Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Roasted Marinated Peppers

Somehow I got myself on a cooking and baking tear this past weekend. It all started with buttermilk. You see, my mom and I have these family friends who weren't feeling great so we decided to make them some meals last weekend. One was a simple turkey chili. My mom then said, "We should make cornbread to go with it. Buttermilk cornbread." And that was fine. But you have to buy a pint and all you need is like half a cup. So now I have this pint of buttermilk I'm trying to use up.

I started scouring recipes for something and found cakes and pies. So I decided to try my hand at a buttermilk pound cake. I came up with something pretty cool (that's for next week). Then I brined chicken in the buttermilk, along with garlic and some spices.

And with that I was in a cooking frenzy. I have a story coming out this week in the San Diego Union-Tribune's food section on my friend Chef Sara Polczynski showing readers how to use three different types of Mexican kitchen tools so I made one of the recipes using a comal--her Smoked Tomatillo Salsa.

And, finally, I pulled out some extra peppers I had from buying for the turkey chili and made my favorite roasted, marinated peppers. I have to have these peppers in my fridge. Not only do I love them on a slice of sourdough baguette, garlicky oil dripping off the bread, but also as a pizza topping or to add to a tomato sauce. By the time I use up the peppers, they've insinuated themselves into the olive oil I used to marinate them. And then I have this reddish spicy (from marash pepper flakes) oil redolent of anchovies to enjoy on a crostini or bruschetta, to sauté vegetables (try it with asparagus), or toss with pasta.

Now it doesn't seem possible that I actually haven't written about these before since they're such a recurring part of my personal eating habits. But I couldn't find them. After 10 years I guess I'm allowed a repeat, so if you have seen these my apologies. But oh, these are great, especially as we head into the warmer months.

I don't use any real recipe. This is sort of free form. So, here's what I do.

Wash three or four bell peppers--red, green, yellow, orange--it doesn't matter. If you have an electric stove, turn on the broiler. Dry and place on a large piece of foil, then place in the broiler. Use tongs to turn them as the skin blisters. If you have a gas stove, you can simply dry roast them over a burner.

When they are totally blackened, place in a brown paper bag and fold down the top. Place on the kitchen counter and let steam for about 15 or 20 minutes. While they're steaming get out a head of garlic and separate four or five cloves (or however many you want). Peel and slice the garlic cloves. You'll also want to have sea salt, dried herbs, red pepper flakes or marash pepper flakes (or whatever you like), and a jar of anchovies (if they are salt packed, rinse off the salt).

Peel the skin from the peppers, remove the core, and brush away the seeds. Dry them (this part gets juicy) and slice into 1" wide pieces.

Now you can start layering. In a flat container with a lid (I use one that's about 5" by 7"), place the bottom layer of peppers, sprinkle some sliced garlic over the peppers, sprinkle with salt, pepper flakes, herbs, and anchovies. Repeat until you run out of pepper slices. Sprinkle with the rest of the herbs, red pepper flakes, and salt. Now get out some great olive oil and pour over the layers until they are totally covered. Let sit about an hour on the counter, then refrigerate.

Now a couple of tips:

1. When you roast and steam the peppers, really let them steam and cool down so you can handle them and not be tempted to run them under cool water when you peel away the skin. Do that and you basically rinse away the flavor.

2. Feel free to change up the flavors. Sometimes I include dried herbs like thyme or oregano. I love to include this herb rub. If you make and use it, you won't need any extra salt. Use more or less garlic. I love garlic, so I put in plenty. Don't like anchovies? Don't use them. You could also add some vinegar, but keep it mild--like a white wine vinegar--so it doesn't overpower the peppers.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Jill O'Connor's Chocolate Mayonnaise Layer Cake with Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting

You probably have a great job. At least you think you do. But you're not Jill O'Connor. You see, Jill O'Connor is a pastry chef who writes dessert cookbooks for a living. She's written six--the latest, published in 2009, is Sticky, Chewy, Messy Gooey Treats for Kids. And next month, number seven debuts: Cake, I Love You: Decadent, Delectable, and Do-able Recipes. In between her books, Jill develops recipes and writes for a variety of publications, including The San Diego Union-Tribune's food section.

Imagine a life of making sweet treats that bring joy to others. That's pretty much Jill's world. And, knowing Jill as I do, it all comes from the heart.

Jill invited me to her house recently to make one of the cakes in the book. I figured that since San Diego Foodstuff is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year I needed as much cake as possible to make that feel real. Imagine the wealth of choices I had--from her Coconut Fudge Snow-Ball to Blood Orange Ricotta Pound Cake--Jill offered me a few choices.

This Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake with Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting was clearly the winning choice. Chocolate. Chocolate with Mayonnaise. And Chocolate Bar Frosting? Whew!

Sounds decadent and difficult, right? In fact, yes, it is decadent if you adore chocolate. But, says Jill, "This is what I would call an after-school cake." Meaning it's accessible to the home baker.

Now Jill writes a great recipe. Everything is clear and straightforward. But it was wonderful to be with her in her kitchen in Coronado to pick up some of her cake making and layer cake frosting tips. Let's face it. Baking a cake can be pretty easy if you follow the recipe. But the skill involved in making the layers even and then frosting it? That's an art. And I wanted to learn that art from the master.

As Jill set up her Kitchen Aid stand mixer and began to mix the liquid cake ingredients she gave me her first tip: always add sugar slowly to eggs. Why? Doing this in reverse will burn the eggs. Who knew?

Now you may be wondering about the mayo and why it's in the recipe. This is actually a pretty common ingredient going back to the 1930s and 40s when butter and eggs were being rationed because of World War II. It basically was an accessible and economical fat substitute for baking.

Another tip Jill employs is adding a bit of coffee to chocolate. You may already do this or have heard about this trick. No, you won't get coffee flavor with such a small amount, but what it does is enhance the flavor of the chocolate.

Let's talk cocoa for a moment. Be sure to read the label when you reach for a container. What you do not want is Dutch processed cocoa. Here's why, according to Jill: Baking soda, which is in this recipe as a leavening agent, needs something acidic to make it work to activate its leavening power. If you add too much acid (such as what's in Dutch processed cocoa) you'll get a salty soapy taste. Instead, Jill uses Hersey's Dark Special Process cocoa.

Once you have mixed the batter, if it seems too thick, Jill says you can thin it with boiling water--just a little at a time to come to the right consistency. You also want to eliminate any lumps, so whisk until they're all gone.

Now, you could bake this as a sheet cake, but it makes for a gorgeous layer cake. So, you'll want two round cake pans, sprayed with Pam or some other nonstick cooking spray. Then you'll line the bottom with parchment paper. Split the batter evenly between the two pans and give them some sharp taps to eliminate any bubbles. If you're really concerned about whether you've evenly divided the batter, go ahead and weigh each filled pan on a digital scale.

Okay, now it's time to focus on the frosting. If you're the type who plans ahead, Jill suggests making it the day before so it can sit and thicken naturally overnight.

Jill calls this a chocolate bar frosting, but she's actually not using chocolate bars. "It's chocolate bar like because I use milk chocolate chips," she explains.

The frosting calls for powdered sugar. You can add more than what's listed in the recipe if you want a firmer texture and sweeter flavor.

The recipe for the frosting is pretty straightforward. But what you really want to know is how to get it on the cake so that you have something irresistibly gorgeous and not like you're five-years-old. This is how you do that.

First, place the cake on something higher than the counter, like a cake plate but it could also be a large upside down mixing bowl--and the cake itself should be on a cake board, which is stiff and lets you more easily maneuver it. You can find cake boards at Michael's.

Now, using an offset spatula, you spread on a "crumb coat." Basically, it's a thin coat of frosting that covers the crumbs "like spackle," Jill says.

Then it's the moment of truth. You glide on that luxuriant second coat of frosting all over the cake.

Still listing a bit? Take a cue from Jill, who does experience this from time to time. "Toss on chocolate sprinkles," she says. "It's like a cake bra. It helps hold it in place and creates a visual camouflage."

That's just what she did with our cake. And it was the source of one last trick. To put the sprinkles on the cake, place them in a large bowl. Carefully hold the cake over the bowl by the cake board. Using your free hand, grab a handful of sprinkles and gently press into the side of the cake, letting the excess fall back into the bowl. Turn the cake little by little and repeat until you've covered the sides with the sprinkles.

That's it! Oh, except for digging in. The cake itself is a marvel. It's moist and slices beautifully. It has the most sumptuous chocolate flavor--not too sweet but definitely satisfying for the sweet tooth. Make it for your kids to enjoy after school or impress your friends at a dinner party.

Cake, I Love You will be published on May 23. It's available for pre-order on Amazon.

Old Fashioned Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake with Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting
From Jill O’Connor and her book Cake, I Love You: Decadent, Delectable, and Do-able Recipes

I am always looking for an easy-to-bake cake that’s good enough to make an ordinary Wednesday feel special. This chocolate cake is luxuriously rich, yet with a surprisingly light texture. The batter is versatile and sturdy enough to be baked in a 9x13-inch pan for an everyday celebration, or into two 9-inch round cake pans if the occasion calls for a layer cake instead. Mayonnaise cakes were popularized in the late 1930’s by Hellman’s Mayonnaise as a more economical substitution for butter and eggs. Since mayonnaise is simply an emulsion of eggs and oil with a dash of vinegar, it works beautifully. This cake is tasty enough to eat plain, but I prefer to slather it with Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting; it takes 5 minutes to whip together from pantry staples and all you really need is a bowl, a wooden spoon, and a strong arm. 

Yield: One 9- by-13-inch cake, or 9-inch round double-layer cake

2 cups all purpose flour
¾ cup natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 cup mayonnaise (do not use low-fat)
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder or coffee powder
1 1/3 cups boiling water

Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting:
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup milk chocolate chips
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Large pinch fine sea salt
2 to 3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Heat the oven to 350°F. Spray a metal 9- by-13 inch sheet pan (or two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray. (If using round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with parchment paper.)

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the sugar and eggs together at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.  Beat in the mayonnaise and the vanilla until smooth.

Lower the mixer speed to its lowest speed and beat in 1/2 the dry ingredients just until combined. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together the espresso powder with the boiling water.  Add 1/2 of the espresso mixture to the batter and beat on low speed just until the batter is smooth, about 5 to 10 seconds. Add the remaining dry ingredients and beat just until combined.  Beat in the remaining espresso and beat just until smooth. The batter will be somewhat thin.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan (s) and bake 22 to 25 minutes until a wooden skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool completely.

For the frosting: In a large, microwave-safe bowl, combine the semisweet and milk chocolate chips with the butter.  Heat on high power for 1 minute. Stir together until the butter and chocolates are completely melted and smooth.  If not completely melted after 1 minute, heat again in 15-second increments, stirring until smooth. Use a large balloon whisk or a wooden spoon and stir in the sour cream.  Beat in add 2 cups [xx g] confectioners’ sugar, just until smooth and spreadable.  If a thicker, sweeter frosting is desired, beat in an additional cup of sugar.

Spread the top of the cooled cake with the Melted Chocolate Bar Frosting. Cut into squares and serve. Cover pan tightly with plastic wrap or foil, and store at room temperature. The cake will stay fresh for about 2 days.  (For layer cake: place one layer on a cake stand and frost the top with about 1 cup frosting. Top with second layer and spread the remaining frosting on the top and around the sides of the cake.)

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Evie's Lemon Cake

"Dump cake." I only just discovered this term in the last couple of years. Before that there were cakes you made using a cake mix and cakes made by scratch. When I was growing up, my grandmother Tillie and mother, Evie, made both and they had equally revered places on the dining table.

But now it's no longer PC to make cakes from mixes and those cakes--perhaps derisively or because they represent the ease of dumping all of the ingredients into a single bowl--are referred to as dump cakes. And you know what? I still love them! In fact my cousin, who is a chef, recently shared an index card recipe for an intensely chocolate dump cake her mom made, which I'll share in the future.

This lemon sheet cake apparently qualifies as a dump cake. Despite my exposure to some great pastry chefs and my love of chocolate, this is the one cake I love most. So does everyone in my family. Kids coming into town? Make the lemon cake. Need an easy dessert to serve friends coming over? Make the lemon cake. It's moist, lemony--of course--and has this fab tart glaze of powder sugar, lemon juice, and butter that crackles on top while the rest works its way into the still hot cake to make it ridiculously moist and even more lemony. It's our family's object of perfection. It's like a big hug from my mom. While she didn't create it all those decades ago, I associate it with her. And it's something my siblings and I learned how to make when we were young kids.

Last Christmas I brought over chocolates to my next door neighbors, a family that includes a set of young twins, Gunner and Harper, and their older sister, Helena. But I learned to my mortification that eight-year-old Helena hates chocolate. How someone can hate chocolate is another topic for another time but the fact remained that I had brought a gift that repulsed one of the recipients.

What did Helena like? Lemon. Ohhhh. I could work with this. I asked her if she enjoyed baking and her eyes lit up. Okay. I could fix this. "Helena," I asked, "would you like to come over this week and make a lemon cake with me?"


Helena was walked over by her dad later that week and we got to work. She was a great helper, eager to dig in. And, of course, this is the perfect recipe to get kids to help in the kitchen. I can't think of a way you can screw it up, plus they learn how to break eggs, zest a lemon, measure liquids and dry ingredients, and control an electric hand mixer without splattering the batter all over (although you can certainly make it in your stand mixer or even stir it by hand). And then there's this divine cake at the end. You can see how proud she was of her achievement and she carried it home to her family.

So, feel free to judge me, but really, I have no problem with a dump cake.

Evie’s Lemon Cake
(printable recipe)


1 small package instant lemon pudding or lemon Jell-o
1 package lemon velvet cake (Mom uses Duncan Hines)
4 eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup water
Grated lemon zest from 1 lemon

2 cups powder sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoon cold water
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix cake ingredients in large bowl and beat with hand mixer for five minutes.
3. Pour into greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish (like Pyrex).
4. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean.
5. While the cake is baking, mix together topping ingredients in a measuring cup to make it easier to pour.
6. When the cake comes out of oven, pierce it all over the top with a fork, then slowly pour the topping over the whole surface. You may have to wait a moment to let some of it soak into the cake before pouring the rest but use it all up. Slice and serve.

Note: This cake freezes very well. Wrap in plastic wrap and then place in a freezer bag or foil.

P.S. In an experiment coming soon (I hope), my friend, cookbook author Jill O'Connor, and I are actually going to try to turn this dump cake into a scratch cake. She's got some ideas about it so stay tuned.

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Passover Recipe Roundup

Passover begins next Monday night, April 10. If you're looking for some inspiration for what to make for the seder or to enjoy the rest of the week I've put together a "best of" list of dishes I've written about in the past below. They range from traditional chicken soup to my grandmother's Passover Popovers (which are dreamy).

Mom's Chicken Soup: This is the soup I grew up with, the one she makes for Rosh Hashonah and Passover, for when we're sick, and when there's a chill in the air. It's marvelous, especially tasty thanks to the dill she adds at the end that brings some brightness to the rich broth. Cue the matzo balls!

Apple-Matzoh Kugel: Noodle kugel is out, of course, for Passover. Instead, in come kugel made with matzoh. This delightful recipe comes originally from our temple. It was served at a Women's Seder my mom and I went to and we were so taken by it I was able to finagle the recipe. But, no one in our family sticks to the recipe, so along with tart Granny Smiths we added extra matzoh, dried cranberries, and chopped pecans. Oh, this is a dish to make year round!

Passover Popovers: Okay, these airy, matzoh and egg popovers are my favorite part of Passover. I've been eating them since I was a little kid. My Nana Tillie used to make them big, really big! Sandwich size big and we'd slice them in half, slather mustard on them and layers of bologna. Don't judge until you've tried it. It's been a long time since I've done that. Now, they're strictly for noshing. Again and again and again. Yes, they're that addictive.

Sweet Matzoh Fritters: Love matzoh brei? Then you'll love these Sweet Matzoh Fritters that are the creation of Chef Jeff Rossman of Terra. With lemon zest, currants, and chopped nuts, you'll want to serve them at brunch with a dollop of creme fraiche.

Cured Arctic Char or Salmon: Serving brunch over Passover? This is a perfect main course with a salad and matzoh or popovers. This recipe comes courtesy of Chef Matt Gordon of Urban Solace and Solace and the Moonlight Lounge. Make it year-round but make it!

 Happy Passover!

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