4 Layer Boston Cream Pie Cake…for Brother’s Birthday!

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Growing up in my house there were three March birthdays.  Mine came first, early on, thank goodness!  Better presents.  Mid-March is Cynthia’s then towards the end of the month came our precious baby brother, Tommy’s, birthday.  Good Lord, when that boy was born you’d have thought the Messiah moved in!  A boy. A BOY.  My parents had a huge navy pram for him, natch, and Mama would let Cynthia and me take him for walks around the neighborhood.  People, mostly women, would stop, lean waaaaay forward to look inside and exclaim, “Oh, she’s beautiful!  And look at those curls!”  Our little bodies at six and eight would stiffen with rage and indignation as we retorted as angrily as we could, given that we had to exhibit perfect manners at all times, “It’s a HE NOT a she and he’s our brother!”  We positively adored him.  We were completely captivated.  We wanted to feed him, bathe him, change any diaper…even the muddy ones.  A little over a year later our younger sister, Pamela, was born.  Tommy became Cynthia’s baby and Pamela became mine.  The four of us grew up extraordinarily close.  Although at times we fought like cats and dogs in the privacy of our home, in public we protected each other to the end and by whatever means.  We covered up for each other with our parents as well.  For example, no one tattled-taled on another sibling if one had been drinking or partying during school hours.  Heck, no!  All our lives we’ve kept an eye out for each other.  And still do to this day.  Whether I ask Tommy, “Which do you like best?  These sandals?  Or these?” or ask his advice regarding the color of paint I should use in my hallway, he helps me with the same intensity, only thinking of what’s best for me.   Early on he helped me with relationship problems and just recently counseled me with the utmost patience and thoughtfulness through the heartbreaking loss of a dear, 25 year friendship.  He’s not demonstrative in the least but a few sweet words, a fast reminder of our quirky, outlandish childhood is all we need to become grounded and back on track.  He gives so generously of himself.  And that’s all we want.  So this cake might just be the tee-tiniest bit late but instead of two layers I made it four.  In place of pudding in between the layers I made a wildly rich pastry cream with lots of vanilla bean.  And rather than finish it off with an everyday chocolate glaze I crowned this beauty with a ravishing, magnificent dark chocolate ganache.  Because he’s OUR brother!

 

Five years old at Happyland kindergarten.  Sweet boy, sweet days!

Five years old at Happyland kindergarten. Sweet boy, sweet days!

Although this cake is definitely old school I thought I would crank it up by making my favorite vanilla cake but if you’re short on time or energy a boxed mix is just fine.  If you choose a boxed mix then a few simple additions will make it even more luscious.  In place of oil use butter.  Replace water with whole milk, add an extra whole egg, a teaspoon of good vanilla extract and continue to follow the directions on the box.  While the cake cools make the pastry cream.  I use this recipe from Epicurious by Chef Lou Jones.  I must say the directions state that the cream thickens in about 1 minute but it took mine roughly 5 or 6 minutes to thicken.  Other than that it was pretty much on target…I wanted to eat it out of the pot.  The perfume of the vanilla in the kitchen was absolutely heady and intoxicating!  I spread it in between the layers of cake then refrigerated it.  I covered it with the chocolate ganache the following day.  Uhh!  Sweet Jesus, but it was gorgeous.  I studded the top with fresh strawberries that had been given a shiny shellac job with the help of a small paintbrush and melted passion fruit jelly.   I’m so glad it turned out to be the perfect birthday cake!

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Pastry Cream

yield: about 3 cups

  • 2 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

 

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar and cornstarch.
  2. Transfer the remaining 1 3/4 cups milk to a heavy, medium-sized saucepan.  Scrape in vanilla seeds from bean and add the pod.  Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar undisturbed sink to the bottom.  Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.
  3. Whisk hot milk mixture, then gradually whisk into egg yolk mixture.  Return all to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly until pastry thickens, about 1 minute. (Took me a few more minutes but nbd.)
  4. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod and whisk cream until smooth.
  5. (At this point I covered 3 layers of cake each with 1 cup of cooled cream, assembled the cake stacking the layers leaving the top of the 4 layer cake bare but well covered with wax paper.)
  6. Transfer to a bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface.  Chill until cold, about 4 hours.  Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on the surface, up to 3 days.

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Chocolate Ganache

yield: about 2 cups

  • 9 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon liquor, such as orange flavored, Armagnac, brandy, rum
  1. Place chocolate in a medium-sized bowl.
  2. Heat cream to just before boiling point.
  3. Pour hot cream over chocolate bits in bowl and whisk vigorously until smooth.
  4. If using, stir in liquor until completely incorporated.
  5. Allow to cool slightly before pouring over cake.  This works best on a chilled cake.

 

If you are decorating the cake with berries wait to place them on the cake a few hours before serving it so the fruit stays fresh.  Heat up a bit of clear jelly in the microwave and with a small paint brush spread the liquid jelly on the bottom or cut side of the fruit.  The jelly will act as your “glue”.  Carefully paint the jelly on the top and sides of the fruit to give it a glossy finish.  If the heated jelly starts to thicken while you’re working with it, it can be warmed up again in the microwave.

Happy Greek Easter!

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Xristos Anesti, everyone!  This past weekend was Orthodox Christian Easter and for the first time in a very, VERY long time I wasn’t cooking.  We had accepted the gracious invitation of a family we’ve known for many years from the Greek church.  The bulk of the cooking had been taken off my shoulders!  I decided to bake my sweet potato bread but instead of loaves I would shape the bread into rolls.  My thought was a faintly sweet, tender bite of bread would be a delight with salty, garlicky lamb.  I used my favorite recipe, Bill Neal’s, from his book “Biscuits, Sweetbreads and Sweet Potato Pie”.  I posted the recipe for the loaves back in…wow!  Three years ago.  Anyway, the recipe remains the same, however, I found in baking rolls rather than  loaves it is imperative that one use light-colored baking sheets.  I have two darker ones and no matter how I played with the positions of those pans and the temperature those rolls came out a tad bit darker on the bottom than I would have liked.  Dad will be eating the darker rolls for some time!  We arrived at the party with many kisses and hugs and the joyous salutations of “Xristos Anesti!” followed by the response of “Alithos Anesti!” resounding all around us.

Xristos Anesti from the Carras family!

Xristos Anesti from the Carras family!

The house was perfect. Open and spacious it sits on the water with a sparkling, inviting pool in the back.  The children played games and jumped in and out of the pool while the adults relaxed under an enormous tiki hut savoring cocktails and Greek music.  The ceiling fan under the fronds of the tiki hut not only kept us cool but seemed to waft the distinct aroma of garlic and lamb to tease us through the afternoon.  Most of the crowd there had observed Lent eating no meat at all so our hosts treated us to bits of Greek style grilled chicken and grilled sausage from Cyprus interspersed with ears of grilled corn on the cob redolent with Greek herbs and swathed with melted butter.  Oh, but it was heaven on earth!  Off in a shady corner was the guest of honor slowly turning on the spit, only making a sound when it’s juices hit the hot coals below it.  Yes.  It was a whole lamb.  Gorgeous and browned I had to hold myself back from trying to sneak a little crunchy corner.  But I tried, people, oh yes, I tried.  All I could do was almost burn my fingertips…and try to practice patience.

The Easter lamb.  Underneath but not shown was a spit with Kokoretsi, a Greek delicacy of lamb organ meats rubbed with Greek herbs, salt and pepper.  Fabulous!

The Easter lamb. Underneath is a spit with Kokoretsi, a Greek delicacy of lamb organ meats rubbed with Greek herbs, salt and pepper. Fabulous!

When at last it was ready two or three men hoisted the arm of the spit on their shoulders and carried the lamb off to be carved after it had rested for 15 minutes or so.  The ample dining room in the house held the table which almost groaned under the weight of all the homemade dishes.  Emerald green salads lightly tossed with fresh lemon juice and good Greek olive oil sparkled like jewels.  Platters of crisp, golden Greek style potatoes peeked out of lacy veils of oregano and black pepper.  The trays of Greek cheese and spinach pies in crisp, buttery phyllo flanked by bowls of cold, tart tsatziki  and feta went on forever.

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And my rolls didn’t look bad, if I do say so myself.  Dessert was, again, homemade.  Galaktoboureko, a creamy custard, pudding encased in a pillow of phyllo saturated with a light, sweet, sugar syrup.  I was delirious!  The table was glorious and splendid.  The day was positively magnificent.  We caught up with old friends and made new friends as well.  We are truly blessed!

Remoulade’s Got Me Stoked

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Wow, was last week great, or what?  The week ended with a brilliant Easter day here in south Florida.  I didn’t cook.  Jimmy, ever so generously, took us all to brunch.  James ordered Crab Benedict which got me to thinking THIS week about crab….and remoulade sauce.  Homemade remoulade sauce.  And not some chemical-laden, jarred mayonnaise with a bunch of dried up, processed herbs and spices thrown in.  NO, I craved the mile-long list of ingredients remoulade from the likes of Craig Claiborne and Julia Reed sitting alongside Pat Conroy’s crab cakes.  Lee Bailey’s recipe is also lovely but his makes up 6 cups.  A little more than I need on this spring day!  Easy and quickly made, the sauce does require quite a few components but I’ve got to tell you, you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry and refrigerator.  I ate my weight in remoulade during the late 70’s in New Orleans.  I was living in Atlanta and I was so lonely and lost.  Those were bad…BAD years for me.  Since I worked with Delta I would fly to N’awlins any chance I could and stay with a dear, sweet ex-neighbor from midtown Atlanta.  His partner had up and left him for a richer man so Tommy put in for a transfer to New Orleans and got it.  We spent countless nights depressed and unhappy, losing ourselves in bourbon and gorging ourselves with the freshest of local seafood.  Every time I left I was still a sad mess but I always welcomed the incredible escape of that city and its celebrated cuisine.  Remoulade is spicy and the heady mix of ingredients will play in your mouth hard and long.  It’s heaven!  And it stays fresh in the refrigerator for a good week as long as you are diligent making sure your knives, cutting board, food processor and blade, etc. are spotless before using.  Don’t skimp on the lemon and vinegar as those two ingredients also help to prevent bacteria.  Furthermore it’s not just good with seafood.  How about a BLT on a pretzel roll slathered with remoulade?  Oh, and the tomato is a tart fried green tomato.  Mercy!  This recipe is from Julia Reed’s book “Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties”.  You’ll love it!

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Remoulade Sauce

yield: about 2 cups

  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup prepared horseradish
  • 1/4 lemon, seeded and cut up including rind
  • 1 bay leaf, crumbled
  • 2 tablespoons Creole mustard
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  1. Place the yolks in a blender or food processor and blend for 1 minute.
  2. With the machine running, add the oil gradually in a thin stream until the emulsion is thickened.
  3. One at a time, add the remaining ingredients and process until well blended and the lemon rind is finely chopped.
  4. Transfer the sauce to a covered container and chill for at least 2 hours.
  5. Note: This should be enough to toss with a pound and a half of medium to large shrimp.

Make Ahead For Easter – Guava Cream Cheese Flan, yeah baby!

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IMG_8722_1024 In the days before Easter Mama always prepared one of her two signature dishes, flan.  Hers was always beyond perfection.  There were never any offensive bubble holes and, without fail, a generous amount of caramelized syrup.  I’ve told y’all before…that woman could.not.cook.  Dinners were a consistent disaster, everything was burned to a charcoal briquet level on one side.  Her solution to that problem?  Serve the dinner burn side down and no one will ever know!  That, coupled with the fact that my little sister Pamela knocked her glass of milk over just about every night, made for stressful dinners round our dining room table.  Mama just wasn’t into eating or cooking and assumed everyone else felt the same way.  But her Sunday roasts and flans were spectacular triumphs.  The dessert was always the traditional egg, milk and vanilla flan, her mother’s recipe.  In recent years many have ventured into additional flavors such as mango, coconut, guava and other Caribbean tastes.  Mama stuck with what she knew.  I find a guava cream cheese flan is easier due to the changed instructions.  For my mother’s traditional version the eggs are beaten until smooth but as lightly as possible so as not to create unsightly holes when the custard is baked.  Whereas a flan with cream cheese can be made in a food processor or blender.  The addition of the fruit and cream cheese produces a dessert much denser, almost a cheesecake in texture, and no holes.  It’s rich and creamy, just perfect for a holiday.  The fact that it needs serious chilling time in the refrigerator makes for a splendid do-ahead last course. IMG_8734_1024

Guava Cream Cheese Flan        yield: 1 10-inch round serves 8-10

  • 2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 8-ounce block cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 14-ounce pack guava paste, cut into pieces
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
Love having fresh guavas in the kitchen.  Their perfume is positively heady!

Love having fresh guavas in the kitchen. Their perfume is positively heady!

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. To a food processor or blender, I think the blender works best, add 1 cup sugar, milk, cream cheese and guava paste.  Blend until smooth.  Add the eggs, vanilla and salt and pulse until the eggs are completely broken up and incorporated into the cream cheese mixture.
  3. Heat 1 cup of sugar in 10″ round cake pan melting slowly over medium heat.  Do not stir as that will create sugar crystals and you want a smooth syrup.  Gently swirl the melted sugar, covering the bottom and sides, until the syrup turns a golden brown.
  4. Place round cake pan in a bain marie, a bain marie being a pan with hot water for slow, even cooking.  The water in  the bain marie should come up about 3/4 of the side of the cake pan.
  5. Bake for about 50 minutes then remove from oven.  Cool in bain marie.  The flan will continue cooking in the hot water.
  6. When completely cool remove cake pan from water, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours.  I chill mine overnight and often a couple of days in advance of serving.
  7. When ready to serve have a serving dish or platter with a good-sized lip to catch the syrup that WILL come flying out.  Holding the flan with one hand use the other hand to firmly rap the sides of the custard loosening it.  You’ll see the flan come away from the sides of the baking pan.  Cover the top of the flan with the platter and over your sink QUICKLY invert the custard.  The flan should flop right onto the platter followed by the syrup.  If you’re not accustomed to doing this, the transfer from baking pan to serving platter can be done hours in advance when you’re not pressed for time and no one is watching.  Cover the flan with plastic wrap and place back in the refrigerator to stay cool until ready to serve.

Turkish Street Food…Borek!

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The "Grand Bazaar" of Ayvalik, Turkey

The “Grand Bazaar” of Ayvalik, Turkey

I’m crazy about middle eastern and mediterranean flatbread.  I’m even happier when they’ve been stuffed with a surprise or two.  Eight or nine years ago, on one of our vacations in Greece, we took a quick side trip to Turkey.  From our island of Lesvos it’s only a short ferry ride away.  Not to segue from this delightful recipe but if you should ever have the opportunity to take a ferry outside of the continental US you ought to take it.  Ferry rides are a wonderful way to really see how your temporary neighbors live.  On our way to Turkey the boat was filled with people, of course, and cars.  Lots of cars.  But on the return trip the cars were gone and in their place were refrigerators, patio furniture, a rainbow of comforter sets all still in their clear, plastic storage bags.  Pallets of fruits and bundled up cardboard boxes as far as the eye could see.  Truly, it’s a great way to see a little slice of local life.  Anyway, after a few hours on the water we safely arrived and disembarked.  We had been told there was a “Grand Bazaar” and we took off to find it.  Just steps before us the bazaar opened up to a beehive of activity with children running, some playing, some on urgent errands, shopkeepers hawking their wares from their stalls and a colorful topping of headscarves on the women shopping for their family’s lunch and dinner.  The cacophony of sounds was exhilarating; music blaring, people yelling at the top of their lungs, dogs barking and always the call to prayer over loudspeakers.  It was great!  We walked a while and stumbled across a table where a man and a woman were selling borek, the ubiquitous Turkish street food.

Fold, flip, wrap.  She made it look so easy!

Fold, flip, wrap. She made it look so easy!

Borek is a thin, thin round sheet of dough or flatbread that is stuffed with a combination of greens and cheese or meat, any concoction you wish.  The filling is place in the middle of the dough, pinched closed and tossed onto something that looks like a convex steel drum or upside down wok  griddle.  The borek blisters to a gorgeous golden brown on the outside while the filling cooks on the inside. Different than our’s here in the States; often they are folded when finished then wrapped in wax or parchment paper.  The corners become chewy while the flat outside bubbles up to a crispy flavor-fest.

Oh, how I would love to have two of these stoves.  One for the kitchen and one poolside!

Oh, how I would love to have two of these stoves. One for the kitchen and one poolside!

The dough requires no yeast or sugar, it’s just flour, salt and water.  The resting time is blessedly short so if you feel like rattling around the kitchen on a Friday night after a couple of glasses of wine and still have dinner ready in and hour or so you can.  And think of the fillings…good gracious!  The combinations are limitless.  I’ve made the classic spinach and feta but tonight I’m also preparing potato and onion with a little Aleppo red pepper flakes added. Borek are so gorgeous and easy, not to mention forgiving.  The secret, if there is one, is to let the dough rest sufficiently and then take your time rolling it out super thin.  I mean SUPER thin.  Perfect for a picnic…a ballgame…or under a tree, downtown, with the one you love.  It’s pretty sexy food.  Yeah.  I think you’ll really like it.  Just do yourself a favor and, if you decide to throw them together, resist the temptation of leaving the dough too thick and, also, try not to overload the borek with your filling.  They’re supposed to be flat. To that, let me add, if your filling is spinach and feta, you can heap on the spinach as it will wilt to next to nothing as they cook.  But if you go with potato or ground meat scatter with a light hand. This recipe comes from the book entitled “Savory Baking from the Mediterranean” written by Anissa Helou.  Not only is this recipe brilliant but so is the book. I hope you enjoy it.  That’s what it’s all about!

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Borek – Stuffed Turkish Flatbread yield: 4 whole hand pies For the dough:

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading and shaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the filling:

  • 3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese, PLEASE use a good quality feta and crumble it yourself
  • 2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups fresh spinach, finely shredded (I use more…about two large handfuls before shredding)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  1. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Gradually add just over 1/3 cup warm water to the well, bringing in the flour as you go along.  Knead to make a rough ball of dough.
  2. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface.  Knead for three minutes.  Invert the bowl over the dough and let the dough rest for 15 minutes.  Knead the dough for about 2-3 minutes more to make a smooth, firm dough.
  3. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Form each piece into a ball.  Cover with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, mix together the cheese and parsley.
  4. Sprinkle a work surface and rolling pin with flour.  Roll out a ball of dough to a circle about 12 inches in diameter, lightly sprinkling with flour every now and then.  (I have to tell you.  I had a hard time with that.  Mine were about 9 or 10 inches in diameter and they came out beautifully!)  Sprinkle a quarter of the spinach over half the dough.  Cover the spinach with a quarter of the cheese mixture.  Fold the dough over the fillings to make a half circle. Prepare the remaining boreks in the same way.  Heat a nonstick griddle or frying pan over medium heat.  Transfer the boreks, one or two at a time, to the hot griddle or pan and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side, until lightly crisp and golden.  Transfer to a serving plate and brush lightly with melted butter.  Serve immediately.  (I cut mine in half before serving.  The boreks are easier to handle and look prettier.)
The waters off Ayvalik, Turkey.  Perfect to sit  and munch on gozleme...just let time go by.

The waters off Ayvalik, Turkey. Perfect to sit and munch on borek…just let time go by.

BOOM! GOAT CHEESE CHEESE CAKES TOPPED with LEMON CURD AND FRESH FRUIT

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Strawberry, sour cherry and blueberry.  Oh, baby!

Strawberry, sour cherry and blueberry. Oh, baby!

The twang and tang combination of goat cheese and cream cheese is a fusion that will send your taste buds to an ambrosial rapture.  I’m crazy about legitimate, bona fide cheesecake, I mean, who isn’t?  My wish is for the tartness of the lemon and cheese to shine through the batter followed by the slightly sweet after glow of a lemon curd topping.  I want my filling somewhat dry, almost crumbly, with a hint of bite…as a proper New York cheesecake would be.  A cloyingly sweet and gummy cheesecake with a soggy bit of canned fruit topping sitting on a synthetic vanilla wafer is a recipe for disappointment.  This recipe will make your heart sing.  Pleasing to the eye, these tiny cakes end up looking like little jewels and because they’re bitesize…well,, hey, portion control! The marrying of goat cheese with cream cheese jacks up the flavor.  The sweet but tangy lemon curd pairs beautifully with both cheeses and the fresh fruit acts like a foil cutting through the tartlet’s richness.

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I happened to have homemade lemon curd on hand, which is always lovely, but if you’re short on time or don’t wish to fuss with it store-bought lemon curd is perfectly fine.  It can be found in the grocery store along side the jellies and jams. It does add a surprising contrast of flavors but the lemon curd really acts as a “glue” in order to hold the fresh fruit in place.  And, of course, choose your favorite fruits that boast deep, rich colors.  Blackberries would be gorgeous.  If you’d like to add a glossy to shine to the bites, a quick painting of heated jelly with have your treats sparkling.  If you like more of a matte finish, a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar is lovely.  But either way this dessert is a bad-ass pleasure! Let me know what you think.

Goat Cheese Cheesecakes with Lemon Curd and Fresh Fruit

yield: 40 mini-cakes

  • 1 6-ounce bag lemon cookies, crushed into crumbs.  I use Pepperidge Farms brand.
  • 8 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-1 1/2 cups lemon curd
  • fresh fruit for color, your choice
  1. Pre-heat oven to 375°.
  2. Place 40 mini size baking cups, paper or foil, on a cookie sheet lined with tin foil.  Spray cups lightly with non-stick cooking spray.
  3. Place 1 level teaspoon of cookie crumbs on the bottom of each sprayed baking cup.
  4. Use your fingertips or even a muddler from your bar to press down on the crumbs.  This is your crust.  Set cookie sheet aside.
  5. In a large bowl beat the cheeses together until light and fluffy.
  6. Add the eggs and beat well followed by the sugar.  Beat well.
  7. Add lemon juice and vanilla beating well after each addition.
  8. Scoop batter into baking cups filling 2/3 full.  I use a 1 1/2″ melon ball scoop.
  9. Bake 15-17 minutes keeping a watchful eye.  Each oven is different and these can cook quickly.
  10. Cool in baking cups and refrigerate 6 hours to overnight.
  11. Prior to serving top with 1/2-1 teaspoon lemon curd, to your taste
  12. Top lemon curd with fresh fruit.
  13. For a glossy finish heat 3 or 4 tablespoons of jelly in microwave until dissolved, 10-15 seconds.  Use a small pastry or paint brush to cover fruit with jelly.  Re-heat jelly if necessary as you work.

Key Lime Poundcake with Key Lime Cream Cheese Icing…omg!

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Next week is my older sister Cynthia’s birthday.  She was my first friend, my first confidante and my first co-conspirator.  She loved tennis and french, classical music and fashion.  She was the best big sister.  She watched out for me and was always there for me especially when I went through my “wild” stage.  She never judged and has unfailingly given me the best advice she could our whole lives together.  We share the early years in Puerto Rico before Tommy and Pamela were born.  We shared Crayola crayons while coloring and spent hours playing “little dolls”.  While in college the clouds of cigarette smoke billowing out of her bedroom were epic during our late night girl-talkathons.

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Here she is circa 1974 after a tennis match and cooling dip in the pool.  Slender, feminine and a helluva flirt she drove her college beaus mad.  Today we both have a passion for books and the sophisticated appointment of rooms.  Pearls thrill us beyond measure.  And she has a thing for lemon cakes (but she calls them “lemon kuchens”).  “Kuchen” being cake in German.  Every single time she comes home to Fort Lauderdale, which is three or four times a year, she’ll ask me, “How ’bout that lemon kuchen? and I always answer, “What about it?”.  I answer that way because I once baked her a lemon pound cake, from scratch, and ultimately she never had any because she never made time during that trip to come over to my house.  So no more lemon kuchen!  Until now.  I’ve been on a pound cake kick, not surprising when you see my girth.  I’m certain I’ve gained at  least 4 pounds since I started on this mission.  I craved… no, lusted after a dense, lemony-bright, tart and rich pound cake topped with a crown of smooth, creamy citrus icing.  As you can well imagine the development process has been a short visit to Dante’s fifth hell.  Not.  Also, here in South Florida, it’s key lime season and I would venture to say that here in this tropical end of the state, key lime cake comes in close right after key lime pie in popularity.

Creamy yellow is the shade you want in a key lime.  In this case big is better.  Look for limes the size of ping-pong balls.

Creamy yellow is the shade you want in a key lime. In this case big is better. Look for limes the size of ping-pong balls.

I was lucky enough to have a plethora of key limes given to me and have juiced and zested my fingers down to the bone.  Consequently long after the season is over I will have juice and zest safely tucked away in my freezer portioned out and labeled rendering me capable of baking great quantities of my new favorite pound cake.  This cake bakes up beautifully.  It would make an exquisite wedding cake, the icing decorated with the dramatic “pop” of fresh blackberries or raspberries.  On the other end of the “pretty” spectrum around the “practical” end James mentioned to me in passing me that for the past several days he has had a thick wedge for breakfast.  I’m telling you people, you cannot stay away from this cake.  It’ll sing out to you from the next room.  It’s the devil.  And if loving it is wrong, I don’t want to be right!  Yes, the cake is sweet, however the substantial addition of lime zest propels it to a new world of citrus wonder.  The crumb is heavy and dense, incredibly moist while at the same time smooth and somehow almost weightless.  The icing is a recipe in richness.  The cream cheese works in tandem with the lemon to make a “dolce-crostata”, or sweet-tart heaven in your mouth.  That being the case I look forward to having a key lime kuchen baked the next time Cynthia comes down for all of us to delight in and savor.  Happy, happy birthday, sweet sister.

I participated in a one day travel writing class downtown and took these slices to suck up. It worked. It’s the miracle cake!

Key Lime Pound Cake with Key Lime Cream Cheese Icing

  •  4 sticks butter, that’s 1 pound, room temperature
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs, room temperature
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup fresh key lime juice
  • 1/4 cup evaporated milk, (I always keep a good number of those small, 5 ounce cans in my pantry.)
  • 4 teaspoons key lime zest, minced
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 300°.  Cover inside of 10 inch tube pan with non-stick spray.  My pan is 10  1/2″ and it’s just fine.  Set aside.
  2. Using a stand-up mixer or electric hand-held, beat the butter well until light in color and fluffy.  Add the sugar and again beat well for at least 5 minutes.  I use a stand up mixer and beat the mixture 10-15 minutes.  I don’t like a “grainy” cake.
  3. One at a time add the eggs and beat only until the yellow disappears.
  4. Stir juice, milk, zest and vanilla together.
  5. Now mixing by hand, gradually flour to the butter-egg mixture alternating with the key lime juice and milk mixture.  Begin and end with flour.  Mix well but just enough to incorporate all ingredients.  You don’t want a tough pound cake!
  6. Pour evenly into the tube pan and tap pan on the counter to loosen any air bubbles.
  7. Bake for 1 hour and 45 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean.
  8. Cool on a cooling rack for 15-20 minutes in the pan then transfer from pan to cooling rack and allow to cool another hour or until completely cool.

The cake is far better the following day or 2 days later.

Key Lime Cream Cheese Icing

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 3-4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed key lime juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons key lime zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Using a hand mixer beat cream cheese and butter in a large bowl until well mixed.
  2. Add confectioner’s sugar and beat well until completely smooth and fluffy.
  3. Add key lime juice, zest and vanilla and mix until all ingredients are incorporated.
  4. Ice cake.

This makes quite a bit of icing.  After icing the entire  pound cake I fill the middle hole with the excess icing.  When the cake is served icing can be taken from the middle and dolloped along the side the slice of cake.

Hot Stuff

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Happy Birthday to me!  Today is the day of my birth and, in celebration, my gift to YOU is a brilliant, green Chilean hot sauce; bright, fresh and intense in flavor called Pebre.  It is our family favorite. On weekends when I allow myself a piece of whole grain bread that I baked, I slather it on an egg white sandwich.  Magnifico! James, Jimmy and I spread it liberally over grilled meats and fish.  A slab of skirt steak with charred bits on the outside but rare and juicy on the inside is a beautiful thing to behold.  Pebre is the condiment that throws you over the edge at a good Hispanic restaurant whether it be a four star top-grade establishment down to the back corner of a humble, backwater convenience store or even gas station covering a warm, handmade tortilla just taken out of a styrofoam cooler sitting on the floor.  And easy?  Easier than falling off a log.  Plus it lasts refrigerated for a little over a week.  Does it get any better?  I think not.  So try it.  On grilled flank steak.  Grouper, dolphin, shrimp or lobster.  Pebre dances on chicken and as a dip for grilled bread?  OMG.  Give yourself a birthday treat and whip this up.  You’ll have a healthful new favorite!

Slathered on an egg white sandwich this is a positive luxury!

Slathered on an egg white sandwich this is a positive luxury!

 

PEBRE or Cilantro Parsley Hot Sauce

yield: approximately 2 1/2 cups

  • 1/2-1 cup premium quality olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 2 bunches flat leaf parsley, washed and dried, roughly chopped, stems discarded
  • 1 bunch scallions, roughly chopped, any dried tops discarded
  • 4-6 fresh garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 3 fresh scotch bonnet peppers, more or less to your taste, stem discarded
  • 1 lemon or lime freshly juiced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

 

  1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.
  2. Taste for seasoning, transfer to a jar and cover with the lid.
  3. Refrigerate if you’re using it the following day or later than that.  Leave out at room temperature if you’re serving the sauce that day so the flavors marry.

 

Puerto Rican Parties

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My breathtaking Puerto Rico.

My breathtaking Puerto Rico.

When I flew down to Puerto Rico 30…35 years ago to begin work with Delta Airlines nothing prepared me for the level of partying that took place on that island.  The island celebrates a good 26, 26!, holidays.  Both January and July have 4 public holidays!  Sure, I had spent months, whole summers, vacationing with our grandparents and making the rounds to visit all the extended family members during the holidays.  But as a child and even as a young adult, one has no idea the degree of seriousness taken to make merry until one is wholly independent.  There were scads of Lopez family parties.  All-day pig roasts were pretty common place at my Tio Enrique’s mountain farm.  Being girls my sisters, cousins and I were not privy to the surreptitious sipping of rum my male cousins and uncles enjoyed while overseeing the roasting of the pig on a spit.  Even the farm hand whose job was to stand all day and turn the spit enjoyed the fruit of the cane!  Whenever our grandfather or any of our uncles would wander up to the house they were always so relaxed and happy… there’s a big surprise!  So, after college, when I moved to Puerto Rico I completely embraced this new lifestyle of “party down”.  My friends were the kids who had also been hired by Delta; all 12 local except me.  We were known as “the Dirty Dozen”.

Just a handful of "the Dirty Dozen".

Just a handful of “the Dirty Dozen”.

Training had been incredibly rigorous and demanding.  We were often and regularly tested on airline and Delta standards and it was made perfectly clear we would not be hired if we failed.  I remember one woman crying and saying she couldn’t make it…it was too hard.  I tried to get across to her it was just a matter of memorization.  To have been hired by Delta was quite an achievement at that time.  Literally hundreds of people had applied for our 13 positions in reservations.  She quit.  Right in the middle of our six-week training.  Her name was Sonia.  I’ll never forget.  Anyway, when the weekend or any holiday rolled around we were ready.  We became really close, the 12 of us, and spent free time together.  We had parties in clubs, in each other’s homes, at the beach, really anywhere we could.  We’d dance the night away and sip on rum.

More of the "Dirty Dozen" with our beautiful Janet tearing it up with Rafa!! How I love my people!

More of the “Dirty Dozen” with our beautiful Janet tearing it up with Rafa!! How I love my people!

Iremember one of the boys in our group went crabbing and I tasted for the first time crab cooked in tomatoes, wine, garlic, onions and fresh bay leaves.  The crabs were simmered in an enormous pot in the back courtyard of someone’s house.  The next day I went out and bought an equally big pot and still have it to this day.  One of the dishes I was introduced to was “Pescado en Escaveche”, ceviche or pickled fish.  It was eaten as an hors d’oeuvre, the sauce cold, tart and salty.  The fish was sweet and tender.  These tastes were most welcome on blistering, hot tropical days.  Through the years I’ve changed the recipe to feature bite sized pieces of chicken which are fried then marinated.  Steeped in a pot-pourri of vinegar, caramelized onions and black peppercorns, it’s one of those perfect pairings that need to be prepared in advance.  Yay!  I’m all for anything that can be made in advance.  Just right to serve or take to a party.  I usually offer this dish with whole grain wheat crackers, Triscuits, but I’ve also presented it with thin, toasted rounds of French bread.  It’s fantastic and no one, NO ONE, ever shows up with it!

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POLLO EN ESCABECHE 

yield: serves 10-15

  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil, divided
  • 1 cup white or cider vinegar
  • 10-15 whole peppercorns
  • 5 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • 2 pounds onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1″ pieces
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
An exquisite view of the ocean as seen from the mountains.

An exquisite view of the ocean as seen from the mountains.

 

  1. In a large acid resistant pot or kettle simmer uncovered 1 cup olive oil, vinegar,  1 teaspoon salt, bay leaves and onions for about 1 hour.  Set aside to cool.
  2. Mix flour with remaining teaspoon of salt and toss chicken in it to completely coat.  Discard leftover flour.
  3. In a large frying pan heat remaining 1/2 cup olive oil with the garlic cloves.  As soon as the cloves begin to brown remove from pan and discard the garlic.
  4. Over medium heat cover bottom of pan with one layer of chicken frying in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan.
  5. In a Pyrex or glass container pour half the warm onion-vinegar sauce.  Add half the chicken, the remaining sauce and then the remaining chicken.  Gently toss to thoroughly coat the chicken with the sauce.
  6. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.
  7. Serve cold.

 

My Las Olas Girls

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My heart has been broken and has been empty since Mama died this past November.  At first we rejoiced that she was in Heaven and no longer suffering.  Mama’s last few years were absolute torture for her and there was nothing we could do to help her.  She is now at peace.  My best friends, Dana and Andrea, came to her services and that meant the world to me.

My ninth birthday.  Mama gave me an iceskating party.  Very cool for South Florida!  L-R Dana, me, Andrea

My ninth birthday. Mama gave me an iceskating party. Very cool for South Florida! L-R Dana, me, Andrea

Both girls have lost a parent.  They get it.  After the funeral and in between my sobs we agreed on a Girl’s Weekend in January.  At Andrea’s house.  Less than a mile from my house!  This was a first.  We’ve always gone to the Keys and Girl’s Weekend has always been in September. As the weeks following her death flew by; the holidays came and went; her absence, her permanent absence, hit me hard.  I did my crying in the bathroom and in my car.  Think I’m sitting in the car listening to music?  Clearly, you didn’t look behind my RayBans.  So when our weekend was just days away I really withdrew.  I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to try to laugh or have to be entertaining.  I didn’t want to talk to anyone.  I didn’t want to see anyone.  With a lump in my throat I explained to my little sister, Pamela, I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t.  She soothed me with words I didn’t want to hear.  “I know you don’t want to go but once you get in the car you’ll feel better.  Really.  What’s the weather down there supposed to do this weekend?”  I choked out the words, “We’re not doing it in the Keys.  We’re having it at Andrea’s.”  “Wait, what?”, she exclaimed, “You’re fine!  If you want to go home you’re 5 minutes away! But trust me, you’re NOT going to want to go home.”  Sure enough.  Dana arrived at my house and wrapped me in her long, graceful arms.  More tears.  She understood and reassured me that she would return me home at any time, any hour if that was my wish.  And it was more of the same when we arrived at Andrea’s.  A few more tears on my part, sweet hugs and then, with her arm around my waist, she showed me to my room… the Bunny Room… the room she had picked out for me well-stocked with fresh flowers in silver and crystal vases, inviting Provencal pillows that had belonged to her mother and a breakfast tray with bottles of designer water, writing paper and sharp pencils tucked into a pocket.  In a corner and behind the door were tall, white, ceramic bunnies.  It was lovely!  Girly, lovely and incredibly thoughtful.  After unpacking we got down to “bizness”.  Large drinks were poured and I put out some spiced pecans I had made specifically for us.  As the alcohol worked its magic our tense shoulders dropped, hair was loosened and tossed and our laughter echoed across the pool and off into the evening.  That’s when Andrea’s little sister, Alyson, dropped by.  With hors d’oeuvre and bottles of wine!  She just wanted us to be happy. We begged her to stay and stay she did.  Dana’s little sister, Dawn, is Alyson’s best friend and she was expected down to spend the weekend with Alyson.  It was heading in the direction of a stellar Girl’s Weekend…booze and laughter…laughter that makes you laugh so hard you tinkle in your pants.  Which I did.  Dawn arrived that evening and launched a magical weekend that I think maybe only girls would understand, embrace and truly appreciate.  I’ve known these women since I was 5 or 6 years old and I was astonished and so grateful for the love and compassion they showed me.  We never took that tired, old walk down memory lane.  No.  We laughed and howled, there was a bit of crying, then back to laughing and screaming but all in the NOW.  None of that “remember when…?” nonsense.  The compassion mixed with a large amount of humor was so welcome and fully appreciated.  Andrea kept us entertained all weekend with proclamations such as “When the rave comes I’m going with my jewelry!” and “Sistah, yo glass is lookin’ mighty low theah, lemme get cha anothuh one”.  Dana knows how important it is to me to take Dad out every Saturday morning.  She offered to drive across town to pick up Dad, ferry us to a farmer’s market another town away and then stop at our Greek market to make Dad’s “outing” truly enjoyable for him.  And let me tell you, when you’ve been driving all week and drinking all night the LAST thing you want to do is get up early and get behind the wheel!  But she did…happily and with grace.  Dawn stayed 2 steps ahead of the bar and before we ran out of champagne she was walking back through the door with another case of bubbly plus “4 bottles of red and 3 bottles of white just in case and some snacks!”.  Her snacks consisted of crispy, warm French bread, pate, three or four cheeses, strawberries and red grapes.  Oh, wait!  And an olive tapenade.  Her generosity is boundless.  And then, what truly pushed me over the edge, I somewhat self-consciously asked Alyson if she would show me how to do my makeup.  Mama never was into makeup so none of us really were shown what to do or how to make the most of what we had.  Al sprang into action.  She said, “Sure!  Go wash your face, brush your teeth and grab your makeup bag.  I’LL go refill our glasses and meet you by the pool.”  That girl spent the next hour, hour and a half, transforming me from a 58 soon-to-be 59 year old Sea Hag from Popeye to a drop-dead, gorgeous, stop-traffic woman who could not keep her eyes off her reflection in ANY mirror in the house!  AND, let me add, she casually asked, “You wanna blow-out?”!  Do I want a blow-out??  Oh, hell yes!!  I came out of my makeover stunning.  Not only did she teach me how to use the products I had but she also told me exactly which products I needed to buy to uphold and maintain this level of beauty.  I felt loved.  And valued.  And appreciated.  So I thank my Las Olas girls for wiping my tears, giving me a hug and gently making me pull up my “big girl pants”.  To Girl’s Weekend!

My Las Olas girls doing what we do best...shopping! L-R Alyson, Dana, Andrea and Dawn

My Las Olas girls doing what we do best…shop! L-R Alyson, Dana, Andrea and Dawn

I made Sweet Cinnamon Pecans for Girl’s Weekend but today I bring you Sweet Heat Sriracha Pecans straight from a wonderful little cookbook entitled “Pecans” by Kathleen Purvis.  It’s a Savor the South cookbook put out by The University of North Carolina Press and is a jewel of a book.  These are fabulous with cocktails, travel well and everyone seems to love them.  Enjoy!

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SWEET HEAT SRIRACHA PECANS

yield:  2 cups

  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons Sriracha chili sauce (more if you want a bigger kick)
  • 2 cups pecans halves
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°.  Spread out a sheet of tin foil.
  2. Combine the honey and Sriracha in a small saucepan and warm over medium-low heat until liquified and well mixed.
  3. Remove from the heat and add the pecans.  Stir well with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until the pecans are lightly coated and the honey mixture is used up.
  4. Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer.  Bake for 15 minutes.
  5. While the pecans are baking, combine the sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl.  When the pecans are done scrape them into the bowl with the  sugar/salt mixture.  Stir until the pecans are completely coated and the sugar mixture is used up.
  6. Spread on the tin foil and let cool.
  7. Stir in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
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