On Intuition and Kitchen Disasters

How good are you about following your gut instincts? Do you pay attention to your intuition, or do you shrug it off, preferring to stick to what you planned or think you should do? I recently got a great reminder about why I should always, always, follow my intuition.

Early last month, Eugene and I drove down to Brooklyn for brunch with my in-laws. We met Eugene's dad, mom, and brother in Williamsburg and then walked around a bit until we found a nice spot to eat.*

After brunch and a few scoops of palm sugar ice cream from the Van Leeuwen truck, Eugene and I got back in the car to return to the city when I suddenly got this weird urge to stop by Brooklyn Kitchen. I wasn't even really sure where it was located though I knew it was somewhere in Williamsburg. We were already starting to drive away when I kind of blurted out that I wanted to stop by there. Eugene, used to my impulses, didn't even question me as he looked up the address on his phone then entered it into the GPS which led us the three blocks to the store. I didn't have anything in particular in mind though I wandered around a bit looking to see what jumped out at me. While checking out the flyers on a table wondering if I should leave a few for my classes,  I came across a postcard for a culinary retreat at a place called Good Commons. I grabbed the card (and left a few of my own) then headed out.

Later that evening, I was about to go to bed when I decided to check out the postcard again. The retreat sounded fantastic: a long weekend in Vermont, visits to local farms and artisan producers, gourmet meals, massages, a hot tub, even round trip transportation! It led me to the retreat's Facebook page where I saw a contest to win a free trip to the culinary retreat. To enter, I just had to submit a brief story about a recent kitchen disaster. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided to go to bed and enter in the morning. In fact I did shut down, but something kept nagging me as I lay in bed. So I got back up, turned on my laptop, and at 2AM I wrote my story. I sent it in, along with the photo below, and went to bed.

The next morning, I told Eugene about it. I said, "I entered a contest to win a trip to that culinary retreat and I'm definitely going to win." Once again, used to my unusually confident declarative statements he just laughed and went to work.

Needless to say, a week or so later I heard back and I had won! Here is my little 2AM kitchen disaster story:

"It was already late, but the craving wouldn't wait.  I worked from memory, and just like each time before, the dark chocolate cake moistened with freshly brewed espresso baked up perfectly. While the layers cooled, I started the frosting, opting to go with something foolproof given the late hour.
I melted the butter, pouring it into the base of the mixer and added scoops of cocoa, watching as the paddle whirled the dry and wet into a unified silky, black pool. A pinch of kosher salt, an over-flowing tablespoon of homemade vanilla, a splash of raw Jersey cow milk delivered fresh from the farm.

I reached for the glass canister of confectioner’s sugar and scooped in a few powdery white clouds. Stirring gently at first, then raising the speed until the dark liquid grew lighter, fluffier. The texture was perfect so I took a taste.

Bitter! I could taste cocoa, the butter, but not a hint of sweetness.

I added another puff of sugar, thinking, “perhaps I miscounted the scoops?” Around and around the paddle whirled; powdery white disappearing into the chocolate. Another taste.
Still nothing!
More sugar. More whirls. Nothing but bitterness. My mouth and eyes in confused disagreement by what each experienced.

And then? A hunch. I took another taste, this time from the glass jar I'd nearly emptied in frustration. It tasted starchy, floury, dry.
It was not sugar.

A few days earlier I'd organized my pantry, wiping things down. Tossing things out. Transferring baking ingredients from flimsy boxes to strong glass jars, each neatly labeled with my own handwriting. Somehow--perhaps at the end of that long day of sorting--I got it wrong, pouring cornstarch into the jar meant for its much sweeter twin.

I scooped out the contents of my mixer. I'd just made myself a batch of the most sweetly-scented chocolate play-dough I had ever seen."
The prize weekend ended up being fantastic. Stay tuned for pics and more details in my next post.



*I think the place was called Elsa's or Ella's, but I don't recommend it as the food was terrible, the water tasted dirty, and the waitress was wearing an uncomfortable-looking pair of tweed high-waisted shorts that gave me a vicarious wedgie each time she came to our table. I did not order dessert.

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Whole Wheat Strawberry Shortcake with Basil Macerated Strawberries

So here's a confession: I've never liked strawberry shortcake.

If I see it on a dessert menu, I skip right over it. If someone pulls it out at a birthday party or after a weekend barbecue, I get really disappointed. I've got very particular tastes when it comes to dessert, and items involving fresh berries and cream tend to fall right to the bottom of the list. (Unless said berries and cream are on top of a chocolate torte, because then they go right to the top!).

So it was with a sigh of resignation that I served myself a bowl of strawberry shortcake at a friend's party a few weeks ago. She had set out a basket of biscuits, a bowl of fresh berries, and some vanilla ice cream and urged us each to assemble our desserts. Eugene was thrilled as this is totally his thing. (The man often prefers fruit to cake. Weirdo.)

I'm not one to turn down dessert (surprise!) so I went with it, and as I'm sure you can now guess, I ended up loving it. Like really, really loving it.

It helped that the berries were in kick-ass peak season, but it was really the biscuits that sang to me.

Until then, the strawberry shortcakes I'd had were pretty bad. There were the kinds made with those funny little round golden "dessert shells" they sell in the grocery store near the berries. When I was little I found them adorable and would poke and squeeze them whenever I saw them, much to my mother's chagrin.

(I admit that I still totally get the urge to squeeze them when I see them. And sometimes I just do it. I also like to poke and squeeze Sno Balls.)

I finally got my mom to buy a package of those shells once (probably out of guilt since I'd destroyed so many over the years) and I remember how excited I was to finally taste them, only to end up disappointed that the flavor did not live up to their looks.

The other kind of strawberry shortcake I grew up with is that North Jersey bakery variety--basically a sweet yellow cake layered with pastry cream or overly sweetened whipped cream (or both), and lackluster berries; a cloying combination that completely defeats the potential awesomeness of this dish.

The difference here was all in the shortcake itself, which was really just a biscuit--light, barely sweet, with even a tiny hint of salty butter in each bite. Instead of mushy cake, it had a great flaky texture and just enough bite, softened a little bit by the natural juices of the berries. In a word, perfection.

I was totally impressed and went home determined to recreate the dish (I think I should rename this blog "Recreating that Dish" as that seems to be where all my recipe ideas come from lately.)

Our friend told us that she had purchased the biscuits from a local bakery (I think it was either Amy's or Sarabeth's), so I hunted around online until I found this Russ Parsons/LA Times recipe on Smitten Kitchen that looked like a great start. I changed it up a bit, increasing the butter, using raw egg yolks, and most importantly, swapping in whole wheat flour for a nutty, whole grain result. I also had the idea to macerate the berries with some summery fresh basil. (Because strawberries and basil are AWESOME together!)

I layered this with two shortcakes instead of splitting one (because I'm decadent like that) and topped it off with a generous dollop of unsweetened freshly whipped cream. The final dessert was brilliant! I also found that the leftovers kept well until the second day (although they were definitely best on the first.) If you don't like or want whipped cream, you can also use plain Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream.

(The remaining shortcakes actually were quite fun for snacking on for a few days. They developed a soft, almost cornbread like texture that I found incredibly addictive.)

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services, group cooking classes, and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading! 

Whole Wheat Strawberry Shortcake with Basil Macerated Strawberries
Adapted from Russ Parsons via Smitten Kitchen
Print this Recipe
1 2/3 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 egg yolks, cold
1 pinch Kosher salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
zest of 1 whole lemon
2/3 cup heavy cream, cold
1 tablespoon Turbinado sugar ("Sugar in the Raw")
1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled, and quartered
2 tablespoons Turbinado sugar ("Sugar in the Raw")
6 large basil leaves, julienned
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup heavy cream


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest. Add the butter and use your fingers or a pastry cutter to work the butter into the dough until it resembles course crumbs.
Whisk together the egg yolks and heavy cream in a separate bowl and pour into the flour mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together.
Turn out onto a flour-dusted surface and knead briefly before shaping into a large circle. Use a rolling pin to roll it out until it is about 1" thick. Use 3" cookie cutters to cut out circles of dough, transferring each to the prepared baking pan. Reroll any additional dough and cut until all dough is used.
Brush each round with heavy cream or water and sprinkle generously with the Turbinado sugar. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until risen and golden. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before serving.

While the shortcakes bake, combine the strawberries with the sugar, julienned basil, and lemon juice. Let stand at room temperature until the berries soften and release their juices, at least 20 minutes.
To assemble, whip the remaining cold heavy cream until soft peaks form. Place one shortcake in a bowl, top with several spoonfuls of the berries and juice. Add a large scoop of the freshly whipped cream and top with a second shortcake. Garnish with a little more whipped cream and a fresh basil leaf. Serve immediately.

We Have a Winner!!

Thank you so much to all who entered the giveaway to win a free NYC cooking class! I absolutely loved reading about all the things you want to learn, and added a bunch to my list! I wish I could give you ALL a free ticket to my classes, but I had to pick just one winner (lest I go broke and totally out of business immediately!). ;)

I used random number generator to select a random number out of the 66 entries, and it chose #14...which makes Lara the winner!

In one of her entries, Lara wrote: "I'd love to learn how to make your rainbow cookie/bars ;) but more practically, just some kitchen basics to conquer my thoughts that I can't cook (and fear of big knives!)"

Those are all things that I can definitely help with! Lara, send me an email and I'll set you up with the info for your free class.

Thank you again to all who entered. I would love to see you all in one of my classes and hope that you'll all come and join us! You can check out the list of current group cooking classes here and remember that I also offer private and in-home cooking classes, and a number of other workshops!



Spicy Dark Chocolate Coconut Smoothie

At the culinary retreat I attended last weekend, we all took part in a smoothie workshop led by the one of the founders of NibMor chocolates--an organic chocolate company that produces chocolate products without refined sugars. The demonstration featured a variety of easy smoothies made using the company's various drinking chocolate mixes which are all sweetened with coconut palm sugar instead of refined sugars or HFC.

The smoothies she made were delicious, but the one that jumped out at me the most was the one she made using their 6-Spice Organic Drinking Chocolate mix. Made with a blend of six different spices, this produced a sweet and spicy and totally addictive drink. I was hooked and knew that I would have to recreate something similar as soon as I got home.

For the demo, she used the already prepared mix, but I figured it would be easy enough to make something at home from scratch using ingredients I already had in my pantry. I played around with different quantities of spices and cocoa and finally came up with a recipe I really liked. I used coconut milk for my smoothie and I loved the thick, almost tropical flavor it added. Coconut and spice just work so well together. I also tested the recipe with whole milk (from a cow) and it was also fantastic, but I really do actually prefer the coconut milk with this since it adds that extra little touch of something special.

The final result is creamy, cool, with just the perfect amount of heat. I absolutely love that spicy kick and think it makes for a perfect morning drink to get you going on these hot summer days! (Or even on a hot summer night ;) The combination of spices, cocoa, and coconut milk are also packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and a whole host of nutritional benefits.

The recipe below includes the spices that I added and loved in my smoothie, but feel free to play around with them based on your likes or what you have in your pantry. For best results, use fresh spices, but if yours have been hanging around the pantry for a long time, you may want to increase the amount you use of each one. If you're nervous about a particular flavor, add just a bit and then increase it as you go. Or if there is something you don't like, just feel free to skip it. Remember, you can always add more, but taking some away is not so easy.

Delicious Tip! I love my smoothies really icy cold, so I actually freeze my coconut milk in ice cube trays the night before and then just blitz them up in my blender. Since coconut milk thickens at cold temperatures, it actually makes the smoothie even creamier. You can also refrigerate your coconut milk or even make the smoothie the night before and chill it in the fridge. It'll need a quick whisk or blitz in the blender before serving since the drink will separate a bit overnight.

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading! 

Spicy Dark Chocolate Coconut Smoothie
Makes about 2 8oz servings (or one big one--I totally go for the one big one)
Print this Recipe
2 cups cold coconut milk (can also substitute cow, almond, hemp, oat, or other non-dairy milk)
4 ice cubes
3 rounded (heaping!) tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 tablespoons honey (can also use maple syrup, golden syrup, granulated sugar or your favorite sweetener)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon is recommended)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (you can increase or decrease this depending on how much heat you like)
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt OR Celtic sea salt

Combine all ingredients in blender and process until smooth and frothy (1-3 minutes, depending on your blender). Serve immediately or refrigerate in air-tight container for up to 3 days (whisk or run through blender again before serving if refrigerated).


Giveaway: Win a Free Cooking Class (with me!!!)

As you may know, (since I've mentioned it...oh...once or twice ;) I've been teaching a series of really fun and intimate dinner-party style cooking classes here in New York.

What I feel makes these classes special is that I've designed them to be more like a relaxed dinner party, with plenty of wine, music (I make special playlists for each class!), and lots of hands-on instruction and experience. You'll actually take part in every aspect of making the meal, learning everything from basic techniques to fun tips along the way. And since the classes are small, they're a great place to make friends and meet new people; nothing like food and cooking to bring together a group of strangers!

You guys have all been so supportive of me these last few months since leaving my job and launching my own business, that I thought it would be fun to offer a free seat at one of my classes for one lucky reader!

To enter to win, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post telling me one thing you'd love to learn to do some day. (Doesn't even have to be food related! I, for example, really want to learn how to play the ukulele.)

You can earn additional entries by doing one (or all!) of the following for a total of up to 5 entries per person. (Note that you MUST leave a separate comment for each thing you do as I'll be counting the comments for the entries. If you group everything into one, you'll only get one entry):

1. Post this on your Twitter account & then leave a comment here to say you did: "Win a free cooking class in NYC from @nandita: http://bit.ly/pJ1ZHz"
2. Like Always Order Dessert on Facebook (http://facebook.com/alwaysorderdessert) and leave a comment here saying you did.
3. Subscribe to my newsletter (on the right) and leave a comment saying you did.
4. Post about this on your Facebook page and leave a comment saying you did.

Rules: All entries must be in by 5PM EST on Sunday, July 24. You're responsible for transportation to and from New York City and the class location. Winner will receive one free ticket to his or her choice of available cooking classes from Alejandra Ramos Culinary & Lifestyle. Winning ticket cannot be redeemed for cash value or transferred to anyone. Class selection is limited by availability. Winner will be randomly selected on Monday, July 25, via Random Number Generator.

Bagged Lunch Ideas: Golden Herbed Quinoa Salad

I've only been out of town for fewer 12 hours, and I've already learned that my husband apparently ate a bowl of garbage for dinner last night.


Whenever I leave town I like to pull a Barefoot Contessa and leave Eugene a few delicious things that he can enjoy while I'm away. This time around I left him a casserole of ricotta and herb-stuffed shells in spicy homemade tomato sauce, a large glass jug of cucumber spa water in the fridge, a grilled skirt steak, some roasted vegetables, and a gorgeous, golden herbed quinoa salad tossed with very finely grated aged gouda. I let him know via email what I'd made and how to heat things, and then off I went on my trip (I'm in Vermont right now on a weekend culinary retreat).

During the ride up last night I sent him an email to see how dinner went and to see what he thought of the quinoa salad. He replied that it was fine, but that the bottom was "all burnt and stuck" and so he was only able to eat from the top.

"Oh no!!!!" I replied as I realized what he'd done.

See, when I was making the quinoa on Wednesday, I got caught on a conference call and forgot to turn the stove off. The bottom ended up burning and sticking to the pot (a quinoa socarrat, if you will), but the top was light and fluffy so I simply scooped all that into a large bowl and prepared my salad, leaving the stuck bits in the pot to clean later. In my rush to finish packing and make my shuttle today, I didn't have time, so I simply poured in some hot tap water and let it sit so that it would soften, making it easier for Eugene to rinse off when he got home.

Unfortunately, I neglected to tell him this key bit of information and so when he got home he assumed the stuff in the pot was his dinner.*

"I thought it was too wet," he replied, once I'd explained what happened.

So that was terrible, but I'm still very excited about the recipe I'm sharing with you today (and which Eugene will, hopefully, finally get to taste this evening.)

This is one of those great make-ahead salads that's absolutely perfect for bagged lunches (and picnics!). The golden color comes from turmeric, which lends a very subtle flavor but is really there to brighten up the dish. A simple dressing of fresh lemon juice, good olive oil, fresh chives, and finely grated garlic (a brilliant trick that helps the powerful garlic to just melt into your dish) coats the fluffy grains of quinoa. To finish it off, I sprinkle on a generous shower of good, sharp, hard cheese (aged gouda is my favorite for this, but you can use what you have) and toss to evenly distribute.

This is good hot, but I honestly think it's even better cold. With the freshness of the herbs and the great sharp flavor from the cheese you end up with a totally satisfying bowl just perfect for lunch. A complete protein in its own right, quinoa is a healthy and affordable option for meatless meals and salads. Since it can be eaten both hot or cold, it travels really well and you don't have to worry about refrigeration.

Add a sliced cucumber, a handful of nuts, and a little something sweet to end the meal (I chose blueberries and almond cookies), and you have a perfectly balanced lunch that will keep you focused without making you so sleepy that you start contemplating a nap under your desk. (Admit it. you've totally thought about it.)

Even though I now work from home, I still find that it's smart to make good balanced lunches like this for myself in advance. Otherwise, I get so wrapped up in my work that I never stop to eat. Fortunately, a large bowl of this salad takes just about 20 mostly-inactive minutes to assemble and will keep well for at least a week. It really makes preparing a healthy lunch totally effortless. (Not to mention incredibly affordable!)

*I'm actually a little bit surprised--perhaps even offended--that Eugene took a look at that gross burnt and watery pot and assumed that was what I'd left him for dinner. I mean, doesn't he know me (and my cooking!) better than that? ;)

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading!   

Golden Herbed Quinoa Salad

Print this Recipe
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups quinoa
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of one lemon
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives
1 garlic clove, finely grated
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup finely grated hard sharp cheese such as Asiago, Aged Gouda, Pecorino, Parmiggiano-Reggiano, etc.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the quinoa. In a medium saucepan, combine the chicken broth and quinoa over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover the pan and cook until all liquids are absorbed, about 12-15 minutes.

While the quinoa cooks, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, chives, grated garlic, oregano, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Add the dressing to the cooked quinoa and toss to coat.  Stir in grated cheese. Season with Kosher salt and pepper, to taste, and serve.

Can be served hot or cold.

Brown Sugar Passion Fruit Ice Pops

It is no secret that I'm a little bit in love with all things passion fruit. There is just something about the flavor that screams summer and vacation and Puerto Rico and the beach and all those wonderful things to me. Over the years on this blog I've made passion fruit sorbet and cocktails and lemonade and souffle and even passion fruit candy! I've also done many more things with it that I haven't even mentioned (I'm sorry!), but which were all just as good.

A couple weeks ago, while doing the shopping for one of my cooking classes, I found a bunch of my favorite frozen passion fruit puree on sale at the grocery store. I snapped up a couple packages of it (OK...more than a couple. Like maybe five.) and brought them home--the icey bag hitting my bare legs as I lugged the packages back to my apartment.

I've really been into the idea of making ice pops lately, but besides my mocha fudge pops, I've actually not had much success creating anything super exciting. I did have one spectacular disaster involving pineapple, cilantro, and lime that caused a bit of a ruckus, but not in a good way.

But I figured that passion fruit is pretty tough to mess up as long as you stay simple, so that's what I did.

I decided to combine the passion fruit puree with turbinado sugar (aka "Sugar in the Raw"), which has been my favorite lately due to its gorgeous crunchy crystals and that delicate taste of molasses. Some water, a little squeeze of lime, and a LOT of patience, and voila! Brown Sugar Passion Fruit Ice Pops!

I also found out that the leftover juice makes a delicious juice. And cocktail mixer. Add a little bit of rum to the mix, pop on a big hat, and you're ready for summer.

If you're into passion fruit, I definitely recommend giving these ice pops a shot. Note that the turbinado sugar turns the mix a little bit of a deep orange-y brown, which I found quite lovely. It reminded me of that Crayola crayon color, Burnt Sienna. Gorgeous!

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. 

Brown Sugar Passion Fruit Ice Pops
The yield depends on the size of your molds. This made about 6 standard ice pops.
Print this Recipe

2 cups frozen passion fruit pulp, defrosted (that's about 1 standard package)
1 1/2 cups turbinado sugar ("sugar in the raw")
2 cups water
Juice of 1 lime

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar is full dissolved. Let cool completely at room temperature. Once cool, whisk a few times to remove any separation, and then pour into ice pop molds.
Let freeze for at least 4 hours before unmolding.

Schmaltz Brioche

I recently found myself in possession of a pot of gold. A large container filled to the brim with schmaltz--creamy, golden, rendered chicken fat, redolent with the aroma of chicken soup and (somebody's) grandmother's kitchen.

Eugene was excited when I brought home this prize. He, being Jewish, grew up with the stuff, but was disappointed when I opened it and he realized the container was lacking the tiny bits of crisp chicken skin. "Schmaltz without gribenes is nothing," he declared, while comforting himself with a hunk of bread spread thick with a slather of inferior crackling-less fat.

While contemplating the schmaltz, I remembered a recipe I'd learned from a friend back when I lived in Italy. He--let's call him Brandon-- was a fellow American student at the same culinary school I attended.  He was in the pastry track, while I was in the regular culinary arts program, so we didn't share very many classes but had met at various events and had become friends.

The rule at our school was that we weren't permitted to bring food home from the class; due to liability concerns, leftovers were to be consumed on the premises or thrown away--something which many of us found horrifying as we were often living on very tight budgets and hated the thought of wasting food.

Fortunately, some of the instructors were lax, purposely exiting the room to smoke a cigarette or flirt or do other Italian things while we quickly tucked cooked pork chops, partially cut fruit, and fritters into our loose pant pockets. Brandon had somehow managed to make away with a bounty of freshly baked bread rolls, dropping more than half a dozen of them inside his roomy toque just before hightailing it for the exit.

Later that same day, my roommate and I stopped by Brandon's apartment for dinner and he served us the fresh rolls--golden, soft, and buttery with a hint of sweetness. Just one bite in and I was already begging for the recipe.

"They're made with pork fat," he explained as he wrote down the formula for me on a tiny piece of paper ripped from the corner of the book he was reading.

I tucked that recipe away and, for some reason, didn't think about it again until the pot of gold came into my life. Remembering how good the rolls made with bacon fat had been, I wondered if savory chicken fat would have a similar effect. I immediately started rummaging, flipping through the sticky pages of my old culinary school texts trying to find the recipe he'd given me. I could see it clearly in my head--his boyish handwriting in black ink on the torn piece of paper--but it was nowhere to be found.

Too impatient to keep trying to find the original recipe, I decided on a different approach. I would need a bread recipe that called for a lot of fat, preferably something solid like butter. Brioche, of course.

I got to work and the results were brilliant--golden bread with a soft, tender--almost flaky--crumb and crisp, delicate crust. This was the brioche of my dreams. And the flavor...wow. Each bite is infused with just a hint of that unmistakable flavor, but in a subtle and not at all overpowering way. Eugene agreed as we turned the bread into breakfast sandwiches and then later on tried a sweet version with a bit of strawberry jam.

It was fantastic both ways, my only regret being that I didn't make two loaves instead of one.

How to Make Schmaltz:  To make this recipe you obviously need schmaltz. While you can often purchase schmaltz at ethnic and kosher markets or kosher sections of some grocery stores, it really is very simple to make and works about the same way as cooking bacon.

Start with a pound or two of chicken skin and fat (you can get this very cheaply from your butcher at any grocery store) and spread our in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, the way you would if you were caramelizing onions, and let the fat melt off the pieces of chicken. Let it continue to cook for about 30-45 minutes, turning down the heat if it gets too hot. Once it's ready you'll end up with lots of pieces of dark, crisped chicken skin (aka gribenes), and a lot of liquid fat (again, like if you were cooking bacon). Strain the liquid fat through a sieve into a glass container and let cool. It will thick and solidify once cold.

You can store this in your refrigerator and use for cooking the way you would any cooking oil (great with eggs or for sauteing vegetables) or spread on toast. The gribenes are also great spread on toast along with the schmaltz, and can also be sprinkled onto salads or soups the way you would use bacon bits or croutons.

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading!   

Schmaltz Brioche
Schmaltz is typically made at home by rendering the fat from chicken skin (directions described in the post), but it can also be purchased at Kosher markets, poultry shops, or grocery stores with Kosher sections. Recipe very heavily adapted from La Tartine Gourmande's "Simplest Brioche" recipe.
Print This Recipe
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
1/3 cup warm milk (should be warm, not hot; you should be able to comfortable dip your finger in it for 10 seconds)
1/2 cup schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 rounded teaspoon Kosher salt
1 egg, for egg wash
Additional schmaltz or butter for greasing


Whisk together the yeast, sugar, and warm milk and let sit for 5 minutes until frothy.

Pour yeast mixture into the base of your mixer and attach the dough hook. Add the schmaltz and eggs and mix in well with the dough hook. Add the salt and flour, mixing with the dough hook at medium speed until it pulls away from the sides and a dough starts to form. Let knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and not too sticky. If the dough is still too wet after 10 minutes of kneading, add another 1/4 cup of flour and knead it again.

Grease a clean bowl with a bit of schmaltz. Remove the dough from the mixer and shape into a ball. Place in the bowl and turn once to coat with schmaltz on all sides. Top loosely with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and leave in a warm spot to rise for 90 minutes or until doubled in volume.

One the dough has risen, poke it down and turn over onto a floured surface. Knead it gently by hand for 2 minutes and then form into a ball and cut into 8 even sized pieces (doesn't have to be exact). Shape each piece into a ball. Grease a 9" loaf pan with schmaltz and tuck the 8 dough balls into the bottom of the pan so that they all touch. Use a pair of clean kitchen scissors to snip an X into the top of each ball (optional but gives the final bread a pretty shape) then cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 30 minutes to 1 hour or until doubled in volume.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk one egg with one tablespoon of water and use a pastry brush to gently cover the top of the loaf with the egg wash.

Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the bread is golden. Remove from the oven and let cool in the loaf pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Mustard & Panko Crusted Salmon Fillets

The crispy tilapia dish that I wrote about a couple weeks ago was a big hit with folks looking for easy weeknight recipes, so I thought I'd include another favorite!

Over the years on this blog I find that a lot of people tend to shy away from cooking fish due to fears of...well...I don't know what, really, but honestly, if you're looking for quick dinners, there is nothing quicker than fish. With just a little bit of seasoning and a few minutes on the stove, you've got a dinner that would rival any found on a restaurant menu both in deliciousness and price.

(Seriously, we went to dinner the other night at a restaurant that charged $28 for a pan-seared tiliapia and mashed potatoes. For serious?! I love restaurants, but I'm never going to pay them to make me something I could make at home in 7 minutes for 7 dollars.)

But I digress! This mustard & panko crusted salmon I'm showing you today is one of those dishes that looks fancy (it would be a great choice for a dinner party!), but which couldn't be any easier to prepare at home.

To make, salmon fillets are seasoned with salt and pepper, and then brushed with a good, spiced mustard I used a lovely and inexpensive whole grain Dijon from one of my favorite brands, Roland, but you can pick what you like; honey mustard would also add a lovely sweet and spicy element to the dish.

The mustard creates a sticky base that you can then plop right into a bowl of crunchy panko breadcrumbs (which I also season with salt, pepper, and a little paprika).

That's it in terms of prep work! You can even prep this much up to about 8 hours in advance and then cook it later; particularly helpful if you're making these for a large group.

To finish off the dish, you just heat up some oil in a skillet and plop the fillets panko-side down for 1-2 minutes until golden. Depending on the size of your skillet, do no more than 2 at a time so they have ample room to cook. Then flip and let cook for another 3-5 minutes (I like to let it go until the skin gets really crisp). If you like a "well-done" fish (vs medium or rare), let it cook for 5-7 minutes.

Voila! Dinner is ready!

This is lovely in the warm months served with a few lemon wedges and a side salad of cucumber and arugula (cucumber is brilliant with salmon). Or for something a little heartier, serve it on a bed of herbed quinoa, couscous, or rice pilaf.

Sometimes I like to add a little extra mustard to the plate for dipping, though really it's not even necessary as the salmon already packs so much flavor.

Substitutions and Other Ideas:
If you'd like, you can make a low-carb or gluten-free version of this dish by using almond meal or crushed pecans in place of the panko. And once you have this technique down, you can experiment by swapping out other creams in place of the mustard--try it with horseradish mayonnaise or ranch dressing. (Just please don't use ketchup. ;) You can also add other seasonings to the panko--finely minced fresh herbs, red pepper flakes, chili powder, turmeric, curry powder, etc.

I think this recipe works best with salmon because the flavor of the fish is really enhanced by the mustard, but any firm fish fillet would work too; try it with halibut, mahi-mahi, or Chilean sea bass. Choose whatever looks fresh and is on sale. (Don't know what to pick? Tell the fish guy your plans and have him suggest something.)

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading!

Mustard & Panko Crusted Salmon Fillets
Serves 2, multiply as necessary
Print this Recipe
2 salmon fillets (6-8oz each)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup panko breadcrumbs (also known as "Japanese style bread flakes")
1 teaspoon paprika (I like smoked paprika)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup good mustard (dijon, whole grain, yellow, honey mustard--use what you prefer)
Canola, grapeseed, olive, or coconut oil for cooking

Rinse the salmon fillets under cold water, then pat dry with paper towels. Season well on all sides with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside.

In a shallow, wide bowl, whisk together the panko breadcrumbs with paprika, cayenne, Kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Taste a pinch of the breadcrumbs to make sure they're well seasoned and adjust accordingly.

Use a pastry brush or the back of a spoon to spread a layer of mustard (about 1/4 thick) all along the top of each salmon fillet.

Place the salmon fillet mustard-side down in the breadcrumbs and press down until it is evenly coated then lay skin-side down on a platter while you repeat with other fillet.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. You want just enough oil to coat the entire bottom of the pan. Heat for 2-3 minutes or until the oil is hot and starts to shimmer/tremble. Place the salmon fillets in the hot oil, panko-side down, for 1-2 minutes or until the panko becomes golden brown (lift it gently on its side after a minute to check the color). It should release easily; if it doesn't leave it for another 20-30 seconds. Use a spatula to flip the fish onto the skin side and let cook for 3-4 minutes or until the skin is crisp and the narrower parts of the fish are fully opaque and flaky. (If you like a well-done salmon, let it cook for another minute or two.)

Remove from the skillet and serve immediately. Is also lovely at room temperature as part of a buffet.

Dark Chocolate Mocha Fudgsicle Pops

There was a period in my life when I ate a LOT of Fudgesicles. It started my senior year of college after I got back from Italy, got my own apartment, and discovered the many joys of online grocery shopping.

It was August, which is a most unpleasant month to be in Washington, so I was often filling up my online shopping cart with treats I could rely on to stay cool. Ice cream, bottles of homemade-style limeade, and all kinds of -sicles, which I started substituting for breakfast on my walks to work or class or wherever I was headed during that sticky, humid summer.

The Fudgsicles were filling and kept me cool, which made up for the the inevitable hoots and hollers (or should I say "hollas") brought upon by the Freudian implications of my chosen breakfast treat.

After a few years, a few moves, and the desire to eliminate Franken-ingredients from my diet, I stopped buying them, opting for homemade ice creams or artisan gelatos to sate my cravings. But a few days ago, as the summer temperatures started to rise, I suddenly got the urge to bite into that unique combination of fudgey, icey, chocolateyness. (All words. Promise.)

So I got to work making my own version of homemade Fudgesicles, using a dark chocolate cornstarch-based pudding as the base, and kicking up the darkness of the chocolate with some freshly brewed espresso. I used a combination of both good unsweetened cocoa powder + semisweet chocolate chips for a rich, not too sweet chocolate flavor.

The espresso blended well with this combo and I deepened the flavor even further by using turbinado sugar, which added just a hint of molasses to the mix. The result is a dark and creamy mocha fudge pudding pop; a grown-up version of the classic treat, just perfect for the sticky days of summer.

I used little baking cups as a mold for most of my pops, but I also got the idea to try making little one-bite pops using the flexible silicone star ice cube tray I bought at the Wilton tent sale last month.  This mold, which I purchased on a whim in the flurry of tent sale shopping, has proven to be one of my favorites. It's great for making star-shaped ice cubes, but I think it's even better for making truffles and candy and tiny fudge pops. These things are adorable and they're fun to keep in the freezer to satisfy quick cravings. I really recommend it!

I admit that since making these, I've gone back to enjoying the occasional fudge pop for breakfast. It's basically just a cup of coffee...right?

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading!

Dark Chocolate Mocha Fudge Pops
Print this Recipe

2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar (I used turbinado sugar, aka "Sugar in the Raw"; you can also use regular granulated sugar, but I love the extra touch of molasses in the raw sugar.)
1/2 teaspoon of Kosher salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped (you can also use chocolate chips)
1/2 cup freshly brewed and chilled espresso
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine milk, sugar, salt, cocoa powder, and chopped chocolate in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking gently until all sugar is dissolved, cocoa is incorporated evenly, and chocolate is melted. Continue to stir just until it hits a simmer and keep stirring until very smooth and even.

In a separate container, whisk together the cornstarch and chilled espresso until smooth to create a slurry. Pour into the chocolate milk mixture and keep whisking until the mixture starts to thicken. Continue to cook on very low heat for 3 minutes, stirring continuously.

Remove from heat and whisk in vanilla extract, let cool at room temperature for 5-10 minutes, then transfer pudding to your pudding molds (Popsicle molds, Dixie cubs, flexible ice cube trays, etc.) and freeze for at least 3 hours before unfolding and serving (for hard molds, dip the bottom of the tray in hot water for 20-30 seconds to release).

Will keep well in the freezer for about 1 week.

Strawberry Thyme Limeade

Summer time is strawberry thyme! And, also apparently, cheesy pun time.

But I think you'll forgive me once you taste this bright and tart limeade. Made with fresh in-season strawberries, thyme, and a whole bunch of freshly juiced limes, it's the perfect drink to take on a picnic or enjoy on the back porch on a sunny summer afternoon. (I also know for a fact that it's just as lovely sitting inside a small, sunny New York City apartment pretending you're sitting on a back porch.)

The strawberry flavor (and gorgeous natural bright pink color) come from fresh strawberries which are simmered for just a few minutes along with sugar and water then pureed until smooth and passed through a sieve to catch any little seeds or other funny bits. The resulting flavor is fresh and bright, enhanced by the subtle herbal quality of the thyme. You can also substitute other herbs here; basil, for example, is particularly lovely with strawberries. Mint would also be great.

And because I know someone is going to ask; yes this would make a fantastic cocktail! Vodka would be a natural addition, but I also think gin would add something a little fun and play well with the herby thyme flavor. Let me know if you try it out!

Note that the ratio in this recipe is purposely meant to produce a strong limeade. That's so you can pour it over ice cubes and not lose out on any flavor when they start to melt. If you want to drink it straight or just prefer something a little less strong, you dilute it; just add another cup or two of cold water to taste.

For a sparkling option, replace the cold water with cold seltzer and serve it up nice and fizzy!

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. I also offer custom menu planning services and offer a variety of culinary workshops in the NYC area. Click here to find out more!

And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to
e-mail me.
Thanks for reading!

Strawberry Thyme Limeade
Serves about 6, can be doubled or tripled as desired
Print this Recipe

1 cup maple syrup OR turbinado sugar OR granulated sugar (I used half maple syrup/half turbinado sugar which added a lovely touch of molasses to the lemonade)
1 cup water
1 cup fresh or frozen strawberries, sliced
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 cup fresh lime juice (you can use equivalent fresh lemon juice for a lemonade version; I don't recommend using bottled juice)
4 cups cold water
Sliced limes, thyme sprigs, for garnish

In a medium saucepan over high heat, combine 1 cup sugar (or whichever sweetener you choose), 1 cup water, 1 cup sliced strawberries, and 3 sprigs thyme. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and let simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring until sugar dissolves and strawberries soften. Let cool for 5 minutes. Remove thyme stems and pour into blender or food processor (or use stick blender) to puree until smooth.

Place a sieve over a large bowl or pitcher and pour puree into pitcher through sieve. Discard anything caught int he sieve. To the pitcher add the cup of fresh lime juice and 4 cups of cold water. Stir and chill for at least 1 hour.

Serve over ice garnished with sliced limes and fresh sprigs of thyme. Will keep in refrigerator for 3 days, or can be frozen.
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