snickerdoodle-off: classic vs. cardamom

When presented with a cookie variety plate (which, to my great chagrin, does not happen daily), I’ve been pretty predictable. CCCs please. The more mix-ins – oatmeal, walnuts, cherries, what have you – the better.

Recently, however, I’ve rediscovered the simple. Case in point: snickerdoodles. Their pure texture allows a satisfyingly chewy experience – but the satisfying cinnamon-sugar coating prevents plainness or one-dimensionality. OG cookie realness. I made the Smitten Kitchen recipe for classic snickerdoodles and found myself itching to eating every other cookie that emerged from the oven.

Though I did, indeed, love these snickerdoodles, I later came across a version that seemed a potential, impossible improvement on the original. That’z right… cardamom! Dorie Greenspan and Joe Yonan had thrown the magical spice into the mix. After immediately fixing up a batch, I had to (very impatiently) wait for the batter to meld in the refrigerator or whatever it is that cookies do when they rest. Once I pulled the finished products out of the oven, however, it was clear they were worth the wait. Jay, my sweets-averse gold standard of taste-testing, absolutely devoured these fragrant snickerdoodles.

Two baking authorities – two recipes – two incredible hits. What happens at the end of it all? I’m torn. I can’t decide. Jay would probably have me make the cardamom version all year long, but those classic snickerdoodles have a firm grip on me. The only thing to do, it seems, is to continue making both, forever and ever.

Classic snickerdoodles

Recipe at Smitten Kitchen

Cardamom snickerdoodles

Recipe by Joe Yonan, courtesy of Dorie Greenspan

nutella cream crepe cake

“Oh god,” I thought to myself as I stared, bleary-eyed, at the clock. “What have I done?”

It was 3 AM in the morning and I was alone in the kitchen, making my 24th crepe of 30.

To fully explain how I’d found myself chained to the stove, we’ll have to rewind a bit. In New York last year, I’d had a slice of cake unlike any other: delicate crepes alternating with layers of whisper-light mousse. I knew, sitting in that crowded Dean & Deluca, that I’d have to find a way to experience Lady M’s divine mille crepe again.

I didn’t, however, want the cake so badly that I was willing to stay up into the wee hours to recreate it… yet, here I was. At midnight, I figured that I might as well churn out a few crepes now and assemble the whole thing before my friend’s brunch the next day. How long could it take? Answer: A long, long time.

The crepes, despite being time-intensive, were easy enough to make. A handful of common ingredients, a large flat pan, and a good spatula (no need for those fancy crepe sticks if you don’t have ‘em) is all it takes. I also realized, after a good long while, that my range has not one but four burners. While I would’ve certainly burnt down the house with all of them going, my cooking time was significantly decreased once I started using two pans simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the easiest part of this cake was also the least delicious: the Nutella pastry cream. Were I to make this again, I’d omit the dairy entirely; it was cloyingly sweet, such that it rendered the taste of the crepes themselves indiscernible. I’d much rather assemble the cake with thin layers of Nutella spread between each layer. Save yourself the trouble! The cake is impressive enough as it is, with its dozens of gorgeous layers. Besides – why fix what’s not broken? Crepes and Nutella are perfect partners.

Crepe cake

Recipe courtesy of Yossy Arefi at Food52

And, if you’re curious: here’s the pastry cream recipe, sans addition of a half-cup of Nutella!

peppermint devil’s food cake

In many ways, my relationship with this cake can be likened to my journey with graduate school. I’d come across Bon Appetit‘s peppermint devil’s food cake time and time again: reading about it in food blogs, getting a taste of it at holiday parties, discussing it with more ambitious (and often traumatized) bakers. I knew I wanted it — I knew it was perfect for me — and I was so afraid. Last year, however, I decided it was time. I was going to tackle this culinary Mount Everest.

I readied myself for the uphill climb. I studied the texts, prepared the materials, steeled my mind. I lost myself in the process, going fully off-radar, before re-emerging victorious. The end result, monstrously imperfect as it was, was beyond words. Yes, the behemoth of a cake looked impressive, towering at a foot tall and weighing as much as a newborn baby. More importantly, though, it was delicious. How could it not be? Three intensely chocolate-y layers of cake alternated with rich, dark chocolate ganache and smooth, whipped white chocolate cream. Not pictured is the veritable blanket of peppermint frosting smothering the cake. (Here I will add that the frosting was excellent but structurally unsound, transforming the cake into an alarmingly gooey blob. A really great-tasting blob. Blobs still count as successes in my book.)

It’s only fitting that I share this now: my first recipe post-graduate school acceptance. I actually made this cake a while ago, around Christmastime for a birthday in Jay’s family. While everyone fully enjoyed their slices, mine tasted especially sweet. The taste of victory.

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Marie Hélène’s apple cake

One of the best things I baked in 2014 was Marian Burros’ famous plum torte – such a wonderfully simple, undeniably delicious recipe. I think I may have found its counterpart for 2015: Marie Hélène’s apple cake.

Like the plum torte, it’s even named after its creator. That’s just how great some recipes are; homage must be paid. I proudly toted this cake to a friend’s birthday, but it got lost in a sea of sweets. The next day, however, I heard back from the hosts. They’d been packing up leftovers and brushing away stray crumbs when a taste of the apple cake made them stop in their tracks. “So good!” they cheered. “I wish we’d had more.” (I suspect the cake had intensified in flavor after sitting around for a day.)

The best part, of course, is the cake’s simplicity. Start with da best apples. I’d recommend using a tart variety, as the oven caramelizes and coaxes sweetness out of fruit so nicely. Cube and throw them into a pan of simple, buttery batter. Bake. You’ll be rewarded with one very moist cake, interspersed with warm, tender chunks of apple and topped with a lightly crackly shell. If the plum torte is summer in a bite, this apple cake is autumnal* through and through.

* Oh wait… is it spring? Are we far away from fall as temporally possible right now? Well, it is what it is. I am what I am.**

** A hot mess… but at least one who, at one time in her life, could bake a mean apple cake.

Marie-Hélène’s apple cake

Recipe from Dorie Greenspan at Epicurious

caramel apple souffle cheesecake

There are few things in San Francisco that aren’t overhyped, overpriced, and over-Yelped. However, in the outer reaches of the city, there lies a tiny, timeless little nook called Zanze’s. From behind his dinky counter, the man himself churns out cheesecakes and only cheesecakes… only incredibly magical, fluffy cheesecakes, so wonderfully wispy that you must slice them using the provided fishing wire. What’s more, Sam Zanze produces his work without frills, fanfare, or financial funny business. No hip packaging, no website, no mark-up — just a quality product at a reasonable price. He’s a municipal treasure.

K introduced me to the magic of Zanze’s at his birthday party last year, for which I’d made an almond cake. This time around, I knew what I’d be making for this dearest of friends. I was going to try my hand at cheesecake. I acknowledged it’d be futile to try and emulate Zanze’s sorcery. Rather, my goal was to copy its style — airy, light and satisfying rather than heavy, dense, and cloying. This souffle cheesecake recipe was exactly that.

However! Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I topped the cheesecake with an incredibly decadent mixture of caramelized apples, apple-caramel sauce, and chocolate syrup. Would I do deface such a simple, delicate cheesecake again? Yes, because I’m a glutton. However, I’d highly encourage you to try the cheesecake on its own first. It can’t replicate the magic of Zanze’s, but it comes close.

Japanese souffle cheesecake

Recipe adapted by Just One Cookbook from CookPad

Caramel apple topping (apples and sauce)

Recipe from Bobby Flay at the Food Network

Chocolate syrup

Recipe from David Lebovitz

big, chewy oatmeal cookies

Happy birthday to the woman who has taught me everything I know, who continues to love and support me unconditionally, and who gives me the space to grow, and bake, and love — my mom.

Over the years, my mother has been trying to lure me into moving back home. She would never openly admit it; she knows me too well to try and say so outright. Instead, she nests. Like a little bowerbird, she’ll outfit her kitchen with all sorts of sleek, shiny scraps in the hopes of winning me over. A food processor here; a rubber spatula there. I’ve got to admit — the lady knows me well.

Home for the holidays, I arrived on my mom’s doorstep and hugged her tight before making a bee-line for the kitchen. There, in all its glory, was the last addition to her arsenal: a stand mixer, pristine, clean, and freshly freed from its cardboard prison. I couldn’t wait to take it to task. Over the next few days, I launched into a full-scale takeover of her kitchen. First order of the day: cookies for the hostess herself. I’m not a total brat, guys.

My mother is, incredibly, one of the few people who I love who doesn’t love chocolate. (I know. I’m not sure how we share blood lines when I’m almost certain that Hershey’s chocolate syrup flows through my veins.) However, because my ma gets what she wants, I found an excellent alternative: enormous oatmeal cookies, chewy and toothsome and studded with dried cherries. Chocoholic or not, this was one bliss-inducing baked good.

You’ll notice, however, that the picture above shows cookies clearly cut and rolled in chocolate. The recipe, true to its word, makes enormous, delicious cookies with crispy edges and chewy middles. What to do with such a surfeit of sweets, but to give them away? In order to stack them in mason jars as gifts, I trimmed the cookies and sealed their exposed sides with melted chocolate. Rest assured that my mother still got her simple cookies — and that I got to lick melted chocolate off my fingers — and all was well in our little home.

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sweet orange buns

“OMG,” I texted my sister frantically. “WHAT.IS.HAPPENING.”

Earlier, I had decided that 2014 would be the Year of Yeast. 2013 was, undoubtedly, the Year of Pastry, in which I masochistically baked batch after batch of cold, flaky dough. That process, while nerve-wracking, was pretty simple; after a while, I knew my way around a pie tin pretty well. Yeast, however, was shaping up to be something else entirely.

I’d warmed the yeast in a bit of milk, disappointed when bubbles didn’t appear as promised. Soldiering onward, I’d mixed the ball of batter, placed it in an oversized mixing bowl, and left it, covered, to rise. This is where you find me now: home alone, scared, fully expecting the dough to rise out of its plastic prison and devour me whole.

At this point, I abandoned texting and hit dial instead. “Nancy! The dough… it’s fucking enormous. Ohmygod. Like, it’s going to burst out of the saran wrap.” I could almost hear my sister rolling her eyes on the other line. “Yeah, Julie, that’s normal. Just unwrap it, let it breathe and deflate a little. Okay? I’ll be home soon. Bye.” Click.

Obediently, I uncovered a few inches of the bowl. The dough within jiggled and retreated, catching the plastic wrap as it deflated slightly. I watched in amazement, prodding at the porous mass. Gummy. Springy. Kinda cute (?). Really cool. I was calmer now. “I can get down with this,” I thought.

The next morning, after seeing what this lump of fermented flour could do, I decided that I was definitely down with it. As I removed a pan of gorgeous sweet orange buns from the oven, nary a thought of yeast beasts popped in my head. All I felt was pure joy and admiration, having watched my little dough babies become full-blown, fully-risen cinnamon rolls. I’d been pining for these beauties since first seeing them; I’d dreamt of being woken up Christmas morning by their sweet orange scent. This holiday season, I made it happen — and I conquered over my fear of fermentation in the process. 2014: the Year of Yeast!

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lemon cardamom wedding cookies + the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap!

What’s more exciting than receiving a package in the mail?

Receiving a package in the mail… full of cookies!

Despite writing here for over two years (!), I’ve resisted using terms like “food” and/or “blog” to describe what I do in my spare time. This hesitance is mostly due to crippling self-consciousness and a fear of failure. I mean, how can my sleep-deprived rambling and shoddy iPhone pictures compare to the exquisitely-produced posts of proper food blogs? It just doesn’t. I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself by slapping labels around willy-nilly.

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2014This year, however, I made the conscious decision to get over it. I swallowed my pride, fought back my anxiety, and signed up for my first official “food blog” “thing”: the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.

What’s more exciting than receiving a package in the mail, full of cookies?

Receiving multiple packages in the mail full of cookies.

A few weeks later, they started arriving from all corners of the country. From New York, gorgeous coconut thumbprint cookies, filled with raspberry and apricot jam and stacked high in a sweet Mason jar. From Nashville, cornflake cookies, chock-full of pecans and southern flair, with an iconic Goo-Goo Cluster thrown in for good measure. From the neighbor of my hometown, Long Beach, tender chocolate butter cookies, packaged in festive tissue paper and a cute holiday tin. I was beside myself with joy.

What’s more exciting than receiving multiple packages in the mail full of cookies?

Sending multiple packages in the mail, full of cookies.

The only thing more exciting than eating cookies four at a time was baking some myself. Being on a cardamom kick, I decided to highlight citrusy, light flavors and counterbalance the rich, intense eating of the holidays. These lemon cardamom wedding cookies from Carla Hall were the perfect prescription: perfumed with an addictive je ne sais quoi from the spices and subtly sweet thanks to a little romp in lemon sugar. My taste-testers adored their floral aromatic notes and delicate, airy texture. Once these babies were wrapped up and put in the post, I waited with bated breath to hear from my lovely recipients. Seeing their posts of gratitude pop up on Instagram under #fbcookieswap officially kicked off my holidays.

What’s more exciting than sending multiple packages in the mail full of cookies?

Sending cookies for a good cause.

The best part of all this wasn’t that I conquered my fear of being a “blogger,” or that I ate about three dozen cookies within the span of two weeks, or that I got to share my creations with others, or that I met awesome people doing wonderfully delicious things, or that I got my first free swag (a baker’s decorating kit from one of my favorite brands, Oxo!). Granted, those are all inexpressibly awesome things… but The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap has an even greater mission: fundraising for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer by the Childhood Cancer Foundation. Collectively, we raised over $12,000 alongside some fantastic partners. This really gets at what baking is all about, during the holidays and year-round: sharing, caring, and the indomitable spirit of giving.

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plum torte

Once upon a time, I knew happiness. I knew the sounds of my friends’ laughter floating through the air and the soft hiss of the barbecue in the background. I knew the gentle touch of the mountain breeze upon my cheek, saw it sifting through the treetops. I knew the warmth of the late summer sun on my brow, its Midas touch turning everything within sight golden. I knew all this, and more.

Lately? Rain. Lots of it. Rain and walls: the four beige ones of my bedroom, the corkboard-covered affairs of my office.

Gone are my days of leisure, spent romping in lazy rivers and hiking through wooded forests. I was so busy gathering every bit of joy I could during that time that I completely forgot about this cake — this incredible cake that has seen the front page of nearly every food blog worth its salt. Rediscovering these photos gave me a much-needed trip down memory lane.

Marian Burros’ plum torte, originally published in The New York Times, sparked a cult following that demanded its printing in the paper each year. It is a landmark recipe. It is also that perfect, impressive combination of delicious, easy, and beautiful. The night before an overnight trip, I baked the last of summer’s delectably sweet plums into the torte. Hours later, I pulled the cake out of my tote bag where it’d been safely tucked away. Warmed in the oven and topped with generous scoops of ice cream, it was bliss — particularly when enjoyed in a cabin in the redwoods with some of your closest, dearest friends. It’s exactly the type of cake one wants to eat to remember pure, simple happiness.

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loaf cake with lemon glaze and toasted almonds

These past few weeks, I’ve been going to bed by midnight. Normally this would be a total victory, but, instead of catching ZZZ’s, I’ve actually been catching up on work. Instead of laying down in bed, I’ve been sitting against the headboard, my MacBook firmly planted in my lap. I’ve been sprawling paperwork, instead of my comforter, across my sheets; I’ve been pushing eyeglasses, instead of my eye mask, up the bridge of my nose. Sleep can wait. I’ve got work to do.

Last week, my program prepared an unprecedented number of grant applications. While the cause was worthy (securing funding for mental health research), the process itself was too grueling for words. The minute we hit “submit,” I turned my attention towards party-planning. We’d earned ourselves a work picnic. I made cake.

This recipe, courtesy of the incredible Dorie Greenspan, is easy, light, healthful: an excellent summer snacking cake. Its addictive tenderness is thanks to a fantastic combination of oil and yogurt, in place of butter. To finish, I simply used what I had on hand, whipping up a salty-sweet mix of lemon glaze and toasted almonds. The cake can be served any number of ways; I imagine it’d be especially wonderful served with seasonal fruit. Best of all, this lovely dish came together effortlessly — truly fitting for a celebration of our very effortful work.

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