Category Archives: The Icing on the Cake — Chef Gail’s blog!

Tips, thoughts, and musings from a baker’s perspective.

Love Those Culinary Romance Novels

I am a sucker for romance and food, so when I read my first romance novel with a culinary theme I was hooked! I never knew it was a “thing”. There are so many wonderful culinary themed romance novels out there to be read and enjoyed.

My latest find is an adorable book called “The Coincidence of Coconut Cake”. It was written by Amy E. Reichert. I won’t give the plot away, but if you want a fun, light read with some food and romance all packed into one, this is the book for you.

What I love about these novels with a food theme is that very often the author provides a wonderful bonus after the book has been enjoyed. Sometimes recipes for the foods mentioned in the book are given at the end. I love this aspect of the food themed novel.

In “The Coincidence of Coconut Cake” the author provides a most delicious recipe for coconut cake at the end of her book. When I read through the recipe I immediately wanted to make it. We have coconut fanatics in my family, who shall remain nameless, so it was a MUST bake recipe for me!

I have made a lot of cakes in my day, but I must admit this coconut cake is SPECTACULAR!!! Even the picky fanatics were extremely pleased. What was unusual about this recipe was that it used a mixing method that I don’t see very often in cookbooks. It is known as the Two-Stage method. Most cakes use the Creaming method or the Blending method.

In the Two-Stage method, the dry ingredients like the flour, sugar and chemical leaveners are all mixed with the butter. Then the liquid ingredients are added in 2 stages. Hence, the name Two-Stage.

The coconut flavor really came out because of the addition of the trifecta: cream of coconut, coconut milk AND coconut extract in both the cake and the frosting. I sprinkled toasted coconut shavings in the middle of the cake on top of the first layer, and then all over the cake including the top and sides. This created a nice crunch in every bite.

Life is too short and crazy! My recommendation? First, go out and get this book.

Second, read this book. It really is sweet! And third, MAKE THIS YUMMY-LICIOUS CAKE! If you are crazy for coconut you will not be sorry.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail

To Pineapple or Not To Pineapple, That is the Question!

The big debate nowadays is whether to put pineapple on a pizza or not. No offense to those Hawaiian pizzas with spam and pineapple, but I say NO to that. There is one exception, however! I will explain in a moment.

I love my Margarita pizza with pizza sauce, lots of mozzarella and basil, so I guess I am a traditional pizza lover. However, if we change the subject to dessert pizzas then that is a different story.

Picture pineapple on this glorious concoction:

A baked pizza crust fresh from the oven. Top it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, drizzled (heavily) with chocolate sauce and then topped with all sorts of chopped fresh fruits such as: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and YES to fresh pineapple!!!

This dessert pizza is easy and simply DEVINE!!!

Try it sometime and get back to me about this pineapple “thing”.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail



Customizing Desserts

I usually follow recipes unless I have a specific preference about one or more of the ingredients that I may wish to swap out. As long as you know the role that the specific ingredient plays in the recipe and replace it with a similar ingredient, you can customize your own desserts.

This is easily done in cooking, but can be tricky with baking. For example, if I wish to add scallions instead of shallots to a recipe for meatloaf the final dish will still work out. However, if I wish to swap eggs for applesauce in a baked good that may not work. Eggs give structure and thicken while applesauce has no protein to speak of.

My mother did this substituting thing frequently all through my childhood. That is the primary reason that I learned how to handle myself in the kitchen–self-preservation!!

The worst substitution she ever made was for Thanksgiving one year.  Gravy calls for a thickening agent like flour or cornstarch, right? Well, even though mom had neither of those, she did have baking powder. And like she told me,” it’s white and a powder, right??” Needless to say, the gravy exploded up and all over the ceiling!  This is a true story. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

I typically don’t buy buttermilk and just use thinned out Greek yogurt when I need a cultured, acidic dairy product to make pancakes or biscuits. Since I am swapping out one acidic dairy product for another it will work fine with no ill effects in the final baked good.

Substituting a light butter for a fully fatted butter works well too. It’s an easy swap out and works great if the recipe calls for the creaming method. The bonus is you are saving saturated fat calories, yet still maintaining the integrity of the original recipe.

The craziest substitution that I have ever made was using pureed tofu instead of eggs for a cookie recipe. And you know what? They were pretty good. So who would be nutty enough to do this? Perhaps someone with an egg allergy who still wishes to have their cookies and eat them too. Remember one of my past blog entries on black bean brownies??

So experiment and make workable substitutions to create baked goods that are customized to your families’ likes and needs.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail

Sneaking a Kiss on Valentine’s Day

Every year I like to surprise family and friends with something special for Valentine’s Day. Since my birthday, which is Valentine’s Day, actually falls on Tuesday this year and I teach on Tuesdays, I thought I would make a special treat for my class.

This recipe is so simple anyone can make it. The recipe is for a Chocolate Dipped Marbleized Pink Meringue Kiss. Not only is it easy, it is also gluten free!

Here’s how to make it:

Beat 4 egg whites in an electric mixer on medium speed until very foamy. Add 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (which will stabilize the meringue) and keep beating on medium speed.

Gradually add 1 cup granulated sugar about 1 tablespoon at a time. Once all of the sugar is added, stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Now go full throttle and beat the meringue at high speed for about 8 minutes. The meringue should look very stiff; almost like marshmallow fluff.

Remove the mixing bowl from the motor. Add a few drops of red food coloring and fold in the color, with a rubber spatula, until it is almost completely blended in. Now drop in several more drops of red food coloring, but this time, barely mix the color in, just until there are streaks and the mixture looks like pink marble.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.

Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper. Fill a pastry bag that has been fitted with a large plain tip half full of meringue, and pipe out “kiss-like” shapes allowing the top of the meringue to form a point before you release pressure on the pastry bag. Re-fill the bag ,using up the remaining meringue, and keep forming several more “kisses”.

Bake the “kisses” for 2 hours rotating the pans after 1 hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. They should be firm, but not have any color to them. Note to self: the 2 hours the “kisses” dry out in the oven goes fast and it is unsupervised time. You can go about your business while they are doing their thing.

Now we dip:

Melt some dark chocolate and dip the bottoms of each “kiss” into the chocolate and place it back onto the same sheet pan. Chill the “kisses” in the fridge until the chocolate has hardened. If you use compound chocolate, which has no cocoa butter in it, you can keep the “kisses” at room temperature to harden. Either way, the chocolate hardens VERY quickly. That is why this such a GREAT last minute gift idea! You may even find yourself sneaking a few kisses before you even give them to anyone.

Place your “kisses ” in a clear bag and tie with a red ribbon. Give to the sweetie of your choice and watch how many kisses you get in return!!! Ooo LALA!!!

Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Baking!

Chef Gail


Proud as a Mother can be of My Quantity Foods Class

I teach a Quantity Foods class at a local college to Nutrition students who will become dietitians.  In this class, they need to get experience working with large quantities of food. You may wonder what the definition is of “large quantities”? Basically, it is being able to prepare food for at least 50 people.

This semester I am planning to have a Takeout meal for 100 people that my students will prepare in a large commercial kitchen at school. It just so happens to be the dining hall as well.

The students, working in small groups, are in charge of one aspect of the meal from costing the ingredients out, purchasing the food, preparing the food, boxing the finished meal in a sanitary and attractive manner, marketing and selling it to the school community, faculty, staff and students. For lack of a better term, it is a pop up catering event for just one day.

I forgot to mention that the meal is healthy AND scrumptious! I will give you a hint- the dessert is a yummy, healthy, dark chocolate oatmeal cookie that is to die for NOT from!

This project will give the students an idea of what it is like to deal with large amounts of food, and large pieces of kitchen equipment and tools. Some of the students may like it and some may not. Quantity Foods and its’ preparation are an acquired taste.

This world of “larger amounts” is key to working in an environment that caters to lots of people. For example, a hospital or nursing home, a school, college or a senior living community.

I am so proud of my students and their efforts towards making this project a success. The excitement is palpable. I guess I just needed to brag about “my kids” (that is how I refer to them). I really am a proud MOMMA!!

I will keep you posted on how the event, which is in April, pans out (pun intended), and let you know if we sell out all of our planned 100 meals.

Until then.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail



The Butter in Butternut Squash

I teach food science to Nutrition students at a local college. In one of my favorite labs the students explore the role that ingredients play in a recipe for chocolate cake. Always striving for that perfect chocolate cake that tastes “oh so decadent” but in fact has half the fat calories, the students will change one ingredient to make healthier substitutions for specific ingredients within the original recipe. The goal is to see if these healthier substitutes are in fact as tasty as the original recipe.

The students substitute such ingredients as: light butter for the real thing, oil for the solid fat, sugar substitutes for granulated sugar, and whole wheat flour for all-purpose. One group makes the original recipe against which all of the others get judged. The resulting cakes look and taste VERY different than what you might expect.

Some of these so called healthier substitutes work nicely and you can’t really tell the recipe has been messed with. Others, on the other hand, look and taste awful.

Another healthier substitute for fat that I have found to work well is butternut squash. That’s right! That large orange vegetable makes a great fat substitute!

All you have to do is peel and seed a small portion of one of these veggies and boil it up in some water until a knife pierces it easily. Purée it up in a food processor and bake with it. I even pack 1/2 cup baggies of butternut squash and freeze them so I have them whenever I want to bake!

For a chocolate cake recipe that calls for 2 sticks or 1 cup of butter: I substitute 1/2 cup of butternut squash puree and 1 stick or 1/2 cup of real butter. You wouldn’t want to use ALL butternut squash as the fat source for your cake, because it would lack the taste and texture that everyone loves from cake. Oh and one other tip, only use butternut squash with a dark cake like a chocolate one or your white cake will be orange.

When you think about it, you cut the saturated fat by 50% while maintaining the moistness and texture of your cake. Try it and see for yourself. The taste is great and who can argue with a chocolate cake that tastes fantastic with vegetables, fiber, vitamins  and minerals?

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail

Celebrating 85 Years with Flan

My mother just turned 85 years old yesterday, and my family and I are having a small celebration tomorrow night to honor this milestone. Although, my mom almost did not live to see this wonderful age. She almost died when I was a young teenager.

After a life saving surgery for a bleeding ulcer, and a tremendous weight loss due to complications after the surgery, the doctors desperately wanted her to gain weight.

Even as a teenager I was always making something in the kitchen, and I knew my mom loved custards. All types– flan, crème caramel, crème brulee, and pastry creams. Looking at a dessert menu at a restaurant the family ALWAYS knew what she would order for dessert. If there was a custard, they had better save one for her.

Knowing this, I thought if I made her some custard it may help her appetite and help her to eat. After checking with the nursing staff they thought it was a wonderful idea.

A few days later, I brought  my best vanilla custard to the hospital. It was rich and smooth, full of egg and milk proteins to help mom to bulk up. It turned out she loved it so much she sometimes craved it in the middle of the night. The nurses had a solution for this. The custard was put in an airtight container outside on the window ledge of her hospital room for easy access. It was winter time so there was no chance that the custard would spoil.

Now almost every year I make some sort of custard to honor mom’s birthday, and she loves every bit of it.

For mom’s 85th we will have flan- a coconut coffee flan! Flan is super easy to make. So that you can celebrate along with us here is a quick recipe for you to enjoy:

Coconut Coffee Flan

Melt down some granulated sugar, about 1/2 cup to make a caramel. Add about 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice to the sugar to prevent it from crystalizing. Stir it with a fork. Allow it to melt undisturbed in a small saucepan until it is the color of a lightly brewed tea. Remove it from the heat and slowly whisk in about 3 tablespoons brewed coffee. Do this over the heat so that the clumps of caramel melt.

Now quickly pour some of the coffee caramel into each of 6 ramekins. The ramekins should each have a 3/4 cup capacity. Tilt the ramekins so that the caramel covers the bottoms and slightly up the sides of each. Place the ramekins into a rectangular oven safe pan with a kitchen towel under them.

Heat about 1 1/4 cups of milk and one can of coconut milk to the simmer. In another bowl whisk 3 whole eggs and 2 yolks with 2/3 cup granulated sugar. Slowly whisk the milk into the eggs. Add about 1 teaspoon coconut extract and blend well. Divide the custard evenly between each ramekin. Pour some hot water into the pan being careful not to get any into the custard until the water comes halfway up the sides of the pan.

Bake the flan for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cut around each flan with a knife and allow to cool and chill over night.

Invert each flan onto a dessert plate allowing the coffee caramel sauce to spread all around it. Top with some shipped cream and serve at once!

Happy Baking and Happy Birthday Mom!

Chef Gail


Loving Valentine’s Day

I love Valentine’s Day! I guess it’s because the thought of giving someone you love chocolate or other sweets to let them know how you feel is so romantic. The other reason I am so fond of Valentine’s Day is that it just happens to be my birthday.

I look forward every year going into stores and malls and even restaurants and seeing the hoopla with hearts, lace and all sorts of sweets in honor of that special day signifying love. Plus, as a kid I thought that everyone was celebrating MY birthday.

There should be no extraordinary reason to tell that special person in your life that you love them. You should tell them EVERYDAY, because love does not come around everyday. I, also, love making special desserts for those in my life that are special in a non-romantic way as well. For example, I love making sweets for my kids and my students as well.

A simple creation that you can make even if you don’t have the time is to create chocolate drops. Just melt some high quality chocolate and drop small circles of chocolate, about 1/2 teaspoon each, onto a waxed paper lined sheet pan. Then go crazy and top each circle of chocolate with some toasted nuts, coconut, pomegranate seeds, tiny pieces of fresh fruit like a fresh raspberry or a small clementine section. You can even melt some white chocolate and drizzle it over your tiny creations. Place the sheet pan in the fridge and chill the drops until the chocolate hardens.

You can pack them in a tiny box and keep them in the fridge until you are ready to present them to your special someone. Trust me, anyone can make these, and the rewards you will receive will be exponential to the small amount of effort it took to make them.
You never know, you might get a marriage proposal after offering these little sweets. By the way, do let me know when the wedding is.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail

Jamming With Bacon

I just had dinner at Tupelo Honey Café in Washington, D.C. this past weekend. They specialize in Southern cuisine. Ribs, fried chicken and a salmon fillet with an oh so yummy, sticky BBQ sauce. Let’s not forget about their famous biscuits that hold up when you dip them into a gravy.

The best thing on the menu was a vegetable platter with pickled cauliflower, carrots, green beans, okra and pickles. The best thing about this platter was the bacon jam that came with it. I dipped EVERYTHING into the bacon jam, and the great thing about it is you only need a small amount of it to give an incredible flavor boost to any food.

I never experienced this type of jam before. Savory and sweet at the same time. A quick rundown on how to make it goes something like this:

Bacon is finely chopped and cooked until crispy and the fat has been rendered. After straining the fat away from the bacon, the bacon is put aside.

A small amount of the fat is put into a saucepan and onions are sautéed until caramelized and soft. Brown sugar is then added along with some balsamic or sherry vinegar. The bacon is added back in and the mixture is then cooked low and slow until it has reduced a bit. Some heat can be added, if desired, in the form of cayenne or red pepper flakes.

Bacon jam would be amazing drizzled on top of a grilled pizza or on a sandwich, as a spread, or as an appetizer spread onto puff pastry squares or in between phyllo sheets. How about on top of a baked sweet potato… As a glaze on doughnuts or served with corn bread… The ideas on how you could use this stuff never end…

Try it and if you have a unique way of using it, please let me know by writing back.

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail




Making Chocolate Eclairs on “Schenectady Today”

I will be making my Chocolate Éclairs on Ann Parillo’s long time TV show “Schenectady Today” next Tuesday, January 10th at 10AM on public access. I am very excited to be back on Ann’s show. Ann is so easy to talk to and so knowledgeable on many subjects that she makes it so much fun to be a guest on her show! I should know because this will be my 3rd appearance.

I will be demonstrating a recipe from my new book “Baking With Success” which will be out shortly. Chocolate Éclairs are so much fun to make and so easy that I am hoping that Ann, herself, will agree to be my sous chef for the segment.

Éclairs are made from a pâte à choux dough that means “cabbage paste” in French. And no, there is NO CABBAGE in the dough. I knew you would ask that. Little cream puffs, made from “pâte à choux” dough are roundish in shape and look like little cabbages. Hence, the name.

The dough is made completely on top of the stove in a saucepan. That’s right. Just one saucepan and only a few ingredients. So simple. Once the dough is made you can do many things with it — éclairs like I will be making, cream puffs or smaller rounds known as “profiteroles”. You can even take a savory route and add cheese and other ingredients and make such creations as cheese puffs.

The key to GREAT pastries made with pâte à choux is having enough water and eggs within the dough. Since there are no chemical leaveners like baking powder or baking soda in the dough, steam, a most powerful leavener, takes over to create light, airy puffs.

To make the dough, water and butter are brought to a boil in a saucepan. Then flour is added and cooked for just a minute or so to cook off the starchy taste from the flour. Then the mixture is taken off the stove where eggs are added, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. The dough should hold its’ shape and look silky from the yolks of the eggs.

Next, the dough is piped out from a pastry bag. Since I am making éclairs, I will pipe the dough into 2-3 inch lengths onto a sheet pan. They are then baked until they are brown and crispy.

The magic happens in the oven. The heat of the oven forms lots of steam and helps the puffs to rise. Eggs are, also, great leavening agents and will add to that rise. The egg proteins burst inside the puff creating a space within. It is this space that can be filled with custard, whipped cream, ice cream or savory fillings like egg salad, or even a cream cheese and salmon mixture to be served as an appetizer. The possibilities are endless.

On the show I will inject the èclairs with vanilla custard and dip the tops in ganache. Yummy!!!

Please join me and watch the show on Tuesday. Look out Ann, here I come!

Happy Baking!

Chef Gail