Violet Candy Cupcakes

violet cupcakes (10)Lately I’ve been yearning to return to my site’s namesake and bake with flowers again.  It was the cookies with nasturtiums that started it all, followed by recipes with lavender, rose, hibiscus, and even petal-flecked tea (both herbal and black).  But it’s been awhile.  As for new dessert-bound flowers, I found myself craving the flavor of those delicate violet candies made overseas, and wondered if I could find the living flowers that they mimic. I pictured a vibrant, blooming violet plant beside me as I candied its fragrant petals or steeped them into a delightfully perfumed syrup. It was all so romantic and picturesque.

violet cupcakes (19) - CopyBut then I started my hunt for violet plants, and was quickly reminded of how little I know about flora. I found a variety of violets, but none with the signature scent I sought.  So I posted a question on an online hotline, whose kind green-thumbed readers were quick to point me in the right direction. Before I knew it, my lush green Parma violet plant was at my side. There was only one problem: not a single blooming flower!  And after months of tending to my plant with great care, I’ve accepted that its hidden baby flowers are simply not ready to bloom.

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So instead of turning to the source behind the candy I’d been craving, I decided to celebrate the candy itself.  I visited a favorite store and bought four different types: candied violet petals, tiny French jawbreakers, translucent flower-shaped pieces, and a beautiful tin from Italy full of little matte morsels. While each kind had its own qualities, I decided on the latter for my violet dessert. Its somewhat chalky texture proved perfect to powder and sift into batter and icing, and its flavor was distinct and delicious. I also used the milder candied petals for decoration (and ultimately savored the other kinds).

Violet Candy Cupcakes (makes 12-14 standard sized cupcakes)

violet cupcakesTO PREP THE CANDY:

In three batches, place candies in the bowl of an electric spice grinder (a.k.a. blade coffee grinder). Grind well, for several minutes. Hold lid on tight and gently shake grinder as you go. Stop when a fine powder has formed. You should have about 1 cup powdered candy when done.**  Set aside.

FOR THE CAKES:

  • 1 medium lemonviolet cupcakes (3)
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup powdered violet candy
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 small to medium eggs
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk or buttermilk

Rinse and dry lemon, then zest with a fine grater. Set zest aside for cake batter; set lemon aside for glaze.  Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line a muffin tin with 12-14 paper liners. In a large bowl, beat the oil, sugar, and powdered violet candy until smooth. Add the vanilla and stir until incorporated. Add the eggs one at a time, beating in completely after each addition. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt over the oil mixture. Begin to stir, slowing adding buttermilk as you go.  When batter is even, fold in the lemon zest.

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Carefully transfer batter into lined cupcake tin, being as tidy as possible and resisting the temptation to fill cups more than halfway. This will ensure that the baked cupcakes have room within the paper liner to hold the glaze.  If you have at least 12 cupcakes, you’re on the right track.  Bake cupcakes for 12-15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out free of wet batter. Set cupcakes on a rack and let cool completely before glazing.  If not glazing right away, store cupcakes covered at room temperature (not chilled).

violet cupcakes (7)FOR THE GLAZE:

  • 1 lemon (from batter recipe above)
  • 2-3 tablespoons buttermilk
  • 1 and 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 2/3 cup powdered violet candy
  • candied violet petals to decorate

Juice the lemon and strain the juice. Measure out 1 tablespoon strained juice and set it aside (use the rest as you wish). Into a medium bowl, sift the powdered sugar and powdered candy.  Add the tablespoon of lemon juice and two tablespoons buttermilk.  Whisk until smooth.  If glaze seems too thick, gradually add another tablespoon of buttermilk, whisking well.  (If little granules of candy are present and you prefer a smoother texture, mix with an electric mixer for several minutes, beating out the pieces.)  Use immediately, or cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.

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With cupcakes completely cooled, top each one with glaze by the spoonful.  Fill paper liners to the rim, letting icing reach edges, but not overflowing.  Immediately place a candied violet petal in the center of each. Let cupcakes sit at room temperature for at least an hour before attempting to move or handle them — otherwise, the surface of the glaze will form cracks.  Keep at room temperature and eat within 6 hours.  (If you must store them longer, refrigerate the cupcakes. Note that the glaze will become wetter and the cakes will firm up when chilled. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

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Perfect with a cup of afternoon tea, violet candy cupcakes offer a delicious (albeit distant) nod to the flowers behind them.  Their tender, lightly lemony crumb and burst of sweet, perfumed glaze prove to make a well-balanced and beautiful duo. Fragrant with floral goodness, they are both delicate and satisfying.  While I still hope to create a dessert with fresh Parma violets someday, I’m truly delighted to use my luscious little candies in the meantime.  Flowers and candy: what’s not to love?

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**Maybe next time… If you’re leaning toward a smaller amount of candy and prefer a milder floral flavor, feel free to replace some of the glaze’s powdered candy with more powdered sugar.  Most of the violet flavor comes from the glaze; the cakes offer just a whisper of violet, while the icing is distinctively floral.  If you want a stronger violet flavor in the cakes themselves, replace some of the batter’s granulated sugar with more powdered candy.  Finally, if you prefer a more solid, crisp glaze than the texture shown here, start by whisking an egg white into the glaze’s dry ingredients, then very gradually add lemon juice and buttermilk by the teaspoonful, until desired texture is reached.

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Cherry Sorrel “Shortcake”

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When I recently came across a great article about the lovely green herb, sorrel, I became intrigued.  I admit I couldn’t remember exactly when I’d had it — but after reading that its nickname was “lemonade in a leaf” and hearing that it had a flavor similar to kiwifruit and wild strawberries, there was no looking back: dessert was its destiny.

Cherry sorrel shortcake

A taste of sorrel confirmed my inkling that the world of sweets would welcome it.  It was lemony with a refreshing burst of sour, and at the same time was grassy, herbal and mellow.  With mountains of ripe cherries surrounding me at the market, I decided to pair sorrel with these sweet, tangy fruits at the peak of their season. I also added lemon: a harmonious companion for the tart herb.

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I pictured something like fruit-topped shortcake, but instead of a biscuit-style, buttery shortcrust dough, I was drawn to more chiffon-like cakes: airy and tender with a bit more sweetness. (Hence the quotation marks in the title. Fruit shortcake, such as strawberry, is a widely recognized dessert that this recipe offers in its served format, but here, the cakes aren’t technically shortcakes.)  Since I’d heard that sorrel’s flavor stays intact when cooked, both the baked cakes and the juicy cherry topping would be speckled with the green herb.  The result was a bright and decadent dessert, surging with the taste of spring.

Cherry Sorrel “Shortcake” (makes 10)

For the cherry sorrel topping:Cherry sorrel shortcake (4)

  • About 1.5 ounces whole leaf sorrel, weighed with stems
  • 1.5 pound ripe fresh cherries
  • 1 medium to large lemon
  • 1 – 3 tablespoons sugar

Rinse and dry sorrel; remove and discard stems. Mince the leaves until you have 1/2 cup, well packed. (Use the remainder as you wish.) Set aside 1/4 cup minced sorrel for cake recipe.  Juice the lemon and strain the juice; measure out 2 – 3 tablespoons (set aside any remaining juice for cake recipe).  Rinse, dry, pit, and halve or chop the cherries into a large bowl. Stir in the lemon juice gradually (stop when desired juiciness is achieved).  Repeat with sugar, using only enough to reach desired sweetness based on your preference and the cherries’ flavor — keeping in mind that the cakes will be sweetened.  Stir until sugar is not grainy.  Add 1/4 cup minced sorrel; mix until evenly distributed. Cover and chill until ready to serve.  (The longer the mixture sits, the more sorrel’s wondrous flavor will come alive; feel free to make it up to 24 hours in advance.)

For the chiffon “shortcakes”:Cherry sorrel shortcake (11)

  • 1 medium to large lemon
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil or softened butter
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup finely minced sorrel leaves (from topping recipe above)
  • For serving (optional): unsweetened whipped cream or sour cream

Generously grease and flour 10 cups of a muffin tin.  Preheat oven to 350 F.  Rinse, dry, and finely zest the peel of the lemon. Juice the lemon to make 1/4 cup juice, adding any leftover juice from topping recipe if needed.  In a medium to large bowl (preferably the bowl of a standing mixer), beat the egg whites until foamy and white. Slowly and gradually, add 1/4 cup of the sugar.  Keep beating on high until whites are opaque, firm, and voluminous; set aside.  In a separate large bowl, beat the oil or butter with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until smooth and pale.  Add the vanilla and mix well.

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Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt over the bowl.  Begin to stir, gradually adding the lemon juice.  Mix until smooth (batter will seem thick). Fold in the lemon zest and the sorrel until evenly dispersed. Add a big scoop of the egg whites, very gently folding it into the batter, so as to not deflate the whites. Repeat with remaining egg whites, delicately folding just until no traces of whites remain.  Immediately scoop batter into prepared muffin tin, filling each cup about halfway.

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Bake for 12 minutes, checking centers with a toothpick starting at the 10 minute mark. Cakes are done when no wet batter appears on toothpick and edges of cakes are golden brown.  Let cakes cool for a few minutes in pan, then transfer to a cooling rack or counter top.  If not serving within a few hours, let cakes cool completely, then cover and store at room temperature (not refrigerated).  When ready to serve, give the cherry-sorrel mixture a good stir, then top each cake with a generous scoop of it. If desired, serve with a dollop of whipped cream or sour cream.  Devour immediately.

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Cherry sorrel shortcake is a delightful dessert that shows off its season in a complex format: tender, toasty cake alongside lusciously juicy fruit.  And the toothsome texture is matched by its delectable flavor; its grassy notes bring — as promised — the taste of “lemonade in leaf”, singing with tart and herbal goodness.  Speckles of lemon and a splash of vanilla prove to be a lovely complement to the fruit and herb combination, just as the mild whisper of sorrel in the batter is accentuated by its more notable presence in the topping.  In both sight and savor, each bite is truly vibrant.

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Maybe next time… While cherries proved to be a delicious choice, I trust that strawberries, raspberries, apricots (indeed almost any seasonal, slightly tangy, ripe fruit — or a combination thereof) would also be scrumptious.  Despite reading that sorrel retains its flavor when cooked, I found that it really mellowed in the cake batter; most of its flavor came from the uncooked topping. To get more of its flavor from the cake, another heap of minced sorrel in the batter would be a fine addition. For a different purpose (not to serve on these cakes since the sweetness would likely prove cloying), minced sorrel would also make a great addition stirred into jam or preserves, then spread on toast or scones or whatever you’d like.  I’ve done this before with flower petals and basil, both of which acted like the sorrel did in the cherries: imbuing the fruit with herbal, lemony flavor while balancing the sweetness with a tangy and grassy tone.

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In Love with Absinthe: Sazerac Cookies

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The label on the bottle of absinthe in my cupboard boasts that its “complexity comes from the use of fine brandy, star anise, wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, meadowsweet, basil, fennel, tarragon and stinging nettles.”  A tiny whiff of it, and I feel like I can smell every complementary component.  A tiny taste, and the unique herbs join hands and dance around a ceremonial fire on my tongue.  With a vision like this, maybe it’s not too surprising that the spirit was outlawed in the U.S. for almost a century. (But of course there were other rumored reasons. See 3:10 and 6:14 of this great video.)

Sazerac cookies (17)I couldn’t help thinking of dessert recipes when I first tasted absinthe, but when I learned about its most historical and quintessential cocktail — the sazerac — I was even more inspired. Cognac or rye, bitters, and simple syrup are swirled with ice, then strained into a chilled glass that has been coated and scented with absinthe — all with a twist of lemon on top. To me, this concoction had a charming old-timey (and delicious) feel, and dreaming up sweet sazerac creations was the natural next step.  I settled on tiny, buttery cookies with aniseed and lemon in the dough, glazed with an absinthe-rich sazerac icing.

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While a sazerac isn’t traditionally served over ice, I envisioned an imperfectly cube-shaped cookie, reminiscent of the slightly melted ice that results from swirling the rye and bitters.  They would have to be dainty as a nod to the olden days, and at about ¾” cubed, their petiteness would match well with their sweetness. Finally, since I wanted the absinthe to shine through the final flavor, I ignored the standard liquor ratios of a true sazerac, choosing to use as much as absinthe as rye in the boozy glaze.  Here is the recipe.

Sazerac Cookies [Makes 60 little cookies (3/4" - 1" cubes)]

FOR THE COOKIE DOUGH:

  • 1 medium to large lemon
  • 1 teaspoon anise seeds
  • 1/3 cup butter, softened
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2.25 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1.25 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)

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Line a large cookie sheet with parchment. Using a fine grater (such as Microplane), shred the outer peel of the lemon; set zest aside. Place anise seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle; grind until powdered, set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until fully incorporated. Repeat with vanilla. Sift or sieve over the butter mixture: flour, baking powder, salt, and ground anise. Beat until moist crumbs form. Add lemon zest and mix until evenly dispersed. Using about a heaping teaspoon of dough a piece, shape dough into roughly ¾” cookie cubes by hand, placing them on the parchment lined baking sheet as you go.

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Once all cookies are shaped (you should have about 60 if they are the same size as mine), place the cookie sheet in the freezer for 15 minutes or fridge for an hour (this is optional but will help them hold their shape). While dough chills, preheat oven to 375 F.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the tops look dry (i.e., no longer wet dough), and the undersides and bottom edges are golden brown. Remove from oven, let sit on cookie sheet until cool enough to handle, then transfer to a cooking rack set over a platter, cookie sheet, large piece of parchment or wax paper. Let cookies cool completely before glazing.

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FOR THE SWEET SAZERAC GLAZE:

  • 1 medium to large lemon
  • 1.5 cups powdered sugar, firmly packed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon absinthe, preferably St. George Spirits
  • 1 tablespoon rye whiskey
  • 1/8 teaspoon aromatic bitters, such as Peychaud’s

Using a citrus zester (preferably this type), zest the peel of the lemon to create 60 tiny spiraled ribbons of peel. Set spirals aside. Sift the powdered sugar and salt into a small to medium bowl. Add the egg white and whisk (texture will seem dry and lumpy). Add the absinthe and whisk well, then the whiskey and whisk well again. Finally, add the bit of bitters and whisk until no traces of pink and no lumps remain. Glaze should be smooth and opaque.  If it seems too thin (i.e., runny or transparent), whisk in more sugar.

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Using a generous spoonful of glaze, cover each cooled cookie with icing, completely covering the top and letting icing run down the sides.  After every 5-10 cookies (while glaze is still wet), stop to place a lemon zest spiral on the top of each. When you run out of glaze, carefully scrape up the icing that’s collected underneath the cooling rack, transferring it into the icing bowl. Re-whisk icing and continue glazing cookies. Let glaze dry completely in the open air. Store cookies covered at room temperature.

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With a soft, lemony center that’s speckled with fragrant anise, these decadent cookies are perfectly enrobed in their cocktail-rich glaze. The sazerac icing envelops each bite-sized treat with a crisp, sweet, subtly boozy shell — and the tiny twist of lemon is a charming echo of the drink’s traditional garnish. Herbal and citrusy, sazerac cookies can be a welcomed treat for drinkers and non-drinkers alike.  They celebrate the spirits behind them, just as they usher in a spirit of celebration. Cheers!

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Maybe next time… I’m certain that brown sugar, with its rich and moist molasses, would be a welcome substitute for the white sugar in the dough. Same with spices: anise is but one of many absinthe-y options.  To amp up the subtle sazerac flavor of the icing, consider increasing the glaze recipe and dunking the whole cookie to coat it completely. A hint more boozy flavor can also be added by replacing the vanilla in the dough with absinthe and/or bourbon. Finally, feel free to play with the ratio of alcohols based on your taste preference; I’m thinking I’ll be trying a 100% absinthe glaze soon.  (But don’t overdo the bitters: too much will taste — you guessed it — bitter!)

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Cardamom Banana Bites

Cardamom Banana Bites (4)The banana bread of my childhood was my dear grandma’s crumbly and walnut-laden loaf.  I can still taste it now, slathered with the synthetically smooth margarine she always stocked.  Being the only banana bread I knew, I really enjoyed it back then.  After all, the rare instance of baking anything sweet was exciting, and the idea of transforming soft bananas into a cake-like treat was fascinating to me.  As an adult, I don’t tend to crave that style of banana bread (or margarine for that matter), but I still always welcome overripe bananas and embrace their potential for creative reincarnation.

Cardamom Banana Bites (14)Since bananas are ubiquitous and their ripening always imminent, I’ve played around with many, many banana recipes over the years.  No matter the format I’ve made (from cream pie, to milkshakes, to bread baked in a crock pot), I’ve learned that a heap of spices is always at home with banana: cinnamon,  ginger, nutmeg — you name it.  I’ve also determined that letting the bananas get so ripe they’re almost all black, then freezing them until ready to defrost and use, is central to the moistest crumb for baked goods.

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This recipe celebrates both of these qualities, incorporating a generous scoop of warm, fragrant ground cardamom into a batter made from bananas that ooze with ripeness. The result is a richly spiced, utterly moist bite — one that’s delightfully contrasted with a crisp, chocolatey shell.  Please keep your electric mixer stowed away for this recipe; gentle hand mixing lets the air stay minimal in these temptingly dense little squares.

Cardamom Banana Bites (makes 36 little squares)

  • 2/3 cup brown sugar, packedCardamom Banana Bites (15)
  • 1/2 cup melted butter or coconut oil
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
  • 3 medium to large extremely ripe bananas (1 cup or 1 scant cup once mashed)

Grease sides and bottom of an 8 x 8″ square baking pan. Line the bottom with parchment. Set aside. Preheat oven to 325 F.  In a small bowl or measuring glass, smash the ripe bananas well with a fork (this should be quite easy if your bananas are the proper ripeness); a few small lumps are fine, as are juices.  You should have a scant cup to a full cup of mashed banana; set aside.

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In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar and butter or coconut oil until smooth and lump free. Stir in the vanilla.  Add egg yolks one at a time, gently whisking each one until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom over the butter mixture. Gently stir, trying not to incorporate air, until even and no traces of flour remain. Gently fold in the mashed banana until evenly dispersed. Spread batter evenly into lined pan.

Cover top of pan with a piece of foil, poking a hole in its center to prevent sogginess. Bake for a total of about 40 minutes, stopping and rotating pan at the 20 minute mark. When nearing 40 minutes total, carefully lift foil (the steam is quite hot).  Baking is complete when batter no longer moves or looks wet, and a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean. Not to worry if the surface looks uneven. Remove from oven and discard foil. Let pan cool completely, then transfer pan to refrigerator to chill.

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When ready to slice, loosen sides of chilled pan with a knife, then invert onto a cutting board and remove parchment. Leave upside down, smooth side up for cutting and glazing.  If clean-cut squares are desired, trim any uneven edges to make straight lines. (The trimmings are crisp and caramelized: so delicious!) With a sharp knife, divide square into equal quadrants, then slice each quarter into nine equal squares, making 36 pieces total. Keep squares cool for the glazing process.  While the squares are really wonderful plain, I opted for a crisp, sweet cocoa glaze.**

For the sweet cocoa glaze:Cardamom Banana Bites (3)

  • 1.25 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-3 tablespoons water

Place the cool banana squares on a wire rack over a cookie sheet or platter.  Sift together first three ingredients in a bowl. Whisk in vanilla and 2 tablespoons water.  If too thick, add more water very gradually, whisking well after each addition. Lean toward thickness; if too watery, the glaze will soak into the squares and will not dry or get crispy. Spoon the glaze over the squares (about a teaspoon each). If desired, decorate with sprinkles while glaze is still wet. Let sit at room temperature until glaze is dry to the touch, then transfer to mini cupcake liners if desired. Keep cool.

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With their burst of warm spice and a texture so moist it’s almost juicy, cardamom banana bites are a decadent nod to the banana bread of my youth.  Enlivened with the lusciousness of cardamom, the banana batter is practically steamed under the foil in a slow oven. The chocolatey shell offers a contrasting texture and a complementary flavor, creating an outright richness that’s behind the reason they’re small like candy.  I hope you welcome their spicy, sweet, and truly succulent qualities to your kitchen the next time your bananas ripen.

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**Maybe next time… Cardamom banana bites are best kept chilled, but the cocoa glaze tends to become wet when refrigerated (still delicious, but without a crisp shell).  If you aren’t eating these the same day, you might wait to ice them until an hour or two before serving, or opt for melted bittersweet chocolate drizzled over them in place of the cocoa glaze. (This option is a little more rich and crisp, and a little less sweet.)  Melted white chocolate or sifted powdered sugar are also great toppings, just as the sprinkles can be deliciously replaced with shredded coconut or crushed nuts of your choice.  Finally, feel free to explore your spice cabinet for this recipe — whether you combine them or stick with one, a variety of sweet spices will pair well with banana.

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Rhubarb Rum Sandwich Cakes

Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (87)

Whenever I see the word rhubarb, I hear it in my sweet paternal grandmother’s voice. I don’t have a distinct recollection of her making a rhubarb dish, but she was a prolific pie and candy maker, so it’s certainly possible.  To be honest, my memories of eating rhubarb growing up are few, vague and neutral.  Eating it as an adult, I’ve loved it immensely and can clearly remember each instance of enjoying it.  In spite of this, I’ve hardly made anything with rhubarb myself.  Its season seems to slip by quickly each spring, and by the time I think of transforming it into a dessert, it’s gone from the market.  Not this year.

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Craving a casual dessert, I decided on a whoopie pie style cookie: soft but sturdy handheld  cakes with a creamy filling.  After cooking it on the stovetop, I incorporated rhubarb into both the cake batter and the center of the cookies, and I paired it with lightly sweetened cream cheese to mirror its tangy flavor.  Some vanilla bean and good splash of spiced, dark rum would offer warmth and softness to balance out the tartness.  (And this match was marvelous; I say rhubarb and rum belong together!)  Here’s how I made them.

Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (193)Rhubarb Rum Sandwich Cakes (makes about 16 sandwiches, 2.5″ – 3″ diameter each)

FOR THE RHUBARB*:

  • 4 large (14-15″) stalks rhubarb (14-15 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup sugar

Rinse rhubarb and trim tough ends, so that each stalk is about 12-13″ long (11-12 ounces total, once trimmed).  Cut each stem in half lengthwise, then cut horizontally in 1/2″ segments.  You should have about 2.5 cups chopped rhubarb, loosely packed.  Place it in a medium saucepan and toss with sugar.  Place pan over medium heat. Once sizzling, turn heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 15 minutes. (Keep an eye on the pan; it’s known to spill over.)  Rhubarb should be very soft and juicy at this point.  If it’s not, keep cooking in 5 minute increments.

Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (212)Remove pan from heat, remove lid, and let rhubarb sit in the open pan until it reaches room temperature or at least lukewarm. Measure out a full 1/2 cup of cooked rhubarb and place it in a bowl.  Mash it with a fork until an even pulp is formed (this will only take a minute or two, since the cooked rhubarb is so tender); set aside.  Place remaining rhubarb in a sieve or strainer over a bowl.  Set aside.

FOR THE BATTER:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (22)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 medium/large eggs
  • seeds scraped from 1 large vanilla bean, or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or powder
  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons dark/spiced rum**

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line baking sheets with parchment; set aside.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape insides of bowl with spatula, add the vanilla bean, and beat until evenly dispersed.  Over the butter mixture, sift the flour, salt, and baking powder.  Mix until an even batter is formed, scraping sides of bowl as needed.  Add the rum and beat until thoroughly incorporated.

Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (6)Scoop batter by the heaping tablespoon onto lined cookie sheets, keeping 2″ of space between dollops.  You should have about 32-34 cookies.  Bake 10 minutes, or until very edges of cookies are beginning to look toasty, tops are dry to the touch, and bottoms are golden brown.  Remove from oven and let cool completely on baking sheets.  They will flatten as they cool.  If not filling the same day, store covered up to 24 hours.

FOR THE FILLING & ASSEMBLY:

  • 12 ounces cream cheese, softened wellRhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (43)
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for serving (optional)
  • scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon dark/spiced rum
  • strained rhubarb from above (discard its juice/syrup or use as you wish)

Beat cream cheese until smooth and soft.  Sift the powdered sugar and salt over it.  Beat until smooth, stopping to scrape bowl with spatula. Add the rum and beat until incorporated. (Note: This mixture is intentionally not too sweet, as the cookies and rhubarb are already sweetened. This recipe will likely leave you with a small amount of extra filling; it’s dreamy on toast or used as frosting.)  Store filling covered in the fridge until ready to assemble the cookies (up to 24 hours).

Rhubarb Rum Whoopie Pies (30)To assemble, turn half of the cookies over and top with a rounded tablespoon of cream cheese filling.  Add a scant teaspoon of the strained rhubarb (see note below).  If you want the rhubarb to show/ooze from the sides of the cookie sandwiches, spread filling gently to the edges with the back of a spoon.  Top with a remaining cookie, right side up, and press down gently.  If desired, sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar, and serve in paper cupcake liners.  Rhubarb rum cakes are best when assembled just before eaten, but you can keep them covered and chilled, eating within 12 hours. The sprinkling of powdered sugar and the rhubarb will soak into the cookies after much longer than that, but they’ll still taste great up to 48 hours.

Creamy, tangy, and warm in flavor, these whoopie pie style cookies offer vibrancy both to the palate and to the eye.  The tartness of the rhubarb, the richness of the filling, and the kick of the rum together make for an utterly tasty trio.  Hearty and decadent, a rhubarb rum sandwich cake is perfect as a stand alone dessert or snack. And whether or not grandma would have made these, I trust she would applaud after her first bite. After all, a sweet, scrumptious, seasonal treat like this is practically irresistible.

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Maybe next time…  I wanted to let the rhubarb, vanilla and rum shine without distraction in this recipe, but I’m sure brown sugar in place of white, and/or the addition of some cinnamon or other sweet spices would likely taste wondrous alongside them.  For do-aheads, as I mentioned above, feel free to make the cookies up to 24 hours in advance, as well as the cream cheese filling. But I find it best to cook the rhubarb the day of, and assemble the sandwiches as close to eating as possible.

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*This recipe makes just enough rhubarb filling for the batter and the small dollops sandwiched between the cookies.  I kept the amount of rhubarb filling on the small side because there’s already a distinct rhubarb flavor from the rhubarb in the cakes.  But if you are like me and find yourself involuntarily chanting “more rhubarb!”, feel free to cook more rhubarb by multiplying its part of the above recipe by 1.5 or 2.  Pile on as much of it as filling as you wish; just be sure to keep the amount of mashed rhubarb in the batter recipe the same (1/2 cup), and be ready for lusciously oozing cookie-wiches.

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**I have special place in my heart for Sailor Jerry rum for baking. It’s flavorful, warm, and vanilla-y with a kick. If you don’t want to use alcohol, skip it in the filling, and trade it for milk or a not-too-sweet juice in the batter.

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Lemongrass Meringues: Simple and Scrumptious

Lemongrass Meringues (1)A friend of mine recently mentioned his success in cooking a dinner with lemongrass, and I was intrigued.  I always enjoy lemongrass in Vietnamese and Thai food (especially tom kha gai: that fragrant and delectable coconut milk soup) — but my strongest memory of it comes from drinking it as a simple tea.  Nearly every foggy morning of the bygone summer I spent in Ecuador, I’d walk into the kitchen to find it steeped and steaming.  Its strands were haphazardly but beautifully wound around the inside of the glass pot, whose warm mist was so fragrant and soothing, I could never pass up a mug.

Lemongrass Meringues (2)Hearing about my friend’s savory lemongrass recipe sparked my mission to create something sweet with it.  Surprised that I hadn’t tasted or made a lemongrass dessert before, I found myself transforming it into a custard pie, then panna cotta, then coconut cream mousse.  While these all had great potential, none were quite right — and ultimately something in me was yearning to return to that nostalgic tea.  So I brewed my next batch of lemongrass, turned it into a hot syrup, beat it into meringue, and piped it into sweet, simple treats that offer a whisper of its flavor in a light-as-air form.

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Lemongrass Meringues
(makes about 110 little meringues: each 1.25 to 1.5” in diameter and about 1” in height)

- 1 bunch fresh lemongrass (about 2.5 ounces)
- 1 ¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup egg whites (about 6 large whites) at room temperature
- food coloring (optional)
- unsweetened shredded coconut and/or sprinkles (optional)
- candy thermometer

The night before you plan to make theLemongrass Meringues (4) meringues, or up to 3 days ahead of time, rinse the lemongrass and whack it with a meat tenderizer or wrap with a towel and hit with a hammer. With a sharp knife, cut the bruised stalks crosswise into little rings. Transfer them to a small saucepan and cover with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer.  Let simmer for 1 hour, or until liquid has reduced by half.  Cover and let sit overnight, or up to three days in fridge.

When ready to make the meringues, place oven racks on top and bottom thirds of oven. Preheat oven to 200 F. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper. Place egg whites in a metal or glass bowl and beat on high with an electric mixer (preferably free standing, with whisk attachment). When whites become foamy and white, slowly sprinkle ¼ cup sugar over them while beating. Keep beating until they are opaque and fluffy with soft to firm peaks. Turn off mixer.

Lemongrass Meringues (5)Strain the brewed lemongrass through a fine mesh sieve; discard the pieces of lemongrass. Measure out 2/3 cup liquid and transfer it to a clean saucepan or wipe out the one you used for brewing; this will ensure that no fibers of lemongrass end up in your meringue.  Add 1.5 cups of the sugar and the salt to the pan; whisk.  Fit pan with candy thermometer.  Bring to a boil over low/medium heat. Stir with whisk once or twice as mixture boils (use caution; it’s hot!). Watching closely, let the temperature reach 230 F. Quickly turn mixer back on, and carefully pour all of the bubbling syrup into the beating whites. Leave mixer on high and keep beating for 6 to 8 minutes, until the outside of the bowl is at warm room temperature.

If desired, fold in a drop or two of food coloring, splitting meringue into two bowls for two colors if you wish.  Transfer meringue into pastry bag(s) fitted with your favorite large tip, then pipe meringue onto lined cookie sheets. [I like to keep my meringues small (about 1.25 to 1.5 inch diameter and 1" tall); the baking time here is for this size. Larger meringues will need longer.]  If desired, top with pinches of unsweetened shredded coconut (a great complement to lemongrass) or with decorative sprinkles.

Lemongrass Meringues (10)Place cookie sheets on both oven racks, baking meringues for 35 minutes. Carefully switch the meringues from top to bottom racks and vice versa, then bake for another 35 minutes. Turn oven off, leave it closed, and let meringues sit inside cooling oven for 45 minutes to an hour (no longer). Remove meringues from oven and quickly transfer to a sealed container. For best results — especially if you live in a humid area like I do — toss a desiccant packet or two into the container (consider borrowing them from your vitamin or pill bottles), and keep the container well-sealed.  Eat within three days.

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Crisp little puffs of sweetness, these dainty meringues offer a hint of lemongrass that’s most noticeably tasted on the day they are baked.  Their light and petite form is as easy to eat as it is addictive, just as their bit of salt balances the sweetness and highlights the delicate grassy refreshment within.  A nod to the tea that inspired them, simplicity and scrumptiousness are central to these treats. Sometimes that’s all I need.

Lemongrass Meringues (18)Maybe next time…  Here I chose the method of beating hot syrup to egg whites (Italian style) in order to incorporate a good amount of liquid for flavor (which isn’t really possible with the Swiss or French methods).  The Italian way actually cooks the meringue, so if you don’t want to bake it into little cookies, you can use it to frost a cake or top a pie (and toast it with a torch or broiler, if desired).  These meringues would be great drizzled or sandwiched with melted white chocolate, or topped with crushed macadamia nuts. If you don’t have or don’t want to deal with a pastry bag, you can use two spoons to make free-form dollops of meringue on the parchment lined cookie sheets.

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Cilantro Sultana Mini Pies: Golden Raisins, Honey and Lemon

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I realize that cilantro falls into the same polarizing category as coconut, licorice, and raisins: for everyone that loves it, someone else hates it with a passion — whether it’s simple preference or genetics that cause the disdain. (If you aren’t a fan, please return for a cilantro-free recipe in a few weeks.)  As for me, I was in college when I first fell in love with fresh cilantro. The enamorment started somewhere between my visits to the shady but addictive burrito shop (which was open until 3AM) and my casual cooking lessons with my roommate’s family, who came to visit from Honduras from time to time.

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In spite of my love for cilantro, I never really thought I’d turn it into a dessert.  For one, I wouldn’t want to bake it into anything, as its flavor disappears and changes when heated. Plus, I couldn’t imagine it any better than it was as a savory herb.  But then I brought home a bag of tangy golden raisins that I’d planned make into hamantaschen filling.  Mindlessly unpacking the groceries and sampling all the way, I ended up with both cilantro and sultanas in my mouth at once. To my delight, the harmony of flavors sparkled! Golden raisins and fresh cilantro were a marvelous match, perfect for a new dessert. Instead of cookies, my sultanas became an unbaked honey-herb filling for tiny pie crusts made with cornmeal and lemon: a splendid celebration of cilantro as a sweet.

Cilantro Sultana Mini Pies (makes 15 mini-muffin sized pies, with plenty of extra filling to use anywhere you’d spread jam or preserves)

FOR THE FILLING (makes about 1 and 2/3 cups)

  • 2.5 cups (about 12 ounces) Cilantro Sultana Mini Piessultanas or golden raisins, divided
  • 2-3 medium lemons, preferably Meyer
  • 10 grams fresh whole cilantro leaves, rinsed and dried with stems discarded (about 1/3 cup leaves, well packed but not smashed)
  • 3 tablespoons honey

Look closely through the raisins and remove any wayward stems. Place 2 cups (about 9 ounces) of the raisins in a small to medium saucepan, setting aside the remaining half cup. Rinse, dry, and finely zest the peel of one lemon; set zest aside for crusts. Juice the lemon and strain the juice. Repeat juicing and straining with the second and, if needed, the third lemon — stopping when you have a total of 1/2 cup lemon juice.  Pour juice over the raisins and bring to a low/medium heat. Let gently simmer until most but not all of the juice is absorbed, about 6-10 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Cilantro Sultana Mini Pies (5)Place cooled raisins in the bowl of a food processor along with the cilantro leaves.  Process with blade attachment for about a minute, then stop to scrape sides and bottom of bowl. Repeat 2 or 3 times, drizzling with the honey as you do.  Stop when honey is evenly distributed and even, small pieces of raisins and cilantro have formed (large leaves should not be present).  Mixture will be sticky and thick.  Remove from food processor and fold in the reserved half cup of whole sultanas, stirring until evenly dispersed.  Cover and chill until ready to use.

Cilantro Sultana Mini Pies (21)FOR THE MINI PIE CRUSTS (makes 15):

  • 1/3 cup (2.75 ounces) frozen unsalted butter, cut into 8-12 pieces
  • 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (reduce to 1/4 tsp if butter is salted)
  • finely grated zest of one lemon
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon yellow corn meal

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Grease cups of a miniature muffin pan; set pan aside.  Place frozen butter pieces and flour in the clean, dry bowl of a food processor.  Pulse for just a few minutes, until fine crumbs have formed and no large butter chunks are present.  Stop food processor, add all remaining ingredients, and pulse again just until combined. Dough will still appear crumbly, but it will hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand.  Resist the temptation to overmix it.

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Separate dough into tablespoon-sized pieces, weighing 20 grams or 0.7 ounce a piece; you should have 15.  Roll each piece into a ball, flatten slightly, and press into greased mini muffin pan, pushing up the sides and pricking the bottoms gently with a fork (not all the way through).  Bake for 16-18 minutes; edges will be quite golden brown.  Remove from oven, let sit in pan for just a few minutes, and then use a fork to carefully tilt each crust to allow airflow beneath it. Let crusts fully cool before filling, storing cooled crusts in an airtight container if not filling the same day.

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TO ASSEMBLE THE PIES:  Fill each cooled pie shell with a generous scoop of sultana-cilantro filling (at least a tablespoon per pie).  If desired, sprinkle tops of pies with sifted powdered sugar.  For the brightest flavor, eat on the day they are made.  Store them covered and refrigerated until ready to eat, finishing them off within a day or two.

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With their crisp, buttery, cornmeal-flecked shells, these petite pies offer a refreshing dessert format for the beloved herb within.  The tender golden raisins and lively bits of cilantro prove to make a deliciously balanced pair — all enhanced with tart lemon in both the filling and the crust. Sweet, gooey honey adds a welcome warmth to this otherwise tangy treat, just as the complexity of textures provides a pleasant, toothsome–and even addictive–eating experience that’s scrumptious but not too sweet.

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Maybe next time… Lime is well known to match nicely with cilantro, and it would make a great substitute for the lemon in this recipe.  The same is true with orange, which would also bestow a little more sweetness to these tangy treats.  To offer a subtle echo of cilantro in the crust, try adding 1/4 teaspoon of its ground seed — coriander — to the dough.  If you want to keep this dessert refined-sugar-free, skip the powdered sugar all together (they’re just as delicious unadorned), or consider whipping up some honey-sweetened cream or icing to drizzle over the pie tops.

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