Dessert

Chocolate. Cake.

Once upon a “second time around,” (and I really do mean the second time around, since I completely destroyed the first cake batter), in a mythical land between “rich” and “too dense to handle,” a mere mortal pulled a chocolate cake from the oven. It was perfect. I felt like Hozier playing lead guitar for Annie Lennox at the 2015 Grammys.

Entering my equivalent of hell….baking. Say what you will of the stigma associated with designer boxes of cake mix, they work the same way every single time. Yesterday afternoon, I got to thinking about cravings and desserts – cookies, ice cream, cake, frozen yogurt….are they really mutually exclusive when what we want is anything made with chocolate? We seem to feel a desperate need to pick a favorite chocolate dessert to explain the random hopelessness that is staring into a full pastry display case. Usually, we choose for the sake of variety. Eating too much of the same thing weighs on the palate and nerves. After what seems like an eternal internal monologue of “I’m not really a brownie person,” we suddenly realize we’re nervous about committing to the slice of chocolate cake. Will the dessert gods smile and relieve us of guilt? Or will we sigh and grab a bottle of water and a Be Kind bar? (Not to hate on the Be Kind brand, because those things are definitely responsible for 15% of my existence.)

I put little stock in the idea of “the perfect chocolate dessert,” but I have a very strong belief in searching for the perfect chocolate cake.

Never mind that when the first cake was in the oven, I realized I’d forgotten 2 of the 3 liquid elements and vanilla extract. It was the sort of scenario I have nightmares about: the equivalent of Jack Dawson freezing to death and sinking off that piece of the Titanic into the ocean, while I’m in my seat yelling at Rose that “Myth Busters” proved there was plenty of room for both of them.

Speaking of mythology, in every myth, there comes a point where the tragic hero is given a test. Unfortunately, the way this hero responds does not determine their ultimate fate, because the tragic hero is doomed to be benefited and limited by their super-ability for all eternity.

I didn’t want my cake to become urban myth content, so I started over. Everyone in my apartment must have heard me swearing and banging just-washed mixing bowls around.

It was worth it.

Chocolate Blackout Cake

For an 8-inch cake pan (I experimented with both round and square, so you’re covered boo.)

  • 1 and 1/2 sticks Unsalted Butter, diced
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 3 large Eggs
  • 1/2 cup Mayonnaise (Don’t question it. Just use it. Your cake will stay moist and be spoon-tender.)
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 1 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 cup Cocoa Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Baking Powder
  • A large pinch of Kosher Salt
  • 1/2 cup Low-Fat Buttermilk (It’s in the dairy section, I promise.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350-degrees and grease whatever pan you’re planning on using.

(If you have a stand/hand-mixer or immersion blender whisk attachment, this next step will work much more efficiently. A whisk works just as well, but it will take more elbow grease.) Combine the butter and sugar together until a thick paste forms and no butter lumps remain – it will look like frosting-in-a-can. Don’t fret, you’re not reading the wrong recipe. Cake is coming.

Add the eggs one-at-a-time, whisking thoroughly after adding each egg. Remember to scrape the side of the bowl! Add the mayonnaise and vanilla, and whisk again.

In a separate bowl: Combine the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder. Sprinkle a large pinch of Kosher Salt over the top – you can’t have sweet without some salt. Gradually add this flour mixture to the egg mixture (Add, Whisk, Add, Whisk, Add, Whisk. This process should have three-ish parts to it.) Pour in the buttermilk and whisk together.
Pour batter into greased cake pan and bake for 27-30 minutes-ish, until firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.Cool for 10 minutes before removing the cake from the pan. To complete the blackout cake process, pour Easiest Chocolate Ganache Ever over the top, recipe below.

Easiest Chocolate Ganache Ever

Heat 1 small container (the itty-bitty-one that only looks like, 1 cup) heavy whipping cream in a saucepan over Medium Heat until simmering. Pour 8 ounces (the standard Nestle bags are usually 10 ounces) dark chocolate chips into a heat-proof bowl (that means glass, y’all). Put out 1 tablespoon unsalted butter to warm to room temperature.Once the milk is simmering, pour over the chocolate chips and let stand (seriously, don’t do anything, or I’ll cut you) for five-ish minutes or until the chips are melted. Stir in the room-temperature butter until the ganache looks like something out of a sexual fantasy. Pour over cake, ice cream, brownies, etc.

chocolate blackout cake

Do I need to caption this? Come on.

 

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie: A Ridiculous Rhyme and A Legacy Recipe

First, a poem I composed while drinking wine and packing for my Thanksgiving flight up north.

‘Twas the day before Thanksgiving, and all through the house
The scent of ground cinnamon saturated my hair and my blouse;
My apron and sweater hung forgotten in the corner;
My prep list was making me wish I were a foreigner;
A disposable pie tin nestled all snug in its plastic,
While visions of burnt crust made my task unenthusiastic;
With Jay-Z, Cher, and Blink-182 on shuffle,
I was ready to settle for buying a Godiva truffle (or twelve);
When out in the living room there arose such a sound,
It was my cell phone – as always – bringing me something profound;
An e-mail from my mother pops up with a flash,
Calming me just before my teeth started to gnash;
The recipe for my late Grandmother’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie,
Was enough to make me heave a relieved sigh;
Losing her this year is still raw and I miss her so dearly,
Maybe by making her pie – my favorite growing up – I’ll be able to feel her presence clearly;
It’s simple enough – nothing strange or profound,
And all my holiday memories are full of me eating slices by the pound;
More rapid than eagles my inspiration came about,
Enough to rid my mind of any shadow of a doubt;
It’s pie crust, and filling, and a meringue, to boot,
The directions so simple, there couldn’t be a more clear route.

For my Grandmother, who laughed at my foolishness and never complained.

 

I apologize for the ridiculous rhyme. It’s my first Thanksgiving without my maternal Grandmother, the classic iteration of a Japanese-American farm matriarch, and I’m not quite ready or certain about what to write. The fact that I’m making the pie always associated with her – she made it last year, with the exception of the crust, since the arthritis in her hands made her unable to roll out the dough – hasn’t fully absorbed yet.

I’m tearing up, and I haven’t even written the recipe yet. Just know that this is copied almost directly from an ancient edition (1950s or earlier) of a Betty Crocker/Better Homes and Gardens/equivalent recipe book. The pie crust recipe is a combination of various experiments, and doesn’t include directions for a food-processor, since my Grandmother couldn’t afford one.

This is the lightest pumpkin pie I have ever had, and probably have yet to have.

My Grandmother’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

For The Crust (9″):

Don’t freak out at the weight measurements! Those proportions come from the incomparable pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, who believes measuring cups are for sandcastles when it comes to baking. (Buy his shirt at Flavour Gallery if you agree.)

  • 1 and 1/4 cup (200 g) All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 teaspoons Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 g) Cold Unsalted Butter – Cut in Cubes
  • 3 tablespoons Ice Water

Combine the dry ingredients with the cold butter – use your hands, get dirty – until it becomes the size of small peas/coarse meal. Add the ice water and knead lightly until the dough becomes a ball. Pat the dough into a round disc, wrap in plastic, and chill for 1 hour.

Once the dough is chilled, roll out to your liking. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or until light golden brown.

For the Pie Filling:

  • 1 envelope Unflavored Gelatin
  • 2/3 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • Cinnamon
  • 1 and 1/4 cup Pumpkin (use Libby’s. Make life easier on yourself. Besides, any other variety will use a lower quality squash and not actual pumpkin.)
  • 3 Eggs – Whites and Yolks Separated and Saved
  • 1/2 cup Milk
  • 3/8 teaspoon Cream of Tartar
  • 1/2 cup Sugar

In a saucepan, combine the gelatin, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, pumpkin, egg yolks, and milk over Medium Heat until it just starts to boil. Let cool.

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until frothy, then beat in the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture is stiff and glossy. (You’ll feel it get difficult to mix.)

Fold the egg white mixture into the pumpkin mixture and pour into the baked pie crust. Cool for at least three hours.

No whipped cream necessary for enjoyment.

Pumpkin Pie

Patience is a Virtue I Apparently Don’t Have: Truffles (The Chocolate Kind)

It’s finally happened – a valuable experience and great recipe system that tasted fantastic….that I’m never going to use again. Ever.

Everyone deserves chocolate. The people skilled enough to work with it on a regular basis have always received volumes of respect from me. Primarily because, per usual, I’m petrified of messing up an expensive ingredient.

There’s a chocolate shop by the wonderful Jonathan Graham within walking distance of our apartment that we frequent much more often than we should. We try to go whenever a newly developed flavor gets advertised on Twitter or Instagram because we’re stereotypical twenty-something with an extreme reliance on social media.

On one of these excursions, I fell into conversation with Chef Graham himself. We chatted about the usual Wonka things: how his pine-nut truffle surprised my palate, why Scharffen Berger chocolate’s 70% cacao dark is delicious even though it almost burns the tongue because it’s so bitter….and my fear of working with various weighed forms of sugar, butter, cream, and other sweet mix-ins. I’m no world-renowned chocolatier, as I was soon to discover, but I agreed to try making truffles.

Per always when I’m intimidated with dessert-related things, I took to Twitter to contact Johnny Iuzzini. Holy cow, this man’s social media accounts are a security-blanket gold mine for people having sweet-toothed troubles. Soccer moms with upcoming bake sales, sexy singles hoping to catch his eye with provocative comments, culinary students wanting to follow in his footsteps, and now my dog-and-pony show all constantly seek his words of wisdom. As always, I was hugely grateful for a prompt response.

My second attempt at making the ganache was extremely successful, thanks to his advice. The final truffles had a great texture and decadent, luxurious flavor.

A Sydney-Proof Guide to Truffle-Making:

Chop 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate.

Per the successful instructions of Johnny Iuzzini: Bring 1 cup of heavy cream to a simmer over medium heat. Add the chocolate to the cream in three parts, stirring from the center with a rubber spatula. Once the chocolate and cream are completely mixed, melted, and emulsified, finish with 1 tablespoon of butter and a pinch of salt.

Flavor the ganache by whisking in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract OR 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract with 1/2 teaspoon almond, orange, mint, raspberry, or cherry extract.

Mix peanuts, almonds, Nutella, or shredded coconut into the ganache, if desired. I chose Nutella, because it tastes like spoonfuls of lust in between love-making sessions.

(Note: For any sort of flavor resulting from liquid….i.e. espresso, tea, brandy, bourbon, rum, Grand Marnier….this will need to be mixed/infused into the cream to taste, brought to a simmer, then strained before re-simmering and starting the first step of mixing cream with chocolate. No one said this was a quick process, people.)

Stir the ganache until smooth and shiny. Refrigerate for three hours to overnight until firm.

Once the ganache is firm, use a tablespoon to roll into balls. Roll these proto-truffles in: cocoa powder, crushed nut brittle, crushed toffee bars, crushed cookies, shredded coconut, or chopped toasted nuts.

Once the truffles are coated, refrigerate or freeze until firm.

So why am I ending my fling with truffles? Well…..I’m not always one for instant gratification. Slow, steady, and sensual is a phenomenal way to go. I just didn’t have the patience to sit around and wait for these damn things to solidify. The multiple steps….stress over the ganache texture….I’m not sure if it was one or multiple things that turned me off.

Life must go easy on us, and our food. If you’re blessed with patience or an extreme love of chocolate, this won’t seem like too much of a commitment. Please ride with your truffles into the sunset. I will happily support your union…..from the Godiva counter.

Challenge Accepted: Cheesecake

There are certain people I will always be happy to wake up text messages from.

My friend Kenji is a pretty rad guy. I can’t say much more without you actually encountering him, because it wouldn’t do his personality and talents justice.

“So….cheesecake. Do you know how to make such a thing?”

I hadn’t made cheesecake since a high school boyfriend made the same query during senior year, and it didn’t turn out well. But I also haven’t seen Kenji since we graduated from UCLA, so cheesecake seemed as good a reason as any for a reunion.

Challenge accepted. (By the way NPH….I hear your man is a caterer….)

In typical Curating My Cooking fashion, I started my cheesecake research notes. With things I’m ridiculously uncomfortable and nervous about (i.e. all things sweet),  I check with the trinity: Tyler Florence, Alton Brown, and Johnny Iuzzini. Tyler Florence is all about to-the-point, get-‘er-done, accessible “ultimate” versions of favorite recipes. (Hence why “Tyler’s Ultimate” still reruns on the Food Network, and hasn’t been weeded down to the Cooking Channel.) Alton Brown is food science: he’ll tell you exactly why his methodology will work on point every single time. And Johnny Iuzzini is….Johnny Iuzzini. Really? Do I have to justify his dessert wisdom at this point? Google his pedigree if you have any doubts.

I was already batting 0.67, because according to Twitter, Iuzzini was in Mexico doing chef things. Cool. Now the badass pastry chef is unavailable for me to contact with recipe anxiety.

Cut to me flouncing dramatically away.

Tyler Florence’s recipe was incredibly helpful, but the directions were vaguely worded. Then I found (thank you, YouTube pirates) the “Good Eats” cheesecake episode. And all was right with the world. This cheesecake turned out damn good – good enough to take the leftovers to work and have a sorrowful and tear-filled parting.

Challenge Accepted Cheesecake (based on Tyler Florence and Alton Brown’s recipes):

For the crust:

  • 30 graham cracker squares – finely ground – Do this with your hands and a Ziploc bag. Do not go the lazy person’s route. This is not only a great way to get out anger and tension….but also a great way to make sure your crust doesn’t turn into a uniform blob of yucky. (Also, bonus points if they’re cinnamon graham crackers.)
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • 1 stick unsalted butter – room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

For the Filling:

  • Two 8 oz. blocks of cream cheese, softened (as close to room temperature as you can get them)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 lemon’s worth of zest
  • Vanilla extract to taste

Equipment Arsenal:

  • A small springform pan – I’m talking 6 to 8 inches. Any bigger, and you’ll want to double this recipe
  • A disposable foil roasting pan – big enough for the springform pan to fit inside. (Don’t stress, I’ll explain later.)
  • One quart of water

Turn your oven to 300 and start bringing the quart of water to a boil.

While the oven is preheating, coat the springform pan with nonstick spray.

Combine crust ingredients until crumbly, then press crumbs into the pan and as far up the sides as they’ll go once the bottom of the pan is covered. Toss in the oven for ten minutes ish (until it gets golden…or you can smell the deliciousness creeping out of the oven door), and let cool completely.

While the crust is baking/cooling, get the filling locked and loaded.

BEFORE YOU START: Let me emphasize that cheesecake is really straight-forward in terms of preparation. But it’s still easy to f**k it up by overworking the filling. The second the filling gets smooth, stop messing with it. Overstirring will break down the mixture too much, and you’ll have a hell of a time getting it to set.

Start by pouring the sour cream into the bowl and whipping it up a bit. This lubricates the bowl and whatever you’re using to mix the ingredients together so the cream cheese won’t stick and look/feel yucky. Get your jokes about lubrication out of the way now.

Done yet?

Stir in the cream cheese until it’s smooth and free of lumps. Add the eggs to the mixture one at a time and beat slowly until combined. Add the sugar in stages as well, and beat until creamy.

Sydney, it’s really annoying to add ingredients in parts. Why do we do it?
Great question. I’m really happy you asked.
With any form of dessert, adding ingredients in parts really affects the texture of whatever you’re making. A good dessert should be fork tender – luscious and delicious. It shouldn’t take work to eat. It shouldn’t be grainy. Doing things in parts is the key to getting great consistency, and therefore flavor and happy smiles.

Once the filling is creamy, stir in one lemon’s worth of zest and vanilla extract to taste.

Pour the filling into the springform pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Jiggle the pan a bit to loosen any air bubbles that may have formed.

Pay attention now, I’m going to tell you why you needed that big ass roasting pan.

Fold aluminum foil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan and go up around the sides) however it needs to be folded to surround the springform pan. Place the foil-wrapped pan in the roasting pan.

Carefully (!!!) pour the quart of water you’ve been boiling into the roasting pan. (The goal is to have enough boiling water to go halfway up the sides of the foil-wrapped springform pan.)

Open the oven door, lock and load your potholders, and CAREFULLY (please, please, please don’t scald yourself. I would never be able to forgive myself if you did.) place this entire contraption in the oven.

Bake for one hour, or until the sides are set and the inside is still a bit jiggly. (Yes, it’s supposed to be jiggly. If you let the inside cook all the way through in the oven, your cheesecake will crack and dry out.)

So why this boiling water/roasting pan contraption? What the hell is this?
Another great question, I’m so happy you asked. Cheesecake isn’t actually cake….it’s a custard pie. When making any form of custard, it’s always best to cook it in a water bath so the entire mixture cooks evenly. With any form of a cakepan, the most heat from your oven is coming from the top to the bottom. This is fine for regular cake, but with a custard mixture, it’s a really easy way to curdle the inside, since the outside will cook a LOT faster than the inside.

After taking the cheesecake out of the oven, let it cool in the pan for thirty minutes, then lift the pan from its foil home (careful of extra water spilling out), cover the pan (I used a miscellaneous glass pot lid), and chill in the refrigerator for at least four hours….maybe even six hours.

When it’s time to serve your masterpiece, run a knife under warm water and loosen the edges of the cheesecake from the springform pan before releasing it.

Not the edge of glory. Glorious.

It’s Not Just For Soup Anymore: Miso Ganache

Before I started driving myself to high school, I looked forward to foggy or rainy days.

But not because I was about to meet Ted Mosby and have his children.

Foggy and rainy days meant Mom “surprising” me with a thermos of miso soup to eat in the car on the way to school. We never talked much, since I insisted on listening to the local radio station’s morning show. I should have asked her for the recipe. I still can’t make miso soup as well as my mother. The thought of making another type of signature miso dish never occurred to me until I came across the phrase “miso ganache” in a “Food and Wine” magazine article.

Fascinating.

I had a movie-worthy moment of Spock logic. I have no idea why it sounded so appealing. As I’ve said numerous times, desserts intimidate me. I realize there are humans I could speed-dial or Tweet with recipe anxiety….but this only had three ingredients.

For those of you who think they’ve heard the word “ganache” before, but aren’t quite certain you’re thinking about the right thing: ganache is a sauce made from chocolate and cream. It’s usually used as a base for truffles, cake filling, or icing. In this case, it’s the sauce itself as an extremely delicious topping for ice cream.

Don’t think the combination of miso and chocolate sounds strange, either. Miso is salty. Chocolate is sweet.

I won’t clarify more, because you’ll think I’m over-justifying. Just try it.

Miso Ganache

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup HOT heavy cream – bring to temperature in a small saucepan
  • 3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate – chopped
  • 1 tablespoon awase miso – “Mixed” miso, for those of you who don’t regularly frequent Japanese markets
  • Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

This is incredibly simple. If you blink, you’ll miss the instructions.

Pour the hot heavy cream over the chocolate and LET STAND for 1 minute. Don’t touch it. Don’t mix it. Don’t stir it.

Whisk in the miso until the consistency of the ganache is smooth.

Serve over ice cream.

I told you it was quick.

Fast. Messy (because you’ll smear it all over your face in provocative, delicious manner. Divine.

“Bark” Desserts Aren’t Only for Cold Weather

I grew up in Northern California, and consequently have huge appreciation for Ghiradelli and Scharffen Berger chocolate. I’ve toured the factories, looked up the histories of their processes, and always buy their respective peppermint barks when bagged versions hit stores in Los Angeles for the winter holiday season.

I’m not entirely certain who I was trying to fool with that above sentence, but the truth is, I eat peppermint and mint ice cream/frozen yogurt as often as I can get it all year. So why not peppermint bark? Why not orange bark? It’s delicious, and ridiculously easy to make.

Remember, this is coming from someone who believes she is genetically conditioned against making dessert. Below is an accurate visual reference of what usually occurs when I consider baking.

This week, peppermint bark has turned my heart into a melted puddle of unicorn rainbow joy.

My Dad is a big on dark chocolate/orange things. Mr. Right (or rather, his entire family) enjoys the peppermint bark that mixes white and semi-sweet chocolate. So this one goes out to all the badass men in my life who make it seem like the holiday season year-round.

FYI: Writing this post was also a great excuse to create a Pandora Holiday station.

Peppermint Bark

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate – if you buy a baking bar, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • Peppermint Extract
  • 1 pound white chocolate – once again, cut into 1/2-inch pieces if you buy a baking bar
  • Candy Canes or Peppermint Candies (Crushed) OR your grocery store may sell peppermint pieces by the jar…but this takes away from the therapeutic nature of smashing this ingredient yourself

Line a baking sheet with foil – shiny side up.

Time to make the classic chocolate-melting double-boiler: Heat one inch of water in a saucepan until steaming and make sure whatever bowl you’re going to melt the chocolate in is nonreactive (i.e. glass) and can wedge in the top of the saucepan without the bottom of the bowl touching the water. – DON’T let any water get into the chocolate. I’m serious. This will kill the flavor of the chocolate, and that’s a buzz-kill party foul.

I now provide you with a guide to tempering chocolate that’s so easy to accomplish that my fears of working with chocolate have become permanently alleviated.

Sydney, what the f**k does tempering chocolate mean?

I’m so glad you asked.

Tempered chocolate is what non-pastry-chef earthlings like me inadvertently associate with professional chocolate products and desserts. Chocolate that has gone through the tempering process has a smooth texture and look, with a shiny finish. When you break it into pieces, it snaps crisply and cleanly. In other words – you eat with your eyes first, and tempered chocolate provides that.

Back to your recipe – it’s time to melt (and temper) the chocolate you’re working with.

Separate about 3/4 cup of the semisweet chocolate. Place the rest into the nonreactive/heatproof bowl you’ll be melting the chocolate in. Set the bowl over the saucepan of steaming water and stir until about one-third of the chocolate in the bowl melts.

Now, remove the bowl from the heat. The bowl has already heated enough to melt all of the chocolate. Stir in the reserved chocolate until melty goodness is achieved. If you need to, return the bowl to above the saucepan of steaming water for more heat power (but I doubt you’ll need to.)

Your chocolate is melted and tempered! Does it look shiny and pretty? Good. If not, you’ll get it next time.

Stir 3/4 teaspoon of peppermint extract into the chocolate and pour onto the foil-lined baking sheet. Spread it out evenly with a spatula or back of a spoon. Tap the sheet on your countertop a few times to get rid of any bubbles. Let sit at room temperature for 5 to 10 minutes (i.e. while you’re preparing the white chocolate.)

Put aside about 1 cup of the white chocolate, then dump the rest into a new nonreactive bowl (or be lazy about dishes like me and wash/dry the bowl you just used to melt the semisweet chocolate.) Repeat same melting process used above. Stir in 3/4 teaspoon of peppermint extract once fully melted, tempered, and pretty.

Pour the melted white chocolate over the semisweet chocolate and spread around evenly. (Some mixing of colors will probably occur here – don’t stress. It looks marbled and lovely.) Sprinkle with crushed peppermint.

Refrigerate for 1 hour or freeze for 30 minutes. When ready to serve, lift out of the foil and break into pieces.

Tidings of comfort and joy. No, really. I was actually unable to be sarcastic for a full hour after consuming this.

I realize I also promised you Orange Bark. I wanted to let you know that most dark chocolate is vegan….i.e. the Awesome Former Roommate and all your other vegan friends can consume this one with glee. Plus, dark chocolate is an antioxidant. So eat it and get happy, damn it.

To make orange bark:

Melt 1 and 1/2 pounds of dark chocolate using the double-boiler method described above. Set aside about 1 and 1/4 cups of the chocolate to stir in as described. Stir in 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of orange extract. Pour onto a baking sheet lined with foil shiny side up, spread evenly, and tap to get rid of any bubbles. Zest 1 orange over the top and sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate for 1 hour or freeze for 30 minutes. Break into pieces when ready to serve.

It’s enough to make me emotional.

Photoshoot-Worthy Lemon Bars

I present you with a fantastic photo taken by The Rock Studio of the recipe to come:

Sorry for the culinary narcissism, but I’m foolishly intimidated by baking, and these are so delicious.

I’m foolishly intimidated by all things baking-oriented. I’ve slowly managed to increase my dessert repertoire, but it still takes me almost twice as long to make desserts as recipe time blocks call for, since I get so concerned about screwing up. Thankfully, these lemon bars are very straight-forward. This is a spin on the “Sunburst Lemon Bars” in the Pillsbury Cookbook mother gifted me when I moved into my first apartment in Los Angeles.

When I think of lemon desserts, I think of acid. This isn’t the place to come for powdered sugar-oriented lemon bars….I pack these with acidic lemon flavor.

Ingredients:

Base Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup margarine or butter, softened – Yes, this is 2 sticks. Remember, this is for a tray of lemon bars, not a single serving. Butter makes for a flaky crust.

Filling:

  • 4 eggs – slightly beaten
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Juice of 3 lemons

Glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 or 1 lemon, depending on how thick/thin you’d like the glaze on top of the lemon bars to be

Turn your oven to 350.

Combine all the base ingredients together until crumbly (no raw flour hanging around anywhere) with your fingertips, a fork, or an electric mixer. Press evenly into the bottom of an ungreased glass baking dish. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the crust is lightly golden brown.

While the crust is baking, combine all the filling ingredients except the lemon juice. Whisk together until smooth, then whisk in the lemon juice.

Remove pan from the oven after the crust is lightly golden brown, and pour the filling over the warm crust. Return to the oven and bake another 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is lightly golden brown again. Cool for about an hour – however long it takes for the bars to completely cool down – after removing from the oven.

After the bars are cool, it’s time to put on the glaze. Combine the ingredients for the glaze and whisk together, adding more lemon juice or powdered sugar until the desired smooth consistency is reached. (I like the glaze to be thick, but barely translucent….i.e. with lots of lemon in it.) Pour the glaze over the top of the bars and tilt the baking dish to coat evenly.

Cut into bars when serving, and chill the tray if you’re not serving these right away. You’ll need a spatula to remove the crust from the baking dish….I know this seems obvious, but when there’s a golden tray of deliciousness sitting in front of you, you’d be surprised at how tempting it is to start hacking at the tray with a fork.

These were previously called, “Friend-Cementing Lemon Bars.” I serve them at my holiday party every year. They became photoshoot-worthy after getting inspired by Johnny Iuzzini’s first book, “Dessert Fourplay.” I know….but it was the closest thing to getting him in the kitchen with me. I’m sure if he actually spent time cooking with me he’d get annoyed with my lack of speed.

And if anyone reading is still feeling hesitant about making these:

I mean, that speaks for itself….right?

I don’t want to singe my eyebrows off, Chef: Bananas Foster and Johnny Iuzzini

My celebrity crushes are very different from those in my core group of friends. While they’re heading to movie theaters for Ryan Gosling and other shirtless men, concert venues for Adam Levine and Michael Buble, and Netflix for Jason Segel and Vince Vaughn, I reach for food magazines and culinary YouTube clips. Not that I can’t or won’t relate to the aforementioned lovely things. My tendencies just lie elsewhere. Something that gets me just as hot and bothered is watching Johnny Iuzzini’s pastry craziness.

Look him up if you’ve got time. He’s good cell phone wallpaper material, but his recipes and insight are just as valuable as his tattoos and smirk.

One day, not very long ago (okay, in January), I contacted him in a frenzy of nervous energy.

What’s a lady to do?

Unfortunately, a direct flight from New York City to Los Angeles wasn’t a roulette wheel option. I called my bluff and made Bananas Foster for the first time. It is now my go-to dessert for making first impressions.

It’s also fun to set things on fire and look like a beast.

Bananas Foster

Ingredients:

  • 1 orange
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or Triple Sec
  • salt
  • Bananas (duh)
  • Dark Rum

Melt the butter in a pan over Medium heat. Add the dark brown sugar and stir until caramelized (dark brown and ooey-gooey-looking).

Zest the orange into the pan and add the vanilla extract.

(Bonus Points: Use a peeler to peel off the orange zest in long strips, and you’ll be able to serve your dish with candied orange peel. Cue applause.)

Squeeze the juice of the orange into the pan. Then make like Bob Marley and Stir it Up, Little Darling. (I’m bad with puns. I’m working on it.) Add the Grand Marnier/Triple Sec.

Peel the banana(s) and slice lengthwise, then into chunks – quarters, thirds, whatever looks decent. Toss into the pan with a pinch of salt. (Yes, salt. Salt with sweet flavors is a necessity – it makes things actually taste sweet.) Baste the pan liquid over the bananas with attention and love until the bananas are golden brown.

All right. Deep breath. Time to light the stuff on fire. Ready?

Unscrew the top of the rum bottle and prepare to play with fire – literally. Remove the pan from the heat and add a few tablespoons of rum.

(Note: You can add more rum. I definitely do. But note that it will take longer for the alcohol to burn off, and there will be a much stronger rum flavor in the sauce.)

Tilt pan away from you and light it.

But how?

Option A: Tilt the pan away from you and tip the pan liquid toward the open flame on the stove until a flame goes up.

Option B: Use a match, stick lighter, etc. and hold the open flame above the pan liquid while tilting the pan AWAY from you. Be ready to pull your hand away quickly, because the flame can go up fast.

Option C: Have your significant other or very good friend light the pan contents for you while averting your face in terror.

Once the contents of the pan are on fire, return the pan to heat and wait for the alcohol to burn off. Don’t shake the pan to rush the flames along the way all the celebrity chefs do on TV. We mere mortals have to utilize patience, since we don’t have a studio audience to appease or a timed challenge to meet.

When the flames die down, the sauce should have thickened up and look like something worthy of licking off your celebrity crush’s body. To make sure the alcohol has burned off either taste it and re-light, or attempt to re-light it and see if any flames go up. (There may be some baby flame stragglers.)

Let reduce until thick and syrupy.

Serve bananas flambe warm with vanilla bean ice cream or whipped cream and drizzle the pan sauces poured over the top.

Eat with your feet placed on some sort of luxurious surface and your favorite guilty pleasure TV show.

I know, I didn’t wipe the bowl. But still. There’s a profound connection with the soul that happens when I eat this.