Life: Crumbling Cake Crisis

With my husband’s birthday last week, it was time to honor the yearly tradition of making his favorite cake, a chocolate cake with lemon frosting.  You may be thinking what an interesting combo which is exactly what I thought when I learned about this southern classic.  This special cake from his childhood was created by his mom who by the way is an amazing chef.  Let me tell you, the zesty lemon adds a refreshing twist to the traditional chocolate cake.

Over the years, I’ve switched things up.  Making the batter with different types of chocolates, changing the icing base from butter to cream cheese, etc.  This year, however, I did something radical.   I learned his mom used to make it out of a Duncan Hines box mix.  So, I decided to make the cake authentic.  I thought it would be super easy.  Cut open the mix, add the ingredients and presto, cake batter.

I did something else that was totally out of character for my cooking routine – I followed the directions step by step.  Well to be honest, I nearly followed all of the directions – except one seemingly teeny weeny thing.  The mix wanted 3 eggs.  Since my son B has an egg allergy, I added egg replacer for some of the egg.  There was no way an ingredient specially formulated to act like an egg could get in the way of my husband’s birthday bliss.

So after adding the ingredients, I followed the directions and mixed the batter for four minutes.  Let me tell you that the batter ended up looking like more of a mousse, which took me by surprise.  But rather than start over, I went ahead and put it in the oven.  After all, I “followed” the directions.

The cakes rose and baked as usual.  It wasn’t until I went to get them out of the pan that disaster struck.  It crumbled out of the pan.  The cake fell like the Tower of Pisa.  After initial frustration and anger, (oh, and my four year old consolingly asking “mommy what’s wrong,”) I decided to try to solve the problem.  I whipped up some lemon butter-cream.  While thinning the frosting with whole milk, I became hopefully optimistic.  After all, frosting can solve anything? right?  Isn’t frosting supposed to work like Spanx?  Shouldn’t it smooth out the lumps and bumps?  Well unlike Spanx the customary crumb coat didn’t solve anything.  It only made things worse. IMG_4070Again B asked what was wrong and sweetly offered to help.  So, I thought why not take out the second layer.  After all it couldn’t be worse than the first.  Maybe it would give some structure to the cake and hide the first layer? Like some bad game show or that second strike in baseball, the cake taunted me.  Again I was totally wrong.   Like a California earthquake the second layer crumbled more than the first and split in two.  I just had to laugh.  I thought about my options – could it be saved?  could I turn it into a trifle?  make it some sort of bread pudding? should I just start all over?

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m like most of the women in my family, extremely stubborn.  We attribute it to my late Croatian grandmother who was as stubborn as the day is long.  A lethal combination when coupled with my late grandfather’s Swiss-German steadfast persistence.

Determined to conquer this cake, I slapped on the rest of the butter-cream, broke out a bag of marshmallows and made a fondant.  I mean can’t fondant solve everything?  All I had to do was somehow sculpt this pile of crumbs into some sort of shape.  Ready to see it?  Well, this is what happened.  Isn’t this gorgeous!IMG_4071

I couldn’t even get the buttercream to stick to the cake!  It would just peel off.  Talk about a disaster.

Refusing to yield to this fricken cake, I broke out my battle axe and went to town on the fondant.  B and C helped flatten it out.  B colored some purple to make a Bat for daddy as daddy wanted a Batman cake.  C kept tasting things to make sure it was edible.  I would have been in trouble if he spat it out.  Luckily, he didn’t.

Disaster struck again – the fondant wouldn’t roll.  About to throw this cake in the kitchen sink, I took a breath and complimented B on his purple creation.  I kept trying.  Then, finally, a miracle happened.  The fondant yielded.  Like a choir of angels, things seemed instantly brighter.

Then came the real test, would the fondant stick to this Java the Hut type cake?  I wasn’t convinced and with how everything was going, I thought there was no way it would work.  There wasn’t a chance.  Maybe the cake would end up splattered all over my kitchen.  After taking a deep breath, I cautiously carried the rolled out fondant over to the crumbling cake.  Gently placing it over the top, I prayed it would hold in the mess and make it something beautiful (or at least presentable). IMG_4072Check it out – it worked!  What a relief.  Now, all I had to do was to cut out some shapes to decorate the top.  Bs purple fondant turned out with a marble effect, however.  The perfectionist in me was screaming, but the mom in me stayed calm.  So, rather than try to make it solid or have him change it, I decided to go with it.  After all a marbly batman symbol was unique.  B placed the shapes on top.


Viola, what once was a sad lump of chocolate crumbs was now a “cake.”  It didn’t matter that what was underneath was a pathetic pile of crumbs.  All that mattered  was that it held together and would (hopefully) hold the candles for B & Cs daddy to make his wish.

IMG_4074Guess what?  The cake held together!  Like a blazing torch, the cake’s inner strength supported nearly 40 candles.  With that cake, I had my victory and B&Cs daddy got to make his wish. What was my wish?  Well to teach my boys to treat life like this conquest.  After all when life throws you crumbs, find some fondant.  Either make it yourself or go on a search to get some.


Weekend Dinner: Rose Rissotto

ingredients  As a busy mom, I look forward to being able to cook on weekends.  Weeknight cooking is the bare minimum as far as hands on time, and ingredients.  In fact, we usually eat leftovers from larger weekend meals.  Leftovers merely require reheating.  (yay!)  Weekends enable me to make dishes requiring more extensive ingredients as well as attention to detail.

Since my boys love shrimp, and I love risotto, last weekend I created a shrimp rose risotto.  There’s something so comforting about the  texture of risotto.   Creamy, cheesy and comforting.  It’s like putting on a cozy sweater.

Want to try it? Here’s the recipe.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 shallot minced
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup Rose Wine
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 cup of chopped greens
  • 1 cup grated dry cheese (Gruyere, romano, Parmesan or mixture)
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3/4 pound baby shrimp
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • salt & pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (tarragon, oregano, thyme) (optional)

Mix the liquids together and set aside. I like to keep mine in a large measuring cup  like this one so it’s easier to keep track of how much I’m using.

Warm your pan.  I use a Le Creuset shallow brassier.   Add the olive oil, saute the garlic & shallots for a few minutes.  Add the rice and swish it around in the oil and garlic mixture.  Turn down the heat.  Add a cup of the liquid mixture and stir. photo(14)

At this point heat a skillet and  melt a tablespoon of butter and teaspoon of paprika.  I like the flavor of smoky paprika, but a sweet would work well too.  Add the shrimp and quickly saute for about a minute or two, just to impart the paprika flavor to shrimp. Set aside.

Go back to the risotto.  Stir occasionally until mostly absorbed.  When mostly absorbed, add another cup of liquid.  Keep  stirring.  Do once more.  Add the mushrooms and chopped tomato. 

add last cup of mixture.  Add the chopped greens and fresh herbs.  Once liquid is mostly absorbed add the 3/4 cup cheese and shrimp.  turn off.  Let cool for a couple of minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Top with the rest of the cheese. 

I like to serve this with a light brussel sprout salad and thin crust mushroom & Gruyere pizza.  Check back for those recipes.   Of course don’t forget to enjoy with a balanced local Sonoma/Napa white wine like the chardonnay from Roche Family Winery which is still my fav. photo(13)

Enchiladas the Quick and Easy Way

photo(11)Living in the wine country has lots benefits, including being home to many wonderful taquerias.  For nights when going out to eat isn’t an option, it is easy to fake it at home. This recipe including baking time takes about 30 -40 minutes.  Rather than labor over making enchilada sauce and tortillas, which is always a fun activity especially with kiddos, I buy my enchilada sauce and tortillas at my favorite taqueria.   I buy enough sauce so I can use half and freeze the other for a a rainy day.

Then, add a few other premade items and you’re on your way.

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix together chopped chicken, 1.5 cups of cheese, the chopped greens, 1 cup of enchilada sauce and 1 cup of red pepper & tomato soup.  Take a baking dish, 13 x 9 works well.  Coat the bottom with a little bit of the soup.   Fill your tortillas with the mixture, about 1/2 cup worth.  Then roll and place in the baking dish.  Do the same with the rest of the tortillas.  Once all of them are in the dish, then top them with the rest of the sauce  (enchilada sauce + soup) and cheese.  Bake until warm (about 20 minutes).  Serve with hot sauce.  Enjoy!

Life is the Perfect Loaf of Bread

photo(27)The other day, I went to a local landmark, the Grist Mill.   Eons ago in the 1800s, it operated just as that, a grist mill.  Joshua Chauvet who settled in Glen Ellen around 1850 started it.  He opened a winery, the grist mill and a brickyard.  Everyday, I am reminded of this entrepreneurial man, as his bricks decorate my home.  And, they are surely gorgeous in a rustically historic way.   Today, the grist mill is  part of a darling little shopping village called Jack London Village.  In it there are restaurants and even a chocolate shop which in my opinion is not to be missed.  Across the way is Eric Ross winery, which is worth a visit.  Try the Albarino, totally delicious.

Although the grist mill is no longer milling grains for bread,one can’t help but think of bread being made when walking around.  From the large mill stones to the water wheel, there are reminders at every turn and even in the most unusual of places.

So, my particular visit was on an extremely hot afternoon around dinner time.  I didn’t want to cook so opted for some Indian, Himalayan food.  Yeti Restaurant is divine.  While waiting for my order, I sat at the bar watching the chefs cook.  An avid cook myself, I was most interested in seeing what they were doing.  A round pillow really intrigued me.  Then, the chef took a ball of dough, rolled it out.  He moistened it with water and then grabbed the round pillow.    The dough was wrapped around the round pillow.  He then, placed it in a oven. A couple of minutes later, naan.  The whole process was a dance, perfected in every-way.  Sometimes, I wonder what Joshua Chauvet would have thought of such an international delicacy being made there.

photo(28)My own bread making has room for improvement.  Bread is such a complicated process. For those of you who bake, you know how finicky sourdough yeast can be, or how the smallest of variations can impact the taste of things.  From sourdough baguettes to cinnamon rolls, I’ve had my share of baking trials.  The latest was with cinnamon rolls for a church gathering.  They literally took three days to make.  And, two of the three batches were off.  The dough was denser than usual.  Something with the yeast or flour I think.   Totally frustrated, I almost pitched them all and started anew at 10pm.  But I decided to set aside my perfectionist side and just enjoy them as they were.  They ended up being gobbled up in no time at all.

Having these experiences makes me appreciate the art of bread.  And when I find the right loaf I appreciate it in every-way savoring its smell, texture and taste.   The grist mill, the naan, a loaf from La Farine bakery in Oakland.  All to be embraced.  It’s like life.  When things all work together and create something beautiful, its time to embrace it, memoralize it and remember it.   Holding onto those times for other more challenging moments.   And, when things don’t go as planned, like my cinnamon rolls, it’s time to reevaluate and potentially roll with it.  For the good is what makes the bad bearable. It makes it worth it.

So, here’s to finding your perfect loaf.  Cheers!

Wine Country Entertaining – Downton Abbey Style

Entertaining in the wine country means being flexible. Whether it’s a small group of friends, large chaotic kids party, or small intimate formal dinner, it’s all about combining fabulous friends and flavors.

Of course throwing parties with kids is an entirely different animal as the entertainment options can range from as simple as coloring sheets and play dough to extravagant hired entertainers and traveling petting zoos.

Recently while enjoying a quiet laid back casual dinner of homemade pizzas and local wine, the conversation turned to our favorite TV show, Downton Abbey. The four of us decided to throw a small intimate black tie dinner party for fellow Downton fans. We decided to do something revolutionary: have a party without kids. Us parents don’t get out much, so the thought of adult time made it more fun.

The beginning planning stages involved conversations about whether it would be white or black tie, when to send invitations and what to serve.

downton 3From the invite to the place settings, every detail was thoughtfully planned. I used Paperless Post for the invitations. I chose a formal design with a picture of a chandelier similar to the one that would decorate the party.

Having sent the invitations, it was time to plan the other details such as decorations, place settings, music and menu. Planning ahead made it such a success. For the cooking portion, I have to thank Ina Garten for her tips published in one of her fabulous cookbooks. For example, she suggested a cooking timetable. Well, when coordinating seven courses, the timetable was key. In the days before, the schedule made the little tedious tasks like unpacking crystal and silver more manageable. For the day of the party, having a written schedule took the stress out of things. Another key factor was hiring an assistant to help serve the meal and help with washing the legions of dishes left in the wake of a 7 course formal meal. (Emily – you rock!)

So, for the menu, I had a 24 pound turkey that I built the menu around.

Passed Appetizers, Bubbles & Lady Mary Cocktail

Endive with roasted garlic cream cheese and shrimpdownton
Dates wrapped with prosciutto
Lady Mary Cocktail (bubbly, Lillet Blanc, lemon & basil) or (sprite, lemon & basil)
Main Meal

Mushroom sherry soup (mushrooms + sherry + shallots) with a heavy cream drizzle
herb roasted turkey, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, English peas & cherry port gravy
mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette
cherries jubilee over ice cream (this is fun as you light it on fire)
cheese course (cheeses, dried fruit, crackers)
homemade fudge & port

For wines, the party featured those from Peter Cellars Pinot Noir & Roche Winery Merlot

As far as set-up, Emily Post was helpful in setting the scene. The detailed diagrams helped guide the European table setting required for a formal Downton evening. Admittedly though, I didn’t follow it exactly as to make things easier I put the dessert utensils on the table. (Gasp!) A sin for which I likely would have been fired or put on probation had I been working at Downton Abbey.

With most of the food ready to go, greeting guests was a pleasure! We enjoyed the flavors and libations. And, afterwards silly fun with fake mustaches (really worth a laugh). In Downton Style the men departed for cigars & scotch and a chat about all things manly. Us ladies did the same (cigars, scotch and a chat about all things girly).

downton2Of course ages after our bedtime, we dimmed the lights and started dancing the night away. Like I said earlier, us parents don’t get out much so we are easy to entertain.

Now it’s on to planning our next one. Perhaps it will be Mad Men cocktail party or a Gone with the Wind garden party.. Any ideas??

Light Brunch: Greens, Gruyere & Girly Bubbles (including how to make the perfect fried egg)

Life in the wine country means enjoying lovely food.  There are days when unexpected visitors provide a fun excuse to to create a lovely lunch and savor company as well as local flavors.  A recent creation of mine is too easy and delicious not to share.  A green salad topped with eggs and Gruyere cheese.  The perfect compliment to a glass of chilled bubbly!


Heart of Romaine Lettuce


Hard cheese (any of the white hard cheeses from Vella Cheese would work)


Salt & Pepper

Fresh herbs


The best part about this recipe is that it is absolutely as simple as can be.  The hardest part is literally shaving the cheese.  Start by cutting some fresh greens.  I like Romaine as it maintains a crunch when topped with something warm like eggs.  Add some shaved white cheese.

Top with two fried eggs.  I fry mine in bacon fat, as everything is better with bacon.  To get the perfect fried egg heat a pan on medium.  Add enough fat (bacon fat, butter or olive oil) to coat the bottom.  Then, once the fat is melted, add your eggs.  Turn down the heat to medium-low.  Check the eggs in 2 minutes.  If they are mostly cooked with a little bit of uncooked whites, then cover with a lid or foil.  Turn off the heat.  Let the eggs sit for a minute.  Check, if the whites look fully cooked then you’re done.  If not, cover for another thirty seconds.

Top with  salt, pepper and a dash or two of lemon.  Sprinkle fresh chopped herbs.  Basil & tarragon work wonders.   Pour a glass of bubbly and enjoy!