Purple Potato Cupcakes with Molasses Cream Cheese Frosting

Purple Potato Cupcakes (2)I love the idea of purple potatoes. I know, I know: they’ve been around forever and are far from uncommon — but they bring a welcome whimsy to a menu, in my view. Maybe it’s their unexpected burst of color, or their superbly syllabic name. Whatever the appeal, it lured me into purchasing a few too many pounds at the market recently. And it wasn’t long before the potatoes’ mild but earthy flavor whispered of dessert potential.

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I imagined grating them into a carrot-cake-like batter, and knew they’d match nicely with a generous scoop of ginger. Tangy orange zest and mellow turbinado sugar would be musts, as would molasses — which is featured both in the cakes and frosting. (I’ve since wondered why I never thought of adding molasses to cream cheese frosting before; it tastes like velvety gingerbread cheesecake on a spoon — ahem, I mean, on cake!) While the potatoes lose their vivid color in the process, they take on a vibrant new life in the form of tender, rich, and splendidly balanced cupcakes: a perfect fall or winter treat.

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Purple Potato Cupcakes [makes 16-18 standard sized cupcakes]


• 1 medium orange
• 8 ounces purple potatoes (from about 5 small potatoes), measuring about 1.5 cup grated
• fresh ginger root to grate into 1 tablespoon
• 2 eggs
• 2/3 cup vegetable oil
• 1/4 cup molasses (warmed slightly for easy pouring, if desired)
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 2/3 cup turbinado sugar
• 1.25 cups all purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
• optional: 2/3 cup raisins and/or chopped walnuts, preferably toasted

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line muffin tins with 16-18 paper liners. Rinse, dry, and finely zest the orange peel; set zest aside. Juice the orange, remove any seeds, and measure out 2 tablespoons juice. Set aside. Wash and dry potatoes; grate with a standard size (large hole) grater to make 1.5 cup grated, moderately packed, weighing 8 ounces. Using a very small, sharp grater such as a Microplane, grate the ginger until you have 1 packed tablespoon grated (see tip below*); set aside.

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In a large bowl, beat eggs and oil until smooth. Beat in the molasses and vanilla. Add the sugar and stir until evenly dispersed. Sift flour, baking soda, salt, and ground ginger over the bowl. Begin to stir, alternately adding the 2 tablespoons of orange juice. Fold in the grated potato, orange zest and fresh ginger, mixing until incorporated. If using, fold in the chopped nuts and/or raisins.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (9)Fill the lined cups of the muffin pans 1/2 to 2/3 full. Bake for about 15 minutes, just until a toothpick inserted in the center tests clean, with no wet batter. Remove from oven and let sit in pan just until cool enough to handle, then transfer to wire racks or a towel on your countertop. Let cool completely before frosting.

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• 14 ounces cream cheese, softened
• 1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter, softened
• 1-2 tablespoons molasses, to taste (warmed slightly for easy pouring, if desired)
• 2 teaspoons dried ground ginger
• 1.25 cup powdered sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)

Beat cream cheese and butter until completely mixed. Add molasses and beat until evenly incorporated. Sift ginger, powdered sugar, and salt over the bowl. Beat until smooth, occasionally stopping to scrape sides and bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula. Transfer frosting to a pastry bag, and pipe it onto the cupcakes. If desired, decorate with sprinkles or more turbinado sugar. The texture of these cupcakes is best at room temperature, but if not eating within a few hours, store covered in the fridge for up to three days.

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With their spiced, seasonal flavors and succulent texture, purple potato cupcakes are a celebration of unexpected decadence. The potato shreds offer gentle hints of an earthy, almost mineral taste, which is complemented perfectly by the dark molasses, warm ginger, and sweet orange. The dreamy frosting is smooth and addictive, with cream cheese and molasses proving to be a perfect pair. Carrot cake’s striking new cousin has arrived, and I think you’ll want it to stick around.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (1)Maybe next time… I love the play of flavors in these cupcakes, but I do think they’d welcome other spices, either alongside or instead of the ginger (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves…). Similarly, feel free to use demerera or brown sugar in place of the turbinado.  Dried cranberries would add some seasonal flair swapped in for the optional raisins, as would hazelnuts or pecans instead of walnuts. I trust that this recipe would work nicely as a cake instead of cupcakes; just be sure to adjust the baking time accordingly.

Purple Potato Cupcakes (10)*Grating fresh ginger can be tricky. I find it helps to start with a chilled or frozen ginger root, and to cut a long rectangle out of it, which will also remove the peel. I use a sharp, fine grater such as a Microplane, and hold the ginger rectangle in one hand and grater in the other, over a plate. Press the tip/narrow side of the ginger very firmly against the grater, and push back and forth quickly. Don’t expect the outcome to be dry or separated; it will most likely look like ginger mush, which is perfectly fine for most baked goods.

Posted in Baking with Veggies, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (12)

I’ve always felt that a good, ripe fig is like a little scoop of jam in its own bite-sized pouch. So when fig season arrives, I enjoy lots of them unadorned and I gleefully accept their sweetness as a timely gift. (Something ought to soothe the sting of summer’s end, don’t you think?) But it never takes long before the jammy fruit inspires me to create a new treat in its honor, like a creamy pie or a tender torte. This year was no exception.

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (14)My mood was casual yet decadent this time. I wanted to pair the figs with the depth and richness of browned butter, and I gravitated toward the warmth that whiskey would offer. Together, this combination found its home in a blondie-like bar with a hearty dose of salty-meets-sweet. The double-cooked fruit turns extra tender, and its tiny seeds become scattered across the bars, offering pleasant bits of crispness in every bite.

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Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars
[makes a 9 x 13″ pan, 24- 48 bars depending on size]

  • 1 cup unsalted butterWhiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (2)
  • 12 ounces fresh ripe figs (about 10-12 medium figs; I used Black Mission)
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon whiskey (I used Rye)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 egg yolks (reserve the whites)
  • 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, heat the butter over a medium flame, stirring occasionally. Let it bubble for several minutes, watching closely, until it’s becoming brown and fragrant. Remove from heat; set aside. (Note: Many people strain their browned butter at this point in a recipe, in order to remove the bits of charred solids — but I prefer not to; I like the hints of smoky complexity they add to these bars.)

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (3)Rinse figs, remove stems, and cut them into wedges (I cut each of mine into eighths, but the size of your figs may require a different division). Set nearby. In a small to medium saucepan, heat 1/2 cup whiskey, 2 teaspoons of vanilla, and the granulated sugar, stirring over heat until sugar has dissolved. Add the sliced figs and cook at medium heat, bubbling uncovered for 8-10 minutes. Remove from stovetop, let cool for a few minutes, and transfer to a sieve set over a bowl in which the syrup will gather. Set in a cool place.

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Grease sides and bottom of a 9 x 13″ pan, then line with a piece of parchment big enough that it hangs over the two long sides of the pan. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F. Once the butter has cooled to lukewarm, beat it with the brown sugar. Add the egg yolks and 1 teaspoon vanilla, mixing until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the butter mixture and begin to stir. Measure out 1/4 cup of the fig syrup and add it to the batter. (If there is any syrup left, use it as you wish: think cocktails, waffles, even just sparkling water.)  Beat batter until smooth and even.

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (7)Spread batter evenly into parchment lined pan. Carefully arrange the cooked fig slices, which may still be quite warm, sliced side down on top of the batter, only gently pushing them in.  [Optional: To give the bars a toasty shine, make a whiskey egg wash. To do so, vigorously whisk 2 tablespoons of reserved egg whites with remaining 1 tablespoon whiskey. Evenly brush the mixture over the bars until just coated (no need to use it all, as pooling of the egg white is not recommended).]

Whiskey Fig Browned Butter Bars (10)Bake for 20-25 minutes, until edges are toasty brown and center is not wet. Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan. Use parchment to remove the cooled slab. Carefully peel off and discard parchment, and transfer bars to a cutting board. Slice as you wish, remembering that these bars are rich, and that — like brownies — their toasty edge pieces are often the most coveted. To store, keep covered and chilled, eating within a few days. I like to stash and serve mine in mini muffin liners or slips of parchment.

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Soft and buttery, these whiskey fig bars burst with both luxury and succulence. The ultra-tender fruit offers mellow hints of warm liquor and vanilla. Meanwhile, the silky batter bestows a delightful depth of flavor: molassesy brown sugar, flecks of toasty browned butter, and a perfect portion of salt.  Let’s celebrate the season with figs in many forms! These luscious bars are a great place to start. 

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Maybe next time… While I like to use figs that are ripe but not mushy, this recipe is forgiving — it works fine with figs that are a little past their prime, or even with firm or otherwise imperfect figs. Similarly, other varieties of figs would work, or even a mix of types. Muscovado could be nice in place of the brown sugar, just as bourbon or even scotch would work in place of the rye whiskey I used here. Rum or brandy would be great, too.

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Posted in Baking with Booze, Cookies & Bars, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake with Pink Peppercorn and Lemon

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (10)When I first came across Pink Pearl apples, I was simply magnetized. Their flesh is a vibrant, creamy rose color, their flavor is pleasantly mild and citrusy, and they only stay around for a few weeks each year — so embracing their season felt like a must. While munching on many in their delicious, pure state, I relished in the tangy-sweet crunch I love so much about eating apples raw. Still, it didn’t take me long to start daydreaming of how to showcase them in a new baked creation.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (19)The tart pink beauties invited a citrus counterpart, and I knew lemon would make a perfect pairing. But the apples’ color also deserved a celebration, so I reached for my stash of bright pink peppercorns: crisp and faintly peppery with lovely floral tones. (In fact, I’m told they’re actually dried berries — not really pepper at all!)  I decided on an upside down cake that would flaunt both fruits when served, and included a scoop of cornmeal for added character in the batter. The elements turned out to complement each other beautifully, resulting in a delicious symphony of flavors amid a moist, tender crumb.

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Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake with Pink Peppercorns, Lemon and Cornmeal
Makes a 9.75” cake, serves 8-10

You’ll need three to four lemons total for this recipe (I used Meyer, but any kind will do). Begin by finely zesting two of them and setting the zest aside for the batter. Then juice them until you have ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice for the batter and fruit layer, respectively. Be sure to use an ovenproof skillet such as cast iron. My skillet is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″, but it’s only 9.75″ across the top at the widest part. Feel free to use one that’s close to this size, and carefully watch the baking time, adjusting as needed.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (24)FOR THE FRUIT LAYER:

• 2-3 medium sized pink pearl apples
• 2 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
• ¼ cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon pink peppercorns

Rinse and dry apples. Using a mandolin slicer or sharp knife, cut apples crosswise into thin (1/8″) slices. Remove core from slices with a paring knife. Toss apple slices in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar; set aside. In a 9-10″ heatproof skillet, heat the butter until just melted; remove from heat. Rotate pan to let butter coat its inner sides. Scatter the pink peppercorns rather evenly over the butter, then make a layer of overlapping slices of apple on top of the peppercorns, starting at the outer edge. Return skillet to medium heat, letting fruit bubble and saute for 5 minutes, until apple slices have softened and can be penetrated easily with a paring knife. Remove from heat.

FOR THE CAKE BATTER:Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (25)

• 1.25 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons corn meal
• 1/3 cup melted unsalted butter
• ½ cup sugar
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup strained fresh lemon juice
• ½ cup room temperature water
• finely grated zest of 2 lemons

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk in the cornmeal. Set aside. In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar until even. Stir in the vanilla. Making sure the mixture is not too hot from the butter (lukewarm is fine), add the eggs one at time, beating well after each is added. Starting with the dry ingredients, alternate adding the flour mixture, water and lemon juice, mixing thoroughly until ingredients are incorporated. Finally, fold in the lemon zest and stir until evenly distributed. Gently pour the batter over the fruit, letting it reach edges of skillet.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (26)Bake for about 30 minutes, just until edges of cake are golden brown and center tests clean with a toothpick (no wet batter; a few moist crumbs are OK). Carefully remove from oven. Let cool for at least an hour. If not serving within a few hours, let cool completely then tightly wrap skillet in foil. Store at room temperature up to 10 hours. When ready to serve, place skillet over medium heat for 30-60 seconds to help loosen apples. Run a butter knife around the edge of the cake, and carefully invert onto your serving plate.

Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (28)Draped in a layer of pink deliciousness, this tender, corn-flecked cake offers sweet vibrancy in color and flavor alike. The lemon bestows a brightness that’s perfectly balanced with fruity bursts of peppercorn (which some tasters declared are the key to cake’s magic). Tender apple slices make for a moist and succulent texture, enhanced by the toothsome cornmeal throughout. Refreshing and not too sweet, this skillet cake makes a great breakfast, a nice treat with afternoon tea, or a light and satisfying dessert. Anytime of day, its vividness proves welcome with every bite.

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Maybe next time… Stunning Pink Pearl Apples were the inspiration behind this cake, but when they can’t be found, other varieties of apples would work fine in their place — try picking your favorite kind. For a sweeter, more decadent cake, replace the water and lemon juice with lemonade, and/or dust with powdered sugar or top with vanilla ice cream to serve. This cake is all about the citrus, and I imagine orange juice and zest would be as marvelous as lemon. But please try not to omit the pink peppercorns, nor to increase the amount; the tablespoon noted here was truly the sweet spot.

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Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (27) Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (3)Pink Pearl Apple Skillet Cake (9)

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My July: Birthday Cakes and Baking Honors

Aperol Cupcakes 1
It happens every year. July begins and I feel both hopeful and slightly terrified at once: the year is half over (yikes!), yet it’s a chance for renewal and lots of celebration. But in a blink, the lively month is at its end. The frosting splatters I find in my house remind me of the festivities I’ve been fortunate to be part of — which this year were more bustling than ever. (Stay tuned for recipes I’ve been dreaming up but haven’t had the chance to perfect yet.)

Jacobs birthday cakeIt started off with the birthday of our newest staff member at the office, whose big day coincided with his first day at work. In the whirlwind, I failed to take a full photo of his cake, but imagine this one with tart cherry juice and cherries swapped in for the blueberry elements, and with its swirly meringue edges nice and toasted. [Tip: everyone should bring a kitchen torch to work once in awhile.]

A few days later, my husband turned 40!  We decided to have a tiny barbeque where I served this summery cake, frosted with a bit of lime-speckled cream cheese icing and topped with a mountain of sweet nectarines. The day seemed truly magical and left the birthday boy feeling grateful and, most of all, loved — exactly my wish for him.
Jacob birthday party

Little David turned four soon after that, and while I couldn’t stay long at his picture-perfect party, I was honored to provide the cake custom made to his very specifications: chocolate cake, vanilla frosting and strawberries — with some extra chocolate cupcakes to match. And then, before I knew it, my father in law, my office mate, a few dear friends, and even yours truly had turned a year older. What a compilation of lovely lives to celebrate!

Aperol cupcakes 2

And the icing on the cake* this July was a new opportunity: a kind Campari publicist asked if I’d make my Aperol Spritz cupcakes for an exclusive SF party at the end of the month. After a quick, healthy dose of my typical what-ifs, I said yes. After all, I’d baked for big gatherings before — it’s just that I’ve usually known the hosts. This time, I only knew of the party’s hostess, and I was flattered, honored, and ready to bake!
*pun intended

Cherry bourbon bars

So even though I don’t have a new recipe to share with you yet (like the iced cherry bourbon bars or sesame mango cookies I’ve been testing), I’m full of inspiration from the birthday-baking extravaganza that was my July. I hope yours was fantastic, too, and I’d love to hear about it in the comments. See you in August!


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Double Plum Torte: Fresh, Dried, Delicious

Double Plum Torte (24)I grew up spending lots of time with my grandma, who not only stocked prunes like a quintessential senior, but also brought home buttery prune-filled danishes whenever she visited San Francisco (along with fragrant loaves of fresh sourdough bread). As a kid, the pastries were a rare and dazzling treat: flaky, soft dough surrounding a gooey-sweet puree of rich fruit. Remembering them as an adult, I’ve long hoped to create my own prune dessert — and when I started seeing their fresh predecessors at the market this season, I decided it was time. Fresh and dried plums were destined to become a delicious duo.

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But I vowed to proceed with caution: I know prunes aren’t for everyone, and their reputation (ahem) tends to induce a giggle, despite their lesser-known popularity as a delicacy. So I’d be sure to showcase the fresh plums on the outside of my dessert and hide the dried ones in the batter. By steeping the prunes in vanilla then blending them with luscious maple syrup, I managed to create a flavorful, ultra-moist torte that’s free of refined cane sugar and makes as lovely a dessert as it does a breakfast or afternoon snack. What’s more: it’s been officially declared delicious by all sorts of tasters.

Double Plum Torte (makes an 8″ torte; serves 10)

  • 10 ounces pitted prunes (about 1.5 cup packed)Double Plum Torte (10)
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 10-12 ounces fresh plums, ripe but firm (about 3-6 plums depending on size)  I used Santa Rosa plums but any variety should be fine
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup almond meal (skin-on; not blanched)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

Place prunes in a small saucepan and cover with vanilla and water. Simmer covered for 5-7 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove lid and turn off heat. Leave uncovered to cool down a bit. Meanwhile, grease an 8″ cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment (alternately, simply grease and flour an 8″ springform pan if you have one). Rinse and dry the fresh plums, slice each one into about 10-12 segments, and discard the pits. Set slices aside. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Double Plum Torte (13)Transfer the steeped prunes and any remaining liquid (there should be a small amount) into the bowl of a food processor; top with the maple syrup. Blend for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl, until a consistent paste has formed with speckles of prune no larger than raisins. Measure out 1.5 cups of the mixture; transfer to a large bowl (use any leftover as you wish). Add the soft butter and beat until evenly dispersed. Making sure the mixture is not too warm, add the egg and mix until incorporated.

Double Plum Torte (15.5)Into a separate small bowl, sift the flour, salt, and baking powder. Whisk in the almond meal, stirring well, until even with no lumps. Add flour mixture to prune mixture, stirring until a thick batter is formed. Spread batter evenly into prepared cake pan. Arrange the plum slices around the edge of the torte with a few in the center. Cover with tin foil and bake for 20 minutes, stopping to remove foil and rotate torte. Continue baking for another 25-30 minutes (a total of 45-50 minutes), checking with a toothpick toward the end; the center should not be too wet, though a few very moist crumbs will be inevitable.

Double Plum Torte (4)Remove from oven and let cool completely in pan. If using a springform pan, remove sides to serve. Otherwise, loosen sides with a butter knife, then carefully flip the cooled torte onto a plate; remove parchment, and carefully flip again onto your serving plate. Slice and enjoy.  This torte tastes best the day it’s baked, but can be covered and refrigerated for up to two days. Before eating, bring it back to room temperature or warm it slightly.

Double Plum Torte (2)With its fragrant maple-vanilla batter, this torte celebrates both dried and fresh plums in a single, succulent form. The tangy plum slices offer a burst of juicy flavor and vibrant color, while the dense, prune-rich cake is incredibly moist and naturally sweet. Having shared its slices with many tasters, I’m happy to say that it was enjoyed by all, from prune lovers to prune pessimists. I like to savor mine with a hot cup of coffee and a nod to my grandma, whose generosity with those delectable danishes is but one of the many ways she made my life sweet.

Double Plum Torte (7)Maybe next time… As mentioned above, this torte is very moist and the areas directly under the fruit have the texture akin to a nice steamed pudding. I found this delightful as did many of my tasters, but if you prefer a less moist cake, skip the plum slices placed in the center.  Fresh plum, vanilla, and maple make this a flavorful treat, but a bit of finely zested orange peel could be lovely in the batter, or perhaps a pinch of minced herbs like rosemary or thyme. To make it dairy free, replace the butter with Earth Balance or the like. To make a gluten free version, simply replace the all purpose flour with a multi-grain gluten free flour blend, such as Bob’s Red Mill.

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Honey Dijon Caramels: A Savory-Sweet Symmetry

Honey Dijon Caramels (13)In the world of savories and snacks, I’ve always been a big fan of mustard. I’m known to accumulate several jars at a time for the sheer pleasure of trying new varieties. Seeded or spicy, beery or herbal — I love dipping pretzels, bread, and even carrot sticks into my favorite salty condiment. To tell you the truth, I never really thought of mustard as a candidate for a dessert ingredient. But recently, while in the throes of a lengthy caramel-making kick, my new jar of Dijon started calling to me. Could this velvety, scrumptious mustard match well with brown sugar, honey and cream?

Honey Dijon Caramels (16)I find most Dijon to be silky smooth and naturally creamy, pleasantly tangy but absent of sharpness. And it tends to have a short ingredient list: salt, vinegar, and perhaps a bit of wine alongside the requisite mustard seeds. Since three of these four items are often used in sweets, I went ahead and added a scoop of Dijon to my next batch of caramels — and I’m absolutely glad that I did. The result was a delicious and tender treat with an unexpected savory whisper. Not too mustardy, not too distinct: just a pleasant complexity that left many taste-testers curious and addicted. (Besides, if we enjoy sweets with soy sauce, mayonnaise, and even bacon, why not give Dijon a chance ?)

Honey Dijon Caramels (makes about 40 caramels)

  • 2 tablespoons high quality Honey Dijon Caramels (3)Dijon mustard (smooth, without whole mustard seeds; with few ingredients and NO garlic or onion)
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cold (not softened)
  •  1 to 1.5 teaspoons sea salt flakes, for sprinkling
  • candy thermometer

Lightly grease the inside (bottom and sides) of an 8-9″ heatproof square pan, then place a single strip of parchment across the bottom and up two of the sides. Lightly grease the parchment. Set pan aside. Cut butter into 6-8 pieces; set nearby.  In a small saucepan, whisk together the mustard, cream, vanilla and table salt. Slowly stir over medium heat with a heatproof whisk, just until the mixture comes to a steady simmer, then turn off heat and place lid on pan; leave covered nearby.

Honey Dijon CaramelsFit a medium saucepan with your candy thermometer, and place brown sugar and honey in the pan. Place over medium heat. While mixture heats, stir occasionally and very gently with a heatproof utensil such as a wooden spoon (avoid splashing the mixture on walls of pan). Watch thermometer closely, turning off heat just when it reaches 245 F. Quickly stir in the chopped butter, mixing until butter is completely incorporated and melted.

Remove lid from the cream mixture and give it a good stir, then slowly pour it all into the warm honey mixture. Return saucepan to medium heat, candy thermometer intact. Stirring regularly, bring temperature back to 245 F. This can take upwards of 10 minutes. You may increase the heat slightly, to medium-high, if it seems to be taking too long.

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As soon as the mixture hits 245 F (no higher!), quickly remove pan from heat and pour mixture into parchment lined pan. Let cool to room temperature on countertop, sprinkling with the sea salt flakes after 30 minutes or so (too soon and the salt will sink into the hot caramel; too late and the salt will resist sticking to the surface). Once at room temperature, cover and refrigerate caramel for 2 hours or so. The pan should be cold through and through before cutting. While caramels cool, cut sheets of wax paper or parchment into about 40 pieces, approximately 3 by 5 inches a piece. Set aside for wrapping.

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If needed, run a knife along the edge of the chilled caramels to loosen sides from pan. Use parchment to lift slab of caramel from pan, then carefully peel off the parchment, and transfer caramel to a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut the caramels. (I like to slice my square into four equal quadrants, cut each quadrant into two rectangular halves, then cut each half into 5 long pieces.) Wrap cut caramels in wax or parchment paper, twisting at ends. For the smoothest texture, serve at room temperature. Chilled caramels are just as delicious but considerably more chewy.

Honey Dijon Caramels (10)Gooey, sweet and salty as caramels should be, the addition of Dijon gives these candies a whisper of added savory goodness. While the honey, brown sugar and vanilla offer a familiar harmony, the bit of mustard comes through with a pleasing, almost smoky hint of seasoning. While I wouldn’t recommend using a mustard other than a nice Dijon, I’m thrilled to welcome my favorite tasty condiment into the world of sweets. Its essence offers intricacy, unexpectedness, and thorough delight.

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Maybe next time…  While I love the way the molassesy brown sugar pairs with the mustard here, it’s more traditional to use white sugar for your caramels, or a combination of white and brown. You might also substitute a bit of smoked salt on top to complement the savory-ness, but use caution: the smoky flavor can be quite strong. I don’t recommend getting too creative with the Dijon itself (I reiterate: please avoid those that contain garlic, onion, whole mustard seeds, artificial colors, or otherwise long lists of ingredients), I do imagine that certain herbs could work nicely sprinkled sparsely on these caramels: a pinch of rosemary comes to mind first, followed (respectively) by a smidgen of lavender.

Honey Dijon Caramels (8) Honey Dijon Caramels (15)Honey Dijon Caramels (14)

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Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (Vegan)

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (12)Over the past several weeks, it seemed some culinary stars were aligning in my life (or at least that’s how I interpreted a few food coincidences). First, vibrant stalks of rhubarb started to appear at the market: an elusive and exciting annual moment. Second, a single banana sat ripening in my fruit bowl, and I began to daydream of new ways to use it. Third, I’d just tested numerous versions of my new bread pudding recipe, which ultimately left me quite satisfied—but also craving something far less laden with cream and eggs.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (22)Eager to embrace rhubarb season, I came home with several batches. While cooking (and liberally sampling) my first bundle for a favorite party dessert, it dawned on me that rhubarb might pair nicely with ginger: refreshing brightness alongside fragrant warmth. I also pictured different sweet fruits that could match nicely with the rhubarb, and wondered if the blackening banana on my counter could fit the bill. Then I remembered how mashed banana can replace eggs in baking, holding together the batter while diffusing its tropical taste — and this recollection heightened my hunger for a light, new dessert.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (19)As I experimented with rhubarb, banana and ginger, I found myself reaching for another favorite ingredient: fresh orange — as its citrusy tang could echo and balance the tartness of the rhubarb. The result was not only a flavorful, ultra-moist, vegan dessert; it also turned out to be stunning, with a blanket of brilliant pink rhubarb draped over its top (and decadent caramely edges, too!).

Vegan Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (serves 8-10)

  • 1 pound fresh rhubarb [preferably the deepest pink in color you can find, both inside and out of the stalks (this is purely aesthetic; pinker rhubarb yields a prettier cake)]
  • 2/3 cup + 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 medium/large extremely ripe banana (1/3 – 1/2 cup mashed)
  • 1 medium orange
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger root**
  • 2 teaspoons powdered ginger
  • 1.25 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 10″ ovenproof skillet, such as cast iron

Rinse rhubarb; trim and discard rough ends. Slice stalks in half crosswise and then lengthwise. Coat the interior (both bottom and sides) of skillet with 1 tablespoon oil. Place rhubarb in skillet in a single parallel pile, then top with 1/4 cup brown sugar, spreading sugar to even it out a bit. Place pan over medium-low heat and cover with lid. Cook 5 minutes, remove lid, and use heatproof tongs to rotate top and bottom layers of rhubarb. (Pull the soft rhubarb up to the top and move the still-firm layer to bottom.) Cover with lid and cook another 5 minutes. Rhubarb should be very soft and juicy. Remove lid, remove pan from heat, and set aside.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake

Preheat oven to 350 F. Peel the banana and mash it well with a fork until no longer lumpy, then measure it: you need between a heaping 1/3 cup and a scant 1/2 cup mashed banana (if yours yields much more than this, be sure to use no more than a scant 1/2 cup). Rinse and finely zest the orange; set zest aside. Juice the orange and measure out 1/4 cup juice, with any seeds discarded. Set aside. Peel and grate a piece of fresh ginger root (see note below), measuring out 2 teaspoons grated ginger; set aside.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (1)

In a large bowl, beat 2/3 cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup vegetable oil. Add the vanilla, the mashed banana, and the grated ginger. Mix well. Sift over the mixture: powdered ginger, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Begin to mix (batter will be thick), gradually adding the 1/4 orange juice and the boiling water. Beat well, scraping sides and bottom of bowl with spatula. Finally, fold in the orange zest until evenly distributed. Just before pouring batter into the skillet, gently rearrange rhubarb, pulling it to edges of the pan to ensure the bottom of the cake is completely covered in a single layer of rhubarb with no blank spaces. Slowly pour batter over rhubarb and place skillet in oven.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (2)Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out batter-free (a few moist crumbs are OK). Remove from oven, being careful not to touch hot skillet handle unprotected. Let sit at least 30-45 minutes or until pan is cool enough to grasp. Just when ready to serve, loosen edges of cake with a knife, and invert onto a plate. If cake has completely cooled or is the least bit stubborn about coming out of pan, place over medium heat on stovetop for 60 seconds before flipping. The cake is best served right away, but feel free to store it covered and refrigerated, eating within 24 hours.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (3)Bright-tasting and beautiful, this is a truly uplifting spring dessert. The creamy-sweet banana tames the tartness of the rhubarb, while the double dose of ginger offers a welcome warmth to the otherwise cool notes. With its luxuriously moist crumb, this citrus-speckled cake delivers a complex harmony of texture and flavor. All in all, it not only leaves you feeling satisfied and light, but also celebrates springtime in every bite.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (8)

Maybe next time… This tasty vegan banana cake batter would work well in many other formats, whether trading the rhubarb for a different fruit or berry, and/or trying a more traditional (non-skillet) version — even in cupcake form (just be sure to adjust the baking time accordingly). The orange can be traded for lemon or lime, just as the ginger can be swapped for powdered cinnamon or cardamom. A handful of chocolate chips might be really nice in this cake; be sure to choose dairy-free chocolate to keep the cake vegan.

Rhubarb Banana Skillet Cake (5)

**Grating fresh ginger root can be tricky, and if you feel like it’s too much trouble, feel free to skip it all together, adding a bit more powdered ginger if you want all the flavor without the fuss. For easy grating, it can help to freeze your ginger root so that it’s extra firm. I like to use a sharp, fine micoplane grater, and I begin by cutting my ginger into a rectangular box shape (this eliminates having to peel it, too). Holding one end of the ginger rectangle, firmly push the other end — going against the fibrous grains of ginger — into the grater and drag it along quickly. Once grated, the ginger may be a bit liquidy, which works fine.

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