Berry Coffee Cake with Almond Topping

The weather outside is trouble. Hail and flooding rains attacking the garden, the same little plants that witnessed the heavy, steady, and unwelcome snow last week. Just a few days ago we enjoyed 70 degree radiant afternoons, tilling the ground and watching the pea plants grow and the lettuce beds populate. 

I’ve had enough. Winter, you had your chance, it’s spring! It’s May, and even the grass is tired of you. 

I’m ready for color explosions from poppies, columbines, calendula and chamomile flowers. I’m itching to plant tomatoes, peppers, beans and sunflowers; and for long evenings sitting on the patio with a chilled glass of anything, preferably a rosé but at this point i’ll take anything over a hot tea. 

To undermine the rude and constant interruption of spring, I made one of my favorite coffee cakes, fresh berries with almond topping. 

berryalmondcoffeecake

I first made this recipe a decade ago when I was working at the museum, it worked great for afternoon tea and coffee gatherings that didn’t require highly stylized desserts, but called for delicious and comforting baked goods. 

I found this recipe in the book from a once iconic bakeshop and cafe in New York City, Once Upon Tart. The shop still exist, but more as a staple of the SoHo neighborhood rather than the groundbreaking shop I, once, longed to visit. A clear representation of how quickly food businesses can go out of style and replaced by trendy, hipster new spots. 

This book remains one of my favorite cookbooks, even after a decade of paging through it and splattering vanilla extract and buttermilk on it. It’s full of tips and ideas on everything from simple salads and soups, to cozy baked goods, plus I like to read the headnotes that tell the story of each item. I like context when I read and cook a recipe, especially as I dive deeper into food as a cultural glue of people.  

The head note for this recipe says, “This is not your average coffee cake,” and I agree. I’m not a fan of coffee cakes because they tend to be too sweet, just cake with little fruit. This one is packed with berries on each bite, and it is the only coffee cake I ever make. I follow their advise in the fall and make it with apples, which are delicious with the almond topping and an added dash of cinnamon. 

coffeecakeberryalmond

I’m following the original recipe as spring calls for berries, well not in Colorado. Berries are available from California this time of the year, where crazy snow and hail are reserved for mountain tops. Here in Colorado, we don’t see strawberries until mid June, if the weather doesn’t destroy crops, but until then California fruit will have to do. 

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Lentil-Oat Bars and Holiday Lentil Gifts

***Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post!

For as long as I can remember, lentils have been a part of my life. My mother’s favorite meal is lentil soup, and if I had to choose a food to live on forever it would be lentils and rice, preferably basmati rice. 

Last month, I went to a conference in Austin, TX, where I learned about an organization promoting lentils, Canadian Lentils. I normally don’t write about specific products {except for books or interesting websites}, but this got my attention. They displayed lentils in burlap bags next to mason jars, in front of two tall shelves full of spices. From turmeric, ginger, garam masala, cumin, dried herbs, and different kinds of peppers, they encouraged visitors to take a jar fill it with lentils and add spices, either following one of their recipes or each person’s own mix. They elevated this humble pulse and made it the star of the conference, their booth was packed at all times with people interested on the endless possibilities provided by the spices. 

lentilsoupinajar

Lentils are miracle food. Let’s deconstruct this statement:

  • Lentils contain high amounts of protein. 1 cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein
  • Lentils are high in heart-healthy fiber that also helps level blood sugar
  • Lentils provide high levels of iron 
  • Lentils, like other pulses or legumes, fix nitrogen into the soil where they are planted, creating a better growing environment for other plants, and reducing the carbon footprint of our food by using less chemical fertilizers per kilo-calorie
  • Lentils are delicious and versatile, and we can find recipes from all over the globe that feature them. They adapt to any spices and flavors we may dream of using. Italian lentil soup with tomatoes, thyme or oregano, for example, or Indian Dahl – orange split lentil – soup with curry, my mothers lentil soup with cumin, paprika and turmeric, or endless salad combinations, like Bulgur and black lentil salad with carrot green pesto.

homemadeholidaygifts

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the perfect apple-almond cake photo

There’s something about fall that screams baking! During the summer months I run away from the oven with terrorizing memories of the sticky and sweaty kitchen years I endured as a baker, but as soon as the backyard fills with leaves my little inner baker wakes up.

apple-almondcake

The falling leaves and crisps nights make it irresistible for a warm and sweet baked good right out of the oven, together with a cup of coffee and a good book. The heat of the oven helps me warm up the house in the absence of a fire-place, which would make this story seem more fairytale than it really is; and if I had a say, my fairytale would include year-round mild weather and an ocean view.

Fall’s slow death into winter also slows life, or at least it feels that way. I rediscover books with folded pages and pencil notes from before the rush of summer. A bit dusty, but not at all forgotten, they guarded their message and waited for me and our daily afternoon coffee, or evening glass of wine. 

One of those books I’m a few pages from finishing is Best Food Writing 2015, a yearly compilation of food-related essays, which has been done for more than a decade now, by Holly Hughes. I got hooked on these books a few years back when my interest shifted from cookbooks {yes, i still buy some of those} to food writing as narrative, a way to tell food stories. 

As I planned for this post, an essay from this book came to mind, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen,” by Debbie Koenig.

The essay begins with: “Food writers are lying to you,” yikes! and I agree, for the most part. She talks about the behind the scenes of recipes development {or recreation} and food photography, and the reality we don’t show on blog posts like this…Nope, I don’t have any pictures of dirty dishes for you, sorry.
We ‘lie’ because ugly pictures don’t sell, and pretty pictures DO, they attract people to follow and click on a link. 

When I first started this blog, my pictures were ugly, as not pretty or appealing, my goal was to share a recipe and a story, and didn’t understand that the photos made a difference. There were many reason for my bad photos {not to say they are absolutely great now, but better} besides my lack of skill.  My kitchen is dark, with orange-yellow maple cabinets and dark green-blue counter tops. My pictures reflected that, even worse when I’d turn the lights on to photograph dinner the yellow hue would translate onto the photo. 

honeycrispapples

Hours of reading about food photography and a full week of deconstructing and reconstructing my office made my photos crisper and cleaner. The office became a white box, I took the carpet off and installed plywood planks on the floor, and painted walls, floor and ceiling a crisp white, to bounce the window light and not alter the color of the food. 

My pictures don’t reflect the dated refrigerator, the broken-down microwave, or the prop I use to keep the oven door close because the hinges don’t work. They show an “edited” idea of how cooking really happens here. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kitchen and many great meals successfully come out of it, including this apple cake, but how many people really want to see a load of bad pictures full of reality? 

germanapplealmondcake

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Whole Grain Banana-Chocolate Bundt cakes

Once in a while the grocery store where I shop has ‘brownish’ bananas on sale, as it happened a couple of weeks ago, so I buy enough to make a few loaves of banana bread.

The desperate look of the in-need-of-a-home bananas brakes me every time and I end up sheltering more than enough to make the usual banana bread, plus some other quick bread variation that I could serve for afternoon tea or even dinner; banana-chocolate bread baked in mini bundt pans fools anyone into thinking is dessert.

chocolatebananabread

The whole wheat and rye flours hide behind the dark {extra-brut} cocoa powder and the chunks of 68% chocolate giving it a sense of indulgence, plus lowering the sugar allows the chocolate flavor to shine and support the bananas as the first act.

chocolatebananaminibunts

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Apple-Cream Tarts, A Pastry Lesson

Pretty desserts, the one reason why I decided to venture on to pastry instead of the hot kitchen. Well, the sweaty hours chained to a grill or a sauté station helped further convince me that my future was where the pretty things live, the pastry kitchen. That became the topic for a talk I gave at a culinary school in Oaxaca, Mexico last week, a trip I’ll share in a post in the coming weeks.

apple cream tart

Of those pretty pastry things I have a certain infatuation with tarts – of any shape and size. I love the intricacy of the simple looking tart. The crunchy shell with the delicate ruffles, like a well-made princess dress. The layers of creams, fruit, chocolate, caramel, nuts, and anything else one can imagine.

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Upside-Down Applesauce Bread with Honey-Ginger Pear Topping

The warm weather has prompted me to work on the garden beds and prepare them for the season ahead. I’m still kicking myself for not had at least tried to overwinter some carrots, sunchokes or something from the onion family, at least for some green tones on the overly brown landscape.

Our yard is big and clumsy. A couple trees and a lot of dried grass, and on a corner, close to the house, the garden I started last year.

This year I’m resolved to expand, to grow more vegetables, to plant a fruit tree, maybe plum since we receive boxes of peaches and apples from a CSA with Ela Family Farm,  and get a few egg-laying chickens.

I have so many questions like, what does one do with them during the winter? How do I keep them safe from the coyotes? Mr. Miles is happy to help, but at his age he spends more time sleeping than guarding the yard. Also, what to do when we go on holiday? That was actually my husband’s biggest worry, and I wonder how many people may need chicken daycare these days {now, that’s the business (!)}.

Another friend told us that she’s never had problems finding friends to care for the chicks, “People love to take care of my chickens, they know they’ll get the best eggs as reward,” she said. That was the last push the boy needed to say yes to the idea of rummaging birds in the backyard.

honeygingerpearbread

While the season in Colorado gets on its way, I scavenge the grocery store for produce somewhat closer to us. If I take my experience as a traveler, I can attest that after traveling for days I’m tired, grumpy and most likely not all that tasty. So, I prefer a pear that comes from say, Oregon, than a plum that comes from Chile. Nothing against Chileans, I have many Chilean friends and love them all, but I’ll stick with the pear.

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Deep, Dark Chocolate Truffles – Preparing for Valentine’s Day

Here it is again, Valentine’s day. The past couple of years I have rejoiced with what that sentence means to a pastry chef and a wine geek who no longer work at a restaurant or a pastry shop. A weird sense of freedom, I must admit, from the madness of the love-day. At the restaurant, the dinning room was always redesigned to allow maximum profitability, 800+ reservations of mostly duo tables, and the staff in a panic for days before the magical celebration of love occurred.

This week, after a couple of years of mental, emotional and physical recovery from the hundreds of orders of chocolates, cookies, cakes, candies and everything in between that evoked the sweet sentiment of the Mr. Cupid and his love arrow, I took my new found sense of freedom and made chocolate truffles just because. I even scheduled the joyful chocolate treat as part of the prep for class to teach students the wonders and simplicity of a basic chocolate ganache recipe.

brittle coated chocolate truffle

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Sunflower Seed- Sesame Cookies, Vegan and Really Good

A food allergy diagnostic, or multiple, that threatens one life shouldn’t be a reason to stop receiving loving homemade goods; and for those whose idea of a gift means a homemade box of chocolates or cookies, it should be seen as a potential to make a loved one feel special.

A dear person to me was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease last year after months of suffering and pain. The first thing the doctors said was “You have to change your diet.”

This means:
– No dairy
– No wheat
– No sugar
– No pre-made foods with unknown ingredients
– Plus a heavy dose of meds and discomfort

On this day and age this is a difficult proposition for a working person who’s learned to live with the convenience and assistance of some already made food items, like sliced bread and pita chips. Now everything has to be closely monitored, approved or rejected before it goes in the shopping cart. Plus having to make different meals to feed picky eaters doesn’t help either.

I think of this as I prepare lecture and recipes for class this week, when we finally get cooking {hooray}. Specially because the majority of my students are nutrition majors. These students hold in their hands the possibility of an easier transition for people who have to change their food life upside down. They can provide great insight on food, healthful recipes, exploring new ingredients, using spices and herbs to flavor meals and bank on their positive effect on the body, and more. They can help patients navigate the endless choices of substitutes and diet-driven products in the supermarkets.

vegan sesame cookies

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Poached Apple Muffins with Oat-Sunflower Seed Topping

The cold of winter inspires me to bring warmth into the kitchen, and what a better way than by poaching fruit. Apples’ delicate floral essence surfaces when poached, specially when paired with spices like cinnamon and vanilla, and a few strips of orange peel, creating the fragrant melody of a garden in bloom.

Back in my pastry days I used to poach apples and pears for tarts, to fill wedding cakes, or to serve alongside ice cream and a buttery cookie. At the restaurant, the first few tries were agonizing since we used a pot big enough for me to bathe in and the apples that stayed on the bottom for too long became mushy and unmanageable for slicing.

My boss used to say, whenever we (the pastry cooks) made big no-no’s, “Next time just put the money directly on the trash!” I had to find ways to use the apples to escape the wrath of the budget chat, and to avoid convincing myself that I was better at math than pastry.
The apples smelled and tasted just as good as the non-mushy ones so I pureed them and made a sweet and velvety applesauce perfect for breads and muffins, and to fill cakes – Ahhh! the little victories.

This week I poached a dozen apples, some to use in a cream tart and mini tartlets for a dinner party, and some to puree and make this muffin recipe.poached apple muffins with sunflower seeds

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Flourless Chocolate Cakes with Stewed Cherries

I cried many times testing flourless chocolate cake recipes when I was fresh out of culinary school. A pastry chef is expected to have a flourless, fudge, dreamy chocolate cake, and when I got my very first chance to fly solo at a small French restaurant I had to accomplish the expected.

After two years in pastry at a high-end market in Denver where we made many European style desserts, like tarts, tortes, cakes, and cookies; and many American style like brownies, cheesecakes, etc., I was  just scratching the surface of the culinary world. The audacity of youth makes us believe we can accomplish anything, even if not fully prepared, but what would be of the world if we were all a bunch of 40 year olds afraid of stepping too far from our comfort zones?

In a panic state, I tested many recipes. Some were too complicated; some yielded crumbly, dry cakes; and some where just plain bad. I wanted a recipe that was quick to mix, that delivered a full chocolate experience in each dark, buttery bite and that I could have on hand for on-the-fly baking for those busy nights with lots to do on the tight budgeted time of one person.chocolate mini cakes gluten free

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