Sourdough Pumpkin Challah (a bread maker’s journey)

When I set out in 2011 to learn the terrifying skill of bread making, my primary goal was to have the welcoming aroma waft out of my oven and throughout the house. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread? My first few attempts were pretty confused, with some downright inedible, but also with a couple of winners that were probably accidental. I finally got good at making the simplest bread of all time, the English muffin loaf, a minimal ingredient recipe which requires no kneading and is really hard to screw up. And then, me being me, I decided to go ahead and up my game without first mastering the basics of real kneaded bread. It’s just what I do, setting the bar very high for myself. Perhaps the result of being raised by a perfectionist father and impossible-to-please mother? That is a motive I’ll leave to my therapist for analysis.

“I’ll make artisan loaves,” I declared, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into. When I had my first successful artisan boule (a bread nerd’s term for a round crusty bread made without a loaf pan), I charged forward with another idea—that I would henceforth make only sourdough bread. As I have mentioned in a previous post, “sourdough” is commonly (though incorrectly) assumed to be a flavor of bread, but it is more accurately understood as a leavening method. The process begins with creation of a culture that you feed regularly, only flour and water and nothing else, and the culture replaces commercial yeast. For me, this began in early 2016.

My sourdough culture does the same work as the recognizable yellow yeast packets, but in twice the time (you have to be patient, which means it’s been a learning experience for me) and resulting in five times the flavor of bread that is produced with commercial yeast. Sourdough is a fussy thing to learn (with lots of math involved), but once the light bulb goes off and you understand how to relate to it, there’s no going back. This is exactly the thing I’ve wanted my whole life—a relationship that is so solid, there’s no going back. Thank you, God.

Somewhere along the way of making sourdough bread, however, I lost a bit of my gumption and started playing it safe—making only a few “safe” sourdough breads, or the ones that worked out just right every time. The potato onion sourdough loaf that is easy to shape because you do it while the dough is cold, and it stays so soft and is perfect for my husband’s beloved tuna salad sandwiches. The sourdough rye loaf that seems to work backward from all the other loaves, in that the sponge (nerd speak for “wet starter”) contains the full amount of water for the recipe, but somehow the bread comes out perfect every time. The “basic” sourdough loaf from my Peter Reinhart book that is supposed to emerge from the oven with a crackling crust, but mine only did so on my very first try, giving me a confidence that I hadn’t yet earned. And the sourdough challah, which many experienced bread makers have doubted is even possible, given that challah dough is sweetened with a good deal of honey, which tends to put the whole process into even slower motion than sourdough already does. But I’ve made sourdough challah successfully for two years, though only for celebration of the big Jewish holidays that allow leavened bread: Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah.

Still, I wanted to push it further and make a pumpkin challah, for which there are plenty of recipes on the internet. Except none were made by way of sourdough, and so that became the new high bar for me. For two years, I kept this challenge off in the distance, lest I be disappointed in the outcome. If you’ve ever baked with pumpkin, it was probably muffins or quick bread or something that is intended to be soft and kind of crumbly in texture. I’ve tried making chocolate chip cookies with pumpkin, and they were tasty, but cake-y and more like muffin tops than cookies (let’s not discuss what they did to my own muffin top). I made a successful sourdough pumpkin artisan boule a couple years ago, and it was delicious, but dense. I really, really wanted a sourdough pumpkin challah.

Fast forward to this week, and this gorgeous, swirly slice of sourdough perfection.

All that pumpkin! And swirls of maple sugar and warm autumn spices.

Introducing pumpkin to the mix is complicated for several reasons. First, I had to speculate how much moisture vs. bulk to account for in the pumpkin puree, because I had to create my own recipe and formula. Secondly, the fibrous nature of pumpkin puree contradicts the stretchy gluten structure of bread; the puree is wet, but it isn’t liquid. Challah is made with several eggs and oil—in its classic form, it should be light and soft inside, with a delicately chewy crust. With so much adjustment, coupled with long ferment times, I was sure that I’d fail in this venture. I hate to fail. But if failure is inevitable, I will go down in flames. Dramatic? Welcome to my mind.

The trouble is, I didn’t fail. No, I definitely did not.

The round braided loaf has a maple-spice swirl, and the braided wreath is filled with a blend of dried fruits: cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries and cherries.

This first attempt at making a naturally leavened pumpkin challah had me on pins and needles from start to finish, but these two loaves far exceeded my expectations. And, just in time for Rosh Hashahah! My loaves are round in shape to symbolize the new year, and coming around full circle. I cannot wait to make French toast this weekend. Imagine the bread pudding possibilities! I feel like a proud mama, showing off pictures of a new grandbaby.

“Do I smell pumpkin?”

I’m so excited, I want to run to the market and buy every can of pumpkin puree on the shelves. The next round of sourdough pumpkin challah for everyone is on me! Wait, maybe I’ll grow the pumpkins and cook them myself—that may become the next high bar? No, perhaps I shall make it again a few more times to be sure my formula is correct. And though I know that most of my followers here will not ever roll up their sleeves and make this bread (except my fellow sourdough nerds, for whom I’ve presented my formula and notes in PDF at the end), for now, I am delighted to show you the pictures of my journey. Thank you for looking. 😀

Happy fall, everyone, and “shanah tovah!”

For bread nerd eyes only 🙂


I Want a Sunday Kind of Supper

It’s challenging enough in normal times to get dinner on the table on a busy weekday. Toss in a pandemic? I’m lost. At this point, I barely know what day it is, except for the display on my smart phone screen. Before COVID, managing the “life” part of the work-life balance felt easier because I ran my errands more frequently and rarely had trouble finding what I wanted. My three-stop errand run yesterday proved once again all that has changed.

Food shopping today is like being trapped in a real-life version of “Guy’s Grocery Games” on Food Network, where contestants have 20 minutes to put together a specific kind of meal, but they are blocked from using key ingredients, forced to use something that doesn’t belong, or prohibited from using a shopping cart. It’s exactly how I feel when I show up to shop, fully armed with a list and a plan, only to discover that half my items are unavailable. And just for the heck of it, let’s throw in social distancing efforts, with “one way” arrows on the floor in each aisle. I commend my favorite markets for their commitment to safety. I’m the one with adjustment disorder. My hat is off to anyone who does what I do plus handling the needs of a family with children or elderly parents. I can’t imagine.

By the time I finished yesterday’s scavenger hunt, my glasses were fogged up (again) and I was out of energy, out of ideas and out of time to pull together anything resembling a nutritious meal for my husband and myself. Take-out salads from a reliable restaurant on the route home saved my sanity and satisfied our dinnertime hunger.

When the weekend finally arrives and I have more time and motivation to make something really special—that’s what I love, and in turn, my love becomes a central element in those dishes. I like to think of them as “Sunday Suppers,” not because they are unsuitable for weeknights, but because they provide a reset for the upcoming busy week.

The all-day stews, hearty soups, casseroles and roasts—these “Sunday Supper” kind of recipes—are my favorite foods to make. They aren’t necessarily fancy, but they require more time, a few extra ingredients and a bit more patience. They are, as Etta James sang, an edible example of “Sunday kind of love.” The whole house will be filled with aromas as the meal develops and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have leftovers to enjoy later in the week when life is running at its usual hectic pace.

Remember the lentil moussaka recipe I shared a few months ago? I would place it firmly in the category of “Sunday Supper,” given the number of ingredients and steps involved in making it. Notice that I didn’t say the recipe is complicated, because it isn’t. Or maybe pork chops and applesauce is more in your wheelhouse, with handy shortcuts offered by a slow cooker and quick brine. I’ll have plenty more menus to offer, so if you have free time on the weekend and enjoy trying new things in the kitchen, watch your inbox for more of my own favorites in a new series called Sunday Supper.

To get things going, I offer lemon mushroom chicken, an old standby that we were happy to welcome back into rotation recently. The ingredients are easy to find and if you can slice mushrooms, squeeze a lemon and turn on your stove—well, you’ve got this. The magic happens in just one skillet, your kitchen will smell amazing, and I promise you’ll taste the love.

A quick twist of the fork is enough to grab a bit of this lemon mushroom chicken. How scrumptious and tender is that?

And because I believe Sunday Supper should end on a sweet note, I’m also giving you this cherry-amaretto upside-down skillet cake. It’s one of the ways I found to enjoy this year’s beautiful bounty of sweet summer cherries. Enjoy!

The cherries and brown sugar have turned into the deepest shade of burgundy red. Yum!

What Makes Breakfast Better?

One of the websites I visit frequently for inspiration, or sometimes sheer amusement value, is the (U.S.) National Day Calendar, which announces quite matter-of-factly what we should be celebrating on a given day. This gave me a heads-up to plan for National S’mores Day, when I shared my adventures with this dessert pizza and this sweet sippin’ cocktail.


Though September has many standalone “days” worth celebrating, including:

6th – coffee ice cream day
9th – teddy bear day
16th – cinnamon raisin bread day
19th – talk like a pirate day
24th – cherries jubilee day
25th – one hit wonder day
28th – North Carolina day (because I love living here)

I am more appreciative of the monthlong celebrations that relate to food during September, and that’s where I will place my attention—I’m focusing on September as National Mushroom Month, Whole Grains Month and Better Breakfast Month. The latter of those three, better breakfast month, has left me wondering:

What makes breakfast “better?” I’m not sure who decides what that means.

Is a better breakfast one that is better for you? Or does breakfast become better when it’s fancier, or less common, or prettier, or tastier or more balanced—or what? We’ve been told all our lives that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day,” yet most of us skip through it without fanfare because it also happens to be the busiest time of day, especially if there are school-age children involved. The challenge of getting the kiddos off to school with the nutritional fuel their brains need is a tale as old as time, and COVID certainly isn’t helping this year. Even for adults, if any daily meal is prone to be routine and boring, it’s breakfast. Raise your hand if you eat the same thing for breakfast at least three times a week. Now raise your hand if you didn’t even bother to eat breakfast today. I’m guilty of that a lot. The most important meal of the day, yet so hard to manage.

At our house, weekends are better breakfast days, largely because my husband is not out the door at 7 am as he is Mondays through Fridays. By Saturday, we are ready for a slower-paced meal together, and although I wouldn’t label every weekend breakfast as special or better, we occasionally do some pretty fun things with this ever-important meal. I’ll share a few as the month rolls along—of the whimsical and the decadent, and hopefully even a few new ones on my bucket list. Until then, chew on these ideas for inspiration:

I’d also like to know what breakfast is about at your house. What makes it challenging, or what breakfast dishes do you look forward to on special occasions? Tell me in the comments section so I can have new inspiration, too. 🙂


“Now You’re Cooking With Gas!”

It was a phrase my Gram said all the time, though she wasn’t necessarily referring to her method of stove-top cooking. Rather, she said it any time one of us grandkids had done something well.

“Look, Gram, I’m riding my bike without training wheels!”

“Woo-eee, now you’re cooking with gas!”

And she would clap at the same time—not as if giving applause, but more like slapping her hands with follow-through. She got excited when I succeeded, and that kind of support always meant so much to me. She would have loved this blog, and seeing my stories come to life through recipes.

This is a week of wistful emotion, as it has now been a full year since my grandmother died. It seems ironic, yet somehow very fitting, that when I received the news of her death (at nearly 98), my sadness was tempered by the excitement of a delivery I was expecting—delivery and installation of my new gas range.

I learned to cook on Gram’s gas range, and had come to understand the level of flame needed for searing a piece of meat in a cast-iron skillet, making a roux, simmering a stock or boiling potatoes. It made sense to my young mind that when you turned off the flame, the simmer stopped without hesitation. Gram taught me about safety at the stove, and not getting the pot holder too close to the fire. I knew what the pan should sound like when you crack an egg into it, and I learned how to manage three or four pots at once while making a large meal.

As most serious cooks will attest, once you cook with gas, it’s really, really tough to go back to electric. It’s a learning curve, but in the wrong direction. You can imagine my distress, then, to have only had a few gas cooktops in my adult life. For the most part, I have been stuck with various versions of electric stoves. There was the plugged-in coil kind (terrible, because the coils never sat level), the flat solid burner kind (it always looked clunky and dirty) and the smooth ceramic kind (more tolerable, but still deserving of a thumbs-down, especially when my pans were sliding around).

For all of them, it took forever for the burners to reach anything resembling cooking temperature—and once they did, I always had to spend valuable time fiddling to get the level right for whatever I was cooking. Electric burners work in the same manner as a thermostat—they rise to the prescribed temperature and then they shut off until the temperature is reduced enough to kick it back on. The result?—a ridiculous fluctuation that shatters any chance of a perfect sear, even simmer or properly composed sauce. Simply put, I hate the electric burners.

As harsh as it may sound, the electric range in my husband, Les’s, suburban home was one of many shallow excuses I kept in the back of my mind to delay the growth of our relationship. There were a few other differences that should have been greater concern, but those seemed far more tenable. Les is allergic to cats, but he found a medicine to alleviate the symptoms brought on by my two feline babies. I’m Christian and Les is Jewish, yet we were both open to learning and sharing our traditions in a way that has deepened our beliefs. But what would happen if I fell in love with this guy, and then couldn’t concede to cook in his kitchen? I could handle being interfaith, but an electric range? Oy.

Fatefully, we had some terrific experiences in his kitchen, even with an inferior stove. There was our first Thanksgiving, when he gave me the reins to cook the turkey (you’d have to know him to get how huge this was), then a Super Bowl party and then a July 4 gathering. I was beginning to see myself building a life with this man. Yes, we were “cooking with gas”—well, except that we weren’t. A few weeks later, just two days before my birthday, he proposed. We were in it to win it by that point, and I would have married him if he only had a hot plate.

Over the next couple of years, we toyed with the idea of converting to gas in our kitchen, an upgrade that was complicated by the fact that the house is built on a slab. So we began looking at other houses—taking the idea “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” way over the top. We browsed Zillow and toured open houses, and ultimately faced the truth that every house had issues to be reconciled. Despite the kitchen, ours wasn’t so bad. Moving would have been a huge stressor to our young marriage, but especially to our pets, who enjoyed the safety and freedom afforded by our fenced-in backyard with friendly neighbors and limited traffic. Staying was the right decision.

Then, on my birthday last summer, Les surprised me with some plans. We had learned that a gas line from the existing furnace could be run through a section of the attic and down the wall into the kitchen. It was a tad expensive, we would need to hire a plumber and it would mean a small drywall repair on the wall above the cabinets behind the range. But Les made it clear that this was going to happen. He had researched various gas ranges, and it was time for us to choose the perfect stove for our home.

Hot diggity, I was gonna be cooking with gas!

I wanted to tell my grandmother, but her health had suffered in her advanced age, and reaching her at her assisted living facility was not always as simple as picking up the phone. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to share my news, I got the call from my mother—“Grandma passed away today.”

Two days later, my new gas range was delivered, and it would only be another week before I’d employ all four burners, plus the oven and the wide cast-iron “griddle-in-the-middle” to cook up a huge spread of food for Les’s family members, who came from as far as Israel to celebrate his milestone birthday. Our home would be filled with joy and laughter and all the smells of amazing food cooked on a gas range, just as I’d learned so many years ago from my loving mentor. Indeed, a terrific celebration it would turn out to be.

But in this moment, quiet at last after the ruckus of delivery and setup, all I wanted was a cup of tea. I set my red tea kettle on the back burner and lit the flame beneath it. Then I reached for my small black recipe box and, through hot tears that finally came, I sat down and thumbed through the index cards in search of the ones scrawled with Gram’s own handwriting—molasses cookies, melting moments, peanut butter cookies (“real crisp,” she wrote), basic bread pudding. Only four cards, I thought? Surely I have more of her recipes? Of course, they’re in my heart. More tears. And then, the sharp whistle of the kettle that stopped all at once when I turned off the burner.

Gram, can you read this without your glasses? I miss you very much, but don’t you worry—I’m cooking with gas, and I intend to keep it this way.


First Fruits

Last week, when I came home from a weekly grocery run, I stepped warily toward the garden at the end of the driveway. I’m accustomed to feeling like a lousy farmer thanks to the herd of deer in our woods. With a sigh on my lips, I lifted back the giant leaves drooping from our squash and zucchini plants, anticipating root rot or squash bug infestation or something equally disgusting and disheartening.

Gasp—there’s life in there! Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

Truly, nobody is more surprised than I am to find that our pitiful little raised bed is displaying its first fruits. Remember the carnage I found recently, in discovering that our eggplant and pepper plants had their tops chomped off? But as Jeff Goldblum’s character said in the original Jurassic Park film, “life finds a way,” and it seems to be true in our side yard. Hallelujah!

In addition to the first beautiful zucchini, which I almost left to grow another day (nope—I’ve learned my lesson there), we have lots of basil and a whole bunch of yellow squash blossoms. In past years, I mistakenly assumed that loads of blossoms would mean as many actual fruit. But unlike the reality of our “gender lesson” in bell peppers a few weeks ago, squash blossoms do present either male or female, and most of these will not be producing squash babies.

Most of these blossoms are male, meaning they will not yield a squash plant.

The male flowers are still important, naturally, for their role in pollination of the female blossoms. The hardworking bees, which have taken up residence in the nearby wildflower garden (you know what they say—location, location, location), will be blossom-hopping for the next few weeks to do just that. I hope we continue to see fruit on these plants, and now that I know they’re producing, I’ll be watching the undersides of the leaves to protect against squash bugs. I love zucchini and squash in absolutely every form, and I have a new spiralizer tool I’m eager to try, so I’m crossing my fingers.

And the basil—holy wow, the basil is growing like crazy but is in need of my immediate attention or I may lose the whole lot of it. If you haven’t grown your own, or maybe you have but with varying degrees of success, I’ll be happy to share what I’ve learned about properly tending to these fragrant summer herbs. When they start to show these little clusters on the ends of the stems, they’re getting ready to go to seed (or “bolt”), and that would be a disappointing end to my pesto goals because once it goes to seed, the basil leaves lose their full flavor and take on a bitterness that is most unpleasant.

This is a sign that my basil plant is getting ready to “bolt.” It’s time to prune!

A few years ago, a Pinterest post led me through a  simple basil pruning technique which made a world of difference in my herb gardening. The basil needs to be “pinched back.” Removal of those little clusters before they begin to flower will send a message to the basil that there’s more growing to do, and if you keep at it, the plant will continue to become bushier until you almost literally have basil coming out your ears. In my case, it might also help protect the other surviving plants in my garden because deer allegedly cannot stand the smell of basil. Here’s hoping!

It’s easy to do—get up close to the cluster and look for a point along the stem below it where twin leaves are positioned across from each other. Just above those twin leaves, pinch off the stem. That’s all there is to it. I usually take a kitchen scissors out to the garden with me and snip them rather than pinching. It goes faster, makes a cleaner cut and doesn’t leave my hands smelling like strong basil. The stems you snip will stop growing, leaving room for new stems to form from the twin leaves. Where there used to be one stem, there will soon be two.

As you go, the basil will require more frequent pruning because stems will multiply. But if there’s a big jar of fresh pesto at the end of it, I’m in! The plant may grow upward somewhat, but mostly you will see a bushy formation, and each time I prune, I’ll have plenty to use along the way to pesto heaven.

I’m going to find a simple way to use these in the kitchen.

It’s been an exciting day in the garden, and I’m going to whip up something delicious with my first fruit haul. I’ll show you in a day or two what I came up with.

Oh, happy day!


Vanilla

When I set out to develop a recipe to properly acknowledge our nation’s birthday, my instinct was to make something that looked like the flag, because isn’t that what everyone does on the 4th of July?

For my culinary tribute to America, I decided instead to focus on the flavors that make a food distinctly “American.” But a funny thing happened during my research into America’s top flavors—the story behind our No. 1 flavor overran everything else on my mind. It’s a tale that involves other countries, explorers and a 12-year-old Black slave whose scientific discovery is still used in the production of vanilla today.

Here’s the short version:

In the early 1800s, Spanish explorers visiting Mexico returned home with some of the orchid plants used to produce vanilla. Back home, they were disappointed to find the plants never developed the long, slender pods that give us the vanilla bean. It was a pollination problem, and European bees couldn’t solve it.

But Edmond, a 12-year old slave in the French colony of Réunion, not far from Madagascar, figured out a way to intervene in the pollination process—sort of a botanical IVF, if you will—and the rest is history. His process of pollinating by hand, by the way, is still used in vanilla production today.

Like so much of what we love in America, vanilla came from somewhere else. And by way of someone whose contribution far outweighs the recognition he received for it. For much of Edmond’s life, he wasn’t even allowed to have a last name. At the end of the post, check out the link to a more thorough telling of Edmond’s story. 

By the way, how ironic is it that a flavor often used to describe anything plain, bland or uninteresting is the most enduring ingredient in American culinary history? I do so love vanilla, and I am grateful to Edmond Albius, who finally received a last name when his owner also gave him freedom and full credit for the discovery. In honor of Edmond, I’m highlighting the familiar warm, floral notes of vanilla—our country’s top flavor—in a bourbon cocktail. A splash of extract will step in with the cocktail bitters, and America’s No. 2 flavor will make an important appearance as well, in the form of a black pepper simple syrup.

Let’s do this.

Ingredients

2 oz. bourbon

0.5 oz. black pepper simple syrup* (recipe in notes below)

1/8 tsp. real vanilla extract

3 drops bitters of choice* (see notes for suggestions)

Combine ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass, add ice and stir for 20 seconds until the glass looks frosty. Strain over a giant ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.


Vanilla-Black Pepper Old Fashioned

 *Notes

Simple syrup is exactly what it says—simple. The base is equal parts water and sugar, and you can take it anywhere you like from there by infusing it with other flavors.

1 cup filtered water

1 cup cane sugar

2 tsp. whole black peppercorns

2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns (I used a mortar and pestle, but the coarse setting on a pepper mill would work just as well)

Combine water and sugar over medium heat and bring to a light boil. Add peppercorns and turn off heat. Stir to be sure sugar is completely dissolved, and let the mixture cool completely before straining, then refrigerate in a sealed jar.

My husband and I have different taste, so I tried the drink with two different bitters varieties; chocolate for him and 18-21 “Havana & Hide” for me. Use any bitters you like. They don’t stand out much, but serve more to accentuate what’s already good about the drink. You can even skip the bitters and let the vanilla shine brighter.

If you’re a food history junkie like me, you’ll appreciate this article, which delves further into the inspiring story of Edmond Albius, the boy botanist whose legacy became the most prolific flavor of our nation’s entire history.

Cheers to you, Edmond. Thank you for flavoring our world.


The Backyard Happy Hour

An interesting thing has happened during this time of physical distancing—my husband, Les, and I are enjoying more frequent visits with friends and loved ones who live too far away for regular visits. The world’s newfound fascination with Zoom and FaceTime calls has increased our own get-togethers with relatives two and three time zones away, and friends a couple hours up the road. Although it’s been great to catch up with everyone by way of technology, it still doesn’t quite satisfy the innate need most of us have for connection. Even if you connect online successfully without audio or screen freezing issues (by the way, who are you if this hasn’t happened to you?), there’s something missing in the virtual happy hour. Maybe you’re missing it, too.

Eye contact.

Sure, we are all looking directly at the people on our screens, just as they are looking back at us on theirs. But that is essentially the problem. If we are looking at the faces on our screens, we are not looking at the camera on our devices—and that means to the people viewing us on their screens, we are not looking them in the eye. Les and I go through this kind of conversation every single time we try to take a selfie, and at some point, I nearly always blurt out, “we have to look at the top of the phone, where the camera is!” Otherwise, we wear a vacant expression in our photos. There’s no eye contact.

Yes, we will continue to muddle through this awkward time, and with as much positivity as we can muster. But for a couple of social butterflies like us, it’s been a major adjustment. Honestly, I’m already a little concerned about how we will get through Thanksgiving if we cannot fill up all the seats at our table. Our shared love of entertaining and socializing is a key point of compatibility for us, and we miss it more than I can describe. So when some good friends of ours proposed a backyard physically distanced happy hour a couple of weeks ago, we pretty much did a collective happy dance. For Les, it was all about “what should we make to share with them?” And for me, the same, plus “I can finally wear those cute sandals I bought in March!” And the evening was delightful in every possible way—perfect weather, conversation and laughter, cocktails and appetizers (at opposite ends of a comfortable patio table), and just the sweetest couple of dogs.

A carefully calculated risk, appropriately distanced for safety’s sake—but finally present in person, and that meant real, honest-to-goodness eye contact. What a joy!

Our friends shared a lovely spread of cheeses and fresh fruit, plus cocktails and a surprise cordial to end our evening on a sweet note (I’ll be sharing more on that later). Les made his Homemade Pimiento Cheese, and I whipped up this Creamy Crab and Artichoke Dip.

Go get these recipes. Both are simple to make, and with only a tiny adjustment in plating, easy to share with friends in a properly distanced way.

All of us are seeking the right way to ease into a “new normal.” What does it look like for you, and how are you making it work?


The Foundation of Good Pizza

Homemade pizza dough isn’t as complicated as it seems. Unless, of course, you happen to live with the one person who is seemingly the expert on all things related to “New York pizza.” And I do.

My husband, Les, is a little finicky completely fanatical about his pizza, to such a degree that I am still nervous about making it for him, even 3+ years into marriage. Like, “Beat Bobby Flay” kind of nervous. If you ask him what part of the pizza is most important, he will answer before you finish the question—the sauce is important and you should never, ever use too much of it. And the cheese should be good quality and never, ever pre-shredded from a bag. But the crust? Ohhh, the crust—the very foundation, the bedrock of a good pizza—this, Les declares, is most important.

When we met, I was still early into my adventures of bread making, but I was gaining confidence in it. And because pizza crust is, essentially, a bread, it made sense to me that I would simply make it. As you have probably already imagined, I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught of constructive feedback I’d receive:

This one is OK, but it’s a little dry. The texture on this one is good, but the flavor is a little bland. This one is all right, but it’s a little too thin, like a cracker. This one is a bit too chewy, but not bad.

During our honeymoon, we went straight to a NYC mecca of pizza, so I could see what “true north” looked like. Between the aroma of great pizza emanating from the shops and the ubiquitous New York street performers, it was a great moment in time.

And the pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street was indeed amazing.

I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that we ate the entire pie.

Back at home, I got serious about upping my game. By day, I’d research formulas, test recipes, develop my technique. By night, I’d pray feverishly to the pizza gods for some kind of divine dough guidance. I scoured through books written by bread experts including Peter Reinhart and Ken Forkish, clicked through about a million Pinterest buttons claiming they had the “best New York pizza dough EVER” and I sat through dozens of YouTube tutorials to learn the correct way to shape my dough. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to throw it into the air to be successful. My ceiling is thankful.

Finally, I found the dough recipe that was closest to Les’s memory of New York pizza, and with a few tweaks of my own (most notably, my effort to build the dough from my sourdough culture), I have earned my keep. You can imagine my joy today, each time we make pizza at home, when this man of mine declares out loud (and, of course, to all his Facebook friends) that our homemade pizza rocks.

Just go ahead and get one.

Beyond the recipe, we have discovered the beauty of a pizza steel, which has completely changed the game for us. If you’ve ever considered getting one, just do it. It inspires me to make even more homemade pizzas, and in the weeks ahead, I’ll elevate your happy by sharing some of my favorite unconventional toppings (because everyone can figure out a pepperoni and cheese).

Ready to roll in the dough (well, figuratively)? I’ve created a tutorial for replicating our favorite homemade pizza dough—complete with recipe, instructions for yeast version and sourdough version, and steps for shaping the crust so you can enjoy pizza at home that rivals the best local takeout joints.

Have fun with it!


The Salad Bar

Just ahead of the rainy Memorial Day weekend, I put on my grungy outside sneakers and went digging in the dirt in our sweet little garden plot. I’d been to the local greenhouse a few weeks before, but had waited for exactly the right time to plant bell peppers and jalapenos, Japanese eggplants, sweet basil and a couple of tomato plants. I figured the imminent rain would give them a fair shot at taking root and maybe, just maybe, we’d get a modest harvest of fresh, home-grown produce. That would be such a lovely thing, given the challenges of staying well-stocked with fresh food in our few-and-far-between grocery visits.

But I’m sad to say that I’m not all that hopeful. It’s my annual exercise in futility—planting the garden. It shouldn’t be a wasted effort, given that we have a terrific climate and growing season, and plus, I grew up with gardens. Through the years, I helped my grandmother tend to her various backyard crops. I did more than my share of digging and weeding in the four (yes, four) enormous plots we had at my father’s rural home in upstate New York. And I even had moderate success in my adult years with zucchini, cherry tomatoes and especially fresh herbs. I don’t have the greenest of thumbs, but I’m no novice.

Yet for the last four summers, I’ve found gardening to be a colossal waste of time, energy, square footage and money. Why, you ask?

Isn’t she just precious?

When my husband and I got together, I was overjoyed with the idea of doing more with the small raised bed garden he’d constructed in the side yard. He had grown various things, but mainly varieties of sweet and hot peppers, which he canned for the winter and gave as holiday gifts. (OK, what guy does that? It’s reason #19 why I fell in love with him, but I digress.)

We had big dreams of cultivating the garden together—between his penchant for canning and preserving, and mine for cooking and creating, we were going to be the power veggie couple of the neighborhood. We researched the best plants for our Zone 7 climate, measured the yard to identify the most sunny spots, amended the soil and planted. Then, like expectant young parents, we watched and waited. We monitored the rainfall, nourished our tender plans with organic fertilizers and did our best to naturally ward off the invaders that threatened to steal our joy. The darn squash bugs were the worst, laying their bazillions of eggs on the undersides of the zucchini leaves. I resisted using pesticides so (naturally) we lost those. And, thanks to the (apparently starving) family of deer living in the woods just behind our rustic fence, the tomatoes were confiscated as well. That first summer together, we ended up with only about five eggplants and a dozen or so hot peppers.

It was disappointing, but no biggie—we’d plan better and be ready for action next year. We expanded the garden to nearly double the original size, amended the new plot with compost and fresh garden soil. We transplanted our little seedlings, including eight varieties of tomatoes—red and yellow cherry, Roma, Amish heirloom, San Marzano plum. It was going to be an amazing harvest.

And this time, I did more homework on keeping the deer at bay. The garden experts all recommended the motion-sensor lights and noisemakers, but we enjoy a pleasant relationship with our neighbor, whose bedroom window overlooks the garden, so those options weren’t viable. Rather, I focused on the odiferous alternatives. It seems that deer, like most other animals, have a very sensitive nose. I concocted a mixture of garlic, cayenne pepper, dish soap and rotten eggs. In theory, you’re supposed to shake up this stuff and sprinkle it on the leaves of the vulnerable plants every so often, and the deer will use their common sense and keep their distance. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to properly explain what happened when my heat-parched husband found and guzzled that vulgar mixture from a sport water bottle in the door of our garage refrigerator. After burping up a few rotten egg bubbles, he learned pretty quickly to come inside the house when he’s thirsty.

The deer seemed to be learning, too. The garden was going gangbusters, but just to be sure, I went the extra mile and decorated it with more of the wives’ tale deterrents I’d discovered on the internet—mesh bags filled with shredded Irish Spring soap and bags of freshly snipped human hair, donated to the cause by my stylist in exchange for a promised portion of the bounty I was sure we would have. It was like a white trash carnival out there, but it was working.

On a sunny late June afternoon, I went out for pictures and counted the tomatoes. We had 47 of them, plump and green and fleshy, safe and protected from the creatures of the wood. By this time, we were married and the garden seemed a symbol of our synergy—look how well we are working together! Just look at this garden, will you!

And then the next day—yes, one day later—I went out to water and noticed a green Roma on the ground. On closer inspection, I realized with complete exasperation that it was literally the only one left. The deer had taken every tomato. Every. Freaking. One.

It was carnage, with one lone soldier left on the ground. And look at that damn bag of hair, mocking me.

You know that scene in the classic A Christmas Story, where Ralphie’s father loses his mind following the pillaging of the family’s turkey by the neighbors’ dogs? That was me that day, standing in the garden with my fists raised to the sky and screaming at the top of my lungs…“Bumpasses!!!!

After all that effort, all that planning, the painstaking measures I’d taken to keep the deer away, it was for naught. Because once the grazing began, it only got worse. I may as well have hung a neon sign announcing an all-you-can-eat salad bar. If those deer had smartphones, they were leaving fantastic Yelp reviews for our garden, boasting about the amazing selection and lovely accoutrements.

We appreciate your feedback.

So in 2018, we didn’t bother with tomatoes at all. We planted hot peppers and eggplants, which the deer didn’t seem to care about. And we planted zucchini and yellow squash, with the realistic expectation that we’d only get about 6 of each before the squash borers annihilated them. And we planted marigolds—lots of marigolds. At least they grow well, and they do make the garden look pretty when the deer come grazing. And we planted lemon balm because the deer supposedly hate it. Unfortunately, it’s part of the mint family, and I didn’t know it would completely take over the entire garden, hoarding the moisture and nutrients from the plants we were trying to protect. To make matters worse, by the middle of July, we discovered a rot problem with several fence posts, which necessitated removal of a 20 foot length of fence. Just come on in!

On our payment check, we may as well have written “dining room expansion” in the subject line.

In 2019, those brazen little bastards precious, starving deer chomped the top leaves and blossoms right off our tender peppers and eggplants before they even had a chance to produce fruit. We tried (and failed) to grow container tomatoes in the safety of the fenced-in back yard. There isn’t enough sun back there, and to be honest, the deer would have no trouble scaling our fence to get at them anyway. It’s bad enough they have decided our garden is the best take-out spot in town. Let’s just not tempt them to come in the doggie door, OK?

May 19, 2020. Here goes nothin’.

Meatless Monday – 7 Tips to Make it Work

If you spend any time on the internet (you’re here, right?), you probably know about Meatless Monday, the movement to reduce meat consumption. The idea is rooted in wellness initiatives, and seems even more relevant today as we each try to do our part to keep things going during the pandemic. And because of my curiosity and passion for food, I’m always game for a challenge.

It takes gumption for a carnivorous household to embrace Meatless Monday and make it stick. How can you avoid feeling “deprived?” How do you keep it interesting? For crying out loud, how do you convince the other people you’re feeding to give it a try? I’ve circled this block enough to know what doesn’t work – today I’m breaking it down and offering you 7 tips for making Meatless Monday more manageable. Let’s do this!

1. Plan ahead

Like any other new habit, you must have a plan. I’ve failed this point in the past and learned from it. There are plenty of plant-based foods that offer substantial protein and other nutrients. Decide ahead which ones will make sense at your house. Do you and the others you cook for already like a lot of vegetables? Can you get them on board for this adventure? Can you rearrange your thinking (and your plate) to let the plant-based items shine, rather than putting meat in the spotlight? Start with a list of all the veggies and non-meat foods you and your people already love, and brainstorm some creative ways to enjoy them for the next two or three Mondays. More ideas will come.

2. Treat those veggies like meat

Seriously. Imagine a typical “salad for dinner.” You see slices of grilled steak or chicken or a piece of fish on top of a few leafy greens, maybe a few veggies for good measure? Take away the meat, and you probably won’t feel satisfied with the same salad. That’s because the meat brought more than protein and bulk to the plate. It also carried flavor, texture and succulence.  But guess what? The qualities you crave in meat can be found or mimicked in many plant-based foods. The secret is in how you cook it. Do you usually toss veggies raw on a salad? Leave them in fat chunks and throw them on the grill for a little char on the edges, instead. Do you steam broccoli as a side dish? Elevate broccoli by roasting it, then give it a starring role on top of a mushroom herb risotto and pair it with fresh greens tossed in simple vinaigrette. Give your vegetables some texture to make them satisfying and I promise, you won’t miss the meat.

3. Ease into it

Remember that Meatless Monday is only one day a week. Trying to do this doesn’t mean you have to starve, give up every animal product all at once or eat things that don’t seem like real food. Intimidated about doing it for the whole day? Start with just changing up dinner. Can’t imagine making it totally plant-based? Start with some favorite dishes that include eggs and dairy (“hello, spinach and mushroom omelet!”). This will help ease you into Meatless Monday until it becomes a habit that builds on your creativity and requires no more effort than your regular meals.

4. Keep it simple

You wouldn’t be able to stick to a new fitness routine if your starting goal was a marathon. So don’t pressure yourself to make a vegan showstopper like this puff pastry-wrapped lentil-mushroom wellington as your first Meatless Monday entry—or maybe even your 50th.

This was delicious on its own, but way over the top with the vegan mushroom gravy we served with it.

You may get there one day (and I’ll share a recipe for that delectable main dish when we get closer to the holidays), but for now, go with something innocent like creamy tomato bisque and a grilled cheese, a veggie stir-fry with brown rice, or zucchini noodles with chunky marinara (try this recipe, but skip the chicken). Pick up pre-chopped veggies from the produce case and ready-made sauces in the grocery aisles and build from there. Keep. It. Simple. (You’ve got this.)

5. Give yourself wiggle room

Sometimes our schedules don’t work for Meatless Monday. My day job runs in cycles—depending on the month, I can be slow, busy or completely slammed. My husband’s work schedule is based on his clients’ needs, and let’s face it, work-from-home with limited grocery runs has upended darn near everything. So, at our house, Meatless Monday occasionally happens on Tuesday—oh well. The goal is to reduce your overall meat consumption to feel better and offer a break to our resource-stressed planet and supply chain. Do what you can and make it work whenever.

6. Enjoy the adventure

Don’t sabotage yourself by turning Meatless Monday into an overly structured thing. I’ve done this, and it just wasn’t sustainable. Call out any attitude that says this is a chore and re-frame it so it feels more like a food adventure. Rather than saying, “I can’t have meat because it’s Monday and I’m already missing something,” how about, “Today we’re creating a flavorful, satisfying meal with fresh and healthful ingredients.” Sounds better already!

7. Let someone else do the cooking

If you want to give it a shot but cannot get it started at home, make Meatless Monday a take-out night. This doesn’t mean you have to find a vegan restaurant. Lots of traditional ethnic cuisines lean on plants for flavor and nutrition, so take the opportunity to try out the menu at that hot Asian restaurant you’ve been hearing about. Or Mexican. Or Indian. They need our support right now, and you may find inspiration in the dishes you discover there for one you make yourself, next Monday.

Feeling inspired to give Meatless Monday a go? Here’s a new recipe for you today, using simple pantry ingredients and a sweet potato. Enjoy!

Meatless Monday, easy and done!