December 16, 2010

a DIY Christmas

Homemade gifts are my favorite kind. I love giving them and I love receiving them. I've been making gifts to give to friends and family almost every year since high school when I used to bake my mom's sugar cookies for my girlfriends who looked forward to them every year. There were some cute button boxes that I gave to all my female relatives one year. And the batik teddy bears that I made another year. And of course many people have received my baked goods over the years. A couple of years ago we collected the walnuts that had fallen all over our neighborhood and made walnut liqueur which I poured into pretty glass bottles and gave to friends and family.

It seems things have been tight financially for as long as I can remember, which is always a good reason not to go crazy with the Christmas consumerism. But financial woes notwithstanding, I still think I would give homemade gifts even if money were not an issue for me. I just enjoy the process of making things and the feeling of giving something that was made with love.

I had fantasies of making artisan chocolates this year. D's mom gave me a silicone chocolate mold for Christmas last year and I have been dying to use it. But tempering chocolate so that it reaches just the right temperature to harden after melting can be tricky and I just didn't have the time this year to experiment.

So I settled on making jams. All you need is some fruit, some sugar and a little bit of time. I made about 14 jars to give away of three different kinds: grapefruit marmelade (from a recipe by Nigella Lawson, it's made with brown sugar and molasses); cranberry-blackberry which is sweet and tart; and pear jam with just the right amount of vanilla bean to give it some depth of flavor.

I had fun deciding what to make and cooking and jarring the jams, but what I really enjoy is decorating the jars with cute labels, festive ribbons and unique tags. I downloaded the labels for free from 100layercake, a cool DIY wedding blog and then printed them on avery labels. Get them here.

I set up a craft table in my dining room and stocked it with all the wrapping paper scraps, recycled ribbon, scissors, glue, gift tags and inspiring magazines I could find. I spent very little money, had tons of fun and now have all my Christmas gifts done. It sure beats going to the mall!

Oh- and today was baking day. I made several dozen cookies with my friend Rachel to give away and take home to my family next week. We made gingerbread boys, linzer cookies and pizzelles... but that's another post. Happy Holidays!

November 30, 2010

sweet potatoes + pie = rainy day fun

We woke up to a very dark, rainy day today with the temperature dropping into the 40s as the day goes on. I love the winter because it makes me feel like staying home and nesting, decorating the tree like I did yesterday, or cooking a few things that can be frozen for later --to give as gifts or serve up for an easy weeknight dinner.

root veggie dauphinois

I have a lot of root veggies in my pantry right now, all beauties from our CSA: potatoes, sweet potatoes, gigantic pink turnips, parsnips and radishes. I love root veggies because they seem so daunting and a lot of recipes for them are really boring and uninspired. So they present a challenge which inspires me to make something great out of them.

My friend Ellen posted this wonderful recipe on her blog, which she found on design sponge last week. It's for a gratin daupihois (just a cheesy, creamy potato dish) made with turnips and sweet potatoes as well as regular potatoes. The recipe actually comes from the beautiful blog la tartine gourmande.

I loved the photos of those beautiful pink turnips next to the orange sweet potatoes, all of it enveloped in the cheesy, golden brown crust that is the marking of a great gratin. I happened to have everything I needed in the house and more. I actually made two of them, one to eat tonight and one to freeze and give to my friend who will have a baby soon.

coconut-sweet potato pie with spiced crust

I still had sweet potatoes staring at me from the counter. Then, I remembered I had seen this beauty on the nytimes last week as an alternative to the traditional thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Oh, don't make me make this, I said. And with the delicious sweet potatoes from the farmer! I didn't actually make the spiced crust (which sounded amazing) because I had a purchased (!) graham cracker crust in the fridge and wanted to save time.

I should serve this tonight for dessert but I don't think I'm going to make it that far. It is sitting on the counter now, filling my kitchen with the most fragrant sweet potato, spices and coconut smell. How can I resist having a warm slice with my coffee this afternoon?

Who said rainy days had to be boring?

November 22, 2010

surprisingly good green tomato soup

I continue to be amazed at how time is passing by without letting up. My little girl is almost 5 mos. old and changing everyday and here we are already the week of Thanksgiving and I'm still posting about tomatoes! But, alas, life is moving way too quickly and I am trying to enjoy it in the present and not worry about the rest. Time is relative as long as you are happy in the moment. And I'm happiest in my kitchen with my little Junebug watching me cook.

I recently had an overabundance of green tomatoes on my hands and did not know what to do with them. I made fried green tomato sandwiches once and they were tasty, but once the novelty wears off, they are not as exciting as they sound.

So I found this-- a recipe for Green Tomato Soup with bacon and brioche croutons. I see it is from last year which means I must have saved it and never got around to making it until now. But am I glad I did! It was an unexpectedly great soup that was both easy to make and very yummy. Not the usual random-dish-I-made-to-use-up whatever ingredient.

The bacon is a nice smoky counterpart to the tartness of the green apples. And the croutons --any kind will do--offer a good textural bite that complements the soup. This would go really well as a first course for dinner, or as a perfect lunch alongside some grilled cheese sandwiches.

Next year when my tomato plants over-produce at the END of the summer and into the Fall when it's too cold for them to ripen (arrgggh) I will at least know what to do with them.

October 11, 2010

spaghetti and meatballs

(photo courtesy of

In my half Italian-American family we always ate spaghetti and meatballs on Sundays. It was my dad's favorite and my mom learned hers from her Italian relatives, of course. They hailed from the South of Italy so it was similar to this recipe- a smooth and velvety red sauce that drenches the pasta and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. It's not super complicated, it's not fussy, and it might not even be considered real Italian by some, but rather the kind of hybrid dish synonymous with Italian immigrants in America and served all over in "Italian" restaurants. But those are usually not that good. This one, I can attest, is really, really good.

It's not often that I lift a recipe, word for word, from a magazine and make it in my kitchen and then post about it. Granted, I read food magazines a lot and like to try out new recipes all the time. I usually like to tweak them, however, to fit my tastes, or combine several recipes, or sometimes just use something I see for inspiration and create something totally new.

But this one was so good and so perfect just the way it is, I had no need to change it and really just wanted to share it with everyone. You need to make this spaghetti and meatballs recipe. Now. I don't care if you've been making the same 'gravy' and meatballs your mom or your nonna have made for the last 40 years. I don't care if you make a sauce that simmers all day on the stove because you think that makes it taste better. And I don't care how many pasta sauces you've perfected over the last twenty years of traveling to Italy (that last one was for me).

This sauce and these meatballs are perfection on a Sunday afternoon in the fall when you have other things to do besides slave over the stove. It's quick, it's easy and it is so deliciously satisfying. Serve it to your family, to your neighbors, make it for your dinner share or your kid's birthday. This recipe is so family-friendly (I can't believe I'm writing that, but hey, I'm starting to think that way now, I can't help it). Besides, it's Molly Wizenberg's from her "Cooking Life" column, which I love, and she knows a thing or two about comfort food.

And for me to go all Italian-American on you like this is really unheard of. So take advantage of my light-hearted and forgiving mood and get over to --or even better, buy this month's magazine so you can have it forever-- and MAKE THIS RECIPE!

September 17, 2010

two end-of-summer salads and a dessert

This summer seems to have blown right by me. Granted, being pregnant and then having a baby at the beginning of it could possibly be the reason. But still, life seems to be just getting back to some sort of new normal and the season is about to change. I've missed out on some cooking! I have to say, though, that the record heat and humidity we've had in the South makes me long for the cool evenings and brisk morning temperatures of Fall, which is just around the corner.

On the other hand, I am still loving the tastes of late summer, like fresh farmer's market peaches and juicy watermelon. I recently made two delicious salads and a last-minute easy dessert that were some of the best things we've eaten lately.

The first salad is a black-eyed pea and butter bean salad, inspired by one I saw in the September issue of Food and Wine which is devoted to Southern food. I live in the South and I have experimented with black-eyed peas only one other time and that was for the traditional Hoppin' John New Years dish. It was okay, but I still didn't love them. This salad, however, made me a convert.

I had been given a mixed bag of butter beans and black-eyed peas last year by a sweet old neighbor friend. She often comes over unannounced bearing gifts from her garden which she knows I appreciate. This, however, was one that I threw into the freezer, not knowing what to do with these two staples of the Southern pantry but too embarrassed to tell her. A few weeks ago, I pulled them out and made this salad.

black-eyed pea salad

It was created by Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie in a feature on meatless dishes. Here is the recipe. I pretty much stuck to it and it was delicious. Initially, I didn't want to take the time to cook the ingredients in the salad first, like roasting the peppers and sauteeing the onions and celery. It seemed like too much work for a salad. But the flavors of cooked vegetables are so much more interesting and really deepen the notes in this dish that ended up being more like a main than a salad.

peach-watermelon salad

The second salad I just made up and it was so yummy, on its own for lunch, or alongside grilled chicken or steak for dinner. It combines the sweet and salty flavors of peaches, watermelon, mozzarella and herbs. In addition to the fruit, I added a little lime juice, some fresh herbs like parsley and basil, a little olive oil and some honey drizzled over the top. I may have also added some heat in the form of one diced jalapeno at the last minute. YUM. I will make this one again to bring to an outdoor party or cook-out. It was so easy but also satisfying and complex.

individual peach cobblers

And lastly, this is something I came up with in a last-minute dessert craving after some meal I don't even remember. I had two peaches lying around so I peeled, cored and sliced them and tossed them in a bowl with 1/4 cup of flour, a tablespoon of cornstarch, some sugar, the juice of half a lemon and a pinch of salt. Can you see where I'm going with this? I then pulled out some little frozen tea biscuits that someone else had purchased because I always make my own (ha ha), spooned the peach mixture into 3 ramekins, placed two biscuits on top of each and sprinkled raw sugar on top. Baked in the oven at 350 for 30 minutes, they came out looking fabulous and, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, tasted even better.

August 31, 2010

Rustic Peach Cake

When you have a newborn in the house, finding the time to cook, much less bake, takes on a whole new meaning. You basically have to seize the free time whenever you can while the baby's sleeping or being entertained by her dad. Those moments are precious and other things like taking a shower often take precedence. But recently, I used my free hour to bake a beautiful rustic summer cake.

This recipe is one I found in Cook's Illustrated 'American Classics' which is on newsstands now. I was immediately drawn to it for two reasons: peaches are at their peak right now and who doesn't love peaches? And, because it is really, really easy.

This rustic peach cake, like many sweets that I see in Italy, is just the kind of cake I love: not too sweet, not fussy, made with simple ingredients, like fresh fruit, that can be eaten anytime of day. My personal favorite is in the morning with a homemade cappuccino made with local roaster Drew's Brews Zappia family espresso. Or, as a late-night snack with a glass of Hatcher family dairy whole milk. Yum. I plan to save this recipe and use it all year long, replacing the peaches with whatever is in season. It would be great with apples (like this torta di mele), pears, plums or dried fruit in the winter.

This cake is so good and so un-sweet, therefore not too guilt-inducing (there's only a 1/2 cup of sugar in the recipe) that this is all that was left 24 hours after I made it.

Rustic Peach Cake, from C.I., American Classics

1 cup a.p. flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt

Mix until light:
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c brown sugar
8 T unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs
2 T sour cream (or whole milk)
1 t vanilla extract

Then add flour mixture to egg mixture and mix on low until just combined. Pour into greased and floured cake pan.

For peaches:
peel, pit and slice 2 medium peaches and toss with 1/4 c sugar and 1/2 t cinnamon then arrange in a circular pattern around the edge and in the middle of cake.
(*Tip: scattering some chopped, dried apricots or peaches over the batter before arranging the fresh peaches on top will soak up the excess peach juice and eliminate a soggy cake top, but this is kind of fancy and is optional.)

Bake @ 350 for about 35-40 min. I used a 9-in cake pan, but you could use a springform or any kind of cake pan for this.

August 5, 2010

Sweet corn pesto pasta

It is a delight to be back in the kitchen at the same time as my CSA basket is overflowing with the abundant produce of summer. We have more corn, summer squash, basil and fresh herbs than we know what to do with. Tomatoes are still at a premium and we've lost 100% of ours to the squirrels in the backyard, but I've managed to get my hands on a few heirlooms here and there.

Because of the generosity of so many of our friends and family, we enjoyed many great meals dropped off at our house in the weeks following June's birth. Now, though, I am craving some of my mainstay dishes, like pasta with fresh summer veggies.

As we've had more than 50 consecutive days of 90+ degree weather this summer, cooking has of necessity become quick sauteeing, blanching or cold, fresh ingredients only. This pasta dish was a perfect example. I made a batch of pesto first, then sauteed fresh corn in a little olive oil and added red onion and a bunch of herbs from my garden: thyme, basil, oregano. After combining the corn and the pesto and adding a little of the pasta cooking water to thin it out, I added some fresh tomatoes to give it color and grated fresh pecorino cheese on top.

Simple, summery and delicious served with a cucumber salad on the side and a big glass of cold white wine.

July 25, 2010

Junebug arrives!

So here is what I've been cooking... a little Junebug. June Marilyn was born on June 27th and took her time in coming. She came a week late, and not without much difficulty, proving that good things come to those who wait.

I made her a birthday cake on the day before I went into labor. I didn't know she would be a girl, but I made a girlie kind of cake anyway (mother's instinct): a "Pan di Spagna" traditional Italian spongecake with pastry cream filling and lemon scented whipped cream. We ate it and toasted her birth with friends in the hospital room.

It's been four weeks since her birth and I'm slowly getting back into cooking. I made a peach-blueberry cobbler with local peaches a friend brought. And yesterday I made a beautiful '3 beet salad' with chioggia, red and yellow beets from our farm CSA. Dotted with Kentucky sheep's cheese and shreds of basil and drizzled with olive oil, it was the perfect lunch on a really hot day.

So while adjusting to life with baby, bear with me if the posts don't roll in as quickly. I'm still getting my 'kitchen legs' back. But the bounty of summer awaits. And so do many meals prepared lovingly with my little Junebug in one arm. Thanks for waiting for us!

May 27, 2010

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

I know it has been a looooong time since I posted here. The excuse is one that I've been using a lot lately--at the grocery store when I need help out with my bags, in the parking lot when I park in the closest space that's not really a space, at night when I can't reach the remote control that's 6 inches away, and basically any time I need a break. I'm pregnant!! and it works. People are so accommodating and nice to you. So, while I don't think I've abused it, I have been getting extra special treatment lately because there is no denying based on my huge watermelon-shaped belly that I am a very expectant woman. Indeed, this baby could come any day now!

So that's not to say that I have not been cooking and eating and entertaining a little bit. It's just that a lot of our meals have not been blog-worthy and a lot of times, I just can't be bothered with the extra step of taking blog-worthy photos or of sitting down to write. But things are picking up and the blog is going to soon undergo some major changes and I look forward to getting back into it as my life allows.

In the meantime, here's a quick recipe for one of my recent favorite go-to desserts: strawberry rhubarb crumble. I've brought it to several parties lately, made it for us for no special occasion (it's one of my man's favorite things) and it is always so good, served warm out of the oven with or without a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's such a forgivable recipe, too, that even non-bakers cannot go wrong with this one.

Although strawberries and rhubarb have already hit their peak and given way to other seasonal fruits, any of the fruits of summer like peaches, blueberries, blackberries and plums are perfect for this cobbler. Use whatever you have and whatever is in season--in any combination that suits your taste buds-- and it will be delicious. A crumble (also known as a crisp or a cobbler) is pretty open to interpretation and I have many recipes, but this one just happens to be my most recent version. I love the addition of toasted hazelnuts (almonds or walnuts would work equally well) to the crumb topping. It gives it a nice crunchy and nutty flavor that most flour-sugar-butter toppings lack.

Strawberry and rhubarb crumble (adapted from Bon Appetit May 2010)


* 3/4 cup all purpose flour
* 2/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar
* Large pinch of salt
* 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
* 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
* 1/2 cup husked hazelnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
* 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
* 1 pound strawberries, hulled, halved (about 4 cups)
* 12 ounces rhubarb (preferably bright red), ends trimmed, stalks cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pieces
* Vanilla ice cream (optional)


*Combine flour, 2/3 cup sugar, and salt in medium bowl; whisk to blend. Add butter. Rub in with fingertips until mixture sticks together in clumps. Mix in oats and nuts. DO AHEAD Topping can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill.
*Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter 11x7x2-inch glass baking dish. Place 1/2 cup sugar in large bowl. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; whisk to blend well. Add strawberries and rhubarb to sugar in bowl; toss to coat well. Scrape fruit filling into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle oat topping evenly over filling.
*Bake crumble until filling bubbles thickly and topping is crisp, about 45 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Spoon warm crumble into bowls. Serve with ice cream if desired.

April 15, 2010

Soupe au pistou

Here I am again! It really has proven difficult lately to get inspired in the kitchen. I'm still baking a lot, but how many cakes do you really want to see? It's not that I'm not cooking either, but we are doing things more simply around here. Not as much entertaining (I can barely stay up past 9:30) and just doing the nesting thing as we prepare for the arrival of baby in June. :-)

But that doesn't change the fact that glorious Spring --long awaited here in Nashville this year--has finally arrived. All of a sudden everything is green, flowering, beautiful and warm. My garden is just getting started. I have strawberries in pots and garlic that I planted in the Fall sprouting up at the edge of the garden.

And, of course, the hearty, meaty stews of Winter have given way to lighter fare using the bounty of Spring vegetables available now. This soup is one of my favorite Spring staples. I look forward to making it every year at this time. It is so nutritious and satisfying, not to mention beautiful to look at.

Soupe au pistou is a Provencal tradition, its roots seem very rustic French to me: green beans, potatoes and pasta are all part of the mix. It could also include white beans. The 'pistou' refers to the pesto that is drizzled on each bowl of soup before serving. Just look at the bounty: I counted 8 different veggies in mine! Swiss chard, carrots, celery, garlic, leeks, zucchini, green, beans and potatoes.

Because everything is so fresh, it takes a bit prepping and it can be done ahead of time, but this soup doesn't need to cook very long --just long enough to soften the vegetables and cook the pasta al dente, but not so much that the veggies lose their vibrant green color. So it really is easy to make. We did it on a weeknight when we were out and didn't start dinner until almost 8:00. I had, however, done the work of chopping the veggies earlier, which is key.

Soupe au pistou (adapted from an old Gourmet recipe, but Ina Garten has a good one too, or make up your own!)

1 large leek, washed and thinly sliced
1 celery rib, cut into 1/2 in pieces
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2 in pieces
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large thyme sprig (if it's in your garden)
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lb potatoes (Yukon gold are great), cut into 1/2 in pcs.
1/2 lb swiss chard, stems cut small and leaves roughly chopped
8 cups water
1/2 lb zucchini, cut into 1 in pcs.
1/4 lb green beans, cut into 1 in pcs.
3/4 c small pasta shells, whole wheat if you prefer

For pistou:
use your favorite pesto, one that you made last summer, or:
1 small tomato
1 cup packed basil leaves
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 T e.v.o.o.
1 cup of parmigiano, pecorino or gruyere cheese

(Throw everything but the oil and cheese in a food processor and blend, then stir in the oil and cheese by hand).

After washing and chopping all the veg, start by cooking the leek, carrot, celery and garlic in the oil with salt and pepper in a big, heavy pot, stirring occasionally, until veg brown and stick to the bottom of the pot, about 10-15 min.

Add potatoes and chard stems with 1/2 t salt and cook about 5 min, or until beginning to soften. Add water and bring to a boil, stir in zucchini, green beans, chard leaves, pasta and more salt and simmer, uncovered, until pasta is al dente and veggies are tender, about 10 min.

Discard thyme sprig, remove from heat, stir in half the pistou and salt and pepper to taste. Serve soup with remaining pistou and crusty baguette slices brushed with olive oil.

I promise this soup is Spring in a bowl! Enjoy.

March 16, 2010

three healthy (veggie) dishes

From English trifle to... brussells sprouts? Not as far-fetched as you think. After all, being pregnant means you crave all kinds of weird things but most of all, it's important to eat a healthy diet and wide variety of things. So lately, my sweet man has been looking up healthy recipes and stepping up his weeknight cooking and I couldn't be happier. If it were up to me some nights, I'd eat pickles and ice cream and throw in some popcorn for good measure. Not my usual fare, I know, but like I said, your relationship with food takes on a whole new meaning when you've got a bun in the oven.

So, here are three really good dishes we tried recently, one of which is an old standby of mine, and two were newly found recipes.

The first one comes from one of our favorite cookbooks: The Silver Spoon, Italy's version of the Joy of Cooking. It's 1200-page tome that will make your head spin but it's also organized extremely well by ingredient and color coded with each recipe only a few lines long. Very simple and very user-friendly (read: perfect for baby daddys-in-training). It was easy, very healthy and very tasty.

garbanzo bean and spinach soup (adapted from The Silver Spoon)

5 cups veg., meat or chicken stock (pref homemade, but low-sodium if not)
2 T olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cups spinach, chopped
1 cup canned or dried and cooked garbanzo beans
1 cup whole wheat soup pasta (elbows or other small pasta)
salt and pepper

Bring the stock to boil in a pan. Heat oil in another pan, add the onion, carrot and celery and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes until softened. Add the spinach, season with salt and cook for a few minutes more. Add the garbanzo beans and stock and simmer for 20-30 min. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Season with pepper, drizzle with olive oil and serve. (Also great sprinkled with fresh grated parmigiano before serving).

The second recipe is my version of Italian style brussells sprouts. The only thing that makes them Italian is the parmesan cheese, which could be left out if you prefer. I love brussells sprouts and they happen to have protein, folic acid, lots of Vitamin D and A and are just plain good for you. So we cooked them up to go along with the garbanzo bean and spinach soup and they were a deliciously crunchy side dish alongside the steamy soup.

Brussells sprouts my way

1 lb of brussells sprouts
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
fresh-grated parmigiano cheese
salt and pepper

Prepare a pound of brussells sprouts by washing and cutting them in half lengthwise. Then heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet. (you could make these healthier by omitting the butter, but the butter really is what makes them so delicious). Place the b.s. cut side down in the hot butter-oil mixture, turn up the heat and let them get nice and brown, for about 5-7 min. When they are brown on one side, add a splash of water to the pan just to steam them through, put the lid on the pan and cook gently until tender, but not soft, when pierced with a fork. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and freshly grated parmigiano and serve them while piping hot.

stir fried tofu with red cabbage and butternut squash

The final healthy dish we loved was from Martha Rose Shulman's "Recipes for Health" series in the New York Times. My midwife said I should be getting more protein since I don't eat a lot of meat. So we looked for protein-rich foods and found this recipe in the Fitness and Nutrition section of the Times (a great resource for simple, healthy recipes). This is definitely a dish we'll return to and it could be modified in lots of ways. The recipe says to serve with grains or noodles and we chose red quinoa for it's protein-richness and nutty taste.

But the next day I ate some leftovers served over soba noodles and it was equally tasty. A bright and colorful dish that packs a lot of nutrients and tastes great. What more could you need? The recipe? Here it is.

March 2, 2010

a proper English trifle

I've always wanted to make one. It's a dessert that appeals to both my fondness for culturally specific foods, and my love of all things creamy. Desserts that combine fruit, cake, custard and whipped cream cannot be anything but delicious, now can they?

I started ogling big glass trifle bowls a couple of years ago, wondering if I should splurge for the perfect one at Williams-Sonoma not too long ago. But then I decided it was foolish to buy a bowl that really only served one purpose. A proper trifle bowl apparently has straight sides instead of round and has a platform base, the better to see the beautiful layers in this rich dessert.

I wanted to make one for a dinner party so I did what I usually do when I need something but don't want to spend lots of money: I headed to my local thrift store. Lo and behold, there was a perfect big glass bowl for only $3.99. I would finally get to make my English trifle!

Besides doing it ahead of time so it has time to chill overnight, it's pretty easy to make. There are millions of trifle recipes out there but I found one for cherry trifle in Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess. I love her easy-going, laid back approach to things. She recommends using any kind of bowl large enough to hold it, and either store-bought ladyfingers or "any stale cake lying around."

I happened to have a 6-in round almond cake in the freezer that was left from the wedding cake testing. Perfect. I bought some mixed berry jam and some strawberries and already had the morello cherries in the fridge. All I need to make were the custard and the whipped cream topping.

Cherry Trifle (adapted from Nigella Lawson)


* 1 pound cake or 8 store-bought ladyfingers
* 1/2 cup cherry or other berry jam
* 1/2 cup cherry brandy plus 1 split vanilla bean
* 2 cups drained bottled cherries (recommended: Morello)
* 1 cup strawberries (if desired)


* 1 1/3 cups whole milk
* 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
* 8 egg yolks
* 1/4 cup sugar


* 2 1/4 cups heavy cream
* 1 T cherry jam
* juice of 1/2 lemon
* 3 T slivered almonds
* 1 T water


Make the brandy-vanilla infusion by bring 4 T brandy to a boil with split vanilla bean, then boil for 2 min until thickened. Remove from heat and set aside.

Slice the pound cake and make jam sandwiches with the cherry jam, and layer the bottom of a large wide trifle bowl. Pour over the vanilla brandy so that the cake soaks it up, and then top with the drained cherries (and strawberries). Cover with cling wrap and leave to macerate while you make the custard.

In a saucepan warm the milk and cream. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Pour the warm milk and cream into the bowl whisking it into the yolks and sugar mixture, and pour the custard back into the saucepan. Cook over a medium heat until the custard thickens, stirring all the time. Make sure it doesn't boil, as it will split and curdle. Keep a sink full of cold water so that if you get scared you can plunge the bottom of the custard pan into the cold water and whisk like mad, which will avert possible crisis.

Once it is ready, pour into a bowl to cool and cover the top of the custard with cling wrap to prevent a skin from forming.

When the custard is cold, pour and spread it over the fruit and cake layer in the trifle bowl, and leave in the refrigerator to set, covered in cling wrap overnight, or for at least 12 hours.

When you are ready to decorate, softly whip the cream for the topping and spread it gently over the layer of custard. Then toast almonds for a few minutes and make syrup by heating and stirring the cherry jam, lemon juice and water over medium heat until thickened. Let cool slightly. Drizzle cherry syrup over whipped cream and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Serves about 10 people, or makes lots of leftovers!

Bring to the table in a flourish of oohs and ahhs and dig in. People will definitely have seconds of this delicious dessert. Cheers!

February 16, 2010

Sweet and spicy penne with cauliflower

I found this recipe on a really cute blog called Pink of Perfection. I love her tagline: "A thrifty girl's guide to the good life." I admit I have had to be much more thrifty than usual lately. So much so that my dinner parties have almost ceased to exist. But I got the idea from her to do a dinner for 8 people for $50. That's right. $50. Tips she shared and implemented were not going too heavy on the apps and asking guests to bring the beverages. And it worked! I threw a birthday dinner for my friend and 8 others (okay, so I went a little over with the guests) and spent around $60 total. I made spaghetti with meatballs, a big spinach salad and two kinds of cupcakes for dessert. People could not have been happier. So, thanks, Pink, for the inspiration and the tips on how to scale it down. After all, comfort food is always a winner and so is keeping things simple.

Thus my new favorite pasta dish, also from Pink of Perfection by way of How to Cook Everything. If you don't mind linking away (but not yet!) you'll find the recipe here.

I've made it twice and not only is it really economical (a $5 dish), it's really tasty too. There is nothing better in winter than the spicy zing of red chili flakes, garlic and oil, combined with mashed anchovies, cauliflower and golden raisins thrown in for a little sweetness. These flavors really do something to lift the mood in winter, while showcasing a great (and under-appreciated) winter vegetable like cauliflower. Recently I've been seeing this curious yellow cauliflower in the grocery store and I'm hoping it didn't get that way because of some weird genetic engineering. I like the way it adds color to an otherwise boring palette and the taste is somehow milder than regular cauliflower.

I've made this dish once with whole wheat pasta (originally called for in the recipe) and once with regular pasta. We preferred the regular pasta but the whole wheat made us feel more virtuous. I figure, with the amount of pasta that we eat in my house, it wouldn't hurt us every once in while to switch to a whole wheat version. But the only kind I like and buy is Barilla brand. In my limited experience with "healthy" pastas, I like theirs the best.

Feel free to kick up the dish even more and add more anchovies, more chili flakes and lots of fresh-grated parmigiano at the end. And, for another recipe using this combination of garlic, oil, chili and anchovies (and cauliflower too!), see my "orecchiette from Puglia" post. There's nothing like Southern Italian flavors to spice up the middle of winter.

February 4, 2010

Birthday Cakes

I recently was asked by a friend to bake three different birthday cakes for a party she was hosting. Three different people, three different ages and three different tastes.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I love to bake. I bake a lot. And I even sometimes sell what I bake! It is a funny thing to take something that is a hobby that you love doing for yourself and your loved ones and turn it into a business, however small that business may be. I enjoy the process of baking, but even more I think enjoy making things for people that I know will make them happy. So I put a lot of work into these cakes. And I think they were really appreciated. My friend emailed me the next day to tell me they were a big hit at the party and a great conversation piece.

One of them was a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. It's a great recipe from my baker/partner Tom and it has walnuts and spices and comes out very dense and moist. The frosting is the best part: loaded with cream cheese and butter and flecked throughout with orange zest to give it a little color.

I colored some of the frosting with some edible orange decorating powder and piped some little carrots. For the leaves I used parsley and for the numbers, I had some fruit jelly candies on hand left over from Christmas and I cut an orange one into strips to form the number 35. I loved the bright orange color and I'm sure they tasted good too!

For the next cake, for my friend's husband, she requested his favorite kind of cake: vanilla with mocha buttercream frosting. I had never made a buttercream frosting but thought I could just add a little bit of espresso and some chocolate to plain buttercream and it would do the trick. Not only did the color seem great but it tasted so good. Yes, I licked the bowl.

I kept the decorations simple and masculine for him, piping chocolate ganache dots and just the numbers. I may have added a few squiggly lines here and there at the last minute after I took the photo, but left it pretty sparse. She said he loved it.

The last cake was requested as well: red velvet with cream cheese frosting. I'm not gonna lie, this one was decorated by Tom who is an excellent cake decorator and helps me out from time to time, thus the more frilly piping and perfectly executed borders. But it turned out that this cake was for a girl who likes frilly things so it all worked out in the end.

While this was a paid assignment, I enjoyed it as much as if I were making a cake for my family or my best friend. I think that's the key to making quality products that people will love. If you'd make something with love for your favorite person or yourself, why would you make it any differently for a customer?

I'm making a cake and some cupcakes for a dinner party this weekend for my friend's birthday. I know she'll love whatever I make for her, but I'll enjoy the process just as much. I'm thinking coconut-vanilla cupcakes or chocolate-buttermilk cake with raspberry filling.... mmmm

January 21, 2010

Soups for the Winter blahs

Unless you live in Brisbane, Australia like my good friends Zala and Mark who are enjoying 90 degree beach weather right now (jealous)...

it's the dead of winter in most places. Arguably, this is the most depressing week of the year. The cold, the lack of adequate sunshine and the short days of January combine to make it a pretty dreary month. This must be why so many people look forward to the Superbowl. And after that, at least this year we have the Winter Olympics, my personal favorite t.v. event.

Televised sporting events aside, I have my own ways of brightening up the long winter days in my house. I just heard the local weather lady say we have "a wintry mess" coming up in Nashville over the next few days. This means two things: that schools will close and people will freak out over an inch of snow; and I need to get busy making soups and stews.

All month I've been experimenting with my usual soup recipes. Some of my old standbys include turkey chili, spicy lentil soup and a hearty beef stew. Every time I make one of them, I add or subtract something or do something slightly different.

For example, I used to make a vegetarian lentil soup, which I love. But this year I saw a recipe for lentil soup with spicy sausage and thought I'd give it a try. The hot Italian sausage was the perfect complement to the tomatoes and vegetables. The recipe I used is from this month's bon appetit.

It was a well balanced soup and very healthy (lentils are a great source of fiber, not to mention a fortuitous food-- they are traditionally eaten in Italy on New Year's Day for good luck). I really liked the addition of spinach at the end too, just wilted enough to offer another texture to the soup and a good balance of flavors.

My first beef stew of the winter started off with a nice 3 lb chuck roast that I purchased from Whole Foods. I used a recipe from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food as a guide and made a few changes. She calls for using bacon as an added flavor enhancer, but I didn't have any and thought the smokiness might be unnecessary. I was going for a straight-forward carrot, onion and red wine kind of stew.

The aromatics were put into the pot after browning the meat and removing it. I then added herbs such as parsley and thyme, bay leaf, a couple of whole cloves stuck into the onions, and a few whole peppercorns. After softening the veggies, I added the cubed beef back into the pot, raised the heat and added the wine, reducing it while scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pot.

I then added a small can of whole tomatoes with their juice, a thin strip of orange zest and two cups of beef stock (the orange and cloves were a nice touch). I let this simmer in my dutch oven, covered, on the stovetop for 2-3 hours. After adjusting for salt and pepper, I served it right out of the pot and it was yummy and spicy, but a little on the thin side. But still, a proper beef stew is hard to beat.

The next time I tried a different recipe, this one from my Jan-Feb Cook's Illustrated. They called it "The Best Beef Stew" so I had to try it. Again, I used a 2-3 lb grass-fed beef chuck roast I bought at W.F. I cut it into small 1-in. pieces before browning it on the stovetop. A curious thing about this recipe is that it called for a tomato paste, 2 cloves of garlic and four anchovies that I mashed up ahead of time and added to the beef instead of the canned tomatoes. It also called for 1/4 cup of flour for thickening. These two steps really made a difference in the final product: a rich, thick and very flavorful stew. It also used red wine and chicken stock as cooking liquids, onions and carrots, and yukon gold potatoes thrown in at the end, as well as a cup of frozen peas, added in the last 10 minutes of cooking.

The stew was cooked in a 300 degree oven for about 2 hours, then finished on the stove. The meat was done just right , the potatoes kept their shape and texture and the carrots and peas stayed in tact. I loved how all of the elements kept their integrity, including the meat which was tender, but didn't fall apart. This is because the stew cooks more evenly in the oven as opposed to the stovetop which can make some soups mushy. I'll definitely make this stew again. It was delicious the next day for lunch with a warm tortilla on the side.

So next time you find yourself in the midst of the winter doldrums, I suggest trading in the blues for the stews.