Mixed Berry Tart

Birthdays come once a year. Along with this joyous day of birth, brings with it all sorts of festivities. Parties filled with people. Parties filled with music. Parties filled with games. Parties filled with decorations. Parties filled with booze. Parties filled with food. But most importantly, parties filled with cake. As we get older we no longer look forward to extravagant get togethers with obscene amounts of gifts. The big things do not matter to us anymore. Rather we take comfort in the little things. The loved ones that surround us. The hugs and kisses we receive. We take solace in the good times and memories we create, instead of the number of presents on the table. The tearing of beautiful paper that hugs the packages, just isn’t important anymore. Good food, wine, company and laughs are all we need. In fact there are even some instances, a year here and there, in which we might forget that our birthday is near. We overlook the idea of our special day on the horizon. As if by not keeping track of this day will make the prospect of us getting older any less realistic. No, ignoring it will not work. Pushing it off and out of our minds, will not turn back the hands of time. We won’t get any younger by denying the day, no matter how many times we pretend to be a certain age.

Once we lose the fascination of presents, cake takes over and becomes our main priority. Delicious cake, high towards the sky, is what excites us about our day. As our age grows in number, the candles start to dwindle. No longer is it fun to put the exact amount of candles on the cake. Covering it with a vast array of dancing flames, with which illuminate are eager faces. Perhaps it’s because lighting that many candles takes too long? Maybe we do not want to buy that many candles? It could also be because lighting one sole candle is so much easier and less dangerous. You can put that fire extinguisher down and put away the rest of the candles, as one is more than enough for me these days. Whatever the case may be, that edible centerpiece is now the most important aspect of the celebration, when it comes to birthdays. It’s our day and therefore we have the right to indulge in a piece-or two-of cake. And why shouldn’t we?

Age is just a number and we cannot look to it to define us. We’re not getting older, we’re just getting seasoned. Look onto those youngins and be content in knowing that we have that many more years of knowledge ahead of them. Many more years of experience and life lessons that have taught us oh so much, than they do. In fact, feel sorry for them. Feel sorry because they are not at your age. You got to an age that has taught you so much. Sure we might complain, every so often, that we’re getting old and dreading our next birthday. But what you have to remember is that no matter how old you turn, there will always be someone who is older than you. There will always be someone who you cannot compete with. And that someone-or something I should say-is America. Yes, we forgot about the little detail that America has a birthday too. America does not need any presents. It does not look for or expect birthday cards and balloons. But what it does need. What it does deserve, is cake. But oh no, a regular cake will not suffice. An plain and ordinary vanilla or chocolate cake will not do. America deserves something special. Something fantastic and delicious. It needs to have a triple berry tart. A tart topped with ridiculous amounts of strawberries and blueberries and raspberries. Fresh berries. Fresh strawberries and fresh blueberries and fresh raspberries. Delicious berries. While you’re at it, put a candle on it and let’s sing Happy Birthday to the United States. If getting older requires a fake age, then America definitely needs one. Happy 236th Birthday America. Thanks for all the good times and happy memories. I will however, not thank you for the hot weather and treacherous sun, of whom I hate so much with a passion. But that’s another story, America. Another story for another time. This time you shall enjoy your mixed berry tart in peace.

This tart plays out in four acts.

The first act is to make the pastry cream.

The second act is to make the tart shell.

The third act is to make the yellow cake.

And the final act is to decorate with fresh berries. Queue fireworks. Drop the banners. Wave the flags.

Let’s start with numero uno.

Here is what we’ll need….

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Jalapeño Cheddar Corn Muffins

Smoke is everywhere. No matter what you do you cannot escape it. You try desperately to breathe. To let some sort of fresh air into your lungs, so as to relieve the burning – at the back of your throat – from the smoke and coughing fit you just endured. Your eyes begin to water and tears start to stream down your face. It’s something you cannot avoid because the two go hand in hand. You wipe them away from your eyes as if this will allow you to suddenly see what’s going on around you. The chaos that has ensued for the last twenty minutes seems like it is never going to come to an end. You pick up a scrap piece of cardboard, you find lying on the concrete ground, and you begin to fan the smoke away. You move your arms rapidly, in an up and down maneuver similar to a bird about to take flight. Desperately seeking to clear a path, not sure if what you are doing is helping or making matters worse. Yet through bursts of light you see the gray smoke fading into the clear sky. As the haziness all around you begins to dissipate, you catch sight of the now taming fire. Your mind  back on track at the task at hand. The once frightening flames emitting from the tiny grill are now docile and manageable. You chuckle and think to yourself how silly it all was, and say a little prayer thanking the universe for not sending the fire department your way.

Now that the smoke scare is over, you dump the flaming coals out of the chimney and into the grill. Replace the grate and begin to cook dinner. Lazy weekend evenings go from uneventful to fun and exciting in a matter of minutes. It isn’t so much the food that you cook – for it could be a simple feast of hamburgers and hot dogs – but rather the experience of having people over and cooking outside. Everyone gathered around in the backyard, throwing back some cold ones. Music playing softly in the background, the distinct chatter of the guests rising through it all, as the sun begins to set and the smell of grilling meat is all around. The splash of water from the pool is a welcoming sound with the refreshing feeling of happiness. Happiness because you look around and realize that all you’ve ever needed is right there around you. Surrounding you. Hugging you. Good food, good company and the prospect of good memories on the horizon. With the content feeling that many more days like these, await you all summer.

As this warm season approaches – three days to be exact – we begin to welcome afternoons at the park or evenings spent outside barbecuing. Where people do not shine in the kitchen, it seems impressive that they shine in front of the grill. Perhaps it’s the whole experience. The lighting of the wood or coals, and the idea of being in command of something semi-dangerous. Whether it is an extravagant feast on the fire or a simple meal for the modest, outdoor eating is something to treasure especially during the warm months of June and July and August. It allows us all to step out of our comfort zones and experience something fun and thrilling. Perhaps potlucks to friends and neighbors’ homes are what you’re used to. Whatever the case might be, there are certain recipes that are meant to be made for particular occasions. When talk of grilling, barbecues, potlucks, or outdoor eating arises, corn bread automatically enters my mind. It invades my train of thought, one of which I cannot shake off. The idea of the sweat and savory along with such classic dishes of potato salad, grilled chicken drenched in barbecue sauce with the crisp, coolness of coleslaw. You need something to mop up all those delicious accouterments. A bread treat of some sort. So when the corn is in season and the stalks are up and high above your head, and you have more ears than you know what to do with – roast the hell out of it – and make yourself a big batch of corn muffins. Throw in a few treasures like jalapeños, scallions and cheddar cheese and watch the face of those around go from happy to ecstatic. Who knew that corn muffins had that affect on people? Or rather, who knew that summer could be so much fun?

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Beef and Potato Empanadas

School is finally out and I find myself in the kitchen more and more these days. Long hours of cooking, baking, dinner making, and filling in order after order after order. These days, I wake up and the first thing I do is cook while the last thing I do before bed is cook. It isn’t a bad thing. No. On the contrary, it’s a good thing. It’s exciting. It’s inspiring. Summer and winter are the semesters when I love being in the kitchen the most because I do not have to go to school. This gives me more time to experiment and try out new recipes that I’ve been dying to test. It gives me an excuse to make extravagant meals, solely because I have more time for such pleasures. Sure when I’m being a student during Spring and Fall, I still cook every night. But during those times, I do it more because I have to. Because I need fuel in order to focus on school work, projects, and studying. I need nutritional substance to be able to balance and juggle everything I have on my plate-pun intended. During the fall and spring semesters, however, I lazily make dinner in a fast pace with an eagerness to eat so as to finish all the other ten million school tasks I have to do before bed. Before having to go to sleep to only do it all over again the very next morning. I do not particularly care for the kitchen during school, of course not discrediting the few days I play hookie (shh..don’t tell anyone) or on the occasional and very much embraced weekend where I have nothing to do. When those rare weekends fly by me, I make sure to grab them and hold on tight to every second I can. I enjoy school very much, don’t get me wrong. I especially enjoy it more these days now that I’m nearing the finish line. The light at the end of the dark tunnel is finally coming closer and you better believe I’m following the light happily. And without hesitation. What’s more, I’m looking forward to the next semester. Fall semester will be my favorite semester of all because it happens to be my last. Two classes left before I officially join my sisters up on the ol’ lady’s wall of college diplomas that her children have granted her. A spot that has been burning a hole just waiting for me to finish. Years. Months. Weeks. Days. Just waiting for me to say Yea I graduated college too. No biggie, as I dust off my shoulders. A few congratulations, a couple pats on the back, maybe even a few envelopes with money (wouldn’t hurt) and I’m good to go. But don’t lets get ahead of ourselves. That’s all still a few months away-six months to be exact but who’s counting? Let’s focus on the now. And right now is summer vacation. Summer vacation before my last semester. In a way, I guess we can say this is my last summer vacation.

Yes, summer break is in full swing and there is nothing I want to do more than to cook. To blast on some music-and the AC because let’s face it, summer is almost here and the heat in Southern California is steadily rising day by day-and just cook my days away. There are people out there, like those on the HGTV shows, that look for homes with big backyards. Living rooms that are spacious-enough so, so that their family gatherings go without a hitch. You know the shows. The one’s where the perfect family, dad, mom, 2.5 kids are going from home to home taking their time to determine which house to call home. Most of the time, their deciding factor is whether or not the backyard is big enough or has a pool or if there are enough bathrooms. To me what’s important is not the size of the home. It’s not whether or not there is a bathroom attached to my bedroom. And it surely isn’t whether there is a pool or not. Just give me a decent kitchen with granite counter space for days and I’ll be as happy as a clam. So I do not really need a huge kitchen that can fit a sofa and still have space. I’ve been managing with a shoebox all my life and it hasn’t stopped me yet. The kitchen is the center of the home. It is where everyone gathers around. Have you ever thrown a party and noticed that at some point during the evening-maybe even several points-there are a number of guests gathered around in the kitchen? Laughing and having a good time? No? Well I have. I’ve catered numerous parties and each and every time, without question and without fail, everyone ends up in the kitchen. The reason is simple. The kitchen makes people happy, even if they do not know how to cook. It brings families together and makes memories worth keeping.

The most complicated and fanciest of dishes do not necessarily need to come out of the kitchen. Just simple good food from the heart. There was one thing my mother would always tell me as a child, and that was that you had to cook with love because it’s what makes food taste so good. Cooking at an early age gave me the opportunity to hone-in on my cooking with love technique. And believe you me, she always knew then and knows now, when I do not cook with love. She’ll know when I made something fast and without much thought. And at the same time she knows perfectly well when I’ve taken my time and poured my heart and soul into a meal or dessert. I say the best food out there is the simplest kind. The food that you grew up with and have made numerous times. The food you know will always turn out good. It will never let you down. For me, it’s empanadas. Potato and beef empanadas that of which defined my childhood. And still make me happy. When people find out about my baking/catering business, or stumble across my blog, or see my food photography work for school, I’m always asked the same question. What do you enjoy making most? What’s your speciality? In reality and in all honesty, I enjoy cooking more. Baked goods however, sell more. People respond a lot more to my baking. But if given the chance I’d prove that savory cooking could be just as good to look at and eat. My answer to that question is always the same, just with different savory dishes each time. But I think that the real answer has always been there. Empanadas are my favorite thing to make. Not because they are easy, because yes they are, but because the possibilities are endless. You can fill them with anything your heart desires and the best part is they are portable. A food on the go, all wrapped up in an edible envelope. The perfect snack or meal. What’s your favorite thing to make?

We start by making the dough for the edible envelopes.

An empanada dough is probably the easiest dough to make.

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Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

It’s hard to think that there are people out there that do not particularly enjoy your art. People who no matter what you do, will always have something negative to say. Something in a disapproving tone to add to your work. Snarky remarks and reviews that throw away all the time and energy you spent creating a specific body of work. All the blood, sweat and tears-not literally but figuratively of course-are brushed off and cast to the side by these critical viewers. You’ll always encounter people, or rather, there will always be someone-if not multiple someones-that will not like what you are doing. Not just in art, but life in general. They might not agree with your life choices or the decisions you choose to make. They will not approve of the people you decide to love, or the paths you choose to take. You’ll encounter individuals who are ready to break you down. Said individuals might not particularly care for the photographs you take, the food you make, the pictures you sketch, the paintings you paint, the music you write and so on and so forth. I think it’s important to keep those negative people and their comments in your mind as you create. As you photograph. As you cook. As you sketch. As you paint. As you play. Maybe not so prevalent in your mind, that it interferes with your creativity. Not so prevailing that it stops you from doing what you love most. No, keep it on the back burner.

I think it is crucial to still remember that. It makes you stronger as an art maker. It makes you better as a human being. A more rounded individual. Sure you can easily tell yourself that those comments do not bother you. That they roll off your back, and maybe to a certain degree they do not affect you. They do roll of your back. There is no denying, however, that somewhere deep down inside, those comments have flipped a tiny switch in you. They have made you aware of the giant elephant in the room. And with the snap of your fingers-just like that-all those insecurities, that we as artists, have spent years containing and suppressing, in the blink of an eye come flooding back in. Like a raging waterfall of neglect. An awareness that is so grand it stops you from thinking. It takes you aback and throws you off guard. How can something so trivial-written by a perfect stranger-affect you so profoundly? Influence you to the point that you start questioning your art-even worse-start questioning yourself?

As an artist, myself, I create work that I find gratifying and stimulating. Photographing food is only a part of my art. Only a part of what I enjoy doing. For me, the cooking aspect goes hand in hand with the setting up of the edible composition and in-turn the releasing of the shutter. Being in the kitchen is equally as important. It’s where I shine most. I wouldn’t be able to photograph the food I shoot, if it wasn’t for the fact that I spend so much time-maybe equally if not more-cooking and preparing the dishes themselves. Each recipe is taken into consideration. Day’s prior, are spent brainstorming and finalizing a dish to photograph. Grocery lists are made and checked through three times to make sure I have not forgotten anything-and of course something is inevitably still left out. A full week goes by and I’m still working on the same post. And why is that? Because I take everything into consideration. I take my time to put out the best work that I can. Work that I can be proud of. It’s the perfectionist in me. Yet, it’s so much more than that. It’s because when it all comes down to it, I do want people to enjoy my work. I want people to try out the recipes for themselves. And then share their experiences.

I must admit that it isn’t always easy for me. There are times when, what I described earlier, has affected me. There are people out there who do not like my work. Who do not approve of my methods. These individuals find my site tiring. My photographs too many. My step-by-step depictions silly. Perhaps to a certain degree it is all those things. Maybe I do not need to show every single last detail, but if my site isn’t their cup of tea, well then it isn’t their cup of tea. And nothing I do can change that. Yes, for a brief moment, I lost sight of why I make art. Why I photograph my step-by-step site. Then I realized that those people do not define me as an artist. My work does. Those few comments do not overrule or null all the comments by readers who actually do enjoy my work. Those fans who not only like all the photographs but it actually helps them. Because they, like me, are visual learners. And they, like me, enjoy staring at countless images of food. So to those people who do not enjoy my site, I’m sorry we’re not a fit but thankfully there are a vast number of other sites that you might find intriguing. More importantly, to those people who I have managed to capture, thank you. Thank you for visiting and coming back. Thank you for trying the recipes and for the kind words you send. Thank you for taking the time to write a shout out. Thank you for scrolling down the long posts. Your words are encouragements to me. It’s because of you that I continue to do what I love most. And what I would like most right now is for us to share a red velvet whoopie pie together.

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Peanut Butter Caramel Brownies

You finish dinner one night and you begin to crave something sweet. A dessert of some sort. Sure, you’ve just finished a nice supper. One that would make even Julia Child proud. But you need something small and chocolatey to finish it off right. As you search your pantry you look around and see nothing that piques your interest. No goodies hiding away. Nothing that is ready. No treats calling out your name. No cookies, cakes, or pie. How do you even continue? Where do you go from here? You grab a few ingredients here and there. All the usual suspects are gathered around in the matter of minutes; flour, sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla. Some not so usual guests are also invited to the party. Peanut butter and bittersweet  and unsweetened chocolate are thrown into the mix. In staring at all your ingredients, intently and without blinking, the idea comes to you like a speeding bullet. Why hadn’t you thought of making this before? It’s so easy.

There’s a popular saying out there that instructs us to make brownies when life hands us chocolate. Did I get that right? I’m sure I’ve read that countless of times on mugs, t-shirts and aprons. Someone once told me something around those lines however-If I recall correctly-it was something about lemons and lemonade. I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention or listening. I dozed off, but I know I must’ve heard them wrong. I’m sure they meant chocolate. When I don’t like or agree with something that someone has said to me, I find it rather therapeutic to replace it with chocolate. Try it, it works every time. But that’s beside the point. I digress. The truth of the matter is when life does hand you chocolate, there is only one option-well maybe a few in the form of cakes and cookies-but for the sake of this post, let’s just say there is only one option. That option is to make brownies. Everyone likes brownies. They make people happy. Have you ever given  anyone a box of brownies and seen them react so incredibly insane over them? Has your little box of chocolate treats ever affected someone so much, they had to stop everything and do a happy dance and sing? No? Well, I have. It’s a weekly occurrence with me. “Thank you for my delicious brownies. They made my day,” people tell me. “They were so tasty that I’m going to name my next child after you! If I have one. If I don’t, then I’ll change the name of the one I already have,” I’m always told. If you see any little tots named Jonathan or Jon out there, now you know why.

What can I say? These peanut butter caramel brownies have that affect on people. I guess, it is my responsibility to state that disclaimer. To inform people of their magical powers. To warn future makers and eaters: Devouring these brownies will make you have babies and name them after me. Don’t say you’ve never been warned.

We start by making the caramel. Which happens to be a peanut butter caramel.

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