Ginger Celery Cake

I was munching (and munching and munching) on a giant bag of homegrown celery when I started daydreaming of turning it into a cake. My green-thumbed friend had been so generous to share his harvest, and these stalks were beautifully fragrant, green and crisp. I knew the celery’s herbal notes and high water content would be welcome in a cake batter, and I imagined fresh ginger could offer a complementary warmth and earthiness.

I decided to grate the celery against the grain, creating small, wet pieces without long strands of fiber. I did the same with the ginger root (also notoriously fibrous), which was surprisingly easy – it didn’t even need to be peeled. My food processor’s grater attachment was a lifesaver, and the batter I created was quite forgiving: all the little strands and fibers bake softly into a pleasant, tender crumb. The whisper of grassy flavor and burst of spice pair wondrously beside vanilla and brown sugar, and the format is delightfully casual and serves a crowd (who – in my experience – can’t get enough of this cake).

Ginger Celery Cake
Serves 12-24. pdf recipe

  • 1 pound fresh celery stalks, leaves and hard stubs removed
  • 5 ounces fresh ginger root, unpeeled
  • 2 cups brown sugar, preferably dark
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons powdered dried ginger (optional)

Rinse and dry the celery stalks and ginger. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 13” cake pan and line the inner bottom with parchment; set aside. Using a food processor fitted with a grater attachment, grate the celery lengthwise (against the grain of the strands) in batches. It’s easiest to place as many stalks as you can fit vertically in the feed tube, then press down firmly with the pusher while processing.

Repeat with any stalks that have turned sideways or otherwise not grated well; use kitchen shears to mince any lingering large tangles or long strands of celery fiber. Place all grated celery and its water in a glass bowl or measuring cup; you should have a little over two cups. Set aside.

Grate the fresh ginger in the food processor or by hand, re-grating or mincing any very large pieces, and retrieving any stubborn ginger fibers from the back of the grater disc. Set aside. In a separate, large bowl, beat the brown sugar and oil. Add the eggs, beating in one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Sift the remaining dry ingredients over the oil mixture. Stir into a thick, smooth, caramel colored batter.

Quickly assess the amount of water in your grated celery. If the container is filled much more than halfway with water, strain a bit of the water out. You do want a good amount of liquid — water about halfway up the bowl is perfect — whereas, if celery is completely submerged in water, the cake can come out soggy unless you drain some.

Transfer all grated celery with remaining water into batter, followed by the grated ginger. Fold celery and ginger into the batter until evenly dispersed, using a rubber spatula and scraping bottom of bowl. Pour batter into prepared baking pan. Place in preheated oven on center rack. Bake 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out batter-free.

Let cake cool completely in pan, covering snugly with foil once cool. Store at room temperature until ready to serve. When ready to serve, loosen sides with a butter knife and invert pan onto platter or cutting board. Remove pan and parchment. Dust with powdered sugar or frost as follows.

Frosting:

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 4 ounces butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 pinch salt (omit if using salted butter)

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until well-blended. Sift the powdered sugar and salt over the mixture. Stir gently to begin to incorporate dry ingredients, then beat well until smooth and fluffy, preferably with a whisk attachment. Slather evenly over room-temperature cake. Slice and enjoy. Cover and refrigerate any leftover frosted cake.

Maybe next time… Ginger is the leading flavor in this cake; feel free to reduce the amount if you prefer less or want to taste the celery more. You can also substitute half or all the salt with celery salt to bump up the celery factor. If you’re up for a workout, feel free to use a handheld grater for the celery and ginger, pressing very firmly and working quickly. If you want to serve this cake straight from the pan, use a safe-to-cut 9×13” cake pan such as glass, and grease & flour the pan instead of using parchment. Feel no obligation to use oil labeled as “vegetable oil;” canola oil or sunflower oil are fine and offer a neutral taste; olive oil works if you don’t mind its added flavor; melted coconut oil is delicious though it changes the cake’s texture slightly.

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Posted in Baking with Veggies, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Peach Paneer Cookies with Cardamom and Bourbon

I live in a city full of delicious Indian restaurants, and my addiction to fresh naan and rich curries is real. One of my favorite common ingredients is paneer: a pressed, mild cheese that never really melts – it just softens, gets toasty, and soaks up all the flavor that surrounds it. Paneer is barely salty (in fact, the kind I buy contains only milk and vinegar); it has a milky, faintly tangy quality that’s pleasant on its own but also is enticing as a blank culinary canvas.

I’ve long thought of paneer as a great dessert candidate, and its sweet possibilities still feel endless. This time, I found myself embracing (or rather clutching) the stone fruit of late summer, and I decided to pair the cheese with ripe, sweet peaches. Then I created a brown sugar cookie with the perfect sturdiness to act as a tiny, edible platter. Its dough would offer a whisper of a warm and refreshing spice: cardamom — another nod to Indian cuisine.

While delightfully creamy and tender, the paneer didn’t do much for the cookies when I added it plain – so I opted to imbue it with a complementary taste, soaking it beforehand in a sweet and salty bourbon marinade. As strange as it might sound, the boozy cheese bits gave the cookies a welcome warmth and a wonderful complexity of flavor and structure.

With a sweet and spicy base, tangy roasted peaches, and toasty, steeped cheese, these cookies are downright satisfying. The succulent baked fruit and crisp, buttery cookie offer a luscious array of texture alongside the slightly chewy toasted paneer. What’s more: their lovely layout is a kind of celebration signal — they look a bit like hors d’oeuvres to be served at a party, and certainly they should be!

Paneer Peach Cookies with Cardamom and Bourbon
[makes about 30 cookies]

For the paneer:

  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt (omit if paneer is salted)
  • 5 tablespoons bourbon
  • 5 ounces paneer cheese, cut into 1 centimeter cubes

For the cookie dough:

  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • ¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling & cutting
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cardamom

For the peaches:

  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ – 2 pounds (about 3-4) peaches, ripe but not too soft
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Marinate the paneer: In a small bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt (if using), and bourbon. Add the cubed paneer and toss. Cover and chill. Let marinate at least 6 hours ahead of baking, up to 24 hours. Occasionally uncover and stir.

Make the cookie dough: Beat butter and sugar until blended and fluffy. Add the egg and beat well, followed by the vanilla. Sift 2¼ cup flour along with the salt, baking powder, and cardamom into the bowl. Mix until all ingredients are incorporated and dough begins to stick together (it will look a bit crumbly at first). Gather dough with hands and knead for a few seconds if needed, then form into two equal balls. Wrap each one tightly with plastic wrap; this will prevent drying.

Prepare the peaches: Whisk the corn starch and brown sugar in a small bowl; set aside. Rinse, dry, and pit the peaches, then cut into ½” to ¾” cubes. Toss the peach pieces with the lemon juice, then add the corn starch mixture, stirring until just coated.

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line cookie sheets with parchment. Strain the paneer and place cubes on a paper towel. (Discard boozy liquid or try using it in a creamy cocktail.)

Unwrap half of the cookie dough. On a flat, lightly floured surface, use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a slab 1/8” to 1/6” thick. Use a floured 3” round cookie cutter to cut dough into circles, transferring each one to a lined cookie sheet, about ¾ inch apart from one another (they won’t spread much). Re-roll dough scraps and re-flour surface and tools as needed. Repeat with second half of dough.

Being careful to not transfer too much liquid to the cookies (a slotted spoon is great), top each cookie with about a rounded tablespoon of peaches followed by a rounded teaspoon of paneer cubes, centered. This is about 4-5 cubes of each: paneer and fruit. Discard leftover juice from peaches. Bake one sheet at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, until edges of cookies are golden brown and paneer begins to look toasty.

Remove from oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes on cookie sheets. Enjoy while still warm, or at room temperature the same day they’re baked. (If you have leftover cookies at the end of the day, cover and refrigerate, eating within 24 hours. In the fridge, the baked paneer will become quite firm and the peaches will likely become brown, but the cookies will taste fine the next day.)

Maybe next time… If you like the idea of incorporating cheese into dessert, check this out. Feel free to make the cookie dough a day ahead of time, such as when you start marinating the paneer; keep it chilled, then let it warm to room temperature before rolling. Indian or Pakistani grocery stores carry paneer, as does my local Whole Foods. You can also make your own paneer if you’re feeling adventurous. But of course you don’t have to use paneer at all – you can skip the cheese all together, or swap in a mild crumbled goat milk or feta (no marinating necessary). In fact, the cookie dough alone is simply fantastic for baking flavorful cut-out cookies; it’s the perfect texture and really holds its shape. It also works for thumbprints stuffed with jam like apricot or raspberry — or better yet, peach!

Posted in Baking with Booze, Cookies & Bars, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Strawberry Rum Pie Redux — with vanilla bean, custard & cream

A few years back I created a strawberry cream pie that quickly became a favorite in my circle. A fresh, custardy celebration of vanilla, rum and stewed seasonal berries, the summery dessert has become a common craving and repeated request. But whenever I’ve returned to the recipe, I’ve had the urge to clarify and simplify the method, to add more photos of the process, and to hone the ratios of a few of the ingredients.

Cheered on by happy taste-testers, I recently served it multiple times, and I’m thrilled to finally present a new and improved recipe. I realize it looks long, but the length is partly due to my newly included details (and don’t miss the shortcut and do-ahead suggestions at the end of this post, along with some notes on ingredients).

Cool, refreshing and flavorful, this pie flaunts a splash of rum and vanilla bean that offer a complementary warmth to the strawberries’ inherent tartness. The soft-set filling is a joy and ease to eat, speckled with delightfully tiny seeds and slathered with fluffy whipped cream. Crisp, buttery and nutty, the crust’s texture is both protected and enhanced by a glaze of rich white chocolate, creating a perfect vessel for each mouthful of lusciousness.

Strawberry Vanilla Rum Pie (serves 8-10)

For the crust:

  • ½ cup soft butter, divided
  • 5 ounces graham crackers
  • 1 ounce shelled almonds (about 1/4 cup)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • pinch of salt (omit if butter is salted)
  • 5 ounces high quality white chocolate (see note), broken into small pieces

Preheat oven to 350 F. Measure out 2 tablespoons butter; set aside for white chocolate step. Use 1 teaspoon of remaining butter to thoroughly grease the inside of a 9” pie pan (preferably glass). Melt the leftover butter; set nearby. Pulse graham crackers, almonds, vanilla bean, and salt (if using) in a food processor until evenly crushed into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and pulse for a few more seconds, stopping to scrape the bottom and sides of bowl with spatula. Mixture should hold together when pinched between your fingers.

Transfer mixture into greased pie pan, pushing firmly to create an even, tight crust. If pan is glass, hold it up to the light to check for any thin spots needing more crumbs. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes. (Feel free to start preparing for cooking the pie filling while crust is in the oven — see below.) When ready, crust should be fragrant with toasty edges. Remove crust from oven; turn off oven. If crust has slid down or puffed up in any places, gently press it back into place with the backside of a spoon while still hot.

While crust begins to cool, melt the white chocolate in a double boiler stirring constantly – or in the microwave for a few 20 second intervals, stopping and stirring in between. Be careful not to overheat the white chocolate; stop heating it as soon as it stirs smoothly, lump-free. Immediately whisk in 2 tablespoons soft butter until blended. This will thicken the white chocolate slightly. Working quickly, spread it gently onto bottom and sides of the warm crust as evenly as possible. Be careful not to pull upward on the crust, which would dismantle the crumbs. Place in fridge or in a cool space.

For the filling:

  • ½ cup sugar, divided
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • ¼ cup dark rum
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • pinch of salt
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 lb. 13 oz. fresh, ripe strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, seeds removed

Set a fine to medium mesh sieve nearby, and have the chilled crust easily accessible.

Make the rum custard: Whisk together ¼ cup of the sugar, eggs, egg yolks, rum, vanilla bean, and salt in a heatproof bowl that will fit over a medium saucepan. Fill saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring to a simmer. When ready to cook the custard (see note), set the bowl over the pan of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should be near the surface of the water but not touching it. Whisk egg mixture constantly over the simmering water. After about 6-8 minutes, or when custard is thick enough to hold a deep trail (about the consistency of sour cream), remove bowl from heat and set aside.

Vanilla bean rum custard

Prepare the strawberries: Whisk together remaining ¼ cup sugar and the cornstarch in a small bowl; set aside. Rinse and dry the strawberries. Hull the strawberries and cut into halves or quarters depending on size, placing them directly into a medium saucepan. Pour the lemon juice over the berries. Cover with lid and set over medium heat. Cook covered for 10 minutes, uncovering briefly halfway through to stir once. At the 10 minute mark, remove lid and sift the sugar-cornstarch mixture over the strawberries. Mix well and continue cooking uncovered, constantly whisking. Use the whisk to mash the berries, creating a less chunky texture. After 4-5 minutes, or when berries are thickened to a jam-like consistency with slow, large bubbles, remove from heat.

Pie filling coming through the sieve

Immediately transfer hot strawberry mixture into the bowl of custard, and whisk vigorously until fully blended together. Place the sieve over a clean bowl (or directly above the chilled pie crust if you have someone or something to help hold it there), and pour the strawberry mixture into the sieve. Gently push the mixture through the sieve by stirring it with a whisk. Be sure to scrape the backside of the sieve to retrieve any hidden pie filling. Spread mixture into pie crust, evening it to the edges. Cover pie and place in refrigerator, chilling at least 5 hours or overnight (up to 12 hours before adding whipped cream and serving).

Fibers and bits left behind in sieve.

For the whipped cream:    

  • 1 cup whipping cream, very cold
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla bean seeds, powder, or paste
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dark rum
  • 5-6 small strawberries, halved (optional for decoration)

Place cream, vanilla bean, sugar and rum in a mixing bowl. Beat on high until voluminous and quite thick (it should be firm enough to hold its shape but still fluffy). Pipe or spread evenly over pie. Decorate with strawberries if desired. Keep pie chilled and serve as soon as possible — up to 8 hours after slathering with whipped cream.

RECIPE NOTES:

Shortcuts and do-aheads:

  • The crust can be made days ahead of time: after coating it with white chocolate and letting it cool, wrap it tightly and refrigerate it for up to two days or freeze for up to a week.
  • If you’re filling the crust the same day you make it, you can set up for making the filling while the crust is in the oven (e.g., cutting strawberries, combining the custard ingredients, setting out water and saucepans).
  • The rum custard needs to be ready by the time the strawberries are done cooking, but you can overlap the two steps. If your custard ingredients are ready to go, you should have time to make it during the time that the strawberries are stewing.
  • Pushing the pie filling through a sieve is technically optional (though it does ensure that any bits of egg or excessive strawberry fibers and seeds will be prevented from showing up in the slices).
  • Seeds scraped from whole vanilla beans are as fresh as it gets, but this route can be tedious. Prepared vanilla bean paste or powder are a great shortcut, and I trust you’ll become as addicted to their presence in the pantry as I am.

On ingredients:

  • As for the liquor, I recommend dark rum for its depth and caramely notes; spiced rum (which I used to insist on) is also quite nice but not absolutely necessary.  If you can find this kind, it’s really warm with vanilla flavor, and has become my favorite for baking.
  • When it comes to white chocolate, I know people who reject it entirely and claim it’s not chocolate at all. While this dismissive attitude can be frustrating, I say they’re right and wrong at the same time. If they’re referring to the strange stuff in the baking aisle that contains waxes or hydrogenated oils as their only fat, then, yes: that’s not chocolate. On the other hand, there is world of white chocolate made with cocoa butter, which is undeniably part of the cocoa bean. The high quality stuff (like this one) – with cocoa butter listed as one of the first ingredients – is a really lovely item, and unlike darker chocolates, it doesn’t overpower delicate flavors.
  • If I’m craving this in the winter, I might try making it with frozen strawberries. In the meantime, I find that two full pounds is the perfect amount of fresh strawberries for the pie filling and decoration (but I always buy extra for snacking, too).

Posted in Baking with Booze, Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dragon Fruit Sherbet with Lemongrass and Strawberry

It was easy to become fascinated with dragon fruit once it caught my eye. Its vibrant magenta skin, draping green tails, and playful nickname were just the beginning. When I sliced into one, the sight of the inside reminded me of chocolate chip ice cream: bright white and polka-dotted with tiny black seeds. (I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on other varieties of this cactus-based fruit – from bright yellow outside to deep pink inside – but I hope to do so in the future.)

My first taste revealed a juicy and somewhat soft fruit with a whisper of sweetness. Its mildly earthy and tame flavor reminded me a bit of jicama (though it’s not nearly as crunchy). With this blank canvas potential and my vision of ice cream nearby, a frozen dessert was my dragon fruit’s destiny.

I wanted to add a delicate flavor that wouldn’t hide the fruit’s character, and fragrant lemongrass soon came to mind. I began by steeping it in a syrup made from light coconut milk, which proved to hold the herbal flavor much better than a water-based version. The light milk also offered a faint, creamy quality and the promise of not freezing solid (as its full-fat counterpart would do). Together with the dragon fruit, the velvety lemongrass syrup made for a luscious harmony of flavors.

For complement and contrast, I added a few tangy strawberries — but when I blended them in with the dragon fruit, their flavor and color were overpowering. So I made a simple layer of puree to top the sherbet, starting with a good soak in liquor to avoid iciness once frozen. The result is a berry shell that’s just a bit firmer than the sherbet beneath, adding a scrumptious balance to the creamier, more delicate layer. As a bonus, the finale is a nod to the fruit that inspired it: vivid pink outside with a black and white interior.

Incredibly addictive, this sherbet offers a celebration of refreshing and complementary flavor in every spoonful. The cool dragon fruit is faintly milky, citrusy and herbal with its gentle infusion of lemongrass. Meanwhile, the strawberry layer offers a hint of tartness and a welcome trace of classic berry sweetness. I’m ready for many a rendezvous with my new frozen dessert, just in time for summer. Join me?

Dragon Fruit Sherbet with Lemongrass and Strawberry (makes about a quart)

Like many frozen dessert recipes, this one requires some lead time for chilling and freezing, though the steps are all quite easy. I like to start 24 hours ahead of serving time, beginning with making the syrup and prepping the strawberries. Once the syrup, berries, and dragon fruit are fully chilled, the blending and churning are painless, and a final stint in the freezer is all that’s needed. 

For the syrup:

  • 1.5 ounces (about 1.5 stalks, depending on size) fresh lemongrass
  • ¾ cup canned light coconut milk (not full-fat)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

For the strawberry layer:

  • 8 ounces fresh ripe strawberries
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons light, neutral alcohol of your choice, at least 80 proof (think vodka, light rum, or a clear brandy like apple or pear)

For the dragon fruit:

  • 2.25 to 2.5 pounds dragon fruit (about 3 medium dragon fruit), chilled.

Use a rolling pin or meat tenderizer to gently crush the lemongrass stalks. Then use a sharp knife to cut bruised stalks crosswise into rings about ½ inch wide. Place cut lemongrass in a small saucepan. Top with the light coconut milk, sugar and salt. Stir gently and occasionally as you bring to a boil. When near boiling, test a drop of syrup on a plate, let cool for a few seconds, then rub with fingers to ensure sugar is no longer grainy.

As soon as syrup has come to a solid boil, remove from heat. Cover pan with lid and let steep for 15 minutes. Strain syrup into a heatproof bowl; discard cooked lemongrass pieces. Let syrup cool in bowl to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled – at least a few hours or overnight. You should have about 1.25 cups syrup, which will become milkier as it chills.

Place dragon fruit in the fridge to chill. Rinse and dry the strawberries, then hull them and cut into quarters or halves if small. Place in a bowl and toss with sugar and alcohol. Stir well. Cover and chill strawberries for several hours or overnight, until quite cold to the touch and fully soaked with the sugary alcohol.

When syrup, berries, and dragon fruit are thoroughly chilled and you’re ready to make the sherbet, halve the dragon fruit and scoop out the flesh over a scale. You need 1.5 pounds (about 3 cups) dragon fruit flesh for the sherbet. Enjoy any extra dragon fruit as you wish, and discard the skins.

Place the dragon fruit flesh in the bowl of a food processor with ¾ cup of the lemongrass syrup. Pulse until smooth with no chunks of fruit. Transfer mixture into an ice cream maker and follow manufacturer directions, churning until consistency is at least as thick as soft-serve.

Meanwhile, strain the cut strawberries (discard the boozy liquid or save it for a cocktail). Place strained strawberries in the bowl of the food processor with ¼ cup lemongrass syrup; use any remaining syrup as you wish. Puree until smooth. Chill strawberry puree until dragon fruit mixture is at soft serve consistency.

Spread dragon fruit sherbet into an 8” cake pan. Pour strawberry puree over the top, gently spreading to edges. Cover tightly and freeze for several hours or overnight, until frozen through the center. When ready to serve, uncover pan and set out at room temperature for 5 minutes, then scoop. Store in freezer tightly covered up to a week.

Maybe next time…  The dragon fruit sherbet is quite delicious alone; the strawberry part is certainly optional. If you skip the strawberry layer, you could simply serve the dragon fruit sherbet with fresh ripe strawberries (or other berries); just remember that the recipe will yield a bit less than noted above.  Feel free to play with the way you lay out the dessert; you can gently make layers of white and pink before freezing, use a loaf pan instead of round, or even make individual servings in mason jars or other containers.

Posted in Baking with Herbs, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Green Artichoke Cake

I started daydreaming of artichoke-laden desserts around the same time that I discovered Pablo Neruda’s fabulous poem Ode to the Artichoke: “…For the final act, we reveal its deliciousness, plucking it leaf by leaf, and devour the peaceable dough that lies at its green heart.”*  It was that succulent center which came calling to me with its creamy, earthy and faintly bitter qualities. The palate brought to mind the nuttiness of unpeeled almonds, the mellow bite of molasses, and the tang of lemon zest.

I decided on a simple, tender cake to showcase the veggie alongside a harmony of ingredients. While I truly loved the idea of using fresh artichokes for my sweet creation (in fact, their spring season is surfacing just as a write this), I decided on canned artichokes for this recipe. I admit it feels strange to suggest this, especially while living on Alice Waters’ terrain, but I do so thoughtfully.

For one, canned artichokes are perfectly soft and their flavor is nicely preserved. Plus, the canned version’s inherent salt and liquid are common prerequisites for a cake batter. Finally, I just didn’t want to create a recipe where snipping, steaming, and plucking fresh artichokes led to giving up their hearts to the food processor en route to cake batter, rather than their being savored as a reward for all the work of getting there.

The outcome is a super moist cake with a fresh and satisfying balance of flavors. While the flecks of almond and splash of vanilla offer familiar warmth, the bits of lemon and molassesy brown sugar echo the artichoke’s mildly tangy side. Coconut oil offers a creamy sweetness to mirror the richness of the artichoke heart, which itself comes through in delightfully delicate earthy tones.

What I never expected was that the cake would turn green once baked, and would become darker and darker green thereafter. Thankfully, as my adventurous taste-testers assured me, the color doesn’t affect the flavor or texture. “If I close my eyes, it’s like a delicious spin on carrot cake!” “I make green smoothies for my kids and call them ‘green monster shakes’; now we’ll have ‘green monster cake’ too!” Whatever it brings to mind, this colorful creation is really just a luscious cake, as perfect for breakfast as it is for dessert.

Green Artichoke Cake [makes a one layer 8″ cake; serves about 10]

  • 1 can (at least 13.75 ounces) artichoke hearts in water and salt, whole or quartered**
  • 1 cup dark brown or muscovado sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/3 cup melted coconut oil
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup almond meal, firmly packed (from skin-on almonds; not blanched)
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1.25 teaspoons baking soda
  • finely grated zest of one lemon
  • powdered sugar for topping (optional)

Grease the inside of a 8″ cake pan, and line the inner bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour the whole can of artichokes and liquid into the bowl of a food processor and whirl for about 30 seconds, stopping halfway through to scrape sides and lid of bowl with a spatula. Texture should be pureed without any big pieces but won’t be perfectly smooth. Measure out 1.5 cups of the puree; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the brown sugar and melted coconut oil until just mixed. Add the eggs one at time, beating in each one until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla. Add the almond meal and stir (note: if your almond meal is lumpy, place it in a separate small bowl and whisk well to remove any clusters before adding it to the batter). Sift the flour and baking soda into the bowl and begin to mix; batter will seem thick. Add the 1.5 cups pureed artichoke and beat, stopping to scrape bowl with spatula, then mixing until just incorporated and even. Finally, fold in the lemon zest until uniformly dispersed.

Pour batter into pan. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until top of cake is toasty brown, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of wet batter. Remove from oven; let cool completely to room temperature in the pan. If not serving right away, cover the cooled cake and store at cool room temperature, eating within 24 hours. (Keep in mind that cake will become greener as it sits, deepening in color with time.) When ready to serve, gently loosen sides of cake with a butter knife, transfer to a serving plate, and remove parchment. Sift powdered sugar over the cake just before serving, using a stencil if desired.

Maybe next time… While this cake is really moist already, you can amp up the decadence and fancy-factor by slathering it with tangy cream cheese frosting or a citrus mascarpone frosting in place of powdered sugar. Orange zest in place of lemon could be a welcome change in the batter, and melted unsalted butter can be swapped in for the coconut oil. This cake is great for breakfast or an afternoon snack with berries; or, for an extra rich dessert, serve each slice with a scoop of lemon ice cream — or better yet, this lovely artichoke gelato (which confirms that my green dessert cravings aren’t too far off!).

**Be sure not to choose marinated artichoke hearts with oil, vinegar, garlic or herbs; these are commonly found in glass jars. Instead, use canned artichokes containing only water, salt, and perhaps some citric acid.

*From Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things, bilingual edition, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft. Bulfinch Press, 1994.

Posted in Baking with Veggies, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chocolate Teacakes with Raspberry and Lavender

chocolate-raspberry-lavender-bites-15

Over time, I’ve found that lavender and chocolate can form a mouthwatering marriage, where the decadence of each is somehow mellowed and complemented at once. The depth of chocolate is met with unexpected earthy tones, often with crisp bits of fragrant flowers alongside smooth, melty richness. So it felt right to turn to chocolate when I created a new treat using a beautiful lavender-speckled herbal tea not long ago: tiny, chocolate-dipped cakes filled with tea-infused raspberry jam. (More about that tea project here.)

chocolate-raspberry-lavender-bites-27I’d since daydreamed of making these sweets again — and with a few upgrades. For instance, instead of a fruit filling that soaked into the cakey centers, I envisioned a tiny tunnel holding a distinct pocket of preserves in each bite. And while I loved the sleek shape of my original upside-down version, the cakes’ naturally domed tops made them a bit tricky to balance bottom-up and invited a smooth, rounded topping.

chocolate-raspberry-lavender-bites-11

Finally, while the intricate tea — comprised of not only lavender but also lemongrass, hyssop, and more — was my original inspiration for the dessert, I wanted to experiment with an all-lavender option (especially since not everyone has the tea readily available, though it’s rather easy to order). A bit more pronounced in floral flavor, the new rendition proved just as tasty as the first. With either version, the little cakes pack a scrumptious balance of tangy fruit, delicate herbal lavender, and luscious dark chocolate that can’t help but satisfy an array of sweet-toothed palates.

chocolate-raspberry-lavender-bites-23

Chocolate tea cakes with raspberry and lavender
(Makes 36-40 mini muffin sized cakes)

For the filling:

  • 2/3 cup raspberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon culinary lavender flowers or Wild Gift tea

For the pan preparation:

  • butter, oil, or oil spray
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

For the cake batter:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup boiling water

For the topping:

  • 10 ounces dark chocolate, in pieces or chips
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
  • lavender flowers for sprinkling

Up to two days in advance, pulse the tea or lavender in a spice grinder (a.k.a. blade-style coffee grinder) or crush with a mortar and pestle. Process into a grain fine enough that it won’t get stuck in a piping tip. Whisk into raspberry preserves until evenly dispersed. Cover and refrigerate.

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*Prepare mini muffin pans by fully greasing each indentation. Sift the tablespoons of sugar and cocoa into a small bowl and whisk together. Distribute about a scant half teaspoon of the mixture into each muffin cup. Rotate pan to disperse powder across the bottoms and sides of the cups. Invert and tap the pans to shake off excess powder. Set pans aside.

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Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat a kettle containing at least 2/3 cup water. While the water heats, place the sugar, egg, egg yolk, oil and vanilla in a large, heatproof mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt over the egg mixture. Begin to stir in the dry ingredients (mixture will be thick); no need to mix thoroughly at this point.

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Once the water is boiling, carefully add 1/3 cup of the water to the batter. Stir well, then add remaining 1/3 cup water. Beat until consistency of batter is smooth and even, scraping bowl with a spatula along with way. Fill the cups of the prepared pans 2/3 to 3/4 full using about a tablespoon of batter per cup. Bake for about 9-10 minutes, just until centers test clean with a toothpick. Remove from oven; let cakes cool to room temperature in pans.

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Once completely cool, loosen cakes from pans by running a toothpick or small butter knife around their edges. One at a time, pick up each cake and insert a straw or a Bismarck piping tip into its side, about halfway between the top and bottom of the cake (better closer to the top than the bottom).

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Gently twist the straw as you push it at least 3/4 way into the cake horizontally, almost to the other side but not all the way through. Slowly withdraw the straw, then remove the strip of cake inside it by tapping it onto a plate or softly blowing into other end of straw. Discard cake scraps (or eat!). Repeat until all cakes have been burrowed.

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Place the lavender/tea infused jam in a piping bag with a plain open tip that will fit inside the tunnels in the cupcakes. With each cupcake, insert piping tip and gently squeeze while slowly withdrawing the piping bag. Fill the little tunnels completely but without causing bursting or overflowing.

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Set up cooling racks nearby, placed over cookie sheets and/or wax paper. Place the chocolate pieces in a glass or metal bowl, and set bowl over a pan of simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should be near the water but not touching it. Stir chocolate as it melts, watching as the solid pieces disappear. When chocolate is almost completely smooth, add the coconut oil. Whisk until just incorporated and smooth. Remove from heat.

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Working quickly, dip cakes one at a time in the melted chocolate. Hold cake by the sides using two fingers. Begin by dipping just the side of the cake with the exposed jam-filled hole into the chocolate, then turn cake upside down into the chocolate, dipping only the top of the cake. Your cakes should end up with chocolate coating on the top and on one side which seals the tunnel of jam. Set on cooling racks to let any excess chocolate drip off.

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While chocolate is still wet, sprinkle each cake with a few pieces of lavender. Then set cakes in a cool place to let chocolate dry and firm up. For optimal texture, eat the cooled teacakes on the day of baking — but they can be stored in a sealed container or under a glass dome for up to two days at room temperature.

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*Maybe next time… I chose to insert my filling from the side in order to fight gravity, spread the jam across two bites, and keep the tops nice and smooth — but it’s more common to fill cupcakes from the bottom or top, and the latter will allow you to use cupcake liners if you don’t want to deal with greasing, dusting, and washing the pans. To keep these treats dairy free, choose oil instead of butter for greasing the pans, and use chocolate that does not contain milk products.

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Posted in Baking with Flowers, Cakes & Cupcakes, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pecan Brown Sugar Cookies: A Nod to the King Cake

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A few Februaries ago, we received an unusual delivery at the office: a giant, ring-shaped cake opulently decorated with both icing and colored sugar (yellow, green, and purple). On the side, there were a few strands of Mardi Gras beads and a tiny plastic baby. A colleague who’d recently moved to New Orleans had generously shared her new tradition with us Californians, and we were delighted to devour it.

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I’d had a long fascination with the flaky French version, but this southern king cake was also a masterpiece: yeasted and airy, stuffed with a thick pocket of brown sugar, spices, and pecans. Undeniably festive and incredibly sweet, the soft cake was perfect with coffee for an impromptu celebration.

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Over time, I’ve periodically daydreamed of the cake’s key flavors in new and tasty (and slightly less sweet) embodiments. When I was recently given a bottle of this luscious, boozy tribute to New Orleans coffee, I knew my tasty homage to the king cake was soon to be born.

I decided on a toasty pecan cookie, rich with molassesy brown sugar and a scoop of warming nutmeg. Making them wreath-shaped was a no-brainer, and the icing would deliver a lively burst of the liqueur whose depth balanced readily with the mellow flavors in the dough.

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As a nod to Mardi Gras, I topped many of my cookies with tinted sugar in the three requisite colors like tiny king cakes. But these treats are fabulous any time of year, with nearly any edible decoration (one of my favorites is simply crushed toasted pecans, which this recipe affords). Buttery, boozy and nutty, these crisp cookies are sure to deliver delight, no matter the occasion.

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Pecan Brown Sugar Cookies with Coffee Liqueur Glaze
[makes about 28 cookies; 2.5″ diameter]
image-free, easy-print pdf version

For the cookies:

  • about 3 ounces shelled pecans
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 medium to large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 3/4 cup all purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • 1 and 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Spread pecans evenly on a baking sheet and toast on center rack in oven for about 6-7 minutes. Remove from oven; turn oven up to 375 F. Once pecans are cooled to room temperature, process or crush with a nut grinder to create medium crumbs. Measure out 1/3 cup firmly packed, or 1.75 ounces ground pecans. Set aside. (Use leftover ground pecans for decorating cookies, or as you wish.)

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In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Sift over the bowl: flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Add the measured ground nuts. Mix until moist crumbs form, then use hands to knead dough gently, then bring into a ball.

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Transfer to a floured work surface. Using a fourth of the dough at a time, roll dough with floured rolling pin to about 1/6” thick (just between 1/8 and 1/4 inch). *Use a floured 2.5” diameter cookie/biscuit cutter to cut out circles. Use a ¾ circle to cut a hole in the center of each circle. (I used the narrow mouth of a vanilla bottle.)

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Re-use scraps of dough and re-flour surfaces as needed, placing cookies on the lined baking sheets as you go, at least 1/2 inch apart. You should end up with about 26-30 cookies. Bake at 375 for about 8 minutes, until edges and bottoms are golden brown. Transfer to cooling racks if available; let cool to room temperature.

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For the glaze:
This recipe makes plenty to fully glaze the tops and sides of each cookie using the dunking or spreading methods described below. If you prefer less icing or have smaller quantities of ingredients on hand, you can halve the recipe and use a drizzle/zig-zag method. Whichever method, be sure to cover bowl of glaze when not using (it dries fast), and whisk regularly.

  • 3 cups powdered sugar, very firmly packed
  • dash salt
  • 6 tablespoons coffee liqueur*
  • 1-2 tablespoons whisked egg white
  • extra crushed pecans from above, and/or sprinkles, sanding sugar, jimmies, etc.

Sift sugar and salt into a medium-large bowl. Add the liqueur one tablespoon at a time, whisking along the way (texture will start out dry), then add 1 tablespoon egg white. Whisk well. At this point the glaze should be thick and spreadable. Use a butter knife to spread it to the edge of each cookie, using fingertip to smooth if needed. Sprinkle with decorations as you go. Or…

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If this technique feels too tedious or time consuming, whisk another tablespoon of egg white into the icing, mixing well. Dunk the top of each cookie into glaze, then place on a cooling rack set over a cookie sheet, letting excess drip off. While cookies are still wet, garnish with toppings. Let dry at room temperature before eating or transporting. Store flat in sealed containers at room temperature, using wax paper between layers.

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*Maybe next time: If you use cookie cutters in any other size than those noted here, be sure to adjust your baking time accordingly, checking cookies early and often for doneness. Bourbon is a great stand in for the coffee liqueur, or if you want to make these alcohol-free, use half vanilla extract and half water in the icing. I skipped a plastic baby or other hidden prize, but it could be fun to bury a safe, edible treasure under the glaze of a cookie for a lucky winner — perhaps a chunk of chocolate or a piece of soft candy pressed into the dough of one of the cookies just before baking.

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Posted in Baking with Booze, Baking with Tea & Coffee, Cookies & Bars, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments