Gooey St. Louey

At a glance, it looks like a mistake. Something must have gone wrong in the oven, or perhaps before. Maybe carelessly measured ingredients, an inaccurate thermometer, or poor technique led to such a homely appearance. Sunken in the middle, crackled and broken across the surface, it’s no wonder most versions are drowned in a flurry of powdered sugar, as if trying to cover these flaws. Then, there’s the sweetness; oh, such sweetness, as if plain sugar was a bitter pill by comparison!

St. Louis gooey butter cake has quite a reputation, along with a fervent following that wouldn’t have it any other way. It turns out that this Depression-era cake was indeed the result of a Missourian baker’s error. As the legend goes, the ratios were somehow skewed but because ingredients were precious, it was simply sold anyway, repositioned as a pudding-like treat you could eat with a fork. It’s all about marketing, right?

Most modern recipes start with boxed cake mix and use about a pound more sweetener than I would really like to ingest in a year. Purists may scoff, but it genuinely hurts my teeth to think about. If you’re still with me here, craving that same luscious gooey texture with a fuller flavor less obscured by sweetness, pull up a seat and grab a fork.

Everything is better with sprinkles, don’t you agree? If we’re going to make a simple cake, it might as well be a confetti cake. Staying true to its simple vanilla roots, a touch of fresh lemon juice brightens the batter without taking command. More nuanced, delicate, and mature, yet whimsically colorful all at once, this rendition pulls it firmly out of the Depression and back into contemporary kitchens.

A pinch of salt balances out the topping, while the amount of sugar is slashed in half, compared to conventional recipes. Yes, it’s still plenty sweet, but no longer the stuff of dental nightmares. You can indulge without bracing yourself for a sugar crash later in the day.

Gooey butter cake may just be my favorite mistake. If only all our blunders could be so delicious!

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Watch the World Burn

It’s the contrarian in me, but I must admit, I love a recipe that’s meant to go wrong. Flawed by design, it tells you right in the title that it won’t turn out according to standard procedure. Burnt Basque Cheesecake has been high on my list for just that reason. Baking to golden brown perfection is not the goal here: You want to push it further, right over the edge of the cliff into dark, smoldering, ashes.

Okay, the results aren’t that dire, but the top is definitely edging into “blackened” territory, which I usually take as a euphemism for being exceedingly overcooked. It’s a good thing, in this case, to stand back and watch the world burn- Or at least, the contents of your springform pan. That darkly lacquered surface contains volumes of flavor, intense and arresting, like the slightly bitter edge to properly caramelized sugar. It takes the bite out of strong sweetness, creating harmonious balance throughout the dessert.

Inside lies soft, tender custard, gently tangy like any proper cheesecake filling. If anything, the extreme external heat keeps the center even more pillow-like, cooking it to the bare minimum necessary to set and slice. It’s not a classic beauty, but quite possibly the best kind of cheesecake, for those who care more about flavor than shallow aesthetics.

Don’t be afraid to turn up the heat and immolate your hard work in that fiery oven. This particular baptism by fire isn’t a painful lesson to learn.

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More Matzo? Say It’s Not So!

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, we must ask ourselves why on Earth we bought so much darned matzo meal.

Don’t tell me I’m alone here. Year after year, as Passover draws nearer, I have an inexplicable fear of running out of matzo meal. Surely, THAT will be the one thing that the stores run out of right in the moment of need. Not toilet paper, not water, but matzo meal. It’s even more incomprehensible because I don’t even like the stuff. Truth be told, I hate matzo! Made into balls or drowned in toffee is the only way I’ll accept it. Otherwise… What the heck do you do with all this dry, flavorless sawdust?

You turn it into a fruit crumble topping, that’s what! Thanks to the magic of nature’s candy, there’s plenty of rich, sweet flavor in the filling to make up for any of matzo’s shortcomings. Bolstered by the warmth of ground cinnamon and dark brown sugar, it turns into a crisp, downright buttery struesel to cap off the tender berry jumble. Served warm with perhaps a scoop of ice cream melting luxuriously into all the crevasses, or a soft dollop of whipped coconut cream melding into each layer, there are few desserts more comforting.

You’d never even know that this formula included the plague of my pantry, that ever-present matzo meal, perpetually purchased in bulk for no good reason. At least, now it has a good purpose, even beyond the Passover Seder. For both its crowd-pleasing taste and effortless assembly, this dessert is a definite keeper.

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Hot Potatoes

Remember years ago when sweet potatoes had a moment in pop culture history, akin to the fervor perpetually surrounding everyone’s seasonal darling, pumpkin spice? Oprah Winfrey essentially discovered the orange spud, according to online sources- And you know that if it’s on the internet, it must be true. All of a sudden, health gurus and foodies alike raced out to clear supermarket shelves of the tubers. It was as if no one had ever noticed them before, or at least, fully appreciated their flavorful potential.

Like all food trends, the extreme pitch and tenor of that enthusiasm quickly died down to a low roar, eventually settling back into a quiet hum of indifference. Where are all the sweet potato proponents now? Is there really only room in the oven for one autumnal vegetable superstar?

This year, I’m bringing sweet potatoes back. I’ve already professed my support for their simpler starchy brethren, so it’s time we dig a bit deeper into the root cellar for more colorful, flavorful possibilities.

Warm spices and dark, rich molasses join forces with the supple amber flesh, transforming the nostalgic, simple pleasure of the humble rice crispy treat into a seasonal delight. The satisfying crunch of toasted pecans punctuate the chewy, tender squares, rivaling the experience of a full slice of Thanksgiving pie.

Better than baked custard or scratch-made pastry, though, the instant gratification of transforming basic ingredients into a instant dessert surely squashed the competition. That’s definitely something to be thankful for.

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All Jacked Up

Gather ’round the campfire and pull your loved ones in close. It’s time for a ghost story more haunting than the Winchester Mystery House, more frightful than Frankenstein, and more bewitching than the lovely ladies of Salem. I’m talking about the tale of Stingy Jack.

Naysayers may call it a myth, but legend has it that Stingy Jack was a classic con artist, scraping by on someone else’s dollar while swindling his way into another man’s coin purse. He was already a man on the fringes of society, making more enemies than friends, so it should come as no surprise that eventually, the only creature willing to share a drink was the Devil himself. When last call came, predictably, Jack didn’t have the means to pay for his drink, so he made a dangerous bet with the devil instead.

Calling out his demonic power or lack thereof, he suggested that there was no way the devil could turn himself into the necessary coinage. With enough taunting and cajoling, already somewhat tipsy himself, Satan proved his prowess, transforming into a gleaming golden coin without any difficulty. Snapping up the opportunity along with the cash, Jack decided to ditch the bill and keep the money instead. Securing it in his pocket next to a silver cross, the Devil was prevented from transforming back into his original form.

Only when Jack died was demon freed, and quite peeved, to put it lightly. Hell was too good for this malicious man, so he set him off into the night, with only a piece of burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. Somewhere along the line, repeated reiteration of the story turned the turnip into a pumpkin, and that’s how we ended up with Jack-o’-lanterns.

Mea culpa; perhaps that was more of history lesson than a horror story. I can’t help but find myself enchanted by the origins of our strange holiday traditions. If you made it this far through my rambling tale, though, you definitely deserve a drink. How about a shot of applejack, on the rocks?

Better yet, let’s put it in the pumpkin.

That, my friends is the TRUE history of how the Applejack-O’-Lantern Pie came to be.

Cradled in a flaky pastry crust lies a layer of spiked and spiced apple filling, topped by a creamy pumpkin custard. Tender fruit mingles with brown sugar-infused pumpkin puree; each bite is highly spirited, in all meanings of the word. It’s a sinfully good treat to commemorate villainous old Stingy Jack… Just don’t make any deals with the Devil to secure a second slice.

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Take It Easy

In a world rampant with tough choices and difficult situations, just getting a decent meal on the table shouldn’t take a herculean effort. Take it easy, and take a page from Laura Theodore‘s Vegan-Ease. This veteran cookbook author knows her way around the kitchen, boasting a solid arsenal of crowd-pleasing recipes. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of cooking from her archives on multiple occasions, and am confident there’s not a single failure nor even slight disappointment in the bunch. While so many people promise quick, easy, healthy dishes, few actually deliver like Laura can.

Already an essential resource, Vegan-Ease has been re-released in a first edition softcover just a few weeks ago. If you somehow neglected to stock your bookshelf with the original, prepare to immerse yourself in chapter after chapter of Laura’s creative, inspiring, yet completely practical culinary concepts. More than mere recipes, you get a full-featured guide for how to put a meal plan into action, along with shopping lists, nutritional information, and helpful advice every step of the way. Naturally, it’s great for new vegans or uneasy cooks, but there isn’t a soul out there who couldn’t benefit from simpler, more satisfying meals. Each recipe is ranked by “ease factor” so you know what you’re getting into before even pulling out a knife.

Though there are over 130 recipes spanning from breakfast to dinner and everything in between, I’m naturally drawn to the back of the book first, starting with dessert as my entree. Fool-proof, crowd-pleasing, and devilishly decadent, one of my favorites out of a plethora of winners is the understated and underrated Peanut Butter-Chocolate Mousse. Greater than the sum of its parts, scant, simple ingredients come together in some magical alchemy to create a sweet treat that defies expectations. Willpower be damned, each luscious spoonful seems to disappear in the blink of an eye. Effortless to prepare at a moment’s notice, the real danger is that it’s almost too easy to make. There’s no reason why you can’t always have a little bowlful of indulgence whenever the craving strikes.

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