Toddler Birthday Cake

My little man recently turned three and I made him a birthday cake. My original plan was to use my kid’s birthday as an occasion to try out the Halekulani coconut cake recipe I found, but hubby pointed out that a three year old cannot have a plain, simple, all-white cake and the birthday cake needed to be something fun. Wanting to avoid colored frosting in a can and knowing my own limitations when it came to pastry bag decorating, I made the mistake of going on Pinterest, the place to go if you’re ever feeling like you need to feel inadequate in life. First of all, who are these people who make fondant at home!?! Also, it is ill-advised to go on Pinterest the day before an event.

After some searching, I found these “Easy Little Pandas” on a great baking blog called Bakerella and figured I can make mini chocolate cupcakes instead. I didn’t use the cupcake recipe from Bakerella but used the Barefoot Contessa’s chocolate ganache cupcake recipe instead.

Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes
From the Barefoot Contessa Parties Cookbook

  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • 16 oz can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Mix in chocolate syrup and vanilla. Add flour and mix just combined – do no overbeat. Pour batter into lined mini-muffin tins and bake for 30 min or until set in the middle. Let cool thoroughly in the pan.

While I usually frost these with chocolate ganache, for the pandas, I made the swiss buttercream recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Swiss Buttercream
From Smitten Kitchen

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 13 tbsp of unsalted butter softened (1 stick and 5 tbsp)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers. Transfer mixture to a big bowl and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. Mix in vanilla. Add the butter a stick at a time and whip for about 10-15 min until it reaches frosting consistency. During the whipping process, this frosting will look like it might curdle but just keep whipping and it will come together.

To decorate, I piped a glob of frosting onto the top of each cupcake. I did not having “sanding sugar” and found that unless you go to some specialty baking supply store or order it online, you cannot find such a thing at your local grocery store. Since this was a night-before-the-party kind of baking project, I used white sparkling sugar I found at Safeway and powder-fied it with a couple pulses in a coffee grinder. I also had a hard time finding edible ink pens so I used black frosting in a tube to create the eyes.

Panda Cupcakes

Although these were not completely impossible to recreate like most other things on Pinterest, between dividing out the white confetti pieces from the rest of the colors, separating out individual tiny flakes of chocolate jimmies and carefully placing the three parts that make up the panda eyes and mouths onto a million tiny cupcakes, I would not exactly call it “easy.”

In the end, I wanted little man to have a real cake so I made the Halekulani cake without the coconut. The sponge cake was light, springy and delicately flavored and the pastry cream was amazing. I frosted it with the whipped cream frosting from the recipe and used the same cupcake decorating technique to put two more panda faces on the cake.

Panda Birthday Cake

Little Miss came out to Davis to help celebrate and everyone had a choice of chocolate panda cupcake or a piece of delicious birthday cake or both. The birthday boy was beyond excited about his birthday cake and his little face when he saw the cake made all my fretting totally worth it.

Birthday Boy

Jamaican Meat Pies

Oh how I love a good meat pie. Chewy, flaky pastry, rich savory gravy, meat and veg to give you the excuse to eat all the pastry and gravy . . . Besides, it seems as though everything I’m doing these days is some sort of folded pastry situation, so eventually you knew it’d come to this.

If you’ve never had a Jamaican meat pie (aka meat patty or beef patty), it’s a chewy flaky pastry, often seasoned with curry and other spices, wrapped around a hefty spoonful of ground beef and onions, heavily spiced with curry and chiles and magic. Ooooh giggity.scrumptious meat pie

So this original recipe, at Serious Eats, said it made 6 pies. I doubled both parts but ended up with enough filling for 7 extra pies (some of which were stuffed to the brim) and still had more left over. So here, I doubled the dough recipe but left the filling as it was.

Jamaican Meat Pies
adapted from Serious Eats

Dough

  • 6 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ cup curry powder, preferably Jamaican
  • 1 lb unsalted butter (yes, that’s right)
  • 1 ½ cups cold water
  • 2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly whisked

Filling

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Scotch bonnet pepper, minced (I used random yard chiles)
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 ¼ cups beef or chicken broth
  • 1 ½ tbsp Pickapeppa sauce or steak sauce
  • 1 ½ tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp yellow curry, preferably Jamaican
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme (or a couple of pinches of dried, if you don’t have)
  • ½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • Egg wash made from 1 large egg mixed with ¼ cup water

Make your dough

(You may want to do this in two batches so as not to explode your food processor.)  Add flour, salt, and curry powder to the food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pulse to mix.  Cut your butter into little pieces and scatter over dry ingredients.  Like you would for a pie crust, pulse until the mix resembles coarse cornmeal and the biggest butter pieces are the size of peas.

Whisk the eggs lightly in a small bowl, then add water and vinegar.  Stir to combine, then add it to the food processor and pulse until the dough forms a rough ball.  Wrap the dough in plastic and fridge for at least an hour.

Make your house smell amazing

Brown the ground beef in the olive oil, in a large sauté pan (has to be big enough for all your saucy liquids).  When the beef is nearly done, nudge it to the side and add the onions, garlic, and pepper.  Cook, stirring, until onions are soft, 4-5 minutes.aromatics for meat pies

Add broth, Pickapeppa or steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, cayenne, curry, allspice, salt, bay leaves, and thyme.  Stir to combine, turn down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and pick out the thyme sprigs and bay leaves.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Add breadcrumbs and stir thoroughly.

Put your oven rack on the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375.  Flour your work surface and rolling pin (and dump a little pile on the side at the ready, you’ll need it).  Roll out half of the dough to 1/8 inch thick and cut out 6” circles – you should be able to get 6 or 7 circles.  Line a sheet pan with parchment and set it next to your dough.

Free one of your little circles and brush the edges with the egg wash.  Put a generous couple of tablespoons of filling onto one half of your circle, leaving room around the edge.  (You’ll want to get 12-14 pies out of your filling – plan accordingly.)  Fold the other half of the circle over and press around the edges to seal.  Press the edges with the tines of a fork and set your little friend on the sheet pan.  Repeat.meat pie assembly

Brush your pies with egg wash and bake for 25-35 minutes or until the dough is golden brown and amazing.  Let these sunny little beauties rest for 5 minutes before scarfing them down and burning your tongue.jamaican meat pies

Tostadas de Chorizo

After having watched a couple episodes of Rick Bayless’ Mexico: One Plate at a Time on Friday night, because we are the coolest people around, Ryan got inspired to make a fantastic weekend lunch. These crispy back yard snacks with their savory spicy chorizo, salty creamy cheese, and perky salsa provided much-needed fortification for an afternoon of mucking out the shed.

Side note – instead of serranos, we actually used these mystery peppers Ryan’s growing in the yard.  They’re spicy and fruity and red, maybe 2 inches long.  There’s a taqueria down the way and one day we noticed a hand-painted sign from the yard next door that said “AQUI VENDE CHILES” which means “we sell chiles here” (not quite but close enough).  We peeked through the fence and lo and behold the little yard was crammed full of big leafy chile plants, all different kinds, all really healthy.  So while I waited for our burritos, Ryan went over to investigate.

After a few minutes of finding the right family member – grandpa, it seems – and some Spanglish negotiations, he came away with these random peppers and one that the seller called “manzanilla” which means little apple.  They are slightly spicy – I’d call them perky – and very crisply fruity, much like an apple.  $7 each.  One of the many reasons why Oakland is wonderful.

tostadas de chorizo

Tostadas de Chorizo
sort of as seen on Mexico: One Plate at a Time

  • 6 oz chorizo, browned and drained
  • 6 oz Oaxacan cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco*, grated or crumbled
  • Avocado Salsa (see below)
  • 8 corn tortillas
  • a few tbsp of olive oil, vegetable oil, or bacon fat (mmmm)

* less melty than the other two – your choice

First, make your avocado salsa:

  • 3 medium tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 1 white onion, peels on, quartered
  • 5 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 1 poblano pepper
  • 1-2 serrano peppers, stemmed and rough chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 fat avocado
  • 1 lime

Fire up your grill, or a big heavy dry saute or griddle pan if you’re doing this indoors. Char the tomatillos, onion, garlic, and poblano until they are good and black on a couple of sides – except the onion, stick to the skin side of that one. Put them all in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap for 20 minutes. (You can also do this under the broiler)

Peel the skins off the onion, garlic, and poblano, and take off the pepper’s stem. Cut the tomatillos in quarters. Put all roasty veggies, the serranos, cilantro, and the sweet sweet avocado flesh into the blender and whirl until sort of smooth. Add salt and lime juice to taste and set aside.

Brush the tortillas with the oil or bacon fat, and grill or toast in a saute or griddle pan for a minute or two until crispy. Sprinkle each with a little chorizo and a little cheese, and drizzle on a little salsa. Return to the grill/pan for a minute or two to melt the cheese. Nosh.

Vermicelli Bowls

One of my all time favorite work-day lunches is the Vietnamese vermicelli bowl.  It’s filling but light enough not to put you in an afternoon coma, and it exemplifies all the lovely contrasts that make Vietnamese food so delicious and intriguing – funky fish sauce and cool cucumber, soft vermicelli and crunchy pickled carrots, savory five spice grilled chicken (in this version) and fresh green herbs.

There are a lot of components but it’s a totally manageable weeknight dinner, especially if you can get someone else to do the grilling.  It’s great when it’s too hot out to turn on the stove – which was the case here until a couple of weeks ago.

I made this with grilled chicken but my favorite is grilled pork and imperial rolls.  Grilled shrimp is also classic.  I would imagine you could put just about anything on this and it would be delicious.

I’ve made a few things now from this book, Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan, and they’re all delicious.  I recommend!

vermicelli bowl

Grilled Five Spice Chicken Vermicelli Bowls (Bun)
recipe from Vietnamese Home Cooking

  • Vermicelli rice noodles – fresh or dried (cooked, rinsed in cold water, and drained)
  • Grilled five-spice chicken
  • Pickled carrots
  • Julienned cucumber
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Spearmint sprigs
  • Cilantro sprigs
  • Chopped peanuts

First, marinate your chicken

  • 1 cup fish sauce
  • ½ cup light soy sauce
  • ¼ cup minced garlic
  • ¾ cup minced shallots
  • 2-3 Thai chiles, stemmed and minced
  • 1 tsp five-spice powder
  • 2 lbs boneless chicken parts of your choice

Mix all marinade ingredients well. Add chicken, mix to coat evenly. Marinate at room temp for up to 2 hours or up to overnight in the fridge. If you fridge it, let it come up to room temp before you grill.

Next, pickle your carrots:

  • 1 medium carrot, peeled
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp kosher salt

Julienne your carrots into matchsticks – as thin as you can/want to bother with. In a small bowl, combine vinegars, sugar, and salt and stir until sugar and salt have dissolved. Add carrots and let stand at least 20 minutes. Will keep up to a week, covered in the fridge. Drain well before using.

Now, dress up your fish sauce:

  • ½ cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup white vinegar or fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1-2 Thai chiles, stemmed and minced

In a small bowl, stir the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar or lemon juice, and ½ cup water until the sugar has dissolved. Add the garlic and chiles and stir to combine. Use immediately, or refrigerate up to 1 week if made with vinegar and 2 days if made with lemon juice.

Next, grill your chicken, or better yet dispatch someone else to do so. When done, cut into strips.

Assemble! Put a handful of shredded lettuce in the bottom of your bowl, then a handful of vermicelli, and then all the other stuff – however much you want. Top with a generous dose of your fish sauce and dig in.

Greek Chicken Pie (Kotopita)

I love a good roast chicken, preferably homemade but I’m totally not above a grocery store rotisserie birdie on a weeknight.  I love to pick at the carcass like that guy from Amelie, and I always go for the oysters. And one of the best things about roast chicken is all the leftover meat to make delicious things out of.  This pie is quick and simple (yes, even with the phyllo), and the warm cinnamon takes it a step out of the ordinary while still remaining immensely comforting.

I’ve been on a little phyllo kick lately.  I decided to overcome my assumption that phyllo is just too complicated, because really, we make pretty much every other complicated thing out there, so why not this too?  You need a big smooth space to work on (I use a double-wide Silpat, which is a very handy thing to have around) and a basting brush, but that’s about it.  If your phyllo is cracked, like mine was, just get creative – it’s deliberately messy!

greek chicken pie (kotopita)

Greek Chicken Pie (Kotopita)
adapted from Kokkari

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 cups shredded cooked chicken
  • 10 sheets frozen phyllo, thawed

In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until well softened, 10-12 minutes. Add the cinnamon and stir for another minute or two. Transfer to a large bowl and add the chicken, stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Put the remaining 3 tbsp of olive oil in a bowl. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9” x 13” baking dish with oil. (I used a pie plate instead, because I had a little less chicken. I laid 4 sheets out over the plate with plenty of overhang, then just folded them over the filling and somewhat artfully crumpled them.)

Stack the phyllo sheets on a work surface and trim them so they measure about 10” x 14”, a little bigger than the dish on all sides. Layer 5 sheets in the bottom of the dish, brushing each layer with olive oil. Spread the chicken filling in an even layer, then top with the remaining 5 sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer with olive oil.

With a sharp knife, cut the pie into 15 squares. Bake, uncovered, until golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes. Serve warm, not hot.

Serves 6.

Incidentally, the whole time I was making and eating this, all I could think about was Chicken Run, which is a great movie if you haven’t seen it.  The villain has this gnarly, sour voice and the way she says “Mrs. Tweedy’s Chicken Pies” has been stuck in my head for the last two days.  I guess this is Mrs. Young’s Chicken Pie? (Stop squeeeing, mom.)