Smitten Kitchen’s Apple Cider Caramels

10 Nov

Deb from Smitten Kitchen recently posted an awesome recipe for Apple Cider Caramels. I couldn’t resist trying them for myself. They came out beautifully and I wanted to share my success with you.

Local apple cider, freshly ground cinnamon and french sea salt [Ok, not so local…but oh, so good!]. These caramels are elegant and make a lovely holiday treat or gift.

Making the caramels is simple. Deb provides great instructions. I loved her tip to oil your knife while cutting the caramels. I’d recommend baking spray. Butter would probably make the caramels taste better though.

A few [minor] suggestions from Decadent Dragon:

  • Use freshly ground cinnamon if you can.
  • Use a thermometer.  It relieves you of temperature uncertainty.
  • Instead of parchment, you can use saran wrap to wrap caramels.
  • My caramels were super-soft outside the fridge. Keep ’em cold to maintain shape.

And lastly, Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook is out.  This would make a great Christmas gift (hint, hint!).


Meadowfoam Baklava

9 Nov

Like the many varieties of good wine, honey comes in a spectrum of flavors and colors. This nutty baklava is made with California Meadowfoam honey, which has caramel-marshmallow tasting notes. Baklava can be made with any variety of honey you have on hand but I highly recommend using a locally-produced varietal you enjoy.

Over the past few years, I’ve sampled my way through the local honey available at our farmer’s markets. Varietal honey is created when honey bees forage primarily from one type of plant, bringing its nectar back to the hive. Thus varietal honey comes in many forms: clover, sage, star thistle, buckwheat, tupelo…the list goes on.

Far and away my favorite honey, Meadowfoam is made from the pretty, white meadowfoam flower.  But the honey is a deep, amber color. I thought the color and rich vanilla-marshmallow flavor would complement Alton Brown’s Baklava recipe. As hoped, my baklava [the second batch, that is] turned out beautifully nutty, crunchy and with the caramel honey sweetness of this lovely varietal.

These cut baklava even resemble honeycomb.

Alton’s recipe is quite good, if a little over-complicated and, ehm…pretentious.  [No, I don’t have a spritz bottle just for rose water!]  Also, his written instructions would have turned the syrup into a hard candy.  So, I made a few changes.

Most importantly, cut the baklava before baking.  It will make your life SO much easier. I also recommend cutting back on the sugar in the syrup slightly to let the honey shine. If you don’t have three kinds of nuts, feel free to substitute. Personally, I do think the rose water is important but if you are in a jam it won’t ruin the dish to leave it out. Here’s his recipe with my modifications.

Meadowfoam Honey Baklava:
Adapted from Alton Brown’s Baklava recipe.
Makes one (1) 9X13 pan OR two 8X8 pans or baklava.

For the filling:
1 (5-inch piece) cinnamon stick, broken into pieces (or 2 teaspoons ground)
15 to 20 whole allspice berries (2 teaspoons ground)
6 ounces blanched almonds
6 ounces raw or roasted walnuts
6 ounces raw or roasted pistachio
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon rose water
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed
8 ounces unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1 1/4 cups Meadowfoam Honey (or your favorite varietal)
1 1/4 cups water
3/4 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 (2-inch) piece fresh orange peel

Begin by pre-heating the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease your pan(s) with butter.

Place the cinnamon stick and whole allspice into a spice grinder and grind.

Place the almonds, walnuts, pistachios, sugar and freshly ground spices into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but not pasty or powdery, approximately 15 quick pulses. Set aside.

Combine the water and rose water in a spray bottle (or a small bowl if you don’t have a spray bottle) and set aside.

Trim the sheets of phyllo to fit your pans.  Take the phyllo out of its wrapper and quickly cover with a damp (but not too wet) paper towel.  This will keep your dough hydated and easy to work with as you build your layers.  Otherwise, it’s a race against the clock, so please use the paper towel!

If you are doing the two 8X8 pans, separate your nut mixture into two bowls equally.  Set one aside for your second pan of baklava.

Place a sheet of phyllo in your pan.  Brush with butter to coat.  Lay another sheet on top and brush with butter.  Repeat until you have ten (10) sheets of buttered phyllo layered in your pan.  (Don’t skimp!  I’m serious, you want every delicious layer.)  Top with 1/3 of the nut mixture (really 1/6 if you are doing two smaller pans instead of the large sheet).  Spray or, using fingers, flick with the rose water mixture.  Repeat phyllo layering with another six (6) sheets of phyllo dough, brushed with butter.  Add the next 1/3 of the nuts and spritz with rose water.  Repeat with another six (6) sheets of phyllo, butter and last 1/3 of the nuts and rose water.  Top with eight (8) sheets of buttered phyllo.  Butter top generously.

If doing a second pan, repeat the steps above.  Cut the baklava into serving-sized pieces using a sharp knife BEFORE placing into the oven .

Put pan(s) in the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes.  Remove when the phyllo is a medium brown color and crispy.  The nuts should be toasted throughout.  Let cool for 2 hours.

Make the syrup during the last 30 minutes of cooling. Combine honey, water, sugar, cinnamon stick and orange peel in a 4-quart saucepan and set over high heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Once boiling, boil for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and discard orange peel and cinnamon stick.

After the baklava has cooled for 2 hours, re-cut the entire pan following the same lines as before. Pour the hot syrup evenly over the top of the baklava, allowing it to run into the cuts and around the edges of the pan. Allow the pan to sit, uncovered until completely cool. Cover and store at room temperature for at least 8 hours and up to overnight before serving. Store, covered, at room temperature for up to 5 days.

What’s your favorite type of honey?

– Beth

Marshmallow Cream Drinking Chocolate

4 Nov

Rich, fragrant, creamy, delectable… 

Drinking chocolate is out of this world. The best chocolate beverage you’ll ever have. This version combines locally produced Guittard Chocolate Company’s Bittersweet chocolate with toasted marshmallow cream and the crunch of  graham cracker crumbs. Best part? It’s simple to make.  Only 10 minutes, I promise. 

I still remember my first experience with drinking chocolate.  In Santa Cruz, there’s a little cafe on Pacific named (quite aptly) Chocolate. They offer a selection of gourmet drinking chocolates made with artisanal chocolate. I fell in love with this decadent beverage one winter evening during college.

However, as I sipped my way through their menu, I thought their dark chocolate a smidge too dark and their milk chocolate too light.  In true Goldilocks style, I wanted something just right.   So I quickly set about recreating this awesome drink for myself. And now you can, too!

The Key…

The chocolate makes (or breaks) this dessert beverage. So, use the best quality chocolate you can find. You get to choose the darkness of the chocolate to suit your taste, however.

I highly recommend any of these brands’ semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, as I’ve tried them all: Callebaut makes a super-smooth and creamy drink, Schaarfen Berger seems more fruity to me, and Guittard is a great all-around crowd pleaser.

Let me give you my recipe!

Marshmallow Hot Chocolate:

2.5 oz High-Quality Bittersweet or Semi-Sweet Chocolate (Guittard Bittersweet shown here)
2 tbsp Heavy Whipping Cream
1/2 cup Milk
1/2 cup Marshmallow Cream (Marshmallows are an OK substitute, too)
1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract
Pinch of Salt
Graham Cracker Crumbs for rimming the glass
Butter for rimming the glass

Begin by preparing your chosen glass / mug. Lightly coat the rim of the mug with butter, which will help the graham cracker adhere. If you are using whole graham crackers, smash or blend the crackers into very small pieces / powder. Place crumbs onto a plate, turn the mug upside down and gently coat the rim with the crumbs.

Chop up your chocolate into even, small pieces (the smaller the pieces, the more quickly and evenly they will melt). Place the chocolate into a different, microwave-safe mug, add cream and microwave for 15 seconds. Remove and stir mixture with a spoon for 10 seconds. If chocolate is not fully melted, microwave again for 10 seconds, remove and stir. Repeat until chocolate is melted. (Do not overheat or you risk burning the chocolate.)

Add the vanilla, milk and salt to the melted chocolate mixture. Stir and microwave for 45 seconds. Remove and test the mixture.  When done, the drink should be heated to your liking and all chocolate should be fully melted. If not, return and microwave for another 30 seconds.

Pour the prepared drinking chocolate into the mug lined with graham cracker crumbs.

Place the 1/2 cup of marshmallow cream into a microwave safe bowl. Microwave for 5 seconds, remove and stir. You need the mixture to be pliable enough to spoon over your hot chocolate. Microwave in 5 second increments until the cream is a spoonable consistency. Spoon the marshmallow cream over your drinking chocolate.

If you have a blowtorch, you can toast the top of the marshmallow cream for effect. Beware the marshmallow cream does like to catch on fire! So keep your blowtorch turned on low and very gently toast the surface. Or, you can pop the mug in your microwave for 10-20 seconds to make the marshmallow cream blow up above the top of the glass!

This is not the last time you’ll see drinking chocolate on Decadent Dragon Bakery. It’s just that awesome.

Do you have an experience with amazing drinking chocolate? Please share!


Pineapple Upside Down Cake

2 Nov

When your husband works as an agricultural Biologist, you get used to “produce surprises” appearing in your kitchen on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes it’s a pound of local, fresh honey, others a little bean sprout begging to be planted.  This week, it was a box of three, extremely ripe pineapples. And one of them became this scrumptious rum-laced cake.

Whenever these culinary surprises show up, I imagine myself a star on Iron Chef, tasked with creating a meal from our new found bounty. Silly? Probably.

With the pineapple, I was looking to highlight the sweet and tart flavors of fresh pineapple – almost like a tribute to the end of summer now we’re firmly in fall. And so the inspiration for this Pineapple Upside Down Cake was born.

This pineapple was a truly beautiful thing.  Incredibly sweet and ripe, with low acidity (well, for a pineapple anyway).

I found a lovely recipe on Smitten Kitchen’s blog. Like her, I chose to omit the ground cardamom from the cake — though I did go back and garnish with cardamom afterward.  Cardamom does a good job of balancing the rather intense sweetness of this cake.

I also added more RUM than she called for in her recipe. Excellent Appleton Estates rum. I swear, this blog should be call the Drunken Dragon sometimes. I put rum in the caramel topping, rum in the batter and garnished with rum once the cake was baked!

Overall, this produced an excellent cake.  I highly recommend it. My one suggestion would be to lessen some of the sugar in the recipe: perhaps a 1/4 cup less in the batter (beware as I haven’t tested this). Particularly if you are using a sweet pineapple, the sugar can likely be cut back a bit.

This cake emerges from your cast iron skillet with the most beautiful caramel and pineapple topping. And on a side note: does anyone else think the picture above looks like a spiral galaxy? Haha, I do!

Have a good one!



31 Oct

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. (Well, truth be told, I can find something to love in just about all our seasons.)  But part of what makes fall special is the colors and flavors I associate with this season. Bold, earthy colors like oranges, burnt reds, deep browns and olive greens. And these colors are reflected in our cooking as Americans during the holidays: rich stews, winter squash, cranberry relish, cinnamon spice… 

Yesterday, I made these adorable Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake Minis (3 X 3 square) for a local fundraiser at my husband’s work. All proceeds went to the American Cancer Society. His colleagues raised almost $300 in the fight to cure cancer. Way to go, guys!

This recipe is so much fun! It produces a cheesecake with fresh pumpkin spice flavor, a crunchy cinnamon-ginger crust and a sinful dollop of bourbon cream.

I had recently purchased a Fat Daddio’s 12-Cup Square Muffin Pan (I know, ridiculous name).  Let me tell you though, it’s absolutely perfect for making mini-cheesecakes. The pan can also be used for brownies, tarts, or quiches as well.

I began this recipe by lining my square muffin pan with parchment paper.  I found that cutting a 5″ by 3″ wide strip of parchment made for the easiest cheesecake removal later. You’ll want to be able to pull that little sucker out of there by the ends of the parchment strips. I used a cutting mat, ruler and razor blade but you could use a ruler and scissors, too.

Heheh, anyone recognize the tool I used above to tamp the crust into the molds? I hope you don’t think I’m a complete lush.

My recipe is heavily adapted from this Betty Crocker Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe I found online.  It makes 24 mini-cheesecakes or 1 large 9″ cheesecake.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake Minis

For the Crust:
4 cups Cinnamon Sugar cookies / Ginger Snaps / or Graham Cracker Crumbs
2 tsp Ginger, powdered
1 cup Butter, melted

For the Cheesecake Filling:
1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
2 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1/2 tsp Ginger
1/2 tsp Allspice
1 (15 oz) can Pumpkin
3 tbsp Bourbon or Brandy
2 tsp Vanilla Extract
32 oz Cream Cheese, room-temperature
1 cup Brown Sugar, packed
2/3 cup White Sugar
5 Eggs, room-temperature

For the Bourbon Whipped Cream:
1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1 tbsp Bourbon
1/4 Powdered Sugar, sifted
Garnish with ground Cinnamon and Ginger

Begin by pre-heating your oven to 325 degrees. Grease your pans with butter, line with cut parchment paper and grease again.

Using a food processor, grind up your cookies until finely ground and no large chunks remain. Mix the ground cookies with ginger and the melted butter until combined.

Press the cookie mixture into the bottoms of your molds. Bake crust for 8 – 10 minutes or until set (butter mixture should be absorbed).

In a small bowl, mix flour, spices, canned pumpkin and brandy together.

In the bowl of your mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy. (If you see lumps, your cream cheese may be too cold.) Slowly add sugar and then beat the mixture for 3 minutes.  You’re looking for a whipped texture, here.

Return to low speed, beat in 1 egg at a time until just blended.  Gradually beat in pumpkin mixture until smooth.

Pour filling into your crusts until 2/3 full.  Bake 12-18 minutes, checking often.  Cheesecake is done when the center still jiggles slightly when moved but edges are set.  Turn the oven off, open the oven door a few inches.  Let cheesecakes sit in oven to cool gradually (and avoid cracking).

After 30 minutes, remove cheesecakes from the oven and cool on wire racks. When cheesecakes are cool, run a knife around the edges and pull out of pan gently using the ends of your parchment paper.  Refrigerate 4-6 hours or overnight before serving.

Just prior to serving — Whip your heavy whipping cream until soft peaks begin to form.  Add bourbon and powdered sugar and whip until slightly thickened and stiff peaks are just about to form.  Spoon or pipe dollops onto your cheesecake.  Garnish with cinnamon and ginger.

Happy Fall, everyone!


29 Oct

Rainbow cupcake no wrapper

Rainbow Cupcakes are back this week. The photo above is my Cream Cheese Buttercream Cocoa Cupcake.

I had the honor of baking these cupcakes for a very special birthday girl. She was celebrating her birthday with a scary movie party. Exciting!

I’m by no means the inventor of the rainbow cupcake but I am proud of my technique. There are multiple paths to the rainbow-frosted cupcake, which I’ve outlined below.

Decadent Dragon’s Technique 
I riffed on Option #3 below.  First, I made a large batch of butter cream frosting, then separated it into five (5) bowls.  Next, I colored each bowl of icing with gel food coloring.

Once all bowls were colored to my liking, I prepared a single pastry bag fitted with a 1M Wilton tip.  Instead of layering the frosting colors one on top of the other, I layered them side by side into the pastry bag.  This created more separation between the colors when swirled than the layered technique, which I prefer.

Here is my super-official diagram on filling your pastry bag – viewing the bag from above.  (And yes, this was created in Microsoft Paint.)

But note that this technique can be challenging.  It may be difficult to get all colors equally situated in the bag.  I found it easiest to hold the bag at an angle to the ground (nearly perpendicular) and then spoon the colors in, rotating the bag between colors.  You may need to use your spoon to force some colors of icing down into the bottom of the bag.  Ideally, all colors will meet near the bottom of the bag.  And luckily, rainbow icing is forgiving!

Here are some of the other Rainbow frosting techniques floating around online –

Bag & Re-bag Technique
This technique yields clean lines and looks great for a multi-colored icing.  With this technique, you individually color your icings, place them separately in pastry bags and then place those filled pastry bags in a larger empty bag fitted with your tip.  For a rainbow icing, my personal belief is that it’s too wasteful of bags.  However, I’m sure it looks great.

Paint the Bag Technique” A simplified version.  Paint the inside of a large pastry bag with your  food coloring.  Then, fill the bag with white icing and pipe.  Very straightforward.  But it does produce a different icing effect.  Up to you whether you like it.

Individually Color & Layer Technique” With this, you divide your white frosting into multiple bowls and color them separately with food dye.  Then, you take one large pastry bag and individually layer the icing on top in layers (like geological strata??).  This yields a beautiful true rainbow result.

Whether you choose any of the listed techniques, or create your own, just remember to have fun!  And send me photos – I’d love to see what you create.


Orange Blossom Madeleine

22 Oct

Grumpiness is trending on Facebook. Northern California just got its first rain of the season.

To combat this fall malaise, I decided to throw a mini-tea party. The British are experts on bad weather, after all.  As they are not, in my opinion, experts on the tea cookie, I chose a French madeleine to pair with my cuppa. Unfortunately, my kitchen did not possess a fresh lemon to zest, and I had to get inventive to replace this vital ingredient. So I dug around for inspiring substitutes and came up with Orange Blossom water and lemon vodka. That’ll do!



So, here’s my recipe, adapted from French Butter Cakes (Madeleines). I hope they banish the weather grump for you, too!

Orange Blossom Madeleine
2 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
1 tsp Orange Blossom Water
1 tsp Lemon Vodka
1/8 tsp Salt, Kosher
1/3 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup Butter
1/3 cup White Sugar (to sprinkle on finished cookies)

Start by heating the oven to 375°F. Liberally butter and flour your madeleine tin. If you don’t have this specialty tin, you can get probably get away with a muffin tin and muffin liners (no need to butter those).

Next, melt the butter and cool to room temperature as you assemble your other ingredients.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine eggs, vanilla, orange blossom water, lemon vodka and salt. Beat on high speed for 5-10 minutes. Stop once the mixture has thickened, lightened in color and the batter forms a ribbon as it falls from the beater when lifted. The mixture will look substantially different.

Sift half of your flour into the thickened egg mixture. Using a spatula, gently fold the flour into the egg mixture, taking care not to over-mix (you want to keep all the light, fluffiness you’ve just mixed into the batter). Sift the other half of the flour and fold in gently.

Pour the melted and cooled butter around the edges of the batter. Gently fold the butter into the batter.  Using a spoon, mound batter into the molds. The batter should just mound above the top of the tin.

Bake 10-14 minutes. The top of the cookies should be golden and springy. Once you remove the cookies from the oven, gently use a knife to loosen them. Dump them onto a wire rack. Sprinkle the cookies liberally with sugar as soon as they are out of the pan.

Serve these with your favorite cup of tea. I chose my favorite: African Green Rooibos. Enjoy!

Elegant Rose Cake

18 Oct

I promised myself I’d put in some practice time baking cakes, since this is a weak area for me. I don’t know about you but something deep within me me rebels at baking a cake when I can make their quicker, cuter cousin – Mr. Cupcake.

But I’d promised myself I’d give it a go, so I did.

And I’m glad I took the time!!

A few weeks back, I found a Rose Cake Tutorial. What a beautiful, elegant and simple creation. [Note: I did NOT do the vertical interior since I’m focused on icing practice. Next time.]

Sometimes the simplest creations are the most beautiful.

The cake is a simple yellow cake recipe infused with a lot of apricot liqueur.  Booze makes baking much easier, I’ll tell you that.

I dyed the cake a rather ridiculous shade of pink in honor of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Don’t forget to do self-checks and get screened, if necessary!

Overall, I give my icing job a ‘C.’  Lots of practicing to do. But if a cake novice like myself can turn out a decent result, be heartened!

And I’ll tell you what: learn how to do your first breast self-check or get a mammogram and I’ll bake you a cake.  Because staying healthy is just that important.

…And then we’ll go walk off the calories together.  Because staying healthy is just that important.