Friday, March 8, 2019


I was with my future sister in law today (!!!) and she was full of good stories and agreed I could steal her life to kick the writer’s block. My favorite tale was her hubby helping get baby Josie ready so she could shower. Things are going great. Happy, naked baby ready for her new spankin’ clean diaper… the phone rings. The boys are all going to the archery range today. The next thing you know, Kenny is off into the land of archery while naked baby lays confused on the bed with the diaper not even half on. Apparently archery trumps naked baby. Love it.

When the boys got home from their archery shenanigans, Uncle Alex asked baby Josie for a hug goodbye. She proceed to laugh maniacally and run in the opposite direction, so Alex decided bribery was best and pulled out a dollar. She quickly came running back and happily exchanged a big hug for her hard earned dollar. Kenny’s parental instincts snapped into place and he confiscated the dollar telling Josie, “We don’t sell love from money”. Bad Uncle Alex.

Anywho… back to my uneventful life. I have had some time on my hands. Which turned into a week long obsession of creating a cake recipe that was 100% my own. My original goal was to create a recipe low in sugar so I could down flavorful mountains of cake without that heart pounding sugar rush that makes you acutely aware that those calories have to go somewhere and god forbid that be an actual work out. So I significantly reduced the sugar (less than half). It was stiff, hard, and dry. Turns out sugar is critical in baking for capturing moisture and creating fluffiness, not just diabetes.

It all goes back to high school chemistry with those needy hydrogen bonds that make water so ‘sticky’. Baking sugar, sucrose, is a polar molecule meaning that half of it is negatively charged and the other is positive, like a magnet. A polar molecule is referred to as ‘sticky’ because the positive and negative ends want to be together and the degree of polarity determines how hard it is to break these molecules apart. Water is extremely sticky. Sucrose has enough polarity to tease the water molecules apart. These flirtations cause the water to stick to the sugar which is vital to baking for the following reasons:

  • Sugar increases moisture and perceived softness. The bonds between sucrose and water trap water in the cake locking in moisture.

  • It increases tenderness. Cakes cannot be made without protein and starch (eggs and flour). They create shape. When water reacts with protein and starch the mixture becomes hard and dry. However, the luscious polarity of sucrose snatches up all the water molecules before they have a chance to mingle with the eggs and flour.
    • Note: I have heard of bakers beating the flour with the butter first to coat the flour molecules with fat to prevent them from absorbing extra water added later in the recipe. Future experiment!
    • Considering butter is usually 20% water, I wonder how substituting other fats with less water content, (lard, oil, shortening, etc.) would affect tenderness. More experiments!

  • It can increase rise. Creaming butter and sugar in the Kitchenaid is more than just convenient. Before baking powder and baking soda, bakers would beat butter and sugar for hours. As you beat the sugar into the butter, the sugar crystalizes and traps air. This increases lift in a cake.

  • Sugar increase shelf life. Now the twinkie will last forever because of things like Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Soy Lecithin and Cellulose Gum. Scary, right? But you can increase how long a cake lasts on your counter by increasing sugar. Life needs water. Spoilage organisms are microscopic life. Sugar steals water from its environment. Less available water = less possibility of additional life and spoilage.
    • This comes in handy when planning ahead for events. Need to bake a cake a day or so ahead of time, but worried it will dry out? Pick a recipe high in sugar (more sugar than flour).

  • Sugar increase browning through the maillard reaction. This is a browning reaction between reducing sugars, sucrose, and amino acids, proteins. This is separate from actual caramelization, but many people explain the resulting flavor similar to a caramel flavor which can be found in traditional chocolate chip cookies. THIS ONLY OCCURS ABOVE 350F!
    • Note: this reaction is sped up in alkaline environments. Basically, if you add acidity to your recipe you may reduce the effects. Acid ingredients include buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar, citrus, etc.

Alana’s Weeknight Cake Recipe

This recipe is for one 8 inch layer. Multiply the recipe by the amount of layers you wish to make. My pictures are of a 3 layer cake.


  • 1 cup cake flour
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ¾ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ⅓ cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Have the butter, eggs, sour cream, and buttermilk ready at room temperature. Butter or oil the inside of your cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a standing mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in the egg. In a small bowl combine the sour cream, buttermilk, and vanilla. Being careful not to over mix, add half the flour mixture. Lightly mix. Then add half the buttermilk mixture. Lightly mix. Add the rest of the flour, mix, and then add the last of the buttermilk mixture. Mix until just combined.

Immediately transfer mixture to the cake pan and place in oven. Without opening the oven again, bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick can be inserted and removed without crumbs. Let cool in pan for 5-10 minutes. Then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

I customized this cake by adding 1 tbsp of orange zest, frosting it with a cream cheese frosting, and then adding a blood orange glaze on the top.  I often customize the flavors of this cake for an easy one layer weeknight dessert.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


When it comes to guilty pleasures I find my self craving something extravagant and filled with chocolate and finesse. But when it comes to comfort food, I need something more familiar. Something full of flavor, not just sugar. It needs to feel like coming home, not a night out. It needs to represent family, good times, and past smiles. For me, that item is fruit pie. 

All I can think of is strawberry season and my three berry pie. I'm drinking hot cocoa made with half and half for now, but my heart is set on plump, dark red strawberries. My hands are colder than the wind chill and perfect for kneading crust. Maybe I'll give in and make a sweet potato pie while I wait.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Our Sonoma summer is back, but we have yet to give up beef stew and red wine. Our trick? Simply eat it after the coastal fog kicks back in after 6pm. 

We've had some changes: new jobs, new people, new talents,  and new locations. I moved to Napa, the little sister is in the city (San Francisco) spicing up the corporate life for the summer, and my family signed up with, meaning we have new visitors every month. We have people all over the world coming to help us out at Bella Luce (our 4-acre "farm"). It was a blast showing a French girl and a couple from England what a real American firework show looks like over the 4th of July. I worry that they will be forever disappointed back home after experiencing this years Sonoma fireworks. You sit below the fireworks, and stain your clothes with ash. 

Not only has the stream of new faces increased, but our network of friends and family has flourished. There is never a quiet faceless day at Bella Luce. Our little spot of heaven in Sonoma is the most beautiful community I have ever experienced. 

The stew below has been a staple in my father's cooking for the last 20 years. My dad swears by it stating, "Everybody always enjoys it. There's no stock or anything, you just cook it in wine. There's just a sense of wonder in the thing. It was the first recipe I made with it [the family crock pot], and nothing rang the bell like that one. Throw it all in the crock pot, cover it, and forget about it. What's interesting about it is that you are making a dinner meat dish at 9 in the morning. I always thought that was kind of odd. Everybody loves it." 

Dad's Red Wine Beef Stew
Serving: 10-12 servings
Time: 1 hour prep, 8 hours in slow cooker

  • 1 boneless beef sirloin steak, 3-lbs cut into 1/2-inch pieces (pre-cut stew meat fine)
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 slices bacon, diced
  • 20 mini carrots, approximate
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 small new red potatoes, quartered
  • 8 to 10 mushrooms, sliced
  • 20 to 24 fresh pearl onions 
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 3 cups of a deep rich red wine (we usually end up using a Napa Cabernet)

Coat beef with flour, shaking off excess. Set aside.

Add a small amount of olive oil to a large skillet. Cook bacon over medium heat until partially cooked. Add beef and cook until browned. Remove both the meat and bacon.

Layer potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, garlic, marjoram, bay leaf, salt, thyme, pepper, bacon and beef mixture and wine in slow cooker. We always use our large slow cooker, as one trial in the medium sized stained some countertops. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or until beef is tender. Discard bay leaf before serving.

Remember, just because there is 3 cups of heavy red wine in this stew that doesn't mean you shouldn't add more in your glass.

Gluten Free

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


It is easy to forget what we see everyday. 

Friday, December 19, 2014


After a couple dry years, our California winter finally returned. It has been raining for weeks. We almost forgot what a normal California winter looked like (wet socks and green hills).  The vines are loosing their color, but the meadows between them are lime green. There are toads croaking everywhere.

Even though winter has returned, it is still mild and the normal rules of winter aren't taken into consideration. As I drive back and forth between San Francisco and Sonoma, I count the baby sheep and cows.  I broke into the barn to dig out my winter coat consisting of a sweater and a rain jacket, and rain boots. Unfortunately the rain boots have a rip along the side of the foot that even the strongest duck tape won't fix. It is time for the return of wet socks warming by the fire.

Almost everything had already been picked from the garden, but our peppers never seem to end. I gave two bags full to the Winemaker at Deerfield Ranch Winery, Robert Rex, for his Sicilian Grandmother's traditional meat and peppers recipe.  By the time everybody and their mothers were tired of peppers we still had enough peppers to fill a five hour pickling event, including 40 jars.


  • 4 cups vinegar (preferably apple cider vinegar)
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 TBS salt
Combine the ingredients in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Stir to ensure all the ingredients dissolve. 


Fill our jars two-thirds full of fresh washed vegetables and other flavoring components. I recommend slicing the vegetables so the pickling process works better. Definitely slice your peppers. 
  • peppers
  • onions
  • garlic
  • carrots
  • cucumbers
  • bell peppers
  • peppercorns
  • herbs
Pour the hot brine into the vegetable filled jars. Seal the jars through your canning method of choice. Wait at least three weeks for the pickling process to complete. Store jars between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Learn more about canning here. I boiled the jars after they were full, and then let them cool on the counter until all their tops popped indicating a fresh sealed jar. This method also runs the risk of glass jars breaking under the stress of the high heat. 


Remember to always sterilize your equipment before using. After the jars have been filled, they need to be sealed, just like making jam in the summer time. There are different acceptable methods of canning.

Pickling works by creating a high acid environment that selects for the growth of the bacteria lactobacilli, which ferment the sugar in veggies producing lactic acid. Not very many microbes can live in high acid environments, so the vinegar is not only selecting for lactobacilli which 'pickle' the veggies, but also deselects for potentially harmful alternative bacteria. The idea in pickling is to create an environment made specifically for lactobacilli, so this good bacteria can out compete all other potentially harmful bacteria.

The addition of salt is used for the same selection principle. At certain salt concentrations lactobacilli grow faster than other organisms. Too little salt allows for the quick growth of other organisms, but too much salt will also kill the good lactobacilli bacteria. Thus, it is important to not alter the suggested ratio of salt and vinegar.

If your jars are not properly sealed and the contents are exposed to oxygen, spoilage it almost always certain. Also the temperature at which you store your fermenting jars will affect your pickled products. Try and keep the contents between 70 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


SOMA, Sonoma County Mushroom Association, holds mushroom forays with mycologist who can identity all the mushrooms found. Last time we went mushroom hunting at Salt Point State Park at the Sonoma coast.  We were on the look out for Porcini's, but ended up finding candy caps, shaggy manes, and hedgehogs as well. I was thrilled to find candy cap mushrooms in the wild for the first time. Candy caps smell like maple syrup, which intensifies as the mushrooms are dried. This time, I want to dry my candy cap mushrooms, crush them, and then add them to my holiday hot chocolate. 


I brought home the shaggy manes for dinner. My go to method for cooking mushrooms is to sauté them with butter, shallots, and garlic.  I generally add the ingredients by feel and taste. The shaggy manes were paired with wild rice and kale sautéed in garlic and olive oil. 

  • 4 shaggy mane mushrooms (or substitute another mushroom)
  • 1 small shallot 
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic
  • 2-4 tablespoons of butter, more as needed

Chop up the shallots and garlic. Heat a cast iron skillet. Once hot, melt one tablespoon of butter, and add the shallots and garlic. Mix over medium heat until the shallots are translucent, and the garlic soft. Melt another tablespoon of butter before adding the mushrooms. Heat over medium heat, mixing occasionally so the ingredients do not become overly crispy. Continue to add butter to the skillet as needed to keep the skillet greased. sauté the mushrooms until they are soft and pliable. The shaggy manes will open up and become slightly translucent when done. 

WARNING: Wild mushrooms are an amazing resource, but when foraged incorrectly can be lethal. Do not forage without the supervision of a mycologist. 

The next forage with SOMA is December 20th. After a forage there is a potluck supplied by the members, full of decadent homemade food often full of mushrooms.  SOMA provides information on mushrooms regarding identification, cooking, dyes and paper, growing, foraging, and health. Membership is around twenty dollars. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Wild rice and foraged mushroom stuffing, cranberry chutney, bbq turkey, spiced sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, brussels sprouts with bacon and onions, squash soup, carrot and potato gratin, beans, garlic and brie mashed potatoes, sweet potato fries, cumin roasted carrots, kale and brussels sprout salad, baked brie, pomegranate seeds with mint, toasted almonds, an Amador County Barbera, Deerfield Ranch 2005 Meritage Blend, Spiced cupcakes, tres leches cake, apple crumble, flan with homemade dulce de leche, and chocolate cubes. We served twenty people, and a day later, I am already out of left overs. 

Over the past 5 years, I have gone from the potato peeling girl to the one organizing the menu, sending out invitations, and making sure the Turkey makes an appearance by 4pm. I love the creativity Thanksgiving inspires in menu planning and recipe development. Every year I choose one to two new recipes to add to the table, however the kale and brussels sprouts salad always makes a return appearance. My favorite new recipe was homemade dulce de leche simmered down from whole milk with vanilla beans. However, I will share this recipe later in the holiday season, as I have a couple ideas to spice it up with. I have half a mind to mass produce the stuff and send it out as holiday gifts. So if you want some extra holiday dulce de leche, just keep pestering me until I finally whip it up again.

Despite the vast array of recipes scattered across our table, it’s the people leaning against the white linen table cloth that add the real spice to Thanksgiving. Each year our community expands, and someone new is introduced into the family. This year we experienced the return of Emily Ward and her mother. My sister and I lived next to Emily for a good part of our childhood, but she wasn’t called Emily back then. No, we called her the Altoid for that one stray front tooth that grew in a little too early. Our little Altoid, the third Barton sister, is all grown up now, attending University, and just returned from New Zealand, but one thing hasn’t changed a bit; Emily still knows how to bring the party. 

After we gorged ourselves, understanding the real meaning of gluttony, Emily turned up the music, and the living room was roaring with song and dance. We had people getting low, the Macarena, a couple people who could actually dance, and a three year old being tossed from person to person. Every face glowed. In this moment, on the dance floor, we were all connected, and love flowed evenly between us, true holiday magic. 


Servings: 10 people
Time: 20-25 minutes

  • 1 cup kahlua coffee liquor
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans
  • 1 round of Brie
  • Water crackers
  • Pomegranate seeds for garnish

Bake the round of Brie in a glass pie pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. 

In a small pot, combine the brown sugar and kahlua. On medium heat, stir until all the brown sugar is dissolved. Then on low heat, reduce the liqueur while stirring occasionally until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a wooden spoon. After the sauce has thickened, add the nuts, stir. 

Pour the sauce and nuts on top of the baked brie. The sauce will drip down around the sides. Garnish with pomegranate seeds. Line the edge of the pie pan, around the Brie, with water crackers. 

 The evolution of my involvement with Thanksgiving has mirrored my switch from the biotech industry to the wine industry, and marked the beginning of my food blogging. One of the first recipes I blogged was this kale and brussels sprout salad, which I originally obtained from Saveur magazine in 2011. The copy of the recipe below is now my family’s version. This recipe has been passed around, with each new person adding a small twist. It is our favorite hearty holiday salad, and satisfies almost all dietary requirements. Gluten-free, and easily vegan, if the cheese is removed.


Servings: 12 people
Time: 30 minutes

  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp finely minced shallot
  • 1 small garlic clove, finely minced
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning
  • 2 large bunches of Tuscan Kale (about 1 1/2 lb. total)
  • 12 oz.  brussels sprouts, finely grated 
  • 1/3 cup almonds, toasted
  • 1 cup finely grated Pecorino
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds. 

For the dressing, combine lemon juice, mustard, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir and set aside. Finely grate or chop all of the ingredients for the dressing to homogenize flavor. 

Thinly slice the kale, but leave the stems behind. Grate the brussels sprouts. Toss the kale and brussels sprouts together, in a large bowl. 

Chop, and toast the almonds on medium heat until browned, but not burnt. Mix in the dressing, cheese, and almonds. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with pomegranate seeds. 


Two wines stood out the most to me, an Amador County Barbera, and Deerfield’s 2005 Meritage.

The Amador County Barbera was a wonderful surprise. Unfortunately, I do not remember the winery from which it originated, but I will update this information once it is rediscovered.  True to a Barbera it was a lighter red wine. However, it lacked a lot of the red fruit characteristics I am used to in Sonoma Valley Barberas. This Barbera was all earth. It reminded me of an Oregon Pinot Noir, without the extra smoke on the nose. I have never tasted so much earth in such a light wine. It paired wonderfully with the heavy Thanksgiving food, and has given me a reason to take a trip to Amador County. 

2005 Meritage, Napa Valley, Trio Vineyard by Deerfield Ranch Winery is a red blend. The winemaker, Robert Rex, has an amazing blending ability, and this wine demonstrates that. The blend contains 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc, 7% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, and 2% Malbec.  The Cabernet Franc and Malbec are evident in the middle of the wine with a burst of red fruit. The earthiness of a Napa Cabernet is present at the back of the palate. This 400 case wine was barrel aged for 40 months in 80% French and 20% American oak. 

I chose this Deerfield wine, because the complexity of its palate holds up well to the vast array of hearty foods on the kitchen table, and because of the pop of red fruit in the middle of the palate. When drinking a heavier red with a rich meal I tend to pick wines with red fruit characteristics.