Thursday, April 26, 2007

"I Can't Abide a Flan!" Cake

I love funny people. I hang with some funny, funny people. And as with most circles of friends, running jokes tend to develop over time. One of our jokes has to do with flan. That doesn't sound like a topic rife with comedic appeal, then again, one of my favorite Eddie Izzard jokes has to do with watching a regime "slowly collapse like a flan in a cupboard," so I could be wrong on that point. Anyway, I am a bit of a fence-rider when it comes to flan and its French cousin, Creme Caramel. I enjoy a silky custard as well as the next gal--perhaps more--but I think my problem stems from it being served cold, which kind of creeps me out a bit, I won't lie. So I suppose that I prefer a Creme Brulee, still warm from the torch.

But my preferences are neither here nor there. It's my friend, June, that--and I quote--"can't abide a flan!" You see, in general, June enjoys foods with a diversity of flavors and textures, and flan is just too homogenous in character for her liking. So fine, no flan for June. But the other day, my dear friend agreed to proctor an exam for me while I was out of town, and I told her that I definitely would owe her one, and her response was that she would like to be paid in chocolate. As I joke, I replied, chocolate flan it is then! She countered that she knew I was joking, because there's no such thing as chocolate flan! OH NO! With that one naive comment, she had thrown down the culinary gauntlet, and I almost made her chocolate flan just to prove her wrong. But I decided that it would be mean to make someone a dessert that they don't like just for a laugh.

So here's what I made instead: Chocolate Flan Cake! I figured that it would be acceptable because it's chocolate cake on the bottom with the flan on top, all drenched in a dulce de leche topping. Since her issues are primarily textural, I was sure I would be in the clear. We had a good laugh when I served the thing, and everyone--including June--enjoyed it. The best part is, it's a very easy recipe and quite fun to make, too. You won't believe that such a showstopping dessert comes from fairly mundance ingredients. It does require two hours of baking, but the prep is so quick that you can have it in the oven in no time, and then go about your business while it bakes slowly in a water bath. I think, dear readers, you might consider this as part of your Cinco de Mayo celebrations that are fast approaching!

Chocolate Flan Cake
(Source: Recipezaar by way of Cookie Madness)

1 box chocolate cake mix -- 18.25 oz (something dark like Devil's Food or I used Dark Chocolate Fudge)
11 ounces caramel topping, softened or at room temp -- (I used about two-thirds of a jar of a fabulous Dulce de Leche spread that I found in Montreal, but what you really want, if you can find it, is Mexican cajeta)
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
12 ounces evaporated milk
1/2 cup milk
8 ounces cream cheese -- softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 12-cup bundt pan with flour-added cooking spray. Pour caramel topping into pan. Prepare cake mix according to package directions. Pour the cake batter into the cake pan over the caramel topping. Make the flan. Pour condensed, evaporated and fresh milks into a blender. Add softened cream cheese, vanilla and eggs and blend or process until smooth. Pour the flan mixture very slowly over the cake batter. (I know, I know, but even though you think this will end up upside-down, the flan will rise to the top like magic...I promise!)

Spray a sheet of aluminum foil with cooking spray and cover the pan TIGHTLY with the foil. Covering tightly is very important. Set the Bundt pan into a large pan and set on the oven rack and slide in. Carefully pour hot water into the larger pan to a depth of 2 inches (the Bundt pan will be sitting in 2 inches of water).

After two hours, remove cake from water and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Peel off the aluminum foil. Invert cake onto a large plate with rim. The caramel topping should flow down the sides. Cool completely (very don't want condensation dripping into your lovely caramel topping) then refrigerate. Serve chilled and refrigerate the leftovers--if there are any! ;-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bake-Off Bender

Ok, I officially SUCK! This must be my personal worst...almost two weeks without a post? Friends, I grovel at your feet and beg your forgiveness most humbly. I don't even have great excuses, other than the fact that we've hit that CRAZY part of the semester. And this time around, all the typical stress has been exacerbated by the unthinkable...yet another snow day, IN MID-APRIL! That's right, last week Monday, both of the schools where I teach were cancelled, irrevocably screwing up my course schedules that have already been revised and revised. Truly, my Monday-Wednesday only classes may have to meet through July to finish everything at this point! ;-) And the ultimate irony is, here we are a week later, and it's 80 degrees! Nuts, just nuts.

But the real reason why I haven't been posting is not because I haven't been cooking. Oh no...I have been cooking up a storm, but nothing I could post about until now. Annually and perpetually, I chase that gossamer dream, the grandpappy of all cooking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I submitted 14 recipes this year, the most I have ever entered. Of course, I still suffer from a condition that all but guarantees that I will never get to compete at the Big Bake-Off--that is, my inability to make anything "quick and easy." Everything I make is far too involved, even when I try to take shortcuts, stemming from my overriding belief that most good food takes time. Not that I ever aspired to win the big bucks like my friend, Anna, did last year. I only ever wanted to make the finals one day; I secretly envision myself, marching in in my little gingham apron with my dear foodie friend, Kurt, there to cheer me on. And I can't even get on my soapbox about the eligible products this time. I truly think that this was one of the best years in a long time in terms of categories and ingredients. You could actually submit a recipe comprised of the basics like flour, eggs, sugar and butter or olive oil and not be forced to select from a strange hodgepodge of pre-fab products as in recent years. My only gripes were that, if it wasn't pizza or Mexican food, you were hard-pressed to enter a recipe for an entree, and while there were lots of ingredients for dessert, there was a noticeable dearth of things to make savory items out of, other than broccoli (in cheese sauce, though), corn (in butter sauce) and spinach. So your only solution was to make sure to include at least two tablespoons of olive oil in everything, which is generally not a problem for me! ;-)'s what I came up with for this year's entries (accompanied by a handful of representative photos):

Breakfast and Brunches:

Monte Cristo Breakfast Pinwheels (Probably not exciting enough.)

Pesto Egg Pizza (Yummy, but something similar to this made the finals last year.)

Russian Braid (Yes, it's true. I used my powers for evil and made a shortcut Russenzopf with flaky cinnamon rolls as a base--the Bakerina would be rolling over in her grave if she were dead...and this might kill her. Tee hee.)

Simple Salmon En Croute (Love this one! Delish! It's all about using spinach.)

Pizza Creations:

Chicken Satay Pizza (Peanut butter was a eligible product that could be forced into savory service!)

Chicken Spanakopita Pizza with Greek Lemon-Garlic Sauce (Spinach, lots of spinach.)

Sausage and Spinach Calzones (Still more spinach.)

Entertaining Appetizers:

Good Times Roll-Ups (I'm not good with appetizers as you can tell from my single entry in this category, but these are great--little roll-up sandwiches with my favorite Italian meats and topped with chopped pickled olives and other veggies, inspired by the muffaletta in New Orleans. Yum!)

Old El Paso Mexican Favorites:

Blond Enchiladas (Cleverly fashioned from deli/rotisserie chicken.)

Krab and Corn Tacos with Cilantro-Lime Crema (Good name and tasty tacos.)

Pork Colorado Enchiladas (This recipe may have been the best out of everything I submitted...not fancy or clever, but really delicious.)

Sweet Treats:

Aztec Brownies with Mexican Chocolate Glaze (My favorite name for a recipe!)

Caramel Crunch Peanut Butter Silk Pie (Yes, another attempt at the layered pie that I've been trying to perfect, this time with a peanut butter layer in the middle. Trying to work that sweet and salty thang, ya know.)

Cherry Almond Crescent Pudding (The best dessert I make--adapted to work with crescent rolls--but housewives in the Heartland probably still wouldn't make it.)

So that explains my absence over the past couple of weeks, faithful readers. I will pledge to do better in the future, but as I have a conference in Nashville to attend this week and into next, and with finals upon us, I may well be lying to you! ;-)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Don't matter if it's black or white...

If it's Tuesday, it must be Trivia Night...somewhere! My team was all set to assemble as we normally do at a local wine bar for their weekly trivia competition only to find out that it had been cancelled without notice. Boo hiss. So we shifted gears and headed over to another local pub that also has trivia on Tuesdays, just an hour later. And I'm so glad we did, as we had a blast! This bar had a lot more people in attendance, and there were a lot more young folk, too, which gave the place a fun, high-energy feel. And they did the game a little differently. Instead of having an M.C., the questions (and later, the answers) were projected on screens. Not only did this help in a noisy bar, but it allowed them to do things like a music video round/name the artist and song. (Does anyone remember "Don't Shed a Tear" by Paul Carrack? Talk about a blast from my MTV past!) Plus, this place has food--albeit BAD food--but we could get dinner and sit at a proper table, facing each other, which was nice.

Alas, I'm sad to report that we did not win the game (our evil, arch-rivals the "Bill Evans Trio" won again as they often do--their leader has a Ken Jennings-like omniscience), but we did win two of the seven rounds. That was another fun twist to the game at this pub--after each round, they give a prize to the high scorers for that round. Fun! Don't think for a moment that my team didn't win on the round about food (fruits and vegetables)! Although it was tricky. One of the questions asked about the other name for limestone lettuce. Can you see the dilemma? Bibb or Boston? Both are correct! (In the end, they accepted both answers.) And then there was a question about which fruit had a variety called Calimyrna and is pollenated by said that Indiana Jones almost ate a bad one. J'accuse! Bad question! Calimyrnas are figs, but Indy almost ate a bad date (poisoned ones that killed the wicked monkey). Nevertheless, we were triumphant in the food round, and more importantly, we all had a good time, so I think we'll definitely have to go there again.

As usual, I also brought along a home-baked dessert for us. As it was still Passover (and because I think my friends feel that I have no abilities to make a dessert that isn't overwhelming rich and potentially life-threatening!), I decided to make a beautiful black and white angel food cake that I spied on the Culinary in the Desert/Country blog. It has a chocolate layer on the bottom, and vanilla on the top, and is drizzled with both vanilla and cocoa glazes. Though Joe clearly outdid me in the decoration department, the cake was still eye-catching and very tasty! And the texture, especially of the white layer, was just ethereal. I think this will become my go-to recipe for angel food in the future. Personally, I could have done without the chocolate layer, except for its visual appeal. But I think my trivia teammates disagreed on that point--they really liked the chocolate. Then again, I'm a vanilla girl. Try it for yourself, and see what you think!

Black and White Angel Food Cake
(Source: Culinary in the Desert/Country, as adapted from Cooking Light)

For the cake:
1 cup cake flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 large egg whites
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder

For the glaze (I halved this--it makes way too much glaze, IMHO):
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
1-3 tablespoon milk, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon Dutch-process cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 325. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and 3/4 cup granulated sugar. In a large mixing bowl, add cream of tartar, salt and egg whites. Beat until foamy. Slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Mix in juice and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Using 1/4 cupfuls at a time, sift flour mixture over the stiff egg whites - gently folding the flour in after each addition.

Scoop one half of the batter into an ungreased 10" tube pan (as you can see, I didn't divide my batter evenly and ended up with more vanilla than chocolate...then again, I prefer that ratio!). Use a knife to cut through the batter to break any air bubbles. Sift 3 tablespoons cocoa powder into the remaining batter and gently fold in. Evenly spoon this batter over the top of the vanilla batter. Use a knife to cut through just the chocolate batter to break any air bubbles.

Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched - about 55 minutes. Remove from the oven and invert the pan - let cool completely. To remove the cake, use a very thin and flexible spatula to loosen the cake from the sides the the center tube. Invert cake to a plate.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat together confectioners' sugar, cream cheese, 1 tablespoon milk, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until smooth - add enough of the remaining milk to make the glaze thin enough to drizzle, you do want it fairly thick though. Divide batter in half - and add 1 teaspoon cocoa to one part (I should have doubled the cocoa, as my glaze was too pale..maybe YOURS is!) - stir well to combine. Drizzle lines of each glaze over the cake (I should have used squeeze bottles for this for a more artful effect) - refrigerate 5 minutes to set the glaze before cutting. I think the season's first strawberries (even though ours are coming from Florida right now) would be perfect to serve with this, and would make for a striking contrast in color.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Happy Easter (and Passover)!

I hope everyone had a nice Easter (or are still having a lovely Passover, as the case may be). I enjoyed my three-day holiday weekend, but it's back to the grind tomorrow. So I'll just share a quick report on our Easter dinner. Let's begin with a colorful version one of my very favorite breads, an Easter egg challah. I thought this would be fun and festive--and it was--but truthfully, the bread itself was just "good" (I've made better), and I had a little trouble with the eggs. They shifted on top as they baked, the color ran on the top of the bread, and they got weird little speckles on them, too. Who knows why? Still, it was cute, and I would make it again, although I would probably swap it out with a different challah recipe.

Easter Egg Challah
(Source:, adapted from

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoon (1 package) active dry yeast
2/3 cup milk, warm, 110F (low-fat is fine)
2 eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons butter, very soft
3 raw eggs, dyed (as above) if desired
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water (for egg wash)

In an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook or in a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour, sugar, salt, yeast and milk and mix to combine. Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure that the first one is well incorporated before you add the second. Add butter, but into small pieces, and beat until completely absorbed. Add remaining flour 1 tbsp at a time, until the dough pulls easily away from the side of the bowl. Knead dough lightly for about 3 minutes on a lightly floured surface until it is very elastic, then place in a lightly greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise for about 2 hours, until doubled in size.

Gently deflate dough into a rectangle and divide it, lengthwise, into three equal pieces. Roll out until pieces are about 16-inches long. Braid together, tucking the ends underneath the loaf. Place on a greased baking sheet (I used a silpat) and cover with a clean dishtowel. Let rise for 60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F. Place three raw, dyed eggs gently into dough and brush the loaf with the egg wash. Bake for 36-40 minutes, until rich golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

Makes 1 loaf.

Then for our main course, we had a spectacular Easter ham. Instead of going down the spiral-sliced path of least resistance, I decided to get a regular (as AB would say, "city") ham (butt end) and glaze it myself. I used about a half a cup of apricot jam, half a cup of hot pepper jelly, a little jalapeno honey mustard, and the rest of that brown sugar syrup from the other night. It sounds like a weird, catch-all combination, but it was just delicious! My only mistake was miscalculating the cooking time. I was thinking that I only had to bring it to 140 degrees (like with a pre-baked ham), but it actually needed to go to 160. So our dinner was an hour later than I had planned--oh well, it was worth waiting for! I served the ham with some Potatoes Dauphinois, roasted asparagus with lemon, and of course, a thick slice of challah with a slathering of Irish butter. Yum, yum!

Then, for dessert, I chose to make a chocolate cake leavened only with egg whites, making it equally fitting for the Passover table. It was adapted from one of those rolled and filled numbers, but is much easier to make as a layer cake. Since it was just for me and the roommate, I decided to half the recipe and make a two-layer cake instead of four. And I baked them in eight-inch pans instead of nine-inch, to make the cake a little taller for a more substantial-looking presentation. But of course, that added about ten minutes to the baking time on the layers. When you don't have to roll it, the cake is super-simple to make. The worst of the job is just having to rewash your mixing bowl several times for the batter, then the egg whites, then the whipped cream. And the flavor is deep and chocolately--especially if you use coffee instead of water with the melted chocolate--rather reminiscent of the beloved Chocolate Icebox Cake. I highly recommend this recipe even when it's not a special holiday.

Lighter-Than-Air Chocolate Cake
(Source:, adapted from a 1975 New York Times article)

For (2) cake layers:
6 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped
3 tablespoons water (or strong brewed coffee)
6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar, divided
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder

For filling:
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons confectioners sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier* (or a teaspoon of vanilla--I used vanilla bean paste)

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease two 8-inch cake pans and line bottoms with circles of parchment paper. Melt chocolate with water (or coffee) in a small heavy saucepan over very low heat, stirring. Cool to lukewarm.

Beat yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer until thick and pale, about 5 minutes. Fold in melted chocolate until blended. Beat whites with cleaned beaters until they just hold soft peaks. Gradually add remaining 1/3 cup sugar and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks. Fold one third of whites into melted-chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Spread batter evenly into the two prepared cake pans and bake until puffed and top is dry to the touch, about 30 minutes, rotating cakes halfway to ensure they bake evenly. Transfer pans to racks until cool, and then if necessary, loosen edges with a knife. Sift cocoa powder over top of cake layers and place a piece of waxed paper over the top of the pans. Place a baking sheet over paper and invert cake onto it, gently peeling off wax paper lining. Place layers in the freezer for about an hour, until they are firm enough to be carefully lifted without breaking. (Personally, I skipped the freezing step and had no breakage to speak of.)

Beat cream with powdered sugar and Grand Marnier or vanilla with cleaned beaters until it just holds stiff peaks. Bring first cake layer out of the freezer and arrange on platter, cocoa side down. Spread one half of the filling evenly over the cake. Bring the next cake layer out of the freezer, placing it gently over the filling, again cocoa side down and spread with the remaning filling.

Keep cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it. Two hours should be more than enough to assure that the layers are no longer frozen. Dark chocolate grated into curls with a vegetable peeler makes for an excellent garnish (although I just used some grated chocolate that I had left over from a previous project).

* You can substitute the following for Grand Marnier: 2 tablespoons cognac and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla; 2 tablespoons cocoa and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla; or 2 teaspoons instant-espresso powder or instant-coffee granules dissolved in 2 teaspoons water plus 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Huevos: A Tale of Eggs and Mexican Delights

I know that I regularly bore you with pictures of my hens' eggs, but as it is nearly Easter, and there have been some new things to report from the nesting box, I hope you'll indulge me once more? First of all, do you notice anything new in the carton? White eggs! That's usually nothing to remark over, but I have only ever had brown, blue and pink eggers in the past. But last summer, Cyd and I became enchanted by cute little Silver Spangled Hamburg pullet that we spied at a poultry swap way over in central Vermont somewhere. Her plumage is amazing--splotches of inky black on white, the Dalmation of chickens, if you will. And she was so teeny when we got her, that I had to keep her inside in a big dog crate for a couple of weeks until she was old enough to fend for herself among the bigger birds. In truth, I wasn't sure she'd make it through the winter; I was worried she might get smothered under a big pile of her friends, or that they might bully her to death. But not only did she survive, she has just started giving us these cute little bullet-pointed white eggs. She has made a lovely contribution to the egg box, and indeed, to our little flock! Secondly, look at the back of the box, on the left, among the blue eggs. LOOK at it! It's HEE-YUUUGE! It's a virtual planetoid--it's got its own weather system! (Reference, anyone? Come on! It's one of my very favorite movies!) Seriously, though, how is the chicken still alive that laid that double-yolker? Well done, I say...or perhaps, over-easy? ;-)

Next, I must share about our delicious, Mexican-themed dinner last night. I had read about a great-looking salad from Southern Living that Randi had made over at Culinary Adventures, and it sounded like it would really hit the spot. Well, I have to report that it was delicious, very easy to put together, and just beautiful to boot! This would definitely be a great choice for a busy, mid-week supper. The problem was that Randi left the recipe for the Southwestern Layered Salad at work, and only posted some general guidelines on her blog for its creation and assembly. But it's certainly the kind of thing that you can free-wheel anyway. So I'll just describe what I did, and then you can feel free to riff on that.

The salad itself was composed of shredded iceberg lettuce, black beans that were supposed to marinate for a couple of hours in two tablespoons each of oil and vinegar, but it was too late when I started dinner to do that, so I used half a can of black beans that had a lime and jalapeno sauce instead. Then you add thinly-sliced red onion and corn on top of that. The next ingredient is supposed to be green pepper, but as I don't care for it, I threw on some black olives instead. Next is tomatoes, then shredded sheese (I used jalapeno jack), then slices (or chunks) of avocado, and finally, pieces of cooked bacon. These last two items make the salad taste like a cross between a taco salad and a Cobb salad. Once again, feel free to add and subtract ingredients as you see fit, using amounts that please you.

The piece de resistance, the crowning glory of this salad, is the wonderful dressing. In a blender, combine 1/3 cup vinegar and 2/3 cup olive oil with pickled jalapeno slices. Randi only used five, but that's wimpy! (What do you expect? She's Canadian now! Tee hee.) Personally, I'd use 8 or 10 slices for more zip. Then you throw in a half a bunch of cilantro (tops only, no thick stems), and salt and pepper to taste. At this point, I tasted it, and it was good, but I felt it still needed something. So I added a generous teaspoon of minced garlic and maybe a half teaspoon of cumin. Perfect! Seriously, this dressing alone is a keeper...and such a gorgeous, vibrant green.

For dessert, I should have tried the Tres Leches Cake that both Randi and Anna made, but I decided to make something from a magazine I recently purchased. It's simply called Mexican, by Better Homes and Gardens, and I believe it's still on newstands. It has a lot of tempting recipes that I want to try, but last night, I made bunuelos. They were described as puffy little donut-type things, but mine came out very crispy--like fried flour tortillas, which is, I suppose, what they essentially are. They were good, just not what I was hoping for. (I wanted them to be soft and a little chewy, like sopapillas.) But the best thing about the recipe was the brown-sugar cinnamon sauce for dipping. I intend to use the leftovers on pancakes or French toast! And I did, in fact, use the leftover bunuelos today to make some snazzy tostados with some of the salad fixins which I also had left over. So all worked out.

(Source: Mexican, a Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publication)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons shortening
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup milk

cooking oil, for frying
brown sugar cinnamon syrup (recipe below) or cinnamon sugar

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and cream of tartar. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Mix the eggs and milk together in a separate bowl or measuring cup. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add the eggs and milk, stirring just until the dough clings together.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough about two minutes or until soft and smooth. Divide dough into 24 equal portions. Shape each portion into a ball. Cover and let dough rest for 15 minutes.

Heat 3/4 inch of cooking oil to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, roll out each ball with a rolling pin to a four-inch circle. Fry circles in hot oil until golden brown, about a minute each side. Drain on a rack over a baking sheet or on paper towels. Bunuelos may be kept warm in a 300 degree oven until all the dough is fried. To serve, drizzle with brown sugar cinnamon syrup or sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Makes 24 bunuelos.

Brown Sugar-Cinnamon Syrup

In a small saucepan, combine one cup firmly-packed brown sugar with 1/2 cup of water. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves. Add a dash of ground cinnamon and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Serve warm. Makes 3/4 cup.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Experimental Baking: My Favorite Pie, Plus a Pie in Bar Form

This is not the first time that I have waxed poetic about the genius that is the Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme Pie, nor will it be the last, I am sure. It is simply my favorite pie in the whole world, combining all of my favorite, (read: the most decadent) fillings. However, we have neither a Baker's Square nor a Village Inn restaurant in my part of the world. So it falls to me to figure out how to make one at home. I have tried before with some small measure of success. My initial experiments in the past involved first baking the shell along with half a pecan pie recipe, then top it with half a cheesecake's worth of filling and bake it again (covering the edges with foil to prevent overbrowning), and then after cooling it all the way, adding half of a French Silk pie filling on top, and then whipped cream, of course. That worked pretty well, but I recently found a copycat recipe online which was billed as "Baker's Square Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme Pie"--the exact item that I was trying to replicate. Plus, it was a no-bake creation, so I thought I should give it a whirl. First, you blind bake the crust. Yes, you could use a graham cracker crust, but I much prefer it with a regular pastry crust. Use a roll-out crust if you can't be bothered to make a real one. Then you make a caramel filling on the stove top and add chopped, toasted pecans.

Next, you make the French Silk layer and spread that on top.

Then finally, you add a whipped cream cheese topping, and decorate as you desire (I just threw on some grated bittersweet chocolate because I was only making it for me). And here's a (bad) picture of the final product.

It turned out well enough, I suppose. My roomie enjoyed it, and my officemate at work raved. I thought it was good, too, and we polished it off in record time. Indeed, it would grace an Easter table very well, bringing accolades from your dinner guests, to be sure. But it just wasn't exactly what I had in mind. First of all, I would cut the caramel pecan layer by as much as half. I enjoy caramel, but I don't want that to dominate the flavor--or texture--of the pie. Furthermore, though you can use melted storebought caramels for the base (or maybe even jarred caramel sauce, for that matter), but I have become spoiled by homemade caramel! It's really not hard to make, and I believe that it would make a world of difference in flavor. Also, I don't wish a fluffy, whipped cream cheese topping on the pie; I want a dense, cream cheese filling, more like a proper cheesecake. And it really has to go in the middle layer, as in the authentic restaurant version. Then I think I'll return to my trusty French Silk recipe from the Best of the Bake-Off Cookbook for the top layer, followed by real whipped cream and not Cool Whip as this recipe dictates. In short (too late!), I will have to keep experimenting with this pie to develop the "perfect" formula. And, dear readers, if anyone knows of another version of this recipe that you recommend, please advise. Thanks!

"Baker’s Square" Caramel Pecan Silk Supreme Pie

one deep-dish pie shell

Caramel-Pecan Layer:
7 oz. caramels (unwrapped)
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped (not not too finely)

Put caramels, butter and whipping cream in saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently until caramels and butter melt (use a whisk for this). Remove from heat and stir until completely smooth. Stir in pecans. Pour into (blind-)baked pie shell. Refrigerate, covered, for several hours until firm.

French Silk Layer:
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 stick butter, softened
2 eggs
2 (1-ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat sugar with butter in large bowl until smooth. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add melted chocolate; stir in vanilla extract. Mix well; spread on top of cool, firm caramel layer. Chill until ready to add cream cheese layer.

Cream Cheese Layer:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon milk or half-and-half
1 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups thawed Cool Whip Whipped Topping (I used lightly-sweetened whipped cream instead)

Mix cream cheese, milk and sugar in large bowl with wire whisk until smooth. Gently stir in whipped tipping. Carefully spread over chocolate mixture.

Decorative Topping:
2 cups whipping cream, whipped until stiff peaks form
a few caramels, melted
1 square of chocolate, melted

Using pastry bag (or sandwich-type bag with corner snipped off), “pipe” one continuous line of whipped cream around edge of cream cheese mixture, next to crust. Next, put dollops of whipped cream all over pie (circle shape , about 1 inch across– again, using pastry bag). Place pecan halves on top of several of the dollops of whipped cream. Drizzle lightly with caramel and chocolate. (if you’re in a hurry – you can use caramel and chocolate ice cream toppings – it tastes fine with them).

My second experiment this week involved something I made for my trivia night (and it must have worked, because we won for the first time after a bit of a dry spell and an agonizing defeat by only one point last week--YEAH!). I have an excellent recipe that I have made several times before simply entitled Date Squares. It's another trustworthy recipe from Martha Kostyra (say what you will about her daughter, Big Martha can bake and never anything too fussy). But this time, since I had some chopped dried apricots that needed to be used up (left over from the Hanukkah rugelach, if you can believe!), I thought I might make the bars with apricots instead, especially since my teammate, Tom, loves apricot desserts--particularly ones that aren't too sweet. It worked pretty well, although the apricots were juicier after stewing than the dates usually are. It was almost like apricot pie or crumble, but in bar form that you could pick up and eat with your hands. Well, okay, the bars in the middle darn near required a plate and fork, but the outside edges were entirely portable! But I would have to surmise that the people enjoyed them. Though I gave one to our waitress, we only had four on our team last night, and I brought home a mere four out of the sixteen bars that the recipe makes! The next time I make these (and they're easy-peasy), I might try yet another fruit filling. Cyd wants blueberry, and my teammates, Jen and June, want blackberry and cherry, respectively. So noted. And of course, nothing precludes you from making them with dates, as God and Martha Kostyra intended! ;-)

Apricot Pie Squares
(Source: adapted from

Crumb Mixture:

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat)
1 1/2 cups quick-cooking oats (I used rolled oats=more texture)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

*I also added a sprinkle of cinnamon and a half a sprinkle of allspice.

Apricot Filling:
2 cups dried apricots, finely diced
1 cup water (I added more to cover, which may explain why my apricots were so juicy--maybe YOURS are!)
1 pinch salt
zest and juice of 1 lemon

*I also added a split vanilla bean to the pot. And if I had been making this for someone other than Tom, I might have added some sugar (probably, brown sugar) to this mix. Some may not find it sweet enough for their liking. But taste it and decide for yourself.

Place chopped apricots in a saucepan with water, salt, and lemon zest and juice, and vanilla bean (if using). Cook over medium heat until apricots are soft, 12-15 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool before using.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees;. Butter an 8-by-8-by-2-inch baking pan and set aside. In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar, baking soda, and spices (if using any). Add butter, and blend with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer two-thirds of the crumb mixture into prepared pan, and press into bottom and up sides (using the back of a dry measuring cup helps with this). Spread apricot filling over the bottom layer of the dough. Cover with remaining crumb mixture.

Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Invert onto a plate, then back onto a cutting board. Cut into 2-inch squares. Store in an airtight container for up to one week, if they last that long!

The Cubano and the Rogue Starling (coming soon to a theatre near you!)

Last week was a really busy one! At work, I had students coming in for advising to make their fall schedules, plus all my public speaking students were coming by to show me drafts of their speech outlines which, truth to tell, takes a lot out of me. And then, I had double rehearsals during the week for the big Gershwin concert on Saturday night. To be brutally honest, we needed another couple of weeks to be really ready, but it went alright. We certainly had fun performing, and there was a great turnout, and the audience truly seemed to enjoy it. Then again, how could anyone not enjoy such classics as Embraceable You, They Can't Take That Away from Me, Fascinating Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, S'Wonderful, Our Love is Here to Stay, I Got Rhythm, Love Walked In, and even a Porgy and Bess medley, including Summertime. I just love the standards! Anyway, I didn't have time to post anything last week, but I promise to make up for it this week (now that choir rehearsals are done, and I have all this "free time" on my hands! ha ha).

Let me start by sharing another one of my infamous crock pot conversion recipes. I ran across a pork roast in the freezer recently and decided that, instead of doing Asian/teriyaki or Germanic things to it, that I might try a version of Cuban pork. You see, it was my great pleasure to visit Miami for the first time a couple of years ago on my spring break, and I was introduced to all sorts of ethnic delights, from Kosher Thai (basically, that just means no shrimp in your pad thai) to Peruvian rotisserie chicken to lots and lots of fabulous Cuban food (love those fried plantains!). And I have been craving Cuban food ever since! I haven't even been able to locate a Cuban restaurant in Montreal, though I would be more than willing to make the drive. In the meantime, I thought I might try my hand at some Cuban pork at home. This would be the sort of thing that you marinade in an adobo sauce for up to two days, and then wrap in banana leaves and roast in a big pit in your back yard all day until all your friends and neighbors show up to feast. However, given the lack of available banana leaves in the North Country and my unwillingness to dig a pit, I wondered if I could make a reasonable simulation in my trusty crock pot. And guess what? You can! Oh, I know it's not authentic, but it sure was tasty. And now that King Arthur has posted a recipe for how to make Cuban bread at home (great minds must have been thinking alike!), I can use the leftover pork to make one of my very favorite sandwiches, the Cubano. A Cubano is made with the special Cuban bread, yellow mustard, some sliced Cuban pork, sliced serrano ham, swiss cheese and pickles (but traditionally, never mayo, lettuce or tomatoes). Then there is another version that's served on sweet, eggy bread (try King's Hawaiian rolls or Portguese sweet rolls if you can find them) called a Medianoche sandwich, so-called for being a tasty, midnight snack in the night clubs of the 40's and 50's (or so sayeth the Wikipedia).

However, with the pork roast I made, I just fashioned a basic pulled pork sandwich on some kaiser rolls that I happened to have. The wonderful bloggers over at An Endless Banquet (from whom I swiped this recipe) recommend serving this with a simple salad of carrots, lime juice, scallions, and cilantro, which I actually think would make a great topper for the sandwich if you used shredded carrots--kind of like southern pulled pork barbecue sandwich with cole slaw or chow-chow on top. But I used one of my own homemade condiments instead, a carrot-ginger-garlic-hot pepper sauce that I made to sell at the farmer's market last year. Delish! And then, of course, you MUST serve your Cuban pork with black beans and rice. You can make your own black beans if you have the time and desire, but in a pinch, Trader Joe's makes decent canned ones. Here's a pic and the recipe:

Puerco Asado a la Cubana

(Source: adapted from

bone-in pork roast, 3-4 lbs.

Adobo Marinade:
2 whole heads of garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried oregano (preferably, Mexican)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoons ground bay leaves (I didn't have any ground, so I threw in 2-3 whole ones in with the pork while it marinated)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sour orange juice or lime juice (I used a combination of 3/4 cup frozen limeade concentrate and 1/4 cup frozen orange juice concentrate mixed with a cup of water which yielded a sweeter result)
1/2 cup dry sherry (I omitted this)
2 large onions, sliced thinly
fresh coriander (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Put the garlic, salt, oregano, cumin, pepper, (ground) bay leaves, and olive oil in a food processor or blender and puree. Add 1 cup of the citrus juice and mix. Rub this mixture all over the pork roast. Place the pork in a large, sturdy plastic bag (I used a huge Tupperware bowl with a lid) with the sherry (if using) and the onions. Marinate the pork overnight (or up to 48 hours), turning it on several occasions to marinate the meat evenly.

After the pork has been marinated, place it in your crock pot with the other cup of citrus juice and cook on high for about eight hours, or until it starts to fall apart and the bones come right out of the meat with no effort. The pork should have an internal temperature of well over 160º F when fully cooked, although Cubans like their pork well done, about 180º F. Shred your pork and season it lightly with salt and pepper. If you like, you can then dress the meat with a mojo sauce (recipe follows), but after tasting the pork that I made, I decided that it was flavorful enough on its own without gilding the lily. But that's a decision we each must make for ourselves...

Mojo Sauce:
1/2 cup olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, finely minced
2/3 cup fresh sour orange juice (or 1/2 cup fresh lime juice + 3 tablespoons fresh orange juice)
1/2 cup water
salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground oregano
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and a pale golden brown, being careful not to let it become brown, at which point it will begin to turn bitter. Stir in the lime juice, water, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper, and be prepared for the sauce to sputter a bit. Bring the sauce to a rolling boil. Turn the heat off and correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Let the sauce cool to room temperature, then stir in the cilantro. Serve the mojo in a jar, a bottle, or out of a bowl with a serving spoon. Shake or mix well before serving.

Before I wrap this up and post, I have an amusing story from the weekend to share. I was sitting in the living room doing something on the computer, when I heard a big ruckus in the front room. So I ran in there to see what had happened, and all three cats had gathered, and they were acting kind of manic and making weird noises. Then I notice that they were all looking over at the pine shelves where I keep my overflow of pots and pans and bakeware and such. And LOOK at what was perched on my stock pot! Somehow, a young starling had found its way into the house (I suspect, through a torn screen in the basement).

Before Fat Felix (pictured) and the rest of his evil cohorts could do the birdie a great mischief, I scooped them all up and locked them in the back bedroom. Then I opened the front door and proceeded to try to flush the bird out of the house with a broom. But he kept flying around and missing the door, eventually crashing into a window (poor thing). So while he was still circling the airport, I scooped him up and set him out on the porch railing to collect his wits for a few minutes before he flew off. I guess spring is finally here!