Homemade Fresh Strawberry Jello for Mother’s Day

strawberry jello

Jell-O always seemed a bit like magic to me. Add water to the brightly colored, sugary powder and in no time it’s solid and giggles like a good belly laugh. The problem is, the stuff in the box tastes like congealed, watered-down kool-aid. There is no actual fruit involved, just artificial color and flavor. Luckily gelatin desserts have earned more respect in the past decade with the popularization of panna cotta and other sophisticated, intense flavors, like wine and espresso. The best part of using gelatin is being able to create sexy shapes out of a liquid. Panna cotta just wouldn’t be the same if it was a puddle of custard on a plate. Knowing how to work with unflavored gelatin properly means you can set a liquid, without having it bounce like a rubber ball. You want to use just enough to keep its shape, but still have a smooth, luscious feel. This dessert is nothing but pure, ripe, sweet strawberries pureed and set with a bit of gelatin in a fun mold. A bowl of perfect strawberries and cream is nice, but when you present this regal dessert to your mom, it will take her breath away and she deserves that. (more…)

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S’mores – rainy days can bring sweet inspiration!


Sometimes great ideas can come from the strangest places. Who would have imagined that spending my birthday, in the rain, making S’mores with people I didn’t know, could have been so much fun and such creative inspiration. In November my good friend, and partner in many culinary adventures, Jen, treated me to a luxurious night at a resort. As bad luck would have it, it was pissing rain all night, which may have stopped the average souls from sharing a bottle of wine by the beach. Jen and I bundled up, grabbed blankets, umbrellas and sat in the rain by the fire. Apparently this scene was odd enough to attract the attention of a lovely, adventure seeking couple (Sue and Anton), who pulled up a soaking wet bench and joined us. The only thing missing in this rather bizzarre setting were sticks with marshmallows. Not for long! Sue disappeared and came back with a “S’more kit.” It seemed perfectly right at the moment to be drinking a lovely bottle of red wine and singeing marshmallows in the fire, while balancing an umbrella. They were perfection, albeit too sweet and not as good as I remember them from childhood. The concept of chocolate sandwiched between graham crackers and toasted puffs of whipped sugar is brilliant, but once you hit 40, one’s taste-buds crave a little more complexity and less unadorned SWEET.

This moment deserved remembering and the S’more begged to be reinvented. This small bite of homemade cinnamon graham cookies, chocolate ganache and toasted almond meringue is my take on the classic. But, I added a hidden treasure. Under the cloud of meringue lies coconut and a candied pecan. The texture and richness of the nut are just what the S’more was always missing for me. I suggest you bring them to a superbowl party, but leave a few at home to snack on later. (more…)

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Homemade Vanilla Extract

It is a brand new year and I figured I should start 2012 with a fresh start; right at the pastry beginning. For me that’s vanilla extract, probably the most used ingredient in my kitchen after flour and sugar. I always have a stack of beans and bottles of extract. I admit I don’t always make my own, but it is something, like homemade yogurt, that once you make it, you’re ruined to the store bought version. It is easy to make, but to get the best result you have to be patient. The longer you let the vanilla beans sit in the vodka, the better and stronger the flavor. I let this bottle sit for 5 weeks before opening it, which was a test of will power I didn’t know I possessed. The result is like perfume, I want to add it to all of my recipes and dab a bit behind my ears. I’ll use it in everything from cakes to cocktails.

This year I have only made one work related resolution…to make more how-to videos on my ZoeBakes YouTube Channel. If you have any ideas for cake decorating, baking, pastry or any other sweets you’d like to see in more detail, please let me know. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel to see all my new videos. Hope they are helpful. (more…)

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Homemade Yogurt

I find myself digging into the past recently and finding recipes. My grandmother’s rugelach, cheese blintzes from the Kiev, and now fresh yogurt my mom used to make. We lived on a commune in VT, where we grew our own vegetables and raised a cow for dairy. Everything was local and organic, because if we didn’t produce it, we couldn’t afford it. My mom was the one to milk the cow, which she then made into butter, yogurt and cheese. The flavor of that yogurt, made from fresh milk, must have been divine. In Minneapolis we are allowed to keep chickens, but the city hasn’t approved dairy cows, so I buy local organic milk from the co-op for making yogurt.

I have come to yogurt making by the way of a proof box. Seems random, but I was recently asked to test a prototype counter-top proofer suited for home bakers. I was intrigued by the concept, because I always love a new gadget for bread baking. It works wonderfully for dough, but I’ve ended up using it even more as a perfect warm spot for making yogurt. Back in the day my mom simply warmed her oven and left the yogurt to culture in it overnight, which is probably the simplest and cheapest way to go, but I may never have been inspired to make yogurt had this proofer not arrived. Now that I have started making my own, I will never buy yogurt again. The homemade version is so easy and has such an incredible flavor. Even my boys like it better. We are a family that eats yogurt on waffles, in smoothies, in lunch boxes, for snacks and as a garnish for curries. I like it thin for chilled soups or thick (Greek style) for dips and desserts. I happen to love it plain and tangy, but I also swirl preserves, honey or marmelade into it as a sweet midnight snack. Now that my raspberry patch is heavy with fruit, I toss those in too.

All you need is milk (you choose the fat content) and some plain yogurt to get started.  (more…)

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