Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

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

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to



“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

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


Silicone for my breasts

Fast food my way

Fast food my way

Here’s a New Year’s Resolution for you: question everything you eat.

(I was going to say, “Question everything you put in your mouth,” but that sounded dirty.)

It would be easy to imagine that someone who writes a blog about baking would be…uh…ample. Generously proportioned. I have at times battled the bulge, yes, but the truth is that I do not eat the stuff you see here every day, and certainly not until it has been photographed. Worse: I’m not sure that I believe in moderation. Some stuff should be indulged in only on special occasions.

Full disclosure #1: I have a sweet tooth.

Full disclosure #2: I am vain.

Full disclosure #3: My vanity often trumps my sweet tooth. And that’s saying a lot.

I’ve been working out in a gym since I was in college, yet, several years ago after a routine, yearly physical during which I aced every test, my doctor sat me down, looked me squarely in the face and asked, “So, what are you going to do to lose some weight?”

I rebelled, but saw the light one morning when I stepped out of the shower and saw myself in the mirror. “The doctor is right,” thought I, “I look kind of…dumpy.” And as if awakened from a deep sleep, my vanity (bless its heart) took over.

Like Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas, I “…had the answer all along.” I didn’t need to pay a trainer. The kitchen is the one room I can walk into and feel perfectly confident. I can do anything in the kitchen, not just bake. (Yeah, I know. That sounds dirty too.)

No, I did not invent a cookie diet. But, over a lifetime I have learned a lot about cooking and food. As surprising as this sounds (even to me), there are people who do not understand the difference between protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Are you one of them? It’s okay.

What’s not okay is to deny the role a proper diet plays in your health. I often joke that I honestly believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities. But I don’t eat it every day. Oh, by the way, that’s no joke: I do actually believe that chocolate has medicinal qualities.

Every day I eat a good, healthful, pleasurable, diet so that when the good stuff comes along—the treats, the “special” meal, the really good ice cream—I can eat them without guilt. Over the holidays I helped my friend’s three and six-year old kids bake cookies. You think I left without indulging in the Rice Krispies Treats? Think again.

I don’t believe in diets. A co-worker recently tried a liquid cleanse. Tried, but couldn’t complete. Silly. Passive. Don’t diet. Instead, change your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what makes your jeans seem to “shrink.” Fire up the internet. Find an app for your phone. Get educated.

ANYWAY. I consider myself a picky eater. But the good news is that there are a lot of foods that I enjoy that I can eat every day. I’m the guy who can make a meal out of a can of sardines. (Let’s just say I know my way around the canned fish aisle. Some of it, like good sardines, is superfood. Some of it stinks like a house guest who has exceeded the three day hospitality limit.)(Ahem: How many friends do you have who can claim they know their way around the canned fish aisle?)

Many New Yorkers never cook a meal at home. The United States Department of Agriculture recently released the results of a study that concluded that you get more calories, more saturated fat, more salt, and less fiber when you eat out. Does this mean I never eat processed food? No. It means I pick and choose carefully, based on ingredients, the nutrition label, and my needs.

I hear you thinking. “I don’t have time to cook every meal from scratch.” Neither do I, so I don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to question everything you eat. Ask what’s in it, where was it made, and how big is that portion? I recently asked a waitress the weight in ounces of the flounder on the menu. While she looked a little surprised at the question, I knew that the chef would know. I tried it in a corporate cafeteria recently. I noticed that the woman making the sandwiches had all of the meats in portions, and yes, she had weighed each one. (Four ounces.)

Speaking of flounder: isn’t that a beautiful fillet in the picture above? That thing in which it sits? Looks like a model of the cargo bay from the Space Shuttle, yes? Actually it is a Spanish-made Lékué steamer. I enjoy steam-roasting fish, usually in parchment. Fish steamed in a pot on the stove tends to be a little bland for my tastes, but wrapped in parchment and baked in the heat of a hot oven you get the best of both worlds: the moisture of steam, and the finish from the heat of roasting or baking. I found the Lékué steamer one day while trolling the aisles at Sur la Table. It is made of silicone, and, while designed for microwave cooking, it is perfectly at home in a regular oven.

You can see I have my whole dinner in there: some peppers, a bit of buckwheat pilaf I’d made in advance, and some citrus slices to season the fish while it bakes. I come home from the gym, pop my food into the Lékué then into the oven, and it cooks while I take a shower. It cleans easily, doesn’t retain food smells, and is reusable. It’s a bit slower than parchment, but I’ve enjoyed several meals cooked in it. (No I was not compensated for this, and yes, I found the Lékué myself and paid for it out of my own pocket. No endorsement here, just a report of a happy test drive.)

Don’t feel limited to fish. Anything that might normally dry out in the oven (chicken breasts or lean beef) cooks well in a steamer. Just be sure to add some moisture like broth or light vinaigrettes to help them cook.


The Lékué steam case and other products are available at Sur la Table and on

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


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


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


The Good News Is They’re Fresh

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

Crunch-topped Corn Muffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. You’d be surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some times it pays to stop and smell the grease.


Click here for the recipe for Crunch-top Corn Muffins


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


Have you tweeted a food blog today?

Yes, das ist eine bread basket

Maple Walnut Sticky Buns

I need your help. The title of this post, Yes, das ist eine bread basket, is ripped straight from the fractured memories of my childhood. I think it was one of the lyrics of a “list” song I learned as a tot, but that single line is all I remember. That, and when you sang the words “bread basket” you pointed to your stomach. If you know the song please refresh my memory. (Or titter at my lack thereof.)

Can you tell that Thanksgiving makes me a sloppy nostalgic sap? Why not? It’s a big family holiday, so my thoughts always go to my Pop.

I always thought my Pop had the strangest tastes. When we’d go to the deli counter he’d order Three Bean Salad. He just loved it. I used to think, “Who eats Three Bean Salad? Yech.”

When we’d go for ice cream I’d order chocolate chip with jimmies; he’d order maple walnut. I’d think, “Who orders maple walnut ice cream? Yech.”

On Thanksgiving he always ended his meal with Baked Indian Pudding, and I’d think, “Really? But there’s pie!”

Granted, I’m still not a fan of Three Bean Salad, but that has more to do with a general aversion to the whole cole slaw / potato salad / macaroni salad niche of cold salads. But make maple walnut anything and I’m in. When did that happen?

Naturally my Pop was special because he was mine. But in reality he was a fairly typical guy of his time: first generation American, very solicitous of his Mother, World War Two army vet. During times when I was youthfully undisciplined, his strongest remonstration to me was, “A little time in the service would straighten you out but good.” The latter was a show of exasperation: he would no more have wanted me to join the service than he would have wanted me to run away with the circus.

When I was a kid, I had a voracious sweet tooth. My Pop had a sweet tooth too, but his was more measured. I never saw him eat candy. He was a cake and ice cream guy. It’s odd that I have sort of grown into that same type of sweet tooth and ironic that while I consider myself to still have a sweet tooth, I often complain about things being too sweet. How do I reconcile those contradictory claims?

Easy. I’m here to confirm the sad truth that, yes, we do become our parents, hair (or lack thereof) and all.

When I was a kid the first thing I’d grab out of the Thanksgiving bread basket was one of the sticky buns. Don’t confuse these with the lumbering, Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man-sized, mall-sourced Cinnabons. The little ones I’m recalling were designed to fit into a breadbasket, and seemed to always appear on Thanksgiving. Was this a New England tradition? Dunno.

As an adult my bread basket tastes have veered away from the sticky sweet and towards the savory: biscuits studded with cranberries, Anadama bread, and toasty, puffy white rolls—like Parker House Rolls. Even Northern-style cornbread—sweet—seems like a sugar rush. The sticky buns seem unredeemable and icky now, and the sticky fingered charm of my seven year-old alter ego fits my adult persona about as well as my old Cub Scout uniform. That is: not at all.

Yet people request them, and truthfully, who am I to deny today’s seven year olds the same fun I had getting everything and everyone sticky? And who am I to deny their Mothers the fun and frivolity of commanding them to, “… wash those filthy hands right this minute!”?

So here’s my version, ready for Thanksgiving.

To shake things up a bit I decided to not make the typical pecan sticky buns. To add a bit of flavor complexity, pay tribute to my Pop, and make preparation a bit easier, I reached deep down into my soul and got in touch with my Kitchen Wonk.

So, these are Maple Walnut Sticky Buns.  I recognize that these are a “project” and that if you are preparing an entire Thanksgiving dinner, you may want to farm out this “project” to a willing patsy collaborator. The good news is that I have built the recipe on the bricks of the Parker House roll recipe, so depending on the size of your expected crowd you can make the basic dough and make half of it into sticky buns, and the other half into toasty, white Parker House rolls. You can also double the recipe and…well you know what to do.

Besides being a wink and a nod towards Pop, using maple syrup makes prep a little bit faster because the filling and the topping are easier to mix together as opposed to using just brown sugar. I like to think it is healthier than the dark corn syrup called for in some recipes. (Yeah, I know, this aint health food.)

Because we are making really small buns—one or two bites—I recommend that you bake them in pie plates or round cake pans. This way you’ll end up with fewer of the dreaded “middle buns”, the ones that are baked inside the pan and therefore brown less than the outies.

The recipe also instructs you to carefully turn the buns out when they are fresh from the oven to let the syrup and nuts drizzle down. After careful tasting and consideration (a sticky job but someone had to do it) I am ready to declare that I think I like them upside down—with the topping left on the bottom. That way you won’t miss the toasty crust which remains barely kissed with the syrup.

You can make these a day ahead, but you will want to gently warm them prior to serving in case the sugar in the syrup has crystallized.

Phew! I think holiday baking season has arrived. I’m pooped already. Time for a nap.

But first I’d better go wash my sticky hands.


Here’s the recipe for Maple Walnut Sticky Buns.


Keep these other Thanksgiving recipes in mind:

Cranberry Sauce

Parker House Rolls

Anadama Bread

Baked Indian Pudding

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


So many tweets, so little time

All the best turkeys are wearing it

Cranberry Sauce (in a few minutes)

Cranberry Sauce (in a few minutes)

I forgot how fragrant cranberries are. I opened the bag in the picture above and was struck by a sweet but refreshing smell. It is a sweetness that belies reality, for the irony is that you can’t eat cranberries out of the bag unless you enjoy being convulsed into a teeth-grinding wince. Nature made them very tart.

But there they sit, every Thanksgiving, front and center, playing Ringo Starr to the turkey’s John Lennon. I, for one, have other things on my mind whilst gnawing on my drumstick, but folks’ expectations being what they are, you simply can’t serve turkey without cranberry sauce. It simply isn’t done (he sniffed haughtily.)

I’m not sure how many people bother to make their own cranberry sauce for the holiday, but if you’re just buying any ol’ pre-made cranberry sauce, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to be creative and to bring some individuality to your Thanksgiving table. Have I made the sale yet? No? Then, let me add that cranberry sauce is simple to make and you can—and should—make it a day or two ahead. (Sold!)

Here’s a related story with a tragic ending. (Have that box of Kleenex close at hand.) I have a friend who comes from a large family. Their default Thanksgiving dinner is a collaborative effort where people are assigned a portion of the meal to prepare.

A couple of years ago my friend was assigned cranberry sauce and decided to be creative. He carefully researched recipes, and asked advice from his friends who have logged kitchen time. The resulting recipe was a simple whole berry sauce sweetened with orange juice and perfumed with orange zest. His family’s reaction? Grab that Kleenex: they hated it. To be fair, they were used to the jelly-from-a-can sauce, and found my friend’s creation a bit overpowering.

So I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll get creative, but I will also include directions to make something close to jelly-from-a-can sauce, but with a touch of complexity. (No ridges from the can though, sorry. Someone’s bound to miss those. Tough noogies.)

The Ocean Spray cranberries I bought have a basic recipe printed on the back of the bag; that will be my launching pad. Hint: this is a bit subversive, for you will shortly be receiving a lesson in basic jam-making. Don’t worry, there will not a final exam.

My first addition to the bag recipe will be a cup of chopped apple. The apple is a big ally here because it adds sugar to counter the cranberries’ tartness, and pectin which will help the cooked berries jell a bit. (No one likes runny cranberry sauce.) Dice the apple into fairly small chunks, but don’t worry about technique because the apple will cook down and disappear.

Addition number two is the seeds from half of a vanilla bean. Vanilla extract really won’t work here; we’re going for that custardy-floral note that only the seeds can lend the sauce. The apple gives the sauce body, but the vanilla with its round tones gives body to the flavor of the sauce.

Addition numbers three and four are a tribute to my friend’s attempt at cranberry sauce for his family meal: orange zest, and a tablespoon of frozen concentrated orange juice. These will give the sauce the citrusy zing that counteracts the hammered-down gaminess of the average turkey.

Now if you want to get really silly here, we can add two cloves and or a half stick of cinnamon. Be stingy with these ingredients; we just want a note or two, not the whole concerto. Keep your audience in mind.

Speaking of audience: if your turkey dinner will be an adults only affair, consider adding a thimbleful (let’s say a tablespoon) of brandy or calvados. The alcohol will (mostly) cook off, and you be left with some rather earthy, smoky tones that will work well with your Turkey’s lean roasted flavors—not to mention the sage that is likely in the stuffing.

This year I’ll be adding about a half cup of chopped walnuts just before I remove the berries from the heat. The walnuts will absorb some of the sweetness of the sugars while adding their own meaty, crunchy character.

If you’ve got your heart set on adding some of these flavors but remain a fan of the jelly-in-a can, then omit the orange zest and juice, cook the berries as directed, then strain the whole thing through a sieve before allowing it to cool and set.

If you really miss the ridges from the can you can always pour your home-made jelly into a clean can and let it set there.

Honestly who’s gonna do that?


Here’s the basic cranberry sauce recipe. I recommend reducing the sugar to no more than one half cup if you’re using the apple and orange juice.

Ocean Spray Whole Berry Recipe – Makes 1 cup

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 x 12 oz bag of cranberries

Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add cranberries and return to a boil. Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour sauce into a bowl, cover and cool completely at room temperature. Refrigerate until serving time.


1 cup chopped apple

Seeds from one half a vanilla bean

Zest of one half an orange

1 tbsp frozen concentrated orange juice

1 or 2 cloves

Half stick of cinnamon

1 tbsp brandy or calvados

½ cup chopped walnuts (add just before removing from heat.)


Keep these other Thanksgiving recipes in mind:

Parker House Rolls

Anadama Bread

Baked Indian Pudding

Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


Did you turn your Tweets back one hour?

Gold Star

Mocha Lady Fingers

a treat for breakfast or later...

There used to be a TV commercial for Stella d’Oro cookies that was based on an ages-old Borscht Belt sketch.

(And, it goes a little something…like this:)

(The scene: a typical upper middle class suburban home. The husband enters.)

Husband:  Darling! I’m home! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (a slightly muffled off stage voice) I’m hiding!

Husband:  (Looking around, trying to guess her hiding place) Darling I’m home! I brought you flowers! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (still a slightly muffled off stage voice) I’m hiding!

Husband:  Darling I’m home! I brought you flowers!  And Stella d’Oro cookies! Where are you?

Unseen Wife:  (opens the door slightly) I’m hiding! In the front closet!

(In the original sketch the husband was bringing the Mrs. a diamond bracelet. That would open a few closet doors in my neighborhood.)

How many times have you walked by the Stella d’Oro display at the supermarket? Funny the stuff you take for granted. I haven’t been to the East End of Boston for many years (Go Eastie!) but many years ago I somehow found myself standing in a bakery in that part of town. (Me? In a bakery?)

This was one of those places where you walk in and think, “Ah, this is the real deal.” They could have used it as a location for “The Godfather.” I remember buying a few slices of Anisette Toast and thinking (brainiac that I am) “Ohhh, like Stella d’Oro.” Time has not diminished my gratitude to whatever god of silence prevented me from saying that out loud.

Stella d’Oro was actually a local New York City brand. What may have started as a little taste of Arthur Avenue and baked just a few miles up the road from me in the Bronx is now baked in North Carolina.

(Out of towners are now thinking, “Ohhhhh, that’s what the Bronx was for.”)

I am someone who is a sucker for a wrapper with a few foreign words. But during all those oblivious trips past the Stella d’Oro display it has never occurred to yours truly that I was usually ignoring a product whose pedigree was also “the real deal.” In the same way that the formerly ethnic bagel became mainstream, Stella d’Oro’s goodies lost their Bronx-Italian identity and became just another cookie (or bread stick.) You can take the cookie out of the Bronx; can you take the Bronx out of the cookie? I don’t have an answer.

For, as much as I’d like to rip the crinkly cello off a package of Breakfast Treats and pretend that I am eating something baked by my (very imaginary) Italian grandmother, what I really must do is appreciate the cookie itself, the baker’s art that went into it, rather than some romanticized ethnicity that I painted on it for my amusement.

The humble Breakfast Treat is really nothing more than a generously-sized, lightly Anise-scented lady finger. Lady fingers belong to a group of items baked from the recipe commonly referred to as “biscuit” (pronounced, biskwee). Things like jelly roll and sponge are cut from that same cloth. How this differs from other cakes and cookies is that the air beaten into the egg whites is the only leavener used. The only fat is usually whatever is in the egg yolks. While perhaps not as tender as chemically-leavened cakes, biscuit is another “real deal.” It requires a little technique—although with a stand mixer the only real technique may be knowing when to turn the mixer off. More importantly, it calls back to a time before chemical leaveners like baking powder which have only been in widespread use since the early 1800s.

I love baking this kind of stuff. It really asks that you pay attention to what you’re doing. There are a few steps, and a couple of bowls—and one bowl is used, washed, dried, and re-used. But I still think it is easier than pie crust.

To celebrate the humble Breakfast Treat / Lady Finger / biscuit, I decided to make my own. Should I channel my (very much imaginary) Italian Grandmother or add my own little style? What the heck: Granny had her shot, and she “did good.” I’m gonna do my own thing. Out with the anise, in with the coffee and cocoa. Hey why not? They’re breakfast treats, and that’s when I drink coffee. And I’ll put chocolate on just about anything.

Be warned: Lady Fingers are usually piped through a pastry bag. Don’t worry about it. As you can see from the picture above, you can just as easily make little round cookies by dropping a bit of dough from a teaspoon. Here are a couple of easy hints: whip the egg yolks until thick, pale, and creamy. Err on the side of over beating them. The egg whites are a different story. Whip just until they hold a peak when you pull the beater out of the bowl. Err on the side of slightly under beating. Over beaten egg whites will “curdle” and dry out.

Granted these aren’t a “rock your world” cookie. They’re mildly sweet which is what makes them breakfast friendly, but you can easily dress them for dinner by drizzling melted chocolate on top or just dipping them halfway. I’m even going to experiment on the next batch by sprinkling a touch of almond praline powder on top before they bake to give them just the kiss of a sweet, crunchy glaze.

Do you think they’d approve in “Eastie”?


Click here for the recipe for Mocha Lady Fingers.


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


If it’s sweets you must send Tweets…

The Joys of Applesauce

Making applesauce

Making applesauce

My odd sense of humor has reared its ugly head: “The Joys of Applesauce.” For some reason this has me laughing hysterically. It’s like a chapter from some now obscure 1950’s home ec handbook. The subject of applesauce came up the other day when I started having cravings for Apple Turnovers.

I’m not sure how or why these cravings come over me. This time it could be that my internal calendar and the one on the wall both agree that it is September. It could be that I was minding my own business the other day and stumbled upon the little greenmarket that happens every week across from Lincoln Center. Now that I walk through these greenmarkets more often, I’ve really started to notice the cyclical nature of the offerings. Like some whimsical botanical fashion show, breezy cottons (i.e., tomatoes) have moved off to the marginal tables, while woolens (i.e., apples) have taken center stage.

It may be those very apples that implanted in my mind a craving for hot apple turnovers, straight from the oven. I can practically smell them as I type this sentence. I happened to mention those cravings to a friend who reminisced that his Mom used to serve them hot, straight from the oven, courtesy of Pepperidge Farm.

As much as I crow about baking from scratch, I have to admit that I used to love those too. It’s been years since I had them, but the memories are still as warm as the spicy apples inside the flaky crust. While I’m not crazy about some of the ingredients they use, Pepperidge Farm has one big advantage over my making them from scratch: theirs turn out okay, mine #fail (as the kids write on the Twitter these days.)

Yes, I still struggle with pastry dough. I could blame it on many external factors: my kitchen is too small, my kitchen is too hot, my dog ate my homework, but I think the truth is I just need some practice. I just don’t have a feel for it yet, and in baking and cooking you cannot underestimate having a feel for certain things. I’ve watched any number of folks on TV rolling out seamless, smooth, gigantic sheets of pastry dough that never stick. My pastry dough practices the unholy trinity of crack, crumble, and stick. (Sounds like a bad law firm.)

I suspect that I am too skimpy with the amount of water I add, but specifics aside, my failed Apple Turnovers served as a reminder that I should never get too confident in the kitchen, as there’s always a recipe waiting to take me down a peg.

That’s not to say that I didn’t make Apple Turnovers. I did. There’s a joke that should go here about being able to do something with one hand tied behind my back, I’m just not sure what the joke is, other than the sight gag of seeing my Turnovers. (Gag being the operative word here.)

Yes, the dandy thing about baking is that you can eat your mistakes, and the Turnovers remain in my refrigerator daring me to do so. Sadly though, my feelings towards these failed Turnovers are like a page out of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Only one page though, as these Turnovers will never grow to be swans. (Gee, I hope they can’t read.) (Actually they weren’t bad cold the next day)

It’s not all bad news though. Unlike baking pie, when you make Turnovers you usually get the best results if you cook the fruit first. In this case it meant that I needed to make applesauce. In my mind, I somehow think of applesauce as some slow-simmered, long cooking concoction. In reality I worked for a few minutes, the apples simmered for a few minutes, and the result was an ad-libbed, layered, refreshing alternative to the applesauce you buy in jars.

Because the original purpose was to fill the Turnovers, I cut the peeled apples into rather large chunks—no baby food smoothness here. I was using four Rhode Island Greening apples, a tart, green apple, so I peeled them. If you use red apples there can be some value in leaving the skin on and letting it tint the sauce.

I also added a couple of teaspoons of sugar, the juice and zest of a lemon, a teaspoon of frozen concentrated orange juice, ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and the seeds scraped from a whole vanilla bean. It all bubbled and squeaked for eight or nine minutes.

After my pastry dough crumbled into dust, I was left with a pot of this applesauce. Rather than feeling cheated, I felt rewarded by this: the glass was half full, thank you. This chunky apple sauce makes a great quick dessert shortcut. Serve it warm over some vanilla ice cream, or topped with some buttered, sugared, breadcrumbs then baked in a small crock. (Cue the ice cream again.)

These, of course, are only some of the joys of applesauce.

Up next: “An Ode to Tapioca.”


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


After dinner tweet anyone?

Classical Education

Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I have an easy answer to the question, “If you were trapped on a deserted island and could only choose one food what would it be?”

My answer is chocolate chip cookies. I don’t even have to think about it. I am known within my family circle as “the cookie monster”. Do you require further proof?

Warning: this means that I am no pushover when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. I have tasted them all—indeed, with a sense of duty—and have developed a vocabulary of preferences. My choices may not agree with yours, but hey, this is my sun-parched trip to the deserted cookie jar.

My grandmother used to reward my angelic behavior by asking, “Mikey, do you want a cookie?” The singularity of this offering makes me laugh now, but the fact is, that’s how we used to roll. If I was particularly good (always!), I was offered a second cookie. I never felt cheated or deprived; in those days I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone to feed a five or six year old more than one or two cookies at a throw.

Those cookies were grueling for my Grandmother to prepare. But her hard work was my first bit of kitchen education. Granny taught me just the right way to use your thumbnail to cut through the waxed paper that wrapped the box, without having to remove the entire wrapper. (Those were the days before cookies and crackers were packaged to survive Armageddon.)

(Uh-oh. I imagine my Grandmother is looking down at me right now, peeved that her bit of kitchen magic has been revealed. For free.)

Oh, I kid Granny. Actually, I grew up at a funny time. Moms still baked, but convenience foods presented such an undeniable novelty that folks naturally gravitated toward them. The first home baked cookies I actually remember eating were the Pillsbury “slice and bake” cookies. As a kid I liked them, and why not? You smelled them baking. They were warm and a little gooey. As they cooled they set up and got a bit crispy.

Then all heck broke loose. Chocolate chip cookies became big business. Companies opened chains of store-front cookie-only bakeries. My favorites were the freshly-baked Famous Amos cookies they used to sell at Bloomingdales. These were a universe away from the packaged ones sold under that name now. (Wally Amos lost control of the company early on via a bad business deal. Sad for him, sadder still for me. Yes, when it comes to chocolate chip cookies it’s all about me.)

Peggy Lawton Choco Chip cookies

Peggy Lawton Choco Chip cookies

Up in New England we had a great regional brand of packaged cookies. Peggy Lawton Choco-Chip cookies were—are— a deli and convenience store staple. The ubiquity of Peggy Lawtons causes folks to take them for granted. Are they a great cookie? Let’s call them “best in class.” Yes, Peggy Lawtons are a factory-made cookie. But allow me to answer the “great cookie” question thusly: whenever I make chocolate chip cookies I think of them. I begged a friend visiting Massachusetts to smuggle some back to New York for me. Your taste buds sometimes trump logic. Granted, some folks may bite into a Peggy Lawton and say, “I don’t get it.” I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “De gustibus non est disputandum, baby.” (There’s no use arguing about taste…baby.)

As I got older and my knowledge of ingredients, baking (and latin) increased I, like most home bakers, went through my Toll House cookie phase. I consider this to be baking adolescence, for one soon learns to rebel against the Nestle recipe. It starts slow: a few walnuts here, a little coconut there, and soon you’ve created “your” cookie.

I’m not a big fan of the basic Toll House recipe—too soft and too cakey for me—but it does represent a really great jumping off point. Over the years I’ve added all sorts of extra ingredients to make my own version—always with Peggy Lawton and Famous Amos in the back of my head. I’ve added walnuts, or almonds, sometimes peanuts. I’ve used different types of chocolate, including chopping my own from a big block. The really good news is that you can’t mess up the basic Toll House recipe unless you burn it.

These past few weeks I have started presenting a series of basic recipes that do not require a stand mixer, just a bowl and spoon. The further good news about homemade chocolate chip cookies is that they fit the bowl and spoon profile. Of course, mine are a bit different than what you may expect.

The first difference is that I do not use butter, I use butter substitute. Note that I have not used the “m” word—margarine. I use the term butter substitute because many margarine products have less fat and more water, which may cause cookie failure. So, look for products that, like butter, have 11 grams of fat per tablespoon. (I like Earth Balance which is made from healthy fats. My aversion to butter? It gives me a tummy ache. I’m being delicate.)

You can use butter, but there will be some differences, the most notable being that cookies made with butter do not spread as much as they bake.

My biggest variance from the basic Toll House recipe is that I use exactly one half of the butter called for. This takes the focus off of the butter and puts it onto the sugar, resulting in a crisper cookie.

The only real adjustment you must make to the basic Toll House recipe when preparing with bowl and spoon is that that butter or butter substitute must be warm and soft, otherwise you’ll never be able to mix all the ingredients into a cohesive dough.

For the cookies in the picture above, I used milk chocolate chips and slivered almonds. Milk chocolate chips make a big difference: they are so mellow that they blend with the strong caramel flavors of the cookie dough. Feel free to use the expected semi sweet chips, but invest the extra dollar or so in really good chocolate. I used Ghirardelli chips. Whole Foods also sells Guittard, another premium brand. You’ll taste a difference.

Semper chocolatum!


Click here for the recipe for Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies.


Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to


Gogito ergo tweetum. (#FF @butterflourblog)

Follow ButterFlourBlog on Twitter