Sunday, January 30, 2011



I don’t remember any of my childhood or teen birthdays. There were no parties, not a one, no streamers, no pointed cone party hats, no cakes piled high with gaudy neon-colored roses with Jamie written elegantly across glossy white icing. No surprise parties as far back as I can remember, no friends hiding in darkened rooms behind sofas and armchairs smothering giggles, no gifts piled high awaiting the astonished scream tumbling into laughter from the lips of this birthday girl. No teen dances in the back room of my parents’ house, pouring over the boys’ names on the invitation list with a best girlfriend, wondering which would want to dance with me. No memories of spin the bottle or sneaking mouthfuls of liqueur from behind the bar dot my adolescence, no snapshots of those unforgiving gawkiest of years. No, birthdays were always simple and low key, maybe a family celebration at a favorite restaurant, a gift or two, and a day like any other. Nothing at all to mark the event from one year to the next, so nothing special stands out in my memories.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, one year older...and?

I remember the first birthday party that I was invited to, memories tinged with the old jealousy I felt back then. She was the prettiest girl in both my Sunday School and my kindergarten class, a princess who lived in what to my 5-year-old eyes was a castle fitting her beauty and grace; she had her very own bedroom despite having sisters, a bedroom full of feminine ruffles, a fairytale canopied bed and life-sized stuffed animals. And her birthday party was everything I had always dreamed of out by the pool. Yes, even at that tender age I had gone to that party accompanied by the green-eyed monster wondering why I didn’t have it all as well?

I remember Shay’s birthday party somewhere around the 4th grade, lovely Shay, the middle of three very glamorous sisters, my best friend. I remember her mom leading the games in the front yard as we all kneeled and bowed down to an imaginary King, shouting “Owa taygoo Siam” over and over again, faster and faster, louder and louder until, one by one, with much embarrassment and 4th-grade giggles, we realized that we had been shouting “Oh what a goose I am!” and the joke was on us! I remember Willie’s birthday party in that poor little corner house near where my brother now lives and my very first game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey and my wonder that if his parents could give him a party then why couldn’t mine? I remember my friend Chris’ older sister Julie’s (my brother’s friend) birthday party in the oh so cool house across the street with the piñata strung up on a tree in their backyard and the kids whacking at that brightly-colored paper maché horse until it burst open, candy flying everywhere, kids diving to gather it up. And how I wanted a birthday party like that!

But I still never had a birthday party. Year after year, that shy, nervous schoolgirl that I was accepted the quiet celebrations and jealously dreamed of parties. So it would seem strange, then, that I simply adore my birthdays. But now I am surrounded by men who, although they don’t organize parties for me, surprise or otherwise, spoil and pamper me with wonderful restaurants and utterly impractical, fabulously girly gifts. This year was no different – except that Simon was not here with us. JP and Clem whisked me off to the best restaurant in town and, as we were waiting for our first course, slipped my lovely, perfect gift discreetly into my hand.

And every year I make my own birthday cake. Yes, I could ask my men to pop into any pastry shop and choose one for me, or I could do that myself. How easy to bring home a luscious tart or bavaroise, some creamy concoction that the French know how to create with such perfection, beautifully, elegantly layered and decorated with swirls and curls and sugar gewgaws. But I love to make it myself, creating a dense American-style layer cake in whatever flavors I crave. No, it is never as pretty or as perfect in shape and form as those found in the pastry shops, but every single year I make myself my perfect cake. Usually, I make a fabulous Chestnut Layer Cake with rich Chocolate Buttercream Frosting but lately I’ve changed the tradition. Last year I simply made decadent chocolate brownies and wonderful Lemon Soufflé Puddings, a complete break from the usual cake. Two years ago I made a favorite Chocolate Cake, dense, moist and very chocolaty, filled with Coffee-flavored Whipped Cream and slathered rather haphazardly with a thick layer of Chocolate Buttercream. And this year, the Coffee and Chocolate theme was continued with an entirely new concoction, an Espresso-Chocolate Layer Cake with a Mocha Mascarpone Frosting.

Two years ago, I flew to New York where I spent 3 tiring, sad weeks with my elder brother, helping him, taking care of him, the last I spent time with him. As I waited for my flight at JFK airport, the flight that would take me away from my beloved brother and back into the arms of husband and sons, I decided to splurge and treat myself to an armful of cooking magazines, an expensive luxury during more normal times. I selected, among others, an issue of bon appétit and as I flipped through the pages, my attention was arrested by a fabulous, mouthwatering array of cakes spread out over page after page. And I longed to make one or the other. Over the past two years, I have pulled out the magazine several times and each time I find myself staring at, ogling, dreaming of this gorgeous selection of cakes. I stumbled across the magazine once again, quite by accident, a couple weeks before my birthday and the photograph of a stunning dark chocolate and coffee layer cake jumped out at me and this time it had BIRTHDAY written all over it. And as I ran my hand across the glossy page, caressing the beauty of this confection, I happened to catch a glimpse of the artist who created the recipes in this spread and I excitedly realized that I know her! My lovely friend Abby Dodge, author of Desserts 4 Today that I recently reviewed. That sealed it and this wonderful, rich, dense, gorgeous chocolate cake with the perfect hint of espresso and the delicious mocha frosting was the crowning glory of this year’s birthday festivities.

You don't have to wait for a birthday to make and enjoy this fabulous cake. Everyone: me, JP, Clem and all the young dudes, absolutely went wild for this dessert! A rather easy recipe to put together, the Espresso Chocolate Layer Cake is so chocolatey, the coffee infusing a warm richness and highlighting the chocolate without drowning it out and the luxurious whipped frosting was one of the best I've ever tasted: creamy smooth, a perfect mocha flavor. This cake got a double thumbs up all around and it has moved onto the list of our favorite desserts, birthday, holiday, any day.

I would love to submit this to Magazine Mondays created and hosted by Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice!

Recipe created by Abigail Johnson Dodge for the April 2009 issue of bon appétit magazine


2 cups cake flour
¾ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups packed golden brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ tsps vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
4 tsps instant espresso powder dissolved in ¾ cup hot water

Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C) and position the rack in the middle of the oven. Generously butter two 9-inch round x 2-inch high cake pans, dust with flour, shake out the excess and then line the bottoms with parchment paper.

Sift the 2 cups cake flour, the cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Place the softened butter in a large mixing bowl and, using electric beaters, beat the butter until smooth. Add the brown sugar and beat until well blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Beat in the dry ingredients on low speed in 3 additions alternating with the buttermilk in 2 additions, beating just until blended after each addition. Gradually add the hot water espresso, beating until smooth. Increase beater speed to medium and just whip very briefly until smooth and fluffy.

Divide the batter evenly between the 2 prepared cake pans and bake for about 40 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes on cooling racks. Run a knife around the edges of the pans to loosen the cakes, invert the cakes onto the racks, lift off the pans and peel off the parchment paper. Invert the layers again so the top sides are up and allow to cool completely.

You can make the cake layers a day ahead; simply wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature.

Must be prepared ahead to allow for chilling

1/3 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbs instant espresso powder
1 ½ cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 8-oz containers chilled mascarpone

Sift the cocoa powder into a large bowl. Add the espresso powder. Bring 1 cup of the heavy cream just to a boil in a small saucepan then slowly pour over the cocoa and espresso, whisking until the cocoa is completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Add the remaining cold ½ cup cream and the sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours. Or do this the day before and chill overnight.

Place the mascarpone in a large mixing bowl and beat until loosened and fluffy. Add the chilled cocoa mixture and, on low speed, beat until blended and smooth. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is thick and medium-firm peaks hold, about 2 minutes. Do not overbeat or the frosting may curdle.

Assemble the cake:

Using a pastry brush, brush off crumbs from the cake layers. Place one cake layer, top side up, on the serving platter. Spoon 1 ¾ cup frosting on the cake and spread evenly over the layer all the way to the edges. Top with the second cake layer, top side up, pressing to adhere. Spread thin layer of frosting over top and sides of cake. Chill for 10 minutes. Spread the remaining frosting over the sides and top of the cake, swirling decoratively.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Since my big Cake-a-thon with Meeta and Jeanne, I’ve been extremely busy here in Life’s a Feastville-sur-Loire (thanks, Jeanne). Busy as a little bee, une petite abeille, buzz buzz buzzing from word document to word document, from e-mail to twitter and back again, writing, organizing, answering, researching. As much as I want to think of myself as the Queen Bee, I often just feel like a drone or a simple worker bee all dressed in chic black and yellow… zipping blindly from one flower to the next, one activity to the next, trying to carry back the nectar to the hive where I pray that it will be magically transformed into golden, sweet honey cakes.

Ah, a day in the life of... how does she stay looking so good?

The coming week will find me mixing, stirring, concocting, creating in the kitchen. Thoughts of pomegranates and Grand Marnier, chocolate and espresso float lazily through the apartment and pull me into a warm, aromatic embrace. Creamy mascarpone promises elegant luxury like thick fur stoles and deep feather pillows, showers of snowy powdered sugar, deep, earthy puffs of cocoa and ground almonds splashed with rum smelling of the South Pacific draw me into the kitchen with promises of distant lands. The days leading up to my birthday will be overflowing with sweet things, sweets for the sweet, but this past week has been rather barren. And hectic. We did finish the last of the Chocolate Orange Cake, enjoyed by all, and my Pinolata, the luscious Italian Pine Nut Tart, disappeared with a rapidity that made my head spin. Now the counter and tabletops are bare, eagerly awaiting the next round of homey goodness.

I decided to write one of those “I’ve been busy doing…” posts to fill in the gap and fill you in on all the latest news in my little world, the new adventures that I’ve embarked upon and the changes I’ve been going through. It has been, as I’ve said, a hectic week but good hectic, busy getting things done and I feel that it has certainly been a week very well spent. It’s as if I have offered myself a few new beginnings as a birthday gift, new challenges and exciting, interesting projects. We continue, Meeta, Ilva, Jeanne and I, to work passionately and methodically on From Plate to Page, excited that the waiting list continues to grow as we now organize not only the first workshop in Weimar in May but the second workshop in Italy planned for October as well. I still so love writing for the Huffington Post, I stand up just a little straighter, shoulders back, chest out, chin up every time I see my name splashed across the Food page, see myself smiling out of the Featured Blog Post space, and ogle in wonder and pride that it is really me. I so enjoy finding the words to say, the subjects to share with my newfound readership, food for thought, the discussions each one may inspire and sharing my favorite recipes with a larger audience.

Ooooh, exciting!

My first big news is, well, take a look around and tell me what you see! My lovely, generous sister Meeta spent a day with me behind the scenes adding share buttons at the end of each and every post, making it now easy for you to share your favorite Life’s a Feast stories and recipes with your friends via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, Stumble Upon and so many more. Just know that each time you click one of those buttons and share something that you love, something that interested you and made you think, I appreciate it more than you can imagine and I thank you very much! She also added follow buttons in my side bar just below my About Me blurb, and you now have the choice to get e-mail alerts whenever I post delivered right into your mailbox or via Feedburner. Go ahead, don’t just sit there, no need to hesitate and before you forget… while we are on the subject and talking about it just lean over and click on one or the other of the green icons to your right… and you will never miss a Life’s a Feast post again! You can also, if you don’t already, follow me on Twitter or Facebook in one easy click as well!

Are you following me yet?

Thank you so very much, Meeta, for taking care of me! You know how grateful I am!

My latest writing adventure comes in the form of The Rambling Epicure, an all-new, on-line food site, a daily international food chronicle written by expats and Europeans. I was invited to join an amazing team of food writers, photographers, chefs and wine experts and given the awesome, delightful assignment of writing about… dessert! At Destination Dessert, my monthly (or so) column, I will share my dessert adventures, all new recipes (not found on my blog), both the traditional and the innovative, the homey and the elegantly sophisticated, while regaling you with stories about each sweet treat. This is truly a stimulating writing challenge for me and I hope that you will all join me on this sweet voyage, following me to each destination. I only ask that you join me for the pleasure of the ride, eat with thoughtful moderation and all of your senses. And that is where you must fly to in order to enjoy my wonderful Italian Pine Nut Tart, Le Pinolata! You'll find a new article and the recipe for this simple yet luscious dessert.

We spoke together at Food Blogger Connect in London in 2009 and again in 2010, we’ll be heading the writing sessions at our own From Plate to Page workshop and now we’re taking it on the road! I am proud to announce that I will be sharing the stage once more with Jeanne, this time at Indaba 2011, the South African Food & Wine Bloggers Conference held this February in Cape Town, organized by the fabulous Colleen, our own Brownie Girl! We will once again be speaking and leading a workshop on food writing & finding your own style and voice. And I am so looking forward to this enriching, exciting adventure alongside my Spice Sister!

And last but soooo not least, Life’s a Feast has been nominated once again for a Blogger’s Choice Award 2011 in the category Best Food Blog! If you enjoy my blog, my writing, my stories, the recipes, then I hope you will be so kind as to take 2 minutes of your time and link over to the Life’s a Feast page on the Blogger’s Choice Awards 2011 site and vote for my blog! Just click on the little Vote icon under the number of votes behind the little man and you’ll be asked to log in (if you voted last year) or register. It is simple and painless and fast! They’ll e-mail you a confirmation with your User Name and Password, which allows you then to go back, click once again on Vote and voilà the number should jump up one as it counts your vote! Know that I really do appreciate the time taken and every single vote! I thank you very much!

Yes, you are free to go over and do that now….

So, have it all down? Share buttons? Follow me via e-mail updates or Feedburner? Destination Dessert on The Rambling Epicure? The Blogger’s Choice Awards?

To thank each of you, I will be sharing slices of Pinolata….

Next post: a very special dessert treat, a birthday and back to our regularly scheduled blog posting….

Tuesday, January 18, 2011



To think that we might have easily gone through life not knowing each other, missing all this free flow of love and ideas and warmth and sharing…. We share really almost everything.
- Avis Devoto to Julia Child, September 1, 1956 from As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon

Our long ago move to Italy timed rather unexpectedly with my in-laws retirement and their move from a bustling Parisian suburb to a small house in the middle of nowhere. Their newfound freedom would be filled with gardening and fresh air, vacations filled with the joyous laughter and antics of small grandchildren, relaxation and books. They had spent nearly every waking moment of the past thirty-odd years tending to their corner shop and family and would suddenly find themselves in front of endless days without deadlines, account books and friendly yet demanding clients. My husband, ever thoughtful of his parents’ well being, suggested that they devote some of their time, amuse themselves a bit, in researching their families’ genealogy. He purchased them stacks of books, indicated addresses of archives and instructions on how to make document requests. Knowing that they would have a project on hand, he left for Italy secure in the knowledge that they would have one thing more with which to occupy their hours, days and weeks.

Seven years later, when we returned from our stay in Italy, we found that stack of books uncracked, not one chart filled in, no family tree outlined, not one iota of genealogy done. So he gathered up the books, tossed them in the car and brought them home. “If they have no interest in researching the family history, then I’ll do it!” he proclaimed. And of course, his enthusiasm inspired me as well and I said to anyone who was listening: “Well, if you are going to research your family’s genealogy then I’m going to do mine, too!” And so, little by little, side by side, we researched, took notes, compared documents and drew up our separate family trees. Fascinating! But while he spent much of his time moving backwards in time, my research had me moving sideways. You see, I never knew just how large a family my dad had, how many actually immigrated and all lived together, 4 generations, in Brooklyn. I grew up close to my mom’s side and so knew much of who was who and from whence they came, but only ever having met my dad’s immediate family, that side was truly a mystery. Never in a million years would I have guessed how many aunts and uncles and cousins lived around him when he was growing up. And so slowly, oh so slowly, one at a time, I tracked down and contacted each and every family member still living and the descendents of those no longer with us.

One such person was Gene, my dad’s first cousin although much younger than my dad by about twenty years or so. And as he lives not far from where my brother lived, we arranged to meet and meet we did. And the usual conversation began, the one we know all too well and repeat with anyone and everyone whom we meet with which we share a common city: Do you know this restaurant? Have you ever eaten here? Have you been to…? And the most amazing thing is, there was a little Indonesian restaurant near my brother’s old apartment that was a favorite haunt of both Michael and Gene. And then it struck me! If I had never done my genealogy, if I had never tracked down my dad’s relatives, then we would never have met Gene and how many times would my brother and Gene, these cousins, have sat next to each other in this tiny Brooklyn restaurant as perfect strangers, never knowing how closely they were related?

And throughout both Family Reunions I succeeded in organizing with the paternal side of my family, I couldn’t help but marvel at all of these wonderful people gathered together, laughing, sharing stories, and how but for my research we would have passed through our entire lives never knowing each other, never knowing of this common bond we shared.

This same sentiment overpowers me constantly as I think of the great friends I have made through internet and food blogging. The world is filled with like-minded souls, dynamic, talented, warm and funny individuals who have so much in common, so much to share, and only thanks to this magical world of food blogging have I had the strange and beautiful chance to meet them. I know, this is rather a trite sentiment, an all-too obvious fact, but I truly think we tend to take this for granted all too often. We have become so accustomed to switching on the computer, logging on and sending friend and follow requests, leaving comments with a familiarity that would astound us in face-to-face social situations, connecting with people from every country in the world with stunning speed and fluidity. But just step back for a moment and let the thought rush through your head and settle in. Consider how unimaginable this would have been a generation ago. Or just twenty years or so ago. We’ve stepped beyond the letter writing and phone calls, the friendships limited to near neighbors and visiting former school chums, and we now have the world at our fingertips. Literally. And as someone living in a world that doesn’t always agree with me, someone who finds it difficult to find near neighbors who understand my passions, my gregariousness, my cultural quirks, I find enormous gratification, delight and salvation in this odd and surprising thing called internet. As my husband so astutely pointed out to me once, “The friends you have made on the computer are good people, exciting people with plans and projects, people who actually work on projects together and make things happen…and that you really haven’t been able to find close by.” Ah, yes.

And this week, two of my closest far-away friends, as close as sisters, Jeanne and Meeta and I have baked together and thus started a new tradition. Three ladies, three countries, three kitchens, one recipe. Across the miles and through the screens of our laptops, we selected a wonderful, rich, decadent, chocolatey cake to bake all together, as one. As I claimed in a former blog post, nothing is better, more enriching or even more fun than getting together with friends to spend a day baking.

For our first Bake-a-long, we selected a fabulous Chocolate Orange Cake from Nigella Lawson’s Feast: Food to Celebrate Life cookbook, and what a feast this cake is! Rich, dense and moist, mouthfuls of chocolate goodness infused with the delightful and seasonally festive flavor of orange, the delicate flavors of almonds bringing it all together. No flour makes this an ideal gluten-free dessert and no butter or milk means a dairy-free treat as well! Meeta added the warmth of cardamom to her cake batter and frosted it with a rich salted caramel ganache while Jeanne spiked hers with plenty of Cointreau and slathered a marvelous chocolate orange cream cheese frosting on top. I added my ever favorite partner of chocolate, cinnamon, to the batter along with some fragrant fleur d’oranger and decided to drizzle some warmed bitter orange marmalade over the finished cake to heighten the orange flavor and give it that bitter edge. But in the end, I found that this cake is so stunningly delicious in all of its simplicity it really needed nothing on top. It stands on its own. I also suggest making this cake a day or even two or three before serving as it only gets better and better, the orange and chocolate flavors melding together beautifully while the nutty texture and flavor smooth out deliciously. Oh what a perfect cake!

We are sending our fabulous Chocolate Orange Cakes to our adorable friend Sarah at Maison Cupcake who has created a wonderful new event: Forever Nigella. Her theme for the Forever Nigella challenge #2 is Seduced By Chocolate. And oh aren’t we all?

Go on, you know you want to triple your pleasure: hop over and see both Meeta's and Jeanne's versions of this luscious cake...

Oh so easy, cook the orange the day before and you’ll find that putting together this batter is done in the wink of an eye.

2 small or 1 large thick-skinned orange, makes between 1 – 1 ½ cups (@250 ml) purée
6 large eggs
1 heaping tsp (about 10 g) baking powder
½ tsp (2 g) baking soda
1 ¼ cups (250 g) granulated sugar (or superfine)
2 cups (200 g) finely ground blanched almonds
½ cup (50 g) unsweetened, good quality cocoa powder
1 tsp fleur d’oranger (orange flower water), optional
½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional

Early in the day or, better yet, the day before, place the whole orange in a large saucapan and cover with cold water. (The orange will float and bob up at the surface of the water, but don’t worry about this.) Bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover and cook for 2 hours until the orange is soft. Drain and allow the orange to cool completely to room temperature. When cooled, cut the orange into quarters or eights, remove any seeds/pits and then purée (all of it, the peel, flesh, everything) in a food processor or grinder. Don’t worry if there are lovely little chunks or strips of peel visible. If doing this the day before, place in a clean bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and butter an 8-inch (20 cm) springform pan or one of similar volume. Line the bottom with parchment paper, allowing the parchment to come up about an inch or so up the sides.

Place the puréed orange pulp, the eggs, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, almonds, cocoa and the orange flower water and cinnamon if using, in a food processor or, as I did, in a large mixing bowl. Run the motor or beat the mixture until the batter is cohesive, well blended and smooth. It will be grainy because of the ground almonds and puréed orange. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake tin and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out pretty clean. I used a taller, narrower tin so the cooking time was longer, so check often near the end. And you may have to cover the top of the cake with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent it from burning or cooking to fast.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool on a wire cooling rack. When the cake is cool, carefully take it out of the tin. I decorated the cake by drizzling warmed Bitter Orange Marmalade on the top (pretty and also heightens the orange flavor) and topping it off with sugar-rolled strips of candied orange peel.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I am rarely known to stay quiet. I am not often at a loss for words. Few are the events that leave me utterly speechless. Yet this week I am having a hard time finding what to say, words to express all that I am feeling, stories with which to regale you about what is going on. My childhood has become a misty illusion hidden in some far-off corner of my mind and refuses to resurface. Moods have been swinging back and forth around Crabby Kingdom and I have been finding refuge in my kitchen, baking, swiping clean surfaces usually left to fend for themselves, stirring meusli into yogurt and burying my nose in a paperback novel. I’ve been keeping low and out of range of whatever is simmering, brewing, bubbling just under the surface and likely to explode at the merest hint of a sidelong glance or friendly comment. Oh, none of the darkness is aimed at my innocent head, no, no, rest assured, but one does try and avoid the friendly fire, the arrows of sharp words and heated discussions. So I keep a low profile, mind my own business and…. bake.

I’m the lone woman in a house full of men. Even the dog is male. And it always seems that the men all go viral at once, as if a team. Men are strange and unusual characters and I simply will never be able to completely comprehend them, as hard as I may sometimes try. Women seem to be the ones stuck with the bad reputation, accused of being unreasonable or of spending too much of our time trying to reason….with men. They label us frivolous, acting too often on a whim, being capricious and erratic in temperament. But in my own household, this opinion is contestable! While I keep my head squarely on my shoulders, keep a smile on my face and sunshine in my step, my men seem to go all gray and grumpy on a whim, between the hormone-fueled adolescent mood swings to the inexplicable out-of-the-blue petulance, they are enough to drive me wild! And even though I try and stay out of their way when the black mood strikes, they stomp through the house pointing fingers, ranting that there is nothing to eat or too much food piled up and spilling out of the refrigerator. They flail their arms and rave that I bake too much, allowing cake, bread, cookies to grow stale, wither and die a pathetic death, or they complain that I am leaving them hungry, with nothing for breakfast or snack as they claw their way through the pantry. I smile sweetly (oh yes I do) and ask if anyone would like to keep me company as I make a cake, I warmheartedly inquire if one or the other of them craves anything in particular, if they prefer cake or cookies, panna cotta or pie and I am met with glares and sullen shrugs of manly shoulders. So I scurry off into the kitchen, pull out the butter, eggs, flour and sugar and begin. Oh, for the company of a sister or a girlfriend who could come over and bake with me.

Remember the days when you could call up your best friend and invite her over for an afternoon of baking? You’d get permission from your mom to use the oven, or a nod of approval from your roommates to take over the kitchen for an afternoon. Maybe it was boxed mixes, the kind your dad favored, the only thing the parents would trust you with. Or maybe you scoured through magazines, folding down the corners of pages each time one recipe or another tempted you. Lists were carefully drawn up, shopping done, ingredients lined up on the countertop awaiting the planned date. Your friend or friends would show up, a daytime slumber party, and you would delve in. Cookies and cakes, batter everywhere, frosting stuck in your hair, edges maybe burned, but the laughter would resound throughout the house and what you cooked together tasted better than anything that you ever tasted before because it was made with friendship, infused with passion shared, spiced with gossip. These days, I have no girlfriends living close by, close enough to come over and bake with me. Mathilde does spend one day a month making macarons with me, and that I love. Baking is more fun when it is done with a friend. Sadly, I have found no like-minded souls living in this city of mine with which to share my afternoons and passions, so I end up baking all on my lonesome. Like a teen heaving great sighs of unrequited love, I dream of standing shoulder to shoulder and creating baked goods with girlfriends. But if you can’t do it in real life, well, virtual baking parties are the next best thing.

I have gotten in the habit of baking across borders with Rosa, the talented chef behind Rosa’s Yummy Yums. We find each other on twitter, usually for a Daring Baker challenge or to bake bread, and we share woes and worries, ask each other questions (ok, mostly it is I asking her!) and check the other’s progress, we encourage and cheer, offer sage advice and bakerly wisdom. I bake macarons with Deeba, although rarely at the same time, but we cry over lost feet when we find ourselves in front of yet another tray of cracked puddles and we do the happy dance when one of us succeeds in reaching mac heaven. Baking together, although miles apart, is an exercise in sisterly kinship and affinity.

This week, Jeanne, Meeta and I had our first virtual bake-together: three friends, three countries, one recipe. We will reveal the great Cake Bake Surprise next Wednesday, so be patient, if you will. This kind of baking adventure is nourished with e-mails and twitter messages, pushing, encouraging, goading, teasing, photos sent, gossip giggled over, our inner 16 year olds resurfacing (as they often do when we are together, whether in real life or virtually) and ends with a delectable treat that we present with great aplomb to the men in our lives, allowing them the pleasure of the fruits of our sisterly labor, hoping upon hope that it will cheer them up, bring back the warm, happy men we know and love, leaving us content with spreading the joy.

I also had a packet of spices burning a hole in my proverbial pocket (the basket of goodies on my shelf), a spice mix given to each of a dozen blogging girlfriends who met up for a London brunch, by wonderful Kavey, and this also finally made it to the kitchen table this week amidst the groans and grumps emanating from the livingroom. The spices were offered to each one of us apparently at random and as I peeled away the crisp, white tissue paper, I saw with utter delight that my packet contained mixed dried vegetables: carrot, tomato, red and green paprika, leek, salt and vegetable oil, in all of their lovely red, green and gold glory. Kavey had the utterly brilliant idea of offering each of us a packet of spices and asked each of us to make something with them, post on our blogs and then she would share all of the resulting creations. Well, put anything dried and in powder form in front of a macaron maker and her eyes light up and only one thought crosses her mind: macarons! Savory, salty and sweet, this is what my little packet cried out to me! And after two miserable, failed results, third time was absolutely the charm and here are my Salty Savory Sweet Vegetable Macarons filled with Chili Chocolate Ganache!

Like my wonderful, crazy men, these macarons, these simple little treats, are strange and unusual, sweet and salty old dogs all at once, changing as I savor them, always pleasing in the end and putting a smile on my face.

These macarons would be perfect filled with a cream cheese filling, maybe whipped with a tad more of the dried mixed vegetables or with slivers of sundried tomatoes and served as an appetizer.

Visit Kavey Eats to see what creative treats everyone else came up with!

And speaking of my passion for macarons, don't miss my latest on Huffington Post Food: New Year's Resolution: Making Your Own Macarons! And if you haven't yet, 2011 is the year to tackle these tiny French confections!


7.4 oz (210 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar
4 oz (115 g) ground blanched almonds
3 large egg whites (about 3.8 – 4 oz/ 110 – 112 g) *
1 oz (30 g) white granulated sugar
2 Tbs dried mixed vegetables in powder form

* It is recommended to age your egg whites by placing them in a very clean lidded jar or covered bowl and leaving them out at room temperature for 24 hours before making the macarons.

Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 – inch diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip.

Sift the powdered sugar and the ground almonds together into a large mixing bowl. Add the dried powdered mixed vegetables and stir with a whisk or fork until blended. Set aside.

In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy. Gradually add the granulated sugar as you continue to whip the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue and all of the sugar has been beaten in. The meringue will be very stiff (turn the bowl upside down over your head and they shouldn’t move) and be dense like marshmallow.

Gently but firmly fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds and test again. You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.

Fill your pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!

Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).

Allow the macarons to sit out for 45 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched and not stick to your skin). Bake the shells for 15 – 25 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.) I turn the trays back to front a little more than halfway through the baking. These macarons took about 5 minutes more than my macarons usually do, but they were perfectly baked, peeling off of the parchment paper immediately.

Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool completely before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a metal cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up or by peeling the parchment paper from the back of the shells. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.

When the macaron shells are cool, pair the shells up evenly, each with a partner. Pipe a dollop, about a teaspoon, of ganache filling onto half of the shells, the bottom shell in each pair. Carefully sandwich the shells together.

I decided to use a bar of Chili Chocolate in order to add another spice to the mix, but feel free to use any dark chocolate you please!

½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
4 ¼ oz (120 g) Lindt Excellence 70% Chili Dark Chocolate

Chop the chocolate and put in an appropriately-sized pyrex (heatproof) bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan gently until it comes just to the boil. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and luxurious. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. It should thicken to a spreading/piping consistency. If you need to, speed up the process by placing in the refrigerator until desired spreading/piping consistency, stirring occasionally.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011





Baking is pure joy. Hands pressed down into soft bread dough, kneading, caressing, stroking, easing my stress and filling my soul with peace and goodness. Watching the dough rise, slowly, the time tiptoeing by, like a mother watching her baby sleep. Thick, creamy batter, measuring, blending, stirring, breathing deeply of the scent of chocolate, redolent of cinnamon and vanilla, earthy and exotic, easing one ingredient into the next. Egg whites whipped and whizzed, thickening like magic before my very eyes until I have a bowl of marshmallow and visions of my childhood dancing in front of my eyes. I take my time, I move through the kitchen, through the afternoon, fingering the pages of cookbook after cookbook until I stumble across just what I am looking for, just what I crave. I pencil my list on a scrap of paper and step out to purchase all that I don’t have, adding each item, each ingredient to what I have pulled from the cupboard. I measure flour and sugar, crack eggs, butter baking pans, taking my time, easing myself into the recipe, attentive to getting each and every step right, savoring the textures and smells and working my way slowly through the preparations. Baking is calming and at the same time exhilarating, it eases stress, slows me down and gives me time to think, letting my mind wander into other worlds, reliving memories or discovering new ideas. But it also excites and energizes me. When I am lagging behind or feeling the pull of boredom or anxiety is slowing me down and clogging my brain, I bake, I create and I come alive again, reinvigorated after a day in the kitchen.

Yes, I take my time when I bake and revel in every dusting of powdered sugar, watching it drift down like snow across a landscape. Or I carefully, slowly drizzle warm, aromatic ganache spooned precisely over the surface of a cake, or sandwich macaron shells together in perfect tandem, like a sweet matchmaker pairing one half with one alike. I plan ahead, or not, as the urge takes me, leaving my computer, my writing, my housework to fend for themselves, alone in this big apartment to while away the morning or afternoon as they see fit. And I concentrate on this activity of creating. And I am content in that I have some here who are happy to find something sweet in the kitchen to eat or to share, proud to carry a tray of this to the office or a tin of that to friends. This gives me as much, if not more pleasure than the bit of time I spend preparing it.

Yet as much as I love baking, sometimes I just don’t have the time. Or the courage. Sometimes it is pouring and I don’t want to look beyond my pantry for ingredients, unwilling to slip on rubber boots, coat and hat to run out and buy what I don’t have. Sometimes I just want it simple and straightforward, easy and with a minimum of fuss, a quick fix to palliate a sudden urge. Once in a while we’ll decide to have guests and there is just too much to organize for me to concoct something complicated and fancy. Or every now and then I have a houseful of young men who adore my pastries, cakes and confections and I just enjoy hearing the oohs and the ahhhs, watching eyes light up and happy faces heading to the kitchen.

And then I met Abby. Sweet as the day is long on a rambling summer day, I got to know her rather quickly, shooting tweets back and forth, happily joking and sharing kindness and information on Facebook. I quickly learned that she had something to do with certain scrumptious Nutella Fudge Brownies that seemed to be making a stunning appearance across the blogosphere… and that got me curious. Sometimes I feel so out of the loop living here on the Old Continent, finding out things, gathering information and news about books and people. Yet getting to know Abby – and who Abby is – was quick, easy and delightful. And then she offered to have her latest cookbook sent to me. Who would say no? And this wonderful little book is genius! And a lifesaver! desserts 4 today is that go-to book when you want something sweet and homemade but have neither the time nor the energy to put into something long and complicated. Each and every one of the 125 mouth-watering recipes has only four ingredients! Yep, four. How easy is that? I passed around this gem of a cookbook to my men and asked them to each choose one. Now, normally I get harrumphs and groans and the book shoved back at me. But for some reason… and I am guessing that it may have had something to do with the gorgeous photos in the book, but they each happily selected one treat that they wanted. And I chose the fourth. Ah, four recipes each with only four ingredients! Sadly, I made only three, JP lost out on his choice of Maple-Glazed Figs with Hazelnut Mascarpone, but don’t worry, that one is coming soon…

As I have a birthday coming up, my mind tends to think in terms of gifts. This lovely little book is the perfect gift for someone who loves to bake but doesn’t always have the time or is usually limited to pantry staples when baking. Or someone who wants to become a baker but may not have the experience yet and needs something simple, easy to follow, easy to understand. Or just anyone that loves baking. Or cookbooks. Or gifts.

I would love to thank Abby and the very kind people at The Taunton Press for allowing me to test, taste and share from Abby’s wonderful and now well-thumbed book desserts 4 today.

All three recipes are from desserts 4 today (Flavorful Desserts with just Four Ingredients) by Abigail Johnson Dodge. (another recipe from Abby will be posted on Life’s a Feast very soon, a recipe she developed for Bon Appetit Magazine.) At the end of each recipe, Abby gives several variations or Switch Ins as well as a suggestion on how to Gussy It Up.

I share with you these three excellent and easy recipes and promise you that this is one cookbook that won’t get forgotten on a bookshelf somewhere. I already have plans to make those figs for JP as well as Maple Cornmeal “Indian” Puddings, Meyer Lemon-Ricotta Panna Cotta, Crushed Raspberry-Mascarpone Whip, Basil Ice Cream… well, you see where this is going?

Instead of making 2 full servings, I chilled this luscious, coffee-lover’s treat in four tiny espresso cups. I so loved this – I got my coffee blast in such a sweet way. Did I really eat all four of them myself?

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar (I used light brown)
1 Tbs cornstarch
1 ¾ tsps fine instant espresso powder
1 ¼ cups half-and-half, divided (I used light cream)

Have ready two 6-oz ramekins ready (or 4 espresso/demi-tasse cups) and space in the refrigerator.

Put the brown sugar, cornstarch and espresso powder in a small saucepan and whisk to blend. Add about ¼ cup of the cream or half-and-half and whisk until the coffee is almost dissolved. Whisk in the remaining half-and-half. Cook, whisking frequently, over medium heat until boiling. Boil, whisking constantly, for 1 minute.

Pour the pudding into the ramekins or cups. Cover with plastic wrap (touching the surface). Serve warm or refrigerate until ready to serve or for up to one day.

(Note: I found that these actually improved after one and even two days in the refrigerator.)

There is absolutely nothing to say…

½ cup Nutella spread
1 large egg
5 Tbs all-purpose flour
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a 12-cup mini muffin pan with paper or foil liners.

Put the Nutella and the egg in a medium bowl and whisk until smooth and well blended. Add the flour and whisk until blended. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins about ¾ full and sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts.

Bake until a pick comes out with wet, gooey crumbs, 11 to 12 minutes. Set on a rack to cool completely. Serve (eat) immediately or cover and store at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Mine sunk a tad, I don't know why, but they were still fabulous!

Clem’s choice, double thumbs up from JP

1 can (13-14 oz) coconut milk
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 whole large eggs + 1 egg yolk
¼ tsp ground cardamom

Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Have ready four 6-oz ramekins and place them in a shallow baking pan that will comfortably hold the ramekins. Make room in the refrigerator for the 4 ramekins.

Pour the coconut milk into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat (don’t leave it alone because when it comes to a boil it froths up and over) and cook until reduced to 1 ½ cups (actually this only takes a couple of minutes).

Meanwhile, put 1/3 cup of the sugar with 1 tablespoon water into a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is boiling. Increase the heat to medium and boil, without stirring, until the sugar is medium-amber, about 2-3 minutes. Gently swirl the pan to even out the color. Pour the hot caramel evenly into the four ramekins and quickly but carefully swirl each ramekin to cover the bottom with caramel. (The caramel will harden almost immediately when it touches the cool ramekins, so pour and swirl one at a time and rather quickly but don’t worry at all when the caramel solidifies because it will turn back into liquid caramel when baked with the cream.)

Put the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, the eggs, the yolk and the cardamom in a medium heatproof bowl and whisk to blend. Slowly add the hot coconut milk in a steady stream over the egg mixture while whisking constantly, until all the coconut milk is added and well blended. Pour (or ladle) the cream into the ramekins (it will come up to the top rim). Carefully pour hot water into the baking pan around the ramekins until the water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custards jiggle when nudged (about 40 minutes). Transfer the pan to a rack and carefully lift out the custards (I used a metal spatula) and place them on a rack or cutting board to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 6 hours (unless the husband comes home from work and sees them in the refrigerator and takes one) or for up to 2 days. If they last that long.

To serve, run a small, thin, sharp knife between the custards and the ramekins then quickly invert onto serving plates. Gently shake to loosen.


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