Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spring is in the Air: Lavender and Lemons

The first market vendor I met on my first day selling ipies (individual pies) at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market was Charlie.

In fact, he was my first customer!

He is always willing to lend me anything I forget or to find something that will steady a wobbly table.

One morning he even gave me those heat packets that you can put in your pockets to keep you warm on those early, cold December mornings at the market.

I'm not sure why he had those packets though -- Charlie almost always wore shorts and a polo shirt no matter the weather. If he did pull out a jacket, I knew I was in for a very cold day!

Charlie Opper and his wife, Linda Barrett, own Cache Creek Lavender, a small organic family run farm located in Rumsey, California in the Capay Valley. In 1997 they began growing lavender and now sell fresh lavender flowers and their own hand crafted lavender soaps, creams and bath salts. All organic. They sell their products on their website as well as at several farmers' markets. You can read a bit more about them on the Palo Alto Farmers' Market website.

One slow morning at the market, I noticed that Charlie also had culinary lavender -- dried flowers that are safe to use in both sweet and savory dishes.

I was excited to try my hand at baking with lavender since it wasn't an ingredient I had grown up baking with -- so of course Charlie handed me a bottle, refusing to take payment.

Well, that has been quite a few months ago now but with the winter weather slowly giving way to oranges and lemons on my trees and the plum tree in full blossom, I began to consider what springtime treat I might create.

As I considered the ingredients in my pantry, I spied the culinary lavender in its cork topped bottle.

With all the beautiful lemons now available, I started my search for a recipe that combined lemon-lavender. Springtime allergies must have plugged my brain as well as my nose because I spent quite a few hours searching for a recipe on various cooking websites but nothing struck me as quite right. I was surprised by how many recipes called for lemon extract instead of fresh lemon juice.

Finally I came to my senses and started combing through my rather large cookbook collection.

And of course, right where I should have looked first is where I found the perfect recipe, Deluxe Lemon-Lavender Mail-a-Cake, from Flo Braker's most recent cookbook, Baking for All Occasions.

Braker gave the cake this quirky name because she developed this recipe for her mother -- she wanted a sturdy cake that she could mail to her mother for her mother's birthday.

Braker even gives instructions for how to package the cake for mailing!

The cake uses both lemon zest and lemon juice so it had that extra zing that I wanted. And the recipe called for a tablespoon of lavender flowers. The finished cake had a lovely texture and a heavenly scent.

After the cake cooled, I drizzled a lemon glaze over the top then dusted it with powdered sugar. The wet glaze really helped the sugar to set. I topped it all off with a few sprinkles of lavender flowers.

The cake tasted great that night but the flavors improved even more by the next day. And of course, as its name indicates, this is a great cake to pack up for a picnic or even to serve at Easter or a springtime brunch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Coconut: Beauty or Beast?

Coconut -- that much maligned ingredient seems to be having a do over or perhaps a makeover.

Oil, shredded, water, extract -- all forms of coconut seem primed for a comeback of sorts.

I first noticed coconut popping up in articles that proclaimed coconut to be the new trendy drink -- available now! -- on supermarket shelves.

Then articles describing that most Midwestern of desserts -- the coconut macaroon -- started appearing with recipes "from the archives". Recipes for coconut cream pie soon followed.

But I knew coconut was really having its moment when writer Melissa Clark wrote about coconut a few weeks ago in her New York Times Good Appetite column with the headline, "Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World."

An endorsement indeed!

I have found that most people either love or hate coconut. Although I'm a fan, my husband and daughter are not. So coconut desserts seldom make an appearance at our house.

But along with the spritz cookies on the cookie platter at our holiday gatherings were always coconut macaroons. When my mom passed away, my sister shouldered the responsibility for both the spritz and the macaroons so I feel obligated to have them at least once a year (what a hardship!).

I must admit though, those macaroons are lovely, large sugar bombs!

The typical ingredients in a coconut macaroon from the Midwest include sweetened condensed milk, sweetened shredded coconut, egg whites, vanilla extract and salt. Much like this recipe from cookbook author Ina Garten.

Sweet and simple indeed!

But really, with all those egg whites, a coconut macaroon is really just a meringue cookie. Is there a need for the sweetened condensed milk AND sweetened shredded coconut? Perhaps a less sweet cookie would continue to encourage a macaroon comeback.

In fact, in searching through some of the vintage cookbooks I own, I found that many older recipes for coconut macaroons used either sugar or powdered sugar instead of the condensed milk but all still used the sweet shredded coconut.

I had recently made the national dessert of New Zealand, lamingtons, which use dry (sometimes called desiccated) coconut. Perhaps I could swap out the sweet shredded coconut for the dry.

I continued my cookbook trawl and came upon just the recipe I wanted from the latest offering from blogger, cookbook author, ice cream expert, etc. etc, David Lebovitz's, Ready for Dessert.

His recipe adds a few more ingredients than the typical macaroon recipe -- honey and flour -- and substitutes sugar and unsweetened shredded coconut for the condensed milk and sweetened coconut.

He combines all the ingredients together in a large saucepan then dries the mixture out over low heat.

I didn't form my dough into small pyramids like he did but instead used my smallest cookie scoop to form small cookies. After they had baked and were cool, I dipped a few in bittersweet chocolate.

Even with the addition of the chocolate, these macaroons were far less sweet than the cookie of my childhood. Addictive really. I usually only ate one macaroon from the Christmas cookie platter but I ate two of these in a flash.

This coconut macaroon recipe from David Lebovitz's blog is similar to the one in his new book.

And best of all, several non-coconut lovers gobbled them up as well. Which makes me think that it wasn't the coconut they disliked, just the overwhelming sweetness of the cookies and perhaps even the gooey texture.

So I'm happy to say that coconut appears to have made a comeback -- even at my house.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Online Bake Sale for Japan!: UPDATE!

***update! we made more than $8,000! Thank you everyone! And high bid on ipies was $110! Thank you thank you! Pie people are very special people!***

(this is a post from my pie site -- the ipie store)

In Indiana where I grew up , baking was often the language we used to communicate with each other.

Owe someone an apology? Bake them brownies. Someone you know not feeling so well -- a nice pudding would make them feel better. New job? Baby announcement? Almost any occasion called for hauling out the mixing bowls and butter.

And now, if only I could bake ipies for the people of Japan to feed their hunger and their souls I would do it.

I can't of course but perhaps indirectly I can make it happen.

Well, you can.

ipie is teaming up with a growing list of food bloggers to raise money for Japan via an online bake sale.

The auction is the brain child of Sabrina Modelle who writes the tomato tart blog.

The bake sale will be held, auction style, on her website on March 30th. We will be donating to Second Harvest Japan, a food bank in Japan.

Sabrina has a list of participating food bloggers on her site. Although the auction doesn't start until March 30 -- Sabrina will be previewing what will be available.

So, please check out her site and on March 30, please bid on ipies or some other yummy goodie.

Here is more information about ipie and what I will be offering for the auction:

ipie will offer six ipies with either a classic apple filling or a pear honey filling.

An ipie is an individual fruit filled double crust pie about the size of a cupcake. I sell my ipies at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market and by special order.

I can't ship out of my local area but I would be happy to deliver them to you if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Please email me if you have any questions -- an email link follows the ipie photo.

Feel free to leave a comment or click here to email me!