Wednesday, December 21, 2011

HO HO HO. No More Oreos.

Admittedly, it’s been a few thousand years since Santa made an appearance in this household. Okay, I’ll admit that he used to show up, along with a Christmas tree or two, when the kids were little. I have fond memories of our late-night hours on Christmas Eve, scrambling to assemble everything, ably assisted by Baba and Grandpa Ed.

Henry and I still laugh over that massive GI Joe aircraft carrier which was situated next to the bucolic Care Bears village. Suffice it to say that within a couple of hours, the Care Bears were targets of the missiles next door. Oh, the joy of having boys…

Perhaps I should mention that I had not yet converted to Judaism in those days.

If Santa still visits your house, perhaps you need to cut him a break this year. I mean, how many Oreos can he face? Do him (and yourself) a BIG favor and make these toffee crunch cookies instead. I made them today and I confess that I consumed a few more than I should have. (Oh hell, I think I devoured about 6 of the damn things – so much for my 17-Day Diet). Yep, they are THAT good – crunchy, crispy, buttery and brown sugar-y. Serve a few to Santa, hoard a few for yourself and keep some of the dough in your freezer so you can bake them off whenever you need a fix. You will thank me for this!

Happy Holidays from my sweet dogs.  Lucy and Roxy (top 2 white dogs) have health issues right now.  I'm just happy to have them here for one more holiday.

TOFFEE CRUNCH COOKIES   (adapted from Jeannie Eddy)

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs (I used extra-large)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 10-oz. bag toffee candy chips (like Heath Bar)
1 cup regular oatmeal
1 cup sweetened, flaked coconut
1 cup whole, blanched and skinned almonds, chopped

Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat until creamy, then add both sugars and the salt. Beat until well-combined and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down bowl several times. Add eggs and vanilla and continue to beat until mixture is well-combined and creamy.

Add flour and baking soda. Mix on low speed until just combined. In another bowl, stir together the toffee chips, oatmeal, coconut and almonds. Add this to the mixer and blend briefly to combine.

Place the dough on a sheet of plastic wrap and pat into a round. Wrap well and refrigerate for at least an hour until dough is chilled. Scoop dough into balls (I used a 1-inch ice cream scoop) and place on a baking sheet. Freeze until ready to use.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350-degrees. Place balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing 2-inches apart. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, or until just golden. Remove from oven, cool slightly, then place cookies on a baking rack to cool completely.

Yield: 100 small cookies (using a 1-inch scoop)

• These things are GREAT! Santa will love you, I promise!

• The chopped almonds are crucial to this recipe. Don’t be tempted by slivered almonds. The chopped-up ones give these cookies great texture and crunch.

So here’s the thing about Christmas and Chanukah. We sort of celebrate both. Henry was out last night at a Christmas party (first night of Chanukah) while I stayed home, lit candles and watched “A Very Glee Christmas.” Oy veh.  Oh, and I also decorated a VERY small Christmas tree which now resides on the buffet in my dining room.  Don't tell my kids ...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Walk in the Park

So how was your Thanksgiving? I know, I know – it’s been ages since I posted anything here and for that I apologize. For a myriad of reasons, I have been out of town more than I’ve been in it over the past few months. Fortunately it has all come to an end and I am now back to the business of cooking, baking and blogging. Thanks for sticking with me.

But before I get started, can I share our 15 minutes of fame? This article ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday after Thanksgiving. Hilarious! If you ask me, it’s proof positive that newspapers must be having trouble coming up with good stories these days.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, the real story around here is the day afterwards. No, not because it’s Black Friday (you will rarely catch me at a mall, especially on that day) but because the kids and a group of their friends all show up for an anti-turkey dinner which usually involves the Big Green Egg, ribs, mac and cheese and my killer barbecue sauce. Yeah, it’s a noisy, messy affair and by the time everyone departs (sometimes a day or two later), I’m wiped out, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s definitely my favorite day of the year!

Most of you know my dessert philosophy which goes something like “if one is good, then two are better.” This time was no different. After I made the requisite hummingbird cake (mandatory, or Andy would probably refuse to come home), I hit upon the idea of monkey bread. Forgive the analogy, but I figured that making it would be as easy as a walk in the park!

MONKEY BUBBLE BREAD (adapted from Baked Explorations by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito)

For the bread:
1 ¼ cups whole milk
1 package yeast
4 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt (I used kosher)
1 egg (I used extra-large)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Generously spray the inside of a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, warm the milk slightly until an instant-read thermometer reads between 105 – 110-degrees. Remove from heat and whisk in the yeast. Do not warm it beyond 110-degrees or you will kill the yeast.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the flour, sugar and salt until combined.

In a small bowl, beat the egg with a fork and add it to the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until combined.
Keeping the mixer on low, slowly stream in the milk mixture until combined. Add the melted butter and mix until the dough comes together. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook attachment. Continue to mix on medium speed until the dough becomes silky and tacky, but not sticky, about 8 – 10 minutes. The dough should mound together and easily come off the bottom of the mixing bowl. If it is too wet, add some flour; if too dry, add a small amount of water.

Spray the inside of a large bowl with cooking spray. Place the dough in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, 1 – 2 hours.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Push dough down with your hands to deflate. Remove from the bowl and pat into a rough circle approximately 8-inches in diameter. Use a serrated knife to cut dough into 1- to 1 ½-inch pieces. (You should end up with about 60 pieces). Roll them into balls, place on the parchment-lined pan and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Set aside while you prepare the coating ingredients.

For the cinnamon-sugar coating:
1 ¼ cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ cup (I stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Stir the sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Place the melted butter in a separate bowl.

To assemble:
Remove the plastic wrap from the dough balls and dip one ball in the melted butter. Let the excess butter drip back into the bowl, then roll the ball in the cinnamon-sugar mixture and place it in the prepared Bundt pan. Continue this process with each dough ball, adding them to the pan in layers, as if you are building a brick wall.

Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and set it in a warm area of the house for about 1 hour or until the dough balls have almost doubled in size and appear puffy.

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Remove the plastic wrap from the Bundt pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the top layer is deep brown and the caramel coating begins to bubble around the edges, about 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn bread out onto a platter. Serve warm.

Serves 8 – 10

• If you bake this early in the day and want to serve it later, wrap the cooled bread in plastic wrap. Just before serving, remove plastic and rewarm bread in a 300-degree oven for a few minutes until just warm to the touch.

• You could also make the entire thing ahead of time. Once the dipped dough has been placed in the pan, wrap it tightly and refrigerate. Bring it back to room temperature to “proof” the dough before baking as directed.

• I used a silicone bundt pan which made it a snap to turn out the baked bread. You can, of course, use a regular tube or bundt pan, but the silicone version sure does make it easier to get the thing out of the pan.

• Don’t have any whole milk on hand? I usually don’t either (it’s 1% around here) and I hate to buy it for just one recipe because then I feel compelled to drink the rest or hide it from Henry so he doesn’t drench his cereal with it in lieu of the lowfat stuff. I usually have cream around though (for baking purposes), so I just mixed some of it up with my lowfat milk and voila! – a good substitute for whole milk.

• Monkey bread is not a new concept. I can remember my mom making it when I was younger, but she probably used those biscuits in a can (where you had to rap it sharply on the counter so it would split open). Come to think of it, probably a lot of folks use that method (why did a vision of Paula Deen suddenly appear in my head?) but it’s so easy to make your own chemical-and-additive-free dough that I highly recommend it.

• Personally, I prefer to eat this for breakfast instead of dessert. I’m thinking it would be a nice addition to your Christmas breakfast this year…..

• Obviously I have given you a sweet version, but I could also envision this as a savory bread as well. Use your imagination and get creative! Think I will test it with a garlic-herb butter and perhaps a little grated parmesan for dipping. Add a glass of wine and I could happily make dinner out of it…..

P.S. Those poor folks who pick up our recyclables must think we are raging alcoholics, based upon the quantities of beer cans and wine bottles which are placed on our curb after that Friday-after-Thanksgiving blowout. Come to think of it, the neighbors probably wonder about us as well!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stuffed Turkey.

Nope, I am not talking about what you are likely to prepare in the next couple of days.  I refer instead to the way I have perceived myself since our gluttonous trip to Barcelona. The last thing I need right now is to consume enormous quantities of potatoes, bread, cranberry sauce, gravy and rich desserts.  Can we please just cancel Thanksgiving this year? 

Given the fact that both of my kids are coming home (yay!), this is unlikely.  Instead,  I will spend most of next week in my kitchen.  It will be a lot of work and at the end of it, I will be exhausted, but that's what we moms do and we love it, right?

Please remind me of this at the end of next weekend.

We will do the ritual thing on Thursday and turkey will make its requisite appearance.  My mom will show up, along with any other stray people I can corral, and we'll have a wonderful time and eat way too  much.  The one thing we will NOT do is go around the table and say what we are all thankful for.  I tried that one year and my kids almost threw me out of the house.  Lesson learned. 

I'm going heavy on the vegetables this year, but I will still make our usual Thanksgiving desserts.  (Please, oh please let me keep my distance from them).  There will be Hummingbird Cake, Caramel Pumpkin Pie and Cranberry Upside Down Cake.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I say.  Why make one dessert when you can make three?

The Cranberry Upside Down Cake is my favorite.  It's sweet, tart and has that buttery/brown sugar combination that is irresistible.  I think it's better the day after it is made, which makes it a perfect Thanksgiving recipe.  I've made it for years and in fact, I used to sell it during the holidays. 

You don't need to buy it.  It's easy beyond belief to make.  Here's the recipe.  Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!


For the topping:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 cups whole, fresh cranberries

Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan. Stir over low heat until mixture is smooth and bubbly. Stir in cinnamon and salt. Pour into a 9-inch round baking pan which has been coated with baking spray. Arrange cranberries in a single layer over the brown sugar mixture. Set aside.

For the cake:
1 ¼ cups + 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter (6 tablespoons), softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons grated orange zest
2 eggs, room temperature (I used extra-large)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup whole milk, room temperature

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt until blended. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter for 1 minute. Beat in the sugar and continue to beat for 2 to 3 minutes or until mixture is light in texture. Beat in the orange zest. One at a time, add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. On low speed, beat in half the flour mixture until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the milk, then add the remaining flour and beat until just combined.

Scrape the cake batter over berries in pan. Spread batter evenly over berries. Bake for 35-40 minutes in oven preheated to 350-degrees or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan set on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

Run a knife around the outside edge of the cake to release it from the sides of the pan. Place a serving plate over the cake and invert cake and pan onto the plate. Carefully lift off the cake pan.

For the glaze:
¼ cup currant jelly or seedless raspberry preserves

In a small saucepan, heat jelly or preserves over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until melted and smooth. Using a pastry brush, brush the glaze evenly over the top of the cake.

Serves 8

The basic ingredients.  Except for the cranberries, you probably have everything on hand already

Butter, brown sugar and cinnamon.  I could eat this all by itself.

Don't be tempted by this, however, unless you want to burn your mouth off!

Careful not to let it spatter

If needed, use a small offset spatula to spread out in pan

Ready for the cake batter

Whisking the dry ingredients

Adding eggs to the creamed butter and sugar mixture

Batter finished.  Don't look when I lick the beater....

Spreading batter over the cranberries.  Again, an offset spatula is your best friend.

Ready to bake


Moment of truth.  Fingers crossed.


*  There is a certain amount of trepidation when you flip the cake pan over and hope like hell that it will slide out uneventfully on the plate.  Help yourself out by banging the top of the pan lightly with a hammer (contradiction in terms, I realize) before you lift off the pan.  If some of the caramelized sugar remains in the pan, you can spoon it over the top of the cake or just eat it yourself.  I'm just sayin'......

*  In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't glaze the cake when I made it.  Yes, it will make it look much prettier, but if you don't have currant jelly or seedless raspberry preserves on hand, just omit this step.  It will still taste just fine!

*  I also didn't have an orange on hand when I decided to test this recipe.  No worries.  I simply used a splash of orange extract in the batter and it worked just fine.  No orange extract in your house?  How about orange liqueur, such as Cointreau?

*  If you want to gild the lily, you can serve this with a little freshly whipped cream or a light dusting of powdered sugar.  Or not.

After I made this cake, I gave it away to a dear friend who is really my gay husband (no, we are not referring to Henry here).  We enjoyed a lovely lunch together, then he asked if I knew what my "porn" name was.  Huh????

Here's the deal.  Take the name of your first pet, then the name of the first street you lived on and... voila!...  you now have your "porn" name.  Holly Mercer, that's me!  Henry is Breezy Serpentine and another friend (who will remain anonymous) is Candy Baby Deliciosa

Since I'm not allowed to ask everyone at the Thanksgiving table what they are grateful for, perhaps we'll play this game instead......

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cake-O-Rama Sans the Drama

Okay, I’m recovered. Well, sort of.  I’m still not quite sure what month it is, let alone what day. I’ve been on more airplanes than I can count since mid-July and I’ve done everything from getting Eric moved into a new apartment in Philly, eating and hiking in Spain, attending three weddings, two funerals and one big birthday party, making and transporting the cakes for three of those events, to dealing with aging parents, sick dogs and rotting wood on the exterior of my house, plus hosting a couple of dinner parties.

Cripes, and is it really Thanksgiving next week???? Uh-oh. That means I need to get my act together and give you the recipe for my cranberry upside down cake in the next few days. It’s my favorite Thanksgiving dessert so I will make it a priority to pass it along in case you want to try it out for your holiday dinner.

For now though, we’re going to talk about coconut cake. When Andy’s best friend Anna asked me to make her wedding cake, it was a short conversation. We’ve known Anna since she and Andy were in the 4th grade and she’s part of our family. So what if her wedding was taking place in NYC? So what if I couldn’t do any advance prep since there was no way to get it there via the friendly skies? So what if I had to create the thing in Andy’s kitchen, which is about the size of my car? Minor details.

Here's the extra suitcase I had to drag with me to NYC

Here's what was in it

And here is Andy's one-ass kitchen!

But first, I had to come up with the perfect recipe. While I believe that a wedding cake should be beautiful, it’s even more important that it is moist and utterly delicious. Since the layers have to be made several days in advance, this is not an easy task. I tested several recipes which didn’t make the cut. Then I turned to biochemist and problem-solver extraordinaire, Shirley Corriher. Another short conversation.

If you ever have the opportunity to meet Shirley, you will fall in love with her immediately. She is ebullient, gregarious and flat-out hilarious. She is also smart like nobody’s business and has applied her vast knowledge to every food application known to man. She has been a trusted resource for everyone from Julia Child to Alton Brown.  Her two books, Cookwise and Bakewise are volumes which no serious cook should be without. Next to Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’ The Gift of Southern Cooking, hers are the books which receive the most use in my kitchen.

Her take on coconut cake is pure genius. Rather than incorporating coconut in the batter, she makes lovely golden cake layers and soaks them with a mixture of milk, sugar and coconut. She also eschews the usual creaming of butter and sugar for a dissolved sugar method, resulting in a velvety-soft texture. This cake came together easily, which was a good thing since I had to make the recipe times eight. Thanks, Shirley!

Dinner-on-the-Grounds Coconut Cake  (adapted from Shirley Corriher)

For the cake:
1 ¾ cups cake flour
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into fourths
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
½ teaspoon salt (I used sea salt)
1/3 cup canola oil
3 egg yolks (I used extra-large)
2 eggs (I used extra-large)
½ cup heavy cream

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven, place a baking stone on it and preheat the oven to 350-degrees.

Spray a 9 x 2-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line bottom and sides of pan with parchment paper and spray again. Set aside.

Place flour and baking powder in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed for 30 seconds. Remove to a large bowl and set aside. Add sugar to the mixing bowl and place it back on the mixer stand.

Heat the water to a simmer and add it to the sugar. Beat a few seconds to dissolve the sugar, then beat in the butter, vanilla extract, almond extract and salt. Add the oil and mix on medium to blend.

Sprinkle one-third of the flour mixture over the sugar mixture. Blend on low speed with a minimum amount of beating. Continue adding the flour until all is incorporated.

By hand, stir in the egg yolks, one at a time, then the whole eggs, one at a time.

In a separate bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Whip just a little more, just past the soft peak stage. Stir about ¼ of the whipped cream into the batter to lighten. Then gently fold the rest of the whipped cream into the batter by hand.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Drop the pan on the counter from a height of about 4-inches to knock out any air bubbles. Place in the preheated oven on the baking stone and bake until the center springs back when touched or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean but moist, about 40 minutes. Place on a rack to cool for about 10 minutes, then shake pan to loosen the cake. Turn onto a baking rack to finish cooling completely.

Yield: 1 9-inch round layer (which can be sliced into 2 layers)

For the coconut soaking solution:
1 cup whole milk
1 cup granulated sugar
6 oz. grated coconut

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then let cool slightly.  Can be used hot or warm.

For the frosting:
I tested a lovely recipe for cream cheese buttercream, but it was a lot of work and I don't think the end result was worth it.  At the end of the day, I used my standard cream cheese frosting, enhanced by a splash of pure almond extract.  It was delicious and no one missed the fact that it wasn't a true buttercream.  Here's the link to my frosting recipe.  Just remember to add 2 teaspoons of almond extract.

To assemble:
6 oz. shaved coconut

Place one cake layer, cut side up, on a serving platter.  Spoon the soaking solution over, in small spoonfuls and let it absorb into the cake.  Use enough to ensure that cake is moist but not falling apart.  Spoon some of the frosting over the soaked layer and spread out evenly over the coconut, leaving a small border around edges.  Place the second layer on top, cut side up and repeat the process, bringing frosting down the sides to create a very thin crumb coat.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes until set, then frost completely. Press shaved coconut onto sides and top of cake.  Store at room temperature.

Serves 8 - 12

First batched baked.  Check!
(Note Magi-Cake strips on pans)

Baking core in place. 
 Think we could use a little more counter space?

Baking core did its job

All baked.  Whew!

Here's the coconut soaking solution

Frosting ingredients.  Think there will be enough?

Frosting done and I didn't even eat all of it!
Don't you just want to stick your finger in there?

Leveling the layers

Now for the fun part!

Crumb coat completed

Ready for transport -- to Brooklyn.
Oy veh!

*  Shirley says that the use of cake flour is essential to this recipe.  I would never be one to argue with her, so do as I did and follow her instructions.  Yet another short conversation.

*  I also did as I was told and baked my layers on top of a baking stone (in my case, it was a pizza stone).  It did help to ensure nice, even layers so if you have one, by all means use it.  If not, I would not race out to buy one, unless you are in the mood to make your own pizza. 

*  The recipe as written yields one cake layer which can be split into 2 layers.  Alternatively, you could divide the batter between 2 pans and bake two thin layers.  Or, you could double the recipe and divide between two pans, resulting in a higher finished cake.

*  Here's a professional tip:  use Magi-Cake strips when you bake your cake layers.  These are long strips which you soak in water, then wrap around your cake pans.  They help the cake edges bake more slowly than the middle of the cake, resulting in even layers without domed centers.

*  One more tip:  use a baking core if you are baking layers 10-inches in diameter or more.  These are metal "cups" which you spray with cooking spray and insert directly into the batter in the middle of the pan, then fill with cake batter.  When the cake is done, you remove the core (which leaves a hole in the middle of the cake), let it cool, then remove the cake inside and use it to "plug" the hole in the cake layer.  These help the middle of the cake bake more quickly and also help to ensure that layers bake evenly.


Anna and Jourdan held their ceremony on the roof garden of their high-rise building in DUMBO at 11:00am on a gorgeous autumn Saturday morning.  We were treated to a fabulous view of Manhattan, then we walked en masse (all 75 of us) to the ferry where we boarded for a short but beautiful trip to Greenpoint, disembarked and walked a short distance to Paulie Gee's, which bills itself as a neighborhood pizza joint.  We loved the place and it was the perfect spot for Anna and Jourdan's celebration.  Oh, and the pizza was pretty good, too!

(Here is a 5-minute video of that wonderful day.  It makes me cry.  Stick with it after the toasts (that's best man Andy doing the first one) and you'll get a good view of the cake.  Brief cameos of Henry and Eric, too).

There was only one problem.  Since Paulie Gee's is in a very small space, they did not have room for me to deliver and set up the cake on Friday and there was no way I could get it there on Saturday morning then make it to the wedding on time.  In stepped Pola, of Tashi and Bobo, the lovely lady whom Anna and Jourdan chose to do the flowers.  Andy and I managed to deliver the finished layers to her on Friday, then she transported, stacked and adorned them with flowers at the restaurant on Saturday morning.  Thank you, Pola!  BTW, if any of you are in need of an incredible florist/designer, check out her website.  Ha, and she makes wedding cakes, too!

Lest you think my work was done, think again.  That evening, there was a big football game on the tube (don't even ask me what it was; remember I am not a football person) and Andy decided that everyone should watch the game at his apartment.  Of course that translated into "can you make something for us to eat, Mom?"  So "Mom" headed back to the city in the late afternoon, hit the grocery store and whipped up a huge pot of chicken chili.  They devoured every bit of it.  Go, Liz Mom.

We returned to Atlanta on Monday and I hit the ground running on Tuesday.  Why?  That's because I was making another cake - this time for a dear friend's birthday.  Somehow I managed to pull it off - at least I didn't have to pack a suitcase this time!

Rich and Moist Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel,
 Milk Chocolate Buttercream and Bittersweet Chocolate Tiles