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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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 (to do so, you may have to heat it gently or bring it to room temperature if it’s very solid/cold). 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.

Juniper Gin Cookies (1)Juniper Gin Cookies (2)

Posted in Baking with Booze, Cookies & Bars, Sweets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake with a Curious Crust

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As corny as it sounds, I recently wished a friend “a pomegranate week: healthy, vibrant, sweet!” While I’ve long hoped to celebrate their qualities in the form of a new dessert, the pomegranate harvest comes along and I find myself gleefully breaking them open — red splatters and all — and immediately eating every last juicy morsel. But this year I determined to be different: I brought home several extra pomegranates from the market, and a bit of self-discipline to boot.

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This recipe started with my familiar dream of a fruity, creamy treat (a craving which, by the way, has also had me making multiple batches of this lately). Most recently, I envisioned something with complexity in both texture and taste, and I craved a whole lot of seasonal flavor packed into each bite — so pomegranates would be perfect. Once I settled on making a cheesecake, I decided I wanted to keep it from being too towering or too heavy; it would be compact and crust-free.

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (3)In its first version, it was served upside-down with the lovely pomegranate arils draped across the top. But a few factors led me elsewhere: first, the arils lost their vibrancy once cooked — while they kept their succulence and crunch, they simply weren’t as pretty anymore. Second, the juiciness of the fruit soaked downward into the cheesecake over a short period of time, with the risk of sogginess casting a murky shadow. Third, I found that the crisp, flavorful arils made an absolutely lovely replacement for traditional crust (and one that’s gluten-free as well).

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (15)Reaching for orange zest and some pumpkin puree felt like a given, and together they proved to sing of the season. Meanwhile, the molasses-rich sugar and scoop of spices offer a warmth that balances the subtle tartness of both the cream cheese and pomegranate.

Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake (makes an 8″ round cake; serves 8-10)Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (1)

  • 1 cup (6 ounces) fresh pomegranate arils, plus more for decoration if desired
  • finely grated zest of one orange
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons corn starch
  • 1 pound cream cheese at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar or muscovado sugar
  • 3 large eggs at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • fresh peppermint leaves for decoration, if desired

Begin by setting the pomegranate arils in a colander to strain any excess juice. Wash, dry and zest the orange. Generously grease the inner sides and bottom of an 8″ cake pan (preferably using soft butter), then line the bottom with two circles of parchment — one on top of the other. Alternatively, lightly grease an 8″ springform pan. (Note: if you use a pan larger than 8″, as most springforms are, it will require more pomegranate to cover the bottom and will result in a shallower cheesecake needing a shorter baking time.)

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (4)Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a bowl, toss 1 cup (6 ounces) strained pomegranate arils with the orange zest. Sift granulated sugar and corn starch over the bowl, then toss until all fruit is coated. Transfer to the prepared pan and spread the fruit in an even layer to the edges. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the cream cheese and brown or muscovado sugar until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, completely incorporating each one, but not over-beating so as to not add too much air. Scoop out 1.75 cup of the cream cheese mixture and carefully pour it on top of the pomegranate arils without moving them. Be sure the cream cheese mixture reaches edges of the pan and is even. (This layer of batter is a bit thicker than its pumpkin counterpart, which helps hold the fruit in place while offering a pleasant, pure flavor.)

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By hand, fold 3/4 cup pumpkin into the remaining cream cheese mixture, stirring until just incorporated. Sift spices over the mixture and stir until dispersed. Gently and slowly, spoon the pumpkin mixture on top of the cream cheese layer, completely covering it. Place pan in oven and bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until top reveals some toasty spots and center is set. (Note: While a water bath is recommended in many cheesecake recipes, I discourage using one here — this recipe doesn’t need more moisture.)

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Remove cheesecake from oven and let cool completely to room temperature on countertop. Place in fridge if not serving soon, or if you prefer your cheesecake cold. When nearing serving time, run a knife around the side of the cheesecake and invert it onto a plate; this can require a hearty whack. Remove and discard the parchment, and re-invert cake onto your serving plate. (Or, if using a springform pan, simply remove the sides of the pan.) Decorate with arils and mint leaves if desired, slice with a sharp knife, and enjoy. This cheesecake tastes best the day it’s baked but can be kept chilled and eaten up to 2-3 days later.Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (16)

With its surprising burst of pomegranate “crust”, this distinctive dessert offers decadence, complexity and seasonal spice. Its notes of molassesy sugar, vibrant orange zest, and rich pumpkin are beautifully balanced with the tang of velvety cream cheese and the crisp bits of pomegranate. Smooth yet crunchy, rich yet bright, this cheesecake is a showcase of scrumptious qualities in a single, simple form. It’s as wondrous for breakfast with tea or coffee as it is a luscious evening treat. Enjoy!

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Maybe next time… Using fresh pumpkin (cooked then pureed) would be a great alternative to canned pumpkin, as would butternut squash or sweet potato — just make sure the veggie of choice is not too watery since the juice of the pomegranate is already present. Feel free to play with the spices (cinnamon and cardamom could be particularly nice). Instead of mint leaves and pomegranate arils, a zig-zag of pomegranate jam and a few curls of orange peel would make an equally lovely decoration atop each slice.

Pomegranate Pumpkin Cheesecake (12)

Posted in Baking with Veggies, Pies, Tarts, Tortes & Cheesecakes, Sweets, Traditional with a Twist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments