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Northwest Cioppino

Today I went shopping for Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve is usually hectic around my house. People are taking care of last minute details, wrapping gifts, looking for something to wear, finding the last few ingredients for our holiday feasts. We look at how to fit in our dinner, after getting ready, before going to church and then coming home for treats and reading the gospel story, putting the baby Jesus in the manger, and putting the star on the Christmas tree. I want to make something special but forgiving, something that can accommodate our imperfect schedule and still taste wonderful and look festive, something that will be ready when we are, and remind us of the special moment in the year that we have arrived at. My answer to this challenge for the past several years has been Northwest Cioppino.

Northwest Cioppino is a seafood stew, rich with shellfish and salmon. It begins with an herb infused tomato base which can be prepared in advance. When it is almost dinner time, steam the mussels and/or clams, if desired, while bringing the base to a boil on the stove top (fresh shellfish are great in this recipe but Cioppino is quite delicious without them too. See note below). Add the salmon, then the shrimp and clams and the stew is ready to eat.

Cioppino and a loaf of crusty bread makes a quick and delicious meal anytime. Add a salad, pasta with pesto sauce (the green pesto along with the red stew is seasonal and pretty), a bit of antipasto for an appetizer and a simple dessert, maybe gelato and cookies, and you have a festive dinner to welcome the arrival of Christmas.

Northwest Cioppino

1 diced green pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1/2 cup dry red or white wine
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 6.5-ounce can minced clams

1 pound fresh or frozen salmon fillets, skin removed, thawed and cut into 1 inch squares
1/2 pound medium cooked shrimp, shelled and thawed

1 pound mussels and/or clams (See Note below)

In a large pot saute green pepper and onion in oil until onion is tender but not brown. Add garlic and cook for one minute. Add undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, wine, parsley, salt, oregano, basil, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

(At this point the Cioppino can be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare the meal.)

Add fish pieces, and undrained clams to the simmering tomato mixture. Bring barely back to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 5 minutes or until fish is done.

Add thawed shrimp and steamed mussels and/or clams, if desired. Leave on the heat until they are warmed through. Serve in shallow bowls.

Serves five or six. Easily doubled.

Credits: This recipe is based on a recipe for Cioppino in a Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, "Favorite American Wines & How to Enjoy Them," published in 1979.

Note: It is not necessary to add fresh mussels or clams to this recipe. A perfectly delicious pot of Cioppino can be made without steaming fresh clams and/or mussels and sometimes a busy holiday schedule precludes the extra time and effort they require. But if you have time and interest, the shells add to the drama of the presentation and are a delicious addition to the stew.

Buy 1 pound of mussels and/or clams. Make sure to buy those with their shells tightly closed. Unwrap the shellfish as soon as you get them home, so that they can breath, and store them in the refrigerator. If any are open or their shell is cracked or damaged, discard them. Keep them cold until you are ready to prepare them. Then soak them in fresh water for 20-30 minutes. Lift the shellfish from the water and scrub their shells to remove any debris. If beards are visible grab them with a dry kitchen towel or pliers and pull sharply toward the hinge end of the mussel to remove.

Steam clams and mussels in several batches. Lightly brown one clove of minced garlic in 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil. Add enough shellfish to cover the bottom of the pan. Toss lightly to coat the shells with oil. Add ¼ cup white wine to the pan. Cover the pan and steam for 4 or 5 minutes or until the shells have opened. Any shellfish which don’t open should be discarded.

Repeat the process for the remaining shellfish until all of it has been steamed. Store cooked shellfish in the refrigerator until ready to add them to the Cioppino in the last minute or so of cooking. Or steam the shellfish while making or reheating the tomato base. Add any cooking liquid in the pan to the Cioppino along with the mussels and clams.

Mulled Cider

Now the cookies are baked and packed away in tins. Nestled together on a festive platter this year’s assortment of Christmas cookies look appealing. Round crisp-chewy Chocolate Crinkles next to sugar coated balls of Russian Teacakes complement each other’s shape, flavor and texture. Tangy little squares of lemon-iced Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies contrast the sharp spicy flavor, soft texture and sparkly surface of Ginger Cookie Sticks, and the smooth creamy texture of Peanut Butter Fudge. Together they offer something to tempt most any palate.

All we need now is a cup of hot spiced cider. I love to put on a pot of Mulled Cider early in the day and enjoy its scent as it slowly drifts through the house, quietly enhancing the holiday atmosphere. This recipe, fragrant with citrus, cinnamon and cloves, tastes good and looks pretty served in a glass mug. It is the perfect complement to a plate of homemade cookies.

Merry Christmas!

Mulled Cider

2 quarts apple cider
¼ cup packed brown sugar
2 sticks cinnamon
1 tsp. whole cloves
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
1 orange, sliced (unpeeled)

Combine ingredients in a slow-cooking pot. Cover and heat on low for 2 to 5 hours or longer. Serve with a ladle from the pot. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

From “Crockery Cookery” by Mable Hoffman

Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies

What fun is a cookie baking marathon without at least one new recipe? This year I decided to try a recipe for Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies. These cookies are based on a recipe I cut from the newspaper some time ago. It was hidden in my files, untried but still intriguing. I had lemon thyme on hand, as well as some hazelnuts, so it decided it was time to give this recipe a try.

I'm glad I did! I was intrigued by the combination of flavors suggested in the recipe and the way these flavors came together and complemented each other did create a delicious and unusual cookie. This unique recipe is a great way to use hazelnuts, locally grown in the Pacific Northwest. It is also an interesting use of thyme, a personal favorite. The result turned out to be very rewarding. These cookies are a new favorite on my Christmas baking list! I think they would also be a great addition to a spring luncheon, or served in summer with a tall glass of iced tea.

Thyme, Hazelnut and Lemon Cookies

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons lemon peel

In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in toasted hazelnuts. Set aside.

In a larger bowl, Use an electric mixer to beat together the sugar and butter until light and creamy. Continue beating with the electric beater while you add the egg, lemon juice, thyme and lemon peel.

Add the dry ingredients and mix until blended.

Divide dough into two equal portions. Form each into a long rope approximately 12 inches long and 1 - 1 1/2 inches wide. Cover each rope with waxed paper and form the dough into a square. Place the dough in the refrigerator for several hours, until firm. (At this point the dough may can be kept in the refrigerator for several days or in the freezer for up to a month.)

When you are ready to bake the cookies preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices and place squares of dough about 1 inch apart on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake 10 - 12 minutes, or until just slightly brown. Cool on racks.

Drizzle with lemon icing if desired.

Lemon Icing

1 cup powdered sugar
1 - 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

Mix powdered sugar and lemon juice until smooth. Add more lemon juice, a few drops at a time, until you reach a consistency that will drizzle easily but not run.

Pour the icing into a Ziploc baggie and seal. Snip 1/8 -1/4 inch from one lower corner of the baggie and use to pipe a drizzled line of icing on each cookie using a back and forth motion.

Russian Teacakes

No cookie baking marathon at my house is complete without making at least one batch of Russian Teacakes. After putting the batter for Chocolate Crinkles in the refrigerator I made the dough for this recipe, a favorite of my family for many years.

These cookies were introduced to me by my husband. We got a Betty Crocker cookbook as a wedding present and it included a recipe for Russian Teacakes. My husband urged me to try them. He had fond memories of his mother baking Russian Teacakes for their family over the years. I tried them and they were truly wonderful!

These cookies have so much going for them. They are pretty, festive and keep well. The dough is easy to prepare and does not have to chill before shaping. I use a small cookie scoop to make the balls of dough and then place them directly on the cookie sheet. Pretty easy! And, they are 1-inch balls placed 1-inch apart so the whole batch can be baked fairly quickly.

Though my family has grown over the years, when I mention baking Christmas cookies, Russian Teacakes are still usually the first cookie my family requests. As soon as they are out of the oven and rolled in sugar my family gladly and quickly devours them. I have to be careful to tuck enough away to serve holiday guests.

Russian Teacakes

1 cup butter, softened
½ cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ¼ cups white or whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup finely chopped nuts
powdered sugar

Mix butter, ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.

Combine flour, salt and nuts. Add this to the butter mixture and blend until dough holds together.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 400 degrees until set but not brown - 10 to 12 minutes.

Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar and set on a wire rack to cool. After cookies are cooled, or just before serving, roll the cookies in powdered sugar again.

Yield: approximately 4 dozen cookies.

Note: This recipe can be made with any type of nut. I generally use walnuts but if I only have pecans available I use them instead. I think almonds or hazelnuts would work equally well if finely ground.

Chocolate Crinkles

After putting my Ginger Cookie Sticks into the oven I sat down to figure out which cookie recipe I would try next. I looked through the family cookbook that I made several years ago and remembered my Aunt Hen’s Christmas cookie baking marathons. The family cookbook contains a list of cookie recipes she planned to bake the Christmas she was 83 years old. There were nineteen different recipes carefully handwritten on her tablet of lined white writing paper.

I think Aunt Hen always enjoyed baking. On many December evenings when I was a girl, I would walk to her house to help her bake cookies. Often she would work on a recipe from her list and I would make another recipe that appealed to my simpler palate. Aunt Hen liked chewy cookies made with coconut, fruit and nuts. I liked pretty chocolate or sugar cookies, without nuts, or gingerbread that was cut into shapes to construct a house or Santa’s sleigh. Aunt Hen always offered support. If she didn’t have the ingredients on hand to make the recipe I chose she would put the ingredients on her shopping list and I could make the cookies the next week. Often we completed 3 or 4 batches of cookies in an evening and stored them away in Aunt Hen’s collection of pretty holiday tins. When our baking was finished we would fill large plates with a collection of our cookies and give them to friends and neighbors.

One recipe I remember baking with Aunt Hen was Chocolate Crinkles. As I looked through my files for the recipe, I found many variations. Some used cocoa powder instead of chocolate. Some used butter or vegetable shortening instead of oil. I found this recipe, copied for me by a friend many years ago.

Note: I didn’t have any squares of unsweetened chocolate so I used 4 ounces of semisweet chocolate chips instead. While I was changing things up I decided to increase the amount of vanilla to 1 tablespoon and add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon too. Then I omitted the nuts to make the cookies more appealing to a simpler palate.

Chocolate Crinkles

4 squares unsweetened chocolate (or 4 ounces of chocolate chips)
2 cups sugar
½ cup oil
4 eggs
2 teaspoons (or 1 Tablespoon) vanilla
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (if desired)
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
powdered sugar

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a metal bowl over a pan of hot water. When the pieces are melted and the chocolate is smooth, blend in the oil and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add vanilla.

In a separate bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon (if desired). Add to the chocolate mixture until fully blended. Add the nuts if you like.

Chill dough for several hours or overnight. Shape into 1 inch balls and roll in powdered sugar until thoroughly coated. Place balls 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Yield: Approximately 5 dozen.

Ginger Cookie Sticks

I loved Alanna’s comment yesterday. She said, “I always think that the first step in a cookie-baking marathon is putting on a pot of soup.” Sounds like a great idea. Soup's on! Now let’s get down to business…

Christmas is barely a week away and I have hardly started baking (or Christmas shopping, or mailing Christmas cards or … but that’s another story!) But yesterday I knew a friend was stopping by and it seemed a shame not to have some homemade Christmas cookies to share. I wondered what I could make in a hurry, dug into my file and pulled out a recipe for Ginger Cookie Sticks.

This recipe had been cut from a Family Circle magazine several years ago and I remember it having a wonderfully deep, spicy, ginger flavor. What’s more, the decorative sugar crystals on the top make it sparkle with understated festive elegance. And even better, it is a bar cookie that can be mixed, spread in the pan immediately and baked in one batch.

I guess they were a hit. Between my friends and family, most of the cookies are gone this morning. So that’s where I am starting today – Ginger Cookie Sticks: Batch 2. While they are baking I’ll work out what to try next.

Ginger Cookie Sticks

1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely chopped
2 tablespoons coarse decorating sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a 13x9 pan with aluminum foil. Let the foil hang over the edge slightly to make removing the hot cookies easier after baking. Coat the foil with cooking spray.

Measure flour, cornstarch, ginger, cinnamon, white pepper, cloves and salt into a bowl and mix until thoroughly combined.

Beat the butter, sugar and molasses together in a large mixing bowl until well combined and creamy.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until blended. Spread batter in the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crystallized ginger pieces evenly across the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Gently sprinkle the coarse sugar across the top of the cookies and bake another 10 minutes or until the center is set.

Remove cookies from the oven and let cool on a wire rack. Use the foil to lift the cookies from the pan as soon as possible.

When cookies are firm, but not quite fully cooled, cut into 3 equal sections lengthwise and and crosswise at 1 inch intervals. I used a large pizza cutter being careful to gently cut through the final edge to prevent that side of the cookie from crumbling.

Great with coffee or spiced cider.

Italian Supper Soup

During December I often find myself wanting a hot nutritious dinner but having little time to prepare one. There are so many evenings out in December, running to meetings and special seasonal events. Often there are festive refreshments at these events but to leave home hungry is to risk over-indulging in calorie intensive holiday specialties. December can be hectic and when times are hectic a hot healthy dinner, especially one on the light side, can feel absolutely healing.

I cut something from the newspaper many years ago that can quickly and easily meet the requirements for those occasions. It is a recipe for Italian Supper Soup. It is a great anchor for a quick dinner. It can be prepared fairly quickly and, for the most part, in advance, with only a few steps to complete it at the last minute. It really dresses up a quick sandwich or salad or other weekday dinner fare, or it can stand alone when you want something nutritious to take the edge off your hunger before going out to a spread of rich holiday foods.

My children started calling it Christmas Soup several years ago, because of the red chunks of tomato and green leaves of spinach floating in the broth. It does offer a hint of festive color while it helps to warmly sustain us through the buildup and busyness of the season.

Italian Supper Soup

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14-ounce) cans vegetable broth
2 (16-ounce) cans cannellini beans or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14-ounce) can peeled tomatoes, crushed or chopped
½ cup tiny pasta, like orzo (or 1 cup larger pasta, like penne)
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into strips
2 – 3 cups fresh spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped

Heat the olive oil in a 4 quart soup pot. Add chopped onions and garlic and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the vegetable broth, white beans and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Cook pasta until it is almost tender. Rinse, drain and set aside.

(At this point the soup and pasta can be refrigerated until you are ready to assemble the meal.)

If the soup has been set aside bring it back to a simmer. Add the pasta and then stir in the basil and spinach, cooking just until the spinach has wilted and turned a bright green. Serve immediately. Makes 4 – 6 servings.

Peanut Butter Fudge

Aunt Hen's Kitchen

When I was a little girl I loved peanut butter. I chose to take a peanut butter sandwich to school for lunch almost every day. That was a sandwich made with a thick layer of peanut butter between two slices of white bread. Jelly was not a part of the equation. I also ate peanut butter with a spoon from the jar. Peanut butter was a staple in my diet.
So it’s really no surprise that, growing up, my favorite holiday treat was Peanut Butter Fudge. I loved the taste and soft creamy texture and I loved helping Aunt Hen make it. I felt very grown up as I stood on a stool in the kitchen so that I could stand tall enough to stir the brown sugar and cream on the stove top until it reached the soft ball stage.
Aunt Hen didn’t use a candy thermometer. She could tell when the fudge was done by the way it poured from a spoon lifted above the rim of the pot. She could tell by the thickness and texture of the pour, the way it clung to the spoon and dropped off.
I think it was mostly for my benefit that she also proved it was ready in a teacup of cold water. When the boil changed and the syrup thickened slightly my aunt would test for the soft ball stage by dropping a scant spoonful into the water and dabbing it together with her fingers. If it held and formed a smooth ball that didn’t fall apart and could be shaped with your fingers like soft dough, it was ready to be taken from the heat. Then the peanut butter, marshmallow cream and vanilla were stirred in and the mixture was left on the breezeway to cool.

The Best Part

After a while Aunt Hen would check the fudge. She would lay the open palm of her hand against the bottom of the pot. If she could hold it there the fudge was ready. When I tried it always still felt hot to me but my aunt knew what she was looking for. When the pot was the right temperature, we would bring it into the house and stir it. We stirred until the fudge became almost too thick to pour and then spread it in a greased 8-inch square pan before taking it back to the breezeway to firmly set.
Back in the house was the very best part. My aunt would let me take the empty fudge pot and taste any bits that had been left on the side or on the spoon. There was always enough left to satisfy and it tasted all the better for being warm and for the effort of scraping it from the pot. Sometimes I would share a taste but mostly it was mine, for helping, and being there to share the work.
Finally, when the fudge was set, we would cut it and put it away in a pretty Christmas tin, nestled between layers of waxed paper. Then I could taste a finished piece. No matter how it turned out it was always divine! I think it was because of the magic of Aunt Hen’s kitchen. Busy, messy, warm, accepting and productive, that was one of my favorite places to spend time as I was growing up.
Now I make Peanut Butter Fudge every Christmas season in my own kitchen. This year I have made three batches already and I’m sure I will make more. The memories are a blessing and the fudge is enjoyed as much by my friends and family as it was by an earlier generation who gathered around Aunt Hen's table.

Peanut Butter Fudge
from Aunt Hen's kitchen

2 cups light brown sugar
2/3 cups milk or light cream
1 cup marshmallow cream
1 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine the brown sugar and milk or cream in a large (3 or 4 quart) saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage (236-240 degrees F, I do use a candy thermometer) when tried in ice cold water.

Remove from heat and add marshmallow cream, peanut butter (use the crunchy kind if you like) and vanilla.

Let cool slightly (My aunt's test was to let it cool until you could hold your hand on the bottom of the pan. My experience is that her hands were tougher than mine! My pot is still hot when I begin stirring but is cool enough not to actually burn me as I hold it to stir the fudge). Beat until thick and creamy - almost too thick to stir.

Smooth into buttered pan.  When fudge is set, cut into squares.


Note: Instead of pouring the beaten fudge into a pan to set, Peanut Butter Fudge can also be molded into holiday shapes and decorated for special occasions.  I have used this recipe to make Peanut Butter Fudge Easter Eggs and chocolate topped Peanut Butter Fudge Cutouts for special occasion novelties and gifts.

Pecan Pie

I had my say about rustic pies in my last post and I’m glad I did. My Rustic Apple Pie was a good pie and my family ate every last bite before the weekend was over. We thoroughly enjoyed it! Yet while a rustic pie has its place, and I truly appreciate my family's acceptance and enthusiasm, there are times when I really want to bake a pie that looks as good as it tastes. I know it's possible, I just need to focus. So I put baking a beautiful pie on my before-the-new-year to-do list.

As I put away the Thanksgiving dishes and fall decorations this week, my mind turned toward the Christmas holiday. Ham and sweet potatoes are already on my menu for Christmas dinner and I began to think that pecan pie would be great for dessert. Having lived in the south for many years I feel a bit embarrassed to say that I really don’t know much about baking a pecan pie, so if I’m going to improve my pie baking skills that seems like a good handicap to work on. I started to look forward to the challenge of baking a pretty pecan pie.

I began by searching for a recipe. I looked through my cookbooks from the south and found a pecan pie recipe in almost every one. (The others probably had one too but some aren’t indexed so I wasn’t able to find them.) Yet all of these recipes called for a total of at least two cups of sugar or other sweeteners and that seemed a bit excessive. Finally, an Internet search turned up a recipe that sounded more to my liking. My pie is based on a recipe found on the Dohmann Pecan Farms website. It uses one cup of corn syrup plus ¼ cup of sugar (I used brown sugar) which is far less than most recipes call for.

Pecan Pie

2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup light corn syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 ¼ cups broken pecans

Line a 9 inch pie plate with a pie crust. ( I flute the edge of mine inside the rim of the pie plate. This keeps the edge closer to the pie filling and I don’t have any problem with the edge burning.)

Toast pecans. (I toasted mine in the microwave. I placed the pecans on a paper plate and microwaved on high for one minute. Then I stirred them and microwaved them on high for another minute. Depending on the power of your microwave you may want to stir them again and microwave on high for another minute.)

Spread the toasted pecans in the unbaked pie shell.

Mix the eggs, light corn syrup, brown sugar, flour, salt and vanilla. Pour the mixture over the toasted pecans.

Bake at 375 degrees F for approximately 45 minutes or until the filling is set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. You may want to check the pie halfway through baking and cover the edge with a strip of aluminum foil if it is browning too fast, while the pie finishes baking.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.

Note: My sister in law told me that she likes to melt ½ cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and spread the melted chocolate across the bottom of the unbaked pie shell. Then refrigerate the pie shell for a while, until needed. Once the chocolate has set you can add the toasted pecans and continue according to the recipe. It sounds great. I think I will try that next time!

Rustic Apple Pie

Cooking - In the Movies

I love movies! I have had a Netflix subscription for years and I often watch several movies a week at home. I also enjoy going out to the movies and find that sitting in a theater and immersing myself in the story unfolding on-screen can be a great way to clear my mind and reset the direction in which my thoughts are traveling.

Over the last few months I have seen several movies that suggest cooking is an activity that offers the same benefits. Not long ago I saw "No Reservations." It stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as a repressed chef who focuses her ambition and desires on her cooking. Whenever she feels challenged she heads for the kitchen. "Stranger Than Fiction" portrays baking as a similarly focused pursuit. In it actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Ana, a woman who has discovered the joy of nurturing others through her passion for baking. And then there is "Waitress" a charming and quirky story about a woman who deals with the challenges in her life by focusing her passion and energy on creating fantastic and unusual pies. These characters immerse themselves in the experience of cooking and let the benefits flow into other areas of their lives.

Pie Love

I love these movies, but I must admit, I have never been able to love a pie into existence the way I've seen it done on screen. Still, it seems like a beautiful thing to do. While I am able to make a respectable enough pie I have never been able to feel that sense of total immersion in the sensual experience of baking the way it was portrayed in these movies - and I want to!

I don't lack for trying. I dive into the experience of making pie with the best of intentions, but all too often, life's little distractions get in the way of me delivering a perfect product. This weekend, for example, what I hoped would be a beautiful crust on my Apple Pie, when I brushed it gently with milk and caressed it with a light dusting of sugar, turned dark and burned in several spots when I got caught up in a scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" that was playing in the family room at a crucial moment.

Fortunately my family is supportive. When I removed the pie from the oven and pointed out its defects, my son told me it would be great and that I should value it's rustic appearance. I suppose 'rustic' does have a certain charm to it! I'm going to embrace that title, lovingly, and be glad that I can enjoy a movie while nurturing my family with hot, homemade treats fresh from the oven!

Rustic Apple Pie

Pastry for a two crust pie
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
dash of salt
6 cups apples, peeled and thinly sliced
2 Tablespoons butter

You can make a pie crust, if you like, or get one from the frozen food section. Sometimes I make my own but I often get mine from a box in the dairy case. Wherever it comes from, use one crust to gently line a 9-inch pie dish and set it aside.

Peel, core and slice 6 or 7 Granny Smith apples, or other tart apples of your choice. Mix sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle this mixture over the apples and stir until the apples are well coated. Turn the apples into the pie crust.

Dot the apples with 2 tablespoons of butter. Cover with a top crust. Seal and flute the edge. Cut slits in the top to vent. Brush the crust gently with milk and sprinkle with a bit of sugar if you like.

Bake at 425 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. You may want to place a foil lined pan on a rack directly below the pie while baking, to catch drips. You may also want to cover the edge of the crust with a foil strip during the last 15 minutes of baking if it is getting dark too quickly. When the crust is golden brown remove the pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.


Sweet Potatoes with Bacon and Pecans

This weekend I have been reviewing the Thanksgiving holiday. This year was good in so many ways. There were many things to be thankful for and the holiday itself was laid back and relaxing.

I have also been revisiting the food. One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving dinner is the leftovers. I love the nostalgia of a cold turkey sandwich on white bread. It reminds me of Thanksgivings when I was a child. I also revisited the turkey as I made soup yesterday with carrots and celery that didn't get used in dinner preparation on Thursday.

Best of all the leftovers has been the sweet potatoes I made this year. They were fantastic! I used a recipe that I cut out of magazine several years ago and have been enjoying ever since. Though I missed the opportunity to post this before Thanksgiving, the holiday most people associate with sweet potatoes, I think this recipe would be equally good, even better, served with a baked ham for a festive dinner or even a holiday brunch. So, I figure, better late than never!

This great side dish is pretty and bursting with nutrition. Sweet potatoes are among the healthiest of all vegetables. They are high in potassium, fiber, vitamin A and beta-carotene. They also contains vitamin C and calcium. With that in mind I have enjoyed this unusual recipe even more. It offers a slightly different twist on the way sweet potatoes are usually prepared. It balances the sweetness of many sweet potato recipes by adding the savory elements of onion, bacon and chicken broth to add depth to the flavor of the brown sugar and the vegetable itself. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Sweet Potatoes with Bacon and Pecan

2 slices bacon
1 large onion, chopped (1 cup)
2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks (about 8 cups)
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons packed light-brown sugar
¼ cup pecans, toasted and chopped

Cook the bacon in a large skillet until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels reserving 1 or 2 teaspoons of the bacon grease in the skillet. Add chopped onions and cook until translucent.

Add the sweet potato chunks, chicken broth, water, salt and pepper to the skillet. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally for 5 or 6 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are crisp tender.

Sprinkle the brown sugar over the sweet potatoes and simmer, stirring frequently and reducing the liquid for another 5 or 6 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are tender and much of the liquid has evaporated. Crumble bacon across the top and stir it into the sweet potatoes along with the toasted pecan pieces.

Serve and enjoy!

Pumpkin Yeast Braid

Salt and Light

Recently we studied Matthew 5:13 in my Bible Study class. The lesson there is about salt and light and one of the questions we were asked was about what salt does and how it is used. It was fascinating to think about it!

Salt is so basic that we generally give it little thought. Like water, it is essential to life but easily available to us today and so generally taken for granted. In fact, if we do think about it these days it is generally thought of as something that contributes to high blood pressure and is to be avoided.

Still salt is necessary. What's more, it is amazing! Just a pinch of salt will change the taste of food. It will bring out its savor and add to its goodness. And not only does it enhance food's flavor, it can be used to preserve it. Salt inhibits decay. It also cleans and purifies. It can be used in household cleaning or to heal a sore throat.

What I Love About Baking

When used in baking, salt serves still another function. In bread, salt is used to slow the action of the yeast so the texture of the loaf is improved. The salt allows the dough to rise more evenly, avoiding large air pockets in the loaf.

That is one of the things I love about baking - kitchen chemistry! I love the transforming reactions of fire and heat, yeast and salt, that are at work in baking bread, the staff of life. I see in it God's plan for us, an infinite number of life lessons and so many teachable moments.

For many years now, this particular recipe has been transforming pumpkin and brown sugar, along with flour, salt and yeast, into a wonderful seasonal bread that my family loves and lets me know they long for around the holidays. The batch I baked last night, two braided loaves, are already gone and I will probably bake at least a dozen more loaves before the holidays are through.

Braided Pumpkin Yeast Loaf

1 package yeast
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup milk, scalded
1/2 cup pumpkin
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup warm water

Add all ingredients to a bread machine. Set the machine to 'manual' so that you can take the dough, when ready, and shape the loaves yourself.

(Or if you don't have a bread machine:
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Heat the milk, pumpkin, butter and water over low heat until warm, 115 to 120 degrees. Add mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until a dough forms. Turn the dough onto a well floured surface and knead for approximately 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn once. Cover with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until double, approximately 1 - 1 1/2 hours. Continue as follows.)

When the dough is ready, punch down and divide it into 6 equal portions. Cover and let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Roll each portion into a rope 15 inches long. Place ropes side by side on a greased baking sheet, one inch apart. Shape into two braids using 3 ropes for each, beginning in the middle and working out to the ends of the loaves. Pinch ends and tuck under. Cover loaves and let them rise until nearly double (approximately 1 hour). Bake in 375 degree oven 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a wire rack. Makes two braids.

Notes: This dough can also be used to make biscuits, which are delicious served with ham, turkey or sausage for brunch or dinner. Instead of forming braids, after the dough has been punched down, roll the dough to a 1/2 inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut with a floured 1 1/2 inch biscuit cutter and place biscuits close together on a greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until double. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden.

Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing

As I think about what will be on our Thanksgiving table next week, I find that there are not only recipes but particular serving pieces that come to mind. Along with roasted turkey, Dad's famous stuffing, and pumpkin pie there will be a few sentimental accents that are a special part of my family's Thanksgiving celebration.

On Thanksgiving day we will set the table with my mother's set of Courier and Ive's ironstone. We will serve jellied cranberry sauce from a can in a particular cut glass dish, served with a particular flat round serving utensil that was a part of my mother’s set of silver flatware. We will also get out the colorful turkey platter that sat on top of the refrigerator all year waiting to be called into service to cradle the Thanksgiving turkey.

And then there is the corn bowl. It is oval and patterned like the kernels of an ear of corn peeking out from it's green husk. It was Aunt Hen's bowl and was something that captured my appreciation from the time I was a child. Now it is mine and it brings back fond memories when nestled among other heirlooms on my Thanksgiving table.

So where is there room for something new in our Thanksgiving feast? This year I think I’ll serve Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing in the corn bowl instead of plain buttered corn. It can be made ahead and is served cold so there is no last minute fuss. It is also colorful and adds a nice crunch to more traditional Thanksgiving fare. It is simple to prepare and yet the pecan dressing adds a surprisingly complex twist to the familiar ingredients.

Of course this salad is really a great recipe year round. It is easy to take along to picnics or potlucks. It is pretty and keeps well for several days. It can be served as a side dish or even as a snack to be scooped up with chips like a salsa. It can also be served warm from the microwave if the weather discourages you from eating something straight from the refrigerator.

Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing

1 bag frozen sweet corn, thawed
3 cups very small cauliflower florets (fresh or frozen)
2 cups (1 box) halved grape tomatoes

1/3 cup pecans
3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup light olive oil, divided
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons snipped chives (or 2 teaspoons dried)
2 Tablespoons snipped parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a small saucepan. Add the garlic and pecans. Cook and stir pecans for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Let cool slightly and remove the pecans from the oil with a slotted spoon. Reserve the oil and garlic. Set pecans aside.

Combine the reserved oil and garlic, white wine vinegar, chives, parsley, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

In a large bowl, mix together the sweet corn, tomatoes and cauliflower florets. Add the dressing and gently mix. Cover and chill for 4 to 24 hours. Stir in pecans and serve.


Brussels Sprouts

One summer a good friend of mine and her family stayed with me for a week. While she was here, she frequently stopped at the nearby produce market and brought something unusual back for us all to try. She told me she’d heard we should try something new every day! Sometimes seasonal or exotic produce was just the thing to do the trick.

That summer my friend introduced me to kumquats and apricots for the first time. Later that summer I tried lychee and figs. I felt adventurous, enjoyed the experience and challenged other friends and family to do the same.

I still stop by the local produce market regularly and I still find new things to try from time to time. A few days ago, when I stopped by for milk and bananas, I noticed big green stalks in a large box out front. When I got closer I saw that they were brussels sprouts. I had never bought them fresh on the stalk before. I remembered my friend’s lesson and, thinking it had been a while since I had tried anything new, I challenged myself to buy a stalk.

When I got them home I had to admit that I didn’t really know how to prepare brussels sprouts. I probably never even ate a brussels sprout until I was in my 20’s. My husband had indicated over the years that he was perfectly fine with that omission from his diet and my children somehow learned to turn up their noses at the cute vegetable. On a few occasions I had half heartedly tried to encourage them to pretend they were giants eating a plateful of large cabbages but they didn't go for it. When my oldest son was young he was even overheard describing something he found terribly offensive as tasting all “brussels sprout-y.” Figuring that if I cooked them I would also be the only one eating them, they just never seemed to be worth the bother.

Now that I had my stalk of brussels sprouts on the kitchen counter I had to figure out how to cook them. A quick Internet search yielded lots of choices. I settled on a recipe at SimplyRecipes.com for Brussels Sprouts with almonds and butter and onions.

I was surprised by how pretty the crisp tender brussels sprouts were. I was also surprised by how much I liked the taste. Those who share my table seemed less impressed but everyone tried them and there were no real complaints. I found that encouraging. You have to start somewhere!

My husband commented that he thinks cabbage is just as good and easier to prepare. In a sense, I agree. Still, from my point of view, brussels sprouts have some fundamental advantages. Their shape and texture appeal to my imagination and the color sparkles on a plate when they are fresh and barely tender. They also add an elegance that cabbage just can't match. With all of these virtues brussels sprouts can elevate the look of a meal from everyday fare to something special. So, try them, and enjoy the adventure!

Brussels Sprouts with Almonds

1 stalk fresh brussels sprouts
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice, or 1/2 fresh lemon
salt and pepper
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds

Cut or break the sprouts from their stalk. Remove any outer leaves from the sprouts that don't look fresh. Wash thoroughly and cut away any unattractive spots. Place the sprouts in a pot and steam them for approximately 5 minutes, just until their color brightens. Rinse again in cold water, drain, and cut the sprouts in half ( cut very large ones in quarters.)

Melt butter in a large skillet and saute onions until tender. Add the brussels sprouts and cook over medium to medium-high heat, for approximately five more minutes, stirring frequently until the sprouts are crisp tender. Do not overcook!

Remove the skillet from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with one teaspoon of lemon juice or squeeze half a fresh lemon over the sprouts. Stir. Top with the toasted almonds.


Vending Around the World

Okay. Enough about seasonal fare for the moment. Now that I have this platform I want to ask you a question I have been wondering about for years? Tell me, have you ever seen a vending machine that claims to make piping hot french fries in 45 seconds...and delivers? I have!!

A few years ago my family traveled to Melk, Austria. We had just experienced a day of wonder and inspiration, a picture perfect page from an album of family vacation memories. The weather was good, the sky was blue. We saw some beautiful sites, read about history, learned a little, played a little, got a little lost and then found our way back again. We moved at our own pace, sometimes running, sometimes standing still until we happened back to the little train station in town a short while before our train would arrive.

The station was small so we were just passing the time, making sure we had everything, trying to read the signs in a language we didn't really understand, counting the foreign coins in our pockets and looking for a snack or a drink to buy. We slowly ambled through the station to the platform and stood there talking when someone said, "Look at that!" We turned and saw an odd looking vending machine with a large picture of french fries on the front. Could it be? Could you actually buy edible french fries from a vending machine on a train platform in Melk, Austria?

We consulted my oldest son who understands the language. He carefully read the writing on the machine and assured us that it did indeed promise to produce french fries in a mere "45 sekunden".

This we had to see! We had time. We had nothing else to do. We dug in our pockets and collectively came up with the right amount of change in euros to give it a try.

Sure enough, after the plink of coins, the sounds of mechanical operation, and the promised amount of time, a cup of hot french fries appeared behind a door near the bottom left of the machine. On the right the machine spit out a package of ketchup and salt.

What's more, the french fries, or pommes frites as they are called in Austria, tasted pretty good! It is surprising how good something unexpected can taste when you are out of your element, busy and engaged, in a country far from home. It was amazing! We were thrilled and amused to find such an unexpected treat while waiting for our train on a Sunday afternoon. We documented the event with our camera and shared our cup of french fries between us. Soon our train arrived and we rode back to Vienna, satisfied and charmed by the wonderful diversity of details with which travel so often acquaints us.

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread

Something a little different but still filled with the flavors and scents that mark the season - that's what I was looking for when I pulled this recipe from my box.

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread seems to fit! It's flavor and texture offer a nice contrast to the other breads I baked while using up a large can of pumpkin last week. This recipe for pumpkin bread was also a real hit with friends and family. This pumpkin loaf has an appealing smooth cream cheese filling, tastes less spicy than the other pumpkin breads I bake, and offers a nice hint of citrus.

For me, this recipe also brings back fond memories. It is handwritten on a recipe card by my sister-in-law, Mary Beth. We have spent many Thanksgivings together, in a variety of family settings all over the country. She always brings samples of wonderful recipes she has tried that feature pumpkin in an interesting way. She has shared pumpkin cookies and pumpkin soup as well as this unusual pumpkin bread.

As I searched my memory for which Thanksgiving we had first enjoyed this bread together, I was struck by the number of fond flashbacks that came to mind. I remembered snowstorms and sunny after dinner walks, after Thanksgiving shopping trips and creative leftovers. This recipe binds me to holidays past and present and reminds me of our family's unique holiday traditions. It took me on a wonderful journey that left me smiling about the places we have been and the places food can take us without ever leaving our own kitchen.

Maybe you won't enjoy making this bread as much as I did last week but if you make it this year, and share it with friends and family, it may pay special dividends in the future when you remember times past! Happy Baking!

Pumpkin Ribbon Bread

2 3oz. packages cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
1 egg
2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or ground nutmeg
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

To prepare the filling : In a small bowl beat cream cheese, sugar and flour with an electric mixer until smooth. Add egg and continue beating until the ingredients are well combined. Stir in grated orange peel. Set aside.

To prepare bread batter: Combine sugar, salt, spices ,flour and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Whisk pumpkin, vegetable oil, water and eggs in a separate bowl until well blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined.

Pour 1/4 of the batter into each of two prepared loaf pans. Carefully spread half of the cream cheese filling over the loaves. Cover each with 1/2 of the remaining batter to cover the filling.

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 hours. (Mine baked more quickly. Test the loaf early to see if it's done. If it springs back when touched lightly in the center, and has a golden color on the top the loaf is done. A toothpick can also be used for testing.)

When the loaves are done, remove them from the oven and cool on a wire rack for ten minutes before removing them from the pans. Let them cool completely on the wire rack. Store bread in the refrigerator.

Note: You may choose not to include the cream cheese stripe. I made a second batch with my son's preferences in mind. I omitted the filling and sprinkled the top with chocolate chips and nuts. He gladly consumed the results!

Meringue Ghosts

Here it is a few days before Halloween and I have scarcely thought about it. I have a pumpkin on my front porch that I got free with a fill up at the gas station but other than that I have not decorated. I did get down the box of fall decorations from the shelf in the garage but until yesterday I hadn't opened it.

Now, suddenly, I am thinking maybe I should do something for the occasion. I am wondering if I have a perfect recipe somewhere, one that is quick and easy, seasonal and yet subtle.

After a little thought I remember something I made years ago - Meringue Ghosts. They were a great treat to make with my children. The recipe has only a few ingredients and involves kitchen tasks my children were eager to help with when they were young - cracking eggs, operating the mixer, using a pastry bag to squeeze ghost shaped dollops of meringue onto parchment paper and then decorating them with chocolate chip eyes. Since the form of a ghost is very forgiving, a great deal of skill and experience is not necessary to come up with a pleasing result.

This year I am on my own in the kitchen and still Meringue Ghosts seem like a good idea. I will have to handle the pastry bag myself but these cookies are easy to make, use simple ingredients, are low in calories and fat and have a wonderful vanilla flavor. I think that baking a batch makes a great way for children of all ages to enjoy the season.

Note: When I went to find the recipe I couldn't locate the one I originally snipped from a magazine so I searched for the recipe on-line. I found it at Diana'sDesserts.com. There they are attributed to the October 2003 issue of Sunset Magazine. I also found some great advice on working with meringue at JoyofBaking.com.

Meringue Ghosts

3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Take cold eggs and separate the white from the yolk carefully. (Any trace of egg yolk or grease in the egg whites or on the bowl or the beaters will inhibit the fluffiness of the meringue.) Cover the yolks and return to the refrigerator for another use. Set the whites aside until they warm to room temperature, approximately 30 minutes.

Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar in a deep bowl at high speed with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Continue to beat adding sugar slowly, one tablespoon at a time, until the meringue forms stiff peaks and a little of it rubbed between your fingers no longer feels gritty. Beat in vanilla.

Heat oven to 200 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, dabbing a small bit of meringue between the corners of the parchment and the pan to help the parchment lay flat.

Scoop meringue into a gallon sized Ziploc bag. Seal the bag. Snip a 1/2 inch opening across a lower corner of the bag. Use like a pastry bag to pipe meringue onto the parchment paper in the shape of a ghost approximately 2 inches wide, 3 or 4 inches long, and 2 inches apart. Place two miniature chocolate chips on the shape and press lightly into the meringue to form eyes. Repeat with remaining meringue.

Place ghosts in oven. Bake until meringues turn lightly golden, approximately 1 1/2 hours, turning and switching position of the pans halfway through. Turn oven off and let meringues sit in the closed oven for another hour before removing.

These are great on their own or with a bowl of ice cream or fruit. They might also be nice as a decoration on a cake or pumpkin pie.

Hint: To enhance the vanilla flavor of the meringue I used vanilla sugar that I had on hand. I make vanilla sugar whenever a recipe calls for the seeds from a vanilla bean. After I scrape the seeds into the recipe I am making I seal the leftover outer hull in a storage container covered with several cups of sugar. This infuses the sugar with a wonderful vanilla scent and flavor. After a couple of weeks the sugar can be used in place of regular sugar in any recipe where you would like to boost the vanilla taste.

Pumpkin Chocoate Bread

Yes, some years we do have beautiful fall color in the Pacific Northwest! It is almost always interspersed with the bright woodsy color of evergreens but it does come our way. It is just hard to appreciate it when it is veiled in fog and persistent rain on those monotonous gray days we are famous for.

This week we have had two days of beautiful weather and it is only Wednesday. Yesterday the sunrise was lovely, revealing ribbons of fog in the valleys as the sun climbed above the hills to break into gorgeous sunshine and reflect on bright blue skies. The gold, orange and crimson leaves of autumn popped against the brilliant background of green and blue. I couldn't wait to grab my camera and head outside to enjoy the riot of fall colors and the bright shabbiness of leaves strewn everywhere.

With so much evidence of autumn around me my thoughts turned to, you guessed it, pumpkin! As I brought my camera back into the house I had an overwhelming urge to bake something and all of the recipes I thought of started with "Pumpkin. .."

I found a favorite recipe for pumpkin bread, looked in my pantry, and found one large can of pumpkin. It seemed so wasteful to open it when all my recipe called for was 1 cup, but I didn't want to run to the store. I wanted to bake...now...while this beautiful autumn day still had me in its grip. What to do? I pulled out more recipes and determined to bake until I had used the whole can! The results will be showing up in my blog over the next couple of weeks.

I began with a recipe I have been using for maybe twenty years. It is a special occasion bread that marbles chocolate and pumpkin batters into a dense rich loaf. It makes a big loaf and is quite pretty, especially when drizzled with melted chocolate.

Marbled Pumpkin Chocolate Bread

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup butter, melted
1 cup solid-pack canned pumpkin

1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

First melt the chocolate. You can do this by placing the chocolate chips in a small glass bowl and microwaving them for short intervals while stirring carefully in between. The time varies according to the power of your microwave but I put mine in for 30 seconds, then stir and repeat at intervals of 15 seconds. In a minute or two the chocolate is melted. Or melt it any other way that feels comfortable for you. Set it aside.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Mix well.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, butter and pumpkin with a wire whisk until thoroughly blended. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients just until combined, being careful not to over mix.

Place half of the mixture in a clean bowl and add the melted chocolate. Gently fold it into the batter until blended.

Spoon the pumpkin and the chocolate batters alternately into a greased 9 inch loaf pan. Run a thin knife through the batter, moving the knife back and forth lengthwise at one to two inch intervals to produce the marbled effect.

Bake the loaf at 350 degrees for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Remove the loaf from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then remove it from the pan and let it rest on a wire rack until completely cool.

When the loaf is cool, melt 1/4 cup of chocolate chips. Stir until smooth and place the melted chocolate in a Ziploc sandwich bag. Seal the bag and snip a small piece from the lower corner with scissors. Use it like a pastry bag to squeeze the chocolate onto the top of the loaf in a random pattern. Let the chocolate cool. Enjoy!

Cheese Grits

How do you feel about grits?

It seems that everyone I know has an opinion about them. Most everyone I know, in this part of the country, seems to think they don’t like them. When I happily tell that I am planning to make grits for dinner, they screw up their face and back away slightly. “Grits?” they say. “You’re looking forward to eating grits?” That’s what I like to see when I’m talking about food – a passionate response! And the answer is, “Yes! Yes I am.” Grits are delicious!

Grits have long been a southern staple. Growing up in the south I frequently saw them served for breakfast, scooped on a plate with a pat of butter on top. I must confess, I didn’t like them then. Served plain they have no more pizzazz than oatmeal or cream of wheat. Also, most often white grits were served and, in my opinion, yellow grits have a bit more to offer in terms of color and texture on a plate. Yellow grits are also known as polenta, and polenta sounds trendy and more desirable than grits, so if your friends are opposed to eating grits and give you that “grits face” tell them you are serving polenta and, while that might not inspire enthusiasm, it is less likely to invite a sour look.

Now I enjoy grits for breakfast. I add a good bit of freshly ground black pepper to a bowl of yellow grits, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Or substitute a pat of butter and cheddar cheese. It also makes a good side dish at breakfast or dinner.

For dinner tonight I am making Cheese Grits (Polenta) Casserole. It is a comfort food, much like macaroni and cheese, only easier to prepare. Start with good yellow corn grits. I use Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits Also Known as Polenta. These are found in the health food section of my favorite supermarket but are sometimes found in other sections. If you can’t find that brand try any other type of grits you can find - but do try them. You may find you like them more than you thought you did.

Cheese Grits Casserole

1 cup grits (polenta), prepared according to package directions
½ teaspoon garlic powder
3 Tablespoons butter
1 cup grated cheese
2 eggs, well beaten
¼ cup milk

Prepare 1 cup of uncooked grits according to package directions. Then stir 3 Tablespoons of butter into the warm grits along with ½ teaspoon garlic powder and 1 cup of grated sharp cheese. I usually use extra sharp cheddar cheese but fontina works well, and other cheeses would work well too.

Beat 2 eggs with ¼ cup of milk. Add this to the grits and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased 2 quart casserole dish. Bake for 45 minutes in a 425 degree oven.

Note: This is a forgiving recipe. A little more or a little less cheese, butter, or even milk won't spoil the recipe. And it can be baked at other temperatures if needed, so that it can share the oven with another dish that requires a lower baking temperature. Cooking time will differ but just leave it in the oven until the top begins to brown.


Breakfast in Japan

Last week I spent five wonderful days in Japan. The weather was unexpectedly brilliant. I was warm, several days were sunny, and I never needed my umbrella. It doesn’t get much better than that! I spent three days in Tokyo and a day and a half in Nara. It was spectacular!

One of the best things about traveling in Japan is the morning. Though dead tired from the journey the night before, and after falling into bed and fast asleep around 10 pm, I woke up in the morning very early, while it was dark and still outside my room.

There is a certain magic in coming to consciousness at 3 am in a distant land, wide awake, with thoughts swimming in your head. The clock by my bed told me that there was plenty of time to sleep but my internal clock told me that I was ready to get started with my day. Certainly it was early but the day stretched out before me, a blank canvas waiting to be painted. What a wonderful feeling!

There were so many fine choices. I could stay in bed and enjoy the softness of the down comforter on top of me, the unusual pellet filled pillow under my head, the sensations of restful comfort after a long journey. Or, in this space, far across the world from my home, I could use my morning to read, or write, or carefully plan my day. There was an opportunity to do some inner housekeeping while the world around me slept, and to watch the darkness outside my window slowly fade into a steel gray morning unveiling the harbor in the distance. There is such a peace to time unwinding before you, when you are alert and outside your normal routine. Everything seems possible.

I finally got up to make tea in the lovely little teapot provided, poured it from the spout on the side into two low, covered teacups with lids and dark saucers. It was a joy to hold the hot tea, to feel the comforting sensation of warmth against my hand and to taste the slight bitterness of the fragrant liquid with the heightened awareness of a traveler enjoying luxuries that a host has so thoughtfully provided.

Yet soon enough my stomach began to intrude upon my peace. I began to feel hungry and wonder what there was to eat. I had a coupon for breakfast at the restaurant downstairs and by 7am I was there to see what was available. I found a buffet of hot and cold breakfast items, both Japanese and western style. It was a fabulous spread! There were a variety of fruit juices, coffee and tea, a selection of fruit and pastries, as well as potatoes, sausage, bacon and eggs. There were also traditional Japanese breakfast favorites such as salad, miso soup, fish, pickles and rice with nori strips to wrap the rice in. I tried the rice and broiled fish with dried nori, a small portion of Japanese omelette along with miso soup and a few pickled vegetables. I also had a small chocolate filled roll and a boiled egg. As it turned out, morning was the perfect time to explore some of the exotic differences between Japanese and western cuisine.

In case a Japanese breakfast doesn't sound appealing, a traveler has no trouble finding a more western style alternative. It is easy enough to find a good cup of coffee and fresh baked goods in any number of restaurants or coffee shops.

On my second morning in Japan I did just that. I was eager to explore the difference between a breakfast of baked goods at home and one in Japan. I walked from the hotel toward the train station and quickly found a small bakery. It offered a variety of breads and rolls that were selected from baskets with tongs and placed on a tray. I chose a scone with sugar sprinkled on top, a small roll with a sausage inside and a chocolate croissant. I also ordered coffee and picked up a boiled egg. The cashier put the rolls in a cute basket and poured my coffee and I found a table outside on the sidewalk.

Despite the sugar on top, the scone was less sweet than I would usually expect to find in the US. On the other hand the chocolate croissant was even more buttery and the chocolate was dark and flavorful. Better yet, it was still warm from the oven. The cool air, the warm croissant oozing rich dark chocolate, the strong hot coffee savored to the exotic hum of conversations in an unfamiliar language and the almost familiar but slightly different sounds of the city and its traffic wove a rich and satisfying texture through my senses in the morning light. When I finished breakfast I felt full and satisfied and I happily rolled my suitcase on toward the train station to ride the shinkansen south.

The next morning I woke up in Nara and tried another hotel breakfast buffet. This one was less elaborate but still offered a wide variety of both Japanese and western style food choices. I ate rice, pickles, fish and miso soup in a quiet dining room oddly adorned with Halloween decorations. Once again the breakfast was a pleasant cultural adventure.

Friday morning found me in Tokyo again. At the small hotel in Hamamatsucho I enjoyed a different style of Japanese buffet breakfast that offered salad, boiled eggs and toasted rolls. While less adventurous than some of my other morning meals it was fresh, convenient and provided a nutritious start to the day.

On my last morning in Japan I walked and shopped in search of something different. Finally I settled on a Japanese coffee house that offered a set breakfast of coffee, banana juice and an egg sandwich for a reasonable price. They upgraded the coffee to a latte for only 50 yen.

The egg sandwich was a bit different than expected. It was more like egg salad served with slices of mild ham on a hot dog bun than the scrambled eggs I had imagined from the picture. And the 'banana juice' turned out to be a frothy fruit smoothie served over ice. The lattes they made were exquisite with a lovely heart and leaf drawn into the foam on the top. It was a fun, pretty meal, enjoyed at a large comfortable table as I reviewed my adventure and made plans for the journey home.

Despite warnings in one of my travel books claiming that a traditional Japanese breakfast is one meal that foreigners are not likely to enjoy, as the dense volume of rice will make you want to go back to bed, I found that a breakfast built around a dish of rice was filling and a great way to start a busy day of traveling and sightseeing. And, of course, if you don't want rice for breakfast, there are many other choices. Simple or fancy, I found that breakfast was the meal I most looked forward to in Japan. Because of the difference in time zones and routines I felt hungry in the mornings as well as energetic and adventurous. My Japanese breakfasts were mostly delicious and without exception a great start to a busy day. And so I collected some fabulous breakfast memories in Japan and brought home some interesting ideas and a new perspective on the morning meal.

Meals for One

In some ways this is a strange time for me to start a food blog. While it seems my family has always been busy and meals have been erratic for years, I just sent my middle child off to college and now I have even fewer mouths to feed at dinner time. In fact my husband often misses meals and my youngest son, who still lives at home, is frequently grabbing a quick bite between football and other activities and eating at odd hours. Quite often these days I find that I am eating dinner alone. Sometimes I eat leftovers or fast food but there are times when I want to eat something fresh and healthy and home cooked, though it is always nice if the preparation is easy.

One of my favorite easy meals involves little more than a bag of spinach and a can of chickpeas. When I am hungry and in a hurry but want to feel that I am nurturing my body with natural vitamins and calcium I am always glad to find that bag of spinach I picked up at the market waiting for me in the refrigerator.

Spinach with Chickpeas

2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1 clove garlic
1 bag fresh spinach, washed
½ fresh lemon
curry powder or cumin (optional)

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large skillet. Open the can of chickpeas. Drain and rinse. Add the chickpeas to the skillet. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Add a little curry powder or cumin if you like. Continue cooking over medium heat until the beans are warm and toasty, two minutes, or longer if you like them a bit nuttier. Remove from heat and transfer the chickpeas to a plate.

Heat a bit more olive oil in the skillet and when it is hot add a pressed clove of garlic and stir for one minute. Then gradually add the fresh spinach. Turn and stir, adding more as room allows until the whole bag has been added and all of the spinach has wilted. If the spinach begins to stick or get dry, sprinkle with a few drops of water and continue cooking. When all of the spinach has wilted squeeze half a lemon across the leaves and stir, then add the chickpeas back to the pan. Combine and stir until the chickpeas are warm again then remove from the heat. Served with toasted pita bread, or ‘Tandoori Naan’ from Trader Joe’s.

I find this to be a simple and healthy quick meal. If you have a heartier appetite it would be great served with rice, orzo or couscous. It also makes a nice side dish.

Harvest Gazpacho

It’s early October. My tomato harvest is still ripening indoors after a cool summer in the Pacific Northwest. In August my tomato plants looked beautiful, with hordes of little yellow flowers just waiting for enough warmth to burst into bright red tomatoes. Temperatures remained cool and gradually the flowers were transformed to small green tomatoes and, oh so slowly, into bronze tinged fruit, and, finally, as the promise of summer warmth faded into fall, I picked my mildly blushing tomatoes and brought them in to the kitchen. Now there are ripe red tomatoes all over my counter.

As the cool northwest summer has turned to a wet and still cooler northwest fall, my eagerness for tomatoes has faded. I suppose there are many possibilities but much of my enthusiasm dwindled waiting for those green tomatoes to turn to a deep rich red. Since they have been ripening on my counter I have made tomato sauce but most of my favorite tomato dishes feel a little out of place in the shortening days of autumn. What to do?

The answer – I decided I needed a new recipe. What says autumn in the kitchen? Roasted vegetables, orange tinged hues, recipes with names that suggest abundance. And which dishes had I missed the most as my tomatoes took their own sweet time ripening in my garden?

The recipe I craved the most this summer was gazpacho. I made it twice in August, with store bought tomatoes. The result was nice but not completely satisfying. So I decided to try again. I gave it a new name and tried to fortify it with a little more substance and rich flavor to complement our chilly autumn weather.

I like gazpacho with bread in it. For years I made a version that added bread in the form of croutons as accompaniments when serving. The texture of the soup was okay for summer, a little thin, but refreshing. The croutons added crunch and texture. Still, for autumn, the idea of bread in the gazpacho, thickening it, really appealed to me and, as I looked for new recipes, I found that food writers agree that adding bread to the main list of ingredients is the authentic way to go.

I found several gazpacho recipes on the Internet that included bread. In fact they suggested that bread was perhaps the most essential ingredient in gazpacho, followed closely by olive oil, garlic, salt and vinegar. Interesting! Several sources called for soaking stale bread and then squeezing out the water but the mushiness of that approach did not appeal to me. Simply adding sliced bread with the other ingredients seemed easier, more direct, and at least worth a try. I had a plan so I assembled my ingredients.

Harvest Gazpacho

olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground pepper
balsamic vinegar
three slices of bread
9 medium tomatoes
2 bell peppers
1 jalepeno pepper
2 cucumbers
1/2 large red onion
3 cloves of garlic
½ cup cilantro
1 11.5 ounce can Spicy Hot V8 juice

I got out olive oil, sea salt and the pepper grinder. I had no sherry vinegar on hand, and while I’m sure it would have been nice, and more authentic, I used balsamic vinegar instead. I had part of a loaf of olive bread on hand that was a couple of days old. I cut several slices. Any type of French or Italian bread would work nicely. If the crust is too hard or thick it might be best to remove it. If the bread is too fresh, toasting it would probably improve the texture.

Next, I cut maybe 9 medium sized tomatoes in half. I placed them, cut side down, on a baking sheet and roasted them under the broiler until the skins began to blacken. That made the skins easy to remove. I cut and seeded two bell peppers, one red and one orange. Any bell peppers can be used but red gives the richest color and the orange one appealed to me in the interest of adding a bit more of an autumn hue. I also halved and seeded one jalapeño pepper. I laid the pepper pieces on the baking sheet and put them under the broiler, again until the skins began to blacken. I removed that skin as well. I peeled and seeded two large cucumbers, cut up half of a red onion and pressed three large cloves of garlic. I also cut several handfuls from a bunch of cilantro I had on hand.

I got out the blender and added my ingredients in batches. I ran the blender until the contents were fairly smooth but no longer than needed. I poured each batch into a large bowl and then stirred them together with one can of Spicy Hot V8 juice. I also added maybe a quarter cup of virgin olive oil and a few tablespoons of the vinegar.

That’s it. I served the gazpacho in low soup bowls, at room temperature. It is nice and refreshing to serve gazpacho chilled in summer and I think it would be equally nice to serve it gently warmed on cool autumn days. I garnished the bowl with cherry tomato halves and diced avocado. Bits of cucumber, green pepper, green onion, and/or good croutons would also be appropriate and add to the variety and texture of the soup. You might want to drizzle the top with olive oil or even a bit of pesto for a nice contrast. When I was in Georgetown a few weeks ago I had a bowl of gazpacho at a restaurant that was topped with toasted tortilla strips and three large grilled shrimp. They made a fabulous addition that it would also be fun to experiment with at home.

About Me

I am a Portland, Oregon area food enthusiast. I was born and raised in Kentucky. In between I have cooked across the south and called Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia my home. I have been baking since I was a girl and have been master of my own kitchen since I was in my teens. Southern cooking is my heritage and strongly influences my food preferences while the fresh perspectives and ingredients of the Pacific Northwest inform my choices.

My passion for food has known many phases. During my baking phase I decorated elaborate cakes, baked homemade breads and beautiful cookies. During an exotic food phase I experimented with spices and ethnic cuisines, tried new ingredients and flavor combinations and learned new cooking techniques. During a health food phase I haunted health food stores, mixed nut flours into baked goods to balance proteins and developed recipes with reduced sugar and sodium content. More recently, while building a teahouse in my backyard I developed an appreciation for sushi and an interest in the artful presentation of simple seasonal ingredients in Japanese cuisine.

Another phase engaged my passion for writing. Several years ago I compiled a family history cookbook. As I sifted through old cookbooks and gathered memories and recipes from family members across five generations I gained a whole new perspective on the role of food in family life. The final product included photos, recipes, stories and food anecdotes from the late 1800’s to the present.

Today my explorations in the kitchen are marked by a synthesis of all of these phases into a less obsessive, but no less determined, effort to provide an enjoyable, healthful and meaningful experience around my table for both family and friends. I try to be considerate of what I know about individual preferences while offering gentle challenges and opportunities to experience something new. I hope to stimulate and satisfy the mind and the senses while encouraging an awareness of diet and health. I also hope to encourage a love of cooking and exploration in the kitchen.

By way of my own experiences in the kitchen I have come to realize that food is more than a technicality and cooking is more than a skill or even an art. Cooking is about nurturing the future with roots that dig deeply into the past. Cooking is a channel for transmitting love, faith, understanding, pleasure, history, geography, culture, chemistry, art and adventure.

The kitchen arts encompass metaphors for, and lessons that apply to, every aspect of life. Cooking and eating are daily pleasures that connect a need for creativity and expression with the need to nourish our body and soul. Please join me as I explore the art of cooking in My Own Sweet Thyme. It is my hope that the stories and recipes I share here will inspire you to make new discoveries of your own.