The Gut Buster

Eating good, healthy food is an admirable goal. It’s a really good goal.

Sometimes though, it’s just. so. dang. hard. Ya feel me?

Exhibit A: three sticks of butter. When does that ever make sense? Well, a lot of times, that’s when. Just ask Joy the Baker, or Bon Appetit magazine, or Paula Deen, or my Aunt Faye. They’ll tell ya the truth about butter.

Exhibit B: bourbon and homemade vanilla extract? These make sense practically all the time, and I’m not even joking. They are much less problematic than those sticks o’ butter.

Exhibit C: pe-cans? coconut? These are problems, too. I grew up shelling pe-cans, eating ice cream full of pe-cans, pies loaded with them (and not just Thanksgiving day, either), and almost everything sweet is better with pe-cans.

Coconut? Well, I even like coconut in my hair, so I think I don’t need to say anything more here.

So let’s imagine a utopia where all of these things existed at one time. Let’s imagine that such a place was fat-free, calorie-free, and just as tasty. But truthfully, that isn’t the case, as we all know. Truthfully, some things are just meant to bust your gut.

These bars are those things. I can’t even begin to warn you about how ridiculous they are, how sweet and rich and heavy and butter-laden they are. How much they remind me of every Southern pe-can pie I’ve ever eaten, which is to say that they are a-freaking-mazing, each and every little gram of fat contained in them. Which, if you haven’t noticed, is probably a lot.

But some things are worth a splurge. Like maple cheesecake. Red velvet cake. Homemade Oreos (yep!). Rhubarb-Cornmeal tarts. ¬†And now, these: ooey, gooey, buttery “bars” that taste just like your favorite Southern woman’s pe-can pie.

Go ahead, bust a gut. Or three.

Pecan Pie Bars
Adapted from The Pastry Queen; makes 2 1/2 dozen bars

time commitment: 2 hours (includes 1 hour cooling time)

printable version

1 1/2 c (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
4 c all purpose flour
1 t salt

8 large eggs
6 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 c bourbon
6 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T vanilla extract
1 c all purpose flour
1 t salt
2 c unsweetened flaked coconut
2 c pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter in a large bowl on medium speed (about 1 minute). Add the sugar and beat about 1 minute, until fluffy. Add the flour and salt; mix on low speed until evenly incorporated but still crumbly. Press the mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan (I used a 9×13″ pan and used about 2/3 of the mix, but the recipe itself calls for 12×17″ pan but I didn’t have one that big. You could probably divide the mixture between two 8×8″ pans as well and just adjust the baking times accordingly and watch more carefully). Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until it has darkened to a deep golden brown. Leave the oven at 350.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until blended. Stir in the bourbon, butter, vanilla, flour, and salt, then the coconut and pecans. Once the crust is parbaked, pour the filling over the crust, spreading evenly. Bake until set, 25 to 30 minutes (mine baked longer, like 40 minutes, since I poured all of the mix into a smaller pan, resulting in less “surface area” to bake). Cool thoroughly, at least 1 hour. Once cool flip over on wax paper to cut into 3-inch squares or diamonds. (Yields about 2 1/2 dozen bars)


One of the downsides to losing the Iron Chef battles, or rather the downside to losing, is that you don’t get to choose the ingredient next time around. Okay, I retract that statement; there is another downside – crushing of pride. Embarrassment. Resulting fear and anxiety about the next one, another losing battle for sure. Soul-stealing. Losing leftovers – who wants those?! I couldn’t even look at the sliders from last time.

Wow, that was intense. And maybe a little dramatic. Whatever.

But when you don’t get to pick the ingredient, you just never ever know how you’re gonna feel about it, until you do. Know, that is, which generally doesn’t happen until the Wednesday before the actual event. So you wait two months in anticipation, since you, er, lost. Remember?

And then someone announces that FENNEL is the god-forsaken theme ingredient. Fennel. Shitfire (yes, this is a word).

As it turns out, f-ing fennel is not my most favorite ingredient on the planet. I was hoping for, I dunno, cheese? Bacon? Crabs? Fire-breathing dragons? Rattlesnake? Durian? Definitely not fennel.

And dang, here I go being dramatic again. I really don’t hate fennel. Honest. I just, as my gramma would have said, I just don’t love it. And these secret ingredients – they need to be loved. You need to be excited about them. You need to want to slather them all over your body, and eat them till the cows come home.

dishes, left to right: fennel crackers with roasted fennel dip, fennel-lamb kebabs with fennel chutney, green salad with shaved fennel and parmesan, fennel ice cream sundae, random shot of food, homemade smoked salmon and pear crostini with fennel cream, porchetta-fennel pulled pork with pickled fennel, fennel ice cream with chocolate fennel tuile, fennel angel food cake with candied fennel

Or do you?

The top three:

  1. Heather’s Fennel Dessert Sundae (fennel ice cream, fennel-manchego shortbread, and orange-fennel caramel) AND Jeff’s house-made smoked salmon with fennel and fennel cream fraiche)
  2. Elizabeth’s fennel ice cream (which was better than mine) with chocolate fennel tuile
  3. Kevin’s lamb-fennel kebabs with fennel chutney


Four SF battles in, I finally made a dish worthy of a win, or at least a shared win. With fennel, of all things. But I sucked it up and I liked it, and I liked ALL of the dishes made. And my dish? I just stuck with things that I do LOVE – ice cream, caramel, and shortbread. I figured, even if I don’t LOVE fennel, I’d at least love the mediums that included it.

So here we are – at an Iron Chef first – a tie. Picking the next ingredient (or ingredients, depending on what we decide) should be fun. Plus, my pride will be intact – for once. ūüôā

ps – the shortbread recipe is coming soon. but it’s so dang good, I just had to give it it’s own post. had to.

Fennel Ice Cream
From Gourmet 2007 via Epicurious; makes ~1 quart

time commitment: variable. at least 3 hours (1 hour active time), or you can do this in steps and make the base the night before and freeze the ice cream the next day.

printable version

1 2/3 c heavy cream (or 1/2 & 1/2)
1 T fennel seeds, crushed
1 c whole milk
3/4 c sugar, divided
4 large egg yolks

ice cream maker

Bring cream and fennel seeds just to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan, then cover and let steep about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring milk, 1/2 c sugar, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring.

Whisk together yolks and remaining 1/4 c sugar in a large bowl, then add milk mixture in a slow stream, whisking. Return mixture to medium saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 175¬įF on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil). Immediately strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a heat-proof bowl. Strain fennel cream into the same bowl, pressing on solids while straining to extract as much flavor as possible. Mix together.

Quick-chill by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally until cool, about 15 minutes. You can also just chill the mixture in the fridge overnight, if you allow an extra day for this.

Once mixture is chilled, freeze in ice cream maker according to machine’s instructions (usually 15-20 minutes). Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, about 1 hour.


Orange-Fennel Caramel Sauce
original recipe; makes ~1/2 c

time commitment: 30 minutes

printable version

1 c sugar (+ more to thicken, if needed)
1/4 c water
zest of 1 orange
1/2 c fresh orange juice
1 T fennel seeds
1/4 c heavy cream
1 T butter
1 t sea salt

Combine sugar and water in heavy small saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil and DO NOT STIR. Also, DO NOT WALK AWAY. On occasion, pick the saucepan up and swirl the mixture, but don’t stir. Somewhere between 5-8 minutes the mixture will begin to turn from clear to a light golden color. Once the golden color is more noticeable, remove from heat more often and swirl the mixture. The caramel color will quickly change colors, and will continue to cook in the pan once removed from the heat, so don’t wait to remove the pan when it’s dark, or your sauce will burn. What you want to end up with is a nice, deep golden color that isn’t burnt, so if you don’t get the right color after removing from the heat and swirling, then add it back to the stove for a few seconds at a time. Make sure it’s spot-on before you continue to the next step – it’s better to toss out a little burnt sugar and start over than to have to start all over once you finish everything and realize your caramel tastes burnt and gross.

Once the sauce is the right color, carefully add zest, orange juice, fennel seed, and heavy cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Stir over low heat until smooth and any caramel bits dissolve. Strain the mixture (twice, if needed) through a fine mesh sieve and pour back into the saucepan.

Now, once I got to this point my sauce was a tad too “watery” for my liking, so I added about a teaspoon of sugar at a time, cooking on medium-low, until it thickened up. I adjusted the amount of sugar on the front end when I wrote this recipe, so yours should be thicker, but feel free to do this if you want to thicken up your sauce and just slowly cook it without a ton of heat until it gets where you want it. Once it does, finish the sauce with the butter and sea salt, and remove from heat to let cool completely. You can strain at the end if you want, but straining earlier was helpful for me to check the thickness.

The sauce will keep for a few days (weeks?) in the fridge. Zap it the microwave for ~30 seconds before serving.

In Moderation

Let me just tell you how outta freaking shape I feel these days. (Yes, we will wrap ice cream into this conversation. Watch and learn, children.) Okay, for realz – how outta freaking shape¬†I am. Let’s be honest. It ain’t pretty.

Sure, my clothes are all the same size; they more or less fit the same as they have for oh, 4 years now. But that’s not the point. There seems to be a lot more wiggle in my jiggle, if you catch my drift. I’d like to blame my love for food, or maybe this blog, or maybe Chicago and San Francisco, or my genes (which that one, that one is a good one – have you seen the hips and thighs of my Southern aunts?!). But at the end of the day, it’s really all because I am a loud and proud, lifetime member of the “clean plate club”. Shoot, I should have a medal for it, or a fake wood plaque, or something.

Yes, I know – you could easily skim through the recipe page and point out quite a few items that would lead to jiggle-y-ness even if eaten in small quantities. I like to indulge. But I also hate the sheer thought of a diet. Sure, they work in the short term, I’m aware of that. But the difficulty is that, after the diet is over, the dieter slowly starts incorporating all of those foods that were off-limits during ‘diet phase’, and then slowly the curves start to reappear.

The key, friends, is everything in moderation. It sounds awesome, but I seem to have forgotten how that works. In an effort to figure it out again, I made ice cream.

Chocolate ice cream. With caramel swirled into it. Don’t get me wrong, I could eat the whole pint if I really put my mind to it, and that’s an exaggeration, because I’m sure I could roll outta bed in a full-on daze and eat a pint of this ice cream. But get this – you definitely don’t need to.

I first noticed this recipe on Tara’s site, and then I quickly realized that I’d already finished that particular episode of Bon Appetit from whence this recipe was made, and so I ran to the toilet (ahem. there is a magazine rack there where we keep old food magazines, and Mens’ Healths, thank you very much.), grabbed the last BA, and hunted down the recipe that I must have totally ignored previously.

Then it sat on the table for a few days, and it’s safe to say I walked past it at least a dozen times, cursing the words chocolate and ice and cream and then I read it even closer and saw that there was caramel involved and finally, at long last, I put this moderation idea to the test.

And just like Tara said, you’ll want to start this task immediately after reading here. You grab your ingredients from the fridge and pantry, because chances are you have them all on hand, or can easily procure them in a few moments. Then you walk, no run, to turn on some good ice cream-makin’ music (something with a lot of fist-pumping), and you plant your feet at the stovetop to get this project going.

Five days later, you remove your almost-but-not-quite-forgotten pint from the freezer, let it thaw for a good ten minutes, and scoop one mighty mound of decadence into a teeny tiny bowl. Because, believe me when I say so, I promise you that’s all you need. And with that, success in the form of ice cream. And moderation.

Chocolate Chocolate Ice Cream
Adapted from Bon Appetit, June 2011; makes 1 pint

time commitment: 5 days, but 1 hour active

printable version

7 ounces dark chocolate (70% to 75% cacao), finely chopped
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons 2% milk
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
6 large egg yolks
13 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Place chocolate in a medium microwave-proof glass bowl. Microwave chocolate on 30 second intervals, stirring well after each time, for about 1.5 minutes, or until the chocolate is smooth. Sit aside.

Whisk milk and cocoa powder in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat until mixture begins to boil; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks and 7 tablespoons sugar in another medium bowl until very thick ribbons form, about 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, gradually add hot milk mixture to egg yolk mixture. Return mixture to saucepan. Add melted chocolate and whisk to blend. Stir over low heat until slightly thickened and an instant-read thermometer registers 175¬į, about 5 minutes. Transfer chocolate custard to a large bowl and place over another large bowl of ice water. Stir until chocolate custard is cool.

Bring remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons water to a boil in a small heavy, deep saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush (do not stir), until a dark amber color forms, about 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Whisk caramel into chocolate custard. Strain into a large container; cover and chill for 2 days.

Process custard in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to another container; freeze for 3 days before eating.

Snow Days

I haven’t had a real “snow day” since living in NC; back then, the schools would close with the mere mention of snow, or ice, or even “extreme” cold suggesting the remote possibility of either of the above. My first winter in Chicago was a real kicker – I didn’t have an exceptionally warm coat nor a pair of snow/rain boots, and I truthfully didn’t have a clue what to expect. I was just scurred.

Needless to say, I was given a swift kick in the ass by an early December snow, and to make matters worse, I actually had to go to class, which I hadn’t expected. Thanks to my mother-in-law, I was sent an old down coat and after that, things improved with each winter. Now, I have two down coats, rain boots and until last winter, a great pair of snow boots, along with plenty of hats (toboggans, we call them), scarves, and gloves.

On a regular winter day in Chicago, I’d feel well-equipped to bundle up, ready to face the cold, the lake-effect winds, and even a few inches of snow. Seven years in the midwest led me to believe that I’d just about seen, and walked through, it all – until this week. By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, the howling wind began to wrap itself tightly around blankets of fresh snow, blowing violently and constantly causing me to think of all those cartoon movies with blizzards – the ones that seemed so fake, so totally unrealistic.

Almost 24 hours later, a helpless Chicago lay beneath almost 21 inches of snow, victim to what the guy in the airport Monday called “the storm of the century”. Until Wednesday, I would have bet money against thundersnow being a real word, and would have laughed at the thought of walking down the middle of North Avenue at noon, or wandering over¬†to Lake Michigan and thinking the whole damn thing was gone – only to realize that it was covered in snow, making it difficult to determine where the sidewalk ended and the lake began.

It was pretty freakin’ awesome, actually. Of course, if we weren’t rollin’ out of here in a couple of months, maybe I’d feel differently, but something about witnessing the 3rd greatest 24-hour snowfall in Chicago’s history was exciting. It was fun to step into a mound of snow and watch my knees disappear; it was entertaining watching a dog smaller than my cat frollick through it, yipping all the while.

It didn’t hurt that work was canceled, the city practically shutting down, resembling a ghost town or a scene from one of those movies when only 10 people are left in the world, cars broken down and left in the streets. And while we ventured outdoors for a while and watched a couple of movies afterwards, it also would have been a good day for baking that cake I had planned to make this week for my student, only I kept putting it off for fear that work would be canceled yet another day, or two or three, and my cake would have gone to waste (or rather, Chris and I would have eaten it all between the two of us).

I think I’ll make it next week, but meanwhile I figured I may as well share this recipe for one I made sometime around the holidays for one of our Brook/Katherine dinner parties. Imagine a light, fluffy cake covered in caramel, and that’s what this cake is all about. I’d guess it’d be even more perfect with ice cream scooped on top, but if you don’t have it, the cake does just fine on its own, I promise.

And if your caramel icing turns out like mine did, runny, I wouldn’t worry too much about that either – it’s easily swooped up with your index finger.

Caramel Cake
from Food & Wine, September 2010; makes 1 cake

time commitment: 4 hours; 45 minutes active time

printable version

1 c whole milk
4 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 1/4 t pure vanilla extract
3 c cake flour
1 1/2 c sugar
4 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, softened
3/4 c heavy cream

3 c sugar
3 T light corn syrup
1 1/2 c whole milk
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 c heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter three 8-inch cake pans; line the bottoms with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and flour the pans, tapping out the excess.

In a bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the milk with the egg whites and vanilla extract. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, mix the flour with the sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and the remaining 3/4 cup of milk. Beat at low speed until blended, then beat at medium speed until smooth, 1 minute. Beat in the egg white mixture in 3 batches.

In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the whipped cream into the batter, then fold in the rest. Divide the batter between the pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes and peel off the parchment. Invert the cakes and let cool completely.

In a saucepan, stir 2 1/2 cups of the sugar with the corn syrup and milk. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Keep warm.

Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a deep, heavy saucepan. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, swirling occasionally, until an amber caramel forms. Carefully pour the warm milk mixture over the caramel. Cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until the caramel dissolves. Stop stirring and cook until the caramel registers 235¬į on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat. Stir in the butter, vanilla and 1/4 cup of the heavy cream. Strain the caramel into the bowl of a standing mixer. Let cool for 15 minutes.

Beat the caramel at medium speed, gradually adding the remaining 1/4 cup of cream, until creamy, about 15 minutes.

Set 1 cake layer on a plate. Pour enough icing over the layer to cover the top. Top with a second cake layer and cover it with icing. Add the final cake layer and pour the rest of the icing over the top of the cake, letting it run down the sides. Working quickly, use an offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the cake. Let the cake stand for 2 hours to set the icing before serving.

An Apple a Day

It seems that Jennifer and I are making an annual tradition out of apple picking in Woodstock, IL. It’s a good outing for a fall Saturday, and an opportune excuse for having some girl time without the constant conversation from the spouses.

Good intentions aside, we never can seem to pick the best weekend to go. Last year, we were completely unprepared for the cold, wet day ahead of us; we learned just how hard it was to pick apples with numb fingers. This year, we left Chicago with optimistic thoughts, both saying this exact sentence: “There’s no way the weather will be worse than last year!” and with good reason – Summer had decided to roll into town for one last hoorah, and we knew that this year the ground was dry, the gloves would stay home (just like they did last year!), and we’d be wearing sunglasses.

What we didn’t realize was that we’d be sweating as well as fighting “the crowds” and the truck carrying multiple groups of fellow pickers around the orchard (as if it’s hard to walk through it, or something). We also didn’t realize that, as opposed to last year’s plethora, this year’s orchard was slim pickin’s, in fact most of the apples were all over the ground.

Despite all of said adversity, we triumphed and each left with a full peck of apples and a little less water weight. If you couldn’t have guessed, we did not seek out any hot apple cider or coffee like we did last time. We did, however, manage to find apple cider slushies, and those were the meal ticket.

Now the question is, what to do with all these apples? My initial inclination was to make caramel apples since I never got around to that last year. But for whatever reason, I’ve had plenty of bad luck with caramel. Come round three, the apples were getting tired of waiting in the fridge and despite the graininess of this attempt at caramel, I dunked those apples into the caramel, let it harden, and didn’t look back.

For some reason, even grainy caramel is tasty, and thank goodness, the apples don’t discriminate.

What are you doing with your apples this year?

Caramel Apples
Adapted from Cooking Light, September 2010; makes 4-8 apples

time commitment: 1 hour, plus time for caramel to harden in fridge

printable version

4-8 wooden sticks
4-8 small, firm apples
1 c sugar
1/4 c light corn syrup
1/4 c water
1 c half & half
1 t vanilla extract
pinch of salt
1/2 c peanuts, chopped finely (optional)

push wooden sticks into top of apple and keep in refrigerator until ready for dipping.

put sugar, corn syrup, and water in large saucepan; boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. boil, without stirring, until it becomes light golden brown (9-10 minutes).

combine half & halff, vanilla, and salt; slowly stir into saucepan. boil until candy thermometer reaches 235 F (30-45 minutes), stirring frequently.

pour caramel into a bowl sitting in a hot water bath. swirl apples in caramel, roll in peanuts (if using), and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Snap, Crackle

For you non-Chicago folk, you should know that specialty popcorn is a pretty big deal here. You should see the lines outside Garrett Popcorn¬†Shop during all four seasons – rain or shine, wet, cold,¬†snow or sweltering heat, there is always a crowd lining up outside the door for a bag of caramel corn, cheese corn, or if you’re smart, a bag of the Chicago Mix.

Once you settle into the city, the popcorn hype abates a bit, and as a result we tend to only indulge in the cheese and caramel-laden treats when one person comes into town: my mother-in-law. She loves it so much that we mail her a larger-than-life tin for Mother’s Day. It’s become a tradition, of sorts.

Before we discovered said popcorn mecca, I remember the occasional Crunch n Munch box and the Cracker Jacks, and I’m sure many of you do too. And when I’m trying to cut back on all that fat & calorie loaded goodness, I could really tear down on those little single serving bags, too. One thing about popcorn that’s always kept me coming back is knowing it’s one of the only things that gets better for you when it’s cooked, and it doesn’t hurt that something so tasty is loaded with fiber.

As it turns out, Orville Redenbacher and all these other¬†popcorn crazies¬†really took advantage of us folk. After years of buying¬† pre-packaged popcorn, caramel corn, and all that jazz, I neglected to realize how easy popcorn was to make ‘from scratch’. Who knew air-popping your own popcorn was as easy as tossing it in a paper bag and hitting the 2 minute button on the zapper? And who know that even if you didn’t have a microwave you could toss the kernels into a pot, crank up the heat, and close the lid? Certainly not I, but I also didn’t realize how incredibly awesome homemade marshmallows were until a few months ago, either, so I reckon that’s not sayin’ too much, is it?

Credibility lacking and all though, I suggest that you throw caution to the wind and pick yourself up some kernels from your local grocer. The possibilities are endless, even if your creativity is on par with a matchbook. I promise. Well, I suppose if you aren’t feeling creative, you can do like I did and just piggyback on another recipe, or practically swipe the thing in it’s entirely for that matter. My point, is that making popcorn in thousands of variations is a cinch, and said popcorn is one of the most perfect snacks out there, if truth be told.

Perfect, especially, with a glass of wine, a boat, and good friends. Does it get any better?!

Tequila-Lime Caramel Corn
Adapted from Food & Wine, February 2010; makes 16 cups

printable version

16 c air-popped popcorn
1 c light brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
3 T agave nectar
2 T light corn syrup
1/2 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
1 1/2 T tequila
juice of half a lime

Preheat the oven to 250 and position racks in the upper and middle thirds. Put popped porcorn in a large heatproof bowl.

In a large saucepan, combine the brown sugar with the butter, agave nectar, corn syrup and salt and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Boil over moderate heat for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat. Using a long spoon, stir in the baking soda, tequila, and lime; the syrup will foam. Immediately pour the hot syrup over the popcorn and, using 2 spoons, toss to coat thoroughly.

Spread the popcorn on 2 nonstick baking sheets and bake for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally and switching the sheets halfway through, until golden and nearly dry. Let popcorn cool completely before serving. Will stay fresh in an airtight container for 1-2 weeks.

Dessert of Champions

This is an ending to all endings. This is a dessert that’s gonna make you go ‘ooh la la’. This is a dessert that makes you happy for spring and the arrival of those summer days¬†sandwiched in between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Also, you can now wear white shoes. But if you’re a rebel like me, you may have already broken out those white strappy numbers (or flip flops).

Need to make use of bread in your freezer? Make this bread pudding. Or maybe this one, which has alcohol in it. And caramel.

Tired of cereal for breakfast? Have leftover bread pudding. With or without the ice cream. Probably don’t put an egg on top though; this is one breakfast recipe where that might not work so well….

Basically, this is good for just about everything in life.

Come to think of it, ice cream alone¬†solves all of life’s worries. Did the hot sun get you all sweaty and stinky? Eat ice cream – you’ll forget you smell. Did you get in an argument with your spouse? Ice cream makes that seem so unimportant. Did you wake up with a hangover? Yup, ice cream probably makes that go away too. But don’t eat it too fast, because brain freeze is nothing lovely either.

Of course, it helps if that ice cream involves cardamom and vanilla bean. With a side of bread pudding.

On the other hand, a spoonful of caramel powder is probably quicker and easier to make, which is pretty much awesome if all you have at home is a canister of sugar. When all else fails you in this world, you still have sugar. And as long as you have a food processor, you can spin that sugar into pure magic.

And if you can’t quite decide what you need in life, you can make all three – which is exactly what¬†I did. I feel much better about things as a result, and you would too.

Rhubarb-Ginger Cardamom Bread Pudding w/ Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream & Salted Caramel Powder

printable version (all 4 components)

Rhubarb, Ginger, & Cardamom Bread Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2010; serves 10-12

printable version (bread pudding only)

1 c seedless raspberry preserves
1/2 c water
1/3 c chopped crystallized ginger
1 T finely grated orange peel
2 1/2 lbs rhubarb (preferably bright red), ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch-wide pieces

3/4 c sugar
3 large eggs
2 c 2% milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
cooking spray
1 loaf cardamom-spiced bread (recipe below) or storebought  brioche or challah
(1/2 t ground cardamom, if you don’t make the spice bread)

Whisk preserves and 1/2 c water in heavy large skillet over medium heat until preserves dissolve (if using seeded preserves, strain seeds out and toss seeds; add rest back into skillet). Sprinkle ginger and orange peel over. Scatter rhubarb evenly in skillet. Bring mixture to simmer over medium heat, occasionally stirring very gently, until rhubarb is slightly tender but still intact, about 10 minutes. Pour mixture into large sieve set over large saucepan. Let drain 15 minutes. Cover each separately and chill. Can be made at least 1 day in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk sugar and eggs in medium bowl. Place milk in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Gradually add hot milk mixture to egg mixture, whisking custard to blend, but doing this slowly so as not to scramble eggs (add ground cardamom here if using).

While heating milk (above), place bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast for about 7 minutes. However, if you have “old” bread that’s somewhat dry/stale, skip this step.

Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish. Arrange enough bread cubes in dish to cover bottom (will have some gaps). Spoon half of rhubarb evenly over. Repeat with bread and rhubarb. Pour custard over. Place baking dish in roasting pan. Add enough hot water to pan to come halfway up sides of dish.

Bake pudding until just set in center, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand in water bath 30 minutes; remove. Meanwhile, boil reserved syrup until reduced to 1 cup, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.

Brush top of pudding with some rhubarb syrup. Spoon warm pudding into bowls; top with syrup and ice cream (or whipped cream, or nothing).

Cardamom Spice Bread
Adapted from Saveur Issue #128; makes 2 loaves

printable version

1 1/3 c warm milk
2/3 c sugar
4 t g cardamom
2 1/4-oz. packages active dry yeast
3 eggs, lightly beaten
5-5 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t kosher salt
5 T unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes, room temp
1 T cream or milk
1 egg yolk

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine milk, sugar, 3 t cardamom, and yeast; stir together and let sit until foamy, 10 minutes. Add eggs; mix to combine. Add flour (may not need full amount; add until dough forms)¬†and salt. Replace paddle with hook attachment; knead dough on medium speed for 2 minutes. While kneading, slowly add butter in batches, mixing until incorporated before adding next batch, 3‚Äď4 minutes; continue kneading for 4 minutes more after last of butter is added.

Transfer dough to a bowl oiled or sprayed with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough; cover again with plastic wrap and let sit until fully risen, 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 F.¬†Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Set 1 piece aside and divide other piece into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16″ rope. Braid ropes together to form a loaf, following the instructions below. Transfer loaf to a parchment paper‚Äďlined baking sheet. Repeat with second dough piece. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed up, about 20 minutes. (For fancier braids, search You Tube.)

Whisk together remaining cardamom, cream/milk, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaves. Bake, one loaf at a time, until golden brown, 20‚Äď25 minutes. Transfer to a rack; let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Cardamom-Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Adapted from The Spice House; serves 6-8

printable version (ice cream only)

prep time: 1-2 days before serving

1 c half & half
1 c organic 2% milk
1/2 vanilla bean
5 green cardamom pods, crushed slightly
4 egg yolks
3/4 c sugar
1/8 t g cardamom

pour half/half and milk into medium-sized heavy saucepan. scrape seeds from vanilla bean, and toss into milk with cardamom and vanilla bean pod. slowly bring to a boil, remove from heat, and cover to steep for about 20 minutes.

slowly heat milk mixture up, just to a boil. meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light yellow. when milk is just boiling, remove from heat and slowly add milk, whisking simultaneously, into the yolk/sugar mixture. whisk constantly until all milk is incorporated (you can slowly add milk, then whisk if you’re less coordinated; but work quickly!), then pour mixture back into saucepan. over low heat,¬†stir almost constantly¬†until it thickens (forms a custard). the mixture will coat the back of a spoon at this point, and this means you are ready to go!

pour mixture back into bowl from egg yolk mixture, add ground cardamom,¬†and place that bowl over an ice water bath to cool custard quickly. for best results, chill overnight to develop flavor. once ready, freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions (usually 15-20 minutes). freeze overnight.

Salted Caramel Powder
makes at least 1 cup

printable version (caramel powder only)

2 c sugar
Maldon sea salt

Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. In a large heavy skillet, heat sugar over medium heat. Swirl sugar, but try not to stir. Once sugar melts, it will slowly caramelize. If clumps form, stir to melt sugar. Remove from heat once caramel is light gold.

Pour hot mixture, carefully, onto sheet pan. Move around to make a thin sheet. Let hot caramel cool and harden, about 30 minutes.

Once caramel is cooled, remove from sheet pan and break into small chunks. Add chunks into a (dry!!) food processor and blend until a powder forms. Place in a dry container and refrigerate. Stores for 1 month, if it lasts that long!