Favorites from 2016: Books.

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In 2016, my friend D and I sent each other monthly recaps of what we read and how we liked each book. It was so much fun… all credit goes to D for suggesting the idea and reminding me when it was time to send my (always late) email. I read 113 books last year: 27 cookbooks, 10 nonfiction titles, 14 short story collections and the rest novels. I think the discipline of looking back at each month helped me to be a better reader, a bold statement from a lifelong bibliophile. It wasn’t that I was racing to finish books so I could count them; more that I would push myself to read thoughtfully so I could write a good synopsis at the end. (Did I just justify book reports…?) So many books D read that I never would have looked for or considered went immediately into my to-read queue after reading her thoughts. She taught me about The Nix, my second favorite book of the year and best novel I’ve read in some time, and Miroslav Penkov, prompting me to pick up Stork Mountain. She gave me a reading copy of Mothering Sunday to devour on a warm summer afternoon; I remember lying on the balcony with my dog marveling at the intense emotion of this tiny novel.

It was a good year of reading, so narrowing down a favorites list to just ten books took some time, as I agonized over some of the books that didn’t make the cut. Anyone interested can see my full year of reading on Goodreads. Below are my ten favorite books of the year. These are the ones that pulled me in, held my attention, and they are the ones I am still thinking of months later. I read Hold Still last January, never expecting it would be the best of my reading year; I just couldn’t put another book ahead of it. (It’s fun to be surprised by your own reactions!) Many others also made my Summer Reading 2016 post, which you can read here. The first three books are my top three, but the rest are in no particular order.

Sally Mann, Hold Still

Hold Still by Sally Mann.
Yes, this is that Sally Mann. Here is my synopsis from last January, which captures exactly how I still feel:
“As a wide-eyed college senior, I discovered Sally Mann’s photography at the Bowdoin Museum of Art. I was told to be shocked by her work, but I thought they were some of the most beautiful images I had ever seen. I have been a fan since then. When I found this book, I expected it to be mostly a rehashing of her work as a photographer, and I was interested to read that– but what I actually got was so much more. This is one the best books I’ve ever read. Her control of language is almost as crisp as her control of still images, and we are treated to a dizzying number of photographs from Sally and her friends and relatives. Her family history is complicated, sometimes ugly, and full of passionate, driven, inventive men and women. There is discussion of art, of course, but also history, sociology, race relations, literature, mortality and love. I can not recommend this fervently enough.”

The Nix by Nathan Hill
My favorite novel of the year takes us between present day and 1968 Chicago, and yes, it is political, but it is so much more. Samuel, abandoned as a boy by his mother, is a writer/professor seeking reconciliation, but also a way to tell her story. Hill deftly introduces strange new characters to round out Samuel’s story: schoolmates with dark intentions, scheming students, long-lost love interests, radical hippies, and more. The book is witty, sometimes humorous, often painful, and a sharp commentary on perception vs. reality in regarding people, history, and events. My best praise: I did not want the story to end. I want to check on Samuel, see how he’s doing now. Yes, it is long and winding, but The Nix is a great, great read.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
So much hope! My lasting impression of Dreamers is a sense of hope and wonder, a sense that determination can pay off, and also that what you think you want may not be what you actually want. The story of a Cameroonian man in New York City trying to get citizenship and make a life for his family doesn’t rest on the tired stereotypes of life as a struggling immigrant, and feels so true and frank. It is not an easy story, and not always a happy one, but this novel is compelling and I loved it.

Samantha Hunt, Mr. Splitfoot

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
There’s no way around it– this one is weird. There are two storylines, one of which is a pregnant teenager walking for days with her mute aunt toward an unknown destination. The other is that aunt, as an orphaned child, forced to lead seances to bring money into her dysfunctional group home. If you’re still with me, let me say now that the intrigue of this novel is that Hunt gets the willing reader right on board with her, invested in the story so quickly that you must keep turning pages to see how it all plays out, where are they going, what will happen, who is Mr. Splitfoot?

Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
An epic novel set in Indonesia following Dewi Ayu and her four daughters. With nods to historical events, a heavy influence of magic realism and mysticism, and outright bawdy humor, I found this captivating and almost cinematic.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
This collection of short stories is unlike any I have ever read. Oyeyemi has such a distinct and unique voice, and she creates entire worlds for her readers; the settings are as detailed as the characters, a rare and impressive feat. This is a hard thing to describe… but I feel like her books are in three dimensions, where so many others are flat on the page. She employs drama, sadness, beauty and whimsy masterfully.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson
My Goodreads synopsis: “The main character, Miss Jane, was gracious, curious, adventurous, compassionate and loving. I would have read 1000 pages about her. She offered a not-entirely-subtle lesson that difference does not have to be hardship, solitude does not have to be sadness. Her father and the doctor were excellent characters. And there were peacocks.”

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
I wrote about this one at length in my Summer Reading post. I am still thinking about the main characters, tough-with-a-heart-of-gold Ryan and his damaged father, especially. At the time of reading I compared McInerney to Tana French and Kate Atkinson, and while I meant those comparisons as compliments, I would have to say honestly that Heresies eclipses the most recent offerings from both. Grab a copy if you haven’t already.

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock
Dark and stormy, raunchy and rough, Pollock’s novel is best described as a romp. For fans of Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, Larry Brown… and yet I imagine Mr. Pollock elbowing them out of the way to make space of his own. As he should. I was about 45 pages into this one when I decided to recommend it to my Dad, who loves McCarthy and enjoys the wit of Stephen King. As I read on, through heists and drunken mistakes and friendly prostitutes, I wondered if my recommendation was premature… but I stand by it. Yes, it’s raucous, but it is storytelling like I haven’t seen before and I like it.

Miroslav Penkov, Stork Mountain

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov
A beautiful, thoughtful novel about a young man returning from the United States to Bulgaria to find his grandfather and inquire about a tract of land. Along the way there is soul searching, shy love, family drama to reconcile, and a mystical story of the local storks and the dancers who celebrate their presence. I don’t know how to properly do justice to the emotion Penkov brings out of these pages.

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It’s so rewarding to look back on the year and remember where I was when I read some of these books– at the kitchen table at work for much of Hold Still, on the porch at camp for The Nix, in the airport at midnight with Beauty is a Wound– and how they made me feel both then and now. If this list, like the monthly recaps I do with D, encourages one person to pick up a book they might not have read otherwise… well, that will just be a cherry on top. I am excited to see what 2017 will bring. I have high hopes for Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward; Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill; Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; Difficult Women by Roxane Gay; The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami; The World to Come by Jim Shepard; and so many more.

What was your favorite book of 2016? What are you looking forward to reading this year?

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Here is the remainder of the longlist I whittled down to choose my top ten:

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Tender by Belinda McKeon

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Baked brie with honey-garlic sauce.

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I wish I could remember the exact when-and-where details of experiencing baked brie for the first time. For the original incarnation of the recipe I’m about to share with you, I remember my college roommate/best friend teaching me about it… but did she make it for me? Did she send me the recipe after we were living our grown up lives on different coasts? Do I associate it with B even though the recipe actually came from someone else…? I just can’t recall. It seems unlikely that two college kids were eating baked brie and toast, given our diet of primarily just-add-milk pasta in a pouch (with added peas) and chicken enchiladas. (We must have eaten other things. I don’t remember them.) But I’m off track here. If you ask me which recipes I learned from B, there are three quick and easy answers: curried chicken salad with dried cranberries (so good), homemade granola with apricots, and this baked brie with honey and garlic. I am prepared to give her all the credit, and soon you may be thanking her, too. This is a great recipe.

baked brie with honey-garlic sauce

Brie on it’s own is delicious: it’s mild, easy to spread and so creamy. When you add a little bit of melted butter, some garlic, a good squidge of honey, and heat, you transform a good thing into something dreamy. This is celebration food. Baked brie is the best part of a grilled cheese sandwich… plus more. Garlic plus butter makes me think garlic bread, and warmed honey is curative, I’m almost sure of it. (A note: any kind of honey will work, but I have been so excited to use the ghost pepper honey my Mom gave me for my birthday. It has a surprising kick of heat that is just perfect here.) Baked brie is melty and gooey, fun in the way fondue is fun, a crowd-pleasing centerpiece every time I have made and served it. It goes with crackers, bread, even apple and pear slices. You can make it fancy by adding toasted walnuts or pecans, dried cherries or cranberries, a sprinkle of fresh parsley… or leave it plain. Plain, with this recipe, is anything but. If you’re not planning to entertain anytime soon, don’t despair: baked brie and toast is a wonderful accompaniment to a mug of soup or a garden salad for a comforting midwinter meal.

This last week of December is always a strange week, food-wise. I find my refrigerator stuffed to overflowing with fancy leftovers from Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner: eggnog, 8-hour lamb ragout, roasted mushrooms, baked French toast, and more cocktail sauce than I will ever have shrimp to use. The cupboards are all full of candy and cookies, nothing more. I just barely muster the energy to cook dinner, and meal planning is out the window, so let’s eat another kind of soup, or eggs… yes, again, this has protein. (I can’t be alone here.) Then, like a shining light in the cheese cubby, I find some brie, and remember I have bread to toast, and there is hope. Baked brie saves the day. I’m going to make it for our friends for New Year’s Eve, and you should, too. We can celebrate our way right into next year with delicious gooey cheese. Happy New Year!

baked brie with honey-garlic sauce

Baked Brie with Honey-Garlic Sauce

  • 4 – 8 oz. brie
  • 3 T. unsalted butter
  • 1 large clove of garlic, crushed
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • parsley, toasted nuts, dried fruit to garnish
  • crackers, bread, sliced fruit to serve

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Find an ovensafe dish that is just about twice the size of the piece of brie you’re baking. Remove all plastic or other wrapping, but leave the rind on. If your brie is a round with no exposed cheese (completely covered in a rind), cut it in half and separate the halves. If you have wedges of brie, place them in the dish opposite each other so there is room on all sides.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Immediately add the garlic and cook for just a minute or so. Remove from the heat and stir in honey and salt, cayenne pepper if using. Pour the melted butter mixture evenly over your brie.

Bake for about 15 mins., until the center softens and begins to ooze out. Remove from the oven and garnish with chopped nuts, dried fruit and/or parsley. Serve warm, as-is, with toast, crackers or sliced fruit. To eat, use a knife to scoop out some of the melted cheese, and make sure to get some honey sauce on the way to your bread. Or, scoop out the gooey cheese into the sauce and serve as a (messy and really fun) dip. The baked rind is absolutely edible, if you are a brie rind fan.

Leftover cheese will keep, but is best warmed up again, and one reheat is about the max. So, plan to eat up that cheese on the first round if you can.

my favorite brie and honey for this recipe

Holiday traditions: chocolate tart.

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I fear I am running out of time to bake everything I like to bake in December. There are not enough hours in the day or sugar in the bin to revisit all the holiday treats I’ve created and enjoyed over the years. With that said, I will find time to make this chocolate tart. It’s a relatively new tradition in our family, introduced by my mother-in-law a few years ago. Christmas Day she joins us for dinner and our habit has been for me to make the entree and sides while she brings dessert. The first time she brought a chocolate tart, we all forgot about dinner. I honestly can’t remember what I served… but I remember every nuance of that slice of chocolate goodness.

I made some changes over the years to customize the recipe. I use a graham cracker crust, for ease, flavor and texture. (A standard pate sucree will work perfectly, too.) Sometimes I keep the tart plain; at other times I top with a few toasted crushed hazelnuts or almonds. One time I took it right over the top with candied pecans and a drizzle of caramel sauce to approximate a turtle candy. Divine! A friend of ours, after enjoying a slice (or two), gave me the ultimate compliment: “Keep this recipe.” I have always wanted to try a border of crushed candy canes; I love the combination of chocolate and peppermint. I think the reason I come back to this tart so often is that it can be adapted to suit any mood or occasion. It keeps beautifully and I never have to worry about how it will turn out.

If you are looking for a celebratory holiday dessert that won’t take hours and days to create… this chocolate tart is the one. It is classic, simple and beautiful. It tastes delicious and takes no time to make. Plus, chocolate is about as universal as you can get for a dessert. I am guessing that, for those of you who give this recipe a try, my chocolate tart may become a tradition for your family, too. Wishing you all a warm and happy holiday season!

chocolate tart

Chocolate Tart

For the crust:

  • 1 sleeve of graham crackers (about 9 full-sized graham crackers)
  • 5 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 3/4 tsp. cinnamon (optional, recommended)

For the filling:

  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 1/2 c. whole milk
  • 10 oz. semisweet chocolate chips, or chopped semisweet chocolate (I like Theo 70% dark bar, or Nestle chips)
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 c. toasted crushed hazelnuts or sliced almonds (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Crush the graham crackers in a food processor; or, put them in a large ziploc bag and crush them with a heavy-bottomed cup, or rolling pin. Melt the butter in a large bowl; add the graham crackers, sugar, salt and cinnamon, if using. Stir together. Turn the crust mixture into a 10″ ceramic tart pan, like this one. Press firmly and evenly around the bottom and edges until the crust is well-distributed and nicely compact. Bake for 8 mins., just to toast and set the crust. I do not use pie weights for graham cracker crusts. Set aside while you make the filling.

Lower the oven to 325 degrees.

Warm the cream and milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it begins to simmer. Don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat and add your chocolate pieces. Stir until they melt, then add the sugar and salt. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until lightly beaten. Temper the eggs by streaming in about 1/2 c. of the warm chocolate mixture while continuously whisking. Add the tempered eggs to the saucepan and whisk until combined.

Carefully pour the filling into your prepared crust. It will come nearly to the top of the pan, so place the tart pan in the oven and fill there, if you are worried at all about transferring a full pan to your oven. Bake for 15 to 20 mins., until the filling is set– when you gently move the pan, only the very center should move– and the top looks glossy. If the top starts to crack, it is overbaking; remove at once.

Allow the tart to cool completely before serving. Garnish with toasted nuts, if desired. The tart will keep in the refrigerator for several days, but is best served at room temperature.

Chai concentrate.

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Especially, at this time of the year, it is nice to have a quick gift on hand: for a friend stopping by, your child’s teacher, a neighbor, etc. My chai concentrate is a great option, as it is mostly homemade and last minute-friendly. Made with sweetened condensed milk and an array of warm spices, it is festive, versatile and very tasty. You (or your kids with help!) can make it in 3 minutes flat with pantry items, or take it up a few notches by grinding spices yourself… or up even more notches by making the sweetened condensed milk yourself. Hello. I stay in the middle with this recipe, purchasing sweetened condensed milk but grinding the cardamom with a mortar and pestle. (A spice grinder works, too, if you have one.) I like the cardamom flavor to be assertive, and using freshly ground makes the flavor come through a little more. You could grate the nutmeg, too. Black pepper is an optional ingredient; if you are making this specifically for someone who likes a peppery chai, add it right in.

Once you make the concentrate, put it in a cute bottle or jar and write on the container or lid the very simple instructions: add 1-2 T. concentrate to 8 oz. of hot black tea, steamed milk or almond milk, or coffee. I absolutely love chai concentrate in coffee; it’s like an easy homemade version of dirty chai. Using black tea is most traditional, and using milk or almond milk produces a comforting steamer-like drink. If you want to stay dairy-free, there are some sweetened condensed milk options made with coconut milk that work perfectly and taste delicious.

One recipe fills three 4 oz. jars, the cute little ones, or one 8 oz. half pint jar (as pictured) and one 4 oz. jar, with enough left over for you to have a beverage or two. During the bustle of the holidays, while you are making for and giving to others, it’s nice to have a little treat for yourself. That makes this chai concentrate an absolute win-win!

chai concentrate

Chai Concentrate

  • One 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper (optional)

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and then divide between the containers of your choice. Use 1-2 T. chai concentrate in 8 oz. tea, coffee or warm milk or almond milk. Store in the refrigerator between uses; keeps for about 2-3 weeks. The recipe as written makes about 1 3/4 c. of concentrate, or 14-28 servings.

Pumpkin custard.

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My Thanksgiving menus don’t include pumpkin pie this year. There are only so many meals and so many mouths… and there are so many desserts in demand. Apple pie, sweet potato pie, sometimes apple or spice cake, and a cookies-and-cream confection made by our friend M that we simply call Log. If I get my way, there will be pecan pie, with or without bourbon, and maybe with dark chocolate. (I am not usually part of the dessert-making team, though I do help with crust. My focus is on sides.) Pumpkin pie is always the “if we need more” choice, which kind of bums me out. I can’t think of Thanksgiving without thinking of pumpkin pie. And so, I came up with a twist on the classic that provides an easy, quick solution to check it off my list: pumpkin custard.

I’m not suggesting I’m the first person to make pumpkin custard, but it’s a why-didn’t-I-think-of-this-before solution. Quite simply, it’s my favorite pumpkin pie recipe with a bit more egg, baked without a crust. That might be another bonus for those of you searching for gluten-free dessert options– there’s not a hint of flour here, even as thickener. It’s creamy and lightly spiced; the brown sugar gives an autumnal caramel note, and yes, it does work with an equal substitution of coconut sugar.* I found through trial and error that it bakes best in a shallow dish, and putting a separate dish of water on the rack just underneath seems to even the cooking. It is perfect on its own, even better with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. And here’s a thought– it would absolutely work as a side dish. It’s not too different from mashed sweet potatoes or squash… especially if your family favors those dishes covered in marshmallows or brown sugar. Creativity, and sugar, is always welcome at the Thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and there are so many nostalgic dishes I love to see on the table. I’ll make parsnip gratin to have with my mother-in-law and friends Thursday, and cranberry sauce, stuffing and rutmousse to share Friday. I’m looking forward to the unbelievable smoked turkey breast, cinnamony sweet potatoes and green bean casserole my friends make, and crossing my fingers for that pecan pie… I am so grateful to have a wonderful group to share the holiday with, and I am pouring lots of extra love and gratitude into this pumpkin custard. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

pumpkin custard

Pumpkin Custard

  • 1 1/2 c. unsweetened pumpkin puree
  • 1 1/2 c. whole milk
  • 2 T. bourbon (optional)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar (or coconut sugar)
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 T. raw sugar to garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a 2 1/2 qt shallow baking dish, or 9″ pie plate. Pour 2-3 cups of water into a separate ovenproof vessel and put it into the heating oven.

Place all ingredients except for the raw sugar in a high-powered blender or stand mixer. Mix until evenly combined. Tap the jar or bowl gently against the counter to release some of the air bubbles.

Pour the custard into your prepared baking pan and sprinkle the raw sugar over the top, if desired. Move the dish carefully into the oven, ideally positioned on the rack just above the water. Bake for 15 mins. Turn the oven temperature down to 325 degrees and continue baking for 30-40 mins., until the custard is set around the edges and has the slightest jiggle only in the center. Remove from the oven and cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream or whipped cream if desired. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

*The coconut sugar is much less sweet, and provides a slightly different texture. But… the spices, pumpkin flavor and essence of traditional pumpkin pie is there.

Super Double Extra Bonus Recipe: Pumpkin Pie Pancakes

This is a real thing. The best pancakes I have had in years were a mashup of our standard pancake recipe with some pumpkin custard added in. Start with my apple ring pancake recipe. Remove 1 egg, 1/2 c. buttermilk and 1/2 c. sour cream. Add in 1 c. baked pumpkin custard. Continue with the recipe, with or without the apple rings. My husband gets all the credit for figuring this out and it’s so good I would make a recipe of custard just to get more of the pancakes.

Stout chili.

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The best part about writing a food blog is talking with folks about their favorite recipes. Last week, I was frustrated by a meal plan that looked similar to what I had been buying, cooking and eating for weeks. A quick poll on Facebook was enough to remind me about a great pumpkin soup I like to make this time of year, comforting cabbage rolls, and chili. Chili! I hadn’t made one for ages, and there’s no good reason– I have a great recipe, it is easy as anything, and it always tastes so good, especially when you stash it away for a few days. My recipe uses ground beef, kidney beans, medium heat from jalapenos and deep, dark stout. It’s crock pot friendly, but easy enough to do on the stovetop.

We have been buying ground beef from Crowd Cow; I am consistently impressed by the quality and flavor of our purchases. If you are in the western US, I can’t recommend them enough. I find the ground beef they sell is just fatty enough to work very well here– you don’t have to drain off extra grease– and stays tender and flavorful. For kidney beans, I use a can, though you could cook them up yourself. Pinto and cannelini make fine substitutes for kidney beans, if needed. When available, I use jalapenos I pickle myself to provide a little heat. The pickling mellows them some, and I don’t mind the fire to begin with. You can use canned jalapenos or a few diced fresh, with or without seeds. I wouldn’t leave them out altogether, but feel free to dial it down if you are concerned about heat. And now for the stout. It just seems to make this chili, adding depth and flavor I can’t replicate without it. The chili does not taste “beery” at all. Look for an imperial stout without vanilla notes, which can make it too sweet, but a coffee or chocolate note won’t hurt your chili a bit. Guinness is an easy-to-find classic in most areas.

My strategy with chili is to make it Saturday and put it in the refrigerator until at least Sunday night, usually mid-week. It heats up quickly and easily, and you can freeze a portion for up to 3 months if you want. When you are ready to serve, a garnish of shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, cilantro, scallions– or all of the above– makes for a hearty, delicious dinner. I am so glad I asked my Facebook group about meal planning– thanks again, Julie, for reminding me how fantastic it is to have a pot of chili bubbling away on the stove.

stout chili

Stout Chili (serves 6-10)

  • 1 T. canola oil
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 T. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 oz. pickled jalapenos, diced
  • 12 oz. stout (I use Narwhal Imperial, Lagunitas Imperial or Guinness)
  • 6 – 7 oz. tomato paste
  • 1 28 oz. can of fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 15 oz. can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • cheddar cheese, sour cream, cilantro, scallions to garnish

Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the canola oil, then the ground beef. Use a wooden spoon to break the meat up. Cook for a few minutes, then add the onions, stir, and cook for 5-10 mins, until the beef is brown. Add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, oregano and salt and cook for another 1-2 mins. Stir in the jalapenos, then the stout. The beer will foam up at first; stir until it settles down, then add the tomato paste and fire-roasted tomatoes, with all the juices from the canned tomatoes, and the kidney beans. Stir to combine and wait for the chili to start bubbling. When it does, lower the heat to medium, cover the pot, leaving a steam vent on one side, and simmer for 30 mins. At that point, you can taste and adjust seasoning to serve immediately… but it really is better to cool completely, allow the chili to meld in the refrigerator for a day or three, and reheat and serve then. Whatever you decide, this is a mighty fine bowl.

Sunday supper: cider-braised pork roast w/ root vegetables.

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Sunday supper is the best meal of the week. I relax into the routine of planning and prep work, often enthusiastically deciding to devote the whole day to the kitchen. I might try a new recipe or technique requiring extra effort, ie. more time than I am willing to spend on a weeknight: lasagne, stuffed cabbage rolls, gnocchi, pot stickers. In the summer, I might splurge on a nice steak or fish fillet to grill and spend my extra time prepping vegetables for an exuberant salad, or kebabs. Often, Sunday supper is shared with friends or family; we gather to catch up over baked chicken, a big pot of soup, or a dish from a favorite cookbook I’m eager to make for a crowd. In the colder months, I like nothing more than warming the house with an hours-long braise; it takes time, yes, but so little effort, and the resulting meal is worth forcing yourself to lounge around the house for a lazy Sunday afternoon… I promise. With a few easy ingredients, and a little bit of patience, this cider-braised pork roast with tender and sweet root vegetables is guaranteed to make people scramble for a seat at your supper table.

Don’t save this recipe just for a large family gathering– after your lovely Sunday supper, you are going to want to have some leftover pork. It’s half the reason I make this dish! Meltingly tender, just barely sweet from the apples and cider, it is absolutely delicious, and so easy to repurpose. The roast will almost shred itself by the end of the cook time, so think about making an open-faced sandwich with your favorite barbecue sauce and a crisp slaw. Leftover pork is great on tostadas, or in tacos, with shredded cabbage, sliced radishes and tomatillo salsa to hold everything together. And let’s not discount these root vegetables– I can’t think of a way I would rather cook rutabaga. The sweetness of the cider tempers the innate bitterness (which I love) of the rutabaga, and gives it and the sweet potatoes a candied-but-not-candied flavor. I am content with a reheated bowl of vegetables and pork as my leftovers, no revisions needed.

This is the time of year to get fresh cider and abundant root vegetables from every farm stand and grocery store around. If you can’t find fresh cider, hard cider is also terrific in this recipe; you can replace the 2 c. with a 12 oz. bottle and call it good. You’ll miss some of the sweetness but none of the flavor. I love the ease of this meal; it’s comfort food, perfect to share, delicious and versatile enough that you welcome the leftovers. Cider-braised pork roast with root vegetables is the epitome of Sunday supper, for me, and I hope you will have the time to try it for yourself someday soon.

cider-braised pork roast with root vegetables

Cider-Braised Pork Roast with Root Vegetables

  • 3 – 4 lb. pork shoulder roast, boneless preferred, trimmed judiciously
  • kosher salt & pepper
  • 1 small yellow onion, roughly sliced
  • 1 crisp apple, seeded and cut into large pieces (no need to peel)
  • 2 c. fresh cider
  • 2 c. chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 lb. rutabaga, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 lb. sweet potatoes, cut into chunks
  • 1 T. grainy mustard (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

In your largest, beefiest, oven-proof, covered (use foil if necessary) Dutch oven or cast-iron cook pot, heat a tablespoon or so of neutral oil over medium to medium-high heat. Don’t be afraid of a high temperature, but respect your pot of choice; some cookware conducts heat so efficiently it does well at a lower temperature. Also, the pot should be as deep as double the height of your pork roast. Salt and pepper the roast liberally and place in the pot carefully, being mindful of splashing hot oil. Do not touch the roast for at least 5 mins., sometimes longer. Let it brown! It will spit and hiss and everything, but don’t touch it. Cover it if it makes a mess, leaving a vent for steam.

When you can turn the pork without having to pry it off the bottom of the pan, it is ready to be turned. Brown the other side for the same amount of time you used on the first side. Add the onion to the pan just after flipping the pork.

When the roast is golden brown on both sides, add the cut apple, bay leaves, cider and broth. Cover the pot and carefully transfer to the oven. Braise the roast for 3 hours, turning carefully after 1 1/2 hours to ensure even cooking.

Add the chunked rutabaga and sweet potatoes to the pot and cook for another hour. That’s 4 hours total for the pork, 1 for the vegetables.

Carefully remove the pot from the oven. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to a serving dish. Discard the bay leaves. Transfer the pork roast to a plate or cutting board and loosely tent with foil.

Whisk the mustard into the pan juices and boil vigorously, over high heat, until reduced to a luxurious, dark brown sauce. Watch closely as it gets near the end; it is such a shame to burn it onto your pan because you got distracted checking football scores or national polls. (Trust me.) It won’t be as thick as a traditional gravy, but I’ve tried adding thickener and just like this way better. This step is optional but delicious.

cider-braised pork, root vegetables and baked potato

Serve immediately. Leftovers can be used any way you see fit, and will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.

Ricotta pound cake with pears and dark chocolate.

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This is a variation of a favorite, blueberry lavender ricotta pound cake. I happened to read back through that post recently and was inspired all over again– it is a wonderful loaf cake, easy to make and with a decadently moist texture and delicate crumb. I quickly thought of the flavors I wanted to use to give it an autumnal update. I had some Bartlett pears that were a little past the point of eating plain, and a memory of a lovely chocolate pear cake from smitten kitchen. I thought adding some brown sugar would lend a caramel note, cinnamon would give that warm spice I love in fall baking, and cider could play up the pear flavor while providing a little bit of acidity. My updates worked like a charm: this ricotta pound cake is rich from the vanilla and brown sugar, but the pear and chocolate are stars. Like the blueberry lavender loaf, it is a great cake to serve with coffee or tea; it keeps nicely in the refrigerator and can be frozen. I am now tempted to create a version of this pound cake for every season– and I believe we will all benefit if I do.

ricotta pound cake with pears and dark chocolate

Ricotta Pound Cake with Pears and Dark Chocolate (makes 2 loaves)

  • 12 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 c. whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 c. light brown sugar
  • 1/3 c. white sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 c. ripe fresh pear, cut into small pieces (from about 2 small or 1 large Bartlett pear)
  • 2 T. fresh apple cider (or use fresh lemon juice)
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 T. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2/3 c. semisweet chocolate chips, or similar dark chocolate pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray two 8″ x 4″ loaf pans and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, ricotta and sugars until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well between each addition.

Core and cut the pear; place immediately in a small bowl with the cider and vanilla. This will prevent browning and infuse some of the flavors into the pear pieces.

Sift together the flour, cornstarch, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Remove the bowl from the mixer and add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Add the pears and all soaking liquid in the bowl, and the chocolate chips. Fold the batter until the pears are incorporated and no dry ingredients are visible in the batter. Don’t overmix.

Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 45-55 mins., rotating the pans after about 20 mins.; the cakes are done when they begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a knife comes clean from the center. Cool on a rack for at least 20 mins. before attempting to remove from the pan.

Your ricotta pound cake will keep, tightly wrapped, at room temperature for up to three days and in the refrigerator for slightly longer. Bring to room temperature before serving, for best results.

Apple ring pancakes.

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On a cold and rainy morning, when staying in bed sounds better than facing the day, the thought– and smell– of these apple ring pancakes is powerful enough to get you up and going. Like the love child of fluffy pancakes and baked apples, they are comforting and delicious. You won’t believe how light and pillowy they are! We like to make them kind of giant, like one or two is enough food to fuel you for hours, but they are easily made into silver dollar-sized pancakes if that’s your preference. A good, crisp apple is key so the ring holds its shape and provides a nice textural contrast to your pillowy pancake; our varieties of choice are Honeycrisp and Jonagold. Peel or don’t, it’s up to you. Sour cream makes the most delicate texture, but 2% plain Greek yogurt works just as well if you’re looking for a lighter option, and a combination of the two seems to be the best of both worlds. The recipe as written will make enough for 3-4 people, and is easily doubled, or halved. Start your day with a smile, and a plate of warm and soft apple ring pancakes.

apple ring pancakes

Apple Ring Pancakes (serves 3-4)

  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1 c. sour cream or plain Greek yogurt (or a combination of both)
  • 2 T. melted unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 1 large apple, cut crosswise into rings, core removed
  • Maine maple syrup, to serve

Sift together the dry ingredients and put them in a large mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs in a small mixing bowl until lightly beaten; add the buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt, and melted butter. Make a well in your dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk mixture and stir until combined. A few lumps are okay. Set the pancake batter to the side while you start cooking the apples.

Heat a large griddle or cast iron pan over medium heat. When the pan is good and hot, add a pat of butter and move the pan around until coated. Lay your apple rings in a single layer on the hot pan, spaced out, and cook for 3 mins., then flip and cook the other side for 2 mins. If you have a smaller pan, plan to work in two batches, so cook half the apple rings this way and save the rest for the next batch.

Ladle pancake batter over each ring, about 1/2 c. per apple ring, more or less to preference. Cook undisturbed until the edges look cooked and you see bubbles all over the top of each pancake. Flip carefully and cook through. Serve immediately with extra butter, if desired, or drizzled with good syrup.

Plum cake with Chinese five spice.

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We are still finding plump black plums, dusky purple Italian plums and mottled red-pink pluots at the Saturday farmers’ market. I can’t stop buying them– I know when the market packs up for the season in a few weeks, I will have to face a winter without stone fruit. So, I dutifully choose a dozen or so every week, sometimes more, to have with our breakfasts and lunches. Inevitably, I overbuy, and find a few soft specimens in the bowl on Saturday morning… ripe ripe ripe. When that happens, I often make this plum cake, spiced gently with Chinese five spice powder.

The cake honestly couldn’t be simpler. I mix it by hand, no appliances needed, and it takes all of two minutes. At first glance, you might wonder if it will be enough batter to make a whole cake… it is. The basic cake base is welcome as a vehicle for the sweet-tart flavor and bright color of your plums. When using Italian plums, halve them lengthwise and pull out the pit; for red or black plums, I favor fat quarters or thirds, as pictured below. No peeling required. I use five spice powder because it just seems destined to be matched with ripe plums, in both sweet and savory dishes. Truthfully, the same amount of cinnamon or ground cardamom will work just as well. The raw sugar topping is optional, but it gives a very nice dimension and light crispiness to the top layer.

And so, with minimal effort, you can transform those very ripe plums into a sweet little tea cake, perfect as a snack with your cuppa, not out of bounds for brunch. It is pretty enough to deliver as a housewarming gift, quick enough for tomorrow’s bake sale. Go to the market, get some luscious plums while you can, and make sure to buy a few extra so you can make a plum cake with Chinese five spice.

plum cake with Chinese five spice

Plum Cake with Chinese Five Spice

  • 8 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 lb. (about 3 large) plums, black or red, pitted and quartered or sliced OR 1 lb. Italian prune plums, pitted and halved
  • 1/4 tsp. Chinese five spice powder
  • 2 T. raw sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray a 10″ springform cake pan.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the softened butter and 2/3 c. sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the eggs, then the vanilla. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder; add to the butter mixture and stir just until combined. Turn the batter out into your prepared pan and spread into an even layer. It doesn’t look like much batter, but it’s enough.

Place the plums, cut side down, in concentric circles on top of the batter. Sprinkle with the five spice powder, then with raw sugar, if using.

plum cake, before baking

Bake for 40 mins., until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 30 mins. before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature. Leftover cake will keep, tightly covered, for 2-3 days.