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Nobody is a perfect cook, and nobody has a perfect kitchen. Come hang out with me as I cook, experiment, and make mistakes.

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Wedding cake diaries: finding my perfect spice cake

If you’re subscribed to the email newsletter (and I hope you are – we have fun over there), you know that I’ve barely been in town long enough to catch my breath before turning around and heading back out again. The reasons for all this travel couldn’t be happier, but the near-constant nature of it has been a bit draining and has made my normal schedule of recipe development more or less impossible. In order to get around this, I’m trying something new – video!

This week, I tested two different spice cake bases (the carrot cake from Gimme Some Oven and the spice cake from Sally’s Baking Addiction), reworked the one I liked best to work with brown butter, and then fiddled around with the spice blend until I got something that made my heart sing. There were, of course, a bunch of mishaps along the way – some helpful and some less so – but I hope you enjoy a very real glimpse of what cooking with me really looks like.

Check back next week for another video – I’m up to my ears in caramel getting the filling right!

Multigrain country table bread

This bread was an accident, really. I’ve been trying to develop a rustic, seedy whole wheat sandwich bread for a very specific open-face sandwich, and I can’t say it’s going all that well. The bread keeps coming out delicate and fluffy instead of toothsome and chewy, the loaves rise too aggressively, and I can’t find commercial cracked wheat to test against my homemade stuff to make sure it works the way I say it will. 

In short, I was getting frustrated – until I tried the bread warm. 

It was wonderfully fluffy, just like a dinner roll, with added interest and chew from the seedy, grainy bits – and tasting it instantly rocketed me back to memories of birthday dinners at Longhorn Steakhouse, filling up too early on the warm sliced bread they served with butter before the meal. 

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Spicy grapefruit margarita mocktail

The alchemy of cocktails fascinates me – like cooking, it takes science, skill and technique to bring seemingly disparate elements into balance. Unlike cooking, I know almost nothing about it. And since I’m an incurable lightweight, learning and iteration is a little harder.

For context, half a drink is my happy place. 

And yet I still want to be part of the party – I want something interesting and pretty to sip while sitting around with friends, or a drink with dinner that doesn’t make me feel like so much an outsider. I want something that gives me the look and experience of a cocktail, without the danger of putting me on my ass half an hour in. 

It’s why I’ve been excited to start seeing mocktail or zero-proof options on local bar menus – and also why I’ve spent two weeks trying to perfect one for myself. Because although it seems straightforward, nailing a mocktail is actually surprisingly difficult. 

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Randomly on a Thursday

  1. It has been Thursday for the last three days, and the fact that it is actually Thursday today is somehow not doing anything to improve the situation. I’m feeling a bit unmoored from my schedule, which mostly means that I’m walking around with the looming dread that I’ve forgotten something terribly important. I’m trying not to think too hard about this.
  1. Please tell me I’m not the only one this happens to.
  1. It’s made worse by the fact that I’m going out of town next week and I have a commission due – and no matter how many times I check my schedule, I’m convinced one of those things is happening this week and that I’m horribly behind. 
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Vegetable minestrone for sick days

A bowl of vegetable minestrone in the center off the frame. A spoon rests in the bowl, as if someone was about to take a bite, but put the spoon down as they were distracted. The soup is garnished with basil and grated parmesan. You can just see the pot of soup in the top left corner of the frame, and there is a small bowl of basil leaves and a cheese grater in the bottom right.

I’m getting my second dose of the vaccine tomorrow. And, while there is very little to suggest I’ll have a reaction that will qualify as much worse than mild inconvenience, I’m finding myself with the need to prepare for the worst anyway. I’ve cleared my calendar. I’ve cleaned. I’ve made sure we’re stocked up on Tylenol, ibuprofen, and hot tea. And friends, I’ve made soup. 

I know. It’s a bit cliche, isn’t it? 

And yet it’s exactly what I know I’ll be craving if I’m feeling bad – a clear-brothed, salty, chunky soup with enough heft that I feel like I’ve eaten something but not enough that it feels like a chore, you know? Oh! and noodles. It has to have noodles. 

All the ingredients for the soup in front of a white subway tile backsplash. Pictured are: olive oil, pasta, basil, black pepper, canned beans, canned tomatoes, a jar of stock, salt, parmesan cheese, bay leaves, parsley, thyme, green beans, celery, an onion, zucchini, half a peeled turnip, and carrots

This minestrone, from Martha Rose Shulman, seemed perfect – so I made it up yesterday morning and stashed it in the fridge. 

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Nut-free French macarons: a first attempt

Light pink macaron cookies on a sheet of ripped parchment sit on a marble surface. It is clear cookies have been removed from the parchment on the left side of the image - there are light pink circles of stuck cookie on the parchment. A small offset spatula with a dirty blade rests in the empty space on the parchment

Back when I was working at the bakery, I would make macarons about two or three times a week. It felt really good that my boss trusted me with them – they have a reputation as a fussy, technical cookie that requires attention to detail, and, at the time, I was still just the intern. Which is not to say things went well all the time – I had batches crack, rise weirdly sideways, brown too much, come out too wet, and, at least once, land on the floor. Honestly, I lost about one batch in five. 

But I loved making them. They felt like a challenge – for a cookie with only four ingredients, there were so many places where things could (and did) go wrong. No matter how many batches I made, it was always a little nerve-wracking, and when I succeeded it felt like a victory. Besides, there has always been something compelling about seeing those tiny, identical, pastel-hued sandwich cookies lined up on a tray. I have made thousands at this point, and it never stops feeling special. 

I have no idea what they taste like. 

Light pink macaron cookies on a piece of parchment. The parchment sits at an angle on a marble counter, and an offset spatula with a dirty blade sits on the space where cookies have clearly been removed. Some of the cookies have been flipped upside down to show the underside, which is wet and sticky looking. It is clear that the bottoms of the cookies stuck to the parchment and have been forcibly removed.

Macarons are made with finely ground almond flour – and I’m allergic to almonds. I’ve wanted to experiment with a nut-free version for a long time (the FOMO is so, so real) – but they are buried so deep in tradition and mythos of the French culinary establishment that I just assumed that any other flour base was probably doomed to failure.

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Lemon-blueberry cupcakes

A platter of cupcakes with a smaller plate with a single cupcake. The platter has three lemon-blueberry cupcakes on it - one is fully in frame, and the other two are slightly out of frame. Each cupcake has a round of candied lemon stuck into a swirl of piped frosting at a jaunty angle. Crushed freeze-dried blueberries top each cupcake like sprinkles.

Spring in New York is an adjustment – we’re midway through April, and the trees behind my house are just starting to bud. In the last week or so the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths started blooming – a welcome spot of life and color in a city that’s still mostly winter-brown. I’m finding myself quite homesick for spring in Georgia – I miss the blooming azaleas and forsythia, the green-gold cast of sunlight through new leaves, strawberry picking with Mom early in the day, evening thunderstorms, and the early-season March heat that catches you in the sun and slowly warms you from the inside until everything feels hazy and slow and perfect.  

Maybe that’s why all I want to make right now is bright, punchy desserts that remind me of sunshine. And these lemon-curd-filled, blueberry-studded cupcakes are the sunshiniest of all. 

A cooling rack full of decorated cupcakes. We can see 6 in-frame. Each cupcake is topped with a swirl of white frosting, a sprinkle of crushed freeze-dried blueberry, and a round of candied lemon. A used piping bag sits in front of the rack - the french tip still has frosting clinging to it.

They are based on my go-to yellow cake recipe, punched up with lemon zest, frozen blueberries, and buttermilk. Plain, they make a fabulous breakfast on mornings when I’m feeling a bit indulgent (after all, what is a muffin but an unfrosted cupcake?)

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Strawberry swirl yogurt cake

A loaf cake sits on a sheet of parchment paper on top of an upside-down quarter sheet pan. There are two slices of cake lying in front of the larger piece - the insides of the cake are swirled in pale yellow and purply-red. Strawberries are scattered around the frame, and a stack of plates sits in the background

Do you ever wake up in the morning and decide that you’re going to do things the hard way? 

Because apparently I do. 

Last week the grocery store had decent-looking strawberries, and I was seized with the urge to make a strawberry cake. And not just any strawberry cake, but the strawberry cake I use for weddings – plush, finely textured, and rich with butter and egg yolks, filled with a strawberry-balsamic-black pepper jam. But I wanted it now, and I didn’t want to deal with my stand mixer, or with stacking, filling, and frosting a layer cake. 

A loaf cake sits on a white cake pedestal on the right side of the frame. The inside of the cake is swirled - yellow and red-purple. Two strawberries sit on the pedestal next to the cake. A slice of the cake is on a plate with a fork and another strawberry in the lower left corner of the frame.

I also didn’t want to spend time finding a recipe that checked all those boxes. 

So I decided to do it myself – partly because I’m apparently a masochist, and partly because the science of baking is just really freaking interesting. 

Coming up with a cake from scratch seems scary, but, as with most baked goods, successful recipes are based on simple ratios and rules. Batters need balance – flour, dairy, and eggs for strength, fat and sugar for tenderness. 

A half-eaten slice of swirled strawberry cake on a white plate. There is a napkin to the left of the plate, and another plateful of cake halfway out of the frame on the left side.
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The Eighth Street guide to grocery shopping: how to get in, get out and get home

A notebook sits on top of a grocery store sales flyer. The title of the page is obscured by two hands. One is writing items into a list called "menu ideas"

In first grade, I ate dried octopus because my best friend did it first. Not my best decision, I know, but we’d just gotten back from a field trip to Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, which was my family’s regular grocery store. I felt pretty worldly, and I didn’t want to be shown up – despite the fact that the whole classroom smelled like the trash pile at a fishmarket the moment my teacher let the octopus out of the bag. 

The octopus was disgusting, but it was a good day. I got to wander around the grocery store and I got to eat something new. 

These days, not much has changed. I still love to wander and explore new grocery stores (I’m planning a field trip across town to Wegman’s just as soon as it feels safe to shop frivolously again).

More often than not, though, the weekly grocery run is just another chore – and my goal is to get in, get out, and get home as fast as possible so I can get on with my day. 

This is tactical strike grocery shopping – and it all starts with a solid plan of attack. 

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Hot and smoky chile salt

I’ve been keeping a secret from you. 

It’s not a secret I meant to keep…it’s just that it involved a branded chile salt, and, well, it just felt weird to be like “you have to go buy this one specific product” to make my perfect snack –  especially when there are only six ingredients and you don’t need any special equipment

(Also, I wanted an excuse to go to my absolute favorite specialty shop, but we aren’t going to talk about that.) 

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Hi! I’m Jessi

A culinary degree and two years of professional experience has not stopped Jessi from making stupid mistakes – she just makes them more efficiently. She habitually reads cookbooks before bed, loses track of time on Wikipedia, and yells at cooking shows like dads watching football. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jackson, five plants, and more cookbooks than a 600 square foot studio should hold.

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