World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: November, 2007

The Baker’s Passport – Scotland


Christmas is here. Or so every commercial entity would have you believe. On November 1st I saw the first Christmas tree in the lobby of a movie theater in the City. Really could we at least let the Halloween candy digest? But what it does make me think about is buttery, crisp and crumbly shortbread. To me it is a purely seasonal cookie.

Walkers_petticoat_2 My go-to is the popular export from Scotland, Walkers. While the bars and circle shaped biscuits are popular the long-standing petticoat tails has long been been a curiosity.  While Mary Queen of Scots was fond of these and there’s a long history between the Scotland and France  one version says the name comes from the French petit gatelles meaning little cakes; it is generally thought that the name has its origin in the shape, which is similiar to that of the bell-hoop petticoats worn by women in the nineteenth century courts.

Originating from the oatmeal bannock that was served at pagan Yule time celebrations,  the round bannock was often scored in the center with a circle surrounded by wedges symbolizing the sun and its rays. This practice most likely originating from the Scottish New Year’s event called, Hogmanay. This shortbread varies in that it is often larger and a little thicker and decorated with candied citron peel and some almond comfits. In the Shetland and Orkney Islands it is found as Bride’s Bonn and has caraway seeds. Another bit of folklore and the superstitious share that shortbread was not cut into portions but rather broken into pieces by hand. Today we’re less bound by these traditions and find them in many shapes and sizes.

Needless to say many of us eat shortbread year round as it’s a perfect pairing with tea, coffee or hot cocoa. While many recipes are handed down within families the secret to many a baker’s prized recipe is simplicity. By seeking out simple, high quality ingredients and a very short ingredient list at that the cookie essentials shine. Recipes vary with an increase of the ratio of flour to powdered sugar and in some the the addition of corn starch or vanilla. The texture of shortbread in the following recipe can be altered by replacing 1/4 cup of the flour with rice flour giving them a more crunchy texture. Or, if you prefer a more delicate tasting shortbread that melts-in-your-mouth, replace 1/2 cup of the flour with cornstarch.

Once you have this recipe in your repertoire you can move on to Millionaire’s Shortbread which is like an uptown Twix Bar.

Simple Shortbread

Traditional shortbread recipes don’t usually add salt but do use salted butter it enhances the overall taste.

1 cup softened butter

½ cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

Pinch of Salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat butter and sugar together in a large bowl.

Stir in flour and salt. Mix with hands until smooth.

Spray a 9-inch fluted tart pan or a 9" square pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

Press dough into pan. Using the tines of a fork, score dough from the edge of the circle in the center towards the edge of the pan into 12 equal wedges or squares (depending on type of pan you are using.

Bake the shortbread in the middle of the oven 25 minutes or until slightly brown around edges.

Remove from oven. Immediately cut into squares/wedges with a sharp knife

Cool on tea towel and store between waxed paper in a cookie jar.


  • For a brown sugar version substitute the powdered sugar in equal portion for brown sugar
  • For chocolate shortbread add 1/3 cup cocoa to the flour step.
  • Along with 1 tsp vanilla extract add one of the following options:
  • Grated zest of citrus: either 2 limes or 2 lemons or 2 oranges
  • Mix in- 1/2 cup mini chocolate

Perfect Party Cake


I am surrounded by Scorpios. I, too, am a Scorpio and celebrated my birthday in the first few days of this astrological sign. We are a passionate (ok, some say stubborn) and loyal group.  This past weekend I celebrated the birthdays of two friends. When the invite went out she mentioned that they would be buying a cake and further what flavors do we all like. She’s well-mannered isn’t she?  Frankly, this type of gesture goes against my birthday cake philosophy.  Said reasoning is that it’ s your birthday and you won’t be buying that cake and the type of cake and flavor is at your call. I would have none of that.

So I found myself making a birthday cake prior to the bowling party.  Another friend, as we were driving over, cake carrier on her lap said ,"You are setting a dangerous precedent. Now everyone will want a baked from scratch cake for their birthday.

The cake that the birthday boy and girl were seeking fit the description of The Perfect Party Cake from Dorie Greenspan’s new baking cookbook, Baking: From my home to yours.  It’s a four-layer round velvety white cake moist, tight-crumbed, and flavored with lemon extra and plenty of zest. layered with raspberry preserves and a silky, not-too-rich buttercream, topped with coconut.  Quite simply it’s the cake that makers of birthday cards feature.  And also the one that the group in lanes 12 were drooling over.

Perfect Party Cake

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours

12 to 14 servings


Sift together

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 ¼ cups buttermilk

4 large egg whites

1 ½ cups sugar

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract


1 cup sugar

4 large egg whites

3 sticks/12 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling & Topping

2/3 cup seedless strawberry preserves

1 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray or butter two 9" x 2" round cake pans. Line the bottom of each cake pan with a buttered parchment circle.

Whisk the buttermilk and egg whites together in a separate bowl.

Combine the sugar and lemon zest in a stand mixer bowl and rub together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and smells like the lemon.

Add the butter to the mixer bowl and beat together with the sugar for 3 minutes on medium speed until the mixture is fluffy and light.

Add in the vanilla extract.

Add in the flour and buttermilk mixtures in alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixtures. Be sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next.

When everything is added beat the batter for an additional 2 minutes.

Divide the batter between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes in the oven or until the tops are set and springy, and a cake tester inserted into the centers come out clean.

Transfer the pans to wire racks and let cool for a few minutes, then flip and unmold the cakes (run a knife around the sides of the cakes if necessary). Peel the parchment off and flip the cakes back over right side up on the wire racks to finish cooling.

At this point, the fully cooled cake layers can be wrapped in plastic and kept overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.

For the buttercream:

Combine the sugar and egg whites in a medium heatproof bowl and place over a pan of simmering water.

Whisk the sugar mixture constantly over heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture looks smooth and shiny, about 3 minutes.

Remove mixture from heat and pour into a stand mixer bowl. Whisk on medium speed for about 5 minutes until the mixture has cooled.

Switch to the paddle attachment and with the speed on low, add the butter a few pieces at a time, beating until smooth.

When all the butter has been added, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed for about 6-10 minutes until it is very thick and smooth.

Add in the lemon juice and beat until combined. Add in the vanilla.

The buttercream is ready to be used. Place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface until you are ready to use it to prevent it from drying out.

To assemble the cake:

Using a sharp serrated knife, slice each cake layer horizontally in half.

Stir the raspberry preserves until it is loose and spreadable.

Place a layer on a cardboard cake round, cut side up. Spread about a third of the raspberry preserves on the cake layer.

Spread a layer of buttercream on top of the preserves. Top with a second cake layer.

Spread preserves and buttercream on the second cake layer as you did with the first. Top with a third cake layer.

Spread preserves and buttercream on the third cake layer as you did with the second. Top with the last cake layer, cut side down.

Use the rest of the buttercream to frost the sides and top of the cake.

Press the coconut over the sides and top of the cake.

The cake is best served a couple of hours after it is assembled to let the flavors develop. You can refrigerate it for up to 2 days, but be sure it is well covered or the cake will dry out. You should also let the cake come to room temperature before you serve it.

Fall into Salads


It’s curious to me  how and when we notice changes in ourselves. These type of events tend to sneak up on us.  Maybe the contrast is so stark, the moment right, the attitude dropped.  Who knows.  But, I never thought I’d become one of those Californians who returns after being gone for a spell, craving greens. Bowls of heaping salad. Seriously, I grew up in a non-salad New England household.  So maybe the moment was realized given all my recent business travels and the highs and lows of eating on the road. You do start to miss the creature comforts of home.

This preference was more notable while having lunch in a large banquet hall at our annual national conference in Southern Florida.  My dining companions, from the Pacific Northwest and I kept pushing what looked like a spring mix (yes in October) around our plates.  “It’s sad looking isn’t it?” We politely grimaced. “It’s lost its vitality.  Please, could you pass the bread?”  Aren’t we on this coast fussy?

Upon my return from Florida and another side business trip to Sacramento I headed straight for my favorite greens provider, Heirloom at the SFFP farmers market.  A big mixed greens bag–fava, red lettuce, and arugula. The question to me was what to compose the salad with.  I wanted the taste of fall, my favorite season–and not because it heralds my birthday but for the apple picking, the crisp air and the sweaters.  So this vinaigrette is a tribute to the tastes of autumn.

Easy Maple Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

pinch of black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

8 cups salad greens

1 pear or apple, unpeeled, cut into pieces

1/2 cup (3 ounces) blue cheese, crumbled

In a small bowl, whisk together the maple syrup, mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Whisking constantly, slowly add the oil; set aside.

Arrange the mixed greens on individual plates and top with the pear and cheese. Drizzle with the vinaigrette.

4 servings

NOTE:   If you don’t want to get all bothered with salad for four this vinaigrette keeps for 2-3 days in the fridge.  So shake it up in mason jar and a generous handful of greens and about a teaspoon of dressing will be just what the greens need.

Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams–


It’s that time of the season for sweet potato pie, biscuits and more…so I’ve dug this out from the archives and warm it up a bit to answer the ongoing question.  Enjoy!

Every Thanksgiving it’s guaranteed that someone will ask, ‘What’s the difference between yams and sweet potatoes?" It seems most don’t know and assume ‘well, it’s two different names so it must be different, right?’  This has been my answer for many years.  Well, this year I’ve decided to be the smarty pants. 

The short answer is, this–yams and sweet potatoes are similar in that they grow underground and have orange flesh however  each is botanically different from the other.  The longer explanation is that yams are tropical vines of the genus Dioscorea and have a more reddish flesh. Large, starchy, and edible the tuberous roots can grow up to two even three feet long and weigh as much as 80 pounds.  Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family and are native to the tropical areas of the Americas. There are two basic types of sweet potatoes: moist (orange-fleshed) and dry (yellow-fleshed).  It’s the orange-flesh version that is mistakenly called yams.

You see it was really a marketing angle adopted in the 1930s by some Louisiana farmers looking to distinguish their sweet tuber which they called a “yam” from the dry, pale sweet version grown in the North. So today in American supermarkets, “yams” are sweet potatoes with vivid orange color, and, when cooked, are sweet and moist. The most popular "yam" is the Beauregard, which is uniform in size and shape with smooth skin and deep orange flesh. 

So what we are seeing in the markets, at least here in the States and Canada labeled as yams are actually sweet potatoes with a relatively moist texture and orange flesh. 

Over at Straight Dope the following is offered:

"Contrary to what even some grocery store produce guys think, yams and sweet potatoes are unrelated vegetables, though in both cases you’re eating the root of a tropical vine. Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas ("batata" is the original Taino name, whence potato), are an American plant of the morning glory family, whereas yams are of the genus Dioscorea. Yams, which are rarely seen in the U.S. and Canada but are a staple in tropical regions, can grow up to seven feet in length. The name is thought to derive from the West African word nyami, "to eat," which is heard in Jamaican patois expressions such as, Oonu wan fi nyam banana dem?, ‘Do you guys want to eat those bananas?’"

A scientific side-by-side comparison

Imagedb The Bread Bible

by Beth Hensperger

Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 large sweet potato, baked and peeled (about 10oz.)

1 2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tblspn light brown sugar

2 1/2 tspns baking powder

1/2 tspn salt

6 tblspns cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup cold milk or heavy cream

Mash or puree the sweet potato pulp by hand, in a blender, or in a food processor until smooth for a total of 3/4 cup.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Grease or parchment-line a baking sheet.  In a bowl using a whisk or electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients.  The mixture will resemble coarse crumbs, with no large chunks of butter.  If the butter gets very soft at this point, refrigerate the mixture to chill the butter.  Add the sweet potato pulp and milk or cream, stirring just to moisten all the ingredients.  The dough will be moist, then stiffen while stirring.  It should be slightly shaggy, but not sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently about 6 times, or just until the dough holds together.  Roll out the dough into a rectangle no more than 3/4′ thick.  Take care not to add too much flour at this point or the biscuits will be tough.  Cut with a floured 2" biscuit cutter, pushing straight down without twisting.  Re roll the scraps to cut out additional biscuits.

Place the biscuits 1/2" apart on the baking sheet.  Place the baking sheet on a rack in the center of the oven and bake 15 to 18 minutes or until golden brown.  Let rest a few minutes and serve hot.