Sweets in Spain

Granada (171)

Violet ice cream, Granada.

I recently had a longtime dream come true: I went to Spain! This post is a tribute to some of the amazing sweets I ate there. Just as I’ve imagined since my bygone college Spanish classes, I fell in love with the sites, the spirits of places, and the souls I met — in addition to the desserts.

And I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met my dear friend Pilar a few years ago. She was visiting California from Madrid when we crossed paths, and when she left for home, she said smiling, “Now it’s your turn to visit me!” So I daydreamed of it, letting life’s mandates distract me for dozens of months, until I finally took the plunge this year.

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Ensaimada mallorquina with a huge bite taken, Madrid.

As many people say about travel, it’s hard to describe the breathtaking places and experiences on my trip — those moments when the combination of sound, smell, sight, and touch all felt so vibrant, new, and irreplaceable that I even sometimes wept. No, not only the mind-blowing Gaudí sites or the breathtaking museums or the Alhambra — but also the simple walks through old twisting streets, the voices in cafes and plazas, the smell of the air and its breeze on my skin. All of it with a wonderful person by my side who patiently waited as I took too many photos and conversed in garbled, rusty Spanish.

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Apple tart and passionfruit cheesecake, Barcelona.

Of course, the sense of taste was a vital and remarkable part of my experience, too. I’ll long remember my many mouthwatering meals in Spain: from pinxtos to pisto, gazpacho to paella, tortilla to tomato-toast, I savored every bite. I relished in the silky local olive oil drizzled on bread — miraculously, without ever missing butter (and I even learned I’d been mispronouncing “aceite” all these years). But as you’ve surely guessed by now, it was the Spanish sweets that stole the spotlight and won my heart. We visited Barcelona, Granada, and Madrid, making sure not to miss a sampling of desserts in each incredible city.

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Chocolate tart and cinnamon roll at a Madrid coffeehouse.

One evening in Barcelona, fed up with crowded restaurants, we decided to buy take-out and eat it in a plaza. In the narrow streets of the Gothic district, we ordered pizza slices then found a dessert shop where the passionfruit cheesecake was highly recommended.

I don’t usually crave cheesecake after a heavy meal, but I pushed aside my skepticism and ordered it alongside Pilar’s apple tart. What an excellent choice! The trio of crispy seeds, sweet gooey fruit, and tart cream cheese was heavenly.

Another day, adamant that I try as many typical Spanish foods as possible, I ordered paella at a reputable spot in the Eixample district. The paella was perfect, and the desserts were so divine. Mine was a mousse made purely of coconut, under juicy roasted pineapple and buttery shortbread crumbs.

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Gelato in Granada.

Next, we headed to Granada — such a lively and beautiful city! It was warmer there, which is perhaps the reason we reached for frozen treats more than once. First, we ordered gelato one evening while exploring the streets on foot. Pilar chose mango and spicy chocolate, and I (nostalgic for the cheesecake in Barcelona) ordered passionfruit and a flavor new to me: Málaga, a sweet wine named after the Spanish city of its origin.

All the gelato flavors were luscious and refreshing, but paled when we ordered violet ice cream after lunch the next day. To our surprise, the order was comprised of five scoops! (See first photo above.) Beautiful and creatively served, the ice cream was sprinkled with violet petals and sat on a bed of tart yogurt and marmalade. The delightful presentation and generous quantity were matched by a decadent balance of creaminess and lovely floral flavor and fragrance.

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Coconut mousse with pineapple and cookie crumbs, Barcelona.

After returning to Madrid, on a day of much walking and then craving a pick-me-up, we happened upon a little coffee house where we imagined ordering only caffeine-packed beverages but couldn’t resist the pastries on display. A moist, flavorful cinnamon roll and a rich chocolate tartlet (whose crust was even dipped in chocolate — genius!) proved perfect for hitting the spot.

And when we joined a birthday celebration with Pilar’s family a few days later, her aunt served a scrumptious oatmeal cake made sweetened only with the tender fruit embedded in its batter. A fellow baking enthusiast, she asked me to post a recipe written in Spanish in the future — a promise I intend to keep, even if the results are imperfect.

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Pilar’s aunt’s tender fruit and oat cake, Madrid.

Also in Madrid, I tried a new-to-me pastry at a farmers market: an ensaïmada. With its origins on the Spanish island of Mallorca, the coiled, yeasted dough is tender and airy. They come in many sizes, filled or not; mine was an individual portion stuffed with smooth chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar. It was utterly delicious.

And after all this devouring of desserts, I couldn’t help but see sweets in more places than ever. On one of my last days in Spain, I visited the spectacular Prado museum and found Diego Velázquez’s sacred painting of two saints in the dessert. The past and the future are brilliantly depicted in the background, and a bird above brings bread from heaven. But what do I see in the bird’s beak? A doughnut, naturally.

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Diego Velázquez: St. Anthony Abbot & St. Paul Hermit, c.1635-38, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There’s so much more I could share about my time in Spain, let alone the list of sweets. (Think giant spiraled churros, grated squash marmalade, custardy flan, seed-speckled cookies…) I feel so grateful for all I tasted and experienced, and I’m already dreaming of going back again. In the meantime, I’m inspired by my memories of Spanish sweets, and I hope to give them a heartfelt nod in the form of new dessert creations. Stay tuned!

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Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues, laced with liqueur

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (10)By day, I’m an office lady for a group of lively humanities departments. It’s a privilege to get to work with such a talented and diverse bunch, and I like knowing I’m supporting a vital but undervalued part of education. On the lighter side, I’m quite convinced that Christopher Guest could make a hilarious mockumentary about everyday life in my corner of academia. The ridiculous dramas and disparities have ranged from love triangles to budget crises, power plays to personality conflicts — to name just a few.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (11)One such moment arose recently when we found an unopened bottle of Chambord in quite an odd place, and it was clear that no one had claimed it. Raspberry liqueur at the office? We just weren’t sure what to do with it, let alone where it had come from. Inexpensive wine is as serious as it gets at our event receptions, so this unusual violet vessel was destined for somewhere different.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (22)I’d been itching to bake with raspberries again, and the newly-found spirits seemed meant to be transformed in my kitchen (then brought back to work to share in edible form, naturally). I decided on bite-sized meringues made with a Chambord syrup base, topped with tangy fresh berries and nutty poppy seeds. The outcome was wondrous: fragrant little treats with a lovely complexity and just the right amount of sweetness.

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Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (makes about 100)

  • 1 cup raspberry liqueur
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup + 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup egg whites (about 4 whites) at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
  • 100 raspberries (about 18 oz), preferably small-sized
  • candy thermometer and pastry bag

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper (I use one large and two small); set aside. Place two oven racks respectively at top and bottom third of oven, then preheat oven to 200 F.

In a small saucepan, bring the liqueur to a steady simmer. Watching carefully, let simmer until reduced to 1/2 cup, occasionally pouring into a heatproof measuring cup to check amount. This should take about 5 – 10 minutes. Once you have 1/2 cup, turn off heat.

In the bowl of a clean stand mixer, beat egg whites on high. When they start to become white and foamy, gradually add 3 tablespoons sugar. Keep beating until voluminous, opaque, medium-stiff peaks have formed; turn mixer off and keep nearby.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (21)Add 1 cup sugar and the salt to the 1/2 cup of reduced liqueur in the saucepan. Stir, then attach candy thermometer and heat over medium-high, watching carefully. As soon as mixture reaches 230 F, quickly remove from heat; turn the egg-white-filled mixer to medium-high, and slowly pour hot syrup into the side of the bowl while beating. Continue to beat for 8 – 10 minutes, stopping when meringue has cooled to lukewarm or room temperature and is shiny, holding its shape well. (At this point, the meringue is cooked and can be used to frost a cake, be toasted with a torch, or even eaten with a spoon.)

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (18)Fit a pastry bag with the piping tip of your choice, then fill with meringue. On the lined baking sheets, pipe out little meringue nests — each about 1.5 – 1.75 inches in diameter, and about 3/4 inch tall, with a centered hole big enough to fit a small raspberry. Refill pastry bag as needed, and feel free to be skimpy with the space you leave between the meringues. (While they shouldn’t be touching, they tend to hold their shape well when baked, and there are many to fit in the oven.) Sprinkle poppy seeds over meringues.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (24)Distribute the sheets of meringues onto the two racks in the oven, and set timer for 40 minutes. Switch cookie sheets from lower rack to upper rack, and vice versa, then close oven and bake for another 40 minutes. At this point, turn oven off and leave meringues inside for about an hour (not much longer lest they become gooey). Remove from oven. Meringues should feel dry and lukewarm to room temperature at this point. If  they need more drying time, immediately return to oven (kept turned off) for another 10 minutes.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (3)Working quickly, carefully transfer cooled meringues to containers with lids, such as cookie tins. If you live in a humid area like I do, I recommend adding a few desiccant packets, perhaps borrowed from your vitamin or medicine bottles. Just when ready to serve, top each meringue with a raspberry, rinsed and well dried. Note: These meringues can become a bit sticky, particularly in less-dry environments, so you may want to set them out gradually. In tins at room temperature, they last up to 5 days, pre-berry-topped.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (9)Crisp and light with a whisper of boozy Chambord, raspberry poppy seed meringues offer a scrumptious harmony of texture and flavor. The fresh berries burst with a refreshing tang, while the salt and toasty poppy seeds balance perfectly with the sweetness. The flavor of the liqueur is not too robust, but notes of its warmth and fragrance are delightfully present. At the office and beyond, these addictive treats have proven to be a reminder that inspiration can show up in the most unexpected places.

Raspberry Poppy Seed Meringues (8)Maybe next time… Akin to mini pavlovas, these meringues would be lovely with with a spoonful of whipped cream (unsweetened or barely sweetened) underneath or on top of the berry — and this would also amplify the already complex play of textures. A bittersweet chocolate drizzle could also be divine. While the raspberries are a lovely echo of the liqueur within, feel free to swap them out for another fruit (e.g., blueberries proved a great alternative in one version I made, and I’m already dreaming up a grape rendition…).

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Posted in Baking with Booze, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Smoky Coconut Caramels [Vegan]

Smoky Coconut Caramels - Vegan (12)I recently whipped up a batch of my hearty mac & cheese, complete with a buttery roux, three kinds of cheese, and toasty breadcrumbs on top. When gathering the ingredients, I happened to pass the smoked paprika in the spice aisle, and I grabbed a bottle on a whim, confident that a scoop would add a nice kick to my decadent dinner. While this inkling proved true, I didn’t stop there. An open bottle of smoky spice on my counter, and the idea of using it in sweets was quickly born.

Smoky Coconut Caramels - Vegan (16)I had a hunch that the paprika — with its rich smoke and bit of bitterness — would pair nicely with homemade caramel, whose burnt sugar base often echoes these same qualities. (Besides, what did I have to lose, since even Dijon had proved so magnificent?) And I once again reached for an array of coconut products — its toasty chips, its pearly milk and oil, its sandy amber sugar — along with maple syrup, vanilla and salt. The result is a mouthwatering, rich, chewy candy with an addictive hint of smoke.

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Smoky Coconut Caramels (Vegan) — makes a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan: 32 caramels

  • 3/4 cup canned coconut milk (full fat – not light)
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut sugar (a.k.a. coconut palm sugar)
  • 6 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 6 tablespoons coconut oil (preferably virgin unrefined)
  • 32 toasted coconut chips
  • candy thermometer

Lay a piece of parchment inside a 9×5″ loaf pan, with plenty of overhang along the longer edges. Lightly grease the inside of the pan as well as the parchment. Set nearby. Measure out 6 tablespoons coconut oil, preferably in solid state, and leave nearby. Fit a small-to-medium saucepan with a candy thermometer; set aside. You’ll also need another, smaller saucepan with a lid; set nearby.

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Open the can of coconut milk and whisk well, until consistency is even. Measure out 3/4 cup coconut milk and place it in the smaller saucepan without the thermometer. Mix in the vanilla, salt, smoked paprika, and water. Bring to a steady simmer, stirring occasionally. As soon as the mixture bubbles up, turn heat off and cover with lid.

Meanwhile, place coconut sugar and maple syrup in the slightly larger saucepan fitted with the thermometer. Heat, and use a heatproof utensil to stir occasionally and very gently (avoid splashing), just until thermometer reaches 245 F. Turn off heat and quickly add the heated coconut milk mixture (beware: the hot mixture may froth up). Stir in the coconut oil in 3 or 4 portions, mixing each until completely melted.

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Turn heat to medium, and stir occasionally, letting the spoon touch the bottom of the pan to avoid burning. Let boil until mixture reaches 245 F again (this can take several minutes), then quickly pour into prepared loaf pan. Let sit at room temperature to cool until firm. (If top is very oily, you may opt to dab it with a clean, lint-free tea towel.) Place in fridge for at least an hour to firm up for slicing. While caramels chill, cut out 32 pieces of wax or parchment paper, about 3 by 4 inches a piece.

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When ready to cut the chilled caramels, run a knife along the short edges of the pan, then use the parchment to lift the caramel slab. Invert on cutting board and carefully remove parchment. Cut into 32 caramels (a 4 by 8 grid); I find it easiest to cut the slab into quarters, then eighths, finally cutting each eighth into four. Top each caramel with a toasted coconut chip, then wrap with wax paper, twisting at ends.

NOTE: Because of the coconut oil, these caramels can melt quickly. Keep them refrigerated or in a cool area — and don’t carry them in your pocket or mail them during warm seasons. They’re quite chewy straight out of the fridge, and are at their prime after being set out at room temperature for about 10 minutes.

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With their delightful complexity and tempting whisper of smoky spice, these candies offer the depth and richness of traditional caramels in a surprisingly vegan form. The parade of coconut adds both a layer of creamy flavor and a tropical trace, with the full-bodied coconut sugar in luscious balance with the warmth of smoked paprika. Salty, sweet, and scrumptious, smoky coconut caramels are sure to hit all the right spots.

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Maybe next time… I find toasted coconut chips incredibly (dangerously!) delicious, but they’re an optional element of this recipe if you’d rather skip them. For an extra decadent treat, dip the chilled, cut caramels in melted chocolate, then re-chill until chocolate gets hard. [If you wish, choose a vegan chocolate (many dark chocolates are naturally so).]

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Caramelized Kumquat Cake with Whiskey and Mascarpone

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I was lucky to grow up on a street lined with houses full of kids near my age. We spent countless evenings playing outside until dinnertime: taking turns frolicking on one another’s lawns, making necklaces out of wildflowers, and chasing down the ice cream man. My best friend Jenny lived two doors down, and my memory of her mom’s cozy house is crystal clear to this day — including the prolific fruit tree alongside the driveway.

kumquat cake (5)When I came across kumquats as an adult, I was at first convinced they were the same as the fruit on that bygone tree. But upon tasting one, I realized these were different: tart, citrusy, firm. (It turns out I’d been nibbling on loquats all those younger years; their similar name had puzzled me — and I haven’t actually experienced their apricot-like essence since those days at Jenny’s.) But meanwhile, guided by my misdirected memories, I fell in love with kumquats, bringing mountains home from the market. Their sweet-sour punch and dainty size proved both satisfying and addictive — no nostalgia necessary.

kumquat cake (15)While I still hope to reunite with loquats (and Jenny!) one of these days, I found myself dreaming of ways to celebrate my new craze for kumquats. I envisioned their tangy, clean flavor in balance with something creamy, something warm. I decided on a skillet cake with silky mascarpone and toasty almond meal in the batter, along with a good dose of whiskey and vanilla. Vibrant with layers of complementary character, this creation turned out to deliver pure lusciousness. Here’s the recipe.

Caramelized Kumquat Cake (makes a ~9.75” skillet cake; 8-10 slices)

  • about 12.5 ounces kumquats (around 35 kumquats)
  • ½ cup (8 tablespoons) butter, divided
  • ¼ cup + 2/3 cup dark brown or muscovado sugar, well-packed
  • 6 tablespoons whiskey, divided
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup almond meal, well-packed (preferably milled with skin on – not blanched)
  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese at room temperature
  • 1 egg + 2 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 9.75” ovenproof skillet such as cast iron*

Rise the kumquats and discard any stems. Use a paring knife to slice each kumquat in half, cross-wise, carefully removing any seeds with the tip of the paring knife along the way. Over low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in the saucepan. Whisk ¼ cup brown sugar until all sugar is wet and beginning to look less grainy. Turn off heat and stir in 3 tablespoons whiskey.

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Place kumquats sliced-side down starting on the outside edge of the pan, arranging them rather tightly in concentric circles. Bring heat to medium: a steady simmer. Cover and cook for 8 minutes. Remove lid and poke backs of kumquats; they should be soft enough to penetrate easily with the paring knife. Cook uncovered for another 2 minutes or so if needed. Remove from heat.

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Preheat oven to 350 F. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Add the almond meal and whisk until no lumps remain; set aside. Melt remaining 5 tablespoons butter and place in a large bowl. Add the mascarpone and beat until smooth. Beat in the remaining 2/3 cup brown sugar and the vanilla. Add the egg and beat; then add the egg whites and beat thoroughly, until well incorporated. Place the almond-flour mixture into the bowl of wet batter and mix until smooth and thick, gradually adding the remaining 3 tablespoons whiskey. Mix until even.

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Check the skillet for any kumquats that have turned over, and re-place them cut side down. Gently spread the batter over the cooked kumquats, extending the batter to the edges of pan evenly, with no fruit showing. Place skillet in preheated oven and bake for about 25-30 minutes*, until edges are toasty and center tests clean with a toothpick.

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Let cake cool until pan is lukewarm or room temperature to the touch, about 1.5 to 2 hours. (If not serving immediately, let cool completely, wrap tightly with foil, and store at room temperature up to 24 hours.) When ready to serve, heat for about 30 seconds over medium heat, loosen sides with a butter knife, and carefully invert onto a plate.

kumquat cake (2)Draped with succulent, caramelized citrus, this tender skillet cake offers tempting and a distinctive play of harmonious flavors. Its whisper of warm whiskey and its nutty almond-flecked batter present a delectable balance alongside the kumquats’ tartness. The decadent mascarpone creates a crumb that’s moist with a creamy quality, and blends delightfully with the vanilla and fruit. Rustic yet rich, caramelized kumquat cake is fabulous for almost any occasion — or any time of day, for that matter.

kumquat cake (18)*Maybe next time… My skillet is 2″ deep; it’s marked as 10″ in diameter, 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 and checking early for doneness. This cake has a lot of flavor complexity already, but if you’d like to add more, real vanilla bean and/or cardamom would be great candidates. I prefer whiskey for this cake, but if you’d like, try dark rum, cognac or brandy. For an extra indulgent treat, serve warm with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of mascarpone. A burnt caramel sauce could also be divine.

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Nutty Orange Poundcake Bites with Jack Cheese

nutty orange poundcake bites with jack cheese (13)My recent weeks have been jam-packed with budgets, hospitals, and notaries — and you know what? All this adulthood has me daydreaming of simpler times. Believe me, I don’t want to go backward, and I’m ever thankful for my life today. But when sweet nostalgia surfaces lately, I embrace it as a break. One such memory is this silly 80s jingle that still gets randomly stuck in my head. I sang along to it with gusto as a kid, wholeheartedly praising the existence of cheese — even though I only knew of two kinds: orange and white, or cheddar and jack: the smooth, salty blocks of snack material in mom’s fridge.

nutty orange poundcake bites with jack cheese (10)With the cheese tune as my earworm, it didn’t take me long to start wondering whether I could use it in my next dessert. Even though the cheese world gets more diverse and interesting as I age, plain old jack would be both a timely nod to simplicity and a perfect blank canvas for my new recipe. I decided to pair it with lots of orange zest and toasty macadamias in a thick, silky batter. Essentially making a rich poundcake, I had a hunch that bite-sized treats would make an ideal format–and they proved to be quite addictive.

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Nutty orange pound cake bites with jack cheese
[makes about 36 mini-muffin size cakes]

• 2 ounces shelled macadamia nuts (about a scant ½ cup)
• 3.5 ounces jack cheese (about 1.25 cup grated, loosely packed — not the dry/aged variety)
• Finely grated zest of two oranges
• ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• ¾ cup all purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 325 F. Generously grease and flour mini muffin pans; set aside.
Place macadamias on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 5-6 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely, placing in fridge or freezer to hasten cooling if desired. Leave oven on. While nuts cool, grate the cheese with a standard size (large hole) grater, then set cheese in fridge. Use a fine grater such a Microplane to zest the outer peel of two oranges. Set zest aside. (Use zested oranges for another purpose as you wish.)

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Once nuts are cool, chop into a coarse meal using a nut mill or chopper; if you opt for a blade grinder or food processor, be careful to pulse in brief stints to avoid creating nut butter (macadamias are especially oily).

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until even. Add the eggs one at time, beating well after each. Mix in the vanilla. Through a sifter or sieve, add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix until incorporated and smooth, then fold in the chilled grated cheese, crushed nuts, and orange zest until evenly dispersed.

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Using the greased, floured mini muffin pans, fill each cup with a rounded tablespoon of batter. You should end up with no more than 36 filled cups. Bake for about 15 minutes at 325 F, until edges are toasty and centers no longer look pale or wet.

When cool enough to handle but still slightly warm, use a butter knife to loosen and remove cakes from pan, transferring elsewhere to let cool completely (or eat warm while cheese is still a bit melty!). Store cooled cakes in ziploc bags or closed containers, either at room temperature up to 48 hours, or in fridge up to 5 days; bring to room temp to serve.

nutty orange poundcake bites with jack cheese (8)With their toasted nutty edges and dense, moist crumb, these little pound cakes are a celebration of sheer deliciousness. The decadent warmth of crushed macadamias is offset by sweet, vibrant orange bits. Shreds of jack cheese add a welcome hint of salt and a luscious crackle to every bite. Hearty but tiny, they’re great for dessert, a snack, or even breakfast. Hey, they might even leave you singing an ode in their honor…

nutty orange poundcake bites with jack cheese (11) Maybe next time… If you’re craving something a bit more frilly, feel free to drizzle these cakes with a zig-zag of melted white chocolate, or an orange glaze made of powdered sugar and OJ. (I daydreamed of doing this, but ultimately embraced the unadorned theme this time; plus, they have plenty of flavor as they are.)  I chose mild nuts and cheese to ensure that the butter, vanilla and orange could really sing — and I’m sure that cashews or blanched almonds would work as nicely as the macadamias. Finally, I have a feeling that a mellow, young cheddar could be a delicious (and more detectable) stand-in for the jack.

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Posted in Cakes & Cupcakes, Cookies & Bars, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Tender, Tangy Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

Hibiscus Cake (13)Maybe it’s all the long-awaited rain that has flowers on my mind lately: the magnetizing truth that soggy, grey days will lead to blooming brightness. So when I recently came across dried hibiscus petals in powdered form, I knew they were destined for my next dessert. I was already craving their vivid color and tart taste — and besides, it had been awhile since I’d baked with hibiscus, let alone any flowers: the namesake of my blog.

Hibiscus Cake (18)While hibiscus is often flaunted in brewed tea (it’s the zing in Red Zinger; the punchy part of Passion), its fragrant, earthy notes make it a wondrous edible treat, too. This time, I echoed it with other tangy tones: rich buttermilk and plenty of Meyer lemon. The result was a refreshing and succulent new cake—moist, citrusy layers with a deep burgundy hue. Cream cheese frosting proved to make for a decadent pairing (my rather rustic version is shown), but it can also be stacked and more artfully iced, or simply dusted with powdered sugar.  Any way you serve it, it’s delightfully addictive.

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Buttermilk Hibiscus Cake

For the cake (makes two 8” cake layers; serves about 12)
• 2 medium-large lemons, preferably Meyer
• 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
• 1 and 1/3 cups granulated sugar
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil, such as sunflower or canola
• 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 and 1/3 cups all purpose flour
• 2.5 ounces (70 grams) powdered hibiscus petals (about a scant ½ cup)*
• 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease insides of two 8” cake pans, and either line bottoms of pans with parchment or dust with flour; set aside. Rinse and dry the lemons. Finely zest the outer lemon peel; set zest aside. Juice the lemons; measure out 1/3 cup lemon juice, seeded or strained; set aside. (Reserve any leftover lemon juice for frosting, if using.)

Hibiscus Cake
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla until smooth and even. Sift over the bowl: flour, hibiscus powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Begin to beat, gradually adding the 1/3 cup lemon juice and the buttermilk, stopping to scrape the bottom of bowl with a spatula, and mixing until smooth. Fold in about half of the lemon zest, stirring until just dispersed. (Reserve remaining zest for frosting, if using.)

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Pour batter into prepared pans equally. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until fragrant and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out batter-free; a few moist crumbs are fine. Cake layers will not be very high/domed. Let cakes cool completely in pans before removing (loosen sides with a butter knife, invert cake, and remove parchment). Serve under a blanket of sifted powdered sugar, or spread cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe follows). Store tightly covered at room temperature or in the fridge.

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For the frosting (makes enough to frost and fill a two layer cake)
• 1 pound cream cheese, softened
• ½ cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
• ¼ – ½ teaspoon hibiscus powder (optional for pale pink color)
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1.5 cups powdered sugar, well packed
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice (if you have any left from cake recipe; otherwise, this is optional)
• remaining lemon zest from cake recipe
• a few whole dried or fresh hibiscus flower petals for decorating (optional)

Beat the cream cheese and butter until well blended and uniform. Sift the powdered sugar, hibiscus powder and salt over the mixture; mix until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and lemon juice, whipping well and scraping bowl with spatula. Finally, fold in the lemon zest until evenly dispersed. Slather or pipe the frosting over cooled cake layers, whether stacking them into a two layer cake or serving them separately. If desired, decorate with hibiscus petals. Keep frosted cake covered and chilled, eating within 3 days.

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With a burst of distinctive hibiscus flavor, this tender, tangy cake offers vibrant deliciousness in every bite. The buttermilk batter creates a lusciously moist crumb, while the subtle surge of lemon makes for a clean and bright taste. A beauty to both the tongue and the eyes, this celebration of hibiscus is a reminder of the sweet satisfaction flowers can bring — any time of year.

Hibiscus Cake (16)Maybe next time… I love the pairing of hibiscus with lemon here, but I have a hunch that orange zest and juice would be just as wondrous — or maybe even lime or grapefruit. Similarly, melted unsalted butter can be swapped in for the oil if you wish.  *I found my hibiscus powder at a natural foods store and have seen it online, but I realize it’s much easier to find the whole dried petals. These can be powdered in small batches in a blade spice/coffee grinder; you could also try a mortar and pestle, but be ready for a workout!

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Juniper Gin Cookies with lime zest and vanilla bean

Juniper Gin Cookies (15)Even though the holiday season can seem to smother us with cookies, their high time never ends in my orbit (it’s cookies all year around here!). For a long time, I’ve wanted to create a bright and buzzy cookie as a nod to my most popular dessert. And with a new year on the horizon, the refreshing duo of gin and lime seemed especially timely and quite appropriately spirited. A scoop of vanilla bean would also fit the bill, balancing the cool citrus tones with a welcome warmth.

Juniper Gin Cookies (14)I decided on a buttery bar cookie full of crushed juniper berries (gin’s signature essence), plus plenty of lime zest for a natural match. The sweet, crisp icing would deliver a dose of revered local gin, while the pastry would offer a deliciously delicate, tender crumb — in part thanks to a bit of rice flour. Whether cut into bars or bite-sized morsels, these juniper gin cookies proved to sing of celebration.

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Juniper Gin Cookies (makes a 9×13” pan: 3 to 8 dozen cookies, depending on cut size)

For the cookie dough:
• 2 limes (plus extra if decorating cookies with zest)
• 1 tablespoon (5 grams) dried juniper berries
• 1 cup softened unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan
• ¾ cup granulated sugar
• 2 extra large egg yolks
• ½ teaspoon vanilla bean powder or paste, or seeds scraped from one large vanilla bean
• 2 cups all purpose flour
• ½ cup rice flour (white, not sweet)
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease inner bottom and sides of a 9×13” pan, then line with an oversized sheet of parchment so that it hangs over the two longer sides. Lightly grease the surface of the parchment. Set aside. Wash and dry two limes. Using a fine grater such as a Microplane, lightly zest the limes; set zest aside. Reserve zested limes for icing. Using a blade grinder or mortar and pestle, pulverize the juniper berries until powdered (some small flakes are fine); set aside.

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In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth. Add the egg yolks one at a time, incorporating them individually. Mix in the vanilla bean and crushed juniper until dispersed. Sift both flours, baking powder and salt over the bowl. Mix until distributed, adding the zest berries. Knead with hands until dough holds together and zest is well dispersed. Press dough evenly into lined pan, to the edges and reasonably flat. Bake for 20 minutes, until edges are toasty and center does not look wet. Let cool completely to room temperature before making icing.

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For the icing:
• 1 tablespoon lime juice (from lime above)
• 1/3 cup minus 1 tablespoon good tasting gin
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 2¾ cups (13-14 ounces) powdered sugar

Juice limes (you may not need both); remove any seeds. Place one tablespoon of lime juice in a 1/3 cup measure, then add gin to fill cup. Place in a medium saucepan. Stir in the salt. Measure out the powdered sugar (do not add to saucepan yet) and set nearby. Keep cooled cookie pan nearby, along with a heatproof whisk and an offset spatula.

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Heat saucepan over a medium flame until mixture is simmering, scalding hot. Turn off heat and quickly add the powdered sugar to the pan. Without delay, vigorously whisk the mixture until smooth, then pour the icing over the cookie slab, rapidly spreading with spatula evenly to edges of pan. Surface of icing will dry quickly. Let pan sit in cool, dry air until icing has hardened completely.

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Once icing has set, run a knife along the non-parchment edges of cookie slab to loosen it from pan. Carefully use parchment to lift slab from pan; transfer to cutting board and remove parchment. Using a sharp, non-serrated knife, cut with a firm downward motion; do not move knife up and down. (I cut my cookie slab into three even lengthwise columns, then cut each column into about 12 bars: the size shown in many of the photos here. I also love to cut each cookie bar into 2 or 3 even pieces, resulting in up to 8 dozen little squares that are perfectly bite-sized.)

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Serve in mini cupcake liners and, if desired, decorate with spirals of lime zest. I like to use a citrus zester (not a grater) and pull long strips. If you’d like them to stick to the cookies, reheat some icing and use a dab as glue, or use a tiny drop of corn or golden syrup.  Store cookies in sealed containers for up to 5 days.

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With their soft, speckled dough and cool gin glaze, these cookies pack an abundance of delight. Citrus lovers, gin lovers, and all kinds of cookie lovers will enjoy these vanilla-flecked treats. Their rich yet delicate flavors and crumbly, buttery texture offer a sweet harmony that’s welcome on the tongue and in the belly. Fragrant with citrus and spirits, they are flavorful and fresh: a perfect pick-me-up for a special occasion, an edible gift, or anytime. Cheers!

Juniper Gin Cookies (12)Maybe next time… Instead of strips of lime zest, green or silver sugar sprinkles are a fun and easy decoration — just be sure to scatter them the moment you add the icing since it hardens quickly; they may not stick otherwise. Similarly, a zig zag of tinted icing or melted white chocolate would also be lovely across each cookie. If you don’t need a whole pan’s worth of cookies, shape dough into balls and bake what you need, halving the recipe or freezing extra dough balls. Use a scant tablespoon of dough a piece and bake on parchment lined cookie sheets, checking at 8 minute mark and baking in further 2 minute increments as needed. Dunk cooled cookies in icing or spoon it over each one.

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