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These are the best brownies in the world. I’m not kidding. This recipe, so decadent and simple, was handed down to my mother from my paternal great-grandmother, Mama Nola (whose gumbo techniques you learned a month or two ago). These are perfectly crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, with nice chewy corners.

There’s a catch though. They are really much better the day after you bake them. If  you eat them just after they’ve cooled (like I usually do) you will still get great brownies, although you might question whether you cooked them long enough. They’ll be really gooey and yummy, but not quite set. I don’t know why, but if you put them on a cooling rack and walk away; muster all your strength and wait, you will be rewarded with the perfect brownie.

MaMa Nola’s Brownies

2 sticks butter
2 c. sugar
a little vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 c. cocoa
1 c. flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter, mix in sugar and cocoa. Add eggs and vanilla, then flour last. Pour into a greased or parchment-lined 8×8 in. pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out relatively clean (it’ll leave a little bit on the toothpick, but won’t look like batter).

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This, my friends, is my latest obsession. Right there along with gumbo, beef stew, and flu chaser soup. I just can’t stop eating chocolate, and if you are going to eat chocolate you might as well go for the gusto. My husband prefers milk chocolate of the Hershey’s variety, but I prefer dark. In fact, the darker the better. I often find myself munching on the bittersweet bits of chocolate that go into cookies, stopping just short of the unsweetened stuff. Maybe it’s the wintry mix outside, or maybe it’s a holdover from Christmas sweets, but for some  reason I can’t get enough dark chocolate, preferably enjoyed with a cup of ginger tea.

Last year I noticed a new stand at the farmer’s market. It was a local “beans to bar” chocolate maker called Taza Chocolate. It took me a while to actually buy any, but when I did I fell in love. This stuff is amazing, and I’m not even writing this because they sent me a free sample like they did some people (ahem, hello? what am I chopped liver? Just kidding). I found out that a local wine store carries the stuff (cheaper than Whole Foods), and I’ve stopped in so much lately that I’ve gotten to know the lady behind the counter.

The Chocolate Mexicano pictured above is for drinking, although I also like to eat it. These disks come in vanilla, cinnamon, and almond. Here’s a video that Taza posted on facebook on now to make authentic Mexican hot chocolate (I can’t get it to display on this blog since it’s on facebook). The package comes with two discs, the outside says “2.7 oz.” In the video he mentions that one disc is 2.75 oz. This confused me, since the packaging makes it look like both discs weigh 2.7 oz. I made one cup yesterday and used half a disc for 8 oz. of water and it turned out delicious. I did simmer it on the stove for a few minutes until it was the consistency I wanted. As he says in the video, you can also use milk. My friend from Colombia uses milk in her hot chocolate and puts pieces of salty mozzerella cheese in it….Don’t knock it ’til you try it! I promise it’s good. You let the pieces of cheese melt in the warm chocolate and then fish them out with a spoon. They’ll be softly melted and add a nice contrast to your sweet beverage. I recommend putting the cheese in hot chocolate made with milk; it’s a more natural pairing, I think.

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Now these really are a great Christmas cookie. This is a time-tested recipe handed down to me by my grandmother. I don’t know who Mumsey was, but I’ve enjoyed these cookies all my life. They are really a kind of classic Southern teacake, with some citrus zest added. They are thin, rich, and not overly sweet. I almost always bake these cookies and give them as gifts to neighbors, teachers, etc. You can give someone you really like a frozen roll of the dough, along with instructions for baking, and then they can just slice and bake. It’s a great gift, especially for a friend who is hosting family for the holidays.

One word of advice: This recipe makes a LOT. I mean, in my grandmother’s notes (included below) she actually says, “This recipe makes at least 20 dozen.” That’s a lot of cookies, people. I have a classic Kitchen Aide mixer and can’t make this full recipe because it’s just too much. In years past I’ve cut the recipe in half and it works fine. This year I decided to be brave and try the whole thing. I ended up having to do everything by hand. That’s right. not using a wooden spoon, using my hands. It was a lot of fun actually. I just mixed everything in a shallow bowl and got my (clean) hands into the sugar, butter, eggs, flour, etc. I’d never gotten quite that intimate with my ingredients, but I definitely recommend it if you’re ever feeling daring.

As I said, this recipe came to me from my grandmother. The notes are in italics are hers. I recommend slicing the cookies very thin. I’ve included a picture. The cookies just aren’t as good if you slice even 1/4 of an inch thick. I made the rolls a bit larger than she recommended; it’s up to you. You’ll get less cookies this way, but well, maybe you don’t need 20 dozen cookies.

Mumsey’s Cookies
Wonderful recipe to keep frozen to make when needed. Not very sweet with a touch of citrus.

3 c. butter softened [my grandmother calls for 3 1/2 c. margarine, softened, but I don’t use margarine. I find 3 c. is plenty]
5 c. sugar
zest of 2 oranges
zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
7 c. all-purpose flour

Cream butter, sugar, zest, and vanilla until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Form into rolls, 1 1/2 in. in diameter and refrigerate overnight or at least 1 hour. Slice thin and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 6-8 minutes. Cookie edges should be browned.

Note: Dough can be frozen for several months. Makes at least 20 dozen cookies.

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I’ve been obsessed with chocolate chip cookies lately. I’ve made three or four batches, sharing them with friends and co-workers but eating most myself. Ever since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking a lot about mixing sweet and spicy. I love this combination, and was inspired by chili-seasoned chocolate I bought from Trader Joe’s. Chocolate chip cookies are such a basic, run-of-the-mill cookie; crying out to be spiced up in some way.

These cookies aren’t spicy, but they have a subtle smoky spiciness, thanks to chipotle chili powder,  that really compliments the dark chocolate chips. If any of you are doing holiday baking, these might just be a good recipe to add to your mix. I don’t think they are spicy enough to put anyone off. I’d like to experiment with just how much chili powder I can add before it gets too spicy. I think 1/2 tsp. is enough to taste the chili, but not too much. If you are wary and wussy, you can add 1/4 tsp.

Smoky Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cocoa powder
1-2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1 lg. egg
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. 60% dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare 2 cookie sheets (grease or line with parchment paper or silicone mat)
Whisk flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and chili powder together. In the bowl of a mixer cream butter and sugars until well blended. Add egg, salt, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Stir in flour mixture until well blended, being careful not to over mix. Stir in chocolate chips.
Drop dough by heaping teaspoonfuls approximately 2 in. apart on cookie sheets. Cook until brown around edges, about 10 minutes. Let them rest briefly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool.

I heard somewhere that the world is divided into cake people and pie people. OK, I admit that’s rather simplistic, but maybe there’s something to it. I do like a good cake, and I used to be a cake person, but now I consider myself a pie person. I love pies. There is a real artistry to making a good pie crust (to which I still aspire), and the variety of fillings is virtually endless. I didn’t really become a pie person until I moved to New England. The only explanation I can think of is that fruit pies are much more prevalent in New England than down South. Here in New England you can find blueberry pie, strawberry rhubarb, and apple pie at just about every farmer’s market you go to. Diners, fancy restaurants, and everything in between offer some variety of fruit pie.

Down South on the other hand, fruit goes in a cobbler. Pies are chocolate, chess, coconut, custard, sweet potato, pecan, etc…. Not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing. I love chess pie and Linda Dunnaway’s egg custard pie (sans traditional crust) is one of my all time faves, but I’m at heart a fruit person, and growing up, would always opt for the blackberry cobbler with ice cream over the custard pie. Well, taking all of these things into consideration, I’ve found the perfect pie. Fruit and custard, together in one pie crust. It’s heaven, I tell you. This is my hands-down-all-time favorite pie recipe (and you know already how much I love pie). The recipe is from Simply in Season. Those Mennonites sure know how to bake.

Note: I have a couple of go-to pie dough recipes, but I still feel like I need to experiment a little bit more before I blog about them; it just feels like a post for another time. I do recommend a homemade crust though. On the other hand, if you don’t like making dough, or don’t know how, you can make custard pies without a crust and they will form a kind-of crust of their own.

Pear Custard Pie

9-inch unbaked pastry shell
4-5 c. pears (peeled and sliced)

Place fruit in pastry shell.

2 eggs
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. butter (softened)
1 tsp. vanilla

In a small bowl beat together with an electric mixer until light anf fluffy. Pour mixture over fruit. Bake in preheated oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue baking until set, 30 minutes.

I had the occasion last week to cook some Southern food for friends. My book club read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and I thought it would be fun to make it a Southern afternoon. I’d been a little sick so I decided to keep it simple. I whipped up some pimento cheese and served it with celery sticks a la Watershed. Then I made a caramel cake. I’ve only ever had this cake at funerals or pot luck suppers on the South. John Edgerton in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History calls it “another of the South’s old favorites.” Basically, it is white cake with caramel icing. There are plenty of shortcuts for making a “quick and easy” version, but I wanted to do it the old fashioned way. That is, by caramelizing sugar in a cast iron skillet.

I decided to turn to my “community cookbooks.” Everyone has at least one of these on their shelf. I don’t know if other regions of the country rely on them so much, but every Southern cook has at least four that he or she relies upon for old fashioned recipes such as caramel icing. In Mississippi the ones that stand out to me are Bell’s Best, Come On In, Southern Sideboards, and for those of us with Southern Louisiana ties, Talk About Good. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but these are the ones that I turn to most often. I was reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth recently and was mildly irritated by what I considered a snobbish comment about community cookbooks:

“…to be passed by quickly are…those hideous pamphlets sold by ladies’ aid societies in small towns….whose broken covers and limp yellow pages clutter every American cookbook shelf of decent age, are utterly useless unless you know some of the women whose prize recipes are printed in them. Then, if you are feeling ill-tempered, you can curl your lip at Mrs. Sophia Jamison’s prune whip, and surreptitiously steal Cousin Annie Fink’s little trick of stirring three chopped marshmallows into the —”

How can she talk about these little nuggets of culinary wisdom like that? These home cooks are in many ways keeping culinary traditions alive. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture “Foodways” volume, there is an entry for “Cookbooks, Community,” in which the author mentions that these cookbooks have been studied since the 1980s as cultural artifacts. If the community cookbooks are often the only place I can reliably turn to for authentic Southern recipes, then I don’t think they are “utterly useless.”

After cooking the cake I went back to Fisher’s remark and I think I see what she means now. Often these home cooks submitted recipes that had never been written down formally before. Or, they left out steps (intentionally or not) that will make or break the recipe. I realized that I could have used a little more information on making the caramel icing. Although it tasted good, it didn’t turn out quite right. I should have cooked it a bit longer so that it was more “spreadable” and less “pourable.” See how it’s kind of dripping down in the picture above? It shouldn’t really do that. Still, everyone said it was delicious, so I guess it turned out ok. I’ll let you know how it goes next time. Another important point about some community cookbooks, at least one I have, Bell’s Best, is that they are so difficult to navigate that it’s almost impossible to find what you need. The index is arranged topically with such obscure topics as “Mens, Microwave.” Something as simple as chili can be found under “Soups,” “Meat,” or maybe “Men’s,” with each recipe in each section being different.

The following recipe was found in Bell’s Best under “Cakes,” but other recipes were also under “Frostings.”

Caramel Icing

2 3/4 c. sugar
1 stick butter
3/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Caramelize 3/4 c. sugar in saucepan. Mix 2 c. sugar with the milk in another saucepan; bring to a rolling boil and pour it over the caramelized sugar, stirring constantly. Cook until it comes to a soft ball stage, 2 or 3 minutes (this is where I didn’t cook it long enough, I think. It bubbles up like molten lava and it took me by surprise) Add butter and vanilla flavoring; beat with an electric mixer. Spread on cake layers.
Mrs. Curtiss (Hattie) Hale, Columbus Club

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

Dru’s favorite cake is red velvet cake. Every year I make it for him for his birthday. This sounds sweet until you realize that until very recently I didn’t really know how to bake at all. One year I didn’t let the cake cool down enough so the frosting just melted off of it. The next year I tried to use “all natural” food coloring and it had a weird brown/pink color. I also used all-purpose instead of cake flour and the crumb just wasn’t right. This year I wised up and used Louise’s recipe. Louise is a friend of my mother-in-law’s who makes us these amazing cakes every year at Christmas. Her cakes are HUGE; she must triple the recipe or something because I’m telling you these cakes could feed a family of four for a month and probably have.

So thanks to Louise this year’s cake turned out really good. The only problem was that the layers were a little misshapen; I don’t know what I did but somehow I didn’t get them into or out of the pan quite right. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t cover up with some frosting, but I definitely have to work on my technique.

For those of you who don’t know, red velvet cake is a favored cake in the South; fit for anything from a funeral to a festival. Of course, it was made famous by Steel Magnolias when Ouiser wacks off the tail of the groom’s armadillo cake. The bloody inside is, of course, red velvet cake.

I warn you, this cake is messy to make! Especially when you crank that mixer up to setting #8. My kitchen looked a scene from Dexter when it was all over. The picture above doesn’t really do it justice; this cake is red. If you’d rather not use the food coloring you can of course leave it out or try the natural food coloring (but it won’t be the same).

Louise’s Red Velvet Cake

1/2-3/4 c. shortening (I used half shortening, half butter)
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 oz. red food coloring
2 tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
2 1/4 c. cake flour
1 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
1-2 tsp. vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs. In a small bowl combine food color and cocoa, add vanilla and mix. Stir into shortening/sugar/egg mixture. In another bowl combine salt and flour. In a mixing bowl, alternate salt/flour mixture with buttermilk. Combine soda and vinegar and add to cream mixture. Let it beat for a while (setting 8). Pour into two 9″ cake pans and bake for 30-35 min., or until cake springs back to the touch. Ice with cream cheese icing and top with chopped pecans if desired.

Cream Cheese Icing
4 oz. stick of butter
8 oz. cream cheese
1 box confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
1 tsp. vanilla

Beat in a mixer until combined.

What a great weekend we’re having. We’ve had family visitors in town, great weather, and a birthday celebration complete with lots of cooking on the grill and hanging out on the deck outside. Before the festivities ramped up though, I decided to go ahead and bake a “thank you” pie for my friends Diana and Travis, who brought me the blueberries for my freezer. They have been the recipients of many of my pies over the past couple of years as I try to master the art of pie-making. I didn’t taste this one, but Diana said it was good and “had lots of blueberries.” Well, yes. That’s the point. Lots of blueberry goodness.

When we were in Maine last weekend I picked up a copy of Cooking Down East by Marjorie Standish. It’s a great cookbook with some old fashioned Maine recipes in it. The recipe doesn’t say to, but to be safe I covered the edges of the pie with aluminum foil until the last 15-20 minutes of baking. Also, I sprinkled crushed sugar cubes over the top before putting the pie in the oven.

Maine Blueberry Pie
recipe by Marjorie Standish

Pastry for a 2-crust pie (see below)
4 c. blueberries
1 c. sugar
2 tbs. flour
dash of salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. butter

Line pie plate with pastry. Mix sugar and flour, spread about one fourth of it on lower crust. Fill with blueberries. Sprinkle remainder of sugar mix over them. Add salt, sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon. Dot with butter. Place top crust on pie, flute edges and cut slits. Bake at 425 degrees for 40 minutes.

I’ve used lots of different pie crust recipes and have decided that I enjoy making them by hand more than in a food processor. You can just tell what’s going on more that way. That said, if you are in a hurry or if it’s an especially hot day in your kitchen it’s probably better to go with the food processor.

Pastry crust

2 c. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. shortening
1/4 c. butter
ice water

Sift together flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter cut shortening and butter into flour until there are pieces the size of peas. Add ice water, a tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork until the mixture holds together when pinched between your fingers. Form the dough into a ball without handling too much. Cover with saran wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or so. After it has chilled, cut in half with a pastry cutter and gently roll out the dough into two circles.

As I write I realize that I could write a whole post on pie crusts and pies. I think I’ll save the details for later when I have more time to think about it and do it right. I think this might be the official start of pie season!

I currently have two gardens: the one in my backyard, and the one at my friend Diana’s house. Here at my house I have a couple of healthy tomatoes, some lettuce, kale, canteloupe, summer squash, bush beans, eggplant, and cilantro that are all doing well. But, as I said, I have a shady yard so the kitchen garden is a bit of an experiment for me. My hands-down favorite garden vegetable is the tomato, which really needs a fair amount of sun. Because I feared tomatoes wouldn’t do well in my shady yard, I decided to join forces with Diana who has a sunny yard but also has an infant and needed help with the garden.  Everything is growing really well over there. The tomato plants are absolutely bursting with several heirloom varieties, and in a couple of weeks we are going to have our hands full; I can’t wait! As you can see we’ve already harvested a few, in addition to some herbs, lettuce, beans, and nasturtium (which is edible; a light peppery flavor, great in salads). I’m already contemplating what to do with all the tomatoes we’ll have. Let me know if you have any good ideas. Tomato sandwiches and tomato tarts come to mind, but I’m open to suggestions.

On Wednesday I picked up some sugar plums from the farmer’s market that were beautiful and super sweet with a deliciously tart skin. I forgot to take a picture before I cut them up and put them in a plum tart, but take my word for it they were beautiful. I enjoyed this tart with some friends who came over last night; by the time I took this picture we’d already eaten half of it. The recipe below is from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks: Simply in Season. It’s a cookbook commissioned by the Mennonites, and as it says in the preface, is a cookbook about “foods that are fresh, nutritious, tasty, and in rhythm with the seasons.” I’m not a Mennonite, but I’ve enjoyed many recipes out of this cookbook. We served the plum tart with ice cream and it was delicious.

Plum Tart

Shortbread Crust (see below)
1 tbsp tapioca (optional) but highly recommended; I didn’t use it and the tart was pretty watery
small blue plums (halved and pitted) mine weren’t blue; just use what you have
3/4 c. sugar yes, this is a lot; you could probably cut down on it, but I promise it’ll be darn good if you use the full amount
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Sprinkle tapioca on the unbaked crust. Arrange plums in the crust, cut side up, (I actually misread this and did them cut side down and it turned out fine), making slightly overlapping concentric circles starting at the outside. Fit as many plums into the pan as possible.
Mix cinnamon and sugar together and pour over the plums. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees until plums are soft and filling is boiling, about 45 min. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream.

Shortbread Tart Crust
1 c. flour (may use up to 1/3 c. whole wheat pastry flour)
1/3 c. butter
2 tbs. powdered sugar

In a mixing bowl, mix together until crumbly, with no pieces bigger than a pea. Press into a 9 in. pie pan or tart pan. Bake in preaheated oven at 425 until golden, 10-12 min. Cool. Fill with favorite berry or other fruit filling. (note: for the plum tart the crust does not need to be baked ahead of time)