“Plan B” Birthday Dessert

Everyone has heard of delayed gratification, but what about delayed disappointment? That is the best way to describe the outcome of what was meant to be a super cool and special dessert for my birthday. If you were following my kitchen adventures back in February, you may remember the luscious chocolate-cherry tiramisu that I created for a Valentine’s Day dinner with my husband, Les.

I was so excited about putting a fun flavor twist on the classic Italian dessert, which is a favorite of mine, but not so much for Les, who cannot stand the flavor of coffee. My chocolate-cherry version of tiramisu swapped out the usual espresso in favor of a brewed cacao beverage, and it was oh so delicious.

After that successful twist on a classic, my creative juices flooded over and I created an array of other flavors for tiramisu—at least, in my mind. Every time another great flavor idea occurred to me, I opened the notes feature on my iPhone and added it to the list. To date, I have imagined six more flavor profiles, and one that was particularly appealing to me was pina colada. Could you imagine? The sweet flavors of fresh pineapple and tropical coconut, layered with the mascarpone and ladyfingers—oh, I dreamed about it for months. And my birthday, right in the middle of summer, would be the perfect occasion for it.

Except for one thing. Pineapple has some unusual properties, and in my excitement about what I envisioned would be a huge “wow” moment, I failed to recognize or plan for that.

I had thought of everything. Almost.

Nope, I only charged forward with my plan, thinking through the flavor aspects and the presentation and what ingredients I would substitute for the espresso, the brandy and the cocoa powder. I would dip the ladyfingers into a delicious coconut smoothie concoction, spiked with a lovely golden rum from one of our local distilleries. I searched three supermarkets to find a version of pineapple preserves with ingredients that met my approval. I would fold that into the mascarpone mixture, as I had with the cherry preserves in my perfect Valentine’s Day version. Rather than cocoa dusted between layers, I’d sprinkle it with toasted desiccated coconut, and serve it on my grandmother’s vintage plates, and it was going to be great!

I started mixing, following the inspiration of the same Ina Garten recipe that led me to success the first time, and I got to the point of mixing a splash of pineapple juice and rum into the whipped mascarpone mixture, and suddenly the silky, creamy stuff in my bowl turned into a clumpy, curdled mess.

If I had been a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped, this would have been the moment that the judges would begin to panic, foreshadowing my disastrous ending. My favorite judge, Amanda Freitag, would have buried her face into her hands, whispering, “oh no, did she just put the pineapple juice in there?”

Yes, I sure did, and now I was puzzled. It must have been too cold, I reasoned, remembering that Ina Garten’s recipe made a big deal about starting with every single ingredient at room temperature. Not to worry, though. I’ve seen plenty of TV chefs fix broken sauces with an immersion blender, so I grabbed mine and whipped that mixture back into shape. It seemed mostly OK, and then I folded in a few tablespoons of the incredible pineapple preserves I had found at Trader Joe’s. This stuff was awesome, and I could almost taste sweet success. And then, dang if it didn’t curdle again!

And that was the exact moment I remembered about bromelain, the powerful enzyme in pineapple that does freaky things when it mingles with protein. I knew about this from years ago when I had marinated a pork tenderloin with pineapple and cilantro. The soaking liquid had smelled and tasted incredible, and I was sure my tenderloin would be remarkable. Oh, it was—remarkably mushy with a paste-like coating after grilling. Bromelain breaks down proteins into weird particles, and it happens quickly. This is why the splashes of pineapple juice wrecked the whipped egg yolk mixture, and I’m sure the immersion trick would have proved only temporarily effective. But I had not remembered any of this in time.

It was clear to me then that my pina colada tiramisu was not going to be successful, and I faced a tough decision to either scrap the whole mess or try to salvage it into some other kind of dessert. It was serendipitous that I arrived at this crossroads while making my own birthday dessert. Birthdays for me are weird occasions anyway, and for many very old reasons, I tend to steer clear of setting expectations of any kind. If I don’t make a big deal of it being my birthday, then it stings less when things don’t work out. But this dessert disaster was more disappointment than I was prepared for, partly because I had spent so much time dreaming up this tiramisu, and partly because the person disappointing me was me. So I took some deep breaths and made my decision. I wasn’t ready to give up, because then I was telling myself that my birthday wasn’t important. I had to be true to me and try to save it. But how?

I had a very successful grilled pineapple and jalapeno ice cream last summer, so maybe I could retrofit this mixture into ice cream—except no, because the egg yolks were raw and already mixed with mascarpone so I couldn’t cook the mixture now. Could I find a way to shift gears and make a pineapple cake? I’m not much of a baker (unless it’s sourdough bread), but I dug around on Pinterest and found a recipe that could serve as inspiration. It called for three sticks of butter, and mascarpone is kind of like butter. So I started whipping new ingredients into the clumpy mess in my stand mixer and I combined it with flour until it looked like batter. And then I crossed my fingers and baked it. Well?

Each layer was about 3/4″ high. 😦

At this point, I had no idea whether the cakes would even be edible. In my mind, another Chopped judge, Alex Guarnaschelli, was pursing her lips and shaking her head. The cakes were so dense and flat, and I knew they didn’t have near enough sugar, so I cooked the coconut smoothie-rum mixture with some turbinado sugar and made a syrup. I poked a toothpick all over the surface of the two cakes and spooned the syrup over them, hoping against hope that they’d soak up some flavor and sweetness. We ran out of powdered sugar for the icing, so I sent Les out to get more, and I pondered why I even bothered. Sadly, birthday disappointment was setting in, but I pressed on. I whipped more powdered sugar into the icing, but I couldn’t get the coconut flavor right, despite addition of coconut power, extract and actual coconut. But at least it didn’t look horrible. I mean, the frosting dressed it up, right?

OK, so it was flat. But it might still taste like pina colada.

I thought of the Rolling Stones’ tune, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and I reassured myself that even if my heavenly pina colada tiramisu that morphed into a flat, flavorless cake turned out to be a total bust, it was not the end of the world. It didn’t have to ruin my birthday, and it would not be my last chance to create something spectacular. I stepped outside to call our kitty, and I saw this.

But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need.

The cake didn’t look horrible, but it really was. It was dense, pasty, heavy and not very sweet. The cooked rum syrup had a strange metallic taste that was not at all reminiscent of pina colada, and it didn’t hurt my feelings one bit to slide the whole mess into the trash. My birthday dessert was, in fact, a bust.

I learned something important about myself, though, and perhaps that was meant to be the point of all the hours I spent on my project. I am not a quitter, and I have gotten better in my later years at changing course when a situation demands it. And though I didn’t get my birthday wish for a tasty pina colada dessert, I did have a front row seat to witness the reveal of my true colors. And that part wasn’t so bad.

Besides, this coming weekend, I’ll be making ice cream. 😊

A Quick Flick of the Wrist…

First of all, I’m fine. As the Black Knight declared after King Arthur slashed off his entire arm in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, my injury also is “just a flesh wound.” And it is already on the mend. But as I scrambled this past Wednesday to rip off wads of paper towels to stop the profuse bleeding of my right ring finger, it sure seemed a lot worse.

My afternoon had been going swimmingly up to that point, as I had just finished making a perfect stack of fresh, handmade corn tortillas for our intended Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner. The wild-caught American shrimp were thawing in a colander over the sink, ready to be peeled and deveined. I had a lovely homemade ranch dressing that was ready to be spiked with green chiles. And as I sipped down the last of my dry martini, happily distracted by two separate texting conversations I was having on my smartphone—one by text and the other by email—I brimmed with confidence because all the prep for our shrimp tacos was done in advance of my husband, Les, walking through the door.

All, that is, except for shredding the fresh cabbage.

Does this mean my supper will be late?

If only I had reached for the food processor to handle this task. But I really didn’t want to deal with having to take so much time to clean it later, and my multi-function mandoline was right over there anyway. Uh-huh. Friends, those things have a safety warning (not to mention a perfectly good safety feature) for a very real reason. It is a lesson I should have learned long ago, and one that I promised the doctor at our urgent care facility I would hold dear going forward.

“Cabbage doesn’t even fit in a mandoline,” Dr. Obvious declared. And of course, he was correct, and that was the reason I had skipped the safety guard in the first place. He was good-hearted in his teasing, though, and he fixed me up in no time, with assurance that my finger will be fine—I just need to take it easy in the kitchen for a few days. Les, who was ironically lamenting just last week that he never gets to cook anymore, is being a sweetheart and picking up my slack. In the meantime, I am constantly reminded how much we use even the lesser fingers for everyday essential tasks—including zipping up jeans, latching the seat belt, washing the dishes and using a cimputer keyb0ard (oops, there I go again).

There’s still plenty that I can do, including complain (ask Les), pour wine (from a screw-top bottle, anyway) and shop for more clear plastic containers (to hold all the extra kitchen things I don’t really need). I’ve been doing my share of all three since my little kitchen accident.

At least I can still feed the pets.

I’ve also been remembering a similar, but much worse experience many years ago—one that ultimately resulted in me leaving my upstate N.Y. home for greener pastures here in the South. I was 21 and nearing the end of my long shift in my tiny town’s only grocery store. I was about to clock out and get home to ready myself for an especially important job interview the next day. It was a Tuesday, and I know this because Charlie, the produce manager, was off on Tuesdays and he had trained me to be his backup for his days off. I wore a green apron and I loved working with the fresh produce, and Charlie had trained me well. I was a conscientious worker, proud to keep the fresh cases looking nice, and I noticed as I was about to remove my apron that the “moonlight mushrooms” were nearly emptied from their endcap display. On sale at 88 cents a pound, they would certainly be sold out before I even punched the time clock.

So, me being me, I went back to the walk-in, grabbed another wax-coated case of the white button mushrooms, rolled them on a produce cart onto the sales floor, and swiftly slashed open the case with my brand-new box cutter. First the right-hand side of the box, then across the front, and then down the left side—except by that time, my blade must have picked up too much of the waxy coating on the box because it slicked off the edge and landed on my left thumb, straight down and hard, through my skin, the tendons, the artery, the nerve, all the way down to the bone. I spent eight long weeks healing, four of which had me in a cast over my whole hand. Fortuitously, a hand specialist was on rotation that day in the E.R.

In the moment, as the doctor sewed my thumb back on, my biggest concern was how I was ever going to manage my next-day interview for what I had hoped would be a steppingstone to my dream career—as a radio deejay.

As an only child, who spent a lot of time (grounded, and for no good reason) in my room, I found comfort and kinship in the voices behind the radio that sat on my nightstand, and I yearned to one day be on the other side of the speaker. I grew up counting down the hits with Casey Kasem’s weekly “American Top 40” show, and listening to the real-life stories narrated by the legendary Paul Harvey. I stayed up late to listen to Dr. Demento and I can still sing the jingle for Chicken Man (“he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere”).

The day after my dreadful thumb accident, I was scheduled to audition for a small, part-time job at a radio station in Springville, N.Y., a burg that sits about halfway between Buffalo and my tiny hometown. A friend of a friend that knew the guy who ran the station had hooked me up with an interview and I was elated, though I had no previous experience and no idea how I would manage working weekends on the radio in another town when I was already on the weekend schedule at the grocery store. Thanks to my hand injury, that concern resolved itself. I was so doped up on pain meds on the day of my audition that I could barely recite my own name, let alone talk up a record intro in front of two strangers. The program director admired my persistence in making it to the interview (I had paid my cousin to take the day off from her waitressing job to help me wash my hair, get dressed and get there on time), but he wished me well and politely invited me to try again another time. And this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

If I had gotten that job—and that is a big IF because radio is extremely competitive, even in small towns—I may have stayed in western N.Y., where I would still be bitching about the snow and the utter lack of adventure that made me so restless in my life. I wanted more than my tiny town would ever be able to offer, and so I packed up the next summer and moved to North Carolina. It was here that I later satisfied my career dream of being a deejay in ways that I did not ever imagine or expect, and in an unexpected but related turn, I also wound up in a concurrent, part-time gig at A Pinch of Thyme, the catering kitchen I’ve mentioned here previously.

I used a mandoline for the first time in the “Pinch” kitchen, and I remember being cautioned, ad nauseum, about the safety risks associated with them. And, given that I am not busy making food this week, I’ve had plenty of time to recall some very specific adventures and even a few of those recipes, which I can’t wait to share with you. First though, I’ll have to explain how I got there. And that, as Paul Harvey would say, will be “the rest of the story.”

Stay tuned.

You Can’t Win ‘Em All.

Happy Friday! The end of this week is a welcome sigh of relief for me, as I am recovering from my second COVID vaccination. Thankfully, I’ve had no horrible side effects so far, only a very achy left arm and a general feeling of sluggishness. Now I can look forward to getting through the next couple of weeks so I will be officially on the “other side” of COVID—at last, my husband, Les, and I will be able to hang out with friends again without so much concern of contagion. And just in time for summer—yay!

April has been a month of reflection for me, in part because of my commitment to walk every day toward a 40-mile goal, which, I am sorry to say, I have not quite met. It has been fun to share my “official” progress with my walking buddy on the West Coast, but the Map My Walk app we have used to share progress is only helpful when I remember to actually start the timer on my walks, and so the other walks I have done without hitting the “start workout” button were not captured. I wish that I had remembered to hit the button on every shopping adventure, given that this trip to Walmart added 2.6 miles to my total. The app is helpful, but it is not fail-proof.

After all that walking, I still did not find the liquid hand soap I wanted.

My iPhone, on the other hand, which apparently tracks every single thing I do (whether or not I request it), reports that my steps during April have added up to 31.53 miles, leaving me almost 10 miles short of my goal. I can only imagine how many steps were missed while I circled laps around the house looking for my phone! That’s another problem altogether. The walks have been fun, and the challenge paved the way to a new friendship with my pal in California, so I’m hardly a loser. 🙂

What I have realized from all this reflection and walking is that I had made a gradual slide into a sedentary lifestyle, and that is not a good thing, physically or otherwise. I feel like a stronger person when I am busy and moving, and being out and about among neighbors and strangers has opened my mind and my heart. My walks have given me clarity to realize how frequently I tend to focus on the wrong things, and how quickly I call failure on something that did not end as planned. OK, I did not walk 40 miles, but I have gained knowledge for improving some other things in my life, and I’m quite sure that will not end with April.

I am also still learning to give myself some leeway to be less-than-perfect when it comes to the stuff that happens in my kitchen. Take, for example, these lovely “rose tarts” I planned to unveil, just in time for Kentucky Derby, and the “run for the roses.”

Beautiful apple slices baked inside puff pastry.

Aren’t they gorgeous?! Only one problem—that is a picture of someone else’s apple rose tarts. No, I’m not plagiarizing another cook’s work; I’m offering a point of reference to help explain the disappointment in my kitchen yesterday, when I attempted to make those tarts, but something went off the rails and I ended up with these doughy lumps, which were equal parts burned and raw.


Despite having followed the instructions of a Pinterest-inspired recipe to the letter, my apple rose tarts turned out very different, and I’m pretty sure it was a problem with the recipe, but it could have been my fuzzy, just-vaccinated brain. I could see halfway through the prescribed “40 minutes” bake time that this was headed south, but I stuck with it. I ended up leaving the tarts in the oven for over an hour, eventually moving them closer to the bottom of the oven. I laid a loose tent foil over the top (too late) to prevent over-browning—in other words, I pulled out every trick I had in my baking knowledge bag in an effort to save them. Finally, after much fussing and cussing, I gave up and pulled them from the oven. Les was brave enough to taste one, and he just looked at me and said, “Nope.” I love him for that kind of raw honesty.

Oh well. Sometimes we fail, right? And it may be that circumstances are to blame, or it may be that we are to blame. Either way, it doesn’t end the story, and in the case of the rose tarts (or anything else that doesn’t go perfectly in my kitchen), I will raise the bar and try again. Maybe we will see the tarts come to successful fruition this summer, unless I get distracted by something shiny, which is entirely likely.

Even though the tarts flopped, I had a fun interaction with Miss Nilla, my “at-home” walking buddy, who was more than happy to help by eating the ends of the apple. And if I hadn’t tried the recipe, we would have missed that. So, even though the rose tarts failed, I’m putting the experience in the win column.

Happy Birthday Sourdough Chocolate Cake

We celebrated a birthday in our home this week for the newest member of our happy family. Little Pete turned 5 years old on Wednesday, and the occasion nearly escaped my memory, had it not been for the convenient date and time stamp my iPhone put on this photo.

February 24, 2016; 4:49 p.m.

Yes, my sourdough starter has been with me now for just over five years, and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally given it a name. “Pete” the sourdough starter is the namesake of Peter Reinhart, the James Beard Award-winning master baker whose instruction inspired me to begin this lively journey. Many years ago at a local festival of authors and books, I purchased The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Reinhart’s comprehensive collection of bread rules, formulas, tips and recipes—it’s a 300-page hardcover guide for mastering the art of extraordinary bread. And it was positively overwhelming.

It took me several years to gain enough gumption to actually make my first loaf of real bread and, once I took the greater plunge into building a sourdough culture, I never looked back. Pete began in the tiny kitchen of my former apartment, in a small bowl containing a mixture of whole rye flour and fresh pineapple juice (this was Peter Reinhart’s idea). There were plenty of midnight feedings and nervous watchful moments along the way, and at least once, I feared Pete would not survive my mistakes. Thankfully, the hotline experts at King Arthur Baking talked me off the ledge and helped me correct my feeding rituals. Pete has been thriving ever since. On one occasion, I shared a little bit of Pete with a friend whose daughter wanted to make sourdough, and when the daughter headed west, she took Pete’s offspring with her, and is now making beautiful artisan loaves somewhere in Montana (I’m so proud). I have already shared a few of my simple sourdough recipes here on Comfort du Jour, including English muffins and our beloved N.Y.-style Pizza Dough. If you’re a bread lover, you might also appreciate a glimpse of some of the incredible loaves Pete and I have made together since this adventure began.

It’s exciting for me to see and remember all those loaves. But for this occasion, I wanted to let Pete really show off, and so here’s the exciting news—Pete made his own birthday cake! I’ve mentioned several times that sourdough isn’t merely a flavor of bread, but a method of leavening, and in this richly dark chocolate cake, sourdough discard is the star.

The salted caramel flavor is a perfect match for the ultra dark chocolate cake.

I found the recipe for this cake on one of my favorite sites, King Arthur Baking Company, and I will proclaim out loud that, ingredient-wise, it is the oddest cake I’ve ever made. I will also tell you that it tastes nothing at all like sourdough. It’s a bouncy, spongy very chocolaty cake, and though the KA recipe is for a rectangle cake, I changed it up and did 9-inch layers. I also swapped the coffee-infused icing for one of our most-loved flavors to pair with chocolate, salted caramel. It may strike you odd that I am not sharing a recipe for either, but here’s why—King Arthur already published the cake recipe, and you can find it here (I followed it pretty much to the letter). I’m not sharing the salted caramel frosting recipe because, frankly, I was flying by the seat of my pants when I made it, so I don’t know exactly how much of what went into it. Besides, the texture was a mess. I wanted something akin to buttercream, but I didn’t get the ratios right and my frosting, though delicious and perfectly salted, wasn’t very stable. I will, however, share the photos, purely for comedic value. Those Great British Baking Show contestants have nothing to fear in me! Next year, when Pete turns 6, I’ll probably make challah. 😊