sventiki 1

It started casually enough when my brother asked me to share a few tiki drink recipes with him. I sent him some of my favorites and some information about rums, and he seemed happy enough. Then Christmas rolled around, and, at a loss for gift ideas, I got him two tiki cookbooks. In the months since, the student has far surpassed the master in tikiness – and that was before he started garnishing.

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What you see here is but a poor example of Todd’s garnishing prowess. My bachelor brother has now planted flowers and mint plants in his yard so that he always has some available for tiki garnishes. These pictures were taken on vacation, when he had to make do with just maraschino cherries, pineapple leaves, lime wedges, umbrellas, and citrus curls. Too bad he didn’t pack his Moai ice/jello molds. My garnishes, by contrast, are far less fun more restrained.

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We were limited in our tiki ingredients on vacation, but we’d packed enough grenadine and good rum for this one. I like it because while it’s still light and fruity, the dark rum makes it more interesting. The bubbles from the club soda are refreshing and fun. Maybe not as fun as creative garnishes, but it all comes together for a great drink.

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Sven-Tiki (slightly adapted from Jeff Berry’s Beachbum Berry Remixed)

Makes 1 drink

Recommended rums: Shellback or Flor de Cana for light/silver rum; Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old or Old Brigand Black Label for dark rum.

1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce orange juice
1 ounce unsweetened pineapple juice
1 ounce grenadine
1 ounce dark rum
2 ounces light rum
½ ounce club soda

Put all ingredients except the club soda into a cocktail shaker. Add 1½ cups crushed ice; cover and shake until the shaker is frosted over. Pour unstrained into a glass. Top with club soda.

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cinnamon zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting

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How do we justify putting zucchini in desserts? Carrot cake, for example, while it isn’t my favorite dessert, makes sense to me – carrots are sweet, cake is sweet. I don’t like beets, but I can see why they’re used in cakes, because they’re also sweet (and colorful). Zucchini, though, really isn’t that sweet.

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In fact, it really isn’t that anything – it’s fairly bland, as vegetables go. You could say it adds moisture, but there are plenty of more flavorful liquids to add to desserts than zucchini juice. So are we just trying to make cakes healthier by adding a bland, easily-disguised vegetable? Because trust me, this cake isn’t healthy, and adding a pittance of shredded zucchini to each serving isn’t going to change that.

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It certainly doesn’t taste healthy; it tastes like a delicious lightly spiced cake. Maybe the zucchini isn’t adding anything other than pretty flecks of green and a trick to use up the summer garden excess. I suppose I don’t care, because I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve baked with zucchini and have no plans to stop.

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Cinnamon Zucchini Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cobbled together from a bunch of recipes)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

I used one large homegrown zucchini that weighed about 12 ounces. The zucchini at my store are much smaller, so two or even three might be necessary, but they should still weigh a total of 12 ounces.

2 cups shredded zucchini
1 teaspoon table salt
2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup oil
1½ cups (10½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk

8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar

1. For the cake: Combine the zucchini and salt in a strainer set over a larger bowl; set aside for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, use a rubber spatula to press on the zucchini in the strainer to release liquid. Discard the liquid.

2. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, oil, and sugar, on medium speed until evenly combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add half of the dry ingredients, then all of the buttermilk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until evenly combined. Stir in the drained zucchini.

4. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it evenly to the corners. Bake until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool completely before frosting.

5. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla on medium speed until smooth. Stop the mixer, add the powdered sugar, and beat on the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated, then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until smooth and creamy, 2-3 minutes. Spread the frosting evenly over the cooled cake.

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blueberry muffin comparison

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left to right: CI Best, CI Classic, Jordan Marsh

I set out all three sets of muffins at work with a note that said that if my coworkers ate more than one type, I’d love to know their favorite. Someone said he was sure they were all good, but I told him I wanted to know which one I should choose if I could only make one blueberry muffin recipe for the rest of my life. He asked whether I ever repeated recipes anyway. Well…it isn’t common, to be honest. But for something as classic as blueberry muffins, it’s possible that I could. And if I do, I obviously want to make the best recipe.

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I chose three recipes that seemed as different as blueberry muffin recipes get:

Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic – I wanted to make sure I included a somewhat traditional recipe with no tricks up its sleeve. This one is mixed using the standard quick bread method, in which the dry ingredients are mixed separately from the wet ingredients, and then they’re folded together. The source of dairy is sour cream, and there’s quite a bit of it, and therefore less butter (or oil) than in the other recipes. It also specifies frozen blueberries; Cook’s Illustrated recommends frozen wild blueberries, but those aren’t available at my store.

Cook’s Illustrated’s Best – Often with “best” recipes, I wonder if the extra effort is really worth it. In this case, that extra effort involves cooking and mashing half of the blueberries and simmering them until they’re reduced. This mixture is then swirled into each muffin. Other than that step, which was quite easy, the recipe is fairly traditional, with oil standing for half of the fat (in addition to butter).

Jordan Marsh-inspired – These are mixed like most cookies and cakes, with sugar beaten into the butter, then the milk and dry ingredients alternately added at the end. A small portion of the blueberries are mashed and evenly mixed into the dough. This recipe had more blueberries than either of the others.

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Out of the twenty or so people who work in my building, only a handful gave me their opinion on the muffins. I can’t blame the rest though, because not everyone wants to eat three half-muffins, and that’s okay. Even with a small response, some trends were clear.

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left to right: CI Classic, Jordan Marsh, CI Best

Cook’s Illustrated’s Classic (orange sprinkles) – These baked up pale. This was no one’s favorite, but it was one coworker’s second favorite. I thought they tasted the least blueberry-y, which is not a surprise since they did have slightly less blueberries than the other recipes.

Cook’s Illustrated’s Best (yellow sprinkles) – These browned quite a bit, maybe more than I would have preferred. However, these were the favorite of three people, and one did say that he liked that they tasted darker. One friend liked that it was the least sweet. Despite the blueberry swirl on the top, I didn’t think they had much blueberry flavor, although I have to admit the swirl was pretty. It’s interesting to me that CI’s goal with this recipe was to maximize the amount of blueberries in the muffins without reducing their structural integrity; however, normalized per weight of flour, this recipe has only a tiny bit more blueberries than CI’s Classic recipe.

Jordan Marsh-inspired (green sprinkles) – These were my favorite, as well as the favorite of two other coworkers. However, straight out of the oven, I almost discounted them entirely, as they collapsed when removed from the pan. You can see in the pictures that they have so many blueberries, by far the most of the three recipes, that the fruit sunk to the bottom. That hot juicy fruit couldn’t hold up the dough above it, hence the collapsing. However, they did, unsurprisingly, have the strongest blueberry flavor, as well as a nice tanginess. That tanginess is surprising considering that this recipe uses regular milk, not sour cream or buttermilk as in the other two recipes.

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left to right: CI Classic, Jordan Marsh, CI Best

So which will I make in the future? I’m thinking the Jordan Marsh will be my preferred recipe, with slightly less blueberries. Yes, it won’t taste as much of blueberries then, but it will be worth it to have muffins that can stand under their own weight. Even if the the blueberries are reduced from 2½ cups to 2 cups, this recipe has more blueberries than the other two. If I was really ambitious, I could use the method in Cook’s Illustrated Best recipe to simmer a portion of the blueberries and make pretty swirls on the top. As I found, the extra effort of simmering down the blueberries wasn’t much work at all. Was it worth the effort though? Well, maybe not, since I thought a simpler recipe was even better.

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left to right: CI Best, CI Classic, Jordan Marsh

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Classic Blueberry Muffins (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes 12 muffins

2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1¼ cups (10 ounces) sour cream
1½ cups frozen blueberries, preferably wild

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick vegetable cooking spray.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl until combined. Whisk egg in second medium bowl until well-combined and light-colored, about 20 seconds. Add sugar and whisk vigorously until thick and homogenous, about 30 seconds; add melted butter in 2 or 3 steps, whisking to combine after each addition. Add sour cream in 2 steps, whisking just to combine.

3. Add frozen berries to dry ingredients and gently toss to combine. Add sour cream mixture and fold with rubber spatula until batter comes together and berries are evenly distributed, 25 to 30 seconds (small spots of flour may remain and batter will be thick). Do not overmix.

4. Use ice cream scoop or large spoon to drop batter into greased muffin tin. Bake until light golden brown and toothpick or skewer inserted into center of muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Invert muffins onto wire rack, stand muffins upright, and cool 5 minutes.

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dough for CI Classic

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Best Blueberry Muffins (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes 12 muffins

2 cups (about 10 ounces) fresh blueberries, picked over
1⅛ cups (8 ounces) sugar, plus 1 teaspoon
2½ cups (12½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to ¼ cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk remaining 1⅛ cups sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

3. Use ice cream scoop or large spoon to divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups (batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly). Spoon teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter. Using chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using figure-eight motion.

4. Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.

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dough for CI Best

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Jordan Marsh-Inspired Blueberry Muffins (barely adapted from King Arthur Flour via epicurious)

Makes 12 muffins

In the future, I’ll either reduce the blueberries to 2 cups (mashing ½ cup and leaving 1½ cups whole), or I’ll follow the simmering step in Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Blueberry Muffin recipe with 1 cup of the blueberries, still mashing the same amount (½ cup) and mixing the remaining 1 cup in whole.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2½ cups blueberries (about 12½ ounces), fresh preferred
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray the bottoms of a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick spray or line with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Mash ½ cup of the blueberries, leaving the remainder whole.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, sugar, and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add half of the dry ingredients, then all of the milk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until evenly combined. Stir in the mashed and whole blueberries.

3. Divide the dough evenly between the prepared muffin cups. Bake the muffins until their tops are golden and a toothpick inserted into one comes out with no raw batter attached, 20-25 minutes. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove the muffins from the pan, transferring them to a wire rack.

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dough for Jordan Marsh

pizza with zucchini, goat cheese, and lemon

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Thank god for my zucchini plant. Despite some cucumber beetles and slugs, it is growing quite nicely. This is in contrast to most of my other plants. The tomatoes, peppers, and cucumber plants are all just barely holding on, and of course I can’t figure out what’s wrong with them. Seeing the huge, green zucchini plant and cutting off a zucchini every few days makes me feel much better.

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Almost all of my zucchinis so far have gone into enchiladas with goat cheese and black beans, but I saved one for a light, summery pizza. The zucchini is julienned and salted to draw out liquid, so it doesn’t waterlog the pizza. If you’re lucky, it might brown a bit in the oven too.

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I’m not completely sold on the slices of lemon called for in the original recipe; even sliced paper-thin, they still caused a few shockingly lemony bites. I did like the hit of tartness though, so I think a quick squeeze of lemon juice on the just-baked pizza would be a nice substitute. I’ll have to try that next time; since my garden apparently won’t be producing gazpacho ingredients, I’ll just make more zucchini pizza.

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Pizza with Zucchini, Goat Cheese, and Lemon Pizza (adapted from The Food Lab)

Makes one 10-inch pizza

I use a baking steel, not a baking stone. I’ve found that it makes for a lighter crust with a crisper base. However, if you leave the parchment paper on the steel under the broiler for the full five minutes, it will burn to a blackened flaky crisp. After one minute under the broiler, I use a spatula to lift the edge of the pizza and pull out the parchment paper with tongs.

¾ pound pizza dough (⅓ of this recipe)
1 small zucchini
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced into 1-inch cubes
2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Place a pizza stone on a rack about 5 inches below the broiler and heat the oven as high as it goes for at least 45 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball; cover and set aside for about 30 minutes to allow the gluten to relax.

2. Slice the zucchini into rounds ⅛-inch thick, then slice each round into slivers ⅛-inch thick. In a small bowl, combine the zucchini, garlic, and salt; set aside for 30 minutes.

3. Drain the zucchini, then transfer it to a kitchen towel; squeeze it as dry as possible. Transfer the zucchini back to the empty bowl, add the oil, and stir to evenly coat it.

4. Gently flatten the dough, then pick it up and stretch it out to about 10 inches, trying to keep it as circular as possible. Curl your fingers and let the dough hang on your knuckles, moving and rotating the dough so it stretches evenly. If it tears, piece it together. If the dough stretches unevenly, put it down and gently tug on the thick spots.

5. Line a pizza peel (or the back of a baking sheet) with parchment paper and transfer the round of dough to the peel, rearranging it to something reasonably circular. Top with the mozzarella, then the zucchini and goat cheese. Transfer the pizza with the parchment paper to the hot pizza stone.

6. Immediately turn the oven off and the broiler on (to high, if yours has settings). Bake the pizza for about 5 minutes, until the bottom crust is spotty browned. Transfer the pizza to a cooling rack and drizzle the lemon juice evenly over the top, then evenly distribute the scallions over the pizza. Cool about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

blackberry plum streusel pie

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Usually it works out that I get a bunch of birthday cakes – one that my mom makes whenever my family is all together near-ish my birthday, one I make for my birthday weekend, and one I make to bring to work. But this year I didn’t get any birthday cakes.

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I did, however, get birthday pie, and that was better this year anyway. Not only had I just baked, sampled, and eaten the trimmings of this huge cake, but I baked another pretty cake for a friend’s birthday just a few days before mine. I was pretty much caked out by then, which is perfect timing, because August is time for fruit desserts.

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I love combining stone fruits and berries, and I’d never had plum pie before. Plus, as good as I think my pie crust is, streusel is even better. And as a bonus, I had a batch of vanilla ice cream in the freezer that I’d made to use up egg yolks leftover from one of the cakes, and of course vanilla ice cream, baked fruit, and streusel is a perfect combination.

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It being my birthday weekend and all, I had pie for breakfast, lunch, and dessert. I only added ice cream for the lunch and dessert servings though; let’s not get crazy. But after all that pie, I think I’m ready for some cake now.

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Blackberry Plum Streusel Pie (pie adapted slightly from Gourmet via epicurious; crust from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes one 9-inch pie; about 8 servings

When tapioca is used as a pie thickener, I prefer to grind it up first, so it doesn’t form little beads of juicy filling after it’s baked. However, if you don’t have a method to easily do this, it certainly won’t ruin your pie. My spice grinder is broken and I was too lazy to clean out the coffee grinder, so I tried grinding the dried tapioca in a mortar and pestle. It didn’t work, but the pie was still delicious.

I didn’t peel the plums and didn’t notice any textural issues in the pie. I cut each plum into 8 wedges, but I thought the pieces were too big in the baked pie, so I recommend cutting them smaller.

Pie crust:
1¼ cups (6 ounces) flour
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very cold
⅓-½ cup ice water

3 ounces (1 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats
2.4 ounces (½ cup) all-purpose flour
3.5 ounces (½ cup) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes

1¾ pounds ripe plums, pitted, cut into 8 wedges, each wedge halved crosswise
12 ounces (about 2 cups) blackberries
7 ounces (1 cup) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon salt

1. For the pie crust: Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until mixed. Add half of the butter; pulse once, then add the remaining butter, and process with 1-second pulses until the largest pieces of butter are about ¼-inch across. Add ¼ cup of water; pulse once, then add 2 more tablespoons of water. Pulse a couple times to incorporate the water, then pinch a portion of the dough together; if it crumbles, pulse in another tablespoon of water. If it barely holds together, transfer the mixture to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a ball, kneading it once or twice so it holds together. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Do not wash the food processor bowl.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the pie dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, folding the edge of the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the plate, and flute the edges. Refrigerate while preparing the streusel and filling.

3. For the streusel: Pulse the oats, flour, sugar, and salt in the food processor until mixed. Add the butter and process until the mixture begins to form clumps.

4. For the filling: In a large bowl, combine the plums, blackberries, sugar, tapioca, cornstarch, and lemon zest. Transfer the fruit mixture to the dough-lined pie pan. Evenly distribute crumbles of the streusel topping over the filling. Transfer to the oven and bake until the fruit is bubbling and the streusel is browned, 75 to 90 minutes. Transfer the pie to a cooling rack and cool for at least three hours before serving.

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mai tai

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So you’ve got a nice batch of rich, aromatic orgeat, but what do you do with it? It’s time for a mai tai. I used to think mai tais were fruity over-the-top frou frou drinks. Like daiquiris, maybe that’s true in some cases, but a true mai tai, like a true daiquiri, is relatively simple. The original mai tai contains only lime juice, sugar, orgeat, orange liqueur, and two types of rum.

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With all that alcohol, it’s a strong drink, and I’ve found that I’m particularly picky about the alcohol quality in a mai tai. I’ve already told you about my favorite light (or silver) rum, Shellback, which fortunately is relatively easy to find. Amber and dark rums, the types used in mai tais, aren’t quite as available, but if you have a favorite liquor store, you should be able to find what you need.

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Technically, a mai tai calls for an amber rum from the island of Martinique. Clement VSOP is the most widely available, but even it’s hard to find. Dave and I usually stick to a Jamaican amber rum; Appleton Estate Signature Blend (recently renamed from Appleton Estate V/X) is our favorite, because it’s really good and readily available. My brother likes Denizen’s Merchant Reserve, although I’ve never seen that one for sale where I live.

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There are a number of dark rums out there, although quality varies. My favorite is Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12 Year Old (just renamed from Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year Old), but my favorite liquor store doesn’t sell it. We use Old Brigand Black Label when we can’t get the dark Appleton, which isn’t Jamaican, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to dark rum. The most common dark Jamaican rum is Myer’s, which I haven’t tried in years. I remember it being harsh, but it should work in a pinch.

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You might have different options available to you, and they’re worth trying. Trying new rums is part of the fun of tiki, although I understand that not everyone wants a liquor cabinet that’s overflowing with rum bottles like ours is. Fortunately, a mai tai is a very enjoyable way to test out a new rum.

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Mai Tai (rewritten from Rum Dood)

Makes 1 drink

If you can find it, our favorite orange liqueur is Clemont Creole Shrubb. It’s rum-based, instead of brandy-based like most other orange liqueurs.

Dave prefers this without the sugar syrup, but for my taste, that seemed off-balance. Ideal level of sweetness is a personal preference, but this is a good starting point. The sugar syrup we use is an equal volume of sugar and water, heated until the sugar dissolves.

¾ ounce (1½ tablespoons) lime juice
½ ounce (1 tablespoon) orgeat
¼ ounce (1½ teaspoons) simple syrup
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Martinique or Jamaican amber rum
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Jamaican (or other) dark rum
½ ounce (1 tablespoon) triple sec, such as Cointreau
mint sprig (optional)

Put all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Add 1½ cups crushed ice; cover and shake until the shaker is frosted over. Pour unstrained into a glass. Garnish with a mint sprig (or lime wedges, maraschino cherries, pineapple leaves, and cocktail umbrellas, as my brother did here), if desired.

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brown butter peach shortbread

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I’m in fruity dessert mode lately. Blueberries, blackberries, plums. The peaches came from my coworker, which is always fun – people bring me fruit at work, and I bring it back to them a few days later, mixed with butter and sugar.

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I have another coworker with an apple tree, and that’s a little easier on me since apples have a long shelf-life. The peaches I was given were already very ripe, so I needed something simple that I could bake when I already had dinner to make and mountains of post-vacation laundry to do. Unfortunately, I’d just used up my ace-in-the-hole tart dough on store-bought peaches.

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Fortunately, I found a simple but delicious recipe. This shortbread has the extra step of browning and chilling the butter before cutting it into the dry ingredients, which doesn’t take long and adds a little extra specialness to the dessert. The peaches were small and impossible to remove from the pit, so I skipped peeling, pitting, and slicing in favor of cutting chunks directly from the seed.

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It might have been easy to put together, but the flavor didn’t reflect that. With just a few basic ingredients and plenty of peaches, it tastes like the best of summer fruit. That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for right now.

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Brown Butter Peach Shortbread (rewritten but not changed from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

The only part of this recipe I thought was annoying was chipping the hardened browned butter out of the bowl. I might line a bowl with wax paper next time so I can just lift the butter out and scrape it off the paper into the food processor.

The peaches my coworker gave me were very small, and I used eight or nine of them, not two. I did not peel them, which was not a problem in the final dish.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons (12.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 peaches, pitted and thinly sliced (between ⅛- and ¼-inch thick)

1. In a medium not-nonstick skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to cook the butter, swirling the pan occasionally, until the milk solids brown and sink and the butter smells slightly nutty. Immediately remove it from the heat and pour the butter into a heatproof bowl. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

2. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor; process until the ingredients are mixed, a few pulses. Add the browned butter and process until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. Add the egg; process until the dough just comes together into a crumbly ball.

3. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Press three-quarters of the dough into the bottom of the pan. Evenly spread the peaches over the dough, then scatter the remaining dough crumbs over the fruit.

4. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the crust is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before serving.

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spiced layer cake

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Oh, I just do these cakes like they’re no big deal now. Getting back from Iceland Sunday night and having a three-tier fondant-decorated cake ready to deliver by Saturday afternoon after working a 44-hour week? No problem.

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To be honest, it really was manageable. I baked, tightly wrapped, and froze the cake layers before vacation, as well as mixed and colored the fondant. Friday night I made a big batch of cream cheese frosting, layered and crumb coated the cakes, then tediously made way too many pink and purple flowers. That just left about seven hours of cake decorating on Saturday, plus a couple hours at the shower and a couple hours cleaning the kitchen afterward. And then a couple hours napping on Sunday.

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The bottom two tiers were the same as in the last cake I made, vanilla bean and red velvet. The top tier this time was spice cake. It was my first time making spice cake, but I always assumed I’d like it. It would be like apple or carrot cake, but without the fruits and vegetables.

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That describes it pretty well, and I did like it, light with a balanced level of spices. To be honest, I liked baking and decorating the cake too, even in the midst of a busy schedule. These cakes really do get easier every time, although somehow I doubt they’ll ever be no big deal.

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Spiced Layer Cake (slightly adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I frosted the cake with cream cheese frosting.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup sour cream, preferably room temperature
½ cup whole milk, preferably room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons grated orange zest
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, preferably room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray three 9-inch round pans with baking spray and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. In a small bowl or measuring cup, use a fork to combine the milk and sour cream.

2. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the sugar and orange zest until fragrant. Add the butter and salt, and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated before adding another. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, immediately followed by half of the sour cream mixture. Repeat with another one-third of the flour mixture and the remaining sour cream mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, until evenly combined.

3. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pans to remove the cakes. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely before frosting.

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lavender almond peach tart

lavender almond peach tart 3I shouldn’t complain about too many good things happening at once, but there were moments when it all seemed just a little overwhelming. Within a month, there were two big international vacations, trips for work, nephews’ birthdays to bake for, and another tiered baby shower cake to deliver. I probably didn’t have to keep up with my normal routine of baking something for my coworkers once a week, but I figured if I planned ahead, I could handle it. lavender almond peach tart 1

So I prepped this tart dough and put it in the freezer, waiting for rhubarb to appear at the store, when I would mix up the simple filling for a quick dessert. Unfortunately, I never saw any rhubarb this year. It was peach season and a vacation later before I gave up on it.

lavender almond peach tart 2Life hadn’t slowed down by then, so it was lucky I had something partly prepped. It was easy enough to press the dough into a tart pan and make a simple peach jam. With nothing but tart dough and peaches, I thought the tart might be plain, but I loved the peaches with the floral lavender. As a bonus, it’s fun to bring a fairly fancy dessert to work and pretend my life is so effortless, when really I’m barely keeping up. lavender almond peach tart 5

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Lavender Almond Peach Tart (adapted from Desserts for Breakfast; jam recipe rewritten from Cook’s Illustrated)

Serves 8

I started with ground almond meal instead of almonds.

I sliced the reserved dough and layered it over the jam, which was easy, but I don’t think it made for the prettiest presentation.

¾ cup (5.25 ounces) sugar
zest of 1 lemon
¾ cup (3.75 ounces) almonds
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon dried lavender buds
¼ teaspoon table salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
11 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 large egg yolk
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup peach jam, recipe follows
powdered sugar

1. Add the sugar and lemon zest to the bowl of a food processor; process until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the almonds, flour, lavender, salt, and cardamom; process until the ingredients are mixed and the almonds are finely ground. Add the butter and process until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. Add the egg yolk and almond extract; process until the dough just comes together into a crumbly ball.

2. Press three-quarters of the dough into a 9-inch round or 14-by-4-inch rectangular tart pan. Freeze the lined pan for at least 30 minutes. Cover the remaining dough and store in the refrigerator. (Both the dough in the pan and the reserved dough can be stored in the freezer, covered tightly, for up to a month.)

3. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the cooled jam over the dough in the pan. Break the remaining dough into ½- to 1-inch pieces and scatter over the jam. Transfer to the oven and bake until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbling, 40-45 minutes. If the tart browns too quickly, loosely cover it with foil after 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Serve, dusted with powdered sugar, or loosely cover and store for up to 24 hours before serving.

Simple Peach Jam (rewritten from Cook’s Illustrated)

Makes about 1 cup

This jam cannot be canned. It probably makes a little more than 1 cup; I used it all in the tart.

8 ounces peaches, pitted, sliced, peeled if desired
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (4.4 ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine the peaches, sugar, and lemon juice in a medium saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and syrupy, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature before using in the tart.

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cheesecake squares with sour cream topping

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I tend to think of this as my dad’s cheesecake, even though it’s really my grandmother’s cheesecake, based on the handwritten recipes that she gave to each of her granddaughters, wildly inaccurate baking time included. I think we each discovered the error the hard way before talking to each other (and my mom) and figuring out that we needed to almost double my grandmother’s recommended baking time.

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I also think of it as “the flat cheesecake.” Most cheesecakes are tall, round, and impressive. This one is flat and, served straight from the 9-by-13-inch pan it’s baked in, maybe not particularly impressive, no matter how hard I try to add pretty swirls in the topping.

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But I love it anyway. It’s simple – no goat cheese, no amaretto, no pumpkin. There’s nothing to distract from sugary cream cheese, which is one of my favorite flavors. The sour cream topping, which might sound weird, is the perfect sweet and tangy complement to the cake underneath. It’s no wonder that my grandmother and my dad and I all love this recipe so much.

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Cheesecake Squares with Sour Cream Topping

12 servings

Once the topping is added, it’s best to serve the cheesecake within about a day, because the topping dries out. However, both the cheesecake and the topping can be made several days in advance if kept separate until shortly before serving.

18 full sheets (10 ounces) graham crackers
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch salt
5 tablespoons butter, melted

3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray.

2. In a food processor, process the graham crackers until finely ground. (Alternatively, put the crackers in a ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Transfer the crumbs to a bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients.) Add the sugar and salt and process until mixed. Add the butter and process until evenly incorporated, stopping to scrape the sides as necessary.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium-low speed until smooth. Add the salt and sugar, and continue beating until blended, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until blended. Beat in the vanilla extract.

4. Pour the filling mixture over the crust, spreading it evenly. Transfer to the oven and bake until the cake is just slightly jiggly, 45-55 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely before topping.

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