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.

Summer reading 2016.

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There are a number of factors I use to judge how much I enjoyed my summer. In terms of camping, this summer rates poorly– I don’t think we got the tent out once. Ditto for canning, boating and swimming. The weather was mostly fine, and my trip to Maine was great, although short… However, I like to focus on the positives, so I am writing today about what was the best reading summer in recent memory. The stars aligned so I almost always had a book in hand I was dying to read, eager to get back to, or excited to talk about when I was done. Here are some of the highlights.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

There are three qualities to my ideal summer read: water, family drama and mystery… in the sense of “I have no idea what will happen next”, not necessarily a whodunnit. Set in Martha’s Vineyard (bonus points) and featuring a family confronted with the loss of their monetary comfort, I flew through Sons and Daughters and immediately checked out the author’s short story collection, A Guide to Being Born.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

Oh, my heart. I always say that I am a sucker for old men narrators and dogs, and this novel had both; the story is essentially the narrator’s version of his life story, as told to his rescue dog. I worried at first that SSFW would be a little heavy and sad for summer reading, but was so quickly drawn into the story and then couldn’t bear to put it down. There is such hope, and love, within this sad tale. The tone reminds me of two recent favorites: Sweetland by Michael Crummey and All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I organized this list alphabetically by author so I wouldn’t have to rank them in order of preference… but The Nix was definitely my favorite of the entire summer. It’s a little challenging to summarize this novel, with all that’s going on, but the author in a recent interview described it as the story of a mother who abandons her eleven year old son, and the son’s journey many years later to figure out why. There’s parallel political drama– Chicago in 1968 and New York City in 2004– as well as some of the best character development I’ve read recently: a college student who made my teeth hurt, because I ground them every time I read about her; a gamer consumed by his beloved online world; strange but sympathetic twins. It’s really a great story, impeccably written, and I did not want it to be over.

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Lest you think I while away all my days with fiction, let me tell you about Tribe. It looks like another book about war, and I expected another “war is bad” warning, but that is not really the focus here. The author, who you remember from The Perfect Storm and other books, is a journalist who delves into why soldiers returning from combat are having such a hard time readapting to American society. Yes, some of it has to do with PTSD, but there is a strong argument to be made about the negative effects of the general anonymity and detachment we all experience in Western culture. Junger makes points that bring the problems beyond war, beyond the soldiers, and implies strongly that our current rote approach to welcome soldiers home is just not enough.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

A Cameroonian man, his wife and children are living in New York City while he works to become a citizen. We watch his struggles, sympathize with his persistence and hope, and turn each page wishing for good results and good news. We meet his employer, his immigration lawyer, his cousin and friends. I held my breath reading, understood and liked each character for different reasons, and enjoyed the heck out of this novel. Against the heavy backdrop of current political debate, it felt surprisingly positive and light. I hope it gets the same attention and regard as Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; it reminds me of both, for different reasons.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney*

My surprise of the summer! I was vaguely interested in this novel after reading that it has been shortlisted for several awards, but it sounded a little more murder mystery-ish than I generally like. Thank goodness I read it anyway! Fans of Tana French, of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries, even of the Showtime tv show Shameless, will be thrilled to find Lisa McInerney. The characters are crisp; they buzz with tension, anger, and passion. When I watched Breaking Bad, I marveled at the writers’ ability to blur the lines between good guy and bad guy, and McInerney does the same here. The main character is the teenage son of an alcoholic; his mom died, he deals cocaine for pocket money and street cred, and he’s in love with a beautiful girl. A bad guy, right? A guy who makes bad choices, for sure, but one who is kind to his friends, protective of his family, and a defender of the those who need some help. He is one of several complex characters you meet in these pages. I think this is a tremendous read for fans of mysteries and literary fiction alike, and I am secretly hoping Ms. McInerney brings some of the characters back in future novels.

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver**

I read Mary Coin by Silver last year and it was so good, I vowed to read everything she has written, as quickly as possible. Well… that hasn’t happened yet, but I eagerly seized the chance to read Silver’s newest novel, Little Nothing. I was expecting something along the lines of Geek Love or A Prayer for Owen Meany, but got so much more than that. LN is broken into four distinct periods of time and features the same characters: a daughter, her parents, the man who loves her and a young boy. The readers’ job is to discover how they relate to each other. If you’re like me, you will have a hard time putting the book down until you figure it out. With elements of comedy and magic realism, this reminds me of John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jim Shepard. I really don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because I so enjoyed unveiling the story as I read; I really hope this novel catches on to a wide audience.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

The tiniest slip of a novel; I read it in two hours on a sunny Sunday morning. Fans of Ian McEwan, Graham Greene or Michael Ondaatje will enjoy the perfectly formed story, the plot of which I won’t dare give away. Next time you are thinking about sitting down to watch a movie, especially if it’s a love story or period drama, just pick up MS instead. The only bad thing about this book is that it’s so short.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

I read The Heaven of Mercury a few years ago and liked it well enough to check out Mr. Watson’s newest novel. I hadn’t read any reviews or summaries and, frankly, the gorgeous cover and my vague memories of his last book were enough to sell me on reading this one. I am glad I trusted my instincts. This was an absolutely fascinating novel about a woman born in rural Mississippi in the early 20th century with a birth defect her family and doctor expect will make for a miserable, lonely life. With fearlessness and positivity, Miss Jane proves everyone wrong. An inspiring story of a strong female character unlike any other in recent memory.

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So there you have my favorites of summer 2016. My top picks were mostly fiction and almost all novels, but eclectic in their own right. I hope that lists like this will help you find the next great book to try, or to gift to someone you know. We are barreling into a fall release season full of big names and “much-anticipated” labels– Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Tana French, Eimear McBride, Francine Prose, Britt Bennett and Zadie Smith are just a few I am eager for– and I couldn’t be happier. My to-read list is so full, my friend D and I joke constantly about whether we are drowning in possibilities or weighed down by all the choices. I say it’s a good problem to have! Please comment and let me know what *you* are reading, waiting for, or loved recently. Happy reading!

*I received a review copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.

**I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Late summer tomato tart.

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It is hard to say goodbye to summer. On September 1st, the sky turned gray as if by command, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, Pumpkin Spice Lattes showed up at Starbucks, and photos of friends’ children in their stiff new school clothes took over my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Fall didn’t arrive gracefully this year– it descended. And I was not prepared. I feel like we haven’t had enough warm days. We only took our little boat out *one* time. I’m not ready to put away my white sweater, or my cute skirts, or my sandals. I’m not ready for stew!* But how does one lady rail against a season? I actually like autumn– the leaves, the cinnamon, the cozy sweaters and football games and comfortable sleeping weather. Rather than fight, I am choosing to celebrate the last few weeks of what is technically summer. I’m eating local berries or stone fruit every day. I’m stubbornly still wearing those cute skirts, with a cardigan now. And I am meal planning to make the most of local produce, with a focus on tomatoes. A very long lead up to say: this stunning, simple tomato tart is perhaps my favorite way to highlight and celebrate the glorious variety of late summer tomatoes.

It looks pretty fancy. That’s the ace in your pocket: it can be presented to a table at a family brunch or weekend gathering and I guarantee you will get some “ooh”s and “aah”s. Someone might clap! It smells good, like basil, garlic and warm tomatoes– and just wait until they get a bite. If you want to add a flourish or two, this pretty tomato tart is unbelievably easy to modify. You can use any kind of slicing tomatoes for the base, any kind of pesto for the sauce. You can make or buy the pastry. You can add other vegetables: onions, peppers, zucchini, etc. You can add meat: prosciutto, dry salame, rotisserie chicken or sliced ham. But I like this tart best as simple as this: buttery crust; perfectly ripe tomatoes; pungent, bright green, garlicky pesto; and supple fresh mozzarella. I could eat it every day in September, and I promise I will make a few more tarts before the tomatoes are done for the year. It is almost as good for brunch or lunch the next day, assuming you have any left over, and can be served cold or room temperature, much like good pizza.

Before we welcome bright blue autumn skies, put aside our cold brew in favor of spiced lattes, and tromp out into the orchards for pictures apples, let’s hang on to the last of summer with a sunny meal (or two) of tomato tart.

late summer tomato tart

Late Summer Tomato Tart (serves 4-8)

  • 1 9″ pie crust (my favorite is linked here, just leave out the sugar– makes enough for 2 tarts)
  • 1 lb. ripe tomatoes, cored, halved and sliced thinly
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/4 c. pesto of your choice
  • 1 T. olive oil (optional)
  • 4 oz. fresh mozzarella, shredded or torn into small pieces
  • 1 c. Sungold (or other cherry) tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Roll out the pie crust until it looks larger than a 10″ fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, like this one. Lay the pastry over the pan and press it down so it covers the entire base and goes up the sides. If you are short in some areas, break off pieces from other areas and patch. Using a rolling pin or sharp knife, go around the top of the pan and cut off any extra dough. Bake the crust for 10 mins. and remove from the oven. It’s okay if the dough shrinks down the sides slightly– I like to call this charm. Personality. You can see in the picture above the slightly uneven edges, but the tart tastes so good I don’t worry about perfection.

Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Remember the pan is hot, and work carefully so you don’t get burned. Lay the sliced tomatoes in concentric circles until they cover the base nearly completely. Overlapping is fine, if necessary. Salt the tomatoes very conservatively. Distribute the cheese in an even layer over the sliced tomatoes. Mix the pesto and olive oil together to make the sauce pourable (though you don’t want it to be too liquid, so skip the extra oil if your pesto is already quite runny), then dot the tart with pesto. Place the Sungolds around the top. Here is what the tart looks like before baking:

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Bake for 30-40 mins., until the crust is golden brown around the edges, the cheese is melted and golden, and the tomatoes are softened. Carefully remove the sides of the tart pan, cut with a sharp knife or pizza wheel, and serve immediately. Leftover tart will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

*Actually… since last week… I decided I am, in fact, ready for stew.

Finnish blueberry cream tart (mustikkapiirakka).

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I am jumping out of my seat with excitement over this tart! I first heard about mustikkapiirakka, which in Finnish means “blueberry pie”, in the Finnish class I took about five years ago. (I’m sure you can imagine, the week we spent discussing food terms was memorable!) It’s a typical not-to-sweet Finnish dessert, common in the summer when berries are plentiful. There is no recipe for it in my copy of The Finnish Cookbook, though I do see a recipe for savory cheese pie (juustopiirakka) I was tempted to adapt. In the end, I wasn’t sure about adapting savory to sweet, so I turned to Google; I found this recipe and worked on converting the ingredients to American measurements. The result is my Finnish blueberry cream tart, my favorite dessert of the summer, something I will be making for years to come. The Finnish name is a mouthful, but the ingredients are familiar and the method is straightforward. Finnish blueberry cream tart is a little bit of shortbread, a touch of blueberry pie, a hint of cheesecake, and completely delicious.

I am guessing mustikkapiirakka might be a new one for many of my readers, so let me explain it layer by layer. The reason I am calling it a tart instead of pie is the base, which is not a pie crust like you might expect in a traditional blueberry pie. It’s more of a shortbread, pressed into a tart pan to form a buttery, flaky, sturdy foundation for the filling. Now, let’s talk filling. First come the blueberries. Fresh, sweet, plump– but just a cup and a half will do. I learned the hard way about overfilling this crust; it’s not necessary, and it made a mess! 1 1/2 c. of blueberries should fit in your base layer in one even layer, with a bit of room left for the creamy filling. For the filling, I use creme fraiche; more of a specialty item, for sure, I enjoy using creme fraiche for baking projects with berries and summer fruit, especially those that call for sour cream or yogurt. It seems to sit right between those two: a bit creamier than yogurt, not as tangy as sour cream. Any of the three will work; substitute an equal amount of full-fat sour cream, or plain full-fat Greek yogurt, and you’re good to go. The finished tart is a little like cheesecake, though not as rich; sweet and pretty-purple from the berries; with a crisp, buttery base and golden brown edges. It’s really wonderful.

If you’ve ever made blueberry pie– you’re covered in flour and working to get that crust rolled out right, crossing your fingers the filling is thickened enough, sweet enough, enough to fill the crust… which you don’t want to be soggy– give three cheers for this tart. If you love cheesecake, as I do, but cringe at the thought of buying and using two pounds of cream cheese, plus sour cream, plus sugar– pump your fist for this blueberry cream tart! The Finns sure knew what they were doing when they put this combination together, and it’s time for it to catch on here. I’ll lead that charge; who’s with me?

Finnish blueberry cream tart (mustikkapiirakka)

Finnish Blueberry Cream Tart (Mustikkapiirakka)

For the crust:

  • 12 T. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 c. + 2 T. sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 c. flour (7 oz. weighed)
  • 1 tsp. baking powder

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 c. fresh blueberries
  • 1 c. creme fraiche, plain Greek yogurt or sour cream (8 oz.)
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 T. sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil or spray a 10″ tart pan like this one. I am sure you could successfully use a 9″ pie plate, too, though I haven’t tried.

Make the crust: cream together the butter and 1/2 c. + 2 T. sugar until fluffy and light yellow. Mix in the egg, then stir in the flour and baking powder just until mixed. Turn the dough, which should be malleable, but mostly in a ball, into your greased pan and use your hands to push it into an even layer across the bottom and up the sides of the pan. It will look like it is filling the pan, and that’s okay; the berries and filling take up relatively little room. Bake the (empty) crust for 10 mins. and remove to the counter to cool slightly.

While your crust bakes, whisk together the creme fraiche, egg, 4 T. sugar, vanilla and salt. The filling will be a very thin, pourable consistency.

Spread the blueberries evenly across the par-baked crust. Carefully pour the creme fraiche filling over and around the berries until the crust is filled evenly. Carefully return to the oven and bake for 30-35 mins. until the edges are golden brown and the filling around the edges is set. When you jiggle the pan slightly, you should see only a slight movement of filling in the center, not waves of uncooked liquid.

Remove from the oven and cool at room temperature for at least 40 mins. Serve warm or at room temperature, with ice cream or whipped cream if you like, maybe with a few extra berries on top. The tart will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Horchata.

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There’s a taco truck we love called El Camion. It’s parked beside the pet store and near our grocery store, so sometimes we just end up right there and are practically forced to stop in for a few tacos. My husband always gets fish tacos, but my choice is lengua (beef tongue) or cochinita pibil (seasoned pork) with the hottest salsa they have. I need to have something refreshing to cool my mouth… and I quickly learned the best option is a tall cup of horchata. Made with rice and sometimes almonds, cinnamon and sugar and served cold cold cold with lots of ice, horchata is creamy, sweet, delicious and thirst-quenching… and hands-down my favorite item on El Camion’s menu. It always tastes good, and it’s baffling why I waited so long to start making my own.

Imagine: a steady supply of ice cold goodness on the hottest days of the year! No need to venture into Ballard, and so much more affordable than buying a cup a day from El Camion. Horchata takes more planning than effort to make. I researched a handful of recipes before coming up with my own, and really like the ratio of rice and almonds I share below. Some variations include using only rice, exchanging almonds for an equal amount of raw cashews, or flipping the proportions of rice and nuts. I think it comes down to personal preference, and maybe price or ingredient availability, but any of these options will yield a great horchata. I used my Blendtec to pulverize the rice, but I think a strong food processor would also work. I chose to use a fine mesh strainer instead of a nut milk bag, which leaves some grittiness in the final product. I like that– it somehow seems more substantial, and the texture doesn’t bother me at all. If you want a smoother horchata, make sure to take the extra time to run it through a nut milk bag, or several layers of cheesecloth.

Whether it’s Taco Tuesday or just a warm summer evening, you will love having horchata in your refrigerator for a quick, cold drink. I am going to make a batch each week for the remainder of the summer, and treat myself! The summer is speeding by, and I want to enjoy every moment I can.

horchata

Horchata (adapted from Food52 Vegan and Yucatan)

  • 1 c. long-grain white rice
  • 1 cinnamon stick, about 3″ long, broken into smaller pieces
  • 1/2 c. raw almonds
  • 4 c. water
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • pinch of kosher salt

Place the rice and cinnamon stick into the jar of your blender and run on a medium speed until broken up. You don’t want fine dust, but you do want tiny, sand-like particles. Add the raw almonds, whole or sliced is fine, and 2 c. of water to the rice. Swirl to mix and allow to sit at room temperature for 8 hours.

Add the sugar, salt and remaining 2 c. water to the blender jar. Blend on medium-high speed for 1-2 mins. until smooth and slightly frothy. It should look like milk with sediment at the bottom of the jar. Set a fine mesh strainer, nut milk bag or cheesecloth-covered colander over a large bowl that will hold at least 4 c. liquid. Pour the contents of the blender into your straining set up and allow to drip for about 30 mins. If you push the mixture through with a spoon, you will get a grainier horchata, so try to just let it go. Discard the solids and store the horchata in a large jar or covered pitcher in the refrigerator. Serve over ice. Will keep in the refrigerator for about 5-7 days… if it lasts that long!