Archive for the ‘Cake’ Category

It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.

Birthday cake


I recently had an epiphany.

Epiphanies usually come to me when crisis strikes.  You know those moments:  when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when the cable goes out just as they’re about to announce the next couple to be cut from “Dancing with the Stars”.

This epiphany occurred during a moment of looming claustrophobia.  Claustrophobia usually only looms when I’ve been pushed to the back of a crowded elevator, but in this case I was sequestered in a conference room with a young woman—seconds out of her twenties—whose bloated sense of self-importance was matched only by her avoirdupois.  As she thumbed through her BlackBerry she bleated, “Bob is going to get back to me at any moment; we’re in the middle of something important.” (Translation: “YOU’RE not.”)

What followed was a monologue devoid of irony but tinted by a rather virulent strain of work martyrdom that concluded with the words, “When you get to be my age you expect these things.”

The lack of a “tell” on the part of the other folks in the room only betrayed that this crowd would have made a tough Poker circle.  But I’d wager that we were all thinking the same thing: “MY AGE?”

After escaping from this “Poseidon Adventure” of meetings, I repaired to my local Starbucks to ponder the wisdom of overstating one’s age.  I’ve been answering the age question with a coy “twenty-nine, again, ha, ha” for so long that it has become a bit precious. Clearly a new approach is needed.

So as the steam from my cup of Komodo Dragon Blend softened my pores, I resolved that forevermore I will be answering the age question with a resolute, “Five hundred and two. Again.” I will omit the “ha ha” so people will think I’m serious, but will be prepared to admit that I remember the strip mall they tore down to build Stonehenge, that my Social Security number is 1, and that when I was a kid and they said you were green around the gills it was because you were green and had gills.


Here’s how this works: if I were to tell you that I was twenty-nine you’d look at me and think, “Whoo…hard life.”  But if I were to tell you that I am five hundred and two you’d say, “Damn, you look amazing” because—and I can say this without boasting—for five hundred and two I am a total hottie.

I decided that this hypothesis required a bit of real world testing, so, like any good sociologist I headed off to Duane Reade for research.

As I purchased the candles on the cake seen in the picture that accompanies this story, the cashier asked if someone was turning 205. I explained that I was turning 502. She said, “Son, you look good for 502, but you cray-cray” which I’m just going to assume confirms my hypothesis. Thank you again Duane Reade.

Methuselah lived to be 969. He was Noah’s grandfather. (Fine old family. I believe they got into the shipping business.)  502 is a good round number, has a lovely symmetry, and gives me a bit of a “cushion” until I turn 969 and watch the big boat sail away.

In the meantime I have at least 467 more birthday cakes to eat…

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Is that sand between my toes or are you happy to see me?

Banana Walnut Bread

Banana Walnut Bread

I’ve decided to build an iPhone app that will help people answer the question, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” The twist—the gimmick—will be that you can’t write a word until Summer has receded into memory, your flip-flops have been thrown under the bed for the winter, and you can’t leave the toasty warmth of your kitchen without wearing something made of wool.  Yes, friends, this will be “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Summer Scrap Booking.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this…eventually.

Following that general timeline, I’m just getting around to jotting down a few poetic thoughts about what came out of my kitchen during the warm weather. Hint: I could fit these thoughts on a cheap postcard of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.  Why Ocean Grove?  It’s a really nice summer place, but I’m scared to go there because John Quinones and the crew from ABC’S “What Would You Do?” keep popping up, documenting people’s bad behavior. Hey, I’m an angel, but with the wrong editing I may come off badly. And as Nora Ephron said, “Lighting is everything.”

But I digress…

The kitchen of my expansive New York City apartment (with views of Central Park, the Hudson AND East Rivers—framed) gets very hot during the summer. I find it interesting that something grown in tropical climates, the common household Banana, cannot survive a 90-degree New York City apartment kitchen without becoming the botanical equivalent of road kill.  Yet, stored in the refrigerator they begin to resemble the pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.

Predictably, I gave in to the common solution of using dying bananas to make Banana Walnut Bread.  I used the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s version of “The New York Times Cookbook” which dates back to 1961.  As with most things from that era, it has a bit more charm (hello), although this is due to Claiborne having called it, “Banana Tea Bread”.  That name conjures up the vibe of a different era, but I don’t own a tea service or a doily, so this Banana Walnut Bread—with canola oil replacing the recipe’s shortening—was purely a weekend snack.  Toasted, then topped with a little cream cheese, it also made a really good high carb pre-workout breakfast. (I make no claims about this being health food, but it certainly is wholesome.) Using Canola Oil means you can eat it straight from the fridge without it being like a big, cold, brick, but toasting it brings out its earth tones.

Pumpkin Blondies

Pumpkin Blondies

A few weeks ago, one of my treasured yoga teachers, Kyle Miller, decamped to Los Angeles.  All of my teachers are amazing, but yoga seems to waft from Kyle’s pores like the scent of patchouli from a burning incense stick.  I started practicing yoga at a fairly late stage in life, and am about as flexible and graceful as a “two by four”, so I consider myself lucky to have had someone as skilled, enthusiastic, and spiritual as Kyle to get me enthusiastic about returning to the mat.  Kyle has teamed up with some colleagues to start a business called Yoga for Bad People.  I hope someday she’ll return to New York and start “Yoga for Good People who are Bad at Yoga”.  I’ll be there.

Kyle’s final New York class was a packed, emotional (and sweaty) treat to attend. She is beloved. My Bon Voyage gift to her was a short stack of Pumpkin Blondies. I was hoping that the pumpkin and maple flavors would give her a little taste of the Northeast to savor in Sunny LA.  These were based on a simple Blondie recipe I found on line; the pumpkin, maple syrup, and chocolate chunks were my addition. (I struggle when it comes to making things without chocolate. The Banana Walnut Bread mentioned above almost succumbed.)

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

Mixed Berry Crisp with Pistachio Crumb topping

This past summer I found myself craving the delicate richness of home-made ice cream…often.  Perhaps too often. My excuse was that I was experimenting with using the same base to make different flavors.  Really. It was for the greater good. My favorite flavor remains Peppermint Stick. I tried adding chocolate to it, but the chocolate gets too cold, which blunts its flavor. I had better results adding finely chopped chocolate to the top of the scooped ice cream.

To accompany one particularly silky batch of Vanilla Bean, I made very simple, little Berry Crisps.  These make suitable baking subjects during the hot weather because the berries are (relatively) cheap and plentiful, and because you can throw them in the oven and retreat to the air conditioning while they bake.  The zaftig smoothness of the ice cream cuts the spiky, almost vinegary sweetness of the berries.  And the cold / hot “thing” is my second most favorite food juxtaposition, after “salty / sweet”.  So, there may have been the odd salted pistachio in the crumb topping.


“Icebox” cake

I think I may be clinging too closely to a routine. Perhaps this is unhealthy?

Here’s the problem. My Sundays are programmed and scheduled to the point that they make some weekdays look relaxed. I will admit a great reluctance to making any adjustments to this schedule as it consists of activities that I enjoy and look forward to. Just one example: every Sunday I make pizza. I’m not giving that up. This activity is so deeply ingrained that if civilization as we know it ever disappears, I will still be found every Sunday trying to bake pizza over whatever source of heat I can find.

Slightly earlier in the day you’ll find me dutifully sprawled on my sofa watching America’s Test Kitchen, the TV show produced by the Boston-based folks who publish Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.

I’ll admit to a certain love / hate relationship with the show and magazine. Some of their recipes can be a bit labor intense, with certain individual ingredients requiring their own multiple steps of pre-prep. But everything they prepare really does look good, and I am convinced that they know their stuff and produce the show with a minimum of TV trickery. None of this really matters. I sit motionless, as transfixed to the screen as I used to be when Captain Kangaroo would weave his magic with construction paper.

A few weeks ago they did something that literally made me sit up from my sprawl, point at the screen, and say out loud, “That’s a great idea!” with an enthusiasm so ripe that, had you been there, you likely would have heard the exclamation mark too.

After this huge buildup I’m sure it will be a huge letdown to tell you that all they did was cut a sheet cake into four pieces.

Layering a cake has always been a tricky proposition for me. I love height, and I love cakes with more than two layers. I just think they are fun and a bit dramatic. I usually bake cakes for special occasions like birthdays, so a little drama isn’t unwelcome. I think it is safe to say that any time you hand something to someone that is on fire there is already a bit of drama afoot, but when the cake has been cut and is being passed on a sagging paper plate, awaiting decimation, a bit of “Wow” should still remain.

The America’s Test Kitchen folks were baking carrot cake that day. Instead of baking the cake in the usual round layer pans, they baked one sheet cake, cut it into four pieces, and ended up with a handsome, square, four layer cake. The advantage to that recipe was that they could better control the cake-to-cream cheese frosting ratio.

I like carrot cake, but given a choice I’ll always go for chocolate cake with white “boiled” frosting, a combination I grew up on in New England. The frosting was called “boiled” but was really a meringue, usually Swiss or Italian. The difference is how the sugar is cooked, with Italian Meringue being the sturdier of the two. (I never fail to be entertained by whipping egg whites into fluff. Yes, I am easily amused.)

I’ve tried various chocolate cake recipes for years but have recently settled on a doctored version of the Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” chocolate cake recipe found on the back of their cocoa powder cans.

Apologies to the folks at Hershey…the doctoring includes not using powdered cocoa, but melted, unsweetened chocolate. (Hershey makes that too, so the ingredients stay “in the family” so to speak.) The other doctoring is simple: brown sugar instead of white, and the addition of instant espresso powder. The recipe is easy, and there’s no butter—canola oil is used instead, which I think makes it a better, moister, cake. Kind of fudgy, but still definitely cake.

The first thing I noticed about baking the recipe in one sheet pan was that I didn’t have to worry about dividing the batter evenly amongst several pans. The cake baked in one even layer, so cutting off the crown as is often necessary with round layers, was eliminated.

I made a minor change to the Americas Test Kitchen technique: instead of cutting the cake into four quadrants (two cuts, north to south and east to west), I cut it into four long strips (three cuts, all north to south—get it?) The change in geometry made my cake come out more like a squared log than just a square.

Stacking the layers with a thin veneer of meringue between each was simple, and the first cut inspired my name for this cake: “Icebox” cake.

If you are unfamiliar with Icebox Cake, this was a simple “no bake” dessert made from Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafer cookies (addictive, and hard to find) and whipped cream. You stacked layers of the cookies and whipped cream into a log, refrigerated it, then served it in slices.

My personal preference is to serve it not quite chilled, so if you store it in the fridge let it sit out for a while. Each slice is a combination of fluffy meringue and fudgy cake. Looks particularly fetching aflame with candles, but stash this recipe away and think of it when barbecue season rolls around too.

Hey look: we put the cake in Icebox Cake.


Click here for the Icebox Cake recipe

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My Roman Holiday

Blood Orange Cake

A love for blood oranges…

Some years ago I was at a Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center here in New York. If you’ve ever been to any kind of trade show—the auto show, the boat show, pet couture week—you know that there’s a lot of walking involved and after a while you get hungry and thirsty. You would think that this would be solved by the mere fact that you are at a Fancy Food Show, but ironically pickin’s were slim that day. I seem to remember eating Jamaican beef patties, and some kind of meringue-topped “nibbly” desserts. Bottled water was yours…for a price, and upstairs, out of the exhibition hall.

Thankfully the folks from San Pellegrino had set up a booth where they were passing out little sample cups of their fine aqua minerale. Five or six trips to the well only began to put a dent in my thirst. On one of my return trips I noticed an array of little multi-colored bottles displayed. From the labels I could see that they were orange and grapefruit sodas. A third line of unlabeled bottles were bright red and small enough that they brought to mind the little wax “soda bottle” candies we used to get from the penny candy store back in the 1900’s. (They were right next to the wax lips.)

As stingy as they were with the water, the folks from San Pellegrino were delighted to introduce me to Aranciata, their pulpy, fresh, orange soda that most Americans would equate with Orangina. If I really wanted an authentic Roman refreshment (I was told) they needed to add a dash of the liquid in the tiny red bottles too. Roman-style swag? Who could say no? Well the drink was yummy, the red stuff—which I learned was called San Bittér—was the bitter, herbal, syrupy ying to the Aranciata’s citrus yang, a non-alcoholic version of Campari and orange juice. I felt as though I was basking in the Roman sunshine. Ahhhh…

I thought of this recently after hopping aboard the blood orange bandwagon. January seems to have become the season blood oranges, and, truth be told, I need a little Florida food sunshine in January, which can often seem unrelentingly gloomy. (I mentioned this to my dentist who comforted me by exclaiming, “Thank goodness you don’t live in Finland! They don’t see the sun for weeks.” Thanks, Doc.)

I bought a half dozen of the fruit and decided to experiment. I found them inconsistent. Eaten out of hand, one was bright and sweet, another was tart and bitter. The combination of sweet and bitter is what made me think back to my San Pellegrino “Roman Holiday” at the Javits. I suppose I could have just bought a few bottles of San Bittér and Aranciata and called it a day, but the thought of baking something with the Blood Oranges intrigued me. Would it be sweet or bitter? Would it be both?

My first thought was Crème Brulee. Extra skinny slices of the fruit on top of the custard, with the crackling dome of bruleed sugar on top. Sounds good, but I really craved a twist on an old fashioned upside down cake.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake always suffers from a case of the “icks”: too sweet, too syrupy, too many maraschino cherries. I wanted something that would celebrate the blood oranges, but, secretly, if someone just wasn’t into the fruit, I wanted them to have a nice piece of cake waiting beneath.

Pineapple Upside Down cake gets a lot of the goo from the syrup used to can the fruit. I made up for that by gently and briefly simmering the juice of one blood orange with the requisite brown sugar and butter. Maraschino cherries were banned from the room; who needs ‘em? The slices of blood orange had a nineteen-sixties, Marimekko pizzazz that made the cherries irrelevant.

For the cake I decided that a simple, yellow cake would not be up to the job, so I swapped out a bit of flour and substituted ground almond meal. Instead of butter I used canola oil. A good dose of grated orange zest combined with the almond meal made sure no one would miss the butter I was omitting—and the canola oil and almonds are considered “healthy” fats. (The latter is, shall we say, my attempt at lessening the guilt attached to eating a big hunk of cake. Oh yeah: there’s vitamin C in the oranges too. Okay, I’ll stop.)

Depending on the bitterness or sweetness of the blood oranges you’ll either end up with a pleasantly sweet, gooey cake, or a slightly bitter, tart cake with a sweet gooey syrup. The latter will bring you a bit of Roman sunshine in the gloom of winter. (If the tartness or bitterness isn’t your thing, dust the cake with some confectioner’s sugar, or serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.)

Besides: who wants a predictable cake?


Click here for the Blood Orange Upside Down Cake recipe

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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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Orange Marmalade Cake

Orange Marmalade Cake

When I was a kid I tasted marmalade and thought it was disgusting.

Well, it’s like this: I was a Welch’s grape jelly fan. Welch’s grape jelly was sold in a glass tumbler with Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters on the side. Your Mom could wash out the tumbler when it was empty and then you’d drink your milk from this stylish new addition to her kitchen ware. So, there was fat little Mikey with Yogi Bear printed on the side of his glass of milk and a PB&J on Wonder in front of him. All in all, not a bad little scene.

But marmalade…it was foreign. It came in a white jar. It was bitter. Your dusty, grey, old Aunties ate it on barely toasted English muffins. Even Yogi Bear, that ursine, groovy, beatnik dude on the constant prowl for a “pic-a-nik” basket would have passed on PB & marmalade.

My stance has softened slightly, a change of perception related to my decline into physical decrepitude; marmalade has not changed a bit. Age and who-knows-what-else have dampened my palate to the point where I find marmalade’s somewhat aggressive tendencies almost admirable. Almost.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been marmalade moments in my adulthood. Don’t we all go through our experimental phases? I had a stage where I would dilute marmalade with a dash of Cointreau and use it as a baste and marinade for chicken. I do not normally go for sweet main dishes, but certain foods seem to give you permission for this. Pork Tenderloin cooked with maple syrup? Yum-o (to steal an expletive from Rachael Ray.)

I have also heated it and pushed it through a sieve then brushed it on fruit tarts as a glaze. But in its purest form straight from the jar on the aforementioned under-browned English muffin? Sorry, no.

But if marmalade has always caused me a visceral “oh-oh!” as I roam the peanut butter aisle and scan the rows of friendly jams and jellies stacked at my supermarket, I must confess to a bit of shame too. I think marmalade can be prettier than the murky, candied purple of grape jelly, or the sludgy red or strawberry jam. If my choice were purely visual I’d vote the marmalade ticket, as I find its stained glass, sunset blush very seductive.

About a week ago, I actually held a jar of marmalade in my hand and thought, “SOMEONE likes this stuff. They wouldn’t sell it if no one liked it.” In a clear example of projecting my own feelings of…what…inadequacy perhaps, I decided that clearly it wasn’t marmalade’s fault but my own. “Give the stuff a chance,” I argued. I dropped the jar into my basket. Amazing what a bit of mild self-shaming can do. (Don’t go to the supermarket with me. Clearly there’s too much thinking going on.)

How do you turn over a new leaf? Call me “Old Auntie” if you must, but yes, my first test was glopping the stuff on a barely toasted English muffin. I gotta say: still not my bagatelle. If you are trying to show off the bitter nature of marmalade this is the way to go. Keep calm and carry on, yes? I toasted another English muffin, this time letting it actually reach that ideal crunchy brown state. Then I buttered the English muffin—but not too much. Just enough to dampen the nooks and crannies while retaining a bit of crunch. Then and only then was a layer, a mere glazing, of marmalade applied, inspired by the light touch called for on fruit tarts. Much more satisfying. Clearly a little goes a long way. And clearly the butter had properties that tamped down the marmalade’s more aggressive tendencies.

This inspired a few thoughts: marmalade butter. Marmalade is mixed into softened butter and presented as a spread for toast. Then I thought of mixing a bit of the marmalade into homemade ice cream, but since it is after labor day I cannot make ice cream. (Oh yeah: that’s a rule.)

Into this mix was thrown an early morning breakfast meeting. Naturally this required baking some corn muffins. (Naturally…) My usual recipe for corn muffins requires a little grated orange zest and the merest kiss of orange juice—just enough to “goose” what is usually a predictable muffin. As a daring experiment I decided to forgo the zest and juice in favor of a tablespoon of marmalade added to the liquid ingredients. (Yes, I know: How brave. Thank you.)

Makes perfect sense, yes? The marmalade already has little bits of orange, and obviously quite a bit of juice. Granted, a bit more sugar, but I didn’t add the whole jar. Did the folks who ate the corn muffins feel the earth move? No, but they enjoyed them. Yes, I set the bar low.

This brought to mind a summer standby recipe. I bake Ina Garten’s Lemon Pound Cake at least once per summer. It is easy, enormous, easily transported, and always gets nods of approval. The trick to her recipe is that once you turn the cake out of its pan you “baste” it with warm, sweetened lemon juice. I pondered the possibilities of a similar cake, but substituting the marmalade to accomplish the same task as the lemon juice.

The other shortcut this would allow is that I won’t have to grate the zest of the lemons as I do when baking Ina’s cake: the marmalade comes fully loaded with zest and bits of orange. Some marmalade went into the cake, some was heated and painted on top as a glaze and soaked into the cake as it cooled. You can see from the picture above the result is as succulently moist as Ina’s.

While Ina’s cake is like unrepentant about its lack of complexity, the Orange Marmalade cake holds a bit of mystery. The bitter orange happily misleads the tongue into thinking something else is going on…booze perhaps?

No. No booze. Just something foreign.


Here’s the recipe for Orange Marmalade 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


Chocolate Financiers

From a little baker…

Henri was one of those guys. (He still is, but slower.) When we were in school together he had what I called “Henri’s Seventh Sense of Right.” This referred to his unerring sense of the right thing to wear, the right thing to say, and the right thing to do. He was a better student than me. He was French by birth, (although raised here) and brought all that the French label implies to the table, including an accent that appeared and became thicker at will. I was plain ol’ American and had a Boston accent that came and went of its own accord. He smoked Gauloises like he was breathing pure oxygen; I choked as though I’d been buried in sand. His surname points to an aristocratic lineage, mine is what is politely referred to as an “Ellis Island creation.”

I admit that at times I felt like more of a fan than a friend as I watched him charm everyone who crossed his path: teachers, shop keepers—even my Mother. From my adult perch I assume I was studying Henri, hoping to absorb by osmosis some of whatever he could do. I’m not aware that this worked. You should not read any resentment into my profile of Henri. Envious? Absolutely. Jealous? No, for if I had been Henri, I could not have had him as a friend, so, I am the lucky one.

One day early in our friendship he announced, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I sensed that as formidable as I found Henri, he found his grandmother even more so, but I could not imagine why. This went on for a few weeks. My brain built up an immunity to, “You must meet my Mère. You will love her.” I stopped hearing it until one day he said, “Come meet Mère tomorrow after class.”

The next afternoon found us climbing out of the subway and rounding a corner to the back of Carnegie Hall. Although I was blissfully unaware that we were due at an appointed time, clearly we were running late, as Henri’s pace became more and more urgent. Entering a side door of the Hall, we rushed by a guard who seemed unconcerned by our presence. Riding up in the old elevator, I used the back of my hand to blot the perspiration from my face and giggled at the thought, “I didn’t practice, practice, practice.” I wondered what Henri’s grandmother would be doing upstairs at Carnegie Hall, although based on Henri’s family, clearly she wasn’t sewing costumes.

We walked down a hallway that was like stepping on the set of an old show biz movie. Translucent glass-paneled doors only hinted at what was going on behind them: the screech of a soprano here, the thumping of dancers’ feet there, a laugh, a conversation just out of ear-reach. Henri knocked on one of the doors, and it swung open as if the person inside had been waiting with her hand on the knob.

She was très petite and crowned by a head of dark red curls. She glared at Henri, pointing to a watch that dangled from a chain she wore around her neck. Henri launched into a French monologue, of which the only word I understood was “subway.” She sighed and held up her arms for a hug which Henri rewarded with a kiss to one cheek and then the other. She then pushed him back gently, and spun him around for a proper, grandmotherly inspection, and, pointing to his ripped jeans complained, “Oh, Henri, please don’t wear those rags when you visit me.”

Henri began to complain in French but she cut him off.

“Don’t be rude. Speak English or your friend will think we’re talking about him.”

Unlike Henri, Mére spoke with a pronounced French accent, a lovely, lilting sing-song that bore no resemblance to the clichéd Maurice Chevalier accent I was used to from my old movie habit.

Henri explained to Mére that he thought I’d enjoy looking at her pictures because of my obsession with old Hollywood (this was pre-internet or DVD, so it was harder to “get my fix.”)

Mére beckoned us into her studio with a shrugging, casual, “Well, come see what I have. I didn’t have a chance to pull out anything special.” Before I could take a step Henri stopped me, whispering, “She probably worked all morning choosing just the ones she wants to show off. And when she serves tea, don’t call the little cakes “brownies.” But before I could get an explanation, a sharp “Henri?” from across the studio propelled us into a large open room two stories high, topped by a large, sloping glass skylight. It was hard to decide if it was a salon or a photographer’s studio, but the large view camera perched off in a corner tilted it in favor of a studio.

Mére had lined up at least twenty large black and white portraits in a way that suggested, “Look at me…but I don’t care if you do.” The photographs were of actors, writers, and other prominent folks. From the style of dress, hair, and make-up on the women you could tell they dated from the late forties to the late sixties. All were lit in that glistening film noir Hollywood studio-style that captured a moment in time, a reaction, a momentary flash of the person’s personality. Each bore the same small signature in the lower right corner: Mére’s. My reaction was a poetic, wise, gaping stare. I couldn’t even muster a simple, “Wow” overwhelmed as I was by the collective energy of the photographs.

As I walked along the line, I mentioned the names I knew and inquired of Mére the ones I did not. Of the faces I did not know, she would punctuate the name with their occupation which, I gathered, was usually a bit of an understatement, like saying, “Arthur Miller. He wrote plays.”

I lingered a while in front of Anthony Quinn. A favorite actor of mine, his expression seemed passive yet commanding, as if he were holding out his hand, waiting for you to kiss his ring. Mére witnessed my intense study of the dark eyes, and said, “You remind me of Quinn.” A beat, then, “He was difficult.”

She swept off to a far corner of the studio, and started fussing in the tiny kitchenette. Henri whispered, “I think she’s impressed that you actually know who most of these people are.” As before, I couldn’t get an explanation of his brownie warning because Mére commanded us to join her for tea, which she served while perched on a settee. (Something I had only seen in movies. At home we had a sofa.) That was when Henri’s warning about the brownies became evident.

Presented with the tea were little cakes that looked like brownies, but had obviously been baked in individual little rectangular cake tins. She served them with a pot of whipped cream. Having been well warned, I took a bite of one the almond-scented chocolate cakes. Avoiding Henri’s face I asked, “What are these called?”

Mére shrugged with disinterest, “Those are Financiers. A little baker makes them for me.”

“Those are her favorite,” added Henri, contradicting her apparent disinterest.

A few years later I was saddened to learn of the death of the little baker who baked the Financiers for Mére, and became determined that she should not do without. After a few tries I learned how to bake Financiers myself. Over the years I have packed them in little boxes and delivered them to Mére, just as I did last week to mark a very special occasion:

Her 100th birthday.


Click here for the Financier recipe.


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“Is that tweeting, or is that my heart pounding?”

My kind of town

Marble Pound Cake

Air-Conditioned Marble Pound Cake

It was recently brought to my attention that, as much as I write about my New England roots, I have lived in New York—Manhattan—as long, if not longer than I lived “up nawth.” Or is it “Down East” (as they say up north). This was communicated thusly: “You’ve lived here that long? You’re a New Yorker.” The flavor, the tone, the “line reading” (as an actor would call it) was such that the declaration took on an almost accusatory character. The subtext (as an actor would call it) was, “You’re in this just as deep as we are.” Perhaps I’ve watched too many Jimmy Cagney movies from his hoodlum period, but that’s how it felt. Oh well, I hope the grub is good in the pokey (as Cagney would have said.)

True, I have lived in New York for many a year, but one thing (among many) that I will never get used to is that New York is just not an ice cream town. I’m sorry, but you cannot convince me otherwise, and, I’m sorry, but just because New York has more Mister Softee trucks than it does police cars doesn’t mean this is an ice cream town. Now, Boston: that’s an ice cream town.

My definition of an ice cream town is one that supports at least one chain of local ice cream parlors. An ice cream parlor was a place (usually blissfully air conditioned to perfection in the summer months) where you could sit down and indulge in a Hot Fudge Sundae that was served in a dish, not a paper cup. Boston used to have several of these—Bailey’s was my favorite—but Brigham’s was more pervasive. In their stead are more contemporary chains like Herrell’s and Emack and Bolio’s. If you are familiar with Steve’s Ice Cream, then you’ll want to note that Herrell’s is the company Steve started when he sold Steve’s, making Herrell’s the real Steve’s. Does that make sense? No? Have some ice cream and it will all come together. (Or drop me a note: I have an excellent workflow diagram I can send you that explains it visually.)

New York had Shrafft’s and Rumplemeyer’s, but now all it has is the Mister Softee fleet. Where have all the flowers gone?

While there is an argument to be made for the suitability of a fleet of trucks in New York that bear a name that could be used as a raunchy put-down to one’ s manhood, I think there’s actually a better explanation of this. New York is not an ice cream town because it is a cake town. This can never be a bad thing…or a put down to one’s manhood.

Neighborhood bakeries were the norm when I was a kid, then supermarkets started to horn in on that business by opening huge bakery departments. The little “Mom&Pop” baker who would be firing up the ovens at 4:30AM became a thing of the past, dying off (literally and figuratively) and taking their bliss-filled recipes up to their flour-dusted heaven.

The problem is that you can’t sit at a supermarket killing time over a piece of cake and a cuppa joe. The plastic-wrapped slice of cake at the bodega? Pass.

Say what you like about Starbucks. I’m a fan, and am eternally grateful to the Baristas at my Mom’s local Starbucks who dote on her and welcome her by name.  I think Starbucks has brought back the leisurely schmei over a piece of cake. You can’t do that at Dunkin Donuts. Yes, I prefer Dunkin Donuts’ coffee, but I’m not a donut guy and their stores have all the personality of a dry cleaning establishment.

Coffee chains are nothing new in New York, but I often wish that I could travel back in time to try a meal or two at the great cafeterias like Bickford’s, the Automat, or Child’s.

One of those great coffee chains has held on for dear life: Chock Full O’Nuts. I think there’s one left in Manhattan and it gets uniformly pounded by negative reviews on Yelp. That’s a shame.

You used to be able to buy Chock Full O’Nuts’ Marble Pound Cake frozen in the supermarket. Yes, Marble Pound Cake still abounds—Starbucks’ version is a dutiful version—but there was something about that frozen version, a vast, sugary, shortening-infused brick entombed in aluminum that sparks pleasant memories.

I am the first to admit that this is a memory play and that a trip in the “Way-Back” machine would likely find me underwhelmed. I don’t recall the thing having a great deal of finesse or delicacy, and instead of the intermingling of chocolate and vanilla flavors that the marble concept implies, there was one, uniform, damp sweetness. Um…it was great with ice cream.

It occurs to me that the passage of time, or perhaps the sum total of adult experience has made me value the finesse over the uniform sweetness. Has my tongue become a snob?

Bearing that in mind, I did something I always question: made my own version of something that is more convenient to buy.

Convenient, yes. But we don’t always know what’s lurking in some of the stuff we buy. And I thought while I was in the kitchen I may as well make my Marble Pound Cake have that implied intermingling of tastes.

The latter is easy: lots of vanilla, a heavy hand with the chocolate, and a shot of instant espresso powder for reinforcement. Butter was relieved of its duties in favor of canola oil.

There was a method to my canola oil substitution madness. I thought it might be fun to be able to eat the cake cold—and by that, I mean straight from the fridge. If I’d baked with butter, the cake would be too dense straight from the fridge. While canola oil doesn’t give you that layer of flavor you’d get from butter, you can eat an oil-based cake as soon as the little fridge light blinks on.

It also tastes better cold, the next day…like revenge.


The recipe for my Air-conditioned Marble Cake


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“I’ve gotta have that marble tweet!”

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