Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tomatillo Gazpacho with Salted Tomato Bruschetta

Some memories are like hazy dreams, but tastes and aromas are unforgettable, like the smell of salted ripe tomatoes. Something magical happens when salt is sprinkled over slices of tomatoes, especially if they are nice and ripe. It takes me right back to my childhood in Iran. I see my grandmother Nina in her favorite apron standing at a white wooden table facing a big sun-drenched window in the basement. There is a mountain of plump red tomatoes stacked near one of those old hand-cranked food mills and rows of glass jars shimmering in the sunlight. Every summer, my grandmother would preserve fresh tomatoes the old fashioned way so we could enjoy them through the long snowy winter.
We left those long winters behind when we moved to California where fresh produce is plentiful year-round. Small grocers in our little town carry fruits and vegetables from local farms. We're happy to support family businesses and our farmers. The really good stuff is usually somewhere near the cash register. Berries, pluots, and a big box of luscious, fire-engine-red field tomatoes or դաշտի լոլիկ (dashti lolig as they're called in Armenian). They look so pretty that it's hard to believe they're real. While waiting for my turn to pay for my groceries, I pick one up. Then another one winks at me. So I pick him up, too, and another and another, as many as I can carry. What I'm going to do with them is a mystery, of course. Maybe they'll get stuffed or maybe get tossed into panzanella. It's not until I see the tomatillos and dive out of line, fumbling like a clumsy circus clown to grab a few that the question "What are we having for dinner tonight?" finally gets an answer. Refreshing and ready in minutes, gazpacho is exactly what this hot, humid weather demands. Plus, those juicy tomatoes will do nicely the perfect sidekick in the form of a bruschetta.
As I became more interested in cooking over the years, I discovered the tomato's cute, green look-alike that's a staple in the Mexican kitchen: The tomatillo. This little guy wants you to believe it's a tomato with a superhero cape, but is technically unrelated to its red counterpart. They may not be family, but they certainly get along famously and are often paired in traditional salsas. Expanding on that idea, a meal-size portion of gazpacho would do nicely. The subtle tart taste of the tomatillo highlights the tomato's sweetness beautifully. Put your blender to work and whip up a creamy batch with tomatillos and avocados. Offered with crusty bread topped with luscious salted tomatoes, this chilled soup is a soothing treat everyone craves at the end of a long, hot day.
Make it vegan. Make it vegetarian.The men will ask, "Where's the beef?" Frozen cooked, peeled shrimp add just the right amount of protein and flavor. Smooth cannellini beans are a great meatless option. Whether you roast the tomatillos or not, this gazpacho promises to please. The only things I cooked were the leeks and garlic. Everything else went into the mix in fresh form and the results were stellar. 

Tomatillo Gazpacho with Salted Tomato Bruschetta
Serves: 4
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes

2 large tomatoes
2 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic
1 leek
4 tomatillos
3 Persian cucumbers
1 Granny Smith apple
1 avocado
Salt + pepper to taste
1 lime
1 cup ice
1 lb shrimp, peeled, deveined, cooked (optional)
2 Tb crumbled feta cheese
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 loaf crusty bread

Wash and chop tomatoes into small cubes.
Collect in a bowl and sprinkle salt over the top.
Gently stir with a spoon to coat the tomato well with the salt.
Set aside.

Drizzle some olive oil into a pan and place it over medium heat.

Wash and slice the leeks. 
Add to the pan and cook for a few minutes.
Place the garlic cloves under the flat of the knife blade and give them a good bashing,
one at a time.
Mince and add to the pan and cook until sweet and fragrant, maybe 3 minutes.

Peel and wash tomatillos.
Toss them into a blender or food processor.
Wash the cucumbers.
Peel the apple.
Cut avocado down the center, remove the seed and scoop out the flesh.
Add 2 of the cucumbers, apple and 1/2 the avocado to the blender.
Add cooled garlic + leek.
Blitz until smooth.

Chop the remaining cucumber and 1/2 avocado.
Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice.
Chop shrimp and combine with the cucumber and avocado.
Season with salt and pepper.

Divide gazpacho between 4 bowls, top with 2 tablespoons of the shrimp salad.
Add a dash of crumbled feta cheese and finish with a sprinkle of fresh thyme.
Top slices of crusty bread with the salted tomatoes and serve.

Summer is coming to a close and some of us are anxious for the cooler days of Autumn. Until then, reap the rewards of the sunny harvest and revive a long-forgotten treasure, the gazpacho. Cool and refreshing, this vibrant soup is sure to renew a soul worn by the heat. Being healthy never tasted so good.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Chocolate Raspberry Tiramisu (Eggless)

Now is no time to run the hot oven, but for those of us who love baking, there must be some alternatives. Enter Tiramisu, a luscious Italian dessert made with delicate ladyfinger cookies soaked in rum and coffee, sandwiched between fluffy white clouds made of whipped cream and mascarpone cheese, crowned with crushed chocolate and fresh raspberries. Tiramisu means pick me up in Italian, making it just what the doctor ordered after an exhausting day in the hot summer sun.

Unless you are a superhero baker like my friend Fariba of Zozo Baking, you don't need to bake anything. She makes baking your own ladyfinger cookies look so easy, but I'm what you call lazy. That's right. No need to run the oven at all, which is a blessing now that the mercury is rising. A quick trip to your local Italian deli, Middle Eastern grocery store or Trader Joe's for a packet of ready-made cookies imported from Italy, some mascarpone cheese and you're ready to get started.
This little sweetheart is actually much better the next day, after everything has softened nicely and the flavors have developed. The classic recipe is often printed right on the side of the ladyfingers package, but I have made a few changes of my own. These lightly sweet cookies are first dipped in coffee and rum, but I dip mine in espresso and Kahlua which also has coffee liqueur. The traditional recipe usually calls for raw egg yolks which I omitted years ago when my sister was pregnant and haven't missed since then. There should be a generous dusting of cocoa powder on top, but I find the cocoa just absorbs moisture in the fridge, then looks rather unappealing. Grated chocolate holds up much better and tastes better, especially when you top every layer with it. Then, for the final touch, a good drizzle of decadent chocolate sauce is optional, but highly recommended. There really are no rules or exact measurements in making tiramisu. You can toss one together with whatever you have on hand and improvise as you go.

Chocolate Raspberry Tiramisu (Eggless)
Serves 8
Prep: 15 minutes
Bake: 0 minutes
Chill: 1 hour +

2 shots espresso
2 shots Kahlua
30-32 ladyfinger cookies
2 cups heavy cream
8oz mascarpone
2 tsp vanilla
2 packets Cadbury Flake shaved chocolate
8oz fresh raspberries
3 Tb chocolate syrup (optional)

Make the coffee and transfer it to a shallow pie dish. Add Kahlua.

Whip heavy cream with vanilla until fluffy. Gently fold mascarpone into the whipped cream.

Arrange a layer of dry cookies onto the bottom of a casserole dish so you get
an idea how many you'll need to cover a layer.

Dip cookies one at a time into the coffee + rum mixture, flipping twice and arrange evenly into the casserole pan. Spoon half of the cream + cheese layer over the cookies.

Crush the Flake chocolate in the packet before opening it. Open one end and sprinkle chocolate over the whipped cream + cheese.
Repeat with another layer of soaked ladyfingers and fluffy whipped cream + mascarpone.
Top with the last of the chocolate.
Arrange raspberries over the chocolate and drizzle with chocolate sauce.

Originally, it should be coffee and cocoa, but don't be afraid to change the flavours. I've done a lemon blueberry version that was out of this world. Tiramisu is a luxurious dessert that comes together in a blink. It is so much fun to make, especially with the kids, because unlike traditional baking, there are no exact measurements, no worries about oven temperature. You can make it large enough to feed an army or small another to treat that special someone. It's light and refreshing with a lovely boost from its mild sweetness and kick from espresso. It's Italy's answer to icebox cake. The longer it chills in the fridge, the more irresistible it tastes.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Apricots Stuffed with Cheese and Pistachios: A Guest Post by Cookbook Author Greg Henry

If I pray long enough to the Renovation Gods, do you think they will give me a kitchen like Greg Henry's? Whether it's the witty title or the actual beauty of the design itself, his article about the remodel that took 905 days caught many eyes, including Food and Wine Magazine.  He has authored two beautiful cookbooks which challenge us to rethink tradition with Savory Pies and Savory Cocktails. An avid globe-trotter, he co-hosts The Table Set, #2 on LA Weekly's list of 5 Podcasts for Food Lovers. Fresh and frank, his work has been featured on Saveur's Best of the Web, The Today Show Online and the Los Angeles Times. Greg is home at Sippity Sup where he offers insight not only on food, but wine, travel and entertaining.  A while back, I stumbled onto his site. It was either his clever Apple Pie Cake or effortlessly elegant Apricot Appetizer that reeled me in. After seeing photos on his site, I knew I had to make good use of the sweet apricots that were in season and the gorgeous pistachios I got from Persian Basket. Key to easy entertaining, this is one appetizer that does not require precise instructions or measurements. Greg recommends chives which I didn't have. I did have plenty of lemon thyme growing in the garden. The whole thing came together in minutes and turned out to be such a beauty to see and a delight to eat. So I asked him to share some thoughts with us.

When Coco asked me to do a guest post on her blog, I’ll admit my first reaction was flummoxed confusion. Me? Why me?

You see, right or wrong, I’m not what you’d call a joiner by nature. I don’t go on tour group vacations. I don’t take classes and I don’t read self-help books. I don’t like spectator sports and I won’t hold your place in line if I’ve never met you before. I’m fiercely loyal to those I love (and I have heard) I’m hard to get to know. Some people think this makes me a curmudgeon (or worse yet a snob!). But really I’m just kinda shy. If it’s possible to be an extroverted introvert, that’s exactly what I am.

So when Coco offered me the opportunity to come here and get to know her readers better, naturally I balked. Shy people balk when presented with new situations. However, Coco said I could do “anything” I wanted in my guest post. I think she meant any kind of recipe. After all, I’ve been pecking out recipes on my blog Sippity Sup- Serious Fun Food (link since 2008. I’ve written two cookbooks – well one “cook” book and one “booze” book. (link here ) so I can see why she thought she might be getting a recipe out of me today. But she said “anything”. The trouble with the word anything is that it can mean anything at all. I’m not sure Coco is ready for Greg Henry the blogger – with no holds barred!

So I’ve set a few rules so as not to shock anyone too deeply today. The first rule is I have to be true to myself. The second rule is I won’t try to say anything the way Coco might say it . The third rule is I promise to be good.

You see I have very particular ideas about blogs.The best blogs are blogs where you pretty much know what to expect when you check in at the door. Coco’s blog is about cooking, sure. But it’s also about family. Family through the lens of an Armenian-American identity. Many of you probably come to Coco’s blog because you identify with her voice. You don’t have to be Armenian-American or be well-versed in the buttery complexities of Nazook (link here ) to recognize the love of a mother and daughter. Maybe you come to this blog just to feel the radiance of that love. I know I’ve turned many a blue day golden reading about the chocolate “chippers” in Daisy’s Crumb Cookies. (link )

So what would someone like me have to say to the readers of Coco in the Kitchen? I’m a gay man of a certain age. A man with strong opinions about food and (as you can tell from these words) strong opinions about blogs too. In fact I’ve been known to take perfectly happy blog readers and turn them into Grumpy Gregs explaining why I don’t always like cookies. (link here ) It’s a gift I have!

I’m being silly. And I’m exaggerating. That’s what I do When people come to my blog they have to be ready for that kind of behavior. But you didn’t come to my blog. You came to Coco’s blog.

Do you see my dilemma? I can’t be Coco, I can only be me. 

So rather than politely refuse Coco’s offer. I thought I’d bravely check in and present myself exactly as I am. Have you read my 100 Things About Greg in Chronological Order? Let me just say these are 100 things nobody ever expected to find at a food blog.

Yet, here we are at Coco’s food blog. Maybe we should try and get to know each other better over dinner. I’m inviting you to a virtual dinner party. I’ll plan the menu, I’ll do the cooking and I’ll even provide the photos and links to each of the six courses in this dinner party. While I’m at it why don’t you tell me a little more about you. GREG 

Appetizer: Stuffed Apricots with Cream Cheese, Pistachios, Chives and Balsamic Reduction  

Cocktail: Atomic Cocktail 

First Course: The Little River Inn’s Crab Cakes 

Main Course: Braised Lamb Shanks with Curried Cauliflower and Roasted Grapes 

Salad: Shaved Purple Aspargus Salad with Walnuts 

Dessert: Eucalyptus Ice Cream with walnut Pralines

Greg really knows how to set a table. An endearing soul, he revives long-forgotten offerings with a fresh approach. Old cocktails come back with a wild spin. Pies become cakes or do cakes become pies? Innovative ideas spin from his mind onto beautiful pages. He makes it all look so simple, simple enough to inspire anyone to put on the chef's apron.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Easy Homemade Canelés

We rarely get date nights these days. So, Saturday night, Daisy got to go to a birthday party and had a sugar-fueled blast playing in a bouncy castle while Shawn and I went out to a funky little place for dinner. We relaxed, sipped cocktails, chatted mostly about missing Daisy. The warm olives reminded us of those we had at a hip Italian place in London many years ago. Then dinner arrived, a lovely roast chicken for Shawn and a whole branzino for me, which was an odd choice since I usually don't like my food staring at me.  It was lovely. We definitely ate too much, though, but not enough to refuse the sweet little canelés offered at the door on our way out. I first heard of them from my chef friend Sayat. The photos I found showed pretty little molded cakes that looked a tad burnt, even the ones made by the pros. Canelés are typically French, reputed to be very difficult to make. "Oh, the batter is so finicky. It needs to rest, but just long enough, but not too long. Wait too much and you are doomed for," the hostess said. Because I'd never had one before, I was even so bold as to ask for an extra one to take home to my little sweetheart. Well, I could not wait to get home and see if they are even worth all that trouble.  One taste of these cute, little bite-sized cakes with a crisp caramel coating and a spongy, vanilla-scented center and I was done for. I was intrigued by what the hostess had said about the fussy recipe, so much, in fact, that I stayed up late to find out just how difficult it was to make these cute little things.

One recipe said the batter must rest in the fridge for some magical amount of time, then warmed to room temperature for an hour before baking. Another called for coating the signature fluted molds with beeswax (which I neither had nor planned to get). I even found one that said something about heating the oven with the door open, then closing it and reducing the temp, waiting another x amount of time before starting the baking. Each claimed to be the authentic recipe, the original antique formula from Bordeaux. One said 2 eggs for 1/2 cup flour, while another said 3 eggs, 2 yolks for 1/2 cup flour. Trying to figure out which was the best recipe was dizzying. A recipe should be so straight-forward that you can almost figure out the instructions without having to read them. Beeswax, special fluted molds and tons of time, I don't have, nor am I going to engage in ridiculous antics. Butter, mini cupcake pans and persistence, however, I do have. So, I decided to do my own thing and got a winner, incredibly irresistible and ready in minutes. Dad loved them so much that when I offered to make his usual favorite crème caramel, he said, "Hmm, no, I want you to make those little thingies." That's when I knew I had something really good.

The dough for canelés is a close cousin to popovers or Yorkshire pudding, moist and spongy inside. This also means they are prone to collapsing once they come out of the oven. Several things contribute to the centers dropping:
*Too much sugar

*Adding the eggs all at once

*Rigorous mixing

*Opening the oven door

Don't worry if the center collapses, because you might get lucky and end up with a cute little heart-shaped crater right in the middle like mine. Use a mixer, if you have one, but I gently whisk the batter by hand, just like a French grandmother. Grab a pitcher instead of a bowl for easy pouring and follow the instructions. Your canelés will come out perfectly every time. Resist the urge to open the oven door. It's perfectly alright if some of them burn around the edges. Those actually taste better than the rest.

Easy Homemade Canelés
Makes: 2 dozen bites
Prep: 15 minutes
Bake: 25 minutes

3 Tb butter + more to coat pan
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup flour + more to coat pan
1/2 cup sugar
big pinch salt
2 whole free-range eggs
2 Tb spiced rum

Preheat oven to 425*F.

Heat 3 tablespoons of butter, milk and vanilla on low just before boiling.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Brush the wells of a mini cupcake pan with butter, then dust with flour.

Combine dry ingredients (flour, sugar and salt) in a large bowl or pitcher.
Beat eggs with rum and add to the dry ingredients.
Drizzle cooled milk + butter into the mix and stir gently to combine.

Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, even overnight.
Warm the batter to room temp 15 minutes before baking.

Pour batter into the wells of the cupcake pan(s) and transfer to the hot oven.

Do not open the oven door!

Bake 25 minutes, until fragrant.
Remove from oven and allow the canelés to rest in the pan 2-3 minutes.
Use a knife to gently coax them out of the pan and serve.
Canelés are best eaten fresh out of the oven or the same day they are baked.

Some say canelés came about in 18th Century Bordeaux when nuns collected flour that had spilled onto the docks from shipments and baked little cakes in molds nestled in the embers of a fire for poor children. Both the spelling of its name and the particulars of the recipe have morphed since then. The use of beeswax and vanilla is more recent.

French food is a paradox, either elegantly simple or insanely complicated. It's just too hot and humid to run the big oven now, but after tasting my first canelé, I  had to try my hand at making them. While I haven't invested in the copper molds that give these little cakes their trademark shape, I did put my mini cupcake pans to work in my toaster oven and the results proved absolutely delicious. The crispy, caramel sugar coating breaks gently under the tooth, giving way to a spongy, almost custard-like center, a sweet little thing.

The sweetest things come in small packages, after all. A love note in your pocket on Ordinary Tuesday, a treasure in a small velvet box, a sleepy little bundle with a sweet face and buttery canelés from your very own kitchen. Such is the timeline to my happiness. I hope history repeats itself over and over again.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Eating Out: Cascabel

We are always up for a foodie adventure, especially on hot and humid evenings like last night. We had spent the day at the park, relaxing under the shade of twisty tree branches while the kids ran around the playground. Doing nothing for a change was such a treat, but the heat was exhausting. By dinner time, no one was in the mood to cook and eating out sounded like the perfect escape.

Luckily, Mom found a new restaurant called Cascabel featured in an issue of AAA's Westways Magazine. An old ivy-covered Spanish house with little niches here and there, the restaurant is a hidden gem tucked behind storefronts off a busy street. Cozy spaces with arched windows, creamy plaster walls, exposed beams and old hardwood floors set the stage for a relaxing meal. It felt like an airy seaside cottage. The only thing missing was the sound of waves crashing on white sand.

The table setting is casual and welcoming: Simple wooden tables with sea-blue legs surrounded by leather-bound chairs with rustic stitching, curvy white plates, crisp striped napkins and fish-scale embellished cutlery echoing the restaurant's namesake, a gorgeous rattlesnake painted across a huge wall in the main dining room.

I was a bit disappointed the hostess led us to a table in one of the smaller rooms, but, now that I think about it, I don't think I could focus on my food with that stunning rattlesnake staring at me. The menu features coastal Mexican fare in mostly appetizer portions intended to be shared family-style. This makes for a relaxed atmosphere and guarantees everyone gets a taste of everything.

 A full bar is at your service, but don't expect anything blended. Margaritas are authentic, served on the rocks. I tried watermelon margarita first, then the house special which is a proper classic. The rim of the glass came laced with spicy-sweet guajillo chile salt which I shamelessly licked, then giggled like a little girl. I was in good company, after all.

There is something for everyone, starting with guacamole in cool flavours, like charred pineapple or the popular smoky bacon. We ordered a hell of a lot of food: The famous bacon guacamole, of course, followed by black beans, Spanish rice, duck confit tacos, shrimp tostada, crispy chicken tacos, yellowtail ceviche, sirloin tacos with fresh chimichurri. Because this just did not seem like enough food, we also ordered a couple of side dishes: Asparagus with what appeared to be a chili-garlic harissa type of sauce and roasted cauliflower dusted with cinnamon. It was all so delicious that I was too busy stuffing my face to be bothered with taking photos. At least I managed one of the crispy chicken tacos (after I'd already gobbled up the first one).

There was nothing reptilian on the menu, nor anything that a rattlesnake itself would eat, except for the duck and rabbit both of which are off-limits for me.

Dad offered me a bit of his duck and, while I usually don't eat that either, I can't refuse my sweet father and this was well worth the sacrifice. It tasted like Mom's roast.

Everything out of that bustling little kitchen was so fresh and bold, but I could have easily been very happy with just a plate of those little fluffy tortillas, some butter and honey. God, they were good. That's my plan for next time. Maybe I'll see you there.

Cascabel Restaurant

10717 Riverside Dr.
Toulca Lake, CA. 91602

Happy Hour Mon-Fri 5-7pm

Mon-Thurs 5pm-10pm
Saturday 4pm-11pm
Sunday 4pm-9pm

*Please note that this is not a sponsored post. I went to a restaurant I enjoyed and wanted to share my experience with you.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

5 Minute Meringue Frosting over American Flag Cake

This 4th of July, I wanted to do something special. Everything seems like a good idea (easy) until you are well into it. That is usually when you realize things are slipping into a downward spiral and you no longer have control. Ok, so baking isn't that dramatic, but when you have already trashed several cakes and guests are coming in two hours, the pressure is definitely on. My sister's voice fills my head, reminding me I should never test a recipe on dinner guests, but since she was the one coming for dinner, I felt unusually ambitious. After all, we were celebrating our freedom and all the little, but immensely important things that it affords us, like flag cake, American flag cake. How hard could it possibly be, anyway?

Eh, well, it's really not so easy, after all. First I couldn't get the cake to work. The white layer baked beautifully, but the blue was a bit too dry and the red was just bitter, bitter, nasty bitter. The cakes were just so moist that they completely fell to pieces when I tried moving them. No amount of frosting could put that cake back together again. This was quite a feat of engineering.

The second try was better. They cake came together well. Everything baked just as I intended and assembled beautifully. My coffee cream cheese frosting was delicious and seemed to hold the layers together well, but since about half of it ended up in the bin along with the first cake, I quickly ran out of frosting and did not have enough to cover the outside of the cake. There was no way I was going to trash this one, nor leave it unfinished. It was time to test Paula Deen's very famous 7-minute meringue frosting recipe. (Of course it was.) Everyone knows meringue takes time and patience to make. You just cannot cut corners, but Paula sure had and I wanted to see if I could, too.

The recipe called for continuously whipping egg whites over a hot water bath. This is not an unfair demand. Normal people have simple handheld mixers and can easily accomplish this. I don't have a handheld mixer. I have a fancy stand mixer and immersion blender. An immersion blender is not a good substitute for a handheld mixer, but time was quickly running out and I figured a deep pot would minimize the mess. The lower setting on the immersion blender was so powerful that it splattered teeny dots of sticky white sap all over the walls of the pot, onto my hands, the stove, my t-shirt, neck, hair, eyelashes, all over the microwave overhead, as far as the chalkboard and knife stand near the kitchen light switch. There were sticky white dots everywhere, but I was determined to make this frosting work. I had a big mess to clean up, anyway. There really was no point in stopping. So I kept bzz bzz bzz splatter splatter splatter ALL OVER THE PLACE.

After all this effort (and mess), what I got was a white liquid. That's when I lost it, pushed the hot water bath out of the way and put the pot directly over the fire. I tossed the immersion blender into the sink and grabbed a whisk. If technology couldn't do this, good old fashioned elbow grease would. The frosting looked like it was doubling in size, but my arms were aching and my patience wore thin. I just turned the pot over the cake and let the meringue flow, hoping it would set like luscious ganache. (Ganache. Why didn't that occur to me?)

But, it didn't. It just dripped and dripped, down the cake, onto the cake stand. I rushed it into the fridge, hoping the chill would stop the frosting in its tracks. But, it didn't. It crawled over the edge of the plate, all over the fridge shelf. Grinding teeth and mumbling mild obscenities wasn't going to fix this and I really wasn't ready to give up. Then I went renegade. What was missing all along was Daisy, my lucky charm. While my li'l blue-eyed beauty whipped the whites, I heated the sugar with a bit of water. With the mixer running, we streamed the hot syrup slowly into the egg whites and within minutes we got shiny, fluffy, gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous  marshmallow meringue frosting. The whole thing took something like 5 minutes, including the torching which is my fav part. What I got was the quickest and most delicious meringue frosting the world had ever tasted, quite possibly spanning the entire history of Mankind's efforts in baking. This one will make you a rockstar.

Perfect Meringue Frosting + US Flag Cake 
Notes:  This recipe uses 3 boxes of cake mix, red, white, blue each baked into 2 8-inch rounds. So there will be 2 cakes in each color. Use either 2 whites or 2 reds in the final assembly.   There will be extra blue and white cakes. The frosting makes good use of a stand mixer. Whip the egg whites while the simple syrup is cooking on the stove. Then carefully stream the hot syrup into the fluffy whites until shiny.

Serves 8

Cakes                                                                                     Frosting
1 box white cake mix                                                             1 1/4 cup sugar
1 box red velvet cake mix                                                      1/4 cup water 
1 box blue velvet cake mix                                                    1 tsp vanilla    
3 free range eggs per cake mix                                              pinch salt     
1/3 cup vegetable oil per cake mix                                        3 free range egg whites           
1 1/4 cups water per cake mix                                               1/2 tsp cream of tartar

Line 2 8" round cake pans with parchment paper.
Make cake batter per instructions on back of the box.
Bake 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Wash the cake pans and repeat for the other 2 boxes.
Set cakes to cool completely.

Measure sugar, water, vanilla and salt into a small sauce pan.
Place over medium heat and stir to combine. 
Cook just until sugar has melted, about 1-2 minutes.

Meanwhile, separate the eggs and collect the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Reserve the yolks for another recipe.
Whip egg whites with cream of tartar. 
Lower the mixer speed and very slowly stream the hot 
syrup into the egg whites until shiny, soft peaks form.

Use 2 red cakes with 1 white or vice versa. As long as you alternate the red and white properly, it really doesn't matter.

Place one whole white cake onto a cake plate. Apply a thin layer of frosting on top.

Slice 1 white cake in half and place over the red cake.
Slice the remaining red cake into 2 half-thick cakes.
Spread a thin amount of frosting over the white cake and place a layer of red cake over the frosting.

Apply another thin layer of frosting on top.
Place a 4-inch dessert plate over the center of one of the blue cakes. Using a sharp paring knife, cut along the edge of the plate and remove the center. Gently place over the cake.
Use the same dessert plate to cut small 4-inch circles out of the 1/2-thickness red and white cake slices. Fit the small white cake into the center of the blue ring, then top with the small red cake.
Frost the entire cake with the remaining meringue frosting, then pull wavy swirly with the back of the knife/spatula.
Chill the cake at least 1 hour.

Torch the cake, if you like. I highly recommend this as the roasted marshmallow gives the cake a vintage flare and the frosting takes the irresistible smell of caramel. 
Chill the cake well before cutting so that the pattern stays intact.

Weekends often start with a dilemma: There are always chores, but also a long list of fun stuff to do. Then there's the overwhelming desire to to do absolutely nothing at all. Holiday weekends are extra-special and busy. My sister came over and we bbq'd ribs. Then the next day, we relaxed with my parents. After a great lunch, I went shopping with Mom while Dad napped and Shawn took Daisy swimming. She earned a day at the pool by eating her dinner every night this week. It's a great bribe!

This past July 4th fell on a Saturday which gave me plenty of time to get that flag cake done. The blue cake ring seemed to collapse, which I'm told is happens because of the moist cake. So, I'm willing to turn a blind eye to it if you are. All in all, the weekend was a success. I learned a big lesson (an immersion blender doesn't take the place of a proper hand mixer), amp'd up my beauty routine (egg whites make a great conditioning mask treatment for dry hair) and found the perfect meringue frosting. Who likes slaving over a hot stove? Time is precious, especially if you have little ones. So, I've ordered a sexy new hand mixer with a foreign-sounding name (probably made in China) and burned that frosting recipe into my memory forever.

Don't forget to join my Bake-Along Giveaway - Deadline is Friday July 10th.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Easiest, Sexiest Cake in the World: A Bake Along Giveaway!

I love a good challenge. So I have a tasty one for you.

Deadline: Friday, July 10, 2015
Prize: The Secret Lives of Baked Goods

Here's what you have to do:

1. Bake my version of Cakespy's Better than Sex Cake (recipe below).
2. Post a photo on Instagram and tag @cocoinkitchen.
3. I'll buy you a Cakespy cookbook. 

Winner picked randomly on Friday July 10th. Happy baking and good luck, y'all!

Thanks to Vanilla Sugar Blog, I won myself a couple of Jessie Oleson's Cakespy cookbooks. These are the cutest cookbooks I've ever seen. Since Jessie is an illustrator, she has embellished the photos in her books with cute hand-drawn characters like robots, flowers and such. Everything comes alive on the pages. Even the cookies are smiling. We were planning a visit to my friend's house for the day and I was looking for something decadent to make for them. There are just so many tempting recipes, it is really difficult to choose just one to bake first.

So I asked a dear foodie friend to go through the books and pop little postie notes onto the pages that really looked catchy. There were so many that I had somehow missed, none of which I remember at the moment, but one that I just cannot forget. The postie on the page read "GET INTO MY BELLY!"

The page featured the BETTER THAN SEX CAKE, a claim that can only be validated by someone deemed an expert on both subjects. I will admit with considerable confidence that I know my cakes, the best of which must have chocolate. But, this one has nothing to do with chocolate, not a speck, not even a dusting of cocoa on top.

The appeal of this sinful little number is in its tropical flavours and in its creamy layers. Coconut, vanilla custard, whipped cream and the pretty pineapple, which is rarely seen in desserts these days. Why is that, anyway? This princess of fruits has been the symbol of hospitality in America since the colonial days. Sea captains returned from the Caribbean bearing exotic spices, rum and tropical fruit. Legend holds that the captain posted a pineapple near the entrance of his home to announce his safe return and invite friends to visit for an evening of stories and toasts.

Pineapple is what makes this inviting cake so moist and devilishly delicious. Cake mixes, canned fruit, boxed pudding are not usually on my shopping list, but they do make an appearance every now and then in our kitchen. If you know anything about pineapple plantations, you know that the first crop which is the best and sweetest is reserved for canning and readily available everywhere. But, I prefer the fresh fruit which is plentiful here in California.

Here you have two options. The quickie version uses boxed vanilla cake mix, instant vanilla pudding and canned pineapple. I have also included from-scratch instructions. Which you prefer depends on how eager you are to taste this cake. Of course, everything tastes better if made from scratch, but cake mixes are really yummy nowadays - No one will ever know you cheated. Either way, once you taste have this one, you will realize you no longer need chocolate. I'm going to make you a believer.

Easiest, Sexiest Cake in the World
Inspired by Cakespy 

Note: The instructions look long, but it's actually really easy to put together this cake.
Serves 8 (or 1 who doesn't share)

What to Get
For the Cake
1 box vanilla cake mix or homemade
3 free-range eggs
1 cup water
1 lemon, juice + zest
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
pinch salt

For the Custard
1 box instant vanilla pudding or homemade
2 cups cold milk

For the Finish
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted
1 can crushed pineapple or 1 cup fresh, mashed
2 cups heavy cream
4 Tb powdered sugar

What to Do
Preheat oven to 350*F.

Grease and flour 2 8-inch round cake pans.
Juice and zest one lemon.

Prepare cake according to the box instructions, except when measuring the water, include the lemon juice.
Then add the lemon zest, vanilla and a pinch of salt into the mix for extra flavour.

Pour batter into the prepared cake pans and bake 20-25 minutes, until you can smell the cakes.

Make the instant pudding by stirring the mix powder with cold milk.
Chill in refrigerator while the cake is baking.

Clean and chop fresh pineapple, if using. Mash with a fork. Measure about 1 cup. Set aside.

Transfer coconut to a nonstick pan and set onto the stove at medium-high heat until fragrant and toasty.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

Remove cake from oven. Use a fork to poke holes into it and top with crushed pineapple.

While the cake is cooling, whip the heavy cream with some powdered sugar.
Spread the vanilla pudding over the pineapple-top.
Spread the whipped cream over the pudding layer.
Sprinkle toasted coconut on top.

Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Serve with icy homemade lemonade.

I am not a religious person, but found myself praying to God, Buddha, all the gods and goddesses to give me the strength to resist cutting the cake until we arrived at my friend's house. It was a very looooooong drive, y'all!

There are very few troubles in life that cannot be remedied with cake. No matter where I go, whatever I see and taste, I somehow always find my way back to cake. Cake announces a celebration, even on Ordinary Tuesday.

Last night, I could not wait to get out of the office, slap my apron on and hit my baking station. Everything the recipe called for was already in my pantry. It was just so simple to make and fun to set up all those pretty layers. But, I could not work fast enough to see how it tastes.

The mercury is reaching for the stars already, with the evenings steady in the high 70's. This is not exactly the best weather for baking, but I was not about to let the thermostat stop me. My trusty little toaster oven saved me once again, because I had to see for myself what all the hubbub was all about.

Homemade is always best and with this recipe you do have that option. I made this cake again (big surprise) for my mother's birthday. She is not a fan of coconut, but absolutely loved it. The box + can version came out delicious, too. Stock your pantry well, because this cake can be made on a whim, in a snap, as soon as you feel you need cake.

I can not honestly say whether or not this cake really is better than sex. What I can tell you is the thing we all need is to sit on that swing on the front porch, counting stars, munching on a slice of this inviting little cake and forgetting all our troubles.