Category Archives: Recipes

Stollen Muffins

Merry Christmas in muffin form!

Finally!  It’s officially (past) time to start crankin’ the Christmas tunes, bustin’ out the holiday decorations and baking, baking, baking!  I’m one of those weirdos whose favorite season is winter, because faux fur throws, snow and CHRISTMAS!  Christmas is my happy place, and I hit it hard.  Today I whipped up a batch of my all-time favorite muffins – Stollen Muffins.

I’m not a massive fan of Stollen per se (too dry) but these muffins pack many of my favorite Christmas flavors into one moist, chewy and thankfully not-too-sweet package.  These babies are chock full of spices, nuts, fruits and candied rinds but only 1/3 cup of sugar!  If you don’t have or don’t like one of the ingredients, leave it out or swap something else in.  These taste so much like “Christmas” to me that I make them throughout the year when I need a dose of Christmas spirit.  I also individually wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze them for when a cheer emergency hits.  These freeze perfectly and are just the thing with a cuppa on your afternoon break.  Enjoy!

Preheat your oven to 400 and place a rack in the center of the oven.  In a large mixing bowl combine:

  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cardamom
  • 3/4 tsp. ground coriander seed
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice

Add, and toss to thoroughly coat & combine:

  • 1/3 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup dried pineapple, chopped into small bits
  • 1/3 cup pecans, chopped
  • 1/4 cup candied lemon peel, chopped
  • 1/4 cup candied orange peel, chopped

In a 2 cup glass measure whisk together:

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 6 Tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 10 drops Fiori di Sicillia – or – 1/2 tsp each lemon extract and orange extract (or equivalent of lemon and orange food grade oil)

Add to dry ingredients and stir gently just to combine.  Here’s where your trusty dough whisk comes in handy.  This dough is pretty stiff and full of goodies, so don’t panic if you think it’s not “wet” enough.

The batter will be fairly stiff and chock full of yummy bits. A dough whisk is a great tool for mixing muffins and other quick batters.

Generously grease a standard muffin pan and scoop the batter into the wells – an extra large #16 disher makes quick work of this!

Dishers make portioning cookie and muffin batters soooo easy!

Bake 18-20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out moist but clean.  The muffins will be browned on the sides but not the tops.  DO NOT cook them till browned on top or you will have Stollen Hockey Pucks.

Bake till muffin tests done, the sides are browned but the top is not

Let the muffins cool in the pan 5 minutes and then remove them to a cooling rack.  A plastic knife is your friend here – easy to slide under the muffins without scratching your pan.

See?  Nicely browned on the sides – I love my USA Pans!  Use a plastic knife to avoid scratching your beloved pan.

When muffins are completely cooled, brush the tops with melted butter and dip the them in powdered sugar.

Any day I get to use my baby silicone basting brush is a good one!

I used King Arthur’s Non Melting Powdered Sugar – it’s a special type of powdered sugar that won’t melt into your moist baked goods like regular powdered sugar does.  It tastes and feels like the powdered sugar on a boxed powdered sugar donut (admittedly not fab, but hey, I gotta use it up!).  As you likely don’t have this stuff on hand, I would advise waiting to butter & sugar the muffins until right before you eat them.  Or – you can dip them warm from the oven in powdered sugar (which will melt) and then dip them again after they are completely cool (don’t use the butter).

These muffins will feel “firm” and dense in your hand, but the insides are moist, chewy and perfectly delicious!

Mmmm – moist, chewy and soooo flavorful!


Homemade Remineralizing Mouthwash

I am a bit of a stickler for oral hygiene.  Hand to God – I floss religiously! My dentist loves me!  But there is one thing he would like me to do that I just can’t get down with – swishing with some iteration of Listerine every day.  That stuff is excruciating!!! I dunno, pain is our bodies’ way of saying “yeah, not so much” so I’m just not keen on lighting my mouth on fire twice a day in the name of oral heath.

Due to a steady childhood diet of antibiotics to treat chronic ear infections, my husband’s adult teeth have especially vulnerable enamel.  He is the king of good oral hygiene and still faces a lot of challenges with his teeth.  Lately we have been thinking that all of this brushing, flossing, water piking, prescription pastes and rinses, etc. might be helping to stave off decay (though not very well!), but they aren’t really doing anything to promote health.  There is a big difference between eradicating or warding off disease and actually promoting health, right?

So I decided to look into more holistic approaches to having healthy teeth and gums. One of the first things I noticed was tons of people going on about homemade remineralizing mouth rinses.  Pretty much all of them contain calcium carbonate, trace minerals and purified water.  The variations come in how you sweeten it (if at all) and the essential oils you use for flavor and for their antibacterial/antifungal properties.

What the heck is a remineralizing mouthwash, and why should you use one?  Simple. We eat and drink a lot of acidic, sugary things that are no bueno for our teeth.  They create a plaque promoting environment in our mouths, and we end up with fur coated teeth by the end of the day.  A remineralizing rinse is a safe, all-natural liquid that bathes your teeth in a gentle, good-for-them, mineral-rich, neutralizing and quite tasty solution.

Can I say how much I LOVE this stuff???  It’s good for your teeth and gums, tastes amazing, leaves your mouth fresh and clean and doesn’t in the least bit hurt (unless you overdo it with the cinnamon oil – yikes!).  My husband and I both like how fresh it leaves our mouths feeling and tasting, and we’ve both noticed that our teeth are less “fuzzy” at the end of the day.  Plus, everything in it is natural, inexpensive, easy to find and can be used for other things around the house and kitchen.  You could actually swallow the stuff and it won’t make you sick – try that with Listerine.  Uh, don’t swallow it tho, because gross – you’re using it to flush the yuckies from your mouth!

Here are the ingredients you’ll need:

  • Calcium carbonate powder – this is just the powder form of calcium many of us take in our daily supplements.  Apparently you can also use it to make your own chalk paint!  You can find this online or in a vitamin store, and it’s very inexpensive.
  • ConcenTrace Trace Mineral Drops – this actually is a daily mineral supplement, made from water in the Great Salt Lake.  You can add it to juice or your smoothie, and some people add it to RO water to improve the taste.  I got mine on Amazon.
  • Xylitol – this is a natural sugar alcohol.  It is used in toothpaste, sugar free gum, etc. and it’s actually good for your teeth because it starves the bacteria in your mouth.  You can also use it to sweeten food or drinks, but I have read that you need to limit you daily intake to under 9 tsp. or it can have a laxative effect.  It tastes like “less sweet” sugar with no chemical or other off taste.  I like it in my iced tea!
  • Food-Grade Essential Oils – this is important – you need to use oils that are meant to flavor FOOD not make candles or perfume!  Lorann Peppermint and Cinnamon oils are fabulous (and extremely potent), and I’m a huge fan Boyajian citrus oils.  They can all be found at King Arthur, Sur la Table or Amazon.  At a minimum you need to have some peppermint or cinnamon oil in there for their antibacterial/antifungal properties.  Citrus oils are a flavor bonus.
  • Purified water – I use water from my Zero Water pitcher, but you can use RO or bottled as well.

Here’s how to make a batch:

In a clean, small jar with a tight fitting lid, combine

  1. 1 cup purified water
  2. 1 tsp. calcium carbonate powder
  3. 1 tsp xylitol (more or less to taste), optional but beneficial
  4. 8 drops ConcenTrace trace mineral drops
  5. Essential oils – my fave combos are: Cinnamint – 5 drops peppermint + 3 drops cinnamon; Cinnamon-Orange – 3 drops cinnamon + 5 drops orange;  and Lemon-Mint – 5 drops peppermint + 5 drops lemon.  *Tip:  cinnamon oil is POWERFUL, so go easy on that one unless you’re a big fan of fireballs!

Shake well every time you use it to distribute the oils and the calcium which will settle to the bottom, and swish a Tbsp in your mouth after you brush your teeth.  I also like to swish a bit after drinking coffee or tea.  Enjoy!

Not gonna lie – I get a kick out of repurposing this wee little vodka bottle for my mouthwash. It looks so cheeky sitting on my bathroom counter!

Waffled Potato Hash

I’m a pretty stiff critic of my own cooking, so when I say that this is one of the best dishes I have ever developed, that is saying something.  These little babies are waffled perfection!  Waffling things was all the rage last year, and I spotted a recipe in one of my fave mags, Eating Well, for a breakfast dish made by waffling a mix of potatoes, eggs, cheese and other add ins.  Looked so good!  Tasted so awful!  It had waaaaay too many eggs giving it a burnt scrambled egg taste (no bueno) a fussy first step of squeezing the potatoes in a kitchen towel (no thanks), and way too few add ins, making them (and me) sad.  BUT!  My desire for cheesy, crispy, savory waffle hash goodness was ignited and I set out fixing this mess.

After making several batches, tweaking ingredients and method, I have found the perfect mix of ingredients that come together in minutes.  Enjoy!

  • 20 oz frozen shredded hash brown potatoes (I like OreIda brand)
  • ¼ cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp fresh grated black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 ½ cups finely shredded cheddar cheese (I use Kraft pre shredded Triple Cheddar or Mexican Blend, but you can use any cheese you like that melts well)
  • 3 scallions, finely sliced – or – 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 cup diced ham
  • 2 Tbsp grapeseed (or other neutral flavored oil)
  • 2 eggs

In a large glass bowl, thaw potatoes in microwave, using the “defrost” setting if your micro has one.  Just be careful not to heat the potatoes up AT ALL – you can leave them a bit frosty, but don’t let them get warm!  Sprinkle flour, salt and pepper over potatoes and gently toss to thoroughly combine.  You want the flour to absorb any moisture from the potatoes and evenly hydrate – this will keep the “waffles” crispy and cohesive while making sure they don’t seem gummy or floury in the interiors.  While the flour hydrates, prepare the rest of your ingredients (just let the potato/flour mixture sit at least 10 mins or so).  Sprinkle cheeses, ham and scallions/shallots over potatoes and gently toss to combine.

Drizzle oil over potatoes, and add eggs. Toss and fold mixture until eggs and oil are completely and evenly distributed.  You will have a moist mixture, not a “batter”.  Don’t worry – the heat will melt everything together in a perfectly cohesive waffle.

Preheat your waffle maker to medium hot and oil or spritz with cooking spray.  We have a large waffle iron with 4 sections, so I make 4 small waffles at a time.  The directions that follow are for making multiple smaller waffles, but you can certainly make one large waffle at a time too.  Using a serving spoon, or a ½ cup disher (cookie scoop) or a ½ cup measuring cup, portion out 4 scoops of mixture into center of each section of large waffle maker.

Close lid tightly and cook until well browned.  Makes 12-16 small waffles.

You can vary this recipe in lots of ways – change the meat or don’t use any at all; change up the cheeses; add some very well browned sautéed mushrooms or some diced roasted veggies.  The only things you want to keep in mind are: (1) make sure your add ins aren’t adding a bunch of moisture (that is why mushrooms must be well-browned, not raw) and (2) keep the add ins diced small.


Apple-Cheddar Pull Apart Bread with Variations


It’s finally cooling off around here (truth be told it’s literally freezing), and that means several things.  Clothes and bedding are swapped out for snugglier options, my army of space heaters is stationed at their posts, and I don’t have to think twice about heating the house up to do some baking!  This afternoon I felt like whipping up some bread to go with the roasted pumpkin, red pepper and potato soup we’re having for dinner.  My initial thought was hearty rolls to put that jar of Irish Wholemeal flour to use, but then I saw a recipe for Apple Cheddar Chop Bread that I saved off the King Arthur site.  That recipe made way more bread than I wanted and the dough seemed a little lean, so I used it as a springboard to make just want I wanted.  Because I bake frequently I did use some specialty baking ingredients I happened to have on hand, but there are easy peasy subs that should yield similarly delicious results!

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached (or a bread machine set to the dough cycle) combine:

  • 2 cups King Arthur AP flour
  • 1 ½ tsp SAF Gold yeast (or regular bread machine yeast)
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp grape seed oil (or other neutral flavored oil)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp barley malt syrup (or 1 Tbsp of sugar, brown sugar or honey)
  • 2 Tbsp baker’s special dry milk (or regular powdered milk)
  • ½ cup warm water (if you don’t have powdered milk, use ½ cup warm milk)

Mix on low to combine ingredients, then knead for ~5 mins on med-low till you have a smooth, satiny dough.  Cover bowl and let dough rise till doubled – about 60 minutes.  I used a bread proofing box set at 85 degrees. A proofer is especially helpful when baking during the colder months, but I use mine year ’round.

Gently deflate dough and tip out onto a large piece of parchment paper; pat dough out into a 9″ x 13″ rectangle.  Leaving a 2″ border on both long sides, sprinkle over dough:

  • 1 cup chopped crisp, sweet-tart apple (such as Jazz or SweeTango)
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cut into small cubes.

Fold both long sides of dough over the filling and pinch them together in the middle; pat ends to seal them as well. Using a long knife or a bench scraper, cut bread widthwise into 1″ strips (don’t worry if you cut through some apples or cheese bits).  Do NOT separate the strips – you want the “loaf” to stay together.  On a slight diagonal, cut bread into 1″ strips lengthwise.  If you’ve done this right the bread will be in 1″ slightly diagonal squares – again do NOT separate them.  I apologize for not taking pics of any of this, but you’re a smarty and get what I mean!

Lift bread on parchment and place on a 13″ x 9″ or 15″ x 11″ baking pan.  Let rise 30-45 mins or until puffed and almost doubled.  During the last 20 minutes of rising, preheat oven to 350.  Bake 25-30 mins or until evenly browned.  Remove bread to a wire rack to cool slightly. The squares easily pull apart for big or little servings.  This bread is soft and fluffy and the sweet-tart apples play off the melty cheddar perfectly.  Makes one 5″ x 13″ loaf.

This is a great bread to have with soup or salad for a light dinner or to bring to a potluck, and you can vary it endless ways:

  1. change the cheese – I think blue cheese with apples and walnuts would rock!  or apples and brie…or fresh figs and gorgonzola…or Fontina, craisins and walnuts…or oil cured sundried tomatoes, parm/peccorino shards and oregano…sigh…
  2. for a sweet dessert/coffee bread, add 1 tsp apple pie spice (or just some cinnamon, cardamom and allspice) and another Tbsp or two of sugar to the dough.  Sub in a cup of chopped pecans or walnuts for the cheese.  After baking, glaze bread with a simple glaze of powdered sugar and apple cider with a pinch more of those apple pie spices.  Yep, I see that variation in my near future!!!


Roasted Sweet Potato-Red Pepper Soup

Roasted sweet potato-red pepper soup garnished with butter-fried sage leaves

Roasted sweet potato-red pepper soup garnished with butter-fried sage leaves

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  Well, last week I needed to bring something to small group and didn’t really want to hit the market.  On hand I had some fresh sweet potatoes, a jar of Trader Joe’s roasted red peppers, and a bunch of gorgeous sage from the CSA so I thought “soup!”  I wanted to add complexity to the soup and also tone down the sweetness of the potatoes and peppers so I seasoned the soup with shallots, a poblano from our garden, smoked Maldon sea salt and my beloved Dolin Dry Vermouth.  Ah, the joys of a well stocked pantry (or food hoarding, as my husband sees it).

Don’t be tempted to save time by either steaming or microwaving the sweet potatoes – you’ll just rob yourself of the luscious texture and rich, smokey, caramelized flavor of roasted sweet potatoes. Tip: sometimes when I roast sweet potatoes I roast a whole pan full, and if I won’t use the extras within a week in a casserole, soup, muffins, salad, or pizza (yes!), I freeze them.  Then, when the urge for sweet potato deliciousness hits, I’m halfway there!

  • 6 large sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
  • 3 large shallots, diced
  • 1 poblano*, seeded and diced
  • ¼ cup Dolin Dry Vermouth (or very dry white wine)
  • 2 tsp. smoked Maldon (or regular sea salt)
  • 1 large roasted red pepper (homemade or jarred), diced
  • 1 ½ qts. chicken broth

*Poblanos can range from “eh, why bother?” to “zoinks!” in heat, so take a little nibble to see what you’re cooking with and adjust accordingly.

Scrub potatoes and prick them all over; place on a foil or parchment lined heavy-duty baking sheet.  Bake sweet potatoes at 375 for 30 mins, then at 350 for 30-60 mins till soft, turning them every 30 minutes.  If your potatoes are not uniform in size, remove them as they are done to avoid burning the smaller ones. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and chop into large chunks.

Sauté shallots and poblano in grapeseed oil in 5 qt Dutch oven till softened (3-4 minutes). Pour in Vermouth and boil 1-2 minutes.  Season with Maldon, then fold in sweet potatoes and roasted pepper. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings and add more broth if needed.  Let soup cool 10 minutes.

Puree in small batches in a blender (don’t fill blender jar past half way to avoid boiling hot overflows).  Reheat pureed soup over medium heat, adding more chicken broth if you want a thinner soup.  Serve with fresh sage leaves that have been fried in butter (see below), or with chopped peanuts or candied pecans.  Makes 3 qts.  Enjoy!

This soup is a perfect balance of sweet and savory - rich tasting with hardly any fat.

This soup is a perfect balance of sweet and savory – rich tasting with hardly any fat.

Butter Fried Sage Leaves

These babies are great to top a hearty soup or to toss with butternut squash raviolis or other filled pastas.  Don’t throw out the seasoned browned butter you’ll be left with – it’s perfect for tossing with said pasta, gnocchis or potatoes.  As you pull the sage leaves off the woody main stems, make sure you remove the thin leaf stems – when the leaves fry these will become very tough and inedible.  As you can see in the pix, I failed to do this – lesson learned!!!

  • 2 Tbsp organic butter
  • ½ cup fresh sage leaves, stems removed

Melt butter in small non-stick skillet.  Add sage leaves and fry over medium heat, stirring and turning leaves, 1-2 minutes or until butter browns.  Remove leaves to a small plate to cool.  Save the remaining delicious sage-browed butter for another use.

Homemade Velveeta – Perfected

Ballpark nachos - minus the chemicals and the high ticket prices.

Ballpark nachos – minus the chemicals and the high ticket prices.

A few months ago one of my favorite food bloggers, PJ Hammel of the King Arthur test kitchen’s blog “Flourish“, posted a recipe for homemade “Velveeta”.  I will admit a deep love of grilled cheese sandwiches and nacho cheese dip made with Velveeta.  I will also emphatically state that I choose not to eat Velveeta because of all the faux-food ingredients.  I’m no food saint, but I do try to keep the Frankenfood out of my diet.  A recipe for homemade “Velveeta” (which turns out to be a popular recipe on “the internets” but was news to me!) sounded great.  Commenters raved that it was “JUST LIKE the real deal”.  Um, nope.  It was close tho, in the same way fat-free, sugar-free ice cream is “close” to Ben and Jerry’s.

PJ didn’t satiate my desire for Velveeta, but she did spark a dream in my heart to figure out how to make creamy, silky, melty homemade “Velveeta”.  The recipes I found online and tried all had two fatal flaws – they didn’t perfectly melt like Velveeta and they all had that wee bit of grittiness that you always get when you melt cheese (think the texture of homemade mac and cheese sauce).

My “research” led me to discover a cooking ingredient called sodium citrate.  It is a naturally occurring salt found in citrus foods – as in a natural product that is safe to eat.  It is also a miracle-working emulsifier.  A small amount added to melted cheese buffers the proteins in the cheese and prevents them from banding together in clumps (that grittiness you feel on your tongue in a homemade cheese sauce is milk proteins hanging on to each other for dear life).  I saw a recipe on a food science/gastronomy site for a cheese dip that contained a bit of sodium citrate which was supposed to create a completely silky-smooth melty texture.  Huh.  Why couldn’t I add that to my favorite “Velveeta” recipe?  Maybe that would solve those soul crushing texture problems.

I ordered the smallest packet I could find and hoped for the best. Oh yeah.  Success!!!  My Velveeta set up perfectly, melted perfectly and made the silkiest, smoothest, yummiest nacho cheese dip EVAH!  One unfortunate side effect is that my husband has converted from a nacho cheese loather to someone who gives me stiff competition whenever I whip up a bowl.

Sodium citrate can be used for other things, most of which are well beyond your average home cook (food spherules anyone?).  But, you can add a bit to any cheese sauce recipe (like this one for my Italian Mac and Cheese) to give your sauces the most amazingly smooth texture.  I’ve even used it to create a low fat Fettuccini Alfredo.  Normally all that butter is what keeps the cheese proteins from clumping – the sodium citrate does the work of many Tbsp. of fat, and bonus: leftovers can be reheated without the sauce breaking into clumps of cheese and pools of grease! Currently you can get a 2 oz packet of sodium citrate on Amazon for $7.  Wherever you get yours, make certain you are buying food-grade sodium citrate that is intended for cooking.  And I know this is obvious, but this is a very different product from citric acid – they are not interchangeable.

Let’s make some Homemade “Velveeta”!

  • 1 ½ tsp. powdered gelatin (such as Knox)
  • 1 Tbsp water
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. milk (I use whole)
  • 1 Tbsp. dry milk powder
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¾ tsp. sodium citrate
  • 12 oz freshly grated (NOT pre shredded) sharp white cheddar (you can use yellow, but go for sharp as it gives the best flavor)

Line a small loaf pan or small baking dish with cling wrap, making sure plastic extends over each side by several inches.  Combine gelatin powder and water in small bowl and set aside for a few minutes to allow gelatin to soften.  In a 1 cup glass measuring cup combine milk, milk powder, salt and sodium citrate.  Microwave on high for about a minute – you want the milk just below the boiling point.  Add softened gelatin to milk mixture and stir till everything is dissolved.  Place shredded cheese in a blender, pour hot milk mixture over cheese and process, stopping to scrape down sides if necessary, until you have a totally smooth sauce.  I have a Vitamix and I process my cheese mixture about 45 seconds.  I believe you can also use a food processor, but haven’t tried that.

Process cheese and milk mixture till completely smooth - get in there and taste it to make sure!

Process cheese and milk mixture till completely smooth – get in there and taste it to make sure!

Working quickly use a spatula to scoop out the cheese mixture into your lined pan.

Work fast - as you can see this stuff sets up quickly!

Work fast – as you can see this stuff sets up quickly!

Smooth the top of the cheese mixture and try not to just grab a bag of chips and go nuts.

I use a 5

I use a 5″ x 7″ ceramic baker as my mould.

Fold the excess plastic over the surface of the cheese mixture, making sure it is completely covered.

Ready to go in the fridge

Ready to go in the fridge

Place your homemade “Velveeta” in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.  You now have 1 lb of faux-free American cheese to use in sauces and dips or slice onto sammies and burgers.  Of course, if you plan to use the whole pound in the classic Rotel and Velveeta dip, you don’t need to bother with chilling it in the fridge.  Scoop the mixture straight from the blender and add it to your recipe.  If you don’t need the whole pound for your recipe, it’s easiest to mould the whole thing and slice off what you need.

Oh, if you want some killer nacho sauce:  combine a hunk of your “Velveeta” with a few Tbsp of milk and any seasonings you like.  Heat on low power in the microwave, stirring every 15 seconds, until melted.  I’ve made dips seasoned with diced pickled jalapeños, diced roasted chiles, and even a mix of Sriracha and Sambal Oelek for a smokin’ hot Thai cheese dip, and I think horseradish and diced bacon would make a great dip for pretzels (think Pub Cheese).  Enjoy!

That is what I'm talking about - creamy, smooth, chip-coating goodness!

That is what I’m talking about – creamy, smooth, chip-coating goodness!

“Secret Ingredient” White Cornbread

Light, moist, sweet cornbread manna!

Light, moist, sweet cornbread manna!

Years ago we were shopping for furniture in the mega markets in High Point, NC.  Needing a lunch break we asked one of the reps where the best “meat ‘n three” was.  If you’re not from the South, that went right over your head, didn’t it?  A meat ‘n three is a place serving simple country food: a meat choice with three down-home sides like collards, fried okra, slaw, etc.  When done right, it’s glorious.  We were directed to a place that was, well, pretty tatty, but the servers treated everyone like family and many of the veggies came straight out of the owner’s garden.  Our meal started with a basket full of the BEST darned white cornbread we had ever eaten.  That cornbread floated straight down from the meat ‘n three in heaven.

I had to know how they made it.  I was told it was a special family recipe and top secret.  Bummer!  However, a few minutes later our waitress whispered in my ear the only info she dared give me:  “the secret ingredient is mayonnaise.”  Huh???  I immediately got to sleuthing that out.  Bonus tip:  if you really enjoy something at a restaurant, ASK about it – most professional cooks love to share their craft with others.  I have learned so many great tips and techniques chatting with everyone from the servers to the short order cooks and the restaurant owners.  The worst that can happen is they tell you “it’s a secret”, but then they usually relent and at least give you a hint!

To recreate that heavenly cornbread I started with one of our favorite cornbread recipes that I make with fine white cornmeal (which I think makes a finer textured cornbread that doesn’t seem to stale as fast) and tinkered with adding mayo.  This cornbread is sweet, light-textured, tender, moist and perfect for slathering with butter and serving with spicy chili, a plate of pulled pork and greens or a hearty breakfast.  Actually, for us this cornbread is so good it overshadows whatever you serve it with, so go ahead and just eat a pan of cornbread for dinner.  : )  Enjoy!

“Secret Ingredient” White Cornbread

  • 1 ¼ cups finely ground white cornmeal
  • ⅔ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup mayonnaise (Hellmans or Blue Plate are best)
  • 1 egg

Preheat oven to 425 and grease an 8″ square pan.  In a mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients.  In a 2 cup glass measure whisk together the milk, mayo and egg.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry and gently stir and fold till just combined:  lots of stirring = gluten formation = tough cornbread!  Pour batter into pan and bake about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a crumb or two (the top of the cornbread will not be very browned – if you brown the top, the bread will end up dry).  Cool a few minutes in pan and serve!  with butter! or honey…or…

Better-than-Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Syrup

Yeah, I’m one of those “basics” who loves a Pumpkin Spice Latte.  Starbucks’ version is waaaaay too sweet for my taste, and frankly too fakeola.  When I found Sonoma Syrup Co’s Pumpkin Pie Latte syrup last year I was psyched!  All natural and delicious – it delivers great flavor without overwhelming your drink with sugar.  I used it in lattes and my regular morning cuppa.  Problem is, it’s crazy expensive!  $13 for a 12.7 oz bottle – plus shipping!  Ouch.  There is nothing on that label that I don’t have in my pantry, so I thought “hey, I can make this for about a buck!”

You need only about a dollar's worth of all natural ingredients to make a bang-on Pumpkin Spice Latte Syrup

You need only about a dollar’s worth of all natural ingredients to make a bang-on Pumpkin Spice Latte Syrup

A quick trip to “the internets” revealed several sites with recipes that were all basically the same – lots of sugar & water, some spices and a modest amount of pumpkin.  Starting with the most common recipe I found and using all the spices listed on the Sonoma bottle, I whipped up a batch.  Eh.  Too sweet, and where was the pumpkin flavor?  For the next batch I halved the sugar and water, used a similar amount of spices and doubled the pumpkin.  Now we were getting close!  Next try was a fail (see special note below).  For my final batch I used my own blend of spices, added some vanilla and reduced the water a bit.  Voila!  I think this version has BIG pumpkin flavor, plenty of spice and not too too much sugar for those of us who don’t need a boatload of added sugar calories in our morning coffee (and fyi, that is all of us).

If you are interested in the sugar calories, I did the “maths”.  This recipe makes 1 ½ cups of syrup, containing ¾ of a cup of sugar.  I use 1 Tbsp in my 12 oz. lattes.  That 1 Tbsp. of syrup contains 1.5 tsp of sugar, or 24 “added sugar” calories.  Plus the real pumpkin and the spices are good for you – so enjoy those 24 “added sugar” calories!  In comparison, a 12 oz Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte with no whip has 85 “added sugar” calories or 3.5 times as much.  I always order mine with half the syrup, but even then I’m still getting about twice the sugar as my homemade version.  Zoinks!

Back to our recipe.  There are no magic amounts here – add more or less pumpkin, spices or sugar to suit your taste.  Remember, when you taste the syrup on its own, it needs to have BOLD flavor or it will get lost in your coffee.  This syrup is also yum in hot milk – just the thing for a beddy-bye treat, and I bet it would also work in a tea latte or to sweeten hot chocolate.   And I think pretty bottles of this elixir would make a fun, inexpensive holiday gift for your favorite coffee addicts.  Enjoy!

  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 rounded tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp. ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • ⅛ tsp. citric acid (optional, brightens flavors)

In a small saucepan combine water and sugar and bring to a boil over medium high heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved.  Let syrup cool for 5 minutes.  Whisk in remaining ingredients.  Cool to room temp.  Strain mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a 2 cup glass measuring cup.  The syrup is fairly viscous – use the back of a spoon to help press the pumpkin through, and don’t forget to scape off the underside of the strainer.  You only want to end up tossing out about a tsp. of spice bits and pumpkin fibers (see pic below).

As you can see, this syrup is thick with pumpkin puree

As you can see, this syrup is thick with pumpkin puree

Technically you can skip the straining step, but why would you want these spice bits and pumpkin fibers in the bottom of your cup?

Technically you can skip the straining step, but why would you want these spice bits and pumpkin fibers in the bottom of your cup?

Pour the filtered mixture into a 12-16 oz bottle.  I like to use one with a small opening to prevent accidentally dumping too much syrup into my coffee.  IKEA fans will recognize my bottle as a repurposed Lingonberry Vinegar bottle.  Btw, that stuff ROCKS!!!  Store in the fridge for about a month.  Mixture will settle a bit in the fridge, just shake well before using.  Let me know what you think and how you make it your own!  I’m off to get to work on a Gingerbread Latte syrup…

As you can see, the syrup settles a bit in the fridge - be sure to shake well before using. PS - coffee always tastes better in a cute mug!

As you can see, the syrup settles a bit in the fridge – be sure to shake well before using. PS – coffee always tastes better in a cute mug!

Special note on one failed attempt:  As a big fan of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice, I thought I’d save some time and make a batch using their spice blend instead of all those individual spices.  Big mistake.  I’ve tried before to make a flavored coffee syrup with this spice mix and every time it gelatinizes as it did when I tried it here.  My pumpkin syrup turned into a stringy, slimy sludge.  The mix contains citrus peels and I guess the pectin in them is the culprit.  Oh well.  I like the flavor in my own spice mix better anyway!

My Favorite Ingredients – Part 2

I’m sharing my favorite ingredients, things I reach for over and over.  In Part 1 I talked about Dolin Dry Vermouth, Citrus Oils, Nut Oils, Clarified Butter and imported San Marzano tomatoes.  Today I’m moving on with the next 5, again in no particular order.  You may remember I had originally titled these posts “My 10 Favorite Ingredients”.  I had a hard time narrowing it down to 10, so there will be at least one more post with a few other goodies.  I hope you’ll find something to add to your pantry or fridge!

I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into smaller jars to save space in the fridge door.

I buy the Organic versions of the Chicken and Beef bases at Costco and decant them into skinnier jars to save space in the fridge.

Better Than Bouillon Bases  Two foodie friends turned me on to these products.  I was surprised that these ladies used bouillon concentrate, because these gals are big on everything natural, organic, etc., as am I.  My assumption was a bouillon base would be a scary chemical sludge.  I had been buying Swanson Lower Sodium Chicken Broth by the caseload at Costco.  That’s a lot of cans to store and recycle!  So I tried a jar of the BTB organic chicken base and was pleasantly surprised.  Plain, I do prefer the taste of Swanson’s.  But when do I ever drink plain chicken broth?  Never.  In soup, sauces, stews, etc. the BTB works great.  No cases to lug and store, no leftover broth to eventually toss or freeze, no cans to recycle.  I have also used the Organic Reduced Sodium Beef, Vegetable, Fish and Ham bases and love them all.  Two words on that Ham base – get some!  It is great for seasoning the water for cooking greens or beans or adding a little smokey goodness to soups or stews.  Okay, I know that these bases are processed products.  The chicken & beef bases are the ones I use 90% of the time, and I always buy the organic versions.  The other ones I use sparingly.  But that ham base.  Seriously, get some.

The Cadillac of Allilums - they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.

The Cadillac of Allilums – they will take your cooking to new levels of yum.

Shallots  If you’re thinking that shallots are just fancy overpriced onions, think again.  These little babies pack a major flavor punch that is somewhere between garlic and onion but so much more.  Yeah, they are more expensive than garlic or onions, but I buy mine on the cheap at the warehouse club – a sack of 10 or so for under $4.  Even if you have to pay “full price” at the supermarket, they are worth every penny.  To help extend their shelf life, when I bring a bag home I spend a few minutes grooming off any dirty/moldy outer skins.  And since I store them on the counter, they look nicer, too!

I put shallots to use almost daily.  In salad dressings I usually add a Tbsp or so of finely minced shallots – great flavor without coming off “hot” the way raw garlic can.  I make a confit with caramelized shallots and dried cranberries (or cherries) that people go bonkers for when I serve it with a cheese plate.   Hmmm, I need to post that recipe!  And I wouldn’t think of sautéing veggies like green beans, broccoli or zukes without first sautéing a shallot in the pan.    Shallots work anywhere you would use onions or garlic – soups, stews, sauces, stir fries, pizzas, appetizers – they add a wonderful layer of umami goodness that makes everything else taste better.  They’re like natural MSG! I am never, ever without shallots!!!

I love this stuff - took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.

I love this stuff – took my bread baking from hit or miss to consistently great.

SAF Red & Gold Yeasts.  You wouldn’t think yeast brands would be that different.  I have been baking bread since I was a Kinder and I’ve always used Fleischmann’s yeast.  Perfectly good.  But sometimes, especially when baking a whole grain loaf or a sweet bread with lots of butter, eggs or dried fruits, my results were less than praiseworthy.  Squatty.  Doughy.  Not right.  An infuriating waste of time and ingredients!  Turns out sugar is a bit of a bully in bread dough.  It hogs up all the water and leaves your poor lil’ yeast limping along in thirst, unable to do its job.  Enter SAF Gold yeast.  This yeast is specially formulated to perform well in a high sugar environment as it needs less water to function.  Voila!  Sweet, rich doughs that rise like a dream!  SAF Red yeast is “basic” yeast for the rest of your bread baking needs.  I find that it too is more robust than other brands of yeast.  Doughs rise faster and more consistently.  My tried and true recipes turn out better than ever with these yeasts.

Yes, they come in 1 lb. sacks, and even though they have a 2 year shelf life, I will never use this much before the expiry.  But fear not – it’s actually quite cheap.  You can find it at some warehouse clubs for about $1 more than the 4 oz jar of Fleischmann’s at the supermarket.  Or, you can order it online – I usually get mine at King Arthur when I’m stocking up on baking needs.  I portion out what I think I’ll use by the expiry and vacuum seal it in 8 oz canning jars which are stored in the fridge or freezer.  I share the rest with friends who love to bake bread too.  Win-win!

An arsenal of flavor

An arsenal of flavor

Nielsen Massey Extracts.  I hate wasting my time baking something that comes out “meh” or just lacking in flavor.  Like most people in the US I grew up using McCormick extracts, which is pretty much all you could find at the supermarket.  I’m pretty sure it was while watching Ina Garten’s show that I thought “girlfriend never uses anything but Nielsen Massey vanilla – I should check that out.”  Boom!  Nielsen Massey Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla totally converted me from a chocoholic to someone who genuinely prefers all things vanilla.  And fyi, the “Bourbon” in Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla is merely the name of the vanilla bean varietal – there is no Bourbon or Bourbon flavor in the vanilla.

I have tried all their vanilla varieties – Madagascar Bourbon, Mexican, Tahitian and Vanilla Bean Paste.  I buy the Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla in quart bottles at King Arthur.  Watch for a sale!  Stored cool and dry, vanilla will last for years.  I decant it into a smaller bottle for everyday use. I confess that the nuances of Mexican vanilla are lost on my palate, so it’s not worth the extra expense for me to keep that one around.  Tahitian vanilla, however, is quite distinctive.  The flavor is very floral and reminds me of marshmallows.  It’s kind of the cilantro of vanillas – you love it or hate it.  The subtle flavor shines best in simple things like vanilla pudding, tapioca, egg custards, fruit salads or good ol’ steamed milk (sooooo good in sweetened steamed milk!!!).  The Vanilla Bean Paste is also a winner.  Same great taste as the Madagascar Bourbon extract, but with the added visual appeal of all those little vanilla seeds.  Perfect for ice cream, yogurt, cakes, cookies – anywhere you want to taste, smell and see vanilla.  Tip:  if a recipe calls for 1 tsp. of vanilla, be generous and add up to 2.  I almost always double the amt. of vanilla called for, and I often add a tsp or so even in recipes that don’t call for vanilla.  It’s just that little somethin’ somethin’.

Nielsen Massey makes a full range of extracts, and you can often get good prices by purchasing them in sets.  I love to use their coffee extract when I make anything with cocoa; a half tsp. or so really upps the chocolate flavor.  Their citrus extracts deliver clean, natural flavor to breads and other baked goods.  I don’t use them as much since I’ve “converted” to citrus oils, but they are great.  And their peppermint extract is the best I’ve ever tried.  I love, love, love anything peppermint and I when I bake something peppermint flavored, I want it to taste like an icy-cool candy cane, not “random, muddled mint flavor”.  NM is the only brand I’ve tried that delivers that brisk, candy cane flavor.

A spoonful of fiery deliciousness

A spoonful of fiery deliciousness

Sambal Oelek  Sriracha is a close second, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose Sambal Oelek.  It brings  clean, simple heat to a dish, whereas Sriracha also brings a big garlicy punch.  Sometimes you just want to invite your spicy friend to the party, and you don’t want her bringing her loud-mouthed cousin, you know?  I use sambal oelek in stir fries, salads (think spicy coleslaw to offset sweet barbecue), dressings, dips (queso, baby!), sauces – anywhere I want to bring a bit of heat.  The flavor is purely of the peppers – not vinegary, salty, etc., just a vegetal note from the peppers and heat, heat, heat!  The only thing you need to remember is that it will obviously tint your dish reddish orange, so keep that in mind.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest to try a few new things!  I’ll be back soon to share my better-than-Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup!  Blessings, E.

My Favorite Ingredients – Part 1

I thought I would share with y’all some of the ingredients I reach for over and over to make my life easier in the kitchen and add big flavor to our meals.  Packaged/processed foods use all kinds of spooky chemicals to trick your brain into thinking food is tasty.  Making food that is really and truly delicious is simply about choosing really and truly delicious ingredients.  I hope you’ll add a few of these gems to your pantry or fridge and enjoy them in your cooking.   And like a mother who doesn’t play favorites with her children, I have listed these items in no particular order of “love” or frequency of use.  Here are the first 5:

Dry Vermouth - A fabulous aperitif and a major source of flavor and brightness in stews and sauces.

Dry Vermouth – A fabulous aperitif and a major source of flavor and brightness in stews and sauces.

Dry Vermouth – I’m not sure how or why that first bottle of Vermouth found its way into my kitchen.  I’m not a martini drinker, so it just sat there, taking up valuable space.  And then I realized that Vermouth is just herb-infused wine.  Hey, why couldn’t I cook with it?  Oh, yeah, you can cook with it!  A tablespoon or two added to a pan sauce brings brightness and depth.  A splash adds sophistication to crisp veggies sautéed in butter with a bit of shallot.  I use it in pork or chicken stews that call for white wine.  Basically if a recipe calls for a cup or less of white wine I feel comfy using Vermouth.

Even though Vermouth is a fortified wine (i.e. higher alcohol) it doesn’t come off as “boozy” or overpowering.  One caveat – use a high quality Vermouth that you would enjoy drinking as an aperitif.  No $5 bottles from the supermarket.  My favorite Vermouths are from Dolin – so well crafted! I keep opened bottles in the fridge after sealing them with a vacuum stopper, and I find the flavor is fine for at least 6 months.  Bonus:  whenever I break out the Vermouth to cook with, I pour myself a wee nip to enjoy while I cook.  Cook’s treat!

My flavor babies - dropper bottles are a must have to avoid being heavy handed with them.

My flavor babies – dropper bottles are a must-have to avoid being heavy handed with them.

Citrus Oils –  Citrus is a favorite flavor profile of mine, but keeping oranges, lemons, limes and other seasonal citrus on hand is a pain and expensive.  How to natually add citrus flavor without buying, storing and zesting citrus fruit?  All-natural citrus oils!  Citrus oils are distilled from citrus peels, where all the flavor is located.  Instead of a teaspoon of lemon zest in a recipe, you just add a few drops of lemon oil – no fuss, no muss, no grit, and no danger of getting that nasty bitter pith in your food.  Citrus oils are great in cookies, cakes, muffins, salad dressings, cocktails, smoothies, even coffee.  Two drops of orange oil in a cafe au lait is sublime, as is a drop of lemon oil in an espresso.

I decant my oils into small, dark bottles and top them with droppers.  The dropper is a must, because citrus oils are powerful and it’s very easy to ruin something with too much (done that!).  I also store them in the fridge to prolong their freshness.  As you can see mine are past their expriry, but because I refrigerate them in small, dark bottles, they taste and smell fine.  I think it buys me a few extra months of use! Important:  be sure you use a citrus oil that is intended for cooking – not “essences” that are meant for use as scents.

Take your pasta sauces from

Take your pasta sauces from “meh” to “Mama mia!” with Italian tomatoes

Imported Italian Tomatoes  Every summer growing up we would “put up” a year’s worth of home canned tomatoes.  I continued this pleasant summer ritual until a few years ago when I discovered imported Italian tomatoes.  Home canned tomatoes taste great and they “function” better than American canned tomatoes because American canned tomatoes are processed with calcium chloride, a firming agent.  The addition of a firming agent is great if you are using the tomatoes for chili, soup or a casserole and you want the tomatoes to remain in distinct chunks.  If you want them to break down into a silky smooth pasta sauce, forget it.  We always used our home canned tomatoes for pasta sauce, but home canned tomatoes also have their flaws, namely they are pretty watery and you have to cook them forever to thicken them up.

Enter Italian canned tomatoes, whether they be “true” DOP San Marzanos, or the less expensive and quite similar “San Marzano” tomatoes grown elsewhere in Italy.  What’s the difference?  Think of it this way – it’s the difference between a sparkling wine from California and Champagne from France.  It’s basically the same thing (yeah, yeah, terroir, I know), but the California wine can’t be sold as “Champagne” because it does not originate in the registered Champagne region of France.  Tomatoes labeled “DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) San Marzano” are a specific variety grown in the small San Marzano region of Italy.  San Marzano tomatoes are grown elsewhere, including the US, and are quite similar in taste/texture.  They are also much cheaper than the “real” thing.

There is no comparison between Amerian and Italian canned tomatoes.  Italian tomatoes are packed in a thick tomato puree, not juice as they are in America.  Italian tomatoes never contain calcium chloride or sugar (another common but stupid additive here in the land of diabesity), and they usually don’t contain salt or any other seasonings.  They are thick, meaty, intensely flavored tomatoes in a rich sauce – a blank canvas for you the culinary artiste to use and season as you wish.  Italian tomatoes can be had at good prices in warehouse clubs and some supermarkets, but I always order mine by the case from Amazon.  They come in whole, diced or crushed in 28 oz or 15 oz cans.  For some reason the price fluctuates a lot on Amazon, so keep your eye on them till you see a price you like – somewhere around $25-$35 per case.  Buon appetito!

Nut oils - great for your palate and your heart!

Nut oils – great for your palate and your heart!

Nut Oils – Oh Trader Joe’s, you really have turned me on to soooo many wonderful things.  Every Christmas they sell a gift set of three nut oils.  I bought one and wowza.  There is no better salad dressing in the world than one you make with Walnut oil, especially roasted Walnut oil if you can find it.  Revelatory.  A hunk of crusty bread dipped in Pistachio oil?  Hide the can, because I could drink that buttery, faintly floral-sweet oil straight from it!  Toasted Sesame oil – don’t even try to make anything Asian without it – what an amazing flavor bomb!  And a salsa or salad made with Avocados goes from yum to “I can die happy now” with a drizzle of rich, fruity Avocado oil.  These oils are not only extremely flavorful and delicious, they are healthful additions to your diet.  Go nuts!

Mmmmm fatty-licious!

Mmmmm fatty-licious!

Clarified Butter – otherwise known as Ghee.  Alright, so this one isn’t the most healthful fat.  But since the rest of the time you are cooking with Organic coconut oil, EVOO and all those wonderful nut oils, you can afford to indulge in some good old-fashioned saturated animal fat once in awhile.  I discovered this item at Trader Joe’s and bought it on a whim.  I use butter all the time, and I know the cook’s trick of using half butter, half some other oil to raise the smoke point.  Works, fine, right?  Is it really worth the bother to have this specialty product on hand just because it doesn’t have those pesky burnable milk solids?  Oh baby, yes!  For some reason clarified butter tastes “more buttery” than butter.  It really brings the flavah!  I use it for scrambling eggs, grilling sandwiches, sautéing veggies or aromatics and making rouxs.  I recently used it to griddle up a batch of Arepas, as if Arepas could get any more delicious.  This one is definitely a pantry staple for me!

I hope I’ve encouraged you to try something new!  I’ll be back soon to share five more things I don’t want my kitchen to ever be without.  Blessings….  E.

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