Reminiscing

On this date last year, my husband, Les, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of unmasked strangers in an historic theater for a concert performance by Little River Band. You remember LRB, and the group’s inescapable 1978 hit, “Reminiscing?” I had convinced Les to go with me to this show, one of more than a dozen concerts we’d been to over the course of the previous two years. While he was plowing through an online master’s degree for his new career as a mental health counselor and working a full-time job in another city, we did not have a lot of meaningful time together. Les had proposed the idea of us going to concerts—lots and lots of concerts—as a fun way to stay connected during the hectic stretch. We dropped some major money on tickets, but we always had something fun to look forward to. We saw legendary acts, including Eagles, James Taylor, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, and, well, Little River Band.

Yes, I know, even a second grader would be able to correctly pick “which of these doesn’t belong?” Though LRB may not come to mind as iconic in the way the others do, this show had special meaning for me. As I sat in that beautiful theater (wondering whether any of the people around us were equally nervous about our close proximity and potential spread of the deadly virus that had hijacked the news), I did some reminiscing of my own—back to Red Rocks Amphitheater on Sept. 7, 1981—where my first-ever boyfriend took me to experience my first-ever concert, Little River Band. The Red Rocks show didn’t come up in my search, but this clip from another stop on that tour takes me right back to that beautiful night.

Credit: Shorrock Birtles Goble on YouTube

Things got a little blurry for me after last year’s concert. We had dinner out with friends a couple of nights later, and I remember being concerned about a cough I’d picked up somewhere. There was talk of closures and a potential shortage of basic supplies, so I made a run to Costco, where I did my best to act as if all was normal—of course, because I always buy three towers of tuna cans at a time, 12-pack flats of black beans, jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds, cases of bone broth, and the 7-pound bag of quinoa (which I still haven’t opened). We went to Michael’s to purchase canvases and new acrylic paints so that I would have something to keep me distracted if things got scary.

Meanwhile, the nasty cough didn’t go away, and I spent the rest of that month in the guest room, terrified out of my mind that I had coronavirus and would infect my husband. Les drove me to urgent care the next week, but the 12-year-old, unmasked doctor took my temperature and said, “you don’t have a fever, so it isn’t coronavirus.” Wow, have we learned a lot in a year. He gave me a strep test (negative) and a prescription for cough suppressant (which made it worse). The next day, we lost a dear friend suddenly, but couldn’t gather for a funeral to say goodbye. The following week, our governor issued the executive order to close all non-essential businesses, urging us to shelter in place and ride out what we all hoped would be a rough couple of months. And I was still coughing.

It all happened so damned fast.

I thought of my friends who worked in the food service industry and wondered if they would be OK. Should I send them some money? I thought of my friend whose mom was in cancer treatment and wondered if she’d even survive (she’s doing great). My job was already work-from-home and not likely to change. Les entered his counseling career in the nick of time, and business was booming. And yet, life as we knew it seemed over.

And then, of course, came the notifications that so many upcoming concerts we held tickets for were re-scheduled, postponed, re-scheduled again, cancelled. The first was Tony Bennett, and with the recent sad news of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I’m sure we will never have another chance. Then Jimmy Buffett, The Rolling Stones, matchbox twenty, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical—and then I began to consider the most obvious juxtaposition—what if Little River Band, the first band I ever saw in concert, turned out to also be the last? And what a bummer that would be, given that this new version of LRB bore little-to-no resemblance to the original band I had seen with my first boyfriend 39 years prior. It was a pleasant-enough show, and they performed perfect harmonies on all the right songs, but when I boiled it down, it was pretty much a tribute band with none of the original members. After all the amazing concerts I’d seen in my lifetime, would that be the final hurrah?

And would any of that even matter?

A year into this thing, we are offered faint glimmers of hope for a new normal, but it has come with an excruciating price tag. There are too many people still struggling through illness (COVID-19 and otherwise), separated from loved ones (either by miles or a fingerprinted window pane), fearful of eviction notices when the moratoriums end, terrified for their health as they await vaccination, exhausted after 12 months on the front line in hospitals, discouraged by unemployment, living with so much uncertainty, and the grim fact that more than half a million lives have been lost.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Jimmy Buffett has rescheduled again for April—next month. But is that even appropriate? Les and I won’t be going if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to a bunch of unmasked strangers, partying like it’s 1981. It was excusable last year when so much was unknown, but not anymore. The matchbox twenty show has been rescheduled for late July, but I’m not sure I’ll be ready then either, unless we are in a good place with vaccination rates. I still believe our COVID-19 sentence could have been a rough couple of months, if only more people had listened to the health experts rather than loudmouthed politicians. But here we are.

Life as we knew it may well be over, and “normal” may be completely different from here forward, and that will be uncomfortable for people who want everything to stay exactly as it always was. I miss the anticipation and excitement of live shows, but we have also thoroughly enjoyed the creative remote experiences artists such as Bon Jovi and Melissa Etheridge have provided, right in our living room. Little River Band wasn’t the same last year as in 1981, but the group put on a fun show. And if it turns out to be the last-ever concert I see—well, then I’m glad I was there, with the last-ever boyfriend of my lifetime. ❤


Yay! Another Jewish Food Holiday!

I’ve said many times that I will embrace any food challenge, and I always learn something from my adventures. Recently, however, my lessons went beyond the culinary into the spiritual when I was invited to participate in a “Chopped”-style cooking event for Tu Bishvat, a Jewish celebration that I had never even heard of.

My husband, Les, has been a member of our city’s temple since he relocated here in 2002, and though I’ve attended various services with him—mostly the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—I haven’t been involved enough to establish much connection with the Temple Emanuel community. As the Christian member of our interfaith household, I felt a little awkward being the one to sign up for the online celebration. But this is a very welcoming group, and this Zoom call largely involved families with kids, giving me a chance to learn about Tu Bishvat as a beginner, through the eyes of a child. And I learned plenty.

Tu Bishvat is one of several “new year” observances, a celebration of trees and all the blessings they bring to humanity. There is a huge environmental message in the occasion, echoing the earliest instruction God gave to mankind, which was to care for the Earth. Taking care of the trees matters because the trees provide shade and protection, as well as food for nourishment. Tu Bishvat gives emphasis to planting trees and appreciating what grows on them, especially fruit and nuts.

The youngest kids on the Zoom call presented their creative works of art in celebration of trees. There were tree drawings made with colored pencils, finger paints and markers, some mixed-media trees made with tissue flowers and colorful candies, a couple of trees made of Legos, a 3-D tree with a stick and twigs, and even a tree made of dried pasta. The grade school-age kids enacted a story about the faith and patience required in waiting for the trees to mature to the point of bearing fruit. Sounds like me with my poor, pitiful garden. I needed that lesson!

Rabbi Mark shared a beautiful prayer that was like a poem, and an important reminder for everyone during these sheltered-in-place times. It spoke of the mental and spiritual benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature in meaningful ways. I needed that lesson, too.

Finally, the unveiling of the various foods made from what tradition calls “the seven species of Israel”—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranate, olives and dates. The “Chopped” part of the challenge was that we didn’t know until after we registered which mystery ingredient would be required as the highlighted element of our dish. Mine was pomegranate, which I love for its tangy flavor and the firm snap you get when you bite into the seeds, called “arils.” I had already decided before my ingredient was announced that I would make a focaccia, a rustic bread that is a terrific vehicle for all kinds of dried fruit or olives. Mine is topped with plenty of pom arils, toasted walnuts and fresh thyme leaves, plus a light sprinkling of chocolate-infused sea salt at the end.

I could have made focaccia with any of the “seven species,” because they would all be delicious on this simple bread.

Go on and get the recipe! My Sourdough Focaccia with Pomegranate and Walnuts is great for sharing, perfect as a snack, for breakfast, or with drinks before dinner. You can switch up the toppings to make it your own, savory or sweet as you wish, and it’s a great take-along if you’re meeting up with friends—outdoors, of course, beneath the trees. 😊


Master of the Universe, grant me the ability 

to be alone; may it be my custom to go 

outdoors each day among the trees and grass — among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into התבודדות [hitbodedut], 

solitary prayer, to talk with the One 

to whom I belong.

May I express there everything in my heart,

and may all the foliage of the field —

all grasses, trees, and plants —

awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer

so that my prayer and speech are made whole

through the life and spirit of all growing things,

which are made as one by their 

divine Source.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav 


On Christmas with Our Grandma

The whole family is abuzz about the ways my Gram made Christmas special. I’ve been reminiscing this season, as I’ve hung on our own tree the precious ornaments Gram gave me throughout my childhood. My aunt coached me through the making of Gram’s molasses cookies, a recipe that was handed down from my great-grandmother. And today, I’m misty-eyed over this sentimental essay shared by my younger cousin, Brad. Our grandmother made an indelible mark on all of us. ❤

Terrie

Christmas conjures memories, often of things from childhood. Like presents received, trips visiting family, or perhaps getting terribly sick with the flu and swearing off mincemeat pie or anything that even smells like it for rest your life. OK, that was a little personal memory. But you get the idea.

Like my cousin, Terrie, I have many fond memories of our grandma. She was a special, kind, fun, silly and loving person to us both. Grandma taught Terrie and me a lot of lessons about cooking, and I say to this day, just as my cousin does, that my love for cooking stems from the many hours spent in her kitchen. 

When I was young, one Christmas tradition was that the week after Thanksgiving, it was time to go spend an entire day at Grandma’s kicking off the Christmas season. I would be dropped off early in the morning and Grandma would have the day planned. It started with me putting up the Christmas village she made at a ceramics shop, which, coincidentally, was owned by family members from my dad’s side of the family. (It was a pretty rural community.)


The village is one of my favorite things to do each holiday season, and I am very particular about the arrangement, the color of the lights, where the little pipe cleaner townspeople live and what they are doing in their little Christmas town. I think each year as a child, I had new and more elaborate soap opera-type stories.

At Grandma’s house, after the Christmas village came the tree. As I remember, it was the silver tinsel-type tree that was considered chic during the ‘70s. That, or knowing Grandma’s frugality, it was found at a yard sale. I do remember she had some beautiful and, what I thought at the wise age of 5 or 6, were super-fancy and expensive ornaments. The fragile ones Grandma would hang up, and the less-likely-to-break-in-an-excited-youth’s-hands ones, I would place around the tree. And then move. And move again. And move again. To this day, I rarely hang an ornament that isn’t moved about two or three times before the holiday season is over.

The afternoon brought the cookie baking, and Terrie is going to share one of our favorites—Gram’s Molasses Cookies. During my early years, I was the only grandkid living close to Grandma, so I got to spend the whole day as “host” of my own baking show in her kitchen. I seriously would pretend I was on TV telling my audience what I was doing. Making the cookies was so much fun—learning to sift the flour and why you had to sift, measuring the ingredients, asking about the difference between “oleo” and butter. Terrie has a photo that Gram took of me baking those cookies, and to say I was not the tidiest 4-year-old “chef” would be an understatement.

I am so thrilled that Terrie is sharing this recipe, and I hope they bring warmth and happiness to your family this year and for years to come, as they have with Terrie and me.

Brad, making molasses cookies at Gram’s house.
(Terrie’s note: he was so freaking cute!)

If you’d like to go behind-the-scenes in making the molasses cookies that are so special to our family, you can link to the recipe by clicking the photo below. Enjoy!



On the Best-Laid Plans.

This past Sunday was a doozy of a day in our kitchen. It wasn’t for lack of planning—no, my husband, Les, and I had laid out a terrific plan for completing a list of specific preparations for Thanksgiving. But things went amiss, and through a comedy of errors, I was rattled back into the reality that I rarely have things under control.

The day began innocently enough with a leisurely breakfast, including my favorite coffee and a fresh batch of the hash brown waffles that we adore, and then I attended a virtual church service while Les had a pleasant phone conversation with his daughter.

We finalized our plans for a scaled-back holiday meal and settled into some of the early prep work, including the overdue task of cleaning the oven. We’ve made a ton of pizzas in there, not to mention several other dishes that had spilled over and burned to a blistered black mess on the bottom. We agreed two nights earlier that we could afford a few hours without the oven on Sunday, and we would set the self-clean cycle to run after breakfast. Friends, I don’t know if I’m alone, but this whole idea of self-cleaning oven scares the bejeezus out of me.

First of all, I’m straight-up terrified that we will set the house on fire. I’m equally afraid that I will accidentally bump into the thing while it’s “cleaning” at 900° F and give myself third-degree burns. I have nightmare visions of our cat getting curious and jumping on top of it while it’s working. And above all, my sensitive nose (and eyes and throat) cannot stand the smoky smell produced while the oven incinerates every last crumb of every single thing I’ve cooked this year. For me, this simple maintenance task amounts to four hours of sheer anxiety. But Les had read the instruction manual (twice as requested) and was very calm about it, so I deferred to him.

Out of an abundance of caution (mine), we removed from the adjacent base cabinets all my bottles of olive oil (lest they explode) and cleared away the countertop items—the salt and pepper mills, the butter dish and the onion basket to a safe distance. I took time to remove the cast iron grates and give the cooktop a thorough cleaning before we started, to prevent the intense heat from baking on any spills. Then, Les touched a few buttons to begin the countdown to clean.

I could feel my pulse racing just knowing how hot this thing was going to get.

Within an hour, the house was so rank with the haze and stench of burnt leavings, I urged Les to open a few windows. The cross-breeze helped, and I was relieved for a couple of hours—that is, until I entered the kitchen to assess the progress. I could see through the black oven door that the electric element in the bottom of our dual-fuel oven was glowing bright red and, like the furnace in the basement of the Home Alone movie, it looked like a possessed demon monster. I suddenly realized our glaring omission in preparing for this task.

We had ignored the upper cabinets.

We were so careful to remove heat-sensitive items from the base cabinets, but we hadn’t considered that basic science might apply and the heat might manage to waft up to the wall cabinets, and so we had neglected to remove things that could be damaged in there. Like the expensive, specialty chocolate bars (they melted) and the jar of coconut oil (also melted all over the shelf) and the dozens of spice bottles we keep on a spinny turntable thing inside the cabinet on the other side (probably ruined). Thank God we saved the stupid onions. 🙄 Fourteen minutes of “self-clean” remaining and I was full-on farmisht.

Yep, that’s me.

Thankfully, just as I felt my head was about to explode, the thing turned off. It’s crazy that our new range has a beep signal to alert you that preheating is complete or that you’ve activated a new setting, but there was no fanfare whatsoever when the clean cycle ended. It just stopped. Excuse me, where are the trumpets? After it cooled enough for the door lock to release, Les wiped down the inside of ash residue and replaced all the racks so we could get on with the rest of our plans for the day, which included food preparation for this blog and me shakily pouring a glass of wine.

This wine is getting me through the pandemic.

And that’s when we were reminded—again—that even the best-laid plans had room for trouble.

Les is such a team player, and very supportive of my work on Comfort du Jour, and he had agreed in advance to whip up a batch of his garlic mashed potatoes for sharing (if you missed his post yesterday, you will want to go check it out), and I had planned to make the succotash that I’m sharing with you today. The breeze from the window had calmed things down in the kitchen, and we set off to work, right on schedule. It was at this point that Les discovered all our Yukon gold potatoes (an essential ingredient in his garlic mashed) were soft and wrinkly, and they smelled funny. Wouldn’t it have been nice to know this during the four hours we were waiting for the oven? Off he went to the supermarket to buy some more Yukon golds.

On the other side of the kitchen, I was busy prepping my butter beans and was just beginning to twist the can opener on a can of golden hominy that was to be a key ingredient in my succotash when Les returned with his fresh potatoes. The lid came off the can, and I poured the contents into a colander to drain and found the hominy was nothing but mush. Disgusting, bland, no-way-that’s-going-in-my-recipe mush. It was all too much for me.

“Are you OK, Mommy?”

I didn’t have the heart to send him back to the store, and I wanted to sit on the kitchen floor and cry. Not because the hominy was mush (so what) and not because it was too late for plan B (it wasn’t). I wanted to cry because I felt like a failure for having missed so many details in all my planning. I am just so hard on myself.

I felt the fresh, cool breeze again and I thought of Alex Trebek, and all my intention last week to be grateful rather than complain-y, and I glanced over at Les working on his potatoes, cool as could be under pressure, and I realized (again) how lucky I am. I threw out the hominy mush, wrapped up the other succotash ingredients and put them in the fridge for another day, and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the evening with my husband—complete with a satisfying meal that included his thoughtful batch of my favorite mashed potatoes. Thanksgiving will be here in a week. I love our life and I am blessed, indeed.


I’ll Take “Gratitude” for $1000, Please

The news should not have hit me like a train, but my awareness of Alex Trebek’s serious illness didn’t prepare me for the announcement of his death Sunday. When the charismatic host of Jeopardy announced early last year that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, my interest in the quiz show was reignited and my husband, Les, was glad to join me in front of the TV each weeknight at 7:30. It was welcome relief from so much time spent apart (though together) playing mindless word games on our individual phone devices. During the past 18 months, I’ve been surprised to realize my own knowledge of science and 11-letter adjectives, but less surprised to witness Les’s knowledge of all things sports, government and history.

During a commercial break once, I shared with Les the story of the time I had the unexpected good fortune to meet Alex Trebek in person. It was 1996, when I worked as a radio personality. Our show had been invited to spend a week at Walt Disney World in Orlando for a media blitz to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The Magic Kingdom was dripping with celebrities of all genres (one of Alex’s favorite words), several of whom were scheduled to meet with us for live interviews and photo ops. But my chance encounter with Alex was different. My co-host and I were walking back to our media table when we spotted Alex heading straight toward us. He seemed distracted but was gracious to stop and say hello when we called out his name. After about 10 seconds of friendly banter, he said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’m chasing my kid!”

The same “kid” is 29 today and runs a restaurant business. It’s astonishing how quickly the time goes.

The reason my heart feels so heavy is that I’m aware how rare a person Alex Trebek was, and how much I would like to be more like him. When Les and I became faithful fans of Jeopardy last year, we marveled at how upbeat and steady Alex appeared to be, despite his dispiriting diagnosis and what we’ve since learned was unbearable pain, even as he cheered on the record-breaking streak of Jeopardy champion James Holzhauer last year. I have great respect for the man who did not allow the seriousness of his illness define him. He did not feel sorry for himself and didn’t want our pity, either. He could have removed himself from the quiz show to focus on his health and recovery, but he stayed because he loved what he was doing. In interview after interview, Alex expressed his gratitude for all that was good in his life—his wife, his children, joy in his work—and assured the rest of us that he was not afraid of death. He was truly a class act to the end.

I cannot help but notice the stark contrast of my own attitude at times, especially during this year of chaotic inconvenience, and for me, that’s really all it has been. I’ve griped about not finding my favorite brands in the supermarket, lamented the loss of our travel plans and cancelled concerts, and moaned about not having an end in sight to the pandemic. In those moments of self-pity and complaining about what I’m missing, I am rejecting gratitude and perpetuating my own despair.

In 17 days, our nation will celebrate Thanksgiving, which should be less a holiday than a mindset. Yes, the world is insane all around us, that’s not in dispute. But it is within my power to shift my focus to celebrate what I already have—my health and my husband and our sweet pets. Les and I are grateful that we have not suffered physical or financial setbacks during a time that has taken a tremendous toll on so many others in our community, our nation and our world. I’m thankful to realize that though our table will be much quieter this year for Thanksgiving, we have each other and plenty to appreciate.

The producers of Jeopardy issued a statement yesterday, and assured that there are enough pre-taped episodes to run until Christmas. It will be bittersweet, to say the least, but we will watch.

Rest in peace, Alex Trebek, and thank you for the inspiration.


100!

When I published my first post on Comfort du Jour in April, I didn’t know what it would become or what it would mean to me. It took a global pandemic to help me finally grasp that the phrase “life is short” is more than a catchphrase; it’s a reality. What I did know is that I love cooking, creating and entertaining, and I wanted to share my passion with other like-minded people. I knew I was never going to have a restaurant, and just as well, because I love my free evenings and weekends. I will never win Next Food Network Star (though I considered auditioning a few times), also just as well, given that most of the winners don’t actually get to cook as much as they talk about food other chefs are making.

Comfort du Jour has been a blessing for me because I’m doing what I love and sharing it with you, but on my own terms and at my own pace. Your support has encouraged me to keep going. It’s empowering to know that what I do in my kitchen has power to make you happy. Having this blog has challenged me to tackle my food “bucket list,” including these:

I’m 100 posts in, and still have so much to say, though it isn’t always easy for me.

At times, I struggle to make the things that happen in my kitchen interesting to you. My recipes are so familiar to me that it’s hard to believe anyone else would be inspired by them. On the flip side, I sometimes find myself veering way off course and having too much to say, which is usually a sign I am aiming too low—by talking about the food rather than the story.

A good example of the latter was my July 3 post on Vanilla. I had planned to count down the top flavors used in American cooking through the years, to identify what America tastes like, being the world’s melting pot and all. I didn’t expect to become mesmerized by the story of the slave boy who revolutionized the hand-pollination of the rare and fragile vanilla flower, forever changing the course of food history worldwide. Now, it’s all I think about when I use the ingredient that would have been available only to the wealthiest of people, had it not been for Edmond Albius.

This has been a theme for me in cooking, as well as in life—that what I’m making (or doing) is far less important than the “why”: food tells a story, and if we’re willing to listen, we will learn a great deal more than a recipe. The story is what I love most, and this blog has helped me identify that.

I’ve shared plenty about my early inspiration by my maternal grandmother, who taught me how to properly sear meat, build a cream sauce, make gravy and turn bread scraps into pudding. So far, I have barely mentioned my time in a catering kitchen, where I was challenged to elevate my knowledge in ways that shaped me into the home cook I am today. Those stories are coming. As I said, so much more to say.

On the other side of Halloween, I’ll be retelling the tales behind my favorite Thanksgiving recipes, along with instruction for some of the basic things we make at home to reduce our dependence on expensive store-bought ingredients.

Here’s to the next 100! Thank you. 😊


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.