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A Late Taste of Winter - Spiced Hot Chocolate


Something amazing happened this morning. Just as predicted, I woke to a late February dusting of snow on the rooftops, the tree branches and the road in front of our house. As the sun approached the horizon I could see the tiny flakes falling outside the window and clinging thickly to whatever they came in contact with. The blue-gray half-light of the dawn shown like silver falling on the frosted landscape. It was eerie and lovely.

The quiet hush of the snow fell so perfectly on my ears that I was thrilled when I looked up the closing list and found local schools were out for the day. There was no one to wake and no where we had to go. The quiet lingered throughout the morning as the snowflakes danced across my lawn.

A Special Gift

This day was a gift. A late season opportunity to find joy in winter even as we see signs of spring beneath the snowfall. The snow rests as a pristine backdrop to the tulips and daffodils that grace my kitchen table. It frosts the yellow fringe of witch hazel blossoms on the side of the house and my neighbor’s freshly opened crocus blossoms.

While spring breaks open, winter offers its own generous window dressing and gives us a day or two to stop and marvel at its beauty. There is no better way to do that than with a hot cup of chocolate sipped beside a warm fire. This recipe is rich and delicious while still frothy and fun. Dress it with a spoon of marshmallow crème or whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon or chili pepper. Better yet, stir it with a candy cane, if you can still find one, and do what my son suggested this afternoon; listen to Christmas carols. When I asked him why, he explained, "It didn’t snow at Christmas." I thought that was perfect. Isn’t catching up on the overlooked details and capturing the moment what snow days are all about?

Thanks, Scott and Amanda, for letting me borrow the mug!

Spiced Hot Chocolate

4 cups whole milk
1 cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1/2 vanilla bean (or a small splash of vanilla extract)
2-3 drops almond extract
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

Whipped cream, marshmallow creme or marshmallows (if desired)
A sprinkle of cinnamon or ground chipotle chile pepper

In a small saucepan combine the milk, vanilla bean, cinnamon and cloves. Heat the spiced milk mixture until near boiling. Remove from heat.

Remove the cinnamon and cloves. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture. Discard the pod.

Whisk the chocolate chips into the milk mixture until melted and smooth. Add the almond extract and (vanilla extract if you didn't use the vanilla bean.)

Using a stick blender, blend the hot chocolate in the saucepan until frothy. Pour into mugs. Top with marshmallow creme or whipped cream and a pinch of spice, if desired.

Serve and enjoy!

Honeyed Balsamic Cherry Cheesecake in a Triple Ginger Crust

Endless Distractions

A few days ago I walked into Trader Joe’s thinking whole grains, exotic frozen vegetables and tofu. I walked out thinking, craving, obsessing on cheesecake. How did that happen? I blame those lovely oval jars of Dark Morello Cherries.

But then again, that’s not where it started. First, near the tofu, I spied the goat cheese. I was just admiring the wide variety of choices when I saw a package of Chevre with Honey. I do have a weakness for honey and having recently found a new appreciation for the way it enhances dairy via my daughter’s blog experimentation and my introduction to Greek Gods honey yogurt, I thought it might be nice to try a little.

Illustrated Conclusions

I grabbed the tofu, the Chevre with Honey, a loaf of bread and multigrain crackers then turned to the frozen vegetables. Right there above the frozen foods was a display of some of my favorite cookies. I debated buying a box of TJ’s Triple Ginger Snaps. They are so delicious dipped in coffee plus they are small and, in that common calorie counting delusion, "small = virtuous." Right? Then I had another thought. I could just imagine how delicious that honeyed goat cheese would taste smeared on a crisp gingery cookie. That tipped the scales and the cookies slid into my cart, along with the roasted corn and frozen carrots.

It was then that I turned and saw them; a beautifully arranged line of those intriguing oval jars filled with Dark Morello Cherries. A picture came to mind; a beautiful photograph of a cheesecake from the November issue of Real Simple with a thick crust of ginger snap crumbs piled high on the sides and a syrupy cascade of cherries flowing down the cheese filling.

That was the road from vegetables, whole grains and tofu to Cheesecake.

Spontaneous Celebrations

Not that there is anything wrong with Cheesecake! In fact when I realized that President’s Day is only days away and I remembered the Cherry Cheese Pies Aunt Hen used to make for George Washington’s Birthday, I knew it was meant to be. It is sad to overlook those genuine opportunities to celebrate!

This, however, is not your traditional Washington’s Birthday Cherry Cheese Pie...or even your traditional thick and creamy cheesecake. I adored that photo in the magazine but when it came down to reading through the recipe I had different ideas about every step of the process except the crust. I did a little digging for some new ideas and decided to use a filling quite similar to one described at One Bite at a Time and a topping much more like the one at CookThink. I combined those inspirations, changed the proportions, cut it all in half, and ended up with a gorgeous 6-inch Honeyed Balsamic Cherry Cheesecake in a Triple Ginger Crust.

So let's learn a little history and indulge in a little celebration. Or if you are already previously engaged this President's Day weekend, try this intimate little cheesecake for any occasion.

Celebrate the happiness that friends are always giving, make every day a holiday and celebrate just living!
~ Amanda Bradley

Honeyed Balsamic Cherry Cheesecake 
in a Triple Ginger Crust
(This recipe is for a 6-inch cheesecake. For a 9-inch cheesecake, double the recipe.  The cooking time should remain roughly the same.)

1½ cups fine gingersnap crumbs  (I used ½ package TJ’s Triple Ginger Snaps ground in a food processor)
¼ cup melted butter

8 ounces Chevre with Honey  (or use another plain soft goat cheese and double the honey)
2 Tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla
3 large eggs, seperated
1½ Tablespoons flour

½ pound fresh bing cherries or
   8–12 ounces canned cherries (I used ½ jar Dark Morello Cherries from TJs)
¼ cup syrup from cherries, if desired
½ cup balsamic vinegar (I used Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar from Navidi’s)
¼ cup honey

Preheat oven to 350F.

To make the crust:
In a medium bowl, combine the ginger snap crumbs and melted butter.  Using a tip gleaned from the article in Real Simple, press the crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 6-inch springform pan using a straight sided Metric Wonder Cup or similar measuring cup.  It works great for pressing the crumbs high up the sides of the pan.

To prepare the filling:
In a medium bowl, combine the goat cheese, honey, lemon juice and vanilla.  Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth and well combined.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour and mix on low until incorporated.

In a smaller bowl, beat the egg whites with clean beaters until soft peaks form. (They should be firm but not dry.) Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter.  Add the remaining egg whites folding gently until they are incorporated.

Pour the batter into the ginger snap crust.

Bake at 350F for 40 minutes or until set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cool the cheesecake can be covered and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to several days.

To prepare topping:
While the cheesecake bakes, combine the balsamic vinegar, honey and syrup from the cherries (if desired) in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over low heat.  Continue to simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until it begins to look syrupy.

Remove from heat and transfer the mixture to a bowl.  Refrigerate until cool.

To serve:
Remove the cheesecake from the springform pan by running a knife along the outer edge and unlocking the side of the pan, pulling the pan away. Center the cheesecake on a serving platter.  Stir thoroughly drained canned cherries or pitted fresh cherries into the honey balsamic syrup.  Pour the cherry mixture over the top of the cheesecake.  It should settle into the slight depression in the center of the cooled cheesecake.  Slice and serve.

Alternately, dust the top of the cheesecake with powdered sugar just before serving and serve with the cherry sauce on the side. 

Note: This cheesecake turned out to be creamy, flavorful and delicious without the cloying mouth-feel often left by a cream cheese cheesecake.

The cherry sauce was delicious but ran off the side of my serving dish shortly after preparation.  I suggest a serving dish with a rim or simply serve the cherry topping on the side as described above.


Want to try this flavor combination but don't have the time, inclination or equipment to bake a cheesecake?  The "deconstructed" approach coined by Jamie Oliver and featured in my "Chocolate Alchemy..." post about Deconstructed Truffles can apply here too.

Deconstructed Honey Ginger Cherry Cheese Bites

Ginger Snaps
Chevre with Honey (or chevre and honey)
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup honey
cherries (fresh or canned)

Prepare the cherry topping for the cheesecake as directed above. Chill the syrup and stir in the cherries just before serving.

If you don't have Chevre with Honey prepare your own by stirring approximately 1 Tablespoon of honey into every 2 ounces of soft goat cheese.  Store in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve:  Place the Ginger Snaps on a small tray.  Pour the cherries into a pretty bowl and place the honeyed goat cheese in another pretty serving dish. 

Set the arrangement in the middle of the table and encourage guests to assemble their own small cheesecake bites by smearing the honeyed goat cheese on the cookies and topping each with a cherry in balsamic syrup.  

Serve with coffee, sparkling water or champagne.


Chocolate Alchemy - The Language of Love

All My Life

I have been a writer all my life. Even before I could write, I would crawl into my father’s lap with paper and pen in hand and ask him to write down the words that came to my mind, to help me construct the stories I wanted to tell.

Cooking came close on it's heels. As a little girl I would go to my aunt’s house and help with the cooking and baking. I would stand on a stool and stir boiling pots or ask for her help to bake cookies for school projects.

Both began as efforts engaged in and learned from those I held dear. Together we gathered the things we needed and created and enjoyed the process no matter the outcome.

Poetry in the Kitchen

Maya Angelou, in an interview about her newest book Great Food, All Day Long, describes how writing and cooking are much the same:

"Yes, cooking is like writing poetry... You want the best ingredients. When you’re writing a poem, you hope to have a good vocabulary, and to choose the nouns and pronouns and verbs carefully. The way you put them together will determine how they affect another person. And it’s really because you’ve been careful in the choice of your ingredients and respectful of how they work together. That’s true of all the efforts in life."

I like that! It is, in the end, all a process of alchemy. We take a bit of this and a bit of that and with heat and pressure, the happy affinity of one bit for another, we transform the basics into a new creation, something much more than the sum of its parts.

What a Little Heat Can Do

A case in point: Truffles. Take a little wholesome cream, a few ounces of bittersweet chocolate, a pinch of exotic spice or delicate zest. Apply heat gently... and wait.

In time you will arrange a setting. By candlelight you will scoop the firmed ganache with a spoon and roll it in a cloak of cocoa powder embellished with spices. Even as you roll it the heat of your fingertips will soften the ganache and on your tongue it will melt irresistibly to a luscious softness that is enormously more expressive than a sip of cream or a nibble of dark chocolate alone. This is more than merely a flavor. It is poetry to the tongue; romance in every bite.

So write your Valentine a love letter in chocolate. For inspiration read Love Letters: An Anthology of Passion or How to Write Love Letters, both by Michelle Lovric. Collect the nouns, pronouns and verbs; then translate to sugar and spice, chocolate and cream, as you create the base and the palette for these truffles. Then read them together as you create your own unique confection.

There is a writer in every one of us on Valentine’s Day!

Jamie's Deconstructed Chocolate Truffles
from JamieOliver.com

1½ cups cream
1 lb dark (70% cocoa solids) chocolate, broken into small bits
a knob (2 Tablespoons) of unsalted butter
Zest of one clementine
pinch of sea salt
splash of brandy

nuts, chopped
chocolate nibs
cocoa powder
ancho or chipotle chile powder
course colored sugar or sprinkles

biscotti, gingersnaps or shortbread cookies

To make the Truffle base:

In a medium saucepan, over medium-low heat, gently warm the cream until small bubbles form around the edges. It should be hot but not boiling.

Add the butter and the orange zest. When the butter has melted pour the hot cream mixture over the broken chocolate pieces, whisking gently until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Add a small pinch of salt and stir in a splash of brandy.

Pour the chocolate mixture into a pretty dish. Place it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or until set. Garnish the top with a Chocolate Filigree Heart if desired.

To make a White Chocolate Dipping Sauce:

1/2 cup cream
5.5 ounces white chocolate
 a few drops of vanilla

Repeat the process as described above being extra gentle and watchful in warming the cream. When the mixture is smooth whisk in a few drops of vanilla, if desired, or the seeds of a vanilla bean, if you have one.

The mixture will be thin by comparison to the truffle base, a good consistency for dipping.

After whisking, when the mixture is smooth, pour it into a small serving dish and refrigerate. When chilled through, garnish with a Chocolate Filigree Heart if desired.

To assemble:

Place the pretty bowls on a tray. Arrange small dishes of cocoa powder, nuts, toffee bits, decorative sugar or whatever you like around the chocolate dish, for dipping. I added ancho chili powder and cocoa nibs. You could add crushed toffee or Butterfinger bits. Decorative sugar or crushed hard candies are pretty. Be creative.

To serve:

Fill a teacup or small dish with steaming hot water. Place spoons in water (I used long handled iced tea spoons). Set out another tray of biscotti, ginger snaps or butter cookies. Gather guests around the table and let them spoon out their own truffles and roll them in cocoa powder, nuts, toffee bits, dip them into the white chocolate, or whatever you like. Or smear the truffle mixture on cookies.

Serve with chilled champagne, sparkling water, dessert wine or coffee.

Other types of chocolate can be used for the truffles too. If using milk chocolate reduce the amount of cream in the truffle base to 1 cup. For white chocolate truffles reduce the amount of cream to 3/4 cup.

Other ideas for Valentine's Day:

  • Use your words! Write your own love verses or borrow from famous authors. Pen them on a scrap of parchment-like paper in your best handwriting and tuck them into a homemade Fortune Cookie.
  • Spread your truffle base between round store-bought crackers for a contrast of tastes and textures. Refrigerate until firm. Dip in chocolate or butterscotch coating in a variation on Golden Treasure Cookies. Yum!
  • Make Sugar Cookies shaped like hearts or flowers. Use your own personal artistic vision to decorate with Royal Icing.
  • Meringue Cookies are simple (only 7 ingredients), inexpensive and perfect for Valentines Day. Sweet and airy yet luscious with just a taste of chocolate and nuts. These are a light expression of homemade love. You can even make them heart-shaped if you like.
  • Share the ultimate Brownie, made with olive oil and infused with the flavor and goodness of almonds, walnuts and blood orange.

Mama Jean's Barbecue

Weeknight Favorites

What is it about ground beef and tomatoes that warms the heart as well as the appetite on a cold winter’s day? Looking for seasonal favorites it seems that winter nearly begs for those ground beef dishes that were staples at the weeknight dinner table when I was growing up. My family ate Stuffed Peppers, Kentucky Chili, and Meatloaf regularly. Each recipe stretched hamburger to feed a hungry family on a tight budget.

Ground beef dishes were among my favorites as a child, a fact not missed by my dearest relatives. Each had their own versions of ground beef specialties and they would make my favorites when I came to visit.

Aunt Hen would often make my favorite Porcupine Meatballs when I walked up to her house for supper. At my grandma’s house it was what she called “Barbecue.” Others might call it Sloppy Joes. She made it on the thin side and spooned it over toasted hamburger buns.

I loved the way the tomatoey gravy of my grandma’s barbecue soaked into the toasted bread. I ate it with a knife and fork and loved every bite, a fact I shared with anyone in the family who listened to my food preferences. At my house it was known as “Mammaw’s Barbecue” but when Mammaw wrote out the recipe for my sister-in-law many years later, it was titled “Mama Jean’s Barbecue.”

Mama Jean (middle) circa 1940

Mama Jean

I had watched Mammaw stir the tomatoey meat mixture studded with celery and peppers in her big cast iron skillet many times but I never thought to ask her about its origins. In my mind it was her recipe and yet the recipe card she wrote out attributed it to Mama Jean, my great-grandmother.

Where Mama Jean got it we can never know. She died a few year’s before I was born, walking to work at the lunchroom of Mill Creek Elementary School in Louisville where she had managed the lunch room for over 30 years. She had worked there since the lunch room was first opened in 1925, the year after my great grandfather died of pneumonia leaving Mama Jean with three young children to raise on her own.

It was a tribute to her determination and her ability to stretch a dollar that she kept her family, as well as the student body at Mill Creek School, fed through the lean years that followed. What she knew about cooking on a budget might have filled volumes rather than the few pages I managed to scrape together for my Family Cookbook. Still, true to family tradition, I will take what I can find and see what I can make of it.

This recipe is simple and easy to make. While there are thousands of Sloppy Joe recipes out there the addition of cloves rather than other spices makes this recipe for Mama Jean’s Barbecue unique. In fact it seems that the small pinch of cloves in this recipe, when simmered down with the flavors of ground beef and tomatoes, is the secret ingredient that can send me back to my early years in an instant. That same ingredient surprised me in the recipe for Kentucky Chili, another favorite recipe from my childhood.

Mama Jean’s Barbecue

1 small onion diced (½ cup)
1 lb. pound beef
½ cup diced green celery
¼ cup diced green pepper
1 teaspoon salt (I use ½ teaspoon)
1 cup tomato puree (10.75 0z. can)
1 heaping tablespoon sugar (I use brown sugar)
1 cup water (I use ½ cup)
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (or a pinch more, depending on freshness)

In a large skillet brown onion slightly. Add hamburger, celery and green pepper and brown slightly.

Next add tomato puree, water and seasonings. Simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the sauce begins to thicken and flavors meld.

Thicken with cornstarch or flour (if desired).

Serve on toasted sandwich buns or over Texas toast.

Notes added to the recipe by my grandmother:

"I find that adding about ½ cup of ketchup just before adding the cornstarch or flour improves the taste.

You can also double or triple this recipe which I do. Then freeze the extra for further use.

Stay Happy."