Snow Day Peanut Butter Cookies

Much of the Southeast U.S. has been under a winter storm warning since we went to bed last night, and as I have watched tentatively out the window today, half expecting the power to go out from wind-toppled trees that have been coated with sleet and ice, I wrestled with my desire to be at the stove and the oven. There’s something very cozy about simmering a stew or pulling a loaf of bread from the oven on a blustery day, and this is definitely one.

It’s pretty on paper, I guess.

The day was beautiful at first, with mainly fluffy snow falling at a steady pace. We knew it would morph into a nasty mix, though, so we bundled up and headed out early for a walk around the neighborhood with our dog, Nilla, who absolutely loves cold and snow. It was beginning to sleet when we got back to the house.

This is Nilla’s favorite kind of day!

After much consideration, I finally gave in to the temptation to bake. It feels risky for many reasons. Our gas range is technically dual-fuel, with a natural gas cooktop but an electric-powered oven, so I had to choose something that could be done quickly (or at least put aside to bake later, should the power go out). Also, I come from a long line of highly accomplished cookie bakers, and that’s a lot to live up to, given that I hardly ever venture into treat baking. On top of that, my dear husband has made a reputation for himself with his own cookie baking, so I’m living on the edge in several ways today.

When Les makes cookies, they are almost always a version of chocolate chip; sometimes they have chips and chunks, with big, chewy bits of dried cherries or cranberries. Sometimes he adds cocoa powder to the dough itself, making them chocolate on chocolate with more chocolate. No wonder he is so popular, right? But he seldom strays from the chocolate chip category, and I wanted something different today.

Several members of my mother’s side of the family have contributed to this collection, but it is mostly sweet treat recipes of my great aunt.

Without my own arsenal of go-to cookie recipes, I reached for a family cookbook—this homemade, 3-ring binder notebook, chock-full of recipes submitted by various members of my maternal family, and especially my great-aunt Adele. She was my Gram’s sister, and she was a master cookie baker if there ever was one. She was so known for her baked goods that her grandchildren called her “Grandma Cookies,” and I have my own memories of the treats she joyfully baked and shared with everyone. At Christmastime, you could count on receiving a box of various homemade cookies—and it didn’t matter if you lived across the street or on the other side of the country. She saved up cracker boxes and tea bag boxes and coffee tins and filled them up with her goodies so you could always have a taste of home.

I’ll never live up to that standard, but I did a decent job with her peanut butter cookie recipe, with a few adjustments of course. First, I made a half batch, because we don’t need 60 cookies when we are stuck in the house. I never use only white flour in any recipe, so I subbed in an amount of whole wheat pastry flour which is nice and soft for tender baked goods. I don’t use shortening either, but real butter worked great. And, because my hubby is so fond of chocolate chips, I divided the dough in half and added mini chocolate chips to one portion of it for his taste, and the cookies turned out great both ways.

Some of the instructions in Aunt Adele’s recipe were a bit vague for this cookie novice but, thankfully, my Aunt Joy offered her experience to help me fill in the blanks.

My great aunt’s original recipe. I halved it and took a few liberties with the ingredients list.

Ingredients

1 stick salted butter, slightly softened* (see notes)

1/2 cup peanut butter

1 cup light brown sugar, packed*

1 large egg

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in a small amount of hot water*

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp. regular salt)*

1/4 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)*


*Notes

Butter should not be so cold that it’s hard, but not room temperature either. When you cream it with the sugar, you want it to be smooth and just slightly firm. I was impatient so I took a shortcut with my straight-from-the-fridge stick of butter.

My great-aunt’s original recipe suggested equal parts sugar and brown sugar, but I like a soft cookie, so I used all brown sugar. When you measure brown sugar, be sure to pack it snugly into the measuring cup. When you turn it over into your bowl, it should mostly hold its shape.

I have long wondered why some cookie recipes call for dissolving the baking soda in hot water. Given that it appears on many of the recipes my grandmother and her family have shared, I even considered that perhaps it was something they all learned from my great grandmother or something. But a quick bit of research (thank you, internet) turned up the real reason—dissolving the soda helps ensure that it can be evenly dispersed throughout the dough. If I were to mix it in with the dry ingredients, it would be prone to clumping. Now we know!

I cook and bake mostly with kosher salt, which has larger crystals than table salt. Those crystals take up more space in the measuring spoon, but some of that space is just air, so I use a little extra. My conversion is probably not exact, but I generally like to add a bit of extra salt to a baked good anyway to enhance the other flavors.

I used mini chocolate chips in half the cookie dough, and kept the rest as simple peanut butter dough. If you want chocolate chips in all the cookies, use 1/2 cup rather than 1/4 cup, as I did for my half-batch.


Instructions

Cream together the butter, peanut butter and sugar until evenly combined and somewhat fluffy.

Add egg and beat until blended. Stir in vanilla, then stir in dissolved baking soda.

Add flour, beating only until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then mix again only long enough to blend in loose flour.

If using the mini chocolate chips, fold them into the dough. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about one hour before baking.

Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center position, or two racks roughly positioned near the center of the oven.

Roll cookie dough into balls about 1 1/4” diameter. Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Flatten in a criss-cross pattern, using a fork dipped in flour to prevent sticking.

Bake 9-11 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies will be very puffy, and slightly dry at the edges when finished. Cool on the sheet about two minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.


Not a bad way to spend a snowy, blustery Sunday!


Spinach Maria

“Trust me, you have to order the spinach Maria as your side,” was the instruction given to me, in no uncertain terms, by at least six of my now-husband’s family members, who had gathered from every corner of the world for his mom’s 90th birthday celebration in Boca Raton, Fla. On our second or third day of this visit, which I should mention was my first introduction to Les’s family, about 16 of us were seated at a very long table at the Ke’e Grill, an upscale Boca restaurant that specializes in exquisite seafood dishes. I watched and listened as the server moved along the table, taking order after order for spinach Maria. It didn’t seem to matter whether the desired entrée was lobster tail, shrimp or salmon—even steaks, chops or chicken—literally everyone at our table ordered the spinach Maria, and it appeared true for the tables around us as well.

What was this mystical side dish, I wondered, that was so delectable that it united all the personalities present at this table and beyond? Creamy, crumb-topped heaven in a ramekin, that’s what.

“Maria! I’ve just met a spinach named Maria!”

This was no ordinary creamed spinach, and on subsequent visits to Boca, I requested return trips to Ke’e Grill so that I could experience the flavors enough to deconstruct it in my mind and then recreate it at home. I have made it three times in recent history, and after a few tweaks here and there, I’m finally confident to share my version of this memorable side dish. The base of the sauce is a bechamel, but only barely thickened because the cream and cheese are weighty themselves, and the spinach adds quite a bit of body. The buttered panko crumb topping is a delightful textural contrast to the richness that bubbles underneath.

It is relatively easy to make, but it takes a bit of time, and the Ke’e Grill menu even reminds guests to be patient for spinach Maria, as it is made to order and baked to bubbly, crispy perfection just before serving. If you wish to make it ahead, perhaps for an elegant New Year’s Eve dinner, prepare the filling and portion it into ramekins, then refrigerate up to 24 hours. Bring the ramekins to near-room temperature before topping and baking.

Hot and bubbly from the oven, and a great crispy texture in the crumbs on top.

Ingredients (for 6 servings)

1 lb. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed very dry

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (a 1:1 gluten-free alternative would be fine)

2 medium shallots, finely minced

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

3/4 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

1/3 cup shredded gruyere cheese

1 whole bulb roasted garlic* (see notes)

Pinch of ground cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp. dry mustard

Topping:

3 Tbsp. salted butter

1/2 cup unseasoned panko breadcrumbs (or substitute gluten-free crumbs, if necessary)

3 Tbsp. grated parm-romano blend*


*Notes

It is important that you use roasted garlic, and not fresh, which would be much too sharp for spinach Maria. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, you can follow the recipe link for easy instructions, and you’ll want to make that ahead so it is ready for your spinach Maria.

We keep a large container of freshly grated parmesan and romano cheese blend on hand all the time, and you can follow that recipe link as well if you’d like to give it a try. Or simply use a good quality parmesan from the supermarket deli (please, for the love of good food, not the stuff in the shiny green can).


Instructions

Prepare the spinach by thawing, rinsing and draining. It must be squeezed very dry for this recipe, and I recommend spreading it out onto a clean, unscented kitchen towel and rolling and twisting to extract all the excess moisture.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed sauce pot, melt the unsalted butter. Stir in the flour and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat a few minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and has a slight nutty fragrance.

Add the milk all at once and whisk until smooth and thickened. Stir in the heavy cream until blended. Add the fontina and gruyere cheeses and stir until melted through. Stir in cayenne and dry mustard. Squeeze the roasted garlic directly into the sauce and whisk to break up the pieces.

Optional: At this point, the cream-cheese sauce will appear chunky, with visible bits of softened onion and roasted garlic. If you have an immersion blender, I highly recommend using it to cream up the sauce further; 60 seconds should do it. This step is optional, but it amplifies the creamy texture of any bechamel-based sauce, so I do it even for simple mac and cheese recipes.

Break up the packed dry spinach into the sauce and stir to blend it. It may seem that there is not enough spinach to match the sauce, but as you stir and blend, the bits will separate and disperse more evenly. Give the mixture a taste and adjust seasonings (salt, pepper, cayenne) to your liking.

Divide the spinach Maria mixture evenly into six 1/2-cup ramekins and place them on a small baking sheet. If you are preparing it ahead, cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to one day. Bring them to near-room temperature before baking.

In a small saucepan or skillet, melt salted butter and toss the panko crumbs in it until moistened. Stir in parm-romano blend just until evenly mixed. Divide the topping among the ramekins. Bake on the cookie sheet at 350° F for about 25 minutes, until the crumb topping is crispy and golden, and the spinach Maria is bubbly at the edges. Serve immediately.



F.R.O.G. Jam Rugelach

Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.

As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.

Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.

It’s a perfect, little two-bite cookie.

The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.

No frogs were harmed in the making of these cookies. 🙂

The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.

As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.


Ingredients

4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)

1 stick cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

1 Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade

2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking


*Notes

For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.

I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉


Instructions

Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.

Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.

The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.

Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.

Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.

Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.

When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.

Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.

Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.


Happy Christmukkah!


Smoked Maple Bourbon Crème Brûlée

WARNING:
Consumption of this rich and decadent dessert after a big meal may result in excessive lazing on the sofa, and may also force extended procrastination of post-entertaining kitchen cleanup.


At least, that’s what happened at our house—twice.

We had a very small gathering at our home for Thanksgiving—just me, my husband and our friend, Maria. I knew when I was planning dinner that it would not make sense to have large pies, cakes or other desserts that yielded 12 portions. As it is, we are scarce on refrigerator space for the leftover turkey and sides, and we certainly did not need extra portions of dessert hanging around. I wanted to make something special for our intimate holiday, and this crème brûlée definitely fit the bill, both for Thanksgiving Day and again for “leftovers” night on Saturday. And let me tell you, even after said lazing kept us up until after 11 pm washing dishes, I had no regrets about this dessert.

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know about our recent discovery of the Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon—the amazing dark spirit that became the star of our 2021 signature cocktail. I have made crème brûlée before, using the incomparable Ina Garten’s recipe as a guide, but I have never added bourbon to it before now. The warmth of the smoked maple bourbon married so perfectly to the creamy silkiness of our individual little custards, and the maple sugar that I torched on top was exactly what it should have been; crunchy, sweet and toffee-like. The custard inside was silky, sweet and creamy, with hints of the smoked maple bourbon. Yes, it was divine, as you’d expect from a dessert that is made from egg yolks, cream and sugar.


I can only hope that when we smashed the tips of our spoons into the crème brûlée, some of the calories fell out. On second thought, who cares?


Adapted from Barefoot Contessa | Crème Brûlée | Recipes
Recipe yields ~32 ounces, good for 6 to 8 ramekins, depending on their size

Ingredients

3 cups heavy cream

1 small pinch kosher salt*

5 large egg yolks + 1 large egg (at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple sugar* + extra for torching (see notes)

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon


*Notes

I purchase maple sugar online from Big Tree Maple, a company that is based near my hometown in upstate New York. You might also find it in the baking aisle of a specialty market, or substitute caster sugar, which does not have the maple flavor but is also finely textured for easy dissolving.

Ina’s recipe does not call for salt, but I like to put a pinch in most dessert recipes because it highlights the flavors and balances the sweet.

If you use a stand mixer to make the crème brûlée, keep it fitted with the mixing paddle rather than the whisk, and work on the slowest speed so you don’t create a lot of bubbles. If you mix by hand, use a whisk but keep a gentle touch when adding the hot cream to the eggs.

As if our holiday was not already joyful, I also had the pleasure of finishing our dessert tableside with my kitchen torch, a dramatic endeavor that just pleased the dickens out of my Leo personality.

Let’s do this!

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle for a water bath. Prepare your ramekins by arranging them in a handled pan with sides at least as high as the ramekins.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling. Stir in a pinch of salt. Transfer the hot cream to a measuring cup with a spout for easier blending in the next steps.
  3. Combine the egg and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually stir in the maple sugar until the mixture is smooth and even, and the sugar appears somewhat dissolved.
  4. Very gradually pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. This is easiest with a stand mixer, but you can do it by hand as well. I recommend placing your mixing bowl on something that will prevent it from slipping while you stir or whisk.
  5. Strain the custard mixture through a mesh strainer over a pitcher bowl or large measuring cup. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will help strain out any curdled bits of egg.
  6. Stir vanilla and bourbon into the custard. Slowly pour the custard into the ramekins. I did this by filling each of them halfway, then “topping them off” around the pan until all were filled equally.
  7. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, taking care to not splash it into the ramekins. The water bath should be about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer the water bath pan to the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custards are just barely jiggly. They will continue to cook when you remove the pan from the oven. Allow the pan to cool until you’re comfortable handling them. Remove the ramekins and cool on a rack, then cover and transfer them to the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.
  8. To finish the crème brûlée, remove ramekins from the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle about two teaspoons of maple sugar over the entire surface of each custard. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar evenly. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon onto each, and torch again. Allow the crème brûlées to cool for at least a minute so the melted sugar will harden and create the beautiful, shiny crust.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to make this again. You know, just to be sure.


Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce

When Terrie asks me to share a recipe for her blog, my immediate thought about the specific post is where my recipe came from. In the case of applesauce, which I make at various times throughout the year, I have no answer.

I simply cannot recall the origin of my homemade applesauce. I suspect it came about originally because of my son’s absolute love of apples; he started eating apples before he was 2, and had one daily into his high school years.

I do know my recipe took a turn when two things happened. First, somewhere along the way, I decided to do with the applesauce what I have done with mashed potatoes, which is mix varieties to increase the flavor and texture. Rather than two varieties (russet and Yukon gold), as I do with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes, I decided three was the perfect mix for apples in applesauce. Second, back about 2013, for my annual gift to self for Thanksgiving (a story unto its own), I bought a Cuisinart multi-cooker, a juiced-up version of a slow cooker. This is the same slow cooker that saved many a day for us during our recent kitchen remodel.

For applesauce, the slow cooker suffices—and it is easier than tending a cast-iron pot, my old method. As for varieties, I’m quite consistent in using Honeycrisp for sweet and Granny Smith for tart; then, the third variety is whatever strikes my fancy. Unless, that is, I can find my all-time favorite, Jonagold, which happen to be extremely tough to locate in North Carolina. This year, the third variety was Kanzi, a style of apple that basic research reveals comes from Belgium. The name means “hidden treasure,” and the apple is considered a cross between a Gala and a Braeburn. It is a mix of tangy and sweet, a fine add to the first two. All three apples are in the crispy category, which I believe makes for better applesauce.

A couple of years ago, Terrie asked me to make this for Thanksgiving as an add to the usual cranberry sauces on our table. It had more to do with the proximity of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, where applesauce is a wonderful complement to Terrie’s homemade latkes. This year it was a complete no-brainer, as Hanukkah begins the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

This recipe requires some upfront labor in peeling and dicing the apples. But after that, the slow cooker does the rest and a few hours later—voilà!—a homemade applesauce that will have your dinner table guests thinking you’re a genius in the kitchen.

This recipe could not be simpler. Combine your ingredients in the slow cooker and wait nearby with a spoon.

Ingredients

Eight to nine large apples, three varieties

One small lemon, juiced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

Vietnamese cinnamon to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)


Instructions

Peel and core the apples, then cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the slow cooker. Juice the lemon over the apples and toss to prevent browning. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat. Turn the slow cooker to high and let it cook for four to six hours. I usually set it up at bedtime and by morning, the cooker has cooled. Mash the softened apples by hand (I use a potato masher). If you like the applesauce chunky, use a light mashing touch. Chill and enjoy.


Les’s Cranberry Sauce with Mandarin Oranges

In the 35 years I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinners, one of my favorite things to make is cranberry sauce. Although I have the same fondness for the jelled cranberry of Ocean Spray fame that we all grew up with (you know, the kind you used the can opener on one end and punched two holes in the other end and secretly thrilled to the sucking sound as it plopped out onto a plate), I instinctively knew early on that there had to be a better way.

Initially I began to make fresh cranberry sauce by boiling the berries in water and adding sugar. I wanted more flavor, and in 2002, I hit the jackpot with a website recipe that adapted a version originally published in Cooking Light magazine. That means my batch for Thanksgiving 2021 will be the 20th year I’ve made this delicious concoction.

It’s about sugar and apple cider (instead of water) offsetting the tart of the cranberries, and mandarin oranges adding back a different type of tart. If you make it, I guarantee you’ll be hooked. Terrie even loves it on vanilla ice cream.


Ingredients

12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries

1 cup of white sugar* (see notes)

½ cup of brown sugar

1 cup of apple cider*

½ jar of mandarin oranges*


*Notes

The original recipe called for 1½ cups of white sugar and ½ of brown sugar. I cut down the white sugar because it is plenty sweet. Either light or dark brown sugar works well.

Although I do typically use apple cider, the recipe certainly would work with water. Better yet if you can find it, as I’ve only been able to do a couple of times over the years, apple-cherry cider is the bomb!

I used half of a 23.5 ounce jar of Dole mandarin oranges; I like jars better because I feel that canned oranges have a “tell” of can flavor (coincidentally, not unlike Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce).


Instructions

Combine all ingredients, except Mandarin oranges, in a medium saucepan on medium heat and bring to a simmering boil over the course of 15 to 20 minutes. Turn down heat as cranberries begin to pop and work a spoon around the outside of the pot, crushing them into a sauce. When all berries have popped, remove from heat and refrigerate for an hour. Then, add the mandarin oranges to the slightly gelled sauce and refrigerate again until ready to serve.



Vegan Mushroom Gravy

With so much to do in advance of Thanksgiving, it may seem a little nuts to make the gravy ahead but hear me out on this. There are two big reasons I like to make this vegan mushroom gravy, and neither is related to having a vegan guest at the table.

First, the final minutes before dinner are hectic—the turkey has to be rested before carving, and the oven braces itself for round two, as I shove a baking sheet of vegetables in to roast or a casserole for final re-heating. The warmed dishes all need to be brought to the table and you can’t really make the turkey gravy until after the bird has emerged from the oven. If something goes wrong with the turkey gravy (been there, done that), I love having the savory, earthy flavors of this mushroom gravy as a backup.

Mmmm, mushrooms!

Secondly, the mushroom gravy is less heavy—both in flavor and in calories—than a typical turkey gravy. It more than satisfies my craving for gravy without cranking up my cholesterol levels. Besides being completely delicious and easy to make several days ahead of the holiday commotion, this gravy can do double duty as a sauce for green bean casserole. And when we do have a vegan guest at the table, I like to do just one version of that dish for everyone to enjoy.

Rave reviews from all around the table, made from simple ingredients and easy to do ahead; this is a winner no matter how you slice, er, pour it. 😉


Ingredients

8 oz. carton of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced or pulsed in processor

4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

4 Tbsp. mushroom and sage-infused olive oil (+ 2 Tbsp. more later in the recipe)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

A few shakes umami seasoning* (see notes)

A few shakes poultry seasoning

1 shallot, minced

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

3 cups low sodium vegetable broth*

2 Tbsp. dry white wine

1 bulb prepared roasted garlic*


*Notes

The umami seasoning is a Trader Joe’s product, and it gets plenty of use whenever I’m making a vegan dish. The ingredients are porcini and white mushroom powders, dried onions, ground mustard, crushed red pepper and dried thyme. It brings a depth of savory flavor to everything it touches, but if you cannot find it, I would recommend substituting with the flavors you do have and also use prepared mushroom broth in place of the vegetable broth. Look for mushroom broth in cartons in a well-stocked supermarket.

I always choose low sodium broths because it helps me control the overall sodium of a recipe. In this recipe, I specifically used a vegetable broth that does not contain tomatoes.

Roasted garlic is easy to make at home, and it gives a lot of depth and complexity to this mushroom gravy. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, please check out this post for step-by-step instructions.


Instructions

As usual, the photos tell the story better than written instructions. Please have a look at the slides and keep scrolling for a downloadable pdf for your recipe files.

  1. If you don’t already have your roasted garlic, go make that. Please don’t try to substitute with fresh sauteed garlic. The flavor will be too strong.
  2. Heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Sauté half of the mushrooms, tossing to coat them in the oil, until they give off their moisture and shrink in size. Repeat with remaining mushrooms. Season with salt, pepper and umami seasoning. Move the mushrooms to the sides of the pot.
  3. Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the center of the pot and add the shallots. Saute until slightly softened. Add flour and toss until absorbed into the oil. The mixture should look somewhat pasty, but not dry. Add a final tablespoon of oil if needed to reach this consistency. Cook the mixture for a minute or two.
  4. Add vegetable broth all at once and stir continuously for a minute or two to hydrate the roux. Bring to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until mixture is thickened. Stir in wine and simmer over very low heat for about an hour.
  5. Squeeze in the entire bulb of roasted garlic, taking care to not drop the garlic paper into the pot. Use a whisk to ensure the garlic is fully blended, or use an immersion blender to whip the gravy into a smoother consistency.
  6. In a small skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté the sliced shiitake mushrooms until softened and slightly browned, then stir them into the gravy. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to three days ahead.
This gravy has so much rich, savory flavor, you’ll never miss the meat.

This gravy is delicious on a lentil mushroom wellington or use it as a substitute for cream of mushroom soup in any casserole you’d like to convert to vegan.



Lemon-Pomegranate Brussels Sprouts

My love for Brussels sprouts is not exactly new, but I remember a time when my nose would wrinkle at the mere mention of them. If you were forced to try them, as I was for the first time, from the frozen section of the grocery store and drenched in a nasty, congealed “butter” sauce, then you can probably relate. They were mushy, bland and bitter, and the sauce only made them worse. There should be laws against this kind of vegetable abuse.

Later, when I was a teenager fulfilling my household chore of tending the home garden, I found myself intrigued by these enormous stalks covered in bulbous little cabbage heads. It was the first time I had ever seen them as nature intended, and it pleases me now to see them presented that way at Trader Joe’s, where they are proudly perched this time of year in a large case just inside the entrance.

Cutting the individual sprouts off the stalk can be a bit tedious (I still cringe as I remember doing so all those years ago), and I’ll confess here that I usually prefer to buy them already cut and packed up in the mesh bags. They should be firm and bright green in color, with no wilted leaves in sight. To prep them, you only need to wash them under running water and trim a thin slice off the bottom, allowing the outer leaves to fall away. Cut them in half from top to bottom and toss them in the marinade for a few minutes, then into the oven on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

The sprouts should have tightly layered leaves and a firm exterior. Slice the shallot into rings.

Brussels sprouts are part of the brassica family of vegetables and, like their cousins (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale), they are positively loaded with nutrients. Additionally, they have terrific heft and body that make them an essential part of our Thanksgiving day table.

Last year, I shared a spicy-sweet version of Maple Cayenne Brussels Sprouts, and this year, an alternative for those who like a fresher, tangy twist. The lemon and pomegranate flavors are simple to impart—I love the flavor-infused balsamic vinegars that are available in the boutique oil and vinegar shops that seem to be everywhere these days (or can be found for online ordering). This recipe uses the pomegranate balsamic, plus lemon-fused olive oil and the juice and zest of a fresh lemon. These sprouts are simple to make, and you can roast them in the oven while your turkey is resting. Or, if you are going plant-based this year, they can probably be roasted alongside whatever else you have in the oven.

Enjoy!


Ingredients

1 pound bag of fresh Brussels sprouts (cleaned, trimmed and halved)

1 medium shallot, sliced into rings

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice plus the zest

Pinch of sugar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I love the lemon-fused)

2 Tbsp. pomegranate-infused balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt and black pepper


Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 400° F, with rack in a center to upper position in the oven.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk the olive oil in a slow, steady stream into the lemon juice, sugar and zest. Season with a pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper. Do not add the pomegranate balsamic at this stage.
  3. Add the trimmed brussels sprouts to the bowl and toss until evenly coated with the marinade. Use a slotted spoon to scoop them out of the bowl, and reserve the marinade that remains in the bowl. Arrange the sprouts, cut side down, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Aim to separate them a bit so that they don’t steam from overcrowding. Roast for about 20 minutes.
  4. Whisk the balsamic into what is left of the oil-lemon juice marinade until it is smooth and not separated. Toss the hot sprouts back into the bowl and toss until evenly coated. Spoon them back out onto the parchment-lined sheet and put them back into the oven for about five minutes, just long enough to heat through and add a touch of caramelization.
Delicious!

These lemon-pomegranate brussels sprouts are best served immediately, but you can reheat them in the microwave if you need the oven space for other dishes.



Pumpkin Spice Tiramisu

If I told you that you could serve up a pumpkin spice dessert for Thanksgiving that was creamy, indulgent, no-bake, no-cook and easy to prepare ahead with no special tools—well, you’d probably think I was lying or, at least, overpromising, right? But the proof is right there in the picture, and this tiramisu achieves all of that and then some.

As I surmised when I made the chocolate-cherry tiramisu at Valentine’s Day this year, the classic Italian dessert is basically a dressed-up version of an ice-box cake. Layers of sweetened mascarpone cream and espresso-soaked delicate ladyfingers are accented with a hint of rum or brandy, and dusted with pure cocoa for a chocolate-y finish. I am a huge fan of tiramisu, and I enjoyed it most recently in its traditional Italian style when my friend, Peg, and I traveled up to West Virginia and Ohio for the Fiesta Factory tent sale.

But I came home thinking, “why couldn’t I give this scrumptious dessert a little Thanksgiving twist?” And so I did. Note that I have made several substitutions from a typical tiramisu recipe:


The recipe is made with raw egg yolks, so if you have health concerns about that, I’d encourage you to seek out an eggless or cooked egg recipe, or perhaps consider using pasteurized eggs. Also, planning ahead is more of a requirement than a convenience, as tiramisu improves after a 24-hour setup time. If you’re going to try the recipe for Thanksgiving, you might want to make it a couple of evenings ahead.


Ingredients (6 generous servings)

3 egg yolks, room temperature*

2 Tbsp. maple sugar (or use superfine if you can’t find maple)

8 oz. tub mascarpone, room temperature

5 Tbsp. Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter*

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

4 Tbsp. Pumking whiskey, divided* (see notes)

1 1/2 cups brewed light roast cacao with cinnamon*

7 oz. package ladyfingers (this might be labeled as biscotti savoiardi)

2 Tbsp. maple sugar, mixed with 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon and 1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice


*Notes

The egg yolks should be room temperature for this recipe, but it is easier to separate the eggs when they are cold from the fridge. Save the whites for your weekend omelet.

If you don’t have access to a Trader Joe’s store, any other brand of pumpkin butter will work just fine. Homemade would be even better!

I found the Pumking Whiskey completely by chance when my husband and I traveled through New Jersey and Connecticut at the end of summer, and it’s a real treat. Distribution from this craft distillery is limited, but readers in the northeast U.S. should have little trouble finding it. Otherwise, go with spiced light rum, or perhaps even Frangelico.

My first impressions of the Crio Bru brewed cacao were only so-so, but I’ve grown to really enjoy this as an occasional alternative to coffee. Since the time I first discovered the company, it has added an array of new seasonal flavors, and the cinnamon is one of my favorites. It’s a limited edition that is currently only available in a sample pack, but the company just added another flavor—you guessed it, pumpkin spice!

I made this in a Pyrex dish that measures 8 ½ x 7” inches, but I’m sure you could also make this recipe work in an 8 x 8” dish. Or double the recipe and use a 9 x 13.

It helps to have an electric mixer (either stand or handheld) to make this dessert, but it can also be done with a whisk and a good strong arm. 🙂


Instructions


  1. In a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, whip eggs until they are smooth. Gradually add maple sugar and continue whipping until all sugar is dissolved into the yolks.
  2. Add mascarpone into the bowl and blend on low speed until the mixture is evenly mixed, smooth and glossy. Fold in 2 Tbsp. of the Pumking whiskey, plus the pumpkin butter and vanilla extract.
  3. Using a mesh sifter, sprinkle about half of the maple-spice mixture into the baking dish.
  4. Combine brewed cacao and remaining Pumking whiskey in a flat bowl. Carefully dip the ladyfingers, one at a time, into the liquid. Turn only twice before arranging the cookies in the dessert dish. I have learned that it is very easy to make the ladyfingers soggy, so err on the conservative side. Repeat until you have a complete single layer of ladyfingers in the dish.
  5. Carefully spread half of the pumpkin-mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers, smoothing it all the way to the edges of the dish.
  6. Repeat with the next layer of ladyfingers, top with the remaining mascarpone mixture, and sprinkle the top with the remaining maple-spice mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 24 hours before serving.

Delicious, even on a Chinet plate!


Crunchy Cheesy “Beefaroni” (cooking kitchenless)

I used to be a sucker for interesting cookbooks. When my kids were young (and I was always looking for fun things to make that might somehow appeal to them), I bought a collection of recipes bound in a half book, half loose-leaf from a church, featuring members’ faves.

One day, I decided, based on the name and ingredients, that one of those recipes looked safe to try for the kids. It was called “crunchy cheesy beefaroni,” and basically was a home version of hamburger helper. As I recall, the recipe included ground beef, a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, elbow macaroni, and lots and lots of cheese. In fact, the recipe called for two full 8-ounce blocks of cheddar, one sharp and one medium sharp. The casserole was topped by French-fried onion rings. Hence, the crunchy.

Now my kids loved this concoction, but it had an unfortunate side effect on some in the household. And the kids, who do speak their truth, did some intentional mangling of the name when they asked for it again. They asked for “crunchy cheesy fartaroni.” It was a big laugh at the time.

Time marches on. My son now lives in Budapest. My daughter is a vegan and wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole.

A meaty, cheesy casserole never disappoints.

I hadn’t made it in many years, but from the time I shared the story of this legendary dish with Terrie, she wanted me to go for it. This even though Terrie typically recoils at the mention of Campbell’s condensed soups, and any of the other ingredients with decidedly “GMO” and other non-organic leanings. However, in our household, I have learned that everything has a substitute, and this dish can, indeed, be made in a “clean” fashion. More than a year ago, I made it for Terrie for the first time, using some leftover shaved steak meat from another dish, as well as incorporating previously made mac and cheese. I threw in some organic mushroom soup and some organic diced tomatoes, and the 2020s version tasted great and met Terrie’s environmental and food-quality standards.

With the kitchen renovation still rendering our kitchen in a largely “not-ready-for prime time” state, we’ve been looking for some filler meals. On a recent weekend while Terrie was under the weather, I decided to take on the cooking duties and try the beefaroni again, this time with a southwest spin.

I’m pleased to say that southwest crunchy cheesy “fartaroni” worked out great. A bowl of protein, veggies and carbs with flavor, kick and comfort.


Ingredients

1 pound ground beef, 85% lean* (see notes)

1 12-ounce box of Barilla veggie pasta rotini*

Half a medium yellow onion, diced

Half a red and half a green bell pepper, diced

1 small can of chopped green chilis

1 can of Rotel diced tomatoes*

1 6-ounce can of tomato paste

½ packet Frontera skillet sauce with chipotle and lime*

8 ounces colby-jack cheese, cubed or shredded

2 ounces habanero cheddar*

Tortilla chips

Salt

Pepper

Onion powder


Ingredients for Cheese Sauce

Terrie suggested the cheese sauce, with a thin bechamel base, as a topping for the casserole because it seemed dry after its 45 minutes in the oven. This version had no soup! And who am I to argue against more cheese? Or against anything Terrie suggests in the kitchen (OK, Terrie, I can see the look on your face already).


2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup of milk*

8 ounces of sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded*

1 ounce habanero cheddar*

3 ounces cream cheese*

3 to 4 Tbsp. salsa*


Notes

  • One of Terrie’s standards is that in our household, we eat only grass-fed beef, and that’s what I used for this. Any ground meat with similar fat content would work.
  • We like the veggie pasta for a healthier option, so I used rotini, as I couldn’t find a veggie version of elbow macaroni, which was part of the original recipe. Rotini worked great and offered plenty of texture.
  • I used Rotel’s Mexican-style version with lime juice and cilantro. If you want to seriously kick up the heat in the dish, try the hot diced tomatoes or the diced tomatoes with serrano peppers.
  • The Frontera skillet sauce was the same thing I used to flavor the ground meat in my thick and hearty chili recipe. Look for it in the grocery section where you’d find packets of seasonings.
  • The habanero cheddar is a Trader Joe’s product, and it packs some major heat. You can use other cheeses to add variety to the cheese sauce; notice I only used 10 ounces total cheese, well below what the original recipe called for. The dish is plenty cheesy, even before the cheese sauce.
  • You might use a little more or a little less milk depending on your preferred thickness of cheese sauce.
  • Terrie also noted that, especially for queso-style sauces, American cheese provides a smooth base, but I had no American on hand for this meal, so I settled for what was left in the fridge, plus a little cream cheese (another Terrie suggestion). And I supplemented with another small dose of the habanero cheddar for heat.
  • Any salsa will do, but pick what you like for your heat preference, keeping in mind everything else you’ve put in the dish.

I used our multi-function slow cooker for the heavy lifting in putting together this casserole. I browned the ground beef in it, seasoning with salt and pepper and then mixing in the Frontera skillet sauce. I removed the ground beef and sauteed the onions and peppers, then returned the beef to the slow cooker, which I set to slow cook. I then added the diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles, as well as the tomato paste, using a little less than 2 chile cans of water (10 ounces) to thin the mixture.

I’d already had salted water boiling and added the rotini, draining it when it reached al dente state. I also used this period to cube up the cheese. I added the drained rotini to the slow cooker and mixed it all up.

I pre-heated our oven (which we could finally access, though the kitchen was not completely ready) to 350° F and sprayed a 9-by-13 casserole dish. Then, I doled out about half of the pasta/beef/vegetable mixture into the casserole and topped it with about half the cheese. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and cheese. Then crush up some tortilla chips until they are small and sprinkle over the entire casserole and place into the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, depending on how your oven heats.

While the casserole is baking, prepare the cheese sauce. I did this using our induction burner by creating a roux with the butter and flour. Once the roux is yellow or golden, add the milk and keep stirring. Once it thickens and appears creamier, begin blending in the cheese, stirring until smooth and adding the onion powder to offer a little seasoning. Finally, add the salsa, which should give the mixture a more orange-reddish look.

The casserole is ready when you can see the cheese bubbling; you may need to cover the casserole with foil about halfway through cooking if it appears to be dry on top. Serve in a bowl and spoon the cheese sauce over the top.

A simple cheese sauce brings a slightly dry casserole back to life. Plus, it’s more cheese!