Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Oranges and Chocolate

Oranges and the "Holidays" have always gone hand in hand for me.  There is something about the smell of the citrus, the burst of essence inhaled as I peel open a naval orange and shove my thumbs into the center of the fruit to pull apart the sections one by one, biting into them, and savoring the sweet/tart juice.  I always hoped that Santa brought me the big fat orange instead of the shiny red delicious apple or the dull green pear.  Santa always put fruit in the toe of each of our stockings back then. It was a welcome tradition to reach into the long, knit sock to pull out the fresh fruit, my fingers already knowing by touch which one I would get.
Around the time I was ten years old, at Girl Scout meetings, we crafted hand made gifts to give to our parents.  (Now everyone calls them DIY and puts photos of their accomplishments on Pinterest.)  We sang Christmas carols and drank Hawaiian Punch as we labored over studding every inch of an orange with whole cloves and wrapping it with a strand of green velvet ribbon that was pinned into place so that the lucky recipient could hang the old fashioned air freshener in his or her closet. 
A few years ago, I transformed my mother's Christmas Braid Bread recipe by substituting candied orange peel and chocolate chips for the chopped mixture of candied fruit and raisins that the recipe normally calls for. I always plucked out the red, green and yellow fruit "candy" leaving behind only the raisins which drove Val mad, that candied fruit was not cheap! But the sweet dough, is a perfect vehicle for the two flavors that I always associate with Christmas and December: chocolate and oranges.  I crave the contrast of intense flavor of the dark chocolate with the brightness of orange and the combination feels to me like cause to celebrate no matter what day or season.
Perhaps for the reason of needing something, anything, to celebrate during the ridiculously long winter of 2014-2015, I resorted to dehydrating all sorts of citrus and other fruits and then decorating them with melted chocolate and an assortment of other items such as sea salt, etc.  This resulted in an excellent way to use up the oranges and other fruits that my children refused to eat and left to slowly dry out on the kitchen counter.  This drives me insane, the wasting of fruit (and food, in general), so I confiscated just about all of it, sliced it thin with my sharpest knife and put  it all in the food dehydrator that I often forget I own until I pull it out and begin again to dry everything I can find until the project becomes dull again. Regardless, the result is chewy intense, sweet/bitter orange slathered in a coat of dark chocolate.  The perfect snack for on the go and packaged into a small cello bag and tied with a ribbon, makes for an excellent hostess gift.  Also, to my delight, I've just recently discovered, they are an excellent accompaniment to a chilled glass of Chardonnay.  Next, I'm looking forward to trying them with Champagne, because of course, everything goes well with bubbly.   Cheers!

For my variation on Val's Christmas Braid Bread see:  News: Fruits of Christmas Past, December 2012

For other great ideas for things to dip in chocolate:

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Book Club"

It felt like I was driving on an endless road, traveling through the woods in the pitch black night.  In reality, it was only about 7:00pm but after daylight savings time in November.  Around here, small neighborhoods nestled in areas where mostly summer residents live during the height of the season (June through August) seem like ghost towns.  I finally reached my destination after following winding Shore Road for a good 15 minutes.  The unassuming house was lit up from the inside.  At first, I couldn't figure out which way to enter. As I mentioned, it was completely dark out and there was no clear front door, walkway or any other markers to indicate how to properly get inside. I sat in my car for a moment, surveying the situation.  I reached for my hostess offering and decided to leave the wine I brought in the car, unsure of the type of occasion.  Possibly this was meant to be a tea drinking night? 
Deb appeared in the dim light from the slider on the bottom floor, she walked toward me as I emerged from my car.
"Hello!  Welcome!"
I love that she came out to greet me and guide me inside.  After all this isn't even her home.  But she instinctually knows I have no idea where I am or what to do. 
In the bright, inviting kitchen, Sheila was busy pouring the usual chilled Kendall- Jackson shared by her and Deb at just about every gathering they attend.  Besties since high school.  They usually ride together, too.  What was I thinking?  Of course this is a wine occasion! 
"O.K. before we get started I want to show Andrea around.  And I want to show you my artwork!"  Melissa was excited to have us there, to show us the hard work that she and Jamie have put into their funky, eclectic place.  Every knob on the cabinet, every piece of wood on the stairs and tile in the bathroom, carefully chosen then installed by their own hands.  Their work was impressive, the style unique.  I coveted it all, feeling my own home to be overly simple and badly in need of a fresh paint job.  Melissa's art work, the stitching and sewing and everything else she created looked effortless and masterful at the same time like only someone with true talent can produce.
And then there was cake.
Not just any cake.  This was the cake recipe from the book we had all read. " Book Club" was the excuse, the reason we had forcibly gathered ourselves together.  It is always a challenge with work schedules, kids' activities and Melissa getting ready to head to CA, back to work in less than 2 days.  But somehow she managed to bake the cake from Ruth Reichl's novel, "Delicious".  Using mortar and pestle to grind the ridiculously long list of whole spices the recipe described.  (I would have never had the patience.) Substituting a gluten free flour blend for AP and dirtying numerous bowls to produce the final result: an incredibly moist, light, slightly spiced cake with an orange and bourbon glaze.  Sublime.  Excellent with the pinot noir I later retrieved out of my car.
Sure we discussed the book...Deb tried to get us on track.  But like most conversations that involve wine and cake, the topic continually changed from the original idea to future books, Melissa's plans once back in LA, soccer games, drama at school and other stuff.  Then we toured the house again, while Melissa described the future transformation of the remaining unfinished rooms.  Two hours can pass so quickly.  Weeks and months go by before we manage to pull off another gathering of just us: no kids, husbands or other people to interrupt our intimate talk of plans, ideas, dreams.  We need to get another date on the calendar now for our next "Book Club".

I brought these cookies for Melissa. I discovered the recipe in the January 2014 issue of
Bon Appetit  and made them for my sister who also stays away from gluten. They remain soft for about 2 days then get a bit crumbly.  The deep, rich chocolate flavor goes great with a cup of tea, if you prefer and is especially decadent with a glass of  red wine.

Adapted from Bon Appetit  January 2014
Chocolate Brownie Cookies
(makes about 24 cookies)
3 cups gluten free powdered sugar
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large egg whites
1 large egg
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
3 tablespoons mini chips 
1 teaspoon instant coffee
Place racks in lower and upper thirds of oven; preheat to 350 degrees.  Whisk powdered sugar, cocoa powder and salt in a large bowl, then whisk in egg whites and egg.  Fold in chocolate, mini chips and instant coffee.  Spoon batter by the tablespoon onto parchment lined baking sheets, spacing 2" apart.
Bake, rotating sheets once, until cookies are puffed, cracked and set just around the edges, for about 14 minutes.
Transfer baking sheets to wire racks and let cookies cool on pan for at least 5 minutes. (They will firm up.)  Once set and cooled, the cookies will peel right off the parchment.  Store in airtight container at room temperature or devour immediately.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Legendary Lemon Cake

Here's the story as told to me: Mrs. Evelyn Stearns baked numerous cakes from this recipe for a prominent restaurant in town as well as created quite a business selling them to hostesses to serve at baby showers and late afternoon teas.  The cakes were incredibly popular.  Ridiculously moist, lemon Bundt cake with a sugary lemon glaze that added to the sweet/tartness.  Each slice held together well enough that perfect ladies could pick it up to eat it without having it fall to the plate in a crumbled mass after the first bite.  Legend has it that many asked her for the recipe but Mrs. Evelyn Stearns NEVER gave it away.
In later years, long after Mrs. Stearns no longer produced her famous lemon cake for the masses, a similar type of cake was discovered to be featured on the side of the box mix for Duncan Hines lemon cake mix.  However, in the photo that accompanies the cake mix version of the recipe, the cake appears to have more of a frosting than a glaze.  Hmmm.  After a bit of sleuthing, and prodding my grandmother, Edie, woman about town to reach out to some of her "contacts" (ladies who lunch and were clearly in the know), somehow Val came up with the famous recipe.  To this day, Val still has the recipe card in her file labeled, "Evelyn Stearns' Lemon Cake".  I now open the vault and share it with you, although it isn't much of a secret anymore.  And to Mrs. Stearns' credit, it is not the exact same recipe.  She adds an extra egg and turns the temperature of the oven down 25 degrees. Once the cake cooled for many hours, she slathered it with her signature glaze then wrapped it up tight in plastic wrap to seal it all in.  So, the recipe is decidedly hers.  After all, isn't that what we all do when we create something of our own?  Take an idea, riff on it, add this, subtract that and produce something that is entirely new but comfortingly familiar? Legendary, indeed.

Evelyn Stearns' Lemon Cake
makes one Bundt cake
1 package Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme Cake Mix
1 package Jello Instant Lemon Pudding Mix
5 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Grease and flour a fluted cake pan.
Combine all ingredients in a stand mixer and beat well for 5 minutes.  Pour into prepared cake pan.  Bake for 55 minutes or until a pick inserted comes out clean.  Let rest on wire rack for 5 minutes.  Remove cake from pan onto wire rack and allow to cool for 4-6 hours more. 
2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
juice from one lemon
Combine sugar and lemon juice.  Wisk until smooth.  Place cake on a large piece of plastic wrap.  Pour glaze over cake and  wrap tight.  Let glaze absorb into cake for a few hours before serving.
Speaking of  tweaking, here's my own personal riff on Mrs. Stearns' cake.  Since I prefer my frosting to be the type you can actually peel off with your fork and I absolutely love a particular lemon cake featured at Starbuck's, I created a frosting instead of a glaze.  You can take your pick and adorn your lemon cake however you like.
Tart Lemon Frosting
frosts one Bundt cake
2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon butter, softened
zest from 1/2 lemon
2-3 teaspoons lemon juice
hot water, if needed
Sift sugar into mixing bowl.  Blend in softened butter.  Add zest and lemon juice.  Combine to create a thick frosting that is barely spreadable.  If the frosting is too thick, add more lemon juice or hot water, one teaspoon at a time and mixing thoroughly after each addition as not to create a frosting that is too runny.  Dollop frosting on top of cake and gently spread with frosting knife just over top of cake allowing for frosting to gently slip down the sides of cake, leaving approximately 1 inch at the bottom of the cake exposed.  Allow frosting to set at least one hour before serving.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Plenty of Time for Cinnamon Rolls

Last weekend was the slowest one I have had in a long time.  When life is hectic and fast, I don't realize how much I miss all of the great things that go along with having a little extra time.  Sleeping late, drinking coffee in my pajamas while sitting on the loveseat in my office and perusing a cookbook.  Writing shopping lists, planning a menu that may or may not ever come to fruition. But who cares?  The fun part is putting it all together and imagining what delicious food I could be eating by later on in the afternoon, if I'm actually motivated enough to make any of the recipes that I tore out of some back issue of Food & Wine that I'm finally getting around to reading.  I have been dying to bake some serious bread described in The Little French Bakery Cookbook by Susan M. Holding. I was tempted by the "Spicy Round Cheese Bread" with it's crusty cheese on the outside and herby tang on the inside.  I imagined toasting a slice or two or thee and slathering it with butter but realized after snuggling up in a blanket while the cool fall air came in through the window that what I really wanted is a freshly baked batch of  ooey, gooey "Big Fluffy Cinnamon Rolls".

These cinnamon rolls are serious.  They are ridiculously buttery, in the best possible way.  Which means, the amount of butter (only 2/3 cup, so don't sweat it.) in the dough allows the cinnamon rolls to remain soft and springy even after they have cooled, even a few days later when I am shoving the last small end into my mouth before one of the kids gets off the school bus and tries to claim it for her own.  The frosting is literally "THE Frosting".  Whenever anyone describes something that adds to an already amazing idea, plan, gift, outfit, whatever, they refer to it as, "the frosting" .  So, when I tell you that the "Cinnamon Roll Icing" is amazingly rich, sweet and tangy, those words just don't do it justice.  I think I will write Ms. Holding and suggest she change the name of her icing to THE FROSTING.  All caps.  It's really that good.

The process to prepare and bake the cinnamon rolls was a lengthy one.  Not hours spent toiling in the kitchen but of steps that must be performed so that the final product comes out correctly.  And waiting patiently between those steps for the right amount of yeasty activity to take place.  But it's all totally worth it.  I forgot to take the eggs out the night before but managed at least to get them to room temperature with the rest of ingredients, as suggested, by submerging them in a bowl of hot water for a little while.  Once I mixed all of the ingredients together, I began the kneading which took me a good 20 minutes.  Until reading this book, I had never heard of a "gluten-window".  To find out if your dough has been kneaded enough, rip of a piece the size of a golf ball.  Flatten it between your palms, then pull it to make it think enough so that you can see the light coming through it.  If it tares, it's not ready.  Keep kneading, and kneading and kneading some more.  Try the gluten-window test again.  Still no luck?  Keep kneading.  I kept kneading until my arms were about to fall off.  Finally the light shone through the little gluten-window and upon me. Phew! 

1 1/2 hours later, once the dough doubled in size, Ava became interested in my project.  I rolled out the dough probably into a much larger rectangle than the directions described.  I couldn't help myself, imagining how many cinnamon rolls I could eventually be devouring. Gluttonous! By the time we coated it in melted butter,  sprinkled on the cinnamon and sugar and gently rolled it into a long log, the dough measured about three feet!  I also sliced it thinner than instructed.  I really don't know why. That's how I ended up with 24 rolls instead of 12 to 15.  Ava and I kept reaching for yet another pan to accommodate them all. Finally, after nestling each roll into a butter, cinnamon and sugar bath alongside it's brothers and sisters, we wrapped the pans up for the last rise.

While the rolls baked, the centers pushed up and out forming doughy mountain peaks and some were even perfectly stepped like little cinnamon Mayan temples.  By the time they came out of the oven, none of us could resist the smell of them.  The cream cheese frosting with it's crazy amounts of even more butter is the perfect compliment (2 sticks this time, but don't skimp on it or you'll be sorry.  How often do you actually make cinnamon rolls, anyway?) We blobbed it on top of the warm cinnamon rolls and allowed it to slowly melt and drip along the sides.  Since I began this endeavor around 7:00am, the whole thing took until about 12:30pm.  Just in time for the perfect holiday lunch. The kids couldn't believe that I didn't at least make them have some fruit first.  They used their little fingers to pull apart the sticky rolled sweet and popped globs of frosting into their mouths.  I watched as they both absentmindedly wiped their hands on a shirt or a pair of pants.  "GET A NAPKIN!" I yelled.  But it was to late and I really didn't care, anyway.

For more on The Little French Bakery or to get yourself a cookbook so that you can drool over all the deliciousness on each page, go to:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Labor Day, Tomatoes and Mexican Dip

     On Labor Day, I feel a need to mark the end of summer.  Draw a line in the beach sand defining the beginning of the school year, going back to schedules, buses, homework and after school activities.  This is not just for the kids.  It gets me back on track, too.  Time to focus more on organization, paying bills on time, vacuuming and family meals.  When I was a child, my grandmother, Edie usually held the "holiday" cookouts at her house in Greengate, an upscale neighborhood a short walk from Main Street in town.  Labor Day was one of those annual events that often was celebrated in this fashion with hamburgers and hotdogs on the charcoal grill, that my mother or one of my aunts ended up cooking for hungry mouths while the adults enjoyed a vodka cocktail or two accompanied by Triscuits topped with  hot pink and orange colored port wine cheddar cheese.  So, in that tradition, I gathered family together to commemorate the beginning of school and the end to so much fun we had this summer.
    I am also obsessed with tomatoes at this time of year.  I want to be sure to eat my fill of fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun tomatoes from Val's garden.  Tomato sandwiches smeared with Hellman's on soft white bread piled so high, you have to eat them over the sink and use the dishtowel to wipe the tomato juices from your hands, wrists and elbows.  BLT's with warm bacon and Boston lettuce, chopped tomatoes drenched in Good Season's Italian Dressing.  There are recipes, too: tomato pie, salsa, fresh tomato sauce with quahogs to go over hot pasta for dinner.  But my favorite one, the one that perfectly compliments the celebratory feel of summer has always been
 "Mexican Dip".

   The story goes that my aunt Janet was introduced to it on the beach one day and brought this simple recipe to the rest of us, or something like that.  Val still has the 2.5" x 5" card written in my aunt's unmistakable handwriting so that's how I seem to remember it.  In any case, it's so easy, I no longer need to consult the written instructions.  Also, I recall, we used to serve it with Doritoes as true "Mexican" style food had yet to make it's way to Cape Cod.  Basic tortilla chips were not available in the supermarket.  Serve it with whatever chips you want.  But be warned: this dip is so delicious, hitting all the bells and whistles for hungry pre-dinner appetites, your guests will inhale it if served as an appetizer.  Before the main part of the menu was ready last Monday, I had to tell my father not to spoil his appetite: 
"Dad, this isn't the meal."  I said as I pulled the dip and chips away from him.
"No, but it could be." was his response.
It is that good.  I have been known to replace my dinner with a small batch for just myself.  When the children are watching Disney shows in the basement, I prepare a personal portion with a heaping pile of chips.  Pour a generous glass of wine and devour it all with my feet up on the ottoman while I watch some truly terrible T.V. (Real Housewives of NYC, anyone?)  Now that's a celebration.

Mexican Dip
(serves a group)
1/2 package taco seasoning (I use McCormick)
3/4 cup sour cream, divided
1 ripe avocado
juice from 1/2 lemon
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
1 2.25 oz. can chopped black olives
1-2 medium sized ripe tomatoes
1 small onion (optional)
6 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
tortilla chips
Combine the taco seasoning and1/2 cup sour cream. Spread over a large plate or platter.

In a small bowl, mash avocado.  Add remaining 1/4 cup sour cream, lemon juice, Tabasco and salt and pepper to taste.  Spread avocado mixture over taco seasoning mixture. 
Layer finely chopped black olives over avocado mixture.
Cut tomato and gently squeeze out seeds.  Dice seeded tomato and layer on top of black olives.  
If using, dice onion and layer on top of tomatoes. 
Top entire dip with shredded cheddar cheese. 
Cover and chill until ready to serve.  Can be made a few hours in advance.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


 I feel compelled to use it all.  Every vegetable, fruit, leaf of lettuce, if it's growing in my yard or on my deck.  If I've had a hand in helping it to survive, it must be devoured instead of left to wither on the vine.
The herbs have done very well this year, especially the potted ones.  But my own consumption can barely keep up with their bounty.  Of course, I want to employ their flavors in creative dishes when they are fresh and the flavors vibrant.  However, I have succumbed to the fact that they won't be growing like this for long and have taken measures to "preserve" them.  Hanging from the lamp over the kitchen table where I usually string up holiday decorations, are bundles of sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme in an attempt to dry them for later use.  (I'll have to report back on how well this idea actually works out.)  Other types like basil and parsley, I puree with a touch of olive oil then freeze in ice cube trays to be  used in various recipes throughout the year. In spite of my efforts or maybe because of them, these crazy plants keep producing!

My latest cookbook obsession is "Pomegranates & Pine Nuts" by Bethany Kehdy.  It's a collection of recipes based on traditional Lebanese, Moroccan and Persian dishes.  This book partly inspired this tasty dip with the addition of Greek yogurt and the layering of the components instead of stirring it all together. (Although that would be o.k.  Ava always wants to stir it all together, I just like how it looks when plated my way.)  The herb blend derives from another current obsession (of which I have many, it seems.), that began a few years ago with chimichuri sauce, as well as green harissa and gremolata (see blog post: Eat Your Vegetables with Sauce ) In this one, I have omitted the garlic for those of you with sensitive stomachs and a delicate sense of smell when it comes to dining with companions who get stinky garlic breath.

Garden Fresh Herb Sauce
1 large bunch fresh herbs such as parsley, basil or cilantro or a combination
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 pinch red pepper flakes
pinch of salt and black pepper, to taste
Remove all stems from herbs and place leaves in a Cuisinart with blade or small chopper.  Add 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper.  Puree mixture.  If leaves are not moving around, add more olive oil to loosen so that the mixture moves around in the chopper.  Once, leaves are pureed into fine pieces, adjust for taste.  Mixture can be saved in an airtight container in refrigerator for 2-3 days.
Lately, I have been serving this sauce over a generous dollop of Greek yogurt accompanied by my favorite dipping mechanism: Kettle Brand Krinkle Cut Potato Chips.  "Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper" is my favorite flavor.  Love it when they go on sale 2/$5.00!  This yummy dip is great with cocktails (there is not much that isn't) before or instead of dinner.  Enjoy!




Monday, July 6, 2015

Simply Divine

It began with an overflowing quart of some of the most beautiful, ruby red strawberries I have ever seen. Tiny, bursting fruit begging to be eaten tonight.  At their very peak of ripeness, warning, "Don't wait! We'll be soggy and bruised by tomorrow!"
There was also the problem with my oven.  It wasn't working.
Not to mention my utter exhaustion from working far to many hours on my feet selling t-shirts to rabid tourists all clamoring for souvenirs to commemorate their vacations on Cape Cod. For the past few weeks, I have been held hostage inside a busy shop on Main Street instead of lounging on the beach and creating concoctions in the kitchen.  It's sad, very sad.
That is why I had to resort to the simplest but by far the best method of all to enjoy these sweeties before Ava swooped into the kitchen to snatch another and another into her mouth, her fingers already stained red from their juices, revealing her thievery.
But first, I called Val to make sure she would be available to partake.  After all, I have her to blame for introducing this decadent recipe when my sister, brother and I were children.  Of course she would make a stop over after a long day of painting the trim on her house, her arms smeared with green paint, her body exhausted, she would not miss enjoying this treat that truly comes but once a year. As it can only be reproduced with the finest, local, fresh and sweet berries, the kind that are as deep red on the inside as they are on their surface.  The window of opportunity is short especially this year as many strawberry crops in the area were hampered by the rough snowy winter of 2015.
Val arrived as I cleared away the dinner dishes and placed small glass bowls on the table.  We sliced the berries into each dish and sprinkled them with sugar.  Next, each portion received a splash of cold, heavy cream.  We ate the soft berries floating in their rich bath in silence only to pause to add a bit more sugar or cream to taste. 
I realized in that moment, it all works out: the oven, the job, the moment I happened upon the strawberries at the farmers' market that very afternoon.  It all came to together.  The simplest of desserts.  The simplest moment.  Divine.