Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Blackberry-Lavender Opera Cake

One of my co-workers wanted me to make her a birthday cake, which is a neat trick when all your cake pans and decorating equipment are on the other side of the country.

I only heard of Opera cakes recently.  I pass a fancy bakery sometimes when I make deliveries, and was stuck in traffic.  I looked up their menu while the construction trucks decided which way they needed to move.  One item was a slice of Opera cake for $7.

When I got home, I looked up recipes to find out why one slice was so pricey.  Opera doesn't mean going to a show in the name of this confection, it refers to the amount of work.  There are multiple layers of ingredients, different frostings, ganache, and it doesn't really make sense to make one of these things if you're not charging a lot per slice.  They sound good though, a lot like chocolate tiramisu, but not as oozey.

For this cake, I'm stealing the layer concept, but cutting down on the work.  My co-worker loves blackberries, so I'm scattering them on whipped cream frosting between layers of a modified lavender cake that have been brushed with lemon simple syrup.  I turned the last of the Gryffindor buttercream slightly purple to spread on the top, then drizzled white chocolate ganache for a design.  It's the 3-hour version of a cake that normally takes two or three days.

3/4 C sugar
*1 tsp culinary lavender
3/4 C margarine
3 eggs, room temperature
*2/3 C milk
1-1/2 C cake flour
1 Tb baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1.  The day before, combine sugar and dried lavender.  Place in a sealed container to make lavender sugar.  You can do this up to a week before.  Any longer, and it won't get more intense.

2.   Grease an 11"x15" cake pan, line with waxed paper, and grease the paper.  Start preheating the oven to 350º

3.  Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside until needed.  Run the sugar through the sifter over a mixing bowl to remove most of the lavender buds.  Discard buds.  Cream together sugar and margarine with the paddle until smooth.  Scrape the bowl and add eggs one at a time, scraping between additions.

4.  Add flour and milk in stages, stirring to combine each.  Once all the ingredients are in the mixer, beat for 2 minutes.  Scrape the bowl, and beat an additional minute.
5.  Pour into cake pan.  Spread batter evenly, making sure to get the corners.  It's going to be very thin.  Smack the pan a few times on the counter to remove any bubbles.  Bake until springy, about 15-18 minutes.  Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then carefully turn out on a cooling rack and remove the paper.  Cool completely before moving on.  You can even freeze the cake and come back to it another day.

Whipped Cream Frosting
1 C heavy whipping cream
1/2 C powdered sugar
*2 Tb unsalted butter, room temperature

1.  In mixer with whisk, beat cream to soft peaks.  Add powdered sugar and beat to incorporate.

2.  Cut butter into small chunks and change to paddle attachment.  Beat butter into whipped cream until smooth and stiff peak consistency.  Chill until ready to use.

Lemon Syrup
*2 Tb lemon juice
2 Tb sugar

1.  Bring juice and sugar to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved.  If desired, a bit of Limoncello can be added.  Allow to cool to room temperature.


1.  Use a ruler to cut the cake into 4 equal quarters.  Stack them, picking one corner to line up perfectly.  I also did half of the pieces upside-down and made sure two inside edges and two outside were on each edge.  A little OCD, but it kept the cake relatively level.  Trim off any uneven or crunchy edges and start snacking.
2.  Rinse the blackberries and dry with paper towels.  Cut in half lengthwise.
3.  Place bottom cake layer on cake board or serving platter.  Brush with syrup.  Spread with a 1/4" layer of frosting, then dot with blackberries.  Repeat with the next two layers.
4.  If desired, tint remaining frosting before spreading on top piece of cake.  I realized the layer didn't actually have to be on the cake to do this, so the rest of it sat in the fridge for a few minutes, firming up, while I did this step.  Set top layer on the cake, then allow it to chill while you prepare the ganache.
5.  Microwave 1/4 C of white chocolate on 50% power in 1 minute increments until soft.  Add a few drops of cream or milk at a time until you get a consistency that can be drizzled or piped.  I put mine in a baggie with the end snipped off and piped the drizzle.  If you want, you can use royal icing to write on the cake.

6.  Keep cake chilled until half an hour before serving.  The whipping cream will spoil if left out.

Serves about 12, depending on the size of the slices

Difficulty rating  :-0

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Avocado Hummus

I cut this recipe out of the L.A. Times in August, but only just got around to making it.  I've been enjoying the feel of autumn, which makes me less inclined to eat Mediterranean-style food.  Then the October Santa Anas made an appearance and I had this with some falafel.

Since Jonathan Gold passed away, the Times Saturday section has been focusing more on recipes and less on restaurants.  Personally, I would like a section that's about 50/50.  New restaurants mean exposure to new recipe ideas, but the recipes themselves are an important part of that balance.  Publishing scaled-down versions helps everyone.

This is a pretty basic hummus recipe: base, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, and salt.  The addition of lime juice and cumin are what make it different.  There's no added oil because avocados are mostly fat.

If you want to thin this out for your own personal taste, I would recommend adding more lemon or lime juice.  I made mine very smooth, like sour cream, and it lasted four days without darkening.  If too sour, add a slight pinch of sugar to balance the flavor.

3 avocados, peeled and seeded
*1 clove garlic, minced
*1/4 C lemon juice, or more to thin
1/4 C lime juice
*1/4 C tahini
*1/2 tsp cumin
salt to taste

1.  Toss everything in the food processor and purée until smooth.  Taste and add juice or salt as needed, bearing in mind that the flavors will mature by serving time.
2.  Transfer to a serving bowl and cover with plastic wrap touching the surface.  Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour before serving.  It may start to darken after a day, especially if you skimped on the lemon and lime juice.  Like guacamole, you can skim off the dark skin to make it pretty for a third or fourth day.

Makes about 3 cups, or 12 servings

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Spiced Plum Jam

I'm finally out of last year's jams.  So I made a quart batch of strawberry-lavender, and decided to add pectin to avoid so much excess jelly.  Opened the packet, dumped it in the nearly-finished jam, and realized it had molded.  Had to toss the whole thing and start over.

As long as I was going to the trouble, I decided to make another batch of something.  Plums were on sale.  I found this recipe in Food in Jars.  Marisa really likes plums, and there were several recipes to choose from.  Since I've been cooking Fall and Winter recipes lately, I opted for the one that more or less has pumpkin spice in it.  Just needs ginger to put it over that line.

The kitchen smelled like Christmas for two days.  I'm going to have to find some way to use this jam in Christmas cookies.  Probably hamantaschen.  I'll make those any time of year.

I made half of her already small recipe, because I'm really trying not to repeat last year's over-preserving mania.  I also used my new jar of powdered pectin instead of the liquid she calls for.  What I did for both this and the strawberry jam was to reserve some cooled liquid for dissolving the powder, then add it at the end of cooking.  It isn't how most recipes or the jar tell you to do it, but it achieved the desired result.  If I was making larger batches of jam, I'd follow the instructions.

8 C pitted and finely chopped plums
3-1/2 C sugar
*zest and juice of 1 lemon
*2 tsp cinnamon
*1/2 tsp nutmeg
*1/4 tsp cloves
2 packets liquid pectin

1.  If canning, prepare jars for a 4-pint yield.  Get your water bath boiling.
2.  Combine the plums and sugar in a large pot.  Stir until the plums release enough juice to dissolve all the sugar.  Bring to a boil and add juice and spices.  Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until plums are very soft and everything looks syrupy.  This will take between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on ripeness.  Mine were on the crunchy side, so it took a while.

3.  Add the pectin and bring to a full boil for 5 minutes.  It will look thick and shiny, like the photo at the top.

4.  If canning, remove pot from the heat and ladle into prepared jars.  Wipe rims, secure lids, and process for 10 minutes.  If not canning, allow jam to cool uncovered until no longer steaming.  Transfer to storage container, refrigerate, and use within a month.

Makes about 4 pints

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Beef-Stuffed Acorn Squash

I'm cooking again, but I keep forgetting to finish and publish the posts.  It's a work in progress.

I got this idea from the Mad Hausfrau.  She put different things in hers and cut the squashes cuter, but it's pretty much the same.  This recipe also works with any squash with a seed hollow.  You could do it with pumpkin, butternut, or any of the odd hard-rined squashes that are appearing in the markets this month.

The tater tots and a trip to IHOP finally put the weight back on, so I'm back to eating a bit healthier and smaller portions.  Their pumpkin-cinnamon roll pancakes were very good, though.  Hausfrau's recipe calls half a squash a serving, while I did 1/4 of a large one.  It depends if you're having any side dishes.  I just had a bit of bread and butter on the side, since most of this dish is veggies.

1 large acorn squash
3/4 lb 80/20 ground beef
1/2 C diced onion
1 C frozen mixed veggies
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp rosemary
1/2 tsp oregano
dash of nutmeg

1.  Preheat oven to 350º.  Place squash on a baking sheet.  Pierce in a few places to prevent explosions and roast until softened, 45 minutes.  Set aside to cool a bit, but leave the oven on.

2.  In a large skillet, brown the ground beef.  Once it gives up enough fat, add the diced onion to the pan.  When the onion is softened, add remaining ingredients.  Cook until veggies are done, about 5 minutes.  Set aside while you cut up the squash.
3.  Cut the cooked squash in half to expose the seed hollow.  Scoop out the seeds and strings.  You can clean and roast them if you like.  Fill the hollows with the beef mixture.  There's going to be some left over.  Keep it warm for a bit.

4.  Put the filled squash halves back in the oven and roast for an additional 10 minutes.  This will allow some of the beef fat to soak into the squash so you don't need to add butter.

5.  Cut each half in half again and serve, with a scoop of the reserved meat mixture on the side.

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, October 1, 2018

Tater Tot Breakfast Casserole

I'm still trying to put on weight.  That's my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.

How have I not known about this dish?  As much as I love all breakfast foods, I had to find out about it from a Marie Callender's ad.  It looks like something a college kid invented to ward off a hangover. And I wanted it badly.

Various forms of frozen potato casserole seem to be a Southern thing.  At some point, I'm going to use the other half of the bag of taters to make totchos (tater tot nachos).

This is going to take you at least an hour to make, since everything is cooked prior to assembly except the eggs.  On the other hand, you can do all those parts in advance, or use leftovers.  I chose to do it all at once, and it was a bit of a project until the finished bowls went in the oven.

I also chose to make these in individual oven-safe soup crocks instead of an 8x8 dish.  It was all about presentation.  The only problem was that you can't see the potatoes on the bottom this way.  A glass casserole may end up being the better choice.

You can choose to top the finished project with slices of avocado or a sauce such as country gravy, ranch dressing, or sour cream.  For those so inclined, salsa or hot sauce would be welcome.  The first serving, I forgot to put anything on it and didn't miss the garnish.  After that, a dollop of plain yogurt made it extra creamy.

16 oz (half a 32 oz bag) frozen potato nuggets
4 slices thick-cut bacon (about 1/4 lb)
8 oz breakfast sausage
1/2 C diced onion
1 roma tomato, diced
3 eggs
*1 C milk
1/4 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp ground pepper
1 C shredded colby/cheddar mix

1.  Cook potatoes to package directions, likely 24 minutes at 400º.  I went crispy, since they were going to get soaked in egg.

2.  While those are in the oven, cook bacon in a skillet.  I guess you can put it in the oven, but you're getting a skillet dirty in the next step, so it isn't worth it to dirty another baking sheet.  Again, I went crispy so it would be easier to chop up small bits.  Do that when the slices are cool enough to handle.
3.  Cook sausage into crumbles with the onion.  Drain off the fat.  Put bacon bits and sausage in a bowl with the diced tomato.  Grease or pan-spray an 8"x8" baking dish and turn the oven down to 350º once the potatoes are done.

4.  Beat together milk, eggs, and seasonings.  I didn't add any salt and was fine because every other ingredient is salty.  The potatoes are usually seasoned in the package.  Just read the ingredients.
5.  Spread the potatoes on the bottom of the pan.  Cover with the meat mixture.  Sprinkle the shredded cheese on top.  Pour the egg mixture evenly over the casserole, and give it a minute to sink into the nooks and crannies.  Bake until the egg sets, about 20 minutes.  Let rest 10 minutes, then garnish and serve.

Difficulty rating  :)

Friday, September 28, 2018

Steak au Poivre

One thing about the cakes, they racked up the posts.  At one point this summer I had close to a month written in advance.  Then I had five days of indigestion this week and barely ate anything.  For some reason, greasy fast food settles my stomach, while a platter of garden-fresh veggies ticks it off.  Finally, I'm cooking again.

The first thing to pop up in my steak au poivre (peppercorn steak) search was Alton Brown's recipe.  Simple, few ingredients, and all stuff I had.  I did use top sirloin instead of tenderloin.  Close enough for a weekday dinner.  You do get to set alcohol on fire.  I happened to have the cognac from AB's recipe, but any of the lighter fortified wines will do.

Unlike most of the classic French recipes I make, this one is super easy and only takes fifteen minutes once you actually get started.  I got the vegetables chopped and cooking while the steak was resting at room temperature, and had it ready when it was time to pull them from the oven.

The reason there's only one steak in all these photos is because I bought one 12 oz and cut it into three Smurf-sized portions (4 oz each), using a half recipe for the other ingredients.  I do serve larger portions when there's company.

4 6-to-8 oz tenderloin steaks
kosher salt
*2 Tb whole peppercorns
1 Tb unsalted butter
1 tsp oil
*1/3 C plus 1 tsp cognac
*1 C heavy cream

1.  For the most time-consuming step, let the steaks sit until room temperature, 30 to 60 minutes.  Sprinkle both sides with salt.

2.  Crush the peppercorns.  I used my mortar and pestle.  You can get creative with an old pie tin and a can of vegetables.  The point is to crack them before you crack a tooth.  Spread them on a plate or pie tin and press into both sides.
3.  Over medium heat, melt the butter and oil to coat the bottom of a large skillet.  The fat doesn't have to be deep.  It's there to help caramelize the meat.  When it starts to smoke a bit, add the steaks.  Sear for about 4 minutes for medium-rare.  Turn and sear the other side for another 4 minutes.  Remove meat to a platter and keep warm.
4.  Pour off any excess fat, but don't clean the pan.  Deglaze with the 1/3 C of cognac and quickly light it up with a long match or stick lighter to burn off the alcohol.  It took me a while to get the clicker to work, and I never got to see flames.  Add the cream, stir frequently, and boil until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  Taste, then add salt as needed and the remaining teaspoon of cognac if you want a hint of alcohol.
5.  Place steaks back in pan and turn over in the sauce.  Serve, with additional sauce on top.

Difficulty rating  π

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Packing the Box

This is the reverse of an unboxing.  I have to send various supplies to Virginia so I can bake the wedding cake there without putting too much stress on the bride.  It's bad enough I'm camping out in her living room for two nights so I can hit the kitchen at the crack of dawn.

So, what do you need to make a wedding cake, other than ingredients and an oven?  Apparently, a lot.

  • Cake pans (1 10", 3 8", and 2 6")
  • cardboard circles
  • cake drums
  • baking strips
  • gel colors
  • wax paper (normally I'd buy it there, but I have 3 rolls)
  • piping bags & tips
  • boba straws
  • toothpicks
  • cake box (for the anniversary tier)
  • offset spatula and scraper
  • turntable
  • thermometer (hers is broken)
  • food scale (also broken, so I packed the one that barely works)
  • dual-progam kitchen timer
  • zester
  • recipes & grocery spreadsheet
  • photos of sample cakes, because they look better printed than on my phone
And these are just the things she didn't have!  There's a stand mixer I can use, mixing bowls, and one 8" cake pan.  I'm assuming she has cooling racks and oven mitts, because everyone does.  Michaels was having a very good scale, so I bought two new 8" pans and a 6" scraper.  My old one has dings and is probably over 25 years old.

There are a couple of things I threw in there for the heck of it, like a few bags of my favorite teas.  Last time I was there, there was only herbal tea or hot chocolate for a morning drink.  I can live without a coffee maker, but I need something with caffeine.  I was really impressed that I got everything to fit logically on the first try.  I'll stuff the rest with newspaper and bubble wrap before sealing.  I was hoping to toss some of my clothes in there so I wouldn't have to pack them, but the weather changes too quickly this time of year to plan ahead.

The really hard part about this is she hasn't decided 100% what she wants.  I'm preparing for any of the cakes we have discussed, including different breakdowns of the recipes for various size cakes.  When we're about to go shopping, I'll add up the cakes we're actually doing on the spreadsheet to make the grocery list.

One thing I'm bummed I couldn't send was lemons.  It's illegal to transport citrus from California without some special permit, so I can't even stash them in my bag on the plane.  I get that they're trying to stop fruit flies and diseases.  It's just inconvenient when you're used to getting Meyer lemons for free.

Next up, trying to figure out how to get a week's worth of Fall clothes, including party wear, into a carry-on.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Naan Tacos

I ended up stress cooking.  The week after she turned 19, Princess' health started to fail rapidly.  The vet said it was some form of cancer.  I could have done expensive tests, but she clearly never would have survived surgery and treatment.  Less than two weeks later, I decided she'd had enough and put her to sleep.  Preparing unnecessarily elaborate meals channeled my anxiety.

This is an awful lot of work for what's basically a Taco Bell gordita.  I had no idea how much nervous energy those cakes were expending.

1 batch Naan
1 batch not-refried beans
3/4 lb 80/20 ground beef
1/4 tsp paprika
salt and pepper
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
*1/2 C yellow onion, diced
2 avocados
sour cream and cotija cheese to garnish

1.  Prepare naan and beans and set aside to keep warm.

2.  In a skillet over medium heat, brown the ground beef, seasoning with paprika, salt, and pepper.  Drain off the fat.

3.  Toss together the diced onion and tomato.  Slice the avocado.

4.  To assemble, spread about 2 Tb of beans on each naan.  Top with a generous spoonful each of ground beef and tomato/onion mix.  Add avocado slices, sour cream, and cheese as desired.  You could add cilantro sprigs for something green.  Serve while the fillings are still warm.

Makes 8 tacos, 4-6 servings

Difficulty rating :-0 (for all the components)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Cake Scrap Ice Cream Sandwiches

I don't have an ice cream label?  Not going back to create one.

Man About Cake had this excellent idea.  Far less work than cake pops, and frankly something more enticing.  It does take a little while, between softening the ice cream and freezing every stage, but the results are at least as good as any ice cream sandwich you get at the market.

I happened to make chocolate with cookies'n'cream ice cream, but you can coordinate for any flavor of cake.  Strawberry with chocolate, spice cake with dulce de leche, lemon with vanilla.  Whatever seems like a good idea at the time.

These were a huge hit with Bruin Smurf (my young cousin staying with me while attending UCLA) and her boyfriend.  I barely got two slices myself before they magically disappeared.

I know the description "cake pop dough" is obscure if you've never made it before.  Crumble any baked cake into the mixer and beat in enough frosting to make it stick together.  It resembles a scooped cookie dough, but does not require further cooking.

*1 C cake pop dough, any flavor
1 pint ice cream

1.  Line a loaf pan with wax paper, then plastic wrap.  You can try just the plastic wrap, but Joshua had trouble getting his bar out of the pan and I decided not to push it.
2.  Press half of the cake mush into the bottom of the pan, making sure to get the corners.  If using a glass pan, you can lift it to make sure there aren't any holes.  Freeze for 1 hour.

3.  Soften the ice cream on the counter for about half an hour.  Spread over the first cake layer evenly.  Freeze for an hour again.
4.  Spread remaining cake on top and freeze until firm.

5.  Turn out loaf onto a cutting board and slice crosswise into bars.

Makes 6 to 8, depending how thick you slice it

Difficulty rating  :) (for time and making the cake pop dough)

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Faro Couscous

Yes, I'm eating things other than sweets.  This had such low calorie-density that I lost a couple pounds the week I had it.

It was still warm out, but I wanted Fall comfort foods.  This was a compromise.  You could swap out carrots for the sweet potato for something a little more summery.  I did use saved sausage fat instead of the stated olive oil.  It's very good in casseroles and stews for a little added seasoning.

*1 C dry faro
1 lb sweet potato
1 Tb olive oil
1/2 C diced onion
1 bunch kale
1/4 lb white mushrooms, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 lb sole fillet or another white fish
feta and lemon wedges for garnish

1.  Add 3 C water to the faro in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over medium.  Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.  Drain off any standing water.

2.  While that's going on, peel and dice the sweet potato into bite-sized chunks.  Simmer in a small saucepan with water to cover until slightly tender but not falling apart, about 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat and let them sit in the warm water while you make the rest of it.

3.  In a large skillet, sauté the diced onion in the olive oil over medium.  Strip the kale from the ribs and finely chop.  Add kale and sliced mushrooms to the skillet and cook down about halfway.  Add the cumin, turmeric, salt, and pepper.
4.  Chop the fish into chunks and add to the skillet.  Lower heat to a simmer, cover, and let the fish steam over the vegetables until opaque, about 8 minutes.  Stir at least once to get a feel for how fast it's cooking.  Drain the sweet potatoes and add to the skillet.
5.  Spoon a bed of the faro onto the serving plate, then cover with the skillet mixture.  Serve garnished with lemon wedges and feta.

Difficulty rating  :)