Altoid brownies, trust me on this one

I procured this recipe from David Lebovitz who borrowed it from  from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. Sadly, I can claim no stake its bizarre and wonderful  brilliance.  I will say that based on the rather odd surprise guest ingredient in this recipe and, well, the name of the book itself, I’ve surmised that its authors just might have been in an altered state of mind when they developed it.  Perhaps caused by another type of brownie or edible substance?

The recipe starts, as all brownie recipes worth their weight do: melted chocolate. To this, both white and brown sugars are added.

Then, a whopping five.  Yes FIVE eggs are added.

Next, well, really first if you don’t want to take time out in the middle of your batter preparation.  An entire tin…maybe even a tin-and-a-half of Altoids get sacrificed to the brownie gods.  The instructions suggest using a mallet, rolling pin or pestle and mortar.  I tried the latter first but my pestle and mortar is made for spices and a little undersized for the job at hand.  So, I busted out the meat hammer and went to town.  I do have a picture of what the results look like.  However, the, um, white powder looked startling like a bag of cocaine (or at least what it looks like on TV).  And, despite by Scooby Doesque references in this post, the image wasn’t particularly wholesome.  So, I’ve substituted a shot of the tin as a proxy.

The crushed Altoids and flour are folded-into the batter.

Into the oven.

David Lebovitz notes in his posting of this recipe to err on the side of undercooked.  I couldn’t agree more.  The photo below is of a batch I baked for the suggested 30 minutes.  When I cut them, I thought I’d undercooked them.  What I really did was make the rookie mistake of cutting them the same day I’d baked them (sometimes we don’t follow our own rules) and the results were disappointingly goopy.  By the next day however, they’d set-up beautifully. DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO.  Just to make sure they weren’t undercooked, the next batch I made I upped the bake-time to somewhere between 40 and 45 minutes.  While they were fine, the texture was dryer and the peppermint had lost some of its intensity.  Some of its, shall we say, curious strength.   And, you definitely don’t want that to happen.


Dave Mathews Band of course.

“Baked” Altoid Brownies

Adapted from David Lebevitz adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito

Makes one 9 x 13-inch pan


  • 11 ounces (315g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (60-75% cacao), chopped
  • 8 ounces (215g) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 1/4 cup (175g) flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons dark, unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Valrhona–that was originally David’s note, but I use Valrhona as well)
  • 1 1/2 cups (300g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (120g) packed dark brown sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • optional: 1/4-1/2 teaspoon pure mint extract
  • 1 to 1½ packages of Altoid peppermints, (80-120g), crushed (See Note)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Line the inside of a 9 by 13-inch pan with parchment and butter or oil paper and pan.
  2. Crush the Altoids in a sturdy freezer bag with a mallet,rolling pin,  mortar and pestle–or, if you happen to be feeling particularly violent, a meat tenderizer. They should be relatively fine, but I do like having little bits remaining. . If you want your brownies even more minty, add the larger amount of mints. You can add some pure mint extract to the batter, too.
  3. In a large bowl set over a pan of simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder.
  5. Once the chocolate is melted and smooth, over the heat, whisk in both sugars. Remove from heat and whisk in three of the eggs completely, then whisk in the other two, along with the vanilla and mint extract, if using.
  6. Sprinkle the flour mixture and the Altoids over the top and using a spatula, gently fold in the dry ingredients until just combined; there might be just a trace of the flour in places. Do not overmix.
  7. Scrape into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. Like most brownie recipes, it’s best to err on the side of underbaked than over.
  8. Serving & storage: Once cool, wrap the brownies well and wait over-night to cut.

Macaron, macaroon…that extra O stands for easy

I’ve spent a lot of time with French macarons (though not nearly enough).  And, no doubt, masochist that I am, I will spend more time with this little merengued demon.  But not today.  Today we are going to hang-out with the French macaron’s  more easy going cousin, the almond macaroon.

If the French macaron is the Jordan Catalano of cookies, then the almond macaroon is Phil Dunphy.  Easy-going and approachable if not just a little bit simple.

A couple of people have asked if I make any gluten-free (hi Julia) recipes.  The answer is yes, but not on purpose.  To date, my only efforts at avoiding gluten came  by accident when a recipe was naturally gluten-free.  But you guys were nice enough to ask, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for additional recipes.

And this one?  I like.  A lot.  I’ll warn you up-front, it is very almondy and very much like the European cookies you find in, well, Europe.  So, if that isn’t your deal, I’ll see you next week.  However, if you can hang with Europe and almonds and Phil Dunphy, stick around.

This recipe (like the french macaron) uses almond flour in place of wheat flour.  The original recipe called for whole, blanched almonds to be ground into a flour.  Which you can do.  Or, you can just buy almond meal (just be sure to store it in the freezer).   I like the almond flour you can buy from the bulk foods section at Whole Foods. Trader Joe’s carries an almond flour in the nuts and dried fruits section.  If you have a tough time finding almond flour where you live, you can always order it from Bob’s Red Mill.

In a food processor, grind your almonds, or simply combine your almond meal with granulated sugar. And pulse, pulse, pulse.

Next up: an egg white, and a dab of almond extract. The pulse, pulse, pulse until the dough comes together into a sticky ball.

This recipe makes 16 cookies–but the dough ball looks deceptively small.  In order to make sure the cookies were all the same size, I just weighed the dough ball in grams and divided by 16, then portioned-out and weighed each dough ball.  Yes, I am a nerd.  But you knew that already.

The next little tweak I made was to roll each ball in powdered sugar before placing it on the baking sheet.

This comes in handy when you go to flatten-out the balls.  Have I mentioned this dough is sticky?  Have I mentioned how much I dislike touching sticky things with my hands?  A nice roll in confectioner’s sugar solves both problems.

Add an almond for decoration.  I used blanched almonds, but almonds with the skin still on would work just as well.

Once finished, these cookies are lights and slightly chewy.  They also hold-up well over time.  Like I said, the French macaron’s easy going cousin.

Soundtrack: Foster the People

I can’t seem to get enough of their Torches album.  I genuinely enjoy the entire collection of tunes on this playlist.

Cockles and mussels alive alive oh

After spending a week in Montana, TD and I needed some time to recover.  So, we headed over to Vancouver for another week.

Vancouver is one of those  great cosmopolitan cities that doesn’t seem to know it’s  cool.  Or, maybe it knows it’s cool but is so cool it doesn’t need to have an attitude like New York, San Fransisco or Los Angeles.

We spent a very relaxing week taking in the sights, walking through every inch of Stanley Park and kayaking on the false creek.  And of course, we thoroughly ate and drank the city.  Our culinary adventures were as diverse as Vancouver its self and included Japadog, Dim Sum,  an impromptu ciccheti crawl (we crowned our own hotel bar the victor), my very first trip to Tim Hortons and a colorful if not slightly and delightfully abusive brunch.

If forced to pick a single favorite meal, it would have to be the Mussels Congolaise at Chambar.  Good poutine, those mussels were amazing!  I’m not sure how it evolved, but TD and I have sort of become moules frites groupies.  And, we’ve tried and made a lot of really bonne moules over the years.  However, the Congolaise version at Chambar pretty much blew everything I’d ever tried right out of the stock-pot.  The flavors were big, rich and had a seriously spicy punch.  Enjoyed with a couple of bottles of Saison Dupont, and TD and I were very happy tourists.

Some people bring back souveniers from trips.  I bring back recipes.  And, it didn’t take me long to find one for these little bi-valves.  Three important ingredients come together to make this dish stand-out.  The first is pureed chipotle peppers in adobo.  The second is coconut milk.  And the third is cilantro.

Combine with the briny mussels.

And a trio of ground and dried spices: peppercorn, cumin and coriander (but maybe fennel…stay-tuned).

And it is  like discovering a whole new level of flavor.

I will say that I don’t really understand the frite part of moules frite.  I’d much rather have grilled bread to mop-up all the delicious broth (really, this is the most important part of the whole dish).

Soundtrack: Pink Martini

This is a new tid-bit I’ve been meaning to include for months.  I always listen to music while cooking.  I don’t claim to have good–or even any taste at all when it comes to music, but I do sort of like to match it to what I’m making.  So, going forward, I’ll try to remember to include what I listened to while making, well, whatever it was, has been or will be. On the mussels congolaise evening,  we hustled around the kitchen drinking  gin and tonics and prepping the moules, to a little Pink Martini…j ne veux pas travailler, je ne veux pas dejeuner…Sympathique Video.

Mussels Congolaise

I took this recipe from but found it on various blogs and they all credit it back to Chambar.

This will serve 2 as an appetizer.


  • 1 lb mussels
  • 1/4 red onion, julienned
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 C coconut milk
  • 2 large roma tomates, diced (this wasn’t enough for us, but we love tomatoes)
  • 1 TBS chipotle chile in adobo, pureed
  • Juice from 1/2 of a lemon
  • Juice from 1/2 of a lime
  • 1/2 TBS coriander seed (ground or, grind it yourself)
  • 1/2 TBS black pepper (ground or grind it yourself)
  • 1/2 TBS cumin seed, toasted
  • Fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 TBS vegetable oil
  • Remember to have everything ready before you begin heating the pot as mussels cook incredibly quickly.
  • Clean the mussels and remove the beards.
  • Heat heavy sauce pot on medium-high heat.  Add oil and saute the red onion and all ground spices for 3 minutes.  Add-in garlic and saute for an additional minute.
  • Add mussels, coconut milk, tomatoes, chipotle, lemon and lime juices to the pot.  Cover and cook until mussels open (3-5 minutes).
  • Garnish liberally with cilantro leaves.  Serve immediately!

That’s a peach, hon

We wait and wait and wait.  First comes the false fruit—attractive but mealy and dry.  Then the imports arrive: beautiful and delicious but prohibitively expensive.  Finally—just as students are relishing the last golden moments of summer break, we get stone fruit.  I know that Roald Dahl is English but I can’t help but think he must have been in California in early September when inspiration for James and the Giant Peach hit.  Peaches, nectarines and their varietals are everywhere it seems: luscious, smelling like heaven and cheap!

I my opinion, there are few things more perfect in this world than a beautiful, juicy peach.  They really need no accompaniment.  However.  I really couldn’t resist a recipe I saw on the Cooks Illustrated website for a rustic peach cake (and then of course had to make it again with a little twist).

Like most Cooks Illustrated recipes, this one has a lot of moving parts.  The challenge was to create a cake that didn’t get soggy from the extra juices from the peaches.  In the original recipe, they leave the skin-on.  I decided to remove the skin.  Either way works.  But, if you want an easy way to remove peach skins, just boil a pan of water and drop the peaches in for about 30 seconds.

When you pull them out, the peach skin will slide right-off.  I know, cool huh?

This recipe calls for peach schnapps.  Which of course we had to go out and buy because I don’t think I’ve had peach schnapps since I was…well…probably not old enough to be drinking peach schnapps.  If you stick with me, I’ll give you some alternative options.

So, the first little trick Cooks Illustrated employs is to pre-bake some of the peaches.  Peach chunks get mixed with some schnapps, a little sugar and lemon juice and then baked for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, peach wedges get the same boozy marinade.

Once out of the oven, the peach chunks are cooled to room temp. and then tossed with panko crumbs.  Again, the idea is to heighten the liquid absorption.

The cake batter is very simple: melted and cooled butter, dark and light sugar, flour, levaning agents and a splash of almond extract.  After a thin layer of batter is spread in the pan, the chunks are added.  Another layer of cakes goes on top.

And the whole things gets topped with the now fairly inebriated peach wedges.  A sprinkle of sugar and the pan goes into the oven.

Once cooked, this simple cake just needs to be un-sprung, cooled and enjoyed.

The integrity of the cake held well for a couple of days.  However, by the third day everything started to get a little mushy.

This is a lovely cake and perfect summer dessert. And not a single crocodile tongue on the ingredient list!

Of course, if you don’t happen to have peach schnapps on hand, you could use whiskey.

And you could skip the whole layering step and just mix the peach chunks into the batter.

And, as long as we are breaking rules, might as well make them into cupcake/muffin form.

Definitely a more portable dessert to take to our friends’ house for an afternoon fete during the long Labor Day Weekend.

Oh, and that leftover peach box?  The Kitchen Gods will thank you.

Summer Peach Cake

Just slightly adapted from Cooks Illustrated, July 1, 2011

Serves 8 to 10

To crush the panko bread crumbs, place them in a zipper-lock bag and smash them with a rolling pin. If you can’t find panko, 1/4 cup of plain, unseasoned bread crumbs can be substituted. Orange liqueur can be substituted for the peach schnapps. If using peak-of-season, farm-fresh peaches, omit the peach schnapps.


  • 2 1/2pounds peaches , pitted and cut into 1/2 inch-thick wedges
  • 5tablespoons peach schnapps
  • 4teaspoons lemon juice
  • 6tablespoons plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4teaspoon salt
  • 1/2cup packed (3 1/2 ounces) light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 8tablespoons unsalted butter , melted and cooled
  • 1/4cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/4teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/3cup panko bread crumbs , finely crushed


  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with vegetable oil spray. Gently toss 24 peach wedges with 2 tablespoons schnapps, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar in bowl; set aside.
  2. Cut remaining peach wedges crosswise into thirds. Gently toss chunks with remaining 3 tablespoons schnapps, remaining 2 teaspoons lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar in bowl. Spread peach chunks in single layer on prepared sheet and bake until exuded juices begin to thicken and caramelize at edges of sheet, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer sheet to wire rack and let peaches cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  3. Spray 9-inch springform pan with vegetable oil spray. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in bowl. Whisk brown sugar, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, and eggs together in second bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter until combined. Add sour cream, vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon almond extract; whisk until combined. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined.
  4. Transfer half of batter to prepared pan; using offset spatula, spread batter evenly to pan edges and smooth surface. Sprinkle crushed bread crumbs evenly over cooled peach chunks and gently toss to coat. Arrange peach chunks on batter in even layer, gently pressing peaches into batter. Gently spread remaining batter over peach chunks and smooth top. Arrange reserved peach wedges, slightly overlapped, in ring over surface of cake, placing smaller wedges in center. Stir together remaining 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and remaining 1/8 teaspoon almond extract in small bowl until sugar is moistened. Sprinkle sugar mixture evenly over top of cake.
  5. Bake until center of cake is set and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack; cool 5 minutes. Run paring knife around sides of cake to loosen. Remove cake from pan and let cool completely, 2 to 3 hours. Cut into wedges and serve.

Whiskey Variation

  • Replace schnapps with your favorite whiskey (Grand Marnier would also work).  Take a shot for  yourself, proceed as otherwise directed above.

A prophetic snapshot

While visiting my parents in Montana, I made a startling discovery.  Well, now, that’s not really true.  Maybe confirming is a better adjective than startling.  In my mom’s sitting room she has the following picture of me.  I’m guessing I was…two?

Other than demonstrating that I have never been able to pull-off bangs, take a look at my feet.  Why yes, those are black peau de soie pumps I am rocking.  And yes, I probably knew that they were peau de soie even at that tender age.

Let’s match this photo up with a handful of other early indicators.  First: one of my earliest memories was of shopping with my dad.  I must have been very young because I didn’t know my colors yet.  I did however know that I wanted a pair of red Keds. Yes, that specific.   I just didn’t know how to articulate what I wanted (I have a similar memory with an ice cream shop, not knowing how to read and a disastrous run-in with rum raisin).  At some point my father must have gotten frustrated with me and I ended up with a pair of Winnie the Pooh saddle shoes.  I HATED those shoes. Loathed them.

Exhibit number two.  About this time my mom was called into the office at pre-school. My teacher was concerned because I appeared to prefer playing dress-up to  socializing appropriately with the other children.  Didn’t she understand I had to have my outfit just right before venturing into the complicated social structure of seminal friendship?

The thing is, this isn’t something I ever grew out of.  In fact, the examples get more egregious over time.  There is the rather embarrassing admission that during kindergarten I often secretly packed a second outfit to change into when I got to school just in case I didn’t like what my mom had dressed me in (I think she gave up trying to dress me halfway through the year…battles…wars and all).  There was also my early love for all brand-named…it started in, maybe the third grade?  What third grader even cares if they have an alligator on their t-shirt?  Apparently the same one who notices flatware.

Dare I mention the period in  the sixth grade when I wore paper bags on my feet until my parents relented and bought me a pair of Reeboks (little did they know, I would have done more for less).  And can I tell you just how disappointed I was to have to come of age during the grunge era?  Smells Like Teen Spirit may have changed the world; it certainly didn’t do anything for fashion.

Returning to the photo above, it makes me feel just a little better that I’ve always been this way.  That even before I could count to 10, I felt it was important to look nice while doing it.   Because here is the deal.  I make my profession in a world where caring about cashmere is seen as an intellectual infirmity.  So maybe, just maybe, the fact that I entered the world predisposed to the aesthetic forgives me (just a little) of my materialistic tendencies.

Incidently, my mom also has a picture of my brother at the same age on an adjacent shelf.  In it, he’s wearing cowboy boots.  And nothing else.  So, I guess it could be worse.

Lunchbox Cookies

Oh, the start of a new school year.  The smell of freshly sharpened pencils and PeeChee folders. New classes.  New teachers.  New friends. And most importantly (at least for me), new school clothes.

And then there is school lunch.  If I’d planned a little better, I could have and should have put together some research and thoughtful commentary on the subject.  As a former K-14 consultant, I’ve seen a lot of bad and ugly when it comes to school cafeterias and am very interested in the politics of what our youth eat for lunch.   Especially in Los Angeles.

Alas, I made vanilla sugar instead. But, more on that later.

I was one of those kids whose mom made her lunch with homemade cookies and sandwiches with real cheese on whole wheat bread.  And I didn’t appreciate it one bit.  Sorry mom.  All I wanted when I was a kid were Chips Ahoy cookies and white Wonder Bread.  My brother and I also shared a strange fascination with Twinkies, in our household, the most forbidden fruit of them all.

And now I’d give anything to have someone, anyone, make me a brown bag lunch with real cheese, good bread and a homemade cookie.  Yeah, yeah…youth wasted on the young and all that.

So, in this spirit, I’ve got a cookie to share with you.  And, I think it would make a pretty perfect addition to anyone’s lunchbox or after-school snack.  The recipe is simple, needs no refrigeration ahead of time and with a couple of little details can go from great to fantastic.

Here is detail number one: vanilla sugar.  Now, if you happen to be rolling in dough (the green kind), you can buy vanilla sugar at specialty stores.  However, if you are just a little patient, you can also make it very easily.  Here is how.  You know the hull from a vanilla bean?  That thing that is left after you scrape-out the seeds?  Just add it to a couple of cups of granulated or superfine sugar.  And then wait a week or two.  The result will be extra special sugar with a slight vanilla taste and pronounced vanilla aroma. Perfect for simple recipes like this one.  I make vanilla sugar every time I use a vanilla bean.  It makes me feel a little less guilty about having to dip into my retirement whenever I buy a jar of vanilla beans.

Now for detail number two: better butter.  Good ingredients always make a difference but I have an admission to make.  If the recipe has lots of other stronger flavors, I usually just buy whatever unsalted butter is on sale.  However, like the vanilla sugar, when you have a recipe with simple ingredients, you want them to be good.

The special butter and special sugar get a really good beating.  Then an egg is added.

And finally, sour cream and flour are folded-in.

The dough will be stiff but soft.

Scoop the dough onto lined-baking sheets.  Add some sugar or sanding crystals if you’d like.  And there you go.

Just like starting fourth grade all over again.

What?  I missed a week?  You noticed?  Okay, here is the deal on last week’s post.  It’s written but needs some revising.  It’s about a food item that I happen to have lots of stories about and I can’t quite seem to pick one.  We’ll get there though.

Vanilla Sugar

  • 1 Vanilla bean, devoid of seeds (this is code for used vanilla bean)
  • 2 C granulated sugar (superfine will work too)

Combine ingredients and store in a sealed container or heavy ziplock bag.

Special Sugar Cookies

adapted from Everyday Food, 2007


  • 2 C all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 8 TBS unsalted butter, room temp
  • 1 1/2 C sugar (or vanilla sugar) plus some for sprinkling
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 C sour cream


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, place one rack in upper third of oven, one in lower third.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Using a standing mixer or electric hand-mixer, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy (I let it run at least 5 minutes).  Add-in egg and vanilla, beat to combine.
  4. With mixer on low, add in flour and sour cream beginning with half of the flour and alternating.  Mix until just combined.
  5. Drop  mounds of dough (I used a 1/8 C scoop but go smaller or larger as desired, just remember to adjust cooking time) onto baking sheets leaving 3 inches in between each.  Sprinkle with sugar.  Bake until edges of cookies are firm and bottoms are slightly browned (10-15 minutes for 1/8C size).
  6. Transfer to rack to cool.