the remaining ¼ cup milk and cornstarch. Set aside.
  3. Once the milk is heated, add the cornstarch mixture and whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add dark chocolate and salt and continue whisking for about 7 minutes until the chocolate has fully melted and the mixture thickly coats the back of a spoon (similar to a thin chocolate sauce). Pour into 2 coffee mugs (or 4 demitasse cups if you want to show restraint). Top with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. Careful – since this hot chocolate is so thick, it holds heat better than your regular brew; sip carefully.