Archive for the ‘Chocolate’ 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…

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The Afikomen

The Afikomen

Passover tends to be a little humorless, as it centers mostly on stories of living in bondage to despotic Egyptian pharaohs. So here are a couple of humorous Passover Seder anecdotes—one from showbiz, and one from my life. This is my version of a sort-of Readers Digest-style “Life in these United States’ Seders” column.

First story: My Aunt Sarah was an ardent fan of the sixties television serial “Peyton Place.” One year a very important episode happened to be scheduled to air during our Passover Seder. Yes, indeed, the Seder ground to a screeching halt (seemingly between the third and fourth questions) as Aunt Sarah got caught up on Allison Mackenzie’s latest assignation. I can still remember her staring hypnotically at the TV and then crowing afterward, “Yes, it’s only a half an hour, but they put a lot into that half hour!”

Why is this night different from other nights? Tonight I had to watch “Peyton Place” on their TV.

Second story: The late composer Jule Styne is a legend in musical theater, having written the score to scores of shows including “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”. One year he decided to throw a fancy, catered Passover Seder to which he invited, among others, the equally legendary star Ethel Merman.

(Backstory: I’ll just say it. Merman had a reputation as a tough old broad. She’d been born in Queens as Ethel Zimmerman and hated that people thought she was Jewish when she was actually of German descent.)

When Styne invited her to the seder she asked, “Will there be anything I can eat?” Styne assured her she would not go hungry. Styne greeted Ethel at the seder, and escorted her to a place of honor at the table, where she immediately reached into her handbag, pulled out a ham sandwich, and plopped it on the plate in front of her.

Indignant, Styne grabbed the sandwich, threw it on the floor, and scolded Merman by saying, “Ethel! You’re insulting the waiters!”

He then promptly turned his back on her and convulsed in laughter.

Why is this night different from other nights? On this night we don’t take (bleep) from show folk.

Ahhh, Passover humor. I could go on and on, but you’re dying to know about the chocolate and nuts in the picture above, so without further ado I’ll tell you all about it.

That’s chocolate-covered Matzo in the picture above. Chocolate-covered Matzo is sometimes called “Afikomen” in tribute to the tradition of hiding a bit of matzo for dessert, then having the kids play “Find the Afikomen”. Whoever found the Afikomen could then eat it for dessert. Yup. That was prize. Whee. I figure dropping a bit of chocolate on top gives the kids a little more incentive. The adults too.

Okay stop rolling your eyes, I know you’ve seen chocolate-covered Matzo before. Why is this different? It’s what I put on top.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. Those are Spanish-style Caramelized Almonds on top. They have a mild sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate. The tricky part is that they are made with confectioner’s sugar. Confectioner’s sugar contains corn starch which makes it strictly NOT kosher for Passover. If you are strictly kosher the work around is to pulverize granulated sugar in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and add in a bit of Passover potato starch to emulate the corn starch’s powdery qualities. Or if you’re as strict as I am you just use confectioner’s sugar, and just say, “Yeah, what ever.” (After I pass into the next world I’ll drop you a note telling you how hot it is where I am…) (Unless you’re there, then I can tell you in person.)

Unlike the normal sugary coating you’d expect, these have a more frosted quality, slightly less sweet, and can be adjusted with some nice additions that will bring some complexity to this confection, which, when all is said and done, can be a bit plain.

My first addition was a bit of cinnamon. I have a friend who often adds cinnamon to his chocolate frosting. Just ask the Mexicans: it’s a great combination.

My second addition is a little bit of salt. Yes, I know that salted chocolate is quickly becoming like this year’s blackened redfish (ubiquitous), but there’s something about the salt with the nuts, chocolate, and the starch of the matzo that just works.

By the way, eagle-eyed folks will notice that I used whole wheat matzo and dark chocolate, but egg matzo and milk chocolate would make a pretty terrific combo too.


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You have already won

Chocolate Mousse

Another chocolate miracle…

Back at the dawn of the internet age—let’s say 1999—the electronic chain letter was born. My sincerest gratitude to William Beldru, widely considered the creator of the modern, electronic chain letter. Mr. Beldru, a native of West New York, New Jersey (a city that never made sense to me) accidently set off the first chain letter by writing a short email to the youngest of his six siblings as a convenient way of arranging a family gathering.

The momentous words of that first chain email are engraved above the portal to the International Internet Museum in Washington, D.C. (a city that never made sense to a lot of people): “Friday Night: Chicken or Fish?”

It wasn’t long before internet-enabled Americans were all racking their brains for lists of twenty friends who would not be enraged by the claim that breaking the chain or deleting the email would bring them bad luck. So we endured charming, folksy tales of teachers who never let us down but who had hit hard times, and prayers for angels hovering over us but just out of reach until enough of us had forwarded “…the attached prayer (scroll all the way down)”.

The biggest whopper of them all is the apocryphal story (still darting around the AOL-sphere) about the famous department store that supposedly charged a customer in its restaurant $250 for a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. I know for a fact that this is untrue as I was able to buy the recipe for a mere $5 initial investment in a Nigerian savings account.

My weariness at this electronic detritus will perhaps explain why a lot gets by me. Except for the naughty bits, I am guilty of ignoring my junk mail box. That’s why I tend to depend on (what I call) authoritative voices to draw a virtual yellow highlight through the life-changing stuff I need to see. Your questions are A.) What are authoritative voices? and B.) How can I sign up to be one? The answers are, A.) The New York Times internet edition, and “Your Daily Horoscope on Twitter” and, B.) Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

But it was Melissa Clark, the excellent food writer for the Times who brought something to light that I think will (honestly) change my life. Supposedly there has been a recipe going around the internet for Chocolate Mousse that has two ingredients: chocolate and water.

Sure enough: there’s Ms. Clark starring in a video on the Times’ site making it happen. Thank goodness this was not one of those tricks where they say, “Don’t try this at home” because that’s what I set out to do.

It took me a couple of viewings of the video to see what was going on, but it was one of those “slap on the head-wish I’d thought of that” moments. The best part: I think I have improved on Ms. I’m-A-Fancy-Writer-For-The-New-York-Times Clark’s technique, and now, for a minimal investment, this secret can be yours. Oh. Sorry, I still have junk email on my mind.

Here’s the story. Ganache is a basic chocolate sauce which, depending on the temperature, can be used to make truffles, or whipped and used as cake frosting. You pour warm cream over chopped chocolate, allow the chocolate to melt, whisk together and then proceed using varying techniques. The fat in the chocolate and the fat in the cream are compatible: really all chocolate is a ground powder suspended in fat. The common assumption that oil and water don’t mix is borne out if you melt chocolate then accidently get a few drops of water in it: It clumps.

But a chemist would look at your seized melted chocolate and tell you to add a lot more water or a lot more chocolate or a lot more fat. Am I a chemist? No. Am I a chocoholic? Yes. But if you’re a chemist you understand that this recipe provides enough water to properly suspend the fats and solids in the chocolate.

This recipe makes a ganache with water instead of cream. (That’s the “Reader’s Digest” version of the story.)

Ms. Clark insists that once you have melted the chocolate and water together, you must set the mixture in its bowl over an ice bath and whisk until the mixture cools enough to whip into a creamy mousse-like consistency. That could take quite a while.

I am far too lazy for that. I planned ahead and used my Kitchen-Aid mixer. As directed, I melted ten ounces of bittersweet chocolate in a saucepan with one cup of water. This happened very fast. I whisked it all together briefly, just to make sure the mixture was uniform. But instead of using an ice bath, I poured the mixture into a glass bowl, and stashed it tightly wrapped in my refrigerator and let it sit overnight.

The next day the mixture had set into what I would call a soft solid. That’s where the Kitchen Aid took over. I whisked the soft solid in the Kitchen Aid for about a minute and as you can see from the photo above, ended up with a very nice mousse. What it lacks in complexity and mouth feel it makes up for in fun.

You may feel the need to doctor the recipe a bit—I added a hefty spoonful of Medaglia d’Oro instant espresso powder as it whipped in the mixer, and Melissa Clark sprinkled hers with a touch of Fleur de sel—but this stuff will definitely come in handy.

If you are a vegan or about to celebrate Passover this opens up some possibilities. For Passover, I think I’ll make a Chocolate Tart with an almond-flour short crust. (The almond flour will add a bit of richness.) Maybe I’ll make a bit of whipped cream available for folks.

If you are a vegan you could potentially make really great truffles this way. Scoop the refrigerated mixture with a melon-baller and dredge in cocoa powder or crushed nuts. You can also pour the mix into tiny ramekins or espresso cups and make a very satisfying Pots de Crème enforcing a bit of portion control without advertising it too loudly.

By the way, if you’ve read this far, Angels are on their way and your beloved fifth-grade teacher has made a miraculous full recovery.


Click here for the recipe straight from the New York Times

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“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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Phoning it in

Martha Stewart Thin Mints


“If you had an iPhone…”

For several weeks this past year those words—spoken by an unseen Voice Over Artist in a television commercial for Apple’s iPhone—made me cringe. There was a certain smugness there that reminded me of the fat rich kid who used to make fun of my cheap skis when I was 12 and pretending to be Jean-Claude Killy.

I was a perfectly content Android user. Well, not perfectly content. I liked my phone, and was fond of and reliant on many of the apps I had installed. (It had this cool alarm clock that required you to solve a simple math problem before you could disable it or snooze.)

And yet…

After about a year and a half, one of the high priests (priestesses?) of Android decided that it would be a good idea to send a big update of the phone’s operating system (all of which have alluring foodie names like Jelly Bean and Ice Cream Sandwich) to all phones on the network.

(Insert lone bugler playing “Taps” here.)

The phone never recovered. Soon I was getting little warning icons that the phone’s storage was full. I set about urgently deleting old email, unused apps, and photos, but to no avail. The “storage full” icons remained as constant as the “check tire pressure” warning light in my Mom’s car. (We can talk about that another time.)

The thing is: the phone wasn’t even close to being full. It had one of the largest expansion cards available. It was a bug. Verizon happily sent me a replacement phone—factory reconditioned—which required me to “rebuild” or restore all the apps I had installed and re-connect my email. Peace reigned over the land.

Or did it?

Now, I am the first to admit that I have lousy vision. One day I was checking out my newly replaced phone and thought, “Gee, my eyes must be tired, it looks like the screen is pulsating between brighter and darker.” Worries of going blind soon dissipated as I realized that it was indeed the phone and not my eyes. I then began to notice that if I didn’t keep the screen sparkling clean it would either ignore my touch or simply start doing its own frantic thing as if some phantom finger were trying to dial, text, tweet, and email its phantom Mom. (I might add that said Phantom had deplorable taste in music too.)

“If you had an iPhone…” began ringing in my ears. Tinnitus?  No. A barrage of P.R. whetting the world’s appetite for the iPhone 5. I decided to get one and see what the hub-bub was about. All I had to do was wait a couple of months until the happy coincidence of the iPhone release frenzy and my two-year contract renewal date. Would my old phone survive until then?

It survived just fine, whiling away the hours texting, emailing, and tweeting itself. (Perhaps it started a blog?)

No, I was not one of those folks who waited in line outside the Apple store, but I’ve used the phone for two months and I like it. I like the way it’s made, but the flip side to that is that I’m terrified of dropping and damaging it, so it lives in a protective case.

click the time on the recipe and it sets a timer for you

Recently I was scanning the app store and saw that the “Martha Stewart Bakes Cookies” app was on sale for zero dollars and no cents. That’s my kind of gambling, so I downloaded it. I think it is very slick. Here are details of my test drive.

I chose the Thin Mint Cookie—a celebration of cool chocolate—thinking that it would make an excellent holiday cookie. I expected the instructions would ask me to roll out dough and have at it with a circular cookie cutter. Martha’s folks have a fun and easy alternative: you place teaspoon-sized blobs of cookie dough on a cookie sheet. Then you flatten them with the bottom of a drinking glass dipped in water. It works, it’s fast, and even a kid can do it. During the holidays, involving the kids in the family baking is such great idea. Messy? Potentially. Fun? Yeah!

You’re left with very “rustic”, very thin chocolate wafer cookies—but proceed with caution. These can be addictive even without being dipped in mint-spiked melted chocolate. By the way, the iPhone app is so slick that you touch the highlighted direction “bake 8 to 10 minutes” in the recipe text and it automatically sets a countdown timer. Yes, Tim Cook, this is like baking in the Jetson’s kitchen.

Ah: one problem back on earth. Martha’s folks have us spiking the melted chocolate with mint extract. They got this wrong. You really should spike the cookies with the mint, and leave the chocolate as is.

But it’s chocolate: can you ever really go wrong?


Martha Stewart Makes Cookies is available in the Apple App Store for the iPhone and iPad. It’s free for a limited time only.

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A Child’s Thanksgiving in wails

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls…boom

My sister Fran is a poopie-head. That is my honest, adult, unvarnished, truthful, insightful, well thought out appraisal of this thoroughly disappointing woman. Think George C. Scott as General Patton crossed with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Add maybe a sneeze or two of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” There ya go.


In true American tradition I will be sitting at Frau Fran’s table this holiday eating her Turkey. She, in turn, will throw that in my and my other siblings’ faces forever. This is a delicate game of checks and balances. Yet, as dreadful as I have made the day sound, it is not without its rewards. I do love the meal. I have offered to host the meal myself many times but La Reina (another of my nicknames for Fran) insists—INSISTS—on hosting it. As with so many other things we have to do as a family, she bullies, coddles, bribes, threatens, and pouts until she gets her way. There have been years when I have been tempted to “call in sick” but my Mother won’t hear of it.

It is hard for Fran. Life hasn’t been easy. She married a man who was born without a brain, so she has had to think for two for nigh onto thirty years. (My Aunt Polly insists that Fran’s husband was also born without a spine, but that’s a whole other slice of pie.)

Clearly the parsnips won’t be the only bitter thing at the table this holiday. Yet, if you think about it, is there a better day for families to gather around their collective grievances than one on which they can drown said grievances in a big meal and a fat tanker-sized glass of moderately priced wine? I think not. You can keep your one hundred fifty dollars an hour family therapists. Bury your heartache under a pile of Ritz cracker stuffing, that’s what I say.

And speaking of football…

Over the years we lesser siblings who orbit Planet Fran like so many Moons have developed our own quiet rebellion—strictly sub-rosa but nonetheless well organized and quite virulent. The red wine stains on Fran’s favorite damask tablecloth? An accident, I assure you. The fact that every year Molly, Fran’s Cocker Spaniel, has an “accident” on the white living room rug? Chalk it up to the excitement of the day. (Hint: In those long-ago TV commercials Andy Griffin used to say, “Everything sits good on a Ritz.” Unfortunately Ritz don’t sit so good on Molly’s tummy. Good GIRL!)

No, Fran for All Seasons doesn’t stand in her kitchen for days on end cooking the big meal. She buys all of it pre-cooked, including the turkey, which she reanimates in her Magic Chef. What she fails to realize is that this reduces her martyrdom by a large factor. She doles out the money to Larry (that’s Mr. Fran) who then gets to pretend that he is the hunter / gatherer / breadwinner / head of the family by schlepping around town gathering the catered items in The Mercedes That Time Forgot.

Fran of a thousand faces has a knack for ordering good food—I’ll give her that—which is a surprise considering her sustenance is usually derived from a freezer full of Lean Cuisine. There was one disastrous year when she decided that she would start a new family tradition and serve a Honeybaked ham. This was met with howls of dissent, so equilibrium (or Librium) and roast turkey was restored the following year. But here’s my truth: as much as I love turkey, if you cut into it and found that it was made of bread I’d probably love it even more. The Thanksgiving bread basket? That’s my jam, yo.

It was my well-known love of the bread basket that sparked what has always been the most overt example of rebellion against Generalissimo Fran. It started as a dreadful act of violence directed at yours truly. I simply asked for the bread basket to be passed. Innocent as a lamb. Okay, there may have been the merest touch of an edge in my voice…and I may have labeled the bread basket with an adjective that I cannot print in a family blog. But really, just in good fun.

Anyway, before I could even slam the table with my fist and shout, “NOW!” it seemed like every roll ever baked since the beginning of time was being thrown at me. Thank goodness we’d already polished off the Parker House rolls I had baked, for their buttery goodness would surely have stained my handsome shirt.

As one good turn deserves another I was left only with the option of returning the salvo as best I could, after all it was eleven against one (my Mother had also lobbed a Pillsbury Crescent roll at me but you can’t return fire when it’s your Mother. I found out the hard way that that’s true in Paintball too.) (She’s fine.) (Now.)

When winging bread at folks it helps to first judge the distance of your target, the weight of the object being thrown, and the age and relative health of your target. Example: those hearty whole wheat raisin rolls are great for that sourpuss, bratty teenage niece with the big mouth, but for Granny stick with sliced bread thrown with a gentle Frisbee motion. However, please be advised that you should check with the bratty teenage niece’s parents prior to the meal to make sure she hasn’t already had her Sweet Sixteen Rhinoplasty. Either way it gets her out of the room.

Naturally one can game the system a bit by insisting on bringing home-baked rolls. This technique presents two advantages. The first is that you can make practice batches and sharpen your accuracy. The second is that it gives you complete control over the weight of each projectile dinner roll, therefore letting you adjust for age, height, and health of target.

I have gleaned from years of experience that the common Cloverleaf roll makes ideal cannon fodder for a Thanksgiving dinner. While they have a bit of heft, they don’t have the volume or mass of the whole grain raisin roll. They are also vaguely ball-shaped. This makes them safe for a wider range of targets: even Granny can survive being dinged by one, although it may hasten that day’s nap time.

I have been known to bake yearly commemorative varietal batches and give them as gifts. The saffron version was quite delicious, although the resulting orange splotches on the walls required that Fran-tasy Island have her dining room repainted. But these are mere trifles taken in the context of the larger picture.

This year I decided it might be fun to add a touch of sugar, pumpkin, and chocolate to them. This lightly sweetened treat was inspired by Nancy Reagan’s well publicized Monkey Bread recipe. What better model of familial dysfunction has there ever been than the White House Reagans? These will make a calming respite with a cup of morning coffee.

And the chocolate should make some lovely stains on Fran-tastic’s dining-room walls.


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Eenie. Meenie. Meinie.

Blondies? Hermits?

Blondies? Hermits?

I can’t decide if I think indecision is a good thing or a bad thing. Ah, the irony.

Recently I went to dinner with my Mom. She ordered skirt steak, but then sat with a cloud over her head wondering if she should change her order to lamb chops. I berated her (gently) with a huffy, “Once I make a decision I move on…always listen to your first instinct.” (Don’t worry: she still has plenty of ammo in her belt to cut me back down to size.)

What I forgot were my own—frequent—moments of indecision that usually occur before I do something. So for those keeping score: Mom, hand wringing after. Me: hand wringing before. Tie ball game, folks.

My brand of indecisiveness reared its ugly head a few days ago when it began to feel like fall and I decided I wanted to revisit my old recipe for Hermits. Hermits are the old-fashioned bar cookie that usually have a heavy jolt of molasses, spice, and raisins. These were a neighborhood bakery standby when I was a kid, but it occurred to me that they were, perhaps, a bit too intense for the uninitiated: some people hate raisins baked into anything, others can’t abide molasses, yet another group would pass on both. Hermits have another potential problem: no chocolate. Oh-oh.

What I couldn’t decide was whether to stick with tradition, or trod my own path and risk them not being Hermits but Blondies.

Nothing against Blondies.

Okay, something against Blondies: I always felt that their whole raison d’etre was to be the anti-Brownie, assiduously avoiding chocolate in order to present an overly sweet, bleached face to the world. The trouble with that is that they never assert any identity of their own.

I feel it is important to pause here for a moment and reflect on the fact that I just applied some kind of psychology to a bar cookie. Psychologists out there are having a field day. How did that make you feel? Our time is up for today. Feel free to take the Kleenex with you.

Uh-huh, so, back to the cookies.

My Hermit recipe had already made some allowances for modern taste. I lessened the amount of molasses and substituted tiny Zante currants for the raisins, a choice which preserved the “raisiny” flavor minus the goo of baked raisins. Would the earth open and swallow me whole if I went even further? What would be so bad about a mashup of all the best things from Hermits, Blondies, and Brownies? I know I’d be happy.

The special guest star—not usually seen on this stage—is chocolate. But I am not abandoning the molasses bite either, just reducing it to a “note” along with the vanilla. I was reluctant to retain the spice—in the form of cinnamon, but a friend’s excellent Chocolate-Cinnamon icing inspired the courage to leave it in.

Nuts seemed like a prerequisite, but I am weary of walnuts, therefore pecans were nominated, both chopped into the batter and used whole as decoration on top. The chocolate was chopped by hand too; chocolate chips seem too uniform for a cookie that has such a rough—dare I say—artisanal quality. (Call me “home on the range”…or should that be at the range?)

You can see from the picture above that I ended up with bars that slightly resemble Blondies or smaller, fatter Hermits. They’re not as sweet as Blondies, or even Toll House bar cookies. They’re less aggressive than Hermits. Blondies for Chocolate Lovers? Hermits for the 21st Century? I can’t decide what to call them. How about EenieMeanieMeinieMoes?

Last decision: do I eat them all myself or give some away? Hmmm…


Here’s the recipe for EenieMeanieMeinieMoes


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It’s all about the chocolate

Chocolate Crescent Cookies

Chocolate Crescent Cookies…the sea salt makes the difference

Sometimes it’s really all about the chocolate, that’s all.

So here’s the thing: chocolate can actually be very tricky. You really can’t just melt it and pour it into a mold and make your own chocolates. There’s a little task called tempering required. I once helped a pastry chef temper a bit of chocolate that he was then going to pour into molds. His technique was exhaustingly precise and deliberate—justified in the end by little caramel-filled bon-bons that were ceremoniously served at the end of the meal “upstairs.” They glowed as if they had been polished. (The quotation marks around “upstairs” refer to the fact that restaurant dining room was upstairs. Alex, the pastry chef in question, was relegated to the basement.)

Like so many things food related, tempering chocolate is as much science as it is art. Obviously standards and expectations are higher for a professional like Alex than for you and me, the humble home putter-er around the kitchen-er. But the focus remains the same: a smooth, glossy finish devoid of streaks or “bloom”—the little gray marks that betray badly tempered chocolate where the cocoa solids have begun to separate from the cocoa butter.

Yes there are machines that will perform this task for you, but they are expensive and the provenance of the professional pastry chef. After a while Alex’s basement workspace was rewarded with one, but there was a kind of double learning curve involved; Alex had to both learn to drive the beast and trust it too.

Alex’s surface of choice for tempering was a big slab of marble. Among its other qualities (beauty being one of them) marble stays cool. A friend once described her summer living and working with an Italian farm family. During the day the temperatures would reach at least one hundred degrees. After lunch the family would nap on the kitchen floor which was…that’s right, a big slab of marble. She said it was like dipping into a cool pool of water.

Alex would melt his chocolate in a double boiler over a very gentle heat, taking care to not let any steam from the double boiler get into the chocolate. (Moisture can make chocolate seize or clump.)

Periodically he would check the temperature of the chocolate with an instant-read thermometer and either reduce the heat or add “seed” chocolate—extra un-melted chocolate—to cool down the pot. When it reached the consistency and temperature he wanted, he would pour it onto the marble slab and start swirling and scraping it around the slab, stopping every now and then to again check its temperature with his instant-read thermometer. The part I helped with was the swirling and scraping, a technique whose sole requirement was that none of the chocolate would leave the slab and land on the floor or your clothes. (Yes, there was a huge temptation on the part of this glutton to dip my finger into the chocolate. But I liked Alex and didn’t want to make him mad.)

The science behind this—in laymen’s terms—is to stabilize the molecules of the cocoa solids. The result is a shine and a rich, deep “snap” when you break the cooled chocolate.

(Folks like me who buy chocolate at Duane Reade or other places in this real estate challenged city have all been stung by opening a bar of chocolate only to find it had been held in an un-air conditioned storeroom. It’s interesting to see firsthand how badly handled chocolate can become inedible.)

As I said, for the home cook, this rigmarole would seem tedious and unnecessary. (Tedious and Unnecessary? Weren’t they a dance team from the old Ed Sullivan Show? ) If you just want to dip a few strawberries, or the odd pretzel or two, a little care can elevate your chocolate dipped treats into a thing of beauty.

So here’s the Butter Flour Eggs chocolate melting primer, a/k/a my tempering shortcut. Alex and other professional pastry chefs, please turn away now: you’re not gonna like it.

Step 1: take your time. When in doubt melt the chocolate slowly. You’ll know you’re going slow enough when you invoke a deity whose initials are J.C. Example: “J____ C_____, aren’t you melted yet!?”

Step 2: Yes, use a double boiler. A glass bowl over a saucepan with a couple of inches of simmering water is you’re best set up. Keep the heat low to keep steam to a minimum. Steam is an enemy of chocolate. Steam: bad. (Hint: I actually use a triple boiler. The chocolate is melted in a glass Pyrex measuring jug placed on the glass bowl over the simmering pan of water.)

Step 3: chop your chocolate before melting. You should chop it so that it is like gravelly beach sand. (The safest way to chop a block of chocolate is to use a serrated bread knife, and chop at the corners of your block of chocolate.)

Step 4: Reserve roughly a quarter of your chopped chocolate as your “seed” chocolate, to be melted later.

After you have melted your chocolate, use a rubber scraper to stir it and swirl it in the bowl, making sure there are no lumps of un-melted chocolate. The consistency should be somewhat runny. Then add the “seed” chocolate that you reserved and continue to stir until that has melted.

The next step is to find the appropriate vessel with which to convey the chocolate to your mouth. I’m a fan of a mild, slightly crumbly cookie like the orange cornmeal crescents in the photo above. These are piped through a pastry tube then baked. After being dipped in chocolate the cookies are finished with just a flake or two (or three) of sea salt.

Happy Labor Day!


Here’s the recipe for Orange Crescent Cookies


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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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