Sunday, April 27, 2008


My cousin Sara's birthday was last week and her daughter planned a surprise birthday party. When my uncle Dave called weeks ago to tell me about the party, I offered up my help. "I'll make dessert," I said. "What is Sara's favorite." I was up for anything. I assumed his reply would be cupcakes or pie or heck - even Crème Brûlée. "Pineapple Upside Down Cake," Dave said.

Huh? I had never made Pineapple Upside Down Cake (which I will from here forward refer to as PUDC). Heck, I'd never even eaten it!

I started some preliminary recipe research. There were thousands of recipes out there. Some used canned pineapple, some fresh. Some used cake mix, some made the cake from scratch. Argh - I didn't know where to start.

Sara and I were out at a bakery a week or so later and I asked her - slyly, like I wasn't doing recon for a recipe - "what is your favorite dessert?" PUDC, she replied. Really, I've never had it - tell me more. She proceeded to tell me how the best ones are made with fresh pineapple and in a cast iron skillet. Now I was getting somewhere.

I still was thrown off by the glut of recipes out there, so I posted a plea for help on Chowhound. Bingo - I got great tips! Out of all the ones I read, the one from Gourmet looked like it fit the fresh pineapple/cast iron skillet requirements best. It also includes Rum.

A kitchen rule I follow sporadically is that you shouldn't try a recipe out on guests that you haven't tried ever before. This coupled with the fact that Dave sent an email saying, "Sonja is making the official birthday cake" sent me to the store for pineapples.

The first attempt was a hit. Oh my gawd! This is PUDC?! Why have we never had this - Gavin and I exclaimed late one Sunday evening, as we scarfed down about half the cake. It was amazing. Sticky sweet and super pineapple-y.

Thankfully I work with a bunch of hungry honest people that will willingly eat food I make and critique it honestly if I ask. They loved the PUDC. I attempted the recipe a second time - for our friend Jason's birthday. He loved it too.

What I learned was that PUDC doesn't look great if you make it the night before. The top gets kind of soggy looking. Tastes great, but looks terrible. Fresh pineapple is a must, but it need not be totally ripe (unless it already is). The cooking time and sugar make up for any sweetness lacking in the fruit. I also substituted cinnamon & cloves for the cardamon in the original recipe. Not because I didn't like it, but because I didn't have it.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Adapted from Gourmet

For topping
1/2 medium pineapple, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cored
3/4 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

For batter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon dark rum
1/2 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
2 tablespoons dark rum for sprinkling over cake
Special equipment: a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Make topping:
Cut pineapple crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Melt butter in skillet. Add brown sugar and simmer over moderate heat, stirring, 4 minutes. Mixture should be thick and caramel-like. Remove from heat. Arrange pineapple on top of sugar mixture in concentric circles, overlapping pieces slightly.

Make batter:
Sift together flour, cinnamon, cloves, baking powder, and salt. Beat butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, then gradually beat in granulated sugar. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla and rum. Add half of flour mixture and beat on low speed just until blended. Beat in pineapple juice, then add remaining flour mixture, beating just until blended. (Batter may appear slightly curdled.)

Spoon batter over pineapple topping and spread evenly. Bake cake in middle of oven until golden and a tester comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cake stand in skillet 5 minutes. Invert a plate over skillet and invert cake onto plate (keeping plate and skillet firmly pressed together). Replace any pineapple stuck to bottom of skillet. Sprinkle rum over cake and cool on plate on a rack.

Serve cake just warm or at room temperature.

So - the day of the party arrives. I borrowed my mom's cast iron skillet so I could make two cakes at once. I got an early start and made a total of four cakes.

The surprise went off without a hitch. Sara was totally surprised and the cakes were a hit. I was dying to know what she thought. She said, "seriously, this is SO GOOD!" Her reaction made it all worthwhile. Plus, I have a new favorite cake too.

Signs of Spring

Signs of spring are showing up all around us. And then it snowed. Still - asparagus & artichokes are in grocery stores and the April issue of Bon Appétit is in my mailbox.

I had Molly Wizenberg's "Mayo Clinic" article dog-eared for sometime. I love homemade mayonnaise and loved her essay about the stuff. All I needed was an excuse to make it.

My friend Maria was coming over, so I picked up a couple artichokes - amongst other things - and planned to try out the mayo recipe for myself.

My experience with homemade mayo has been that you want to measure out the oil carefully and use a neutral oil - like Canola.

Homemade Mayonnaise

1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 salt
3/4 Canola oil

Combine the egg yolk, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and the salt in a medium bowl. Whisk by hand until blended and bright yellow. About 30 seconds. Gradually add the remaining oil (I like a squeeze bottle) and whisk constantly until the mayonnaise is thick. Add more salt if needed. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes (you can add 1-2 cloves of minced fresh garlic at this time if you want aioli).

The mixing by hand route was a little tedious - I will use a hand or stick blender next time.

So Maria came over and we steamed the artichokes. This is about the easiest supper you can have.

Steamed Artichokes
2 artichokes
large saucepan with water about 1 inch high
1 Tbsp salt

Trim the stems off the artichokes and trim about 1-inch down from the top. Using kitchen shears, snip the top point (about 1/4 inch down) from each leaf.

To secure the artichokes in the pan - I use round cookie cutters. You can also use rings from an onion. Add water and salt. Cover and steam for 20-40 minutes (depending on the size of the artichoke) or until a leaf easily releases when pulled (use tongs!).

Serve with mayonnaise, aioli or melted butter.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I've Got Problems

A bunch of our guy friends have a nearly weekly "Man Night" - a night to play cards, drink beer, cuss, etc. This bugs the shit out of me. I like to play cards, drink beer and cuss too. Gavin doesn't like to play cards, but if he wants to drink beer and cuss - hell, even fart and burp - he can do that ANY night. You could say every night is "man" night.

We protested Man Night initially. Not hard, since Gavin wasn't really interested in poker. I wanted to go though dammit. So - I offered to host it.

We have only hosted "Wo-man Night," aka "Poker Night" a few times. Girls and guys are invited - though inexplicably I am usually the only girl.

The first time we hosted, I was damned if I was going to wait on the guys, serve up food and freshen cocktails. I wouldn't even put the chips or dip into a bowl.

Well, recently it was our turn to host Poker Night again. It had been awhile and I wasn't feeling quite so cantankerous about the whole let-them-eat-chips-out-of-a-bag bit. Plus, I had read a killer recipe for hummus that I wanted to try.

Once you try this hummus, you will never eat store-bought again. It is rich and creamy and costs about 97 cents to make.

from Cook's Illustrated
1 can chickpeas - drained & rinsed
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons juice from 1 to 2 lemons
6 tablespoons tahini, stirred well
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch Cayenne
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro or parsley leaves

Combine lemon juice and water in small bowl or measuring cup. Whisk together tahini and 2 tablespoons oil in second small bowl or measuring cup. Set aside 2 tablespoons chickpeas for garnish.

Process remaining chickpeas, garlic, salt, cumin, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. With machine running, add lemon juice-water mixture in steady stream through feed tube. Scrape down bowl and continue to process for 1 minute. With machine running, add oil-tahini mixture in steady stream through feed tube; continue to process until hummus is smooth and creamy, about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed.

Transfer hummus to serving bowl, sprinkle reserved chickpeas and cilantro over surface, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until flavors meld, at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

OK - so as I garnished the bowl of hummus, Gavin pointed out that it was just a poker night. Hmf. I couldn't help myself - once the hostess inside me was let out there was no going back. I heated some pita, pulled some olives, feta and jarred roasted peppers from the fridge and...your deal.

Bourbon Tasting

I love whiskey. Really I am not that discerning - I love Scotch, Canadian, Blended, even Irish whiskeys (whiskys?). I have a special place in my heart for Bourbon, however. Maybe it's the corn. There is just something about the caramel, nutty sweetness that appeals to me.

Manhattans have been my go-to cocktail for sometime. For the last couple of years though, I've been exploring Bourbon on its own. Our neighbor Mark gave us some nice Eagle Rare 10-year old Bourbon a couple years back. He may be to blame. Enjoying three fingers of Bourbon, neat (no ice, no water) is something I have come to appreciate.

It is funny when we go out for a nice dinner. I order a Manhattan or a Bourbon neat and Gavin orders a Cosmopolitan. On a few occasions, the person that brings out our drinks makes the assumption that the whiskey is for the gentleman and the (fruity girl-drink) cosmo is for the lady. Ahem, thanks. Then we switch glasses.

Well, my friend Jens loves whiskey too. We have been talking for some time about doing a Bourbon tasting. So we called up some of our fellow Bourbon lovers and set up a tasting Friday night.

The only criteria that we put out was that it had to be Bourbon from Kentucky. All in all, we tasted 1792, Basil Hayden, Blantons, Bookers, Jim Beam, Rebel Yell, Wild Turkey Rare Breed and Woodford Reserve.

As you can imagine, a Bourbon tasting gets a little out of hand as the night goes on. I did manage to make a few observations and scribble some notes though.

The Bookers & Wild Turkey Rare Breed are both high octane (100-125 proof). They definitely needed some ice and water helped too. Their flavor was big, but the high alcohol kind of blasted my taste buds.

Jim Beam & Rebel Yell are moderately prices ($15-18 a fifth) and fine for sipping, but probably better for mixing.

My favorites (in this order) were the following:
Basil Hayden: nice toasted vanilla flavor, nutty with some hints licorice
Blantons: smooth
1792: a little smoky, pretty zingy and a nice chocolate/caramel finish.
Woodford Reserve: rich

Friday, April 11, 2008

When Accidents Happen

The temptation with this blog is to only show you the fabulous, photogenic, tasty things I cook. I've given into this temptation now for about four months, but I am finally saying no!

My friend Barb's birthday was last week and I love making friends homemade baked goods for their birthdays. Barb's favorite's are Gavin's favorites: Molasses cookies and Poundcake. Two things I have plenty of experience with.

So, after work one night this week, I cruised right home to make Barb's treats so I could bring them into work the next day. I already had all the ingredients, the recipe was out, I felt prepared. I was totally on my game.

First up was the poundcake. It takes about 45 minutes to bake, so I figured I'd prepare the cookies while the poundcake was baking. This is my game at its best. I love the challenge of prepping and cooking to make things come out at the right time.

I preheated the oven and mixed up the recipe - just like I'd always done. I prepared the pan with non-stick spray and parchment paper - just like I'd always done. Once I filled the pan and put it in the oven, I turned my attention to the cookies.

As I ground the spices and mixed the other ingredients for the cookies, the halfway timer for the poundcake went off. I opened the oven door, ready to rotate the golden wonder when...oh SHIT! (no f-word uncle John, happy?)
The golden wonder had sprung a leak! What the f...I mean, what the heck happened?! I panicked. I thought the cake was totally destroyed and I should just throw it out and start over. Gavin talked me down off the ledge though, and I let it finish baking. Actually, I needed this cake. The recipe takes takes 4 eggs, and I was now out of eggs since I'd already started making the dough for the cookies. I had also overcommited and was heading out to pub trivia in about an hour.

As far as I can tell, the cake didn't *crack* along the top like it normally does. This cracking releases the steam and the cake continues to bake. This time, the steam must have built up and finally busted through the weakest spot it could find.

Well, Barb's birthday was still the next day, so I had to make do with the cake I had. When it finished baking, it actually looked kind of cool. The batter that leaked out kind of looked like a tongue when baked. So, I added a couple of raisins for eyes and pllllffffffffffffff.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I worked at a cafe over a decade ago that served this coffeecake. It is actually the only coffeecake I have ever had, but it is so good I don't feel the need to try any others.

Apple Cinnamon Coffeecake
4 cups flour
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp cinnamon + 1/2 Tbsp
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
2-3 medium Granny Smith apples

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter the inside of a 9 x 13" baking dish (like Pyrex). In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, 1 Tbsp cinnamon & sugars. Add vegetable oil and stir until combined. Measure out one cup of this mixture into a small bowl - this will be the crumble topping. Add baking soda and powder to the large bowl and mix well.

In a measuring cup, measure out the buttermilk and add the egg. Mix lightly with a fork. Add to the large bowl of dry ingredients and mix well until combined.

Peel & core the apples and slice in half. Slice each half in 1/8-1/4 inch slices. Stack these slices and cut in half. Add the apples to the batter and gently stir until well distributed.

For the crumble topping, take the 1 cup you removed earlier and mix in 1/2 Tbsp.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with the crumble topping. Bake for 50-70 minutes. Test the center with a bamboo skewer - it should come out moist but not wet.

Cool and serve with butter.