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May 8, 2019

Pecan Praline French Toast Casserole

Brunch is a brilliant meal. Since it can be sweet or savory, it's really the best excuse to eat literally whatever you want. I went out to brunch at a local spot last weekend, and I decided on a waffle with cheesy hash browns. It's ok because the waffle used to be served with ice cream so really I'm being healthy. I also loved this particular brunch because there wasn't a wait (and also the great company). The main reason I would shy away from brunch is the fact that literally everyone else in the city has the same idea, and I'd rather not wait 2 hours for some pancakes when I could make decent ones at home. Brunch spots are going to be extra crowded this weekend for Mother's Day, so in my opinion it's worth trying to cook something yourself. I'm 100% sure your mom would love a homemade breakfast ready when she wakes up, especially if it borders on dessert and you don't forget to clean up after yourself. This pecan praline French toast casserole is basically breakfast bread pudding, and you can prep it the night before so all you have to do is pop it in the oven and wait for Mom to get up.


Like all good French toast recipes, this one starts with challah. It's a sweet bread made with eggs and fat, kind of like a sturdy brioche. French toast is actually best when the bread is a bit stale, so don't worry about picking up a fresh loaf. If the bread is stale, it's a little drier, meaning that it has more potential to soak up all that custard.


The custard consists of eggs, half and half, an extra splash of milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. If it sounds like what you would normally make for French toast, you'd be correct, though this may be a little more than you're used to making. You also have to let the bread sit overnight to soak it all up. When making normal French toast, the bread only cooks on the griddle for a couple minutes until golden and crisp, so it doesn't have much of a chance to dry out. If you poured the custard on the challah cubes and stuck it right in the oven to bake, you'd end up with dry bits of bread floating in a weirdly sweet, gelatinous pudding. Letting the bread sit overnight allows it to sop up all the liquid so that it stays moist (yes, I said moist) as it cooks through.


What makes this casserole extra special is the addition of pecans. I throw some chopped toasted pecans directly in with the bread so they're evenly distributed. I also make a 30-second homemade praline caramel concoction with even more pecans to go on top. That extra sugar seeps down into the bread pudding and also gets nice and crisp and caramelized for some nice textural variety. You can get more creative than just pecans, too. To make it more healthy/permissible for breakfast, you can add a handful of berries to the casserole before leaving it overnight. If your mom really wants a treat, though, you can take a hint from my local brunch spot and just throw some ice cream on top. My almost-stepmom would serve this with a big dish of grits casserole and a pile of bacon for a more well-rounded meal. The possibilities for this dish are pretty much endless, as long as you don't forget the card (and your mom gets to forget about the mess in the kitchen).


1 Large Loaf Challah or Brioche
1 Cup Chopped Pecans, Toasted
4 Eggs
3/4 Cup Half and Half
1/2 Cup Milk
1/4 Cup Sugar
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
1 tsp Vanilla
1/2 tsp Cinnamon
1/4 tsp + Pinch Salt
4 T Butter, Softened
1 T Corn Syrup

Cut the loaf of bread into 1" cubes and transfer to a greased 7x11" baking dish. Toss with 1/2 cup pecans.

Whisk the eggs, half and half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and 1/4 tsp salt. Pour over the bread, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Heat oven to 350F.

Combine the butter, brown sugar, remaining pecans, corn syrup, and remaining pinch of salt. Sprinkle on top of the casserole and bake for 30-40 minutes until golden and set.

Serves 6

April 30, 2019

Banana Upside Down Cake

I'm finally back home by myself after 10 days of hosting, traveling, and socializing. Also, it's basically May which means it's basically summer (despite that bout of snow we got over the weekend), so there's lots to celebrate. And the best thing to celebrate with? A cake, of course. This recipe is a great casual baking cake, since it doesn't require any fancy layering or frosting or decorating. The bananas speak for themselves, and the caramel seeps into every nook and cranny of the light and airy cake. A scoop of ice cream on top really makes it fantastic, especially when you're looking forward to summer.


Let's start from the bottom, although the cake is flipped over so I guess we're starting from the top. The caramel. Or carmel. However you want to say it, you'll be surprised just how easy it is to make from scratch. I'll admit it's not a true caramel, but heating butter and brown sugar together until thick and bubbly makes a pretty good sauce. A pinch of salt and a splash of rum round out the flavors for the perfect base for this cake (and also a sauce to drizzle on top of the cake and/or more ice cream).


The cake is a pretty standard vanilla cake, though it mixes up more like a Devil's food cake. There's no butter to soften or cream together, just oil and sugar whisked with eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk. The dry ingredients are pretty basic too: flour, baking powder, and salt. It mixes up in a matter of minutes for a truly speed cake with all the flavor and fluff of a classic yellow cake.


Assembly is way easier than a fancy layer cake. I spread most of the caramel on the bottom of a deep round cake pan. It should have cooled down from when it was cooked, but if it's too thick to spread just heat it up on the stove for a minute or two until it thins out again. I slice about four very ripe bananas long-ways and fan them out in a single layer on the caramel, flat-side down. You'll probably need to break a couple into pieces for maximum coverage, or you can cut them the other way into coins. The cake batter goes on last, and I tap it on the counter a few times to get out any big air bubbles.


The cake bakes until a toothpick comes out clean, then I invert it onto a fancy plate so you can see all the caramelized bananas and the extra caramel drips down into the cake. It is especially delicious when served warm (even better with some ice cream on top), so no need to wait until it cools down completely. It will cut better if you can stand to wait a few minutes, but it's still better than waiting to cool completely and spreading on layers of frosting. I can't stress this enough: if you want a quick, summery cake to snack on instead of working on your summer bod, this is the way to go.

4 Bananas
1/2 Stick Butter
1 Cup Sugar
1/3 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
3/4 tsp + Pinch Salt
1 T Rum
1 1/2 Cups Flour
1 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Cup Oil
2 tsp Vanilla
1 Egg
1 Egg Yolk
1 Cup Buttermilk

Heat the butter and brown sugar together in a medium skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes or until thickened. Add a pinch of salt and the rum. Set aside to cool.

Heat oven to 350F and grease a deep 9-10" round cake pan.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, and remaining salt together. Combine the oil, sugar, vanilla, egg, egg yolk, and buttermilk. Whisk the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients.

Cut the bananas in half lengthwise. Pour the caramel into the cake pan, then add the bananas cut-side down. Top with the cake batter.

Bake the cake for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through. Let cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge and invert.

Makes 1 9-10" Cake
Adapted from Food52

April 18, 2019

Passover Almond Crinkle Cookies

I don't think these are what my grandma had in mind when she set out to perfect her black and white cookie recipe. For her (and pretty much everyone else on the planet), black and white cookies mean a yellow cakey base with a schmear each of chocolate and vanilla frosting. Unfortunately, those aren't Kosher for Passover, which is looming ahead in all of its gluten-free, leavening-free horror. It's not my favorite holiday. We've been over this. But there are still a few good desserts out there that you can eat for the next few days, like some thumbprint cookies or naturally gluten-free things like sorbet. Adding to that list are these almond crinkle cookies, which are kind of like if you made a really dense, chewy macaron. They're sweet and almondy, and instead of a frosting or jam filling they get rolled in cocoa powder, which crackles as it bakes for a zebra-striped look.


 Because it's Passover, this isn't a normal cookie recipe. Instead of beating your butter and sugar together, adding the eggs, then stirring in the dry ingredients and any mix-ins, you prep your dry ingredients then stir in whipped egg whites and flavorings. That's it! No softening butter, chilling dough overnight, or making sure nobody sneaks a taste from the bag of chocolate chips (guilty).


The dry ingredients are just almond flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt. You're not allowed to have flour or leavening, which makes sure it stays simple. If you wanted an extra chocolatey cookie, you could experiment with adding cocoa powder to the cookie dough itself, but I personally just like the cocoa dusting on the outside.


The wet ingredients consist of whipped egg whites plus a bit of almond extract and vanilla. A stand mixer will make your life much easier here, but a hand mixer or even a whisk and some elbow grease will work in a pinch. You do only need to get them to soft peaks, so it's not as bad as it could be. You'll know they're done when they're foamy, opaque, and the tip curls or flops over immediately when you lift up the whisk. I transfer them to the bowl with the dry ingredients and add the almond and vanilla extracts as I stir it all together. Normally you would be extremely delicate in folding the whites into the dough, but here it will take a bit more force to get the dough to come together. I'm not saying beat the stuff into a pulp, but don't be afraid to get in there with your spatula and squish it together.


I'm normally a big fan of big cookies for that contrast between a soft, gooey center and crispy edges. However, these cookies are best as small bites since you don't want the outsides to brown too much before the center cooks through. You can always eat more cookies to make up for their small size, but you wouldn't want to eat more cookies if they're burnt and raw at the same time. I use my smallest cookie scoop to make 1" balls, then roll them in cocoa powder and transfer them to my parchment-lined baking sheet. I did try some with powdered sugar and they tasted just fine, but for some reason they baked up all lumpy and misshapen when the cocoa-covered ones were perfectly round. For that reason (and because of my love for chocolate), I preferred the cocoa cookies but you can do either one or a few of each. They would be great along with some ice cream at your Passover seder, and you'll forget all about the matzo when you have these to snack on all week.


2 Cups Almond Flour
1 Cup Sugar
1/4 tsp Salt
2 Egg Whites
1/2 tsp Almond Extract
1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract
1/2 Cup Cocoa Powder and/or Powdered Sugar

Heat oven to 300F and line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk the almond flour, sugar, and salt together. Whip the egg whites on medium-high speed until they reach soft peaks. Stir into the almond flour along with the almond and vanilla extracts.

Roll the dough into 1" balls, then roll each in the cocoa powder or powdered sugar. Transfer to the prepared baking sheets and bake for 25 minutes or until crackly and set.

Makes 18-20
Recipe Adapted from Love & Olive Oil