better with age

I have a lot in common with my Dad. We both love weather, especially tornadoes. We're hooked on police dramas. We share a fascination with the natural world. We both have celiac. But, most importantly, we both revere the sublime pairing that is mint and chocolate.

Ah, the bonding, the memories of shared mint-chocolate experiences! My family's favorite one being the time I made truffles for Dad which contained Vandermint liqueur, he proceeded to eat the entire batch in one sitting, and later claimed he got tipsy. Off a couple of tablespoons of alcohol. Sure Dad, blame the booze. 'Cause it couldn't have been the effects of that massive sugar-and-caffeine-rush, right? Just to help him realize a life-long dream, some day I'm going to challenge him to a mint chocolate chip ice cream eating contest. It will be close, but I'm betting I'll win. But until then, I'll continue to get my mint chocolate fix the Responsible Adult way - one normal-sized portion after another. And another . . . As for Dad, well, I can't speak for him. But I'm sure that if I gave him these brownies, he'd struggle just as hard as I did to leave some behind for the next person.

These brownies. I made them last weekend. At first, I didn't plan on posting them. Even with the chocolate-mint magic happening, they just didn't quite work for me (which is a difficult thing for me to say about a brownie). Something was off. I blamed it on the glaze, and the fact that, out of necessity, I had to use some Taza chocolate for it, which is good for eating, but, to my taste, too grainy and unrefined for baking. (It was Saturday morning and I was still in my pajamas. I was working with what I had at hand.) They tasted fine, but I didn't crave them non-stop all day the way I had expected to. So the brownies got to see another day, which is unheard of in these parts. But that extra time is what saved them.

It's common knowledge that some foods need to sit around awhile before they reach their peak of perfection. Cheese, wine, a pot of soup, to name a few. But brownies aren't usually improved by the aging process. They dry out, the edges get stale, the intense chocolate flavor dulls. No one likes a dull brownie.

So imagine my surprise when I cut myself a sliver after breakfast the next day, and found I liked it even better! Seems that this particular brownie, like a fine wine, just isn't done yet when it's still all fresh and new. But give it a day, and it really comes into itself. It settles in, gets comfortable, finds the right balance between rich texture and deep flavor, and just is. Even the once soft - yet grainy - glaze had figured out what it wanted to be, and firmed up into a nice, thick, fudge-like topping, something you could really sink your teeth into. A chocolate that had once made a sauce intended to be smooth feel irritatingly gritty now provided the structure for the glaze to hold up to cutting and biting. In short, it was all good.

And, of course, don't forget about the mint and chocolate. Now that the brownies felt right, I could concentrate my attention on the flavor, which was fantastic. It wasn't very sophisticated, or even that surprising. Chocolate and mint usually aren't. But it was perfect. The bitterness of the chocolate and the zing of the mint were in harmony, and it managed to be both comforting and refreshing. Just right for a blustery Spring day.

Mint Chocolate Brownies
Yields about 9 large brownies, or 16 regular-sized ones

For the brownies:
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) unsalted butter
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup Tara's gf pastry flour blend
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

For the glaze:
6 ounces semisweet (60-65%) chocolate, chopped
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/4 tsp peppermint extract

Make the brownies:
Preheat the oven to 350º. Lightly butter a 9x9-inch metal baking pan.

Melt the butter and chocolate in a double-boiler set over low heat until smooth, stirring often. (Alternately, you can use the microwave, in 10-second intervals on full power, stopping before the chocolate is completely melted and then stirring it to fully melt it. This is what I did.) Set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until thick and light-colored, about 5 minutes. Add the chocolate mixture, flour, xanthan gum, salt, and both extracts; stir until just blended. Transfer batter to prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes. (Mine had just started to come away from the sides of the pan when I took it out, and it was perfect.)

Cool on a rack, then invert onto a serving plate. Slide strips of parchment paper under the edges of the brownies, allowing it to overhang on all sides (this will catch any drips from the glaze without creating a mess on the plate).

Make the glaze:
In a double-boiler over hot, but not boiling, water, combine chopped chocolate, butter, and corn syrup. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Off the heat, stir in the peppermint extract.

Spread the warm glaze over the brownies, allowing it to drip down the sides. Depending on how thick you want the topping, you may have some glaze leftover. (I didn't, but that's me. Always up for excess.) Once the glaze is done dripping, you can remove the parchment strips. Allow the brownies to sit at room temperature for at least an hour, to allow the glaze to set up.

Eat some the first day you make them, but be sure to save at least one for Day Two, so you can find out if yours, like mine, really do improve with age.


the cake that almost wasn't

Look up.

No, silly, not at the ceiling - look up at the top of your screen!

See that cake? The one you've been staring at for a couple of weeks now? Well, it's high time I finally stopped torturing you and gave you the recipe, don't you think? Only, this recipe - and the cake made from it - has a bit of history that I think you should hear first.

This is what the recipe looks like, right here, right now. It is stained and rippled from moisture. Parts are quite blurry. And with all the notes, cross-outs, and my handwriting in general, it looks like hen-scratching. One glance in its direction and you'd never guess at the revered place it holds in my pastry repertoire.

This is my wedding cake. And I almost lost it.

The life of this cake reads like a comedy of errors. I don't know where the recipe came from - I apparently scribbled it down one day on that torn-off sheet of notebook paper you see above, and promptly forgot the origin. I know it's a least 8 years old, because the first version I can remember making was when I was living in Brooklyn, NY, which was almost 8 years ago. (And also because all the scribbled notes on the back reference other parts of my New York life: The phone number of a restaurant Josh was working at. Details of a demo class being held at my culinary school. A street address.)

Anyway, I remember making it the first time, altered to be gluten-free, and falling head over heals for it. Seriously, my love for this cake rivaled my love for Josh. Since then, his rankings have increased steadily in my book and I don't think I'd be as torn between the two if forced to choose who/what to bring to the metaphorical desert island. But as cakes go, this one still tops my list.

So, since I loved it so much, I decided to make the original, gluten-full version when my sister came to visit. I figured that if I was going to bake it for others, I should bake the best version that I could. I assumed a great gluten-free cake would, for the ones able to eat it, taste even better made with gluten. I have never been more wrong. The cake didn't work at all. It never baked through. And Josh said it didn't taste as good as the gluten-free one. It was as if it was a different cake completely.

And then I went about a year without making it again. Finally, when it came time to decide on a cake for our wedding (and I had decided that, in order to get a delicious gluten-free one, I'd have to bake it myself), this was the first and only cake we considered. We loved it, we knew it tasted great, we liked the idea of incorporating a traditional Italian wedding custom (almonds) into our celebration, and since it was unfrosted it would keep with the extremely casual theme we were going for. (The groom's party wore jeans and flip-flops. The ceremony was in a field that sloped down to the ocean. The reception was in my grandfather's backyard. We played lawn games all afternoon. And it's still my most favorite party ever.)

The only hitch? I'd have to make eight of them to have enough for all our guests, and we were in the middle of moving into our new house! Not a problem, I was working in a local bakery and was given permission to use their kitchen after-hours. So two days before the big day, I lugged all my ingredients downtown and cleaned before I baked, trying to avoid cross-contamination. But a 20-quart Hobart, a stack of cake pans, and a commercial oven made quick work of getting the cakes in the oven. And then the waiting started. I cleaned up after myself. I chatted with the bread bakers, who were just coming in to start their overnight shift. I kept checking my cakes. I don't remember exactly (I was exhausted and stressed out!), but I think it took approximately 1 1/2 hours (and felt like four) for the cakes to bake through. And when they were finally out of the oven and cool enough to remove from the pans? The bottom of every one was charred black. Hmmm. What to do?

Well, I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, but . . . my microplane saved the day. The following night, I stood over the kitchen sink and proceeded to grate off about 1/8-inch from the bottom of all eight cakes, until a nice toasty brown color emerged that matched the shade of the cake's surface. Wedding cake disaster averted! (And since my cakes required no tricky tiers, or temperamental buttercream, or any other traditional accoutrements, it was pretty much clear sailing from there.)

The cakes turned out great, everyone loved them and no one guessed at the degree of consternation they had caused me. And then I misplaced the recipe. For five and a half years.

I'd think about it every 6 months or so, do a thorough search of all my recipe collections, and come up empty-handed. I scoured all my cookbooks and the Internet, and the closest I ever came to finding a similar recipe was David Lebovitz' version of the Chez Panisse almond cake, which was good, but was not my cake. (That was, however, the first time I came across his website, which was a lovely diversion!) I feared I'd never taste my wedding cake again.

Recently, however, I stumbled across it, stuffed in a box of old bills, files, and other paperwork that needed to be thrown away. Of course! What a logical place to store a treasured recipe! Why it had taken me half a decade to find it, I'll never know

I held off on making the cake, though. You see, I didn't have any amarena cherries. In my mind, amarena cherries are the perfect pairing for this cake. This is how we served it at our wedding. The tart, strong cherries are the perfect foil for the intensely sweet, dense cake. And they're beautiful and glossy, too, unlike so many brandied cherries I've had (and let's not even talk about the cartoon-ish nature of maraschino cherries), which is important to me. They're also fairly hard to come by, if you don't want to pay an arm and a leg for shipping.

But for my birthday, when I decided I wanted a Black Forest cake, Josh ordered me amarena cherries to go with it. A whole gigantic can of them, much more than I needed, which meant there were a lot of cherries hanging around in our refrigerator. And so, of course I had to make wedding cake soon after.

Now, I have to warn you: this is some serious cake. It does, after all, contain over a pound of almond paste. When it's finally done, the outside becomes really gorgeously burnished brown and crisp, with a chewy caramelization factor that is addicting. Inside, it's tender, rich, and practically melts in your mouth. When she ate her slice, my wedding photographer told me it was the best wedding cake she'd ever had. I believe I blushed.

If you don't have amarena cherries lolling about in your refrigerator (and, let's be honest, who does?), you can pair this cake with almost any fruit you like. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines - they all pair well with almonds, whether the fruit is fresh or cooked/preserved. This time of year, obviously, your best bet would be to get some frozen fruit and cook up a quick compote or sauce. But come summertime, you can just throw a handful of fresh berries at it and call it done.

Almond Wedding Cake
serves 8-10

I have to admit something here: after digging up the original recipe and looking at it more closely, I discovered the reason the cake has always had such amazing flavor, yet been so difficult to fully bake through without burning: I read the recipe wrong, and have always put in 17 ounces of almond paste, instead of the one 7-ounce package called for. Big difference. Like I said, comedy of errors. I think the recipe is actually supposed to be even closer to David's version than I realized. But I really like mine better. So if you make it with the larger quantity of almond paste, don't crowd the oven, turn it down to 325 degrees after about 30 minutes, and keep an eye on it - you may need to cover it with foil near the end if the top is getting too dark. But it will be worth it, believe me. Totally worth it.

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
17 OR 7 ounces (your choice) gluten-free almond paste, broken into pieces and microwaved on medium for 30 seconds if it's really firm
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp Kirsch (clear cherry brandy) (optional)
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 tsp baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter an 8x2-inch round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment, and butter and (gf) flour the parchment and pan sides.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and almond paste in a large bowl until creamy. Add the sugar, beating until well-blended. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in Kirsch, almond extract, and salt. Whisk together flour, xanthan gum, and baking powder in a small bowl, add to batter. Mix just until blended.

Spoon batter into prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until golden brown and a tester comes out clean, anywhere from 30-90 minutes, depending on your oven and how much almond paste you decide to use. Cool in the pan on a rack. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Cake keeps, wrapped and at room temperature, for at least three days. Probably more, but we always eat it too quickly to find out. It also freezes well.



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irish for a day

I always wanted to be Irish.

Growing up, I'd meet someone for the first time and, upon hearing my name, they'd often exclaim, "Oh, Tara! You must be Irish!" Usually I'd correct them. But sometimes, if it was someone I knew I'd never get close enough to to risk my game being exposed, I'd play along and say something to the effect of, "Yes, I've got some Irish ancestry in me." It got even easier to fool people when I dyed my hair a deep, mahogany red, which really brought out the green in my eyes. Those were fun times.

These days, I'm much more likely to be hoping I discover a long-lost relative in Italy or France (or, as was the case last night, a Mexican grandmother, one who would gently put her wise hands over mine and teach me exactly how to roll out a perfect corn tortilla), but still, there lingers a bit of the Irish mystique for me.

So of course I couldn't let today pass without jumping on the bandwagon. I dutifully dressed my family in green, drew a lucky shamrock for Kalen, and made my first Irish soda bread.

Only, I found out afterward that it wasn't a very traditional version (even if you ignore the fact that it was gluten-free). According to this page, truly traditional Irish soda bread does not contain eggs, sugar, or butter. Mine had all three. I did, however, inadvertently score a point when I omitted the raisins that every recipe I checked called for (we were all out), since those also never made it into the original soda breads. I don't think that's enough to redeem me, though.

Anyway, Irish or not, I made heavenly, pillowy-soft little rolls with a satisfying crusty exterior, that were excellent warm with melted butter, and again later in the day, cool and plain and eaten out of hand like an apple. Kalen said they tasted like cookies (note to self: there's too much sugar in there to serve these as bread!), I was reminded more of drop scones, and Wylie simply said, "Good!" Repeatedly.

When I was making them, I wanted to use a blend of my all-purpose and pastry flour mixes, but didn't have any pastry flour made up. So in the interest of time, I ad-libbed, throwing in a variety of flours and starches at whim. But in addition to the all-purpose mix, my recipe now also lists five more flours! Not so convenient for the rest of you. I think you could just go ahead with a full 2 cups of all-purpose mix and forget the rest, or use a half cup of pastry flour mix in place of all the "tablespoons of this and that." Either way, they're quick and delicious, so what's not to love?

Not-So-Irish Soda Bread Rolls
Yields 6-8 rolls

1 1/2 cups Tara's all-purpose gf baking mix (found at the end of this post)
3 Tbsp white rice flour
2 Tbsp sweet rice flour
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp potato starch
1 Tbsp tapioca starch
1 tsp xanthan gum
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
3/4 liquid cup plus 1 Tbsp whole milk buttermilk (I made my own)
1 egg white, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet tray with parchment or a Silpat.

Combine all dry ingredients in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk to sift together. Add the cold butter pieces, and work it in with your fingers until the whole lot resembles coarse meal. Combine the buttermilk and egg white, then pour it into the flour mixture. Using a wooden spoon, gently mix the dough until it comes together, and is more smooth than shaggy. (I think I over-mixed mine. I don't think it mattered.)

Scoop the dough into 6-8 mounds on the prepared sheet tray, and, with wet fingertips, smooth the surface of the rolls. Dip a very sharp knife into cold water and cut a cross in each roll.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the rolls are a lovely golden brown and their internal temperature reads around 185 degrees.

Line a bowl with a dishtowel or cloth napkin, pile in the hot rolls, fold the edges of the towel up to cover the rolls, and allow them to cool. Snack on them all day.


what lies within

It's confession time.

Hold on to your seats, everyone: until yesterday, I had raspberry Jell-o and a handful of Splenda packets living in my kitchen cupboard.

Oh, the shame and embarrassment! I swear I don't even know how they got there! Which actually makes things worse, because not only am I a woman with Jell-o and Splenda in her cupboard, but I am also a woman who never cleans out said cupboard to discover the secrets hidden within!

So, for your reading pleasure, and also to shatter all notions you may have had about what kind of person I am, here is the roll call of what I found yesterday when I emptied my shelves:

very, very old and broken candy canes
plastic Easter eggs
rancid cornmeal
five(!) almost-empty jars of honey
four(!) almost-empty bottles of molasses
two bottles of rosewater (which I don't even like!)
stale marshmallows
instant flavored coffee in single-serve packs, which came in the mail
lard and Crisco
jars of weird chutneys (do people even eat chutney anymore?)
mulling spices from Williams-Sonoma
fermented black beans
hard-as-rocks crystallized ginger
a box of bendy straws

I don't know what to make of all of this. Is it one of those situations where the depths of your pantry mimics the depths of your soul? Or are all the long-ago-forgotten items more like pieces of my subconscious, repeatedly pushed aside and to the back because I don't have the courage to face them head on? Is that list a reflection of the Real Me???

Whatever it is, it's gone. I've purged and cleansed and my kitchen cupboard is now, for better or worse, a visual reminder of the type of person I strive to be: organized, clean, and wholesome, with indulgent treats thrown in here and there for a bit of excitement and contradiction. There is also now a whole lot of empty space (I threw out a lot), which I'm sure will end up being filled once again with all manner of products I won't want to own up to buying.

One benefit to this process was the archaeological act of discovering things I actually do want to eat, but had lost amid the culinary (and I'm using that term loosely) debris.

Steen's Cane Syrup, for one. Three cans of the glorious stuff, to be precise.

You don't know Steen's Syrup? Poor you! Clearly you need some good Southerners in your life! It is 100% pure cane syrup, and is to the South what maple syrup is to the North. Pour it on pancakes or waffles. Drizzle it over fruit and yogurt. Bake with it (especially in pecan pie to replace the corn syrup!). Use it in marinades. Dress up popcorn with it. It is what biscuits were made for. I've even heard stories of pairing it with grilled cheese sandwiches, which I'm thinking is probably absolutely delicious.

But this reawakening to the delights of Steen's has left me in a bit of a quandary: I am so torn between hoarding my relatively small stash for truly Steen's-worthy events, and going on an all-out Steen's extravaganza. The merits of both are so strong! If only I had thought to stock up when we were in Tennessee . . . hindsight, you know.

Pecan pie will obviously have to be made, and soon. Biscuits, also. After that, maybe restraint will kick in and our supply will last until we head South once again. Of course, chances are also good that another obsession will take over before the Steen's is exhausted, leaving the last golden puddles to rest in peace in their dark corner of the cupboard once again. I did, after all, also come across several bags of dried baby chickpeas . . .


home at last

Travel is a funny thing.

I love the idea of it. I love the adventure, the romance, the newness. I love the concept of taking a vacation from my ordinary life.

But man, it makes me so tired! And the weirdest thing is that it's the slowest, most relaxing parts that wear me out the most. Sitting on an airplane (albeit trying to keep a go-go-go toddler sitting down). Having a leisurely breakfast. Watching TV. Shopping so I could finally use my Christmas gift card. Going to bed early. Somehow, these things make me feel so lazy, and unmotivated, and groggy, which become self-fulfilling prophecies for me. Does this mean I don't know how to relax? Isn't it supposed to feel good to sit around with nothing to do?

I consider myself to be a fairly high-energy person. I figure I need to be, in order to keep up with my kids (meaning, mostly, Wylie) and also get stuff done around the house. Even with my irregular sleep schedule, I don't usually feel overly tired or sluggish. But take me out of my familiar surroundings and routines, and it's like I've left my vitality at home, as well. There are always other adults around to help with the kids and meals. Laundry and vacuuming are no longer my responsibility. I don't even have any errands to run or phone calls to make. And - poof! - I turn into Miss Slowmo and feel like I'm walking around in a daze half the time. It seems that without any 'work' to do, I immediately loose my purpose and focus! By the time I was getting ready to leave my parents' house today, I was glad to be doing dishes and picking up, and disappointed that I didn't have time to vacuum. (I gratefully vacuumed my own house immediately upon arriving home. This clearly qualifies as freakish behavior.) Odd to realize that the busier I am, the more energetic I become.

This vacation was actually better than most, in terms of keeping busy (and thus keeping the yawning and mind-haze at bay). This was due to advance planning, primarily on Kalen's part. Thank goodness for a 4-year-old with an agenda! We had playgrounds to play on, museums to visit, blueberry pancakes to make, and a very-belated birthday party to throw! It was all wonderful and very enjoyable, and I do believe I made it through all of those events without a coffee in hand! (Well, okay, not the pancake part, but that's to be expected.)

We also ate better this time around than we have in the past. Oh, don't get me wrong, we always make good food while visiting family, it's just the eating out part that can be tricky. So, for one, we simply ate out less than usual, which left time for the above-mentioned pancake breakfast, a delicious dinner of bison steaks with chimichurri, purple sweet potatoes, braised kale, and a vanilla bean panna cotta with citrus and honey-roasted fruit, eggs with more chimichurri, and fresh biscuits (I heard they were amazingly tender). All excellent.

And when we did eat out, we had better luck than usual in picking really great places. The first time, it truly was Pure Luck. Driving past strip-mall after strip-mall, Josh spied a sign for Oscar's Taco Shop. We're always on the look-out for good Mexican food in Tennessee, but it had never occurred to us to seek it out in a strip-mall. Well, now we know where to go. Oscar specializes in Southern California-style burritos and tacos, based on his father's successful shops in San Diego. As it was my first time tasting that style of Mexican, maybe I'm a bit over-enthusiastic in my review, but it was so good. And so cheap! Carnitas with guacamole and a hot tomatillo salsa in doubled-up corn tortillas. Rolled tacos filled with shredded pork and deep fried, then topped with cheese. Jarritos grapefruit soda. The food was fresh, the flavors bright. The fact that we had to get it to go, and ate at the playground at a nearby McDonald's (another item on Kalen's list, which we're going to downplay), didn't dampen the experience one bit. In fact, it just made me anticipate our next trip to Tennessee that much more, so I can eat at Oscar's again. Mmmm.

Our other very successful dining-out event was when Josh and I went out to dinner, alone, for the first time in absolute ages. We chose to go to City House, on Sunday (for the special, and low-cost, Sunday menu), and it managed to meet our very-high expectations. We shared everything, sampled several new-to-us pork items, and loved it all. The cicciolli hash was the ultimate comfort food, with the rich, livery-pork flavor bolstered by potatoes and a fried duck egg. If that was all we'd had for dinner, it would have been fine by me. I only wish I had access to all those "left-over fatty pork bits" so I could make my own cicciolli . . . We also had pig heart, with celery and gorgonzola, which sounded like an odd pairing to me, but really worked. I've read that the heart is the essence of an animal, and I'd say it's true for pigs. This was cooked medium-rare, and although it was a bit tough (think of how hard it works!), the flavor was porkier, and muskier, than any loin or chop will ever be. Matched with the piquant creaminess of the cheese and the crisp celery, it was a unique experience. And even seemingly-ordinary beets and butternut squash got the star treatment when bathed in a pecan pesto with shaved Pecorino cheese. We'll definitely be trying that one at home.

Another pleasant surprise was tasting a grape varietal neither of us had encountered before: Pecorino. I know what you're thinking: "Silly Tara, it must have been a typo, everyone knows that's a sheep's milk cheese!" Which is what I thought too, until I asked our waiter, who double-checked and assured us that it was, in fact, an Italian white made from 100% Pecorino grapes. It was fruity and yeasty, with a distinct aftertaste of grape skins. Not the tannic part of the skin, but the other, grape-skin-y flavor you get when eating grapes. I liked it. I've since looked it up online, and while there's not much to read, I've learned that the Pecorino grape was thought to be extinct until it was re-discovered growing wild in Le Marche, sheep like to snack on it, and it's now grown mostly in the Le Marche and Abruzzo regions of Italy. I love learning about obscure things! I'm hoping Josh can source some for Brevetto. All in all, it was a great dinner, worthy of any other big city. Which, for Nashville, is saying quite a lot.

Unfortunately for you, however, I don't have any photos of all that good food to share here. Another casualty of vacation: I get lazy with the camera. I got the requisite shots of the kids with the grandparents and great-grandparents, but that was about it. So you'll have to settle for gazing at Kalen and Wylie.

They're pretty yummy, too, in their own way.

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