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Happy Holidays

Yule Log Cake (Bûche de Noël)

December 4, 2021

Among our family’s Holiday-making traditions, filling rooms with boughs of evergreen is one of the brightest and best.  As we bring armfuls of snowy branches in, there is freshness and chill, that wild citrusy conifer smell, and always, a swell of gratitude for nature’s provision. This celebratory cake, with its cute caps of meringue mushrooms, is a woodland fantasy in just that spirit.

In France, la bûche de Noël harks back to Medieval times and traditions. Then, placing a log on the hearth on Christmas Eve and burning it for three days was believed to bring good luck, and good harvest. Centuries later, cakes have replaced the log, with thousands of versions baked worldwide.

Like those, ours—a chocolate roll cake with vanilla mousse filling, light-chocolate buttercream and dark chocolate “bark”– conjures memories of favorite flavors from childhood.  An elevated Hostess Ho-ho perhaps?  Or Little Debbie Swiss Roll snack cake. We’ve included a recipe for crispy meringue mushrooms that fit the woodland motif and add a nice crunch when eaten with the cake.

To streamline assembly for when you bake the cake, the mushrooms, mousse and dark chocolate bark can be made ahead of time. The meringue needs to be made on a dry-weather day—rainy weather won’t work. And for best texture and flavor, you’ll want to refrigerate the finished cake at least an hour, and serve it very cold. Continue Reading…

Happy Holidays

Chocolate-Dipped Walnut Brittle

December 4, 2021

My Dad always loved English toffee, and kept it out of kids’ reach, high in a cupboard in the dining room, to ensure it would last a little longer. My homemade version is a walnut-studded brittle rich with molasses, dipped in dark chocolate, and sprinkled with more toasted nuts. My simple method for removing the walnut skin—rubbing the toasted nuts in clean tea towels–takes away the mouth-puckering tannins you sometimes get with walnuts.  To make the candy, you’ll need a candy thermometer to monitor the bubbling syrup until it reaches 300 degrees, the hard crack stage. Use any good quality melted dark chocolate for dipping—or milk chocolate, if you prefer. When cooled, store the finished brittle in an airtight container in the fridge, or high up in that cool cupboard—to make it last a little longer : )  For more Holiday treats? We’ve got lots to choose from. Try our Holiday Brandied Fruit & Nut Bars, Coffee and Molasses Dream Bars, Christmas Pudding, Mincemeat Tart, Grandma Bertha’s Apricot Delights, Marshall Fields’ Chinese Chews, Gingerbread Cookies, Old-Fashioned Butter Cookies, Lutz’s Raspberry Nut Bars, or Jam Tart Bar Cookies. Continue Reading…

Happy Holidays

Holiday Brandied Fruit & Nut Bars

December 3, 2021

My Mom had a pecan tree on the grounds of her childhood home in Houston. Long after she married and moved to Chicago to raise me and my sibs, Mom’s family sent a big box of pecans each year for the Holidays. How Mom beamed when she opened that box! Then, she pulled out a battered baking tin and set to work making a dark, rich, fruit and nut spice cake. This recipe is an easy-to-make updo of that, baked in a buttered 9 x 13-inch pan with loads of toasted pecans, plus brandy-soaked dried cranberries, Montmorency cherries, Thompson raisins, a smattering of plump prunes, and some candied orange bits. Buttery and chewy at the edges, and oh-so-tender in the middle, it is my favorite Holiday baked treat. It’s very good with a hot cup of tea, and even better with whiskey! For another delicious Holiday treat? Try our Chocolate-Dipped Walnut Brittle.

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Cookie Kitchen

Homemade Fresh Fig “Newtons”

November 16, 2021

When Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) saves his family in Harold Ramis’ 1995 comedy of the same name, it’s not without setbacks–the worst of them overcome with the aid of those cakey little comforts: Fig Newtons. Sulking in his bedroom after a blowout with his nasty boss, Stuart’s friends plead with him to emerge, to which he replies: “Come back later, maybe when I’ve run out of Fig Newtons.”

We can certainly relate : )

But Stuart would be shocked to know that Fig Newtons—at least in name—no longer exist: Nabisco dropped the “fig” from the title in 2012. Simply calling the cookies Newtons was thought to be a better fit, since the cakey little treats now came in different flavors. Today, that’s everything from Triple Berry, to Sweet Peach and Apricot, to Apple & Cinnamon, although fig is the enduring favorite.

The famous fig filling goes all the way back to the 1880s when Philadelphia baker Charles M. Roser sold his recipe to Boston-based Kennedy Biscuit company (later acquired the companies that merged to form Nabisco.) Kennedy Biscuit named the cookies Fig Newtons, after the town in Massachusetts, and the bars became wildly successful.

While homemade fig fillings can be made with dried figs, we prefer to use fresh figs, cooked with lemon, for a fruitier, more-flavorful result. While it takes a little practice to get the knack of folding the pastry around the fig filling, the result is worth it. One thing you should know: Fresh baked, the pastry is crisp—stored in an air-tight container, it tenders up the day after you bake these into the “cakey” cloak you expect. Continue Reading…

Vintage Veg

Roast Baby Squash with Spiced Butter

November 14, 2021

Poultry may be the big star this month, but vegetables make my culinary firmament sparkle. Before Midwest farmers markets bow out for the winter, they bring out squashes of all shapes and sizes, in colors that match the autumn leaves. This easy bake makes the most of their sweet tender flesh and whimsical shapes. To make it, you’ll need a variety of small squashes. I used small acorn, baby butternut, honeynut, uchiki kuri, and delicata. Cut in half, culled of seeds and pulp, and nestled in a roasting pan with sage, rosemary, thyme and spiced brown sugar butter, they bake up beautifully, to be served right out of the pan. If you have any left over, scoop out and whip the squash flesh for a delicious second go-around. Continue Reading…

American Classics

Fresh Sugar Pumpkin Cream Pie

November 3, 2021

Turns out those cute pumpkins you purchased for Fall decorating are very easy to bake into delicious fresh pumpkin pies. With names like Baby Bear, Cinderella and Early Sweet Sugar Pie, these 1 ½ to 2 pound darlings stand about six to eight inches tall, have sweet, dense flesh and were cultivated specifically for cooking and baking.  

Our Sugar Pumpkin Cream Pie is made with Sugar Pie pumpkin, although you can use one of the other varieties. Simply cut in half, culled of seeds and strings, and roast for 50 minutes, the little pumpkin yields the perfect amount of smooth flesh to make two pies. To make this dessert extra special, we’ve included maple sugar and cream in the mix, plus cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. You’ll separate the yolks from the whites of the eggs in the recipe, whipping the whites to soft peaks and then folding them in to the filling for a luscious velvety result. Continue Reading…

Soup Kettle

Chicken Vegetable Barley Soup

November 1, 2021

Chicken soup is good for the soul, yes—but it’s also so nourishing for the body. There are dozens of versions out there—with noodles, rice, dumplings and more. But this one, with barley and vegetables, is my healthy best.  To preserve texture, preventing the vegetables from getting too soft and the chicken too hard, I cook the chicken meat, carrot and celery separately from the simmering stock, stirring it in about 10 minutes before serving

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Pastalicious

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Browned Butter Sage Sauce

October 13, 2021

This autumnal treat is one of my favorite pasta dishes. Tender ravioli pillows filled with butternut squash, shallots, and savory parmesan are finished with browned butter and fresh sage from the garden. Friends in Northern Italy tell me this dish is served there throughout the Fall and Winter, even starring as the first course in Christmas Eve feasts. For the very best homemade pasta results, I’ve used semolina flour, made from first quality durum wheat. The high gluten content of this flour is what helps the pasta hold shape and texture. But it also requires strong hands to work the dough. I believe the effort is worth it. So, pour yourself a glass of wine, roll up your sleeves, and give it a go! Continue Reading…

Elegant Desserts

Panna Cotta with Wine Poached Pears

September 21, 2021

As far back as the 15th century, English cooks discovered that wine-poaching hard pears made them tender and tasty. One abbey had cooks: “Pare wardens (hard cooking pears) clean, seethe them in red wine till they be tender, then take them up and put them in a pot; put thereto wine of Crete or Vernage (Verona)…powder of sugar and powder of ginger and let them boil awhile and then serve forth.”

Paired with delicate vanilla panna cotta puddings, and a delicious syrup made by cooking down the spiced wine poaching liquid, poached pears make a delicious dessert. I love to make them for festive dinners, because you prepare the fruit, syrup and panna cottas ahead of time. Assembly at service is simply drizzling the syrup over the panna cottas and adding a pretty slice (or slices) of the pear on top. You’ll make the panna cottas in individual ramekins with some of the sliced pear. I like to serve a few of the beautiful whole poached pears on their own plate. For another recipe using the poached pears, try my wine-poached pear, goat cheese and rosemary tart.

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Spicy Good

Chili Con Carne with Homemade Chili Paste

September 13, 2021

One of my readers wrote in search of a recipe for bean-less chili that harkened back to her family’s Sunday dinners 25 years ago. Chili without beans is a-okay with me, so I worked up this richly flavored version made with beef skirt steak (you can also add a bit of bison steak if you have some) and loads of handmade chili paste. I use a combination of ancho, New Mexico, cayenne and arbol chilies for the paste, but you can vary the heat and flavor by experimenting with other varieties of dried chiles, such as pasilla or guajillo.

You’ll soak the dried peppers first. Then, brown the meat and simmer it to tenderness in the chili-soaking broth. Finally, blend the soaked peppers, garlic and spices to make the paste which you’ll add to the chili pot for a ½ hour more of simmering. That’s when the flavor really blooms! Not burn-your-mouth spicy, this beautiful chili has a deep, dark warmth.  It’s good plain or served over rice with chopped white onion and shredded cheddar. If you like chili-mac, be sure to try my mom’s recipe for that, too!

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