Category Archives: Birthdays

Garnets & Ganache: Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Espresso Ganache

February 2014

Long ago, I made my sister a cheesy, craft-fair style plaque boasting “I’d give up chocolate, but I’m no quitter.”

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Photo by Joey Kennedy.

As country craft as that little plaque may have been, truer words about our family were never spoken. Persistance and chocolate were probably secretly woven into our Kogel crest, so my birthday would not have been complete without an element of chocolate, especially when the theme for my 30th was Garnets & Ganache.

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Photo by Joey Kennedy.

As part of my birthday cake tradition of making one, miniature, beautiful cake for each year of life, I used a large cupcake pan and inverted the cupcakes to create these decadent cakelettes. Follow suit if you’re feeling fancy, or follow the instructions for a layered 8-inch cake (which is fancy in its own right).

Whole-Wheat Chocolate Cake with Espresso Ganache


Butter, for greasing the pans

1 3/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour, plus more for pans
2 cups organic evaporated cane sugar
3/4 cups pure cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup organic greek yogurt
1/4 cup organic milk
1/2 cup olive oil
2 extra-large, organic eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee or espresso


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-inch x 2-inch round cake pans or cupcake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

In the bowl of a mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder.

In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt, milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla.

With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry.

With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.

Pour warm ganache over the cakes and form a layer cake, or spread evenly over the cupcakes.


Espresso Ganache

8 ounces good semisweet chocolate chips
1 heaping teaspoon instant coffee granules

3/4 cup heavy cream


Bring the cream and coffee granules to a boil, in a saucepan over medium heat.

Remove from heat and add the chocolate, whisking to combine. Allow to cool slightly before pouring over cake.


Bon Appétit!

Garnets & Ganache: Cranberry Almond Cake with White Chocolate Ganache

February 2014

Collaboration is at the heart of so many of my endeavors. Having another brain at work not only keeps me sane, but partnerships have that way of pushing and prodding an idea toward a better solution. When I told my Harvest & Gather partner about my Birthday Cake Tradition, he proved once again how a fresh set of eyes can challenge the norm.

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Photo by Joey Kennedy.

Since I was 26 or so, I have been celebrating my birthday with a fancy mini cake for each year of life. This is my tradition and any “rules” involved are of my own making. When I explained this, Thommy very simply asked, “Can the cakes be different varieties?” It was such a simple question, and yet, I had never really though to add variety to my ever growing number of sweets. Sharing, however, was always a must. Thus, I came to add a few more recipes to the collection, and hence the steady flow of garnet reds and ganache on this little corner of the interwebs.

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Photo by Joey Kennedy.

Almond Cranberry Cake with White Chocolate Ganache

Note: The recipe calls for a bundt pan. I used a smaller springform pan and cupcake pans for the remaining batter in an effort to have many, smaller cakes. If you also decide to use a different pan, adjust the baking time accordingly.


3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 cups organic evaporated cane sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup organic almond milk
2 organic eggs
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 cup organic greek yogurt

3 cups homemade cranberry sauce


White Chocolate Ganache (recipe below)
Slivered almonds


Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt; sift together.

In a separate bowl combine milk, eggs, oil, almond extract and yogurt; whisk together.

Add liquid mixture to dry ingredients and stir together (this batter will be very thick).

When liquid and dry ingredients are completely incorporated together, stir in cranberry sauce.

Pour cake batter into a well-greased Bundt pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes; until toothpick comes out clean. Allow cake to cool for 10 minutes in Bundt pan, remove cake from pan and place on serving plate.

Allow cake to cool completely on serving plate.


White Chocolate Ganache


8 ounces good quality white chocolate (such as Callebaut)
3/4 cup organic heavy cream


Using a sharp, heavy serrated knife or a chocolate chopper, finely chop the chocolate. It’s important to chop it finely so that it melts quickly. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Bring heavy cream just to a boil, and pour over chopped chocolate. Stir until chocolate is melted and smooth.

Stir the mixture vigorously until it reaches the desired thickness or consistency.

*Note: I drizzled the ganache over the cakes when it was still quite warm and liquid, making it more like a glaze. Allowing it to cool more will result in a more solid spread. 


Bon Appétit!

Garnets & Ganache: Lemon Ginger Cake w/ Lemon Syrup & Chocolate Ganache

February 2014

On January 21st, I hit the big 3-0, and on February 1st, I shared 30 cakes with friends. This is my tradition- one mini cake for each year of life. I hope to some day make 100 mini cakes and share them with equally crazy, vibrant people as this year, but I am perfectly content to enjoy 30 while it lasts.

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Photo by Joey Kennedy.

This year, there were a few varieties counted amongst the total, one of which was a musical lemon-ginger. Since the party theme was Garnets & Ganache, the finishing touch was chocolate ganache of course.

Cakes and Tunes

Photos by Joey Kennedy.

Lemon Ginger Cake with Lemon Syrup & Chocolate Ganache

This recipe calls for a bundt pan. I used a large sheet pan in order to cut mini layers from the whole. If you use a sheet pan, adjust the baking time accordingly. Mine took about 25 minutes.


3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 Tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup minced crystallized ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) organic unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups turbinado pure cane sugar

6 large organic eggs
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)

1 cup organic Greek yogurt

Lemon syrup (recipe below)
Chocolate Ganache (recipe below)
Powdered Sugar & Candied Ginger for garnish


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a standard 12-cup bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, lemon zest, ginger, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter and granulated sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; mix in lemon juice.

With mixer on low, alternately add flour mixture in three parts and Greek yogurt in two, beginning and ending with flour mixture; mix just until incorporated (do not overmix). Spoon batter into prepared pan, and smooth top with a rubber spatula. Firmly tap pan on a work surface to level batter.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes (if cake browns too quickly, tent loosely with aluminum foil).

Brush the cake with lemon syrup, to taste.

Let cake cool in pan 30 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.


Candied Lemon Slices & Syrup

*I made candied lemons for a different cake and used the reserve of syrup for this lemon-ginger cake. Since you’ll be starting from scratch, go ahead and add the candied lemons to this cake. I’m sure it will be delicious!


3/4 cups pure cane sugar
1/3 cup water
2 lemons, thinly sliced


Place the sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar.

Add the lemon slices and bring to the boil.

Cook for 12-15 minutes or until the syrup has thickened and lemon slices are translucent.

Pour some of the syrup* over the cake and top with the lemon slices. Allow to cool and serve.

*You can use any leftover syrup as a simple syrup in cocktails or add to homemade whipped cream and then dollop into your morning coffee.


Dark Chocolate Ganache


8 ounces organic, semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup organic heavy cream


Bring the cream to a boil, in a saucepan over medium heat.

Remove from heat and add the chocolate, whisking to combine.

Allow to cool slightly, and then pour over cake and use an offset spatula to spread evenly.


Bon Appétit!

Garnets & Ganache because I’m Thirty.

Assuming everyone I meet is somehow magically my age, I began to bemoan the utter confusion so many of my friends and I have experienced to a new acquaintance, “Uuuuugh, the early and mid-twenties can really suck. Promised so much success if you do x and y, you’re weighted with all the accolades you were supposed to achieve, and then suddenly the bottom just drops out beneath you.”

Continuing along until I had sufficiently beaten the twenties into oblivion, I turned to this new acquaintance and finally asked, “How old are you?”



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[Fails to backtrack, inserts foot in mouth, pats girl's back metaphorically...pat, pat, pat] “What I meant was…haaaang tight kiddo, it’s going to get so much better [smiles with feigned enthusiasm].”

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Mistake me not. I enjoyed my twenties. Much to the confusion of many around me, I meandered instead of a taking a direct path. Though that path often left me questioning just about everything, I wouldn’t be where I am today without all those tiny, quirky, questionable steps along the way.

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So here I am.

THIRTY years old. While that is mind-blowing and unbelievable, it’s also completely inspiring and surprisingly comfortable. The decades leading to this big number change were about discovery and finding out what makes me leap from bed. Now, thirty is about diving in headfirst. If my twenties were the maps, thirty is the plane ticket and passport in hand, and that, my friends, calls for a celebration(s)!

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A celebration in the tone of red to be exact…

Garnets and Ganache Invite

Inspired by my birthstone, my love of chocolate and my affinity for alliteration, Garnets & Ganache transpired thanks to the efforts of my Harvest & Gather partner, Thommy Conroy.

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One of my birthday traditions is to bake a mini, layered cake for each year of life I am celebrating. Contrary to popular doubt [haters gonna hate; cake bakers gonna bake], I continued this tradition in my third decade [yes, 30 is a LOT of cake, but tradition is tradition].

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I even wore heels for the occasion. Those who know me, know this is rare, so rare they barely recognized me.

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Being surrounded by good friends, my favorite color and lots of chocolate filled me with smiles and gratitude and solidified my start to a new decade.

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This love and I have a deep bond commemorated by Black Velvet, and she managed to find me a chocolate bear bearing Black Velvet, the Canadian whiskey. Winner winner!

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Do you see the resemblance to a certain #JulepOfTheDay? Thanks Sylvan for this amazing find!

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Never fret. If your cake doesn’t have candles, just grab a candlestick and enjoy the song!

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What happens when Taboo meets Charades? Our entertainment for the night was the game “Celebrity,” and it left me with mental images I’ll never forget, specifically when it comes to this guy  “twerking.”

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How much do I LOVE this glasses-clad girl! She drove all the way from DC to celebrate me! Our love is the forever kind.

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Where would I be without these creative ladies (left and right) constantly brightening my days and proving shorthaired girls have more fun?

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Bring it 30. I’m ready for you! I’m ready for your youthful wisdom and purposeful drive!


-The Birthday Girl

P.S: Stay tuned to Harvest & Gather for more memorable events and check out the Garnets & Ganache recipes:

Lemon Ginger Cake w/ Lemon Syrup & Chocolate Ganache
Cranberry Almond Cake with White Chocolate Ganache

P.P.S: Thanks to Joey Kennedy for documenting my memorable evening with such beautiful photos!

P.P.P. S: This is a great article about coming into your 30s. 

A Birthday By Day & By Night

January 21, 2014

Recently, the Pittsburgh Urbanist Guide interviewed me as part of the 3 Meals & A Bar series. The premise for the questionnaire is if you only had 24 hours to show a friend the best that urban Pittsburgh has to offer, where would you take them? As it turns out, my answers were very similar to how I chose to show myself around on my own special day…my THIRTIETH special day no less!

La Gourmandine

Every January 21st begins with a ritual- I acknowledge 8:36am, the precise moment when I entered this world. I know this time because as the baby of the family, there were several people to take note of important details like birth times. I acknowledge this time faithfully because I am quirky and crazy I suppose. With my precise birthday moment properly recognized, it was time for breakfast, and a breakfast of birthday champions should begin at La Gourmandine, so that it did!

Birthday Pastries

My lovely friend Dana accompanied me on my snowy morning to the warm, bright place where pastry dreams come true [in the form of almond croissants for this dreamer]. Dana generously gifted me a bite of her clafouti too [that sounds dirty. It was not. It was pure, innocent and delicious].

La Gourmandine Almond Croissant

Full and content from a perfectly almond-laced croissant and caffeinated from one of my favorite cappuccinos, I spent the afternoon with my favorite four-legged friend, hiking in the snowy woods and cityscapes of our neighborhood until she was plum tuckered and ready to snuggle. Those tired eyes were singing “happy birthday to you.”

Hike and Cuddle

Snow treks, snuggles and one perfectly relaxing massage later, I was ready to indulge in one of my favorite menus with two of my favorite people…

Meat and Potatoes Bar

You guessed it… Meat & Potatoes!

Meat and Potatoes Place Setting

Girls and Cocktails

Favorite faces and the cocktail that could make an alcoholic out of me- the Sgt. Pepper’s Old Fashioned

Poutine is basically a birthday cake waiting for a candle, and there were plenty, plenty more birthday treats where that came from.

Meat and Potatoes Poutine

Not quite a full 3 Meals & A Bar lineup, but my 30th birthday was a day comprised of a few of my favorite Pittsburgh offerings, with a few of the people who matter most to me. That was merely the beginning. After all, I mentioned how much I like to milk my birthday month for festivities, so obviously, there was still more in store, and that “more” included LOTS of cake!

How do you celebrate your day of birth?


Happy Birthday To Me!

Happy Birthday To Me, Love Big Burrito

January 2014

In an effort to fully milk my birthday, I took advantage of a special offering from the Big Burrito Restaurant Group [apologies if this post's title led you to believe I would be writing about a larger-than-life burrito...maybe one day!]

Wine Collection

The Big Burrito Restaurant Group includes several Pittsburgh establishments. While I tend to associate their name with an outdated approach to fine dining (expensive prices, design that caters to stereotypical business types and websites that inspire nostalgia for the precise moment when we moved past AOL chat rooms and began to dive into using the internet), I’m not one to turn down an olive branch in the name of my birthday. Joining the Big Burrito mailing list entitles each subscriber to a token of birthday cheer good for one free entree at the restaurant of her choice.


Of the various restaurants, Eleven is my top choice, and if it were to have an interior design overhaul, it would probably be on my regular cycle of Pittsburgh favorites. In the meantime, I’m happy to overlook the overwhelming presence of beige and the private business rooms looming overhead in honor of my 30 years on this planet. Bring on the pork belly and foie gras!

Pork Belly

Pork Belly appetizer

Eleven is nestled between the bustling food scene of the historical Strip District and downtown Pittsburgh. Its name commemorates its place as the eleventh restaurant in the Big Burrito series. Despite my critiques, I do applaud Chef Derek Stevens’ ever changing menu of contemporary American flavors. I just wish the powers that be would frame his food more modernly. His kitchen is the center of Eleven’s spacious dining room, complemented by the more hidden, in-house bakery which yields artisan breads and desserts.

Foie Gras

Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Calvados prunes, orange-thyme biscuit, candied sage and kumquat

Beautiful Radish Salad

Beet Salad with golden beets, pickled red beets, little gem, molasses vinaigrette, taleggio and cornbread croutons

Not pictured is my complimentary Seafood Sampler birthday entree [my photo did not do its deliciousness justice], which was so flavorful it should have pushed me past the point of dessert, but when I saw beignets…

Beignets and Tables

Apple Beignets with apple caramel compote, brown sugar ice cream, cherries and granola

…I just had to have at least a few sweet bites. My birthday coupon turned out to be a pleasant reminder of why Eleven stands out from its Big Burrito counterparts and should be a part of my rotation more frequently. If you live in Pittsburgh or for some reason are planning a visit for your birthday, you should sign up for your own birthday gift!


Happy Birthday Dining!

ps: Pittsburgh Post Gazette food critic Melissa McCart wrote a well articulated piece about the Big group which might even describe my objections more accurately than I have done myself.

An Arrested Development Themed Birthday

May 2013

April 29th was my Special One’s Birthday. There was a cake, but that was just a small token to mark the day. The real festivity came about a week later. People who know me know that I love themes and birthdays! People who know my Special One know he can just about quote Arrested Development verbatim. Put two and two together, and you get a birthday ode to one of our all time favorite shows just in time to build up even more anticipation for the coming sequel. The theme started with the present…

The Custom Bag

Homemade wrapping paper made from the gift’s packaging paper…

Custom Banana Stand Wrapping

Finding these glasses on etsy made me as happy as Lindsay Bluth on Teamocil! Why have I not been shopping for EVERY gift on etsy?!? My Special One has a habit of leaving glasses all over the apartment. He has repeatedly told me if he had one, distinct glass, this would no longer be a problem. How about one distinct glass with an analrapist on it? Win win!

Tobias Banana Stand

Steve Holt Gob Bluth

and something to squeeze into the glasses- “Give my son the juice!”

Give My Son The Juice

Plus something for a rainy day- Arrested Development paper dolls by artist Kyle Hilton.

Bluth Family Paper Dolls

Tobias Banana Paper Dolls

Steve Hol Gob Paper Dolls

The theme carried into the birthday dinner menu:

Pulled Pork w/ Fried Plantains
(an ode to the Bluth’s Banana Stand and a more appetizing nod to Lindsay’s ham water)

Warm Escarole & Shrimp Salad
(I wasn’t about to make a seal dish, so I figured a seafood side would suffice)

Cornballs & Spicy Remoulade
(an ode to George Bluth’s Cornballer)

Banana Stand Cheesecake

Arrested Development inspired recipes to follow in subsequent posts. Stay tuned!

Chocolate Coconut Cake w/ Coconut Buttercream for Stella’s Birthday

May 2013

Do you remember your fourth birthday? I bet I would if the appropriate party photo jogged my memory (or in the least, some reconstructed version of a memory)… was that the year of the bunny cake, or maybe it was the Cabbage Patch kid cake?

Coconut Buttercream Layer

When you’re that age, birthdays are especially epic (to be fair, I still get pretty excited about my birthday). Even in between birthdays, you’re busy adding quarter and half years to your age to validate how big you are!

Stella Cake Top View

When my bosses asked me to make a birthday cake for their daughter Stella’s fourth birthday, I took the task pretty seriously. I wanted to make her a birthday cake that would leave an impression on her little girl memory.

Stella Flags

Stella’s a May lady, so the theme for her shindig was Cinco de Mayo. My first instinct for a Cinco de Mayo cake would be a drenching of rum (like this tres leches cake), but this wasn’t her twenty-first birthday, so there was more brainstorming to be stormed.

Stella Cake Closeups

Instead of boozing a four-year-old’s party, I channeled the produce of peninsular Mexico- coconut and a touch of mango. There were cinco layers of cake, symbolic of the theme, a little cupcake on top by birthday girl request (and for good luck) and a mango rosette for a pop of color!

Stella Bday Cake

The recipe below is for two 9-inch cake layers. If you want to make your own special, layered birthday cake, double the recipe below and use a 9-inch, 7-inch and 5-inch pan. 

Chocolate Coconut Cake with Coconut Buttercream
Makes two 9-inch layers


1/2 cup organic semi-sweet chocolate chips
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup boiling water

1 1/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup organic, unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups pure cane sugar

2 large organic eggs

1 cup organic coconut milk


Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch springform pans with butter.

Combine the chocolate chips and cocoa in a mixing bowl with the hot water. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

In a bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In another large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat butter and sugar until combined. Add eggs, one at a time until thickened slightly and lighter in color (about 3 minutes).

Slowly add the coconut milk to the egg mixture, and then the melted chocolate, beating until well combined.

Add flour mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined.

Divide batter between the two pans, and bake in middle of oven until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes.

Cool cake completely before frosting.

Coconut Buttercream


3/4 cup butter
2-3 cups organic powdered sugar
3/4 cup organic coconut milk

unsweetened coconut flakes, to taste


Use a mixer to combine butter and powdered sugar.

Add coconut milk a little at a time. Add more powdered sugar to reach desired consistency.

Top with unsweetened coconut flakes to your liking.

My Special One’s Choice- Penn Ave Fish Company

April 2013

When it comes to his birthday dinner (or a birthday observed dinner in the case of busy schedules), I like to make dinner (and dessert!) for my Special One. However, in the case of lunch, it’s ok to treat him and let someone else prep his birthday meal. Thus the choice was his, and he chose Penn Avenue Fish Company because, as you may recall, he really loves sushi (and I really love him!).

Penn Ave Fish Market

Situated in the Strip District, the restaurant’s industrial interior feels a lot like you’re wandering amongst the fish mongers of an early morning market. The quality of the fish also evokes a fresh market. It’s all the perks without the overwhelming smell of a fish market.

Penn Ave Fish Mrkt Salmon Sandwich

Sneaky Pete
Grilled salmon on whole grain ciabatta with fresh arugula, hearts of palm and spicy avocado crẻme sauce

Pro: The Sneaky Pete is a perfect sandwich. Avocado and salmon together are one of my favorite combinations, and I obviously appreciate a whole-grain bread.

Con: I ordered the Sneaky Pete the first time I went to the restaurant, and I haven’t been able to stray from it. Just when I’m about to pronounce a different fish sandwich’s name, I find myself saying, “I’ll have a ‘Sneaky Pete’ please!”

Luckily, my Special One and I believe in sharing & caring and family style for just about every meal to date. Thus I was able to combine creature comforts with menu meandering and a whole lot of sushi sampling!

Penn Ave Fish Mrkt Sushi

For the review of this sushi, I defer to the birthday fella, who has a LOT of experience with chopsticks, soy sauce and depleting the ocean of its sushi grade fish. “I think this is my favorite place for sushi in the city. It’s really good quality fish at a great price, and it’s not masked by potent flavors that hide the fish quality and cost a fortune.”

There you have it!

P.S: We still really love Fukuda too!

Brown Butter Strawberry Bourbon Cake for a Birthday!

April 2013

My Special One’s mom gave him some good advice for a nutritious life- half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, which it seems, is why dessert is usually served on a separate plate!

Cake Plus Bourbon Drizzle

April is the month of my health-conscious, Special One’s birthday. The more elaborate plans were slated for a birthday observed date, but I couldn’t let his actual day pass without a little token of birthday cake, and the least I could do was stir in a good portion of fruit! I also thought I owed him some bourbon!

Bourbon Drizzled Cake

I would recommend this denser, honey-sweetened cake as a breakfast slice, since it’s close to a sweet bread, but that idea depends on your a.m. bourbon habits. Either way, this is a slice best served warm with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla bean ice cream! For an extra bourbony drizzle, I whisked together a spoonful or two of Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel caramel sauce and a healthy drop of Wild Turkey bourbon.

Brown Butter Strawberry Bourbon Cake
makes one 8-inch round cake
Recipe adapted from Roost


4 Tablespoons butter

2/3 cup almond flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 Tablespoons local honey
3 organic eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract

1/2 cup organic strawberries, quartered (about 4-5 med/lg strawberries)
1/4-1/2 cup roasted, salted almonds, chopped

1/8 cup bourbon (Wild Turkey)


Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan.

Melt butter in a small pan over medium/low heat until browned and fragrant.

Set aside. Whisk together the flours, salt and baking soda until combined.

Add honey, eggs, vanilla, almond extract and brown butter.

Use a spatula or mixer to blend until smooth.

Pour mixture into a bowl and fold in quartered strawberries. Pour batter into prepared cake pan.

Top with chopped almonds. Add strawberry garnish.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove the oven to a cooling rack.

Poke holes throughout the top of the cake with a skewer. Pour the bourbon over the cake.

29 Cakes for 29 Years: Mocha Cake Recipe

February 2013

To say I like planning theme parties is an understatement, so when I decided to have an Amélie Themed Anniversaire, I crafted many small, film-inspired details (that perhaps were mostly apparent to me?). One of those details was the birthday cake…or cakes, rather. Combine the espresso and chocolate flavors from Amelie’s waitressing job at Café Des 2 Moulins with the opening credits, in which little Amélie bites raspberries off each of her fingers, and you have the inspiration for my birthday cake tradition!

Cake Side View

Chocolate Espresso Cake with Coffee Glaze & Mocha Buttercream

Note About Size: In order to get 29 little cakes, I doubled the recipe and used a large, sheet pan, but your everyday dessert craving or small get together probably doesn’t call for that much cake. However, your everyday dessert craving or small get together probably does call for a rich chocolate dessert with the bold accent of espresso. The recipe below is for two, 9″-round, cake layers.    

Coffee Glaze

Coffee Glaze


1/4 cup raw cane sugar
2 Tablespoons boiled water
1 Tablespoon instant espresso powder or instant coffee granules


Combine the raw sugar, water and instant coffee in small bowl. Stir until sugar and coffee are dissolved.

Raspberry Garnish Cakes

Mocha Buttercream Frosting


1 bar (4 oz.) Dark Chocolate Baking Bar, melted

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder or instant coffee granules
3 Tablespoons organic heavy cream

1 cup (2 sticks) organic, unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups organic powdered sugar


Dissolve instant coffee in cream.

In a separate bowl, beat butter, vanilla extract and salt in large mixer bowl for 3 minutes.

Beat in melted chocolate until blended, scraping occasionally. Gradually beat in powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in coffee mixture, 1 Tablespoon at a time, until desired spreading consistency.

Birthday Cake Assembly 01

Chocolate Espresso Cake


5 oz Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, melted

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups organic, packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) organic, unsalted butter, softened
4 organic large eggs
2 Tablespoons instant espresso powder or instant coffee granules
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup organic buttermilk


Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease and line two 9-inch-round baking pans with wax paper.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl.

Beat brown sugar, butter, eggs, instant coffee and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl for 3 minutes.

Gradually add melted chocolate and continue beating for an additional minute.

Beat flour mixture into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Pour into prepared pans.

Bake for 33 to 38 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Run knife around edges of cakes. Invert onto wire racks; remove wax paper. Cool completely.

Brush coffee glaze over cake layers.

Spread Mocha Buttercream Frosting between layers and top of cake.

29 Cakes For 29 Years (A Birthday Cake Tradition)

February 2013

There is something about a celebration that calls for layers of cake, and there’s something about me that thought my own birthday called for a mini, layer cake for each year of life! I’m not old by any means, but that is a fair bit of cake! However, this layer cake tradition of mine continued (as did my twenties for a little bit longer).


That last candle was a bugger! If you’re curious why I called upon a garden gnome for candle-blowing-out assistance, this should explain it. Recipe to follow in a subsequent post.

An Amelie Anniversaire [Birthday]

February 2013

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain is a colorful, accordion-accompanied film about Amélie, whose childhood was suppressed by a mistaken diagnosis of a heart defect. Her isolation causes her to retreat into a fantastical world of imagination. As a young woman, she leaves home to becomes a waitress at the Café Des 2 Moulins (two windmills) in the heart of Paris. In her Montmartre apartment, she discovers a time capsule from a previous tenant’s boyhood. In resolving to return the memories to the owner, she sets off to become a do-gooder. After helping those around her, Amélie soon realizes she must be bolder in pursuing love and her own happiness.

From the endearing missions, to the quirky romance and the Montmartre backdrop, the film has always filled me with such happiness. For my 29th year of life, I, like Amélie, decided to plan something whimsical and quirky for myself- a night in which the film came to life!

French Party People

[In the apartment of Raymond Dufayel]
-I really like this painting.
-It’s “Luncheon of the Boarding Party” by Renoir. I paint one every year, for years now. The hardest is the eyes. Sometimes, they change their moods on purpose,when I’m not looking.
-They look happy here.
-They better be! This year, they had hare with morel and waffles with jam for the children.

Palmiers and Candlelight

Amelie Anniversaire

Amélie doesn’t have a boyfriend. She tried, but it didn’t live up to her expectations. On the other hand, she enjoys all sorts of little pleasures,putting her hand in a bag of seeds,piercing the crust of crème brûlée with the tip of a spoon. And [skipping stones ↓] on the Saint-Martin-canal.

French Flag of Goat Cheese

The French Flag of Goat Cheeses- Fraternité, Égalité et Liberté

Apples and Antics

Bretodeau Sleuthing

[At the home of the grocer Collignon's parents]
-Before the grocery, he used to be a ticket puncher.
-What’s wrong with that?!
-At night, he gets up and punches my oleanders!

Cheese and Quiche Face

Since hordes and hordes of tourists flock to Montmartre each year, I adorned the table with a typical tourist souvenir- snowglobes featuring my own photos of the Sacré Coeur and the Café Des 2 Moulins.

Blubber Suicide

Amélie’s only friend is called “le Cachalot.” But the atmosphere at home turned it into a neurasthenic and suicidal fish. Since these suicide-attempts only increased her mother’s stress,a decision is made. ENOUGH!!!

Gnome and Quelcy

[Amelie and her father in his kitchen after the disappearance of his garden gnome]
Your garden gnome is gone ?
-Is he back in the shed?
-Moscow and there. Nothing.No explanation.
-Maybe he wanted to travel around.
-I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

Gnome and Accordioniste



Since Amélie worked in a cafe making espresso drinks, I baked a mocha cake, layered with mocha buttercream (recipe to come!). The opening credits inspired the raspberry garnish.

Gnome and Cake

Gnome at the Creperie

Amélie’s only refuge is the world she makes up. In that world, vinyls are made the same way as crêpes, and the neighbour’s wife, who has been in a coma for months,just decided to do all her sleeping at once.

Creperie 01

The outside world seems so dull that Amélie prefers to dream her life until she’s old enough to leave. Years later, Amélie is a waitress in a bar in Montmartre, Les Deux Moulins [pictured above in my own photo from Montmartre] .

Amelie Theater

Raspberries and Popcorn

[In the movie theater]
-Sometimes, Amélie goes to the movies.
-I like to turn around in the dark to see the faces of the people around. And I also like to spot the little detail nobody will ever see. But I don’t like it when the driver doesn’t watch the road.


-I know who the mystery man of the photo machines is, M. Quincampoix.He’s a ghost, M. Quincampoix. Nobody can see him.He can only be seen on photographs. When a girl has her picture taken,he moans: hooooooooooo. While he softly caresses her neck. That’s when he’s caught by the camera, M. Quincampoix!

Behind the “theater,” I made a Photomaton (photobooth), since no Amélie party would be complete without a photobooth. More details on DIY photobooths in a subsequent post.

Accordion Dance

If you have ever listened to the film’s soundtrack by Yann Tiersen, you know the accordion plays heavily into the theme. Fortunately for me, I happened to know a really talented musician! The party would not have been the same without his musical accompaniment.

Accordion and Dog Painting

Polaroids and Album

[Intro to Nino Quincompoix]
Pages full of failed identity photos that their owners had thrown away and that had been re-assembled and classified by some eccentric. Some family-album!


Photos by my very talented friend Alex Mohamed!
Party held at Assemble: A Space for Arts + Technology (and the occasional birthday party)

My Birthday Dinner- Guess Where?

January 2013

This is an example of the dialogue that ensued on January 22, 2013 (ie: the day after my birthday)

Coworker: How was your birthday? Did you do anything fun?
Me: Great! Yeah, my Special One and I went out to dinner.
Coworker: Oh? Where did you go?
Me: I’ll give you two guesses…
Coworker: Meat and Potatoes?

Ding ding ding! We have a winner!

MP Bar

hat beautiful bar! It gets me every time! The dark wood, the marble top, the fancy absinthe container, the way the rest of the restaurant wraps around it. The chef’s eye seems to be as talented as his palate because the food gets me every time too!

MP Branded Tables

Sgt. Pepper’s Old Fashioned
bulleit bourbon, black pepper & thyme syrup, whiskey barrel bitters, lemon

There always seems to be some new improvement at Meat and Potatoes too. This time around, I was pleasantly surprised by the branded tables! Branded tables! Then there’s my favorite cocktail the Sgt. Pepper’s, which is a shining example of the restaurant’s consistency in the areas where consistency counts. That Sergeant could make an alcoholic out of an honest woman.

MP Fried Brussels Sprouts

What may look like a mysterious mash was actually a heap of fried Brussels sprouts. Upon eating this amazing heap, cravings for another heap will ensue within three days maximum.

MP Moules

Mussels of the Day w/ Garlic Bread
fennel, tomato, dill, salmon roe and bacon

This was the gift of mussels that kept giving, which is a perfect concept for a birthday meal! After eating every single mussel, we clung fiercely to the sauce, denying every table busser who tried to remove the flavor laden sauce from our grasp. This seemed to earn us extra cred with our waiter who snagged us some extra garlic bread to reward our sauce loyalty. Why were we so adamant? The poutine was on its way, and that poutine meant one more delicious vehicle for a complex sauce!

Tartare and Poutine

Beef Tartare
Dry aged strip, smoked egg, chili, seaweed aioli

Gravy & local cheese curd

MP Lamb Shank

Braised Lamb Shank
White beans, broccolini, kale, gremolata

If by this photo, you have visually consumed more food than seems appropriate for two people, know that by the lamb course, we had the same feeling. After a few quality control bites of this lamb shank, we had to throw in our rustic napkins, and call it “to go!” This meant my birthday dinner stretched over three nights. After lamb leftovers the following night, I made a poutine omelette with a side of kale sauteed in the mussels sauce.

It was the birthday meal that kept on giving!

A Chance to Celebrate!

July 2012

When my next oldest sister made arrangements to take off  three weeks fromwork for a family vacation, her employer told her, “consider this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” Though her employer’s words were masking an impending stinginess with vacation days, his phrasing was right! She had indeed experienced the trip of a lifetime. Her winter planning resulted in a three-week-long road trip from the Philly area to Nebraska and back, from sister (me) to sister (the middle one) with a brother in between.

She and her three kids stayed at an inn converted from an old prison. They walked the Gateway Arch. They stared up the seemingly infinite facade of the Sears Tower (and stubbornly called it the “Sears Tower”). They clung to tubes behind a boat in Iowa. They went to the Pony Express station in the tiny, Midwestern town where I entered the world. They presidents immortalized in stone. They followed plans and changed courses spontaneously. Fortunately for me, I was a convenient stopping point on both legs of the trip. My sister’s birthday fell right in the middle of their wanderings, which meant their return to Pittsburgh called for a cake!

Incidentally, this was also the cake that convinced me to buy an air conditioner. You’ll note I added “melted white chocolate” to my cake batter. Though it did make for a subtle sweetness, this choice was both an experiment and the result of the ridiculous temperature of third-floor living in the height of summer. Feel free to use solid chips, should you live in a kitchen that doesn’t melt your chocolate and liquify your coconut oil. As I learned, this cake requires a lot of almond flour, so stock your cupboard accordingly should you want to this cake to be completely gluten free. That was my intention, but after all, life requires frequent changes, and I am the daughter of invention!

Blueberry Almond Cake
(makes 1-9inch bundt cake)

Inspired by this recipe on the beautiful Roost blog, though I veered at the many forks in the road.

Cake Ingredients 

4 1/2 cups Bob’s Redmill organic almond flour
1 1/2 cup whole-wheat pastry flour*
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda

6 eggs (local/free-range)
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup olive oil
3/4 cups honey
2 tsp pure almond extract
2 tsp organic vanilla extract

3/4 cup white chocolate, melted
1 pint fresh blueberries

For the Cake

Preheat oven to 350F.

Grease a 9-inch stone bundt pan.

Combine dry ingredients into a bowl.

Whisk wet ingredients in a separate bowl then add to dry ingredients until a smooth batter has formed.

Stir in the melted white chocolate.

Gently fold blueberries into batter and pour into greased pan.

To prevent the cake from browning, cover with tinfoil and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the tinfoil and continue to bake for another 30 minutes or until a toothpick or knife inserted comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes.

Flip cake onto a cake stand or plate and drizzle with glaze.

Coconut Butter Icing


8 oz Neufchatel cheese (rBST free)
1/2 cup organic mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup wildflower honey
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


Use an electric mixer to combine all the ingredients until thoroughly combined and creamy.


Top with fresh fruit (strawberries, peaches, raspberries)!

And remember…

Just because a cake is rather regal, doesn’t mean you have to be! Go craaaazy!

Happy Birthday Tosha!

My Special One’s Birthday: The Finale!

April 2012

The table was dressed its nerdy best!

There were beakers, bright sea creatures and science fiction stars of chocolate and ice.

There was food!

The Speck & Burrata Appetizer
The Roasted Beets & Celery Root w/ Goat Butter
The Lamb Shank (my FIRST lamb shank!)
The Simple Syrup accent to our bourbon
The Maple Mousse Pie!

It was all for my special one…

Then there were presents!

He likes to point out that he doesn’t obsess over Star Wars any more than the next nerd. He also likes to point out that I am not a normal human being for making it this long in life without seeing Star Wars [I thought I had seen enough of it to put it together.  I was wrong]. I like to point out that his appreciation for the film is a bit above and beyond the average person.  I also like to point out that I said I would watch it if he procured it.  In the meantime, I just keep instigating…

Once upon a Valentine’s Day Observed, I told my special one how I Like Him Like I Like..., but for his birthday, my message was all about love, love, love….

They’ll be love in the bodies of the elephants too!  I’ll put my hands over your eyes, but you’ll peek through.  

And there will most definitely be love!

Happy Birthday To My Special One!

ps:  Pop Chart Lab

p.p.s:  Brainstorm

My Special One’s Birthday: Maple Mousse Pie

April 2012

Birthdays may call for cake, but this maple mousse pie was worthy of trumping traditions (plus my special one and I have a shared maple memory).  The salty pecan crust pairs perfectly with the fluffy, frozen, maple, mousse layer, but I was also tempted to snag extra bites of crust to savor its flavor solo.  Top it all with a blueberry and cherry port wine sauce, and… birthday cake shmirthday shmake.  Pie please!

When I was little, I saw everything prior to and following the moment of eating as a chore. What I see now is an old man at sea…that is to say… the kitchen is a wonderfully creative place where our best intentions transform into something memorable for the special people in our lives.  I am beginning to understand why my mother spent so much time preparing the many memories I cherish.

Maple Mousse Pie w/ Port Wine Berry Sauce
Adpated from Food & Wine

Crust Ingredients

2 cups pecans
3 Tablespoons organic light brown sugar
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of salt
4 Tablespoons organic unsalted butter, browned
1 teaspoon organic almond extract

Mousse Ingredients

1 cup pure grade B maple syrup
2 large egg whites (local/free-range), at room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1 ½ cups chilled organic heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Port Wine Berry Sauce Ingredients

1 cup organic brown sugar
1 cup port wine
10 oz frozen organic cherries, thawed
12 oz fresh blueberries

For the Crust

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking stone, and bake for about 8 minutes, until fragrant. Let cool completely.

In a food processor, pulse the pecans, brown sugar, nutmeg, salt and almond extract until the nuts are finely chopped.

Add the butter, and pulse to incorporate.

Press the crumbs into a 9-inch springform pan in an even layer.

Refrigerate until firm.

For the Mousse

In a medium saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until slightly reduced and a candy thermometer inserted in the syrup registers 235 degrees, about 8 minutes, being careful not to let it boil over.

For the meringue: In a mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt until firm peaks form. Slowly add the maple syrup, while continuing to mix at a medium speed, until incorporated. Increase the speed to high, and beat the meringue until cooled to room temperature, about 5 minutes.

For the Whipped Cream: In a large bowl, beat the heavy cream with the vanilla until soft peaks form.

Fold the meringue into the whipped cream until blended.

Scrape the mousse onto the crust, and spread evenly.

Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours but preferably overnight (the mousse will not freeze solid like ice cream).

For the Sauce

Combine the port wine and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat, and continue to simmer until sauce has slightly thickened and reduced.

Remove the saucepan from heat. Add the berries.

Keep refrigerated until use.

Quite a regal looking birthday dessert! Stay tuned, and I’ll show you some more ways to use that boozy berry sauce.

My Special’s One’s Birthday: A Most Memorable Main Course (Lamb Shank)

April 2012

After enjoying my fair share of lamb shanks, I added “prepare a lamb entree” to my mental list of New Year’s food resolutions. My special one’s birthday proved to be the worthy occasion and proved I’m clearly not the type of kitchen adventurer who practices and fine tunes a recipe before serving it on a special occasion.  I embrace the risk and take the plunge!  The birthday boy said this was one of the top dinners I’ve made him so far which sounds a lot like “goal accomplished!”

In the realm of slow cooked meats, this recipe felt like cheating.  Less than three hours for tender, flavorful lamb that fell off the bone?  Don’t question it.  Just make it!

Lamb Shanks Fit For A Birthday
Adapted from Bon Appétit 


Black Forest Bacon Fat (I happened to have this in my skillet, but olive oil will work if you don’t have bacon fat)
1 large red onion, chopped (about 1 ¼ cups)
3 large whole garlic cloves

1 Tablespoon olive oil, divided
3 large lamb shanks (about 3-4lbs total)
Whole-wheat pastry flour (or AP flour)
2 cups dry red wine
1 can (14 oz) cherry tomatoes in sauce
.1 lbs dried porcini mushrooms
1 Tablespoons dried herbes de Provence
~1 pound organic carrots, peeled, cut diagonally into 1/2-inch-long pieces


Heat bacon fat in a skillet over medium heat.

Add red onion and garlic; sauté until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to small bowl.

Sprinkle lamb shanks with salt and pepper; dust with flour to coat.

Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.

Add lamb and cook until brown, turning occasionally, about 12 minutes.

Add red onion mixture, wine, tomatoes with sauce, mushrooms, herbes de Provence, and carrots.

Stir to coat lamb with vegetable mixture.

Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until lamb is very tender, turning twice, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Uncover and continue to simmer until sauce reduces slightly, about 10 minutes longer. Spoon off fat from pan juices. Season lamb to taste with salt and pepper.

DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Rewarm, covered, over low heat before serving.



My Special One’s Birthday!

April 2012

Why would two crazies display such antics around a dining room table?  It doesn’t take all that much to motivate a little silliness around these parts, but this was indeed an extra special occasion and an extra call for antics!  It was my special one’s birthday!!!  More importantly, it was the first time we’d celebrated his birthday as a couple!

Those who know me, embrace [have learned to accept] my birthday gluttony.  My special one really set the bar for my birthday [month].  First there was the Birthday Eve meal.  Then there was a birthday bruncha snowventure, the official birthday meal at my favorite marble table top, and finally, there was A LOT of help making this crazy, beautiful, memorable gathering happen! On top of all that, he changed my life when he gave me a projector!  Friends, when you own a projector, you watch everything at an impressive scale.  EVERYTHING!  In short, he did really, really well, and I wanted him to feel ever so special on his day(s) in April.

In my obsessive preparations, I may even have outdone myself!  Jono said his birthday meal ranked as one of the best I have made him yet!  As such, I’m going to share the components of the meal and memories over the course of a few posts.  Stay tuned!

Happy Birthday Jono!

PS:  I swear our haircuts are not identical.  Must be a gif induced optical illusion.


My Special One’s Birthday: The Appetizer

April 2012

As for this birthday dinner, let’s start at the beginning… a very good place to start!  I recently had a revelation- tomatoes are starting to taste good again!  The mealy, mushy, wintry days are coming to a close, gradually being replaced by bright red bursts of nature’s candy!  Tasting the improvement in the well traveled tomatoes really heightens my excitement for the summer produce that currently is soaking up the soil’s nutrients!

When I saw this tomato rich appetizer with speck and burrata, I began adding its ingredients to my grocery list immediately!  Though there are a few steps involved, the overall simplicity of this appetizer enabled me to focus more on the main course, which was to be quite …. well, I’ll dive into that later!

This Italian Bella had a different purpose in the birthday affairs, but she was just so photogenic…!  However, had tomatoes not begun to boast fresher, sweeter flavors, I may have called upon her contents in the tomato vinaigrette.

Burrata, Pickled Shallots & Speck Appetizer
Adapted from Bon Appétit 

Pickled Shallots

3 large shallots, trimmed, quartered lengthwise
1 cup champagne vinegar
1 cup turbinado sugar
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
1 sweet red pimiento pepper (I used Roland’s)

For the Pickled Shallots

Combine all ingredients and 1 cup water in a small saucepan.

Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

You could use prosciutto in this recipe, but why would you?  On the fateful day in life when I went speck, I solidified my path through this cured life!

Basil and Burrata pair well and boost the alliterative properties of this appetizer!  Burrata is a soft, fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream.  It’s not a cheese I would prioritize in my regular frommage habits, but for recipes like this, it’s a perfect compliment. If you’re a Pittsburgher, I would suggest Pennsylvania Macaroni Company for sourcing most of the ingredients in this appetizer.  The burrata is sold in an extra layer of plastic container protection to maintain its moisture.

Tomato Vinaigrette

1/2 cup chopped ripe tomatoes
1 bunch fresh basil, coarsely torn
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon turbinado sugar
3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the Vinaigrette

Combine the tomatoes, basil, vinegar, salt and sugar in a food processor and puree until chunky (or to the best of your old food processor’s abilities).

While the motor is still running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until vinaigrette is slightly thickened.

Final Touches

French Baguette (from La Gourmandine in my case)
Black pepper

For the Final Touch

Slice the baguette, and drizzle a little olive oil on each slice of bread.

Top each slice with a roll of speck, a dollop of burrata, a spoonful of tomato vinaigrette, a slice of shallot, a drizzle of the pickled shallot sauce and parsley.

Season with black pepper. Serve with fresh tomatoes.

A Note On The Leftovers

When I served leftovers of this the next day, I toasted the oiled baguette slices in the oven before garnishing, but the first time around, I hated to toast a fresh, fluffy baguette.  The tomato vinaigrette and pickled shallots also spiced up an organic frozen pizza I lazily made on a weeknight.