Chocolate Cupcakes

These beautiful little babies are your basic but sooooooo good chocolate cupcakes. They're the kind of thing that you continue to think about after you've eaten the last bite. Like four hours after. And if you're anything like me, you go back again and again, cutting about a third off of another one every half hour or so. As if it's better to eat another whole one if it's done in pieces over the course of an hour and a half.

The first time I used this recipe, it was to make a cake. At eight months pregnant, I had torn out a page from Better Homes and Gardens at my OB's office during one of my three hour very-much-worth-it-waits (for what I have to believe is the best doctor living here on Earth). The recipe was titled "Quick Chocolate Cake" and it said prep time was 5 minutes, bake time was 35. Done! Sounds wonderful. Let's rip this guy out and stuff it in my bag while no one's looking. Months later I came across the recipe and decided to try it. What did I have to lose? About 40 minutes and some basic pantry ingredients? And this was no loss. This was a find. A gem. A keeper. And what's more...I realized after the fact that it's vegan. That's right. Don't be dismayed. If you're skeptical or turned off right now, forget I mentioned it. If you need something to bring to your weirdo vegan friends' pot luck...you've come to the right place. Now, of course, let's be honest...I slathered fresh vanilla buttercream frosting all over the poor vegan cake. But you don't have to and the cupcakes will still be good. Promise.

The cake was a hit around the house with the husband, in-laws, etc. and I decided to use it for cupcakes. They were perfection. I made a batch of giant "we-have-no-shame" ones and a batch of smaller, more respectable ones. Both turned out beautifully. Serve with either the frosting of your choice or freshly whipped cream. Yum.

                    3 cups all purpose flour
                    2 cups sugar
                    2 cups cold water
                    2/3 vegetable oil
                    1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I like Rapunzel)
                    2 teaspoons baking soda
                    2 teaspoons white vinegar (wha?)
                    1 teaspoon salt
                    1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients. Beat with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until well combined.

Pour batter into a greased muffin tin. For large cupcakes, bake 25-30 minutes. For small cupcakes, bake 20-25 minutes.

Serve frosted or with freshly whipped cream.


Makes 12 large or 24 small cupcakes.

From Better Homes and Gardens July 2009.


Chicken Gorgonzola Salad with Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes and Pine Nuts

Admittedly, this salad may not be brimming with innovation or creativity...but it is fresh and light, and  perfect for a summer weeknight meal. Our tomato forest is finally starting to produce the most beautiful sweet, bright and colorful heirloom cherry tomatoes - I think the endless Southern California marine layer this year has had the plants a bit confused. The fruit has been there forever and only now is it starting to ripen. It's so exciting to see beautiful pops of red, and yellow after weeks and weeks of checking nervously to find only more tiny growing green babies as well as growing signs of caterpillar destruction!

I have found the best way to prepare this salad is by boiling and shredding chicken breasts. Of course, you can grill the chicken if you like, and even serve the breast in it's entirety if that's your thing, but there is something texturally about the shredded chicken that really floats my boat. Now let's spend a moment on boiling chicken. It is very important (and I mean very) to not overcook the chicken. This is best avoided by keeping the water at a very gentle rolling boil - if you cook it at a high boil, you'll end up with dry, rubbery chicken and that a happy eater does not make. Once the water is boiling, add the chicken and a pinch of salt. After six or seven minutes (or less, depending on the size of the breasts) check the chicken often by cutting down the center. You want the chicken to be just barely cooked through, as it will continue to cook a bit once you take it out of the water. Let it cool slightly, then shred.

          1 lb. chicken breast, cooked and shredded
          8 oz. mixed greens
          1/2 pint heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
          1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
          1/4 cup pine nuts

Toss all the ingredients together with your favorite vinaigrette.

Makes two large, or four small portions.


Honey Lavender Ice Cream

I've seen this flavor combination pop up here and there over the last several years, and being a fan of both, it has always sounded like it would be right up my alley. Recently, while watching Merryl Streep make it for Steve Martin in It's Complicated, I nearly got up from the couch in an effort to attempt it right then and there. The impulse passed and I didn't act on it, but the timing this week was perfect as Dan and I decided to cut out refined sugar for a couple of weeks. I've never sweetened ice cream with honey before and let me just say this: wow. There is something about using a liquid sweetener (honey, maple, agave, etc.) rather than granulated sugar that changes the composition, resulting in the most deliciously creamy and smooth ice cream you've ever tasted. Be warned, though - there is a caveat...this ice cream will not freeze as well as homemade ice cream usually does. For those of you who like your ice cream hard (like ME), you must know that this ice cream will be softer than your typical liking. However, I found the flavor and texture to be so delightful that I really didn't mind, and that's saying a lot. I've happily bent many a spoon on hard ice cream in my day. I did end up freezing the ice cream overnight to make it scoopable, instead of the standard two to three hours after churning I usually go for, and it was delicious. If you like a softer style ice cream, you will think you have died and gone to ice cream heaven and want to eat it right away.

                    1/2 cup honey
                    1/4 cup dried lavender
                    4 egg yolks
                    2 cups milk
                    1 cup heavy cream

Bring the milk, cream, honey, and lavender to a gentle boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and let steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain and let cool a bit.

In a separate medium bowl, beat the egg yolks, then gradually add some of the warm milk mixture, whisking as you pour.  Pour the warmed eggs back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain again into a bowl.

Set the bowl over a large bowl of ice water. Stir the custard until cool, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (3 hours or overnight).

Freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 quart.


Ahi Sashimi Bowl with Tofu and Orange Sesame Vinaigrette

Taking inspiration from the fabulous Heidi Swanson's "Sushi Bowl", Dan and I have been making this every Monday night for quite a while now. It's a light, healthy way to start out the week after typically having indulged one way or another (or another!) over the weekend, and I'm always perfectly satisfied without feeling stuffed and weighed down when it's over. This one's a keeper, folks.

The beautiful flowers are Tatsoi blooms. Those of you who frequent this site know that I love to eat flowers and these little babies are no exception. Tatsoi is an Asian mustard harvested for the greens. The flowers remind me of my childhood - they taste similar to the mustard flowers that bloomed all over the hills in the area where I grew up. Before the Tatsoi from our garden went to seed, we were lightly sautéing the leaves and adding them, too. I haven't been able to bring myself to pull the plants out yet - their  delicate and mild-flavored little blossoms are too delicious and continue to spring up.

                    2/3 lb. sashimi grade ahi tuna
                    1 package soft tofu
                    1 cup brown rice
                    1-2 avocados, sliced
                    1/4 cup chopped scallions for garnish
                    2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
                    torn nori pieces (optional)

For the vinaigrette:
                    1/4 cup orange juice
                    2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar
                    1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
                    1 tablespoon soy sauce
                    1-1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Rinse the rice and and add to a medium saucepan with 1-2/3 cup water. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer. Let cook for 45 minutes, or until water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let stand an additional 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

Toast the sesame seeds by heating and tossing them in a small pan over medium heat until light brown and fragrant.

For beautifully cut sashimi, cut the ahi into 1"-wide blocks with the grain along the length of the fillet. Then slice the blocks into 1/4" thick slices against the grain. For a great video tutorial on the art of cutting perfect sashimi slices, click here.

Slice the tofu into 1/4" thick slices and pan fry them over medium heat to brown on either side. remove from the heat and cut again into dominoes of desired size.

Place the rice, sashimi, tofu, and avocado slices in a bowl and garnish with scallions, toasted sesame seeds and torn pieces of nori (optional). Generously spoon the vinaigrette over the top.

Makes 2 healthy servings. 


Pan Fried Halloumi with Lemon and Fresh Herbs

For months now, I have been wanting to try this very simple dish from Donna Hay. God only knows why I waited so long. Making this requires only the simple tasks of pan frying sliced halloumi cheese and picking some cilantro and mint from the garden. A little segmented lemon really brings the flavors together. Please don't skip this part!

If you haven't cooked with halloumi before, you can thank me later for bringing this incredibly tasty and versatile ingredient into your life. You'll wonder how you made it this long without it. And speaking of long, halloumi has been around for centuries...literally. Since the Medieval Byzantine period, where it originated in Cyprus, this cheese has been popular in Greece and the Middle East. Made from both goats' and sheep milk, it's somewhere between a fresh mozzarella and a salty firm feta. What makes it extra special is it's high melting point. You can fry it or grill it without it melting and running all over the place. It holds it's shape and browns beautifully AND no oil or butter is needed. It's also wonderful fresh in salads or on sandwiches. I just read that Cypriots eat it with watermelon in the summer. Will have to try this!

                    sliced halloumi cheese
                    small handful fresh mint and cilantro
                    segmented lemon

Pan fry the halloumi slices over medium high heat for about two minutes on each side. Garnish with mint, cilantro, and lemon.

From Donna Hay.


Borrego Blueberry Muffins

I know, I know. More baking? I can't help myself.

Dan and I had strategically scheduled vacation this week, and silly me had visions of us playing on the beach every day with James...building sand castles and soaking up the sun. But after weeks and weeks of gloomy, cloudy, gray skies (Monday it was actually raining on my head on our morning walk), it was time for a getaway. My brilliant husband had the idea of heading east - to the westernmost extent of my beloved Sonoran desert. I jumped online and minutes later we had a condo booked for two nights in beautiful Borrego Springs. Interesting fact about this place: Borrego Springs holds the unique distinction of being the only California community completely surrounded by a state park (Anza-Borrego, the largest desert state park in the nation).

I had never been before, but Dan grew up going to Borrego and knew I would love it. And I did. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We had three lovely days of welcomed heat and gorgeous views of the expansive desert mountains surrounding the area. James loved going in the pool for the first time, and seeing frogs, dragonflies, rabbits, and lizards.

And I made these muffins. These glorious muffins were - dare I say it - THE BEST MUFFINS I HAVE EVER MADE. Yep. I combined the dry ingredients ahead of time and mixed in the melted butter, egg, buttermilk and fresh blueberries right before popping them in the oven on our first morning. Now, naturally, I thought they would be good. Blueberry muffins usually are. But wow. The buttermilk made for an incredibly perfect interior and a slightly tangy flavor that really worked with the blueberries. I added some coarse sugar on top for a beautiful texture contrast and the whole shebang was a huge success. Thank you Nigella Lawson (again). It really is the little things like this that make for warm and fuzzy feelings when you're away from home.

6 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 large egg
1 cup fresh blueberries
coarse sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a muffin pan with paper cups. Melt the butter and set aside.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat the buttermilk with the egg and melted butter. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix to combine. Don't worry about lumps. They make for better muffins. Don't overmix!

Fold in blueberries and keep the mixing to a minumum.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups and sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake for 20 minutes and let cool on a cooling rack.

Makes 12 small muffins.

Adapted from Nigella Lawson, How to Be a Domestic Goddess.


Rose Water and Apricot Financiers

It is far too convenient to have a favorite recipe that uses 4 egg whites after you've just made ice cream calling for four yolks. Each time I make ice cream with the standard custard base recipe that I like, I happily save the whites knowing we'll be enjoying some financiers in the very near future.

In this case, I decided to use the rose water that had been sitting unopened for a couple of weeks patiently awaiting it's triumphant debut. Now I know not everyone loves the taste of flowers...the subject is not new to this blog. If you're one who doesn't do flowers in your food - then please move along. There's nothing to see here. However, if, like me, you have a palate for floral notes, then enjoy these little gems.

Financiers are really best the same day. This recipe makes twelve, and if you only want make half a dozen, you can save the batter in the fridge for the following day. It keeps really well. Just be sure not to stir it when you're ready to use it. Spoon it right in.

          1/2 cup unsalted butter (or 1/3 cup melted butter if you're not making the beurre noisette)
          2 tablespoons rosewater
          1/2 cup ground almonds
          1 cup powdered sugar
          1/4 cup flour
          4 egg whites
          a dash of salt
          a handful of dried apricots, very thinly sliced

To make the beurre noisette, melt the butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat. Once it begins to boil, turn the heat down to low, and continue to cook. All the solids will separate from the liquid. Cook until the butter has reached a deep golden brown color. Remove from the heat, let cool a bit, and strain. Once strained, you should have about 1/3 cup of the liquid left. Let cool to room temperature (or at least lukewarm).

Preheat the oven to 375 and position a rack in the center. Lightly grease the inside of 12 small muffin tins.

In a medium bowl, combine the almonds, sugar, flour, salt and egg whites. Mix on low speed until the ingredients have combined. Then add the brown butter and beat on medium speed until the batter is smooth. Add the rose water and beat just to combine.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and bake for about 10-12 minutes. Take the financiers out of the oven, arrange the apricot slices on top, and put back in the oven for another 3-5 minutes or until golden brown. The tops will be soft and sponge-like. Let cool on a wire rack before enjoying.

Makes 12 financiers.


Herbed Ricotta Spread

We had a small dinner party recently, and I thought this spread would be a beautiful appetizer for showcasing some of the fresh herbs that are really starting to take off in our garden. It was also a perfect match for the warmer weather we've been having - light and fresh, yet luscious. Because I was pressed for a time, I used a container of store-bought part skim ricotta, but making my own (click here) would have been even better. To keep it delicate, use part skim ricotta. For a slightly heavier spread, go with whole milk ricotta.

                    15 oz. ricotta cheese (1 container if using store-bought)
                    5 tsp. chopped fresh oregano (I used Greek)
                    5 tsp. snipped fresh chives
                    4 tsp. minced fresh parsley
                    1 small clove garlic, finely minced
                    sea salt to taste

                    sliced rustic country bread to serve

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. Serve with fresh, warm bread.



Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream

As much as I like Mexican chocolate, I've always preferred to nibble on a little piece rather than make hot chocolate with it, which is what it's most known for. The combination of dark chocolate, cinnamon, and coarse sugar is unusual and spectacular, but that should come as no surprise, since it was the Aztecs, after all, that gave chocolate to the world. They ought to have known a thing or two about what to do with the stuff. The Aztecs had adopted it from the Mayan Culture, and drinks made of chocolate combined with honey, nuts, seeds, and spices were used in rituals by priests and nobleman. Chocolate was so valued that it was even used as a currency. Naturally, the Spaniards fell in love with it (who wouldn't?), and upon taking it back to Spain, it became the official drink of the King. Europeans began preparing it with milk and sugar, and hot chocolate became all the rage.

This chocolate, with it's rustic and earthy appeal made for some incredible ice cream. If you're not familiar with it, you'll find it in the international aisle of most markets. It's sold under the name Abuelita or Ibarra, and comes packaged in boxes of discs that are made up of small triangles.

                    1 1/2 discs Mexican chocolate
                    2/3 cups sugar
                    4 large egg yolks
                    1 cup heavy cream
                    2 cups milk
Put the chocolate and cream in a large, heat-safe bowl. Set it over a saucepan of simmering water and stir occasionally until the chocolate has melted and is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and set a mesh strainer across the top.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and sugar over medium low heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

In a separate medium bowl, beat the egg yolks, then gradually add some of the warm milk-sugar mixture, whisking as you pour. Pour the warmed eggs back into the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain the custard into into the chocolate mixture and stir until smooth.

Set the bowl over a large bowl of ice water. Stir the custard until cool, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (3 hours or overnight).

Freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes about 1 quart.


Baked Risotto with Spinach and Pine Nuts

Because risotto is rather buttery and decadent, I limited myself to just a small serving of this indulgent dish. And I really wasn't left wanting more. The stock, parmesan, and butter made for a rich and flavorful combination, so a few luxurious bites was satisfying and perfect. I'm not one for a whole plate of risotto as an entrée - the thought alone overwhelms me. But as a side dish I'm all in.

Never having made it before, I was pleasantly surprised at how simple the preparation was. Baking risotto is as easy as combining the arborio rice with stock in a baking dish, covering it with foil and popping it in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Then a little butter and parmesan gets stirred in, as well as whatever else you are in the mood for - mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. Baby spinach and pine nuts were delightful, but for me they always are. I'm adding this to my "perfect for entertaining" list.

                    1 1/2 cups arborio rice
                    4 1/2 cups chicken stock
                    1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
                    1 1/2 oz unsalted butter
                    sea salt and cracked black pepper
                    2 oz baby spinach leaves
                    1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 350.

Place the rice and stock in an 8 1/2 x 12" baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until most of the stock is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Add the parmesan, butter, salt, pepper, spinach, and pine nuts and stir until the butter is melted. Serve immediately.

Makes four servings.

Adapted from Donna Hay.