Banana Cake with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

I was brainstorming cake ideas for an event and realized I’ve never had a banana cake! The idea of a lighter banana bread covered with fluffy, decadent buttercream frosting was an instant winner. I knew I had to make it…and add salted caramel for good measure.

Banana dessert is actually a recently acquired taste for me. I was probably scarred by my dislike of artificial banana candy and never ventured to try freshly made banana desserts (I don’t count banana bread as dessert!). Since my partner loves banana though, my horizons have expanded, and here I am making banana dessert myself!

I chose to frost the cake with a salted caramel cream cheese buttercream. I fully believe that if you are going to have dessert, you might as well enjoy it. Otherwise, you are better off having a juicy peach or sweet grapes over any of those low-fat “healthy” desserts.

Banana Cake with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting
Banana Cake with Salted Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

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Easy Homemade Salted Caramel Sauce

Salted caramel and I are good friends. I love it in pretty much every sugary sweet dessert. It’s my favorite ice cream flavor and topping. My favorite candy is sea salt caramel. And any combination of salted caramel and dark chocolate is a hit with me.

You can imagine my excitement when I finally decided to make salted caramel from scratch. Homemade? What a concept. It’s amazing how the availability of processed and pre-made foods has shaped how most of us understand food.

Take spices for example. Most of us know that ground cinnamon comes from cinnamon sticks. But did you know that cinnamon sticks are actually the inside bark of a tree?

Or how about ground nutmeg? I wasn’t familiar with using whole nutmeg seeds when I first started baking. Now I know how easy it is to grate nutmeg, and the quality is so much better than pre-ground.

homemade salted caramel sauce

Caramel sauce has a similar problem. It’s found easily enough on grocery store shelves that the idea of making it at home doesn’t register. But caramel is literally melted sugar, cream, and butter – ingredients many bakers readily have at home. Best of all, it’s really simple to make, with no candy thermometer required. Just keep an eye on that color!

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Mini Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Last month, I hosted a wine & cheese night and ended up with copious amounts of leftover cheese and baguettes. Lucky me! I had one of those lightbulb moments and decided to make assorted mini grilled cheese sandwiches. Now baguette bread is not the ideal medium for grilled cheese as the irregular and large pores allow for cheese to escape. However, they yield conveniently mini slices, so I was willing to overlook the porous situation.

Wine & Cheese Night
Wine & cheese night tip: Label your cheese with homemade post-it note toothpick flags!

Assorted grilled cheese sandwiches make for a fun and interactive meal. Thinking of combinations and prepping the ingredients can be as fun as making the sandwich itself. Here are the combos I made that day:

  • Fresh Blueberry Balsamic Reduction + Balsamic Bellavitano
  • Midnight Moon + Wisconsin Blue Cheese
  • Sautéed Oyster Mushrooms + Comte
  • Heirloom Tomato + Mozzarella + Basil
  • Serrano Ham + Iberico Curado
  • Caramelized Onion + Comte
  • Sautéed Poblano Peppers + Wisconsin Sharp White Cheddar

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Surprise Birthday Trip – Dinner at Alinea 2.0 and Drinks at The Aviary

I had a grand total of one birthday party as a kid and it was a joint celebration months ahead of my actual birthday. I’m also not one to expect extravagant gestures. Having said that, it does feel nice to be spoiled once in a while. My birthday this year was all that and more, thanks to my amazing partner!

I was whisked away to Chicago, and the itinerary was a complete surprise. Once in Chicago, I guessed that one of the meals would be Grace, 42 Grams, or the legendary Alinea. Well lucky me, it was Alinea!

Alinea recently transformed their dining experience with a new menu and interior decor. I wasn’t able to visit pre-renovation, so I can’t compare, but the new “2.0” menu was ridiculously delightful. They excel at incorporating all senses, and the performance aspect was far above my other 3-Michelin star experiences. The food itself was also very good and in my top three.

We had the upstairs Salon menu, which was the shortest of the menu options. With 11 complex courses, I left thoroughly satisfied. I can only imagine what the Gallery or Kitchen Table menus must be like. A future trip for sure!

IMG_0099
Menu given at start of meal – intentionally vague

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Sweet Corn Salad with Tomato, Parsley, and Mint

Summer is my favorite time at the farmers market. It’s the season of fresh berries and stone fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums, pluots). Lately though, something else has been catching my eye – the humble corn. I didn’t think much of corn growing up, but I have to credit Mr. A for helping me appreciate this plant. His enthusiasm and delight at spotting freshly cut farmers market corn is absolutely infectious.

Freshly-picked corn makes a difference! Corn starts converting its sugar into starch once it’s picked. Look at the base of the stalk where it was cut. Recently cut stalks will have a visibly damp base. The husk should also be a bright green. Most store corn will have a dried out base, so the farmers market is your best bet. For max sweetness, eat corn the same day it’s cut.

This recipe for corn salad is the perfect medium to enhance the intense sweetness of the corn with acidity of the tomato and vinegar. It just happens that peak tomato season coincides with peak corn season – late summer. I added parsley and mint for a bright green accent to this harmonious combination. You can substitute with cilantro and fresh lime juice for a different take. This is a refreshing side for a summer picnic, and leftovers taste even better the next day.

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A day trip along Taiwan’s north coast

Now that we are solidly in the second half of 2016, I’ve been reminiscing about the previous six months. With all the travel, change, and excitement, it feels like a full year already! One of my favorite days was a sightseeing car trip along the north coast of Taiwan.

I’ve been to Taiwan about six times prior, but this was my first time experiencing the natural beauty and diversity of the northern coastline. I saw sights I have yet to see elsewhere in the world. If you are visiting Taipei, I highly recommend doing this day trip. It’s an easy getaway and nice change of pace from the city.

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How to Make Perfect Steel-Cut Oatmeal

After a long holiday weekend, I try a little harder to eat healthy. You know how that goes. The bloat from salty food, beer, and general indulgences gives you that extra push to eat “clean” for a bit. At least for a day or two, right? Okay maybe just breakfast.

I truly believe breakfast is the most important meal, so starting my day healthy at least sets the stage for better decisions later on. My easy, go-to breakfast is a half cup of yogurt with peanut butter. Takes barely no prep and has enough protein to keep me feeling full longer.

However, cold yogurt doesn’t hit the spot like a warm, hearty cup of oats. I avoided making oatmeal for most of my adult life because of the time involved. There’s no substitution for steel-cut oats, and proper steel-cut oatmeal requires 45 minutes of your morning. I’ve recently come around though after realizing how well steel-cut oatmeal lasts in the fridge. Once you make a batch, it’s quick and simple to reheat in the microwave. The oats retain most of their firm texture, unlike regular or instant oats. It’s worth the extra effort at the beginning for a week of creamy, next-level oatmeal!

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