Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reflections on my first Year of Blogging, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Tart to celebrate...

Exactly one year ago, I decided on a whim to start writing this blog as a way of chronicling the dinners that Jamie and I would cook together on Friday nights.  When we met, almost 3 years ago, we realized we shared a love of cooking, and every Friday night we'd plan out what we wanted to make, shop for ingredients and then make dinner together while sipping wine and listening to music, usually hits from the 80s.

As I write this post, I'm watching Michael Symon on the Cooking Channel cook potatoes in bacon fat and grate orange zest into a marinade.  Listening to him talk as he cooks, the sizzle of meat hitting a hot pan, herbs being chopped on a cutting board...  all those sounds are a kind of music to me, too.

Cooking with someone can be really romantic, and I have so many memories of those evenings in the kitchen with Jamie.  The weekends were a special time, and still are, of course, but since we lived so far apart at the beginning, we never got to see each other during the week.  The dinners we made weren't always perfect, but they were always creative.  And courageous, as we tried new ingredients and cooking methods that we weren't familiar with.

Baking and making desserts has always been more a passion of mine than cooking, and my ever-growing list of tasty concoctions I want to make is definitely heavier on the sweets and baked goods.  Jamie's happy to leave that part to me, as long as he gets to eat it when it's ready.

Of course, I had to make something sweet for my blogiversary, and after a lot of thought, decided on a tart, because I love using my tart pan and seeing those pretty fluted edges on the crust.  Peanut butter and jelly is a classic combination, and it's not just for kids, either.  A peanut butter and jelly tart sounded whimsical and delicious, and I thought it would be just the dessert to celebrate.

I started with a shortbread crust that was made extra special with ground peanuts to add more of that salty nuttiness.  A creamy filling of peanut butter and cream cheese, almost like a peanut butter cheesecake, fills the crust, and to top it all off, homemade strawberry jam, which I pureed into a smooth sauce.  Fresh strawberries garnish the top and add a little elegance.

The tart tasted like the best possible peanut butter and jelly sandwich you could imagine in a world where your mom would have put a piece of this tart in your lunchbox instead of a sandwich.  Although, I'm not sure in what world that would happen.  :)  It was very hard waiting for this to chill in the fridge so that I could photograph and taste it.

With the extra strawberry sauce, I made strawberry popsicles.  They were such a beautiful vibrant red color.

The other day, I called my mom to vent my frustration that my photos weren't as good as someone else's that I had been studying with more than a little envy.  The lighting isn't always right, especially when I have to use artificial light at night, and my composition not nearly as interesting as I want it to be.  I want to create something magical that people are drawn into through their senses, to feel transported into something beautiful and delicious, to smell cinnamon and honey and spring breezes.  And then go about their day feeling a little happier, a little less stressed, a little more inspired.

She reminded me that I shouldn't compare myself to others, and that if I look only at what I've accomplished, then I can see how much I've grown.  And of course, she was right.  Jamie is always telling me, too, that I'm much harder on myself than anyone else is.  I started looking back through some of my earlier posts, at the awful photos I took those first few months, and realized how much I've learned through a lot of time and practice, and more money than I'd like to admit having spent on ingredients, linens and cute little plates and bowls.

I thought it would be interesting to include in my blogiversary post a montage of photos from each month, ranging from the earlier ones that were completely horrible, to some recent ones that I'm actually pretty proud of.  And these were all taken with the same camera, not a DSLR, but a fantastic point-and-shoot which Jamie gave me for my birthday a couple years ago, the best birthday present ever.  The photos are at the end of this post, before the recipe.

Undoubtedly, my skills are more refined now than they were a year ago, in photography, baking and cooking, and my intention isn't to brag, but simply to inspire someone else who may just be starting out.  To show that everyone has to start somewhere, and there's nothing that lots and lots of practice won't improve.  A few people have asked me through e-mails to share with them some of my photography process, and I've considered sharing that in a post, but as I'm still learning, every single day, I wouldn't presume to teach anyone else yet what I haven't fully grasped myself.  Because for every photo I take that I love, where the light seems to capture everything just right and all the elements seem to fall perfectly into place, there's another that's equally bad no matter how hard I try to make it look good.

Creating beauty is something that makes me happy, and so I write this blog to share a little beauty with all of you.  Thank you all for reading and for making this a wonderful first year!  I can't wait to see what happens next.

To Jamie, my love and biggest supporter, who waits patiently, never complaining as our food gets cold while I try to get the perfect photo, thank you for tasting everything I make and eating it whether it's a success or not, for my camera, for putting up with all this "food styling", for always giving me your honest opinion and helping me brainstorm for new and fresh ideas.  I don't know what I'd do without you!

And thank you to my mom, especially for Mother's Day, who is my most faithful reader, and always makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something creative, artistic and beautiful.


Here are some sample photos from the past 12 months, starting 1 year ago, from very, very bad, to better, to not too bad at all...

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

August 2011

September 2011

October 2011

November 2011

December 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

May 2012

Peanut Butter and Jelly Tart
printable recipe

salted peanut shortbread crust:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon
  • 3/4 cup finely ground peanuts
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt (use just 1/2 teaspoon salt if the peanuts are also salted)
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter, room temperature
  • 1 pound (two 8-ounce boxes) low-fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup low-fat sour cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
strawberry sauce:
  • 2 pounds strawberries (hull and chop 1 pound, and reserve the other pound, the prettiest ones, to garnish the top)
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, ground peanuts (grind them in a food processor until crumbly, but don't go too far or you'll get peanut butter), powdered sugar and salt.  Sprinkle the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour, until you have coarse crumbs with visible chunks of butter showing.

Add the egg yolk and incorporate into the mixture with your fingers until it moistens and holds together, but is still a little crumbly.  Add 1-2 teaspoons of ice water if you need a little extra moisture.  Gather the dough into a ball.  If not using immediately, wrap in plastic and refrigerate until ready to use.

Thoroughly spray the bottom and sides of a 9-inch tart pan (with a removable bottom) with non-stick spray, or grease with butter.  You can roll the dough out between two pieces of wax paper, but this dough does not roll out as easily as pie crust since shortbread crusts are more crumbly, so I find it much easier to just press it into the pan.  Take half the dough and press it against the sides, all the way up to the top edge.  Press the other half evenly against the bottom, sealing all the edges.

Place pan in the freezer and freeze for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350.  Place the pan with the frozen crust on a baking sheet.  Prick the bottom of the crust a few times to prevent it from puffing up.  Spray a piece of foil with non-stick spray, and fit the foil against the crust, greased side against the dough, so that none of the crust should be exposed.  Fill the foil-lined crust with dry beans (or pie weights).  Bake the crust at 350 for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, and remove the foil and the dry beans.  Sprinkle the bottom of the crust with the remaining tablespoon of flour (to prevent it from getting soggy) before pouring in the filling.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325.


While the crust is baking, prepare your filling.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the peanut butter, cream cheese, sour cream and sugar for 4-5 minutes, until light and fluffy.  Scrape the bowl down a few times as it's mixing.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating for a full minute each.  Beat in the vanilla.

Pour filling into the prebaked crust and smooth out the top.

Bake at 325 for 30 minutes.  If you need to, place a pie shield on top of the crust to prevent it from over-browning.  After 30 minutes, the surface of the filling should appear slightly dry and a little cracked, but still a little jiggly underneath.


While the tart is baking, prepare the sauce.  In a medium saucepan, combine the 1 pound chopped strawberries, sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, then boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, mashing the berries as you cook them.  Stir in the vanilla.

At this point, you could leave the sauce as a chunky jam and it would be just fine, but I decided I wanted a smoother sauce for a more elegant look.  For a sauce, puree the jam using a blender or an immersion blender.  Cook for an additional 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly, until very thick.  Pour through a mesh strainer to strain out the seeds and set aside.

After the tart has baked for 30 minutes, remove from the oven.  Pour about 1/2 cup of the strawberry sauce over the top, spreading it out to the edges with a spatula; it should be thick enough that it doesn't run everywhere.  Return tart to the oven and bake for 5 more minutes, just to set the sauce a little.

Set tart on a wire rack on the counter and cool for 30 minutes.

To finish, garnish the top with whole (or sliced) strawberries, and brush the berries with 1/4 cup of the remaining sauce.  Refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

If you have any leftover sauce, serve it on the side with the tart, or make strawberry popsicles (see below).  :)

Yields 8-10 servings

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Strawberry Popsicles
printable recipe

  • 3/4 cup strawberry sauce (above)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 4 strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced
  • 4 popsicle molds

If you have leftover strawberry sauce, you can make some quick and easy popsicles.  Whisk together the sauce with the water to thin it out a little.  Place the strawberry slices into the popsicle molds and pour the sauce into the molds.

Insert a popsicle stick into each and freeze until firm, about 2-3 hours.

Yields 4 popsicles

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen