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Demanding Desserts: Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free (& Delish) Bolognese Torta di Riso

Our friend Leona (so dubbed for his ever so slight similarity to the demanding hotelier) invited us to dinner this past weekend and as I generally do, I offered to bring dessert. As an accomplished cook, lovely friend, and one of the few people not afraid to invite us over for dinner (sigh…), I am always happy to bring something along to Leona’s, particularly since he’s gluten-free and such baked goods are few and far between. This time around, though, he went all-out throwing-the-phone-at-the-maid on me and specified a dessert that was not only gluten-free, but dairy-free as well. Lord.

Now, this isn’t nearly as complicated as it may seem, what with decent gluten-free all-purpose flour blends and various types of vegetable shortening. And yet… shortening? Blergh. I think not. So, a recipe with no gluten and no butter OR shortening. Pavlova? Ehh, with no whipped cream (CREAM) or fruit curd (BUTTER), it’d seem a bit spare. Daquoise? Same issue.

I was discussing this challenge with Dae Dae, our PassionFruits European correspondent, and she suggested a torta Bolognese, an Italian cake flavored with citrus and nuts, but mercifully sans flour and butter. Intrigued, I put my google-ing hat on and got to it. Turns out  that torta Bolognese is a cheesey baked pasta dish… neither gluten-free, dairy-free, or even a dessert. Undaunted, I pressed on to figure out that she’d been talking about torta di riso, which does indeed have candied citron and ground almonds and relies on rice for body. SOLD!

Four different “ricettas”, some iffy Google translating, a few adjustments, and voila, we have cake! It’s basically rice pudding that gets almond flour, egg yolks, and candied citrus peel mixed in and then lightened with beaten egg whites. Of course, I had to fudge a bit on the whole dairy thing, but I think using almond milk to cook the rice rather than cow’s milk is TOTALLY legit.

Legit, and delicious. Cake-y around the edges, slightly pudding-y in the middle, and suffused throughout with the flavors of almond, citrus, and vanilla, this was a big winner. The starch from the rice held everything together, but the beaten egg whites kept it from being gluey or heavy, a common fault of gluten-free baked goods. Instead, it was lush and creamy–without, mind you, any actual cream. Perfect not just for the gluten-free or lactose-intolerant, but even for the most demanding of dessert divas!

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Secret Vegetarian: Eggplant & Walnut “Meat”balls

I found this neat-sounding recipe whilst putzing about online one day at lunch last week. From Alice Medrich’s genius brownies at Food 52 I somehow managed to wend my way to Oui, Chef and these tasty little “meat”balls.

Given that these days everyone and their mom seems to have some crazy food preference or issue –real or imagined–it’s nice to have a stable of vegetarian, gluten-free, non-dairy, paleo, and psycho-friendly recipes at the ready. I’d think that water would be the only thing that meets ALL of those criteria, but despite JUST being vegetarian, these sounded quite tasty, with roughly ground walnuts and eggplant subbing for the usual meat.

Tasty they were, though I decreased the cheese by half and added some red chili flakes for some pop. Tossed with a quick tomato sauce and snuggled in a nest of pasta, they made for a great supper, and I’d imagine they’d be great in a sub or atop a pizza as well.

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When Waiting for Dinner and/or Summer: Fig Jam

There are many reasons, I suppose, that cheese and crackers is such an evergreen entertaining staple. It is easy, doesn’t have to be expensive, and pretty much everyone except the lactarded (raises hand) loves it. Of course, ubiquity has its own drawbacks, boredom being chief among them. The question, then, is how to keep the combo from going stale… metaphorically, at least.

I’m not about to start making my own cheese though, and if I’m going to make crackers they’re going to be sufficiently awesome to not need cheese on top. That, then, leaves the third point of the cheese, crackers and… whatever triangle. Frankly, the “whatever” part is often the most fun to futz with. Fruit, nuts, shmears of honey, or dribbles of balsamic; these can all wake up a cheese plate with their presence.

And while baked feta and goat cheese with jalapeno jelly are both really fun, sometimes one needs something a little more deconstructed…. a little dish that friends can customize and fiddle with while I finish up dinner preparations. It’s nice to whet the appetite and give them something to do, if only to keep them from offering to help.

Enter this lightly spicy, wine-dark fig jam. Great with a variety of cheeses, from mild to sharp and soft to firm, it’s perfect for this time of year when there’s not much going on in the produce department yet but the desire for little al fresco nibbles is running high. The figs are simply simmered in wine with a little chili and shallots adds their regal oniony background. Cutting both into ribbons makes for a compulsively scoopable, tangly mess that ’s great with cheese and crackers, but could also add verve as a sandwich spread or as a pan sauce for chicken or pork.

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Saying Bon Voyage with Coconut Mango Cake

As I was saying last week, there are few of life’s circumstances that aren’t improved by cake. Even the kind of crappy things can be made less so with the judicious application of, you guessed it, cake.

Last weekend I again found myself deploying cake to make a bittersweet goodbye a little less bitter and a little more sweet. On Saturday, we bid a fond farewell to friends moving to Chicago. I’m very sad to see them go, of course, even though it’s for an excellent new job in an exciting new city. Obviously, a cake was necessary. And, while the savories focused primarily on their new home (mini deep dish pizzas, Chicago dogs, etc.), I looked to our friend’s Filipino origins to inspire the bon voyage cake.

With that “tropical” memo in mind, I started with two layers of coconut cake–replacing the milk with coconut milk and folding in some shredded coconut–then sandwiched them around a layer of mango pastry cream. A marshmallow-y seven-minute frosting got coated in more coconut and topped with thinly sliced mango. It looked very pretty and was quite a hit with everyone, even those that got the leftovers the day after!

While the cake itself was pretty rad, with a moist, bouncy crumb and a distinct but not overpowering coconutty-ness, I was not super thrilled with the mango pastry cream. It was a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. Mango just seems like one of those flavors whose potency wanes dramatically the further you get from the raw fruit. Maybe steeping the peels in the milk would impart some of their sharp, jungly funk, but I’m going to recommend a passionfruit curd filling instead. That’s a flavor that holds up, and would be really great with the cake and fresh mango topping.

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On Sweetness & Life: Grapefruit-Tarragon Poundcake

Upon reflection, I’ve recently copped to the fact that I am a total cake-pusher. To my mind, there is no occasion that is not improved by the addition of cake. Not just birthdays or weddings, though there’s little I love more than coming up with just the right birthday confection for a friend. And I maaay have bullied at least a few couples into having cakes at their weddings that would otherwise have forgone this sweetest of nuptial traditions. (“Think of the pictures!” I say, and I mostly mean it.)

But beyond those obvious events, cake should still always be welcome. Whether a humble loaf that lengthens a quiet afternoon tea with a friend or a grandiose, beglittered tower shining over a swanky soiree, cake is the sweet exclamation point to so many of life’s adventures, big or small.

This cake, flavored with tarragon and grapefruit, is a perfect harbinger of spring. But I’ll always think of it as engagement cake. Like my recent engagement to the lovely (and long-suffering) Mr. T, this cake also took a while to come together, but was ultimately very worth it. How, though, are they related?

Well, I popped the question to a (relatively) unsuspecting Mr. T the day he became an American citizen, which happened to fall on the week of our 11th anniversary and Valentine’s Day. (So trite I promise you it was an accident…) After our celebratory dinner we came home to a box of Recchiuti chocolates, our traditional Valentine’s Day indulgence.

As we generally do, we each selected a chocolate and cut them in half to share. Our favorite new piece was the tarragon ganache topped with a piece of candied grapefruit peel. Even in the chocolate, both flavors were pure and strong and really, really good together. I resolved to recreate the the pairing in some other form as soon as possible… which, of course, wasn’t till last week. In my defense, though, researching wedding venues is no small chore, and I also had to candy some grapefruit peel to start with.

Having candied the grapefruit peel a few weeks ago (here’s my take on candied orange peel, just use grapefruit instead), I finally got my act together to bake the actual cake last weekend. I wanted to serve it as an accompaniment to the grapefruit-lemon honeycomb I had planned for our secular spring chocolate bunny luncheon (you know the one…). The pairing proved a winning one, but the cake is quite amazingly good on its own.

As with the chocolate that inspired it, the cake’s combination of flavors is unusual and invigorating. The tarragon’s sweet, grassy, anise notes provide a dynamic counterpoint to the grapefruit’s bittersweet citrus tang. Delicious uniqueness aside, this is a perfectly behaved tea cake as well–moist and long-lived–and it pairs perfectly with an afternoon cuppa.

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Snack Upgrade: Cheese Straws Go to Finishing School

These cheese straws are pretty heroic: rich, crispy, and totally cheesy. Think turbocharged Cheez-Its. They’re the perfect thing to bring along to a dessert-centric after-dinner birthday party like the one Mr. T and I are off to this evening. I’ve found with years of throwing parties of all sorts of permutations that even the sweetest occasion needs some savor. These play well with drinks of any variety, are compulsively munchable, and will provide a welcome salty contrast to things like birthday cake.

The original recipe, from The New York Times‘ Kim Severson, calls for orange cheddar, and I’m sure they make for an excellent cheese straw.  However. I am both enough of a snob to look slightly askance at orange cheddar and enough in the thrall of Julia Child to know that Gruyère can make anything better. As for the Parmesan, well… because Parmesan! Honestly. Along with a more varied slate of cheeses, I also bumped up the supporting cast of spices, all of which add focus and depth to the different strands of cheese flavor.

The dough is simple and short and comes together quickly. The critical issue here is temperature. The original calls for either extruding the straws with a cookie press or rolling them by hand. The former is fine, IF you’ve got a cookie press, but the latter seems to me a recipe for melty frustration and sticky disaster. Thus, we borrow a temperature management technique from the perfect sugar cookie recipe and pop the rolled dough into the freezer for a few minutes.

This makes all the difference in the world and enables the production of long, slender wands of cheesy deliciousness that won’t put the baker completely round the bend trying to get them onto baking sheets.

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Brendabread: The Only Zucchini Bread Recipe You Need

Yes, I know. Another quickbread. Nothing like finding a theme and sticking to it, right? Right! In any case, I am SO EXCITED to share the best. zucchini bread. evar. This is a family heirloom recipe that I have been dying to get my hands on, literally, for years. Of course, the family in question is not quite my own, so that probably has something to do with how long it’s taken me to extract the recipe. That, and having to rely on teenage boys to do… well, just about anything.

This recipe, you see, comes from Brenda, mom to the WonderTwins’ friend-since-childhood, Mikey. And we’ve been the lucky recipients of a  ”brendabread”–so called by WonderTwin A–every Christmas since forever. Even now that even the WonderTwins and their friends are, well, if not ALL, then mostly grown up, a long, foil-wrapped loaf of brendabread will still magically appear right before Christmas, where it is usually demolished in seconds… by wolves. We have nothing to do with it,  I swear.

This Christmas, however, I was smart enough to hide our annual brendabread  in the back of the refrigerator behind some very suspect leftovers, so we could enjoy it on Christmas morning. And enjoy we did, because as always, it was SO GOOD. Really. I mean, Proustian nonsense aside, this is really great stuff. Even better, I finally managed to get the recipe itself thanks to Mikey’s very organized wife. (There’s just something about blonde first-born children, isn’t there, Martha?)

Anyway, the recipe! Its success is all about balance and a restrained touch, I think. While the bread could accommodate far more of just about everything (spice, zucchini, raisins, nuts), it’s really perfect as is. Lushly moist with an even, tender crumb, it’s not too sweet and has just enough mix-ins to keep things interesting. Their relative sparseness makes it all the more exciting when you run across a plump raisin or toasty walnut.

As always, be sure to read the notes after the recipe for additional info.

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Not-So-Southern Cornbread

So, I really wasn’t meaning to continue my ramble through Southern foodways, but here we are. I had some buttermilk leftover from my red velvet cake-making adventures and was looking for a good way to use it up when my daily Tasting Table email dropped fortuitously into my inbox with the perfect recipe for cornbread-one that called for buttermilk–courtesy of the chef at Carriage House, a restaurant in Chicago. And, for real, this is some EXCELLENT cornbread right here.

Southern purists will likely have to look away, though, as this is a sweet, light cornbread–more in the Northern style–that remains nonetheless redolent of corn and full of flavor. I happen to find it better than the more austere Southern versions, and really, how could I not with the embarrassment of riches stirred into the batter–honey, eggs, butter, butermilk, AND sour cream. Not so much healthfood, then, but there’s kale salad for that.

I also ended up baking it in a 9×13″ baking tin rather than a 12″ cast iron skillet, which shockingly even I do not possess. The world didn’t end, however, and I imagine that it’s actually easier to portion than the round would be.

Lightly sweet, lightly savory, totally delicious–and like all quick breads, absolutely dead easy. We’ve been enjoying it for several days now, with salad, with chili… just about anything, I think, could be improved with a few of these golden yellow squares served along side.

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