Thursday, September 8, 2011

Misty, berry-colored memories of the way we were

One of my first paying gigs was picking blackberries for the Hammer family fruit stand in Stockton, Calif. It was located on a big patch of dirt at the intersection of Eight Mile Rd. and Interstate 5, with nothing but more dirt and farmland surrounding it, as far as the eye could see. Mrs. Hammer would pay me $5 per flat of blackberries, all through the summer, until late in the season when the berries would become too mushy and soft to be sellable. In eighth grade, the $15 or so that I brought home each week was a king's ransom.

Stockton is in the heart of California's Central Valley, and the rural part of Stockton I lived in, on the San Joaquin River Delta, is criss-crossed with tributaries and sloughs and inland shipping channels. These waterways create de facto borders around some of the most rich and abundant farmlands in America. Eons of flooding and ebbing waters have created a dense, black, magical peat dirt that's perfect for the area's cherry and nut orchards and corn and tomatoes. Asparagus grew wild near our home, and every spring we'd set out with cloth sacks and knives to hack it out of the ground, take it home, rinse it off, parboil and drown it with butter and lemon.

The banks of the San Joaquin, where my family lived for years on a houseboat, are thick with patches of blackberry vines. They hang down low over the water, thick, impenetrable walls of thorns that are best approached by boat. I would cruise the banks in a rusty, blue dinghy equipped with a small outboard engine, nudging the bow into the brambles and picking the fat, juicy berries and collecting many cuts and scrapes for my troubles. Later in the season, when the outermost berries on my route had all been picked, I'd have to resort to throwing plywood or sometimes a strip of carpet on top of the vines and carefully crawling ashore on my knees and elbows to get at any unpicked berries.

I never let my mom have enough of my hard-earned berries to make dessert, but occasionally she'd pick some on her own and make a cobbler or dump them on top of vanilla ice cream.

All these years later, the Hammer family farm stand is gone and in its place is something called Park West Place, one of those huge, ultra-modern outdoor malls with a Target, Sleep Train and Bed Bath & Beyond. I couldn't help but snap a pic the last time I drove through Stockton.

Surreal. Six lanes of traffic speeding by a mega-mall where once was a bumpy two-lane country road and a patch of dirt. But I hear tell that there is a farmer's market there every weekend. If only they knew!

Funny, but nowadays I hardly ever have blackberries. At the supermarket, they're often way too expensive for what you get, and God only knows how far away the nearest patch of wild blackberries is.

But this weekend, the little six-ounce clamshells of berries were on sale, two for five dollars. On a whim, I grabbed a couple of containers of blackberries, and a couple of containers of raspberries, which were also on sale.

When I got home, I decided I wanted to make bar cookies, and found a recipe for Blackberry Crumb Bars on that had intrigued me months ago, when it had appeared in the magazine, but blackberries at the time were about three times more expensive, so I mentally filed it away for later in the summer.

Now, who wouldn't find this photo of Martha's Crumb Bars exceedingly adorable? They look like tiny, bite-sized bits of crispity-crunchity, shortbready, berry goodness — all stacked there on top of each other — crying out, "Eat me, eat me, pass me around and eat me!"

The reality is that they are much cakier and gooier than this photo would have us believe. Still incredibly tasty, and with personality plus... but more like a cobbler or a betty meant to be served in slices or wedges, and mmmmm maybe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I made two batches, one with the blackberries and one with the raspberries, but really, any berry or summery fruit could stand in here and be just as delicious.

Blackberry Crumb Bars
Makes 16 squares
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter melted, and 1/2 cup (1 stick), room temperature, plus more for pan
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for pan
  • 1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 containers (5 ounces each) blackberries
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides; butter and flour paper, tapping out excess.
  2. Make topping: In a medium bowl, whisk together melted butter, brown sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; add 1 cup flour, and mix with a fork until large moist crumbs form. Refrigerate topping until ready to use.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk together remaining 3/4 cup flour, baking powder, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt; set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat room-temperature butter, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy; add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low; mix in flour mixture. Spread batter evenly in pan; sprinkle with blackberries, then chilled topping.
  4. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool completely in pan. Using paper overhang, lift cake onto a work surface; cut into 16 squares.
While you prepare the cake, refrigerate the crumb topping. This will help give it a nubbly texture once baked. To store, keep in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days.

Butter the pans, then put in the parchment paper. Then butter and flour the paper. Make sure to leave enough of an overhang on either side. You'll be grabbing those to lift the entire crumble out of the pan after it cools.

Make the crumb topping. I fluffed it all together with a fork. Could also be done in a food processor. Pop it in the fridge after you get it mixed. That'll keep it crumbly instead of melty when you put the whole thing in the oven.

Two six-ounce containers of berries go into each batch. The little raspberries look like singing mouths to me. Also, I cannot possibly look at blackberries without seeing and feeling thorns, as well.

The crumb topping goes over the berries. 

Final verdict: Super easy and tastes like summer. Store the finished product in the fridge, to firm them up for cutting. I served these like bar cookies, but it's a crumble. Do yourself a favor, scoop a big spoonful into a bowl and serve with vanilla ice cream. I will definitely make this again.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I Spy ... Icebox Cuppycakes!

I've made these once before, with the recipe for homemade chocolate wafers from the Smitten Kitchen website. They came out yummy, but were labor-intensive for what you get.

Since then, I have found an outlet for the Nabisco wafers, seemingly the only store in Northern Nevada that carries them. The checker at the register asked me if I had called earlier in the day about them, and I told her no. Apparently, someone else is on the prowl for them and I'm lucky I got there before her, because she asked how many boxes were on the shelf, and if there were any more on order. Whew.

The only reason anyone would want such a plain-ass cookie is to make an icebox cake, or in my case, icebox cupcakes. So I have no quandaries whatsoever regarding buying a box or two of these rather than making a batch from scratch.

The next day was Sunday BBQ with the fam, so I got started on these the night before, because they have to sit overnight in the fridge to soften and soak up all the fat globules from the whipped cream.

Icebox Cupcakes

Makes about a dozen cupcakes, but this will vary depending on the height of your stacks. I used four apiece, and made a few five-piecers because I sometimes lost count.


Nabisco Chocolate Wafers (I used about a box and a quarter)
1 cup whipping cream
1 to 2 spoons of powdered sugar (adjusted to your preferred sweetness)
A dash of your favorite flavoring or extract (I used about 1/2 teaspoon almond extract, but vanilla would work, would someday like to try it with peppermint)


Whip cream with a spoonful or two of powdered sugar and a dash of a flavoring of your choice, until the whipped cream holds firm peaks. Spread about two teaspoons whipped cream between each cookie, to the edges, and stack them until you reach the height you’d like. You can spread whipped cream on top of the final cookie -- you will end up with a softer lid -- or you can leave the final cookie plain.

Set them in the fridge at least overnight or up to a day. The cookies will soften as they set, and become cake-like.

Whip until you get those stiff peaks. I added a dash of almond extract just because I had some, but any flavoring will work.

I think it's easier and faster to use a pastry bag to pipe the whipped cream onto the cookie layers, rather than spooning it on.

I have almond crumbs left over after I strain my almond flour prior to making macarons. I stick them in the freezer for just such occasions. But fresh fruit would work, too. Or a maraschino cherry. Or chocolate chips. Or just about anything.

Final verdict: Ohmigod-easy and almost no time at all to make. The hardest part is probably just finding the chocolate wafers in the first place. But I must say, the homemade wafers are tasty, too, and if you have a couple hours to kill, by all means, give them a try.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Adventures in kumquats

It was love at first sight.

We stopped off at The Fruit Bowl fruit stand outside of Stockton, Calif. to buy a farmers market basket. Among the early-summer offerings, nestled beside the plums and nectarines and peaches and pluots (all of which my son is allergic to...) was a small display of something called "kumquats."

Of course I'd heard of kumquats before, but had never actually *seen* one. They're like tiny, cute little pygmy tangerines, maybe about the size of a large grape:

We walked away with a new farmers market basket full of kumquats.

But what to do with them? Certainly not eat them out of hand, as suggested by numerous internet sources. I tried one; just bit into it, skin and all, and it was much as you would expect a citrus fruit to taste like if you left the rind on.

I came across an intriguing recipe for cupcakes, but it called for minced, raw kumquats. I imagined that even the 20-22 minutes the batter would spend in a hot oven would not burn away the taste of raw kumquat, so I thought maybe the ubiquitous candied kumquat recipe that I kept stumbling upon would make a fine substitute.

Side note: So how much tinkering is required to make a recipe one's own? I made many adjustments to a kumquat-and-coconut cupcake recipe, maybe even enough to render it unrecognizable? Can I call it mine? Do I have to refer to my inspiration? No? Okay.

So here it is, possibly the most complicated cupcake recipe yet:


Kelly's Kandied Kumquat and Kokonut Kupcakes
Makes approx. 30 cupcakes

1 cup shredded, sweetened coconut, toasted
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk, stirred well
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
4 large eggs, preferably at room temperature
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup candied kumquats
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange zest (about one orange)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (about one lemon)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with muffin liners.

Toast the coconut: Place in a dry skillet over medium heat, and gently stir until aromatic and golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together.

Pour the coconut milk into a small saucepan, add the butter, and heat until the milk is hot and the butter is melted. Remove from the heat, but keep warm.

Working with a hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, in a large bowl beat the eggs, sugar, candied kumquats, orange juice, lemon juice, orange zest, and lemon zest at medium-high speed until thick and almost doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer to low and add the dry ingredients.

Keeping the mixer on low, add 1 cup of toasted coconut, mixing until just blended, then slowly add the warm milk and butter. After thoroughly mixed, pour batter into muffin pans, filling each cup about 2/3 full.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding onto the rack to cool to room temperature.

Frost with lemon buttercream frosting, sprinkle with toasted coconut, garnish with candied kumquat.

Lemon Buttercream Frosting:
2/3 cup butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
4 tablespoons lemon juice

In a bowl, beat butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating well. Beat in grated lemon peel and enough lemon juice until desired spreading consistency.


Candy the kumquats! Just sugar, water and kumquats. Boil it all down. The resulting, chewy little gems are tasty and evocative of something from the Victorian era. (Mumsy! Mumsy! St. Niklaus left me a candied kumquat in my stocking! Wot wot, guv-nah?!??)

And pretty! After straining the kumquats out, the syrup left behind cools into a loose and runny jelly. Also quite tasty.

I added an extra layer of flavor by warming up some of the kumquat jelly and brushing it onto the tops of the still-hot cupcakes.

So not a terribly *hard* recipe. There are just a lot of little processes involved in making one cupcake: candying the kumquats, toasting the coconut, heating the coconut milk and butter, etc.

The verdict: labor-intensive. I would file this one under "Very Special Occasion Cupcake." I wound up making these for my mom's birthday Friday night, so I guess that qualifies. And I might also add, they taste very, very good. The essence of summer captcha'd in a cupcake.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I'm here, I'm here!!!

Back when I was in school, I was the dipstick who always waited until the last possible moment to do my term papers. I mail my bills the day they come due, crossing my fingers and naively believing that every institution has a "grace period." I fill my prescriptions the day after I run out. Well, are you getting the picture? I'm a procrastinator of the highest order. I've elevated it to an art form. I figure if I miss out on something because of my procrastination, it clearly wasn't worth having anyway.

So what does my late ass do? I go and join this online organization called Ordinary home cooks and bakers like you and me sign up and receive a monthly assignment to either bake (Daring Bakers) or cook (Daring Cooks) something. Everyone in their category is assigned the same thing at the same time. You bake or cook that month's assignment, you blog about it, take photos, etc., and share with the rest of the community.

Sounds like great fun!

Of course, my very first assignment -- baklava with homemade phyllo dough -- is already botched, because life got in the way a bit this month, what with a vacation, being sick, being lazy, whatever. I was supposed to finish it up by the last day of the month, and well, here I am. It's the first of the month and a new assignment will be posted very soon if it hasn't already.

Erica of Erica’s Edibles was our host for the Daring Baker’s June challenge. Erica challenged us to be truly DARING by making homemade phyllo dough and then to use that homemade dough to make Baklava.

As a show of good faith and intentions, I did half the project tonight, the last night of the month, albeit the easy half... I made the dough, the filling and the syrup (pictured above). Tomorrow night I'll finish up, rolling out the endless layers of phyllo, baking it and soaking it in syrup.

July will be different, i swear on my Braun immersive blender that I will never be late again! Ummm... There **is** a grace period, isn't there?!?!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Last of the lemons

I wanted to use up the last of the lemons last weekend, so I made what basically amounted to a cupcake version of the lemon berry cake from Father's Day.

I hollowed out the cakes a bit, using the open end of a large pastry tip, piped in a bit of lemon curd, replaced my divots, and topped with a lemony cream cheese frosting and a raspberry.

At least one person was happy with the results.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When your mother-in-law gives you lemons...

When I dropped the kids off at their grandma's for their annual summer stay, she wouldn't let me leave without a big bag of lemons from their lemon tree. What to do?

Anything lemon-y is worth doing super-lemony. So with Father's Day coming up, I jumped at the chance to make a lemon berry cake in his honor. Yes, yes, I know. He's diabetic. But he keeps his numbers low and is allowed to indulge every once in a while. Namely, when I get a wild hare up my ass to bake a cake.

The 1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake over at fit the bill. Easygoing, but not overly so, as there are a few processes involved: making lemon curd, making cake, whipping up whipped cream. And shaving chocolate (yay!)

It's called a 1-2-3-4 cake because of the old-school recipe that calls for one cup butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour and four eggs. I love this cake; it's rustic and toothsome, not all pillowy soft like a cake from a box. It'll stand up to any number of toppings you want to throw at it.

1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake
Makes one 8-inch round layer cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Grated zest of 2 lemons
3 cups Lemon Curd (recipe below)
Sweetened Whipped Cream (recipe below)
12 ounces assorted fresh berries
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange two racks in center of oven. Butter two 8-by-2-inch round cake pans; line bottoms with parchment paper. Dust bottoms and sides of pans with flour; tap out any excess.

2. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium speed until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add granulated sugar, beating on medium speed until lightened, 3 to 4 minutes; scrape down sides once or twice. Drizzle in eggs, a little at a time, beating after each addition until batter is no longer slick, about 5 minutes; stop once or twice to scrape down sides.

4. On low speed, alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk, a little of each at a time, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat in vanilla and lemon zest.

5. Divide batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake 25 minutes, then rotate the pans in the oven for even browning. Continue baking until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean, 10 to 20 minutes more. Transfer pans to wire racks to cool, 15 minutes. Turn out cakes; set on racks, tops up, until completely cool.

Lemon Curd
Makes 1 1/2 cups

NOTE: Make sure to double this recipe to make the three cups of curd that the cake recipe calls for!

3 large egg yolks, strained
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup lemon juice
6 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces

1. Combine yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice, and sugar in a small saucepan. Whisk to combine. Set over medium heat, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon, making sure to stir sides and bottom of pan. Cook until mixture is thick enough to coat back of wooden spoon, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter, one piece at a time, stirring with the wooden spoon until consistency is smooth.

3. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd to avoid a skin from forming; wrap tightly. Let cool; refrigerate until firm and chilled, at least 1 hour.

Sweetened Whipped Cream
Makes 1 1/3 cups

2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1. Whip the heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on medium speed until soft peaks form, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the vanilla and confectioners' sugar; continue whipping on medium speed until the soft peaks return, 2 to 3 minutes. Use immediately.

I'd had enough of using the wrong tool. I have the wrong kind of lemon zester, which is all well and good if you want only want long, thin, curly ribbons of zest, which is almost never. So for this project, I finally caved and bought the right kind of lemon zester.

"Cook until mixture is thick enough to coat back of wooden spoon." That phrase makes sense after you make curd just once. When it has cooked long enough, it gets to a point where it coats the back of the spoon, instead of ... not coating the back of the spoon.

ZOMG. Nectar of the gods, I tell you. Double the recipe. Triple it. Quadruple it. Just make sure you have enough to pour yourself a generous mug of it to sip on when no one's looking.

The recipe calls for 2"-inch deep round cake pans. The only 2"-inch deep cake pans I have are square. All my round ones are 1 inch deep.

So I skipped the dusting of confectioners sugar and opted instead for a mound of white chocolate shavings in the middle. Did I make the right call?

FINAL VERDICT: Lemon-y goodness is front and center in this one. A great way to put paid to a bushel of lemons foisted upon you by well-meaning in-laws. Would definitely make again. Thinking about a cupcake version, actually, cuz I still have a few lemons left. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony, side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord why don't we?

Heh. No time for a proper post at the moment. Just wanted to post a quick photo, cuz they're so purty: Cocoa macaron shells with banana-chocolate filling and plain ol' shells with Nutella filling. Cocoa shells have some over-pronounced feet, but supposedly that's the result of over-mixing, so note to self -- step off a bit when folding and fluffing.

I packaged these up in small cream-colored boxes with chocolatey brown ribbon, tucked in Target gift cards, and gave to the kids' teachers today as thank-you gifts. That's Klassy with a kapital K, folks.