Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette

What in the world does a groundhog know about the weather, anyway? It fascinates me to realize how many people lay their meteorological hopes on a fat, furry rodent from western Pennsylvania—and I say this facetiously, fully aware that folks in the western part of my own North Carolina do the same every fall with woolly worms.

Do I care what the Punxsutawney rascal saw this morning, when he emerged from his hole? Not really, given that his predictions for early spring vs. six more weeks of winter only hold about 39% accuracy. My local weather peeps get it right far more often than that. Still, it doesn’t surprise me to know that Punxsutawney Phil has his own Instagram account with nearly 14k followers. I believe this is ultimately because people are bored half to death after being cooped up inside with cold, gray, dreary weather, and they are just looking for something to amuse themselves. You can count me among them in that regard (and we haven’t even had snow this year).

It’s why I’ve been dreaming of this salad, and I finally made it last night in my own attempt to shake off the midwinter blues and blahs. My original intent was to make it a few weeks ago, and I had purchased all the ingredients to make it happen, but then we got Covid in our house—as if January, on its own, wasn’t miserable enough—and all bets (and burners) were off. Luckily, most of my ingredients for this vibrant, flavorful salad are sturdy; the sweet potatoes, cabbage, parsnips and onions kept well, and the only thing I had to buy new was the kale. Beyond that, the salad has so many things I love—tender lentils, cooked beets (I used store bought), feta, toasted pecans and a spectacular smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette that appeared to me in a dream not long ago.

This salad will wake up your taste buds!

The dressing begins with a generous shake of dried minced onions, which you’ll rehydrate with some just-boiled water. Add Dijon, rice vinegar, salt and pepper, sriracha and smoked maple syrup (I love this stuff from Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind, and you’ll appreciate what it does for an old fashioned cocktail, too). Whisk in some extra virgin olive oil and set it aside until salad time. This vinaigrette brings such a huge flavor punch, I know I’ll be making it again soon, and probably roasting vegetables in it at some point before spring finally arrives in, you know, six weeks or whatever.


Is the salad easy to make? Yes, and if you want to swap in different root vegetables, go for it. If you aren’t loving the lentils, I think canned or fresh-cooked cannellini beans would be a great swap-in, or even a hard-boiled egg for a bit of protein. For an entirely plant-based salad, skip the feta and add some cubes of tofu (marinated in the vinaigrette, of course).

I can’t say for sure how long it takes to make this gorgeous plate, because I worked on bits and pieces of it while multi-tasking my day job and scrolling punxseyphil’s Instagram feed. I can assure that none of it is difficult. Make the dressing first so the flavors have time to mingle. The kale needs to be cleaned, dried and massaged with olive oil and kosher salt. I like a nice, peppery olive oil for this, and I absolutely love how tender the kale emerges after its spa treatment. What’s leftover will be great in another salad or tossed into an omelet or on top of a pizza.


The sweet potatoes and parsnips are peeled (or scrubbed), cut into chunks, tossed with onions and oil, and then roasted at 400° F for about 40 minutes—toss ‘em once or twice midway so they roast evenly.


And I cooked my lentils from dried, which I know can be a challenge so here’s my advice: ditch the directions on the bag—they always turn to mush. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to lentils, but cook them over half the heat for two to three times longer than recommended in the directions. Add a bay leaf. It takes some time, yes, but for your patience you’ll be rewarded with perfectly tender, intact lentils. They are loaded with protein and I love the flavor of these little guys.

Perfect!

The only thing left is assembling the salad, and that’s the easiest part. You don’t have to be all artistic about it, but I find it satisfying to compose a plate that looks as terrific as it tastes. Kale goes on the bottom of course, topped with some of the shredded red cabbage. Then add a section of lentils, a pile of the warm, roasted root vegetables and a little row of beet slices. Run a winding trail of cubed feta down through the middle, let the toasted pecans fall where they may, and drizzle the dressing all over it, especially onto the feta and lentils.


Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Average
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This salad is nutritious, colorful and bursting with flavor. Guaranteed to help you shake off the midwinter blahs!


Ingredients

  • 1 large bunch fresh, organic kale
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for massaging kale)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
  • 1 small sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
  • 2 medium parsnips, cut into large chunks
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for roasting root vegetables)
  • 2 cups cooked green lentils
  • 4 small, cooked beets, sliced
  • 2/3 cup cubed feta (preferably brine-packed)
  • 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken into pieces
  • Smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette (recipe below)

Directions

  1. Prep kale by rinsing under cold running water. Strip leaves and discard tough stems. Roll kale leaves up in a clean dish towel to blot dry, then tear into bite-sized pieces and add to a large bowl. Drizzle kale leaves with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Massage with your hands until kale is wilted, and then cover the bowl and refrigerate a couple of hours.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil directly onto the parchment, add cut up sweet potatoes, parsnips and onions. Drizzle on remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables around to coat them with the oil. Roast for 40 minutes, until tender with roasted edges. Toss vegetables once or twice midway through roasting.
  3. Plate the salad, beginning with chilled massage kale for the base, then scatter the shreds of red cabbage. Arrange the remaining elements of the salad in piles around the salad; a pile of lentils, a large pile of roasted root vegetables, a fan of sliced beets and a winding line of feta cubes. Sprinkle the toasted pecans randomly over the salad. Drizzle on the vinaigrette and serve.

The dressing is really the star of this salad, with its smoked maple sweetness and spicy sriracha. Look for the smoked maple syrup online from a company called “Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind,” or substitute regular maple syrup for a similar flavor. Use the unseasoned version of rice vinegar, which is not embellished with additional salt.

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp. dried minced onion + 2 Tbsp. just-boiled water (to soften)
  • 1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. smoked maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
  • A pinch of dried thyme leaves
  • 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Combine the dried onion and hot water in a glass measuring cup, and let rest until onions are softened (they will not absorb all the water, but do not drain it).
  2. Add sriracha, syrup, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper to the measuring cup and whisk to combine. Drizzle olive oil into the cup, whisking constantly to emulsify the mixture. Dressing will improve after it rests awhile; give it a good whisking right before serving.



Southwest Chicken Soup

There’s never a wrong time for chicken soup, and winter seems especially appropriate, given that it is also cold and flu season. In the middle of January, my husband and I both found ourselves stuck at home with Covid. I had started experiencing symptoms on a Thursday night, and I was quick to blame the just-completed replacement of our entire HVAC system as the culprit for the sore throat and sneezing that had suddenly walloped me. Dust and bits of insulation had been falling out of all the vents in the house for two days, so of course I felt lousy. At least, with the new system, I’d be warm.

But two nights later, as I sat shivering on the sofa, despite wearing a bulky sweatshirt, fuzzy jammie pants, two pairs of socks, my Land’s End shearling-lined slippers and curling up under a big ass blanket, I knew I was in trouble. The lines on my at-home rapid Covid test were not only pink— they were bright magenta! Les tested positive the next day, and we settled in for a week of being bored out of our ever-loving minds. Thank God we have every TV streaming service known to man, and some of the kindest neighbors around who did front porch drop-offs of soup, orange juice and other sick-at-home necessities. We are grateful.

That first night of symptoms, I had made this southwest-themed chicken soup, and it was exactly what I needed, though I wish I had made a double batch. Next time, I will do exactly that and I’ll stash some in the freezer— just in case!

The soup is quick to make because it relies on a supermarket deli roast chicken and a few easy pantry ingredients. The chicken I selected was labeled “Peruvian,” which includes seasonings like paprika, cumin and oregano— all perfectly compatible for a southwest-themed soup. I used almost exactly half of the chicken, including the shredded meat from a thigh, breast and drumstick, plus the skin (I’ll explain in a moment). The remaining chicken meat went into a very tasty chicken salad that Les made, using some of his fabulous pimiento cheese. It was so good on sandwiches, and I’ll try to sweet talk him into making that again to share on the blog.

Once in a while, these deli roast chickens come in really handy!

I started the soup with a quick saute of chopped onions and diced jalapeno— just long enough to soften them up. A few shakes of chili powder added a layer of flavor, and then I poured in a whole carton (4 cups) of chicken stock, the shredded chicken and several pieces of skin from the chicken, and I heated it to the point of a low boil before dropping it to a simmer. The skin released extra flavor into the soup, and I pulled them out before serving the soup.


While the soup simmered, I prepped the fresh toppings which included diced avocado and torn cilantro leaves, plus wedges of fresh lime to squeeze over at serving. A small can of hot salsa added a big punch of flavor. Pre-cooked brown rice saved precious minutes and added a little whole grain to the soup.


The only thing my soup still needed was a little bit of crunch on top. Any other day, I would have just served it with a few tortilla chips on the side. But on that day, when I was already feeling crummy and didn’t want to run to the store, I found instead a package of corn tortillas shoved into the back of our deli drawer. So I heated some peanut oil, cut up the corn tortillas into small strips and fried them crispy. It took only about 4 minutes, and it was the perfect finishing touch!


Southwest Chicken Soup

  • Servings: About 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
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A deli roast chicken and a few easy pantry ingredients make this flavorful twist on a classic comfort food perfect for chasing away the mid-winter blahs!


Ingredients

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • A few shakes of prepared chili powder
  • 4 cups chicken stock or broth
  • About 2 cups shredded or chopped roast chicken (and skin, optional)
  • 10 oz. can spicy salsa (I used Herdez brand)
  • About 1/2 cup cooked brown rice (I used pre-cooked Minute Rice)
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled and cubed
  • 1/2 fresh lime, cut into wedges for serving
  • Small handful of fresh cilantro leaves
  • Crispy tortilla strips (store bought or homemade, for serving; my recipe is below)

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil in a medium sized soup pot, over medium heat. Add onions and jalapeños, season with salt and pepper and sauté until softened. Sprinkle with a few shakes (about 1/2 tsp) chili powder.
  2. Add chicken stock and shredded chicken. Drop any crispy roasted chicken skin into the soup pot to extract the extra flavor.
  3. Stir salsa into the soup and heat until it comes to a low boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  4. Prepare crispy tortilla strips while soup simmers, or skip this step if you’re using pre-made chips.
  5. Add brown rice and heat through. Serve soup in shallow bowls, topped with chopped avocado and torn cilantro.
  6. Top each bowl with a few crispy tortilla strips and serve immediately.

If you have a few extra minutes, it’s worth the little bit of trouble to make the crispy tortilla strips from scratch. Be sure to season them immediately upon removal from the hot oil. I used Trader Joe’s “Everything But the Elote” seasoning, but chili powder, season salt or simple salt and pepper would also be delicious.

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 corn tortillas, cut in half, then stacked and cut into strips about 1/2-inch wide
  • 1 cup neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed, canola or peanut oil
  • Salty seasoning of your choice

Directions

  1. Heat oil in a shallow pot over medium-high heat; it should measure about 1-inch deep in the pot.
  2. Add a few test strips of tortilla to the oil to test the temperature. They should immediately bubble all over.
  3. Fry tortilla strips for about 4 minutes, until light and crispy. Use a slotted spoon to remove the strips. Drain them on layers of paper towel, and sprinkle right away with salt or seasonings.


Philly Cheesesteak Dip

I don’t care about football. Let’s get that out of the way, OK? But I do love a theme and the camaraderie of a big-game party with friends, and especially the food!

There is no better food for a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan than a real Philly cheesesteak, with its peppers and mushrooms, all that gooey melted cheese and loaded up with thinly sliced steak. It’s a hearty, flavorful sandwich— and it screams Philly. 

It would be the perfect thing to serve for this weekend’s NFC Championship game, right? If only it wasn’t a fat, messy sandwich.

When things get intense and your team is vying for a spot in the NFL’s biggest game of the year, you’ve gotta have an easier way to chow down on those flavors, or you’ll end up with it spilt all over your green jersey! This recipe has all the right stuff, but in a simplified format so you can take a warm, meaty, cheesy bite in between yelling at the refs and cheering your team on to victory.

Our good friends, Bob and Peg, are two such die-hard Eagles fans and they have generously shared Bob’s recipe for this scrumptious, game day party dip. It’s perfect for halftime snacking, regardless of which team you’re pulling for this weekend. But if you’re at Bob and Peg’s house, you’d best be pulling for Philly.

So delicious, hot from the oven!

The game will be aired on FOX this Sunday at 3:00 PM Philadelphia time, and if you have plenty of time to get this dip ready.

Bob’s cheesesteak dip begins with easy-to-find ingredients, and the prep is super simple. You’ll need cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, obviously), onion, bell pepper and mushrooms, a mountain of white cheese and very thinly sliced steaks. Bob’s recipe suggests an Italian “6-cheese” blend, but I used mainly Monterey Jack and pepper jack cheeses because I already had them in the fridge. Some amount of white American cheese would give a nice, melty quality to this dip, too. I’d recommend steering clear of very sharp, hard cheeses, as they tend to break under heat.


Put the veggies in a skillet and sauté until they’re soft. Then cook up the thinly sliced steaks and chop them into smaller pieces. I scored a package of fresh, shaved Angus steak in the meat case of my supermarket, but these aren’t always available. Bob’s recipe suggests using Steak-umms, specifically the 14-steak package.


While the veggies and meat cool a bit, blend the softened cream cheese together with a dab of mayo, and then blend in the veggies, shredded cheese and chopped steak. It may be a bit clumpy at this stage and that’s OK; it will melt and smooth out during baking.


Transfer the whole delicious mess into an oven-safe dish and pop it into the oven at 350 F for half an hour, then top with more cheese (I used our favorite Parm-Romano blend) and put it under the broiler just long enough to get it browned and bubbly on top.


Serve your cheesesteak dip with slices of French baguette or, as we did at our house, crunchy pita chips. It occurred to me when we were enjoying this that the mixture could also be blended and transferred to a small slow cooker. I’d recommend warming it on the high setting until it’s bubbly, then give it a good stir and drop to low or warm setting to keep it nice and gooey from kickoff until the game is over.


Philly Cheesesteak Dip

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: Average
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All the scrumptious flavors of a classic Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but easier to eat while cheering your team on to victory!


Ingredients

  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
  • 1 large green bell pepper, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • A large handful fresh mushrooms, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A quick shake or two of garlic powder
  • 14 slices very thin steak (Steak-Umms work great)
  • 2 bricks cream cheese (Philadelphia brand, duh!), softened
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 12 oz. shredded white cheese (Italian, Monterey Jack, pepper jack are all good choices)
  • About 2 Tbsp. shredded Parm-romano blend cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat a deep skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil, then add onions, peppers and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until vegetables are softened and slightly translucent. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. In the same skillet, fry the steak slices until browned and cooked through. Transfer to a cutting board and chop into small pieces. Season with salt and pepper, plus a little shake of garlic powder. Add to the bowl with sautéed veggies.
  3. Using a stand mixer fitted with the beater blade, gently beat the softened cream cheese together with mayonnaise until creamy.
  4. Add sautéed veggies, shredded cheese and browned steak to cream cheese mixture. Mix until evenly blended. Transfer mixture to an oven-safe casserole dish.
  5. Bake cheesesteak dip for 30 minutes, then sprinkle with Parmesan or Parm-Romano blend and broil for 2 to 3 minutes until browned and bubbly.
  6. Remove cheesesteak dip and serve immediately with pita chips or sliced French baguette.

Alternatively, follow instructions through step 4. Transfer mixture to slow cooker on high until bubbly. Reduce to low heat or warm setting so dip stays warm and gooey.


Coffee-rubbed Skirt Steak with Chimichurri

Too often, my hubby and I fall into a make-it-Mexican rut, and we neglect the other flavors that are hanging out in our pantry cabinet, just waiting to thrill our palates. When we discovered last week that our dinner rotation had an empty slot, I pulled a package of skirt steak from the freezer, figuring we could always give it a Mexican spin and fajitas or tacos with it. But with all the other flavorful things that could be applied to a cut as tender and succulent as skirt steak, isn’t plain ole usual fajitas just “phoning it in?” 

So I reconsidered, taking our steak in a different direction with my homemade spicy coffee rub and a zesty, garlicky chimichurri to accentuate and complement the smoky, earthy flavors of the rub. We did pile it all onto hearty tortillas and enjoyed it as fajitas, but this meal had a decidedly more interesting appeal!

Les couldn’t wait to sip his brew!

As long as we were trying new things, we swapped in scallions for the usual grilled onions, which was a nice change of pace texturally and flavor-wise. And we gave our red bell pepper only a few quick turns on the grill, keeping some of the firmness and amping up the sweetness with those blistered skins. No hot spices on them, only salt and pepper to preserve their natural flavors.


No salsa, cilantro or sour cream here either; rather, I set up my food processor and pulsed down a couple of big handfuls of fresh parsley with garlic, more scallions, fresh oregano and red wine vinegar. The grilling of this meal moves quickly, so it’s best to make the chimichurri a few hours or even a day ahead. Here’s how it goes.


This is a classic formula for chimichurri, a condiment familiar to Argentina, and though it typically calls for a few shakes of crushed red pepper, I swapped in a scant spoonful of this wicked hot crispy habanero stuff that I picked up last year from Trader Joe’s. Drizzle in some olive oil while the processor runs, and it’s ready in a snap.


Now, if you’re thinking, “I need to get to Trader Joe’s right now for some of that crispy habanero!” well, don’t bother. As is par for the course, this spicy stuff has already been 86’d from TJ’s lineup— their abrupt dispatch of interesting products is, as you know, part of my love-hate relationship with the store— but you can easily go traditional with your chimichurri and just use crushed red pepper, or even a fresh jalapeno. But if you happen to be stuck with a jar of the habanero crisp already, at least now you have a fun way to use it. I intend to put it to work in my next batch of spicy homemade sausage, and I’ll let you know how that goes.

As for the skirt steak, I gave it a nice massage with my spicy coffee rub, which I introduced in 2021 with this coffee-rubbed grilled tri-tip steak. Link back to that post for the rub recipe and another great meat idea for the grill. This homemade rub has amazing flavors, including coriander, ancho, brown sugar, oregano and cayenne— altogether, a really nice change of pace for fajitas. The coffee rub does not impart a coffee flavor to the meat—if it did, my husband wouldn’t touch it—no, it’s more of a bold, earthy flavor, a little bit spicy and a touch smoky, depending on the roast level of the coffee you use.


The secret to making skirt steak the best it can be is threefold— season it well ahead of time, grill it quickly and cut it against the grain. Les took care of the grilling part (and it happened fast!) while I prepped the fresh avocado and chopped the charred veggies. We wrapped the finished steak tightly in foil for about seven minutes before slicing, and dinner was served!



The coffee rub turned out to be a terrific flavor for our skirt steak, and the chimichurri was like icing on a cake! OK, well, maybe green icing. 🙂

This was a very tasty bite!

Coffee-rubbed Skirt Steak with Chimichurri

  • Servings: About 5
  • Difficulty: Average
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The earthy, smoky notes of my coffee rub, combined with a bold and zesty chimichurri was a flavor explosion for our taste buds! If you can't purchaset this flavorful cut, a flank steak or hangar steak would be a good substitute. Allow a few extra minutes on the grill to adjust for the thickness.


Ingredients

  • 2 to 3-pound skirt steak (preferably grass-fed)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (liquid or spray)
  • 1 Tbsp. spicy coffee rub (recipe available at https://comfortdujour.com/2021/05/17/coffee-rubbed-grilled-tri-tip-steak/)
  • 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and cut into large sections for easy grilling
  • 1 bunch fresh scallions, divided (you’ll use them in the chimichurri and as an accompaniment to the steak)
  • 1 ripe avocado, cut into slices or cubes
  • 1 small lime, cut into wedges
  • Medium size flour tortillas for serving

Directions

  1. Trim away any lingering membrane pieces from skirt steak. Pat dry, then rub or spray on a small amount of olive oil. Apply coffee rub evenly over the entire surface of the steak. Let it rest in the fridge a few (or up to 24) hours, bringing it back to near-room temperature about 45 minutes before grilling.
  2. Preheat grill or grill pan to roughly 500 F. If working indoors, be ready to use your vent fan, as the high temperature will likely produce some smoke.
  3. Prep the red bell peppers and remaining scallions by brushing or spraying with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill the veggies, turning frequently to ensure even charring. Transfer to a cutting board and chop into bite sized pieces.
  4. Place the skirt steak over direct heat and grill only until the first side is seared (this will be 2 minutes or less). Turn the steak and repeat searing on the other side. The cooking should be very brief so the meat remains tender.
  5. Transfer the steak immediately to a plate lined with a large, double layer of foil. Season immediately with kosher salt. Wrap the steak so it is fully enclosed in the foil and seal it tightly, resting for 5 to 8 minutes. The residual heat will finish cooking the meat as the juices are redistributed.
  6. While the steak rests, flash-grill the tortillas just long enough to warm them. Transfer the steak to a cutting board and slice thinly against the grain of the meat. Serve with grilled veggies, avocado and chimicurri.

For best flavor, make the chimichurri a day ahead so the ingredients have plenty of time to mingle in the fridge. Bring to near-room temperature for serving.

Ingredients

  • About two handfuls fresh Italian parsley, rinsed and trimmed of heavy stems
  • 3 or 4 scallions (green onions), trimmed and rough-chopped
  • 3 or 4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and rough-chopped
  • A few small sprigs fresh oregano leaves, rinsed and stripped from stems
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • A few shakes crushed red pepper (or some other spicy element), to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Add one handful of the parsley to the small bowl of a food processor, along with scallions, garlic, oregano, vinegar, crushed pepper, salt and pepper. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Pulse a few times to combine.
  2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the remaining handful of parsley, pulsing again just to combine.
  3. Turn the processor on to run continuously and stream in the rest of the olive oil while it’s running. Adjust to taste, then transfer to a bowl to rest in the fridge.



Easy Buttermilk Dessert Sauce

The next time you make a dessert that needs a sauce, but you aren’t quite sure what sauce is right, it’s this one. This is the sauce.

It is sweet and slightly salty like caramel, but without the fuss. It’s rich and elegant like an anglaise, but without cream or eggs. And it has the warm color of butterscotch, but it isn’t that either. This easy buttermilk sauce is neutral in flavor, so you can turn it any number of directions with a splash of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon or pie spice—hey, even a shot of booze! You can pour it warm right over a baked dessert or ice cream sundae, or chill it to drizzle over fresh berries. It’s oozing with possibilities!

Any extra sauce keeps nicely in the fridge, and can either be warmed in a saucepan or the microwave.

There are no complicated ingredients, and the sauce comes together in under 15 minutes, so you can even make it last minute if you discover too late that your dessert needs a little help (we’ve all been there). Most recently, I made this with vanilla bean paste and a half-shot of vanilla whiskey to accompany a batch of bread pudding, made from cardamom-scented cinnamon rolls and dried cherries. The combo of bread pudding and sauce was sooo good!

You take both bread puddings. I’m just gonna drink this extra sauce.

Begin with a cup of buttermilk, the good, thick kind. Put it on medium heat with 3/4 cup of cane sugar and half a stick of salted butter. Most dessert recipes call for unsalted butter, but here, the salted butter is just right to complement the sweetness of the sauce. I whisk a little bit of corn syrup into the sauce as well, as it helps to prevent the sauce from crystallizing when it cools.


After the butter has melted and the sugar is dissolved, it’s time for the magic ingredient, which is a miniscule amount of (drumroll, please) baking soda! Remember, the miraculous ingredient I posted about in September that makes grilled shrimp so juicy and delicious? The baking soda works wonders in this buttermilk dessert sauce, too, and for the same scientific reason. Watch and see.


The alkaline properties of baking soda launch a chemical reaction with the acidic buttermilk, so you want to use a saucepan that is large enough to hold three times the volume of the buttermilk. Almost immediately after you whisk in the soda, the mixture will froth and foam like crazy, and as you whisk and cook for 5 or 6 minutes, the buttermilk will transform into a semi-translucent, golden sweet syrup.


Turn off the heat, stir in vanilla and any other flavor enhancer that sounds good to you. As it cools, the buttermilk glaze will thicken slightly into a sauce consistency. It’s so delicious, you may find yourself coming up with new dessert recipes just to make another batch! What will you use it on this weekend?


Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the bread pudding, just follow my Gram’s basic recipe outline which is, in my opinion, the best bread pudding ever! Use your imagination to flavor the sauce to suit your own dessert, and let me know in the comments what you think of it!

Easy Buttermilk Dessert Sauce

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
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The next time you have a baked dessert that needs a sauce, but you aren’t quite sure what sauce is right, it’s this one. This is the sauce.


Ingredients

  • 1 cup real cultured buttermilk (lowfat is fine)
  • 3/4 cup cane sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter (4 Tbsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 Tbsp. corn syrup
  • 1 Tbsp. Crown vanilla whiskey (optional, but yum)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)

Be sure to use a saucepan that is three times larger than you expect you’ll need. When the buttermilk and baking soda collide, things get big and foamy in a hurry! Feel free to swap out the vanilla for almond, a smidge of cinnamon or another flavor to suit whatever dessert you’ll be dressing up with this sauce.

Directions

  1. Combine buttermilk, sugar and butter in a large saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and butter is fully melted.
  2. Whisk in the baking soda and get ready for some dramatic foaminess. Continue to cook and whisk the mixture for about 6 minutes after it reaches a boil. You will notice that the color of the sauce deepens to a warm, golden color.
  3. Turn off heat and whisk or stir until the foaminess subsides. Stir in vanilla and any other flavor enhancer you like. For ground spices such as cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon is probably about right. Add whiskey or other liquor, if desired.
  4. Allow the sauce to rest for a few minutes. Serve right away or refrigerate if making it ahead. This sauce warms up nicely in a saucepan or in the microwave.



Italian Deli Sub Pizza

If you’re looking for new ways to enjoy pizza in the new year, you don’t need to look any further than your favorite sandwiches. Ingredients that are delicious on a sandwich are usually very adaptable to pizza. After all, it’s just a rearrangement of some kind of meat, cheese and bread.

The last time we reimagined a sandwich into a pizza, my husband and I were inspired by one of our favorite hot sammies at Jersey Mike’s, the Big Kahuna, and it turned out pretty dang delicious.

All that steak, mushrooms, jalapenos and cheesy sauce could only be contained in a deep dish, and it was awesome!

Wouldn’t you know it? Jersey Mike’s has inspired me again, but this time with a classic Italian deli sub— and as I gazed down at my half-eaten sandwich, I thought, why wouldn’t these ingredients be great on a pizza?

Of course they would!

Salty cured meats and cheeses, thin-sliced tomatoes, onions and peppers, and a shredded salad topping, finished with a zesty Italian oil-and-vinegar dressing. This was so right!

We kept it thin crust this time, which means we started with my favorite sourdough pizza dough. If you haven’t the time or patience to make your own dough, check the deli department of your favorite supermarket, as many of them sell fresh dough balls. And who doesn’t love a shortcut?

All our homemade pizzas are baked on a steel, at the highest temperature our home oven can handle (550 F), so having things in order first is a must because the baking only takes six minutes. It’s best to slice and season the tomatoes and make the shredded lettuce salad before you begin building the pizza, so it’s ready to pile on as soon as the pie emerges from the oven. Green leaf lettuce has a bit more body than iceberg, but romaine would have been another good choice. A small splash of oil and vinegar dressing added the perfect finishing touch, and I used Good Seasons because it was already made up in the fridge.


For the other toppings, we cut up thin slices of pepperoni, salami, spicy ham and smoked provolone, and shredded a block of hard mozzarella.


Those were layered onto the sauce with a few shakes of oregano and red pepper flakes, then we arranged very thin slices of onion, bell pepper and pickled pepperoncini, and into the oven it went!


Six minutes later, our kitchen smelled so amazing that we debated enjoying the pizza just as it was, but the shredded lettuce salad is what made it sub-like, and that was a good call. Les sliced it first for easier serving, then we scattered on the salad and sliced tomatoes and sat down for a very tasty dinner!


This pizza had all the flavors of a classic Italian deli sub, so it was a winner! Only one thing left to say (or perhaps to ask) is, “What sandwich will be next??”


Italian Deli Sub Pizza

  • Servings: 6 slices
  • Difficulty: Average
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If you love Italian subs, this pizza will satisfy all your cravings for salty cured meats, cheese and even the oil-and-vinegar dressing!


Ingredients

  • 1 ball fresh pizza dough
  • 1/3 cup favorite tomato pizza sauce
  • 3 slices smoked provolone, cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup shredded whole milk mozzarella
  • 3 slices spicy deli ham, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup spicy sliced pepperoni, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup sliced Genoa salami, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup pickled pepperoncini, thinly sliced on an angle (and blotted dry with paper towels)
  • A few shakes of dried oregano
  • A few shakes of crushed red pepper
  • A few leaves of green leaf lettuce or Romaine, thinly shredded and tossed with 1 Tbsp. oil and vinegar dressing or prepared Italian dressing
  • 1 medium ripe tomato, thinly sliced and seasoned with sea salt and pepper

We bake our pizzas on a 3/8″ steel, preheated for one hour at 550F. If you are using a stone or pan, adjust temperature and baking time accordingly.

Directions

  1. Shape pizza dough into 14-inch round; transfer to a flour- and cornmeal-dusted pizza peel for easy transfer to pizza stone or steel.
  2. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil onto pizza dough, then season with salt and pepper.
  3. Scatter mozzarella evenly over dough, and then arrange cut-up pepperoni, salami, ham and provolone onto pizza.
  4. Sprinkle with dried oregano and crushed red pepper to taste, and then arrange slices of pepper and onion and about half of the pepperoncini.
  5. Slide onto pre-heated stone or steel and bake at 550F for about 6 minutes, or until dough is blistered and cheeses are melted and bubbly.
  6. Transfer pizza to serving pan. Cut into slices, then top pizza with dressed shredded lettuce and remaining pepperoncini.


Green Chili Burritos

This is not a fancy dish by any means, but it is one of the oldest comfort foods from my childhood. My mother began making a ground beef version of this flavorful chili when I was about 6. It’s easy to estimate my age at the time because we moved around a lot, and I can recall where we lived when certain memories were made. My mom was newly remarried and we had moved out west from upstate New York for my stepfather’s job as a truck driver. I loved my stepdad, but he was gone a lot, so it was frequently just my mom and me taking up space in a single-wide mobile home in rural southern Colorado, where Mexican flavors reign supreme.

You could barely see our little box of a house from the main road, which ran a straight line through the tiny town of about 350 people. There was a long, dusty driveway leading from the school bus stop, over some railroad tracks and past the big white propane tank that provided us fuel for heating and cooking. Occasionally, during deer season, I’d see a carcass hung up from a tree near our house, and that meant my new daddy had a good hunting trip and venison would soon be on the menu. Most days after school, our sweet little dog, Ginger, would meet me halfway on my walk from the bus, and on the days that I’d catch a whiff of my mom’s green chili when I opened the door—well, that’s a very happy memory.

A short time after, many things changed in my world. For the second time in my young life, my parents split. We moved again and the relationship with my mom began a sad but steady decline. I shuttled back and forth between parents (and states) until high school graduation, and then made the decision to move away on my own. Visits with my mother became few and far between, and eventually when I visited as an adult and requested the green chili, I learned that her recipe had shifted from the familiar ground beef to cubed pork. It was tasty, but I longed for the texture of the tender ground meat.

What I really wanted was a taste of happy childhood. Isn’t that what comfort food is?

I can taste my childhood in this chili.

The first time I made my own green chili, about 15 years ago, I used a flavorful pork sausage I had discovered at Whole Foods. The sausage was made in-house and was utterly addictive with its mild, smoky green chiles and spicy habanero peppers, and I found it a happy medium to provide the soft meat texture I loved about the first version of green chili I ever had and the rich, savory flavor of pork. When my local Whole Foods stopped making it, I was beyond disappointed. I figured I’d have to settle for plain ground pork going forward.

But recently, necessity being the mother of invention and all, I learned how to make my own spicy sausage and baby, I’m back!


I’m still in the learning stages of sausage production, but my imagination has run pretty wild, considering all the unique flavor possibilities before me. I have delved into a few other flavor combinations already, but I know it won’t be long before this one comes up in rotation again. It’s because the green chili burritos I made from the sausage was just that delicious—even better than any of the versions I made before. Link back to the homemade pork sausage post for the particulars on this sausage, or choose a store-bought sausage that has green chile flavors if you want a shortcut. Heck, maybe your Whole Foods still sells that sausage, and you’ll be in business.

This is my happy place. 🙂

The chili itself is the star of these burritos; the rest is just a tortilla rolled around seasoned beans and cheese. Accompanying the sausage were onions, garlic, flour and masa flour (for thickening), canned green chiles, fresh jalapeno (if you love the heat, as we do), a few simple seasonings, and broth (I used both veggie and chicken). Putting the chili together is easy, and then it settles in for a long, low simmer. If you have an extra day, let it sit in the fridge overnight because the flavors mingle even more for better flavor.


If you like, you can serve the finished chili just as it is—either by the steaming bowlful with a handful of shredded cheese or by ladling it over a burrito—but if it thins out more than you prefer during the cooking, whip up a bit of corn starch slurry and stream it in over medium heat. When it’s thickened and glossy, it’s ready to go.


At our house, we enjoyed this at dinner, lazily draped over bean and cheese burritos. And we enjoyed it again for a weekend breakfast, stuffing our tortillas with black beans, scrambled eggs and cheese, plus a scatter of fresh chopped tomatoes.


Green Chili Burritos

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: Average
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This dish speaks the language of my childhood, with comforting chili made from ground pork and all that beautiful, melty cheese.


Ingredients

  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 or 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. EVOO
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp. dried green chile flakes (mine were from Flatiron Pepper Co., available online)
  • 1.5 lbs. green chile pork sausage (store-bought, or my recipe which is included below)
  • 1 whole fresh jalapeno, seeded and chopped (keep some of the seeds if you like it hot)
  • 2 or 3 Tbsp. additional EVOO to provide fat for roux
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbsp. masa flour (Maseca)
  • 2 small cans (4 oz.) fire roasted diced green chiles
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin (from toasted seeds if possible)
  • 4 cups low-sodium veggie or chicken broth (I used 2 cups of each)
  • Corn starch slurry with equal parts corn starch and ice water (About 1/3 cup total)
  • 2 cans refried beans, warmed with oil and onions (for serving burritos)
  • Large flour tortillas (for burritos)
  • 8 oz. block cheddar, colby jack or pepperjack cheese, shredded
  • Fresh tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Directions

  1. Saute onions and garlic in olive oil, season with salt and pepper.
  2. Add sausage, a bit at a time, to brown it without overcrowding the pan.
  3. Add jalapeno and drizzle with olive oil to provide fat for the roux. Stir in ground cumin.
  4. Sprinkle flour and masa all over the meat mixture and toss to coat, adding more oil if needed to make it sticky and evenly coated.
  5. Add veg or chicken broth, half at a time, stirring each to blend and thicken.
  6. Cover the pot, reduce heat and cook at a low simmer for a couple of hours. Aim to keep it below the boiling point so that the thickening doesn’t cook off. If the chili seems “thin” after its simmer, use the corn starch slurry to thicken it back up. Be sure to let it simmer vigorously for a few minutes to cook off the starchy flavor.
  7. To serve the chili over burritos, warm the refried beans in a skillet or deep saucepan with some sautéed onions. Add a generous spoonful of the beans onto the center of a large flour tortilla. Add a small handful of shredded cheese and roll it up, placing it seam side-down on an oven-safe plate. Ladle chili over the burrito, sprinkle on more shredded cheese and just a small amount of extra chili. Place in the hot oven or microwave to melt the cheese.

Below are the ingredients I used in the green chile sausage. Full instruction for making the sausage can be found in my previous post for homemade pork sausage.

Ingredients

  • Pork shoulder cubes (gram weight of pork determines how much seasoning blend to use)
  • 1 tsp. Flatiron Pepper Co. hatch green chile blend (for mild, smoky flavor)
  • 1 tsp. Flatiron Pepper Co. four pepper blend (includes chiles de arbol, ghost and habanero for lots of heat)
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane
  • 1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper



My Big Fat Olive Martini

When the world shut down for COVID nearly three years ago, I had extra time for cocktail experimentation because, well, there wasn’t much else to do. I made some really fun ones, but what seems ironic to me is that the more I experimented with new and unusual spirit ingredients (not to mention bitters and simple syrup infusions), the more I eventually “came home” to the familiar pleasure of a classic gin martini.

As we have inched closer to New Year’s Eve, I reached an impasse with myself about what kind of tipple I might share with you. Would it be another twist on a Manhattan, like the Pom-Pom-Hattan I posted two years ago, featuring pomegranate liqueur and real grenadine? Or maybe a fun riff on an Old Fashioned, like the smoked maple that is my hubby’s all-time favorite? No, this year, I dismissed all the fancy ideas I had for New Year’s Eve in favor of a cocktail that I’ve enjoyed multiple times over the past year. Rather than a wild new drink with hard-to-find ingredients, I bring you this simple but fabulous elevation of the timeless martini cocktail— I call it My Big Fat Olive Martini!

Peace out, 2022!

No, it is not named for the size of the olive on the pick (but that is a plus). What makes this drink special is that it leverages a technique called “fat washing,” which is essentially the temporary blending of a spirit ingredient with some kind of fat— be it bacon grease, browned butter or even duck fat. By shaking the spirit with the fat and then chilling it to solidify and strain off the fat, you end up with the essence of that fat ingredient in the drink, but without any actual fat in it. The effect of the fat washing is a luscious, well-rounded mouthfeel in the cocktail that is distinctly different, though the spirit’s own character is still front and center. It’s exquisite!

About a year ago, I became a subscriber to Imbibe magazine, which is intended for pro bartenders (but bored home mixologists can order it, too). In this magazine, as well as its digital counterpart, I’ve learned some new tricks of the trade in a way that puts my home mixology skills a step or two ahead of most cocktail bars in our city. Imbibe presented a version of this cocktail several months ago, and though I could not find the exact gin its creator used to make the drink, I knew I had to try it anyway. Fellow martini lovers, you are going to love this.

The dry vermouth you’ll use for the martini is first “washed” with a good quality, extra virgin olive oil, and the olive variety you choose will lend its specific character to the vermouth, even after it’s strained out after the chill-down. If you like fruity or grassy olive oil, you can expect those notes to carry over into your martini accordingly. Isn’t that fun? 


The oil I like best for this is Nocellara, an Italian olive variety known more widely as Castelvetrano. This oil has a mild and creamy, almost artichoke-y flavor, and it is outstanding for washing the vermouth, though other varieties I’ve tried were perfectly acceptable. The big thing that matters here is the quality and purity of the oil. It should be 100% extra virgin and cold-pressed, and you may have to leave the supermarket to find a good one. If you have a specialty oil and vinegar shop in your area, start there.

Combine the vermouth and oil (in a 5:1 ratio) in a wide-mouthed jar and shake it for about 30 seconds. Tuck it into the coldest spot of your fridge for about 24 hours (or up to about three days—after that, it loses something).


The pure olive oil solidifies in the fridge, so it’s usually easy to separate it from the vermouth after washing; I did this by poking the solid oil with a chopstick, then lifting it out and draining the vermouth out from under it into a new jar and then into a small bottle, ready to go for mixing cocktails. If the oil doesn’t solidify, it could be that it isn’t pure extra virgin, or it could be that the alcohol in the protecting the oil a bit. It’s not a lost cause though, just stick the jar in the freezer for a couple of hours and check again.


From that point, make your martini as usual. If you want a little extra olive flavor, go dirty with a little splash of olive brine, too. And of course, garnish it with a gorgeous olive— a big fat one, if you wish. These are castelvetranos, stuffed with a chunk of feta, which pairs perfectly.


Oh, and don’t throw out that solid slab of olive oil. Let it melt and use it in a snazzy vinaigrette dressing!

My Big Fat Olive Martini

  • Servings: 1 cocktail, easy to scale up
  • Difficulty: Easy
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A pro technique called 'fat-washing' transforms dry vermouth, putting a luscious twist on a classic cocktail!


Ingredients

  • 2 oz. London dry gin (or vodka, if you prefer it for martinis)
  • 1/2 oz. olive oil-washed dry vermouth (see below)
  • A splash of briny olive brine (optional, for a “dirty” martini)

Directions

  1. Combine gin, dry vermouth and olive brine (if using) in a shaker or mixing glass.
  2. Add a cup of ice and shake or stir about 30 seconds, until outside of container is frosty. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a big fat olive, or twist of lemon peel (or both).

It is essential that you choose a 100% extra virgin olive oil for the fat-washing step. Inferior oils will not solidify during chilling and are difficult to strain from the vermouth. You’ll find a plethora of good options in a specialty oil and vinegar shop.

Ingredients

  • 75 ml (2.5 oz.) dry vermouth; I like Dolin brand for this
  • 15 ml (1/2 oz.) good quality, extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Combine vermouth and olive oil in a wide-mouthed jar (it’s easier to poke through for straining later).
  2. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds, and then place jar in a very cold spot in the fridge, undisturbed, for about 24 hours or up to three days.
  3. Remove jar from fridge. If the oil is not fully solid on top of the vermouth, place the jar in the freezer for a couple of hours to firm it up more.
  4. Use a chopstick or small spoon to loosen and lift the solid olive oil disk. Gently drain the vermouth through a fine mesh strainer to remove residual olive oil. Transfer the strained vermouth to a small bottle and keep chilled. This amount is good for five martinis. Scale up as needed.


“Clear Out the Pantry” Cookies for Santa

Most bloggers post their yummy cookie recipes before Christmas, because that’s when everyone is getting ready for Santa’s visit. But I’ve intentionally saved mine for this week for a specific reason, and it has everything to do with my family’s unusual relationship with Santa Claus. So I will get to the cookie recipe, but I beg your indulgence because the family connection is, well, compelling, don’t you think?

And yes, you read that right. My family knows Santa personally, and he’s more like the rest of us than you may have imagined.

When I was a little girl, I was fortunate to live near enough my maternal great-grandparents that I visited them regularly in our small town. When I was a teenager, my visits remained frequent, as their house was within easy walking distance of the high school and I could visit during senior free time. I think it’s possible that my Grandma J actually invented the “grandma pizza,” as that was a regular lunch treat she made for my school day visits. 

On occasion, I would also catch the lingering aroma of Grandpa J’s homemade cake donuts, and that was a sure giveaway that Santa had been to their house that morning. Apparently, cake donuts were Santa’s favorite, and he made a point to stop and sit a spell whenever he pulled his 18-wheeler into the parking lot of the grocery store across the street from my relatives’ humble home. You didn’t think a sleigh was his only mode of transport, did you? Santa also has a motorcycle, and he sometimes rolled into town on that, especially in the summer.

Santa visited my great-grandpa quite often, and my one regret is that I always arrived at their home just moments after Santa had left. My timing was terrible, but Grandpa told me the stories, and I remember them all as if I had met Santa myself.


The history of the friendship

It’s hard to say exactly how or when this personal friendship between my great grandpa and Santa began, but it could go back a few generations. Grandpa’s people came from Norway, which is basically a stone’s throw from the North Pole, and because Santa is multilingual, he and Grandpa J usually conversed in Norwegian. Their discussions didn’t focus on Christmas unless it was on the calendar that month, but those visits were rare because Santa was so busy. The rest of the year, Santa’s life is quite different and, well, normal, so they talked about ordinary things like the weather and family and how things were going up at Santa’s place, which is much more than just a toy shop.

Santa has more going on than toys

There is a small working farm at the North Pole, so Santa stays busy keeping things in order there, but with plenty of help. There are farm hands to tend the livestock and the crops, and Santa always had children staying with him, too. It was never clear to me whether they were his own kids or perhaps adopted or even fostered— and it doesn’t really matter because Santa loves all children the same. I most remember the stories about the two teenage boys and the girl, and how they spent a lot of time outdoors, especially around Buttermilk Lake (which isn’t actually filled with buttermilk, despite its name) and reporting to Santa the chaotic incidents perpetrated by two particular animals.

The monkey and the billy goat

My great-grandpa relayed many stories of Santa’s life at the North Pole, but the most memorable ones were about a billy goat, which doesn’t initially seem unusual on the grounds of a working farm. But this was a rambunctious billy goat who was less part of the farm and more part of the family. He minded his own business for the most part, but regularly found himself the target of pranks by a mischievous monkey. The monkey was a real terror, and he’d often use a long wheat straw to tickle the billy goat’s ear as he napped. Sometimes he’d annoy the goat so badly that a chase would ensue around the outside of the house. Santa’s wife (her name is Mary Christmas, in case you’re wondering) would be interrupted from her work in the kitchen as the pair whipped past the window again and again, until finally she only saw one figure. That darn monkey was so clever, he’d jump up and land on the billy goat’s back, just riding along as the billy goat basically chased himself. It must have been a sight!

Santa’s wife

And lest anyone assume that the relationship between Santa and Mary Christmas is misogynistic, I can assure that it isn’t. Mary Christmas was not just washing dishes or making supper in those stories; she is a very resourceful woman who also helps on the farm, especially planting and tending the garden. She does a lot of canning and pickling to ensure that the family and farm hands have ample supplies throughout the year. Some of Santa’s visits to my great-grandpa were the result of him being in town to purchase canning supplies and other things that Mary Christmas had put on his “honey-do” list. 

The night everyone talks about

So what about all the magical effort that goes into delivering presents on Christmas Eve? Well, it’s not a big deal for Santa because he’s been doing it so long and he also has his own logistics team. He doesn’t depend on airlines or commercial freight carriers; he handles the details himself and gets the job done well every time. As for the ability to visit all the world’s children in a single night, there is a very simple explanation. Time stands still at the North Pole and most of the travel happens at very high altitude so everything goes faster than it does down here at ground level. You know how it is when you’re in an airplane, moving at approximately 550 mph, but not feeling plastered against your seat? Same principle.

The other 364

During the rest of the year, and especially after Christmas, Santa lives a lot like the rest of us— keeping his business and home in order, taking care of his family and workers and catching up with old friends, like my late great-grandfather. Because time stands still at the North Pole, though, Santa doesn’t age at the same rate as the rest of us. Keeping fit is an ongoing effort and Santa knows that children love to prepare cookies for him, so he never complains about the sugary treats he finds while delivering gifts. But he also eats other foods, and he appreciates finding cheese and crackers, sandwiches, a veggie tray or even a little nip of whiskey (the reindeer are the ones driving, after all). Santa is good with all of that, so don’t stress yourself next Christmas to get the cookies ready. And if you feel like putting out cake donuts, well, he’d be pleased as punch (especially if they’re rolled in cinnamon sugar).

About these cookies

As much as I love the idea of Christmas cookies, I rarely make them and I don’t get too excited about the sugary toppings and decorations. I was always the weird kid who chose homemade oatmeal raisin over iced with sprinkles. This is the kind of cookie I would make for a last minute, mid-year visit from Santa. Without weeks to plan, I’d go to the pantry and clear out every this-and-that ingredient I could find—oats, puffed rice cereal, nuts, dried cherries, coconut flakes and dark chocolate— and turn them into a cookie that satisfies with all its contrasting textures.

I made a batch of these “clear out the pantry” cookies recently, and I’m happy to share how it went!

These ingredients bring in great texture, and some of them are even good for you!

The cookie dough itself is akin to a chocolate chip cookie dough, but with a swap-in of some whole wheat flour for extra flavor and nutrition. I used a combination of brown and cane sugars, wholesome egg, creamy butter and real vanilla extract. The dough begins as most, by creaming together the butter and sugars, then blending in the egg and vanilla.


I mixed in the old fashioned oats first, because I can beat them vigorously without worry of gluten development. Next, the whole wheat flour mixed with the baking soda, salt and cream of tartar. Then, the rest of the flour, mixing just enough to work it into the creamed mixture.


When you’re mixing any cookie dough, you want to avoid stirring too much after you add the flour, or the dough may get tough rather than soft. So for the mix-ins, I began with the really firm ones— chocolate chips, dried cherries and chopped pecans— and I used a hard spatula to essentially “press” them through the dough. Finally, I did the same with the toasted coconut and crispy brown rice cereal.


I used a small cookie scoop to divvy out the dough, pressing a really full scoop against the inside of the bowl to ensure that every cookie is full and round, and spacing them two inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. If you don’t have a scoop, use a teaspoon to measure out the dough into pecan size mounds. Try to avoid rolling the dough with your hands, as the warmth will change the nature of the cookie.


Into the preheated oven for 10 minutes, and these cookies emerge perfectly soft, with crispy edges and all that lovely texture. The pantry is a bit lighter after making these, and if Santa should happen to stop in for coffee (or sweet tea, or whiskey) on his way to pick up supplies, I’ll be ready!


Clear Out the Pantry Cookies

  • Servings: 55 to 60 small cookies
  • Difficulty: Average
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These cookies have crispy edges, chewy dried fruit, crunchy nuts and flaky coconut. In other words, ALL the texture I crave!


Ingredients

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, slightly softened from refrigerator
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup granulated cane sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup old fashioned oats
  • 3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 6 oz. semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup candied (or plain) pecans, broken into small pieces
  • 1/2 cup crispy rice cereal, lightly toasted
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries, cherries or raisins
  • 1/2 cup sweetened coconut flakes, lightly toasted

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, with rack in center position. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, or the double blades of an electric handheld mixer, beat butter until creamed and airy. Add cane sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, until fluffy. Add brown sugar the same way.
  3. Add egg and vanilla to bowl and beat until mixture is smooth.
  4. Add oats and mix until evenly blended. In a small bowl, combine whole wheat flour with the salt, soda and cream of tartar. Add this flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture and beat only long enough to incorporate the dry ingredients. Next, add the all-purpose flour to the bowl and mix just to incorporate. Avoid overmixing so that your cookies will remain soft.
  5. Remove bowl from stand mixer. All remaining ingredients should be folded in by hand to avoid overheating. An easy way to incorporate the add-ins is to use a firm spatula or wooden spoon to try to “press” them down through the dough, beginning with the firmer ingredients (chips, dried fruit and pecans) and ending with the delicate ones (coconut and rice cereal).
  6. Place by rounded teaspoonfuls (or use a small size dough scoop), 2 inches apart on the parchment-lined sheets.
  7. Bake 9 to 11 minutes (depending on oven), until dough is set and edges are lightly golden brown.
  8. Cool on sheet a couple of minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.


Peppermint Bark Brownies & Candy Cane Whipped Cream

When it comes to holiday goodies, decadent doesn’t have to be complicated, and simple doesn’t have to be ordinary. These brownies—amped up with an extra dose of double dark cocoa and embellished with pieces of peppermint bark—are delightful as they are. But then, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I topped them with a dollop of candy cane-infused whipped cream.

Decadent, simple and way beyond ordinary!

I chose the Dr. Seuss colors for my plates (on purpose).

The best part about it (besides the fact that it’s delicious and oh-so-Christmas-y) is that I didn’t have to make a scratch recipe. I used my favorite Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix as the base, and folded broken up Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark squares into the batter before baking, along with a generous spoonful of double dark cocoa blend from King Arthur Baking Company (but any dark cocoa powder works fine).

Extra chocolate, anyone? 🙂

Make the brownies as directed, using water and canola oil plus egg to moisten the batter. Gently fold in the broken pieces of peppermint bark and spread it out into a buttered brownie pan.


I considered using the chunkier peppermint bark, with actual bits of candy cane sprinkled on top, but decided on the Ghirardelli-style bark for its smooth, meltable qualities and so that we didn’t accidentally chip a tooth biting into a hidden piece of candy cane. They melted completely into the baked brownies, and offered gooey pockets of pepperminty flavor in each bite. If you don’t mind a little crunchy surprise, there’d be no harm in trying these brownies with the chunky style of bark. The contrast of chewy and crunchy would probably be especially popular with kids. No adjustment is needed to the baking time, and be sure to let them cool completely so they set up for easier cutting and serving.

This candy cane whipped cream makes me so happy!

The candy cane whipped cream is much easier than it sounds—I simply warmed heavy whipping cream in a small saucepan and melted two broken candy canes into the cream. This took about 20 minutes, and I kept a close eye on them to avoid letting the cream reach a boiling point. The candy canes did all the work, providing the sweetness, the minty flavor and the pretty pink color. After a thorough chilling, I used the whisk attachment of my electric mixer to whip it into a creamy emulsion.


Ready to make them? Use the “click to print” card below to save this for your recipe files. Merry Christmas!

Peppermint Bark Brownies & Candy Cane Whipped Cream

  • Servings: 9 or 16, depending on desired size
  • Difficulty: Average
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These Christmas-y brownies bring together two favorite flavors for a 'simple meets special' holiday treat.


Ingredients

  • 1 box Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix (or your favorite, plus oil, egg and water as directed)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon dark cocoa (I used King Arthur Baking Double Dark Blend)
  • 8 squares Ghirardelli dark chocolate peppermint bark, broken into pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 standard size candy canes

It’s best to make this ahead, so that the candy cane-infused cream has plenty of time to chill before whipping and serving. Brownies should also be cooled for easier cutting.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven as directed on brownie mix package, with rack in center position. Generously butter your brownie pan.
  2. Combine dry brownie mix and dark cocoa in a bowl and whisk together. Add ingredients as instructed on brownie mix (this is usually some combination of egg, oil and water).
  3. Gently fold in broken pieces of peppermint bark, and then transfer brownie batter to the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a spatula.
  4. Bake as instructed and allow plenty of time for brownies to cool.
  5. Pour cream into a small saucepan with broken candy canes, and place pan over medium-low heat. Stir gently and watch this closely to ensure cream does not boil. It should remain at a gentle simmer with steam floating above the pan. When candy canes have fully melted, transfer the cream to a bowl and refrigerate until fully chilled.
  6. Use a handheld mixer (or a whisk, if you have really strong arms) to whip the cream to desired fluffiness. Spoon a dollop of the candy cane whipped cream onto each brownie square and serve immediately.