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.



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.


S’mores Ice Cream

There is something very special and nostalgic about s’mores, the delightfully sugary campfire treat that I first learned of when I was a young girl. I cannot say for sure that my first experience of s’mores was during my time as a Girl Scout, though legend has it a troop leader named Loretta Scott Crew first dreamed them up to feed 16 hungry girl campers in 1927. But I do know that my first taste of this wonderful confection—toasted marshmallow and Hershey’s chocolate square, melted between two graham crackers—was like a seductive symphony of ooey-gooey summer heaven. The only cooking involved in making s’mores is toasting a marshmallow to golden perfection, and then allowing the contained heat within the marshmallow to melt the piece of chocolate bar when you squish the graham cracker cookies together.

Truth be told, I was prone to wreck my marshmallows by over-toasting them. I’d position my marshmallow stick (and yes, where I come from, we used actual sticks) directly into the hottest part of the campfire until my puffy marshmallows blazed with a blue light around them. I’d blow out the fire, only to skim off and eat the scorched sugary jacket and plunge them back into the fire for another round of overcooking. I’m quite sure that was not the intention behind the “toasted” marshmallow portion of s’mores, but nobody ever accused me of following the rules—I like what I like.

Now that I’m all grown up, I still love the idea of s’mores, but I cannot fathom the notion of sitting around a campfire in the dead heat of summer, and we don’t usually fire up our patio chiminea until at least October. Not even for a sticky-sweet s’more—sorry.

Luckily, I have other plans for those delicious flavors, and just in the nick of time, it seems, given that today is National S’mores Day. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I represent the same s’mores flavors in a cold treat form that was more suitable for the middle of August?

No campfire required!

And that was my approach to this yummy spectacle of summer sweetness. For a change of pace, I skipped the eggs in my ice cream base and used sweetened condensed milk instead. I wanted the vanilla ice cream to be a pure palate of white, but I was also trying to avoid cooking as much as possible. It’s been pretty dang hot here in the South, and if I have the option to keep the stove turned off, I’m taking it. The marshmallow swirl was also a no-cook step, and for this, I relied on a tried-and-true fruit dip recipe that fuses marshmallow fluff with cream cheese. The dairy ingredient gave the fluff just enough body to take away the ultra-sticky consistency but retain the marshmallow flavor.

See how the cream cheese mellowed out the sticky marshmallow fluff? And it still tastes exactly like marshmallow (but creamier).

I did turn on the stove briefly to make the fudgy swirl that represents the melted chocolate square of a traditional s’more, but that was a small price to pay for this delicious final result.

Looks like delicious black gold, doesn’t it?

Happy S’mores Day, everyone!

Yes, please, may I have s’more?!

Ingredients


Ice Cream Base

14.5 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. vanilla flavored vodka (optional, for improved texture)


Gooey Marshmallow Swirl

2 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is 1/4 of a regular brick)

1 cup marshmallow fluff (give or take, as this stuff is difficult to scoop and measure)


Chocolate Fudge Ripple

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup water

3 Tbsp. Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa

3 Tbsp. King Arthur Double Dutch Dark cocoa

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

Pinch sea salt

and…

Of course, you will also need graham crackers, about 6 cookie sheets, broken into pieces


Instructions

For the base of the ice cream, whisk together the condensed milk, whole milk and heavy cream. When the mixture is smooth and even, stir in vanilla extract. Cover and refrigerate until all other ingredients are cold and ready for layering.

For the marshmallow swirl, use an electric mixer to whip the cream cheese and marshmallow fluff together. Allow enough time for the mixture to settle into a smooth consistency. Cover and refrigerate.

For the fudge ripple, combine sugar, corn syrup, water and cocoa powders in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk constantly until mixture reaches a just-barely-boiling point. Remove from heat and stir in sea salt and vanilla extract. Transfer to a bowl, cool several minutes, then cover and refrigerate until fully chilled.  

To make the layered ice cream: Freeze the base ice cream according to manufacturer’s instructions; my Cuisinart machine takes about 20 minutes. During the final minute, add the vanilla flavored vodka. This ingredient is not essential, but it helps make the ice cream scoopable immediately upon removal from the freezer. If you avoid alcohol—no problem; simply remove the ice cream about 15 minutes before serving to slightly soften.

When ice cream is finished churning, add a slight ribbon of fudgy ripple to the bottom of an insulated ice cream container. Spoon in a few dollops of the ice cream base, followed by the graham cracker pieces and a generous drizzling of the marshmallow fluff mixture. Swirl on more fudge ripple, then repeat with ice cream, graham pieces and marshmallow fluff mixture. Be generous with the s’mores ingredients for best results. Any remaining fluff or fudge swirl mixture can be used to “dress up” your ice cream at serving time.



Transfer ice cream container to the freezer for several hours (preferably overnight) to firm up. Serve with additional topping ingredients.



New York Cheesecake with Spiced Cran-Cherry Topping

One day, I’ll learn that if I’m going to ask my husband, Les, to pick a dessert for me to make, I should make it a multiple choice. When I gave him free rein to decide on dessert for our tiny Thanksgiving for two, I imagined he’d choose from the obvious traditional sweets. You know, maybe pumpkin pie or bourbon pecan pie, or maybe this would be the year he’d ask for the apple cranberry pie I’ve mentioned for the past three Thanksgivings. Nope.

“Make a real New York cheesecake,” he said.

Cheesecake? C’mon, that’s not a Thanksgiving dessert. But maybe I could do a maple cheesecake with a caramelized apple topping, and that would be delicious and appropriate for Thanksgiving. But my hubby was clear about it: he was craving the authentic New York-style cheesecake—tall, dense and creamy. Oh, and topped with bright red cherries. His memory was based on the desserts made by one Miss Grimble, who was apparently an institution in the city of his youth. Not to set the bar too high, right? I’m good at researching, so I was on it.

Most recipes for this style cheesecake require baking in a water bath, which promotes even baking and a smooth top without unsightly cracks. That made me nervous right out of the gate. I know for certain that my springform pan is not watertight, a truth I learned when a birthday quiche I made for a gal pal a few years ago leaked out all over the oven. I wasn’t up for a repeat of that performance, for sure. And I was also insecure because there were differing opinions about the right temperature to bake a New York-style cheesecake. Some “authentic” recipes insisted the cake should bake in a water bath at 500° F for the first few minutes, then about half that temperature for almost an eternity. Other “real cheesecake” recipes said skip the water bath and just cool the cake in the oven to avoid the cracking on top. With so many opinions, I made the only decision that felt safe: I searched the King Arthur Baking Company website, read all the way through their recipe instructions as well as the accompanying blog post written by baking expert P.J. Hamel, and then I donned my apron and got to it.

The King Arthur recipe included instructions for a shortbread cookie-style crust, which I promptly replaced with a homemade graham cracker base (Les swears this was how Miss Grimble did it) and the blog post suggested two major rules for perfect cheesecake: start with room temperature ingredients, and don’t whip air into the filling mixture. One thing that attracted me to this recipe was that it did not emphasize a need for a water bath. Whew.

This turned out to be one of the tastiest and prettiest desserts I have made at home, and I did find a way to adapt it to the flavors of the season. Les got his cherry topping, but I spiked it with fresh cranberries and real cinnamon. We both loved it, and the cranberries are making it a festive dessert option all the way through the rest of the holiday season.

I’m glad my hubby requested this. It was delicious! 🙂

Adapted from NY Cheesecake | King Arthur Baking

Ingredients (crust)

1 sleeve honey graham crackers

1 handful ginger snap cookies (I used Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger cookies)

1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted

Pinch of kosher salt


Ingredients (filling)

4 packages (8 oz. each) full-fat cream cheese*

1 3/4 cup organic cane sugar

5 large organic eggs*

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1/2 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia flavoring*

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 cup full-fat sour cream*


Ingredients (topping)

2 cups frozen dark sweet cherries

1 cup fresh cranberries, rinsed and sorted

1/4 cup pure cherry juice (or water)

1/4 cup organic cane sugar

1 cinnamon stick, about 4” long (or a few pinches ground cinnamon)


*Notes

The most helpful thing I learned from the King Arthur experts is the importance of bringing all ingredients to room temperature before blending. This helps prevent clumping of the cream cheese and ensures the cheesecake mixture is the best temperature headed into the oven. Plan wisely, and take all the refrigerated ingredients—cream cheese, eggs and sour cream—out of the fridge at least a couple of hours before you begin.

Fiori di Sicilia is a specialty ingredient I purchase from King Arthur Baking Company. You may not have heard of it, but you would find the citrus-vanilla flavor reminiscent of Italian panettone or a frozen creamsicle treat. The ingredient is not essential for this cheesecake, but I love the “special something” it brings to desserts. This was my substitute for lemon zest in the original King Arthur recipe.

The recipe that inspired me did not require a water bath, but P.J. Hamel suggested in her “cheesecake tips” using cake strips, which are soaked and wrapped around a cake pan to promote even baking. Find these online or at a gourmet kitchen store, or give the recipe a go without them. I already had them, so I used one and it worked great.



Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan, then cut a piece of parchment paper to size for the bottom, and butter the parchment.
  2. Use your hands to break the graham crackers and ginger snaps into smaller pieces. Pulse into fine crumbs in a food processor or use a rolling pin to smash them into fine crumbs in a large zip-top bag. Pour melted butter into crumbs and stir to mix well. It should resemble the texture of wet sand.
  3. Press crumbs firmly into a springform pan, evenly covering the bottom and about a half inch up the sides. I used the bottom of a small glass bowl to compress the crumbs.
  4. Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then remove pan and allow crust to cool at room temperature.
  5. In a stand mixer on the lowest speed, beat cream cheese and sugar until well blended. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat again briefly.
  6. Beat in vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia (or lemon zest) and salt.
  7. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until blended and scraping bowl after each egg.
  8. Stir in sour cream and give the mixture another thorough scraping.
  9. Carefully spoon in part of the filling mixture, taking care to not disturb the crumb crust. Gently pour in remaining filling and use rubber spatula to smooth the top of the cheesecake.
  10. Reduce oven temperature to 325° F and slide the cheesecake into the oven on a center rack. Bake 50 minutes, or until filling is set around the edges and slightly jiggly in the center. Turn off oven and prop door open, allowing cheesecake to cool slowly. This will help prevent the top of the cheesecake from cracking.
  11. When cheesecake is completely cool, cover cheesecake with aluminum foil and refrigerate at least overnight.

Cinnamon Cran-Cherry Sauce

Combine frozen cherries, cranberries, sugar and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan. Stir and cook over medium heat until it reaches a low boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Berries and cherries should be softened and thickened. Transfer mixture to refrigerator overnight. Try not to eat it all with a spoon!


To serve

When cheesecake is completely cooled and chilled, run a clean knife carefully around the inside of the springform pan, then release to plate the cheesecake. Cut into wedges and top with cinnamon cran-cherry topping.

Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. We found that we liked the flavor and texture even better after a few days in the fridge. Enjoy!


Want to make it?


You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products or companies I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion about recipes, products and gadgets. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 🙂


My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme

The Christmas season doesn’t feel real in our house until the refrigerator holds a bottle of this luxurious libation. My father has made this homemade version of Irish creme (his spelling) for years, and whenever I visited his house during the holidays, I knew I could count on him to have a beige Tupperware pitcher of it in the fridge. It is rich and decadent, far creamier than the shelf-stable stuff you can buy at the liquor store. When I first asked for his recipe, I was surprised to realize that it has both coffee and chocolate in it—I never tasted either of them in the Irish cream, but when I’ve reduced or omitted either, I found that it just wasn’t the same.

For sure, double the recipe, even if there aren’t a lot of folks.

My father’s original recipe suggests using heavy cream and whole milk, but I have fiddled with the recipe and found that light cream and half & half makes it every bit as creamy, without the clumping that sometimes occurs with chilled heavy cream. Increase the Irish whiskey if you like (my dad does), but I think the ratios are perfect just as they are.

This homemade Irish cream is perfect for gift-giving, and it’s so darn easy to make that you’ll find yourself asking “Bailey who?”

Enjoy this straight, on ice or as a decadent flavor addition to your Christmas morning coffee or hot cocoa.

Homemade Irish Cream is a wonderful gift, too!

Ingredients

4 oz. (1/2 cup) light cream* (see notes)

2 tsp. espresso powder (or instant coffee)*

1 Tbsp. chocolate syrup (I use an all-natural brand with no high fructose corn syrup)

1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

8 oz. (1 cup) half & half*

6 oz. (3/4 cup) Irish whiskey

The original recipe calls for heavy cream and whole milk, but I’ve substituted similarly rich products with no clumping.

*Notes

Light cream is 20% milkfat, compared to nearly 40% milkfat in heavy cream. For readers abroad, the term “half & half” may not make sense, given that the European market does not have a product labeled this way. According to this article I found, half & half checks in at 12% milkfat. If you combine equal parts light cream with whole milk, you’ll strike a similar balance to the fat in half & half.

If my suggested ingredients are not available where you are, go with my dad’s original suggestion for 4 oz. heavy cream and 8 oz. whole milk, and perhaps use a blender to mix the Irish cream to help avoid the clumps that occur with cold heavy cream.

Espresso powder is available in the baking aisle of many well-stocked supermarkets or online from King Arthur Baking Company. You may substitute a high-quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand. I’ve used Starbucks “dark French roast” instant coffee with very good results.


Instructions

  1. Place a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Warm the light cream, espresso powder and chocolate syrup until the mixture steams and the espresso powder is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and cool completely.
  2. Use a whisk to blend the coffee-infused cream, condensed milk and half & half.
  3. Stir in Irish whiskey. Give it a taste and adjust any ingredient as desired.
  4. Divide Irish cream into sealable bottles and refrigerate.

Recipe makes about 4 cups.

Enjoy within three weeks. At our house, it is usually gone within three hours. 😉

Now, it feels like Christmas.

Want to make this recipe?


Chunky Bleu Cheese Dressing

It’s natural, I suppose, for kids to assume the taste and preference of their parents—either based on what they are told or perhaps based on the fact that they don’t really get to experience the flavors of foods the parents dislike.

For many years, I had the impression that “bleu cheese is terrible” was truth. My mother does not have the sense of adventure for food that I have, and come to think of it, my father doesn’t either. Over and over growing up, I heard negative opinion about certain foods from them, and bleu cheese fell into that category, at least with my mom. It had not occurred to me that my own opinion of those foods might be different.

That is, until the day that my grandmother served a casual salad at dinner with a thick, creamy dressing we spooned from one of the Depression glass bowls that was not set aside for special occasions.

I love the creaminess of this dressing, and the fresh taste from the buttermilk and sour cream. And those funky chunks, oh yes!

“What kind of dressing is this, Gram?” I asked. She informed me it was her “homemade” dressing. And I really liked it! Later, when she dropped the truth that it was her homemade bleu cheese dressing, I felt betrayed and compelled to act offended, as I’d been taught. That wild, funky flavor though! Yeah, I couldn’t fake not liking it, and I guess that was one of the first “aha” moments when I realized I was a separate person from my parents.

I loved bleu cheese and I was not ashamed.

If you aren’t making your own salad dressings, you’re missing out on a simple joy and a world of flavor. For the sake of a true story, I can’t claim for certain that my grandma taught me how to make this bleu cheese dressing, but I know she made her own salad dressings quite regularly, and it was one of the first things I began to make on my own when I got serious about cooking. Whether a vinaigrette, Italian dressing or creamy dressing such as ranch or bleu cheese, homemade dressing is remarkably simple to make. I rarely ever buy it anymore.

This is my version of bleu cheese, and unlike most of the dressings you’ll find in a supermarket, it is not loaded up with soybean oil and preservatives. Unlike many restaurant versions, it is not just a mayonnaise-y mess with bleu cheese crumbles (I hate when it gets that awful greasy sheen to it when you serve it with something warm). No, mine is generous with the bleu cheese, both in the base and in chunky texture, and it has buttermilk and sour cream for a lovely, creamy tang. Gram would certainly have approved.

I hope you enjoy this dressing—for its simplicity and its flavor. Use it this weekend to dress up some mixed greens or a wedge salad or a tray of real Buffalo-style chicken wings. Oh yeah, now we’re talking!

Let me know in the comments section what dressings you like, and I’ll share more of my easy recipes. 🙂


Ingredients

3/4 cup mayonnaise* (see notes)

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup sour cream

4 oz. wedge of deli-quality bleu cheese*

1 tsp. red wine vinegar (or fresh lemon juice)

1/4 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. white pepper


*Notes

My preference for mayonnaise is canola rather than soybean. If you have a Trader Joe’s, they make a terrific version of mayo that is made with expeller pressed canola oil. It keeps its creamy texture and doesn’t have a greasy flavor.

Bleu cheese is made in various places, and they all seem to call it something different. Roquefort, stilton and gorgonzola would all be acceptable substitutes, so choose your favorite. I usually go with Amish or Danish, and for sure, I recommend a wedge of bleu cheese rather than pre-packaged crumbles.


Instructions

  1. Trim the white, non-veiny part of the bleu cheese to blend into the dressing.
  2. Combine buttermilk, sour cream and white part of bleu cheese in a smoothie blender or regular blender and mix until smooth. No blender? Mash this portion of bleu cheese with a fork and whisk vigorously with the buttermilk and sour cream.
  3. Transfer dressing to a bowl. Stir in mayo, vinegar and spices.
  4. Crumble remaining bleu cheese and gently fold into the dressing.

This recipe makes about two cups of dressing. It can be served right away, but the texture is greatly improved after a night in the refrigerator. Keeps in a sealed jar or bowl for about a week.


Want to make this recipe?


Pumking Ice Cream

Didn’t I promise this would happen, when my beloved Pumking ale was released this year? I have been obsessed with the idea of turning this seasonal spiced ale into an ice cream, and here I’ve gone and done it!

Many of the recipes I make are merely altered versions of something I’ve made before. In this case, I followed the lessons I learned when I made the Black Mountain Chocolate Stout Ice Cream I shared back in the summer. As with that recipe, I’ve reduced the beer to intensify its flavors, giving immeasurable boost of pumpkin-y-ness to my standard custard-based ice cream. Throw in a fair amount of pureed pumpkin, and what do you suppose I got?

I can’t wait to dig my spoon right into this!

The pumpkin flavor is amped up three times—first with pure pumpkin puree, and then with the infusion of the pumpkin butter, which is essentially cooked pumpkin with sugar, spices and lemon juice. Finally, the Pumking ale accents the ice cream with a spiced and slightly hoppy flavor that is exactly the right balance to the sweet richness.

Triple threat! The reduced Pumking, pumpkin puree and pumpkin butter will each bring their own flavor to the party.

The other ingredients are straight off my go-to list for homemade custard-based ice cream. Equal parts whole milk and heavy cream, three egg yolks, just shy of one cup of sugar. I heated the milk and cream, plus half the amount of sugar, to the just-barely-boiling point.

While that was working, I whisked the egg yolks together with the remaining sugar until it was lighter in color and fluffed up in volume. Sometimes I do this in my stand mixer, but this time it worked fine in a glass pitcher bowl and a little elbow grease.


I gradually streamed half of the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking the whole time to prevent scrambling the eggs. Then, I returned the tempered egg mixture to the pan with the remaining cream mixture, and cooked (stirring constantly) until the custard was slightly thickened and coated the back of my wooden spoon.

The cooked custard mixture went back into the pitcher bowl, and I blended in the pumpkin puree, pumpkin butter and reduced Pumking ale. As always, I laid plastic wrap directly on top of the custard (this prevents a skin forming on top, and also prevents condensation that could screw up the texture of the finished ice cream. Into the fridge for at least 8 hours (I usually leave it overnight), then into the ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Here’s how the rest of the recipe went:

This ice cream surprised me with its super-creamy, unbelievably pumpkin-y flavor and texture. You don’t taste beer in the ice cream—just a complex layered flavor that seems more complicated than it was.

As Thanksgiving desserts go, this is a winner, not only because it’s delicious and satisfies the desire for a rich, creamy pumpkin dessert, but also because you can make it several days ahead to free up time in your schedule for more pressing dishes.

Serve it in an ice cream cone or bowl, or on top of a square of gingerbread or a brownie or a big fat oatmeal cookie or…OK, straight from the container. Why the heck not?

Just like this. 🙂

Ingredients

8 oz. Pumking spiced ale (or another pumpkin seasonal ale)

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3 egg yolks

3/4 cup organic cane sugar, divided

1/2 cup pure pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1/4 cup Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter* (see notes)

1/4 cup crushed ginger snap cookies (optional)

1 oz. vodka (optional, for texture; this is added during final minute of freezing)

*Notes

If you cannot get your hands on the Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter, I would recommend increasing the puree to 1 cup, and cook it with a couple tablespoons of brown sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice and a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spices. Cook until it’s caramelized and thickened, then refrigerate overnight before adding it to the ice cream. It won’t be exactly the same, but darn close.

This tastes exactly like a frozen scoop of creamy, spicy pumpkin pie.

Want to make this recipe?

Follow the steps and pictures above, or click to download a copy for your recipe files. Please let me know how you like it!


The Best Bread Pudding

It strikes me funny that a dessert as simple and humble as bread pudding shows up so frequently on upscale restaurant menus. Rarely do you find it an option in a sandwich shop or a casual dining joint. But go to a “nicer” place, and there it is—usually spiked with some kind of liqueur and almost always drenched in a rich creamy sauce. They can make it as fancy as they like, but as far as I’m concerned, my grandmother set the bar on bread pudding. Hers was never quite the same twice, but it was always delicious.

Of all the cooking lessons Gram gave me in her small upstate New York kitchen, one of the most important—that she lived out every day—was to “waste nothing.” As a survivor of the Great Depression, she saved things that most people threw away, including scrap pieces of aluminum foil, fabric remnants, even used twist ties. But the best things she saved went into a bread bag in her freezer, until she had collected four cups worth, enough to make a batch of her famous bread pudding. End pieces of stale bread, that last uneaten sweet roll and even the occasional hamburger bun were revitalized into a delicious, custardy dessert that was cinnamon-y and sweet and tasted like a day at Gram’s house.

I was taken aback recently to realize that I only have four handwritten recipe cards left to me by my cooking mentor, but I’m thrilled that one of them is titled “Basic Bread Pudding.” When I got the news last summer that she had passed away, just as I was awaiting delivery of my new gas range, I pulled out every bread scrap we had in the freezer, and this pudding is the first thing I baked in it.

Like everything else she made, Gram’s recipe for bread pudding is flexible; it’s meant to make use of whatever ingredients you happen to have on hand. The formula is simple, and you can dress it up (or not) however you like. If you like it more custardy, she had a suggestion for that on the back of the card (I’ve included it below, as a direct quote from Gram).

In honor of what would have been Gram’s 99th birthday this week, I’m proud to share her recipe with you. She would have been tickled pink, and also a little surprised, because to her, bread pudding was a given.

No matter what I add to the recipe, somehow it always tastes like Gram made it! ❤

There’s a reason that bread pudding today is showing up on upscale restaurant menus. It’s rich, dense, custardy, and so, so comforting. You can flex the flavors to match the season, serve it warm with a creamy sauce or chilled, straight from the fridge. Frankly, I’m in favor of having it for breakfast. Bottom line, it’s a fantastic dessert that you can make yourself, and (by way of my pictures and descriptions) my grandma is going to show you how easy it is.

For this batch, I’ve followed Gram’s lead in pulling some scraps from the freezer. I made sourdough challah a couple months back, and I also found some leftover cinnamon rolls, just minding their own business in the freezer. I swapped out the raisins for chopped dates and dried apples, and some of the cinnamon for cardamom. Oh, and I also boozed them up a little bit by soaking the dates in some Grand Marnier (of course, I did).


Ingredients for “Basic Bread Pudding”

2 cups milk

4 cups coarse bread cubes

1/4 cup melted butter

1/2 cup sugar

2 beaten eggs

1/2 cup raisins (or other fruit)

1 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg

Pour into 1 1/2 quart casserole. Set in pan of hot water. Bake at 350° F for about one hour or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

For more “custardy” pudding, use 4 cups milk and reduce bread cubes to 2 cups.

Gram (on the back of the recipe card)

Follow along, to see how easy it is to create this luscious dessert! You’ll find a downloadable recipe to print at the end of the post. Enjoy!


I suppose you want to know about the rich caramel sauce that’s drizzled all over the pudding? It’s salted caramel sauce, which I might have made from scratch (but didn’t). This time, I took an easy shortcut by warming salted caramel ice cream topping in the microwave with a few tablespoons of heavy cream. It thinned out nicely and provided the perfect finishing touch. Gram would’ve loved that idea, I’m sure of it. Just wait ‘til Christmas, when I share her recipe for molasses cookies!


Want to print this recipe?


Spreadable Scallion Cream Cheese

We eat a lot of bagels with lox at our house, and we like a little more pizzazz than just plain ol’ cream cheese. According to my husband, Les, “schmear” is the appropriate Yiddish word for bagel-worthy cream cheese, and it implies a smoother, spreadable consistency than what you get in the store-bought bricks. But the first time I did the shopping for us as a couple, I developed a serious case of sticker shock in the pre-made, spreadable cream cheese section. And for such a tiny container of it, not to mention that the “whipped” varieties are basically half cream cheese and half air!

It was pretty easy to replicate Les’s favorite, which is scallion cream cheese; to be fair, he says our homemade version is not only more economical, but also tastier. I love being able to customize the flavors, without a bunch of additives we can’t pronounce. My double-batch version here calls for plain Greek yogurt, but you could just as easily substitute sour cream. If you want a smaller amount, just reduce the ingredients by half. At the end, I’ve suggested additional flavor variations. I hope you find one you love!


Ingredients and Tools:

2 bricks (8 oz. each) regular or Neufchatel (reduced fat) cream cheese
1/4 to 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt (whole or 2%)
1/2 tsp. dried dill
1/2 tsp. dried minced garlic
1 small bunch scallions (green onions), washed and trimmed, white and green parts sliced thin

Stand mixer or electric hand mixer, unless you have some serious guns to whip it by hand!


Instructions:

Put both packages of cream cheese into the mixing bowl, straight from the fridge. Whip the cream cheese by itself for about 1 minute, then add the yogurt (begin with 1/4 cup, add more as you like) and whip until blended. Stop a couple times to scrape down the sides and across the bottom of the bowl. When the whipped mixture has the appearance of cream cheese icing, add the dill and dried minced garlic and whip again just until blended.


Next, add all of the scallions; it may seem like a lot, but it’ll be just right once it’s mixed. Blend on a low speed until fully incorporated, then transfer to a covered bowl and refrigerate.


The dried garlic needs at least a few hours to soften and spread its flavor through the cream cheese. If you’re making this for something right away, I’d recommend scooping out what you need immediately before adding the garlic. Otherwise, you’ll have a few potent, crunchy bites. Les has taught me to adore this stuff, especially on a lightly toasted “everything” bagel. But we also use it in other ways—on crackers, as a spread on sandwiches and even slathered on the inside of a tortilla for breakfast burritos.


Want to elevate your happy, Comfort du Jour style?

Like so many things I make at home, cream cheese is a blank canvas just begging for interesting variations. Swap out the dill for any other dried herbs you like, but I’d suggest using them sparingly until you have a feel for the concentration of flavor—these herbs really open up after some time in the fridge. Mix in chopped pickled jalapeno, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, pepperoncini or olives, but blot them dry first on paper towels.

Prefer sweeter spreads? Skip and garlic and herbs; mix in 1 Tbsp. of powdered sugar along with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and fold in raisins, chopped toasted nuts or dried cranberries. Les would argue that sweet cream cheese is not “authentic” (you can’t take the NYC outta the boy), but I say make whatever makes you happy!


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