Baked lima beans with fresh dill.

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I created this dish of lima beans with dill specifically to go with baked salmon, wanting something creamy and mild flavored, seasoned with spring herbs, and reminiscent of mashed potatoes, without extra starch and butter. I like this dish so much, we won’t be waiting for another salmon dinner to have it again! Poor lima beans have such a bad reputation, and I just don’t understand why. They are nutritious- high in fiber, folate, protein, potassium, and vitamin B1- and serve exactly the purpose I intended, acting as a neutral vehicle for a variety of flavors, similar to how you might use potatoes, parsnips, or even rice. I noticed recently an increase in recipes for “butter beans” and “gigantes”, which are both less-stigmatized ways to say lima beans. (Would anyone care for a dried plum?) I say, from now on, call them whatever you like, but get them into your meals. Here’s an easy place to start.

To make this dish, you can begin with frozen lima beans, canned, fresh, or dried. The first two options will be easiest to find; you will probably have the option of baby lima beans in the freezer section, or the aforementioned butter beans in canned form. Fresh limas are wonderful but difficult to find; look for them in farmers’ markets in late summer or early fall. Dried lima beans have finally earned a spot in the bulk section of our grocery store, perhaps due to the popularity of other wide, flat legumes like Scarlet Runner beans and favas. In the bulk section, they are often labelled gigantes, and sometimes you can find cooked gigantes in the deli or salad bar. Again, whatever they’re called, they will work for this dish. I would avoid deli gigantes in a vinaigrette; it might not be bad… but I wouldn’t risk the possibility that the acidic marinade might overpower the delicate dill flavor and curdle the cream. If you are starting with dry beans, just soak overnight, put in fresh water, and boil for 30-40 mins. until tender. You could also use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot. You can add cooked lima beans to salads and soups if you make extra.

I wanted to take advantage of the inherent mildness of the beans to show off the flavor of fresh dill. I have been reading Scandinavian cookbooks recently, and salmon is often paired with three ingredients/flavors: fresh dill, cream, and new or mashed potatoes. Those elements were the inspirations for this dish. The lima beans have the perfect texture to seem creamy without the need for a lot of extra dairy fat. I do use cream here, but just a touch, and less than I would use for a comparable plate of mashed root vegetables. If you wanted to try something with or instead of dill, chives, sorrel, or tarragon would all be delicious. In addition to salmon, these beans would be great alongside steak or roasted chicken, or as a light vegetarian option served with cooked greens, broccoli, or asparagus.

I have written before about my ongoing challenge to incorporate legumes into our diet; finding that we really like lima beans was pretty exciting. I have so many ideas for how to use them. In addition to baked sides like this, I look forward to putting them in soups (anywhere I have used cannellini beans or chickpeas before), salads (nicoise, chop salad, or a hearty fresh kale salad), and other warm dishes like my baked Scarlet runner beans. Ignore those childhood rumors that lima beans are unworthy and give them a try!

Baked Lima Beans with Fresh Dill

  • 2 c. cooked lima beans
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper
  • 3 – 4 T. fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed and minced (optional)
  • 2 T. finely minced chives (optional)
  • 1/3 c. cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the cooked beans into a 2 1/2 qt baking dish, or similar ovenproof dish. If you’re using frozen limas, defrost them completely or blanch for 1-2 mins. in boiling water. For canned beans, drain and rinse off the canning liquid. Dried beans should be cooked at least to al dente state; you can add 1-2 T. of cooking liquid with them if you like.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Bake for 25-30 mins., until the sauce is bubbling and the beans are completely heated through. Serve immediately.

Leftover beans can be reheated or served cold, and will keep in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

Everything cookies.

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Most weekends I bake something for my husband to take with his lunch during the week. We went through an extended granola bar phase before he asked for a change– could I make some cookies instead? I often lack the patience for cookies… you need to chill and find parchment and (heaven forbid) roll, or scoop, and then time and wait and do it again. I made bar cookies for a while as a compromise: brownies and chippy cookie bars, sometimes Scotcharoos or jam bars. One Sunday, as I prepped the pan for another batch of bars, my husband asked, quietly and kindly, if I could do something different. He was grateful for the bar cookies, but hoping for something new. Oatmeal cookies, or maybe peanut butter? We had a hard time deciding which ones, so I pulled out this recipe, which combines the best elements of those classics, plus chocolate chips for good measure. An everything cookie covers all the bases, and they are so delicious I don’t mind the chilling, dropping or waiting.

I have seen other wonderful versions of this cookie: my Aunt J’s famous triple chippers, my friend M’s dangerously good recipe with Speculoos (cookie butter) and white chocolate chips. My recipe uses ingredients I almost always have on hand; peanut butter chips are the only grocery list item, most of the time. My husband likes them because they are substantial, even filling, which is good when you are looking for a sweet snack that counts a little more than just a quick sugar rush. Of course, they taste great. The base of the cookie reminds me of Girl Scout Do-Si-Dos, the peanut butter and oatmeal sandwich cookies, enough that someday I would like to try making these smaller, without the chips, with a peanut butter filling… But I am getting ahead. And perhaps gilding the proverbial lily, since I find these everything cookies satisfying and tasty exactly as-is. A bit of peanut butter, a bit of chocolate, held together by just enough oatmeal to make them interesting… it’s a pretty perfect combination.

Next time you are in the mood to make cookies, especially if you find yourself waffling between oatmeal, peanut butter, or chocolate chip, why not avoid the decision by incorporating elements of all three? Give everything cookies a try.

everything cookies

Everything Cookies (makes 40-60 cookies)

  • 1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 c. creamy peanut butter
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 c. quick-cooking oats
  • 1 c. chocolate chips
  • 1/2 c. peanut butter chips

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter, peanut butter, salt, sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 mins. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl at least once.

Add the vanilla and eggs and mix until combined, another 1 – 2 mins.

Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add to the bowl and mix just until combined, or almost combined.

Add both kinds of chips and the oats to the bowl. Mix on low speed until incorporated. If the thick dough is taxing your mixer, you can do this last step with a wooden spoon.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate your dough for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. Don’t skip this step.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover 2 – 3 cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners.

Drop the cookies onto the prepared pans. I like to use a #30 scoop for these, which holds 2 T. dough. Using this size scoop yields about 40 generous cookies. Leave space in between the cookies for spreading. I put 10-12 cookies on a sheet. My oven does best baking one sheet at a time.

Bake for 12-14 mins. to yield soft-in-the-middle cookies. Add 2-3 mins. to the baking time for a crisper cookie. If you used a smaller scoop, start with 10 mins. and see how you like the results.

Slide the parchment off the pan onto a rack or the counter to cool. The cookies will keep in a covered container at room temperature for about 5 days. I like them best after a few days. They also freeze beautifully and will keep in the freezer for about 3 months.

Spring fruit crumble.

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I am very optimistically calling this a spring fruit crumble, writing as I wait for snow to fall again today. This is the type of baking that pushes me through the last weeks of gray, when I’m tired of apples and bananas and yearning for summer farmers’ markets. I should call it a “ready for spring fruit crumble”… but that is just too wordy.

When fresh fruit is in season, I freeze recipe-sized portions (2 to 4 c. at a time) for exactly this kind of use. A crumble uses about 8 c. of fruit, and nearly any combination you can think of will work, all fresh, all frozen or a mix. (Working with frozen fruit, measure the portion frozen, and then thaw, or thaw completely and include some juice in the measurement. That’s why the premeasured portions are so handy!) To choose the fruit, imagine what you might find in a pie: rhubarb; all manner of berries; stone fruit like peaches, plums and cherries; apples; or pineapple. My rule of thumb for creating a mixed fruit combination is sweet + sweet + tart; here I used fragrant fresh pineapple, strawberries I know to be sweet as honey, and a precious bag of local rhubarb. If your combination is all sweet, you can even play with the amount of sugar, starting with 1/2 cup. You can also experiment with spices here; again, I recommend using pie recipes, or other recipes with baked fruit, as a guide. If your combination is primarily stone fruit, try using nutmeg instead of cinnamon, or 1/2 tsp. of each. My combination of fruits below would also work with ginger, or a mix of cinnamon and ginger. A mix of apples and berries works well with cardamom. You have some latitude to experiment, and can really customize the recipe to suit your preferences. And last but not least, the crumble is a simple butter streusel topping from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book; I find it works consistently and tastes delicious.

A bowl of warm crumble is a welcome break from the cold of late winter, a preview of all the good sweet fruit that is just around the corner.

spring fruit crumble with strawberries, pineapple & rhubarb

Spring Fruit Crumble with Strawberries, Pineapple & Rhubarb

For the fruit:

  • 3 c. rhubarb, fresh or frozen, cut in 1/2 – 1″ pieces
  • 3 c. fresh pineapple, cut in chunks
  • 2 c. strawberries, fresh or frozen, halved or quartered if large
  • 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 T. cornstarch

For the crumble:

  • 1 c. flour
  • 3 T. brown sugar
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 6 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes, at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, cinnamon and cornstarch. Add the fruit, starting with your least-juicy fruit, and toss until all the fruit is coated. If it’s all or primarily fresh fruit, you should notice the juices starting to come out. Pour the mixture into a 12″ pie plate or a large ovenproof dish.

To make the crumble, whisk together the flour, brown sugar, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the cubes of butter and use a fork, pastry blender or your fingers to work the butter into the dry ingredients. Stop when the butter is well distributed, in pea-sized pieces. If you are using your fingers, be careful the heat of your hands doesn’t melt the butter.

Pour the crumble onto your prepared fruit and spread out evenly. Bake for 40-45 mins., until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. If your mix includes apples or rhubarb, use a fork to make sure those harder fruits are tender. Cool slightly before serving warm, with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, or plain. This crumble is also wonderful served cold with Greek yogurt, a decadent breakfast/brunch treat.

Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.

spring fruit crumble with ice cream

Texas sheet cake.

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American Cake by Anne Byrn

My husband bought me a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake for Christmas. A smart move on his part; I had previously browsed a library copy with a good amount of excitement and note-taking. His gift was both thoughtful and self-serving. In this cookbook are dozens of recipes ranging from bundt cakes, fruitcakes, and gingerbread to multi-layer tortes and tiered filled cakes. In addition to the stunning variety of shapes, flavors and regional favorites, American Cake provides a history lesson about the origins of each cake, why it was popular when created, and why the recipe endures. It is a carefully constructed, well-written and detailed book… and it’s about cake. I don’t own many dessert cookbooks, but it’s clear this will be one I consult often.

On Super Bowl Sunday, I made the New York Cheesecake to take to a party. It was easily 3″ tall, took almost three hours to set in my finicky oven, and was hands-down the most delicious cheesecake I’ve ever made. As I fussed with five (!) packages of cream cheese and fanned the smoke alarm during the initial 500 degree browning step, I guessed that would be the first and last time I would make the recipe… and as I ate my first slice, I also ate my words. The extra time and attention was completely worthwhile.

New York cheesecake from American Cake

This weekend we had a friend over for dinner and I decided that was a good excuse to try another recipe. I chose to make the Texas Sheath Cake, also known as a Texas Sheet Cake (the title I am more familiar with), which is a one-layer chocolate cake with a boiled frosting that goes on the cake right out of the oven. There is cinnamon and buttermilk in the recipe, giving the cake a distinct flavor and texture, and toasted pecans in the frosting. I have to say, with all due respect to my Nana’s beloved recipe, this is one of the finest chocolate cakes I have ever made or eaten. It has the flavor and consistency of a glazed chocolate donut: light and moist cake, a hardened, icing-like sheen to the frosting. The cinnamon is not immediately recognizable, but adds a certain dimension to the cake that is magical. I chickened out a little and only used half the amount of cinnamon called for, but will try the full teaspoon next time. Because we are not always fans of nuts in baked goods, I kept the pecans whole and studded the top of the cake, rather than mixing them into the frosting; I found them surprisingly important to cut the sweetness, add texture and complement the chocolate flavor. This is a phenomenal cake, one I will make often now that I realize how straightforward the process is– I had the impression a sheet cake was complicated and required strange techniques and ingredients, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The author’s source for the recipe cites it as a go-to for birthdays, tailgates, picnics and casual entertaining. That gives me plenty of reasons to make it again!

With two recipes made and two glowing successes, I look forward to continuing to explore American Cake. I think I will try the Boston Cream Pie next; that’s a personal favorite from childhood, and I’ve been looking for a keeper recipe for years. I’m eager to see if Ms. Byrn’s recipe is The One. Then, Alaska Rhubarb Cake, or maybe Tres Leches Cake?, or perhaps Pineapple Upside-Down Cake? I am going to have so much fun with this book.

Texas sheet cake from American Cake

Texas Sheet Cake (from American Cake)

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks (16 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1 c. water
  • 4 T. cocoa (I used Hershey’s)
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 c. flour
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

For the frosting:

  • 1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter
  • 1/3 c. whole milk
  • 4 T. cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 – 1 c. pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a baking sheet, toast the pecans for about 5-8 mins. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the cake. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees*. Lightly grease and flour a 11″ x 13″ metal baking pan (see note below) and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt two sticks of butter with water and 4 T. cocoa. When the butter has melted completely and the mixture is starting to boil, remove it from the heat.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Pour the butter/cocoa mixture into the bowl and stir until smooth.

In a small bowl, mix together the buttermilk and baking soda. Add this mixture to the batter. Whisk the eggs to break up the yolks and add to the batter, with the vanilla. Stir everything together, until you don’t see dry flour. When the batter is evenly mixed, pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 mins., until the cake springs back when touched lightly.

About 5 mins. before the cake is done baking, start making the frosting. Put 1 stick of butter, 4 T. cocoa, milk and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt into a saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, mixing often, and boil for about 3 mins. It might separate, and look terrible, but it will be okay in the end; just keep stirring so it doesn’t burn.

Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a mixing bowl. When the chocolate mixture has boiled, pour it carefully into the powdered sugar and mix until you have a shiny, thin frosting. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla. If you want, you can chop the toasted pecans and add to the frosting now. Pour the frosting over the hot cake and spread to the edges of the pan. Top with pecans if you didn’t add them to the frosting. Allow the cake to cool at room temperature for at least an hour. Cut into squares to serve.

Leftover cake will keep in a covered container at room temperature for 3-5 days.

*The author calls for a 9″ x 13″ metal sheet pan and I do not have that size. I used a metal 11″ x 13″ pan. As such, knowing my batter would be thinner, I decreased the temperature from 400 degrees (from the book) to 375 degrees. If you have a 9″ x 13″ pan, set your oven to 400 degrees.

Espresso pots de creme.

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I haven’t felt much like writing this month, or cooking, or recipe planning. All three are pastimes I usually relish. I often structure weekends so I have at least a little time to do all three– this is my respite from the work week, and my reward. This month, I prioritized reading, educating myself… well, that’s how I justify it to myself, but the truth is I didn’t have any extra energy to get excited about baking or meal planning. It seemed like such a frivolous thing, cooking, and typing that is both honest and incredibly disappointing. I still cooked, because we still needed to eat, turning to many of the comforting recipes previously featured on this blog: udon noodles in broth, stovetop mac and cheese, baked chicken, tikka masala with paneer. But I didn’t seek out new recipes as I normally would. As for writing, I didn’t consider anything I had to say as impactful as what I was reading from other bloggers and writers, and I didn’t know how to get out what I wanted to convey. So I just read, and tried to keep up with all the information hurtling toward me.

On Friday I read an article about taking care of yourself when you are working and fighting for collective rights. I needed to read that. It gave me perspective, and validation, and as much as my pride is hurt admitting the latter, once again it’s the truth. I needed someone to say it was okay to want to be in the kitchen instead of on the phone, or at a march, or writing letters. I miss cooking, I miss experimenting with new recipes, and I really miss writing. It doesn’t even matter if I am posting this into the void; this blog is my creative release and sharing food is my strength, the best part of myself I have to give. I cook for the people I love, and to show appreciation, and because I can help people by providing a meal or a smile or both.

So what the hell does this have to do with dessert? Probably nothing. The extended introduction seemed important. These are thoughts and feelings that have been bottled up as a knot in my stomach and tension in my shoulders for weeks. The recipe I am sharing today will not change the world or solve problems, but it will give you a few minutes in the kitchen, and maybe that’s your respite and reward, as it is mine. I made these espresso pots de creme for my friend, enjoyed eating them with her after talking and sharing books, and enjoyed seeing her happy reaction to tasting one. Espresso pots de creme are baked custards; they are fancy pudding cups that taste like a good latte, smooth and silky like flan, not too sweet. I served them with a drizzle of salted caramel sauce. Doesn’t that sound nice? When I cook for others, sharing my efforts and inspiration with them nourishes me, too.

The article I linked above had another point that resonated with me: focus on doing one or two things to help, rather than trying to do it all. Maybe you coordinate rallies, or host a playdate for kids so their parents can attend a meeting, or knit hats, or print postcards to distribute to a group, or volunteer your legal expertise. These are not my strengths. But maybe, like my mom, you bake a giant box of goodies to fortify a group gathering to march, or write a note to a mosque in your neighborhood to show solidarity. I can do that. We all have different strengths, and we can all contribute however we see fit. I am writing to my representatives, reading constantly to try to stay informed, and brainstorming how I can most effectively support others by baking or cooking.

I work really, really hard to keep this blog non-political. This post crosses my own line, in some ways… but I honestly believe that these words apply regardless of the political climate. Taking care of yourself, fighting for others– those are not time-sensitive pursuits, and so I will hit “publish” on this post with the same ease as I do when writing about my Nana or summer farmers’ market bounty. If this does go into the void, so be it, but if not… maybe this recipe for espresso pots de creme will bring you, or someone you know, some comfort and nourishment.

espresso pot de creme

Espresso Pot de Creme (serves 4)

  • 1/4 c. whole espresso beans, crushed lightly
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

Use the bottom of a heavy glass, or a mortar and pestle, or a spice grinder, to break up the espresso beans slightly. Place the broken beans into a sauce pan with the milk and cream and heat just until the milk starts to steam. Do not boil the mixture, and swirl the pan often to prevent scalding. When the mixture is warm enough to bubble just a tiny bit and give off steam, remove from the heat. Allow the espresso to steep for about 30 mins. at room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place four ramekins or similar heatproof dishes into a larger baking dish that accommodates them all in a single layer.

After the espresso mixture has steeped for about 30 mins., heat it again just for 1-2 mins. and then strain the milk through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl or pitcher. If you have a 4-cup glass Pyrex-style measuring cup with a handle, those work really well. Discard the espresso beans.

In a large (yes large) mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks. Working quickly, while the milk is warm, stream it into the egg yolk mixture while whisking constantly. Stir in the salt, then pass the custard mixture through the fine mesh sieve again and into the ramekins you prepared. It will be thin, and that’s okay.

Place the baking dish into your preheated oven and pour water into the dish, halfway up the sides of the ramekins. The amount of water will vary depending on the size of your dish and ramekins. It is unwise to pour the water in and then try to maneuver the dish into the oven… the water inevitably splashes into your custard. But don’t skip the water, as it is necessary to gently and evenly cook the pots de creme.

Bake for 35-50 mins., checking every 7 mins. or so after the 35 min. mark, until the custards are just set. When you ever-so-gently nudge a ramekin, only the very center should move. Be watchful: if you overbake, your pots de creme may crack or curdle. Remove the baking dish carefully from the oven and cool for at least 30 mins. Remove the ramekins from their water bath, cover and refrigerate for another 2 hours, at least, and overnight if you can. Serve cold or at room temperature with a drizzle of caramel sauce, as pictured below, or chocolate sauce.

Keep leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

espresso pot de creme with salted caramel sauce

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.