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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 8 years ago

Smitten with the kitchen

by: Loren Mayo Black Tie Editor

Susan Filson had never baked a day in her life.

Aside from growing up in a big, loud and messy Italian family, she also lacked any formal culinary training.

But on the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2007, Filson found herself sitting at home in front of her computer, toying with the idea of blogging — food blogging. Her eyes were glued to the Food Network, where sweet, goopy icing melted into just-baked cinnamon rolls.

“The Web site asked me to type the name of my blog, so I typed ‘Sticky, gooey, creamy, chewy,’” Filson said. “I thought that, out of all the food characteristics, what could be better?”

For the first few months, while she waited for her blog to attract attention, Filson was the only one commenting on her blog. But the site rapidly gained popularity with its tempting treats and mouthwatering photographs — which Filson takes with a Canon Rebel XTI — and before Filson knew it, the blog had followers in Hong Kong and Europe and was getting 85,000 to 100,000 hits per month.

Beyond the simple act of sharing recipes and stories, blogging also comes with such perks as a sponsorship with Food Buzz and friendly relations with the Pillsbury dough boy. The company regularly allows Filson to test and review its new products. Cookbooks and other food-related items frequently arrive in the mail.

“I go to food conferences all the time and feel like I’m at the Oscars because of the schwag bags they send me home with,” Filson said. “I had to leave clothes behind in Seattle to fit my chef knives and other goodies in my suitcase.”

Although she sticks to her plethora of family recipes, Filson also dines out and tries to re-create meals at home, using the ingredients she tastes. Sometimes, she follows themes, such as ice-cream flavors of the month.

“I have to have an interesting story to tell,” Filson said. “When I made malted-milk-ball cookies, it reminded me of taking my little brother to the candy store, where he would call the milk balls, ‘moth balls.’”

Blogging has led to a career change for Filson, a classically trained soprano who formerly practiced law as a trial lawyer for Sarasota-based Filson & Penge. She now works as the firm’s office manager.

“After my father — we were extremely close — passed, I was looking for something to help pass the time, and I enjoyed reading food and beauty blogs,” Filson said. “I enjoy cooking and am considered a pretty good cook. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

Her favorite dishes to bake are Breakup Bars, a variation of a Scottish dessert called Millionaire’s Shortbread, and Upside-Down Apple Tarts, which start with sugar, butter and caramelized apples in a cast-iron skillet. (See recipe below.)

“You cover (the apples) with a puff pastry and bake in the oven until puffy and caramel-ly,” Filson said. “With very good oven mitts, you flip it over into a dish, and all the caramel syrup drizzles out, while the apples are barely holding shape together by a whisper. I swear to you, I think I ate that whole tarte tatin myself.”

Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected]


What: Learn to cook Italian comfort food and taste your creations; there will also be a wine tasting.
Where: Casa Italia, 2080 Constitution Blvd.
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21
Cost: $50
Information: Visit or e-mail [email protected].

For the shortbread:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (two sticks) room-temperature butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup toffee bits

For the caramel layer:
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups packed brown sugar
16 tablespoons (two sticks) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons golden syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

For the chocolate layer:
12 ounces good quality milk or semi-sweet chocolate, cut into small bits
1 tablespoon butter

For the shortbread:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
1.  Combine flour, cornstarch, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk together. Add butter and work out your aggressions by using your hands to mix the butter into the dry ingredients. (Try imagining that the mixture in the bowl is the face of your lost love and go crazy on it!)
When you’re done, not only will you feel a lot better, but your shortbread mixture will have a crumbly and sand-like texture. Don’t worry that it doesn’t look like a smooth traditional cookie dough. Gently mix in the toffee bits until evenly distributed.
2.  Dump the shortbread dough into a quarter-inch thick sheet pan and gently press down evenly. If you don’t have a sheet pan, you can use a 9-inch by 12-inch cake pan, although the sheet pan will promote more even browning. Using a fork, prick the shortbread dough about one inch apart across the entire top. 
3.  Bake until uniformly lightly golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on your oven. Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely, while you make the caramel layer.

For the caramel layer:
1.  In a medium saucepan, add condensed milk, brown sugar, butter, syrup and salt.  Heat over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.
2.  Bring mixture to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture darkens and reaches 237 degrees on a candy thermometer.
3.  Remove from the heat, and whisk in vanilla. Pour mixture evenly over the cooled shortbread crust.

For the chocolate layer:
1.  Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir in the butter until completely combined. Pour the chocolate mixture evenly over the caramel layer and set aside until completely set.
2.  Cut into squares using a sharp knife. Store in the fridge to keep the chocolate nice and firm.
Makes about 24 2-inch squares.

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