Thirtsy Thursday: Cherry Basil Blitz


Thirsty Thursday:  Cherry Basil Blitz

I love to go into large liquor stores and find some strange alcohol I’ve never had.  I am particularly partial to bitter liqueurs made with herbs, flowers, and fruit like Campari, Lillet, Cinzano and others.  They all tend to have these antique-y looking labels and anytime I see one I don’t recognize, I stop and check it out.  During a recent trip, I stumbled across Luxardo Maraschino liqueur all the way down on the bottom shelf.  It’s made with Marasca cherries and the crushed cherry pits are left in for flavor as well.  The pits give this clear syrupy sweet liqueur a pleasant bitterness.  It has a nice herbaceous component too.  It’s definitely not like the flavor you get from the florescent red jarred Maraschino cherries; it’s more sophisticated than that.  I like it… wouldn’t drink it on its own (too sweet for me) but I think it will find a home in many drinks around here.  I convinced Tom to use it in his Manhattan and named it a ‘Ms. Manhattan’.  He approved.


I had some fresh cherries lingering in the fridge so I cut them up and muddled them to boost the cherry flavor and cursed myself again for not owning a cherry pitter.  (It’s really not bad since you only have to pit a few, but still.)  After tasting the Maraschino liqueur by itself, I thought it could use something to brighten it a bit.  I went outside and fetched some purple basil and some thyme to taste with it.  The basil won. 

The first time I try a new alcohol, I try to keep it simple to give the flavors a chance to come through and “teach” my palate what else it might play well with later.  Here, I followed the same rule: some cherries to enhance, some basil to compliment, and some bubbles for fizz.

Why the ‘Blitz’?  Football season is here!  Tonight is the first game of the 2010 Rutgers (my alma mater) Football season.  We’re season ticket holders and I leave almost every game hoarse.  By the time this gets posted, I’ll be tailgating in our usual spot, with our usual crew, eating something greasy, drinking something far less sophisticated, and wearing my Scarlet Ray Rice jersey. 


The Cherry Basil Blitz gets a gorgeous ruby scarlet hue from the muddled cherries.  It’s quite tasty and you might find yourself at the bottom of your glass rather quickly.  Watch out for the blitz!

Cherry Basil Blitz

¼ cup pitted cherries, plus extra for garnish

3 – 4 basil leaves, plus extra for garnish

1½ ounce Luxardo Maraschino cherry liqueur

Tonic or seltzer (your preference*)

Fill a high ball glass with ice; set aside.  Put the cherries and the basil in the bottom of an empty cocktail shaker.  Using a muddler (or the top of a wooden spoon), smash the cherries and basil together, taking care to really press on the basil to release its oils.  Add in the cherry liqueur and the ice from your glass.  Shake vigorously for 1 – 2 minutes.  Add more ice to your glass and strain the cherry-basil-liqueur mix over the ice.  Top off the drink with tonic or seltzer.  Top with some quartered cherries and a chiffonade of basil for garnish.  Enjoy!


*The quinine in tonic will give the drink another bit of bitter.  To keep it on the sweeter side, use plain seltzer or even some unsweetened cherry seltzer if you’re feeling extra fancy.

Posted in alcohol, beverages, cherries, cocktail, party, Thirsty Thursday | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cake Truffles: Peanut Butter and Banana Beauties

I know a lot of people scared to make a cake from scratch.  It really doesn’t  take that much longer to make a scratch cake (I swear!) and they taste soooo much better.  So much better, you won’t want to eat box cake any more.  If there is ever a reason to make your first scratch cake, cake truffles are it!  If it turns out dry, lopsided, sunk in the middle, or some other weird happening, it’s totally okay.  You’re going to crumble it all up anyway.  You’ll get to taste it, see what you think, and reassure yourself you could do it again to make a birthday cake or just-because-I-can cake. 

Apprarently I’m way behind on the cake ball rage.  You say cake balls, I say cake truffles.  It’s all the same delicious treat but truffle sounds so much fancier, don’t you think?  The first time I heard of them was about a year ago.  My amazing wedding photographer Anne Constance (now specializing in maternity, baby and children photos)  went into business with a baker friend of hers making gorgeous little cake bites.  I wanted to try my hand at them but wasn’t sure how they were made.  Apparently, this ingenious idea has been around for years!

Just recently I learned how to craft the little beauties myself and just had to make them for a Cooking Club friend’s housewarming party.  Her house is a gorgeous example of Baltimore architecture and charm – forgot my camera but I’ll take some pictures at her upcoming CC. 

There are a couple ways to get these in your life: 1) order them from Baby Cake Sweet Bites; 2) make your favorite box cake mix, stir in some store-bought icing, and start rolling and dipping; or 3) do the whole thing from scratch and get creative with your flavor combinations!  Please? You have to!  Keep reading…


I have recipes for moist chocolate cake here and here; below you’ll find a recipe for yellow cake.  These were my first try at cake balls truffles.  I wanted a fun flavor because I can’t seem to make anything “regular” as I’m told.  You can make flavored cake, flavored icing, or both.  This time I went with a plain vanilla cake and got creative with the frosting.  Many more combos are sure to follow as these were so cute and delicious and a huge hit at the party.  So much so that another housewarming last night meant made another batch with another flavor.  Plus, since this party was in Jersey, I was also a perfect time to to make them for my family… who also fell in love with them.  I’m sure they’ll be added to my mom’s list of most requested desserts from me: crème brulee… flan… brownies… cake truffles. 

Peanut butter & Banana Cake Truffles

Makes about 70 truffles; takes about 4 hours total

Yellow Vanilla Cake

4  eggs

1½  cups sugar

1½   stick butter (12 tbl)

2  cups flour

2  tsp salt (more than usual; if making this for a regular cake use only 1 tsp)

1  tsp baking powder

½  tsp baking soda

½  cup milk

½  cup sour cream

1  tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour a 9” x 13” pan. 

Beat the eggs and sugar on medium high until very pale, about 3 – 4 minutes.  Add in the butter and mix until well combined.  While that is beating, measure out the milk in a small measuring cup; mix in the sour cream and vanilla extract and set aside.  In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking salt; set aside.  Stir in 1/3 of the flour mixture until just combined then stir in half the milk mixture.  Stir in another 1/3 of the flour, then the rest of the milk, and end with the rest of the flour.  Stop mixing the batter once it’s just combined.  Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The cake will be golden brown and a toothpick will come out clean.  Cool in the pan for about 20 minutes then turn out onto a sheet pan.  Break into several pieces to help it cool to room temperature faster.  I actually put mine in the fridge once it broken apart in order to speed up the cooling process.  You can make the cake the day before and let it cool overnight.

. . .


While the cake is cooling, make the frosting:

Peanut Butter and Banana Buttercream

½  stick of butter, soft but not warm

¾  cup smooth peanut butter

½ tsp salt

2  cups powdered sugar

1  banana, diced (just ripe, very little brown spots, if any)

1  tbl milk, more if necessary

Beat together the butter and peanut butter until well combined.  Beat in the salt and powdered sugar until fluffy.  Stir in the banana.  Frosting should be thick and spreadable.  If it is really stiff, beat in some milk to thin it out: start with a tablespoon and add more if necessary.  Keep refrigerated until the cake is cool. You can also make this the day before and assemble everything the next day.

. . .



To make the truffle filling:  Break the cake apart into small pieces.  Place in the bowl of a stand mixer and turn on low, increase the speed to medium low once the big chunk are gone.  You should end up with cake crumbs.  Stir in about 1½ cups of the frosting.  All of the cake should be moist with frosting; you should be able to form a ball with the mixture.  If it’s too crumbly, add in a bit more frosting.  If it seems to be a little too wet, refrigerate it for 30 minutes. 


To make the truffles:  The *easiest* and fastest way to make these is to use a small ice cream scoop (.5 – .75 oz; 1 tbl – 1 heaping tbl).  Use the scoop to gather up a level scoop of the filling (or use a tablespoon).  Quickly (so it doesn’t get too warm), shape it into a ball and place on a wax paper- or foil-lined baking sheet.  One recipe will make about 70 cake truffles.  Place the tray in the freezer for about 30 minutes to firm up the truffles.

 Meanwhile, melt 2 cups (to start) of candy melts, almond bark, chocolate chips or chocolate fountain chips in a double boiler over the stove.  You can also use the microwave (I do); just take care not to burn the chocolate in the microwave.  Heat it in 30 second increments. You’ll end up using about 2.5 bags of the candy melts.  When the chocolate gets low, melt in some more.

Once all of the chocolate is melted, check the consistency.  The chocolate should be thin and flow easily from a fork.  Chocolate fountain chocolate will not need any oil – it should be very thin*.  If you use any other form of coating chocolate, you’ll probably need to add a little bit of vegetable oil to thin it out.  Add a tablespoon at a time, mix well.  Add in another tablespoon or two if needed.  For these truffles, I used white chocolate candy melts in white and yellow and also peanut butter candy melts.  You can find them in most craft stores. 

When the chocolate is ready, take out a couple of truffle balls at a time to coat them.  Place one truffle ball into the chocolate and use a fork to turn it over to fully coat it.  If your chocolate is thin enough, use the fork to let it drip off extra chocolate and place on another wax paper- or foil- coated sheet pan.  If it’s a little thicker (like mine was this time), I use the fork to gently turn it in the chocolate but then use 2 toothpicks to poke in the sides, lift out of the chocolate, and gently scrape the bottom along the lip of the bowl.  Carefully place on the sheet pan and remove the toothpicks.  When the chocolate is thicker like that, you can use the tip of the toothpick to smooth over the chocolate where the toothpicks were.  The coating process takes a little bit of patience and practice to get your favorite method.  Your first few truffles probably won’t be as pretty – cook’s treats!

If you want to get fancy, sprinkle colored sugar, nonpareils, or sprinkles on the top while the chocolate is still wet.  You can also use some really thinned out chocolate to drizzle across the tops once the first chocolate coat is dry.

Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

* if you use the chocolate fountain chocolate, don’t freeze the naked truffle balls.  Place them in the fridge for 30 minutes.  If they are too cold, that kind of chocolate will crack as it dries.  They’ll still taste good but won’t be as pretty. 🙂

Posted in banana, cake, dessert, nuts, party, Party Ideas, peanut butter, sour cream, special occasion treat | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Thirsty Thursday: Jersey Blueberry Iced Tea

Welcome to Thirsty Thursday!  The name is a throwback to my college days – we always headed out on Thursday nights because who took classes on Fridays?!  Well, bio majors kinda get forced into very early electives on Fridays but I survived… my grades made it out alive too.

I first had an adult blueberry iced tea at Blue Hill Tavern in Baltimore.  They call it Sweet Blueberry Tea and make it with blueberry infused vodka (maybe a KitchenTreats project for next summer?). I instantly fell in love and began making my own version at home.  It’s so refreshing and yummy.  There may or may not be a picture of me drinking iced tea out of a bottle when I was little.  Plus, I’m a Jersey girl and we love our blueberries.  For the first 8 years of my life, we lived on one of the Giberson’s blueberry farms.  My sister and I rode a tractor with my Dad through the blueberry bushes stuffing our faces with the sweet black-blue treats.  If that wasn’t enough, I grew up 20 minutes from Hammonton, “The Blueberry Capitol of the World.”  Seriously, next June check your blueberry container: odds are they’re from Hammonton, NJ.  I think it’s needless to say blueberries are in my veins.

Blueberries + iced tea = perfect summer beverage.  Local blueberries are getting sparse but don’t let that stop you from finishing off your summer days with this drink.

Jersey Blueberry Iced Tea

Serves 4 – 6

6 cups water

8 tea bags

1/4 sugar

1/2 cup iced tea vodka

1/2 cup blueberry vodka

juice of 1 lemon or 2 – 3 limes

lemon or lime wedges, optional

Jersey blueberries, frozen or fresh for garnish (optional)

Boil the water and add the tea bags.  Let steep 20 minutes.  Squeeze out the tea bags and remove them.  Add in the sugar while the tea is still warm so it dissolves.  If you like your iced tea really sweet you may want to add more sugar; taste and adjust to your taste.  Pour into a pitcher and stir in the vodkas and citrus juice.  Chill in the fridge and serve over ice with some frozen blueberries (they float!) and a slice of lemon if you wish

Note:  If you can find 100% blueberry juice, that also makes a great addition. I like Wyman’s Wild Blueberry Juice. 

Another note: this will keep in the fridge for well over a week.  The tea doesn’t go stale – I think it’s the vodka.


Posted in alcohol, blueberries, cocktail, drinks, party, Party Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peanut butter & Jelly Sandwich Cake

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Even if you didn’t eat them growing up, they make you think of childhood and school lunches.  When I was in grade school, there were 2 brands of peanut butter and you could get smooth or crunchy.  You also had your choice of pretty much only grape or strawberry and jelly or jam in those flavors.  There was orange marmalade but that definitely did not belong on a PB & J.  Now the possibilities are endless for peanut butter:  honey roasted, sugar-free, sodium free, high fructose corn syrup free, natural, organic, reduced fat, already-swirled-with-jelly.   I could go on and on.  Gone are the days when you go to pick up peanut butter and you decide between Skippy and Jif and whether this month you want some peanut crunch in those sandwiches or not.  Now picking out peanut butter is at least a five minute detour.  Then you move on to the jelly aisle! Every fruit imaginable graces the shelves as a jelly, jam, fruit spread, marmalade, and fruit butter in flavors like guava, quince, pomegranate, crabapple, plum (5+ varieties of plum!), and more. 

Despite my penchant for the unusual and twists on originals, I went classic for my PB & J.  My GIANT PB & J… cake!

MMG, the contractor who is responsible for recruiting patients for our studies, is full of people who love food: cooking it, sharing it, getting creative with it.  Every month they have a potluck lunch with a theme.  The themes are always fun and allow me to get creative and wacky sometimes.  As soon as I found out about these, I got on their email list and started infiltrating.  Surprised? Yeah, me neither.  This month’s theme was Back-to-School and the second I read that email I knew what I was going to make.  It was the perfect excuse to buy this pan I discovered a month ago but didn’t have good reason to buy. 


There is a recipe on the box for the sandwich bread cake but it didn’t excite me.  I decided I wanted to make pound cake but wasn’t excited about any of the other recipes I was finding.  So, I crossed my fingers and made one up!  It had to be pretty white in color (not a lot of eggs/yolks) and have uniform bubbles so when I cut it still looked like bread.  I am happy to report the pound-cake-recipe-on-the-fly was a success.  AND I wrote my recipe down, which I sometimes forget to do.

Below you’ll find the recipe for the pound cake, peanut butter buttercream, and a quick strawberry jam.  If you don’t want to make jam, just use your favorite flavored jam instead.  You need to make the PB butter cream though; regular PB won’t hold up.  I recommend making the cake the night before or very early in the morning on the day you plan to serve it.  This gives the cake time to cool fully.  You do NOT want to attempt this with a warm cake; everything will melt and make a mess.  I baked my cake the night before, made the buttercream and jam, and then cut the cake and assembled it in about 20 minutes before work.  Piece of cake!


White Sandwich “Bread” AKA Pound Cake

1 ¼ cups sugar

¾ cup butter

3 eggs

2 tsp vanilla

½ tsp lemon extract

½ cup plain yogurt

2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour the bread-shaped cake pan (or a loaf pan if you just want a regular pound cake).  Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Beat together on high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition.  Mix in (on medium) the extracts and yogurt until just combined.  Add in the flour and sprinkle the salt, baking powder, and baking soda evenly over the top of the flour.  Turn the mixer on low to stir in the dry ingredients until just combined.  Do not over mix.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly to the edges.  Bake for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let cool in the pan for 30 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

 . . .

Peanut Butter Buttercream

1 cup smooth peanut butter

4 tbl butter, softened but not warm

1 tbl light corn syrup (optional)

2 cups powdered sugar

3 tbl milk, more if needed

Beat together the peanut butter and butter until smooth.  Beat in the corn syrup if using (it will make the frosting a little shiny like peanut butter) then the powdered sugar.  With the mixer running, add in milk 1 tablespoon at a time until you get the consistency of a thick frosting.  If you inadvertently make the frosting too thin, add in more powdered sugar.  The buttercream should be spreadable and not runny so it stays put on the cake.

. . .


Quick Strawberry Jam

½ lb strawberries, hulled and chopped small

¼ cup sugar

1 tsp lemon zest

Juice of half a lemon

Combine all ingredients in a medium size pot.  Cook on medium high, stirring frequently until the berries release some liquid.  Let simmer for about 20 minutes.  Mixture should be thick and coat the back of a spoon.  Cool to room temperature then place in the fridge until completely cold.  After refrigerating, the jam should be thick and spreadable.  If it seems a little thin, strain briefly through a sieve. 


To assemble the cake:

1)      Cut the domed portion of the cake off level with the corners of the cake.  This should leave you with something that looks just like a giant loaf of bread.

2)       Next, cut the cake in half lengthwise using a long serrated bread knife.  Remove the top layer and flip over; set aside. 

3)      Spread the peanut butter buttercream over the bottom layer of the cake, spreading all the way to the edges of the cake.  You should have about a ½” layer of peanut butter when you get done (more if you want!) and may have some leftover buttercream.  I suggest spreading in on the dome of the cake you cut off in the first step and having a cook’s treat!

4)      Spread the jam over the top of the peanut butter buttercream.  Spread it almost all the way to the edges; leave a little less than ½”.  When you put the top on the jam will spread out to the edges.

5)      Carefully place the top slice of bread on top.  Stand back and behold your giant PB & J sandwich.  I was as giddy as a school girl – pun possibly intended – once I saw the finished product.  It looked so cute!

You can cut it diagonally like you would a sandwich or just leave it whole.  If serving this for a regular party, I would put it on a big plate with some baby carrots & potato chips and a big glass of milk next to it.  Since I was bringing it to work, I assembled it on my cake carrier that morning and off I went.  The reaction to the cake was worth at least 3 times the price of that cake pan.  It was such a hit!  Plus, it tasted awesome – just like a big fat peanut butter and jelly.


I am so excited about this cake pan.  I have already envisioned allll kinds of cake sandwiches: fluffernutter, BLT with “mayo,” a Reuben, French toast, turkey club sandwich.  Just need some fondant and food coloring and you’re on your way to a plethora of options.  You know what I really can’t wait to make?  Giant fake fondant olives so I can cut the “sandwich” in half and stick the olives on top with toothpicks.  Fun!

Posted in cake, dessert, fruit, jam, nuts, Party Ideas, peanut butter, special occasion treat, strawberry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Perfect Foolproof Poached Egg with Zucchini Hash

My husband always helps out for my Cooking Club adventures – he makes a great sous chef and I love him for it.  The day after Fire and Ice CC here meant a special kitchen treat to thank him.  I made a quick zucchini hash, heated up some leftover pulled pork, and topped it with a poached egg…. and a sprinkling of Scorpion pepper specks.

Poached eggs can be tricky.  I made my first ones with some Hollandaise for a a surpise Eggs Benedict lunch for my mom one summer.  She always came home at the same time for her lunch hour.  I think I was only in high school and I still remember making the whole thing, trying to time it just right.  I made it the old fashioned way in a large skillet full of boiling water and some vinegar.  I didn’t get the timing just right (I made her go directly to the living room so she wouldn’t figure out my surprise) but I think the eggs turned out okay for my first try. 

I’ve made them the old fashioned way many times and haven’t always had the best results – sometimes I get it perfect and sometimes their overcooked, under-cooked, or the white ends up a tumbleweed-y mess in the water.  You know what I mean, if you’ve tried it.  I went on a hunt for an easier way that morning.  And an easier way, I found.  This one I’ll be keeping forever as my go-to method.  It’s foolproof!

Perfectly Poached Egg

Adapted from a Cooks Illustrated Method

You’ll need:

egg(s), room temp or run under warm water for a minute

2 cup glass measuring cup

water, salt, and vinegar

small bowl

slotted spoon

Add 1½ cups of hot water to a 2 cup measuring cup.  Stir in 2 teaspoons vinegar and a hefty pinch of salt.  Microwave on high for 2 – 3 minutes, a good rolling boil.  While the water mixture is microwaving, carefully crack an egg into a small bowl.  Do not break the yolk.  When the water is boiling, remove from the microwave and stir it in a circular motion, creating a little whirlpool bath for your egg.  Carefully slip your egg in and stir for another few seconds.  Cover the top with plastic wrap and set a timer for 5 minutes.  When the timer goes off you have a perfectly poached egg waiting to be dressed up, broken into, and eaten.  Use a slotted spoon to remove the egg and drain.  Enjoy!

. . .

Quick Zucchini Hash

1 medium onion

1 medium zucchini

1 clove garlic (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

Dice the onion into a small dice – about 1/4″ x 1/4″.  Dice the zucchini into a medium dice – about 1/2″ x 1/2″.  Heat a pan over medium high heat.  Add in a teaspoon of olive oil or butter, whichever is your preference.  Add in the onions and cook until slightly translucent, about 3 minutes.  Add in the zucchini and turn the heat up to high.  Let the zucchini get a little brown on one side before stirring.  Cook the zucchini for about 5 minutes; it should be crisp-tender when you’re done.  If you like it a little softer, cook it a little longer.

. . .

To create Tom’s thank you breakfast, I added some of the zucchini hash to the bottom of the plate and put some leftover re-heated pulled pork on top of that.  Then the poached egg got slipped atop the pile as the crown jewel.  I sprinkled on some Scorpion pepper (leftover from the Scorpion Pepper Vanilla Ice Cream) for color and heat.  Add your favorite hot pepper, hot sauce, herb, or some fresh cracked black pepper. 

Don’t forget the toast to sop up all that glorious yolk. 😉

Posted in Breakfast, Brunch, Cooking Club, Leftovers, zucchini | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fire & Ice: Spicy Pulled Pork with Chilly Jicama Slaw

August Cooking Club was at my house this month.  Yay!  Since I have 7 varieties of hot peppers growing in my garden I needed an excuse to showcase some of them.  The theme: Fire & Ice!  Everyone had to make something that was Fire-y and Icy – either literally or figuratively.  The dishes were a mixture of all: some served hot, some spicy, some cold, some room temp but cooled off the spiciness, and one that was “iced.”  It was a blast!

I made a Spicy Pulled Pork with a Chilly Jicama Slaw.  The pork was hot and hot and the slaw was cooling and chilly. J  I also made a Fire & Ice Cake: chocolate cake layered with Scorpion Vanilla Ice Cream and orange sherbet.  Last but not least, we needed a theme-appropriate cocktail: fresh watermelon margaritas with jalapeno-lime sorbet floaters.

The pulled pork recipe details are here.  The other recipes will be posted shortly – gotta keep it organized!


Spicy Pulled Pork

Serves 6 – 8

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated Indoor Pulled Pork with Sweet and Tangy BBQ Sauce


1  cup salt

½  cup sugar

4 tbl liquid smoke

1  qt apple cider (optional; can substitute water)

1  pork shoulder (bone in, about 6 lbs; boneless, about 5 lbs); could also get boneless pork butt

1 can of beer, any kind

Wet Rub

1 tbl liquid smoke

¼  cup yellow mustard

Dry Rub

2  tsp salt

2  tbl sugar

2  tbl fresh cracked black pepper

2  tbl smoked paprika*

2  tbl Hungarian hot paprika*

2  tbl Hungarian Half-Sharp Paprika*

2  tsp cayenne pepper

BBQ Sauce

2  cups ketchup

⅓  cup molasses

3  tbl Worcestershire sauce

2  tbl hot sauce

½  tsp liquid smoke

1 tsp cayenne

1  tsp salt

1  tsp ground black pepper

Start by brining the pork to give it extra flavor.  Dissolve 1 cup of salt, ½ cup of sugar and 4 tablespoons of liquid smoke in the quart of apple cider plus 3 quarts of cold water in a container large enough to hold the water plus the pork shoulder.  Make one or two large cuts into the thickest portion of the meat to allow more surface area for the brine to work on.  Submerge the pork in the brine, cover with plastic wrap or lid, and refrigerate it for 2 hours up to overnight.  After the pork is finished brining, remove it from the brining liquid, and pat dry with paper towels; set aside.

Combine the mustard and 1 tablespoon of liquid smoke in a small bowl to make the wet rub; set aside.  Combine the black pepper, 3 kinds of paprika, 2 tbl sugar, 2 tsp salt, and the cayenne to make the dry rub; set aside.


Rub the wet rub all over the pork shoulder, being careful to get inside the slits you made before brining.  Next, sprinkle every available spec of pork with the dry rub.  You should use all of the both the wet and dry rub.  Place the all-dressed-up pork shoulder with half a can of beer into a large crock pot on high for 6 hours.  Reserve the rest of the can of beer to add if the crock pot bottom gets dry (it probably won’t).

You’ll know the pork is done when you stick a fork into the meat and it easily flakes apart.  The bone will slip right out also.  Carefully, remove the pork from the crock pot to a large dish (I use a 9” X 13” pan) for shredding.  Pour the liquid from the crock pot into a fat separator and reserve for the BBQ sauce.  Using two forks, pull the pork apart into bite-size pieces and put back into the crock pot.

Make the sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients plus ½ cup reserved pork liquid in a small saucepan.  Heat over medium heat until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Pour over the pulled pork in the crock pot, turn to keep warm, and start digging in.  Serve on your favorite kind of roll with some pickles or my Chilly Jicama Slaw. Even Tom – the slaw hater – liked this slaw on his sandwich!

. . .


Chilly Jicama Slaw

2  cups jicama, shredded

1  cup apple, shredded

1  cup kohlrabi, shredded (substitute with cabbage if need be)

½  cup carrot, shredded

¼  cup parsley, chopped finely

2  tbl chives, chopped finely

½  cup apple cider vinegar

1 lime, juiced

¼  cup olive oil

¼  cup plain yogurt

2  tbl sugar

1  tsp salt

1 tsp fresh ground black pepper

In a large bowl, whisk together the apple cider vinegar, lime juice, olive oil, yogurt, sugar, salt, and pepper.  Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed (more sugar, salt, or pepper).  Add in all the shredded vegetables and toss to coat.  Let the slaw sit in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to let the flavors meld together.

. . .

A note on some of the ingredients:

*Hungarian Half-Sharp Paprika is described as a “spicier, hotter version of Hungarian sweet paprika” by The Spice House and can be found at their site.  If you don’t have it you can just leave it out completely. I order mine from The Spice House in Chicago.  You can check them out here.

*Smoked Paprika is smoked sweet paprika can be found online or in the spice aisle of better grocery stores like Wegmans.  You can substitute regular sweet paprika and add a dash more liquid smoke if you’d like.

*Hungarian Hot Paprika is a spicy version of paprika; I found it in Wegman’s in the spice aisle.  If you can’t find it, substitute sweet paprika and add twice the cayenne called for if you want your pork spicy.  Otherwise, just sub for sweet paprika without doubling the cayenne.

Jicama is a root vegetable popular in Mexican cuisine sometimes called the “Mexican Potato” or “Mexican Turnip.”  It’s crunchy and slightly sweet that can be eaten raw or cooked.  When you cook it, it stays kinda crunchy.  Try it raw on salad or cooked in soup – refreshing either way.

Kohlrabi is a mild and sweet relative of cabbage that tastes a little like broccoli stem.  It’s crunchy and a nice alternative to traditional cabbage in slaw.  The “cole” in cole slaw actually refers to “kohl” which is German for cabbage.  Broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts are all in the kohl veggie family.  I had some kohlrabi growing outside so I decided to throw it in.  If you can’t find it, either leave it out or add in some shredded cabbage.  When you do find it, try it out – I’ve put it in soup, sautés, and salad.

Posted in Cooking Club, crock pot, main course, Party Ideas, pork, side dish, spicy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Creamy Vanilla Bean Flan

My mom just had knee surgery so of course she got a choice of treats.  Without hesitation, she said flan.  Flan is an egg-milk custard and versions of it are made all over the world: Latin America, South America, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan.  It goes by many a name: flan, leche flan, flan de huevo, crème caramel, crema Catalana, bánh flan, bánh caramel, and purin. Some say the best part is the custard and other argue it’s the caramel that is cooked on the bottom of the flan and drips lusciously over it once the flan is served.  I simply can’t choose.

I like flan. I really like sampling flan all over because it can be so personalized to the culture, the neighborhood, and right down to the family.  I’ve had it in many homes and restaurants and it’s always slightly different.  I am not particularly fond of recipes with a ton of egg in it, making egg the predominant flavor in the flan.  My favorites tend to be smooth rather than jiggly and do not taste of eggs, but instead of rich, balanced custard.  I like to focus on the texture of the flan, letting it melt away between my tongue and the roof of my mouth.  The little bit of cream cheese in my version gives it a great mouth feel – creamy and silky.

If you want an extra creamy flan, use a whole package of cream cheese (8oz).  I’ve used a range of amount of cream cheese (from 3 oz up to 8 oz) depending on what I have in my fridge when I make it and who I’m making it for.  3 oz make it more like a traditional flan, 8 oz makes it rich like cheesecake.

This recipe is one I know by heart because it’s so easy.  There are two tricky parts: getting the caramel right and waiting to eat it.  Don’t let the caramel scare you – just make sure you watch it and don’t stir it.

Creamy Vanilla Bean Flan

1  cup granulated sugar

¼  cup water

3 oz cream cheese, room temperature (for creamier flan, use more; up to 8 oz)

1  can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk (reg or fat free doesn’t matter)

1  can (12 oz) evaporated milk

½  can milk (any kind; fill the sweetened condensed milk can halfway)

1  tsp vanilla bean paste* (substitute 1 tbl real vanilla extract)

4  eggs

Pinch of salt

Note: you’ll need a 9” or 10” round pan and one larger in diameter for a water bath for the flan to sit in while it cooks.  Test out how much water you need beforehand; you need enough to go halfway up the side of the flan pan when it’s inserted.

* I order my vanilla bean paste (and many other spices) from The Spice House in Chicago. They’re fast and the customer service is great – I’ve gotten a handwritten note in my order before!

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a small sauce pan, add in sugar and water.  Stir with the top of a wooden spoon to combine.  Cook over medium heat, swirling every few minutes, until the syrup begins to bubble.  Turn the heat down to medium low and let it cook until the caramel is a deep golden brown.  Do not stir the syrup/caramel after you turn the heat down.  It’ll take about 20 minutes for the caramel to reach the right color; it’s best not to go too far from the stove while it’s cooking.  Pour the caramel into the pan you’re using to cook your flan, swirling the pan to coat with the caramel.  Also, be sure to take the caramel off the heat just before you think it’s the right color.  It will continue to cook and darken until you pour it into the pan.

While the caramel is cooking, start making the custard.  In a blender, add the cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk.  Blend together until smooth.  Add in the rest of the ingredients and blend well.  Set aside until the caramel is done.  When the caramel is finished cooking and cooled slightly in the pan, pour the custard on top.

Put the larger pan in the oven and then fill it with very hot water to the pre-determined height.  Carefully place the flan in the larger pan.  Bake for 75 – 85 minutes.  Begin checking the flan at 75 minutes: reach into the oven and gently move the pan back and forth.  The center of the flan should still jiggle slightly, but the edges of the flan should be set when it’s done.  If the center of the flan doesn’t jiggle at all, it’s over-cooked and won’t be as creamy.  It will be edible, just not lick-your-plate-perfect.  So check it every 5 minutes or so after the 75 minute mark.  The flan will fully set up in the fridge later to a perfect creamy consistency.

When the flan is finished, carefully remove it from the oven and let it cool to room temperature, about 2 hours.  Refrigerate it for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.  When ready to serve, take the flan out of the fridge for about 20 minutes and run a knife around the edge of the pan.  Place a plate larger than the pan on top to the flan and quickly invert the pan and plate together.  The flan won’t release immediately but should soon after flipping it.

If the flan doesn’t immediately release, try one of my two tricks.  1) Put an inch of really hot water in a pan (larger than the flan pan) and let the flan sit in it for 5 minutes to warm up the caramel on the bottom.  Or 2) Heat a frying pan on the stove until it’s hot.  Place the frying pan on top of the inverted flan.  This should warm up the caramel layer and help release the flan.

Once you hear it release, let it sit for about 5 minutes so the excess caramel can drip down and cover the flan.  After those agonizing 5 minutes are up, pull the pan off and reveal your glorious flan.

The easiest way to cut flan is with unflavored dental floss.  It cuts through the custard easily and neatly.  No floss?  Use a knife without a serrated edge.  Or you can just dig in with a bunch of spoons.  It’s great plain or with some fresh fruit.  Enjoy!

Posted in custard, dessert, Latin American, Mexican | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sneaky (Zucchini) Brownies

Why are these sneaky? Let’s see… they have no eggs or butter, they are chock FULL of zucchini, you can’t even tell they are made with zucchini, and they’re vegan!  I never reveal these are zucchini brownies until after my guests have eaten them and commented on how moist and delicious they are (they always do – these are fail proof!).  That way they can’t deny their yumminess.  They’re also a great way to make your kids a treat and sneak a bunch of green veggies into them.  Sneaky, right?

All you need to make these brownies is a bowl and a wooden spoon.  They are foolproof – they always come out moist and beautiful.  You know all those zucchinis in your garden you don’t know what to do with?  Keep seeing all those zucchinis at the Farmer’s Markets and grocery stores?  Ta-da!  You now have the easiest sweet treat recipe for them.  You have to try them.

You’ll notice the brownies in the pictures here have frosting on them.  This makes them un-vegan because there’s butter in it.  Make the frosting with vegan margarine or leave the frosting off and you’re good-to-go.  Normally, I don’t do frosting on my brownies.  I usually think it makes them too rich and if a brownie needs frosting then there is something wrong with it.  However, these are not a crazy dense kind of brownie (love those though) and frosting sounded fun today.  To be more specific, chocolate-peanut butter frosting sounded fun.  Don’t ya think?

I make a few versions of this brownie.  Sometimes, I add chocolate chips to the batter (also un-vegan but you could sub carob chips).  Sometimes, I make them with a flavored swirl; raspberry, coconut, Irish cream, and cappuccino are all past favorites.  The base recipe is great for all kinds of personalization.


Sneaky (Zucchini) Brownies

2  cups all purpose flour

½  cup cocoa

2  tsp salt

1  tsp baking soda

1¼  cup sugar

½  cup vegetable oil

2½  cups finely shredded zucchini (about 1 large zucchini or 2 smaller ones)

1  cup chocolate chips (optional)

1  cup walnuts (or your favorite nut; optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour a 9” x 13” pan.

 Mix together the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl.  Add in the oil and combine well.  It should look like wet sand. 

Add in the zucchini and stir everything together.  It will seem dry at first, but keep mixing, the moisture in the zucchini will come out and make a wonderful thick batter. 

If you’re adding chocolate chips or nuts, stir them in.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly in the pan.  Bake for 25 – 30 minutes.  A toothpick will come out clean when they are finished.  Also, the top will have a really pretty shine and will spring back when gently touched.

Let the brownies cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes.  If you’re frosting your brownies (see recipe below), cool them to room temperature and then slather it on now.  Otherwise, dig in!

 I think these are good warm from the oven but are even more delicious the next day.  They are a cakey kind of brownie, especially on the day you make them.  The next day they settle in and get a bit denser in texture. Yum!


Not-so-Sneaky Frosting

4 tbl butter, melted

1  tsp vanilla

½  cup cocoa

½  tsp salt

½  cup peanut butter (optional; simply leave it out for a rich just-chocolate frosting)

2  cups powdered sugar

Whisk the first 4 ingredients together until smooth.  Whisk in the peanut butter if you’re using it.  Add in the powdered sugar and whisk in until smooth.  Spread on cooled brownies.

Posted in brownies, chocolate, cookies and bars, Uncategorized, vegan, vegetable, Vegetarian, zucchini | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bombshell Blondies

If you’re gonna go blond(i)e, you’ve got to do it right and these pretty little bites certainly deserve their title.

I’ve talked about how much I love the Greyston Bakery Cookbook before.  In case you forgot, they are the geniuses that create the brownie bits for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.  I absolutely adore their blondie brownie recipe and have made it many times.  (I even have the page marked by a coffee filter in need of a job)  It never fails to please.  This time I made them to wish two co-workers a happy birthday, one with a sweet tooth and one without, and happy they were!  If you’ve never had a blondie or made some, you have to try this recipe.  It’s insanely delicious. Promise.

This recipe is adapted from “The Great Blondie” in the Greyston Bakery Cookbook.

Bombshell Blondies

2  cups unbleached all purpose flour

2  teaspoons salt

12  tablespoons butter, softened to room temp (I use salted)

3/4  cup granulated sugar

3/4  cup brown sugar, packed

3  eggs

1  tbl pure vanilla extract

1  generous cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1  generous cup butterscotch chips

1  cup pecans, coarsely chopped (optional; not in the batch pictured)


Preheat the oven to 325°F.  Grease a 9″ x 13″ glass baking dish.  If you have parchment paper on hand, line the greased pan with it, letting about an inch hang out on either short side – it will make them really easy to pull out and cut.  If you don’t have any, don’t worry about.  You’ll just cut them in the pan once cool then take them out.

Cream the butter and sugars together on medium speed in a stand mixer or in a bowl with a hand-held mixer.  Beat until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs in one at a time, blending thoroughly and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each.  Mix in the vanilla extract and salt.

With the mixer on low, add the flour and stir until well combined.  Stir in most of a cup of each kind of chip, leaving a handful of each to sprinkle on top later.  If you’re using nuts, do the same with those also.  Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a spatula.  Sprinkle the reserved chips (and nuts) evenly over the top.

Bake for about 30 minutes.  A toothpick should come out clean when they are done.  Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes.  Then, grasp the edges of the parchment and lift the brownies out onto the wire rack.  Finish cooling then cut into bars.  If you didn’t use parchment, just let the blondies cool completely (or as long as you can possibly wait!) in the pan before cutting.  Serve with some milk 🙂

I’ve made these with and without nuts (my fav are pecans but you can your favorite; walnuts or almonds would be great).  For the record, I tend to not link nuts baked into things but I do really like toasted pecans in these. 

You can also leave out the butterscotch chips if you don’t like them.  Switch up the chips with white chocolate chips, dark chocolate chunks, peanut butter chips.  Go nuts! Or crazy. Whichever will make your blondies your kind of bombshell.

Posted in brownies, cookies and bars, nuts | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Spicy-Cheesy Tamales with Pineapple-Tomatillo Salsa Verde

Cooking Club last month was themed Christmas in July and before I read the actual text of the evite I must admit I thought she was nuts.  My first thoughts were “Maaaaannnn I don’t want to cook heavy winter food now. I want to make food with all the amazing produce in season.”  Grudgingly, I read the evite and saw her awesome twist: we had to cook something that was served where Christmas happens in the summer!  Think Australia, New Zealand, anywhere in the southern hemisphere.  Ahhhh, I love a challenge.

I’ve always wanted to make tamales and they are traditionally made for holiday celebrations in Latin and Southern American countries.  Perfect!  I soon found out why tamales are made for special occasions, by groups of people.  I also decided to make a “double” batch.  The recipe I used came from Cooks Illustrated and was supposed to make 12.  I really wanted to bring at least a dozen to CC and  have some left over at home.  So I doubled the recipe rather than make the tamale base two times.  Bad idea!  I almost burnt out my food processor.  The dough gets very thick and sticky but steams into total deliciousness.  I’m putting the recipe for a single batch below… and don’t worry, I think it makes more than 12.  I made at least 20 and STILL had enough left over to throw it in a 7″ round casserole dish with some filling layered in the middle.

Hilary did a great job playing up the theme.  She hung personally hand-knit mini stockings along her staircase.  She hunted down some Sparkling Shiraz (yum!) and Christmas Crackers to make it feel more like an Australian Christmas.

Christmas Crackers are these cute little hard-candy-looking-things that you pull apart with a friend to reveal a corny joke and a prize.  Inside my Cracker: a shoe horn (killer prize, right?!) and this joke: Why don’t ducks tell jokes while they are flying? Are you ready for it? Because they would quack up. I admit it, I laughed.  Also, you must seek out sparkling shiraz and try it.  I love red wine and I was nervous about adding bubbles to an already good thing but it was so fun and festive and good!

Also of note on our menu, salmon with a delicious green olive & herb topping, a tomato-ricotta pie, cute little mini quiche bites with red pepper capsicum & arugula rocket (these were addictive) and of course a pavlova & Christmas cookies!


The pavlova was insanely good.  Light and airy and creamy and crispy and soft.  Ohmigod.  So good.  Fresh whipped cream served as a delicate pillow pedestal for the blueberries.  They were the perfect sweet-tart compliment to the whole thing.  I’m still thinking about that dessert.  Perhaps I’ll ask Hilary for the recipe and re-create just it for you (alright, really for me).

. . .

Tamale recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated

   Fresh Corn Tamales

2  ears of sweet corn (Jersey Silver Queen if you’re lucky!)

2/3  cup quick grits (not instant)

3/4  cup masa harina (will say “para tamales” on the package – can be found in good supermarkets)

4  tbl butter, cut into small cubes and slightly softened

1/4  cup vegetable oil

2  tbl sugar

1½ tsp baking powder

 Your favorite filling (recipe for the one I made is below) 

Masa dough:  Place grits in a medium sized bowl.  Whisk in 1 1/4 cups boiling water.  It’s okay if they are a little lumpy – that’ll get fixed later.  Let it stand 10 minutes.  Stir in masa harina; cover and cool to room temperature.  If you are lucky enough to get your hands on fresh masa from a latin grocer, skip this whole section and just use 2 cups of the fresh stuff.

Tamales: Cut the top and bottom (just above the base) off each ear of corn.  Carefully remove husks, being careful not to tear them.  Shred two of the innermost small husks to make ties; cover with a damp towel and set aside.  Remove and discard corn silk from corn.  Save the cobs.

 Slice kernels off cob and scrape each cob with back of knife to remove remaining bits of corn and juice.  Place the corn, bits, and juice into a food processor; pulse to a medium-coarse puree.  Add in the remaining ingredients (except the husks); pulse several times to combine and then process until the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.

Time to set up your steaming apparatus.  I used 2-tiered 9” bamboo steamer.  Possibly better: use a collapsible veggie steamer (and the way suggested by CI) or a pasta pot with insert (how I’d do it next time).  I didn’t have either of those and my set-up worked fine.  If using a veggie steamer: add about 1 inch of water in a large saucepan.  Set the collapsible veggie steamer into saucepan.  If using the pasta pot or my method, add enough water so there is about 2” between the steamer and the water.  Add in the corn cobs to boil and give extra flavor.  Line steamer and pan sides with corn husks.

To form the tamales: lay a large, outer husk on your counter with the edges curling inward.  Place the wider end (what was the bottom of the corn) closest to you.  Add about ½ cup of the masa dough to the center of the husk.  Wet your fingers with some water and spread the masa down the husk, leaving at least 1.5” at the bottom.  Spread it to within ¾” of the sides of the husk.  Add about 1 tablespoon of the filling of your choice (see mine below) and spread slightly vertically.  Using the free edges of the husk on both sides, roll the masa gently together, sealing the filling in the middle.  The masa should totally encase the filling.  Next, fold the edges of the husk inward, letting them overlap.  Fold the bottom free husk up and tie a strip of husk in a double knot around it to hold it in place.  Your first tamal is complete! It gets easier as you make more.  You can also fold down the top and tie that down too, if you’d like which is what I ended up doing.

As the tamales are made, stand them upright in the prepared steamer. Cover and steam, checking water level frequently and replenishing with boiling water as needed.  The tamales are done when they separate easily from the husks, about 1¼ to 1½ hours.  Serve with Tomatillo Salsa Verde (recipe below).


. . .

Cheesy-Jalapeño Filling

½ cup sharp cheddar cheese

½ cup queso fresco, broken into small pieces

¼ cup finely chopped pickled jalapeño

Any extra corn kernels not used for the masa dough

1 tsp black pepper

 Mix all the ingredients together, taste for salt content and adjust if needed. 

Other tamale fillings:

– Nothing, leave’em plain

– Just cheese, your favorite cheese, whatever it is

– Shredded chicken, pork, beef, pot roast, brisket, whatever you have left over just shred it up! Add some onion, cheese, and your favorite seasonings.

– Sweet stuff: cherries, chocolate, ricotta and peaches, go wild!

. . .

Quick Pineapple-Tomatillo Salsa Verde

1 10-12oz can tomatillos

¼ cup pineapple, diced (optional)

¼ cup onions, diced fine

1 clove garlic, diced fine

2 tbl pickled jalapeños

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Salt & Pepper to taste

 Add all ingredients in a food processor.  Process until smooth.  Keep refrigerated in an air tight container for up to 2 weeks.


Posted in appetizer, Christmas, Cooking Club, Holidays, Latin American, main course, Mexican, party, special occasion treat, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment