Chai Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ah, Portland.  What lovely souls reside here.  What fantastic characters grace your coffee shops, your streets, your bars, your grassy parks, who stay for a while and then leave swiftly, guided by a curiosity and thirst for life nurtured only by such a wondrous town.

Those on the go, those willing to pack a bag at a moment’s notice and leave for adventures unknown, those dripping with uncertainty in their seemingly settled lives.  These are the people I want to know.  People who aren’t scared to take their own path, to squirm at the thought of chaining themselves to one life, to one idea, to one opinion, to one place, to one person.  Whose travels and teachings have only led them to know that they actually know next to nothing except who they are with great clarity.  Those who involve themselves in what brings them passion, excitement, livelihood and don’t bother with that which doesn’t.  Those who, just by being in their presence, you can feel something deeper.  Something wild, something untamed, something fierce that just might, someday, arrive unpredictably in full force.

And when I met Liz, it was for this reason that we connected.

A glance around Liz’s bedroom gives a good indication of who she is, covered with posters of the sea, of surfers, of naked girls on bikes, a map of New Zealand, eclectic clothes and jewelry strewn around the room, some textbooks and a beta fish.

She’s a surfer chick who’s studying towards a nursing degree so that she can travel the world while healing people, and she drives an old beater van with a backseat converted into a disheveled bed to sleep on while out on her surfing adventures.

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We first bonded over a Halloween zombie bar crawl a few months ago.  Then we climbed together, then jogged across the river together, then drank beer and, all the while chatting about how strange and funny life can be sometimes.

The other night she took a chocolate making class at People’s Co-Op, and the next day invited me over to attempt to make our own.

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We rode our bikes to the market and back with Gunner by our side, and proceeded to make delicious (and healthy) chocolate from scratch.  It was probably the cutest Valentine’s Day date ever.

Lesson learned, making chocolate from scratch really isn’t all too difficult!  You just need chocolate powder, a fat (such as butter), and a sweetener.  You can choose the quality of ingredients to use in making your own batch, but we opted for a nutritious and energy packed recipe.

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We picked up some cacao powder, a mix of cacao butter and coconut oil, and a mix of maple sugar and coconut palm sugar.  IMG_1158IMG_1162

After mixing the ingredients together in a double boiler, we poured the chocolate mix into molds and put them in the freezer to solidify.  We made a few different batches, including Meyer lemon and fresh ginger, dried rosemary and sea salt, chili powder and cinnamon, and chopped walnuts and sea salt.  Um…wow, they were AMAZING.IMG_1175IMG_1171IMG_1169IMG_1167

It’s obvious to anyone that meets her that she’s a rad chick, but not everyone who’s rad will wholeheartedly bring you into her little Portland world so openly as Liz has for me.

Also, not everyone who’s rad will bake you a cake from scratch for your birthday.

But Liz did.  And just like the chocolates, it was also AMAZING.

It was a chai cake with cream cheese frosting, a recipe borrowed from the journal of her great friend Vicki.

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And because my first birthday in Portland was such a sweet sweet memory for me, this is the recipe I want to share with you.

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Chai Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/3 cups milk
  • 6 chai tea bags (without added sugar)
  • 4 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 Tsp vanilla
  • 2 3/4 cup cake flour
  • 2 cup sugar
  • 4 1/2 Tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 Tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 Tsp ground cardamom
  • 1/2 Tsp salt
  • 8 oz. unsalted butter at room temperature

For frosting:

  • 8 oz butter for frosting at room temperature
  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 2-3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 Tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan, bring milk to a simmer over low-medium heat.  Add tea bags.  Remove from heat and let steep for five minutes.  Let chai milk cool completely.

In a medium bowl, mix eggs, yolks, vanilla and 1/3 cup of the chai milk.  Whisk together.

In separate bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom and salt.  Add butter and remaining chai milk on medium speed with mixer.  Raise speed and beat until fluffy.  Add egg mix in three additions.  Add to a greased cake pan and bake for 26-28 minutes.

For the frosting, combine cream cheese and butter on medium speed in a mixer until consistent texture.  Add the vanilla extract, then slowly add sugar.    Once the cake has cooled, spread frosting on evenly.

Special thanks to both Liz and Vicki for introducing me to my new favorite cake and for lending me the recipe.  You two make me smile.

Raspberry Summer Squash Flax Muffins

This past saturday Tim and I took the puppy to the Oregon coast to splash around in the ocean waves.  We drove up through Astoria and drank some local brews at the Fort George Taproom, then headed south and stopped at a few spots along the way, including a delicious dinner and sunset beach stroll at Cannon.  It was quite the lovely adventure, really.

Bittersweet it was though, as this was one of the very, very few times the two three of us have had a day off together since we moved to Portland.  You see, Tim works a relatively normal work week but I, on the other hand, have a work schedule that is far more out of wack.  Sometimes I work days, other times nights, and almost always on the weekends with the lovely Plate & Pitchfork.  

Being by the ocean never fails to offer a welcomed change of perspective for me.  Its vastness is humbling, and the significance of day to day issues and stresses that normally get me just seem to slip away.  There is an impermanence about the ocean that I also take comfort in: the ebb and flow, the way the tide rolls in and out, the waves crashing in at one moment, and then retreating back the next.  

  Photography and film by my aunt Cheryl.

This week marks a welcomed last several days of a disappointing summer serving gig.  It wasn’t right.  It wasn’t even close to what I needed to be doing and this became apparent as my summer was gluttonously swallowed by my the time spent at work.  Here in my world, when it rains, it pours.  I’ve spent the past three weeks without a full day off, and it’s taken its toll on my soul.

Sometimes you just have to go with your gut, and I did.  I quit without alternative plans except for several remaining events with Plate & Pitchfork, a few suggestions and a hopeful interview for a new restaurant owned by perhaps the most well-respected chef in Portland, Vitaly Paley.

I got the job.  And mostly because I truly meant every word I spoke and wore it all on my sleeve.  It starts at the end of August, and until then I can relax and enjoy the ebb of the final days of my first Portland summer.  But first, to spend a long weekend at one of the most relaxing retreats I could imagine: Tim’s family’s cabin on Like Higgins in Michigan.

But back to our oceanic adventure.

As a sweet end to a beautiful day, we returned home to find this gift bestowed upon our dining room table.  It certainly isn’t a bad thing to have neighbors with a thriving vegetable garden.

So I made some muffins.  Because let’s be honest…who doesn’t love muffins?

Raspberry Summer Squash Flax MuffinsYields 12 muffins

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar (I used the raw Trader Joe’s kind)
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 large organic summer squash
  • 1 cup raspberries (I used organic frozen, but you can certainly use fresh)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg (freshly grated is best!)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp. flax seeds
  • Non-stick cooking spray for muffin tins (I used vegetable oil to coat the tins, but spray is easier)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grate summer squash using a large cheese grater, and set aside.  Combine sugar, vegetable oil and eggs into a small bowl.  Stir to combine, then set aside.   In a separate bowl, combine all dry ingredients including flax seeds, and stir to combine.  Incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry.  Add grated squash, stir.  Fold in frozen raspberries, being careful not to over-stir at this point (because your batter will become pink and your raspberries will lose their body).  Pour batter to about 3/4 of the way up the tin using a spoon.  Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick or metal object placed inside one of the muffins comes out dry.  


Simply Roasted Cherries with Rosemary

I would like to start by saying: my aunt Jane is an amazing lady.

Not only did she send me this antique cherry picker she found at a garage sale a couple of weeks ago, but she is pretty much responsible for my complete and utter obsession with garage sale-ing and flea market-ing.  She also taught me how to bargain.  Before I was even ten years old.  Believe it.

She’d take me to garage sales and flea markets all over the Bay Area on the weekends, and helped me to start a small ceramic dog collection by showing me the bargaining ropes. For you newbies, I’m talking about how to suggest a price that’s well lower than what’s listed and then slowly work your way to the middle.   Or how to pretend like you only have only two dollars in your wallet when you actually have ten.  It’s a skill that, as insignificant as it may seem to you, is incredibly important to me to this day, and especially so now that I’m living in Portland, the garage sale capitol of the world.

There are many, many other life’s lessons and skills that I’ve learned from Aunt Jane, but today I’m thankful for our common appreciation for antiques (especially kitchenware) and good bargains.

Might I add, she’s also quite the cooking extraordinaire, and one of my first true kitchen role models growing up.

I hope she would approve of this simple, yet delicious creation.  Something tells me she would.

Simply Roasted Cherries with Rosemary 

Ingredients

  • A whole bunch o’ cherries, washed and de-stemmed
  • A sprig or two of rosemary, de-stemmed and roughly chopped

You don’t necessarily need a cherry pitter, although it is quite handy and useful!

First you must preheat the oven to a low and slow 250 degrees.  As it’s heating up, you will want to pit your cherries.  I’ve seen recipes where people roast cherries with the pits in, or even entirely whole and with the stems still attached, but I’d rather avoid the nuisance and since I now have a cherry pitter, I went all out on the preparation.  De-stemmed, pitted, halved, the whole nine yards.

So yes, chop in half, and spread onto a baking sheet, skin side down.  Sprinkle with coursely chopped rosemary, and place in the oven.  Allow to bake for at least an hour, if not more, keeping an eye to watch for burning.  Bubbling or crackling noises are okay.  After a long while, your cherries should have shunk to about half their original size, browned or crisped up a bit, and shriveled up like your skin after a long bath (how’s that for kitchen imagery?). If you pop one into your mouth, you will notice how the flavor and sweetness of the cherry is greatly enhanced.

From this point forward, the world is your oyster!  Er, cherry.  You may do with them what you please.  Pop them in your mouth as a healthy snack, throw them on some crackers with your favorite chevre as a beautiful and delicious appetizer, add them to fresh greens in a salad, or even incorporate them into a pastry of your choosing.  It would be utterly impossible to find dissatisfaction in your outcome.

Now, this recipe isn’t quite brain surgery.  In fact, it’s safe to say you could probably do it blindfolded.  It’s the concept that I’m trying to emphasize here, that uncommon pairings of fruits and herbs can and DO go well together.  Also, that fruit can be enjoyed in more ways than just fresh, or in a pie or pastry.  In fact, in many cases roasting or grilling is an incredibly useful method for enhancing the sweetness of the fruit.  It’s also a fabulous way to disguise fruit that you’ve allowed to go a day or two past it’s prime.

If you want to cook simply and do it well, then you will allow the ingredients to speak for themselves.  This is what I’m learning.

 

 

 

 

Blueberry Honey Yogurt Pops

Improv in the Kitchen.  It’s a game a like to play quite often, really.  When you buy something at the store or market without any intention of what to do with it.  So you open your fridge and cabinets, checking out what you have and could possibly combine with said ingredient to make something awesome.  Sometimes the end product is an epic fail and other times it’s great! You never really know what you’re gonna get, but that’s the fun of it.  You should try it sometime.

For this past episode of Improve in the Kitchen, the key ingredient was blueberries. To be honest with you, I’m on the fence with blueberries.  I like them, I do.  I can almost feel my immune system flex as I nibble away on the juicy little blue balls of antioxidant awesome.  And you have to give the blueberry some credit for its adaptability.  She knows how to play it cool, to chill on the sidelines, to be that wingwoman that’s always down to go out  and have a few drinks with you after you’ve broken up with your boyfriend for the fifth time and need to vent about it.  But after a few drinks, you realize that you really just want to dance.  Try as you might to bring her along for a few tequila shots and an epic dance floor sesh, she’s not really into that.  Yeah, she’s just kind of boring.  She’s sweet and compliments others well, but a blueberry just isn’t that exciting.

Enough blueberry bashing.  I feel very strongly about second chances, about finding the best in everything and everyone. Sort of.  And anyone who knows anything about blueberries knows that the frozen kind is far superior to the fresh form. So in the spirit of frozen blueberries, I turned this batch into popsicles, because on a hot summer day there’s almost no such thing as a bad popsicle.  And after we demolished the badass batch of cilantro lime popsicles, I’ve been having very serious popsicle withdrawals.

This is how it all went down:

I took these babies, washed them and threw them in a saucepan with a cup or so of water and a couple tablespoons of honey on medium heat.  While this was happening, I found some plain yogurt in the fridge and mixed a cup or so with honey to incorporate a bold tart/sweet flavor into the mix.  After all the honey had melted into the liquid and the blueberries were bursting, I removed it from the stovetop to cool down.

Next, the mixture went into the blender.

Then through a cheesecloth into a bowl to strain all the larger particles and skin pieces out.

I poured a little of the yogurt/honey mixture into each, then added the blueberry/honey mix on top being careful in pouring softly to maintain the separation.  I froze them for an hour or so, stabbed them with popsicle sticks and then froze for a few more hours.

AND BAM! Blueberries, they’re alright in my book.

Simple Strawberry Agua Fresca

I seem to have developed this habit of buying (or picking!) lots of berries and then having no idea what to do with them.  The other day I did this again with hood strawberries.  I keep hearing about how the season is so short and you can only get them for a very small period of time, so I end up buying a box or six.  I’ve done this every few days for the past month or so, and only just now am I noticing that they’re disappearing.  Sad.  So to honor this last batch, I decided to make something I’ve been wanting to make for some time now, and I’m not sure why I haven’t because it’s just a breeze to do!

I made a batch of strawberry agua fresca, and it’s so simple that it almost doesn’t deserve an entire blog post.  But then again, it’s so delicious and refreshing that it, undoubtedly, DOES deserve it!  When I think of agua fresca, I am immediately brought back to my roots, to my childhood filled with mud, dirt, grass, cuts, and mexican food.  I think of my family’s weekly ritual of dining at Cactus Taqueria every wednesday for the past fifteen or so years now.  Even though I’m long gone living in Portland and can no longer make the weekly gatherings that still occur today, I can still recall my family’s exact orders.  My dad: a chile relleno with extra guacamole and a horchata, sometimes.  My mom: half chicken, half shrimp burrito mejor with no cheese or sour cream, in a whole wheat tortilla.  My sister and I both: chicken mejor burritos, salsa on the side and refried beans.  And never without an agua fresca to accompany it.

Strawberry Agua Fresca

Ingredients

  • 2 cups water
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 basket of fresh strawberries, stems removed
  • Juice of 2 limes

Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat.  Meanwhile, puree the strawberries in a blender.  If you don’t like the seeds or pulp you can strain the puree in a fine mesh strainer.  I actually prefer my agua fresca to have a pulpy consistency so I just left it as is.  Once sugar has dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so.  Pour into a container, add pureed strawberries and lime juice.  Stir, then fill remainder of container with cold water and ice.  Serve with a slice of lime garnish.

Cilantro Lime Popsicles

What is it about Portland living that has me practically obsessed with finding ways of incorporating fruit into summertime treats?  It’s like I’ve made this shift from vegetables and savory dishes to fruit and all things sweet now that the sun’s out (when it’s not raining, that is).  I’m wearing flip flip flops and my beloved straw hat.  I’m riding my bike to and from the farmer’s markets on a regular basis.  I’m buying fresh flowers for the house.  And from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to sleep, I’m daydreaming about sinking my teeth into a juicy peach while sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, sipping on iced-tea out of a mason jar.

Now just hold on for a second…last time I checked I was all bundled up in blankets looking out at the snow-filled Snowmass landscape from my balcony, a bowl of Kale, Fennel and Sausage Soup simmering on the stove.  Who is this summertime fiend I’ve become and where did she come from?

Case in point: cilantro lime popsicles.  Now, there are two reason why I chose to feature cilantro in my popsicle.  Firstly, cilantro is awesome.  Second, my good friend Alice, who I have reconnected with since moving to Portland, regularly hosts an “Iron Chef” competition from her home with a dozen or so of her culinarily-inspired buddies.  Each competition there is a new featured ingredient.  When I first moved here, she invited me to her “Iron Chef: Avocado” competition.  My simple thinly sliced avocado and Cremini mushroom with lemon parsley vinaigrette hardly stood up to the other amazing creations that night, but I filled up on delicious food and drink, great conversation, an all around awesome time, and perhaps too much- if even possible- avocado.  However, this next competition is “Iron Chef Cilantro”, I’m planning on really bringing out my big guns for this one.  It will be taking place in August, but I’m already deep in training.  As a challenge to myself, I opted to bring a desert this time and after much inner debate settled on the always trendy popsicle. So, this batch is actually a trial run in preparation for next month’s competition and it turned out pretty damn spot-on taste-wise, with the cilantro flavor really coming through even when up against the strong notes of lime, and it just about hits THE spot on a hot summer day.  Regarding presentation, I like the simplicity but also think I’ll need to step it up big-time if I’m in it to win it.  You make the call, let me know what you think!

Behold my secret weapon.

Cilantro Lime Popsicles

This recipe yields about 16-18 ice cube-sized popsicles, if you’re using an ice cube tray like I did

Ingredients

  • 2 cups granulated sugar (I used the organic light brown kind from Trader Joe’s and loved it)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup organic cilantro
  • Juice of 3-4 limes, zest of one
  • Popsicle sticks or other holding device

Bring sugar and water to a boil on medium heat, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar.  As the mixture is heating, chop the cilantro coursely (make sure it’s not too finely chopped or else it won’t strain correctly).Once boiling slightly, remove from heat, add chopped cilantro leaves and zest of one lime.  Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes.Meanwhile, juice the limes.   When syrup mix is slightly warm to room temperature, run through a fine mesh strainer to remove as much leaves and zest as possible from the liquid.  Add the lime juice to the syrup and stir to incorporate.  Place one cilantro leaf in each ice cube slot if desired for decoration, and pour syrup mix to fill the tray(s). Place in freezer until it begins to freeze and turns from clear to opaque .  After one hour or so, remove from freezer and place popsicle sticks into each (if they don’t stick upright, you must freeze for a half hour or so more).  Once popsicle sticks are in, place back in the freezer for another few hours.  To remove from tray, run the bottom under hot water for a few seconds and they should slide right out.

The only way I could see it getting any better is by removing the popsicle sticks, and bringing out the blender and a few shots of tequila.  Cilantro lime margaritas, anyone?

Summertime Raspberry Syrup (A Template to Syrup Making)

Did you know that it’s actually incredibly simple to make a real fruit syrup?  Like, mind-blowingly simple.  And all it really takes is fruit, sugar, and water.  And a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.  And perhaps some sparkly water, or shaved ice, and your liquor of choice.  If you don’t believe me, scroll on.

First, you gather some fruit.  Today I found an overgrown raspberry patch just a few blocks away from my house, so I seized the opportunity for a solo neighborhood cleanup excursion (there was also a blueberry patch in a neighbors yard, it looked poisonous so I volunteered myself for the dangerous role of guinea pig).

Next, you rinse the fruit and throw it in a saucepan with somewhere between half to three-quarters the amount of sugar as fruit.  This is dependent on the sweetness of the fruit and the desired sweetness of the batch.  Also add equal parts water (to fruit) to the saucepan (for instance, if I had a cup of fruit I would add a cup of water, and then half a cup to 3/4 of a cup of sugar).  Stir to dissolve the sugar and then bring to a boil on medium heat.

Once it reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low and continue to stir until the fruit integrates into the sugar/water mixture creating a compote like consistency.  Cook for about 15 minutes in total, then turn off heat and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.  Pour the mixture into the strainer (or cheesecloth) that is resting atop a larger bowl.  Press down on the pulp, allowing the juices to drip into the bowl.

And that, my friends, is how you make a real fruit syrup!

Now, if you’re like me and have a super rad mom who buys you cool gadgets like a SodaStream carbonated water maker, then you can really take these syrups up a notch.  While straining, get your carbonation on.

Combine a couple tablespoons of the fruit syrup in a glass of carbonated water, with a bit of liquor for good measure and a few cubes of ice…and you’ve got yourself the absolute perfect summer beverage.

Of course, you could also add more ingredients to the mix if you want to be a fancy-pants.  Like vanilla, lemon and lime juice/zest, ginger, cinnamon,  lavender, or fresh herbs among others.  In that case you’d want to add those ingredients to the mixture before straining and allow the flavors to combine with those of the fruit while atop the stove.

Sluuuurp….ahhhhh.