Hillary Reeves

A blog about cooking and dining in New York City.

Flourless Chocolate Cake

I love Passover. Yes, I’m a baptized, white bread Methodist, but I also grew up on Long Island where Jewish culture is so pervasive that my church had an interfaith Seder every year while I was growing up. My friend Alexa and her family also always allowed me to invite myself over to their house for some noodle pudding every year. Even in my single digit years, I remember being a huge fan of the holiday and of Jewish cuisine. Whether we’re talking kreplach and brisket or more Israeli-style with figs, couscous and hummus, I am so on board. (Literally don’t get me started on smoked fish cause I might not stop.)

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What has always struck me is the profound spirituality behind a Seder. There’s not much else like it. I only ever get that feeling otherwise at a somber late-night Christmas Eve or Good Friday church service. Every bite of the Seder is about remembering and you really do feel transported by the mitzvah of savoring some horseradish and thinking about what it symbolizes. At least I do.

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Then, when I worked at a Kosher bakery for a few years, a whole new subsection of the Pesach meal became revealed to me — dessert. It’s crazy, er, meshugenah (Alexa’s mom teaching me that one) how many ridiculously delicious desserts can be made without wheat, rye, barley, oats and, often, without dairy. Gorgeous fruit tarts, chocolate-dipped matzoh with m&ms, coconut macaroons, apple cakes made with nut flour, meringue cookies, and more. It was the best time of the year at the shop and our manager would even bend the rules and order a little too much of everything so that we could all sneak samples of the treats during the day without ever selling out.

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I recently made my first flourless chocolate cake which, depending on your kitchen dishes/utensils, dinner menu and the strictness to which specific Passover Kosher laws will be followed by your party, I probably wouldn’t recommend whipping up for a Passover meal. But, it could pass muster in the right circumstances! If you’re celebrating for a week, it might be worth making and having at-the-ready if you’re a chocolate cake fiend like I am. It could also come in handy in general if you need a gluten-free dessert. You can also just make it for no other reason other than it’s decadent, chocolatey, and delicious.

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I used this recipe for Chocolate Idiot Cake from David Lebovitz. He deliberately developed this recipe so that it’s impossible to screw up, but also impossibly tasty. I actually made this for Dan’s birthday last week. He had to stay late at work, thereby missing his train home. He’d been planning to spend his birthday eating dinner with his parents. He called me, last-minute and disappointed, saying he was coming home after all instead of going to see his family. My heart broke a little, so I dashed into the kitchen to make him a cake, but realized I’d used up all of my flour earlier in the week (surely on something less deserving than birthday cake, ugh!). So, this flourless cake it was… and I think the healthy dose of fudginess helped to cure D’s birthday stress. It tasted just as good 5+ days later, too, allowing us two to slowly work our way through the whole thing!

Chocolate Idiot Cake from David Lebovitz

10 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
7 ounces butter, salted or unsalted, cut into pieces
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust it with cocoa powder, tapping out any excess. (Personally, I don’t own a springform pan, so I lined the bottom of a pie dish with parchment paper and it worked just fine!)

2. In a small saucepan or bain marie over low heat, melt chocolate and butter gently, stirring occasionally. When smooth, remove from heat. Your whole house will now smell like melted chocolate. You’re welcome.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar, then slowly add in melted chocolate mixture, whisking constantly.

4. When smooth, pour the batter into the prepared pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Put the pan into a larger baking pan, such as a roasting pan, and add enough water to the baking pan to come about halfway up to the outside of the cake pan.

5. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.You’ll know the cake is done when it feels just set, like quivering chocolate pudding. If you gently touch the center, your finger should come away clean.

6. Lift the cake pan from the water bath and remove the foil. Let cake cool completely on a cooling rack.

7. This cake is very rich, so serve at room temperature in small wedges alongside something creamy (ice cream, whipped cream) and something fruity (fresh berries, candied lemon peel). You can wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 5-7 days.

Making Homemade Ricotta Cheese

There are some things you make, and there are some things you buy. My older sister wrote a blog post about this a few years ago and the idea has stuck with me ever since. Yes, homemade, freshly baked bread tastes delicious, but after spending a summer as an intern baking literally hundreds of loaves of bread, I know that the intense science of yeast is best left to the professionals. That said, anyone who buys spaghetti sauce in a jar is a damn fool. Squished tomatoes simmered with some salt taste so much better and is so much cheaper.

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I always assumed cheese would be on my “buy” list. Never actually having researched cheese making, I assumed it was like making wine – doable, but not conducive to a tiny New York kitchen situation. Plus, I just love shopping for cheese so much that making it at home never felt like something I needed to do. Unlike shopping for cold cuts. I would rather roast a whole side of beef and buy a deli slicer than stand in the Fairway deli line with my tiny slip of paper, waiting for my number to get called. Which is why Dan waits on the deli meat line while I shop for cheese.

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So, when I decided to make cheese myself, it was because I was stuck at a grocery store with a less impressive cheese section. Unlike Fairway, Whole Foods or Gourmet Garage (a disappearing breed with some fantastic cheeses), Trader Joe’s has some pretty run-of-the-mill sliced cheddars ready for stacking on sandwiches, or tubs of soft cheeses for spreading on toast and bagels. With the exception of an imported burrata here-or-there, it’s not the kind of dairy section you linger at, sniffing at each funky, briny selection. But I love TJ’s for other reasons (for example, everyone there is nice to me and it’s closer to my house), so it was where I landed one day after work one day.

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The checkout line that evening was typically endless, so I hopped on and shopped as I inched my way through the store. As I waited, I had the time to think about what it might entail to make a simple cheese to use in a baked egg dish I was planning. I had recently been to a dinner party where the cook had put out fresh, homemade ricotta for spreading on pita, along with fresh hummus and fancy olive oil. The cheese was still warm and so smooth that I ate more than my share and wasn’t hungry for the main course. With that in mind, I pulled up a recipe for homemade ricotta, which involves just four ingredients (milk, cream, lemon, salt) and realized I had all of the equipment at home (cheese cloth, a fine mesh sieve, a kitchen thermometer), so I figured I’d try it out! (Boy, the kind of things a New Yorker achieves while waiting in the Trader Joe’s line… an intense grip strength workout, not the least of these achievements!)

This was the baked egg dish. After making a ratatouille-style base, I put in dollops of ricotta and cracked eggs over the top and baked!

This was the baked egg dish. After making a ratatouille-style base, I put in dollops of ricotta and cracked eggs over the top and baked!

It turned out to be a delicious, happy result and I’ll definitely be trying this again. The cheese was way creamier and richer than store-bought ricotta and tasted a lot less plasticy-processed! Here’s the recipe, borrowed from Smitten Kitchen and adjusted very slightly because I enjoyed a bit of lemony tang to my cheese.

Homemade Ricotta

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Pour milk and cream into small saucepan. Gently stir in salt. Turn on heat to medium and begin to gently warm milk mixture until it reached 190 degrees. I used an infrared thermometer, which I love, but just make sure you have a trusty, accurate kitchen thermometer since temperature is key here!

2. Once mixture reaches 190 degrees, turn off heat and pour in lemon juice. Stir gently just a few times and then let the milk sit, uncovered and untouched, for about five minutes. Meanwhile, line a fine mesh sieve with cheesecloth and place the sieve over a bowl. Ideally, the sieve would balance its arms on the side of the bowl, so that the sieve isn’t resting on the bottom of the bowl. You want enough space for the bowl to catch they whey that will drip from the cheese, without the cheese/sieve sitting in the whey.

3. Once you’ve let the milk mixture sit five minute, pour the curds and whey into the lined sieve. Let the curds sit for at least an hour. The longer you let your curds sit, the firmer your ricotta will be. Note also that the cheese will firm as it cools, so you may wish to pack it up while it’s still a slightly softer consistency than you desire. (I let mine sit for about an hour and a half and the cheese, once cooled, had a consistency similar to cream cheese.)

4. You can discard the whey or, if you desire, use it in a bunch of crafty ways, which is less up my alley. Eat the ricotta immediately (spread on toast, use as a dip), or store it for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Kumquat Caramel Baked French Toast

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French toast always reminds me of my oldest sister, Leigh. I’m not even sure if she really likes the dish, but I can remember being very young and her asking my mom for french toast for breakfast. There’s not much else to the memory — Were we at a diner? Were we at home? — but since then, french toast always gives me that cozy, nostalgic feeling of spending the morning in my PJs with my big sister.

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It’s the same feeling I get when I hear James Taylor and think of my mom, or see maroon Doc Martens and remember Jill’s high school years. I’m actually not very fond of Doc Martens, James Taylor nor french toast, but they’re so closely tied with people I love, specifically women to took care of me growing up. Even if it’s not my favorite, I listen to “Fire and Rain” periodically if only to feel swollen with the melancholy of the melody. I associate it so tenderly with my mom that I almost feel uncomfortable listening to James Taylor with my mom, but when we’re apart, there’s nothing like it!

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Mom, me and Leigh on the day Candice was born.

Anyway, this is all a kind of weird way of saying that I made french toast for some of my best friends this past weekend for breakfast at my place. But actually frying up toast while they sat around and hungrily waited didn’t sound like the most exciting nor fun way to spend my Saturday morning, so I decided to go with more of a bread pudding approach. Dessert for breakfast; indeed, there is no better way to transport myself back to childhood breakfasts with my family.

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With this version of french toast/bread pudding, all of the work happens the day before. 24 hours before your guests are due to come, you want to slice up a glossy loaf of challah and lay it out on a cookie sheet, allowing it to get stale on all sides. Then, you might want to think about some fruit. In my case, I was standing in one of those epic Trader Joe’s lines when a pack of kumquats caught my eye. I grabbed them and sliced them up, laying them along the bottom of my favorite baking dish. Later, make a lovely caramel and pour it into your favorite oven-safe dish, much like you’d make a tarte tatin. Or, like you might with a pineapple upside-down cake. Which reminds me; I fucking love pineapple upside-down cake.

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Once you’ve constructed your beautiful base of kumquats (or whatever seasonal fruit) and caramel, you pack in your stale bread slices and then pour over an eggy custard. Let that sit overnight and in the morning, all that’s left to do is bake the sucker and turn it upside-down so your caramel can trickle down delectably. With this whole thing prepped the night before, I actually felt kind of bored waiting for my friends to arrive, which is way better than feeling pull-your-hair-out busy!

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I borrowed this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who borrowed her version from Amanda Hesser in her New York Times years. I followed their recipe pretty closely, but added my kumquat twist. I loved how these little fruits burst with flavor, but also add a perfect citrus bitterness that lends itself so well to a super-sweet caramel-laden bread pudding. Whether or not you have fond childhood memories of french toast being cooked at your house, there’s no one who wouldn’t feel comforted by this tasty morning treat, accompanied by a warm, milky coffee!

Kumquat Morning Bread Pudding/Baked French Toast

1/2 pint ripe kumquats, sliced into rounds
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2-3 pinches coarse Kosher salt
12 to 15 slices challah bread (cut into 1/2 inch slices and then again in half)
8 eggs
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese, plus 3/4 cup for serving
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Place challah slices on a cookie sheet and allow to dry out over the course of a few hours. I sliced and laid mine out before I went to work in the morning, and then got to work on the rest of the pudding when I returned home. I also have an oven with a pilot light, where I stored the bread on the cookie sheet for the day. The oven provided very low, consistent heat which helped to dry out the bread, which I’d recommend!

2.Place kumquat rounds into the base of a 9-inch pie dish, arranging nicely as they will appear as the top of the cake. Reserve for later.

3. In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, salt and butter over medium-low heat. Allow butter and sugar to melt, bubble and begin to brown (approx 15 minutes). Try not to stir, but to swirl gently over the heat. If, it begins to brown too quickly add in 1/4 cup water and use rubber spatula to stir. When it reaches a rich caramel color, remove from heat and pour into the pie dish over the kumquat slices. Caramel will firm up like hard candy (which freaked me out). Don’t worry! Swirl/spread over entire base of dish and put in fridge to cool.

3. While the caramel is cooling, whisk together eggs and marscarpone until smooth. Then, stir in milk and vanilla extract. Take pie dish out of the freezer/fridge and get your bread ready for use.

4. Arrange bread in the pan, ideally starting with the heel of the bread in the center of the dish and working outward from there! All of the bread should fit snugly into the dish, so cut those last few slices into smaller pieces to stuff into those neglected crevices!

5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread, making sure to moisten all of the bread. Find a large plate and place it on top of the dish, so that the bread is compressed and encouraged to soak up all of the egg mixture. Place in the refrigerator for overnight soaking! (You may wish to wrap the dish/plate in plastic wrap for an extra seal.)

6. In the morning, about two hours before you’re ready to serve, remove the dish from the refrigerator, removing any plastic wrap and bringing to room temperature.

7. About an hour before serving, heat oven to 375 degrees. Place pudding in oven and cook for about 25 minutes. The center should be moist, but firm. I knew when to take mine out of the oven because the bread got nice and toasty, but not burned!

8. Remove from oven and run a knife around edge of dish, loosening bread from sides. Place a serving plate over top of dish (bottom side up), and, using potholders or trusty dish towels, hold pudding over sink and in a single fluid motion, holding it away from your body, invert plate. Allow the pudding a moment to pull away from the sides, perhaps giving the dish a little shimmy to help it along! Lift off pie dish. Scrape any extra caramel from pie dish over pudding.

9. Serve warm along with a dollop of mascarpone cheese and a big cup of coffee.

Things to Put on Your Toast

Toast is totally having a moment right now. How can the world’s favorite and most boring stand-by breakfast item possibly be trendy, you ask? Welp, folks in California begin to take it to the next level with artisan toast and entire toast menus, that’s how. And I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing. I’ve already been suckered into paying $4 for a cup of coffee or $10 for an egg sandwich (I needn’t remind you that eggs cost, like, $3 for a whole dozen). If someone’s going to claim that they make an amazing piece of toast, I’ll probably bite.

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Toast is a total comfort food for me. As a kid, I would rip off a chunk of a baguette, stick it in the oven for just a minute or two and then spread it with salted butter. In college, me and my roommates survived on toast and, to this day, if you get us all together, we’ll probably get into the long, ugly (but now kind of hilarious) story of how we were once tragically left without a toaster. Luckily, the stolen toaster was soon replaced with a toaster that burned the face of Hello Kitty into your slice, which helped with the grieving process. Most of us would just spread a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter or Nutella. But then there was Colleen who could actually eat toast for three meals a day, and she got super creative with her toast. I’m talking Vegemite and bean sprouts as a topping. What a gal.

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Nowadays, if you opened up my freezer, you’d find at least three loaves of bread on a normal day. We generally have a loaf of whole grain sandwich bread, a sliced sourdough boule and a sliced Pullman loaf. One goes best with peanut butter, one’s best for spreading an avocado across, one’s ideal for raspberry jam. I’ve been this particular about my toast since I was a kid; my poor mother would make me and Candice two completely different PBJs every day on our way to school. Candice had whole grain bread with strawberry jam and crunchy peanut butter and I required white bread with creamy peanut butter and concord grape jelly, ideally packed at the bottom of my lunch bag so that the sandwich would get squished and the jelly would bleed through the bread – HEAVEN!

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If you aren’t a huge toast person (which… does that exist?), or if you’ve never thought much about what you spread across your warm slice of bread each morning, try one of these combinations that I’ve grown to love. All of the ideas are great for an afternoon snack or a simple breakfast. Or, get creative and share your ideas/favorites with me. Who knows? Maybe we could partner and bring this toast thing to NYC!

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1. Mushrooms on toast – classic! Recommended bread: thickly-cut slice of a fresh Pullman loaf.

2. Avocado on toast. Spread 1/4 of an avocado onto toast. Top with coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper. Recommended bread: sourdough.

3. Tomatoes, mayonnaise and salt. There’s nothing like it when tomatoes are in season! Recommended bread: sourdough or simple white bread.

4. Fresh ricotta, olive oil and berries. Healthy, filling and a little unexpected! Recommended bread: baguette or whole grain.

5. Bacon. I ate this religiously (literally every Sunday on my way to church) growing up. The combo of white bread that sops up the bacon grease and then the salty crunch of the pork is perfection. It’s also the only thing to eat after a night of drinking – skip the eggs! Recommended bread: WHITE BREAD is essential for this one.

6. Spanish chorizo and manchego. When I stayed with my sister while she was studying abroad in Barcelona, the chef that cooked for the dormitory set this out for breakfast every morning. So good and perfect if you’re not in the mood for something sweet early in the morning. Recommended bread: something crusty!

7. Goat cheese and your favorite jam. A more hearty alternative to butter and jam. Try fig jam with this one if you haven’t before! Recommended bread: baguette.

8. Canned tuna, Dijon mustard and pickles. Tuna sandwiches taste better open-faced, I promise! Recommended bread: whole grain.

9. Meatballs. Cut leftover meatballs in half and put them on some toast. I leave mine cold. Recommended bread: those chewy Italian breads with sesame seeds!

10. Refried beans and Sriracha. This is one of my less-refined favorites, but I could eat refried beans out of a can with a spoon forever. So, spreading it on toast makes me look a little less like a boxcar hobo. Recommended bread: sourdough.

Tortilla Soup

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Chili.”

If you were to run into me and Dan in the park, on the subway, walking the dog, at Fairway, this would be the conversation we’d be having and I’d beg for you to interrupt.

For Dan, chili is the perfect meal. He never gets sick of chili. He says it’s healthy, — “there’s beans!” — easy to make, and he loves how you have to make a huge batch of it, because then you can eat it throughout the week. He likes to emphasize this last point, saying that I’m “never home,” implying both that I gad about nightly (not true) and that all he can do when I’m not around is listlessly microwave a bowl of chili. He’s a smart guy who fries eggs like Spongebob flips Krabby Patties, so I’m unsure why this remains the kicker in his argument.

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Me? I hate chili. I hate that people act like they have some secret recipe for their chili when it tastes just as good (or better) out of a can. I hate that if you have leftovers, there’s a layer of neon orange fat that my mom described to me when I was a kid as, “the stuff that clogs your arteries and gives people heart attacks.” I hate that people act like there’s a “right” way to make it and I hate that adding beans is controversial. I hate that it’s neither a vibrant Mexican stew nor a rich ragu. No matter what, chili tastes like cafeteria food to me. I don’t know you guys; me and chili just have beef. (hahaha)

As I type this, I know how bratty I sound. To be honest, I’m a pretty fussy eater and my love of cooking (while no longer the case) definitely grew out of me being a total bossypants who preferred to take matters into my own hands rather than risk my mom/sister/babysitter cutting my PBJ into rectangles instead of the preferred triangles. Aware that the chili thing is clearly way more about my pesty preferences than his tastes, lately when Dan says yet again that he wants chili, I’ve been trying to offer thoughtful alternatives instead of soliloquizing about why I think it’s unappetizing. Personal growth!

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One recent and very successful not-chili option was tortilla soup. I was inspired by a tortilla soup we had one weekend at Cascabel Taqueria that was so filling, even split between the two of us, that we had to get the entire rest of our meal to-go. Tortilla soup has all of the good parts of chili that Dan craves without all the parts that I obnoxiously abhor. We both freaked out about how good this not-chili soup tasted and the beauty of finding that middle ground, my friends, is what love is all about.

This recipe is also great if you buy those big bags of corn tortillas, but can’t get through them all fast enough. Stale, dried-out tortillas are ideal! Also, the creamy, fatty toppings (avocado, sour cream) balance out spice very nicely, so don’t be afraid to turn up the heat!

Tortilla Soup

6 6-inch, stale corn tortillas, cut into strips
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 Poblano chili, diced
1 Jalapeno, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 10 oz can fire roasted, diced tomatoes
4 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
6 cups chicken stock
10 shakes of your favorite hot sauce (I like a sweet, garlicky habanero sauce like this.)
4-5 cups shredded chicken (I buy a rotisserie bird, remove the skin, and pull apart the meat.)
Salt
Avocado, cilantro, sour cream and quesadilla cheese for serving

1. Heat oil in a dutch oven on medium high heat. Once you think it’s heated enough, splash in a drop of water. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Add your tortilla strips in a few small batches. (Adding too much at once will cause the oil’s temperature to drop and you’ll have oily tortillas!) Once the tortillas are golden brown and crisp (3-5 minutes), remove with a slotted spoon, transferring to a paper towel-lined plate. Season generously with salt immediately after removing each batch from oil, while hot. Reserve for later.

2. Once all of your tortillas are crisp and removed from the oil, add in your onion, garlic, and peppers. Saute until tender and then add in your tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes to incorporate, season generously with salt (2-3 good pinches) and then add in your spices, coaxing out their flavors. Your mixture will turn a vibrant orangey red from the spices and will become very aromatic. Cook like this for another 5 minutes, or until you feel you’ve really coaxed the flavor from your ingredients and got them married with one another!

3. At this point, I like to use an immersion blender to blend the soup base, but that isn’t required! Next, pour in your chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, and reduce to simmer. Once the soup has spent about 15 minutes reducing, splash in your hot sauce. Taste. Adjust seasoning as needed (more salt, more hot sauce). Reduce for another 20 minutes and taste. Adjust seasoning again if needed. Continue to reduce if you want a more concentrated flavor – I found that 35 minutes was about right!

4. Once your broth is to your liking, turn off the heat and add in your chicken. Stir to combine.

5. Ladle your servings into soup bowls. Top with a heaping helping of tortilla strips, some sour cream, a bit of grated Mexican melting cheese, a few slices of avocado, and a sprinkling of freshly chopped cilantro.

Serves 4-6

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