Sunday, May 26, 2013

Norma's Tamales

I'm definitely feeling a little sentimental as I write this post.  I've been teaching 2nd grade at Norman Rockwell Elementary for 11 years and I'm getting ready to say goodbye to a school, community, and co-workers that I love.  I spent the afternoon on Friday with a few of those co-workers making tamales and was reminded of how blessed I am to have worked with such wonderful and fun people over the years.   

Norma, a para-professional from my school, and I have been talking about doing this for YEARS.  The fact that I'm leaving the country forced us to find the time to make it happen.  Thank you Norma for sharing your talent and knowledge with me (and for letting me ask a million obnoxious questions) and for doing so much to plan for our special day of making tamales! 

Warning:  I've got a lot to say in this post, so brace yourself, because making tamales is not for the faint of heart.  It's a process and takes commitment.  Norma typically only makes them once a year, at Christmas, but made a special exception this year.  She did quite a few steps ahead so that we weren't at her house all night, and even then, we spent several hours learning about the process. 

Let me start with a few interesting things that I learned that you might also find helpful:
  • Most of the ingredients needed can be found at a regular old grocery store. 
  • One common pitfall when making tamales is using too much meat when rolling the tamales.  Norma said that when they're making tamales it's not uncommon to hear, "Too much meat!" being shouted around the table.  Don't make this mistake.
  • Bella, another one of my fantastic former co-workers, was there making tamales with us.  She grew up in Mexico until she was 14 and taught us that one of these things that we were making is called a tamal (no e on the end) and that tamales is plural.  So if I use the term tamal, it's not a typo. 
  • The two main components of a tamal are the filling and the masa, which means dough. 
  • There are many possibilities for fillings:  chicken and cheese, vegetarian, or shredded beef and pork.  We made shredded beef and pork.     

yields 10-12 dozen tamales
  • 4 pounds pork (rump or shoulder)
  • 5 pounds beef (rump or round roast)
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt
  • pepper
  • garlic salt
  • 2 cans (1 pound 12 ounces) Las Palmas red chili sauce, medium (NOT enchilada sauce)
  • 2 cans (12 ounces) medium-sized black pitted olives
  • 1 can (4 ounces) can diced jalapenos
  • 1 can (7.75 ounces) El Pato sauce

Sprinkle each roast with Kosher salt, pepper, and garlic salt and place in separate Dutch ovens with 1/2 an onion and 3-4 cloves of garlic in each. 

Add enough water to cover the meat.

Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer until meat is falling about, about 2 hours.  If the water evaporates, add more to keep the meat covered. 

IMPORTANT:  Save the liquid broth that is left after cooking the beef.  This will be used when mixing the dough. 

Let meat cool enough to handle and shred. 

Combine pork and beef in one pot and add the rest of the ingredients:  red chili sauce, olives, jalapenos, and El Pato sauce.  Mix together and bring to a low boil. 

Simmer on low heat for about 1 hour. 

NOTE:  If after simmering there is a lot of liquid in the meat and it seems too soupy, remove some of the liquid.  You don't want the meat too runny.

The meat filling should end up about like this:

Sue being her helpful self and making sure that Norma is staying well-hydrated (by drinking her margarita) during the tamal making process: 

yields 10-12 dozen
  • 1 bag (4.4 pounds) Maseca tamal flour (look for a light beige colored bag)
  • 4 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 cups shortening, room temperature
  • 2 quarts beef broth, reserved from cooking beef, warmed
  • 2 quarts store-bought beef broth, warmed
  • 1 can (7.75 ounces) El Pato salsa de chile fresco
  • 10-12 dozen hojas (corn husks)
Soak hojas (corn husks) for at least two days in warm water before rolling the tamales.  This makes the corn husk pliable and easier to work with.  Change the water in the morning and at night each day. 

In a very large pan (Norma suggests a turkey roasting pan) place the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and shortening.

Use a fork and a knife to cut the shortening into the flour mixture. 

Then, use a hand mixer to fully incorporate the shortening into the mixture.  Beat on low speed until well combined. 

Add the warm beef broth, starting with the broth reserved from the cooked meat, a few cups at a time and stir with a wooden spoon. 

Continue adding broth a few cups at a time until the mixture is thick and spongy.  Mix with your hands to get the masa completely mixed and to make sure you have the right texture.   

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Norma says getting the masa to the right consistency can be tricky, but is crucial to making successful tamales.  It should be spongy, about the consistency of thick oatmeal.  When you're mixing with your hands you'll feel the grittiness of the corn, but shouldn't feel any lumps of shortening.  The warm beef broth should help the shortening dissolve. If you use all 4 quarts of beef broth and the texture still isn't right, you can add water until the right consistency is reached.       

When the consistency seems right, add about 3/4 of the can of the salsa de chile fresco to add color and flavor to the masa.   

Now it's time to roll the tamales!!  This is the fun part. 


Take a corn husk and using the back of a spoon, spread a thin layer of masa on the wide end of the husk.  The masa should cover about half of the husk.  Make sure you spread the masa all the way to the end of the husk.  It will look about like this:


Place about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture (plus an olive!) in the middle of the masa and then fold the sides together.  Remember, don't add too much meat!  I think I made this mistake more than once.   

Fold up the end to finish off the tamal.
When ready to eat your tamales, place a vegetable steamer in the bottom of a large pot with water in the bottom.  Place a ball of foil in the middle of the steamer basket.
Arrange the tamales, open end up, like a teepee around the foil ball and cover with a lid or foil. 
Steam for 1 hour over low heat.  Add water if it it's running low. 
Let the tamales rest for 20-30 minutes by sitting uncovered with the heat turned off.  This allows the dough to set up and harden slightly.
Once the tamales are steamed you can store them in the refrigerator and reheat for up to a week. 
To reheat, wrap the tamales in a damp paper towel, cover with plastic, and heat in the microwave for 1-2 minutes. 
To freeze tamales, place in a sealed plastic bag and freeze prior to steaming.
To defrost, let frozen tamales sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours and then steam according to directions above.
Thanks again Norma!  This was such a fun afternoon and will always be a special memory.

Source:  Norma Bellanca

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Vanilla Buttercream

This is a slightly different buttercream than what I've used before, but the result was good and I thought it was a little bit easier.  I like to use half unsalted and half salted butter for a slightly salty flavor.  I also firmly believe that cakes made with buttercream should be served at room temperature.      

yields: enough to frost one 9-inch layer cake

  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 7 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract

Note:  The sugar syrup and egg whites will need to be ready at roughly the same time, so preparing them will require some coordination.

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, bring the sugar and water to a simmer, swirling occasionally, and cook until the sugar dissolves.

Continue simmering, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 248°F on a digital thermometer, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks, 8 to 10 minutes.             

Immediately transfer the sugar syrup to a heatproof liquid measuring cup. With the mixer running on medium-high speed, add the hot sugar syrup to the whites in a thin, steady stream; aim to pour it into the small space between the mixer bowl and the whisk.

Continue to whip the mixture until thick and shiny and the outside of the bowl feels cool to the touch, about 10 minutes.

Decrease the speed to medium and, with the mixer running, add the butter one piece at a time.

The mixture won't resemble perfect buttercream until the last of the butter has been added. If it's looking deflated, wet, or broken during mixing, make sure the butter is at room temperature and slow down the additions, adding the next piece only after the last one has been fully incorporated.

Add the vanilla and beat on medium speed until well combined, about 1 minute, until the texture is similar to mayonnaise.

Do Ahead: Stored in an airtight container, buttercream will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or for up to 4 months in the freezer.

Warming Buttercream:
Place about 2 cups of buttercream in a microwavable container. Heat it for no more than 5 seconds at a time at full power until it begins to look slightly glossy but not at all melted; it should still be solid, with a sheen from a softened exterior—not unlike ice cream on a cone as it begins melting and dripping onto your hand.  Beat the warmed buttercream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until it resembles mayonnaise, about 30 seconds.

Source:  Caitlin Freeman

Lemon Curd

This lemon curd is absolutely fantastic.  It has an intense lemon flavor and could be used on crepes, tarts, or on toast.  I used it as a filling in this cake and was happy to have a little left after to eat with a spoon.  This is one situation where homemade definitely blows store-bought out of the water.

  • 12 large egg yolks
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup fresh lemon juice
  • zest of 4 lemons
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1 tablespoon pieces, at room temperature

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring 2 to 3 inches of water to a simmer.

In a heatproof medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thoroughly combined.

Whisk in the lemon juice and zest and set the bowl on the saucepan, making sure the bottom does not touch the simmering water.

Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and the temperature registers 180°F, 20 to 30 minutes.

Strain the curd through a fine-mesh sieve set over a clean medium bowl.

Add the butter a few pieces at a time, stirring with a rubber spatula.

When all the butter has been incorporated, blend with an immersion blender (or hand mixer) until the curd is completely smooth, about 30 seconds.

Strain the curd once again, this time into a storage container.

Press plastic wrap onto the surface and refrigerate until chilled and set, 3 to 4 hours.

Do  Ahead: Stored in an airtight container, the lemon curd can be held for up to 1 week in the refrigerator or for 4 months in the freezer.

Source:  Caitlin Freeman

Yellow Butter Cake

This is a good recipe to have in your recipe box.  I've made it twice in the last month; once for this cake I made on Mother's Day and the next week for my niece's birthday cake.  The recipe below yields one 9-inch cake.  I made two cakes each time and split them so I ended up with a 4-layer cake. 


  • 5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Butter and flour the sides of an 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with a parchment paper round that has been cut to fit.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1/2 cup of the milk, and the vanilla.
Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed for 30 seconds.
Add the remaining 1/4 cup of milk and mix on low speed until moistened, about 15 seconds.
Add the butter and beat on medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes or until smooth and aerated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Add the egg mixture in 3 batches, mixing on medium speed for 20 seconds and then scraping down the bowl after each addition.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.
Bake, rotating the pan midway through baking, until the cake springs back when gently pressed in the center, 55 to 60 minutes.  You can also test for doneness by listening to the cake: Remove the pan from the oven, set it on a wire rack, lower your ear to the cake, and listen. If you hear the cake snap, crackle, and pop, it needs a few more minutes in the oven. If it's quiet, it's done.            
Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, and then run an offset spatula around the inside of the pan. Invert the cake onto the wire rack, lift off the pan, and remove the parchment.
When the cake is cool enough to handle, after about 20 minutes, re-invert it so the top is facing up. Let cool completely, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before assembling.

Note: Save the leftover egg whites if you're making buttercream. 

Note #2:  The original recipe says that you can store the cake wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.  I would not recommend storing it in the refrigerator for more than a few hours to firm it up before assembling the cake.  If you do want to make it a day or so ahead, wrap it tightly and leave it on the counter. 

Source:  Caitlin Freeman

Pink Cake

I've been into making layer cakes lately.  It's been a fun new thing to learn about and experiment with.  Luckily, there are lots of great resources and videos online that have helped me work on my skills. 

I made this pink cake a couple of weeks ago for Mother's Day and it was a big hit with the fam.  I was glad it turned out because it took me THE ENTIRE day to make.  So, needless to say, this is a pretty involved dessert, but I would definitely make it again and have some advice for having it not be quite so overwhelming. 

There are lots of parts to this cake, several of which can be made in advance.  Make the lemon curd a day or two before you assemble the cake.  Also, make the cake either in the morning or the day before so you have time to let it chill for a few hours. 

I'll post each recipe separately, so as to be avoid the longest, most overwhelming post ever.  Plus, the individual parts are so good that they can be used in lots of other delicious dessert combinations.

See below for directions on how to assemble the cake. 

Here are the parts to the cake:

The original recipe also called for strawberry concentrate to add to the buttercream to get the pink color.  It didn't have a very pink color or strong strawberry flavor so I think I would omit this step next time and use a few drops of food coloring (or leave it out and have it be a white cake instead) and save myself some time.

Note on Cake Decorating:  I got a turntable ($10 on Amazon!) to use when frosting layer cakes.  This made the process SO much easier and fun. I was pretty pleased with my smooth sides and slightly swirled top.  This video from Sweetapolita (scroll down for video) was also very helpful. 


The simple syrup is brushed on each layer when assembling the cake to keep it moist.  If you want, you can steep a vanilla bean pod in the syrup to add a little extra special flavor.

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • vanilla bean pod (optional)

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan.

Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.

Remove from the heat and let cool before using.


To assemble the pink cake, place the cooled cake on a flat, stable work surface.

Using a long, serrated knife, slice off the rounded top of each cake so that they are perfectly level. An even, flat top is key to the look of this dessert.

Using the serrated knife, split the cakes horizontally into 2 even layers so you have a total of 4 layers.

Place the bottom layer on an 9-inch cardboard cake round or directly on the serving platter and set on top of a cake turntable, if you have one.

Generously brush the surface of the cake with simple syrup.

Measure out 1/2 cup of buttercream and, using an offset spatula, spread it evenly on the bottom cake layer, being careful not to let it blop over the sides.

As you spread the buttercream, let a small wall (about 1/4 inch high) form around the outer edge, creating a well for the lemon curd.

Evenly distribute 1/4 cup of the lemon curd in the well.

Set another cake layer on top and brush with simple syrup; spread with buttercream, creating a well, and fill with lemon curd just as you did with the first layer.

Repeat with the third layer.

Top with the final cake layer.

Measure out 1 cup of buttercream and use the offset spatula to apply it as a crumb coat, a thin coating covering all surfaces of the cake.  A crumb coat will seal the exterior of the cake to help prevent crumbs from marring the final frosting.  It's important to measure out buttercream specifically for the crumb coat so that the unused buttercream remains crumb free.

Refrigerate the cake for 10 to 15 minutes to set the crumb coat.

Reserve about 1/2 cup of buttercream for the top of the cake.

Using an offset spatula, apply a thick layer of the remaining buttercream to the sides of the chilled crumb-coated cake. At this point, it's not important that the cake look pretty—it's most important that the buttercream be evenly distributed around the sides.

With the cake sitting squarely in the middle of the turntable and with the offset spatula held vertically against the frosting, begin spinning the turntable. Keep the cake moving steadily in one direction and apply light pressure with the spatula; the buttercream will begin to even out. 

Once the sides are perfectly vertical and smooth, create as much or as little texture as you want in the buttercream. 

The cake is best served immediately.

Source:  Caitlin Freeman  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Lettuce Wraps

My friend Linnea sent me home with a bag of lettuce from her garden this weekend so it seemed like making lettuce wraps was the right thing to do. 

I was initially turned off by this recipe because it contains mushrooms and water chestnuts: two things that I don't typically enjoy.  I decided to use the food processor to mince both in hopes that the textures wouldn't get to me.  I'm glad I stuck to the recipe because these were SUPER tasty.  Light, healthy, flavorful.  Mmm!

Also, there's a quick and easy recipe for dipping sauce that you'll definitely want to make.

  • 2 teaspoons oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 3 ounces mushrooms, finely minced in the food processor (about 8 small mushrooms)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 4 cups cabbage, thinly shredded
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained, rinsed, and finely minced in the food processor
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced (about 3-4 tablespoons juice)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce
  • 1 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1-2 heads lettuce, leaves removed and washed (I like butter lettuce.)

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1-2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger

Heat a very large skillet to medium-high heat on the stove top.

When hot, add oil, garlic, and ginger. Saute for about 30 seconds, until fragrant.

Add ground chicken, mushrooms, and Kosher salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until chicken is cooked through.  If there's a lot of extra liquid in the pan from the chicken, tilt the pan and use a spoon to remove it. 

Add cabbage, carrots, water chestnuts, and green onions. Cook for about 2 minutes, until cabbage starts to wilt.

Add soy sauce, sesame oil, lemon zest and juice, and hot sauce.

Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

To prepare dipping sauce, combine all ingredients and whisk to combine.

Place chicken mixture in the leaves and serve with sauce.

Makes 14-16 lettuce wraps.

Source: slightly modified from Our Best Bites

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Marshmallow & Malt Chocolate Cake

A few weeks back I made my first layer cake for my friend's birthday.  It made me feel a little more like a grown up.  It wasn't the most amazing decorating job and my sides were far from perfectly smooth, but all in all, I thought the outcome wasn't too shabby.  It was a fun project.  And, it was REALLY tasty!

Although I really liked this cake overall, I didn't love the recipe that I used for the chocolate cake.  I'll have to keep searching for the perfect chocolate cake recipe.  In the meantimem however, I feel the need to share the frosting and filling for this cake because they were so good.  The world, or at least the handful of friends that read this little blog, need to know about these very delicious recipes.   

This is a 9-inch, 4-layer Whopper meets s'more cake.  The frosting has Ovaltine in it which gives it the malted flavor.  The toasted marshmallow filling has whole toasted marshmallows plus marshmallow cream plus butter.  Oooooh, so good. 

Here are some other tips and thoughts I have on this cake:
  • You can buy jars of marshmallow fluff or make your own.  I included the recipe below if you're interested in making it.  It's easy.  I'm always trying to think of things that I can use it for because I really love marshmallow fluff.  You can also freeze the extras.    
  • I made the malted frosting last week and used it on brownies.  De-lish!  I'm sure it would be good on cupcakes or sugar cookies as well. 
  • Ovaltine can be found near the hot chocolate in the grocery store.  I used the regular flavor, not the chocolate malt flavor.  I'm sure both would be delicious.      

The thick layers of marshmallow cream was on purpose.  The super-skinny layers of cake was not.  Cutting cakes into equally thick layers is tricky.  I definitely need a little more practice.   
Homemade Marshmallow Cream:
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 cups light corn syrup
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
Combine egg whites, corn syrup, and salt. Beat on high speed for 10 minutes or until thick.
Add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until blended.
Add vanilla and blend.
Toasted Marshmallow Filling:
  • 16 large white marshmallows
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 jar marshmallow cream OR 1 1/2 cups homemade marshmallow cream
Place marshmallows on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Place on lower rack of oven, and broil marshmallows until nice and brown on top, between 30-60 seconds.
Remove pan from oven and gently turn the marshmallows over, and broil until they are golden brown. (Be sure to keep an eye on them--they burn very quickly.)
In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter and powdered sugar on low until blended, about 1 minute.
Add vanilla and mix on med-high for about 3 minutes.
Add marshmallow cream and toasted marshmallows, and mix on lowest setting for about 1 minute.
Malted Chocolate Frosting:
  • 1 pound butter (4 sticks), at room temperature
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup Ovaltine Classic
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream

In a bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine the powdered sugar and butter and beat on low speed for about 1 minute.
Add malt powder, vanilla and salt, and beat on low until well combined.
Add the melted chocolate and beat on medium speed until smooth (about 2 minutes).
Add whipping cream and beat on med-high speed for another minute.
Assembling the Cake:
Cut your two layers in half using a serrated knife. 

On a cake plate, put a small dollop of frosting.

Place your first layer face-up on the board (or plate) and cover with an even layer of the marshmallow filling, leaving about 1/2" around the edge. Place another cake layer face-up and repeat with malted frosting.
Repeat until you come to your final layer, which you will place face-down. If you find the cake too soft and unstable, put in refrigerator for a few moments to firm it up, then resume.
Frost entire outside of cake with remaining malted frosting.
homemade marshmallow cream:  A Bountiful Kitchen
marshmallow filling:  Sweetapolita
chocolate malt frosting:  Sweetapolita

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Black Bean Quinoa

I always have a hard time coming up with side dishes for Mexican meals.  This is a nice alternative to rice and beans.  It's simple, yet flavorful.  If you want a little more kick, use more cayenne pepper.  If you really love black beans, use two cans instead of one.             

  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Stir in the onion and garlic, and saute until lightly browned.

Mix quinoa into the saucepan and cover with broth.

Season with cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper.

Bring the mixture to a boil.

Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir corn into the saucepan, and continue to simmer about 5 minutes until heated through.

Mix in the black beans and cilantro.

Source: slightly modified from