Lessons Learned in 2012 and The Zen of Zesting

Dota 2013 New Year2012 was a year full of highs and lows for me. It is really hard to put into words how difficult the changes have been. I have spent the last decade or so just maintaining. You know, the same old job, set routines, not happy but not miserable, so I thought I was doing ok. In 2006 I tried a new career as a pastry chef but when that became too difficult, I went back to the familiar old job that paid the bills. I felt like there were so many people struggling with less that I was blessed to have as much as I did and I should just be happy with that. But I wanted more. It took a while for me to realize I deserved more. And it took even longer to be able to reach out to my friends and family to ask for the help I needed to get there.

cookingplanitI lost that comfortable job at the beginning of 2012. A year or so ago, that would have been a devastating blow. But through the power of prayer, the support of friends, and a really good therapist, I have to say I actually was excited by this. I somehow just knew that something bigger and better was in the works for me. I remember someone actually telling me that I should write down my dream job and I kind of scoffed at this and said, “Nobody is going to hire me to make desserts from my house.” And yet, that is pretty much what I am doing. Thanks to Cooking Planit, I am curating a database of desserts, as well as doing savory recipes, helping with blogger outreach, writing blog posts and pretty much anything else that helps expand my skills and keep the dream job interesting. Lesson learned- Sometimes you need to lose what you have to gain what you desire.

IMAG0271About a month after I started my dream job, I lost one of my best friends to heart disease at the way too young age of 39. I loved Dax with all my heart despite years of on-again, off-again and other dramas. He truly knew me better than even my own family. I was blessed to have him in my life and it was evident that he left a huge hole not only in my life but in those of his friends and family that packed the church at his memorial. The picture I am sharing here was a fabulous memory I will cherish with him at Cowboy Stadium. I struggle with the grief everyday. It was just so unexpected. Our last conversation was not a good one but that was not unusual for us. I know he loved me and I wish I could spend just one more day with him. Lesson learned- Hug the ones you love and tell them how much they mean to you because you never know if it will be the last.

IMG_5663I grew up with a special needs brother, Charles. If you have never had the opportunity to spend time with someone with special needs, I encourage you to seek out the opportunity through volunteering. There is something about people who have physical and mental handicaps that allows them to share a grace and love that is so pure it makes the world a less jaded place. Charles lived well past the age he was expected to in a very large part thanks to the loving care my parents provided for him for 48 years. Charles became very ill in June and the prognosis was dim. We were fortunate enough to spend time with our Bubby in his final days but of course, the loss of someone so special and innocent is heart-wrenching. Lesson learned- with Charles, the lessons were numerous but what he taught me most of all was being different was ok. In fact, be proud of your differences, it is how you find your strengths.

A big thank you to all of my friends who have helped me through my roller coaster year. So many times a phone call, a text, or a drinky poo with one of you has gotten me over a hump. You have celebrated my highs and dragged me through the lows. The lesson you all have brought me has been one of humility and strength as well as the ever-so-difficult, it is ok to rely on others, you do not have to do it all yourself. I love you all to pieces.

Another thing I have been struggling with is now that I am writing recipes for a living, it makes it near impossible to come up with extra stuff for the blog. Plus I have to taste all the stuff I make, so I am eating out a lot less than I used to. I know, I am happy to have such problems but my poor little blog has been suffering from neglect. Every once in a while when I am working on a dish, there is a tool or technique that I want to talk about in greater detail than I can in a recipe. So I want to start 2013 with a lesson learned about zesting. I will still do the occasional restaurant review or event report but I want to document the tips and tricks that help with my baking.

IMG_5580It drives me crazy when I see a celebrity chef using a microplane. Ok, if you are just scraping a little zest into a salad or nutmeg directly into a pot, it is ok to pass the ingredient over the sharp side with the cupped side facing the bowl. But if you have ever had to zest more than one lemon at a time, you know how messy and dangerous to you nails and knuckles this technique can be. You don’t slice a tomato by moving it back and forth against a knife blade. Try turning the microplane “upside down” with the cupped side facing up and pass it over the fruit to shave off the zest. It gives you much more control of the tool because you are moving the microplane and not the ingredient. Plus the zest collects in the cupped side for easy transfer to where you need it. Be careful to dump out the zest every so often as it is a mess if it spills but I can get at least half a fruit done before I have to empty it out. Hope this helps you learn the zen of zesting, too!


Mary Booth’s Favorite Lemon Tartlets

Mary Booth and I met at a Slow Food Austin potluck several years ago.  I made these tartlets because at the time I was hoping to launch a commercial endeavor selling lemon curd.  Mary was on the Slow Food Board and an enthusiastic supporter of local farms and food.  Because of health issues, she told me she could not taste many foods but somehow she was able to taste the tart sweetness of the curd.  Every time I saw Mary after that I was greeted with a big smile and introduced as the Lemon Curd Lady.  Mary passed away this last July, so this holiday season I have renamed my tarts in her memory.  The Austin food community misses you, Mary!

The curd that Mary loved so much was made with eggs from Boggy Creek farms.  With so few ingredients, it is very important to use the best ones possible.  If you have never had farm fresh eggs, get your tail-feathers down to the local farmers market and pick up a dozen.  You will be amazed by the intense color and flavor of the yolks which showcase nicely in this curd.

Lemon Curd

  • 10 egg yolks
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 8 lemons, zested and juiced
  • 2 stick butter, cut into pats and chilled
  • pinch of salt


Add the zest to the sugar and set aside, preferably overnight but at least an hour in advance.  Check my post  about the virtues of keeping a supply of lemon sugar on hand in your kitchen at all times!  Add enough water to a medium saucepan to come about 1-inch up the side. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, combine egg yolks and sugar in a medium size metal bowl and whisk until smooth, about 1 minute. Measure citrus juice and if needed, add enough cold water to reach 2/3 cup. Add juice to egg mixture and whisk smooth. Once water reaches a simmer, reduce heat to low and place bowl on top of saucepan. (Bowl should be large enough to fit on top of saucepan without touching the water.) Whisk until thickened, approximately 8 minutes, or until mixture is light yellow and coats the back of a spoon. (UPDATE- A friend of mine recommended I add to the description of the thickness. As you whisk the curd, you should be able to see the tracks of the whisk and the curd should be thick enough to stand up on a plate. It will thicken more as it cools but if you don’t cook it long enough, it will be soupy.) Remove promptly from heat and stir in butter a piece at a time, allowing each addition to melt before adding the next. If you have any eggy bits or wish to strain out the zest you can.  Personally I prefer the texture with the zest. Remove to a clean container and cover by laying a layer of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Tartlet Shells

1 16 ounce  box phyllo sheets (40 sheets)
Butter, melted and cooled  (2-3 sticks)


Phyllo dough can be a challenge to work with.  The most important things to know are that it should be gently thawed in your refrigerator at least 1 day before you plan to use it and that it dries out very quickly, so as you remove a sheet, cover the stack of sheets you are not working with immediately with a piece of plastic wrap and a damp cloth.  Do not let the damp cloth touch the sheets or you will end up with a gummy mess. On a clean surface lay 1 sheet of phyllo, lightly spread melted butter over entire surface with a pastry brush and sprinkle lightly (approximately 1/2 teaspoon sugar) over buttered surface.  Lay another layer of phyllo on top and repeat melted butter and sprinkling of sugar.  Repeat phyllo/butter/ sugar for a total of 3 layers.  Lightly spray a muffin tin (mini or standard size) Cut dough in squares a inch or so wider that the muffin cups. (Dough squares will form a fluted-edge tart.) Place the dough in the tins, pressing carefully so that the dough fits snugly in the cups. Brush with butter and bake at 400 degrees for 5-10 minutes or until light golden color. Fill with curd.  Garnish tarts with fresh berries or candied lemon zest.

Makes approximately 40 3 inch tarts.

Lemon Blueberry Cornmeal Poundcake

This recipe came as a result of my favorite kind of dining, guerrilla dinner party.  Picture it, an assortment of Austin hipsters are hanging out on a porch in Buda.  And I know they are hipsters, myself included, because they would be really pissed to find out someone was trying to define their coolness with something as bourgeois as a label.   They are drinking Lone Stars in truly vintage t shirts that some might pay a fortune for but I know for a fact came from the bar one used to work at as a gimme from the beer company and another was actually purchased at the Fishbone concert in the 80’s and it looks washed and worn because it has been.  At least they are not fake hipsters.

Anyway, said hipsters on the porch happen to be a couple of miles from one of the best meat markets around that also functions as a Mexican market/gas station.  I know exactly how to get there but I am not sure of the address.  I just know all the roads you turn on start with RR or FM.  The boys bring back 5 gorgeous New York Strips for less than $5 each, a suitcase of Natty Light, and more Lone Star. 

I  brought a beautiful box of produce leftover from the chef demo tent at the Wine and Food Fest, so Michelle and I start making sides with the vibrant purple cabbage and sweet, fresh corn.  But we need something for dessert.  I had given Michelle an autographed copy of The Essential Baker by Carol Bloom who I had the great pleasure to work with at the Central Market Cooking School a while back.  Michelle had made the cornmeal pound cake before and thought she might just have the ingredients to make it.  Lucky for us she did!

I added the blueberries to the batter instead of the compote that Ms. Bloom used and  kicked up the tartness with a fabulous lemony glaze that sent us in to a puckery heaven with the crunch of the cornmeal crust.  This cake is a wonderful cross between cornbread and blueberry muffins.  Enjoy!

Lemon Blueberry Cornmeal Poundcake

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup frozen or fresh blueberries-  if you use frozen, do not thaw or your batter will turn purple

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 extra large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups cake flour*
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

zest (optional but adds a wonderfully tart texture) and juice of 4 lemons, approximately 1/4 cup

1 cup confectioners sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 8 1/2 inch loaf pan with 1 tablespoon butter.
  2. Place the 12 tablespoons butter in large bowl and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and cream together. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing and scraping in between each egg addition.
  3. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, powder, salt, and cornmeal. Add to the butter mixture in 3 stages, mixing well after each addition.
  4. Add the lemon zest and juice.  Fold in blueberries.  Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. It should be very thick, so spread it evenly throughout the pan. Bake 45 minutes, until the cake is light golden on top and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out slightly moist.
  5. Combine lemon juice and confectioners sugar.  Let cake cool about 10 minutes and pour 1/2 of glaze over cake.  Let sit for another 15-20 minutes and pour over rest of glaze over cake.

* if you do not have cake flour, use 1 TBS less of all pupose flour.

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