Pay to Play

As happy and proud as I would be if Lilli were one day president, or perhaps another rocking female senator from Massachusetts, I’m a little concerned about how well she responds to bribes. Then again, I don’t know of any other way to get a two and a half year old to do anything without the promise of a sticker, or perhaps a special treat.


“If you let me brush your hair, I’ll give you a sticker.”

“If you get into bed I’ll give you a sticker. You have to stay in the bed to keep the sticker, though.”

“If you let me rest next to you while you quietly watch Mr. Maker, you’ll get a surprise!”

The surprise turned out to be baking chocolate cupcakes, something Lilli asked to do several times last week. And because she sat and quietly watched Mr. Maker until 7AM, we tied on our aprons and got to work.

Finding a good chocolate cupcake recipe proved much more challenging than I would have expected. For instance, Joanne Chang’s version from her first cookbook,flour, was inspired by a dump cake, where you dump all the ingredients into a bowl. I know, sounds easy, but then you have to let it sit at room temperature for at least an hour, or store it in the refrigerator for up to three days. I can’t do anything with a two and a half year old for an hour, so that one was out of the question. Oh yeah, and Chang’s magic frosting calls for three sticks of butter.

ferris wheel

I found the perfect chocolate cupcake recipe in Greg Patent’s Baking in America: Traditional and Contemporary Favorites from the Past 200 Years. I have to admit this isn’t my book. A former co-worker brought in the book to show me a recipe for an Election Cake, a yeast bread flavored with nutmeg, mace, brandy and Madeira, with a pound of dried fruit kneaded into it. Election cakes date back to the 1600s and were served at musters, election-day picnics and other festivities.

I think my co-worker must have brought it in for the 2012 elections, or one of the innumerable special elections we have had here recently. If I was your colleague, I’d warn you against lending me any cookbooks. Then again, I might bring you in cupcakes on Monday morning.

Sleeping Bea

The recipe is for “Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting” and it’s a terrific cupcake. The headnotes say it makes 12 cupcakes, but I made 24 mini ones. I kept out six of them, and put the rest in the freezer. They’ll go into Lilli’s lunch bag, and probably be served to her as an afternoon snack.

I actually didn’t use the frosting recipe in the book, but used my go-to: Deb’s frosting recipe, which is made in the food processor.  Patent says to bake these cupcakes for 22 to 25 minutes, but they took 15 minutes on the dot as mini ones.

This weekend Lilli had her first carousel ride, rode a ferris wheel, went to a sand castle competition, and flew a kite. But when I asked her what was her favorite part of the weekend, her response was, “chocolate cupcakes.”

Chocolate Cupcakes


1 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ Dutch-process cocoa

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs

½ cup milk


Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners, or a 24 mini muffin pan with liners; set aside.

Resift the flour with the baking soda, salt and cocoa; set aside. (Please note: I “sifted” all dry ingredients together at one time by whisking them in a bowl.)

In a medium bowl, beat the butter on medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat on medium-high speed for 3 to 4 minutes, until smooth and fluffy; stop to scrape the bowl as necessary. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating for about 1 minute after each.

With a rubber spatula, stir in about one third of the flour mixture, just until incorporated. Gently stir in half the milk. Stir in half the remaining flour mixture, then the rest of the milk, and finally the last of the flour, stirring after each addition just to combine well. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups; each cup will be about half full. Don’t bother to smooth the batter; it will level itself during baking.

Bake for 22 to 25 minutes (or 15 if you’re doing mini), until the cupcakes spring back when their centers are gently pressed; do not overbake. Cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then remove from the pan and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.


Fish Sauce Junkie

My shoulder has really kept me from the kitchen, but last week I went to Russo’s for the first time in months. There were plums and peaches and pluots, although the apricots were still a touch more than I wanted to spend. And the radishes were a vivid pink, so much so that I couldn’t leave them behind. I started plotting a salad using plums and radishes. Rich was skeptical, but I pushed forward, throwing in cucumber and tomatoes, and a touch of butter lettuce.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

I bought plums, but Lilli got a cupcake.

But what really made this salad was the dressing, the recipe for which has been sitting in my drafts folder for well over a year. I think it’s from Gwyneth Paltrow. I borrowed her cookbooks from the library last year and was happy I did. Think what you will about GOOP, but her dressings are great.

It’s called Vietnamese Salad Dressing, and I think it’s wonderful. Rich does not. I’m an admitted fish sauce junkie, and I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you like Vietnamese food, you’ll probably love this dressing, too.


My friend Caitlyn, who lived in Thailand, advises that Squid is the brand of fish sauce you want to use. I don’t own spicy sesame oil, just regular, so I used that, instead. I keep mine stored in the fridge, by the way. Agave nectar isn’t as healthy as once thought to be, so I use honey; I think palm sugar would actually be perfect for this recipe if you have it on hand.

Vietnamese Salad Dressing

¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sesame oil
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 tablespoons finely diced red onion or shallot

Combine all ingredients in a jar. Screw on lid, give it a good shake, and go for it.

The Halvah “Problem”

I’ve made no secret of my love of halvah, and how Lilli, who seems to be vying to at least place at the picky toddler championship, loves to munch on it, too. This is a known fact in my family, and so when everyone assembled for Beatrix’s baby naming, I found myself with a curious problem: a surplus of halvah.

bea in maine

She arrived, and so did a whole a mess of halvah

First, my dad brought two huge chunks of it, which he purchased at the shuk in Jerusalem. (He also brings those candied pecans, possibly my most favorite thing in the entire world. The only place I’ve located them stateside that actually taste like the Israeli version is at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. A store that sells smoked fish and those pecans is my heaven on earth.)

Then my mom came to town with a bagful of food for our first week home from the hospital: salmon, pesto, asparagus, and an enormous brisket. And she brought halvah as a special treat for Lilli and me. Finally, I rescued some from Sara’s kitchen, as no one in her house enjoyed it. (Sylvie’s comment: “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand that sentence.”)


Lilli practicing “gentle”

As delighted as I am that my parents clearly read my blog and have both gotten the memo about halvah, I have about three pounds of it in my kitchen right now. A fridge full of vegetables actually provided the answer for what to do about my halvah dilemma. I was on the hunt for something new to do with broccoli and was flipping through Ottolenghi’s latest, Plenty More, the sequel to his extraordinary vegetable bible, Plenty. And there they were: a recipe for halvah and walnut cake, followed by a recipe for halvah ice cream. (For those wondering what I did with the broccoli, I made Heidi Swanson’s broccoli gribeche salad from Super Natural Every Day.)

So Lilli and I grabbed our aprons — or kitchen smocks, as she calls them — and got to work on the ice cream. The cake will have to wait because it’s too darn hot to turn the oven to 400F. The result was excellent if you’re into halvah and ice cream — so, pretty much everyone.


Lilli in her “kitchen smock”

This is a traditional custard-based ice cream, with heated eggs, making it safe for pregnant women. You drizzle in tahini, then add halvah at the very end of the churn. I’m including the directions for those without an ice cream maker, but honestly, do what we did five years ago, and buy one off of Craig’s List for $25. This reminds me that I was sent a no-churn ice cream cookbook which I need to take for a spin. Will report back soon.

Three small things: I couldn’t find my jar of vanilla beans, purchased for cheap in the gourmet food section at Home Goods, so I used a teaspoon of extract, as a classmate/baker once taught me to do. Two: I also didn’t have  superfine sugar, so I made some by whirling regular white sugar in the food processor. Three: place the container you’re going to freeze the ice cream in before you get going, because Ottolenghi only mentions this as you finish up the churning.

The full recipe is actually for halvah ice cream with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts. Ottolenghi likens it to a “luxurious Snickers ice cream: sweet, nutty, and comforting. The chocolate can mask the halvah flavor a little, so better not drench it with sauce; just drizzle lightly.” Since the point here is halvah, we skipped the chocolate sauce – for now.

me as a little girl

I think Lilli is the spitting image of me as a little girl in this picture, and not because she’s chowing down on halvah ice cream

Halvah Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce and Roasted Peanuts from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi


1 cup heavy cream

1 1/2 cups/350 ml whole milk

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped – alternatively, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 egg yolks

Scant 3 1/2 tsp/40g superfine sugar

2 tbsp/30 g tahini paste

3 1/2 oz/100 g halvah, cut into 1/4-inch/5-mm dice

Scant 1/2 cup/60 g salted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped (store bought are best)

1tsp black sesame seeds (or white, if available)

Chocolate sauce

2/3 cup/150 ml heavy cream

Scant 3 oz/80 g dark chocolate (70 percent cacao), finely chopped

1/2 tsp brandy


Heat the cream, milk, and vanilla bean and seeds (or teaspoon vanilla) in a saucepan over medium heat until the mixture just comes to a boil. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until combined. Use a ladle to spoon a little of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking the whole time. Continue with more cream mixture until it is all incorporated. Return to the saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon continuously for 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens to a light custard consistency. Remove from the heat and whisk in the tahini. Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then remove the vanilla bean pods if using.

Pour the custard into an ice cream machine and churn for about 35 minutes, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions (for my machine it’s about 20 minutes) until semifrozen but creamy.

Alternatively, transfer it to a freeze-proof container and place in the freezer for 4 to 5 hours, removing it every 30 to 45 minutes and beating it vigorously with a spatula or whisk to break up the frozen areas. Stir in the halvah halfway through freezing.

Remove from the machine and stir in the halvah pieces. Place in a prefrozen container and freeze. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving to let it soften.

Make the chocolate sauce just before serving. Place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. Immediately pour this over the chocolate and stir until soft and uniform. Stir in the brandy. Divide the ice cream among bowls and drizzle some warm sauce over the top. Sprinkle with peanuts and sesame seeds and serve immediately.