Archive for the ‘Bowl And Spoon’ Category

Discovering Chris (likes cake)

Apple Skillet Cake

Apple Skillet Cake

It was nice to get out of my apartment after being holed up waiting for Hurricane Sandy to have her way with us. I had a standing invitation to visit an elderly friend who just re-did his apartment and was having a few friends in so he could show it off.

Like so many New Yorkers Chris has lived in the same place for many years, and his views and location are—shall we say—extraordinary. The downside is that it is a sixth-floor walk up. It’s a climb. But Chris, having long ago retired (he was in the shipping business) never leaves his perch.

My goodness. For an elderly gent he’s the life of the party. He spent the entire time standing on his new coffee table.

Naturally I couldn’t show up empty handed. The question was: what shall I bring to a housewarming…or to be more accurate, a “redecoration-warming”?

It’s Fall. Every fall, this young(!) man’s fancy turns to apples.

That’s not entirely accurate. I should say my fancy turns to apple cake. A nice piece of apple cake just hits the spot for me on a chilly fall day. Hey, you can’t just eat chocolate all the time. (What the heck am I saying? Of course you can…)

I’ll admit that there are only so many ways to make apple cake. My ideal would be a cake that is not too sweet, not too heavy, that would have apples just tinted with a sting of cinnamon, and cooked through. Too many apple cakes end up with dull, undercooked apples. Don’t let this happen to you!

My standby trick for the latter problem is to cook—sauté—the apples first. Some people may object to this, after all, it is an extra step, and yet another pan to be washed, dried and put away. But I’m afraid I must insist.

Photobombing Chris

We couldn’t get him off the coffee table…

I kept thinking of all the big puffy apple pancakes I have made or been served over the years. You may have seen these referred to as “Dutch Babies” or “Dutch Apple Pancakes”. Kin to popovers, they owe their appeal to the high amount of eggs in the recipe that make the pancake puff so dramatically in the oven. The eggs, in turn, give the pancake a richness and heartiness that can be very satisfying.

Nice…but it’s not cake. And I want cake.

I do love my All-Clad skillets, and what better place to cook apples than there? While I’m at it, why not bake the cake in an nice shiny skillet and bring the whole thing as a gift to ol’ Chris?

I started off with three large apples cored, and thickly sliced. (I used a couple of Braeburns and a Cortland. I don’t think the variety matters all that much in this recipe.)

In the large skillet I slowly melted butter and sugar until I had a rough approximation of a light caramel sauce. Then I added the sliced apples and let the whole thing bubble until a lot of the liquid cooked away.

After removing from the heat, I made a very simple bowl and spoon cake batter (no mixer!). I poured it over the apples and spread it in an even layer. It seemed like there may not be enough batter to cover everything, but since the recipe calls for a healthy dose of baking powder, I knew that the heat of the oven would give it enough of a “whoosh” to cover everything.

I have to admit that I was experimenting: taking a little bit from this recipe and a little bit from that—not always a smart thing to do when baking. When you’re cooking on top of the stove you can taste as you go and adjust the seasonings as needed. Baking is a little like pottery: sometimes you really just don’t know what you’ll get until the timer beeps and you open the oven door.

In this case you get what seems like an unassuming cake in a pan…straight from the oven it almost looks like baked polenta. But then you turn it over and serve it apple-side-up, dusted with some confectioner’s sugar, and you have a gentle, homey snack, dessert, or even breakfast that would not have been out of place in a colonial tavern.

I could tell that Chris was thrilled, although he wouldn’t let on, being the stone-faced hombre he is. His apartment is beautiful, but as I wandered around I questioned whether he’d actually ever use the shiny, new skillet that the cake came in.

He doesn’t have much of a kitchen.


Click here for the recipe for Apple Skillet Cake

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Crumbs and the Single Girl

Banana Bread

Banana Bread…schmear of cream cheese optional

Several days ago I started writing the blog posting you are currently reading. As you’ll see, it’s a riff on Cosmopolitan Magazine. I had written a few paragraphs when I happened to look up from my computer and saw on my TV, “Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012”.

I was startled on so many levels. Startled at the timing of choosing this week to write about “her” magazine; startled at her age—90—when I really had no idea how old she was; startled at the loss of one of those folks who seemed so ubiquitous here in New York.

Listen, New York is like that: blink and your neighborhood changes. The Plaza Hotel is now a condo. H&H Bagels? Gone. Broadway Nut Shoppe? Gone. Now Helen Gurley Brown? What’s next? Who’s next?

In person Helen Gurley Brown was hard to miss. I waited on her many years ago. She was tiny. Her extremely high forehead betrayed a propensity towards proud, public, plastic surgery. She also had a very benign energy. Back in my days as a waiter I waited on some scary monsters. She was not one of them.

To her friends she was notoriously cheap. Yet, she donated $18 million to Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

I never really read Cosmo. Sure, over the years I may have picked it up and flipped through it, but I never actually read it. Last week I was waiting for the dermatologist and had a choice: Cosmo or Psoriasis Monthly. I’m not into rash porn so I picked up Cosmo. My goodness, there’s a whole world there about which I knew nothing.

Although she had long since handed over the reins to other Editors-in Chief, to my inexperienced eye the magazine appeared to have retained her infamous, singular vision. My previously uninformed impression of the magazine was that it would be full of young women propelled solely by a flake or two of Special K and a few sips of Crystal Light. The reality was that I found a section dedicated to food and drink.

This pleased me greatly. Even though under the guiding hand of Helen Gurley Brown Cosmopolitan became a guidebook for navigating the minefield of finding and balancing “HIM” and a career, I have found that one of the great unspoken keys to any young woman’s success is having a way with food. Forgive me, I am about to rant, but nonetheless here it goes: I’m sick of people (including members of my own family) who visibly and loudly wrinkle or turn up their nose at making something in the kitchen.

The only thing you know how to make is reservations, you say? Sorry. Where’s my sense of humor? It would be the depths of poor manners for me to not laugh, however please be advised that I am laughing at you not with you.

As surely as Helen Gurley Brown had a singular vision to guide young women, I too have one. Go in the kitchen and cook something for someone. Put yourself out there. “Cast thine crumbs upon the water and they come back a thousandfold.” (That’s not me, that’s from Ecclesiastes…)

To those who insist they can’t, that they’re hopeless, I say take a page out of Helen Gurley Brown: those who can’t should fake it.

Uhhh, where did your mind go? I’m still talking about food.  It is perfectly acceptable to not be able to cook well, as long as you have really and truly tried.

Go ahead and serve someone else’s food as your own, although I warn you that this is a dangerous game. Don’t try to pass off store-bought as you own for it is too easy to be caught. But if you have a friend who can cook, conspire with them. A few of their goodies in your freezer can go a long way.

But in the meantime, I say give it your best shot. Find a recipe or two that seem “doable.” Invest in a few simple pieces of quality kitchen equipment. (Use caution buying the utensils sold hanging from a peg above the meat department. Some are fine, some are not.) Learn what a ladle is. (Yes, I had to explain what a ladle is to a member of my own family. A shameful moment. A ladle!)

I’ve taken the liberty of creating a casual recipe that you can attempt. While Banana Nut Bread is usually a device for using up overripe bananas, it’s really a humble, casual cake. This version isn’t too sweet. Make this recipe and bring it to your office with an “Oh that? Yeah, I did a little baking this weekend” attitude. Make another one and keep it in your freezer (it’ll keep there, tightly wrapped, for about three months) and you’ll be ready for anything.

I can’t help but to speculate how Cosmo’s editors would “tease” the recipe on the magazine’s cover:

“What’s he really thinking when he eats your Banana Bread?”


Here’s the recipe for Banana Nut Bread


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7 tweets you should never use

Happy Small Birthday

Chocolate Peanut Birthday Cake

Chocolate Peanut Birthday Cake

I recently had the pleasure of celebrating yet another birthday. I turned thirty-three, an age I chose because I enjoy the alliteration. (I received multiple Hallmark birthday greetings exhorting me to “do” whatever I want, after all, “…it’s your birthday!” I’m “doing” thirty-three. Thank you to Hallmark for the de facto permission slips.)

If you detect the slightest note of bitterness in my tone I will confess that I am not a big birthday guy. I don’t go around crowing, “Next Wednesday is my birthday! Yaaaay!” Just not my style. For me, birthdays help to tick the box on the following tasks: 1. Eat chocolate. 2. Check my surroundings and the overhead compartment to make sure I am still vertical, a/k/a breathing, a/k/a alive. Check. Double check.

The great thing about these reduced expectations is that I enjoy other peoples’ birthdays in a proportion equal to my own if not more—again, if there’s chocolate, and I’m still breathing, and they’re older.

On the surface it would seem ironic that I enjoy baking birthday cakes for my friends, but again, that simply ensures a socially acceptable source of chocolate consumption. Furtive chocolate consumption can be so…dreary. (Dreary is such a great word, but hard to use without sounding, well, dreary.)

Speaking of cake, a few months ago I got together with four or five friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. Someone had stopped by Magnolia Bakery and bought an enormous chocolate cake with frosting the color of a yellow highlighter. It was absolutely delicious. But the cake was so big that even after we all had seconds there was still enough left over for many, many more birthday boys and girls. I love birthday cake, but even a glutton like me has limits.

This is a scene repeated at birthday celebrations around the globe. Birthday revelers circled around a table, pointy hats perched jauntily on their heads, playing a game of, “Have another piece!”/ “No you have another piece.”/ “PLEASE, I’m just going to throw the rest away!”

Well, I’m here to end this game once and for all.

Here’s my proposal: I insist that it is easier to bake a little birthday cake than it is to bake a big birthday cake. Big cakes make you think of big metal pans, drums of frosting, and an endlessly whirling stand mixer.

But my little birthday cake concept is much more relaxed. Let’s break it down, shall we?

This is one time when baking from scratch has a clear advantage over a mix. When you bake from scratch you actually can scale down a recipe to make a smaller cake. Using a mix you are locked in to one or two pan sizes. While you could perhaps bake half a box of mix, the question would remain what to do with the other half? My easy chocolate cake recipe can be made with a big bowl and a wooden spoon or rubber spatula.

Paper Panetone Molds

Paper Panetone Molds

Okay let’s talk pans shall we? I don’t have the nerve to insist that you should go out and buy five inch cake pans. (Martha would, but she and I run in different circles.) Instead, I recommend paper Panetone molds which will break the bank at approximately fifty cents a piece. Admittedly this is not a green solution. You use them once then toss them. But you won’t have to worry about your cake sticking to the pan.

So, the cake is done, but what about the frosting? For that thick, creamy, sugary frosting don’t you need a mixer? Fear not mixer-less folk! I have a magic ingredient. Sweetened Condensed Milk is a worthy short cut—yes, you may think I am taking a page from Sandra Lee, but the end result is too noble, and…uh, addictive for it to be offensive. It is a bit wholesome, and will pull together and smooth out the few other ingredients you’ll need to make frosting. (Like a Kitchen Aid in a can!)

I toyed with this concept for a while. Too much sugar? Too much fat? Then it dawned on me: this is cake frosting we’re talking about. It’ll never be health food.

As it happens, peanut butter is one of my favorite foods, and combining it with chocolate makes my heart sing. My Chocolate Peanut Butter frosting is worthy of the most important birthday on your list. It also tastes like something from an old-fashioned ice cream and confectionary shop, so if cake isn’t on your mind, warm it a bit and pour it over some ice cream.

Finally, don’t be afraid of decorating the cake. Just spread half the frosting between the layers and spread half the frosting on top. Don’t fret about getting the sides just right; Leave the sides naked to the breeze. Even cake maven Rose Levy Beranbaum endorses this concept for its relaxing informality.

But don’t forget the candles. Thirty three. Yes. That’s all.


Here’s the Chocolate Peanut Butter frosting recipe.

And here’s the All Occasion Chocolate Cake recipe.

And here’s more information about the paper Panetone molds. (Available at Sur La Table.)


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The first tweet of spring!

Grandmother in my briefcase

Executive Pinstripe Cinnamon Coffee Cake

Executive Pinstripe Cinnamon Coffee Cake

My Mom has always spoken about her Grandmother’s baking in rapturous tones. This was once used for the forces of delightful evil against one of her sisters-in-law. As happens in many families, my Mother had a somewhat competitive relationship with her sisters-in-law. I’d like to say it was all in good fun, but if I did my pants may burst into flames.

So, please travel back with me to the early or mid nineteen-seventies, just outside of Boston. Nixon (or was it Ford?) was in The White House and…well, you don’t need that much detail, do you?

The sister-in-law who is the star of this cautionary tale made strudel for a family celebration and placed it upon a table fairly groaning with goodies. I don’t remember my Mother’s contribution to this horn of plenty, but it was likely one of the many Bundt Cakes she used to bake. (Pistachio Pudding Cake, a close relative of the legendary Harvey Wallbanger Cake, rings a bell, its green tinged mellowness a properly coordinated accessory to the avocado-colored appliances that were the order of the day.)

Sorry. Back to the strudel…as an instrument of torture, my Mother praised her sister-in-law’s strudel on high for all to hear. It was a trap, and her sister-in-law fell for it, hook, line, and phyllo dough.

The sister-in-law made the mistake of asking, “Is it as good as your Grandmother’s?”

If she had just left well enough alone, no one would have been hurt.

The answer to that ill-advised question? Therein lay the sharpened tip of the instrument of torture: “Hmmm, not quite like my Grandmother’s. Well how could it be? Her’s was…oh, but it’s wonderful though.”

The ability to explain the specific qualities of her Grandmother’s Strudel that made it so extraordinary seemed to elude my Mother that afternoon, a deficiency that tortured her sister-in-law with its every twist and turn.

The real irony is that the sister-in-law in question was not your typical mid-twentieth century homemaker. In fact, she was an entrepreneur who, with her husband, ran a popular retail business. That she threw herself into her kitchen with the same intensity she threw herself into her business is to me, in retrospect, both admirable, and perhaps typical of her generation.

Sister-in-law is long gone, but interestingly, my Mom still hangs out with the same friends she’s had since she was a young suburban Mother. Like some modern-day extension of the Diaspora, they have all migrated from chilly New England to the same warmer location down south and after more years than I am allowed to report, they have remained close.

Their “get-togethers” then as now are marked by one inevitable characteristic: noise. Time—and hearing loss—have only heightened this ear-shattering cacophony. Where the “get togethers” used to be centered around a game of mah-jongg or cards, they now take place in a restaurant—and pity the poor waiter who has to split all those salads with dressing on the side. A couple of Extra-Strength Tylenols would not be out of place on the tip tray.

Of course the card and mah-jongg games were just an excuse to host the group at home, something that required endless reciprocation. The food was usually little deli sandwiches for don’t forget, this was long before the now well-trod path of platters of Costco Wrap sandwiches. Desserts usually met two important criteria: nothing sticky so that the cards or mah-jongg tiles would stay clean, and they had to be coffee-friendly. If one or two of the items were homemade you were assured a victory. (Fortunately this was not a tough crowd as long as you followed the rules…and left some for fat l’il Mikey when he got home from school.)

My Mom had one standby that fit these occasions perfectly. Family lore is vague on where the recipe came from—my Mother’s Grandmother? A cherished Aunt? We may never know, but what is clearly important is that at some point I had the foresight to write down the recipe. I carried the recipe around for years and never made it…I was put off by the large infusion of Crisco, an ingredient that has not stood the test of time.

After ignoring the recipe for many years, I happened to re-read it and was struck by its simplicity, its potential, and its retro style. It is the perfect Cinnamon  Coffee Cake. Why perfect? Moist. Fluffy. Delicious. Easy. Fast. (In no particular order.)

Well, it became the perfect Cinnamon Coffee Cake after I made one vital change: I use canola oil instead of Crisco. (I knew you’d approve.) The temptation remained to make other changes: brown sugar instead of white sugar? No. A touch of chocolate? Not necessary. It is one of those recipes that could go precariously off the rails if fiddled with too much.

It goes without saying that I rarely have occasion to have a group in for cards or mah-jongg, so just when do I use this cake? There are times when I meet with folks over coffee in a business setting. People who know I bake and write about it have certain expectations about me, one of which is that I won’t show up empty-handed. The perfect Cinnamon Coffee Cake fits the corporate meeting room like a pin-striped suit.

I wonder: what’s the cake version of the “power tie”?


The recipe for my Executive Pinstripe Coffee Cake. Enjoy! Get a raise. Or a promotion.


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Just like Grandma used to Tweet?

The Good News Is They’re Fresh

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

I bake at least once a week. The evidence is that I usually write about it on this blog. The upside is that any skill, be it golf, tennis, dance, or archery (!) is honed by this kind of repeated activity. Practice, practice, practice…

The downside is that you may find yourself becoming complacent about your ever increasing level of skill. Or is it arrogant? Invincible, eh?

Runners can experience physical setbacks—shin splints, and various muscle aches or injuries come to mind. These kinds of injuries can often be a good reminder to check your technique, or even just to slow down a bit.

But bakers really don’t run the hazard of more than an occasional minor burn. In my case though, I sustained a minor psychic burn that reminded me that I wasn’t listening to my own advice, or that my advice was contradictory.

My shabby tale starts innocently enough: I baked some corn muffins for a business meeting. Ah, the humble corn muffin…a simple morning treat, and, this time, my wake up call. You see, I decided that because the corn muffin was so straight forward that I would arrogantly put my own spin on it, kind of like a city slicker moving to the country and deciding he could build a better barn than the locals.

I’m so ashamed. Yes, I should have known better.

If you have ever read my recipes you know that I avoid using real butter in many things because it can upset my stomach. Advice #1: this is fine when the taste of butter will not be “front and center”. A good example of this would be butter cookies. If butter is in the title accept no substitutes. By the same token, I am not an absolutist about this. Even if I didn’t use butter in a recipe, you should feel free to use it. No judgmental gaze down my nose, I promise.

Well anyway, back to the corn muffins. I decided that I wanted to make a big, fluffy, kinda-sweet-but-not-too, Northeastern Corn Muffin, not to be confused with the savory, toasty Southern-style. The fluffy, sweet Corn Muffin is what I grew up eating; if you’re from New England, chances are your old Auntie or Grandmother used to buy these at Jordan Marsh or Dorothy Muriel’s (a/k/a Brigham’s). Here’s a rhetorical question you never hear Ina Garten pose: “How hard can that be?”

Ugh. You’d be surprised.

The truth is that Corn Muffin beauty is in the eye of the beholder / taster / dunker. I wanted to brighten them up a bit, avoid making them too damp, and therefore too heavy, and give them a touch of complexity. Most of those functional specs I achieved, but I made two fatal mistakes.

First, here’s what I did right. I started with a good basic muffin recipe that I’ve had for years. Anyone who bakes muffins knows that you start with a plain recipe and all the variations are due to what you add, whether you add fruit, nuts, crumb topping, or spices.  I added just a touch of grated orange zest which I thought would complement the sunny toasty flavor of the corn.

Where I went wrong was using the wrong amount of cornmeal so the muffins were a bit too grainy or crumbly. Even worse, I made the crumb topping without real butter. Uh-oh.

Yeah, sure, for most of the people the muffins—just out of the oven, mind you—were a treat. They liked them a lot. Loved them? That’s a stretch.

But there’s always one in every crowd. The one person whose opinion I know is truly important gave them a thumbs down. This wasn’t done in a malicious way, but with the knowledge that whether I recognized it or not I wanted—needed—to know the truth. She said, “Too dry, and whatever spray you used to keep them from sticking to the pan smells funny.”

I’m only human. So, it took me a while to make peace with her terse criticism. I hadn’t used any spray to keep them from sticking.

But some hours later I took the last surviving muffin home, opened the Tupperware, and put the muffin to my nose. It smelled…greasy. Damn if she wasn’t right on the money. Back to the drawing board.

The dryness of the muffin was a delicate problem. I knew the answer wasn’t more liquid; rather, it was reducing the cornmeal vs. flour ratio. The greasy smell needed a little thought, but not much. I just needed a light bulb moment to realize that I had made the crumb topping with my favorite butter substitute. Clearly it was the real turtle soup I craved, and not the mock. (For the uninitiated, the latter is a play on a Cole Porter song lyric. Jeez, don’t you ever listen to Tony Bennett?)

Two tablespoons of butter distributed amongst six muffins? Clearly my stomach had nothing to worry about, and using butter meant the muffins had a sweet, clean, corn smell: that corn muffin smell we all love.

Some times it pays to stop and smell the grease.


Click here for the recipe for Crunch-top Corn Muffins


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It’s nice to be the King…

Bowl & Spoon Gingerbread

Bowl & Spoon Gingerbread

I hear this all the time: “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is not all about the gifts.”

I agree, except for the gift part. Wait! Don’t judge me. In the case of Thanksgiving, the meal is the gift we all give each other. If it is better to give than to receive, then on Thanksgiving we happily have both sides of that equation amply covered. If food is love, then the last Thursday in November finds us all swaddled in a pumkiny, sagey, sugary hug.

Still, the other side of the coin is that for the folks preparing and serving the meal the day can be an absolute test of endurance, skill, organization, and patience. For some of those folks the best thing about Thanksgiving is…the day after. “Fiddle-dee-dee.” (For the incredibly young, the latter is Scarlett O’Hara’s punctuation to the exhortation that tomorrow is another day. Google “Gone With The Wind.”)

My Thanksgiving is actually all about the Macy’s Parade. Even though I am a New Yorker and can easily walk just a few blocks to watch in person, I subscribe to a parade watching technique that I like to call “Warm/Hot”. Here’s how it works: I sit in my warm living room with a cup of hot coffee. There is also usually a restrained combination of toast/pancakes/waffles/eggs in the mix—diet be damned, but still not an oink-fest; there’s a big dinner coming up in just a few hours.

Thanksgiving must be pretty darned great for it to be my favorite holiday because it has one glaring omission: chocolate. Turkey is great and all, but I nominate chocolate as the national bird…uh, I mean, Thanksgiving meal. I look at it this way: your family sits down to a Turkey dinner and after every single American has finished the communal thought, “Mmmm. It’s good. For turkey…” the squabbling and bickering begins, the kids start running in circles, and your Dad falls asleep.

Now picture the same scene, except everyone is served a plate full of chocolate. Yes, the kids will be running in even faster circles, but after you’ve eaten a plate of chocolate, who cares? And the caffeine in the chocolate will keep your Dad awake. Squabbling? Bickering? After chocolate? No way. (And clean up would be a breeze.)

However, until I am King of the World and can unilaterally enact this change, I will respect the current traditions. But that doesn’t mean that I will have Thanksgiving sans chocolate. And because I am subversive I shall sneak it in.

Case in point: dessert. Yes, I realize that Milton Hershey did not arrive at Plymouth Rock before the Pilgrims, and therefore was not waiting to greet them with a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and therefore Thanksgiving has forever been the provenance of pumpkins and cinnamon. All of this has been carried down through the years in the service of “seasonal flavors”. Is there a season when chocolate is inappropriate? Not when I am King of the World and living in the Cocoa Castle.

I’m not reinventing the wheel here. Folks have been peddling Chocolate Pecan Pie for eons. My recipe for Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie has been heroically adding chocolate to Thanksgiving tables for hundreds of days. Why stop there? If I am to be King of the World I expect to have to earn the title through (easily attainable, moderately) good deeds. Let’s use a recent request for Gingerbread (the cake, not the cookie) as an example.

A friend asked if I would bake Gingerbread for her to take to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. She explained that her Mother has a fondness for gingerbread, but because my friend lacked a full kitchen (ahhh, New York apartments…) she didn’t think this was attainable. Oh and one more itsy bitsy little thing; her Mother hates molasses. The latter makes no sense to me because molasses is intrinsic to Gingerbread. But my friend insisted that her Mother always made hers without the stuff.

That’s when everything fell into place for me. My friend has just a tiny kitchen. Her “stove” is a couple of burners and a countertop oven. But that countertop oven is really good. It’s a Breville convection oven and is probably better than the stove in my kitchen, just smaller. My friend has no excuses; she can bake the cake herself. She doesn’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer, so I’ll be giving her a Bowl & Spoon recipe. It’s quick, which makes it perfect for last minute holiday baking.

Gingerbread really is just a spice cake with molasses which adds the well-known darkness and smoke to the sugar. Without molasses you really just have spice cake, but let’s dispense with names for now, shall we?

Molasses is frustrating to me because you may use a tablespoon or two during the holiday baking season, and then you’re stuck with an almost-full bottle staring at you from its shelf for the rest of the year. If you ask me we’re well rid of it. The question is, what can we use to replace the robustness of its flavor? Chocolate. (You saw that coming.)

There are a couple of ways you can use the chocolate. The first is for a subtle addition of dark notes—a kinder, gentler molasses. The other way is to let the chocolate do what it does best: be chocolate. It really depends on your audience. Are they traditionalists? Or are they in line with me, the King of The World? (In line waiting for our chocolate, that is.)

If it’s subtlety you’re after, then grate a half cup of dark chocolate with a microplane and swirl this powdery black snow through the batter just before baking. It will disappear into the batter, leaving behind only the dark, “caramelly” flavor.

If you want your chocolate to scream its presence, then add a half cup of chocolate chips, and swirl them through the batter. You’ll get little pops of chocolate with each bite, and you’ll find the synergy between the ginger and the chocolate to be a happy surprise.

(Yes, I know the microplane is a piece of equipment someone with a limited kitchen may not have, but they are cheap and can be used for everything from chocolate to shaved ice. You’ll get more mileage from a microplane than from a bottle of molasses.)

You can see from the photo that I finished my cake with a bit of powdered sugar, and a few grains of autumn-colored sanding sugar. But plain ‘ole whipped cream will be a hit, especially if you used the chocolate chips. If you happen to use whipped cream from the can, just don’t tell me. And for heaven’s sake don’t start a whipped cream fight or tell anyone you got the idea to do so from me. Unless you bring a can for everyone.

Happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, and be thankful for your bounty.


Here’s the recipe for Bowl & Spoon Gingerbread.


Keep these other Thanksgiving recipes in mind:

Maple Walnut Sticky Buns

Cranberry Sauce

Parker House Rolls

Anadama Bread

Baked Indian Pudding

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie


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Ol’ Faithful

Maple Walnut Bars

Utility player...with walnuts

I’m a New Yorker. I grew up in the Boston area. My name is Michael. Funny, I could be describing the current Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, or myself. We have all those things in common, so let’s also play a little game I like to call “Let’s Compare Bank Accounts”. Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire. I’m…hey, did you watch the World Series?

Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols. Albert Pujols. What: did the guy invent baseball? Do I have a chip on my shoulder? A couple. Yup, enough for a cookie.

I have always had bad eyesight. I remember being taken to the movies as a kid and thinking, “Jeez, what a crummy theater. This movie is totally out of focus!”

Of course, bad eyesight translates into being picked last for team sports. (That’s a real pat on the back.) I’ve never figured out why they thought this was a good idea, but they always stuck me in the outfield. A nearsighted kid with no depth perception. In the outfield. The ball would “hang” in the sky then suddenly be on the ground behind me and my gloved, outstretched hand.

(This inevitably reminds me of the joke about the bad actor: the director keeps telling him to move up stage. “Farther up, please…no, even farther please…” to which the bad actor objects, “But, if I move any farther up I’ll be off the stage.” To which the director replies, “Yes! Just a few more steps please!”)

Oh, well. I couldn’t catch a baseball. I can bake. Can Albert Pujols? (Don’t answer that. I saw him on Paula Deen’s show. )

That’s life. There’s always a “star.” Everyone else? The trusted “utility players,” those stalwart, dependable folks who really form the underpinnings of any organization, whether it be sports or show biz or the hard-scrabble world of department store perfume spritizing, are always appreciated yet ignored. Love ya baby, now, hit the showers.

What always amuses me is when the “stars” don’t quite live up to expectations. (I don’t want to mention any names because Alex Rodriguez reads this blog. Madonna turned him on to it, now he’s got Cameron Diaz reading it. I understand she makes my Fleur de Sel Chocolate Caramel Cookies with canned Dulce de Leche. Not cool, Cammie.)

When a star ballplayer isn’t reaching their potential, the fans can be vehement in their dismissal. C’mon folks, be nice. Just because an underperforming player still gets to take home all of his multi-million dollar salary doesn’t make him bad people. It just means he’s like the rest of us but wildly overpaid. Wait. I think I lost the thread of my logic.

The thing is, sometimes you don’t want a star; sometimes you want that solid utility player who you know can get the job done every time. Nothing fancy, maybe not a whole lot of style, but also less worrisome for you. The Maple Walnut bars in the picture above are like that. If you’re having a couple of chums in for coffee, dessert after a movie, or a card game, you aren’t going to serve Profiteroles. But this bar cookie is simple to make and plain in a welcoming, reassuring way.

(Listen, go ahead and serve Profiteroles. Just be sure to invite me.)

During the fall I am sucker for anything flavored with maple. These bars also have a touch of warmth from some added cinnamon, and the rich crunch of whole walnuts. As an option I have added a generous sprinkling of demerara sugar on top, which adds a pleasing but subdued crackle to each bite.

The recipe is written for a stand mixer, but is just as easily made using a large bowl and spoon. Just make sure to soften the butter to room temperature or you won’t be able to cream the butter and sugar together.

The bars are not sticky-sweet, so feel free to serve these early in the day—no need to wait for dessert. I used Extra Dark Amber Maple Syrup which is best for cooking. I found it at Whole Foods, but if you can’t find syrup that dark, just read the labels and chose the darkest amber syrup you can find. (Don’t use fake syrup. Mrs. Butterworth is not welcome at this party.)

Did I mention how they smell while they are baking? These are another one of those items that I will mimic when the big rollout of the Butter Flour Eggs scented candle collection happens.

The other candle is Shrimp Cocktail. Go ahead and laugh, but wait until you light that one. Your house will never be the same.


Click here for the recipe for Maple Walnut Bars.


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It’s fall: have the tweets started changing color yet?

Summer Morning Mourning

Upside Down Muffins

Upside Down Muffins

It has happened. The yearly rite of passage. The arrival of the first Christmas catalogue. This year Harry & David were the first to show their collective faces.  How restrained of them to wait until after Labor Day! (I’m sad to report that Oprah’s favorite Chicken Pie is no longer available.) Running alongside this arrival was the first cool weather of the fall. (Or is it the last cool weather of summer?) Every year when this happens I breathe a small sigh of relief: I survived the summer. I know there are people mourning the end of summer just now, so I’ll be quiet and respectful in my celebrations.

Somehow the heat and humidity of summer dampen my breakfast yearnings. I’m not sure if it is the cool mornings or that I have been watching too many episodes of Barefoot Contessa, but lately my mind has been on breakfast. Actually, some vague concept of “country breakfast.” I have no idea that means other than there is foliage in the background.

I should explain that while I love breakfast and consider it my favorite meal, my breakfast habits are a bit peculiar. Monday through Friday breakfast is broken into two acts. I wake up early and have a protein shake. That holds me until about 10:00 AM when I have breakfast #2: Two slices of seven grain toast (dry), coffee (black), Rice Krispies (no milk, and I wish they’d take out the High Fructose Corn Syrup too. Kellogg’s are you listening?). There may be a prune or two(!), or a banana thrown in there every now and then. My menu appears a bit ascetic, but what I lack in inspiration I make up for in consistency. (The latter is thanks to the prunes, and yes, I know what you’re thinking: cereal without milk? Started as a kid. I always thought the milk was intrusive.)

I only mention my normal breakfast habits to give you some context; it’s not all pancakes and waffles every day for me either, bub. But when I make a fuss over breakfast, I really make a fuss. I should also explain that in spite of having what can best be described as a Roaring Sweet Tooth, my breakfast yearnings don’t generally lean towards the icky sweet. I’ll take a pass on the Sticky Danish in favor of something more restrained with a little cinnamon, maybe some walnuts, and a little brown sugar. Catch my drift?

My avoidance of icky sweet in the morning includes muffins which tend to be dense, and either too dry or too moist, and too big. But I think this preference is related to my love for pancakes and waffles. They tend to be not-so-sweet, and even when I find myself surrounded by diner Formica at dinner time I forgo the Souvlaki in favor of a short stack.

Muffins, of course, are big business now. Muffin baskets are the coin of the realm at the moment for Hollywood “thank-yous”. Last year I wrote about the Jordan Marsh Blueberry muffin—legendary in New England. They were known for their sugar-crusted top, but truth be told these jumbos weren’t all that sweet on the inside. I don’t think I am alone in the belief that muffins are too sweet, and the popularity of muffin tops—the edible kind, not the kind that happens because of tight denim—bears this out.

This made me wonder: Were muffins always the blobs they are now?

I went to my bible of mid-twentieth century cooking, The New York Times Cookbook by the late Craig Claiborne, published in 1961. Old but still relevant, this book remains one of my touchstones in the kitchen. As I scanned the index in search of muffins my eye fell on the words, “Upside Down Muffins” which triggered the immediate response from the voice in my head, “What’s that?”

Yes, they are exactly what their name implies. You put something in the bottom of the muffin cup, then fill the rest of the muffin cup with batter and bake. Whatever is put in the bottom of the cup caramelizes as the muffins bake.

The other great find was the book’s basic muffin recipe. More like a simple quick bread, it is presented plain with a list of suggested add-ins, and seemed like the answer to my not-icky-sweet breakfast prayers. I have exchanged canola oil for the butter called for in the original recipe, and increased the sugar a bit just for these muffins. I took even greater liberties with the mixture that would be placed in the bottom of each cup. The book says to add butter and brown sugar to each cup. I made a mixture of brown sugar, butter substitute, cinnamon, cocoa powder, quick cooking oats, and walnuts and placed that in each cup. While the book doesn’t mention it, I lined the muffin tin with paper muffin cups, imagining the frustration I’d have if my mixture cooked to the pan.

The result is exactly what I wanted. The basic batter puffed up into little brown Everests, and my magic mixture was crumbly and sweet without being icky. Folks who enjoy dunking in their coffee will be very happy. (I was right about the paper liners too, as the upside down mixture sticks a bit. You’d likely need a crow bar to pry them out of an unlined tin.)

Now I just have to sit back and wait for the leaves to change color.


Click here for my Upside Down Muffins.


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Don’t fill up on Tweets, dinner’s almost ready.

Back From the Beach (The Sequel)

Cornbread and Pandebono

The deadpan look on the face of the TSA agent said: “Okay, now I really have seen everything.” In her defense, who could blame her? How often does she come across guys carrying bags of flour in their carry on luggage? She carefully swabbed the outside of the packages and let me go.

(Hint to travelers: when traveling with flour, take it out of your luggage, put it in the bucket, and run it through the scanner.)

(I ask you: how many travel blogs would you have had to look through to get advice for carrying flour on board a plane?)

And you ask: why am I traveling with flour? Can’t I get it at home? A reasonable question. The TSA agent asked it too.

I have enough key chains and refrigerator magnets. I do not need any more tchochkes, so when I travel my idea of a souvenir hunt usually involves a trip to the supermarket. I don’t always know what I want when I go, but I can be easily hypnotized by the sight of a colorful wrapper with foreign words.

During this year’s summer trip to a beach down south I actually went in search of something specific: Martha White. That’s not a person; it’s a brand of flour that is legendary down south. You just can’t find it up north, and I have been told that if you want to make really great biscuits, then Martha White is your gal—uh – flour.

Unfortunately the only Martha White flour I could find this trip was the self-rising cornmeal flour. But that’s okay: biscuits later, cornbread now.

While I was trolling the aisles, I also came across a whole section of South American foods, including items from Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. I am a big fan of Brazilian Pão de Queijo, a bread made with tapioca flour and cheese. Facing me in the aisle was a box, imported from Colombia, containing a mix for Pandebono. Pandebono is a type of bread made of corn flour, tapioca starch, cheese and eggs. Supposedly you eat them warm with Hot Chocolate. Naturally I couldn’t resist.

One bumpy ride with fastened seat belts later, I was in my kitchen mixing the Martha White cornbread. Cornbread can be a contentious issue amongst its devotees. Many southerners show disdain for northern cornbread. Maybe they have a point. The sweet yellow cornbread we serve up north is dense and moist like a dessert. Southerners prefer a more savory white cornbread, often baked in a roaring hot skilled with a bit if pre-heated fat.

I know that I am always banging the drum of scratch baking, but I am not mix averse, I am bad ingredient averse. As an example, let’s take the ubiquitous Jiffy mixes. One of the primary ingredients in their corn muffin mix is lard. Hey Jiffy: it’s 2011. Seriously. Lard?

So that’s why the Martha White mix gets my stamp of approval. The ingredients are white corn meal, flour, baking soda and salt. I added my own egg, milk, and oil. The Martha White mix makes a very savory, toasty cornbread that is very light, and would be great with a bowl of chili, or as a stuffing for roast turkey or chicken.

Speaking of ingredients, the Panbebono mix lists tapioca starch as the first ingredient. Most people know tapioca as a pudding or gravy thickener, so for this gringo it is surprising to see it used in bread. I shouldn’t be surprised though, because it is getting some play as an ingredient in gluten-free baking. It also produces things with a texture that is a bit foreign to me: gummy. Gummy is a misleading word in that it sounds like a pejorative. A more accurate description would be that the Pandebono rolls have an inside that is similar to a popover.

As with the Martha White Cornmeal mix, the Pandebono mix is also very basic, and required that I add my own grated Cotija cheese, a touch of margarine or butter, and water. Cotija cheese is fairly easy to find here in New York, and its briny, crumbly taste and texture isn’t that far from Ricotta Salada.

The Pandebonos are good warm, but I found them to be even better when allowed to cool which tames their gummy texture, and brings out the contrast of the briny cheese, and the sugar in the mix. These are a real revelation for me and I can’t wait to experiment with other cheeses—possibly heresy to Colombians, so apologies in advance.

I wonder if Martha White is listed on a “no-fly” list?


Read what I made last year when I came back from the beach.

You can order Pandebono mix here

You can order Martha White mixes here (so who needs to travel?)


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September is back to Tweet time… tweet early and often!


Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes

No special occasion needed...

Some years ago I was invited to a party at the home of a close friend. When I arrived I made the usual and expected round of “Hellos” to all the people I knew at the party. My greetings included those to one who would best be described as a friend of a friend. She extended a disinterested hand and introduced herself as one would to someone you’d never met. Polite.

Unfortunately we’d played this little charade more times than I am comfortable mentioning. I had met this individual for the “first time” enough times that I don’t have enough fingers to keep count. I was seemingly purged from her memory after each meeting like the contents of your computer’s recycle bin. No recollection at all. Yet, I knew her name, both of her husbands’ names, how many kids she had, and a vague idea of their ages.

After another friend who witnessed this scene picked her jaw up from the floor we recovered nicely and had a nice party.

The next day I called the close friend who had proffered the invitation to thank him for his hospitality and in a moment of fed up candor let fly with the opinion that his friend was a dope. (Yes, I may have used a more explicit compound word.)

He offered some weak excuses for his friend that mainly revealed an acknowledgement and acceptance of her social shortcomings…her “problem” as he called it. He’s simply not a judgmental person. Rather than feeling slighted by this, I actually ended up wishing that I could be less judgmental.

Through the years the same scenario has happened to me a couple of other times with a couple of other people. I may be getting to the age that I just don’t care anymore. Wait. No. I’m not quite there yet. It still rankles and still doesn’t answer the question: if I remember you, why don’t you remember me?

Conversely, a few years ago I was at the theater seeing an awful play. I stepped outside to the street to use my phone. After I finished my conversation I turned to head back into the theater and was stopped by a smiling man who looked at me and yelled, “Bobby!” It took a moment to register that he was talking to me because my name is not Bobby. (Never has been.)

I shrugged, “Sorry, I think you have the wrong guy” and continued into the theater. But he persisted and followed me. In the brighter light of the lobby I could see he wasn’t some unhinged homeless man on a chemically induced field trip. He was nicely dressed, clean, and looked more than a little bit insulted.

“Are you sure you’re not Bobby Smith?”

Taking refuge amongst the theater’s front-of-house staff, I avowed, “Oh, yeah” but the man remained unconvinced—skeptical perhaps that a long lost friend was either playing a joke on him, or had entered the witness protection program.

It was at this point that one of us entered “The Twilight Zone” because he asked me to prove my identity by showing him my driver’s license. Luckily the gentleman was otherwise persuaded that I was, indeed, not Bobby, and departed.

(Actually, I think in part he was intimidated by one of the tougher looking ushers who was giving him the evil eye. I wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her either.)

Tall, bald, bespectacled, and what my grandmother used to call “hamish”: here in New York we are a rather interchangeable, dime-a-dozen crowd. Legions of us swarm the city taking each other’s Bar exams, drug tests, and marriage vows when the real guy is unavoidably detained or just off fishing. Will the real Bobby Smith please stand up?

And what of my insistent pursuer of mistaken identities? One could make a few guesses about him: unacknowledged poor eyesight…unobservant…perhaps he assembles the “no fly” lists for the TSA? Poor Bobby Smith (or is it Smythe?). With friends like that…

The ironic soundtrack to this little documentary is Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable.” (Use the version where they superimposed his daughter’s voice to create a duet. It’ll be easier to cross cut the film.)

It seems to me that the world may be divided into two groups: the first group looks at you, remembers you, and files you away in the appropriate area of their cortex to be recalled at will by the human brain’s amazing face recognition system. The other, much smaller, group lacks the ability to retain this information. It is to those poor, sad, souls that we must extend a hand to help them through the lunar landscape of social interaction.

Advertising copywriters have been addressing this problem for years in perfume ads. There’s even a perfume named “Unforgettable.” This is all based on the theory that the whiff of a perfume will implant itself in the cortex along with other memories of you. If the proximity is close enough, sometimes it really does work.

Some of us just aren’t the perfume type. That’s why they invented the chocolate cupcake. While we cannot wear cupcakes, we can bring them to work or to friends. There’s no need for a special occasion—we’ll create memories nonetheless. Someone will always remember you. Just play it very cool. “Oh, those? I had a few minutes so I threw them together.”

You won’t be lying. The recipe is part of my Bowl & Spoon program. No mixer is needed, even for the ganache frosting. They mix together quickly, and to frost them you only need to dip the tops in the ganache: no frosting technique is needed. If you can dunk, you’re in.

BTW: if you know Bobby Smith tell him that some guy who looks like the actor Kevin Pollack was looking for him.


Click here for the recipe for Bowl & Spoon All-Occasion Chocolate Cupcakes.


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