Thursday, April 19, 2012


I don’t remember the birthdays of my childhood very clearly, which leads me to believe that they were not all that memorable. I do remember having a Sweet Sixteen party, during which I almost choked to death on a piece of steak, but that’s not the kind of memorable I am referring to. I’m talking about fun, happiness, giggling--adoring friends and family gathering around and making you feel like the star of the day. I just can’t remember days like that from the archives. So perhaps because of my earlier birthday celebrations, or lack thereof, I was determined to make the birthdays in my own home have a bit more pomp and circumstance. And they did. 

The morning of, the birthday boy (or girl) would walk down a crepe paper-wrapped staircase to an even more crepe paper-decorated kitchen where time allowing, a special breakfast (usually chocolate chip pancakes) would be had.  Birthday party venues ranged from the Petting Zoo and gymnastic studio when the kids were very young, to Laser Tag and Paintball when they were older. One year we had a Halloween-in-July party, complete with ghosts and ghouls. That was the year of the Ghost Cake. You cannot have a respectable birthday party without having cake. The year of the Ninja Turtle party, the cake looked like a pizza, and many years down the road, the toppers were musical symbols and a chocolate-shaped saxophone. 

There was always a separate family night to celebrate the birthday, and that very often took place at a restaurant that was chosen after a detailed search of online “Best Restaurant” lists. Sometimes the winner was chosen from a newspaper or magazine clipping that was tacked to the bulletin board in our laundry room, put there just for that purpose. These celebrations and expressions of love were so much fun that to me, the gifts seemed almost secondary. Of course little boys love games and toys, and my boys were no different, but as they grew older they could never even figure out what they wanted. And lately they say, “Nothing right now” when asked. But the pomp and circumstance are still expected. (And don't get me wrong, we still exchange gifts.)
Rocky Road
My son Will’s birthday is Friday, and he will be twenty. Since he is away at school and won’t be walking down the kitschy staircase that morning, I wanted him to at least have a little something from home for his day. Whenever I attend a child’s birthday party I think of Will and remember my yellow-haired little boy sitting all by himself at so many parties after the others had already run off to play. He knew a good thing when he saw it, and he was not getting up until every last bit of cake was gone from his plate. So I sent him a party in a box--some cupcakes, frosting, spreaders, sprinkles, candles, and some Rocky Road to share with his fraternity brothers. It’s just a little expression of love, because after all, that, and cake, are what birthdays are all about.
The cupcakes came from Joanne Chang’s “Flour” cookbook. The recipe is simple--it’s her take on a "dump cake," where virtually all the ingredients get dumped into the bowl together. I added some chocolate chips to the batter, but that’s optional. The cupcakes are moist and chocolaty, and I think they will travel across the miles very well. I did not frost these cupcakes; a dusting of powdered sugar will do. ( I am embarrassed to say I sent along a can of store-bought frosting for numerous reasons, a few of which had to do with shipping.) But if I had, I would have used Joanne’s recipe as well. I have included it and hope you make it, as taking that extra step to do so makes a world of difference. 
Chocolate Cupcakes with Crispy Magic Frosting
adapted from Joanne Chang's “Flour” cookbook
(makes 12 to 14)
Cupcake Ingredients
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/4 c. Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1/3 c. water
1/2 c. milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. kosher salt
3/4c. mini chocolate chips (opt.)
Crispy Magic Frosting Ingredients
2/3 c. granulated sugar
2 egg whites
1 c. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 2/3 c. confectioners sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 T. milk
1 T. vanilla extract
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a standard 12-cup muffin tin or line with paper liners.
In a small heatproof bowl, combine the chocolate and cocoa powder. In a small saucepan, heat the granulated sugar, butter, and water over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Pour the hot butter-sugar mixture over the chocolate-cocoa mixture and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is homogeneous.
Whisk the milk, egg, egg yolk, and vanilla into the chocolate mixture until thoroughly combined.
In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt until well mixed. Dump the flour mixture on top of the chocolate mixture. Whisk until the dry ingredients are totally mixed into the chocolate mixture. Gently fold the mini chocolate chips (if using) into the batter. Let the batter sit for at least 1 hour at room temperature, or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. (This allows the liquid to be totally absorbed into the batter, so the batter thickens up a bit and isn’t so soupy.)
Using a rubber spatula, gently stir the batter to reincorporate the chips. Spoon it into prepared muffin cups, dividing evenly and filling the cups to the rim. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tops spring back when pressed with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
To make the frosting: While the cupcakes are cooling, in a small heatproof bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar and egg whites to make thick slurry. Place the bowl over (not touching) simmering water in a saucepan and heat, whisking occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture is hot to the touch. It will thin out a bit as the sugar melts.
Remove from the heat and scrape the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Whip on medium-high speed for 6-8 minutes, or until the mixture becomes a light, white meringue and is cool to the touch. Turn down the speed to medium, add the butter a few chunks at a time and beat for 3-4 minutes, or until the butter is thoroughly incorporated. Add the confectioner’s sugar, salt, milk, and vanilla and continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is smooth and satiny. You should have about 3 ½ cups. (Use immediately, or transfer to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 3 days, then beat with the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for a few minutes until smooth before using. Or, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, then bring to room temperature and paddle for a few minutes until smooth before using. )
Remove the cupcakes from the muffin tin and spread or pipe (using a pastry bag) the frosting onto the cupcakes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Many of the desserts that are kosher for Passover are takeoffs on everyday desserts, substituting matzoh cake meal for traditional flour. And they taste like it. And therein lies the problem. I find the key to avoid having this happen is to throw caution to the wind and prepare desserts that embrace the nutty matzoh taste rather then fight it.
The Mandel Bread (Jewish Biscotti) below does not taste like traditional Mandel Bread...but in a good way. It's a tasty cookie in its own right, and not an "okay so it's Passover and we'll deal with it" stand-in for a cookie. Not only does the recipe contain matzoh cake meal, but it also contains some potato starch which, acting a little like cornstarch, will tenderize the texture a bit. It also contains some coarse matzoh meal to give the cookies a little crunch. This is an easily adaptable recipe, and choosing add-ins such as chocolate chips, nuts, dried apricots, raisins or berries will also enhance the flavor and make it your own. The one absolute here is baking the loaves once, allowing them to cool, and then slicing and baking them a second time. This second go round in the oven   crisps up the cookies and brings the cinnamon/sugar coating to the forefront. The matzoh flavor is still there, but as a secondary flavor. 

The Mandel Bread freezes well, so you can whip up a few batches at the beginning of the holiday, and have enough to last for the rest of the eight days that follow. Because Lord knows, anything that lessens your time in front of the stove or oven during this holiday is a lifesaver.
(makes two loaves)
scant 3/4c. oil
1 Tbsp. veg. shortening or butter, softened
1 1/4c. sugar
1 egg yolk
3 whole eggs
1/2c. orange juice
2 Tbsp. orange zest
2 3/4c. matzoh cake meal
3/4c. potato starch
1/2c. matzoh meal
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
Add-ins: 1c. dark chocolate, chopped
               1c. milk chocolate, chopped
               1c. chopped walnuts or almonds
               1c. dried cherries
               1c. dried apricots, chopped
Cinnamon/sugar, for sprinkling (1/2c. sugar + 1/4c. cinnamon)
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In the blow of an electric mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, cream oil with the softened shortening or butter. Add eggs, sugar, and orange zest and continue to mix for five minutes, until light and fluffy.
Reduce speed to low and add orange juice. Mix until combined and slowly add dry ingredients. Mix  at medium speed until all are combined. Reduce speed again and mix in add-ins of your choice. Once everything is combined, turn dough out onto an ungreased surface and knead for a few minutes. Form dough into two loaves, approximately 4 inches long. Place on prepared baking sheet, flatten them down a bit, and sprinkle tops with a few spoonfuls of cinnamon/sugar. Bake for 30 minutes, rotating pan at the halfway point.
Once the loaves are baked, remove pan from the oven and allow them to cool for ten minutes. Slice the Mandel Bread into 1/4” slices, and place the slices down flat on a cooled sheet pan. Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon/sugar a second time and bake again for 10 minutes, until slices are nicely browned.

Monday, April 2, 2012


I’ve never been a big fan of the traditional Passover macaroon, and perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I am not a big fan of coconut. (Or maybe it’s the fact that the little dried-up nubbins that come out of a can have been sitting on the supermarket shelves for weeks before the holiday even begins.) Actually, it’s not the flavor of the coconut that I don’t like, it’s more the stringy texture of the strands   
Passover is a lot like Thanksgiving in that some people just need and expect to see certain things at the traditional dinner year after year, so the presence of macaroons is often non-negotiable. The coconut in the macaroons below is combined with almond flour, thus producing a texture that is more cookie-like in the center. When I bite into one, I get creamy coconut flavor rather than a mouthful of fibrous strands. Baking them until they’re golden brown produces a sweet, crackly surface. Dipping the bottoms in dark chocolate offsets the sweetness and adds another dimension to the flavor. These Macs are more than good enough to maintain their yearly place at my Seder table, without any grumbling on my part.
By the way, those canned macaroons that I mentioned earlier have some purpose too. They can be pulverized in a food processor and combined with softened butter to be used as a crust for a Passover Pie. (But that’s another story.)
(adapted from Oh Nuts!)
(makes 12-15)
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/4c. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. honey
2 1/2c. shredded coconut
1/4c. almond meal
1/2 Tbsp. matzoh cake meal
1 tsp. kosher for Passover vanilla extract
8 oz. dark (60-64%) chocolate, melted (opt.)
Combine the almond meal, egg whites, granulated sugar, salt, honey, coconut, and vanilla extract in a medium-sized saucepan.
 Stir the mixture over medium-low heat until sugar has dissolved and egg whites turn milky--between 5 to 7 minutes. Continue stirring until all is incorporated and mixture thickens.

Once mixture holds together, remove pan from heat and stir in the matzoh cake meal. Scrape mixture into a bowl and allow it to come to room temperature. (The bowl can also be covered with plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator for later use.)
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and using a cookie scoop or a tablespoon, measure out 12 to 18 mounds of mixture.  
With moistened hands, pinch and press each cookie into a triangular, pyramid shape, being careful not to make the tops too pointy. Bake the macaroons in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes, rotating them halfway during the baking process.
Once the cookies have cooled completely, you can dip the bottoms into the melted dark chocolate. Place them back on the cooled baking sheet to set. They can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week, or (without the chocolate) in a well-sealed container in the freezer for up to a month.