Friday, September 19, 2008

Say Goodbye to Summer with This Simple Summery Pie

Yes, some kids have been in school for a month already. Yes, I've been wearing a jacket to work for the past week. Yes, the sun is gone by the time I get home at night. But the official first day of fall is still a few days away, believe it or not.

It might not be beach weather anymore, but you still have time to whip up a delicious, summery pie before those turning leaves turn you to thoughts of apple, pumpkin, and pecans.
I got this recipe from Mom (actually her entry in an old Union County Cookbook), and it's almost too simple to be believed. Here's what you will need: 3 egg yolks, one can of sweetened condensed milk, and 1/2 cup key lime juice, plus a graham cracker crust and whipped cream. Now maybe this makes me lazy, but I think any ingredient list that I can count on ONE HAND should win some sort of award.

And the directions are just as simple: beat the yolks, stir in the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice, and pour into the crust. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, cool, and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Serve with whipped cream. The result is a smooth, tart, summery burst of flavor.
I was inspired to make this pie for the first time a couple weeks ago. Because my local grocery is Whole Foods, I wasn't able to buy a prepared crust, so I pulled out the iphone and quickly found a simple recipe for that as well: 1 1/2 cups crushed graham crackers, 6 tablespoons melted butter, and 1/4 cup sugar. Mix these together and press into a pie plate, then bake 8 to 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.
Making your own crust adds a nice homey texture to the pie and only adds about 15 minutes to the process. (Always assuming you're working with cooperative grahams; my first attempt involved some frighteningly resilient ones - considering how hard they were to break with a mallet, I don't want to know what they'd do to teeth.)
pre-baked crust, ready for filling
I baked my first pie conventionally - that is, in a conventional oven - but for pie #2 (about a week later - what else are you supposed to do with the rest of that lime juice?) I decided to test out our fabulous countertop oven. Originally I bought the oven for heating up party foods, which it does quite well, but this was my first attempt at using it as a real "oven" oven. The pie came out perfectly - not noticeably different from the first one - and without having to heat up the house by turning on the big oven. Too bad I learned this trick so late into the summer - would've saved some AC bills. Stay tuned for additional tests of the Delonghi oven...
Postscript: To me there is no greater testament to the simplicity of this pie than that, after reading a boastful email from me about pie #1, my friend Russ - admittedly talented at many things but not exactly known as a baker - was inspired to go home and make one of his own, and had made yet another one within a week (again, the leftover lime juice...). If you like lime-y-ness, and you like pie, there's no excuse not to try this yourself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Goat Cheese Stuffed Peppers, Round Two

Round Two of my quest for the perfect goat cheese stuffed pepper, or rather for the perfect recreation of the bite-size stuffed peppers I had my last night in Barcelona at the excellent El Xampanyet, took place a few weeks back. To refresh your memory, the first round of peppers was tasty but was too heavy on the garlic and, due to the use of peppadews instead of bell peppers, a little too peppery to pair with the subtle goat cheese flavor.

So, with Carrie coincidentally in town to help out with my next attempt, I next opted for a jar of fire roasted red peppers, also packed in brine (not necessarily the brand depicted here, but something similar).

I was delighted to find that the jar contained several whole, peeled bell peppers (I was prepared for pieces); soon after removing and draining the peppers, however, Carrie and I realized that filling these peppers whole and intact would result in an alarmingly large quantity of goat cheese per pepper - much more than any mouth would want to take on. (Just think of what a ripe bell pepper looks like, and imagine the interior capacity - quite a mouthful!) Instead, I ended up halving each of the roasted peppers lengthwise.

I used the same ingredients, in roughly the same quantities, as before: about 7 ounces of goat cheese, a minced garlic clove (minced by hand this time rather than with a press), and several finely chopped black olives (despite the fact that Carrie's not an olive fan, she actually didn't mind these once they were safely masked in the goat cheese), plus salt and pepper. Because I knew I'd be using the Ziploc trick to fill the peppers, this time I went ahead and put my ingredients directly into the bag for mixing. This requires significantly more kneading/mixing than does the deviled-egg filling (you don't want anyone getting a huge chunk of garlic in a single bite), but is achievable, and it saves washing a bowl. Then, as before, I snipped a corner off the Ziploc. With the halved pepper lying open on the plate, I squeezed about a 3/4" diameter log of the goat cheese mixture along its length, then folded, or rolled, the edges of pepper half up around the goat cheese. After doing this for each pepper half, I put the plate in the refrigerator to chill until dinner - about two hours.
When it was time to serve, I sliced each pepper/goat cheese log into pieces of about 1 1/2" in length. If serving these as hors d'oeuvres, you might want to secure each segment with a pick; this would ensure that the pepper remains secured around the cheese but would also allow guests to avoid handling the slightly slimy peppers. For our casual dinner, though, I left them as is. We thought they were delicious. The goat cheese mixture stood up well against the more subtle red pepper flavor, and the balance of garlic against goat cheese was just right as well. I think this may have had to do with avoiding the garlic press; the slightly larger, and less juicy, bits of hand-chopped garlic result in a subtler flavor (in my opinion at least).

The pepper strips were a bit messier looking and messier to eat than the tidily self-contained peppadews, but in general we were happy. I would say if you're looking for more goat cheese flavor than pepper flavor, this is your best option so far.
Lesson learned:

#1 Mixing the goat cheese mixture in a Ziploc bag works well and saves washing a bowl. (Apologies to the environment for the whole disposable plastic bag thing.)

#2 Hand-minced garlic results in a subtle garlic flavor that provides a better balance with goat cheese than does pressed garlic.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brady Bunch Lunch

It’s a seminal moment in life when one’s formative years resurface as pop culture nostalgia…. Wait a second. We’re reminiscing about the 90’s already? My copy of Jagged Little Pill isn’t even dusty!

But having your teenage years serve as fodder for VH1 is nothing compared to watching them turned into American history for the preteen-and-under set. For my sister, this milestone came last fall when her younger daughter saved up and bought herself the newest “historic” American Girl doll: Julie, a young girl growing up during the bygone days of the 1970’s. Leave it to the folks at Mattel to unearth rainbow patches and Jiffy Pop as essential artifacts of American history. In fairness, I can see that our nation is young enough that you quickly run out of relevant eras to commemorate – it may not be too long before they introduce “Madison, Girl of the New Millenium” complete with iPhone, Crocs – er, sorry, Rainbows – and Jonas Brothers cd.

At any rate, my Mom had a lot of fun whipping up a bunch of clothes to augment Julie’s peasant-blouse-and-bellbottoms wardrobe: tie-dye top, loud print dresses, and cranberry velvet ensemble worthy of Laurie Partridge, to name just a few. Another project she had in mind but didn’t get done in time for Christmas was a metal lunchbox similar to the accessory set you can buy from
American Girl . We tried to get this done in time for Christmas, but as often happens that time of year, other things took priority. I ended up taking it home with me, promising to send it to my niece (“Julie”?) ASAP, and giving her full permission to nag me until I delivered. (A crucial measure given my notoriously poor performance in actually finishing projects such as this.)

In fact poor “Julie” (and Julie) didn’t get her lunchbox until this summer – many stupid things factoring into the delay – but I believe she was pleased with the results.

Although I’ve tried my hand at many things, I am certainly no metalworker. Thus, to make this box I of course needed to find a small-sized metal lunchbox to cover. Often you can find these filled with candy at Target-like places, especially around Christmastime, but we had trouble this (last) year. In the end we found the perfect size mini-lunchbox, not in a store, but in one of my sisters’ minivans: a used but perfectly acceptable specimen about 4” x 2 5/8”, with the Tootsie Pop logo on both sides and around the edge.

Julie’s lunchbox features a 70’s-ish flower graphic – cute, but to me, not as uniquely true to the era. In my memory at least (and admittedly, my lunchbox-carrying days were in the 80’s, not the 70’s) lunchboxes were all about branding: TV shows, movies, and toys. My sister had Annie, I still have my old Dark Crystal, and one of us had Strawberry Shortcake at some point. I remember people with the Dukes of Hazzard, Cabbage Patch Kids, GI Joe, etc.. No doubt many would have gone straight for Scooby Doo to evoke the 70’s, but for our family the quintessential TV brand of the era will always be
The Brady Bunch.

Now as it happens I have a bit of experience in the area of recovering metal lunchboxes. Several years back, in the spirit of many things
Christopher Guest , I gave my brother a Mitch&Mickey full-size lunchbox that has never to my knowledge carried a peanut butter sandwich but has intrigued one or two people over the years it’s sat in his office. For the Mitch&Mickey box I just formatted scanned images into two rectangles the size of each face of the box, printed them onto sticky-back paper, trimmed, and attached. I made smaller “stickers” to cover odd existing designs along the box edges, then gave the whole thing a couple coats of clear acrylic spray to both protect and add a nice sheen. (This final step is a bit dicey if you’re using an inkjet printer, as the ink can run if you’re not careful.)

The process for the Brady Box was essentially the same, although I had a bit of trouble at first finding high-resolution Brady images online, particularly the classic blue nine-square grid which I had envisioned as one face of the box. In the end I found a few helpful sites, the best of these probably being the
Brady Bunch Shrine, and also scanned some of the images from the episode guide that accompanies The Brady Bunch – The Complete Series which I just happen to have on dvd. Then I just messed around with the images in Photoshop and InDesign, formatting them to the dimensions of the box.

Whereas for Mitch&Mickey I could use smaller stickers to cover the edges of the lunchbox, the scale of the Brady Box was too tiny for that. I opted instead to completely paint over the edges of the Tootsie Pop box with enamel paint (like you use for model cars). The stuff’s a bit of a pain to use – very goopy – and careful as I was it was virtually impossible to avoid getting it where you didn’t want it, but two coats of the stuff did a good job of covering the Tootsie graphics. As with Mitch&Mickey, I gave the whole thing several spray coats of clear acrylic protection.

For a fun touch, I took a few additional Brady images I’d found online and made them into magnets using inkjet magnet paper (very fun stuff) to decorate the inside.
Julie’s official lunchbox comes complete with an actual (albeit inedible) lunch, including sandwich, chips, thermos, and Hostess-style cupcake. Although I’ve made my fair share of FIMO/Sculpey items in the past, for this project I opted for a more basic, and in many ways easier modeling option for the food: salt dough.

I have a great fondness for this medium. High on my roster of happiest memories are the nights we would pull out our homemade salt dough ornaments each Christmas along with our salt dough Nativity set. (My own contributions to both of these were minimal and somewhat embarrassing; I was probably about 5 when we made them.)

Salt dough is a very easy-to-make and easy-to-use dough that you typically mold, bake, and paint. (I suppose you could tint it into individual colors if you wanted.) Anyway, salt dough really deserves its own post, but here are the basics: 2 parts flour to 1 part salt to ½ part water (approximately – actually, start with that much water but be prepared to add half as much again). This forms a Play-Doh like dough that’s easier to mold than Sculpey and of course far cheaper. If you want, you can add wallpaper paste for elasticity (I don’t do this) or a little oil to make it less sticky. Because of the salt, the finished texture is a bit courser than Sculpey, but the results are pretty satisfactory. In fact, for food (especially bread) the texture is almost desirable. After molding, set your items on a cookie sheet and bake for several hours at a very low temp (about as low as you can set the oven) until hard.

My salt-dough apple attempts kept cracking (possibly adding the wallpaper paste would’ve fixed that), but I eventually got something satisfactory. I made the sandwich in separate components – lettuce, cheese, ham, bread – so they would be easier to paint, and ultimately assembled it with GOOP glue (you want something goopy to make up for unevenness). I even lucked into finding a tiny ziploc bag the perfect size to hold Julie's ham sandwich. (Wikipedia says Ziploc bags were originally test marketed in 1968, so nothing anachronistic here.)

My cupcake was the most fun; it felt like cheating to just paint the swirly icing on, so I formed my own, carefully, with the salt dough, and glued it onto the cupcake after painting. I used craft acrylic paint for everything and, as with the lunchbox, gave everything a good coat of clear acrylic to protect it.
Julie’s lunchbox comes with a cute little thermos, but I had no luck finding anything good to convert into a mini thermos. Chapsticks are too tall and thin, medicine bottles, even small ones, are too big and often have raised writing on the caps. The only other good options are made from glass, which seems inappropriate for what after all is supposed to be a toy. In the end my food took up so much space inside the lunchbox there wasn’t room for a thermos anyway, so I decided that “Julie”’s Julie probably buys milk from the cafeteria.
Assuming they even had pasteurized milk way back in the 1970’s...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Triple Layer Lemon Cake

This cake is tasty.

It's tangy and sweet, but mostly sweet. Everyone is always so impressed with a triple layer cake. It's so easy to do though.

A coworker of mine requested a citrus-y cake and I forgot to download a recipe before going home for the weekend. Luckily, I had made this cake earlier in the year and had the recipe at home. It's pretty time consuming, but completely worth the effort.

The cake recipe comes from Better Homes & Gardens website (one of my personal favorites) and even has pictures! Woo!

Here's my suggestion on order of making the three parts of the cake:

Lemon Curd

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 6 beaten egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup butter or margarine, cut up


1. In a medium saucepan stir together sugar and cornstarch. Stir in lemon peel, lemon juice, and water. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.

2. Stir half of the lemon mixture into the egg yolks. Return egg mixture to the saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Add butter pieces, stirring until melted. Cover surface of the curd with plastic wrap. Chill at least 1 hour or for up to 48 hours. Store covered in refrigerator up to 1 week or transfer to a freezer container and freeze for up to 2 months. Thaw in refrigerator before serving. Makes 2 cups (sixteen 2-tablespoon servings).

Lemon Cake


  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 4 eggs
  • 2-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
  • 1/2 recipe Lemon Curd (see Recipe Above) or 1 cup purchased lemon curd
  • 1 recipe Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below)
  • Lemon peel curls (optional)


1. Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease and lightly flour three 9 x 1-1/2-inch round cake pans. Combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar, lemon peel, and lemon juice; beat until well combined. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each. Add flour mixture and buttermilk or sour milk alternately to beaten mixture, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Pour into prepared pans.

3. Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans. Cool thoroughly on wire racks.

4. To assemble, place a cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with half of the Lemon Curd. Top with second layer; spread with the remaining Lemon Curd. Top with third layer. Frost top and sides with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. Cover and store cake in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with lemon peel curls. Makes 12 servings.

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting


  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 16 ounce box Domino 10x sifted powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel


In a medium mixing bowl combine cream cheese, butter and lemon juice; beat with electric mixer on low to medium speed until light and fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating well until reaching a spreading consistency. Stir in the lemon peel.

Cake Assembly

To assemble, place a cake layer on a cake plate. Spread with half of the Lemon Curd. Top with second layer; spread with the remaining Lemon Curd. Top with third layer. Frost top and sides with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. Cover and store cake in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with lemon peel curls. Makes 12 servings.

Here are my personal recommendations/suggestions:

You will need about 4 -5 lemons for the lemon peels because by the time you use your nifty lemon zester (my fave tool...oh crap! I literally just now remembered that I bought a microplane and never used it!) and chop the lemon peels, they get a lot smaller. Make sure to chop them as it will be very zesty!

Make your lemon curd first and refrigerate it for a good bit (more than one hour). It sets up VERY nicely over an hour.

When putting your lemon curd on the cake, first put some frosting in a decorator's bag (you don't need a tip) and cut a small hole in the end. Pipe frosting around the bottom layer of the cake and then put your lemon curd on. The frosting will contain the lemon curd and make sure it doesn't ooze over the edge, into your frosting sides. Do the same for the middle layer.

Lemon curls are pretty on top. Leave one lemon for decorating the top. It's pretty.

Note: The picture above is from the first time I baked the cake. I forgot to take a picture this week!