orange chocolate chunk cookies

orange choco chunk

For the first time since I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, it feels like winter. This morning when our darling child woke us up at 5:30 in the morning it was a crisp 28 degrees outside. That is pretty uncommon for the Silicon Valley where the wardrobe consists of light terry Google hoodies and flip flops year round. The day after Thanksgiving, we went to chop down a Christmas tree up in the nearby mountains and expecting it to be chilly (since it was the last day of November), we bundled up in coats and scarves and went along our merry way. By the time we actually reached the tree farm we had stripped down to our last layer and were happy we had remembered deodorant. I was roasting, and felt like I should be taking a dip in the pool instead of kicking off the Christmas season. Thankfully, this week it really feels like Christmas is only two weeks away (yea, I’m not ready either!), so I’ve joyfully jumped into cookie baking mode, and this time, I won’t be dreaming of having an icy cocktail by the pool!

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Cookies are the perfect gift for someone who isn’t particularly on your Christmas list but you’d still like to let them know you appreciate them. I mean, who doesn’t love an assortment of home baked cookies around the holidays? The best part is they are easy to prep ahead of time, allowing you to focus on the things that really matter like keeping grandma from giving your son a swig of egg nog and your husband from knocking over that freshly poured glass of red wine with his new nerf gun. So, if you make the dough in advance, freeze it in pre-portioned sizes, all that’s left is some oven time and a little sprinkling of salt and voila! you have a fast and thoughtful gift for the carpet guy when he comes to get that red wine stain out of your dining room floor.

orange choco chunk-2

These cookies would be excellent with toasted pecans or walnuts. You could even sub the dark chocolate for good quality white chocolate and add cranberries, that would be delicious. (more…)

December 9, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . baking, chocolate, cookie, dessert, quick and easy. 6 comments.

you are the chocolate to our mousse

Until tonight, I never quite grasped how important Julia Child was to American cooks. I have read her endearing memoir and flipped through her cookbooks, but until tonight, I had never cooked through a full recipe of hers (unless you count a basic vinaigrette). Last week, my husband gifted me a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s a classic and one that I believe every home cook should have. Although I’ll likely never prepare an aspic or de-bone a duck, there are so many recipes within these pages that will be part of my permanent collection. Her recipes are straight forward, impeccably on point and explained perfectly. There was not one confusing thing about this chocolate dessert, which for a maiden mousse voyage, proved to be very helpful.

Tomorrow would have been Julia’s 100th birthday. People from all over the globe are celebrating the contribution she made to the culinary world through her extraordinary life. She effortlessly empowered men and women to become better cooks, to be fearless in the kitchen and to love what they do. One of her most famous quotes, “Never apologize!” seems unfit coming from such an accomplished chef, but her accomplishments did not come immediately. In her memoir, My Life in France, she recounts a meal she made for a friend that was nearly inedible, but instead of apologizing and offering something else, she just powered through it and moved on, without a word. Her husband Paul, quipped in some letters to his brother that Julia was not a great cook at first, but she was determined and she improved every single day until eventually she commanded the kitchen. What an inspiration! We all begin that way don’t we? No one starts something they know little about with the skill of an expert, we learn as we experience and as we do.

Although Julia got her start later in life, she made a monumental impact. I can’t imagine what she would have accomplished had she started in her 20’s. Who knows where we would be now, having had that much time with Julia. Her life, her love and her relentless dedication to the kitchen has shaped us, and for that we are better people and supremely grateful.

Julia, you are the chocolate to our mousse, and we thank you for the light of your life. Happy birthday darling.

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August 14, 2012. chocolate, dessert, gluten free, quick and easy, vegetarian. 12 comments.

roasted peaches with gluten free crisp and creme fraiche

When I plan a meal, I have several check points I go through. I want to be sure that the meal is comprised of ingredients from the current season, and that on a whole, the meal feels cohesive from start to finish. If we are having friends join us, I also try to plan a dessert of some sort. This is usually my favorite part of the meal and the item I spend the most time thinking about. I’m a self diagnosed sugar fiend, so naturally this area excites me the most.

Most often, I like to dream up desserts that have several elements and can take hours, but when we are planning a meal for the middle of the week that doesn’t always work out very well. Unless we just decide to forgo dinner altogether and serve dessert alone, I better think of something a little more speedy.

During the summer, I tend toward the natural bounty of fruit that needs little done to it, if anything at all. Fresh peaches, while amazing in cobblers and crisps, can be divine all by themselves and as far as I’m concerned, make an excellent dessert. However, roasting them for a bit and then topping them a sprinkle of crisp and a dollop of creme fraiche won’t make anyone I know turn up their nose.

There is a lesson to be learned in this recipe: dessert does not have to take hours to be awesome. I’m going to repeat that to myself: dessert does not have to take hours to be awesome. This is a great mantra for me to remember. Too often I jump right to something unnecessarily complicated. Maybe after repeating this to myself a few hundred times I’ll think more simply the next time I want to make a dessert that takes three days.

This dish is just as versatile as it is quick. You can use whatever fruit is available at your farmers market, in fact I think apricots would be delicious here, so would plums or nectarines. The crisp topping can be frozen and used to stir into yogurt or crumbled onto pies, I also think it could be a great base for a granola too. (more…)

August 12, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , . baking, dessert, fruit, gluten free, quick and easy, summer, vegetarian. 5 comments.

double chocolate chip cookies

There is a good chance I’ll never be famous for anything. That ‘s not meant to be self-defeating, in fact, I don’t know that I’d like all the attention. I mean, who wants people to follow them around taking pictures of their cellulite, bad hair days and unfortunate run-ins with the law? I’ll stick to my quiet life in which my transgressions (cellulite related or otherwise) are kept mostly under wraps.

For some, fame isn’t a choice, it shows up on it’s own, often uninvited, knocking at your door whether you wanted it to or not. In the case of Diane Smith and her infamous chocolate chip cookies, the news was impossible to contain. After making these cookies for years, in massive amounts, satisfying many a sweet tooth, the probability of this secret staying in the recipe box was as likely as an orange tree producing apples. My guess is, “Can I have this recipe?” is the single most common query she receives. For young brides, mastering these cookies is a rite of passage into their matrimonial duties, and for the single men looking to impress a lady, successful execution could be the very thing that changes their relationship status forever.

Over the years, I have had the delectable pleasure of eating many more of these famous confections than one ever should, but had never made them myself, probably for good reason. Months ago, I baked through a batch with the legend herself, as she gave me tips along the way. On paper they look like any run of the mill chocolate chip cookie, but out of the oven they are nothing short of amazing. The cookies I share with you today are an adaptation of the original but still hold the elements that make this one of the best cookies I’ve ever had. I hope Diane doesn’t mind those photographers hiding in the bushes waiting to see her with chocolate on her face. I’m sure they are just hoping that she carries a dozen of her cookies in her purse at all times. (more…)

June 24, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , . baking, chocolate, cookie, dessert, quick and easy, vegetarian, Whole Wheat. 23 comments.

cherry tartlets

Remember when you were 13 and the last person on earth you wanted to confide in was your mom? According to my adolescent logic, my mom had no idea what kind of life I had to live or what sort of choices I had to make. She was put on this earth to irritate me and meddle in my very important business. There was no advice, no insight, no knowledge she could offer me that I didn’t already know, after all, I knew everything.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I began to realize the humanity of my mother. I imagine the vast majority of us, even my own mom, have gone or will go through this very process. As I began to live on my own, do my own dishes, pay my own bills and make real life altering decisions, I realized, I needed my mom. I needed that advice I never took as a teenager and I needed her learned perspective. Finally understanding that she had lived through all of these things years before (not too many years mom, I know) helped me see what a resource she could be in my life, and that maybe we would begin to see each other not on different teams, but on the same one, together.

My husband lost his mom when he was 18, years before we met. I’m not sure if he ever made it to the stage where he appreciated her point of view and began to see her as a friend, but I know that if she were here now, he most certainly would. As we are now on the path to starting a family of our own, I think he would really love to sit down with her and ask what it was like for her to try to get pregnant, and how it felt when she finally did. I’m certain he would like to know if the feelings I have are in fact normal and what ways are best for showing his support of me.

This rolling pin belonged to her. As I was rolling out these small pastry shells I was wondering what it was like for her to feel a similar butter speckled piece of dough under her hands, rolling them out into petit circles. I wondered if we would bake together and if we did, what we might say to one another to pass the time. I’d love to ask her what Jon was like as a small boy, maybe gaining some insight into what our kids might be like one day. Most of all, I would have liked to find in her a friend, a confidant, just like I have in my own mother. From what others have told me, our personalities would have matched perfectly.

I believe every mom looks forward to the day when their children cherish them and their opinions. Though it’s a hard road traveled, I’m sure the destination is a great reward. If you’re a mom, thank you for fighting the good fight and when you’re in the thick of it, remember your children will grow up and one day they will call on you for your advice and will, I hope, find in you a faithful friend. (more…)

May 31, 2012. Tags: , , , , , . baking, dessert, fruit, vegetarian, Whole Wheat. 9 comments.

a collaboration + a wedding cake

There is something so incredibly exhilarating about collaborating with other like-minded creatives. The process is stretching and challenges us to see our talents in new ways and even pushes us further than we would normally go on our own. This past weekend, I headed home to the mountains again, this time for a styled bridal collaborative with some local artists. Joleen from Joleen Willis Photography was the mastermind behind the shoot, birthing the idea and then convincing all of us to come along for the ride. For me, it was a chance to step into some uncharted waters, and although the way was a little bumpy at times, I learned a lot and ultimately contributed something I am very proud of.

Our inspiration was Morocco, which is such a rich culture to draw from. The color and vibrant nature of the landscape was an easy example to follow when I was planning the food and tablescape. I chose to use some fairly traditional items for the table such as mint tea, olives and cous cous. For the main plated dish, I made a carrot salad with black rice, macrona almonds and mint, drizzled with a light harissa vinaigrette. The salad added just the right amount of color and texture to the table.

      (image by Joleen Willis Photography)

     (image by Joleen Willis Photography)

As with most weddings, dessert (most often in the form of cake) is one of the main attractions. Personally, I’ve only liked one wedding cake in all my life. I remember loving it so much that I was trying to figure out how to stuff some in my purse without being noticed. However, on every other occasion it has been something I might as well skip, which if you know me at all, skipping dessert is just something I don’t do. I figured it must be quite difficult to make a wedding cake worth it’s price tag, and ultimately, completely enjoyable, even to the point of wanting a doggy bag. So, when this project came up and I was able to explore what might make a great cake, (in taste AND appearance) I learned a few things. First of all, wedding cakes are difficult. They require a lot of work, hours and hours to be exact. Second, you don’t only have to use white or yellow cake. There are so many options out there, people! Thirdly, wedding cake CAN taste good. Like, I want a whole one to myself good.

Although this cake made me the most proud out of anything I’ve ever made to date, it still wasn’t perfect. If you can see, it leans a little because I was too lazy to get dowels to anchor it in place, not to mention I didn’t even out the cake layers like a real wedding cake baker would. However, even with all it’s faults and its Tower of Pisa qualities, it was still the best darn wedding cake I’ve ever had. Not the prettiest, but the tastiest. I feel a little weird writing this because it feels over the top conceited, but I’m telling you, this cake was really that good.

For the cake layers, I used a carrot cake recipe from Stella Parks, pastry chef at Table 310 in Lexington, Ky. It’s the best recipe for carrot cake out there. I’m in love with it and will continue to use it forever. The opposite layer is a nutmeg cornmeal cake. I used these two together because they have a tendency to stay moist, not to mention I thought they would compliment each other well, and they did. After all the layers were made, I smothered it all in an orange cinnamon cream cheese frosting. It was, in fact, the icing on the cake.

I garnished to top of the cake with candied kumquats and mint. Those sweet little citrus gems are something I’d like to have in my pantry at all times. They would be perfect on ice cream, a cream tart or simply fished out with gooey, sugary fingers.

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May 9, 2012. baking, cake, Candy, dessert, fruit, gluten free, quick and easy, vegetarian. 17 comments.

apricot bars

Do you ever sit down and consider how blessed you are? After a weekend with family and the dearest of friends, the blessedness of my life seems to be as clear as ever. I find it easy to confine myself to the daily distractions, struggles and occasional disappointments that come with living in a city, never leaving room to step outside and view life from a wider angle. Whenever I go home to the mountains, my thoughts grow wider and clearer with all the extra room to breathe. Maybe it’s in part because of all the open space or just the simple joy of fresh pine in the air mingling with smoke billowing from a smoldering wood stove. It might be the slower pace of life or it could be the darkness that falls at night allowing me to gaze at the blanket of stars above, reminding me that I’m smaller than I think I am. Slowing down is easier when I’m in the mountains and spending time on the porch with coffee and a best friend while passing the time chatting about less weighty matters, tends to be a requirement.

I feel very fortunate to live within just a few hours of the rest of my family as well as one of my truest friends. It’s easy to drive up after a busy week and unwind in what feels like the wilderness, comparatively. When I stay with Joleen, in her sweet little cabin in the woods, we often bake together, enjoying the fruit of our labor on the porch swing, in our pajamas, with a tall cup of coffee, admiring the beauty of our surroundings. This time of year, the mornings are still a little brisk, warranting long pants and a light sweater, but warm enough for bare feet. We prop them up on the railing, balancing a plate of frittata or biscotti on our laps, cupping our mugs in our hands as we catch up on life. It’s one of my absolute favorite things to do.

Let me share our view from the porch: Isn’t it lovely?

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April 23, 2012. baking, breakfast, cookie, dessert, fruit, jam, quick and easy, vegetarian. 79 comments.

goat cheese ice cream + the best way to see me at my worst

There is nothing like a Zumba class to make me feel like a complete idiot. It encompasses everything I’m terrible at, all in a one hour class. First of all, I hate going because I’m averse to working out. I generally talk myself out it, reasoning that I’d better stay in tonight to rest up for the huge workout I’m planning for tomorrow. In the off chance someone invites me to go to a Zumba class with them at the gym I pay a lot of money for and never use, and I can’t find a reason to decline, I will usually go. Not because I want to, but because I’m mostly driven by guilt and would feel bad saying no. Waiting until the last second, I get into work out clothes, which isn’t so bad, since they’re really just tighter pajamas that accentuate my rolls styled with a super tight bra that flattens the only two things I have going for me and I head over the gym trying not to think about how much worse I’m going to feel about myself in about 30 minutes. Since this is a very popular class at the gym, I have to arrive at least a half hour early to get a number or I won’t get in. I could hop on a machine and get a head start on my work out, but let’s not be silly, we both know I’m not going to do that. I’m going to catch up on 30 Rock or Up All Night on my iPhone while I wait. A few minutes before the class starts, they begin calling numbers and people file in. They all sort of spread out as much as possible and hope for a good smelling partner. Of course they won’t know until the sweat starts pouring. I position myself strategically in the middle because that’s the spot with the least amount of mirrors. I can only see myself straight ahead and that’s only if I accidentally stop hiding behind the woman in front of me. The teacher shows up, a skinny Latina who knows how to shake it, and the music starts pumping. She usually starts us off slow which gives me the false sense that I might actually be getting the hang of it, and then warm up is over and I’m tripping over myself looking like I slammed a few shots of vodka on the way in. I am just about the whitest person there in skin tone and on the how-well-can-you-shake-your-hips-and-look-super-sexy-while-doing-it scale. To make matters worse, the more steps I miss, the more I can see myself missing them because the cute little lady in front of me who is not missing a beat can no longer shield me from seeing my round marshmallow man body trying to dance like a latin heart throb. It’s a heinous sight to behold. As the class goes on, the steps get increasingly more difficult and unfamiliar so I’m basically shuffling my feet and moving my arms around which barley raises my heart rate above a nice good stretch in the morning. Somehow, my body is still all damp and sweaty, and I realize it’s everyone else’s sweat accumulating in the room. Yep, I’m drenched in everyone else’s sweat. This just keeps getting better. After the class, my work out buddy asks if I want her to pay a dollar to reserve my spot in the class for next week. I say that I’ll need to keep next Tuesday night open just because I never quite know what’s going to come up. Then she offers again, and then one more time, so I look at my calendar before I concede and see we are house sitting next week. Darn it. The following week isn’t looking good either. Maybe we can get together for ice cream instead?  (more…)

March 13, 2012. Tags: , , , , , . dessert, gluten free, vegetarian. 3 comments.

spiced applesauce cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting

The gift giving season is upon us, which means we will spend much of the next few weeks thinking about how to bring joy to our family, friends and neighbors. What a wonderful time of year! It is important for us to look outside of our undoubtedly busy, stressed and sometimes overwhelming lives to see those around us who need to know that there is some one who appreciates them. This expression can take many forms, either in a material gift or in an act of kindness requiring only an open heart. They can be humbly handmade or lovingly purchased with abundant wealth, either way, they are from the deepest part of who we are and express a desire within us to bring happiness to those we care for.

My favorite way to give gifts is from the working of my own hands. In actuality, that is my favorite way to receive them as well. There is something hidden in gifts that require a labor of love that just doesn’t seem to come through with something store-bought. Knowing that I am able to create something for someone is the ultimate giving experience for me. Naturally, I’m best at creating things that are sweet and edible and so I tend to bake a lot during the holidays. It is a great (and sometimes inexpensive) way to give to those around me who I wouldn’t normally be able to give purchased gifts to when Christmas comes around. Cookies, bars and small cakes in jars are some of my standbys while quick breads like pumpkin spice and banana nut are wonderful wrapped up in waxed paper finished with a neatly tied bow on top. This applesauce cake would be a great item to bring to one of the many parties you’ll be attending this season, and could also be transformed into a wonderful gift if placed into a mason jar with frosting and nuts filled to the top. Tie a ribbon around the lid and secure a small spoon in the bow and you’ll have a gift anyone would appreciate.

I hope this season is filled with joy while you give to those around you and that the gift you receive in return is a heart full of unending gratitude.  (more…)

December 3, 2011. baking, cake, dessert, quick and easy, winter. Leave a comment.

pear and almond tart

The words I’m about to write are hardly conceivable and make my heart race. We are leaving for Europe in two weeks(!).  I seriously can’t believe it. I feel like we have been planning this trip for years and now it’s right around the corner. We begin our trip in Rome and then we’ll move along to Paris for Christmas and New Years (I know!). It sounds like a dream, and I imagine it will feel that way for the duration of our trip, only to awake as we descend on SFO on New Years day.

In preparation for our time abroad I have been reading books, blogs and just about anything I can find on our destinations. Admittedly, I’m mostly focussed on the food culture, being sure not to miss one succulent morsel. While searching for places to eat in Paris, I’ve read quite a bit from blogger and previous Chez Panisse pastry chef, David Lebovitz. As I was searching around on his blog I came across a peculiar recipe for a pear and almond tart with a very interesting dough as the base. Since I wanted to make something with pears for Thanksgiving this year, I decided I’d give this strange tart a try, and as a bonus, it would get me even more in the mood for all things Parisian. (more…)

December 1, 2011. baking, dessert, fruit, winter. 3 comments.

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