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Almond Joy Pie (for your Valentines)

For almost as long as the internet has existed, my father has sent a daily message to his mom, my sisters, my brother, and I. Each message begins simply, Good Morning Mom, Girls, and Guy. The messages share the details of his day to day events; a note about the weather, stories of his daily LIRR commute, or tales of the ‘Russian babe’ at the barbershop. What is unique is the way my dad weaves these everyday happenings into special stories which are simultaneously comical and meaningful.

Take this recent excerpt about clothes shopping and color-blindness:

When I opened the package that arrived last night, I discovered I’d ordered Sea Lavender. I will I admit that I didn’t actually know what color lavender is, but I thought it was blue. In truth, it’s the color of the sky on the horizon just before sunrise, actually more pink than blue. I wish I’d known this sooner, because not only would I probably not have ordered the shirt, I wouldn’t have described the sky in earlier blogs as ‘salmon’. I was never comfortable using a fish to describe such a beautiful sight.

At any rate, I hate sending stuff back and I’m wearing my new lavender shirt as I write. I’m thinking about getting a pinkie ring and maybe some kind of piercing.

And sometimes, his messages take us by surprise, filling us with uncertainty about our father’s mental state. Like when he wrote this message about his fellow LIRR passengers:

There were medieval people on the train with me on the way in this morning. Peasants, actually. There was a large, florid faced innkeeper with thinning blond hair sleeping with his chin on his chest and a small, bald palleted monk with a fish face snoring in a single-seated nook reserved for handicapped people. He would jostle back and forth between the walls as the train moved, but he never woke up. His snoring made him sound like he was choking.

Followed the next day by this message:

I took some heat yesterday for my revelation about seeing medieval characters in people’s faces. I guess this might as well be a good time to reveal that I also see animals is some faces. You know, weasels, squirrels, rabbits, horses, sheep, wolves and sometimes, fish. Might as well get it all on the table so we don’t have to deal with it again, right?

PS – I think I saw one of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men on the platform at Hicksville on the way by.

Clearly my father had been rereading Pillars of the Earth, again.

Weather is another common theme in my dad’s messages. Weather, in general, is one of my dad’s most favorite topics. He watches the weather channel like some people follow sports. And occasionally, we’ll get a story about the weather in his daily message, often involving Murphy’s law and umbrellas. Or something like this note on a chilly day:

Hoarfrost! Huh!?! Yep, you heard it right. I know it’s not a word you hear in polite company anymore, but I gotta’ call it the way I see it. There was no sunrise on the platform this morning. Instead, I was surrounded by fog and hoarfrost. If you look it up, you’ll find that ‘hoarfrost’ is defined as “white ice crystals, loosely deposited on the ground or exposed objects, that form on cold clear nights when radiation losses into the open skies cause objects to become colder than the surrounding air”. Hoarfrost.

So, why is it that, as I stood in the icy fog waiting for train, I hesitated blurting out, “Hey, look at that there hoarfrost!”? Of course, I knew the answer. It was because, Mary, the little, 4’10” , short-haired woman, who waits for the train with me every morning, would have grabbed me by the ear lobe, dragged me down to the ticket office, and demanded that I have my mouth washed out with soap. I guess ‘hoarfrost‘ is just another victim of guilt by association.

And then there are the stories involving food. Like me, my dad likes to write about food; his lunch at the deli, stories of grilling in the snow, or tales of the adventures involved in clearing out the basement chest freezer. I’d like to believe that I acquired my interest in writing from my dad, right along with my shiny brown hair, bad eyesight, and love for corned beef hash…

Anyway, early yesterday morning, as I was setting myself up to actually accomplish something during the day, I caught a movement from the corner of my eye. I turned to see a very large lady eating a fried egg sandwich on a roll. She had a large Styrofoam resting on the ledge outside my window and she stood facing me as she chomped on her sandwich. Nose to nose, we couldn’t have been much more than three feet apart, but it was apparent that, while she was uncomfortably visible to me, I was not visible to her. I wanted to tell her, “These are not the droids you’re looking for”.

We shared breakfast together, every little bite, for about five minutes before she left. If I had been hungry before her visit, I was not when she left. Mercifully, I was spared any of the eating sounds although I could hear them clearly in my mind. (sigh)

And sometimes my dad’s messages are so filled with love and so poignant, that I find myself simultaneously laughing and crying. Like when he shared this simple memory from my childhood, from a time not long after we’d lost our mother to breast cancer:

Daaaadeeeee, I want a drink of waaaaater.

I can still hear the mellifluous call in syncopated unison from the upstairs bedroom of the small Cape Cod in Valley Stream. I would dutifully trudge up the single flight of stairs and deliver water to the three little girls who were my life. I’d get my hugs and ‘butterfly kisses’ and leave them to sleep peacefully.

I’ve come to understand that the call for water was really a call for security. They needed the peace in knowing I was there for them.

I always felt sorry for the times I let myself become annoyed at this evening ritual, but I feel sorrier still that those days are gone.

Now, my beautiful little girls are all beautiful brides and will someday gladly carry water to their own children.

I hope they sing the way you did.

My dad makes me smile everyday. And sometimes we cry too. But these daily messages keep us all connected, no matter how far separated we are. Eventually, the email list for these messages became longer, as my aunts, uncles, and cousins joined in. Soon family friends were on board too. Once the back and forth responses starting overflowing in each of our e-mail inboxes, it was decided that the daily message should be moved to a message board, which is where it sits today. And every Monday through Friday, we all log on to connect with each other. What a beautiful thing!

And here’s the best part…when I sent my Dad a message to see if he’d be ok with me sharing a few bits of his writing with all of you, his response was, They’re to you; they’re yours!  – Love ya!  ~Daddo 

My dad’s the best!

Valentine’s Day is typically a holiday celebrated between significant others, but it is impossible for me to think of Valentine’s Day without thinking about my dad, the man who has been my Valentine for all of my 35 years. My father taught my siblings and I about love and family, in the way he loves us and in the way he continues to hold an unending love for those we lost too soon.

And so, on Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate my love for my five special valentines; my husband, my three little men, and my dad. For my husband, I’ll be making lobster pot pie in a puff pastry shell and filet mignon with caramelized onions and gorgonzola. For my boys, heart-shaped nutella-stuffed french toast with raspberry syrup and berry red smoothies. And in honor of my dad, this Almond Joy Pie. Daddo, I’d send you a slice, if I could. You think one of those padded envelopes might work?? Maybe I should wait until the next time we visit…

It’s always fun to celebrate your sweeties with something sweet and I’m certain this pie would fill your loved ones with coconutty joy! It starts with a homemade chocolate cookie crust, which is then coated in a creamy milk chocolate ganache and sprinkled with a layer of sliced almonds. An irresistible coconut custard fills the pie. Skip the box of candy and make this instead…it’ll save all that time and wasted chocolates trying to find the coconut filled ones.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!  

Almond Joy Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 chocolate cookie pie crust (store-bought or homemade)*
  • 1 cup milk chocolate chips, divided
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided

For the Custard:

  • 3 cups milk (skim milk will work fine)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups shredded, sweetened coconut
*Click HERE for the procedure for a homemade crust, though to be honest, in this case, it’s more cost effective and just as tasty to buy a prepared cookie crust. (In my stores, the ingredients to make your own cost twice as much as the prepared crust.)

Directions

To prepare the milk chocolate ganache: Bring the heavy cream just to a boil. Pour the cream over 2/3 cup of the chocolate chips and stir until smooth. The chips should melt by the heat of the cream, but if necessary, microwave the mixture for 10-15 seconds, then continue stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache into the pie shell. Scatter about half of the sliced almonds over the ganache. Refrigerate to set the ganache. Prepare the custard while the ganache cools.

To make the custard: Bring the milk, sugar, vanilla, salt and cornstarch to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently so that the sugar and cornstarch dissolve. Once the mixture begins to bubble and thicken (it should only take a few minutes), reduce the heat to low. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. Gradually whisk about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, starting with a very slow drizzle to avoid scrambling the eggs. (Gradually incorporating the hot milk into the egg yolks tempers the eggs, allowing them to slowly rise in temperature without scrambling.) Gradually whisk the egg mixture into the remaining hot milk mixture in the pot. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, whisking constantly for about 3 minutes, until thickened and smooth. Stir in the shredded coconut.

Allow the custard to cool at room temperature, stirring frequently, until it’s just barely warm. Pour the custard over the cooled ganache in the pie crust and refrigerate until the custard is completely cool and set, about 2 hours.

Melt the remaining 1/3 cup of chocolate chips in the microwave (a few seconds at a time, stirring often) or over a double boiler. Spoon the melted chocolate into a plastic baggie. Cut off a small tip of one of the corners of the baggie, then drizzle the chocolate over the pie. Garnish with the remaining sliced almonds.

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Amy vs. Baked Alaska – The Showdown

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A tumbleweed rolls across my kitchen floor. A strange man sits at the table, whistling ominously on a stout brown jug. I step into the room, spurs glimmering. A pair of wooden saloon doors swing closed behind me with a screech. (Funny…I don’t remember installing those doors.) I tip my hat and glare at my adversary.

**Flashback twenty or so years.** A gawky teenager, dressed in leggings with slouch socks and gleaming white faux-Keds, moves easily about the kitchen. Her side-pony sways with every movement. A well worn Better Homes and Gardens Dessert cookbook, circa 1973, sits open on the counter. Bolstered with confidence after the roaring success of the previous week’s Lemon Meringue Pie, she is busy preparing Baked Alaska, never pausing for a moment to consider what lie ahead.

My adversary stands before me, dressed in gleaming white. It snickers, taunting me. I stick my tongue out and make a sour face. My weapon is drawn.

Cyndi Lauder blares in the background as the eager teen approaches the open oven, her fluffy, white creation in hand. She pops it in the oven and dances awkwardly about the kitchen for a few minutes.  The timer beeps. She bounces over to the oven, opens the door, and shrieks. Her siblings come running into the kitchen.

I belt out my battle cry and approach the snickering adversary. I take it in my hands and approach the piping hot oven. Not this time!  Not this time! I place it in the oven and close the door.

The teen and her siblings stare in horror at the tray of melted ice cream. It looks nothing like the picture in the cookbook. A single tear falls from the teen’s hazel eyes.

After five eternal minutes, I open the oven and…

My Baked Alaska

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Baked Alaska

Here’s how it’s done…

The Cake

You can use just about any flavor or type of cake for the base of the Baked Alaska. A giant cookie or brownie base would probably work nicely too!  I went searching for a dark chocolate cake recipe for my Baked Alaska. I landed upon a truly fantastic recipe from Hershey’s for Deep Dark Chocolate Cake.  This is probably the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted. I will definitely be using this cake recipe for future birthday cakes! I made one 9 inch round cake for my base and several cupcakes for the kids to make their own mini Baked Alaskas.

Mise en place - Everything in its place

Hershey's Deep Dark Chocolate Cake

Chocolatey Cake and Cupcakes

The Ice Cream

You can use any flavor(s) of ice cream in your Baked Alaska.  To prepare the ice cream, spray the inside of a bowl with Pam or lightly coat with vegetable oil. Then, line the bowl with plastic wrap.  This step will make it easier to remove the ice cream dome. Allow the ice cream to soften slightly.  Then, spread the ice cream in an even layer on the bottom of the bowl, being certain to fill all gaps.  Place the bowl in the freezer until the ice cream has refrozen. If using more than one flavor, freeze each layer before adding the next flavor. I layered dark chocolate ice cream with fresh raspberries, raspberry sorbet, and milk chocolate ice cream.

Raspberry Sorbet Layer

Waiting for the ice cream

The Meringue

Meringue is a mixture of egg whites and sugar, beaten until thick and glossy. Cream of tartar is frequently added as a stabilizer, but is not absolutely necessary. Egg whites should be beaten to soft peaks before incorporating the sugar.

A few tips for a successful meringue:

  • Bowl and whisk should be pristinely clean as even the slightest bit of residual fat can prevent the whites from developing.
  • Stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowls will all work well.
  • Make sure that no trace of yolk enters the mix. Crack each egg into a ramekin or small bowl first, so if a yolk breaks, you won’t waste the whole batch.
  • Allow the egg whites to come to room temperature before beating.
  • Before beating, add 1/8 tsp of Cream of Tartar per egg white to help stabilize the whipped whites.
  • Beat the egg whites until soft peaks begin to form.
  • Use about (but no less than) 2 Tbsp of sugar per egg white.
  • If possible, use superfine sugar as it will dissolve more easily into the egg whites.
  • Gradually add sugar a spoonful at a time, until stiff peaks form. Stiff peaks will hold their shape. The meringue should be smooth and glossy.

Soft Peaks

Stiff Peaks

** I used 8 whites, 1 tsp cream of tartar, and 16 Tbsp sugar, which made enough meringue to thoroughly cover my large Baked Alaska and two of the kids’ Baked Alaska cupcakes.

The Assembly

Once the cake is baked and the ice cream is thoroughly frozen, carefully turn the bowl over and lower the ice cream dome on top of the cake. I scooped out a shallow bed for the ice cream dome to sit in, in the hopes that it would provide a better insulating seal for the meringue. This step may not be necessary, but it worked! Once the ice cream cake is assembled, allow it to freeze until very firm. I left mine in the freezer overnight. Once frozen, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Prepare the meringue.  Working quickly, coat the ice cream and the cake thoroughly in meringue, being careful to spread the meringue to every edge. You can use a knife or the back of a spoon to create decorative designs in your meringue.

Cake with a shallow bed for the ice cream

Cake with Ice Cream

The Final Baking

Bake on the lower rack of a 450 degree oven for 5-6 minutes until the exterior begins to brown.

Serve immediately or freeze until ready to serve. It holds well in the freezer.

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Baked Alaska with Raspberry Coulis

A few other notes and tips…

  • Make sure your meringue thoroughly coats the ice cream and cake.  This is the most important part (and probably the aspect which caused my failure so many years ago). The meringue is what insulates the ice cream from the heat.
  • Make your ice cream dome with a smaller diameter than your cake.  Most recipes don’t mention this, but I think it helps to prevent melting.
  • Inspired by this link, shared by a friend, my kids made their own mini Baked Alaskas.  I used extra batter from the cake to make a few cupcakes.  Then, we scooped out the center and filled it with softened Raspberry Sorbet.  They coated their Alaskas with the extra meringue.  Then, I put them in the oven for 5 minutes at 450 degrees.  Worked out great, just make sure you help your kids thoroughly cover the entire cupcake.
  • I served my Baked Alaska with a Raspberry Coulis.  A coulis, (pronounced koo-LEE) is simply a sauce made by pureeing fruit or vegetables and straining.  For my sauce, I pureed a handful of raspberries with a Tbps of sugar. Then, I strained the puree and discarded the seeds.

Don't mess with this cowboy!

So, did anyone else try your own Baked Alaska??  I know at least one of you did and with grand success! Anyone else?  Tell us how it went!

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