During the holiday season, right smack between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I shared my recipe for Smoked Maple Bourbon Crème Brûlée. That dessert was divine, with all the silky creaminess you’d expect and a generous splash of smoked maple bourbon, a Knob Creek product that my husband and I had recently discovered. The culinary possibilities of this bourbon seem limitless, as we have enjoyed it now in cocktails, dessert and these meatballs, which were inspired by a comment made by a friend on that crème brûlée post.
My friend and blog buddy, Michelle, cannot tolerate alcohol in drinks but she enjoys the flavors of booze in food (including the Tequila & Lime Chicken Tacos she inspired me to make last summer). Michelle commented that the maple-bourbon combination in my dessert reminded her of a signature appetizer made by an old friend. Can’t we all relate to that—a dish so good that we can still taste it in our minds, even years later? That simple comment about her friend’s “maple mustard mystery” meatballs got my own creative juices going. I was bored with ground beef (and it isn’t always easy to find fresh grass-fed in the store), so I turned to ground pork instead and modified a recipe I already had for Marsala-braised pork meatballs. I had been thinking about making those, but maple and bourbon sounded much more interesting.
Maple is one of the most versatile sweeteners I know—it is not a flat kind of sweet, as sugar is, but complex, with a warmth and depth that you can’t get from brown sugar or even honey. Maple plays nicely with tangy, spicy and smoky as well as it does with creamy and buttery. If you have only enjoyed maple with weekend pancakes, this recipe may help you break out of a flavor rut. The maple and mustard was a terrific combination for early December, which is when I made the meatballs. Yes, we are hanging in there with dry January, so I suppose you could say I am enjoying bourbon vicariously through myself from last month.
For this meatball recipe, I paired a spicy maple syrup with Dijon mustard, a bit of tomato paste, onion juice and some of the smoky maple bourbon we had bought for the Smoked Maple Cranhattansat Thanksgiving. I resisted the urge to add cream to this sauce, because cream tends to soften other flavors and I really wanted the maple and mustard to enjoy the spotlight.
Mission accomplished—they were delicious! I served them over a bed of simple mashed potatoes and with a side of roasted root vegetables, but I couldn’t help thinking they would also be delicious on toothpicks as an appetizer, as my friend remembered them. Super Bowl, maybe?
1 large, sweet or yellow onion* (see notes)
1 lb. fresh ground pork
1/3 lb. bulk breakfast sausage
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. real maple syrup*
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Up to 1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. smoked maple bourbon*
When I made these meatballs, I had reserved onion juice from the Classic Crispy Latkes I had made for the first night of Hanukkah. You will only use half of the large onion in this recipe, but you need the juice of the whole onion to flavor the simmering sauce.
I used a habanero-infused maple syrup for this recipe because my husband and I enjoy spicy foods. Any maple syrup would be delicious—but choose real maple for the best flavor. If the idea of spicy flavor appeals to you, try using regular maple syrup and add about a teaspoon of cayenne or sriracha sauce for similar results.
The smoked maple bourbon is a Knob Creek product. It’s completely optional in this recipe. If you avoid alcohol, simply omit this and add an extra splash of vegetable broth.
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?
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
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.
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.
In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot butnot 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Holiday preparation is fun for me—all the excitement, decorating and special trimmings gives me an exuberant sense of energy. But the extra fussing can also pile on unwanted stress, and having a “signature” cocktail for the holidays relieves some of the pressure when guests will be joining the fun.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to offer up an open bar, and ours is fully stocked with everything our friends and neighbors might ask for (and a few things they probably wouldn’t—I’m looking at you, absinthe). Imagine what that would look like if I related it to other aspects of our entertaining though; say, the decorations or the table settings. Our guests don’t choose those; we decide based on the occasion. Too many drink options can overwhelm a guest and leave them standing there contemplating, when they’d probably rather just enjoy a well-thought-out adult beverage, and I’d rather be back in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on dinner.
Naturally, a few people may request their own favorite (a beer or glass of white wine, perhaps), but most of our friends enjoy the unique tipple that we put together for them, and I do my best to keep the flavors within the season. Not too strong, not too sweet, always with a special ingredient twist.
This year, I agonized over my signature cocktail, not because I fell short of ideas (as if that would ever happen in my crazy brain), but because my best experiments this year felt too similar to the signature drink last year, the Pom-Pom-Hattan. At first glance, this drink may seem almost the same, given that cranberry has a similar tartness to pomegranate and both drinks are made with bourbon. But friends, this is no ordinary bourbon, and it was pleading with me to become part of my signature drink.
Before I get carried away, I’d like to emphasize that this distiller is not paying endorsement fees for my shameless raving (and if they did, I’d probably just spend it on more bottles). This is just between us bourbon lovers, and it’s what friends do—share the news about great things we find. The maple notes in this bourbon are very smooth, excellent for sipping neat, and I’ve done my share so far this season. The smokiness is subtle, but present, and a little tang of cranberry (spiked with some spices) is a perfect accompaniment for a cocktail that celebrates the warmth of the holidays.
The ingredients are simple, though one required a bit of advance effort. Rather than use a store-bought cranberry juice (which I didn’t even consider, frankly), I made a simple syrup infused with fresh cranberries, cinnamon for warmth and pink peppercorns for depth. Simple syrup is exactly that—simple. Just equal parts by volume of sugar and water, and for this one, I added the flavor infusers long enough to draw out the color of the cranberry. The rest of the drink is very Manhattan-like; a quality brand of red vermouth and a few shakes of bitters, with a premium cocktail cherry as garnish.
At our house, we enjoyed these on Thanksgiving and again on Saturday night with appetizers before our Ultimate Thanksgiving Leftover Pizza. But just as with last year’s Pom-Pom-Hattan, I have no doubt that this smoky-sweet-tangy cocktail will carry us through all the way to New Year’s.
Ingredients (makes two cocktails)
3 oz. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon
1.5 oz. red (sweet) vermouth
1.0 oz. spiced cranberry simple syrup
2 dashes ginger bitters
Good quality cocktail cherries, such as Luxardo brand
Measure bourbon, vermouth, spiced cranberry syrup and bitters into a mixing glass or shaker. Add one cup of ice and stir well for about 20 seconds. Strain into coupe (or martini) cocktail glasses and garnish each with a cherry.
Repeat as desired.
Spiced Cranberry Simple Syrup
My confession is that my first attempt at the simple syrup was not great. Cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and I let them simmer a bit too long, releasing all that thickener. It did not taste bad, but left an odd, almost sticky residue in my drink (serves me right for multi-tasking). Keep a close watch over it, as I did with the second batch, and it will be delicious!
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Heat over medium heat, stirring until sugar is mostly dissolved. Add 1 cup rinsed cranberries, 2 pieces cinnamon stick and 1 rounded teaspoon pink peppercorns. Bring to a slight boil, and then reduce heat to low and allow it to simmer until the cranberries begin to pop and the syrup takes on a pinkish-red color. Remove from heat and let the berries steep for a few minutes before straining into a jar.
Use the cooked cranberries in another recipe if you wish or discard them.
It wouldn’t be summer without ice cream, and it wouldn’t be Comfort du Jour without some unexpected flavor twists. One of the biggest reasons I love my ice cream machine is that I can choose my own flavors rather than relying on the same old varieties you find everywhere else. Using my easy formula for custard ice cream base, I’ve whipped two of my all-time favorite flavors into one frosty treat.
I’ve swapped out sugar in favor of maple syrup, and paired it with the delicious, smoky flavor of real bacon! These two flavors are like an old married couple, finishing each other’s sentences and picking up each other’s slack. When the maple syrup starts to feel too sweet, here comes the salty, savory bacon to keep it in check. And because we get a little crazy at our house about the sweet-salty combination of maple and bacon, I’ve garnished the ice cream with additional bacon, glazed with maple syrup. I’ll share that, too.
It’s National Ice Cream Day, smack in the middle of National Ice Cream Month, and I am on it!
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup maple sugar* (see notes)
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
4 thin slices uncured maple bacon, cooked until crispy, then broken into bits*
1 Tbsp. bourbon (optional but recommended for improved texture)
My maple sugar is sourced from the same place I order my syrup, Big Tree Maple in Lakewood, N.Y., which is just up the road from where I grew up. Maple sugar is not as easy to find in local stores as maple syrup, but you will be happy to know that Big Tree offers shipping on its products. You could also substitute with caster sugar (sometimes called “superfine” sugar) or simply increase the maple syrup to a total of 3/4 cup.
All 4 pieces of bacon are intended for mixing into the ice cream. Cook a few extra slices of bacon if you want to make the maple-glazed candied bacon garnish. And, trust me, you want to! 😉
In a stand mixer or bowl with hand mixer, whip egg yolks until they get frothy and increase in volume. Gradually add maple sugar, whipping constantly and stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Heat milk and cream until hot and steaming but not boiling. Reduce the heat to very low (or turn it off) at this point, so that the milk mixture doesn’t curdle. Measure out about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture. Stream it slowly into the egg yolk mixture while running the mixer. Use a lower speed on the mixer to avoid whipping too much air into the cream mixture.
Transfer the tempered yolk mixture back to the saucepan with the remaining milk-cream mixture and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until custard is smooth and coats the back of the spoon. Remove from heat. Stir in kosher salt until dissolved.
Whisk in maple syrup, stirring thoroughly to combine. Lay plastic film directly onto the surface of the custard to prevent condensation. Cover the bowl with additional film or lid and refrigerate several hours to overnight.
Time to freeze the ice cream!
Before freezing, remove plastic film and stir mixture to reincorporate any ingredients that may have settled to the bottom. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
In the last few minutes of churning, add bacon crumbles to the ice cream.
Mix in a tablespoon of bourbon in the final minute. The alcohol will just barely flavor the ice cream, but the real benefit will be improved texture for scooping directly from the freezer.
Bonus recipe – Candied Maple Bacon
2 to 3 thin strips uncured maple bacon
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
Cook bacon in the 350°F oven on a parchment-lined baking sheet. When bacon is crisp, transfer to a paper towel and replace parchment paper. Lightly brush maple syrup onto each side of the bacon slices, and return it to the oven for a few minutes. Repeat two or three more times, until syrup is hardened and bacon looks like candy. Cool completely and wrap loosely in foil or parchment. Garnish ice cream portions with a piece of the bacon.
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. 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? 😀
The Fourth of July conjures very specific childhood memories for me, and baked beans has a major role in that nostalgia. Every year, members of my family on my maternal grandfather’s side gathered at the home of my great grandmother for a reunion-of-sorts picnic and, especially, for fireworks. Grandma Stoney, whose nickname was derived from her married last name, Stonehouse, lived across the street from the community baseball field, and we were lucky to have a front row seat for the excitement of what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous fireworks display. The tiny burg where Grandma Stoney lived put on quite a shindig for Independence Day, including a parade, complete with a marching band and people throwing candy to the kids from firetrucks. Back at Grandma’s house, we amused ourselves by playing croquet in the front yard and taking turns cranking the handle on an old timey ice cream maker. No doubt, my great grandmother felt great joy having everyone there.
What I remember most, besides playing with distant cousins I rarely saw, was the food. Inside the house, every available horizontal surface—and I mean tables, countertops, the stove, card tables and anything else that could be rigged up to hold dishes—was covered with potluck offerings, as everyone in attendance always brought a dish or two to share. It was unbelievable. For me, the best of all was the dining room table, which was always covered from corner to corner with every variety of baked beans you could imagine. Some of the dishes were very saucy, some looked as though they had been dumped directly from a can of Van Camp’s, and others were baked with that delightfully sticky sweet sauce pooled in the corners of the pan. And there were always several dishes of beans topped with slices of bacon. Oh man, how I loved that table!
Bacon is still one of my very favorite ingredients for baked beans, and I’ve paired it here with a favorite flavor of my Upstate New York home—maple. That combination of smoky-salty-sweet cannot be beat, and for me, it’s as much a part of Fourth of July celebration as parades and fireworks.
This time, I made my baked beans from scratch, having soaked the beans overnight and then cooking them until tender before adding the flavorful sauce. But you could absolutely take a time-saving shortcut and use cans of beans. Just be sure you drain and rinse them thoroughly before you begin.
1 lb. dried beans, soaked and prepared for cooking* (see notes)
1 heaping cup thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes
1 sweet onion, sliced or chopped
6 oz. can no-salt tomato paste
1/2 cup real maple syrup
1/4 cup maple-infused balsamic vinegar*
About 20 grinds fresh black pepper
1/2 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder
3/4 cup cold water (added after flavor adjustment)
My recipe was made with dried cranberry beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, then drained twice and cooked low and slow until tender. If you prefer, or if you are pressed for time, feel free to use 3 standard cans of cooked beans. Drain the beans and rinse under cold running water, to remove all the “goo” from the cans. Great Northern, navy or white kidney beans (cannellini) would be great.
The maple-infused balsamic is a specialty ingredient, purchased at one of the stores that sells flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I love this product because it enhances the maple flavor without making it more sweet. If you do not find this maple balsamic, substitute an equal amount of regular dark balsamic vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.
Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add bacon cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon cubes are just crisp. Transfer cubes to a paper towel-lined plate and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
Layer the cooked beans, bacon and onions in a glass 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Pour the sauce into the beans and give the baking dish a few gentle shakes to distribute the sauce throughout. The beans should be swimming in sauce, as much of it will absorb into the beans during baking.
Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
Two weeks from today, I’ll be recovering after my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, and I feel like celebrating, though I am a bit apprehensive about how my immune system will take it. Mind you, I am not skeptical about the vaccine, which would be an entirely different conversation. I trust the science and I am astonished at how quickly the research teams collaborated to produce an effective safeguard against this dreadful disease. I was in line for my first dose as soon as I became eligible.
My unease is related to something else, namely the unpleasant symptoms I expect I may have as result of my body demonstrating its immune response. My first dose was uneventful, save for an achy arm for two days, but there have been many anecdotal reports by some second-dose recipients of nausea, fever, chills, migraines and other not-so-fun experiences. And that has me on high alert, which is also a pretty accurate way to describe my immune system.
In 2003, I learned that I have an autoimmune disorder, vitiligo, which some consider to be a dermatological issue, but research shows it is most likely related to a dysfunction of the immune system, possibly triggered by an extended overload of the stress hormone known as cortisol. In short, my immune system is always looking for a fight, and sometimes it attacks on my own healthy cells, specifically my skin.
I am also extremely sensitive to common household chemicals, cosmetics, fragrance and even sunshine. As these disorders go, I feel extremely lucky—I could have been hit with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, both of which are serious and more complicated to manage—but I am preparing myself for a bumpy ride after my second dose of “the Fauci ouchie.” Still, the jab and any side effects I feel from it will be far better than what my body would have done with COVID, so I am optimistic, grateful and ready.
It almost seems too good to be true to realize that by the time Memorial Day rolls in, antibodies will be standing guard and we can finally breathe easier and spend face-to-face quality time with friends. I want to hug everyone at once, but the past year of social distancing and general wariness of being close to “others not in my own household” is also creating apprehension. I sure hope I can remember how to relax and be myself when we get there.
Until we do, my fully vaccinated husband, Les, and I will spend Friday night as we have for the past 13 months—at home, alone but together, with homemade pizza and cocktails. The pandemic forced all of us to get more creative with our down time, and as the weeks in lockdown progressed, we have made some epic advances in our game for both of our culinary Friday night rituals. It has been a while since I posted any of our homemade pizzas, but rest assured, we have been making them. Here’s a quick gallery of images to catch you up (and make you hungry), or you can find a recipe for tonight on the Pizza Party page.
The cocktail part of our Friday night has varied widely over the past year, and you can hit the Happy Hour page to see a few of them. As of late, my go-to has been a dry gin martini and Les usually locks in on bourbon, a spirit he barely even knew before he met me (you’re welcome, babe). Of all the cocktail variations we have tried, we always seem to come home to this smoked maple old fashioned. It is classic in that is relies on smooth bourbon and bitters, but slightly unconventional in its substitution of smoked maple syrup for the standard muddled sugar cube. Our usual garnish is a simple Luxardo cherry, which, in my opinion, should win an award for “best cherry ever created.” But we sometimes go all-in with an orange peel twist, too, and I like the fragrance that lends to the edge of the glass with each sip we savor.
Friday night is one of the main things that helped us get through COVID lockdown, and this is what it tastes like at our house. Cheers!
Ingredients (see notes for additional info)
1.5 oz. bourbon
0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) smoked maple syrup
0.25 oz. (1 ½ tsp.) amaretto almond liqueur
3 drops orange bitters
Large cocktail ice cube
Luxardo cherry and freshly stripped orange peel (optional) for garnish
We are currently pouring Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon at our house. It is smooth and easy, and works really well in most of our mixed cocktails, but not as pricey as some of the top-shelf brands.
My first taste of smoked maple syrup was in a gourmet shop in Blowing Rock, N.C., and I was pretty excited recently to find it on Amazon. If you like the idea of maple but not the smoke, then by all means, use regular maple syrup, preferably dark—but do not offend your cocktail with any cheap crap from the grocery store. It may be fine to enjoy your old fashioned on the porch of a “log cabin,” but the high fructose junk that sweetens that fake syrup has no place in your glass (or anywhere). Splurge a little; I promise you won’t regret it.
Addition of amaretto is optional, but we love the slightly sweet, nutty nuances it gives to this cocktail. We use Disaronno brand.
Orange bitters is a classic cocktail ingredient, and if you are building a home bar, this is one item to include from the start. Contrary to the name, bitters do not make your drink bitter; they add layers and complexity, and it’s usually what brings a drink together in the glass. A bottle of orange bitters will run you about $10, and it will last a good long time because you only need a few drops per drink.
Speaking of splurge, Luxardo cherries. They are $20 a jar. But trust me, you want them.
Combine the bourbon, amaretto and smoked maple syrup in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add drops of bitters and stir to blend. Add about one cup of ice and stir briskly (or shake, if using a shaker) until the outside of the container becomes frosty, which will be about 20 seconds.
Strain the cocktail into a double rocks glass, over a big, fat ice cube.
Drop in the cherry. If desired, squeeze the orange peel to express the natural oils, and rub the outside of the peel along the rim of the glass before dropping it into the drink.
If you were to scroll through your collection of recipes, I wonder which ones are most overlooked, and I wonder why. We all have recipe cards that hang out in the back of the box—either because they no longer suit our taste (which makes them ripe for a makeover), or they are specific to a season or holiday, or the ingredients are too pricy or difficult to find. Sometimes, though, I believe recipes get passed over because they seem complicated or intimidating.
My own “bucket list” of culinary challenges includes items from all those categories, but after recent conversation with various friends and acquaintances, I have noticed one standout category of food that seems to hold an air of mystery to a lot of people: seafood. It seems that most people enjoy seafood, but many are reluctant to make it at home. It’s no wonder seafood restaurant prices are what they are, and that’s a darn shame when some of those dishes are perfectly manageable for a home cook.
Every week or so, I peek at the activity insights offered by WordPress, where Comfort du Jour is hosted, and this helps guide me in deciding what to make next, and what to share with my foodie friends. I can see at-a-glance the number of views and downloads each page has had to date, and overwhelmingly, the recipe with the highest numbers of both is this one:
It surprises me to see that Mahi Hemingway is so interesting to others, because it happens to be one of the simplest recipes to make, both from an ingredient standpoint and one of skill level. I developed my own version of that recipe because I couldn’t make sense of the $30 price tag on a similar dish in a local restaurant, which I expect points to another reason home cooks shy away from making their own seafood. If it’s so expensive in restaurants, it must be expensive and hard to make, right? Wrong! 😉
Most seafood is surprisingly easy to make, and I’m about to prove it again with this easy-and-done recipe that is cooked on the grill. The salmon fillet portions, which are easily found in most larger supermarkets, take an afternoon bath in a simple marinade of real maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard. The marinade infuses flavor into the fish during this phase, and becomes a flavorful glaze later, when the fish is grilled. If you prefer, you can also make this in the oven, and the cedar wrap is entirely optional, but I believe it is worth the extra expense. I found these in the grilling section of the supermarket , but you might also check your hardware store, Walmart or Target. Cedar wraps impart an aromatic smokiness to the fish, without the extra time and fuss of cedar planks. The wraps are also less expensive than planks (only $10 for eight of them), and they don’t take up much storage space.
I have garnished the salmon with chopped soy-wasabi almonds, which is a great complement to the maple and bourbon flavors, and the wasabi echoes the horseradish that spikes the easy buttermilk mashed potatoes underneath, the same potatoes I made at St. Patrick’s Day for the Bangers & Mash.
You can begin prep for this meal a few hours ahead, and cooking time is less than half an hour, including the mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus. This meal is beautiful, tasty, quick and easy—collectively giving it a good chance at moving to the front of the recipe box.
Two servings, easy to double.
2 Atlantic salmon fillets, about 6 oz. each* (see notes)
3 Tbsp. real maple syrup, preferably dark*
3 Tbsp. bourbon
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/8 tsp. Boyajian maple extract*
2 cedar wraps, soaked at least 5 minutes* (optional, see notes)
Small handful of wasabi & soy sauce almonds*
The salmon fillets may be skinless or skin-on; it doesn’t matter because the skin will remain on the cedar wrap after grilling, which makes plating this dish super simple. If your seafood market has steelhead trout or arctic char, they would also be delicious in this recipe, but adjust your grilling time. Both are usually thinner and would cook more quickly.
For the love of good taste, please do not use a fake “maple-ish” syrup from the grocery store. Real maple is the best, and totally worth the expense. There are plenty of resources for good quality maple products; I order mine online from Big Tree Maple in Lakewood, N.Y. Why? Because I grew up under the shade of those lovely trees and they know me.
The maple extract, which is optional, amplifies the flavor of the syrup without adding sweetness. Look for it in gourmet specialty stores, or online at King Arthur Baking Company. Another product I like for this purpose is maple-infused balsamic vinegar, which is easy to find in one of the specialty balsamic shops that have popped up all over the U.S. If you substitute with the balsamic, use about 1/2 teaspoon.
Cedar wood, when soaked and grilled, lends a phenomenal flavor to salmon. If you choose planks, be certain they are designed for culinary use. Cedar grilling planks should be submerged fully underwater for at least an hour, but I like the wraps because they only require soaking a few minutes. You could probably also use soaked cedar chips in a smoker box, alongside the salmon on your grill.
The wasabi & soy sauce almonds are a Blue Diamond product, and you’ll find them in the small cans in the snack aisle of your supermarket, alongside cans of peanuts and mixed nuts. I’m crazy about the horseradish-y flavor, and it is remarkably good against the sweetness of maple and bourbon.
Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
1 lb. potatoes (I used a combination of russet and golds)
2 Tbsp. salted butter (extra if you’d like)
1/4 cup thick buttermilk
1 tsp. prepared horseradish
Salt and pepper
1 average bundle fresh asparagus
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Zest of 1/2 fresh lemon (optional)
You will want to marinate the salmon fillets a couple of hours, so plan this quick prep for mid-afternoon. I’ll run through the easy steps for the salmon here. For visual direction on the buttermilk mashed potatoes, check out my recent post for Bangers & Mash; it is the same recipe, though ingredient amounts are adjusted here for this dish.
Season the salmon fillets with kosher salt and black pepper. Place them, skin side down, in a glass baking dish.
Combine the maple syrup, bourbon and Dijon mustard in a measuring cup with a pour spout, Whisk in olive oil and maple extract (if using). Pour most of the marinade evenly over the salmon fillets, reserving about a tablespoon of it to drizzle over at serving. Turn the fillets over, so that the fleshy side rests in the marinade, and wiggle them around to be sure the marinade coats the exposed sides of the fish. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour, preferably about two hours.
Peel and cut up the potatoes. Boil gently until they are easily pierced with a fork, then drain over a colander.
Add butter and buttermilk to the cooking pot and stir until butter is melted. Transfer drained potatoes back to the pot and mash to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in horseradish and more butter, if desired. Keep potatoes warm until serving time.
While the potatoes cook, prepare your grill, with temperature at 350° F. Soak cedar wraps and tying twine for at least five minutes.
Remove salmon fillets from marinade. Center them, skin side-down, on the soaked wraps and fold up the sides to enclose them, tying snugly with twine.
Place the cedar-wrapped salmon onto a grilling rack, and cook over direct heat for about 12 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with the twist of a fork. You may need to peel back a piece of the cedar wrap to test the flakiness.
Cut the twine to unwrap the cedar and serve the fish atop a mound of the buttermilk-horseradish potatoes alongside your favorite vegetable. Chop the soy-wasabi almonds into crumb-sized pieces. Drizzle salmon with reserved marinade and sprinkle with almonds.
Make the asparagus concurrently with the potatoes and salmon
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Prep the asparagus by snapping off the trimmed ends. Rinse under running water and roll them around on a paper towel to dry them.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and roll them to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper and roast for about 15 minutes. Finish with a sprinkle of lemon zest. If you slide the asparagus into the oven just before the salmon goes on the grill, it will be done right on time!
You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. 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? 😀
For the past several years at our home, some version of this side dish has appeared on the Thanksgiving table. The first couple of years, it was a popular recipe I had seen online at purewow.com, and I made it exactly as written, using honey and sriracha. The next year, I doubled the sriracha because my husband, Les, loves spicy so much. The year after that, I swapped out the honey in favor of maple syrup to keep it friendly to Les’s daughter, who adheres to the vegan lifestyle. What I love most about this recipe (besides the fact that Brussels sprouts are awesome and so good for you) is that it’s easily adaptable and it flies in the face of so many things people believe about their own tastes. This dish has been a winner with guests who don’t like Brussels sprouts, and also with people who don’t like the spicy nature of sriracha.
This year, in advance of Thanksgiving, I’ve been testing a few favorite recipes so that I can jot down the amounts and times that are appropriate for sharing. This has been one of the important challenges of doing a food blog—because I cook by instinct and memory, I don’t always know offhand how much of different ingredients I use or how long I cook them at whatever temperature. But a surprise popped up when I started working on my spicy Brussels sprouts for this post: our sriracha gave an odd aroma, and we realized it was almost a year out of date! Oops.
The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s certainly true in the kitchen, isn’t it? If I had a nickel for every time I made an emergency substitute, we could finally take the plunge on some new granite counters! But in this instance, the substitute was obvious to both of us—cayenne sauce would be the perfect stand-in for the sriracha. It’s mouthwatering, spicy and marries perfectly with maple syrup. If you’re looking to try something a little different this year, I hope you enjoy these.
Up to 2 lbs. fresh Brussels sprouts, rinsed, drained and patted dry
4 Tbsp. maple syrup
3 Tbsp. cayenne pepper sauce (we used Frank’s RedHot, of course!)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 400° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
Trim the sprouts by using a sharp knife to make a thin slice off the bottoms. This will loosen the outer leaves, which you may discard. When all sprouts are trimmed, cut them into halves, lengthwise (top to bottom).
In a large bowl, combine syrup, cayenne sauce, rice vinegar, salt and pepper. Stream in the olive oil gradually, whisking quickly to create an emulsion. Alternatively, add all the ingredients together in a jar with a tight lid and shake the dickens out of it.
Immediately transfer the Brussels sprouts to the bowl with the marinade and gently fold to toss them, taking care to coat every side of the sprouts.
Arrange the sprouts, cut side down, onto the prepared baking sheet. Keep a little room between the sprouts to ensure even roasting. Do not discard the marinade.
Roast for 20 minutes, then remove the baking sheet and toss the sprouts once again in the marinade. Return them to the baking sheet (direction does not matter) and back into the oven for 5 additional minutes.
The sprouts emerge from the oven with fragrant, crispy edges and tender, caramelized interior from all the marinade that weeps into the creases between leaves. These are best served right away, but for the sake of sanity on Thanksgiving, you may also make them ahead and warm them up in time for dinner. The sprouts will lose the crispiness, of course, but you will still love the flavor.
If I took all the sweet, warm, comforting flavors of the fall season and combined them into a single weekend breakfast, what would it look like?
Yes, I believe it would look a lot like this pumpkin challah French toast, stuffed with a cinnamon-y sweet and creamy maple-mascarpone filling and topped with a warm apple and pecan relish. I couldn’t resist throwing this over the top, given the surprise outcome of the sourdough pumpkin challah I made last week. The maple spice swirl inside the braided round loaf inspired me to repeat those flavors in a “go big or go home” recipe. The result is this French toast—with a luxurious, custard-like center, spiked with maple and spice and everything nice, and topped with a fresh apple and toasted pecan relish for a contrasting texture and bite.
Is it decadent? You bet. Sweet? You cannot imagine. And the only way to bring harmony to such a sweet and creamy brunch item is to serve it with a fall-inspired cranberry-cider mimosa. The prosecco bubbles, plus the tart and tangy flavor of the cranberry are welcome relief to so much richness.
Welcome back, Autumn! We’re so glad you’re here. 🙂
I’ll describe how I made this, but of course, I already had the sourdough pumpkin challah, which is not easy to find. If you enjoy baking bread, you might consider making your own. Or, to replicate the big autumn flavors in this dish, I’ll offer suggestions that allow you to use a regular challah or brioche, either of which should be much easier to get your hands on from the bakery department of your supermarket. My posts are meant to inspire, and however that happens at your house, enjoy!
4 large slices challah or brioche, slightly stale* (see notes)
3 oz. mascarpone*
2 Tbsp. maple cream*
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2/3 cup whole milk* (see notes for pumpkin adjustment)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch of kosher salt
Challah and brioche are similar “eggy” breads—each has a light and delicate crumb, and both are perfectly suited for French toast, including this recipe. The primary difference is that brioche is made with butter and challah (being a popular Jewish bread) is frequently made with oil. Leave the slices unwrapped overnight, as the stale texture will force them to better absorb the egg mixture.
Mascarpone is an Italian-style cream cheese, but a bit richer and denser. I buy it in small tubs at Trader Joe’s. Regular cream cheese would also work fine in this recipe.
Maple cream—oh, sweet wonderful maple cream! This delightful confection is pure maple, but in a different form from syrup. It’s made by heating the syrup then whipping until it’s a spreadable texture, similar to peanut butter. It is positively decadent. If you cannot find it, substitute about 1 tablespoon maple syrup.
If using regular bakery challah or brioche, reduce milk to 1/2 cup and add 1/4 cup pure pumpkin puree to the egg mixture before soaking.
Instructions (a.k.a. “feast your eyes”)
Using a handheld mixer, whip together the mascarpone, maple cream and cinnamon until smooth and spreadable.
Spread maple-mascarpone mixture onto two slices of the challah or brioche, then top with remaining pieces to make two “sandwiches.”
Whisk together eggs, milk, pumpkin (if using), vanilla and salt. Pour some of the mixture into a flat glass baking dish and place the filled sandwiches in the egg mixture. Drizzle the remaining mixture over the sandwiches and turn several times for about 20 minutes until most of the mixture has been absorbed.
Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-low heat. When it’s evenly heated, place sandwiches on the griddle and cook until the underside is golden brown. Turn sandwiches over, taking care not to allow the top piece to slip off. Cook until the second side is golden brown.
Serve warm with maple syrup, or go crazy and make the warm apple-pecan relish (below).
For warm apple relish topping:
To this point, pumpkin has enjoyed all the attention in my autumn-inspired brunch. But apples have equal star power this time of year, and this is their cue to step in and share the spotlight. This chunky topping provided textural contrast and flavor to the soft and creamy french toast.
1 medium firm apple, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (to prevent browning)
2 Tbsp. chopped toasted pecans
1 Tbsp. maple sugar (or syrup)
1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
Squeeze lemon juice over apple pieces in a small microwave-safe bowl and stir to toss. Microwave for 30 seconds, just long enough to warm and slightly soften the apple bits. Stir in pecans, maple sugar (or syrup) and spice.
For the cran-cider mimosa
This brunch cocktail was exactly what we needed to slice through all the sweet, rich flavors of the French toast. If you prefer, you could easily adapt this to non-alcoholic by substituting selzter or ginger ale for the prosecco. My suggested amounts are for one cocktail.
2 oz. chilled apple cider (I used spiced cider from Trader Joe’s)
2 oz. chilled cranberry juice cocktail
2 oz. chilled prosecco or other bubbly (champagne, seltzer, ginger ale)
Layer ingredients in a champagne flute just before serving the French toast.
There have never been two flavors more perfectly designed for each other than bourbon and bacon. My friend Linda would give an amen, and we’d be correct. Or maybe it’s chocolate and cherry. I’d ask my husband, but it would probably prompt further discussion of all the recipes we should concoct to incorporate all four—bourbon and bacon and chocolate and cherry. Maybe brownies? Or ice cream? That sounds like a rewarding challenge for later—I’ll work on it and let you know (wink).
For now, I’m cooking up a storm in advance of Memorial Day weekend. I know, none of us are likely spending the weekend quite as we’d planned. That’s a given on just about everything this year. My husband, Les, and I have already missed a dreamy beach weekend with Linda and her husband, and my heart positively aches for everyone who has sacrificed once-in-a-lifetime plans for weddings, graduations and funerals. Just thinking about that makes me feel guilty and selfish lamenting a weekend getaway. For sure, the pandemic is revealing all that we’ve taken for granted, and given us new appreciation for the simplest things in life—like a backyard cookout. So this weekend, Les and I are following tradition and firing up the grill to usher in the summer season, even if it ends up being just the two of us. Chances are, you’ll be doing the same.
Everyone has their own favorite thing to put on the grill, and our burgers are no better than yours. But if you’re looking for something new to dress up whatever you’re putting on the grill—well, cue the bourbon and bacon!
My inspiration for this recipe is a book that literally jumped into my cart a few years ago while I was casually browsing at a discount store.
It includes plenty of discussion about bourbon etiquette and whiskey history, what type of glass is correct for different types of bourbon cocktails, and what it means for a bourbon to be “bottled in bond” (if you’re wondering, it’s the result of one season, one distillation, and one distillery, and it’s bottled at a minimum of 100 proof; that’s on page 28). But there are also dozens of mouthwatering recipes—for bourbon, for bacon and for a few crossovers that include both. The latter are, without question, my favorites. Here’s my adaptation of one of them, and I’ve elevated everyone’s happy with yet another complementary flavor, maple. Oh yes, I did. The end result is a delicious smoky, savory, sweet and slightly spicy topper for your burgers, steaks, chicken and perhaps even slipped inside a grilled cheese sandwich. (You’re welcome, Linda!)
The recipe will make just about 1 cup and it’ll keep in a jar in the fridge for several weeks. But you’ll be lucky if you have any left after the three-day weekend, especially if you find yourself eating it straight from the jar at 3 am while everyone else is asleep—not that I’ve done that.
2 slices smoked, uncured bacon* (see notes), chopped into pieces
1 small sweet onion, cut into thin, crescent-shaped strips (not rings)
1 small red onion, roughly chopped into pieces
1/4 cup maple sugar*
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. bourbon
Pinch of crushed red pepper (or as much as you like)
About 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Pinch kosher salt (maybe)*
I only purchase “uncured” bacon, which is free of the unnecessary preservative sodium nitrite. If you can find the maple kind of bacon, that’s a win-win. If you aren’t sure what “the maple kind” is, maybe you need to watch this. I literally cannot think or write about bacon without hearing this dog’s “voice.”
So, the maple bacon will be a nice extra touch, but the real flavor comes from the sugar.
Maple sugar is literally a dehydrated, granulated form of real maple syrup. I buy it online, directly from a sugar shack in upstate New York, my old stomping ground. Click here to get some from Big Tree Maple. If you can’t wait for it, substitute 1 Tbsp. light brown sugar and 2 Tbsp. real maple syrup.
You may not want additional salt in the recipe, depending on the sodium content of your bacon. Ours is house-cured by a local butcher and puts a perfectly salty kiss on this. Wait until your marmalade is finished, and add salt only if desired.
Cook bacon in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until crisp; remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Drain and discard all but about 1 Tbsp. of the bacon grease. Add sweet and red onions to the same skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and caramelized.
Add maple sugar, stir until dissolved. Stir in vinegar, bourbon, red pepper and thyme leaves. Cook a few minutes until liquid is the consistency of syrup.
Crumble the bacon into smaller pieces, if desired, and add to the onion mixture. Continue to cook several minutes, until mixture is thickened to a jam-like consistency. Adjust salt to taste.
Transfer to a covered jar and store in the fridge up to a month. Slather it on your favorite grilled meat. Or just eat it with a spoon—there’s no judgment here.