King Cake Paczki

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I have been lucky enough to live in two of America’s greatest cities: Chicago and New Orleans. When we lived in New Orleans, I was introduced to the holiday of Mardi Gras, the bacchic feast day before Ash Wednesday. Of course, New Orleans manages to stretch the holiday for about three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which means work gets a little lighter for a month while traffic congestion gets a lot heavier (roads close, parades roll, etc.).

Well, tomorrow is Mardi Gras! Full disclosure: I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mardi Gras. One of my first experiences was getting punched in the face when a fight broke out in a group as I passed, and then I got hit in the head by a bag of beads (why do they even throw those!), not to mention my interaction with everyone’s elbows. I’m kind of shocked that I even considered going back again. But I did, every single year. One year, we lived about two blocks away from the parade route and that was the best. When I got tired of being elbowed in the eye sockets, I just went home. Or bought a corndog. That would usually get me through the rest of the parade.

But now, being far, far from the action, seeing all of my friends posting about the 610 Stompers they saw and the floats they rode and the shoes they caught at Muses, I get nostalgic. Chicago doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras the same way that New Orleans does (few cities do). But both have their own beloved, pre-Lenten treats: King Cake and Paczki.

Both of these desserts were born from the same necessity: to use up fats and sugars in the house before Lent begins. But they are very different.

Paczki, (pronounced punch-key, or some drawn-out-vowel variation of that if you include an authentic Chicago accent) were brought by Polish immigrants to Chicago and several other cities in the United States, and are similar to jelly-filled yeast doughnuts. Paczki traditionalists would probably punch me in the arm for reducing their beloved dessert to those terms, but it’s true. King Cake, at least the kind that is gobbled up by the millions in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, is essentially a large cinnamon roll that’s been braided into a ring, also optionally filled with cream cheese or fruit jam, and covered with icing and sprinkles.

To bring together my two favorite cities, in a way sure to blaspheme both of them (sorry, everybody!!), I made  King Cake Paczki just in time for the holiday. This paczki dough is flavored with cinnamon before it is fried, filled with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with icing and sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, yellow and green, which denote, respectively, justice, power, and faith.

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King Cake Paczki
Makes approximately 1 dozen. Slightly revised version of this paczki recipe from The Spruce.

King Cake Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp rum or brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
oil, or lard (traditionally used), for frying
Purple, yellow, and green sugar

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla

Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch

King Cake Instructions:

In a measuring cup, mix the milk, dry yeast, and 1 tbsp of sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.

In a separate, larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to beat together the unsalted butter and sugar until it becomes white and fluffy.

Add in the whole egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just until the egg is completely mixed in and the mixture appears consistent.

Add a little of the yeast mixture and then a bit of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir until you no longer see white streaks of flour. Continue alternately adding the yeast mixture and flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until you no longer see streaks of white flour between each addition. Once you have added and stirred all ingredients, the dough should begin to form a very loose ball. If it is still quite loose and wet, add in 1 tbsp of flour at a time until it just begins to form, but no more than a 1/4 cup of flour should be added. The dough will still be quite sticky.

Grease a very large bowl, pour the dough into the greased bowl, spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, or lightly brush with vegetable oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm spot to rise for about 1 hour.

After about an hour, when the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for about 45 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, pour the dough out and pat down until it’s consistently about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly flour the top of the dough and, using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds, placing them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You may need to re-roll the dough and pat down again to get 12 rounds.

Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to set in a warm spot for about 1/2 an hour.

While the rounds are rising again, add two inches of oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Using a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil to between 325 and 350 degrees.

Add two to three rounds to the hot oil at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip the dough in the pan and allow to cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the finished paczki to a paper-towel-lined plate.

While the paczki are cooling, make your filling and icing. For the filling, use a hand beater to mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and cornstarch.

When the paczki have finished cooling, poke a hole into the side using a small, thin knife, without poking all the way through. Using a piping bag, fill each of the paczki with cream cheese. Drizzle the top with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars.

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Don’t be weirded out by these tiny plastic babies you see. Traditionally, plastic babies are baked into king cakes, and the person who gets the piece with the baby buys the next king cake.

The many breaks required in this recipe to let the dough rise are great for, say, drinking champagne, because you’ve got to make sure to get that out of your house along with all the fats and sugars. And because it’s Mardi Gras.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting

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Um, today is my birthday. My BIRTHDAY! From what I understand, there are people out there who hate celebrating their birthdays. I’m not one of those people. I can’t get enough birthdays. One a year just seems like… not enough. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I like getting presents (which I actually hate), but because it’s positively the best excuse for a little self-indulgence. For example, I’m going out dancing with a group of friends tonight, if only to prove to myself that my hips still work in my 32nd year. AND, I made myself a cake. If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that my love of cake knows no bounds. I make myself a birthday cake every year. This year, it’s a Mexican hot chocolate cake with a cinnamon whipped cream frosting. I will go ahead and say that it’s now one of my favorite birthday cakes in the last 32 years. It’s not as good as when my mom made them for me. It’s not as good as the one I got when I was five that was shaped like Strawberry Shortcake. No one can top that cake for the rest of time. It’s pretty good, though.

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Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting
Makes 2 8-inch round cakes

Ingredients for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake:
1 1/3 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp espresso powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Ingredients for Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Very slightly altered recipe from Food52
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp, powdered sugar

Instructions for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 2 8-inch by 2-inch round cake pans and cut out two parchment paper rounds to cover the bottom of the pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cayenne, and cinnamon.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, vegetable oil. You want to mix until you see that the oil has been thoroughly mixed, but stop just after you no longer see droplets of oil and it is a uniform color of pale yellow.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix with a spatula until fully combined.

Quickly stir in the boiling water.

Fill each cake round slightly less than half full.

Bake for 22-25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around 22 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean the cake is done.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove from pans, peel off the parchment paper, and allow to completely cool on a wire rack before frosting.

While the cakes are cooling, place a deep bowl and metal beaters into the freezer to chill.

In a saucepan, combine the cornstarch and powdered sugar. Fully mix both of these dry ingredients before mixing in 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Stirring constantly, place the saucepan over medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken, but not quite boil.

Remove the pan from heat and allow the mixture to cool in a separate bowl. It’s very important that the mixture is room temperature before you add to the other ingredients.

Remove the bowl and beaters from the freezer. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of whipping cream, along with the vanilla, cinnamon, and remaining 1 tbsp of powdered sugar, to the chilled bowl. Beat until the liquid begins to come together, but stop before it’s stiff.

Add in the completely cooled cornstarch mixture a little bit at a time, mixing in as you go. Stop beating when it is just combined.

Frost your completely cooled cake, as desired, immediately.

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Oh, gosh, this cake is dynamite. Warning: it is spicy. If you like a little less spice, use less cayenne. You could also forgo the cayenne altogether, and only use cinnamon. You’ll still have a super moist and quite chocolatey cake. Also, this whipped cream frosting is so killer. I am a whipped cream frosting fanatic, but I hate how weepy it gets after only a short time. The recipe I used here stabilizes it a bit, which makes it not only last longer, but easier to use when frosting your cake.

Also, I want to give a very special shout-out to my friends Kristina and Conrad who gifted me with this bad ass wooden table for my photographs. Conrad made it with his hands from an old piling from the Chicago River. Very cool, right? I have very cool friends.

Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

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I do realize this is not a topical post. There is a big football game happening on Sunday. I should be making party foods. Turns out, grandma had no recipes for nachos or jalapeno poppers. Instead, this is a completely self-serving post. Today is national carrot cake day, (Have I mentioned how I’m both completely intrigued, yet totally confused by these national food days?), but this carrot cake is really a vindication. A few months ago, we were going to our friends’ house for dinner. I insisted, insisted, on them letting us bring something and they finally caved and said I could bring dessert. At some point during my baking, I realized that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with my carrot zucchini mini cake. I’ve made this recipe a zillion times, so I don’t know what distracted mistake I made, but what I was left with was a little 6-inch rock, with no time to make, or even buy, something else.

Our friends were, of course, lovely about it, because we have great friends. But deep down (or quite obviously), I was both mortified and determined to redeem myself.

This recipe is not one of grandma’s either. It’s actually a version of my mom’s zucchini bread that she got from God-knows-where. The ingredients are the same, but changing the proportions slightly takes them from a denser bread, to a lighter cake. I had to try a couple of times, but I think we’ve got it. Also, feel free to play around with the spices. I like a spicy carrot cake, but if you prefer just cinnamon (or that’s all you have on hand and you don’t want to go buy several other expensive bottles of spices), you could do that too.

For the frosting, cream cheese is the obvious choice. I love cream cheese, but I love, love, love maple syrup. I put it in everything, including my coffee. I’m turning into Buddy from Elf. I thought maple cream cheese frosting would go well with this spicy cake. I was not wrong.

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Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp coriander
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1 1/4 cups zucchini, shredded
1 1/4 cups carrot, shredded

For frosting:
8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup maple syrup, room temperature

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease an 8×8-inch pan, and line with parchment paper so that you leave “handles” exposed above the height of the pan.

Wash well 1 medium zucchini and 3 medium carrots. Shave the rough skin off the carrot. The zucchini’s skin can be left intact. Grate 2 1/2 cups of a combination of zucchini and carrots.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and coriander.

In a large bowl, combine the oil, honey, vanilla, and eggs. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until just combined. Add the grated vegetables to the mixture and stir until everything is incorporated.

Pour the mixture into the greased pan and bake for 32-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 32 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the middle.

When done, remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in pan for about 5-10 minutes. Then remove from the pan with the parchment paper “handles” and allow to cool for an additional 45 minutes to an hour on a cooling rack.

For the frosting, beat together the cream cheese and maple syrup.

Once the cake has cooled completely, frost cake and serve.

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Chock full of veggies, but still rich and delicious. I think the little orange and green flecks throughout are cool. If you have kids, they  probably won’t like that, but I don’t know what to tell you. Get better kids? Tell them they’re Lucky Charms marshmallows? I’m not a parent, clearly.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

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I’m somehow surprised every year when citrus season sneaks up on me. I can never wrap my head around the fact that it’s in winter, because my favorite citrus recipes seem so light and summery. Wishful thinking, I guess. In celebration of all the beautiful citrus fruit at our disposal this time of year, I made a Shaker pie, slightly altering the original recipe, which uses regular lemons. Instead, I used two of the yummiest members of the citrus family: blood oranges and Meyer lemons.

Folks today probably know the Shakers more for their simple, well-built furniture. I decided to write about the Shakers because they  were in the news recently after one of their members passed away, leaving only two (!!) Shakers in the whole world. The reasons vary:  some Shakers who were adopted into the Community  as children chose to leave as adults, others opposed the hard-work and celibate lifestyle, and finally, they just stopped accepting new members. At this point, you couldn’t become a Shaker if you wanted to. While their numbers have dwindled, the Shakers are still one of the longest-lasting Christian sects in the United States.

The first group of Shakers formed in Manchester, England. They were originally known as “Shaking Quakers” because their religion was an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, and because, during their sermons, Shakers often tremble and twitch. A short time before the American Revolutionary War, Mother (as she was called) Ann Lee led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. As pacifists, Shakers refused to fight the British or swear an oath of allegiance (as it was against their religion), leading to jail time for some. In the years following the War, Shaker religious communities grew and spread through the United States. At their peak, as many as 6,000 members worshiped in communities across the country.

Shakers live piously and communally. Though men and women live as equals and serve equally in religious leadership, they live separately, since marriage and sex are forbidden. Members are acquired through adoption or recruitment. As an agrarian society, Shakers grow or raise most of their own food and live quite frugally, aiming to waste as little as possible.

Which leads us to this little pie, made in accordance with the Shaker lifestyle, simply and efficiently. A Shaker lemon pie is made of whole, thinly sliced lemons, allowed to sit in sugar for a day to allow the peel to break down, which are then mixed with eggs and baked. Very simple and very delicious. Shakers would probably object to me using a non-local fruit, and, OK, traditional Shaker pies are not usually electric pink in color. If you’re a traditionalist, this recipe could easily be modified to resemble a more authentic pie, by replacing fruit with two regular lemons, but don’t rule this one out just yet… Do, however, note that this is not a one-day pie. You will need to allow your citrus to macerate in the sugar for about a day, and up to a day and a half, before baking.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

Citrus Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from NPR, and Smitten Kitchen

1 medium blood orange, plus zest
1 Meyer lemon, plus zest
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, melted

Zest both the lemon and the blood orange, about 2 tbsp.

Cut the ends off both the Meyer lemon and blood orange, discard.

As thinly as possible, slice the entire orange and lemon, including the peel, into rings. Remove seeds as you go.

In a container with a lid, combine the zest, sugar, and citrus. Mix to coat every ring. Cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours to 36 hours, at room temperature. The fruit will break down and dissolve the sugar. You will be left with liquid and what is left of the fruit. Do not drain, or remove fruit, but do remove any seeds that made it into the mixture.

Beat 4 eggs together well. Mix with entirety of the blood orange and Meyer lemon mixture, flour, and melted butter, and pour into prepared, bottom crust of pie (see below).

Citrus Pie Crust Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into centimeter cubes
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup water, ice cold
1 egg, for wash

In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, and salt. Pulse together for about 5 seconds. (This can also be done by hand or with a pastry cutter, quickly incorporating the butter into the flour.) Add the ice water to the food processor and pulse for about 5 more seconds until the dough begins to come together.

Pour the contents of the food processor and pour onto a lightly floured surface. Begin gathering the dough together until it forms  into a ball. Cut the dough into two equal parts. As your working with the first half of the dough, wrap the other and place in the refrigerator.

Re-flour your surface and roll out the first half of the dough into a large circle, approximately 1/8-inch thick (the circle should have about a 13-inch diameter). Draping the dough over your rolling pan, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, making sure you have about 1/2-inch to 1-inch overhang on the sides. Set aside.

Roll out the second half of the dough to the same size as the first; it can be slightly smaller.

Add the lemon-orange filling to the bottom pie crust.

Carefully cover with top layer of pie crust. Cut away any unnecessary dough. Sealing the top and bottom crusts together, create a decorative edge with your hands or a fork. Allow the pie to chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the refrigerator and begin to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Beat one egg thoroughly and brush over the top crust and edges of the pie. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar.

Slice a few holes into the top of the pie crust to allow steam to release while cooking.

If the pie crust still feels quite cold, wait a few more minutes before putting in the oven. You don’t want the crust warm, but you don’t want it so cold that it cracks while baking.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. After 20  minutes, decrease the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.

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Blood oranges are not necessarily as sweet as regular oranges but, with its light raspberry flavor, it moderates the bitterness of the Meyer lemon and creates a bright, tart, but still sweet, and very pretty, pie. Make yours soon, before citrus season disappears!

Persimmon Upside-Down Cake

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It was painfully cold here in Chicago this past weekend. The kind of cold that, when I get into the house after putting a load of clothes in the wash in our basement, I find myself irrationally angry. Angry cold. That’s where we are. And, as a perfect Chicago response, it was almost 50 degrees yesterday. Just warm enough to keep people from losing their damn minds.

Freezing temps gives me the perfect excuse to stay inside and bake. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. In my last post, I told you how my mom had been sending me my grandma’s old recipes. The recipe parade continues. Usually mom will send recipes for dishes that I’ve had 100 times and sometimes she sends me giant questions marks. One of the more recent question marks piqued my interest: cottage pudding.

Grandma had a habit of writing down all the ingredients in a recipe, along with oven temperatures and cooking time. What she fails to include, though, are basically any description or assembly instructions whatsoever. From the name, I thought it might be some kind of pudding made from cottage cheese, but the recipe did not call for cottage cheese and this “pudding” actually turned out to be a sheet cake, made in a 9″ x 9″ pan, with sweet sauce, made separately, and meant to be poured over the top. Instead of combining the two together at the end, I realized that I could use grandma’s  recipe to create a version of an upside-down cake made in my cast iron skillet. And, I figured I’d go ahead and make it with persimmons, because I haven’t made anything with persimmons this year and usually they are the fruit that makes my winter go ’round. I’m so glad I did! I’ve never made an upside-down cake before, but it was really quite easy (minus the flipping part) and actually, really delicious. I imagined that I was going to pull some dense cake out of the oven, all gummed up with caramel. Instead, the cake was super soft, not too sweet, and accented with pretty drizzles of persimmon-infused caramel sauce.

I think you could use almost any soft fruit for this recipe, like apples or plums. Or, I suppose you could forgo fruit all together and just make a caramel cake. That’s your prerogative.

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Persimmon Upside-Down Cake
Very slightly adapted from Grandma Dini’s Cottage Pudding recipe.

Cake Ingredients:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cup, plus 2 tbsp, flour
2-3 persimmons, sliced 1/8-1/4-inch thick

Persimmon Caramel Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup water
1 cup brown sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Persimmon Upside-Down Cake Instructions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice 2-3 persimmons, horizontally, very thin. Just enough slices to cover the bottom of a 10″ cast iron skillet. Hold on to any extra pieces of persimmon that do not fit in the pan. You should have about 1/2 a persimmon left. Chop into small pieces.

In a small sauce pan, combine the leftover persimmon pieces and 1/2 of the water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Some of the water will evaporate, which is fine.

Turn the heat down to low. Add brown sugar, butter, flour, vanilla, salt, and additional water to the sauce pan. Heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring often, though not constantly, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. At this time, you can remove any larger pieces of the persimmon, leaving the smaller bits in the caramel. Set aside to cool slightly. You should have between 3/4 of a cup and 1 cup of caramel sauce.

For the cake, in a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, whisking to combine.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together for about 2 minutes. Add the milk, egg, and vanilla extract, and beat until just mixed. Add in the flour mixture in about 4 batches. Mix until just combined with each addition of the dry ingredients. (This batter will be quite thick, which is perfect.)

Grease the sides of your cast iron skillet with butter to ensure a smooth removal of the cake. (You only need to butter the sides of your skillet; the buttery caramel will take care of the bottom of the skillet.)

Add half of the caramel mixture to the bottom of the skillet. Next, add the thinly sliced persimmon to the bottom of the pan until it is mostly covered. Add the remaining caramel over the top of the sliced persimmon.

Next, add the cake batter over the top of the persimmons and caramel. Do your best to get the batter to the edges of the skillet, as evenly as possible. If you have a spots where caramel is poking through on the edges, that’s fine.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes, by inserting a toothpick all the way through to the caramel. When it comes out clean, it’s done.

Quickly cover the skillet with heat-safe dish, invert the dishes together allowing the cake to slide out of the skillet and on to the serving dish.

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Grandma Dini’s Cream Puffs

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Happy New Year! Gosh, it’s 2017, for real. I’m so ready. Aside from that catastrophe that happened in early November, 2016 was not as cataclysmic for me as it was for everyone else. In fact, for us 2016 was basically uneventful, and even a little monotonous. Uneventful and monotonous are not really that fulfilling, so we’re hoping to make big moves in 2017. We’ll see. Also, we will see if my theory that years ending in even numbers are generally lame and odd numbered years are when magic happens. Bring it, 2017!

Aside from being the second day of a new year, today is National Cream Puff Day! In honor of a day that can’t possibly mean much of anything, I’m making a recipe that is actually quite meaningful to me. My mom has recently been sending me handwritten recipes from my grandma Edna’s recipe notebook. Mom refuses to scan the recipes, and instead texts me photos of the notebook she took with her phone, which is somehow equally annoying and very, very cute. It’s been great seeing these old notebook pages again, covered in stains from use and written in my grandma’s beautiful, cursive handwriting.

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This is grandma Edna–or to me, forever and always, Grandma Dini. For the longest time, I called her Grandma Dini and didn’t give it two thoughts. She responded to it. I was sure it was her name, until I learned otherwise. But neither my brother nor any of my cousins called her that and I never knew why. Later in life I asked my mom where that name had come from. She told me that when she and my dad used to tell me that we’re “going to grandma’s house,” I would always ask, “Which grandma?” Grandma Edna had a tiny, yappy dog, a miniature pinscher, named Houdini. So their answer to me was, “Grandma with Houdini.” Grandma Dini was born.

She passed away when I was twelve, so I didn’t know her as long as I would have liked, but Grandma Dini was a real cool lady. She played the clarinet, she introduced me to one of my favorite movies, Coalminer’s Daughter (when I was entirely too young to be watching such a film), and when she was younger, she and her sister, Florence, competed in local singing/yodeling contests, and were offered a chance to compete at a larger competition. Unfortunately, their dad said, “Absolutely no way,” and instead of becoming a star, grandma was married and having babies by the time she was 17. Not that she was necessarily unhappy with that path, and it certainly wasn’t an uncommon one where she grew up in rural, Central Indiana, but I can’t help but wonder what might have become of her if she had become a famous, touring yodeler.

Perhaps most important to me, Grandma Dini was our family’s genealogist. When she passed away, I unofficially inherited the green notebook in which she kept track of our family history, and I have been researching family histories, my own and others’, ever since. And now my job is to help people learn about their family history! Profound effect, indeed.

A month or two back, my mom asked me what my favorite dessert was that she used to make me. Without a doubt, cream puffs. Light and fluffy, filled with pudding, dusted with powdered sugar, what’s not to love? The cream puffs that my mom used to make were from my grandma’s recipe notebook, and now I’m sharing them with you today.

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Grandma Dini’s Cream Puffs
Makes approximately 12 3-inch cream puffs

1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
1/8 tsp salt
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degree and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a saucepan, combine water and butter and bring to a boil.

Add the flour and salt and stir until the mixture begins to combine and form a ball.

Add one egg at a time, stirring to combine. The mixture will slowly come together and, when ready, should be stiff enough to hold the spoon vertical.

Drop 1/4 cup spoonfuls onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet. (I used a pastry bag to pipe them onto the cookie sheet. This step is completely unnecessary, but it makes the puffs slightly more uniform, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until they’re just light brown.

Once the puffs have cooled, cut the tops off, fill with pudding/cream, and dust with powdered sugar.

Tip for cream filling: I used this pastry cream recipe from The Kitchn. After making the cream and removing it from heat, I mixed in 1 tsp of espresso powder and 1/2 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips until melted and smooth.

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Cream puffs are a super simple treat and a definite crowd-pleaser, particularly if that crowd is me. Make a batch to kick off the new year! I’ll be right over.

Mom’s Mashed Potato Pancakes with Cheddar and Scallions

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Ah, Christmas is over. I hope everyone had a great one. I still get a little sad after Christmas. Our tree looks so bare now!

Since it’s Hanukkah now, too, I’ve been seeing all sorts of delicious-looking latke recipes online. I also learned that making and eating fried foods at Hanukkah is a nod toward The Miracle of Oil, in which the Maccabees took back the Temple of Jerusalem, lighting the menorah with the only oil they were able to find, enough for just one night. The oil, instead, burned for eight days, instead of only one, which allowed time for fresh oil to be pressed. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the celebration of The Miracle is where the tradition of eating fried foods, such as latkes and sufganiyot, comes from.

Admittedly, I grew up in an extremely culturally homogenous place, so I had no ideas about latkes before I got to Chicago. I ordered “potato pancakes” at a restaurant after I moved here and what came to the table were latkes. Not what I was expecting, but definitely not a disappointment. I had grown up with my mom’s potato pancakes, which are different. It doesn’t use shredded potato and, instead, makes use of leftover mashed potatoes. If you’re like us, you had mashed potatoes for Christmas, or Christmas eve. And also for every other meal. I am swimming in mashed potatoes this time of year.

This is a super easy recipe and is a perfect breakfast after holidays, where you can no longer look forward to opening presents, but you can instead look forward to your bounty of mashed potato pancakes!

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Mom’s Mashed Potato Pancakes with Cheddar and Scallions

2 cups mashed potatoes, cold or warm, not hot
2 eggs
2 tbsp ricotta cheese
5 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
Sprinkle of paprika, optional
1/2 cup shredded cheddar
2 medium scallions, sliced
Oil for frying

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl.

Just coat the bottom of a frying pan with oil. The oil is ready for frying when you start to notice small waves.

Add 1/3 cup scoops of your mix to the hot oil. (If you would like your pancakes a little more “pancake-shaped,” use a small spoon to flatten the sides of the scoop out before the pancake fries.)

Allow the pancake to fry until you are able to easily move it with a spatula. Then, flip and allow to fry on the second side.

Once done, remove from oil and allow to drain on a paper towel.

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The texture will not be like that of a normal pancake. What you’re getting here is a crispy outside and a warm, creamy, potato center. (Plus, cheese and scallions!) You do not have to serve these with bacon. I am just working on my winter fat layer.

Also, completely unrelated to potato pancakes, did I tell you we have been cat-sitting since early December? Our friend is vacationing in Asia and needed someone to watch his extra-large, extremely awesome cat. Of course I volunteered. Important note: If you have an extra-large, extremely awesome cat that you need someone to cat-sit, give me a call. I’m a professional now.

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This is said cat in all his stocky glory. Isn’t he handsome? After having him around, all other cats seem so dainty.

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