Baking · Dessert

Coconut Ricotta Cake

We have a deep-seated love for coconut and ricotta in this house, so it was a matter of time before we made this cake. This cake is essentially a pound cake, with ricotta added as a creamy element. I prefer to use a bundt pan instead of a loaf pan for presentation. I never used a bundt pan growing up (shout out to My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but now I am mildly obsessed when I see how pretty cakes can be.

I often use the coconut-almond vanilla glaze when making this for other people. However, when I want to make this less sweet for home, I skip the glaze and simply dust with powdered sugar. The result is a very creamy edible cake that has become a family favorite.

Total Time: one and 1/2 hours

Ease of Recipe: medium

You will need:

For the cake:

  • 12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1¼ cups ricotta, at room temperature
  • 2½ cups cake flour OR 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour and 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 Tbs coconut extract
  • 1 cup roasted coconut, divided
  • 1/2 cup roasted slivered almonds

For the glaze:

  • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk or 1/2 and 1/2

Step one:

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Roast coconut and slivered almonds for 5 minutes until light golden brown. Check frequently to ensure they do not burn. Pull from oven and cool.

Raise oven temperature to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan.

Step two:

Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for 4 to 5 minutes, until light. Add the eggs one at a time, then add the vanilla, coconut extract and ricotta. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 1/2 cup of roasted coconut. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Finish stirring with a spatula to be sure the batter is well mixed.

Step three:

Spoon the batter into the pan and spread it out with a knife. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.

Allow to cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Carefully transfer the cake. Whisk the confectioners’ sugar and cream together, adding a few drops of water, if necessary, to make the glaze thick but runny. Drizzle the glaze over the cake with a small spoon. Top with the remaining coconut and slivered almonds. Serve at room temperature.

Notes: If you don’t have cake flour, you can substitute 2¼ cups all-purpose flour plus ¼ cup cornstarch.

Italian · Mediterranean · Side dish

Ciambotta (Italian Ratatouille)

This was a favorite of my mom’s to make during the summer with her garden zucchini and squash, and it is one of our favorite vegetable dishes now.

In the summer, we have several go to recipes for eating our vegetables, such as pisto Manchego, Caponata or Ciambotta. All involve fresh vegetables, and differ in the spicing and process. Here, rather than roasting, everything is simplified and cooked in one pan, because I am, at heart, a lazy homecook.

My children love this, and often ate this during phases when they wouldn’t eat much other vegetables. They thought it tasted like pizza, which I suppose makes some sense. It is fairly easy to throw together, and very satisfying. Feel free to sub out diced tomatoes for fresh, if you are busy. But of course, it is best with fresh tomatoes and a good quality parmesan.

I have had several versions of this, but this remains my favorite. Ciambotta is best in the summer with fresh vegetables and basil. You can dress this up a bit by adding a little red wine (during the cooking of the garlic & onions), or a bay leaf to add depth, or my personal favorite – adding an old parmesan rind to mixture for extra flavor. Adding potatoes is also a traditional way this is made. Personally, I am often very lazy and don’t add potatoes or eggplant, as they make the preparation longer.

Another idea is to blend this up and make it a sofrito or base for future dishes and sauces. It is surprisingly versatile. If I have fresh basil, I prefer to use it. However, if I have dried herbs, I like this with oregano. Serve this with fish, or some Italian sausage for an excellent meal.

You will need:

  • 2 zucchinis, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 1 summer squash, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 1/2 small onion or 2 small shallots (I prefer these), sliced thin
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 lb of campari or roma tomatoes cut into bite size pieces OR 1 can of diced tomatoes.
  • 3 tbs Olive oil
  • fresh basil or oregano (2 tsp of dried herbs if you do not have fresh)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Good quality parmesan (the older the better)
  • Optional ideas
  • splash of red wine* (optional)
  • 1 small eggplant, chopped* (optional)
  • 3 small scrubbed potatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces (optional)
  • parmesan rind (optional)

Steps:

  1. * Only if using eggplant or potatoes. You will need an extra half an hour to prepare these ingredients, so if you want to include them, begin your prep here. Slice the eggplants and arrange them on a tray. Sprinkle them with salt and leave them for about half an hour to release their liquid. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Chop into bite-sized pieces. Chop potatoes into small pieces and cook for 15 minutes before adding it to the stew, this will prevent the rest of the vegetables from becomming too soggy while waiting for them to cook down.
  2. Coat a skillet with olive oil and heat on medium. Saute onions in olive oil several minutes until they soften. Add garlic and saute for two more minutes. Grind or add a little salt to the onions and garlic to release moisture. Deglaze with a little splash of wine if you have some on hand.
  3. Add zucchini and squash (and potatoes and eggplant, if using) and mix it well with the onion and garlic. Add red pepper flakes, basil/oregano and a little more salt to taste. Cook for 8-10 minutes. Add in tomatoes (and parmesan rind, if using) and cook down for about ten minutes to fifteen minutes until everything is reduced and soft. You don’t want to overcook the squash or zucchini, so there should still be firmness.
  4. Top with fresh grated parmesan.
Appetizer · Side dish

Greek Salad

This is adapted from an Anne Willen recipe I found over twenty years ago. It is a constant favorite through summer, and we tend to make it on a weekly basis. It requires fresh herbs, and a lot of fresh vegetables. This makes a large portion – perfect for a cookout. Feeds around 10-12 people.

You will need:

  • 2 peeled, seeded and chopped cucumbers
  • 1 -2 lbs of tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 small red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 sweet peppers, deveined, deseeded, chopped
  • 3/4 cup pitted olives (kalamata is preferred)
  • 3 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup good olive oil
  • Fresh mint (around 4-5 sprigs)
  • Fresh oregano (around 4 sprigs)
  • Fresh flat-leaf parsley (around 4-5 sprigs)
  • 6 oz good quality feta

Steps:

  1. Prep and cut vegetables and place them in a large bowl.
  2. In another bowl, whisk red wine vinegar & olive oil until it is emulsified. Whisk in a little salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. Pour over the salad.
  3. Crumble good quality feta and blend in with the salad.
  4. Serve chilled.
Appetizer · Mediterranean · Spanish

Pisto Manchego

Pisto Manchego is a typical ratatouille found in Spain. Like Caponata, it is meant to be spread onto bread. Often, it is served with egg, almost like a shakshuka.

You will need:

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion whole
  • 5 cloves of garlic with skin on
  • 2 zucchini
  • 2 red bell peppers
  • 1 eggplant
  • 4-5 tomatoes
  • 1  tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine*
  • Salt and black pepper

Steps:

  1. Grill/roast the all the vegetables under the broiler until charred. This can take from 20-25 minutes. You will need to check frequently, and rotate the veggies.
  2. While they cool, you can remove the charred skin off the vegetables. Core and seed the peppers and cut into bite-sized pieces. Halve the eggplant and cut into bite-size pieces. Peel and chop the onion and garlic. Chop the zucchini and tomatoes.
  3. Preferably in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic, red pepper, oregano and cumin. Saute for 2 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. Add the remaining vegetables.
  4. Cook – Bring to a boil then simmer until the vegetables are all tender and the sauce has thickened. Season with additional salt and black pepper.
Appetizer · Mediterranean · Spanish

Eggplant Fritters with Honey (Berenjenas con miel)

This recipe is typical of Southern Spain. It is best served fresh and hot. It serves 4 people for a Tapas/Appetizer portion. This would be delicious served with a white wine with some minerality such as pinot grigio or an albariño.

This is great during the summer, and is meant to be eaten immediately. However, you do need to have the eggplants soaking for an hour before you intend to fry them up and serve.

You will need:

  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/3 inch discs
  • Flour
  • Honey
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt

Step one:

Peel the eggplant and cut it into circular slices about 1/3 inch thick. Put them in a bowl, add enough milk to cover, and put a small plate on top to hold them down. Let soak for 1 to 2 hours; drain. The purpose of the milk is to draw out any bitterness.

Step two:

Cover a plate with plenty of flour mixed with a sprinkling of salt. Working in batches, turn the eggplant slices in this so that they are entirely covered with flour, then shake them to remove the excess. Deep-fry in sizzling but not too hot oil, turning the slices over as soon as the first side is brown. Drain on paper towels.

Serve hot with a drizzle of honey.

Central American · Side dish

Curtido

Curtido or encurtido is a type of lightly fermented cabbage relish. It is typical in Central American cuisine, and is usually made with cabbage, onions, carrots, oregano, and sometimes lime juice. On Costa Rican tables, it is also really common to see a mason jar of spicy, pickled vegetables (chilero) which you add to your meals. It is essentially the same as giardineria in Italy. Curtido is a bit similar to American coleslaw in function, but with spice and without mayonnaise. It is really fresh and crunchy and goes on so many dishes.

While you often serve it with pupusas, we add it to all kinds of dishes to provide an acidic, textured punch: stir fry, hot dogs, with fish, crab cakes or sandwiches.

You will need:

  • ½ head green cabbage, cored and shredded
  • 1 small white onion, sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, grated
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 cups boiling water
  • Chiles* optional

Steps:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, onion, and carrots. Pour the boiling water over the vegetables and toss. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Then, drain.
  2. Combine the vinegar, lime juice, oregano, salt, and chiles** in a measuring cup. Pour over the slaw and toss to coat. Once thoroughly mixed, transfer the curtido and any leftover liquid in the bowl to an airtight container.
  3. Chill for at least 20 minutes in the refrigerator or overnight for best results. This will keep for about 4-5 days.
Appetizer · Central American · Italian · Mediterranean · Side dish

How to Eat Your Vegetables

I’ve been thinking a lot about food and improving health, in general. This is a great pastime when I am procrastinating and avoiding my day job, which if I am honest is pretty often. I am sure you are well versed in the benefits of vegetables, so I will spare you. But do consider adding more into your life, because they will make you feel better, and I think returning to basics has been really helpful this year for me, mentally and physically.

I was born in the early 1970’s – a time where convenience and heavily processed food was the norm. This really clashed with how my great grandmothers and grandmothers cooked. Now, we understand the wisdom of eating fresh produce, and food that is in season. But for decades, the idea of microwave or canned food persisted. Do you remember the weird, sadistic trend of disguising vegetables in foods that kids would eat, like brownies?

When I was a kid, I would go to my other friend’s houses, and would always be shocked by the lack of vegetables, or the ones at the table were drowning in velveeta, boiled within an inch of their life, or was simply canned corn thrown in a bowl, like a sad afterthought. The only exception was my neighbors from Taiwan, where beautifully cooked vegetables took center stage. I was fortunate to eat there on a regular basis, because their daughters were close in age to me.

While I don’t want to pass too much judgement (people were busy, it was a different time), I was very lucky to have good practices and habits set in place by family. My rule of thumb when kids were young and I was very busy was to always make sure at least a salad was on the table. Now, I try to have multiple servings and options, especially in spring and summer when vegetables are very fresh. But I do believe that many people aren’t quite sure what to make, or need some inspiration. So I thought it might do some good to list out favorite vegetables side-dishes for you to enjoy and get inspired by. Most of these derive from Italian and Spanish cooking, but the winter vegetables, I picked up from neighbors whose dishes I admired.

Quick and Easy:

  1. Tomatoes & Feta – Heat oven to 350 degrees. Take campari tomatoes or slice a larger fresh tomato and place in a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil & top with feta. Top with a little salt and ground pepper. Cook for 10-12 minutes.
  2. Cucumbers & Feta – peel, deseed and slice two cucumbers. Slice 1/2 small red onion thinly. Add a little salt and pepper. Mix 2 Tbs red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil and some fresh mint leaves. Blend to emusify and drizzle over cucumbers and onions. Add feta or goat cheese. *If you don’t have mint, this is also lovely with fresh basil or oregano.
  3. Quick Caprese – slice tomatoes and top with drizzle of a good olive oil and some basalmic vinegar. Grind a little salt and pepper on top. Add a slice of fresh mozzarella and some fresh basil. Top with basalmic glaze, if you have it.
  4. Sliced cucumbers – Peel & Slice 3 peeled cucumbers wafer thin on a mandolin and thin put them in a strainer. Add salt and let it sit in the strainer for 10-20 minutes. Squeeze all moisture out of the cucumbers and place in a bowl with 2 minced cloves of garlic. Add 1 tbs of white vinegar and salt to taste. Dilute with a little water if needed. This is best served chilled.
  5. Curtido This is mostly as a side for pupusas, but we love to use it as an all purpose slaw for barbecue, hot dogs, or crabcakes. I often serve it with fish for some crunch and dimension. We also add chiles, but that is optional.
  6. Grilled zucchini & summer squash – if you have time for the grill, this is fast and easy to put together.

Vegetable Spreads:

  1. Caponata – this is best made ahead and chilled. This is salty, sour, sweet, and decadent, all at the same time.
  2. Pisto Manchego – like Caponata, this is great spread onto a bread. Has roasted flavors & cumin notes.
  3. Roasted Red pepper Dip – this is great with pita and one I used to always bring to the break room.
  4. Romesco – this is probably my favorite staple, and is often in fridge and ready to go for eggs, bread, or fish.

Takes a little time, but worth it:

  1. Greek salad – this is a favorite in our family, and we make it on a weekly basis in summer. We always bring it to cookouts.
  2. Ciambottathis is favorite of our children. They used to call it pizza vegetables, and had no idea they were eating so many vegetables.
  3. Eggplants and honey – you have to soak the eggplants for an hour, but once they are ready. these are quick and easy to make.
  4. Grilled chile-lime corn – Preheat your grill. Partially shuck your corn and remove the corn silk. Put the husks back and dunk in cold water for ten minutes. Shake water off, and rub corn with butter and if you want some spice i.e. chili-lime seasoning or elote seasoning. Place husks back over the cobs, and grill for ten minutes. If you don’t want spice, salt, pepper and paprika will do.

In the winter:

  1. Maple sweet potatoes – this is so delicious in the dead of winter.
  2. Roasted potatoes, brusell sprouts and asparagus I often make this in fall in a large baking sheet.

Appetizer · Italian · Mediterranean

Caponata

Caponata is an awesome summer dish native to Sicily and Southern Italy. It is a prime example of something that does not look very appealing, but tastes like gold. Ideally, you make a large batch and then keep in the fridge, to chill. It is far better chilled on a hot summer day. Spread it on your bread while you socialize with family and friends and wait for dinner. Although recipes vary, as all good ones do, I love it with a lot of capers.

This is a recipe that I have enjoyed over the years, but didn’t have family knowledge to know exactly how to make. Years ago, I tried out a few, and found this one was close to what I was looking for.

  • 1 ½ pounds eggplant (1 large), roasted
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 red bell peppers, diced
  •  Salt to taste
  • 1 pound ripe tomatoes, (preferably romas), or 1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes (in puree)
  • 3 heaped tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped pitted green olives
  • 2 tablespoons plus a pinch of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar (more to taste)
  •  freshly ground pepper to taste

Steps:

  1. Roast the eggplant in the oven, allow to cool and chop coarsely.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet and add the onion and celery. Cook, stirring, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook together for a minute, until the garlic begins to smell fragrant, and add the peppers and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, until just about tender, about 8 minutes. Add another tablespoon of oil and the eggplant, and stir together for another 5 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. The eggplant will fall apart, which is fine. Season to taste.
  3. Add the tomatoes to the pan with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of sugar. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan often, for 5 to 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have cooked down somewhat and they smell fragrant. Add the capers, olives, remaining sugar, and vinegar. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the vegetables are thoroughly tender and the mixture is quite thick, sweet, and fragrant. Season to taste with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Allow to cool to room temperature. If possible, cover and chill overnight. Serve at room temperature.

Adapted from: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016445-caponata

Central American · Spanish

Black Beans & Rice

The recipe for black beans and rice varies from country to country, and as a result, there are arguments over the best version. Some add coconut, some add ham hocks or bacon, and some call for a lot of fresh cilantro. Unfortunately, there is no way to know exactly how my husband‘s grandmother made her recipe that he still misses to this day. I tried my best to get close to her original – this recipe borrows heavily from Cuban black beans, and can be adapted in a variety of ways. I use a lot of cilantro, because that was Abuelita’s preference. Now, on a time-saving note, you can totally use a slow cooker for this, but I must admit, I love making this with a great pot (see below) and letting it simmer on the stove old-school style. You can prepare regular white rice or Cilantro lime rice.

Portion: makes around 2 quarts.

Time: 2 1/2 – 3 hours

You will need:

  • 1 lb dried black beans, picked through and rinsed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped (divided)
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped (divided)
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced (divided)
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 1 tsp dried Italian oregano (divided)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped Cilantro leaves
  • 1 heaping tbs sofrito (optional)

Step one:

Bring beans, bay leaf, ¼ cup chopped onion, ¼ cup chopped bell pepper, 1 Tbsp. garlic, 1 Tbsp. salt, ½ tsp. oregano, and 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot or dutch oven.

Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more hot water if needed to cover, until beans are tender and covered by about ¼” liquid, 2½–3 hours.

Step two:

Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-low. Add remaining onion, bell pepper, garlic, and oregano; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are very soft and beginning to brown, 6-7 minutes. Stir into the bean pot. Add 1 heaping tbsp of sofrito, if desired, as well as 1/4 cup fresh cilantro.

Step three:

Stir beans while simmering for 2 1/2 to three hours until cooked down. Discard Bay Leaf.

One half hour before serving the beans, prepare your rice.

Serve black beans over cilantro rice and top with fresh cilantro, if desired.

Baking · Dessert

Lavender Tea Cake

In no way is this a family recipe, but an homage to my mother’s undying love for all things British and Downton Abbey. There are a variety of versions of this recipe on the Internet, so I cannot claim credit. We modified this and made this for her birthday – and find ourselves making it from time to time when lavender is in season. 

One appeal of this recipe is that it is VERY easy to assemble, and it is not too sweet. The texture is a bit bready, and is perfect for afternoon tea.

You will need

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 tbs fresh chopped lavender or 1 tbs dried lavender
  • 6 tbs butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Step one:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9×5 inch loaf pan. Combine the milk and lavender in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat to a simmer, then remove from heat, and allow to cool slightly.

Step two:

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Step three:

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt; stir into the creamed mixture alternately with the milk and lavender until just blended. Pour into the prepared pan.

Step four:

Bake for 50 minutes in the preheated oven, or until a wooden pick inserted into the crown of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack.

Enjoy.