On your mark, get set…BAKE!

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I have a confession…I’m a cooking/food show snob.  With hundreds of them on the air and thousands on the internet, we are inundated from morning to night.  I’ll admit I’m generally not a fan of the competition variety, like Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen.  I lost interest in Top Chef after two seasons, mainly because I got no enjoyment out of watching food “professionals” stab each other in the back week after week.  It was like watching “Master Chef meets Survivor.”  I see more than enough drama working in a real life kitchen, thank you very much.  Sadly, a great many popular American cooking/baking competitions thrive on and perpetuate a kind of cutthroat mentally that for me takes away the joy and passion for the craft.  Knife Fight on Esquire Channel might be an exception, only because the setting and premise is pretty straightforward–two chefs battling against the clock in an actual restaurant kitchen–and there is mutual respect amongst the competitors.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a healthy dose of competition to bring out the best in people–just not when it also brings out the ugly.

This is why I’m a big fan of The Great British Bake Off.  Aside from the incomparable wisdom of Mary Berry, the ascerbic wit of Paul Hollywood, and the cheekiness of presenters Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, the show is all about challenging the contestants to strive for their personal best.

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Yes, they are competing for the championship yet there is always a sense of sportsmanship and mutual respect.  No one is fighting for equipment or ingredients.  They each have their own fully-equipped, well-stocked stations.  Call me sappy, but I love the fact that everyone goes in for the group hug when someone gets eliminated.  Judges Paul and Mary aren’t sitting behind a table telling that week’s “loser” to pack up their tools and leave.

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What I enjoy most about the show is while the bakers’ skill and creativity are being challenged every week, I’m also learning something in the process–like how to make the perfect Jaffra cake (had no idea it was something one actually made from scratch since I’ve only ever seen them prepackaged) or what constitutes an ideal arlette?  I leave each episode with new found respect for the art that is my life and passion…and sometimes with a desire to whip up a batch of something quintessentially British…like crumpets.

Crumpets

Yield: about 1 dozen

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, scalded then cooled to warm
  • 1 tsp. dry active yeast
  • 2 tsp. honey or sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda (dissolved in 2 Tbsp. warm water)

Combine flours and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Whisk together yeast, warm milk and honey or sugar–then stir into flour mixture.  Gradually whisk in warm water to form a batter.  Cover and set aside in a warm, draft-free space for about 30-40 mins.  Whisk in dissolve baking soda.

Heat a heavy skillet or griddle with a little vegetable on medium low heat. Place greased crumpet rings onto the heated surface.  Fill each ring about halfway.  Cook first side until bubbles form throughout the surface and the batter is set about 1/4″ all around the other edge (about 4-5 mins.) Carefully flip the crumpets and continue to cook second side for another 3-4 mins.

Serve warm with lots of butter and jam.

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Birthday Girl…or 40 is the new 30.

It took weeks of stealth planning…endless Facebook messaging…multiple revisions…crafty, deliberate misdirections…all in an effort to throw Rina the surprise 40th birthday party she richly deserved.  She did not make it easy.  We all knew she wanted something special to mark this milestone, but being the suspicious woman that she is, Rina kept her husband, Ken, and Laura on their toes–tossing one monkey wrench after another in their planning.  At one point, she was so worried they hadn’t come up with anything she started organizing her own birthday party!

I had it pretty easy…once Ken decided to forgo booking an event space and opted to go with a restaurant, which meant I wouldn’t be catering the party.   I knew from the beginning that I’d make her birthday cake–and that it’d have to be something that would knock her socks off.    Now, I’m not one for carving cakes into Mount Rushmore-like heads of people.  In fact, I’m generally against fashioning any body parts out of cake.  Sorry, but that’s just weird!  It’s suppose to be dessert, not an episode of Dexter.  Nevertheless, Rina and I had a running joke on Facebook about her wanting me to bake her a cake in the form of Lionel Ritchie’s head (circa 1980’s), so I deployed a bit of subterfuge by hinting to her sister Rachelle that I was thinking of doing just that…in case Rina decided to pick her sister’s brain about what we were doing for her birthday.

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Chocolate Ritchie anyone?

What I really wanted to do was create a cake that showcased both Rina’s talent as an artist and her love of classic Hollywood movies.  The perfect place to start was to pull from her extensive and prolific drawings on the subject.  Ken helped by secretly emailing me some of her movie-themed “post-it” drawings.  I gathered more from her website, Facebook, and even her postings on this blog, which I then assembled and printed out on edible ink.

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I did run into one minor glitch–the yellow ink wouldn’t flow out of the cartridge so all the images came out in shades of pink, blue and black!  Not exactly true to her original artwork, but since I was unable to unclog the cartridge, I decided to just go with it.  At least the color scheme was consistent, which created a kind of flow from her more vibrant drawings to the monochromatic ones.   Originally, I envisioned something along the lines of frames from movie strip circling the cake, but then I realized that I had far too many images (after all I was only making a relatively small two-tiered cake), so I went with the art gallery design.  Each image would be “glued” to a fondant plaque and displayed at artful intervals around the  10″ and 6″ cakes.

Thanks to Laura’s investigative skills, I found out that our birthday girl had a fondness for tiramisu.  Normally tiramisu is too delicate to be turned into a decorated cake.  However, I’ve created a version that is not only delicious but firm enough to be used in a tiered cake.  For Rina’s birthday cake, I settled on a light and fluffy vanilla chiffon cake, soaked with a rum-spiked espresso syrup and layered with a rum and marsala flavored tiramisu filling dotted with bittersweet chocolate curls, frosted in coffee Italian buttercream.

My vision for Rina’s cake didn’t end with the art gallery of her drawings.  Oh no.  I needed an extra element to send it over the top.  And that extra something came in the form of Mr. Darcy…or rather Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (who Rina would argue was the ultimate incarnation of our beloved Jane Austen hero)…gloriously wet, rising out of a pool of chocolate on the top tier!  It seemed simple enough.  All I had to do was screen shot a stock photo Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy standing in the lake.   How hard could that be?  Well…really hard as it turns out…because the scene never actually took place.  To be exact, that particular sequence in the mini series begins with Colin diving into the lake and cuts to him drenched, walking his horse across the greens towards Pemberly!  The only image I could find of Firth’s Darcy in that scenario was of that bizarre “fan art” sculpture made in his likeness which stands in the middle of a lake in Lyme Park, England.

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Needless to say, it’s just a little too creepy.  So, I had to be creative and photoshop (with the help of my friend, Clara) the head of Colin Firth onto the body of the sculpture…then print him up on an edible frosting sheet.

Mr. Darcy and Back-up
Mr. Darcy and Back-up

I then made a hard sugar paste called pastillage, rolled it out like fondant and cut it in the outline shape of his body.  The pastillage was allowed to dry out for three days, then I attached the cut-out image of Colin onto it.  For the cake top, I piped a nice thick border of buttercream dots along the edge to hold in the “lake” of melted chocolate ganache.

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…and voilà!

After an interminably long drive through ridiculously bad downtown San Francisco traffic to Berkeley, with the cake strapped to the backseat of Laura’s Toyota, we thankfully arrived at Spenger’s with everything still intact.  Rina was indeed very surprised.

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And this is what was left…before everyone went in for seconds…and thirds.

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Mission accomplished!

Tiramisu Filling

Yield:  enough to fill one 10″ and one 6″ cake

  • 10 yolks
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or Kosher salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup light rum
  • 1/4 cup dry marsala
  • 12 oz. mascarpone cheese
  • 5 cups heavy cream
  • 2 1/2 tsp. gelatin powder dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water

In a heat proof bowl, whisk together the yolks, salt, 1 cup sugar, and liquor until smooth.  Set the bowl over simmering bowl, whisking continuously until the mixture is very pale and thick and registers 160°F.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the softened gelatin.  Place the bowl over a larger bowl of ice and water to chill, whisking occasionally to distribute the cold.  Meanwhile, in a mixer fitted with a whip attachment whip on medium speed the mascarpone, remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 2 cups of cream until the lumps of mascarpone have been smoothed out, then lower the speed and gradually add the remaining cream.  Increase the speed to medium and whip until the mixture forms medium soft peaks.  Carefully fold chilled egg mixture into the cream.

Happy 40th Birthday Rina!

Happy Hour

For me Happy Hour can happen any day of the week, though more often than not it’s the weekend when I can really kick back and enjoy a cocktail (or two) since I usually don’t get out of work in time during the week to take advantage of Happy Hour.  And since the Rio Olympics has been dominating my television viewing of late this week, my drink of choice has been the caipirinha.  Yes, I finally got into the spirit of the games, but then who wouldn’t given the stellar performances in women’s gymnastics and all-around swimming.

Hey, when you’ve got a big bottle of cachaca and a bag of limes laying around just begging to be used…well, what can I say?  To keep things interesting, I’ve come up with another inspired variation on the classic Brazilian cocktail–Guava-Raspberry Caipirinha.  I got the idea to use guava in the cocktail from the quintessentially Brazilian specialty, guava paste.  Adding a few ounces of guava nectar or puree and some fresh or frozen raspberries to the cachaca and muddled lime gives the drink a gorgeous blush of pink and delicately sweet tropical note.

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Guava-Raspberry Caipirinha

  • 2 oz. Cachaca
  • 1/2 lime, cut into quarters
  • 2 tsp. turbinado or raw sugar
  • 2 oz. guava nectar or puree
  • 4-5 fresh or frozen raspberries
  • chilled soda water
  • slice of lime for garnish

Place the sugar and lime pieces at the bottom of a highball glass and muddle together to release the essential oils.  Add the Cachaca and guava, along with 4-5 ice cubes and the raspberries.  Top off with soda water and garnish with a slice of lime.

Happy Hour without food is just a cocktail–and pretzels don’t count.  I want something a little more substantial to nosh on with my drink…an hors d’oeuvre perhaps…something like a Mini Toad in the Hole.  Now there many interpretations of “Toad in the Hole.”  It can be a breakfast dish where you cut a hole in the center of a thick slice of bread, crack in an egg and fry it up.

Toad in the Hole with Crispy Bacon and Blistered Cherry Tomatoes
Toad in the Hole with Crispy Bacon and Blistered Cherry Tomatoes

The British version of Toad in the Hole is cooked sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding, served with gravy, which is the springboard for my hors d’oeuvres.  Instead of serving it with gravy, I top my mini toads with a little balsamic caramelized onion, horseradish sour cream, and fresh chopped parsley.  It’s a mouthful of savory deliciousness that is perfect for  soaking up all those Happy Hour cocktails!

Mini Toad in the Hole
Mini Toad in the Hole

Mini Toad in the Hole

Yield:  about 30

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 Tbsp. rendered bacon fat, melted
  • 1/2 tsp. sea or kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2 links smoked sausage (chicken apple, chorizo, etc.)
  • 1/4 cup grated white cheddar or gruyere cheese
  • olive or canola oil for mini muffin molds
  • 1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp. sour cream or Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp. horseradish creme
  • 1 tsp. chopped parsley

Process eggs and milk in a blender until smooth.  Whisk together the flour, salt, thyme, and peppers, then add to the blender and process until smooth.  Blend in half of the melted butter and rendered bacon fat.  Transfer the popover batter into a measuring cup or pitcher and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Preheat oven to 425°F before baking.

 

Blame It on Rio (Olympics)

I’m trying to get into the spirit of watching the Rio Olympics…really I am. I must admit, though, the opening ceremonies left me more than just a little bored–so much so that I ended up switching over to The Great British Bake-Off (hey it was the semi-finals!) about an hour into the broadcast.  Maybe it was all the commercials and endless commentaries or maybe it was the surprisingly underwhelming production values (perhaps attributable to budgetary constraints?), but I simply wasn’t feeling it.   Alas, I missed the glorious parade of nations…including the fabulously bare-chested flag bearer from Tonga, which was, according to Rina, her mom’s favorite part of the ceremony.   I’m hoping that once my favorite competitions–women’s gymnastics and swimming–are underway my enthusiasm will get reignited.  If not, I’ll have to settle for the highlights and entertain myself with movies (partially) set in Rio.  Okay, to be fair, they don’t authentically reflect Brazilian culture–strictly popcorn Hollywood fare–but engaging nevertheless.

Flying Down to Rio (1933)

No one actually flew down to Rio to make this musical and very few people remember that it was really Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond who got top billing.  What makes this otherwise lightweight musical noteworthy to film history buffs is the debut of perhaps arguably the most famous, most beloved onscreen dance pairing of all time–Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Now Voyager (1942)

Bette Davis at her melodramatic best, transforming herself from a dowdy neurotic Bostonian spinster heiress to a sophisticated, fashionable modern woman through intense therapy, who finds love on a cruise ship with a married man played by Paul Henreid. Their tentative onboard flirting culminates in a brief tryst while on a day trip through Rio de Janeiro (must have been something in air).  No film at the time did more for smoking than Now Voyager. Paul Henreid’s iconic duo cigarette lighting became symbolic of the sublimated sex act.

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Notorious (1946)

Alfred Hitchcock spins a masterful tale of romance and intrigue centered around post WWII Nazi espionage in Brazil.  To say the chemistry between Cary Grant (Devlin) and Ingrid Bergman (Alicia) was caliente would be an understatement.  Rio provided the perfect setting for their love affair to blossom.  The eroticism of their cleverly choreographed kisses, which danced around the Production Code restrictions of the time, were hands down some of the sexiest moments in film history.

Brazil (1985)

If you’re in the mood for something completely offbeat, director Terry Gilliam serves up a big heaping plate of it in his fantastical oddball story about a low level bureaucrat’s (Jonathan Pryce) search for his dream woman in a dystopian, totalitarian world driven by rampant consumerism.     It’s a film full of Gilliam’s trademark Monty Pythonish dark humor and imaginatively elaborate sets. Who knew how prophetic his vision really was in light of the recent controversies involving the IOC?

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

What was it about 1985?  Here’s another film with dark political underpinnings centered on a riveting story about two prisoners in a Brazilian jail, involving political intrigue, espionage, sexual identity, love, and the power of storytelling.

Fast Five (2011)

If you’re just looking for some mindless fun, then Fast Five, the fifth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, might be right up your alley. It’s an adrenaline rush of wildly preposterous car chases and high octane fight scenes set against the backdrop of modern Rio de Janeiro.

Whether you’re watching the Olympics or just a movie (sort of) set in Rio, you can always use some refreshments and snacks–two of the most characteristically Brazilian being the Caipirinha and Pao de Queijo (cheese bread).  I added whole frozen blackberries and fresh mint to my Caipirinha, topping it off with a little soda water for a refreshing twist on a Brazilian classic.

Blackberry Caipirinha

  • 2 oz. Cachaca
  • 2 tsp. turbinado or raw sugar
  • 1/2 lime, quartered
  • 3-4 fresh or frozen blackberries
  • 2 sprigs fresh mint
  • chilled soda water

Place the sugar, lime pieces and one sprig of mint at bottom of a highball glass and muddle together to release the essential oils.  Add the Cachaca along with 4-5 ice cubes and the blackberries.  Top off with soda water and garnish with the remaining mint sprig.

I would describe the Pao de Queijo or “cheese bread”  as a cross between the cheesy French gougere and a popover on the outside, with the chewiness of mochi on the inside.  It’s made with tapioca flour so it’s gluten-free.  To jazz it up a bit, I seasoned the batter with a tiny sprinkling of garlic powder, smoked paprika, cayenne, and ground black pepper.

Pao de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread)

Yield:  1 dozen

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup oil (e.g. canola, light olive, grapeseed)
  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups tapioca flour (aka starch)
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 1/8 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

In a blender, process the egg, oil, and milk to combine.  Whisk together the dry ingredients then process into the wet ingredients until smooth.  Add the cheeses and pulse just to combine.  Pour the batter evenly amongst twelve well-greased muffin molds.  Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 22-25 mins. until the cheese breads are golden brown and puffy.  Cool in the tins for few minutes before unmolding.

 

 

 

 

 

Cheers to the Boy Who Lived (On)

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I may have been sitting in a movie theater waiting for Star Trek Beyond to start, but secretly I was counting down the hours until the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the long-awaited (and according to J.K. Rowling) final Potter story.  Like millions of other Potter devotees, I want to know what happens after Harry, Hermione, and Ron wave goodbye to their progeny on Platform 9 3/4 as the Hogwarts Express whisks them off to the magical school.

Since I highly doubt I’ll be jetting off to London anytime soon to catch the London production, I’ll just have to settle for reading the play, which was magically delivered to my Kindle before midnight.   It’s an epic tale, and not unlike the Deathly Hallows, the story has been split into two parts–lucky theatre goers signing on for a double-header.  Now some diehard fans can probably plow through the entire thing in one sitting.  I, on the other hand, need sustenance…and I don’t mean snack food.  So, with this in mind, I came up with a Potteresque menu to carry me through the marathon reading.

To start things off, I thought it would be appropriate to honor the grown up Harry Potter with an adult version of his favorite childhood beverage, butter beer.  Harry’s Grown-Up Butter Beer is a sweet, creamy concoction made with homemade cream soda, dark rum, and Tuaca liqueur, topped off with homemade butterscotch whipped cream and a drizzle of salted caramel sauce.

On a recent trip to London, my friend Karen took her kids to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter exhibit, where they tried the “official” version of butter beer–a drink so painfully sweet that they were inspired to come up with their own less sweet version when they got home.  In my adult version, I decided to up the game by making a vanilla bean-infused caramel syrup as the base for my cream soda, which along with the Tuaca and dark rum amplifies the butterscotch notes.  I used the soda siphon to blend these flavors together.  For the butterscotch whipped cream, I whisked about 1/4 cup brown sugar and 2 tsp. vanilla extract into 1/2 cup warm heavy cream until the sugar dissolved, then chilled it completely before adding it 1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream.  The mixture was place into a whipped cream canister injected with NO².  The drizzle of salted caramel sauce over the butterscotch cream takes it over the top.

Harry’s Grown Up Butter Beer

  • 2 oz. Vanilla Caramel Syrup*
  • 1 oz. Dark Rum
  • 1 oz. Tuaca
  • 4 oz. Cold Soda Water
  • 2 oz. Butterscotch Whipped Cream (or a big dollop)
  • Salted Caramel Sauce

*To make the vanilla caramel syrup, combine 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water and cook to a medium amber.  Carefully pour in 1 1/2 cups water and add 2 vanilla pods, split and scraped.  Boil the mixture on medium heat for about 4-5 mins. or until the caramel is completely liquified.  Remove from the heat and pour into a mason jar or other heat proof container.

In the play, Harry and the gang are all working parents (save Draco Malfoy perhaps), so I imagine, even with the aid of magic, whipping up an easy family meal can still be a challenge.  My Bang Up Bangers & Mash Pie, a mash up of two classic British comfort foods, and Plum-Cherry Crisp are thoroughly satisfying do-ahead dishes you can pop in the oven and savor at your leisure.

Bang Up Bangers & Mash Pie

  • 2 large russet potatoes, peeled, cut into large chunks
  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 2/3 cup half & half, warmed
  • 1 package British bangers (about 6 links), cut into thick slices
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2″ pieces
  • 5-6 large button mushrooms, 1/2’d and sliced
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp. butter or rendered bacon fat
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup Guinness or dark beer
  • 2 cups beef stock/broth
  • 1 Tsbp. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbsp. grated white cheddar or parmesan cheese

Place a film of plastic wrap over the bowl of mashed potatoes to keep them warm while you prepare the filling.

Once assembled,  you can either bake it off at 350°F for 25 mins. (or until the top is golden and gravy is bubbling) or cover it with foil, put it in the refrigerator, and bake it the next day for 40-45 mins.

Plum-Cherry Crisp

  • 3 medium plums, pitted and sliced
  • 1 cup pitted dark cherries, fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • pinch of sea or Kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp. almond extract
  • 4 Tbsp. butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • pinch of sea or Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • pinch of ground cardamom

Toss together the first 6 ingredients and transfer into a greased oven-proof dish.  Combine the flour, sugar, salt, oats, and spices in a separate bowl, then drizzle in the melted butter.  Mix together with your hands to form the crumble topping, then distribute it evenly over the fruit.  Bake the crisp at 350°F for about 35-40 mins. or until the top is golden brown and the juices are thickened.    Serve warm with whipped cream.

 

In the Cocktail Hour

It’s not often I spend an entire afternoon playing with cocktails (and still remain sober enough to write a post about it), but that’s what I’ve done.  I assure you it’s all for a worthy cause.  A good friend of mine asked if I would be interested in testing out a few products she’s been trying to market. Free gadgets to play with in the kitchen?  I’m in!  Like a kid in a candy store I got to choose the style and color of each item to be tested.  The first item on the roster, a perky purple soda siphon.

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I’ve been obsessed lately with making my own flavored sodas so this was right up my alley.  The thing I noticed first about the soda siphon was that it seemed to keep the water carbonated longer than the soda maker I currently own. Once you inject the CO² cartridge into the ice cold water (this is the key to proper carbonation), you can dispense as much or as little soda as you want without releasing any of the gases and causing the rest of the soda to lose carbonation.  It’s perfect for topping off mixed drinks because the dispenser releases the soda with just enough pressure to force it into the drink, essentially “mixing” it.  Once I got the soda siphon set up, I went to town!

Putting the soda syphon through its paces was a great excuse for me to experiment with my latest Farmer’s Market find–cherry juice extract. It is weird that the first thing I thought of to do with this was to make cocktails??  I doubt it’s what the vendor had in mind…although, you never know.

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Intense in flavor, the syrupy consistency belies it’s tartness–a little goes a long way.

For my first cherry-themed cocktail, which I’m calling Into the (Cherry) Woods, I mixed the cherry juice extract with bourbon, amaretto, orange bitters, lemon juice and a little syrup simple (to offset the acidity), then topped it off with soda.  Almonds and cherries are a classic flavor combination, and the bourbon adds a smokey dark, almost woodsy note to the pairing.  Orange bitters ties all the components together.

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Into the (Cherry) Woods

  • 2 oz. bourbon
  • 1 oz. amaretto liqueur
  • 1/2 oz. cherry juice extract
  • 3-4 dashes orange bitters
  • 1/2 oz. lemon juice
  • 3/4 oz. simple syrup
  • 3-4oz. chilled soda or seltzer water
  • mint for garnish

Combine the first 6 ingredients in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes and shake vigorously to blend.  Strain mixture into a glass over ice, then top off with soda water and garnish with fresh mint sprig.

Now you know I can’t pass up an opportunity to throw in a movie clip.

So to keep the Brit vibe going, my second offering is a yet another riff on the quintessentially English Pimm’s Cup, which I’m calling….wait for it…Cherriots of Fire!  Okay, Rina actually came up with this one.  Instead of just mixing together lemon-lime soda and Pimm’s No. 1, I’ve upped the flavor (and booze) factor by adding gin, cherry juice extract, and fresh lime syrup, topping off with soda water.  It’s as refreshing on a hot summer day as a brisk race along the water’s edge.

Cherriots of Fire

  • 1 oz. gin
  • 1 1/2 oz. Pimm’s No. 1
  • 1/2 oz. cherry juice extract
  • 1/2 oz. lime syrup*
  • 3 oz. chilled soda water
  • cucumber strips, mint, maraschino cherry for garnish

Combine the gin, Pimm’s, cherry juice extract and lime syrup in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes, then shake vigorously to blend.  Strain into a glass over ice, then top with soda.  Nestled cucumber strips along the inside of the glass, then garnish with mint sprig and cherry on top.

*for lime syrup, bring to a simmer 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 water, then stir in the juice of 1 lime.  Cool completely before using.

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In honor of “National Tequila Day,” the next cocktail is a scintillating variation on the Tequila Sunrise, which I’m dubbing Tequila Sunset (Under the Cherry Moon).  Like how I managed to get two movie references in there?  I’ve used fresh-squeezed orange juice and substituted cherry juice extract for the grenadine, and added orange liqueur, lime juice, and agave syrup.  If you like your cocktail strong, leave out the soda water.  Either way, it’s a sexy cocktail…just like Prince.

Tequila Sunset (Under the Cherry Moon)

  • 4 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice
  • 1 1/2 oz. tequila reposado
  • 1/2 oz. orange liqueur (e.g. Triple Sec)
  • 1/2 oz. cherry juice extract
  • 1/2 oz. agave syrup
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice
  • chilled soda, optional
  • corkscrew of orange peel for garnish

Combine the orange juice, tequila, 3/4 of the cherry juice extract, agave, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes and shake vigorously to blend.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, then slowly pour in the remaining cherry juice extract.  Top off with a little soda water and garnish with orange peel.

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My second offering in honor of National Tequila Day, is a spin on the popular Silver Paloma, traditionally made with sliver tequila and grapefruit juice.  I’m calling my version a Ruby Paloma.  This time instead of cherry juice extract I used Campari, which is the ideal compliment to grapefruit.  Like the cherry, it gives the drink a deeper blush of pink, while the tequila reposado imparts complexity and intensity of flavor.  Finished with chilled soda, this is one cocktail you’ll want to have in your arsenal of summer drinks.

Ruby Paloma

  • 4 oz. fresh squeezed ruby grapefruit juice
  • 2 oz. tequila reposado
  • 1/2 oz. Campari
  • 1/2 oz. agave syrup
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice
  • 3-4oz. chilled soda
  • mint and lime slice for garnish

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes and shake vigorously to blend.  Strain into a glass over ice and top off with soda.  Garnish with mint sprig and slice of lime.

Simply Irresistible Guilty Pleasures

It really doesn’t take much to set me off on a baking project–watching back-to-back episodes of The Great British Bake Off (damn, Paul and Mary are harsh!)…perusing the latest online issues of Delicious or Donna Hay (two of my favorite food magazines).  I was already primed, itching to bake something, when an online Saveur article about the beauty of a well-made eclair caught my eye…and I was off.

I bake pâte à choux pastry at work on occasion, usually in the savory cheesy form of gougères, which are then filled with smoked trout mousse.  Last year I decorated a friend’s “naked” wedding cake with rings of caramel-dipped, custard-filled profiteroles–a cross between a Gateau St. Honoré and an Italian creme cake.  But I very rarely make eclairs.  I’m not sure why.  I’ve loved eating them since I was kid and they’re usually the first thing I gravitate towards at a bakery.  More often than not though, the eclairs are a bit soggy, having sat pre-filled for hours in a moist refrigerated case.  The best eclairs are the ones filled to order, which sadly are hard to find.

So, I set out to satisfy my craving for eclairs by whipping up a batch.  Oh, in case you’re wondering how I don’t weigh 800 lbs. by now, the answer is I don’t eat the entire batch and I work out.  Anyways, back to the eclairs… The process is not particularly difficult, if you stick with the classic vanilla pastry cream filling and dark chocolate ganache frosting, which I favor.  However, I did get fancy this time (for the sake of a great photo op) and turned out a few different flavors.

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The trick is to bake the choux pastry until it is very crispy.  They should feel very light, being mostly hollow in the center.  If you don’t bake them crisp enough they will collapse as they cool and won’t hold up to the filling.  Start off at 425°F for the first 12-15 mins., then reduce the heat to 375°F for the rest of the bake, about another 18-20 mins. depending on the size of the eclairs.  I piped my choux dough with a star tip in short batons, yielding 18 pieces.

Pate a Choux

Yield:  18 – 3″ eclairs or about 1 dozen 4″ eclairs

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 stick or 4 oz. butter
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 egg white

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.   Turn the heat off and add the flour, then stir vigorously to incorporate all of it into the hot liquid.  Turn the heat back on to medium low and continue stirring until the dough forms into a ball.  Transfer the choux base into a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed to cool down the dough a little bit before gradually beating in the eggs and white.

Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream Filling

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 4 yolks
  • 3 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split & scraped
  • 1-1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3 Tbsp. butter

Combine the milk and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Meanwhile whisk together the sugar, yolks, cornstarch and salt until smooth.  Gradually whisk in a little of the hot milk to temper the egg mixture, then whisk the tempered mixture into the rest of the hot milk.  Cook mixture on medium low heat, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream is very thick and almost comes to a simmer.  Remove pan from the heat and whisk in butter.  Take out the vanilla pod and transfer the mixture into a bowl and press a film of plastic onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming while the pastry cream cools.

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Whisk in any flavorings before filling the baked choux pastries

Dark Chocolate Ganache Frosting

  • 6 oz. semi sweet chocolate chunks
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tbsp. light corn syrup
  • pinch of sea salt

Combine all the ingredients in a microwave safe bowl and heat on full power for about 90 seconds.  Stir to fully melt the chocolate.  If you don’t have a microwave, just place the everything in a heatproof bowl over a pot of low simmering water for about 5 mins., stirring occasionally.

To fill the eclairs, make an incision along one side and pipe in the filling using a small pastry tip.  Carefully dip the top half of the eclair into the ganache, shaking off the excess.

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The Classic

To make white or colored and/or flavored icing, whisk together 2 cups sifted powdered sugar with 3 Tbsp. whole milk and a pinch of sea salt to make a thick paste, then add color and flavoring to taste, thinning the mixture out with a little more milk to achieve the desire consistency for glazing.

While we’re on the subject of indulgent cravings, I have to mention another guilty pleasure of mine, the underrated and charming film Simply Irresistible (1999).

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Eclairs play a central role in this romantic comedy about a struggling restaurant owner Amanda (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who falls in love with a department executive Tom (Sean Patrick Flannery) and magically awakens her dormant talent for cooking.

If you can suspend your disbelief of Amanda’s kitchen attire (sparkly sleeveless Todd Oldham designer tops and open-toed shoes!), it’s a delightfully enchanting tale.  Be careful though, you might suddenly find yourself overwhelmed with an irresistible urge to make eclairs!