Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


Homemade “Magic Shell” (or How Three Ingredients and a Dash of Culinary Wizardry Saved the Day)

December+three kids+one sentimental husband=nonstop Christmas hullabaloo.

On Saturday, that hullabaloo included the annual Festival of Lights Parade, a ritualized enactment of small-town holiday joy, complete with baton twirling, marching bands, light-strung tractors, Shriners driving tiny cars in crazy circles, multiple Santa Clauses, fake snow machines, beauty-queen-style waving, teensy horses, and lots of candy canes being tossed willy-nilly at mittened children. It’s adorable. Usually.

But this year’s parade was kind of a bust…at least for our family. We arrived a little later than usual–in part because my daughter couldn’t decide what to wear. She is 8. And she’s not a priss, I swear. Proof: Recently, she created a “princess test,” consisting of a large piece of cardboard with Disney princess stickers arranged across it, kind of like an eye chart. She administered this test to her brothers and all of her dolls. If the test-takers liked any of the princesses except for Merida, they failed the test and were declared “too fancy.” So, yeah: That seems definitive. But for some reason, ever since she was knee-high and stomping around in her Robeez, she has been periodically seized by the desire to exercise extreme control over her attire. This urge hit hard on Saturday evening. Eventually, with only a modicum of door slamming, she was dressed and bundled up, and off we went.

When we arrived, we tried to nestle into a spot that was more or less our normal one. But the organizers (for some reason) had decided to reverse the parade route this year, which left us at the tail end of the parade rather than the nose end. And that wouldn’t be a big deal except that our little guy definitely thinks the acquisition of as much candy as possible is the primary objective, and by the time the floats started floating by us, most of them seemed to have exhausted their resources.

There were also inexplicably large gaps in the flow of the parade, and those gaps gave all the nearby kids–mine included–enough time to decide, over and over again, that 43 degrees is miserably cold. (Not so.) Eventually, about a dozen floats/tractors/trucks/bands into the thing, it came to a stop. My husband wandered back up the parade route to see if anything else was coming–the parade is usually 4 or 5 times that long–but he couldn’t see anything. All around us, people started packing up. About this time, an officially dressed woman riding a little parking-patrol scooter came squealing down the parade route shouting into her walkie-talkie “No units on Washington! No units on Washington! People are leaving!”

We looked at each other and one of us said, “Let’s call it.” Our little guy had, by this time, fallen off the curb multiple times–why?– and spent so much time trying to open cellophane-wrapped candy with his gloves on that it was really driving me crazy. No one seemed particularly invested in the enterprise except him (because he was still waiting on the gobs of sugar to begin falling from the sky), and I prefer to feed my kids candy that hasn’t been, you know, dropped in the crumbly road dust along the curb.

Furthermore, one of the last parade entries that had paraded by consisted of two guys carrying AR-15s and walking in front of a Hummer. No Christmas lights, no Christmas greetings, no smiles, no candy canes, and–most importantly–no explanation. No kidding. I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.

So we bailed on the parade, promising the kids peppermint milkshakes and a drive around town to look at Christmas lights. We took our time winding toward the DQ, and when we pulled up to order our milkshakes, we realized neither of us had a wallet. So there went the back-up plan. All three kids dissolved into misery and disappointment and pleas.

We assured them we had peppermint ice cream at home. They whined.

We promised to make the peppermint ice cream into milkshakes. They moaned.

We said, fine, don’t eat anything then. They wailed.

Then I said I knew just the thing: I would make them special homemade magic shell. They sniffled, tacitly consulted one another, and conceded. Of course, they didn’t really have a choice. The adults were definitely done.

Of course, when we got home, I couldn’t find the recipe. I had torn it out of a Food Network Magazine last summer and stashed it…somewhere. (Our organizational skills are legendary.) I couldn’t locate it on their website either. I tried to reinvent it and did a fairly good job. The kids were amazed at their mother’s ability to just dump some things into a small pan without measuring and have it turn out alright. (I take my props where I can get ’em.)

It’s not, strictly speaking, “Magic Shell,” of course. I’m pretty sure Magic Shell is liquid in the squirt bottle in the fridge and then turns crackly hard when you squeeze it over ice cream. This stuff is solid in the fridge, liquid when you heat it, and firm when you pour it over ice cream. It does taste better than Magic Shell, though–probably because all of its ingredients are real food and it contains no…wax? Or whatever it is that gives Magic Shell its magical properties. In any case, it saved the day for us on Saturday, and the fact that I wizarded it up on the fly without so much as a recipe or measuring cup was magic enough–especially after the streak of minor fails that had led us to that point.

Next time, I’m going to start with a recipe, though. (I did eventually locate the original one using my library’s online magazine archives. I tell ya: Now and then all those hours perfecting my academic research skills really come in handy):

Homemade Magic Shell-ish Ice Cream Topping

6 T butter
6 T bittersweet chocolate chips (or semisweet ones)
1 1/2 T corn syrup

(optional add-ins: a splash of good vanilla and a pinch of salt)

In a pan with a heavy bottom over low heat (or a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave) melt the ingredients together. Stir them up really well. And pour them over the ice cream. Ooh and ahh and eat.



Individual Pumpkin Cheesecakes

pumpkin cheesecakes 1

Yesterday, after dropping the big kids at school, my youngest child and I were walking home beneath a churning gray sky through sidewalks and lawns thick with leaves. Over and over again, he pulled lovely little leaf bodies from beneath our feet and said, “Can I save dis one to take to school on Monday?”


Me: If you want to take a school to leaf on Monday, you should choose it on Monday morning because the one you’re holding will have shriveled up and turned to dust by then.

Him: What about dis one?

Me: That one, too.

Him: What about dis one?

Me: That one, too.

And then, fat red lip thrust forward, he said: But that makes me sad!

So, being the wise, worldly woman I am, I began a rambling discourse about how we need the leaves to disintegrate quickly because otherwise we’d be overwhelmed by them and furthermore, their deteriorating selves feed the earth with the lifestuff it needs to regenerate in the spring and, well, you can imagine the rest. He may or may not have had any clue what I was talking about, but I went on, just to be sure I had sagely laid to rest the annual crisis of autumn.

Later, I reported to my husband that we’d had a Gerald-Manley-Hopkins moment. (Quite possibly, I am the first person ever to compose that exact sentence.) Do you know the poem “Spring and Fall“? It’s sweetly sad in that 19th-century way, a meditation on the seasons and on death and on grief. I once doubted that its subtitle “To a Young Child” was realistic: After all, what young child mourns the loss of the leaves in the fall? Our young child, of course.

I ought to have known that we would produce a child inclined to such contemplation and melancholy. We are autumn people. Married eleven years (as of yesterday), we have wallowed in the falls of every one. That is one reason we love pumpkin so much: Cinnamon and clove proffer nostalgia, coating the tongue with the tenderest kind of sadness, the kind that looks always backward and forward all at once.

Before I drift any further into a self-indulgent exploration of time’s passage, I’ll cut to the chase. I have another pumpkin recipe to share here. My last post was a twofer, the heart of it dedicated to Powerfully Pumpkin Bread and a post-it note addendum for Pumpkin Creme Brulee at the bottom. This one will (eventually) be about individual pumpkin cheesecakes, ideal for feeding your own hunky husband, if you happen to have an autumnal anniversary… or a little bit of canned pumpkin left over from your batch of pumpkin bread…or just a craving for something yummy on a Saturday night. But, before I show you how to do that, let me show you all the pumpkin shenanigans from our house this morning. If these photos don’t demonstrate why the passage of each autumn is something worth grieving, then I don’t know what would. (Yes, we somehow managed not to carve our pumpkins until the day of Halloween!)

I heard a rumor that not everyone carves pumpkins shirtless, but my crew all goes into the guts up to their elbows. Plus, there’s a certain amount of shrapnel that’s inevitable in the carving process. Thus, they shed their shirts:


He’s saying, “Are you seriously using a drywall saw on the pumpkin?”

But it turned out alright. Here they all are, trying to look like the jack-o-lanterns they designed:

G's pumpkinOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd, pumpkins successfully carved and lit up, here they are preparing to trick-or-treat. (In fact, as I write this, they are still prowling the neighborhood!) They are dressed as the characters from How To Train Your Dragon.


Left to right: Astrid, Stoick the Vast, and Hiccup

The fact that by next year they will be not quite the same selves–that’s the stuff of Gerald Manley Hopkins right there.

Now, the recipe. If it sounds familiar, that means you’ve been paying attention. It’s just the latest iteration of my date-night individual cheesecakes. This one is like a crustless, creamier pumpkin pie. You could certainly give it a crust (the one from this post–my original individual cheesecakes–would work great), but I didn’t want the fuss this week.

Individual Pumpkin Cheesecakes


4 ounces of room temperature cream cheese

3 1/2  tablespoons white sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons canned pumpkin

1/2 teaspoon good-quality pumpkin pie spice

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Beat the holy heck out of your cream cheese and sugar, in a stand mixer if you have one handy. I just let mine rip for a while and scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically. Ideally, your sugar will almost dissolve in the cream cheese and the combo will form a fluffy, smooth paste.
  3. Add the egg and egg yolk. And let it rip again.


4. When the eggs are all perfectly incorporated, add the pumpkin, sour cream (use the super-thick stuff), and the pumpkin pie spice.


Beat it again until it’s totally smooth.

5. Put a kettle of water on to boil. Then pour your batter into two ramekins. (Because I’m not using a crust for this cheesecake, all of my batter will fit into two 7-oz. ramekins.)


6. When your water boils, pour a couple of inches of it into the bottom of a loaf pan and then, gently, ease your ramekins down into the water.


7. Carefully transfer your pan to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Then turn off the oven and leave the pan in the hot-but-cooling oven for another 30 minutes or so. When you remove the pan, the cheesecakes should still have some jiggle in them.

8. Cool on the countertop and then cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or even a couple of days (as though you can stand it that long).

We ate ours last night, which means they are now, sadly, just as vanished as all of the autumns that preceded this one and as all of Friday morning’s lost leaves, now crumbled beneath trick-or-treating feet. And all of those little losses are worth a little bit of grief.

pumpkin cheesecake


Creme Brulee 0.0


A few weeks ago, my bathroom scale broke. I tried changing the batteries, but that didn’t help. Frustrated but not surprised, I resigned myself to buying a new one. The scale was almost exactly as old as my youngest child–who still lacks most of his consonant sounds, for Pete’s sake–so there was no reason it ought to give up the ghost just yet…no reason except the fact that it is, generally speaking, a piece of electronic equipment. Given the fact that the capitalist machine hasn’t yet figured out how to render bathroom scales embarrassingly obsolete by introducing a new version every 4-6 months, the only way to insure that we will regularly replace our bathroom scales is by building them not to last. (It’s a conspiracy, man!)

I’d given it up for lost anyway, so I invited my older son, who fancies himself a young engineer, to have a go at it. Up and down the stairs he went, into and out of the garage, procuring different sizes of screwdrivers and clunking around in the lower-floor bathroom until he had thoroughly splayed and dissected the thing, at which point, like a doctor seeking out next of kin, he came into the kitchen and pronounced, “Mommy, it all looks good inside to me. I think it’s just run out of memory, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

I nodded, seriously, sagely, and considered whether to explain to him that bathroom scales are lower life forms and neither contain nor require memory. Then I said, “Well. Thank you for trying.”

Quietly, he unfolded his fingers from his palm and showed me the pair of AA batteries he had removed. “Maybe,” he said, depositing them in my hand, “you can reuse these.” Then he said, “If I were you, I’d get one that doesn’t need batteries and doesn’t have red numbers. Just the kind with a dial.” (He demonstrated the way a dial works with his index finger.) “Those work better because they have less stuff inside.”

He’s his father’s child in some ways, a Luddite by disposition, innately distrustful of electronic guts, even though, unlike his father, he finds them interesting to muck around in.

For his part, my husband said he thought I should just live without a scale, use my favorite pair of holey blue jeans to keep myself in line, stop fretting over the 1 1/2 pounds with which I grapple relentlessly. Let go of the electronic red numbers entirely. Free myself.

Isn’t that a lovely, old-fashioned notion? He’s so cute…and clueless. Let me tell you why:

I’m almost 40. I have three children, soft curves, a lean husband, and a sweet tooth. Nuff said?

Of course, I ordered a new scale–ironically, the new-and-improved version of my dearly departed one (I call it “scale 2.0”)–from Amazon. Problem solved.

Although I may not be able to commit to a life without electronic bathroom scales, I can’t argue with the concept that the best things have “less stuff inside.” This weekend, I was reminded of another great example of this principle at work. Thus I present to you–without photographic evidence because, by the time I remembered how much we love these, we had eaten every last bite–creme brulee 0.0. Unmessed around with. Unimproved. Unassailable. So technologically bereft that it doesn’t even require a blowtorch.

I’ll add some pictures next time I make it. I’m sure it won’t be long. (Update: photos added. Creme brulee eaten. Again.)

This recipe makes enough custard for his-and-hers servings:

hers & his

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons white sugar

1 pinch salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 egg yolks

~4 tablespoons turbinado sugar (or white)


My little purple candle lighter makes a mean brulee…

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees, and set your tea kettle on to boil.
  2. Meanwhile, combine cream, 3 tablespoons white sugar and salt in saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring now and then, until it has begun to steam. Do not boil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  3. In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks and vanilla until smooth. Pour hot cream into yolks, a little at a time, stirring constantly, until all cream is incorporated. Pour mixture into your ramekins.
  4. Place ramekins in a baking dish large enough to accommodate them, and place dish on oven rack. Pour boiling water into dish to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. 
  5. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until custard is barely set. Keep some jiggle in it.
  6. Before you refrigerate it to set the custard completely, go ahead and brulee your tops. Why not, right? You can use a blowtorch if you’re hardcore. I used my grill-lighter (which was a little slow, but not impossibly so). You can also put your oven rack at the highest level and turn your broiler onto high and then broil them. It’s your call. Whichever method you choose, begin by sprinkling liberally with turbinado sugar, enough to cover the entire surface. If you are using a candle lighter, put your flame directly against the sugar until it melts and crackles into a single big crystal. This took me about 5 minutes per dish. If you put it under the broiler, watch it carefully.
  7. Put your bruleed cremes right into the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours so that they chill and set up a little bit more.


I topped ours with macerated fresh raspberries, but they would have been perfect naked, too. Less is more. There is a good reason creme brulee is always served in a single-serving size. There is something about that custard that seems insubstantial…but it’s an illusion. They are so round tasting. So creamy and smooth and simple and clean and just outright decadent.

I’m glad I bought a new scale, if only so I can remember not to eat these every day.

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Easter Worms-and-Dirt

Am I really preparing to share a “recipe” that includes gummy worms, boxed pudding, artificially flavored spice drops, and Easter grass? Yes.

Seriously? Yes.

Have I been body-snatched? No. But…

I made this dessert to take to an Easter celebration that would be attended by people who don’t care much about dessert…plus a few kids, who sometimes care a little bit but never care a great deal and often don’t care at all. Therefore, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on what I made, but I didn’t want to phone it in either (I have a reputation to uphold, after all), and this recipe is what I settled on. It’s a recipe fit for Pinterest (which, yes, is where the original idea came from). Let me be clear: If the Plainclothes version doesn’t wind up on someone’s Pinterest board somewhere, then I’ve made a tragic misstep. Get your virtual thumb tacks ready:


That said, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I couldn’t bear to follow directions and prepare the recipe in its simplest (read: trashiest) form. After all, just because you begin with a list of faux-food ingredients doesn’t mean that you can’t do your best to override them with some wholesome (I’m not sure…do heavy cream and cream cheese count as “wholesome”?) decadence.

I considered omitting the worms, too, but I knew those might be the only part of the dessert that the kids ate (which turned out to be true), so I opted for only a few probing worms in the whole carrot patch. (Two worms per cup in each of 4 cups, one for each kid.)


The other cups each got one carrot planted firmly in their centers.

This is what I did:

Easter Worms-and-Dirt

1 box Cook-and-Serve Chocolate Pudding (You could make homemade, of course, if you’re hard core.)

3 cups of milk (for the pudding)

2 cups heavy cream

8 oz. cream cheese (softened)

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1 cup powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

1 package Oreo cookies

12 clear plastic cups (12 oz.)

12 orange spice drops

a few gummy worms

a few strands of paper Easter grass

1. Prepare the pudding according to package instructions. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface to prevent the formation of “pudding skin” and pop the dish into the refrigerator to cool.

2. Pulverize the Oreos in a food processor. You will probably need to do this in two batches, unless you have an industrial sized food processor.

3. In a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, whisk together the heavy cream and the cream cheese until they begin to stiffen. Then add the vanilla, cocoa powder, and powdered sugar (sifting first, if you’re fussy…I’m not) and beat until well incorporated. (The cream cheese seems to stabilize the whipped cream, so it doesn’t easily turn to butter. That said, don’t walk away from your mixer. No need to tempt fate. Turn it off when it looks like chocolate mousse.)

4. Make your “carrots”: Cut or tear your paper Easter grass into 2- or 3-inch sections. Turn each spice drop upside-down, so that the broader side is up. Then use a toothpick to poke the center of each section of Easter grass down into the middle of the spice drop, far enough for it to be trapped in the sticky interior goo.

5. Build your parfaits: Use a muffin tin to line up and hold your plastic cups in place. To each cup, add a scoop (about 1 tablespoon) of Oreo crumbs, then about 1/3-cup scoop of “mousse” (spread it to the sides of the cup with a small spatula), then another scoop of Oreo crumbs, then a 1/4-cup scoop of pudding (again, spreading it to the sides), then a scoop of Oreo crumbs. Place your carrots in the middle and decorate with gummy worms, if you want.

6. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours. I found they tasted better after 48.(Not that ate these. They are way too trashy for me. And, no, that’s not pudding on my nose.)

Be warned: These taste awfully good. But if you take out the gummy worms, they don’t look too shameful. (Maybe?)


Now what are you going to do with that bag of virtually inedible spice drops (with all the orange ones missing)? You can give them to the oldest living member of your extended family, who, if they are over the age of 70, will almost certainly think they are a real prize. Alternatively, you can seal them in a ziploc bag and save them for decorating gingerbread houses at Christmas. I’m pretty sure there is nothing organic in them, so they aren’t at risk of decay!

Oh, and don’t forget to pin these photos so you can easily find them next Easter. Virtual corkboards everywhere await!

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Mommy’s special chocolate cake

This month has whirred by, a chocolaty blur of birthday cakes and cream-filled hearts, a fevered haze of Fifth Disease and ear infections, a flurried blitz of graded essays and Common Core standards. In other words, the last month of my life has been just exactly like my life as combination stay-at-home-mom and work-at-home-teacher…only more so.

We’ve been eating pretty well, I think, given the fact that most days at least one of our smaller members has spent dinnertime on the couch whining for popsicles, but I haven’t taken many pictures of our dinners-in-progress. Some weeks, I’ve grocery shopped with two puny kids in the basket of the cart and all the groceries crammed in the the seat and balanced on the tray beneath. To be honest, I’m ready to declare that a new month begins now, on February 15th, and maybe the month ahead will bring hot cocoa and snow days, crisp walks to school with the kids dashing ahead, evenings on the couch watching crime TV, and written proof of our daily existence.

Although I didn’t take many photos of our food, I did snap a few shots of my oldest child on his birthday, getting ready to tuck into what he calls “Mommy’s special chocolate cake.”

Gus's birthday

If you look closely, you can see the cake at the bottom of the image, but first you’ll have to stop marveling at the size of those crazed brown eyes and trying to determine what in the world he has on his head. That’s a Viking helmet that is just a smidgen too big for his noggin and a knit cap underneath to make it stay put, and, yes, he is trying to look insane. It’s one of his favorite tricks. See, this is what he looked like just a moment later, when his inner joy got the best of him:

Gus's birthday2

The glossy cake in front of him originally sported 8 candles, but he’s already licked the frosting off of a few of them.

I can’t claim the recipe in any real way, except to say that I took the frosting from one cake recipe and the cake from a different one. So I’ll call it a remix, which means I can assume a modicum of credit.

I’m pretty sure that I gain 5 pounds every time I think about making this cake, but it’s totally worth every ounce. This is the most lickable frosting in the world. It’s like painting your cake with a thick layer of shockingly shiny fudge. The cake beneath it might be plausibly considered beside the point, but why write it off? This one is tender and springy and absurdly easy.

If you decide to make it, you should go ahead and claim it, too!

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Individual Berry Pies


It’s early December. Why in the world am I baking berry pies? Why am I baking pies at all, when I’m not far enough from Thanksgiving to miss the pumpkin pie and close enough to Christmas to smell the snickerdoodles? If I were wise, I know, I’d declare a moratorium on desserts, an inter-holiday sugar fast, during which I could grow wistful and lean, chastely fantasizing about the rounded mouthfeel of eggnog and the creamy cool of peppermint cheesecake, longing for chocolate and for snow in equal measure.

But, frankly, I’m just not that into deprivation.

Plus, my hunky husband loves berries…and pies…and I love him. So, even if I were a fan of deprivation, I’d just have to take one for the team here. When faced with a choice between caloric restriction and romance, well…You see the (hypothetical) dilemma.

In any case, these are little bitty pies. Teeny tiny pies. They disappear in a day or two without leaving you completely glutted in their wake. These are pies–deep-dish pies, for Pete’s sake–that don’t ask for a commitment.

Enough apologia. If you want to bake the pies, I won’t judge you. And if you don’t, well, you’re not my kind of person, but I’m sure someone else out there probably likes you fine. We’ll just agree to go our separate ways.

Pie people, here’s the recipe. It makes four ramekin pies or two ramekins and one small casserole dish (my husband’s man-sized ramekin. Click here if you’d like to know the precise dimensions.):


1 9-inch pie crust for a single-crust pie (You can buy it–the Pillsbury refrigerated crusts are pretty good!–or you can make your own lightning-fast, unfussy crust, like this.):

1/4 cup ice water (with the ice removed)

1 heaping tablespoon sour cream

1 1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick butter, cut into little pieces and then frozen for 10 minutes or so

1. Cut up your butter and pop it into the freezer.

2. Fill a glass with ice water (so it can get super-cold)

3. Combine all the dry ingredients in your food processor fitted with the regular, sharp blade. Whizz it all together.

4. Remove your butter from the freezer and dump it into the food processor. Pulse the butter into the flour just until it is broken up–about 15 pulses.

5. Pour 1/4 cup of your ice water into a glass measuring cup, straining out the ice. Use a fork to mix in the heaping tablespoon of sour cream.

6. Pour almost all of the liquid into your food processor, pulsing gently until incorporated. Keep adding the liquid and pulsing until the dough is willing to hold together. (You may have to check it with your fingers to see whether it’s wet enough to cohere.)

7. When it’s ready, dump it out onto a floured surface and use your hands quickly to push it together into a ball. Don’t touch it any more than you need to because your hands will warm the dough. Cold pie dough behaves best. Then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a big enough stretch to accommodate your ramekins. Use a knife to cut around the outsides, leaving a generous space around them so that the dough will fit up the sides of your pans. (If you cut them too small, you can always roll the dough out a bit thinner to stretch it.) Then fit the dough into each of your pans.



3 cups of berries (fresh or frozen and then thawed)

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or allspice (to give it a warm, slightly “seasonal” flavor)

1 tablespoon or so butter

1. Drain any extra liquid from your thawed berries. Then combine all ingredients, except the butter, in a medium bowl.

2. Distribute the filling between your pans, now lined with pie dough. Dab the butter on top.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

3. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until they look ready–probably around 25 or 30 minutes. The filling shouldn’t be runny when you take them out.


(Just to be a show-off, I cut heart shapes out of my extra pie dough and baked them on a cookie sheet to decorate the pies for my sweetie. That flourish is optional.)

Serve it with a big scoop of ice cream or a small one.

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Pink-and-Purple Cupcakes

My daughter is not a princess…except on Halloween, when she seems always to demand a princess costume of one stripe or another. And, okay, yes, she plays with Barbie dolls. And, it’s true her walls are pink (a pale, tasteful, powder-pink, and that doesn’t count, right?) And, if pressed, I’d have to admit that her favorite movies all involve princesses. But, I guess what I mean to say is this: we don’t “princessify” her. She doesn’t wear shirts proclaiming her princess status. I keep her hair cut to chin-length because she hates to have it fixed…or even combed, to be honest. She can rip off five chin-ups without breaking a sweat.  And at least one time out of five, she beats her big brother at arm-wrestling.

The child is a force, half-twist-tie, half-jumping-bean. All sinew and brown eyes.


My Indian princess; Halloween 2014

So why she insists upon requesting berry flavored cakes for her birthday, I just don’t know. I mean, I do know: it’s because they’re pink. And pink is too powerful a force for even her to resist. If it were a physical thing, something she could out-arm-wrestle or lift and toss, she’d have beaten it by now. But pink…pink is sneaky.

A couple of years ago, in response to her request, I made a very mediocre strawberry cake which included, against my better judgment, strawberry Jell-O. (My older son recently declared that he hates Jell-O because “it’s like liquid you have to chew!” The other two kids didn’t know what it was–a fact about which I silently but heartily congratulated myself.)

This year, I decided to take it up a notch in girliness and down a notch in artificiality. These pink-and-purple beauties involve real berries, no Jell-O, and no food coloring. They’re pretty enough for kids and tasty enough for grown-ups.

The recipe I have here makes cupcakes that are muffin-y in their texture and appearance. If you want them less muffin-y and more cupcakey, blend your berries and then strain them before adding them to your batter.


Pink-and-Purple Cupcakes

(makes 1 dozen, with a little bit of frosting to spare)

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2/3 cup sour cream

1/3 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups blueberries

1. Place your blueberries in a bowl and mash them up. (If you want cupcakes that are un-muffiny, see my note, just before the recipe. I wanted to see the berries in these.)


2. Use your electric mixer to cream–and I do mean cream–the melted butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.

3. In a separate, smaller bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add them to the batter and mix just until combined. The batter will be quite stiff at this point.

4.  In a small glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk together the sour cream and the milk. Then add it, all at once, to the batter, mixing until just incorporated.

5. Now, stir in your berries. Mix the batter until it turns a gorgeous shade of pale purple.


6. Scoop into your muffin cups and bake at 350 degrees until they are lightly golden on top and until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean (except for bubbly berry goo).

Now that your purple cupcakes are baking, whip up some pink cream cheese frosting!

Pink Cream Cheese Frosting

8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 stick butter, room temperature

1/3 cup sour cream

1 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons or so mixed berry (or strawberry or raspberry) jam

1. Mix your cream cheese, butter, and sour cream until it’s smooth. I always use a stand mixer cranked up to turbo speed and a the whisk attachment to accomplish this.

2. Add your sugar, slowly increasing the speed on your mixer, so you avoid powdered-sugaring your entire kitchen. Mix until very fluffy and smooth.

3. Add your jam and mix again.


Isn’t this a pretty pink? And look: no food coloring was required!

Top your cooled cupcakes with the pink frosting. I added an M&M to make them look like little flowers…sort of. Decorating is not my strong suit, but when they taste this good, who cares?


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Zucchini Cake


I did not plan on blogging this recipe.  

For one thing, I’d never made it before.  And, anyway, I would hate to give the impression that we are sitting around eating dessert all day.  (I swear, nutrition police, we’re eating our vegetables…usually, without mixing them into a cake!)  But plans change.  And this cake, heaven help us, is the tastiest thing I made all week.  And not because it didn’t have some stiff competition. 

I wasn’t planning to blog about this recipe, so I didn’t take any process photos.  You’ll have to use your imagination.  You won’t mind, though.  You’ve seen cake batter in a mixer bowl before, right?  And you’ve seen the kind of zucchini that inspired me to bake this cake: the kind that sneakily, while your back is turned, transform themselves from pinky-sized baby zucchinis into fruits the size of a toddler’s baseball bat.  The kind whose guts have turned unappealingly spongy, like eggplants, so that you can’t really treat them like vegetables anymore.  Frankly, they leave you no choice: they require that you bake them into some kind of tasty treat…or that you trash them.

I wrenched two mammoths from my zucchini plants on Friday afternoon.  If it hadn’t been Friday, I might have chucked them straight into the compost bin.  If it hadn’t been late August, when my zucchini plants are, one by one, succumbing to annihilation by squash borers, I almost certainly would have considered them waste.  But, happily, it was a Friday afternoon in the waning days of August, and I knew that soon, I’d have a houseful of happy, hungry kids (and one happy, hungry husband) and that before too long, I’d be nostalgic for the kind of summertime excess embodied by those giants.  So, I decided a zucchini cake was called for.

I’d never made a zucchini cake, but I have a great carrot cake recipe (a Cook’s Illustrated recipe), and what’s the difference between shredded carrots and shredded zucchini…except that zucchini are waterier, and I was pretty sure I could solve that problem?  I had almost everything else I needed, except that I was a little short on cream cheese, a fact which turned out to be the mother of invention (or at least of fortuitous adaptation).  

It’s so good.  If I accidentally allow a few more zucchini to grow into unwieldy monsters this summer, then it’s possible I’ll have to make another before the growing season is over.  And, honestly, it’s so hot right now that I can hardly be bothered to go outdoors to check on the garden, so matters are out of my hands.

If your late-summer zucchini outgrow their more healthful applications while you aren’t looking, please: Bake this cake!  


Do you see that layer of frosting?

Zucchini Cake with Extra-Sour Cream Cheese Frosting

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated‘s Simple Carrot Cake)

4 cups coarsely shredded zucchini (about 2 BIG guys)

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9 X 13 cake pan. 

2. In a large bowl, mix together the sugars and the eggs until they look well emulsified.  With the mixer running at medium speed, stream in the oil.  Continue mixing until fluffy and light in color.

3. Place half of your shredded zucchini into a clean tea towel.  Over the sink, twist the towel to wring as much water as possible from your zucchini.  Don’t be gentle!  Use some muscle.  Dump the dried shreds into the batter, and repeat the wringing out process with the second half of the shreds.  Very briefly mix the shreds into the batter.  (They will be incorporated more fully with the dry ingredients.)

4. In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add them all at once to the wet ingredients.  Mix just until incorporated.  Don’t over-do it.  Mix only until combined.

5. Pour your batter into the prepared pan and bake just until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35-40 minutes.

Extra-Sour Cream Cheese Frosting

8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature

6 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1/4 cup thick sour cream (not reduced fat–get the good stuff!)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cup powdered sugar

Mix together everything except the sugar with an electric mixer.  Get it fluffy and super-smooth.  Then mix in your powdered sugar.  

Smooth over the surface of the cooled cake.  (You should have plenty for a nice, thick layer.)  Refrigerate your cake. 


This is what was left on Sunday evening. And, no, we didn’t let that little jigsawed corner stick around. We tidied up the shape before putting it back in the fridge.



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Individual Key Lime Cheesecakes

A few weeks ago, when it was still summer proper, while strolling around the neighborhood, we ran into a woman who works as a substitute teacher in the school system.  I asked her if she’d had a good summer, and she said something like, “Yes, but I’m looking forward to school starting back because I really love my job, you know, and I just miss being with the kids.”  Then she looked at my husband and said, “I’m sure you know what I mean.”

I studied him as he silently debated whether to give the right answer or the real answer.  I don’t remember what he ultimately said.  Something charmingly equivocal, I suspect.

I don’t want to divest you of your illusions if you still believe that teachers, unlike almost all other professionals, don’t see their work as “work,” that they would rather be in front of their classrooms than be anywhere else on earth, that they teach solely for the love of the kids.   But, well, that’s all nonsense.

He loves his work, but he loves his summers more.  As he says, “Since I have to do something, I’m glad I’m a teacher.” You can go ahead and fill in the unspoken corollary to that statement, if you want to.

Of course, I love being married to a teacher.  I love the fact that he’s almost always home by 4 p.m.  I love the fact that his “work clothes” are a pair of Levis, a button-down shirt, and a tie.  I love the fact that I frequently run into people who say to me, “Are you married to Mr. Gaylord?  He is so _____” (awesome, funny, cute, smart):  It’s a little like the grown-up version of being married to the quarterback.  And I love the fact that when the kids are on breaks, he is, too.

Given all the perks for me, I have a responsibility to manufacture some type of fringe benefit for him. To that end, during the regular schoolyear, I try to serve up Friday dessert treats. This one is a shared favorite, which I prepared at the end of the first full week of school–for the grown-ups only, of course.  Let the kids eat popsicles or something…these would be wasted on them!

(I prefer to make this in ramekins as individual servings, so that I don’t consume absurd quantities in slivers and smidges over the next several days, but to make a full-sized pie, just double the recipe.  And invite over some friends. )

Individual Key Lime Cheesecakes


3/4 sleeve saltine crackers

1/2 stick butter, softened

1 tablespoons sugar

1/2 can sweetened condensed milk

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 egg yolks

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

Whipped cream



  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Crush the crackers using your hands or a pastry cutter. Don’t powderize them.  Aim for “crumbles.”  Then, using your hands, incorporate the softened butter and the sugar.  The resulting mixture should hold together when pinched, much like a regular pie dough.
  3. Press the mixture into ramekins and bake for about 10 minutes, until golden but not browned.  (I use two regular sized ramekins and one smallish casserole dish, which serves as my husband’s man-sized portion.  Four regular sized ramekins will also work.)


       4. Using a stand mixer or a hand mixer, whip together the condensed milk, softened cream cheese, and egg yolks. Beat it until it’s completely smooth. Then add the lime juice and mix until well blended.  As this mixture sits for a few minutes, waiting for the crust to be ready, it will stiffen into a beautiful, thick custard.  Then spoon it into your ramekins (the crust doesn’t need to be completely cooled) and smooth it out.


5. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, preferably in a water bath, just until the filling is barely set.  (To bake individual ramekins in a water bath is a snap.  Just put them inside a larger pan–like maybe a couple of loaf pans or a couple of 8-inch baking dishes–and carefully fill the larger pans with not-quite-boiling water, just to submerge the ramekins about halfway.) The cheesecakes should have some jiggle when you remove them from the oven.  Cool at room temperature and then refrigerate until serving time.



Top it with whipped cream if you have some.  (I didn’t remember to get any this time, and we missed it!)

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Individual Chocolate Cheesecakes

chocolate cheesecake 004

If my individual cheesecakes post from Valentine’s Day moved you to action, then this post is designed to keep you cheesecaking.  Once you’ve gone through the trouble to acquire and, more importantly, store his-and-hers ramekins, you will certainly want to take every available opportunity to use them, won’t you?  Even if it means producing a few more little cheesecakes than are probably necessary, strictly speaking, you will need to reassure yourself that they now play an indispensable role in your culinary life.

But you would hate to be suspected of having fallen into a rut (even if it is a tartly, creamily, fluffily perfect rut), so you’ll want to try something a little different.  Remember a few years ago, when Coldstone Creamery captured all of our imaginations (and our discretionary calories) with its endless combinations of mix-ins?  I think the individual cheesecake recipe can occupy that happily mutable role, in a more grown-up way, and without costing us a few thousand dollars per ounce.

If you could use a little ramekinny romance this weekend, try this. (It is just my original recipe with a little bittersweet chocolate and coffee and/or coffee liqueur mixed in.):

Individual Cheesecakes (makes 2 or 3, depending on the size of your ramekins)

6 graham cracker squares

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted

1/2 tablespoon sugar (turbinado or regular old white)

a pinch kosher salt

4 ounces of cream cheese

4  tablespoons white sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

3 ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate,chopped

1/4 cup of strong brewed coffee (replace up to 1 tablespoon with coffee-flavored liqueur, if you have some lying around)

1 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries

whipped cream

Follow the original recipe except…

Melt the chocolate in the coffee (and coffee liqueur, if using).  You can use the microwave or a heavy saucepan on your stovetop over low heat. Add it to your well-beaten mixture at the end of step 4.