Spring is coming, yes?

Boy this has been a rough winter.  The deep snow on the farm and well below freezing temps have made even the simplest tasks of tending to  the goats and chickens a major chore. Constant snow blowing, shoveling and salting just to open the stall doors is enough to make me want to go on permanent vacation, and bring the animals with me.  The girls (our 5 lovely Rhode Island Red hens)have been huddled together for what seems like months, and have literally been “cooped up” for as long.  They had no desire to even attempt to free range and forage for bugs, seeds and deeply buried blades of grass , and  I don’t blame them one bit.

I myself have been “cooped up” in the house, with my teething 8 month old, CJ.  These days he just wants to be held.  All day long.  If you put him down he just cries and cries and cries.  It’s been a challenge to find time to take a shower, eat a sandwich, or do a load of laundry. Its also been impossible to blog, let alone cook a simple meal for dinner.

But then this past weekend, there showed signs of hope.  The sun beamed down, and was doing its darndest to begin melting the ice and snow. The girls opted to walk about on the path I had shoveled for them, and I scattered a bit of sweet feed for them to discover. The next day, to show their gratitude,  they laid 3 eggs for me, after weeks of receiving 1 a day if I was lucky.  Finally,  my baby boy learned how to crawl- even though he now needs more supervision, he can explore and entertain himself for minutes at a time ( yes, just minutes, but it’s a big improvement!).

And then something exciting happened (well, exciting to me, as I told you, not much has been going on around here lately!).  My friend Laura was having her husbands colleagues for dinner at her home the following night, and she needed a special dessert!  With my newly found freedom, I was happy to oblige.  Not only could I take pride in creating her a fantastic dessert, but I could blog it as well!

I wanted to create something fun and different, maybe something they’d never had before.  A Pavlova was the first thing that came to mind, but normally I top the crispy cloud of meringue with lots a vanilla whipped cream, raspberries and peaches.  It might just be my favorite dessert.  Obviously, the season is way wrong for this embelishment, so I got to thinking of how I could “warm it up” for the middle of February.  Bosc pears and a caramel sauce felt right, and I decided to toast some pecans and soak some currants and raisins in dark rum for some texture, color, and a flavor punch.  This sounded good overall, I was only afraid it would be cloyingly sweet.  I thought maybe some creme fraiche folded in to the very lightly sweetened vanilla whipped cream would give it a nice mellow tang, and it did just that.  But now the pure white meringue of the pavlova felt too pristine, so I decided to flavor it with brown and white sugar, some good vanilla bean paste, and a touch of espresso extract.

I brought the components to her house at 9:00, just in time for coffee.  I rummaged through her cabinets for a nice big plate and transferred the baked meringue, then piled it high with the whipped creme fraiche-chantilly cream.  Next I tossed the bosc pears with the caramel rum raisin sauce,  mounded it on top of the cream, and sprinkled it generously with the roasted pecans.  I asked Laura for her largest dessert plates and placed a big scoop of pillowy crisp meringue, cream and rum-caramel-y pears on each.  Just as I had hoped, they had never had a dessert quite like this, and they LOVED it! This was a dessert trifecta-  simple, delicious and impressive.

So the weekend was a little bit brighter,and today  the sun is still shining ( we won’t talk about weather predictions for tomorrow…).  My baby boy is napping, and I can write my blog, and in so doing, I get to relive the joy of creating it for my friend.  Then, if the Nap Gods are in agreement, I will lay down next to my baby boy and dream of the raspberries and peaches that will soon drip from the top of my next Pavlova.   Spring is coming.  It is.

Please see the  My Recipes tab at the top of this page  for this one and many more!

 

 

 

So many of you have written in to tell me that you saw the episode on THE CHEW (12/31/13) and were wondering if I can ship the pies and or share the recipe.  Well, while I work on figuring out how to ship them, I am able to give you the recipe today :).  I actually sent the recipe to THE CHEW when we first filmed the piece, and I cannot find it anywhere…. so I retested it this morning.  I’m trying to get it to you quickly, I asked hubby to help me with the dough.  I put the ingredients together in the bowl, and asked him to grab the pastry blender.  He said “what’s a pastry blender?” Whaaatttt….. do we live in the same world? So I fished it out of my horribly disorganized baking drawer and handed it to him.  I told him to press down and twist.  About 5 seconds later he said ” It’s all bent”.  It was in fact ALL BENT.  He mangled it.  How is this even possible? Luckily, it was more than willing to bend back into shape! After a quick lesson, he perfectly cut the butter into the flour until it was the size of large peas :) Much better!

I hope you enjoy this recipe as it was TORTURE getting it together! My baby CJ is teething, working on his 5th tooth, and going out of his mind- not easy to bake and write to say the least!

 

See MY RECIPES for the Cherry Berry Handpies…

Earlier this year I taped a piece with my buddy Mario Batali for his show The Chew. My staff and I were so excited to have the filming crew and Mario himself to our Sweet Melissa’s, and spent the days leading up to filming getting the shop spiffied up and looking just right. Everyone lent an extra hand to make the window displays bountiful and vibrant with cakes and decorated cookies, colorful teacups and shiny new cookbooks.  The display case was spotless and filled with beautiful cakes, lemon meringue tarts, peach raspberry pies and sweet almond bread puddings, and the top of the case chock full of chestnut honey madeleines, chewy chocolate chip cookies, walnut linzer tarts, and hand rolled croissants.  Fresh flowers filled the table vases, and we even gave the kitchen a fresh coat of paint!  The filming went great, Mario, as usual, was a PLEASURE to work with and it really felt like two friends just hanging out and goofing around.

I met Mario years ago  ( I think it was 1996!) on Cornelia Street in the West Village.  I was the pastry chef of  Home Restaurant, a tiny little restaurant owned by husband and wife team David Page and Barbara Shinn. Even then, Mario was a robust man sporting a ponytail, shorts and his signature orange Crocs. I was impressed with him then- he wasn’t a huge star yet- this was the first year he would host “Molto Mario” on the young Food Network channel. But he was larger than life, warm, friendly and TALENTED.  Po was near impossible to get into back then, Mario’s food and his tiny jewel of a restaurant were changing our expectations of what “going out for dinner” would become.  Still, when I asked for a reservation, I was treated like a VIP.  He is  and always has been, a class act and a TRUE gentleman.  Fast forward 17 years, and Molto Mario, now one of, if not THE, most famous chef in the world, was coming to my little shop to cook with me. I was ready, the shop was ready. We taped the whole segment straight through, without a “cut!”and no retakes.  Something to be proud of :) And I certainly was.

After months of waiting, the piece was finally to air on October 1st.  This was very important for us, for Sweet Melissa’s to receive national coverage, and an expected resulting boom in business. We had been struggling for months to keep our door open, what with increasing rents and a decreasing economy, and were probably putting to much weight on this exposure. However, we told everyone we knew to tune in, tweeted and posted on Facebook. Friends and family were  so excited to watch, and those who couldn’t were recording on their DVR’s.  This was the week of the Government Shutdown, and while we watched the coverage on the shutdown and its effects on our nation, we were not directly affected at the time.  Sure enough, at 1:00pm, the President took over the airwaves, and my piece on The Chew was cut.  When they returned to regular programming, the last minute of the segment was airing- just the last bit where the hosts, Mario, Carla, Daphne,  and Michael,  were tasting the hand pies we had lovingly baked off and sent to them that morning.  Oh, they really loved them, and as they oohed and ahhed at the flaky crust and scrumptious cherry berry filling, I burst into tears.

Needless to say, the resulting “lack of segment” did not do as we had hoped it would, and we had to close Sweet Melissa’s door a few weeks later.  Some would say this re-airing is kind of a “punch in the gut” and for a moment, when I learned of it,  it felt like one.  But as my husband Chris and I work on getting together funding and a plan for a shop in our hometown, it is a good reminder to keep going.  I am good at what I do.  People love my product.  I love making people happy.   And although I may have closed one door at 175 7th avenue, Brooklyn,  there are many that remain to be opened.  I look forward to the day, very soon, where we can establish ourselves in this new community with the highest quality bakery our neighbors have ever known.  A shop where my husband, our child, and I can reap the joys of providing for a community who embraces us and where our doors will remain open for many many years to come.

To” Great  New Beginnings” in 2014!  Happy New Year everyone!

Stay tuned for the recipe for “Cherry Berry Hand Pies”!

 

 

Whether baking at home or testing recipes at the shop, there are a few tools that I cannot live without. I turn to these tools EVERY time I make a recipe, and these are the things I miss the most when I am baking away from home. Baking without the proper tools can really make it a burden, something which it certainly SHOULD NOT BE. I want baking to be everyone’s favorite pastime, as it is mine, and I figure sharing the proper tools will help. These items are readily available at cookware stores, and NONE of them are expensive, in fact, most are under $10! Have a look at this list, and fill in your own supplies where needed- it will definitely make your baking less of a chore, and more like , well, a piece of cake!

TOP 10 TOOLS FOR 2014

1. Lightweight Stainless Steel Bowls

Lets start with the right bowls. There is nothing worse than trying to make a recipe whilst wielding a massively heavy crock of a bowl. Even the glass bowls, which are essential for photo shoots and tv work, are not my choice for baking happily at home. Get yourself a nice inexpensive set of lightweight stainless steel bowls. You can effortlessly lift them to pour a cake batter into pans with one hand, stack the dirty ones carelessly in the sink, and set them on the stove top while the oven is preheating if you need to quickly soften some butter or cream cheese. I like to use the largest ones for mixing doughs and batters, and the smaller ones for placing eggs under running hot water to get them to room temp, as well as mis en placing my other ingredients.

2. Microplane

No surprise here. A great microplane is essential for getting the prized zest from your oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits. The fine grate on the best planes eliminates the need for finely chopping the zest after zesting. I also use my microplane for grinding cinnamon sticks and nutmeg right into my recipe. The often used poor substitute,the box grater, is useless for zesting and I would opt not to make a recipe than to attempt to zest without a microplane.

3.Pastry Blender

Many people already know that this is the tool I push the most. There is no better way to cut butter into flour and there is no better tool to teach you to make proper pie dough. As I wrote in my cookbook, “The Sweet Melissa Baking Book” ( Viking Studio 2008), “My favorite method for making pie dough is by hand, using a metal pastry blender. If you don’t have one, get one. It is not expensive, and you’ll use it every time you make (pie) dough. As an added bonus, kids LOVE using the pastry blender- and it keeps their hot little fingers out of the flour!…When you use the pastry blender, you have a more intimate relationship with the dough. You can watch it as it changes, gain an understanding of how it works, and learn to tell when it is just right.” If you want to make pies, and of course you do, get a pastry blender STAT.

4. Rubber Heat Proof Spatula

In my humble opinion, rigid plastic spatulas are garbage. The rubber heatproof spatulas are the way to go. The “blade” is flexible, so it can really scrape the bowl- as it should- when blending ingredients or folding melted butter or beaten egg whites into a batter. I always get heatproof spatulas, as they are also the best thing for making and flipping omelettes, and stirring cream or chocolate as it heats on the stove. I hate that non heatproof spatulas are limited in this way, and are sometimes used accidentally for these “hot” tasks by the husbandly member of the house, resulting in melted plastic in our food.

5. Metal Bench Scraper

I just used this yesterday. And the day before that. And actually, the day before that. It is HANDS DOWN the BEST way to clean flour and bits of dough off your counter. I had misplaced mine for a while and I was in a bread baking phase. I had flour everywhere. To make things worse, I decided to clean up my floury mess with kitchen towels. Every day I’d use a different kitchen towel to wipe up all the flour and then throw the dirty towel in the laundry. What was I thinking?! Come laundry day I had multiple flour covered, stuck together, dough hardened towels in my hamper. And who wants that in their washing machine? Can’t be good… Soo, clean up the flour with a bench scraper! Just take the lid off the garbage pail, hold it under the counter and scrape all the excess flour and dough bits into the garbage. It leaves your oounter practically SPOTLESS, you hardly even need to follow it up with a sponge. Ahhhhhh, easy :).

6. Offset Metal Spatula

I really don’t know how people frost a cake without it. Truly. I mean, ONCE I TRIED to frost a cake with a butter knife, and it was a disaster. I was embarrassed. Never again will I frost with a butter knife, actually,I just decided. If I am ever in that predicament again, I will make a ganache and pour it over the cake rather than attempt to use a butter knife. Wait, I need an offset for smoothing the ganache along the sides. Note to self: don’t leave home without the offset. Also good for spreading fillings evenly atop a cake layer, lifting cookies from parchment, and a must have for flipping crepes.

7. Parchment Paper

And, unfortunately, not the kind they sell at the grocery store. It’s the wrong size for a standard cookie sheet and it keeps rolling up on itself while you try to work. Annoying. Try to sweet talk your local bakery owner into parting with a few sheets. Offer to pay for them. They will say “Don’t be silly” and give you a small stack. These will be in large sheets, so just store them folded in half, between 2 cookie sheets, and cut them in half when you need them. Here’s a quick list of what I use parchment paper for:
- I line cookie sheets with it.
- I sift dry ingredients onto it
- I cut it into a round with a vent on top to cover veggies when caramelizing them
- I cut it into a round to line cake pans
- I cut cake stencils from it
- I use it as a funnel when adding dry ingredients to a batter
- I line a sheet pan with it and then place a pie on top before baking so clean up is a breeze
- I make a “coronet” or paper piping bag with it for decorating or writing with chocolate

8. Balloon Whisk

Rarely do I sift my dry ingredients together any more, but I ALWAYS blend and aerate them with a balloon whisk. The balloon whisk, as it’s intended, is fantastic for whipping cream or egg whites in mere minutes, no need for expensive stand mixers. It is also great for the initial partial blending, or “lightening” of a batter with egg whites or meringue, just to kinda “get it in there”, before folding the rest of the meringue in just so…

9.Cookie/Muffin Scoop

Actually, I have 3 of these in different sizes. A 2 oz. scoop, perfect for scooping cupcake batter, muffins, jumbo cookies and ice cream; a 1 1/2 Tablespoon scoop, which I use for most 2-3 bite cookies; and a 1 1/2 teaspoon scoop which I use for truffles and small melty cookies like gingersnaps. Cannot imagine doing this “traying up” with tablespoons instead, uggh.

10. Pastry Brush

I have 2 of these. One is for keeping dry, for brushing excess flour from rolled cookie and pie doughs. You must remember to brush off the excess flour from rolling, or you will ruin your finished product as there is nothing worse than getting a mouth full of pasty white flour instead of the luscious crust or crumb intended. The second is for the wet jobs, usually brushing a crust with egg wash, but also for brushing warm apricot jam on a fresh fruit tart, or spreading softened butter into the nooks and crannies of a madeleine mold. Yup, 2 brushes are necessary.

So this is my MUST HAVE for baking list. Of course, you will need other things, but I assume you have them already: Wet and dry measuring cups, a good set of measuring spoons, a solid chefs knife, an OXO fruit/ veggie peeler, rimmed cookie sheets….. well if there are any beginners out there that need the complete list, give me a shout. And for all of you, let me know if you have any baking questions, I’d love to help!!! Happy New Year!!!!

On Saturday afternoon, after visiting with my brother and his family in Mawah, and indulging not only in chocolate dipped, raspberry filled cream cheese cookies, cheese fondue and home made pizza (thanks to my dough-throwing hubby), it was time to waddle to Staten Island to visit my in-laws. They can’t get enough of Baby Chrissy (CJ) and we were due for a sleepover.

My mother in law, Debbie has a zip top bag filled with recipes, some torn out from magazines, but most scribbled on scraps of paper or lovingly scripted on note cards. These recipes have known many sticky fingers, and are called upon again and again to teach young ones, and remind the seasoned bakers, of the ingredients needed. They are in no way organized, and when looking for a particular recipe you must touch each one, which may be upside down or backwards, and read it to see if it is the one being sought. That’s the fun part, for in touching and reading each recipe, you are bound to say, ” Remember this?! I love this!” And Debbie will respond ” Oh yes, we make that cookie for Christmas” or “that cheesecake’s for Easter, its delicious…” When I came upon another for the beloved Split Second cookies, named for the pace at which they disappear, it prompted a favorite story. “Uncle Paulie’s Aunt Marion would come for coffee. She would walk in the house, turn on the oven and pull the dough from her purse.” I always loved the image of an elderly woman walking around Bensonhurst with cookie dough in her purse.

This recipe is for Butterhorns, an adaptation of Debbie’s “Crescents”- a family favorite, and the recipe I happened to be looking for. I cut the original recipe in half, and added some orange zest and a bit of sugar to the rich sour cream dough, and included a brushing of egg wash so that the cinnamon walnut crumble would stick even better. They are a delicious melt in your mouth cookie, that also disappear in a “split-second”.

Happy Holidays!

Please go to “My Recipes” for the recipe for Butterhorns.

‘T is the season

This past weekend, I had some serious cabin fever, so Chris, Baby CJ, our  dog Jax and I decided to pack ourselves up and go visiting.  First stop was to my brother Chris’s house. He and his wife Randi, their children Skyler (12yo) and Trent (13yo), and their 3 dogs live in Mahwah, about 90 minutes north of our farm.  I knew we were expecting snow, and I was itching to bake, so I prepared by bringing along some sheet pans, parchment paper, cream cheese, vanilla extract, and an orange. I also brought my spritz gun, it would be my first time using it, and I was excited.  I had picked it up at a yard sale, years ago, and it was very “retro” and cool looking.  I couldn’t wait to make cream cheese spritz cookies with my niece Skyler, or “Pie” as I affectionately call her (her parents used to call her Pie as well, but she put the kabash on that.. hopefully I can continue to get away with it…).

So, all started out well, the dough is super easy to make, and delicious even in its raw state. It easily loaded into the gun, and we tried a few different plates to see which would be the prettiest. But then… well, the gun was crap.  It kept getting jammed, even when we cleared it out and it was completely empty!  Pie was determined though, and after a good hour we were rewarded with 48 pretty little cookies.  The dough was very forgiving, and allowed us to scrape up the less than perfect cookies over and over again ( perfectionist Pie) and re spritz them.  We baked them and tasted them- delicious, tangy from the cream cheese and orange zest, buttery and just a little bit tender. It was still snowing, so we decided to fill them with raspberry jam and dip them halfway in chocolate.  Talk about gilding the lily.. theses were AMAZING!!!! Definitely Christmas Eve worthy, and special enough to give as a present. Try them, you’re gonna love them!

See recipe for: ChocolateDipped, Raspberry Filled Cream Cheese Spritz Cookies

 

 

Easy as pie dough

Here’s a quick post just in case you need a perfect pie crust!  I hope you all have the most wonderful Thanksgiving!

For Perfect pie dough, see recipes

8 Pies

It’s been a few weeks now, since we closed our door, and I must say, as much as I miss the daily hustle and bustle, it sure is nice to have a break. I am now able to spend some uninterrupted time with my beautiful baby boy, and be the mommy I’ve always wanted to be. As much as I am loving the break, I also know what I miss the most about our beloved Sweet Melissa’s. I miss my customers, and having a connection to the shop’s fans, young and old. I miss the food, the ingredients, the smell of cinnamon in the oven. I miss seeing all of the beautiful cakes, tarts, cookies and pies showing themselves proudly in my display case. I miss the feeling of pride and joy when a customer walked out with boxes filled with goodies. These are memories that I hold most dear in my heart. However, meeting rising rent and food costs became the focus every day. Pouring over a recipe, tweaking it so that it was “just right” and watching my customers squeal with delight was the driving force behind why I entered and flourished in this business. Now, being able to spend time and talk with customers was a rare occurrence. The shop, vendors and staff kept me so busy, rarely had I time to just sit and chat about recipes with the people who loved them most.
And now , it is nearly Thanksgiving. This will be the first thanksgiving in 15 years for which I won’t bake over 500 pies for my customers and their families. Right now, I would be figuring how many pounds of apples, flour, pumpkin, cinnamon, pecans, chocolate…. will we need for next week? Instead, I can focus on just a few for my own celebration, this year at my in laws, a few more for my mom, and 2 for my sister. 8 pies. Wow, what a difference in one year. Usually, I am beyond exhausted come Thanksgiving Thursday. This year I may actually be wide awake for the whole meal!

I have always been awed by the Thanksgiving pies we made at the shop. The fact that we rolled each of the 500 crusts by hand, cracked each egg, peeled every apple, and grated fresh nutmeg was impressive, something special. We would work late into the night on thanksgiving eve, waiting for pies to cool so we could box and label them before things got even more confusing! I would not have time to bake my own pies at home, so each year I’d have a few options from the “just in case” extras we always set aside.

This year will be different. Maybe it will be the only year in the next fifteen that I will bake only 8 pies, so they really need to be special. I will be making my Pumpkin Chiffon Pie for sure- and so chose it as the first recipe to share with you- in honor of all the thousands of orders over the years. It will remind you of a traditional pumpkin pie, only better. It’s got a wonderful texture, and lots of warm spices, and is worth the small amount of extra effort it takes to put together.

I will certainly miss baking your pies this year, and I hope to be again soon. In the meantime, I am very excited to share my recipe with all of you. In a way, my pie can still be on your table this year :). I am very much looking forward to reconnecting with my friends, customers and loyal fans of the shop through this blog. I hope you will share your thoughts, ask lots of questions, and give tons of feedback on the recipes posted. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Click here for my Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe!